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Heart in my chest, I dash down the hallway. Left, a right, another left. I risk a glance back, but I don’t see it in the dark. All I hear are the footsteps gaining on me and the low rumbling of thunder. Finally reaching the grand staircase, I run down as fast I can, sweat dripping off my face. Jumping the last few steps, my feet and palms hit the ground, pausing a half-second, and then I speed off again. But instead of going straight out the front doors, I turn down a hallway to my left, urging my limbs to go faster. I skid to a stop at the glass door to the conservatory, but it’s locked. What? Why’s it locked? It shouldn’t be locked.
“Finn!” I call, attempting to slam my body on the door to open it. “Finn! Rhett! Come on!”
No one answers. Oh, I can’t believe this. This isn’t how this was supposed to go.
I turn with my back to the door and yank my sword out of its sheath, mentally preparing myself. The footsteps grow louder, coming out from the dark.
Here we go.
“Elizabeth?” I interrupt, hesitantly with my pen hovering an inch above my notebook. “Is this the beginning, or…”
“Oh.” She lets out a light laugh, curling up on her tattered leather chair. She looks out the window to her left, the late afternoon sun dancing about her face. She picks at a string on her sleeve absentmindedly; I do not think she even realizes what she is doing. “Well, I was going for a bit of…a dramatic effect, I guess.”
“Ah,” I laugh, shaking my head and focusing again on my notebook, “well, sure, then.”
Her eyes crinkle with a smile hidden behind her scarred face, like she is too scared to let it out. “Yeah, you know. Gotta make it interesting.”
“Of course.” I nod, unable to suppress a smile myself. “Well, let’s continue.”
“Yeah.” She nods, hair swinging slightly over her shoulders. “The real action started the morning before…”
My fists slam into the punching bag, one after the other, methodically. My brain’s shut off, way into fighting mode. Finn is slowly circling me, in the middle of the training room, meticulously inspecting my form.
“Knees!” He shouts, and my body responds, bending my knees and throwing another punch.
A minute or so later it’s “Breathe!” Then, “Core!” Then after what feels like an hour, “Stop!”
I shake out my hands and finally look away from the dirty blue punching bag, and I notice for the first time as it stops swinging slightly the chain hanging the bag from the ceiling and the slight squeaking it was making. The absence of a thing really makes you notice the thing.
Wiping the sweat off my face, I start to walk toward the chair my water bottle sits on, but Finn steps in front of me.
“Sparring.” He says, nodding behind me to the case of swords at the back of the room.
I roll my eyes. “Finn, we’ve been training since six in the morning. Let me have a damn drink of water.”
Crossing his arms, his light shirt ruffling as he does, Finn raises his eyebrows. Okay, fine.
Yet again rolling my eyes, grandly and obnoxiously to make my point, I pivot around, so done with this whole training gig. Ever since last month, everything got real. Finn’s set the bar down, each training session harder than the rest. My body aches continuously, but honestly I don’t feel like I’m improving at all. But I have lost six pounds, so that’s something.
Cracking my knuckles, I walk over the padded floor to the sword chest, a long glass case hanging on the back wall. The air conditioner hums loudly in the huge training room, and I fling open the case to pull out my trusty sword. Finn, about twenty feet away near the punching bag, draws his sword from its place at his hip. He flips it over in his hands, focused with his brow furrowed.
Over his shoulder, Finn calls, “Rhett, would you like to join us?”
Looking back toward the door, I see Rhett’s brown hair peek out from one of the leather chairs over by the lounge. Since Beata’s death, Finn’s not the only one who’s changed. Rhett camps out here now, which is good because I’ve been able to keep an eye on him.
He clambers out of the chair, where he’s been sitting since before I arrived at six in the freaking morning, and Rhett wanders over to us, running a hand through his mess of hair. He’s skinny, skinnier than he is naturally, and his normally flushed and happy face is gaunt and pale. I clench my jaw and flip my sword over in my hand, suddenly no longer exhausted and itching for something to jab.
Before I can, however, the door flings open at the far end of the room, and the sharp click of heels lets me know it’s Neva before she even walks in. Wearing a tight silver dress that matches her straight long hair exactly, Neva trots in with her usual manila folder. Without a word, she walks past Rhett and straight up to Finn, and they exchange this weird, unpleasant stare.
Then, she glances at me past Finn, offering a slight smile. I give a slight nod in return, not really knowing whether I should be nice to her or what, given my source of information on her is Finn the king of mixed signals. They’ve never been the best of buds, but this past month between them has somehow been more tense. There’s still a lot I don’t understand, but the way Finn acts makes me think that he believes she had something to do with Beata’s death.
