Chapter 4: Day 2 - The Mist
Rin flinched as the eerie sound of the familiar voices began to buzz in her ears. She tried to ignore them, but she knew her mind held much greater fears than it had during any of her previous trips through the Mist. Even more dangerous, she had no time to prepare for what kind of attack might affect her the most strongly. She breathed steadily and thought about the fog, rain, trees, anything that would keep her mind full.
“Ah, the brave Rin,” they railed in a sudden rush against her ear, burrowing their way in.
She jumped, even though she was accustomed to their methods.
“We’ve missed you. So noble. So courageous. You can’t run far enough.”
She denied the insistence of the butterflies in the pit of her stomach and increased her pace defiantly, tightening her grip on Alexander’s arm.
The creatures redoubled their efforts. “You are going to die, you know. You can’t save the world by yourself.”
She was pinned down, flames at her feet. The Mist creatures loved fire, but this time it came with an angry Terran mob. She was tied down while they watched the flames lick at her hungrily. She saw a mixture of fear and hatred in their eyes. They tossed burning sticks at her as she wriggled against the tight ropes binding her.
“I’m trying to help you,” she wanted to gasp, as her dizzied senses caused the world to blur. Angrily, she resisted the urge to cry out and shook her head violently to clear it. She was momentarily successful, but suddenly, the hissing voices began to spin images of the Demon, growing larger and larger before her eyes. She shrank back, trembling as its pulsing red eyes turned to burn into her. Its gaping, smoky mouth opened to consume her. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the evil figure pervaded her thoughts and clawed beneath her eyelids, forcing her to behold its terror.
Nice try, she thought. Not good enough. That Demon was certainly terrifying enough to make her heart race, but she had been in the presence of the real Demon hours earlier. The memory was nothing more than a reminder of how desperately she needed to keep going.
She took a deep breath and lifted her chin in a brave gesture akin to the steady resolve of the last warrior standing on a battlefield strewn with the bodies.
“I’ve spent my whole life afraid, but now I’m in the middle of something bigger than me. Don’t bother me with fear of death,” she finished with an icy tone.
“There is the Rin we knew we would find under that sweet, squishy exterior. Does she remind you of someone?”
The mist swirled and spun an image of Shrilynda with a knife raised to a bloody captive begging for his life. Before she could turn away, Shrilynda morphed into Rin herself and the nameless bloody captive was suddenly the Prince who walked beside her. She meant to turn away, but her eyes widened in horror as she watched herself slit his throat coldly and purposefully. As the Prince’s blood spilled and his struggle to live ceased, Rin was truly shaken. She would never hurt the Prince, but she was sure the Malum’s grand plan hinged on that very act. How did they intend to turn her into that monster? Could she stop it? Had they done it already?
She felt pressure on her arms, and she forced her eyes open. Alexander was there, of course, very much alive. The only way she could kill him now would be to let the Mist creatures deter her from continuing.
Alexander gripped her hand, and they continued quickly along the path, straight through an ominous figure of the Demon who shattered and dissipated into the fog as she approached. The Mist creatures pulled back in angry defeat. Only then did she notice she was shaking.
During the Mist creatures’ attack on Rin, Alexander became progressively more concerned about his nymphesque companion. Despite her assurances of traveling through the Mist before, she was not immune to its effects. Her features were masked in the oppressive fog, but her grip on his arm indicated her agitation. She spoke out confidently in the odd language he could not understand and relaxed her hold after a while, seeming to come back to herself. He was relieved for her sake, but could not help the apprehension he felt at the inevitably of a renewed attack.
“Alexander,” a voice called. He looked around in shock. Whatever he expected, it was not his mother’s voice.
“Alexander,” she said sharply, “what are you doing here?”
The harsh, unforgiving voice was so real, he was tempted to rush into a flood of excuses.
“What do you think you’re going to accomplish here? You’re weak and cowardly, and you fail at everything you do. What do you expect to accomplish on this futile mission?”
His heart sank. Even if his mother’s prickly tirade was the work of the Mist creatures, it was still real. He felt Rin’s reassuring squeeze on his arm, but her strong presence was very little comfort against this particular evil.
“And even worse, you are allowing yourself to be led around by the very lowest kind of vermin there is. She is nothing more than an animal,” his mother’s voice condemned.
