Sola shot her husband a Look. "Don't tell me, Darred. You got us lost."
"What are you talking about, dear?" Darred asked. "I know exactly where we are."
Darred frowned, squinting at inexistent signs. "Somewhere over the Tasi Mountains, I think."
"You think?" Sola rolled her eyes. "Darred, the Tasi Mountains span over half the continent! Why don't you just land and ask for directions?"
"Because I don't need directions. I know where I'm going."
Sola was about to retort, but felt someone pat her shoulder. "Let him go. He's a man, after all," Padm?, Sola's little sister, whispered loudly. Darred frowned, and the two women giggled.
"Daddy," a small voice whined from the back seat. "My stomach's full of shuura juice and I really have ta use th' refresher."
"We're almost there, sweetheart," Darred said. "Just hang on, ok?"
"But daddy, I need t' go, now!"
Darred groaned in frustration. "Be a big girl, Pooja, and hold it a little while longer!"
"Pooja can't hold it that long, Daddy!" Pooja's sister, Ryoo, quirked. "Can't we land somewhere here? I don't want her to do it on me!"
"Ryoo!" Sola scolded. "Be nice to your sister!" Padm? was trying desperately not to laugh.
"What? It's true," Ryoo countered.
"Yes, but that doesn't give you the right to?"
"Daddy! I really, really, really have to go!"
Darred sighed. "Five more minutes."
"Darred," Sola said dangerously.
"If we don't get there in five minutes, I'll find a place to land. I promise. Ok sweetie?"
Pooja moaned in response. Padm? smiled, and held her niece tightly. "Just think of something else, sweetie."
"I can't, Auntie!" Pooja exclaimed. "All I can think of is sprinklies and waterfalls!"
Ryoo giggled, but stopped when her mother shot her a Look.
Padm? sighed. "How about I tell you girls a ghost story?"
Ryoo gasped gleefully. "Yeah, tell, auntie! Tell!"
Pooja just made a whiny noise, and Padm? held her closer. "Ok? let's think." Padm? closed her eyes, contemplating for a long time before coming up with the perfect story. "I got one."
Ryoo scooted closer to her aunt as she began to recount. "There was once, a very, very, very long time ago, long before even Grandma and Grandpa were born, a young nerf-herder called Pite."
Pooja giggled at the name, but said nothing.
"Now this nerfherder was, oh, about Ryoo's age when his parents died. So - this was back in the days before they had orphanages - he raised the nerfs in the Endu-Tasi Valley all by himself. Every morning, Pite would wake up before the birds and gather water for the nerfs, and every day, he'd drive them from pasture to pasture, so they could graze."
"What's 'graze'?" Pooja asked.
"Shhhh!" Ryoo whispered fiercely. "I wanna hear the story!"
Padm? smiled. "'Graze' is just a fancy word for eating grass."
"Oohhhh," Pooja exclaimed, her mouth forming a perfect "o".
"Now can you go on with the story?" Ryoo whined.
"Yes," Padm? replied, giving her older niece a pat. "Now, there was one nerf whom Pite loved more than the others, and though she growing old, Pite never had the heart to sell her to the market. He named her Shajo, (which means Snowy,) after her long, silver hair, and always made sure she had enough to eat. Well, one day, a rich man named Eni-Casda came by, saw Shajo the nerf, (who was big and fat,) and his eyes lit in excitement."
"Why did the man want Shajo that much?" Pooja asked.
Ryoo rolled her eyes. "B'cause, dummy, he wanted to make nerf sausages with her!"
"You mean eat her?" Pooja's eyes went wide with terror. "That's so mean!"
"Yeah, but you still eat nerf all the time," Ryoo pointed out matter-of-factly.
"Ryoo!" Sola's tone was dangerously low. "That's enough!"
"But Mom, I was only telling the truth!"
"You were making fun of your sister!"
"But Mom," Ryoo moaned.
"Hey, hey! Girls, don't you want me to go on with the story?"
Ryoo sighed, her argument clearly lost. "Yeah, Auntie Padm?. Go on."
"Ok." Padm? took a deep breath. "So, the reason why Eni-Casda wanted Shajo so much was because old nerfs were worth a lot of credits."
Pooja smiled, apparently satisfied with this explanation.
