Chapter 25: Death's Door
She stared at the latch for a few minutes. This was the opportunity that she had hoped for! She lifted it quietly, then triumphantly stepped through the door. To Ava’s surprise, the early dawn had a warm, muggy feel tempered by a slight breeze which she found very soothing. When they had arrived at the tiny village the night before, she had heard the sound of trickling water. Now, as the dawn emerged, she followed the sound while her companions slept soundly. She was enamored along the way by the elpece cascading over a brown stone wall forged of smooth, round rocks the villagers had removed from the gurgling creek, which traced the outline of their little town on three sides and supplied them with cool, sweet water.
How amazed the rest of them were when Archer and Onar removed the planks of floorboard underneath the oat sacks piled in the corner of the barn-like structure which had offered them shelter from the dust storm! They discovered a narrow fissure below running behind the shed. Following the path of the narrow canyon, they descended a steep slope that cut into the plateau they had crossed the day before. Though the dust storm still raged above them on the highland, they were shielded from its deadly blasts in the narrow gorge which sloped sharply down.
Here, in this tiny hamlet called Cheresh, they were sheltered from the rest of Terra Dombren by high cliffs that scaled the perimeter of their secluded quarters. The well-watered soil produced an almost lush flora that delighted the senses. A bright green moss grew along the creek’s bank, inviting Ava to recline and relax to the sound of the water dancing over the stones. She basked in the scent of the elpece and thought she could be happy to live in this very spot, unable to imagine a single care in the world. It had been dusk when they arrived the evening before. In the dim light, nothing appeared to be particularly captivating about this little place; in fact, it felt like a cave; but in the filtered light of morning, its true charm was revealed.
The villagers would have all been classified as Seekers at one time, but finding this little spot gave them a sense of safety where they could live their lives undisturbed by the dangers and lawless perversions of Terra Dombrians and their shadows. They assumed their existence was quite unknown, an idea that afforded them comfort and peace of mind. They seemed quite satisfied to make a life and home for themselves here and hence traveled no farther in their quest for the Great Wall. The plateau above provided ample ground on which to grow enough crops to at least survive; and out in the middle of nowhere, they lived off the land, relatively undetected and untouched.
Archer spent much of the previous evening trying to convince them that one day, danger would surely land upon their door steps, that nowhere in Terra Dombren could be safe from the effects of evil. But his reasoning seemed to fall on deaf ears. They were absolutely complaisant.
However, they were equally hospitable and even excited to have visitors among them who could tell them about the world outside their canyon walls. They listened with wonder at their account of fleeing for their lives. It was enormously entertaining to them, but no fear of discovery entered their heads; they remained content, even confident of their own personal safety and happy to lodge the weary travelers as long as they elected to stay among them. One of their leaders even suggested that a place to build their own cottage could easily be found among them if they decided to stay on indefinitely.
This spirit of compromise was very disappointing to Archereus. It grieved him to see they could be satisfied with so little when he knew all the splendors Menetoy had to offer; but above all, no threat of danger would ever rain down upon them there as it could at any moment here. Yet, they were willing to live as though that threat were only imaginary. What made them think that the peacekeepers who were trying to apprehend them would not find this hideout just as easily as they had? He hoped that they replaced the floorboards in a manner that would not raise suspicion if their hunters were able to successfully track them to the shed. Even so, once the storm abated, the fissure would be visible at the backside of the shed. Without any tracks leading away from the shed, he hoped the storm had eliminated the tracks leading up to it also. For some reason, he could not get a sense of what was happening behind them. He was not at all certain if it was the storm that hindered his vision or a more deliberate force.
He awakened with these very thoughts on his mind. He wrestled with various logical tactics he might use to persuade the villagers; but alas, in the end, he feared it would take an actual attack to dislodge them. How many innocent lives would have to pay for that mistake in reasoning? Why are humans so stubborn? Why must it always take bloodshed to get them to move in the right direction? And yet, for all of their infuriating shortcomings, he still felt compassion for their state.
Naturally, his thoughts turned to Ava. He could feel the pleasure she was feeling at this very moment. He pictured her enjoying the solitude of the morning air, reclining on a bed of moss, serenaded by trickling waters and the aroma of elpece dancing in her nose. It was a beautiful vision to see her relaxed and at ease. It gave him great pleasure to picture her enjoying a moment of tranquility. However, his apprehension grew when he discerned the thoughts she was entertaining— thoughts like the villagers, that they had come far enough. The feelings of false security were alluring her to a delusional state of complaisance like the others.
He had to rescue her from this enchanting stupor.
What a captivating vision you make!
Come join me; then it will be perfection with nothing more to hope for.
