Chapter Twenty-Four: when fallen stars rank quite a bit lower than mermaids on the scale of “preferred traveling companions.” And also, a volcano.
The medium-sized girl did not like the ex-stars. Which did not surprise Rain. She didn’t like most things. Sure, Rain thought the ex-star people were less fun than the mermaids. But then, he thought most people were less fun than the mermaids. Most places were less fun than the ocean. Except the Garden, of course. But there was no going back to that. He was pretty sure. Ish.
Rain groaned, yet again reminded of how he knew almost nothing about anything. It had never bothered him, before. It had never even occurred to him, back when he lived with Tall Mother and Short Mother, his sisters and brothers. But here there was an emptiness in his mind that just…well, it just itched.
Their companions danced on, their shining features lighting the way through a night-shrouded valley. As agreed upon, the children and the ex-stars had swapped stories. Rain and the medium-sized girl had told them what was happening in “the down” in exchange for the way to the old hag’s cottage. Well, to the flowers in the hag’s cottage’s garden, at least. Flowers the “color of may,” apparently, though Rain really wasn’t sure the ex-stars knew what they were talking about. He didn’t want to be rude, or anything, but, if we’re being honest, he couldn’t quite bring himself to trust his current traveling companions. They had too much nervous energy. It made him nervey.
“I miss Hadal,” he said to the medium-sized girl, taking her hand and pulling her back into motion before she got stampeded by eight skipping ex-stars. The medium-sized girl kept doing that. Stopping, that is, and for no apparent reason. And swatting at things that weren’t there. And asking the ex-stars to please be a little less bright.
“You’re right,” she said, turning around, trying to pull him back the way they came. “Let’s go back.”
“Wha—no, not what I said,” he sighed. He let go of her hand, stopped, and stared at her. He even tapped his toe, for good measure. He was pretty sure this was more or less what Tall Mother did, when she wanted one of her children to realize the error of their ways. Though she had always put a little more eyebrow into it. He couldn’t quite manage the eyebrows. Not like her, anyway. Tall Mother’s eyebrows were dramatic, concise. No-nonsense.
‘What are you doing?” The medium-sized girl asked, staring.
“What?” He looked down at himself, wondering if he’d gotten the hips wrong.
“With your face? Why are you pinching it up so much?”
“Oh, right,” he touched his face, relatively surprised that she had been paying attention. She had a funny way of slipping in and out of focus. “Can you make your eyebrows move separate of each other? Tall Mother could. Never have figured it out.”
The medium-sized girl touched her own eyebrows, curious, pulling one up with one finger, one down with the other.
“I don’t know,” she said, wiggling her brow as best she could, “I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well. Such thoughtlessness is a luxury I’ve never had,” Rain said, grinning to himself. Hadal had made jokes like that. He was pretty sure she would have laughed at this one, too. The medium-sized girl smiled as well, though Rain really couldn’t be sure at what. At him, perhaps, or at something she had been thinking about. At a memory from the wood, or at a glimpse of one of the countless futures spiraling out around them. There really was no telling. Rain only ever counted on having fifteen percent of her attention at any given moment. An increasingly generous number—her eyes were on the fritz, and she couldn’t seem to focus for very long on any one particular thing. Unless she sang that song, anyway. And then everything turned grey and still, and she was able to just be.
To underscore Rain’s inner monologue, the medium-sized girl closed her eyes and held her head. He took hold of her arm, not wanting her to fall or anything.
“We can go it alone,” he whispered, glancing around at the dozens of ex-stars. “that might make things less blurry. Cut out some of the noise.” Their companions shifted about like silver-and-gold shadows, insubstantial, whispery. They seemed less solid than the songs they kept singing. About nights, dark and cold like this one, about memories. About celestial balls and immortal bards. About lost children, wandering through the wilderness, wanting for their mothers. Rain tried not to listen too closely to the lyrics. The words gave him the “gilly-gulps,” as Hadal would have said.
“How would we find Hag, without them?” The medium-sized girl asked, wobbling a little.
“I think it’s ‘the hag,’” Rain murmured, staring out and up towards the peak ahead of them. “And I bet we could find her. Maybe. They said she wasn’t very far.”
