Once more we come to another entry in the Left of Midnight novel that I’m writing! If you’ve been following along, you know all of the events that have happened previously! If not, why not go back and read from the beginning? It isn’t reasonable for me to link to every posting (there’s just too many!), but the drop down menu on the side will be able to take you to the Left of Midnight page that should give you access to all the previous chapters.
Alright, thanks for stopping by and reading. Let’s not loiter any longer, onward with the next offering of this new book!
ER’RA ZEL AND Avery sat in the boat as it reached its destination. It’d taken nearly two hours to make the journey, but Avery didn’t seem to have minded. Er’ra Zel cast her glance to the man sitting next to her on the raised seating overlooking the broad hull and flat bow. He was busying himself studying the splendor of the inner cavern they were only now exiting and a low whistling came from his stern lips that were only a shade darker than the rest of his tanned flesh. There was something about him that she found fascinating. From the way he held his stature, to his cropped raven black hair buzzed along the sides of his head. From his confident mannerisms, to his deep voice and piercing brown eyes with flecks of amber drifting throughout those irises.
She hated to use the term ‘exotic’ (for all she knew, she was an ‘exotic’ woman to himself—a fact she wasn’t quite opposed to, she found), yet there was nothing else for it. Of all the species known to inhabit the territories of the Farediin Federation, very few had ever been human and that was only because they managed to get shipwrecked on the island never to see their birth homes again. The last of the human species to have called Farediin home, had died twelve years before she was even born. It had been a man of Mr. Ryūgawa’s kind. According to historical holovids of him (something she’d been most curious about), he’d been a refugee from Okinawa fearing an incursion by the Japanese empire to finally make the Ryukyu Kingdom part of the mainland. It’d become Japanese territory in 1879, four years after young master Eiso (the only name he’d ever given) died a free man in the faraway kingdom of Farediin.
And now, here was Avery Wilkes. Flight lieutenant of the northwest corridor’s US Territory Alaska Division, one hundred fifth fleet. Which had joined up with the Pearl Harbor fleets over the last year to join the fight to push back the Japanese invaders in the South Pacific. At least, that’s what he’d been telling her all about as they passed along the cavern canals and through the crystalline projections of stone jutting out along the way. Seemingly, intriguing this man in a manner she figured he’d never been intrigued before. And each second passing made her ever more intrigued by him. An infatuation at best, she urged herself. It had to be. After all, he’d only been in her presence for less than a day. How could it be anything more? Perhaps pity, she considered. Pity and concern and revulsion at the manner in which he had even come to be in her presence. Here there was a young man, all of his life ahead of him, seeking out revenge for a brother forced into a war none of them had any real right to be fighting.
War… it’s always war. How many of the young must sacrifice their lives in an ongoing conflict of territorial gain? When is enough, enough? When is there enough room for everyone to live comfortably side by side? Er’ra Zel turned her focus on the landing dock as she let the boat drift into the moorings. Avery stood up and stared across the new environ in which he found himself. His whistling subsided as Er’ra Zel triggered the latches on the side of the vessel to affix to the dock and she stood as well, flipping behind her the long flaps of her thin, opal colored overcoat as she stepped off the boat and onto the dock. A light wind from somewhere rippled her beige pantsuit as she lifted her hand to her browline and took the whole area into sight.
“What am I looking at?”
Avery looked to her and she smiled, waving her left hand in the air for him to follow her. “M’turo Chasm. The largest underground waterfall I think anywhere on Earth. If my notes are correct, you found an entryway into it when you were looking for a place to camp your first night on the island.”
She turned and walked across the broad metal dock and up the embankments of the beachhead dividing the channels of Horch Knot Gorge (of which they’d just navigated its canals) from the great lake of M’turo Chasm in which its waterfall fell into the surface with the massive crashing of water into water and the moist mists that come with such a spectacle. She walked up onto the shoreline and looked both ways. The land bridge ran hundreds of feet in both directions to connect the walls of the cavernous interior. Then she looked towards the waterfall itself. It’d been a few years since the last time she’d been to the place. She hadn’t felt the urge to return since that moment had driven her—
Forget all of that, Zella. You’re beyond that moment. It’s done. Her smile broke. Oh, yeah? Then why’d you bring your boyfriend?
