“Welcome to Khatus.”
Ferron and the other hundred or so Earthers stepped from the platform to the soft ground of their new home. The grass was the same emerald green of Earth, but the sky was tinged orange, as if a fire burned somewhere behind the clouds. The soil was scarlet. Couples and groups emerged from the chaos until only a few stood alone, searching and calling out names.
Five Pavitra guards, nearly seven feet tall and masked in silver paint, oversaw the disembarkation. Their strange, serpentine hands clasped tall bladed spears. Like all their kind, they looked humanoid, but gender was impossible to tell. Black feathers sprouted from their heads, forearms, and calves, as black as a crows, and their snake-skin was the blinding white of untouched snow.
Only their painted faces showed any color, which the in-flight education service said changed with the season: crimson for Killing, pale yellow for Seeding, silver for Haunting, and cornflower blue for Temperance.
Borun was waiting for him, Borun who had arrived on Khatus over a year earlier with the most precious of cargos in his possession. During the wars, he provided shelter to those lost and wandering. Gave them water, clothed their backs, no questions asked and always with a smile. But now his eyes were ringed with dark circles and worry lines. He looked older. He looked tired. “It’s been a long time,” Borun said.
As they embraced, Ferron searched the Earther faces in the dwindling crowd, even looking to the alien Pavitra standing at attention with their glaives at their sides, faces painted yellow for Seeding Season. Searched for the only reason he’d come.
He stepped back, searching his friend’s face instead. “Where’s Runa?”
Borun’s gaze slid away.
Memories of Runa’s gap-toothed smile played back in Ferron’s mind. The way she always hurried ahead of him when they walked, how she liked to hide and jump out in surprise, the sound of her soft snoring while she held her orange dinosaur under her arm, Dini. He smiled to think how she would run to him and wrap her arms around his neck like she used to when he came home. Ferron checked to make sure Dini was still tucked safely in a side pocket of his duffel bag, her plush dinosaur arms sticking out as if reaching for a hug. They would all be reunited soon.
The path ended, and Ferron and Borun stood in the grove. The shade masked Borun’s face as he spoke.
“It was too late when I found her,” he said. “She was too far gone. It was the silver clay. Most things on Khatus are deadly until we build up immunity with the Vigil. You know that. The kids just didn’t listen.” He gestured around him at the bone-white trees. “This is how the Pavitra bury the dead, with trees instead of headstones. I know they buried the children here. Somewhere.”
The straps of the duffle bag slipped from Ferron’s fingers. It made a sound when it landed on the red, Khatus earth: the thud of a falling body. The trees closed in around him, and the air thinned into almost nothing. His denials were trapped in his throat, but the leaves seemed to speak for him. The wind picked up, and their rustling intensified, as if they swung like corpses from a hundred ropes and shook their heads: No, no, no.
His daughter couldn’t be dead. She was supposed to have a drawing for him that said I love you Daddy and Welcome to Khatus, misspelled and crooked, and he was supposed to give her back the stuffed orange dinosaur she loved so much. He could still see her as she looked on the day she left for Khatus, while he stayed behind on Earth, held up with paperwork and background checks. He would have to take the next charter. “Take care of Dini for me,” she had said in her six-year-old voice before boarding the ship with Borun and disappearing among the stars.
“Where is she?” Ferron asked.
“How should I know?”
There were only three without names branded into the bark. Saplings. Children. Ferron fell to his knees, clawing at the moist soil. If she was really dead, she would be here. He threw fistfuls of Khatus earth, as red as blood, to the side. It blistered his hands, but he kept digging. Pain didn’t matter. Let Khatus kill him, too.
“Stop!” Borun grabbed him by the arms and pulled him away. “You’ll kill the graves!”
Ferron jerked himself free. He wanted to strike him, to slam him to the ground and hit him again and again until his knuckles were broken. Nothing mattered more than finding Runa.
“The Pavitra have rules,” Borun said, pacing back and forth. “Stay inside the quarantine, take the Vigil vaccine, be back before Cleansing Hour. There are more. If we break them, they could lock us up forever. We’re at their mercy, aren’t we? We’d never be allowed to leave the quarantine. And then what was the point of leaving Earth to come here?”
