He brought her to the mouth of a cavern. “The night is almost over.” he said looking up in the sky. There were no clouds or stars, just dull greyness above them so she didn’t know how he could tell. “Find what you are looking for and take it. If you find the gem, you will be taken back to the living.”
“But I don’t know what it looks like.”
“No one does except those who have possessed it.” Aliana frowned.
“Suppose I fail?”
“If you fail, you remain here.” she frowned but he continued, “You are much stronger than me. Your mother’s spirit resides in you. She loved Arnay and would do anything to protect it and its people. Just remember the rules and do what you know is right and you will be fine.”
“You never spoke like this when you were living.” she said.
“Death gives new perspectives on life.”
“You mean that you were wrong.” she clarified.
His face remained stern. “I did what I thought was best in trying to protect you. There was nothing wrong with that.” He was just as pig-headed in this plane as he was in life. Why couldn’t he just admit his mistake. “This is where I leave you.” he said turning around.
No good luck, no last encouragement. Nothing.
She watched wordlessly as he walked out of sight. Tears threatened to fall but she fought them back. Why was she expecting an apology from someone already dead? She came here for one reason only and that was to get the soulless gem. Nothing else mattered.
The pillars of the cave unlike the other monoliths in this plane were of made of smooth obsidian. She ran her fingers along the glasslike pillars. A harrowing feeling overcame her and the pink aura that surrounded her hand flickered off. She pulled her hand away and watched as it slipped back into place.
That couldn’t be a good sign of what was to come. The strange stone seemed to suck on her essence and from that single contact she felt like she had somehow become weaker. She peered down into the cave and as far as she could see the obsidian rock lined the sides and roof. The floor was dull grey stone that was everywhere else.
If she stayed away from the walls then she should be fine she reasoned and if it became too much she could turn back. She was wrong. The minute she stepped inside a slab of stone slid in place locking her in. She turned and banged on it trying to pull at the seams but recoiled immediately as the sucking feeling returned. There was nowhere else to go except forward.
She had expected complete darkness but etched in the stone were thin lines of amaranthine fluid which gave the cavern a dull, outer worldly glow. She placed her finger in one of the lit channels. The fluid was warm and had an oily consistency. She scooped out a single drop which formed a perfect sphere on her fingertips. She brought to her nose to smell. It had a hint of jasmine mixed in with sulphur that made her want to gag. She flicked it from her hand and watched as it rolled towards the wall to re-join the rest of the purple sludge.
The purple flow formed patterns along the roof and walls but eventually, it all seemed to flow in a single direction further down the cavern. She used it as a guide to move through the cave hoping that it would lead to the gem. The deeper she got, the venules of liquid expanded into larger veins as different streams coalesced to form three main rivers along the walls.
She wasn’t sure how long she was walking but somehow sensed that she was getting nearer to something. It was eerily quiet and her walk too peaceful, but she kept her guard tightening her arm around her spear while she looked around her. The floor diverged into two separate paths in the centre of which stood an altar made of lavender crystals. One of them could be the gem, but how was she to be certain.
She was about to touch a tall spiked crystal in the centre when someone grabbed her around the wrist. She felt the fire within her flare and a sudden awareness of self filled her. Without looking she knew who it was.
“Milos.” she said and turned to find herself looking in the face of her husband. She flung her arms around his neck. He felt the same, so real. He was here holding her and she felt so good being close to him again. “I am not supposed to talk to anyone else but my father here, but I can’t help it. I’ve missed you so much.” she almost sobbed.
He touched her face and smiled sadly. “Usually that would hold true, but talking to me is like talking to the other side of yourself. We glow brighter together.” he said as he held her hand up to face her. She could see what he meant as their auras had grown stronger wherever they touched. “Why are you here Aliana?”
“I came for you. I am here to save you.” she whispered.
“So you aren’t dead?” he asked.
“Sonetta tried, but I got away. The wraiths saved me. I came here willingly. Why are you here?”
“I saw you fighting the grim. I figured that this was your only way out and came here to wait for you just in case you needed my help.”
“I mean how did you get in the Non-Living plane?”
“Ana-Moriah, she gave me something to drink. The rest I am not sure of.” he said. Fine lines formed around his lips as he looked over her shoulder. He then looked back at her. “You shouldn’t have come here.” he said as he pulled away. “You need to leave while you still have time.”
“I can’t go, not without you or the soulless gem.” She turned to face the crystalline altar. “If only I could figure out which one it is.”
“Any of them, all of them, it doesn’t matter.” he said stopping her once more. “You must leave Aliana, the longer you stay here, the harder it will be for you to leave. Follow the lines until it flows into a single river, it is the only way out of here. You need to save yourself. It is the only way to save our people from Moriah.”
“And what about you?”
“It is too late for me.”
“My father said that you weren’t dead.”
“I wasn’t fully gone when we last spoke, but things have changed since then.” he said as he lifted his shirt revealing a gaping wound in the middle of his torso. “This appeared not too long ago. I feel different, like I am fading.”
“No,” she shook her head. “No, you can’t....No.” she began to cry and turned away from the wound and looked at his face. “I won’t allow you to leave me. I can’t be without you only when I have only started...” she turned back to the altar and grabbed the first piece of crystal her hand touched and snapped it off.
The ground below her shook and she heard the sound of cracking earth. “Aliana you shouldn’t have done that. You need to leave now! Follow the lines to the river and don’t look back.” he said shoving her towards the left.
“Come with me.” she pleaded holding his hand.
“I can’t. I am already dead.”
“That won’t be for much longer,” she said kissing him once more. “I have just started loving you Milos. I can’t let you go not yet.” she clutched her gem and took off down the corridor.
