Dawn came far too quick for the young woman currently seated at the edge of the bench. Emri’s legs were open–relaxed, her back hunched, elbows resting on the table top, head tucked within them, and a soft groan spilling from her chest. Normally, mornings came easily, but after a night in the Black, she slept with one eye open. Her mind never once slowed during the night, so she resulted to tossing and turning before seeing the soft rays of dawn peeked through her high window.
She readied herself for the day to come before heading up to the kitchens to see what food was available. The guards were being served their typical rations, so naturally, Emri joined them, but had enough sense to set off by herself. It wouldn’t take long before gossip rooted within the guards, and they discovered her actions of last night.
The smell in the dining hall was heavy and fusty. The horrid smell of stale flesh boiling in unflavored and unseasoned liquid sank right into one’s gut. It was nauseating, and Emri didn’t know if her stomach could take such a smell, let alone ingest such substance so early in the morning on an empty stomach.
A loud thud and then another a second later pulled Emri from her dreary state. She sat up begrudgingly; rubbing the sleep from her puffy eyes and took in the repugnant sight in front of her. There was a bowl of foul smelling, partially congealed liquid, a wooden spoon to eat it with, and a cup of thick brown liquid masquerading as coffee. Her face twisted in horror, but curiosity got the better of her. She picked up the spoon and jabbed the contents of the bowl much like a child. She’d gathered a spoonful and let it fall with a sickening ‘plop’. But, she completely lost all control of her stomach contents when she picked up what looked like a stewed rat’s tail. Her stomach roiled violently, and her face turned red. With her eyes closed, she pushed the bowl and cup to the opposite side of the table, far out of her reach and sense of smell.
By the Gods! Even she and her family, who were peasants at best, had more fitting meals than this. As much as she grew to despise barely pottage and dark bread, she would eat her weight in the stuff given the chance now, especially with what sat in front of her.
“Better save room for our course, lass,” a deep voice spoke heartily as a heavy hand smacked her back. Her watery eyes sprang open to see her old mentor, Anders. “Wouldn’t want ya to spoil ya appetite on this rubbish.”
“Anders!” she said with excitement as she stumbled from the bench to give the older man a well-deserved hug. “You made it!”
“Aye, that I did.”
“How’s home? What about the portal? Is everyone okay?” she asked in a hurry.
A chuckled erupted from his chest as he sat down next to her. “Calm ya heart, lass. We’ll get to all that soon enough, but from what I hear, you’ve made quite the progress yourself.”
“I don’t know about that, Sir. I guess we’ll all find out soon, though.”
He hummed as the crowd of guards began to diminish, but not before a brawl started over a ration of soup.
“You asked about home,” he said, ignoring the fight as his fingers traced the knotted and split wood of the trestle table. “It’s wasn’t as badly damaged as once believed. Most was contained to the outer quarters. There was some damage done to the city, that’s to be expected, but nothing that can’t be fixed. Cleanup had already begun when I left.”
Well, at least some good news had come to the day. Perhaps that was a sign of what was to come. Yesterday was rough, both mentally and physically draining, and Emri did not know how much more she could take before her resolve shattered into a thousand splinters. Granted, not all was bad. Good had surfaced above the desolation, and with that, came hope.
A quick inhale of breath showed her relief. “Good, that’s–-that’s good.”
“So tell me,” he began as he focused his gaze on a point in the distance. He was trying to be nonchalant, perhaps not to bring attention to either one of them. He was turning a metal spoon within his hands as he talked. “You weren’t by chance involved with the maiming of that guard from the dungeons, were you?”
“I haven’t a clue to what you’re referring to, sir.”
“Good, I figured not. Poor bastard was dead when they found him. Quite the job done on him, so I was told.”
“Really? Wish I had been there.”
“Not that I need such, but please remind me to never piss you off.”
“Duly noted, Sir.”
A deep throated growl grabbed both their attention as they sat wide-eyed staring at a decidedly large and burly guard. He probably made two of them, and he was eyeing them with ferocity.
