In the Wake of King Ulric
Art stirred as the caravan's wheel went over a bump. Groaning, he picked himself up and looked around. It was difficult to sleep like this, but as he took a look at the sky, he judged that he had gotten a few hours worth. Though he felt no better than he did when he lay down, he figured that the little rest he had managed to find had done him some good.
At the head of their particular carriage sat Elinor, holding the reigns tightly in her hands as the horses led them on into the night. Burton was behind both of them, near the very back, in a deep sleep. How he managed to keep his slumber was well beyond Art's comprehension, but he was glad for his friend. Burton seemed like a man who slept little, and when he did sleep, slept very lightly. A deep snore was juggling in the man's throat tonight, however, and Art took that as a good sign. Perhaps he was more at ease now than he had been before. Art had to admit that since they had found themselves a sense of direction he too had been feeling much easier. There was still much mystery surrounding the rifts and his mentor's presence, but he knew that he had been to Demetria, so he figured they were not too far behind him.
What bothered him, though, was that Demetria said that Andrew had been through many worlds. If he could move through them at will, then perhaps they weren't as close as he would have liked. Again, it was just another question that he could not answer, and he was growing quite tired of those. There had been many times in his life, especially over the past year, when he had found himself lost. Before meeting Burton several weeks back, he had no voices to comfort him, and when he needed help he would pretend to hear Andrew speaking to him. It was a way of bringing release to his mounting frustrations, but also a way for him to think differently, outside of himself, to think more like Andrew would.
What would Andrew say now? He pondered this thought for a few moments, and then came up with a good line. There are many questions that cannot be answered, and that is why we search. Art would know the answers in time. That was why he was on this journey. There were many questions, and he was going to find answers for them. Andrew, he realized, was not his priority. Sealing the rifts came first. It was Andrew who had given him that duty, and Art would be damned if he wasn't going to fulfill it. Finding Andrew came next, and hopefully by then he would have either found the answers to his questions, or Andrew would be prepared with them.
Moving to the front of the caravan, Art took a seat next to Elinor, who kept her eyes focused on the road before them, completely unwavering. She was much more cut out for this kind of job than they were, but she deserved some sleep as well. It had only been one day since they left, and she had gotten the least amount of rest so far. It was only fair that Art took his turn at the reigns.
"You must be awfully tired," Art said. Elinor gave no verbal response, but turned her attention to him for a moment. "You look tired. Why don't you have a rest?"
"I'm fine," she replied, a hint of stubbornness in her voice, no doubt intended for Art to pick up on.
He recognized it alright, but ignored it as well. "I think I should have a go at the reigns. I haven't had much practice with a carriage," he said as he tried to nudge her over. She would not budge, though.
"You can always ride Bo. He's just outside, right over there." She pointed to his horse, which trotted along side them quietly. Art sighed and rolled his eyes. If she were so reluctant to let go, then he would let her drive. There were other things he could tend to, in the meantime. His gun needed a good cleaning. He'd used up a good amount of bullets over the past two encounters as well, and he hoped that they would stop so he could purchase some more. Were there even guns in this world? Perhaps not near the encampment, but he hoped that he would be able to find a source of ammunition somewhere along the road.
Reaching into his bag, which the Sisters had been so kind as to provide him with, he pulled out the weapon, running his hand over the sleek metallic surface. It had dulled a bit, but after a good polishing he would hopefully be able to give it a good shine again. First, however, he would have to take care of the inside. The speed at which he could disassemble his weapon was truly stunning, but of course there was no one bearing witness to it. It had taken him a few months to get it down, and even longer to make it second nature to him. Soon all of the parts were displayed before him, and with that, he began to clean.
At the front, Elinor looked out towards the great plains that stretched out before her. She had never imagined that they had stretched on for so long. There had been times when she would look out at them from the encampment and believe that they ended at the horizon, but they had long since passed that point, and they still showed no signs of stopping. It was inspiring, really, to imagine how massive the world was, and to think that there were other worlds than these, perhaps just as large, if not larger! The thought made her shutter. There was so much space out there. This one sphere seemed so massive, but then there was the blackness of the Outer-World, and the stars—that made up its own, larger sphere.
How many worlds were there? Was it possible that there was an infinite amount? Surely her mind could not fathom something so great. Her mind's eye showed her one sphere of existence, her own, and then another, and then another, and then ten more, and ten more after that, and then one hundred more, and then one thousand more. After that she dared not try to comprehend. It was too much.
"So you've never been outside of the encampment, eh?" Art asked as he finished assembling his gun. As he reached for his polish, Elinor turned around to look at him, and then looked back at the other caravans. She inched a little closer to them, tightening their group.
"No, I haven't," she replied, "but I never really wanted to until recently."
"Why is that?"
"Growing up with the Sisters, and eventually becoming one, I was told that there was nothing more important than the encampment. It was everything, the whole world, and all that we'd ever need. When something like that is beaten into your brain your entire life, it has a tendency to stick. It wasn't until later that I realized I wanted to see the world. There were times when I'd just look at the horizon and drift off, wondering what was beyond it. Not even the strictest of rules can contain a curious mind, I suppose," she said.
Art took not of her relaxed dialog. She had been more formal in the encampment. He figured that this was because of that sense of duty she possessed. With Sisterhood came a certain air that they had to hold about themselves. Now that she was by herself, that air had left her, or had perhaps been deflated.
"I suppose it can't. Still, you seem to be taking this all in very relaxed strides," he commented.
"We haven't been much of anywhere, really. This is still very much The Sister's territory. I may have never been this far, but there have been Sisters who have. You can still see the edge of Blackwood on the horizon, if you look hard enough," she replied.
"Do you imagine that you'll be excited when we finally leave this territory, when we leave The Deadlands?" His curiosity seemed to be endless, Elinor thought. It was like no matter how many questions she answered, he had a fresh batch ready for her, hot and smoking right off the fire.
"I don't know," she replied, her voice having grown stern and cold. She let out a heavy breath and turned back to him. "No more questions, please. If you'd like to take over the reigns, you can. I'm tired, and I think I'll find myself some rest before the sun comes up."
"Okay," Art said as he crawled over to the front, squeezing past her effortlessly to take the reigns. Sitting with his legs dangling over the side, he was blasted with a fresh gust of wind. Smiling, he felt as though he could get used to traveling like this. It was much more enjoyable and relaxing than being by oneself all the time, and even better than traveling with just one other. Maybe it was the lack of desert as well, and the lack of any apparent danger. Art decided then and there that he was going to find some time to take it easy for a while. There were people here who enjoyed his company, and there was not a thing to worry about, not until they made it to the rift.
For some time they continued on in the silence. Elinor fell asleep quickly, and Burton's rest pursued throughout the rest of the night. Art kept his mind blank for the most part. There was little to ponder right now. They knew what they knew, so they did, and that was all that they needed to know right now, as the answers to all questions lay ahead of them, and at the moment Art found contentment in that.
The sun rose ahead of them. Art was glad to find that it still moved in the same direction as his world—rise in the East, set in the West. It provided quite a spectacle for those who were driving the caravans at the time. The first strip of pink breaking the horizon entangled with some blots of orange as the minutes passed, and then the great orb itself rose from behind the ground, spreading a glorious wave of yellow over it all, glazing the sky with fantastic color. Streams of light reached over their heads, glowing beams that dazzled their eyes and made them feel as though they were shrinking next to the significance of it all.
