To Beginning (Part 1)
WARNING: The following content may not be suitable for young readers or audiences sensitive to violent content.
“Toying with that kind of energy is far too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than using that same energy to shoot fire or manipulate water—like we do every day?” Mara teases.
“Yes, energy levels so high they’d tear you limb from limb are tame compared to tossing a magic water ball.” The Magus rolls his eyes. “And that's not the worst of it,” he adds. “If excess aether is leaking from another world into ours, then on their side, aether levels would be exceptionally low.”
“And there wouldn’t be enough aether for a return portal!” He shakes his head. “It’d be a one-way trip.”
He sighs. “I know how badly you want this, Mara. But please, don't let curiosity kill you.” He takes her hand, gently tugging it away from the page and pressing it against his chest. “Don’t disappear on me forever.”
I've never felt aether currents this strong.
It felt like acid boiling her alive: raw heat bubbled against her skin, tingling and burning and chilling her whole body.
But there was still nothing to see; it was pitch-black. There was nothing to hear; all she could focus on was the pain of raw energy engulfing her. The agony of a mother bearing a child and the child's suffering in the darkness of the womb all at once.
Mara floated through the aether, unsure if the journey felt more like floating through air or water or neither. She had no concept of direction—up, down, left right—only that she was being pulled forward at an alarming rate.
Finally she began to hear sounds in her tunnel of darkness—first a rushing sound like wind or the rumble of a waterfall. That had to be the flow of the aether itself, this rapid that was dragging her to who knew where.
But there were other sounds, too: of people weeping and moaning, all echoing around her. It sent gooseflesh down her arms and legs. Someone was choking nearby, a voice that floated so close Mara expected to see someone surfacing from the black abyss just within arm's reach. The ice of panic chilled Mara's veins as the sound of gagging engulfed her. It sounded as if someone was strangling them. But she could see nothing, do nothing. She was imprisoned in darkness with the horrifying sounds of death as her cellmate.
“Hello?!” Mara shouted, lunging into the darkness, for what little good it would do. “Hold on! I'm here!” she barked. And then, when the choking began to fade, she called out louder, “I'm right here! Let me help you!”
She lurched toward the sound of the dying voice... but felt nothing. The sound faded away as quickly as it'd come.
Please tell me they're not dead, Mara's heart quavered. Not another one. Please, don't let us die here!
A howl of despair echoed her fears, distant and yet crystal clear: “We're going to die in here!”
The darkness softened into a swirl of purple and blue, pulsing all around her. It was dim, but it was the first light she'd seen since the portal had closed behind her.
Now she could see the other Caders being dragged through the aetheric current, floating just like her: Monroe was the nearest, only a few meters ahead, and further on were the two young men, Erik and Kale, their copper and pale skin tones both eerily reflecting the aetheric light. Ahead of them was the man with the sad, hollow eyes—Albrecht—and the three other women: Hannah, Saundra, and Kitti. And far, far ahead—so much further than the rest that she could barely make him out—was Ian, leading the way.
But there were two people missing. Tears leapt into Mara's eyes as she whirled around. They should be ahead of me. She spun, scanning the aetheric flow as it continued to brighten. Purple and blues were becoming pastels. Where are they? Mara's vision blurred with tears.
“Dead! They're dead!” shouted Albrecht. Again, despite him being so far ahead, his voice resounded as loud and clear as if he were speaking in Mara's ear.
But it was true. Mara's tears spilled over. Each one slipped off her face and then trailed in slow-motion as they fell behind her.
“It's no use!” Albrecht wept. “Try to escape, and you just meet a worse fate!” He flailed his arms. “No matter what we do, death follows us. We're cursed! This world wants to swallow us whole. And it's doing just that! Can't you feel the burning?”
But the burning sensation on her own skin was fading, reduced to a gentle tingle. To Mara, it almost felt... soothing. Was it only her? Could the aether affect each person differently?
But a quick glance told her that no one had burns on their skin. In fact, all the burns and singes on her hands and arms were gone. Her fair skin looked cleaner than ever. She couldn't even see any soot nor smell any smoke. But how?
She had no answers.
“Calm yourself, Albrecht!” came Monroe's voice, just as clearly although his back was to Mara. He spun his arms and kicked his feet, as if trying to swim... but it got him nowhere. He was still being pulled forward by the aether current, the same as everyone else, but he couldn't move of his own volition.
“I told you, Mara will get us out!” came Ian's voice cheerfully. Mara could just make out his silhouette turning back to face the others. “Don't be scared!”
More tears pooled in Mara's eyes. Why? Relief, because he was safe? Gladness, that he could still smile, despite everything he'd been through? Or maybe pride that he placed so much faith in her—and guilt she hadn't delivered the same to these people.
