Everything around her swirled, hypnotically. Ismus felt her mind soar, visions of dragons and confetti streaming throughout her brain. Lion heads sang and danced. Acorns with beards smiled and laughed. Babies chuckled and soiled their diapers. Things went black, then in color. Kaleidoscope views and phantasmagorias made Ismus think she had passed out on a bed of mellifluous pineapples and inhaled coconut. Then things darkened again, the imagined coconut breeze turning smoky, poisonous, and abrasive.
Had she gone mad?
Vibrant colors morphed into objects till her nightmare settled still in a dark world… a shadowy realm.
Ismus was hung in the uppermost corner of the suffocating dungeon before she heard the door creak open and slam shut. Inhuman footsteps stomped with an angry purpose, bolting down the narrow hall. The chains on her wrists wrangled their way down into her flesh, then her bone, burning her. The fire that roared in the dark-red, fireplace on the other side of the room grew higher until it gained the size of a giant building.
Wherever she was, it was murky and cold, like deadly shadows were hiding behind the walls. Water dripped onto her head. When it cascaded down her nose and into her mouth and she tasted its red, iron bite, Ismus then knew it was not water.
Gargoyles frowned from above, perched on platforms. Hideous statues (or things she hoped were statues) stared at her from below. As she looked down, Ismus was startled to find the pale beast stare up at her. It was slender and almost faceless and nearly bald… and it was one of the ghastliest creations in existence.
Calloused fingers found their way ten feet up, where Ismus hung, and slapped her filthy cheeks.
“You try to run, purple imp,” Aloes rasped.
Her voice was the scrape of a sword, of nails against a board.
“You try to hide from me.”
The fire was growing wider now, filling up the entire dungeon. Ismus bent her head down as her immobile body heated from the fire’s approach.
“Do you think this could be forgiven? This life of damnation because of you? Turning me ugly? Ruining my perfect life? Forcing me to kill and execute the innocent and the weak?”
The fire was burning her now, charring her feet.
“But know this—if I have to kill you myself, even if that means killing my Ismus—
“Then I will ensure that you will return to your own Underworld.”
A second after Aloes spoke these words, a wrathful ocean of flames grew into a horrendous size and engulfed Ismus in its evil. Ismus did not even scream. There was little point; this was what she craved. As the pallor of her skin turned to red then black then ash, Ismus felt herself retreat to the state of numbness she had always known.
Hidden by the fire’s flames, Aloes ripped from her horrid green dress and morphed into a winged, skinless beast. She flew up to the burning girl and bared her sharp jaws. She growled, sucking Ismus into her mouth, exploding from the fire. The bricks of the basement started to fall off piece by piece, until the entire room was crumbling into havoc.
“I will ensure it now!”
Everything was happening so rapidly until—
At that moment, Ismus had been awakened from her nightmare and startled by a squawking figure.
“Ismus? Ismus?!” Linnasoeta shrieked as she clutched Ismus by her satchel straps and shook her violently.
“What? What?!” A startled Ismus panicked, her neck bobbing up and down from Linnasoeta’s great arm strength. “Hi, Lin. Stop shaking me—please!”
Linnasoeta parted her lips and stuck out a hand.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Ismus staggered to her feet, clutching her head, and brushed herself off, ignoring Linnasoeta’s outstretched hand.
“Apparently to get shaken.”
Lin squinted and cocked her head. “Is you ear still messed up?”
Ismus didn’t respond. She was fading out, staring blankly at the ground.
“Gods,” Lin sighed exasperatedly. “I really was hoping that had gone away—”
Ismus wrapped her arms around Lin’s back and about her shoulders and pulled herself into her. She buried her weighing head into her neck, and Lin could feel her fluttering lashes against her skin. Lin locked her arms about her waist as she concealed her face within red hair. For a few moments, they stayed this way, letting their chests rise and fall with every slow breath. It was not until Lin felt tears down her neck that she realized why.
“It must be awful,” Lin faltered.
Ismus drew in a breath. “The worst.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re the only one that keeps me sane.”
When Ismus pulled away, Lin felt as though a great burden had been released from her body. That alarmed her.
“So I’m guessing you’re here to get away from all those…”
Ismus interjected swiftly. “I needed to leave Serabi. They won’t care.” She pursed her lips as the nightmare flashed through her mind. She ignored it and took Lin’s hand.
“I need you to show me around the Creek. I need peace and freedom, Lin. I have been feeling so contained and aching these last couple days and…” Her knees buckled.
“I think I hit my head on the…” she weakly gestured to the tree enwrapped in vine.
Linnasoeta nodded. “That’s the tree that signals when an outsider has crossed the border,” Lin explained as she hoisted Ismus up onto her shoulders with one arm and walked toward the entrance.
“I’m just spit balling here, but I think you used the Liana. It can cut the length of travel, almost magically, some say. It would have been, if you walked on foot, maybe four days to get across. But with that sharp vine, just a few minutes. I should know. Remember the first time we met, like face-to-face, Ismus?”
Ismus tried shaking her head as best as she could while holding on to Lin’s strong back. “I can’t remember the good. Only dark things, only sad things.”
