Frenzied footsteps echoed through the deserted corridor as the owner reached his destination and barreled through the closed door, slamming it shut on his way to Master Anders. Prying ears had heard everything Kali spoke. Now it was his duty to inform Anders of the plot. By the Gods! What were they to do? What did this mean? Too many questions, and it was promised there would be even fewer, if any, answers.
“Emri! She’s in trouble,” he began. Winded and anxious. His chest heaved as he watched Anders process the words. “Her and the Empress.”
He turned from his spot at a small table, dropped his quill, and rose quickly, the chair grinding against the stone floor. “What? Speak!” he demanded.
“I—I saw her…Kali. She’s alive… she was speaking with Lord Tyron.”
“Impossible. Kali’s long dead. Bless the nineteen for that!”
“I saw her. Believe me, there was no mistaking who she was.”
Kali had been one of the people that, even if one had never seen her before, they knew instantly who they were looking at. Her distinctive dress, mannerisms, appearance, and her aura, all alluded to someone powerful. Someone worthy of fear. There was no one else within the three like her, and many hoped – prayed, there never would be.
Anders approached him with wary eyes. He was searching for truth, because even Ryker, never the dishonest one, couldn’t have seen Kali. She had been sent to the void long ago. Their worlds since free of her influence and power. But the young lad’s trembling body, heaving chest, and frantic eyes spoke volumes. This changed everything. “Where? What was said?”
“Something about Nora leading Emri where they wanted her.”
Anders recoiled, a preverbal slap to the face. “She’s to betray her,” he spoke slowly, allowing the words and meaning behind them to register.
“No—no, I don’t believe so,” Ryker was quick to interject. “They’re using Nora, as well. Neither woman knows what they’re headed into.”
“Tell me exactly what ya heard, and who all ya saw.”
“There was Kali, Lord Tyron, the Governor, and a man…I couldn’t see his face, but he appeared tall, a—and thin. He wore a beige robe.”
No, it couldn’t be. It was preposterous. Only people of the White wore undyed clothing. And, believing a member of the White held council with Kali, well, that did not settle well. Something was off, something big. “No name?” he asked and Ryker shook his head. “All righ’, keep watch of ‘em. All of ‘em. The more we know, the better we can act.”
“What do you think this is?”
“Don’t know, but I’ll speak with Kael. Inform him of all this. He might have an idea where to go from here. Oh, an’ find me this … Darcy you’ve spoken of. He might be of use to us.” He went to leave, brushing past Ryker in the process.
“Wait!” the young man called out after him. “What about Emri? We must warn them.”
“We must not act hastily, not yet. Lemme speak to Kael before anythin’ is done.”
“Promise me you will remain within these walls, and make no attempts to contact them. Promise me!” His voice harsh as he grabbed Ryker by his collar.
The young man offered a quick nod.
“There is much at stake here, Mister Tibbins. We don’t need another soul out in that wasteland.”
They had been traveling for about two weeks. After the seventh day, the boundary had finally been passed, and their travel now continued during the day as they slept and rested in the evening and night hours. It was slow going, especially when such means of travel would generally consist of five to fifteen minute walks or immediate arrival if you had the gift of free transfer like Emri. But Nora reiterated such time for travel was necessary and that the portals should remain stable for their return. In her theory, the portals could remain stoic for many, many months, but that was a risk no one was likely or willing to take.
It had rained for a week straight. Unrelenting. Soaking. The most miserable of days in existence if one asked either woman. The heavens had opened up, unleashing its fury upon them, refusing to close its gates.
The boundary had been passed not but seven days ago, and today marked their second week of the journey to the Gray.
After a week of trudging through cold slop, and the weight of their soaked clothes, exhaustion overtook them. No relief could be obtained. No end in sight. Just an abysmal existence in the pit of decaying and waterlogged darkness, and they fought not to drown in it.
Finally, on the fourteenth day, three days of relief from the rain, and seven days since passing the boundary, they had reached the southern edge of the dark forest. The weather gave way to clear blue skies and warm refreshing air. The surrounding trees breathed and exhaled the purest of air.
Emri, enjoying the occasional rays of sunlight on her face, leaned her head back and closed her eyes, content to let Trysu take the lead. It was blissful as the hearty heat of light splashed upon her cool flesh, thawing it from the weeks of cold. The bright light cast a pinkish hue to her closed eyelids. She sighed in contentment as she stretched the hard knots from her sore body, hands grasping for the canopy of evergreen leaves above, a strained grunt escaping her lungs. Perhaps this was the light.
