I led the woman toward the others. Why was I doing it? I couldn't tell you even if I wanted to. Who would lead a complete stranger, who had just called me by my first name, to my unconscious friend? Could I even call that woman a friend? If it hadn't been for Jory trying to have a go at her, she wouldn't have joined our escape team.
I was rambling and I knew it. The only comfort I found in leading Raiya to Agatha was the fact that I felt I could trust her. Not a radical thought process I know, but at this point, I'd take any help I could get.
We quickly reached the clearing in which Agatha lay unconscious. Zoey was sitting beside her, biting her nails. As soon as she heard approaching footsteps the Sister raised her head. She looked at me with relief. But the moment Raiya appeared; her smile vanished, replaced by an ugly frown.
"Relax," I said, "she's friendly." Zoey's questioning eyes lingered on mine. She looked panicked now. She stood next to Agatha, shielding her with her arms outstretched, as if that would work against a witch.
"What happened to her?" the woman called Raiya asked, jerking her head toward Agatha.
"She helped us escape," I answered, "used too much Essence then fell asleep."
Raiya knelt beside the Herbologist then ran her hands on her body. A blue light covered the Herbologist while the witch chanted. Agatha's body twitched but her eyes remained closed. Raiya didn't look alarmed though. She kept chanting as she ran her hands along the unconscious woman's body. The blue light followed wherever the witch's hands landed.
Zoey ran to me.
"What is she doing?" she hissed. Her face was contorted into an ugly frown.
"Helping, I suppose," I said.
"What do you mean, you suppose? Do you know that woman?"
"No more than I know you. But she can be trusted."
"How would you know?" Zoey was now yelling, her voice echoing through the trees. G.o.ds and heavens above! I hate this kind of behavior. One moment she's begging for help then complains the minute I bring someone to heal the unconscious Agatha.
"I advise you to keep your voice down," Raiya said in a patronizing tone. Thank the G.o.ds she was the one to speak. All I could think of was smacking this silly Sister in the head. I guess I'm not good at managing this kind of situations.
"We don't want to wake the h.o.m.opraelia, do we?" Raiya went on, addressing the Sister with a wicked smile.
"What's h.o.m.opraelia?" Zoey turned to me for answers. Why do I have to answer that? I had bigger things to worry about, Utar for instance. I just wanted a minute's silence to think of a way to get out of this. Zoey kept glaring at me. I could sense her questioning eyes even though I wasn't looking at her.
"Big gorillas," I answered, suppressing the urge to tie her there and leave her to the monsters. "They're agile and dangerous. They hunt at night and hate those who wake them before hunting time."
I was fixing the witch, aware that Zoey was glaring at me, trying to get me to look at her. I couldn't bring myself to meet her eyes. I didn't want to answer more nagging questions. I knew the witch couldn't be trusted. I only met her a few minutes ago, yet I felt I knew her. Besides she called me by name, she must've known me before I was captured by the church. If someone had the power to hide us from Utar, it was her. But would she help for free?
Raiya, that name rang a bell. I felt grat.i.tude toward her, not for offering to help us now, but for something I couldn't remember. It was the same feeling I had for Agatha. That sense of familiar attachment and deep hatred. But I didn't feel I hated the witch. I decided I could trust her, despite the fact that I didn't remember her. What was happening to me? Why couldn't I remember everything from my past?
"Where's Eli?" Zoey asked, her voice piercing my eardrums. Can I have a moment's respite please? I'm trying to think. Zoey was tugging at my sleeve, still barking in my ears, asking about Eli.
"Keep it down will ya?" I snapped. "Those big monkeys can crush a boulder with one hand. Imagine what they'd do to us."
"Where's Eli?" she whispered.
"I dunno, he said he'd fetch some water. He'll be here shortly." I went back to staring at the witch. She was still examining Agatha. I hoped that by staring long enough, I'd remember something about her. But nothing came. My head started throbbing instead. I looked away. The forest was quiet, too quiet in fact. I couldn't even hear birds chirping in the distance.
"We'll have to take her to my house," Raiya suddenly broke the silence. The blue light had stopped shining on top of Agatha's body. The witch stood up, urging me with her eyes to get moving.
"We can't go just yet," I said. "My friend went to the river."
"He's on his way here," Raiya answered then frowned. "Help me carry her please," she went on. Her tone had changed into one of urgency.
"You can sense someone coming but you can't levitate her with your magic?" Zoey asked. I could sense sarcasm in her voice.
"We can leave this one here," Raiya told me as she pointed at the Sister. "h.o.m.opraelia love virgin blood."
At those words Zoey went scarlet. I looked at her incredulously. A virgin?
"What's with that? I thought you used to escape with your lover for some love making time!" I asked.
"And I thought you were taking us to Milogac, to disappear and have a new life," she retorted. "But you've just been following some bones' orders."
She had to bring this into the conversation. What's up with her anyway? She'd become snappy ever since we left the sewers. I'm not even sure she trusts me anymore.
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"Fiery, this one," Raiya had just walked beside us, glaring at the Sister.
She cast a quick glance at the bag of bones I had strapped around my torso. The bones rattled briefly then came back to their inanimate state. Raiya's glance at the bones spoke of great interest, but she didn't voice it. Instead she looked at me, fixing the empty socket in which my right eye used to be.
