Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 7: The Mutt in the Cave

Soren, Maya, and Leondrea pursue the orks who’ve taken Leondrea’s dog.

Leondrea stalked ahead along the trail of orkish footprints and a streak through the underbrush indicating something massive being dragged behind – her mutt.

They’d been on the trail for nearly an hour now and were growing close to the temple where Soren had encountered the Naga. The madam continued with the same amount of rage and fervor she had when they first began.

Based on the spacing of the tracks, the orks had been moving quickly – how they could accomplish such a feat while dragging a dog as big as a wagon was beyond any of the three currently seeking them out. Even more perplexing was how they managed to break the mutt’s chain in the first place, given that it was a chain designed to hold an anchor. And yet, they managed to cut through it without anyone noticing before they were already making their getaway. It should have taken hours – instead, it took them minutes. And, in those minutes, the dog didn’t make a sound.

The more they discussed the circumstances of the dog-napping, the more worried Leondrea became. The dog’s silence would indicate that it was somehow knocked unconscious – not an easy thing to do to a dire wolf – or worse. The fact that the chain broke so easily and the fact that they were running while dragging the dog indicated that they had use of either elven witchcraft or one of their number was far stronger than the average ork. Given that one ork generally counted for two men in terms of odds on the battlefield, this was a harrowing thought for the trio.

Nevertheless, they pressed on. Leondrea wanted her dog back. Soren wanted Leondrea’s help in finding his friend Tyrell, who was hopefully in the village of Zapad, clear on the other side of the island; a journey that would not only be treacherous, but would take several days. Maya- well, Maya maybe just had a death-wish; she always loved doing things just for the thrill of it.

They came up to the temple of the Naga. The statue had been crumbled – Leondrea noted that it looked not as if it had been smashed, but instead as if it had been squeezed to the point of shattering. Whatever was leading the orks seemed to only be getting more and more dangerous.

As Leondrea studied the surroundings in an effort to find out anything more about what was leading the orks, Soren attempted to find the small snake that had helped him when he’d been here before. He looked at the top of the stairs, where it had first greeted him, then down into the entrance chamber. Still nothing.

He took out the instrument he’d found there and played a few notes, but still no snake. He let out a sigh as he returned to the others.

“Still no sign of what’s with them,” Leondrea noted, “Whatever it is, it’s smart. It’s covering its footprints with… my mutt.”

“We’ll find the mutt,” Soren reassured her, “I’m sure of it.”

Leondrea let out a sigh before they continued on the trail.

It was wordless for almost half an hour before a rattle sounded from the undergrowth.

Leondrea stopped in her tracks and dropped her bow down her arm, while nocking an arrow in one fluid movement. She looked around before her eyes landed on a black and brown snake, nearly two people long, with its hood flared as it stared right at her. She pulled back on the bow string.

Soren ran forward and tackled her to the ground as the snake launched from the shrubs and into a tree, latching on to a humanoid figure.

An ork fell to the ground, the snake latched to its arm, with a thud and a deep growl. It managed to shake the snake off, but not before Soren could get to his feet and draw his sword. He held the point to the ork’s neck.

The ork dropped the mace it carried to the ground and held its hands in the air. It spoke in Giant, imitating the grunts, clicks, and growls that Arakim had spoken in when he and Soren first met.

Leondrea kept her eyes fixed on the snake, though she wasn’t sure where to point her arrow.

Soren nodded at the snake as he held out his free hand.

The snake nicked his palm with its fang and Soren winced as excruciating pain coursed through his veins. The venom was certainly more potent before. As his brain began to burn, he spoke to the ork.

“Say again?”

The ork gave him a crooked smile. “No need to get violent, now, is there?”

“You were waiting to ambush us.”

“Hm.” The ork let out a sigh as he looked to Leondrea. “Maybe I defected. Decided kidnappin’ puppies wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life.”

“What’s he saying?” Maya asked.

“Claims he defected.”

“Now, I never said that. I just said maybe.” The ork smiled as it looked to Maya, eyeing her up and down. “Maybe I was just looking for something so I could pass the time. Leader doesn’t like giving us play things – likes keeping them to himself.”

Soren grabbed the ork by the back of the head and shoved the blade right up to its throat. A faint trickle of blood began creating a small pool on the blade.

“You’re wasting your time, you know,” the ork laughed. “My groups just getting further and further away. Picked up you smell a little while back, I did. Decided I might stay back and distract you.” The ork leaned forward, bringing its mouth close to Soren’s ear as its neck pressed harder against the blade and the trickle of blood began to accelerate. “And I just might have succeeded.”

The snake next to Soren let out a hiss. “Would you like to do the honors, or may I?”

Soren raised a brow. “Tell me, giant-blood, would you prefer I cut off your head…”

“Mm.” The ork smiled.

“… or this snake swallow you?”

The ork’s smile dropped.

Soren forced a toothless smile. “He’s all yours.”

He turned and walked away as the Naga unhooked its jaw and placed its mouth over the ork’s head. He did what he could to ignore the ork’s muffled cries as he directed Maya and Leondrea’s gaze further up the path.

He returned his sword to its sheath as they marched away from the horrific sight. “The ork was only here to distract us – they know we’re coming.”

***

At some point, the snake caught up to them, its body bulging from the dead ork now stuffed inside it. It evidently wasn’t too full, as it kept slithering along as if it hadn’t a morsel of food in its system.

Finally, the trail ended, at the mouth of a cave. From the foliage they were hiding in, the four could make out a detail of four orks out front, all doing something, where they stood in a circle and shook their hands. Perhaps a way to pass the time, maybe some form of orkish gambling. Regardless, they were distracted, so disposing of them wouldn’t be too difficult assuming they weren’t able to pick up their scents.

As Leondrea and Soren stood in the bushes, strategizing how they were going to attack, Maya wandered off without the other two noticing. She came back shortly, covered in mud.

Leondrea stared at her pensively for a few moments before nodding. “Of course, cover up the scent.”

Leondrea and Soren followed suit, and, soon enough, they were all covered in mud, save for the snake.

