The wee morning hours had staked their claim on the realm as another sleepless night befell Kali. She sat in her favorite high-back chair and stared blankly into the far wall, twirling her finger and nail against the fabric armrest in a trance-like state.
Two loud knocks thundered into her chambers, but she didn’t startle; her eyes the only thing that moved. The creak from the heavy wooden doors sounded and a young man stepped in with his head bowed.
“My Lady,” he stated with a slight tremor to his voice. “The second portal has just been opened.”
“Good,” she said; pleased with the news. She stood and regarded her young messenger. “Did you slow them down?”
“As much as I could, Majesty.”
Pleased with his answer, she walked over to her wine and tray and poured herself a healthy portion of red wine. She swirled it around in her large goblet and inhaled the scent with one large breath before taking a delicate sip. Her long fingernail tapped a constant clink against the glass as she smiled wickedly.
The young man stood motionless as the former Empress approached him with grace, the hint of seduction painted across her lips and eyes. Smiling, she trailed a lone nail along the lad’s jaw and smirked at the gooseflesh that followed. She moved in, cupped his face, and pressed her painted lips right next to his ear. She whispered lowly, “Let the foreigners through. Ready our men. The second that third portal is engaged, we make our move.”
She pulled back, but not before placing a kiss where her lips had rested.
The young man swallowed, before answering her with affirmation. As he left, she gave him parting orders.
“Inform the others.”
So it begins. She thought to herself.
They traveled through the space between realms and thankfully ended up within The Gray. Vertigo was affecting them both, because despite the portals now being functional, the elements surrounding them were still off—unbalanced, and it tore at their beings from the inside out. Emri fell against the metal wall, her hands reaching out to steady herself as she gasped for breath. The images around her swam. She saw Nora hunched against the opposite wall and went to hold her. She could they were not alone, but that fact failed them completely as Nora stumbled out of the portal holding her mouth as she jerked away from Emri’s grasp.
“Nora?” Emri called as she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that would calm the sea storm that had settled within her eyes. “Nora what is it? Tell me, please?” Emri spoke, reaching out to her and grasping a lean arm.
Nora turned on her with tears in her eyes. “Why?” she asked. “Why did you do that?”
Emri watched in confusion as Nora lost her composure, unaware and oblivious to those who watched them in curiosity and bafflement. Emri was beginning to feel like them; like she had just entered into a heated discussion midway through. What was she missing? “Do what?” she finally asked.
Nora gritted her teeth and clenched her fist in frustration. “He just offered you a place within The White! That is not often done! It’s a great honor!”
“Honor?! Where the void is this coming from? You despise them just as much as me.”
“Yes, but that is where you belong!” she declared, and Emri’s heart shattered at the statement. “You could do so much good there. You deserve it. You deserve to be there. After all the darkness that’s seeped into your life, and tainted your blood, you, of all people have earned the right to finally see light. There’s a new life there, just waiting for you to claim it.”
Emri shook her head vehemently as she looked right into her eyes. She wanted to make herself clear—leave no room for doubt in Nora’s mind. “I don’t want that life. I’ve been to all three realms. I’ve seen how they all work. The Black was not for me, and the White is not for me. I want to be a resident of the Gray. The Black and White … it’s one extreme to the other.”
Still, Nora was persistent as she continued her argument. “Do you realize what you are giving up? You are the granddaughter of Orabela. The daughter of a demigod and you are a demigod by birth,” she said as if that would make a difference in Emri’s decision. “Your scars and markings can be wiped away—a clean slate.”
Frustration built within the young woman as she jerked her hands in front of her, palms out. “These may be erased, but the evidence of them still will remain with me for the duration of my life. They’ll always be with me. A reminder of who I was, who I am.”
“Is it so terrible that I want to be with you?” Emri suddenly asked.
Nora flinched, because no. No, it was not terrible. Nora desperately wanted the same—to be selfish. To live and be with Emri until the Gods decided otherwise.
Emri continued, “That invitation was not extended to you. Do you know how much that hurt? To have something offered to me and not to you—the person who has changed the most—for the better. To be asked to leave you behind? That’s not a life I want. There is not happiness there.”
“That’s just it, Emri. You’re turning away from something for me. I can’t allow that. Not now, not with whom I’ve become.”
