Up the tree a lone figure hugged tight against the branches. It was a frighteningly tall tree and yet somehow the small lonely figure had climbed almost to the upper-most branches. The mist even thinned so far from the ground. Half-waking, half-dreaming the figure moved restlessly in the clammy breeze. Spectres of enormous lizards with fire in their eyes and blood dripping from their jaws snaked up and down the tree gripping the young girl and dragging from her nightmares. Little sleep was to be found in the Misty Gorge and though the small figure had walked a long distance from the cave mouth, the haunting shrieks of the cave dragons followed her still.
Thais’ eyes rested on the lower branches of the tree barely aware of her own state of mind. Was she asleep or trapped in her nightmares? She could not see the ground beneath the mist and felt a certain pleasure at this fact. If she could not see the ground, then surely a stalking mighty lizard couldn’t see her up the tree?
For the umpteenth time the princess relived the moment she had seen Kaio disappear under the currents. Her stomach hardened against the wave of nausea that threatened to upend her. That her friend might be dead was a thought that found little footing in Thais’ optimistic heart. Surely he could not have succumbed to the creature he had injured so severely? The currents must have taken him far under the surface, depositing him further down the underground river. A part of Thais was sure he was now in safe caring hands and yet there was another part, equally as strong, that had shut off and grown callous.
Rachel and Kaio both gone. Had the seer foreseen this? Could she have prevented the events that had seen Thais’ closest friends and allies put at the mercy of the dangers the princess had invoked? And yet Alucia Dal Am had given Thais fair warning. She had been told to travel alone. Cowardice would certainly see those who travelled with her suffer the consequences. So was all this Thais’ fault?
“You should never have let them come,” a small voice escaped into the mist, ringing in Thais’ ears and bringing shame into her heart. Her shame deepened when an echo of her father’s presence snaked over her skin. He had found her and seen the danger she had put herself in. His very soul had been gripped by a terror that was all Thais’ doing. Why did she only ever bring him fear and anguish?
“You should never have come yourself.”
Darkness ascended and the light rose in the orange mist bathing Thais’ face in a little warmth. Her cold tears dried in the morning sunlight. Down below the mist had grown from grey to white. Still the ground evaded Thais’ eyes, dangers unseen. The girl had little choice however; she could not stay up the tree for the rest of her days.
With stiff aching limbs Thais climbed down from her high perch, her pointed ears alert for any sounds that might threaten her. Only the distant bird songs greeted her in the haze. The gorge was an alien sort of place. Light filtered through the mist giving the gorge a glow, yet no true brightness. Straggly bushes perforated the white landscape, bare due to the winter cold, overshadowed every once in a while by a mighty tree that had climbed higher than the bed of mist it had been born to. The quietness of the gorge unnerved the young traveller, who hurried with soft steps across to the side where a steep wall rose up beyond the cover of white. Thais gripped onto the smooth rock and tried to pull herself up, but her arms were too tired. She would not find the way out by scaling the vertical cliffs of the gorge.
The girl trudged on, her head hanging, a sigh escaping her parched lips. How long since she last ate? A few mouthfuls of fish in the caves the day before? Such food could not sustain a growing child for very long were they idly lying about, let alone trekking about the country. Thais needed to find water to fill her flask.
On the girl marched, trying her best to ignore the heaviness in her tired legs and the dizziness in her head. It was as though her body had somehow achieved what Gallus had posed so many nights ago, in separating into two parts. Save that instead of elven and non-elven parts, Thais’ body had instead managed to turn into lead below the waist and into air above.
The sun climbed steadily in the sky, shedding more and more light into the depths of the Misty Gorge, though Thais saw little changing in the her environment. If anything, the mist was becoming thicker and more clammy, sticking to her skin and leaving a film of moisture there.
“If I stay here much longer I’m going to turn into a greyman,” the girl grumbled quietly. She pondered while she walked, if mists like this one were responsible for the appearance of her foes, before quite suddenly she reached the end of the gorge. The mist was now so impossibly thick that Thais could not see her hand in front of her eyes. The girl was drenched by the moisture in the air, yet thought little of it, as there, beneath her grasping fingertips, cut into steep sides of the gorge lay a path. Thais was certain of it. With renewed energy she hurried on as best she could in the thickness of the mist, gritting her teeth through her swimming vision and her aching heavy legs, while she climbed. The exercise had a devastating effect on the starving undernourished little body and by the time Thais reached the top of the path where the land levelled out, the mist long cleared, she took a moment to collapse on the dewy grass to wait for her vision to clear.
