Aralyn eventually regained consciousness as the boat drifted through the cave. At first, they looked in awe at the massive stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, carved over thousands of years. As they went deeper, the light from the entrance began to disappear.
Baltazar lit two torches that he had brought with him and placed one on the stern of the boat in a slot designed to hold them and handed the other to Lailah to do that same at the bow. The torches illuminated the cave even after the light from the entrance was gone.
Papi had done all he could for Aralyn and sat back as she began to stir, “I sincerely hope little Messy will get through this… It’s beyond cruel how much she’s lost.”
Lailah nodded, “You two may be all she has left in this world. Like it or not, you now are both essential to our success. So you must both remember not to take any unnecessary risks with your lives, no matter how small. She needs you both.”
Baltazar moved to the stern and cradled Aralyn. She rested her head in his lap and gripped his arm, “Baltazar… I’m so sorry…”
“For what?” He asked. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Your ship,” she replied, “your crew… I’ve taken your very way of life away from you. Everyone died because I didn’t want to live at the abbey anymore. It’s my fault. I would not blame you if you hated me for it.”
“Hate you?” Baltazar yelled out. “How could you even say that? I don’t hate you.”
“I cost you everything.” She replied.
“No you didn’t.” Baltazar insisted. “My crew followed me of their own free will, and I made the decision to help you. No one was forced into doing anything.”
“I agree,” Papi added, “I’ve been with this crew a very long time. They don’t do anything that they don’t think is in their best interests, yet here they were helping you. I doubt any of them regretted it.”
Aralyn nodded, “I… I hope you are right, but I have a feeling that they’d disagree.”
The boat continued to move until it got to a cavern that was so dark, not even the torches could penetrate the blackness. Suddenly, the group realized why. The cave became a downward slope. As the boat hit the edge, it began to pick up speed.
Lailah grabbed on to the bow, “Everyone hold on, this is going to be a bumpy ride!”
The group grabbed on to the sides of the boat, all except Aralyn who kept her grip tightly on Baltazar. There were several twists and turns to the tunnel that rocked the boat violently. The torches burned down to the wicks and almost went out as the boat picked up speed.
After what seemed like an eternity of a downward journey, the boat touched down into a thick fog. The boat half submerged itself as it hit the black water. Lailah turned to the crew, “Bail, everyone bail out the water. Don’t let us sink!”
The group cupped their hands together and quickly tossed as much water as they could out of the boat until it was in no danger of sinking again. There was still about an inch of water on the bottom, but they couldn’t get that out. The torch at the front of the boat had been extinguished by the splash. Baltazar tried to relight it, but the wick was too wet. They would have to rely on the one on the back of the boat.
Once again, the longboat began to move by itself. It slipped past random tree stumps and shattered branches sticking out of the water. Baltazar swore it looked like some great battle had taken place here many years ago.
The boat kept moving for what seemed like an hour, when suddenly Aralyn slowly shook her head, balled herself up on the back of the boat, and placed her hands on her head, “I can hear them.”
Baltazar and Papi turned to look at her. She had every muscle clenched and it looked like she was in agony. Baltazar placed a hand on her shoulder while Papi brushed the hair away from her face, “What is it, what’s wrong?”
“I… I can’t explain it…” She replied. “An uncountable number of sorrowful voices… I can hear them echoing in my mind… it hurts me.”
“Let me through.” Lailah said as she moved past Baltazar.
Lailah sat down in front of Aralyn and placed her hands on Aralyn’s head, “Focus, child… drive the voices out of your head. Picture your mind and then build walls around it to keep the noise out.”
Aralyn shook her head, “I can’t… it’s too powerful.”
“Yes you can.” Lailah replied. “Focus… find the strength within yourself… Concentrate.”
Aralyn let out a couple of labored breaths, but then after a few minutes, began to breathe normally. She looked up at Lailah and nodded, “I’m okay… the pain is dying down… thank you.”
Baltazar moved in next to Lailah, “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Aralyn replied, wiping her brow, “it was painful, but it’s passed now. Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
Lailah turned back, “I hear the voices too. It’s not easy to block them out. All the pain and anguish can be overwhelming. You have done well.”
Lailah returned to the front of the boat while Baltazar held on to Aralyn. “What is this place?” Papi asked as he said down.
“This… Mr. Clement,” Lailah replied, “is the Well of Souls.”
Papi looked around, “So this black water…”
“Do not touch it!” She cut in. “That is not water. This is the essence of the souls of those people who were indifferent to the evil around them. They were condemned to rest here.”
Papi seemed very confused, “So is this hell, or purgatory, or limbo?”
