THE STREETS OF CEREY
Tabby did not sleep. Her mind spun with what she had to do. She simply lay on the comforter and stared at Nonak, shining brightly over a star-studded sky. The dying planet only served to reminder her that she was very far from home.
When no sounds came from the other room, she peeked through the beaded curtain to check on Philip. He was in what looked to be the living room, lying on a fluffy carpet beneath a wall-sized window. He was facing her, wrapped in blankets of dark velvet. The moonlight softened his already handsome features. Judging by the even sound of his breathing, he was out cold.
It was dumb of me to think he actually cared, she thought, rather sad. She needed to leave. She couldn’t stand another day following him around, knowing he felt the way he did. She had the portal key. She had her clothes. It was the dead of night. She had all she needed to get back to Earth.
Tabby put on her jeans and sweatshirt, feeling motivated by the familiarity of the action, and pocketed the Earth key. When she was all dressed, she looked through Philip’s wardrobe and found a large hooded cloak of midnight blue. It was just what she needed to cover her Earth clothes.
Tucking her journal under her arm, she carefully climbed out the bedroom window. She hugged the walls of the cottage and managed to find a staircase that wound around the spire. It was the only exit leading towards the street.
She took it, moving with steady discipline all the way down the countless stone steps. They were grown over with weeds and cracked from roots. It was obvious no one ever used the stairs. They were clumsily built with only three feet of room from the spire’s precarious ledge. It took her all of thirty minutes to scale it.
The bottom of the spire was encircled with a strip of unkempt forest that she traversed with blessed familiarity. The woods were lovely, a collection of lush trees that grew in varying shades of purple, green, and teal. Their leaves glowed in the moonlight, creating just enough light to find her way between the trunks. There was no path in these woods; again, she assumed, because no one used them. She wondered if she was actually the first person to ever set foot in there.
The forest soon emptied into an alleyway. It was lined with larger-than-life statues of scowling guards, each one holding a flickering blue flame. Phantom shadows danced from their lights and the wind howled. The alley was abandoned, but the statues made it feel alive. Their eyes followed her as she quietly moved past them, her hood hiding her face. After the alley, she finally made it into a brighter area of Cerey.
A well-lit boulevard packed with vendors gave her temporary solace from the otherwise empty streets. She kept her hood over her face, avoiding eye contact with every merchant.
They sold all manner of strange-smelling food and goods. She had plenty of distractions, but all she could think of was Philip’s beautiful and troubled face. Every time she thought of him she had an unshakable, sinking feeling of regret. It haunted her like a repeating song, imprinting itself into her brain.
It’ll go away, she assured herself. You’ll forget all about him. You’ll go to Brentwood Academy, hang out with new friends, eat pizza, and catch up on homework. You might even get a boyfriend. That’s the sort of life you should be living, just like Mom always wanted.
Her eyes wandered to the sights of the night market. She forced herself to take interest in what was around her, desperate to erase Philip’s gaze from her mind. There were barrels piled with fruity jelly, stacks of dried seaweed ranging from bright orange to hot pink. There were fragrant pastries and bouquets of juice-filled flowers sold at nearly every stall.
There were booksellers, mapsellers, tents full of statues, incense, fine dishware, delicate wind chimes, exquisite fabrics, and lovingly sewn robes. There was even a suspicious tent specializing in bizarre pets from around the globe, including a miniature flying whale with horns.
She wanted to stop at every stall and inspect everything, to jot it down as a last minute document of her strange excursion to this fantastic world. But she was too nervous, and ever since the alley of statues, she had the strange sense that she was being followed. Every time she looked around, however, there was no one to be seen apart from shoppers and shopkeeps.
Stupid statues, she sneered inwardly.
Feeling paranoid, Tabby kept her eyes firmly in front of her, walking steadily passed the lively marketplace and turning into another empty cobblestone street. A Merofi’s Tear symbol was carefully laid in stone every several feet. She made a game of stepping in every circle, just to quell the urge to run.
Eventually the only sounds were her footsteps, the trickle of roadside streams, and the distant thunder of Cerey’s innumerable waterfalls. The silhouettes of the mountains towered over the glowing city like gods, making her feel as if she were on some sort of stage.
Tabby had a vague idea of where the portals were. She noticed their path when Philip and her were flying to SecTr, and again when they flew back to the cottage. It would be a simple path, and if she ever got lost she’d only have to look for the ocean. She didn’t predict, however, the rough terrain ahead of her.
Flying over Cerey was one thing, walking through it was another thing entirely. The whole city was built for people who could fly. There were barely any stairs, and at certain spots the sidewalk would end all together because of a hill or a patch of woods. If she could fly, she would simply hop over these obstructions, but because she couldn’t, she had to scale every ridge and hike through every forest. Each time, she desperately hoped that Reman bugs and insects weren’t crawling on her legs.
At one point, the sidewalk even ended at a bottomless crevasse. She had to walk nearly a mile East before finding a place to cross, through more forest and undergrowth. By the time she neared the bay, Nonak had migrated to the other side of the horizon.
