The next morning, Emri woke with an unusual feeling. Her body felt refreshingly sore (a welcomed change) and it buzzed with delightful energy. She stretched fully against the bed, and her muscles voiced their approval through a soft grunt. She let out a sigh of relief as she sank down into the soft bedding and relished in the warmth that encompassed her right side. Grinning ear-to-ear in absolute elation, she glanced to her side and appreciated the pure and unguarded sight bestowed upon her. Here, Nora appeared the most relaxed and at peace. Her features were smooth, unlike many mornings where Emri had woken to Nora’s tense and fitful body and her face pinched in terror, fear, or pain. But not here. Not now, when she seemed most childlike—a wonderful innocent sweeping over her weary and careworn body. She had witnessed so many horrors, Emri was just thankful she had this peaceful rest.
Careful to not disturb Nora, she eased out of bed, and slipped on her underwear and pulled on her shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. She walked over to the window and ran her fingers over the drapes that had remained unclosed throughout the night. As she peered out, she realized the streets below were unnervingly calm. Emri looked up to the still dark sky and saw the ominous vortex still spinning above, but it was calm, proving no threat at the moment.
She turned from her spot and her eyes settled on the woman still wrapped within the blankets. The scene was oddly reminiscent of Emri’s last time at her home, except this time was entirely different. She mentally scolded herself for thinking such thoughts, but for her, they only solidified her feelings. With Mary, there had never been any emotion. It was simply a means to an end. But with Nora … Gods! Her heart swelled with joy and happiness. This time it was completely different.
Nora’s dark hair was tangled and fanned out on her pillow, and she was sleeping peacefully. It had been some time since Emri had seen the once powerful Empress sleep so soundly and without plight. She walked back over to the bed, and sat down at the edge within an arm’s distance from Nora. She reached out and stroked a few strands of hair from Nora’s face, and tucked them behind her ear. At the movement, a set of beautiful hazel eyes opened to greet her.
Her breath hitched when they met hers. That was going to take some getting used to.
“Hey,” Emri whispered, grinning happily as her fingers combed through dark locks.
“Morning,” Nora said, her voice gravelly with sleep. “What’s the hour?”
“Early,” she answered as she climbed back in bed and lay next to Nora under the covers. She opened her arms and Nora moved to settle against her, her head resting on Emri’s chest. “How were you resting?”
Nora hummed in contentment and responded, her voice low with a hint of amusement, “Well, darling, from what little sleep I did get,” she began, looking at Emri with a soft smile as her fingers traced the length of her collarbone, “it was the best I remember.”
She peppered Emri’s chest, neck, and shoulders with lazy kisses; too tired to move, yet unable to stop her motions. They both giggled softly; their chests jerking with the fast movement, as they reveled in their shared happiness.
“Why were you up?” Nora whispered; her breath and lips caressing skin. “Was something troubling you?” she asked, concerned.
Emri smiled and shook her head as she brought Nora’s lips up to hers and kissed her. “I just wanted to check. Make sure everything wasn’t fallin’ to pieces outside all the while we’re in here.”
“Perhaps we should leave,” Nora suggested as she fingered the thin material of Emri’s open shirt. “End it all sooner rather than later.”
“No,” Emri said surely. “It can wait a little longer. It’s waited this long, it can withstand another hour or two.”
Nora stilled the movement of her fingers, lifted her head to look directly at Emri, and then smirked mischievously.
The warmth, which had been at her side, shifted and soon the full length of Nora’s heated body covered every inch of Emri’s exposed flesh. The open flaps of her shirt where pushed aside, as she settled against the younger woman.
Emri released a gasp that evolved into a contented sigh as short, blunt nails raked across her scalp and through her hair. The action sent a shiver down her body.
“May I try something?” Emri asked through a whisper as she gazed dreamily into molten brown eyes. “I mean—I’ve done it before, just not like this, and … I’d like to try.”
Nora did not voice a reply but rather nodded and reclaimed Emri’s lips.