Lin then switched the conversation, not exactly wanting to talk about the dark things they both had once seen. “Shen, my father, and all the other clansmen went back to the Wither House. I guess he thinks I can handle stuff on my own. Stuff like you. I can’t tell if he cares about me or not. It seems like he gives me too many chances to prove my worth, and it’s like he’s expecting disappointment if I screw something up. I just don’t get him sometimes…” She came to a stop. Lin breathed in.
“Well,” Linnasoeta announced after laying Ismus down onto a bed of mulch, “I present to you the Creek of Hazalen.” A grumbling Ismus took Linnasoeta’s hand this time before gazing at the most glorious, overwhelming, and complex scene ever made. Ismus stood with her jaw hung, awestruck.
For a moment, she couldn’t see. Tears began to well in her eyes, and soon, one cold splash of happiness was chased by another, running down her ashen cheeks. All this time she had been kept away from the beauty and peace; her tears were a mixture of emotions that consisted of cheerfulness, anger, and melancholy. But now Ismus was here, freed.
Linnasoeta peeked at her awestruck friend. “Beautiful, right?” She asked with trademark complacency.
“Yes,” Ismus said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Yes, Gods, it’s… Heaven.” The Creek of Hazalen was forceful and elegant at the same time; it made one not want to speak, but rather stay quiet and watch, smell, and listen. And that is precisely what Ismus did.
A vast, dark-green forest encircled the pair of fifteen-year-old girls, working its way around all sides of the Creek Land, except for a huge opening—an entrance—where the two stood. There in front of them was a garden; bushes of honeysuckle, wild berries, and strawberries cultivated around the mulch fields. Inside the shrubbery was a green lawn eradicated of any weed or the slightest imperfection. Grass specks trapped the Sunlight from their silver shine. Linnasoeta slowly walked to the crops and Ismus trailed behind; orange carrots, red, succulent tomatoes, sweet corn, onion, and vibrant bell peppers were among the various vegetables that they saw, glistening in the sparkling Sun.
“This part right here is Hazalen’s Garden. Best crops to find in our country.” Linnasoeta tried to state quietly, which was wholly difficult for her. (If one stayed quiet, one could hear the creek’s gentle movements and the rapids’ far away crash.)
Going along both ends of the Creek Land were two trails of channeled, reddish-brown brick, winding along ample beds of wild flowers that were assembled precisely in the colors of the rainbow, grown out of the thick, brown mulch. Some bees, butterflies, and blue jays had ventured through the exuberant flowers, feasting through the florae. The bubbly burble of the blue jays and the buzzing of the busy animals were all so overwhelming in their serenity.
Ismus dillydallied through the field before looking aloft.
“Lin, look!” Ismus half shouted, half whispered.
She felt, in this garden, a lost sense of youth, the lovely parts of youth she could no longer remember. Numbness was replaced with childish precociousness and she let out a delighted scream.
Exploding with this newfound joy, Ismus said again, “Lin, look!”
“I know! Fruit looks delicious, right?” Linnasoeta said. Curved trees planted deep into the soil detained ripe fruits and the rare Heartful Harvest Flower (a red, heart-shaped flower made by honey bees and cocoa ants, half of the flower being honey and the other half chocolate powder, with sweet water droplets on top).
“Can I take it?” Ismus asked, thinking twice. “I didn’t eat breakfast this morning, except for one cold biscuit, so…”
Linnasoeta was already clawing her way up the fruit trees and pulling down bananas, citrus fruits, green apples, mangoes, plums, and, her personal favorite, The Heartful Harvest Flower. “You’ll love this one!” Linnasoeta called from above. She pulled down a few coconuts and an unattended bee hive that trickled down gold-amber honey before coming down to feast.
“Will you hurry up with that, Linny dear?” Ismus said in a stiff accent before the two started to break out in laughs. Linnasoeta toppled down the tree, snorting, and the whole feast of fruits tumbled down from her callused hands.
“Ow!” Linnasoeta screamed. Ismus chortled, grabbing a piece of Heartful Harvest. She bit into it, and a mouthful of juice dribbled down her chin. They ate for a few minutes, stopping every so often to exchange gossip.
Then Ismus made a mistake.
“Hey, I was wondering, I know your country is… awesome and everything, but how do you have all these fruits and have them all be ripe at the same time? I mean, this is a little better than the castle garden back home and you come from a…” Ismus came to an abrupt stop and hoped Lin would not fill in that blank.
Why would I say something like that?
Linnasoeta grimaced and raised an eyebrow. “Not a castle?”
There was a pause before they resumed speaking.
“Sorry. I… forget sometimes.” Ismus’s voice couldn’t have been less audible. The girls sat in a tense silence for less than a minute…
It felt longer than a minute.
Linnasoeta sighed and then scoffed. “Well, if that’s how you see me then I don’t care, but now I’m going to eat, since I didn’t have breakfast either, Miss Princess.” Ismus could not see one sign of hurt in Lin now. She watched as her friend took a huge bite out of her mango and stuck her hand in the hive before shoving her honey-coated hand in her mouth.
The girls ate in silence, not with anger, but with a deep hunger. Soon the food was gone.