“In the deep swamps of C’dar lies a people older than the Civilization itself. They are the Breaux, an ancient clan and native of C’dar. They seemed to have adopted a civilization remarkably close to an Old-World culture from North American, but they aren’t human, mutant, or artificial intelligence, only mimicking our forms for our comfort. Their power–and forgive my scientific mind for saying so–is remarkably close to magic. We have no understanding of their Flame and its opposite power the Shadow. I will not advise anyone to confront them.” — Chairwoman Dr. Elizaeen Authford, Author of the Guide to the Dusk Orbit Planets
Kindle had a hard time deciding which was paler: a glass of milk or her pa’s face. She watched his face as he drove one of Vermin’s miniature tanks down the mountain, up the valley, and through the plains heading to the swamp. She always assumed that he had a good relationship with the Breauxs. Apparently, that didn’t mean that the superstitions didn’t scare the living daylights out of him. Kindle couldn’t ignore her own heart throbbing in her chest. Ever since she was young, she was told that at any time she could go visit her mother’s family. How they said it though came with this thin ribbon of fear and reverence for the Breauxs. She had heard so many superstitious stories around the swamps that it created this own folklore in her head to the point she was afraid. From tales of the Shaman, the Crocodile, the Flame, and its Darkness, she had learned everything there was to know about them that was written down. Going to see them was a different thing.
Appetite being all dressed up did nothing to quell her beating heart. He wore his nice pair of denim jeans, a pressed button-up shirt, and cowboy boots shined to a sheen. He had even put his long hair up into a tight ponytail for the occasion. There were very few occasions where her father put this amount of effort into his appearance. It wasn’t who he was as a person. To see him stiff and muttering, his slow voice incomprehensible in the seat beside her. His eyes remained focused on the road ahead. With the Bluecoats around, he thought it would be safe. Once they made it to the swamp, however, they would have to do the rest on foot. The Breauxs and the rest of their people had a zero-tolerance policy with weapons. From the look on her father’s face, he would rather tear every gun on this small tank off with his hands rather than to upset Kindle’s other grandfather.
“Pa?” Kindle asked, trying to swallow her own fears. “You okay?”
“Hm?” Appetite’s eyes widen for a second, the sound that left his mouth a high, startled hum. “Yeah, I’m fine. Completely okay, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, you seem to be ready to jump out of your skin.”
“You’re sweating,” Kindle said, arching an eyebrow. “And you’re stalling.”
“I haven’t been in a while as all. They’re nice people. Good, no matter what’ya might’ve heard from everyone else. They have their way. Ina was special to the Breaux–the Shaman, the teller of the Flames.” He spoke her name. Kindle couldn’t believe it. He had said her name. There wasn’t heat or poison of any kind in how he said it. She never asked stories about her, not even how they met. The way he spoke her name opened doors in her mind that she had locked shut for years. “Are you ready to talk ‘bout her,” he asked, his voice soft. “I mean you’re heading to her home and it’s about time we talked at least a little about her. I never wanted to force the issue or nothin’ just…” he sighed, his heavy chest deflating. “Ask away.”
She didn’t start firing questions out immediately. Instead, she looked out the small glass window to her right, watching the world roll by. Among the odd atmospheric environments, the Ghostwalk Swamp may be the oddest on their world. The closer and closer they approached this frightening land, the more that color around looked bleached to white. They already began to see some of the eerie silver-leafed, white-barked willows marking the territory of the Ghostwalk Swamps. The color of the grass transitioned from green to red to blades of grey. A hard-sour taste was in the air too, even within the safety of a vehicle. She had passed it on her travels with her cousins, uncles, and grandpa from time to time. Every time she thought: I’m gonna do it. Today, she couldn’t turn around. Today, she had to walk into the Swamps where her mother once stood, and it terrified her. She’s been gone so long I have too many. Kindle quietly choked on the bones of her words. Where do I start, she wondered and frowned.
