Thais, Kaio and Erith wrapped up warmly under the watchful eye of Lady Esmeralda. She had become very protective over Kaio and had insisted he stay a whole day to recuperate. She had overfed him, tended to his wounds and insisted he take three hot baths and now, at last, she felt him well enough to leave. There was little use in her trying to stand in their way. She knew a stubborn soul when she one and here before her now stood three identically stubborn ones.
The children had been tearing the walls down in their boredom at being locked away while adventure beckoned them. At first Kaio had regaled the girls with the daring tale about his escape from the dragon and his own journey through the White Sea.
In the underground river Kaio had fought fiercely against the cave dragon. It had ripped through his flesh, forever scarring his face, but he had done it equal damage. The current had been too strong and as soon as the boy was pulled under the dragon had let him go and returned for the princess.
“It must have royal tastes,” Kaio had quipped at this point eliciting hearty laughter from the girls.
After drifting on the currents for what felt like hours Kaio had found himself deposited on a riverbank under a blanket stars. Believing himself to be underground still Kaio had been desperately relieved to find that the constellations he was looking at were indeed in the heavens and not a maggot ridden cave roof.
He had sobbed with relief, but he did not mention this to the girls.
Come daylight the boy had realised he was back in the woods he and Thais had entered the caves from. It had then taken him two days to walk to the edge of the White Sea. The hills had been swimming with soldiers, but he had escaped unhindered and entered the mist.
From here his story became hazy. He could not remember how long he had walked through the whiteness, but soon his water had run out. He managed to ask a traveller where the Khaled Pass lay and he had slowly and stubbornly made his way through the Sea, always following Thais’ path like she was a beacon of light. He had never made it. The soldiers had come across him lying dehydrated, inches away from death. They had tried to coax him back to health, but his constant attempts at escaping had made him a nuisance.
They would have let him run back into the wilds had it not been for Avery. The spy instantly recognised the boy and insisted they bring find him proper care and attention. Kaio owed the man his life, though he did not want to admit it.
Now he was here and the adventure was about to start all over again.
All Esmeralda had been able to do for the children was to send out some of her more trusted guests to check the soldiers were well and truly gone. They had come back with pleasing reports that the closest soldier was stationed a mile away on the nearest path. Esmeralda must have been more convincing than she thought, for Avery had believed her lies. The children would be able to make their way out into the mist unhindered.
As they said goodbye Thais wrapped her arms around the warm cuddly form of Lady Esmeralda and buried her face in the many folds of cloth wrapped around the large woman. She inhaled the herby spicy smell and vowed never to forget Esmeralda’s kindness. After they had waved goodbye Thais could still smell the herbs and the spices.
The children walked on in high spirits. Kaio seemed convinced that from here on out there could be no more trouble, for why had Aius brought them back together if not to make it all the way to the end?
“Oh,” Thais crowed happily when she heard these words escape her friend’s mouth. “So you’ve suddenly turned deeply religious have you Kaio? You? The one who makes fun of the Gods and then repents when he feels like it?”
“Aye,” Kaio countered cheerily and he reached out to ruffle Thais’ hair fondly. “What can I say? I’ve finally seen the error of my ways!”
“A likely story,” Thais told Erith with raised eyebrows, but then quite suddenly her expression changed. She silenced the other two with a fierce look and then indicated through some rather peculiar hand gestures that she could hear voices: soldiers, three of them.
Erith silently led the way further into the mist away from the path they had been haphazardly following at a distance. Once they had moved out of hearing range of the soldiers Thais grabbed Erith’s arm and led her to sit down on a fallen tree trunk.
“Erith, there is another way into the elven city isn’t there?” the princess spoke softly. The hunter’s daughter writhed under that dark stare and turned away. “Erith, please. We all know we were never going to be able to take the Khaled Pass up to Khaled-Dîn. It’s crawling with members of the guard and my own father waits for me at the gates. I have been letting you lead us on, but now I really need to know. Where are we going?”
Erith lifted her fingers to her mouth and nervously chewed on the remains of her fingernails. She had been chewing them quite a lot since meeting Thais.
“I knew we wouldn’t be able to take the pass,” the girl replied softly. “But a little part of me was hoping we would.”
“Why?” Kaio now asked. “What’s the other way like?”
“It’s…it’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous.”
Kaio was about to quip something humorous and insensitive, but Thais, pre-empting him, gave the boy a kick to silence him.
“Erith,” the princess soothed and she wrapped her slender fingers around Erith’s hand, pulling it away from the girl’s mouth. “You need to tell us now. We’re nearly there aren’t we?”
The small girl was trembling.