Waves of nausea were coursing through the girl while she lay staring up at a beautiful blue sky. It would seem that Pollux, God of the skies, was smiling on Thais, for He had lavished sunshine upon the Northern Territories for many days now, rendering the hills warmer than many could remember for this time in the season. The sunlight played about Thais’ delicate features leaving a smile on the girl’s face. It was good to be under a warm sun once more.
The happy weather helped Thais climb to her feet to explore this new terrain she had come across. Instantly her attention was caught by a breath-taking sight. Stretching out into the distance lay a ring of low mountains, which trapped between them a vast swathe of mist. The mist itself seemed alive, rolling in motions and waves this way and that. Currents and eddies swirled into being and out again. Yet there was a steady stream of white rolling toward Thais. Or rather toward the enormous cascade of mist streaming into the gorge from a gap between the mountains. Thais had found the Misty Falls and beyond them, the renowned White Sea.
Uneasily, as her legs were very tired now, Thais shuffled toward the expanse of mist to better take a look at the challenge that lay ahead. Her dark eyes observed the canopies of Kaba trees emerging in patches from the mist and the occasional hillock that struggled to escape the sea of white, yet there was little else to detract from the thick mist. Far ahead in the distance Thais could see the mountains that had been beckoning her for so long. They rose taller than ever, snow-capped and dark green with the thick forests that carpeted them. There lay the twin peaks guarding the entrance to the Khaled Pass. There lay Thais’ goal.
“All that lies between me and those mighty peaks is you sea,” the girl sighed, lowering her eyes to the mist once more. Dare she step in? The seer had told the princess that she would meet her guardian at the White Sea, but what this guardian might look lie Thais was unsure. Was her guardian even a person?
The girl was wary to step into the White Sea alone and instead paced along the edge, letting the mist lap at her feet while she went in search of water. Her throat stung and every time Thais swallowed it felt as though a sharp blade twisted within. Finally, when the girl had started to feel her head pounding in time to her racing heartbeat the trickle of a stream drifted up from the mist. Thais glanced about, hoping to catch sight of her fabled guide, yet saw no one traversing along the edge of the sea.
With care, Thais lowered herself down the steep slope, feeling reassured that the mist in the sea seemed less dense than the mist in the gorge. The girl could see quite clearly at first, though she did note the trees in the distance becoming less defined until finally they disappeared the deeper she descended in search of the stream. The ground felt spongy underfoot and after a careless stumble landed Thais on her back staring up at the swirling whiteness of the sky she found out why. Thick Karnaka most lay dotted about the otherwise dry cracked soil.
An unwilling student of most of her studies, for some strange reason even Thais found peculiar, the girl found she adored lectures on horticulture and nature at school. It was one of the rare subjects in which the girl overachieved. So much so in fact, that Professor Ranalph, the aged lecturer in charge of the biological branches at the Titua Institute thought Thais’ wild reputation a very funny joke he could not quite understand. Indeed, the girl was a model pupil for him. Recalling the man’s kind wrinkled face now Thais felt a deep stab of nostalgia, which she forced away while she tried to remember the lecture he had given about the various mosses native to the Shield Mountains.
Karnaka moss grew where little light or sustenance could be found. It flourished where most plants perished. It was a good indication of a starved ecosystem.
“Should you find yourself faced with a sea of Karnaka then be weary my students,” Professor Ranalph had rumbled; the sound emanating from deep with his chest. “’Tis poisonous to humans and many of our animal brethren and pollutes even the water with its foulness. Should you be able to avoid it, then do, by all means, or it might just be the end of you.”
Thais exhaled slowly, her tired eyes lifting to see the glistening twinkle of the stream dancing between the clumps of Karnaka. Wistfully the girl licked her lips.
“This journey should have come with more fair warning,” the child grumbled eventually, forcing self-pity from her thinking. “I mightn’t have come had I known about the wolves, the warlords, the cave dragons and this lonely place!”
Thais paused and seemed startled for a moment at the words that had escaped her lips moments before. As though she were a dog trying to shake off a coat full of water the princess shuddered.
“Perish the thought, I’m starting to sound like Rachel!”
A brief glance back at the bright sun left behind in the clear air was all Thais awarded herself, before she turned around once more, gripped the hilt of one of her swords with her good hand and headed deep into the heart of the White Sea.
