He could hear a female voice shout his name somewhere in the distance; the images before his inner eye started to blur. With all of his mental strength, Storm held on to the past, refusing to face reality again.
“Let’s leave. This guy is of no help to anyone, look at him. I marched all the way through this damned heat so we could get this poor excuse of a human? Seriously?” someone else said, a weird hissing sound following every single word.
“Stop it, Derjan. You have no idea what he is capable of.”
There it was again, that female voice from before. It sounded familiar, and suddenly Storm noticed how everything around him began to tremble. As close as reality already was, he could feel how someone grabbed him, shaking him forcefully.
“No, not now. Not so soon!” he screamed from the depths of his lungs, seeing how Elana’s face started to fade in front of him. Storm reached out with both hands and tried desperately to reach her again, to touch her face just one last time; but before he could feel his fingers on her skin, she was gone, and within an instant, both his body and mind were back in the present.
His head still pounding, Storm quickly opened his eyes.
Sunlight had found its way into the cabin again, and he noticed how someone kept holding on to his shoulder, slapping him in the face.
As his instincts took over, he freed himself from the other person’s grip, and jumped away from the bed; his cheek burning heavily.
With all his muscles tightened, he looked up, ready to defend himself. Storm knew that it would take a moment or two until his sight was fully restored, so for now he just stood there, trying to recognize something within the blurry images in front of him.
There was no doubt that two individuals were standing in his cabin, that much their voices had already given away, and he could see their silhouettes close by.
They were of similar height, compared to himself smaller by at least a head; one of them, in terms of body size way bigger than the other, seemed to be wearing metal armor. Despite the ongoing blurriness, Storm could see the sunlight getting reflected from it, and he wondered immediately who would be stupid enough to wear something like that out here in this tropical environment.
He turned his head a bit and looked at the other person; it was difficult to make out anything noticeable in his current condition, but he was sure that — whoever it was — was holding some kind of staff in hand.
Storm squinted his eyes, trying to sharpen his vision. He could almost see them clearly now and looked at the bigger person first; his instincts telling him, this might be the more dangerous threat. The lizard-like features with the scaly, bluish skin and the sharp teeth, almost grinning at him, were a dead giveaway.
He wondered what a Rhultak would be doing out here, but it did explain the hissing sound earlier, and even the metal armor made sense now; under normal circumstances, there was no way you would come across a Rhultak who isn’t fully armored, regardless of where you were.
As unlikely as it was, there was nothing to argue about the Rhultak’s presence, and so Storm redirected his gaze at what looked like the smaller threat at first. She was human, a woman, there was no doubt about that now. She was wearing tight leather clothes, long pants with a vest that exposed her belly, and in her hand, a decorated staff. Storm raised his head and noticed her shoulder-long, brown hair before looking into her green eyes that seemed full of sadness and anger at the same time.
“Tamara?” he asked, knowing full well, who was standing right in front of him.
Tamara took a few steps towards him and leaned over the bed to open the window. Only now Storm noticed that the door stood open, and the upcoming air draft pushed the remaining smoke out of the cabin.
“You look terrible, did someone tell you this recently?”, Tamara said.
Storm looked down at his dirty clothes and ran both hands over his face. He could feel the unkempt beard between his fingers while observing how Tamara’s gaze wandered to some dark stains on the floor next to the bed.
Immediately, Storm stepped on a ragged rug and pulled it over the stains.
“I didn’t choose this place because of its company”.
While her companion kept his stiff attitude, remaining at the door and making a disapproving noise, Tamara pulled a chair towards herself and sat down. Despite her slim yet thoroughly fit body, the chair creaked loudly as she leaned over the back of it, her head shaking. “What were you thinking, leaving yourself so vulnerable out here?”
They stared silently at each other, but for a moment, Storm looked right through her, seeing Elana’s face appear before his inner eye.
It felt like a knife being twisted in his heart.
He knew that he had been robbed of one of his last vivid moments with her, but as much as he wanted to get furious, he couldn’t. After all, it wasn’t just anyone who had done this to him; it was Tamara.
So, he did his best to fake a smile, cramped yet still heartfelt. “I guess it was just a matter of time before someone found me, so I’m glad it’s you,” he answered and rubbed his eyes. “I assume you’ve been ordered to escort me back so that they can punish me for my disappearance?”
“Oh my god, it’s really you!”
Storm yanked his head around in surprise when a Gniwer suddenly pushed himself past the Rhultak blocking the door.
“I’ve checked the perimeter, and everything looks good, no dangers to be found.”
The Gniwer, barely more than half Storm’s size, clicked his heels in what looked like an awkward attempt to salute, and continued to come closer. He threw his backpack, rattling with all kinds of stuff, on the ground, and pulled a pair of goggles up over his head; then he looked up, grabbed Storm’s hand, and shook it.
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir. I cannot tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”
Storm, still baffled, stared at Tamara.
“Fip, now is not the time,” she said in a tone that left no doubts who was calling the shots here. “Go and keep Derjan company outside, I will take it from here.”
“I said, go!”
Mumbling to himself and dragging his feet, the Gniwer wandered towards his companion at the door, grabbing his backpack along the way.
“So? What are your orders?” Storm asked, when both of Tamara’s companions had left the cabin.
“First of all, I could have told the council where you were since the day you disappeared”.
Storm leaned against the wall. “You could?”
“How many years have we been doing this together? I was with you, when you found the remains of this cabin, remember?” Tamara got up from the chair and started wandering through the room. “I knew from day one you would choose this place in, what I think, was a stupid attempt of getting yourself killed.”