Not so, Ava. This is a mere hint of the beauties of Menetoy. Don’t allow your heart to settle for this illusionary substitute.
But it’s so peaceful here, Archer.
A peace that could be shattered any minute... Come with me, Ava. Don’t let your heart be content with a comparative drop when you could have the entire sea of bliss.
She opened her eyes and found him reclining beside her. His body appeared relaxed, but he looked at her intently. She ran her fingers through his hair for the first time.
“Your hair is so soft.”
He traced her mouth with his thumb.
“Your lips are even softer.” He kissed her lips gently. “Promise me that you will not be content to call any other place home outside Menetoy.”
“I promise you,” she said, sitting up, “that I could never be content to call any place home without you.”
He smiled and moved as if he would kiss her again when the blast of an alarm horn startled them both. It blared only once, followed by a long eerie silence. Archer searched the village for signs of trouble or danger, but not a soul was stirring.
“Wait here,” he said, rising to his feet. He moved away from her but turned back before walking down the path toward the patch of cottages. “Remember what I told you before. And I will hold you to that promise.” After a quick grin, he moved quickly toward the main part of the village.
Ava watched him go until he was out of sight; she then turned back to gaze at the stream with its water rushing around moss-covered rocks. She did not notice that the elpece plants behind her were wilting.
Meanwhile, in the tiny slumbering town, the depleted band of peacekeepers was stealthily making its way from house to house searching for the fugitives. Many were killed. Some were bound and gagged. They may as well preserve some for sport later and perhaps take a few back to Dem for an offering. They dared not risk a commotion, however, and conducted their work as silently as they could. They did not want to alert Ava’s ever elusive family that they had traced them there before they could apprehend them.
Onar’s eyes opened when he heard the signal horn. He did not move a muscle or blink; he just lay waiting for more before he reacted. When the only sound he heard was a long eerie silence, he sat up slowly. He looked over at Stranth, who was sleeping peacefully. He walked over to the window and peered out. He could feel covert movement, but he could not see it. Something, or someone was stirring, and with ill intent. Quietly, he walked over to Stranth and shook him hard at the shoulder. Stranth woke startled and confused, but his eyes quickly focused on Onar’s concerned countenance and his signal to be quiet.
“Hurry. Get dressed. Evil’s afoot somewhere, but I can’t place it.”
Noting that Archer was not there, Stranth immediately rose to get dressed. Onar left the tiny guest room in search of his mother and Nell. He told Nell to get dressed quickly and meet them in the hall. Then he went to check on their hosts.
He was apologetic for disturbing them, but they refused to be troubled. They had heard the alarm and promptly dismissed it as an error. Imagine the tumult they would be hearing now if there was anything to be concerned about, they assured him. Onar tried to warn them with his sense of misgiving; but not fully understanding his own ability to sense unseen activity and danger, he could hardly explain it to a relative stranger without their thinking him mad.
As he was composing his thoughts on how best to convince them that they really were in imminent danger, a girl’s voice screamed on the other side of the village a long drawn out, “RUN!”
“I really think you should consider heeding that warning.” With that, he turned to race back to his brother but returned again to add, “By the way, thank you for your hospitality!”
Nell and Stranth both met him in the hall with his weapons as Stranth breathlessly asked, “Where’s mother?”
Onar began to say he didn’t know; then he stopped for a moment; looking away, he said, “At the creek bank.”
Stranth raced to the window, peering out, he said, “Look sharp. We’re about to be.”
All at once, the door flung open, and three numans entered. Thus far, every house they had entered contained only sleeping occupants. They were caught off guard by Stranth’s ambush which was quickly joined by Onar’s flying arrows. The scuffle didn’t last long, but their hosts walked out of their room utterly shocked to see three dead or dying men in their parlor.
Stranth swiftly closed the front door while Onar asked, “Have you any weapons?”
“I think so,” Yaal responded.
“You think so?” Stranth repeated after him, incredulous.
“Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I needed one…I’m sure I have a sword here somewhere,” he began.
“Well, let me strongly encourage you to find it quickly.” Pointing to the dead attackers, “Something tells me you’re going to need it.”
“Mother is out there alone and defenseless. We need to get to her,” Onar stated.
“Which way?” Stranth asked.
“Out the back is probably safest.”
“What about them?” Nell asked, indicating their hosts, who were frantically searching for their weapons.
Before either could answer, another pack of three hunters broke through the front door.
