“Wait, wait, wait,” Jason whispered, his voice suddenly hushed as he, Dee, and Amarantha followed Winter, Artemis, and Cara-delle through the suffocating darkness. “Is everyone here?”
“Dee’s here,” Dee reported. “And I think this is Amarantha’s hand I’m holding.”
“It’s not.” Amarantha’s voice came from his left, then the sound of her laughter as Dee hurriedly let go. “That was a joke, Dee. Of course it’s me.”
“Winter’s here,” the Spectre girl piped up. “And Artemis is next to me.” Her blue aura wasn’t strong enough to penetrate the darkness.
Amber eyes began to glow. “Cara-delle,” the fox growled softly.
Jason looked around. “Nephthys? Roran?”
There was no answer.
“Drat, we lost them,” Jason cursed.
“Should we go back?” Amarantha asked, her short blade now faintly reflecting the light of Cara-delle’s creepy glowing eyes.
“We’ll get lost too, of we do that,” Artemis pointed out. “We’d be better off continuing and hope we run into them on the way.”
“We lost the blue line, too,” said Winter. “We already are lost, so maybe they’re on the right track.”
“So we have to go back?” Jason frowned.
“I suppose,” Dee agreed.
“Which way did we come from?” Amarantha asked.
“I can’t see anything in this darkness,” Dee grumbled. “We won’t be able to get anywhere in this.”
“I say we keep going,” Jason declared, and there came murmurs of agreement from the other five.
“It’s the only thing we have left to do,” Amarantha admitted grudgingly.
“Wait!” Dee called out. “I found something.” There was a sound of shoes shuffling on the floor, then a loud crash, like glass shattering.
“What was that? Dee, what did you do?” Amarantha yelped.
“I, uh,” Dee stammered. “I found this wooden table. I think I accidentally knocked a mirror off it.”
“Well, we’d better get moving, then,” Artemis murmured. “That no doubt will attract everything in this weird place.”
“Do you think Roran did something to Nephthys?” Dee asked as they kept walking through the darkness, Cara-delle’s glowing eyes leading the way.
“If he did, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jason growled. “I don’t trust him. He’s too suspicious, even if he is Nephthys’s old friend.”
“He said he betrayed his Master,” Amarantha pointed out. “Don’t be so quick to judge.”
“He may be lying,” Jason argued. “We can’t be sure. And now he’s alone with Nephthys. What if he-”
Everyone froze as the distant toll of a bell interrupted his sentence.
“I have no idea what that was, but let’s keep going,” Jason offered, breaking the long silence.
“Good idea,” Dee agreed. “This place is getting on everyone’s nerves.”
“Is that a door?” Cara-delle interrupted suddenly. “There, up ahead. A red door.”
They all rushed towards it, and in its faint light, Jason got a quick head count. “Winter, Amarantha, Artemis, Dee, Cara-delle,” he muttered. “That’s all of us. Let’s hope Nephthys is okay.”
“And Roran,” Amarantha added.
“Right. Him too.”
Dee forced the door open, but all of them stepped back as blue flames spurted up in front of them. Cara-delle darted forward, her light steps making her look like she was dancing with them as she extinguished them with her paws. The fire receded, making a narrow path for them to cross the room.
They did, and Jason crouched beside Arion, who was kneeling over Roran. “What happened?” Jason asked. “Are you okay? Where’s Nephthys?”
Arion began his story in a trembling voice. “I woke up in a mud room with at least three – creatures – but they knocked me out again. Then I woke up in that center circle, all tied up, and there were twelve cloaked figures kneeling on the edge of the outer circle, and one of them was chanting. It seemed like they were doing some sacrificial ritual. Th-they said I was destined to die.”
Arion took a deep breath. “Then there was a crash and all of them except one left, but the one that was chanting ignited the flames between the two circles. It walked through them, but its cloak stopped them from burning it. It was about to kill me with a knife, but then Nephthys and Roran burst in and distracted it. Roran tried to attack it, but it dropped me and pushed him back with some invisible force. Nephthys took his flameproof cloak and tried too, but then it sent glowing white spears at her. She dodged them, then gave me the cloak and pushed me out of the circle to here.
“She said something about someone putting the thing on the job to keep it busy, but it said that there was a demon that would kill its kind if it did not do the sacrificial ritual. It said they’d chosen me, but now that Nephthys had shown up and ruined their plans, it couldn’t have me anymore. Nephthys tried to attack but it broke her spear, and then both of them became staticky, like an old-fashioned TV. The hooded figure said they didn’t have me, but they had her, and then both of them disappeared.”
There was a short stunned silence, which Roran broke with a mumble. Arion looked down to see that he was beginning to wake, and he helped him stand.
He was instantly alert. “Where’s Nephthys?”
“Right here,” came a voice from behind. They all turned to see Nephthys standing behind them in the center circle. All the flames were gone, and now the blue marks on the floor glowed faintly once more.
“What happened?” Arion whispered, since everyone else was at a loss for words.
“You don’t want to know,” Nephthys replied grimly. “Let’s get out of here before it comes back.”
They were all still in a stunned silence as they followed Nephthys to the far door where Jason and the others had entered. After walking along the blue line for a while, Jason broke the silence.
“Nephthys, you okay? What did that thing do to you?”
By now the darkness had eased, and they had neared where they came in, through a secret entrance in the wood. They could all see Nephthys’s faint outline stop, her shoulders stiffen.
“I’m okay,” she said curtly, then walked on.
That night, as they set up camp, Arion sat down beside Nephthys, who was sitting in the grass, staring into the shadows of the trees.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Are you okay?”
Nephthys frowned. “I don’t know.”
“What happened? What did it do to you?”
Nephthys shrugged. “We fought. Like any other enemy.”
“No, you disappeared,” Arion said. “Both of you flickered and disappeared. What was that about?”
“It twisted reality,” Nephthys mumbled. “We fought in semi-death, but not the one where you go on the brink of death. This one was kind of like the space between dimensions. There were doorways everywhere, and you could easily go between dimensions.”
“That sounds weird,” Arion admitted. “I would be terrified to find myself there.”
“It was pretty scary,” Nephthys agreed. “We fought using space manipulation magic, I think. I’ll have to look it up when we find a library. Anyway, we fought, and eventually I was able to dispel it and find the doorway back here.”
“That sounds terrifying,” Arion said again.
“Yeah,” Nephthys murmured. “But in a way, I needed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was stuck in my past,” Nephthys sighed. “I guess, sometimes, to wake up, you need reality to give you a cold, hard slap in the face.”
They sat there for a few minutes in silence, neither of them having anything to say. Finally, Arion stood up and walked back to where the others sat around the fire, talking in hushed voices. Nephthys remained sitting in the grass, staring at the shadows, as time passed; the others fell asleep in their tents, the embers of the fire slowly dying, the moon waxing and waning, as the shadows slowly became longer. As she sat, refusing to sleep, the same words echoed over and over in her head.
I am everywhere. You cannot win. Everything is at my mercy.
Remember, Nephthys, you are doomed to walk here forever.
It is written in your fate.