“Ya goin’ eat tha’?” he asked as he pointed at Emri’s left over bowl. She replied with a quick no, and he snatched the bowl and cup and downed them each in a single gulp.
“Yes, Mister Tibbins briefed me of all the happenings when I arrived. Are you sure you’re all right with all this, lass? We can find someone else if you’re not. Do not hesitate to ask if that’s what you need.”
“Not to sound proud, Sir, but I believe I’m the only one meant for the task, especially if she’s in it with me.”
“Well, it seems that you know her better than anyone. All that knew or gave two shits about her are long hanged and buried I’m afraid. Their voices are no longer heard; carry no merit here.”
“I wish that were true, sir. But to be frank, I know no more about her than you or anyone else. I think the only difference is that I did once, and I still wish to.”
Their conversation came to a lull as guests and other nobility filtered into the hall at irregular intervals. Several of the council members, including Ryker strode forth and sat adjacent and astride to Emri and Anders. It wasn’t long until the hall was packed, and voices echoed off the bare stone walls. Occasionally, one voice would stand out among the rest, a few morning people, no doubt. At least they livened up the room.
The food was much of an improvement over the guard’s rations. Slabs of pork fat, boiled eggs, oat and bread porridge, a beef pottage, and soft wheat bread were all placed on separate trenchers. Her mug was filled with sweet ale, instead of brewed coffee, which she was more than disappointed about, but she would not complain. Oh no, not after what she saw the alternative could be. So, Emri helped herself to the food in front of her, and hungrily filled her bowl.
“Well? What news?” Emri asked as Nora approached the breakfast table. Her hair was frazzled, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She had gone without sleep, no doubt.
A tired look befell the fallen monarch’s face. “None good I’m afraid.” She looked around the table at the council members and nobility that sat there. For many of them, this was the first time they had laid eyes upon her. Many looked on with trepidation, distrust, and betrayal. It was all in their eyes; that coldness that split one’s spine down the middle, or just a simple stare. Nora did not falter under their intense gazes, but rather met them, and held her own steady as she addressed Emri. She kept her voice low, the message only intended for Emri. “May I speak with you in private?”
“’Course,” Emri whispered in return. She turned to address her fellow council members before excusing herself. They both walked in silence through the corridors until Nora came upon her room. Emri entered first followed by Nora as she shut and secured the door. The room was small, much like the one Emri had stayed in, but here, papers, books, quills, and various shaped chests and boxes were scattered about the floor and table. Some were opened, and some remained closed and locked.
A sharp gasp drew her immediate attention back to reality as a worried woman made quick strides to her. “You’re hurt,” Nora spoke. She had seen the wounds from last night. Emri had forgotten about them. She was sore, yes, but nothing alarming. “May I?” Nora asked as she reached out to Emri.
Emri nodded, and gentle hands were soon caressing the sensitive and raw skin surrounding the largest of the wounds. “This was deep,” the older woman said as she investigated the gnarly cut. “It should have been sewn,” Nora whispered. Her breath ghosted across Emri’s neck and cheek, and Emri finally realized just how close the other woman was. She pushed such thoughts away and hid them deep within. Those types of feelings were dangerous and uncalled for in such a time. Now was not the place or the time to register such feelings, but as typical, one’s body and mind often does what it pleases, and not what the owner commands. Instincts, really.
Emri jumped at the sudden pain that interrupted her inner workings. She winced again as Nora continued to look her over. “I’m fine,” she assured. “It made it through the night, so…”
“I’m concerned with it opening. I could tend to it for you?” she asked gently as her fingers remained on Emri’s neck, just slightly lower on her neck, avoiding the sensitive skin of her gash. Emri hesitated, and Nora sensed her concern. “I have tended a many wounds before, dear. Most your own if I recall.” She smiled, and Emri wondered how long it had been since such an expression touched her face. “You had a tendency to get into trouble,” she concluded.
Emri smiled sheepishly as she bowed her head in agreement. Yep that just about summed up her younger years. “Yeah, I guess I was accident prone.”
“Was?” Nora appeared skeptical with a knowing smirk bestowing her haggard face. “Seems you still are. Come, it won’t take long, and then we can discuss what I’ve uncovered over the past night.”
