Roberta’s had a year of hell. From fighting an ancient curse, to discovering a parallel realm hiding in the shadows of her own world, she’s narrowly missed death on many occasions. As both friends and foe have fallen, she’s miraculously survived. Though, with giant wolves, doppelgängers and her greatest nemesis’s minions around every corner, she’s not sure how.
Now, torn from her loved ones and trying to survive in an alien land, she’s tasked with her most difficult challenge to date; destroy an the evil and save two worlds whilst she’s at it.
In the world of Gathin, Roberta’s had to rely on those once considered the enemy, and their relationships are strained even further in her last attempt to find vengeance for those she’s lost. Meanwhile, with Susan and Sam battling to protect Ridgewood from it’s greatest ever threat, the burden to survive and conquer until the bitter end is once again placed upon Roberta’s shoulders.
To kill the enemy meant taking on herself. That was the constant and perplexing thought in Roberta’s mind. Many would think having insight into their foes was an advantage, but this time, every idea Roberta had was very likely also in the mind of the woman she sought to kill.
The Queen of the North Realms, the doppelgänger she had fought so hard to stop, had won. She’d crossed from Gathin to Earth. She’d restored the balance of nature; one Roberta living in each plane of existence. There was certainly no way to go home now. Though, as Roberta looked around her surroundings, she realised Hilltree, not Ridgewood, felt more like home than home itself.
Scooping the trailing white dress from the floor, Roberta reached out for Emily’s hand, before using the small metal step to enter the carriage. The dress was new. Actually, it was strung together from a collection of second-hand garments that Franca had begged and bargained for. But to Roberta, this second dress was a work of art. The original long and flowing gown in which she had expected to hide in clear sight, was sodden with the blood of many.
Roberta glanced across the large horse-drawn carriage to where Franca still fiddled with her daughter Emily’s dress. The crimson life force of the woman’s son, Crieg, had been so etched into the skirt and bodice of that beautiful dress there was no saving it. His body, and the others, still laid at the scene, too frightened were any of those around her to climb the great staircase and give the dead the burials they deserved. Everything was rather stark. This had never happened before. No army had ever marched between worlds. Most of those in Gathin still had no idea what had happened. But Roberta knew and she couldn’t even imagine what might happen next.
“Are we about ready?”
Roberta looked up as the doorway was momentarily filled and the carriage was cast into darkness. Soon after, bright sunlight penetrated once again as Sesane stepped into the coach and saw that Franca was still primping Emily’s outfit.
“We really must go,” she said gently, putting her one undamaged arm upon the woman’s shoulder. “If it’s too much….if you’d prefer she stayed?”
“No. She must go, she must do what small gestures of help we can offer,” Franca replied as she pushed hair from her daughter’s forehead and placed a small kiss on the teenager’s exposed skin. “Crieg did what he thought best, and she killed him for it. That’s not our way,” she continued as she finally left Emily’s side and looked to Sesane’s scarred face. “Our children will not die for nothing”.
They hugged briefly, before Franca stepped out of the carriage without a word or glance towards where Roberta shrank into the uncomfortable silence. She closed the door with a slam, and her footsteps were heard on the gravel roadside.
“Where’s Laslay?” Roberta asked, noting the three women had not yet been joined by the Ammokra Acolyte.
“He’s to join us later,” Sesane replied as she considered sitting next to Roberta, saw that the ornate dress covered far too much of the bench, and took a seat next to Emily instead. “He is making a last foray into the tower.”
“It isn’t safe,” Roberta said as her jaw dropped. The Queen may have crossed, but many of her followers remained. “He shouldn’t have gone without us.”
“It is safer for him, than you or I, I assure you. And as long as she took her acolyte henchmen with her, Laslay will not be in harm’s way.”
Beneath her, the carriage wobbled into life and the four great horses that stood outside, their reigns harnessed into the large vehicle, began to snort and stamp their feet. Within a moment, the sound of gravel churning under the wheels began, and the entire vessel began to jerk as it finally moved off.
