Aurora’s Demise (Lorelai Epilogue)

Aurora was the high priestess for the Church of the Makers. When one of her most prized priestesses went missing, she pursued those who liberated her. But things didn’t go as planned, and now she must face the consequences.

This story takes place just after the short story Lorelai, if you haven’t read that already, I highly recommend doing so first, though this story can likely be understood without it.

A rock in the road jolted Aurora, the High Priestess of her temple, awake. She attempted jumping to her feet, stopped by ropes binding her wrists to the floor. The fibers rubbed painfully against her skin as she attempted to pull free. She gave up and looked around. Immediately, her eyes locked with those of an Umbrai – a descendant of the Dark Makers – sitting opposite.

Everything about her betrayed this ancestry, a daughter of the Southern Continent: her dark skin, yellow eyes, and dark, curly hair – representing the Chaos that the Dark Makers so wished the world would fall into – that she had braided back into rows like the crops of the field. Her name was Amari if Aurora had heard correctly.

Beside her sat an Aratha, a man of the wild. He looked much like the one who’d come into her temple several days prior. That one was a Paladin of the Crimson Cord, a perversion of the Church’s traditions. This one bore no such mark. On his neck, however, was a nearly invisible tattoo, just darker than his skin, that almost looked like it moved, swirling like fire. He was a Keeper of the Flame – a druidic enforcer. It suddenly felt very warm as Aurora felt her heart leap in her chest. She knew no fear of these paladins and their wards until this very moment, as she looked upon the one likely to be her executioner.

No one else sat in the cart with them.

“Where is she?” Aurora demanded, once again looking to the Demonborn. She’d followed them into the Hartal Wilds to retrieve one of her priestesses – Lorelai.

“Dead,” Amari replied, “you killed her.”

Aurora tried to swallow, fighting back the urge to vomit. With each moment, the fear within her grew. “No, that can’t be.”

Amari sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Her face twisted in a scowl. “You could have just let her go. She’d still be alive if you had.”

“No, she can’t be dead.” Words seemed to simply flow from Aurora’s mouth. She didn’t think about what she was saying, only the consequences. “She can’t be dead. She had not yet been with child.”

Amari narrowed her eyes at Aurora, the High Priestess of the Temple of Liberport. “You don’t even care about her, just her ability to bear children. What, was she just ‘prime stock’ to you?”

Aurora shook her head as she continued, “I care for her far more than myself.” For a moment, her fear wavered. “She is of the line of the firstborn daughters of Ynara, the women of utmost respect among the Church, which our temple was trusted to protect. If she is dead, then there is much suffering to come; the force which keeps the Dark Makers at bay is waning. The world will fall into Chaos; the Balance will be no more.”

Amari wasn’t listening. “What good is it that you keep her body alive if you kill her soul in the process?”

“What good is it if she lives a good life if it dooms the rest of us in the process? What is one life lived in turmoil for the good of the world?” Aurora spat. “She needed to have a child, and we did everything in our power to make that happen! You killed her when you took her away!” Her fear returned as soon as she looked at the Keeper once more. It would have been better if she’d died in the raid than be captured. Keepers were not known to let those they execute die easily.

“Hers was not a life of turmoil!” Amari screamed. The Keeper placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hers was a life of torment and sorrow!” Amari’s face contorted, on the verge of tears. “Her death was better than her life,” she whispered.

“She can’t be dead.” Aurora’s own voice sounded distant to her.

“Let the Fires of Truth bear witness,” the Keeper muttered, “the last of the Line of Ynara has passed into the realm of the Shadows. The last of the Line of Ynara has breathed her last. And yet one lives on.”

Aurora’s mouth became very dry as she struggled to breathe. They blamed her for Lorelai’s death. The Keeper was going to exorcise her. Even if they didn’t, the suffering that would come was comparable to the death she was now going to face. She tried to wrap her arms around herself. To comfort herself. To know that she could still feel. The binds digging into her wrists worked to bring her back to reality.

“’Woe to all the land, for the last Daughter of the Maker has passed,’” Aurora quoted from her studies of the visions of the Prophet, “’The Balance shall be no more, and the Dark shall inherit the world.’”

The Keeper, Tupu, was familiar with a similar prophecy told by the Sabulosians and the Druids. “Woe to all the land, for the One who Binds the Chaos is slain. The Balance shall be no more, and the Shadows shall inherit the land.” A translation error, he thought. According to the Druids, ‘the One Who Binds the Chaos’ was no daughter of the Makers, but the World Guardian – leader of the Druids since the Balance began. How much of the Great Teachings have they twisted within their own minds to meet their own ends? How many of them truly believe the lies they spew is truth?

Aurora looked to Amari. “This must make you happy.”

Amari jumped forward from her seat and struck Aurora across the face. “It makes me no happier that the Balance should fall than it does you.” She took Aurora’s chin in her hand, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “But I believe the Balance did not hang on the life of one girl. That girl, however, was far more precious to me than to you.”

Amari shoved Aurora’s face away. “I guess it would be a mercy for you to die – if you are right.”

Aurora sneered as she glanced at Tupu momentarily before focusing back on Amari. To postpone death for a time – there was but one way.

“You cannot kill me,” she said. She did everything she could to hide her trembling. To ensure that they could not know her fear. “Your oath forbids it. You must keep me alive and attempt to turn me from my ways.” She sat up in a show of feigned dignity. A spectacle of righteousness.

Amari took on a venomous smile. She had thought of having mercy. She had been considering it. “That may be true. But his oath requires it.” She nodded to the Keeper before returning to her seat. To attempt manipulating her; that was the tipping point that swung the scales out of her favor.

Aurora’s breathing became quick and shallow as the Keeper began to breathe deeply. Within moments, tongues of flame leapt from his nostrils. He stood and knelt before her, rubbing his hands together. His palms became red, like iron fresh from the furnace as he let a breath from his mouth. A single bout of flame leapt forth.

Aurora squeaked, cowering in fear. She struggled once more against her bonds, splinters of twine digging into her skin.

The Keeper put his hands on her arms; her skin began to boil. She let out a scream and he pressed his lips to hers, a hot breath filling her lungs. Her cries turned to gurgles, and her gurgles to silence as her lungs filled with flame.

She should have been dead within seconds. But the Keeper wouldn’t let her soul go that easily.

Amari looked away from the spectacle just as Aurora’s eyes caught fire. Tiny jets of flame leapt from her pores.

