‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD KEEP HER SAFE! YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD LOOK AFTER US!’
I blinked. The memory faded, and the autumn sky above my head once again became visible. My head was throbbing a little from the experience. It had been a few months already, but ever since Hao came to visit, I’d been having more and more of these… whatever they were.
No, I knew exactly what they were. But you couldn’t exactly go to a doctor and explain something like this. That would be a fun conversation for sure. I sighed, rubbing my temples. I could already picture the conversation in my mind.
‘Yeah, doc. Apparently I’ve got some kind of curse placed on me and my entire bloodline. I know this through a series of old letters from my dead mother, whom I have never actually met before! Also I can somehow mentally tap into her memories, which gives me a headache. Got any pills for that?’
They probably did. It was called an asylum. I sighed again. Doctors weren’t going to believe me. Hell, who would? The only person who would know what was going on – my mother – was dead. Just when I was finally ready to find out what this curse was… my only lead went cold. Literally. I swallowed, pushing back my feelings of grief.
As I lay there, thinking, another memory came to me. But this time, it was one of my own. A long time ago, I recalled having a conversation just like this.
‘Do not cast away stories as superstition too soon, Chase. You’re closely connected to this one, even if you do not know it.’
It had been with Damar, the elder of the Wanderers. That had been more than five years ago. I’d ended up with more questions than answers after that conversation. But perhaps it was time to give it another try? She and Liu were the only people that I’d ever hear talk about curses and gates.
Hell, even if it would turn out to be a dead end, I’d at least get the opportunity to see Liu. We’d grown apart a bit over the years, with him and his people drifting in and out of town. They were here now, though. I was pretty sure of that. It would be good to see him. Even if it was just a social visit, Liu might help me take my mind off of… everything.
I nodded to myself and stood up from the ground.
It was time to go pay them a visit.
I had a strange sense of dèja vu when I approached the area of town that the Wanderers called their home. As I strode in, I could see people walking all over the place- more so than usual. The peaceful atmosphere was still there, but the camp looked emptier than before. Almost as if people were making room for something… or someone. Again. The last time this happened, it ended up with fifty extra travelers arriving in town. Perhaps today was a similar event?
I looked around for Liu, but couldn’t find him. A few people nodded to me as I passed them by. They didn’t give me any other attention. They all seemed to be busy making room in the center of the area for… something.
Then, all of a sudden, I saw a familiar shape. I had to do a double-take to be sure it was her. With a curious voice, I called out.
The black-haired woman turned around with a surprised expression on her face.
‘Chase? What are you doing here?’
‘That’s my line, isn’t it?’ I responded curiously. ‘What are you doing with the Wanderers?’
‘I live here.’
That, too, took me by surprise.
‘Wait, what? You do? Live? Here?’ I stuttered. Nailah raised a single eyebrow.
‘Yes. Am I not supposed to?’
‘I just- I didn’t know that you were a Wanderer, is all,’ I responded. Gods, this was awkward. I’d been training with her for years and didn’t even know where she lived. For some reason, that really bothered me. Along with the awkwardness. Why was everything always so weird with this woman? Or maybe it was me. I had no idea.
‘So, um,’ I said to break the silence. ‘What’s going on over here? Everyone seems really busy.’
‘Today is one of our holidays. They’re preparing for a night of feasting and celebration. And probably dancing.’
‘Oh. Well, uh, good for you. What’s the holiday?’
A faint smile appeared on her face.
‘I’m not sure. I think it had something to do with the changing of seasons.’
‘Like the festivals you have in September and March?’
‘The Vernal and Autumnal equinox festivals, yes,’ Nailah nodded. ‘You’re quite familiar with our holidays.’
‘What can I say? I love eating your food. Picking up bits of the culture kind of comes with the territory.’
She chuckled. I hadn’t seen her smile at me a lot. It looked good on her.
‘Anyway. Was there something you needed, Chase?’
‘Oh, right. Yeah. I was looking for Liu, actually. I guess if you live here, then you know him too, right?’
‘He’s my cousin.’
‘No way,’ I gasped. ‘Are you serious? Why didn’t I know that? Nobody told me!’
‘Almost everyone is related to everyone here. That’s why we tend to move around a lot. To find other caravans with potential suitors for our children. I moved here a couple of years ago when Liu’s family merged with mine.’
So that’s how it was. And damn it, he never told me! Liu was getting an earful, that was for sure.
‘So do you know where he is?’
‘He’s away right now, gathering food and drinks for tonight. I don’t think you’ll be able to speak to him until the celebrations begin.’
Bummer. So much for my plan. Damar didn’t seem to be around, either. That made my visit here basically useless. I clacked my tongue in irritation, trying to think of something else to do.
Nailah must have picked up on my reaction, because her head suddenly cocked to the right.
‘You’re welcome to wait for him here, if you want. It should only take a couple of hours. You can help set things up. We have a shortage of people to do the heavy lifting.’