“All right,” Emri conceded as Nora left the room momentarily to fetch the needed supplies.
To be honest, this was the last place she wanted medical attention. Without the advancements of the Grey or White, infections were rampant, and the practices rudimentary, almost medieval. She had seen far too many amputations and cauterizations in her childhood years. Enough to feature her dreams for the remainder of her life. Besides her mother, Nora had been the only other person in the Dark to treat her wounds. They had been the only people she trusted.
Finally, after what felt like several minutes, Nora returned with several items, including sutures, a bone needle, wine, vinegar, and balsam salve. She sat Emri down at a small table, laid out her supplies, and began work. “It seems the roles are reversed this time around.”
Emri inhaled sharply as some of the wine and vinegar mixture was applied to her wound without warning. “Why do you say that?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“You healed me not but a few hours prior,” she said as she made the first pass with the needle and thread. Emri slammed her mouth shut as the pain inundated her system. It was bearable only because of the numbing solution added to the wine and vinegar. “You’re just shy of spending a full day back in this realm, and you have already found yourself injured.” Nora said with amusement, trying to distract the other woman from the discomfort.
The needle and thread pierced and tugged at her skin, pass after pass. One of the sensations that made one’s body tremble with agitation from the constant and unrelenting pain. Emri wanted to hit something. Or something to release her built up frustration. After a slightly disapproving look and a particularly painful snag, Emri slammed her fist and arm against the top of the table. There, much better.
“I know I have appeared ungrateful and cold, especially toward you … E–Emri,” Nora began as she continued her motion, albeit more slowly. The forced use of her name was not lost on the younger woman.“You have done so much for me these past few hours. Speaking for me when neither I nor anyone else had the right or courage. And I”—she started, but before Emri could voice her own concern first, Nora quickly amended her previous thought, and said the one thing she desired to say—“thank you. I know I have no right to ask you of anything, but please do have patience with me?” she concluded.
Emri saw a great deal of emotions spill across her features. She wondered just how much it took out of the fallen monarch to speak such truths. To reveal that much of herself to another being. She felt one last sharp tug as Nora broke the suture free. Emri nodded to Nora’s last statement, and in return, she felt a cold salve being applied to her neck and split lip.
“You’re welcome, Nora,” Emri whispered as Nora gathered up the supplies. She reached out her hand and loosely grasped Nora’s arm for effect. A tender hand cupped her cheek. There was a genuine smile given in return as she left the room once more to replace the items.
Emri inhaled the heavy surrounding air. If she was only graced with a few sparse moments like that from Nora, she would surely take them over nothing. Even if they were only granted in private, Emri would immerse herself in them like an arid riverbed would soak up a yearly rain. Because it was moments like those when Emri witnessed who Nora still was, and with that, she knew she was not completely lost.
Once Nora came back to the room, all evidence of their previous encounter vanished as they took on a more serious note. The room soon overflowed with tension and anxiety. Emri encouraged her forward.
“I was informed early this morning that the council members will be unable to return to their kingdoms,” Nora began as she stood in front of Emri who was still seated on one of the two stools. “I’m afraid transcendent travel, by any and all means, has been disrupted. The portal has stabilized, it’s not any stronger, but it’s merely one step in the process. As of right now, not a soul can leave his or her realm.”
Emri looked on, eyes wide almost in a panic. “No one leaves?” she asked, but it was more of clarification for her own benefit. For some reason, she believed it more coming from her own mouth.
“No one.” Footsteps began to sound within the room as Nora paced it width. “However, there might be a way stop it.” Nothing was said after a few seconds as Nora planned her next words with the utmost care. This could change everything.
Emri, who had become restless, urged her on. “Go on,” she encouraged; standing up to meet Nora who had moved to the center of the room with her back turned to Emri.
