One moon and one ten since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
The gloom had left them alone. For now. The group had only left the river twice to hunt and prepare food. They had slept in the boats and over the course of maybe ten and a couple of days they were now approaching the point where they would have to leave the river and their boats behind.
Andrew and Becca constantly kept watch on their surroundings, but all was quiet. The mass of oil in the distance had pulled further away, and all that surrounded them were the animals. Despite the terrifying presence the nightmare had brought with them, neither Becca nor Andrew could find out where those abominations had come from and where they had gone.
Constant fear kept many of them awake at nights. They did not dare light torches even in the middle of the night. The exhaustion had returned in full force. They picked up the pace as much as they could, no longer allowing the river to carry them forward. They organised shifts and while some slept, the others rowed, as best and fast as they could. There was one hope that they would outrun their pursuers. If they were still pursuing them. The worst part was that there was no sign of the horrors from that night. That tangible fear was the only thing that kept them from discarding the events as a collective nightmare.
The river had taken a sudden turn to the west, now surrounded by deep, rocky cliffs. The map gave hope that the badlands surrounding them would force anyone travelling by land, to the east, while the river cut straight through the badlands. They needed to hurry, so that once they were forced to travel overland to the south, they would have a head start.
And maybe those things had left them alone by now? But there was still a lingering promise in the air. Like on that night, there were moments when the animals and birds were all quiet. Thick snow now covered the riverbanks and trees. The weather had improved a little, but winter had finally caught up with them.
“I said, why can’t we stay on the river? Keep going west as far as we can? The route on the map can’t be the best one!” Sarah shouted.
“Because the river doesn’t keep going west!” Sten’s angry voice made Andrew look at the people arguing in the second boat.
“It does! Right here, on the map, see, a line going west! What’s the big deal?”
“Sarah, let him finish.” Anna grabbed Sarah by the shoulder. Andrew turned his attention back to the river. The boats were closer together now as they had tied all three boats into a row.
Sten sighed loudly enough for Andrew to hear it. “Look here then! The deal is, the route on the map has been clearly mapped out! Everything beyond is a great mystery. All the little scribbles on the map have corresponded to small points of interest, landmarks and terrain we have passed on our way south. We know exactly where we are. Do you want to go out there, trying our luck?”
“Things could have changed, Sten. It is reasonable to assume that, those who came north came here a long time ago. Our powers, and the perfectly preserved chests and their contents. The boats!” Eric’s voice trailed over from the third boat. “This world is different. The possibilities are much different.”
Sten did not sound disturbed by that. “As soon as the river turned west, it has been getting narrower. The map reflects this. Soon after we need to make landfall, the river is only marked by a single line, not two. And then it disappears before it even reaches the shore.”
Sounds of rustling came from directly behind Andrew. “Yes! But then there is another branch here! With two lines that suddenly turn south. We can’t leave the boats behind!” Lenna called out from behind Andrew.
Andrew remembered what part of the map Lenna was talking about and joined the conversation. “Yes, and then the river turns directly east along whatever those markings were.” Andrew shouted. “Right after that, it turns directly south, crossing whatever boundary has been marked on the map.” Before Lenna could interrupt him, he raised his voice. “It might be possible we are going down a waterfall that way.”
“So you’re saying we shouldn’t even attempt to see what that way is?” Andrew could feel Lenna breathing angrily down his neck. Luckily, Sten was the one to answer, drawing her attention away.
“If it’s a waterfall, we have no choice but to turn east, walk towards those things that are chasing us! Over land! The current is already this strong! We do not have the ability to paddle back upriver.”
A few sobs drifted into Andrews ears over the argument. Meeting the demons had left Jess completely shaken. She lied in the boat and occasionally ate. Kauri on the other hand had lost most of his appetite. The others had to force him to eat.
“We have a way of fighting them off.” Robert called from the rear.
“How many were there do you think?” Andrew shouted. “And they will fight back. There are only three of us that can use our powers. This is their home, their world. Those things probably know more about these powers than we do.”
“Andrew is right. We may have discovered power unlimited but we can barely use it. I felt like death after they fled back into the forest.” Eric called from the rear.
Their newly awakened powers were destructive, but Becca had brought them back down to earth. Each jet of power and explosion they had conjured had used up a lot of themselves. As always, she barely explained it properly. She knew things, but she did not have the proper knowledge of the concepts she was trying to explain.
And ever since the night the nightmare creatures had attacked them, Becca suddenly outright avoided Andrew and a new spark of fear had appeared in her eyes. Andrew did not complain too much, but the way she purposefully avoided him only made him loathe the brat more.
“We need to decide right now. We may have a chance if we follow the river south. The turn should be right around the next bends.” Lenna argued.
“Rocks on the left!” Andrew suddenly called out. A small bump jerked the boat. Daylight did not last for much longer and the river was getting more and more dangerous. “We need to think about going to land. Now!”
“I thought you said you can see in the dark?”
“I can and I can’t. It’s difficult to explain. I didn’t exactly say I can see... A cave! To the right!” Andrew did not bother waiting for an agreement. He rowed towards the shore, a small opening in the cliff their only salvation. With luck, it was not full of water.