“You’d find her even quicker if you stuck with us,” an ex-star said, dancing up beside them, “we’re pretty well-oriented, and you two seem a little clueless.”
“Hush,” another spat at the first, “Hush, Sterl, don’t upset them.”
“What? They are clueless! How is that upsetting? You are, aren’t you?” Sterl asked, turning to face them.
“Well,” Rain said, shrugging, “I mean. Sure.” The medium-sized girl was nodding.
“Can’t even plot an escape,” the ex-star went on. “We all heard you, is what I’m saying.”
“Yes, we got that,” Rain said. “It’s not that we don’t like your company, or anything,” Rain definitely didn’t like their company, “it’s just, traveling alone is easier. On her, that is. I guess I’m fine.”
“He guesses,” another ex-star said, bobbing along, “why guesses? Why don’t you know?”
Rain didn’t bother to answer. He struggled enough with questions that made sense.
“Why don’t you like us, hotblood?” Sterl asked. “Most like us. Why don’t you?”
“How many people have seen you this close?” Rain asked.
“What’s your point?” another—Ori, Rain thought—asked.
“That song about mothers drowning their children is a little uncomfortable,” the medium-sized girl contributed, clinging to Rain. Her eyes were shut tight, and he had the feeling they were about to slip back into the Grey. Or the Butterfly’s Song, as she called it. A weird name, he thought. He couldn’t see what it had to do with butterflies.
“It’s only a song,” a third ex-star piped up, right before launching into said song’s chorus. Ten others joined them.
Cry, cry, cry for me
cry along the river,
look, look, look for them
they’re the ones that shiver.
“Just a song. You humans sing them,” the loudest ex-star called above the lyrics, “sing them all the time, you do. Sad songs, scary songs. Red songs and blue.”
Take my heart and take my soul
but give me back my darlings
what has happened to this place?
It’s only full of partings.
“You sing, we sing,” two ex-stars chattered on, “Our songs are better, though.”
“You can’t say that! Don’t upset them, Sterl!”
“That wasn’t me!” Sterl protested.
“It’s true, Lara! Our songs are better! They come from a better place! From our place!”
Rain squinted, trying to see past the halos of light surrounding him. They turned the surrounding night black, bright as they were.
“Then why did you leave?” He asked, trying to focus on any one of their faces. But all he could see were prisms of light bending around various densities. Their bodies, presumably.
“We didn’t,” that first ex-star said. The song stopped. The chatter stopped. The dancing and skipping and laughing stopped. “We didn’t mean to leave, stupid boy. We were struck from our place. Don’t know by what, or why, or how. And then we fell. And we fell to earth.” Rain frowned, feeling, perhaps, a little closer to these ex-stars than he had five minutes ago.
“Oh, that is the very worst,” the medium-sized girl said, falling. Rain couldn’t tell if she had tripped over anything in particular or if it was just one of “those things,” like the blurry vision and irritability. Regardless, he caught her and set her upright.
‘It doesn’t matter, anymore,” the ex-star closest to them said.
“It’s okay if it does,” Rain offered, trying to be emotionally available. Hadal had said stuff like that, and it had usually made him feel a little better.
‘No, of course that does,” the shining prick said, “but that’s not what I mean. How you feel about us doesn’t matter anymore, because we are here.”
Rain looked up. Yes, he supposed they were. And it was such a strange “here” to be at. He thought they had been walking towards a peak, but it turned out to be more of a large, circular rim, enclosing what appeared to be a hollow mountain. A hollow, smoldering mountain. He could see as much now, standing atop it. He didn’t know mountains could burn. He looked away from the glowing pit, remembering that this was not why he was here. He scanned the rim, searching for the hag. It didn’t take him long to spot what he could only assume was the ex-stars end goal.
If Rain walked along the rim some hundred feet, he would arrive at a small cottage made entirely of glittering black stone. A massive tree grew out from the center of the cottage, which he thought was strange. Stranger still, because it looked just like the pecan tree he and his sisters had climbed, back in the garden.
“You ever seen earth’s butthole?” Asked one of the ex-stars, chuckling right up until she got slapped by one of her expatriates.