“Mara got us cornered in the woods!” Albrecht barked, whirling around to gaze at the surrounding aether walls. “F-For all we know, we're already dead! Maybe this is hell.”
“You didn't believe in hell,” came Kale's cool reply. He sounded composed, though Mara could see even at this distance that his eyes were wide with horror... and epiphany. Who knew what was coursing through his mind at this moment?
Albrecht flailed. “I want out! I want out of this place!” With each cry, he floated closer to the walls. “I won't die in here! I want to go back! I'll take my chances with the Vaerin over whatever torture awaits us in here!” Albrecht screamed, lashing out with his legs at the wall of the tunnel.
Light flashed at the impact. Mara's head throbbed. She clutched her temple.
“Albrecht, don't give up!” screamed Saundra, her tears floating off her face and into the aether, as well. “Don't you dare let their sacrifices be for nothing!”
Saundra had lost family to the raids. Had Albrecht, too? Had they all lost someone they loved
Hadn't there been enough victims of violence and hatred?
“You have to hold on!” cried Mara, though she hardly knew what to say. “Th-this leads somewhere, I know it. I did all the calculations, all the research—”
“It won't!” Albrecht lamented. “It's hopeless!” His wail rang around them all. It stole Mara's breath away. “I won't let this never-ending hell take me!” He kicked at the wall of aether again and again. “Kill me! Kill me now!”
“Albrecht, please!” Mara shouted.
Albrecht was practically foaming at the mouth. “We're burning alive! Mara's killed us all!” he shrieked.
“Albrecht--” Monroe warned.
But he couldn't hear; Albrecht howled like a wounded animal. “Kill me! Kill me, you foul, cruel world! I won't be a victim of your abuse ever again! It'll be over...” His voice fell to an almost eerie calm as his arms and legs relaxed. “It'll all be over...” He curled himself into the fetal position, rolling slowly.
His body was fading into transparency.
Something had gone terribly wrong.
“Albrecht!” Mara shrieked.
Albrecht's eyes suddenly locked onto Mara as his body stopped spinning. His face contorted into a terrifying smile. “You haven't seen what I have. You didn't see them die.”
He began to laugh—a hollow, callous laugh. His body pulsed in and out of sight. “Take meeeeeee! Kill meeeeeeeeee!” his voice echoed—before the choking began. Albrecht writhed, clutching his neck... and then he disappeared completely.
The tunnel went silent.
“Albrecht...” Shock and sorrow overwhelmed her. Mara began to sob.
How many more need to die? Albrecht... And the others: Jessica and David here. Hare, Giorgine, and Chris outside of Torien's gates.
I've led them all to their deaths. But that couldn't be true! Surely they wouldn't all die like this! It couldn't end this way!
“Please, everyone, I swear, this will lead us out,” Mara reassured, desperate, beggin, pleading. “Don't give up!” Tears fell down her face in currents now.
Monroe turned to face her, his mouth set in a grim line. Without a word, he extended his hand toward her.
“Wherever Adonai seeks to take us,” Monroe said, “we'll go together. No giving up. Not ever.”
Hope flooded her chest. Mara could barely see through her tears as she took Monroe's hand.
Reaching back, Monroe also took Erik's hand. Erik reached for Kale.
Kale stared at the walls of aether, looking numb, distant, distracted, yet... filled with some strange understanding and awe. “There's no way to know what will happen next,” he murmured. “We've lost so many. And now Albrecht, too. But...” He reached toward the wall of aether, which began to glow with a soft white light. “We escaped the Vaerin,” Kale whispered. He reached out and touched the wall gently. It pulsed with a musical hum.
“I didn't think it was possible,” Kale added, “but we did.”
Mara forced a smile through her tears. “They'll never be able to follow us again.”
Kale glanced over his shoulder to her. He actually smiled, despite the tears in his own eyes. Nodding, he clasped Erik's hand and reached ahead to the women.
Soon everyone was holding hands—a long chain of Caders floating in an endless corridor of light.
Slowly, the white light began to turn into drops of rainbow color they floated past. A new sensation struck Mara: at first it was like a hot drink that warmed—not burned—her, from her belly down to her toes. She shivered under that warmth.
Is this what it's like to die? Mara wondered as another tear slipped down her cheek. The tear quickly dried away under the rainbow-colored light.
Mara closed her eyes, feeling her whole body relax. She spread her arms wide, inviting. At peace. I wouldn't mind dying like this.
“You're not dying, silly.”
Mara's eyes snapped open at the sound of the voice. It had resounded crystal-clear way... but it hadn't been the voice of any of her friends.
“Took me long enough to find you, Love.”
Fresh tears filled her eyes.
Hello... my Magus.