“I came here for Runa.”
Borun shifted on his feet and said with steeley tone, “I’m sorry about Runa. Really, I am, but I won’t let you ruin it for the rest of us.”
A few hundred feet away, the carillon tower in the Earther camp rang a deep, slow tune. Borun looked back at the collection of stone barracks and buildings and grunted. “It’s time for evening meal.” He grabbed Ferron’s duffle bag. Dini fell from the pocket, his boot nearly flattening her as he walked away. “Remember the rules.”
The leaves shifted, soft now. Ferron picked Dini up and dusted her off. The worn-out fur still smelled of Runa, but it wouldn’t always. It would fade; it would be forgotten.
Why had he let her leave without him?
Ferron watched Borun depart, then reached for the nearest tree and ran his stinging hand along its rough surface, feeling for the etchings of the names of the dead—Dormard, year 2143; Ybarra, year 2135; all Earthers who had died within the last fifteen years—but Runa’s was missing. If her name wasn’t on a tree, then she could still be alive, hiding, scared.
Everything faded until only Ferron’s shaking breath, his beating heart remained to flood his ears. The drums of life, his life, but where was evidence of Runa’s? Where were her tiny feet, peeking behind a tree during hide-and-seek, and her sweet voice when she yelled ‘Surprise!’ and jumped out of hiding?
He collapsed to his knees, pulled at his coat and shirt. He leaned against a tree and tried to stand again, but he only made it halfway before his legs gave out.
He lay sprawled on the ground, face-up, the tree tops spinning above him as the world turned dark.
Ferron turned to see a lean man with scraggly facial hair sitting back onto the nearest cot and a short woman with close-cropped hair standing behind.
“Who are you?” he managed.
“Roth.” The man gestured to himself, then jerked a thumb at the woman. “Lin.” He chewed on a husk of stale bread and squinted at Ferron. “You were screaming in your sleep.”
He remembered why, and a sour metallic taste came to Ferron’s mouth. He suddenly wanted to vomit, but not even that relief was given to him. His stomach was empty, his heart was empty.
“How did I get here?” he said.
“Rescue mission,” said Roth, showing his teeth in a crust-filled smile.
Lin looked right and left around the barrack and spoke in a hushed whisper. “Why were you outside the camp, in that damn Pavitra graveyard?”
His back felt raw. Ferron struggled to sit up, noticing the bruises and scratches on his arms. His hands were bandaged in gauze, their stinging muted to a distant discomfort. His shoes were still on, shirt open, and crimson-colored Khatus earth smeared his pants. Blades of emerald grass hung down in front of his left eye, stuck in his hair. “Did you drag me back?”
Roth chuckled, his laugh growing to a roar. Other Earthers in the barrack turned to see what was happening, but then outside the carillon sang again, a different call from what he’d heard before, hollow and wailing.
“Vigil awaits,” Roth said as he stood, “Next time, we’ll leave you for the Pavitra to find, okay?”
Lin shushed him as she followed him out. “That’s not funny, Roth. We’re refugees. What one of us does wrong, we all get punished for.”
Ferron forced himself to his feet, pulling his shirt closed awkwardly, and followed his new barrackmates out into the sunlight.
The carillon’s wail continued, echoing throughout the camp, and Ferron winced. “What’s going on?”
“Vigil,” said Roth. “Vaccine time. Get used to it. I’ve been in quarantine for close to two years, and now I’m nearly ready to join the others living outside these miserable confines. Transition, the Pavitra call it.” He grinned. “We call it freedom.”
Ferron looked around the camp. A good two-dozen buildings made of polymer and plastic, whatever was light enough to load on the ships, and lines of people lengthening outside the entrances to three more permanent-looking structures. He was used to long-term emergency compounds and lines of refugees, but he was also used to Runa holding his hand as they waited for food and medicine.
“That’s your stop,” Roth grunted, and pointed to the longest line with the newest arrivals. Ferron recognized them as passengers from the charter ship he arrived on. He had told them about his daughter, and how she was waiting for him to arrive. He had showed them her picture. They would ask where she was.
