Leenah emerges from the tip of an enormous crystal, near the top of a small mountain. Dusk is approaching, and in the distance she can see three moons above the horizon. Negasi’s lank body is seated a few feet before her, gazing at the peaceful landscape.
“Neg? Are you all right?” she asks, reaching out to tap him on the shoulder. Negasi jumps up and spins around, but calms down when he sees her.
“I’m fine. I’m just fine.”
“Is this…is this The Lands Above?”
“It’s just like I remember it, Leenah,” says Negasi, turning to look at the rising moons.
“You mean we made it?”
“Yep. After much trouble, you and me are right where we wanna be.”
“My hero,” cries Leenah, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him on the cheek.
“Hey, Leenah, what the Tenebrous…I thought you and me were just friends, not sweethearts!”
“We are…it’s legal for me to show affection to you in this manner, isn’t it?”
“I guess so…but Torin might get jealous, you know…”
“Negasi, you have the sign of the Reuniter of the Layers on your shoulder. You deserve something for all your troubles!”
“Yeah, like getting merged with you and getting hit on the head by one of those darn fruits?”
“That too, Negasi.”
“But you’ve been through some troubles too, right, Lee? Getting dragged from your homeland and across four worlds by a crazy, foreign feline and almost getting snuffed several times and…”
“All I have to remind me of those scrapes is a head full of recollections and a burned hand,” says Leenah, holding up her right hand, which has a small heat blister on it. “And don’t you have a burn on your hand too?”
Negasi holds up his paw, and sure enough, there is a blister on it in the exact same location as Leenah’s. Apparently their injury wasn’t cancelled out during their separation. Fascinating, isn’t it?
“Well, everything you’ve gone through, I guess I’ve gone through too,” says Negasi. “And it can’t get much worse than this, can it?”
“Negatoid there, Neg.”
“Well, from here, it’s a short way to Crystal City and the Fahrman Valley…I think.”
“Shake? Well…all right, Leenah,” says Negasi. He and Leenah shake with their injured right hands, both wincing slightly, but neither any worse off when they finish.
“Shall we descend this little knoll and try to find our way to Torin’s home?”
“Why not?” asks Negasi. “Lead the way, Princess.”
Leenah carefully picks her way down the steep side of the cliff, Negasi bringing up the rear. When they reach the bottom, they look around. There is nothing but mountains that taper into crystals and sparse forests as far as the eye can see, but in the distance, they can hear the sound of a river. They follow the sound until they come to a lush grove of plants growing around a small mountain stream. They drink heartily of the clear, crystal water, and decide to follow the river, because, as Negasi remembers, a river flows through the Fahrman Valley, and this could just be it.
“We’ve been lucky so far,” he explains. “And there’s no one telling us that this river could lead us nowhere.”
The two individuals walk along the river. The sun soon sets and the three moons grow brighter. The night becomes cold, and Negasi, with his thick coat of fur, fails to realize that Leenah is freezing and wishing she had brought her long-sleeve skirt. Finally, they see a gigantic ridge of crystal looming before them. The river winds its way along the base of these colossal peaks and disappears around the base of one of them. Negasi recognizes the mountains as the same mountains as the ones north of the Fahrman Valley.
“I told you this river would lead us somewhere,” he exclaims. “And what do you know! This one just happens to lead us to our goal!”
“Perhaps that mark on your shoulder is bringing us good luck,” says Leenah. “But we have one small problem.”
“The night is getting chillier and I’m shivering in my boots.”
“Do you think we should stop for the night?”
“I don’t see how that would make me warmer. You didn’t bring any blankets with you, did you?”
“No, but I have an idea.”
Negasi walks over to a small shard sticking out of the ground and breaks off the tip with his paw. He then gathers several dry sticks from a dead tree and arranges them on the ground.
“How are you going to make a fire?” asks Leenah. “There’s no sun for you to ignite it with.”
“Yes, but I have another light source.”
“What is that?”
Negasi reaches in his left pocket and pulls out the glowing crystal he got from Noah’s house. He holds it above the ordinary crystal shard and the pile of twigs, adjusting the two crystals until a sharp beam of light passes through the normal one and strikes the sticks. For several minutes, nothing happens, but then a thin streak of smoke begins rising from the sticks and eventually they start crackling and growing into a small fire. Leenah quickly gathers more twigs from the same tree Negasi got his wood from and adds them to the fire. After a few minutes, a small campfire is warming the bodies of the two adventurers.
