Terra Incognita—Chapter 7

Chapter 7

As night fell, they made camp along the banks of the river as thick fog began to roll in from the Misteld. The surrounding grassy hills and even the river beyond a few yards soon was lost in a gray haze, illuminated only by the full moon that had reached it zenith before the sun had disappeared over the horizon. The fog not only obscured their vision, but sounds as well seemed to only penetrate a short distance into the mist. Even the gentle rushing of the river a few feet away sounded muffled compared to its earlier cacophony.

Wilkey and Heather sat opposite of each other across a small fire. After a dinner of dried meat eaten in relative silence, Marcus had walked up the riverbank to collect his thoughts and decide on what course they should take, leaving the two of them to their own thoughts.

“So, how long have you and Marcus known each other?” Wilkey asked, his high, casual voice grating in Heather’s ears in the gloom of the fog. She was amazed upon listening to the halfling that his voice carried a subtle accent that she most closely associated with native New Yorkers and the effect was almost comic in their current setting.

“I’ve known him for about ten years,” she answered. “We met in college.”

Wilkey smiled and nodded sagely, although Heather doubted whether he knew what college was or even what the concept of a year meant, if time passed differently in this strange land.

“You didn’t know him when he came her as a youth?” he asked, his pronunciation of “youth” recalling to her mind Joe Pesci. The resemblance with Pesci continued with the halfling’s diminutive stature, but ended there. Wilkey possessed a wiry build and a young face, except for tiny lines that had begun to appear around the corners of his eyes. His thin nose ended in an absurdly sharp point that looked as though it would puncture his hand should he sneeze into it.

“No,” she answered. “Or else I might have known about all of this.” Heather waved her hand to indicated the thick wall of fog surrounding them all.

“He never mentioned anything about us?” Wilkey asked, sounding somewhat hurt.

“No, not that I would have believed him,” she said, thinking of the scene in the Toyota on their way to Kentucky.

Wilkey sat silent for a long while, staring into the campfire. Then, he pulled a blanket from his pack, arranged it neatly in the tall grass, and lay back upon it, closing his eyes.

Heather tried to fight the question she had been wondering about since the episode with the centaurs the previous day. “What was he like before? Marcus?” she asked, her voice hurried as though she were pushing out the words. “When he had this power everyone keeps talking about?”

The halfling opened one eye, regarding her for a moment, then opened the other and leaned up onto his elbows. He stared into the fire again and wrinkled his brows. Heather could not tell if he was trying to remember or if he was simply trying to decide how to word his response.

“Marcus first came here as a young boy in your terms,” the halfling began. “He happened upon Yellow Banks and got into a bit of trouble with some men who hoped to sell him down the river.”

Heather had no idea what selling someone down the river meant, but it brought to mind tales of slave trading from before America’s Civil War.

Wilkey continued. “Three of them attacked him and just when they were about to grab him, he waved his hand at them and flames shot out. The three men ran off and never came back to Yellow Banks. Marcus discovered that he could do all sorts of things, amazing things. Anything he wanted to do he could do it—produce fire or lightning or water, control the wind, create things out of the air—anything. All he had to do was think about it.

“Pretty soon he was out travelling here and there, fighting evil and rescuing ladies and whatever other trouble he could get into. He grew up a lot here, but eventually he came less and less and then he stopped coming altogether. Those of us who knew him best guess when he left the last time that we would not see him again. He left me his magical items to watch over, which he never would have done if he had any intention of ever returning. Even Erasmus knew he was not coming back.

“Who was Erasmus,” Heather interrupted, asking the other question she was most curious about. “How did he and Marcus meet and how did he send us a letter on . . . on our side?”