Art's two companions stirred behind him. They were too late to witness the fine spectacle, but he was glad that they were awake either way. He was exhausted at this point, and it was Burton's turn to take the reigns. As he crawled over to Art, motioning for the reigns, Art saw that he looked very well rested.
"Well I'm glad one of us is well rested," he chuckled as he moved out of the way, shifting himself towards the rear of the caravan.
Burton shrugged as took his seat. "I'll sleep heavily every now and then," he said.
"I think I'll catch up on what I missed last night," Art said as he pushed himself to the absolute rear.
"Good luck with that, my friend. I think we'll be stopping soon anyway for a gathering, and to find some food for those who don't have, like us," he responded. Art whined lightly and turned away from them. He was bent on finding at least some sleep, even if it lasted a few minutes. Elinor cracked a smile, and then reached into her back. She pulled out her blade and held it up, the tip coming within inches of the caravan's top. It glistened softly in the sunlight, and she brought it down to her waist. If they were going to be looking for food then she would undoubtedly need this. Part of her wished that she had brought her dagger instead—a larger sword was a bit excessive when it came to killing small creatures—but she had always been more comfortable with this.
Indeed, within an hour the caravan did come to a stop, and Art was roused from his brief sleep. Still quite groggy, perhaps even more so now than he was before, Art barely managed to stumble out of the carriage. Nearly falling flat on his face, he received some help from Burton, who, upon guiding Art down to the ground, escorted him over to the circle of people that was had formed and was slowly growing. The two plopped down on the ground with audible, but satisfying thuds. Elinor knelt beside them, slowly placing herself down on the ground. Just across the view they could see Stephen, Lyrt, and Lold taking their places.
There was some mumbling in the crowd, but the voices eventually quieted. Just a few seconds later, Art observed a part forming in the crowd, pushing people to the side. Eventually he came to face a man, one of middle age with skin the color of light soil. His beard was black with random strands of gray streaking through it, and was quite bushy, much like his eyebrows, Art noticed. A white cloth was wrapped around his head, and his clothing, both shirt and pants, were made of some kind of beige cloth. Sandals covered the bottom of his feet.
As he raised his hand to speak, shushing the remained of the crowd, Art noticed that his skin was worn and tough looking, filled with wrinkles that no doubt made him look older than he truly was. The beard assisted with that as well. In fact, now that Art realized all of this, he figured that the man was barely even forty, perhaps even younger. The sands of his homeland, far out of The Deadland's reach, Art assumed, must have worn heavily on him, much like the sands of the time-straining desert through which he had passed not all that long ago. Except he's lived there his whole life, Art thought. The idea of living in a desert for one's entire life daunted him, but the man was probably used to it. Did he even realize what he looked like in comparison to the forest dwellers of Blackwood, and wherever people like Stephen and the two merchant cousins came from. The difference was stunning, really.
Now that he thought about it, he must have looked quite odd himself. Burton was sunburned, and he knew that he was as well. The pain had dulled in recent days, and he had grown used to it during the desert venture. They were two red men among a group of white and brown ones.
"As travelers in this caravan," the man began, his accent not nearly as thick as Art had assumed it would have been. Then again, this was not his world; he should not have expected to see many similar things—he did quite frequently; not everything would be, though. The man continued, "We expect you to provide to those whom you travel with. We have provided you with safe passage through The Deadlands, and now you must earn your keep.
"Those who have traveled this path before with me," he paused for just a second to shoot a small group over the trio's right a glance, "already know the game, so please be a good example for the first-timers. We will hunt for meat, and gather what edible plants we can find. Once every morning we will do this until we can carry no more, and then the hunting will stop until we need to restock. All who can participate must participate. You may find yourself a group to belong to, and from that point your catch will be left entirely up to you," he said, and with that, motioned to dispel them. The crowd broke up, many immediately finding their groups. Elinor, Burton, and Art met with Stephen and the merchant cousins.
Elinor, still vaguely familiar with these lands, was able to lead them around with relative ease. She was familiar with the wildlife in the area, and understood how they thought. It made it easy for them to find the little critters, and with Art's newly polished gun, he took great pride in blasting little holes in the things. It sparked some attention, and he quickly remembered that most, if not all of these people had never seen a gun before.
With a red flush spreading out from his cheeks, he quickly returned the weapon to its holster. Some explaining would have to be done later, but whatever the caravan folk had thought made the noise soon figured it had left.
"Odd that they didn't make more of a commotion over it," Burton commented.
"I think I ought to fess up to it, regardless," Art replied.
"I think they're used to the noises. The Deadlands hold many mysteries, from what I've been told, and it shouldn't be too surprising for most people to hear strange noises. Though I do agree that it would be a good idea to inform them of your boom-stick, or gahn, when we return," Elinor said as she picked up the carcass of the dead animal, what Burton and Art would have thought to be some kind of rabbit, though it had circular ears instead of big floppy ones, and it's tail wasn't as bushy. She held it upside down by the feet, and then tossed it over to Stephen, who was carrying the most of the soon-to-be food. Lyrt and Lold, no skilled hunters, as Stephen had explained, held their own fair share. It would have been enough for the six of them, at least for a few days, a little more if they ate sparingly, but Elinor was set on having one last kill. Her blade had seen too little blood for her liking. Art had hogged all of the kills with his fancy boom-stick, fire-gahn—whichever he called it—and scared the living daylights out of most of the others for a good few minutes. It was time for her to hunt, and hunt the right way.
The hunting sessions ended with the two kills that Elinor had hoped for. Her blood was slathered with the blood of two more creatures, one a scuinae, and the other a Small Bird, which had been the most difficult one to slay. Art and Burton had watched with amazement as Elinor tracked down the two animals and slaughtered them mercilessly. In retrospect, using the gun would have been the most comfortable option, at least for them. Elinor could be frightening when she assumed the mentality of a huntress. She was one of the animals in that state, a prime predator searching for food to feed her young, or in this case her own belly, and those of her companions.
Needless to say, neither Art nor Burton felt like they would ever want to be in a position opposite of hers when it came to the battlefield, but as long as she was on their side, then all would be well. This woman had been trained to kill, and quite frankly, was much better at it than either of them. Having thought this at the same time, the two looked at each other, recognizing the looks in their eyes, and laughed. It was nice to know that this journey would not be an entirely downtrodden one.
Art stood before the crowd of people, holding up his gun, showing it to them, allowing it to glisten in the light. He felt a sense of power in that moment, a sense of pride as all eyes fell upon him in fear and wonder. Was this what it was like to feel worshipped? If so, he was terrified of it. He feared not pride, but power, power over the ignorant. It was that kind of power that could be so easily abused, but for now he had to do what was necessary. For now he had to explain the booming noise of the gun.
As he lowered it down to his mid-section, he could see the eyes following it. How were they so bewildered by it? Was this world so far behind his own? They must have been, he figured. Upon explaining to them what the gun did, some of the crowd took a few noticeable steps back. Art could have laughed at that, but his face remained as stoic as ever. The audience seemed to draw closer to him as he pointed it over towards an empty area, taking careful aim, though he was shooting at nothing. Regret filled him as he realized that he would be wasting bullets, and was unsure as to how many places would carry them.
