Chapter 6. Fog (Part 2)

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Once Ada had caught Pierre up on recent developments in Ozghard, she took a moment to go through a few of his memories. She'd recently learned how to do this without physical contact, but it always left her body in a sort of rigid trance which was rather unpleasant, so she opted for the more conventional method. Everything she gleaned from Pierre seemed to match up with the visions she'd had so far. He'd taken Adelaide into the Void, they'd been caught by Athròlu, and then...

It was no good trying to see why they had been allowed back into Ozghard. By the time it had happened, Pierre was already withdrawn rather deeply into himself. He wasn't the type to be absorbed into the collective. He'd have gone on like that, building his own internal world, mentufacturing more and more of himself until he grew too large for even Athròlu to hold. Then he'd be his own island: a new oasis in the Void, wailing his siren song, hoping to catch wayfarers and bring them into the fold.

When Ada finally brought Pierre back to the waking world, he had no memory of Athròlu, and Adelaide had to assume she'd only dreamed the encounter. It was all rather murky and indistinct anyhow. It seemed to her that she'd met the Mountain King and talked with Thrako—or else that she had actually been them somehow. The whole thing made precious little sense, as is often the way of dreams.

Actually, this was how Ada preferred things for the moment. She had a purpose now, a war to fight, and Athròlu had given her soldiers. Adelaide would play her part willingly, Ada was sure, but only if she thought it was her own idea. Like most children—most human beings, in fact—Adelaide hated being told what to do. An order was an odious thing. Whether the person giving the order was right or wrong was beside the point.

As Ada made her way south toward Shadow City with Adelaide and Pierre in tow, she took care to engage them in casual conversation along the way, maintaining the illusion that she was still essentially the same person she'd been as a child. She even took the form of a bushy-tailed squirrel in order to appear less threatening. In truth, Ada's perception had expanded so far beyond ordinary human intelligence that she felt more kinship with voidrays like Athròlu than her present traveling companions. She was many in one, less an individual than a colony. And the inhabitants of Ozghard—whether they recognized their role or thought themselves autonomous—were members of that colony.

A greenish haze had begun to fill in the spaces between the trees. When conversation had slowed a bit and left a silence in need of filling, Pierre wondered aloud, "Is it always so dreary around here? This fog seems to be getting thicker all the time."

"I don't remember seeing any fog at all the last time I was here," ventured Adelaide. She looked to Ada, who was busying herself with an acorn. "Is such weather common this time of year?" Adelaide had no idea what time of year it actually was or if such things even mattered in Ozghard, but it seemed to her the proper way to phrase a question about weather. "Ada?"

"How do you feel?" Ada returned, dropping her acorn. "In a word or two, how would you describe your emotional state?"

Ada fixed her gaze on Pierre, and after a moment's hesitation, he answered quietly: "Anxious. Worried."

Undisturbed by her father's ill mood, Adelaide said with confidence, "Curious. And excited... and thankful."

"So you do still feel then?" asked Ada. But before either could answer, she continued in a tone of forced exuberance, "Let's play a game, shall we? I'll ask you to picture an animal, and you tell me what color it is. You first, Adelaide, and then you, Da."

She recited smoothly and evenly, as if reading from a book: "A bird is singing joyfully. It flits around from branch to branch, higher and higher. It desires nothing but a voice to express its supreme happiness."

"Yellow!" answered Adelaide.

After a moment, Pierre added sheepishly, "Mine was yellow too, honestly."

"Fine, that's fine," Ada said in the manner of a schoolteacher. "Now imagine... A venomous serpent winds its way across the burning desert. You try to run from it, but your feet sink clumsily into the sand. It seems to be getting faster all the while, steadily catching up with you."

"Red," said Pierre.

"Black," said Adelaide.

"One more... You're wading through the crystal clear water of a beautiful lagoon. The water is chilly, but the sun is warm. You've never felt so peaceful in all your life. A school of fish swim around you, tickling your legs. What color are they?"

"Blue," said Adelaide.

"Various colors," said Pierre. "Green and white, mostly. And some yellow."

"Very good," said Ada absently. "I don't believe you'll have to worry about the fog."

"Now just a minute!" began Pierre, somewhat put off by the dismissal. "What do you mean? What is this fog?"

To his dismay, Ada scampered off into the surrounding woods without a word, looking for all the world like an ordinary squirrel. He and Adelaide stood there a moment, dumbfounded, and then began calling desperately after her. They weren't yet ready to brave the wilds of Ozghard without their native guide.

Before they could fret too much, however, a plump raccoon came waddling toward them from the direction where Ada had run. "The fog," it said, "is a vaporized form of a substance called 'floodtea,' a palliative derived from bloodblossom nectar. Its purpose is to dull the senses and fill the user with a desire to follow suit and do as everyone else does... to fit in and follow the crowd. The tests I administered showed me that you two are not affected to any appreciable degree. I expect the reason is that sticky film you picked up on your way through the Void. I'm bringing you to my laboratory so I can take a sample and investigate this further."

"Your laboratory..." mused Adelaide. "And then we'll get washed up?"

"Right," said Ada, a grin spreading across her raccoon face. "Then we'll get you washed up. You smell awful."

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