Hi Folks... So, here it is, the end! There are seven chapters here but because they are quite small I've put them all on here together, a chapter per page, and it's around 20 odd pages.
A pinnacle moment for me, finishing posting another book on the Den, so I can't wait to hear your views! Thank you once again to my regular readers and commenter's and any who are new to my world of Arroba. I really do appreciate it!
I hope you enjoy.
The mortal me?
I awake and the first thing I feel is cold; a deep aching, arctic cold, running throughout my body. I open my eyes slowly and squint against the soft glow of the flickering fire next to me. Ali's face comes into view and I reach up and sweep my hand down the side of his face.
"See, this is the complication of having an mortal me; I'm so easily taken down." I say it with encouraging humour, but Ali's face doesn't brighten whatsoever.
"How long have I been out?" I ask through chattering teeth.
"Around forty minutes; this is not long at all, considering."
"What happened back there?"
He dips his head away from mine for a second and I feel him sigh. When he eventually looks back around at me I can see quite clearly that he doesn't want to have this conversation. But like always, if you were to ask Ali a question, ninety per cent of the time he would feel compelled to answer you, just out of pure courtesy. I was hoping this was going to be one of those moments.
"The ice was another test of the Brethenth."
I struggle to sit up, but after a few attempts, I give up and when I slump back to the cot, my bones ache like nothing I have felt before. It's a stinging ache and a throb all at the same time.
"Well, just as the previous cavern without a floor was one, so was the iced cave."
I frown at him.
"Yes, alright... but, somehow I get the feeling that's not all there is to it - is there?"
He sits up a little straighter and I can no longer see his face; just the side of his body, and I know instantly, he's hiding from me, and the truth.
"Even a little hypothermia can't stop that intuition of yours, can it? But, yes, I know what you meant," he pauses for a moment, "The ice cavern floor had split open as a test to us because we - the immortals of Arroba - would not die from this." He pauses again, and this time he turns and looks down at me, "It sensed that you are mortal still, Dione; it was trying to kill you because you - the mortal you - is not allowed where we were heading. There is one thing to consider, perhaps. You should have died, Dione. I believe the... incident in the bedroom earlier today may have been enough to connect you with Arroba and has... changed you a little; perhaps made you a little harder to hurt."
I break our eye contact and look out over his shoulder and up into the roof of, yet another, dark cave. It's not until I do this that I realise just how much I had been craving colour - any colour would do; even the monotone deep purple of Atrum - just something other than darkness.
"And there I thought my mortality would always save me; perhaps not." I whisper to myself, but of course he hears me.
"You have hit the nail on the head, as it were, my light. That very thing worries me - we are to be appointed in around two days' time, but how will Arroba herself react to a mortal Sovereign? Because that is what this was - not some spell or physical enemy - this was mother Arroba herself. We, the Amarian people, did not make up these tests, they are a product of evolution like everything else here. Just as I was eventually able to manipulate my ice cave, until finally, it grew aware of my essence and therefore began to respond to me. Everywhere here is like that; if you use a certain cavern for something frequently enough it eventually becomes accustomed to it."
He hangs his head and his thick hair falls into his eyes. He sweeps it back with an easy, yet frustrated movement and continues. "This even sounds confusing to me. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
"Yes, I understand." Is all I can say. I don't want more complications and I certainly don't want more of their complicated history to broaden my already overstretched back.
Someone clears their throat from behind Ali and I jump. He turns around a little, facing the other person, his body blocking my view.
"Is she feeling well enough yet?" Her voice reminds me of sweet honey on a summer's day and for a moment I almost don't want to see her face, strangely afraid that it may ruin this illusion for me.
Ali turns back around and sweeps his eyes over me. I'm not sure what he expected to see, but seemed satisfied some how. After a moment he turns back to the mysterious speaker and nods once.
Ali moves from the make shift cot and a woman replaces him. She kneels down in front of me and forces a passive, friendly smile. I look at her, to Ali - now standing to my left - and then let my head lull back onto the hard pillow.
"You have to be kidding me!" I shout, which, after everything, comes out little more than a quiet whine. "It's really you isn't it? Right now I really want to believe that I have hit my head too hard and am now hallucinating, but that's not the case, is it?" As I finish I raise my head again and give the other woman a demanding stare.
"No, I'm afraid not, Dione." Her voice is strangely familiar to me, but regardless to this, she's still a stranger.
I struggle to regain enough strength to pull the cover out from around me, and when I don't manage very well they both try to help me.
I hiss, "Leave me alone," and they both back off. I eventually get myself untangled and I roll off the cot. I wait until I feel I have enough energy to stand and then I try, failing at first, but after my second attempt I manage to get myself to my feet with no help.
I latch on to the wall next to me breathing hard and it's not until a few minutes have passed that I feel mentally and physically able to turn to them. When I do, Ali is in his defensive pose; head tilted down but to the side, eye brows furrowed with his shoulders hunched. Challis, on the other hand, is standing as straight as possible with her hands clasped at her stomach. She also doesn't seem able to meet my eyes. The very eyes I have inherited from her.
"Did you know she would be here, Alistair?" I demand.
His frown deepens. "No, of course not. Up until a day ago I thought the Knight Hayes was just a myth. So, how could I possibly know Challis was their keeper?!"
My eyes move slowly, of their own accord, to Challis', and still she can't meet mine.
"You are the keeper of the Knight Hayes?"
Not that I know what the bloody Knight Hayes is!
I think to myself. Some how, that very thing makes me feel like a child in grown up clothing; a fraud to the cause of Arroba.
