Raya woke up on the shores of the river, sore and tired and confused.
“Tuk Tuk,” she whispered, and her tiny friend chirruped up at her. “What happ–”
She stopped. Flashes were beginning to come back. A pretty face– a battle– her ba–
“Oh, no,” she whispered. “No–”
Raya tried to stand, to shoot to her feet, but a wave of pain and drowsiness crashed over her, and she stumbled, grabbing a nearby branch for support.
And then suddenly, absolutely everything was thrown into sharp relief.
She remembered everything.
I trusted the wrong person.
I betrayed everyone.
I have to go. I have to go back home.
Raya started to move.
She half-ran, half-staggered towards the bridge– but then went stock-still.
She couldn’t go home.
The Druun were there.
What was she going to do?
But before Raya could second-guess herself, before she could sneak away, they were on to her, and they descended with a roar similar to a hurricane.
Raya screamed, and fell backwards, and she scrabbled for her pocket, for something, for anything, that might protect her–
And her fingers closed around a chunk of gemstone.
Raya yanked the glowing blue piece out of her clothing and thrust it out, and the Druun nearest to her withdrew with a yowling sort of hiss.
The orb repels them.
With a yell, Raya shoved it into the face of the demons, and grinned viciously when they cowered and fled.
She shoved them away, fighting through the darkness.
“Help!” she called. “Help!”
Nothing. Nobody responded.
“Please! My father, he–” Raya choked. She couldn’t say it, she couldn’t. “Please!”
Holding the orb high, Raya drew in breath to try again.
Then she rounded the corner and froze.
Before her was a courtyard, full of people. Full of her father’s people. People of Heart. People she had sworn her life to protect.
And every single one was terribly, unnaturally still.
No, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please, no. Please.
With a cry, Raya ran forwards in jolting starts and bursts. She went to every person, examining their faces and their clothes and their terrified, horrified expressions.
Stone. Stone. Stone. Stone.
They’re all stone.
No. No. Oh, please, no.
Raya backed away from the courtyard, from the fleeing masses who never got to take their next breaths, horrified.
I did this. I did this. This is all my fault.
It felt like a dream– no, like a nightmare. Like the kind that you just can’t wake up from.
But it was true. It was true, and it was not a nightmare, it was horrifically, awfully, real. It was real, real, real, real, and it was Raya’s actions that brought them here, Raya’s mistake that lead to it, and how was she ever going to fix this?
Raya fell asleep on that first awful night with the word traitor in her heart.
The next morning, she went fishing.
She’d fished before; and she’d even done it alone.
But she’d never gone home alone before.
She’d never fished for one, and cooked for one, and ate with one.
She just had to keep busy. She knew that much. After her mother had died, her father had thrown himself into his work. Keep busy, keep busy, keep busy. Just keep moving, and you might not have time to think about it.
So instead of lying in her bedroll and crying until she ran out of tears, Raya went fishing.
After a few days, Raya knew what she had to do.
She had no map, no transportable food, and no steed, but she was going to have to do it– she was going to have to search the world, search every river, and find a way to bring everyone back.
To bring her ba back.
The next day, Raya took her piece of the orb, and she walked across the bridge, and she found her father’s body. For a moment, she just stood there, looking at him quietly.
“I’ll be back, ba,” she murmured, and touched his stone cheek gently. “Don’t wait up.”
The end of the river that Heart was built next to was miles away. She needed to get going before the sun went down, and the Druun came out in force.
So she slipped Tuk Tuk into her bag and started off down the bank.
She didn’t look back.
It took nearly six years– six long, hard, grueling years– for Raya to gather enough strength to be able to end her quest to find the last dragon.
It didn’t hurt that absolutely nobody was looking for her. Perks of the world thinking that you and your entire family are dead, she supposed.
And throughout the years, Raya stopped focusing so much on the traitor part of her past and more on the redemption part of her future.
It should be simple. Bring everyone back, and her mistake would be wiped out. Follow the rivers, and never trust a stranger again, and everything would be fine.
Raya studies, and she plans, and eventually, she sneaks out and steals the scroll that she needs in the dead of night.
Unfortunately, she was caught as she was escaping.
Even more unfortunately, there was a cliff between her and her getaway steed.