“You may want to mind your head, dear.”
“Wha—” Emri started. That was, at least until, a low branch, full and thick with leaves, caught her right square in the face. The next scene played out quite hilariously as Emri’s arms flailed helplessly in the air knocking her out of balance. The force of the impact and size of the branch shot her backward and soon she was ungracefully falling from the horse ass backward as several undignified curse words spilt from her eager lips.
She landed hard with a thud, all air swooshing out of her lungs at once. She lay motionless for several beats, trying to quell the burn in her lungs and the sting to her body. The canopy of trees above spun with sickening speed as she slammed her eyes shut, waiting for the nausea to ebb away. Thank the nineteen she had fallen from her fair share of trees. After so many broken bones, one learned not to tense up during a fall.
A quick intake of air invigorated her lungs and helped steady her fading vision. But no longer than she was about to sit up, a dark shadow loomed over her disoriented body. She gazed up, head teetering as she came face-to-face with a large muzzle. Trysu nudged the side of her face, spreading wet matter against her cheek and face, before moving down to the satchel at her hip, where she just happened to keep sliced, browning apples.
She sputtered while shooing him away, sat up, and finally took in her bearings. A melodious laugh filtered through the air, seizing her heart and causing the tiniest of smiles. She laughed in return as she clutched at the dull pain in her chest.
“Gods damn it all, Nora!” Emri rose from the ground and rested her weight on her thighs, slouching over as her hands gripped her breeches. The sharp movements of her chest, back, and shoulders clear indication she was still laughing. “Why didn’t you warn me sooner?!”
“And miss witnessing that? Oh, I think not, dear. That was simply pricele–” Emri rushed over to her and gripped her leg and waist, effectively lifting her from the horse. “MISS DYER! Unhand me at once!”
“Oh no, Majesty! You’re comin’ down here with me.”
She picked her up and, thanks to the angle and extra weight, it sent both women tumbling down to the soft ground below.
Today was a good day. A great day. The sun was high and bright. The air was warm, invigorating. The birds around sang proudly, enlivening the heart and making it light. The ground and grasses beneath them felt cool against their covered flesh, and Gods was it welcoming. For the first time in many, many days, months, or possibly years, soft laughter erupted from their chests.
It shouldn’t have been this way, though. With the great threat looming over the realms leagues and leagues away, that thought should have been at the forefront of their minds, and it never ventured too far. But at times like this, when their souls were lighter than they had been for most of their lives, and when the evidence of the threat no longer existed, no longer seen, it was too easy to fall into the illusion. The illusion they were alone – liberated. Free to live. Free to be happy. And free to prosper in any way they saw fit. They were free to just be, and that in itself was intoxicating.
“I swear you and that damn horse are going to be the death of me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you two are conspiring against me.”
“Oh, is that so? Well, what do you think, Trysu? Has our cover been severed? Have we been discovered?” she said. Laughter filtered through the trees, but she stopped as soon as she saw Emri’s gaze flitting across her face. Rough fingers soon followed, whispering against her cheek. “What is it?”
“Nothing. I just … you look so much better. Healthier,” she spoke as she brushed her thumb against Nora’s cheek, outlining the bone that, not but weeks ago, had been prominent against her thin and emaciated flesh. The vibrant colors of her eyes, hair, and skin had all returned, and her figure was regaining its beautiful curves.
Emri didn’t quite understand it. Perhaps the weight and burden placed upon her in that cell had all but slowly eaten her away. With no hope, came no desire to live. She had just been wasting away, dying slowly. Even out here, despite the strenuous environment and exhaustion, hope remained. Hope. Something she presumed the older woman hadn’t felt in so long. But here Nora was, as beautiful and vibrant as Emri remembered, yet she knew, if she could see herself, she would be worn down, the look of fatigue tainting her features. Dark circles around and under her eyes. Chapped lips and flesh all red and angry, most from numerous cuts, bruises, scrapes, and abrasions. Next to Nora, she still looked so small. Insignificant. And that was something she knew Nora would never want. She had always strived on the fact that Emri made her feel normal. That they were equals, and these past few days had only proven that point. They respected each other, and shared a bond, a love, that no one else would ever be granted.