He knew listening to this voice was a mistake, and he knew the Rin next to him was only an illusion, but his mind was too slow to stop what happened next. He was propelled to look at Rin, who was as clearly visible as if the fog had lifted. She turned slowly, and he saw her fangs, dripping with blood, before she lunged at him.
Unnerved, he jerked backward, slipped on a branch, and fell to the ground with a thud. His head snapped back to strike the ground, and his vision went black. His hearing remained unencumbered; the rustling all around him was testament to the fact. In an instant, he realized his vision was not impaired, but his surroundings had gone black. His eyes locked on a pair of red ones, and he froze in panic. A throaty growl and the ominous approach of a shadow from the thick darkness caused his icy mind to realize he was no longer on the path.
At least his alarmed mind was his own once more, but thinking clearly was of little use now. His options as he saw them were to move or to remain very still. His body was resistant to any attempts to move, and his mind gave up in despair as the red eyes lunged straight at him. The red eyes came attached to a dark creature with massive claws, eager to dig into him. He could feel these claws stretch toward him in an eerie slow motion, the surreality magnified by the omnipresent fog that made vision uncertain.
He was powerless to stop the creature or escape, but just as he steeled himself to be torn apart, the brutish animal was hurled away with a ferocious growl. Before he could exhale a shaky breath, Rin hauled him to his feet and dragged him back to the path.
Through the thick mists, Pepper and the marsh creature’s struggle was barely visible as distant, murky movement. Alexander shivered, still in shock, but he felt the pressure from Rin’s hands that continued to grasp his arm as she looked on in helpless alarm. Occasionally, the fog would waft aside in a patch, revealing the struggle. The gnarled marsh creature towered above Pepper snarling, saliva foaming and dripping from its angry jaws. Its twisted, powerful body was covered with thick scales, making it both impenetrable and intimidating. Hatred burned in its crimson eyes, and it was consumed with a single-minded desire to destroy the black nuisance.
The deft jaguar managed to avoid most of the marsh beast’s angry slashes, but as the creature’s fury grew, so did its ferocity. With a blind rage, it advanced on the agile cat, slashing madly. A few powerful swipes from the claws that were nearly the end of Alexander forced Pepper to leap backwards.
Already, blood matted Pepper’s dark coat, but he seemed not to notice, concentrating instead on outwitting his burly opponent. They circled each other, Pepper planning his strategy, the beast thinking of new ways to rip its opponent’s head off with its teeth. Pepper growled, taunting the marsh creature. When it pounced, Pepper was already out of reach.
The gnarled creature howled in annoyance, and through its intense hatred did not realize Pepper was now standing mockingly on the path. It lunged forward once more, fire raging in its eyes. Pepper leaped aside as the gnarled, scaly body tumbled past him.
The voices of the Mist creatures rose up once more, but they were no more than angry whispers to Alexander’s ears. However, whatever the marsh creature heard caused it to cower in fear, terror written across its blood red eyes. As they hurried away, Alexander looked back to see the huge beast trapped in its own nightmare. It was being scared to death.
With the torturous Mist creatures occupied, the three were unchallenged as they rushed through the Mist and emerged into the welcoming shadows of the forest.
Rin noticed Pepper’s bloody slashes with worry. The unfortunate jaguar had also wounded one of his back legs and despite his best effort to behave as if nothing was wrong, he limped along painfully behind them.
“We will be stopping soon,” she said, distracted with worry.
Sometime after Alexander’s heart settled back into his chest, the three escapees reached a part of the forest studded with rocks. Rin examined the area for a moment before zeroing in on a large area covered with vines. When she pushed the vines aside, she revealed a dark hole in the rock leading downward. Alexander watched her disappear and eyed the dark pit uneasily. A well-timed howl from deep in the daunting forest sent him scurrying into the dark after her with no more hesitation.
Inside he was able to make out a tunnel sloping down into total darkness. The tunnel was an uncomfortable height, requiring a half-crouch until the ceiling tapered off to force a complete crawl. He worked his way downward, hearing rocks skittering down the tunnel. Soon he could see nothing.
“How can you see anything in here?” he called.
“I can’t see my own hand in front of me.” He stopped to illustrate the fact to himself.
