I gulped in air so fast to my lungs that it caught in my throat. I coughed several times trying to breathe. The visions from my dream were so vivid and real that I thought I might have been still dreaming for a moment, but no. This was the same forest I fell asleep in. Ruan was cuddled up in a ball in her brother’s arms. They slept soundly by the fire, just where I had left them. The moon shown through the trees, lighting the forest with a blue haze, just like I had left it. And the stars, they made the same constellations that I grew up learning. There were no words or eyes with wings anywhere.
The only thing different was that Nell was gone. That was pretty typical of her to disappear, but I knew she was out there, close by, watching out for us. She wouldn’t go far, not after all the trouble she went through finding us again. After Farenan had reviled his plans to find my people and knowing that he probably wasn’t the only one looking for me, she wouldn’t let me get away again. I felt like I had my own personal watch dog. It was almost unnerving.
Sleep was far from my mind by now. There was no way I was going to close my eyes, not with the visions so clear in my thoughts. I didn’t know how late it was, but I planned on staying awake till the sun peeked over the horizon.
So I sat, watching the flames jump through the fire, contemplating on the meaning of my dream. I stared so intently into the heat that my eyes started to water. My vision began to blur, forming shapes in the flame. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hands to clear my vision, but when I looked back at the fire, it was changing, moving like a living organism. I watched intently, my heart racing with wonder. The warmth from the magic started to form in my gut and slowly spread through my chest, mimicking the dancing motion of the flames throughout my body.
Was this real? I thought for a moment that the visions in front of me were just an illusion of my exhausted mind, but no, the more I watched them, the more they came alive. The flames danced high into the air, moving and swirling with a self-induced wind. The warmth inside me grew and spread throughout my body. Something was happening. Something magic induced.
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. Then it was there, the eyes. They formed in the fire, watching me, staring. They looked just like the eyes from my dream, but they didn’t have the wings to fly. At least I didn’t see any.
I crawled back from the fire as fast as my body could move. Snow flew everywhere in my haste. A small whimper escaped my lips. What was happening? I felt the warmth of the magic dissolve in my body quickly, pulling itself back to my chest where it stayed. The eyes were gone. Just like that, all was calm again.
The fire licked at the coals threatening to go out. I reluctantly threw another log in the bed and the flames began to come back to life. This forest was playing tricks on me. I was beginning to think the old stories about people going mad here were true. I definitely felt like I was going mad. The dream, the vision in the fire, it was all a little too much to comprehend. There had to be something affecting me here. That was the only explanation.
The night slowly slipped away without further incidents. After a few hours of staring into the fire, waiting for something to happen, exhaustion finally overcame me and I fell back asleep propped up against a fallen tree.
It was the warm feeling inside, the magic that woke me. Near dawn, my eyes shot open, the sense of being watched overwhelmed me. Someone was near, I could feel them. I pulled from my magic to guide me. It didn’t give me any indication that the intruder was dangerous nor had any malicious intent, but I was still weary of my surroundings.
I pulled myself to my feet, my body stiff from sleeping seated on the ground. I could feel the presence to the north, hidden in the woods nearby. Nobody should be out here. This land was uninhabited and baron, or so I thought. I had to know who was lurking in the darkness. There was a suspicious feeling in the back of my mind that whoever was out there was going to lead me to the Articans.
With the shadows of first light surrounding me, I stepped out of the warmth of our camp, and plunged into the darkness of the forest. I let the magic guide me toward the intruder. They were heading north. With every step I took toward them, they took one more away, always keeping a safe distance, never letting me get too close.
I felt Nell’s presence before I saw her. She snuck up next to me in the dark. “Someone’s out there.”
“I know,” She whispered. “I can see them all.”
I stopped in my tracks. Them all? I could only feel one soul nearby. “What do you mean? There’s more than one?”
“Is there more than one?” Nell sounded exasperated. “I thought you had super magic powers now? How could you not see all of them?”
“I can’t see any of them. I can only feel the one soul I was following. Just tell me how many people are out there?” I wasn’t in the mood for Nell’s snide remarks right then. I hadn’t slept much. The vision’s I had earlier made me mentally exhausted, ready to snap.
Nell exhaled in annoyance. “Twenty, maybe thirty. They move around too much for me to get a good head count. “
The calm demeanor which she relayed the information, lead me to believe that it didn’t really matter how many people were out there. She would be perfectly capable of defending me if they attacked. The thought still didn’t make the fact that there were thirty people out there watching us any less shocking. What did they want? Where did they come from? I wanted to speak with them, ask them questions. They knew something about the Artican’s. I could feel it. And why couldn’t I sense them all? My magic was going wild trying to reach out into the darkness to find them. It grasped at thin air, there was nothing out there.
Just as I had thought the question, souls appeared in my mind like fires being lit. They were so bright and clear in my thoughts. I gasped from the sheer numbers that flooded my senses. “There are twenty seven.”
“What?” Nell seemed shocked. “I thought you said you can only sense one of them?”
“They opened up their minds to me. I can feel their Artican blood running through their veins.” I was stunned. My people, here in the middle of this baron, unforgiving land, and they had come for me. I let the magic in my veins burn as hot as I could stand, trying to reach out to them like they had to me.
I wanted to go to them, to be surrounded by people who were just like me. I took a step forward, but a shout sounded in my head “NO!”
