The Nether Realm

The next morning, Alexander stepped onto the balcony with a towel in his hands, having just had a bath and pulled his trousers on after. He looked to the horizon, as the sounds of swords clashing together caught his attention. Looking closer to home, he saw that Catharine, Edrea, and about forty or fifty others were standing together in a field. Catharine and Edrea had just demonstrated a stop thrust, Edrea having stepped to one side slightly, so as not to get Catharine’s sword in her guts. Catharine turned to the forty or fifty others, and said, “so, remember, it’s parry, and then push up slightly, or slide your sword round so that it comes out of their hands, and then turn and thrust backwards.” The soldiers all nodded, and Catharine said, “OK. Get practising. Edrea, join in a three with... Celera and Tamierra, can you let Edrea practise with you two, OK.” Edrea and two others pressed their fists to their chests, and Catharine nodded once. Looking up, she smiled and raised a hand in greeting as she saw that Alexander stood watching. Alexander raised a hand in reply, and looking down further, he saw Keleya approaching Catharine. Catharine went to the fence, and stepping up on it, she reached the top and jumped off on the other side. Mother and daughter talked together, though Alexander could not hear them. Catharine nodded several times, and then nodding again, she started towards the palace doors, running slightly.

 

She returned with a sword in its sheath in her right hand, and she held it for her mother, so Keleya could take the sword from the sheath. Keleya did so, and looking up at Alexander, she looked back at Catharine, and said a few words. Catharine looked over her shoulder slightly, and then looking back at her mother, she replied in just as few words. Keleya said something more, and Catharine, leaning the sheath against the fence, nodded once, and went back into the palace. A few minutes later, there came a quiet knock on his door, and Catharine entered. “You’re up rather early this morning,” Alexander said, entering from the balcony and heading over to the chair where a shirt lay over the back. “So are you,” Catharine replied, as Alexander pulled the shirt on. “Thank you for the clothes. You don’t suppose they look a bit absurd on me?” Alexander asked, spreading his arms out and looking down at himself. Catharine stepped forwards, and pulling the collar of his shirt open, she said, “Serckrean men don’t have their shirts done up so tight, sire.” Alexander replied, “And I thought that, seeing as you’re a Princess, you’d stop calling me sire.” Catharine replied, laughing, “I don’t think anyone’s stopped to tell you that old habits die hard, Alex.” There was an awkward pause, in which they realised how very close they were to each other, and that Catharine’s hands were still resting gently on the collar of Alexander's shirt.

 

Catharine dropped her hands, looking down, although it was a few moments until she stepped away from him. There was a knock on the door, and a servant entered. He said, “Lady Catharine, your mother said to remind you that you were to help with the children’s crèche in the city today.” Catharine, who had turned to look at the servant, sighed, and said, “Shoot, I did say that”, and turning to Alexander, she said, “Alex, tag around with Edrelaos. Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy are going to be with him as well, and he said he’d show you around the city.” Alexander nodded once, and said, “Have fun with the children, Cathy.” Catharine’s eyes took in his face, as though looking for a hint of sarcasm, and then she replied, “thank you. I’ll try, though they’re always trying to get me to dance or do something equally stupid. Thank you, you may go.” The servant bowed, and left. Catharine looked down at her armour, and said, “I’d best get out of this darn armour. I’ll see you in the city, if not back here in the palace this evening, Alex.” Alexander nodded, and Catharine left. The day passed without much incident. Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy looked around the city eagerly, and quickly found Seleucia's version of Dreskensil’s street. They explored it eagerly, with Edrelaos and Alexander following them and trying to bear with it. When they were returning to the palace, they passed a large courtyard, where there were several dozen children sitting in a circle. Catharine stood at the head of the circle, with several sparks of light flying around her, all different sizes and colours.