“This is better than using that cold crystal for warmth,” says Leenah.
“It isn’t cold, it’s warm,” says Negasi, handing her the crystal in question. “Feel it.”
Leenah touches the glowing crystal and to her surprise, it does give off a gentle warmth.
“I see, but it’s nothing like a real fire.”
“I bet you’ve never felt a fire like this before, Leenah.”
“Only at home, at the main fireplace, but that never felt like this.”
“Yeah. Underneath the stars and with a different world around you, it’s just not the same thing.”
“Travelers from other parts of Escarpa used to tell me that, but I never thought I’d actually experience being out on a night like this, before a warm fire, with a close friend watching over me…”
“’Close friend?’ You sure are getting to be more tolerant of my presence.”
“Why not, Neg? Without you, I wouldn’t be in The Lands Above, so close to meeting Torin again.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
“Do you have any of those fruits left, Negasi?”
“Why…yes, I do,” says Negasi, reaching into his pocket and pulling out one of the fruits, which he tosses to Leenah. “They’re a bit singed, but I’m sure they’re still edible.”
Leenah takes a bite out of one and sucks the sweet juice out of it, discarding the dry exterior when she is finished. Then she leans back against a rock and stares up at the crystal mountains above her head.
“So, tomorrow we cross the mountains?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll follow the stream around them. It’s much shorter and simpler. But for now, good-night, Leenah.”
Negasi lies back on the rocky ground and falls to sleep within minutes. Leenah, however, stays awake for some time, listening to the night sounds of The Lands Above. Finally, she remembers what Neel said about Negasi’s mark. Is it really the sign of the Reuniter, she thinks. She crawls over to Negasi and looks at his right shoulder. If the mark seemed faded before, it is nearly invisible now. Leenah wonders why. Did the merging of our bodies cause it to fade? Does it have something to do with a change in the prophecy? What could it possibly mean? Leenah couldn’t tell for certain, and finally she nodded off, but the last thought that passed through her mind as she fell asleep was:
Negasi…it means, “he will become a king”…King of what?
When Leenah awakens the next morning, Negasi is gone. He had left no sign of where he was going, or why, but he had vanished without a trace. Leenah gets up and looks around. The sun is now high in the sky, and birds are noisily chattering in the bushes and the trees. Had he already followed the river to the Fahrman Valley, or had he traveled back to his own world and left her to face her fate alone? Regardless of where he had gone, Leenah was about to set out to look for him when Negasi suddenly appears from around a large boulder, with several dead rodents of some kind hanging from his belt.
“Neg, why did you leave? I thought you’d left me!”
“I did, but I came back, didn’t I? I caught us some breakfast,” says Negasi, showing her one of his carcasses.
“What are they?”
“No idea. But they looked tasty to me, so I caught them.”
“With what? Did you bring a bow and arrows or something?”
“Who needs arrows when you have these?” asks Negasi, lifting a paw and exposing his five sharp claws. “It was a snap.”
“The fire’s gone out.”
“I can see that. Gather me some more twigs and I’ll make another.”
So Leenah gathers another bundle of sticks and Negasi lights a second fire and cooks several of the rodents over it. He and Leenah eat most of them and he pockets the leftovers. After they finish, they set off, walking towards the west, where the mountains taper off and the stream leads them. As they walk, Leenah asks Negasi:
“Yes, Princess Lee?”
“Yeah, Lee. It’s just an abbreviation. I called you that once before and you didn’t object, so I assumed it was safe to call you that again. What did you want?”
“Oh…Well, when you first came to Escarpa…”
“Are you going to ask me how I got there? It’s a process to complicated to explain, so don’t waste your breath.”
“No, I was going to ask you…when you first met my parents…”
“King Rupert and Queen Di?”
“Yes…did they seem very startled at your presence?”
“Who wouldn’t be startled when a five-foot-tall felinoid walks into their throne room?”
“No, I mean…were they startled in a frightened way or frightened in an amazed way?”
“Hard to remember which kind of startled they were…I’d have to say that they did look a little more amazed than frightened.”
“Hmm. And did they seem more interested than scared when you introduced yourself and asked to see me?”
“Why, I think they did, Leenah.”
“Did they say anything to you about being fascinated by you?”
“No…say, why are you asking me this?”
“Just…just curious, I guess…I…I’ll tell you later.”
“Okay, princess. I would ask to hear it now, but in the words of an old cliché, ‘curiosity killed the felinoid.’”