She did not like what Tupu did for them. The violent, gruesome ways that he enacted justice. She thought for a moment: Should I have offered mercy? Should I have followed my oath to do everything in my power to preserve life? “I shall do all that is within my power, that none more blood shall be shed,” the oath went. Her eyes flashed back to the flaming spectacle for a moment. It was a wonder that neither Tupu nor the cart burned. But what justice would there be if she was allowed to live? What justice would there be for those she’s wronged? For what she did to all those under her? For what she did to my dear Lorelai? For what she did to my beloved Delilah?

Delilah once stood against the justice of Tupu. “What good does it do to slay evil? Do we not, by making the evil good, remove the evil? If we make the evil good, and they are truly good, then how much more can they do for us, to bring about more justice? Killing the evil is not justice. Transforming it, that is true justice. I say to you, Keeper, spare this one.

Amari chuckled nervously as a tear rolled down her cheek. Her argument had no effect on Tupu. The sound of the High Priestess burning alive became distant. What would Delilah say now as the one she hated, the one who tormented her, who took her daughter away, tormented her daughter, and caused her daughter to die, burned in the Fire of Justice? Would she say the same?

The crackle of flame stopped.

Amari looked over to Tupu, a pile of ash before him.

He muttered a prayer under his breath, then turned toward her and nodded.

She looked to the pile of ash, hoping Lorelai would climb from it and into her arms. She never did. Amari closed her eyes and wept. There is no justice. No such thing.

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Lorelai

Lorelai is a young priestess for the Church of the Makers, raised to ‘uphold the Pillar of Life’. Someone has come to offer her a way out, but can they stand up to the Church?

The following contains themes of sexual assault. While nothing is explicitly described, the situations may cause distress for some readers. Please proceed with that in mind.

Lorelai stood in the temple courtyard, watching as patrons passed by. She hoped none of them would eye her. The temple never gave the girls much to work with, and Lorelai struggled to cover whatever dignity she might have left – if there was any at all. A young man’s gaze met her eyes, and she forced a smile. He looked away, quickly setting his attention on one of the older priestesses. If she were lucky, no one would be drawn to her too long. No one would ask for her.

She still remembered the first time she was required to ‘fulfill her duty’ to the Makers. She would never forget her thirteenth birthday, as her cries of pain were blatantly ignored.

The previous night, another priestess had visited her – Delilah. She always snuck Lorelai extra food, and always bought her a gift for her birthday. She had a secret stash hidden under her bed so that the other priestesses couldn’t find it. That night was the last time Lorelai saw Delilah. She told her what was going to happen; Delilah told her that the High Priestess was going to make Lorelai perform her first ‘upholding of the Pillar of Life’.

Delilah had told her to focus on the wall. To choose one spot on the wall and stare at it, and to remember her voice. To think of all the gifts she’d been given and the life she wanted to have, instead of the life she did have. And to remember the last words Delilah ever said to her: “I love you.”

The next day, Delilah was gone. The higher priestesses claimed she’d disappeared into the night. Others said that the priestesses did away with her and dumped her in the city sewers to be eaten by rats. Then, as the sun began to set, the High Priestess, who claimed to be Lorelai’s mother, came into her room with a man she’d never seen before.

He was tall, and had fair skin, and a silver circlet sat upon his head – the symbol of priesthood. Lorelai was told to take off her clothes and lie down on the bed. She complied, reluctantly. As the priest climbed onto her, she struggled. It was then her mother held her down, pinning her on her stomach so she couldn’t fight. For a brief moment, her face was smashed into the mattress and she struggled to breathe. Hands wrapped around her as she let out a silent scream, muffled by the cushion. Finally, her face was free. She took in a deep breath and stared at the wall.

Slowly, she retreated inside herself. Imagined that Delilah was her mother. That she lived away from the temple – in the countryside, maybe. That she had an older brother, who defended her from those who would do her harm. That she had a father who loved her and cherished her. She’d never met her father, and she was fairly convinced she’d never met her real mother.

Slowly, she retreated deeper and deeper inside herself until she couldn’t think. She couldn’t hear. She couldn’t see. The only thing she could feel was her vocal cords wearing out as she let out scream after unanswered scream. She thought she heard a laugh – her “mother’s” laugh. By the time she returned to her body, she was alone again, lying in a puddle of filth and tears on her bed.

The courtyard suddenly became silent as Lorelai returned to the present. People around the courtyard sneered at the entryway. She looked over to see a man, dressed in tattered armor, and covered in muck. He had a scar down the side of his face, and a disheveled beard matted with mud – or worse. It was a disgusting sight, were it not for a single feature. Around his left shoulder was a braided cord, made of strands of bold crimson.

She looked to the High Priestess, who was scanning the courtyard to see how her subordinates would react. There would be trouble if Lorelai approached him, but she needed to leave this place, and a Paladin of the Crimson Cord was just the person to help her do that.

Lorelai began approaching him, only to be cut off by her supposed mother.

“My name is High Priestess Aurora. Is there anything I can help you with, Crimson?” she asked. “Have you perhaps decided to uphold the Pillar of Life our way?”

The Paladin’s eyes locked with Lorelai’s before returning to Aurora’s. “How much?”

“Twenty Jades.”

He nodded to Lorelai. “I’ll take that one.”

“Tsk,” Aurora shook her head, “unfortunately, that one’s a favorite of certain patrons of ours, so it’s going to cost extra. One hundred Jades.”

Aurora and the Paladin locked eyes for what felt like an eternity. Paladins helped people without pay – they depended on the generosity of strangers and, as such, were usually poor. Aurora knew this.

The Paladin took in a deep breath before letting out a quick huff. Lorelai couldn’t believe her eyes – a small bout of fire leapt from the man’s nostrils.

Aurora recoiled, her eyes wide as she reached up to cover her mouth in shock. Within the same second, her evident fear turned to determination and hatred. “Leave this place, heathen,” she said, “or I will remove you permanently.” Her hand came to rest on the hilt of the sword attached to her waist.

The Paladin smirked as his own hand settled on the handle of his mace. “Very well.”

Lorelai’s face became downcast as the Paladin turned to leave. He stole a glance at her one last time before stepping out the entryway. At that exact moment, a man approached the High Priestess.

“How much for that one?” He pointed at Lorelai.

Normally, she would upscale the price. But Lorelai had heard the previous exchange. She had attempted to rebel against Aurora. She needed to know her place. “Ten Jades.”