Maya then motioned for the group to huddle before explaining her plan. There was a ledge on the rock face just above the cave – it looked like it would be one she could get to easily and jump down from above to grab the far-most ork. Meanwhile, Soren would give a more head-on approach while Leondrea backed them up from afar. She wasn’t sure what to do with the snake.

Soren gave an alternative plan, which involved the snake going up on the ledge and falling down, attempting to swallow the far-most ork whole. Meanwhile, the three of them would sneak up, ready to take out the orks in the ensuing chaos.

Leondrea elected they go with a mixture of the two plans – the snake would still be on the ledge, but it would be a coordinated assault like in Maya’s.

Once they were all in position, they looked to the girl, who’d climbed a tree and was waiting to pounce on one of the orks. She counted down on her fingers and they all struck at the same time, taking down all four orks without a sound. Instead of swallow the ork, however, the snake elected to instead simply stab him in the chest with its fangs, killing him rather quickly, before letting his body slide free from its mouth.

They snuck inside the cave to see many orks sleeping on the stone floor – evidently, they decided to send their best sniffer as a decoy.

They crept through the cave, Maya disabling each of the orks they passed as best she could so that they wouldn’t run into any trouble later. They continued through until they reached a wide passage, from which a rumbling voice echoed. It spoke Giant, but Soren could still understand it, albeit not quite as well as if he’d been freshly bitten – apparently, the Naga venom was wearing off.

“To tame the wolf, you must break the wolf. But not its body, its will. You break its body, I’ll break yours. Anyone ready to accept the challenge?”

A few light grunts answered back before another voice yelled, “I accept the challenge, Leader!”

“Ah!” Leader answered back, “There’s a mighty fine Runt!”

A few scattered cries of either encouragement or annoyance (or both) replied.

Leader’s voice echoed through the passage in a hoarse whisper, “Now, you be good there, wolf, and there won’t be any trouble.” He spoke aloud once again, “You ready, Runt?”

“Yeah!” Runt replied.

Soren motioned for the others to follow him down the passage. It was dark for the most of the way, and they stopped just at the edge of light peaking in from another, larger, chamber. The mutt was chained in the middle while orks circled around. And then there it was. The giant, foreboding Leader stood tall, almost twice the height of the rest.

Soren had only heard legends – myths – of ogres. Giant, hulking beasts that were like a mutated version of an ork to be stronger, smarter, and more ruthless. Everyone knew the origins of the orks – humans magically infused with giant blood to make them stronger and tougher. But no one knew the origin of ogres. Some theories existed, the most popular of which was that ogres were the children of giants and orks. Other theories included the idea that ogres were made in the same way as orks, just better – and sterile. Still another was that ogres were giants that just simply hadn’t grown right – born without magic and ostracized from giant society. But the legends always had them in the presence of orks as ruthless leaders. Always, whenever an ogre was present in an ork army, the orks were more vicious, more bloodthirsty. More deadly. But there was always only ever one ogre in a clan of orks.

And this ork warband had one.

They watched as the ogre cut the ropes that bound the mutt, and cut the muzzle they’d placed around its mouth.

It leapt to its feet and gnashed at the orks, which all leapt out of the way. It looked at the passage the four of them were in, but only for a moment, before focusing on the smallest of the orks present. From the looks of it, the one they called ‘Runt’ was worthy of the name.

Runt stepped forward, pulling a chain from his waist and wrapping it around one hand. “There, there, little doggy,” he said in a sing-song kind of voice, “I’ll be nice if you are.”

The mutt bared its teeth and growled. It wasn’t the same as when it growled and barked at passing villagers. When it did that, there was some sense of holding back, like it wasn’t giving its all. This time it was different. Saliva splattered on the ground in front of it as its claws dug into the ground. It waited, patiently.

Runt dove forward as the mutt’s teeth snapped. The ork only barely managed to avoid the sharp teeth as he rolled across the ground to the mutt and attempted climbing on its back.

The mutt grabbed him by the leg and threw him to the ground. A crack sounded through the chamber. It put its jaw around Runt’s head and held it there. It was going to show mercy.

Then, Runt pulled a knife from his boot.

“No!” Leader cried as the mutt’s jaws clamped down.

Kkkkk. A nasty bone-shattering noise echoed before the mutt released Runt’s now deformed and bleeding head. The mutt turned and growled at the rest of the orks, who each backed away slowly.

Leader stood up straight as he sneered at the mutt. “You’re all useless.” He stepped forward, rope in hand, and grabbed the dog, tying it up once more before binding it to a thick column near the wall. “Go back to sleep!”

The four there to rescue the dog squeezed against the passage wall as the orks jogged past and back into the main chamber.

Leader stared down the dog, currently unable to move before looking to the passage. “You’re here to take the wolf back, aren’t you?” he asked in Shelezar. “I should have known Nostril wouldn’t be able to hold you back too long. He always prided himself on his nose. Too bad he was useless otherwise.”

The four stepped out from the passage into the light of the room.

“So, how do you want to do this? One-on-one combat to the death?”

The three humans looked at each other.

“We were thinking more along the lines of we all fight you at the same time,” Soren answered.

“Or you just give my mutt back and we leave peacefully,” Leondrea offered.

Leader let out a low growl. “A likely finale to this futile vendetta of yours,” he snarked.

Maya responded in kind, “Ooh, he knows big words; he must be big smart.”

Leader snarled.

“Give us the dog, and everyone walks out of here alive,” Soren said, “except Runt there, I guess.” He shuddered at the body on the floor. Dying always seemed more brutal when orks were around, even when they were on the receiving end.

Leader put his hand to his chin, as if considering the thought, before leaping forward. His hand only narrowly missed Leondrea, who was pulled out of the way by the snake’s tail.

Soren only barely managed to leap backwards to avoid Leader’s fist barreling toward his head.

Leondrea jumped to her feet and danced around the ogre with Soren, just barely dodging his blows. Between his rapid attacks, they didn’t have a single moment to strike.

While they occupied the ogre, Maya darted over to the dog, cutting its ropes. Based on the rate that was working, it would take several minutes.

