Spiritum – Chapter Thirty-three

33.

It was difficult navigating the forest by night, even with a planet-sized spotlight beaming down from above. Iona discovered that not long after she passed the wall of trees at the bottom of the hill. The canopy blocked out the majority of Valarayan’s light, only a few whispers penetrating its upper shell. It wasn’t long before she was tripping on roots and getting tangled in brambles. This wouldn’t do. She was doing herself no favours stumbling around with no idea where she was walking. That was a fine way to get herself hurt, or killed; better to wait for morning. Iona found herself a thick patch of undergrowth that would (hopefully) protect her from the rain and any passing predators. It was nowhere near as nice as what she was used to but the ground was soft and not too wet and that was good enough. She used her rucksack as a pillow and her coat as a blanket. It took a little while to get comfortable but, once she was situated, Iona slept remarkably well. All that crawling around in the ducts had left her exhausted. It was already light when she next opened her eyes. Sunlight seeped through the holes in the ceiling, a spattering of blue spots among the green. It was almost an hour after sunrise, according to her holo-pad. Most of the academy would still be in bed, and likely no one had yet realized she was gone.

She’d struggled to get comfortable last night but this morning Iona was almost too much so, tempted to close her eyes and rest a little longer though she resisted the urge. She couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Her clothes weren’t nearly as wet or dirty as she’d feared. First, she consulted her holo-pad to figure out which direction she needed to go. It was a clever little gadget, using the data about the Mahleeka she took from the library to extrapolate a likely location for their main settlement. That was where she would likely find the prisoners. It also calculated the distance there, roughly a day’s walk though, knowing her, it would be more than a day before she arrived. Awake, route plotted, and with at least a day’s walk ahead of her, Iona put on her coat, slung her rucksack over her shoulders, and set off.

A gentle breeze brushed past her and a light drizzle sprayed as she cut a path through bushes, long grass, and low-hanging branches. Iona found the morning air quite refreshing. It helped shake the cobwebs from her head. The wet grass and leaves left her trainers and the bottoms of her trousers soaked but she didn’t mind. She always enjoyed a walk in the woods. The wind, the rustling of the leaves, and the calls of elusive wildlife helped set her mind at ease and alleviate much of the fear that plagued her as she left the academy. The wind picked up a little; the air became a little chillier. She still had no idea what would happen or what she would do when she reached her destination though she decided not to dwell on it too much at this stage. She would figure it all out closer to the time.

Despite the enjoyment she found in her surroundings, it didn’t take long for her walk to go from peaceful and relaxing to tedious and uncomfortable. The frequent slipping on wet leaves and tripping over exposed tree roots quickly became tiresome and the light, refreshing drizzle that had evolved into a heavy downpour wasn’t making things any easier. It was getting colder. She was starting to shiver. The rainfall would jump from fine spitting to a torrential deluge and back again with very little warning. Iona thought about finding shelter and waiting it out, but that would only waste more of whatever time she had left. Instead, she made do with the branches overhead and the limited protection they offered. Soon enough, her clothes were soaked through and clinging uncomfortably to her skin. By that point, Iona didn’t bother looking for cover whenever the skies opened.

Then came the pain. Iona checked her holo-pad to find she’d been walking for over two hours, the longest she’d ever walked non-stop. Despite the urge to rest, she returned the tablet to her bag and set off again. But the pain was getting worse. It developed first in her lower shins, a faint ache that was easy to ignore but soon spread upward and, before long, covered the lengths of her legs. She resolved to ignore it and soldier on but, as the minutes ticked by, it only grew harder to put out of her mind. It hurt the most towards the bottoms of her legs, the pain feeling like it was coming from the bones themselves. The thought of turning back began to creep into her mind. Like the pain, it started small and subtle but quickly grew harder to ignore.

No! Iona thought. She wouldn’t be defeated so easily. She wouldn’t allow it. It was just an ache; it would go away soon enough. Just a bit longer. She’d keep going a little while longer, then she’d rest.

She had to stop eventually. The pain was now more than she could bear. Iona found a spot under a thick Selson tree and sat down in the hope of relieving some of the stress on her legs. She stretched them as far she could, both knees giving a satisfying crack. Taking the weight off her feet provided relief but the pain lingered. At least the rain had let up. Her belly ached.