“There is a secret pass. It’s a different way up through the mountains. It’s shorter and narrower and windier…it’s…” Erith shuddered and seemed to steel herself by inhaling sharply. The rest of her description came out in one quick rush of words. “There are rock falls and snakes and it’s steep and slippery and then…”
Thais and Kaio looked to one another grimly.
“Then what Erith?” Thais pushed gently.
“Then? Then there’s the tunnel! It cuts straight through Mount El’Ahs and finishes at the base of their mountain Khaled-Dîn. It’s a secret entrance into the elven city. The tunnel is their escape route, that’s what everybody says. My brother Penn tried to get in using the tunnel once…”
“What happened?” Thais urged.
“He was gone for a week and when he came home he was so shaken he didn’t speak for three months. Even now, he won’t speak about what happened.” Thais and Kaio exchanged a frown. “Some say there are dragons, others say witches. Nobody knows, because no one has ever managed to go down it and live to tell the tale.”
Thais sighed heavily and nodded.
“What choice do I have?” she uttered grimly. “Come Erith, take us to this secret pass. I’m not giving up now.” But the small girl seemed scared. “Please Erith, just take me to the foot of the pass and then go home. I would never ask you to come with me.”
“But it’s so dangerous…”
“Listen,” Thais interrupted, her face screaming passion and urgency. “The seer in Titua, do you remember her?” Erith nodded. “I never told you this part of the story, because I didn’t want to influence you in any way, but the seer, she told me that in the White Sea I would come across a guide; a guardian to lead me the rest of the way.”
Erith’s lips parted in surprise.
“Yes Erith, it’s you! Alucia Dal Am saw you. Without you and without this secret passageway I will never get in to the elven city. I need you. Please don’t abandon me now.”
For a moment the young hunter’s daughter remained silent, her large grey eyes turbulent and thoughtful. Never had something so exciting happened in her mundane life. She had never met someone like Thais before, who believed with one single minded passion in what she was doing. Erith had never seen such devotion before and it mesmerised her.
But the pass, nothing had haunted young Erith’s nightmares more. Could she be responsible for sending Thais into the darkness?
Gallus leant his head back against the metal gates and stared down the rocky crevice that had come to be known as the Khaled Pass. For two days he had waited and watched with only dark thoughts to accompany him. Every hour his men from down in the White Sea brought him updates and reports, but they may as well have remained down in that sea of mist. They never brought him anything of any value. The girl was eluding capture, just as he, Gallus, had taught her to.
This was his fault.
He should have warned her, prepared her or at least chained her up in the deepest dungeon. Gallus smiled sadly and shook his head. No, even that would not keep her. She belonged out here in the wilderness. The wilderness that belonged to the elves, who would never accept her.
The king laughed a cruel bitter laugh and looked around to see his audience of elves had not moved from their positions. How did they view him the human wondered? Very little troubled them up here lofty mountains. They had been hidden away for centuries. Did some of them look forward to his visits or did they all dread the days he darkened their silver gates? He had become lore in their eyes, a mythical human beast who strode into their idyllic world and tore it to pieces.
The elves were good at waiting. They spent their lives waiting up here in the cold wintry north. Gallus looked upon these curious ones with pity in his heart. What sort of an existence had this become for a once noble race of warriors? Though taller and more beautiful than their human counterparts, the elves were weak. Their thin lithe bodies could not contend with the power in a well-built human. Archery had become their strength. No human could contend with the skill of an elf with a bow and arrow.
The elves had once lifted these weapons alongside their human friends to fight away the never-ending onslaught of the Southern Powers. It was a war that had been going on for over a millennium and there had once been a time when the odds were weighed more heavily in favour of the Eden Alliance. There had been a time when the elves had died alongside the Kudai in the name of righteousness. Those times had long since passed.
The elves lost their most influential leader Gil’Khas in one of the most brutal campaigns in the history of human warfare and it fell to Sil’Vein to carry his mantle. His stern views on humans and the pain they brought with them had caused the elves to seek shelter in these lofty peaks. The kingdom of Inmuin housed many elven settlements like the one at Khaled-Dîn. There were millions of warriors hiding in the north, biding their time, waiting for the humans to leave as suddenly as they had come.
Sil’Vein would see to it that all races of men fell before he allowed his people to remove themselves from these strongholds in the north. Of this Gallus was certain.
Let him rule his people with cowardice. Let him hide up here, the king thought bitterly. As soon as Thais was found he would leave this place and never return. No longer would he cast his mind northwards with hope. Mai Avani had once told him her people longed to return to the way things were and Gallus had believed her with all his heart. He had hoped to reunite the elves and the Kudai and together put the Southern Powers forever to rest.
