Catryn didn’t know when she had fallen asleep, or how long it had been. All she knew was that the warmth of Ric’s arms had been exchanged for a hard, rough surface. Her magic was aware before she was, always reaching to explore their surroundings and straining from her grip.
“Ric?” She murmured, blearily opening her eyes. Her limbs were heavy when she tried to move but the agitation emanating from him pulled her out of sleep.
As she struggled to sit up, he moved bac to her side and murmured “Easy, kitten. How are you feeling?”
He wore a gentle smile, but Catryn could see the tightness around his eyes all too clearly. “What’s wrong?”
Ahren’s smile faded slowly and he looked back at the strange door. “That kid is going to die.”
Reluctantly, he met her searching gaze. He knew what would happen if she found out, but he could not take away her right to choose, even if he wanted to. “The priest. Whatever he’s doing in there, he isn’t going to come out.”
“There should have been two of them…” She realised, her chest constricting. She could feel an echo of power behind the door, but it was dampened. There was no way to know how potent or powerful it was from there. Would he be able to harness it? “What if he can’t channel it alone?”
Then he will die for nothing. “We should have waited for the others to find a way around.”
“Ric…” She touched his shoulder and rested her forehead against his chest, taking a deep breath of his heady scent. “I have no intention of dying here. You still owe me breakfast.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” He chuckled reluctantly.
She took a tentative step towards the doorway, but stuttered to a halt when the large circular pendant she wore grew heavy around her neck. Grimacing, she touched her father’s amulet and winced when it reverberated with an uncomfortable dissonance. She vaguely recalled hearing that divine magic was not always compatible with mortal magics.
“Ric…can you look after this for me?” Catryn turned back to him as she removed the amulet, pulling it out from under her tunic. As expected, he took it reverently; they had never spoken of it, but he knew that it was precious enough that she never removed it. To her surprise, his eyes lingered at the hollow of her throat, where a teardrop of amber lay. Unlike the heavy chain of the amulet, the amber pendant was secured with simple leather cord.
A thousand words hung in the air between them.
Through the thickness, clawing and grinding slithered to their ears. Wolf hesitated for barely a heartbeat before she laughed at herself; Ahren didn’t need her concern. A gentle smile lifted her lips and his expression softened, a smug grin brightening his eyes. “I can manage.”
“I know. Just don’t have too much fun without me.” The sounds of stomping and growling grew closer, and the divine magic of the Gatekeeper curled through the hallway, beckoning the wayward spirits. Whether they were aiming to stop it from tearing them from the catacombs, or desperately seeking out their final rest, Catryn did not know.
Catryn moved back to the door and Ahren was at her back, his murmur so quiet she wondered if he had spoken aloud. “Come back to me, wildcat.”
“I swear.” She promised, stepping through the iron door and into Chaos.
There was no door behind her. There were no walls, nor a floor beneath her feet. Somehow she knew the space was spherical though it was pitch black and had no form. Catryn hung in the abyss and scanned the area, ignoring the wild magic arcing like green lightning around her. From the centre of the sphere, a globule of white light sparked and flared.
The young priest desperately clung to the light, his face contorted with pain, and Wolf bit down on the urge to rush to his side. The darkness around her called to every strand of magic inside her; the last thing she could do was get riled up. Carefully controlling her emotions, she slowly walked to the centre with her eyes fixed directly ahead. She believed there was a path, so there was.
As she moved forward, she purposely ignored the priest; he could not afford any distraction from his task or she sensed he would be ripped apart. All she could do was share the burden and hope that it would be enough.
Catryn’s hands shook as she reached out to touch the pulsing light. She was familiar with magic. Not only did she have her own magic from a young age, but she had been surrounded by mages since birth. No matter their power or potential, no matter the school they followed, no magic had ever burned her. Like swallowing fire, it scorched her from the inside out and set her nerves alight. She knew beyond any shadow of a doubt, that no human was born to wield such devastating power as that of a Caretaker.
The priests trained for this; to experience the power of their Deity directly was the highest honour for them. Yet, Catryn could not help but wonder how they could survive such a thing. Her body had been surrounded by various forms of magic since birth, and she knew that was the only reason she could remain conscious. She was already infused with magic. Her own awakening had levelled half a forest, and she knew she couldn’t be anywhere near as strong as most of the mages in Anthoralyn. Still, she was certain even the Archmage would struggle to control this much energy.