“You look like her,” Appetite said in a low voice. “Ain’t never been happier with genetics.”
“I’m getting your height and I have your eyes.”
“Probably the best two things I got,” he laughed. “But really, you look like her. She was…I suppose is still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She’s also the strongest fighter I think I’ve ever seen. She had a temper, don’t get me wrong. It was a thing that my pa found perfect for me. I needed someone to balance my… tolerant nature at the time. I took too much crap and let too many people roll over me. She stopped that.”
“How did you meet?”
“We tried to kill each other.”
“I wanted something from an abandoned colony. Ina wanted something from an abandoned colony. We wanted both wanted it. She almost killed me. I don’t even remember what it was. Happy it was there though. I wasn’t happy at the time and probably wanted whatever that stupid thing was. Ain’t nothing quite like having the person you fall in love with you try to kill you with a flaming axe. Please don’t fall in love with anyone with a flaming axe. It’s a complicated way to start off…well anythin’ off really. But, that’s how we met. Over some doodad. It was simpler times.” Her pa relaxed a little in her seat. The stiffness in his body began to leave bit by bit, returning to the Papa Woody she always knew. “We came to an agreement. She got to keep whatever she won, and she didn’t kill me. I feel like I got better of the deal since I can’t remember for the life of me what we were even fightin’ over.”
Appetite slowed the tank down, crawling up small hills and through thick thatches of the willow trees. The world around them grew darker. Habit made Kindle believe that it was the canopy of the ever-expanding swamp above them. Her mind knew otherwise. Just outside of her window, she began to see the barj. The barj, the Shadow of C’dar, drifted above them as a thin black cloud, inking itself across the ice-blue sky and white-green leaves. When the ground grew soft and treacherous and the sounds of the waters began to rush under their trends was when the shadow became an absolute blanket. The afternoon sun above them was gone, leaving only the fireflies and torches to line the way. I don’t think I can do this, she thought, looking the black of night in the day. I can’t do it. She trembled, fear caught tight in her chest. She knew she had to. Not because her dad would force her, he would turn this tank around the moment she said and venture back alone. For that reason, she knew she had to go. She had to.
They donned rubber waders before exiting the small tank through the sizable top latch. She expected a powerful stench from the swamp to choke the life out of her. What she got was different. Yes, there was a stench from the marsh gas but not nearly as bad. There were other sweet smells mixed in along with the methane. One, in particular, caught her interest and her memories. She searched for it in every breath. Was this not her first time here? “Pa?”
“Where was I born?”
“Not too far from here.”
“Why not the Mountain?”
“Bad luck, she said. Too far away from the Swamp. Guess she was right, we got the luckiest kid in the world.”
“Then why did she leave?”
Appetite sighed, following her off the metal ladder and into the shallow water below. This was the hook he was waiting for all day. Now that it was caught in his mouth, he struggled with what to say next. He beckoned her over, wading through the still waters and the swarm of massive mosquitoes and multi-colored flies. He led her to what she thought was a few unremarkable wooden posts stuck into the water. She soon realized that she was leading her to a bridge, each with long wide steps that ascended a few inches against the sheet of white lily paddies marking the deeper lagoon. Appetite helped himself to one of the many torches that Kindle. He held it close to her, she noticed, then he did to himself. She appreciated it as the black barj coalesced around them. “It wasn’t you,” he whispered, his voice soft against the croaking of frogs. “That was a choice she made. Ina…always had her own way of doing things. That wasn’t a bad thing, but she liked being on her own. I thought everything was fine. We had nine months to think about it, y’know. I guess that wasn’t enough for her. I don’t think anything was going to be enough to keep her in one place.”
“So, she just left me.”
“She left the both of us.” There was the hurt, that blow to the chest. “She couldn’t handle standing still, even for me. I wasn’t asking her to. I don’t think she ever got that. I was asking her to stay, to get to know you and try to be a family. I wasn’t even asking her to stay. But to her, that was half-stepping. She couldn’t have her foot in both rooms.”
