Authors: Barbara Kloss
I felt Alex and Vera join before I saw them. The bridge jerked and moaned with new strain, ropes pulling taught like guitar strings. "Please, hold together," I pleaded to the bridge.
Finally, Calyx touched down on solid ground, and I was sliding from his saddle even before he'd secured all four hooves. My boots crunched on frozen ground, and Calyx took a few more precautionary steps away from the cliff and me.
"Are you mad?" Vera yelled at me. She and Alex had almost reached me, and the first of the shadowguard stood on the other side of the bridge. The one in front coaxed his unwilling black horse onto the first few planks of the bridge.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants and my left hand trembled.
This had better work.
As soon as Parsec took his first step off the bridge, I grabbed my blade and started sawing one of the ropes. Alex and Vera realized at once what I intended, then rushed to help. Alex worked at my side while Vera set to cutting the other.
The foremost shadowguard was already halfway across, with two more trailing behind him. The rest of them waited impatiently on the ledge. It wouldn't be safe for all of them to cross at once; they would have to come in batches.
And I had every intention of making an example out of this first batch.
"Come on…" I sawed vigorously. Threads of rope frayed and curled back like springs, but the main cord remained intact. Alex crouched beside me, cutting at the lower rope with similar progress.
And the shadowguard were getting closer.
Ten yards… five yards…
. "Calyx!" I shouted.
Calyx screeched and reared on his hind legs, clawing at the air. I grabbed Alex's arm and yanked him back as Calyx's front hooves came crashing down on the support beam. The foremost shadowguard was standing an arm's length from the ledge when the beam snapped and our side of the bridge gave way.
A chorus of horrible shrieking filled the air, and the shadowguard and their horses slid from the bridge and fell into the canyon. The fury of the shadowguard on the opposite ledge filtered through the space between us, engulfing me with bitter cold.
"Let's get moving." Alex pulled me up from the ground and then leapt fluidly onto Parsec.
Wincing, I jumped onto Calyx and followed Alex and Vera away from the ledge. The shadowguard watched as we galloped away, up the hill and beneath the trees until we were out of sight. We'd gotten away this time, but they were not done hunting us. No, the hunt had just begun, and it wouldn't stop. It would never, ever stop.
Had leaving the castle been a mistake?
No, you need to do this. If anything, their pursuit should be confirmation of this mission's importance.
I sighed and slumped in the saddle. All the adrenaline had left me feeling shaken, and the throbbing in my left arm screamed with renewed vigor.
Vera trotted past me without even the slightest glance. "I said go left."
I didn't have the energy to retort. Instead, I clenched my teeth and stared vacantly at Calyx's winded mane. The pain was overwhelming, but I didn't want to say anything just yet. There was no point; it wasn't as though we could stop.
Alex rode behind me, silent, but I could feel his consciousness press against mine. It swept through me, moving up my arm and into my shoulder, and then his concern cut like a razor. "Vera, we need to stop."
"I sincerely hope you aren't serious," she replied, and when he didn't speak further, she grumbled. "She can have five minutes."
"We're stopping for the night," he said.
Something like a snort escaped Vera's lips. "That little detour's already cost us a day. Her highness can sleep in the saddle."
Alex's tone made her stop Nimarra. I wanted to say it was okay and that I'd be fine, but I didn't even have the energy for that.
Then, realizing that Alex wasn't budging on the subject, Vera's irritation wrapped around me like a blanket of hot coals. "Fine." Even that one word was clipped. She held Nimarra steady so Alex could lead.
Alex guided Parsec slowly, carefully, his palm opened at his side while he tilted his head this way and that, searching for something. He was using Cicero's compass, but I didn't know what he was using it to find.
A cool breeze twisted through the forest, but it did nothing to ease the fire in my arm and shoulder. The same fire had started spreading through my torso, making it difficult to breathe. It felt like my chest was being squeezed, and I couldn't expand my lungs for a full breath. Exhaustion began taking over, and I was glad Alex had demanded we stop for the night. If he hadn't, I would've probably passed out in the saddle. Alex made an abrupt right turn and then led Parsec a dozen or so yards before dismounting in front of a large pile of boulders.
