Video Games as Art (Divus/Kyklos Update)

After watching a video about an often misunderstood and dejected game – Metroid II – I began questioning my decisions in making Divus. Also, I considered what makes something art. Here’s what I uncovered.

Before starting, Divus has gained a new name: Kyklos. Onto the important bits.

Recently, I watched a video by Mark Brown about Metroid II, or, more specifically, two of its remakes. The video explains the structure of the game and various aspects of it that are often seen as flaws which were likely included on purpose to contribute to the game’s atmosphere. That atmosphere contributes to its message, best summed up by the following, quoted within the aforementioned video:

Games about killing should probably make you uncomfortable.  They shouldn’t be carefully crafted to be pleasant.  Metroid II is openly about killing.  It makes me uncomfortable with wordless specificity.

This quote is by S. R. Holiwell, from her article, A Maze of Murderscapes: Metroid II.

After watching the video, I decided to read the article, which explored many of the same concepts as the video, but with a sole focus on the original game rather than the remakes, and with much greater detail. I highly recommend it. One of the points this drove home is that of the above. That the game is about killing, and that the game is uncomfortable. And that is a good thing.

This made me reevaluate one of the main messages of Kyklos, and the point I was trying to send home with the game: “There are those which must become monsters (or shed their humanity) such that others don’t have to.” I still hold to that message, but with this addendum: “To be that person is a burden.” This has raised some important questions about the game’s structure and core mechanics. Namely: how do we communicate that to the players?

I haven’t gone into too much detail about the game before, but the backstory for the game is this:

There is a being, known only as ‘The Demon Lord’ who oppresses the denizens of the land the game takes place in. This has happened for an inordinate amount of time and every character in the game has spent their entire lives suffering under this being. Everyone has given up hope.

As well, there are beings known as the Wraith: souls of the dead tormented by the hatred they held in their hearts, a hatred so powerful it pulled them into a realm of nothing but hate. This hate consumed them until they lost all sense of self, having no compulsion but to destroy the object of their hatred – and their hatred gives them power. As a result, they are each named for the thing they hate most. The Demon Lord found a way to access this realm and conscripted Wraith to use as his generals.

Finally, there is a sword of unknown origin, and unknown to any living being but found early in the game, known as the Sanguine Blade. The Sanguine Blade has the power to transmit the life force (alongside the soul) of those it strikes down into the wielder. This is the crux of the game’s story and one of its core mechanics – to become more powerful, and to survive, one must kill. It is in finding this blade that the main character develops newfound hope in defeating the Demon Lord.

The sword is used for two primary purposes: to gain the powers of the Wraith – thereby gaining access to new areas and new ways to fight – and to keep one from dying. There is also an important distinction between the sort of creatures you can kill in the game: natural and demonic. Natural creatures pose no threat to you. They are simply there and can seem like background props, but you can kill them to replenish your health nonetheless. Demonic creatures do pose a threat to you (and also replenish your health when killed).

Questioning Everything

Now, it should be noted that this mechanic was not added lightly. In fact, this mechanic was added to make another mechanic less punishing: you only ever have a max health of 2. As well, every creature in the game that will damage you always deals 1 damage (except the final boss, depending on the choices you make), thereby making it where getting hit even once means fighting for your life. Over time, your wounds heal, but killing things to absorb their life force is a much easier method of avoiding death.

In effect, this need to kill sends a particularly harrowing message: killing is necessary for survival. Which, in some cases, is true. Alternatively: trampling over those weaker than you is one way to get ahead. And that is something we want to avoid.

The obvious solution here is to throw out that mechanic entirely. Certainly a possibility, but that also removes the main narrative arcs vital to the game’s main message.

So, in one of our walks around a nearby lake, my wife and I discussed this prospect and how we can weave that idea – that becoming the monster to protect those around you is a burden – into both the narrative and/or the mechanics of the game. Of course, you could always make the argument that there is no necessity based on the fact that many people who aren’t speedrunners are generally unwilling to do things like kill innocents to get ahead – it is not those unwilling people that this message is for. This message is for the ruthless. That senseless violence and the put-down of others to get ahead is not without consequence.

We explored very briefly the idea of including mechanical detriments to killing natural things instead of demonic things, but ultimately backed off from that rather quickly. We instead chose to focus on the narrative. There is no mechanical detriment to wanton violence – save for the fact that killing too many natural creatures will eventually make you permanently lose the game and have to start your save file over – but there is a narrative one. More on that in another post (or just when the game releases).

Holiwell mentions in her article that the metroids Samus spends the game committing genocide upon are undeserving of the fate that awaits them. They are not malicious creatures, as they feed only to survive. They are not space-faring, and even on their home planet there is still life as they have the tendency, as most non-human creatures do, to live in a sort of equilibrium with their natural environment – they do not destroy it. The only reason Samus is hunting them, the only reason she is wiping them out, is because the Space Pirates are exploiting them.

This made me question the narrative I had structured, wherein the main character of Kyklos is attempting to take down the Demon Lord. The Demon Lord is deserving of the violence he suffers. Should there not be someone undeserving in a game driving home that being a protector is a burden? Then I realized I had already supplied such an element.

Tying back to the aforementioned main character arc, there is the subject of killing the Wraith. The Wraith are beings that, almost certainly, do not deserve their fate. This becomes more apparent as you slowly recover the memories that they lost. They are beings, once confined to a world where they wasted away into nothing, which are being exploited for evil means. I had, unintentionally, already supplied an analogue for the metroids.

The main character, in their mission to kill the Demon Lord, puts these Wraith out of their misery, but at the cost of destroying their souls – or, rather absorbing them. The Wraith, in one final stroke, lose the last remaining part of their identity as they join the collective soul of the main character. With that, the character loses their sense of self in a rather literal take on Nietzsche’s famous statement, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

The sequel to Kyklos (which, if I have anything to say about it, will be made, on account of it was the original idea that later resulted in the decision to make Kyklos as a sort of practice project), will explore this idea further. But I digress.

In effect, the character has two chances to murder innocents to further their own goals to strike down evil; one of these chances is optional, while the other is not. And, as previously stated, this necessity is used to drive the main message of the game: the burden of becoming a monster.

Video Games as Art

This, along with several other choices in the design of the game – many of which I don’t want to mention as they come into effect towards the end- orchestrates into a game that is intended to be difficult, intended to be somewhat uncomfortable to play. Which brings me to my final point that I once again borrow from Holiwell. That games don’t need to comfortable, and, in fact, often shouldn’t be.

Making a game that is uncomfortable to play is something oft avoided as many games work to fulfill a power fantasy, where the main character, by the end of the game, is a world-saving badass. Games like this are so often about killing without question and without consequence. Most games that feature killing as a primary mechanic frame it in such a way that you kill, not because you have to, but because you can. You kill because it’s fun, you kill because it gains you more power, and there is no weight to it because you are only killing faceless and nameless beings with no history before they come on screen and no legacy after they die. The exception comes in the form of the main story, wherein the main character kills some ultimate evil that is, objectively, irredeemable, and the death of which is unquestionably beneficial to the world at large.

What I have attempted to do, and hopefully succeeded at, in my overall design of Kyklos, is to make a game where senseless killing is purely that: senseless. You gain no experience, no money, no power, from killing the innocent natural creatures of the world, nor do you gain anything from killing the faceless grunts of the Demon Lord’s army. The only things that you do kill for the sake of personal gain are the Wraith (and some other things, but that’s not important right now), each of which comes with a backstory that slowly unfolds throughout the course of the game. Each and every one of the beings that you wipe from existence for your own gain carries a weight to it. And even killing things for the sake of your own survival carries a weight to it, as mentioned previously.

I believe that this weight – this conscious decision to make games uncomfortable for the sake of sending a message – is something necessary to elevate games from their place of mindless time-wasters for people going nowhere in their life to the art form they have the potential to be. Of course, this paradigm shift is not solely on the shoulders of game developers, but also on their audience and the general public.

We often accept books as an art form, but we do not automatically accept movies and TV shows in the same way. It is perhaps important to note that readers are much more receptive to uncomfortable words on the page than viewers are to uncomfortable scenes in visual media. The case that most prominently comes to my mind to demonstrate this fact is that of The Natural. The ending of the book is completely different from that of the movie, as the former ends on an uncomfortable and hopeless low note, while the latter ends with a comfortably gratifying high note.

For this reason, I believe it is the discomfort that a medium arouses – the push for the consumer to question their own perception – which makes a thing art.

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On the Subject of Subjectivity (Devilspawn Update)

Another update on Devilspawn! In this post, I talk about the subject of writing from a morally grey perspective to emphasize the importance of morality.

Hello, all, and welcome to another update on the progress of Devilspawn! I am roughly three-quarters or so done with my most recent draft of the first book of Devilspawn, A Demon in the Night, and hope to be done with said draft soon so I can move into a round of Beta Reading. That said, if you would like to act as a beta reader, go ahead and visit our Facebook page to leave a like, comment, or share.

At present, I am at a roadblock and am awaiting feedback from my Alpha Readers for the next scene I intend on writing. This is because the scene addresses several real-world issues and I would like for it to be written in a concise and respectable manner.

That said, I am very happy with the progress I have made and am proud of the draft thus far. I will, of course, need to go back and make some edits, but I don’t think I should need to make any major reworks to the story anymore (at least for ADitN)- I’ve felt the need to make many such reworks between the first draft and now.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve been writing this draft is a shift in the way that I approach certain themes. Before, I approached them from a perspective of objective morality – the book is written from a third-person omniscient perspective, and any time a character did something morally dubious, it was evident within the narrators tone (that said, it was previously written from more of a shifting third-person limited).

With this draft, my writing reflects a much more subjectively moral approach. If the group of characters that any given passage focuses on believes that what they are doing is in the right, the narration takes on that tone. With any given argument or disagreement within the story, it is presented that both parties could potentially be in the right. I do this in real life, even in arguments where I have stakes, especially if I feel one side is underrepresented. I blame my losing of Trial by Trolley on that. But I digress.

This moral subjectivity includes portions of the story where someone is most definitely in the wrong, such as in the case of a character who is verbally abusive. When things are described from his perspective, it’s made out to be, at least on the surface, that his actions are justified by his motives. However, from the perspective of the abused and several of her friends, he is made out to be the villain that he is. This is seen for (most of) the other villains in the story, as well – they clearly think they are in the right and dutifully defend their perspective.

And this brings up several questions: Is this how it should be done? What are the implications of presenting moral quandaries in this way? What are the consequences? Is this a way to make the book welcoming to all readers? Will it make the book alienating to all readers? Is there a happy middle ground, or are the extremes the only solution?

All these are questions I have considered, and here are the answers I have come up with, based both on what I have observed of other people, and what I have gathered from reading/watching other writer’s blogs/vlogs.

Implications and Consequences

The most obvious implication that this approach presents is that morality is subjective. It is subjective and measured by whoever is committing the action, and whoever the action is being committed upon. Subjective morality is a dangerous game: if morality is subjective, then no one can definitively say what is and isn’t moral.

