A severe ache in her stomach. Her eyelids sluggishly unzipped. A sudden desire to spew followed but nothing surfaced except a foul taste. Her vision was a blur. Unable to move. Powerless. Paralysed. Her eyes desperately wanted to explore, but her lids snapped shut again, and she grudgingly drifted off into the abyss.
She could see David – his hair brushed to one side, dressed in his officer’s uniform. Her arm securely locked around his, as if afraid to let go. A soft fragrance of perfume circled him, reminding her of the moment they first met. A moment she would cherish for as long as she would live. Her face rested on his shoulder – she felt as though she could hear this heart beating, and secretly wished it was beating only for her. They ambled under a placid sky. A mild warmth radiated from him soothingly. But more than anything else, he emanated an impression that, for her, he could stop the world from spinning, though he would never say such foolish things.
She wanted nothing more than to remain floating in his embrace for eternity, but her pleasant thoughts were intruded by bewildering flashes of recent events: the painful verdict that her baby shall be executed, rescuing her baby, being chased and bracing for impact as she crashed. Her eyes suddenly cracked open.
“My baby!” She screamed. A stabbing pain struck her chest every time she inhaled, causing her not to want to breathe. But she had to, if not for her than for her baby – who needed her, more now than ever. She felt as if a heavy rock had been placed on her head, pressing down on her brain. An explosion of agony coursed through her.
“Hey, take it easy.” A calm female voice emerged. The voice was in an outlandish accent. Who was this woman? Anna thought, where am I? And where is my baby! David! I need you, David! Memories of her surrounded by brawny men and the beast… that wild, ferocious looking beast with eyes that stared straight into her very soul flooded back to her. She felt as though she was having a panic attack – or perhaps this was a horrible nightmare. That’s what it was, a nightmare, she tried to convince herself. The pain flooding through her, however, told her otherwise.
Anna tried to get up, but her stiff body forbade her to move. She stopped tensing her muscles and screamed, “My baby! Where is my baby!” She could feel blood rushing to her head. She knew she had to remain calm or she risked passing out again. She feared the anxiety would become overbearing. And at any moment, she would die.
“It’s OK. You need to stay calm,” the voice spoke again, “Your baby is fine. Just relax.”
The words of this strange woman, although were precisely what she wanted to hear, couldn’t be trusted. Anna was in a strange world far from her own. And these people were uneducated, uncivilised and behaved like barbarians. They couldn’t be trusted with a grown adult – a baby was entirely out of the question. They lived in the dark ages. A world occupied by thieves, murderers and cannibals. Degenerates.
After a moment, the pain she was experiencing whilst taking breaths began to ease. Her eyes repeated to blur and then focus, like the lens on an old DSLR being adjusted. Eventually, her vision became clear. She could see a woman sitting next to her bed. Her deeply tanned face appeared concerned and sympathetic. She had big beautiful eyes and a small nose that suited her young face. Her long brown hair draped behind her eloquently.
She was dipping a cloth into a bowl filled with liquid, she then squeezed out the excess and straightened it out. She placed it gently on Anna’s forehead, and although Anna wanted nothing more than to scream at this stranger, ordering the woman to get away from her, the damp cloth took the edge off her throbbing head. The woman stroked Anna’s cheek with her other hand like a mother stroking her child. But she could not be her mother. She didn’t look a day over eighteen. Her hands were warm. They felt smooth and comforting.
Anna dared not close her eyes for the dread that she would drift off again. Instead, her eyes bounced around the room in every direction. The windowless room was dark and dingy. A dull light emitted from a nearby oil lamp. Aside from the hard bed, which felt like concrete, a small table and the wooden chair, the lady was sat on, the room was bare. A pungent odour of rotting wood lingered about the place.
Anna could feel her muscles loosening. She was confident that soon she would regain control of her movement, or at least that’s what she had hoped. Sweat formed under her nose, prickling her upper lip. With her vision restored and her mind now in full focus, all she had to do was move. Her eyes rolled down to her hand, and she concentrated hard. Her finger twitched. Yes! I’m going to be OK, she thought. But then immediately began questioning whether her finger had indeed moved or whether it was her mind playing tricks on her.
“It will get easier.” A deep, croaky voice emerged. Anna’s eyes searched the room, looking to marry a face to the voice. “I can imagine that breathing is uncomfortable, and moving, near impossible. But it will all fix itself as you begin to adjust, I assure you.”
Adjust to what? Anna thought.
“Thank you, Mary, for looking after our guest,” the voice said. Anna could now see the silhouette of large figure stood behind the pretty young lady he called Mary.
