Finally, an exclusively Nat-H chapter. They'll mostly be this way from now on, I promise.
Before she even opened her eyes, Natalia could feel her head throbbing. She recognized all the other sensations – the grass tickling her face and hands, the breeze blowing across her – but every moment, every touch, sent sharp bolts through her skull. It burned, even against the dewy grass, under the cool wind, it burned like fire behind her eyes.
Natalia closed her eyes again and sat up, a small trial in itself. She touched her forehead; there was gauze, a bandage wrapped around her head.
“Miss Boa Vista…”
She turned sharply at the noise. Horatio’s voice travelled well, consdering he was at least twenty feet away. He watched her from mere inches off the ground, on his hands and knees. The earth around him was displaced, and his sword was buried half-way into a makeshift hole in the dirt.
Natalia stood, shakily, and looked around. The sky was melded together in warm colours – a sunset – but the cave, its entrance now distorted with cracked and broken rocks, that God-forsaken place, was still there, looming above them. Natalia’s eyes widened and she raised her hands in shock.
“Oh, God, Horatio! Where’s Marisol?”
Horatio turned away sharply, apparently considering his answer. He looked ready to kill, but his voice was calm, if strained.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” He looked suddenly at Natalia. “Can you…?”
She looked away. “I’m sorry, Horatio, but we…we don’t have that kind of ability.”
“I know. I know…” he murmured, putting his ear to the ground, his fingers drumming.
Natalia thought for a moment. “But…”
Horatio’s eyes snapped back to her. She held his sad, but hopeful, gaze.
“But…I don’t sense any spirits close by. Only that…ghost.”
“So, she’s alive, then. She’s alive…” He seemed to be speaking to himself, reassuring himself.
Natalia ducked her head. “But…”
Horatio finished the sentence for her. “But she could be dying.”
Step-by-step, one hand pressed gingerly to her head, Natalia made her way over to him. What she had thought to be a hole was, in fact, only displaced earth and grass, revealing a slab of rock underneath. It took her several moments to realize that that didn’t make a lot of sense.
She knelt, standing proving too difficult. “What happened
, Horatio?” Natalia couldn’t imagine any scenario in which she lived and Marisol died, at Horatio’s hands.
Horatio looked furious, the kind of fury only Guards seemed capable of: the look of a killer barely contained by only semi-human rationality. But it wasn’t directed at her.
“From what I can tell…” he began slowly, though whether it was because he was thinking or working to disguise his rage, Natalia couldn’t say. “From what I can tell, the tunnels underneath this structure aren’t natural.”
“How do you mean?” Natalia interjected, if only to humanize the conversation. Horatio didn’t seem to mind. He nodded.
“I believe…the Ghost itself created them, and is maintaining them. That would explain how it was able to collapse them so precisely
Horatio nodded again. “The only tunnels damaged were the ones directly above and below us. It was a calculated and targeted attack.”
“And Marisol fell through.”
Horatio looked at her again, and in his tortured gaze she could see that he knew exactly what she wanted to ask.
When he spoke, he phrased it carefully. “I was too slow in reacting,” what was he said, but Natalia knew that to him, it was tantamount to complete failure, as it would be with any Guard. Horatio looked away. “You would have died without immediate intervention. Marisol’s condition was…unknown. I did what I had to do.”
The implication – “I had no choice” – wracked Natalia with guilt, and made her head throb again. She said nothing, however; and apology would do more harm than good. “What do we do now?”
“Hm.” Horatio looked back at his sword, implanted in the rock’s surface, and seemed to regain some energy. “I believe I’ve found a good point at which to break through. If we’re lucky, Marisol will be in the tunnel directly beneath us. By making our own precise break here,” he gestured to the circle of disturbed soil around his sword, “we can make it into that tunnel with minimal damage.”
Natalia was surprised. “The tunnels come out
of the mountain?”
Another nod. “Quite a ways out. I can’t say why…” He stood up, slowly, rolling his shoulders. He looked demurely at Natalia, like a servant. “Please stand back. If you can, over by those trees.”
She turned to look; they were even further away than where she’d been laying, and she didn’t feel much like walking, but that was probably also the least considerate thing she could be thinking at that moment, so she nodded and slowly made her way back.
Leaning against a tree, she turned to watch. Horatio was no longer looking at her; she watched him throw his pack aside and sheath his sword, all the while watching the ground intently.
