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The wind rattled the glass of the arched windows in the Hall of Ancestors. It whistled through the cracks in the ancient stone walls and echoed off the pillars. The entire fortress was chillingly silent and the howling wind only added to the unsettling eeriness. Asta stared at the long-empty tables in the immense hall. She remembered the many times in her nineteen sun’s journeys when she and her three sisters had spent time here. Only recently she and her twin sister, Brenna, had laughed together and played as children, racing amid the pillars and weaving in and out between the numerous tables throughout the enormous hall. Now, there was only disturbing silence.
Asta was the only Highgardian remaining in their realm. Brenna and their older sister Torunn had both recently journeyed to Midgard, to the world of humans. Eydis, their youngest sister, had died some moons earlier when she contracted the unrelenting Red Death, the plague that had hit their realm and decimated their people. Asta prayed Torunn and Brenna had made it safely to Midgard. When the two Highgardian moons were whole in the sky again, Asta would journey there as well to be with her sisters. That thought comforted her as she made her way through the silent fortress.
She walked through the winding corridors and entered the bedchamber she and Brenna had shared all their lives. Asta recalled Brenna’s lovely laugh and her sunny disposition. She remembered the many times they’d stayed awake talking, sometimes the entire night, and how they’d often laughed until they could scarcely breathe and their sides hurt. The empty bedchamber was suddenly unbearably lonely. The torch flickered ominously near the doorway and Asta added more wood to the fire.
Although Asta didn’t actually fear being alone, she disliked it far more than she’d thought she might. She had always required time apart from her sisters, but that had been on her own terms, when she had chosen to be distanced or alone. Even though she was capable of communicating with spirits, it did not take the place of being with Brenna or Torunn.
Asta’s greatest fear was darkness. Ever since she was a child, she recalled being desperately afraid of the dark. Fortunately, Brenna had always been understanding. She hadn’t objected to the shutters being drawn at night to hide the dark, and the torch and hearth burning brightly while they slept.
“You aren’t alone, Asta.” She heard the voice beside her and turned to see the spirit of her youngest sister, Eydis, perched upon the bed. “You are Asta Seer of Spirits; therefore, you are never truly alone.”
“That is true, Eydis, and I don’t want you to think for a single raven’s call I don’t appreciate your presence. You know I do, but I miss Brenna terribly.”
“She is your twin, of course you will miss her the most. You have not been parted in all your lives. How could you not long to have her here with you? I sense you do miss Torunn as well, though you might be more hesitant to admit that.”
“You’re correct, Eydis,” Asta sighed. “I certainly wouldn’t admit it to Torunn, but I do miss her more than I believed I would. Although we often disagreed and she was exasperatingly overprotective, I always felt safe when Torunn was here.”
“She was our mother for seven sun’s journeys after our aunt and grandmother died. Only thirteen sun’s journeys herself at the time, Torunn provided for us, cared for and protected us.”
“Yes, we owe her much,” Asta agreed.
“Soon you will go to Midgard to be with Brenna and Torunn.”
“Will you come to be with us, Eydis? As a spirit, are you able to cross over to other realms?”
“I’m not certain. I can’t go to Torunn and Brenna now for I have attempted it, but seeing spirits is not one of their Highgardian gifts. When you are in Midgard, I hope I will be able to come to you, but if not…we will all be together again one day in the place of solace.”
“I do hope you are able to journey to Midgard, Eydis.”
Asta turned quickly toward the shuttered window for she heard a distinct whisper. She was nearly certain it called to her…a voice she sensed might originate from somewhere in the dark mountains. She was accustomed to hearing voices, for as a seer of spirits she could also converse with them and they often spoke to her. But this did not sound like a spirit, yet clearly it must be for she was alone here in Highgard. She felt her heart thud faster when she heard the whisper again.
“Do you hear that, Eydis?”
“Do not listen, Asta. It is surely a voice from somewhere beyond the Crystal Mountains.”
“I disagree.” The voice of another spirit suddenly spoke. “I think you would do well to listen.” Asta turned to see the spectral figure of Runa. Asta had seen Runa’s spirit before and spoken with her on occasion, but she had never come to Asta here in her bedchamber. Runa had been a sorceress in life and even as a spirit she remained beautiful, but undeniably unsettling.
“I did not invite you here within my chambers,” Asta said. “I am sure you are aware this chamber is warded. Although you are clearly powerful enough to enter, it doesn’t mean I want you here.”
“I am not certain I want to be here, but there are topics we must discuss.”
