Trapped in a cycle 600 years long is a fiery young man by the name of Ayuhan Ethereal, imprisoned between the leaves of a leather bound book with an enemy he cannot defeat. It is only with the help of an outsider, a reader who plays witness to his story, that Ayuhan can continue his battle for freedom against his adversary, a mammoth of a man known as Devian, in hopes of freeing himself from his book. The problem is that when the reader dies within it the story ends, leaving Ayuhan trapped and waiting for the next reader to stumble upon his book. It is 5 books from the beginning of his curse, 5 readers that Ayuhan has failed to protect, and his book is discovered by its 6th Keeper, a cowardly boy named Eugene Millard who wants nothing more than to avoid confrontations. Upon opening the book and discovering the trapped person within, Eugene is spirited away into the worn and battle-weary world of Ayuhan’s prison. But even with hopeful arrival of Eugene, the Revolutionaries, a once proud and determined group led by Ayuhan, are dissuaded and broken, and not even Ayuhan’s promises of victory can spur them into action. There are precious few who still believe in Ayuhan Ethereal, a meager handful of dedicated friends and their troops, and it’s hardly enough to combat the growing forces of Devian. Eugene Millard is charged to follow Ayuhan’s struggle, and, despite his own doubt, he may hold the answer that Ayuhan needs to save himself from resigning to a long avoided surrender.
Chapter Fifty Nine
Ayuhan didn’t move from the sea.
Eugene thought that it was strange to watch him stand there long after Gabranth’s body had been pulled into the current, but it would have been stupid to try and approach him then at that state. He wanted nothing of the explosive anger that was probably boiling up within Ayuhan as he stood there, chest deep in the water, glaring at the dark grey of the sea. He couldn't say the same for the Ermacorahs though.
As soon as he had gathered his breath, albeit somewhat sloppily, Caratacus dropped what little gear he carried and stumbled out from behind Eugene as he threw himself towards the sea, wrenching himself past the sobbing troops of Company VI. Brennus was like minded because he was already peeling himself from the head of the Last Company, leaving Bach to watch over his gear and stand by herself, arms outstretched to hold back the Company, who looked on with paled faces. The cook pressed across the beach with sloppy kicks of his boots through the sand, growling aloud.
"Get him out of there. Caratacus, get him!" he was saying. Eugene, startled by Brennus' sudden ferocity in the aftermath of an impromptu funeral, also hopped into motion, wobbling towards the sea, though he knew not the imperative. Caratacus was already wading through the water, hiking up his robes and throwing them over his hip to a bundle in his arms to try and grab Ayuhan, who still stood as silent as a rock against the waves. He was tense. As Brennus also crashed into the sea, coming up quickly behind his cousin, Caratacus finally grabbed hold of Ayuhan's shoulder. He began to pull him from the sea, moving still closer to try and get a better grip on the boy, when Ayuhan burst his silence with a howl. He contorted in on himself in pain, screaming into the sea as a wave came up over them both and drowned his cry. They came up again from the water, coughing, Caratacus finally wrapping him up in his arms and forcibly dragging him towards the shore. The waves were relentless though and dragged them under again, Caratacus tripping over the tide. Brennus was there for them, though, catching Caratacus and Ayuhan with his chest as they were thrown forward by the rush of the current. He pulled them both into shallower waters, hefting them up with their arms until they were able to trip along themselves. Ayuhan, though, as long as the water clung around his waist, failed to fight back, only screaming and coughing until the sound made Eugene wish he were deaf. Eugene stumbled up to them, not knowing quite what to do than stand there and be useless as they dragged themselves free from the waves.
He was privy to the first throw of Ayuhan's gaze, though, a wounded and beaten blast of emotion focused into a pinpoint of anguish that stabbed Eugene with sympathy pain. The Ermacorah cousins, on the other hand, received the first burst of energy. As soon as the water was nothing more than a thin blanket fizzing about his ankles with foam, Ayuhan came back to life and ripped himself free from their arms and pushed them away, their feet blooming with white foam in the waves as they fought for balance. Caratacus dared to come closer again, opting to invite him into comfort with his arms open, but he invited wrath instead of peace. Ayuhan threw him to the waves and walked away from the fallen Medium, still howling his fury. Eugene watched as he slumped by, a storm in himself, then he jumped forward to help Caratacus.