Iona opened her rucksack and rummaged around for something to eat. She alleviated the ache in her belly with a handful of Juberries and one of the brownies and quenched her thirst with a can of Yakla Juice. It wasn’t a lot but enough to keep her going for a while. Despite her hunger being taken care of, Iona had little desire to get up and moving. The pain of her legs had subsided a bit but was still there and wouldn’t take long to return to its full strength. A little longer wouldn’t hurt. She rested the back of her head on the trunk and stared at the sky through the holes in the canopy. The blue spots she awoke to were gone, replaced with dull grey and foreboding black.

When she checked her holo-pad next, Iona was shocked to find she’d been sitting for almost an hour. She needed to get moving. Sahel and Boltan would be awake now. They would almost certainly have realized she was missing. The military had probably arrived as well, which left even less time. This whole “rescue mission” was a complete waste of time if they got there before her. She had to move.

Right on cue, the rain started as she got to her feet, not too heavy but not a light drizzle either. Just my luck, Iona thought though she refused to let it slow her down, no matter how cold and wet she got. It’s just rain; it would pass. She’d only managed a couple steps before the ache started to come back. It didn’t take nearly as long to reach its full strength again. But she couldn’t allow herself another rest yet. Another hour, she thought. Just another hour, then we’ll rest. 

Iona’s mind wandered through the many thoughts swirling around inside, most of them unpleasant. She couldn’t help but imagine Sahel’s reaction when he found out she was gone. He was going to be so pissed when he saw her next, if he saw her next. She shuddered at the thought of how angry he’d be. Then there was Lorsek. Iona didn’t want to think about him waking that morning to find his ceiling vent open and key card missing. She’d have to face the music for that eventually. All she could hope was having their lost people in tow would temper his rage a little. She managed to put those thoughts out of her head but that only helped focus on the other fears dogging her every step. She was in way over her head. She still had no idea what she was going to do once she’d reached her destination. The place, wherever it was, was probably crawling with Mahleeka, all much bigger and stronger and meaner than her. She was no fighter. If they caught her, her only choice was to run for her life. If that wasn’t an option, she had no idea what she would do. But she knew one thing: she’d come too far to go back now.

Then came the mud. The trees thinned and the ground turned soft and sticky and Iona was met by a quagmire that looked to stretch for miles in all directions. It would take too long to find a way around. Her only choice was to trudge through. She had to fight not to fall in face first. As she battled her way through the mire, another notion came over her. She couldn’t help but feel like she was being persecuted. First the rain, then the pain and the cold, and now this? It was like the universe was doing everything in its power to make her journey as unpleasant as possible, trying its utmost to make her turn back. It wouldn’t work. She wouldn’t let it win. It only helped her resolve to push harder.

But then came the rain again, heavier than any before, so torrential Iona could barely see more than a few feet ahead. Raindrops bounced off the top of her head so hard they actually hurt. She had to stare at the ground, patience strained almost to its limit. The thought of turning back raged inside her head like a banshee. The desire for the safety of the academy’s walls and the warmth of her bed scraped away at her determination, her will to continue eroding like a coastline under the tide constantly brushing against it. The downpour turned the ground almost to liquid. Her feet sank further with every step, each time harder to pull free. She almost lost her shoes a couple times.

Stepping wide to avoid a puddle, Iona’s foot disappeared into the mud so deep she feared she may be stuck there. She pulled as hard as she could but as she dislodged one foot, the other slipped out from under her. She threw out her hands to break the fall, only for them to be swallowed up, followed by her face.

All Iona could do was lie there, face down in the mud with the rain beating on her. She might have lain there forever were it not for the wet and cold. She mustered the willpower to pull herself to her knees though she couldn’t move an inch further, nor could she resist the tears forcing themselves from her eyes. She was caked, practically head to toe. It was on her face, in her eyes and mouth and everywhere else. Broken, beaten, and with nothing else to do, Iona drew in all the air she could and let out loudest scream possible, not stopping until she was out of breath and her lungs and throat ached. She’d had enough. The universe had won. She was going back to the academy, back to her room and bed. She didn’t care what kind of trouble she’d be in. She didn’t even care if they expelled her. Anything to get out of that cold, miserable forest. What was she thinking coming out here? She was so stupid, and pathetic. A stupid girl blinded by stupid stories. What would everyone think when they found out? Lorsek, Sahel, Boltan? How would she ever be able to look them in the eye again? What would her family think? Aldett, Gaelenna, Devad, Corlon? What would Llannaeia think?