Nora regarded her with pure adoration, her eyes open and engaging. “I feel better. The best I have in years, I believe.”
“Good, because you deserve it.”
Nora’s eyes lost their luster in the flick of a flame. They turned cold, indifferent – harsh. “Do I?”
“Don’t,” Emri spoke. Her tone markedly serious. “We should keep moving. We’re losing daylight.”
She went to stand and heard twigs snap in the cover of the forest shadows. “D’ya hear that?” Her trained ears strained to pickup any movement. Nothing. Nothing but the chirping of birds, then she heard it again. She looked to Nora who wore a cautious expression. Trysu and Uajo stood stock still, their eyes wide, ears and tails up, ready to bolt.
The sounds drew near. Heavy steps in the brush beneath it’s feet. Whatever it was, it was big. A deep, low growl penetrated the air around them, the trees absorbing the noise. The peculiar sound, unlike anything either woman heard before, grew into something wild, untamed; a cross between the sound of a large cat’s snarl and the cry of a red tail hawk. It prickled the hairs on the back of one’s neck and caused the pit of one’s belly to bottom out.
It sounded off again, but this time the location of the scream had jumped to their other side. Emri felt pressure at her upper arm, and realized Nora was squeezing it, her knuckles white from the grasp. She followed Nora’s haunting gaze, and saw the shape of something tucking itself into the shadows of the trees. Her heart, which beat ferociously against her breast, all but stopped on sight.
“It’s a raven cat,” Nora whispered. Her voice trembled in fear as the great black cat with golden eyes, large fangs, and sharp claws stalked them in the dimness of the forest.
In the flick of a flame, a large black cat leaped from its cover, and pounced on one of the horses, who had been fleeing. Nora screamed as the large black cat took down her gray gelding, fatality wounding it. The cat turned, and by the time Emri had unsheathed her sword, it was upon them, claws extending, ready to strike.
Emri shoved an unarmed Nora to the side, her bow and arrow still on her fallen horse. With her free hand, Emri unclasped her heavy wool cloak, and readied herself for the attack. The menacing predator circled her as it sized her up.
Finding a weakness, it struck first, barely missing Emri’s stomach. Her swing was delayed and allowed another strike not even a second later.
The sword was heavy and slow, especially when faced with such a lithe and quick predator. She nicked it once on its nose but immediately felt a sharp pain in her leg. It buckled underneath her, and she collapsed to the ground in staggering agony. She watched with fading vision as the cat approached her yet again and delivered another blow, this time, to her shoulder, nearly missing her neck and had her hand in its mouth.
Was this her fate? To die by the clutches of this beast, in this undiscovered land? To leave Nora behind? Nora. She couldn’t even focus to find Nora. To tell her to run, to flee – escape while she could. Then, her lungs ignited in a sharp burn as a heavy weight suffocated her and warmth coated a section of her face. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t think. Not connectedly, at least, until the excruciating pain abated. She wanted to scream, to let it out, hoping the pain would follow, but her compressed lungs refuted her wishes.
A bright light erupted within her sight as her ears rang out. Silent and unseeing, her body unmoving. This was it. She had passed the threshold of reality and now stood at the gates of eternity. The Shining. That’s what this had to be. The Gods awaited her, and perhaps, just maybe, she would find her family on the other side and, in the distant future, be united with Nora again. A bittersweet reunion it would be.
But not even a second later, she heard a muffled scream in the distance, and soon, a plea. Emri. Someone called. It was a woman. “Emri.” It was clearer this time.
The weight upon her chest eased away and she inhaled sharply, taking in all the air her deprived lungs could hold. She looked up, and saw Nora, worry etched into her face and features. She went to sit up, but a firm hand to her shoulder kept her down.
Wide and panicked scarlet eyes scanned her body in a frenzy for injuries. “Be still,” she said. Her voice breaking.
Emri obeyed. The pain flowing through her body and exiting at various points made it difficult for her not to completely lose grip on reality. It would be too easy for her to close her eyes and drift into a sleep where the sting did not follow. It would take her to place she only caught a small glimpse of. Instead, she kept her mind occupied with thoughts and questions, all centered on their current predicament.
She looked at Nora, groggy and nauseated while clutching at her injured hand. “The … the cat?” A sense of dread settled in the pit of her stomach with the thought of the beast still stalking them, but Nora quickly quelled her fears.
At least for the moment.