“Based upon what little information I’ve found, it can be dispelled,” she stated. She turned to face the younger woman and placed her hand upon an old steel chest. It was secured with chains and an unbreakable lock. “There are these objects called purifier orbs. They were originally created to open new portals within the realms. These same orbs were used in the creation of our transcendent portals. They are virtually nonsexist, all were thought destroyed once the realms were established. There was concern of them getting into the wrong hands. But I know where a few lie.” Her fingers tapped the metal surface. “If I can get to each realm and place one orb within the walls of each Spheric Sanctum and use the transcendent portals to transport this matter, I might be able to disable our trans-atmospheric portal.”
Nora’s hand drifted into her front pocket and pulled out an oddly shaped object. It looked nothing like a key but more like a miniature fork with two prongs on each side. For someone to see it, they would think nothing of it; appearing as no more than a mere trinket. The object was slipped into the seemly ordinary keyhole, but instead of it turning, a small clicked echoed through the room, and the lid cracked open.
One by one, four glass globes were recovered from the chest. They didn’t shine or fill the room with energy, that’s at least what Emri expected. Instead, a white smoke swirled around inside them. Particles glistening against the sunlight cast in the room. Nora placed them together, each making a dense click as they rolled into each other.
Emri reached forward and took one within her hand. It was smooth and surprisingly heavy for something that appeared so fragile.
“How do you have these orbs?” she asked. Her eyes trained on the orb within her grasp; mesmerized by its qualities. “And how would these disable the portal? You’d just be opening up the portals, nothing more.”
Nora smiled as she took the orb from Emri, catching her eyes as she rolled the sphere between her palms.
That was when Emri noticed it. The softness that suddenly appeared within the fallen monarch’s eyes. They were glassy as she seemed to study the inner workings of the object; almost in wonder and amazement. Childlike even. “They were part of my mother’s collection. She kept all these and more hidden within the walls. Why she had them, well, that’s yet to be determined, but I’m sure it was for nothing good. To answer your second question, that’s not entirely true. By placing and activating the orbs, it would create enough destabilization in the atmosphere, thus in theory resulting to its collapse.”
“The other portals–”
“They would remain fully functional. They were built to sustain such energy, whereas the trans-portal, it simply was not. It was designed with the thought no one could touch it. Where there was no threat, there was no action needed to prevent it.” Nora spoke as she broke her trance-like stated and began to place the orbs back into the chest.
“Well … that’s all great news!” she said as she slapped her legs in semi-frustration and sarcasm. A disbelieving smile painted her face as she stood. “But how, pray tell, do you suggest us accomplish this? To hear you tell it, we are stranded here, in this damned world.” Emri said and began to pace.
Nora reluctantly agreed, lowering her head and nodding. “That’s true, to some degree. But I know something that only a select few know,” she spoke as she approached Emri slowly, halting the young woman’s movements as she took Emri’s hands within her own. She closed the distance between so that a whisper would carry. “What I’m about to tell you must remain private. The knowledge of what I’m about to tell you, if heard by too many or even a few, would have catastrophic results to all of our worlds. It would be unprecedented and detrimental.”
Emri studied her hard, eyes darting between Nora’s own as she searched for any deception, but most importantly, the truth. A large swallow was forced against her throat; her fingers clenching against Nora’s. “What is it you know, Nora?” Emri whispered in return.
Nora turned slightly towards the table and picked up an old and discolor sheet of parchment paper. Emri couldn’t make out its contents, but it was full of colored pigment. However, once Nora held it between them, she recognized it as a map. A very large map. Eyes scanned across the paper as her mind tried to decipher what exactly she was looking at.
“Our worlds are not as separate as the Gods and Kings wish us to believe,” she stated as her finger traced over an image and then spanned the page to touch another. “We’re all connected by one body of land. A very large body I might add, but we are connected on the same plane nonetheless. We may have kingdoms, but all three lie on the same earth.”
“What?” Emri asked. Her own fingers, trembling with trepidation, traced the same paths Nora’s had.
“The Realms of Thrice are not completely separate worlds as we are made to believe.” Nora pointed first to a hand drawn image and the inscription The White. Next was The Grey, and finally The Black. “It was a lie made by the Gods to keep the Realms pure,” she continued. “If people were to believe that the only way into one of the kingdoms was by portal, then they would not dare think to travel the unknown to reach such a place that, to them, didn’t even exist. Why do you think the stories of the boundaries were told? It was all made to keep people in. But in reality, the realms are only separated by a thousand leagues, at the least. Granted, that’s several weeks or months of travel, depending on one’s transportation. But if these maps and my studies have read correctly, we are more than capable of reaching one of the realms.”