Regardless, he fired, listening to that pleasant crack of the gun, watching the fire burst forth from the chamber in a small plume. The bullet soared forth, splitting the air around it almost to the point where it whistled as it traveled. Having hit nothing, it went on for what Art thought would be forever—of course it was not true, but he'd never found a bullet that he'd shot out at nothing. He turned back to the crowd and waited, perhaps for applause, perhaps for cries of terror, but there was nothing. They simply stared at him, bewildered beyond their wildest imaginations. Even Elinor gawked at it. She'd only seen him fire it a few times. The technology, the actual concept of the gun was still far beyond her. Perhaps there would be time to explain it all to her later, maybe even teach her some lessons with it. No harm would come from having another one in their party who could wield a gun.
Spinning it around on his index finger, he allowed a cavalier smile to stretch over his face. With a quick toss, he sent the gun into the air, listening as a gasp shot out of everyone's mouth in unison. However, he caught the gun expertly, rather, guided it down into the holster, then, with his hubris grin still coloring his mouth, made his exit. The caravan man, the leader of their group, applauded lightly as he took center stage once again to announce the success of their hunt. He seemed more than impressed with Art's technology and skill, and was perhaps the only one who still did not possess a look of sheer astonishment, besides Burton of course, who was familiar with the weapon. Art appreciated the man's humbleness, though he enjoyed the attention that his flare had given him.
Taking a seat next to Burton and Elinor, he crossed his legs and waited patiently for the caravan man to speak. A rock seemed to reach up out of nowhere, brushing his rear end roughly. With a low, barely audible grunt he reached behind himself, trying to feel for the rock. There was nothing there. Had it been his imagination? Most likely, he thought, but as he moved to lean back once again, he felt it there, but it was larger this time. Before he could reach back to grab at it, it disappeared, no longer present against his rear.
What in the name of... he wondered. There it was again, and apparently it had been not only he who felt it this time. Elinor turned around, reaching towards her rear, then beneath her knee, and then over to her other knee. Art felt it moving around him as well, and then Burton, and then the others surrounding them. Stones were popping up and down, moving in and out of the ground like they were living things.
"I've never seen this before," Elinor said. She seemed genuinely concerned, Art noticed, and took her word for it. Whatever this was, it had never happened before, not in her lifetime, at least. The crowd stood up, the caravan man quickly motioning for them to settle down, though it was obvious that he too was disturbed by this. The popping of the stones soon spread out beyond them, encompassing the entire area. Some of them shot up over three feet high, becoming visible over the tall grass.
The people immediately dashed back to their caravan carriages, taking refuge inside of them, away from the popping stones. Art felt something in his stomach, though, something that told him that this was not the worst of it, and that their caravans would not protect them from what was about to come. A low sound, not a rumbling or a roaring or even a groaning, but a low drone, started up. At first his ears did not even register it, but after a few seconds he realized that he had been hearing it the entire time.
It grew louder and louder until they could not even hear their own breath, their own heartbeats, their own thoughts. The stones popped up higher and higher, and soon the ground beneath them began to melt and change shape. The trio, now inside of their caravan, held onto what they could as they rocked back and forth, their bags—luckily there were few of them—sliding across the floor, knocking into them. Elinor kicked hers away from her, sending it to the rear while Art caught his in his arms and cradled it against his body. Extending his legs, he tried to wedge his boots against the side of the small wooden wall that rose up from the side of the floor, pressing his back against the one opposite of it. It helped keep him in place, though he jittered a bit as the caravan rocked more and more.
Now moving in great sweeps, Art felt himself being flung about, his weight moving from one side of his body to the other, causing his stomach to churn. Grunting, he attempted to tighten his wedge, but to no avail; he was as tight as he could possibly be, and still it was not enough.
Bo was out there. His heart leaped into his throat. His precious horse, his great friend and companion was still out there! What would do? What could he do? Bo could have very easily been dead at this point. He knew that, and he knew that leaving the caravan could get him killed. Rationality was his bane, but he adhered to it, because he knew deep down in the bowls of his heart, a cold place of logic and reason, that he was more important than Bo. Damn Andrew for teaching him logic and understanding, and practicality and reason! For now he could only hope and pray that Bo would only end up being mildly injured. Whatever was happening, though, he knew that the results would not be mild, so instead he prayed that Bo died painlessly. The thought made his stomach tie into a knot, the tightest knot it had been in since that day seven years ago, that day when his village, his home, had been razed to the ground by some unknown enemy.
Does it even matter now? Does it matter how that happened? He did not believe so, and wished that his mind had not returned to that memory. Everything was in chaos around him. Burton and Elinor were being flung about like rag dolls, and he knew that soon his legs would grow tired, and he too would become helpless in the chaos.
Suddenly, just as quickly as it came, it all stopped. Just in that one moment everything ceased. It did not slow down to a halt, but it just stopped, as if it had all been an awful dream, but dreams had a slowing point, didn't they? No, this had been more like a nightmare. Nightmares stopped suddenly, leaving the victim in a glaze of sweat and fear. This had been a nightmare, in that case. Art had no doubt about that. He turned over in the eerie serenity of the moment, having been pulled loose of his wedge at the final thrust; his baggage still clung tightly against him. Throbbing pains scampered up and down his muscles, but as his mind slowed down and he grabbed a hold of his surroundings, they began to ache even more. Oh, those old injuries weren't completely healed as of yet. No matter what the Sisters had done to him, this had most likely undone a good deal of it. A low groan came from his mouth, but he didn't realize that it was his own voice at first. It sounded so foreign, but maybe that was because his ears were ringing.
Elinor could stand; he saw her edging over towards him, some whispered, yet harsh words falling from her lips. It was impossible for him to understand them. He was still conscious, and that was important, but aching severely, not only from his former wounds, but from his stomach as well. He was close to vomiting, but managed to keep it down for now. Hopefully it would go away if he just forgot about it, which was easy considering how badly the rest of his body was hurting. He only needed to focus on the rest of the pain, he told himself, and then he wouldn't have to gag and hurl. For some reason he hated that the most, even more than the cuts of skin and the breaks of bone.
Burton appeared next to Elinor. It was still difficult to hear them, and he wondered how they themselves could hear. No, wait—it was clearing up, slowly at first but soon he could make out their words. Suddenly he realized that it had not been his ears ringing that had prevented him from hearing, in fact his ears hadn't been ringing at all. It was that low drone, that impossible whine of the quake that had just shaken them, whatever it was. Had it been the Goya? He did not believe so. The Goya was not that kind of monster, his instincts told him. It lived in the shadow, and used that as its chaos. Whatever had caused this quake had been something different. It was another question that he did not have the answer to, and once more he found himself discontent.
"Are you injured?" Elinor asked as she ran her hand across one of Art's sleeved arms.
"Achy," Art replied. He took in a deep breath, feeling a burning in his chest as he did so, then let it out. "What was that?"
"I'm not sure," she said, "I've never seen anything like it in my entire life, but I have an assumption, perhaps."
"What is it?" Burton asked as he leaned closer to them.
"The rift," she said. "The Eastern rift. There must be something wrong with it, I think. Then again, it in itself is wrong, isn't it? I wasn't given many details about it, but I think that might be the only thing in the area that could generate that kind of... chaos."
