Neige tightened his grip on the handle of his sheathed dagger without taking his eyes off the mist. In the swamps of the Tempest, the Limbo was denser and more dangerous, as thick as a storm cloud, rising from the ground to hang, suspended, in the air. Its characteristic odor of steel and rain was nearly suffocating. It absorbed the rare rays of sunlight that ventured beneath the layer of clouds and created monsters of shadow and smoke. The slightest moment of distraction could prove fatal.
His muscles tensed, and the hairs at the back of his neck stood on end. Neige had initially thought it was another trick of the light, but he was mistaken. Something was actually approaching him. He fully drew his dagger from its sheath and bent his knees, ignoring the wave of pain that immediately shot through his left calf.
If it was a lost ox, he could kill it without much difficulty, but if it was a swamp tiger or a dire wolf, he’d have to run. Confronting one of those animals alone was more than reckless. In the state he was in, it was practically suicide.
A rustle caught his attention. The soft sound, unusual in the deadly silence of the swamplands, accompanied a warm, gentle wind. Neige froze as the breeze brushed his face. It was a well-known fact that there was no wind in the Tempest. He was confused. As though to mock him, the impossible breeze persisted. The mist thinned, scattered by a gust of wind. It formed a swirl of greenish gas before parting into a multicolored ripple, like the shifting of a beaded curtain.
Neige had to resist wiping the sweat tickling his temples, all his attention focused on the dark figure slowly emerging from the fog. The silhouette was too thin to be an ox’s and too long to be a wolf’s. It had a human form, but that didn’t calm his anxiety—strangers could be more dangerous than wild animals because of their unpredictability. Slowly, he stepped back from the muddy ground to a more stable patch of grass.
The swamps were at the bottom of a long, narrow valley through which a tenuous river flowed. Neige couldn’t see them because of the mist, but he could hear the acidic and effervescent waters quite clearly. He could also sense their presence, similar to that of a large, heavy-breathing animal, because an uncomfortable heat was emanating from the stream. The river ate away at anything that tried to grow on its banks. Neige always made sure to keep his distance.
To his left, hills and jagged cliffs rose toward the cloudy canopy, covered in the thick vegetation characteristic of this land. Above this hilly terrain was the Great Emptiness, the cold and dry desert that made up the majority of the Tempest, where Neige lived, like most of the Solitaires.
He quickly evaluated his situation: with his injured leg, he had little chance of crossing the hills quickly, but the forest offered him more places to hide than the river’s open, slippery banks. The water could also easily turn into a trap, so he preferred to get away from it; he had no interest in dying, devoured by the acidity of the stream.
The wind swept away the final threads of fog, obscuring the newcomer. The knot that tensed Neige’s back when he first noticed the murky silhouette tightened further. The incomprehensible presence of the air currents was putting him on edge, but something else, something he didn’t know how to explain, was bothering him even more. All his muscles were painfully contracted, on alert.
“Shnatu,” said a muffled voice, so small that Neige almost thought he imagined it.
The child emerged from the Limbo like smoke suddenly made flesh.
Instinctively, Neige crouched and pointed his blade at the apparition. The child seemed to materialize with each uncertain step.
It was a little girl. A little girl wrapped in rags with a dusty gray face and a heavy mass of disheveled black hair. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and she was terribly thin. For just a moment, in the darkness of the swamp, her sunken eyes glinted with a bloodshot sparkle. Marks of the same color gleamed on her gaunt face. Neige blinked. All the tension disappeared. A pathetic spectacle remained: a small, malnourished, lost child. Without realizing it, he sheathed his knife.
“Shnatu,” murmured the child.
Her tears had traced clear grooves in the dirt that covered her cheeks, but she was no longer crying. She seemed too exhausted, as though she had already cried so much that she had nothing left to shed. She was eventually close enough for Neige to notice that, despite the grime, her skin, a dark bronze, almost onyx, was too dark to be that of a Solitaire. In spite of this, he said, “Where are your parents? What tribe do they belong to?”
The child froze.
“Do you understand me?”
“Raznatu nai. Raznatu nai… Shnatu…”
In vain, Neige tried to decipher the syllables. The consonants of her language were opaque yet familiar.
His unease deepened; the archipelagic language was universally understood. Even the Solitaires and those who still spoke the languages and dialects banned by The First Oracle understood it and knew how to speak it.
“Where do you come from?” he asked, making large hand gestures toward The Limbo.
The wind had disappeared, and the fog was once again thick. The child pointed somewhere toward the southwest. Neige knew the swamps well enough to know that there was nothing in that direction other than the Limbo and danger. The rational part of him, hardened by half a century spent in the Tempest, was begging him to ignore this strange child and head back, but he knew his conscience would never stop bothering him if he decided to turn his back on a being so obviously vulnerable. With a sigh, he closed the small distance that separated them.
The little girl gazed up at him with empty eyes enlarged by hunger. Somehow, they still held a weak spark of wonder and hope. One of her eyes was black like the opaque nights of the Tempest, while the other was a murky gray, pale and dull, as though discolored by light. Neige shivered and instinctively stepped back. However, before he could reverse his decision to help her, the little one wobbled, as though struck by vertigo. Neige reflexively circled his arms around her bony shoulders. When he became aware of his instinctive decision, it was already too late. Now that he was holding her against him, he could no longer allow himself to let her go. She was too slight, too cold, and fragile.
