“YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
The intense words floated in Jueneva’s mind as she drifted between nightmare and awareness. The flaming skull growing and looming over her in her dream, casting her in its fiery red glow. Its heated breath roasting her skin.
“You do not belong here.” The spoken statement, less intense, was repeated in more of a concern or inquiring tone. And it was not said by the leering skull.
She felt a hand upon her shoulder, shaking her. “I say, this is no place anymore for the living.”
Her eyes popped open wide, startled from the touch. An older man, heavily wrinkled around the eyes and mouth, stood near her table bed, floating a few inches above the floor. He had a similar gray and blue uniform as the hung men she had seen earlier. His long white hair was pulled back in a single braid. Other than being semi-transparent and having a faint luminescence, she would not have immediately realized he was a spirit of some type.
The room around them remained pitch dark except for the faint outlines presented by her darkvision. His arms were folded across his chest as he patiently waited for her to respond.
His black eyes perplexed and frightened her. There was a depth and a high intelligence in them. This was not a simple aberration or manifestation.
She scrambled down from the table and crab-walked back into the farthest corner from him. Her arms wrapped reflexively around her knees and pulled her body into a tight ball.
The spirit rubbed at the side of his face and paused with his mouth slightly open in mid-statement.
“I see. Well, perhaps if you have some answers you will feel more at ease, no?” He bowed low, dropping his elbow before his face in an odd gesture or salute. He rose and tapped his boot heels together. “I am Court Executor Boure of the Coueryere Castle, once the ruling regime and residents here. And you are?”
He waited again for her to participate in the conversation. Jueneva was not in the frame of mind of conversing with a ghost. The multitude of stories told to her as a child flooded her brain with superstitions and fears. She could only hope the spirit would leave her alone soon.
“Alright. Well, this simply will not do, young lady. We cannot have you unattended in the labyrinth of the castle. There are… There are things that would not be pleasant for you to see or encounter. No more of such chatter on that. For now, I do observe that you are not properly dressed to be here, nor do you have any provisions or food it does appear. If you allow me to escort you, I can lead you to a proper bedding.”
Jueneva looked up slowly from her huddled knees but did not answer him.
He took it as a sign. “And while our Rule ended abruptly here many eons before, there are sealed food jars in our kitchen and the guard noshery. This endless winter is certain to keep most of it from rotting. Would you like to explore it, young lady?”
His polite form of speech and attention to decorum eased her tension some and the idea of eating broke down her guarded walls. She nodded as she rose to her feet.
“Then please follow me.”
It did not take long for them to reach the large kitchen area, which had four stone tables lined with black oak benches and shelving crowded with wax-sealed pottery jars. She kept quiet behind Boure, but took in the sights of the decorations. Most of it remained untouched, only dusted in fine gray and black powders.
He stood in the hall leading to the kitchen, barely inside the double-door entrance. Again, he crossed his arms over his chest as he kept his vigilance.
At the back of the kitchen hall, she discovered an inset fireplace nearly two body lengths wide and several feet deep. A wooden door partially open showcased a meat pantry and a stack of small water barrels.
After finding a box filled with cut wood, she made a cozy fire and set about prying open some of the jars. In moments, she had a plate of tough leathery jerky, two piles of cashew nuts and two more handfuls of strange green and red berries. The spicy meat did not sit well but the berries and nuts filled her up fine.
As she wiped her sticky hands on the sides of her stained blouse, she called out with a slight tremble in her words. “Thank you, Sir Boure. I am…I truly appreciate your assistance.”
He floated across the stone floor and hovered near her bench seat. “You are most welcome. Can we discuss your situation now?”
She nodded again, keeping her eyes on the floor. To stare into his focused, lucid eyes was too overwhelming. “My name is Jueneva Emaya.”
“As there are no easy passages through the DesCantan Mountains now, am I correct to guess you came via the Glass Mirror in the Shrine?”
“I think so.”
He rubbed again at the side of his temple, lost in his contemplation. He must have had that habit during his life and carried it forward into death.
“And by your garb and lack of supplies, you were not expecting to come to the castle?”
“I do not even know where I am exactly. Except… except that I have come to Akkei Maliss.”
He scratched at a spot between his bushy eyebrows, then folded his arms behind his back. “Anyone coming to Akkei Maliss and via sorcery at that, surely had to be in a dire emergency. Do you think you will be pursued?”
She hugged her arms to her body, cold shivers traversing her small form. “My family…” She choked with emotion. “Our enemies were stopped before I came here. No one witnessed my crossing.”
“Yet you really do not know what Akkei Maliss is, child,” he said matter-of-factly. “You were ill-advised to come to this haunted, cursed land. As I said earlier, this is no place for the living. You have come to one of the five Blackened Realms. Only Restless Dead reside in the Ruins of Castle Coueryere!” His voice had risen and gained volume. He shook with emotion and rage.
Jueneva stood her ground, somehow sensing his anger was not directed towards her but the cruel fate given to him.
“You cannot even fathom the dangers of the other four realms. Nothing can be saved in these lands — The Unformed, The Living Towers, the Land of the Bloodless. And even the dead cannot speak of what exists in The Swath. There is no hope to be found here. In truth, you came here to die!”
“NO! I may have come unprepared, but there was no other option but to return home.”
His jaw dropped, the words faltered before leaving his mouth.
“This castle was suddenly lost right?”
“Yes. One night as a mighty blizzard gathered outside, we were set upon by an unknown enemy who used the storm to hide within. They breached all our security, used magic to overtake all preparations. Within the night, it fell to a swift blade and all of us including the Coueryere noble family were wiped out. Our enemy stripped everything of value and left these rotting ruins. They robbed us of everything, including hope. Now the dead come here attracted by its well of misery and doomed souls.”
Jueneva stood up from the bench and crossed to the heat of the fireplace. She then knelt in front of it. The flames lit up her face and features.
“No, Boure. Not all hope. Not everyone died that night. The family of Coueryere held dominion here due to their powerful bloodlines and true heritage. My mother and father — my adoptive parents used to tell me bedtime stories. Told me of a faraway land governed by a family of mystical beings.”
He floated closer to her, trepidation in his eyes. He hoped and yet feared at the same time what he was about to witness.
“Dirithi…” he moaned in awe as he took in the sight of her illuminated features. Her true heritage of blackened eyes and ivory, spiky skin.
He sank to the ground, collapsing upon his knees and prostrated before her with his hands clenched over his head. “So long! So long without a light to cling to.” His words were muffled and mashed together as he said them like a chant over and over.
She put her hand upon his shoulder. Softly she spoke into his ear.
“I will, I swear before you, regain our power over this realm. Fate has bound me with this charge. I must bring about The Restoration.”