How One Leaves Orhan

What had she been doing?

Flames cracked and popped within the ornate fireplace, casting a gold and orange glow through the small study. Amabel sat reclining in a high-backed chair, her thin legs extending toward the blaze. Yawning, she stretched her arms, brushing past the heavy wood and velvety cushion that composed the chair’s back. She was disoriented and somewhat dizzy, her memory grasping for coherent linearity – but it was to no avail. Amabel didn’t know how she had come to sit in this room or fallen asleep. It was as if she had been born anew.

It wasn’t quite like that. Amabel knew that for many days now she had been in the bewitched city of Orhan, although she didn’t recognize this room or anything in it. Shelves crammed with books encircled the room’s circular space. These ancient texts were cracked and dusty, tattered and torn. But the writing on their spines still shone clearly – not that she could read it. She knew that the writing was part of the city’s ancient pidgin dialect, which melded together several of the world’s major languages. It had overwhelmingly fallen out of daily use, although one could occasionally still hear it spoken by some of the community’s older citizens.

Rising to her feet, Amabel walked toward one of the study’s bay windows, which broke up the wall of book shelves. The window looked out onto a twisting, dark alleyway, which ran away from her towards what she assumed was Skellere Lane. Checking her watch, she felt the familiar creeping of anxiety, that hated sensation which always reminded her of ants crawling throughout her skin, pincers nibbling at her veins. It wouldn’t be long now.

Throughout her life, Amabel had been aware of Orhan’s existence. Its blackened towers, misty canals and ambiguous location on a map had hung over her experience even from an early age. By the time she was 13, it had already taken her mother, the woman’s warmth, openness and fortitude disappearing, eroding, fading into the fog of Orhan. In those early days, Amabel would tell anyone who would listen that someday she would leave home, cross the Grimland Moors and find her mother in the bewitched city of Orhan – a quest designed to bring her back to the land of the light.

To her grieving father, this talk was the equivalent of adolescent babble: annoying at best and vulgar at worst. He had his own demons to deal with, unseen forces that also could have come from Orhan. And so, throughout her early adulthood she was left largely to her own devices, free to dream of Orhan and pine for a mother whose memory became more ethereal and unreal by the day.

By the time Amabel came of age, it was clear that Orhan was simply part of her, clinging to her essence like a second skin. She drew its crumbling outer boroughs, wrote of its monolithic core. Each night she would float over its dilapidated rooftops and drift unseen above the Toska Canal. But she never saw any trace of her mother, until she at last came to Orhan herself.

The journey to the bewitched city had been disjointed and incoherent. She didn’t know exactly where to start, but from the beginning, something inside pulled her to the east. A two hour flight brought her to the edge of the country, and a train ride up the Hudson drew her further to the north. At one point during the trip, she found herself incapable of keeping her eyes open. She drifted off, only returning to the world in bursts, catching small snatches of imagery both real and imagined. She saw a castle on an island, its turrets and stone facades dangerously near the point of collapse. She observed an antiquated-looking fishing village, its inhabitants congregating at an evil-looking church stamped with the icon of an inverted pyramid and an all-seeing eye.

When she awoke again, she found herself on the Strait of Zambeen, the narrow waterway that connected Lake Rippin to the Hudson Bay. Fog clung to the ground, twisting itself around jagged plutonic rocks riddled with crystals so large she could see them from the boat. The boat she was on circled around one bend in the strait and then another, emerging at last into the bay, an epic body of water filled with choppy waters and lit by stars hanging in a dazzling night sky.

After reaching the bay, it didn’t take long to find the bewitched city of Orhan – in fact, the city itself seemed to be looking for her. The first sign it gave was by revealing the Brimstone Lighthouse, a wasted structure that rose over 100 feet into the air and stood nearly two miles off the shoreline. Unlike most lighthouses, which were typically built on islands or peninsulas, the Brimstone emerged right out of the sea and was encrusted with horrible white barnacles.  Passing it, she felt a chill come over her, reach inside and grasp her heart. It was destined to stay there, even after she sailed into the city’s bewitched harbor, and even later when she became acquainted with the city’s soot-coated buildings, labyrinth alleyways and staircases that led to nowhere.

