Chapter 20 (Cora)

Everin stood over Galimus and the other ghost, breathing hard. The last of the faint green glow around his hands quickly fading away. Cora had never seen him use his power so purposefully before. There had been no hesitation in his movements once he’d begun absorbing the ghosts’ energy – dropping enemies left and right with ease. It was eerily similar to the stories she’d been told about how the angels decimated their enemies on the battlefield.

“Cora!” Her thoughts were interrupted by Ford’s voice. She looked up to see the boy running towards her. He hugged her, and she hugged him back tightly. He stepped back and looked her up and down.

“Are you okay? What happened? Why didn’t you run?”

“I…” she began, but she was cut off by a fit of coughing from Everin. Cora twisted her head just in time to see her friend drop to his hands and knees.

“Oh no, Everin!” She caught what might’ve been a flicker of a frustration in Ford’s face as she tore away and raced towards Everin, who’d rolled over and now lay on his side.

She dropped to one knee beside him. “Everin, are you alright?”

Everin didn’t answer. A small groan escaped from him. His eyes were tightly screwed shut, and his mouth was twisted in a quivering frown, as if he were holding back tears.

“Everin, please, can you say anything?” she pleaded.

“I can’t take it,” he gasped through shuddering breaths. “I can’t even describe this feeling it hurts so much.”

“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have made you use your power. I should’ve listened to you…”

“No.” Everin cut her off. “I needed to use it to stop the ghosts. Please, just… leave me alone for a bit.” He forced the words out, as though even talking required a heroic effort.

Cora nodded. She rose and turned back to Ford, who’d been listening to their conversation.

“Let’s assess the damage,” he said, gesturing at the four ghosts laying on the path around them. “Then we can check on him.”

Cora nodded in agreement. Ford helped Tress climb back onto the road and had him sit a few feet away from Everin. Tress was talking nervously.

“Did Everin fight off the ghosts? What was the fire and lightning they were talking about?”

“Yes, Tress. Everin beat the ghosts,” she heard Ford whisper gently to the boy. “Don’t worry about the fire and lightning. It’s just…uh…an expression for how he fights.”

Tress nodded and let Ford help him sit on the dirt path. Now, Cora and Ford could watch them both easily – the boy with no sight and the boy with no happiness. They were both silent. Tress sat upright, listening to his surroundings. Everin continued to lay on the dirt, shivering.

Cora examined Galimus and his companion. They both rested on their backs on the edge of the path. They were unresponsive. She hoped they were merely unconscious and not dead. Hesitantly, she held a hand over their faces. She felt short, shallow breaths escaping from the lips of the fallen female ghost. Galimus’s body remained unresponsive. Cora knelt down and cautiously placed an ear against the large man’s chest. She couldn’t hear a heartbeat.

Cora swallowed hard and tried not to think about what she was doing as she slipped the packs off their shoulders. She returned to the middle of the road where Ford soon joined her, carrying two looted packs of his own. Cora that saw one of the ghosts that he’d been examining was stirring – making small movements as she lay on the ground.

“Is she okay?” she asked, pointing at the fallen bandit.

“She’s alive, but she’s still recovering from Everin’s lightning. She’s in no condition to fight us, but at least she’ll be able to take care of her companions before they wake up. The other guy’s knocked out,” Ford answered tersely. “We can leave them some of their supplies, so they won’t starve out here when they all wake up.”

Ford gestured at the two bodies that Cora had just examined.

“What about them?”

“Both unconscious,” she lied for fear that Everin would overhear her. She was still rattled by the knowledge that she’d just witnessed Everin kill a man. Even if it was in self-defense, and it hadn’t been his intention, she didn’t want to imagine what that kind of knowledge could do to her friend’s fragile emotional state.

Cora knelt down before her two bags. Examination of their contents revealed a large gray canteen of water, a knife, a lantern, a box of tinder, and a sack of coins. She was disappointed at the lack of food, but she supposed the ghosts hadn’t needed to carry food with them if they could collect their meals from people like Jorian whenever they were hungry. Ford found similar items in the two packs he’d looted.

They refilled their hardglass canteens with the ghosts’ water. There was still some liquid left in the second container when Cora set it down. The rest of the ghosts wouldn’t immediately die of dehydration if they woke up. She and Ford decided to take the pouches of money with them as well. Everything else, they left. They didn’t have need of the miscellaneous supplies, and the extra cargo would have been a hassle.

