Embers – Chapter 9
Erik led the way through the underground tunnel that was hidden at the back of his cavern. As if the lair wasn’t far enough in the ground to begin with. The air was cool and smelled like wet earth. Water dripped down the sides of the passage, the drops thick and fat like clear beads. The dirt walls were decorated with roots from the trees above. I trudged after him, followed by a still-weak Aaron. The tension of the day, of the knowledge that the Specters were most likely on our trail, reverberated through the earthen walls. I shivered and pulled Aaron along beside me.
“The First Circle is only a mile from here,” Erik said.
Why he lived in such close proximity to a place that he was ardently trying to avoid was beyond me, but I held my tongue. No need to create more conflict at a point where we needed him. Not that I was particularly thrilled about our return to society. I kind of liked the solitude of the wilderness. The lack of people who judged me or used me.
“Why can’t we teleport again?” I asked as I ducked my head to avoid the low ceiling. My body was still sore from our last expedition.
Erik sighed. “You can’t teleport into a Mage zone. It’s spelled against any unwanted visitors. You can try if you want your body to be turned inside out.”
“What about that other thing you do? The whole passing through wall deal. There are so many easier ways to get to the Circle without having to walk,” I said.
“Melody,” Erik warned. Aaron raised his eyebrows and I shook my head.
“I’ll take you to the end of the tunnel. From there, it should be less than one-hundred yards to the first base. I’ll protect you,” he said.
“But you’re not coming to the base with us?”
His jaw hardened. “No. It’s not safe for me. It would be a poor move on my part.”
“Why?” I asked. He said nothing, but I couldn’t let this go. “If the ruby is useless, why are we even going to the Mages? Why can’t we just stay here?”
“That’s out of the question. You’d be in too much danger.”
“Stop saying that. From what you’ve told me, nothing is safe anymore,” I pressed.
“Melody, stop,” Aaron whispered next to me. I shook him off and stared straight into Erik’s silver eyes.
“Erik. You have to tell us what’s going on. If there’s no hope to save anything, why are we going back?”
“There is a way to save everyone from the Specters, from the darkness, but it’s too difficult.”
“For the world or for you?” I said.
Silence. Water dripped from the cavern walls onto the floor in a measured beat. The air felt thick again and I tried to breath. Aaron wheezed beside me. He was never one to handle tension very well.
“What are you?” I whispered.
Erik breathed in and pressed his back against the wall. His face looked weary, older. I tended to have that affect on people. Wearing them down until they finally caved.
“A Specter Child,” he said.
I swayed under his words. But it didn’t surprise me. His eyes had told me something had been different about him back in the lair. The way the specters had spoken to him. Still, chills slid across my skin. “What side are you on?” I asked.
“I consider myself a free agent,” he said. He brushed an impatient hand through his hair. “I broke from the Specter’s magic long ago, sixteen years to be exact. They ceased bothering me after I became neutral. They kept my heart and I kept my life. I care nothing for my own species,” he said. He leaned against the wall.
“You can’t be a part of their world and then renounce it without aligning yourself to something else,” I said.
“I can do whatever I want with my life,” he said.
“How did you break from their magic?”
“A Mage helped me transition back into a human.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. Frustration bubbled in my core. Nothing made sense. Why were we bringing his heart now to the Mages? To the Order?
“It’s better this way. It’s better for the Order to feel as if they have some control. We have to go.” His voice was icy. Traces of red flickered through his pupils.
Aaron let out his breath. I looked down at my pocket where the ruby burned against my leg. Disgust bubbled in my throat. Hopefully, the heads of the Order would know what to do with it.
“Are you sure you don’t want your heart back?”
“It is useless to me, Melody. Just keep moving,” Erik said, his back tense.
Our pace quickened. The only sound in the tunnel was the water against rock as it ticked off precious time. Erik stopped, signaling us to halt. He turned around and removed his pack from his back.
“Okay, through this door is the entrance to the First Circle. It has a shield, an invisible one, which surrounds the camp, so you won’t really be able to tell when you are in the safe zone. The second you get out the door, I need you to take Aaron and run. I can only protect you so much.”
