Reaper's Gap

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm
This story is a stand-alone adaptation from one of my chapters of my first book (unfinished, of course!). This was the first time I've ever revised one of my chapters/short stories to its' fullest potential, and I have to say I am happy with how the story came out. This story shows a lot of my flaws, but that's really the point; can't become better if I don't push myself!

Anyway, this story is about a mother chasing after the man that kidnapped her son. His name is Xanu and in his daring plan to escape from Sasha (the mother), he enters the harrowing Reaper's Gap. Sasha, of course, enters the passage without hesitation.

With the help of an assassin, Sasha must struggle onward to the end. But will it be enough?

Submitted: June 27, 2016

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Submitted: June 27, 2016

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Sasha gasped for air as she bent over to catch her breath, her left hand clasping the stitches in her left abdomen.  She tilted her head up, eyes wincing from the pain, but soon drooped her heavy neck so that her eyes met the thinning verdure and the cinereous splotches of soil beneath her. 

For a week Sasha had relentlessly pursued a man who kidnapped her son, resting whenever her muscles could no longer force another step in her aching feet.  It was a difficult journey to Reaper’s Gap since she wasn’t acclimated to this kind of physical endurance, but she did try her best to keep up with the physically unperturbed woman of Inveresk. 

The woman Sasha was travelling with was named Cernica; a tall, unattractive woman with battle skills second to none.  Two moon-shaped, sickle blades clung to her narrow hips, and the blades shimmered from the innumerable specks of ilmentium light metal infused inside them.  They reminded Sasha of twinkling stars, shining on forever in the darkness of the night sky. 

If it wasn’t for her, Sasha would have died before she could have ever began her long journey to save her son. 

The woman from Inveresk pulled out a water skin and took a quick gulp.  Closing the cap with a few twists of her wrist, Cernica shielded her eyes from the burning sun as she squinted, nodding her head northward toward the mountains. 

“We are about an hour from the pass.  Your kidnapper is in there.” 

“Then let’s go,” she said, determination in her voice.

It happened a week ago when Sasha returned to her small farmstead back in South Dakota.  It was a cozy place with a large open field covered in lush, green foliage and hundreds of ponderosa pine trees all around.  The view was scenic, beautiful and, best of all, peaceful.  It was everything she wanted and all she needed for both herself and her son. 

She was a single mother, having raised Mason since the tender age of three months.  His estranged father rarely visited, but none of that mattered.  As long as she could walk into her little boy’s room, sit on his tiny bed as he snuggled underneath the warmth of his airplane-adorned blanket; as long as she could hear his laughter every day, she needed nothing else to smile.

That was, until he came.  The man dressed in a black surcoat stole his way into her and her son’s life.  Breaking, burning and robbing from her what she held most dear.  She didn’t know his name but she knew what he looked like.  She needn’t know more.

Death was coming.

“Scruffy beard, chiseled chin, smiles too much…”  These were the things she repeated to herself every night, along with her son’s name.  She wasn’t going to forget, and she wasn’t going to stop until she got Mason back.

Sasha wasn’t from this world known as Amuria, a land filled with magic, monsters and everything else Sasha couldn’t conjure in her worst nightmares.  Assassin after assassin had tried to claim her life over the few weeks she travelled northward beyond scorched forests the likes she had never seen before; through the Senerian raiders that would rape and murder their way to a pretty penny and an easy woman, and iniquitous mages that raised the dead of lost loved ones just to have a gaff.  Knives in the dark, arrows that would zoom by her head without a seconds notice all the while lugging around a ridiculous piece of jewelry about her neck that apparently warranted all of this suffering.  And the funny part was that she had received it from an old friend, a friend she hadn’t seen in ages.  Now it was hers, and she desired nothing more than to destroy it.

And that, she attempted, mightily.  She, once upon a time, tried to chuck it deep into the Sea of Ancona far to the east, watching anxiously as the foul nuisance sunk beneath the frothing waves.  She remembered how she felt as she walked off the beach that day.  “Good riddance,” she said, her feet sinking in the soft, white sands.  For the first time in a while, she felt weightless.

But the fates were either cruel or were just tormenting her.

During restless nights, Sasha sat on plush grass with her back glumly hunched over while peering off into the surrounding scenery.  The luminescence of the moons offered limited visibility for her to see the outline of the distant mountain, but despite the entrancing view Sasha simply stared without a single thought in her dolorous state.  It was a scenario she kept playing over and over again, one in which her terrified son cried out for his mom while the brutes who took him loomed over his frail frame like snarling, starving, vicious wolves. 

Her heirloom was her saving grace, unfortunately.  At least, that was what Cernica told her soon after the woman of Inveresk discovered Sasha’s, apparently, dirty deed.  “No!” she shouted, brandishing the word like a steel sword, one that cut deep into the chest.  Sasha’s skin turned blanch with fear, gazing at the wielder of death hounding after her like a mad dog. 

The horizon had gradually rolled into a deep orange and, in an hour’s time, unrecognizable in, yet, another cloudy night.  Sasha was still gripping the ropes used to tie down the horses near a broken, dark grey pillar; its remaining half left as an unnatural impediment to the weeds desperately growing around it, when Cernica grasped ahold of Sasha’s tunic, launching the tinier woman off her feet. 

