The Ethereal Realm
Blinding light slammed into Lillian with such great force she stumbled. This is the power of the Beacon, incredible. She relaxed her shoulders as the light sank deeper into her skin. She sensed a weight being lifted from her that she didn’t know existed. This was what Warren and his team had been searching for. This was what she risked her life to follow Warren for.
Lillian inhaled. Something inside her screamed. Her insides burned. Gritting her teeth she grabbed her sides. What’s happening? The slippery Darkness within her rammed against her organs, and clawed at her skin. Stop, someone make it stop. Lillian gasped. Warren, save me. She squeezed her eyes shut. The pain ceased. She took several slow breaths. What happened? The light faded. She pulled her arms from her sides. Her tan travel robe didn’t appear to have sustained any damage. She prodded her abdomen, nothing was hurt. Are the others all right?
Her eyes adjusted to the dark cave-like Xellic throne room. The Beacon turned pure white and the empty space around the half bridge became a silvered floor. At the edges of the cave-like room four portals formed. The doorways had to lead to the other realms as none of the environments existed in the Ajoiner Realm. The only portal that could be mistaken for Ajoiner was the furthest left one that displayed lush green forests. The other three were amazing and terrifying to behold. One led to a dark forest illuminated by glowing plants, another to a red world stormed by lightning. Lillian could barely look at the last one. It oozed darkness. Her brief glimpse toward it made her Darkness swell. Don’t acknowledge it. Lillian refocused her attention on Warren’s teammates.
Cassidy sat on the ground, holding Vallerie against his chest, Ermon shook his head as if to clear it. Where’s… Warren stood before the pillar of white light next to a tall humanoid creature. A xellic. Lillian’s heart rate increased. It could have been the light from the Beacon, but to her eyes Warren seemed to glow. The xellic bowed its gray mantis-like head to him then entered the Beacon and descended into the kingdom below.
“We did it,” Cassidy breathed. “We did it!”
Vallerie winced and leaned her head against Cassidy’s leather chest-plate, smiling. Lillian wanted to remind him of his wife’s concussion and not to be too loud, but the words were lost to her joy. The weeks of traveling with Warren, fearing for her life, and hardship were finally over. She could go home. Lillian’s joy hiccupped, no not home. She was banished. Maybe Warren would allow her to accompany him back to Fortitude. The thought sent tingles down her spine.
“We finally did it!” Cassidy cheered.
“Not quite,” Emron disagreed.
Lillian glanced to the giant man.
“There are other realms that may need our help. The Darkness is still out there. It won’t take long for Senkaar to realize the blow we’ve dealt him, and he will send his armies again. Until every realm is eradicated of the Darkness, it can return,” Emron explained.
Lillian tugged her hair. They weren’t finished? What was she supposed to do? Venturing into a new realm would be dangerous, but…she didn’t want to be alone. The thought of being away from Warren spun anxiety in her chest.
“Emron’s right,” Warren said. “We’ll need to move quickly or everything we’ve accomplished will be erased. Vallerie, are you able to keep going?”
“Always,” Vallerie said.
Lillian pursed her lips. Vallerie was conscious which was good, but her concussion was not something to take lightly. If they got into another battle she wouldn’t be able to fight.
Lillian glanced to Warren hoping he would reconsider, but he was already prowling to the portal of lush greenery. Lillian bit her lip, surely a place so beautiful wouldn’t be that dangerous. Cassidy helped his wife to her feet and followed Warren. Emron cast a glance Lillian’s way and nodded. Just like that she was on another adventure with Warren.
A part of her buzzed with excitement. She smiled softly. Back during her library days she never would have thought she would be on quest like the people in books. The heroes in those stories always seemed so brave and strong. Spending time with Warren and his team had taught her otherwise. Fear for a loved one could drive a person mad, not everyone was what they seemed, some past wounds still hurt. Everyone in Warren’s group had experienced hardships she couldn’t fathom.
Warren paused in front of the portal and looked over his team. He met her eyes and a faint smile crossed his face before he turned away. Lillian felt her cheeks grow warm. She tugged a blonde strand hair that had fallen from her ponytail.
Warren stepped through the portal. Anxiety and Darkness danced within her. Am I really doing this? Everything she knew was here in the Ajoiner realm, one more step and everything familiar would be behind her. Cassidy led Vallerie through. Can I really do this? Emron eyed her.
“We’ll keep you safe,” he said.
Lillian blushed and nodded. They had been protecting her for months, at times she didn’t know why, but they hadn’t let a single scratch befall her. Everything she knew was here, yes, but everything she ever wanted was waiting for her on the other side of the portal. Lillian took a breath and stepped forward.
She wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she entered the Ethereal Realm, but it didn’t feel any different than the Ajoiner realm.
The mossy smell in the air was refreshing. She shielded her eyes as she turned her gaze skyward. An eternity of blue sky stared at her, a bright sun warmed her skin. The Darkness felt so distant to her. Lillian blinked and looked down at her hands. She could still feel her Darkness within her, but it wasn’t pulling in any direction. It felt pacified, swirling less erratically inside her. What is going on? Was there something about this realm that suppressed her Darkness? Lillian couldn’t help the growing excitement at the idea.
Movement caught her gaze. Something the size of a butterfly flitted through the trees ahead of her, it’s wings changing color with each movement. Curious, she stepped toward it. It flew deeper into the forest preventing her from observing it further.
“Where to, General?” Cassidy asked, a slight smirk on his face.
Warren frowned disapprovingly. He really doesn’t like being called by his title, Lillian observed.