“Limbo,” Lailah scoffed, “a place where those who have not been baptized go. What nonsense. Do you honestly believe that the Most High would be so unfair?”
Papi shrugged, “I’d always assumed that he’d set rules in place and when people simply chose not to follow them…”
“Not to follow them?” Lailah’s eyes went wide. “What about children who die before they get a chance, or people who lived good lives, but grew up in areas ignorant of these supposed ‘teachings?’ Explain to me how that even makes sense! Why would the Most High limit salvation so much that some people aren’t even given a chance?”
Papi sat back, unable to answer, “I… I guess it does seem unfair.”
“The universe is not so poorly run, Mr. Clement. Salvation is for all who live honest, decent, lives, not just for those who follow one church’s teachings.” She replied. “Thus, there is no limbo. What you see in front of you here isn’t hell either, though it does lead there. This place was created because even though these people committed evil themselves by allowing it to happen to others, not even the Most High had it in him to commit them to eternal damnation. Instead, the Well was created for them to flow endlessly for all eternity. It takes a lot to commit someone to hell.”
Papi nodded, “I think I understand now.”
“Good.” Lailah replied. “Put those false teachings out of your head. You’ll live a much happier life.”
“I hate to break up this enlightening discussion,” Baltazar interrupted, “but I thought I just saw something in the water.”
Papi turned to his side, “What is it?”
“Be patient,” Lailah replied, “you’ll see them.”
Aralyn raised her head for just a moment and opened her eyes. They were glowing bright green as she looked out in the distance, “They’re here…”
Baltazar turned back and looked at her with a strange feeling in his heart. Suddenly, Papi pointed onto the lake, “Look!”
The boat was suddenly surrounded by green entities. They all seemed to be flowing in the same direction as the boat. To Baltazar it almost seemed like they were guiding it. Watching a few of the spirits flow past, he was reminded of dolphins swimming alongside ships as they were heading out to sea.
The scene was somewhat ghostly to Baltazar, “This is somewhat unsettling. I’ve never seen anything like this, Aralyn…”
He looked back again to see that she had once again balled herself up, trying to shut them out. Lailah looked out on lake, “It is a sad thing to see souls committed here, but those who have wasted their lives and not helped others when they could have belong here.”
“I would imagine that this place is merciful when compared to hell.” Papi retorted. “Wouldn’t it be?”
“It would be,” Lailah replied, “but not by much…”
On the back of the boat, Aralyn’s eyes shot open and she sat up from Baltazar, “I hear a voice… it’s stronger than the rest… It’s odd, but I feel like I should know it.”
Suddenly, a green entity appeared beneath the surface of the black water and kept pace with the boat. A decrepit face appeared from the green light. Lailah smiled, “Azrael, my old friend.”
She placed her hand in the water. The green entity surrounded her hand. As though someone had just spoken to her, she nodded, “It has been some time hasn’t it?”
She paused for a moment as though listening again. Out of nowhere, she began laughing, “No, the years do not appear to have been kind to you either… but at least we still exist.”
There was another pause, and again she responded to unheard words, “No, that is not Adaline, I know, it looks exactly like her, but Adaline died years ago. That is actually her only descendant.”
Lailah looked up at Aralyn, “Azrael says you’re as beautiful as she was. He misses her deeply.”
“Who is Azrael?” She asked.
Lailah smiled, “He was the Angel of Death for many years. He was also a great hero of the Celestial Wars. He died protecting Adaline from the archangel Michael… it shocked us all.”
“And God sent him here?” Baltazar asked. “That seems rather cruel.”
“Angels aren’t given the mercies humans are.” Lailah replied. “We can’t procreate and we can’t receive the forgiveness of the Most High, because in his mind, we know better. However, we do live forever, we can love, and we never get old. It’s a steep trade-off, but that is life for us.”
“But why send him here?” Aralyn asked.
“Angels’ bodies are considered holy items.” She replied. “To damage or destroy one is considered crime. We are supposed to guard ourselves against all things. If we fail to do so, this is our punishment.”
“Still seems unfair.” Papi said softly.
Lailah nodded as she went silent again. After a few minutes, the smile returned to her face, “We would appreciate that… thank you old friend.”
As Lailah pulled her hand from the water, Aralyn looked at her oddly, “What did he say?”
“He’s going to guide us to the main fountain of the Well.” She replied.
The boat slowly turned and began heading in another direction. Aralyn began to feel as though someone were pulling them along. She moved up and sat down next to Lailah, “How long did Adaline know Azrael?”