Emri’s hands slipped behind Nora’s neck and rested at the base of her skull, her thumbs stroked the sensitive skin behind her ear.
Familiar warmth encompassed Nora within an instant. The sensation sent a shot through her body as it curled around her limbs, from her head to the tips of her toes, eliciting a sharp, yet pleasant tremor.
There were no words, no language, and no other sensation to compare or explain how full Nora felt in that moment. She gasped into Emri’s mouth as she was overcome with yet more feeling. A part of her, no matter how juvenile the thought, felt as if a part of Emri had somehow passed through an illusory boundary and now resided deep within her.
Moments slipped by as Nora’s name was tenderly whispered through parted lips while Emri’s hands moved fervently across Nora’s back, never once leaving her. The fire that had slowly been building within Nora’s stomach ignited sending an indescribable intensity throughout her entire body. Emri was right there with her as their bodies finally succumbed to the intense pressure.
Time seemed limitless as they shared this unique experience, but it felt too soon as Nora became overwhelmed and regretfully broke their kiss, still, however, remaining not but a hair’s breadth from the other . Their cheeks were warm and wet—a mixture of tears both had shed at some point during the intense connection.
Nora lifted trembling hands to Emri’s face and dried what moisture she found there. Her eyes swam in unshed tears as she looked down at the one woman who had dared to love her; the one person who had defied the odds of the worlds to save her. The only person to ever make her believe she was worthy and capable of receiving and giving love. Nora’s body thrummed and her heart swelled from euphoric joy at just how complete she felt. It left her breathless, and instead of wasting precious time with inadequate words, she simply smiled and lowered her lips to Emri’s and kissed her with all that she had left.
Nora never fathomed it would come to this. She never thought that all those years ago, when they both sat beneath a decaying tree as children, that this would be her future. She never expected to be loved like this, yet here she was with Emri, who not only loved her with every fiber of her being, but also made her feel safe and loved. For Nora, it would likely be short lived, but all they had for the moment was right then. One breath at a time, no guarantee of another, and Nora wished to take nothing for granted.
Nora settled onto her more fully, shrouding Emri’s body with her own in a tangled mess of arms and legs as Emri kissed her unhurriedly. “Nora … just—please don’t leave me,” Emri spoke breathlessly as she fought to regain her breathing.
Nora’s heart shattered at her plea, and in that moment, the false reality they had built and took refuge in for the last several hours, crumbled hopelessly around them. Because no matter how beautiful, joyful, or splendid this intimately perfect moment was, it would not last, and that about broke Nora completely.
Her mind raced with all the ways she could respond to such an agonizing plea. How could she ever leave this exceptional woman behind? She wouldn’t, Nora thought to herself. She would never leave her. A part of her would always remain within the younger woman, but that’s a notion she was certain Emri would never believe or tolerate. To Emri, she was sure she would just be yet another person who left her—who was ripped away from her. So, instead of responding, she just kissed her, and hoped the simple gesture would be enough.
Regretfully, as the sun crested the horizon, casting the city in a gorgeous golden glow, Nora and Emri disengaged from each other as reality showed its vile face. With lingering touches they bathed, ate, and soon found themselves walking the moderate distance to the capital building. Arm in arm, they walked through the ever growing crowded streets. Emri talked animatedly about some of the shops or merchants, even going into detail about some of the history established within the unique city.
Nora listened intently at information that should have been archived for another day; for a future, but her thoughts or gaze never ventured too far from the ominous cloud stationed above them. As the capital building came more into view, Nora clutched her harder and brought them even closer together. The weight of the orb in her side satchel was a constant reminder of what was about to transpire.
When they entered the building, Nora stopped and squeezed Emri’s hand. “I’ll meet you there shortly. I must take counsel with Darcy first.”
Emri looked at her confusingly. “Darcy? He’s here? Are the others here as well? Have you seen them?”