He placed his hands on one of the rocks, then slid his palms over the surface, feeling for something. The cool night air stirred again, and this time it brought with it the softest points of cold. Snow. It was just beginning to fall, but the flakes were large and fluffy like balls of cotton. They would blanket the ground tonight.
Vera steadied Nimarra, her expression drawn to an irritated point, and then Alex said, "Ah." His hand had stopped moving about waist-height. He dug in his pocket and set something on the rock's surface. The rock absorbed the offering, then rolled back like a stone curtain, leaving a cave in its wake.
"We should be safe in here." Alex walked to my side and grabbed my waist to help me down, flashing me a look that dared refusal. He didn't need to bother, though. There was no room for pride when I was in this much pain.
Alex helped me down and slid his arm around my waist. I sagged against him, trembling upon my feet, and his arm was the only thing keeping me upright. He pulled me tighter, and his concern amplified.
"What about them?" Vera nodded to the horses.
"There should be room for them inside," he replied.
Vera raised a doubtful brow but grabbed Nimarra's reins.
"Can you walk?" Alex said at my ear.
I managed a weak nod. My entire body felt like it'd caught fire, and each step shot white-hot pain through my legs and into my hips. Alex helped me into the shroud, with Parsec and Calyx following behind, and then I was blinded by golden light. I waited, trying to give my eyes a moment to adjust, but they didn't.
Alex helped me sit down and I felt nauseated. My body trembled uncontrollably, and my teeth chattered like I'd been struck with a terrible fever. Alex spoke, but his words sounded faraway and dreamlike, as though he were speaking underwater. The air felt
, and the golden hue faded and transformed into a strange mixture of nonsensical shadows.
Sharp pain suddenly exploded in my shoulder. I wanted to cry out but I had no voice. I wanted to twist away from it but I could not move. I was paralyzed, my spirit fighting against a useless body. A body that didn't even seem to be mine, but my mind was trapped inside of it. What was happening to me? Why did I hurt so much? Was the pain ever going to end?
And then I had the strangest sensation that I was floating, weightless and insubstantial in a dark world. Floating through a universe without stars.
In the blink of an eye, the expanse of the universe coalesced into a place I knew well. It was a place I knew
well, because it had haunted me ever since that dreadful day.
It was the hall at the castle. The exact place my father had died.
And there he was, standing amidst a pile of rubble just like the night he had been murdered. Though unlike that terrible night, he was alone. There was no Eris. There was no Fleck or any of the Aegises who had arrived too late. It was just him and me, and he was looking straight at me.
My heart lurched.
He took a step forward with his hand extended as though he was trying to touch me, and his eyes were wet with a deep and irremediable sorrow. I extended my hand to touch his, but there was no contact. My hand passed through as though he were nothing more than a vapor, and where I'd expected to feel warmth, I felt nothing but the soft kiss of a cool breeze.
My heart hammered in my chest. Certainly, I wouldn't have a heartbeat if I were dead.
And then my father walked
me. It was then I realized he had not been staring at me; he had been staring
In the threshold of an archway stood a woman, unnaturally beautiful with the physiognomy of a queen, despite the simple black leathers she wore. Her long, dark hair was pulled back loosely so that a few wisps floated about her structured face, and her eyes were like two large aquamarines—sometimes blue, sometimes gray depending on how the light caught them. There was a strange familiarity to her that I couldn't place, though I knew I'd never seen her in my life. She wasn't the kind of woman one forgot.
"I have failed you." My father's voice strained from a heart that was broken.
"You have failed no one, Alaric," the woman replied. Her voice was sweet yet resonant with power and strength. "We do not always get to choose the way, but that does not mean the end is decided. There is still hope." She treaded gracefully toward my father and stopped before him. "The power yet stirs inside of her. She is stronger than you think—than we could have ever imagined."