But she still didn’t know how she had found her way to this study. She remembered sailing up the Toska Canal, slightly unnerved by the dark, silent figures that watched her every move from above. She could think back to renting a small cottage on the Aphotic Square, which looked out on a sprawling fountain encircled by disturbing Baroque sculptures and small cafes where grimly-lined faces puffed on long pipes riddled with ugly hieroglyphics. She could even picture how she began to search for her mother, walking along ancient roads made infinitely more claustrophobic by towering buildings that rose into the haze of a seemingly endless night.  

She supposed it didn’t really matter, and perhaps the explanation was a simple one. Many of Orhan’s buildings were abandoned. She had wound her way through studies such as this one before, picked a path across corridors full of nothing but dust. She had even explored Orhan’s Municipal Hall of Records, a cavernous room consisting of hundreds of card catalogues, moldy chairs and mountains of rotting scrolls. It was quite possible, perhaps, that she had tired herself out during one of these wanderings, found a comfortable room and drifted off – as she tended to do – and now just couldn’t remember it.

Besides, there were other things to worry about. The Lamplighters would be out any minute, a fact that caused her pulse to race. Tall, skeletal, dressed in tattered coats and wide-brim hats, these uncanny figures roamed the bewitched streets of Orhan during select periods of the night. She had first seen them while sailing on the Toska Canal, their floating forms drifting with a type of paranormal otherworldliness that made her blood run cold. The other denizens of Orhan – which typically seemed on the verge of somnambulism – scattered upon their approach in panic, fleeing into dark passageways or shutting themselves up behind heavy shutters and doors.  

She left the study the way she ostensibly must have come: through a pair of tall, distorted doors that were significantly wider on the top than they were on the bottom. The comforting warmth of the hearth disappeared behind them, and she stood alone in a blighted hallway, alone with thoughts slowly falling under the weight of Orhan.

Amabel starting picking her way back across the bewitched city, taking particular care to avoid the lanes and byways that – at this time of night – fell under the dominion of the Lamplighters. She crossed the Karackan Square, loped past the Porok Cathedral. Her journey took her in the proximity of the Forgotten Ruins, necessitating a thin whistle to distract from the unnatural moaning emanating from shattered steel and crumbled stone.

And through it all, she found no trace of her mother, no glimpse or glimmer of the woman that she had once known. Her mother’s emotional strength and unjaded spirit, qualities that loomed so large in Amabel’s imagination, were dissipating, evaporating, being siphoned off by the fiendish power of the bewitched city. It seemed that soon they would be gone forever, leaving Amabel a husk, a shell, defeated and incomplete. She would be destined; she would be damned. Orhan would swallow her; and memories of a life outside, of an exterior existence, would fade into the Grimland Moors like the final rays of a setting sun.

Near the city’s thermal bathhouses, Amabel heard a rustling in an alleyway to her right. A small dog was rooting through the garbage, sifting through debris in the clear hope of finding food. Almost immediately, Amabel felt something lift both in and out of her body, as if she had been carrying a heavy pack whose straps had been cut by an unseen knife. The dog looked at her with a mixture of fear and excitement. Its tail was wagging but the hair between its shoulder blades was also standing slightly on end. From her perspective, Amabel was elated if somewhat confused. Ever since she had come to Orhan, she had never seen a non-human animal. No birds sang within the bewitched city’s limits. There were not even any visible rodents, a peculiar abnormality considering the prodigious amounts of garbage that choked the municipality’s streets and waterways.

Reaching into her pockets, she fished out a packet of crackers, which at this point had been reduced to mere crumbs. The dog’s ears perked up at the appearance of this promising morsel, and its tail – a crusty, sad little thing – gave a slight shake. Taking one step and then another, the dog slowly made its way toward Amabel, its eyes looking at her with a juxtaposition of careful apprehension and desperate hope. It took a nibble of the cracker when it reached her outstretched hand, and the rigidity of its posture began to melt away.