‘Are you roping me into doing more training with you?’ I asked.
A grin appeared on her face.
‘Of course. Have you seen those flabby arms of yours?’
Ah. There she was. The last bit of awkwardness gone, the usual Nailah had returned. And so had her jabs.
‘My arms look fine!’
‘Exactly. I know you have that natural girly figure, but you’re supposed to be an adult now.’
‘I do not have a girly figure!’
‘Then prove it! Throw some boxes around, maybe drag a tree trunk or two. Or is that too much for you? I’ll do it, if you can’t.’
‘Fine! Damn it. I’ll show you.’
I stomped off to the nearest tent and grabbed one of the crates from the ground. Judging from the clanking inside, it was probably filled with bottles of alcohol. It was heavy. I pretended it wasn’t.
‘Where do you want this?’
‘Over there is fine. Come on, now. Put your back into it.’
I huffed and did as she said. Before I knew it, I was dragging tables around, hanging lights in the trees and pushing boxes from one side of the camp to the other. It was… actually quite fun. I knew many of these people, and the simple task of lugging stuff around helped take my mind of everything that had happened.
I kept stealing glances at Nailah as I worked. The fact that she actually lived here came as a surprise. But thinking about it, she did look an awful lot like the other people here. I wonder why I’d never made that connection before? Maybe it was because I always saw her in jogging clothes? I wasn’t sure. But for some reason, it was hard for me to picture her happily traveling along with Liu and his people. Then again, I still didn’t know all that much about Nailah to begin with.
Eventually, twilight came. Their festival started. A bonfire was made, the lights in the trees were lit and the crates of alcohol finally opened. People started dancing along to the music before too long. They were a happy bunch. Some women invited me to dance. I declined. I was content to just watch, sitting on a hay bale.
Before too long, Liu returned. He’d grown older, too. He looked like his father. His old man had grown old enough to retire, and Liu had been slowly taking over responsibility for his people. As soon as Liu spotted me, a bright smile appeared on his face.
‘Chase! I haven’t seen you in ages! What brings you here, man?’
‘I heard you were having a party without me,’ I grinned at him. ‘So I invited myself.’
He laughed, slapping me on the shoulder with his hand. Then he pulled me off of my seat and, surprisingly, gave me a hug.
‘You just made my day, man! Come, share a drink with me!’
He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Liu led me across the camp, grabbing two drinks from one of the open crates. People were giving him glances along the way. Liu greeted all of them as he walked. He really seemed to be getting into his role as a leader.
A little ways off from the crowd, my childhood friend turned towards me with a big grin on his face.
‘So you haven’t gone off to university, after all!’
‘Nah. It’s not really my thing. I have more important things to take care of.’
He handed me a bottle.
‘But enough of that. I haven’t talked to you in months. What’s it like, being the new leader around here?’
‘Don’t get me started, man,’ Liu groaned. ‘It’s a gigantic pain in the ass, that’s what it is. You know how we used to sneak off for a day whenever we felt like it? I can’t do that anymore. There’s always someone in need of help, or something to manage, or someone I have to track down to do something for someone else. I don’t know how dad does it without going completely crazy.’
Liu had always been very keen on his freedom. This would be an interesting challenge for him. Good leadership ultimately meant less freedom than the ones you were leading. He seemed to realize that, too. Liu took a big swig of his bottle, before smiling at me.
‘Really, though. I know you. Why are you actually here?’
‘I came for some information, actually. The past few months have been weird, and I was wondering if you guys could shed some light on the things that happened.’
‘Interesting,’ Liu grinned. Then he seemed to remember something.
‘Oh, that’s right! I have something for you. Come with me for a moment.’
This time, Liu led me to one of the caravans. His, I assumed. He dissapeared inside for a moment, after which he came back out with something that looked like some kind of pendant.
‘Here. Take it.’
He handed it over to me. I looked at it with a frown on my face.
‘My confession of undying love. Chase, will you marry me?’
‘Very funny,’ I replied. ‘Now really, what is it?’
Liu stepped forward and put the thing around my neck. On second glance, it wasn’t a pendant as much as it was a necklace. It looked old, and I could see little patches of rust on the edges. There was a piece missing on the top right side. It really wasn’t something I would wear, even if I wore necklaces. Which I didn’t.
‘Do me a favor and keep this around your neck for a while, will you?’
‘For how long?’ I asked. Liu shrugged.
‘Oh, I don’t know. For the next… 20 years or so.’
‘What the hell?’ I answered. ‘Why?’
‘I told you, it’s my confession of undying love! Don’t question that, man. You’ll break my heart.’
He was trying to pass it off as a casual joke, but I was having none of it.
‘Liu, I’ve had a very crappy month. I’m not in the mood for jokes. Now tell me what this is, or I’m leaving your little love confession right on that table and going home.’
