At first, Will could not remember ever feeling so cold. And then the “other time” slammed into his memory with a shockwave transporting him back. Images flashed mercilessly behind his tightly clenched eyes. A moment of terror in a snowy wood. Blood everywhere. His father ravaged by wolves below. His raw, frostbitten knuckles and fingers clawing frantically into rough, icy bark. His knees and legs soaked by the snow, numbed by the pressure of the cold branch under his seat, and the cold black trunk he’d wrapped them around. His head entwined in a frosted woolen scarf. The sheepskin jacket, slightly too big for him, keeping his central core warm, yet he shivered with a coldness that had nothing to do with the temperature. He’d ducked his head to escape the terrible sights below but could not miss the sight of the bloodied snapping teeth of the wolves as they lept up to reach him and catch a dangling leg or ankle and pull him down to share the fate of his father.
Will gasped, opened his eyes momentarily and then clamped them eyes shut again, trying to bury those terrible memories back into the past, into the blackness once more, yet failing.
His dad, his father, his hero, his world, ripped away from him by a night of terror. An ending that his young mind never saw coming. Never even conceived was in the cards. Like any young one, he believed that both he and his dad would be together forever. It was unfair of life, of the One to allow this to happen to him. And because of it, he could not forgive the One. The One was unkind, no matter what his father had said. His dad was dead. His dad was wrong. His dad was a fool to believe that the One was good. How could the One be good when He allowed one of His servants to fall and meet with such a terrible end? How could he forgive the One who would permit such a thing to happen to such a good and brave man. How could he forgive the One, spoken about in the Ancient Text, for allowing so much pain into Will’s world?
This Mid-World he had once thought of to be a personal gift to him—A way to reach out and be with his father, and spend time with him in a father-son adventure of their own– was actually a place of nightmares. In the Surface World, his father’s body had been delivered with ceremony and military order, but still in a box and a black plastic bag. Only pieces of him had been recovered. The adults did not know he was listening. He’d hidden under the tablecloth at the reception they’d had to honor his father’s service and sacrifice. He’d learned about the raid, and the terrorist cell, they’d fought. He’d memorized the strange Arabic characters, that represented the terrorist cell that had claimed responsibility for killing his father. حزمة الذئب (hazmat aldhiyb) translated simply as “The Wolf Pack”. Sounding something like ull-dee-boo. He hated to an obsession. He wanted those terrorists to pay for taking his dad! He wanted them dead, dead, dead! He wanted their wives dead. He wanted their children dead. He wanted to kill every creature in this Mid-World that dared pose any threat to Surface Worlders. He wanted to stab and stab and stab that Moon Sprite creature, that nightmare from between worlds, to make it pay for the evil done to his father. Something had to pay. Someone had to pay. Before he realized it, he was weeping and curled into a fetal position, still shivering from the memories and cold of the ice.
The creature had known his pain when he’d confronted it trapped in the ice. Its eyes had flashed and fluttered and reflected back the pain he had felt and carried, amplifying it into a blind killing rage. It had felt so good to stab something, anything. To vent the horror and pain that had come to live within his soul. It occupied his heart and mind. He could not explain why he harbored so much rage. Why he could not connect with others in any meaningful way. His mind had grown dark with clouded thoughts of violence. The violence he felt, demanded access to him. It expressed itself in ways that might have disturbed him, back when his father was alive and had not been deployed into that stupid desert country full of towel-heads and idiots who covered their women and probably romanced their camels. It angered him to think that his father ever wanted to help liberate such backward stupid people, who were raised to behave no better than animals. If the One loved such animals, then He was stupid too. Why couldn’t they just bomb those idiots back into oblivion and be done with the whole stupid war? When he was old enough, he couldn’t wait to join up and bring some payback to whoever “The Wolf Pack” was.
His time in the Mid-World was only mental training for what would come in his real life. If he could survive these nightmares, he could survive becoming the nightmare for those for whom his hatred had been reserved and seasoned and matured like fermenting wine in a dusty bottle. His pent-up rage, expressing his fury behind a rapidly bucking automatic weapon would be pure ambrosia. He would paint their greasy and stinking Arab bodies with bright red flowers. He would cut their throats out with his K-Bar graphite blade, honed and sharp. Their women’s ululation cries would shriek well into the night and become music to his ears. They would finally know the pain he felt and lived with every day since that time the dark military car pulled up to the curb in front of their southwestern suburban home.
Seven years, his father had been gone. Seven years of upheaval in his life. Seven years since they moved to Texas from Minnesota. He hated Texas. The long, hot summers had been almost unbearable those first few years, but the memory of the cold deaths made them bearable. His father had died in both places. The Surface World and in the Mid-World, though, it happened first in the Mid-World. Back when he still could read his father’s letters and prayed each night to the One that his father might make it safely home. A prayer that had been denied. A prayer that had only reached deaf ears. This seed of anger and pain in his heart had become a garden of rage twisted briers and thorns. How could the One love him this way? O’Brian and his quotes from the Ancient Text made him so angry. Will gritted his teeth, as the tears continued to spill from his clenched eyes and burn his cheeks with the cold. Where was he?