Whiteness surrounded the small girl while she stumbled forward. Her gaunt limbs and bruised fingers grasped for anything to bring order into the chaotic silence of the misty sea. Her muddy face was marked by tracks carved through the grime by a cascade of tears. Misery danced through her tired eyes. Her clothes hung limply from her bony form. In the distance the cries of unknown creatures rang out, somehow muffled by the thickness of the mist and yet also magnified to terrifying proportions. It was a blanket shielding the child from all hope and all reality. She was trapped, destined to wander through the whiteness till the end of her days. Several times had she lost her bearings, several times had she climbed a tree to find herself further from her summit than she had been before. Fear, weakness, desperation were gripping the starving child.
“Why are you doing this?” the voice asked through a pain so deep it rattled the ground the child clung to. The girl’s eyes rolled back into her head for a moment and lucklessly she licked her lips to find moisture. She had not drunk since the day before.
“You know why,” the whisper came in response.
“But you’re dying!”
Crumbling rocks slinked down the hillside the child had collapsed upon. Scuttling footsteps filled the girl’s vision. Something was coming.
“Get up child. Get up!”
“Yes you can. Sit up; take up your sword…where is your sword? Thais, my child, where are your weapons?”
“I don’t know.”
“Damn it girl, fight, they are coming.”
The girl’s eyes stared up unmoving into the white void around her. The stones crumbled nearer, rolling against her motionless body. She had no weapons. There was nothing to fight with. Too many battles had rid her of her strength. For three days she had stumbled starving through the whiteness. The time had come…
“No!” Gallus sat up and stared wide-eyed across the makeshift camp he and his men had erected at the base of the mountain: Khaled-Dîn. After nearly four weeks of travelling they had reached its forested feet. The gates to the city lay a day’s ride through the eerie serene woodlands. Yet here, at the end of his journey Gallus saw his folly. The girl was forsaken and he had forsaken her.
“Gallus, what is the matter?” Avery demanded, barely a few feet from his sovereign’s side.
“What friend what?”
“She is dying.”
Selmain and Avery sat up in their bedrolls their hearts growing heavy and their eyes wide.
“What did you see Gallus?” Avery asked softly.
“I saw my child lying starving and broken on a hillside in a sea of mist.” Gallus’ large eyes seemed penetrated by a sadness Avery had never seen in a person. The mighty man hunched over pinching his fingers into the corners of his eyes while his friend turned to the others, demanding answers. “I saw something come across her in the mist. I fear she…”
“Gallus no, do not bring yourself to say the words,” Selmain’s powerful voice commanded and within moments the mage was at the king’s side. “You have been feeling her presence grow stronger every day we have approached this cursed mountain. Even now you feel her, I can almost feel the connection between the pair of you myself. She is not forsaken!”
“No!” Selmain roared. “Gallus man, listen, she is not forsaken! Your vision might not come to pass.”
“It has, of that I am certain,” the king spat fiercely, his grief making way for a deep anger. “But you are right, she lives.”
“Let us abandon the mountain and make our way to the White Sea at once,” Thalius called out.
“Yes,” Gallus agreed, his eyes drifting to the summit of the silver mountain. “The three of you must go. My headstrong fool of a daughter is not yet dead and nor do I feel that fate to be haunting her steps too closely. She will live, but for how I cannot say. No stubborner person have I ever happened across and if she desires to come to this mountain, then she will. I do not feel even death could stand in her way.”
“You will not come?” Thalius asked in surprise. “Gallus, if what you saw is true, then Thais is in grave peril.”
“What I saw is true Thalius,” the king responded coldly. “But help the child in the whiteness of the mist I cannot. Do you forget the outcome of this meeting I seek with her grandfather?”
“I remember what you think the outcome will be certainly.”
“Thalius now is not the time. Whether Sil’Vein will be able to prevent the events in the seer’s vision from unfolding is irrelevant. Gallus has come too far…” Selmain began irritably, before even he was silenced.
“Enough, all of you,” Gallus exclaimed firmly. The king rose to his feet. “You waste time bickering. Thalius I have noted your opinion and I have considered it many a time. I know you think me mad to be clinging to this one last chance of salvation, but now we are here I am not turning back till I have spoken to the Elf Lord. The three of you have been my crutch, but now you must leave me to this end. The girl, she needs you, take yourselves to her side and aid her as best as you can. Whether you do so by slaying every foul beast you happen across or carving for her a path in the mist I do not care, just please, if you can, see to it no further harm comes to my daughter. Our path has been a long and tired journey, but here we must part. The time has come for me to walk alone.”