I paced back and forth irritably as I waited on my contact, the customers in the tavern looking up at me nervously as I did so and a couple even leaving. I imagined I must have a looked a sight: hair ragged and unkempt, face dirty, making my smooth and pale complexion actually seem darker and rougher, a haunted, maybe slightly crazed look in my electric blue eyes coupled with the rugged cloak I'd chosen to wear would make any sane person uncomfortable. The contact had dealt with far worse, though, and he reckoned I was lucky for maintaining the least little bit of sanity I still possessed. Plus, he owed me for getting him ought of a tight spot.
A memory flashed through my mind.
"Milo!" I yelled quietly, calling to the black-skinned man in the cell and hoping he was still alive. Milo, a revolutionary, had long fought against the High Council for more freedom for the people, but had done so peacefully. Then he'd been framed for the raping and murdering of Saya Talac. The Council had seized upon the chance and arrested him, despite Gregos Milphas coming up and confessing he'd actually done committed the act few days later.
"Avet?!" A surprised but weak voice answered. In just a few moments, a face with very dark eyes could be seen through the cell window. "What are you doing here?!"
I grinned widely. "Rescuing you, of course." His eyes flashed with horror.
"Nein, no! You shouldn't be here! If the High Council finds you, you will be in worse trouble than I!" I shook my head before he even finished his frantic words, making soothing gestures to my friend as I placed a hand on the handle of the cell door.
"It'll be fine Milo, you'll see. Now come on." The handle cooled at my touch then heated and the door swung upon. He looked worriedly at me, so I took his hand in mine and squeezed it. "I have someone waiting to meet you outside the city. I will escort you to the rendezvous point, and then you shall be off to a place outside the Council's laws. With any luck, I and mine will be following soon."
Still he hesitated before giving a slow nod and letting me lead.
"Damn it, Milo." I muttered under my breath, looking around as the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. "Where are you?"
The streets were cold and foggy, with the night sky above hidden by thick clouds. The only thing that allowed any sight was the small orb of light that floated a few inches above the palm of my hand.
"How much farther?" Milo whispered, his voice slightly anxious. From the energy coming off him I could tell the anxiety came not from worry for himself, but for me.
I looked back at him, smiling softly despite the smallest bit of tension starting to fill me, the tiniest bit of unease and stirring of a warning. "Not much." The buildings loomed over us, making the thick shadows suddenly seem thicker in the eerie silence. Was that a footstep I heard, a quiet growl not too far away? Was it possible they'd already discovered him missing? Even as I thought it, I heard a sudden intake of breath. I didn't have to look to know it was what my senses had warned me about, the hunter that had come far too soon…
"Run Milo!" I forged a brief telepathic link with him, sending images into his mind of where he needed to go then turned to face the hunter, eyes blazing. Hesitation burned from Milo behind me – he obviously wanted to stay and help – but he wasn't a fighter. A push of a command had him running in the right direction, unable to disobey.
The hunter's amber eyes bored down on me, having caught sight of me. He hadn't seen Milo due to his poor eyesight, but hunters were chosen for their job because of their unique heightened sense of smell. He had likely smelled the dark-skinned man and mine's scent mixed, and was smart enough to put two and two together as he grinned down at me. "The Council does not like to be gone against."
"The Council is sometimes wrong." I glared before launching myself at him, energy bursting around my hands.
My fist whirled around and would've collided with Milo's skull, had he not caught my wrist at the last minute. Tension rolled off me, along with unprecedented fury at having been almost caught of my guard. His other hand hovered a few inches behind my back, his dark skin seeming somehow lighter in the dim lighting of the tavern. My eyes slowly rose up to meet his black ones as I tried to relax again. "Don't sneak up on me, Milo."
I breathed calmly for a few moments, watching him as he watched me, taking my profile in. "I didn't mean to startle you, Avet." He said finally. In these past years, he'd changed almost as much as I had… Though he'd managed to retain more of his sanity. His hair, streaked with white, fell a little past his ears, and he wore a long trench-coat that's hem fell past his ankles. It covered anything else he might be wearing, except for his boots, but my guess was he probably had some weapons on him. "Come sit with me?" He gestured to a table in a corner, just enough in the shadows to be overlookable at a casual glancing around the tavern.
Barely nodding, he took my elbow in his large hand and guided me around the smoky room. The tavern-keeper glanced up at us as we passed him, grumbling to himself and washing a glass. He was probably glad I wouldn't be pacing around and terrifying his customers anymore. The customers themselves stared at us with only just hidden fear, though whenever I raised my head and met their gazes, they quickly and politely looked away.
I shook my head when we sat down. Cowards, all of them. The chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but we weren't here for luxuries. I did note, however, that they were made of cherry tree heartwood. "How long have you been here?"
"A few minutes." His reply was casual, meaning he'd been here long enough to take notice of everything going on and deem everything safe.
