[ Continued from here. Still no AI extension associated with this, though I threw in what AI suggested for a picture at the end. Generally speaking, I find AI art to be rather horrifying mockeries of what passes for art. But that’s just me. I wanted to get the storyline into an action scene to see what the AI will suggest. Stay tuned for that in the next post. ]
The column of villagers snaked out of the ruins of their homes and up the forested trail. As hours passed, the group paused periodically for short breaks. Yet, the pace was relentless as the group moved deeper into the forested landscape. Some villagers struggled to keep up despite the warnings, lingering behind the main body. They were mainly older men and women with few exceptions, and the few villagers burdened with small children.
At one of the stops, Arianna finally spoke to Rhinna. “What are you going to do about the stragglers?”
“They know the consequences. We can’t stop for anyone.”
“That’s not fair. Can’t we have some hunters stay behind to escort them to the falls?”
“No, I will not risk losing our few hunters over those who can’t keep up.”
“But some of them are women and children. They deserve a chance.”
Rhinna set her jaw. “I know it’s not fair, but helping them means risking everyone’s chances to reach safety.”
Biting back her disgust, Arianna chose to not argue the point. No reason anyone had to be sacrificed just to make it to the falls. “Can you tell me anything about the King or Freehold?”
“Freehold is simply where King Anthirian lives. He is a good man, though not as wise as he thinks he is.” She glanced at Magnus. “It’s fair to say that is not an uncommon issue with most men.”
“I certainly agree with that,” Arianna commented. “What can he do to help me return to my world?”
“He can help you capture Dathon and release the Aldewater magic that the man has stolen. That should allow you to use the book to open a portal back to your own world.” Rhinna leaned close to her. “I want you to promise you’ll leave the book before you go and take Dathon with you.”
Leaving behind the book would mean never returning to Aldewater, which was fine with her. Taking Dathon with her sounded ideal if he wanted to come. “What if he doesn’t want to leave?”
“It would be better for everyone if he did, but if he doesn’t willingly, there might be consequences,” Rhinna said, fingering the knife’s handle in her belt.
The meaning couldn’t be more apparent. “Understood.” He’d have to listen to reason, right? Still, why did he leave her and come here? What would she say and do when they met? It was so confusing. She’d finally come to terms with him being gone, only to find him here. Did she mean nothing to him? “Wait, what about this other woman you said looks like me and is with him. What do you make of that?”
“I have no idea. You look identical, but you’re not. This other ‘Arianna’ is vicious and cruel. I don’t know if she’s a corrupted reflection of you in some way or a manifestation of Dathon’s Aldewater magic. The King knows more about Aldewater magic than anyone.”
“Whoever or whatever she is,” Arianna replied, “I don’t know how she’ll react to me or let me near Dathon.”
“We’ll deal with her once we find Dathon,” Rhinna answered.
Magnus tugged on Rhinna’s arm. “We need to get going.” She nodded. “Let’s go,” Magnus shouted. A cascading series of shouts repeated the message up and down the column.
The sun traced a path across the sky until it sank below the treetops. Despite pauses in the march, at least a dozen villagers fell off the pace, drifting so far behind they could no longer be seen. Ahead of them, rushing water could be heard. The outline of ridgelines could be seen through gaps in the trees. The air also grew noticeably colder.
“The falls must be near,” Arianna commented.
“We’re still several miles away,” Rhinna replied. She glanced at the sharply slanting rays of sunlight and increasing shadows. “We should still make it before dark.”
Darkness continued to increase as the rays of sunlight faded. After a sharp turn in the path, rushing water sounds reached thunderous levels. A broad rocky outflow of water crossed the trail from a plunge pool, fed by a waterfall plunging off a rocky projection two hundred feet above them. Long vertical lines of water roared downward in a sinuous and relentless manner. Cool droplets of water filled the air.
Arianna had never seen anything like it before and stood staring. Rhinna and Magnus, on the other hand, began shouting. “Time’s wasting. Quickly, fill your water skins, and line up behind us.” The villagers did as they were told, and soon a long line formed behind the two leaders. Picking their way carefully through the large rocks surrounding the plunge pool, Rhinna and Magnus followed a narrow trail behind the waterfall.
Following the mass of villagers, Arianna wiped moisture out of her eyes. She stepped past the rushing water to discover a wide cave opening into the rock face. Rhinna stood on one side of the entrance and Magnus on the other. Together the two pulled each village into the cave. Darkness surrounded them until a torch flared to light at the feet of a villager who stood over it with a flint and stone. In rapid succession, other torches already mounted along the walls were soon lit, casting the cavern into view. The pinkish-yellow walls of the cave rose high and deep into the rockface and flowed into a large chamber. The villagers entered the open area and found places to sit next to the walls and stalagmites protruding from the floor.
As Arianna looked about at the wonders of the cave, shouts carried from the entrance. She turned to find Magnus pulling a few more villagers inside and yelling at them, “Hurry.” Screams followed villagers running further into the cave.
“Spear carriers come to the entrance,” Magnus bellowed.
Arianna started, remembering suddenly that she had such a weapon. Dropping her travel bag, she slipped the spear out and ran toward the entrance. A deep-throated growling greeted her as she approached. Just beyond the cave opening, reddish orbs floated in the darkness. It wasn’t until she stood next to Rhinna that she could determine what they were: reptilian-like eyes with very dark irises set into faces with hairy snouts.
“Night demons,” Rhinna said, thumbing her amulet.