“What have you done?!” yelled a bewildered Cernica. 

Sasha averted her eyes from the tall woman’s crazed expression, uncertain of where to begin, but no words came to her.  Instead, she remained silent, eyes averted and ashamed for reasons unknown to her. 

For hours, Cernica scoured the sea floor, searching for the necklace.  “What’s so significant about it?” Sasha asked herself while she sat on the sandy shore, watching Cernica bob up and down like a whale breaching the water for air. 

The night was fading into an early dawn when Cernica gave up the search.  Without saying a single word to each other, Sasha followed the irate woman back to camp.  It was there when a famished Sasha took ahold of her knapsack, wrapping her tan-colored fingers about the thick, fluffy loaf of bread when her heart sank.  There it was, laying neatly underneath the bread as if it knew what she was thinking about.  Didn’t she toss it into the sea, and didn’t Cernica spend hours searching for it but to no avail?  What was going on?

Sasha glanced at Cernica who was sulking by the fire, poking at a rabbit’s haunch with a thin stick.  Should she tell Cernica? 

She didn’t.  Instead, she took ahold of the straps and carried the whole pack with her a few feet behind a tree.  She opened her knapsack cautiously.  Maybe it isn’t there and I’m just losing it, she thought to herself. 

 It was still there.  She picked up the necklace into her small hands.  She delicately rubbed the gemstone, and her eyes remained fixated on the cerulean color.  Soon enough, the sounds of insects seemed to buzz miles from her ears, and the soft breeze felt as if they never touched her skin.  Before she knew it, her mind drifted.

Sasha…

It’s me…

Where are you going?

I’m here.  Don’t leave me. 

NEVER LEAVE ME.

SASHA!

Like being pulled up quickly from beneath turbulent waves, Sasha instantly snapped back out of the trance she was in.

“What was that?”  It was fear.  I’m afraid, that’s all it is.  Did she really have to tell Cernica that?  She looked at the woman now sitting on her behind while her right forearm rested on her propped up, right knee.  The woman took no notice of Sasha.  Sighing, she took a quick glance at the blue stone again before she inconspicuously tucked the necklace back into her knapsack.

 

The day was still fresh and not yet noon when Cernica and Sasha finally arrived at Reaper’s Gap, a path forsaken by everyone except for the desperate.  Lawless villains escaping the wrath of kingly justice often sought refuge in the mountain pass only to find out that no such refuge could be found here.  Death was synonymous with the place, and somewhere deep inside was her son and the bastard who took Mason from her. 

By midmorning, they arrived.  A dense fog quickly inundated her sight, and an eerie, indistinguishable echo faintly pervaded the inner mountain path.  The echo reminded Sasha of faraway furnaces, burning ever so slowly beneath her feet. 

Sasha’s eyes roamed about the thickening fog.  The high, soaring cliff walls that formed the deep path were jagged, cracked and broken almost as if someone had slammed a giant hammer into the sides.  Stone fragments littered the path and as Sasha and Cernica cautiously traversed deeper, the uneasy feeling that someone was watching her started to grow more and more. 

“Hey, Cernica,” said Sasha, trying to distract herself, “didn’t you say Inveresk is somewhere in these mountains?”

Cernica’s eyes continued to stay focused ahead of her.  “Yes, but it is about a couple of days to the east.  Getting there is difficult.”

“How difficult?”

“All children must learn how to climb the smallest cliff.  Once they are older, they must be able to climb the tallest mountains near our home.  It is the only way in and out.” 

“Oh…” replied Sasha, somewhat disappointed. 

Cernica stopped and raised her hand, motioning Sasha to stop and remain silent.  “Wait.”  Cernica walked deeper into the fog and vanished for about half a minute.  She returned with a serious expression, wrinkles etched into her broad forehead. 

“Let’s go.”

A trepid Sasha followed behind the calmer Cernica as the dauntless warrior led the way deeper into the mountain path, but after a while, the fog soon enough consumed Sasha completely where not even her shadow could keep her company.  She yelled out Cernica’s name, spinning around in circles, vigilantly searching for any signs for the woman of Inveresk. The echoes from the mountain grew louder, pounding and pounding against her eardrum. 

“I can’t breathe,” she said, hoarsely. 

She quickened her steps, her hands outstretched in front of her like a blind man grasping at thin air.  Her left palm eventually touched a smooth surface.  A wall?! 

Her speeding heart pounded against her chest.  Did she walk down the wrong path?  Did Cernica abandon her?  Now what, Sasha?!  Unable to see no more than a couple of inches in front of her, Sasha clung to the ashen wall, hoping it would guide her, to something.  It took only a couple of minutes for her to collide with another wall.  She was lost. 

Feeling something odd, Sasha moved her left hand near her face as her thumb and middle finger gently caressed each other.  Her face jolted back instantly.  There was a strange residue clinging to her fingers that resembled the texture of black, watery tar but with a smell worse than rotten eggs.  She sniffed at the air, the smell stronger here.  Wiping the residue off on her capreen breeches, Sasha breathed as little as possible and concentrated on each step.  Slowly she went, until her hand eventually felt a familiar object. 

