The Devil's Gift

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XXXIII

We continued to walk briskly through the forest until finally, after many long hours, the path began to get brighter and the forest seemed to thin out until we had managed to clear the trees all together. The setting sun illuminated the scenery in a warm orange glow. The lake of Absconsus was still flowing beside the edge of the forest which spanned for miles across to both the left and the right. We had indeed been very lucky to re discover the path.

‘The sun, I never thought I’d see it again.’ Admitted Sophia as she gazed upon the fiery ball in the sky with a look of someone who had just seen their child for the first time.

‘I’ll wager you’re hungry yes?’ I asked. Sophia nodded, as did Armaita and so, after we walked a bit further on down the open path, glad to be clear of the Forest of Nex, we came upon another clearing that offered the same materials we needed to build another temporary shelter. Once again, Oceana and I set about gathering wood and leaves, it was becoming almost habitual to do this, and had re-created another shelter in no time. It was slightly larger than the previous ones but Sophia was comfortable and that was all I cared for right now. She groaned wearily as she set herself slowly on the floor, manoeuvring with very little agility, impeded by her large stomach.

‘Ugh, I look forward to having my own body back!’ Exclaimed Sophia with a little laugh. I still could not help but look at her stomach knowing my child was in there. It was a wonderful feeling, one I had feared I would never again experience after Maria’s death. It took me a moment to recover from the distracting thought of my future child, the heir to my throne and everything I owned. I would see to it that if nothing, my child alone would be safe. At this moment, there was nothing I would not do for the child.

‘My lord?’ Oceana asked, shaking me from my blissful thoughts.

‘Sorry?’ I asked, confused.

‘I was wondering whether you wanted to accompany me to the lake? We’ll need more food for the journey onwards.’ Though this was true, I also felt there was another reason she wished to speak to me in private. I set about making a large log fire for the angels, first carving out the pit to ensure the fire did not spread unexpectedly, then, I broke down some larger logs and placed them in a circle. As soon as I had lit the fire, and the warmth was beginning to seep into the shelter, I followed Oceana to the edge of the lake a few miles away. Though our speed was stunted, it still did not take long for us to reach the shore. Once there, Oceana rounded on me, a serious look spreading across her face.

‘My lord, the burning, it’s becoming unbearable, we need sustenance. Please do not attempt to insult my intelligence, I can see you feel as I do.’ She added as I opened my mouth to contradict her. There was no use in feigning any longer. I nodded, we needed blood and we needed it soon. We began to calm and allow our senses to take over as we expanded our range of smell and sound, closing our eyes to the instincts that drove us to crave blood.

The sound of the flowing lake was rushing through my ears, it could have been a waterfall. I listened as the fish beneath the surface of the lake swam and slicked their tails, propelling them through the water. Further out I listened. The branches of the trees of Nex were swaying in the breeze, rustling and creaking as the wood strained and stretched. But there, beside the forest’s edge, a little drumming noise caught my attention and I focused on it. It was a heartbeat. It thudded quicker than a human’s, six times a second I counted. I concentrated on its breathing, the breaths came in shallow spurts. I opened my eyes as had Oceana, both of us scouring the forest’s edge, searching for the animal that would sate our appetite. It looked like a dear, the only difference I noticed was that it had six legs and not four. I nodded to Oceana and we took off, leaping forward across the surface of the lake and onto the shore on the opposite side. Once there, we crouched into the tall grass that had grown along the bank and trained our eyes on the animal who was still unaware of our presence. We studied it for a moment as it ate the grass around it.

Once more, Oceana and I made a silent exchange. To be certain this was not some extraordinarily fast animal that could outrun us, highly doubtful but enough to take precautions, I slowly and quietly withdrew a small knife, about the size of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. The blade was sharp blade-weighted, perfect for throwing. I motioned my intentions to Oceana who seemed only too eager for the animal to be dead. With perfect precision, I aimed for the jugular of the six-legged deer and threw the blade hard. I watched it as the blade rotated through the air, its target clear. My aim was true and perfect and the blade sunk deep into the jugular of the unsuspecting animal. It began to thrash around for a second but it was hopeless, the blade had found its mark and the animal’s movements became weak and it slumped onto its side.

We wasted no time in closing the distance and were immediately looking down on the large animal, a knife protruding from its neck. We both bent low over the animal and was instantly overcome by instinct. I sunk my canines into the neck of beast and began to drink deeply. My body entered the familiar internal frenzy and I was overcome with adrenaline that surged through me. It didn’t take long for the beast to lose all its blood, between myself and Oceana, we drained the animal in a few minutes. As we raised our heads, it was instantly apparent we were both satisfied. We stood slowly, admiring the animal.

‘I really had hoped that wasn’t necessary.’ Mumbled Oceana.

