Authors: Leigh Michael
I spared a quick up, sending a rush of vertigo and nausea deep into my core. The entire mountain looked like a steep ladder that disappeared into the clouds. There was one landing after another to drag myself onto.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and reached up to grab another notch in the side of the rock. As I exhaled, I focused my sight on the next level and heaved myself once again.
I’d say I was a strong girl. Swimming may not be the best way to build muscle, but it was a great way to tone. To help beef us up, coach sent us to the weight room twice a week. Every Tuesday and Thursday I’d drag my feet as I ventured toward the free weights.
Facing the massive cliff face, I was rather gracious for those painful hours pumping iron. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to drag my body higher and higher away from the ground.
About halfway up the mountainside, I called to Clemente in a weak voice that I needed to rest. Even though my time lifting weights was well spent, the strength in my arms had dissipated from overuse. His hesitation to stop wasn’t a well-kept secret. With his hand lingering on the rock, he sighed then turned to face me.
“Five minutes. That’s all we can afford.”
I was fortunate for even that little of time. I’d take whatever I could get. I immediately sank to the ground and leaned back against the cool rock. My lungs heaved as my heart rate slowed to normal.
As we climbed, the humidity in the air quickly dried my hair. Just as fast, my sweat saturated my hairline and plastered it to my face and neck. With each sweep of my dirtied hands, marks were left on my face.
Looking out over the ocean, I cupped a hand over my eyes as I strained to locate Adrian along the surface. The darkness that cast from the mountain stretched far into the water, leaving me with a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach for the amount I still had to climb. Along the edge of the shadow, I barely made out his dark hair bobbing in the water. It felt good to know he kept a close eye on me. Shifting my gaze, Maddox was nowhere in sight. His job consisted of patrolling beneath the surface for any signs of the Trackers.
Regret instantly consumed me as I dropped my eyes over the edge of the rock toward the sand. A tingling sensation crept into my hands, feet, and stomach as my body acknowledged the great distance I’d fall from this height. And, still, at least another fifty yards were left to climb.
Before I knew it, rest time was over and Shamus helped me back to my feet. Although sweat dripped down his face, and gathered as a triangle of wetness at the top of his shirt, he still looked like he had a reserve of energy ready to go.
“You got this,” he encouraged me.
I smiled weakly back before leaving another dirtied streak across my face, and then reached to grab the next notch in the rocks.
I sure hoped so.
The thought bounced around in my head as I willed myself to “not look down.” My muscles strained to pull my body weight off the ledge, the tips of my toes the last to leave the hard rock surface.
As a distraction to my body’s protests, I forced my mind to concentrate on something else, anything else. The friendly banter of Clemente and Shamus fit the bill.
They had a playful way in which they related to one another. Funny, I hadn’t noticed this underwater; I guess because it was more verbal than anything. Shamus jokingly referred to him as an “old man.” Clemente shot back how things got better with age and how he was a fine wine. They had a kinship that worked for them and made my head lightheartedly shake from side to side. It even brought a smile to my face amidst the pain that radiated through my body.
The pain continued until rays of sunlight bombarded my face as I dragged my torso onto the crest of the mountain. Flopping over onto my back, I didn't want to move for days. Oddly enough, the throbbing sensation in my arms felt good. Proof that I had just accomplished a great feat.
The side of the mountain was rocky and lacked vegetation. On top, the view changed drastically. It was green and lush. Trees in all shapes and size, vines, bushes, and smaller plants created a blanket across the earth. The flora formed somewhat of a barrier to enter into the forest.
Clemente and Shamus were already on their feet and scoured in all directions to determine our next move. While waiting, I pushed to my feet and retreated to the shade of the trees, pushing aside a mass of branches to steal some of its shadow. Even though my muscles ached with the movement, the heat and humidity was too much to bear in direct sunlight. Besides, my skin tended to burn in a matter of minutes. I sighed as a few drops of water slipped off a leaf, landing on my forehead.
Just a few moments later, Clemente was on the move again. He wiped his brow as he formed his words, nodding his head toward the lush undergrowth. “This way..."