Despite the dirt and grime that covered the dog, she could see it clearer than she had before. It had large, floppy ears and a wide head that tapered into a narrower snout. The dog’s short hair was light brown, with some grey on the nose and under the eyes, and a large patch of white on its broad chest. Despite being malnourished, the dog’s body was powerful-looking, with muscles visible underneath its fine coat. She pegged it at around forty pounds, but the breed itself escaped her.

“Good dog.”

A light then flared from a few streets away, its illumination streaking across the slick and dark streets of Orhan, careening toward her and the dog. The Lamplighters were approaching. She could feel her head go light as she smelled their sulfuric odor, and she could sense her nerves quivering upon hearing the slow scrape of their lamplighter polls, which they tugged behind them in emaciated arms riddled with sores.

Amabel backed slowly away as a Lamplighter came into view over the road. It lifted a craggy, misshapen head in her direction, filling her with a deep, almost debilitating horror. The Lamplighter’s look paralyzed her, seeming to snuff out all hope within an instant. The dog near her feet whined, its eyes dilated and rolling. Her own breath was caught in her throat, and raw fear threatened to overwhelm her completely.

The light from the Lamplighter poll edged closer to where they were standing. Snapping back to her senses, Amabel turned on her heel and ran, knowing that they were finished if the light touched them. She beckoned to the dog but saw that such a motion was unnecessary; it is was already tearing after her, its dirty legs a blur as it raced over the streets.

Amabel turned down one side street, attempting to lose the Lamplighter in the city’s labyrinth foot passages. The dog scurried after her, whining in terror along the way. There were no cars in Orhan, and thus, the streets were far narrower than in most cities of the world. This was particularly true in the inner neighborhoods, where multiple lanes were barely large enough for a full grown man, much less a Lamplighter, which could often reach seven or eight feet in height.

Hurtling down another tight, constricting passage, Amabel let out a gasp of panic. A solid wall stood in front of her and the dog, utterly blocking any further forward momentum. The dog seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with nearly all of its hair standing on end. Amabel could certainly empathize. She shivered with terror, hands and armpits drenched with sweat. How could she have gone so wrong? She had been down this path before, and for the life of her, did not remember there being a dead end: a wall that was completely impassable.

The dog was crying and attempting to make itself as small as possible. She slammed her fists against the facade in frustration, enraged at how this wall and this bewitched city – again and again – appeared to be out to get her, to destroy her, to make her life miserable. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a door sitting behind a number of towering trash receptacles. She ran toward it, shoving over the trash cans and grasping the brass knob with her slippery hands.

The door was locked, and Amabel felt hot tears begin to materialize in the corners of her eyes as she pulled on it with all her might. It didn’t budge. The smell of sulfur was ubiquitous once again, stinging her nose and making her gag. The Lamplighter would be on them any second, and she felt herself begin to prepare for the end.

But then she was through the door and found herself standing in a hallway with the dog. There was no time to wonder at this mystical turn of events. She could hear the door to the building begin to creak open. The smell of sulfur came wafting up through the hallway, prompting her and the dog to run in the opposite direction.

She sprinted down the hall, passing numerous doors that led to other rooms within the building. She tried one door and then another, but each was stubbornly locked. Near the end of the hall, one finally swung open when she grabbed the handle, leading her into a darkened room filled with clocks and mirrors of various shapes and sizes. There was a window on the opposing wall hidden by a musty curtain. It was her way out. She walked quickly toward it, and yet with each step, it seemed to shrink further away.

Straining, she redoubled her pace, and upon finally reached the window, she felt her throat constrict due to its malodorous odor. Choking, she pulled aside the curtain, a sound that transformed into hoarse gasp once she peered outside the frame. Instead of another dark alley or even a vista of Orhan’s bewitched rooftops, Amabel looked out on huge, endless shelves of books. These shelves ran away from her down a bright, sunny hallway that led to a soaring atrium of immaculate marble and an awe-inspiring geodesic dome.