‘So did I, what an extraordinary animal.’ I replied. Together, we left the deceased animal and headed to the lake as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. We quickly gathered some more fish, though Sophia would likely be irritated at fish again, she said nothing when we got back. Once more, Armaita held the fish in the fire; we refused to accept Sophia do it due to her powers weakening, we were unsure whether she could withstand the fire as she used to. Ash the fish began to sizzle and pop and the sky grow steadily darker, conversation turned to our destination.

‘Scientia…’ Mused Oceana.

‘Yes,’ Piped up Armaita who’d been listening in to Oceana’s spoken thoughts, ‘it means knowledge, it’s Latin.’ She informed her.

‘So, The Kingdom of Scientia, it’s the Kingdom of Knowledge?’ She asked Armaita.

‘Yes, what better place to keep a weapon of God, than in a kingdom built on knowledge?’ The irony was hard to miss.

‘Well, even though our reason for being here is somewhat, morbid, I have to admit, I’m glad I’m here.’ Oceana said. That I could not argue, this place was so magical, so unlike anything I’d ever experienced, you’d have to be mad to not love the place, even with its dangers.

‘Well,’ groaned Sophia as she tilted onto her side, ‘I want to meet the rulers of Scientia, I wonder if they’re even human?’

‘I’ve never even thought about that, I’ve been so distracted with everything.’ I responded. Now that I had come to think about it, I was quite eager to meet the Agarthians as I called them. Their knowledge must be vast if they had a whole kingdom based on the word alone. Sophia began to stretch and yawn as Armaita brought her some food and the leather drinking bag. She slowly ate the fish in silence and Armaita joined her. It was not long after that, Sophia decided it was time for her to sleep. Oceana took watch and I kept close by the tent with her, eyes peeled, blood lust satisfied.

The darkness began to swallow the clearing in its unyielding form and only the merrily popping fire produced any sort of light. Sophia soon slipped into a heavy sleep and Armaita followed not long after, their slow, shallow breathing working in unison. There was little talk through the night and the time passed quickly. Before we were even aware of it, the morning sun was creeping through gap in the trees. Sophia and Armaita began to stir as the warm light fell over their closed eyelids. I rapidly put out the fire and began disassembling the make-shift tent as Sophia woke up. Oceana and I gathered our supplies, and after a quick stop to allow the angels a drink, we were on our way once more. It did not take long for the long path to show us the Mountains of Ardua in the distance. The mountains were tall and towered into the sky. As far as even I could see, the mountains blocked our only path to the kingdom and we were to make our way through them.

‘Wow, I’ve never seen mountains that high.’ Gasped Armaita. We began to loom ever closer to the mountains but Sophia had now become easily fatigued causing us to stop for a while every few hours. It was not long after our second stop, did the lake begin to slowly bare to the left. We began to fast approach the mountains that looked even bigger up close. They towered over us like a giant predator, and we were its prey. We searched for what felt like hours, the sun beginning to set around us, for an entrance to the mountain path. We hunted and hunted for the elusive path, but were forced to admit defeat when the light began to quickly fade from the sky.

‘It’s not here, there is no way through!’ Exclaimed Oceana, some hours after searching for it.

‘Well there is obviously a way through.’ Armaita said.

‘Where then?’ Responded Oceana hotly. It had been an unpleasant journey for all of us and now tension was beginning to fill the air.

‘Do I look like I live here?’ Armaita said defensively. As Oceana opened her mouth to retort, Sophia interrupted,

‘Look, we’ll find the way through, but it looks like it’s not going to be tonight.’ Armaita and Oceana fired Sophia with an annoyed look but remained silent. Once more, we began to scour the surrounding area for any chance of cover, but were afforded none of the benefits that were made readily available on our previous night. Instead, we found a small cave, barely enough room for us all to fit inside, but it did the job and for that, I at least, was grateful. Oceana and Armaita did not look at each other and attempted to sit the furthest away from each other as physically possible in such a confined space. Once more, the sound of heavy breathing filled the room as Armaita and Sophia fell asleep leaving Oceana and I awake, watching the entrance. I watched with an eager eye as the moon broke through the overhanging clouds. It spilled bright, silvery light onto my feet and face. I had always loved being in moonlight. It was like I’d been given extra power or something of the sort. It seemed to somehow complete me. It was a rather difficult to explain as I had once tried to with Reyjak who merely fixed me with an odd stare and asked if I was alright.

‘My lord.’ Came a sharp whisper from inside the cave. I did not turn my head, my eyes too fixated on the beautiful moon and the pictures it created in the scenery.

‘What?’ I whispered back, intent on keeping Sophia asleep.

‘Look, quickly!’ She said. Annoyed, I turned and looked behind me. On the back wall of the cave, where the moonlight was shining, was the silhouette of a woman. She had no face, no features or face, but it was clearly a woman, the contours of her body proved that much. She did not move, nor did she react when Oceana stood carefully and slowly approached it.

‘Who are you?’ She whispered.