It was a struggle to get inside, but the cave proved to be larger on the inside. There was enough room to create a small camp. Most of it was rocky, but the back of the cave had a small area of dirt. Robert quickly got a fire going. They had gathered a small supply of firewood into the boats, should they find a chance to land. There were small water droplets dripping from the ceiling as the fire warmed the cave up. After such a long time on the river, it was weird being on land, so everyone had immediately lied down around the fire and most had already fallen asleep.
Andrew was still awake. He was not on fire duty, but he could not sleep. He kept looking at his left arm. The tattoo that had sprouted there now reached all the way from the back of his hand and palm right up onto his shoulder. He did not have a mirror to see how far it went up his neck, but he could see it out of the corner of his eye. The tattoo continuing onward from the shoulder.
It was cold, but Andrew had decided to clean himself up as much as he could. He kept remembering the strange memory and the echo of chains in his head. Now he could always feel a flow under his skin, ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice. And the various images of the disappointed stranger refused to go away.
The dripping of water, the wind outside the cave, the sound of flowing water, the crackling fire, the heavy breathing of the people sleeping. Yet, silence. The mountain of questions, doubts and the exhaustion that had piled up were too much. No matter how many times he turned the ideas around inside his head, Andrew could not decide if they had acted too quickly leaving the north. Where had all the time gone? Two months gone in the blink of an eye? Was that really how long they had been here?
Andrew was scared. A constant shiver ran throughout his body. They had left the gateway, but with it, they had also left their lives behind. How had Andrew felt about leaving at the start of this? He did not remember any more. A time before this moment did not exist any longer. It must have been the easiest choice, to run away not only from the biggest problem they had faced here, but to run away from all the other problems and menial troubles of their past lives.
With all its wonderful sights and new experiences, this world had enchanted him, kept Andrew in an illusion. A promise of something entirely new lingered and hid all what had once been. All the memories and experiences of his past life seemed irrelevant compared to what was coming. A grand promise of endless possibilities. They had traversed whatever boundary separated worlds, universes. This simple childhood dream had become a beacon of everlasting light to guide him forward.
Someone turned around on their bedroll. Andrew was staring at the cave mouth, out into the darkness. Disjointed thoughts coursed through his head. This was not good, he would catch a cold like this. Andrew put the top half of his clothes back on and lied down on his bedroll.
Looking around, he realised that he was on fire-duty. Kauri had fallen asleep. Andrew swore in his head, but he could not blame the guy. Kauri’s cheeks had shrunken inward and his face had thinned drastically. Everyone was absolutely dishevelled, dirty and showing various signs of malnutrition.
The next morning did not promise an improvement of their situation.
“It is your goddamned fault! You knew exactly where we were and you purposefully led us west!” Sarah was roaring at Andrew. The group had carefully made their way out of the cave, only to find themselves caught in the unpredictable currents of a river fork. With little choice, they had to keep towards the right hand shore and paddle with all their might to avoid being crushed against rocks hidden in the middle of the rapids. After a quick look at the map, Sarah had realised. “The cave was marked on this map! It’s right at the point where the river forks! You son of a bitch!” Andrew was glad he was not in the same boat as she was.
“We can’t go down that way. We’ll drown! The current...” Mai argued.
“THE CURRENT WAS JUST FINE BEFORE THE CAVE. You knew! You fucking knew.”
“I DID NOT!” Andrew was as angry as Sarah was.
“You did! You said you could see in the dark! So you knew exactly when you led us into that cave!”
“I said I saw in the dark, once! I saw those things in the dark, I saw their gloom, not the trees, the rocks nor the river, but them and us!”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean!” Jess was half-sobbing.
“Fucking what is your problem. Because I can see small lights in a dark world inside my head, you think I can explain where the fuck we are or what this fucking world is. Because I can fart lightning out of my arse, I suddenly know things better than the rest of us?”
“That’s what Sten said when we were back in the village!” Lenna shouted. “The way you said, It’s out of our reach. You barely said a word before, only after you talked! And suddenly you know about the world around us.”
“I know nothing. If you want wild stories, ask the brat!”
“Dust came to life.” Before Andrew could think or ask about what she said, Lenna continued. “It is not right. Why do you know? The two of you are leading us and we are following blindly. How did you know those things are coming?”
Andrew did not know what more to say. He felt betrayed and confused. His eyes kept jumping to Sten. Why had he given Andrew the extra map and compass?
“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says. We are here, we will reach our landing point today. We deal with it. That is it. All that matters.” Kauri’s voice sounded calmly across the boats and river.
No one said anything, but those who had paddles in their hands settled down and slowly rowed again. They needed to preserve what strength they had left, so the group let the river current do most of the work. It was snowing once again, the weather here could change ten times a day.
Andrew had barely gotten any rest until someone nudged him awake. Someone was brushing snow off him. A small layer of had formed on Andrew while he tried to sleep.
“We’re here.” Kauri pointed to the front left of the boat. Ahead Andrew could see the snowed in remains of another ancient ruin. This had been a smaller town. They wasted little time, the group abandoned the boats, grabbed what they felt they could carry and ventured south.
The snow was thick. Wading through shin deep snow slowed them down by a considerable amount. The group pushed on, now in single file. The people in front constantly switching out, so the person leading would not get tired too fast. A change of scenery occurred after a little while. Instead of a thick forest and uneven ground, there was a straight trail, cutting through a small and thin forest. The snow here was much more even, without annoying snowdrifts to push through, although still deep.
