As harrowing as the thought of returning to Cruor was, the journey was relatively simple thanks to Aisha. We soon found ourselves standing on the cold shores of the dark realm of the Elders. My stomach was in knots as I looked around us. The place looked deader than I’d ever seen it. Everything was still—the mountains, even the red-tinged clouds. Almost no breeze. Memories rolled over me: the day Julie had betrayed me, coming face to face with the Elder who had imprinted on me.
“So… if you could tell us where your body is right about now, that would be good,” Aisha grumbled, holding a shawl closer around her shoulders.
If Aisha was cold, River must be freezing. I rubbed my hands down her arms as I tried to rack my brain as to the location. I had spent a long time here after leaving my body, being afraid and mulling over what to do next. I’d wandered up and down this same shoreline many times before in my attempt to detach myself.
“Uh, let’s head in that direction,” I told Aisha, pointing north.
I flew with River, while Aisha floated alongside us. Finally, I spotted the peak—I recognised it even from a distance due to the massive crater that was drilled though it. The crater the Elder had emerged from in his attempt to possess me.
To my shock, my body still lay there, exactly where I’d left it. As I descended, shivers ran through me. I’d forgotten how bizarre the feeling was, to be staring down at oneself… or at least one’s body. It was rigid, but didn’t show signs of deterioration.
“My God, this is so creepy,” River breathed. She gripped my arm hard, as if reassuring herself that I was still standing next to her.
We circled around the body and then I bent down. I placed my fingers against the corpse’s forehead. Stone cold. Not much different than when it had been alive.
“Well,” I said, realizing how parched my throat had gotten, “now we’ve got to burn it.”
I looked expectantly at Aisha. I might be able to conduct and spread fire, but I wasn’t able to create it—at least, it didn’t seem so. She bent down, and a blaze billowed from her fingertips. It was so unexpectedly large, it almost touched my and River’s ankles. Not wanting to turn into Burning Man again, I staggered back with River, watching as the fire engulfed my previous body. I had expected the jinni to be a little more… subtle about it. I don’t know, something a little more ceremonious. It was my funeral, after all. But this was Aisha, I reminded myself.
My eyes glazed over as I watched the fire consume my body. I experienced an odd twinge in my chest. A pain, almost. It was like something was being ripped from me, and it left me feeling unsteady. Uncertain of my very existence. That what I’d forever identified with was so… material. So destructible.
The bonfire rose higher and higher, choking the air with smoke and stinging our eyes, until all that remained was ashes. This vision I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.
That’s it. My body’s gone.
After the fire had died down, we moved to another mountain peak further away just in case the blaze had drawn any attention. The last thing we needed was to encounter an Elder, although admittedly they should still be too weak to cause harm even to River.
Reaching into River’s back pocket, I slid out the note and unfolded it. When I spread it out, the note changed before my very eyes. I was surprised by what I read. I’d been expecting to see the next instruction she had for us, but instead, it simply said:
“So long as you burn to live, you shall, with or without breath.”
The message lingered on the page a while, as if she’d wanted me to read it many times, absorb it fully. And as the smoke cleared, revealing the ashes, I did.
I could only assume that this was part of her “training”, whatever she had meant by that.
Finally, the note changed:
“Now, as an extension of this first task, follow my directions, for they will lead you to where you need to be.”
An extension to this first task? What? She never said a single task might have several layers.
“Ugh,” River muttered.
The note changed again:
“Travel to the bottom of this mountain.”
We did as instructed.
We turned right.
On and on the instructions went until, finally, she told us to stop outside the entrance to a tunnel.
Tentatively, we entered the mouth of the tunnel and proceeded along its dank, winding depths.
We stopped in our tracks, about halfway through.
“Look at the wall on your left.”
Huh? As I examined the grimy wall, at first I saw nothing but…wall. But as I examined it more closely I noticed a slight ridge, which led me to discover that it was actually a hidden door.
We did, and it led us through to another tunnel, the ground and ceiling filled with stalagmites and stalactites. The note kept leading us onward through the gloom, through another door, until we reached a stone staircase leading downward.
Where is this woman taking us?
At the bottom of the staircase was another entrance, only this was locked with a bolt. I instinctively moved to open it, as I’d done the previous two, but then River grasped my arm and held me back. She pointed at the note:
“Don’t open it yet, impatient child!”
Annoyed, I waited for the note to change.
“Ask Aisha for a sword.”