Cora and Ford partitioned out the ghosts’ supplies in silence. The usual constant conversation between her and Ford was absent. It could have been her imagination, but his demeanor seemed a bit reserved, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes when talking to her.

“Can you ride?” he asked, keeping his gaze locked on the looted bag before him.

“Huh?”

“Horses. Do you know how to ride horses?” Ford asked, pointing towards the animals that the ghosts had been riding. Everin’s fire and lightning had spooked two of them, and they’d disappeared down the trail. Two horses remained, however.

Cora nodded. “I can ride. You want to take their horses?”

Ford nodded. “We can make up for lost time on them.”

“Okay, I’ll go get them.” Cora stood and approached the animals. They snorted and took a few nervous steps backwards as she came closer. Clearly spooked by the lifeless bodies of their masters and this strange girl approaching them. Cora continued to slowly step forward, and the horses eventually let her approach. She reached out and gently stroked her hand over the muzzle of the first horse. The animal appeared to relax after she made the contact.

“Come on. That’s right, over here.” Cora softly whispered instructions to the horses as she grabbed their reins and guided them back to Ford and the other two boys.

Ford gave her a short nod when he saw that she’d brought the horses over.

“I’m going to check on Everin,” she told him.

“Okay.”

Cora left the horses with Ford and returned to where Everin lay.

“Are you feeling any better?”

“Not really,” he croaked as he rolled onto his back. Lines of water ran down his cheeks, which were already splotched with mud. His eyes were red and swollen.

“Cora, is he ready to go?” Ford’s voice called over.

“Give us a few more minutes,” she replied.

She heard a noise of frustration escape Ford. “We can’t wait here all day. We should go before another group of travelers finds us and the ghosts.”

Cora turned back to Everin. “Do you think you can stand? You won’t have to walk. We have horses.”

“I can’t get up. Not now. I can’t do anything ever again. It hurts too much.” Everin agitatedly shook his head back and forth as he coughed out the words.

Cora moved her face closer to his. “Please, Everin. Just ten paces from here to the horses. I’ll help you.”

He groaned in reply.

Cora was beginning to feel very nervous. Had she caused something inside Everin to permanently snap by pushing him to use his power when he wasn’t ready? She grabbed his hand and began to gently pull. “I’ll carry you there if I have to, just please stand up, Everin. We need to get going.”

At her verbal and physical encouragement, Everin appeared to return somewhat to the present. He placed his other hand beneath him and attempted to push himself off the ground as Cora pulled him to his feet. Once he was standing, Cora could see Everin’s knees shaking, threatening to buckle at any moment.

She let Everin lean heavily against her as she guided him towards the horses. Ford helped Tress to his feet and guided the boy to the two animals.

“Do you want to ride with Tress, and I’ll take Everin?” she asked Ford.

He nodded and made a quiet grunt of acknowledgement. Cora practically lifted Everin up as he struggled to climb onto the animal’s back. She clambered on after him. The saddle was meant for a larger rider, so they both were able to fit on it. Cora sat in front and gripped the horse’s reigns. Everin weakly wrapped his arms around her waist, stabilizing himself in the saddle. Cora looked over and saw that Ford had mounted the other horse. Tress sat behind him in the saddle, nervously holding on. She understood his fear. He was literally riding blind.

Ford took off, and Cora urged her horse to follow. They rode at a trot down the path in the direction they’d been heading. Cora only turned her head back once to steal a final glance at the four ghosts scattered across the path. Only one of them stirred, and he was still too shocked by Everin’s energy to pursue them. She flinched as she recalled the feeling of pressing her face against Galimus’s unmoving chest. The leader of the ghosts had been an evil man, but it still sickened her to her core to think that they’d taken his life. Killing was something that monsters like McCarthy did, not Everin. Cora shook her head as if that would help clear her thoughts. She decided that she wouldn’t tell Everin about what he’d done to Galimus especially not in the state he was in at the moment.

The group of four rode in silence as the horses walked quickly down the path. Ford didn’t say anything. Tress was quiet as well. Cora heard occasional whimpering sounds come from Everin behind her, but other than that, the only sound was the impact of the horses’ hooves on the tightly packed earth.

Cora tried to calculate how the horses would change their travel time. They were moving much faster now that they didn’t have to guide Tress. They’d probably be able to reach Thistleton before sundown if the horses didn’t need to stop and rest too frequently. The sooner the better, she thought. Tress was obviously preoccupied with his loss of sight, but he had numerous other cuts and bruises. Some of them looked serious enough to require a healer’s intervention. She didn’t think that there was much any healer could do for Everin. She just hoped that he would improve with rest.

