The tall trees shaded the dirt path that cut through the forest. They were older than the ruins that littered the place. They had been through many seasons and watched the land change around them. If they could speak, they would tell all who would listen of the people they had seen. They could tell of all the travelers that had tried their luck on that dirt road. They could tell of the bandits that lay in wait for any that were not prepared. They could tell of the blood and tears that had been washed away so long ago.
There was no blood… there were no tears… not for these travelers. Their blood remained in their veins and marrow. Their tears had all been spent. The group of five, plus a faithful furry companion, made their way to place of their enemy’s choosing. What wait for them, they didn’t know. The letter sounded pleasant and promised a productive talk. However, there was nothing pleasant about who was requesting their presence.
Sparrow turned her attention away from what they were doing and whom they were going to meet, but she needed to keep her mind busy. With what, she just decided to let her mind wonder. It came to a place of recent memories. Their voyage back to Bowerstone and all that transpired there.
Their plan was to leave John in the care of the townspeople, much to his protest. They had started going up the back alleys that lead to the town square. John was trying in vain to convince them to bring him along. All had agreed that he should stay and put his business in order. Most of all… grieve. They were almost there when the local bard notice their approach. He hurried to them and spoke in a hushed manner. He warned John that the guards were looking for him. Some evidence had been found that pointed to him in the murder of his parents. He was so dumbfounded; he didn’t know how to answer to charges. Hannah suggested that they go and explain the whole situation to the guards. Garth believed that it would waste too much time, but he didn’t know what to do about John. Reaver thought to turn him in if there was a reward. Sparrow promptly smacked him in the back of the head.
They had no other choice. They couldn’t leave John in Bowerstone to face the guards by himself. They had no time to explain all events that had brought them to this place and the murder of John’s parents. Let alone if they would even believe them. No, they had to bring him along and hope that the journey would be uneventful. He had promised that.
Her mind was starting to think of him again.
There was avoiding it. He would always be here. There was no escaping him, not as long as he was alive.
“How far is this place?” Reaver asked for the hundredth time.
Garth sighed as he answered for the hundredth time, “Not far… just down this road.”
“You said that an hour ago,” he pointed out.
“And it will continue to be until we get there,” Garth rolled his eyes.
“Is this some sort of dungeon or cave?” Hannah wanted to break the tension that had been growing for some time.
“I don’t know,” Garth admitted, “I just recall hearing about it from travelers that would occasionally pass by my tower. It’s somewhere near the coast, but it’s by a lake… I’m not entirely sure though…”
“As long as it’s not much farther,” Reaver took a drink from a bottle.
“Must you really being drinking at a time like this?” Garth growled, “We need to be alert and ready for anything. I doubt that you being a little light headed will not help the situation.”
Reaver smiled, “A little nip here and there doesn’t affect me. Believe me when I say that this cheap bottle of wine is only to moisten my mouth. I do hate having a dry mouth. The way the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth,” he made a disgusted face, “Rather nasty feeling.”
Garth sighed and rolled his eyes once more. There was nothing he could say that would stop Reaver. He was the way he was and there was no helping it. It was just something that they had to deal with… well, they had been the entire time.
“What do you think?” Hannah turned to Sparrow and John, “Do you think it’s a cave or a dungeon?” she was just going to ignore the two quarrelling men.
“It’s probably a dungeon of sorts,” Sparrow guessed, “The name sounds like a dungeon.”
“It could be a cave,” John thought for a moment, “Sepulchre is a tomb and caves are often like tombs.”
“What do you think boy?” Hannah looked down to the dog.
He wasn’t really paying attention. He was interested in the rabbits that played about. He really wanted to run after them, but he knew that he had to stay with the group.
“I don’t think he cares,” John noticed the dog’s stare.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Hannah shrugged
her shoulders, “We won’t know until we get there.”
“If we ever get there,” Reaver eyed Garth.
“There,” Garth pointed to a fork in the road, “It should be around here.”
Down the road, there was indeed a fork in the dirt road. Sparrow and Hannah were familiar with the place. It was the same road they had taken when they were trying to get to Westcliff and the Crucible. She couldn’t remember seeing any caves or anything that looked like a dungeon. Although, she was never in a position to truly explore Brightwood. She was always in a rush to somewhere to do something important. It could have been easily missed.
In front of them there was a stone cliff with the remains of pillars holding up a roof that was long gone. There was something different about cliff though. The stone was white with a mix of browns and tans that fell upon each other and intertwined. However, there was a perfect slab of gray stone that sat in between similarly colored pillars. There was an image carved deep into it; something that looked very familiar.
“Is that?” Sparrow cocked her head as she approached the stone slab.
“It’s just like…,” Garth had to agree.
“Lovely…,” Reaver sneered.