“I spoke only with Darcy last evening. As far as the others, I’d imagine they are here as well, yes, but I have not seen them.”
Emri stepped back, hurt seeping onto her face. “Last night—why didn’t you say anything?” she asked quietly.
“It wasn’t an urgent matter. I thought nothing of it, I suppose,” Nora told her, shrugging her shoulders to make her point more convincing. She didn’t need Emri asking too many questions. Not this close. “Why don’t you go see if you can find the others? I’ll meet you in the sanctum shortly.”
Emri ascended up to the Spheric Sanctum alone and with a certain fidget to her step. She was already brimming with nervous energy and Nora’s departure and secret meeting did nothing to quell her fears or anxiety. Not to mention the unknown whereabouts of her close friends. Something about all this made her uneasy, made her stomach knot and twist in an unpleasant fashion, but not one person had given her any reason to justify her fears. Something was amiss.
She entered the sanctum, and saw the one person she dreaded to see—the elder council member who greeted them that first day back. Gregore, she recalled, remembering his name. A few other council members and advisers were standing around, but she approached him anyway, effectively tearing his attention away from his acquaintances.
“Ah, Miss Dyer—”
“Nora said some of the people have returned from The Black?” she asked, not giving him the chance to finish. He nodded and she continued, “Kael, Ryker, Anders? You seen ‘em?”
He frowned in contemplation as his eyes drifted about the room. “’Fraid not, it’s been, well let’s say … unreliable,” he told her, gesturing to the portal with his hands, “the transport is safe, don’t get me wrong, but as you experienced yesterday, the time gaps are quite large, and they vary. It’s just inconsistent with the time of departure and the time of arrival. Sporadic at best … at least on our end, but never fear that should all end once the final orb is placed,” he finished with confidence.
She pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration and hummed deep in her throat, almost to be mistaken for a hefty growl. “Well, if they’re not here yet then when will we open this final portal.”
“We will commence the process momentarily. All the vital members are where they need to be, and the others will arrive after, once it has stabilized completely. As a matter of fact, we are just waiting on the fallen Empress, to be exact.”
“She’ll be here, just had something she needed to see to.”
“Course, course,” he dismissed rather quickly and started to turn to his former guests.
“Just a quick question, sir? What’s going to happen to her once this ends—Nora, I mean?”
He pursed his lips and studied her carefully. “Oh, well … I suppose her fate lies in the outcome of today. Good or bad. Regardless, she’ll be tried yet again for her actions, and if the Council and the Gods of Thrice see it fit, she’ll be forgiven for her past transgressions, and left to live freely,” he spoke, but he approached her, settling his hands on her shoulders and leaning in to her; a steeliness in his eyes. He whispered, “however, and this is something you must understand, Miss Dyer. Your friend, regardless of her intentions—past or present, or what good she’s done to atone for her past crimes, she committed horrid acts against her own people. Sometimes, there are things that can never be forgiven or undone completely. There are people out there who never wanted her to see the light of day again, and they were livid upon her released. The Council will take all that into consideration, as well. The last thing the realms need is an uproar in regards to the dethroned Empress.”
Emri leaned back, giving herself relief from his words and musty breath. This is what she feared most. Nora had been granted freedom in turn for her aid, yet there had always been the likely chance for them to renege on their agreement. It made Emri’s blood boil. “I will allow nothing less than freedom for her, not after what she’s done for us,” she said as she tensed under his hands. She felt him flinch and knew he had experienced her anger and resolve. The twitch in his eyes told her he’d felt her warning pressure.
As the pressure built within his head, he released her sharply, the relief immediate. “Mind your place, Miss Dyer. There are some things out of your control. You’d best remember that.”
She smiled coldly. “Yes, well, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Nora found Darcy at an upper level terrace, pacing the length of it. He caught her eyes and bowed. “Your Majesty.”
