The whole forest was quiet, filled with the vibrating sort of silence that was punctuated with loud noises. Salamander and Bartholomew walked in silence, watching the small wonders around them. The first time a flock of something whooshed past their heads, they ducked and Salamander nearly screamed, until her brother calmed her, recognizing them as cousins to him—of a sort.
Fox heads with large, forward-pointing ears and eyes like Bells' and Scarves' focused for a moment on the pair, before rushing upwards. The vibrant red fur of their bodies, and their luscious tails flapped behind them as they flapped their glowing yellow wings, taut leather stretched between fingers, vaguely transparent, the veins in their wings pulsing like the ones in 'Thol's ears. They flew up into the sky, caching large insects and small birds, the colony twisting into fantastic shapes, until the flying foxes were winging away to the distant clouds.
They walked until Lela rose, pausing in startled silence as the night-sister came up in front of the clouds, purple swelling and roiling behind her. The moon rose and rose until she was at her apex, and suddenly glowed as bright as the day-sister. Lola, it seemed, never shone here.
As Lela begun to shine her brightest, the haunting calls that echoed through the forest swelled, the most notable coming from a tree right above their heads. Looking up, they saw a society of cat-monkeys howling bloody heart to the clouds, saber-fangs glinting in the brightening light. The noise was also taken up by a herd of pygmy hairy-fonts, long, mobile noses trumpeting, spreading their great ears. But before they herd could swing into full gusto, the cat-monkeys launched themselves from their tree, where they had been unnoticed by the hairy-fonts, and swarmed over a sickly-looking elder, that fell under the sheer weight of the arboreal beasts.
The trumpeting herd dissolved into panic, stampeding away from their culled comrade, whose blood was leaking out into the ground, the cat-monkeys ripping large chunks of flesh from its side, dark purple organs falling onto the ground. Salamander shuddered and they walked onwards.
The trees around them began to spread somewhat, and hills began to rise up under the curling weight of roots. The siblings pace was not so determined now, now that they had finally come to their final destination, seeing odd things and fusions of things that no one had ever seen before—or at least never left the Raining Gardens to tell everyone else about.
A narrow fissure had split open the top of one particularly rocky hill, a vertical fissure. The pair came to rest under a tree, the former Jack of Spades and the once-Joker of Spades leaning their backs into the bark, unsure of what they were doing, or even why. Yet content.
Then: the dark purple clouds opened up, and the rain came down. It was a slow, thoughtful sort of rain, of the sort where you can watch the drops fall down to you. Salamander did just this, raising her face skyward to let the Blue Woman's tears embrace her. Yet when the droplets met her skin, they felt oddly solid. Transfixed, Salamander watched as the "rain" fell, meeting the ground, yet not soaking into it. Instead it covered everything in an ice-like coating, making it shine in the moonlight.
And then the coated started to convulse, like a living organism, and separated into islands, rising and rising into towers that quivered like gelatin, a faintly blue gelatin. What they had taken for a rock sitting in front of the cave in the hill twitched, and revealed itself to be a rainbow sliver: a tiny animal bearing semblance to a white tiger cub, stubbly little legs and tail barely supporting its adorably chubby body. That was its hiding-shape. The sliver made its way over to one of the gelatin-towers that speared upwards to half the heights of the tree trunks, and licked it with great fervor. Bartholomew shifted his weight, entranced, snapping a twig under his rump. The sliver's ears shot up. It froze. Then it slowly turned to face them, weight from its body already shifting under its skin, appendages lengthening as its body emaciated, into backwards-curving blades for legs, tail shooting out into a long, thick thing for balance. Its cute face lost its baby fat, transforming into little more than a fur-covered skull. All of this before either of them could open their mouths.
And then its blade-legs went flashing through the trees, having morphed fluidly from its hiding-shape to its fleeing-shape, that carrion-eater of the Blue Woman's Wilde fading away into the noon of night. On unspoken agreement, the siblings rose and started off once more.
Great pine trees rose upwards, draped in obscenely large-flowered vines, laughing mushrooms sprouting from every surface, and the Technicolor ferns waved in the breezes. They wandered unceasingly, never sleeping, not stopping to rest or eat until they came to the clay beds. They stumbled onto the river, its soft gray banks slippery and thick under their feet and hands, and, laughing, they slid down into the water.
It was crisp and clear and tasted like lemons. Laughing, they threw bits of clay at each other, smearing it on each other's faces and bodies until they were covered, their dirty garments turned grey, washed clean of uncounted miles of travel and the clinging weight of regrets.
Salamander's giggle turned into a scream as Bartholomew dunked her savagely into the lemon-flavored water, and she rose gasping, only to tackle him downward. Together they rolled, screams and shouts substituting laughter, happiness rolling off them like the waves of the sea rolling onto the shore. Their vows of silence and their ban on happiness were no longer in effect. They didn't matter, now that they were in this magical island of isolation.