So, if the book is written from a morally subjective approach, it could easily lead to others taking that same perspective. Assuming they take everything at face value and don’t bring their own biases into it. Which is impossible.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that everyone who reads the book will take their own biases and perspectives on morality into account when they read the book (and they will). Then, in the case where they are reading something that affirms their beliefs, they will agree with it, and like the writing more because it supports their beliefs. In the case where they are reading something that goes against their beliefs, they will disagree with it and perhaps consider a new perspective. This will, ideally, challenge their own thinking, and help to improve their critical thinking skills.

Now, consider a book which only affirms the authors perspective on morality. The book, whether it does so explicitly or implicitly, will tell the reader what to think on whatever is happening. Rather than thinking critically about everything that happens in the story and coming to their own conclusions, the reader is led by the hand to understand morality from the writer’s perspective. This would be fine and dandy if the writer’s morality was perfect. But no human’s morality is.

So, we must find a different approach. Consider a book which affirms the characters’ perspective on morality, even if told from the perspective of a voiceless narrator. The book will tell the reader that everything the target character is doing is good. This will make the reader question what is good. They will read something not good happening, say to themselves, ‘this isn’t good,’ and then (hopefully) begin to consider the moral imperatives of all things happening. To consider all sides of any given argument.

By this approach, the writer is not leading the reader to a specific moral perspective, but instead leading the reader to a vast library of moral perspectives, where the reader can more easily reconsider their views.

As well, writing from a morally subjective approach highlights objective morality. If a reader can look at something that is happening and recognize that what is happening is wrong, even when all possible arguments are made for it being right, then how can it be that the thing could ever be right?

In contrast, writing from a morally objective perspective, where the writer’s morality does not line up with the objective, does the exact opposite.

Even the Bible (more specifically the Old Testament) is written from a subjectively moral perspective, which highlights the fact that morality is objective. Nearly every act described in the books of Kings and Chronicles is written in an unbiased, here are the facts, format. This leaves the reader to interpret what is right and what is wrong. Even more so, this takes the focus off of the writers biases and places it on the consequences of the events that take place. Polygamy, incest, and rape, all written from a morally grey perspective, lead to dire consequences that lead to the downfall of Israel. We read through it and know that it is wrong, and those who do not see the consequences of those actions.

Welcoming vs Alienating

This, I think, is a question that has plagued me. Finding the line to draw, finding where Devilspawn reaches a point of being too alienating to my target audience for me to include various plots in the narrative. What I have decided on is this: I want people to be uncomfortable.

Devilspawn is written with a wide range of target audience in mind. It is made to make people question their own beliefs and their own actions. It is, ultimately, written from a Christian perspective, but it is made to make Christians uncomfortable, to call the religion itself out on the ways it has failed. It is also written to be enjoyed by those apart from the faith. I have attempted, in almost every scene where Christianity is brought up, to write it in a non-intrusive and digestible way. In a way that everywhere it’s brought up carries with it an important element that relates to the situations each character is going through and that has some plot relevance. Devilspawn is written to make people question their own reality and consider things from another perspective. One of the villains is a judgemental Christian; one of the heroes is a gay Satanist. As previously stated, everything in Devilspawn is subjective, but it all points to one objective Truth.

So, though Devilspawn is certainly alienating, I hope and pray that those it would alienate (i.e. everyone) would read it with an open mind and with the motive of gaining a fresh perspective on reality.

Conclusion: Is This How it Should be Done?

The straight answer is, ‘probably not’. The more complicated answer is that writing the book in this way will likely turn away many readers who are not expecting a book written in this way. As I’m writing this, the possibility of writing a sort of ‘letter from the author’ before the book begins comes to mind. One which explains that which I’ve written above. That the book is intended to make people feel uncomfortable, and make them question their own perspective. Because questions and doubts are the only ways we move forward. Questioning the understood best way to do something is how we find better ways of doing things.

And that is why I’m writing Devilspawn in this way.

If what you just read happened to pique your interest, subscribe to my blog, either through WordPress or by way of using the email entry field on the right. Also, hop on over to our Facebook page and give us a like, leave us a comment, or share with your friends. Thanks for reading, and Happy Making!

Devilspawn and Divus Update

In lieu of releasing a chapter of Isle of the Dreamer (coming next week), I’ve decided to post an update on other projects I’m working on.

Unfortunately, there is no chapter of Isle of the Dreamer for this week, due to various things going on. I have, however, made progress on other projects in the past two weeks. Significant headway has been made on the most recent draft of Devilspawn, and actual work has been done on the video game I am working on, Project Divus (NP). More details below.

A Demon in the Night, Book I of Devilspawn

Unfortunately, Devilspawn sat dormant for several weeks while I got distracted by the wonderful prospect of doing nothing and lazing around all day. On the bright side, I have broken free from that temptation and made significant headway to the tune of and additional 30 pages.

As I write this, I come to the realization that I have given little to no updates about the writing of Devilspawn. Ever. Better late than never, I guess.

The first draft was 321 pages and the five people who read through it adored it. That, alongside actually finishing a draft for once, was a great confidence boost.

However, much to the dismay of the woman who is now my wife, I was unhappy with that draft. This was for two primary reasons (that are actually just one reason in disguise): (1) the draft had a lot of ‘downtime’ – periods where nothing would happen, involving multi-month gaps in time – which resulted in (2) a lot of plot threads being introduced in the final stretch of the book as they were being tied up. So, I decided to write out the second draft much differently – namely, by filling in the gaps, which padded out the book quite a bit.

The problem is that this made the book very long. It didn’t drag on, mind you, but it became quite long in the process, with many plot threads introduced toward the beginning of the book that wouldn’t be resolved until toward the end. Based on the length of the second draft, that probably wouldn’t have been for another 200-300 pages, which would be less than ideal. Thus, splitting the novel into two books.

Now, I could, of course, just write the whole thing out to its full length of 600-some-odd pages and then find a nice breaking point. The problem is that, with the way it was being written, that wouldn’t work very well.

Devilspawn is a character-focused narrative rather than a plot-focused narrative. There are several major plot points toward the middle of the book that would work as a nice finale for Volume I before transitioning into Volume II. The issue with that would be that its right smack in the middle of multiple character arcs. This would make the book feel incomplete.

Thus, my decision to simply start the next draft with that in mind: restructuring certain character arcs to be resolved before that point and pushing off other character arcs to be introduced after that point. Obviously, some character arcs will still span across both books, but the plan is to make Volume I feel more complete in itself, which is more pleasing in the eyes of readers and traditional publishers, should I end up needing to go that route.

Project Divus (NP)

Project Divus has seen many roadblocks in its production, not the least of which is my own laziness. The other was trying to work with a rather lethargic and disagreeable partner.

The starting area, with the main character swinging a sword

So, there’s been a shake-up in the production team, and I am now proud to announce that I will be working on Divus with my wife, Olivia, who will be working on the majority of the graphics for the game as well as helping me with level design. The two of us together have made what I would call significant progress on the game in the past two days. The starting area of the game is mostly completed, the Player Character (PC) can walk, can’t walk through walls, and can swing a sword. I say ‘can swing a sword’ and not ‘can attack things’ on account of I am currently having issues with making the code recognize certain colliders in the engine.

Other than that minor issue that I’m sure I’ll resolve soon, production is coming along quickly, especially compared to the last 8 months, where nothing was done except the creation of placeholder graphics (pictured above) that were very obviously based on those of the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

Moving Forward

As previously mentioned, there is not chapter for Isle of the Dreamer this week. Rest assured, you lovely people who actually read it and keep asking me or my wife for more, another chapter is coming next week (hopefully). What I’ve been trying to do lately is release chapters on the second and fourth Fridays of each month with short stories being released on the Fridays between (thus, Sunny and Raphael).

The unfortunate reality is that life gets in the way of these sorts of things, especially when you haven’t actually released anything that can make you money (or don’t have a following at all) and have to depend on a day (read: 3 o’clock in the morning) job that leaves you feeling like time doesn’t exist for some reason and nothing matters.

That said, my goal is to release another chapter this upcoming Friday and another chapter the Friday after that, then return to the normal schedule. My hope is to keep releasing chapters and short stories alongside weekly status updates on the various projects I’m working on. If that doesn’t happen, see previous paragraph.

If either of the projects above happened to pique your interest, subscribe to my blog, either through WordPress or by way of using the email entry field on the right. Also, hop on over to our Facebook page and give us a like, leave us a comment, or share with your friends. Thanks for reading, and Happy Making!

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 13: The Bone in the Dark

Soren and the others reach the last leg of their journey as they prepare to pass through the most dangerous region of the island – Dormu’s Hollow.

The next three days of their journey were rather uneventful as they crossed the vast plains that were the Amaranch Fields, save for the night that Maya decided to see if the bracelet Soren found in the structure in the thicket would prevent the wearer from being burned. It did not.

At the dawn of the fourth day since they left the thicket – the seventh day of their journey, though it had been extended by one more day than initially projected – as they were packing up their camp, Soren noticed a raven, perched on a lone tree nearby. He finished tying up his bedroll before cautiously approaching it.

The last time he remembered seeing a raven on the island was when he’d just defeated Naga. When he emerged from the ancient temple and it was perched on a tree. Before that, he saw one when he woke up on the shore after his first attempt to escape the island. He peered at it curiously before whispering, “Why do I keep seeing you?”

The raven cocked its head.

“I’ve seen plenty of talking animals on this island, who are you?”

Somehow, Soren felt he could see the raven smiling. Something in its eyes. Its blue, crystalline eyes. How he hadn’t noticed its eyes before, he didn’t know – perhaps it was a different bird. But he had seen eyes like it before. In idols of the gods back in Ingaard, as well as the other cities of Shelez.

He opened his mouth to speak once more, but the bird took off. Soren sighed before returning to the others as they finished breaking camp.

Tomorrow, they would be in Zapad. Tomorrow, Soren would see Tyrell again. But first, they needed to travel through Dormu’s Hollow. The reason so many people took the two-week journey, as opposed to one. Dormu’s Hollow was a system of valleys and caves that cut across the north side of the island, known for killing many travelers. At the time when Arakim wrote his atlas, he was the only known explorer – though there were rumors of another – to pass through the hollow and survive.

Leondrea and Soren, however, were convinced they could make it through the hollow, especially with the help of Skullcrusher – and even more so now that they had Karkog with them.

After a couple hours of travel, they reached the entrance to the hollow. A cave, surrounded by poles that displayed the heads of men and orks alike.

“It’s not too late to turn back, you know,” Maya said as she lightly rubbed her bandaged arm. It took a lot of willpower not to simply scratch it outright. Despite the bracelet offering seemingly no benefit, she continued to wear it nonetheless.

“We’re going,” the Madam affirmed. “We’ve come this far, we’re not turning back now.” She let out a sigh, “We don’t really have the supplies to do so, even if we wanted to.”

“We could always ask the orks for supplies.”

