Written by Trevor A. A. Evans
Text Copyright © 2016 by Trevor A. A. Evans
Published by Prolific Writing Co
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotation in articles and reviews.
This story has been released in parts since the beginning of 2015. Part I is available for free by chapter on Shakespir, Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Nook, or as a whole volume comprising chapters 1-12. Part II will be published during the summer of 2016.
“There’s nothing back here,” Brogan calls out from the far side of the room as he searches for a way to reach Helena.
“How can that be?” Kat replies in frustration while scouring the darker edges of the room a little closer to my right.
I remain exactly where I was moments ago, only feet from the lifeless body of the peculiar man who shot himself. My mind drifts in and out, like something is pulling me away from here. I feel so oddly estranged from everything around me, like what is going on is no longer real. For a short while, it becomes more like a mist lulling me into a dream, captivating me until Kat calls out again.
“Kaela!” she shouts, forcing my eyes to jump and meet hers.
Brogan is ahead of me studying the far wall, but he’s not touching it. Seeing him there suddenly reminds me of when I was in the canals beneath Vanguard, of that moment when the guard couldn’t see me though I was standing right in front of him. Maybe a similar veil is present here.
“Press against the walls,” I say.
Brogan is quick to follow my instructions. Only seconds later, he slips forward as his hand and wrist abruptly force their way through the solid rock and disappear from sight.
“The way out is over here…” he trails off, pulling his hand slowly back toward his body and staring at it puzzled.
Kat turns from where she’s searching and runs over to his side. I follow more casually as the two of them stand before the hidden passageway in awe, poking their hands into the rock and then withdrawing them like mesmerized children.
“It’s an illusion,” I say to Brogan as I step by him. “Magic.”
I speak with confidence as I step through the passage and reach the other side, where another corridor is faintly lit by a light at its distant end. Kat and Brogan step through behind me and take the lead as we continue our way forward.
Kat has a jump to her step as she walks, her long strides taking her further and further ahead of us. There’s an unmistakable hopefulness in her movement, one that almost encourages me, though I struggle to feel anything but the gloom that hangs over us. My stomach groans like it’s tied in knots, the dank air and the tight walls enclosing around us as we venture ever deeper underground.
We soon reach the light, a torch hovering over a dark opening with a ladder descending into it. Kat goes down first, followed by Brogan and finally me. A cold on the air grows with each step, so frosty that I start to see my breath even in the dim light flickering far above us. If this is where Helena has been kept, she must be frozen solid.
The ladder below us ends at the center of a cavern, one too dark to give us any idea of its size. What light pours down into it is swallowed by blackness or reflects off of our silhouettes, leaving us little idea of where to go from here. That is until I hear a rattling just ahead.
“Kaela,” a strained voice calls out, so hollow that it hardly seems human.
It cuts straight to my bones, paralyzing me like I have been turned to stone. I cannot even summon my own voice in reply. Kat looks at me like she expects me to say something, but I can’t even feel the air leaving my body. She hesitates briefly and then steps forward to answer for me.
“Helena, we’re here to rescue you,” she says, fear in her voice like she senses what I do.
There is no answer. I stare out into the dark petrified, but nothing comes. Slowly, I manage to raise my trembling hand up to reactivate my visor. To my surprise, there is little response from the device, just a blur of scratchy green lines that completely obscure my vision.
I turn my visor off and look at the others, who stand still as though they are having similar issues. But then another noise pulls me again toward the darkness, a faint echo, like metal being gently scraped across stone. Instead of halting, I cautiously move forward until it stops. I then turn around to look at Brogan and Kat, who are trailing further back, but am immediately grabbed by something from behind.
“You’re a lie!” my attacker screams as she claws at me, my visor and armor protecting me from harm.
Still, she strikes with ferocity and then grips tightly as I unsuccessfully attempt to rip her free and throw her over my shoulder. At least I’m able to catch a brief glimpse of long, curly hair as I lean forward, telling me that it is my sister Helena who is attacking me. But what has happened to her?
“Get off,” Brogan shouts as he pulls her away and tosses her to the ground.