He’s not my boyfriend!
She shook her head and cleared her throat. Not loud enough for Avery to hear, of course. But enough to remind herself of what she was up to. Though, that little inner voice couldn’t help one last tease, but you want him to be, don’t you?
“So, M’turo Chasm and the great falls at its head… The lake itself runs all the way towards the eastern coast making this probably the largest underground lake as well. At least, as far as I’ve seen. And I’ve been around a goodly little bit.”
She turned towards him, her left hand indicating all of the splendor, and let her smile rechristen her face. Avery nodded his head, his jaw slack and his eyes wide.
“It’s huge. Far larger than even Niagara Falls, I’d wager. I knew the river up there was wide, but, this, this is just crazy. How can it seem to be dropping down more water than it has available?”
Er’ra Zel let her hand drop to her side and she looked back to the falls. It was a cool seventeen hundred feet away from them, but the waves crashing into the surface created a deafening roar nonetheless. The spray still an impressive fog clutching at the edge of the land bridge where the dark brown soil turned a dusty tan even thoroughly saturated with water. She supposed the spectacle was extraordinary. When she was a child, it had meant more. Back when the area had been a beachside getaway for families. Now, it had been mostly forgotten by the populace at large for festivities in the greater downtown areas where the buildings rose as golden monuments to the civilization that was theirs to call home.
Light fell inward from the opening high above as the water cascaded over the lip of the pit through the ceiling nearly two thousand feet above them. The light filtered through the water causing an entire prism of colors to cast the water droplets as a billion crystals glittering brightly and filling this portion of the cave with all of the colors of the seeing world. Even the shadows beyond became alternating colors of the spectrum. Some shadows, a twinkling blue. Other shadows, a deep crimson red waving into the purples. The surface of the lake became, as a result, a rainbow ocean lapping at the shoreline. She walked forward a few feet until she was at the uppermost incline of the land bridge and stared down into the water rippling so constantly, free from its inhibitions. Free to just be.
“The river is deeper than you think,” she said, not looking at him, her focus still in the rippling depths of the colorful lake water. “It was good you didn’t attempt to swim across. Had you, you’d likely have drowned… or somehow ended up here, in this lake, so far beneath the Earth, so far away from everything good and just on the surface… maybe even lost for there would be no way out unless you swam… Of course, I wouldn’t put it past you. You seem quite adept at getting yourself out of life threatening situations… I would hate to see you lost…”
She felt a hand rub her right shoulder and she started with a slight jump and a hitch of her shoulders. He let his hand drop slowly, but kept it handy in case she needed it. She was strangely touched and now angry with herself for allowing her mind to wander so much. She could feel it, still, in the air. Calling out to her deepest fears and most sincere rage. She hated it. Hated them. Those voices so deep down that it was nearly impossible to ignore. It was easier in the city. Easier to tune them out. But now, she was realizing a certain truth, they were constant. Never going away. Oh, how she hated them, hated their—
“Are you alright?”
“You’ve grown pale,” Avery stepped before her, his hands raised before him like he was prepared to catch her should she fall. Which was ridiculous. Wasn’t it? “Much more pale than I’ve seen you all day. What’s wrong? You started rambling. Like you were caught up in some bad memory. If you need to leave, we can go. I’ve already seen this place. Now from beneath, as well as above. Impressive though it is, it isn’t worth one’s sanity.”
“I, I don’t understand why you would say such a thing…”
She turned away from him and hugged her arms across her biceps. Something was wrong. Her head was light, her reality almost vacant. She was there, but at the same time, she wasn’t. She was out of her body and floating in the space where her brain should be, but it felt so disconnected.
“I’m fine…” she continued but his returning voice was full of a deep understanding and compassion. His voice. It was a soothing thing. That’s why she liked it so much. Just hearing him talk was a gentle wave across a soul seeking some sort of peace from times that were growing increasingly… horrifying.
