I - A Devil Overhead
A good night’s sleep would help Daniel far more than sympathy, Eleanor knew. But sympathy was all she could offer him right now. He looked like he was dead on his feet as he led them through the maze of broken granite outcroppings. He seemed to have only a vague sense of his own surroundings, but his link with Virricul meant that he had to be the one to head the group in order for the sword’s watchful eye to alert him of any trouble ahead. The exhaustion showed on his face and in his every movement, but Eleanor didn’t need to look at him to know that he was suffering.
It might help if he would stop to rest more often. She had unsuccessfully asked twice already this morning if they could stop for a break, but he could tell that she herself wasn’t really tired - that she was asking for his sake. Daniel could sense Eleanor’s thoughts and feelings as well as she could sense his, even if he wasn’t really sure why or how.
Eleanor understood all too well what had caused their psychic link - the two of them were soulbound. It was a process of connecting two people on such an intimate and spiritual level that they could feel each other’s feelings and sometimes even read their thoughts. Soulbinding was a powerful and complicated magic, and only the most formidable wizards were capable of creating such a link between two people. Yet somehow, Eleanor had managed it without any understanding of magic at all. Despite having neither the proper magical training nor any inclination towards the magical arts, she had unwittingly initiated the binding between her and Daniel out of sheer instinct.
They had been soulbound for a year and a half now, ever since just before they passed through Venture Gate into the Fifth Realm. Eleanor had used her link with Daniel to help rescue him from the dangerous forests of Ghost Valley. Afterwards Provost Alva, the head of the Academy of Magic, told her the truth of the inherent power she somehow had inside of her. In all the time that has passed since then, she had never managed to bring herself to tell Daniel about how she had soulbound them without his consent. Nor had she found the courage to tell him about the promise she had made to Alva to return to the Academy of Magic to accept training to become a wizard.
Passing through the magical gates that connected the realms was a one-way journey. A person could only move forwards through the sequentially numbered realms, unable to cross backwards through the gates until they reached the Eleventh Realm. Entering the land called Skyrealm granted a human traveler the ability to freely pass through all of the gates, backwards and forwards. Eleanor had promised Alva that, once they reached Skyrealm and completed her ‘forward-quest‘, she would immediately turn back and return to the Academy.
Alva had even assigned Oka, their friend and an aspiring wizard himself, to ensure that she kept her word. Oka’s very presence on their journey was based on the two conditions he was given in order for him to be allowed admission into the Academy of Magic. Along with ensuring Eleanor‘s return, Oka had to learn how to read.
Unlike Eleanor who was a fellow Realmsborn, Oka was not bestowed with the gift of Realmspeak at birth. Realmspeak was the oral and written language used by all humans in The Realms, including the humans who came from the Otherworld, like Daniel. Newcomers all enter The Realms at the same point in the First Realm, and every human who is ever in the First Realm is granted the same realm gift. They can speak, hear, read and write the language of Realmspeak. Even for newcomers who arrive there from the Otherworld, a place of many different languages. For them and realmsborn alike, Realmspeak instantly becomes as instinctual as if it were their native tongue.
Even those who were born in Cherry Landing, such as Eleanor, are born with this gift. She was able to read and write Realmspeak for as long as she could remember. But humans born in other realms were not granted this gift. Oka, who was born in the Third Realm, learned to talk in Realmspeak as he grew up, but could not know how to read it unless he was instructed. Illiteracy was not much of an issue in the simple town of Commonstock, where Oka grew up. But when he applied for entrance into the Academy of Magic he was refused, despite his tremendous aptitude in the magical arts.
In their time wandering through the Fifth Realm, Eleanor and the others had been attempting to instruct Oka on how to read Realmspeak. He made decent progress at first, but as the months went by he began to grow frustrated and resentful towards his companions, all of whom had gained their literacy by means of passing through the First Realm. Oka spurned their attempts to tutor him, and for the past year wandering The Labyrinth, his studies had slackened. Nevertheless, he has held fast in his determination to deliver Eleanor back to the Academy, whether she intended to return willingly or not.
Fortunately, the Eleventh Realm was still very far away, and Eleanor had plenty of time to decide what she was going to do. If Daniel was still searching on his knowledge-quest by then, she wasn’t sure if she could bear to leave him. But she couldn’t ask him to go with her back to the Fourth Realm - to forgo his mission to find out why he was brought to The Realms. If Daniel knew about the promise, or about Oka’s role in bringing her back to Ghost Valley once they reached Skyrealm, he might make a rash decision as she knew he was capable of doing from time to time. Eleanor knew that she had put off telling Daniel about her promise for much too long. She just needed a little more time to decide what to say to him.