Thankfully, Everin did appear to improve as they traveled. As the sun progressed across the sky, she noticed that she couldn’t hear his sniffling and ragged breathing behind her anymore. His grip around her waist became stronger and steadier. Cora was acutely aware of how Everin was doing, because there was no talking with Ford to distract her. He kept a tight grip on his horse’s reigns and stared down the path ahead of them. A slight scowl was stuck on his face and he appeared to be lost in thought. When Cora did speak up, he only replied with short, one-word answers.

So, Cora instead focused on monitoring Everin’s condition. When the time came to stop to eat and let the horses rest, he was able to climb out of the saddle of his own volition.

“Do you need any help walking?” Cora asked him as his feet made contact with the earth.

He shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks.”

She nodded and let Everin shakily walk over to the collection of rocks that they were using as seats. Ford guided Tress to one of the stones and helped him sit. He slid off his pack and dug out the last rations of their food. He dispersed the stale bread and remaining strips of meat between the four of them. Once everyone had food in their hands, Ford walked off and dropped himself on the ground several paces away from the others. He leaned against a tree trunk and kept his eyes down, on his food.

The tension that had been building in Cora’s gut since their encounter with the ghosts could no longer be ignored. Everin was her priority, but something was wrong with Ford. She had a sickening feeling that it had to do with her.

Cora stood and approached Ford.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a moment. In private?”

The boy looked up at her. He took several long seconds to respond. Finally, he nodded and pushed himself to a standing position.

“Thanks,” she said as Ford let her guide him deeper into the woods, away from Everin and Tress. The two boys were both too immersed in their own worlds to notice.

Once they were a sufficient distance away, she stopped and turned to face Ford. Her heart fluttered with anxiety. Ford had been acting aloof since the encounter with the ghosts. It couldn’t be anything good that was on his mind. She really did like him, but she also knew how fragile whatever the relationship that existed between them was. While this journey with Everin wasn’t the best place to strike up a new romance, Cora was afraid that if something happened to break it off now, they’d never be able to start it up again.

Internally, she wanted to kick the tree stump next to her. She wanted to yell or scream or do something to vent. Between witnessing Everin kill the leader of the ghosts and the anxiety that guessing Ford’s feelings caused, she felt like she was on the verge of a breakdown. But she couldn’t do that. Before, she’d had to be strong for Everin. Now, she had to be strong for herself. She inhaled slow, steady breaths and put on an easy smile for Ford.

She managed to sound somewhat confident as she asked him, “so, what’s going on with you?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

Ford’s face dropped into a defensive expression.

She scowled. “Don’t play dumb. Something’s been up since we ran into the ghosts.”

Ford didn’t respond for a few moments, trying to decide his next statement. Finally, he exhaled a deep sigh and said, “yeah. I guess I’ve been really concerned since the ghosts attacked.”

“Concerned about what?”

His face contorted slightly. “I…well, I care about you, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, obviously. Which is why I’m so troubled that you wouldn’t back away from the ghosts. They were going to let you live, and you gave them a reason to kill you.”

“Everin needed me. He was having trouble using his powers. I couldn’t leave him alone to the ghosts,” she replied. She let herself exhale a little. At least now she knew what the issue was. No imminent danger of Ford calling things off between them.

“But do you really think anything you can say or do is going to help Everin deal with…whatever these powers are?” He insisted.

Cora felt a stab of emotion. Was it indignance?

“Ford, the ghosts were going to kill him.”

“They were going to kill you!” Ford exclaimed. He realized that he’d responded too harshly and toned his voice down. “You couldn’t take all four of them. You were just giving them a reason to kill you as well.”

Cora didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. She knew Ford was right – there was no way she would’ve been able to stop the four ghosts if Everin hadn’t used his powers. But something just felt so incredibly wrong about not doing anything and leaving him to his fate. A long silence hung in the air between them.

After an awkward eternity, Ford asked quietly, “Do you think you care too much for Everin?”

“He’s my friend, of course I care for him,” she said.

Ford shook his head. “Cora, you were prepared to needlessly sacrifice your life for him. I’m afraid that you’ll throw yourself away in an attempt to help Everin.”

Cora gathered her thoughts before speaking. Her voice came out in a whisper. “Ford, I’m his friend, his only friend. He has no family, which means that I’m the only person in the entire world that he has. I know you’re worried that I’m being reckless, and maybe I am, but I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”

“Being his friend won’t mean anything if you get killed,” Ford snapped. “Can’t you see that?”

