So last week, Haley meets up with an old Earth crush, Ian, and she finds out that she has more than one reason to distrust Tuggin. Other than him being a cold-hearted Menta witch, it's Haley's fault that Tuggin's parents are dead.
Haley moves on, Tuggin-less.
I didn’t care anymore that I was sitting on a bed with a hall god. All I cared about was the dread feeling scorching my insides, as if a bomb had exploded in the pit of my stomach.
I leaned away from Ian. “Tuggin and Elana’s parents are dead because of me?”
“It’s okay.” A lock of hair fell over my face, and Ian tucked it back. “I know this is hard, but you need to understand what’s going on.”
I tried to focus, but I wasn’t sure I had enough brain cells left to get the job done.
“See, Tuggin and Elana's parents are the ones who kidnapped you.”
“Oh. Wait. What? Why?”
“That’s the question of the century. Anyway, they slipped through the gateway to Earth then were killed during an attempt to rescue you. Tuggin and Elana were taken in by that Menta group, and were brought up—trained—to feel nothing but hatred and a desire for power. They don’t care about people…certainly not about you. They blame you for their parents’ death.”
My mouth dropped open, and I covered it with my hand. “Elana’s my friend.”
“Elana is incapable of friendship. The Menta camp took care of that.”
I closed my eyes. No, no one could be that good of liar. I thought of Tuggin; he was a very good liar.
Ian went on. “Unfortunately, the people sent to get you back died too. That’s when they lost track of you.”
“Stop.” I scrunched fistfuls of hair, punishing myself with pain. “Just stop talking because I don’t want to hear it.”
“Neither Tuggin or Elana care about you, but I do.”
I blinked at him. Wha-huh?
Ian’s liquid smile poured through his lips. “Go to sleep.”
I gazed at his eyes, so deep, so gentle, so beautiful. He looked as though he moved through chocolate syrup, but every word he said was crystal clear in my mind.
My body felt as though it would suddenly cave in from exhaustion. “I really need to get some sleep.”
I barely made it under the blanket when my eyelids closed. I wondered where we were going in the morning; the question never made it to my lips.
The next morning, I sat on my bed with my head in my hands. People had died because of me, and the idea sat on my mind like a stone gargoyle. I’d never wanted Mom so much in my whole life. Maybe I didn’t need those power stones to get Mom to remember me. Ian was on Earth and he remembered me, so maybe no one remembering me on Earth was just another one of Tuggin’s lies.
“I bring morning meal,” Tanner said with a grin when she came in with a breakfast tray.
I rubbed my eyes. How could she be so happy? Oh, that’s right. She didn’t have the weight of the dead on her head.
"I eat with you, hmm?”
Tanner didn’t seem to notice my pissy mood, chattering away while she ate. I nodded now and then, but didn’t really pick up on anything that she said. My stomach resisted the runny eggs—but at least these were a normal color, like on Earth. I nibbled on a few nuts, and then pushed away the food. I couldn’t wait to leave this dungeon. Maybe seeing the sun and breathing fresh air would do something for my mood.
Tanner raised her eyebrows, but picked up the tray. “You dreth. I return for you.”
After rubbing the cream on my face and feet, I packed the jar in my backpack. I slid the sandals Tanner had given me onto my blistered feet and wiggled my toes. Definitely better than shoes.
A little while later, Tanner and I padded through narrow tunnels, our footsteps muted by the dirt floors. Heavy beams supported the low ceiling. I kept any eye on them, not liking the creaking sounds they were making, or the puffs of drifting dust.
The tunnels were broken up with wide chambers, from which more tunnels sprouted. I had no clue how Tanner knew where we were going…each tunnel looked exactly the same. I was starting to feel like I was part mole.
We finally turned up a steadily rising tunnel. It leveled off, and we came to a dead-end where Tanner climbed up a ladder. She flipped up a trap door and sunlight knifed through the underground gloom.
Tanner scooted up and out of sight. I gripped the wooden slats and hauled myself up, the tender skin on my face stinging from the sharp sun. I blinked at the glaring sand, and Tanner handed me a cone-shaped hat and a long, thin cloth.
“Thith protect fathe. The thun thtrong.”
“Thanks.” I plopped the hat on my head, and its wide brim shielded my eyes. I let the sheer fabric cloth-thing slide through my fingers. I stared at the desert, and dread trickled into my gut like sand in an hour glass. I’d almost died out there.
Ian and an older guy approach with three camels tacked with bright red blankets and square-shaped saddles. They wore rope halters, and the reins were strung through wooden pegs pierced through their noses.
“I Hawkin,” said the man. He came only to my shoulders, with the same red hair pulled into a tight ponytail as Tanner. “Ian take you home?”
I didn’t know where home was; I’d forgotten to ask. Ian nodded once; so I copied him.
Hawkin gave me the reins to a camel. “You ride before?”
The camel studied me through its long lashes. “What about my sleipnir?”
“Sleipnir can’t survive the desert,” Ian said. “You’ll need to leave him behind.”
I felt a twinge over breaking my promise to Adrana about returning Sorrel. Another sharper twinge punctured my chest when I thought that maybe Tuggin would make her feel better over her loss. Not that I cared, of course.
Clearing my throat, I decided that even though the camel had fat ugly lips, his eyes were pretty. “Does he have a name?”
“He Flax,” Tanner said.
“Daughters,” Hawkin muttered, and then said, “Ian long been friend to our people. You be thafe with him.”