Wilkey shrugged. “I don’t know anything about a message sent to you, but I do know about Erasmus. Marcus met him during a particularly nasty ambush some ogres had set, knowing Marcus was in the area. The ogres pressed him pretty hard and might have killed him except for the intervention of Erasmus. He never told us where he came from and I don’t know that he knew himself. He did have some of the same abilities as Marcus, though, and it was a pretty good thing that day. He distracted the ogres enough to allow Marcus to escape, almost at the cost of his own life. From that day on, Marcus never went anywhere without Erasmus. Like brothers, those two, and Erasmus seemed to always know when Marcus was coming. He’d wait by the cave for him, infuriating the centaurs, but he was always there when Marcus came over.

“Still, as Marcus grew older, they seemed to grow apart. They never fought, they just didn’t seem to enjoy being around each other as much. I think Erasmus became jealous over the power Marcus had, which just seemed to grow the more he was here, and I think Marcus got bored and started to take more interest in other things, pretty girls, for instance.”

The halfling raised his eyebrows and looked meaningfully at Heather.

“So where do you fit in with all of this?” Heather asked, skipping over the innuendo. “How did you and Marcus become acquainted?

“Now, that’s a good story,” Wilkey said. “One fine morning as I was about to be hanged in Yellow Banks over a slight misunderstanding with a wealthy merchant, Marcus and Erasmus walked into town and asked what was going on. The sheriff explained the merchant’s side of things and conveniently forgot to tell Marcus my point of view. I remember Marcus looking up at me standing on the gallows, just a small boy by your standards, and it seemed like he was looking into me, right down into my soul.” He patted his chest for emphasis. “Then he asked that I be released into his charge and offered to pay double restitution to the merchant. The merchant was a greedy bastard who cared more about getting rich than seeing me die, although not by much, and he agreed to the deal. Marcus had just come from a rather fruitful excursion and had just enough gold to pay the man off.

“As you can imagine, I was overjoyed to not have my neck stretched, but I was suspicious about what motives Marcus had for saving me. By that time, he had gained a reputation around here as a sort of savior, crossing the lands looking for wrongs to right. When he took me into his service, he had a lot of doubters, but he said he needed someone with my particular skills to help him and I’ve been faithful to him ever since.”

“What skills?” Heather asked suspiciously.

“You know . . . the regular stuff–picking locks, disarming traps, and the occasional close combat when things get a little chaotic.”

“So, you’re a thief,” she said it as a question, but her tone proclaimed it as more of a statement.

“Why, no, good lady,” Wilkey responded, surprised. “I am merely an opportunist who believes in using the talents he has for a greater good.”

“Like stealing gems from elves?”

Wilkey seemed taken aback and for the first time since she and Marcus had picked him up, Heather found him at a loss for words. Rather than press the matter, she changed the subject.

“Who are these elves we’re going to see anyway? What can they do to help us?” she asked.

Wilkey lay back down on his blanket and stared up into the thick fog drifting over the campsite. “They’re considered the last bastion of knowledge in this land, although even they are drifting into decay along with the rest of us. Glenfold used to be a place of amazing beauty, but time has removed its shine. It is still an enchanted place, to be sure, but even the elven kingdom cannot last forever.”

The halfling, apparently tired or bored with conversation, rolled over and faced away from Heather. Soon, his light, whistling snores could be heard drifting across the fire in a slow rhythm.

Heather looked up the riverbank into the swirling fog rolling in from the river. It swept by like gray curtains, hiding what lay ahead for them. She thought she could just make out the outline of Marcus a few yards away, a form darker than the darkness around him sitting on the edge of the whispering river. She wondered what he was thinking and, for a moment, if it was her.

Lying back on her leather pack, she soon fell into the welcome respite of sleep herself and her light snores joined those of the halfling.

Marcus sat on the bank of the Misteld and stared into his own mind. He could see a small patch of the river beneath the blanket of fog that surrounded him, but paid it no attention. With his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around them, his eyes focused on nothing but the swirling fog, allowing his memory to replay back the events of the day. Cold sweat, having nothing to do with the weather, beaded him from head to foot and chilled him, though he would get no closer to the fire until he was ready to rejoin the others. One question rolled around in his head, filling him with fear and dread, all the more because he could find no answer to it.