“Thousands of years…” Lailah replied. “During the war, he taught her how to fight, she became his apprentice. She was amongst the most gifted angels.”
Aralyn nodded, but said nothing else. Lailah could sense that she was holding something back, “Speak your mind, Aralyn. I don’t know how much longer we’ll have the opportunity to give you answers. So if you want them, now is the time.”
Aralyn nodded, “I’ve heard so much about Adaline… I’ve heard how great she was, and how she’s still revered as a hero… but what about Giovanni? What about the man who saved her life and loved her.”
Lailah noticed that she was looking back at Baltazar as she was asking these questions, “Giovanni was a fairly poor fisherman living a modest life in Venice. Like the rest of his family, he was stricken with the White Plague and was slowly dying. It was pure luck that he found her… Unfortunately, I don’t know him personally, but last I saw, he and Adaline still dwell together and love each other as much as ever.”
Aralyn smiled, “That’s good to know.”
“We should all be so lucky.” Lailah agreed.
The two peered off into the distance as the fog lifted. A bright green glow emanated from a small grotto about a mile off in the distance. As the boat glided towards it, the grotto began to get bigger. Papi squinted at it, trying to get a better view, “What is it?”
Lailah smiled, “That is the fountain that feeds the Well of Souls.”
The boat moved closer until the fountain was in full view. The group looked in awe at the massive whirlpool that seemed to flow opposite to that of normal maelstroms. It was like a massive spire of water that flowed upwards. To add more mystery, their boat stopped moving even though the water continued to flow forward.
Once they were in position, Lailah nodded, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
Baltazar’s eyes narrowed, “Wait, where are you going?”
“Into the fountain,” she replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. It is the only way to get word to the Choirs.”
Aralyn nodded, “Okay… good luck, hurry back.”
Lailah smiled as she stepped out into the water. Everyone expected her to fall at least up to her neck, but that did not happen. She walked on the surface as though it were solid. Her toes caused ripples in the water as she stepped. She stopped right in front of the Well and touched it with a single finger. There was a spark, and her body appeared to illuminate for a moment. She hesitantly thrust her hand into the fountain and began to glow brightly.
Suddenly, the feathers on her wings began to grow back, the scars on her body disappeared, and she was completely restored to her original splendor. Aralyn could not believe how beautiful she was as the glow slowly dissipated. Suddenly, a white light appeared above her and with a might flap of her wings, she shot upwards at impressive speeds. Aralyn and the two men searched the skies for her but could not see anything.
Finally, after about ten minutes of searching the sky, the group saw a white comet approaching. The comet shot down and hit the water with a massive splash. There was a brief moment of silence, which was broken by the fountain flowing faster than before. It kept spinning faster and faster until a white blur shot out of the top. It hovered in the sky for a few moments until the white glow faded and Lailah was left in its place.
She hovered for a moment before setting down on the boat. The moment she folded her wings, they withered back to the way they had been. Her scars returned and her features returned to the way they had been for years.
Aralyn frowned as she saw tears form in Lailah’s eyes, “I’m sorry Lailah. I guess the powers really are limited.”
“Very much so,” she replied with a hint of sorrow in her voice, “but they served their purpose.”
“You managed to get in contact with the Choirs then?” Baltazar asked.
“Yes,” Lailah replied, “I informed the archangels and the general of the Most High’s army of what will happen. They have agreed to prepare for a fight. They’re going to wait until Legion reveals himself before making a move, but they’re with us.”
Baltazar shrugged, “Well at least we’ve got them looking over us.”
“I hate to cast a shadow on the current situation,” Papi’s voice appeared from behind, “but there still exists the problem of how we get out of here.”
Lailah nodded, “That’s been taken care of too… we’ll need to row for the fountain. It will transport us back to where we were.”
A worried look came over Baltazar’s face, “But the galleass?”
Lailah nodded, “We’ll just have to hope she’s gone. I don’t think they saw us enter the cave, so they have no reason not to return to France.”
“There is still the risk.” Papi insisted.
“There is risk in all things.” Baltazar replied. “There is no sense sitting around here forever wondering… grab an oar, we’re moving on.”
Papi nodded, “Aye Captain.”
Aralyn sat down at the stern while the men rowed the boat toward the spinning water. Within moments, the current caught the boat and pushed it toward the spire. The boat spun around faster and faster until it began to rise out of the water. Aralyn watched as the black water grew more distant underneath them.
The boat began to spin faster and faster until everything became a blur. Unable to see, Aralyn reached out for Baltazar. He quickly took her hand as their world spun around them. The blur turned to black and everything faded out of sight.
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