‘Fine, fine. I know you don’t believe in our stories, and neither do I, but Nana does and she wanted you to have this. Apparently it belonged to that girl from the legend. Nile. It’s a bit of a family heirloom.’
‘If that’s the case, shouldn’t you hang on to it, then?’ I replied with raised eyebrows. Liu shook his head.
‘I think you’re going to need it more than I would.’
‘What do you mean?’
He frowned, looking me straight in the eyes. There was something… almost desperate about his tone of voice.
‘Look, just… take it, all right? It’s a lot of bullshit, but the thing will keep you safe. A little, at least. And if you end up having kids, make sure you pass it on to them too, all right? It’ll keep them safe as well. From everything.’
From everything? My eyes narrowed. I had a weird feeling about this. Liu was definitely holding back some information. The timing of this was awfully convenient, too. Just after learning that I was, in fact, not safe. Just after learning about the curse. I had not shared any of this with him, though. Did Liu know more about me than he was letting on?
I had to test that.
‘Liu, answer me honestly. What do you know about me and my family? My biological family?’
His expression fell. Liu shook his head sadly, compassion shining through his eyes.
‘I’m sorry. That’s against the rules, emal.’
With that, Liu turned around and walked away from me before I could protest. As he walked, his head turned towards me one last time.
‘I can only give you my advice. That’s all. But if I were you… I’d start with family.”
And he disappeared into the crowd. Leaving me with that weird necklace around my neck. I really didn’t know how to feel about this. It would be rude to give it back, though. So I tugged the thing underneath my blouse, hiding it from view. It felt… heavy.
Someone near the center of the crowd was dancing in a formal performance outfit. I looked at it absent-mindedly. That pendant, and its supposed owner, kept floating around in my head. There was something about it that was nagging me. Something important. But I couldn’t figure out what it was. About that girl. Nile Owen. Didn’t Liu tell me about that story a while ago, when we were still teenagers?
Yeah, he did. I racked my brain to try and come up with the memory. It had to do with the afterlife… probably. Yes. She’d broken the taboo on bringing people back from the dead. Because of this girl, Nile, the path was opened for corrupted souls to try and force their way back into this world. According to the legend, the Gate had tainted her, and she’d spent centuries trying to stop other children from doing the same thing before finally vanishing from history.
Wait a minute. That wasn’t right.
She hadn’t vanished from history. I remembered her teenage self, talking to me. Or… not me. Someone like me, but different. A girl with blonde hair and grey eyes. I didn’t know the context, but she’d definitely been there. Alive.
What had happened to her?
I shook my head, dizzy from the sudden memory.
With a slight frown, I pushed the memory out of my mind. Ever since reading Raven’s letters, I was getting better and better at tearing myself away from them. I was still a bit shaky, though. Best stay put for a little while longer, to make sure I didn’t fall over on the way home.
So I focused on the dancer again, to try and clear my head. It was a nice distraction. She was definitely performing for them. Other people were dressed-up for the occasion, too, but not like that. The woman was adorned in a beautiful red dancing gown, and I could see little lights dancing in her black, curled hair whenever she moved. Which was constantly. It was strangely hypnotic, but in a good way. I found myself unable to look away as the night progressed. There was something about this woman. Something familiar.
Then she turned to face my way, and it suddenly became crystal clear what it was.
I knew her.
That was Nailah.
And she was dancing. I didn’t know Nailah could dance. I stared at her, dumbfounded. Why hadn’t I noticed before? I’d been gawking at her for at least a good five minutes without realising who she was. But it really was her. And she was dancing for them! I just could not get over that. It contrasted so strongly with what I’d seen of her so far that my brain would not accept it. Talk about surprises. What else was she hiding? The woman was like a damn onion – every time I thought I had her figured out, she revealed a new layer, a new side to her that I had no idea even existed. It was maddening.
And fascinating. She was a really good dancer, too. Her movements were flawless. She effortlessly flowed from one movement into the other, playing the crowd as she went. People were cheering her on. It was a sight to behold.
But for some reason, she didn’t look like she was enjoying it.
It made me frown a little. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time. Why wasn’t she?
I guess it was just another question that I could add to the pile. I shook my head and put it out of my mind. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Liu again. He was making his way to the back of the crowd. His last words stuck with me.
‘I can only give you my advice. That’s all. But if I were you… I’d start with family.’
As I mulled that sentence over, it suddenly came to me. Of course. My mother and father were gone, but the letters hadn’t said anything about my grandparents. And neither had Hao. I still had a lead. They were it. Even if I couldn’t see my parents again, I still had family. Didn’t Bobby say before that he knew someone who could help me look into civic records?
I dug around in my pocket for my phone. As I pulled it out, I saw the time flashing on the tiny screen. 23:40. Too late for any kind of social call.
I dialed anyway. And Bobby answered almost instantly. I didn’t bother with so much as an explanation, cutting right to the point.
‘Hey, man. I’ve got a favour to ask.’