***

Lorelai entered her room and locked the door behind her. She fell against it and buried her head in her hands. She felt dirty. Ashamed. Dejected. She clawed at every part of herself, hoping to feel something as she began to weep. Tears rolled down her cheeks, soaking into her dress – if it could even be called that.

She heard movement but didn’t bother to look up until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She lifted her head and opened her eyes – it was hard to see through her tears. She felt a hand on her face – a woman’s hand – its thumb wiping away her tears. She blinked a few times as everything came into focus. “Delilah?”

Once she could see, she knew that the woman before her now was not Delilah. In fact, if the woman before her now were found by the Church on temple property, she’d be killed immediately.

“Fear not, little one,” the woman said as Lorelai wiped away her own tears.

The woman stood before her, taller than most men she’d seen. Her skin was almost as dark as the night sky, and her eyes were like gold. She was of the Umbrai, people of the Southern Continent descended from demons – according to the Church.

She pulled the edge of her cloak to the side, revealing her shoulder, and the crimson cord tied around it. “I have come by request of my compatriot. I have come to take you away from this place – if you so choose.”

Lorelai sniffled.

“Would you like to come with me?”

Lorelai brought her knees to her chest, hugging them for support. She stared at the floor.

“What is your name, little one?”

Lorelai lifted her head to look at the woman. She looked at her eyes for only a moment before dropping her gaze to the woman’s feet. “Lorelai.”

“Would you like to come with me, Lorelai? And leave this place?”

Lorelai sniffled. She swallowed as she felt a lump in her throat. “No.”

The woman raised a brow and crouched down, leveling herself with Lorelai. “Why not?”

“It doesn’t matter if I leave. They’ll find me and bring me back here. They don’t let anyone leave.”

The woman reached out her hand, caressing Lorelai’s cheek before lifting her head. Lorelai looked her in the eye once again. She saw empathy – understanding. “My name is Amari. I would like to help you, Lorelai. But I can only do that if you are willing to help yourself.”

Lorelai pulled her face from Amari’s hand. “I told you, they’ll come for me.”

Amari stood once more, her hand resting on the mace tied to her waist. “I, too, will come for you, Lorelai. I will come every night to visit you. We can protect you.”

Lorelai shook her head.

Amari’s face fluttered with a pained smile for a moment before she closed her eyes in solemn silence. Lorelai buried her head in her arms. In a few moments, she heard Amari’s cloak swoosh. When she next looked up, she was gone.

***

For the next four days, Lorelai’s life continued as it always had. For the next four nights, Amari came to her room and offered to take her away from the temple. She would join the Crimsons at their camp and become one of their traveling companions. Perhaps one day she, too, would become a Crimson – that was their cycle: to amass traveling companions until a group of three set out on their own, donning a new set of Crimson Cords. For the next four nights, she said no.

On the fifth night, she entered into her room and looked around, holding back tears. There was no one there. No Amari, nor anyone else for that matter. She let her clothing fall to the floor and wandered to the wash basin along the wall to begin cleaning herself once more. She’d already cleaned several times that day, but no matter how much she washed, no matter how hard she scrubbed, she felt she could never be free of the sickening filth.

She began to weep, letting her tears drip down into the basin. As the sobs racked her body, she stopped washing and held her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. She couldn’t let anyone hear. She shuddered as she took in a deep breath and looked up. Placed in the windowsill was a piece of paper.

She wiped the tears from her face as she crept across the room. On top of the paper was a locket. She picked it up and studied the outside – it was covered in an ornate design – before reading the paper.

Lorelai,

I think the Church suspects trouble. It appears they have increased the guard. I had trouble escaping last night but made it away unharmed. My compatriot has sent this note with a bird, along with a gift, a comfort, I hope, that you will be safe. Know that I loved your mother. She was my dearest friend, and not a day goes by that I do not miss her. I only hope that one day we shall meet again, and, perhaps, on that day, you will be with me. I cannot risk returning this night unless I know that you will be by my side when I leave. If you are willing, tie a piece of bright fabric to your curtain rod before the sky darkens. Once I can see the stars in the sky, I will come for you. Please, Lorelai. Do not make me lose this last piece of her in vain. Come with me.

Amari

Lorelai looked closely at the locket in her hand. She flicked it open to see a tiny painting inside. A painting of the one person who’d ever loved her: Delilah.

She let out a single sob as she stared at the painting. She hadn’t seen her face in over two years. She’d escaped the Church. Maybe she was still alive. Maybe she could see her again.

Lorelai looked back to the letter. Amari called Delilah her mother. The life she wanted wasn’t so far out of reach. She could still have it.

For the first time that she could remember, she smiled.

She looked out the window, scanning the outside. The horizon was orange. The sky wasn’t dark yet.

She ran to her dresser and pulled out the brightest piece of clothing she could find – a large, square piece of bright red fabric. She ripped off the corner and scrambled over to her window, tying it to the curtain rod.

She scanned the horizon once more. On a far-off rooftop, a dark figure crouched. It was hard to tell from so far away, but Lorelai was sure that it was Amari, watching her.

Lorelai returned to the dresser and rifled through it as she searched for clothing suitable for outside the temple. As a Daughter of the Church, born into the temple’s service, she was meant to live there her whole life, rarely, if ever, seeing the outside world. There were a few exceptions, such as when a patron made a particularly sizable donation and preferred to use the temple’s services inside their own home. But that was rare, and they were often transported in a palanquin, so their clothes mattered not. Eventually, she found something she thought seemed appropriate. At the very least, it completely covered her legs and torso and was secured by silk cords rather than carefully placed pins.

Once she was dressed, she sat on her bed and waited.

***

As the orange of the sky turned to purple, the dark figure on the rooftop disappeared onto the street below. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, a shadow flew through her window, lightly tumbling across the floor. Golden eyes looked up at Lorelai.

Amari smiled as she dropped a pack from her shoulder and fished out a wad of clothing. “I believe these will be more comfortable.”

Lorelai unraveled the clothing to find a pair of black trousers, a linen shirt, and a burlap cloak. Amari then pulled a black bodice and a pair of boots from her pack as well, handing them to the girl.

Amari began putting the gifts from under Lorelai’s bed in the now empty pack as Lorelai changed clothes.

