The mist was too low to be natural, but too thin to be considered fog. It crept through the marsh and root and rot only a twig off the ground but the way it stretched and moved reminded me very much of the fog that had attacked me in Eastwood, though it looked nothing similar. In Eastwood, the fog had crept forward like fingers of milk dancing thickly toward me, while this mist seemed to swell slowly in a low roll of a line, transparent as it came. How I imagined the waves of an ocean would look like before it crested with froth.
Completely different in the way it looked and moved... yet it was so similar in my mind. I felt no chill of ghost, none of watchful eyes, but I looked around warily just the same as if still expecting attack.
“Let’s move,” Arion said, gripping my arm but then he let go and amended his words to “stay close” as he reached for his sword instead.
It was impossible to run. In some places we were able to sprint a few moments, but then the mud would suck us up again, making even the Shadows audible - the only sounds at all where we were in the no-longer-glorious fields. The horses occasionally became stuck and we had to stop to coax them to move another way carefully. The mist moved slowly in from the south toward us, but the longer we took to walk the closer it came, and then I heard Jazera gasp and knew, even before she told us, that it was coming down from the north as well.
I looked behind us and nearly screamed. “It’s at our heels!”
Mist was normal in marshes. Especially in spring when the temperatures were changing, mists were absolutely normal. It will not occur to me until much later that we had no actual reason to run from this mist. If it were somewhere else, no doubt we would have simply walked through it and complained later about our leathers getting damp. We could see inside the mist and therefore, we could see that there was nothing lurking in it. I felt no eyes, so nothing was watching. I felt no chills so there were no ghosts. It was only a mist, that was all.
And when the mist creeped over the horses back hooves and the horse simply continued its laborious walk, this should have comforted us; surely it wasn’t anything dangerous if the horse couldn’t sense anything at all. Yet, when I saw the horses’ hind legs were in the mist, I leaped forward as I shouted in warning and grabbed onto Arion’s arm. When he turned, sword raised as if to fight, and saw the mist as I saw it – his eyes opened wider in alarm and he dropped the reins, put away his sword, and grabbed me around the waist to lift me ahead of him and shouted, “everyone leave the horses! Run! Get out of here!” as he pushed me forward.
We all ran as well as we could. Muck sucking at our leathers, gripping at our ankles until we yanked them out. With such a fear but without any panic, we were able to move faster than I had expected, and when I turned back next, I could see the horses slowly making their way far behind us, completely submerged in the mists but not at all afraid.
Again, seeing this sight did not comfort me. I did not know what was wrong with this mist, but I knew it was not right, and that was enough for me to rush forward through the invisible shadow under the hot and blinding sunlight that did not reach us at all.
I tripped but Arion caught me and pushed me forward again. “Keep going,” he breathed. I was exhausted, but I did, going as quickly as I could. I had run far longer distances, but the muck sticking to my leathers made each foot weigh much more than they did, and the effort of pulling each foot out was making it even worse, as if there were creatures beneath the rot trying to grip onto my ankles at each–
Stop, Meira. Stop it now. No need to terrify yourself with stories.
But we were racing it. And we seemed to be winning.
Until Jaz gasped a few twigs to my right and just behind me. She shouted, “it’s closing in up ahead!” Then she fell forwards and I gasped in fear, going to help her.
“Keep going, stupid girl! Aitch has her!”
It was true. I watched Aitch turn back and lift her out of the muck with a squelching sound then grip her hand and start yanking her along with him, but she was struggling. She was the smallest of us all, used to using a bow and not fighting herself and so her muscles were thinner and weaker in her legs. She was a Shadow, so endurance was natural, but even so she was not used to running.
But I kept going, knowing Arion was keeping an eye on her and Aitch as well. I didn’t much like Jazera, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t worried about her.
Then, ahead, I could see that it was closing in, and then all I could worry about was running even faster.