He had hoped, but no longer. Gallus the Great turned his back on the elves.
Thais stood staring up at the narrow crag that had been carved into the steep cliff. Erith was trembling slightly at her side while Kaio, stood to her other side, whistled appreciatively through his teeth. They could not see the summits of the mountains blocking their path, but the mist had lifted greatly as a result of Erith leading them up a steep climb to find the base of the secret pass. Within the crack the light dimmed barely revealing the sharp rocks within. A community-spirited, yet slightly dramatic, young being had scratched a message into the side of the mountain beside the crack. The message read, ‘Enter this place and you will die!’
Thais chuckled when she saw the message and turned with excited eyes to find Kaio mirroring her thoughts: here an adventure was to be had! The princess turned next on Erith to see the girl hopping slightly from one foot to the other.
“Well Erith, this is it, you’ve helped me more than you could know,” Thais spoke ardently, reaching out to wrap her hand around Erith’s skinny shoulder. Erith looked up with wide-eyes.
“I can’t leave you now Thais. I haven’t shown you the way.”
The taller girl laughed and shook her head.
“We go up this pass you say and then through a tunnel and I find myself in the elven city?” she asked. Erith nodded meekly. “And there’s no more mist beyond this point?”
“Well then, how could I go wrong?”
Erith closed her eyes and her lower lip trembled.
She’s terrified, Thais thought despairingly.
“Please Erith, don’t make yourself come with us. I won’t let you, you’ve done more than enough! You’ve saved my life.”
“But Thais, you said I was your guide…”
“Yes,” Thais interrupted firmly. “But what I didn’t tell you yet is that the seer knew we wouldn’t be together very long. She told me our meeting would be brief and that I needed to let you go before the end.”
Erith sighed and looked at her feet. How she would dearly follow Thais into the crack and into a realm where glory and adventure were an every day occurrence. How she wished she could leave the White Sea, just for a day and walk in the princess’ boots.
“Look,” Thais uttered softly, reading the shorter girl’s thoughts from her miserable appearance. “Tell your parents you are more than welcome to visit me in the Green Palace any time you wish. Kaio and I will take you on an adventure.”
Erith nodded miserably and without warning lunged forward to embrace Thais’ shoulders tightly.
“Good luck,” the hunter’s daughter uttered. “I hope you find your grandfather.”
With this she pulled back and ran into the White Sea. Thais wanted to call after her, but held her tongue, watching instead as the small form of her guide grew fainter and fainter until all she could see was the whiteness of the mist. The girl felt a lump growing in her throat, this was it, the very end had come.
“Come on Thais, let’s get going. We’ve only got a few hours of daylight yet and I don’t know about you, but I have a strong desire to see the sun again!”
Thais laughed aloud and nodded to Kaio; yes, she knew that desire. She had been craving the sun ever since she had found her way into this white maze. It was near! The two children exchanged a hearty smile before Thais stepped forward and led the way inside the narrow crack with Kaio following so closely he was nearly pressed up against the princess.
“Kaio,” the girl laughed. “I’m not going anywhere. You can give me a little room you know.”
Her friend cleared his throat and pulled back just far enough for a mere puff of air to lie between them.
“It’s a good thing we found each other Thais,” he spoke gently. “I’d hate to think of you having to do this on your own.” Thais stopped for a moment, her eyes shutting in the darkness. Behind her Kaio bumped into her and promptly came to a stop as well. “Thais? What’s the matter with you? Keep going.”
“Sorry,” the girl whispered and she moved on, the weight of her heavy thoughts filling her shoes with lead. This was all wrong.
In the dim light the children walked on diligently, ignoring the ripping sounds coming from their cloaks that suggested they were not avoiding the sharp rocks as well as they had liked. In certain places the pass became so narrow that the pair had to turn to face the vertical cliffs and sidestep painfully through a sharp gap.
Suffice to say; several hours later, after much painful stumbling through the narrow steep crack, when the children came to a wider valley under a darkening blue sky they were stunned into silence. For a moment they stood staring up at the heavens their hands reaching across the void between them to intertwine. The sky! How wondrous to see it once again.
“Look Thais, grass,” Kaio exclaimed, pointing to a relatively flat little plain of grass growing up against the side of the narrow valley. The children smiled at ran towards it, throwing themselves down on the soft green grass. Beside them a small stream trickled from a gully in the mountain. Greedily they fell on this also, looking to one another with broad smiles; what good fortune had befallen them.
“I say we stay here for the night,” Kaio told the girl wisely. “Erith told us this valley continues for four miles. We’ll never make it to the tunnel before nightfall.”
“Aye, you’re right of course,” she agreed. “The only question is, who’s going to hunt?”
