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(that is, perhaps safe harbor)

“You never finished the story.”

Arteo tilted his head at his sister.

“Yulli’s folly or what was it?”

“Oh,” he recalled while lumbering through the thin reed of a path that remained, his bare feet battling with the twigs and rocks on the ground. “Yullinin’s Folly, yes. Let me think on it.”

He fiddled with his thoughts and adjusted the bag’s strap around his shoulders so it didn’t bite quite so much as he walked without his shoes.

“There wasn’t much said about it, just that he was a stout man that, hmm, ‘lost his way and went out of his head,’ I think is how the book.”

“And that’s about the trail we’re on now?” Kessa asked with concern iced under her words.

“Yes, but I don’t know what happened to him or those who bore the walk alongside,” he replied. Seeing the concern in her eyes, he quickly added, “This was a long time ago, and we’re clever, so hopefully it’ll be fine.”

Kessa was less than comforted, but managed a thin smile.

As they descended deeper into the path, he took notice of the relative comfort his feet were given. All around them were endless waves of ferns, carefully growing in dense bunches surrounding the stunted trail. The ground underfoot had softened, massaged by countless years of growth, an area bereft of the prickly pebbles that plagued him since he’d lost his shoes.

Ahead the trail disappeared around a rocky outcropping, a mystery in the quieting light. He longed for somewhere to rest for the evening, a place to put away his miseries and find some recompense for the next day. Around him, the trees had become thin and stringy, bark a gray pallor.

“Palewood,” Ilis said, noticing them along with him. The many leaves stretched across its spindly limbs were all closed off, curled into themselves as if shy to the waking eye.

“I read about them,” Arteo said, grateful to have his mind on other things than his aching feet. “They only grow by moonlight, yes? That’s when their leaves will unfurl.”

“That’s what I’ve heard,” she replied, eyes always scanning for dangers in the crevices of dark between the trees. Ahead of them, that peculiar creature popped its head up between a nestle of ferns.

“Oh look!” Kessa glowed at the animal’s reemergence. “It’s taken to us.”

Perhaps it had, as it was keeping steady eye on them as they moved from a safe, curious distance. The declining day cast golden shine of light over the forest, everything dappled in its warm radiance.

The ground cover of ferns nearly overwhelmed the trail, while the phantasmic trees worked with the slinking dark to obscure the way ahead. Had they not already been walking it, there would have seemed no path at all.

Arteo was wondering if it was ill-advised to take this route. Had lethargy worn them down enough to be careless?

His trepidation soon hushed as the ferns fell away and opened the forest into clear air, stopping Arteo dead. Ahead of him, down an unassuming rocky beach, a diminutive lake of azure water danced in sparkles with the wind and made merry on the shoreline. Patterns fanned from the shore and spread like music over its surface.

Beyond the water, it was as if someone had taken a tremendous shovel and scored the earth in rivets, alternating back and forth, writ large as a swaying valley rising up into the distance, emerald grasses and dotted red flowers carpeting it in a frozen, rocking motion, carved over ages of wear from rain cascading down its higher climbs. It was capped by immutive stone that still clung to languid remnants of winter snow, the peaks kept secret by ashen clouds.

He was certain he had never seen anything so beautiful. It was perfect in a way that only the countless summers of nature's awe could possess and give. His breath, held in welcomed reverence, finally sussed into the chill air, breaking the eternal moment in which he'd been cradled.

He’d longed for a momentous feeling as this, for some inexplicable something that would burn up inside him as a fire hollows trees. His tepid existence at the farm was stifling, oppressive — this was glorious.

He forgot the pain in his lower limbs and ran to the water, the growing dim of evening skipping across the waves in perfect harmonies of purple gold shine. He dropped to the shoreline and dunked his head fully into the relaxed tide that wove in and out. The shock of cold water was crisp and refreshing on his skin, like biting into a fresh apple. Revitalized by the water, he cupped his hands and slurped up mouthfuls of its purity, relishing the icy slide of it as it found a home in his belly.

He drank until he was sated and flopped back on the wet earth, feeling the rush of tide bristle his skin as it buffeted him. It was a moment of pure joy, one he hadn’t ever known before.

And he didn’t hear Ilis chiding him until long after he’d drunk his fill.

“ — idiocy,” was the tail end of it.

“I’m sorry?” he asked, finding her beside him with wisps of trail dust floating in a disturbed cloud from her run to the shore.

“You have no concern for yourself. This water may not be pure, it may not be safe at all.” She had a way of saying things with a terse intensity and not having to raise her voice.

“Your concern is appreciated, but unwarranted,” he replied, pushing himself up. “I know where we are.”

“You do?” Kessa asked as she took her time walking down to them.

“This is the Pool of Bliss,” he said with a beaming smile. “I’m sure of it.”

Ilis narrowed her eyes, the rivers of thought and memory splashing together in her head. She cast another look at the landscape, noting its every crevice and place.