A sad smile graced her face as she walked to him and placed her hand on his cheek, the heavy, yet trimmed stubble rough against her smooth palm and fingers. Despite his age, he now looked years younger, all in thanks to a good grooming, wash, and quality garments. She couldn’t place when she had ever seen him so prim, she probably never had. He stood tall and proud in his freshly tailored breeches and shirt and his eyes shone with striking levels of respect and devotion to his beloved Empress.
“My dear friend,” she began; her voice thick and heavy with emotion, “thank you for all your years of unwavering allegiance to me. You will never know or understand the full extent of my gratitude.”
“It’s my honor, Majesty.”
She took a deep breath, allaying her fear and quieting her resolve. She then spoke, “Upon my death, you are relieved of your oath. I have no heirs or any kingdom to return to, thus I am granting you your freedom. All I ask is for you to watch over her, Darcy. From afar, by ear, or word-of-mouth, it matters naught. I just want her safe.”
With a solemn nod, he said, “You have my word, My Lady.”
“Thank you,” she spoke in earnest. “Now, listen to me, and listen oh so very closely. I do not know what risks opening this final portal may present. But it’s very likely the second I open that portal, it’s going to sweep in anyone and everything who gets too close to the pull. But even if that doesn’t happen, the portal will remain active for a few seconds after my departure … enough time to allow someone to come in after me. So, just to make something perfectly clear … I will be the only one it takes. Do you understand me? You will keep Emri back. I don’t care if you have to get the whole gods damned guard to restrain her, do what you have to do, and keep Emri away. I helped open this monstrosity, so I will be the one to close it, for good.”
“This will break her, you know. Are you sure this is what you want? Self-sacrifice only to leave the one and only person you’ve ever loved behind to suffer? Is that what you really want?”
“Of course not! But I have made many mistakes. I have taken people’s lives, made them suffer great horrors. I was sentenced to spend the duration of my life in prison, shackled to a damp wall, and only on my death would I be transported to Ryu, Keeper of the Void, where I would spend eternity alone and forgotten. I must pay for my actions. Emri is too pure to be tainted with my existence … with my love. She is too good, and I refuse to let her die because I was too weak to prevent it. She’ll understand one day. When I am long gone.”
He gave her a disapproving glance as he placed his heavy hands on her slim, yet defined shoulders. “You know, Majesty, I have served your family my entire life. I was born within the palace walls, the bastard son of a maid. I served your mother, and I’ve served you. And I must tell you, that out of every one of your predecessors and even your successor, you disappoint me … the least. Your mother would have spat upon the ground you walk. Your father might have been more forgiving—more accepting. But you were different, Majesty. I always knew that, and I expected so much from you. I’m just sorry it’s come down to this, my Queen,” he said solemnly. He stepped back and bowed before saying, “Emri will not pass. Only you, Your Majesty. You have my word, for what it’s worth.”
With a tearful and appreciative smile, she thanked him.
“Your Majesty? Is there anything you would like me to tell her? After it’s all over? A message, perhaps?”
“Tell her I love her, and that she truly did save me, whether she believed it or not. And this,” she said as she untied the thin black cord of the handmade necklace around her neck and handed it to Darcy. “Please tell her I’m sorry.”
He looked at the old necklace laced between his calloused fingers with a sense of remembrance and gently placed it in his vest pocket.
“This is farewell, Darcy.”
She looked into his crimson eyes and saw fear and regret for the first time. Two emotions he never allowed anyone to witness.
He took both her hands within his own and knelt on one knee; a final show of veneration and loyalty; the parting stance of a royal guardsmen to their monarch. “Aye, my Queen.”
He released her hands and took the formal stance: one arm secured behind him and the other braced as if he was holding a shield in front of him. His head bowed.
She turned to leave and had just breached the threshold, when he called out to her once more, “And My Lady? My oath does not end with your passing, Majesty. I will forever serve in your name until I draw my last breath. You will forever have your champion to avenge and honor you, even in the afterlife.”