Helena continues yelling as Kat helps me up. I immediately turn toward the center of the room where Brogan is restraining Helena and forcing her to stay down. Kat goes over to hold her more firmly while Brogan ties her wrists with a thin, white wire that clicks as it tightens and pulls her hands together.
“Don’t do this to me again,” Helena starts crying, momentarily giving up her fight.
“We’re here to help you,” Kat says softly but firmly, leaning down and kneeling by her side.
“No, you’re not,” she whimpers. “You never are.”
Brogan and Kat both look up at me like I am supposed to understand what is going on, and to my surprise, I think I do. That mysterious man wasn’t just imprisoning Helena here. He was tormenting her in ways so cruel and personal that she doesn’t believe what’s happening, though I’m left wondering what he was trying to accomplish through it. Whatever it was, he has pushed her beyond the breaking point and taken her hope away. I never could have imagined her like this. It tears me up inside, but maybe there’s a way to convince her that what she is seeing is real.
“Do you remember that time Cassandra put lemon into Mariam’s milk?” I ask softly, placing my hand across her shoulder and gently squeezing to relieve my aching heart.
Silence follows. I stare at the dark hair now covering her face from all her lashing, unsure of just who is underneath it. Is it the sister I always admired and looked up to, or has this forlorn place shattered who she was beyond recognition?
I cry quietly as I think of the hurt she must feel and then consider my own transformation in the months since my exile. There is something strange at work inside of me, dragging me into darkness, and the more I feel it, the more it seems like it’s actually been there for a long time. Like an infection of hopelessness, one that’s only getting worse.
“She didn’t speak to us for a week,” Helena whispers, looking up at me with a smile I have so desperately missed, temporarily pulling me from my sorrowing.
I spring forward and throw my arms around her.
“This is real,” I say through joyful sobs, my emotions so powerful that I start to shake.
She squeezes me back firmly, and we embrace for a moment of pure peace, one I don’t want to let go of. I feel her warmth filling me like a fire in the cold of winter, making me squeeze even tighter. If only this could last forever.
But it can’t. It is a lie. We are encompassed by darkness, which I am reminded of as gunfire starts echoing above us.
“This reunion will have to wait,” Kat says as she pulls us up together and then cuts the bonds from Helena’s wrists.
Brogan is already halfway up the ladder by the time we start climbing. I go first, then Helena, and finally Kat, who helps support her. I move as quickly as I can and am surprised as I look down and notice how well Helena is able to move and keep pace. Her body hardly doesn’t seem weak at all, like the suffering she experienced was only in her mind.
The gunfire continues louder and louder the closer we get, but then suddenly ceases. My heart stops, fearful of what the break in action might mean.
“Sounds like we pushed back the first wave,” Brogan replies encouragingly, pulling me up the final steps. “We’re almost through this. Just a little more to go.”
I turn around to watch Helena, who shines in the flicker of light despite the dreariness all around. I don’t understand how she’s transformed so quickly. She seemed so dark and empty just moments ago. Then again, she always radiated hope, even when we were young. It’s what once connected the two of us so closely. Now, it seems like she’s the only one of us who possesses it, making me feel estranged, even ashamed. I was foolish to have trusted the Necromancer, whose twisted influence I now feel pressing upon my soul.
“Are you okay?” I ask, pretending that I’m fine.
She pauses in front of me and stares, her eyes penetrating mine as she sees through the wall I’m trying to place between us. I remember Julianne mentioning that it can be deciphered where power and influence comes from, or I suppose at least the nature of its source. An unmistakable peace emanates from Helena, and I imagine that she can see the opposite in me.
“Are you?” she replies perceptively.
I look away from her, feeling tender like the pain that comes when someone jabs intrusively into an open wound. But then sound of gunfire returns, and I welcome it, turning sharply toward Brogan, who prompts us forward.
“We can check the other tunnels to see if there’s another way out,” Kat suggests to Brogan as we start to run. “Or find a place to hide until it’s safe.”
Brogan nods at her, but I can tell he’s unconvinced. I doubt Kat believes it either. We will be trapped here, just like the man said, unless we can fight our way out the way we came.