Leader’s fist brushed across Soren’s sleeve as he threw himself out of the way. He was beginning to get better at predicting how they were going to avoid his attacks.

But, as he managed to snatch Leondrea up in his fist, the snake dropped from the ceiling and wrapped around Leader’s neck. Everyone in the room had been too busy to notice the snake creeping along the wall and seeming to defy gravity as it crept along the ceiling to wait just above the ogre.

Leader dropped Leondrea to grab at the snake now constricting its neck. It let out a silent scream as its eyes widened in horror before the snake took away his sight. He writhed before falling onto the floor as the snake tightened more and more around his neck. Soon enough, Leader stopped moving.

After a few more moments, the snake released its grip and slithered onto the floor.

Leondrea ran over to mutt to help Maya cut its bonds as Soren strolled over to where the ogre’s body lay. He put his hand up to its purple-tinted neck. It was dead.

A guttural scream sounded from the passage.

Soren looked over just in time to see an ork running back toward the main chamber.

As orks ran into the room, the mutt jumped up, ripping what remained of its bonds. It charged forward, tossing orks to and fro, the sound of snapping bone echoing again and again through the cavern. Ork ragdolls were used against their comrades as the mutt pressed its way to the main chamber. It wasn’t until they reached it that the humans could join in the fight, while the snake stayed back, with little to offer in terms of straight-forward battle.

As they found themselves cornered at the entrance to the main chamber, the mutt let out a howl. The orks stopped and stared in terror as Leondrea climbed up onto the wolf’s back.

“Let us leave in peace,” she declared, “or Skullcrusher will end every last one of you.”

The orks shouted back in Giant. Then, the Naga slithered forward. It hissed in their language and they began backing away, parting like water to let the group through. Leondrea motioned for Soren and Maya to climb on the wolf’s back before it strode out of the cave, the snake in tow.

“Finally named him, ma’am?” Maya asked as they rode.

“That I did.”

They rode back to the village, a several-hour-long journey. On the outskirts, the Naga got their attention before bowing to Soren, hissing, “Until we meet again,” and slithering in the direction of the temple.

They made their way into the village, where Leondrea and Maya returned Skullcrusher to his shed, and Soren went to eat with Aryia and Rolph. He told them of what had happened – though he inflated his role in the defeat of the ogre – before telling them he was going to Zapad.

“I’m hoping to find my friend Tyrell there – he’s the one other member of my crew that might’ve survived.”

“I hope you do, too,” Rolph said. Then, he turned to Aryia, whose face was a bit twisted in a thoughtful sort of look. “Something bothering you, dear.”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said, her gaze shifting from her soup to Soren, “I’d like to go with you.”

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 6: The Rumor in the Tavern

Soren returns to Ortus, where he returns to Arakim before heading to the inn.

“Well, that was pointless,” Soren said as he stabbed a vine creeping across the ground. “Only confirmed what we already knew – the Dreamer is somewhere on the mountain.”

He turned around and started traveling back out of the bog as the sun touched the Western horizon.

“Well, it wasn’t completely pointless,” Maya commented as she started after him, “at least you know he’s on the mountain now instead of just thinking it.”

Soren let out a sigh as he shrugged before returning his sword to its sheath.

By the time they got out of the bog, the sun was halfway below the horizon.

“I suppose we should set up camp,” Soren stated.

They gathered firewood from the surrounding area to make a small fire, enough to keep them warm and heat up some trail rations that Soren had in his pack, but do little else – too much light would attract orks.

They set up, cooked, and ate, before setting up a bedroll. They only had one, but they only needed one.

Soren took the sheath off his belt and sat down. He laid his sword across his lap as he leaned against a tree. “I’ll take first watch.”

Maya nodded before laying down on the mat and quickly falling asleep, a light snore emanating from her.

It wasn’t long before Soren noticed movement nearby – a rustling in the underbrush. He quickly but quietly shifted from a sitting position to a crouched position, ready to strike when needed. He gripped the sword in one hand and the sheath in the other, ready to pull the blade if necessary.

The rustling grew closer.

And closer.

Soren began drawing the sword from its sheath before a rat popped out of the underbrush, close enough now that Soren could see it.

He stared at it – it certainly could be one of the rats from the witch’s hut.

He released his grip on the handle and returned to his sitting position as the rat scurried closer and closer. It sat in front of him, propped up on its hind legs and sniffing the air. For a moment, it almost looked like it was waving. But a rat knowing how to wave would be about as preposterous as a rat knowing how to speak.

“Hello, Soren,” the rat squeaked.

Soren leapt to his feet and drew the sword from its sheath, pointing it at the rat, inches from the tip of its nose.

It lifted its tiny paw to rest on the point of the blade. “Do not be afraid, I am sent by Her Everloving Grace, the Great Chorklenya, Daughter of Ik- Ich- Yith- Ithk- I give up. Daughter of… him. I am sent to make sure you’re okay.”

“Of course,” Soren slowly put the sword away, “because a rat is going to be a big help against a roving band of orks.”

“She was more sending me in case the genie killed you – or the man-eaters. But it looks like you’re alright. Would you like an escort back to Ortus?”

“Once again, how would a rat be any help?”

Maya stirred for a moment, before humming slightly. Then, she went back to snoring.

“Is that all you see me as? Just a rat? Nothing more? Humans really are nincompoops, aren’t they?”

Soren stared, bewildered at the rat. “What else would I think of you?”

The rat shrugged. “I suppose you can sleep until morning – should there be trouble, I will protect you.”

“You’re a rat!”

“Fine then. I will wake you. Now, go to sleep.”

Soren squinted at the rat before scanning his surroundings. “And where do you suppose I’d sleep?”

“Right there seems good, nice and comfy. Good for conducive sleep.”

Soren rolled his eyes. “I’m not trusting a rat with my safety.”

“Suit yourself, but you’re going to fall asleep sooner or later.”

Soren shook his head as he leaned back against the tree once more. Within a few minutes, he noticed his eyes getting heavy. He would shake his head every few moments to keep himself awake, but to no avail. The last thing he remembered before it was morning was the rat saying, “Told you.”

