The landscape was twisted and scorched, as if a flame had been pressed to the heart of a living thing and destroyed it long ago. Many of the more frail trees had fallen since his last attempt, and yet their branches extended upward, some as tall as the sky. His every footstep sunk into a thick layer of ash. Beneath that, the ground seemed almost to breathe. Vents of volcanic steam rose now and again in contractions like a charred, cancerous lung. Somewhere over the horizon, a gentle breeze blew, carrying the scent of a dead fire with it. Severo took as deep a breath as he could muster and ventured forth into the dark.
Thunder rumbled in the skies above as occasional lightning flickered through the clouds. It was a most accurate representation of Igor’s brain if ever there was one, and yet something seemed amiss. The prayer amulet…I left it with Edmond. During his previous attempts at diving into the mind of the young leader, Severo had grounded his psychic energy using the talisman as a safety net. Without proper extensive training—which he had not yet undergone, being that he was only an initiate—it was easy for the unskilled practitioner to get lost in the mind of the target, especially one so volatile as Igor. A shudder swept down Severo’s spine at the thought.
“Steady,” he whispered to himself. “Keep moving.” The knight plodded through a small section of underbrush just ahead and grabbed onto the hollow trunk of a fallen tree, using it as a guide to ascend to the top of the hill. The horizon above was bathed in a glow of orange ambient light, as if a forest fire were on its way to consume the remnants of the clearing below. His heartbeat quickened. Slow, steady breaths. If he did not stay mindful here, one of two things would happen; either he would grow so consumed with the perceived reality of Igor’s mind that he would get lost, or the psychic link would be forcibly broken. Neither scenario was ideal. The former could destroy Severo. The latter could destroy Igor.
As the young knight pressed on, he became aware of a series of flashes in the sky, followed by a whirling breeze. He had been told that storms were not an uncommon sight when melding with the mind of another. On the surface, they represented simple electrical activity within the brain, the firing of neurons and so forth. On a deeper level, however, they could also be indicative of a troubled or broken consciousness.
Severo proceeded with caution to the top of the hill. The scent of burning pine enveloped his nostrils. Ashes began to sink into the soles of his shoes as he struggled onward, determined to find the source of the fire. Something had drawn him to the top of the hill, though he could not explain what. Perhaps it was the deep yearning inside him to repair what he could of Igor’s fractured mind and render him at least somewhat susceptible to the possibility of psychic suggestion—or, at the very least, to force him into listening to reason. The knight fell forward as he reached the end of the hollow trunk and clawed the rest of his way on all fours to the top, grasping a tree root that jutted out for support. Hoisting himself upward, he was able to roll on his side over the edge of the hill and onto his back.
“Finally,” he breathed. For a moment, he stared up into the dark clouds and felt the rumble of thunder pass from the heavens and echo into the ground, displacing the thickened ash beneath his palms. The physical representation of Igor’s mind was a rather different sensation from being in Viktorium. One felt like home. The other felt like death and suffocation. To that end, Severo again attempted to slow his breaths. Being upwind from the fire was certainly no help; his oxygen could easily get cut off, though the faint sound of traffic from the Metropoliès that had just begun to reach his ears was of greater concern. His concentration was failing. I’m not about to break the link yet.
The boy closed his eyes and listened to his heartbeat—the only thing that remained constant between the two realms—and counted down from one hundred. Once the sounds of city traffic were no more, he stepped to his feet to dust himself off. A forest was burning hot as the desert sun in the valley below, its strength spurred on by continuous lightning strikes which plowed through the center. No animals appeared to flee from the scene, which was odd, considering he had been taught that every human’s mind possessed some symbolic part of themselves which fled any notion of destruction. But of course Igor’s mind was very different…wasn’t it?
A pocket opened in the clouds above, releasing a torrential downpour over the length of the valley. The fire appeared to calm, although the young Dalishkova Knight felt far from a sense of comfort. The rain drenched his black hair and suit, pouring over every inch of his soft pale skin, even as the steam from the dying fire gave way to warmth. There was something deeply unsettling about this place. He turned his gaze back to the dead clearing behind him, a circle of darkness encased by trees that stretched up as tall as the sky. Something in the ashen breeze told him he was being watched. He could make out no distinct figures in the haze, and yet he knew someone was there all the same. He could feel it in the tangled branches, the indentations in the bark, the deep crevices between…perhaps it was time to go back.
“What are you doing here?” a voice spoke beside him, clear as day through the haze.