"First, Eni-Casda offered to buy Shajo for a whole pound of aurodium. Pite's eyes widened when he saw how much wealth the man was offering him. But still, Shajo was his best friend. He couldn't sell her.
"So Pite refused. But Eni-Casda didn't give up. He went to the bank, and came back with five pounds of aurodium. But still, Pite would not sell Shajo.
"Now, not only was Eni-Casda was incredibly wealthy, he was also incredibly spoiled. He wasn't used to not getting his way. So, he devised a plan. He went to the market, and asked for a pound of sleeping powder."
"What's that?" Ryoo asked.
"A magical powder," Padm? replied. "If you breathed in the powder, you would go to sleep and not wake up for a hundred years. So Eni-Casda waited in the pasture, and when Pite wasn't looking, he put the powder near Pite's favorite tree. Then, Eni-Casda got out a smoking pipe, and sat near the thrush, waiting for the boy to rest near the tree.
"When the nerfs were all settled, eating the grass contently, Pite settled down too, near the tree, and started to fall asleep. Just as he was about to fall asleep, he felt a nudge, and saw Shajo near him, shedding her silver hair all over him. Pite looked around, but saw no one, and lay back down.
"But again, just as he was about to sleep, he felt another nudge. 'Go 'way, Shajo,' the boy grumbled, and lay back down."
"Shajo was trying to warn Pite, wasn't he?" Pooja asked.
Padm? nodded. "That's right. And every time he was about to fall asleep, Shajo would nudge him, but every time, Pite would just ignore the warning and go back to sleep. Finally, Shajo gave up, and simply lay down next to Pite.
"When Eni-Casda saw this, he got excited. Slowly, quietly, he snuck over to the herd boy, and waved his hands in front of the boy's face. Nothing.
"He snickered, and reached for Shajo, thinking of all he credits he would make off her. But as soon as he touched the nerf, Shajo reared, and bucked Eni-Casda. The pipe flew out of his hand, and landed in the sleeping powder.
"Only it wasn't sleeping powder. Too late, Eni-Casda realized he had bought the wrong powder. Instead, what he had bought were explosives! As soon as the pipe hit the explosive powder, it gave a loud boom, so loud that villagers miles and miles away could hear.
"Years passed. A CarababbaTree industry came to the village, and built a forest in the pasture. And Eni-Casda, Pite, and Shajo were never seen again."
"Did they die?" Pooja asked.
Padm? shrugged. "They probably did, but no one knows. Their bodies were never found again."
As Padm? finished her story, she felt Pooja sigh, digging her head into Padm?'s chest. She felt the speeder descend, and turned toward the pilot. "Darred, where are we going?"
"We're landing," Darred announced. "I'm? uh? gonna go ask for directions." He refused to turn and look at his wife's smirk.
The speeder descended into what seemed like a remote rest station, surrounded by trees. "Well, what do we have here," Darred said softly. "Endo-Tasi Valley Refill Station." He turned to the girls. "Just like the place in Padm?'s stories!"
Ryoo seemed to tense, but said nothing. As soon as the speeder touched ground, Pooja announced again, "I need ta use th' refresher!"
Sola sighed. "Ryoo, take your sister to the refresher."
Ryoo groaned. "Why do I have to take her everywhere?"
Ryoo rolled her eyes, and took her sister's hand. "Let's go."
The two sisters stepped out of the speeder, and wandered around the station. "I don't see no 'freshers," Ryoo remarked.
Pooja made a whiny noise. "Ryoo, I need ta go, bad!
Ryoo sighed. "Let's just find a tree then."
"No! That's so dirty!"
Ryoo rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, no one will see you."
"Are you sure?" Pooja asked.
"Yes," Ryoo replied with minimal confidence.
Pooja relented. They walked into the forest, deep enough so that no one could look in. When they found a nice spot, Ryoo turned around, and waited for her sister to go. Her eyes spotted a glint of shine. Something silver was stuck in the ground. Ryoo reached over and pulled out what looked like a single silver hair.
"Ok, I'm done." Pooja trotted over, and looked at her sister's hand. "Mommy says to never pick up things from the ground," she scolded. "It's dirty." Pooja reached to grab it.
