One moon since the Mark of the Other One blossomed. The moon of Gales has come.
If the maps were right, they had made their way down two-thirds of the river. On their way downriver the group had gathered more supplies from abandoned villages, they had built small tents, gathered what little dishes or pots they dared to carry.
They had run across more of those metal bunkers in the ground. There was a possibility they might have been used for other purposes than just hiding boats in them. They found remains of barrels and pottery in them. Regardless, Jess threw multiple tantrums, exclaiming that someone had left the boats for the group to find.
Travelling by boats had eased their journey quite a lot. And the river had solved the group’s food and water problems. There were always fish and a new plant that still grew on the riverbanks. But an uneasy tension was building in the back of everyone’s minds. Winter was catching up with them.
Snowfall was becoming a constant and it would always worsen before the evening. Because of the coming gale, everyone had pulled into a small cove that offered shelter. As they were setting up camp, for the briefest of moments the world turned blood red and a feeling of white noise ran through Andrew’s head. He stopped and turned to face the small creek inlet. Behind him, he could hear a small commotion. Becca had lost consciousness, he could understand that much. The next thing he knew someone’s hand was on his shoulder.
“You okay? Hey, Andrew, you listening?” Andrew knew the presence next to him, it was Eric. Andrew blinked and only now focused on the man’s face. Something was off. He looked at his own hands and realised he had drawn the sword from his pack. The sheathe and sword were never on him unless he went hunting, now he had the sword in his hand and had dropped the small pack of belongings. “Is everything okay?” Eric looked concerned.
“Andrew?” Sarah sounded unsettled. The others were gathering. Andrew noticed Becca was awake now. But Andrew did not put the sword away. What had it been? That blood red light. Had the others not seen it? He brushed Eric’s hand away and took a few steps towards the river. He closed his eyes and reached out.
It was the same as it had been for days now. Animals and them. Nothing else. He tried to go further east but he could not get a clear grasp of what was there. The river was a natural barrier, making everything on the other side hard to grasp.
“What is it?” Sten asked.
“You didn’t see the blood red light?” He asked straight out. A small silence, then.
“I thought I was seeing things.” Jess whispered audibly. Everyone else suddenly nodded and grunted in agreement.
“What is it?” Sten asked again. That was the problem. When the red light had shone, something had caught his attention on the other side of the river. But he couldn’t remember it.
“I don’t know.” Andrew looked at the sword in his hand. “I think... I think it might be a good idea to move on as soon as the weather clears.” He placed the sword in its sheathe and picked up his backpack.
“As soon as? It could happen in the middle of the night! Daylight is gone.” Jess started but was interrupted by Eric.
“We keep people on watch. The one who gets fire-duty wakes us up and we go.”
“Come on! In the middle of the night. We only got relief from the constant walking!” Jess was not pleased with this turn of events. “We’re freezing to death every night, now you want us to run again?”
“Tell us, what did you see?” Sten still repeated his first question.
Becca was the one to answer. “It isn’t safe anymore. I keep telling you, the shadows are catching up.” Everyone had something to say again. Andrew covered his ears and rolled his eyes.
“What shadows? What damned shadows? You keep promising, but nothing happens.” Robert yelled over the commotion.
“Not too long ago you didn’t believe in the force that runs through you.” Becca said with an uncharacteristically sharp voice. Robert shut up and pursed his lips. “We are moving too slowly. The shadows are catching up.”
Andrew caught Sten looking at him. Even Eric threw a couple of sideways glances at Andrew and Becca. Andrew shook his head and looked meaningfully at the three of them. The brat had become more and more vocal about the shadows.
Andrew and Sten had been forced to reveal what they had seen at the ruined watchtower. But there had been no incidents since and no one else had witnessed anything. Still, Becca would not stay quiet about them. It was unnerving. Andrew was growing angrier as of late. The pile of unanswered questions and the fear of the unknown were vexing.
“What damned shadows?” Robert eventually muttered again.
“We leave as soon as the gale stops.” Sten said with a resolute voice. “You two keep an eye on our surroundings.” He looked sternly at Andrew and Becca.
“I told you about the river. It is difficult. It’s disorientating. I can feel myself moving further away while my mind stays behind somewhere. I don’t like it.” Andrew sighed.
“Try your best. We need to be on the lookout.” Sten insisted.
