Book 1 Chapter 25

Another twilight draped across the land, the end of a long day of riding. Though SoYa had no way of measuring how far ahead they were from those who may be following, they were all too tired to ride any further.

He built the fire low and sheltered, deep within a thick forest glade. There weren’t any roads to follow where they were traveling now. They were being guided only by the light in Aunt SaRa’s eyes, to a place SoYa knew nothing of.

Aunt SaRa says that Father will be there. That it’s the place he’s been all along.

The hope of seeing his father again helped to ease the bitter sting of his brother’s betrayal and kept him moving. Even when lugging an old rusted bucket up the hill, as he was at that moment. Aunt SaRa wanted to make a proper soup that night, she said. And that required proper water. Water required fetching. Mind mage or not, SoYa had found the bucket presented to him for the task.

I guess some things really don’t change.

The stream wasn’t far from their hidden camp and the bucket wasn’t really that heavy. It was rusted, but the only bucket that he found in the rhawn stalls as they made an attempt to grab supplies for their hasty ride. It certainly needed a good cleaning before it could produce anything near to proper drinking water.

When SoYa finally reached the edge of the stream, he knelt down and began to wash the bucket out with a spare cloth. The early sheen of moonlight broke over the horizon, dappling the surface of the water. The night around him was strangely silent, as if the world was holding its breath in apprehension.

In the still, heavy air, SoYa heard a sound — a soft, melodic voice speaking his name. When the Apprentice looked up, a wonderful vision appeared before his eyes. The rusty bucket clattered hollowly as it dropped at his feet. It took a moment before he could gather his wits enough to make a sound.


She stood on the other side of the stream, watching him with deep green eyes. It was so long since he last saw her, but she was just as he remembered — inquisitive face lit in a half smile along the curve of her pink lips.

“AsaHi, what are you doing here?” SoYa stammered.

It never occurred to him that the place they were heading to might be the same place Aunt SaRa had sent AsaHi earlier. Nor did it occur to him that they might catch up with the girl in mid-course, for she was traveling on foot and they were riding rhawn-back.

No matter how the chance happened, SoYa felt his heart lighten at the sight of the girl. His longing yearn for her reassurance was almost too much to bear. When she extended her hand towards him, the Apprentice lifted the edge of his robes and began to stride over the slick rocks, crossing the stream.

“I can’t believe it,” he told her, balancing precariously as he stepped. “I was so worried… I wondered if I’d ever see you again!”

“SoYa, why are you here?” AsaHi reached both of her hands out to him with a questioning face. “I thought you were back in Nefol.”

He blanched a little, trying to think up a quick answer. Little wonder that she would be surprised to see him. Because she was right. He was supposed to be back in Nefol.

“Some things came up,” he replied as vaguely as he could, making the last hop to the opposite bank. Then he switched tactics, “But what matters most to me is that I know you’re safe.”

The girl came closer, a hint of a smile on her lips. Teasing. “You’re such a romantic.”

The Apprentice smiled in return, reaching out to take her hand. As he did, a strange tingling sensation spread up his arm and over his body, something that made his hair stand on end. Though he couldn’t place what made him feel that way, he pulled away from her.

She snagged the edge of his robe sleeve, green eyes large and luminous as she peered up at him.

“AsaHi..?” SoYa didn’t know why his voice sounded so uncertain to his ears.

“Now we can go back,” she told him, her gaze direct, straight into his own.

“Back?” he echoed. For some reason, he was feeling light-headed.

“Back to Nefol,” AsaHi answered.

“To Nefol…” his thoughts began to swim in hazy circles. He heard himself speaking as if from a distance. “Yes. Nefol. That is where we should be going. Why are we out here… running away from…”

A sudden frightening image flashed through his mind. The memory of his brother. Dressed in the Robes of the High Guide. Ordering his capture, possibly even his death. And the death of Aunt SaRa, too.

Shaking his head, SoYa’s mind cleared. It was all too obvious why they were running. Why they could not go back to Nefol. His answer came sharply, “We can’t!”

“Why not?” AsaHi seemed disappointed.

“It’s too dangerous,” SoYa explained quickly. “Something’s going on there. I don’t know what it is, but it’s taken Tsu. And now, if we don’t keep running, then…”

“You can fight him,” she answered.

The thought of it curdled his stomach. She must have seen the ill reaction reach his face because she pressed on.

“Now that you’re here, I’m not afraid of going back. I’m not afraid of the Council. I’m not afraid of anyone, not even Tsu,” AsaHi reached out, wrapping her delicate arms gently around him. “I know you’ll protect me.”

The tingling had returned, so intense that it was almost numbing.

“Won’t you, SoYa?” her voice seemed to drown out everything else in the world.

And as much as he loved her. As much as he yearned to see her again, safe and in his arms. As much as he had missed her… everything within him screamed a sharp warning in his mind. The words of Aunt SaRa came back to him in a rush of realization.

~ You must fight the thoughts and fear that rise in your heart. You have to recognize they aren’t of your own making ~

The tingles were no longer tingles but sharp prickles against his skin. SoYa fought to clear his head and gain control over his limbs. He fought against the influence that was trying to overwhelm him… control him… change him like it had changed his brother.

“You’re… not… AsaHi..!” SoYa hissed through clenched teeth.

It took every bit of strength in him to push her away. Though he didn’t think he had used very much force, AsaHi recoiled as if struck a great blow. Staggering back, her face was obscured by long strands of white hair. Her breath came as a low hissing sound as she struggled to say his name.

SoYa backed away, one foot slipping off the bank with a splash in the shallow running stream. He could feel it now. Everything about her was wrong. Unnatural. Even the way she held herself was now hunched and slack-limbed, like a creature being held up by some outside force alone.

When she spoke again, her voice was a dry, rasping whisper. “Come back to Nefol, SoYa. Come back and claim what is rightfully yours… or will you let it fall to the darkened hands of your brother?”

SoYa just shook his head, backing away more. If she was trying to tempt him, the only response she earned from him was revulsion and horror.

Seeing this, the voice became more forceful. Frightening. The limp form took a shambling step forward. “How long do you think you can resist me, Athrylith-child. Do you really think that your feeble Earthian mind can withstand my will? I give you one last chance to make your own choice before I make the choice for you.”

Panic flooded his mind. All the Apprentice knew to do at that moment was run. He hardly watched where he placed his feet as he bolted back across the stones that led to the opposite side of the bank.

Somewhere behind him, a terrible, inhuman shriek sounded. It echoed sharply through his mind, painful to his keen senses. He stumbled and almost fell flat as he reached the other side of the stony bank. Sharp rock pierced his palms where he caught himself, but SoYa didn’t feel the pain.

Just the panic.

The Apprentice fled frantically, the sound of hollow laughter haunting his every step. He dodged the shadows that grew and stretched across his path, reaching with long spindly claws. Screeches echoed from the very stone of the earth.

He could see the pale firelight ahead, a light that would bring them no safety. He could hear Aunt SaRa’s shouts and see the form of the huddling little girl at her side. As he burst into the camp, SoYa grabbed anything that was close enough to be gathered. A pack. A blanket. There was no time to stop for anything else.

His free hand ushered both woman and girl towards swaying, uneasy mounts. His voice commanded more strongly than he intended, “Ride! Ride!”

As the darkening forest shadows began to seethe, they rode on tired hoofbeats. A flight into unending night.