The girl’s voice screaming “run” finally alerted Ava to danger. Instinctively, she stood to her feet and looked around. For a moment or two, she could see nothing out of the ordinary, nor could she see anyone that might have been the voice behind the warning. She started toward the path leading back up to the row of cottages; that’s when she noticed the dead elpece plants. A sinking feeling swept over her. She looked again toward the cluster of cottages. For the first time, she saw a group of three armed strangers entering a house on the far end of the lane. Then she saw a second group exit another house and creep up to the one next door. She scanned the area. Her first thought was to get back to her sons. She imagined their being ambushed in their sleep, a thought that drove her to dart forth at full speed. She knew she needed to at least try to warn her sons of impending danger and was forming Stranth’s name on her lips when she stopped short, dropping to the ground.
She saw him! She didn’t know whether he saw her or not. By this time, her heart was beating so loudly that she could hardly hear herself think. She had no weapons with her. She was completely defenseless. But if her boys were still asleep, they would be too.
She stood and yelled with every ounce of life in her. “STRANTH! ONAR! ATTACK! ATTACK!”
Of course, her screams drew much attention her way. Griff caught her eye; for a brief moment, they stood still, staring at each other. She wore a look of defiance. He wore a look of amusement.
With her position given up, she called out their names over and over to warn of the attack. It wasn’t long before half the village was in the streets; fortunately, several were armed and began to engage the infiltrators.
Ava could see the house of Yaal and Autarkiea, where they had spent the night. Her heart froze as she saw three men enter their home. She had no way of knowing whether anyone had heard her cry or not. She only knew that now was the time she needed to find cover for herself. A dozen or more peacekeepers were racing toward her. She couldn’t make it alive back to the house on the path, but perhaps she could whisk her way behind the trees. There weren’t many to hide behind, but there was a good bit of dense fauna. She lunged over the wall and into the foliage, crawling as fast as she could on all four.
Suddenly, strong hands yanked her onto her back by her hair. All at once, Griff had her pinned to the ground and was on top of her.
“Well, Miss Ava,” he crowed, “we meet again at last!” He licked her face, and she spat in his. Her response elicited a laugh from the triumphant rogue. “Now, Ava, dear, I had hoped you would be as excited to see me as I evidently am to see you. I sure hate to think what they’re going to do to these pretty features back at Dem,” he said, licking her face again. He held both of her wrists in his powerful grip and moved his other hand to grope her body. Ava screamed wildly; she first ordered then pleaded for him to stop. She tried twisting and kicking, but he was too big and too strong for her.
“Ava, Ava, Ava” he said, putting a knife to her throat, “now yer gonna need to just stop all that squallerin’. I’ll make a deal with ya. If you’ll calm down and cooperate, maybe even convince me that you like me, I’ll think about lettin’ you and yer boys live. I could maybe bring ya’ll back to my place and let you be my new family! Wouldn’t that be better than bein’ tortured to death at Dem’s chamber?”
“No,” Archer’s voice firmly said as he yanked Griff back by his hair. “This one is mine.”
Then he ran his dagger across his throat and shoved Griff’s dying body into the brush away from Ava.
Ava had only enough time to lock her relieved eyes with Archer’s before a spear protruded through his chest. Archer looked down at his mortal wound and then back at Ava. He could hear Elah’s evil cackle behind him and Nell’s voice calling out to her mother from somewhere close by. He looked again at Ava, who stared back at him in disbelief. She finally gained enough motor control to shake her head no, when he fell to his knees in front of her. She moved to catch him and drew him to her lap before he fell to the ground.
“Remember your promise,” he labored to say.
“NO! Archer— stay with me. Tell me what to do— we can fix this, can’t we? I can’t live without you; I don’t want to live without you.”
“There’s no time. Ava,” he whispered her name, mustering the strength to stroke away a newly formed tear falling down her face, “your promise.”
“Please don’t leave me,” she felt her words choking her.
She kissed his face and stroked his hair; somehow through her tears she was able to lock eyes with him one last time. Those crystal blue eyes, even at death’s door, were peaceful and strong.
Your promise. I’ll be waiting…
Archer… don’t leave me.
I’m just going on ahead...Find me there…promise.
Time stood still. Like a drop of rain suspended at the tip of a tender young leaf silently waiting for the right moment to fall, all sound and motion ceased for Ava. She tried to grasp what he was telling her. She clung to his words like they were more than a vapor. Nevertheless, as Archer’s heart slipped away from her, Onar instantly put an arrow through Elah’s temple mere seconds after she thrust Archer through with the spear she had borrowed from Griff.
The villagers successfully fought off the remaining peacekeepers and numans. Gorudon called for a retreat when he saw only a half dozen or so still standing. The townsfolk managed to take down a couple more before they could escape. Stranth advised them to send a party out after the escapees; otherwise, a larger party would be returning here within a few days. All of the commotion and chaos seemed to be occurring in another world. Ava was oblivious to everything happening around her.
Her world lay dying in her arms.