Stupefied, she returned to the hall, bumping into a clock and causing it to fall with a crash – further spooking the dog. The smell of sulfur was now overwhelming. The Lamplighter was coming around a corner dragging its poll. The misshapen head rose, and it let loose with a cry that was soul-shattering – both high and low-pitched, recognizably human and savagely bestial.

In sheer desperation, she threw herself across the hall and crashed into a door directly opposite from the one she just left. She spilled into a room whose walls were covered in ornate tapestries filled with figures moving about in the city of Orhan. Amabel gave the tapestries initially only a fleeting glance. However, when she turned back to be sure that the dog had followed her through the door, her eyes passed over the tapestries a second time. The vague shapes came into greater clarity and focus, provoking her to let out a shrill scream.

She was the central woven figure within the tapestries. It was unmistakable. There was her straight, brown hair – her thin, long legs. Her flashing hazel eyes stared out at her from all sides, and even the slight dimple on her chin was visible in the room’s dim lighting. The tapestries were arranged around the room in a way that appeared to tell a story, cataloguing past, present and perhaps even future events. In one, she was riding the train up the Hudson, staring dreamily out onto the river’s dark blue waters. In another, she was sailing past the Brimstone Lighthouse, mouth agape at the hundreds of barnacles that riddled its damp, foam-coated exterior.

Others depicted additional scenes from her recent past, and when taken together, the tapestries chronicled her entire journey to the bewitched city of Orhan and subsequent explorations. But if this was not jarring enough, later weavings showed her having experiences that had not happened – at least not yet. She covered her mouth as she viewed these final pieces. The first depicted her and another woman in a gloomy courtyard under a paper sky. And the final one showed her screaming while being disintegrated by the pole of a Lamplighter, her form winking out of existence by a beam of unnatural light.

She reached out for something, anything to steady herself, but it was a vain action, and she tumbled to the floor. The dog trotted to her and nuzzled her arm, and this action calmed her, fortified her, brought the world to a stop. She breathed deeply, feeling her chest rise, feeling the air fill her lungs. Slowly, she regained her senses; she centered herself. The door that she had shut tightly behind herself and the dog rattled on its hinges; the Lamplighter was trying to come through, but she was ready. There was a window adjacent to the door, one large enough for her and the dog. She pulling it open and slid her small body out of the building and onto the fire escape. A cold, nighttime wind howled as she emerged into the Orhanian night, blowing her long hair wildly into her face and making her instinctively grasp onto the escape’s rusted railing.

She called to the dog, and it jumped through the opening immediately, its nails clinking on the metal of the escape when it landed on the other side.

“Good dog. Good dog.”

They began to climb, and it was not a moment too soon. Light shot through the window they had escaped from, a violent illumination that was hungry and searching. Amabel could not help but cry out in fear, and this was answered by the Lamplighter’s chilling scream. She took the steps two at a time, her heart hammering forward in her chest, as if it was trying to lead her onward. Complying, she sped up her pace. Behind her, the dog’s gate had slowed; it was uncertain of the wire grate steps and looked to her with pure, agonizing fear. Without thinking, she turned and hoisted the dog into her arms – the sudden addition of weight nearly making her lose her balance and topple off the escape into the darkness below. Amabel’s arms burned under the dog, but she gritted her teeth and concentrated on putting one foot after another. By the time they reached the roof, she could barely stand. She placed the dog onto the surface of the roof, surveyed her surroundings and tried to figure out what to do next.

There was another fire escape on the far end of the building. She ran to it with the dog and began to descend, only to stop after a few steps to cry out again in frustration. Like so many of Orhan’s staircases, the escape jutted out into an alleyway and simply ended. It wasn’t as if the metal structure had been broken or damaged; it simply came to a stop, as if the original architect had gotten bored and quit.