 

Two collided with each other, and flew into several smaller sparks, landing all over one child, who pouted in surprise, and looked at the girl sitting next to him. The children all squealed in delight, and Catharine smiled. The sparks disappeared, and the children all chorused, “Ow, no, please, Miss! Please, give us the sparks again!” to which Catharine, shaking her head, replied, “no, no. No more sparks for today, girls and boys. But if you’re good, I might do something else.” The children instantly set about shushing each other until the boy who had been covered in small sparks went “SSSSSSHHHH” so loudly that the others fell silent. Catharine smiled as she crouched next to the boy, and ruffled his hair affectionately. Standing, she clicked her fingers, and a spark emerged from her fingers. Floating up to eye level, it grew in size until it was the same size as her head. She blew on it gently and it exploded into three dozen butterflies and fairies. The children all jumped up and ran after them, and Catharine, turning and laughing, saw Edrelaos, Alexander, Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy standing there. She smiled, and curtsying quickly, she turned away and going to a tree surrounded with a small bench, she picked up a small satchel, and sliding the strap over her head, she let it settle comfortably on her shoulder.

 

Pulling a wineskin out of the satchel, she undid the top and drank a little bit. Walking back to the group, she said, “hi. Did you have fun in the city?” Anna replied, “Yes, it was a lot of fun. You were right about the fashion industry here, Cathy. It’s amazing, isn’t it girls?” Sophia replied, “Yes, we all found something that we absolutely loved.” Catharine said, “no doubt something that suited each and every one of you.” Anna nodded, and Laura, taking Catharine’s hand, said, “We can go to your room and show them to you, if you want.” Catharine replied, “I’d love that.” The girls all linked arms and began towards the palace chatting happily. “I’m glad that Catharine’s true identity hasn’t affected her relationship with my sister,” Alexander confided in Edrelaos as they followed the girls. “You hold her in high regard,” Edrelaos replied as they walked. Alexander looked at Edrelaos in surprise, and Edrelaos, seeing his expression, said, “no, it’s not that obvious, Alexander. I just have a good talent for seeing things many people don’t until it becomes very obvious.” Alexander, his anxiety fading, looked at Catharine, just as she turned to face Sophia and said something inaudible. They all laughed, and Catharine, shaking her head slightly, looked at Alexander. He smiled, and Edrelaos, looking from Alexander to Catharine, looked back at Alexander and said, “I’m sure you two could make a good couple, Alexander. And I’m sure she could be yours if you are just honest with her.” Alexander nodded, and nothing more was said on the subject. A few days later, Alexander received the chance to be honest with her.

 

Catharine had been sent out on Patrol, and when midday came, and went, Keleya became increasingly agitated. When Alexander asked her why she should be so agitated, Keleya replied bluntly, “Catharine should have been back by midday. She does not take so long, and is normally thorough enough to return by midday.” Suddenly, there was a shout of “MAJESTY! LADY CATHARINE IS RETURNED IN INJURY!” Keleya hurried to the steps immediately, Alexander following her. Edward, who had come the day before, was helping Catharine down from Alexis, who was now in his true form. Catharine’s form was completely limp, and Alexis nudged her foot with his nose, as though anxious to know she was alright. Keleya hurried own the steps, Alexander following once more, and as Edward laid Catharine gently on the ground, Keleya knelt next to her, and asked, “Alexis, what happened to her?” Alexis replied, “We were ambushed, by a dozen Doleayan magicians. One of them, a Master, hit her with a Soule Spell.” Keleya, having been looking at Alexis as he spoke, looked down at her daughter, saying, “Then this is completely beyond me.” Alexander said, “But there must be something that can be done to help her.” Edward said, “It’s a Soule Spell, Alexander. Her soul is now in the Nether Realm, and cannot return.”