She passed a particularly inviting fountain in someone’s yard, sparkling and fresh. She went to it and splashed cold water on her face, cupping her hands for a drink. It was the same sweet water Lina gave her. Tabby ended up drinking several handfuls at once, not realizing how thirsty she was. When she was done she took a moment to rest.
She leaned against one of the many colossal statues of Merofi, her feet and muscles screaming. She must have hiked for at least five hours. The time it took Philip to fly the same distance was a few minutes at most. She was beginning to wonder if going on her own was such a bright idea after all.
She didn’t say good-bye to Philip, or even leave him a note. How would he know where she went? What if he entered his bedroom the next morning and thought she was kidnapped? How would he know she wasn’t hurt or dead?
He was only doing his job, remember? she warned herself. He’ll probably be relieved that you’re gone. He cares about you as much as he cares about some package he has to deliver, he said so himself. You’re making his job easier by taking matters into your own hands. He probably won’t even notice you’re gone until—
Oh, who cares what he thinks? Tabby rubbed a cramp in her calf, muttering grouchily as her mind argued with itself.
He sacrificed so much to see her home safely, she reasoned. He took so many risks. He wouldn’t have done that if he was only doing his job, would he? She couldn’t help feeling he was so much more than he let on – patient, dedicated, fair, brave, and frustratingly mysterious. He wasn’t the heartless automaton he made himself out to be. He was a good person. She wondered if he’d ever realize that. It made her sad that she would never find out.
Tabby’s heart ached. She was reluctant to discover that as much as he didn’t care about her, she certainly cared about him.
As she sat at Merofi’s feet gazing out to sea, something magnificent caught her eye. Far on the horizon, soft, shimmering lights appeared, tinting the star-studded sky purple. It was some kind of celestial phenomena, similar to the aurora, only these lights didn’t hang like curtains, or billow in a solar wind. They spouted as slow as honey from the sea to the sky in a series of dim violet fountains over the bay.
One spout was brighter than the others, bright enough to illuminate the portal dome sitting in the middle of the sea, bright enough to light the marina where she would hopefully find a boat. She was closer than she thought, and it filled her with urgency.
“Almost there,” Tabby said to herself.
She was preparing to move on when a pair of voices whispered in the nearby dark.
“Is that her?” one said somewhere behind her.
“Sh!” hissed another.
A pair of guards -- the kind with red fish on their robes -- was walking several yards behind her. They had short swords hanging lazily from their waists and thuggish helmets with low brims, hiding half their faces in shadow.
Maybe they’re just on a night stroll, she thought hopefully.
Tabby wrapped her cloak over her Earthling clothes and darted down a twisting alley for some cover.
Buildings loomed over the road like curved trees while golden window light sprinkled the cobbles. Howling wind from the sea blew through the tunnel of buildings, making it difficult to hear her whispering stalkers. After turning several corners, Tabby dared to peek past her hood and look.
The guards were still trailing behind, keeping pace.
“I am being followed!” she said to herself, breathless.
She didn’t need anymore convincing. Tabby turned another corner and made a run for it.
The footsteps behind her picked up speed. The noise woke the residents. They opened their windows and popped their groggy heads out, complaining. Once they saw the guards’ red fish insignia, however, they promptly closed their shutters and turned off their lights. No one wanted to get involved. Tabby was on her own.
Her hood flew off her head as she sprinted. Cold air hit her cheeks and the wind violently tossed her hair. The persistent footsteps were gone, but in a world where everyone could fly, it meant nothing. She could still feel their eyes on her, hunting her.
She turned down another alley, and another. Left, right, another right, another left, and then the sidewalk abruptly ended. It didn’t end in a wall or into a forest, it dropped straight into a gorge that opened over a wide valley hundreds of feet below.
It gave Tabby such a shock, her heart stopped, and her foot slipped. She landed on her backside and slid forward until half her body was dangling off the cliff edge. Loose pebbles fell down the length of the rock face, informing her of its incredible height. She caught herself with her arms, leaning back on her wrists, and carefully crab-walked back until she was safe on the flat street.
She peered over the edge of the sidewalk to see if she could climb down. A waterfall was flowing from a cave just below, drowning out all other noise. The street continued through a residential neighborhood about ten stories down. Buildings with smooth walls flanked either side of her, and she knew she was trapped. Nothing was climbable, and the only way out was back towards the men that chased her. It was the end of her escape to Earth.
The two guards landed roughly from above, blocking her path. Tabby backed up until her heels were flesh with the cliff edge. There was nowhere to go.
The guards stared at her beneath the brims of their helmets, nothing visible but their stern frowns. Not a word was said between them. They didn’t even look at each other. They simply rushed forward and grabbed Tabby’s arms.
One held her in an uncomfortable headlock while the other cradled a strange white flower that looked like an oversized lily in bloom. Holding her head in place, the guards forced Tabby to breath into it. Its bitter pollen clouded her vision and in a few seconds, she fell unconscious.