Then, in one swift movement, he took a fighting stance, raised one hand in the air and threw it back down against the ground. Natalia felt a sudden breeze across her face, and the earth trembled underneath her feet. Horatio all but disappeared in a cloud of dust, as the ground under his feet burst open, but in the same moment, he leapt away from it, weightlessly, onto solid ground.
Natalia heard the rock crumbling, and waited for the dust to settle before making her way to the new “entrance,” stopping to collect her own pack on the way.
As she suspected, the break was perfectly clean, and wide enough for two people to fit abreast. Horatio came up next to her, stood observantly for a moment, and leapt in experimentally. Natalia’s heart seemed to stop for a moment; she expected him to disappear into the darkness, but the tunnel was less than two feet taller than him. Still, in the sunset, she could only make out his face and shoulders, turned up to her expectantly.
Had the situation allowed for it, Natalia would have smiled at him. “Horatio, I can’t see in the dark.”
For a moment he looked at her as though he didn’t understand, and then he looked away. Natalia imagined a blush.
“Of course.” He said, and leapt out of the tunnel as easily as he had in. He swung his pack off his shoulder and opened it. This was a Guild-issued pack, specifically for Guards, and specifically for emergencies; Natalia had never seen its contents, not even with Nick – which, of course, was a good thing.
Horatio drew out a torch, the tip wrapped in paper sealed with a magical character hand-written in ink. He tore the seal off, and immediately the torch alighted. He stood and tossed in nonchalantly into the tunnel, where it flickered harmlessly on the floor, which, now, Natalia could see. Horatio jumped in after it, turning and holding his arms out to Natalia. With another skip in her heart – and stomach – she jumped, too.
Natalia held the torch as Horatio cleared away the rocks obstructing their path. In truth, he could’ve broken through them the same way he had through the ground, but it was obvious that he was taking pains not to make a single mistake that could endanger either Natalia or Marisol, who Natalia hoped desperately was simply a few dozen feet beyond them.
They made their way forward, Horatio with his hand to the wall, gauging their surroundings with every step, and Natalia just behind him. Beyond them was nothing but darkness, and even when the scene of their disaster came into view, Natalia hoped painfully that Marisol would be there, just beyond the light, that at any moment the torch would light up her face, scared, perhaps, but alive and waiting for them.
But it never did, and they passed the fallen boulders without pause, without even a word, though Natalia nearly stopped dead when she spotted blood on one of them.Please, o Mighty Lord, let it be mine.
With that prayer, she suddenly became acutely aware of the sensation that she was being watched
. This was not the usual sensation of tracking a Ghost, not even this one. Before the disaster, she and Marisol had both felt it, had known that this was a Ghost of legend, the worst of the three kinds. The one that enveloped
a space, and, eventually, you, too.
But that wasn’t the feeling here. No, now, as she walked, shoulders hunched in bubbling terror, it was as though she could feel its presence on her skin, seeping into her veins and clouding her vision, her mind, everything but her fear.
She looked up again, and saw Horatio was looking down now. After a moment, he stopped and knelt, crouching low again, peering at the dusty rock under their feet.
“Footprints,” he said, and there was a note of something in his voice that had all but disappeared not an hour ago. “Their definitely hers, and she seems uninjured.”
How he could tell that from footprints didn’t even occur to Natalia, and she blurted out, “Let’s go!”
Horatio stood quickly and began to walk again, though he kept his eyes on the ground. It seemed almost unnecessary to Natalia, as there was only one path.
He further they walked, the less Natalia felt afraid, though she didn’t consciously realize it. Instead, she felt a deep sense…not of calm, but of direction
, and as she walked, she took her time to really see
this inner sanctum for the first time. Every little thing seemed to stand out to her…
After another long, silent stretch of walking through grim, foreboding tunnels, the ceiling rose suddenly, like the arched roof of a chapel, and the “road” split into three, much wider paths, as though designed for human exploration.
Horatio didn’t stop for a second; eyes on the ground, he started up the middle path, but stopped, suddenly. “Natalia.”
She stopped dead, as though suddenly awake from some lucid dream. Without even realizing it, she had passed him, had not waited for or even needed his signal about where to go. She knew
, not that Marisol was there, no, just knew that that was the way to go.
Natalia blinked, feeling more awake with every subsequent breath. The presence lingering on the back of her neck seemed to slink away into the darkness. She turned around.