She heard a huge crash as the cavern behind her caved in. She looked over her shoulder and could no longer see Milos or the altar. She picked up speed as more rocks came tumbling down. The streams of amaranth liquid were beginning to flow faster and poured onto the ground, making it more slippery.
Her chest hurt as black dust swirled in the air. The more of it she breathed in the slower she felt. She pulled her shirt over her nose and kept going. The scent of jasmine and sulphur was growing stronger as she splashed through the liquid. The floor shook and she stumbled forward, but caught herself before impaling herself on her spear.
She couldn’t do this for much longer, she thought as she dodged another shard of rock. The collapsing rock mixed in with the purple goo, forming an avalanche of sludge that threatened to overtake her any second now.
Her heart pounded heavily against her chest and felt like it was going to give out. She looked over her shoulders and saw the cloud of black dust about to overtake her. Her foot clipped a short stalagmite and she was unable to catch her balance this time as she fell forward.
Gods help me, she thought.
She closed her eyes and waited to feel tonnes of stone pilling up on her.
But instead of hitting hard ground, she kept on falling. She opened her eyes and saw that she’d fallen into a chasm, the bottom of which was a river of purple. She fell without a splash as she was swallowed whole and enveloped within the viscous flow. She tried to swim upwards but the liquid just seemed to slip pass her hand.
She was warned that in trying to get the gem a sacrifice would have to be made, a sacrifice of self. Maybe this was what was required of her. Her life for his. She would pay it. She was ready to pay it. She looked at the crystal in her hand which glowed with an undefinable power.
She looked at it and made her intent known. “Take me,” she said. There was a sudden explosion of light and felt herself being propelled to the surface. She gulped in a lung full of air and coughed. The sky was lit with shades of orange as the sun came up over the horizon. She had spent an entire night there. She spotted her boat a few paces away and swam towards it.
She dropped her spear in and then pulled herself over the side causing it to sway slightly but it didn’t overturn.
She made it. She was alive. She shouldn’t be but then she remembered what Milos had said, talking to me is like talking to the other side of yourself... He was her other half, the other part of her soul. The sacrifice had already been made when he told her to go. It was indeed him that had saved her. In the river she had only sanctioned his death. In giving herself, she was giving him up.
She looked at the crystal in her hand. It no longer bled purple light but was like a single shard of transparent glass which like her was empty. It was soulless. She tucked it into her pocket and then took up the oars.
She found Corvas waiting for her on the banks of the Landing. His face was surprised when he saw her. “You are alive.” he said.
She was and Milos wasn’t. “I am.”
“I would ask if you have the gem but it is obvious that you do since you are alive.”
“Do you plan to take it from me?” she asked flatly.
“No, I wouldn’t try. It is said that it sucks the souls right out of anyone touching it, so I will not attempt to steal it. However, I would like to hear the story of how you came to obtain it very much.”
“And I would rather not speak of it at all.” she said as she pulled the boat up on the shore.
He studied her silently. “Very well.” he said finally. “We are ready to leave. Your belongings are already in a caravan.” she nodded. “Whatever you saw or did seemed to have extinguished a fire within you, but maybe it is the gem working.”
“I don’t know what you saw or had to do but remember this. The past has already gone, we cannot change it. But we have the present to make things right and a future that can be shaped by the choices we make now.” he said taking her by the shoulder. The ferocity that often shone in her father’s eyes bled through his.
“It was not by accident that I came this way. The gods fated it. You have a bigger purpose to fulfill and I am going to ensure that you do. You are stronger than us all. I can see that now. Your people are depending on you to do what is right.”
She looked at him. “My father said something quite similar to me.”
“He did? I am surprised. The Bartholomew I knew was hardly a motivator, rarely spared kind words to anyone other than your mother. But then you are his daughter, so I suppose...” he shook his head.
“You are right about that Bartholomew. I meant the one I met on the other side. He was different, slightly so.” Maybe he wasn’t pig-headed after all. She felt a firming resolve overtake her.
He was right. She had to make a stand. Her limbs felt unsteady and her lungs still burned from the obsidian dust. The cuts and bruises that she earned in the Non-Living plane were still on her body. She felt drained and worn out, physically and emotionally. With him gone she would no longer have her fire. However, she would find a way. Milos’ sacrifice would not go to waste. Moriah wasn’t going to win.
“I need two things, Dry Harbour salt and living mist from the Southern Ridge.”
“I have harbour salt in large supply, but living mist will be quite difficult to come by especially that from the Southern Ridge.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Living mist is just another name for cloud wraiths. Which are rare and even rarer are the benevolent kind.”
“You mean that I would need to find a Whisper.” she said. He nodded. “I can’t go with you to the ridge then.” she said.
“But that is where they reside.”
“Usually, but I know where I might find one a bit closer to home. I am going to want to borrow your boat again, some salt and provisions that you can spare. I have to get back to Arnay quickly.” she said.
“There are only two known Whispers said to be in Arnay and both are under Moriah’s control.”
“Not for long. One of them is coming with me.”
“That is dangerous thinking child. Do you even know how to catch a Whisper?”
“No, do you?” he smiled.
“I have heard stories.”
“I am a willing listener and a fast learner. Besides when I catch him I will owe you two stories.”
He chuckled. “The fire is back.” he said. “But I think I want to witness this one personally. If I get a chance to catch one of my own, the diversion will be worth it.”
“You are coming with me?”
“I am sure you heard many stories about me from my brother, some lies but what has always remained true was that I could never resist a good adventure and it seems that we are headed for quite a ride. Besides, having a Whisper to barter with could land me quite a fortune.”
“And you will be helping Arnay.”
“That too.” he smiled. “Come let us get the supplies and then we leave.” he said turning away.
Aliana wasn’t sure that she could totally trust her uncle but for now she would take his help. She just prayed that she wouldn’t regret it.