Ten days had passed since and all was quiet once more. Occasionally, it felt like it was too quiet. They had picked up the pace as best the weather would allow them. Regardless of the silent fear that had risen, this world still held Andrew in awe. Unfamiliar trees, animals, fish, even what little plants and weeds remained in the river. All the different shades of colour that still showed themselves from under the steadily growing blanket of snow.
A new day, a new sight to behold and near impossible to put into words. Winter was showing its teeth though. The cold nights, constant snowing and once again being unable to wash yourself had left their mark. All that kept them together were the boats. Every day, regardless of the weather they made more and more progress down the river.
“Village!” A call right above him roused Andrew from his slumber. Sarah had stood up, then as the boat wobbled she stumbled back on her behind.
“Shouldn’t we keep going? The weather is holding.” Kauri shouted in response from the second boat.
“It’s dark already. Any further and we need to light the torches!” Sten shouted from the last.
Andrew had spent the morning part of today on watch. Keeping the fire going and listening to all the other cracking and shuffling sounds in the darkness had left him exhausted. Andrew had slept most of the day, only to open his eyes for lunch.
While the others were busy securing and emptying the boats Andrew still had not bothered to get up or look at his surroundings. Thick snow was gently falling and blanketed everything in silence. By the time he realised where they were, everyone else had already gathered to the side of a ruined house to set up their small camp. Someone had started a fire.
“Hey! Stop spacing out, it’s warmer to sleep by the campfire.” Sten came over to Andrew’s boat.
“East shore?” Andrew said after looking around dazed and confused for a little while.
Sten had already wandered away again. “What?”
Andrew raised his voice. “East shore?”
“Yeah, the terrain changed. The other side is too high now.” Andrew tried to find the opposite riverbank, but could only guess its whereabouts in the darkness. “You coming or what? You’re shivering, it’s warmer by the fire.” Sten asked.
Without any thought, the group had always spent their nights on the western shore. The east side was always higher and with worse terrain. There had been villages that sat on both sides of the river, but the visible remains of anchoring places for boats had always been on the west shore.
Andrew felt shaky. Still sleepy, he climbed out of the boat and grabbed his backpack. As he set down his pack near the freshly started fire, he realised he was not cold at all. Yet shivers were still running down his spine.
A fire had been lit inside Andrew himself, he now looked around, suddenly alert. Becca was asleep. Everyone else was slowly setting up the makeshift tents. Snow was falling and daylight had dwindled only moments ago. But the ground felt wrong. There was no wind, but Andrew could hear it blowing. Was there something beyond the quietly falling snow or was it his imagination?
He desperately wanted to sit down, yet we wandered a little further from the camp circle and closed his eyes. He reached out east and found the murky blob of oil. Barely grazing its edge, unable to see where it actually lie or how large it was. Only the sense of it was there. Everything else as far as he could reach were animals as always. He opened his eyes again.
He could see nothing out of place, but his senses told him everything was wrong. Even his skin seemed ginger as he placed his bare hand on the trunk of a tree. The air tasted like an oil can. A knot was building in his stomach and his heart was pumping full speed.
He closed his eyes again. And saw nothing noteworthy. Andrew wanted to dismiss all of this as nerves. This was the first time they had landed on the eastern shore. But despite taking a few steps back toward the camp circle he couldn’t help it. He stopped and turned to face east once more. Everything was wrong. There were no noises from the forest beyond. Tonight, everything was silent. Everything living had disappeared.
Andrew bolted towards the camp. Already someone had noticed and people were freezing at the sight of him approaching. He wanted to yell, but something kept him from doing that.
“Fucking boats!” He gasped as soon as the others were in earshot. He rushed to his pack and grabbed it.
“Hold on, what are you...” Someone started. But there was no time to explain, how could they not understand? It was all so clear in Andrew’s mind. It had not been this easy to think for months now.
“Boats, now! Come on!” He did not yell. A loud gush of sound and air escaped his mouth. Everyone froze for the briefest of moments. Then a quiet “No!” Sounded from Becca. She had woken up.
She did not even seem to be aware of where she was. The girl stared somewhere beyond the fire into the forest. This was all everyone needed. When Andrew was leaving the campsite, panic broke loose behind him. He threw three other packs he had grabbed alongside his into a boat and then ran back to help. Becca sat where she had been, in the arms of Anna. Her mouth kept moving, but her words made little sense to Andrew.
He grabbed Anna by the shoulder and half dragged her and Becca away, towards the boats. It became a blur. Panicked words and heated exchanges sounded between people. Then new sounds filled the air. Shrieks, howling and laughing! The laughing! He did not dare look back.