“Oh, my God, Horatio, I think…that was…” she put a hand on the back of her neck, “the Ghost. It—it tricked me.”
For the first time, it was Horatio who looked surprised, though his voice remained even. “I don’t understand.”
“Me neither. It’s like it…snuck up on me, and was…” she frowned in thought, trying to put the sensations of the last several minutes into words, “…pushing me along.” She looked at him suddenly. “Is this the way Marisol went?”
“You’re following her trail, yes.”
“Oh, my God…” she whispered again. “Horatio, is this a trap
? A trap for Seers?”
“Impossible.” They were thinking the same thing: Ghosts had no inherent intelligence
, per se; there was no cunning that came with their increased volatility and power. But where that was a simple truth for Horatio, it was opening a horrifying possibility for Natalia.
“I don’t think so, Horatio. I know this is…beyond
a Ghost, but, it can’t be a coincidence, me and Marisol walking the same path.” Shelooked at him plaintively. “We can’t take the risk. I felt
something, Horatio. The only other option is that there’s something other than just the Ghost here.”
“I feel no other presence.”
“Neither do I. So then…”
Horatio nodded. “All right.” He stood up and frowned, thinking. After several moments, he walked towards her, always keeping one hand on the wall. He reached his other out to her. “Take my hand, then. And if you feel that…presence, again, let it lead you. But if it does diverge from Marisol’s path…I have to follow her.”
Natalia nodded, surprised that Horatio felt he needed to mention that. . “Of course.” What most Guards didn’t realize, since such a situation was natural to them, was that Seers led extremely isolated lives. In six months, Marisol had become a sister to her, moreso than the sisters she was sure she had left behind. Perhaps there were more of them now; she was not allowed contact with her biological family.
She felt nothing, however, in terms of guidance, malicious or otherwise, and thus followed Horatio’s lead for almost another twenty minutes. Then she stopped, jerking Horatio to a halt. He looked at her questioningly.
“How long was I out for? Honestly?” She said it as though a Guard was inclined to respond any other way, but she wanted to make sure.
“Just over three hours.”
“Three hours?! Horatio—Marisol could be anywhere!” She bit her lip at his look of pained surprise; he was, without a doubt, the most expressive Guard she’d ever seen – with the possible exception of Danny. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I…can’t believe we lost that much time…” She looked down, then back up at him.
“Horatio…I think it would be worth our while to let the Ghost—or whatever it is!—to lead me. I might be able to find something out, maybe…connect with it in some way.”
“We have no idea wh—”
“Just listen! I think you’re interfering. –Unintentionally, but still…” She looked down at their interlocked hands. “I think your energy is interfering with the…Thing’s access to me. Please—let me walk alone. You can follow Marisol’s trail, and if it comes to it, I think you can break the spell just by touching me.”
All of this was coming to her spur of the moment, like an author writing furiously but unrevised. She wasn’t sure it would work, or even if it was safe – what if the Thing could kill her? – but, in execution, it seemed so simple, and so logical
, and if Guards didn’t love logic and practically, then they probably would have died out centuries ago.
Horatio frowned for several long – wasteful, in Natalia’s opinion – moments, then slowly released her hand from his grip.
Immediately, Natalia felt considerably less secure, but she swallowed her fear and looked around.
“Do you feel anything?” Horatio asked from behind her.
“No, not yet. I think…I think It has to think that I’m alone. They usually ignore you, I know, but since you so obviously interfered between us…it might take some time. Let’s keep following Marisol, for now. I mean…I’m pretty sure we’ll end up in the same place either way. I just wish that, maybe, before we get there, we might be better armed.”
Practicality prevailed, and Horatio nodded his approval, leading the way again, glancing back every few seconds at Natalia.
It seemed to take forever before Natalia consciously realized she was being “guided” again, though, as she would realize later, this was not the case. The effect, the intoxication – for that was what it resembled – happened slowly: she would no longer be paying conscious attention to Horatio guidance – soon she would no longer need him at all, follow Marisol’s trail on her own, albeit by more nefarious means.
Eventually, she overtook Horatio entirely, and the world seemed to go blank, save for a narrow path that seemed to support only her gentle footsteps, to only lead in one direction – there was no option of turning around. Even her torch seemed to have gone out, leaving her in a fog of absolute darkness, able only to see – no, to sense
– her next step.