 

Keleya said, “Wait... your son has an excellent point. I cannot help her, though someone with a high regard, or great admiration for her, might be able to go to the Nether Realm and help her return.” Looking up at the palace, Keleya continued, “We need to get her to a place specially prepared for this.” Alexander instantly pulled Catharine gently into his arms, and followed Keleya. Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy followed them, curious as to what was going on. Alexander helped Catharine to a small, stone room in the basement of the palace. There were two dark marble altars, both rather forbidding. Alexander laid Catharine gently on one of these altars, and Keleya rest her palms on Catharine’s temples. “She is in the Third Region. We need someone with a high regard and deep admiration for her, and then I can send them there, but once they are there, I cannot help them. Once there, they are on their own”, Keleya said, opening her eyes after a moment. There was a moment’s silence, and then Alexander said, “I will go.” All eyes, save Catharine’s, went straight to Alexander, and he went on, “I will find her and bring her back.” Edward, stepping towards his son, said, “Are you mad? You could get stuck there as well, and what use would that be to anybody?” Alexander replied, “I have enough confidence in Lady Keleya to ensure that I don’t get stuck.” There was silence, and then Anna, stepping forwards, said, “Let him go and bring her back, father.” Edward looked at Anna in surprise for a moment, and then he nodded once.

 

 “Everyone except Alexander needs to leave. Alexander, please lie on the altar”, Keleya said. As Alexander moved to the free altar, Anna, Sophia, Laura, Lucy and Edward left. Lying back, Alexander took a deep breath, trying to relax despite the nerves fluttering in his stomach. “There will be many things that will pretend they are who you seek. Keep strong and project your memories of Catharine out strongly from your mind. She will see them, and come to find you. Follow your gut instincts when she finds you. Are you ready, Alexander?” Keleya said, standing behind the prince. Alexander took another deep breath, and then nodded. Keleya rested the tips of her fingers on his temples, and his eyes slowly became unfocussed before closing. When he woke, he did not wake up in the small room. Instead, Alexander woke standing upright in a barren wasteland. Faint figures, souls of people who had either died or had their souls banished here wandered around him; several stepped slowly towards him, and changed shape until they looked unnaturally identical to Catharine. “I'm here, I’m here! Take me back with you, please, please,” they cried. Alexander ignored them, and instead concentrated on his memories of Catharine: her smiling at him, her laughter... her eyes, those hazel brown eyes, her beauty. He was so engrossed in his thoughts about her; he did not notice that she stood in front of him until she said in a quiet voice, “Alex!”

 

He looked up; Catharine stood a few feet in front of him, wearing her armour as she had done before he had come to the Nether Realm. She stepped forwards, and became suddenly pale. Alexander suddenly noticed that her soul, despite being a soul, had a solid quality to it. “Help me...” she whispered, “help me please, Alex. Take me back...” Alexander replied, “it’s why I’m here, Cathy; I’m here to help you back,” and he stepped towards her. He suddenly realised he hadn’t stopped thinking about her, and tried to stop projecting his thoughts about her. Catharine gasped, and put a hand to her mouth as she sensed his thoughts. Alexander sighed resignedly, and Catharine’s hand dropped to his. He looked down at their hands, and then back up at Catharine. She smiled faintly at him, and stepping very close to her, he pressed his lips firmly to her mouth. She gasped, and her lips parted willingly. His hands slid around her waist as she kissed back. They kissed over and over, as if unable to stop for what seemed like hours. When they stopped, Catharine looked down, her forehead pressed to his. There was a sudden lurch in Alexander's navel, and he looked at Catharine in panicked puzzlement. She smiled, and said, “See you on the other side.” Alexander's vision slowly blurred to black, and he woke with a jerk in the stone room, still on the dark marble altar. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes, and looked to Keleya, who stood on the other side of the altar where Catharine lay. She smiled approvingly, and said, “thank you, Alexander. You were very successful”, and simultaneously, they looked down at Catharine as she breathed deeply, and turning her head to Alexander, her eyes fluttered open.

