When James woke he knew immediately that he was not truly awake, but in a dream. He was in a large room, surrounded on all sides by a circular wall of stone bricks. There was no door and the ceiling flickered in and out of transparency, exposing a night sky peppered with blazing red stars. He wasn’t alone in the room, for Luthien sat on a stool on the opposite end, legs propped up on a shiny oak table. A long, wicked grin was across his face and his milky white left eye stared off into nowhere while his right eye remained fixed on James.
James shivered, took a step back and found himself against the wall. He had no way of knowing if the dream was simply just a dream, or something more. He wondered, in that brief moment, if he could possibly have some sort of connection with Luthien, allowing this dream to occur.
Luthien stood. He was gargantuan, or so James thought for a moment as the black iron clad man’s shadow crossed the room. Tiny wind, like little hands, flew into the room, blew around, and left. Luthien was fully upright. Black gauntlets covered his arms, a pitch dark cape drifted behind him, pushed along by the new gusts of wind, and his shoulders were broad and dressed in sheets of metal. The armor range as it shifted. It seemed light on Luthien, despite its heavy appearance.
Then Luthien stepped forward, his metallic boots making a loud, echoing clang on the stone floor. His armor rustled as he walked, creating a clattering sound across the room like a dull wind chime, eerie and altogether vagarious. Luthien held his hand out and James recoiled against the wall again. Voices came at James now, from all directions. Some of them were vaguely familiar, like the voices that seemed to have attacked him when he tried to slip away into paralysis at the wrong time. They whispered sharply at him and amongst themselves. Luthien came closer and at each step he pushed back against the wall. Fear took over every motion. He saw the dark hand of Luthien coming, the twisted milky eye staring into him and away from him at the same time. It was a horrid thing to look into. The pupil seemed to float in the white bubble that was the eye and ripples seemed to pass over the surface.
Then something struck James. It wasn’t Luthien, but whatever it was he became suddenly aware of the nothingness above becoming light. Another strike…
James bolted awake. He looked up into the early morning light, however dim in the shadow. The stern face of Darl looked down at him. He refocused his vision, looking Darl clean in the face.
“What did you dream?” Darl said angrily.
“Wha…” was the only thing he could manage to get out. He was still in limbo between the sleeping and waking worlds. His speech slurred.
Darl repeated with more strength and a jerk. “What did you dream?”
“Luthien,” he said, “again.”
“It’s your connection to the Eye. He’s searching your future.”
“Searching my future?”
“Yes. That’s where the nightmares are coming from.” Then Darl stood up.
Pea appeared a moment later, holding a pouch of water up reassuringly. James took it, drank, and handed it back. “They’re not nearly as bad as they could be. Luthien is, well, rather well trained. The use of his Eye could do a lot more harm to your mind.”
James blinked as Pea tapped him gently on the forehead.
“In any case, try to block him out. Remember, it’s a dream.”
He nodded a slow, agreeing nod. “How accurate can he be with the predictions?”
Pea sighed. “They say that he is never wrong. But what they say may not be reality.”
“They being people?”
“Luthien wouldn’t want to let anyone know if he had weaknesses.”
“Right, so logically he wouldn’t let on that his ability to predict the future is flawed in any way. I don’t think he can see everything. That’s far too much power for any one man to take without going absolutely crazy. Then again, Luthien isn’t exactly sane.”
“No, he’s not.” He took in a deep breath and brush away the last bits of sleep. “Where did he get this power?”
“If I knew that I think this war would have been avoided.”
James thought about that. It made sense. If someone else could get the ability to see the future too it could very well negate anything that Luthien was doing; the two powers would cancel each other out. But nobody else had that ability, as far as he knew and as far as anyone else knew in Traea. Luthien would continue controlling lands that once belonged to others—the kingdoms assimilated into Angtholand and forgotten and those still standing and being taken—so long as he could predict and adapt to what the future told.
“He can see the future for anyone?” James cocked his head sheepishly.
“Well, that’s entirely based on the minds of a collective mass of peoples of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Needless to say, such information is just as fallible as the theory that pixies aren’t intelligent enough to be considered people.”
“Absurd. I know. I’ve met enough pixies in my travels to know that they can think just like the rest of us. They just put off an air of inferiority to trap unsuspecting idiots into their traps.”
“And you’ve never been caught?”
“Well, sort of, actually, not exactly…”
He giggled and put his hand over his mouth. He had meant to say something entirely different than ‘absurd’, but whatever it was he was going to say was lost to him now as he tried to control his laughter at Pea’s discomfort.
“Oh, of course, laugh while you still can my friend. Pixies are no picnic!”
