The first thing Marine noticed was the moisture on her cheeks as she reached the Topside. It was cool and calming - it felt like it was stroking her skin as it moved about across her face. It was dark Topside: the sun having long since departed from the distant sky. Marine looked up to see the stars but could see nothing except white fluff. She reached out a hand to try and touch the fluffy, nestling stuff but as her hand made contact it floated away and dispersed and was nothing. Her hand came back damp.
‘The humans call it fog.’ Said Briar, leaning in to speak quietly.
Marine felt the hum of their skin next to hers and she had to shake her head a little to disperse the tingling feeling that accumulated on the back of her neck. ‘What do you call it?’ She asked.
‘Cover.’ Laughed Briar, and stole a look at Marine. Marine smiled. ‘It makes it easier to move about undetected on nights where the fog lies.’ Briar continued, ‘It tends to settle low and heavy, but it’s made stuff. Makes you invisible but it isn’t actually there. As long as you’re in layers, it can’t hurt you.’
Marine shivered, already feeling the dampness permeating her bones. She desperately wanted to continue the conversation with Briar but she couldn’t think of anything else to say or ask that didn’t seem vaguely dim or pathetic so she just walked along in silence trying her best to keep pace with Briar’s long legs without panting.
They seemed to have a large hedge to the left of them as they made their way over cracked, solid mud. Every now and again Marine could make out small leaves above her head. They were outlined against the sky. Marine found everything so confusing: how could the sky be dark and yet still be light enough to show the outline of dark leaves against it? She wanted answers but more than that she didn’t want to ask Briar something so childish that they laughed so she kept her mouth shut.
The line of Tingions stayed tight in to the hedge as they moved along. The ground was bare and dry and Marine had to jump large cracks every 100 paces or so. Some cracks were so big she could have fallen in without trouble, some were narrower: just threatening to catch a foot or a shin and make you trip. The Topsiders had less trouble: their long legs loped across and Briar almost seemed to know where each and every crack was to avoid it. Marine had no such experience and had to watch carefully with every step. To their right, across the chasm of bare, dry earth were hundreds of hugely tall, thin plants that shot out of the ground and up towards the night. They swayed and banged into each other gently and if Marine craned her neck so far back that it hurt she could see swollen bulbs on the top that swayed more than the rest of the stems. Marine marvelled. It was the other side of the world… she knew the roots of all these plants - she could smell the scents of roots she was familiar with but here they were coming off the other side of the plant. It was fascinating. Why did the roots need these parts? She wondered. Were they integral to the roots living in some way? She knew roots sucked water out of the soil, and that was how they ate and drank but perhaps these other sides had purposes too that helped the roots? She wished she had paid more attention in school.
Her legs were beginning to tire as they came to the end of the hedgerow on the left and the party stopped so that Briar could check for danger. Before them was just grass now; low cut and offering less chance to hide than the hedge. Briar looked about and listened carefully to the wind. They sniffed long and deep and then stood silently with their eyes closed listening and absorbing the air around. As they stood quietly, Marine realised she could hear something. A gentle, elegant… a gentle elegant what? It was certainly a movement, so she wanted to say vibration or rumbling but that wasn’t quite it. It was softer and more… more elegant than rumbling. It was unlike anything she had heard before. She could feel it too: in her feet. Like the Beats but constant and less rigid. Less performed. It felt like something she recognised but had never seen or heard.
‘Ok, I think it’s clear,’ Briar’s voice interrupted her thoughts with a practised loud whisper, ‘We will cross.’ Briar nodded to the other Topsiders and each one pulled out a knife and ran it through the bindings on the hands of the Team. ‘Go quickly and smoothly, only stop when you reach the river. If you think now is a good time to escape, then you have my blessing but avoid the foxes, and the owls. If you’re going to get caught, pray for an owl. Enjoy the ride because it’ll be the last thing you ever know.’
Marine opened her mouth to ask what an owl, or a river was but before the words could leave her lips the Topsiders had gone. They paced away across the grass, dodging blades lightly and leaving an alarming gap almost instantly. She looked from Ezria to Kurann in a panic and saw Ezria shrug and begin to jog. Mortglade and Rishekke were already running. Marine picked up her heels and chased them down, hoping that a river would be obvious enough that she would know to stop at it before it killed her.
She ran as hard as she could, making sure to not stray too far from Mortglade who was ever so slightly slower than the rest of the group. She could just make out the figures of the Topsiders in the distance and kept her eyes pinned on them as they ran. Then suddenly they were gone. Marine’s feet pounded on the ground as she ran through the grass: avoiding the stronger blades and keeping her arms up stop them whipping across her eyes as she ran. She peered into the distance but the heads of the Topsiders had vanished. Was it an ambush? She looked left and right for signs of attack. Why would they set them free only to attack though? Surely it would have been easier to do when they were secured. Was it the hunt? Had Marine misjudged Briar? Her mind was racing as fast as her feet when all of a sudden the next step she took never met ground.
Her feet flailed about beneath her, reaching only air and her torso carried on moving forward as she fell forward and down a slope. Her chest hit the floor with a thump and she skidded painfully down loose stones and tiny, tiny pieces of pebble. She rolled over and over before finally coming to a complete stop. Marine lay still, trying to get her breathing back to normal and get rid of the rushing sound in her ears. The ground was trembling.
‘Are you alright?’ Marine opened her eyes to see Briar’s face looming over her own.
‘Yes,’ she wheezed, ‘Yes, I fell.’
‘We saw,’ said Briar smiling kindly, and offering a hand to help Marine up. ‘Well, I did stay to stop before the river and you did just that.’
Marine sat up, and as her head raised she saw it. An enormous writhing mass of water fighting itself on a race across the ground. Marine yelped and skittered backwards away from it, sending loose bits of grit and sharp things flying into the water. It looked incredible, Marine had to admit, the light from the sky was dancing on the surface and shimmering and shining. She’d never seen so much water in one place. Never seen it moving with such intensity or ferocity. She was absolutely spellbound.
‘Beautiful.’ She heard Briar’s voice say and Marine looked up to agree with them, but when she turned her head she saw that Briar wasn’t looking at the river at all.
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