Borun watched them from halfway down his line and then abandoned his spot to stand next to Ferron. “Long night?” he said, eyeing the red dirt stains. There was light in his eyes. The worry-lines Ferron had noticed earlier had apparently disappeared as soon as he handed off the burden of Runa’s loss. “You’ll feel better in time.”
“I can’t do this,” said Ferron. He backed away as his breathing became labored. Heart pulsing in violent bursts, the final beats before it stopped completely.
Borun stepped toward him, but Ferron ran.
He ran past the lines of Earthers, the harsh stone buildings of the camp, and the central carillon tower. The tune for Vigil rang again, but this time it was like a Valkyrie’s screech. Strangers paused to watch him run. They didn’t try to stop him. They didn’t call out: What’s wrong? How can we help?
I am a ghost already, he thought.
Ferron kept running, right at the group of Pavitra guards outside the nearest vaccination building, their faces painted the pale yellow of a dim and cloud-covered sun. They held sharpened glaives at their sides. The Pavitra would try to protect themselves, wouldn’t they? It would be quick, an accident. They would bury him in the grove beside Runa.
But it wasn’t the sharp glaives that met him. They dropped their weapons and grabbed him with their snake hands, winding tight to keep him steady.
“Wait in line, Earther,” one guard said.
“I can’t be here!” he cried. “Not without my daughter!”
The guard paused for a moment, then held out what could be considered its hand. It looked like three headless snakes writhing.
Ferron hesitated. The rule was to avoid contact with the aliens. There were many rules, the education program had been littered with them, but this was steadfast: never let them touch you, never let them read your mind. The Pavitra might keep you in quarantine forever if they knew what you really thought. Or control you. Even change you.
He heard Borun call out, “Don’t touch it!”
And from Lin, almost in a panic, “What are you doing?”
Ferron offered his hand to the alien.
Against all expectation, he felt something easing inside him.
Too soon, it released him and said, “Maephus will see you.”
“Traitor,” someone spat from the line.
He took a deep breath and entered. A Pavitra healer waited within. It turned its face at such an angle that the silver paint glistened like moonlight on a lake.
“Your name is Ferron Daye,” it said in overly enunciated syllables, accented with long pauses between phrases. “You fell by the grove.”
The words he’d wanted to say no longer existed. How could he even describe what he was feeling? How could he explain without acknowledging that Runa was probably dead? If he said the words, it would be real. If he spoke, he would break.
Maephus took hold of Ferron’s hands with its reptilian ones. Vibrations from the contact traveled down his arms and into his chest, softly strumming against his heart just as before. He wasn’t afraid. This was what he needed, to not speak. To not have to say the words.
A memory came to him, of Earth, when they and everyone else had to evacuate the blackened remains of their homes and huddle into shelters with no food and no water. He had tried to explain to Runa why they were there, but how could he talk of war to a six-year-old? People killing people, he had finally explained. She had furrowed her brow and whispered, Then we should move to Khatus.
And so he had sent her ahead of him in Borun’s safe-keeping.
The vibrations softened and flowed through him. Seeking. They touched every part of him, until finally the strumming faded away like the last chord of a song.
Maephus released him and said, “Three children climbed the wall. Nearly one year ago.”
A cold chill gripped his throat. Borun had said nothing of that. “How could they? The wall is fifteen feet high.”
“You must take Vigil now.” Maephus stood to retrieve the materials from a cabinet: long needles from a Khatus plant, and a glass vial filled with purple liquid. He dipped one of the needles, very deeply into the vial, most of its length glistening as it was withdrawn.
Ferron pulled his arm back, fist clenched. “Tell me first,” he said, voice shaking.
“Vigil does many things,” Maephus said as it returned the purple vial to the cabinet. “It protects from the poison of Khatus, like Pavitra are protected.”
“Not the vaccine! Tell me about my daughter.”
It looked at him for a long moment. “Vigil gives you ears to hear Khatus. The children must have heard her when she called.”
“I don’t understand.”
Maephus raised the needle. “Then listen.”
After a moment, Ferron extended his arm to be injected.