Moments later, we make it back to the open room where the rest of the soldiers await us. Their guns are inactive, the room’s many corridors empty save for a few bodies of the creatures who had already tried to get in. Yet, more gunfire sounds from the entryway above us. Without a word, Kat already seems to know what’s going on.
“They sent another team after us,” she says, her voice hot and bothered.
“Does it surprise you that Lionel would send them?” Brogan replies softly.
Helena, who is standing next to me, steps forward as though she wants to speak, but stumbles to the ground. I kneel to help her back up. She smiles at me, and I smile back, the two of us then turning again toward Brogan.
“Don’t they trust you?” I ask
“It’s about control, not trust,” he explains. “Regardless of how the council members might feel about your sister, they will want our people to believe that they were behind this mission.”
I’m about to ask another question when the gunfire starts getting louder and closer, like those above us are running down the tunnel toward in our direction. I hear men yelling, and seconds later the sound of someone screaming in agony. Then I see the last person I would ever have expected emerging from the entryway above us. Astor.
“What are you doing here?” I yell as I run toward him, other soldiers appearing behind him.
“They’re right behind us,” he gasps. “We need to find another way back to the surface.”
My eyes turn down hopeless, even as gunfire starts to blaze behind us where the creatures emerge in frenzied pursuit.
“There is no other way out,” I mumble under my breath.
As I utter those words, a light rumbling begins to hum all around us, steadily at first and slowly rising. Pieces of rock begin falling from the ceiling above, some of the heavier chunks breaking against the narrower causeways and sending pieces of them into the chasm beneath the room.
“Brace yourselves,” Kat orders. “It’s an earthquake.”
But as I look toward Helena, who is kneeling down, her open palm supporting her on the ground as her lips whisper something quietly, I realize that this quaking isn’t some natural occurrence at all. She is making it happen.
The creatures roar distinctly like they sense her power and are angry, pressing forward with even greater ferocity. The heavy gunfire continues, but they start making progress despite it. This is it, I think. Even Helena can’t stop them.
“There are too many,” one soldier panics.
“Don’t relent!” Kat yells.
“Ammo,” another calls out, prompting someone nearby to toss him a dark case containing more bullets.
Then, to my relief, the tunnel collapses in front of us, and we are suddenly safe. I stare in awe at Helena, who stands up slowly, elegantly, the quaking immediately ceasing. Kat, too, admires her, seeming to recognize why we’re still alive.
“They’re resourceful,” Helena says calmly. “They’ll find another way in.”
Brogan turns and gawks at her, mouth half-open. His eyebrows raise and his head tilts slightly, like a confused dog. Then he says something even more unexpected.
“So can you just zap us out of here?”
There’s a subtle humor to his voice, a little too much like he’s trying to cover up some amount of discomfort. If he didn’t believe in powers beyond understanding, he certainly must now, though I can’t tell quite how he’s taking it.
“It’s not that simple,” Helena explains. “We were fortunate. I was just as likely to bring us crashing down as I was them, but I had no other choice.”
Things become quiet for a long moment after she speaks. But just as I’m about to break the silence, Brogan turns and charges toward one of the soldiers that accompanied Astor, grabbing him and slamming him up against a wall.
“I suppose you were just on patrol,” Brogan says sternly, receiving an amused grin from the soldier.
“And if we were?” he replies playfully, then shoving Brogan back. “After the breach you found was reported, the council wanted us close by just in case—”
“In case we needed to call for help from someone we didn’t know was there,” Kat interrupts.
“You went radio silent,” the soldier refutes. “How would you know we didn’t try to reach out to you?”
“Why did you bring the child?” Brogan asks, calming down a little.
“We didn’t. He followed us. Quite a resourceful youth. We weren’t able to detect him until we were down here. He came running to help us when we got ourselves cornered.”
I smile at Astor, who grins slightly at the compliment.
But this brief reprise soon ends, ushered away by a strange scratching that starts sounding from the collapsed tunnel. Brogan and the soldier continue talking as I stare at the closed passageway. I can’t imagine what the creatures could do to get through such a barrier, but they seem to be trying.
