Tariq stared at the Line of Fear. There was nothing to see beyond it, only sand, stones so small that they looked like dust. But the wind had blown a couple of them into Tariq’s eyes before, so he knew that they were nothing like dust, they were small mischievous stones that didn’t allow anything else to exist at the other side of the line.
Tariq sighed and looked away from the orange desert. He picked up his bag from the mossy ground. Yet another wasted night. He turned around to walk back towards his village when he saw the first firefly of the season. It seemed lonely and barely moved at all, its tail carefully glowing in the dark. But soon other lights joined it and the lonely firefly shone more confidently. It looked like they were all dancing together, hundreds of fireflies.
Then the most curious noises joined them, almost like background music. Pheew. Uff. It came from behind him. Tariq turned around.
Then he froze.
A red insect was flying around at the other side of the line. It had long red wings and was flying so fast that he had trouble seeing it.
Tariq didn’t believe his eyes.
But then just behind the first one followed another. Pheew.
Tariq didn’t dare to move.
For the past four years he had stared at the Line of Fear every night, hoping that he might see his father cross it. But in those four years he had never seen anything living on the other side. Nothing ever moved apart from the sand.
Pheew. The sound didn’t come from the flying insects.
A bare foot stepped down on the sand. Uff. Then another one. It was a girl with long orange hair, just like the Phyras, the imaginary people living at the other side of the line. Tariq had grown up listening to stories about the Phyras. Their hair was orange like the desert and they were afraid of the dark. But everyone knew that it was just stories, no one was afraid of the dark and no one lived at the other side of the Line of Fear. Yet this girl was right there with hair as orange as the desert. And the sounds were coming from her as she moved through the sand with difficulty. Pheew.
Tariq rubbed his eyes but the Phyra was still there.
She wasn’t wearing any shoes, no gloves, not even a coat. The only things she had on were some shorts and a T-shirt that she had tied up as to expose the dark skin on her belly. From her neck hung a golden pendant and just like Tariq she was carrying a bag.
She hadn’t seen him yet.
Tariq tried to get closer. Crunch. He had stepped on a branch. He didn’t expect her to hear it, but almost as soon as he had moved the girl stopped walking and turned her attention to the darkness surrounding Tariq.
She narrowed her eyes as though she couldn’t see in the dark. Tariq knew exactly why, sometimes when he stood close to the line it was difficult to see anything. It was a scary sight. The other kids in school called it the wakening, because it was just like waking up in the morning, everything was blurry and difficult to see.
The girl had spotted something, the light of the fireflies. But she kept searching through the darkness.
Their eyes met. Neither of them spoke for about a minute. They just looked at each other, both surprised at the existence of the other.
Then the girl stood up straight.
‘Is it safe?’ she asked.
Tariq fell backwards down on the moss out of surprise. He still couldn’t believe that a Phyra was standing in front of him. And able to speak as well? He opened his mouth but no words came out so he closed it again.
Finally he pulled himself together and stood up. He swallowed once. Twice. And three times before he managed to speak.
‘You… you are a Phyra, right?’ he finally asked.
The girl took a couple of seconds to answer.
‘Then you must be a… Nightswallower.’ There was a glint in her eyes as she pronounced the word.
Again there was a silence that only the buzzing of the insects broke. The Phyra narrowed her eyes to better see Tariq. He stepped closer to the Line of Fear to give her a chance to see him despite the wakening.
‘You ever tried crossing?’ the girl asked. Tariq couldn’t believe his ears.
‘Is it safe?’
‘Well, I’m here, right?’ she said. Tariq slowly nodded in response.
She smiled and lifted her foot from the sand slowly moving it towards the Line of Fear. They both held their breath as it came closer. She halted the action for a second and then quickly moved it across the line to set foot on the ground. Just as quickly as she had put her foot there she pulled it away.
‘It’s freezing,’ she said.
‘It’s not too cold today,’ he said.
The Phyra girl scowled at him.
Tariq took a deep breath and went closer, so close that the tip of his shoe almost touched the line. He lifted his right hand. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do. He had never dared to cross before. He took another deep breath and swiftly moved his hand across the line before he pulled it back again as fast as he could. He winced.
‘Your side feels as hot as putting a hand on the fire,’ he remarked and checked his hand for burns.
The girl barely held back her laughter.
‘I’m Aria,’ she said. He had never heard a name like that before. ‘It means lioness.’ He had heard about lions before though, in the fairytales about the Phyras. Big dangerous animals with fur the same colour as the sand and the Phyras’ hair. He thought the name fitted her and he made a point of remembering it.
‘I’m Tariq,’ he said.
‘Are a lot of Nightswallowers called Tariq?’ she asked.
‘No, I’ve never met someone else with my name. Why?’ Aria looked down at the ground as though she was unsure that sharing her knowledge was a good idea.
‘In the city I used to live in, Braznit,’ she finally said, ‘there was an old crazy man. Everyone knew he was crazy. He said that he had crossed the Line of Fear. I never believed him before now.‘ She looked up at Tariq momentarily then looked back down at the sand. ‘He often talked about having a son at the other side of the line. A son called Tariq.’