With each flustered stroke, the abyss grew darker, colder, and redder—growing ever closer to what Xavier knew to be an indescribable pain.
I am not ready, thought the Guardian. His muscles tired; he forced himself to give twice the effort to keep with Caolan, focusing on the darkness ahead.
Suddenly, something emerged from it.
A motionless body floated into view: a man with freshly-cut hair and a torn shirt. Narrow trails of blood seeped out of slender, long scars that stretched across his back.
Sickness crowded Xavier’s stomach as he looked away, swimming on.
He isn’t real, Xavier.
That is not your father.
Beside him, Caolan jolted. Xavier tugged him closer. He could only imagine what horrors his friend must be seeing. Out of the blue came another body. It floated straight into him: a young girl with golden hair and freckles sprinkling her nose. She wore the pants and shirt of a peasant but for an ermine cloak that drifted in the waves. A peasant could never afford such costly fur. This was a royal in disguise. This was Andria of Aramore.
The water is fooling you, Xavier reminded himself. But what if she never made it to Skünatt after all?
If, after all this time, I’ve failed her all along?
Damn it, Xavier, she is not real, for Rüna’s sake!
Voices echoed throughout the cavern, calling names familiar and unknown—voices of those he had lost, and voices of those who have drowned. Caolan continued to flinch but dove further, shutting his eyes in a desperate attempt to leave behind whatever haunted him.
Xavey, said a voice. My boy.
Mother? Xavier couldn’t help but spin around, facing only another body: a girl with gleaming emerald eyes. Isabella?
Xavier’s chest rocked and tightened, as though someone strapped him to a board and placed more and more pressure on his wounded chest. Caolan took hold of his arm and dragged him further below. Xavier needed air. Fresh, clean air. Green trees. And sweet rain...
Kicking wildly, he fought to keep consciousness. But the bodies were everywhere. His bellflower’s light began to fade. His strokes faltered. Caolan dragged Xavier’s body to his, picking Xavier up beneath his arms and hauled him not downwards, but upwards.
Above them flashed a light.
You are nearly there, thought Xavier. Rage. Rage against this cruel abyss.
The crimson world vignetted around him until everything became drenched in deep lavender. All darkened but for a beam of calming, blue light straight above. Quickly, it began to fight. No surrendering, he willed himself. He was born to fight. Born to endure...
Knots twisted at the base of Xavier’s sternum. He swam, alone, through a sea of stars.
Guardian, called a distant voice. Xavier knew, as chills tumbled through his body, that it belonged to Death. He had never before heard a voice more tender, more soothing, than Hers.
You have come to claim me, thought Xavier. She had freed him from his cell, and now she intended to free him of the pain that surely overcame him at the bottom of the abyss. Beneath him, the greatest peace he had ever experienced awaited his arrival. I am ready.
He drew his arms to his body. No fear; only relief.
No, said Death. Xavier stilled. My sister has plans for you yet.
The sea shook. The specks of light that looked like stars dizzied and merged—and before he knew it, a roaring wave surged Xavier upward. No, he pleaded. You can’t bring me back! A raging tidal wave churned and spun him around until he knew no direction. Lights flashed from the heavens. Lights flashed from everywhere. I can’t do this, he begged. I can’t do what you want me to!
Xavier’s back arched against a cold, hard rock as he retched the water from his lungs. "Xavier," Caolan sighed, relieved. He babbled more words at him, his voice caught on a sob he had been holding back. Xavier did not hear any of them over his coughing. Everything ached. He gazed upwards at the ceiling of a freezing cave. The chilly air he breathed was fresh but chafed his throat. He eyed Caolan’s dimmed bellflower discarded upon the stone. Its eternal light had vanished.
It was true, then: this must be purgatory.
“Can you hear me?” Caolan demanded. Xavier nodded groggily. “Thank the gods you are here. I thought for a moment you....” Caolan’s words drifted into the silence sizzling between them.
I think I did, Xavier wanted to say.
Caolan cast his eyes to the dim, distant light and unlatched his sopping wet satchel to retrieve his knife.
“Can you walk?” he asked. Xavier took hold of his friend’s arm and heaved himself onto his feet. “I think... I think Skünatt shares the same sky.”
Tripping over himself, Xavier forced himself to the mouth of the cave. Before him only existed darkness. But above him shone the red moonlight. Xavier gawked at the night sky—a wide expanse of terrifying black, riddled with constellations he had never seen before. No longer did it feel like he could stand on his toes and grasp the clouds in his palms. No, they were much too far for that now.
“Rüna,” Caolan muttered, bulldozing through snowy brush. The crimson moonlight did not offer much guidance. Xavier followed his friend the best he could, keeping his eyes and ears open for any threat, still reeling from Trees swished in a soft breeze. Bushes rustled with the sound of small forest creatures. Any solace Xavier found in the dark while imprisoned in the Iron Keep, however, had vanished. They were deep in an unfamiliar wilderness that could hold the most dangerous wonders they would ever encounter: beasts, poisonous shrubs—and perhaps the barbarians that were said to roam these lands.
In due time, Xavier heard the constant rushing of water—quickly followed by Caolan yelping into the silence, and a splash. Xavier picked up his head like a guard dog.
“Watch your step,” whined Caolan. Xavier cast his eyes to the ground. As they began adjusting to the darkness, he identified a creek that slithered about a pathway of flattened stones.
