Author's Note- I am sorry for not posting anything soon, been a rather busy time for me right now. I hope that this latest chapter meets to the approval of what my readers have come to expect from me. I've started chapter 32 and should post it soon hopefully.
After a few days Osiris's condition improved and he returned to his normal and mischievous self; though to Maria it looked like he had a rather ill hue to him whenever someone mentioned fish. Between her reading lessons from Erik and her instructions to him on controlling his magical gifts Maria spent most of her time in the gardens with Osiris and Isabella. She knew that the two of them were quite inseparable and made sure that they had as much time together as possible. The fact that no one except for Torrin, his family, Amelia and Erik's parents dared approached Osiris was also a comfort to her as it allowed her some greatly welcomed privacy with her daughter. She thought it quite humorous that the palace staff and gardeners would always keep as much distance between themselves and the young Gryphon, or just wait until he left to do their duties.
However, late one afternoon when Isabella and Osiris were at play she noticed that the servants seemed to completely ignore him as they frantically began closing and securing wooden shutters over all the windows and the grand stained-glass window. At first Maria was confused at the sudden change in attitude until she saw Osiris with his head raised high and his beak slightly parted. To her it appeared as if he was tasting the strengthening breeze. Looking off into the distance Maria could see a mountain of dark clouds looming on the horizon and a sense of dread filled her being.
Nudging her with his head Osiris squawked what sounded like 'In' to Maria as he then looked towards the door leading to the grand hall.
"What about you?" Maria asked as she picked up Isabella.
Osiris turned his head to look at his cottage, then nodded twice before he made a quick dash to it and closed the door behind him hard.
"Maria dear!" Amelia called from just outside the hall, "Come inside quickly! A storm is coming!"
Taking Isabella by the hand, Maria quickly led here into the hall with several of the servants just behind them; all of whom began quickly locking the various doors leading outside. In the distance a flash of light lit the sky up for a brilliant moment before settling back to the unsettling darkness. Quietly to herself Maria began counting the seconds after the flash.
A low, rolling rumble of thunder answered the lightning and sent cold shivers down Maria's whole body as she gripped Isabella's hand even more tightly.
"Maria, are you listening child?" Amelia said with a slight annoyance in her voice.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" she replied in a daze.
"Lord help me deary, you are as bad as Gerald sometimes. I said that everything should be fine. We normally get storms like these at least once or twice a year. They normally just make some noise and soak us a bit but they are quite harmless."
Placing a light hand on Maria's arm, Amelia gasped in surprise, "You skin is deathly cold child! I should send for a doctor right away, you look dreadfully ill…"
"…No, that won't be at all necessary, Amelia." Maria interrupted. "I am well, just surprised at how fast the storm fell upon us."
"It's not that uncommon, love… oh of course, where is my brain?! Your homeland was an arid one, storms probably took weeks to cross the sky. However, since Pandric is so close to the sea they come down upon us with only a few minutes warning." Amelia explained, the said slyly, "Enough of that, however… How about we three fine ladies of mischief see if we can arrange for some hot spiced-cider and warm hearth to be waiting for us in the library. If you both ask very nicely I might even tell a few stories that I know."
Maria knew that she would take no comfort in Amelia's stories. She could feel the growing storm outside pressing in against her mind like a great weight - smothering her in its oppressive darkness.
"I think I will go to bed early, Amelia." Maria said as she knelt to Isabella's level. "Now be good with Mrs. Amelia little one. Mumma isn't feeling well and is going to rest for a bit."
"Feel better mumma," Isabella whispered as she gave her mother a tight hug.
"I try little one. Now both of you run along, I don't want to ruin your fun."
"Maria, hurry!!!" Her mother called out.
Below her the rising floodwaters grew steadily closer in the darkness. The pounding of the rain against her face and the chilling wind threaten to force her off the slope that she desperately clung to. As she tried to find a foothold a clump of wet earth gave way beneath her feet nearly sending her into black torrent below. A strong grip from above her seized her by the wrist and pulled her skyward as the slope she was on collapsed into the waters. As she gained her footing she saw her father holding her hand tightly, his dark hair soaked and smeared with mud. Next to him was her mother, her long black hair tied back as the unceasing rains pounded her face. She stood looking up the hill, trying to find any safe paths that had not been weakened by the deluge.
"Maria!" Her father shouted over the roaring waters below. "Tie this rope to your waist girl. If you loose your footing again I'll be on the other end of it and will pull you up."
"I understand!" she shouted back, not knowing if her words were muffled by the howling winds.
With a few deft movements she secured the line around her waist tightly as her father did the same. Looking up to her mother she could see the troubled look across her face. Maria knew what it was, she had seen it many times before when they would climb these hills during the dry season; she couldn't see any hand holds.
"Magdalena! If we stay here much longer this side of the hill will collapse from underneath our feet!" Her father yelled over the winds.