“What if she had died?” he asked himself again, repeating the question to himself over and over as if doing so would make the answer obvious. His practical side suspected that he would continue on his quest, but his heart told him not to be so sure.

As he had crouched next to Heather in the pub, certain death poised over them both, he found an absolute fear that he had not known existed until that point, not fear for himself, but fear for her. He had cheated death too many times to remember in this magical realm, but never had he been solely responsible for the safety of one he loved as much as he loved Heather. In the wake of the their relationship’s failings, Marcus seemed to forget how much he truly loved the woman he now faintly heard snoring from beside the fire. The thought of the fear, the helplessness, that had crashed down upon him as they faced the halfling boss in the pub brought a wave of nausea that still had not completely passed, and grew stronger when he imagined the blade raised high, prepared to strike.

He looked at the camp briefly, seeing the soft glow of the dying fire as a nebulous glow in the mist. A strong desire came to him, a desire to walk over and sweep Heather into his arms and hold her until time ended, but he resisted. His cheek still stung slightly from her earlier assault, and he had no intention of allowing her to reinforce the pain.

Turning his attention back to the river, he thought of the elves and prayed to any forces that might be listening that they would know why his power had departed. No, not departed, he thought, it’s only hiding.He could still feel the power, like the hum of a generator far below ground, could sense its almost electric charge around him, but it felt as if a wall had been erected to prevent him from reaching it, using it, controlling it. His attention turned back away from his inward thoughts and he found himself actually reaching out, his hand stretching into the fog before him.

He pulled his hand back and sighed. He knew they could reach Glenfold by nightfall the next day if they made good time, but it would require a fierce march along the river over uneven and difficult terrain. He wondered what was going through Heather’s mind as they walked, whether she had decided that he was not worth the effort, especially after dragging her to this world where so many things could mean the end of not only their relationship, but also the end of their lives. He felt hopeless and alone. Despite rejoining with Wilkey, he longed for the company of Erasmus, who always seemed to know the right thing to say or do while Marcus faced the troubling days of his youth.

Marcus tried desperately to express confidence and poise with Heather from the moment they had exited the cave, even when he discovered that his powers had fled, but he questioned how long he could pretend that he was not scared of dying, or worse, of losing her.

His troubled mind offering no rest, Marcus returned to camp and sat next to the fire. He studied Heather closely, her beautiful face relaxed in sleep, and tears streamed down his face unchecked and fell onto his robes. For most of the night, he sat awake, looking at the most important thing to him in the world, in any world, and swore that he would find a way to protect her at any cost.

After waking Wilkey for his turn at watch, Marcus fell asleep just as they sky began to lighten, heralding the sun’s imminent arrival. When he awoke a few hours later, the thick fog still hovered about them dreamlike and filtered the light appearing over the horizon into a shifting curtain of yellow. He was covered with a thin layer of condensation that gave him a deep chill as it seeped through his robes. Wilkey and Heather, their possessions already packed and ready, waited in silence for Marcus to dry off as best he could and set them off again toward Glenfold.

For several hours, they marched in near silence, any conversation dampened by the forbidding mist all about them. Their only source of navigation was the river, burbling and swishing ever to their left as they walked along its bank. Trees appeared at sparse intervals along their path, emerging from the fog like great, lanky beasts ready to snatch them up for a morning meal. Marcus would frequently stop and listen to any noise arising from the grayed-out landscape as their passage caused many animals to stir and flee in their wake.

As the sun rose higher into the clear sky, the fog began to burn off, leaving more and more of the land visible to the travelers. The river was revealed gradually, its waters flowing lazily toward the elven kingdom that lay ahead. When the sun reached its zenith, Marcus called a halt so they could take a light lunch before continuing on. He felt the sense of urgency building again, whispering in his ear that they should move as quickly as possible and not tarry any longer that necessary. Marcus felt a distinct feeling of foreboding as they ate in silence and he guessed the same pall had fallen upon Heather and Wilkey. They had not continued their conversation from the previous night, nor had Heather asked any more questions. He knew there were many other questions revolving slowly in her ever-curious mind, but he also knew that she would ask them when time and context allowed.