Brennus was quicker again. He was already scooping up his cousin from the water and setting him up on his feet. "Cursed boy," Brennus was saying to Caratacus as they both shared glances at Ayuhan. He was walking steadily away from them, following along the dark shadow of the wave's line, a solitary figure on the beach. He took off his jacket and wrung it as he stepped further onto the drier shore, Caratacus following suit with shaky steps. He continued, "The ocean isn't good for him. We need to get out of here. Get the Ethereal away from the shore, and the rest of us in the Gulch. Caratacus, are you alright to walk on your own?"
"He stayed for so long," Caratacus commented quietly behind him, breathing hard. He looked back into the sea, his eyes red with grief, and he nodded in reply to the question, "Yes, I'll be fine. I'll follow after him."
"Bach says we're close. We have to go. We shouldn't let Gabranth's death be in vain by standing around here like seagulls weeping with the sea," Brennus said. He passed by Eugene and nodded his head after the Last Company. "Catch up with them, Eugene, or follow Caratacus and Ayuhan. We need to be quick." The cook stomped ahead, but even as he set his face with gravity, Eugene could still see the grief in the creases on his forehead. There was a shadow of guilt hanging over his brow.
Eugene waddled over the sand to where Caratacus stood disrobing himself of the heavy fabric that made his outer layer of clothes. He was wrenching them hard with his arms, wringing them as best he could as he solemnly started following the footsteps made by the Ethereal's passing. He looked up with watery eyes as Eugene drew close, but he soon grew distracted by a sight that made the water in his eyes dribble free. Concerned, Eugene followed his gaze and turned around to see the few lonely members of the Last Company standing still where they gave their final goodbye to their leader. Delten was leading them, reaching for a small knife in his belt, in a small and familiar ceremony. He had seen this a few times before, and when Eugene understood, he found that he, too, was brimming with tears. The Greens of Company VI pulled forth their knives and reached up to grab fistfuls of hair, then sloppily, they sawed off chunks and slices, letting their hair fall free from their fingers to be gathered in the pulse of the stretching waves. Their attention was focused on the sides of their heads, the backs, which they doubled checked with the run of their fingers, until all that was left of their boyish locks was an all too familiar cut to the one worn by their leader drowned out at sea.
Eugene and Caratacus followed Ayuhan out along the band of darker sand. Several yards ahead of them was the Last Company, solemnly tracing their path along the waves reach, led by Bach and Brennus, who took the front and end of the caravan to herd them along at the proper pace. They were a silent funeral march, too afraid to sob aloud and too afraid to stop and grieve. The Ethereal was following after them, not as silent and voice enough for their sorrow. He was still sobbing aloud, although his screaming had finally stopped, and no one dared approach him. Even Caratacus had finally taken the hint after he had been shoved and pushed aside before. He trundled along beside Eugene at as fast a pace he could muster, holding his soaking robes in his arms, keeping his eyes trained on the boy ahead of him, watching his every movement for any sign that might warrant his aid.
Keeping a quicker pace, and constantly reminding himself to slow up for Caratacus, Eugene couldn’t help but stare back over his shoulder, where the dark curl of ocean nestled itself against the collapsed cliff that secured their flight. He had his eyes peeled for any dark smears that might slink over the dirt, or any signs of movement beyond the roll of the water. He didn’t trust their momentary blockade, not when Ayuhan was about as unreachable as the rest they sought.
Turning his concerned head towards Caratacus as the Medium sniveled wetly into his collar, Eugene blinked a sympathetic duo of tears and spoke up as they traced the way down his cheeks. “Caratacus?” It sounded like he hadn’t used his voice in decades, weak and spineless, “You alright?”
The Medium acknowledged the question with another wet sniffle, trying his best to pull the edges of his mouth into a smile, “I am remembering our slain in grief…as is the rest of the Company and yourself. And you, tutelary?”
The familiar word made Eugene pinch his lips with a bitter smile. He pulled at his backpack straps and gave a heavy sigh. “You pretty much guessed it,” he said, “Though…I worry for Ayuhan. I’ve never seen him like this.”
Caratacus cast his eyes to the sea and gestured to it with the slight nod of his head. “The sea breaks down the Ethereal’s defenses. What memories he tethers to it are his own, but they are many and they are poignant. He’s never been able to hold himself together when around it. Too many mistakes made here, too much guilt…” he paused, rubbing uselessly at the tears on his face. It was beginning to rain again, a harder and drearier rain than the pelt of storm and wind they had faced earlier. Caratacus shifted the bundle of wet robes over his head and continued slouching after Ayuhan’s fading footprints.
"He'll remember those who follow him with enough time," Caratacus continued. "For now, there is nothing that we can do to help the Ethereal. We must let him come back to us himself. If he's able."