My dad searched her eyes. "But will it be enough?"
"Gaia's ways may seem a mystery to us, but they work together for a purpose," she said. "She is Gaia's chosen, and we must have faith."
"But there is no one left to guide her," my father continued. "There is no one left who knows the truth."
The woman touched my father's face and he sighed into her hand. "There is one," she said. "But truth does not require belief in order to exist. Truth was and is. It is the demise of the weak and the burden of the strong. She is strong, Alaric. The truth will make itself known to her, and she will have the strength to carry its burden."
If she had more to say, I didn't hear because the hall and everything in it vanished into thin air. In its place was a desert: an endless landscape of desolation that stretched as far as the eye could see. The air smelled of smoke and burnt flesh, and my stomach twisted, sickened. Death—so much death, where the agonizing cries of thousands echoed chillingly from every angle, remnants of a nightmare that had happened here. A hot sun beat down on my face, burning my eyes and parching my tongue, and I had to shield my gaze from the light so that I could see. This desert was not made of sand; this desert was comprised of the ashes of a kingdom.
And then I noticed the box in my other hand. I'd seen this box before—in a dream. It was the box of the Pandors. The one I sought, the one that held the power to defeating my uncle, Lord Eris. But the box was supposed to bring peace. If I had found it, why had the world been destroyed?
And then a voice came from everywhere.
“See that you are prepared, for if you are not, the world around you shall dissolve into nothing and everything you cherish will die at your hand.”
It was a voice I had heard before—words I had heard before, months ago when I'd accidentally stumbled into a fiori. The memory of those words had threatened me ever since, and hearing them again turned my insides cold.
A figure appeared. At first I thought it was a mirage, but as I focused, I noticed the figure was approaching. Whoever it was—or whatever it was—was completely hidden beneath a black cloak. The air around the figure scintillated with power, and when the figure stopped before me, I knew who he was before he even lifted his hood.
He had once been a man, but there was nothing human about the shape standing before me now. This was a wraith of a man, touched by death and filled with darkness. His face was a nightmare, and when he smiled, his thin lips seemed to curl around my heart and strangle it.
"Thank you for your help, Daria," he said. "I could not have done any of this without you."
A Change in Plans
"It's all right," soothed a deep voice. Hands touched my cheeks and held my face. "It was just a dream."
I could still see Eris's face. I could still see the cruelty in his smile and feel the vitriolic taint of evil that surrounded him.
It was just a dream.
No, it had been so much more than that.
"I'm right here," he whispered, still holding my face.
My heart finally stopped trying to beat out of my chest and my breath steadied, and I opened my eyes. Alex was watching me, his own eyes huge and worried as they stared into mine.
"I saw…Eris." My voice trembled. "And he…"
"Shh." He pulled me into his arms and rested his chin on top of my head. I fisted his shirt and breathed him in—a comforting blend of winter and musk and pine. Here, in his arms, I could convince myself it had been nothing more than a terrible dream. This was reality. Alex was my anchor to this world. He was solid; he was real.
"We'll talk about it later," he continued. "Right now, you need to rest, all right?" His deep voice rumbled in his chest, soothing and hypnotizing. He pried my hands from his shirt and held them in his. "I'll be right here beside you."
I shut my eyes and nodded, and he helped guide my head back to its pillow, and I fell back to sleep.
The next time I woke wasn't nearly so traumatic. My lids fluttered open to a gentle golden glow, and soon that glow differentiated into various objects. I was lying against the edge of the room on some kind of thick leather mat and covered in furry blankets. The room itself looked like a giant fume hood made of rock. It was cylindrically shaped with a ceiling that narrowed and disappeared into darkness. Hot embers glowed in a pit in the center, and the horses stood peacefully on the opposite side of the room.
Alex sat before me, facing the fire pit, and Vera lay along the wall nearer the horses, her back to us, sleeping. I shifted to prop myself up on my elbows, but pain exploded in my left shoulder. I fell back, shutting my eyes tight while the pain ebbed.