“I suspect we won’t be able to leave through the window I came in, so we’ll likely need to go through the hallway.” After finishing with the gifts, she pulled a thin, wooden rod from her other pack and pulled a dart off her belt, pushing it into one end. “We’ll need to move quickly and quietly to avoid attention. As long as you stay behind me and follow closely, we should be safe.”

Lorelai had just tied her trousers when Amari crept over to the door, pressing her ear against it. After listening for a moment, she looked to Lorelai. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

Lorelai quickly slipped on her boots and threw her cloak around her. Once she tied it off, she nodded and made her way across the room.

Amari smiled as she pulled Lorelai’s hood up over her head before listening to the door once more. She held her finger to her mouth and slowly pushed the door open, peeking through the crack. Seeing no one, she opened the door about halfway and peered around the side. The hallway was empty.

She motioned for Lorelai to follow and began making her way to the southern staircase, where there was a door that led out into an alleyway. As they reached the top of the stairs, Amari heard voices down below – men’s voices. Guards, probably.

She looked down between the flights in order to see who was down below. She saw no one.

She started down the stairs as quietly as she could, motioning for Lorelai to stay back. She reached the bottom of the upper flight and leaned over just enough to see the landing below. Two guards, one wearing a helmet, the other holding his under his arm.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm her mind. As soon she opened them, the blowgun she was carrying pressed against her lips, leveled with the helmetless guard’s neck. As soon as the dart was loosed, she slipped her mace from her belt and lunged forward.

The helmeted guard’s head turned just a moment too soon. As Amari lunged, he slipped his sword from its sheath, barely blocking the blow. The other guard hit the floor as Amari brought her mace back. The conscious guard tried to jump back, but lost his footing, and his face slammed right into Amari’s uppercut.

Her eyes widened in horror as she dropped the mace to catch him. She lowered him to the ground before rolling him onto his side. His face was covered in blood.

She placed her hand on his heart. “If you shall breathe your last this day, may the Unknowable know you, that you may not fade away in death, but find new life. So let it be said, so let it be done.”

After praying over the guard, she called out in a rasp whisper, “Little one!”

Lorelai’s head peaked over the side of the stairs. Amari motioned for her to follow once more.

As Lorelai reached the bottom of the stairs, she cocked her head at the two men lying on the floor. “Are they dead?”

“No, just asleep. I hope. Come along.”

The pair rushed out the door and into the alleyway before making their way to the next street over. They weaved through the mess of roads that made up the city until finally reaching the Green Gate – so named because it led into the Hartal Wilds. Amari held Lorelai back and watched closely, waiting for one of the guards to be visible under the torchlight.

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s not the guard I know, he won’t let us through without identifying ourselves – probably won’t let us through at all if he finds out the truth.”

“Can’t you just… knock them out, like you did with the guards in the temple?”

“No, that would only cause more problems. Here.”

Amari turned Lorelai to face her and pulled a small, folded cloth from her belt. Lorelai wasn’t sure what she expected to see in the pouch, but it certainly wasn’t a handful of mud. Amari dipped her hands in the mud and wiped it on Lorelai’s face.

“You priestesses keep yourselves too clean to pass as commoners. If you’re even a little dirty, they shouldn’t even consider the possibility.”

Amari led her to the gate and stood before the guard. “I’d like to leave.”

“Only those on official business are allowed out after dark.”

Lorelai recognized the voice. As she heard it, she realized she recognized his stature, too. She’d never looked him in the eye, but she’d heard him. Felt him. She lowered her head as her body began to scream. For her to run. For her to hide. She knew he was going to recognize her.

Amari wrapped her arm around Lorelai and rubbed her shoulder. “I’m taking this girl to her mother, by order of Captain Ren.”

“Captain Ren, eh? Let me see her.”

Lorelai and Amari’s jaws clenched in unison as Amari pulled back Lorelai’s hood. For the first time, Lorelai looked up at the guard, into his cold, uncaring eyes.

“What business does the Captain have with a girl like this?”

Amari shrugged as she forced herself to breathe. Hopefully, the guard wouldn’t notice.

The guard sighed. “Very well. Go ahead.”

Lorelai threw her hood back over her head and the pair made their way into the district of Aurora. As soon as they turned a corner, Amari scooped Lorelai into her arms and carried her like a sack of potatoes as she broke into a sprint.

“Why are you running?” Lorelai cried as the constant up and down motion forced the air in and out of her lungs.

“Because a bluff can only work for so long. He’s going to try to get the order verified, and when it comes back I was lying, we’re going to want to be long gone.”

Soon enough, they had passed the last darkened house in the wall-less district. Even then, Amari didn’t stop running as they passed between fields of farmland for several miles.

As they finally reached the tree line, she stopped and set Lorelai down.

“We should be fine to walk from here,” she panted. “Our camp isn’t too far from here.”

She stood to catch her breath for a moment before taking Lorelai’s hand and pushing through the undergrowth.

***

The moon sat directly overhead as they reached the Crimsons’ camp. Tents littered the ground, centered around a small stream that flowed through the clearing. A few dark figures wandered about; their hands rested on weapons affixed to their hips as they watched the pair approach.

Amari whistled a short tune and one of the figures nodded before they all returned to their patrolling.

“Are they all Crimsons?” Lorelai asked.

Amari shook her head. “There are only three of us which bear that burden. The rest are our wards, whom we’ve saved and who now save us – though they may become Crimsons one day, like your mother.”

“Where is she?”

Amari tightened her lips. “I wish I knew.”

She pulled a tent flap aside and gestured for Lorelai to crawl inside. Once the girl settled onto the sleeping mat, Amari climbed in and sat down on the other side. Lorelai fell asleep almost immediately.

“Rest now, child,” Amari whispered, “You’re safe.”

***

Lorelai awoke the next morning as the sun peaked through the gap between the tent flaps. Amari was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear talking outside. She waited and listened. Amari’s voice was among them.

She took a deep breath and focused on the fact that she was free now. She could do whatever she wanted as long as she never went back to the city. She could go anywhere, be anyone. But what did that mean for her?

The life she just left behind was all she ever knew. She was born into the Church, raised in it. She wanted out, but she didn’t know what she’d be going in to. She bit her lip as she thought about it for a moment before shaking the thought from her mind. Then, she climbed from the tent.

Standing outside were four people, three of which had Crimson Cords tied around their shoulders. One was Amari. Another was the man who had visited the temple the morning before Lorelai and Amari met. The last two were a man who looked much like the other, and a woman who Lorelai didn’t recognize at all, who had red hair and warrior braids on the left side of her head.