“Dead. Arrow to the head.” She tore sections of her blouse away, tearing them into uneven yet long swatches to lay against the angry marks left by the creature. She got to her leg and paused. If possible, she paled further, her voice carrying a sickening weight to it. “Another inch and it would have severed your femoral artery.”
She tensed as the cloth contacted her raw skin. “Guess I was lucky, uh?” she spoke, trying to lighten the portentous air around them. Her body screamed, and when Nora remained quiet, diligently tending to her wounds, she spoke again. “How bad is it?” But she knew. The throb that lanced through her being told her everything she needed to know and, perhaps, some in which she didn’t. “Nora, how bad?” she pressed.
Nora swallowed, taking a deep breath to steady herself as her heart pounded away within her chest. “Your leg injury is the most debilitating. Your shoulder and hand … they are minor, but … I know naught if you can walk.”
Emri started to sit up. “Help me?”
“Where’s Trysu?” she asked as they finally managed to get her in a sitting position. She saw Uajo, lying lifeless, but her horse was nowhere to be found. She set her jaw in anger and defeat. “He’ll come back,” she stated confidently. He had to, because they couldn’t make this journey without him.
“He is not a dog, Emri,” Nora said gently. No meanness to her words. “We have lost him.”
“Help me brace and wrap it. Night’s comin’ and we can’t stay here.”
“Where will we go? We have no supplies, no horses, no food. You are injured. We have nothing!”
“We’ll take what supplies we can carry. Won’t be much, but it will get us through the night. Come tomorrow, we’ll think of something, all right?”
Nora conceded and helped Emri to her feet. She found her a sturdy stick to help her walk. They braced it and wrapped it as best they could.
A cold sweat gathered on her pasty skin. They wouldn’t make it far, but anywhere seemed better than where they stood. The attack and dead carcasses would surely attract more predators, and that was the last thing they needed.
They walked for less than a league before a crippling odor caused Emri’s already nauseated stomach to roil further.
“Ugh?! What’s that stench?! It’s foul!” she spoke breathlessly as she doubled over, retching.
“That, Emri, is death,” she stated as she glanced at the area around them alert. “Stay close, something is not right.”
At her words, Emri saw Nora withdraw her bow and arrow, and she drew her dagger out slowly. They were vulnerable, an injured Emri grasping Nora just to hobble foot by foot, her dagger loosely carried in her good hand. She figured she could at least gouge something’s eyes out if it came down to it. By them some time to finish it off. But, she prayed it wouldn’t come to that.
“What is that?” Emri asked as her stomach continued to turn unpleasantly. The taste of bile was starting to creep up her throat, and the gag inducing smell penetrated her nostril membrane causing the taste of rancid flesh to coat her tongue. She gagged once and grabbed an old rag from her pocket and quickly placed it over her mouth and nose. Even the thin fabric folded over couldn’t dispel the putrid stench.
“Not what, but whom.” Nora stated as she examined the dead being.
“What? Tha—that’s a person?” Emri asked for clarification. Surely a person … a human couldn’t have wondered out this far. This was leagues and leagues away from both The Black and The Gray.
“Indeed, from the markings I would say this being was from The Black. Look at his hands.”
Nora pointed to his palm, and sure enough, even where the skin had shrunk, a thick piece of metal rod and two solid plates were resting along with him.
“How did he end up here then? These lands remain unknown – unspoken to all.”
“Perhaps it was found by accident,” she reasons. “Someone flees the grounds of Black, evades the watch guards, and the boundary does not stop them. As you now know by our account, one can travel these lands without issue. It just depends on several factors: food, water, and predators. All of which we have now encountered here, have we not.”
“Are you saying this person was attacked by something?”
“Not something, but someone,” Nora stated cautiously. “These attack marks were not made by a beast. The marks are far too clean – spaced. Albeit, not the cleanest I’ve seen, but certainly made by a rudimentary blade or tool. What I’m saying is we need to be careful. Keep extra vigilant. We may not be the only beings traveling these lands. If one person escaped the Realm of Black, it is unclear who all might have escaped its darkness. I fear there is more to all this than meets the eye.”
Nora turned to her, her gaze settled on heavy, glassy emerald eyes. “Stories are difficult to interrupt, Emri. There are always three separate paths to its conclusion: your story, their story, and the truth. We’ve taken the path of their tale, now let us take ours and see if it leads us to the truth.”