Leondrea shook her head.

***

The darkness in the cave that led into the hollow was thick. It was as though they were traversing their way through a black fog, the light of a torch unable to reach as far as it normally would. Strange sounds echoed from the darkness as they crept through the cavern: a faint clicking noise, an occasional squeak, and the scraping of various materials against stone.

Arakim wrote of the things that lurked in the hollow. Vermin of extraordinary size – rodents, arachnids, and frogs the size of wolves, or larger. Long, segmented creatures with many legs that reached the height of men. And creatures that Arakim called celvir: tall, lanky creatures with teeth the size of a man’s fingers, and hollow, black eyes. It was the celvir who put their victims heads on poles. Soren had heard tales of similar creatures – felreiss – that lived up in Kapfas. They would eat the raw flesh off their victims and could reattach severed limbs – even if those limbs originally belonged to something else. Their only weakness was sunlight, which burned their skin from their bones.

But the most foreboding creature was the hollow’s namesake. Arakim wrote little about it. Nothing of its appearance or behaviors. Only the sound it made. Even the celvir seemed to fear its feral call. Arakim described it as a mixture between the crying of a babe and the sound of a man drowning in his own blood.

After what felt like miles, they finally emerged from the cave into one of the deep valleys that made up the hollow. The sky above was covered in thick clouds that loomed just at the top of the sheer rock walls that lined it. It was near midday, but felt as though it was twilight.

At the very least, they could now see more than ten feet away from them. But that perhaps only made things worse as they watched the giant tarantulas and scorpions creeping along the wall. Giant rats spat at them, their saliva sounding as though it was sizzling on the ground. Likely the only thing that kept the creatures away was the foreboding dire wolf that walked alongside the group. Soren saw none of the hundred-legged creatures Arakim wrote about, or the celvir, or Dormu itself -as far as he could tell.

Statues lined the sides of the pass, their figures carved with intricate detail. Like soldiers, standing at attention. They almost appeared to be people, turned to stone by some magical force. At once point, Soren thought he saw a statue turn its head to look at them out of the corner of his eye. When he investigated the statue, he saw its head facing forward, just as all the rest.

Just a trick of the light.

“I’ve heard of creatures which can turn men to stone,” Leondrea commented, breaking the solemn silence they’d walked in for the past few hours.

“I wouldn’t believe such legends,” Soren replied with a hoarse whisper.

“And why is that?”

Soren shrugged as he scanned their surroundings. Something felt off. It was too quiet, and the various creatures around them were slowly creeping away. “I’ve never seen something with magic that powerful. To be able to change the material something is made of.”

“And why is that so hard to believe? We just watched a god die no more than a fortnight ago.”

Soren took in a sharp breath and listened for a moment. There was no sounds. No quiet clicking, no squeaking, nothing. “If whatever that was truly died, it was no god.”

Leondrea opened her mouth to speak again, but Soren cut her off.

“Quiet!”

The group stood, listening for a moment. There was no cry, so it couldn’t have been Dormu.

A light slapping noise echoed through the pass.

The group shuffled over to the wall and crouched low – Skullcrusher couldn’t do much to hide. Just as they finished hiding, a creature, at least double Soren’s height, rounded the corner up ahead. One leg matched its body – a long, spindly leg with far too many joints that ended in a point – the other appeared to have once belonged to a frog. That was what had been making the slapping noise. It would have been taller if not for the frog leg. One of its long arms reached down to the ground, ending in a clawed hand, where each of its four fingers circled around its odd wrist. Its other arm appeared to have once been the tail of a particularly large rat. Its perfectly round head held a gaping mouth, filled with sharp teeth, and its eye sockets appeared completely empty. Its gaze seemed to lock on Skullcrusher and its lips curled outward, taking two rows of teeth with it. Another row sat behind them in a twisted smile. The celvir were certainly much more twisted than the tales Soren had heard of the felreiss.

Leondrea tried to jump out of their hiding place. Soren held her back and placed his other hand on Maya’s head.

“Wait for it to get close.” He nodded at Karkog, who nodded back.

As the celvir crept closer, Soren began climbing the wall next to them. It was certainly much easier than it would have been without his sandals. He kept behind a fold in the wall until he was satisfied he was too high for the celvir to notice him.

Skullcrusher whimpered slightly as the creature grew closer.

Soren kicked off the cliff face and flipped through the air to land on the opposite wall. He scrambled to hide behind a fold in the wall, sending several small rocks tumbling down.

The celvir was distracted for only a moment before its attention returned to Skullcrusher. Soren had never seen such a patient hunter, walking so slowly. Perhaps it wanted to strike fear into its prey. Maybe it simply couldn’t run properly.

Soren slowly lowered himself down the rock face until he felt he could jump down safely once it got close enough. He looked to Karkog to ensure he was watching. Then he focused on the celvir. It grew closer. And closer.

Soren nodded to Karkog before jumping from the cliff face.

Karkog grunted hoarsely and sprang into action.

In his descent, Soren swung Delmore’s sword in a wide arc. Trying to sever its head would be impractical, but cutting into it would likely do some damage. He missed, instead hitting the rat tail arm, which fell off with ease.

Karkog targeted the long and spindly leg. His axe swung, and collided with the thing’s leg. They heard a crunch as the leg shattered, sending splinters flying through the air. Its skin was like bone.

The Madam barked an order and Skullcrusher sprang into action. He leapt at the celvir, pinning it the ground. But not before it could cry for help.

As it collided with the ground the creature let out a sharp screech. Skullcrusher ripped its head off, flinging it across the stone ground. Yet it moved still.

Their ears ringing, Karkog and Soren continued hacking at the creature until it could move no more. Celvir’s vital organs were highly decentralized. The only way to kill one would be to destroy its entire body completely.

“We will need to move quickly,” Soren said as he rushed to gather its parts together, “More may be on the way soon.”

As they laid the last of its parts on top of its torso, a second screech sounded from elsewhere in the hollow.

Soren rifled through his backpack, fishing out a fireball and setting it on the pile. “Be ready to run.” As he lit the fuse, he started running, the rest along with him.

An explosion rang out behind them as they ran as fast as they could, turning this way and that, having no time to stop and look at the map Arakim provided. There was no way to know if they were heading toward the exit, only that the screeching of the other celvir was getting quieter.

They were getting further from danger, and that was all that mattered.

As the screeching stopped, their running slowed. Eventually, they stopped, each of them slumping over to catch their breath. Only Karkog remained alert.

They rested for a minute before Karkog interrupted.

“Danger.”

Soren looked up to see what Karkog was looking at. The celvir had found them.

Raphael

An orphan wanders through the woods to find a new home. This is a chapter from my upcoming novel, Devilspawn.

Caleb was given specific directions. He was told to follow the signs. To follow the road to Abba’s house. There, he would always be provided for. There, he would never want.

He was told he shouldn’t make the journey alone. Everyone else was too afraid. Too afraid of what lurked in the woods. Of leaving behind the only place they ever knew. So, he traveled alone, from the village of orphans he’d grown up in.

He followed all the signs, followed Michael’s directions perfectly. Until he reached a fork where there was no sign – at least none that he could see.

It was dark, the faint glow of the stars unable to peak through the forest’s canopy. Up to this point, every sign – with the exception of the first few – had pointed down a road that was clearly far less traveled, with the difference becoming less discernible with each fork. Here, both roads looked equally traveled – as if only a single set of feet had traveled each one several times over. Caleb could discern no other difference.

Caleb wasn’t sure how, but he knew he was close. He’d reach Abba’s house soon. So, he kept going, even if he couldn’t see where. He trusted that Abba would guide him.

Soon, he was set upon by one of the Fallen; its red, glowing eyes jumping out from behind a thick tree. Its bladed tail sliced through Caleb’s back, and he cried out as he fell to the ground. It threw a bag over his head and bound his hands and legs before carrying him off the path. He didn’t know how far.

“Abba, save me,” Caleb whimpered.

He was alone now – his kidnapper, Nivael, having just slipped into the next room.

Caleb could hear him talking to someone, although he didn’t know who. The Satan – who works to lead Abba’s children astray? Another of the Fallen, like Nivael? Another orphan, like Caleb?

He didn’t know and at this point it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he continued to call out Abba’s name. That’s what Michael told him. “Call on Abba’s name, and He will send help.”

So, he repeated again, “Abba, I’m sorry. I took a wrong turn. Please, save me. I know You’re far away, but, please, hear my cry. Save me, Abba.”

Caleb heard a chuckle from the door. Nivael.

“You really think He cares about you? You think that with all the children He’s adopted – millions upon millions – he really cares about you?”

Nivael chuckled before calling into the other room. “Hey, this kid thinks he matters!”

He turned back to Caleb.

“You’re just some random kid who forgot the directions laid out for you. I did better than you did. At least when I went the wrong way, it was my choice.”

Caleb stopped his pleading for just a moment. He looked at Nivael as tears streamed down his face. “You think you’re better than me, just because you chose this? Because you chose to reject Abba’s love?”

Nivael let out a scornful laugh, his eyes darting to the side before focusing back on Caleb. “I didn’t reject Abba’s love. I accepted freedom. I listened to the words of the Satan, and, you know what, he made a lot more sense than Abba. To be able to wander through the woods as I please. To not be locked up inside Abba’s house, only to leave so that I can go ‘guide’ and ‘protect’ other orphans. No. I don’t want that.”

Caleb squinted at Nivael and sniffled. “Are you left wanting?”

Nivael scowled.

Caleb shook his head. “Abba, save me,” he whispered again.

“What was that?”

“Abba, save me,” Caleb repeated, louder this time. He began repeating it over and over again, slowly increasing in volume.

Nivael shook his head.

Eventually, Caleb’s words turned into screaming.

His screams repeated for many hours, until his throat became scratchy and his voice weak. But, no matter how much it hurt him, he had to keep crying out. He needed help. He needed Abba.

Just as he could scream no longer, the door leading outside swung open. The room flooded with light as a new figure entered. A servant of Abba, given the power of shining light, even in the darkest of places. The figure pointed at Nivael, who froze in place. “You shall not have this one.”

Caleb tried to call his name, but he could only manage to mouth it. “Zedekiah.”

Nivael broke from his trance and sneered at Zedekiah. “You think you can save him? You think you can defy the will of the Satan? He was the highest of Abba’s servants! You are feeble and weak compared to him!”

Nivael lunged at Zedekiah. His mane looked like a blaze of fire as he reached out his claws at the figure of light.

Zedekiah reached out His hand.

Nivael flew across the room. His bones shattered as he slammed into the wall and slumped to the floor.

Caleb could hear someone stumbling in the next room. A door swung open and he heard heavy footfalls running from the building. The sound slowly faded.

Zedekiah approached Nivael’s corpse. He strained to draw breath. “Yes. I can save him. And I do defy the Satan. I regret that you chose this name for yourself. I give you one last chance. Choose Abba.”

With all the strength he could muster, Nivael spat in Zedekiah’s face.