“Good morning, little one,” Amari said as she smiled. Her eyes looked more green than gold in the sunlight.

“I would like to introduce you to my compatriots. This is Salazar” – she pointed to the man who visited the temple – “and his brother, Tupu. And this” – she pointed at the woman – “is Alianna.”

“It is good to finally meet you, Lorelai,” Salazar said. Tupu and Alianna simply bowed their heads.

“Tupu is one of our wards,” Amari continued, “He and his brother were rescued by the Crimson unit we formed from. Salazar decided to become a Crimson. Tupu decided to travel with us after training with the druids to become a Keeper of the Flame – a lawman of sorts.”

Tupu chuckled. “That is one way to put it. Why do you not be honest with the child, it is not as if she has never seen nor heard of the ways of the world.”

Alianna pursed her lips, suppressing the slight smile spreading across her face.

Amari shot Tupu a pensive gaze. “Because I do not like what you do for us.”

Tupu smiled at Amari before looking down to Lorelai. “I am their executioner. Crimsons must preserve life, you see. That is their purpose. Mine is to enact justice. Mine is to exact retribution. To strike down evil where it stands, without regard for the petty ‘Pillars’ that the Crimsons and Church so foolishly revere.”

Amari’s eyebrows rose for a moment. “Yes.”

Lorelai thought back to the day in the courtyard when she first saw Salazar. “You breathe fire.”

Salazar’s eyes shot to his companions.

Alianna raised a brow and frowned as Amari recoiled slightly.

“You did what?” Amari snapped.

“I was trying to intimidate the High Priestess. It’s not like anyone else saw me.”

“You cannot be that reckless,” Amari continued, “They could have killed you.”

“How does he breathe fire?” Lorelai interjected.

Tupu and Salazar both took a deep breath at the same time. Tupu got his words out first.

“It is a learned skill. To move in natural harmony with the elements is something one must begin training as soon as they can talk, otherwise, there is no hope of achieving it. My brother and I were lucky enough to have been trained in it before our home was destroyed by the Church.”

“They are both elementalists,” Amari added, “capable of bending the will of the elements to theirs.”

Lorelai nodded.

“Would you like breakfast, Lorelai?” Salazar asked after a brief moment of silence. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”

Lorelai smiled. “That would be nice.”

***

The camp was quiet that night as Alianna patrolled its borders. They had sent a small contingent to town to gather supplies during the day before leaving the domain of the city tomorrow. Soon, they would be free of this branch of the Church and likely never have to deal with them again.

As she neared the edge of the clearing, something moved in the underbrush. A twig snapped. A flash of steel.

Lorelai woke up to the sound of a shrill scream. Within a second, Amari had sprung from their tent, her mace at the ready. Over a dozen wards were up and battle ready in a moment’s notice, with more soon to follow.

The flash of fire ripped through the sky as torches held high lit from a single spark, sent forth from Salazar’s fingertip. In a moment, the entire camp and much of the surrounding forest was perfectly visible. The Crimsons and their people were prepared for the sudden flash. The Church’s justiciars were not.

The camp flew into motion as the justiciars shielded their eyes. Maces whistled through the air, slamming into the justiciars’ helmets and knocking them out cold.

Those who weren’t immediately felled by the camp’s first counterstrike soon regained their composure as the real fight began.

Lorelai scrambled out of her tent to a maelstrom of blades and clubs. She ducked and weaved, avoiding the many weapons swinging about as she searched for Amari.

As a stray blade swung in her direction, she jumped backward, only to be knocked to the ground by someone slamming into her back. She felt an arm wrap around her waist before being hoisted into the air and onto someone’s shoulder. A justiciar had grabbed her.

She flailed wildly, trying to escape his grip. Before she knew what was going on, she was on the ground again, an arrow through the eye of her captor. She had no idea where it had come from.

She looked around once more and finally spotted Amari. She began running toward her. Amari’s gaze broke from the woman she was fighting for only a second as she shook her head at Lorelai. She only barely managed to block her assailant’s next blow.

Lorelai took a step backward as she watched before recognizing the sword of Amari’s opponent – High Priestess Aurora.

She ran back toward the tent, trying to ignore the fighting going on around her.

Someone tackled her to the ground. She began kicking and screaming as her attacker pinned her to the ground. She was slapped. She opened her eyes to see the familiar face of Alianna crouched over her, a massive gash across her face, from one side of her forehead to the opposite corner of her jaw.

Alianna threw down her mace and grabbed Lorelai’s hand, leading her into the woods without a word.

Lorelai protested, “But we need to help!”

Alianna shot her a piercing gaze as she dragged her to the tree line.

Lorelai knew the reality. She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t help. All she could do was run and hide until the battle was over. They neared the tree line as Alianna knocked weapons away with her shield, shoving several justiciars to the ground.

The Church’s focus began to shift as more and more opposition came against them. If Alianna got away with Lorelai, the Church would lose what they came here for. Arrows whizzed past Lorelai’s head. Alianna only barely managed to duck under them.

Lorelai could see the edge of the clearing. She was going to make it out.

She let out a cry as a stray arrow pierced through her back. She looked down. Its tip was sticking out of her chest.

The justiciars shouted as Alianna pulled Lorelai behind a tree to protect her. They’d gotten out just a moment too late.

Aurora and Amari’s attention wavered for a moment as they both looked in the direction of Lorelai’s cry. Amari used that moment of distraction to get the upper hand, knocking her opponent on the back of the head.

The justiciar’s ran, abandoning the clearing. Tupu slapped shackles on the High Priestesses wrists as Amari ran to Lorelai’s aid.

Her head rested in Alianna’s lap.

“Amari,” she choked. She let out a few coughs, splattering blood across her face.

“I’m here, little one.”

“I’m… free.”

Amari sobbed and forced a smile. “Yes.”

She took in a deep breath, shuddering all the while.

“My dear Lorelai. Your days have been filled with turmoil. Your life has been one of sorrow. I only knew you for a short time, but I love you as my daughter. I hope that this is not the day you breathe your last. But if it is, I pray that the Unknowable may know you. That it may wrap you up in its wings and rescue you from the Field of Ash. That you will not fade away in the cold embrace of death, but that you may be brought into the domain of the Unknowable, renewed with life. That you may have the life you always wanted. And that you may find peace.”

Lorelai smiled as she shook. She could hardly breathe.