The younger woman nodded as she held the map and stared at it, as if it would suddenly spout off untold knowledge so all would make sense. In Emri’s mind, that was far more likely than what supposed truths were being spoken. But looking at the fine sheet of parchment paper, she realized it all could be possible. “So, what you’re saying is that we can travel to the realms without the portals, it will just take much longer? But the problem is we don’t have weeks, and definitely not months. We’re lookin’ at any day now, correct? Any day our worlds could cease to exist.”
“If I place one of the orbs in our transcendent portal here, in theory, it should allow enough time for us to travel the necessary distance to one of the realms, preferably the Gray. I see them being the most welcoming and understanding of this issue. But at the point where we reach The Grey, I should be able to re-establish portal transportation.”
“This sounds crazy, you know. How are we goin’ to get them to believe us? Hell, I’m having a hard believing you.”
“That’s the beauty of a partnership, Miss Dyer. When one’s credibility is questionable, the other is there to counteract them. I know you. From what little I’ve witnessed, you have remained the same. Loyal … honest, almost to a fault. People trust you and your word. And against mine, well … my words are just a hair beneath dirt.”
Emri paused in thought as she clicked her teeth together. A deep breath filled her lungs. “I’ll gather the council members. They can be trusted with this information. We’ll both talk to them.”
Nora nodded her consent, and after ensuring all the chests and items were secured, they headed off for a very important briefing.
The talks had quickly escalated and gone from chaotic to an all out shouting match, mostly between members who argued the fallen monarch’s honor. She had none according to them, and, therefore, her words held no merit. Emri was quick to aid, and soon, the question lied not with truths, but with intentions.
A firm hand slamming upon the table top silenced the room. Alok had been granted access to the meeting, and was making his presence known. He was seething, face red with anger. The small veins in his temples and neck strained against his flesh. Spit flew with the force of his words, finger pointed accusingly at Nora. “And what do you get out of all this? Hmm?” he asked. “You are the very one responsible for that abomination growing within our realms. You made this day come. Why are you so eager to help now?”
Nora weathered the outburst with all the skill of a practiced executioner. Her mask well placed and fitted securely, aplomb. No emotion present, not even the twitch of an eye or lip as she stared him down. “Perhaps I shouldn’t,” she stated, her voice firm. “Maybe I should remain within my cell, shackled to the wall and begging for Ryu to take me to the Void … begging for Eira to have mercy upon me and let me die quickly. That would be the easier path. Until last evening, I was content with my fate. I was content dying within those damned walls. But only a fool would pass up the chance to see light once again, and I am no fool, Council Member.”
“Why did you do it then?” Kael asked. “Why did you enact something that would ultimately destroy you and your world as well?”
“My mother enacted it. I was manipulated, and only helped because of her deceitfulness. My mother was a very vengeful woman, anyone could attest to that. Who knows why she planned this. She knew her death was imminent. She cared of no one but herself, not even her own daughter. So why would she want those she despised to live happy lives after her death?”
“And you turned out just like her.” Alok spat. Nora’s frame went rigid with anger, offense, and hurt.
“I know I have committed horrid acts, but I was doing the one thing everyone lives by – survival. My mother was a cruel and heartless woman, but she was my mother, and I loved her deeply. She was all I had, and that meant everything to me. But make no mistake, I am nothing like my mother.”
That was the truth if ever spoken. Nora was nothing like her mother. Her mother had always spoken of how weak and powerless she had been. How much of a disappointment she was and how she would never rule the dark kingdom as she should. With an iron fist and merciless tactics. Instead, Nora lived with soft and tender heart. A heart her mother lived to break, and reforged into what it was now. Cold, empty, and heavy with burden.