Andrew had fallen back as the last in line after a little while of making a path for the others to follow through. Out of curiosity, he stopped and knelt. He dug a little snow off the path. Smooth tiles lay beneath. When he touched the little stone he had uncovered, it was slightly warm to the touch.
They ate dried up pieces of meat and little leftover roots and odd dried fruits as they went. The boundary marked on the map should have been right ahead of them. It looked like they would reach it by nightfall the latest.
Trudging through the snow a familiar feeling was settling in. Andrew kept touching the sword on his side and the bow on his backpack. There was no reason to be alert. A familiar feeling of repetition and fatigue was sinking in.
Reaching out into the wilderness with his mind did not yield any results either. It got Andrew wondering again. Was it normal for this many animals to stay behind and not find wintering grounds with more food and warmer weather? From a distance, you could always hear some sort of bird hooting. Once again, they caught a glimpse of a herd of unfamiliar deer. It had been like this throughout their journey.
One question above all lingered in Andrew’s mind. Had he been blind to what the previous world offered or was this place so unique? Even in winter, the trees still held colour, different and brightly coloured tree trunks were now the main attraction. Was this the sign that Andrew was going crazy? Mind torn between beauty and fear.
The ground ahead was getting rougher and more difficult to traverse. Suddenly the group found themselves on a small cliff. It was strange how open the sky was here. The forest was denser downhill, but in the distance you could make out a series of large buildings overlooking the forest.
“Hey. You’re joking, right?” Robert called out from the left. “Look.”
Andrew had never seen such a sight. From the top of the small cliff they were on you could see the dense forest suddenly disappear and beyond an endless sea of evergreen trees emerged from below. They were on a gigantic plateau overlooking many tens of kilometres of forest. Despite the light snowfall, the view from here was breath-taking!
Andrew fumbled to pull out his compass. The path they had been travelling on had turned to face west.
“Let’s go. Those buildings over there should be a good place to stay for the night.” Sten pointed west into the small cut of forest. The unexpected sight had taken everyone by surprise and the group was slow to get moving again.
“Imagine the view from the top of that place.” Eric suddenly said.
“How high do you think we are?” Lenna asked from no one specifically. Anna and Kauri snorted. Andrew’s face bent into a crooked smile. As they descended the hill a few giggles and laughter broke out.
“Seriously! Ha, ha!” Jess grumbled. Mai looked back from the front and rolled her eyes.
“Hard to tell from here.” Sten finally managed. Even that stoic man chuckled.
However, the joke held a bitter truth. A dream-like haze still surrounded all of what had happened. The wonderful sights mixed in with the horror that was now chasing them. Andrew’s mood quickly turned sour again.
The buildings were in sight, but there was quite a distance to go. The small cliff had been higher than Andrew had expected. The snow was deeper down here, making it harder to advance.
The world shivered when a veil fell in its way and Andrew stood in the vast void again. Without warning, the dark sun flashed and a violent tug yanked all the chains towards it. The violent tug tore humans apart, yet many more survived and were pulled into the sun. A violent clattering of chains filled his mind.
Andrew whirled around on the spot. The sword was already in his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Andrew saw Becca freeze and the others stop. After a brief moment of terror Andrew felt Sten’s hand on his shoulder.
“Do not stop. Keep moving.” He urged. Andrew did not understand what good that would do. The chains in his head were clamouring and making a racket. It was hard to think straight.
“They are coming! They’re here!” Becca was looking everywhere.
“Keep moving and stay calm.” Sten urged.
The buildings were in sight. It took a lot of effort to get moving. Trudging through thick snow, knowing those things were right here. There was still plenty of daylight left and they had come. Andrew had been hoping the horrors did not tolerate daylight. Or maybe they had no problems with daylight when it was winter. Thoughts swarmed inside his head and he could feel a violent frenzy swirling under his skin.
Uphill a flock of birds took flight with frenzied voices. Andrew bolted to the front of the group. No time any more, no time to think, no time to pray.
A torrent of wind and snow filled the air. A clap was all he needed to let loose the torrent inside. He had blown away snow, dirt and even bits of trees, leaving a decent length of smooth surface for running.
“Go then!” Sten yelled. The air was filled with shrieks and vicious cries as everyone broke into a run. The flat land did not last forever, but it was enough to gather momentum when they reached the thick snow again. Something fell down the steep hillside. Only a little more and they would reach the buildings!
Another one of those things came tumbling down the hillside. Andrew saw a blur of something animal-like before he collided with it. That something grabbed his side and threw him away. Andrew thrashed on the ground as he tried getting upright. It was disgusting, the idea and fear of something unknown touching him. Once he righted himself, he could see maybe ten of those things.
It had no eyes, no face, the only thing on a long jutting neck was a four sided mouth with three tongues. On the exposed nape, lie a giant yellow pearl. Overall, it looked like a flabby sack of skin. It was walking on all fours, but there was something unsettlingly human about it. It had hands! Instead of front paws, it had large and thin hands. A set of red claws decorated each hand. The rear paws were more what you would expect from an animal, but there was something human like about those too.