"I won't disagree, necessarily, and I think it's a good assumption, but we should refrain from leading ourselves down a dark path without a torch, as Andrew would sometimes say. Don't jump to conclusions without any evidence; otherwise you'll start heading in the wrong direction. My gut tells me that you're right and—" Oh gods, Bo! Art leaped up without even finishing his thought, his legs aching, feeling like knives were tearing through them all the way to the bone, but he ignored it and leaped out. A dagger of pain ran through his entire body as he landed, but he managed to push it aside somehow, and began to look around frantically for his horse. Please, he prayed, let Bo be alive!
A whinny from behind. Art turned and found his horse standing, bruised and slightly bloodied, but alive, thank Fate, Man Jesus, and all of his disciples! Art ran to the horse and threw his arms around its neck, and then backed away, giving his friend a few good pats on the back. Bo seemed to react to this positively, and gave another whinny, one that Art felt was appreciative.
Elinor and Burton hopped out of the caravan a few moments later and made their way over to him. Their faces bore looks of confusion, but it only caused Art to chuckle. "I'd never leave Bo behind," Art said. He pointed out the bruises and blood, noting that Bo would eventually need medical attention once they reached the next town.
It was as though he had already forgotten the quake, Elinor thought. What a strange person this was, but then again, they were all okay. Was there any reason to worry? It was impossible for them to know what caused it; that answer lied in the future, not too far ahead of them. They would find it soon, she hoped, because if that quake had been caused by one of the rifts, then she could only imagine what was happening to the phenomenon itself. Something bad, she believed, but it was as Art said: Jumping to conclusions without evidence would lead them down a dark hall without a torch. Speculation solved nothing, and could actually cause a problem. It was better to be patient and keep their wonderings to themselves.
The others slowly made their way out into the open once again, their eyes bloodshot and bulging from their sockets. A few of them stumbled around aimlessly, their heads still not rightfully back on their shoulders. The external damage was not severe, but it was evident that everyone had been shaken up some. Whatever that was, it was nothing that anyone had felt before, of that Elinor was certain. Was it all that surprising, though? The Deadlands had been a mysterious place to begin with, half damned practically, and now it seemed to be slipping into whatever pit it had begun descending into thousands of years ago.
A woman with her child in hand stumbled about randomly, trying to find something to lean against. She nearly smacked into the side of her caravan, but with a quick swing of her arm, managed to catch herself. The child was weeping loudly, tears wetting his reddened, strained cheeks. He took in such heavy breaths that it sounded like he was choking on something, but managed to spit out that lump in his throat with another exuberant wail that sent Elinor's hands to her ears.
Art turned to her, placing his hand on her forearm. She hadn't realized it, but she was tearing up as well. A look of worry crossed Art's face as she turned to him, but she managed to wipe her tears away—how had they gotten there in the first place? —and regained her composure.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Jostled," she replied. "I'm fine, though. I should be asking you if you're okay."
Art chuckled and removed his arm. "I'm fine, thank you. I'm just a little achy; that's all."
"I wish I knew what had caused that," she sighed. Art knew that she was scared, could tell by the way she was trembling ever so slightly. Part of him wanted to say, "welcome to the real world," and the other part felt like embracing her. He acted on neither instinct, and instead remained motionless with his expression of worry plastered on him. "I am fine," she said again.
Art was hesitant to respond, but eventually his expression slackened and he seemed to accept her answer, or could at least tolerate it. "I believe you," he said, but Elinor wasn't too certain that he did.
"We ought to help clean up what we can," Burton interjected. He was right, of course. They were all fine, for the most part, perhaps a bit shaken up and achy, but mostly fine. Insisting that Art do the least amount of work due to his injuries, Burton began to make his way over to the rest of caravan. Art and Elinor gave each other one last glance. Elinor could see the doubt in Art's eyes. Was it she that he was uncertain about, or everything? It seemed as though he had just found his moment of peace when it all came tearing down. The weight of their quest rested heavily on his shoulders. This would not be as simple as he had hoped, and it would perhaps be just as downtrodden as they had originally expected.
Elinor pitied him for having been burdened with such a task.
It took a few hours, but the caravan managed to get back up and running. Most of the food was saved, which brought much relief to the travelers, especially the trio, who had exerted themselves the most in helping with the cleanup. Some of the horses had been killed, one of which belonged to their carriage, so Bo was forced to take its place, much to Art's chagrin.
By nightfall everything seemed to have quieted though, and the caravan man felt it was best to stop their riding once again. There had been much chatter about the cause of the quake—a sign from God, or Fate, or perhaps an angry Mother—but Art knew, he didn't know how he knew, but he knew, that it was the rift. Yes, he was letting his assumptions lead him, but his gut was so certain of it, his intuition was so certain of it that he simply couldn't deny it. It was a frustrating feeling, that sensation of something clawing at his stomach, of the conflict in his mind, but he had been taught to go with his intuition just as much as he had been taught to find evidence of something. Andrew's teachings were full of contradictions sometimes. He wished that he could have gotten in one last life lesson before heading out on that yearlong adventure of his.
He slept well that night, though he could not say how or why, and for every other night over the course of the next week. Maybe it was his exhaustion, and the pain in his muscles and bones that kept him down. Maybe he had simply found a comfortable position.
On the seven day anniversary of what the caravan was now calling the Enigma Quake, due to its unknown nature and properties—they had known earthquakes before, and none had been like that—the arrived at a village. The plains were long behind them, much to Art's relief—he had grown quite tired of beholding nothing but brownish grass—and now there were hills, covered with the most vibrant green grass that he had ever seen. If they were still in The Deadlands, he certainly could not tell. The sun seemed brighter, the air sweeter, and the world much cheerier than it had been for the past week and a half, even longer than that, really. The desert had been nothing to behold, and had nearly pushed Art to his death on several occasions, two of which involved Burton.
The village was small, but quaint. The wooden houses were organized untidily, scattered about all over. Most of them were farms, something that Art had not seen in perhaps eight months, maybe even longer than that. He smiled as he looked out towards the farmers plowing their land, ready for the next growing season. Young children dashed about, crying out in joy, in the beautiful ignorance of youth. They chased each other over the fields, over the entire length and width of them, their energy seemingly ceaseless. It reminded Art of his younger days, though many of those memories were tattered and worn, blocked out by his years of travel with Andrew.
There was one in particular, though, that struck a certain chord in him, one that resonated deeply in his heart. How his old village was laid out he could not remember, and when he thought of it he could not help but think back to that great fire that eaten it alive, if only for a moment. This memory blocked out that one now that he was looking upon these children. He was glad that he was not dwelling on his dark thoughts any more, though he still understood and realized the weight of the trio's endeavor.
Sighing, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the carriage, delving into the world of his past, of memories that existed in fragmented pieces that could barely be string together. He was running through a field much akin to the ones outside, a few people ahead of him. Had they been his friends, and if so, were they close to him? He wished that he could remember, but he could not. All he knew was that he had been having fun. The way his heart beat with such a lively rhythm when he thought of it let him know that.