Raya had been running as fast as she could, kicking up sand and swinging her sword, and almost hadn’t seen the drop in time– but managed to stop. Barely.
The cliffs were before her, but the guards were closing in. Below, she could hear Tuk Tuk’s squealing.
Raya thought about the meaning of the word traitor. She thought about the meaning of the word redemption. She looked down into the gorge, feeling more than hearing her heartbeat pound loudly in her ears.
The guards were mere feet away.
There was only one way to go.
Raya gripped the paper tightly and leaped.
They didn’t have much time to talk on the ship, which Raya was actually fine with. She’d rather keep her distance from the others until they can go their separate ways.
Still, it was a small boat.
So she wasn’t that surprised when Tong sat beside her on the first night he spent with them, and waited.
Raya was in the middle of scanning the horizon for any threats– human or otherwise– and listening to the steady breathing of her sleeping companions, and she was a little annoyed at being interrupted. She did her best to ignore him, but he didn’t show any signs of planning to leave anytime soon, so eventually she just sighed. “What?”
“Heart, right?” he asked, unperturbed by her disinterest.
“Yup,” Raya said. She returned to searching the darkness around them for danger. There was a flash of purple a little ways away, but whatever that Druun was up to, it didn’t seem particularly interested in them. Good.
Beside her, Tong shifted a little on the wooden bench.
“I heard,” he said, and paused. “Um. I heard… a while back…”
“What?” Raya snapped, a little more curt than she had intended, but he didn’t flinch.
“Just. I heard that a lot of your people are stone, right now.”
“Yes,” Raya said. “They are.”
“And you’re their princess.”
“Yes,” Raya said. “I am.”
“So– why aren’t you back there, serving what’s left of your people? You should be their leader. You should be helping them.”
“I am helping them,” Raya said, tone purposefully cold.
“You’d be more helpful as their leader.”
“I’m only eighteen.”
“Does it have anything to do with…?” Tong nodded at Raya’s bag, and the shine of the orb, tucked in her bag.
At the sight of it, Raya squeezed her eyes shut. For a split second, she was twelve years old again, desperate to impress her pretty new friend and about to make the worst mistake of her life. For a moment, she was looking into her father’s eyes as he died. For an instant, Raya was a child and hurting and a traitor to her people, and she knew that until she righted her wrong, she would never, ever be able to go home again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Tong asked, and there was something new in his voice. Not pity, exactly. Sympathy. A sort of kindness.
But Raya had been around long enough to know that nobody offered kindness to anyone without expecting something in return. And she was not in the mood to become indebted to him, or to anybody.
“No,” Raya snarled, and stood, stalking across the boat and flopping down against Tuk Tuk. From the bench, Tong watched her carefully, but did not follow.
They didn’t get a chance to speak about it again, but after that night, there was a new connection between them. A kind of recognition, between Tong and Raya and even Sisu. I’m the last one. I’m the only one. I’m the survivor.
Raya knew that, for as long as she lived, she would never get the image of Sisu’s body twisting and crumpling and falling out of her head. Nor would she ever stop hearing the awful, piercing shriek as the only person who’d been kind to her since her ba fell to her death.
Boun and Tong and the others all insisted it was Namaari’s fault, that she was the one to pull the trigger, but Raya knew the truth. She remembered the look on Namaari’s face, the tone of Sisu’s voice, and how Raya’s own wrist jerked and flung the sword out and towards Namaari, sealing all of their fates.
Raya knows she isn’t just a traitor anymore.
She’s a murderer.
In the darkness, surrounded by Druun, Raya knew she had a choice to make.
She could see Namaari watching her, and she could feel the warmth of the orb beginning to dim, and for the first time since she was a little girl, there was a mantra in Raya’s head– My fault my fault my fault my fault–
She remembered the coldness that she felt in her chest at the sight of her people, the people she had sworn to protect, frozen and solid and gone.
She remembered the anger, the icy rage, the tearful fury that had sustained her for those long, long years, spent all alone with nobody but Tuk Tuk for company.
And yet, some part of her, some small part of her, still remembered the tiny bubbling of warmth that came from an innocent child who wanted to show another child something that she thought was impressive, and innocent, and inspirational.
So Raya said “Let me take the first step,” and she did.
The last thing she thought before the darkness swallowed her whole was (in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Sisu’s) Those are some really stupid last words if I’m wrong.