Its body crooked and bent and it had a long tail, maybe longer than its entire body. Along its spine and tail ran a ridge of bone. At the end of the tail Andrew noticed something awfully familiar. The pieces of bone they had found lodged on the side of the boats! There were three, forming a claw-like feature. An odd pattern of sickly orange and brown covered the creature’s skin. Their curved backs were as high as a grown man was.
A jet of fire caused some creatures to back away. Robert and Eric had fallen behind and Eric was now rushing towards Andrew.
“Come on! Get up!” The creatures in front of his eyes baffled and disgusted Andrew. The way one of them had thrown him, did not help him shake his stupor. Eric ran to Andrew and grabbed under Andrew’s arm, dragging him upright.
Despite looking like malformed humans, they moved fast. And they were well coordinated. Six of them cornered Eric and Andrew while the other four threatened to overrun Robert. Andrew was still hanging on to Eric unsure of the situation. He had lost sight of the others and could not focus his will or vision. The silky veil pushed all rational thoughts aside.
Seemingly out of nowhere Sten came charging. As Robert had let loose another jet of fire, Sten appeared from behind a tree and rammed his shield into one creature that was ready to lunge at Robert. An audible slam reached Andrew as both the creature and Sten stumbled backwards and fell. Despite their weak poise, those things were capable. The creature flailed its tail, and another slam sounded across Sten’s shield. The shield was shunted away, nearly torn out of his hand and Sten himself was shoved further away by several meters. Then flames engulfed the creature, it ran around screeching and stumbling. Robert had landed a direct hit.
Two of the six creatures that had been circling Andrew and Eric now charged, but were halted by a sudden burst of water and ice. One of the things was skewered and nearly torn to pieces as the wave of spikes hit it and the other did not fare much better. Eric did not wait, but dragged Andrew towards where the wave had come from. Andrew tore his arm off Eric. This sudden flash of power had cleared his head.
“Jess!” Eric suddenly yelled. Even Andrew could see something was awfully wrong. What was happening to her? She was hugging herself, hands tightly around her and she had fallen on her knees.
“Burns. Help... I can’t!” Parts of her were freezing over, a clear layer of frost forming on her.
“What’s going on?” Sten and Robert had backed over, Robert still holding the creatures back with fire.
“Jess!” Eric was in panic. “What’s going on with her?” Eric looked at Andrew, pleading. How would he be able to help? Andrew only stared in dread, unable to comprehend. She was now gasping for air as frost was building up on her throat. Help! Please help! Andrew was screaming inside his head.
The veil twisted and shuddered and the vision of the void turned on its head. The chains shattered, broken, torn to pieces, now flew towards Andrew. He tried to back away, but they reached him before he could take a single step. Searing pain hit him as they wrapped around his left arm. He was screaming and thrashing in the dark world. The distorted sun now silent once more.
The world slowed down again and a calm spread throughout Andrew, pushing the frenzied flow aside. His own left hand moved without intent and grabbed Jess’ left arm. Then he and Jess were standing on a small iceberg in an endless sea. The iceberg was slowly growing around Jess, who had lost control. New thoughts came with a crushing weight and Andrew lost focus as his mind flashed between reality and whatever the strange scene in his mind was. With the wavering feelings the frenzied flow returned and threatened to envelop his mind.
He barely noticed the ice around Jess shattering and sinking into the depthless sea. In the painful and loud world, Jess had lost consciousness and slumped on Andrew’s hands. Automatically Andrew pushed her towards Eric, who recoiled and fell on his behind, pulling Jess with him. He kept staring at Andrew with pure horror reflected in his face. Andrew broke eye contact and turned to see Robert and Sten still keeping the beasts at bay.
The two creatures that had been wounded had returned to the fray. Bleeding bright yellow sap that hissed every time it hit the snow. Open wounds and pieces of flesh were rearranging and twisting around the creature. It all made for a revolting sight and sound as meat and skin were squelching and flapping far more audibly than possible.
Andrew was struggling to keep his mind clear. His right arm jumped to his temple and a searing pain shot through his head and arms. The intense flow made him scream and his mind exploded. The next thing Andrew knew, he was facing all the creatures, a steady stream of black fire and waves of ice appearing with every gesture he made. There was fear in the creatures. They had not known such a thing in all of eternity.
The flow inside of Andrew was interrupted for a moment as his mind wavered once more. Stop resisting, you took the step yourself, something told him. The flow rearranged itself and came back with more. Andrew wanted to cry, wanted to huddle into a small nest and lie there. However, he could not let go. The flow and the feeling coursing through him were overpowering. It felt so good.
Trees shattered, ice and dirt were shredded into dust. Sounds of grinding glass and roaring fire engulfed the forest. The flames Andrew had let loose caught all the creatures by surprise. There was nowhere to hide from this firestorm. The inferno subsided, and the beasts emerged, disintegrating, pieces of flesh tearing themselves off as the fire raged inside their bodies. Somewhere on the edge of his mind Andrew could hear Eric and Sten taking Jess into safety. Robert still showered the dying creatures with his own power.
“Come on! Let’s go! Come back.” Robert kept calling Andrew. It was hard to tear himself away. He wanted to unleash more of this flow upon the enemies in front of his eyes and those who would soon be upon him. The frenzy underneath his skin promised an ecstasy unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Yet, a small part of Andrew’s mind told him it was vital he would not lose himself to the pleasure. He was not alone here. It would probably be best if they all made it out of here. Andrew forced his gaze on Robert, who had visibly paled. His mind cleared and the two of them ran after the others.
