Night had come and for an hour she sat still in the middle of the lake. Corvas said that she should wait for the sign, he didn’t know what it was, but said that she would once she saw it. Her eyes were heavy-lidded as she fought off sleep. The warm air and the gentle lisping of the water had lulled her senses into a state of easy relaxation.
She had brought nothing else but her spear and was beginning to regret not having more than bread for dinner as her stomach rumbled. Two more hours passed and Aliana was beginning to doubt that anything was going to happen. She shifted slightly to ease the growing discomfort in her rear. Her belly growled again and it seemed even louder in the quiet of the night.
The place was quiet. The bubbling had stopped and even cover of mist and steam had dissipated with the rising of the moon. But tonight was a new moon. This was the sign.
She sat up straighter and more alert as the silver light grew brighter and begun casting its beams on the dark water. She took up the oars and paddled closer to the spectral display that had now stilled.
The closer she got, she began to realise that it wasn’t just a light but it had form. She rested the oars at the tillers as she recognised the being.
“Father? You? Here?” he looked the same. His back was ramrod straight and his face serious. It was looking at him that she realised how much he looked like Corvas and how much she looked like them. Despite his posture there was fluidity in his stillness which marked him as a being from another plane. His eyes were gone but were replaced by orbs of glowing light.
“Have you chosen to earn the soulless gem?”
“I have.” she replied.
“Then I am to be your guide.” it replied in a detached tone. “Once you have embarked on this journey there is no turning back. You will have to enter the realm of the Non-Living and you cannot return unless you possess the gem. Do you still want to proceed?” If she didn’t know better she would believe that he was trying to warn her. Or scare her away. Even from the grave he was telling her that she wasn’t good enough. Well too bad she wasn’t going to listen.
“I will go.” she said defiantly.
“To hold the gem demands great sacrifice. If you aren’t willing to lose what is most important to you do not proceed.”
“I will go.” she said sternly.
“Here are the rules. One enters, only one leaves. What one most desires the gem thieves. Thoughts count as much as words. Be careful of what is meant to be unheard. To win is to sacrifice. Only death will bring life, the ultimate prize.”
“How can I die if I am to win?”
“There is a way. It is for you to find it.” he said morosely. She nodded still contemplating the difficult situation she had placed herself in. No one ever returned from this journey and now she had an idea of why that was. If it were anyone else but Milos, she wouldn’t do it. But it was him. She steadied her nerves and her resolve was again steadfast.
“I am ready.” she said.
“Then come with me.” he said stretching out a hand.
The boat rocked side to side as she stood. When she found proper grounding, she took his hand. She was expecting that it would have passed right through, but it was solid in hers.
“Sight in this life and the non-living plane are different, so do not be frightened by what happens next.” he said as an explosion of bright light opened up before them. Her eyes burned and watered from the intensity of it all. She felt a slight tug on her hand as she was being pulled forward. “Open your eyes, we are here.” said her father.
She obeyed. Where there was pure light only seconds ago darkness now reigned supreme. “I cannot see anything.” she said slightly panicked.
“Wait, it fades.” he said. She waited and he was right. The blackness melted into varying shades of grey revealing the land before her. She was no longer in the middle of the Landing, but in a city made of huge pillars of ash-white stone. The place was eerily absent of sound or people.
“Where is everyone else?” she said turning to him.
“Your mother was right, you are the Red Sapphire.” he said looking at her with empty eyes.
“How did you know?” she said.
“Nothing is hidden in this plane and you are one of the persons that glows with colour, though muted here.” Aliana looked down at herself. There seemed to be a dull pink aura surrounding her.
“One of? Who is the other?” she said.
Arro-Bar started walking. “The others are inside the city and so is the gem.” he said ignoring her question.
The further she walked through the city the pillars of stone became smaller and thinner. “Where are the houses and the people?”