Llannaeia.

She could only imagine how her sister would laugh if she could see her now, kneeling in the mud and crying like a baby. She probably looked so weak and pathetic, but not her. Llannaeia was always strong and stubborn. No way would she let herself be found on her knees, crying in some filthy bog and feeling sorry for herself. She wouldn’t let anything stand in her way. She would pull herself out and keep going, not letting the universe beat her no matter how many times it knocked her back. She’d be so ashamed to call her her sister, even more than she already was. Iona could almost hear her. The things she said. They cut so deep.

“No”, Iona whispered. She wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. All her life, she’d been giving her sister reasons to look down on her. But not anymore. She would show her she was just as strong and stubborn as her. She would carry on and she wouldn’t stop until she’d reached where she needed to go, no matter what.

Iona dragged herself to her feet and trudged on. Her feet got stuck with almost every step, and every time she ripped them out and continued. She eventually lost her shoes to the mud completely. That wouldn’t stop her. She went barefoot, though not without fishing them out and carrying them with her. Every time she fell, she picked herself up and pressed on. The universe wouldn’t win this battle.

The rain died down and, soon enough, Iona found some ground that didn’t gobble up her feet when she put her weight on it. Triumph filled her. She looked to the sky and drew in a victorious breath. She felt like she could do anything. Finally clear of the mud, Iona stopped and checked her holo-pad. It was lunchtime, and she’d more than earned herself a rest. She found a nice dry spot beneath some branches and made herself a sandwich with some of the bread and Chikera meat she’d pilfered from the kitchens. The meat was dry and chewy, but nice enough. She had another of the brownies and washed it all down with a can of Yakla Juice. Once lunch was over, she allowed herself a few more minutes of rest but made sure not to get too comfortable.

Her journey was back on track. The clouds parted and the sun warmed the forest. The layer of mud covering her dried to a hard clay. Iona thought about finding a lake or stream to wash herself but decided against it. She didn’t want to stop again so soon, nor did she feel comfortable with the idea of stripping naked in the middle of the woods. There were no more hiccups from there and she was starting to feel a lot better about her chances of success. There were a few stings from some unseen nettles but nothing she couldn’t handle.

After another hour, Iona’s legs felt like they could drop off though her newfound determination kept her going regardless. The trees thinned, and she found herself in a clearing not unlike the one she’d trained in with Sahel and Boltan only a couple days earlier, although much larger. That one was like a pond in the middle of a green desert, this was more like a lake. Now this was the forest Iona knew and loved. The cool breeze had returned, the creatures calling and singing in their hollows. Were she not in such a hurry, she might have lay down and rested. This was the kind of place where she felt at peace.

Iona was nearly at the centre when she felt it. A feeling came over her she’d never felt before nor could place, a kind of awareness she’d never experienced, and sensations she could barely describe, let alone understand. It was as if she could feel the forest: the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the songs of the creatures, the gaze of elusive eyes upon her, and the hushed voices of those they belonged to. The calm and peaceful forest seemed to turn hostile and sinister. Paranoia set in. For the first time since she set off, Iona felt like she wasn’t alone. She knew they were there, despite looking in all directions and seeing nothing but grass, leaves, and trees. They were there, close, and watching. Her first instinct was to call out but she suppressed it. She didn’t know how but she knew, whoever was watching her and whatever their intentions, neither were good.

Fear stayed her as if the roots of the trees had sprouted from the ground and wrapped around her ankles. The bushes obscured something malevolent. Every instinct screamed to get out of there, but Iona didn’t move. Another feeling came over her. A peculiar sensation developed at the back of her head, a pressure at the base of her skull that almost seemed to pierce it. It didn’t hurt, just felt odd, like a finger pressed against the back of her head, then passing through into her brain. A sense of dread followed. She was going to die, right that second.

Iona had no idea what happened. Before she could think, she jerked her head to the left just in time to see the arrow come screeching through the space it once occupied before disappearing into the trees. She felt the shaft brush the tip of her ear as it shot by. A millisecond too late and she’d be dead. The silence of the forest was shattered by the rustling of leaves and a scream that almost made Iona jump out of her skin. A blue shape burst from the undergrowth, so fast she barely had a chance to observe it. It landed on its feet inches from where she stood. Iona knew she’d seen it before: bright blue skin, a single bulging eye, and a stone axe clutched in one hand. It towered over her, twice her size even with its knees bent, brandishing its crude but menacing weapon. Iona was paralyzed, powerless to do anything but stare into the creature’s wild eye despite knowing well its intent.