I could see the fields of grass beyond the rot now, but I could also see that the mist was perfectly staying align with the edge of the rot, exactly like Eastwood creatures and fog remained inside it. If there had been any doubt before about the mist being natural or unnatural, seeing the mist pressed against the edge as it creeped closer from both sides of equal distance from the road confirmed that it was not at all natural. It confirmed that our instincts to run had been correct.
“Jazera!” The alarm in Aitch’s voice had me turning again to see that she had lagged behind and I saw the mist at her heals. Aitch turned back for her again, yanking her forward as if she was me. But then he slipped, his efforts wasted, and Jazera had her ankles slowly covered by the mist.
I watched in morbid fascination as her eyes opened wide in alarm, she swayed, then fell to her hands and knees as if weak.
“Jazera!” Arion stopped, turning back, shooting one last order at me. “Keep going!”
It was too late anyway. I was about fifty twigs away from the edge, but that edge closed up before my very eyes, then we were surrounded, and the mist creeped in. There was no escape.
“Jazera! Get up!” Arion walked right into the mist and grabbed her arm, trying to yank her to her feet but then he fell to one knee and stumbled to the side, he stopped himself from falling face first into the muck, but barely.
No! Not Arion!
“Get Mir out of here, Aitch!” His voice was weak. A shouted whisper, like the ghost of Eastwood.
Aitch rushed over to me and simply tossed me over his shoulder but otherwise he could do nothing but stand there, sinking in the mud. It was so close now, ten twigs, nine.
“Let me down!” I struggled and Aitch complied. He took an ax out of his belt but that would do nothing to this. Arion was still on his knees with one hand in the mud, Jaz had an arm over his back and was trying to push herself to her feet but was failing miserably. She could have been drunk by the way she acted – unfocused eyes, dizzy, swaying, and when she tried to say Arion’s name, she slurred it as if her tongue wasn’t working as it should be.
Four twigs from us, three... Aitch and I stood back to back.
My hands clutched the White Stone on my neck. Should I try and use it? But what good would it do? I didn’t even know how it worked or what I was fighting against. What if it was...
The mist touched the end of my toes and even before I could yank my feet back from it, I felt energy drain out of me as if through a spout and I collapsed, blacking out before I could rip the leather from around the Stone and try anyway.
The darkness, I found, was so absolute in the mist.
“Watch your feet. Not literally, Mir!”
“Well I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!” I shouted, throwing the wooden practice sword against the tree trunk so hard it cracked and splintered, revealing the dull glint of lead weighing it. I sat down on the soil in a puff and curled my arms around my filthy cotton pants – filthy because I’d been knocked to the ground so many times thanks to Jovian.
“This is stupid. I’m only six summers, I can’t beat you, you’re old.”
Jovian chuckled but then sighed and crouched down painfully, favoring his knee. “Mir, you’re not going to be able to beat me for a few years yet, but you’re strong. You will be ready to fight and beat me to the ground faster than you think.”
I yanked my leather gloves off and looked at the faint lines just beginning to show itself on my hands. “It’s these stupid gloves.”
“Or maybe I could beat you now if you would let me use my powers!”
He sighed again. “We’ve been over this...”
I crossed my arms. “It’s too dangerous, I know.”
“Meira, look at me.” Because he said my name, something he so rarely did, I obeyed and looked up with blurry, angry eyes. “This magic that sits in your palms is a piece of you. You can never fully suppress it. As you grow it will make you stronger, faster, more able to handle injury, and your endurance will one day nearly surpass a Shadows. You do not need to activate your power to let that happen, you only need to be patient and allow yourself to grow.”
Tears dripped down my face. “But, Joviiii" I whined. "I’m just not growing fast enough.”
He tried not to laugh at my comment, even my young self could see that, but a bit came out anyway, making me scowl and look away. He wouldn’t allow that however and took my chin, making my eyes meet his. “You listen to me, one day you will grow enough to raise your hand against the man who killed your parents and sits upon the throne that is yours, but that day will never happen if you do not learn how to be strong on your own. I can teach you and guide you, but you must obey me and do your best. Already, you are strong enough to break a wooden sword against a tree in your anger. Do not try and force that day to come sooner, or you will not be strong enough.”
