The Afterworld Saga — 7
They pressed on, stopping only for refreshments along the way. All during the journey, they spoke only when necessary, the atmosphere grim and heavy. The enormity of their mission weighed every one of them down, and the recent attack of the Sea Creature only served to darken the mood even further.
It was midday, and they were touring the square in the center of Damaris. The small square was jam-packed with people from all walks of life: doctors, professors, scholars, engineers, plumbers, and so on. Riotous colors exploded throughout the square; yet, strangely enough, the Festival Preparation section was the busiest. Buyers and sellers went in and out, up and down, bargained and wrangled, pushed and squeezed, in the tight, closed-up space. In just a matter of minutes, both Tamra and Roy were drenched with sweat.
Strange, Leida commented. I don’t remember the square being so crowded.
Mind if I ask around? Tamra offered. We might discover something.
“I’ll ask around to find out what special day it is today,” Tamra informed Roy. Roy only nodded in return, his face blank. Not bothering to care, Tamra spun on her heels and walked towards the nearest vendor.
“Excuse me,” Tamra had to shout to be heard above the din, “but what special occasion takes place today?”
“You don’t know?” The vendor stared at Tamra, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, as if she were an alien. “Today is the first day of the Festival of the Dead!”
“Festival of the Dead?” Tamra repeated, confused.
“You must be a newcomer, or else you wouldn’t be so ignorant!” the vendor exclaimed, then launched into a detailed explanation. “The Festival of the Dead is celebrated annually on September 1st, which is today, and lasts for eight days.”
“Eight days?!” Eight days?! Both Tamra and Leida jumped at the eerie coincidence. Tamra’s fear and shock must have shown on her face, because the vendor eyed her curiously and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“N-Nothing,” Tamra replied, then added a hasty thanks, almost as an afterthought. “Thank you.”
Even so, Tamra could feel the vendor’s inquisitive eyes boring into her back as she turned and walked away. As she reached Roy, she brightened up more than was necessary and started tattling away like a chatterbox, surprising Roy and even herself, “Hey, Roy, did you know that today is the Festival of the Dead? It’s held today every year at the church in this square and lasts for eight days!” As she talked, she grabbed Roy’s hand firmly and led him out of the stifling place before he even had a chance to protest.
When they emerged into the sweltering sun, Roy wrenched his hand out of hers, making her turn. The minute their eyes met, he hissed, “What the hell was that for?”
If he had put a damper on her excitement, Tamra didn’t let it show. Instead, she beamed and repeated, “The Festival of the Dead starts today!”
“I know,” he said, somewhat impatiently. “So what does that have to do with our mission?”
“I don’t know,” Tamra shrugged nonchalantly, “but I have a feeling that the two are connected somehow.” She looked around. “Let’s ask others about it.” Without waiting for Roy to answer, she headed off for the nearest person, a small woman dressed in bright red.
“Excuse me,” she called out, stopping the woman in her tracks, “but do you mind telling me all about the Festival of the Dead?”
“Oh,” the woman smiled. “We gather at the church and sing hymns and pray and give our offerings, then we have a feast.”
“Are there any specials?” Tamra pursued, hoping she had hit the right spot.
“A sorcerer will open the Gates of the Afterworld after the feast,” she replied. Tamra tensed in anticipation; it must have been sharply palpable, for the woman raised an eyebrow.
“I’m rather fascinated by the supernatural,” Tamra covered the slip up quickly.
“No wonder you’re so into the Festival,” the woman said.
Tamra smiled, acknowledging the compliment. “Is there anything else interesting about the Festival?”
“No, that’s all.”
Tamra turned, a smile on her face — and smacked right into Roy’s chest.
“Ow!” she yelled, rubbing her forehead. “What was that for?”
“You seriously want to go to the Festival?” Roy went straight to the point, looking down at her inquiringly, a faint trace of contempt in his eyes.
Tamra was immediately defensive. “Didn’t you hear her? She said a sorcerer was going to open the Gates of the Afterworld.”
“And you really believe her?” Roy countered, stunning Tamra into a brief spell of speechlessness.
“I — ”
“Enough,” he turned his back on her. “We’re not going.”
“But Roy — ” Tamra began.
“I don’t want to get you, and especially my sister, into any danger,” Roy cut her off again.
“This is our only shot of keeping your sister alive and free,” Tamra debated, her voice rising despite her effort to control herself. “Now do you want her with you or not?”
By this time, a few passers-by had stopped to stare at them. Roy glanced around uncomfortably, a crimson blush creeping up his neck.
“Answer me, Roy,” Tamra urged him, her voice somewhat less harsh.
Roy finally turned to face her, his gaze hard and cold. Tamra tried hard not to flinch.
“Fine,” he said, his tone low and dark, “but if you harm her — or if she is harmed in any way through you — I will kill you. I swear I will.”
“Okay,” Tamra tried to sound light-hearted. “Let’s go, then.”
“Is this even a festival?”
“Well, it sure looks like one.”
“More like a crazy dance party.”
The explosive shudder of a laugh rippled through Tamra’s body and grape juice gushed from her glass down into her nostrils and cascaded down her chin. Choking and reeling from the sudden sting of grape, Tamra quickly set the glass down on the wooden table and hunched over it, coughing and spluttering between gasping laughs.
“Stop it. You sound like a dying pig,” Roy said, disgusted.
He’s right, you know, Leida chimed in.
Tamra exploded into another hysterical fit of laughter, accompanied by loud coughs, even causing some to turn and stare.
Roy slapped her on the shoulder. “Enough. People are looking.”
Thankfully, by this time, Tamra had finally managed to reduce her coughs to occasional hiccups. “So — hic — what? Wh — hic — o cares?”