“You’re not fine. I know this feeling. I felt it on my first night. There is something wrong with this place,” he trailed off and she turned towards him. His gaze was out over the lake looking to the other side she supposed. In the place so far across, it was impossible to see from here. “On my first night, there was something in back of the cave I had found. It called to me. Specters I would guess. Of shadows, of rage, of hate. The things that sit on the heart and corrupt it. I remained too long in that cave. It drove me mad. And only when Nindemus and his people came for us, was that insanity driven away. The voice ceased once you led me above. To the council. Through Farediin.”
His eyes turned towards her. Amber flecks dancing under the light. And a welling peace fell across her. She felt more like herself. The lightheadedness slipping back against the darkness. The voices forced deep down into whatever pit of despair they were clawing their way up from.
A smile creased his lips and she wanted to laugh. The way a young girl laughs when dancing through a field of flowers chasing butterflies and feeling the breeze on her cheeks. The way she would laugh when her best friend told the world’s most amazing joke. And her smile carried her away into mythical lands where things like rage and hate didn’t exist.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I felt it too. Their voices calling from the dark. Oh, they’re never quite clear. But they’re always there. Daring you to give in to your rage. Daring you to seek vengeance. Murder you enemy and make his body your trophy…”
She felt a sudden shudder as he spoke. She didn’t want to hear those words, but there was something deep within that said this was going to be the only time they could be spoken freely and without restraint. So, she remained silent and let him continue on with whatever he might say next.
“Look, do you seem them?” He pointed at the water. Slithering things flicked and twisted along just under the surface. She knew what they were immediately. The iridescent eels that called M’turo Chasm home. They were an unnerving addition to the wildlife of the underground system. “I call them gleels. Glowing eels. Because I love to name things. Give them a place in my heart. At first, I thought these strange things were what was causing my discomfort. Causing the madness to saturate my mind. But, no, they’re just animals swimming and feeding. Likely off of mosses and scum. Cleaning this lake, I would imagine. You can infer that just on how pristine this lake is. Whatever the waterfall is bringing down here, these creatures feast upon. But they can’t feast upon what’s hurting you now. Or what had sat on my heart then. You know its name. And it is because of it that you have brought us here. You have something to say. Why do you not speak it, then? Say what sits heavy on your heart so that we might put this place to our backs and never return. I see the shops on the far wall. Long abandoned. Long forgotten. This was once a place of merriment. Of joy. When did it cease to be so? Tell me, Zella. I implore you. Speak your heart so that we may leave. Or, am I too new here to make such a heavy request?”
His smile broadened and the laugh sitting in her stomach burst forth then and it filled the interior of the cavern. Even over played the chaotic uproar from the waterfall. It echoed from one side of the cavern to the next. And Avery only crossed his arms and patiently waited. His smile never leaving his face. Er’ra Zel doubled over and knelt down clasping her arms around her knees as her body heaved and her laughter refused to abate.
After too long, she clutched her hands to her breasts, clasping them as if in prayer, and forced herself to her feet. Yes. There was a reason she’d brought them there. She hadn’t thought about it before. It was just an impulse. So, she thought. But the truth was, yes, she needed Avery to understand something. Something she’d known since childhood. A fundamental understanding that only the soul could see and the mind refuse to rationalize.
She stood up and smoothed out her ruffling overcoat. Then exhaled sharply trying to push the rest of her laughter away.
“It’s been a long time, I see,” he said.
She nodded to him and smiled. A genuine bright smile that no longer felt so… hindered. “It has. I haven’t laughed like that since—”
Her face dropped, her head twisted, and her gaze shot out across the lake. “This is an evil place. I don’t know why I brought you here.”
“Yes, you do.”
She looked back towards him. His eyes were on her and her alone. The amber flecks of his irises brilliantly sparkled under the wavering prism cascading from the waterfall beyond.
“Yes. I suppose I do. I want to tell you that… Midnight is a myth. But… I don’t know that I can. For so long I told myself, ‘It’s just a story. A story flustered mothers tell their young to make them behave. Stop acting out in school. And go to bed on time.’ Yet, I remember a time… Coming here has brought that time to focus. I honestly didn’t want to come here. However, you… well, you started speaking about Midnight and all the old fears surfaced so much that it seemed that I had no choice. I thought it was just for fun. But, it’s not. Is it?”