They set out again after finished their meal and continued on along the banks of the Misteld for some time before Wilkey, who had been covering rear guard, passed Heather and caught up with Marcus.

“Have you thought about what will happen when we reach Glenfold?” the halfling asked.

Marcus thought he heard a dash of amused expectation in Wilkey’s voice, but convinced himself that he had imagined it.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m going to ask the elders if they know what has happened to me. Why I can’t produce more than a tiny flame.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” the halfling said, the amusement definitely there and more pronounced. “I’m talking about her.”

“Heather?” Marcus asked, completely at a loss of what Wilkey was getting at.

“No, your other her.”

“My other . . . “ he began, then realization struck him like a brick. He stopped in mid-stride, nearly tripping over a thick knot of grass. Behind him, Heather stopped and looked around nervously. The fog had lifted completely, but her eyes remained wide and vigilant, looking for anything she thought might be remotely dangerous after their close call of the previous day.

“Yes, her,” Wilkey repeated. “Lorelei.”

Marcus glanced back and saw that Heather still remained thankfully out of earshot, although she regarded the pair with apprehensive curiosity. Marcus walked on, Wilkey at his elbow, waiting for his reply.

“She’s just a child,” Marcus said at last. “She’ll have to understand that childhood crushes . . . that puppy love . . . those things fade over time.”

“First,” Wilkey said, now taking obvious delight in Marcus’s lack of comfort on the subject. “I think you’ll find that she’s no longer the child you remember. Second, I think you may have underestimated her “childhood crush” as you call it.”

Marcus sighed, seeing a new complication to his already complicated return to this land. In his mind he recalled a beautiful elven girl and the promise he made to her and, despite his feelings for Heather, he felt something inside him stir. A feeling of dread crept into his gut, but beneath that something stronger, nervous excitement, at the thought of seeing Lorelei again. Combining with these two emotions, another built up to join them as he looked back at Heather stepping along behind them, careful to avoid the tangles of underbrush that grew along the riverbank. He looked at her, scared but resolute, and beautiful, and felt a flood of guilt over his growing excitement.

Looking down at Wilkey, still at his elbow and staring up at him with a sly grin, he shrugged. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime, we should focus on trying to get to Glenfold before dark. I have a bad feeling about what may happen if we don’t.”

Wilkey let the subject go and fell back behind Heather in their small column. Marcus could hear Heather questioning him about their conversation and the halfling’s refusal to share any information.

“We’re just talking about what we’re going to do when we get to the elven realm,” Wilkey answered her, not quite lying, but obscuring enough of the truth to make Heather suspicious. She certainly was not stupid and knew Marcus well enough to know that their discussion had not been nearly so simple.

“And what is that?” Heather asked.

“Get something to drink,” the halfling answered with a wink.

As they walked on beside the whispering Misteld, the high grass gave way to a gradually thickening forest, tall oaks and ashes reaching for the sun arcing high overhead. A soft breeze blew through the canopy, stirring the leaves and scattering the beams of sun that shone down among them. The underbrush, though, also grew thicker, slowing their progress as they paused now and then to extricate themselves from brambles.

Marcus could almost feel the sun sliding down to its bed over the horizon and as it grew ever closer, his sense of nervousness increased. His feeling of dread grew steadily stronger as the shadows lengthened in the trees. For some reason he could not explain, he wanted to be within the relatively safe confines of the elven kingdom before nightfall, but as he led them ever closer to the borders Heather stopped, sitting down heavily on a fallen tree.

Marcus heard her halt and turned to look at her with wide eyes. Casting a nervous glance at the trees all around, he motioned for her to get up.

“I can’t,” she stated flatly. “I can’t go any more today.”

Marcus looked around again, as if expecting some horrible monster to erupt from the underbrush and devour them whole. “Come on, it’s not much further,” he said.