The Vigil felt like fire being forced through his flesh.
He put them under his pillow and waited until the Earthers in his barrack were settled into sleep. Then he waited for Cleansing Hour to begin, when the Pavitra would leave their posts and gather for the nightly painting ritual. He crept out and followed the white pebbled path from the Earther camp to the death grove, and its three unmarked graves. He knew at some point the trees would show the names of those buried below—the children who climbed the wall?—but even then, if he saw Runa’s among them, would he believe?
The leaves rustled above, and he looked up. Dancing, the purple-leaved canopy swayed almost as one, almost with a message. He held his breath and listened, wishing he could hear Runa’s voice.
Walk, the breeze and the leaves and the very place said to him.
So he did.
He let the wind lead him along the perimeter wall, following a scent he hadn’t noticed before. The aroma of woodsy musk came from where an ancient, red-leaved tree grew close to the wall. Its branches reached so high, and smudges of thick gleaming mud speckled its cinnamon bark like a trail to the top.
The scent grew stronger. Sandalwood.
The speckled mud was patterned, purposeful. It glistened like moonlight on a lake. Ferron placed his hand upon the nearest marking. Perfectly, the faded silver print was eclipsed by his own: a child’s handprint, cold and sticky to the touch. When he took his hand away, he looked down and saw that the marking had transferred to his palm. One little hand painted on his skin, silver and iridescent.
A ghost’s hand.
He was sprawled beneath the cinnamon-bark tree. It was morning.
Ferron recognized the voice of Maephus. “You touched the forbidden clay.”
Silver covered his right hand—the one he touched the handprint with—but it had spread from his palm to reach out in tendrils down his forearm. He sat up and tried to wipe it away, but it wasn’t on the surface, it was inside his skin.
Earthers had come to see why the Pavitra were gathered. They hung back, flinching if they got too close to a Pavitra. Raith’s and Lin’s eyes widened when they saw it was Ferron, and immediately backed away. Borun’s eyes turned to slits as the Earther crowd began to chime in:
“Look at his hand—”
“—punish him, not us—”
“—we followed the rules!”
The Pavitra took hold of Ferron’s arms and lifted him to his feet—and as he stood, he thought he saw a pair of tiny feet running through the crowd, and a glimpse of auburn hair flowing between them. He heard her laugh, saw her smile.
“Runa!” he called, fighting to break free from the Pavitra holding him. “Runa, I’m here!”
“The haunts have begun,” Maephus said. “Take him to Kimli.”
Their python hands squeezed tighter. As their vibrations calmed him, Runa’s laugh disappeared. Her smile vanished. She was never there.
Ferron sagged in their grip, helpless and hopeless. The scent of sandalwood drifted around him as the Pavitra led him like a prisoner into the Earther camp and towards the Pavitra buildings on the far end. His arm looked dipped in silver to the elbow, and now his other palm was silvered too. Everything burned as if a flame was brought slowly closer and closer.
The Vigil injection site on his arm throbbed incessantly. He rubbed it, spreading even more silver across his skin, but he didn’t care. It felt like something inside his veins was pushing its way out. He imagined them stretching and expanding, swollen with the Vigil until they burst. As the silver spread up his arms, the fear was replaced with certainty. He knew his heart would stop, and he would still stand. He would bleed purple on bone-white skin.
“Earther,” the Pavitra said, stopping to stare at him. He had been clawing at his arm. At the injection site. So deep that it bled—bled red, of course, just as it always had.
“My blood,” Ferron said. “I thought it would be…”
The Pavitra watched with their black eyes, unblinking. Their vibrations increased like a cat purring. “The haunts trick you,” one said. “Drive you mad.”
They continued in silence and soon arrived at a small stone building much smaller than any of the others in the camp. Above its door, it had a symbol Ferron had never seen: four circles touching, each larger than the previous.
“What is this?” he asked.
“They are the four moons of Khatus,” one of the Pavitra said. “Kimli is keeper of seasons.”
“Seasons are a Pavitra matter,” the other added. “But some Earthers come to know them as we do.”