“The forest is too thick, our best chance of getting our bearings is up there.” Warren pointed behind them.
Lillian followed his finger up a cliff face behind them. Tangled vines wove across the rocky face for nearly a hundred feet. Her heart sank. More climbing. Her body still ached from their trek up the Black Mountains. To make matters worse there were no paths here, just sheer rock and vines. Lillian doubted she’d even make it ten feet before her arms wore out.
“That’ll take a while--” Cassidy started, movement from behind the team interrupted their discussion.
“Rel-nec bli,” A voice growled.
Lillian spun around with the others. She didn’t know how, but by the time she had turned Warren was in front of her with his blade drawn. Peaking around Warren’s armored body Lillian saw, a man in kingly armor holding a gleaming sword. A stocky one armed woman stood on his left. Flames curled from her palm, forming an axe-like shape in her hand. A mage? Lilian swallowed, and Darkness wriggled inside her. She’d read about the ferocity of rending mages, Warren and his team were skilled fighters, but against magic? She tried not to think about those flames burning her skin.
“General Northwright?” The front man asked in Ajoiner.
Warren stood his ground, though he lowered his blade.
The stranger pulled off his helmet revealing a tan Ajoiner man with short, black hair. Lillian frowned, she was sure they were in a different realm, who was this man?
“Brigadier Aldebourne?” Warren mumbled.
Lillian turned to Warren, he knew him? Warren’s mouth hung partially open and his eyes wide.
The man grinned and strode forward sheathing his sword. “What are you doing here, General?”
He embraced Warren like an old friend. Warren’s team broke into smiles and spoke over each other, trying to greet the newcomers. The fire axe vanished from the one armed woman’s hand as she pulled off her helmet and joined the group. Lillian shuffled back, not sure what else to do.
“Caprice,” Vallerie exclaimed, hugging her.
Aside from being much stockier than Brigadier Aldebourne, Caprice was a near copy of him. She had the same tan skin and brown eyes. Her hair was a little longer than his, but was just as dark.
“Drayce, I’ve told you before, it’s just Warren,” Warren said.
“Sure, General.” The Brigadier grinned.
Warren shook his head, but the smile betrayed his disapproval.
“We should celebrate after we get into the Ajoiner realm.” Caprice nodded to the doorway behind them.
“I agree, come on,” Drayce said, moving to the portal.
“We actually have business here,” Warren said.
Drayce turned. His face twisted in bewilderment. “Business?”
“It’s a long story, but Ruben found a structure on earth called a beacon that we used to restore the realm,” Warren explained.
Drayce opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Ajoiner is safe?” Caprice asked.
“For the moment,” Warren said. “Restoring the beacon opened portals to the other realms again, including the Darkness realm.”
Both Caprice and Drayce bristled.
“We have to destroy the portal to the Darkness realm,” Drayce growled.
Lillian blinked, why hadn’t they thought of that earlier? That would keep the Darkness out, wouldn’t it?
“I don’t know if we can.” Warren shook his head.
“Why not?” Caprice asked.
“I don’t know that we have that kind of power, and even if we did I don’t know what that would do to the realm and the other portals. The only text fragment Akoisis left with the map said that it would restore balance to the realm. I don’t want to tamper with that kind of magic,” Warren said.
“Let me take a look,” Caprice said.
She shouldered to the portal. She raised her hand and closed her eyes. She moved her hand slightly to the left and right. After a moment she cursed.
“They’re linked. Damaging one will damage the others,” she said.
How can she tell, Lillian wondered.
“Our goal in coming here was to find the Beacon in this realm and restore it. We’ll keep going until we push the Darkness from every realm, then march on the Darkness Realm and destroy it. You don’t have to come with us. We can give you a map and you can return to Fortitude and help Ruben rebuild the city. We’ll come back for you before the final assault,” Warren said.
Drayce sat on the ground and rubbed a hand over his face.
“Five years…” he mumbled. “Five years we’ve been trying to find a way back home. Now that one’s finally here we can’t use it.”
Drayce stood. There was a fire in his eyes when he met Warren’s gaze. “We’re coming with you. We’ve been trapped here for years, you'll need our help.”
“Are you sure?” Warren asked.
“Don’t get me wrong I do miss our home—”
“We both do,” Caprice interjected.
Drayce nodded to her.
“But, you’ll need our guidance. Senkaar has watchdogs in every major city here. If what you say is true, he’ll send word to keep a look out for your team. Caprice and I know how to avoid being seen,” Drayce said.
Lillian blinked in amazement. Five years away from one’s home realm had to be hard, but they would stay for the sake of the mission?
“Thank you Drayce,” Warren nodded graciously.
“First, I think we need an introduction.” Drayce glanced toward her.
Lillian's cheeks burned as Warren stepped to the side.
“This is Lillian, she’s a healer we met a few weeks back that has helped us out of more than one tight spot.” Warren put his hand on her shoulder and nudged her forward.
Lillian’s face grew hotter.
“Hi,” she squeaked to Drayce.
“Brigadier Drayce Aldebourne at your service ma’am,” He said bowing to her. “This is my twin sister Sergeant Caprice Sinclar.”
Lillian curtsied then frowned. “Um, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you have different names?”
“Sinclar was our mother’s maiden name. Caprice took it to honor her,” Drayce said.
“Come on, King Tolbin will want to meet you, and you all look like you could use some rest.” Drayce turned toward the forest.
Lillian sighed, rest was exactly what she needed. The fact that they wouldn’t be traveling up the cliff was also a relief.