“So let it be said,” Amari prayed, “so let it be done.”

Tupu stepped up next to them. “Would you like for me to ease her passing?”

Amari smile faded as tears rolled down her face. She let out a sob and cried aloud. Alianna placed her hand on Amari’s shoulder and she pressed her cheek against it.

She struggled to nod her head as she lifted Lorelai from her lap.

Tupu sat down beside her, crossing his legs as he pulled Lorelai close to him. “I am sorry, child, that you could not have experienced more of the good in this world. May you pass into the realm of the Shadows, and may they make you their queen.”

He began circling his hands slightly in the air as his hair stood on end. A blue spark flashed in his eyes as he placed his hands on either side of Lorelai’s head. She flinched as electricity shot through her mind. Then, she was gone.

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Jonathan Kinkaid

Jonathan Kinkaid woke up in a darkened room; his room. The wary light of the dawn crept through his window and lightly graced the wall above him as he stirred. He felt his pajamas against his skin and the silky sheets that enveloped him on his hands. The springs beneath him poked into his back uncomfortably. He swung his arms in an attempt to throw his blanket off him. It took a few more tries before he succeeded.

He sat up and looked around. He sat on his wooden twin-size bed, hand-carved for his dad by his dad’s grandfather – his great-grandfather. Beside that stood a bed-side table with a glow-in-the-dark alarm clock, its arms pointing to 6:01. Jon committed the time to memory. There was an alligator skin glasses case. He opened it to find his red-framed glasses, a massive scratch on the right-side lens. It happened during PE if he recalled correctly. He put on the glasses and looked around the room once more.

Across the room was his dresser. Next to it was a large wooden chest. His old toybox. He got up and walked over to his dresser and opened the drawer second from the top. Shirts. One stood out in particular – a shirt he’d gotten at science camp. It was in pristine condition; there wasn’t a tear or stain on it. He liked that shirt.

He returned to his bed. His Batman sheets. They were a gift from grandma. Jon always liked Batman. His commitment not to kill. His technical prowess and use of gadgets. Jon liked technology since he was a kid. Woke up before the sun to get on the computer as early as the age of two.

Jon let out a huff as he gave his room one more scan. His Halloween costume hung on the wall. A Batman costume he made himself from construction paper and scraps of fabric. He’d hung it on his wall for a whole year. He’d always wished he could afford a real Batman costume. Or even just better materials. Beneath it was a plastic crate – his comic book collection.

After checking the time – 6:05 – he went to his closet and started looking through the shirts. Almost all of them were smalls. A few mediums. One extra-large that his great-grandmother got him: a Hawaiian shirt. She was old and senile, so it was understandable.

He peaked out his window at the house across the street. It was a yellow brick house with slate grey shingles and pretty, white curtains. There were three cars in the driveway: Mr. Garland’s grey convertible, Mrs. Garland’s cobalt blue minivan, and Sally Garland’s tan four-door. She’d gotten it as a present for her sixteenth birthday. Despite being used, it was in perfect condition. The bumper wasn’t dented. The doors were all placed as they should be. Not a scratch on it.

Jon had always had a crush on Sally. She was pretty. Had wavy, black hair that cascaded over her shoulders, bringing out her pale face. Bright blue eyes. Dimples that pressed deep into her cheeks when she smiled. She was five years older than him, though. For a while, it seemed like she thought it was cute that he had a crush on her. Eventually that faded. Him noticing that her body was pretty nice, too, didn’t help the matter.

Jon looked up at the multi-colored fan affixed to his ceiling. He reached up to pull the cord that would turn it on. It was just out of reach. He could reach the cord that would turn on the lights, though. But neither one would do anything as long as the switch on the wall was in the ‘off’ position.

He sat down on the floor and felt the shag carpet with his fingers. He evaluated himself. He’d gotten used to doing it every morning. Being conscious of his own mental state. To his surprise, he didn’t feel depressed. He didn’t feel hopeless. Didn’t feel like his life didn’t matter. Didn’t feel like dying. In fact, he felt kind of happy. He hadn’t felt that good in years.

He took in a deep breath. He smelled the dust. He smelled the house – that smell you grow so accustomed to after living somewhere a long time you don’t even notice it. He smelled dog potty-training pads.

Sophie.

His family’s Spanador. They’d gotten her the summer after he finished fifth grade. She had brown fur, and big, droopy ears that were too big for her head.

He sat on the floor a while, thinking about the last thing he remembered before waking up in his bed. He certainly hadn’t gone to sleep there, but the details were a little hazy. He was in a car. Going somewhere. By the time he gave up trying to remember, he looked to his alarm clock again. The hands were close to 7:00 now.

He couldn’t remember what time he’d set the alarm for. Probably 7:00. Either way, time seemed to be moving at a normal rate in a linear fashion. He probably wasn’t dreaming. He waited a few minutes and, sure enough, his alarm went off right at 7:00.

He stood up off the floor and turned off the alarm. He opened the door and made his way into the hallway. The shag carpet continued under his bare feet. As he stepped into the hallway, Sophie jumped up from where she was laying down outside his parents’ bedroom door. Her entire rear-end shook from her wagging her tail as she waddled happily to Jon’s feet.

He bent down to pet her. Felt her soft fur on his palm as she excitedly licked his wrist. He felt her floppy ears as he looked into her big, black eyes. He smiled as a tear rolled down his cheek. “Love you, Soph.” After petting her for a few more moments, he looked at the hall around him.

His door was covered in various decorations, most notably: a Batman logo, a radioactive symbol, and a big, red and yellow ‘Keep Out!’ sign. His sister’s door, the next room over, had a glittery butterfly, a rainbow sitting on some clouds, and the head of a unicorn, along with a sheet of pink construction paper with her name, Kimberly, written in crayons of various colors. She’d made the sign with her name on it in kindergarten.

Jon had resented her for a long time. She was born four years after him and seemed to just take away all the attention their parents had previously given him. It wasn’t until they got older that he grew to like her. But by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.

He opened her bedroom door as quietly as he could. The first thing he saw was her pink wall, then the toys scattered across the floor, her bed, with Disney princess sheets that her bright blond hair stuck out of. Maybe she had a nightmare and pulled them up for cover. Or she saw the monster in her closet again.

Jon took in a deep breath and let out a sigh as a smile crept across his face. He closed the door with a soft click. He didn’t want to wake her.