A violent scream echoed through the forest and swallowed the remnants of the still raging fire and the panicked shrieks of those creatures. The same scream from that night the horrors first appeared. Alongside that scream, Andrew saw Robert stumble and Sten scream at the top of his lungs. His own legs shuddered and buckled, causing him to stumble and fall.
Andrew struggled to find proper footing, but anger helped him find his strength and he stared daggers up the steep hillside. He raised both arms out in front of him and then brought them together in a violent crushing motion in front of his chest. Several thundering thrums tore into the forest uphill. He knew he had to have hit something, but did not wait to find out. Andrew ran after the others. The shrieks and howling in the air were once again filled with fear. Behind him and uphill, Andrew heard the faint sounds of showering dirt and larger pieces of something hitting the ground.
The four men and the still unconscious Jess caught up with the rest of the group inside the courtyard of the first set of buildings. Massive walls still stood fast, but only broken metal remained from the great gates that had once stood here. Despite the snow covering nearly everything, it was evident what had happened. This place had been overrun. All the buildings were badly damaged, something had cut away large pieces of stone with surgical precision. Massive gouges and holes decorated this entire complex. Huge mounds of dirt had been displaced. Behind them the shrieks and howling still continued.
And already an argument had broken loose.
“We are on a fucking cliff! Where? Where are we supposed to go?” A woman was yelling with a thick accent. Was it Mai?
“Down!” Kauri shouted. “We need to find a way down. He was already at the other end of the courtyard.
“Go! Let’s go!” Lenna and Sarah forced people to move. Eric and Sten were still carrying Jess between them. Andrew wanted to throw up. His head was about to split in half, his left arm was on fire and he had trouble focusing on reality. After every second breath he could see himself and his world of water. He was waist deep in water, holding on to pieces of ice left there by Jess. He did not dare go deeper although he wanted to. This pleasure had left him craving for more.
Andrew was doubled over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Someone approached him. Without looking up, he recognised the faint aura Anna was carrying with her. And Becca.
“Your stuff. I grabbed it for you.” Looking up, Andrew saw Anna holding his sleeping roll with his few belongings. When had he dropped it? He could not remember.
“Thanks” He huffed. Andrew straightened up and made to take his pack, but realised he was still holding a broken sword in his hand. He did not recall it happening. It must have been when he called down the thunder. He threw it away and took his belongings.
“This way! There’s a large path leading down into the cliff!” Everyone gathered at Robert’s place.
“Wait wait wait! You want to go down there. What if this is a mine? We’ll be trapping ourselves in!” Eric stammered. The shrieks were right behind the walls. Andrew saw everyone throwing looks around, pleading for help or guidance from the others. There had to be a reason this fort was here, right? There had to be a way down and south!
Something made a noise by the gate, drawing everyones attention. Another one of those creatures from before had appeared, ramming remains of the gate out of its way. But this one was larger, and it had several tentacles around its neck, all carrying those bone arrowheads.
Without thinking everyone ran into the tunnel. Daylight did not reach down here and it got dark fast. A sudden flash of flame illuminated the dark corridors. The thought of someone carrying open flame in their palm should have been strange. But a grateful relief overwhelmed Andrew at the sight of Robert.
From the top of the passage you could hear more and more shrieks echoing down into this passage. They had followed them inside. The passage headed straight north, deep inside the cliff. Then a gate appeared from the darkness ahead of them, half lowered, made of stone, you had to crawl under it to get through. The passage kept getting wider and taller. A little distance from the gate Andrew thought he noticed a side passage on either side of the main way, but everyone kept running straight. Then the passage turned around. They were heading south now and down deeper into the cliffs. Behind them shrieks and howls still echoed in the tunnel and the unbearable laughter had returned and spurred them onward in blind panic.
Another massive stone gate appeared, this one completely open, and you could see the grooves in the floor and the walls that held it in place. They barely cleared the gate when an ominous thunder sounded through the caves.
Anna and Becca stopped, forcing Andrew to bump into them. Everyone stopped. The shrieks had ceased, but a rumbling noise lasted. Then the world shifted. Rocks were falling from the ceiling and everything was shaking. Andrew stumbled to the side and hit his head on the wall. Stars flashed and shattered the darkness in front of his eyes.
It was cold and dark. Andrew could not see a thing. He was really cold, come to think of it. Something sticky was covering his head. His whole body was heavy. He shifted and scraped his boots on the ground, trying to find support to get up. There was something keeping him pinned to the ground. A sudden gasp and a terrified sob followed his efforts.
“Wh... Who’s. Who’s there?” Their voice trembled and metal scraping against stone could be heard.
“Anna?” Andrew’s voice was hoarse, and he realised his throat was sore.
“Andrew! Holy crap, Andrew! I thought you got crushed!” Something metal was thrown on the floor and scraping and shuffling sounds told him she was crawling towards him.
“Is it you? Just you? The others?” Andrew demanded.
“I don’t know, last I saw them, they were all running down the passage. I fell.” She was sniffling and sobbing. “Where are you? You need to keep talking.”
“Here. I can’t get up.” From Andrew’s right a sudden scrape sounded and he felt someone’s hand touch his legs. Anna let out a small yelp. “How long?”