The smell of sulfur singed her nose. The Lamplighter had made its way to the roof, scraping its pole on thick chunks of concrete. She was pined in, stuck at the end of the road. The dog squirmed next to her, lips curling, a growl buzzing in the back of its throat. She picked it up, but it continued to thrash about. Panic hit her as she realized it was throwing her off balance, causing her to slip on the slick steps of the escape. She was falling; and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The railing of the escape was now above her, growing smaller by the second as she tumbled through thin air. The dog was screaming in her arms. She shut her eyes and waited for the snapping of bone, the crushing of organs – unimaginable pain, death throes.

But nothing happened. Instead, she found that she was in another building flat on her back, dog wheeling and flailing on top of her chest like a turtle that had been flipped over onto its shell. She was laying in a ballroom that had been abandoned long ago; its tables and chairs were decaying, its dance-floor scratched, broken and pulled apart. She scrambled to her feet, instinctively looking to the ceiling to see if she had fallen through a hole, although she knew she wouldn’t find one.

“Come on,” she said to the dog.

They left the building, walking out onto one of Orhan’s central roads, a wide lane that led directly to the center of the bewitched city. Something drew her ahead, prompting her onward. After a few minutes of walking, she began to hear voices, a chanting that was faint at first but was steadily growing in both volume and intensity. She followed the voices, noting the gradual increase in size of the buildings on both sides of the road.

But something else was happening to the city. The buildings were not only growing taller, they were changing, warping, becoming distorted before her eyes. She couldn’t be sure if such a phenomena was happening in an empirical reality – if such a thing existed – or if she was merely hallucinating, becoming yet another victim to the city of Orhan. In any regard, she continued to trudge ahead, feeling that – at this very moment – she was closer than ever before to finding out the truth. Her mother was gone, this much she knew, and yet somehow her presence seemed to be seeping into the milieu, becoming imbued in the fractured, sloping streetlamps; bearing down upon her shoulders; delving into her brain.

The lane brought her to the Moarte Plaza, a huge, rectangular square encircled by imposing architecture on all sides, which loomed over Amabel and the dog as they walked into the area. Across the plaza, dark-cloaked figures were clustered near the Lunaca Citadel, the nexus of Orhan that Amabel had heard about but had always made a conscious effort to avoid.

The building was easily one of the tallest, widest and wildest in all of Orhan. It blasted into the sky, rising hundreds of stories into the impenetrable night. Its stone and steel facades had a pyramid-like shape, and it was encrusted with giant visages contorted in hideous expressions. The citadel’s front door was huge and gaping, like a giant mouth ready to consume the dark figures who were marching toward it. Above the plaza, the sky had taken on the appearance of paper. It was flaky and fragmented, full of holes that she looked away from in fear. Something was spinning within them, and Amabel could not tear herself away from the idea that these holes were portals to other worlds far more strange and horrifying than this one.

She put her head down and walked forward, moving toward the group steadily marched into the citadel and continuing with their mindless chanting. An impulse took hold of her as she reached them, and she began snatching hoods from each individual’s head. She expected recrimination, some kind of volatile or even violent response, but each hood revealed little more than a glazed, pallid countenance that barely registered that they had just been exposed to the city’s noxious air.

Amabel moved through the crowd quickly, snatching hoods left and right, leaving a trail of cloaks across the ground. Halfway through her search, she pulled the cloak from a woman of approximately 50 years of age – a woman of medium height, medium build and who bore a striking resemblance to her. A long crop of brown hair streaked with grey fell down past her shoulders. And her face – defined by a nose and eyes cut from the same mold as Amabel’s – was peering intently ahead, carrying the same glazed look as the others. At long last, she was looking upon the face of her mother.

At least, she was pretty sure. In the years that had passed since she had last seen her, her mother had aged considerably. Her face wore the normal passage of time – but there was something more serious dominating each line and contour. It was deepening them, imbuing them with a starker and more vicious sense of definition. These were the markings of Orhan.

“Mom?”

The woman’s eyes blinked, and some of the cloudy film seemed to dissipate.

“Mom!”

