ENDLESS DRIPPING MIMICKED THE SOUND of a gentle rain, though not a single drop fell from the churning clouds.
Instead, these lazy droplets trickled over the mossy edges of emerald lagoons that formed steps up the mountainside. Each steaming pool dribbled into the one below, all fed by a basin at the top where boiling water percolated up from its underground source.
Cloaked by a foul-smelling mist hanging over the hot springs, Elia removed her clothes and carefully climbed the slope to the higher pools. She reached one where the temperature was just bearable and slipped into the crystal clear water. Her limbs seemed to dissolve with the warmth. Soaking her body had become an early morning ritual, a moment alone, a chance to soothe her sore joints from the previous day’s work, and to rub the dirt and perspiration from her skin.
Elia dipped her head forward under the water. It plugged her ears and muffled everything as if she were half-asleep and dreaming. She drifted weightless. Every muscle was relaxed. When her lungs demanded oxygen, she floated on her back and inhaled through her nostrils. Opening her eyes, she gazed drowsily at the swirling vapours. The mist reminded her of the clouds she had fallen through to Below so many weeks before; the lagoons were reminiscent of the scalding water Cook used to pour into her washtub in the palace laundry.
The thought of that detested laundry room, buried deep underground, triggered more memories of her previous life: the two soaring towers of the Mirrored Palace; clotheslines strung on rolling green hills where white linens blew in the breeze; sunshine; the market; the uphill bicycle ride with her mother after work, bumping along the forest trail until they reached their home on its own small island, drifting at the end of a suspension bridge. It all seemed an incredibly distant reality, lost to her forever.
Immersing her head once more, Elia scratched out the grit buried in the roots of her hair — hair that had grown almost an inch since she had singed her scalp bald. She had transformed herself that first night with the Torkin marauders, matching her appearance to the person she would become. She could never go back to being the girl she used to be above the clouds.
As she lifted her head out of the water, the cold air refreshed her face. Elia licked her lips and tasted old eggs. She stood up and moved several levels down to where the pools were cooler. Though naked, she didn’t worry about being seen. It was still very early. She always left her bed long before any Torkins were awake. Men from the village soaked in the hot springs during the evenings, while their wives and daughters could only bathe here in the mornings. Yet Elia made sure to finish before anyone arrived so she could avoid the huddled conversations and hostile glares from the other women.
The undergrowth rustled nearby. A satisfied snort followed. Elia turned to see Nym sniffing around. “Are you going to join me today?” Elia coaxed as she held out her hands, steam rising off her skin.
The fox only glanced at her for a moment before his nose was on the ground again, his huge, batlike ears standing erect, twitching to pick up the slightest sound.
Elia skimmed her palms over the surface of the water as she watched him. The animal had become a faithful companion, as committed to her as he had been to Hokk, the young man who had discovered Elia after she fell into this strange realm. Though Hokk had chosen to knock her unconscious rather than introduce himself, he had eventually demonstrated the same concern for her well-being that he’d consistently shown for his fox.
Suddenly, Nym’s head whipped up. He froze. A growl rumbled in his throat. They were not alone.
Unnerved, Elia stepped out on the opposite side of the lagoon, crossing her arms over her dripping body as she moved quickly to retrieve her clothes. She no longer wore the shabby grey dress of a lowly palace servant, but the same clothing as the Torkin men with whom she laboured in the fields — attire that singled her out from the rest of the women, just like the nature of her work and her shockingly short hair.
Elia bent low as she pulled the long tunic over her head, all the while keeping her eyes on Nym. As she was about to step into the pants, a small flash of yellow zipped straight towards the fox.
Nym yelped. Struck in the hindquarters, he tried spinning around to see. His back legs gave out almost immediately, but not before Elia caught sight of what had impaled itself in his fur.
A dart! With yellow feathers!
“Nym!” Elia shrieked as she frantically splashed back through the water, arms flailing to keep her balance, her trousers still clutched in one hand. Such a short distance to cover, yet by the time she crouched beside him, the fox had collapsed on the ground, unconscious.
In moments, he would be dead.
Elia yanked the dart out of Nym’s leg, but knew it was too late. While crossing the prairies to return to South Village, she had learned from Roahm the difference between the darts. The ones with white feathers were dipped in a toxin that put victims into a deep sleep. Yellow, however, meant death. Torkins hunted with yellow-feathered darts because their poisoned tips could stop an animal’s heartbeat in seconds.
Choking with sobs, Elia carefully raised Nym’s head, but was unable to tell if he was breathing. She could feel no pulse, though her hands were shaking too much to be certain. She scanned the surrounding vegetation for a glimpse of their attacker, but the light at this time of day was still dim, and she could see nothing through the mist.
Thwtt. Thwtt. Thwtt.
Three more darts found their target, this time stabbed into Elia’s flesh. Two in her arm, one in her leg. Each had yellow feathers.
A piercing howl, like a death cry, escaped her lips. Instantly light-headed, she staggered backwards into the lagoon. She desperately pulled at the projectiles while their tiny barbs tore her skin. As tears ran down her face, Elia squeezed the puncture marks, forcing out blood, hoping to expel the venom, though anxious that the fatal chemical was already travelling through her veins.
Perhaps she had acted quickly enough.
Not so. Her legs buckled beneath her and she fell to her knees, the water reaching to the middle of her chest. Her vision blurred. She tried to hold her head steady — then discovered the fourth dart sticking in her neck!
Her body now contained too much poison to cope. She was gasping. How many more breaths did she have left? Still, her instincts fought against death, and she crawled towards the front of the pool. She couldn’t allow herself to slip under the water and drown.
With a final effort, she heaved her torso up onto the outer ledge, her lower half still submerged. Balancing there, Elia was able to prevent herself from falling into the pool below. As she felt her mind fading, she stared at her arms dangling lifeless, the warm spring water trickling down her hands and dripping off each fingertip.
This is how they would find her corpse, she thought, with her trousers floating beside her lifeless body.
A surge of heat enveloped Elia, and then she closed her eyes, certain it would be for the last time.
Want to read more from this exciting sequel to Jason’s debut novel, BELOW? Check out the following link here...