“Aldon, sir,” Mary stood up, “she… she is still burning up, and I can’t bring the fever down.” Her voice was shaky. At least this meant that they didn’t want her dead. Not just yet anyway. Perhaps they wanted to keep her alive for some type of ritual killing. Maybe they would drag her through the streets and have the brutes in the backward village hurl stones at her until she dies. Burn her! She imaged dirtied, ugly faces of men and women in tattered clothes screaming, burn her!
“My… my baby,” Anna spoke in a shaky voice. “I want my baby.” Her eyes began to fill.
“My dear,” Aldon said and came into Anna’s sight. Wrinkles formed on his face as he smiled, “you are in no fit state to look after your baby, I mean you will be, but you are certainly not right now. But let me reassure you, your baby is fine – better than you in fact. He has not had to adjust. He is fine, absolutely fine.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked. She was now more confused about the entire situation.
“All will be explained to you, I promise, but for now, we need to focus on you getting your strength back.” Aldon walked out of the room.
“Wait!” Anna yelled, but Aldon had left. This wasn’t right. Her baby was nowhere to be seen, and their words meant nothing to her. For all she knew, her baby was already dead. Though she didn’t believe this. She knew he was alive – she could feel it deep inside.
A moment later, Aldon walked back inside. He was holding a wooden cup. He smiled at Anna soon as they made eye contact. His golden eyes had a certain charm. They didn’t reflect the rest of his strong veneer. They seemed warm and inviting. Innocent, almost childlike.
Anna’s throat was so dry that she could hardly swallow. She hoped that whatever was in that cup was cold and refreshing. She could now move her fingers, and her arms began to loosen up.
Aldon reached towards Anna with the cup, “Now, drink this but—” Before Aldon could utter another word, Anna had managed to extend her arms out and clasp the cup. She just about held it. Her hands were limp, and her fingers numb. She leaned it towards her face and poured the contents into her mouth. She guzzled it down. It was cold. It tasted like water but far more refreshing. And it didn’t leave a strange aftertaste like the water in Arcadiapolis. It was the best thing she had ever tasted. She dreaded the thought of it finishing and wanted to gulp gallons of it. Her eyes resembled Gollum’s as she peeked over the cup, hoping that no one would try to take it from her.
“Can you please grab that that bowl and put it next to our guest,” Aldon asked Mary. Mary looked perplexed. “Just trust me.” After a few seconds, Anna could feel a thunderstorm brewing in her stomach. The excruciating cramps made her want to cry. Her insides felt like a volcano ready to erupt. And then it did. She chucked up vigorously. That familiar feeling of blood rushing to her brain overcame her.
“Just try to breathe.” Aldon said, “It’ll pass. Give it a moment.” But Anna wasn’t convinced. The pain was not subsiding. Neither was the spin on the room losing its momentum. They had poisoned her. She thought. A dreadful poison that would take its time to kill her off, making her suffer intensely until her last breath. Savages!
“Stop panicking.” Aldon said, “It’ll only make things worse.”
“No! I will not go quietly. You can’t kill me that easily.” She shouted almost sending herself into a coughing fit.
“No one is trying to kill you. As I said, it will pass. Just try to stay calm and take some deep breaths before you pass out.”
Telling someone to stay calm was probably the worst way to get them to calm down. It was infuriating her. She just wanted her baby. Even if she could only see him, just make sure he was alright would be enough.
“Please… just let me see my baby! Please, I’m begging you.” The hurricane in her stomach began to neutralise. And the spin on the room gradually came to a halt. If it were poison, she’d probably be dead by now, she thought.
Aldon smiled, “Of course, as you wish.” He then turned to Mary and nodded. Mary smiled faintly and walked out of the room. Aldon then stared deep into the ground as if he were in deep thought. Anna began wondering whether Mary would return with her baby or the executioner. The latter seemed more likely.
They waited in complete silence until Mary walked back in holding, what Anna assumed was her baby, though she could not see him because he was wrapped up in white cloth. Butterflies danced in her stomach. Was this him? Really him? She thought. Or maybe she was still dreaming. Suddenly, she no longer felt pain. There was nothing else in the room, all she could see was what Mary was hugging.
Anna reached out with shaky arms but managed to grip him. She knew it was him; she didn’t even need to undo the cloth and see him to know. She felt breathless as she held him, cocooning him with her body. He wrestled with the fabric around him. He was a fighter, just like David. She could sense it. Anna moved the cloth revealing his face. Their eyes locked like an invisible severed connection that had finally been restored. The incredible moment of holding her baby for the first time overwhelmed her and reduced her to tears – tears of joy.
