Workers were cleaning up the mess from the battle, Julia had been called away, and she couldn’t find Cal or Nahuel. Annie looked around for something to do, but it looked as if everyone else had the aftermath under control. She decided to slip away and find a quiet space to meditate. The battle had drained her.
She found a secluded spot just outside of the sept and got ready to meditate. After only a short time though, she heard determined footsteps approaching her. They were heavy, fast, and heading straight in her direction. She held her position and took a deep breath through her nose. The smell was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. That usually meant the person in question wasn’t friendly. She waited until the footsteps were in the right position before activating Hare’s Leap and soaring into the air.
She landed directly on the back of her assailant, but it only forced him to one knee. Before she was able to plan her next step, she recognized the tall, large, albino man.
“Nerzuul?” she said in surprise.
“Annie.” He said with a small grunt. “I appear to have startled you.”
“It’s been one of those days.” She relaxed a little, but didn’t get off him immediately.
“The day is not yet over.” He looked as serious as Annie had ever seen him. “I need to speak to you.”
“Are you here to attack me?” Annie glared at the top of his head.
“I’m here to rescue you.” He said matter-of-factually.
“Then…I will get off you.” She said unlacing her fingers and jumping off his back. “Wait, rescue me from what?”
“It’s… complicated.” He stood up and reached into his pocket, producing a small talisman. He whispered something under his breath and the talisman began to glow in response. A portal opened in front of the two of them and Annie could see a meadow and a small pond on the other side.
“Please, come with me.” He said, gesturing towards the portal. “I will explain everything when we’re inside.”
“You can’t explain anything more before?” She stepped towards the portal, but stopped short. “I mean, I know you’ve been through a lot but you have tried to kill me in the past…”
“There are eyes and ears out here, and they mustn’t hear what I’m about to tell you. Both our lives depend on it.” He looked sincere and Annie couldn’t sense any maliciousness. She sighed loudly, almost in complaint, and stepped through the portal.
The realm was calm and harmonic, if somewhat small. While there were no visible walls, Annie could feel the boundaries. Nerzuul stepped through after Annie and the portal closed behind him. Annie turned to face him.
“Do you like it? It’s the oldest place I remember, reconstructed as best as I could.” He sounded almost embarrassed.
“It’s…peaceful. What is it?” Annie asked.
“A realm and a spirit in one. By striking a bargain with the spirit I was allowed to shape the realm as I liked, and only I can open the portal in or out of it.” Nerzuul answered.
“Wow.” Annie was genuinely impressed.
“It’s a place that is only mine: a place of peace and isolation when there is no peace or solitude to be found.” He looked as if he was lost in his own thoughts.
“That’s brilliant.” She said in a hushed voice.
“Thank you.” He looked away from her. “It pains me to have to use it for something like this, but it’s the only place I where know he can’t follow.”
“Well, what’s up?” Annie set her thoughts away from the realm.
“They’re coming for Sura.” He said with a sigh.
“Who?” Annie could feel heart speed up.
“The same that attacked your sept. The forces of the Outsider.” He continued, still not facing her.
“How do you know?” Annie asked a little more feverishly.
“Because I…” he turned back to face her. His eyes are filled with sorrow, guilt, and regret. “…I serve him.”
Annie took a small step back and was silent for a short time. “What?”
“Please believe me, I had no choice. And please believe I mean you well.” He was pleading with her.
“How did you have no choice?” She felt a heat rise in her stomach and her voice raise a little. “You always have a choice.”
“It’s Sophie. She was marked by him, some months ago. If I don’t serve him her soul is forfeit. And I can’t do that to her, I… care too much about her.”
“I see.” Annie said not really knowing what to say. “What’s going on?”
“The Outsider is making his move, his final move.” He said after a minute of silence. “He has the power and the forces he needs, and the only thing he fears is your pack. Attempts have been made on your lives already, but since that failed he is attempting a more indirect route.”
Annie couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Sura will be the first, but not the only one, to be taken. You will all lose someone.” Nerzuul continued.
“I see.” Annie said shortly. “How?”
“You know what he has at his command by now – his forces, his agents. He has watched each of you closely, and determined who you hold dear.” Nerzuul took a deep breath and kept going. “Some of his agents can trick wards. You may have already looked your daughter’s kidnapper in the eyes, without knowing what they were.”
“Ok then. Well, thank you for the warning.” Annie ran a hand through her hair in frustration. “I don’t suppose you know when?”
“Within the hour.” Nerzuul said.
“Great.” Annie said exasperatedly. “Any other advice?”
“You can’t face him alone. On your own you will perish. It is only together that you are threat to him – so when the time comes, you must face him as a pack.” Nerzuul said simply.
“Good advice. But if he is taking someone from all of us…how?” Annie was confused.
“You must help each other fight on, in spite of the threats, and the fear.” Nerzuul said. “You must hope you can do what I can’t, and fight for the ones you love. And if they fall, you must avenge them.”
“Ok. What if they try and steal everyone at the same time?” Annie was really confused now. How could he expect them to fight together? It would mean just saving one. “Or rather, do you know if they are supposed to?”
“They are; and they will.” Nerzuul said.
“Excellent.” Annie rolled her eyes.
“Excellent?” He looked confused.
“It’s sarcasm.” Annie said
“Ah.” He said looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“It’s ok.” She sighed. “I guess I should warn the others huh?”
“I’m sorry, Annie. I can’t let you do that.” He moved to stand in front of her.
“Well then why warn me?” Annie took a step backwards.
“I did not bring you here to warn you, I brought you here to keep you safe.” He said. “If any of you found out, you would attempt to save your loved one – and you would die.”
“If we don’t save them, won’t they die?” She clenched her hands.
“No. As long as they’re alive he has leverage, he has you desperate.” He looked tired and guilty.
“So, I’m just supposed to let him get Sura? After everything I’ve been through to keep her safe?” Tears formed.
“It is the only way. I can’t let you die.” He pleaded. “You must let her go now, so that you can save her later.”
“But…” She tried to say something, but nothing came out.
“I’m sorry Annie. Truly.” He was genuine.
“What am I supposed to do?” She said through tears.
“Wait here. I can stay if you like, though I understand if you don’t want to speak to me right now. I will let you out when it’s safe.”
“Why?” She sobbed. “Why did you tell me? I wouldn’t have tried to save her if I didn’t know.”
“I couldn’t risk it. You might have gone to see her, or someone near her might have tried to contact you. I had to get you out before that happened.”
Annie sat on the grass and cried. Everything was too much, too fast. She felt him get a little closely to her.
“Where will he take her?” She was bitter, angry.
He took a few steps away from her and produced the talisman again, opening the portal. He turned to face her. “Where else? The gates to Old Arcadia.” Then he disappeared through the portal.
Annie sat in the middle of the grass, in the calm pocket realm, and cried.