He was moving forward through the field, the other children ahead of him. Everything was so green, so lively. They were not supposed to be running through the crop, but they were children, and they didn't understand nor did they care. There was laughter, but they were just echoes now, reverberations through his mind that spoke of more innocent times, times that he longed to remember. How he wished that he could just lift his hand and touch the memory, just to feel it, just to understand it in full. There was a man off in the distance, maybe his father, maybe another child's father, again he was uncertain, smiling at them. He wore overalls and a white shirt beneath it. His skin was white, but after hours of being in the sun it had taken on a red complexion. Hair straggled up his arm, but as he wiped his brow it flatted out, matted with sweat.
The smile persisted. That was the best part of the memory. The smile never faded, and the warmth it brought to him was considerable. Oh, how he wished he could remember that man's name. It must have been his father, must have been! There was no other explanation for it. There was, and he knew that. Could his heart be false, and if it was, then was it not possible that his thoughts of the rift and the quake were wrong as well? It seemed that there would be no peace for him, not yet at least, not until he found the answers to his questions. They were just ahead, though, and for that he was glad.
The caravan came to a stop in the center of the town's square. The trio was among the first to exit their caravan. They had no money, but figured that they could manage to find a few odd jobs to do as they waited for the caravan to move on again. It would be about three days until they were ready, Hassan, the caravan man, had told them. It was time to stock up on supplies, especially medicine. Some people had become infected since the quake, Bo included, and were in need of healing. Unfortunately this town lacked any magical healers, but they were stocked well with herbal medicine.
"Is there anyone hiring?" Burton asked one of the folk, an old woman with bushy white hair and a cloth wrapped over her head.
"A delicatessen is looking for delivery people. It's just down the street, last store on the right side," she said. Burton nodded and thanked her, then went on his way down the road, towards the deli of which she spoke. Art and Elinor stuck together, as uncomfortable as it was for Elinor. Still she could see, or maybe she was just imagining it, that Art did not trust what she had said that day. Though could she blame him? With each passing day it became more and more of a lie. The further she got from her home, the more frightened she became. Even in lands as humble as these she felt the tug her home at the base of her shirt. She turned her head back at the they had traveled to get here with every chance she got, hoping to no avail that she would see the walls of the encampment right there. It seemed that, in spite of her ambition, she had not been ready to leave, but she wondered, if not now, then when? Would she have ever left if she had not been forced out? As much as she hated to admit it, she did not believe so.
"Where should we search?" Art asked as he turned to her.
"I don't know," she said, and shrugged. Art scratched at the back of his neck, his hand pushing his hat forward slightly. He adjusted it on his head before looking back up at the bustling town before them. To his surprise, he found someone staring at him, but not just anyone, a child of all things. The child stood about twenty feet away from him, his head cocked to the side curiously. With a thoughtful smile, Art approached him. He remembered how different he looked in comparison to the townsfolk here. The only reason he had not garnered more stares at the encampment was because there was no uniform appearance for the place. No one looked the same, but he figured that he could have stood out quite noticeably had they all been lined up together. Here he was like a sore thumb.
The child backed away from him nervously, but Art laughed and extended his hand. His sunburns had gotten better of the course of the past week, so he figured he didn't look too imposing or frightening to the child. Slightly less frightened now, the child took a step forward and took Art's hand, holding it for a moment, feeling his rough, worn skin. It was surprising to the young boy to feel that kind of skin on a man who looked so young. Then again, Art looked like he was a man who worked hard and traveled many miles, so maybe it wasn't so surprising?
"Where are you from?" the child asked, his voice high pitched and shaky.
"A long way from here, I can tell you that much," Art laughed. "It's a place so far that I'm certain, absolutely certain that you've never heard of it."
"Wow..." The child's voice trailed off in a sense of wonder and astonishment. Art could tell that he was trying to fathom just how far "a long way" was. "Wow," he said again.
"Trey!" a woman's voice called. The child turned to his mother, a young woman, hardly older than Elinor, if not the same age, with long brown, messy locks that hung down to her sleeves shoulders. Her face and skin was dirty, though much of it was covered beneath her white and brown clothing. "Oh good sir, I 'pologize for Trey's curiosity. This be the first time he's seen any caravan, and he's quite excited, so he is."
"No apologies necessary. A young boy should be curious," Art chuckled. The woman stood up and smiled, now holding her child in her arms. She bowed slightly, and then stepped aside. Art saluted her as she turned away. It was very likely that she was poor, by the look of her face and clothing. Any woman who could care for a child in those conditions earned a salute. Hell, they had earned much more than that, Art thought, but it was very likely that no one would be thanking that woman any time soon for her contributions to her family. If there was a father, he guessed that he was too busy trying to earn a living to spend much time with his children. It was a sad reality, but then again it could have been much worse. This place had rich land, and with it came the ever-growing plant of hope.
"You should have asked her where we can find a place to make some money over the next few days," Elinor chimed, "but I suppose you don't find that to be a priority."
"You needn't be so stiff," Art said.
"Oh, I think I do need be. Burton alone can't rake in enough currency to support the three of us!" she argued. "Are you so foolish?"
"There are many other villagers in this square. One must know where we can find some work," he said, his voice calmed and humble.
Elinor remained tensed for a moment, then calmed. "Apologies," she spoke lowly. Art placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled. How he could just smile like that amazed her. It was as though he had the miraculous ability to just push by any kind of conflict, both internal and external, so easily. Was it just a scam, she wondered, just a show?
With a quick tug Art managed to yank over towards one of the larger crowds.
They rested in their caravan carriage that night, and like the ones before it, slept well. Art was happy for this, very happy indeed. For some hours he slept without disturbance, his odd mix of dreams that never made sense keeping him still, breathing softly, barely audible over the low brush of the breeze against the nearby trees and grass.
They had managed to find work earlier. He and Elinor would be working together to help patch up a roof. It would earn them good pay, and with that they would be able to stock up on supplies. Bo seemed to be healing, but Art noticed a few ugly cuts that kept him unsettled. It would quell his paranoia to give his horse some medicine, and of course take some for himself, as his body still ached in certain spots if he stepped too hard, or turned to quickly. He had felt worse, though, so it was only a second priority.
Art's ears twitched as something stirred near him. What was that, and how had it woken him so easily? A shiver ran down the back of his spine. Standing, he looked around in hopes of finding something, or someone moving about. The invisible was the most disturbing, but alas it seemed as though this was what he was faced with. Perhaps it had come from outside? It must have, as no one had even moved in here. Of course, there was always the chance that he was dreaming, but it seemed real. Often times his dreams were surreal, unbelievable. He pinched himself to make sure. Yes, he was awake.
There was another sound; this time he was certain what it was. Burton stirred next to him. Had he heard it as well? Then came the other noise, the invisible noise. It could best be described as footsteps, except there was something odd about them, something very different. They sounded inhuman, if there was a way to describe that. Their weight, their sound seemed... off. That was the only way he could put it. The way they hit his ears as they fell upon the ground created a sense of dissonance. What could it possibly be?
"Did you hear that?" Burton asked as he leaned up, his voice whispering.
"Yes," Art said. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure." Burton's tone was strong, but Art could sense wariness behind that cover. He couldn't blame him. Neither of them wanted to see another demon for as long as they lived, but they would have no choice in the matter. Looking over to Elinor, Art decided that it would be best if she joined them in their search for whatever it was that was wondering about. He jostled her a bit, and it was more than enough to rouse her from her slumber. She leaned up immediately, rubbing her eyes groggily, a low moan coming from her throat.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I think something's out there—we both do," Art said as he placed his hand on her shoulder. Elinor brushed it off. She didn't need his comfort. "We're not sure what it is, but my instinct's telling me that it's nothing good."