But she couldn’t be wrong. She couldn’t be.
She just had to trust.
The first thing Raya felt when she woke was the sun on her face.
Then she felt Boun, leaning against her waist, their weight solid and warm. She felt Tong’s hand on her shoulder, and she felt the last of the rock crumbling away.
Then she felt another hand, and looked over to see Namaari, looking tired and worn, and as Raya watched, the last of the stone disintegrated from Namaari’s body.
Later, she was sure, there would be a reckoning. Later, they would discuss things and argue and harsh words would be said, things meant to hurt, to maim, to wound. Later, they would all become the unofficial ambassadors of their tribes in an effort to convince their respective leaders to come together as one, under the new world order of Kumandra.
But that was for later.
For now, they are all alive, and for now, Raya is laughing, and for now, Sisu is sweeping all of them up in the kind of embrace that only a dragon can give.
From across the hug, Namaari met Raya’s eyes and smiled, tentatively. It was the kind of smile that said We’re okay and I wish things were different and I’m sorry all at once.
And Raya closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sun, and thought about redemption.
After they bring the dragons back, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Raya’s ba, and many others, had not been in the world for a long, long time.
The others had left already (Boun and their family had offered to bring everyone along on one last boat trip– “For old times’ sake!” Boun had said, their grin wide and kind and softer, somehow, than when Raya had known them). Sisu had gone off to be with her siblings– “I haven’t seen them in five hundred years! We have so much gossip to catch up on!” When Raya pointed out that from their perspective, it had been less than a week, Sisu had thumped her with her tail in a way that was probably supposed to be friendly, but actually sent Raya flying a few feet. Sisu hadn’t looked all that sorry, either, the weasel–
So, anyway, Raya was alone.
She had woken up at sunrise, as was habit for her, and quickly realized that because she wasn’t self-reliant anymore, she didn’t need to make breakfast, or scout the area, or wander around looking for rivers.
It was weird. It made her antsy.
So she decided to take a walk instead.
The walk took her on loops, on figure-eights and circles and down long corridors that she remembered being so much less vine-y and overgrown.
Eventually, Raya found herself on the bridge again. She paused beside the square where her father had once stood, and hauled herself up onto the ledge beside it. She looked down at the rushing water and wondered how her child-self had managed to survive the fall.
And then somebody shuffled beside her, and a voice said, “Can I sit here?”
Raya jumped, and looked up.
Namaari was standing almost directly behind her, looking quietly nervous, yet secure. Raya wondered if Namaari had ever actually been nervous before this week. Probably not.
Without saying a word, Raya scooted over in a silent invitation. Namaari sat.
For a long moment, she just perched there on the stones, with a pensive look on her face.
Then she nodded up at the sky.
“Never thought I’d live to see that kind of thing,” she said.
Raya followed her gaze.
There, in the gray morning sky, was a flock of multicolored dragons, frolicking in the clouds and looping around the sky.
Despite herself, Raya smiled.
She looked over at Namaari.
“You going back to Fang?” she asked, and Namaari shrugged, avoiding her eyes.
“Aren’t we supposed to be unified now, or something?”
“I guess,” Raya said. “But– well, you know, it’s still your home.”
“I know,” Namaari said. “It’s… it’s still the place I’d do anything for.”
“I know,” Raya said.
“But–” Namaari said. “I mean, seeing as we’re Kumandra again… maybe I won’t go back. Not right away.”
“You could stay here,” Raya blurted out, almost without meaning to. “I mean… if you wanted to. You know.” She hesitated for a moment. “If you wanted to,” she said again.
Namaari nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
“Okay,” Raya said. “Okay.”
A part of Raya wondered if this was a good idea– could trust Namaari? Could she even trust herself? If Raya were two months– or even two weeks– younger, she might have been asking those questions. She might have said no.
But she didn't.
Instead, Raya said, “If you do stay, you should know– Sisu is very much a morning person, and she lets everybody know it.”
Namaari’s lips twitched. “Well, my cat sheds, so if you have an allergy… speak now.”
Raya laughed. “I think I can deal with that.”
She looped an arm around Namaari’s shoulders.
Together, they watched dragons’ flight, and the ethereal bodies silhouetted against the sunrise.
And for a moment, Raya felt something like peace.