This is the tenth chapter in Sun of Shadows and the first in part two, Ice.
The Stormy Sea
The thunderstorm was in full swing when they reached the Stormy Sea. An almost black cloud front rose in front of them, while the sky behind them was blue as ever. Lightning flashed across the horizon - and Iris realized with a start that Acquois was slowing down.
"What's going on?", she asked, irritated. "Why can't we go as fast as before?" She wanted to get past the storm as fast as she could. The rain alone was uncomfortable enough, her feathers would take forever to dry. And then the lightning... you didn't fly in a storm, her whole tribe knew that.
"So far, there was no obstacle between us and our destination," Acquois said, calm as ever. Too calm for Iris's liking. "But it may well be that we find ourselves in the midst of a battle of Lightning and Water Elmen, so it would be dangerous for the members of my tribe if I travel at top speed. Besides," he added, "We could accidentally be struck by lightning if they don't see us coming. The slower we are, the better."
Iris grimaced. Was the Keeper really right? Zephyr could have told her, he knew so many things. But Zephyr wasn't here - he was crossing the ocean himself, just in a different direction. To fly back to the Claws... and wait there for her. His voice still echoed in her head, he had meant everything he'd said. He believed in her, more than anybody else, even if he often didn't admit it. And she trusted him at least as much.
"I'm also not a fan of thunderstorms," Sedna admitted. "And even less of the battle we might get into. But we have to go through this, literally."
At least I'm not the only one. She didn't know what Geb thought about storms, but it was no secret that Karzelek was fascinated by the weather. It was the first time he experienced a thunderstorm, the first time he saw lightning and heard thunder. And yes, from a distance the storm seemed more impressive than threatening, but that would change soon enough...
Already the first drops fell down on her. The tiny feathers on her skin stood on end, the ones that would soon be soaked. Why did the rain have to be so wet?
At least Sedna seemed to enjoy the water... for now. When the dark clouds were completely over them and the rain poured down on them like a flood, the Water Elmin had enough. "Acquois!", she shouted against the roaring storm. "Use your powers!"
All at once the rain stopped. Iris looked around in astonishment: it was still storming, but as if they were under an invisible dome, the water parted above them, sparing everyone on Acquois's back. Iris noticed how she relaxed immediately and the others felt the same. Now that the rain wasn't bothering them, the storm was indeed impressive, almost even magical in this unreal atmosphere in which all the sounds still existed, but one remained completely untouched. It could stay that way.
"Acquois!", they heard an unfamiliar voice and immediately everyone went as far to the edge of Acquois's back as they could to see what was going on. Below them sat a Water Elmin on the back of a fish that Iris couldn't identify. The two didn't seem to have noticed the friends, they looked solely at the Keeper's face. "Have you come to help us?"
"Greetings," the Keeper replied gently. "Is it about the war? Is there a battle going on?"
The Elmin scoffed. "A battle? It's the Lightning Elmen causing problems, not us. They lurk on us and wait until we come to the surface, then they fire their beams. We would flush them from the sky, but we'd have to see them to do that - which is impossible without someone on the surface."
"I see." Acquois was silent for a moment. "It is not my intention to kill Elmen, no matter which tribe."
"Even if they kill us?"
Acquois remained calm. "Lead me there."
The Elmin nodded and made her way in the direction Acquois had swum anyway. Iris and Sedna exchanged a look - would they now witness a massacre?
The Elmin dived and left them alone. Iris started. Was that a trap? No, she belonged to the Water Tribe herself, she wouldn't do that. Right?
"She can't be hit by lightning underwater," Sedna explained. "If she stays with us, she risks death."
"And we don't?" What stopped the Lightning Tribe from attacking them?
"They're up there," Karzelek's voice distracted them. He pointed up into the clouds, where small yellow dots darted through the air and repeatedly sent light signals. Iris remembered the luminescent stripes of the Water Elmen and saw that Sedna was also looking up.
"No signals I know," the Elmin mumbled. "Of course not. They flicker more than they glow."
Iris wondered what they were talking about. Below them, in the water, had to be the Water Elmen, but they were too deep below the surface for Iris to see in the overcast sky. Surely they had noticed Acquois by now - and the Elmen on his back.