"I know, but the ground above us is too unstable! We will have to circle around to the leeward side. We must make haste, the waters below are rising again!" She shouted back, her words nearly lost to the storm.
Though Maria couldn't see the swollen river below she could hear its angry roar and feel its energies inch closer with every passing moment. She knew their only refuge would be at the crest of the hill where the waters would never reach, but she felt as if the storm itself wished their doom. Closely trailing her father and mother she kept her body pressed tightly to muddy soil in fear that a gust of wind would blow her off balance. Occasionally she felt the rope between herself and her father tighten as he grasped it, expecting her to lose her footing. One time when he did this she saw that he had tied the rope around him in a slip-knot, instead of more secure double knots that he had shown her how to make. She was about to try and say something, but was stopped by him shaking his head and making a gesture of himself falling and pulling the release end of the knot. She knew exactly what is was he was telling her, but the thought of him choosing to release the safety line if he fell troubled her greatly.
Maria did wish that her mother would tie herself onto the lifeline as well, but no matter how many times she had gone climbing she always politely refused. She explained to Maria once that because of her heritage she knew where all the solid holds were and could even hold on to places that a normal climber would never find. However Maria wished her mother would relinquish her pride for once and tie herself to their line; for in this weather even a skilled climber would be terrified of falling.
"We're nearly to the top," Maria's mother called down as she scaled the up the muddy hill.
Letting out a sign of relief, Maria followed her father as they retraced the path that her mother had marked out for them. Though the holds were stable enough to support them they took a steep path that Maria would normally have avoided.
"Hurry up, the storm looks like it worsening…" Maria's mother began to say, but was cut off when her footing failed her.She desperately tried to find a handhold, however it tore away like freshly plucked feathers and she began to slide down the rain soaked hill.
"Magdalena!!!" Maria's father called out as he reached for her as she frantically reached for something to hang on to.
Their hands touched for a brief moment but both were too slick from the rain and mud to get a solid grasp. As she continued to fall past Maria, Magdalena in a last attempt to find a hold reached out and caught Maria's foot. The shock made Maria loose her footing as the rope tied to her father sprung taut. Below her she could see her mother hanging on as best she could, and beyond her the flooded river that was climbing ever closer towards them.
"Father, pull us up, quickly!!!" Maria screamed as she felt her mother's grip slip a bit.
She could hear him straining against their combined weight and the rope echoing him as they started to slowly ascend. Below, her mother clawed with her free hand for a solid hold, but only to have the saturated earth crumble away in her hands. The gentle pull of the rope came to a sudden stop, and Maria looked up to see that her father's holds here failing as well, unable to support the combined weigh of all three of them.
"Maria!!!" Her mother called, "I'll always love you!!!"
To her horror Maria felt her mother's grip on her foot release and looked down to see her plummet into the roaring abyss below. A moment of shocked filled her as her mother slipped before the surface of the water and she waited for her to bob up to the surface… she prayed that she would come back up to the surface, but only the roar of the wind, the rain and the river remained.
"Mother!!!! NOOOOOOO!!!!" She screamed with all her heart.
Erik was restless that night; unable to sleep, but unwilling to stay awake for another sleepless night. Even with the tapping of the rain outside he could find no rest, no matter how relaxed he tried to make himself. His normal meditation routines gave him no comfort as his focus kept drifting to thoughts of Viktor, Valeska, and her father. He knew how ruthless all three could be when properly motivated, however he hoped that fear of Erik's blade and Maria's magic would give them pause to think upon before they made their expected move. He knew that if they were planning something they had already started the wheels turning on it and were anticipating a reaction from him to counter theirs. Like the chess games that he played so often with Garret, Erik had to look many spaces ahead of them, know what they were planning and use their plan against them. What truly troubled him, however, was that he didn't know what they were planning, not even a subtle feeling on how they intended to move.
To Erik it felt like trying to fence with both arms tied behind his back while being blindfolded; he knew the attack was coming, but there would be nothing he could do about it but react after the fact. Deciding that he had to clear his head of all the random, buzzing thoughts that interfered with his analysis he went to the stand with his battle armor and removed a wooden replica of his own sword from behind it. The purpose of it was to simulate a real weapon for training without running the risk of cutting or impaling ones sparing partner, but Erik found it useful for running weapon drills indoors safety.
Making sure that any furniture that could interfere with his drills was moved safety out of the way, Erik took up the ready stance to a phantom opponent before him. He saluted the imaginary sparing partner to show his respect to them and brought himself on guard. Running through the different drills in his mind Erik choose a relatively easy one that was not technically difficult, but physically demanding. Making his first attack high to the chest he quickly rescinded it into a low parry and enveloped his blade around his opponent's, turning his defense into an immediate attack. The phantom sparring partner brought their blade over his to catch it before he could finish his attack, forcing Erik to quickly withdraw it before he exposed and opening for attack. Bringing his blade up to parry a phantom attack to his right shoulder he beat the attack away and made a feint attack to where his opponent's knee would be only to bring it around to a head attack.