Today however, there was little conversation during their travel. Oka was in one of his dark moods, and had not said more than a few words to anyone all day long. Albert had been making less-than-helpful suggestions such as burning their way through the foliage and suggesting that they vote for a new leader besides Daniel. At first, Eleanor had tried to explain why Daniel needed to be in charge, but it was clear that their newest companion was not interested in listening.
Even Immy was not her usual talkative self. She and Oka had had yet another argument during breakfast, and it ended when she angrily threw the remnants of her brown stock stew at the irritable initiate. Daniel and Albert had to separate them, as it nearly came to blows. As the day wore on, tempers had cooled, but so had the atmosphere within the party of travelers.
Spirits were very low. The morale of the group had suffered a steady decline over the past several months, as their time in the Fifth Realm dragged on seemingly without end. Back in May, they ‘celebrated’ their first anniversary of entering The Labyrinth, and here it was now in October, with no escape in sight.
The only way for them to leave the Fifth Realm was to find Jester Gate. Unfortunately, Jester Gate looks exactly like Venture Gate, which they have stumbled onto on three separate occasions. Venture Gate was the portal which brought them here from the Fourth Realm, and which for now, was unable to carry them back. The only thing that could deliver them from The Labyrinth into the Sixth Realm was Jester’s Gate, and its elusiveness was trying even Eleanor’s patience. Just a few days ago, Eleanor had marked her 17th birthday - the second birthday she had spent here in the Fifth Realm. That night, Daniel had solemnly sworn to her that she would not have to celebrate her next birthday in this gloomy land.
It had been drizzly on Eleanor’s birthday. There were thick clouds and a misty haze on and off for the past week. Autumn was quickly forming in The Labyrinth, and if it was anything like the previous year’s, the adventurers were in store for another damp, dreary fall, followed closely by a brutally cold winter. All the more motivation to find their way out of here.
Finally, sometime after the sun set behind the thick layer of clouds, Daniel called the day’s traveling to a halt. Sighs of relief came from everyone in the party, including Eleanor, who felt her pack burdening her shoulder like a great lead weight. As Oka knelt down and focused himself to create a magical campfire, Eleanor began sifting through her pack, searching for the ingredients for their modest supper.
Daniel was utterly exhausted. It had been a miserable day, and they had not made very good time. It didn’t matter much, he supposed, since they couldn’t be sure that they were even traveling in the right direction. The area did not look familiar to him, however, and that was a good sign that they were on the right path. They had been on the wrong path now for far too long.
He had hoped that his exhaustion during the course of the day would help him sleep better tonight, but now that they were making camp, Daniel bitterly noted a feeling of restlessness already creeping into his body. He was hungry, but he knew that supper would do little to diminish his appetite. With their traveling rations run out long ago, the party had been forced to subsist on whatever they could find. Daniel’s intuitive knowledge of realm botany helped spot edible plant life, and Virricul’s eagle-eye would spot for them the occasional small warren hare for a bit of meat. But given the sparse pickings here in The Labyrinth, they were forced to conserve their food and water supplies as much as possible. Breakfast was usually adequate to give them the strength for a day’s travel, but supper was almost always very light on the protein, and sometimes had to be skipped altogether. Fortunately, a fresh supply of tasteless but edible brown stocks unearthed yesterday had replenished much of their food reserves and so they could afford a few gulps of Eleanor’s stew before bedtime tonight.
Eleanor was preparing the stew in a small tin pan which they had had since she and Daniel left Cherry Landing. Daniel saw that she had fatigue in her eyes, but she labored intently on adding some flavor to the fibrous stalks boiling in a bit of water over Oka’s magic fire. She carried a few herbs they had unearthed, along with a set of bottled spices which they had found on the badly mutilated body of a vole shark’s victim no more than a few weeks ago.
The new spices had rekindled the party’s interest in meal times, and everyone seemed to have a favorite. There was a red-colored spice which had a somewhat sour taste which Albert preferred. The green spice was extremely bitter, and only Oka seemed to like it. Alas, it was the most abundant, and so was almost always included in the stew. Daniel and Immy both enjoyed the tangy flavor of the gold-colored spice while Eleanor’s personal favorite was the sweet brown spice. Eleanor was determined to experiment with the various spices along her supply of herbs in order to find a combination which everyone enjoyed. It was proving to be a formidable culinary challenge for her.
As Eleanor worked on her latest recipe, Albert gazed out into the misty hills that lay ahead of them, groaning in frustration.