***

Soren woke slowly. He felt good. Relaxed. As if he’d just slept on a plush mattress for a good eight hours. The reality is that he’d slept against a tree for well near ten.

The first thing he noticed when he opened his eyes was the rat, sitting on the ground, rubbing its hands together. The second thing he noticed was Maya standing, mortified, as she stared at something just to the left of his vision. The third and final thing he noticed was the pile of three or four (kind of hard to tell as all but one were heavily dismembered, as if by a very uncoordinated butcher) ork bodies that Maya was staring at. The only whole body in the pile appeared to have fallen on its own sword, right in the middle of where the other parts lay.

Soren jumped to his feet, eyes wide in horror. Then, his gaze fell on the rat.

“I told you I would protect you,” the rat said.

Soren looked back and forth between the rat and the gruesome scene. “How?”

“One of my gifts. Shall we be going now?”

Maya’s gaze hadn’t moved from the pile of bodies.

Soren fastened his sheath to his belt, slung his pack over his shoulder, and grabbed Maya before walking towards the village. “Let’s.”

The rat scurried after and they traveled for nearly an hour before Maya finally broke from her stupor.

“You can let me down now.”

Soren complied and she brushed off her clothes.

Her eyes were filled with fear as she looked at the rat, but her voice was level as she asked, “What’s your name, sir?”

“They call me ‘Damel,'” it replied, “‘they’ being Her Everloving Grace and the others.”

“The other rats you mean?” Soren snarked as he continued walking through the woods.

The other two jogged to catch up.

“If that is what you’d like to call us,” Damel eventually responded.

Maya proceeded to ask several questions related to the island and Chorklenya, but to no avail. Many of her questions were met with an answer to the effect of, “I can’t say.”

***

It took them several hours to return to Ortus, and, upon reaching the village, the rat seemed to mysteriously disappear. In a straight line toward the witch’s hut, the brush moved all at once, as if he traveled the whole distance instantly. A feat only claimed to have been accomplished by individuals with no other witnesses.

Maya and Soren exchanged glances before deciding to ignore the phenomenon on account of Chorklenya’s a witch and the rat already did some outlandish things.

The two made their way to the library, where Arakim was working on the replacement copy of the atlas.

He looked up as they entered the door, pinning the quill in his afro. He leaned back in his chair as he placed his hands behind his head.

“What can I do for you both today?”

Soren and Maya sat down in the chairs across the table from him.

“I went to that temple you told me about – found the relief.”

“And? Were you able to read it?”

Soren paused. “Yes- although- it was strange… I seemed to be able to read it after this snake bit me.”

“A snake bit you, and you could suddenly read fluent giant?”

Soren shrugged. “I guess.”

Arakim sat forward, leaning on the table with his elbows. “What kind of snake?”

Soren shook his head in thought. “I don’t know, a snake? There were a bunch of other larger ones there – maybe the same species. They had hoods, and they spoke. At least- one did. Shelezar, if I recall.”

Arakim brought his hand to his chin, stroking his scruff. “Did they say any strange words that you didn’t recognize?”

Soren thought for a moment before shaking his head.

Arakim narrowed his eyes. “Have you ever heard of Naga?”

A lightbulb went off in Soren’s brain, and shone on his face. “The snake said something… ‘the Watcher is no friend of Naga,’ or some such. Who is Naga?”

“Naga is not whom, but what. A race of ancient snakes that, at least in Kithria, are extinct. There was but a single egg, resting on the floor of the temple when I first visited it. I chose to leave it be, I suppose it hatched since then.”

“How long have you been here?” Soren interjected.

Arakim seemed to completely ignore the question. “According to some legends, it was Naga who invented language. They taught it to man, elves, even dragons. And their venom can give anyone the ability to understand any language – for a time. I suppose the latter part of that, at least, is true.”

“You said that when you were there, there was a single egg. There was one giant snake and a clutch of man-sized ones. How long have you been here?”

“The real question, then” – Arakim seemed completely oblivious to Soren’s questions – “is who is the Watcher?”

Soren’s face twisted into a mixture of confusion and contempt. “The Watcher. Imya. Divine Queen of the seas. One of the Five Children of the Great King Imakar, who sl-” Soren paused for a moment. “Who sleeps, waiting for suffering to awaken him.”

Arakim raised an eyebrow. “What does the legend say of Imakar?”

“That he made Man and then slept while the giants took over everything. Then the elves came, and their reign was even worse. Now we are free, but a third suffering is coming, which will be greater than any other and then Imakar will awaken. The Imin say he’s already awake, as proclaimed by his incarnation, Iminar, who walked the land of Kithria near the beginning of the age.”

Arakim nodded. “Interesting.”

“But the Naga also said that the Watcher is no friend of the Dreamer.”

“Perhaps the Dreamer is a rival of Imakar?”

Soren considered the prospect before he remembered the red crystal.

“I also found this after the Naga turned to dust.” He placed the pendant on the table. “Do you know what it is?”

Arakim picked up the trinket and examined it, turning it this way and that in his hand. “I should think it’s a genie.” He placed the pendant back on the table. “Perhaps she got it from the Djinn.”

“We just freed it,” Maya interjected, pursing her lips.

“What’s a genie?”

Arakim gave Maya a slightly panicked look before letting out a huff and looking to Soren. “It’s a crystal created by the giants to stave off mortality, often given to orks. It was, of course, no use to Naga as they are immortal. In a technical sense.”

“How does it stave off mortality?”

Arakim shrugged. “Supposedly, as long as a mortal holds it, Death will not take them, taking the crystal instead. I wouldn’t go testing that theory, however. Is there anything else you need of me?”

Soren thought for a moment before shrugging and shaking his head. “I don’t believe so.”

Arakim pulled the quill from his hair. “Then I shall return to my work.”

Soren nodded and the pair made their way out of the library.

“If Imya is an enemy of the Dreamer, why is it my duty to find him?”

