Chapter One – The World Beyond (Part 1)
The shimmering darkness that separated the world in half parted for them on the first attempt. An arched doorway stood open and led into a wasteland dotted with black trees, their leafless branches ending in sharpened spikes. Alet felt as though the trees were watching her, willing her to displease them so they could crush her and send her back. She did not try to feel for her Aeter, certain the trees would not forgive even a small transgression like that. She could not separate and have her Aeter scout ahead, the trees prevented anyone from doing so.
Alet lengthened her stride towards the steep ravine that would lead them out of the Forest of Dead Trees and into the world beyond. Keepers Onentha and Essall fell in step on either side of her.
The Watchers at the House of Troth warned them not to stray off the narrow path that lay open for them among the trees, leading from the spot where they crossed the Veil to the top of the ravine. Alet felt the steel of the two knives she carried in her boots grow hotter with each step she took, but the Watchers said the trees would forgive a knife. Only swords were prohibited. Alet was not certain the Watchers were right.
Halfway up the incline, Onentha laid a hand on Alet’s arm to halt her. The other Keeper was panting heavily. “Can you imagine the magnificence of the flow of energy used to create this forest of sentry trees? Would that I had been there… All these trees, placed here for a single purpose, unwavering in their original role for a thousand years,” Onentha whispered after she regained some control over her breathing.
Essall looked up towards the ridge. “It feels as though they mean to burn us alive. We should hurry.”
Alet agreed. This was no time for a scholarly discussion. The burning pain had already reached her neck.
The ravine ended in a thick forest of pines, black spruces and conifers. Their clean scent hit Alet with a near physical force. The burning pain was gone as soon as they entered the living woods. Alet allowed the essence of her being take form inside her chest and leave her body. Her Aeter stood beside her, the exact replica of Alet only more translucent. This part of herself existed inside the very fabric of the world, increasing her sensitivity to all that surrounded her.
Awareness of every blade of grass, every pinch of moss on the rocks around them, every scale of the pine cones, every bird, rabbit, fox and wolf hiding among the trees consumed her. Alet needed to perform this beginner’s exercise with the Life Force now, to assure herself she still had the ability, that the dead trees had not robbed her of it.
The atmosphere through which she felt the life around her was thick, yet clear. She could see for miles and miles had she wanted to, and nothing would block her enhanced sight.
Alet felt the distinctive shifting of the air around her that told her the other two Keepers had separated as well. Onentha was again panting heavily. At forty years old, Onentha was half as wide as she was tall. The rough spun woolen skirt and bodice, over which she had fastened a fur-lined cloak, only accentuated her girth. Yet her appearance was not in itself worrisome. More worrisome was the fact that the climb tired her so. Onentha had clearly neglected the physical part of the daily training, spending most of her days in the library and classrooms of the Haven. Yet they needed her. There wasn’t another with as much knowledge of the world beyond as Onentha.
The sun was just beginning its downward path towards the horizon when they emerged from the thick forest. A narrow gravel path led off into the distance, bordered on both sides by endless fields of grass, already brown in anticipation of winter snows. A lone, leafless tree stood here and there, but, just as they had hoped, there were no villages or towns near the spot where they crossed the Veil. A strong gust of wind sent Alet’s long sandy hair swirling around her head. She had let it grow long in preparation for this mission and had planned to braid it, but Onentha wouldn’t have it.
Women in the world beyond wore their hair long and loose. They also rarely wore pants, so Alet wore the tight-fitting, black trousers of her Keeper uniform under a dark brown woolen dress. The hem dragged on the ground, and Alet still wondered just how much it would hinder her in a fight, even though she had practiced while wearing it for over a year.
They stopped and Onentha searched her pack for the small, leather bound notebook. She held it out for Alet and Essall to see the map of the countryside from the Veil to the castle at Cer’Ine. “As far as I can tell, we’ve come through in the exact spot where we’d planned.”
Seeing her sister, Aelde’s, handwriting, and with her senses open, all the grief of fresh loss filled Alet’s chest. She stifled it quickly. This was not the time to let grief in. Aelde gave her life to produce this invaluable book and get it to them at the Haven. Alet owed her more than tears for her sacrifice.
