The journey did not go as smoothly as Emri had hoped. At least not for Ryker. She was use to such travel, but her friend lacked the stomach and legs. It was an odd sensation, free transcendence. Emri related it to the feeling of falling from a tall tree. The way one’s stomach lifted and slammed into their throat on descent. The landings were always much gentler, though. No broken bones, just effortless like stepping onto the sidewalk from a moving horse and buggy. Her ears would pop occasionally, and ring afterwards, but nothing ever worrisome. But she knew all too well the missteps of a neophyte traveler. She had found herself all too many times face first or ungracefully falling to her rear. It was rather embarrassing, and she always took notes, learning in the “ins and outs” of travel so she would not make the same mistake twice.
Ryker, on the other hand, had an annoying habit of not following directions, which probably resulted to him lying face down on the ground spluttering and flailing like a drowning cat in a shallow puddle. He was as dramatic as one that was for certain. She was just thankful the mouthful of foliage muffled his curses. The last thing they needed was unwanted attention at this time.
“OW! I think I landed on a stick!” Ryker gasped as he coughed and spat. He obviously hadn’t listened to Emri’s advice about keeping his mouth shut, either. Now, he certainly had a mouthful of dead leaves, dirt, and probably a few bugs mixed in there. “Where are we anyway?” he asked as he continued to spit brown matter from his mouth. His hands worked at dusting off his clothes and rubbing at his sore chest.
Emri, oblivious to his state, looked around them with a keen eye. Her features were as tense as a drawn bow as she surveyed the area for trouble. The atmosphere and scenery brought back vivid memories. Many memories that Emri long wished to be rid of.
She recognized the surrounding woods immediately. A few yards ahead of them were a series of old tree stumps where Emri would field dress her kills before returning home. She swore she even saw the remnants of snare trap partially concealed with dead leaves.
Without looking at Ryker, she crouched down next to him and whispered quickly. “Hurry! Get up. You didn’t think I was stupid enough to transport us directly into the city did you?” she asked hastily, her voice laden with uneasiness. “We would be killed on the spot, you especially. The stench of your untainted blood is unrelenting. These people are like boarhounds; strong and insistent, with a powerful sense of the weak. Make no mistake; we are far from our element here. It’s like drawing moths to a flame, and we, my dear Ryker, are the brightly burning fire,” she stated with an edge to her voice. She glanced around one more time before directing her attention to a spot in the east. “Come on, there’s a small home right up the way. If I remember, it should have what we need inside.”
They began walking the short distance. There was a small dirt path about a hundred yards from them, but Emri remembered the path could be traveled by a few people a day, and for now, she wanted to avoid all attention. The surrounding woods were just as she had remembered them, eerie and dismal as ever. The air was thin and smelled of damp, decomposing wood and moldy leaves. All of the trees were bare and thin. The snap of a limb echoed through the dead woods as it fell against other lifeless branches, finally coming to a rest at the forest floor with a hollow thump. The scurrying of dead twigs and foliage attested to the notion that the noise must have startled some wildlife.
Finally, they came up on a low ledge and looked down the couple of feet at an old, dilapidated house. Windows were shattered, holes were forming in the roof, and brush was invading the decayed wooden structure.
Emri looked on with indifference, but her eyes couldn’t help but wander over to the open side-doorway that had led to their once diminutive, yet quaint kitchen. She recalled all the mornings and afternoons when her mother was at work in the garden whilst waiting for Emri and Danny to come home with fresh game or wood for the fire. Often Helen would stand in the doorway, wiping her hands on her frayed apron with the proudest of smiles upon her haggard face. She had been proud of them. Emri had always known that, and she knew her mother had given both herself and Danny the best she possibly could have.
She nudged Ryker with her shoulder and climbed down the small incline to the house.
“Where are we exactly?” he asked as his voice broke from fear. His eyes too were appraising the land around them.
“A few miles from the city,” she said as she continued walking. She felt Ryker’s bright hazel eyes piercing through her skull. She turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. “This was my childhood home.”
