The beast was growing, multiplying in size quickly. It’s whole body shivered and it called out in pain as the changes happened. I stumbled back, looking up into the massive beasts face. It went from the size of a horse to something as tall as a house in a matter of seconds and its growth seemed to never end.
RUN! My mind screamed again. I listened. Turning on my heals I blasted full force out onto the frozen tundra. Ruan and Arsan were close behind, keeping up with my magic induced strides easily. What were we going to do now? No matter what we did when the beast was small, didn’t seem to matter. How were we supposed to fight it now that it had grown to ten times its size?
The wind was picking up the further we ran into the open. A howl echoed around us, deep and ominous. The transformation must have been complete. I glanced over my shoulder and my heart dropped. There wasn’t much distance between us and it. It would catch us with only a few quick bounds. I willed my legs to move faster, but with the icy ground, there wasn’t much more I could do.
The heavy stride of the animal made the ground shake beneath our feet. Another bound and the ice behind us began to crack. Fishers were forming all around us as yet another paw hit the ground. If the hellhound didn’t get us first, these holes would. The earth shook again and a crack raced past us on the left, shooting towards the mountains in the distance.
I could hear the low chuckle of the dog coming up behind us. Another step rocked the ground and the ice under my feet broke free, rising slightly in front of us. Ruan fell to her knees, stumbling with the shift of ground. Arsan grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet, supporting her as the ice shook again.
A crack opened in front of us. The other side wasn’t far. With a leaping bound, I flew over the gap, sliding across the ice on the other side. Arsan and Ruan followed quickly, mostly managing to stay on their feet.
“Get up,” Shouted Arsan. He franticly tried to pull me to my feet, but the ice was so slippery, I couldn’t get my footing.
The dog was upon us, its teeth bared and flaming saliva was dripping from its mouth. It stood over us, chuckling like a human. This was it. There was nowhere for us to run now.
Arsan was by my side. His fingers laced between mine, giving me as much comfort as they could. The burning in my chest was still there, consuming me, ready to act if the time came. I knew it wasn’t going to save me though. Not this time.
The hellhound lifted its chin to let out one last howl before it devoured its prey. It was a howl of victory and arrogance.
I braced myself, ready for the blow that would end my life, but something distracted me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a grey mist with a streak of red. It flew through the air, quickly forming into the shape of a person. It was Nell. Her sword held high over her head, hot blade pointing at the beast’s neck.
With one scream of fury, she plunged the cold steel into black matted flesh, just behind the hellhound’s ear. The sword sliced through the skin like it was made of water, forming a line under its chin. The force of her leap carried her up the other side of its neck and over the top. Nell finally fell to the ground, crouching next to the beast, her sword stabbed into the ice in front of her. There was a sullen look of death on her face.
The hellhound stared at me, those dark red eyes burning into my soul. It didn’t make a move or a sound. Then, with one quick movement, its head rolled to the ground, cauterized at the neck by Nell’s sword. I was startled by the sight, in shock even. One minute the beast was widening its jaw to devour us, the next it was dead, decapitated by the fury. I didn’t know what to think.
Nell stood from her crouch and pulled her sword from the ice. It quickly vanished into smoke and was gone. Her face softened as she looked at me, a sense of pain in her eyes. What had she done? She had killed one of the Underworld’s minions, and for what reason? To save us? I didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t look at me like that, Tabri.” Nell lowered her eyes to the ground. “It was wrong of me to leave you, I realize that now. I had made a vow to protect you and I broke that promise when I ran off… I was scared.”
Her voice trailed off, leaving an emotional Nell standing before me. She wouldn’t meet my gaze. Something had changed within her. I could see it in the lines of her face. They were softer, more relaxed. And the fact that she came back when she had the chance to flee. That’s what struck me the most. She was different.
I felt a sudden urge to embrace her. Pull her into my arms and hold her there, so I did. I wrapped my arms around her neck, squeezing her tightly. Her back stiffened, her hands hovered over my back, not knowing what to do. She finally gave in and wrapped her arms around me. I could feel her body physically relax, letting the embrace consume her.