She straightens herself up, pushing her shoulders back and raising her head as if she has just remembered who she is.
"Yes I am." Is all she says.
I slump back down onto the cot; all my remaining energy exhausted from my own stubbornness to stand.
"Well then. Will someone please tell me what the bloody Knight Hayes is firstly and then I want to know how you managed to get involved in their... care, Challis."
Challis looks at Ali with an imploring look in her emerald eyes, and that's when I let myself really see her for the first time. Her hair is slightly darker than mine but still just as thick and straight, touching down to her waist in a shimmering, perfect line. Her face is a flawless oval with high cheek bones which set off her eyes perfectly. Her mouth is almost the exact same shape as mine; the upper lip a thin line with the bottom half making up for it in fullness. She's stunning, beautiful even, and so is her posture and grace.
"Why explain the Knight Hayes to thee when we can show you, my light."
I look up at him and say, "That's the best thing I've heard all week. If only everything was that simple here, hey!"
Yes, I have woken up from yet another close escape from death in the worse mood possible. I'm just so damn tired of it all. Maybe I'm being a little rash or unreasonable; yet, it feels like I have the right, and more. I mean come on; look at what has happened over the past three weeks - and tell me you wouldn't be on your last tether of tolerance as well.
I get up from the cot and I immediately start to wobble on my heals. Ali puts a steadying hand on my arm and off he leads me. We aren't in a cave of ice, though if you judged by the temperature you would still think we were. The cavern is dark like most and the smallest one I have seen, but it is not that which takes my breath away and forces my heart to somersault inside of my chest. Over to my right is a little stove with logs of wood piled high next to it; to the right of that are two easy chairs, old, grey and shredded and all accompanied by a little brown coffee table. To my left are basins and various cooking implements stacked next to a small table and chair.
This is her home; where she has been for the past few centuries, oh... my... Goddess, no!
I turn to look at Challis walking close next to me and I can't help the despair that washes over my face. She catches my eye, looks away and then double takes. Her thin eyebrows furrow and then her eyes flick out to the room, then they drop to the ground; not in time to prevent me from catching the flash of recognition that passes through them, though. My pity is probably the last thing she wants to see, but I quite honestly can't help it. She hasn't aged past thirty but she is my grandmother - what happened to her?
I force myself to look on and I raise my own chin, trying to brush off the pain that pierces through me.
There will be time for me to fall apart later. I just need to keep it together now, and then I will breathe.
Ali leads me slowly through, what I now realise, is Challis' little stone house and out into a room that is completely covered in snow and ice. We stop right at the entrance and my breath instantly starts to plume out in front of me in huge gusts of mist. I watch it slowly snake up, until eventually, it climbs so high I can no longer distinguish between that and the ice of the cavern walls. Surprisingly it's light in here, very in fact. There are lamps of white light every five metres or so throughout the enormous cave - the effect is more like a piercingly bright obscured airport runway than anything else and it immediately confuses me. Why do they need so much light?
"Do you see the raised platform over there to your left, Dione?" Challis asks.
I look over to where she is pointing, and sure enough, I faintly see an edge of something raised, covered by snow. The platform is very central to the room and looks out upon a huge proportion of it, as if it's a lecturer's stand in a teaching theatre.
I nod at her.
"This is where we will need to stand. Everything else is protected."
"Protected? In what way?"
"Well, as you know, I am the protector of the Knight Hayes but even this cavern is protection in itself. There are symbols covering all of the walls and floor throughout the cave, preventing anyone from walking amongst the Knight Hayes. In order for me to show you them, we will need to be standing on the platform."
"I don't understand. There is no one here."
"Oh, there is Dione... you will see. Now follow my precise steps," She begins to walk off in front but then turns around and looks at me again, "My exact steps Dione, do you understand?"
I nod slowly at her, my eyes growing a little wide from the deep warning in her voice. Her tone is more fitting for land mine excavators than my own grandmother, which perfectly gains the desired reaction from me; fear.
"Good. As we walk, light will shine up from underneath the snow. Do not be alarmed, this is normal. It just means we are on the right path."
All I can do is nod. She takes her first step out into the room, and sure enough, the floor glowers up through the snow. Her next step is the same, and the one after; our following footsteps keep the sphere's of glowing symbols a light in succession.
I follow her closely with Ali behind. I walk like I have never walked before; toes first then balls of feet, precisely copying her steps in the snow, feeling as if my legs are going to be blown off at any moment. It's quite possibly the tensest moment I have had in a while; so much so, that by the time we reach the platform my blood is rushing loudly in my ears. Everyone else though seems untouched by the stress of the situation. Bloody, immortal Amarians.
The three of us stand in a perfect line facing out into the huge cavern, all of its many layers of ice and snow like lines of age and solitude; a room absolutely undisturbed by all. Ali and I unconsciously searching the ground before us with quiet curiosity, but Challis next to me had already become still; still in a way that must seem alien to all non-spell casters, a stillness that should belong to the dead. She had started to leak away from her physical being, which is the very best way to access our own power.
"I will start the spell in a few moments, but I must warn you both; prepare yourselves. The lights will go out and you will soon sense a lot of power within the room; it will want to touch you and you mustn't, under any circumstances, fight it. It will kill you, if you do."
I slowly look over at Challis as she says the last, a snort of laughter working its way up my throat, but then I see her eyes; eyes deep with warning and fear. I throttle the laughter off completely and nod once at her, my heart pulsing through every major vein in my body to the beat of my own fear.
"Good, good." She whispers and she then closes her eyes.