Ryker stopped and took a second look at the shell of the building. He scratched at the back of neck as his brow rose and his noise squinched. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s home,” the young man said trying to lighten the mood, but he instantly regretted it when he saw Emri’s stride still. “Gods, sorry, Em. I dunno why I said that. It was a misplaced joke,” he said as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.
“Think nothing of it. I know you meant no harm.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“No plan. At least not really. My first thought was to come here, gather some clothing, so we’d fit in more, and then walk the short distance to the city.”
“Do you really think there will be supplies in there for us? It looks like it’s been raided more than a few times.”
“Oh, I know it has. The bastards didn’t even allow my family’s bodies to cool before they broke down the door and took everything. Luckily, we had several hiding places. Living in the dark realm, you learned to keep things hidden,” she grunted the last word as she stepped over a section of fallen ceiling while bracing herself against the wall. It was like walking in woods littered with spring spear traps. They would have to tread lightly.
“Come on. Watch your step, though. There’s a concealed lower floor, and you don’t want to fall through a weak spot.”
Ryker, who was stepping over the mound of debris, stopped with his right foot in mid-air at Emri’s statement. His stilled in place, not moving an inch as his eyes shot down to the floor. Tucking his lips in-between his teeth, he took a large, hefty breath and presumed to follow Emri’s lead.
“How’d you manage that?” he asked as he ducked to miss a low hanging wooden beam.
“A small sinkhole formed about a year after Danny was born. It wasn’t large enough to compromise the integrity of the house, but enough where we could make use of it. We pulled up sections of the plank floor, tossed down a chair to get in and out, and made it a place to keep anything worthwhile that we had safe. It was mostly just sentimental things … junk to most. I remember I whittled a small doll from a dead branch I had found. Ma was none too happy with me because I had several nicks and was bleeding everywhere. But, stuff like that, you know, is what we saved,” Emri said as she crouched down and tapped on several wood floor planks at the back of the house.
They were at the back of the house in what Ryker assumed was the bedroom. The evidence of the soiled straw and broken pieces of bed posts suggested it. It was clear the house had been used numerous times for shelter.
Emri finally hit a hollow plank and pulled a small knife from her pocket and wedged it between the two planks, lifting one ever-so-slightly with the tip of the blade. After enough planks were removed, both Emri and Ryker descended down a make-shift set of steps.
The bottom of the hole was damp and smelt of mud, mold and mildew, but there were several crates and what looked to be an old dresser off in the corner. The sinkhole was large enough that they could remain standing, just crouching forward the slightest.
“Here, this was my brothers,” Emri spoke as she removed some clothing from the dresser. The first item was a pair of raggedy breeches. “He was tall for his age, so they should fit you.”
“I didn’t even know you had a brother.” Ryker said softly. The sadness in his voice was evident of his struggle. “It’s funny. I’ve known you for all these years. I’ve always felt like I knew you pretty well … but now, being here, I really don’t know you at all, do I?” he asked, his voice laced with grief.
She looked to him sadly, only making eye contact for a short second before she lowered her head, and turned away from him. “You know the best parts … and for me, that’s enough. But if you wish to know more … about this life, I’ll share it with you.”
“You don’t have to, but if you ever just want to talk … ya know, get it off your chest, well, I’m here. Just so you know.”
“You would have liked Danny,” she began. “He was a year younger than me. We might not have shared the same father, but I loved him with all my heart. We were inseparable. You know, growing up in such a dark time where you had no one … no one to stand by your side, no one your own age to call a friend. All you had was your family. The loyalty that family brought was an invaluable gift, and it was unmatched in this realm.” Emri paused as she smoothed the moth-eaten fabric between her hands. For a split moment, she lifted the shabby shirt to her nose, desperately hoping to recognize his forgotten scent, but caught herself quickly. She knew it was long gone, now replaced with the earthy air, thick with dampness and mildew. She knew the same would be true of her mother’s clothing. Clothing that once held the comforting scents of barely, smoke, and sandalwood. Her nose and lips twitched with emotion as she recalled her memories.
