Morning broke early on the second day of the journey. No peeks or orange or blue in the sky, not even a brilliant sunrise. Adara’s eyes opened to a grey haze that had settled over the valley, like a thick soup swimming among the trees with a red sauce swarming about underneath it, shooting up and licking at anything still living. A shadow obstructed her view of the fires, Maeko.
Carefully, Adara slipped out of the embracing huddle the group had fallen asleep in with Nyla at the center, using all the blankets. Ezekai lay closest to the edge of the cliff, eyes shut tight and mouth set. He looked as if he would awake at any moment, clenching his trench coat so tightly. Soot was sprinkled through his soft brown hair evenly as it was in everyone’s, he had it cut just above his eyebrows now. The rest of the group seemed to be more of a huddle, Nikyla’s arm slipped off Adara’s back as she climbed out and carefully stepped over Connell’s head which was rested on his backpack.
Maeko’s head turned slightly and he motioned her next to him with his head. She slid in next to him and gently rested her head on his shoulder and brushed his black hair out of her face. “Gone…” His voice was barely audible. The two sat in silence, listening to the crackle of the fires below. “Do not worry brother,” Adara whispered, “we will make it safely to the village.” He nodded as a tear rolled down his cheek. The fires were only the beginning, they shared this knowledge without a single word. An hour passed by and the sun still didn’t break through the haze. Adara dozed off on Maeko’s shoulder as they awaited the others.
Ezekai leaned up against the rock wall to observe the scene. Maeko, the young one was sitting on the edge of the ledge holding the sleeping Adara. Nyla was sleeping soundly for an hour going on, her coughs had kept him up all night, even through the blankets. He ruffled his black trench coat to loosen it around his t-shirt. Connell, Nikyla, Nitza slept soundly, huddled around Nyla unbeknownst that three of them had awoken, clueless that it was morning. The cursed haze seemed impenetrable. There was a particular coldness weaving through the mountain, but an unbearable stuffy heat floating in on the clouds of ash.
He cocked his head and stepped around the sleeping four, stopping directly behind Maeko. “Someone did this.” His statement wasn’t meant for Maeko, but the younger boy had been listening. “You think so?” Ezekai looked down and crossed over towards Adara. “Fires like this don’t just come, they are carefully planned and set.” Maeko pulled his legs up from the edge and turned to look up at Ezekai. “Who would set it?” “Someone with a plan.” A heavy gust of wind rushed over them, waking Nyla in a coughing fit. Maeko slipped Adara out of his arms and into Ezekai’s as he scrambled over Connell to get some water for Nyla.
Connell awoke with a foot in his gut and instinctively pushed it up, hurtling Maeko at the cliff, screaming. “Oh, sorry.. You surprised me.” He smiled weakly, “Morning all.” Maeko grunted and brushed pebbles from his hair, mumbling about sanity while unscrewing the canteen lid. Ezekai shook Adara gently and looked up at Connell who stood at the edge of the cliff again, hands on his hips, facing the fires as if he ruled the world. “Morning for some of us came hours ago, it’s likely almost noon.” Nyla sputtered and sat up for the first time. The entire group circled around her to see if she was okay. Maeko, being the closest to her at the time, felt of her forehead. “Fever?” Nitza asked, to which Maeko answered with a solemn nod. Her usually bright face was drained and pale, her eyes glazed and distant and her golden hair saturated with sweat and ash. She lay down again with a faint smile and fell to sleep once more.
Ezekai looked her over and set his jaw firmly, “We need to get to clear air, NOW.” “Yes commander” Connell bowed in mock submission. Maeko shook his head vigorously “No, he’s right. We have to get her to where she can breathe.” Connell stepped forward, “I shall carry her again, but I can only carry her for so long with all those blankets. Can we not just wrap her in one?” Adara felt of Nyla’s hands and face. “We’ll try it, there’s another ledge not too far up, if she doesn’t freeze before we get there, you can carry her with one blanket the rest of the way.” Connell nodded as Nitza wrapped one of the thick brown blankets around Nyla.
After a quick meal, Adara tied the food up to it’s rope again and the group began the ascent. Connell went first on the left rope, so that everyone could keep an eye on Nyla, Nitza and Nikyla followed shortly on the left and right respectively. Adara followed Nikyla and Maeko followed Nitza, lastly Ezekai climbed up after Adara.
Connell reached the next ledge much more quickly with one blanket instead of four wrapping the figure on his shoulders. Carefully he laid her aside and pulled up the food bag, desperately searching for the canteen. As Nikyla hoisted herself over the edge Connell had already downed a gulp of water and closed the canteen. His face showed deep concern. “What now?” Connell lifted the canteen and shook it, “We’re low on water. Incredibly, horribly, disastrously low, and the air is still bad.” Nitza froze with her fingers on the edge of the cliff. “Did I hear what I think I heard?” Nikyla nodded and reached down to pull her up. “What are we gonna do now?” Nitza stomped to the back of the ledge and leaned against the wall and sank to the ground.
Connell fingered his curly brown hair as he scanned their new camp. A flat slab of light grey stone mixed with a milky white stone allowed a nice area to spread out, were things not how they were, it would have been rather enjoyable. Vines ran thicker down the cliff, the next ledge was barely visible above them. He also spotted a thin crack running down the wall near the food rope, he made a mental note to look at it closely later. In the mean time, Adara was reaching the top and he went to help her up.
As Connell pulled Adara up onto the ledge, she noticed their grave expressions. “Whatever else has gone wrong?” Nikyla took the question, “We’re running out of water and the air isn’t any good.” Adara smiled as Maeko and Ezekai scrambled up simultaneously, they had heard the news. Nyla began coughing terribly and Nitza rushed to her aid with some bread. “Why are you smiling?” Connell questioned Adara, his hands clasped behind his back as he stepped towards her. Her smile only widened as she brushed her hair out of her face and looked him in his large, piercing, brown eyes. “I ought to show you all something.”
Never lose hope.