Her long hair swishing over her shoulder, she pivots, heading back out the way she came. Seeing Rhett, Neva halts, opening her mouth as if to say something. He looks right at her, green eyes piercing into her grey, daring her to say anything. She seems to realize that there’s nothing to say, and she clicks back out of the room, flinging the door closed on her way out.
Finn sighs and opens the folder, peering at the single page inside.
“Anything fun?” I say lightly, skipping up to Finn’s side and trying to lighten the mood.
“Well, yeah, actually.” Finn plucks the page out, throwing the folder aside. “Penitrale…”
“Ah, yes,” I say to Rhett over Finn’s shoulder, “of course. You know, that’s my favorite. Always love a good Pen-trally.”
“Pen-i-tral-e.” Finn corrects me. “It’s a dimension. Been there once. Nothing too remarkable, though, no offense to the people of…”
He trails off, apparently reading something of interest. Then he shrugs and folds the paper in half, shoving it into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Care to let us in on all the fun?” I say, but shockingly, I get no response.
Sliding his sword back in its place, he walks past Rhett and pulls on his coat from the back of the leather chair Rhett was curled up on.
The only indication Rhett and I get that we’re invited to this party is Finn’s slight head nod to me as he walks out the door. I rush to grab my coat as Rhett and I bound after Finn, out our door in the balmy Campestris air.
Rhett and I fall into step behind Finn, who’s strutting and studying each sliver of buzzing reality we pass, Door after Door.
“So, uh, how long have you been traveling?” I say tentatively. I’ve been dying to ask Rhett ever since Gerheli two months ago, but considering, well, everything, I’ve been holding off. But now, I want to get him talking, since he’s coming with us, and hopefully get him back to the land of the living.
“Oh, you know. A while.” Well, that couldn’t have been vaguer.
I raise my eyebrows, so he clarifies, “I started training probably a year ago. Traveling only a few months.”
I nod, slightly impressed. The usual apprentice has to train for like three years before traveling. Except, of course, me. But I get certain perks with Finn as my mentor. Which is another way of saying he’s too good and too obstinate for them to say no to him.
“So…” But before I can ask anything else, Finn disappears ahead of us through a Door near the edge of the huge, flat plateau. Rhett looks a little confused, but I just roll my eyes and step in after him.
I’m greeted with water crashing in my face. In this dimension, it’s pouring, sideways, right in my face, and I am immediately soaked and freezing.
“Great.” I blink, trying to clear my vision. Rhett collides with my back with an ‘oof,’ and once I wipe the water out of my eyes, I notice Finn standing under a giant tree to our right, shaded from the rain by the giant tree trunk.
Attempting to cover my face from the rain, I trot over a few feet to where he stands, Rhett following right behind.
Sploshing over to him, Finn chuckles a little when I wring the water out of my hair and shake it off my face, and I scowl at him. Rhett joins us, his boots splashing mud and water all over his jeans.
“So, why are we here?” I yell over the rain and wind and thunder in the distance.
Finn grabs my shoulders and turns me around so my back is to him and I’m looking out into the rain.
It’s hard to make anything out in the downpour. Everything looks dark and grey with the storm clouds billowing above our heads. The tree we stand under seems to be the only one in sight, as a bleak expanse of grass reaches out to the left. The Door we came out of stands on a gravel pathway to our left, right in front of a brick wall. It takes me a second to realize this brick wall is on the side of a hill, and the pathway leads up the brown, dead grass. The wall in the hill supports a small garden on the side of the hill, but it’s full of dead plants. My eyes follow the path up the hill, until I see the building.
The only building in sight, it’s huge. Larger than the castle in Gerheli, the mansion sits proudly atop the hill, built mostly of a deep brown material that looks foreign to me. The rain is relentless against the multitude of windows and doors which shake slightly. It looks sort of strange, like different sections were built at different times, looking like it was put together haphazardly. Some sections seem like they didn’t quite match, different architecture styles ranging from castle towers to Greek-looking pillars meld together. Suddenly, a streak of lightning lights up the sky behind the mansion, and I gasp a little, seeing the full, stark beauty of the building.
“That would be where we’re headed.” Finn says loudly over the deluge of rain.
“Why, though?” I gasp, still a little amazed at the sight.
But Finn is already running through the rain to the house.
“It’s haunted!” I think I hear Finn shout behind him.
No. That can’t be what he said. Could it?
To be continued next Thursday in Lightning and Thunder: Part 2
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