“I don’t know.” She sobbed for a moment. “I lost track of time. But the rumbling lasted for a while after. Then it was quiet. And dark for the longest time.” Anna’s hands were touching Andrew everywhere. “It’s like a rope. There is a belt or something stuck to something heavy. I can’t see.”
“Let me try something. Be careful.” He felt and heard Anna crawl away. At least he could move his left arm. It was not burning with pain anymore. He raised it up and concentrated on the flow. A dark flame flashed and blinded him. Anna let out another yelp. That was the wrong flame. I need... There. A small orange flame rose from his palm, feeling more confident Andrew let it grow a little.
The next moment his entire hand was on fire, not exactly what he had wanted. But it wasn’t hot, it barely gave off any warmth at all. More light was needed. The orange glow wobbled and brightened. For a moment the flame tried to burn dark again. It was a struggle to keep it under control. Slowly it calmed down and started to emit enough light to see. There were three massive woven belts across Andrew’s body. The belts connected two stone slabs that seemed to have come from the ceiling. There was a slab on both sides of him. Only now did he realise how painful his neck was, lying against the wall.
“I think I can cut through these! I have a sword!” Anna crawled away and returned with one of the small swords they had taken with them from the gateway village. It was a hassle to get a clean cut. Andrew thought the belts would be leather, but it took a long while until enough of the belts had been cut apart for Andrew to wiggle out.
“Wait. Can you raise that flame higher?” Anna said as Andrew had gotten on his feet. He did as she asked. She gasped “The back of your head is covered in blood! But I think it’s stopped. It’s all dried up.”
“It’s cold.” Andrew was not feeling too good. He touched the back of his head, but pulled his hand quickly away, feeling all the slimy blood. He took a closer look at Anna. Dust covered her face, but streaks of cleaner skin showed she had been crying. Andrew walked up the passage a little. The gate had fallen down, completely settled in its place. There was no visible way to open it. Downwards a huge rockfall had blocked the passage entirely.
“Do we have water?” Andrew was feeling thirsty.
“There’s some left.” Anna handed him a half-empty water skin. Andrew drank, but stopped abruptly. They would probably have to save it.
“We’re stuck here, aren’t we?” Andrew had no answer to that. He stared at Anna and breathed heavily. It seemed inevitable. A faint sound drifted into Andrew’s ears.
“Did you hear that?” Anna nodded in response.
“Howling? Are those things in here?”
“No. It’s wind!” Andrew rushed towards the rockfall.
There it was! One of the side passages he had glimpsed before was visible. They would not have to move too much rock. Andrew tried to illuminate as much of the inside as possible. The passage was narrow, but seemed untouched by the landslide. Wind was blowing through this place. It might be possible to find a way out. Unless they had wandered into a mine.
“We have any food?” Andrew asked Anna.
“Leftovers. A little meat, some roots and stuff. What I managed to put aside.”
“Same as me then.” Andrew looked at his burning hand. The flame wobbled. “We need wood. Torches.” He mumbled.
“There isn’t any. I think.” She said with a numb voice.
Anna picked up her backpack and the sword. She looked at the blade for a moment, then approached Andrew. “Here.”
“Didn’t you go to a military academy or something?” He demanded.
“It’s law. I was studying law there, state law. Taxes and tolls and the like. I failed the entrance exam to the university.” Hesitant, Andrew took the sword and put it in his empty sheathe.
“Come on. Let’s try to find a way out of here.” It was weird lifting rocks with one hand on fire, but they needed the light.
The side passages led to other large main passageways. There should have been five in total if Andrew’s assumption was right. Progress was still slow. The side passages were narrow and hard to go through. And every once in a while they found closed gates and cave-ins blocking their way. Keeping track of the time in the darkness was impossible. As far as Andrew was concerned, a day had to have passed since he last saw the others. Occasionally, a shriek could be heard somewhere in the distance. Anna and Andrew did not dare stop to rest. Andrew even let the flame in his hand burn out. It was consuming to keep it going all the time. He only produced a flame when they absolutely needed it.
“Light!” Anna let out a relieved sigh after an eternity of silence and jogged past Andrew. They had made it out. A massive clearing stretched to the horizon on either side of the cliff face. The sun was out. And it was freezing outside. The air they breathed out, turned into thick steam. Looking around, Andrew saw the four other tunnels open nearby. Ornately carved entrances decorated the rock face. Several stone pillars stood around this entire area and a clear path cut through the forest. And there were tracks in the snow from the left most tunnel entrance.
Andrew closed his eyes and reached out.
“It’s the others. They have a good lead on us. I can’t tell how much, but it will take time to catch up with them.”
“There’s someone here!” Anna whispered in response. Andrew looked at the direction Anna was pointing in. Another set of tracks ran through the snow. Far beyond the tunnel entrances, several tracks came from the east along the cliff. How? Had those things been down here the whole time? The cliff had to be at least a hundred meters tall.
“Andrew!” Anna whispered in a panic and tugged at his sleeve. Her gaze was caught by something at the far end of this clearing. She was visibly shaking. Without warning a foreign presence assaulted Andrew’s mind and caused his legs to shiver. This was something entirely different from those creatures that had attacked them up on the plateau.