Avery let his arms drop to his sides and stepped forward. His left arm came forward to rub her right arm gently. His gaze never left her own.
“I saw a bench across the way. Let us sit and you can tell me your tale. It’s time to banish it to the ether. I can see it sits there, mocking you. Taunting you. Daring you to open your soul to its dark embrace.”
She could only nod as he guided them towards where the shops’ remains sat as hollowed out husks towards the far wall to their right. It was a mausoleum to an age long gone. The sandy ground crunched under the soles of their shoes as they walked. The waterfall roared. The voices in the dark had ceased their chitterings. They seemed to be waiting. Waiting for her to revisit the most traumatic time in her life. Avery helped her take a seat. She was limp. In body and soul. Nearly fell into the bench in fact. Dazed would probably be a good adjective for how she was feeling. She hadn’t expected that. This was supposed to have been little more than a getaway from those murmuring of the True Word’s intent in the city. Yet, there was a connection. Oh yes, there was a connection that she wasn’t seeing but felt. Oh, so deep within the past.
Her buttocks had scarcely touched the seat when the words fell from her mouth. “It was so long ago. I was maybe ten. My family and I had come here. Back then, it was a major vacation spot. Lights would illuminate the cavern from boats floating out on the lake. The sparkling waterfall cast its brilliance all across the festive nature of families swimming and playing, enjoying the sports of the time and indulging in the fair foods easily produced in these old shops. These old places of joy.”
Her hands came to her face and she wiped away tears flowing from her eyes. Avery placed his arm around her back. He didn’t push. Didn’t prod. Only let her think. And think she did. For it was important. It was important to remember the darkness.
HOW OLD HAD she been then? How old was she really? Ten, eleven? It was right around that time, she was sure. Her father had wanted to spend the day at M’turo Chasm Bay beach. Her mother, D’jhoral, hadn’t opposed the notion. In fact, she was quick to remember when her own family had gone to the place to enjoy an evening out. Of course, Er’ra Zel wasn’t so keen on the idea. There was a feeling crawling across her chest that spoke to it being a better notion to hit the beach on the surface. Surely, it would be significantly more fun than some underground waterfall? The sun, the air, the lapping waves of the ocean slurping at the sand. What was there not to love?
“Why are you always this dense, Zella?”
“Say that to my face!” Er’ra Zel countered her sister. She’d been older than her then. By about two years. Yet, she always thought she knew so much more than her.
“I just did, lowbrow!”
Her sister, T’illia (who she always just called, ‘Tilly’), loved referring to the slop of her head. Because it wasn’t as high as Tilly’s or their mother’s, Tilly had it in her mind that she was a bit of a dunderhead with little intelligence to speak of. Which always enraged Er’ra Zel to no extent.
“I’m no lowbrow! I can ram you in the face better than that boyfriend of yours, Churl!”
“Stop calling him my boyfriend, lowbrow! He’s just a friend!”
“Uh huhn. Tilly and Churl swinging by the beam. Touching their parties right on the seams!”
“Shut your face, Zella!”
Tilly had rammed her sister then, who was dancing at the hips and swaying them side to side with her old childhood prose. Tilly’s larger horns (not full grown yet as she was only then entering puberty) rammed into Er’ra Zel’s stomach and they both went to the floor in a pile of angry flesh. Er’ra Zel punched her sister in her left should blade as hard as she could causing the young woman to howl in rage and headbutt her chest. They rolled around for several minutes, each trying to use their horns to batter the other. Their father, Zhouton, came rushing into the room. It had been her sister’s room at the time, but Er’ra Zel never had much of a care about boundaries.
“Hey. Hey! You two, knock it off!”
Her father grabbed them both by the scruff of their collars (beach wear he’d insisted they put on) and pulled them apart. Tilly kicked at Er’ra Zel and Er’ra Zel tried to punch her sister right in the face. Their father managed to keep them separated from one another. He had always been so strong, Er’ra Zel remembered, so able to de-escalate a situation by being the calm and firm presence he’d always been.
“This is not how sisters act, girls. What is this all about?”
“Zella is trying to say Churl is my boyfriend!”
Tilly stopped struggling and twisted her gaze toward their father, her jaw falling slack. “You think that he is!?”