“What? What is it?” Hannah didn’t know what they were talking about.
“Oh!” the face came alive, “I pray that you are the party that I am expecting.”
“That depends,” Hannah was a tad surprised by the sudden appearance of the face, “Who are you waiting for?”
“Oh… oh… oh…,” he seemed flustered, “I have been told to only let in four Heroes, a dog and a youth. He was very specific…”
“By he do you mean Jack of Blades?” Sparrow wanted to clarify.
The face recoiled in horror at the mention of Jack’s name, “Please don’t say his name,” he begged, “Just hearing it brings me to tears… that is if I could cry.”
He was obviously scared of something or someone. Sparrow could guess who. She took a long look at the quivering face. He looked like the other that guarded Aja’s home, but there was a deep crack that started at his brow and descended down his face to his lip. He had been cut… deeply.
“Then it won’t be said again,” Hannah tried to calm him down.
“You know his name,” the face sniveled, “You must be the ones that I’ve been instructed to greet and allow in… oh what did he want me to say?” he thought for a moment, “Oh yes…,” he cleared his throat, “Welcome dear guests…”
“Can we just get on with it?” Reaver traced his finger over his revolver.
“Oh… but I have to…,” the face whimpered, “or he will hurt me again,” he stuttered.
“We really don’t have the time,” Garth explained in a calm manner.
“But I must! He told me to,” the face continued.
It was no use. The face would not relent until he had carried out his orders.
“Dear Sir,” John approached him humbly, “If I may make a suggestion? How about if we pretend that you did your introduction and you just let us in. Little time is wasted and you won’t get hurt. Everyone wins.”
“Well…,” the face thought for a moment, “It would be much easier… and I honestly don’t remember everything I was supposed to say,” he admitted, “Alright, I’ll let you in.”
The face retracted and split in two. A swirling energy of blue, white and purple greeted them.
“That was some quick thinking,” Hannah complemented John.
“Well,” his cheeks turned red, “We need to get in and quickly…”
“We meaning us and not you,” Sparrow pulled him aside, “You are going to stay out here and wait for us.”
“That might not be the wisest thing to do,” Garth spoke up, “There are bandits in the forest and many Hobbes. As strange as it might sound, it is probably better if he comes with us.”
Garth had a point. Many a times had Sparrow run into all sorts of horrid creatures and people in those woods. John was no fighter and couldn’t last against anything the woods could throw at him.
“It’s decided then,” Garth took a step towards the swirling energy.
Without waiting for a reply, he stepped through and disappeared. Reaver shrugged his shoulders and followed after him.
“Go on,” Hannah motioned to Sparrow and John, “I’ll make sure nothing follows us.”
“Thanks Hannah,” Sparrow took hold of John’s hand, “Come on boy.”
“This won’t hurt. Will it!?” there was no answer as he was pulled through the portal and into a strange world.
It was just like other; darkness surrounded them, but was quickly replaced with light. It wasn’t like light that had so warmly greeted them before. It was yellow, but dull and did not induce feelings of comfort like the homestead had. Dust blew up into Sparrow face as she slowly opened her eyes. It was a desolate place that greeted her eyes.
“I do believe that you are correct in saying that this place is a tomb,” Garth stared at the tombstones that lined a dirt path.
“Frankly,” John looked around, “I would prefer to be wrong…”
“You and me both,” Reaver had to agree.
“Oh…,” Hannah popped through the swirling energy, “Not the most… delightful place,” she felt like everyone else.
Sparrow looked around the gloomy scene. Tombstones as far as the eye could see. Dusty paths winding through the rows with maybe an iron rod fence lining them on the occasion. Just up from where they came through, there was a large stone mausoleum that towered over everything. Though it would belong in place like this, it seemed so out of place. It was too clean and pristine, while the tombstones were faded and cracked from age. It seemed to glisten in the mustard colored sunlight.
“Kaw, kaw,” a raven called to them from its perch on the mausoleum.
“What a drab bird,” Reaver took out his revolver.
“Not now Reaver,” Garth put his hand on the gun, “Save your energy and bullets. We might be needing them.”
Reaver sighed, “Alright…”
Garth released the weapon and continued his scan of the area. Reaver holster he gun and casually walked about the dirt path. Sparrow’s dog hugged her leg and quivered. She could only bend down and try to soothe him as best as she could.
“It’s alright boy,” she gently patted him on the head, “We won’t be long here. John,” she straightened up, “Please stay here and look after him. He still doesn’t have his strength back. I don’t want him getting hurt.”
He understood, “Of course,” he bent down to the dog, “We’ll look after each other. Won’t we?”
The dog perked up a little. Moving from Sparrow’s leg, he snuggled up against John, nearly tipping him over. Sparrow held back her giggles as John tried to maintain his balance. It was not a time to laugh, but concentrate on what was to come.