"If he's able," Eugene echoed weakly. He blinked through the rain as it splattered against his face, and, like Caratacus he sought for something to pull over his head. He made a move to pull his hood up, when he remembered, feeling his hands along the poorly hacked off fabric, that he had given it to Ayuhan. He hung his head instead, trying to shake his bangs out of his face so that they didn't drop water into his eyes. He glanced up at Ayuhan, who failed to pull up Eugene's hood over his own head. He was wobbling several yards ahead of them, still heaving with grief and anger. His fists were curled up close to him, and from Eugene's perspective, he could only guess that the boy was staring hard at his battered hands, remembering the weight of the dead within them. Eugene's attention wandered out to the sea, a heavy and dark thing surging alongside them like a vast blackness. Staring at it for too long made Eugene think that they were simply walking on the edge of a cliff again, balancing on the cusp of some bottomless pit. He reached up and smeared his bangs back with the rain, turning again to the Last Company.
The curve of the beach took the struggling revolutionaries twenty minutes to travel to it's next bend. There, a series of broken and confusing cliffs rose up from the collected fog like a staggering line of giants staring out to sea, standing in the waves as if waiting for the sun to rise from where it fell day to day. As they approached the forms and entered the thicker part of the mist, Brennus rallied the troops to stick close together, even coaxing them to hold onto the straps of each other's backpacks and belts. They had no means of light, and the rain wouldn't allow the few cooks of the group to light a torch. They had to brave the treacherous land by careful footwork, their free hands outstretched before them. They had to move fast. The enemy was unseen behind them, but it was that fact alone that filled their hearts with worry and pressed them forward faster, despite their heavy legs and wounded selves.
Worried that they would be lost in the thickening haze, Eugene grabbed hold of Caratacus' sleeve and pulled him forward to catch up with Ayuhan and ultimately the Last Company up ahead. He was already losing sight of them, their smeared silhouettes fading into the grey. Caratacus wheezed alongside him, his robes falling off his head and onto his shoulder, and it was he who dared to speak to the Ethereal first when they approached him.
"Ayu..." Caratacus said slowly. Eugene stared hard at the drunken figure wobbling before him, pulling up behind him so that he was a mere couple inches away. Now, up close, he could plainly see the anguish etched onto the boy's face. Wrenched into a pained grimace, Ayuhan's eyes were hard to see under the strands of loose bangs and hair that tangled a web above his forehead, but the twisted grit of his teeth was as clear as the bright tattoos on his haggard cheeks.
Eugene bit his lip hard. He knew he had to do something, but he had little to say that could help heal him after Gabranth's sudden passing. He had used up all his best thoughts and ideals in his last serious speech with Ayuhan out on the lonely cliffs where Enjolras' body was buried. He wasn't sure if he had anything else to say that hadn't already been said. But, he had to do something. He was his Keeper and he already understood that he was more than just a witness to Ayuhan's story. He had a part in it, himself.
He moved. Eugene adjusted his arms so that he reached back with one and grabbed Caratacus' opposite shoulder while the other slung itself around Ayuhan's neck and pulled him to his side. Quiet was Caratacus Ermacorah, who offered nothing more than a brief smile of understanding, and quiet was Eugene Millard who held his head high and urged them to follow faster into the mist ahead. Quiter still was Ayuhan Ethereal, who gave no more sound than the skritch of clenched teeth.
Onward they plunged into the fog, their only clue to the Last Company's path the misty muddy turf beneath their feet and the sounds of their sobs and the rattle of their gear. Eugene kept his gait steady, careful to pay attention to the sounds of the Company as they began to rebound off the collection of standing cliffs and pillars of stone. It was growing harder to hear exactly where they tread, but Eugene did his best to track them by staring at their prints in the ground, which were quickly sucked in by the wet beach or smeared away by the thin reaching waves of the sea. When Eugene was about to panic, his grip growing tenser with realization, Ayuhan quietly reached back around to clasp tightly at the arm that arced over his shoulders. Eugene looked to the boy, surprised to see him melting from his choked up state of frustration, but he was relieved all the same to see the familiar burn of determination in his eyes, focused into the grey ahead of them. His tapered ears perked, listening to the sounds, and with nary a word, he gently pulled against Eugene and Caratacus and led them into the fog. Like that, they stumbled in the grey, until they ran into a cliff wall.