He was not ready for this. Exhausted body and mind, hunger, thirst. Should he lay over and let it tear him into bits? It would hurt but he would remember nothing afterwards. Already he had drawn his sword. A child wearing nothing but rags strolled out from behind one of the pillars. She was humming something and her path was chaotic. A small child, but there was little doubt – she was the source of the terrifying presence.
“She hasn’t noticed us!” Anna whispered. She kept tugging on Andrew’s sleeve.
With caution, Andrew followed Anna to the right side of the clearing. He sheathed his sword and made sure it was secure in there. If only they could hide. But she would see their tracks in the snow, wouldn’t she? He was slowly backing away still, keeping his eyes on the child.
Andrew turned around and broke into a jog. Anna had gotten ahead of him. He glanced back and saw the little girl looking towards them. Horror spread throughout his body.
“Run!” And as soon as he said that Andrew was wiped off his feet. He was flying through the air and he hit something hard. A pillar towered above him as his vision focused. That should have hurt much more than it did. He was dazed for only a moment. When the top of the pillar suddenly shattered, Andrew had enough sense left to scramble for cover behind the next pillar. He had lost sight of Anna but the thought lost some of its importance after Andrew realised, what he was looking at.
The child was gone. Her body was going through a transformation, but the child-like face was still recognisable on top of that monstrosity that stood in the clearing. It was much closer now. He had not heard it approach. The impact had to have knocked him silly! It was floating! How was it floating? And it was huge! The monstrosity had grown maybe three times taller than Andrew was.
Despite the situation, Andrew had poked his head out from behind the pillar and stared in awe. It was ridiculous and horrifying. Whatever transformation was happening was still mid-way. Again, the nasty sound and sight of flesh and bones splitting and rearranging themselves reached him. Her legs had split apart into eight tentacles. You could still recognise the malformed human feet. Spikes and claws swiftly covered those tentacles. Her arms were far longer than possible. Long red claws sprouted from the fingertips. They hung loosely at her sides as long as her legs now. Her torso had formed a gaping, large mouth. With large canine fangs.
The only thing still recognisable was her head and face. Even her hair had transformed into a tentacle-like appendage. The creature’s skin was slowly turning grey and blue and from her hair, a yellow pattern appeared on the body. But the creature had lost all interest in Andrew. It was humming again, with the voice of a small girl. Occasionally the thing would slash at the ground with its claws or throw something from her malformed limbs that made nearby pillars shatter and crumble.
A sudden rustling noise near Andrew scared the life out of him as Anna suddenly appeared at his side. “Come on!” Anna was tugging at his sleeve.
“What the fuck is that thing doing?” Andrew could not look away.
“It’s not right in the head. Let’s go! This is our chance. You can walk, right?” Andrew nodded, and he stood up. They had made only a couple of steps when a pillar in front of them shattered. Both Anna and Andrew dived into the snow, away from the impact.
There was no echo of chains, no vision of darkness this time, it simply clicked. As soon as his gaze found the creature, his left hand rose and lightning thrummed into the ground right next to the creature. He stood up and bolted away from Anna. He could not let her be caught in this.
The creature had tilted its head on the side and was saying something. The words and its voice were loud and clear, but Andrew could not understand a single word. It had ceased its attacks again. Anna had been right. That thing was not right in the head. It looked around and wailed like a small child.
Without warning a flurry of attacks came toward Andrew. All tentacles flailing, a tornado of claws and spikes shattered what pillars were left in her way and closed the distance with Andrew in a moment.
This had caught him off guard. The flailing mass hit him straight in the torso and Andrew flew backwards again. But this time he had withstood it. He had fallen on his back, but he was still facing her and he got up easily. Then his feet buckled, and he tasted blood in his mouth. He placed his left hand on the ground and a series of icy shards sprouted in the creature’s path. Thoughts of how had he managed it were driven away by relief and panic.
The creature still flailing, the ice tore entire body parts off her, but did not stop her. New parts formed with a sickening sound and speed. Unconcerned by her injuries, the creature raised its limbs high in the air and slashed at Andrew. He dove forward towards the remains of a pillar. The sound of wind and shattering stone rushed over his head.
Andrew scrambled to his feet and dashed out from the other side of the pillar. Raising his left arm and making a crushing motion with his fist, lightning thrummed straight into the creature. This time he had caught it off guard. But he had been right next to the damned thing. The shockwave from his own assault dazed Andrew, and he put one hand in front of his face. For a few moments, he had trouble focusing his vision, and he feared the worst. It was important to keep his left fist tightly sealed, fearing what would happen if he did not. He could hear the child shrieking. When his vision found his prey, a constant web of lightning covered the creature.
Andrew tightened his fist and made a pulling motion with his hand. The creature plummeted to the ground and was thrashing around. She could not move, the net of lightning was squeezing tighter and tighter. Her limbs were twitching, but she could not swing them around anymore.
With one hand Andrew fumbled his sword and slowly approached the creature, making sure not to let the lightning surrounding her disappear. His left arm was burning in agony once again. The creature was still rolling around on the spot, unable to get away. Andrew dashed towards the twitching creature and letting loose of the lightning at the last moment, he plunged the sword with both hands into the side of the creature’s head. A sickening crunch sent a shiver of satisfaction through Andrew as the blade pierced flesh and bone.