“Well, I’m no expert, but when a boy hangs around a girl as much as Churl does you, I should say some sort of declaration of familiarity would have been established by now.”
“He’s just a friend!” she cried and ran her palms across her eyes.
Their father lowered them back to the floor and released Er’ra Zel to rub his hand across Tilly’s shoulders. “Okay. Okay. He’s just a friend. You hear that, Zella? Churl is just a good friend.”
“But, dad! He’s always trying to—”
Her father lifted a hand and gave a gentle smile. “That’s fine, Zella. And if that’s the way it happens in the future, so be it. But, of course, Churl will have to understand that there are certain boundaries he’ll have to adhere to if he ever wants to be left alone with one of my daughters.”
Tilly rolled her eyes as their father smiled pleasantly at Tilly and continued rubbing her shoulders. Tilly shook her head. “It’s not like that, dad! Geesh! Why do you two keep saying Churl wants to be my boyfriend?”
“Well, Tilly, he’s thirteen. And he isn’t, how do I put this diplomatically? Subtle… in his urges. Let’s let it go for now. You two need to get yourselves ready. We’re going to M’turo Chasm and we’re going to enjoy ourselves. Not fight over boys.”
“Okay, daddy,” Tilly exhaled sharply and said no more on the subject of Churl.
Er’ra Zel decided this was a good moment to broach the topic that caused the conflict to begin with. “Why don’t we go to Overhead Beach, instead? There’s the sun and the waves and all the people enjoying the open breeze…”
Their father laughed and he rubbed Tilly’s back as he looked to Er’ra Zel. “I’ve already said that we’ll go to Overhead Beach next month. Besides, I hate the governor of that district. He doesn’t really care about the safety of our kids. And your safety, is what I care about most. So, come on, get to it already. And no more fighting, okay?”
“Okay, daddy,” the two of them responded with a quick glare shared between them both.
Swimsuits on, beach supplies in tow, Er’ra Zel, her sister Tilly, and their parents, made their way to the nearest transit cab and made their destination M’turo Chasm Bay. At the time, there’d been a major tunnel network that connected the cavernous area with its dazzling rainbow prism waterfall. The area hadn’t been an ominous region of shadows and darkness but rather a lively entertainment venue frequented by the denizens of Farediin for decades. In fact, the southeastern edge of the land bridge connecting both sides of the massive cavern, had hosted the taxi facilities as well as a boardwalk running out over the water where dozens of vendors and merchants sold their wares, street performers had danced and set a sense of awe into the children. Bright, festive decorations ran all across rafters leading around the outer edge of the waterfall. Along the northwestern edge of the land bridge beachhead, dozens more other shops and buildings. Many emergency services and information booths.
Er’ra Zel’s family arrived into this festive atmosphere already full to the brim with hundreds of beachgoers who came to see the waterfall and enjoy the cool waters of the chasm. She remembered standing on the wooden dockside after the taxi had landed and staring out over the underwater lake. The streaming light from the sun penetrated the falling waterfall and cast twinkling colors across people taking leisurely cruises across the surface in boats and rafts, some having their legs lazily dangling off the edges of their crafts and merely allowing the swirling currents to carry them where they may. Her young eyes fell on the far distance across the lake. So far away it might as well have been an ocean enclosed on all sides by a great wall of stone. Though the area was well lit wherever the merrymakers were to be found, she couldn’t quite pull her gaze off of the shadows lingering far across the ceiling all the way across the lake where the barest hint of bright light there indicated there was something else going on over the other side of the chasm.
“I don’t like it here…”
Tilly pinched her on the back of her shoulder. “What was that, Zella?”
Er’ra Zel turned on her sister and moved a few feet away, her right hand rubbing her wounded shoulder. “Nothing, garbage breath. A creepy place for a creepy waif.”
“Don’t make me punch you, sissy!”
Tilly reared her right fist back and screwed up her face. Er’ra Zel remembered her look clearly. Though they fought nearly constantly, there was always nothing but love between them. So many nights they spent curled up and holding one another after some sound or another awoke them from a sound sleep. Sounds easily dismissed by their father as the city settling. Though Er’ra Zel had a feeling something darker was at play but tried to always keep it to herself.