After a few of the visiting members snickered at Nora’s statement, Emri had heard plenty. “Enough!” she said. “We know what must be done. Nora and I will make the untraveled journey to the Grey Realm. Let’s just hope and pray to the gods that all goes well. I’ll go gather our needed supplies and select our horses.” She turned to address Nora directly. “Meet me at the south entrance at dusk. We’ll leave at nightfall.”
“You’re mad!” Lord Tyron interjected. His eyes were wide with disbelief. “Night travel in this realm, with the fallen Empress no less? You’re a fool, and a dead one at that!” he declared.
“Miss Dyer is right. Not many dare to venture out into wilderness at night. Too many stories seep through these streets. Whereas day travel would be more convenient, it’s not safe either. Night is the lesser of the two evils.”
Alok huffed with contempt as he stared the dark Empress down. “You’re one to talk of evils.”
Ready to excuse both herself and Nora from the beginnings of yet another heated argument, the ever growing sound of chants and screams were heard seeping into the large barren room. She craned her head to the side and strained her hearing, hoping to find where the sound originated. But it wasn’t coming from within the palace. It stemmed from outside the palace walls. Right in front, at the square. “Listen … do you hear that?” Emri spoke. Twisting her head in all directions, she looked for a set of North-facing windows. Finally reaching them, she saw a sight that made her whole body go cold.
“Seems word travels fast here,” someone within the room commented.
Emri’s eyes scanned the huge mass outside. The boisterous throng yelled and screamed as they wielded knives, axes, sticks, and other blunt objects. Death to the Empress, and calls to Goddess, Senka and Layla, were all distinguished pleas from the ever-growing crowd outside. The black gates shifted as the weight and force of the crowd grew. The guards looked around nervously as they tried in vain to keep order.
Having seen enough, Emri jerked away from the window and stood protectively by Nora as she regarded Lord Tyron. “Is she safe here?”
He considered her words for but a moment. Indifference seeped from his eyes. “Here?” he asked as he held out his hands, palm up, motioning to the walls. “Yes, but once she leaves these bulwarks, no.”
“She committed horrid acts against these people,” Alok interposed. Grinning madly as he leaned back into his chair. “They have a right to be pissed, Miss Dyer,” he stated smartly; lips twisting into a wicked smirk as he continued. “Tell me.” He leaned forwards, placing his elbows upon the table top and lacing his fingers together. He eyes challenged her in the silence. “Your mother and brother were murdered here, were they not?”
Emri tensed instantly as her fingers clinched into a fist. She would not take the bait, she would not take the bait, was a mantra she kept repeating to herself. He was taunting her. Trying to get a rise out of her, and to be honest, it was working rather well.
Nora watched with baited breath, her expression kept its neutral ground. She didn’t like where the conversation was headed.
“How would you feel if your family’s murderer was set free? Your family cut short of justice? You would be enraged, would you not? You would want to kill the bastard yourself before his filthy feet even touched the ground, correct? But you would not know of such a feeling, would you? Your murderer is still free. Out there somewhere hating his miserable life, not even recalling the mother and boy he killed. They probably were a mere afterthought. Yet he’s out there, prancing around these wretched streets … these halls even? You would kill him upon first sight, yes?” he asked fully understanding the nature of his words.
Nora could feel the burn in her lungs as all the blood seemed to spill from her body. Her breathing was fast, short and erratic as the White Council member spoke so blatantly and with much disregard for Emri and the deceased.
“That’s enough, Alok!” Kael exclaimed as he forcefully stood from his seat; his eyes threatening and daring him to continue.
The White member lifted his hands in surrender and lowered himself into his seat. “Just simply trying to make a point, council member.”
“You are out of line.”
“My sincerest apologizes,” he stated, trying to pacify the situation
“Of all the times for us to put aside our differences it is now! At this very moment! So stop the bickering … and let us figure out how to solve this issue that is affecting each and every one of us!” Kael said as the meeting was adjourned. It was official. Both she and Nora would head out at dusk, into a world neither, or anyone else for that matter, knew naught about.
