Part 3 is here. Also don’t forget to check out my launch event for C A L I G A T I O N!
When Leila appeared in the university’s courtyard, she was wet and dizzy and strewn across something. Daylight streamed down upon her and the thing on which she lay let out a cry of pain.
Sherak was beneath her, desperately covering his head with his arms as his grey skin began to discolour and his antlers blackened. Without thinking, Leila threw her hands out over him and a sphere of darkness drew up around them. For a moment, she was so dizzy she felt as if she might faint but her eyes adjusted to the dim all the same. She focussed them on the wolf-man next to her.
“You…” she whispered, unable to find the right words.
“Was never aiding you,” murmured the creature bitterly as he lowered his arms from his head. “The estrika sent me to guide you to the teleic streams so she could enter your realm with her brood.”
“You stopped it, though.” By thrusting the two of them through the portal, he had allowed Leila a moment to close it behind them. “Why?”
Pushing himself to a sitting position, Sherak reached for the bone collar around his neck and yanked. It fell to pieces in his hands. “You did not deserve to die,” he told her. “I watched her find her way into my realm, into the underground, long ago. She adapted to the darkness and she began to change my kind into things like her. Undead things with too many eyes, wanting only for blood…” he trailed off, staring at the broken collar in his hands. “I did not think I would come through the portal with you…” he whispered.
“She wants to be here? Will she continue to try?”
“She will. Once her wounds heal, I have no doubt she will try again. You don’t understand how much time she has spent planning this.”
“Do you think she can make it here with all of those… monsters?”
“…I’m not sure.”
From somewhere outside their darkened sphere, Leila felt a familiar presence. You were gone, a dreamy voice told her, and now you are back.
“Master Raniel,” she said aloud, squinting out past the darkness to try and see her old mentor, the most gifted teleic mage in the kingdom.
We will talk. Your new friend can come.
For a third time, Leila was encompassed by the feeling of shifting distance. When the emptiness filled with the world around her, they were indoors and away from the sting of the sun.
As Leila helped Sherak to stand she realised they stood in the king’s offices, where he took his private audiences. She had only seen it once. The craghound was uneasy on his feet, despite having four of them, and she noticed a large gash across his hindquarters which bled steadily.
“Master Raniel tells me you were just in another plane,” a voice from behind a large oak table said to her. “You do recall that you were tasked with training your alchemic abilities, not breaking new ground in the teleic domain.” She thought he sounded amused.
Leila opened and closed her mouth several times. People made her nervous, kings particularly. Beside her, she felt Sherak take her hand and squeeze it gently. She didn’t need to look at King Reynard to know that his eyes were focussed carefully on the creature at her side, and on their joined hands.
“Your Majesty…” she began croakily, casting her eyes over to Raniel. The tall, lanky man lowered himself into a chair at the side of the room, his grey cloak, robes and silvery hair settling around him like a mist. He curled himself so that she could no longer see anything but the masses of cloth and his strikingly pale face. When he set his mismatched eyes in her direction, the man seemed to look through her, not at her.
The king seemed unbothered by this, waiting patiently for Leila to continue, but she noticed that Sherak’s gaze focussed uneasily on the teleic master. It was her turn to gently squeeze his hand, bringing the man-beast’s attention back to her.
Finally, Leila worked up the strength to speak. She felt better with Master Raniel’s eyes upon her. “Your Majesty,” she began again, “I was up late last night, deep in study, when I felt… something. It drew me away and to…” She faltered, then.
“The underground realm of Seviraris,” said Sherak in a tone she had not heard from him before. It sounded formal. He let go of her hand, briefly, to step forward and lower one of his front legs, sweeping an arm in front of him as he did so. Leila supposed it must have been a bow and her lips quirked into a weak smile. It was still better than her curtseys. “And you are the king of this realm, then?”
King Reynard nodded slowly, one brow quirked at the creature.
“I am Sherak Servir,” he settled back next to Leila, then, one hand sliding across the burn the sun had given him, “and your realm may be in danger.”
“There is an estrika down there,” Leila murmured softly, looking at the king.
When he frowned, Raniel spoke up in a voice so soft they had to strain to hear it. “Once the undead of man, its kind was destroyed, all but one. It was locked away to where only the gods could find it.”
“It escaped,” Sherak said, wrinkling his long nose. “It found its way into Seviraris and now… I am the only one of my kind. The only one still alive and whole, at any rate. The rest are…”
Master Raniel made a soft, humming sound, a dreamy expression on his face. His voice was almost as a song as he said, “…part of its kind, undead and many-eyed…”
Silence fell upon them for a moment. It was broken by Sherak’s gentle sigh, though Leila could see he was shaking slightly. “I’d like your permission to remain in your realm, king. I can tell you what I know of the estrika and… we…” He swayed, then, dizzily. Leila saw the red that pooled on the ground by one of his hind legs and her eyes trailed it up to his right flank. There, she could just make out the slick red against his dark fur from his wound.
Leila was not entirely sure what she thought would happen when she tried to catch him. The craghound’s legs curled beneath him and he sunk to the ground but she managed to stop his head impacting the floor. She cradled it in her lap as she too sat, one hand at Sherak’s hair. His bright eyes fluttered weakly.
“Call to Master Jacoby,” said the king, voice stern. “Once the… newcomer is rested and healed, we will continue this discussion. Leila, he is under your watch for the moment. I doubt he is any threat to us, but we need to keep an eye on him all the same. Raniel, please find out what you can from him when he is awake and return when you have an understanding of the situation…”
Leila was not listening to the words of the king, through, she was too busy reaching out with her magic to gently slow the flow of blood from Sherak’s wounds. She barely felt herself lifted up and away from him as the pair were moved, hardly realised that she must have been slipping in and out of consciousness herself.
When she did sleep, finally, she dreamed not of the estrika’s darkness but of grand cathedrals hewn from stone and the starry night that existed in the world below.
tl;dr – This should probably be a book, right?