On the other side of the great gate Charis shivered. It was winter in this part of Georn, and oftentimes those who dwelt on the astral planes forgot about the seasons. The weather never changed in the astral. She had not dressed appropriately, and regretted not checking the chart that told what the season was on earth.
It was disconcerting moving through the great gates connecting their planes and the human one. It was the pins and needles feeling of, ‘waking up,’ a body part after it had fallen asleep; except the feeling spread all over the body. The effect was disorienting on the equilibrium, and most would lose the contents of their stomach the first time. Charis learned early on the best thing to do was close her eyes—it helped reduce the disorientation.
She looked over at her handmaiden and best friend, Zoe, who was always more affected by moving through the gate than Charis. Those of the lesser blood, as most of those who were among the great houses called them, always had a harder time of it since their magic was ‘less’. Charis didn’t know if it was true; she had seen some of the best clerics come out of the lesser blood. So she doubted that ancestry had everything to do with it.
Zoe moved off the platform and vomited. Charis walked over and held Zoe’s hair back with one gloved hand, rubbed her back with the other, and whispered a small comforting spell in the other woman’s ear. She could still perform that tiny bit of magic, since it did not pass through her severely damaged hands; though such a spell was useless for anything but a situation like this.
Zoe stood, took a deep breath, and gave Charis a look of thanks before wiping her mouth with a handkerchief.
“If you are quite finished we need to find the one—” Damien’s words were cut off by a sharp glance at the woods. Charis had felt them there since they moved out of the gate.
“Don’t worry, Damien. The watchers will not harm us directly—just report our movement back to their superiors. So yes, we need to hurry, and find Gregory. They won’t leave the area of the gate, but they will call for their tiny spies to follow us,” Charis said, looking over at the two males.
Damien nodded, and moved off the platform to join them. Sotiris did the same, but kept an eye on the tree-line as well.
Charis was shocked at how strong her reaction was at seeing him for the first time since she healed him. It was as though something about him constantly tugged at her. She wanted nothing more to take his hand in hers, or have him hold her in those strong arms.
He caught her staring at him, and they both looked away quickly, like opposite ends of a magnet repelling each other. Shaking her head, she started toward Gregory’s house, and the other three followed her.
It was not a long walk, but the terrain was not kind to those who were unprepared. Damien struggled along in his full set of armor, but it would have been no use to suggest he dress differently—he would not have changed.
The gate was just inside a depression of rock at the base of a cliff, with a small clearing just off of the dais that led to the gate. Just beyond the small clearing were the woods surrounding the gate, except for a small path to the left. The path was the only way out of the clearing, and it ended right at Gregory’s house.
Though most people born of angels and demons remained in the astral to fight the seemingly never-ending battles, there were operatives chosen to live on earth. Gregory was one of them.
Ten minutes later found them standing outside of a wooden house, which could fit ten people comfortably. Smoke was coming from the chimney, and even from here Charis could smell the mouth-watering cooking of Gregory’s wife, Rhona. It was a true shame they did not have time to stop and enjoy her food; it was worthy of even the great houses and their dining halls.
There was movement off to the side, and the men tensed until Charis raised a hand in greeting.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered, solid wall of muscle. With hair the color of orange fire and eyes that could put the greenest meadow to shame, his face was open and friendly. Carrying an axe that was easily her size over one shoulder as if it weighed nothing, Gregory raised the other hand in greeting back to Charis.
“Well, good mornin’, Charis!”
Damien stiffened behind her at Gregory’s obvious lack of manners. She almost laughed, but instead moved forward and gave the great man a hug. She had spent more time here than she ever had at court. Her father was assigned to this portion of the world to patrol, and he often brought her along with him. The house that Gregory and his family stayed in had once been a wayfarer station for those of the disciples; which was why the house was large enough for ten people. Now it was simply Gregory’s home, as he was the only one stationed here.
The humans abandoned the surrounding area many years ago when they discovered it would be too risky to tame it. Humans, animals, and the offspring of demons and angels were not the only things to wander the earthen planes. Such creatures had taken offense when the humans made an attempt to cull their wild lands, and given them somewhat literal hell for it. They tolerated Gregory seemingly because he was angel-born, and had a deep respect and love for the woods.
Though Charis still looked like a woman just reaching her bloom, Gregory’s hair was streaked liberally with white. Another advantage the astral possessed aside from no weather changes, was how time moved there: slowly. It allowed for an even longer lifespan than what one of their kind would experience on the earth. Once again, it drove home the belief the majority of their kind belonged on the astral planes, and not on earth. They had known each other for well over two-hundred and fifty years, and she loved him like a brother, and his wife like a sister.
“Good morning to you as well, Gregory,” she said. He planted a big kiss on her cheek, and looked over head at her companions.
“So, these are the ones meant to go with ye up to the old monastery, eh?” he asked.
Charis nodded. “They are indeed. You know Zoe, the one with the spear and golden hair is Damien, and the dark-haired one with the sword is Sotiris,” Charis said, introducing them all.
Gregory moved around Charis and gave Zoe a hug that whooshed all the breath out of her, then a firm, almost testing, handshake to the two men.
“I know ye cannae stay long, and I’m sure the bairns will be sad for nae being able to see ye, but it cannae be helped,” he said, sadly.
Charis laughed. “You don’t have anymore babies, Gregory. All your children are full grown, married, and having children of their own now, I suspect!”
He gave a wistful smile and nodded. “Aye, ye be right about that; though they will always be my bairns.”
She nodded back. “Spoken like a true father.”
“While the reunion is touching, we need to head out,” Damien said.
Gregory leveled a look at the Paladin.
Charis put a hand on the bigger man’s arm to calm him. “While Damien may be lacking in tact, we do need to be moving on.”
“Aye, and I’ve got yer horses ready for ye all. I also have some clothes for the four of ye, since I knew ye never dress right for the weather here,” Gregory said, and motioned toward his house.
“Always like you to think of everything,” Charis said, and smiled.
The bigger man nodded and smiled back. They all trudged into the house, and made their way to the rooms to change their clothing. Rhona had some food fit for traveling waiting for them when they came down, and Charis thanked her and gave her a hug. She probably would have stalled a little longer to get some of Rhona’s cooking, but Damien’s impatience had them off and on their way soon after they gathered their supplies.
The way was not particularly treacherous, and Gregory’s presence would soothe any aggressive tendencies the natives might have toward those they viewed as trespassers. However, it was easy to get lost on the winding trails that often looked like no more than a worn, dirt snake of a line no wider than Charis’ foot.
As their breath misted in the cool air, and the sun nestled into the horizon heading toward its rest for the night, the shadows deepened ominously as they approached the wilderness. A chill crept up her spine, and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. The woods had spooked her since she was a child, and she hoped that’s all it was, but in the pit of her stomach dread sat like a heavy stone.
Charis shook her head to clear it of such thoughts, and pushed her shoulders back to straighten her posture. Whatever it was, if it was truly real, they had Damien and…Sotiris. Between them and Gregory, she should have no fear of anything that might lurk in the darkness.
But the Universe can be a cruel mistress, who delighted in proving people wrong.