“Danny was sick one day. He had a common village illness. It was expected to pass in a few days time if he was lucky because many were known to die from it. But he was strong … strong and healthy. He would have lived, I have no doubt. Normally, he would have gone out with me, but because he was sick in bed, I had to go out on my own and fetch some game for supper. I left mid-morning and was only gone for a couple of hours, at the most. And I came back with probably one of the best kills that I had made in some time. I had a couple of pheasants, one or two rabbits, and a squirrel. The game bag was slung over my shoulder, all proud, and I came upon the house. Everything was as it should have been … not a stone unturned or a blade of grass disturbed. It was exactly as I had left it,” she spoke as her voice broke. Emotion taking control. She handed the shirt to Ryker hastily and walked a few paces over to a small, overturned table. She stooped down and sat against the wall as she tried her damnedest to control the tears prickling within her eyes. She would not cry.
As she composed herself, her left hand sifted through the loose sand and dirt, and happened to catch an old necklace caked in mud and dust. Using her thumb, she wiped at the smooth surface to reveal a blue stone. It was a stone similar to the rose colored stone her mother gave her. This necklace had been her mother’s. Hidden and locked away for safe keeping. Emri smiled as she gripped the necklace close. Almost as a reassurance. A reminder of why she was here. She inhaled and closed her eyes before speaking once more.
“I walked in and called out that I was home, and um, I noticed smoke was coming out of the kitchen. It had filtered through the rooms and left a hazy fog. The sunlight would hit it and reveal beams of visible light … ironically, I thought it looked heavenly. Anyway, I figured Ma had gotten distracted and left a pot on the fire. So I went into the kitchen, and found my mother … she had been killed … how I don’t know, but there was not a mark on her body. I don’t remember much after that. Everything kind of meshed together … forming a blob of confusing scenes and events. I vaguely recall running into Danny’s room only to find him in the same state as my mother, only he had wound marks. If I had been home, I would’ve certainly found the same fate as them. Sometimes I wished I had. At least I wouldn’t have had to go through the things I did … and still am faced with. I was just eleven at the time, and my brother was just ten. After they died, I was lost … I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had to get out of here. I had to leave the black realm, at all costs … no matter what. I would leave. One afternoon I was luckily enough to catch a Grey Brigade making their rounds in the city. For some reason, they took me without question. I was twelve. And you know the rest of the story.” Emri finished as she rolled a piece of mud between her forefingers and thumb, which she had collected while talking, and tossed it in frustration.
Ryker bit the inside of lip as his face and shoulders fell. “I’m so sorry, Em,” he said, his voice soft.
“Ah,” she brushed it off with a shrug of her shoulders. “That is life in The Realms of Thrice, is it not? You know it’s funny. Each realm has its own definition of who you should be, and what makes you who you are, but what they don’t understand is … you’re shaped … created. People aren’t born good or bad. The Grey Realm has it right, and that’s something I don’t think the others quite understand. What we are born into doesn’t and shouldn’t define who we are as human beings. What defines us are our experiences, and how we handle them. Anyway, we should get moving,” she said as she got up and retrieved her own set of clothing. They both slipped the new attire on over their old, so no one would have been any the wiser of their identities. “We shouldn’t linger here much longer. There’s a task that needs to be seen through,” said Emri as she began rummaging through various cobweb and dust filled containers, trying to salvage whatever was left. She managed to find a few coins, enough for a loaf of dark bread, an astrolabe that her mother had built from scrap wood and brass fittings, a few threadbare blankets and shirts, a couple swatches of leather, and an old wooden doll that had a broken arm and leg. The rest was junk.
After an hour, Emri and Ryker finally emerged from the decaying house. They were certainly dressed the part. Raggedy trousers, tied at the waist with a frayed and dry rotted rope, tattered shirts, and moth-eaten wool capes. They even had scrapes, bruises, and smudges of dirt on their faces thanks to the inherited dangers of the house, but those were purely coincidental. Definitely made them look more authentic.
The dirt path that led from the house to the city was uneven and full of stones and clumped mud. Ryker encountered a few of these hindrances, and almost toppled over, but Emri did not fare much better. Cursing aloud when one rolled under her feet, causing her to stumble. It would almost be laughable if the situation wasn’t so dire.