“You two going to be okay out here?” Hannah asked.
“We’ll be fine,” John nodded his head, “Just take care of yourselves… I’ll be waiting,” he stood up next to Sparrow, “Come back?”
Sparrow smiled, “I will.”
There was a moment when their eyes meet. So deeply did they stare into one another. Her brown eyes reflected into his and his into hers. For how long they stood, they didn’t know. She could feel herself moving towards him and him towards her. Their faces were almost together. Their lips ready caress each other.
“Are you two done?” Reaver interrupted the sweet moment.
Both John and Sparrow pulled away from each other, trying to hide their redden cheeks. They did not speak. There wasn’t much to say or maybe they didn’t know what to say.
“Be careful…,” John managed to squeak out.
“You too,” Sparrow smiled shyly.
They stared just a little longer into each other’s eyes, but only for a moment. It was hard to tear away, but Sparrow had more important things to do.
“Take care of him boy,” she patted her dog on the head one more time.
He whimpered and whined, but sat down next to John showing he would not abandon him.
“And I’ll do the same,” John promised.
No more words were needed. It was a time for action. It was a time to find the masked man that had so elegantly invited them to this god forsaken place. She caught up with Hannah and they headed towards the central area where the stone mausoleum stood. Garth and Reaver were waiting for them. Turning for one last glance, Sparrow looked to make sure that John and her furry friend were remaining put. Thankfully, they were. Taking in a deep breath, Sparrow stepped into the dirt circle that was surrounded by tombstones.
“He never particularly mentioned where he wanted to meet us,” Reaver noticed the unending rows of tombstones and dirt paths.
“Hopefully it isn’t too far,” Garth was a little leery of wondering in a random direction.
“We should stick together,” Hannah gripped her hammer tighter, “Don’t know if this is a trap or not. He’s been pretty faithful to his promise so far. Don’t know how long that will last though. He could just be waiting for us to let our guard down. Cheap shot if you ask me.”
“Let’s keep our heads about us,” Garth was once again the voice of reason, “If Jack wants to talk, then we should listen.”
“Even after all he’s done to us?” Hannah snorted, “He’s tried to kill Sparrow a few times now and not to mention John’s parents,” she whispered the last part, “And of course he’s killed the woman that’s been looking over us and has helped us through many hard times,” there was a tear forming in her eyes.
“Killed? You think that I have killed the woman that calls herself Aja?” Jack’s voice surrounded them.
“Where are you, you little sneak?” Hannah brought her hammer into a defensive position.
“No need to be calling names my dear,” his voice whispered and danced amongst the tombstones, “I have come here to talk… that’s all.”
The earth around them started to slip away and was pulled by an unseen force towards the mausoleum. The Heroes held their ground, though it was being pulled from underneath their feet. It swirled and twisted into a form of a man. The small stones that had been caught up in the whirling dust flattened out and smoothed. They became shiny and glistened in the yellow light. It was a familiar shape that they had come to know and feel utter disband for.
“I am glad to see that you accepted my invitation,” the figure bowed as the tattered mask formed where the face should be.
“Rather dramatic,” Reaver wasn’t impressed, “Don’t you think?”
“I could say the same about you,” the burning eyes appeared in the mask’s eye holes, “You were always one to do the impossible and then brag about it. We both enjoy a challenge, but that is where our similarities end.”
“What did you want to talk about Jack?” Hannah gritted her teeth.
“Yes,” he bowed his head, “I have been thinking about what… Aja,” his mask seemed to curl into a smile, “had said about me and my games. I have been behaving like a child and it is interfering with my goals. It is about time that I and you,” he indicated to Sparrow, “Stop in this reckless behavior.”
“You’re the one being reckless!” Hannah didn’t want to listen to him.
“Please give me a moment,” he took a step closer.
Bang! Reaver quickly gave him a warning shot at his feet.
“Not any closer,” he warned, “You haven’t done anything that affects me personally,” he waved his pistol around, “But you have forced me to travel all over Albion and not even enjoy the… more delicious things it has to offer.”
“Listen to me and you shall have more than you could ever want,” Jack raised his arms to the cloudless skies
The earth moved once again and started to take shapes. Sparrow, Hannah and Reaver readied their weapons while Garth summoned several swords.
“There’s no need for those,” Jack stepped past the growing shapes, “I am merely going to show you what I have to offer in change for something I want…”
The shapes twisted and took forms of that of people.
Sparrow’s grip loosened on the hilt of her sword, “Rose?”
The dirt had taken the form of her older sister that she had lost so long ago.
“Father?” Hannah stared at the figure of her dead father.
“Jahzara...,” Garth wanted to reach out and touch the dirt woman.
