“He took her outside of Haven,” Dare said, shocked. “She can’t leave. It–It’s not possible!” Then he groaned as another wave of agony washed through us.
“What’s going on?” Bash moaned. He’d crawled over to us, with Spud not far behind.
“Eero said,” I started, then gathered my wits, “someone took Mother. Outside. Haven.” The end of the sentence was broken, as I grit my teeth against the pain as it grew in intensity. It was all we could do to not pass out.
“Get. Her. Back?” Spud asked in the same staccato speech.
I opened my mouth to answer, but the pain finally leveled off, and I fell the rest of the way to the ground in relief. It hadn’t gone away, but it remained the same, which was its own blessing.
“He must have stopped,” Dare groaned next to me.
“That snorging Demon. I’ll kill him!” Bash growled.
Dare cut his eyes to Bash, and opened his mouth to comment on the cursing, but I jerked my head. As satisfying as it would be to take it to Bash, we didn’t have the time.
“How do you know it was the Demon?” Spud asked.
“Who else could it have been?” Bash asked, scathing.
“Hey, don’t be mean with Spud just because–”
“Don’t tell me what to–”
“Both of you, just shut up!” I yelled, then groaned and held my head again. It was like I upset a feral cat clawing the inside my skull. “We need to come up with a plan. Not fight,” I said, barely above a whisper.
Bash nodded, terse, while Dare blushed.
“What should we do, Jolly?” Spud asked, his calm eyes looking at mine expectantly.
My eyes widened, and I turned to find Bash and Dare staring at me. “Why do I have to come up with the plan?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“I don’t know how we’d go about fighting a Demon. I can’t imagine he’d take Mother and just give her back because we asked nicely.”
“We need to come up with something, though; I doubt Mother can last long outside the barrier,” Bash whispered, and glanced toward the children.
After we’d fallen to the ground, they’d gathered by the river in case the fires came to our side. They were huddled at its edge, under blankets mended by Mother’s steady hands. The younger ones had drifted off to sleep, clutching the older kids. Tears streaked through the dirt on their faces that Mother was usually here to help wash off each night. The older children watched us over the sleeping forms of the younger ones, questioning. Expecting.
“Or us, for that matter,” Dare added.
I broke my eye contact with the kids, and turned back to the others. “Do you think we could find her through our link? I mean, a plan is all well and good, but we don’t even know where she is.”
“It’s a good place to start,” Spud agreed.
We gathered, albeit slowly because of the pain, and held hands. I took a deep breath, trying not to panic at the heavier scent of smoke on the air. The fires were getting closer. The others closed their eyes, and I followed suit.
I pictured the others in my mind’s eye, their forms glowing. Everything was a red sea of pain, trying to drag us down in its riptide.
“Can you sense her?” Spud asked. His voice was thick and faraway, despite him standing right next to me.
“There’s too much,” Dare gasped, his words dragged away like paper shredded in a gale.
“Deeper,” I responded.
We struggled to go further inward. The effort enormous and draining, but there was something off about the energy pulling away. So I followed it.
Everything went from red as a rose in full bloom, to black darker than the deepest tunnels of Raventide. The quiet was like a soft pillow over my head.
“Mother?” I asked, softly. The darkness ate the words, but something stirred on the edge of our circle of hands.
“Jolly?” Mother’s voice was near my ear, pained and muffled.
“Mother! Where are you?”
“I…I don’t know. North?I couldn’t–” she faded out for a moment “–can’t move.”
“We’re coming for you.”
“No, the children–“
“We can’t help the children if we die!”
She was silent.
“We’re coming for you.” Before she could respond, the connection broke, and we were thrown from the consciousness.
We fell to the ground, hard.
“Bash!” Eero yelled.
Bash scrambled to his feet, and called his staff to him. It hit his hand with a dull thud, and he leveled it in the direction Eero was pointing. There, at the edge of the barrier, was the entity from Babaga’s.
“What do you want, Hood?” Bash growled.
The entity didn’t move, but from deep within the hood disapproval stared back.
“I am here to offer my assistance,” he rumbled.
“How?” I asked, getting up from the ground.
“I can escort thee to your comrade. I know where she is being held.”
We froze. “Where is she?” I demanded.
Hood turned to me. “I will take you there.”
The others and I exchanged glances. It was our only chance of coming back.
“Be not mistaken, god. I offer assistance, but there may be no return journey. This goes beyond all of us,” he said.
I chewed on my lip in consideration.
“Our options are possible death over inevitable death?” Spud asked, the gravity of the situation making his slow voice slower.
“Can you take those of us who cannot move beyond the boundary, without injuring us further?” Bash asked. His usual bravado shone through as he lifted his chin in defiance to Hood.
“You guys go, and I’ll stay here with the children. I’ll be able to let them know through the connection if you succeed,” Spud said.
He mentioned nothing of our failure, but if one of us was eliminated the others would not survive.
Dare started to protest, but Spud shook his head. “I’m slower than a snail on my fast days.” He wasn’t wrong.
“We must depart. Now.” Hood didn’t sound precisely impatient, but he was ready to be off.
“We’ll be back,” I said, to Spud and the children, who were all now awake.
Eero ran froward and hugged me, hard. To the smaller ones I was more substantial, because they needed Play more than the older children. However, it was rare for me to have any physical contact with the children. I was the intro to a game, sometimes the arbiter, but never an actual participant. I never minded, because it’s not like I had anything to miss. It was all about the game.
But here, now, I was so much more.
I hugged him back, just as tight, and then he pulled away.
“You can do it, Jolly.” There was such absolute conviction in his eyes, even I believed. If only for a moment.
I turned to Hood. “Let’s go.”
“Take my hand.” He held a hand out, over the edge of the barrier, and it was as though he was pushing through something thick.
The moment the three of us touched his hand, his way over the barrier eased, somewhat. It was then he caught fire before us. The flames were golden, warm, and engulfed us, too. Dare yelped, and tried to jump back, but I blocked him with my body. I grabbed his hand with my other one before he removed his. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew we all needed to remain connected. At least for now.
“Stop being a wuss,” I hissed in his ear.
Then Hood pulled us into the air, and I yelped, too. Wings made of the same fire flared out behind him, and beat against the air.
“Where are we going?” I yelled against the wind rushing past our faces. It was the second time I’d asked, and I didn’t expect an answer. So, imagine my surprise when he gave a straight answer this time.