(continued from Part 2)
Night under the jungle canopy was a different kind of dark. A starless, moonless dark lit only by luminescent insects, the occasional clutch of glowing mushrooms. Sparse torches lit a path between reed huts set into lofty, sheer cliffs.
Vast flows of water plummeted into a clear bottomless lake, and here among water and stone the Fahautl Itzel made their home. The Falls echoed a continuous roar. Sunslayn’s head reverberated with the noise. He hadn’t been inundated with such sound since his days under the Big Top.
He watched the water strike the surface of the lake, a storm of froth and spray, and felt the last of his hope vanish. The Itzel hadn’t seen Lirrah either.
The elders were kind, feeding their guests choice morsels of baked sparkfly, and listening astutely while Sunslayn and Arexa described their friend. They had consulted one another briefly, then sorrowfully delivered the news.
“She’s already turned, I know it,” Sunslayn said. The shouting of the waters failed to disguise his despair.
Arexa heaved a sigh. “You know nothing of the kind. We will keep looking.”
On their way back to the hut that the elders had given their guests for the night, they heard faint notes of music struggling to be heard over the roaring water. The hylek of eastern Tyria were not known for their musical talent, so it was odd seeing this Itzel’s long padded fingers softly plucking the strings of an oversized lute. The frog’s broad mouth gaped wide and the pale throat vibrated with the trilled syllables of a song.
Sunslayn paid the words little mind as he passed.
“…on the run, on the run
From the dragon’s deep call
The moon-blue sylvari
And her sugar-white owl…”
Sunslayn stopped cold; Arexa gasped and turned to face the hylek.
Sugar was the name of Lirrah’s snowy owl. She named all her pets after the cuisine she loved best. It was too great a coincidence.
“This owl,” Sunslayn said, startling the troubadour into silence, “this sylvari, have you seen them?”
The taut flesh encasing the large bulbous eyes constricted as the hylek frowned. “The song is just a song, the words just words.”
“It’s not just a song!” Sunslayn insisted.
Arexa laid a restraining paw to his shoulder.
“If the human must know,” the hylek said, “I learned this song from a trader passing through.”
“A trader from where?”
“Jaka Itzel. Now, if you will leave me in peace…”
* * * * *
They traveled north for several days along jungle paths that swept them through battlezones and the crash site of the Pact fleet. Sunslayn decided he’d take snow any day over the mud and thorns and insects of the jungle. He’d never complain about the cold or the dredge again.
At last, Arexa pointed a claw. Wicker houses, wicker bridges, wicker platforms clustered high in the branches of vast trees.
The climb was winding and steep. Tufts of blue flax grew beside the path. They reminded Sunslayn of the flowers he had found in his quarters back in the guild hall. By the time he found them on his bedside table, they were dried and withered. He thought Ravenyth was just beautifying the place, but he’d seen similar decorations nowhere else in the hall.
A hylek strode out on long amphibian legs to greet them. Over large round eyes she wore an elaborate feathered headdress. “Ameyalli bless you. I am Kaana Miatli, leader of the Jaka. We wondered when the searchers would arrive.”
“You were expecting us?” Arexa asked.
Sunslayn was too exhausted, his hope run too ragged, to feel anything but mild surprise.
“Word has way of traveling in the jungle,” the hylek said. “Ameyalli is not silent. You seek your friend.”
Sunslayn gave the same spiel he’d given two dozen times.
Miatli waved a large pad-fingered hand. “No need. She is here.”
After so long and difficult a search, the simplicity of the pronouncement took a moment to register.
“She paid us well to keep her under guard,” Miatli added. “To … finish it, if Mordremoth wins her. Do not begrudge us this generosity.”
“She is not given in yet?” Sunslayn asked. “May we see her?” Part of him expected to find a sylvari he didn’t know. Worse, a Lirrah that he didn’t recognize.
Miatli led them up a winding wicker bridge to a hut set slightly apart from the others. Two hylek armed with spears stood staunchly outside. Inside, cloistered among deep shadow, skinny branches shaped a barricade, like a jailhouse. White feathers rustled, and the large yellow eyes of an owl turned down from a lofty perch and pinned the visitors.
“Sugar?” Sunslayn asked.
Arexa tugged his sleeve and pointed at the opposite corner. Dusky blue skin melded with the shadows inside the hut, but pale eyes like twin moons blinked rapidly, then stared, then closed. Turquoise iridescence upon cheek and brow flared softly in the dark. She sat with her knees to her chest, hands gripping the sides of her head.
“Lirrah,” Sunslayn breathed, sinking down to crouch outside the bars.
Her luminous eyes opened, as if his whisper had startled her.
“Arexa and I … we’ve been searching for you. Did Miatli tell you we were coming to find you?”
The sinuous glowing lines on her forehead pinched with a frown. “Did I dream you? You molded fire into the shape of birds. You made them sing for me.”
“No dream. That really happened. A long time ago. When we first met. You know me.”
She uncoiled and slowly approached the bars. With doubt etched on her face, she looked over her visitors. At last memory seemed to sink in like balm on burned skin. “Sunslayn. Rex.” Her hands squeezed the wooden bars. “You shouldn’t have come. I might hurt you. The Call is deafening. It’s crowding out everything else. It makes me dream terrible dreams. I dreamed a new name. I am Briar. Briarmoon.”
Strange. The name fit, even if it was Mordremoth who had given it to her. “Come home with us,” Sunslayn said. “We will look after you.”
“I have been home. I left things for you.”
Sunslayn pondered her meaning, shook his head, then realized. “The blue flowers. That was you?” He smirked. “And all this time I thought Wanda fancied me.”
That won him a smile. “Of course it was me, silly.” One moment of happiness, that’s all the dragon was prepared to grant her. She ducked suddenly, hands crushing her ears as she tried to still the roar in her head.
Sugar chittered on her perch as if she felt Lirrah’s pain.
Sunslayn reached through the bars to place a hand her arm, but Arexa’s great paw stopped him. The charr was right. Even now Lirrah might give in and delight in tearing his arm off.
Lirrah straightened and exhaled slowly. “I can’t come home, not yet. Maybe … maybe never. I’m afraid…”
“We’re all afraid,” Arexa said softly. An admission of fear was rare from the charr, but she meant it.
“If … if I turn … will you…?”
“You won’t,” Sunslayn insisted. “We’re going to kill that dragon first. We’re going to make it roar in agony, Lirrah … Briar. Then you won’t hear his voice anymore.”
“What will be left when his voice is silent?”
“Your voice. My voice. Don’t give up hope.”
“The guild is amassing in the next few days,” Arexa said. “Sapph is already scouting ahead with Dragon’s Watch.”
“Jory and Kaz and the others,” said Sunslayn, exchanging a nervous glance with Rex. “Remember?”
“Ah, yes. Mordremoth hates them. It hates you too. It wants me to hate you. But … but you’re my friend.” That she had to remind herself of that fact enraged Sunslayn. How could Mordremoth cause the sylvari to forget their loved ones?
“I’ll wait,” Briar said. “I’ll fight. A little longer. But I’m so tired. Hurry.”
Sunslayn heard her word as an order. He backed from the bars and with a leap, bailed off the bridge. Fiery wings opened behind him, whisking him aloft. He cleaved no longer to hope. To Lirrah, to Briar, he was hope. Her friends were hope. They couldn’t fail her now.
Arexa caught up, diving down beside him. “Where are we going?”
“To find Sapph,” he called over the wind. “Then we’re going to slay a dragon.”