At this point, Roy couldn’t help but laugh. “Fine, then,” he chuckled. “Whatever suits you.”
Tamra grinned and stood up, dusting herself off. “I’ve — hic — probably had too much f — hic — un.”
“You have,” Roy agreed.
“I wonder when the sorcerer will come,” Tamra switched the subject quickly.
“Well — ” Before Roy could even answer, wild, low, excited whispers rustled all over the place like dry leaves falling. “He’s coming!” “There he is!” “The sorcerer!”
The excitement was contagious, and soon, Tamra and Roy were silent as well, anticipating the sorcerer.
When the sorcerer finally arrived, everyone fell into a dead silence. Even Tamra’s hiccups died away in her throat. The whole crowd held its breath as a man, clad in black robes that billowed ever so slightly as he walked, stepped solemnly up onto a raised platform. Tamra was disappointed when she found she couldn’t see his face; it was shrouded by a dark hood. From here, she could only see a sliver of his mouth, illuminated by the pale moonlight.
“The ceremony hereby begins,” the man announced succinctly in a strong, clear voice.
Everyone held perfectly still as he stood there, hands clasped before his chest, muttering a chain of solemn, unintelligible incantations.
No-one noticed Roy, who was trying hard to stand upright.
Just as the sorcerer began muttering his incantations, Roy’s palm — the one embedded with the Key — got warm. At first, Roy thought it was because of the tightly-packed crowd, but when he looked down, he was shocked to see that it was glowing.
Darting his eyes around to make sure that no-one, not even Tamra, was looking, he pressed his glowing palm, slick with sweat, firmly against his thigh. But, to his utmost horror, as the chanting got more audible with every minute that passed, he felt a strong magnetic force pulling at his hand, dragging him to his knees. To make matters worse, his glowing palm was reaching out towards the invisible force. His forehead glistened with perspiration as he strove to keep his hand to his thigh. Almost out of habit, he muttered a curse through clenched teeth.
To his dismay, Tamra heard him curse and she turned back with a withering, skeptical look. But when her eyes traveled down to his twitching hand, her eyes widened and Roy could only watch, his heart filled with dread, as the terrible realization hit her.
“No,” she whispered, unable to keep the fear and shock from her voice.
No, Leida echoed.
“…and let the Gates open!” The sorcerer ended his chanting with a shout that resonated across the church and shot his pale arms up into the night sky. As if on cue, a blinding flash of lightning ripped the darkness into two, followed by a booming clap of thunder, eliciting screams from the crowd.
Roy could take it no longer. Grunting with the strain of his last wasted effort, he went down on his knees and the glowing palm touched the ground. The moment his palm connected with the soil, he felt a low, indistinct, earthen hum vibrate throughout his body.
He looked up, only to meet Tamra’s bewildered, fearful eyes.
Suddenly, a deafening crack cut through the screams, and, in just a matter of seconds, Tamra and Roy found themselves separated by a yawning chasm, the only ones paralyzed amidst the chaotic screaming and scurrying of those around them.
Do something, Tamra! Leida screamed in her mind.
What?! She yelled back, completely at a loss.
Go get him! Leida screamed in answer, as if shocked that Tamra didn’t know what to do at this point.
Only then did Tamra move. Her eyes cut from the mesmerizing, widening chasm to Roy, quickly taking in his position and estimating her jump.
Quick, or it’ll be too late! Leida shrieked.
Fine, now shut up! Tamra shouted back in frustration, effectively silencing Leida. She took a few steps back, inhaled deeply, fixed her eyes on Roy, and sprinted towards the edge of her split earth.
It’s okay. This is easier than your suicide leap, Tamra told herself repeatedly, and jumped.
She actually felt exhilarated as her body soared high into the air, the wind whipping at her face and hair, fresh air whooshing through her lungs, adrenaline pounding against her veins, her heart threatening to burst from her chest. She even somersaulted once before she dove.
“Roy!” she yelled as she neared him. “Your hand!” Her arm shot out.
Roy extended his hand out fast. But, just as their fingers twined, Roy slipped, yanking Tamra down along with him. He grasped wildly at the soil, clinging on to the edge for dear life. Tamra, meanwhile, borne down by her substantial momentum, jerked him farther down. Now he was hanging on by only two fingers.
Oh my God, Leida whispered in fear.
“Hang on, Roy,” Tamra said, her voice strangled as she looked up at him, trying her best not to let go of his hand and to fight the urge to look down.
“I’m…trying…” Roy answered, his voice just as strained. His grip slipped and he was only hanging on with one and a half fingers.
“Roy!” Tamra choked, her feet kicking desperately and vainly around to find a strong foothold.
The chasm walls moved farther apart, faster now, sending them more quickly to their doom.
“Stop…moving…” Roy managed to splutter.
“Okay!” Tamra gasped, willing her feet to still. Suddenly she was aware of her fingers, which were slick with sweat. She quickly grabbed Roy’s elbow.
“Hold…on…” Roy’s voice was less than a whisper now.
Tamra could no longer form words. She was exhausted beyond words. Her eyelids fluttered and she panted hard. All of a sudden, she lost her grip on Roy’s elbow and began to slip down at an alarming pace. Her eyes flew wide apart and she managed to come to a stop, her hands wrapped around his wrist like a vise, dragging him down further.
And her eyes widened and she screamed as Roy lost his hold on the soil and they began tumbling down into the endless darkness.
Editor’s Note: Great job on this chapter Ashley Khue Pham. As a reminder, here are the writers for the upcoming chapters in The Afterworld Saga.
Chapter 8 due May 5th Nnubia Ogbuefi
Chapters 9 and 10 due May 12th and 19th S Lynn Knight
Chapter 11 due May 26th Kevin M. Schenk
Chapter 12 due June 2nd Joshua Valdivia