They emerged from the clay-laden river, only to meet a crooked old being with the moss called old man's beard sprouting from his chin. The old being was lanky and gnarled, seemingly made from clay, and leaned against a likewise crooked and gnarled branch, roughly ripped from the trunk, that seemed to be a sort of walking stick. "I'm Old Man Swamp," he said without preamble. "Who're you two?"
A sort of feline materialized at his feet: a housecat-construct that was made from moss and lost feathers, fallen leaves and molted fur, dried-up flower petals and crushed butterfly wings, all seemingly wound together by stories. "Oh Swampy," the cat-construct said, voice deep and female. "Don't be so crude." Turning her attention back to the siblings, the cat made of odds and ends and anecdotes asked, "How did you get here?"
"We walked," Batholomew said.
"And we traveled with a kitsune caravan," Salamander added.
"And then we traveled in a flying boat," her brother said.
"And then we walked some more," the albino girl finished.
"My," the cat said. "It sounds like you've had quite the journey."
"Journey or not, it doesn't explain why they're here," the old man grumbled.
"We're here because we made a promise to someone very important a long time ago," Salamander admitted this easily, saying out loud for the first time the angry secret that had twisted around inside of her for most of her years.
"You see?" the cat said to Old Man Swamp. "They have a perfectly good reason."
"Yes, but they can't very well stay like that, and you know it," Old Man Swamp retorted.
The cat sighed. "So grim you are, Swampy. But correct." The arguing pair turned to face Salamander and Bartholomew, who had almost risen to the tips of their toes in anticipation. "What can't we stay like?" Bat asked.
"It is the salvation and the curse of the Raining Gardens," the cat said, "that no human can ever exist here for very long."
"Why?" Salamander said.
The cat shrugged. "It is in the nature of the place, as it is the nature of Calalini's cities to have Genius Loci, or the Sunrise Kingdom's Dragon Emperor to be crass. Things simply are."
"How long have we been here?" Bartholomew said, voicing the fear bubbling up in both he and his sister.
"Nearly too long," Old Man Swamp grouched. "Now hurry-hurry. Things must be done."
"Swampy, they don't know what 'things' you're rambling on about. Forgive him," the cat said, explaining to the two of them. "He's an old rock. He forgets things."
"Old my arse!" the clay-man said, emoting fervently.
"Anyway," the cat-construct said, ignoring him, "there is a choice you must make. You must either enter in communion with the Blue Woman's Wilde, or you must die."
"Why can't we leave?" Bat asked, taking a step back.
"Your spirit has become bound to this place. If you attempt to return to the outside, you will perish. Surely you have felt it?" Salamander and Bat looked at each other, hearts beginning to beat faster. They had. "Anyway, only elementals can live for any lengths of time here. It is a good sort of existence," she said, lifting one paw and unsheathing claws made of briars. "But not," she warned, "for all. In fact, any choose death over the merging with the land. The prospect of becoming one with place frightens them."
"Hurry now, whelps," Old Man Swamp said, thumping the butt of his branch-staff on the ground. "You've only got hours."
Bartholomew raised his hand, and Salamander likewise raised hers, hands meeting in midair, fingers curling through one another's. This was their final communication. Each had made their decision the moment they had set out on the journey, though it was the sort of decision one doesn't realize until the moment is at hand.
Hands still intertwined, they began to fade, tatters of themselves being stolen away by the wind. Salamander smiled, finally happy, and Bartholomew nodded, his stoic determination finally sated. And so Smiling Salamander Songs faded into the clay, free to sing forever, and Bartholomew Bat-Blood's spirit was finally, after so achingly long, freed, transforming, evolving, fading, or whatever happened after death finally happening.
Watching the pair fade, the construct-cat turned to Old Man Swamp, as both could feel the weight of Salamander' soul settling into the dirt, the trees, everything. One day, perhaps, enough of herself could re-gather to form a vestigial construct of herself, as the cat was a re-grouping of a traveler's soul who had given himself up long ago. "Well," she said to Old Man Swamp, weight heavy in her chest, "another two parted."
"What do you mean 'another two'?" the clay-man said with a downward twist of his mouth. "They were the first siblings that ever came here."
The cat-construct sighed and watched Lela light the clouds behind her massive white form lavender. "You know what I mean, you old fool."
"No I don't. I never do."
The two's argument faded, as they did, going back to sleep, knowing that another journey had ended. The Raining Gardens were especially gallant that night, the new, happy soul thrown over it like a net of fairy-lights. And the sky was unusually still and peaceful, having felt the passage of one eager for what came next. The Raining Gardens would remember Bartholomew and Salamander, in the odd way a forest remembers a tragedy that cut through its heart. The trees would remember, and the sky would remember, singing songs to all of those who Listened to the Night.