Maya stooped down to pick a frog up off the ground and held it in her hand as they walked. “I don’t know.”

“I suppose Delmore said the first step in completing the task is to find the Dreamer.” He gritted his teeth. “Perhaps I am to bring on the suffering that will awaken Imakar.”

Maya pursed her lips as she looked to the sky in thought. “Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that Arakim’s name is so similar to Imakar?”

Soren shook his head and frowned dismissively. “Arakim’s a fairly common Mikri name, Imakar’s the name of a god.”

They made their way to the inn and dropped into a table’s seats. They sat for a few moments, waiting for their food and drink to show up when Soren overheard conversation at the adjacent table.

“-there’s a new man there, they say he washed up a little over a month ago.”

Soren quickly spun in his chair to look at the speaker. “A new man? Where?”

The man was taken aback, wearing a frown on his face. “In Zapad, on the other side of the island.”

“Do you know his name? What does he look like?” Soren perhaps had a chance to finally find his missing friend, Tyrell.

“I don’t know, I only heard the rumors when I was last there a couple weeks ago. I just returned.”

Soren scrambled to gather up his things before dropping a handful of Shelezar coins on the table. He patted Maya’s back. “Enjoy your ale.”

As he rushed out of the inn, Maya ran after him, scooping up the coins.

“Where do you think you’re going? Do you even know how to get to Zapad?”

Soren looked around before biting his thumb knuckle in thought. “No, I suppose not.”

“Then I’m coming with you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Maya crossed her arms as she looked matter-of-factly up at Soren.

Soren sighed and scanned the horizon once more before beginning to walk away. “Fine.”

“Why are you going that way?”

“Because it feels right!” Soren called as he kept walking down the street.

“Perhaps we should get help from the madam! Surely she would be willing to send a contingent of guards with us!”

Soren finally stopped and turned around as one of the children of the married Shelezar’s ran down the street toward them.

Maya noticed the confused (or concerned) look on Soren’s face and turned as well.

It was their eldest child, Marlon, who had the lightest skin and darkest hair of the children.

“The madam,” he panted, “she- needs- mutt- taken.” Marlon let out a huff. “She needs the madam needs you.” He’d clearly been running awfully fast and needed to run more – a fact not made evident by his thin frame.

Despite his broken and repetitive speech, Soren discerned his meaning and rolled his eyes.

“Of course she does.”

“You said the madam’s mutt was taken?” Maya asked.

Marlon nodded as best he could while bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

“By who?”

Marlon looked up with a worried expression. “Orks.”

At that, Soren lifted an eyebrow and smirked. “Orks you say?”

Marlon narrowed his eyes at Soren and his mouth twitched into an uncomfortable smile. He nodded again.

Soren let out a sigh of happiness as he smiled, showing his teeth. “Let’s go find the madam, then.”

He began jogging toward her manor, Maya struggling to keep up, and reached the place within a few minutes. The familiar sight of the dog being replaced by a cut anchor chain gave Soren a hint of sorrow as he ran up to the door. He slammed his fist into the door excitedly as Maya crossed the yard, her reaction to running such a distance being just barely better than Marlon’s.

A servant answered the door and Soren pushed past, nearly shoving the woman to the ground. Maya apologized for him as he made his way into the home’s dining room, where Madam Leondrea was sitting.

Tears of anger were streaming down her face as her breath heaved through her teeth. Her furious eyes met Soren’s.

“You’re going to get my dog back.”

“I love killing orks,” Soren answered as he sat down next to her, a smile still covering his face, “but there is a favor I must ask of you, first.”

Her face tightened in rage.

“Once I do this, I need an escort to Zapad, just a few guards will be fine, in case I run into any danger on the way.”

“Do this for me, and I’ll escort you there myself,” she spat, standing from her chair.

Soren hadn’t noticed before that she was battle-ready – dressed with a leather vest over a teal short-sleeve. She wore breeches for the first time that Soren had seen, rather than a dress, with pads of leather covering her thighs and buttoned boots that reached to just below her knees. Strapped to her hips were several daggers and rapier, and a bow with a quiver was resting against her chair.

She picked up the bow and quiver, slinging them over her shoulder as she marched toward the door. “Let’s go get my dog.”

Soren’s face grew solemn as Maya put her hand to her mouth to hide the smile that crept across it.

The two followed Leondrea outside, where she wordlessly looked for tracks and followed them into Perdinitium.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 5: The Bottle in the Bog

After returning to Ortus with the medicine, Soren travels back into the forest to find out what the witch knows about the Dreamer.

The three made their return to the village of Ortus. As they passed by the first house on their in, a child, playing in the dirt, ran ahead of them. By the time they were halfway to Aryia’s house, she was running out to greet them.

She practically leapt onto her father, nearly pulling him to the ground. Before he’d eaten of the mushrooms, he’d likely have been knocked over. All that time living in the woods at least made him stronger.

He wrapped his arms around his daughter, holding her tight, and his eyes were shut just as much. A tear poked through the tight space between his eyelids and rolled down his cheek.

“I’m so sorry for abandoning you, little one.”

Aryia sniffled. “It’s okay, papa.” She turned to Soren as tears began welling in her eyes. “Thank you.”

Soren nodded to her before looking to Maya. They still had medicine to deliver.

As Rolph and Aryia returned to their house, Soren and Maya made their way to the madam’s manor. As they delivered the medicine, the sun began to set, and they each returned to their respective places to stay – Maya in the makeshift inn, and Soren to the house of Aryia of Rolph.

It was only after Soren returned to the house that he realized there was no bed for him to sleep on.

“You could sleep in my bed,” Aryia offered, to Rolph’s dismay, “I wouldn’t mind.”

Soren looked back and forth between the girl who’d cared for him since awoke on the island and her father. “You’ve done enough for me. I’ll just go to the inn.”

The inn was hardly a proper one. The main floor was a larger building, clearly meant to be a simple alehouse, but, since its original construction, various pieces had been added on. Several smaller structures were built on top of it to house those who had nowhere else to stay, and a simple stable had been built outside for those who were lucky enough to have had a horse on their ship that survived the crash.