Heather shook her head and Marcus saw she was weary to the bone. Although they had been hiking several times on the various trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, those had only been casual occasions, more to find a quiet place to make love than for the actual sport of it. He tried to think of those times, happier days when making love was still very much on their minds.

After a long moment, Wilkey cast the deciding vote. “I think we ought to stop, Marcus. It’s getting too dark to find our way through these woods,” the halfling said.

Marcus stepped and looked away into the darkening wood. He wanted to scream at them, rant and rave until they understood the urgency that he felt, but he dared not raise his voice with the unseen menace he sensed almost looming over them.

“Okay,” he said in a low voice, turning back to them. “But no fire. As little talk as possible. And we keep a watch all night.”

Heather looked up at him, then took a quick look around into the trees. “What’s wrong?”

Wilkey was already unpacking their evening meal. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s bothering you?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Marcus answered. “Maybe nothing. I just have a bad feeling about tonight, that’s why I want to keep a watch. Just a precaution.”

“Okay,” Wilkey said jovially. “You first then, me second, and milady here will go third.”

Heather nodded her approval, and accepted the dried meat and cup of water the halfling offered her. She said nothing, but slid down the fallen trunk and leaned against it, closing her eyes as she ate.

Within a half hour, both Heather and Wilkey fell fast asleep, leaving Marcus with his stomach clenched with foreboding. The sounds of night closed around them with the darkness and soon he could only see faint outlines of his two companions lying only a few feet away among the grass and dead leaves. Both snored lightly again, but to Marcus the sound seemed magnified, as though they were breathing through bullhorns. He wondered if they would even wake if something attacked them in the night, tired as they were from the day’s march.

Marcus stared down at the dark outline of his hands. He could feel them tremble slightly, his fingers moving of their own volition as they were prone to do when he felt stress, very rare moments considering his reputation among the management of SportsWorld for being cool under the most chaotic conditions. He considered using his time alone to try again to reach his lost powers, but decided not to dare drawing any more attention to their camp than the whistling snores were already.

He waited. For an interminable time he stared into the darkness, listening for any change in the sounds of insects and night birds. He could hear the faint murmur of the Misteld through the trees and once again, though he could only feel it and not see it, the fog rolled in from the river. A few times he thought he heard steps trudging through the underbrush and considered lighting his thumb to investigate. He swallowed the notion with great difficulty, holding the ornate hilt of the knife at his belt all the while.

After several hours, Marcus finally began to feel himself succumbing to the weariness that had already claimed the others. Despite his efforts to remain alert, his eyelids grew leaden and drooped slowly down, imperceptible in the absence of light. He allowed his eyes to close, realizing that he should wake Wilkey soon for his turn at watch, when his eyes popped wide open, a sudden strong feeling of being watched seizing him and shaking him awake.

He opened his eyes, but otherwise did not move, afraid to indicate his presence to whoever or whatever he felt watching him. He could still hear Heather and Wilkey breathing steadily near him. He cast his gaze upward slowly, scanning the darkness stretching away from him, looking for anything, listening for anything that may give away the location of the intruder in their midst.

Some distance away, two points of red light shone faintly among the trees. They did not flicker, momentarily blocked by eyelids. Their illumination remained constant and unwavering, though sometimes gaining a corona as a tendril of fog passed before them. He could see no source of the lights, the darkness surrounding them being absolute.

Marcus stood, his eyes focused on the two red lights as he did so. He tried to judge the distance to them, thinking to rush out and take the initiative before anything could attack them, but in the complete blackness of the woods, he could not determine if the lights were five yards or fifty yards into the trees. His feet edged toward them, quietly shuffling among the dead leaves. He stared desperately into the dark, trying to force his eyes to see what menace stood there, watching with what he knew were two red eyes, but still he only saw the two red dots against the velvety black night.

As he continued to edge closer, Marcus bumped Wilkey with his foot, causing the halfling to snore loudly and stir, crunching the leaves below him.

“My turn for watch already?” the halfling asked sleepily. “I haven’t slept at all.”