“I don’t doubt it.” He grinned wide.
Pea returned the grin. “I’ve been stunned a few more times than I would like. It’s not exactly conducive to increasing ones pride.”
Together they shared a short laugh before Pea turned away to pack his things. Iliad was not in the dip, but a moment later appeared over the edge along with Triska. Dark colored dirt covered small patches on their arms, legs, and faces. They hustled down the embankment and rested near their packs for a moment.
“They’re still coming,” Iliad said, breathing heavily. “We’ll have to move through here and try our best to keep out of site. I need to be able to see the Scorched Path to make sure we get through quickly. The less time we spend in there the better.” He indicated the Fire Rim with a move of his head.
“Alright,” Darl said from behind James, fumbling loudly with his things, “then we move now.”
James stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow. Night sweats. His neck and shoulders were moist too. He ignored it all and quickly packed his things. Mirdur’eth turned to look at him and he gently patted the beast on the neck. Then something caught his attention. There in one of the panniers was the black egg-like thing that Triska had told him to hang onto. He glided a finger over it and it seemed to sparkle. A smile crossed is face and then he hopped up onto Mirdur’eth’s back and followed Iliad out of the dip. The others were behind him now. Mirdur’eth bobbed his big black head.
“See, patience pays off,” James said.
Mirdur’eth made a series of long grunting noises.
James wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, but he responded by saying, “You’re closer to the front of the pack now. Maybe Iliad will let you lead later.” Then he playfully patted Mirdur’eth on the neck.
Iliad guided them out of the dip and straight towards the Fire Rim. As they neared the vastness of what lay before them a chill went down James’ spine. They edged closer to the barrier, and then they crossed through. He had expected to feel the barrier, but there was nothing. It was almost as if the barrier wasn’t there at all.
The world that lay before him looked more frightening now that it had before. Ash fell from the sky like snow. The rumbles of distant fires sounded deep in his ears; cracks and booms like explosions rebounded off the earth and into his feet. To his left he could see a single massive fire burning nothing. The earth was barren here, covered only in ash and rock. There was nothing to burn, yet the fires burned with no signs of ever stopping. He stared into a fire nearby. The flames didn’t move from their place; he could see them burning and flicking upwards, but the base of the flames never moved, as if fixed in a single spot to burn forever. Strange howls came from beyond, through smoke and all.
“Remember,” Iliad said, yelling loud and clear, “stick together and under no circumstances do we separate.”
Then they were moving along, going up one way, and down another, and passing between fires and cliffs made of black obsidian. He wondered how Iliad was going to keep them close to the Scorched Path. He could see no path nearby. Maybe he remembers the landscape. That assertion seemed doubly absurd to him as everything looked drearily the same. There were no massive hills or memorable landmarks.
His concerns were answered some time later. Morning had pretty much come and gone, as they had been traveling for hours, and it was then that Iliad halted the group and dismounted. Iliad indicated for them all to remain there and then he was gone beyond a massive flame that spewed smoke and fresh ash everywhere. James didn’t much like waiting. In fact, the idea of sitting in Hell-brought-to-life made him more apt to continue moving. At the pace they were going he knew he wouldn’t see true light anytime soon. Then Iliad returned, his face far more ash-covered than it had been before. James gathered that Iliad had gone looking for the Scorched Path to make sure they were still on course. His face was barren, though, a look that suggested concern. The supply train was still growing, that much was certain.
They continued through the ash. The horses and Blaersteeds left behind hoof marks. Ash would fill them eventually. By late afternoon Iliad stopped them at the base of a curved cliff that provided some protection from the falling ash. They made camp there, though no fire was put up and nobody spoke much more than small talk. No one slept unarmed, even Pea, who carried with him a knife that could very well have been the size of a sword to a Littlekind. James slept and woke feeling as though he were in a horrible dream world, a nightmare. Reality came to him and before he knew it Iliad was leading again.
No living creatures showed themselves on the second day, much like the first, but loud howls, cries, and screeches came out of the shadows frequently. They were animal in nature, some like birds and others like dogs.
The days slid by. One, two, three, and four. Night seemed to run together with morning, and morning with afternoon. It was impossible to tell when exactly the sun was rising and falling as the Fire Rim was in a perpetual state of darkness. They passed dozens more fires of all sizes—enormous and blazing, small like campfires, or like oversized bonfires. Iliad stopped them each night, or what seemed to be the closest thing to night, and each morning they were up and moving. Occasionally Iliad would halt the group and then disappear, only to return several moments later with the same grim look upon his face.