The alehouse was a dirty place as the stench of poorly made moonshine hung in the air and a faint squelching could be heard with each step as his boots stuck to the wooden floor.

Honestly, Soren thought, it would have been best to just keep the floor dirt like nearly all the other houses on this gods-forsaken island.

The only person he recognized was Maya, who was busy begging the bartender to let her have some ale – she was, after all, not the ten-year-old child she appeared to be.

He thought about approaching her and decided against it, instead opting to sit down at an empty table. Before long, a man came over to see if Soren needed anything. He asked for a room and ordered a pint of the house ale before sitting and waiting for either his order or for something to happen.

After a few minutes, a man sat down at his table. A Mikri with lighter-than-average skin – though still darker than Soren’s – a bald head, and a stark white beard that reached down to his waist, tucked into the rope that held his tunic in place.

“New here, eh?”

Soren forced a smile; he hadn’t anticipated anyone here talking to him.”Sure.”

“Mmm. Name’s Imbandu by birth, but here they call me Ulrath the White. Or maybe the Wise. I never can remember.” The man held out his left-hand.

Soren responded in turn by grasping Ulrath’s with his own left hand, sliding his pinky between Ulrath’s pinky and ring finger.

Ulrath grasped Soren’s hand tight before shaking it up and down once. “Surprised a man of your standing in Shelez would know such a thing.”

“I don’t know how you mean. I’m a sailor. We mainly worked shipments between Mikron and Shelez.”

“Of course, that’s what you are. But what about what you were? Surely you were not always a sailor.”

Ulrath’s eyes jumped to the table, where he was idly moving his finger.

Soren looked down to see him tracing his old family crest.

“How do you know who I am?”

“I know many things, Soren. I know what you’re looking for, and I know the journey to find it won’t be an easy one.”

Maya finally gave up on trying to get a drink from the bartender and looked around. Her face lit up when her eyes landed on Soren and she started making her way over.

“I give you this one piece of advice for now, as it is all I am permitted to offer: who you would call friend, may in fact be an enemy, and who you would call enemy, may in fact be a friend. Do not let your past dictate your future.”

Without giving even a moment for Soren to ask questions, Ulrath left, and Maya immediately took his seat.

“Who was that?”

Soren sighed. “‘Ulrath the White.’ Er… Wise, maybe.” He shrugged.

“Hmm. I’ve never seen him before.”

Soren tilted his head. Someone Maya’s never seen in the past fifteen years she’s been on the island?

“Maybe he’s new,” she added.

“Maybe.”

“So, what are you doing here?” Maya asked as she glanced around the room, trying to figure out if there was anyone else she didn’t recognize.

“Well, I was sleeping in Rolph’s bed. But he’s back now, so I needed somewhere to sleep.”

Maya nodded her head as the man who’d taken Soren’s order returned.

“Your drink, sir. And here is your room key. My apologies, but as there is no more room elsewhere you will be in Room 5 with the” – he paused and narrowed his eyes at Maya – “ne’er-do-wells.”

Maya stuck her tongue out as Soren handed him the owed money without a word.

“Mind if I have a sip?”

“Go for it,” Soren said as he slid the mug to her, “I think I’m going to retire. See you in the morning.”

Soren woke up before the sun and packed up everything he planned to take with him. As he left, he paused to make sure no one was following him.

He went to Aryia’s hut to take a look at the fences and make sure everything was in good repair before heading toward the forest. As he lit a torch and started down the forest path, Maya suddenly appeared next to him.

“Where are you going?”

“Back to the witch,” Soren answered, exasperated. “She knows something about the Dreamer that she didn’t say, and I plan to find out what.”

Maya pursed her lips. “So, you’re putting your crew’s last job in the hands of an elf?”

Soren clenched his jaw. “Yes. As bad as it may be, it seems it may be the only one who can help me”

Maya walked in thought for a moment. “You ever met an elf before her?”

“No.”

“So, how do you know they’re bad?”

Soren rolled his eyes. “They enslaved humanity for centuries. The only reason-“

Maya scoffed. “The people who tried – and failed, I might add – to enslave me were Shelezar. Does that mean I should hate all Shelezar?”

“It’s not the same.”

Maya just barely ducked beneath a swinging branch Soren had just pushed past. “Isn’t it?”

Soren pursed his lips in frustration. “You’re speaking on the crimes of a few, I’m speaking of the crimes of an entire race.”

“Isn’t it that nearly every Shelezar citizen owns a slave?”

Soren was silent.

“Is it not true that less than half of the people who live in Shelez are free? That the majority of Shelez is made up of slaves – people afforded no citizenship and forced to live a life according to the whim of their master on penalty of death?”

Soren angrily swatted a branch out of his way. “I’m not affiliated with them, regardless. I turned my back on that lifestyle.”

“And yet you are Shelezar, just as that witch is an elf. Why then should she be judged for the crimes of her people centuries ago and you not judged for the same crimes by your people now.”

Soren clenched his jaw once more. Maya certainly annoyed him quite a bit – thus his failed triple checking that he wasn’t followed. But to be angry at her, really, truly angry. That was a rare occurrence.

He thought about stopping, turning to face her. But what would he say? That elves were inherently evil – abominations – and Shelezar were not? It was the truth. But he knew it was an answer she simply would not accept. Instead, he simply sighed and kept walking.

They reached the witch’s house and Soren raised his fist to knock on the door, before once again being interrupted by the woman’s voice, “Come in!”

“What can I do for you, dear?” The witch asked as Soren entered the hut.

Three rats stood in a row, watching him intently from the rafters. They squeaked at each other, in what almost sounded like a language.

“Tell me what you know about the Dreamer.”

The witch craned her head to the side. “Is that any way to treat someone? Walking into their house and start making demands of them.”

“I need to know what you know about the Dreamer.”

The witch let out a long sigh. “I know very little – he was from before my time.” She took a seat at her table before taking on a look of realization. “However, I may know someone who can help you. Have you ever heard of the Djinn?”

