The stone Lasha found herself on was much colder than the one in the ravine. It was smooth like a table. Her restraints were removed, but her broken bones still kept her from moving. It was dark around her, aside from a purple lamp above her. It’s light was bright but didn’t sting the eyes. Like it wasn’t light at all.
She heard incoherent babbling somewhere she couldn’t direct her eyes at. Two voices this time. This was too bizarre to understand. She just laid there and waited for it all to happen.
Something leaned over her. Lasha could see better without the blood sticking to her face. Her right eye still wasn’t functioning though. The creature had black skin. Not like a human would though. This black had no warmth to it. Like the night come to life. The eyes were like stars, forming a simple constellation on the being’s face. Lasha didn’t see the mouth until it was opened. The inside was white as snow.
“Are you responsive?”
“What?” Lasha groaned.
“Are you responsive?”
“They just responded to you.” the other voice said. Lasha didn’t bother searching for the owner.
“Sorry. How are you?”
“Who are you?” Lasha mumbled.
“How are you?” they repeated.
“Salshim sadede emhenreb.” the other one pushed into view while their colleague took a step back.
“What are you?”
“I’m a Sjetta. We live down here in the dark. You fell down by accident, correct? You got injured.”
“Your body appears broken. It is not supposed to be this way, correct?”
That wasn’t the part that confused Lasha. She decided to drop it.
“Can you heal me?”
“We hope you could tell us. We don’t know how. We don’t have…” the creature dipped a tendril into her blood. “...this.”
Lasha’s head fell to the side. She wondered why. Then she fell unconscious.
She awoke on the same cold table. She groaned, stirring awake the others. The two beings joined her at the table again.
“You’re awake! How is it? We tried to restore it all back to function. Did we do it correctly? We worried since it took you so long to wake up.”
Lasha was tired of passivity and tried to sit up. She believed her left arm hadn’t broken and pushed herself up with it. Leaning over, she saw that her legs seemed still good to use, if bruised and cut. They had removed her clothes to operate but at least left her underwear on. The bones in her right arm appeared to be back in place and to her surprise, there was only a scar where the bone jutted out, no stitches.
“Is it good? We could see how it used to fit together and made it back that way. Is it right?”
Lasha carefully moved the arm. There was some lingering pain but it appeared like the bone and muscle had already mended. She touched the area around her right eye, expecting there to be a thick swelling pushing the eye shut. There wasn’t.
“That one was difficult. We tried to make it look like the other one again. One of them held up a mirror. Lasha saw her face, both eyes looking back at her. But only one could see.
“It doesn’t work.”
“We’re sorry. Once we learn more about humans, we can try again. Is it important?”
Lasha got off the table. “No.” She saw her clothes and the ones she was tied up with cut up on the floor.
“We had to cut them, but we prepared some new clothes for you.” she reached her a stack and Lasha began putting them on. Lasha preferred it if all that people could see of her was her face. It appeared they tried to get clothes similar to her old ones. The fabric was cold, but not uncomfortable to touch.
“Do you have a name?” Lasha asked.
“I’m Nelub.” The one with the tail said.
“My name is Estih.” The thinner one pointed at Lasha. “And you?”
“Oh, I’m Lasha.”
“Huh. What does that mean in your language?”
“I don’t know.”
“Means ‘cold night’ in ours.”
Nelub shrunk down to below Lasha’s size. She almost looked like a child, but the way she carried herself still portrayed a confidence and composure unbefitting of one. She noticed Lasha’s puzzled look.
“Oh, this is normal. I’m most comfortable at this length. You must have many questions.”
She did but too many to organize them into an order of magnitude. Where to begin?
“Come, there’s someone you need to talk to.”
Lasha followed the two Sjetta. Instead of doors, black curtains hung between rooms. The walls were made of black, smooth stone. Anything was black in this place, only Estih wore a white dress. Lasha thought she had been in some sort of hospital, but as she walked down the hall, she found it leading to many rooms that reminded her of classrooms. Exiting the building brought a little more color into the picture. All structures were still made of black rock but they’ve been decorated with colorful lights, drawings or sculptures. Lasha saw more people walk around, varying in sizes between twice her height to the length of her arm. They stretched like a shadow does when the sun falls, but by their own desire.
Their starry eyes soon found her as well and stopped to watch her. It was a little unnerving. Estih took her hand and made her walk with them.
“I’m the first human here?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“How have we never met? We’ve been on this planet for hundreds of years.”
"We hid. You came with technology far beyond what we thought possible. We simply got scared."
“Who are you taking me to?”
“A king…” she wondered if that term was a good translation of what Estih meant.
“He’s the one that decided to save your life, even if it meant revealing ourselves to you.”
“This is so stupid.” Lasha said to herself. This didn’t feel real. Yesterday she still lived in the real world and now some dark elf king saved her life? Maybe she did die and was reincarnated into a fantasy world. There were stories like that.
“So you’re on that side of the issue?” Nelub’s zigzag mouth grinned.
“Don’t confuse her even more, Nelub.” Estih split a tendril off their arm to push Nelub.