Within minutes, Nora entered the sanctum and found Emri, along with numerous other faces already gathered around, waiting for this end-all. Little did they know they were about to witness her death. In a way, it was her execution; atoning for her past crimes in the ultimate way, meeting a fair and justifiable end. This was her punishment. The Realms of Thrice would get what they wanted: her dead.
Emri caught sight of her almost instantly and was by her side.
“Hey,” Emri greeted quietly as she entered the large room. “Y’nervous?” she asked once seeing the distress etched across her face.
“I’m fine, darling,” Nora told her, trying to pacify what fears might surface between now and the final seconds. Emri had to remain strong, even if the woes that awaited Nora remained unbeknownst to her. Emri’s serenity would keep her calm and focused. With these remaining minutes, Nora only wished for them to pass with ease and little grief—two factors that had eluded her for much of her life.
She wanted to be angry, and a part of her was. Angry for the lost of time, but for her, forever wouldn’t have even been long enough. They’d had so many years to make up for; so many lost embraces, touches, whispered endearments, and companionship. For Nora, it was years of surviving a life where she was only told of how worthless she was. Only time could heal those wounds. Well, and a young demigod named Emri Dyer.
A soft, warm presence at her cheek drew her attention back to reality. “We’re just opening this final portal, right?” Emri asked. “I mean, we’ve done this two other times, should be quick and easy.”
As Emri went to turn, Nora’s hand grabbed her wrist and spun her around with great force. Before Emri could comprehend the movement, a pair of lips met her own violently. A kiss filled with such a myriad of emotions it felt as if it would splinter the air. Love, fear, agony, and regret poured into the kiss. It was a desperate kiss that was too often shared by parting souls. A kiss attempting to close all wounds, heal all broken ties, and mend unfulfilled promises. It was a kiss of a thousand apologies and ‘what ifs’. It was a kiss of a final farewell.
Nora was the first to break it sorrowfully. She closed her eyes tightly as she rested her forehead against her one true love.
She felt Emri smile against her cheek “What was that for?” she asked as she continued to place soft kisses on her cheek. “Not that I’m complaining of course—”
“I love you,” Nora said as her breath hiccuped in her throat.
She truthfully did not know if she would have the strength to carry on forward. It would need to be quick, because the second she saw Emri’s panicked and agonized expression, she would break the connection, and all would be lost regardless. There would only be one outcome today. Nora would die closing the portal, and her love, and all souls within The Three Realms of Thrice would be spared. Nora just hoped they would think kindly of her after all was said and done. That her sacrifice would not go unnoticed, and that her name would be spoken through stories of redemption and exoneration. But somehow she didn’t believe that would be the case. Those types of stories were too often written and told to invoke pity for some, and yet none of the such for others. They were one sided, meant to idolize the pure and few and condemn the so-called ‘wicked’. The heroes wore the same figurative cloak: strong, brave, and courageous, with the purest of hearts and intentions; one dimensional and faultless. The villains were of the same mold as well: but they were simply evil, no explanations needed. Within the pomp and circumstance of these renowned and beloved stories, parts were left strategically and deliberately untold, because who honestly wanted to have sympathy for those tainted with darkness, even if redemption was at play? But what the stories failed to tell and what undermined them, was one simple and undisputed fact: evil was not created at conception, but rather created through the struggles and suffering of life.
However, that meant nothing because no one truthfully bewailed the death of the ‘evil’. People’s transgressions weren’t overlooked easily. Grudges were held and forgiveness was never easily earned. She would still be deemed the fallen evil Empress of The Black Realm, daughter of the cruelest ruler of all realms, and the very one who brought the prospects of death and destruction upon the realms through the portals. In spite of her sacrifice, and the love she held in her heart for another, she would die a monster; a villain that would be feared and loathed by many. The evil that haunted children and adult’s dreams. The villain who crept behind corners, hid beneath beds, and behind closed doors. That’s how all the folklore and fairytales ended, so why would life be any different. It was far crueler than any tale. This was simply a means to an end.