“As in the Iminari legend? The demon who claims to grant wishes and then twists them into something… undesirable?”

“That is the one.”

Soren looked to Maya standing behind him before stepping forward and sitting at the table himself. The rats’ gaze continued to follow him. “What of it?”

“In the legend, he is sealed in a bottle and cast into the sea. Have you ever wondered which sea he was cast into?”

“Let me guess,” Soren answered, “he was cast into the Sea of Stones and now he’s on this island.”

“Precisely,” the witch replied. “And I happen to know where to look for him.”

“Why would I want the Djinn?”

“Because he might know things.” The witch squinted as she smiled, her lips thinning to nothing. “If there is anyone who knows where the Dreamer is, it’s the Djinn.”

“Where can I find the Djinn, then?”

The witch pursed her lips. “Well, he originally washed up on the beach hundreds of years ago, before the times of the dragons. Then, he was found by a prophet from before the Disappearance that’s been on this island for millennia. that prophet took him deep in the forest and buried the bottle he was sealed in.”

Soren gave the witch a blank stare. “So, you’re telling me I need to look through the forest for a bottle that was buried centuries ago?”

“You didn’t let me finish.” The witch flared her nostrils as she opened her eyes wide. “The Djinn’s power corrupted the soil around it, and all the plant-life and the water along with it. It began sinking into the earth and became acidic. What’s resulted is a bog, right at the base of the mountain in the island’s center.”

“So, I go to the bog and dig around for the bottle?”

“Well, not quite,” the witch answered, “you see, wherever the bottle is will be the lowest ground. There’s a pond near the center of the bog, see. In that pond will be the bottle, and in the bottle will be the Djinn, and in the Djinn you’ll find your answers.”

Soren gave the witch a blank stare once more before standing up. “Sounds easy enough.”

Without looking back he walked toward the door, wanting to spend as little time in the witch’s hut as possible.

“Soren!” the witch called.

He stopped in the door frame, keeping his eyes forward.

“Remember that a cage is a prison – but it can also protect.”

Soren sighed. “Good to know.”

Soren and Maya made their way deeper into the forest, narrowly avoiding ork scouting details the whole way. Finally, they reached a point where there were no trees. The ground was made of peat and the occasional grass poked up out of the mud. Random ponds were scattered about, and strange flowers opened and closed throughout the bog, with their petals appearing to be lined with teeth.

Soren laced his boots up to his knees and Maya tied off her skirt before the pair made their way further into the bog.

Movement was difficult as their feet sank into the muck easily.

At several points, Soren was sure the vines were moving on their own, grasping for his legs. They did, however, seem to ignore Maya.

The further they traveled into the bog, the bigger the ponds got. As did the flowers, eventually having petals the size of Soren.

Finally, they stopped at a larger pond, which seemed to have a darker color to it than the rest.

Maya rested her hand on her hip. “This must be it. How do you plan to get the Djinn out?”

Soren thought for a moment – he hadn’t considered that question – but was interrupted by another vine slithering up his leg. Soren tried to pull his leg away, but the vine simply tightened.

He let out a shout as he was pulled into the air and swung around by his ankle.

Maya jumped away from him and watched, wide-eyed.

“Cut- the- vine!” Soren shouted, whipped back and forth with each word.

“With what?” Maya shouted as she glanced around.

“What do you mean ‘with what?'” Soren shouted back as the swinging suddenly stilled.

The petals on the flower opened wide, revealing a large hole, filled with thorns . It was going to eat him.

Soren glanced around quickly before unbuckling his belt. The belt, along with the sword that he had fastened to it, fell to the ground as he slowly grew ever-closer to the flower.

Maya struggled with the sword for a moment before finally pulling it from its sheath. The way he handled it, it always seemed so light. It certainly weighed far more than a sword of its size should.

She dragged it across the ground until she stood next to the vine. As Soren grew ever-closer to the flower, she attempted to hoist the sword into the air, but couldn’t even get it off the ground. Finally, as Soren was feet away from the flower’s gaping maw, she ran over the vine, pulling the sword with her.

The vine severed and Soren fell to the ground, just brushing against one of the flower’s petals. As he stood, he glared at Maya.

“What was that?” he shouted. “Why didn’t you just cut it?”

“Your sword is heavy!”

Soren narrowed his eyes at her as he got up off the ground and trudged over, taking the sword from her hand. He tossed it between both his hands. “Doesn’t seem very heavy to me.”

Maya curled her lips inward as she stared at him. Then she shrugged and looked back to the pond. “Now what?”

Soren put his belt back on and the two eyed the pond for a few moments before Soren let out an “Oh!” and reached into his bag.

He pulled out Arakim’s atlas of the island and flipped through a few pages. He studied the words on the page muttering under his breath, first in Mikri, then in Shelezar, before putting the book back in his bag.

“Well, I’m not sure how he figured this out, but…”

He picked up the end of the vine to a hollow center, surrounded by fleshy tissue. Shuddering, he stuck his hand inside and the vine began to move. “Ulgh.”

The vine moved into the water and swept around its depths before bumping into a small object. He retracted the vine toward him and dropped the object – a bottle, made of thick, stained glass, that had a black cloud within.

The pond suddenly seemed to clear moments after the bottle left it.

Soren pulled his hand out of the vine and shuddered once more, shaking a thick red fluid that seemed an awful lot like blood off his hand.

“Alright, so, this is the Djinn,” he said as he walked over and picked up the bottle.

Maya took the bottle from his hand – “Let’s see what it has to say” – before pulling the stopper out.

Soren glared at the girl as a black cloud billowed out of the bottle.

It appeared to be almost ripped from her hand as the cloud took a nearly human form and the bottle settled at its feet. It spoke through a series of screeches and clicks – some form of Giant by the sounds of it.

The two stared at it in wonder.

Then, it spoke again, this time in an old dialect of Iminari. Soren didn’t quite understand it, but he understood enough. It asked what they wanted.

He slowly struggled over his next words as he spoke the language of the desert with his infantile vocabulary and lacking knowledge of the language’s grammar. “We- want- know- where-” he paused before adding in Shelezar, “Dreamer.”