Onentha traced her short, plump finger along the line of the road they were standing on to where it ended in the three dots that would form a triangle if connected. “If we follow this road, we should reach the town of Ack’Vere by nightfall.”
The dots signified a church stood there, and a church meant a priest. Alet did not wish to meet a single one of them on their mission to get Princess Issiyanna out of the castle and back across the Veil.
‘They rule here absolute, Alet. No one, not even dear, sweet, strong Ardnan is more powerful than they,’ Aelde had written in the last letter she ever sent. ‘They do not like my presence here, or my power. For the sake of our daughter, I have stopped practicing with the Life Force. When I went to Ardnan with my concerns, his face turned to stone and he confided in me that he has long wished to free the realm of the rule of the priests. But it is not easy to undo a thousand years of custom and history. I feel that to challenge the priests would be the undoing of the family I have built here, so I will not complain again. For the safety of my daughter, I will endure, and let the warmth of our love be enough.’
“Could we not simply Jump and be done with it all?” Essall asked, chasing the memory away. Aelde was lost even before she died. She was lost the moment she chose to stay in the world beyond and marry the king.
Essall’s steady brown eyes were locked on hers as he waited for the answer. Alet did not like the challenge they held. He was just over twenty years old and stood a full head taller than Alet and three over Onentha. Despite his youth, he had already distinguished himself as one of the Keepers of the Veil, which was why he was chosen to accompany them on this mission beyond the Veil. Onentha had protested, wishing for someone older and more experienced, but Alet was glad to have the strength of youth on their side. At thirty-eight years old, she was at the peak of her strength, but she no longer considered herself invincible. She had also hoped his youth would make him follow orders more willingly, being so fresh out of his novice training. Perhaps she was wrong.
“Had the original Deception worked, there would not be so much guesswork involved in all this.” Onentha’s face glazed over with what could only be longing. Alet had never been interested in history. Things were as they were, no need to further complicate them with what could never be again. “I too feel the desire to travel more swiftly. Perhaps a series of short jumps would go unnoticed. The air is so clear here, I doubt they’re scanning it,” Onentha said while packing away the notebook.
“Jumping tears the very substance of the air. The ripples caused by it can be noticed by anyone with the ability to feel the Life Force. That means anyone with the ability to manipulate the Life Force. It means every priest. You developed this theory and now you doubt it?” Alet asked and tried to read Onentha to see what the cause of this change was. She could not. Onentha was Blocking the access to her inner thoughts, as all of them were trained to do, until it became as natural as breathing. “We can’t risk alerting the priests of our presence before we get to Issiyanna and—”
“Even Onentha doubts they would know,” Essall said. “Besides, we would be in the castle and back so quick they couldn’t do anything about it.”
“—test her to see if she can withstand the jump,” Alet continued as though he had not spoken.
She looked at Onentha who lowered her eyes and said, “Yes, you’re right of course.”
Alet started walking, and the other two followed. She took her position a few steps in front of them and sent her Aeter to scan ahead, but did not go beyond the first turn of the road. Close enough to be able to call her Aeter back in case of attack, but far enough to sense any danger ahead well in advance.
“We know very little about the way of things in the world beyond.” Alet heard Onentha say to Essall. “Protectors could prove even more detrimental to our mission than the Priests.”
“Protectors are trained in the old way. Our training is far superior,” Essall said with all the arrogance of a young Keeper. It would melt away with the years. Alet’s did. Rapidly, after her sister chose to remain in the world beyond.
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss that which you do not understand. Much of the old way has been lost to us, and for the purposes of this world it is perhaps still better suited.” Alet could feel the boy bristle at her words. Had he fur, it would be standing up. He was letting his block slip, if Alet could read him in such a way. She would have to warn him before they reached the village.
“Do not forget, Essall, that while they prohibit its use, the priests themselves do still partake of it freely and unhindered. All the time they have for contemplation…well, it’s impossible to tell what all they may have learned,” Onentha continued. Alet let their voices trail off. She saw no sense in worrying without cause.