This is how it was meant to be, though. Emri was seen as the divine prediction; the one child who would transcend all realms; ultimately uniting all into one—merging light and darkness together for the first time since creation. She was to show that wickedness was not born, but rather created through the struggles and suffering of life; that the worlds, and all who inhabited them, were neither dark nor light, but rather all variants in between. Nora believed all this to be true, because Emri saved her. She truly saved her from darkness. Perhaps their meeting that fateful day in the woods was destiny. Emri was the preordained white knight meant to save her, the fated evil Empress, and thus by doing so, Emri would rid the realms of darkness and light, and mold all into one.
Tears were flowing freely down Nora’s cheeks as her lips and chin quivered with unspent emotion. She clutched desperately at Emri’s form, her right hand rising up and tenderly cupping a soft cheek.
“I do love you, Emri. So very much.”
“Hey,” Emri whispered softly, her eyes gleaming as she crooked a slim finger under Nora’s chin and brought their eyes together. “I love you, too. It’s almost over.”
With one last and final kiss, Nora pulled back and looked at Darcy who now stood mere feet from them. With a short nod, he stated they were all ready for the next plan of action. Nora closed her eyes hard and with one last embrace she whispered two poignant words, “I’m sorry,” into Emri’s ear. Those parting words reflected all the sorrow and regret Nora held. Regret for leaving her, regret for the decision that brought them to this point, regret for the pain her own wicked mother caused, and regret for the lack of time.
Emri looked at her bewilderingly for but a moment before Nora stepped away. Then strong arms gripped Emri’s being like a web catching its prey. She struggled as Nora turned and walked over to Darcy who was holding the small glowing orb. Emri’s heartbeat stopped, her breath halted, and her body locked in stillness as her eyes followed Nora’s calculated movements.
Everyone in the room felt the slight change when the orb had been brought in the sanctum, but there was suddenly no question, as the pressure increased tenfold when the orb approached the transcendent portal, that something big was about to transpire.
Fine dust drifted to the ground as cracks began forming within the pale marble encasing the sanctum. Nora entered the alcove as dust and debris rained upon her. She bent down to place the orb on the ground, but froze mid stance. Slowly, she righted herself and gripped the orb close to her chest. Turning her head, she glanced back at Emri once more. Her lip trembled as she looked at the young woman—her most dear friend and truest love for the last time.
“No … let me go,” Emri stated as calmly as her racing heart and tremulous body would allow; her voice betraying the sharp tremors within her body. When the grips did not budge, and Nora settled into the portal, Emri began to panic. “Let me go!” she screamed and began to jerk her limbs.
Nora for her part was trying her damnedest to ignore the painful screams of Emri. With trembling hands she lowered the crystal to the ground and held her breath before she turned to see those around her for the last time. Darcy bowed at the neck for her, unshed tears in his eyes. Then she looked to Emri who was frantically shaking her head and pleading with Nora.
“Nora … please … don’t. Don’t leave me again.”
Nora’s gaze never faltered from Emri’s as she raised her arms to the grip bars. She saw the young woman fight against those restraining her.
“Nora! No! Please!” she begged with abandon.
“I love you. Goodbye, my love,” Nora mouthed before she touched the grip bars and disappeared from the portal, the orb along with her.
“No! Gods, no!” Emri screamed as tears poured down her cheeks. Her receptors glowed red and the men restraining her released one of her arms with yelps from where the metal burned them. She reached out toward the now empty portal, and it began crumbling even more under her force. Blood trickled from her nose.
Around them people were gasping and yelling, retreating back fearful of a complete collapse. But Emri neither saw nor heard any of this as her mind was only occupied with the now vacant portal. The loss she felt within her chest and stomach … indescribable. She had watched helplessly as everything she’d hoped, prayed, and longed for slip from her fingers in an instant.
“Stop her,” a gentleman yells from somewhere within the room, “before she completely destroys it!”
A flash of pain shot through her head. Then … darkness; a feeling she was becoming all too familiar with.