The cool moisture from the morning, forest air collected on the Marshal’s forehead. He mopped it with a handkerchief as he leaned against a tall, knotted oak. The hillside forest which had been invisible only minutes before again was now full of first blue haze of morning. He could see his breath in a cloud in front of him, heavy and thick. He coughed hoarsely, and clutched at a dull, familiar ache in his side.
“Don’t stop, keep searching!” Martin’s shout reverberated crisply through the trees. The Marshal hissed a curse and glanced down the hill he had been ascending to where Martin and a handful of men from town gradually slogged up the muddy hill. The Marshal eyed Martin with something between contempt and impatience. Ever since they admitted that boy into the College, Professor Redwick had assimilated him like he was a long-lost son. Now anyone watching would say Martin was second in command, answering only to Redwick. He certainly didn’t answer to Marshal Burt Memphis; and now even the College professors wouldn’t speak with him without first going through the fair-skinned, golden-haired child.
Martin caught sight of Burt, who still leaned panting against the oak tree. His fiery blue eyes only filled Burt with more contempt and he looked away, up the hill where Professor Redwick was leading the way. The spidery man’s head snapped back and forth, his eyes scanning the ground as he walked tirelessly, wearing a leather ear-cap and a rucksack over his shoulder. Burt pushed off the tree, knowing Martin was still looking at him from below, and called out to the professor.
“Any sign of them, professor?” The professor stopped and got low to the ground, as if he found something lying in the leaves and pine needles. Burt shot a deprecating glance over his shoulder at Martin, knowing his talking to the old man would provoke the boy’s anger. Sure enough the pale boy was almost quivering with indignation, as he called out,
“Keep searching, Mr. Memphis.” The Marshal said nothing in reply and continued trudging up to where Redwick had stopped. Coming alongside the old professor, he looked at the same ground the professor was looking at and saw nothing but a patch of clovers which appeared to have been pulled up.
“You found something, sir?” Burt inquired, crouching as well. The only reply Burt got at first was the boney professor’s rasping breathing. Then he said, as if to himself,
“The fools shouldn’t have brought a horse. I could track them a thousand leagues in the dark.”
“Is it that obvious?” Burt marveled, gazing at the disturbed clover patch. He glanced over to the weapon Redwick had cradled over his knees as he crouched. An antique-looking crossbow, which Burt had thought was odd enough, but in addition he noted that it had been modified to fire a certain kind of bolt. A sort of glass dart, containing a milky-green fluid, with metal fins serving as fletching.
“Can I ask, what you intend to do with that?” Burt gestured toward the crossbow. This time Redwick looked him in the face, his deep-set features gazing as if from an immeasurable distance. Burt realized he wouldn’t reply at once, so he added, “I imagine that’s a…sort of, incapacitator of some kind?”
The old man blinked, then stood.
“They didn’t do this on their own.” Redwick said, looking up the hill. Burt rose at his side and replied,
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t flesh and blood that makes a man like Amos run like this…and I think I know what leads him.” He fixed the Marshal with a fiercely determined expression, clasping the body of his modified crossbow. “And this is what kills that sort of thing.”
The two gazed at each other for a long moment, a moment longer than Burt would have liked. The paradox of sharp eyes, with that lazy list to either side, gave Redwick’s face an uncomfortable presence. His thin lips almost appeared painted onto his dull face, and his squat build mingled with his domineering atmosphere troubled the mind. Looking into those eyes, Burt realized he had very little to do with the determination which ran through them. Redwick’s head flicked back up the hill and he continued his rapid march up the leafy slope.
Burt remained standing for a moment, watching the wiry, old professor bound up the hill. By this time the others had caught up with Burt, and Martin was over his shoulder, hissing in his ear,
“Don’t try anything like that again.”
Burt turned and fixed the boy with an unmoved expression. Martin was cowed for a half-second, before that same cold calm rested over his expression again.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten what’s at stake here.” Martin said, tersely, then continued his march up the hill with Redwick in the lead. The Marshal sniffed and rubbed his side again, suppressing another cough.
Rafael’s mind snapped back into reality suddenly from an uneasy sleep. He felt the cold, spongy log under his head, and felt the ache in his neck from spending the night in an awkward position under a maple tree. Blinking in the dull blue light of the morning, he immediately remembered the events of the day before. Their capture, meeting the Lady in the mill, and escaping over Baker’s hill where they found the huge net, spanning the width of the canyon. Ever since they had crossed that net, the world under their feet began to feel like a stranger, and the further they walked the more the words of the Lady sank into their deepest thoughts. Rafael gazed up into the half-shed branches of the oaktree above him, the remaining leaves brown and tattered, like ragged shreds hanging from winter thickets.
Nature itself seemed alien to his eyes, as if it were possible for the windshaken branches over him to form arms and fingers and pick him up. In the light of the Lady’s revelation, nothing seemed impossible, and for some reason this made Rafael’s heart feel heavy. A dread of all the wasted time came over him, a dread of time itself. He had lived his whole life in an illusion, all his hopes for the future, all his delusions of identity. Who was he, if all his life he had been living in a lie? A framework which did not hold when set beside the infinite possibility of a reality outside the one he had been taught, in a world called; “Tellous”.
That word Rafael had thought while looking up at the trees had suddenly reached him audibly, like the wind rattling the leaves had spoke it. Rafael sat up and looked around him to see if someone had said it. But when he looked around him, he saw his friends had disappeared. Even the horse had vanished. His heart started into his throat, and he could feel his temples beating against his skull.
