Year 593, on the Fifth Day of the Ninth Month
The wind howled. Each strand of Cateline's hair tickled her face as rain droplets pierced into her snowy skin, awakening her with a gasp. She clawed at the ground and cursed as splinters of wood stuck into her fingers. Sitting up, she looked around frantically and saw nothing but fog. The ground beneath her was tainted with crisp autumn leaves and fallen twigs that frayed at the ends. As she stood, her feet sunk into the mud and smeared the bottom of her gown. The air around her was chilled, gusts of wind blowing her hair and gown every which way as thunder clapped above the canopy of trees.
The rain was icy, hitting her at an angle and soaking her gown until it weighed nearly as much as she did. Lightning flashed across the sky and illuminated the area around her for just a second. It smelled of damp moss, decaying leaves, and rotten, earthy fungi. Taking a few steps, Cateline tried to get her bearings. It was cold. So, so cold.
As she looked down at her dress she took note of the red fabric accented with golden leaves and ribbons. Her corset was half tied, a dried red stain splattered along the leather and down her velvet skirt. Shoes tattered and charred fingertips; Cateline knew something was terribly wrong. She began to tremble uncontrollably, partially from the storm, but mostly because of the genuine fear that crawled from her gut and getting stuck in her throat. She wanted to throw up.
Letting out a huff after gagging, she crossed her arms over her chest and looked around before taking a few more steps into the fog. Cateline reached out for the trunk of a tree and used it to support herself. It was dark and chaotic, the screams of the storm overwhelming her senses as the large oaks around her danced. The mist was thick, only revealing what was just an arm's reach away. Jumping out of her skin, the heavens struck down nearby and shook the ground beneath her feet. Falling to the floor instinctively, she covered her head and screamed. She had never experienced such forceful winds and powerful claps of thunder before.
Cateline began to sob. She had no recollection of how she got here, no memories of her final evenings in Axulran before turning up alone in the woods. The fog was encompassing her like a snake choking its prey, stealing the last of her breath.
Just when the world began to grow hazy, and her balance worsened, she latched her fingers around a chunk of bark and tore it from the tree. This random grasp was the only thing reminding her she was in reality, and not a nightmare where she got stuck in the midst of a disaster. The wind began to whistle, this time louder.
Cateline, a gloomy voice whispered in the wind, a fate of sorrow awaits at the end of your neverending path.
Twisting to look behind her, she gasped and her chest heaved; the forrest was empty. Despite this, Cateline felt certain there was somebody near her. The voice was far too close to have been a figment of her imagination. Far too real.
Cateline, the voice boomed again in unison with a thunderclap, accept your fate and travel the neverending path!
A source of light emerged from the fog. It was a circular orb, the mist parting as it drew closer. The mist seemed to disappear as the orb traveled through it.
As it neared, she noticed how the rays of light danced around it and followed behind like a tail. She held her hand up as it passed her by, the thing almost mimicking the intensity of the sun before it danced into the distance. Wiping a tear that trickled down her cheek, she made strides towards it and cried out as it began to disappear. When she picked up the pace, her foot caught in the opening of a thick root and she stumbled. Reaching out to catch herself, her hand smashed into an exploded tree trunk that had splinters of wood sticking out like freshly sharpened spears. Spears that impaled into the meatiest part of her palm.
Screaming out, Cateline crawled closer to the trunk so her arm was not so extended. The charred shard of wood was darkened and splintery, sticking out of her palm with crimson bleeding out of the edges. Carefully, with tears in her eyes, she grabbed her wrist and began to lift her hand from the piece. Like sandpaper gritting on the inside of her palm, fragments poked ripped at the skin as she howled. The thunder disguised her screams, tears streaming down her face as her stomach churned and head spun.
She had to stop herself, gagging from the pain and overdose of adrenaline. Wiping the spit from the corners of her mouth, she made one final yank and the end of this wooden shard snapped, still lodged into her hand. Trembling, the wood began to swell from the rain and as she gripped at it to pull it free, her fingers kept slipping. She yanked off one of the frills that accented the shoulder piece of her gown, holding it between her teeth as she began to open the wound enough to grab the splinter. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, teeth gritting as the pain made her senses cry out with agony. Her lungs practically collapsing from the muffled scream, she was soon able to pinch on the thick shard of wood and pulled it out. Blood oozed from the open and agitated wound.