Eugene stared up at the cliff wall. The sounds of the Last Company must have been reverberating off it all this time, confusing even Ayuhan's trained ears, so that they snapped off from the tail of the Company's caravan and wandered far out of the way. Sagging, Eugene let his arms fall free from the two beside him and he stared in stark defeat at the rock face. If they were lost here in the fog, there was no telling how much time it would take them to find the Last Company again, especially since they three had no idea where to go, and if they wandered for too long, they would soon be caught by the Fleet hunting them, easy pickings in the bank of fog, like fish in a barrel! Ayuhan would hold them off for as long as he could but he could only do so much to fight, even with the Medium and his Giest to help him, Caratacus could only fight for so long before he collapsed in a fit and Eugene's only weapon was a backpack and the head of a spear, both of which he hardly knew how to use for defense, not to mention that they were sopping wet from the sea and the rain, prone to hypothermia and, well, the way Eugene saw it, they were doomed. Their battle wouldn't have the span of a couple heart beats, probably overwhelmed in the first few seconds, dragged apart in the fog, lost to each other, and finished off. Eugene's throat tensed up and he looked around, his movements expressing the panic seizure through his muscles. They were lost.
Though when he looked at Caratacus and Ayuhan, expecting to see synonymous stares of horror, he found confusion and wonder instead. They were not fearful like Eugene was. United, they stared on ahead at the solid rock, tilting their heads this way and that as if to test the rebound of the sound.
"What are you guys doing? We're going to lose the Company if we stay here staring at the rock," Eugene blurted. "We'll be trapped here, stuck, and we'll lose everyone." His words hung stale in the fog, swallowed up by the cushion of mist. Eugene started to move away, boring his eyes into the sand for any tracks that might point out the path of the Company, when Ayuhan's hand snapped out and hauled him back with his backpack straps.
"Nonsense, tutelary. There is always a way. Panic and prowling will not help," Caratacus smiled comfort at Eugene. "Listen again, Eugene, can't you hear them?" He pointed at the rocks, beckoning him to come closer, but when Eugene dropped his stance and stared limply at the wall, Caratacus gave knowing nod and tap at his nose. He moved forward, his shoulders quaking about his ears with the cold and his steps squelching with the water in his boots, and put his hand against the wall. Eugene half expected a secret door to unveil itself, a gate of rock to unfold itself back, but none such magical thing happened. He merely heard the slap of Caratacus' palm against the wall.
Caratacus looked pleased with himself, "Find yourself stuck, confront the problem, and the way will show itself."
Eugene looked to Ayuhan, wondering if he shared the same look of dumb confusion. The Ethereal was staring backward into the fog, his eyes red from grief, and redder still with anger, as if daring the fog to lift and show them the dark Fleet hanging on their footprints. He was somewhere else. Eugene turned forward again, coupling the motion with a tense and panicked shrug, pulled tauter still by the passing seconds.
"Listen, Caratacus? Those are echoes, misguiding us, and we can't walk through walls, we're stuck..." Eugene stared. "Caratacus?"
The Medium had disappeared.
Panicking, Eugene teetered forward, his movements made all the more clumsy by the sand, and peered at the wall in stark and terrified suspicion. Where had he gone? He had only turned away for a second, and yet, in that same second, Caratacus had disappeared, not even a trace left in the sand. Eugene gulped. There was only one explanation for this: Fleet Steps were in the fog with them, noiseless and quick, waiting for them to turn away from each other to snatch away the unsuspecting. It was like passing through the field, but through fog. It was a dangerous place to be. Eugene scrambled for Ayuhan, quieting himself for fear of listening Fleet. Grabbing onto his shoulders, Eugene shrunk from the mist, a silent and grey curtain hanging ominously around them. It must be crawling with Fleet.
"Ayuhan, where did he go?" he whispered stiffly. He was choking up with fear, ready to blink tears for a newly fallen friend.
Ayuhan stayed still and grim, turning forward with the perk of his ear. He, too, was tense, though a different kind than the Keeper hanging onto his shoulders. Eugene remained right on his heels, tightly pinned to his side as they approached the solid wall. Like Caratacus, Ayuhan reached forward and placed his hand against it, staring hard at the rock blocking their way. He pressed harder, watching his hand flatten against the stone until he could dig his fingers into the wet dirt. Eugene stared too, expecting something to happen, anything, when he heard Caratacus coughing to the side.
Eugene and Ayuhan both turned their heads, and to their surprise, saw a cleft in the stone, a thin passageway, about two shoulders across at first, widening out to about five people walking comfortably side by side with a great height above them, and Caratacus standing at the opposite end, coughing into his sleeve and haloed with a glow. Furrowing his brows, Eugene moved back, unable to relax himself until he understood the puzzle placed before them. It wasn't a solid wall that they had come up against, it was a trick passageway, an illusion. Had Eugene come up from any angle without paying strict attention to the stone, he wouldn't have ever seen the hollow. The earth and stone melted so seamlessly into one another, and with the fog as it was, blocking what little light they had to go by, there were no shadows to spill the secret. Eugene stepped forward again and peered into the hollow, his mouth hanging agape. Sure enough, there were many footprints pressed into the clay, the path of the Last Company.
