I woke with a start. Arsan was kneeling over me, a look of concern on his face. His hand brushed my cheek. “Tabri, what’s wrong? Who’s leaving you?”
“We must find the Articans, tonight.” I sat up quickly, nearly knocking Arsan over. The fire burned nearby, casting my shadow on the rock face behind me. It was eerie, and reminded me of the cavern.
“Tonight? Can’t it wait till morning?”
“No, we must hurry. There isn’t any time to waist.” I sprung to my feet. I had no idea what time it was, maybe somewhere around midnight. The moon was high overhead, casting enough light from the clear sky to light the ground on the mountain. It would be slow going, but easy enough.
Arsan grabbed me by my shoulders, stopping me from my frantic pacing around the fire. “Why now? What could be so important in the middle of the night that we have to wake Ruan and climb a mountain in the darkness?”
I felt like he was laughing at me, secretively, on the inside. I knew I sounded ridiculous, but it was hard to explain the urgency I felt in my dream, the one that I still felt now. It was the burning of my magic that was present in my chest, low and dull. It was always there now, reaching out to the earth, feeling for anything that was present. It pulled me up the side of the mountain, to the cave that was in my dream. I knew it was there, I just had to find it.
Nell’s mist form came floating into the light from the fire. She had been patrolling nearby, watching out for us as we slept. She turned human as she reached where we were standing. “We need to be moving on, now.”
Arsan looked exasperated. He ran his hand through his shaggy hair and sighed. “Not you too. Can’t we just let Ruan sleep? She’s been through a lot in the last few days. We all have.”
I could tell Nell wanted to say something rude, but she held her tongue. Her hand waved over the fire. The flames climbed toward her palm and disappeared, sending us into darkness giving him her answer. The moon was the only source of light now. “I’ll carry Ruan so she can sleep.”
Arsan opened his mouth to protest, but I pressed my finger to his lips. “Do you trust me?”
He sighed. “Of course.”
“Then know that I wouldn’t be doing this without a reason. We must find the Artican’s tonight.” I gave him the most reassuring smile I could muster. Arsan shook his head in defeat and kissed my forehead tenderly, his lips lingering there. The magic in my chest fluttered with this new found joy he brought me, but it was quickly over run by the urgency again.
Nell was watching the flat tundra lands below us, her eyes scanning back and forth across the nothingness. She seemed uneasy. Maybe something was following us, another one of the Underworld’s beasts perhaps. I didn’t feel anything nearby, but maybe it was something that I couldn’t feel. Either way, I would be more relaxed when we were far away from this place.
With one swift scoop, Nell had Ruan in her arms. She nestled her tightly in the crook of her arm and began to climb nimbly over the rocky mountain side with ease. I glanced over my shoulder once more at the tundra, to see what was making Nell so anxious. I thought that maybe I saw a dim flash of light way off in the distance, but it was so quick I couldn’t tell. There was something there. I knew there was, even if I couldn’t feel it. The last few days had given me enough experience to know that much at least.
Making our way in the darkness was proving to be more difficult than I had originally thought. Yes, we had the light from the moon, but it was at our backs casting our shadows over the rocky ground. Every step we took was in blackness.
I carefully placed my foot on a flat stone in front of me. The sound of my step reverberated through the ground with a low thump. Odd, none of the other stones had made that sound. I lifted my foot and stepped down, expecting to hear a thump again. Nothing happened. A second later the thump came again, but I hadn’t moved my foot. No, that wasn’t my foot.
Nell’s head shot up. She stared off over the tundra, her eyes trained on one spot in the distance. I followed her gaze as another low thump traveled across the ground. I didn’t see anything out there, but I knew Nell had seen something. “What can you see?”
“Do you really want to know?” She glanced at me, her lips pressed in a hard line. Was it really that bad? If Nell was reluctant to inform me of what was going on, then yes, it was that bad. I needed to know what we were up against.
“Tell me.” I whispered, not sure if I was ready to hear what she was about to say.
“A few thousand Undead.” Her words were blunt and haunting. “And more keep coming.”
My mouth dropped open in shock. A few thousand? We had barely defeated the hellhound on our own. We would never survive a few thousand undead. My heart dropped and my hand automatically reached for Arsan’s. It was there in an instant, but his touch gave no comfort this time. The shock of what we were up against was just too much. I wanted to give up. My legs began to shake. My body froze.