“This must be it, Xavier. Skünatt,” Caolan insisted, gawking again at the sky. “I feel it. Don’t you?”
Aye, Xavier wished so dearly to say.
The damp earth squished beneath his feet. Mud seeped between his toes. It was not until he noticed a stinging cut upon his heel that he remembered he lacked shoes. Xavier grunted and leaned against a tree, trying to examine his wound. The darkness was so thick, however, that he couldn’t tell what must have been grime from the creek and what must have been blood.
“Here,” sighed Caolan, removing his own boots. Xavier held up his hand, but his friend insisted. “Only for a little while. You need them. I don’t.” Xavier shifted his feet into Caolan’s boots. They fit a little too big, but they did their job. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to have warm feet. He eyed Caolan to make sure he would fare well with bare feet, when Caolan stepped on something that rustled loudly.
Huh? Xavier pressed Caolan backwards to seek out the source of the noise: a thin, slippery material that bore holes at the top like handles, like a kind of sack. With effort, Xavier scrutinized the large, red letters printed onto it: Safeway.
“Hm,” hummed Caolan, stretching it out in his hands. “What about this is safe?”
Xavier caught a bright and curious twinkle in Caolan’s eye before Caolan lowered the bag and tried to set his bare foot inside of it. However, he only stepped straight through it, tearing it and tripping over himself in the process. Xavier scoffed.
“It was well worth a try,” Caolan complained. “It looks like a sack, but it cannot be. The material is much too flimsy and vulnerable. You couldn’t carry a rabbit carcass in it.”
So you try to use it like a shoe? Xavier mused.
A strange roar that passed them less than fifty feet away. Xavier halted as chills crawled up his spine. Hesitantly, he moved towards the noise, grabbing Xanthus from his belt. A monster, he presumed. I shan’t let the first beast I encounter in Skünatt be my last.
“Wait for me,” Caolan hissed, hopping as he removed the odd material from his wet foot. Xavier shushed him and held him back as they reached a clearing in the forest: a long pathway that looked like a road, but was not made of dirt. Instead, it was black with yellow lines painted over it.
A metal post had been stuck into the ground nearby. A rectangular shape was bolted to its top, on which someone had painted a silhouette of an Alden doe.
Are these hunting grounds? Xavier wondered. Perhaps purgatory was much more civilized than he expected.
He stepped onto the black road: firm, hard, and well-crafted. Something bright loomed overhead. Not the moon, but a man-made light that hung from a very tall post.
“That is a very bight candle,” mused Caolan, stepping onto the road as well. He peered down the road to see they lined as far as the eye could see. “And there are so many of them.”
Xavier noticed two bright, white lights shining from down the road. They were moving closer—and fast. That roaring, that was it: the beast. He could see nothing beside his big, blinding eyes beyond the darkness. And suddenly, a noise unlike anything he had ever heard before left its lips, blaring at them. Telling them to get the hell out of its way.
Xavier leapt, tackling Caolan off the road just as the beast whirred past them. Xavier jumped back onto its feet, ready to face the foe. But it zoomed away. In the light beneath the giant, looming candles, he could see it had no legs. It had wheels.
Was that a carriage?
“What the hell was that?” Caolan panted, rising to his feet.
Xavier coughed. “A... I....” Caolan’s eyes widened. “W-We... sh-should move on.”
Xavier looked to the stars in order to find Stígandr’s Throne, whose brightest star always pointed north. But the stars down here seemed so numerous and he could not find the throne to begin with. Do we not share the same sky after all? Xavier wondered.
Slowly, a peculiar feeling came over him: like he was being watched. No human or beast awaited him, however. Perched upon the bright, tall candle was a raven. It looked to inspect the boys before cawing at them. Xavier flinched. The Warden’s raven? he wondered for a moment. Yet this bird had kinder eyes, not the fiery red ones that sought out death.
Meeting the raven’s gaze, he realized this was Death—at least a sign of Her.
Purgatory was half Her home, after all.
Xavier counted the stars the best he could, scanning the sky for the legends he knew. Right above him was the outline of Kildred himself, wielding a celestial sword against the darkness.
Caolan raised his eyes to the stars, stretching his back like a humongous, lanky cat.
“I do not know what I expected of Skunatt,” he mused. “But it was certainly not what we’ve found.” Xavier shook his head. “All King Riandor wrote about—wild dogs, boars, barbarians, monsters of the like. I expected that. Hell, this is purgatory. But forests, bright lights, and horses?" Xavier scoffed. Caolan glanced his way as he eased into the blankets beneath them. "It has been strange, having you so quiet. You are a free man now."
Xavier did not meet his gaze. What would my voice sound like? he wondered. A raspy whisper? Surely, nothing more than that. Perhaps, for all he knew, he still had the voice of a lonely thirteen-year-old boy.
"And... you ought to shave, too."
A small smile dimpled Xavier's cheeks.
"And wash your hair. And give it a trim... You want to look presentable for the Princess, don't you?"
If we ever find her, Xavier brooded. It only occurred to him now, hiding in a barn and peering at a stretch of deepest night, that his journey thus far could end in failure. This land was far greater than he anticipated, and Andria does not wish to be found.
He could die down here. No family. No redemption.
For years, now, he has begged for death. Twice, she has saved him. Perhaps my purpose never left, Xavier ruminated.