“Of course it’s much larger than a pool. It’s almost a lake, but a meager one,” he added, motioning grandly with his hands at the bounty of water before them.

“What’s the Pool of Bliss?” Kessa inquired, having finally met them on the sand.

“I’m not sure you’re right,” muttered Ilis, her gaze sketching where they might bed for the night. It was wide open there, too exposed for them to sleep. There would need to be a place to huddle under.

“I am right, I’m sure of it,” he insisted, scrounging around his knapsack for a tome. “I know I have it in here somewhere…”

“Your confidence might yet get you killed,” she grumbled. She was considering the space near the steepening hillside, perhaps enough cover for them.

“Just give me a moment,” he tutted while flicking through pages.

“Tey, but what is—” Kessa started.

“If this isn’t the Pool, we’re likely as dead by morning as we are speaking now,” Ilis thundered back into the conversation.

“I don’t know whether you’re over the sun or back under it from moment to moment, you know that?” Arteo clucked at her, still busily shifting pages aside.

“Hello!” Kessa yowled, stunning them both to silence. “What’s the Pool of Bliss?”

A pause, a look between Arteo and Ilis, and Arteo was away.

“The Pool of Bliss is a natural oasis in the Valley,” he began. “It’s a water source that doesn’t interact with the Tree at all, just a perfect basin sitting here to find. I’ve only read about it twice — Erod mentioned it offhandedly, but it was in the Unknown Traveler’s recounting for many pages, which is what I’m trying to find.” He continued his rummage through his bag.

“Why are you so concerned, Ilis?” she asked. “If it’s not the Pool, then—”

“Then it’s a very dangerous place,” Ilis snapped back. “I was foolish to let my guard and my focus down earlier. That laughter set some creature on us and now we are in unknown lands. Even my map doesn’t show us this place.”

“But what about that man? That, mmm, Yullinin?” She was perplexed, the place felt safe and comfortable for the night, yet there was nothing but conflict.

“This may be where he went, his path isn’t known precisely,” Ilis responded. “And if his folly was here, we shouldn’t be near it.”

“You’re complicating thi— ah!” Arteo said, pulling out one of his rope-bound books victoriously. “This is the one.”

He plopped himself down on the soft sand and whisked through the pages, seeking the shape of words he remembered from the section on the Pool. His eyes lit with joy when he found it, placing his forefinger on the text to trace as he read.

“Here it is — ‘From my time at the Pool of Bliss, I shall call it paradise. If I had not a place to go or the need to complete the Trail, I would stay here for all and ever. The water was untouched by the damnable Tree and it sits under gaze of a saddled mountain, cut to and fro by the winds or rains or Watchful Ones or whatever.’” He clapped the text closed. “That sounds like this to me.”

Ilis begrudgingly nodded. “Aye, it does at that.”

“Ha!” Arteo cawed, stuffing the book back in his sack and standing up triumphantly, perhaps with too much excitement considering his injured feet. He winced and made note to be gentler on himself.

“Why do you still have that sour look?” Kessa asked Ilis.

“She always looks like that,” he japed, flashing a grin.

“You may be right that this is a safe place for us,” Ilis said quietly, ignoring the prodding from Arteo. “But I have had this feeling, unspoken to you, of something meaning us harm.”

Arteo and Kessa’s expressions fell at her shaded words.

“What kind of something?” Arteo asked.

“This is why I haven’t brought it to tongue,” Ilis replied. “I do not know, and I cannot tell where it is or what may come from it.”

“Or even if it exists?” he batted back to her.

“My instincts are seldom liars to me,” she rebuked. “Yet now I find the tension coiling around us a frustration of unknowns.”

She turned and looked out towards the saddleback mountains ahead. In truth, she was cross with herself. She let the moment sweep her up before and the laughter roused a terrible thing to set notice on them.

Perhaps though it was fortunate — the mind of a predator is cunning at times, so riling it up to show its strength might have saved them from an ambush.

It was impossible to say, but she never was one to see the glimmer above the shade.

“We make camp here then,” Arteo said finally. “No reason not to, and the water hasn’t made me rotten yet.”

“We shall see,” Ilis tetted. “But yes, let us find a place to bed down. We’re out of reach of the dread spores and I see little of immediate concern. It’s too into shadows to go anywhere else besides.”

“Ooo, do you see it?” Kessa tittered as she sat down on her knees and held out her hand. She clicked her tongue like calling a pet and the surface of a boulder shimmered as a lump of it changed back into the curious animal.

“How did you even see that?” Arteo wondered aloud.

“I’ve always had better eyes than you, Tey,” she replied with a beaming grin. She once again prodded the creature to come to her, and after a moment’s hesitation, it came to her hand, sniffed it, and pushed the top of its head into her palm. She held in her glee and gently stroked its fur.

Arteo and Ilis were equally dumbfounded at how quickly she’d made friend of this wild animal.

Ilis pulled herself away from the sight and went to setup camp.

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