Horatio followed two steps behind her – a space her could cover instantaneously – forcing himself not to “interfere,” until he realized that Natalia – or the beast controlling her – seemed to be entirely unaware of his presence, so long as he did not touch her. Eventually, he walked in step with her, slowing only to let her pass first through tunnels two narrow to walk abreast.
He kept his eyes on the ground, for the most part; Marisol’s trail grew fresher and stronger the further they travelled, but even he could sense that it was almost unnecessary at this point: Natalia was leading him to the beast, and he would
destroy it. And the Guild would know. They would know that they had failed. Deep in his mind, Horatio knew he was better, greater
– in the most literal sense of the word – than them.
Perhaps he should take Natalia away after all; perhaps he should take both of them and disappear.
Regaining consciousness after being under the Thing’s hold for so long – the better part of an hour – was a shock, mentally and physically, and she stumbled, light-headed. Horatio caught her shoulders, but only looked at her long enough to assess that she was
, indeed, conscious. After that he looked up, and Natalia followed his gaze, gasping.
They must, they could only have
, arrived at the center of the mountain. It was enormous; even in the darkness, Natalia could feel
it seem to expand around her, larger than the greatest temples she had ever visited. It was a hell-hole fit for a monster of unimaginable proportions and power. Her torch was useless here.
She stepped back, bumping reassuringly into Horatio. “You…you can see here. How big is it? Where does it end?”
Horatio shook his head – decidedly unreassuring. “I can’t see the end of it.” He laid one hand, then both, against the wall near the cavernous entrance. “The ceiling is at least one hundred feet high,” he murmured apprehensively. “I’m not sure…how long it extends on the ground, but it’s much longer, or rounder
, than it is high.”
Natalia opened her mouth, but Horatio asked the question first.
“Is this where it lives?”
Natalia closed her eyes, concentrating her senses. “No. At least, I don’t think so. Unless it can change the room’s size at will—”
“Likely,” Horatio interjected.
“—then it wouldn’t fit. …And it’s not here now. It’s around us, but…under us? I can’t really t—”
Horatio stepped forward suddenly, snapping one hand out protectively in front of her. “Do you hear that?” he asked, squinting into the darkness that even he couldn’t see.
“No,” Natalia whispered, but after a few moments of unearthly silence, she found she could, and it chilled it.
It was a hollow “tap,” far off in the distant. It sounded inhuman, that hollow, unnerving, “tap…tap…tap,” so dreadfully so, but so certainly coming closer.
Just as Natalia looked to Horatio for an answer, he seemed to have found one, his face contorting in fear and concern. Then, to Natalia’s surprise, he called out:
At first, Natalia was bewildered, and even frightened. But when Horatio called out again, even louder this time, she took a breath. Of course he would recognize her walk, her steps, even at this unnatural pace.
She called out as well, relief pouring out into her cry: “Marisol!
“—No…wait.” Horatio said suddenly, and Natalia’s fear returned immediately. Horatio couldn’t have been wrong…
The footsteps were dreadfully close now, and if they weren’t Marisol…
But they were – Natalia could see her suddenly; first a shadowy figure emerging from the darkness, then her empty, lifeless walk as she moved toward them as if posessed, looking like a limp, ragged doll. When she got close enough, Natalia could see her eyes were hollow. Was that how she
No, surely not. It hadn’t felt—...
But Horatio seemed the most conflicted. Presumably, he could free her of this curse by approaching, but bringing Natalia and Marisol together was exactly the “plan” this monster has in mind – and crediting it with a mind was in itself almost beyond comprehension. Of course, neither could leave Natalia behind, even if by only a few steps. Last time, he had them both in his arms, and still…
He took a step forward and slowly swept his hands up to his chest; again, Natalia felt a breeze where there couldn’t possibly have been one. He pushed his hands outward, then, towards Marisol, who stopped walking and seemed to suddenly stumble, though she barely faltered. The “breeze” rippled her hair, and she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, they seemed to pierce Natalia, who saw only one thing in them: pure terror.
Her face contorted.
“RUN!” she wailed at them, tears of the darkest of fears clouding her eyes. “PLEASE, GOD, RUN
They didn’t have time to react, as, once again, the earth shattered beneath them. Only this time, it was being forced up, the cavern destroyed and crumbling around them, throwing both Seers off their feet, to the ground. Horatio latched onto a piece of the chasm and whirled around, searching for them.
And in the midst of the destruction, Marisol was swept off her feet and into the air.