Lasha watched the ceiling. This town appeared to be inside a cave. Sjetta walked up and down the walls, with some doors that could only be reached that way. Lasha guessed that’s how they carried her down from that rock. Down here into a society of shadow people. When her eyes looked forward, she saw a large gate, reaching from the ground to the top of the cave. Beyond it she saw the outside. Grass, trees even, and a thick dark fog that looked like smoke but did not behave as such. Before the gate, a wide set of stairs led up to Lasha’s right. The purple drapes at their sides gave the impression they led up to the throne room.
At the top was a round chamber with an elaborate symbol carved into the floor. An assortment of purple glowing orbs hung from the ceiling and water gently flowed along the wall in a narrow river. It lacked a throne though, appearing more like some rich company’s entrance hall. In the middle stood the tallest Sjetta she’s seen yet. Instead of white, his star eyes were red.
“Hello! I’m Algasath.” he said. His robe fell all the way to the floor, so it looked like he hovered over to her. Perhaps he did, his body did not rise and fall with steps. “How are you feeling?”
“Better.” Lasha answered truthfully. Her body had begun to trust that her bones had mended during the walk.
“That is great. What is your name?”
“Lasha. Lasha Kyong, your majesty.”
Algasath chuckled. “My what? Don’t flatter me.”
“What should I call you then?”
“My name, of course. I only have the one.”
Lasha looked back at her two companions to try and gauge the air of the room. They just stood there, polite.
“Uh, thanks for healing me.” Lasha continued the conversation.
“Yes, I’m glad to see you up. We Sjetta don’t get injured and we don’t get many visitors that do. Fortunately Estih had picked up some healing magic and Nelub had studied humans from afar.”
“Magic?” Lasha looked up to the glowing orbs that weren’t affixed to anything. “Of course.”
“We got worried when you wouldn’t wake up for three weeks. We worried you were in one of those comas. We were about to get a doctor from Tesculia-”
“Three weeks?!” This information pushed one thought into the front of Lasha’s mind. “I have to go home!”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re missed but we need to first ta-”
“No, I have to go right now! My mother is in danger!”
Algasath eyes bore down on her. It was hard to tell if he meant to glare or not.
“I’ll go with her!” Estih offered. “We’ll check on her mother and then we’ll come back to talk it all out, okay?”
Algasath let Lasha’s face sway him. “Okay, go then. Be careful.”
Lasha left him no moment to reconsider. She ran back down the stairs, Estih shrunk down, clinging to her arm to keep up. She was as light as a shadow would be. Outside, Estih grew in size again in order to carry Lasha up the ravine. Noticeably, her dress changed size along with her.
“I can’t believe we convinced him. He’s usually so careful.”
“What would be so important to talk about?”
“It’d be pretty significant if humans learned of our existence. Letting that happen could also put other species on this planet at risk. Asterians especially already struggle a lot to avoid being found. It’s a delicate situation. Though many believe we should've gotten it over with by now. That's what Nelub meant earlier.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
They reached the top. The forest still looked the same. At least they didn’t come out at the same spot where Benjamin tried to kill her. Actually, that would’ve been better. She could’ve traced the tire tracks home, if there were any. From here, she had no idea which way to go.
“Do you know which direction to get to the town?” Lasha asked.
“I’ve never been outside. Wait, you understand I have to hide out here.” Estih shrunk down to about the size of a smartphone. “That’s as small as I can go. Just put me in your front pocket.”
Lasha gently picked up her friend and placed her in the black replica of her hoodie. Then she picked a direction that felt right and ran.
Eventually she found a road but didn’t recognize it. She knew the forest was at the edge of her hometown, so if she just found her way to the town centre, she could find her way. She hoped to find a road sign pointing her the right way. She was already exhausted from running. Every now and then cars drove by. She thought some would actually stop, seeing a thirteen-year-old walk at the side of a road all alone, but none did. Lasha had to actively wave at one to stop it. Of course, getting into a stranger’s car as a kid seemed like a bad idea, but she had a magic alien to protect her. Even if that might create a diplomatic incident, at the moment Lasha did not grasp the weight of that. She wanted to make sure her mother was safe. That was the most important thing in the world.
“What are you doing here, all alone?” The bearded driver said. He looked like the people on magazine covers in stores. Particularly the shirtless ones. He wore a shirt though.
“I… I got lost in the woods. Can you drive me home?”
“Are you sure? Don’t you think your parents would still be looking for you in the forest?”
“I’ve been in there for weeks, she’s gotta be home!”
The man gave her a suspicious look. Lasha’s clean clothes didn’t support her lie, even if it was technically true.
“Okay, sorry, I lied, but I really need to get home! I can’t really explain what is happening, I’m sorry.”
“Maybe I should bring you to the police first.”
“We don’t have that time! My mother is in danger! Someone tried to kill me!”
“Alright, get in. I’m Ricky by the way.”
Lasha got into the backseat. She was worried the man could glance into the side of her hoodie pocket. She told him her address.
“Is it okay if I at least call the police to your house to meet us there?”