The sound of a snap echoed off the rocks, and a dancing blue flame dimly lit his way. Alexander dropped his hand quickly, hoping his alluring companion was otherwise occupied and not a party to his absurdity. The tunnel was wider and taller now, allowing him to stand up. He brushed off dirt and bits of rock unconsciously until he consciously realized he was in an underground cave, and dirt and bits of rock were inevitable. Rin stood a short way in front of him, examining the pathway ahead. Pepper followed close behind him, wincing with every step.
He felt a surge of gratitude for the creature. He would have died in the marsh if not for the big cat’s heroism.
“Thank you, Pepper,” he said, and the jaguar bumped his leg with his big head before continuing to limp his way down the passage.
“What is this place?” he asked, studying the dimly lit cavern.
“These caves and tunnels seem to stretch more or less southwest.” She waved her hand in what he assumed was a southwesterly direction.
“How did you find them?”
“Pepper and I were staying out of the way one day when he chased a rabbit down the entrance we just used.”
“Staying out of the way?”
“Bellicus business,” she said, as if that answered his question, and she continued undaunted down her own train of thought. “We will stop to rest soon and let any trackers go over us. By the time we come out, they should be far ahead.”
The three continued on while Rin’s flickering light bounced before them and formed playful blue shadows along the cold rock walls. He was curious about the light’s origin, but after reflecting on their situation, Alexander was more concerned about the holes in his rescuer’s plan.
“Won’t the Malum catch us when they come back?”
Rin smiled enigmatically. “We, in turn, will pass right over them.”
While Alexander pondered her words, all three travelers were stopped by what seemed to be a dead end. Instead of changing direction, Rin extinguished her blue flame with a flick of her wrist. Rather than being plunged into darkness as expected, Alexander could see a glow next to Rin, as if she had pushed aside the rock and opened up a glowing hole. She waited for Alexander and Pepper to pass through before following them.
The Prince was brought to a halt as his eyes adjusted to a strange sudden light, and then he was forced to stare in wonder. He had just entered a small cave room whose walls sparkled with color. Huge red, yellow, purple, and blue gems protruded from the walls and glowed with their own light. He held out his hand to one of them and was bathed in a soft red glow. At one end of the strange room sat a pile of blankets, candles, and a pair of battered metal cups, as well as a pile of worn books. The hole in the rock behind him was covered by a shabby, dark curtain concealing this room from the tunnels outside.
As Alexander took in the small sanctuary, Rin tended to her furry patient. She furrowed her brow in silent concern at Pepper’s plaintive yowl when she ran her hands over the leg, and she bound his leg tightly with strips of cloth. After carefully cleaning all of his cuts and scratches, she kissed his head and again told him how brave he was. He soaked up her praise happily before sinking down on the pillow and falling into a much-needed deep sleep. Alexander was more than a bit sorry he had been unconscious for his care.
“I’m sorry,” Alexander sighed, frustrated with himself, “despite all your warnings, those things still caught me by surprise. This is my fault.”
“No,” she assured him earnestly, “do not blame yourself. The Malum live behind the Mists for a good reason. No one gets through.”
She put a comforting hand on his arm, and he saw in her eyes traces of her own battle with the Mist creatures.
“What did they show you?” he asked curiously.
He was sorry the second the words left his mouth. Her eyes went dark, and she pulled back.
“No matter,” he apologized quickly. “I don’t want to answer the question either. If the constant stream of complaints is any indication, the Malum cross the Mist often. How do they do it?”
She relaxed slightly, appreciating the shift in subject.
“A few ways,” Rin tried to explain. “When they travel in big groups, they use protective spells and potions. Sometimes they can cross long distances by leaving special crystals to mark their way. And when they travel alone, some of them can,” she struggled for words, “smoke.”
“Smoke?” He wrinkled his nose in confusion. “You mean what that awful woman did? The…poof.”
A smile broke across her face as he illustrated his point with a dramatic hand gesture.
“Shrilynda would have your head if she heard you describe anything she had done with the word ‘poof.’”
The amusement in her voice was welcome and telling; Rin felt safe here. Before he could psychoanalyze further, the lighter mood caused the night of traveling and additional head injury to sweep over him all at once. He winced before he could stop himself.
She noticed immediately, and ordered him to sit on a smooth rock nearby while she removed the bandage on his head and examined his wound.
“You are healing nicely,” she announced.