It was a handle attached to a door.  The rotten wood nearly snapped from the lock bore when she swiftly turned the handle and pushed the decrepit door inward.  The nauseating stench from outside was becoming unbearable, and, as she rushed inside and barricaded herself from the smell behind her, she breathed in and out of the semi-fresh air, a little relieved. 

Opening her eyes after a brief respite, she found herself in a stone room with brownish, rotting pieces of wood near a table that most likely were furniture at some point.  A stone book shelf resided at the wall to the left of the door while clutters of trash and rubble were strewn about the messy, unorderly room.  What once was a staircase leading up to the second floor was now a collapsed pile of large stone pieces that also sealed off the backroom.  Whatever remained back there Sasha would never find out. 

Sasha gravitated to the book shelf.  A couple of damaged, unreadable books remained on the middle shelves.  One lone book, however, stood vertically on the top shelf.  Too short to reach from the ground, Sasha planted her foot and hiked herself up to grab it.  It wouldn’t budge.  Trying once again, she pulled harder.  The book, to Sasha’s surprise, tilted towards her.  She heard a distinct clicking noise somewhere around the bookshelf.  

Click! 

Startled, Sasha quickly jumped a few feet backwards as the bookshelf broke free from the wall, dust and bits of rock crumbling off of it.  It slowly rotated in a counterclockwise way from its right side panel, revealing a descending staircase.  

The foul stench nearly knocked her off her feet.  She gagged and coughed, and tried to mask the smell with her shirt, covering her nose with it, but the sudden motions of her body left her mind in a tail-spin.  She stumbled back five steps and turned so that her back was facing the staircase.  Still covering her nose with her shirt, Sasha gasped for air through her mouth while clenching her nostrils closed.  She still felt dizzy, but she had to brave it.  Releasing her firm grip, she took a quick sniff at the air. 

Just breathe, Sasha, just breathe.

 One quick inhalation.  Then another, longer one.  After the third take, the dizziness had subsided completely. 

She turned back to the staircase, even more uncertain now if she should go down.  What if there’s a way out down there? she thought to herself.  I have to find out. 

Sasha hesitantly stepped closer.  One breath was all it took to make her gag again, but she had to tolerate the smell. 

Stepping to the edge of the dark plunge, Sasha searched through her knapsack, gripping the torch Cernica had prepared for her earlier in the week, and, using a small magical flint stone, she flicked her fingernail across the surface of the stone, creating a spark.  The spark floated to the torch soaked in sulfur and lime, like a firefly seeking out the closest lamp, and when the little strand of light touched home, the torch blazed up into flames. 

The flight of stairs had cracks running through them like large, black veins, and the torch barely made five feet of distance visible from where she stood, but the torch illuminated the small room at the bottom enough for Sasha to discover what the foul stench was.  Corpses as black as night rotted against one of the walls, their hollow eyes staring off into the nothing.  There were three of them huddled together: two adults embracing one another while the skull of the tinier frame bent awkwardly against the rib cage of the shorter adult.  A twang of pain flashed across her heart, but she tried not to think about it. 

Searching somewhere else, the basement was but a basement, ordinary in every way.  A huge rectangular table took up most of the space in the middle of the room, and several pages from a book remained intact on the table.  Having already picked up the book, she rummaged through the pages and read the last remaining entries:

AA23, 30th day of the Half Moon.

Already millions have perished from the dark curse and there is nothing left for me and my family to do but wait for the inevitable.  Amarandi, forgive us!  We should never have trusted them!  But how were we supposed to know that they were conspiring with the Lost One?  And now the dark curse has killed everyone.  Soon, it will kill my beautiful Kristeena and my only son.  So much for the highlords…if only we had their power…if only we could become immortal like them! The Gods have cursed us! The Gods have cursed us!  The Gods…

The rest of the page was torn.  Again, she turned the pages and read the last entry.

AA23, 5th day of the Quarter Moon.

This will be my last entry.  I can already feel my life slipping away.  I see it in my wife, as well, and my son…my son.  How long has it been?  It’s all a blur now but nothing matters anymore.  Three days, I believe…unsure.  My wife still holds him as we sit and wait for our fate in the basement.  The only thing that is keeping me going is this journal. 

Before I go, I must confess my sins.  I once was the chancellor of the great and enduring empire of Aquilèia and I witnessed the downfall right before my very eyes.  I could have stopped it…I could have, but I didn’t because I believed in the highlords.  Even though I knew their secret, I still felt that they would keep the old ways alive.  But that is all in the past now and all that matters to me is what I did…or what I didn’t do. 

There is something else that they mentioned before Aquilèia collapsed and the highlords vanished.  They mentioned of a powerful relic that could restore what was lost.  This relic, according to them at least, could bring back the dead and return the great empire to its former glory. 

At the time, I believed this to be nonsense, but that didn’t stop them from ushering in the order to find the damn thing!  They vanished soon after that. 

Even so, the last of us broke up into groups and went out searching for it.  What a ridiculous quest…the traitors abandoned us only to have us search for a tiny, unknown thing in the whole world that MIGHT exist, supposedly hidden away on one of the outlying continents. 

