The fear had coursed through Everin’s body as wild and frenetic as ever. He’d fought to control the direction of the lightning, but it appeared to move with a will of its own as soon as it left his hands. The longer he kept the fear within him, the harder it was to prevent himself from succumbing to the emotions he was processing. The constant state of panic clouded his reasoning, giving every action an irrational urgency. When he cast out his last array of lightning, he’d been desperate to hit the tree. The fear had turned it into a matter of life and death in his head.
His final barrage of lightning had drained the last of the glowing green energy from his body. Even as the last line of energy left his hand, he began to come down from the terror-induced high. As he watched the final web of light spread forth, one of the jagged bolts twisted in its frantic journey through the air. It made a sharp turn, moving unpredictably, yet with an unavoidable target. Everin felt his blood run cold as the energy stabbed into Cora’s body.
He was in motion before the words had passed his lips, racing towards where she lay. Everin dropped to his knees before her.
“Cora! Cora! Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
The girl groaned and looked at him with unfocused eyes.
Everin’s thoughts raced through his mind. She was breathing. She was mostly conscious. What had the energy done to her? The bolt hadn’t been as strong as the ones that had hit the soldiers, since the energy had been waning. Everin looked into Cora’s eyes, but they were still staring off into the distance as she focused on breathing. Everin felt a force crash into him as he was shoved to the side. He hit the ground with his shoulder as he toppled over.
“What did you do?” Ford shouted.
Everin looked up to see the tall boy kneeling before Cora where he had been a moment before. He glared at Everin.
“You could’ve killed her!” He jabbed an accusatory finger at Everin.
“I…I didn’t…” Everin struggled to string even the simplest words together, still in shock.
Ford gestured at Cora’s frame, lying limp on the leaf-strewn floor of the clearing. “This is all your fault!”
When he heard those words, Everin felt his heart stop for an eternally long second. The forest around him blurred and vanished. He was back in Greenshadow Village. His old home stood before him. Ford’s angry face transformed into McCarthy’s wicked grin, but the words uttered from his mouth were exactly the same.
“This is all your fault.”
Nothing could stop Everin’s tears. The past year of hardening himself to his pain was stripped away. All over again, he was that innocent child who’d just killed his parents.
A small noise escaped from Cora. She unsteadily reached up with one hand and snatched at the air until she found Ford’s arm. She grabbed it, distracting Ford from his tirade. The boy paused and looked down at Cora. She took several long moments to control her breathing enough to speak.
“It’s okay, Ford. He didn’t kill me.”
She attempted to push herself into an upright position.
“Careful! Take it slow,” Ford said, moving an arm behind her head so that she wouldn’t hit it against the ground if she fell back.
Sluggishly, Cora was able to rise to a seated position. Her muscles trembled with the effort, still recovering from being shocked with the green lightning.
“Everin?” she called out tentatively.
She scanned the clearing and spotted the boy on the ground a few feet away from her. He was on all fours, starting directly into the ground. Hearing his name snapped Everin back to the present. He looked up at Cora, lines of tears already streaming down his face.
“C-Cora. I’m s-so sorry.” He choked on the words. Trying to squeeze them out between sobs. He dropped his head, unable to meet her eyes. He took heaving, shuddering breaths as the tears continued to flow.
“Everin, it’s okay,” she said softly. “It was an accident. None of us could have known that would happen.”
Everin violently shook his head, drops of water flying from his cheeks. “Y-you knew,” he gasped the words through ragged sobs. “Y-you told me to stop.”
Cora sighed. “Everin, you’re expecting the impossible of yourself.” Everin looked up and met eyes with her. “I get scared all the time. I can’t even control my fear. It was unfair of me to suggest you try to practice controlling it,” she said.
Everin coughed hard, trying to control his shaking breaths.
“I’m going to kill everyone on earth who matters to me!” he cried. He wrapped his arms tightly around his frame and began to rock back and forth, a desperate glare in his watery eyes.