"Show yourselves," Acquois demanded. "I will not attack if you don't do it first."
The lights flickered again, then one of them came right down to them. With a mad speed it rushed down - did it want to attack them? But then it stopped in the middle of the air and levitated almost motionless in front of Acquois's head with a loud humming sound.
Iris was amazed: Even from a distance, she saw that it was an Elm riding a giant insect. An adult, she recognized by his stern face, barely taller than herself.
Karzelek bit back a yelp and Iris knew why. The stranger's skin was dark gray like the clouds above him and on the back of the winged animal, also dark gray, he seemed almost like a Shadow. Instead of horns, however, he had some sort of antennae and the markings on his skin were yellowish. He had to send his flashes with those, as did his companion.
"Sutekh," the Lightning Elm proclaimed in a harsh, curt voice, reminiscent of his previous flicker of light. "What do you want?"
"To talk to you," Acquois replied. "To ask you to stop hurting and killing other Elmen."
"This is war!" Sutekh sounded irritated. Not only because of the request, Iris realized... but also because this was perhaps the first time he spoke to a Keeper and heard a voice in his head. She herself knew how unreal that felt. "We do what is necessary."
"What did my tribe do to you that you wish them death?"
Iris could swear that Sutekh was emitting tiny sparks. "They allied with the Ice Tribe!"
Acquois couldn't be disturbed. "Who you only fight because you are allied with Gerra. Even Fuocith confessed to me that there is no really relevant reason for Gerra's declaration of war that is related to the Ice Tribe as such."
"My swarm won't desert because a foreign Keeper orders us to," Sutekh replied harshly. "We don't take orders from those of other tribes, holy or not."
Out of the corner of her eye Iris saw a movement - and was astonished: Perry took a short run and rose into the air only to land on Acquois's forehead moments later, on eye level with Sutekh who stared at the Light Elm as if he hadn't actually noticed him before.
"Respect the Keepers of other tribes or not," Perry said, "But as an Elm of Light, I stand above you all. You will follow my instructions - and these are to stop fighting. You will fly to your chief and announce this to her. Tell her that any fight up to Umbrath's defeat should be with the Shadows, an order from Lumeon himself."
Perry had spoken fast, far too fast to appear reputable. But that didn't seem to matter to Sutekh: whatever the Lightning Tribe thought of the Keepers, they knew that the Elmen of Light hadn't been seen for centuries. Perry's appearance meant so much more than a Keeper's, like Sutekh had recognized. Still speechless, he stared at Perry's body, at the huge wings that marked him.
Then he nodded. "I will tell Vegoia. Whatever she'll think of it."
"Good," Acquois said. "I will also inform my tribe about these instructions. And now let us pass - there is something important we have to do."
Sutekh didn't say another word, he merely nodded and whirred back to what he had called his swarm.
As soon as he was gone, Sedna walked over to Perry. "Well said," she complimented him. "I wouldn't have thought you'd come up with that on your own."
Perry tried not to show it, but it didn't work: One could see clearly how uncertain he still felt. "That's what Lumeon would expect from me. I should act as befits the Hero of Light."
"And you have," Acquois began again, now that they had nothing to fear anymore. "Now let me take you to Siku."
"Siku?" Iris repeated. The word was new to her.
"That is the name of the settlement of the Water Tribe here," said Acquois. "If I'm not mistaken, it means harbor ice."
"Or ice harbor," Geb said, shrugging. "Depends on how you look at it, right?"
Not even Acquois could object to that. He accelerated his speed - slower than before, it was apparently not too far anymore - and minutes later reached a speed that allowed Iris to perceive their surroundings again.
But she didn't have to see anything to realize that it was cold. Yes, she was used to low temperatures in the Sky Mountains, but this place was something completely different and even made her shiver. She had to move so as not to feel as if she was freezing in place, but she realized with relief that it wasn't just her. Only Perry didn't seem to have any temperature issues.
"Aren't you cold?", Karzelek asked, who himself came from not particularly warm caves.
"I find it quite pleasant," the Light Elm said. "The palace was often too warm for my liking."