“I don’t even know why we’re going anymore,” Roberta said softly. “She got through. She won.”
“After everything we’ve been through, you go and say something like that,” Sesane replied sharply, turning her head back from the small window. “No. There is much to be done. She may have crossed through the veils of our worlds, yes, but she has not won. The Ammokra is yet to be destroyed. Her new weapon is yet to be vanquished back to hell.”
“We don’t even know what her weapon is.”
“It will be an Ammokra, of sorts. Let us not forget that it was you who discovered its being, you who found that she was building it from the souls of the original acolyte descendants.”
“And Maerthi paid the price,” Roberta said as she once again thought of the slaughter at the top of the staircase.
“Exactly,” Sesane responded sharply. “But there are souls you can still save, Roberta. You have opened my eyes. You have walked in the Gods’ Realm. There is none but you who can save the souls of those in Ridgewood. If you wish to protect your Gatekeeper and the thousands of lives she’ll use to fuel her curse, then you must find extra strength. This weapon, this curse; she brought it into being by sacrificing the lives of anyone remotely descended from the original six priests. Laslay believes those on Earth who share a similar bloodline will also be sought out to bolster the weapon’s power.”
“So Martha? Martha and every other poor, oblivious relative is in danger?”
“It is likely that they will be the first to fall, yes.”
The carriage fell silent, and Roberta looked through the small window to see scrubby wasteland rolling by. The sun was beating down heavily upon the steep and craggy hills. Their journey had been somewhat delayed by her jaunt into the forest. She’d raced to the precipice only to watch as the Queen strolled out of Gathin as if she’d never been there in the first place. The dress had been ruined, and the small group had needed to call in as many favours as possible to create a new ensemble. The carriage and horses that Crieg had originally organised had also vanished. Despite his age, he’d been well connected. With news of his and the other deaths flooding across Hilltree like a bad disease, they’d been hard pressed to find anyone who’d actually talk. The Queen was gone; that was the word on the hushed streets. She and her army had left Gathin. They’d marched into Earth, tearing through the very fabric that held the world together. But even with Roberta’s doppelgänger gone, there was fear, as if the scars left by her occupation wouldn’t ever heal. Some didn’t believe she was gone, and whispered that their Queen was simply deep in the catacombs of the tower forging some new evil. Others, though brazen enough to joke and laugh that they were free of oppression, still kept to the outskirts of town, not wanting to near the Central Circle’s gates lest a hidden wolf jumped forwards and sank its canines deep into their flesh. Gathin was not at all what Roberta had originally thought it to be; a realm of evil plotting against all those on Earth. Perhaps it had been Barry’s influence that had swayed her first impressions. Perhaps it had been the fact she’d been fighting for her life.
After several days of hiding in Franca’s shop, not that they’d been bothered remotely – for every resident was far too caught in the Queen’s web to pay the slightest attention to a bakery on the periphery of town – Roberta had been forced to wander back across the stone line and seek help in Ruinne. Her second visit was far from eventful. Laslay and Sesane had stood anxiously beside one another as Roberta was ushered across, warning her to stay safe, urging her not to die and allow her soul to be sucked into the stones and left in eternal limbo. However, given that, on her last excursion into the Northern Wilds, she’d almost been discovered by Luguolo, the knowledge he and the Queen were gone made her journey far more enjoyable. She had a huge bag of pastries and bread for trade, and she’d made her way to the remote and crumbling town by nightfall. Once again, she’d pulled her hair over her face to camouflage herself amongst the sickeningly thin and unwashed masses, made her way to Mrs Raveburn’s inn, and spent the night on a lumpy mattress after being fed vast quantities of vegetable soup with unpalatable slimy bits.