The tree she had fallen into was taunting her, as did the howling wind.
It was shattered every which way, the longer part of the tree exploded and scattered across the forest floor. The outside of the tree was blackened from what Cateline assumed was the lightning strike, but the inside was like freshly exposed wood. Light brown and soft to the touch.
She was desperate. The only sounds around her were the deafening claps of thunder every few minutes, and the droplets of rain smashing into the decaying leaves. The trees breathed and ached with each gust of wind, and when she looked above her she saw a branch plummeting down to the ground. Standing and jumping out of the way, she landed face first and smashed her nose into the dirt. She held on either side of her forehead to try and alleviate the headache onset from the impact before reaching to touch the skin beneath her nose. When she drew her finger back, it was coated with blood. Balling her unharmed hand into a fist, she punched into the ground and cringed.
"Help!" She cried, her voice croaking as it echoed into the emptiness. "Anybody, please..."
She sobbed at the end, the blood dripping into her mouth when she let out her wails. Carefully lifting herself up, the world grew dizzy again. Cateline forced herself to move in the direction that orb had flown, the world darkening until all she could see was the ground beneath her feet. At the end of this void was the orb, swaying side to side until it drifted away again. Gasping out, she picked up the pace and audibly begged for it to slow down.
Eventually, the path ended. The fog was growing thin, the dirt and leaves turning to stone and moss. Her vision blurred in and out until her focus returned. What surrounded was breathtaking. The storm had slowed its course, the wind but a gentle breeze now and the rain only a minor nuisance.
She stood atop a cliff made of rock, a freshwater stream falling down the slant of a hill with grass as green and bright as a summer's day on either side. A gentle slosh of water could be heard below the cliffs overhang, evergreen mountains surrounding. The evening sky was full of stars and colorful auroras stretching across the sky like a ribbon across a wall. Turning her focus to the water, Cateline knelt to her knee and cupped the liquid into her good hand, splashing it in her face. What fell back to the stream was red, and when she looked down at her wound again she cringed.
She covered her mouth and submerged the gash into the water, her eyes widening as the freshwater stung. Screaming into her palm, she closed her eyes tight and tore it from the cold liquid the second she could bear it no more.
Cateline thought she must have looked like a fool. A relatively tiny piece of wood made her succumb to tears and many, many screams. The wrinkled skin was raw, blood dispersing into the water in tiny little waves.
Pushing herself up, she paced back and forth and gripped her skirt with a heavy hand. It wasn't often Cateline cursed, but today she was screaming all the obscenities she knew to the sky above.
Cateline, I have looked everywhere for you! A voice chimed, this time clearer than before. More familiar, too. Turning to look over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of a figure on the edge of the cliff. The wind picked up and her vision blurred just as she tried to make out who the figure was.
A mother would search until the end of time for her daughter, it said.
Cateline gulped, taking a few steps closer to it out of curiosity. It was a strange thing, but she did not feel like she was the one in control. She felt controlled, and although she wanted to turn and run back into the forest and let the fog consume her, she didn't. She kept on towards this mysterious figure.
"Mother?" Cateline whispered. She doubted what she was hearing, it felt ethereal and was rooted in something supernatural, but she kept moving like it was a beacon of hope. "Mother!"
Mother dearest is here, take my hand, and fall to your fate.
"P-please." she whimpered to the source. "I want to go home!"
Cateline could not believe her eyes. Just a few feet away was her mother, with her long black hair curled at the ends and eyes as chaotic as the ocean. Seas of blues and greens circled her pupils, her stare growing kinder as Cateline approached.
Accepting the hand her mother offered, Cateline's mouth parted when she was met with air. The figure was as real as anything else around her, she had to be. Her mother was the last stretch of sanity she had left after the pain and torment she just went through. Stepping closer, Cateline peered over the edge of the cliff and saw a ghastly drop. At the end of it was a pool that fed into a larger body of water.
As the inhibitor rises and the eternal flame is quenched, her mother's voice returned, our lands shall be freed, and only then will the Princess be set to flee.
With those final words, Cateline choked out as her mother backed away and leaped off of the cliff. Without so much as a second thought, she followed with legs and arms waving tirelessly with her free fall. The wind was deafening as she screamed, crashing into the pond head first. Her ears popped and airways filled with water.
It was dark, but just before Cateline accepted the embrace of the cold river, she caught glimpse of her mother in the depths, everything else melting into the nothingness.
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