The travel was slow but steady. Just before dusk one of the bodyguards died from heat exhaustion. The remaining seven left him lying in the road, never stopping, continuing to push forward. Dad continued to sit in the passenger seat and marvel over his new arm.
“I wonder if it’ll ever go back?”
“It’s possible. I can’t believe Mom’s not really dead.”
“Well, we hope she isn’t dead.” He stared out the window, something like worry in his eyes.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“Yeah. Scared. I mean, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be as easy as returning Brilliance and then walking away with our old lives. We’ve taken and held onto a part of their history... More than that, something very much like their life force. It would be like someone stealing a Christian’s Jesus and keeping him in a prison. What I’m trying to say is—they might be a little upset.”
“Oh, I would say they’re more than a little upset. My hope is that they’ll be so happy to have their flame back that everything else will be kind of secondary. Maybe we’ll even be seen as heroes. After all, we weren’t the ones who stole the flame, your grandfather was. And he’s probably dead. I can’t really imagine that he would be alive. He’d be over a hundred by now.”
“It’s possible though.”
“They probably strung him up. In his day, everyone wanted to string him up. Even when he was a reputable anthropologist people wanted to string him up. But that was probably just jealousy.”
We fell back into silence, the bodyguards continuing to push. Dusk darkened into night and the landscape still had not changed. How was it possible for a place to be this flat and desolate? I imagined this was what the world was like before anything started growing on it. Just miles and miles of mineral nothing. The earth probably had to start growing things because it got bored with itself. This was the earth in khaki. Endless, head-to-toe khaki.
Then the bodyguards pushed us off a cliff.
I don’t think they were trying to kill us since they went down with us. Following us to the bitter end. I looked at Dad. He held his board arm out the window and flapped it wildly, as though it could somehow stop the fall. He looked at me, panic in his eyes. We didn’t say anything. Just continued staring at one another. I closed my eyes in anticipation of the deadening crash.
Instead we splashed into water, going deep. Once I saw that father had successfully escaped the van, I grabbed the flame and swam through the window. At first the water stung my eyes but I kept them open, seeing some faint light at what had to be the surface. I looked at the flame and noticed that it continued to burn under water. A fire that burns in the water. This was truly a magical urn I held. I was almost eager to meet the people who worshipped such a thing. It seemed so much more real and magical than a lot of other things to worship.
Two of the bodyguards swam to either side of me, grabbing hold of my arms and speeding my swim for the surface. Our heads broke through the water and I looked around to make sure Dad had made it okay. He was also flanked by two bodyguards. The other three were probably trying to salvage the van but it was a lost cause.
At first I thought maybe this was the fabled Malefic Ocean but, after spitting some water out of my mouth, I realized it was not salt water. So we were once again in a vast lake and it wouldn’t really have surprised me if this vast lake was the same vast lake we had to cross so many miles ago. Really, with such an unchanging landscape it would have been entirely possible to just drive around in circles for hours or days and not really know the difference. I envisioned some mad engineer constructing a circular road in that uniform landscape. It would be a pretty heinous joke but I didn’t really see what end it could possibly be good for.
“You okay?” Dad shouted.
“Fine. Did you remember the flame?”
“No. I guess we’ll have to go back down for it.”
“Just kidding.” I held up the flame, glowing brighter than ever.
“Bastard,” he said under his breath.
I began swimming but, apparently, the bodyguards couldn’t really stand to see me exert myself so they immediately flanked me again. They were much better swimmers than I. We reached the other shore in no time. I had to squint my eyes against the bright lights. These were not the fluorescent lights of the City of No like I had at first feared. These were lights of buildings, trains, cars, advertising, life... Curious, I thought, that what we often called life is completely the opposite. Maybe it was a sign that living things were actively doing something but, all of that light, all of that electricity, all of that fuel, was actually sucking away at life, using up the earth’s resources, filling the air with toxins that we breathe in every day, killing us even quicker. Unfortunately, this city was at the top of what was nearly a cliff.
The other three bodyguards were already at the top. They had fastened rope ladders and unfurled them down the face of the cliff. I had no idea how they made it up there. I grabbed onto the lowest rung and began pulling myself up but one of the bodyguards insisted, through a series of complicated hand gestures, that I mount his back. So I did. It was very hard to argue with someone who didn’t talk. I climbed on a bodyguard’s back and the other one crept up behind us, his hand on my ass to keep me supported. It was like being strapped into a roller coaster. If either of them let go I would have gone tumbling back down into the water, possibly even damage myself on the jutting rocks of the cliff. But I had complete and total faith in them. Even when someone began shooting at us from above.
They shot at me first. I assumed this was because I was the easier target since I held the flame and, therefore, gave them something to shoot at. The bodyguard whose back I rode upon took a bullet in the head and, whereas the other bodyguards had died after taking bullets, he kept on going. Granted, his head did become a giant flower but it was a flower with a sense of direction. One of the bodyguards at the top of the cliff must have apprehended or driven away the shooter before he could get off a more accurate round.
It took us a while but we finally reached the top. Collectively, we struggled over the edge. I hopped off the bodyguard and straightened myself up. The bodyguard with the flower head dropped dead as soon as I got off his back. That left six. Hopefully, we wouldn’t lose anymore. Even though they had absolutely no personality I found myself growing close to them, admiring them for their grim determination.
“I’m guessing this still isn’t the place we want to be, is it?”
“I’m afraid not,” Dad said. “But we may be closer than you think.”
“Somewhere in that city is a ship that will take us past the island of the Nefarions. All we have to do is find it and book passage.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“You haven’t been in this city before.”
“Once. A long time ago.”
I turned my gaze toward the city. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of skyscrapers rose into the night sky. The whole city pulsed with so much light that it threw a corona out into the surrounding night sky. The buildings were all covered in huge screens, flashing advertisements for various products and, it looked like, even people. A huge sign flashed at the entrance to the city: WELCOME HOME. WELCOME HOME. WELCOME HOME. Approaching the city, several things became apparent. There was an awful smell. Like mounds and mounds of garbage and maybe some vomit and piss, wafting out. And the sounds, from this far away, were like loud white noise, occasionally punctuated by gunfire, squealing brakes, sirens, honking, the clatter and whistle of trains.
“The important thing to remember,” Dad said just before we entered the city. “Is to try not to talk to anyone. There will be many people trying to sell you things and if you talk to them they will not leave you alone. I find a good punch to the stomach works with most of them.”
Sounded like fun.
We entered the city, the six remaining bodyguards forming as much of a wall as they could.