Her sister, though, had always been tougher one. Older by only a couple years, she still seemed so mature to Er’ra Zel. Taller by inches, perhaps, with long wispy golden hair flowing down to her mid back. Eyes of an azure so deep that were like portals to the boundless oceans themselves. Her skin a smooth, creamy white. Always looking so gentle. Yet, and it was something Er’ra Zel was all too familiar with, the young girl had a temper to match any soldier in Farediin’s Guardian Forces.
“Knock it off, you two,” their father lightly batted Tilly’s hand down and walked past them taking in a deep breath of the sweet mineral rich air. “Why argue so much when there is so much wonder here to engage in?”
He held his hands out wide, towels over his right shoulder and two foldable chairs strapped across his back. Their mother came up behind them, smiling her most charming smile. She brushed her neck length white blue hair back across her shoulder and looked around herself.
“It’s really busy today.”
“Well, of course it is, D’jhoral. It’s Brightens Day,” their father glanced back at their mother, his deep blue eyes twinkling under the prismatic light dancing all across the chasm. “We get, what, one time a year to just let ourselves relax and stop worrying so much about the political mechanisms trying to rip our cities apart?”
“No politics, Zhouton. I warned you that was a condition on my agreeing to come here rather than Overlook Beach. You know, the sun looks blazing hot up there,” she put a lithe finger to her thin lips and gave a contemplative expression. “I don’t suppose it’s too late to hope back in the cab and—”
“Alright, alright. Sheesh. You three are so flipping argumentative.”
Though his words suggested exasperation, his grin suggested he found the interaction amusing. In his own way. Their mother rested her left hand on her hip, her right hand gripping a bag full of supplies and snacks.
“I thought you knew, darling. That’s a trait that runs through all the girls of our family.”
“It’s bloody annoying, is what it is,” he chuckled and made his way through a throng of people working their way across the land bridge and towards what sounded like a music festival at the end of the boardwalk.
Their mother shook her head. “Okay, come on girls. Enough of your constant fighting. For one day can we just enjoy ourselves without trying to pull you apart like a pair of granons looking to rip each other to pieces?”
They said nothing as they allowed their mother to usher them after their father. Though Tilly crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at Er’ra Zel. She tried to ignore her sister and looked ahead. It didn’t take them long to find a spot among the already overcrowded beach at the edge of the lapping lake. And it didn’t take her sister much longer to make a break for the lakeside and plunge into the water. When she surfaced, she was screaming ecstatically for her to join her.
“Oh, my goodness! Come on, you lackadaisical slug! It’s super warm today!”
Er’ra Zel put down her play things, to meld shapes into the sand with, and tottered over to the edge of the beach where she slowly dipped a toe into the water. It was true. The water was as warm as a sunny summer’s day and smooth to the skin. She looked back and saw that their parents were spreading out the towels and setting up the chairs, talking to each other. Other children played in the water as well, carrying on like growling cats. She turned back to the water and lowered herself in. She was never the strongest swimmer, but she was comfortable enough to swim out half a dozen feet or so. Tilly soon joined her and smiled broadly.
“You are too tepid, Zella,” she said grabbing her head and pushing her under the surface.
Er’ra Zel struggled at first, her kicks churning up the water. Though, Tilly let go fairly quickly and there was an understanding between them that she wouldn’t really keep her down there for long. So, being the sister that she was, she mimed floating in the water with her back surfacing. Tilly was motionless for a second then started rocking her body. At which point, Er’ra Zel reached out and tickled Tilly’s sides. She could hear her sister’s squeals of laughter and irritation from even beneath the surface.
When her head came up, Tilly splashed a tidal wave of water at her. “Oh, I’m so getting you for that!”
“Come on then, sewer breath!”
Er’ra Zel swam quickly away and Tilly made to follow.
For the most part, the day was just that. Playing, frolicking, and enjoying the sights and sounds of M’turo Chasm Bay. They listened to the musicians on the boardwalk. Watched the actors perform their plays. Indulged in sweets and treats. Puffy sandwiches and sugary drinks. And all was as it should be, until the evening set in and the sun grew lower in the skies beyond the great waterfall opening.