"Then perhaps we should investigate," she said as she crawled out of the caravan. Burton and Art followed in suit, and soon the trio stood together, looking out at the town. They could see nothing, but the sound of the footsteps was right next to their ears. Were they footsteps, if that was the case? They didn't know, but they felt something alright. Burton was the first to sense it, and immediately reached into his back pocket for the marble.
"What's that?" Elinor asked.
"A magical sphere I acquired on my travels. Those who invented it, an ancient order of druids, call it a Taleen Sphere. Art has seen me use it before. It's powers are invoked in the presence of demons, and amplifies my own magic," he explained.
"A sorcerer you are, eh? I never would have guessed," Elinor said.
"Not all magic users are sorcerers, and not all sorcerers look the same, that they don't," Burton quipped. "Regardless, this will be helpful for us. I suggest we wake no one else, lest we cause a panic."
"Agreed," Art said. With that, the trio headed out into the town.
At night it held much a different atmosphere. With no one in the streets it felt ghostly. If there was a demon here, or something similar to one, then it would have an easy time finding itself prey. The Taleen Sphere glowed brightly in the middle of the square as Art, Burton, and Elinor scanned the area, their eyes peeled wide open, and the rest of the senses on just as much alert.
"I think we ought to split up," Art said.
"But without the Taleen Sphere it will be difficult to locate the demon," Burton responded.
"We need to cover as much ground as we can. If a demon is here than these townsfolk are in danger, and so is our caravan. Sticking together may cost us time and lives," he said. "Spreading out is the best we can do for right now."
"Alright, if this is what you believe then I trust you. All three of us will head out own ways. Elinor, do you know how to spot a demon?"
"I've never seen one before," she said. Art and Burton felt their stomachs twist in unison. This would prove to be more problematic than they had hoped for.
"It might be best if you stay with me, in that case," Burton said. "Art can handle himself, I believe."
"I'll be fine." Art gave a firm nod, then turned and walked towards the other side of the square. He would not be able to pinpoint the exact location of the demon, but he knew that it was not very far away. Its aura reeked of blackness, and he could almost see the dark tendrils floating along in the air. The space that they occupied bent slightly, creating a distortion. It was difficult for him to make out—Andrew was quite talented at this, but of course not present at the current time—but still there. These tendrils connected to each other, and became thicker as he drew closer to the demon until they became its aura. From what Art could tell, this was a strong demon. Even the ones in the house had not had tendrils like this. In fact, theirs had been invisible to Art. He would have to be extremely careful. If he did not keep his head about him this time then he would surely fall into another trap, and by the feel of things it would be much worse than an illusion.
Taking off down one of the roads, Art drew his gun and held it close to him. There would be no time to explain what it was and why he had it this time, and he didn't care much anyway. If the demon could take a bullet then that was good enough for him, and if it couldn't... Well, if it couldn't then he'd be as good as dead, he figured, unless he could escape to Burton for help. Burton knew how to kill the things; his marble held some very special properties, and it had gotten them out of both situations in the desert.
The tendrils seemed to becoming more difficult to discern in the air. He was either getting further away or had already fallen into an illusion, and he hoped that it was the prior. Turning back, he saw nothing but emptiness. Burton and Elinor had already gone their own way, leaving Art all by himself.
Clenching his fist, he felt the air around him become denser. The demon's corruption was spreading, but it was unlike anything he had ever felt before. This corruption was massive in comparison to what he had felt in the desert. In fact, it easily surpassed any other demonic presence that he had sensed in his life.
A shiver ran up his spine. He gulped audibly, his heart beating quickly in his chest. This was dangerous, more dangerous than he would have liked, much more than that. Perhaps they should not have split up? In lesser numbers they were weaker, and without Burton to help him, Art felt almost useless.
No, that was not true. He knew that was not true. For barely a month he had known Burton, it would be impossible for him to have become so dependent on him already. The illusion had begun; he could see that now. The air reeked of foulness, of death and perhaps even things beyond that. The corruption had set in with deadly speed, moving faster than anything his mind could comprehend.
What was happening to him? Art lifted his hands to his face and watched as they began to crack and become gnarled. Hair sprung up from his knuckles, turning dark brown, then gray, and then white. His skin became covered with liver spots, and wrinkled to the point where it looked as though someone had crumpled it a hundred times over. The air was even thicker now, and as he inhaled he moaned like a sickly old man, feeling his rib cage pressing against his skin, his heart beating so fast that what felt like an ocean of sweat poured upon him.
Art fell to the ground, clawing at his chest as his heart beat faster and faster. What kind of spell was this? Was he being damned? His hand tore off the cloth of his shirt, revealing a bony, hairy chest covered with even more liver spots than his hands. He felt his face. It was worn and old. He touched his hair. It was thin, and when he pulled the bangs down before his eyes it nearly ripped out of his scalp. The locks were white, the whitest white he had ever seen.
He wanted to scream, but his voice could get no louder than the droning whine that he was producing. The sound played in sync with one that was more familiar and equally as droning. It was the sound from the quake. Was there to be another one? Oh please, Fate, Man Jesus, Mother, any divine spirit, please do not allow for another quake. He would surely die! His body was so frail, so close to disintegrating into dust that he could actually feel it falling apart on him, failing on him.
Just scream, he told himself. Even the voice inside of his head trembled with fear. If he could just scream for help then maybe he wouldn't die, maybe he wouldn't waste away into nothing but a skeleton, and beyond that—nothingness. Oh, the abyss! Surely it was not he who would be cast into such a place. Was there anything more fearful than nothingness? He knew that there was not, and he knew that he could not bear with the thought of being damned there for all time.
The deep drone from the quake became louder and louder until it was practically screaming in his ears, causing his eardrums to rumble inside of his head. He was deaf, and slowly going blind. No, no, the world could not leave him like this! He could not bare the blackness of the nothing, of the Abyss! Oh gods and spirits, please save him as he was but a helpless mortal ensnared in the wretched clutches of a master demon, a servant of that which opposed the balance!
Art knew not of what he spoke. What was the balance? He did not care, but he knew that whatever gripped him now—whatever was eating the life out of him—was the opposite of it. This was chaos. This was chaos beyond mortal fathoming. The Abyss was opening up to him. With what vision he had left he could see a tear in the red sky forming, unveiling the total blackness, and he did stare into it, and he was terrified beyond all belief. His bowels let lose, and vomit came rushing up his throat. Could he turn? Was he so frail? Yes, he managed to turn his head, just slightly, but enough so that he would not choke on his own acids.
The sky was gone. Blackness, there was only blackness and the town around him. The blackness reached for him in the form of a great hand, larger than anything he had ever seen—the hand of a god, of a divine entity, but it was not! No, this hand was a dark one, an evil one, a servant of Chaos and all things wicked. Something wicked this way comes, he thought to himself, and as the hand came down, he feared that it would be his last thought.