“How far is the flower?” I asked.
“We’ll soon find out. Queen Miriam’s dream depicted that the pattern of Arethusa and her dolphins would lead us to the flower.”
“There!” Shamus shouted, pointing.
Off in the distance a large tree with an exposed trunk marked the way. The trunk disappeared into a higher level of branches. Surrounding it, four smaller shrubs created a circle. Otherwise, the immediate area around the tree remained bare—an oddity in the forest that awaited us. I barely saw the formation through the wall of green. Shamus apparently had the eyes of a hawk.
“It’s gotta be it,” I chimed in. “All the other trees are swarming with vegetation.”
Nodding, Clemente lengthened his strides toward the Arethusa-like formation. I had to jog to keep up, igniting the soreness that had built in my legs. He paused a moment to study it before he scanned the forest for another clue. As his hand rested against the rough bark of the tree, his eyes locked onto another set of trees. Without saying a word, he motioned for us to keep up.
Once again, my legs protested but I pushed on. Over the next hour, we weaved throughout the forest following the trail the prophecy had created long ago. Clemente led the way with Shamus’ keen senses aiding in the discovery of each new clue. Then we saw it: a large clearing with an oversized rock smack dab in the middle. I swear it resembled a woman in swaddling clothing. There were four smaller rocks around it that took the shape of dolphins.
From my spot on the outskirts of the tree line, I didn’t see a flower. I had this feeling it was there though. Like with the chest, it called to me.
A wide smile spread across my face as I took my next step closer.
Clemente’s strong arm shot out across my body as I neared the clearing, acting as an iron bar that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“You must wait until we make sure there are no Trackers.”
“I don’t see anyone,” I whispered while scanning the area.
While we followed the cues the prophecy left behind, we eventually cut back toward the edge of the mountain. Here, trees created three sides of the clearing. The last part jutted out over the ocean hundreds of feet below.
Satisfied that we were alone, Clemente turned to Shamus, his hand landed firmly on Shamus' shoulder.
“I’ll go first, then, Annabelle. You come last.”
“Got it,” Shamus responded while he tentatively looked over his shoulder. An audible gulp filled the silence while he adjusted his sword at his side. His unease was palpable. It reminded me that the past few days were a big deal for Shamus. This mission was his first real assignment as a Guardian.
Up until this point, I kept my nerves under control (for the most part). Seeing Shamus on edge released a cocoon of butterflies in my stomach—ones that took flight all at the same time. I quickly studied Clemente’s face. Thankfully, it resonated nothing but steadfast confidence.
Before we made our move, I instinctively shook my arms at my side. I felt like I was back up on the starting blocks before a race. I always did the same routine. First I’d shake out my arms, and then I’d turn my head in hopes of a loosening neck crack. Lastly, I’d lower into a start position to wait for the gunshot. At that moment, my body relinquished all of my nerves. I was in race mode, concentrating on my initial dive into the water that’d lead to my first stoke.
Along the edge of the clearing, I was in position, waiting for Clemente to take his first step. The anticipation coursed through my limbs, but I was ready.
Then he made his move away from the undergrowth, bringing his finger to his lips to make sure we treaded lightly. He then reached back to grab my hand. It felt coarse, seasoned, and strong in my grasp.
Before taking another, he nodded toward Shamus. Being that he was behind me, I wasn’t able to see Shamus’ response. By the look in Clemente’s eyes, his protégé had made him proud.
I felt a little ridiculous that Clemente led me across an empty area, but the tautness in his demeanor kept me from proclaiming my independence. He looked like a protector. Not just of me, but also of Shamus.
Step by step, the two of us slowly crept across the grass. Shamus followed close behind, taking backward steps to better examine the trees for any sign of movement.
It seemingly took forever until we finally stood in front of Arethusa’s rock. The pulse from the flower nearly shook my body and I pressed my free arm tightly to my side. Sidestepping, we peered around the rock. The color of a setting sun immediately caught my eye. It seared through my retinas and into my brain. A single orange flower in the shape of a dolphin swayed softly in the breeze only a few feet away.