Zedekiah placed His hand on Nivael’s forehead, and he drew his last breath. “Goodbye, child.”

As Zedekiah turned to face him, Caleb shuffled around on the floor.

“Abba sent me,” Zedekiah said, bending down to untie Caleb’s bindings. “He was eagerly awaiting your cries for help, and He heard them. It is by your faith – your unwillingness to give up – that you are saved. Abba’s house cannot be reached without that”

Caleb sat up as he rubbed his wrists with his hands.

Zedekiah smiled at him – at least, Caleb thought He did. It was difficult to see His face. “You shall have the name that should have been Nivael’s.”

Zedekiah placed His hand on Caleb’s forehead.

Caleb felt a burning sensation. But it was comforting.

When Zedekiah moved His hand, Caleb’s new name was written there. He didn’t need to see it to know what it was. He knew it in his heart.

“What does it mean?”

Zedekiah stood up, taking Caleb into his arms before walking out the door. “God heals.”

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 12: The Hare in the Thicket

The party continues their travels to Zapad, but are interrupted when a thicket takes longer to pass through than expected.

The party awoke in the morning and gathered their things before bidding farewell to the orks of the castle and the humans that had been their prisoners. The ork lord gave Soren Hashlakos, as he no longer had any need of it – he now had three blades to carry on his belt.

They traveled for a few hours before reaching the river that ran through Ukulu. They followed it up stream for another few hours, rather uneventfully, until they reached a natural earthen bridge that extended across it. By the time they reached the bridge, the sun was getting close to the ground and they elected to make camp. If they were attacked in the middle of the night, they could easily use the bridge to their advantage.

After setting up a fire pit and three tents – one that would house Aryia and Maya, one for Soren and Karkog, and a final one for the Madam alone. Skullcrusher slept outside.

Soren and Karkog took first watch, sitting opposite each other by the fire so that they could watch each other’s backs.

After nearly an hour of watching, Soren decided to break the silence.

“Why do you speak like that?”

Karkog furrowed his brow. “What speak like me?”

“Like that.” Soren fiddled with a stick he picked up off the ground as he kept his eyes on the grassland behind the ork. “Your words are perfect – accented sure, but perfectly pronounced otherwise. And you seem to be able to understand what I’m saying just fine, which means you understand Shelezar grammar perfectly well. So why don’t you speak it?”

The ork cocked his head. “Easier this. Not think about me.”

“Is that Orkish grammar then?”

“Not Orkish language mine.”

“If your native language isn’t Orkish, then what is it?”

Karkog shrugged. “Giant.”

“It’s the language of the giants?” Soren leaned over to look at some movement behind the ork. Just a hare moving in the grass.

“Mm,” Karkog grunted in a sort of doubtful agreement.

Soren nodded in thought as he continued keeping a watchful eye. The rest of the night passed uneventfully.

The next morning, they crossed the river and into the small thicket on the other side. As they passed through the initial layer of thick leaves and greenery, a hare sat on the other side. It sat beside a tree, watching them.

When Maya crept toward it, it darted behind the tree, vanishing from sight. Maya ran to try and catch it, but it was no longer behind the tree.

They began making their way through the dark thicket – the trees above were so dense that they couldn’t see the sun. The could only travel by the dim, green light that shone through the leaves.

They walked in a straight line for a good period of time, encountering another hare every mile or so. After traveling for far more time than they really should have, Maya spoke up.

“Shouldn’t we be in Amaranch by now?”

Soren stopped; the rest of the party following suit. Skullcrusher whined as he realized he was the only one who kept walking and nuzzled the Madam’s face in a fruitless effort to get the party to keep moving.

Maya continued, “Mister Arakim’s atlas said the thicket was only a couple miles wide. We should be through it by now.”

Soren nodded in agreement as Skullcrusher started restlessly walking in circles around the group.

“How long have we been walking?” Soren asked.

“It’s difficult to tell,” Leondrea answered, “the sun’s not visible through the canopy.”

Skullcrusher let out a yelp as it began running off through the trees; the party took off in chase. After what felt like a full minute of running at full speed, he stopped at a tree and began barking, clawing, and biting at it.

He attacked the tree for several minutes before Leondrea finally calmed him down. “Does anyone know what he was chasing?”

Maya let out a huff, “I think it was another hare, ma’am.”

“Another hare,” Aryia piped up, “or the same hare for a sixth time?”

Soren raised a brow. “How do you mean?”

Aryia crossed her arms and shrugged. “Well, every hare we’ve seen has had light brown fur with a large black spot in the middle of its back. And all of them have gone completely unnoticed until they suddenly ran away in the woods. I feel like it’s fair to reason that they’re all the same one.”

Leondrea nodded. “I agree, it may very well be one in the same – it might not be a hare at all.”

“Do you think the hare is why we seem to be stuck here?” Maya asked.

“I don’t know. All we can do is keep traveling and wait until we see it again.”

It was yet another mile until they did.

They chased after the hare once more until it disappeared again. The tree it had disappeared behind looked awfully familiar – especially considering that it had bite and scratch marks from when Skullcrusher had attacked it a mile back.

The party exchanged confused – and worried – glances.

“We’re stuck in a loop?” Maya cried.

“Or something like that,” Soren said.

Maya held out her hand in disbelief. “We didn’t turn around or anything did we?”

“No, surely not,” Leondrea answered.

Aryia put her hands on her hips as she thought out loud. “The hare always runs in the same direction whenever we pass it, right? And no matter how far we walk in the same direction, we always pass through the area exactly as we did before.”

Maya tilted her head. “So?”

“So,” Aryia continued, “what if the hare isn’t the one keeping us here. What if it’s trying to show us the way out?”

Soren knit his brow as he crossed his arms, stroking the thin beard that had slowly grown out during his stay on the island. “Why wouldn’t Arakim mention something like that in his atlas?”

“Perhaps the effect on the thicket is new? The castle wasn’t mentioned in the atlas either,” Leondrea commented.

Soren sighed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Aryia said, “I think if we keep going in this direction, we might find that the hare runs a different way.”

Leondrea shrugged and started walking. “I suppose it’s as good a strategy as any.”

After a short walk, they saw the hare again, this time darting in a direction opposite to where it went before. They followed it back to the tree again, but this time from a different angle.

After several times of that, they finally came up to something different.

A tree stood before them in a small clearing where the ground was covered in grass – unlike the rest of the thicket which was simply dirt covered in dead leaves. The tree itself had a stump as thick as a house but was no taller than any of the others around it. It almost looked like multiple trees tightly wound together. Beside the tree sat the hare, looking to the party.

“What’s this then?” Soren sighed.

The hare lifted its front paws up and down. It almost reminded Soren of an excited horse prancing in place.

Soren slowly approached, his hand rested on the hilt of Delmore’s sword.

The hare moved its head, almost like it was gesturing at the tree.

Soren kept his eyes on the hare as he slowly approached. Then he noticed what he would later determine to be what the hare was leading them to. A very large hole, enough for a man to fit through, between the roots of the dense tree.

The hare leapt over to the hole, looked up to Soren, and jumped down into the dark.

Soren looked back to the others, motioning them over.

After a brief discussion, it was decided that Soren would go down, taking only Delmore’s sword, his bag of fireballs from Otto, his lighter, and a torch – though he wasn’t sure how well it would burn in such a place.

They lowered Soren down by a rope – though, once he reached the floor of the hole, it seemed relatively unnecessary given that a slight jump would allow him to grasp the ledge above.

The hole had led to a tunnel, which wound downward. Soren followed it, going down for quite some time, before opening up into a room of hewn stone some 30 feet long. Pristine tiles lined the floor, while the walls displayed perfectly preserved reliefs of battles between one-eyed giants and massive hybrid-creatures. As well, candles lined the walls, shedding a dim blue light that just barely covered the whole room. The stench of rot hit Soren’s nose like a wave.

The hare was nowhere to be seen.

Two doors led out of the room, one to Soren’s right and one straight ahead.

He first walked over to the one on the right, where he noticed a small, spherical indentation on the wall next to it. Looking through the doorway, he saw a long bridge over a chasm. Even from the doorway, he could feel a strong wind – which made little sense this deep underground – which would push anyone trying to cross the bridge into the pit below.

Instead, he took the straight path, which entered into another small room that had two hallways extending from it in the same direction. Distinct markings decorated the archways that led into each hall, but Soren had no way to know what the marking meant.

He chose to go down the right hall. It went on for quite some time. As he walked, the stench of rot became stronger. He would occasionally see movement on the walls out of the corner of his eye. When he would look, there was nothing there.

Maybe the shadow of the hare, he thought.

As he walked, he began to hear shuffling behind him. He thought about not turning around. Maybe if he didn’t look at whatever was behind him, it wouldn’t matter. But it would also get the jump on him.

He turned around just in time to avoid the swipe of a wight’s claws – two more stood behind it.

He slipped the charm off his neck and ducked beneath its next attack before pressing the charm to its forehead. Like the one he faced in the temple, it began to shine. However, while that one was busy dying, the other two managed to get the jump on him.

Soren managed to avoid one of the wights, but the other caught his arm. In pain, he dropped the necklace to the ground. One of three was dead, but he’d just lost his way of killing them and it was difficult to see in the dark.

He traded blows with them, only barely avoiding their attacks – a task made significantly more difficult without the necklace quickening his reaction time. All the while, he kept glancing to the floor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the necklace that would help him win the fight.

Finally, he saw it. He leapt to the ground, rolling as he snatched it up. He spun around and knocked out the legs of one of the creatures – disabling it for only a moment as he jumped up, placing the charm on the other’s head.

It began to shine and Soren stepped to the side, narrowly avoiding the claws of the one he’d just knocked down. With each one he killed they seemed to get faster.

This one now was moving too quickly for him to get close to, giving him just barely enough time to dodge its blows before it struck again. It didn’t matter how hard Soren tried – he wouldn’t be able to close the distance. He wouldn’t be able to press the symbol to the wight’s forehead. Then he wondered if he even had to. That was just what the snake said.

He took the chain of the necklace in hand and swung it at the creature. For a moment, he thought he saw fear in its empty eyes.

Its claws collided with the charm as it swung through the air. The light emanated from its hand this time and slowly spread across its body. Then, it exploded like all the rest, leaving a pile of ash behind. But, unlike the rest, there was something in the ash. A small yellow-green orb, about the size of the space between the forefinger and thumb when formed into a circle.

Soren wasn’t sure why, but he decided it might be a good idea to take the thing with him. He also wondered where the wights had come from – he hadn’t seen any side paths or skeletons lying on the floor – but decided it may be best to simply continue forward.

After walking nearly the distance he had before being attacked by the wights, he finally came to an open room. It appeared the other hallway led to the same room, and, in the center, there was a large staircase leading down into a chamber below.

As he looked at the staircase, he once again saw movement on the walls. He decided it would be prudent to investigate this time.

When he got close to the wall, he realized what he’d seen moving. A thick, translucent slime was running down the wall, occasionally wavering in its direction for no discernible reason.