“We don’t have much time,” Helena interrupts. “They will eventually find a way to us. They won’t stop until they do, no matter how long it takes. We have to get out.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” Brogan asks skeptically.
She doesn’t answer, instead tilting her head down at the dark chasm beneath us.
“Do you have rope?”
We move carefully toward the walls of the large cavern, which slope down gradually until they edge off at a steep, seemingly endless drop into nothing. There, Kat uses a device from her pack to embed metal anchors into the rock.
“It goes down a couple hundred feet and then slopes into a large tunnel that rises and falls until it reaches the sea,” Helena instructs.
“Why have you never used it to escape?” a soldier asks, the one Brogan had interrogated whose name I now can see reads Dalton on his uniform.
“I was never able to make it there. The dark one who imprisoned me, Samael, was able to numb me so that I couldn’t get past him, though I tried many times.”
“Then how do you know where the pit leads?”
“There are things to see with other than your eyes,” she answers cryptically, then smirking at me.
I’m starting to sense what she perhaps means. I still don’t understand where she got her gifts from, but I am beginning to understand what it feels like to sense things beyond myself. Even now, I can sense the creatures above us and the progress they are making in clearing the debris away. I feel their bloodlust, their anger. It weighs me down, causing me to worry about what the mysterious being, Samael, meant when he said I was to be his replacement. I wish there were an escape from whatever is happening to me, but I feel the inevitable wrapping around me like the Necromancer’s cold fingers. I have walked too far down the path he made.
Despite that, I feel a subtle peace, even in the darkness that hovers around me, as I glance at Helena. Not in myself, but in her. She looks back warmly, though I can feel her studying me, perhaps starting to grasp what I already know. Yet, she smiles anyway. She must still feel hope somehow.
“I’ll trail behind,” Kat says, looking at Dalton.
He eyes her suspiciously as she hands him the rope.
“My team will set up explosives in case they break through,” she continues.
“Very well,” Brogan says, taking the rope from Dalton and latching it to his belt. “My men will take the lead. Yours will follow.”
Dalton nods, and Brogan begins repelling into the dark below. The rest of his men follow quickly after him. Astor, Helena, and I then go next, trailed closely by Dalton and the several others who are with him.
My visor turns back on when we get low enough, the light above a distant spec. I was just getting used it, a welcome change in this otherwise shadowy subterranean maze. Still, it’s nice to be able to see despite the dark, though the images on the visor remain somewhat distorted, making it hard to move unhindered in the uneven terrain as we start walking.
“Light up a flare,” Brogan orders.
One of his soldiers pulls something out of his bag and ignites it. I immediately recognize the pinkish-red flame it produces, the same kind that Yori and Wade used when they trapped the draeg in that marshland oasis. I am entranced by its glow, my mind wandering back to the world I came from and my heart sick at the thought of what is happening to the few people there I truly care about.
It is strange how memory and emotion are able to manipulate each other, as despite all of the doubt and distrust I feel concerning Wade, I genuinely miss him. Then there’s Yori and Julianne, for whom I greatly worry. I even worry what is happening with my sister Mariam, regardless of the horrible acts I know she has taken part in.
I feel like there is so much I could do to help them, things that I must to find a way to do. But I am helpless to act as I drift further from them among these distant stars. I wish against the despair I feel that I’ll be able to return and save them before time runs out. That I will be able to overcome whatever it is within me that is tearing my old self apart.
“We’ll need more rope here,” a soldier calls out as he lifts his flair to reveal a large wall of rock blocking the way.
The ceiling of the cavern is high above it, and I can see the faint outline of a plateau above maybe a hundred feet up.
“This is all we have,” Brogan says to Dalton, handing it to him. “Can your men handle this?”
Dalton nods, and he tosses the rope to one of his soldiers, a woman, who drapes it over her shoulder and immediately starts climbing without any support. I watch nervously as she scales upward. She slips a couple times, drawing gasps from Helena and myself, but after a short time, she is at the top, tying the rope to something and dropping it down to us.