“They are here, watching.” he then pointed to small pillar. First she made out the pair of empty eyes his form then became more obvious, but not much as he was mostly transparent. She then noted more and more persons standing along the pillars. Some stared at her while other seemed to see through her.
“Why are some people more solid than others?” she asked.
“It depends on how long you’ve been here. You begin to fade as the gem draws from your essence. Your first trial is here.” he said leading her into an open arena. “The soulless gem is powerful. It needs to know if you can protect it.” he handed her the ghostly version of her spear.
“Protect it from what?” Arro-Bar was no longer beside her. There was an answering roar coming from ahead of her and then she saw them. An entire hoard of creatures with chitinous exo-skeletons. Their faces were humanoid except for the extra-long fangs that jutted from the back of their mouths and the black tongues that would dart out occasionally.
Their shoulders were hunched and thick with muscle that tapered down to hands that had three long claws. Their waists were narrow but their legs were powerfully built for speed and agility. It was the first time seeing them like this but she knew what they were.
“I would kill for some Sidna oil right now.” she muttered as she extended her spear. The creatures circled her, watching while she braced herself for the first attack.
She caught movement coming from behind her in her peripheral vision. She turned in time to see the grim coming for her neck. She thrust her spear forward and then pulled back. The grim screamed as dark ichor spewed from its chest.
That seemed to anger the others as two more leaped at her. She cut the first across the knee and lopped off an arm on the other. She was about to stab another in the chest when she was tackled around the waist knocking the spear from her hand.
She tried to push the creature off, but it had her pinned to the ground between its powerful legs. “You sent me here princess and I am going to keep you here with me.” It said as it stabbed at her face. She rolled her head to the side and she hear a satisfying snap as its claw broke from its hand.
It let out a high-pitched scream and its grip around her waist loosened. She rolled away and grabbed the planted claw out of the ground. She then sank it under his exposed neck. Cutting off the noise.
Her hand bled from the slash across the palm, but she would have to deal with that later. There were more of them around her and they watched her conspiratorially. In one on one battle they had failed, but together they had a chance.
She felt the moment they decided, as one moment they were there and the next they were all airborne and coming to tear her apart from all angles. It was impossible to fight all of them at once. She placed her arms around her eyes. She was dead.
But then she heard his voice. “Even when I am a continent away I could still feel you beside me.”
“Milos,” she whispered. He was here.
“You are the Red Sapphire, now burn them.” he commanded.
She was the Red Sapphire. She had only tapped into the power in moments of intense emotion. She had used it then, so she could use it now. She felt as if a well in her had burst open and liquid fire flowed through her veins.
She unwrapped her hands around from around her face. The arena was cloaked in red as the fire licked at everything in its path. The hoard of grim burst into flames and were incinerated immediately. Small mounds of dust formed as their ashes fell.
“Milos!” she shouted and searched through the red haze the faces of all who had crowded in the arena. She was sure that she saw a spot of green moving through the crowd and disappeared behind a pillar.
“Milos!” she said again. She was about to go after him but she felt a hand clamping down on hers and pulled her back. She turned to see Arro-Bar. “What are you doing? Let me go! I have to talk to him.”
“Remember the rules Aliana.” the fire returned as she tried to burn his hand but they had no effect on him.
“The rules don’t matter anymore. If he is already dead, everything I do here is pointless.” she said trying to pull away.
“This is the Non-Living plane. Not the Dead plane. No one no matter how powerful can escape the Dead plane.”
“What do you mean?” she said turning to face him.
“Persons that are under enchantments, especially those of displacement and persuasion, their true selves are sent here, as who they are and who they had been forced to become cannot exist in the same body.
“So he isn’t dead?”
“A part of him is, but not in the full sense. He can still be saved. You can still save him.”
“The part of who I was before meeting Moriah will remain here for now. But that will not be for long as I will have to move on to the Dead plane.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” she whispered.
“Come the final trial awaits.” he said as if she hadn’t spoken.