The forest wasn’t large, but it was old – full of trees that had been given the opportunity to grow tall and strong. The thick layer of leaves only let dappled splotches of sunlight through, casting the whole forest in an eerie twilight. Everin had worried that they would get lost; however, a rough trail wound its way through the trees. Whether it was made by humans or animals, Everin couldn’t tell.
“Do you think what that soldier said about the wolves was true?” Cora asked quietly.
Ford shook his head. “It’s the middle of the day. Wolves shouldn’t be out right now.”
Cora nodded, but Everin noticed that she didn’t relax her grip on her knife.
They must have walked for at least a mile when Cora called out, “Hey! Look at this!”
She was standing by the trunk of a large tree and waving the two boys over. Everin stepped forward and saw that she was pointing at a large butterfly clinging to the bark of the tree.
“What’s so special about it?” Ford asked.
“Look at it,” Cora instructed. “Have you ever seen any butterflies this size or this color before?”
Ford shook his head. “No, but is it going to help us get out of this place faster?”
He sounded agitated. Everin couldn’t tell if it was nerves or annoyance or if that was just how Ford always was. Maybe it was some combination of all three.
Cora shrugged. “I just thought it’d be worth pointing out,” she said.
She left the bug’s side, and Everin stepped forward to take a closer look at it. Cora was right. This butterfly was quite large – bigger than his hand. It also had bright green and yellow wings. Everin was sure it was a trick of the fluctuating forest light, but it almost looked like the insect was faintly glowing. A gentle breeze drifted through the trees and the butterfly took off in flight before Everin could inspect it further. He turned and saw that Cora and Ford were waiting for him to continue moving forward. He quickly joined the two, and they continued their journey deeper into the forest.
As they walked, Everin became more aware of small physical discomforts. For some reason, his mouth felt dry, and what must have been the anticipation of danger made his stomach turn. They’d only travelled another half mile when Everin heard a rustling noise from the brush behind them.
He snapped his head around and froze as a large gray wolf stepped out onto the trail. Everin sensed Cora and Ford equally transfixed on either side of him. The wolf growled, and Everin’s jaw dropped. It had three eyes – two in their normal positions and a third mounted on the middle of its forehead. All three eyes were locked on the trio, hungry pupils dilated.
The wolf snarled louder and slowly began advancing towards the group. Everin didn’t move, unsure of what to do. There was no way they could outrun the animal, and the blade in his hand felt awfully flimsy at the moment.
“Eyes! Do you see its eyes!” Cora whispered.
Slowly, the two boys nodded. Before the wolf got too close, Ford stepped up.
“Back!” he yelled, waving his arms over his head. “Stay back!”
The wolf growled even louder and bared its teeth, but Ford didn’t quit. “I said stay back! Go! Scram! Get out of here!”
The boy took two steps towards the wolf, and Everin turned away, afraid that it would lunge at him. Instead, the wolf started to back down.
“That’s right! Get lost!” Ford shouted with renewed vigor.
Finally, the animal retreated back into the brush it had come from. Everin realized he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled deeply and felt his heart pounding madly in his chest. Ford turned back to Everin and Cora.
“He was by himself, not looking for a fight,” he said.
Cora nodded. “That’s great, but what on earth was that? Tell me you saw its eyes.”
Ford raised his arms in a show of confusion. “I’ve never heard any stories of three-eyed animals before.”
Cora nodded. “Yeah, something’s really not right here.”
“Look, let’s keep going. Let’s get in and out of here before we run into anything else,” Everin jumped in.
“I’ve got to agree with Everin on this one,” Ford said. “We can worry about what it was once we’re out of here.”
Cora nodded in agreement, and the trio kept moving down the trail; albeit much more cautiously than before.
As they walked, Everin realized that he was starting to feel weak. His hands felt cold and clammy, and his stomach ached. At first, he thought it was shock from the wolf and the situation in general, but soon he realized that he genuinely felt sick. Maybe the butterfly had released some kind of toxin into the air, he thought. Probably not. More likely, it was Everin’s body wimping out on him. He gritted his teeth and marched on.
Soon, they arrived at a wall. It was hard to identify the structure as a wall because it was completely overgrown with vines and moss, but as Everin approached, he saw that there was stone underneath. The faint path that they’d followed through the forest led them to an archway in the wall.
“This has to be the ruins,” Cora said as she laid eyes on the wall.
“Yeah,” Ford said. “Let’s get Everin’s stick and get out of here fast.”
Before Everin could warn him to be more cautious, Ford pushed aside the hanging vines that blocked the archway and entered the ruins. Tentatively, Everin and Cora followed. On the other side of the wall was a massive white tower, just as the soldier had described. It was covered in overgrowth, and some of the paint had chipped away, but there was no mistaking this giant cylindrical tower as the one that she’d been talking about. Between the tower and the archway Everin had just walked through was a large stone building, also covered by a layer of foliage.
“Can either of you read that sign?” Everin asked, pointing at large block letters painted on the face of the building. Everin could read common Allomorian script, but these words were written in the language of the old gods – a sure sign that they were in the ruins.
“I think I can,” Ford said. “My parents taught me a bit of the old language.”