Helena goes first, Brogan climbing up right behind her to help support her as she goes. Dalton follows, then Astor, myself, and finally the rest of the soldiers. When I have nearly reached the top, an explosion echoes from the way we came, and my heart sinks. The creatures have broken through.
I push myself to climb faster and then turn around once I’m at the top, my eyes trained on the darkness from which Kat will hopefully emerge in only moments. Astor comes over by me and squeezes my arm encouragingly, but I’m too anxious to feel any relief right now. The sick feeling I had earlier is returning, and worse than ever, even as Helena walks over to stand with us.
Some of Brogan’s men join us, too, but not those who belong to Dalton, who all seem eager to keep going. Dalton then walks over to the rope, reaching down and unsheathing a small blade as though he intends to cut the knot.
“What are you doing?” Brogan says, removing his pistol.
“She made her choice to stay back,” Dalton answers, his voice annoyed. “What if we need to get over another obstacle like this?”
“We won’t,” Helena reassures.
“How convenient for you to say,” Dalton scoffs. “The choice you make now Brogan will cost lives, either Kat and those with her, or all of us. Not everyone is going to make it out of this alive, no matter what you do.”
Brogan lifts his gun, pointing it at Dalton’s head.
“I doubt that was ever your intention,” he says.
More guns raise, some pointed at Brogan, and more pointed between his men and Dalton’s. I stand by as helpless as Dalton, who raises his hands in the air.
“You’ve endangered all of us with your blind faith, all these years looking for someone more dangerous to us than the creatures who stalk the night.”
He glares at Helena, then at me.
“Going to shoot an unarmed man?” he says snidely.
Brogan begins to lower his weapon, but the moment he does, Dalton quickly raises his own.
“This was never going to end any differently.”
To my surprise, Brogan completely lowers his weapon to the ground, putting his own hands up. At the same time, he slowly steps closer to Helena, like he means to protect her.
“She has already proven to us that we can trust her,” Brogan says, his voice imploring Dalton to change his course.
“I have my orders,” Dalton replies coldly, his gun immediately turning on me.
Brogan dives to get in the way, and a shot is fired. I stumble in shock, but I’m not the one hit. Dalton is, though no guns were pointed at him. Except for perhaps one I could not have noticed, one pointed from somewhere in the darkness below by Kat or someone else in her unit.
More gunfire immediately erupts. Brogan is the next one hit, his face grimacing as his continued momentum sends him crashing into me, knocking me back toward the cliff. He stops, but it’s too late, as I am sent careening off the edge.
Astor grabs me by the sleeve of my jacket as I fall backwards, just enough to redirect me toward the ledge so that I can grab onto it. But my grip immediately slips, and I drop a short distance before finding something to hold to.
I hang there for a moment, my head pounding at the sound of gunfire and the blow it took as it banged against the rock when I caught myself. I can’t see any of the conflict above me as it develops, and I fear for the worst. Though there were fewer soldiers with Dalton, they were definitely more prepared for the conflict that was about to take place than Brogan’s men. I hope he’s still alive somehow.
“Kaela,” Kat yells from the ground below as she and the rest of her unit emerge from shadows and start climbing.
Unfortunately, the rope hangs too far from where I am for me to get to it, maybe fifty feet away to my right. Those who climb won’t be able to reach me either, instead rushing to reach the firefight still taking place on the plateau above.
It tapers off a little by the time they reach the top, flurries of gunshots taking place now and again. I recall noticing a lot of cover further up the cavern from various rock formations, and I imagine Brogan’s men would use these areas of safety to wait for Kat and her reinforcements to arrive.
In the meantime, I hold to the rocks where I am, using my feet to press against some light areas to relieve my tired arms. I could stay here for a while, but I feel so weak and vulnerable exposed like this. I want to hear a familiar voice, someone reassuring me that things are going to be okay.
But no voice comes as a different sort of rumbling instead slowly rises from below me, the terrifying stampede of the hording creatures as they come this way. Kat appears above me, holding a flare that she drops off the edge. That is when I see the creatures, hundreds of them, closing in beneath me.
“Cut the rope!” Brogan’s strained voice orders.