"Your friend's arrived," she said as we heard some movement by the bushes in the east. Raiya started looking around, fat creases formed between her eyebrows.
Eli emerged behind a tree, looking ghastly. He looked at the witch then at me. His face was muddy and his clothes wet. There were some scratches on his face and arms, the result of some stray branches I suppose.
"Almost got caught by a patrol near the river," he explained. "I ran as quickly and silently as I could. Who's she?"
"He says she's friendly," Zoey barked, arms akimbo, frowning at me. Now I'm starting to get p.i.s.sed. Who was she to cast judgments? She couldn't even fight to save her life. We've all been doing the hard work here. If it hadn't known about the hidden pa.s.sage in the Crucible, I wouldn't have brought her with us.
"We should get going," Raiya said.
"Where?" Eli asked, slightly out of breath. I could tell he was running.
"I can't do anything for her here," the witch said after shooting a brief glance toward Agatha. "Besides, the patrols by the river are the least of your worries right now."
"What do you mean?" Eli asked. His head was darting between me, the witch and Zoey.
"Tell them," Raiya urged me.
"Utar's here," I said, "heard some guards talk about him while I was looking for a way inside Fiverto."
Eli swore and stomped on the ground. He held his wet hair and pulled it as he muttered every nasty word that came to his mind. I understood him. Utar wouldn't let us get away. I shot a quick glance at Raiya. Please let her help us! I found myself praying. If there are G.o.ds, please let her help us!
"What's up with him?" Zoey asked, looking bewildered at the raving Eli. "Who's this Utar?"
"He's a Priest," I answered. "He was Jory's guest before Agatha arrived. Remember him? White hair, sleeveless shirt, he was – "
But my voice was drowned by a sudden shriek that pierced the silent forest. We stood in place, frozen as the earth beneath us shook and the trees around us rustled furiously. From the sound of it, something angry had just woken up. But we weren't loud enough to wake the h.o.m.opraelia that slept at least a hundred feet away from us. That was where the shriek came from.
"You didn't manage to shake them off," Raiya told Eli. "They've woken the h.o.m.opraelia, it's the easiest way to get rid of you, or at least get you to leave the forest."
"What do we do?" Zoey asked, her shrill voice piercing my eardrums once more.
"I have a hidden house not too far from here," Raiya answered. "It's a big tree, surrounded by poppies, you can't miss it."
"Why're you telling us about your hideout?" Eli asked.
"We might get separated," the witch answered. "In case that happens, you must find the tree before nightfall. No matter what you do, do not stay in the forest after sunset. Either find my house or get out of here, you don't know what prowls in the darkness."
You bet! I thought. Those dark creatures would turn us into brainless meat sacks.
"Stalwart," Raiya called out to me. "Some help please?" she was standing beside the unconscious Herbologist.
I carried Agatha on my right shoulder and we followed the witch. The trees around us still rumbled. This time we heard distant shouts and dogs barking. Great! How f.u.c.king marvelous! Guards were patrolling the edge of the woods while those giant gorillas wreaked havoc in the forest. We either get eaten or captured. Utar, you sly b.a.s.t.a.r.d!
As their shrieks and stomps got louder, we heard more of h.o.m.opraelia waking up in the distance. There must be at least two dozen surrounding us now, looking for the source of the disturbance.
"How did they wake them without getting inside the forest?" Eli asked as he dragged Zoey behind him. The Sister grew silent. In the face of danger she wasn't noisy anymore.
"Utar," the witch hissed as she led the way. We were zigzagging through thick bushes and tall trees. "He's grown in power ever since he summoned the tribulations. But he knows you've got help. He doesn't want to get inside the forest until he's a.s.sessed the situation."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Later," Raiya hissed at me. "We have bigger fish to fry."
"What does she mean?" Zoey's shrill voice reached us. She was trailing behind as Eli dragged her.
"Utar will surely pinpoint our location any time," Eli answered. "He's an outstanding tracker."
"The h.o.m.opraelia waking up around us means he's already found us," Raiya told us. "He's playing with us, leading us to some ambush he'd laid somewhere inside the forest. We have to split up."
"What?!" All of us shouted at the same time.
"It's either that or getting surrounded," Raiya said. "Keep heading north and you'll eventually find the tree. Leave the Sister with me, she can't defend herself."
"What about this one?" I said, pointing at the woman I carried on my shoulder.
"You're a big strong boy Stalwart. I'm sure she weighs like a feather," Raiya answered with a smirk. d.a.m.n you woman, carry her yourself. See how heavy a feather can become when you have to walk around on uneven ground.
I nodded nonetheless.
"On my mark," Raiya said, pulling Zoey toward her. "You take the right," she told Eli, "and you go left," she told me. "We'll keep going forward. Pull them toward you, get them to scatter then come looking for the tree. It's big and surrounded by poppies, remember. I can stun those big monkeys, but I can't take them all on. It's more trouble than what it's worth. I have to get home first then I'll be able to lead you to me."
I was about to say something but a loud crash behind us made me forget everything. A gorilla, so tall its head brushed against the tree branches above, stood behind me. It bared its fangs at me then swung its enormous hand to s.n.a.t.c.h me. I heard Raiya shout something then a yellow light brushed past me and blasted the gorilla a few paces away. The h.o.m.opraelia lay on the ground motionless.
"GO!" the witch shouted at us then quickly turned on her heels, dragging Zoey alongside her.