“Good,” he proclaimed gladly. “I’d be afraid to disappoint you. You might turn me into a frog.”
Her eyes started to darken, upset at his accusation. Then, she saw his cocky smile.
“I would not do that,” she said innocently. “First of all, I have no chickens with me.”
That was an interesting objection.
“Second, I would be forced to carry you the whole way to Crystal Palace.”
He would be less trouble if carried, but he was smart enough not to argue this point.
“And third—” This was the serious reason. “I do not use Malum spells.”
He gazed at her for a second and shook his head. The Malum girl was not only stunning and compassionate, but she also avoided using Malum spells. If he had not run into her in the middle of a Malum village only a few hours earlier, he would have laughed at the idea she had any kind of affiliation with the cruel, self-serving people.
“You’re amazing,” he decided.
“I doubt you would find anyone to agree with you,” she replied distractedly, fetching a bundle from her satchel.
He caught her hand with his and locked his eyes with hers. “They’re wrong,” he said with a startling determined sincerity.
This time he was sure he saw her cheeks flush pink, and she pulled her hand away from his as if she had discovered it in a patch of poison ivy. Flustered, she unrolled the cloth in her hand, revealing two hunks of bread, one of which she offered him at arm’s length. Unsure whether to be insulted or amused, he took the bread and decided to be neither.
“So you’re the only person who’s ever seen this place?” Alexander picked an innocuous question out of the five hundred clamoring in his head.
“Not exactly.” She swallowed a piece of bread and tried to explain. “One day, while Pepper and I were exploring the caves, we ran across a lost girl named Lael. We were too young then to know we should not be speaking to one another, not that we did much speaking until I learned her language. We had our own secret world for a while; this room was our favorite.” Rin smiled with the memory. “Any time I could sneak away, I would find new supplies here: blankets, cups, books. Very rarely, I would find Lael herself, dragging things in or building tables. We used to say someday we would run away and live here forever.”
Rin trailed off, and Alexander prodded her gently. “What happened?”
“Sneaking away has been harder lately,” Rin finished her story with a sigh. “I have not seen Lael in years.”
The loneliness in her words silenced him briefly, so he waited patiently until Rin shook herself out of reminiscing.
“Let me show you something,” she spoke up with renewed enthusiasm. “Are you thirsty?”
The Prince looked around the cozy, glowing room and raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “All right, I’m game. Where do you propose to find something to drink in your cavern of wonders?”
With dramatic flair, she flung away a fading rug in the corner of the room to reveal a fat, wooden plank serving as a trap door. After Rin pried it up, Alexander was able to see a dark hole in the floor.
With a snap of her fingers, the flickering light again danced into the dark abyss. He noted the unique talent but could make nothing of it. Besides, mysterious lights were not the strangest thing he had encountered today. Without a word, Rin slipped down into the hole, beckoning for Alexander to follow. Curiosity winning over trepidation, he followed her.
He dropped down into a dimly lit tunnel, hearing the welcome sound of rushing water. A bubbling stream wound its way through the rock until it plunged into a crystal clear pool at his feet.
“A short way up the stream is a place where we used to catch small fish,” Rin pointed, filling a discarded bucket with water from the little waterfall.
Alexander’s jaw dropped. “What doesn’t this place have?”
“Sunlight,” she answered quickly.
She pushed the bucket through the hole above her, and adeptly pulled herself back up into the room. She helped Alexander up and pulled the plank and the rug back into place over the door. After filling a small, battered metal cup with water, she handed it to the Prince. Next, she turned her attention to the water skin wedged in her satchel. Loosening it unearthed the dark, mysterious orb that seemed so important to the evil scheming of the Malum. She sat down absently on a nearby rock outcropping and pulled the black sphere out of her satchel, her features contemplative and repulsed at the same time.
Alexander approached cautiously to peek over her shoulder. “What is it?” he asked softly, uncomfortable with Rin’s distress.
She handed the object over without a word, and he took the dull black orb from her curiously. It was a pearl, he noted with surprise, but it was the biggest and darkest he had ever seen. It rested heavily in his palm, small enough to hold but too large to wrap his fingers around fully. Its color was even more peculiar. Even in this room glittering with color, it refused to reflect any light, drawing the cheerful brightness of the room into itself with a gloomy, hungry zeal.