I pulled my chin from his gentle fingers. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
He pursed his lips and looked around Glory Fields a moment before his eyes settled on something and he stood. “Come. Let me help you understand.”
I followed him through the strawberry bushes and then through carrots that grew in an unorganized, beautiful, impossible jumble. I didn’t know where we were going, but by the time he stopped, I was already distracted by two twirling butterflies of the brightest blues flitting around me and my tears had dried.
“What is the reason of this tree?” he asked suddenly, and I looked to see that he stood a few feet away from an apple tree. I recognized his lecture tone and sighed but went to him and complied. I kept my arms crossed though, to be sure he knew I wasn’t happy.
“To give us apples, I guess,” I answered with a careless shrug.
He nodded, ignoring my attitude, then pointed down at his feet. “And what is the reason of this tree?”
I frowned and crouched. The tree was tiny with very little branches and even less leaves, but from previous lessons, I recognized it. “It’s an apple tree. It’s supposed to make apples, too.”
“Yes. It is. But should it sprout fruit now, what would happen to the branches?”
I thought a moment. “It would be too heavy, so the branches would break.”
“Precisely. This tree must grow before it can bear fruit. It must spend years soaking up water and sunlight before it can do what it is meant to do. It must become stronger, taller, and wiser before it can fulfill its purpose.” He pulled me gently to my feet and touched the tip of my nose. ”You, sweet girl, are an apple tree, but you are not yet grown. Do not try and fulfill your purpose before you are strong enough to lift the weight that comes with it. Let me be your sun and your water. Soak up everything I can give you so that you can become what you are meant to be one day without breaking any branches.”
I lowered my head and sighed, looking at the apple tree that was too young. “Fine,” I said. “But... can I play in the stream first? It’s hot.”
He chuckled. “Go,” he told me. “But do not get the marks on your neck wet until you are ready to get out, someone could come across at any—”
“At any time no matter how safe I feel. I know, I know, Jovi.”
He chuckled. “Then go on. Run.”
I did, running toward the stream, past the tomato plants that weaved over each other and over the ground of which I knew potatoes grew and beneath the blossoming cherry tree until my feet jumped into the—
—mist. My feet landed in mist and were stuck in muck beneath it. I struggled to move but I couldn’t, and I realized roots were covering my legs... no, my legs were turning into roots. My legs were a trunk, pale-brown and skinny. I was a tree and I held apples in my arms.
“Catch!” called Jovi from the green field at the edge of the mist. He threw an apple at me and I struggled to catch it.
I caught it in my arms, but barely. “Jovi, I can’t, they’re too heavy—”
I caught the impossibly heavy apple and the weight of it made me cry out, sure that my arms were going to break off. Leaves fluttered to the muck below me as I shuddered. “It’s too heavy-”
“But—” I caught the apple and felt myself sinking. I tried to catch myself, but my feet were roots and I could not move them and my arms that were branches began to crack, even as I fell toward the mist and—
I gasped, my eyes opening to see darkness and stars above me. I heard the crackling of fire and saw a bit of its glow to my left but when I went to turn my head, I felt so weak I could barely do it. By the time I turned my head, I was out of breath from exertion.
Aitch was laying on the other side of the fire, mouth open, catching flies as he slept with heavy breaths near a snore. I heard the movement of footsteps and felt alarm, but I couldn’t move if I tried. A second later, Jazera came into view, her steps light but crackling on the twigs. She dropped the wood she’d gathered next to the fire, then sank down herself with an exhausted huff, nearly collapsing.
She looked to me and squinted. “Are you awake?” she whispered.
I licked my lips. “Think so,” I answered hoarsely.
