Cascade Falls – Part Four
He stumbled out of the portal and into the depths of a cave, shivering violently, his teeth gnashing together. Frost tipped his hair, melted on his clothes as the warm air greeted him. A clatter of metal on stone reverberated. Startled, he backpedaled, then noticed a distinct gleam on the ground. His knife.
Wound tight still from the Crossing, he walked, half-gimped, to retrieve it. His gaze traced the fine contours of the blade as he flipped it over and over, not for the last time admiring the craftsmanship inherent in the etched runes along the spine and another spanning its width. Its hilt was a strong leather, and he gripped it hard.
He took a long, sweeping gander at his surroundings. Every detail burrowed itself into his memories for future reference. Condensation leaked from the ceiling. Stalactites extended like fangs bared, their icy structure sparkling in the sparse light that emanated ahead. Distinct patterns woven in the varied colors on the walls of the cave, dark maroon to a stark white and shades of grey. Moisture lingered in the air, not a mist but present all the same.
He strode toward the mouth of the cave. The light that poured in grew brilliant as he neared. It forced him to snap his eyes shut. Once outside, he slowly reopened them to reveal a blue sky, not a cloud in sight. A yellow sun beamed from its high perch. In front of him spread a vast body of water, waves dancing as they clashed with the beach below him, then pulled away.
He took a step off the cliff and fell. Wind generated by his sudden drop rushed to whip his face and grab at his clothes. It was some time before he landed on his feet at the bottom, crumpling to his knees to evenly distribute the impact.
Sand reached above his ankles as he sauntered the beach. The smell of salt lived in his nostrils. A cool breeze caressed his skin as he traveled the shoreline, the ocean on his left side and a mountain looming to his right. Another window to the Eternal Void had to be here, he knew, or a wayward soul could grant him the power necessary to create his own. But he sensed it the moment he arrived: there was no soul-breath in this world. He wrinkled his nose and spat. Respite was needed. The Crossing did him no favors as it weakened him significantly. Conjurations and manipulations were beyond him, for now at least.
It would be a waiting game. He smirked and sat cross-legged on the sand, patience the only option at his disposal.
Wierna scanned trees under the pervasive shadow of the evening, the last of the sun’s rays slipping behind the horizon to the west. Seeing nothing of note, she grasped the reins of her horse and looked on her companions: two of her guard that sat upon their own steeds to either side of her. All their breaths were visible as they exhaled. Their armor creaked when they moved, louder than she had expected, grimacing inwardly when such sounds bounded through the woods and returned to her ears.
“We should take care,” she whispered. “You may have to strip your suits.”
“But my lady,” began Urui to her right, but he was cut off as she raised her hand to silence him.
“Do as I say. We’ll be safer for it, trust me. Leave the padding on if you must.”
They did as they were told, unstrapping their plates and placing them carefully in large sacks to dampen any extraneous noise. Wierna was still dressed in her leather hunter’s garb, a quiver slung over her back along with her bow. She did not bother to tie her hair and instead let it flow free over her shoulders like a dark cascading waterfall.
Urui kept his padding, but aside from this he wore a grey tunic and black leggings, a sword kept in its sheathe at his hip. He was a bigger fellow, more tall than massive. He scratched his beard in a thoughtful gesture.
“Are you certain we should be acting with just us three, my lady?” he asked, glancing at her, his eyes bright and green.
Her other guard, Temier, answered: “It’s best with a small party. Easier for sneaking about.”
Temier was at least a head or two shorter than Urui, and he also opted to keep his padding. His red hair was tousled due to the helm he wore and sweat stuck strands to his forehead. Freckles dotted his face, which was long and narrow, cheekbones sharp and lips thin. Eyes that resembled the color of tanzanite sat sunken in their sockets. He looked ragged and fatigued. Wierna frowned. Maybe she was wrong to ask him to accompany her.
“He’s right,” she said. “Three will have to do.”
They brought the horses to the outer edge of the forest and hitched them to thick trees, trunks wider than three armspan.
“Keep close,” said Wierna as they entered the forest, traveling deeper into its bowels.
The castle stood before her, casting a lengthy shadow that blotted out the light from the day. The heat had lessened here near the drawbridge, which was upright, barring the entrance. Weathered and worn, the castle did not appear to be occupied. Parapets were not manned and more than a few towers had been outright destroyed or irreparably damaged.
Eqira climbed off her mount then waddled to the end of the road where the moat began. The waters there were murky and filled with moss. Though, more alarming was the glint of several spears that broke through the surface.
“Paranoid folk, aren’t they?”
She waggled her fingers, muttering something under her breath as she did so. The runes on her robe glowed. Then the drawbridge, seemingly of its own accord, began to descend. It groaned, shuddering before landing at Equira’s feet.
A portcullis revealed itself when the drawbridge lowered. This ascended of its own will as well, no longer denying entry. She remounted Gerder and proceeded across the bridge. From what she could gather, inside the keep was empty, abandoned like all else in the castle.
“Why would this need to be hidden, hmm? Curiosity beckons.”