Kaio’s eyes gleamed in the dusky light for a moment before he pulled his heavy pack into his lap. Thais frowned in curiosity as he opened the bag revealing a true loot if ever she had seen one.
“Kaio!” the girl gasped, taking from his pack the large bottle of silver ale and staring at it in awe. “Where did you get all this?”
Kaio grinned shyly and emptied the feast onto the soft grass.
“Lady Esmeralda wouldn’t mind us taking them,” he uttered coyly.
“You stole these from the boarding house?” the girl demanded, lifting a full ham wrapped carefully in waxed cloth. Kaio rubbed the back of his neck and nodded.
“I’m afraid so,” he shrugged. Thais stared dumbstruck for a moment longer before she laughed loudly and gleefully sorted through the decadent foodstuffs and snacks.
“You’ve done well,” she crowed. “By the graces! Look! Chocolate!”
As dusk turned to night Kaio and Thais lay beneath the stars, wrapped tightly in their furs and sleeping rolls. They hadn’t been able to find any wood for a fire and so lay closely beside one another, shivering slightly in the wintry night. For hours they lay awake talking until finally Kaio fell asleep mid-sentence. Thais leaned up onto her elbow and smiled at the boy.
“I’m glad we found each other,” she whispered before she paused sadly. “However brief our reunion may be.”
Shyly the girl stroked Kaio’s hair from his face before she lay down at his side and rested her head on the side of his arm. She stared up at the stars, her eyes beginning to close with tiredness. What was that orange glow? And why was it moving so steadily down from the mountain pass back into the White Sea? Thais shivered as the ether upon her skin stirred in the current. For a moment while the girl felt herself falling into a slumber the particles held on tightly to their host before eventually, even they started to drift away.
Thais woke the following morning with a deep headache. She opened her eyes to a crack to see Kaio had already woken and was packing away their belongings from the night before. He seemed uncharacteristically merry for this time in the morning, which would have satisfied Thais no end had she not woken feeling so wretched.
“What’s wrong?” Kaio asked curiously when he saw the sickened expression on Thais’ face.
“Something’s wrong,” the girl uttered, feeling around in her bed roll for something she could never find there.
“Lost something?” the boy asked interestedly. Thais looked up with a frown.
“Yes…though I’m not sure what. Kaio, something’s missing. I feel so different. It’s…”
Thais’ eyes went wide as her tired brain and body sensed what had been robbed from her during the night. Something deep within Thais snapped and she turned quickly over to the side and wretched loudly. Kaio dropped his pack in surprise and ran to her side.
“Thais! What’s the matter?” he demanded, grabbing his water flask and bringing it up to Thais’ lips. She pushed it away and wretched once more.
“My ether,” she gabbled agonisingly. “My ether’s gone!”
“I can’t feel it anymore Kaio! My halo is gone.”
For a moment Thais dissolved into floods of tears and could not be consoled despite Kaio’s best efforts. It took him ten minutes to get the girl to sit up, staring with a dead expression ahead at the rocky side of the valley.
“Was it still there when you went to bed?” Kaio kept asking, unsure of how to help his friend through this traumatising moment. What could have stolen the girl’s ether while she slept? For one who was not a sensitive, Kaio could not comprehend what his friend must be going through, but what he did know is that he had never seen Thais so disturbed in his life. A part of her had gone.
“Yes,” Thais croaked in response to his question. A flash of memory danced before her eyes; the stream of orange. Pain forced the memory back into hiding leaving Thais shaking and afraid.
“Come on Thais,” Kaio eventually tried gently. “Maybe it’s these mountains. You always told me elves aren’t ether sensitive, well maybe it’s because there’s no ether in these mountains. Maybe it’ll all come back when you leave this place?”
Thais listened to the wise suggestion and immediately dismissed it in her heart of hearts. The girl felt she knew perfectly well why her ether had abandoned her; it was because of her ill-deeds, her defying her father, her endangering her friends, her recklessness for authority. She was being punished.
“Let’s go,” she spoke hoarsely, climbing to her feet and grabbing her possessions roughly. The children packed the remainder of their camp in silence and headed off up the valley. No words were spoken, no smiles were shared, it was a sorry state of affairs. At lunchtime the children wordlessly came to a stop and shared a loaf of bread with the remainder of the ham before they set off once more.
Thais’ raw pain was changing into a numbness deep within her soul, but at least she started talking again. Kaio was grateful for her efforts, for even he, as tactless as he generally was, could see how life altering this change was to his friend. The sky was overcast, blocking out the sun the children had so desperately craved and as they walked the temperature was falling dramatically.