Growing bored with the drill, Erik repositioned himself for another one he knew and started to practice it. This continued for another hour as he continued to spar with his imagined opponent, trying to improve his timing and speed through each move. By the time he had stopped to rest he was drenched with sweat, but still just as troubled as he was when he began. It felt to him as if the storm over the city had settled itself over his mind and pounded his senses with anxiety and burden. This in itself gave him pause, for something felt familiar and at the same time disturbing to him.
His thoughts were broken by muffled screams coming from Maria's room above him. Without thinking he grabbed his steel sword and flew up the hidden passage that connected the rooms, kicking the adjoining door open with his bare foot. He winced in pain for a moment, realizing that by doing that it may hinder his ability to fight, but knew that it would not lessen his aggressiveness. The screams were deafeningly loud now; but to Erik's surprise the room was devoid of any attacker. Instead Maria was sitting straight up in bed, her normal fair skin was deathly pale and her bloodshot eyes were wide open in terror.
"Mother!!!" she screamed with all her might. "Mother come back…! Don't fall…!"
Placing his sword on the table, Erik rushed to her and shook her to try and wake her from the nightmare that was consuming her. From down the hall he could hear the heavy footfall of the guards rushing to investigate the screaming and knew they would most certainly break down the door to get in.
Erik unlocked it quickly and flung it open. "In here!" he called out to the trampling boots as he turned his attention back to Maria.
He knew what he had to do, but so many parts of him said it was wrong and an unthinkable concept. Knowing he had no other choice he closed his eyes, raised his hand and whispered, "Forgive me…"
The palm of his hand landed flat against Maria's cheek with a loud crack, leaving nothing but a stunned silence in its wake. Snapping back to her senses, Maria began sobbing as she clutched Erik tightly to her. From the corridor three guards charged in through the open door, their short partisans at the ready.
Before any of them could speak an inquiry or warning Erik snapped, "One of you fetch the Queen immediately… and I don't care if she is asleep; blame me, but do it now!"
"By your command, sire!" One of the guards answered as he snapped to then took off down the corridor.
"One of you post yourself at the door," Erik continued to order, "The other go fetch me a bottle of brandy and make it fast!"
There was a clicking of heels and acknowledgements of orders, but Erik barely heard them. The dark and oppressive feeling that had been haunting him all night fell over him once more as he looked towards the shuttered window. He knew that something was out there, but it was far past the window, outside of the palace grounds and perhaps even outside of the city itself. It took him a moment until he finally realized what the feeling was that had been haunting him so; it wasn't fear or terror, but rather something far more primal and dangerous. The feeling was that something was hunting him and that he may have walked right into its trap. Over the dull roar of the winds and the pounding of the rain Erik could hear a menacing laughter echoing through his head. The winds themselves seem to utter whispers to him, but what they said he did not know. He tried to separate his mind from the sounds, but found that they were pulling him in deeper.
'You will not stop me… Shi'Kartan!' the laugh bellowed
From behind him a hand laid itself on his shoulder and Erik broke from the trance; his mind startled and confused. Turning to look he saw his mother in a dressing robe with the guard who had fetched her standing alert behind her.
"Erik, did you not hear me?" His mother inquired gently. "What is wrong with her?"
Looking back to the sobbing Maria for a moment made Erik remember why he had called for his mother, "She had a horrid nightmare and awoke screaming for her mother. I've sent for some brandy to be brought in order to calm her down; however I think you would be more help to her than I. She really needs a mother right now to help her, not a fiancée."
The queen kissed Erik lightly on the forehead, "You've always been a perceptive one, dear. You'll make a fine father indeed."
Erik knew that his mother was being less that subtle with her suggestion, and he knew that was her intention to begin with. While she had many wonderful parts to her personality, candor was not one of his mother's stronger traits.
"Perhaps," Erik said as he stood up so his mother could take his place. "However there are more important things to deal with at the moment."
The queen let out an audible sigh to show her dissatisfaction with Erik's answer. "There will always be something more important to deal with than a family, son. The fact is you need to learn that the really important things are right in front of you and if you keep your eyes on the horizon you'll never see them."
"I know, but…" Erik started to say, but was interrupted when the adjoining door to Isabella's room cracked open and a sleepy-eyed little girl lethargically padded into the room.
"Is she having another nightmare?" Isabella asked as she rubbed her eyes.
Erik quickly went to the child and picked her up gently so that she was straddling his hip. "She was having one, but she'll be fine in a bit, my mother will make sure that she rests." Erik said as he received a reassuring nod from the queen.
"She always has nightmares when it rains," Isabella said through a drawn out yawn. "We're both scared of thunder too."
"Then I'll watch over you tonight and make sure the thunder doesn't get you."
"Promise." Erik answered as he took the child back to her room.