And that is why we are here, on the remotest continent from the other three, stashed away in our stone dens like trapped animals dying of sickness. 

For five years we searched and yet we have found it, but as I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter at this point.  This foul curse has spread even to this lonely continent, and what a fitting place, indeed! 

I’ve asked myself why I went along with this absurd request but the truth is, I have no good reason.  Maybe I wanted my family to escape the rape and pillaging but that isn’t the truth.  Possibly I still believe in the highlords, even on my dying breath.

I can feel the curse overcoming me.  These are my last words--find a way to save the children that perished in their mothers’ arms.  Save the world from this dreaded disease.  Amarandi, save us all. 

Kale

She looked back at the tar-colored skeletons, a sense of pity washing over her.  To think a child had to suffer like that made her feel sick, and she couldn’t…wouldn’t imagine herself in that position.  It must have been a terrible way to go.  I’m sorry.

She returned to the upper floor after discovering no exit downstairs.  Looking up, she saw a wooden latch, softened by decay and time, that had already splintered to where a big enough opening for a petite person could squeeze through.  Sasha climbed onto the stone-carved table and stretched her short arm to the ceiling.  Not even close.  She tried to leap, but her fingers barely reached six inches from it.

Maybe there’s something in my bag that’ll help me get to it…Searching through her bag and the dozens of things stashed away haphazardly, she eventually pulled her arms out sluggishly and, for a moment, phased out.  Just a few seconds passed when it hit her--all the frustration and stress that built up over the past several weeks.  Her face scrunched up in anger as she forcibly tore her way through her bag, and like a storm she violently grabbed the dreadful gemstone and threw it against the opposite wall. 

“Damnit!” she screamed, immediately groaning in pure frustration, the tips of her fingers now rubbing her beat-red forehead.  “Why can’t you do anything?!” she shouted.  She plopped herself down on the table, her posture slumping.  She let out a long sigh.  Her eyes eventually meandered to the blue stone laying on the ground, and she stared at it for a few seconds.  She shook her head in frustration, her eyes closing as she let out another long sigh.

Lethargically, she pushed herself back up to her feet, and stood on the table underneath the only escape she knew of.  She tried, stubbornly, to reach it.  For ten minutes, Sasha jumped, yelped while she jumped, and even managed to jump off the table on accident. Soon enough, her legs began to twitch from muscle spasms which eventually left her sprawled on her back on a blanket of dust on the ground. 

Panting while her heart rate slowed down, Sasha turned her head to the left, her eyesight parallel with the floor.  Bits of rubble were centimeters from her flushed cheeks, and every release of her breath blew dust up into the air.  Her eyes would have met the blue stone laying on the ground a meter from her, but the stone was gone. 

Missing.

Sasha shot up to a seating position and looked around the room, but the stone was nowhere to be seen.

Panic began to settle in as she feverishly searched for the stone.  Her eyes were glued to the ground as she scanned for it, but all she saw were her own footprints crossing over each other.

“Why do I even care,” she said, despondently, throwing her hands up in the air.

It was a blue light that caught her attention.  First looking to her left, she eventually tilted her head back to look above her.  She noticed the expanding color changing the room from grey to a bluish mixture of shades and tints, like a rainbow made entirely out of blue colors.  They all beamed out of the pendant which was floating above her, still and unmoving, near the small trap door.  It was like a beacon that called to her, a voiceless message that said, “try again.” 

And so she did.

Stepping onto the table, the necklace floated three feet directly above her.  The translucent lights did not hurt her eyes as she reached up closer to grab it.  She closed her hand over the blue stone without hesitation, the beaming lights now trapped within her hand like water spurting forth from long cracks in a ball–-water trying to break free with insurmountable force.  And then an instantaneous rush of adrenaline pumped through her veins as the decaying latch burst into a thousand splinters all around her. 

It was like riding on a bolt of lightning--like riding the fastest rollercoaster travelling hundreds of feet per second into the sky.  She couldn’t let go, like if she had super-glued her palm to it, and the sheer speed suppressed any screams, regurgitations or shouts of excitement she would have let out. 

Higher and higher she flew, a blue aura covering her like armor.  The opaque fog that fully blurred the mountain pass fumed off of her like smoke.  She flew parallel along the ridged mountain, and crooked cracks running through the towering walls sped by her. 

And in an instant, she stopped without warning.  Involuntarily, her hand began to move by itself closer to her chest.  Gathering herself, Sasha gazed at a sight unlike anything she had seen before.  She could see the rays of the sun beaming down to her, and the warmth made her feel relaxed.  Reaper’s Gap did not look so ominous from up above, and in the stillness of the quiet world she resided in, she imagined that this was what birds must feel like.  At peace.

She looked back down at the pass, and shook her head. 

It was much larger than she had predicted.  She was hoping that the way out was simple and easy, but what she saw hundreds of feet below her were neither of those.  The winding roads she could make out below cut through the stone fortress with dozen of road forks and cul-de-sacs; dead ends that would have sent ignorant and unfortunate travelers into an endless sea of death.  No one would be able to guess the right way unless they had already made the mistake of taking the wrong way, but by then, hours would have passed by--time that she needed dearly.