“Apparently this thing is very powerful. The Malum were—are—planning to use this to harness enough evil to bring back a horrible demon,” she shivered involuntarily.
“How does that involve us? I mean,” he corrected, “other than the inevitable enslaving the world part, which I’ll agree is pretty much a bad thing from any perspective.”
Rin shrugged. “Their conversation was confusing. I think they were planning—” She stopped abruptly.
“What were they planning?” he pressed.
She averted her eyes. “I did not understand what they were talking about.”
He recognized this was the closest to dishonesty she had been thus far, making him even more certain of his previous instincts. Her inability to state a half-truth with any confidence meant she was an unpracticed liar, coupled with being terrible at it by nature.
“What were they going to do to me?” he guessed blindly.
Her violet eyes widened slightly in surprise. He had an unmatched talent for guessing information out of people, a talent most people found irritating, especially his boyhood tutors. She bit her lip and stared back at him anxiously.
“I think they were talking about this thing making me evil,” she began, gesturing to the dark orb. “And they said I would…I would kill you.”
Her revelation was less alarming than it should be, probably because she had saved him from death twice already.
“It’s nice to be so popular all of a sudden,” he replied. “Maybe you should put the pearl away for now.”
Rin nodded in agreement, and as if it were burning, she dropped the hungry black orb back into her satchel and flipped the cover to hide it from view.
“Why are the two of us so important to them?” he asked. “No, a more pressing question: do you feel like you’re under their control now or experiencing any violent tendencies?”
She shook her head vehemently.
“I was hoping this would tell the High Queen more.”
The book Rin produced next could not have been more intriguing to Alexander; ancient, thick, leather-clad, and full of yellowing pages were several of his favorite book descriptors. She gingerly flipped through the brittle pages while he took in the Naxturaen script and the elaborate, now-chipped embellishments indicating this volume was the result of a lifetime of work.
She stopped on a page with a magnificent pearl drawn on it. This pearl gleamed, white and glossy.
“And look,” Alexander pointed over her shoulder. “There’s a poem, complete with Terran translation, rewritten to keep the rhyme intact. How typically Naxturaen.”
“What does it say?”
This pearl, formed in ages past
Its tiny form holds power vast
When Naxturaen and royal blood shall mix
A sacred bond shall itself fix
The pearl shall bind to mind and heart
Sphere, ruler, guardian, death only can part
“Strange,” Rin said slowly, contemplating.
“A shoddy simplification is more like it. The Naxturae wrote much better poetry than that. It always loses itself in translation. What does the note say?” Alexander questioned, pointing to the spiky Malum scrawl that was out of place next to the delicate Naxturaen script.
“Hmm…It says…” She turned the book and squinted at the haphazard text, translating carefully. “Successfully introduced evil of Devil’s Rush into pearl. Must unlock there.”
“By all means, let’s avoid going there, then. Where is Devil’s Rush?”
“The Burning Mountains,” Rin answered. “The Malum revere the place, something about walls of fire and a dark pool, filled with the evil of this world and many others.”
The deadly Burning Mountains had never been on his list of places to sightsee. Now he had a dozen more reasons to avoid them.
“What doesn’t fit is the poem,” Alexander contemplated, pulling the book closer. “It sounds like that pearl was to be used by the Naxturae for protection, not world domination.”
He traced the original Naxturaen version with his finger like touching the words would suddenly reveal their meaning, and he mulled over the few he understood. Only vaguely familiar with Naxturaen from his studies, he was no match for the flowery language of the poem. Still, something was bothering him. He was glad the fate of the world did not rest on his ability to recall the self-taught knowledge of a boyhood phase, and he pushed the book back to Rin, assuring her Athena would know what it meant. She carefully packed the ancient volume away.
“You should sleep if you can,” Rin insisted, pointing to a pile of blankets. “I will watch for the Malum to pass over.”
“I can’t let you watch all by yourself,” Alexander tried to object, unable to suppress a yawn despite his best efforts.
“You need sleep,” she ordered, “or you will become sick again.”
His throbbing head was telling him to take advantage of a time to rest. When sleeping on the floor was appealing, he knew he had passed the point of exhaustion.
She shivered. “Besides, I am not tired.”
That blatant lie piqued his curiosity, but not enough to stifle the next yawn.