Kat reaches down right as some of them grab onto the end of the rope. The increased tension causes her to slip, the knife in her hand slipping as well and cutting into her arm. She winces but otherwise hardly reacts as she picks the knife up again and slashes at the rope, sending the creatures holding it crashing down, rope in hand.
Others immediately try to climb the rocks like the woman from Dalton’s unit did, most unsuccessfully, but a few are able to start making quick progress.
“Hold on,” Astor says, appearing closer to where I am.
He peers over the edge, his body lying on the ground like he’s avoiding being noticed. Kat disappears, I’m not sure to where, but a sudden increase in gunfire suggests that neither she nor and anyone else will be able to help me right now.
“Can you grab onto anything and make it further up?” Astor asks.
“No,” I shake my head as I star to panic.
I could not have ended up in a worse place. The rock I hold to juts out just enough that I can maintain my grip, and there is nowhere else to go from here except down. I start mapping a route in my mind, but I become discouraged when I realize that I will have to backtrack almost halfway down before I can start climbing up again. The creatures might reach me before I can even start heading back up.
“Helena?” I call out, turning my head again toward Astor.
“She’s fine,” he says. “Brogan grabbed her and took her behind some rocks, but they’re pinned down. The rest of Dalton’s men got to higher ground before we did.”
Another round of heavy gunfire suddenly begins, and Astor has to rush away. Then things go silent.
“Astor?” I call out. “Please tell me you’re there.”
Nothing for a long moment. I look back down and realize I have no choice but to figure this out on my own. I descend quickly, taking a lot of risks and slipping twice to beat the creatures to the point I need to reach before I can pivot upward. But surprisingly, they don’t seem to care that I’m getting closer. Each one continues its own course, not one diverting even a little to get a better angle to reach me.
“You’re still alive.” Kat exclaims, standing on the edge above me and drawing the creatures’ attention.
In her hand is another line of rope, this one not nearly long enough to reach me. And even worse, my muscles are reaching the point of exhaustion. I don’t know if I have it in me to get high enough for them to pull me up.
“I’ll get to her,” Astor says, reappearing next to her and stepping off the edge with the rope to help him rappel.
Helena appears as well, yelling encouragement to me and grabbing onto the rope with Kat. Astor descends quickly, but the creatures immediately start clawing his way with much more haste and urgency.
I use all my remaining strength to stay ahead of them as Astor reaches the end of the rope and holds his hand down. Just as I reach him, the nearest creature springs up to claw at us. Astor grabs my wrist, but before the others are able to pull us to safety, the creature gashes its long nails into his side. He groans in pain as I strike the creature with enough force to knock its grip free, sending it plummeting into the massive horde below. I then use my free hand to grab the rope and hold to Astor, who is about to lost grip himself.
“We’re going to make it,” I reassure, looking into his panicked eyes.
He nods, and we climb rapidly with the assistance of Kat and Helena, who pull us up to safety. My heart sighs in relief as we near the top, but then I hear another familiar voice and realize that there is no hope of escaping this night.
“Not so fast,” Dalton says, and a shot is fired.
The tension in the rope is immediately gone as Kat lets go. Helena tries to pull it tight again, but the extra weight makes that impossible, the rope slipping helplessly through her hands. In that moment, everything becomes weightless, timeless, as Astor and I fall toward certain doom.
A number of things happen, all seemingly at once. More gunfire. A scream from Helena. Astor’s hopeless silence, which sounds within me louder than anything else. It seems like a lifetime passes before we hit the bottom, the light above slowly dimming until we crash into waiting hands.
Astor immediately cries out in pain, but I feel nothing. In fact, it feels like I have been caught and set down. Yet I have become paralyzed, left observing my last moments in a totally numb state. Gunfire blazes from above, and the creatures that are climbing fall one by one in a bloody heap. Several soldiers aim their fire down the wall of rock and dirt while Helena calls out to me, but my voice will not answer her even as I stare up through tears and see her glow in the spaces between the creatures that stand all around me.
“We have to leave her,” Brogan shouts above the noise.