It gave another screech before lunging for her. Iona let out a scream of her own as she ducked, just quick enough to feel the flat of the axe shave the top of her head. Everything happened so fast. She lost her footing and found herself on the ground, the creature looming over her with death in its eye. It advanced on her, readying its weapon for another swing. Iona’s hand landed on a rock. It was her only chance. She hurled it as hard as she could. The rock hit its eye and drew a pained howl. Iona then pulled herself to her feet and took off into the forest.

She had no idea where she was going, crashing through bushes and branches with little care for where she might end up, just as long as it was as far away from that thing as possible. The brambles scratched her skin and pulled her hair, but she kept going. Her panic saw her tripping over roots and slipping on wet leaves. The thorns and branches were like talons. They practically tore her clothes apart and scratched her skin bloody. Before long, she was covered in rips and tears that exposed the bleeding cuts of her arms and legs. She kept running regardless. She wasn’t even sure if she was still being chased but no way was she stopping to find out.

Iona felt the strange feeling again, this time in the side of her head, followed by the urge to duck that overrode everything else inside. She did just that, then felt the arrow shoot over her. What’s happening to me? she thought as lay on her hands and knees. Was this some kind of arcane ability? Whatever it was, it was keeping her alive, so she wasn’t complaining.  

There was no time for questions. A cacophony of screeches rose from the bushes. Iona started running again. She’d never been particularly active, nor was she a good runner. The stitch at her side felt like a hot knife cutting into her. Her thighs felt like they were on fire. Her stomach churned and she struggled for breath. She didn’t know much longer she could manage. The Mahleeka were still behind her, their calls and screams at her heels. They were getting closer.

Iona forced her way through some brambles and found her vision dominated mostly by grey. The cliff face stood hundreds of feet before her and looked to stretch for miles in both directions. It was either climb or turn back as far as she could see. She spotted a few nooks and crevices but she was no climber, and she’d never liked heights. Iona made her decision and turned back to the forest, only to find herself face to face with one of the creatures hunting her. Only now could she truly appreciate the monstrosity in front of her. It was huge, well over eight or nine feet with muscles that looked to be chiseled from stone. She guessed it was a male, naked except for a loin cloth at its groin, skin blue as the ocean and covered with many darkened blotches. Iona made out what looked to be primitive tattoos all over its torso, arms, and legs, although they looked like only jet black scribbles to her. Metal constellations dotted its skin, from the nipples to the mouth, nose, and even eyelid. By far, the most striking feature was the glaring single eye at the centre of its forehead, yellow iris blazing against light blue. There was something disconcerting about staring into only one eye. Iona wondered if it could see the same way she did. The other feature she couldn’t help but focus on was the pair of canine teeth protruding from its mouth like tusks. The rest were sharp as well. It stood like a statue, mouth hanging open with what looked like drool dripping from its lips.

Iona was like a statue too. This is it: the end of her journey. How stupid she’d been to think it would end any other way. Just a stupid girl blinded by stupid stories.

Mother, father, Llannaeia. I’m so sorry.

It started moving. Iona backed up until her rucksack met the rock and braced herself for the inevitable. Then a light bulb lit up inside. She raised her arm in the beast’s direction and tried as hard as she could to picture looking upon herself through its eye. She saw a scared girl cowering against the cliff face, clothes torn to shreds, skin covered in dirt and cuts, and tears streaming down her cheeks. Then everything was fading away, like she was falling asleep.

The distance was closing fast. Iona kept trying. Sleep, rest, slumber. It was practically on top of her now, almost blocking out the sun. It took its time raising its axe, as if savouring the moment. Sleep, rest, SLEEP! GO TO SLEEP! Iona brought her arms to her face. She closed her eyes and screamed. 

Iona opened her eyes to find herself still standing in the forest, still alive. She was standing in the shade, swamped in the shadow of beast’s shadow. It just stood there, again like a statue, silent and unmoving. Then the axe dropped from its grip, and it toppled backward with a thud that almost shook the forest. Iona stared at the creature, eye closed like it was sleeping.