Ryoo jerked the hair from Pooja's grasp. "I just wanna see." She bent down to see closer, and giggled. "Look, Pooja. It's whiter than grandpa's hair!"
"Let me see!" the younger girl demanded, standing on her tip-toes. Suddenly, she gasped. "Look, Ryoo," she exclaimed, pointing to the ground. "More hairs!"
Ryoo looked around, her eyes widening. These hairs were definitely not there a second ago! Where did they come from? She glanced at her sister, who shrugged, equally baffled and amazed. Then she noticed it; the newly emerged piles of white hair were not scattered all that randomly. "Look, Pooja! It's a trail!"
Pooja didn't answer, but Ryoo felt her sister press closer to her body. She didn't blame her; she was spooked too. Spooked? and curious. "Should we follow it?"
"I don't know," the timid voice whispered. "Ma-maybe we should go back."
Ryoo shrugged. Her sister was probably right. But how often was it that you just run into an adventure, placed right at your feet? It was too good of a chance to give up. "Don't you wanna know where the trail leads?" she asked her sister sweetly.
"Maybe Aunt Padm? can tell us," Pooja suggested.
"No, she won't," Ryoo replied confidently. "She'll just say, 'it's just a story'. Grownups never believe in these things." She tugged her sister's hand. "I say we check it out."
"What if there's something bad in there?"
"It's just a trail. It can't lead that far, can it?"
"Pooja whimpered, pressing herself closer to her sister. "Okay," she consented cautiously.
They walked, and walked, and walked. It soon became apparent that Ryoo had been wrong, a fact that she hated to admit. The trail did not just lead on a bit.
Pretty soon, Pooja was whimpering again. "Ryoo, I'm scared. Maybe we should go back."
By this time, Ryoo was a bit spooked too. But she didn't come this far to chicken out just yet; she was the bigger one, after all. "Look," she said, pointing to a dim light ahead. "I bet that whatever the hair's leading to, it's gonna be there. We'll just go there, look around, then come back, ok?"
Pooja shook her head, but didn't stop following her big sister.
As they walked on, the light got bigger and bigger. Unnaturally big. Halfway there, Ryoo remembered that it was already after sunset, and felt the hairs in the back of her neck rise. Whatever it was, it couldn't be sunlight.
"What d'you think's there?" Pooja asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Ryoo shrugged. "I don't know." She tried to sound brave, but still unconsciously squeezed her sister's hand tighter.
They stepped into the clearing. Only it wasn't a forest clearing? or any part of the forest at all. Ryoo looked around, and realized in horror that all the trees were gone! Instead, they were surrounded by? grass! Miles and miles of knee-length, golden grass, lit by a sun high in the sky, far from where it should have been. She gasped in awe; it was like magic! "It's like a dream," she whispered.
"A bad dream," Pooja whimpered. "Where are we?"
Ryoo shook her head, confused. "I-I don't know." She brought her hand up to block the light from her eyes, spotting a single tree in the distance. Under the tree, a small figure moved. "There," Ryoo pointed. "Maybe he knows."
Upon approaching the tree, it became clear that the figure was a teenage boy. Ryoo watched him curiously as he shuffled around, wondering at his dirty, old rags and his rough face. He almost looked like an old-fashioned herdsman from the vids. "Excuse me," Ryoo called.
The boy turned sharply, and stared at them curiously. "H-hello," he murmured, looking just as confused and shocked as the girls were. "Who are you?"
"My name's Ryoo, a-and this is my sister, Pooja. We were walking through a forest? and? and?." Ryoo stopped, not knowing how exactly to explain.
"We're lost," Pooja said bluntly.
"Forest?" The boy was obviously confused. "What forest? There's nothing but grazing land for miles."
"Grazing - means eating grass," Pooja couldn't help inserting.
"No, I mean, there was a forest," Ryoo continued, ignoring her sister, "only it disappeared? there was a light, and then something happened..."
The boy raised an eyebrow, then continued his work.
Ryoo huffed in despair. What would it take for this boy to understand?
"I think you're crazy. There's nothing here but short prairie grass. You couldn't get lost here if you tried. Right, Shajo?"
The sisters jumped as a huge, silvery, hairy thing appeared from? from where? Ryoo could have sworn that she had seen the boy alone! But the thing was definitely there; she should have been able to smell the stench a parsec away.