The door opened into darkness, and he heard Runa’s soft laughter from inside the stone building. The impulse to vomit washed over him and sweat dripped down his face. As his eyes grew accustomed, he thought he saw—was that her crouched in the corner? Was that her walking toward the doorway?
A Pavitra emerged, breaking the illusion. It had a shorter mane of black feathery hair, almost spiky, and its skin, painted silver, was smoother than the rough reptilian skin of the other Pavitra he had seen.
The guards released him. “Kimli, we bring a poisoned Earther.”
Kimli looked at Ferron’s silver hands and arms with black, cave-like eyes. “Come,” it said.
Inside, eight Pavitra sat on the floor in a circle, each holding an empty pestle and mortar. Stacks of bundled leaves and stalks covered one wall of the building. Floor-to-ceiling shelves held jars of the four colors for the four seasons. He recognized sandalwood again, but other scents mixed in the air as well. Aromas he could liken to lilies, clove, and pine.
Kimli motioned that he sit apart from the others while they took handfuls of blue flowers and began to crush them in the bowls. “Tonight is the last night of Haunting Season. We must prepare the paints for Temperance.”
“I thought… that Runa would be here. Is she?”
Kimli shook its head. “No. It takes one Khatus year for the roots to take hold and the blood to flow.”
Another wave of nausea washed over him. The death trees grew from the remains buried beneath them. He had fought so hard not to picture it, but now the image of a drained, emaciated Runa buried in a nest of hungry, twisting vines flashed before his eyes. The roots were drinking her dry.
“Then Borun told me the truth,” he whispered. “Your silver clay killed her.”
“Pavitra give Vigil so Earthers can survive the wilds of Khatus, but clays do not always kill. You are silver, and you are alive.”
Ferron looked at his hands. They burned. “Tell me what happened.”
“Have your Earthers not told you? Last Temperance Season they brought us the bodies to bury. Two bore the marks of being touched by the clays. The other child had become silver. Like you.”
Ferron lowered his eyes. He tried to focus on the ritual happening around him, to steady his breathing and keep in time with the rhythmic scrape and turn of the blue petals being ground to a fine powder. “I really thought I’d seen her. I thought I could find her.”
“That is the silver clay. It summons the haunts. During Cleansing Hour tonight, wash your face and your hands with this essence water.” Kimli took a small vial from one of the shelves that contained a clear substance. “Pavitra must wash and reapply the paints nightly to maintain balance of their influence. Tonight, we shall enter Temperance.”
Ferron took the glass bottle offered him. “I’m not Pavitra.”
Kimli studied him and said, “We are all Pavitra.”
Ferron headed for the grove. The glass bottle Kimli gave him was ice in his hand, and the feeling of roots creeping around him, of dirt filling his lungs, continued to grow more vivid. Could one die from just the thought of dying? It didn’t matter if he was awake or asleep now, the nightmares followed him as a shadow.
At the grove, he stood beside the three nameless death trees. The canopy of purple leaves rustled above. “I should’ve been here with you,” he said, and lifted the wooden stopper in the glass bottle. The liquid inside had a soft citrus aroma.
A small, airy voice mingled with the wind. “I knew you would find me.”
Runa stepped out from behind the three trees. She was still six, and wore the same coat and trousers as the day he put her on the charter ship and said goodbye. Tears stung his eyes, and he couldn’t respond. He wanted to take her in his arms, but the Pavitra’s words rang in his ears: The haunts trick you. Drive you mad.
“I want to show you something!” she said, jumping once then twice. “C’mon, Daddy!”
Ferron put away the vial as her ghostly form hurried toward the perimeter wall. Did he have to choose? Madness or mourning?
“Daddy?” she called back. Her expression so innocent: Aren’t you coming?
After so many weeks with the suspicious Earthers and the stoic Pavitra, the walls he’d built crumbled at the sound of his little girl’s voice. The tears flowed, and he ran after her. “Yes, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m coming.”
Runa stopped at the ancient tree with cinnamon bark growing beside the quarantine wall. Its branches stretched to another red-leaved tree on the other side. She used to climb what trees were left on Earth. She had wanted a tree house so badly, but they were never in one place for very long, always moving from one refugee encampment to another.