Kat is nowhere in sight. I want to see her as a couple more soldiers appear and continue firing, but she never comes. Then, in an instant, they all vanish, and I am left alone in the red glow of the flares that surround me.
I notice a number of shadows moving up the wall, creatures trying to give chase. A few eventually make it up and over the top, but the vast majority turn around and begin rushing out of the cavern the way we came. A distant gunshot echoes here and there, but little more. I hold on to hope that the others are okay as I lie on the rocky floor, lifeless.
It is a strange sensation I feel. At first, I wonder if my back is broken, but as I start to slowly move, I realize that I have full control over my body again. Something else took over it, a power that completely seized me the moment the creatures touched me. But it is gone now, and I am able to get back to my feet with no tenderness or pain.
A groan draws my attention. Astor. He is still alive.
I pick up a flair and approach him, immediately covering my mouth in shock at the state he is in. His little body is mangled, covered in cuts and deep gashes. Yet his face is only slightly scraped. The gunfire must have stopped the creatures from attacking him, and then they let him be.
“I’m glad… you’re okay,” he coughs out.
I want to say the same thing back because I want so desperately for it to be true, but it isn’t. He won’t last much longer. He is going to die. My heart aches as I begin crying.
“I don’t know how,” is all I manage back.
“We both know how,” he says plainly.
The silence that follows is unbearable. I am why he is here. It was my choice to trust the Necromancer, and I made him go along with it. After all Astor has done for me, I have led him to his death worlds away from his mother, who may never get to know what became of her only child. She will never know who is to blame for the emptiness she might feel in her heart even now as she senses his life drift away.
“Tell her that this happened so that she could have hope,” Astor says, like he can read my mind.
“I’ll never see her again,” I reply.
“Yes, you will.”
I pause. He stares at me, love in his eyes somehow. He should hate me. He should see the monster I’m becoming.
“Why did you lie to them for me?” I ask.
“Because they would never have trusted you. The Necromancer is a deceitful being, but I had to let you believe otherwise because you were right, even if I wouldn’t admit it. This was the only way to save your sister. The only way to make things right and give our people a chance.”
My heart warms, if only for a second. A flicker of a hopeful flame I want to grow inside me. If Astor can believe in so dark a moment, even at his end, then I should be able to do the same. Yet the darkness inside of me won’t let it, immediately blowing the hope away, and I am left cold and hollow to witness the last moments of someone so precious.
I kneel down and hold his hand. He reaches up and brushes my hair, though it causes him great pain to do something even that simple.
“Gavin,” he forces out. “That’s what your father called me.”
The mention of that name, a name I haven’t heard spoken out loud in ages, catches me completely off guard.
“It was you?” I ask, though saying it out loud makes the whole idea ring perfectly true.
When the rangers became desperate, they sought out an ally where no one else had before thought. The kingdom on the plateau, Kalepo, their enemy who for years oppressed them and kept them below the light of day. But no king or queen would ever have listened to their pleas. No, the petition had to come from someone dear to them. A childhood friend.
“It was hopeless once,” Astor says. “We had no one to turn to for help, my mother and I. We hid from the guards, sometimes venturing out into the wild when things became too heated in the cities. Because there was no hope, we had to create one, so she sent me away.
“I was gone for years. I’m sure she thought me dead at times. But I found a way up the stairs and into the city.”
“How?” I interrupt, wondering if I could not do the same.
“It’s not impossible for a child. All I had to do was make it far enough that they believed I had snuck out from your city, and I was taken the rest of the way. It happened to be that there was a child who had been missing for some time. His father was dead, and his mother so overwhelmed by grief that she accepted me even though we both knew it was a lie. And then I met your mother.
“She fell in love with me. It was childish love, but still it felt good to share for a season. We would run away in the fields together. But as she grew older and I did not, I had to tell her the truth, a secret she could never share. She knew that it would mean to condemn me, so she kept it.”
“My father told me it was the two of you who would run away together,” I interrupt.
“No,” he corrects. “Your father didn’t trust my plan as much as your mother did. When she became queen, she told him about me, about how she wanted to change the way things were. He was understandably suspicious. That’s probably why he sent you to your sisters and not to my mother.”