“Thank you…” She mumbled under her breath, “Thank you.”
Thirty miles from the Northern Sector, a large stone building sat surrounded by greenery and damp air. Giant bushy trees bordered it like sentinels. Swollen branches stretched over the ground as if trying to conceal something. Thick clouds hung threateningly in the sky. And except for the wind whistling and the chirr of insects, there was not a sound.
The majestic structure was held up by marble columns, and it seemed like someone had set a smooth slab of concrete on top. It looked lonely and sad like a rich, beautiful princess with everything bar freedom.
“Master… I am sorry to disturb you,” a baby-faced man with short, jet-black hair said softly. He was a stout, wide-eyed man with long lashes and apple cheeks. The man, he referred to as master, remained silent. He sat on his knees, back straight and eyes closed. He sat so still that he could have been mistaken for a statue. His face was sculpted, and his eyes and cheeks sunk slightly into his face. “Master Lee, your class has been waiting for over an hour. Is everything alright?”
“I felt him.” Master Lee finally spoke. His eyes now open wide. He felt his nostrils flare as he filled his lungs.
“Felt who?” The man queried. His forehead creased as a confused look appeared on his face.
“Him… I felt him.”
“Him?” The man’s forehead then straightened, and his eyes glistened. “Oh, him!”
There was brief silence. Master Lee could sense all the questions that his friend, Yen, had. But he had no truthful way of answering them and hoped he wouldn’t ask, though he knew he would.
“How can you be so sure?” Yen asked. “I mean are you sure?” He swallowed uncomfortably.
“Only as sure as I am about you stood there in front of me.” Yen looked down at his body almost as if to make sure he was indeed there.
“When you say feel… what do you mean exactly?” There was another prolonged silence. Master Lee leapt to his feet. The truth was, he didn’t know how he felt it. He just did. Just like when you love someone, truly love someone. You don’t know how you know, you just do.
He walked to the end of the room where there rested a towering bookcase fixed up against a stone wall. He reached out to a shelf near the top and gently removed a tattered old book. The cover was a dull red colour and a cloud of dust puffed as he brushed the front of it with his hands. He sat back down in the same place and in the same position that he was in before. Except now he had a frayed old book sitting in front of him. He didn’t open it, just stared at it as if he was waiting for it to open itself. Either that or he was bracing himself before he turned the cover.
“Ahem.” Yen pretended to cough – Master Lee sensed it was a ploy to invoke a reaction. Over the years, Yen had become a stubbornly empirical man who although had spent most of his life at the Martial Arts School, and was familiar with the science of the inner feeling, had lost touch with himself. He was now engrossed in the organising and wellbeing of the students who attended the school. He no longer had time for tales and legends. Dangerously overlooking the fact that the entire school was originated because of these tales and legends.
After a few moments, Master Lee reached out for the book and opened it. He turned the frail pages carefully, desperately trying not to damage them. The redolent paper prickled his nostrils.
“The sun has not appeared in weeks, and we have faced storm after storm in recent weeks.”
“Master, don’t you think this is just a—”
“Please don’t use the word coincidence in my presence.” Master Lee snapped. “You know how I feel about it.”
“Yes. Of course.” Yen responded in a humbled tone.
Master Lee stopped at a page and his eyes stuck to the words. It was a page that he had read so many times as a young boy that he no longer needed the book. He had memorised it all. He knew that Yen had also read the book and knew precisely what was written.
“This book is hundreds of years old,” Yen said. “Surely, we can’t rely on these “myths” to predict what is to occur. Especially as the myths are so… so distressing.”
“The fact they are so distressing is why we should pay more attention to them. Do you not think?” Master Lee stood up with the book in his hand and walked towards Yen. His eyes still stuck on the page. “My dear friend Yen, there is a great revolution coming – the world as we know it is about to change. A change that we are far from ready for.”
Aldon and Mary had left Anna in the room with her baby. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed – maybe an hour maybe two. She still had no idea whether it was day or night. She peered over at the door. She had to escape, and that door seemed like the only way out.
She put her baby gently on the bed next to her and tried to get up. She still felt weak. Her arms were heavy and her legs barely respondent. She couldn’t get up. Although she had some movement in her arms and shoulders, her spine was as stiff a steel rod. The only option was to roll off the bed. She took a few deep breaths and began rocking her body, she swayed from left to right, building the momentum to roll her body. Eventually, she managed to swing with enough push to roll off the bed. Immediately, it felt like a bad idea. There was a loud thud as she fell onto the wooden floor like a log. She lay on her stomach; the wind knocked out of her and unable to move. Not sure whether she had done the right thing. She still felt like a rock, and now she was on the floor and away from her baby.
