Ye little stars! hide your diminish’d rays.
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
At the bottom of the slope, Sebastian paused and looked back for a moment, watching Jason scramble up the rocky slope and disappear over a small ridge. He felt worried about Jason. He had never seen him so filled with rage or so desperate. Jude's disappearance had really got under his skin. There was something more going on between those two than he had suspected. They must be sleeping together. Sebastian smiled wryly to himself. Not bad for Jason. Jude was a real fox and picky about who she spent time with. He understood Jason's anger better now, but still didn't know what he could do to help his friend.
A shout from below made him turn. Patricia had reached the line of bushes that marked the scrub leading to the river and she was yelling and gesturing.
"Come on, Sebastian. I'm not going in here alone. Please come down."
"Coming Pat," Sebastian grinned briefly to himself, hiding the expression as he strode down to join her. Patricia was turning into a real fragile flower, and he hadn't expected it. The dead girl back at the river had totally shaken her up, and she had been skittish ever since. Thinking about the dead girl made Sebastian remember the incident and he shuddered involuntarily. Who was he to judge Patricia? He wasn't so brave himself. Fine example he had made, freezing up when those crazies had appeared out of the woods a while back. And who the hell was that native dude? Granted, he had helped them, kind of, but he hadn't been friendly, and where had he come from in the first place? Sebastian was pretty sure he had scanned the countryside thoroughly when watching the crazes. He'd seen no one else at the time. There were just too many questions here without answers. Reaching Patricia, he took her arm and put his own questions to the back of his mind. Enough time to ponder these later. Right now he had two responsibilities. Take care of Pat and look for Jude. Gloomily he wondered if these two tasks were mutually compatible.
They were soon back at the bottom of the incline they had just climbed to get to the camp. As Sebastian helped Patricia over a large boulder, he wondered what they could accomplish just retracing their steps. They had neither seen nor heard any sign of Jude and once they were back in the forest, any direction could be as good as the next. Best thing would be for them to head back to the river and take stock again there. Reluctantly he broached the subject with Pat.
"Pat, I don't think looking in the forest is a good idea. I know its light now but I think the forest is dangerous. We should head back to the river."
"Anything you say, Seb. I don't like the river either, but it's better than the forest for sure. At least we can see around us at the river."
Sebastian was a little taken aback by her ready acquiescence. She seemed willing to let him lead, giving up all the initiative, and it bothered him. Patricia had always been independent and contrary, and this aspect of her was disturbing. He didn't say anything; just nodded and took the lead, threading their way through the scrub until the first trees of the forest enveloped them. As always, entering the trees seemed to take them into another world. Mostly the light was reduced by more than half, and while the dim cool greenness was welcome and pleasant after the buzzing flies and grimy heat of the open areas, the unspoken menace still remained. Patricia felt it too. He knew it from the way she drew even closer to him as they walked, almost snuggled up to his hip. He didn't mind. She wasn't a bad looking chick, and though he didn't think of Pat in that way, still it was flattering to have a female so obviously dependent on you for protection. They walked on a while in companionable silence, feeling a little safer in the knowledge that the forest was only a strip wide at this point and soon they would break through to the long river flats. Sure enough, after a short while the trees began to thin again and the murmur of the river could be heard over the chirp and chatter of the forest. Neither of them said anything as they emerged from the trees and stood at the edge of the clearing, staring at the tall grass that ran down to the river edge. The river itself lay hidden from sight behind the waving blades of the grass sea but its insistent gurgling made a familiar sound, comforting in its regularity. Idly, Sebastian thought of all those stones and rocks, mined from the frowning mountains so close on their right. That's where the river came from, and it had been mining those hills for centuries. No, eons. Who knew how old this land really was and how changed it had become with the years. Sebastian had the uncomfortable feeling that little had really changed over a very long time. The hills brooded, and behind them, as if supporting them in solidarity, the mountains grew, tall spines blued in haze and distance that towered above the tree line, showing stumps of bare rock that looked like teeth jutting out from the verdant green of the hills and slopes surrounding them. Somehow, Sebastian felt that the answers they were looking for lay up in those hills, but right now, he said nothing, taking Pat's hand again and leading her through the grass towards the seductive murmur of the water.
It was harder work than Sebastian expected, and it slowly dawned on him that this area of grass was different from the patch they had traversed on the way in. He must have subconsciously angled right towards where the sound of the water was loudest. Here the tall grasses that ran down to the river grew taller than before, almost to chest height, and the blades were unusually tough and sharp. It looked to be a species of saw grass, unusually tough and resilient he noted, while struggling to beat down some semblance of a path with a large bough he picked up before starting out into the sea of green. He could feel Patricia holding onto the back of his t-shirt, tugging it off his back as he moved forward slowly. The air felt thick and humid, making the front of his shirt stick to his chest as Patricia stretched it out from behind him. He didn't say anything. Poor kid. Let her grab ay whatever security he had to offer. A movement on the grass floor near where he was flattening the grass caught his attention. Before he could focus it was gone, but he came alert instantly, cursing himself for being lulled into complacency. There had to be snakes in this country and the tall grass seemed to be a perfect hiding place for them.