I immediately threw myself at it, dropping to my knees.
I knew I had to be careful as I pulled it from the dirt as not to disrupt the roots, but I also needed to be fast. I felt the heat of Clemente’s eyes on me as I worked. With the coast clear, Shamus turned to watch as well from his position across the clearing.
That was when it happened.
I heard it first.
A deep groan cut through the dense air. It was filled with agony, primal fear, and pain.
My attention snapped toward the sound, a paralyzing fear that grew along with the bloodstain that filled the front of Shamus’ shirt.
My mind went blank, the feeling of dread becoming the only emotion I mustered. I stared at the face of the boy who decided time and time again to risk his life for this prophecy, for me. But each step of the way, the Trackers outnumbered, even outsmarted, us.
In a heartbeat, the paleness of his face spread to his chest, then hands, before he slumped to his knees. In the space he once consumed, another man stood.
The Tracker’s face was pure evil.
His darkened hair, skin, and eyes bore into my soul as he smiled from ear to ear. And not a happy smile—a sinister sneer.
Finally, sound built in my stomach, rose into my throat, and escaped through my mouth disguised as a blood-curdling scream.
In reality, Shamus’ death took all of a second. The Tracker ripped his sword coldly from Shamus’ back before he displayed any type of reaction. Just as fast, Clemente pulled his sword and readied himself in a stance to attack.
I don't know how, but the scowl across Clemente’s face looked more evil than the Tracker’s own expression. The difference was that it wasn’t simply evilness that lurked in the lines and creases of my friend’s face, there was a vengeful nature prowling there as well.
With a growl, he leapt toward the Tracker and met blade to blade. The sound of steel against steel sent a chill throughout my body with each repeated clang.
The sounds awakened my mind as I distanced myself, shuffling on my backside. With Shamus’ final breath imprinted forever in my memory, I had to get away from what I witnessed seconds ago.
The clashing noises, grunting sounds, and heavy footsteps in front of me muddied the words spoken from behind me. “There you are little girl.”
Whirling my head around, I met another face with another sinister smile.
His presence caused me to scramble to my feet. My arms lurched out to the side to balance myself, to create a center of gravity. Without this motion, standing on my own would’ve been impossible.
The movement also pulled the Tracker’s attention to the flower in my outstretched hand. I rectified the situation, shoving the flower down the front of my bodysuit.
“Oh, that won’t stop me. Although, I’m sure it’ll make retrieving the flower more fun,” he hissed, his voice dispensing coldness.
As he continued in a low voice, I knew without any hesitation the Tracker meant to hurt me. His words dripped with hostility. “Thanks for doing all the heavy lifting, but we'll take it from here.”
I needed help. I was too afraid to take my eyes off of the Tracker for even a split second to look to Clemente. Instead, I called his name. My voice dripped with something else—desperation.
“Run!” he screamed back, followed by the sound of a swiping sword.
The Tracker sneered. “Yes, run away. I’ve always enjoyed a game of cat and mouse."
My vision frantically rocked from side to side for a way to escape, my feet fumbling to find a path to safety. I was on my own. Like a mirror, the other Tracker matched me step for step as I moved.
“Having fun yet?” he chided. “Cause I am. Blake told us you were a fun girl.”
Hearing Blake’s name sent a wave of fury throughout my body. It boiled my blood, transforming the coldness I felt inside to heat. I wasn’t going to take any more shit from the Trackers. Shamus was dead. My friends and I had gone through enough.
I reached deep inside to search for my affinity. I could feel the surge of power within me, building within my hands. With a sinister smile of my own, I shouted obscenities in my head.
“Nice try,” the Tracker said mockingly. “Those parlor tricks won’t work up here.”
I felt the power as it left my hands, but without the water, there was nothing to carry the currents.
Recognizing my lack of defense, the Tracker took a step closer. “Don’t be scared, little girl. This won’t hurt… much.”
“Stay away from me!” I warned.
“Or what? There’s no one here to save you.”