She looked for a route to the exit.  The correct path was easier to trace from a bird’s eye view, despite the fog disrupting what she could see.  First, she would have to go straight down the eastern route until she met a curve.  The curve, similar to the shape of a crescent moon, worked through the pass to the north where it connected with another northbound road.  Once she reached a four-way crossroad half a mile down the way, she would have to take the left path, which led into a fogless but expansive valley.  All she would have to do was cut across the valley into a narrow corridor on the other side, and then she was out.

“Was this the reason you brought me up here?” she asked the pendant. 

No response. 

“Can you bring me back down?  I think I know where I’m going.” 

With her feet finally touching the table, she walked out the way she came in.  Sasha grabbed the torch and flint stone again and lit the torch aflame.

The torch offered limited reprieve; in one respect, it only made things worse.  The bones of travelers, merchants and soldiers–-some not completely rotted–-were left exposed to the elements.  No matter what side of the mountain path she followed, it didn’t matter; bones upon bones littered the way.  As Sasha walked on alone, the bones cracking and crunching underneath her feet, she listened to the low rumbling sounds deep beyond the fog churn away. 

Oooom oooom oooom oooom oooom…

Sweat began to bead down her forehead as her eyes darted to the left, then to the right, but nothing could be seen.  The sounds continued to reverberate in her ear.  Louder, louder, louder…

Oooom oooom ooOOOM OOOOM!

Fear had burrowed its way out from within her mind, and it had slowly eaten away at what little courage she held on to.  Soon enough, the fear consumed it, leaving behind an exposed core of trepidation, doubt, anxiety and, worse of all, a lost sense of hope.

The pounding wouldn’t leave her alone. 

It sounded like it was right behind her.  She listened.  She could hear a clacking chatter echoing from somewhere, all around.  It sounded like the rapid banging of bone against bone, teeth against teeth.  At that moment she felt a cold wind--harsh and powerful against her skin--seemingly coming from nowhere.  She closed her eyes as she cupped the side of her face, trying to keep her long hair from whipping about furiously into her eyes.  But then she heard a whoosh, and when she opened them there was nothing to see.  It was pitch black.

And she was alone.

Instinctively, Sasha gripped the blue stone in her left hand she had been keeping in her pocket.  She could sense something nearby, scurrying about on the rocks. 

“Who’s there?” Sasha asked, trying to stop her voice from quivering.  The scurrying stopped, and Sasha continued to listen.  Sasha hurriedly wrapped the gemstone about her neck.  Her hands darted frantically to her knapsack, searching desperately for the flint stone.  What is that?!  No, not that!  Come on, Sasha, just find it…please…Please…PLEASE.  Her hand stopped moving, her head shooting up toward the sounds of movement.  Were they closer?  COME ON, PLEASE!

She grabbed it.  Pulling the stone out quickly, she flicked her fingernail across it, and watched impatiently as the small spark flew to the torch.  Her eyes shot open…

“Where’s the stupid flame?!” she yelled in disbelief.  “No, no, nonononono…This can’t be happening.”  And then she stopped talking.  She stopped breathing.  She could hear it behind her.

Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!  Over and over again, right next to her ear. 

Long, thin fingers wrapped themselves, one by one, over her left shoulder.  Shivers unlike she had ever experienced violently shuddered down her spine, causing her to yelp in terror as she, in one quick act, spun around and fell to the ground a few feet from where she was standing.  Her mouth open and her eyes the size of golf balls, she lay there with her body propped up by her hands and arms, scrambling backwards as small puffs of exasperated exhalations broke through her terror-seized throat. She heard bones cracking underneath the feet of whatever was approaching her, and when the cackling slowed to a lethargic rhythm, her breathing stopped again.

It was pain she never knew before. 

Jagged teeth buried themselves deep into her shoulder.  Sasha screamed in agonizing pain as her right hand pushed against the smooth, hard surface of the thing that chomped on her.  Her hand quickly slid down to two large holes, and, pulling to the right, the sunken teeth ripped from her flesh along with the head attached to them.  She let out a long scream, but her pounding heart told her to get up.

She jumped to her feet, still feeling the icy clutches of bony digits grabbing for her, and ran.  She ran as far as her feet would take her until she tripped on something, falling hard on the ground.  There were more of them; she could hear them all around her.  On her behind and cradling her bleeding left arm near her chest, she pushed her feet as her right hand crawled over bones and sharp rocks, eventually brushing up against the impregnable mountain wall. 

Nowhere to run anymore.

“I’m sorry, Mason,” she said, gently clutching her bleeding shoulder.  She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.  She closed her eyes and waited, her mind fading deep into an endless void, and she dreamed.

Do you remember the forgotten shores of old Aquiléia,

when we stood together, hand in hand?

The sun still burns on those white sands,

but has your love drifted into the calm seas?

Gone, lost, forgotten?

It was for a fleeting moment, a long time ago…do you remember?

I remember…

I admired you.

I know…

and drifted, alone, in the world without you.

I’m sorry…

Now my son and I need you. Will you help me?

Adon’El and Amarandi!

Give me the grace of light!