“We need to keep moving,” whispered Arsan absentmindedly. He started to climb the rocks again, his hand still in mine. I didn’t move, frozen to my spot, my legs not willing to go on. “No, no Tabri, don’t do this. You have to keep moving.”
My breathing was shallow, fear surged through my mind. What was the point anymore? How many times would we have to run, and how many more times would we have to fight before we would be safe. It had only been six days, and we hadn’t stopped moving. We had little food and barely any sleep. I was done, pushed to the breaking point, exhausted beyond belief.
“Tabri, snap out of it.” Arsan shook my shoulders, concern present on every line of his face. “You can’t just wait here to die. We are so close I can feel the Artican’s now. I know you can feel them too. You know where they are?”
I shook my head, staring up into his sharp ice blue eyes. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to find them in time.”
“I trust you. With every beat of my heart, I trust you.” Arsan pulled me into his strong arms, holding me close to his heart. I let the beats rush through my mind, awakening my senses. Those words dug deep into my soul. I knew he trusted me, but I needed to hear it though. “Close your eyes.”
I did what I was told, relaxing, letting my breathing regulate back to normal. “Now concentrate on where we need to go. Search with your magic.”
The warmth took over my body, consuming me, calming me. My senses came back to me as my veins ran thick with the magic. With my eyes closed I searched for the cave that held all the secrets. Somehow my mind went right to it. Half way up the mountain, another few hours walk maybe. In the dark it would be hard to tell, but the magic pulled at my chest, telling me where to go. In that moment my mind was calm. I was myself again.
I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. Arsan seemed to relax, knowing I had control again. “You know where to go?”
I shook my head. “I know where to go.”
“Then let’s get moving,” scolded Nell as she watched the massing hoards in the distance. I still couldn’t see them but I could now feel them, all of them. There were more than Nell could see, at least ten thousand, making their way out onto the tundra.
It had taken us the better part of a day to cross the vast nothingness. I hoped we would at least have that much time, but I didn’t know how fast the undead could move. Only time would tell and I was wasting it, standing here thinking.
We began to climb. Nell phased in and out of mist form, cradling Ruan in her arms like a child, still fast asleep, unaware of our impending doom. I tried to reach out with my magic, to feel the jagged rocky ground before me. It was hard for me to concentrate on my footsteps, the cave entrance and keep track of where the undead were at the same time, but I needed all three. One without the others would do me no good here in the dark.
The moon was threatening to leave us as morning grew closer. The sun would soon peak over the mountains, shedding light on the masses that pursued us. I didn’t want to see what was coming, but the morning light was inevitable.
We had been climbing for hours. I was exhausted from lack of sleep, but I pressed on, using my magic to strengthen me. Ruan had woken, but Nell refused to put her down. She insisted that we would move faster if she was carried. Ruan didn’t complain. I think she was tired of walking, and was glad to be held.
As the sun crested through the mountains in front of us, I spotted what my magic was leading me to, the cave mouth. It was ominous, just like in my dreams. A stone structure of large smooth slabs guarded each side with a thick slab on the top for shelter. It was a doorway to my people.
Darkness poured from its interior. I feared that I would see the eyes again, but they were only in my first dream, when I wasn’t ready to enter the cave. This time I was different, stronger. The Artican man had shown me that. I approached the cave mouth with confidence, holding onto the strength that coursed through my veins from the magic.
“Is this it?” Arsan’s warm hand weaved with mine.
“This is the gateway to the ancestors. Through this cave we will find them.” My heart raced with anticipation. Would they really be there, waiting for me inside? I had to believe it. They wouldn’t have led me here if it wasn’t true. Would they?
I glanced over my shoulder one last time. The tundra burned bright like fire, with the color of the sun cast down upon it. I could see the undead in the distance, little specks dotted across the vast open land. There were so many, spread as far as the eye could see. They were moving slow, dragging their rotting dead limbs. We still had time, but eventually they would be here, and we needed to be ready. I didn’t know how, but we would be ready.
I took a deep breath and turned away from the bright land. This was it, the cave in my dreams. I wasn’t as scared as I thought I would be, but there was still that little feeling of doubt in the back of my mind. I took a step into the darkness, and then another. Nothing happened, nothing changed. It was just a cave, made by my ancestors. I lit a fire on my palm with magic, just like I had done in my dreams and pressed on into the darkness without fear.