Across the hall from her room was the bathroom. It had a wooden door with a brass knob and a lock. He went inside, closing the door behind him and flipping the light-switch. He shielded his eyes as the light turned on. After giving it a moment, he looked around. The shower curtain with the big sunfish on it. Bath towels with each of his family-member’s names embroidered on them in their favorite colors. His was red, Kim’s was pink, and his parents were green and orange. There were also hand towels with his parent’s initials embroidered on them in gold. The toilet seat was cushioned, with rainbows and unicorns covering it.

Jon looked in the mirror. He blinked a few times before studying his face.

He definitely needed a haircut. He pulled some of his chestnut locks down, and they could nearly touch his cheek if he tried really hard. His hair used to be blond, and in a few years, it would be even darker. He could still see his strong jawline, his dimpled chin, his cheekbones. He felt his cheeks. Perfectly smooth. As a preteen’s face should be. No zits or moles. His ears weren’t pierced. His nose was straight and unbroken. His teeth were just beginning to yellow. If he started brushing now, they’d probably still be white a few years down the line.

He unbuttoned his pajama shirt. Not a single ounce of muscle or fat on him. If he sucked in his gut, he could easily see his ribcage. He didn’t have any surgical scars. Didn’t have any chest or belly hair.

He looked down his pants. Small and hairless.

He pulled up the pant legs. His pencil-thin legs were hairless, too.

He sat, studying himself for a while before he heard movement in the next room over – his parents’ bedroom. He began buttoning up his pajamas and rushed over to the toilet to pee.

“Hi, Sophie,” he heard from the hallway – his mother’s voice – just before a rapping on the bathroom door.

“Just a second,” Jon said as the stream hit the wall of the toilet. His voice was high-pitched. He sounded like a girl.

“Okay!” his mom replied. She sounded happy. He hadn’t heard her sound that way in a while. Not since his dad cheated on her a few years back.

He finished and flushed the toilet before washing his hands. When he opened the door, his mom was smiling.

“What’s gotten into you, washing your hands like a gentleman?”

She had a kind face. Slightly puffy cheeks, with eyes always squinted in a smile, and perfectly white teeth. Her wavy, dark-brown hair was cut just off her shoulders. He was used to seeing it go halfway down her back. She wore a fluffy, white bathrobe, with her and his dad’s first initials embroidered in black on the one side. His dad had a matching black one, with white lettering.

Jon shrugged. Now was as good a time as any to figure out, “Do you know what day it is?”

His mother paused in thought for a moment before smiling excitedly. “It’s my little man’s birthday!”

Jon forced a smile, as cheesy as he could, before stepping out of the bathroom. He made his way down the hall and descended the stairs to the first floor. He made his way to the calendar in the living room. Fourteenth of August 2008. He was eleven years old today. “Jonny’s Birthday” was written in bold, red marker.

His birthday party was going to be at a local kids’ arcade. They served pizza, and you could win tickets for prizes. His best friend, Alan, was going to be there. Jon missed Alan. Jacquie and Dez, too. No one else was going to be there, though. No one else really cared about Jon’s birthday. And Jon didn’t care that they didn’t care. He used to. But not anymore.

He walked into the kitchen and made himself a bowl of cereal: sugary goodness that he hadn’t had in a while. He’d been trying to cut down on his sugar intake recently. But he figured today was as good a day as any to treat himself. He was going to have cake later, anyway. Why not pile on the poor decisions?

He sat down at one of the tall chairs on the side of the island opposite the sink. It had a nice, marble top – uncracked and unblemished. He scooped up a massive bite of cereal.

He expected it to taste amazing. For the first bite to be the best he’d ever taken. He hadn’t had it in so long. But, when he put the spoon in his mouth, he felt nothing. It was just like eating anything else.

Jon sighed as he tried to focus on the night before.

The last thing he remembered was being in the car. Maybe on the way home?

As he tried to remember, his mom came into the kitchen. She had put on sweatpants, and an old t-shirt from college – that’s where she and his dad met. She started making coffee – something she drank every morning but told Jon to stay far away from. He elected to ignore that advice.

After pressing the button to start the coffee maker, she walked over to the cabinet.

“Are you excited?”

Jon forced another smile – not as cheesy this time. “Yep!”

She pulled out a mug – her favorite mug – it was white, with pink and red hearts all over it. His dad got it for her for Valentine’s Day 2007. It was basically a bowl. “What are you most excited about?”

Jon pursed his lips and chewed as he thought about the question. “I think seeing my friends.”

His mom grinned widely as she poured the coffee into her mug. “You see them almost every day, and you’re still excited to see them. That’s true friendship right there; hold onto that, it doesn’t come easy.”

Jon’s smile fluttered for a moment. “I will.”

He ate in silence for a bit while his mom mixed some cream and sugar in before sitting down next to him. “What do you think you’re going to get?”

Presents. Jon liked presents. He wasn’t sure when the last time he got any was. Probably Christmas. He finished chewing his bite of cereal before answering, “Well, what I’d really like is an Xbox. But I know that’s not gonna happen. And an iPod would be nice, but I know that’s not gonna happen, either. So, probably… Fable III, some socks, some shirts, a $20 Walmart gift card, a $20 bill, and… a new Nerf gun.”

His mom gave a faint smile and shrugged slightly as she took a sip from her mug. “Good guesses.”

Jon chuckled. He finished eating before taking his bowl to the sink and rinsing it out. If he was right, the dishwasher should have been run the night before. He looked to his mom. “Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean.”

She smiled. “Yes, they are.”

He set his rinsed bowl and spoon in the sink and dried his hands before opening the dishwasher. It was almost empty – they ran it just about every night. He started taking dishes out of it and putting them away.

His mom’s face twisted into a mixture of happiness and confusion as she took another sip of liquid energy. “What’s gotten into you?”

As he shut the cabinet, he turned to look at her. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like you just turned into a young man overnight. You wash your hands, you don’t talk with your mouth full, you put the dishes away.” She gave him a teasing smile. “What did you do to my son?”

Jon froze for a moment before shrugging. “Maybe I just feel like being a better person.”

His mom shrugged and took another sip from her mug. “Well, I’m not complaining.”

After putting his bowl in the dishwasher, Jon made his way back upstairs to get dressed. He put on a pair of basketball shorts and his science camp t-shirt before sitting on his bed and staring out the window. He looked at the beautiful blue sky, where white clouds drifted across the atmosphere. It didn’t look like it, but it was going to rain. Not that that affected any of their plans.