“Was she right? Could she have done both?”
“I–” Appetite pressed his fingers against his nose. “No. She couldn’t. Her father tried to tell her that she could. In a way, she was right. Seeing you in this world brought those fears to life. Seeing you was the first time she was ever afraid. For the first time, there was something more important than her place in her clan…”
“Were we? Were we more important, Dad?”
The blackened water stirred beside them, splashing on the redwood of the bridge. Appetite raised the torch a little higher, hearing a small hiss of steam. Kindle looked down for the first time into the depths. The large and wide shape moved beneath their feet, shaking the little bridge with each sway of its fins. A trickle of fear froze Kindle into place. The creature rolled one of its pinks eyes upward, annoyed at the sound of their heated voices. It made no further sound as it swam back down into the depth where it came. “What was that,” Kindle whispered, hoping that it was part of her imagination.
“A barjka,” Appetite said, he too peering down in the black. “They aren’t…aggressive…usually.”
“First time seein’ one myself up close.”
“What if it…”
The bridge shook violently again underneath their feet as the creature swam back up. It rammed its weight into the supports, cracking it with powerful waves. A sound, very close to a roar or a screech, filled the air as the creature breached the water for a split second. Where it had legs like a crocodile, its body resembled something of a sea or desert whale of C’dar. She saw the creature twisted up into the air through the darkness, it’s massive red fleshed belly contouring into a spiral and landing back into the water. It grew quiet again before the second breach. This time she saw its head better–narrow, sharp, and a little too small for its body. Pink eyes filled with a predatory hunger locked onto them. Kindle stood, painfully aware they had no weapons on them. Suppose we should’ve been quieter, she thought as the creature doubled back around towards them. She saw her father readying himself for a conflict, the red fur of his mutation rolling up his thick arms. They might’ve not brought weapons, but he was as much of one as anything. The barjka cared little at the obvious challenge and attacked.
Kindle couldn’t understand much of what happened next. One minute it was attacking, the next it was shrieking. A massive spear came hurtled through the air beside above them, the smell of cold trailing it. Blood sputtered from an open wound in the creature’s stomach as it splashed back into the ground. She thought it was dead then, only to see that it was only and rightfully mad. It lost all interest in the bridge, searching for whatever wounded it. Kindle searched too with her eyes. On the surface of the water, a dark-skinned man stood on a small wooden boat, adorned with odd masks of reds, yellows, and oranges. The man on the river looked unimpressed as the massive beast swimming at him at full speed. He picked up another one of his spears with a casual pluck.
The man tossed the purple-tipped spear for a second, checking its weight with ease. In the face of certain death, the man kept calm, the ethereal darkness of the swamp bending around his muscled arm. What can one spear do? The barjka leaped at him with a maw of a thousand teeth opening to consume the man and boat. The man tossed the spear with all his might. The spear tore through the creature, cutting through its entire length with ease. Both halves on the monster slammed hard against the water, rocking the spearman’s small boat for a second. He wiped the purple blood from his dark chest before rowing over to the bridge as though he hadn’t killed a massive beast within minutes.
Upon closer inspection, it became obvious that this man wasn’t quite human like them. Yeah, he looked the part, –just like the mutated Caldwells. Anyone with eyes could see that where the people of the Mountain crashed landed here years ago, the Breauxs had a history with the land. There were things that looked off like the texture of his skin, the color of his eyes, the sharpness of his teeth. His limbs looked a little wrong on his shoulders and hips. In certain lights, he didn’t look human at all. The man plucked a stubborn piece of purpled meat from his black beard, stepping off the boat and onto the bridge to inspect the damage. He turned, frowning at Appetite with those slightly alien features. With the back of his hand, he hit her father on the back of the head. “What have I told you ‘bout coming ‘round here all loud, boy? Gonna get yourself killed.”
“It was my fault, sir,” Kindle said. It was. She had shouted and put them all in danger.
