Enjoy the tension. There'll be some real action next chapter, if I can figure out how to write it.Chapter 8
Natalia, Marisol and Horatio had been travelling with Frank and Calleigh for a few days now. They had chosen to rest in a town about mid-way between both groups’ next missions. Mindful of, but ignoring, all the stares as they followed the main road into town, they quickly picked a sizeable inn in which to spend the first of two nights.
There were two beds in Natalia’s room, which they had pushed to either side of the room so that Horatio could lie on the floor in the middle. Like Marisol, he was deep asleep, on his back with his hands folded on his stomach; Natalia had endeavoured to stay awake just to see it.
Seeing a Guard sleep was a minor event and a luxury even for their Seer. They slept even less than they ate full meals – which, although it depended on the individual Guard, were rarely more often than every three weeks.
Two nights in a relatively expensive inn may have seemed like decadence for travelling pairs, but even the Guild knew it was a necessity every so often.
The simple fact was, Guards only slept in the presence of other Guards.
This brought up one of the many policies of the Guild that Natalia simply couldn’t reconcile with real life. They did their utmost to prevent friendships – strong friendships – from forming between Guards, and yet it was essential that they exist.
Were they to sleep alone, they would be leaving their entire being, as well as that of their Seer, if they had one, to chance and outside forces. It was a strange thing that Nick had never fully explained to Natalia, but when a Guard slept, he was immovable. They had to compensate for a month or more of near-constant activity, and while their bodies healed at a rate far beyond that of humans, eventually, rest became essential.
During that time, there was a strange disconnect between their souls – their consciousnesses – and their bodies. This was what Nick had never quite been able – or so he claimed – to explain to Natalia, but it was so deep and so consuming that she could have gotten out of bed at that very moment and stepped on Horatio’s face, and he likely wouldn’t notice. The thought made Natalia smile in a sort of perverted amusement.
Apparently, then, Frank was Horatio’s most trusted friend among Guards. Frank, wide awake, was in the next room with Calleigh. Tomorrow would be his turn to rest before they parted ways again.
The Guild had quickly taken note of the newly-formed three-man team, and acted accordingly, assigning them higher-ranked missions. This was, however, illogical. A higher rank never meant that a Ghost would be harder to track – and if it did, two Seers are no better or worse than one. Rather it meant that the Ghost was older, larger and likely harder to free. With two Seers to guard, this put Horatio at a marked disadvantage, and only Natalia seemed surprised.
It was simple, Horatio had told her, rather darkly. They were trying to force him to give her up, turn her over to the Guild, or another Guard from whom they could claim her more easily.
By risking her and Marisol’s lives? She had asked.
Horatio had cocked his head, looking at her. “That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?”
When the teams parted, it was in a flurry of hushed conversation between Horatio and Frank. Horatio later told the Seers, as they approached the edge of one of the expansive forests that lined the country, that Frank had offered to accompany them on their mission. He’d refused, naturally; the Guild frowned on any form of procrastination. Besides, Frank had Calleigh. It would have still left an imbalance.
Marisol had rolled her eyes and scolded Horatio for his stubbornness. However, when they stopped for the night, it was clear by the uneasy look on Marisol’s face that she would’ve liked the extra company. Natalia couldn’t help but feel the same way, though she pushed it away as more longing for her old companion.
By day they flew through the trees and across the expansive plains in between. Each carried their weight, and Horatio carried the Seers, one arm around each as he ran, climbed and leapt through the forests, with speed and grace unknown to humans or animals. It certainly felt
Late in the afternoon of their second day of travel, Natalia began to sense the presence of the Ghost. Together, she and Marisol guided Horatio, on foot, through the dense forest to its edge, where they faced an enormous stone wall, at least a hundred feet high.
“It’s here,” said Natalia, touching the rock’s surface. “It’s strongest here; this has to be it.”
Marisol groaned in disbelief. “It can’t be inside
the rock, can it?”
“No,” answered Horatio immediately, looking up the cliff observantly, hands poised on his hips. “No, it needs space just as we do.” He moved up to the cliff, a safe distance from Natalia, and ran his open palms across the stone surface, pausing, then suddenly slamming his fist into the side, once, cracking the wall and causing a smattering of small rocks to fall around him. He stood still, however, apparently deep in thought, and it didn’t look good.
“This is a cave,” he announced suddenly, “or caves. They run deep…everywhere.” He stepped back. “But that means there should
be an entrance.” He looked around again, ponderously, then pointed left. “We’ll try this way: more of the tunnels seem to connect over there. Otherwise…” He looked up, and the Seers followed his gaze, “we may have to break in from the top.”
Horatio declared that if no natural entrance could be found in an hour, or if the scent of the Ghost became too faint, they would go up. They trudged along, avoiding fallen – and falling – rocks, until well past the half-hour mark. At last, however, a gap appeared in their field of vision, and they hurried towards it: this was it, the mouth of the cave, wide enough for five people to walk abreast, and nearly as high.
Marisol was proud enough that she wanted to enter immediately, finish their mission and get a good night’s sleep, but Horatio gently counselled her out of it, with Natalia’s acquiescence. The journey had been too long, and the task ahead possible extremely dangerous. Natalia had to side with Marisol, however, when then latter pointed out that with the type of aura this Ghost was emitting, it was unlikely either of them would sleep well, if at all.