Afternoon found Emri sitting on a large slab of rock beneath a bare tree. There was a definite chill in the air, and the constant breeze did nothing but wick away warmness retained. Even the rock that lay beneath her was cold to the touch, and proved to be uncomfortable the first few moments of contact. She weathered it though as the physical escape from the mounting tensions, and stress outweighed the need to be comfortable. She pulled out her dagger and a small whetstone and began running it the length of her blade. Emri found the motion soothing; a key element as her mind tried to relax and formulate a solid plan. It proved almost too much as the chants and angry yells flowed into the courtyard. Her strokes became heavy and uneven as tension climbed. With one last brutal stroke, she stopped; her breath heavy and material in the crisp air.
The sound of footsteps drew her attention away from the obnoxious calls for death. It was Anders.
“How quickly a plot thickens, eh?”
“Do you think it will ever get better? That the feud will ever end?”
“Tensions have always been high between the realms. ‘Specially between the White and Black … to be frank, even the peace talks and creation of the Council didn’t dispel this centuries long feud between the two. Poor Grey is just caught in the middle. Disliked by both.” He said causally as he rolled a pebbled between his calloused fingers and tossed it into the air. “What?” he asked as he saw Emri’s conflicted expression. “Surely you knew of this?”
Yes, Emri had certainly known of the conflicts involving all realms. She was a Scout after all, but the neutral façade put forth by both the White and the Black towards the Grey covered a malicious deceit. Most times, the Black were not shy in their dislike of the Grey. They made their opinions known, but the White, they concealed their contempt with utmost precision. It made Emri question everything. “I knew there were tensions, but I thought the Grey was on mutual grounds.”
A deep sign of resignation left his lungs. “My dear Emri. The White see us beneath them and their superior ways. And the black? They think us superior and a threat.”
“A threat? Why?”
“Because where do their people go when granted freedom?” he asked with an expectant look. “Where’d you go? Because people sure in blazes don’t go to the White. No, my dear, we are stuck in the middle of a ragin’ war between light and dark, and lass, that’s not a place to be.”
“I didn’t sign up for this when I pledged my services to the Council.”
“Ah Emri, since when are we given honesty and truth up front? They tell you what you want to hear at the beginnin’, then once they’ve pulled ya in … you’re at their mercy.”
“Well, Scouting was one thing, becoming adviser to The Black and agreeing to march across unknown lands with … let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“Let me tell ya somethin’, you were my apprentice for many years, and if anyone can do this, and be successful, it’s you. You are far more intelligent than ya give yourself credit for. You know survival, combat, not to mention you’re one of the most skilled transcendents I’ve ever seen. You manipulate energy and force as if it were second nature. So trust me when I say, you, along with the Empress, are the finest two for the job.”
“Thank you, Sir. That means a lot coming from you.”
He sighed as he reclined back, resting his palms against the cold rock beneath. He appeared contemplative for beat before he spoke again.“Play this right, Emri, and you could be fillin’ my shoes upon your return.”
“Sir?” she asked, taken aback with the statement.
“I’m tired, Emri,” he explained. “I’ve been at this for far too long. Bein’ peace keeper to Realms who don’t actively wish to keep the peace is so burdening. I’ll be takin’ my leave upon your return, the title is yours if you desire. I’ll make sure everythin’ is in order before you return.”
“Miss Dyer, you ready?” a voiced called from across the courtyard. “We best getting a move on,” Nora stated as soon as she made contact with Emri who nodded and waved.
“Good luck, lass,” Anders said with a genuine smile as he pulled her into a one-handed embrace. “May the Supreme beings above watch and guide ya.”
“Thank you, sir…for everything.”
He winked at her knowingly, “See ya when ya get back.” He left her alone to catch up to Nora
They were on their way to the stables when Ryker caught up to them.
“Hey,” Ryker greeted as he sidled next to Emri, and then greeted Nora with as much warmth as his heart allowed. “I’ve found ya both good horses. Hearty and strong. They’ll be able to hold out for the trip,” he stated; proud of his achievement and contribution to the cause.