He started reaching out to touch it, then thought better of it. It could be dangerous. It seemed dangerous.

He watched the slime for a few more moments before turning back to the stairs. They didn’t seem dangerous.

He slowly made his way down the stairs into a chamber where the stairs sat in the center. On all four walls were archways that held decorative walls within. One showed billowing flame, another a flowing river, a tall mountain, and a massive bolt of lightning. In the center of each was a small hemispherical indentation.

Soren pulled the small orb he’d acquired earlier from his pouch. It looked slightly purple in the current lighting.

He decided to put it in the indentation on the door across from the base of the stairs – the wall will the decoration of fire.

Immediately, the sphere was absorbed into the wall and the carving was made whole. The floor rumbled slightly as the decorative wall lowered into the floor, leaving a passage into a long, dark hallway.

He stepped into it, and flames erupted from the walls, lighting the room.

Before him stood four spindly beings, with noses like those of pigs, eyes sewn shut, and ears like a bat. Each of them held a crude sword, the tips of which scraped across the ground as they moved.

Soren stood in shock for just a moment before the things started hobbling toward him. The first brought its sword high above its head – an amateur mistake – which Soren easily side-stepped.

He rammed his shoulder into that one, knocking it to the ground, before turning to block the attack of another. He discovered the blades were dull when one cut painfully across his arm, ripping plenty of flesh with it.

He turned around again, running the one that’d cut him through and dropping to the ground. Another strike hit him – this time on his back – but not deep enough to cause any real damage. He swung as he spun around, slicing off the head of one of the creatures before turning once more at one about to strike him and running it through – only one was left standing.

As it brought its sword down from above once more, he parried the blow, sending the pig-bat-man’s sword clattering on the ground, and cutting it across the chest before knocking it down with a swift blow to the head.

He thrust his sword downward and twisted, finishing off the creature. As the last died, they all burst into flame. On the far side of the room was a small pedestal, holding two things: another of the small orbs, and a bracelet, made up of red stones strung on a white cord.

Soren pocketed the bracelet and took the orb to another of the decorative stone doors – this time to the one with the river.

Once again, a long, dark hallway greeted him.

As he stepped in, a bright light shone in the room – only for a moment – forcing Soren to cover his eyes. When he opened them, it appeared a glowing, white thread had been run through the room, bouncing from wall to wall. He touched it. He immediately recoiled in pain.

He sucked on the tip of his finger for a moment. The thread was no thread at all – it was a beam of light, hot enough to cut through flesh. On the other side, he could see a pedestal. Another orb, accompanied by what appeared to be a choker this time. He would have to weave himself through the light to get to it – something he was not up to the task to do.

He went back up the way he came, once again passing through the hallway where he’d fought the wights. He found the room they’d ambushed him from – a very small door in one of the dark sections of wall just outside the reach of the candle light. The room itself was small, containing three stone slabs that he assumed the wights had rested in.

He made it back up the tunnel and to the hole at the bottom of the tree where he shouted up for Maya to come down.

As they descended the tunnel, Soren recounted what had happened.

They made their way to the room with the light beams and Maya studied the setup for a moment. After a few seconds planning, she began moving through them.

She ducked and weaved, occasionally making short leaps to get over the beams. She moved like a river, winding through a mountain pass. Before long, she was on the other side. As she grabbed the orb and the choker, the lights disappeared.

Soren decided he’d had enough of the trials these doors seemed to offer and began going up the stairs, but something caught his eye on the way up.

In front of the door that had a bolt of lightning was the hare, staring at him. It wanted him to go through that door specifically. He didn’t know why, but it certainly hadn’t steered him wrong yet. He considered ignoring it. Just turning the other way and leaving.

The room seemed empty.

When he stepped into it, it didn’t have the same reaction as all the rest. Blue candles lit, allowing him to see, but nothing else was there. Just the pedestal, holding another orb and a pair of sandals – the kind worn long before the dragons showed up.

He took a step forward.

Pain shot up his leg, seizing his heart as the symbol of Imya shone bright through his shirt. He stumbled backward and looked at the floor more closely as he clutched his chest – he could feel his heartbeat pounding in his skull.

Excepting closest to the doorway, the tiles in this room were smaller than the others – just barely large enough to fit a foot on. He hadn’t realized before, but the cracks between the tiles let off a faint glow – the same blue as the candles, just several times dimmer. He stepped carefully onto one of the tiles. Then another one. It was the cracks that shocked him.

He stepped forward again, making sure to set his foot on each tile, avoiding the cracks.

Slowly but surely, he made it across.

As he grabbed the orb, the glow in the floor ceased. He grabbed the sandals and made his way out of the room and toward the stairs where Maya had been waiting.

“Isn’t a bit childish to be avoiding stepping on cracks, sir?”

“Shut up,” Soren replied, a slight smile on his face.

As he climbed the first step of the stairs, he felt a tug on his boot.

When he looked down, he saw the hare.

It motioned with its front paws before nuzzling his boot with its nose, then sniffed at the pair of sandals he now held in his hand.

“Are you not able to talk?” Soren asked. “I’ve heard a snake talk, I’ve heard a rat talk, I’ve heard of a talking raven – why is it you can’t seem to talk?”

“Are you sure you’re not going crazy?” Maya asked as the hare sat back and stared at Soren.

He gave Maya a pointed look before looking back to the hare. “Do you want me to put these on?”

The hare tilted its head to the side.

“Dear Imya, please let me be seeing things that aren’t here.”

The hare continued staring at him.

Soren shut his eyes tight and prayed that when he opened them, the hare would be gone. It was still there.

Soren sighed before sitting down on the stairs. The sandals didn’t look like they’d fit him, but it was worth a try.

He removed his boots and set them aside as he held the sandals in his hand. They definitely weren’t going to fit him. But as he brought them closer to his foot, they seemed to grow larger. When he pulled the laces tight, he found they fit perfectly.

As he stood, he found he felt lighter on his feet. He tried jumping and went higher than he could have before. He ran across the room, and, while he wasn’t extremely fast, was certainly much faster and built up speed much faster – and slowed down much sooner.

He nodded at the hare in thanks before slipping his newly sandaled feet into his old boots. A snug fit, but a fit nonetheless.

Soren and Maya made their way up the stairs and back through the hallway until they reached the entrance chamber once more. After a brief argument – much like those they’d had previously – Soren sent Maya back up to the others. He stepped up to the windy corridor with the bridge and placed the final orb in the indentation in the wall.

As the orb was absorbed, the wind stopped, allowing passage to the other side. An archway was there, with a stone wall not unlike that which Soren had found blocking the way to Naga’s chamber in the temple.

Just like then, he pulled out a fireball and blew it up.

He found another large chamber, like the one Naga was in. The wall depicted a great battle, and a similar inscription was found at the bottom. He couldn’t be certain, but he was sure it was the same. Other than that, the room was empty. Or so it seemed.

As he turned to leave, a squelching noise echoed through the room, followed by a loud splat as a giant glob of translucent slime dropped from the ceiling. In the center of it was a giant eye, staring right at Soren.

It would have been easy enough to just run away. Dart around the monstrosity and leave. But something told Soren he had to kill it. That this thing was why they couldn’t leave the thicket. That this thing was why the hare led him down here in the first place.

Soren felt a slight burning on his arm and looked over to see a small collection of slime had already eaten through his shirt. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and brushed the slime off with the flat of his blade. He’d have to kill the thing without touching it. It was probably reasonable to believe he had to strike its eye. Perhaps the slime he’d found on the wall had eyes of their own, but lost them. That’s why they moved in an unintelligent manner.

The slime lurched at him. It moved slowly, save for the times when it would bound into the air, coming down with a loud ‘splat’ and sending slime every which way. He just barely managed not to get hit.

He thought through his options. He couldn’t duck underneath like he did with Naga. He couldn’t reason like he did with the Djinn. He didn’t have a magic snake to help him like he did with the ogre. He did have fireballs, though.

He lit one and waited. He needed it to hit the slime just as it exploded, making a hole large enough for him to stab at the eye. He had to wait for just the right moment.

After a few seconds, he threw it. It spun through the air and Soren prayed the fuse would burn enough that the slime couldn’t put it out. His prayer was answered.

He ducked as an explosion sent slime flying throughout the room, then ran, as quickly as he could at the eye. He leapt through the air to avoid the slime gathered on the ground, and held his sword, point down, to land on the eye. He stuck the landing perfectly. As the sword punctured it, the eye deflated, spewing gunk through the hole Soren created. He was left standing on the flattened eye – an island in a sea of corrosive slime.

He pursed his lips as he stared at the ground. Had he lifted the curse on the thicket? There was no way to know until he went back up and they tried walking again.

He leapt over to the door and made his way back outside. He climbed out of the hole and greeted his party, and they started making their way toward their best guess of the right direction. Before long, they were out of the thicket, and the sun hung just above the horizon to the east.

Somehow, no time had passed at all.

Sunny

A dedicated guardian protects a child from the creatures of the night.

For all intents and purposes, Sunny was alone in the night. His charge was asleep, and there was a certain eerie stillness. The silence echoed in Sunny’s ears as he sat staring off into the black, waiting for whatever dangers awaited him. His charge stirred – a little girl. She held tight to Sunny as she snuggled closer, nuzzling Sunny’s face. No matter what dangers Sunny faced only one thing mattered – protecting his charge.

Not a single sound met Sunny’s ears, save for the occasional cough from another room. But the coughs came from nothing dangerous. No, if something dangerous were to show itself this night, it would give no warning. It would simply appear, whether it was under his charge’s bed, through the windows that led out into the night, or behind the door in the corner.

Darkness lurked in every hidden place, peaking out as it hid from the light. It lived in the hidden places to torment Sunny’s charge as it became new every night and brought new horrors with it.

Many would have been afraid as they waited, restless and alone in the silent dark. But Sunny was not afraid. He was never afraid. Everything that sought to hurt his charge, he destroyed. Everything that entered the room that shouldn’t, he defeated. No future night would ever be any different.

The door on the far wall opened; light rushed into the room, making the darkness flee. A face peaked through the crack between the door and the wall. It smiled at Sunny and his charge, then receded, taking the light with it as the door clicked shut.

Sunny waited for hours that night in silence and solitude. Waiting for something to come after his charge.

From the dark of the corner door crept a shadow, moving like a faint wisp as it appeared in the room. Its eyes glowed red in the dark, staring at Sunny’s charge. It stood tall, its dark figure towering so high that it had to hunch over to fit in the room. Its horns reached high above its head, and a tail whipped around behind it. It clopped its hooved feet on the ground as its gaze met Sunny, carefully pulling himself from the arms of his charge so as to not awaken her.

The dark figure recoiled as its eyes locked with Sunny’s – black beads that glistened from the lamp outside the bedroom window. Sunny stood tall on his charge’s bed and waddled toward the dark figure.

The figure let out a chuckle. “What is this that stands in my way? A puny thing, with no beating heart of courage nor breath of life to sustain it? With no mind for wisdom, nor muscle for strength? No soul in which to fear?”