“We should probably head out soon…” their father said to their mother.
They’d been lounging in their chairs watching their daughters play in the sand and building great citadels of the ancient kingdoms.
“Probably,” their mother responded not making an effort to move from where she was reclined and staring up towards the opening to the world above. She rubbed her chest with her right hand absently. “But, then again, that would require moving.”
Their father laughed at this and didn’t make to move either. Then Tilly leapt to her feet. “We can’t leave before the fireworks display! They hold it exactly once a year! And it’ll be over the bay!”
She pointed out across the bay where the lights of whatever festivity played out raucously grew brighter. Er’ra Zel still couldn’t see the people there but she knew they’d be setting up for the show right there on that other beach she’d never been to.
“That’s true,” their father conceded. “The light show is supposed to be super phenomenal this year.”
“Ugh,” their mother replied shaking her head. “If you three insist. We can stay. But, the smokey fallout gives me a headache.”
“They’re being set off from Trunclar Beach and not the barge this year. I don’t think it’ll be as bad.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Tilly turned to look down at Er’ra Zel, her hands fist as she shook her arms before her. “We have to get out to Norger’s barge.”
Er’ra Zel furrowed her brows and sat back on her calves. She’d never heard of whatever it was Tilly was talking about.
“Norger’s barge. He’s this young up and coming comedian. Weren’t you listening earlier?”
“Wait, is he that kid telling those bad jokes?” Er’ra Zel asked.
Tilly sighed. “Those jokes were hilarious! Remember he was talking about having a barge out in the center of the lake for the fireworks display? He invited anyone who was willing to swim out to it!”
“I don’t know. Do you think there’ll be enough room on it? It’s getting pretty late and people have to have already swarmed the thing.”
“We have to at least try!”
Er’ra Zel stood up and their father tilted his head to his side. “You two be careful then. And don’t you go falling for any of that come home with me, tootsie, nonsense.”
“Dad!” Tilly moaned. Er’ra Zel slapped her right shoulder.
“Yeah. Isn’t that the sort of talk Churl does? Huhn. Haven’t seen him around today. Betcha he’s out there on the barge.”
Tilly grabbed her neck and pulled her to her chest to run her palm across Er’ra Zel’s head. She tried to squirm free, but Tilly’s grip was strong. Then their father’s voice stopped them short and Tilly let go.
“You two knock that off! I don’t want to have to go back to the barber to straighten out your hair again.”
“Sorry, dad,” Tilly said and grabbed Er’ra Zel’s wrist to pull her after her. “Come on, ninny! I don’t want to be late!”
They ran around the beach and through the gathering people finding their spots back on the sandy shoreline readying themselves for the display. They crossed over a dock and out over the water. There, Tilly leapt in and when she surfaced waved towards Er’ra Zel.
“Whatcha waitin’ for? Come on!”
“Okay. Okay. Sheesh.”
Er’ra Zel jumped into the water and followed her sister across the lake. They saw a large flat barge right where Tilly said it would be. Exactly dead center of the massive ocean lake. Remarkably, it wasn’t full to the brim after all. Tilly crawled up first and then helped Er’ra Zel climb up on the barge. A young man walked over to them.
“Well hello there! Come to take me up on my offer for the best show in the bay?”
Tilly grinned into the pleasant visage of one Norger Ch’llum. He was about a foot taller than them but no more. His horns coiled into a tight ball, like one would find out of a sea snail shell. Which was fairly rare for their kind. Generally, horns poked out and beyond the person’s hair. Not looked like some sort of battering ram. His hair was thin and brown and fell to only the back of his head.
“I remembered just in time!” Tilly replied looking around. There were maybe two dozen chairs scattered about the barge with not even half of them taken up.
“Are we early?”
Norger looked to Er’ra Zel and rubbed the back of his head with his right hand. “No. No I wouldn’t say so. I just guess not too many people really wanted to come watch the show with me.”
“Well. that’s their loss,” Tilly said authoritatively, hands on her hips. “You’re one funny man.”
“Why thank you! So, just find a chair anywhere. Did you want something to drink? Water, meetchi juice, tea?”