“What a handsome statue,” Reaver stood before himself.
Jack’s voice whispered in Sparrow’s ears, “I will return your sister to you… she was taken from you so callously by Lucien… you have done so much for Albion… don’t you deserve a little bit of your happiness returned to you? And you oh strong monk,” his voice moved to Hannah, “Your father was taken too by Lucien… he was a virtuous man that had only good intensions… was his death necessary? Wise mage,” it whispered to Garth, “Lucien took much from you, but it is your past failure that hurts you so much… it is her death that hurts you the most… you gave it your all and put every ounce of your knowledge into trying to save her… but she was lost because you did not have what you needed… you still don’t… I will give you the knowledge to save her… to bring back the woman you loved so deeply… who you have sacrificed much for. And of course to the greatest thief of all time,” his voice came to Reaver, “I can give you what you want… eternal youth without worry of consequences… you will owe the Shadow Court nothing. What do you say Heroes?” Jack appeared once more, “I will give you everything you want for a small price.”
“What… what is the price?” Sparrow continued to stare at the figure of Rose.
“Your blood,” he was right next to her, “Blood is all I need,” his started to lift up her arm, “Just a small cut and she can be yours once more… they can have what they most desire… it is all up to you…,” he brought her wrist up to his mask, “What do you say Hero?”
“I… I don’t…,” her mind was growing fuzzy.
The world was spinning. She no longer felt like she was standing. She was drifting, but where she didn’t know.
“Do you want her back?” someone came from behind her and wrapped their arms around her.
“She’s dead…,” Sparrow answered in a distance tone.
“Nothing is truly gone…,” a voice whispered in her ear, “They merely go somewhere else… it’s not too hard to move a person between them… I will give her back to you,” metal fingers gently pulled her face around.
Her eyes meet the burning eyes of the man in the mask.
“Jack…,” she wanted to pull away, but couldn’t.
“Your blood… give it to me,” he continued to whisper, “All your dreams will come true…”
“My blood…,” her arm lifted in front of her.
“Just a small cut,” he held it lightly in his cold metal gauntlet, “A small moment of pain for a lifetime of bliss,” he started to trace his dagger up and down her arm, “Just a little pain…,” he brought it up and brought it down.
“NNOOO!” something grabbed stopped the blade midair.
“Aja…?” Sparrow looked up at the glowing figure.
“Wake up and fight!” the figure slapped her across the face.
Sparrow took in a deep breath. If felt like she had been breathing. Her lungs were crying for air and she was more than happy to oblige them. She looked to the others to see that they were starting to wake up from their trance.
“You have more strength than I imagined,” Jack hissed towards the mausoleum.
There was no answer.
“Who… who is in there?” Sparrow walked past the mocking image of her dead sister.
“You knew her… or maybe you don’t since you only refer to her by a false name,” Jack didn’t answer the question.
“She’s in there… isn’t she?” Sparrow could guess.
“As I said before, I didn’t kill her,” Jack’s mask smiled, “If you wish to see her, then go on,” he stepped aside, “But know that if you choose to face her, the deal that I generously offer will become void… and that goes for everyone…,” he eyed the waking Heroes.
Sparrow looked back to them. Hannah had tears streaming down her face. Garth, though he was not the type to show emotions, was grief stricken and his face showed it. Reaver, on the other hand, seemed to be angry at something. What, Sparrow wasn’t sure.
“Do you wish to deny them their dreams just for your whims?” Jack smirked, “That’s rather selfish and un-hero like.”
“Sparrow,” Hannah managed to call out through her tears, “Don’t listen to him… The people in front of us are gone… but they are still with us… in our hearts,” she wiped her eyes, “If she’s in there… if she’s truly alive, then shouldn’t we try to save her?” she smiled.
“Those that are dust and ash can never be brought back...,” Garth turned away from the figure of the woman, “I have learned that… things are not the same as they once were… we are living beings… we should look after those that are still with us…”
“Don’t know why you two are so teary eyed,” Reaver snorted, “I’ll take the deal. It sounds good to me.”
“Then I guess we are in agreeance,” Sparrow nodded her head.
Not wasting another moment, she flew up the stairs of the mausoleum. Pushing the wooden doors open, her eyes locked onto a figure that was chained to the pillars that held the stone building up.
“AJA!” she recognized her, “You’re alive!?” she ran up to her.
She looked like she had when she had fought against Jack. Her face was young and smooth. Her clothing, thought a tad jumbled, was tight against her body. Blue lines faded in and out across her skin. Her body was slumped over and only held up by the chains that bound her to the place.
“Aja,” Sparrow cradled her head in her hands, “Speak to me.”
“You fool…,” her eyes slowly opened.
“Aja!?” Sparrow stepped back.