Eventually, the path leveled out and grew in width as the city of Gravens appeared in the horizon; the forest now relenting it’s shroud. The ominous entity, the cause of all their troubles and fears, was now clearly visible within the sky.
“This is where you lost her, isn’t it? The girl you always spoke of?” he asked as he kicked a rock and watched it roll several feet in front of them.
Emri’s body went rigid at the question, and her step faltered the slightest. “Yes,” she said. “I lost her in this foul, disgusting place as well. Because that’s what it does. It takes everything away from you, and leaves you with nothing.”
Ryker, sensing the need to comfort his friend, resulted to his usual humor to lighten the mood. He always managed to make her smile. So, he smiled softly before nudging her with his elbow. “Hey, you have me. That has to count for something, right?”
Emri couldn’t help but return the smile as her body relaxed at the familiar banter. “Indeed. You’re a good friend, Ryker. The best anyone could ask for.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know … never knew. The last time I ever saw her, she had been severally injured. Maimed by some feral dogs … right in front of me. Blood was everywhere …I – I tried to help her as best as I could, but … she was rushed back home, and I never heard anything from her again. I just assumed she died. Her wounds were too severe to survive.”
“How long since you’ve been back here?”
Her eyes squinted in contemplation as her lips pursed. She thought for a moment, and then answered. “First time since I left, actually. When I was twelve.”
The young man seemed surprised by this. “Damn, eleven years. I imagine lots changed.”
“Not really, no. It all looks the same, people act the same. A place like this stays in the dark. Never improve or advance. I never even bothered to keep up with it during council meetings. I asked not to be informed of Dark matters. I wasn’t assigned here, so why put myself through more than I had to,” she stated thoughtfully as they continued walking the path. “I didn’t even know the Empress had been imprisoned, let alone for eight years. She deserved everything she got, though. She was cruel beyond measure.”
“Well, hopefully for our sake, these eight years have softened her.”
“Not likely, I’d say she’d still prefer to cut your heart out than look at you.”
“Right,” he stated after a full gulp. That’s when he noticed the guards in full armor stationed at the gate. “Are they expecting us?”
“Probably not, but let’s go find out, shall we.”
As they neared the gate, Emri noticed several locals eyeing them suspiciously. Their gazes were calculated, cold, and pierced down to the spine. It was unnerving. “Just keep your eyes forward and your step steady. Make eye contact with no one, and do not focus on the ground for too long, shows fear and weakness. We don’t want to instigate anything.”
“It’s awful brazen for two villeins such as yourselves to approach the palace gates,” the guard to the left spoke as Emri and Ryker stepped closer. He had within drawn his chipped sword and flashed it threateningly. “I should have your eyes dug out with a red-hot poker just for lookin’.”
Ryker shifted on his feet, but Emri stood still, unmoving and seemingly without fear.
“Well, as appealing and … welcoming as that sounds, it’s a high crime to threaten members of the council. Perhaps it is I who should have your eyes dug out and your mouth sewn shut for such loose lips.”
Both guards scoffed and smiled wickedly at Emri’s words. “We have us some characters here,” the left guard said to the right. “Council members don’t grace the city streets anymore. Too dangerous for ‘em. The last thing this kingdom needs is a bunch of high class wine drinkers bein’ murdered on the streets cause they think they own everythin’. Great way to start a war it is.”
“Yes, well, while I can hardly disagree, the recent weather anomaly has made travel quite difficult if you understand. So, if you’d be so kind, we have official business with Lord Tyron, on the order of the High Council.”
The guards continued to eye them with distrust until Emri pulled up her sleeves, revealing her solid metal bracelets that hummed with energy. And her palms? They were bare save the mess of scars left by her old receptors. The bracelets replace the crude “chains” that bound her to this world. Yet she would always be marked with the evidence of it.
“Very well,” the left guard said quietly. “But don’t try anythin’ funny. I’ve got my eyes on you.”
“Well, this should be interesting,” Ryker stated as the guards opened the black gates and escorted them forth.
Emri smiled and leaned her body towards her friend. “My thoughts exactly. Interesting indeed,” she stated as the black gates closed behind them with a resounding click. “Ready to meet the fallen Empress of Black?”