Riah’s eyes opened.
The plain before him was stiff in its silence. Waiting. Watching.
He turned. And saw the tree. A single tree upon which blackness was creeping. Riah walked, his steps light and thudding on the soft ground. Golden globes of fruit began to appear, scattered on the terrain. He peered up at the tree. No fruit could be found weighing its boughs.
But a rope was extended from one of its branches.
He stood, his bones and muscles numbing. She swayed gently in the wind, her own bare feet ash colored like her face. She was low enough to the ground that when Riah reached to brush the tangled mass of hair from her face, he knew the eyes.
Her name was a hiss on the wind.
A scream curdled the air.
And Riah did not know if he had screamed or if it was the wind or sky or the ground splitting apart.
A cracking sound followed.
And the tree split in two.
The following darkness was blinding.
Riah stumbled, his back hitting something hard. Bracing his hand against the object, he felt something rough. Bark. The outlines of trees were growing more distinct in his vision.
The forest was dripping purple tears.
And Riah knew exactly what he would see. She appeared as she always did, her eyes hollow and once silken hair a tangled mess over her pallor skin. She was staggering as she always had, her bony hands reaching, reaching…
Riah turned and ran, his heart slamming against his chest. Beads of perspiration slipping down his neck and back. The forest ground was hard beneath his feet with stones and sticks and vines broken and scattered. He did not stumble. He had fled the confines of this place too many times to falter.
But leaving the forest, finding what was beyond…
That had never happened before.
Riah halted, his burning lungs easing into their normal feeling. His heart beat thunderously in his ears. A lake of silver stretched before him. And there was something large and rectangular floating in its center.
He did not even think before he thrashed into the murky, warm water. The mud at the lake’s bottom squeezed between his toes as the water rose to his ankles and then to his knees and then to his waist. He was floundering towards the object when he was only feet away.
With a mighty heave, he grasped the edge of what he now knew to be an iron structure and pulled himself to peer over its edge.
The face of the corpse was ash white, the eyes closed. The skin wrinkled and patched with spots of black. The long, wrinkled fingers upon which scales marked, grasped a single, red rose. The robes were tattered and black.
The scream sounded again. The same terrifying scream that had echoed across the plain. And Riah did not know if the sound had burst from his chest at the sight of his father or if the lake itself had curdled with the sound.
But when he lifted his eyes, through the veil of mist, he saw a single light.
She held a lantern in one hand and a dove in the other. Even from across the expanse of water, Riah could see her shining doe eyes beneath the rippling of her light brown hair across her face.
This time, he knew he had called the name.
She remained still on the other side of the lake where she stood ankle deep in the water.
He swam. Then he floundered, Then he ran. “One, two, three…” Steps. He reached the surface, extended his hand to grasp her and…
She vanished, wisps of light where she stood. And the dove…
It remained. For a moment, anyway, before it snapped its wings together and flew into the forest beyond.
Riah fell to the ground, his knees sinking into the soft mud. He threw his fist into the earth as a wild cry escaped the cage of his ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut against the burning tears.
And then he felt cold drops falling on his skin. The pattering of the rain followed. And then a crash and thunder. The lake split in two.
He opened his eyes, and found the cliff edge around him to be jagged rock, the sky a boiling storm, and the sea a swirling bowl of fury hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet below.
“Who will I see here?” But he knew. Riah knew deep down inside of him that there was only one person he would find on this cliff edge.
The figure staggered towards him, long fingers grasping at its cloak to keep it fastened to him to act as some sort of shield against the sky’s tears. Riah rose on legs he found surprisingly steady.
The creature raised its head, and even with two gaping holes where eyes should have been, Riah could hear its name screamed in the wind, an echo from the storm.
The Shadow Bearer rose its head, twisting its neck and hissed in a rasping, broken voice. “Elyon has come. The Savior is here.”