“Those mountains are going to be brutal to cross tomorrow.” He complained to Daniel. “I told you we should have taken that pass I saw earlier. We could be on the other side of them by now.”
“There was a nest of cloppers in that pass.” Daniel answered wearily. He had no desire to debate Albert’s not-so-subtle challenge to his leadership during their travels. They had tried following Albert’s suggestions about which way to go for a time, but quickly found that his sense of direction was almost comically inept. He seemed to have an incredible knack for guiding them in circles, and often not very wide circles, either.
Albert shrugged off Daniel’s reply and quickly shifted topics. “Why are you still reading that thing, anyway?”
Daniel had just pulled Master Circle’s journal from his bag and opened it up at the place he had marked. He was reading though the borrowed journal for the fifth time now, but still couldn’t make much sense of what Master Circle’s thought process was while he had written it so long ago.
At the time he had scribbled his thoughts into the thick book, Harry Baum wasn’t one of the legendary Masters of The Realms yet. Back then, he was just a young newcomer who, like Daniel, was obsessed with discovering the secret of why humans were in The Realms. The morbid conclusion that young Harry had reached was that some force or entity was bringing humans into The Realms in order to facilitate the world’s eventual destruction. Being proclaimed a Master made him effectively a genius by universal consensus, so it was difficult to argue semantics with him. It was something akin to Daniel debating physics with Albert Einstein.
Master Circle had claimed that his theory was the natural conclusion of his life’s work in investigating the matter, and he gave Daniel his old journal which contained all of his notes and challenged the young doubter to go out and disprove him.
Daniel tried to ignore Albert’s casual prying, but was quickly irritated to find him poking his inquiring fingers into Daniel’s bag.
“Knock it off.” Daniel growled at him.
Albert looked up at him with an innocent smile. “Sorry, I was just curious. When are you going to tell me what’s in the jar?”
“Nothing worth your interest.” Daniel insisted.
Daniel glanced down at the mason jar in his bag. It contained the only evidence he had to go on in order to possibly disprove Master Circle’s destruction theory. Inside was a small growth of illuminati moss, a luminescent fungus which only grows in the Seventh Realm, and yet Daniel had found some in the Fourth Realm. Unlike other plants and animals from The Realms, the moss had survived passing through Venture Gate, and Daniel hoped that he could somehow use it to prove that humans were not meant to destroy The Realms.
Albert smiled and shook his head. “You’re always so secretive. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just-”
He stopped suddenly and looked skyward with an alarmed expression. Daniel looked up at him with concern.
“What is it?”
“Did you hear that?” Albert asked, still looking up into the darkened layer of clouds.
Daniel paused for a moment to listen, but aside from the occasional gust of wind, could hear nothing unusual. “What did you hear?”
Albert’s normally jovial voice grew low and tense. “It almost sounds like … something’s flying up there. Something big.”
Daniel and the others listening all cast their gazes into the twilight. The layer of clouds was low and very thick. If there was something flying above them, it could easily be concealed from their view.
“Virricul?” Daniel muttered.
Albert looked back at Daniel. “A what? Oh, you mean your talking sword.”
There’s nothing up there but some soupy clouds. Virricul told Daniel, with a tone of annoyance in his voice.
“Virricul says there’s nothing up there.” Daniel repeated.
“To hell with your magical buddy.” Albert said. “I know I heard something up there. It was a thumping sound, like the flapping of wings. What makes you think your sword can hear it better?”
“Virricul’s not my sword.” Daniel answered coolly. “And he can detect any living animal bigger than a rat within about a hundred yards of us.”
“How far is that?” Albert asked quizzically.
“About 90 meters.” Immy answered, still gazing skyward. “Could there be something higher up that’s out of Virricul’s range?”
“It’s possible.” Daniel admitted. “But it’d have to be pretty enormous if Albert can hear it from that far up.”
“A firehawk?” Immy asked hopefully. Daniel shook his head silently.
“A dragon?” Eleanor suggested with a breathless fear. She, Daniel, Oka and Immy had stumbled on a dragon while trying to repair a dam in the mountains of the Third Realm.
If there’s a dragon up there, it’s too high up to even know we’re down here. Virricul said inside Daniel’s head. Somehow, Daniel found little comfort in that. It was only through an incredible stroke of inspiration and dumb luck that they had managed to kill the dragon back in the Thundering Plains. Out here in the open wilderness, the five of them were sitting ducks to a creature that powerful.