Will’s eyes popped open with a start. How long had he been down? How long had he laid there on the surface of the lake? Where were the others? Where was the Moon Sprite he had been pursuing? Was it dead? The spear had stuck in its hide and the thongs had pulled him along with it as it crawled free of the ice hole that had held it. It had bled that silver stuff and smeared the surface of the ice with it. He had been pulled off of his feet and slipped into that mess and it had set him afire. Strange now that there was no trace of it or of the Moon Sprite. A foggy mist had spread across the ice and he could barely see more than five feet in front of him. He figured he must’ve lost the spear, which was not good. Not good at all. He looked around him carefully, tracking for signs. And then he saw it. Footprints. Two pairs from the looks of it, but even now the prints were fading. Whoever had come by here had not stopped for long. Perhaps they had believed him to be dead. He couldn’t be sure. With the footprints fading as they were in the frost, the tracks had to be fresh, so he reasoned that whoever made them couldn’t be that far ahead. But the absence of the silver blood puzzled him. There had been a lot of it, to have just vanished. Perhaps the ice crystals that were skittering across the lake had covered it over, the same as they were even now filling in the footprints. This misty fog was annoying and disorienting. It was just low enough where he could barely see over the top of it, but it was building and massing and soon he would not be able to see anything.
His ears burned with the cold and wet, and there was an annoying sort of ringing and throbbing noise that he could not clear his head of. And suddenly, the ringing noise became clearer. It wasn’t ringing that he was hearing. It was dozens of screeching noises, trilling with a liquid sounding gurgle. The fog ahead of him seemed to bounce, somehow, as if it pulsed with some distant light. Whatever was happening, it was just ahead of him. He turned away, scanning the rising forests around him forming the Trathorn Falls basin. He noticed the ledge where they had first observed the Manticore from a small bluff and break in the trees. He scanned to the left of that trying to find the direction of the shoreline where the others waited for them with the wagon. Perhaps if he could get a quick read and bearing, and fix upon a certain point, he might make it back to the shore before the fog made it impossible to see anything. He had put a short sword behind his shoulders, between his shoulder blades, but too late found that it was an impractical place for drawing the blade out of its scabbard. Because of this, he wasn’t entirely unarmed, but it would take some doing to get out of the trussed straps he’d put his arms through. He started forward, towards what his best approximation was for the bank where the others were waiting. He believed it to be somewhere between the two large fir trees, but he wasn’t certain. He cursed himself for not paying more attention to those details before he had set out with the others. He tried to keep his eyes on the tops of those trees, but the fog kept rising making it difficult. If he could just go in a straight line he knew he would eventually reach the shore. But the fog seemed to work against him. If his eyes were not playing tricks on him this sinister fog must be. In almost every direction he looked ahead and down the fog seemed to be flashing with ghostly silver light.
“Ease her down gently,” Christie admonished as Matt and James positioned Maeven upon the trough of the sled.
Begglar, Nell and Dominic helped to hold the sled steady so that it would not slip out from under Maeven until they had her secured.
Four of the others of the company had joined them on the ice, brandishing weapons suited to their body type and skill level, as they had learned from Ezra during their time in Azragoth.
They had yet to give their names, but one was the young woman who had rallied support and commitment to seeing this quest through. Now there, standing armed and ready to guard Maeven against unknown dangers as she was conveyed across the lake to the falls, these four added courage and action to that commitment.
The others remained on the shoreline, guarding the supplies, anxiously waiting for the return of the company. This journey to uncover the “lost stories” and finally reach the fabled land of Excavatia and somehow navigate through and survive the onset of civil war threatening these lands would afford many other opportunities for them to demonstrate their courage and commitment to this quest, so there was no judgment levied at those who chose to remain on terra firma. Their times and battles would come. Besides, if this seeming fool’s errand should fail, there would either need to be someone left to continue the quest or someone to come to rescue us all.
Mason and I watched as the young snapping Moon Sprites poured out of the fog, pursuing us at our heels. We scrambled backward, slipping and sliding on the sloped surface flash frozen by the mysterious pearl. Trying to gain the edge of the clenched jaws of the falls, we jabbed at the ice using our weapons as ski poles to keep from losing ground. In moments we were finally able to catch hold of an ice flow column, gain purchase and pivot in between the blue-white ice colonnades into the dank wet darkness. The narrow crevices between the columns of ice gave us some respite from the onrushing creatures. If they were to reach us, they would have to wriggle into these narrow gaps, and we would fight them in a line rather than in a mass surge.
I tossed the spear to Mason, who set down his bow with his left hand and caught it mid shaft in his right.
“Jab at them as they come in. Skewer as many as you can,” I directed, as I gathered the sash of the honor sword around my wrist and tugged at the sheathed hilt.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Mason said, “Look up there.”
He gestured upward toward the ceiling of the ice, and a frosted cornice of icy daggers poised above and before us.