Emri finally understood. Nora was trying to make amends to all that had happened to Emri because of her.
She took the few steps to the older woman and cupped tear-stained cheeks. Emri smiled sadly and looked at her with resolve. “This is my decision,” she whispered, “and I’m making this very simple. I will be wherever you are, and if you don’t want me in return … then that’s fine. I’ll understand. But just because you turn me away, doesn’t mean I’ll go to them. So, don’t try that, either. My mind is made up, as long as you’ll have me.”
“Will you at least allow time for me to think about this?”
The realization that she had not allowed for Nora’s thoughts and feelings struck her hard. It was a sickening blow to her stomach, and she felt bile rise up within her throat. Had she been so blind and selfish not to see Nora’s side? She stepped back, shock and pain blazing across her face as she blinked back tears.
“I—I’m sorry, Nora. I—I thought… I’m—” she paused and took a steadying breath. “Of course you can. I—”
“Shh,” Nora whispered, cupping her cheek in reassurance. “All I ask for is time, Emri. I’ll find you when I’m ready.”
Emri nodded softly and watched as the raven-haired woman left the Sanctum with haste.
Nevertheless, Emri didn’t have time to dread on Nora’s departure until a meaty hand grabbed her own and another smacked her on the back. She winced and almost cried out at the pressure applied to her still damaged wrists. They hadn’t had time to heal since her episode at The White. Perhaps she wasn’t even fully healed from her deathly encounter with the ravencat. She gritted her teeth and beared the onslaught as she acknowledged her greeter. The man was an elder council member of The Gray. She couldn’t remember his name but recognized his face. She never cared for the man—too handsy and brash for her liking. Inappropriate came to mind, but she forced a smile and indulged him.
“You two made quite an entrance,” he began, his voice thundering in the gargantuan room. “I’m sure the Capital will be buzzing about this for weeks to come. We were told to be expecting you.”
That caught her attention and her heart fluttered with relief. “Wha—What? How? Are the others here?” she asked in quick succession.
“No, we’re expecting them anytime, however. But no, the ah … you established rudimentary connection for all the realms the second you left to come here.”
Wait. That didn’t make sense. They had just left from The White minutes prior. Not enough time had since passed to allow for such communications, had it? “We just came from there, not but minutes ago.”
He stared blankly at her as if she should even question such logic. “The portal has been working for a couple of hours at the most. The others were obviously surprised by your arrival so they were gathering what belongings they had, then they were to travel here.”
“A couple of hours?” she asked, baffled. Tha—that doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, ah, I don’t know, young Adviser, but you’re here now. That’s what’s important, right?” he asked with a chuckle. “Since you’re here … and based upon our conversation, I would assume you and your friend just came from The White, correct?”
She nodded absentmindedly, her mind wondering and questioning as she mumbled, “We did, yes. And her name is Nora. Nora Blackheart.”
His infuriating smiled fell from his face. “Ah, the fallen High Empress of The Black Realm. Everything makes perfect sense now.”
She glared at him. “That conversation was supposed to be private,” she retorted. Agitation clear in her voice.
“Well, then you should have moved such a display to a more private setting instead of in the Spheric Sanctum were dozens of people congregate, especially nowadays with the threat of death looming over our heads. Come on,” he said as he once again slapped her back in a lighthearted manner. “What happened to the young, easy going woman we sent out many weeks ago? I know she’s still there.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s been an exhausting few weeks—emotionally and physically. I just … I guess I’m not quite myself.”
“I think I can understand that,” he said as he led her to the entryway, his hand still on her back. “Why don’t you go home for a spell? Rest up. The portal will still be here tomorrow. You can worry about it then. Just rest.”
“How can I rest when we can be literally a few seconds away from ending all this? That thing still looms up there … and as long as it does, I can’t rest.”
“We’re doing last minute preparations,” he began. “We need all the council members ready and waiting when you finally destroy it, and … we’re not at that point. Three fourths aren’t even at their respective realms, yet. So, please, just go home. Come back tomorrow morning and everything should be as it needs to be.”
“It’s your orders, sir.”
“And I say rest. Do not worry, young one. I will tell the others of your arrival.”