“Look, I know I’m not strong enough to protect him from ghosts and angels and McCarthy. You don’t have to keep reminding me,” she said.

Ford groaned. “Then why can’t you agree that there are some situations where you shouldn’t get involved?”

Cora sighed angrily and turned away from Ford. She paced back and forth in the small gap in the trees.

“It’s not about my ability to fight whatever monsters we run into. It’s about my responsibility to help my friend when he’s in need.”

Ford exhaled slowly. “Okay, I respect how important your friendship is, but can you please just promise me one thing?”

“What is it?” Cora asked hesitantly.

“I really care about you, Cora. I know it sounds dumb because we only really came to know each other just a week ago, but you’re already one of the most important people in my life. I wouldn’t have been able to get through these past few days if it weren’t for you. I probably would have lost my mind ages ago. If something happened to you out here, if you got hurt or worse, I don’t know what I would do. All I ask is that you don’t put yourself in any unnecessary danger. I know that what we’re doing, chasing down McCarthy and fighting angels, is dangerous. But I need you to promise me that you won’t sacrifice yourself to try to save Everin. Your life is just as valuable as his.”

Cora bristled. “Ford, I can’t do that,” she said.

He reached for her hand. Reluctantly, she let him hold it.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Like I’ve been saying this whole time – Everin’s my friend. He needs me,” she said.

“Other people need you to,” he said, squeezing her hand.

“But Everin…” she struggled for words.

“I’m sure Everin wouldn’t want you to sacrifice yourself either,” Ford added gently.

Cora didn’t answer for a long time. She didn’t know how to answer. She understood where Ford was coming from, even if his feelings for her might’ve been swaying his argument. But not trying to help Everin if he were about to die? Something about it felt so wrong. Especially hard was wrapping her head around the possibility that there might be a situation where she was completely powerless to change Everin’s fate. She absolutely hated the idea that there were things, many things, that she couldn’t protect him from.

“I can’t sit back and do nothing if he needs my help,” she said.

“I know you can’t.” Ford smiled at her. “That’s one of the best things about you. But there’s a difference between helping Everin get over what McCarthy did to him and letting the ghosts kill you instead of getting to safety.”

Cora frowned. She struggled to find an argument. The idea of not even trying to help felt so intensely wrong to her.

Ford squeezed her hand again. “Please, can you just promise me that you won’t try to trade your life for his?”

Slowly, incredibly slowly, she nodded. “Okay, I promise. But only as long as there’s no chance of me surviving. If there’s any chance, you know that I have to try.” The words felt strange coming out of her mouth.

Ford gave her a weak smile. “I guess that’s all I can ask for. Thank you, Cora.”

She nodded, and Ford wrapped her in an embrace. He squeezed her tightly and she was reminded of how strong he was. Maybe that was why he’d been so spooked by their last encounter with the ghosts. It was a situation where his muscles meant absolutely nothing as far as being able to keep them safe from the four bandits.

Cora squeezed him tightly in return. He leaned over and gently kissed her forehead. For just a moment, she was able to forget about McCarthy and the angels and the dead man that they’d left behind. Even just that brief moment was a much-needed escape.

Finally, Cora slowly pulled away. “We should probably get back to Everin and Tress.”

Ford nodded. “Yeah, we should. I’m sorry if I stressed you out. I just really care about you, Cora.”

Just hearing those words from Ford were enough to lift the weight of the world off her shoulders. Even the confusion she felt about making the promise to him didn’t feel so overwhelming.

“Don’t worry.” she grinned at him. “The feeling’s mutual.”

Ford gave her a giddy smile as they trudged through the dense layer of tree trunks and low-hanging branches. Soon, they were back with the two boys.

“Is everything okay?” Everin asked.

Cora wondered what her aura looked like. She wasn’t suffering any more than she had been when she’d left to talk with Ford, but she felt like every time she was around him, even the slightest twang of an emotion could be multiplied many times over. She honestly didn’t know how to describe what she was feeling. Exhilaration over her reaffirmation of feelings with Ford? Troubled by the thought that she’d betrayed Everin by agreeing with Ford’s request? A million different thoughts raced through her mind, and she gave up on trying to piece them together.

“Yes, Everin. Everything’s just fine,” she said.

Next chapter: https://sorrowandlove.home.blog/chapter-21-king-valen/

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