Rushing, rushing it plunged down from the crack in the sky and tried to envelope him completely. Art wanted to scream again, but there was only his moan, his old man's moan. Oh how it sickened him, SICKENED him to the point where he wanted to tear his own mind apart. How helpless he was, how frail, and oh damn all of discord and the Black Saints who had worshipped it, those bastards!
The black fingers reached around him, squeezing his body as tight as it could be squeezed. Art felt the air rushing out of him, forming indigo plumes before his face. No air could come back in. This was it; this was his damnation, his punishment due. This was the end of all that was, and his memory would fade from the face of time and all existence from this point on.
There were no faces to comfort him as he rose towards the sky, floating high above the town and the hills, and those happy memories from so long ago. How he wanted to see that image again, that image of the smiling man that he just knew was his father—oh please, please Fate, let it be his father—but they would not come. No, in the Abyss there was nothing. There were no memories; there was no happiness; there was no sadness. There was only vacancy, and soon to join that vacancy would be him, but after long he too would become nothing, would be absorbed into the darkness of that forsaken place, and there would be nothing again.
The crack in the sky grew larger, somehow, or perhaps it had more depth to it. Art could not tell. He did not know how he was even still conscious at this point, but he figured that if the demon had been able to drain him of his youth and health, rip open the sky, and reach down from the darkness above, then he could keep him alive as long as he wanted, until every last drop of suffering was drawn from him.
Was this how it survived? Did it suck the life and pain out of other being's souls? No, this was not a primitive kind of torture, not the mind of some starving demon. This was sophisticated. This was elaborate. This was indeed the work of a master—no, beyond the powers of a master. This was near god-like in its evil.
The blackness took him, and the sky closed, and Arterrius Turner was no more. He closed his eyes.
Elinor walked behind Burton as he led the way down the road, holding the sphere at his side. She watched it glow, the light within it throbbing almost—growing one moment and shrinking the next in perfect rhythm. It was like watching a heartbeat, or a soul breathe. It was astonishing how something so small could be so powerful, and yet she knew that it was, could feel something, just a tingling sensation in her chest, that told her it was a good thing, a thing of balance. What thoughts had entered her mind she did not know. What was a thing of balance? It made little sense to her, but she understood it as being good.
Burton took careful steps ahead of her. Being discreet, if that was what he was trying to accomplish, was not one of his strong points. In spite of his poised posture, Elinor could see that his muscles were tensed, and a thin coat of sweat had formed in his pits. It was almost laughable, but she managed to push the thought from her mind. Now was not a laughing time. There was a demon in this town, both Art and Burton had felt it, and though she could not, she did trust them, and she did believe that they could defeat it.
However, the mind of Burton Coe worked much differently than that of Elinor's. He could sense the demon, and he knew how to gauge its power. This was a powerful beast, perhaps not even a beast but a being, and that terrified him. It was close, too. The darkness was tearing at his stomach; he felt like he was being ripped apart from the inside out, but as long as he held the sphere he knew that he would be protected from most of the illusions and magic. If Elinor stated close, then she would be too. Art was on his own, but Burton believed in him. The boy was clever, and though sometimes a bit conceited and, Burton felt, thought too often with his gut and not his head, he was, in fact, wise beyond his years. The world had handed him a strange hand, and he dealt it professionally—not perfectly, but professionally.
"He's near, very near," Burton whispered. Elinor stopped. She could feel little. The air seemed more humid than it was before, and she could feel some of the hairs on her neck rising up. Whatever Burton felt, she would trust.
He motioned her over to the side, and followed soon after. Together they took to hiding behind a bench, keeping in the shadows to add to their invisibility. It was poor cover, really, but both were very good at making themselves disappear. If they wanted to, they could hide themselves out in the open, crouching behind nothing. Surely the demon would not find them, not yet at least. Hopefully they would be able to make the first move, using the element of surprise to their advantage.
There was a low drone, the same one from the quake. For a moment Elinor believe that there would be yet another one, but nothing came, no rumbling, no rocks; there was nothing. No, there was something, but it was no quake. It was a shadow; she could see it now, though barely from where she sat.
Burton was looking on with focused eyes, his brow knitted so tightly that Elinor thought it was going to start bleeding any time now. She made sure to keep her focus, though. This was no time for side thoughts. The demon was upon them, and soon they would make their move against it.
Burton clasped the marble tightly, dulling its light to the point where it barely shined through the creased in between his fingers. Their hearts began to beat faster, but it was a steady rhythm. They were afraid, yes, but not as terrified as they thought they would be.
The shadow grew closer, and soon they saw it: a tall figure, eight feet at the most, veiled in blackness. There were no discernible features, but Burton seemed to recognize it anyway. "A Black Saint," he whispered with trembling voice. He had heard of them, but they had only been legend in his part of the world. Black figures that had sworn their lives to discord, and at one point had nearly brought about the destruction of the world. Only the most secretive of orders—perhaps Andrew's Order of the Arcane, even—had true knowledge about them, and it was from them that the tales were passed down. Some regions, from what he recalled, referred to them by a different name, but he could not remember exactly what it was.
"We have not gone by the name Black Saints in some time..." the figure called, his voice low, matching the tone of the drone. "Under Nahum, we are known as The Sixteen Kings."
Yes, that had been it. That was the other name. It had come about more recently, which explained why only some parts of the world referred to them as such.
"What are you? A demon?" Burton came forth, now holding the marble between his thumb and index finger, his arm extended out before him. There was no point in hiding. The King obviously had found them, and their surprise attack had been ruined.
"I am far from a demon. I am a servant under Nahum, if you are familiar with his name," the King spoke.
"I am not," Burton said. Elinor tried to come forth to meet him, but he motioned for her to stay back. This was business best left to him. Elinor decided not to protest, though every fabric of her being was begging for her to run at the thing and strike it down. She had grabbed her sword before leaving the caravan, and drew it now. The King made no move and showed no signs of interest. Elinor held no magic. The older one, the man—he understood things. The King could sense a great sorrow in the man's heart, something that was weighing him down greatly, but he was still powerful. Neither of them had fallen into his illusion as the first one had, and he could see that it was because of the Taleen Sphere.
"I see you've brought a Taleen sphere," the King said. Burton made no response. "You are skilled in the art of fighting demons, if you even understand the powers of it, and for that I commend you. On you and the female, my powers shall not work. However, your other friend..."
"Art..." Burton whispered to himself.
"He has already been ensnared by the illusion."
"Who are you? Damn you!" Burton cried as he thrust the sphere forward, forcing a burst of white light out of it, pushing the King back just a few inches. Had it been a weaker creature, then it would have been obliterated on the spot, but the demon was far too strong for that.
"King Ulric, the Seventh of the Sixteen," he said. There was silence now.
Burton gazed at King Ulric long and hard, and Elinor assumed that had it possessed and eyes Ulric would have glared right back. She was thankful that it did not, as she felt that its stare could have killed.
"You will not allow us to leave yet, will you?" Burton asked.
"No, first we must speak, and then I will leave you... for the time being," Ulric explained.
Burton hated the thought of it, but if they were to live then he would have no choice. Afterwards they would have to look for Art. Hopefully the boy was alive, and with his sanity in tact. If Art died, then their journey to seal the rifts would come to an end almost immediately. Andrew was depending upon Art, and had most likely left clues—if there were any more to be found—to him and him alone.