Some of the gravel had forced itself over the top of Alet’s low leather shoes. They were designed in the style of the world beyond, with a thin boiled leather sole and no true support. Already her feet ached, and she missed her boots which she carried in the pack on her back. So much fuss over these little details—the shoes were hardly visible under the dress.
Certain no one would cross their path, Alet enjoyed the clarity of the air. Could she Read Issiyanna from here already? It would save them time in convincing the girl to accompany them back across the Veil willingly.
Will she look like Aelde?
“Essall, go scout out the town of Ack’Vere. It’s just beyond the small ridge there in front,” Alet said chasing away the thought. “And mask your presence thoroughly before you do so.”
Anger flashed in his eyes, but he obeyed without comment. He, too, had complained that his woolen britches and leather vest made it hard to move properly, and that the britches were itchy besides. He stopped after Alet asked him pointedly if he was indeed a Keeper, or still a novice.
“Do you truly feel we might be in danger?” Alet asked Onentha once Essall was out of sight.
“I don’t like the emptiness in the air. I feel as though it’s just the calm before wind is unleashed.”
Alet nodded, again trying in vain to read the extent of the fear in the other woman. Onentha was masking her true feelings with such concentration it alone made Alet sure the woman was even more frightened than she was willing to admit.
Why do I not feel this?
Was the desire to see her sister’s child for the first time preventing her from feeling the threat they faced in all its magnitude?
No, she was a highly trained Keeper of the Veil, well-practiced in Convincing and Reading, as well as Feeling; which was the skill that all possessed. Alet was not easily fooled by her own deeper mind.
Essall was waiting for them at a fork in the road. The left path ended by the iron reinforced wooden gates in a simple stone wall encircling the town of Ack’Vere. It was already shut. Alet had hoped to find it open, as night had not yet fallen.
“You are still determined we enter, then?” Essall asked.
Not at all.
Alet passed him and led the way towards the gates. “We need horses. Stay whole and block thoroughly. I will do the talking.”
The priest sitting in the church—a tall triangular tower which rose high above the wall-could perhaps notice if they used the Life Force. They would have to conduct this part of the mission blind, keeping their Aeters inside, but buying three horses and riding out of the village would be accomplished quickly.
Her hand shook as she reached up to pull the thin iron bar that hung to the left of the gates. According to her sister’s notebook this was the bell. At the bottom, the bar slipped out of Alet’s sweaty palm and slammed back up with some force.
“Oi, no need to break the bell. It is only just gone twilight,” a voice from the other side of the gates said. A small looking-window in the door opened to reveal a dark-haired, bearded gatekeeper. “Who are you?”
“My name is Alet, and I and my two companions seek shelter for the night in your fine town.”
“There are only three of you?”
“Yes, we would ask for beds to sleep in, and come morning, we will leave. We will also be buying horses as ours were stolen in the night by a band of cutthroats.” Alet hoped that the promise of trade would soften the gatekeeper. Though if he was a Protector, promises of gold would hardly move him. She sensed no heightened ability in the man, his Life Force no more than a stream running amid overgrown hedges. Similar to those in her own world who would never be able to use their Life Force beyond the innate level.
“Your throats appear intact enough.” The man laughed a crackling laugh and moved away from the window. Alet heard the grating of iron against iron.
The gates opened onto the main road of the town. It was paved with mud and gravel, as much as the two materials could be called paving. Simple, low houses covered by yellow-brown thatch lined the road on both sides, their windows shuttered against the approaching gloom. Nothing, not even flowers, adorned them. Alet was not entirely sure that only the coming winter was to blame for this. Whatever color existed here was confined to the inside.
“If you seek shelter you must ask at the church. It is Father Noh who houses visitors. He will provide you with horses as well.”
“Do you not have an inn?” Essall asked despite the fact Alet had ordered him to remain silent.
“Travelers are given board at the church. There is a tavern, but they offer no beds, only dinner and drink there,” the gatekeeper said.
Alet looked down the mud road at the end of which the triangular church loomed. She imagined it was casting a shadow over the little village, and all of them still standing by the gate.
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