I pulled her back to arm’s length, looking her in the eyes. The only thing I could think of saying, were the words Father Michael used to tell me when I wanted to give up. “A great man once told me, that the pool of life can only be full with wrong doings and heartache. That is the only way you will ever know what true love is.”
As I said the words, I realized I needed them as well. So many emotions had crossed my path on this journey, most of them were hard to handle, but now I knew that I would have never made it through without the people around me. That’s what true love was. “Look, Nell. You were made to do the Ancient’s bidding, forced into a life that showed now mercy or love, but this human form that you despised taking when we first met, has shown you that there is more to life than cruelty and pain. No life is perfect. It is what you do with that life that matters, and you made the decision to come back for us, even though you were scared. That takes a lot of strength and courage.”
With my words, a tear rolled down her face. The gambit of human emotions flowed down her cheek as she tried to make sense of what she was feeling. “Now I know why my sister likes this form so much, it gives her something new to master. It’s very… overwhelming.”
A smile crossed my face at the humor in her voice. “It can be at times, but you get used to it.”
Nell took a deep breath and wiped the tear from her cheek. “I promise I will never leave you again. You are a… a good friend.”
I pulled her into another emotional embrace. I didn’t know what to think about these changes, but I was glad for them. Maybe now we could find the Articans. If she really has changed, I couldn’t see why not. “We should keep moving. It’s a long walk to the mountains and the day is already half gone.”
Just as I had finished speaking, the ground shook beneath us. An earthquake? I couldn’t tell. The ice began to shift, the cracks left behind by the hellhound split and moved. The shaking didn’t stop, it only became more violent. I couldn’t stay on my feet, not with the ice moving under them. I crouched and placed my hands on the ground to steady myself.
“What’s happening?” shouted Ruan over the roar of the moving ice.
A large crevasse opened up beneath the hellhound’s body, slowly swallowing it up. Flames licked the sides of the cavern, melting the ice.
“Something from the Underworld has opened a dark fisher. They used the dead carcass as a gate way.” The look on Nell’s face was of fear. She crouched near me, staring into the abyss, the fire illuminating her eyes. “I fear the beast was a trap. A way to bring the dead to this land.”
The ground shook even more violently as the dog’s head finally fell into the black hole. Flames burst forth consuming it. A cracking sound echoed through the crevasse, our icy plot of earth shifted and tipped forward. My snow boots gripped the ice, keeping me in place. Nell phased in and out of mist form, the movement didn’t seem to affect her at all.
I heard a scraping, then Ruan whimpered. She wasn’t wearing snow boots. With one more shutter of the ground she lost her footing and began to slide down the icy shelf. Her hands scrapped at the ground, trying desperately to slow herself, to stop her fall. “Arsan!”
He was nowhere near her. I could see the panic and pain in his eyes as he watched his sister, who he just managed to save, fall toward the Underworld, and there was nothing he could do. I felt the burning of magic inside me, ready for anything, wanting to save her.
I launched myself across the ice toward Ruan, reaching my hands out for her to grab onto. I felt the tips of her fingers brush against mine, but they were gone so fast. I couldn’t grab onto her. She slipped past me in a flash, still sliding toward the flames.
Nell’s mist flew over me, forming into a human body as it skidded down the slope. She caught Ruan’s hands. How were they going to stop? My body reacted before my mind could catch up. I threw myself after them, sliding on my belly until I was able to grab onto Nell’s ankles. I dug the toes of my boots into the ice, trying desperately to slow us. There was still too much speed and not enough room to stop. We would all go over the edge.
There was a pressure around one of my ankles. Arsan had joined the chain. His dagger plunged deep into the icy ground, slowing our decent quickly. Was it enough to stop us before we fell over the edge? I could feel the magic in his veins surging, giving him strength to hold on to the hilt of the blade. I took all the magic I could muster and forced it through my body and into his. Arsan held tight, his strength never wavering.
Ruan started to scream louder as her legs slid over the edge of the icy shelf. We were slowing, but not quick enough. The rest of Ruan’s body disappeared from my sight over the ledge, gone, into the abyss. I could only hear her yelling, but had no way to get to her.