When at last they rounded a bend in the valley and came across the entrance to the tunnel some hundred yards ahead the children could see their breath in front of their faces. Kaio and Thais came to a halt side by side, before very slowly they reached out for one another’s hand.
“Kaio,” Thais whispered sadly. Kaio gripped her hand harder. “You can’t come with me when we reach the tunnel.”
“What are you talking about Thais?” he complained, spinning round to stand in front of his friend. “We’ve only just met up again! I’m not leaving you.”
“Yes you are, you promised Kaio!” Thais countered loudly.
“But that was before…”
“Before what? A promise is a promise Kaio.”
“It was before you nearly died and I nearly died and Rachel was taken by those soldiers. It was before Aius reunited us. Come on Thais, you cannot deny that we were brought back together for a reason! Why bother to find me if you’re not going to let me come with you?”
Thais thought deeply for a moment, her heart wanting to side with her outspoken companion, but the seer’s unseeing eyes materialised before her in her mind’s eye. They saw straight through her, into the depths of her weak heart. They mocked her cowardice.
Never as brave as the father, the voice in Thais’ mind taunted.
“Yes I am!” Thais cried out surprising her friend. She stared at Kaio as though seeing him for the first time. “Kaio you’re a test. You’re the final test the seer saw. She told me if I succumb to my cowardice then I will never do this. I am brave. I am and I am going to walk alone even if I have to fight you to do it.”
Kaio turned his eyes away from his friend and stalked up the steep valley towards the tunnel entrance.
“Kaio!” Thais called out and she ran after her friend, but hearing her pursuit Kaio burst into a run, keeping always ahead of the fleet-footed girl. They raced, stumbling over shale and lose boulders, growing ever closer to the distant tunnel. Overhead the sun suddenly blazed through a gap in the thick clouds and lit up the valley in a glow of orange light.
Thais paused for a moment to turn and stare at it with wide searching eyes.
“There you are,” she whispered, her eyes growing glassy. For a few minutes the princess was transfixed, before she turned to see where Kaio had gone. There he stood, before the tunnel staring inside unmoving.
“Kaio!” Thais called out and she ran once more, turning her back on the sun. “Don’t go in there!”
Falling to her knees on the shale the princess watched as up ahead Kaio took a step closer to the tunnel. Desperation dragged Thais to her feet and she ran as fast as she could to her friend’s side, who had thankfully stopped. His face was white as snow, his eyes disturbed into wide orbs full of pain and fear. Thais angrily shoved his side.
“Kaio you cad! What are you playing at? This isn’t a game!”
“Thais,” the boy uttered through a frozen face. “Don’t go in there.”
The girl stopped and frowned heavily, she looked into the gloom seeing nothing to spark the fear in her friend’s face.
“Please Thais!” Kaio begged, dropping to his knees and dragging his arms tightly around Thais’ waist. She forced away an embarrassed grimace and tried to push Kaio’s arms off.
“Get off me Kaio, you’re being strange,” she laughed nervously instead.
“Not until you promise me you won’t go in there.”
“I’ll do no such thing. Now get up or you’ll make me angry.”
Wordlessly Kaio stood to his feet and faced his friend. Their faces were inches from one another. Behind them the blaze of orange sunlight went out, its source slipping too low behind the mountain to bask the children in its warmth. A cold chill snaked out of the tunnel and into the valley beyond.
“I have to walk alone,” the small princess whispered. “Kaio, you have to let me.”
The tall boy forced away a deep shudder and instead leaned down and dropped his forehead against Thais’. The princess stared straight ahead into her friend’s eyes as they blurred into one. For once, there was no fear. For the first time, the princess felt as strong as the bold words she had spoken. She had lost everything, even a part of her very being and yet here she stood, emboldened. Power seemed to be coming from somewhere deep in her soul.
“I’m going to go back the way we came,” the boy finally spoke. “I will be waiting for you at the gates. If you die in there Thais I swear to you, I am going to spend the rest of our afterlives making yours miserable.”
Despite the sincerity in Kaio’s heavy voice Thais managed a smile and nodded. She knew deep in her heart she could safely agree to his sentiments. She knew that she would reach the other side of the tunnel unharmed.
“Agreed.” Uneasily the princess pulled back and she stepped into the shadow of the tunnel opening. Kaio reached out to grab her arm, but thought better of it and let his fingers trail down her sleeve. “I’ll see you on the other side,” the girl whispered, retreating into the tunnel, watching as Kaio’s face grew graver and graver. When she nearly tripped over a boulder Thais smiled at her friend, turned with a trembling lip and stepped into the gloom. Behind her Kaio stood and watched her disappear. His shoulders trembled.