She could hardly believe it. It worked. It happened exactly as Sahel had shown her. There was no question. Excitement rushed through her in torrents. She felt like she could jump up and down in joy. Never before had she felt so powerful, yet another test conquered. There was nothing this forest could throw at her that she couldn’t overcome. She was destined to find success and join the arcanists of legend. They were all wrong: Sahel, Boltan, and Lorsek. They were real, and she’d taken another step toward becoming one of them. Iona threw up her arms and cheered for the whole galaxy to hear. Then she looked to the trees and realized that her excitement had come far too soon.

There he was, sandy trousers and green tunic covered in dirt and mud. Iona stared, not quite able to believe her eyes. She didn’t want to believe them. A bizarre combination swelled inside. Iona wasn’t sure what to feel: disappointment, embarrassment, horror at the thought of almost losing her life, or gratitude for having it saved? The only emotion Sahel seemed to be feeling was rage. She wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to kill her as much as that thing had just done.

It was time. Iona shuffled over to him. It was impossible to meet his eyes, let alone think of what to say. She hadn’t given much thought to what she would tell him when she saw him again.

The silence dragged for what seemed like an eternity. Iona wondered if he was waiting for her. “Unbelievable”.

There was only one thing she could think to say. “I’m sorry”.

“I am so sick and tired of hearing those words from you. I would have thought after almost being expelled, you would have learned your lesson. But instead, I find out you broke who knows how many rules for some fool’s quest for glory. You would be dead right now if I hadn’t found you. What were you thinking”?

“I just wanted to help”.

“It’s not your responsibility to help! It’s to learn how to use your abilities safely. Do you have any idea what you have done? You endangered the lives of everybody at the academy. You lifted the lockdown. What if the Mahleeka had been planning another attack? They could have walked in the front door with nothing to stop them. More people could have been lost because of your recklessness. And not to mention breaking into the Head Instructor’s quarters and stealing his key card. Boltan told me everything, including how you tried to rope him into this foolishness. I thought you were smarter than him, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Do you have any idea how serious this is”?

“I thought…”

“You thought? How could you have? If you’d been thinking you wouldn’t have done any of this. You would have seen how dangerous and absurd your little plan was. The military has arrived. They’re looking for the captives as we speak. It won’t be long until they find them. They’re going to take care of this”.

“Why”?!

“What”?

“Why should we let them take care of it when we can do it ourselves”?! Iona couldn’t help herself. This was their fight, not the military’s. “We’re arcanists. We shouldn’t have to rely on other people to help our own. We should be going out and saving our people. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to hide away”.

“I’m getting tired of this nonsense. You’ve spent too much time reading stories. That’s all they are, myths and legends, nothing more. There’s a reason why we have to stay in the background, just as Lorsek said though I doubt you were paying attention. The galaxy doesn’t trust people like us, and for good reason. Too many times, people like us have used their abilities to inflict great pain and suffering upon others. So much death and destruction has come from people who wielded the powers we do. We’re too dangerous to be charged with protecting the weak. Our power is too easy to abuse”.

“Not everyone is evil. If we save those people, it’ll show everyone how much we can help. People will start to trust us again. We could control the ones who would use their abilities to do bad things. This could be the start of something great. We should go together. You and me. We can save those people”.

Sahel’s expression didn’t change. “You’ve been blinded by fairy tales, and this is neither the time nor the place to discuss it. I’m taking you back to the academy right now, not that there’s much chance of you still being a student there. Now come on”.

Iona saw now nothing could be said to make him see her point of view. She did as she was told. They headed back the way she’d ran, past a few more of the primitive beasts, all lying unconscious. She’d wondered what happened to the others, now she had her answer. Sahel walked behind, obviously to make sure she wouldn’t try to sneak away. Very little was said on the way back. They were silent as they trudged through the mud and battled heavy winds and rain, the torrential weather picking up once more. Iona fought hard to hold back her tears and wept as quietly as she could when she failed. She estimated her chances of still being a student at the Selson Academy for the Arcane were non-existent. All of her dreams, everything she’d ever wanted, it was all coming to an end. She could just picture the smirk on Llannaeia’s face. No doubt she would find it hilarious. Sahel was right, like he always was. She was wasting her time chasing stupid stories. What would she have done if she’d made it to her destination? In truth, she had no idea. Just a stupid girl blinded by stupid stories.

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