He looked at his alarm clock again. Almost 8:00. Three more hours to burn until his birthday party.

He went back downstairs and to his desk. He pulled out the drawer that had all his games – some of which his dad gave to him from when he was in college. He looked through them all before deciding on one to play. It felt like forever since he’d played. He expected to be a bit rusty but seemed to do even better than he remembered. For three hours, he let the world move around him, without a single care. He missed that feeling. The only thing that broke him out of his zone was his dad’s voice.

“Time to go, Sport. Put your shoes on.”

Jon closed the game and got ready to leave. His sister grinned widely at him. He smiled back.

The family made their way out to the car and drove to the arcade. His friends were already there waiting.

Alan stood several inches taller than everyone else – probably because he was older than everyone else. He’d been held back in second grade, when he met Jon and they became best friends. The last time Jon had seen him, his hair was pretty long, almost as long as Jon’s was now. Now, he had a buzz cut. He had a scar on his right cheek from when he tried to shave like his dad.

Jacqueline – or Jacquie as everyone else called her – was the shortest of the bunch, with bright blond, French-braided hair that reached almost to her waist. She always wore flannel and jeans, even in the middle of the summer, with cowgirl boots. Everyone at school thought she was weird, but Jon liked her.

Dez – not Desmond, just Dez – was a larger kid. Jon got in more than a couple fights with kids bullying Dez. For his weight and his dark skin.

Jon held back tears as he looked at his friends. He smiled, nay, grinned, as he held out his arms. “Group hug!” he yelled.

They all ran forward and embraced. They saw each other all the time. But they never got tired of each other.

As Jon clung to them, he couldn’t hold back. Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks. He felt them leave his face as they soaked into Alan’s shirt. “I love you guys.”

“We love you, too,” Dez and Jacquie said. Alan was a little less comfortable with throwing that word around. Up until he woke up that morning, Jon was, too.

As he continued holding them, he felt his sister wrap her arms around him. He dropped a hand to pat her back before breaking the embrace. He sniffled and wiped his tears away with his arm. “We go inside?”

The group went inside, and each kid got a cup-full of tokens to use on the games. Jon and Alan went straight to the Skee-Ball alleys, and Jacquie and Dez followed them.

They played through a game, in which Alan swept the floor with Jon. He always used to win because Jon would always end up rolling the ball a little to the left of where he was aiming. He didn’t realize until later that he should aim just to the right of where he wanted the ball to go. Now was later.

“Bet you all the tickets you just won I can beat you.”

Alan eyed Jon skeptically. “You hustlin’ me?”

Jon shrugged and reached out a hand. “You know how much I suck.”

Alan narrowed his eyes as he hesitantly shook on it. “Deal.”

If even half his hits were hundreds, he could beat Alan easy – Alan always aimed for the fifties.

He threw his first ball. 100 points. Second ball. 100 points. Third ball. 100 points. Two more and he’d win. But he’d already proven to himself he could do it. What more point was there? He started aiming for forty.

At the last ball, their scores were 450-350 with Jon in the lead. Only then did Alan take his eye off the goal. He aimed for the hundred. He hit it.

Jon smiled at Alan before lazily tossing the ball. Zero. They were tied up.

“You could have beat me.”

Jon shrugged. “In Japan, it’s considered dishonorable to win.”

Alan shrugged before putting his palms together and bowing at the waist. Jon did the same. He missed the weird little interactions he had with his friends.

They played a few more random arcade games before Jon’s mom found them and announced it was time to eat. After eating, it was time for Jon to open his presents. First was a card from Jacquie with a $20 Walmart gift card in it:

To the friend who makes me laugh when I want to cry

And turns my frowns upside-down

I hope you have a happy, happy day

As you put on your birthday crown

Happy birthday!

Jacquie

As Jon finished reading it, he looked over to Jacquie, giddy with excitement.

“Happy birthday!” she yelled as she threw her arms around him.

He hugged her back before moving on to his next present, a sloppily wrapped box with “To: Jonny/From: Dez” written on it in Sharpie.

Jon ripped through the wrapping paper to find a flimsy cardboard box. Inside were two graphic tees, with characters from one of Jon’s favorite games. He couldn’t control himself as he smiled wide.

“I got you a large,” Dez said, “that way you can’t outgrow ‘em.”

If only that were true.

Alan got Jon a card, too, with a $20 bill inside it, along with a Nerf revolver.

Finally, Jon came to the last box – the one from his parents. It was the wrong size to be Fable III or socks. It almost fit in the palm of his hand. He carefully peeled away the wrapping paper. He had been asking for an iPod since first grade. Now he finally had one.

He thought about trying to get it set up now, but he knew he couldn’t really do that until he got home. Besides, his friends were more important to him now. They played arcade games for another couple hours before eating cake and then heading home.

Jon had dinner with his family – his mother made his favorite, her home-cooked lasagna – before sitting on the couch, trying to decide what to do for the rest of the night. His iPod sat, still in the box, on his desk.

He stared at it for several minutes before looking at his sister. She was playing with Barbies in the living room floor.

“Hey, Kimmy,” he said as he crawled onto the floor across from her, “introduce me to your friend.”

Kimmy’s face lit up. He never realized how happy he’d be to see her smile like that. She squealed excitedly as she talked for several minutes about her Barbie – Beatrice was her name. She was a doctor. That’s what Kimmy wanted to be when she grew up.

First, she wanted to be a knee doctor. Then a brain surgeon. Then a psychiatrist. Then, she died.

***

Jon stared at the ceiling of his bedroom as he tried to fall asleep. He still couldn’t remember what happened the night before. But one thing was clear: this was no dream. He was no longer in his early twenties. He went to bed last night and woke up with a second chance. Maybe everything before was a dream. He’d be starting sixth grade in less than a week, and if history repeated itself, he’d be rolling down the hill of self-loathing in a month or two. He’d one day wake up, with all his loved ones gone or dead.

But that didn’t have to happen.

He could change the past because the past was now his future. It always had been.

For the past four years, he’d been afraid that he was going to die alone after drinking himself to sleep. That his body would be discovered weeks after rigor mortis set in and maggots had started feasting on his corpse. But it didn’t have to be that way. It never had to be that way. It would be an uphill battle no matter what, but he always could have been a better man. He would be a better man and make their lives better. That’s what he decided. Now he just needed to act on it.

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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.

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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.