Horatio opted to take that risk, if somewhat sheepishly; after all, Guards were supposed to counsel their charges, to advise them, but never to overrule them. Besides, Marisol had been right; sleeping on the ground, Natalia could feel every movement the Ghost made, or caused in the surrounding countryside. She woke at least a dozen times, suddenly and panicked, only to meet Horatio’s concerned gaze. It was, however, as he pointed out, better than nothing.
In the morning, they attempted to plot out a battle plan – the first time they had done so so thoroughly, Marisol noted. Horatio spent much of the time crouched, close to the ground, attempting to better grasp the layout of what he now determined to be extensive caverns and tunnels.
Man made? Natalia had asked. Horatio couldn’t answer.
He even dared, for their better safety later, to venture a small distance into the entrance tunnel to see it for himself. Unlike the Seers, Horatio had no trouble seeing in perfect darkness. Marisol sat, hugging her knees, waiting anxiously for Horatio to return. Natalia shared her sentiment. They had warned Horatio that this Ghost seemed particularly large and active: it was never in one place for very long. It may even have been it that created this near-hollow mountain, as a place, Gods forbid, enticing to adventurous humans.
When Horatio returned, he took a pair of torches from his pack, lighting them across the mountain stone. He handed them to the Seers, instructing them to keep the torches close, and to stay close to him, as though they ever operated differently.
Marisol led the charge, with Horatio’s hand on her shoulder, squeezing reassuringly from time to time. Natalia walked as close behind them as possible without setting them on fire.
They passed several alternate routes on their way, all of which Natalia and Marisol declined to follow: the aura was much stronger leading straight into the mountain. They moved slowly, and so they were not fifty feet from the entrance when both Seers stopped abruptly.
When tracking Ghosts, Seers relied on senses seemingly unnatural and inhuman. In this case, it almost seemed to Natalia that she heard
the Ghost, knowing full well that Ghosts made no noise; and yet, something rattled her ears, touching the center of her mind, even before she felt the vibrations.
Horatio, of course, “heard” nothing, but when the ground, the walls, the ceiling began to shake, he gripped both their shoulders tightly, looking around intensely. “Where is it?!” he growled, the tone indicative of his own frustration and, perhaps, fear.
Natalia looked at Marisol. The question sounded absurd to her, but, “Did you…hear…?”
Marisol nodded immediately before answering Horatio. “It’s below us, to the left—no! It’s stopped… I think.”
Natalia did her best to concentrate, even as beads of sweat formed fearfully on her brow. “It’s way beneath us. It’s…it’s stopped—turning! It’s moving, it’s—it’s coming back!
“It’s playing with us!” Horatio snarled as he let go of their shoulders, reaching for his blade. “Any moment now it’ll probably come up from beneath us.” He looked up and around almost frantically, looking for steadier ground above them.
One look between them and both Seers opened their Eyes, looking around.
“I can’t find it!” Marisol cried, panicked. Natalia felt the same way, searching frantically in all directions.
“Horatio, there’s something wrong here!” she said. “The Ghost, it’s—” She shook her head, unable to describe in words how differently she was sensing this one. Next to her, Marisol nodded, and opened her mouth to respond.
Just then, they saw it: a blur, an enormous blot of darkness almost falling – it was moving so fast – down the mountain, on the other side of the wall. Both Seers jumped back, pointing. “There! It’s there!”
Horatio slammed his fist into the wall, in frustration, and in warning. His brow was knotted angrily for several moments before receding into a wry grin. “I see it now,” he murmured.
Natalia turned to him, shocked. “What? You can’t—”
Horatio shook his head. “No, not that: the Guild. They didn’t send us here to separate us. They tried that: all our missions up to now have been a warning to me, trying to force me to give you up.” He paused in disgust. “Now they’re trying to get you killed.”
“Wh—what…?” Natalia was perhaps more shocked than she should have been, but Seers had a distinctly different relationship with the Guild than did the Guards. Even Marisol’s face was contorted with horror.
“No, they wouldn’t…” Her voice wavered.
“They would and have.” Horatio answered flatly. He looked from one Seer to the other. “This isn’t the time to dwell on it, though. Can you see it now?”
The Seers nodded, looking around. Marisol spoke first. “I can’t see it, but… Horatio, it feels like…like it’s around
“Around…?” He had barely a moment to consider this before snapping his arms out and gripping each Seer’s shoulder again.
“Wha—?” Natalia yelled – and then she felt it, too.
The ground beneath them, the walls, the highest peaks of the cavern, began to shake, violently. Rocks, large and small, began to fall from the ceiling, and Natalia was pulled off her feet as Horatio grabbed each of them around the waist, looking up and dodging the falling debris.
Natalia whipped her head around, trying to catch any physical glimpse she could of the Ghost, but there was only its overwhelming presence, seemingly closing in on them, darker and darker.
Then the floor collapsed. Horatio jumped for safer ground: it was collapsing from the inside out, and he hurried to the exit, only to stop in his tracks to avoid more falling stones. Marisol slid on the floor, and Horatio let go of Natalia to reach out for her. Natalia stumbled, looked up and cried out at the sight of the ceiling collapsing.
Horatio whipped around, panicked. Everything was falling apart, and he couldn’t reach for both of them. Natalia felt the pain as though her head was being split apart, and the last sound she heard was Marisol’s scream.