Emri left the Capital building for her modest resident tower. She passed through the main market and the delicious smells that wafted through the air made her mouth water. Her stomach growled in hunger, but she would wait and eat later with Nora.
The streets and market place seemed more crowded than usual, but again, it was early in the morning—the time for the best selections. She pressed on and ignored all the questioning glances sent her way. She donned robes of white, bandages with red splotches, had a severe limp, and markings of both black and gray. She realized she must be a sight. But as she passed by a small dining spot, a familiar voice called out.
“Em?!” the voice said.
Emri stilled her step and turned slowly to meet the questioning eyes of her friend and past lover.
“Em!” the woman said again, and as soon as her hazel eyes caught Emri’s emerald, she ran and wrapped her in a crushing hug. Emri, surprised by the outburst, winced and screamed out as one of her fresh wounds split open again. “Oh, my Gods! You’re alive! And you’re hurt! Gods!” Mary spoke in a frenzy as she looked her over.
Emri grasped her wrists in pain as she tried to ease the throb traveling up her arm. At first, Emri didn’t understand Mary’s confusion, but it soon dawned on her. Both Ryker and she had simply disappeared without a trace or word. No more thought had been given to the few people they left behind.
“No one told you?”
“What?! No, no you just … left,” she explained as she rubbed her forehead with her fingers. “I didn’t know what happened.”
“They sent me to The Black as an adviser.”
She could see the questions racing through her mind.
“But you’re a Scout.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve taken on two titles now, and more are to come before this is all over with. More titles than I’m afraid I can bear.”
“You always did love your work. Even I could see that. I’m glad you have that,” it came out slightly bitter, and Emri couldn’t blame her for that.
Then, someone called out to Mary—a young man about her age had stepped out of the eatery. He was calling and waving for her. “I better go—” she started, but Emri called out to her as she turned.
“Mary, I—I just wanted … I’m sorry for how I treated you,” she began. “You offered me a way out. You offered me everything anyone coulda asked for, and I walked all over it. Just please know that I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
Mary seemed to let those long overdue words sink in. She pursed her lips as she studied Emri’s intent. She looked away back to the gentleman who was signaling her before speaking again with Emri. “No, I didn’t,” she said tersely. But her eyes softened when she saw the small amount of blood dripping from her wrists. “You should get to the infirmary.” Then with a soft smile and roll of her eyes, she said, “You look like shit, Em. But your eyes … I don’t think I’ve ever seen them brighter.”
Emri grinned in embarrassment and pure joy as her mind instantly went to Nora and the time: past, present, and future that they spent and had to spend together. “And that smile. I’m glad you’re happy, Em. You deserve it.”
Nora stared in awe at the cityscape surrounding her. If she had thought The White to be a shock, then there were no words to describe how overwhelmed she was here in The Gray. The early morning sun alit the sky with vigor as the rays reflected off the various metal and glass buildings. The city shimmered in the light.
She still couldn’t understand how the metal bracelets adorning her wrists could manipulate objects, never the less, open doors and turn on lights with the simple flick of her hand. Emri had not yet explained this fantastical world. Perhaps, she regretted leaving Emri so soon for she could have used her patience, quirkiness, and understanding now as she stood ignorant to this exceptional kingdom.
The amazement lied in the question of how three realms could differ in so many ways. The Black was brutal and archaic in every way imaginable. The White was majestic and regal with more sophisticated methods than the dark kingdom. And The Gray? The Gray was advanced in ways the other two couldn’t even comprehend. The White and Black, despite their differences, were conservative; stuck in their ways, unwelcoming to change. Traditional. But The Gray ignored the rules and made their own. Uncaring of traditions and only looking forward, toward the future.
It was no wonder Emri chose this kingdom over the others.
She stood quietly, resting against the balcony just taking it all in when she heard footsteps. She closed her eyes, imagining Emri had found her, but when she turned, expecting to see her tall form with light brown hair and expressive eyes, she was met with red like her own.
The older gentleman bowed deeply as he looked to her with a pleasant grin. “Your Majesty, it’s so good to see you again. I was afraid the foreign roads might have made claim to you and Miss Dyer.”