Marcus looked down quickly, prying his eyes off the red lights just a moment to whisper a sharp warning to the halfling. He looked back up a second later, and the lights were no longer there.

Marcus felt the hair raise on the back of his neck and gooseflesh race down his entire body. He looked around frantically for the lights, but saw only inky blackness. Drawing his knife, he forced himself to calm down and think, but found no better solution than to wait and try to listen above the sound of his blood rushing through his ears.

For the remainder of the night, Marcus stood and stared into the dark woods around him. Even as the first gray light of dawn filtered through the leaves to show the forest floor, he watched intently for the red lights to return. As soon as the light was sufficient, he walked out in the direction he thought the lights had been.

He searched the underbrush as he walked, slowly scanning each plant for some sign of passage. Finally, about twenty yards out from where Wilkey and Heather still slept, he saw a small patch of thick grass, hardly bigger than the area two feet would occupy standing there, trampled flat. The blades, instead of green, were a dark, dead brown in two elongated shapes that resembled footprints, in sharp contrast to the vibrant green plants all around. The fog had left a coating of condensation on the underbrush, but on the brown patches of grass, the dew had frozen, hanging from the dead blades like white claws.

Marcus searched the ground around the footprints for some time and found no other traces of whatever had caused such a scene. Whatever had stood in that spot staring at them with its red eyes seemed to have simply appeared then disappeared. Worried, but thankful that daylight had come again, he returned to the camp and found Wilkey and Heather both awake.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” the halfling asked, chewing on a piece of dried deer meat. “You didn’t have to stay up the whole night, although I do appreciate the sleep.”

He considered telling them about the mysterious red points of light he had seen and the traces left in the forest by their owner, but the concerned look on Heather’s face stopped him.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d let the two of you rest,” he told them, looking away from Heather in case she could see some sign of the lie on his face. “I’ll get enough rest when we are safely within the borders of Glenfold.”

Marcus felt weariness crawling all over his body and with many miles yet to go before reaching the elven lands, he wanted nothing more than to lie down as they had done and sleep long into the day. However, he thought of their voyeur with hellfire for eyes and knew that they must reach Glenfold by dark or the next visit would not be so benign.

They ate quickly in the gathering light of dawn, light dampened by the remnants of the fog stretching out from the river and by the oncoming clouds moving in over the trees, gray and threatening of rain. Within twenty minutes, they began their trek again, picking through the underbrush single file, each consumed in his or her own thoughts.

As they walked, the forest grew denser and the underbrush grew thinner, allowing them to pick up their pace dramatically. To their left, the Misteld sang its watery song, never far from their straining ears among the other sounds of the deep woods. The terrain began a gradual decline after a while, and the sound of the river grew harsher and louder, indicating a section of rapids interrupting the smooth flow of the water. Frogs belted out their invitation to the imminent rain, their croaks blending into the burbling of the turbulent water to produce an almost comical symphony of nature.

They walked easily as they passed further into the valley. Despite the change in weather, their spirits grew lighter as they neared the borders of Glenfold, even allowing for idle conversation in hushed voices. The sides of the valley rose up on either side of them like great waves of multi-colored foliage and Heather beamed in their beauty. Marcus looked back at her at one point and she, forgetting herself for a moment, gave him a dazzling smile, reminding him poignantly of their happier times together. Turning his attention back to the path ahead, he tried to commit to memory that smile so that, if all other causes were lost, he would have that one image to fall back on.

At last, sometime past midday as far as Marcus could tell, they came to a clearing where the river, running parallel to them for their entire journey, forked around a grove of majestic oaks advancing off into the valley. The left branch snaked away from them, disappearing around a bend beyond their line of sight, and the right branch spread before them, flowing swiftly between them and their destination.

“There it is,” Marcus told Heather. “Glenfold, the elven realm.”

Heather looked across the wide river with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen trees so . . . so beautiful,” she whispered so that Marcus barely heard her over the rushing water.

“Now,” Wilkey chimed in. “How do we get across?”

