“Well, that was pointless,” Soren said as he stabbed a vine creeping across the ground. “Only confirmed what we already knew – the Dreamer is somewhere on the mountain.”
He turned around and started traveling back out of the bog as the sun touched the Western horizon.
“Well, it wasn’t completely pointless,” Maya commented as she started after him, “at least you know he’s on the mountain now instead of just thinking it.”
Soren let out a sigh as he shrugged before returning his sword to its sheath.
By the time they got out of the bog, the sun was halfway below the horizon.
“I suppose we should set up camp,” Soren stated.
They gathered firewood from the surrounding area to make a small fire, enough to keep them warm and heat up some trail rations that Soren had in his pack, but do little else – too much light would attract orks.
They set up, cooked, and ate, before setting up a bedroll. They only had one, but they only needed one.
Soren took the sheath off his belt and sat down. He laid his sword across his lap as he leaned against a tree. “I’ll take first watch.”
Maya nodded before laying down on the mat and quickly falling asleep, a light snore emanating from her.
It wasn’t long before Soren noticed movement nearby – a rustling in the underbrush. He quickly but quietly shifted from a sitting position to a crouched position, ready to strike when needed. He gripped the sword in one hand and the sheath in the other, ready to pull the blade if necessary.
The rustling grew closer.
Soren began drawing the sword from its sheath before a rat popped out of the underbrush, close enough now that Soren could see it.
He stared at it – it certainly could be one of the rats from the witch’s hut.
He released his grip on the handle and returned to his sitting position as the rat scurried closer and closer. It sat in front of him, propped up on its hind legs and sniffing the air. For a moment, it almost looked like it was waving. But a rat knowing how to wave would be about as preposterous as a rat knowing how to speak.
“Hello, Soren,” the rat squeaked.
Soren leapt to his feet and drew the sword from its sheath, pointing it at the rat, inches from the tip of its nose.
It lifted its tiny paw to rest on the point of the blade. “Do not be afraid, I am sent by Her Everloving Grace, the Great Chorklenya, Daughter of Ik- Ich- Yith- Ithk- I give up. Daughter of… him. I am sent to make sure you’re okay.”
“Of course,” Soren slowly put the sword away, “because a rat is going to be a big help against a roving band of orks.”
“She was more sending me in case the genie killed you – or the man-eaters. But it looks like you’re alright. Would you like an escort back to Ortus?”
“Once again, how would a rat be any help?”
Maya stirred for a moment, before humming slightly. Then, she went back to snoring.
“Is that all you see me as? Just a rat? Nothing more? Humans really are nincompoops, aren’t they?”
Soren stared, bewildered at the rat. “What else would I think of you?”
The rat shrugged. “I suppose you can sleep until morning – should there be trouble, I will protect you.”
“You’re a rat!”
“Fine then. I will wake you. Now, go to sleep.”
Soren squinted at the rat before scanning his surroundings. “And where do you suppose I’d sleep?”
“Right there seems good, nice and comfy. Good for conducive sleep.”
Soren rolled his eyes. “I’m not trusting a rat with my safety.”
“Suit yourself, but you’re going to fall asleep sooner or later.”
Soren shook his head as he leaned back against the tree once more. Within a few minutes, he noticed his eyes getting heavy. He would shake his head every few moments to keep himself awake, but to no avail. The last thing he remembered before it was morning was the rat saying, “Told you.”
Soren woke slowly. He felt good. Relaxed. As if he’d just slept on a plush mattress for a good eight hours. The reality is that he’d slept against a tree for well near ten.
The first thing he noticed when he opened his eyes was the rat, sitting on the ground, rubbing its hands together. The second thing he noticed was Maya standing, mortified, as she stared at something just to the left of his vision. The third and final thing he noticed was the pile of three or four (kind of hard to tell as all but one were heavily dismembered, as if by a very uncoordinated butcher) ork bodies that Maya was staring at. The only whole body in the pile appeared to have fallen on its own sword, right in the middle of where the other parts lay.
Soren jumped to his feet, eyes wide in horror. Then, his gaze fell on the rat.
“I told you I would protect you,” the rat said.
Soren looked back and forth between the rat and the gruesome scene. “How?”
“One of my gifts. Shall we be going now?”
Maya’s gaze hadn’t moved from the pile of bodies.
Soren fastened his sheath to his belt, slung his pack over his shoulder, and grabbed Maya before walking towards the village. “Let’s.”
The rat scurried after and they traveled for nearly an hour before Maya finally broke from her stupor.
“You can let me down now.”
Soren complied and she brushed off her clothes.