"Then we will speak," Burton said. "Of what are we to speak of?"
"I'm sure you have questions..."
"The quake. It was you, wasn't it?" It was so obvious now. The drone, the terrible drone that felt like it was splitting them open, it was all him. Part of Burton knew that it had to do with the rift as well, but this King Ulric had caused it.
"And it has to do with the rift, doesn't it?"
"Yes. I have forced open the rift to a point of instability, as requested by Nahum," he explained with a conversational kind of calmness. It made Burton clench his teeth together. For what reason, though? What would that solve? Were the worlds smashing together at an even faster pace now? He thought that might be the answer, but what was the greater reason?
"Why... Why are you doing all of this? What do you hope to accomplish?" he asked.
"The rifts, you mean. Why do I expand the rifts, and in some cases create them? I can tell you this, yes.
"The borders of the universes, of the worlds, are there as a result of the balance. The workings of Fate, or God, or Mother, or whichever of the many names it possesses, is an agent of the balance, is a creator of the balance, in fact. However, in order for there to be a true balance, there must also be a force of unbalance. There is no good without evil, and for there to be a balance, both must co-exist in perfect harmony. However, as nothing is perfect, not even the divine being that created the balance, so there can never truly be a balance. One power will always be able to find an edge of the other. There is no one point when they will be exactly the same. It shifts in extremes.
"However, by disrupting the balance with unbalance, which is not evil, as some may believe it is—unbalance is the opposite of balance, which in itself contains both evil and good—that which serves the antithesis of the divine being of balance, can gain an edge, and thus usurp power.
"Balance is a fragile thing. It can be broken with the slightest provoking of chaos, but unbalance in difficult to break. It is like a storm in its violence, and exists in constant, uneven flow. It is unpredictable and strong, and requires strength to maintain. Those who serve it have great power, though they—we—know no peace. To create peace amongst the unbalance, amongst the chaos, we must spread it, so that there is no counterpoint, and thus nothing will be in peace, and thus everything will be in peace, as there will be no true peace to counter balance what our peace will be, what Nahum's peace will be, and that is why I and the other Kings have created the rifts. In order for all to have peace, unbalance must take control. Balance finds no room for inclusiveness. Some will find peace. Some will not find peace. Our system will bring true equality to all worlds. Unbalance will reverse itself into balance," Ulric explained.
"Then there will rise another force to become the antithesis of your balance," Burton countered.
"No, there will not!" Ulric cackled. "When existence was created, both balance and unbalance were created at the same time, and grew at the same rate together, becoming more powerful in unison so they would be equal. It was not until later, when they became separated by the events that took place in existence that their powers become uneven. I digress, though. Since the unbalance has already grown, it can kill the new balance before it becomes too powerful, thus making it so that nothing could possible thwart the new era."
There was more silence now. Burton felt his muscles grow weary, but he held the sphere up high regardless. It was their only defense against this King, this wretched being, and servant of chaos.
"Who, or what, is Nahum?" Burton asked.
"Nahum is my master, and turned me from Black Sainthood into the great King Ulric! He is a Chaos Entity, and the antithesis of the nameless being of balance—Fate, as you call it. In short, t'was he who has been plotting this for the past aeon, and now it is he who drives me and my fellow Kings into the plain of existence to open the rifts and spread unbalance, so that we may usher in our new order upon a great tidal wave of chaos!" Ulric laughed once more, a booming laugh that sent Elinor's hands to her ears. She could feel her ribcage trembling at it, and she was nearly brought to her knees.
"So now we know..." Burton sighed. "Now we know what we're up against."
"Yes, I suppose you do, but this was planned, of course. Once King Roland realized that Andrew was following him we devised a plot to find you and ensnare you. Unfortunately I've failed in my duties, but I will return once my job concerning the rifts is complete."
"Then we shall be prepared!" Burton snarled. Ulric cackled again, and this time Elinor did collapse beneath the sound. His lungs held thunder! Burton did not move, though, did not even budge. His face was bunched so tightly that he looked almost like stone.
"Damn all of you! The end days draw near, ye whores of Fate!" Ulric screeched as he threw his arms into the air, turning the sky a deep red. Blackness engulfed him, and for a moment he stood as nothing but a dark blob, and then sank into the ground beneath him.
They found Art lying on the ground having soiled himself with pile of fresh vomit pooled up next to him. Burton grimaced at the sight of it, nearly wanted to cry, but he knelt down beside the boy, his face as stoic as ever, and rested his hand against him. With a slight jostle, he tried to wake Art. Inside of him, a voice whispered, Ulric's voice it was, that it was too late, that Art was long gone, but Burton knew better. If anything, Ulric was just trying to get a rise out of him. Art's face was still colored, and it was very obvious that he was breathing.
"What's wrong with him?" Elinor asked. It was the first time she had spoken since the King had left.
"He's unconscious, perhaps still being affected by the King's spell. I can break him free with the marble, though. At least I hope I can," Burton sighed as he reached back into his pocket for the Taleen Sphere. As he pulled it out, he held it before Art, allowing the light within to glow powerfully. Soon he had to turn his head; it was too bright.
How had this happened? How could Art have fallen so deep into Ulric's trap?
I am the King of Disillusion! Screamed a voice in his head. Ulric was still here; Burton knew that, but he would not show himself. It was the sphere that kept him at bay. Burton believed that Ulric was more powerful than his magical item, but did not wish to exert himself to point where he would have to use only his most powerful spells. It would drain him too greatly, and he had a mission to accomplish.
Burton looked down at his little helper now that the light had dimmed. He was glad to have it—more than that even. He loved it now, and knew that the road ahead would have many uses for it.
Art stirred with a low groan. He was barely conscious, and would most likely fall back to sleep in a matter of moments. As long as he was free from his illusion he was safe. They could carry him back to the caravan and strip him of his clothes. He needed new ones anyway, having outgrown these ones.
"He has a habit of getting knocked unconscious, I take it," Elinor said. Burton smiled. He couldn't believe that he was actually smiling after what Ulric had told them, but somehow he did. Maybe it was because he knew that they would be ready the next time they face him? Maybe it was because they now had an even clearer path than before? It was both, and he knew it.
"I suppose he does," Burton chuckled. "In regard to cleaning him, however, it's as my father once said. 'This is going to be bitch.'" At that both of them laughed, though in a few minutes they would be on the verge of vomiting. It was the least they could do for the boy, though. Art was going to need a long rest after this. He'd been hurt both physically and mentally over the past few weeks, and it was time for him to slow down. There was still some time before they headed out, a few days to be exact, and both Elinor and Burton had a feeling that the rift was still some time ahead of them. Though Ulric would be keeping a close lookout, they knew that as they progressed they would learn more, and perhaps find a weakness to exploit. If not, then there was always the sphere.
It seemed that for now everything was as it should be. Danger would lurk around every corner, but now with their new knowledge they would know what they were up against. Andrew was out there somewhere, pursuing another King, King Roland. Knowing what he was doing would aid them, Burton felt. It brought them closer to understanding their next move, after they finished with Andrew's orders.
The path was clear, and as their friend lay unconscious, now snoring in the back of their caravan, Elinor and Burton could not help but smile. Maybe they were crazy, or maybe they simply had hope. Both believed that it was the latter.
The sun rose.