“What now?” she mumbled to herself when her breath came back. But before she could formulate a plan, her eye caught sight of a small hole in the wooden floorboard. There was a room below her. This must be a building with at least two floors. She thought. Great! Escape would be even more difficult not being on the ground floor.
There was a creak, the sound of door hinges that needed greasing. It couldn’t be the door in the room she was in, it sounded too distant. It must be the door in the room below.
After a few moments, she could see the top of people’s heads as they walked into the room below. Four heads altogether, she counted. They all sat down in the room, and a voice emerged, it was quiet, but Anna could hear what was being said. There were no pleasantries or introductions. “Where did she come from?” A voice asked. There was a brief pause. Anna could feel the tension in the room. It was radiating from the people below, rising through the floorboards and rippling right through Anna.
“She, we believe, is not from around here.” A second voice spoke. She knew that husky voice – it was Aldon. She was positive. There was another moment of silence.
The first voice spoke again except this time with a slightly raised tone, “But what is she doing here? We have rules about strangers.”
“She was in trouble,” A third voice spoke. He had a deep, confident voice. Powerful. Appealing. She recognised it immediately. It was the voice of the man that she spoke to when she regained consciousness after the crash. “Men were trying to take her. Her life was in danger.” He continued.
“Sylax, you are a courageous man and dedicated your life to protecting the Northern sector. We are all indebted to you, but why would you bring this stranger here? I mean who were the men that were trying to take her?”
There was no response from Sylax. Another voice suddenly emerged, it must have been the fourth man in the room. “The men were in uniform…” he spoke in a high pitched, almost squeaky voice, “Arcadiapolis officer uniform!” he hissed.
“Is this true?” the first voice spoke, his tone now elevated.
“Lamron, listen to me…” Aldon said, “It probably is true but—”
“Probably?” the fourth man interrupted, “You know full well that those men were official officers of Arcadiapolis! Don’t try to dismiss the gravity of the situation.”
“Sylax?” Lamron said, “Is it true? Were they really Arcadiapolis officers?”
“We believe so,” Sylax responded.
“Then why… why would you get involved? It had nothing to do with us, nothing to do with the Northern sector. I mean, you know what Arcadiapolis is, right? You know what comes from there, don’t you? It is a place of great evil. Home of the Devil himself.”
“Yes, we know the stories…” Aldon intervened. “The woman was clearly in trouble, and she had with her a baby, an innocent baby. In my opinion, he did the right thing. The noble thing.”
“The right thing?” The fourth voice squealed, “Noble? Him? Have you all lost your minds? This is a woman from Arcadipolis. Arcadiapolis!”
“Calm down, Regus,” Aldon said.
“I will not calm down!” Regus snapped back. “Am I the only one that sees that this was an unnecessary and reckless act by Sylax? He is a loose cannon and should be put behind bars!”
“You have a sharp tongue, Regus…” Sylax yelled, “But let me assure you the end of my sword is far sharper.”
“Here we go again. Threats of violence! The great warrior speech. I’ve heard it all before.”
“That was not a threat. That was a fact!”
“You don’t scare me! I will not be intimidated by you… you animal!”
“You have not seen animal yet!” Sylax now sounded like he was speaking from behind his teeth.
“Let’s try to keep some order here!” Lamron said, trying to raise his voice over the yelling.
“I will not be silenced by his threats!” Regus said, “He has gone too far this time. Although he is not intelligent enough to have realised it, he has probably started a war! A war with Arcadiapolis!”
There was a lot of bickering and raised voices. Anna now found it hard to hear what was being said. “What have I got myself into?” She mumbled. “Us into?” She thought about her baby who was still lying on the bed.
The room below fell silent, and she could see the heads moving towards the door they came in from. One… two… three… she counted. Only three heads left. The door closed. One man had remained.
What did they say at the end? What was the final verdict? Who remained? She asked herself. She had obviously caused them a great deal of grief. Maybe they had decided to get rid of her. That Regus man seemed infuriated. Perhaps it was him that remained. If so, she might as well say her last prayers, she thought.
A faint sound of creaking floorboards emerged. Someone was coming up. Her heart began beating fast, thumping against the wooden floor. She could sense that whoever it was, was stood just outside the door. She tried again to free her body, but it was no use. She was imprisoned by her rigid muscles. Anna closed her eyes as someone opened the door.
Don’t let it be Regus. Please don’t let it be Regus…