"And do you have the information I wanted?" I felt a spark of hope, but I quickly squashed it. Hope had no place unless I had definite answers. But please say yes…
He leaned back in his chair, folding his strong arms across chest and giving me a deep, searching look. His black eyes seemed to be trying to look all the way into my soul and for a moment I held my breath, waiting for what he found and his answer. "..Are you sure you want to know?"
Again, tension was building inside me, but this was nervous tension – from anxiety, from guilt, from fear, and from that ever-present loneliness and sorrow. Tears pricked at the inside of my eyes and my heart clenched in pain, its rhythmic beating interrupted into a staggering throb that barely managed to keep going. "Yes…" My voice cracked slightly on the one word, not even noticeable to most people, but Milo caught it and a pained expression flashed across his face.
"Very well… What you seek, the way to bring your family back lies with an altar on Plakanje Hill, about not even a mile west of here." He closed his eyes, turning towards the wall in his chair while I kept my attention glued to him. "The altar is plain, made of gray and green stone. The only remarkable thing about it is on the center, a murky emerald carved into the shape of a devil's hound. To bring them back, you must focus intensely on your family and spill your blood onto this center piece. It'll open a portal up to the Land of the Dead and allow them to return."
I blinked, trying to see if there was any hesitant feeling in me at the mention of that… There wasn't. I would do anything for them… It's my fault they are gone, my fault they paid a punishment they shouldn't have had to… I should have protected them… I shoved such thoughts away forcefully. I will! I'll bring them back, and then I'll protect them with every breath in my body! "Thank you, Milo, for everything."
His eyes cracked open, peering at me through his bangs as they turned a purple color. "If I thought it would deter you, I would say don't do it." He spoke softly, a look in his eyes I'd never seen before, that I almost didn't recognize. But I did. I recognized it, and then remembered all too well the feeling that brought it.
Quickly, I shook my head and stood, trying to place thoughts of my duty completely in my mind. "I'm sorry, but you know I need to do this." I almost run out of the tavern.
"I'm very, very disappointed in you, Avet." Tobias, the leader of the High Council, looked at me with menacing scarlet eyes. I just scowled at him, ignoring the small pain in my body as I was forced to kneel with my wrists bound and cuffed behind my back. "What do you have to say for your actions? You aided a criminal in escape."
I growled softly up at him before the hunter slapped me across the face, grinning like a demon. "Answer the Master!"
My head jerked to the side and the taste of blood filled my mouth and I narrowed my eyes on the hunter before turning back to Tobias. "Milo was innocent! You wrongfully imprisoned and sentenced him to a fate that shouldn't have been his!"
The councilman chuckled. "Oh? Innocent of what, exactly? The murder of that girl? Sad as it is, we couldn't care less. No, we have him on the crime of conspiring to overthrow our very order, our very government! Treason was his charge, and you, having helped him escape justice, now face this charge." He glared darkly at me and had looks been able to kill, nothing but a scorch mark would have been left of me.
I hadn't known this… But it didn't change anything. Milo, no matter the charge, didn't deserve the fate they had punished him with. "Unless you tell us where the criminal has gone, you will be charged and treated as a traitor to our very principals of life." Tobias continued and sneered smugly, apparently thinking he had me. I stared dully into his eyes. This man knew nothing about me. I could take any punishment they threw at me, since my family and Milo were safe.
"No." Even as the word slipped from my lips, the hunter slapped me again. Pain exploded in the side of my skull, but I didn't even flinch. The taste of blood became more prominent, and I resisted the urge to spit on his boots.
"Fool!" He spat. "You should take the master's offer instead of rejecting it like an insolent brat!" His eyes shown with madness and he raised his hand to slap me again, but was stopped by a loud shout.
"Tyron, that'll be enough!" There was laughter in his voice, but there was also something in his voice that said if he wasn't obeyed, Tobias would strike the hunter dead. I shudder. The madness… Unlike most, I'd actually been raised in the country with my family, away from the insanity that seemed to infect everything around the city. Likewise, the rest of my family had been as well. What is it about living in the city that causes people to go insane?
The vision in my right eye was a little hazy, but I still manage to focus on both Tobias and Tyron at once. "Yes Master…" The hunter appeared deflated and scurried off to a corner of the red-stoned room.
"Now, as for your punishment… You will be imprisoned and your family will be executed by way of hounds in the arena. If they manage to fight them off, they'll live, if not…" He grinned unpleasantly before finishing as my blood ran cold, heart almost stopping. "You'll be released, either way, after the arena is cleaned and if I deem you have learned your lesson." No…. NO! They did nothing! Why punish them?! My mind howled in rage with protests, my face blank except for my eyes, which I knew would show every emotion I went through. Why choose that punishment if they had to have one at all?!
I knew the answers, simple answers… My family was the only way to get to me, and the trial by hounds hardly anyone came out of alive. The chance of survival was one out of a hundred.
The sky above was so thick a dark with clouds, it could've almost passed for twilight instead of midday. An unyielding wind whipped across the plains, the grass coming off as pale, sickly yellow instead of its normal vibrant golden color. I looked closely across Plakanje Hill, searching for the altar. In the rather empty landscape it shouldn't have been too hard to spot, but it was.