Neige’s heart, that dry nut, split in two. His muscles remembered the movements, partially forgotten because of grief. He tightened his grip on the small body and pulled her up to hold her against his chest. Though his calf protested, he could deal with this familiar pain.
“It’ll be all right,” he reassured the child. “Don’t worry, things will be all right now.”
She said nothing. She probably didn’t understand anything he was saying, but she didn’t struggle. Neige adjusted the girl in his arms so that he could still probe the Limbo above her disheveled head and then walked in the direction she had indicated.
He walked for a long time in the frozen dirt, through mist as thick as oatmeal. He ventured into a part of the swamps he hadn’t yet explored, flatter and less humid than the rest of the valley. Soon, his feet found dark and abnormally dry grass. A few skeletal trees materialized. Unsurprisingly, all the vegetation was dead, poisoned by the river and the toxic air.
The child, curled up against his chest, had her eyes half-closed and barely moved. She was so light and quiet that Neige almost forgot he was carrying her. She only stirred when, blinded by the fog and distracted by the pain in his leg, he tripped on the branches of an old tree sprawled on the grass. He managed to keep a solid grip on her but had to stifle a groan as his injured calf spasmed. His throat tight, his eyes brimming with tears, he leaned on a tree to catch his breath.
The girl focused her gaze on the clearing in front of them. Neige followed her line of vision and was stunned to discover the ruins of the largest building he’d ever seen.
The Tempest was brimming with ruins. Many civilizations had lived on these lands, now eroded by the Limbo, and the numerous traces of their existence remained. Things that the inhabitants of the floating islands no longer wanted also ended up there, in the Tempest. Neige’s people, the Solitaires, were mainly treasure scavengers, antique dealers, and tinkerers. They recovered the things the Archipelagons had abandoned and claimed them as their own.
The Limbo facilitated this recycling process because items in the foggy areas deteriorated extremely slowly. Neige had already walked through parts of the swamp and the sky cemetery that could have been plucked from another era. He had found intact pieces of aircraft wreckage from the Great Dynasties and fragments of huts used during the Age of Heroes. But he had never happened upon something so majestic and so well preserved as the ruins he was now facing.
The building must have been an immaculate white before it was invaded by the Tempest’s diseased lichen. Between the patches of gray moss, it was still possible to make out the smooth white stone of the broken walls. The twisted columns, although fallen into the mud for several centuries, were still impressively beautiful.
“Is this where you’re from?” he asked the little girl, immobile in his arms.
After a brief hesitation, Neige decided to venture a little further into the clearing. Behind the first building stood others. A veritable city lay in front of him.
He explored the area hesitantly, attentive to the slightest movement of the Limbo, looking for any sign that the little girl had indeed come from here. After a half hour, he noticed footsteps in the mud, small prints that could only have been made by a child.
The tracks passed under the vestiges of a formerly majestic arch. It was also built with white stone, invaded by moss, and covered in several layers of gray dust. Even in the meager, misty light of the Tempest, Neige noticed the facades’ detailed engravings. He recognized the symbols sculpted in the center of each column: an open eye encircled with long, thin lashes, similar to a depiction of the sun. It was a familiar image, often seen on other ruins, especially those found in the sky cemetery.
His father’s voice came to him like a distant echo. Mirror, he responded, when Neige had asked him about that omnipresent eye. They had been looking at the ruins near the Grave of Stars, and his father had been teaching him how to find valuable objects amidst the debris. It’s the eye of Mirror, the god of the Star Children. The god who led them to their downfall. The memory dissipated as fast as it had formed, leaving behind a deep sense of unease.
Eventually, Neige found what he was looking for: the footsteps stopped in front of a chest the size of a person. It was similar to the casket where they placed the Oracles for the death procession that preceded their cremation. Nonetheless, unlike the Oracles’ caskets, this one wasn’t made of wood. Even broken, half swallowed by the vaporous shadow, the chest’s material could not be mistaken for something as ordinary as wood. It gleamed in the half-light, iridescent as crystal where the few rays touched it.
Neige knew this starry texture, somewhere between ice and stone; the casket was an amalgamation of gems. They had been arranged like pebbles embedded in resin. The surface was rough, hollowed, and bumpy, and though fused to its neighbors, each gem was distinct. The object was fashioned with a proficiency that the Archipelagons did not possess.
The Children of the Stars, Neige thought while contemplating the eye engraved on the fractured lid of the casket. This is where the little girl had escaped from her deadly encasement, like a bird breaking its shell. Neige couldn’t imagine himself a prisoner of such a thing. The gemstones were brittle by nature, but the casket looked solid. How long had this child beaten against the stone before freeing herself? How did she end up in there? How long had she been imprisoned?
He couldn’t decide if he was impressed or terrified. He felt the burning in his calf and the biting humidity of the Limbo on his face with a new intensity. The warmth of the survivor in his arms suddenly seemed extremely fragile.
Neige turned away from the casket, the child pressed against his heart.
From La respiration du ciel, © VLB Éditeur. Translation © 2024 by Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch. All rights reserved.