Sunny stared into the figure’s fiendish eyes. “You will not harm this girl.”

The figure had no mouth, but it frowned nonetheless. “And how do you expect to keep that promise?”

Sunny stood, motionless. He didn’t say a word. He just stared into the figure’s eyes, and refused to look away.

The figure stared back. He’d have moved forward had Sunny not been there.
But Sunny was there.

The figure stood up as tall as it could with such a low ceiling. “I will have that girl.”

Sunny stared back.

“I will take her.”

Sunny didn’t move.

“She will be mine.”

Sunny stayed silent.

The figure squinted at Sunny as it stayed standing at a distance. It couldn’t reason that such a diminutive thing could pose it any danger. But it wanted to be sure.

“Who are you, oh tiny guardian?”

“My name is Sunny.”

The figure crossed its arms. “Well, that is a peculiar name.”

“What is yours?”

The figure raised an eyebrow. It’d never been asked such a question before. “Well, I suppose I can be called Darkness.”

“Darkness,” Sunny repeated. “I’d say that’s a more peculiar name than Sunny, wouldn’t you agree?”

Darkness recoiled. “Well, I would say so, too, were it not for the fact I had to make up the name on the spot. Where did Sunny come from?”

“It is the name given to me by my charge – the girl.”

Darkness looked to the girl. “So, you did not name yourself?”

“No.”

“Well,” Darkness began, “what sort of creature are you that you should be subject to the name that others give you rather than your own?”

“I am no creature, sir,” Sunny replied. “I am but a guardian. This girl is my life. Should she be harmed, I am nothing. What creature are you that you should harm a girl?”

Darkness was silent for several moments. “A creature which must feed. That must feed on fear, on nightmares, on a human’s natural inclination to hate that which they do not know in worry that it may bring them harm. What would they fear if there was nothing to harm them? Thus, I must, in order that I may feed myself.”

“So, you would harm her to save yourself?” Sunny asked.

“Yes,” Darkness answered.

Sunny would have smiled if he had a mouth. “Well, I protect her to save myself, I suppose.”

“So,” Darkness said, “it seems that one of must die.”

“You could leave,” Sunny replied.

Darkness let out a faint whistle – perhaps its own form of a laugh. “I’m afraid you must die, little Sunny.”

“You are afraid, aren’t you?” Sunny would’ve smiled if he could – not because he enjoyed Darkness’s fear, but the irony of it.

Darkness lurched forward with excellent speed, lunging over Sunny’s head. Or so it thought.

Just before its claws sunk into the girl’s skin, it felt a pain in its abdomen.

It looked down.

Sunny had claws of his own.

White strands like lightning surged forth from the little guardian’s hands and crept through Darkness’ veins.

It felt itself burning from the inside out.

It launched across the room with incredible speed, slamming into the wall. As it pulled itself up off the ground, Sunny jumped from the bed.

It tried to run around him. It tried to trick Sunny by ducking back and running the other way. It tried leaping through the air to pass over his head. But, no matter what it tried, it couldn’t escape.

Sunny reached out like lightning once more, grabbing Darkness once again and throwing it against the ceiling.

It came down with a crash and Sunny’s charge stirred.

Without standing, Darkness launched itself from the ground and toward the bed, only for Sunny to grab its foot, swinging it high over his head before slamming it back into the floor.

Darkness rolled around in a daze as Sunny waddled over to its stunned figure.

“You were right to fear me.”

Sunny placed his hand on Darkness’s forehead, and the light began to seep through its veins once more.

It burned.

It ached.

Darkness opened its mouth to scream, but there was no sound.

It had silenced the screams of so many before – children with no guardians – as it crept into their mind while they laid awake. As it taught them to fear the dark, to fear those around them, to fear the world.

It had taught so many to fear before, yet it had never learned fear itself.

Through the window, Darkness learned fear.

The sky was orange as the sun sat just below the horizon.

It had waited too long. It had taken too much time talking to the little guardian that now held it in place. It should have left the moment it saw Sunny. It tried to retreat, back to the door in the corner of the room. But it couldn’t.

Sunny held it in place.

“You would cause my death?” it asked, its voice trembling as it became filled evermore with the fear it sought to wreak upon others.

“I would. If it saves my charge.” Sunny looked down at Darkness. He would have felt pity if he’d seen its face in any other circumstance. Instead, he felt triumph. “Would you like to say anything more before you die?”

Darkness stared at the horizon as its death came closer and closer. “Please, spare me.”

Sunny cocked his head. “If I were not here and my charge asked you for the same mercy, would you offer it? Or would you ignore her and take her mind, regardless of what she wanted?”

Darkness began to weep, its tears like crystal in the orange glow of a new dawn. “I can change, I swear it. Please, spare me.”

Sunny gave it the same emotionless stare he gave everything. “No.”

As Sunny spoke the word, the sun peaked over the horizon.

Darkness let out a terrible screech, though it didn’t bother Sunny and certainly didn’t wake his charge – in fact, it seemed to make her smile.

Light leapt through the window and slammed into the wall. Darkness recoiled at the rays shining above it. They climbed down to touch its form, Darkness turning into a shadow with every inch they traveled. Its figure slowly disappeared as it writhed in pain and tried ever harder to find an escape. But there was none.

Sunny was once again alone. He stood, staring at where Darkness had been. He felt no pity for it, no remorse. Neither did he feel joy or happiness at its death. It was only a means to the end of protecting his charge.

He climbed into the bed and looked at the horizon to watch the sun crawl ever further into view. He liked watching the sunrise.

Then the girl stirred.

Sunny walked back over to where she lay, carefully crawling into her arms so as to not wake her. He nuzzled up to her face and gave her one last hug. He never knew which hug would be his last. He never knew when she would stop needing him. But for now she did.

As her eyes opened, he felt his thoughts leave him. He regretted that he could never speak to her. That’s the one thing he did regret. For as long as she was awake, he was nothing more than a teddy bear.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 11: The Hatred in the Heart

Soren remembers his first time encountering orks face-to-face.

Soren scanned the orks that surrounded him and his friends.

Winning such a fight would involve beating insurmountable odds. Not that he hadn’t done such a thing before, this time, however, the odds were even more against them.

After recovering from the shake of finding a Shadow in their midst, the orks turned to the group and began closing them in. Their exits were sealed – there was no way out.

Soren tightened his grip on the sword in his hand. A sword that burned orks would certainly be helpful in this situation.

Leondrea and Maya’s hands rested on their own weapons as they moved, attempting to inconspicuously surround Aryia – the only one in their group who didn’t know how to fight.

As they prepared for the worst, Karkog knelt down before the ork lord.

He said something that Soren couldn’t quite understand, but he understood enough – Karkog was offering himself up for execution.

As the ork lord began to reply, Leondrea interrupted him.

Karkog glared back at her, growling in his native language.

Leondrea shouted back before looking to the ork lord and saying something else in a respectful tone.

The ork lord looked to Karkog, then to Leondrea. He certainly wasn’t happy. He took in a deep breath, let out a sigh, then waved his hand. Soren assumed his next words meant, “So be it.”

Leondrea stepped forward and dragged Karkog to his feet. As she pulled him back to the rest of the group, the ork lord returned to his throne.

“The prisoners will be kept safe?” Leondrea asked in Shelezar.

The ork lord leaned his head to the side. “I am a man of my word.”

“We may well return this way once our journey is over – we will take them with us then.”

The ork lord nodded. “Very well. The hour grows late, perhaps you would like some lodging?”

Leondrea looked to her compatriots before replying – Soren nodded; he wasn’t aware how the others responded. “That would be nice.”

“I will have a private barracks prepared – for now, accompany me to my meal hall.”

The ork stood from his throne and made his way out of the room. The group followed him down several corridors before coming to a large room with two long tables. He invited them to sit next to him as they ate and he asked them what they knew of the island so far – while the rest of his orks were born here, he was of only a handful that became stranded on the island long ago. The only ones that remained who had arrived when he did either died in battle or went their own way.

Soren recounted his excursion into the temple near Ortus and the information he’d gained from speaking with Arakim.

After eating, they went to the private barracks, where beds had been prepared and laid down to sleep.

As Soren laid awake, he thought back to when he’d fought the orks invading the small village near Ingaard – one of the stories he’d told Aryia when he’d first arrived on the island.

He stood near the back of the ranks during that battle – it was his first time ever seeing an ork in person.

Ishmere and Delmore stood on the front lines, alongside Tyrell and Lairus the Red. It was in that battle Lairus got the scar that stretched his entire torso.

In fact, all those on the front lines sustained injuries that should have proven fatal – and many of the knights and militiamen died, their guts spilled out on the ground, or drowning in pools of their own blood.

Despite nearly half the militia falling that battle, only one of those in the Imya’s crew fell – a young lad who was told to stay in the back with Soren. Soren hadn’t known orkish tactics then, but he at least knew his way around a sword. The young lad – Targin was his name – barely knew how to fight. But he was determined that by sheer force of will he’d survive and that he’d prove himself one of the best combatants in the group. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

He’d charged to the front lines as soon as the battle broke out. He left the formation that the crew – along with the knights and militia – had decided on before the battle. He was not the first to die – but he was the most brutally killed.

When the crew held his funeral, they had to put his parts in a box – incapable of laying his body to rest on the pyre.

For several years after that, Soren assumed orks to be nothing but mindless savages, seeking only to kill. That was the only time the crew had taken on a full horde, but many times after that, they would take on small detachments, each one just as brutal as the last. It wasn’t until quite recently that he discovered orks were just as smart as humans. It wasn’t until recently that he’d discovered they could be just as civilized and merciful as humans and simply chose not to.

Previous to learning that fact, his view on them was a dismissive one, believing that it was simply in their nature. Just as a man does not hate an crocodile for seeking out food, he did not hate orks for pillaging human settlements. He would defend against them, sure, and relish in their death. But he didn’t hate them.

Then, his crew met with a more civilized horde. One that had done away with many of the savage ways of the orks he’d met in the past. A horde that had done away with the traditions and moral code given to the orks by the giants in ages long past.

That was when he learned better. That the orks were not to be merely dismissed as mindless beings following an unbreakable nature. That the orks, which held to the idea that they needed to kill without mercy and even kill their own should they become injured, were to be hated. A hate which burned Soren to his core.

A hate that extended to the orks which Skullcrusher ripped apart in the cave.

A hate that had originally extended to the orks in the castle.

A hate that painfully subsided with each act of kindness and mercy the orks of the castle extended to him. That extended to so many more than just orks. That his own religion told him to be rid of. That would be more difficult to let go of than anything.

New chapters release every second and fourth Friday of the month. If you like what you’re reading, drop a like or a share, and you can subscribe using the module in the right sidebar or read previous chapters at xaviermakes.com/iotd.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 10: The Snake in the Grass

Soren and the party resolve to kill Alonzo in order to free his subjects. But Alonzo is not what he seems.