Her chaotic thoughts were soon overwhelmed with the sensation of someone pressing against her mind. Catryn’s first instinct was to block it out, but her pitiful barriers were removed within a heartbeat. This power does not belong to you.
As desperately as she had been straining to direct it, to harness the foreign energy coursing through her, she had forgotten. She didn’t need to control it. It was not her power. She was merely a conduit; a vessel for the cleansing. She opened her eyes, looking into the darkness around her blindly, and focused only on breathing. The presence left her mind and Catryn struggled against her instincts and let the magic run freely through her fingertips.
Once she stopped fighting for control, Catryn’s senses expanded through the nothingness that surrounded them. She and the young priest were weightless. Incorporeal. The shadowy light that passed in and around them made them appear ethereal, but at some point she noticed a change.
Catryn’s consciousness was out of focus, so she couldn’t tell when it happened, nor how she had been so certain of his death. All she knew was the awareness that his body was heavier. Denser. Somehow more solid, but also empty. Instead of pulsing within him, the force harnessing the Gatekeeper’s power was a cloak at the priest’s back. A shroud that covered his lifeless form.
The realisation was calm and final. Loyal and bound to his Caretaker, even beyond death, his soul lingered to finish the task. As the energy left Catryn, tearing the last ounce of magic from her core, she staggered to catch his falling body. Without any conscious decision, she hastened to drag him from the unfathomable space and back into the catacombs.
She staggered through the door to see Ric on one knee, surrounded by heaps of bones. Finally releasing the priest, she allowed a wave of exhaustion to take her into Ric’s arms. Relief filled his features and she tried to conjure a wry chuckle. Surrounded by the dead, her attempt was feeble. “You doubted me?”
“Touch and go for a minute there.” He joked with a shaky laugh. His eyes darkened as he looked past her, though, and he muttered “Have you no respect for the dead?”
The priest rose fluidly to his feet, with a grace he had not carried in life. His voice echoed unnaturally through the tunnels as the Raven shrieked “Another sacrifice for the Gatekeeper’s whims. Cast aside when his use expired, as I was! As she will be.”
Ahren flinched but said nothing. He couldn’t risk taking his eyes off the ancient Raven but his mind frantically ran through battle plans. He knew that Catryn could hardly move, but he had no real weapons against this being.
The Raven drew himself up, taller than the priest had ever been, and the shadows pooled towards him. His form grew and two horns burst from his skull as he manically laughed. “You think this is over? You think you have won? This husk may not carry the strength of the Warrior, but it is enough to take care of you.”
Lowering his head, his ram-like horns curling to pristine points, he charged towards them. Ric could only gather Catryn to his chest, turning his back to the Ungarhek warrior that bore down on them to take the brunt of the damage. But the collision never came.
The sight that greeted him when Ric turned back froze his heart in his chest. Catryn’s weight was still solid in his arms, yet there she stood. Cloaked in shadows that surrounded her like flames, her eyes shined with a brilliant white light. He tried to call out to her but his throat constricted; more than anyone, he knew the Gatekeeper could only take the form of the dead.
As the Raven screamed and howled, the Gatekeeper stood silently. Catryn’s face was empty of emotion, perfectly composed as it had never been, and they raised their hand slowly. There was no need for argument or discussion. No debate would be entertained. They were inevitable.
“I release you from your oath. Depart in peace.” Though the words were spoken softly, the power of the command was undeniable.
Desperately, the Raven choked “Her promise?”
“She will keep it.” They stated, placing their hand on the Raven’s forehead. The rush of divine magic swept through like a cyclone, and Ric clutched Catryn’s motionless form as the Gatekeeper turned to him with pitiless eyes.
Tears ran freely down Ric’s face. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the Gatekeeper wearing Catryn’s face so he hunched over her body, still in his arms. “Please. Don’t take her away from me.”
“What would your men think if they could see their unbeatable captain now?” They asked wryly, unmoved by his emotions. Somehow, Ric sensed a glimmer of her sass in their words, and it was a dagger to his heart.
“Please.” He begged, barely able to get the word past the lump in his throat.
With a sigh, the Gatekeeper took a step closer. “Even your father would not be able to sway me from my duty, child. But you need not fear. It is not yet her time.” Placing their hand on her forehead, they murmured a quiet blessing and dissipated into the shadows that surrounded them.
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