As the days passed the sounds of the things living in the Fire Rim grew stronger. At night James heard panting, like a large canine or a massive cat. Then something would howl in the distance, something else would whoop and cry in response, and the panting would be gone. The noises were strange, but what frightened him the most was that they seemed to be following he and his companions. Three nights elapsed and each night he heard the same panting at the same deep level, slightly feline and wholly menacing.
On the fourth night, while the others slept, James found that he could not bring himself to lie down. He propped himself up against a rock of round, melted ash and watched the night, dark but for a nearby fire that flickered and crackled. He listened, beyond the fire, beyond the usual strange sounds off in the distance. He imagined crickets for a moment, and then they too were gone, having never been there in the first place. Then, in all the silence he had created, he heard it. At first he thought it was his own breathing and his heart beating, but sluggishly it came into focus. He didn’t turn, at first out of fear, and then out of an instinct that came up from the woodworks of his body. His gaze wandered to the others, all sleeping and all utterly unaware of the sound behind him. It breathed in long, surreptitious breaths, a slight saliva filled burble beneath it all. Footsteps came, crunching delicately in the ash like boots to snow.
James’ heart raced, his breathing became erratic, susceptive. The thing was too close for comfort, unnervingly close. It dawned on him how familiar the breathing was. He was reminded of Nara’karesh, the Lyphon, and the way that creature had breathed, spoke, and even walked. This creature was uncomfortably familiar to him.
The thing came closer and James ideated that it stood right behind him, breathing damply down his neck. His mind played tricks with his senses; he mentally shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts, the fear. He silently fumbled for the hilt of his sword, found it, and brought it forward to his chest secretly. His eyes moved from where they had stared for so long—deep into the black of the night—and to his companions. None of them were awake, not even Iliad. He wondered who was supposed to be on watch, if anyone. He couldn’t recall if there had been a watch and that seemed ridiculous to him.
Then the thing came truly within his comfort zone and he could not longer sit still. He pushed himself up, out of his blankets, and all in one motion drew his sword, the metal shrieking as it came out of the scabbard. He used his momentum to whirl around lifted his sword, ready to defend himself.
To say that his jaw dropped when he saw what had been following them would be an understatement, provided that the human jaw were capable of falling to the ground. The creature could easily have been seven feet tall if it stood, but instead it hunched low to the ground, draped in long, billowy robes that were shredded as if a giant cat had played with them. Its legs weren’t visible and the way it bobbed so low to the ground suggested that it made little use of its legs to begin with. White hands that glowed with an ethereal, ghostly hue, protruded from its robes, dangling in the air with long, lifeless digits, nails cracked and pointed in multiple shards like bits of glass. Its face was a glowing pool of blue fire where two wide open eyes protruded like giant marbles, flicking side to side. It had no nose, only an open cavity where two holes exposed a milky skull. Where ears were supposed to be there were two bulbous masses that looked like infected skin, and the mouth was disturbingly large and filled with long, jagged teeth and a tongue that wandered within as if it had a mind of its own. All this bathed in the spiritualistic blue glow that emanated from every inch of its exposed body.
Then it screamed, crying a loud, earsplitting sound, leaning forward menacingly and opening its mouth unnaturally more. Its eyes focused on James; he stepped back. The scream alerted the others and in a matter of seconds Iliad was on his feet, bow drawn.
“Nu’thri,” Iliad said, half under his breath. Then Iliad pulled back the arrow held firmly in his hand so that the bow creaked with the strain. He let it go and the arrow whizzed through the air. The arrow thudded into the Nu’thri, striking it where its shoulder would be. The force of the arrow sent the creature careening back; it screeched, echoing its cries across the landscape.
James lurched back and then nearly toppled over as new sounds came out in the distance. Strong roars, screeches, and cries came, followed by answering calls in the same manner. They were drawn out, as if the creatures that made them were being called into action, organizing somewhere beyond. The Nu’thri screeched again. James flinched. It skirted away along the ground, winding back and forth like a worm.
“That would be our queue,” Iliad said, slinging his bow over his shoulder and turning concernedly to the others, “to move now.”
There was no hesitation. James shoved his things haphazardly into the panniers on Mirdur’eth’s side, pushing so hard that the sacks shifted abnormally on the left. He sheathed his sword and thrust it in its place, giving his steed a fearful look. Mirdur’eth remained silent, giving James an animals’ best representation of a comforting look. Then James mounted.
Iliad gave each of them a brief moment, and then, rapping his feet along his horse’s sides, he took off through the ash and smoke. Mirdur’eth made quick pursuit and James could only hold on and try to move with the steed’s motions. Hooves thumped in the ash behind, followed by eerie howls and malicious snarls.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment and mouthed a silent prayer.