Hey. Good news for once. Ian and Tanner wrapped their cloths around their necks and faces, and then hooked them to their hats.
“I thow you,” Tanner said, taking the cloth from me and showing me how to wrap and secure it. “Thith called tharan. It protect you from the wind and thand.”
“Works for me,” I said.
“Peathe to you, Papa.” Tanner kissed Hawkin on the cheek.
“Thafe journey, daughter.” He tucked his hands into his robes.
“Ek, ek.” Tanner tapped her camel’s front leg with a stick, and the camel knelt.
“Here.” Ian plucked a thin stick tucked under Flax’s saddle, tapped his front leg, and said, “Ek, ek.”
“Do I get on it like a horse?” I asked, eyeing the kneeling camel.
“Yup.” Pointing to the hole cut into the front of the saddle he added, “Hold on to this handle.”
“Tap his shoulder with your stick, and he’ll get up,” Ian instructed.
I tapped Flax’s shoulder and leaned forward. When his back end rose into the air first, I flipped over his shoulder and hit the ground on my back. “Oof!”
Flax snorted and curled his upper lip. Tanner giggled.
“Sorry,” Ian said, hauling me to my feet. “Camels stand on their back feet first so you want to lean back, not forward.”
I ducked my head to hide my burning face.
“And you forgot to hold onto the handle.”
“Right,” I said. I mounted again.
“Lean back,” Ian reminded me when I tapped Flax’s shoulder with my stick.
I leaned back when Flax wobbled to his feet, and I was still on his back. I gave Ian a thumbs up.
“You’re a quick study.” Ian mounted his own camel. “Let’s go.”
The camels plowed through the sand. I swayed to the sideways rhythm, feeling like I was being rocked in a cradle. It was pretty relaxing, except for the hot wind touching my tender face and my skin burning where the saran didn't cover me.
“Talk to me, Earth-kin,” Tanner said.
“What about?” I asked, spitting out the saran when it slipped into my mouth.
“Where your family? Did you leave friend behind on Earth? Ith Earth full of metal?”
It was tough work, trying to open my mouth as little as possible so the cloth wouldn’t slip in when I talked. “No, Earth has plenty of nature left. My mom’s still there, and I don’t have any real friends. There was Elana, but turns out she was a liar. And there was her brother, Tuggin, who I hung out with a while.” I shrugged. “Anyway, turns out neither were my friend.”
On Earth I’d been ignored. Then came Elana, the first nice person I’d ever made friends with, and she’d only pretended to like me.
“Haley? You all right?”
I had new friends, a new home, a new destiny ahead of me. And though it was a crushing thought, I’d have to use the power stones to save the Eyid’s harmony and say good-bye to Mom, let her go as if she were dead—I couldn’t go home and that was a part of my life I would never get back. Maybe Ian would help me get over it. “I’m good.”
No one talked much, and I spent the day watching the endless sand. The monotony was exhausting. Everything seemed so dead, and it made me think how close I’d come to being dead myself. The sun rested on the horizon like a flaming orange when Ian signaled us to stop. I hopped off Flax and stretched.
“Tired?” Ian asked me.
“Absolutely.” I pulled the saran from my face. “This saran thing works pretty good, but it keeps getting in my mouth.”
“It called tharan,” Tanner corrected.
“Saran?” I asked.
“Tharan,” Tanner repeated.
I lifted my hands and turned to Ian. “Isn’t that what I said?”
“It really is called a tharan,” Ian said with a wink.
After eating a cold dinner of spicy dried meat, I sat on my blanket and watched the sun sink while Tanner snored softly nearby. The sun burned like a fireball, igniting the sky and sand. I shifted closer to the fire and stuffed my hands in my pockets, shivering when Ian came and sat with me.
“Cold?” he asked, laying his blanket over my shoulders.
“Do I make you nervous?”
“Of course not,” I lied.
“I forgot to ask where we’re going,” I said.
The corners of his lips twitched. “My home. I hope you like it enough to stay.”
Things were definitely looking up. Smiling to myself, I watched distant lightning streak across the sky, like gnarled fingers trying to grab the stars. I shivered again. I’d seen lightning tear up a mountain and set buildings on fire. Could Tuggin see it, too?
“I love lightning, don’t you?” Ian murmured.
I glanced at him. “I guess, in a destructive sort of way.”
“There’s power, energy, and strength. There’s no other force on this globe that can match it.” Ian looked sideways at me. “Except air, maybe.”
A flicker of insight lit my brain, and I rubbed my palms on my pants beneath the blanket. Thinking back, I’d never heard Tuggin mention heat or lightning or anything to do with fire.
Ian smiled, very very slowly. “It’s late. We should get some sleep.”
I gave Ian his blanket back, and he left me to go to his own bed. When I closed my eyes, it was blue eyes, not green, that I thought about.
Two days later, we left the endless sand and began to climb the Dry Hills. The camels’ soft hooves made no sound on the rocks. My butt was totally sore, and I shifted in my saddle then dragged the back of my hand across my forehead. I felt gross and sweaty and longed for a cold shower.
“How much farther?” I asked Ian.
“We’ll be there today.”
My camel fell into step behind Ian’s while we trudged up a hill. Ian paused at the top, and when I pulled up beside him, I turned my gaze to the horizon.
A stone tower jutted into the skyline, a line of gray rocks on the ground circled it. Clouds of smoke drifted in the air. Was that…?
As if sensing my unspoken question, Ian said, “Welcome to Ralos.”