"I-it's a nerf," Pooja gasped. "It's Shajo? and you're Pite."
The boy gave a start. "How'd you know my name?"
Ryoo could see the wheels turning in her sister's head. No doubt, she was making connections that weren't really there. After all, the boy, the nerf, the field? it all fit. Ryoo almost wanted to scold her sister for being so silly, and tell her once and for all that it was all a coincidence. After all, every one knew that the stories that aunt Padm? told weren't true? and even if they were, Pite should be dead!
But she had seen so many weird events today that this? this, strangely, was the only connection that made any sense at all. This was starting to seem more and more like a dream. "We-we were following a trail of white hairs, like this one," she said, trying another way to sort through this mystery. She reached into her pocket and brought out the white hair that she had collected.
Pite took one look and smiled sheepishly. "Yep, it's Shajo's hair all right. You'll have to excuse her; she sheds all the time. I swear, I can't walk one meter around this prairie without-"
"Look!" Pooja suddenly interrupted, pointing a chubby finger.
They turned to look where Pooja was pointing. A tall, skinny man clad in a clean white shirt and a fashionable black vest was creeping near them, a pipe in his mouth.
"It's Eni-Casda," Pite muttered.
"Eni-Casda?" Ryoo asked tentatively, not really wanting to hear the response.
"The rich merchant. He's been trying to get me to sell Shajo here for months. Offered me five pounds of aurodium!" he smiled weakly, and cuddled his nerf. Ryoo wrinkled her nose in disgust. How could any one love something so smelly? "But I can't sell her," Pite continued. "Not this nerf."
"Ryoo," a shy voice said softly from her side, "do you remember the ending to the story?"
Ryoo gulped. "Yeah." The dream was now slowly turning into a nightmare.
"D'you think it's gonna happen again?"
Ryoo looked up, and saw the merchant come closer. She felt a chill go down her spine. "All of it happened because Pite was asleep. So, Pite, just remember, you can't fall as-" She stopped, horrified. There, underneath the tree, was Pite, snoring!
"Wake him up!" she yelled to her sister, and the two grabbed Pite's arm. "Pite!" they screamed, louder and louder, tugging and pinching his arm violently. "Pite!"
But the herdsboy didn't stir.
The man in the black vest crept closer, a smug look on his face.
"No!" Ryoo shouted in his direction. "We're on to you!"
He didn't turn, just kept coming closer.
"You're Eni-Casda, and you're gonna try to steal his nerf!"
The man approached Pite, bent down, and sniffed. He was so close to Ryoo now that she could smell the smoke from his pipe; yet, he didn't acknowledge the girls at all. Eni-Casda waved his hands in front of the boy's eyes. The boy didn't stir.
Ryoo ran up and wound up her fist, ready to smack the man as hard as she could. She lunged...
? and fell right through him.
Pooja screamed. Finally realizing why it was that Eni-Casda and Pite could not see them, Ryoo grabbed her sister's hand, and tugged, hard.
Pooja needed no instruction. Together, they burst into running, their tiny legs taking them farther and farther from the tree, the boy? the ghosts? Ryoo still had a hard time believing that this story could be real. But then again, nightmares rarely were real. She chanced a glance back, and, to her horror, saw Eni-Casda grabbing at Shajo's rein. Any minute, and that nerf would buck?
"Run faster!" Ryoo screamed, though she didn't think she could.
And then, something loud, something huge, something unbelievably monstrous boomed. The girls screamed, falling to their knees and covering their ears. A gust of hot air blew by, lightly touching Ryoo's face, and for a millisecond, she thought she was burning.
But just as quickly as it came, it retreated, leaving the girls cowering at? what? Ryoo stood up slowly, looking around. The fire was gone, and they were back, again, in the forest. She breathed heavily, and even laughed a little. "That was one heck of an adventure, wasn't it, Pooja?"
Pooja wasn't amused. "Where do we go now, Ryoo?" she asked insistently.
The smile left Ryoo's face. They were safe, but they were still lost, deep within the forest. "Look out for some white hair," she said.
"Shajo's hair?" a soft, masculine voice sounded from behind. The girls froze, and turned to see the boy from the prairie, with one arm wrapped the silver nerf.