“Who are you?” the knight replied fearfully.
“Never mind who I am.” The figure dispelled the thick smoke around them, revealing his slender, skeletal form. The man was more pale than Severo and stood at least a foot taller, with shoulder-length black hair and blue eyes that struck a shiver colder than ice down the spine of the young knight. A silver prayer amulet hung around his neck. “What are you doing here?” he repeated. His gaze was fixated not on Severo, but on the valley below them, as if he refused to acknowledge him by sight.
“Forgive me,” the boy knelt down, recognizing the man as his superior. “I have reason to believe I am failing the mission which I have sought to complete. Igor is a great challenge. I knew this when I accepted my assignment with the Outlanders. Lately it seems to be getting out of hand. I thought that by melding with his mind, I might repair things.”
“I see,” the man sighed. His gaze on the valley had not wavered. “So you believe that where we now stand is indeed a physical representation of Igor’s mind?”
“I’m sorry?” The knight balked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand-”
“Your prayer amulet,” the man cut him off. “You seem to have lost it.”
“I…” Severo felt around his neck and shuffled to the ground in a panic, checking all his pockets until he again remembered. I gave it to Edmond.
“Such travels are not an undertaking to be approached so carelessly,” the man said, turning to Severo with scorn. The boy’s eyes were wide with fear. “Do not worry. I will say nothing of this meeting to my superiors. However, you are to travel to Helias at your earliest convenience to meet with the High Council. There are certain…issues which need to be addressed concerning your assignment.”
Severo sighed and turned his gaze back to the valley. It looked more like a crater now, where an endless expanse of smoke stretched as far as the eye could see. And lost somewhere in that void were all the answers he sought. “They breached the Cavarice wall last night. Mayor La Cour’s welcome gala is in two weeks, and I’ve yet to discover their plans. I promise you I’m close. I just need more time.”
“Everyone does,” the man smirked. “Unfortunately, I am but a messenger. It is not in my power to grant you anything. However, I feel I must warn you that should you choose to repeatedly frequent this place—in particular, without the aid of your amulet—you may soon discover that time will be the least of your concerns. There is a reason the Dalishkova forbid knights below a certain rank from engaging in telepathic ventures. Of course…if you wish to be a part of the Order, the real Order, a good lad such as yourself would steer clear of such things. Wouldn’t you?”
“Is this some sort of test?” The young knight felt his heart begin to pound. “You’re not actually going to-”
“It’s getting late, Severo,” the man frowned. “You had best return.”
“What if I…hey, wait!”
But there were no more questions to be answered. Severo lunged forward in a frantic attempt to catch him, though it was no use. A veil of black smoke rose to encapsulate the man’s skeletal form. When it dissipated, he was gone. The knight looked reluctantly back to the forest tree line from whence he’d come. If this were indeed a test, he had surely failed, and yet he at least took comfort with the knowledge that the Dalishkova elders would not pursue him so long as he remained in Cavarice. Still, he could not help but feel as though he were being watched somehow. And that was exactly it. How? As far as he knew, this was an accurate physical representation of Igor’s mind. Psychic telepathy would have been impossible from so far a range as Helias, which could only mean one thing—either the Dark Order held stronger influence than he thought, or there was a chapter of Dalishkova based at a secret location somewhere in the capital city. Perhaps I am not safe at all.
Just before he could finish that thought, a thin object whizzed past his peripheral vision and embedded itself in the trunk of a tree several feet behind him. Severo rushed toward the charred black husk to see what it was, but before he could, another came sailing just over his head. He immediately dropped to the ashen ground and gazed up at the things sticking out of the bark. Arrows. Shit.
The pale boy crawled the rest of the way through the powdered ash and rolled over the top of the steep hill that led back to the clearing. He tumbled downward on the slope face first, bruising his arms, back, stomach, and chest in the process until he caught himself on a rock halfway along and flipped onto his feet. He almost lost his footing again, though kept steady by hanging onto the same hollow tree trunk he had used to ascend. A raspy voice shouted from the top of the hill as he reached the bottom.
“Who goes there!” the culprit shouted.
But Severo was too terrified to look back. The sound of whirling traffic and wind again greeted his ears, and this time, he did not fight it. It overtook him like a tidal wave from the Sea of Helene, enveloping every fiber of his consciousness until it was impossible to block out. Once at the clearing, he ventured a final glance back just an arrow came to strike him between the eyes. The young Dalishkova Knight woke up.