“Amos!” He called out, sitting up bolt upright now, “…Amery?!” Rafael called out, standing up now. As his heartbeat reached pounded, his body ran cold at the sight of what what covered the ground. Hundreds of the pale, white flowers covered the ground, each an individual stalk, and each shedding a now greenish light over the dark ground under the stark blue sky of early morning. Rafael heaved a shaky breath then looked around his further surroundings. He did not recognize the place he was. It was a clearing on top of a hill, surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable treeline of brambles and wild, thorny rose bushes. The voice came again, like whisper of far-off thunder in a strong wind, “Tellous… is going to rot”.
From where Rafael stood on the hilltop, he could just barely see over the treeline, where he could see the deep, blue ribbon of a far away sea, only it had never seemed so far away. In fact, it was impossibly far away. Rafael knew the island of Lerga could not be that huge, he had to be somewhere else, another land; possibly the Helm of Nations. Suddenly a strong wind from the sea pushed down the tops of the trees like blades of grass. The wind was so strong, it threw Rafael back against the maple tree, pinning him there to watch what was going to happen. A blackness, thick as night, erased the blue of the ocean and swept over the land like spilled ink over a white page. It came sweeping over the landscape with the wind, coming closer and closer to where Rafael stood, pinned to the tree by the hard, cold wind.
The trees in front of him began to wither, as if a hundred years of rot and disease had come over them in a moment. He looked down and watched as the grass began to rapidly decay; however the flowers did not rot. Each flower detached itself from the ground and began to float into the sky, as if the ground was no longer fit for them and the sky was their only possible home. An irrational sadness filled Rafael’s chest as he saw the white flowers sail into swirling channels of wind above him.
Then, with a rumbling under his feet, the blackness was upon him; and at that same moment the sun burst over the ocean horizon. As the sunlight touched his skin, his entire burst into gold fire which left his skin unharmed, but charged him with an otherworldly zeal, like a new manifestation of the feeling he had felt on the road to the mill. A moment after this, the darkness had consumed his surroundings entirely. The trees, the grass, the sky, even the ground vanished from under his feet, and he hung suspended in a black void, like a blazing sun. He watched above him as the blue-white flowers sailed like stars, filling the black canopy around him. Then, from out of the darkness the voice came again, undoubtably the voice of Annabel, which spoke,
“You were born for this purpose, Rafael. To end the rot, and purify the heart of Tellous.”
Rafael looked at his hands, glowing bright and covered in flickering tongues of flame. Then he looked up and around him in the darkness, he heart suddenly consumed with a longing for Annabel he had not known since the day he had lost her.
“Where are you?” Rafael cried out. Only silence came this time, and his heart beat frantically with an unquenchable desire mingled with an inconsolable dread. He cried out again, “Where are you?!”
“She’s dead.” A new, volatile voice sneered. “And I killed her.” Rafael turned and saw the corpse-like face of Redwick only inches from his. Then, with overwhelming horror, Rafael saw from out of the darkness behind the professor, a frantic, squawking cloud of blackbirds descending on him. He could feel their feathers brushing against his face and their ebony talons ripping his skin.
Then, with an intense act of will, Rafael opened his eyes and sat upright panting, awaking from the dream.
With a profound sense of relief, Rafael recognized his surroundings as the small limestone grotto they had found under the bank of the creekbed. The horse was tied up outside, where he could see the full light of morning.
“Raf, what is it?” Amery said, sitting up on his elbows. Rafael looked and saw the others all laying in a row beside him, each awake and looking at him. Rafael replied with wide eyes,
“You were hollering up a storm.” Wallie said, with wide and worried eyes. Rafael didn’t reply at once, wondering how, or if, he should explain his dream.
“I just…had a bad dream, that’s all.”
“It’s time to get up anyway, boys.” Amery said aloud, apparently disregarding what Rafael had said. Hermon groaned and got up fully, having to stoop in the short cove they had spent the night in.
“Any idea what time it is?” He asked to no one in particular. Rafael remembered the pocket watch he’d been carrying and opened it up. As he did, something stole his attention. The horse outside suddenly bucked its hind feet and began to act disturbed, as the sound of wings came flapping toward the mouth of the grotto. Everyone looked as a lone blackbird landed just on the edge of their shelter’s shadow. It began to pace, and the horse became increasingly nervous. Though no one spoke, the change in the boy’s atmosphere was palpable. Finally Amos sat up and furiously threw a rock at the blackbird. It immediately flew off with loud protest. All eyes were on Amos know, who had risen and was leaving the shade of the gratto, saying,
“Come on…that bird means we don’t have long.”
Everyone quickly grabbed their meager belongings and left the cave, stepping into the glaring morning sun, which shown along the canyon creek-bed at a low angle. They had traveled a couple miles past the net the night before, and it could no longer be seen, though something new drew the eye in that direction. A large flock of circling black birds were forming high over the creekbed, like vultures over a carcass. Their croaking calls echoed throughout the limestone walls of the creek banks, reaching them with a numerous sound.
The boys all gasped as they saw it, but Amos sniffed at them with an angry defiance in his eye. Amery offered the captain his horse to ride, which the captain gladly accepted. They continued as they had been the night before, following the stream wherever it might lead.