Amabel shook her mother, grabbing at wasted shoulders that felt like they might snap under her fingers. She shook her once, twice and tears emerged in the corner of her eyes.

The woman was starting to come to; her eyes were clearer, her posture looser.

“Amabel?”

Amabel’s caught her breath. Inside, her heart soared even as her knees threatened to give out beneath her. She had found her mother after years of searching, of looking for her in all the wrong places. The hole that she had always carried was on the cusp of being filled, her thirst on the verge of being quenched. The two women looked at each other while silently crying before collapsing into an ardent embrace.

Almost on cue, Lamplighters emerged from the four corners of the plaza, immediately sullying Amabel’s reunion with her mother. The smell of sulfur creeped over the ground, carving its way through the crowd until it encircled the two women. The dog was barking and it ran forward toward Amabel and tried to lead her away from the center of the square. The crowd’s chanting was pounding in her ears, keeping pace almost with her thumping heart, which crashed and constricted as adrenaline surged throughout her frame. The Lamplighters would be upon them any second.

“I love you,” her mother said to her finally, looking at Amabel sadness but not a trace of fear. “Now go. Run. Never come back here. Never make this your focus.”

The thought of leaving tore at Amabel like a knife. All she wanted to do was sink deeper, be held again, but it was too late. The other members of the crowd were jostling forward, knocking mother and daughter apart.

“Mom!” Amabel screamed hoarsely.

The dog was now pulling at her, its sharp teeth and powerful jaws fixed on the back of her shirt. She struggled with it, her arms flailing wildly and nearly colliding with its skull. She twisted her head back to see that her mother was now a few paces away, being roughly pushed by dark cloaks, edging ever closer to the hungry mouth of the citadel. A ripping sound indicated that the dog’s teeth had fully torn through the fabric of her shirt, and the subsequent release from the dog’s jaws made her topple forward, spilling onto the ground.

Amabel felt panic rise within her, causing her arms and especially her shoulders to burn. She knew somehow that if her mother disappeared into the citadel she would never see her again – a thought so terrible she feared it would drive her mad. The Lamplighters were all around her, eyes glimmering within the shadows cast by their wide-brimmed hats. Amabel looked for a way to get past them, but each pathway was blocked, eclipsed by these towering demons.

They aimed their poles in her direction, and she shut her eyes, bracing herself for the onslaught that was sure to come. She didn’t try to run; she couldn’t find the motivation within herself. Instead, there was simply acceptance. A resignation to defeat. Light beams arched outward, striking her across her brow, on the arms, upon the legs, everywhere. She screamed as the world vanished and  faded to white. She herself disappeared – mind and body winking out of existence.

For a time there was nothing – a pure, clear void. Slowly, however, her consciousness flared back to life.  This was followed by the return of sensation, beginning with the tip of her nose and spreading down throughout her body. Her face was coated in something wet and slimy. She reached upward and touched her right hand to it, drawing it back expecting to find blood. Instead, thick ropes of saliva glistened between her fingers, a sight she found almost equally revolting. Amabel then noticed the sound of heavy breathing directly above her. She craned her neck and looked upward, her gaze colliding not with the open sky but the jowls of the dog.

“Get away.”

The dog trotted a short way away through dark cotton grass, plopping down near a coarse boulder. It watched her intently, mouth hanging open in a toothy grin. Whenever she moved a muscle, its tail would begin to wag, causing adjacent grasses to flap back and forth. Amabel rose painfully to her feet and was immediately hit by a wave of nausea. She bent over and emptied the paltry contents of her stomach onto the grass, causing the dog to begin barking in alarm.

“Yeah. Yeah,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Straightening up, she looked out onto her surroundings, finally understanding just where she was. The Grimland Moors were before her, its rolling hills broken only by occasional rocky lips jutting out from thick grass. Heavy fog clung to the ground, snaking around rough-looking bushes and sparse, weathered trees. Across from the ridge where she was standing, a large grey shape was moving away from her amid the fog. She watched it go, marveling at both its size and the stark, brutal nature of the countryside.