Her eyes were filled with fear as she looked at the rat, but her voice was level as she asked, “What’s your name, sir?”
“They call me ‘Damel,'” it replied, “‘they’ being Her Everloving Grace and the others.”
“The other rats you mean?” Soren snarked as he continued walking through the woods.
The other two jogged to catch up.
“If that is what you’d like to call us,” Damel eventually responded.
Maya proceeded to ask several questions related to the island and Chorklenya, but to no avail. Many of her questions were met with an answer to the effect of, “I can’t say.”
It took them several hours to return to Ortus, and, upon reaching the village, the rat seemed to mysteriously disappear. In a straight line toward the witch’s hut, the brush moved all at once, as if he traveled the whole distance instantly. A feat only claimed to have been accomplished by individuals with no other witnesses.
Maya and Soren exchanged glances before deciding to ignore the phenomenon on account of Chorklenya’s a witch and the rat already did some outlandish things.
The two made their way to the library, where Arakim was working on the replacement copy of the atlas.
He looked up as they entered the door, pinning the quill in his afro. He leaned back in his chair as he placed his hands behind his head.
“What can I do for you both today?”
Soren and Maya sat down in the chairs across the table from him.
“I went to that temple you told me about – found the relief.”
“And? Were you able to read it?”
Soren paused. “Yes- although- it was strange… I seemed to be able to read it after this snake bit me.”
“A snake bit you, and you could suddenly read fluent giant?”
Soren shrugged. “I guess.”
Arakim sat forward, leaning on the table with his elbows. “What kind of snake?”
Soren shook his head in thought. “I don’t know, a snake? There were a bunch of other larger ones there – maybe the same species. They had hoods, and they spoke. At least- one did. Shelezar, if I recall.”
Arakim brought his hand to his chin, stroking his scruff. “Did they say any strange words that you didn’t recognize?”
Soren thought for a moment before shaking his head.
Arakim narrowed his eyes. “Have you ever heard of Naga?”
A lightbulb went off in Soren’s brain, and shone on his face. “The snake said something… ‘the Watcher is no friend of Naga,’ or some such. Who is Naga?”
“Naga is not whom, but what. A race of ancient snakes that, at least in Kithria, are extinct. There was but a single egg, resting on the floor of the temple when I first visited it. I chose to leave it be, I suppose it hatched since then.”
“How long have you been here?” Soren interjected.
Arakim seemed to completely ignore the question. “According to some legends, it was Naga who invented language. They taught it to man, elves, even dragons. And their venom can give anyone the ability to understand any language – for a time. I suppose the latter part of that, at least, is true.”
“You said that when you were there, there was a single egg. There was one giant snake and a clutch of man-sized ones. How long have you been here?”
“The real question, then” – Arakim seemed completely oblivious to Soren’s questions – “is who is the Watcher?”
Soren’s face twisted into a mixture of confusion and contempt. “The Watcher. Imya. Divine Queen of the seas. One of the Five Children of the Great King Imakar, who sl-” Soren paused for a moment. “Who sleeps, waiting for suffering to awaken him.”
Arakim raised an eyebrow. “What does the legend say of Imakar?”
“That he made Man and then slept while the giants took over everything. Then the elves came, and their reign was even worse. Now we are free, but a third suffering is coming, which will be greater than any other and then Imakar will awaken. The Imin say he’s already awake, as proclaimed by his incarnation, Iminar, who walked the land of Kithria near the beginning of the age.”
Arakim nodded. “Interesting.”
“But the Naga also said that the Watcher is no friend of the Dreamer.”
“Perhaps the Dreamer is a rival of Imakar?”
Soren considered the prospect before he remembered the red crystal.
“I also found this after the Naga turned to dust.” He placed the pendant on the table. “Do you know what it is?”
Arakim picked up the trinket and examined it, turning it this way and that in his hand. “I should think it’s a genie.” He placed the pendant back on the table. “Perhaps she got it from the Djinn.”
“We just freed it,” Maya interjected, pursing her lips.
“What’s a genie?”
Arakim gave Maya a slightly panicked look before letting out a huff and looking to Soren. “It’s a crystal created by the giants to stave off mortality, often given to orks. It was, of course, no use to Naga as they are immortal. In a technical sense.”
“How does it stave off mortality?”
Arakim shrugged. “Supposedly, as long as a mortal holds it, Death will not take them, taking the crystal instead. I wouldn’t go testing that theory, however. Is there anything else you need of me?”
Soren thought for a moment before shrugging and shaking his head. “I don’t believe so.”