“That is no way to speak,” the slapper said sternly, “we used to be stars, Silena, used to sing with the heavens themselves. ‘Earth’s butthole,’ honestly, have you no sense of yourself, anymore?” Poor Silena got slapped again before the slapper turned to face Rain. “That is a volcano, human, and I would caution against slipping into it, if I were you. I don’t think your skin can weather it.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Rain managed, staring into the yawning crater and the burning world it held.
“Come, come,” the apparent leader of the ex-stars called, weaving through the crowd and pulling at Rain and the medium-sized girl’s hands. “You’ve come to see a hag, not this. Now, move it, she hasn’t got all night.” The children let themselves be pulled and pushed along the rim of the volcano towards the cottage made of stone.
“Rain, this place is scaring me,” the medium-sized girl said, squeezing her eyes shut, “It’s too sad, and everything is crying. And I think that we have been…what did Hadal call it? When someone tells you they’re taking you to visit a hag who lives in a cottage with the flowers you’re looking for, when actually they’ve taken you to a cottage full of very angry creatures with very red pasts?”
Rain stared at the cottage, frowning.
“Lying. Hadal called it lying,” he said. The ex-stars nearest them fell silent, their shining eyes wide, waiting.
“What is this place?” Rain asked.
“I don’t like it,” the medium-sized girl said, gripping his arm, “Rain, I don’t like it. I think they want to disappear us, too.”
“It’s the cottage, like you asked,” an ex-star said, and then another, “like you asked, with the hag who carries the flowers.” The glimmering beings grabbed their hands and clothes, pulling and pushing.
“Who carries the flowers across the peaks and valleys,” they cried.”The flowers, you wanted the flowers. Remember? The flowers—“ Rain tried to break out of their grasp but his footing was too uncertain. The ground was powdery and loose, and he kept tripping in the ash. The ex-stars rushed them across the rim, enveloping them, carrying the two children along in their current.
“The hag, the hag—”
“You wanted a ha—“
Everything stopped. Rain tripped over a few ex-stars and fell on top of their suddenly very rigid bodies. He straightened up, recognizing the by-now familiar grey. Every ex-star stood, frozen in place, their faces intent on the cottage, intent on the children. Mouths hung half-open and eyes stared, half-blinked. The medium-sized girl pulled her wrist out of the grip of one of the silvery statues.
“I don’t like it,” she said, her white eyes glaring from one celestial being to the other.
“Me neither,” Rain agreed, staring at the cottage. “What… what do you see in there?”
She turned to the black stone building, glancing from its door to the tree growing out of its roof.
“Nothing, right now. Nothing is fuzzy, in the song. There’s only one of everything.”
“Okay,” Rain said, thinking that that more or less made sense, “what did you see?”
“Four creatures, walking out of the house. And walking into the house. Their lines were red and sharp.”
“The lines they follow. The lines that take them backward and forward. Everyone has one.” She frowned, considering.
“Actually, I don’t have one. And neither do you. Which doesn’t make sense, because you say you’re not like me. And yet—“
“Focus,” he interrupted, “what did they do, when they came out?”
She stared at him, eyes as wide as they ever were. A moment passed, then another. And then,
“I don’t know. I stepped into the Butterfly’s Song before their shadows got too close. I think they wanted to disappear us. Like OTC did to Mother.”
Rain thought it would have been more convenient if she had waited a little longer before stepping into the song. But then, OTC did sound terrible, and Rain didn’t really want to go the same way as the medium-sized girl’s mother. He was pretty sure. Though, come to think of it, he didn’t think he’d have to stay here, if he was disappeared like that. And then maybe he’d be able to find his own family.
He looked down and saw the same thoughts playing across the medium-sized girl’s face.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. Her mouth tightened and her face got a little huffy. “No, we can’t,” he insisted. Her face was ballooning into a full-blown scowl. But then she exhaled, and all the tension wooshed out with a pop.
“Yes, yes.” She looked towards the grey cottage with the grey tree. “Well. What’s next, do you think?”
“Well,” Rain said, wanting to shrug but thinking he had done that one too many times. “I don’t know. I think I see a little garden, there, beside the house.” It was nothing like the garden he was used to, of course, but there were growing things, and quite pretty, too. Yellows and greens and blues, all weaving about, wild and whimsical. “We could go see about these flowers, at least? Even if there isn’t a hag?”