All at once, the memory of what had happened to her mother washed over her, bringing tears to her eyes, tearing away at her very being. There was now no question as to her mother’s fate; Amabel knew everything there was to know. The dog scooted itself closer to her, noticing quickly the change in her demeanor, the agony all over her face. It began to whine, pawing at her leg with what felt like concern. She sat back down and began to sob, feeling as if all the air had been knocked out of her, and scratched the dog underneath its large, floppy ears.

Amabel sat on the grass for several minutes doing little more than rocking back and forth, scratching the dog and listening to the wind whistle across the hills. After a time, she began to feel calmer, and the pain inside her chest ebbed away to a dull throb. Her body felt heavy, but it was growing dark, and she knew that her and the dog would need to move.

She got to her feet and gestured for the dog to follow, and together they began to walk through the hills and the gathering dark. Across the moors, eerie, intimidating howls floated in their direction, causing the dog’s hackles to stand on end and their pace to quicken. And yet they passed safely, walking through the night, guided by nothing aside from the natural arc of the moorlands and the celestial constellations that were emerged from above.

The land bore them far to the east, and as they continued to walk, she felt the grip of Orhan lessen, its vestiges fading into what felt like nothing but a bad memory or dream. The pain she felt was being slowly replaced by a numbness – a desensitization that felt deep and inescapable, as if it would remain with her for the rest of her life.

And she knew that it would on some level. Her mother was gone, vanished inside that terrible opening to the Lunaca Citadel. Amabel would never see or speak with her again. She craved a different world, hungered for a desire for the new, to be a child again, sheltered and held in the safety of her mother’s love. From now on, she would be alone in this world, a figurative orphan without a parent to turn to in times of joy or despair. It was a sobering thought, one that introduced a devastating sense of loneliness and isolation perfectly matched by the stark wilds of Grimland.

The land was sloping downward, carrying both woman and dog to the River Easel, which wrapped around the moors and cut through the northern neighborhoods of Orhan. A broken-down dock jutted out slightly in the tepid, slowly-moving waters, and tied to it was a row boat, big enough to accommodate both her and her animal companion. She boarded it and looked back at the dog, which eyed the vessel with a wary sense of reticence.

“It’s ok. Come on now,” she said gently.

The dog relaxed at her soothing words and made an ungainly leap into the boat, causing it to rock back and forth in the water so violently that Amabel feared for a moment they would capsize. She undid the rope and pushed off from the dock, and the pair coasted outward onto the river, leaving behind the Grimland Moors, which was now partially obscured by a wall of mist.

She didn’t know what was beyond the river, as her dreams had never carried her this far. On the other side of the water, the Woods of Providence appeared through the haze – black, twisted and unknowable. She felt herself beginning to dread the uncertainty of what lay ahead, even though there was no future in the land she was leaving. The bewitched city of Orhan was now hidden behind the moors, and she was likely better off for it.

Amabel and the dog disembarked on the other side of the river. She pulled the rowboat securely into the trees and brambles and then turned back to the dog, which looked up at her with an unmistakable “What now?” expression. Once again, she had no answers. The only option was to forge ahead blindly. They walked through the brush, pushing aside vines and bushes, clawing through long grasses and vaulting over downed trees. The dog never left her side – not for a moment; and she came to depend on its intrepid personality and stalwart loyalty. They were unit, a team, never wavering even amidst the woods’ darkest patches.

After a few hours, the ground began rising again, and the density of the woods’ foliage decreased. Just ahead, the trees broke; bright beams of light were pouring onto the forest floor. She hesitated for a moment, pausing even as the dog ran ahead barking excitedly. In making this decision, she would be leaving Orhan, leaving the dream that had guided her for as long as she could remember. And even though it had been a dream full of depression and darkness, it had been hers, carrying with it the comforting embrace of familiarity.

But what choice did she have? Moving forward, she crossed over the treeline and into what lay beyond, fueled by a small, fragile yet undeniable hope that whatever did could be hers as well.

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