Their points gleamed sharply and dangerously in the blue half-light.
“Good idea. Let’s do it.”
We both swiped at the ceiling. Mason jabbed the spearpoint upward wedging it between the rocky ceiling into a space along the icy sheet-edge, a suspended arsenal of daggers and cleaver blades. I quickly realized that his method would be far more effective than mine, so I unwrapped the sash, sheathed my blade and joined him in the pulling and prizing with the spear. The narrow slits where he and I slipped in behind the frozen falls flashed with strobe-light, as the Moon Sprites found the chutes and lunged into them. Mason and I pulled harder and more desperately on the shaft, until finally we heard a cracking noise, and felt the weight of the ice release its bat-clawed hold on the rocky ceiling and come crashing downward. Icy spears stabbed, clanked and thunked into the rocky floor, piercing and crushing and burying several angry Moon Sprites as they poured into the grotto. Silver blood jetted outward, as the creatures twisted and writhed angrily, snapping at the air, even as the white fire in their silver eyes faded to black.
About five or six Moon Sprites extended out of the tunnel, their bodies pummeled and stabbed and cut by the ice. We could not hazard a guess on how many more had been trapped in the gap, but we knew there would be more outside, still looking for ways to get in. We moved toward the few that still squirmed and put them out of their misery with blade and point. What little there was of the remaining light was poor and dim, a translucent bluish glow that hardly gave us any comfort, knowing that the others may still find another crevice between the rigid columns.
The noise of the collapsing cornice and the tinkle and clink of the ice seemed to linger and echo in the cave space behind us. So focused had we been, that we had failed to notice that from within the cave, there was a bubbling noise, like a great cauldron of boiling soup suspended over an open fire. Drips and trickles of drizzled water fell into standing water upon high notes that echoed and reverberated throughout the caves beneath the falls. The recesses had seemed dark and ominous at first, but there was a change in the quality of the darkness. Deeper within, something pulsed with a strange light, briefly illuminating the cavern walls about twenty feet away from us.
Without a doubt in my mind, I knew this must be what Maeven had spoken of before. The Ghost Pools.
Will could hear the slushing noises as several things moved and flickered around him, coupled with odd gurgling sounds, and the sawing of snow grit being sloughed over the ice surface below his feet. The fog had thickened, and he could barely see but a few feet beyond him. His heart raced, and his breath came out of him in smoky chuffs, as his eyes darted this way and that. Paranoia threatened the edge of his thoughts and would soon win its campaign of panic. He should run but wasn’t sure where, or what would happen if he stumbled. He tried to remember the way the lake was before that strange pearl had caused it to freeze over. It had been the edge of the evening when they first came out onto the surface, following the mysterious track of the pearl and the strange beasts stalking the scorched Manticore. What time was it now? He could not tell. The fog blinded him even to the sky and the shadowy tree line he had once seen in the distance. Where were the others?! He scowled, angry at the thought. They’d left him to die. That was what he suspected. The footprints he’d seen had passed him. He’d thought he saw them gathered around the spot where he lay, but he couldn’t be too sure. Those could just as easily had been his own footprints. But no. They had proceeded on into the fog ahead of him. He hadn’t gone that far. They had left him. He was certain of it. The others didn’t care about him. They would just have assumed he was dead. His jaw clenched in anger, the rage within him swirling and swimming to the surface.
‘But what about the others?’ he thought. ‘My supposed friends!’
‘They let me go out alone. Didn’t even care to help.’ He knew their names. They’d given him theirs, and like a fool, he’d given them his. Trust.
He’d also given his to Mr. O’Brian, but he’d been reluctant to do so, but despite that, something had felt right about it. Perhaps it was something about Mr. O’Brian that had reminded him of his dad. Though the similarities annoyed him, they also strangely comforted him. A dichotomy.
His so-called friends did not like Mr. O’Brian. They distrusted him, and said so privately on many occasions, but offered no specific reasons why. Just a vague sense that he wasn’t up to the job of leadership and didn’t know where he was going and quite possibly was putting them all in danger. There was no Excavatia. It was only the stuff of legends, told to children to get them to go to sleep. Adults grew out of that belief. Mr. O’Brian was a fool. ‘Perhaps he was’, Will thought, ‘but so was his father.’ And his father was now dead. This Mid-World had held nothing for him, since the death of his father, so he had quit believing in it, and the dreams had eventually ceased. He had not thought about the Mid-World for many years until one night he did and had fallen asleep with those thoughts in his mind and had found himself here once again. Waking up on a beach. Finding others gathering there having come through the portal themselves. Disoriented by the trip, but curious about where they were and why they were here and why they each held an unlit torch.
More noises came across the ice. This time the sounds of sloughing were louder, and the crunch and crackle were more pronounced. Glowing light danced with phosphorescence upon the mist. Whatever had been stalking him was getting too close, and Will, now lacking the spear he had set out with, drew out a wicked looking kukri knife. These creatures would pay dearly for following him.