“I have no doubt, Mister Tibbins, but horse travel might slow us down in the long run, I’m afraid. They’ll be quick to escape the city and reach the boundary, their speed is unmatched in short intervals, and will do us well, but beyond that, they could be a burden. We know naught what fully awaits us pass the boundary, the terrain could be harsh – unforgiving, food and water limited.”
“Oh.” His face fell, disappoint evident.
“But thank you. We will surely need them to escape the city. You’ve saved us significant time,” she spoke in kindness.
Emri walked a few paces behind, listening to her friend’s interactions. As she walked, she kicked at the few scattered dry sections of the dirt path. She watched absentmindedly as rocks, sticks, and small dirt clumps rolled away from her shoes with swiftness. A few of the guards they saw in passing fitted Emri with death glares. She placed her fingers upon the cool metal of her dagger in reassurance.
The stables would be their last stop. First, they would gather supplies and ready themselves for the month’s long journey. A couple bedrolls, several blankets, change of clothes, linen for shelter, and food supplies were all necessities. At a glance, it didn’t appear as much, but it was just enough to help them make this impossible trip, and see it through to the end.
It took them a little over an hour to get everything squared away. Emri said her parting goodbyes to Ryker and Kael. They would wait for her arrival at the Grey, and then meet with her and Nora once the connection was reestablished.
Nora, under the supervision of Lord Tyron, placed one of the purifier orbs into the transcendent portal. Upon command, the orb vanished, and the first step toward victory was now put into motion.
The sun had just begun to set and twilight was upon them as Emri and Nora made their way to the stables. Nora sought out the stable owner as Emri entered the worn down building. Most all of the stall doors were open. A few horses extended their head’s out in curiosity. A couple even munched on feed whilst watching with limpid eyes.
One stall, however, remained closed, and Emri briefly wondered why as she approached it with ease, believing it to be vacant.
“Be careful of him, girl,” the stableman warned as he neared the closed stall. Emri jumped as a loud kicked rattled the wooded paneling of the door. “Meanest of the beasts we have. He once bit a man on his chest, separated muscle from bone it did. Poor bastard screamed for a fortnight,” he said as he opened the top portion of the gate. The overeager horse poked it’s head outside the stall to inspect it’s visitors.
“Great,” she muttered under her breath as she patted the stallion’s face; trying to avoid it’s mouth in the process. “I’m sure we’ll get along fine,” she voiced sarcastically to herself. These people were truly trying to get her killed, in the most painful way possible she imagined.
“His name’s Trysu, he’s the strongest and fastest we have, just like his brother, Uajo.”
“Perhaps he’ll be a better fit for Nora,” she mumbled to herself and quickly looked for the brunette. “Nora? Nora, I’ve found your horse!” she yelled to the older woman, but was surprised when the troublesome stallion nuzzled her ear and hair, getting green saliva on her hair, face, and shoulders. He munched obnoxiously on his feed, his bit clanking hollowly in his mouth right next to her ear as he continued to investigate his new rider.
Emri had never been particularly fond of the hoofed creatures. It wasn’t that she disliked them per se; she just had never been exposed to them. At least until Nora came along.
Nora had been a skill horsewoman. She always considered them majestic creatures with ample soul and strength to give to their masters, and since horses were attainable only by the wealthy, they were seen as luxury. A luxury Emri and her family never had. It had irritated Nora to no end when Emri had refused to accept riding lessons when they were younger. But Emri saw no need in wasting time on something she’d never employ. Now, however, Emri would have taken those lessons with gusto. Especially if she’s to survive on this rambunctious animal.
The horse whickered loudly into her ear, causing Emri to jolt back in surprise and pain from her now ringing ear. She glared at Trysu as a melodious laugh reached her good ear. “Oh no, Miss Dyer.” Nora grinned mischievously as she approached Emri and her horse. “He seems to have taken a great liking toward you,” she spoke fondly as she reached into her bag and retrieved an overripe apple. The horse took the apple with eagerness and exhaled in excitement. “No, I shall take his brother. After all, the horse chooses their rider, not vice versa. Come along now, we best get a move on.”
After everything was situated on the saddles, both women mounted their steed, and they were off for a never-ending adventure into the land of the great hollows.