“Why are you not upset?” I get emotional.
“Because there’s still hope. Sometimes things really are hopeless, and that’s when you have to create a new hope. It’s delicate at first, but if you nurture it carefully, you can have something truly meaningful. I did my part, and that’s enough for me. I just need you to finish it.”
I start sobbing uncontrollably. With every word he speaks, I realize how lucky I was to have him for this brief time and how heartbreaking it is to lose him. I hold him gingerly as best as I can without causing him more pain. He smiles a couple times, like his agony is becoming less as the life slowly leaves his body.
“You’ll be okay,” he says a few moments later, his voice almost completely gone.
“How do you know?” I ask. “How do you know this darkness won’t consume me?”
“I just do. I’ve seen true hopelessness before, and I don’t see it in you. Even if you fade for a time, you’ll come back.”
Of anything he has said, these are the most encouraging words to me. I feel inside like I’m losing control. I can sense the dark creatures somewhere above us as they try to chase the others down, like they are becoming a part of me, or I a part of them. It is going to consume me, I know it. But maybe there is still a hope somewhere on the other side.
“You need to go,” he whispers.
“No,” I object.
“I’m at peace now. You stayed with me enough to help me believe it wasn’t all for nothing.”
“But you were the one saying that to me,” I say confused.
“Sometimes you have to say something first before you will believe it.”
Those words send a flame through my entire body, like Astor is transferring what warmth remains in him to a place somewhere deep within me. He takes a couple deep breaths and closes his eyes. His hand reaches out and grabs mine. More tears pour down my face as he says his last words.
“I will miss you, Kaela.”
“Goodbye,” I sob back, leaning down to kiss him.
His hold on my hand loosens, and I let it go and stand up before I completely fall apart.
Without letting myself think or feel anymore, I walk quickly toward the wall of rock and begin my way up, shutting off my mind as I push myself faster and faster. The burn in my muscles means nothing to me, and I am able to focus on climbing and nothing else until I reach the top.
I am tempted to keep going, to keep moving until I collapse, but I have to look back one more time. I turn around and glance down. The flares below still glow just enough to see the faint outline of where Astor’s lifeless body lies.
“I will make it back. I promise.”
I can’t feel my heart anymore. I can’t feel anything.
It has been a long time since I slept, and even longer since I’ve seen my sisters. The last time was above ground, near the Six Hills. I followed Helena, Brogan, Kat, and the others there from the caverns. All it took was a short swim underwater to get to the sea, and from there, I quickly found the beach where they landed, their footprints leading inland.
The coast was enveloped in fog, making it hard to track them. Yet, I could sense them somewhere ahead of me, and I ran to catch up and escape the dark feelings that were consuming me. But the closer I got, the darker I felt.
They came into view in a clearing in the woods near the hills. Cassandra was there to greet them, escorted by more soldiers and in tears as she embraced Helena. It looked so wonderful. But my heart wouldn’t let me get any closer, and I retreated so I couldn’t be seen. Helena turned around like she saw me, but she didn’t say anything. Like she was letting me go. And she should. I’m not safe anymore.
Surrounded and trapped in the tunnels beneath the ancient ruined city, Kaela and the others must locate Helena and find their way out before they are overcome by the darkness that pursues them. The Outcast and the Survivor is a chapter-series that follows Kaela, a princess of the mythical kingdom of Kalepo. After her father's sudden death, Kaela is exiled from the kingdom by her older sister Mariam, who claims their father's throne within moments of his passing. By being made an outcast, Kaela is forced not only to say goodbye to her homeland, but also to all of civilization. Kalepo is known only to itself, meaning that Kaela should expect to find a world devoid of humanity beyond the kingdom's borders, but because of something her father whispered to her on his deathbed, she knows that there is more out there, a world of dark secrets for her to discover. The series was originally released one chapter at a time at the start of each month, but after Part I, comprising chapters 1-12, was finished in March 2016, it has transformed into a more standard series with longer releases. Part II, which comprises several more chapters, will be released in the summer of 2016.