She sighed deeply, a sigh of one who was about to do a laborious task, then pulled herself to her feet again and came over before plopping down. She handed me a bladder. “I’m not helping you drink it,” she told me simply, putting it down next to me.
I looked at the bladder and decided it was too much effort to drink – I wasn’t that thirsty.
We sat in silence for a while before I began to remember all that had happened. I felt alarm rising again.
“Arion!” I gasped. “Is he alright? Is he still in the—”
“Shh,” she hissed and motioned. “He only just fell asleep again.”
I turned my head – slightly easier this time – to see Arion lying next to me, arm over his eyes so only his mouth and jaw showed of his face. He needed to shave again. He did not when we were going through the mists.
I looked back to Jaz. “How long have I been out? And what happened in Glory Fields?”
Jazera rubbed at her forehead. “It took us a while to get out. Far as we can tell, it was some magic we’ve never seen before. It somehow... stole our magic from us, which made us weaker.” She paused. “Except for you. You passed out completely and Arion and Aitch had to take turns carrying you out. Who knew a witch without power could be so powerful?” She snorted, then looked to Arion with worry. “Other than you, it was hardest on Arion, but his magic is returning more quickly this past day. He was able to light a fire.” She motioned to the fire itself. “But he nearly collapsed doing it.”
A day? “How long have I been out?”
“Three days. It took us nearly a day to crawl out of the mists. The horses helped when they finally found their way to us. Two of them at least – mine wandered somewhere.”
Three days. Shenz. “What happened to Glory Fields, do you know?”
“None of us have any idea. We were hoping you did, since you seem to know a lot about power and such.” She said this snidely. “Still want to go to the labyrinth?”
I sighed, not in the mood for her smarminess. “I’m not as terrible as you make me out to be, you know.”
She smiled tightly and nodded, but not for a second did she believe me, she was simply too exhausted to argue about it. She looked at the sky and there was relief there. “Aitch’s turn to watch. Finally.” She debated on getting up, decided not to and leaned forward instead. “Aitch!” she hissed, then when he didn’t budge, she stamped her foot – or rather, lifted her foot and let it drop on the ground. “Aitch!”
Arion sat up quickly and I realized that I could actually hear him sit up. I’d heard Jaz walking as well and could hear Aitch breathing. How odd for them to be so audible. “What—”
“It’s Aitch’s watch, not yours, go back to sleep.” Jazera ordered, but Arion had spotted me, and a look of relief crossed his face. “You’re awake.”
I went to nod and then sighed because nodding took effort and wasn’t worth it. “Yes.”
He brushed his fingers across my face briefly – an oddly gentle gesture for such a frustrating man – then relaxed. “We haven’t been able to wake you. Have you eaten yet?”
No. Because chewing was too difficult. “Not hungry.”
“Too bad, you're eating.” He heaved himself onto his feet, swayed a bit, caught himself, steadied, then started toward the fire. “Go rest, Jaz. Let Aitch sleep.”
Jazera sighed. “You need to rest, too, Arion. Mir can take care of herself.”
"Enough, I said,” he snapped, his tone harsher than the comment warranted and shooting her an impatient look. I wondered what argument I had missed, seeing as he rarely got angry with her.
Jaz pursed her lips and heaved to her feet then pointed down at me. “I don’t know what kind of spell you have over my brother, but I’ve had enough of it.”
Is that what she thought? That I had used magic to have her brother follow me?
“Jazera...” came Arion's warning tone.
She rolled her eyes in reply and stumbled toward Aitch where she plopped beside him and I’m quite sure she fell into an instant sleep.
Arion dropped next to me. “Don’t worry about Jaz,” he said quietly and helped me sit. I said nothing, but I wished more than ever that I could just tell them all who I was. I looked at my gloved hands and remembered my dream.
My branches were strong now, it was only a matter of getting one last cup of water. Then I could tell them everything. One more piece of power.
Patience, Meira, I reminded myself. Patience.