“I’ll have a meetchi juice!” Tilly replied happily.
“Sure, I’ll have one too,” Er’ra Zel said and their host rushed off to find the container with the drinks in it. They found two seats with a clear view of the wide expanse of the cavern ceiling. Behind them, the falls continued its unending roar though it didn’t sound quite as loud from their location. “You know, I don’t think he’s quite as funny as he, or you, would hope him to be.”
Tilly shook her head and waved her hand. “Oh, shush, you.”
Norger returned with their drinks. Thanked them for coming once more. And then returned to his own seat between two charming girls who seemed to think the world of him. And the show was indeed a marvelous one. The explosive light show transpired in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Rings, circles, balls, one rather over-the-top message about supporting the troops, and an arch of colorful sizzling wave running from one side of the cave to the other. But what really caught Er’ra Zel’s attention, was how the explosions shooting off, popping at their apex, and sizzling outward in ever increasing spreads, lit up the ceiling of the cave showing her what she’d never seen before. A curving archway of stone full of stalactites and smooth bumps. It was what she’d imagined the Earth would look like at its center. Just staring outward to the mantle and the crust slowly meandering around the core. Of course, not actually moving, though it seemed to under the constantly shifting light show.
It was halfway through the show, and she and her sister were absolutely absorbed by the firing of the rockets and materials when the barge started rocking. Slowly at first. Almost an effect of the booming cacophony of the fireworks themselves. And then the barge capsized forcing Er’ra Zel and Tilly deep into the water. They grabbed for one another in the deep gloom of the lake struggling for the surface. When they breached it, they heard screaming coming from every direction. At first, the two of them were disoriented. Then Tilly screamed in Er’ra Zel’s ear.
“Norger! The others! I can’t reach them! And there’s something below us!”
Er’ra Zel looked beneath the churning water and saw shadows zipping back and forth. And, yes, several of those on the barge were being drawn deep into the abyss by those shadows. She raised her head out of the water and screamed. Tilly gripped her by the shoulder and wrapped one arm around her chest.
“Stop that! We’ve got to get back to the shore! Come on! Don’t fight me!”
Er’ra Zel ceased her resistance and allowed Tilly to guide them towards the shore. Several boats capsized around them as well, the people within screaming as the shadows beneath somehow pulled them overboard and deep below. Fear etched its way across Er’ra Zel’s chest as they pushed against the lashing waves being generated by whatever force was attacking. The fireworks ceased. More boats came out into the lake seeking to help. And the more that came, the more that sunk. Something ran across Er’ra Zel’s ankles. She kicked harder. It had been hot. Nearly scolding. And it felt slimy. Like the goo off of a beached jelly fish. They were nearly to the shore when Tilly was grabbed by one of those shadowy things. Er’ra Zel got dragged under with her and looked past their feet. The thing stared up at her, its eyes a cobalt blue. She kicked at it and it flinched temporarily releasing Tilly. The both of them surfaced.
Er’ra Zel gripped Tilly’s forearm and tried to bring her to the beach as hands wrapped around her chest and pulled her out of the water. It was their father screaming their names and yanking Er’ra Zel free from the beasts still below the shallow shore. Tilly reached for the dock right at the edge of the beach and gripped it hard. Their father saw her and tossed Er’ra Zel towards their mother.
“T’illia!” he shouted. They all watched as Tilly was pulled deeper under the surface, the shadows nearly engulfing her.
Their father leapt into the abyss and Er’ra Zel could only stare as he slid deeper and reached for Tilly’s hands. She reached out for him, the terror deep in her eyes and the bubbles slipping from her mouth. A loud shriek came from above and behind Er’ra Zel and she was only dimly aware it was her mother. And then both Tilly and their father vanished into the deep murk of the lake.
Her mother never ceased screaming out for them both.
Thanks for reading all the way through! I hope you’re liking what you’re reading and that you’ll be back next week for more of Left of Midnight! Until then, have a good week!
~Timothy S Purvis
While you’re here, why not head on over to my author’s page and check out my other works? Support the cause and all of that, y’know? Anyhow, just click on my name and the link will take you there straightaway–> Timothy S Purvis
Also, why not check out one of my other works?