The man looked with those pupil-less and white-less purple eyes. He wandered over to her, rolling one of his shoulders. His dark skin was marked with looked like thousands of scars and odd white war paint. His long, angular features of his face gave him this almost predatorial appearance, not helped much with slight markings that looked like scales. Somehow, despite only having a few inches on her, he felt imposing in ways that not even her father or grandfather was. A small smile itched its way across his face, his eyes softening with each passing second. He shook his head and wiped the remaining blood from his face. “It’s ‘bout time we meet, Cassie. I’ve heard a lot ‘bout you. Remy Breaux,” the man said, extending a hand. “And I guess I’m your other grandpa.”
Kindle blinked at the long-fingered hand for a second. This was her mom’s father, the Crocodile of the Swamp. She took his hand after a time. “Nice to meet you,” she said, her voice dancing awfully close to a question. “Sorry ‘bout almost gettin’ you killed back there.”
“It’s not the first time,” Remy said, staring very pointedly at Appetite. “And I’m sure it won’t be the last. C’mon. No point of sticking around longer than we gotta. Male barjka don’t travel alone and I don’t have enough spears for all that.”
The Crocodile Walk led to a sizable village tuck into the Ghostwalk Swamps. Kindle’s eyes wandered from place to place, trying to digest the sheer awe that she felt. Each of the homes was set in a small platform of wood and metal, floating like the lily pads that surrounded them. They moved inch by inch within the circle of an enclosed pond, the flexible bridges moving with them. Every island came with its own portable generator for electricity and an oddly shaped crystal to keep the darkness of the mysterious barj at bay. The homes weren’t small either, even the smallest being two stories on the edges of the village made of a darker, harder wood. Large dragonflies and moths zipped around each of the torches running parallel to the long red bridges. As she walked, she noticed the little things that marked the Breauxs and any family aligned with them that made them stronger than even the Civilization wanted to mess with. There was a wonder in how everything worked and a level of raw power. Kindle both felt like she belonged, and she didn’t.
Remy led them to what was the largest of the homes in the swamp. It was three stories tall, wide, and made of a slick black stone and dark brown wood. The windows on each floor emitted a warm light from the lanterns tucked by their clouded panes, giving the house a mystical look from all sides. White and green ivy climbed up the walls, steps, and bridges, covering the house with warm colored flowers that invited them in with their pleasant scent. The porch reminded her a little bit of her and her father’s’ cabin, wide and with plenty of chairs and a large oak front door. Men covered in white painted wooden mask and clean black clothes bowed as they approached, movements soft and silent. They looked like they were part of the home as anything else, statues of flesh and bone ready to kill any person in their way.
“I’m sorry ‘bout the quietness. It’s been a while since we’ve had visitors.”
“We aren’t your first,” Appetite asked.
“No,” Remy said. “You know that we too don’t take a side in your conflict with the Blues.”
Appetite tried to not let his annoyance show. “I’m as patient as any man, but ain’t much time before they decide that they can take ya too.”
“True, true. But until then we aren’t going to antagonize them the way you do. We don’t have the same negative history y’all have with them. Remember, our kin were once a colony in the First Civilization before the Fault that destroyed every. In many ways, their respect stems from things they don’t understand anymore. The forgotten things they lost in the Fault. Until that respect fades to history, they will not step a foot here with weapons. Like you.”
“I still wouldn’t trust them…Remy. What’d they come for?”
“Who’s better is better to come to when you know nothing of the land? Major Debenham isn’t a dumb man. He’s even kind and understanding under all that exterior.”
“You didn’t see the hole he made in my cousin.”
Remy gave a soft snort. “You act like the Caldwells haven’t done worse.”
