The three were resting when an eerie stillness crept upon them from the east. The river calmed as though pressed by a large and powerful hand; it swept past them quickly, the current dizzying in its velocity, its surface no longer tongued by white water. It deepened past green to black, sucking all sound from the air. The wind died, the roaring of the river became a whisper, until they heard nothing but their own breathing and the solemn creak of firs and cedars shifting uncomfortably in the unearthly hush. They moved back from the river as darkness fell, seeking the harsh solidity of the trees' shelter.
"Night comes early in these parts," Matthew said. Derin laughed nervously and pressed his back against the trunk of a fir. The air was grainy, as though it had taken the density of night, its muted weight. In that silence, each of them thought of the owl and the power of darkness. Derin looked up, expecting to see a vast black wingspread descend to them, talons tensed.
He felt a surge of fear, and on his wrist a blue vein pulsed. He closed his eyes and tried to calm the racing of his heart. Vera crouched low between the two of them, her ears flattened against her head. She growled deep in her throat and her tail bristled. Her breathing, like Matthew's, was quick and shallow. As the darkness had come, so the day returned to them, moving from the east. First the wind's sighing resumed in the upper branches of the trees, and waves reared upon the river's surface. And then the grey light surrounded them, casting ashes on their faces.
"What was it?" Derin asked.
"I don't know," Matthew said. "I've never seen anything like it." They looked at Vera, half-expecting her to understand what had happened, but she shrugged and stared at the sky. "I thought we'd come to the end," she said. "I never expected to be grateful for this thin light. It only goes to show how little time is left. We should push on."
* * *
As Vera had said, there was swamp on this side too. It stretched before them as they picked up their packs and headed west. Ice and water, moss-covered hillocks, the grooved trunks of cedars passed around them as in a dream. Derin had the feeling they'd gotten nowhere, but the river's thunder receded until its sound disappeared into the icy water. The fox, who was leading, turned, and Derin almost tripped over her. "It won't be long," she reassured them. "Don't worry."
Matthew whistled strange fragmentary pieces of a song Derin hadn't heard before. A few notes rose into the air and hung stranded, waiting for others which never came. He seemed preoccupied, half-dazed, and the boy wondered if the wound on the satyr's forehead were more serious than it looked. Derin kept up with the fox, who wasted no time threading a passage through the water, but the satyr lagged behind. He dragged his hooves, splashing water before him, and the constant noise began to wear on the boy's nerves.
He stopped and faced the satyr, waiting for him to catch up. "Are you all right, Matthew?" he asked, but Matthew didn't answer, splashed right past him, whistling.
Derin took two quick steps, caught the satyr by the shoulder, and spun him around. "I asked if you were all right," he said. Matthew shrugged free. "I'm fine," he said. "Just thinking."
Derin let him walk second, and he followed through the swamp, watching the rhythmic swing of the satyr's shoulders, listening to the occasional haunting notes without form or pattern. As he pulled his feet free of the mud, little whirlpools rushed to fill the emptiness. He thought of the say before, the declivity of silence he'd lain in. He glanced over his shoulder, suddenly afraid they were being followed, but he could see only the stately monotonous recession of cedars.
He heard the fox call back to him and Matthew, telling them they were almost out of the swamp, and he began to notice the change. The water lapped below his knees, the mud had given way to something more solid, and ahead, dimly, the boy could see the air brighten. It was like coming to the end of a long evening. In the swamp the light was stolen by the cedars and water, but where the water ended, the grey light they'd become accustomed to resumed.
Derin was beginning to breathe more easily, anxious to escape the walled-in closeness of the swamp, when he saw the eyes. They peered at him from a thicket of pepperbush some distance to the left. He grunted, as though he'd been struck in the stomach, and stopped short. They disappeared. He stood where he was, scarcely breathing, his arms arrested in midswing, and stared at the thicket, sure he'd imagined them. But they blinked at him once more, what seemed to him hundreds of gleaming eyes, read as coral, as amanitas, and then he heard a soft swishing, water rippling, as the frogs swam away.
He yelled to Vera and Matthew, now climbing the steady slope out of the swamp, and began to run, thrashing through the water, drenching himself again.
He fled from the water, past the two who stood waiting, and Matthew reached out and grabbed him, almost wrenching him off the ground.
"Wait," the satyr said. "Hold on."
"They're back there," Derin gasped, his eyes wide. "Let go of me." He pulled his arm loose, but the look on the satyr's face kept him from running again.
"What did you see?" Matthew asked.
"The frogs. There were hundreds of them. Let's get out of here."
"Calm down," Matthew said. "Your mind's playing tricks on you."
"I'm not so sure," Vera said. "We're in the Outer Lands, remember. I expect we'll be reported. You didn't think we'd sneak up on the owl without his knowing, did you?"
"I didn't know what to expect," Matthew said.
"You saw hundreds of frogs?" Vera asked. "What did they do?"
"They were in a bush. I saw their eyes."
"They didn't follow you?"
"No," Derin said, calmer. "They swam off. To the south."
"There's nothing to do but keep going," the fox said. "We'll have to be careful."
The land beyond the swamp was low and marshy. Cattails, reeds, tall knife-edged grass grew from the ground. Derin walked between the others, and his eyes searched the reeds for the red eyes he was sure were watching them. They traveled more quickly now; even Vera was unnerved by the thoughts of animals out there recording their passage, unseen presences they could do nothing about. Matthew tried to whistle to break the tension, but he soon stopped. Low shrublike bushes, waist-high pines, manzanita, dotted the terrain. There were places for things to hide.
"What else lives here?" Derin asked, and Vera answered without breaking stride, speaking into the hollow air before her. "I told you before," she said. "Snakes and scorpions. Some weasels. I've seen a wild boar or two, though not in years. Up ahead, when the ground becomes desert, there are fewer animals. Sand squirrels mostly and a few other clans who have learned to get along without much water."
"Desert?" Matthew asked.
"The Plain of Desiccation," Vera said. "We'll be there all too soon."
* * *
I apologize for taking this long for completing a simple task of copying a few pages. If you want me to do this thing faster, just SAY it.