Cace shivered hard.
“What? What happened?” he panted deliriously.
“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”
“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.
“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”
“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.
“Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”
Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.
As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.
“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”
“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”
Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.
“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”
“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.
“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”
“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”
“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”
“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!
“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”
“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”
Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.
It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.
Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.
There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.
Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.
“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”
The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”
Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!