Ferron watched as she grabbed the bark and branches in the exact same places where the handprints, like stains, still marked them. When he climbed and crossed over in her wake, he could see that a forest stretched around the quarantine walls in all directions. It reminded him of sweetgum and maple trees in autumn and looked so much like the home he knew as a child, even in the eerie light of the alien moons.
He followed Runa down, branch by branch, and then she darted into the forest, appearing only briefly between trees, and then was gone.
As he walked deeper into the forest, the scent of sandalwood grew stronger. He found her again, standing with her back to him and looking at something on the ground.
“The Pavitra painted their faces such pretty colors. I wanted to be pretty like them.”
Ferron came closer to stand beside her and saw they stood at the edge of a pool of silver, shining like moonlight. The sandalwood smell swirled around them, intoxicating.
“Kimli said it didn’t burn you,” he said. “That you turned silver.”
Runa kneeled down to dip her hands in the pond of silver clay. She stopped just before she touched the surface and looked up at Ferron. “If Khatus likes you, she wants to keep you.”
He smiled and crouched down to her level. Together, father and daughter scooped up the clay. It felt soft, too soft for clay or mud, more like handfuls of silk or satin.
“Let me,” she said, and painted her father’s face. Immediately, the clay dried and cracked and pulled at his skin. It felt like a vulture’s talons had latched on and were slowly ripping his flesh away. The pain increased and the silver seeped into his eyes, melting them away and dripping down his cheeks in sticky, milky tears. He tried to wipe off the clay, but his hands were already covered. It hardened like armor, squeezing, crushing. His fingernails broke and bled as he scratched and clawed at his hands in vain.
“Haunts aren’t real, Daddy,” Runa said.
With those words, the imagined armor’s constriction relaxed, and he blinked his eyes until his vision cleared. His fingers weren’t bleeding, and his eyes weren’t melted.
Runa was still beside him, and her face was silver. “Do I look pretty?” she asked.
For a few moments, there was no pain, no nightmarish imaginings. Ferron wished he could stay in the forest with Runa forever. He would build her a hundred tree houses, a thousand secret places. “The prettiest I’ve ever seen.”
She stood and pointed at the sky. The middle moons were almost at their highest points. “We have to hurry back, Daddy. Cleansing Hour is almost over, and Borun hates it when we break the rules.”
She started back the way they had come, still running, still happy, still alive.
He struggled to his feet. Even if what he saw and felt wasn’t real, the effort it took to stay lucid exhausted him. Runa would disappear among the trees on his left and reappear in the distance on his right. He thought she was too far to catch, and then she would be beside him and tease him to move faster.
He leaned on a tree, stopped to steady his spinning thoughts, and felt an etching beneath his fingers. A name. Petro—2056.
“Oh, you found one,” she said.
With an effort he focused on her. “Why is there a death tree out here, beyond the grove?”
“All the trees are death trees. This forest used to be a grove, like mine, and it has grown and grown into what it is now.”
“These are dead Pavitra?”
But Runa had disappeared again—no, had been replaced. Ferron stumbled forward, trying to see. Someone stood beside him. There were hundreds standing in the forest, all wispy and blurry and many-armed. They made no sound.
“My friends,” Runa said in his ear. “The Anthrens. They came to Khatus to find a new home.”
“Who are they? I haven’t seen anyone besides Earthers and Pavitra.”
“The Anthrens are gone, Daddy. Only Pavitra remain.”
The quarantine wall was nearby, and he saw her tiny figure climbing up the tree. He followed her up, but as he crossed over she disappeared again. The middle moons had begun their descent too, and the burning from the clay intensified like a hot brand to his face. His hands itched from imagined bug bites all inflamed and swollen. He paused when he came to the final branch. The faint shimmer of Runa’s handprint still clung to the bark. He expected her to be waiting for him at the bottom, but as he alighted at the base of the cinnamon-bark tree, lanterns and torches closed in from the direction of the camp.
“There he is!” someone cried. The Earthers held clubs and knives as well, grim expressions everywhere. Borun was among them, and a heavy dread settled on Ferron’s heart.