Asta sighed, but thought Runa was likely correct.
“You think I should listen to the voice?” Asta asked.
“It is doubtful you can ignore the whispering. You should listen, but do not reply or acknowledge and don’t ever go to the voice,” Runa warned.
“Well it’s not as though I’m going to attempt to scale the Crystal Mountains and explore the dark mountains beyond to see if that is truly where the voice originates. I’m not Torunn. My powers do not include great physical strength and endurance.”
“But you must not heed the voice, for then the being may be capable of coming to you,” Runa said.
“Would you stop being so entirely cryptic and unforthcoming, Runa! Tell me who it is and what they want.”
Runa shook her head and her floor-length ebony-black hair swished eerily as she turned toward the shuttered window as though even she was fearful of what lay beyond.
“What would cause a spirit to be afraid? Nothing can hurt you as a spirit, can it?” Asta asked.
“No, they cannot hurt me now. However, they have caused immeasurable pain and suffering for many, not only here in this realm,” Runa said.
“That isn’t of any help to me, Runa. Giving me cryptic snippets of information is only going to add to my inquisitiveness,” Asta said as she stared at the spirit-woman and then at Eydis’s spirit. “Do you know the truth, Eydis? Do you know who whispers to me?”
“I can’t hear the voice, Asta. The goddess Solveig once told me only those with the inherent natural ability to hear spirits or recognize darkness can hear their voices.”
“So, there is more than one? That’s great; truly perfect to know there may be more than one voice I should hear, but never follow. Clearly Runa and I can hear them, but as a spirit you aren’t able to hear them, Eydis?”
“Your sister, Eydis, had no darkness within her in life or in death,” Runa answered as she stared at the window. It was evident she heard the whispers even now.
“I have a darkness within me?” Asta questioned though she had always believed that to be true and surely didn’t need confirmation.
“The imitator—one of the beings who are depleters but can make you believe they are someone else—was once able to come to you. You hear the voices from beyond the mountains. Only those with some amount of darkness within them are able,” Runa said.
Asta stared at the window as the whispers continued and her knees suddenly trembled. She lowered herself to the bed to still her unsteady legs. With her keen Highgardian senses she caught her sister Brenna’s scent upon her pillow. Asta clutched it to her. She envisioned Brenna’s lovely golden curls and her bright smile and the whispers stopped.
Runa nodded. “Always thoughts of light and positivity stem the voices, but that is not necessarily beneficial.”
“You are confusing me, Runa. You’ve told me not to listen to the voices, but now you are saying hearing them may be beneficial. That is entirely contradictory.”
“Listen, but do not heed. Perhaps if everyone here in Highgard had been capable of hearing the voices we would not be in such a dire predicament now. They might have believed what was happening and found a way to prevent it; there would not be only one Highgardian left here in this realm.”
“You are not helping me, Runa. Tell me the whole truth or nothing at all. Tell me what I should know or be gone!”
“You are not ready to hear it all, but you must know some. The voices are older than any of us known as Highgardians. It was the goddess Solveig who named this realm and decided it should be called Highgard. With her Asgardian powers, before she created the veil to conceal our world, she was capable of seeing across the realms to Asgard, but only if she looked downward, hence she named this realm Highgard.”
“I don’t need a lesson on the history of how the realm was named or the location of Asgard in relation to Highgard. I need to know about the voices!” Asta impatiently scolded.
“How did your aunt Magnahild put up with your sarcasm and belligerence for so long?” Runa said. Her voice sounded displeased and impatient also.
“Not so long. Brenna and I were nearly three when Mother died…or when she left us, which is apparently the truth of it. Her alleged death was just one of the many lies told to us through the years. We were eleven when our aunt was killed by the nidhoggr while protecting your body so you’d transcend,” Asta accused. “Therefore, our aunt only needed to put up with my belligerence for eight sun’s journeys. I suspect I was not always belligerent when I was a small child. Perhaps living to see almost everyone in our realm claimed by the Red Death aided my disposition. Maybe never being allowed to meet our father because he was sealed away in the dreaded caves of death before losing him to the scarlet affliction and believing our mother was dead as well…being left entirely alone but for my three sisters might have made me cynical and untrusting even at an early age.”
“Yet your sisters do not suffer such cynicism or unpleasantness,” Runa dared to suggest.
“As you are surely aware, I am not like my sisters. If I am to believe all I have heard, you, Runa the dark sorceress, were certainly more unpleasant than me, and dangerous as well,” Asta said as she glared at Runa.
Runa actually smirked at that.
End of Excerpt