 

“Welcome back, Cathy,” Alexander said; sitting up quickly, Catharine flung her arms around his neck and breathed, “thank you,” in his ear. The door opened, and Anna and Edward entered. Anna said, “Cathy, thank the gods,” and Catharine, looking round at Anna, bowed her head as though embarrassed, and then standing up, she went to Anna and the two of them hugged. “Are you ever going to have enough of these adventures?” Anna asked, and Catharine replied, “I don’t go looking for adventures, adventures come looking for me, and I don’t think they’re finished just yet, Anna.” They both laughed, and then Catharine looked at Edward, and curtsied as he said, “good to have you back, Lady Catharine. Life would be very dull without you.” Catharine, looking at Alexander, smiled and replied, “Thank your son for bringing me back. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t.” Alexander smiled. They all went up to the steps to courtyard; Sophia, Laura and Lucy were waiting at the tope of the steps, and as they greeted each other, a horse rode through the gates. Recognising the man sitting on the horse, Catharine shouted, “father... FATHER!” and ran down the steps as fast as she could. It was only when she was closer that Catharine realised that there was a Doleas arrow in his back.

 

“Father? Father, NO!” she said hysterically; as he slid lifelessly from the horse, Catharine helped him down, and he half fell to the courtyard floor. A faint glowing started around her hands. Keleya, who had been standing to one side watching, stepped forwards and crouching, she put her hands on Catharine’s, and said, “it’s too late, Catharine. He’s long gone, there’s nothing you can do.” Catharine, looking up at her mother, whispered, “No... There’s got to be someway...” Keleya shook her head, replying, “No. There’s no way to bring him back, Cathy. I’m sorry... so sorry.” Catharine, staring at her mother for a moment, looked down at her lifeless father, a tear rolling down her cheek. Keleya hugged her daughter around her shoulders. There was silence in the courtyard, as they held an impromptu funeral. Harold Eadrig was buried in a small clearing, near a stream. That evening, when Alexander was in his room, there came a small knock on his door, and Catharine entered. She had removed her armour, and now wore a simple, royal blue dress. “Catharine... I take it you’ve recovered from your brief sojourn in the Nether Realm and from your father’s death,” Alexander said. Catharine replied, “Yes, I have. At least I think I have...” Alexander smiled, and asked, “So what brings you to me, Catharine?” Catharine replied, “Just... something that happened in the Nether Realm. I take it my mother told you to project your best and fondest memories of me, but...” Alexander, who had turned away, turned back, and Catharine, stepping forwards, continued, “They weren’t... Alex, they were... your emotions – they weren’t false, I’d have been able to tell if they were, but they weren’t, they –”

 

Alexander stepped towards her, and Catharine gasped a small gasp. Alexander said, “No. No, they weren’t memories, Cathy”. His fingers brushed gently on her cheek; she turned her head so her cheek met his palm. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to me?” Alexander asked. Catharine sighed; raising her hand, she rested it on his cheek. Looking up at her, Alexander pulled her closer and kissed her passionately. Catharine moaned in pleasure, and pulling him towards the bed, she began pulling his shirt up eagerly. Their lips were separated for the briefest moment as his shirt whispered to the floor; Catharine leaned back on the bed first, and Alex’s weight pressed her into the mattress. “I feel like I’m in a dream,” he breathed, and Catharine replied in a whisper, “that makes us two dreamers...” What little control Alexander had over his desire dissolved as he kissed Catharine again, and his hand slid up the skin of her leg. She moaned in pleasure again, as he pressed kiss after lust filled kiss to her lips; her hand ran through his hair as his lips slid down her neck and shoulder. When their lips met again, though, it was not in passion, but in hunger; pure, uncontrollable, almost frantic. Alexander made love to her gently, as though afraid he might hurt her, but passion was in his every touch, his every movement.

 

All thoughts on Catharine’s mind disappeared, as more important matters came to her attention: Alexander's hands on her body, his lips, so smooth, so gentle on her skin, her hands running over his skin, and the pleasure blossoming inside her like a fire sparking to life. After, Catharine lay in Alexander's arms, and slept better than she had for months.

The End

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