He woke up to the blazing heat of the sun on his bruised and mangled skin. He winced as his eyes opened—barely—seeing the world through thin slits of swollen puffy flesh. He could still feel his toes wiggle, which was good. But he was sure that several bones were broken and knew that he might never leave the spot at the bottom of the cliff where his body currently resided.
Looking up, he could see blood stains on the side of the drop off where his unconscious body had bounced as it made its way to the bottom. Looking further up, he saw carrion creatures circling above him awaiting the inevitable. Not today, he thought.
Grimacing in agonizing pain, Tristaine tried to sit up. He collapsed. The pain was too much to bear. The Solovot could hear cries, screaming from the sky, circling. He laughed bitterly—maybe today. He took several deep breaths, then with great effort he rolled over onto his stomach. Waves of fire coursed through his body. Every movement was agony.
After taking a moment to collect himself, he got to his hands and knees and began a slow crawl. He grabbed hold of a nearby tree and used it to find his feet. In that moment, even the slightest breeze threatened to topple him. He was wobbly—very little strength and no knowledge of his surroundings. He didn’t know how far from base he was or which direction to walk in. All he knew for sure was that if he wanted to live he couldn’t stay here.
Tristaine moved slowly—carefully. Every step brought a fresh revelation of pain and a new knowledge of how badly he was injured. Something was definitely broken in the lower portion of his right leg. With every step an internal injury of some sort seemed to worsen.
As he trudged through the muddy wilderness he felt a familiar feeling—a rumbling in his belly. He had no idea how long he’d been lying there but now realized he was starving. He’d been out for more than a few hours. Memories were foggy at best. The cadet struggled to recall what had even led him to this place. He remembered rain—an argument. He saw VanDour’s face and darkness. Tristaine’s broken nose, although clogged with dried blood, could smell alcohol permeating his clothing. Had he drunk himself into a stupor and fallen to his near doom? As stupid as the idea made him feel, it was currently the likeliest explanation given the facts.
He continued to plod along—without any real navigational plan—toward Qolea’s sun, keeping the cliff on his right. If he followed the sun he would always be moving north. If he followed the cliff he may well find a way back to the top. It was a miserable experience—the heat of the day had long since drenched the cadet’s shirt and pants with sweat, but now as the sun began to set and nighttime threatened to fall he was hardly prepared for the elements. Qolea had cold nights this time of year. Tristaine was dressed in loose bed clothes—a thin white shirt, ripped and torn from the fall, and a pair of flannel pants. They provided a bit of warmth, but not in their soaking wet state.
He hadn’t even been wearing boots. His bare feet were shredded and hurting from unforgiving rocks that covered the basin. Blood and mud mingled together, forming a solid coating up to his shins. Having been trained to survive harsher conditions, Tristaine knew he’d have to find shelter or the night was going to be the death of him.
He continued on for what felt like hours, his spirits dropping along with the temperature. A nearby thicket looked promising, but when he neared he found an entire nest of razorcobs—a creature no one was dumb enough to disturb. He pressed on. Time held little meaning to Tristaine, the pain kept him squarely in the moment. Soon he came to a hole in the ground just large enough for a man to crawl inside. Tristaine paused on the edge of it, peering into the darkness. Even though he couldn’t see anything, he could feel something down below—could sense its hungry eyes staring back at him from the black. He backed away slowly and continued following the cliffside.
“This is how I know you’re not real!” Tristaine shouted at the heavens to a god he didn’t think would be listening. “If you are listening than how ‘bout you show me something, huh? Anything? Food? Shelter? A bloody doctor?”
At the moment he finished crying out he turned a corner to find the mouth of a cave. It looked strikingly similar to the one he’d encountered with Speakman on his first day there. He looked around and even found a similar vegetable growing nearby. What many would’ve seen as miraculous occurred to him as simple coincidence.
“This means nothing,” he scoffed. “The cave and plants were going to be there no matter.”
Pausing for a moment, another thought crossed his mind before he entered the cave. It brought a smile to his face.
“If there’s a doctor inside, you win.”
There was no doctor, but there was a bedroll near a pit that had been dug out. The amount of dirt covering the mat gave insight as to how long it had been there, and no one was likely to be returning. With as much strength as he had left he began to harvest food and sticks hoping to start a fire and fill his aching belly. It took much effort, his body protesting every movement, but he was able to coerce the sticks into catching fire. Quickly he began roasting the strange vegetable. It smelled bitter. Tasted even more so. But it gave the cadet some much needed energy. A short while later he was asleep.