Andrew grabbed what he could and pushed and forced Anna and Becca into a boat. He cast one last look behind to see what they left behind. But his eyes were drawn to the sight approaching the fire. In the gloom, he could see human and animal shapes rushing towards them. And something else at the back. It reminded him of a giant butterfly. A cold sensation of horror ran down his face. Everyone was now pushing the boats into the water.
The next thing they knew, they had set off. There was no time to light the torches. Vague and twisted shapes of gloom swarmed the eastern shore, all of them shrieking, howling. And the laughter! It was unbearable. A million sparrows were laughing at them with tiny voices. The inside of Andrew’s mind was blank. All that was in there was the laughter.
The women huddled in the bottom of the boat biting down on their hands and clothes, whimpering; the men stared and shivered at the scene with their mouths agape. They slowly drifted downriver at the mercy of that laughter. Darkness enveloped everything. And wrapped them into a merciless flow you could not fight against.
With a jolt he fell into his body. Andrew was cast out. All that remained in the darkness was the flow. The cold undeniable force, no one could stand up against. However, there he stood, he saw the men, women and children below him. What was he even standing on? Everything was dark and yet visible. The sound of clattering chains made his head hurt.
All those beneath him were slowly pulled towards the sun in the middle of this everything. Like a heart, you could hear it thrumming. With each beat, the cubes that made up the sun, rippled and something pulled on the chains. Andrew raised his arm and the dark sun shone blindingly. The echo of the chains kept repeating endlessly in his head.
The river had changed and Andrew had lost time again. What had that image been? It was not as if he had suddenly remembered a part of his dream before waking up back in the gateway. A clattering and clamouring noise filled his head, an echo of rattling chains. Everything around him slowed down and brightened. Andrew could see the edge of the gloom on the eastern shore clear as day. Twisted and broken human bodies, ferocious beasts bonded together from the parts of anything that was once alive and recognisable. And the disappointed man looked at him and shook his head.
He found time to look around. Somehow, Andrew had been standing up in this boat. He knelt down and noticed his backpack. He was about to reach for his sword and bow, but a violent tug on the chains inside his head forced him to stop. What was he going to do with those?
A pressure was building inside Andrew, his left arm suddenly felt as if on fire. Surely, he would split in half now. Dead tired, wide-awake, frozen with fear, calm as a rock. His mind was struggling between everything. The chains jerked once more and Andrew raised his left hand. He felt the joint in his elbow crack when he closed his hand into a fist.
A blinding explosion shone amongst the laughing and twisted horrors that mocked them from the eastern shore. Thunder roared across the skies. Again, again, and again and again small explosions thrummed into the riverbank.
The laughter suddenly gone, shrieks and howls now filled with rage and disbelief cried across the river. Then, a jet of oddly coloured fire crashed into the shore. Andrew did not need to look, he knew it was Robert. A small pause and then the one who had raged at and denied this world the most, sent barrage after barrage of liquid fire rushing onto the shore.
In response to this small thumps and bumps sounded on the side of the boat and Andrew felt something speed past his head. Another thrum of a small explosion drew his attention this time.
This forced Andrew to pause. He could feel the flow raging in everyone. All had accepted where they were now. Even those who were still too afraid to face the twisted shadows on the shore had an ember smouldering inside of them.
But Eric was different. Andrew knew what he was supposed to be seeing, but his eyes failed him. The bits of power that left Robert had his presence written all over it, but what Eric was throwing at the enemy, were pieces of himself. Andrew could not understand. He saw Eric, it should have looked like he was tearing out his own flesh, but as he focused his eyes on the boat behind him, he could see the man, well and unharmed. Another thump sounded on the side of the boat and made Andrew crouch out of instinct.
“Grab the paddles! Keep us away from the shore!” Sten stammered in panic. Andrew turned his attention back to the shore and sent something new and cold there. A whisper lashing through the trees until it found its mark and then a thrum of an explosion, so violent you could feel it through the water and boat, roared through the forest. Trees fell and a shower of dirt rose high into the air.
The shrieks and howls became more frenzied and the twisted shapes swarmed back into the forest. Above it all, a deafening shriek sounded for far longer than any human could push air out of their lungs. For good measure, Andrew closed his fist one final time, in the general direction of that sound. A violent thrum tore into the forest and thunder rallied across the sky one final time. Silence returned in an instant and with it the wind and snow had picked up. In the distance the quiet hoot of a bird sounded. The nightmare was gone all too quickly.