“Surprised you ain’t dead. Didnee think I’d be seeing you again,” the innkeeper had sighed as Roberta stepped down into the kitchen the following morning. “Still, y’er her copy, I s’pose. Got some iron guts about y’er. Now, I’m guessing y’er wantin’ some help.” She left her place at the stone sink and moved to a bench by the fireplace, smoothing her old and tattered apron as she beckoned Roberta over.
“How did you know?” Roberta asked as she answered the woman’s gestures and sat, taking the opportunity to put her hands out and warm them by the fire. Despite it being summer, the shadowed room was still remarkably cold.
“Y’er wouldn’t be comin’ back here, if you didnee need too. But first, tell me, what happened to Maerthi?”
The woman’s name made Roberta’s blood run cold, and she saw the vision of blood rushing from Maerthi’s freshly slit throat flash in front of her eyes.
“The Queen killed her,” Roberta replied flatly.
“The other side of the stone line?”
“Well, there’s sometin’ to be said for that,” the woman said as she moved quickly past the subject. “’Tis sad, but not unexpected. Now, what did y’er need from me?”
Roberta was wary about letting on too much to anyone other than her very closest companions, and though she explained about needing a carriage and enough horses to draw it, she took care to remain elusive on exactly why she required them. Mrs Raveburn’s eyes grew wide as Roberta’s request was revealed and she held back a stifled laugh.
“I don’t know where y’er think I’d get my hands on a thin’ like that. Look outside the window. Y’er not in Hilltree now. I daresay there’s an old carriage lyin’ around her somewhere. But to get the horses to draw it? There’s now’t but weeds f’er feed up here. You’d likely find goats with more strength than the beasts y’er looking for.”
“There has to be something,” Roberta pleaded. “Please. I’ve got no one else to turn to.”
Mrs Raveburn left her seat, picked up a rag and began to scrub the ingrained dirt upon the table’s cracks.
“You’d might remember it was gabbin’ with you that most likely got that Maerthi killed. An’ now y’er ask this of me?” She continued to rub the surface of the old wooden kitchen table vigorously. Finally she sighed heavily, stopped her work and turned to look at Roberta. “But, if what y’er said was true about the Queen and this new weapon, then I spo’se I got no choice.”
Roberta couldn’t help herself, and leapt from the bench to fling her arms around the woman’s neck. Mrs Raveburn seemed rather bewildered and stood there uncomfortably for a moment, before pulling away and telling Roberta to stay put whilst she went to work. Four hours later, as the sun was fading and Roberta was beginning to lose all hope, the woman appeared in the doorway.
“Y’er got your carriage and horses,” she puffed. “Well, I daresay they’re more like ponies to you Hilltree lot. But it is what it is, and you won’t be findin’ nothing better.”
The innkeeper had been quite right about the state of the beasts, and when Roberta saw them the following morning, she had to make a conscious effort to stop her smile from fading. Ponies had barely been the correct word. As she laid eyes on the rickety carriage, she wondered whether the emaciated animals could even pull an empty transport, let alone one that bore the weight of passengers. A scruffy teenage boy flung open the door to the wooden contraption and reached out to hoist her up. He jumped out as Roberta tried to find a seat without the risk of a splinter, and climbed onto the front of the vehicle, whipping the horses with a long stick as he did so. They lurched into life and the wheels quickly began rolling, much to Roberta’s amazement and utter disbelief. She’d stuck her head out of the tiny window as the carriage lurched away, but Mrs Raveburn had already vanished into the dishevelled masses of Ruinne residents.
Hours later, the carriage jolted so hard that Roberta was almost thrown out of her seat. Her mind snapped back to the present instead of reminiscing about how things had come to be. Sesane responded to a concerned gasp from Emily by putting her hand on the girl’s leg and assuring the young woman they’d probably just hit a stone in the road.
“The route is not much travelled,” she said, as she took the time to assuage their concerns. “And our beasts not well fed. It’s to be expected that our journey will be uncomfortable. Still, now their souls have been safeguarded, one would hope these animals will find a new lust for life.”