“Then why didn’t you tell them, instead of risking your own career?”
“Because you are my friend and I care about you? What else, you idiot.”
Storm leaned over the bed and closed the window. “So, why are you here now then?”
“We need your help.”
“Ehrm…,” it was the Rhultak who obviously wanted to protest, but Tamara didn’t give him any chance for that. As soon as her companion tried to speak up, she walked to the door. “I said, I’ll take it from here.”
Storm watched Tamara close the door, but before it was completely shot, he still noticed the Gniwer staring right at him with a smile over his face that looked like it reached from one pointed ear to the other.
“What kind of help are we talking about?” he asked, trying to get that creepy grin out of his head.
“It’s about Everling,” Tamara answered, and as much as he tried, Storm couldn’t keep all his feelings bottled down when hearing those words.
“I’ve left that place behind me. You know there is nothing there for me anymore,” Storm responded, waving his hand in refusal.
“I think it is back,” she said, clearly uncomfortable. “I think the ashak is back, Storm.”
The words hit him like a sledgehammer. Gasping for air he sat down on the bed, overwhelmed by bloody memories flooding his mind. It took a few moments before he was able to respond, and when he did, he could feel the rage inside of him rushing through his entire body.
“Impossible! You know I killed that beast,” Storm cursed and clenched his fists.
“You know, there have always been rumors…”
“Don’t!” Storm interrupted her. “I killed it, end of story. It’s over!”
Tamara sighed; she walked a few steps back and forth, eventually turning towards him again.
“The signs are all there, Storm; people suddenly missing, red eyes glowing in the dark, animals and other creatures behaving erratically.”
She walked right up to him and looked him in the eye.
“There were two of them, it’s the only explanation, and deep down you have to know that yourself already.”
Storm kicked against the side of his bed, knocking off one of its legs; the bed crashing down with a loud bang. “Ok, I get it!” Storm yelled at her, only to regret his outburst right away. He closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry, I understand. But you see now, why I’m here. It’s serious, Storm, otherwise I would never have told them where you are.” She started wandering through the cabin again. “It was the only way though to get this message to you, I couldn’t have left without someone noticing, and I certainly wasn’t going to send someone else into this death trap of a jungle.”
“You still haven’t told me your orders,” he noted.
“The council is willing to pardon you if you come back with us and rejoin the Essence Hunters.”
“They what?” Storm stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder. “What happened? There is no way Grimor would simply forgive my transgression.”
“Grimor is dead, Iz’za is now leading the Order. She was always fond of you, you know that.”
Storm wasn’t sure where to press for more — Grimor’s death or Iz’za becoming High Council as the first Naru ever — and took a moment to digest the information.
“How did he die?” he asked eventually. It was curiosity sparking this question, the last thing he cared about was Grimor’s well-being; after all, he was the one forcing Storm to leave by refusing his request to hunt the ashak.
“He was leading a mission to an uncharted world, expecting to find some kind of artifact tracing back to the Dhari,” Tamara explained. “His team got ambushed by a bunch of invisible creatures. Most of the expedition died right there, but Grimor and two others managed to get back to the portal severely wounded. He died shortly after returning to Windhaven.”
“And the others?”
“They survived, barely, and the world they visited has been added to the blacklist.”
“I don’t know if I can go back to this,” Storm sat down on the straw-filled mattress, rubbing his hands. “Things have changed in the last year, I’m not the same person anymore. I thought all of this was over.”
“Elana wouldn’t want you to just throw your life away like that.” Tamara sat down next to him, putting a hand on his. “This is your chance of getting it back. Let us end this once and for all, just like we started it — together.”
Storm pushed her hand away. “Careful, Tamara.”
“Children are disappearing. Innocent and helpless children. Is that really something you want on your conscience? You know there is no chance the council will let you anywhere near Everling if you don’t return with us first.”
Storm squinted his eyes and turned away from her.
“I know that you don’t want to hear this, but you cannot keep doing this alone. You need help, whether you like it or not”.
“I asked for help,” Storm shouted and jumped up from the bed. “I begged for help, and what did they do? They denied it, they ignored it, and in the end, they told me we had more important things to focus on. You know all this, you were there, so don’t talk to me like I wanted to take this path.”
“Yeah, I know, and I agreed with you back then,” Tamara responded calmly. “That’s why I risked so much by helping you get away; but things are different now, Iz’za is not the same as Grimor, and she is offering you a chance at redemption. Don’t throw that away.”
“How can I trust her? She was one of Grimor’s advisors, making her one of the two most influential people right after Grimor himself, and what did she do? Nothing!”
“Would you have spoken up publicly against him in her position? Do you think any good would have come of it?” Tamara got up and took his hand. “Storm, if you cannot trust her, then trust me. This is the only way for you to come out of hiding again, and more importantly, it’s the only way to go back to Everling and to follow this new lead.”
She let go of his hand and walked to the door, opening it. “It is up to you now; we are staying in Rantau before heading to the portal tomorrow morning. I really would feel much more comfortable if you were with us.”
Without giving him any chance to respond, she closed the door and was out of sight.
“Is he coming?”
Storm could hear the high-pitched voice of the Gniwer outside.
“I’m sure he will, Fip,” Tamara responded.
“This was a complete waste of time. I told you, we don’t need this guy. Let us find that monster and I’ll end this.”
Storm couldn’t say what it meant, but there was no doubt, the last words of the Rhultak were filled with emotion.
It was quiet for a second before Tamara spoke up again, clearly still standing right in front of the door.
“He’ll be there, Derjan, trust me. He will be there…”