“You’re going to take the word of an ork over the word of a human?” Maya protested, “A horrible human, sure, but a human!”

Leondrea squinted at the young-looking girl, “We have three choices here: do nothing and let these people die; try to take on the orks and probably fail, getting ourselves and the people killed; or kill Alonzo, bring the orks his head, and save all these people. Which do you think is best?”

“Why wouldn’t the orks be able to just kill Alonzo themselves? And why wouldn’t we be able to take on the orks? We massacred a cave full of them!”

“Those were runts; the ogre that led them kept them weak, likely only to fuel his own perceived superiority,” Soren replied, eyeing Karkog suspiciously. “Even this one here is far stronger than any of those.”

“And Skullcrusher was the only reason we made it out of there alive,” Leondrea added. “He’d barely be able to fit through the halls of an orkish castle. They’d probably come up from behind, he wouldn’t be able to turn around, and then we’d all, along with these prisoners, be dead.”

“Alonzo is no king, milady,” one of the prisoners said, staring at Maya with one eye, while the other pointed to the floor. He was a frail old man, who’d been leaning against the bars of the cell, his scraggly hair reaching down to the floor from his seated position. “He is an usurper, an outlaw, and a sorcerer of the greatest of evils. He contends with devils and gains his power not by his own merit or grit, but by selling his own followers to the whims of monsters and demons. Orks may seem monsters to you or I; but, alongside him, they are just as you or I.”

Maya’s eyebrows drooped as her lips down-turned. She looked to Leondrea and Soren with worry in her eyes before she gained an all-new conviction. “All the more reason to leave it alone!”

“It does not matter how far you run, girl,” the prisoner continued. “The man who claims to be Alonzo will not stop until all of the world is under his rule. The man who claims to be Alonzo will one day find you, and you will meet the same fate as us. He makes no distinction between friend and foe, for he has neither. He has only himself and only for himself does he care.”

Maya bit the inside of her cheek. “Fine.”

“That’s settled, then,” Leondrea said with a pained smile on her face. She turned to Karkog. “Can you stand?”

“Barely,” he grunted as he pushed himself off the ground. He’d have fallen right back over again had Soren not caught him.

They hid the dead guard in the secret passage before closing up the entrance and making their way back to Aryia.

On the way, Soren noticed a grotesque thing moving in the grass – a fleshy tube, covered in hair, eye-like spots, and finger-like protrusions. Assuming it was just another odd creature of the island – though he hadn’t seen anything quite so strange – he decided to ignore it.

Skullcrusher growled as the trio returned with the ork, while Aryia stared in wonder and confusion. She’d never seen an ork up close before. They looked far more human than she’d often heard described, and she’d never heard of one interacting positively with humans. Now her friends were helping an injured one.

Leondrea took the orks hand in hers and held it in the air so that her mutt would stop growling. “Change of plans,” she said, “we’re not going to take the castle back because it already was taken back. Instead, we’re going to kill Alonzo so that the subjects he left for dead may live.”

Aryia’s confusion transitioned into concern. “What?”

Soren cleared his throat as he released Karkog to recline against the tree. “The orks owned the castle first – Alonzo took it from then, they took it back. They gave Alonzo a deal – he dies and his subjects go free.” He shrugged as he walked over to the circle the other three were now standing in. “So, Leondrea has decided we’re going to kill Alonzo. And Maya and I agreed.”

Aryia raised her brows and let out a huff before shrugging. “Okay.”

***

The group waited a couple hours for Karkog’s ankles to finish healing before making their way back in the direction of Alonzo’s farmhouse.

When they arrived, Alonzo was nowhere to be seen. His plants were completely wilted – they’d been completely healthy and nearly ready to harvest when they’d been there only a few hours prior.

As they searched, they found very little. Scattered supplies here and there throughout the garden. Finally, they decided to enter the house. The front door was locked, but a solid kick from Karkog sent it flying into the room. On the floor was a body – or perhaps what would more aptly be called a skin suit.

It looked like Alonzo, but was limp – as if without bones – and the skin was like that of a whale. When Soren flipped the body over, they saw that the eyes had rolled back into its head, and blood had trickled from the mouth, pooling on the floor.

Karkog growled before cursing in his native tongue. “Is snake he.”

Soren let out a sigh. “So he’s not dead?”

“No. Not dead he.”

“How do you know he turned into a snake?”

“Seen sorcery me. How escaped before he.”

“Do any of your old clansmen know of this sorcery?” Leondrea asked.

“Yes.”

Soren huffed as he stood. “Great, so we can’t just take the body and say he’s dead.”

“Well, we just need to find a snake, then,” Maya offered. “Problem solved.”

“Not easy. Specific snake.”

Leondrea asked a question in Karkog’s native tongue and he replied in kind. He spoke for quite some time, explaining something in great detail.

Leondrea clicked her tongue before letting out a sigh. “So, we’re not actually looking for a snake. It’s more like a tube of flesh. On the bright side, he can’t take a human form unless he finds a body big enough to twist into the form he desires.”

“Anything else we ought to know?” Soren asked before shock spread across his face. “You said a tube of flesh?”

Leondrea furrowed her brow and craned her head. “Yes… with fur, and eyes, and little tentacles.”

Soren tightened his grip on the sword around his belt before bending down to take the silver sword from Alonzo’s belt. “I saw him at the castle, we need to go. Now!”

***

Despite his massive size, Skullcrusher struggled to run all the way to the castle with the five of them on his back. Nevertheless, he still managed to make it, although very winded when they reached the gate.

Leondrea quickly jumped off, shouting to the orkish archers that sat upon the gate. They quickly lowered their bows and the gate opened. The five of them were rushed to the throne room, where they met the lord of the ork clan – along with the guard they’d killed in the dungeon.

The un-dead guard wore a sinister smile as he turned back toward the group.

Soren couldn’t understand what he said, but he understood his pointing well enough – the ork was accusing them of something.

Karkog immediately protested, barking several orkish curses that Soren recognized before speaking more calmly.

The orkish lord looked thoughtfully between the two before his eyes fell on the silver sword fastened to Soren’s side.

“Tell me, human: where did you get that sword?”

Soren looked down at it, unfastening it before holding it out in front of him – as would have been courteous in his old life. “We got it off the body of the man we knew as Alonzo. Or, rather, the body he’d made for himself.”

“I see.” The ork lord rubbed the grey hairs on his chin as he looked back and forth between Soren and the dead guard. “And where do you suppose this Alonzo is now?”

Soren looked to the guard. “Standing right in front of you, my lord.” He nodded at the guard, who feigned shock at such a wild accusation.

“Preposterous, this!” The guard shrieked. “Not Alonzo, I! Him! Alonzo him! Karkog!”

Karkog replied in his native tongue and the ork lord rubbed his chin again. He waved to Soren. “Bring the blade.”

Soren knelt down before the ork, keeping his head down and holding the blade in front of him.

“Arise and unsheathe the blade.”

Soren complied.

“Press it to the arm skin of this one,” the ork lord commanded, pointing to the guard who should have been dead.

Soren once again complied. Nothing happened.

“And now this one.” He pointed to Karkog.

Karkog seemed to be bracing himself as the blade drew near. When it touched his skin, he cried out in pain and steam arose from it. As Soren took the blade away, a burn mark had been left on Karkog’s skin.

Soren turned back to the lord, eyes wide in horror. The dead guard was already being set upon by multiple in the room.

The orkish lord was shouting something as he stood from his throne.

Soren backed up to the rest of his group and asked Leondrea what was going on.

“From what I gather, the sword is magical and burns the blood of giants. Because the body that Alonzo took on is no longer orkish, it didn’t burn him, proving he wasn’t who he said he was.”

Soren put the sword back on his hip as the ork lord drew his own – a blade that looked more decorative than practical, and that fit Alonzo’s description of the ceremonial blade they were originally sent to retrieve perfectly.

“Hashlakos,” Karkog muttered under his breath.

“God-killer,” Leondrea translated.

Alonzo looked to Soren pleadingly.

“Please, my child,” he begged. “You prayed to me when you first came to this island. You’ve prayed to me with every meal you’ve eaten. You know me. You saw my garden and what came of it when I abandoned it. If I die, this whole island will wither away. The whole world, every green thing will wither and die. I am the Cultivator, Soren. Save-“

Alonzo let out a shriek as the ork lord’s blade plunged through his chest. It sounded as nails on a chalkboard.

The room grew dark as the shrieking continued. Alonzo began to writhe as he fell from the blade, continuing to shriek. The stench of death filled the room as the orks that had been holding him backed away.

His skin began to bubble and burst, spewing pus that singed the stone floor. The body eventually exploded with a burst of light, and only a shadow remained hovering in the air in its place.

An ominous voice echoed through the room. “I see now you seek the end of this world. No new seed shall spring forth, nor new flower bloom. As seasons pass, plants will die, and no more shall take their place. This is the fate that you have wrought. In time, all things will die, and the only one who can reverse this curse is the one more powerful than I. But, unfortunately for you, he slumbers. And he will slumber until the end of time.

“But now, it is my time. For now I shall depart from this realm of hatred and selfishness. This realm that does not recognize the power of those above. This realm that seeks only worldly gains and does not favor the gods who maintain it.

“Farewell, oh rotten ones. For you have doomed all.”

With that, the shadow faded and light shone back into the room, leaving Soren and his party – including Karkog, the traitorous ork – surrounded by an ork clan.

New chapters release every second and fourth Friday of the month. If you like what you’re reading, drop a like or a share, and you can subscribe using the module in the right sidebar or read previous chapters at xaviermakes.com/iotd.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 9: The Castle in the Prairie

Soren and the others begin their seven-day journey to Zapad, soon interrupted by an encounter with a peculiar noble who has recently lost his castle.

The expeditionary crew, which consisted of Soren, Maya, the Madam, Aryia, and Skullcrusher met at the Madam’s Manor. They mapped out the fastest route possible while avoiding known ork territories using Arakim’s atlas. It would take them around Perdinitium, rather than through it, and take them instead along the shore. Until they reached the prairie called Ukulu, then they would travel along the river there until they reached the base of the mountain. At that point, they would cross the stone bridge that could be found there and travel through a small thicket, before coming to Amaranch Fields, then pass through Dormu’s Hollow, and, finally, reach Zapad. A nearly seven-day journey in all, nearly half the length of the usual route. Once they had agreed upon the route and secured the necessary provisions, they departed.

For most of the day, they walked, stopping only twice. The first to eat lunch, the second halfway between noon and sundown when they encountered an unexpected encampment.

As they passed beyond the edge of Perdinitium and over the hills which wrapped around Ukulu, they saw a hovel, or perhaps more adequately described as a manor – one unspoken of in Arakim’s Atlas. It was larger than many of the houses in Ortus, though certainly not as large as the Madam’s Manor, and was surrounded by a garden that stretched a good distance all around it.

In the garden was a man who wore a royal blue robe and a silver circlet.