Without warning, Andrew felt pain and impact across his torso and he found himself flying through the air again. His right shoulder burned with pain. He heard a scream from where Anna should have been. The impact of landing knocked everything black for a moment. But already his feet found strength on their own and Andrew was examining the aftermath of the fight.
Anna was rushing through the snow towards him and the creature who was twitching and disintegrating into dust. The child’s form was slowly coming out from under the masses of meat and bone, but that too did not look long for this world.
Anna was about to say something, but stopped as she reached the body of the child. Andrew heard it as well. Although her language was impossible to understand, the sound of “mama” repeatedly leaving her lips was enough to send shivers of horror and disgust throughout Andrew’s body. He stared, as Anna did. Life was draining from the maimed body of the child in front of their eyes and the body becoming dust on the wind. The sword still stuck in the side of her head and it slowly melting.
A burning pain in Andrew’s right shoulder brought him out from this trance. Three spikes had caught and pierced the armour he had been wearing. Now that he had seen them, the pain felt much stronger than before. He raised his hand to tear them out, but only awkwardly groped the spikes embedded in him.
They needed to leave, right now. Far in the distance, numerous howls and screeches could be heard. Above all of those, the same shrill scream they had heard two times now.
“Let’s go. We need to go.” All strength had left Andrew’s voice. He was breathing deeply and really would have wanted to fall to the ground.
“What is this?” Anna mumbled.
“We need to go.”
“What was she? It’s a child!” There was an edge to Anna’s voice.
“Anna, we need to go now.” Andrew grabbed his backpack from a pile of snow and tried pushing Anna to move along.
Anna pushed back and Andrew fell on his behind. “WHERE THE FUCK ARE WE? WHAT IS THIS PLACE?” Her shriek echoed across the landscape. From the distance all around them inhuman shrieks answered it.
“I don’t know.” Andrew felt a few tears escape his eyes. “Please. We need to run.” Anna suddenly tore Andrew to his feet and looked him dead in the eyes. He did not linger on the emotions written in her face. He turned away and picked a direction, hoping it would be safe. Anna’s footsteps followed his.
His lungs were burning and every inch of his body was telling him to stop. His toes were numb from the cold and he could feel a cooling, wet spot on his right shoulder. Fear overrode all that. The shrieking and howling had stopped, but that made everything even more terrifying. It was dusk now, and every unexpected shadow made a shiver of horror run down Andrew’s face. The constant, worsening snowfall only added to the hallucinations.
The entire day they had rushed like maniacs. Jogging and walking, jogging and walking without stopping. Along the way, they had lost the tracks left by the others. Andrew could not reach out to find them either. He felt a wall come up every time he tried. He was dead tired.
The sun had just disappeared over the horizon and Anna and Andrew had reached a massive stone wall. They had found a city. A huge city. Large enough that to find the entrance they had to run alongside a seemingly endless stretch of wall. When they finally found the entrance, clouds had shrouded the sky. Daylight was disappearing before their eyes.
They ran through the abandoned streets, the ruined houses and obvious signs of battle. It was all the same as it had been in the fort on top of the cliffs. Pieces of stone had been cleanly cut away, the ground was full of holes, large gashes and gouges decorated the largest of buildings. Only craters and refuse remained of the smaller ones.
Andrew stumbled and fell. For a moment it felt like he had pushed the spikes in deeper. But it was only the pain and panic in his mind. Only through some miracle had he avoided landing on his right side. Anna was already at his side, pulling him upright.
“Come on! Just a little further. See that castle? We are going there, find a place to hide and then take care of you. Just a little further.” Anna was tugging at his sleeve. She had taken the lead soon after leaving the clearing before the cliffs. She had been constantly encouraging Andrew to keep going and coming back to help him along.
This time Andrew had no strength left. Anna grabbed his arm and pulled it on her shoulder. Andrew reluctantly stumbled to his feet. Sort-of jogging and speed walking they made their way across a large plaza and passed under the badly damaged remains of an inner city wall. A large park or forest lay ahead of them, behind the trees a ruined complex of buildings and towers was visible.
Andrew started to lose consciousness. Slipping in and out of reality, between the worlds inside of him and complete lack of awareness they somehow had reached a castle or fort. Still, they did not stop. Anna was now half-dragging Andrew along, upstairs and through endless corridors.
“Come on, you bastard. Just a little more, then you can pass out. Just the end of this corridor. This looks good, right? Please, this little effort.” She would not shut up. “This little effort, just here, around the corner. Only a little more.”
They burst into a room. Andrew could see the sky for a brief moment. Then he was set down into a corner. There was a lot of random refuse in this room. Ancient books, the remains of bookshelves and what looked to be a grand bed. He blacked out for an instant and came to looking straight into Anna’s face. The neat brick wall behind her made the scene uncomfortable to look at.
“... please. I need you to do one last thing. Please stay with me, Andrew, please. We need fire. Fire. We need to make a fire. Only you can do it. I can’t. There is a plank in your hands. Please!” She was talking non-stop and tears were quietly falling down her face. Even in the dusk he could see this much.
He felt warmth in his hand and briefly saw the warm, orange glow of flame. He heard Anna gasp with relief and felt something leave his left palm. Andrew stared at the wall opposite of him and let the darkness envelop him. Everything hurt.