Cora began to push herself to her feet. When her strength failed, she leaned on Ford. Silently, the boy helped her stand. Cora took a few unsteady steps towards Everin before dropping to sit next to him. She wrapped her arms around him and laid her head against his shoulder.
“I’m not dead, Everin. I’m going to be fine,” she whispered.
He looked to her and she met his eyes.
“I promise I won’t let you kill me, okay?” She flashed him a weak grin.
Everin choked on one last sob before he forced a feeble smile.
After several long minutes, Cora released her embrace. She let herself lay back on the bed of leaves that blanketed the ground beneath her. As Everin rose and began to help pack up their belongings, Cora focused on letting her strained muscles relax.
Everin wordlessly packed up their bedrolls. As he rolled up the sheets of cloth, the older boy tended to Cora, offering her drinks of water from a canteen. The hardglass of the container was transparent. Inside, Everin saw that the canteen was nearly empty. His own canteen was feeling light as well. They would need to find water soon.
Everin made sure to keep his distance from Ford. The boy’s aura was a distressed red. He slung Cora’s bedroll and his own over his shoulders. He approached Cora and Ford but stopped and watched their interaction from a moderate distance.
“Do you feel up to walking for a bit?” he asked.
Cora nodded. “Yeah, just help me stand.”
Ford took her hands in his own and pulled her to a standing position. Cora looked off-balance for a moment, but then her coordination returned to her.
“Okay, let’s get moving.”
She put on a smile for both Ford and Everin.
Ford shouldered the pack and his own bedroll, and the trio stepped through a dense layer of trees to reemerge on the northward path. Everin was sure to keep Cora between himself and Ford as they walked. Even an hour later, boy’s aura was a simmering red. Everin had no doubt who the anger was directed towards. Ford didn’t speak much, but when he would ask Cora how she was doing or if she needed to rest, splotches of green light would flash in his aura. Those, Everin had a harder time explaining. Their pace was limited by Cora’s slow steps. Before, they’d been on track to reach the northern end of the forest after another two days of travel. If they continued at this pace; however, their timeline was at risk of being extended by another day.
After a few hours of uncomfortable, silent travel, Everin heard the gurgling sound of running water. Minutes later, they rounded a turn and a wide stone bridge came in to view. A slow stream flowed underneath the bridge, an offshoot of the larger Belingua River.
“Here’s our chance to fill up on water,” Cora said.
“I don’t think the road is going to run past anymore streams like this, so this water is going to have to last us to the end of the forest,” Ford added.
The three knelt down at the edge of the water and filled their canteens to the brim. There was nobody else at the stream except for a man several dozen yards down the shore. He had dark, tanned skin that stood in contrast to a beard that was beginning to show streaks of white. He sat on the stump of a tree and held a wooden fishing rod. The string at the end of the rod floated lazily in the river. Beside the man was a large bucket. Everin could see the tails of four large fish sticking out of it.
The fish in the bucket weren’t what caught Everin’s eye, however – it was the man’s aura. His form emanated deep sapphire light. It wasn’t as intense as Margoline’s had been, but it stood in sharp contrast to the thin wisps of blue Everin had seen on other travelers. Everin thought about making a comment about it to Cora, but he didn’t have to. The man had seen them and picked up his bucket of fish to slowly make his way over. He stopped in front of the trio.
“’Scuse me, you wouldn’t happen to be soldiers for King Valen, now would you?” he asked.
Everin felt his pulse quicken. Did this man know that they were deserters? His tone seemed more relaxed than suspicious, but Everin still saw Cora rested her hand on the sword that dangled from her hip.
Ford carefully looked the man up and down before answering, “No, we’re not.”
A downcast expression crossed the man’s face. “Ah, I saw your swords and hoped you were soldiers. Guess not. My apologies.” He extended a hand. “The name’s Jorian. Jorian Grant.” he said.
Everin quietly exhaled, this man apparently wasn’t on to them. Ford shook the fisherman’s hand.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Ford said. He, Everin, and Cora introduced themselves. Ford nodded towards the bucket of fish in the man’s hand. “Nice catch. That’s a full day’s worth of fish, and it’s not even noon.”