“Yes! Yes, that is good.”
“And you’re sure your mother is actually in danger?”
“Yes!” Lasha emphasized.
“Alright… better safe than sorry I guess.”
Lasha was a bit annoyed Ricky refused to drive during the phone call, but at least he wouldn’t actually call the police if he planned to kidnap her. Finally he got back on the road. Lasha kept holding the seatbelt in such a way it wouldn’t squish Estih.
They reached the house before the police did. Ricky pulled up to the hedge and Lasha jumped out of the car. Her shoulder slammed into the front door when it didn’t open as expected. Locked. That was strange, but perhaps Mama forgot to unlock it. She rang the doorbell. No one came.
“Maybe we should wait for the police.” Ricky said. Lasha ignored him and circled around to the back door. On the way, she looked into the windows, but found nothing unusual, other than the fact no one was inside. Maybe mama was crying in the bedroom. She had to assume she had lost her daughter as well. Thinking that broke Lasha’s heart. The back door was locked too.
“Hey, kid.” Ricky began, but Lasha ignored him.
She picked up a rock and prepared to throw it through the glass screen. Ricky snatched it from her hand though.
“Can you try to tell me what is going on? Be honest, I’ll listen.”
“This guy tried to rob money from us and I found out about it and he put me in his car and tried to throw me in a hole in the forest, but I survived and… an old man found me and nursed me back to health but he couldn’t bring me back home so I ran away. Here, I still got a scar.” She pulled her sleeve up to show him the scar where her arm broke. She hoped that story made a little more sense to him.
While he struggled to understand, Lasha grabbed the rock from his hand and threw it through the glass door. It didn’t create a hole she could climb through though.
“Oh my God!” Ricky grabbed her arm as it tried to grab another rock. He picked her up in both hands and carried her back to the front of the house, despite her struggling.
“We’re waiting for the police now.”
“It’s my house!”
“Let go of the girl!” someone barked at him. Lasha spotted a police car. The face of the officer was obscured by the barrel of his gun. Ricky let go of her to raise his hands.
“I’m the one who called!”
Lasha tried to use the moment to escape but Ricky reflexively grabbed hold of her again. His fingers slipped right back off after a loud bang made Lasha stumble. Ricky collapsed behind her.
“Why... why did you shoot him?” Lasha shouted at the officer. He came closer with an indifferent expression.
“Are you okay?”
“You shot him!”
He held his red face over hers. “Aren’t you that Kyong girl?” he glanced at the house for a moment, then pointed his gun back at Ricky, groaning in the grass. “You bastard!”
“No!” Lasha tried to push the gun away, which happened to point it upward. Another shot fired and blood spattered out of the officer’s face. For a moment Lasha thought she blew his head off, as he collapsed on his back. He must’ve thought the same, but when he raised his head again, she saw it had only cut into his chin a little.
“You damn brat!” he let fear and anger take over and kicked Lasha in the stomach, making her hit the wall and squirm on the floor.
“What’s going on here?” the officer’s partner finally showed. He helped the other guy up while Lasha struggled to open her eyes.
“That’s the missing girl.”
“And is that our culprit then? Too bad, you came a little too late.”
“Alright, pack ‘em up. Kid’s parents are dead but we can still be celebrated as heroes for finding her.”
And just as they said that, they collapsed to the ground. Lasha saw Estih stand behind them. She shrunk down again to not be spotted so easily, but she still had the strength to lift Lasha up and prop her against the wall. Ricky was passed out. Estih rolled him on his back.
“I’m sorry, I had to intervene. He wouldn’t survive this wound much longer.”
She placed her nubby, three-fingered hand on his chest. “A tricky organ but I should be able to fix it.”
“Did you kill the cops?” Lasha asked, not sure if the words made it to Estih.
“No. I didn’t quite understand who these people were. It’s just magically induced unconsciousness. They’ll be out for a couple hours.” Estih sighed. “I can only offer you to come back to Amieredetta with me. You can pack some of your things if you want.”
So Estih heard him say it too. That just made it… real. Strangely, Lasha did not feel like crying. She emptied out her backpack in the garage and finished her work on the backdoor. Estih followed her inside. She picked up her favorite things from her room and some others from around the house. She didn’t go into her parents’ bedroom. She didn’t know if her mother got killed too or did it herself after Ben vanished with the money. She didn’t want or need to know.
Once outside, Estih hid in her pocket again. Ricky sat up against the wall. He was awake again.
“Sorry for this.” Lasha said.
“What happened?” he asked, carefully poking at the spot now marked by a scar, visible through the hole in his shirt. The only evidence that it happened left.
“You’ve been healed, let’s leave it at that. Please get out of here, I don’t want them to put you through any more trouble.” Lasha spotted a notepad where the other cop noted Ricky’s license plate. She took it with her.
“Was he right? You’re the missing girl?”
“That’s who I’ll be now.”
Lasha put her hood up and wrapped a scarf around her face, hoping to get back to the forest unnoticed. Ricky was fully healed but still too shocked to move after her.