Soren called out, and the man looked up from the plant he was watering and smiled. He looked not much older than the Madam appeared, and it seemed that he was very well-groomed until recently. He had hints of black stubble that matched his black hair, which was mildly frizzed, and he had small smears of dirt on his face – far less than Soren or Maya had.

As they approached, he set down the watering can he held and waved, placing one hand on the sword that hung from his waist. The silver plating on the hilt particularly caught Soren’s eye – and likely Maya’s, though for different reasons.

“Hail, friends!” the man in the blue robe called. “What bringeth you through my demesne?”

The man spoke an archaic form of Shelezar, though still recent enough that Soren could understand him.

He looked to his companions before opening his mouth to reply to the man, only to be cut off by Leondrea, who responded in the same archaic dialect.

“Hail, man. We fare from the burg of Ortis to that of Zapad. We bid thy goodwill in passage through thy demesne if thy wouldst permit it.”

The man nodded. “I would permit thee passage, but I speak to the man which leadeth thee. What say, friend?”

Soren raised a brow as he glanced at Leondrea, whose head recoiled as her face twisted into a mixture of confusion and disgust.

He looked back to the man, attempting to speak the dialect, though failing quite horribly. “I wonder, man, what is thou name?”

The man furrowed his brow. “Zounds! I see now why the woman speaks for thee, for an ox whose tongue had been ripped out could speak better. Nevertheless, my name is Alonzo of Peldon. And I would permit you passage if ye would do this thing for me: you see, I am the lord of a castle that is nearly a mile to the north – but my servants which reside there turned against me, the scoundrels. They chased from my throne and force me now to live here in this small villa. My complaints are scant, for it is a good place to be, but, alas, there are some heirlooms which I would like to have back. If ye would retrieve these heirlooms for me, I would permit thee passage through my demesne.”

“We will-” Soren hesitated as he attempted to speak “-do that.”

Alonzo smiled once more and returned to watering his plant. “Very well. I shall see you upon your return.”

Leondrea clicked her tongue. “What heirlooms dost thy need us to retrieve?”

Alonzo looked up in surprise as he set the watering can back down. “Ah, yes, right.” Alonzo proceeded to list off a number of items, though Leondrea managed to negotiate down to three: a platter that had his family’s faces painted on it, a ceremonial sword, and his ceremonial crown, which he hadn’t worn since he was crowned lord of Ukulu.

With that, they set out in the direction of the castle.

Once they were a good distance away, Maya asked, “Why is it we’re helping this guy? We could just pass through.”

“Because it’s the honorable thing to do,” The Madam replied, “and we don’t know what he’s capable of, especially since Arakim didn’t mention anything about him or his ‘demesne’ on the atlas. He has to be at least 400 years old based on his speech, and he looks about a tenth of that.”

“Besides,” Soren added, “more friends in a place like this can never hurt.”

“Even if they think an ox can speak better than you?”

“An ox with its tongue cut out,” Aryia chuckled.

***

After a quarter hour of walking, the castle was in sight. The group hid behind a shrub as they watched from afar, Soren peering through a spyglass.

“Looks like its guarded by orks – I thought he said his servants forced him out.”

“He did,” Leondrea said, “maybe the orks forced them out. Or worse.”

“Maybe the orks were his servants,” Maya offered, “maybe we’re just walking into a trap that he set up.”

“Regardless,” Leondrea said, “we said that we would retrieve the heirlooms for him, so we will. Tell us about the castle.”

“It looks…” Soren hesitated for a moment, “It looks orkish in design. There’s a wall around the outside, and a keep in the middle. The walls are lined with stone spikes and thorned coil along the top. I’m beginning to doubt more and more that Alonzo is who he claimed. Looks there’s a drain hole in the bottom of the wall on the south side. If we sneak around, we might be able to get in through there without them noticing. We would just need to remove the grate somehow.”

“Do you know how hard it is to remove a grate?” Leondrea snapped.

Soren shrugged.

The Madam rolled her eyes. “Very.”

“We could just send Skullcrusher through the front gate,” Maya said.

Soren pursed his lips in approval and nodded. “Or we could have him pull the grate off.”

Maya smiled. “Or we could just abandon this fool to whatever and continue our journey.”

Soren and Leondrea both gave Maya a disapproving look.

“We’re doing this,” Leondrea declared.

After about another hour of discussing possible ways of getting in to the castle, the group finally landed on having Maya take a closer look.

She snuck through the tall grass up to the walls and began looking around before finding a trapdoor in a group of foliage near the wall.

She returned to the group and they – spread apart so as to avoid all of them getting caught if one of them should be and so that they were smaller objects in the orks’ vision – snuck back, leaving Aryia by the shrub as her combat prowess and various expertise related to robbery was limited. Skullcrusher, as well, stay behind to guard her.

The trapdoor was old and rotten, covered in fungus. The Madam recoiled in disgust, just barely muffling her own cry at the sight of it.

Maya, paying the disgustingness of the door no mind, reached down and opened it, revealing a wooden ladder, covered in much of the same rot, that led into a dark passage below.

Without hesitation, Maya made her way down the ladder.

The other two decided it would be best to make a quick rope ladder to make it down, on account of the ladder might collapse under their weight.

Taking the rope from his pack, Soren tied knots at regular points along it to act as rungs before lowering it down and tying it to the strongest shrub he could find nearby.

The two climbed down before Soren produced a lantern from his pack and used the lighter he’d gotten from Otto. It became quickly apparent that this passage was meant to be used as a means of escape by the residents of the castle should it come under siege. It was quite short – perhaps only a few meters long, before coming up to a wooden wall that seemed to be the back side of a shelf. A slight bit of torchlight peaked around it, prompting Soren to quickly put out his lantern before peering through the cracks.

The passage led into the dungeon of the central keep. Not too far from the shelf they hid behind was a cell, where many human prisoners sat on mats, sleeping with their backs to the walls. An ork sat on a chair, picking his nose and flicking boogers across the room, with a battleaxe leaned up against the wall next to him.

Through the other side, Soren could see a staircase that (probably) led up to the main floor, guarded by another ork leaned up against the wall that seemed to be sleeping on his feet.

Soren retreated momentarily and explained the situation to the others before they devised a plan.

They all prepared themselves behind the shelf before Soren shoved it out of the way. Maya leapt out of the left side, sliding across the ground before cutting the back of the seated orks ankles as Leondrea threw one of her daggers at the other.

The dagger sunk into its exposed neck and it let out a muffled cry as it ripped the blade out, preparing to throw it back, only to be interrupted by another dagger going through its eye. The ork guarding the stairs slumped to the ground as the seated ork slumped out of its chair, collapsing to the ground as it failed to stand.

It let out a cry, quickly stifled by Soren placing a sword to its throat. It drew in a quick breath before swallowing nervously.

“How many of you are there in this castle,” he demanded, “and why are you here?”

The ork gulped as its eyes flashed back and forth between the sword and Soren’s face. It spoke in broken Shelezar, demonstrating a familiarity with the vocabulary, but not the grammar. “Belong we. Not belong you.”

Soren looked at the other two with him before focusing back on the ork. “What about Alonzo?”

The ork snarled. “Steal Alonzo. Builted forefathers.”

“Alonzo stole the castle from you?” Leondrea interjected.

The ork wobbled his head.

Maya and Soren exchanged confused looks as they were unfamiliar with the gesture, but Leondrea offered, “That’s a yes.”

“So,” Soren continued, “Alonzo stole the castle from you, and you just stole it back?”

“Correct.”

“So what?” Maya asked.

Soren ignored her question. “What were your plans with your prisoners?”

The ork growled. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“Alonzo.”

“What does he have to do?”

The ork smiled, baring its sharp teeth. “Die.”

Soren looked to Leondrea.

“Why do we care?” Maya snapped, quiet so that her voice didn’t carry up the stairs, but loud enough to grab the others’ attention. “It’s not like they’re human. You wouldn’t spare an elf like this, would you?”

“No,” Soren answered, “but orks were once human. Elves never were.”

“Who do we side with, then?” Leondrea asked, “The human who lied to us about why he was chased from his castle, or the violent marauders bred for murder?”

Soren hesitated for a moment. “That’s a good question.”

Soren stood for a moment before the ork interrupted his train of thought by gripping the blade against his neck.

“Please,” the ork said, “kill me you. Better than living with failure me.”

Maya let out a scoff. “Honestly, they’re just pitiful. It’d be better if they were all dead.”

“They were bred for war,” Leondrea said, “Back when the giants ruled the world, if they were injured they were useless. They would be thrown away and replaced by a new one.” Her eyes were visibly damp. “That sort of mistreatment just prevailed in their culture. They shouldn’t be subjects of pity, but compassion.”

She looked in the ork’s eyes, like pits of tar. “What is your name?”

The ork snarled. “Karkog.”

“Well, Karkog,” Leondrea said, “I happen to have a way that you can live another day, without failure.”

She reached into the bag attached to her hip and pulled out a small folded piece of paper, bound with a string. She untied it, revealing a mass of crushed leaves within. She knelt down as she took a small pinch of the leaves and held them in her hand. “Chorklenya once lived in Ortus, you know. Before she was chased out by those who wouldn’t tolerate elves in their midst.” She spat on the leaves in her hand and kneaded the spit and leaves together in her palm. “While she lived in Ortus, she taught me a few things – healing remedies, mostly. Things that would heal scrapes and bruises. Even broken bones. Things that would be helpful in battle.”

Soren raised a brow as Leondrea scooted across the floor, closer to the ork.

The leaf-saliva mixture was now a paste.

The ork released his hand from Soren’s sword as he eyed Leondrea suspiciously.

She took a scoop of the paste with her finger and reached for the ork’s ankle.

He flinched away before relaxing as she spread the paste where Maya had cut him.

Leondrea began speaking in orkish and Karkog responded in kind. At several points, she paused to relay information she learned to the others. Namely, that the prisoners would be spared if Alonzo died, but they would all be executed in his place if he didn’t. He knew this when he ran and abandoned his people.

Once she finished rubbing in the mixture, she placed her palm over the wound and began chanting in some unknown language. Halfway through the chant, she pulled a small flower from her belt pouch. As she chanted, the flower began to wilt, before catching fire – though it didn’t seem to burn her hand. When the flower was reduced to ashes, Leondrea finished chanting. She dropped the flower, which fell to the floor and scattered into nothing.

“You will still be unable to walk properly for some time,” she said to the ork in Shelezar, “but the tendon will heal. You will be able to walk again.”

The ork replied in his own native tongue.

Leondrea smiled softly as she looked to Soren, then back to the ork. “Not if you come with us. It is within ork tradition that you cannot execute the member of another clan is it not?”

The ork squinted at Leondrea, then at Soren, then at Maya. “Correct.”

Leondrea’s smile strengthened as she stood, holding her hand out to the ork. “Then you’re ours now.”

Soren gave Leondrea a mildly pensive look (Maya’s was not so mild), but shrugged to indicate his acceptance of the ork into their group.

“What now?” Soren asked.

“Now we bring the orks Alonzo’s head.”

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