Static filled the air as thunder rumbled above, like a giant dog growling sleepily. My cloak tugged and pulled around me as the wind intensified, but I ignored it. I had to find the altar; I had to get my family back. A trickle of a cold sensation ran along my neck and I shivered, goosebumps rising on my arms and heart beating faster. There was definitely something here, something more than the gathering storm… My eyes focused, and suddenly, the altar was there, brilliant and majestic as a mountain.
It was actually larger than I had pictured, as it had an open shrine built around it, consisting of eight thick, rounded pillars made of black marble with stylized engravings dancing dragons and hunting hell hounds, and a temple-styled roof of what appeared to be electrum, laced through with black gold designs that depicted a story of some sort that I couldn't make any sense of. The altar, resting on a raised dais in the middle of the shrine, was exactly as Milo had described.
Excitement and hope flushed through my veins, as did hesitation. Do you really want to do this? Something seemed to ask me. The altar has something off about it… Something not quite right. A dark feel, and the sensation that if I did this, the result might not be exactly what I was aiming for. But… This was for my family. They deserved anything and everything I could give them.
Yes… It was my fault, and they deserved better… I took one step, then another, and another, until I was right at the altar, looking down on it at the emerald devil's hound. The dark power pulsed stronger around me, almost a thick feel, like sludge. I resisted the urge to shudder, examining the altar closely. The gray and green stone that made its rectangular shape really was unremarkable. But that feel… I shook those thoughts away and brought forth happier, more cheerful ones. Soon, I will be reunited with my Lanna and Eriko... The voice sighed. No you won't… I frowned at it, wanting an explanation, but a memory pressed down on me.
Eriko held Lanna in his arms, dark eyes dancing with laughter as he spun her giggling form around. "Look, Momma!" She yelled, laughing harder, before throwing her arms outwards and leaning back, her dark brown hair swirling around. He chuckled, shaking his head, but kept spinning. I grinned at them, pausing as I folded a shirt.
"Be careful, Lanna-Fae!" I shouted, only half serious. As long as Eriko was with her, she would be safe.
"I am, Momma!"
My hand reached for and grasped the hilt of the hunting knife I'd brought with me. Three years is too long… Things won't be the same.The voice sounded almost desperate, but I was done listening to it. My hand rose above the devil's hound, thunder clapping dangerously in the background, but I was scarcely aware of the elements. The power began pulsing in time with my heart beat and the emerald took on a faint, grim glow.
In a daze, the blade slashed across my palm and blood spilled over onto the devil's hound. In that instant, a howl filled my ears, a haunting noise that echoed on and on in my mind and brought images of the night my family back to my mind. The hound's emerald seemed to absorb the blood, turning black and the faint glow it had went out. I waited…
Nothing happened… Then an explosion of energy ripped through the air like a giant lightning bolt, throwing me away from the altar and into one of the pillars. I groaned, dark spots dancing across my vision, but my gaze was drawn to the altar. The whole entire thing was radiating with dark power, purplish-black and white energy twining around it like the corona of the sun. And above it, the white energy was gathering in a jagged-looking line of light that ran horizontally ten feet into the air. Rip-zone... The voice whispered to me.
Slowly, a man stepped through the line of light and down beside the altar. My mind stopped, stunned. The man had some resemblance to Eriko... He had the same arrogant bearing, with ever so slightly wavy black hair that teasingly fell over his dark eyes. He had the same demanding nature seeming to surround him, but there was a difference… The dark, pulsating power of the altar, of the emerald devil's hound was inside him, too. And there were strange, intertwining marks on his face. As I watched, the marks seemed to shift and change position, though the never left the place across his forehead.
Have I succeeded…? "Eriko?" His attention snapped to me and I froze, meeting those cold, calculating eyes. My heart thudded in my chest. No… Whatever this maybe… This is Eriko.. But somehow… At the same time… It is not.
Still, he nodded, recognition slowly crossing his face, but the look didn't vanish. It was the look of a predator, a predator about to pounce on its prey. I wanted to run, to flee, but I couldn't. Behind him, the rip-zone sealed itself shut. A cold feeling went through me, as well as a sense of loss that I had failed and most likely wouldn't have a second chance. I told you so. Geez, so helpful you are…
He took a step towards me, pulling me out of my thoughts, and a cruel smile grew on his face. "You are powerful, Gate. More powerful than they thought." He laughed and my blood chilled as he traced a hand along my face. Yes, not the Eriko I knew… What the hell does Gate mean? Who are "they"?
I sat there, unable to move as he continued petting my face. Ice coated my veins, making me paralyzed as my heart steadily raced. Be careful what you wish for, that is always what they say. And now you shall pay the ultimate price.A tender softening went through his eyes before his right hand, the hand that wasn't petting my face, slammed into my skull and I fell into darkness and oblivion.