I won’t let you ruin it for the rest of us.
The Earthers brought us their bodies.
Borun hates it when we break the rules.
The haunt of Runa stepped out from behind Borun. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she refused to cry. It was the same look she wore when he told her she was going ahead to Khatus without him. She had been cleared to leave, and he had not. How could he not send her ahead? They were homeless, starving. It might’ve been years before there would be another chance, if they even survived that long.
I love you, Daddy, she had said, and gave him Dini to protect him while she was away. And he had given her to Borun.
“How could you let her die?” Ferron could barely say the words. He couldn’t stop thinking of Runa hidden away, going mad with haunts and no one there to comfort her.
“She was crazy,” Borun said. “She wouldn’t eat or drink anything. Wouldn’t sleep. We tried everything, but she kept screaming and clawing at herself.”
Ferron thrust an arm towards the far buildings. “They would have helped her, if you’d asked!”
In the distance, the carillon tower chimed the first note for the end of Cleansing Hour.
“Pavitra are coming out,” Roth said. “We have to go.” The Earthers extinguished their torches and hurried back to camp, but Borun stayed, a single torch burning in his hands. When the Earthers left, so did Runa.
“It’s better if you die outside the walls,” Borun said, hatred filling his voice. “Just climb back up and disappear.”
Ferron clenched his fists, clay and rage burning. “Is that what you said to Runa?”
“They’ll punish all of us for what you’ve done.”
“But they haven’t, have they?” Ferron shouted. “They’ve never punished anyone! Not when the children crossed the wall, not when I fell asleep outside of the camp, not even when I charged the guard.”
Borun spat. “This camp is a goddamn prison. We only get out on good behavior, and even then, who knows what happens? Have you ever seen an Earther after Vigil is done? No, because no one has!”
“She wasn’t even seven yet!” Sudden waves of sorrow rose up behind the anger, surging over it. More than the release violence could provide, he wanted to drown.
Another chime from the carillon tower.
“She was changing, Ferron. Her skin started to look like theirs. Her hair, her eyes. And the Pavitra were the ones responsible. It’s their poison that killed her.”
The burning, boiling of the silver clay had spread to almost his entire body, cocooning him in fire, but Ferron forced himself to face the man who let his daughter die. Borun was the one who had changed. Ferron saw the fire in his eyes, the torch blazing in his hands, and realized that nothing could be said to convince Borun he was wrong. The Pavitra would always be at fault, no matter the truth.
Licks of flame fell from Borun’s torch and simmered on the grass. “You chose to leave the compound, so leave.”
It took all Ferron’s strength and focus to remain standing. “No.”
Borun dropped the torch and shoved him to the ground, climbed on top of him, pinned him down. Ferron didn’t feel the breaking of his nose when Borun struck it once, twice, then too many times to count. He reached up to block the blows as best he could, but all was numb and dead. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to fight to win.
Sneering, Borun stood and stepped away. “Do you finally understand how it is?”
“Yes.” Ferron smiled through the blood and swelling on his face. “Now you’re poisoned, too.”
Borun looked at his hands, and saw split knuckles covered in silver. He frantically tried to wipe them clean, but the more he touched it, the more it spread. “Get it off! It burns!”
Ferron coughed blood, still smiling. “Here they come.”
Across the field, Kimli and Maephus approached with two Pavitra guards, glaives strapped to their backs and torches in hand. Borun panicked and looked for a place to escape. “They can’t find me like this.”
“Maybe you should leave,” Ferron said. “Who knows what they’ll do to us.”
Borun stared at him and then at the cinnamon bark tree. He looked back at the approaching Pavitra, his clay-covered hands. “You mean what they’ll do to you,” he said, then he climbed, frantic, and disappeared over the wall.
For a few minutes, Ferron was alone. He removed his shirt and staunched the blood from his nose. He didn’t know what to feel. It was over. It was done. But he still had nothing at all.
The Pavitra arrived with flickering torchlight. They were pristine, calm, and now their faces were colored with the pale blue of Temperance Season, of mountain streams and frozen glaciers—things he missed from Earth but knew no longer existed.
Runa would have loved to see them.