He's lost his marbles. But Iris said nothing. There was no reason to start a fight. Instead, she focused on what she actually saw: they had left the thunderstorm and the Stormy Sea behind, but even without clouds there was a dusk-like dimness. Had they actually traveled that long?
It was still bright enough to see details. The sea around them was largely free of ice, but that was only due to the proximity to the harbor, which had to remain passable. Above her she heard the cry of a seagull - how far further into the land did the birds dare to go?
She quickly recognized the bright streak on the horizon they quickly approached. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see, and dark outlines that suggested the harbor area.
"Will we get close enough?", Sedna asked, but Acquois was already taking care of it by emitting a kind of long-distance call.
Moments later, two whales rose from the water, one Elm on each of them. One pair was bluish gray, almost white, the other almost black. On Sedna's face, Iris saw that her friend had never seen these colors on Water Elmen before. The Elmen bowed to their Keeper and looked at him with surprised eyes.
"Acquois," stammered the lighter of the two. "What brings you so far north?"
"The Elmen on my back." Acquois had nothing to point to them, but his words were enough. The Water Elmen looked up - and saw especially Perry, who looked in their direction and tried to appear heroic. But like before, he didn't have to, it was enough that he existed.
"Did you come to end this war?", the dark Elmin asked hopefully.
"Something like that," Perry said, and Acquois took over for him.
"Hyperion and the other Elmen need to talk to the Ice Tribe," the Keeper explained. "I ask you to equip them and provide them with everything they need."
The lighter Elm bowed. "Of course, Acquois. Let them climb our companions."
Acquois lowered himself a little deeper into the water so that he was level with the whales' backs. Iris, Sedna and Perry climbed onto the back of the dark whale, while Boulder and the other boys were led onto the lighter one. Shimmer fluttered above them in the air to keep warm.
"Have a safe journey," Acquois called into their heads. "See you at the eclipse." He plunged further into the depths - and ultimately disappeared.
"It's an honor," said the dark Water Elmin, offering Perry her hand, but he only nodded back. Somewhat embarrassed, the woman withdrew her hand again. "My name is Nerrivik and that over there is Njord, my brother."
Iris and the others also introduced themselves - at Sedna, Nerrivik perked up.
"Do you have ancestors from Siku?", she asked. "You're from the south, I can see that, but your name is quite common here."
Sedna grimaced almost unnoticeably. "My mother had acquaintances here," she replied curtly.
Iris tried to change the subject. "Somehow, almost all the Water Elmen we know have whales as companions."
"That isn't uncommon up here," Nerrivik said. "There aren't many marine animals that live so far north."
But Arry and Thalassa aren't from here, Iris thought. However, she decided to leave it at that. After all, whales didn't only exist up here.
Nerrivik, Njord, and their companions brought them closer to the harbor, so that Iris could see the snow-covered wooden huts that lined the coast and were lit by torches because of the dimness. Did trees still exist so far north?
"Could use some repairs," Sedna said, who just like Iris now noticed some missing planks and damaged areas on the buildings.
Nerrivik sighed. "Tell that to our enemies. The Lightning Tribe has shut down our trade route with the islands in Northern Zesto. We can't get any more wood until this is over, and who knows how long that'll take."
"I do what I can," Perry said thoughtfully, and Iris began to ponder. This war and vanquishing Umbrath were two different things that had nothing to do with each other. To end the war, it wasn't enough to kill Umbrath - that was a matter of its own. But maybe they could still take care of it now that they were here...
The whales stopped on either side of a wooden dock, so the friends could dismount with Nerrivik and Njord's help. The cold wood caused Iris to tremble again as she set foot on the ground.
"First, you should get decent clothes," Njord smirked, looking at Geb's almost bare feet. The Earth Elm was walking on the spot, he was certainly the coldest.
Sedna grimaced as well, so Nerrivik gave her a compassionate look. The locals wore, as Iris noticed, scarcely more clothes than Sedna. "Our tribe is better adapted to the cold up here," she explained. "Our skin is much thicker than yours - just like with our companions."