She was awoken by a familiar blue light, beaming far into the pass, but she couldn’t stop staring at the cerulean gemstone floating gently above her chest. 

It was like an ocean wave, the curves of the light gently washing over the darkness.  She saw the terrifying creature now, but she felt strange, odd…not entirely herself.  She felt peculiarly calm, like if she understood what needed to be done.  For the first time she felt confident.

She found it.

She could feel magical power rage through her, rushing to every tip of her body.  A blue light pulsated forth from her, her eyes a deadly blood-red.  The undead shielded its shadow-filled eye sockets, incapable of witnessing the new revelation before it.  Sasha outstretched her right arm and flexed her fingers so that her palm was bare.  In a moment’s time, she gazed at the thing that had nearly ended her life--at the fleshless, deformed, black-as-night monstrosity.  It wasn’t even human.  Its jaws shook violently in rapid jolts, almost as if it were trying to speak.  Long, sharp teeth jutted from its upper and lower jawlines like a saber cat’s, and two large holes for eyes seemed like they were carved deep into the black skull. When it tried to shield its sockets from the light, seven long, bony fingers dangled in front of them instead. 

The skeleton, with its long arms and legs, quickly bent backwards so that the joints were inverted.  The head, in a similar fashion, twisted around so the exposed teeth now sat upon its forehead.  It was trying to run.  

Sasha, with one hand, immediately formed a fist and slammed it into the stone.  Seismic shockwaves thundered toward the skeleton, rumbling underneath its feet.  It fell over.  Sasha, once again, lifted her right arm, and without any hesitation, allowed all the anger that she had held in flow through her arm.  She could feel the heat from the fire collecting rapidly at the tips of her fingers while long strands curved inward to her palm, like water streaming into a fountain. 

The flame felt good in her palm.  She released it, the ball of flame scorching a smoke-riddled path through the air to its unfortunate target.  The flame boomed against the side of the stumbling skeleton’s ribcage, exploding all of it into fragments.  All that remained were a shattered shard of its pelvis and a pile of dark ash. 

“Well done.”

Sasha looked above her.  A man was standing on top of a small cliff, torch burning a few feet from his left leg.  He had several earrings on each ear, and his dashing looks gave him an air of confidence that was seen in few men.  His smile curled around his lips, somewhat in a pretentious manner, and he had a chiseled chin covered with scruff.

The man clapped his hands together.  “And here I thought you were just a helpless woman that needed some saving.”  Like without a care in the world, he sat at the edge of the cliff, one leg dangling as he propped up his forearm on his other leg.  He pointed at the ashes.  “I must say that I was sure the vaantyn was going to kill you.”

“What?”

“The vaantyn?  Please tell me you entered the pass at least knowing that.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Amazing…” he said, rather breathlessly.  “The dead of a long lost nation, trapped in time beneath a mountainous tomb…and you trespassed in this gloomy hellhole not knowing about any of it?  Simply amazing,” he finished, sarcastically.

The man was grinding on her nerves.  She didn’t care about some forgotten world nor did she care about how amazed he was.  There was only one thing she wanted.  “Where is my son?” she demanded, anger flashing through her tone.  Give him back now.”

“Or what?” he said, simpering.  “Are you going to kill me?  I am no expert but I do know that your magic will run out eventually, and when that comes…” He made a throat-slitting motion with his hand; “it’s night out for you.  Unfortunately, these creatures are blood thirsty and, dare I say, numerous.  Even though they have no stomachs to hold any blood…it is a wonder why they hunger for human flesh. But I suppose that is irrelevant at the moment.  You want your son back?  Well, I’m really here to help you, believe it or not.  I don’t want you or your son to die so you better just turn around the way you came before the more vicious vaalkaaj come out.”

“What the hell are you talking about?  You better not harm my son or I promise you, I’ll kill you myself!”

“Oh ho!  Feisty…I like that in a woman.”  He stood up, swiping downwards with his hands on his black breeches.  “Don’t worry,” he said while winking with his left eye,” no harm will come to your son.  Knight’s honor.” 

Bullshit, thought Sasha. 

“As long as you, of course, don’t lose that pretty piece of jewelry about your neck…,” the man pulled out a dagger and started to flip it casually in the air; “…or maybe I should just kill you now and take it from your corpse?” 

At that, Sasha looked feverishly around, seeing if there was something she could hide behind. 

“Oh, don’t worry.  I’ve decided against it.  Never say I didn’t do anything for you,” he finished with a smile.  Sasha watched him flip his dagger one more time before sheathing into his belt.

“Well now, I think we’ve had a nice chat.  I, your humble Xanu, shall depart from my dear lady,” he said, mockingly as he bowed, “and I do hope you survive.  You’re worth a pretty penny, in more ways than one.”  Winking one more time, Xanu left his torch behind as he turned around to walk away, fading into the darkness.

 

For an hour she walked by herself, her left arm still clinging to her chest.  The bleeding had stopped, but the pain still stabbed at her wound every so often. 

Trying to concentrate on the mental map she drew out earlier, she unsuccessfully tried to not think about Xanu.  Anger, hatred, pure, unadulterated loathing; these words described her disposition perfectly, and every step she took resounded her strong resentment towards the man.  What was he doing here, lurking in the shadows?  Was he watching her the entire time, or was he just a creep, maybe even waiting for the opportune time to strike?