I nodded. “Take this,” he said and handed me a short blade. It had symbols of protection written all over it.
“I have my own knife, thank you very much,” I responded.
“You’ll need more than one,” he said and wrapped my fingers around the hilt. Great. He thinks we’re going to die, I thought bitterly as I stowed the knife inside my boot. He tossed another weapon to Aaron. The boy’s eyes widened as he stared at the blade. I rolled my eyes. The kid should have spent more time studying combat instead of pouring over nonsensical runes.
“Stick close or the Specters won’t be the ones who’ll kill you. Understand?” I tried to sound stern, but Aaron’s pale, frightened face nearly broke my heart. I nodded to Erik who stepped aside and motioned to a large wooden door. He grabbed the handle, my feet poised to run.
“Come with us, Erik,” I said. “Into the circle. You can help them. Help everyone. This will all be over and then we’ll be free to live.”
“I’m already free to live as I like,” Erik said. He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it lightly.
“Please,” I whispered.
He pushed the door open. Mist seeped through the hole and meandered into the tunnel. I peered through the fog, Aaron’s breath hot on the back of my neck.
“Stop it,” I whispered to him. “You’re making me nervous.” He inched away and I continued my surveillance. Tall blades of grass stretched up toward the sky, covered in frost. Underneath all the white haze lay a meadow. Erik stepped out first, his weapons drawn, his eyes glowing red.
“C’mon, Aaron. Run!” I said and took off into the stiff stalks. They whacked against my face as I pulled him forward. The ground was uneven, sharp divots and climbs disguised by the fog. My foot connected with a rock and I tripped, my hands bracing for the impact. We slammed into the hard soil. I tried to scramble to my feet when the ground began to shake.
“Melody!” Aaron screeched.
From the mist, a horse and rider galloped toward us. I pushed Aaron to the ground and unsheathed my knives. Ice filled the air. They had come.
I leaped and stabbed the rider in the side. Blood gushed from the opening onto my hands, soaking my skin in red liquid. In horror, I backed away. He was human. Humans had joined the Specters? My fingers slipped through blood as I grabbed Aaron and stumbled toward the campsite. The ground trembled with the threat of splitting open. More riders. Aaron fell again and I scrambled over to him.
“Go,” I yelled and shoved him in the direction of the camp. Aaron’s face twisted with fear, but he knew better than to wait. With that, he sprinted into the safety net. I turned to follow when a sharp pain split across the back of my head. My skull ached as the world spun. Deftly, I rolled onto my back in time to see a rider raise his saber. I flipped aside just as the tip of his steel spike slammed into the ground. Grabbing his weapon, I shoved it into his chest. He fell from his horse as the mare screamed. Its shrieks echoed in my mind as I ran toward the safety area. As I passed through the magic boundary, a pair of hands wrapped me in an embrace.
“Melody,” I heard Aaron cry out in relief.
A deeper voice accompanied Aaron’s and resounded through the space, “Fetch a healer.” Someone grabbed me roughly by my coat, pulling me from my friend. A thin, tall man with a shock of red hair looked down at me.
“Do you have the ruby?” he demanded, his voice gruff.
Goodness, how many times were people going to ask me that question? I nodded, reaching into my leather pouch that wrapped around my waist. My nerves spiked as I emptied the bag. Nothing. It wasn’t there. Frantically, I looked back at the battlefield. It must have fallen out. It had been my duty to bring it here. How had I failed such a simple task? I sprinted toward the opening. As I reached the edge, Erik burst through the magic line.
“What are you doing here?” I cried.
Pain distorted his brow, his mouth set in a grimace. Long gouges had been torn across his sides. Blood stained his white hair, plastered against his face and neck.
“I told you not to lose it. To bring it to them,” he panted. He opened a gritty palm. The ruby floated a few inches above his hand. “Take it,” he gasped. “I cannot be here. They cannot see me.” His skin was charred beneath the garnet. I snatched the gem from him and his eyes closed.
He staggered back toward the barrier, away from us, but shouts rang in my ears. I reached for him, called for him, told him not to leave. Arms wrapped around me and darkness clouded my vision. Oblivion pulled me under.