"Where is yours anyway?", Njord asked and Sedna winced. Iris also remembered: The Water Tribe killed Elmen whose companion had died. Sedna had been silent about that since she came back... but she had to have known that she'd be asked about it here. Did she have an excuse?
But no, she hesitated. Until Njord grimaced.
"I can guess," he mumbled. "My sincere condolences. That happens far too often these days."
"And...", Iris began when he stopped talking.
Nerrivik smiled. "You're thinking about the law, I know. But now that there is war... if we killed everyone without a companion, there would soon be no one left. The envoy of the chief who's in charge here was able to be given a special permission because of these circumstances. So don't worry, you're safe here."
Sedna nodded, without showing her relief. "Thank you."
"Now let's go before you freeze." Nerrivik led them to a hut that was probably her own. Boulder didn't fit through the door and because Geb didn't want to leave him alone, the friends took turns. First Iris and Sedna would be equipped by Nerrivik, then it was the boys' turn.
Inside, the cabin was sparsely furnished, but Iris recognized carved wood and bone figures and colorful embroidery that gave the building a wonderfully soothing feel. While Nerrivik disappeared into an adjoining room, the girls were left waiting in the main one.
Sedna immediately went to the carvings and Iris followed her curiously. She recognized some animals - especially birds - and Sedna could certainly name the aquatic ones. But there were also land animals among them, with thick fur and massive teeth. Iris shivered - she didn't want to run into those. Did these animals live here, in the territory of the Ice Tribe?
"Do you like them?" Iris started. Nerrivik was back with a pile of clothes in her arms, which she now discarded on the table. "Njord and I carve them ourselves. We're technically diplomats, but everybody needs their hobby, right?"
Sedna shrugged and looked at the clothes. What did she use to do in her spare time?
Iris stepped to her and grabbed one of the fur-lined garments. It was a little too big - surely it was meant for adult members of average sized tribes - and therefore quite heavy on her shoulders, but it would keep her warm and that was what mattered.
"Technically you're lucky that there's a war going on," Nerrivik said. "Since we don't get a visit from southern tribes, we have enough rental clothing for all of you."
Iris repressed that comment and thanked her before she got dressed and went back outside to the others.
Njord took the boys with him and a little later they were ready for the trip: Karzelek looked even more portly than usual in his also a bit oversized coat, he certainly wouldn't feel cold. Geb's was even a little too tight, but the relief over his not-cold-anymore feet was written in his face, now that they all wore boots. Even Perry had been persuaded to put on at least a light jacket, of course with holes for his wings. His feet, too, were in deep boots.
"What about Boulder and the others?", Geb asked.
The two Water Elmen looked at the companions. "Yours has enough fat to make it to the Ice Tribe, and the goat has a good chance, too." Njord looked at Shimmer. "As for the bird... try to keep it warm and don't let it fly more than necessary."
Nerrivik nodded. "You'll need someone who knows the area."
"And speaks Kiujak," Njord added.
"Bless you," Iris grinned.
"What's that?", Karzelek asked with interest.
"The Ice Tribe lives quite remote," Njord said. "You can imagine. Most Elmen there only partially speak the common language."
"But Siku is trading with them," Nerrivik smiled. "And sometimes more than that. Many of us can reasonably communicate in Kiujak, their language."
Njord frowned. "A Light Elm like you, Hyperion, deserves only the best leader. There is someone who speaks Kiujak almost fluently and is in close contact with the Ice Tribe in general."
"Sounds good," Sedna replied, and the others nodded.
Nerrivik had walked off again. "Then come! We'll take you to Alignak."
|Sun of Shadows Chapters|
|One: Light||1: Out at Sea • 2: Last Chance • 3: Arrival • 4: An Incredible Discovery • 5: Without Wings • 6: Lumeon • 7: Stars and Scales • 8: Breaking In • 9: Decisions|
|Two: Ice||10: The Stormy Sea • 11: Thick Fur • 12: Five • 13: Ice and Fire • 14: Light and Shadow • 15: A Tooth for a Tooth • 16: Of Past and Future • 17: The Truth|
|Three: Shadow||18: Secret Keepers • 19: Eclipse • 20: Chosen • 21: Last Words|