Kimli and Maephus leaned down, but the haunting of the silver clay turned them into grey bloodless corpses with the black eyes of barn owls. Their teeth grew into fangs. Their hands into clawed tentacles. Overcome, Ferron convulsed on the ground. Jaw clenched, body shook. He was both paralyzed and helpless to stop the tremors. The haunting was in control now.
Kimli’s voice. “Where is the essence water?”
Pavitra hands on him, searching, vibrating.
The citrus scent of oranges.
The cooling relief of ice upon his burning face.
“He needs more,” said Maephus, and Ferron felt the comfort of Pavitra hands lifting him to carry him back to camp.
As they passed the grove, Ferron looked for Runa. A veil of nightmares shrouded him. He saw vividly the trees’ roots twisting around Runa’s neck and growing through her bones and her veins, feeding off her decaying body. She screamed for him and tried to fight her way to the surface, but he could never find her. She was always just out of reach.
Kimli came over to the bed. Maephus and other Pavitra watched a few steps back, intensely listening. “We continue to search for Borun. He runs from us when we come near.”
Ferron shook his head. “He thinks you’ll kill him.”
“We will not, but Khatus might.”
He sighed. “So what happens now?”
“The haunting clay has been cleansed, but the haunts may remain for a time.”
“And when they go away—will she be gone forever?”
“Haunts are unique to the burdens of the bearer. And to the season. I cannot say what will haunt you in the future.”
He didn’t say it. He didn’t need to. The question of what future hung heavy in his eyes. Kimli’s next words held a tone of reassurance.
“Vigil is more than a vaccine. It comes from Khatus herself, from the sap of the death trees, and it strengthens you over time. Changes you. Many Earthers cannot let go, but some choose to abandon their natural form. To survive outside the walls, all must become Pavitra.
“There are some who Khatus accepts, even without proper Vigil. Those who already belong. Your daughter was one. You are one. The clay merged with you, instead of killing you. You are becoming Pavitra even now, as the Anthrens and the Sirax and the Lorsythe did.”
He turned away and focused on the fading apparition of Runa with her gap-toothed grin. Once changed, he would leave the compound and the quarantine forever. A fifteen-foot wall would separate him from the grove and from his daughter. “I don’t want to leave.”
She whispered in his ear, but there was no sound.
Kimli and Maephus bowed their heads slightly and moved away from him. When they reached the door, Kimli turned. “You are free to be afraid, Ferron Daye. We were all afraid.”
Ferron looked at the growing coarseness of the skin on his hands and arms, faintly showing the early pattern of snake-skin. It looked wrong. It should be the color of snow. He looked at the guards, and the ceremonial glaives that glinted in the sun, grasped in their strange hands. Mirrors, he thought. And when he looked at himself next, what would he see?
“Temperance is blue, the color of sky and water,” Kimli said, taking a wooden bowl of pale blue paint, the same shade the Pavitra now wore, from Maephus and handing it to Ferron. “Be lucid and free, flowing and eternal, as Pavitra strive to be.”
A glimmer of a silhouette stood by the three nameless saplings, and he knew Runa was there. He dipped his hand in the bowl. The blue paint was cool on his still-sensitive skin, like a salve to a wound. He coated his face, as Runa had done for him with the silver clay, and expected a similar burning, haunting reaction. Instead, his mind was overcome with the calm of still nights and the quiet of early mornings.
He felt Runa’s presence beside the middle of the three saplings, and marked her grave with his blue handprint, a final embrace. When he did so, her silhouette ceased to glimmer. It dimmed, darkened, and joined the shadows of dancing leaves that speckled the ground. The blue paint seeped into the bark and revealed the outline of Runa’s name emerging.
Kimli took the bowl and handed him a spike and spile to tap the sappling’s bark, and a bowl to collect whatever would flow from it. “Seasons only end when a new one begins. If you choose to join us, receive Khatus’ gifts.”
He pierced the ashen bark and watched the substance for Vigil trickle down into the bowl. It wasn’t blood-red as he had feared, but the deep purple of the leaves above—the purple of eggplants and plums. And all around him the world whispered: Welcome home.
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