Marcus stared across the water at the distant bank. He still felt unseen eyes observing them, waiting for an opportunity to catch them unawares, and knew they needed to cross before dark. Even in his younger days when he could command the elements, he never crossed the elven border without invitation. He would send a message, usually by charming a song bird, and send it in advance of his arrival at the river. When he came to the river in those earlier days, he would find a path through the water, similar to the biblical story of Moses parting the Red Sea. Now he felt another correlation to that story, knowing that he must lead his companions across or face certain death if night fell around them on the side they now occupied.

Heather walked down the water’s edge and looked appraisingly at it, even dipping the toe of her boot into the water. “It’s cold,” she said. “But I think we could probably swim across.”

“No, we can’t,” Marcus said. He looked down upon the bank of the river and bent to pick up a small, flat stone at the water’s edge. He considered it thoughtfully for a moment, then drew back and slung it skipping along the surface of the river. The stone skimmed across until it reached a point halfway between the two banks, then it stopped suddenly with a musical ping before slipping out of sight.

“Magical protection,” Marcus said in response to Heather’s inquiring look. “We could swim to that point, then we’d have to come back or drown.”

Still, the experiment triggered something in his memory and he struggled with it for only a few moments before he found it. Marcus recalled a day long ago when the elves would not lower their magical shield for anyone, yet he had managed to cross. The elves had prepared a contingency for one of their own travelling who returned to find the path across the river impassable and Marcus had learned it long ago from a beautiful elven girl.

Lorelei.

Marcus scanned the ground again, looking for another stone, but one very particular and very out of place along the bank of a river. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a glassy black piece of obsidian lying half-obscured in the mud at the edge of the water. He pried it loose as it gave a tiny squelching sound as if it was loathe to leave it riverside view. Using an inside corner of his cloak, he wiped the stone clean and found that it was perfectly round, nearly the size of a tea saucer, and remarkable light in his hands.

Heather and Wilkey, who had been staring at Marcus with unveiled curiosity, now stared at the obsidian disk in wonder.

“What’s that?” Wilkey asked.

Marcus held the disk up, feeling the first drops of rain fall as he did. Droplets of water landed on the stone forming tiny black beads on its surface.

“It’s our key,” Marcus told them.

“Okay,” Heather said, her voice taking on a tone of annoyed skepticism as they rain began to fall harder. “Then where’s the keyhole, genius?”

Marcus did not answer, though the barb of her question nearly drew a nasty retort out of him. Instead, he held the disk and looked out over the water, studying the trees on the far side to be sure he was in the right place. He knew he would only have once chance to get across without help from the elves, help that he knew would not come before nightfall.

Pulling the obsidian disk back, he sent it sailing across the water just as he had done with the previous stone. This time, however, the stone did not touch the water, nor did it stop halfway across to fall into the depths below. The disk soared out perfectly straight just above the rippling waves of the river. In its wake, a line of silver light appeared in the water and the river began to part as though being drawn open by an enormous zipper. As the water peeled back, it revealed a walkway, also of obsidian, running along the riverbed.

The disk carried over the entire width of the river, parting the water as it went, and landed on the opposite bank, shattering as it did so.

“Come on,” Marcus said. “We have to get across before the water fills in the gap.” He stared along the obsidian path, finding it dry and easily passable. He moved quickly down the slope toward the center of the riverbed and turned to make sure the others were following him.

Wilkey stepped along lightly a few yards behind him, watching the water warily on either side. Heather, on the other hand, still stood upon the far bank gaping at the divided river. She started to step forward, but drew back her foot, staring at the water on either side with wide eyes.

“Come on,” Marcus repeated, calling out over the rushing water to either side of him. “It’s safe for a few minutes, but we have to hurry.” Turning back, he walked quickly to the other side and emerged from the path onto the stony bank of Glenfold.

Wilkey grew more nervous about the magic around him as he continued along the obsidian path and finished the trick at a run. Sweating, more from fear than the physical exertion of the short sprint, he smiled at Marcus. “Nice trick,” he said.