“Oh, there is also a hag,” the medium-sized girl said, peering around the cottage towards the garden. “It’s as good a plan as any,” she said, taking his hand and pulling him towards the side of the cottage.
He didn’t have a very good view of the garden—the cottage was blocking most of it—but the sliver of it that he could see was sort of… swirling. Rain blinked, unused to other things moving in the Grey. Great stalks wove up and out of the ground, swaying and whispering to one another. The fruits they bore didn’t look like anything Rain had ever seen. He wasn’t sure they were even fruits. Or plants. The air warped at the sky-ends of the stalks, where light and shadow swirled together, forming something like flowers.
“Huh,” Rain said, nearing the threshold of the cottage.
“I know,” the medium-sized girl agreed, “it’s a funny treehouse. Not very proportional.” Rain looked sideways at his companion, then followed her gaze up, towards the massive pecan tree growing out of the cottage.
“You know, there was one that looked just like this, back in the garden,” he said, frowning. There was the branch he and his sisters would swing from, and there, two boughs above, was where they could be “safe” in tag. He was sure that, if he stepped inside the cottage, he could find the single pecan, newly bloomed, on the second-to-lowest branch. He glanced from the tall, spreading boughs to the wisps of swirling garden peaking out from around the cottage. “Well, that’s something.”
“Indeed,” said somebody who was most certainly neither Rain nor the medium-sized girl. Both of them jumped. Rain even screamed a little.
The black door of the black cottage had opened. Four people stood in the threshold. They were sharp and grey and really, really gave Rain the gilly-gulps. They towered over the two children and looked nothing like mothers or mermaids. And, where they should have had eyes, they had only thick, knotted scars. Rain took a step back, pulling the medium-sized girl with him.
“Hello,” he said, his throat sticking, “hello, we’re looking for a hag.”
“How fortunate,” the creature nearest them said, smiling, “we just happen to have one.”
“Rain,” the medium-sized girl whispered, her voice small and tight, “Rain, how are they moving? Make it stop, make it stop.” For the first time in what felt like ever, Rain wanted to cry. He didn’t know who these creatures were or what they wanted, but he just knew, somewhere in his gut, that it was going to hurt. And Hadal wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever experienced pain. He tried to tell her about the way his chest felt when he thought about Tall Mother or Baby Sila, but she said it wasn’t quite the same thing. And then she’d give him a big hug and tell him that it would get better, too.
“Run,” Rain breathed, yanking the medium-sized girl backwards. But the creatures had already closed the distance between them. The biggest grabbed Rain by the back of his neck and two others wrenched the medium-sized girl from his grasp. They held her by the arms as she kicked and bit and twisted. The world wavered around them as she screamed, color bleeding in around the edges. The ex-stars flickered. Rain scratched at the creature’s hands and arms. When that didn’t work, he opted for erratic flailing. A tried-and-true tactic, and one that he had employed often against his eldest brother, who was always trying to drag him to their mothers, ready to tattle about this or that. It hadn’t failed Rain then, and it didn’t fail him now. He got his captor squarely in the you-know-where. The creature gasped, surprised. His grip loosened, and Rain pulled free. Rain lunged for the medium-sized girl, who was still screaming, her feet kicking wildly.
“STOP,” the smallest creature yelled. Rain didn’t. He collided with the struggling mass of beings. He pulled and pushed and bit and made about as much difference as a dry eel. Somebody grabbed him by the hair and yanked him backwards.
“I said STOP,” the creature hissed. Rain wasn’t entirely inclined to listen until the speaker grabbed out a grey length of steel. A knife, Rain assumed, working from the medium-sized girl’s description. The creature approached the medium-sized girl, who had grown very, very still, eyes on the blade.
“That’s better,” the creature murmured, stopping in front of the medium-sized girl. The world reeled around them. No, Rain thought, that was just him. He was reeling. He wanted to close his eyes, to stop seeing, stop thinking. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t.
But he had to. Focus, he told himself. Keep your eyes open.
“Yes, much better,” the creature said. “Not how I usually greet my guests, especially ones so long-awaited as you. But then, you didn’t give us much of a choice, now, did you?” The creature’s tongue clicked, disapproving.