“Or they’ll just lay down and die,” Roberta said. If she were one of them, and now knew that her soul could pass to the Gods’ Realm and not be sucked into the stone line to live in eternal limbo, she might be happy to allow her fragile, neglected and eroded body to finally find some rest. Still, so far, the emaciated creatures had managed to pull the carriage, though there had been numerous stumbles along the way, particularly when they’d still been in the Northern Wilds. But, Laslay and Sesane had been waiting on the North Realms’ side of the border with fresh feed and nosebags. Since then, their steeds seemed far happier. Whether it was the food, the fact their souls were free, or both, Roberta didn’t know. As long as they lasted the journey to Albion; that was all that mattered.
“How long does it take to get to the border?” Roberta asked as the carriage juddered onwards.
“Two days, three at most depending on what lies in our path.”
Roberta gave Sesane a questioning look.
“We are at war, remember. This path is travelled less than the route between Hilltree and Ruinne. The Queen managed to keep her kingdom together by focussing all attention on her capital, by fortifying herself and the wealth of our country within the walls of the Central Circle at the sake of everyone else. Not even traders use the road we are to journey along. There is no telling what might be in our way.”
“That’s reassuring,” Roberta said a little too quickly, not meaning to verbalise what she was thinking. The look on Emily’s face became graver, and she imagined the girl to be terrified. “But it is amazing we’ve come this far. I’m sure we can handle anything that’s thrown at us,” she quickly added.
“To the God’s you’re right,” Sesane said as a smile finally formed on her face. The expression came as a jolt, and Roberta realised she hadn’t seen it since the deaths in the forest.
There was little to do on their journey, and as the dusk gradually fell about the land, the three women remained silent. Roberta watched the world whir by outside, shifting uncomfortably as her bum became numb. The dress that Franca had fashioned, whilst gorgeous and intricately embedded with tiny shimmering stones, was heavy. Even as she sat, Roberta could feel the folds of the pale creamy fabric pulling on her body. Any position other than sitting bolt upright required layers of material to first be moved and balanced on the seat beside her. It took so much effort that she couldn’t be bothered most of the time, and Roberta very quickly lost feeling in her lower body whilst her torso was simultaneously strained by the weight of the gown. Why anyone would willingly want to wear such an outfit, she didn’t know.
With conversation lacking, the scrubby mountains, drifts of scree, loose rocks, dry stone walls and dirty brown sheep became a blur. Though home seemed so far away, Roberta couldn’t help but think of it. She tried, on many occasions, to shift her focus to something else, to her challenge ahead, but always, the image of Sam’s face, or the feeling of Faithful’s paws on her lap filtered slowly into her mind. She knew she had to stop calling it home, that going back was no longer an option, but she longed to see those she’d left behind; to make sure everyone was well. To have even the slightest inkling of what was going on now the Queen and her minions had crossed. But her future lay on a different path, a way that led to Albion and the King.
They still sought to destroy the Ammokra once and for all; just because it had disappeared, it didn’t mean the killings would stop. She was almost convinced that if nothing was done, it would reappear in 10 years time to take yet more innocent lives. That’s if anyone was left, Roberta thought. There’s no telling what the Queen was doing on Earth and, if rumours of a new weapon were true, what she was doing with it.
Roberta had no clue as to whether they’d find aid in Albion, or even if anyone would be able to help, but there was one clue she was hanging onto; St. James’s Park. The visions she had with Alice were seemingly true. She thought she’d seen the Queen’s reflection when standing on the precipice, only to discover the woman running up the steps, whose dress was stained with red, was actually herself. There was another vision that spoke to her now, and one that she’d mentioned to no one. It was the one that had placed her in St. James’s Park, London. The entire area was laid to waste, death was everywhere, but etched on a large boulder had been the sign for the Ammokra. And it was there that Roberta knew she must head, if she was ever to get any answers.