"Watch where you put your feet, Pat," he called out, paying more attention to where he placed his own. "Step in my tracks. Can't say what might be hiding in this grass."
"What, what is it?" Patricia's voice jumped and octave and she pulled harder on his shirt, dragging herself closer to him. "Go faster, Seb. I don't like this place. It's creeping me out."
She pushed up closer behind Sebastian, hampering his arm as he swung the branch with renewed vigor at the waving stems and blades in front of him. She was making it harder to get through but Sebastian didn't have the heart to tell her to step back. Poor Pat was already terrified and insecure. He didn't want her totally falling apart on him now. His arm grew tired and the bough began peeling off in big chunks as he thwacked at the grass. The stems seemed to be spring loaded, bending forward under his onslaught, only to whip back as soon as he brought his arm back for the next blow. He switched the bough to his left arm, alternating every two or three strokes and placing his strokes more precisely. There were no replacement beaters here and he had no intention of re-tracing his steps back to the tree line to get another. Finally, the grass lowered in height, becoming waist height and then knee height. Over the tops he could see the far bank of the river. Almost immediately ahead, something caught his eye. Something that didn't belong in the landscape. A pennant of some sort fluttering over the top of the grass sea fairly close ahead. Shouting to Patricia to stay close he bludgeoned his way through the final meters of thinning grass and burst out onto stony flats leading down to the water. Clearly they had not been this way before, for there at the water's edge, was a small craft, unlike any he had seen before, tugging at a mooring rope tied around a large boulder by the edge.
Sebastian just stood and gaped; unaware that Patricia had run into him and was now gripping him even tighter. The little craft, not more than twenty feet in length, bobbed gently at the end of its line, as if eager to be away. The pennant, made of a glittering fabric and bearing the black head of a boar in silhouette on a blood red background was attached to a tapered pole protruding from the stern of the craft. The rear third of the vessel was covered with a gold and green striped awning whose covered sides made a cabin of sorts in the stern. The awning extended without the sidings towards the middle of the boat, and had supports that were gilded and ornately carved. Even the wooden rail that ran around the top edge of the boat was carved and the gilded prow rose a few feet above the rest of the boat in a graceful s shaped curve, carved in the likeness of some flying creature that could only have existed in myth. The hull was colored deep green with leaves and vines carved in relief. Here and there, fruit appeared in the half round, so luscious and real looking that they begged to be picked. The whole craft had a baroque appearance that was somehow beautiful and disquieting at the same time. It lay bobbing on the water like a piece of candy begging to be sampled.
Sebastian reached behind him, and taking Patricia's hand walked warily up to the boat inspecting it thoroughly from either side before grabbing the rope with his free hand and pulling it in to the shore for a closer look. There were more metal fittings and a two pairs of oarlocks, all gilded and polished, but no oars in the bottom of the craft. The craftsmanship was superb and the beauty of the vessel was inviting, almost begging to be boarded, but Sebastian was somehow reluctant to explore further. It was uncanny that they should find a boat here after all that had passed. Why was it unattended, and who did it belong to?
Patricia was lagging back, tugging to free her arm and Sebastian released her, his attention focused on the boat as he paced along the water's edge, examining the strange phenomenon. Looking at the hull more closely, he noticed that the vinery carved into the hull seemed to extend away from the hull into the water, appearing almost like floating tendrils that wavered in the current and eddies. That was impossible, but unless his eyes were playing tricks on him the things in the water were moving. He turned to Patricia to warn her and was horrified to see that Pat, entranced by the beauty of the boat, had already stepped into the shallow water and was reaching out for the hull. His exclamation of warning was still on his lips as the tendrils unfurled with astonishing speed and snaked through the water towards Patricia. He watched helplessly as they touched her ankles and attached themselves there. The tendrils flexed, Patricia cried out and the boat seemed to heave. There was an intense flash of brilliant white and Sebastian blacked out.
When he came to, Patricia was nowhere to be seen and the boat seemed to have slipped her moorings. The tendrils had disappeared, both from the water and from the boat, which now seemed to be aglow in a greenish light that had nothing to do with the sun. The prow of the vessel swung slowly around to point upstream and the vessel began to drift away from the shore. Sebastian was close to panic. He looked around, wondering what to do next. Everything around him seemed somehow familiar and different at the same time. The tall grass they had just exited was nowhere to be seen, just dark and barren boulders leading to a shockingly close tree line. The western mountains that had been on his right were now on his left and the sun that had been sinking towards those peaks from left to right now appeared to be doing the same from right to left. It was almost as if he was standing on the opposite bank to where they had first encountered the boat, but the opposite bank showed no tall grass, just a gentle rocky incline that flattened out to a haze in the distance. Certainly not what he remembered.