Marcus paid no attention. Heather stood on the far bank, her arms folded across her chest. Her hands gripped her upper arms tightly and Marcus could see her rocking back and forth slightly. Even at such a distance, he could see tears streaming down her face and he knew that another level of her disbelief had broken allowing a new wave of fear to wash over her. As she had followed him across the grasslands and into the forests, she grew ever more comfortable with the surroundings, forgetting the differences that separated the two worlds. Now, faced with proof of such powerful magic, fresh terror consumed her and rendered her unable to move.

Fearing that she would faint and plunge into the turbulent water, Marcus knew he would have to ask fast to save her. He tore back across the obsidian path, heedless of the jets of water beginning to spray across the magical divide. Reaching the bank where Heather stood, he put his arm around her and nearly picked her up off the ground as he led her down the black walkway, fast becoming wet and slick as more and more of the river broke free of its magical restraints.

As they reached the center of the riverbed and began up the other side, Marcus realized that he had reacted a few seconds too late. Great beams of water battered them from both sides as they fought to clear the river before the divide closed completely. He looked up at the far bank, seemingly miles away as the water closed overhead like great jaws devouring them whole.

In a panic, Marcus pulled Heather closer to him and tried once again to summon the power that he knew lay just beyond his reach. He felt the chill of the water close around them and took a deep breath, closing his eyes and preparing for the river to sweep them away to their deaths. Instead, he exhaled and found that he could breath air still, though pain wracked his body as he inhaled again. Beside him he heard Heather gasp and thought she too was taking her last breath. He opened his eyes after a few seconds in which he grew more and more surprise to still be allowed to breath and looked around in wonder.

The swiftly flowing waters of the Misteld completely surrounded them, but Marcus and Heather themselves stood holding each other inside a small bubble, hardly bigger than the space their bodies occupied. A faint shimmering light could be seen around the perimeter of the air pocket as it moved and swayed with the current of the river. All around them, they could see fish swimming in and out of view in the murky water, detouring around the two humans invading their domain as they did so.

Heather appeared to have shed her fear as she looked on in amazement at the sight of the river flowing around her. She looked back at last at Marcus and a broad smile lit her face, reflecting the luminescence of the bubble. “It’s like the aquarium we went to in Chattanooga,” she said.

Marcus heard her, but as she spoke her voice seemed to fade and grow distant, as though she were speaking from the end of a long tunnel. He felt his strength quickly draining away from him as he supplied the necessary force to protect them from drowning. He did not respond to her reminiscence except to pull her ahead, urgently leading her up along the obsidian path he could still see laid out before them. Fighting to remain conscious, his willpower sifting out of him like grains of sand in an hourglass, he led Heather upward, noticing all the while the pocket of air surrounding them growing smaller and smaller. Both of them bent over as the bubble closed in around them like shrink wrap and breathing became difficult, making it even harder for Marcus to keep going. Beside him, Heather whispered words of encouragement, but the fear had seeped in again as water began to do the same and the words came out hollow and tinged with doubt.

Marcus pressed on, feeling his legs starting to wobble. The soft light emitted by the magical barrier closing in around them began to darken with the rest of his vision. Even Heather, standing as close as possible to him without sharing the same physical space, began to dim as his mind began to shut down from its exertion. He forced his legs to pump up and down, sliding occasionally on the slick stone walkway, but slowly gaining ground. The only thought his overtaxed brain could manage was that he would not allow Heather to die in such a fashion.

The shining force keeping the water at bay wavered finally and the small holes that had been allowing water in for some time broke free, permitting great spouts of river water to pour in, forcing what little air remained for them to the very top. The Misteld closed in around them like water in a jar and they stretched their necks up for one last gulp of air before the cold, dark water enclosed them.

Marcus took what he knew this time to be his last breath of air. With one final effort, he pitched forward, hearing only a dull rushing in his ears as water filled them. The darkness, held back so long by his indomitable will, claimed him at last and he knew no more.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
This entry was posted in fiction, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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