Nell’s arms and then her shoulders went into the black hole. Arsan grunted in frustration behind me, digging his fingers into my ankle. I ignored the pain from his grip, concentrating all my magic I could spare into his body. With one last grunt, Arsan halted our decent. Ruan’s screams of terror echoed from the crevasse as flames licked at her feet.
“Ruan, you have to climb up my arms.” Nell’s voice was calming but strong. Ruan was saying something, I couldn’t make it out. It was too soft. Nell’s voice was hushed, quiet as well, “You have to trust me. Climb up my back and keep going till you reach your brother, ok?”
A few seconds passed. The sounds of crumbling rocks and strained grunts echoed around the crevasse. My heart jumped when I saw tiny fingers clasp onto Nell’s shoulder, followed by Ruan’s soot smudged face. Tear lines streaked down her cheeks from where she had been crying, but there was no sign of fear in her eyes now, only strength and determination. Whatever Nell had said to her, made a difference. She pulled her body over the ledge with a helping hand from Nell who still hung half way into the darkness.
The flames billowed from the abyss again, reaching toward us with its heat. It had been denied everything it had come for and now burned wildly in rage. Ruan slowly pulled herself up Nell’s body and across mine to her brother’s arms. He was still holding tight to the dagger in the ice and to my ankle, but Ruan managed to climb nimbly around his side and attach herself to his back, holding tightly around his waist.
I hadn’t even noticed the ground had stopped moving until it began to shake again. The flames died down, retreating back into the darkness of the Underworld. The crevasse was beginning to close up. The broken ice surrounding us was forming back into sheets and layers, repair its self into the frozen tundra again.
“Pull me up,” screamed Nell, struggling against the edge of the abyss.
The fire in my veins boiled as I reached for all my strength to pull Nell from the blackness. My hands, one at a time, clasped onto her calves and pulled. She slid back up the ledge a few inches, but it wasn’t much.
“Tabri, this thing is closing fast. You’re going to have to be quicker than that.” The panic in Nell’s voice fuelled my magic. I had to save her. She needed me as much as I needed her. My hands crept up her legs again and pulled. I made another quick movement, grasping her belt. I pulled. She was nearly out.
The ground shook with one last shudder. The shelf that we were on righted itself, giving us a smooth flat surface to work with. Arsan dug his heals into the ice behind me. “Pull!”
His order rang through my head as I gave one last tug on Nell’s hips. The crevasse in front of us snapped shut with a loud, rock crunching thud, then all was silent but our gasps of exhaustion.
I lay on Nell’s legs, unable to move. Shock from the last few minutes events spread through my body. I couldn’t process it. We had just survived an attack from the Underworld. I would have never believed it was possible. Nell jumped to her feet knocking me off her legs, but I was too exhausted to care.
“Is that all you got?” She screamed into the open air. Her arms flailed and thrust into the nothingness with joy. The sight of her made me happy. I couldn’t stop the giggle that erupted from my gut. It felt nice. I hadn’t laughed in a long time and this was just what I needed. The others joined in with me, sprawled out on the ice nearby watching Nell’s dance of victory. “That’s right. I have friends, and they care about me. Fear has no power over me anymore.”
“Come on.” Arsan held his hand out to me, with that boyish grin that I loved so much. “We have a long walk ahead of us, and miss victorious over there is ready to dance off into the sunset.”
Arsan didn’t let go of my hand after he pulled me to my feet, his fingers weaving between mine with a gentle squeeze. I couldn’t stop giggling as he nestled close to my side. We watched as Nell and Ruan danced across the ice, a new found friendship forming before our eyes. I wished that life would stay this joyous, but I knew it was going to change soon. Although most the dark fissure had closed up in front of us, a small crack was left, glowing red with the flames it held inside. I didn’t know what would come from it or how to close it to keep the dead in. There was only one choice, to find my people. They would know.
The mountains lay ahead, the home of my ancestors, the largest peak looming dim in the distance. That’s where we were headed, the home of the Articans. The thought of what was to come, laid heave on my mind. Would they accept me after I had been lost for so long? There was only one way to find out. We pressed on toward the mountains.