Watching the boat swing out further into the stream, Sebastian realized he had choice to make. He could remain ashore and look for Patricia there, or he could make for the boat, hoping that somehow, Patricia was inside. Remembering the tendrils he made up his mind. He waded strongly into the water and dove in, swimming for the boat that was now almost in center stream. Within a minute he realized he was going to have to push himself. With no visible means of propulsion, the boat was picking up speed and seemed to be steering a course upstream in the center of the river. Upstream! Against the current and no oars or sails or any sort of motor. He redoubled his efforts. The further out he swam the stronger the current became, and he exerted himself to the utmost, realizing he would only have one chance to catch the boat before it pulled away from him completely. With his muscles burning and his breath coming in gasps he reached the side and hooked his fingers over the rail, pulling his body up with his arms. Immediately the boat tipped over on the other side, nearly throwing him back into the water. He hung on grimly as the boat made impossible headway forwards while tilted almost completely away from him. He felt his body hoisted on the sloping side of the boat and scrambled to gain a foothold on the carved wood while his hands slipped down the rail towards the stern. His palms burned as they slid over the polished wood, and just when he thought he would slip off his fingers encountered the oar locks. Grimly he grabbed hold of the rings and pulled with all his strength. Almost as if coming to a decision, the boat righted and stabilized, allowing Sebastian to hook his leg over the side and tumble into the bottom. He was just forward of the edge of the awning, and to his immense relief he saw Patricia lying under the awning towards the stern. His relief gave way to concern when he saw that she was not moving and he face and arms had an awful pallor. Scrambling on his hands and knees he made his way to her and took her hand in his trying to wake her, but Patricia appeared to be in some sort of coma. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse irregular. Her eyelids remained closed and she gave no sign of responding to him. Around her ankles were deep welts, angry red in color and already inflamed. Dark bruises were spreading from the welts up her calves, looking eerily like the tendrils that had touched her earlier. They were already a few inches above the welts. Pulling of his shirt he tore it in strips and tied them above her ankles, hoping that might slow down the spread of the toxin inside her. Whatever had touched her was clearly poisonous and he had nothing to treat he wound. Anxiously he chaffed her hands between his, but unable to elicit a response from her he finally sat back on his heels, taking stock of the situation.
Patricia was hurt, obviously poisoned by those damn tendrils and they were both on a boat which seemed to have a mind of its own and moved of its own volition. The landscape had changed in an instant, everything shifted around impossibly and they were moving in a way that had to be physically impossible, travelling upstream against the current in a fancy rowboat with no oars. He thought of abandoning the boat for the questionable safety of the shore but there was no way he could get Patricia overboard and onto shore in her present condition. Looking around he could see no means of controlling the craft they were on. It looked like they were onboard for the trip whether they liked it or not. Arranging some nearby cushions under Patricia's head and making her as comfortable as possible he made his way forwards again and looked out past the prow of the now rapidly moving boat, watching the surrounding landscape stream by in an endless parade of rocky hillocks and expanses of stubble. The hills were approaching and with a cold certainty Sebastian knew they were headed into the mountains. His instincts had been right. He watched the sun go behind the peaks, throwing dark shadows on the water and bringing a chill to the air. He wished he had brought his pack. His shirt was in tatters and although the covered awning retained enough of the day's heat to provide comfort for now, the night would be cold. The shadows lengthened and twilight turned the banks purple. The sky behind the peaks flamed burgundy red, quickly fading out to a deep purple, and behind his head stars began to wink into existence in the quickly darkening sky. There was no sound except a soft gurgle as the boat cut through the water. Sebastian thought about the alteration of his reality following the flash. He couldn't explain it. Couldn't understand it. This whole trip was turning into a nightmare. First the dead girl in the water, next Tom and Roger caught by the mysterious hooded figures, then Jude disappearing, and now this. Patricia injured by some weird phenomenon, the world turned upside down in a flash and both of them trapped on a spooky boat that seemed determined to deliver them to some unknown destination. Somehow, the spirits in the desert and the voices in his head were connected to these events. He knew it in his heart and was glad that there was no running away now. The time for running was long gone. Settling himself on the floor of the boat just under the awning, Sebastian crossed his legs under him and gave himself to the breath exercises that Patricia had taught him. Ironic that she herself was beyond their help. He concentrated on his breathing and his racing thoughts slowed down, his mind stabilizing and resolve setting it. He wasn't going to be swayed by supernatural experiences if he could help it and he was now responsible for Patricia's health and their future. If there was going to be a fight ahead, he would be ready.