“Now, time for some proper introductions. My name is Calle, this is Marie, Visao,” the creature said, pointing to the two creatures holding the medium-sized girl, “and Saul is the nice gentleman behind your little friend. And you, of course, are the daughter of Peter Tempus.”
Well, that was new information. Rain frowned. The medium-sized girl didn’t seem to have heard him. She had gone back to screaming.
“No, no, that won’t do,” Calle murmured, walking towards her, brushing the hair out of her face. She bit his fingers.
“Won’t do at all.” Calle held the knife to her throat. She didn’t notice. The world bled color and sound, shifting between the Grey and everything else. Calle moved the knife to her arm and pressed it into her skin. He dragged it down her forearm. She stopped screaming.
A long, grey line followed the knife. Something between water and smoke leaked out, floating, then dissipating. The medium-sized girl watched, Rain watched, frozen between terror and curiosity. And then the medium-sized girl went limp.
The night sky exploded above as the thousand sounds of midnight rushed in around them. The ex-stars burst to light and the burning earth on the other side of the rim smoldered once more.
“Not unbreakable. No, not even close,” Calle whispered, “glad I have your attention.” He twisted around, glanced briefly at Rain. “Put him in with the hag, Saul.” He turned back to the others but Rain could no longer see what was happening, distracted as he was by being thrown into the obsidian cottage. Saul tossed him inside and Rain was sent sprawling across a surprisingly muddy ground, his journey stopped by something that felt very much like a root.
The door slammed behind him. Rain lurched to his feet, tripping through the mud and throwing himself at the door. It wouldn’t open. He pushed and pulled, beat at the wood. Nothing. He shook the handle, plead with the metal, but nothing budged. He spun around, wondering if there were any windows. He was immediately sidetracked by what he saw.
The cottage was small and almost entirely empty. There was no floor, only dark, wet earth. The walls were made of the same glinting rock as the outside of the cottage. There, in the middle, the trunk of the pecan tree erupted from the sodden ground, twisting up and out of the earth. It pushed through the roof and disappeared from sight. The roots rippled up and out of the mud, covering most of the cottage’s floorspace.
But, most strangely, there was a woman. The tree seemed to be growing just as much out of her as it was the earth around her. Roots wove in and out of her chest, laced across her legs and arms. Rain crawled towards her, something aching inside of him. She was weeping. Rivers of tears poured out the sides of her eyes, watering the ground around her head.
“Mother?” He asked, kneeling down beside her. Not Tall or Short Mother, but… he knew this woman. Knew her from… somewhere. He tried to stretch back into his mind, tried to reach for memories he was sure he had.
The weeping woman’s eyes flickered open. They were black as his. She gasped, her tears never slowing.
“No, no,” she wept, “oh, sweet Hasya, why are you here?”
“I don’t know. I was disappeared from the garden, Mother. What has happened?”
“Please, help,” she breathed, “please, oh. This is not supposed to be. I gave it up, and cannot hold it again. You must take it from me. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Of course,” he murmured, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Of course, Mother.” Of course. He tried to remember, tried to quiet his aching soul. But then, looking into her eyes, he wasn’t sure he would have to remember. He knew what he had to do.
Rain looked up, traced the thick roots with his eyes. He knew their every curve, every ripple. He stood, feeling the trunk with his hands, picking his way around the tree until he was standing under the lowest hanging bough. A single stem held a single nut, almost within reach. He stretched up to his tippy-toes and did something he never would have considered doing, back in the garden. He picked the pecan. He put it in his mouth. He swallowed it whole, unshelled. And he began to hum.
Nothing happened, at first. He continued to hum, then sing. He made his way back to the weeping woman and sat down beside her. She watched him through flooded eyes, immobile, stricken. He pulled twigs from her hair, wiped streaks of mud from her face. He finished his song.
Something happened. Something small, at first, then bigger. He felt. He felt so much.
“Well, Hadal,” he rasped, crumpling to the ground, “I believe I know what pain is, now.”
The world went black and red, and there was nothing but the feeling that his body was being remade from the inside out. Rain was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make it, and hoped that the medium-sized girl would be okay.
Two hands cradled his face, gentle and distant. And then there was only the pain.