Her mind drifted to Cernica too, her travel companion.  Where was she?  Possibly the vaantyn, as what that despicable man called it, had gotten to her.  No, that’s impossible.  She is the strongest, most stubborn individual I know.  There is no way she’d go out against only one of them.  But as the hours slowly crept by, Sasha heard nor found any signs of the Inveresk woman. 

The path was becoming rockier and less easily traversable.  The narrow path was wide enough for a single wagon to pass through, but the rocky slopes, which carved its way at a low angle up into a broader valley beyond, made passage difficult, even by foot.  By the end of it, her feet and calf muscles were contused, but she dared not stop.  She could hear the ooom sounds becoming louder, as the sounds began to pound against her ears. 

She arrived at the top of the incline, light shining faintly from a narrow way across a cavernous, bowl-shaped valley. The distance mocked her tired legs and her legs seemed to quiver a little under the pressure. 

What was she to do?  Sasha could hear movement behind her, edging closer and closer.  Her shoulder throbbed tremendously, but her mind was still intact.  In different circumstances, she would have established a camp just before night arrived, but that was an unthinkable task given the hideous things stalking around.  I don’t even know what time it is! she said to herself.

She continued to walk as fast as possible.  She was constantly glaring at the poorly lit stones in front of her, dodging broken rocks and fissures that were etched in the ground like grey veins.  It gave her the belief that the mountain was actually alive and she was walking, foolishly so, through the belly of the beast.  What beast she refused to ponder.  Several times, more than some, her feet would find an isolated rock which caused her ankles to bend awkwardly.  Luckily, each time she found her balance and recovered before twisting her ankle. 

But that was the least of her worries.

Clattering jaws sounded like rain in the dark as they grew louder by the second.  Sasha hastened her step, moving as fast as she could while also trying to manage her foothold among the scattered rubble.  She could see the light from the narrow passageway edging closer and closer to her.

Her heart started to race.  It was one of those moments that she thought she could outrun them and make it to the exit if she just kept moving, but the knowledge of actually escaping turned into an unavoidable truth.

She wasn’t going to make it. 

One of the vaantyn crept into her line of sight, its head twisted like the one before.  Sasha’s eyes watched in horror as the black-boned creature leapt into the air without warning, diving savagely as its head jangled back and forth like a bell.  With its bony, dagger-like fingers, it slashed at Sasha’s neck, a killing blow. 

“Aaahhhh!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

Her eyes were not shielded by her arm as she witnessed her pendant awake once again, beaming out a fierce light that set the creature ablaze mid-air, until it turned, instantly, into ash.  The ash fell to the ground, its remains strewn about like tossed sand.  Just like so, the light receded, leaving only the flame from her torch. 

Sasha ran as fast as she could while cradling her left arm.  She no longer cared about where her feet landed.  Fear had stricken her like a sudden gust of wind, and all it told her was to run. 

She could hear the ooom ooom booom sound pounding toward her, ever closer.  Her heart started to race, beating faster and faster as she let out exhausted puffs of air. 

Sasha approached the last ascending slope of the valley, the last minutes before she escaped from this hell.  A miniscule amount of sunlight pierced through the valley, and she was able to see better around her.  She stopped to catch her breath, but the moment she lifted her right foot in front of her body and dropped the weight to the ground, her knee buckled.  Her head began to spin around furiously, causing her vision to dance about her eyes.  Her shoulder began to ache, tremendously.

The scurrying of the vaantyn rushed to a dead halt, and she knew they were all around her, even in her semi-conscious state.  The clattering and the sounds of teeth against teeth reverberated like a deluge of raindrops, and for a second, Sasha honestly believed she was sitting outside her front porch, listening to rain softly hitting her roof.  But, instead, when she lifted her head, she saw hundreds of black, twisted forms surrounding her.

The buried fear resurfaced the moment she regained her composure.  It was palpable on her shivering arms.  The flame from the torch shook violently in her right hand, and it took every ounce of her concentration not to drop it.  She didn’t want to die.  I should have listened to him.  I should have turned around!

The clattering of teeth stopped, leaving her alone with the silence and hundreds of eyeless sockets gazing at her.  They were like an audience, waiting for something to happen.

And the source of the sound she had been hearing the whole time ceased fifty feet in front of her.  It stood fifteen feet tall with rotting flesh clinging to their bones like tattered rags, and their burly feet could crush a full-grown man to death.  This one had one eye, the flesh around it completely gone so that it appeared much larger than anything she had seen before.  Exposed tendons remained connected to its jaws, and whenever it opened its jaws wide, the vaalkaaj exhaled a black mist.

 The hulking creature leaned its left shoulder in and charged at her, its right arm, like a weighty pendulum, swinging back and forth by its flesh-tattered side.  Its powerful legs crushed the ground below them.  Boom boom boom boom. 

She didn’t have enough time to react, save a desperate jump to her right.  But just before the remnant crashed into her much smaller frame, the undead beast collapsed to the ground, its body crushed beneath a boulder.  The burly vaalkaaj head stuck out from underneath, and with one last exasperated gasp, it ceased to move. 