Suddenly, there was a distant, but utterly terrifying sound far in the horizon. It sounded at first like thunder, but it reverberated with an oscillating roar that could only be made by an incredibly large creature. Fortunately, the sound seemed to come from very far to the northeast, probably many miles away. Still, the distance of the unearthly, moaning roar did not prevent all five of the campers from looking off into the horizon in utter horror. Eleanor muffled a quiet whimper, and Daniel couldn’t help but shudder at the eerie wail.
“Told you so.” Albert whispered, his fear blunting his smugness.
“Maybe it was something else.” Eleanor offered. “It sounds so far away.”
“You know it was just over our heads a minute ago.” Albert insisted, still keeping his voice to a loud whisper.
Daniel sighed quietly. “Even if it was, it’s miles away now. And whatever it is, I think we can be sure that it didn’t see us.”
“How can we be sure?” Albert demanded.
Oka spoke up for the first time. “Because if it had seen us, we’d all be dead now.”
Daniel looked down at the sword hilt which he clung to tensely. “Virricul, was that a dragon?”
I’m not sure. Virricul answered after an unsettling pause. I don’t think so. I’ve never heard a dragon sound like that.
“Who do you suppose he meant?” Immy asked with breathless wonder. Everyone looked to her with confusion.
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked her.
Immy looked about her companions with surprise. “Didn’t you hear him? He said ‘She‘s dead, she‘s dead!’”
Daniel looked at her, stunned. “It was just a roar, Immy.”
She shook her head determinedly. “No, I heard a voice. You didn’t hear it too?”
The others looked to each other, shaking their heads. Immy looked at them with bewilderment.
“Are you saying I’m the only one that heard that horrible voice?”
Eleanor looked at her worriedly. “All I heard was the dragon’s roar.”
“Virricul says he doesn’t think it was a dragon.” Daniel told them.
“How the hell would it know?” Albert demanded.
“Because Virricul’s encountered dozens of dragons in his eons of life.” Daniel snapped angrily. “Nobody knows better what a dragon sounds like than him.”
I can’t say definitely that it’s not a dragon. Virricul corrected him, without any hint of gratitude for Daniel’s defense of him. All I can say is that I’ve never heard a dragon roar like that before.
“Well, if it wasn’t a dragon, then what was it?” Eleanor asked.
“And why do I hear it as a voice?” Immy added.
Oka frowned and lowered his head. “Perhaps it was a devil.”
Daniel glanced over at him. “What, you mean like some sort of demon?”
“There’s no such thing as a demon.” Oka dismissed him.
Daniel shook his head in bemusement. “Yeah, well, a couple of years ago, I’d have told you that there’s no such thing as dragons, or magic, or knobwalkers, either.”
“It’s a new normal.” Albert agreed.
“I’m talking about a devil.” Oka snapped irritably. “It’s an entity of living magic that they say can enslave the mind of its victim. It will speak to them and command them to do things, and haunt them until they go insane.”
Immy’s eyes bulged in disbelief. “Are you saying that the devil was telling me that I’m dead?”
“If there’s a creature trying to possess Immy, then how is it that we would hear it as a loud, distant roar?” Daniel asked dubiously.
“I don’t know.” Oka admitted, glancing warily at Immy. “Maybe it’s something else.”
The momentary glimpse of fear in Immy’s face quickly turned to her usual smirk as she responded with a sarcastic jab. “Yeah, maybe it’s the Tooth Fairy looking for revenge on all of us. Do you really think that you can scare me with your ghost stories, Oklahoma?”
Oka’s eyes flared as Daniel spoke up. “There’s no sense in making idle speculations at this point. Whatever it was, it seems to have gone, so let’s just keep extra alert for now. All right?”
Eleanor nodded loyally, and Immy chuckled to herself as she sat back down to warm her hands near the campfire. Oka watched her thoughtfully for a moment before returning to his own spot by the fire. Albert continued to look apprehensively out towards the northeastern horizon, and Daniel couldn’t help but gaze out that way as well.
“I think we should take turns keeping lookout tonight.” Albert suggested to him quietly.
Daniel shook his head. “No, everyone needs to rest. Besides, Virricul can keep lookout better than any of us. In all this time in The Labyrinth, nothing’s ever snuck up on us while we slept.”
Albert glanced disapprovingly at him. “Well, this thing out there isn’t some clopper or vole shark. If your little talking sword didn’t see that thing while it was flying over our heads, what makes you think it can see it when it’s swooping down on us while we’re asleep?”
Daniel frowned. “Like Oka said, whatever it is, if it decides it wants us dead out here, there’s not much we can do to prevent it anyway.”
Glancing over at the bright flicker of the campfire, he added quietly. “Even so, it’d probably be a good idea if we doused the fire after supper tonight.”