His dreams were filled with gunfire and perryfruit pies. The dream version of Tristaine sat at a table. He immediately recognized it as the table in the house he grew up in. Outside he could hear shouting. The distinct sound of bullets tearing through wallboard caressed his ears. He watched stoically as they entered through the front wall and continued piercing furniture and ornaments until they found their way outside again. He suddenly noticed how dark it was in his childhood home. The only light source seemed to come from the streams of sunlight entering through the bullet holes. Dust caught the light as it floated around the old dank kitchen.
He heard footsteps shuffling and tried to focus his vision toward the sound. It was a person, but their face was distorted and blurred. Despite her fuzzy appearance there could be no doubt—it was his mother. She had worn that apron his entire childhood. She walked toward him, pie in hand. She placed the piping hot desert down in front of him along with a fork and a large machete. He could feel its warmth. He grabbed the fork and the machete and made the first incision. Steam rose, and with it the scent of the pie. It smelled…like burnt flesh and death. He split it open and saw a face staring back at him—bloody and charred. Maggots erupted from the pie, hundreds of them—thousands. They crawled onto his hands, slithered up his arms, and made their way up his neck to his face. They burned his flesh. He could feel the heat burning. Burning his chest, his body, his leg.
Tristaine woke up, writhing in pain. He looked down to find his pant leg on fire. The flames grew and had begun to sear his flesh. The cadet used his other leg to kick at the flames—successfully extinguishing his plaid pajama bottoms. Before he’d even had time to register the pain of it all the ground shook below him. The earth was quaking and the cave began to cry out in protest. Fissures started appearing in the ceiling, snaking off in all directions. Rocks began to shake loose and fall, some already landing near the cave’s mouth and partially blocking it.
Tristaine screamed as he forced himself quickly to his feet and made haste for the entrance. He could tell his body didn’t have much left in it. The brief rest had allowed the existing pains to intensify while giving new ones time to manifest. He felt too broken to carry on.
Suddenly he heard a crack in the ceiling above. Without hesitation he dove, narrowly dodging a falling section of rock. He winced and groaned as he hit the ground with a resounding thud. He had no choice but to push the pain from his mind and fully focus on the cave’s exit. It was still dark outside, but he couldn’t afford to get closed in. Not seconds after he’d cleared the mouth, the ceiling came down in full. When the dust settled Tristaine found his temporary home to be no more.
He laid on the ground for some time, catching his breath, then rolled over onto his back and addressed the sky. “You couldn’t even manage that one!”
Above, the moon had waned to a slim crescent, a sliver of glowing white in an otherwise inky sky. Travel wouldn’t be easy in the dim light of night so Tristaine decided to take his chances staying where he was and laid down in the grass outside of the cave. Sounds that would have otherwise seemed normal assaulted his ears. The ruffling of leaves. The constant droning of evening beetles. A faint thump thump thump growing louder by the second. The wind began to pick up and smaller trees began to bend as if honoring an unseen god. That noise—louder, and louder. At once the weak light of the moon was shielded in darkness. Looking up, Tristaine could see nothing, but the pressure of the wind pressed against his whole body, pinning him to the ground.
Fear overtook him as he remembered every angry word he had shouted at the god of Solovot. Under usual circumstances he wouldn’t even consider a higher power at work, but after the events of the day he had suddenly begun to wonder if maybe there was some all powerful something up there he should apologize to. Before he could utter a word, a bright light burst into life with a loud crack. A ship hovered just above his position, slowly beginning its descent. Tristiane crawled toward a small copse of trees to find cover. The mammoth machine landed and its hatch lowered to the ground. From within stepped a man. Tall, but not lanky–heavyset but not fat.
“Glass!” the voice bellowed loudly. But he could barely be heard above the grumbling of the ship. As he stepped forward, his face became illuminated from below as the lights lining the hatch ramp cast their revelatory glow.
“Speakman?” Tristaine cried out.
He didn’t trust his eyes. Was it really Cloud Leader Speakman?
“Yes, cadet. You’re okay now.” Speakman said as he jogged toward Tristaine. “We’re going to get you back to base and healed up. On the flight back you can tell me what happened.”
Tristaine allowed himself to be picked up. He didn’t even have the strength to walk, and instead just draped himself across Speakman. He could already feel himself slipping into unconsciousness as the constant flood of adrenaline that had kept him going began to dissipate.
As he drifted away, Speakman’s words echoed in his mind. You can tell me what happened. Tristaine’s eyelids fluttered open.
“I’ve got no bloody clue what happened C.L.”
With slurred words, exhaustion and pain overtook him, and he slipped into the black.