Sasha looked up and saw a shadow take form, a shadow she had dearly missed.  Scrapes and bruises, blood and dirt were all over the woman’s body and clothes, and her cropped hair was strewn about in disarray.  She was breathing in and out heavily. 

“Get out of here!” she said through breaths. 

There was no way Cernica could take them all on by herself, regardless of how strong she was.  Sensing her reluctance, Cernica yelled back.  “I’ll be right behind you!  Just run!”

Wishing there was another way, Sasha turned and climbed her way up the ascending valley, torch in hand.  Sasha stole a quick glance behind her and saw two twinkling blades flashing in arcs, like stars streaking across a sky that flirted between dusk and night.  Sasha continued to move upwards, but the booms of the vaalkaaj hammered away like war drums in an army.  Oh my god, please be safe.

She ran and ran but two lingering vaantyn remained in her path. 

The vaantyn launched themselves at her, their heads turning and twirling around on loose spinal cords.The attack was too quick.  All she could do was shield her face with her good arm.  She anticipated the moment the remnants would shred her arm apart, but the moment never came.  Instead, she saw the two skeletal frames landing on the ground, thudding to a stop at her feet.  Lowering her arm, Sasha blinked in disbelief.  Two short daggers with strange script engraved in the blade stuck out of the back of their skulls.  Before she dashed onwards, she saw three wavy lines etched into the front of the daggers’ pommels. 

Fifteen minutes had past, and Sasha had to stop and catch her breath.  Cernica soon followed, letting out a few heavy breaths herself before grabbing Sasha’s arm, leading her further from Reaper’s Gap.  Even more blood covered her, and her hair was soaked in it. 

“Cernica, you’re alright,” she said, relieved.

The woman of Inveresk kept a straight face.  “Daybreak is already upon us.  We need to get into the sunlight.”

Sasha took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  For the first time, she smiled at the tall woman.

Once out of the pass, Cernica pulled out a cloth to wipe off the blood.  She broke half a loaf of bread and gave one to Sasha.  She took a bite and swallowed.

“What happened?  Where were you?” asked Sasha.

“After we got separated in the fog, I went back to find you,” she began.  “When I didn’t, I hoped that you had found the right trail to the valley…”  She took another bite and swallowed.  “So I took a different route through the cliff side.  On second thought, that wasn’t such a good idea.  I found their nest.  I’ve been killing these foul things for the better part of the day.”

Cernica stopped gorging herself for a moment.  She looked rather pensive.  “I need to sleep,” she ended up saying.

“Me too.  I think I need to res…”  Sasha fainted for a brief second before Cernica helped her regain composure.  “I’m alright.  I just need to rest.”

Cernica picked her up and carried Sasha over her shoulders.

“H…hey!  I can walk, you know!”

Cernica kept walking.  “You said you were tired.”

“So what?  I can still walk.”

“Maybe for a few minutes but you will pass out again.  Don’t think I don’t see that wound on your shoulder.  That’ll need to be cleaned and stitched up once we set up camp.  Just listen to me on this one.”  For a couple of seconds, nothing was said between them.  Sasha felt more awkward than usual, especially on the shoulders of a woman.  After a while, Cernica broke the ice.

“I see you have the pendant,” she said, slightly bemused but mostly with a satisfied tone.  “So are you going to tell me how you found it?  The Relic of Amarandi isn’t to be thrown away so easily.”

Amarandi…Why does that name sound familiar?

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, just thinking about something,” Sasha said.  “I’ll tell you later.  It’s actually kind of funny.”

“The Relic is not to be made fun of.  Care to remember that, please.”

All a tired Sasha could do was agree. 

Cernica stopped in an open clearing, at the edge of the Arumvale--a large, expansive forest in the kingdom of Emmen.  She placed Sasha on the ground and try as she might, Sasha could barely lift a finger.  Sasha watched as Cernica prepared the tent and a crackling fire.  The sound was soothing and the warmth assuaged her aching muscles, both a welcome. 

Cernica gathered several Bomlea leaves--used often by weary travelers--crushed them in a mortar and mixed it into a tea.  Once finished, Cernica knelt beside the petite frame, tilted Sasha’s head up and helped her drink it.  Sasha was able to move a little better after draining the cup. 

“So where did those daggers come from?” asked Sasha.

“What daggers?” she asked as she started to search inside her pack.

“The daggers you used to kill the vaantyn.”

“I gave you the only dagger I have,” she responded, a bit confused while looking directly into Sasha’s eyes. 

Sasha’s right hand moved to her side and touched the long dagger.  “Oh…”  Then who’s were they?  No, it can’t be…

“What?”

“Nothing,” she said unconvincingly.  “It’s nothing.”

“Well, anyway, we should rest for the time being.  When we can, we should move on to the nearest village.”

“Alright.” 

After Cernica wrapped her shoulder in bandages, Sasha couldn’t keep her drooping eyelids open any longer.  Before she knew it, Sasha drifted off into a deep sleep.

But just before she fell asleep, she said her son’s name, like every night, and the new name of the man she loathed more than anything.

Mason…

Xanu…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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