As Strin stepped into that sparking, fraying cone, he knew what to expect—the sensation still shocked him. The link was instantaneous, sharp, and clear, like being dunked in winter water. But the effects lingered uncomfortably, as if a cool wind was drying that water from his skin and clothing. He wanted to shiver. Warmth spread slowly through his body, intensifying the discomfort of those parts still affected by the link.
Fred shouted with a mixture of pleasure and shock. “That’ll wake you up!”
Strin nodded. He sensed the shape of trees around him, but he saw Celina in his mind, her sweat-drenched face, her strained expression, the fear in her eyes. The step into the link had been a decision to leave her, but the same desire that had caused him to disobey the Empress now called him back to the Crystalline Castle. The Empress would not treat Celina kindly. He deserved the punishment, not Celina.
“Did you see how Celina froze everyone?” Fred asked excitedly. “Did you know she could do that? I wish I could. Imagine that, Strin! Can you see it?” Fred put his hand out and said, “Stop!” to a nearby tree. The tree stopped moving—until the wind shook the leaves again.
“I didn’t know.”
Fred lowered his hand, which had been following the shape of a bird whirling above them. “Well, I’m glad she did it.” That, Strin knew, was Fred’s attempt at gratitude. Three years of traveling together had taught Strin to discern the true feelings behind Fred’s dramatic actions and words. “So, where are we?” Fred asked.
Strin considered. “The link was set for a point near Amara, but the link started losing distance before we stepped through.”
Strin turned a slow circle and examined the surroundings. Rows of stumpy, gnarled trees heavy with leaves and small red fruit hemmed them in. They were in a kinkerry orchard. But that didn’t help. The Horizon consisted largely of such orchards, small farms, wide, empty plains, and streaks of heavy forest. Looking beneath the bushy canopies, Strin could see a few evening-draped houses in the distance and, beyond, the cliff that bordered the eastern edge of the Horizon. On this cliff, a wall of darkness stood that was called by many names—the Eternal Night, the Darkness, Lila’s Cage … the Horizon. +/-»
“We’d have to be somewhere southwest of Amara,” Strin said as Fred circled a nearby tree, studying it. “As I understand it, a link connects the two destinations in a straight line, or near enough in the physical dimension, but where exactly that leaves us, I—”
Fred laughed suddenly and ran to another tree. He circled it rapidly, like a squirrel, then scrambled up the trunk.
“Fred! What are you doing?”
“Wait, wait,” he cried, and he contorted into an odd position as he squeezed his body around branches to see the other side of the trunk. “Aha! It’s Dewy’s!”
“Dewy’s? What are you talking about?”
“See, see!” Fred pointed excitedly with both hands; his knees held him in position. “It’s an ‘F’!” Fred pointed at some spot Strin couldn’t see clearly from the ground. “And an ‘M’! It’s my name! Well, not my name, my initials, but still!” Fred perched himself on a branch and looked over the rows of trees. “I got sick of kids climbing my trees, so one summer I put my name on them. I owned them from then on. Had to pay me to climb one.”Strin shook his head. Autographing an entire orchard was something only Fred would both think of and do. Strin wondered what Dewy thought of Fred’s initials. “So, where are we?”
“Nephra! My hometown’s only like three miles, come on!” Fred jumped from the tree and frolicked—that was the only word for it—ahead of Strin.
“As I remember it, you desperately wanted to leave Nephra when I first met you,” Strin said, amused. “You wanted to get away from ‘all that boring stuff’ and have adventures.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “But this is home! I have to come and see how everyone’s doing sometimes. I’d like to see how Dewy’s doing. I could have eaten every berry of his and he still wouldn’t have raised his voice.” (2)» He laughed at some memory Strin was certain involved a wild escapade. “Those were the days.”
“I’m sure they were.”
Strin allowed Fred to lead. They’d need any information—rumors or otherwise—that the citizens could provide. Nephra was just south of the strip of forest dividing the plain that held Amara from this one. They had not linked as far south as Strin had feared, but they’d still have to waste time going around the forest.
“Fred,” Strin said, and Fred stopped talking mid-story of a contest of intellect he and an old man named Ralph had once had involving flour, eggs, kinkerry juice, and climbing out windows at night. “Fred, we risked a lot to get out here. I know you’re excited to be home, but we’re here to do a job. Remember that.”
Fred nodded, then he was out his window one night and tiptoeing across the cool grass.
Soon, they could see the huddle of buildings called Nephra. “… oh, and after that my parents were so mad,” Fred was saying. “They threatened to lock me in the house if I ever did that again. Can you imagine it! And they’d never let anyone visit, they said—as if they’d do that—not even any … freakin’!”
“Nothing,” Fred said hurriedly and shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing really.” For the first time since he had discovered his initials, Fred fell quiet. “We won’t be here long, will we?” he asked a little later.
“Not any longer than necessary,” Strin said. He watched Fred’s reaction, but Fred only nodded.
If Fred had a secret … but that was like a funnel holding water. Fred felt shame for nothing he did; he professed to be afraid of nothing; and he tended to say anything—and everything—that was on his mind, whether it was important or not, relevant or not, polite or not.
But that did not explain why, when Fred began talking again, his voice held a note of dread.