The boy squinted at the words. “I think it translates to, ‘Richmond South Nuclear Power Plant.’”
“Nuclear?” Cora repeated. “That was the energy that fueled the old gods’ weapons. The ones they used in their last battle.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re in the right place,” Ford replied.
Everin walked up to the front of the building. There was a thick metal door that swung open easily when he gave it a push. The interior of the building was dark except for faint light that streamed in through windows.
“Are you both ready?” he asked.
“Hang on just a bit,” Cora said. Everin looked over and saw that she was leaning against the side of the building. Both of her forearms were pressed against the wall, and she was heaving deep breaths.
“Cora! Are you okay?” Everin asked, concern rising in his voice.
She nodded weakly. “Yeah, I just…” she leaned over and vomited. She hadn’t eaten much over the past two days, so there wasn’t much to spill onto the mossy ground.
Everin ran over to her, but she straightened up quickly. “Don’t worry. I’m okay,” she reassured him as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Just feeling sick, I guess.”
“I know,” Everin said. “I’ve been feeling worse and worse since we walked into the forest.”
“I thought it was just me, but I guess not. I’m not feeling great either,” Ford added. “It must be something about this place that’s doing this to us. Everin, let’s get that rod and get out of here before we all catch an illness.”
Cora gave Everin and encouraging nod, and he turned back to the open door. Everin walked into the building slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the reduced light. He found himself in an open chamber, at the other side was a corridor. Everin crossed the hall and wandered down the hall, Cora and Ford on his heels.
They explored hallways and staircases around the building, only stopping briefly when Everin and then Ford needed to vomit. The building was eerily devoid of life. No plants grew in the hallways, even though the windows let in moderate amounts of sunlight. Finally, Everin pushed open a door to reveal a pool of water.
“Here it is!” he called.
Cora and Ford joined him and took in the sight. It was a massive pool dug into the stone floor. Light from high windows reflected off the water, which was remarkably clear given how old the pool must have been. Everin peered into the water’s depths and could see bundles of metal rods arranged in neat rows at the bottom of the pool. Some of these rods had snapped free and were now floating on the surface.
“Are you ready to ready to grab one?” Ford asked.
“Yeah. Just give me moment,” Everin said. He bent over and rested his hands on his knees. He didn’t know what happened, but as soon as he’d walked into the room with the massive pool, a second wave of nausea had washed over him. Everin’s body threatened to throw up again, but he was able to regain control. He took a few deep breaths and approached the water.
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” he said, mostly to himself.
Everin kicked off his sandals. He pulled his shirt off and cast it aside, revealing his somewhat scrawny frame. Everin took a step off the stone ledge and let himself fall into the water with a splash.
As soon as he dropped into the pool, Everin knew that something was wrong. His chest felt like it was being constricted. His stomach heaved with newfound energy. Everin’s head popped above the surface, and he frantically splashed as he sucked in air. Once he realized that he could still swim with the effects of the water wrenching his intestines, Everin began to paddle out towards the middle of the pool towards the closest of the metal rods. Everin assumed that the rod must not have been solid metal, otherwise would have sunk to the bottom. He couldn’t see what was inside the rod as he approached it, however.
The piece of metal began to drift away from Everin as the ripples from his paddling propagated through the water. As he spent more time in the pool, Everin felt increasingly worse. His throat began to burn, and painful cramps ate away at his sides. His vision was beginning to blur. At first, he’d assumed it was water getting into his eyes, but now, Everin began to panic as he realized that his bodily functions were beginning to fail. Frantically, Everin began to kick harder, but he was so dizzy that he wasn’t sure that he was moving in the right direction anymore.
Every kick was agony. The pain was disorientating. Everin stopped thinking clearly. Why did he have to put himself through this? Performing this dumb task for some nameless soldiers. It was pointless. It was all so pointless. He had no family, no inheritance, and now that he’d been drafted into the king’s army, he had no future. Everin felt a deep sadness stab through him as the realization came. He had nothing left to live for. The burning sensation in his body reached a point where it couldn’t be ignored. Everin realized that he was going to die in this pool.
Truthfully, he’d known that for the past several seconds. What he’d just realized was that he didn’t care. This was probably the most fitting way for him to pass. A failure in life and a failure in his dying act, the rod still floating out of reach. Everin would have cried if he hadn’t been furiously paddling the water and spluttering for air. It was all so unfair. All this pain and suffering, so completely and utterly meaningless.
Everin realized that he wasn’t moving anymore, instead, he was just struggling to stay afloat. The strength was quickly fading from his limbs. Inch by inch, his face began to sink below the surface of the water. He thought he heard a voice calling his name.
Just before his nose and mouth became submerged, Everin felt something change within him. He didn’t have words for it. It was like a part of his brain that had been turned off suddenly woke up. A white light flashed before his eyes, and suddenly the world looked different. He couldn’t describe how it was different, but something fundamental about the world he perceived had changed. Before Everin could process it all, an excruciating pain pounded into his mind. Everin gasped from the shock, causing him to suck in a mouthful of water. The world was already beginning to turn black as he sank beneath the surface.
Next chapter: https://sorrowandlove.home.blog/chapter-6-cora/