Arakim pulled the quill from his hair. “Then I shall return to my work.”
Soren nodded and the pair made their way out of the library.
“If Imya is an enemy of the Dreamer, why is it my duty to find him?”
Maya stooped down to pick a frog up off the ground and held it in her hand as they walked. “I don’t know.”
“I suppose Delmore said the first step in completing the task is to find the Dreamer.” He gritted his teeth. “Perhaps I am to bring on the suffering that will awaken Imakar.”
Maya pursed her lips as she looked to the sky in thought. “Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that Arakim’s name is so similar to Imakar?”
Soren shook his head and frowned dismissively. “Arakim’s a fairly common Mikri name, Imakar’s the name of a god.”
They made their way to the inn and dropped into a table’s seats. They sat for a few moments, waiting for their food and drink to show up when Soren overheard conversation at the adjacent table.
“-there’s a new man there, they say he washed up a little over a month ago.”
Soren quickly spun in his chair to look at the speaker. “A new man? Where?”
The man was taken aback, wearing a frown on his face. “In Zapad, on the other side of the island.”
“Do you know his name? What does he look like?” Soren perhaps had a chance to finally find his missing friend, Tyrell.
“I don’t know, I only heard the rumors when I was last there a couple weeks ago. I just returned.”
Soren scrambled to gather up his things before dropping a handful of Shelezar coins on the table. He patted Maya’s back. “Enjoy your ale.”
As he rushed out of the inn, Maya ran after him, scooping up the coins.
“Where do you think you’re going? Do you even know how to get to Zapad?”
Soren looked around before biting his thumb knuckle in thought. “No, I suppose not.”
“Then I’m coming with you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Maya crossed her arms as she looked matter-of-factly up at Soren.
Soren sighed and scanned the horizon once more before beginning to walk away. “Fine.”
“Why are you going that way?”
“Because it feels right!” Soren called as he kept walking down the street.
“Perhaps we should get help from the madam! Surely she would be willing to send a contingent of guards with us!”
Soren finally stopped and turned around as one of the children of the married Shelezar’s ran down the street toward them.
Maya noticed the confused (or concerned) look on Soren’s face and turned as well.
It was their eldest child, Marlon, who had the lightest skin and darkest hair of the children.
“The madam,” he panted, “she- needs- mutt- taken.” Marlon let out a huff. “She needs the madam needs you.” He’d clearly been running awfully fast and needed to run more – a fact not made evident by his thin frame.
Despite his broken and repetitive speech, Soren discerned his meaning and rolled his eyes.
“Of course she does.”
“You said the madam’s mutt was taken?” Maya asked.
Marlon nodded as best he could while bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
Marlon looked up with a worried expression. “Orks.”
At that, Soren lifted an eyebrow and smirked. “Orks you say?”
Marlon narrowed his eyes at Soren and his mouth twitched into an uncomfortable smile. He nodded again.
Soren let out a sigh of happiness as he smiled, showing his teeth. “Let’s go find the madam, then.”
He began jogging toward her manor, Maya struggling to keep up, and reached the place within a few minutes. The familiar sight of the dog being replaced by a cut anchor chain gave Soren a hint of sorrow as he ran up to the door. He slammed his fist into the door excitedly as Maya crossed the yard, her reaction to running such a distance being just barely better than Marlon’s.
A servant answered the door and Soren pushed past, nearly shoving the woman to the ground. Maya apologized for him as he made his way into the home’s dining room, where Madam Leondrea was sitting.
Tears of anger were streaming down her face as her breath heaved through her teeth. Her furious eyes met Soren’s.
“You’re going to get my dog back.”
“I love killing orks,” Soren answered as he sat down next to her, a smile still covering his face, “but there is a favor I must ask of you, first.”
Her face tightened in rage.
“Once I do this, I need an escort to Zapad, just a few guards will be fine, in case I run into any danger on the way.”
“Do this for me, and I’ll escort you there myself,” she spat, standing from her chair.
Soren hadn’t noticed before that she was battle-ready – dressed with a leather vest over a teal short-sleeve. She wore breeches for the first time that Soren had seen, rather than a dress, with pads of leather covering her thighs and buttoned boots that reached to just below her knees. Strapped to her hips were several daggers and rapier, and a bow with a quiver was resting against her chair.
She picked up the bow and quiver, slinging them over her shoulder as she marched toward the door. “Let’s go get my dog.”
Soren’s face grew solemn as Maya put her hand to her mouth to hide the smile that crept across it.
The two followed Leondrea outside, where she wordlessly looked for tracks and followed them into Perdinitium.