The flick from Ayuhan's head urged Eugene forward. Carefully wedging himself and his backpack into the cleft of the wall, Eugene pressed forward into the dim shadows until he came to find Caratacus at the opposite side. He was coughing hard into the wet fabric of his robes, and Eugene soon understood why. Hanging above his head were his Giest arms, pulling themselves free from Caratacus' corporeal frame and creating a dim source of light. Eugene stared at the glow until he heard Ayuhan bringing up the rear, or rather, closing the rear behind him. Eugene turned around just in time to see the dim light of the fog choked off by Ayuhan, who had seemingly drawn a curtain of rock and stone over the small crevasse of an entrance. Eugene gulped and swore underneath his breath. He still couldn't believe Ayuhan could move earth like he did.
Once Ayuhan's sullen face caught the light of Caratacus' dim glowing Giest arms, they began to move forward at the Medium's behest. He could only keep the way lit for so long. Ayuhan silently agreed by forcing Eugene into a quicker stumble from behind, guiding him by the push of his backpack. Eugene, caught between the Medium and Ayuhan, did his best to keep his feet under him as they passed through the darkness of the tunnel. He couldn't see where he was going and he didn't like the way the blackness amplified the beating of his heart. It was beating fast, pounding away at the tunnels in Eugene's ears like they had been pounding not too long ago when he watched Ayuhan's head hanging over the gathered body of Gabranth. Eugene felt his gut drop, too easily seeing the death projected in darkness. He felt useless there, standing on the beach, more of a stranger than those who gathered and shed tears for Gabranth's passing. He had only known the man for three days. Three days. Others had known him for years, and yet Eugene dared to shed tears alongside them. He felt a brief moment of guilt, for grieving when he knew not the good man as the others did. And earlier that day, they had lost another. They had lost many. Looking back, Eugene refused to count the motionless bodies propped up in the shadows beside him, seemingly carved into the stone passageway. Bodies of unfamiliar men and women, the people of the Presidio, rolled over the earth and into the sea, and earlier still, the mortally wounded of Tottoi's green company, fractured and frazzled by the attack on the Presidio’s walls. He remembered the five bodies, subtle shapes pressed through the fabric, and he remembered easier still the body of Tottoi, relaxing into a dead stupor. It coincided too easily with the relaxing of other bodies, buried early in the morning in the soft turf before the peak of the day, the few of the Last Company who perished in the panicked and ultimately failed rescue of Enjolras. Or rather, Enjolras' body. The man pulled free from the Fleet, dead twice. So many lives were lost in just that day. Not mentioning the day before, or the day before that, the abandonment of Alaheh and the Fall of the Reach. In such a short time, there was so many more dead weighing on Ayuhan's shoulders.
Eugene dared not look back. The boy behind him had not spoken a word since he had stepped into the sea, and his silence was less terrifying than what words might burst from his mouth next. Eugene didn't want to prompt that. He especially didn't want Ayuhan to see that, in the time that he had entered the dark passage, Eugene had wet his face with tears.
Their passage lasted for shorter than Eugene had thought. While it felt like an eternity that they were walking there in the darkness, corraled by the shadows, it was really just as long as Caratacus could hold his Giest arms above him, which was only for a few minutes before he began to wheeze. For a moment, they were crushed by darkness, and Eugene bumbled into Caratacus, prompting the Medium to choke and cough some more.
Somewhere behind him, Eugene felt Ayuhan shift around him and move to the Medium's aid. He heard the sounds of Ayuhan patting Caratacus' back, trying to get him to work past whatever was caught in his throat, and, in that time, Eugene rubbed at his eyes, blinking as the blackness swirled in his eyes. It was like a stubborn fog, sticking to his eyes, and no matter how hard Eugene rubbed, he couldn't squint past it. He blinked uselessly at the blackness before his face before he steadily started to notice the dim light bouncing off of his companions' forms. They were nearing the end of passage. Eugene's eyes hardly had enough time to adjust to the darkness before he had to squint again and adjust back to the light, which bloomed out at him and his shadow familiar eyes. After the initial shock of passing from one realm to the other, Eugene recognized the light source as the reflection of light from the dim stormy sky. They were in an open gorge.
They had found the Gulch.