It was so loud I threw my hands up over my ears, trying to block out the noise. Why were they yelling? The pain in my head was sharp and made me gasp.
“Are you alright?” Nell was unnaturally concerned for me. Yes, I think I was alright. I didn’t know what just happened, but when I was able to catch my breath and concentrate on my magic again, they were all gone, all the souls.
I shook my head. “They’ve gone.”
“What?” Nell turned back to the darkness and moved a few feet forward, scanning the tree’s for any sign of the Articans. “Where did they go? How did they do that?”
Why did they leave? Was it because I brought Nell with me? Or maybe I wasn’t good enough to come home?
Nell grasped my shoulders tightly. “How could they just disappear?”
She was angry. I could tell from the tone of her voice, but there was nothing she could do to bring them back.
I pushed her hands from my shoulders with one movement of my arms. She didn’t like that, but she wasn’t going to do anything to retaliate. Not now. I closed the gap between us with one quick step. I was face to face with her before she could react. “Why do you care? Tell me.”
Fury blazed in Nell’s eyes as she stretched her neck side to side, trying to control her anger. A little part of me enjoyed pushing her, waiting for her to snap. It made up for all the snide comments and lack of respect she showed me, but I knew not to push her too far. It was her nature to be cruel, she couldn’t help it. Even with all my emotional control the magic gave me, I still couldn’t hide the small smile that crept upon my face. “Our time together is very short, Nell.”
I backed away, to give her some space to contemplate what I had said. Her eyes twitched with rage, the fire that was building inside of her. She was losing control. I knew something was about to happen.
“You can’t just break up our little band of merry men.” The words flew from her mouth like a fire out of control. She paced back and forth in the snow in front of me, her hands shifting from solid to mist and back again. She was out of control with anger.
I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing, but I needed to know if my magic worked against her. The Artican’s had tricked her senses somehow, so I had a small amount of hope to work with. But, even with hope, my mind screamed at me to stop goading the beast. The fine line I walked was dangerous. There would be no going back if I kept on this path. I had to know, it was the only way. “Lose control, Nell. Come see what it’s like to be beaten by a mortal.”
The magic flowed through my veins freely. I let it control my movement and my mind, bringing clarity to my thoughts. You can do this, Tabri, I told myself, trying with all my might to stay calm.
“You can’t fight me. You won’t win!” Nell lunged toward me, but I was ready. My body reacted, letting her slid right past me. She turned into mist and circled around to face me again, before solidifying. “Why are you even trying to defend yourself? I’m going to put you on your back and watch you squirm as I choke the life from your body.”
I took her threats seriously. There was something in her eyes, something that wanted me dead. I had never seen it there before now. I had to get rid of her, to save myself and to save Ruan and Arsan.
Nell turned into the mist again, circling me, waiting. With the sun rising in the east, it cast a yellow glow across the white snow, making her blend into her surroundings. For a few seconds I lost track of her all together, but quickly regained sight when she passed in front of me again. What was she waiting for? When would she make her move?
I waited patiently, clearing my mind and letting the magic control me. When Nell was ready to make her move, I felt it before I saw it happen. She lunged at me again, this time in her mist form. I panicked, not sure how to defend myself against her attack, but the magic in my veins overwhelmed me. It forced me to let go, let it take control again.
I saw the blade, the one I watched sever a man’s head. It slashed at my throat, attempting to decapitate me. My body moved, dipped backwards as the blade sliced the air over my head. I could feel the searing hot touch of the blade across my face as it passed. It’s origin of death reaching out to me, beckoning for me.
As my back straightened, I countered Nell’s attack, forcing my palm into the center of the mist. She flew backwards from the force of my blow, forming a solid body as she sprawled in the cold snow.
“I’m not afraid of you anymore, Nell.” A new sense of life surged through me, one that was vibrant and in control. I knew that if she attacked me again, I would be able to defend myself easily, and that realization was empowering.
Nell looked defeated and grim as she lay in the snow before me. I almost felt sorry for her. Her hard exterior had been worn down slowly as she spent more time in her human form. How long would it be before she started to feel real emotions? Would she always be bitter, a product of her training? I knew she could change, but how long would it take. Was there still hope for her? I didn’t relish the thought of killing her, but if that’s what it took to keep the Artican’s safe, then I would do it.
“You don’t have to live like this.” My feelings came stumbling out without warning. It wasn’t a product of the magic, it was me talking. “Your sister learned to live like a human. I know it’s in you.”
I couldn’t tell what was going on inside Nell’s head. There was a broad range of emotions forming on her face that were all jumbled together. “I can’t change what I am. I am a cold blooded killer infused with the power of the Ancients. I’m bitter. My sister was always their favorite and so I know nothing else.”
A shimmering tear rolled down her face. A human emotion. “But I miss my sister. We were human once, you know? Taken by the Ancients when we were little. Delah was trained by their greatest warrior and I… I was trained by whoever would take me which meant I traveled a lot. I haven’t seen my sister in a very long time.”
Without warning she turned back into her mist form and disappeared into the forest. She needed time to think. I needed time to think. What just happened?
My people were calling to me. I had no chance of finding them again. And what to do about the fury? I could see things changing in her head, emotions that she didn’t know how to control. She was a bomb waiting to explode. I knew I was in her path, but only time would tell. Would I have the metal strength to do what needed to be done when that time came? I didn’t know.