Nora shook her head and approached her dear friend returning the smile in earnest. But she faltered as she took in his tense stance. His grin was his cover; she knew it all too well. She answered him and awaited what he had to say. “All is well, Darcy.”
He clasped his hands and took a steadying breath before speaking in hushed tones. “I have the information you requested at the beginning, My Lady.”
He hesitated and Nora’s breath hitched in her throat. “Your mother did not want this to fail. There is no way to stop the collapse, unless the person who holds the energy source … goes into the portal as well. I’m so sorry to bring you such news, Your Majesty.”
She paled as she listened to every word he uttered. She had been warned, most recently by her own father. This should have been expected, and it wasn’t very surprising, but it still hurt her in ways she didn’t even know she could hurt. It stole the breath from her lungs, the strength from her legs, and the force behind her heart. It ripped the light right from her soul. “Death … that’s what lies beyond the portal, correct?”
She heard an audible swallow. “I’m afraid so, Majesty.”
Then she heard him move closer, the wind of his movement catching her skin. She turned away and held up her hand, silently asking him to stop. “Thank you for your extensive research on this, Darcy.”
“She always took everything away from me. Why would now, even in her death, would things be any different. Do you have all this information written down?”
“Aye, My Lady.” She heard him reach into his pocket and the sound of crinkled paper filled the air. Agile fingers took the yellowed and stained paper from his hold and she quickly slipped it into her own pocket.
“Give me the night,” she said. “I’ll speak with you come morning. I have a feeling I know what must be done.”
Not long had passed before Emri found herself at the local infirmary. She had a splitting headache and her arms ached and throbbed from her hands all the way to her shoulders. These past few months had really taken a toll on her, and to be honest, she didn’t know how much more her body could take before breaking completely. Luckily, they were right at the end of this catastrophe. In mere hours, everything would go back as it should. The imminent doom looming over all them would cease to exist. She would have her life back and Nora could finally start hers over again. Maybe together they could bring each other the happiness they both so desperately wanted.
She sat at a small cot as a healer left to fetch medical supplies, leaving her with no more than a cloth to wipe the blood from her. Sitting out in the open, she saw all the commotion about the common room, but most went unnoticed. She had better things—more important things to occupy her mind. But then she heard it: the soft gasp of surprise. She looked up, and to her greatest respite, she saw Nora.
“How’d ya find me?”
“I came here to purchase some medicinal herbs and I saw you walk in.”
“Purchase? You have coin?”
“I sold a couple of my things. I knew your injuries were still in their early stages, and I was low. I am glad I did,” she said as she gently took Emri’s hands within her own and examined the freshly reopened wounds.
The healer came in before Nora could treat them herself and began applying various salves and ointments. After the healer left, Nora scowled with the poor job, but seemed begrudged to admit it satisfied the needs for the time being. So, she let it be. She’d just rewrap it later when need be.
An uncomfortable silence filled the air after the healer left. Emri never recalled such awkwardness between them before. There was a certain tension there as well. However, Nora kept her place by Emri’s side, never moving an inch as they remained in contact side-by-side.
Emri cleared her throat and said, “My commanding officer told me the portals are stable enough to go home and get some rest. So, um, I guess I’m goin’ home. We have an extra bed if you’d like to stay, if not, there are several guest lodgings throughout the city. I could help you find one.”
Nora stared at her hands as she wrung them nervously. “Is that what you wish?” she asked in a whisper.
“What? No! No, I just … I just wanted you to be comfortable. I mean … you asked for time.”
Dispirited, Nora nodded. “I wish to be with you.”
That earned her a sad smile as Emri laced their fingers together. She squeezed lightly, being mindful of her wrapped wrists.
She hooked a finger under Nora’s chin and lifted her gaze to meet her own. That’s when she noticed the tightness in her eyes and cheeks, which were red as well. “Hey, you’ve been crying?” she asked, concerned as she rubbed at reddened cheeks.
Nora stilled the movement of the hands with her own and brought each one up to her lips to press the softest of kisses against the scarred palms. She looked at Emri pleadingly as she implored, “May we just go home?”
Home. That one word caused a tearful smile to spread ear to ear on the young woman’s face. She laughed and kissed her. “Yeah,” she sniffed and wiped the moisture away from her nose and eyes. “Let’s go home.”