“Don’t look at the water!” Richard screamed, snatching Margaret away from the edge of the boardwalk. Her skin crawled with cold sweat. He pushed her forward. Her feet slipped on the slime that dribbled at the edges of the warping wooden planks of the boardwalk, which receded into the twilight mist like a road that led to the edge of the world.
“Are we almost there?” Elizabeth gasped, hugging herself, almost incoherent. “Please tell me we’re almost there.”
“How should I know?” Richard snapped. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Just follow the boardwalk,” Robert said, his tone unraised but constricted.
“We’ll never make it,” Elizabeth began to sob, a high-pitched keening sound. “He’s going to find us…”
“Shut up!” Richard turned on her savagely. “Just shut up! And why wear yellow? Of all things, why yellow?”
Elizabeth clutched her head through the daffodil-colored hoodie. Her shoulder-length black hair clung to her face where the tears had run.
“He’s not hunting by sight,” Robert reminded abruptly. “The Scribe said…”
“To Hades with the Scribe!” Richard spun again. “The sooner we reach the Sender, the better.”
“What if he can’t do anything?” Margaret’s lips were pale as she shuddered violently. “You know it’s only a matter of time.”
“Look, if you want to second-guess the plan, go ahead!” Richard spat. “Wait here until he finds you and do what he did to Tina. Or worse. Probably worse.”
“What’s that?” Robert leaped back from the edge of the boardwalk. Elizabeth and Richard screamed. The swamp and the mist swallowed their cries.
Richard recovered first and cursed. “Robert, you idiot! It was just a frog.”
Robert closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
“How do you know it was a frog?” Margaret challenged. “You didn’t look in the water, did you? Did you?”
“Don’t look at the water,” Elizabeth murmured, her hands on either side of her face like blinders. “Don’t look at the water. Don’t look at the water.”
Richard shoved past them, red-faced. “Curse the Sender! Why build a hut in the middle of a stinking swamp?”
“Because,” said a voice. “I prefer to be left alone.”
“That’s where the runes end,” RC murmured. “There’s nothing more to translate.”
“Are you sure that’s what it said?” his mother, Ellie, asked, her high cheekbones outlined harshly by the light of the rechargable lamp, which had been placed in a slight recession in the wall. “That seems more like part of a story. It’s not consistent with ancient Fulmian thought patterns at all. Too much emotion. Too much fear.”
“I translated; this is what it said.” RC tapped his electronic pad with the stylus, irritated and vaguely disturbed.
“Greta? Your thoughts?” Ellie asked. “You’re the cultural expert, after all. I’m just an archaeologist.”
“It’s… I don’t know.” Greta’s rich alto voice came slowly, as she squinted at the runes on the stone door. “I agree. It doesn’t seem Fulmian. But… It’s strange. I feel that I’ve heard that story before, a long time ago. Maybe it’s part of a Fulmian legend I studied at the university.”
Ellie shrugged. “We’ll ask Bob when he gets back.”
“Ask me what?” Bob ducked as he descended the steps of gray stone into the narrow passageway. “Did you finish the translation, RC?”
“I did,” RC said, a little stiffly.
“Actually, ridiculously easy.”
“Hmm, that’s odd. I thought you’d at least get hung up on the compound words. I spotted quite a few of them. Syllabic languages can be tricky.” Bob’s puff of white hair and his well-groomed mustache caught the light of the lamp and threw it back at the darkness, ringing his face with a halo of light.
“Could you translate the first few lines, sir?” RC asked.
“A little self-conscious for a teenage genius, don’t you think?” Bob smiled, unscrewing the top of his thermos and pouring steaming coffee into the cap. “You should go first. Impress me.”
“Just the first few lines, please.” RC tapped nervously with his stylus again.
Bob sipped, then shrugged. He pulled oval glasses out of his breast pocket and perched them on his nose. “Eh, let’s humor the boy. Let’s see. It starts off with ta-kum-ta go-ha—‘I the one and only warrior’—be-ya-tu-sa-yee. Now, depending on how you combine the syllables, you could get a number of different translations. Beya Tusayee would be Justice-bringer or Avenger. Be Yatu Sayee would be Gold of Death. Or you could have Beyatu Sa Yee: Mirror of Evil. What did you come up with, RC?”
RC reddened and lowered his e-pad.
“I’d like a little more time to translate, sir.”
Bob smiled a little and patted RC’s shoulder. “Go slowly, boy. Languages take time to learn well.”
Bob and Greta turned their attention to the door with the runes, and RC retreated to the steps. Ellie joined him.
“Honey, everyone makes mistakes…”
“It doesn’t make sense!” RC exploded. “I saw it. I went over and over it. That’s what the runes said. You think I’d make that up? Who wants to look stupid?”
“RC, no one is calling you stupid.”
“I saw it. But then Bob… And when he explained it… It’s like the runes changed.”
“Maybe we need better lighting.”
“If Bob can read it, I can read it!” RC rose abruptly and charged up the steps. Bob and Greta glanced at Ellie in surprise, their conversation clipped in mid-sentence. Ellie raised her hands in exasperation.
“Let him be,” Bob said gently. “Growing up takes time too.”