Jorian held up the bucket. “Oh, these? These aren’t for me. They’re for the Elderwood Ghosts.”
“There are ghosts in this forest?” Cora asked.
The man shook his head. “Not real ghosts – just a bunch of lowlifes who take a likin’ to harassing travelers and locals like myself. They call their gang the Elderwood Ghosts. They charge me a toll of half my day’s catch for the ‘privilege’ of casting my rod in this river.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s about time King Valen sent some troops to put them back in their place. I was hopin’ you three had been sent here to do that.”
Everin and Cora exchanged glances, the same realization dawning on both of them.
“These Elderwood Ghosts, do they were white headbands?” she asked.
Jorian nodded. “Have you heard of ‘em?”
Cora nodded. “We ran into them earlier. They tried to rob us, but we managed to chase them off.”
The man’s eyes widened. “You did? My, that’s no easy feat for three kids.” He eyed the sword at Cora’s hip and the one strapped to Ford’s pack. “Think you could do it again? They’ll be here any time now for their midday meal.”
Cora looked at Everin. He shook his head firmly. Not again.
She turned back to the fisherman.
“Have you considered moving somewhere else?” she asked.
Jorian shook his head. “There’s nothin’ left for me back in the civilized world, not after my wife left with our son. I’d rather spend my days by myself, but as long as I’m in the Elderwood Forest and these ghosts are around, I’ll have no peace.”
Cora nodded in sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t think we can fight the ghosts for you.”
The man dropped his bucket and clasped his hands together in a pleading gesture. “Really, it’d be no trouble for you. You probably wouldn’t have to fight them. All I need is some someone to intimidate ‘em a bit. They’re not eager to get into a real confrontation, those cowards.”
Cora smiled apologetically. “Give us just a moment,” she told him as she pulled Everin aside. They turned away from the man so that he couldn’t hear them. Ford moved to stand beside their huddle.
“Everin, do you think you could try to help this guy out? You probably wouldn’t even need to use your power – they’d recognize you from earlier and back down.” She looked him in the eyes as she waited for a response.
Everin shook his head. “Cora, I can’t. If there’s even the slightest chance that I’ll have to use my power, then I can’t do it. I never want to put you, or anyone else I care about, in danger again.”
She took his hand in hers. “I know you’re afraid of what happened this morning, but I’m okay, Everin. I really am. If it means helping this man, I’m even willing to risk getting accidentally hit.”
Everin tightly screwed his face up, physically reacting to the guilt that racked his conscience. After a pause, he opened his eyes. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. This morning, I started to think that these powers were useful, like a new set of abilities that I had been gifted. Cora, they’re not a gift. They’re a curse, and I’m never going to forget that again. I know you’re okay, but I couldn’t live with myself if I hurt you again. I don’t know if I can live with myself now.” Everin’s breaths were shaky by the time he finished speaking.
Slowly, Cora nodded as she accepted his response. She left Everin where he stood as she turned to face the old fisherman. Everin didn’t watch, but he heard their conversation and pictured the disappointment on Jorian’s face as Cora spoke.
“I’m really sorry, but we can’t face those ghosts again. It’s too dangerous. I hope you catch plenty of fish for yourself today.”
“It’s fine. I understand. Thanks for considerin’ my request, and if you run into any of King Valen’s soldiers down the road, be sure to send them my way.”
“Of course. We promise.”
Everin heard a rustling noise, and he turned to see Ford digging through his pack. Ford dug out a handful of the silver coins he’d looted from the fallen ghost and gave them to the man. “I know these might not be that useful out here, but hopefully they’ll be of some help.”
Jorian gratefully accepted the money. He thanked Cora and Ford profusely. He turned to thank Everin before leaving, but Everin turned away, unable to face the fisherman. His cheeks burned with shame.
Next chapter: https://sorrowandlove.home.blog/chapter-13-king-valen/