‘I am the one you seek. You do not know that it is me you seek, but I can show you the way. We have until dawn.’ Her words were faded and uttered in a hush, but loud whisper that sent a cold shiver running down my spine. She spoke as if from across a veil. Her voice seemed to moan as she spoke.

‘Where?’ Oceana whispered back.

‘I have existed for many years, I am the guardian of the mountain, only I know the path that you seek.’ She whispered loudly, her voice still carrying a long moaning edge to it.

‘You’ll tell us?’ Oceana asked. Somehow, I knew her next answer, it could not be so simple.

‘If you can answer me this question, I will show you the path. Fail, and you will never reach the Kingdom of Scientia.’ Oceana looked back at me.

‘What’s the question?’ I asked the Lady in Silver.

I am teary-eyed but never cry, silver tongued but never lie. Double winged but never fly, air-cooled but never dry.’ Her mystical voice spoke around us, though it did not seemed to come from her, it was as if she was all around us.

I racked my brains, Sophia and Armaita still fast asleep. It took me a while but the lady did not press me for an answer. I beckoned Oceana to come to me; one wrong answer and we never make it, this was crucial.

‘Teary-eyed but never cry.’ Oceana repeated quietly to me.

‘Silver tongued but never lie. I don’t know what that could be, what’s the next bit?’ I asked her.

‘Double-winged but never fly, air-cooled but never dry.’ We both sat rigid, our minds ticking away when finally, Oceana’s head shot up,

‘I’ve got it!’ She exclaimed, and then bolted over to the Lady in Silver.

‘No! Wait! You could be wrong, tell me!’ I half-whispered half-shouted. She ignored me, much to my anger, and spoke loud and clear to the silvery silhouette.

‘It is the element Mercury.’ She informed her boldly. I waited with bated breath, if she was wrong, she’d have doomed us all.

‘Follow me.’ The lady finally spoke. I heaved a sigh of relief as the silhouette crossed the wall and headed outside, clinging to the rocky face of the mountain. I quickly woke Sophia and Armaita who stirred sleepily.

‘What? Roconn, what are you talking about?’ Sophia slurred in her sleepy voice.

‘Get up, quickly, we’ve found the way through the mountain, I’ll explain later, hurry!’ Sophia and Armaita hurriedly got up and followed us, somewhat moodily, outside where the slight chill of wind forced Sophia to drape the blanket over her shoulder, Armaita mimicking her.

Oceana had kept track of the Lady in Silver as it crossed the mountain wall. I scanned quickly to see if I could spot her. I quickly caught sight of glinting light that turned out to be Oceana reflecting the moonlight with a small dagger in order to get my attention.

‘Come, quickly!’ I motioned to Armaita and Sophia who followed with confusion. We sped along the rocky face of the mountain until we finally reached Oceana who was facing the silhouette. All was silent as we waited for her next instruction.

‘The route ahead is perilous, enter further at your own risk.’ She spoke in her whispering voice before she faded and disappeared.

‘Wait, come back!’ I shouted, ‘Where do we go?’

‘She’s gone, sire. The entrance must be around here somewhere!’ Oceana exclaimed. Oceana and Armaita, who had seemingly forgotten their little dispute, searched the rock face frantically for any sign of weak spots or points of entry.

‘What was that?’ Sophia asked. I began to explain how the figure had appeared and gave us a riddle, and the consequence should we fail. Sophia’s face widened in shock as she listened to the recounted story.

‘So that’s why we brought you here, we couldn’t afford to lose her.’ I finished.

‘So how do we enter then?’

‘I don’t know’ I admitted, she said to enter at our own risk, but she never said anything further, you heard that yourself.

‘This might seem a bit, unorthodox, but maybe we should try asking.’ Suggested Armaita.

‘I don’t follow.’ I responded, confused.

‘Well that thing, whatever it was, sad we should enter at our own risk, right? Well maybe we have to ask, it would certainly show we’re willing to enter at our own risk.’

‘Well, considering everything else has been a complete mystery, I certainly won’t dismiss the idea.’ I said. I motioned Armaita to follow up on Ocean’s suggestion.

‘You want me to ask?’ She said, slightly taken aback.

‘Well it was your idea.’ Oceana responded.

‘You’re right, ok, erm…’ Armaita turned and faced the spot where the Lady in Silver had disappeared. ‘I wish to pass through the Mountains of Ardua?’ Armaita seemed hesitant to ask, and her expression was evident it made her feel a bit silly. As she turned in disappointment, a loud, echoing rumble began to sound around us, almost like there was something tunnelling behind the rock. I took a step back. The wall in front began to split and crack and dust clouded the air. The dust was so thick I could not see more than two feet in any direction. Sophia began to shield her eyes, clinging on tight to my hand. The space around us began to fill with loud rumbles and crashes, then, there was silence. As the dust settled, it became clear the rock had fallen away from the mountain face and what was left behind, was a large, open pathway.

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