Pooja grabbed her sister's hand and squeezed as hard as she could. "Pite?" Ryoo asked, unbelievingly.
The boy smiled, and was about to respond, when suddenly, Ryoo screamed. There, maybe only twenty yards away, came the sound of crackling trees and burning smoke. The fire was still there, and it was speeding towards them, fast! "C'mon, we have ta keep running!"
Pite quickly jumped ahead, motioning them in what seemed like a random direction. Ryoo tugged again on her sister's hand, both of them chasing Pite's pounding heels.
"Where are we going?" Pooja cried.
"How should I know?" the boy answered, and the nerf grunted loudly. "I've never seen these trees before!"
Suddenly, the trio stopped, spotting another trail of flames ahead, speeding close. They turned left, then right, but in all directions the flames came. Scared stiff, Pooja grabbed Ryoo's arm and started sobbing.
"Why is this happening?" Pite shouted over the flames.
"It's Eni-Casda!" Ryoo exclaimed, fighting back her own tears and trying to appear brave. "He wanted to steal Shajo!"
"How will he steal her if she's dead?" the herd boy cried back.
Dead? Ryoo's mind whirled with terror. "Help!" she screamed. "Mommy! Daddy! Aunt Padm?! HELP US!"
But no one came. As the fire drew closer, Ryoo grabbed her sister and held her close, huddling near the herd boy. She closed her eyes as the flames roared louder and louder, the heat growing more and more intense. She heard a horrible cry from a beast, a scream that was not her own nor her sisters, and then?
Nothing. Slowly, tentatively, Ryoo opened her eyes. But, again, there were no flames, no herd boy, and no nerf. She patted her sister's head lightly. "It's ok, Pooja. It's gone? again." She didn't dare wonder whether the flames would return, yet again.
Pooja, still crying, opened her eyes. "Where'd they go?" she hiccupped between sobs.
Ryoo shrugged. "I- I don't know. They just? disappeared."
Pooja hiccupped, then jumped. "Look!" she cried, pointing.
Ryoo followed Pooja's gaze, and spotted the family speeder in the distance, the grown-ups all crowded together. "Let's go," she urged, and the two raced back to the speeder.
"Why are you two in such a hurry?" Sola asked as the two burst into the speeder and into the grown-ups' arms.
"We? we saw? Pite and Shajo? and Eni-Casda? and the explosion?"
Padm? laughed. "Pite, Shajo, and Eni-Casda are long gone, guys."
"We saw their ghosts!" Ryoo proclaimed.
Darred chuckled. "You girls know there's no such thing as ghosts."
"But we saw it!" Pooja cried indignantly.
"Them," Sola corrected. "You saw them. And they don't exist." She smiled, lifting each girl up by their armpits and throwing them into the speeder.
As the speeder rose and flew toward the destination, Pooja and Ryoo said nothing. Pooja nestled against Auntie Padm?'s lap and, with her finger in her mouth, fell asleep. Ryoo watched, and, resting against the chair, closed her eyes as well. But she couldn't sleep; images of the fire still roared in her head.
"What do you think they saw out there that got them all worked up like that?" Sola asked softly.
"I don't know," Darred replied. "Maybe they fell asleep, and had a bad dream."
"They were only gone for five minutes," Padm? protested quietly.
Five minutes? Ryoo didn't understand? in her experience, five minutes wasn't that long (unless it was for quiet-time). Even walking down the trail had probably taken an hour.
The rest of the trip was quiet and uneventful, the only sounds being the muffled roar of the engines and the soft bantering between the adults. When they got to the vacation house in Varykino, the girls were immediately sent to bed. Only there, with the lights out and the door closed, and with no one in the room except Ryoo and Pooja, did the girls dare to talk.
"What you think happened?" Ryoo asked, her voice slightly shaking.
Pooja shrugged. "Maybe it's like what daddy said? maybe we did fall asleep and dream it all."
"You were fake-sleeping too?"
Pooja nuzzled her pillow. "I was afraid of bad dreams."
Ryoo nodded. Then, suddenly, she remembered something. She jumped out of bed and ran to the small closet. Reaching into her coat pocket, she felt it.
There, in the palm of her hand, lay the proof of their adventure: a single strand of silver hair.
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