After some time, they’ve reached the edge of the mountains. Before them is a fertile valley, with a small hut and a barn resting near the foot of the mountains. The stream runs around the little farm, and a bridge crosses it, leading up a trail and over a hill, into…
“Crystal City!” cries Negasi. “We made it!”
“I knew we would! Thank you, Negasi,” says Leenah, starting to put her arms around him.
“Wait, wait, wait,” objects Negasi. “Our voyage isn’t over yet!”
“We still have to find Torin.”
“But it’s a short walk to that farm he said was his home. Let’s go.”
“Yes!” says Negasi, leaping into the air and bounding down the small incline to the stream.
“Hey! Wait for me!” yells Leenah, taking off after him.
She chases after the swift cat as he leaps over small bushes and ducks beneath the branches of low trees. Every now and then he runs through the stream, forcing Leenah to follow him through the shallow water to the other side. Of course, as soon as she is on the other side, Negasi runs back to the side he started from, and the routine starts all over again. Both cat and human are filled with careless joy as they chase each other towards the Fahrmans’ house, through the river and the trees.
They continue fording the river back and forth until Negasi suddenly stumbles in mid-leap and falls forwards into the stream, planting his face into the pebbly bed. Leenah nearly runs into him and falls over as well, but she recovers quickly and picks him up to see if he has hurt himself. To her surprise, as soon as he spits out a mouthful of water and splatters her already waterlogged skirt, he turns away and begins walking downstream, towards the house as if nothing had happened. The princess runs up to him and tries to see if he has any cuts or scrapes, but Negasi leaps away, holding his hands before him as if she was trying to attack him.
“Don’t look, Leenah, don’t look!”
“Why not? You can’t be hurt that badly! Let me see…”
“No, no! You’re not going to baby me like you did with Torin! I’m not hurt, I tell you, I’m not…”
Leenah suddenly grabs Negasi’s right shoulder and spins him around before he can break free. She grabs a lock of his orange hair and examines his sodden fur. But before she can find any injuries, she discovers something even more shocking.
“Neg, your mark!”
“What about it?”
“It’s gone! It’s not on your shoulder anymore!”
“It’s still there, Leenah. My fur’s just too damp for you to see – Hey! What are you doing?”
Leenah is rubbing Negasi’s shoulder vigorously, brushing it back in an attempt to find his mark, but she can find nothing, not even a scar to show that it had once been there.
“Negasi…what happened to your birthmark?”
“Well…I don’t really…”
“I thought I saw it growing faint, but I never thought it would actually vanish!”
“Leenah, please, it’s not…”
“Do you know what Neel told me after you left through the phenocryst?”
“Neel? The guy from Asthenia?”
“He told me that you had the mark of the Reuniter of the Layers, and you told me Torin had the same mark. But what does it mean when a mark you’ve had all your life starts to fade, Negasi?”
“I…I think I’d better tell you the truth, Leenah.”
“What? What about the truth?”
“That mark wasn’t real. It was something I painted on my skin a couple days before I left for Escarpa.”
“It wasn’t real…but why…”
“I was so enchanted by Torin’s Passage that I wanted to go there, to Strata, but I wanted more than just being there, I wanted to be part of something, something important!”
“You lied to me, Negasi. Why?”
“Well…to tell you the truth, I also was amazed by you, Leenah.”
“I wanted to show you something that would convince you that I was more than just a stranger who wanted to drag you off on a wild goose chase to resolve a story that hadn’t been completed. A story that most people don’t know about and a lot of them don’t even care. But I did care. So I came up with this plan to set things right, to meet you and…be friends with you and…maybe even convince you that I was someone important.”
“Well, your plot almost worked, Negasi of Earth. But now I know that you’re nothing more than a scheming little creature who takes the princess of Escarpa for a gullible fool and nearly gets her killed several times! I never should’ve let my mother admit you into the palace.”
“I’m sorry, Leenah.”
“Your deeds are far beyond mere apology, Negasi. I’m not speaking to you again. Just go back to the planet you came from and don’t come back. I never want to see you or hear of you ever again.”
With that, Leenah turns and walks away, down the stream, leaving Negasi standing alone, still dripping with wetness. But no tears. Perhaps his feline pride prevents him from crying, no matter how sad he is. Perhaps he doesn’t know how to express an emotion so human as that. But regardless of why, he sheds no tears as he watches Leenah leave. He just watches her until she is out of sight, then turns and walks the other way.
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