“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.” – Vladimir Nabokov

It has been too long, Neriko said as he watched Cloudhome through the window in the Radiance’s bridge. The plateau rose like an island of red stone from a sea of green trees. He sighed and continued, It has been almost five years since I put my foot on that red mountain last time. My mother and friends probably think I’m dead by now. I should’ve returned sooner or figured out some way to contact them. I should’ve.

You know, they asked about you when I ordered the Radiance, Osnar said. I denied even meeting you or knowing your name. They wouldn’t stop buggering me about it, though. They knew you were involved somehow.

Probably, Neriko said.

They knew, Semos said. I knew, and that’s why I enlisted.

Two smaller airships intercepted and showed them into an empty port. The Radiance hovered for a while before lowering her anchors to the personnel on the ground. They fastened them to the anchoring points drilled into the stone. Two men for each anchor. The airship’s engines roared as she pulled herself down towards the ground, stopping right before her hull crushed the roofs of Cloudhome’s tallest buildings.

The ports aren’t built to accommodate vessels of this size, Semos said. We’ll not get any closer to the ground than this. You boys will have to take the elevator the last bit.

It’s okay, Neriko said. Are you joining me, Osnar?

Yes, Captain.

I need you to get the list of supplies from the cargo space, Neriko said.

I’ve it with me, Osnar said, patting his breast pocket.

Organized and one step ahead as always, Neriko said.

A crowd had formed during the anchoring. They watched them in awe as they descended in the elevator. People crowded around it as soon as it touched the ground. Neriko opened the doors and started handing out gemstones and other valuables from a bag to whoever wanted them. There were things they had collected during their travels around the world: gold, silver, gems, assorted trinkets. An old woman approached from the crowd. Neriko saw her and tried to give her an emerald.

She spat at his feet and said, You disappeared and left your old mother and your people to their fate. Oh, we’ve heard about your whereabouts; you steal and reave, kidnap and kill. We hear from the traders that people think ill of us now. They think we’re all like you—that we all are as morally corrupt as you. Then you come back to Red Rock and pretend to be some kind of hero that sprinkles us with gifts like we’re children not knowing any better. You can’t buy our respect back. A disgrace is what you are, Neriko, and ashamed is what you should be. She spat at his feet again and walked back through the muted crowd that parted for her. They remained silent for a while. As did Neriko and Osnar. Then the people extended their hands again, and the giving of gifts continued.

I’ve something I need to get done, Neriko said to Osnar that rummaged around in the bag. Could you hold down the fort while I’m gone?

Of course, Osnar said.

Thank you, Neriko said and walked through the crowd like the woman had done. He went down the street that separated the city’s wooden houses into two. In his childhood home, Neriko’s mother stood by the stove like no time had passed. When she saw him enter the door, she left the ladle in the pot and hurried towards him. With tears in her eyes, she embraced him like she had that one time when he was a child lost and found in Mistwood. She stepped back and looked at his severed arm.

What happened? She said.

It’s a long and convoluted story that I very much would prefer not to tell you about, He said. It’s, it’s so complicated and irrelevant.

Okay, She said but kept her gaze on the arm for a while.

Are you okay? He asked.

Yes, yes, She said. I’m just so shocked from seeing you after all these years—seeing you without your hand. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s your choice. I can’t make you; I don’t want to make you.

Thanks, He said. I hope you’ll understand.

She motioned for him to sit down at the table as she went to the cabinet for a bowl. From the pot, she poured him a stew made from assorted vegetables and some mysterious meat. She placed it in front of him only to realize he had no spoon and hurried to fetch one from the drawer.

Where have you been? She said as she sat down at the opposite side of the table.

From here to there and then everywhere, He answered, smiling. First, I went to City of Slaves, built into the mountain itself. I saw its deep pits and quarries—and the cannon standing on the mountaintop; its barrel is bored so large that a grown man could walk upright through it. I visited the bazaars selling fabrics and spices from all over the world. There were vendors in the street selling tanks of pure air to ward off the pollution; I saw the taverns with people of all shapes and colors telling stories from their homelands far away.

City of Slaves, She said dreamily. What then? You’ve been away for five years, Neriko. Where else have you been?

I flew along the river and saw the lights of Mistwood Glade like the pulsating heart of the forest. I reached the coast and saw the jagged cliffs and the desert with sand white as bone. Then I headed inland again. After that, I came here to meet you and the others while restocking the Radiance.

I must ask if it is true, She said seriously.

If what is true? Neriko asked.

The things they say about you reaving and stealing from the farmers.

No, He said. I have not done that, but I have done other things. Nothing that would bring any ill upon the small man. You know I would never do that. I’ll be honest with you; I robbed Vault 7 in City of Slaves. That’s how I afforded the Radiance and its crew.

You have not, She said, looking at him curiously. If that had happened, we all would’ve heard about it. They would’ve put up a great reward for whoever catches you. It would be known from Citadel to the Kingdom.

No, they would be quiet about it, He said as he finished the stew. So quiet. They have a reputation as the wealthiest and most secure bank in the known world, and they want to keep it that way. If the public knew there’d been a heist, their stock would plummet. They can’t have that.

Yes, She said, That’s true.

He looked at her for a moment before he rose from the table and said, I have to leave now.

Why? She asked.

I’ve some other errands I need to get done before I leave Red Rock.

I meant, why do you need to go away again? Haven’t you had enough adventures?

It’s complicated, He said. There’s something I need to get done, and I think it could make the world a better place. It’s important.

You’re not a child anymore, She said sadly. I can’t stop you however much I wanted to. You go and do what you need to do. If you say it’s important, I believe it is. Just promise me to be careful and to be back soon. Promise to be careful, Neriko. Promise.

I promise. I’ll be back within the year if all goes well. Until next time, goodbye, He said and went to the door and grabbed the handle.

Wait! She said and sprung from the table. Could you give your mother a hug, like you used to do when you were little? You always wanted a hug before you left home to play and whatnot. It has been so long, She said and held out her arms for him. Neriko obliged. They stood for a while in each other’s embrace. The mother that longed for her son. He who longed to change the world.

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