It took everything in Kindle’s body not to say anything. She gritted her teeth, chomping hard on the swampy air. He wasn’t there. He didn’t see the man…that cyborg’s satisfied expression as he punched through her cousin in a spray blood. She saw his face too with its perfect, pristine horror, dead before he even touched the ground. It haunted her at night, clung to her waking step too. Kindle swallowed her hot anger, wandering behind the two adults in a cold silence. Remy’s eyed her with those violet eyes, expecting her to say something. She kept quiet, only followed them up the stairs of the massive porch and through the front door. Her fingers and her teeth ached by the time they were in the softer inside air of the Crocodile’s manor. The heavy door closed behind them with a loud boom leaving on the three of them and a few of the Crocodile’s’ security details within the parlor. Remy stopped in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. “Neither of you took that bait. I’m surprised,” Remy shrugged, waiting for a response. He didn’t get one. Mildly disappointed, he kept walking, that grin on his face refusing to dissolve. It only made the anger kick harder in her chest. Appetite shook his head.
He led them to a small area on the side of the parlor. It looked to be some sort of study or lab. More wooden masks of thousands of colors filled each of the walls, staring down on them with hollow eyes. Purple candles tucked in long metal rods burned green flames all around them and served as the only light in the room. A few of the windows remained open, letting in the darkness of the barj and the whispers of the wind. The middle of the room only had two items: a black cauldron with a fresh flame of its own and a long table blanketed by glass beakers filled with oddities. Without pause, Remy walked up and began tossing herbs and other grislier items into the pot. “The Flame is going out.”
“The Flame is going out. You’ve noticed that the barj has been getting worse, spreading to the edges. It’s getting worse.”
“‘ ‘cause Ina has been off planet for too long.” Appetite sighed.
“That isn’t your fault. I am offering some advice for a simple request.” Remy stirred the pot with a slow, lethargic motion.
“I know what you want. Ask her. Not me.”
Remy frowned, tossing long claw from the barjka with the cauldron. The liquid hissed back in a cloud of hot steam. “I know what it looks like. I’m not using either of you to handle my problems here. The long and short of it is that there’s your problems and the planet’s problems. Both can essentially destroy everything here. I’m willing to help with both those problems since you and your family are so willing to cause all kinds of problems. All I’m asking for is for someone to take the Flame. A part of it at least.”
“Again, I’m not going to say yes or no for my daughter. Ask. My. Daughter. Explain it to her. Ask for her help. She came ‘cause she wanted to come and meet your family. And–”
“Pa. I got this.”
Kindle lightly pushed her father aside, taking the helm. “I came to meet you and get to know my… mom’s… side of the family. I guess I came ‘cause I knew one day I was gonna have to. But if you know anything about this Major Debenham, I want to know, and I will help ya if that’s the price, granddad. What exactly do you want? That’s why you asked me to come, right? That’s the only reason.”
“Don’t question my loyalty to you,” Remy interrupted. The playful and aloof tones in his voice were gone leaving on the cold seriousness of his soft voice. “I care for you and Woodrow, here for longer than you can remember. I will do anything to protect the both of you if I had to. But, there are important to me too like the very land that keeps you and your family alive on this planet. So, before you start judging me on not stepping into the politics think about why we are staying out it. And honestly, this is for the best. You’re powerful, Cassie. Stronger than even Ina. So, swallow that Caldwell pride and listen to what I have to say. I’ll help you if you help C’dar. Simple as that. I would much rather have a place where my granddaughter lives. Alright?”
Kindle felt her face go warm from embarrassment. What did he mean about the danger to the planet? How was that connected to her mother’s disappearance from the planet? Everything suddenly felt small, so small that the room spun. She felt herself stumbling forward, head swimming. Her father’s big hands steadied her back into reality. Even now, he didn’t say a word for her. What does he mean? She wanted to ask but the words in her mouth felt weighed. “Alright,” she managed to say, lowering herself into a nearby chair. “What do I need to do?”
“At this moment, I only want one thing,” Remy said, dipping a ladle into the hot liquid of the cauldron. He poured the mixture into a small wooden bowl. “I want you to drink this.”
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