The cloud crossed its arms before speaking again. Soren only understood a few words this time. Something about speaking.

Soren stood with his mouth agape for a moment before Maya began speaking – her Iminari was certainly far better than his.

She had a brief conversation with the Djinn before looking to Soren with her lips curled inward. “He wants your blood,” she whispered.

“I- not- know- definition,” Soren slowly said (though he didn’t quite mean definition).

The Djinn said something else as Maya slowly stepped away.

“Yeah, so he’s gonna fight you now.”

Soren just barely managed to side-step the Djinn as it lunged toward him, the bottle clattering across the ground as it moved.

He danced around it a bit and attempted cutting the cloud with his sword to no avail as the sword swung through the cloud as if it was nothing. The bottle continued clattering on the ground as the Djinn lunged at Soren again and again.

Soren then thought to the powder that was on his waist.

He took out a pinch and blew it in the Djinn’s face.

It recoiled before looking at the ground. Within another moment, it was lunging at Soren again.

“Can I get a little help?” he shouted as he narrowly avoided a swipe of the Djinn’s arm.

“He says if you manage to defeat him, he’ll tell you what you want to know!”

Soren ducked under the Djinn’s arm once more as he tried to think of another way to defeat it.

Then, he remembered the witch’s words. Remember that a cage … can also protect. He looked at the bottle that rolled around the Djinn’s feet.

As it took another swipe, he ducked under its arm and lunged forward, planting his foot firmly on the bottle and smashing it to pieces.

For a moment, the cloud disappeared.

Then, out from the lake came something big. A man, it appeared, with red skin and a great orange beard that reached to his knees, covering his nakedness. He stood several times Soren’s height, and, after climbing out of the pond, stood before him.

The giant crouched down and stared Soren in the eyes.

“There was a time when me and my kind would have crushed you underfoot without a second thought. But, this day, you have done me well, so I will spare you and grant you one wish – no tricks, no loopholes. Name it, and it will be done.”

“I want to know where the Dreamer is.”

The giant gave Soren a sinister smile before looking to the mountain. “In the days when this island sat on the surface of the waters, that mountain was known to us in our tongue as Slumberkeep. It is where the Dreamer lies.”

The giant turned his gaze back to Soren. “I would, however, advise not going there. Whatever your reason for seeking the Dreamer, he is not worth the journey.”

Soren furrowed his brow. “Finding him is the only thing I have left worth doing.”

The giant’s smile fell. “Very well, then you will meet your doom.”

Soren bit his cheek before speaking through his teeth, “So be it.”

The giant chuckled and stood. “For four-hundred years I have been trapped within that bottle. Tell me, how goes the war?”

“Which war?”

“The war for Kithria. Does it still rage on, or did we win?”

Soren raised a brow. “I know nothing of a war for Kithria.”

The giant gave Soren a warm smile. “Then it rages on.”

With that, the giant stretched and let out a yawn, which seemed to shake the nearby vegetation, before suddenly vanishing in a plume of smoke.

Soren and Maya stood alone.

New chapters release every Friday. If you like what you’re reading, you can subscribe using the module in the right sidebar or read previous chapters at xaviermakes.com/iotd.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 4: The Witch in the Forest

After returning from the temple, Soren is asked by the self-proclaimed sovereign of Ortus, Madam Leondrea, to go find a healer in the forest of Perdinitium.

Soren read through the passage on the wall multiple times. He was sure: the mountain is called Slumberkeep. The rest of it, however, seemed quite vague – as if it was part of some other legend, or the summary of one.

He made his way out of the temple, and was blinded momentarily by the bright sun, shining high in the sky. The snake that resided on his shoulder jumped away as his vision returned.

A raven sat on a tree branch watching him.

“What do you want?”

The raven did nothing.

He searched the ground and picked up a pebble before throwing it at the bird. He shook his head as it flew off in fright. “Don’t know what else I expected.”

As he made his way back into town, he was met by Maya running up to him.

“You’re back!” she yelled excitedly as she walked alongside him. Then she squinted at the instrument sticking out of his backpack. “Did you go to the temple without me?”

Soren rolled his eyes. “Yes. Because I don’t want to put anyone in unnecessary danger for what may well be a fool’s errand.”

Maya huffed. “Well, the madam would like to see you. Says it’s important.”

“She thinks everything she says is important.”

Nevertheless, Soren still made his way to the madam’s house, a good deal larger than most of the other houses in Ortus.

It was the only one with two stories, built by the hands of the madam and the servants she’d brought with her on her way to Mikron. Attached to the side was a small shack where the madam’s mutt lived, gnashing at any passersby, though, if the madam greeted them, he would suddenly turn friendly.

As the pair approached, the dog ran out to greet them. He spat saliva everywhere as he growled and barked, his howls heard throughout the town.

The two stood, just outside the length of the anchor chain that held him, as they waited for the madam to come outside to greet them.

After several minutes, she walked outside. She was a fierce woman, both on and off the battlefield – it only made sense why she came to be known as Leondrea, “the Lioness,” among the nobility of Shelez. And the town she built with her own two hands shared the same name, even to this day.

Soren remembered seeing her when he was a child – how it was that she came to be a noble in the court of the king of Ingaard (and, by extension, the emperor of Shelez) was a mystery to Soren. She had some Shelezar blood, sure, but her hair wasn’t quite curly enough to be fully so, and her black hair betrayed some Birik in her lineage. Her facial features, too – her full lips and naturally wide eyes indicated there was some Mikri in her. She was perhaps even more of a mutt than her own dog. The one feature that Soren didn’t recognize from when he was a child was the massive scar that she had on her cheek from an animal’s claws.

As soon as she’d shaken both their hands, the dire wolf calmed down, and retreated back into its shed. She led the two into her house, which was the first time Soren ever saw the interior.

The entry hall wouldn’t have been anything to gawk at if it were back in Shelez, but, in a town like this, it certainly surprised Soren. The entry hall itself was roughly the size of the rest of the houses in Ortus, and several servants wandered through the house, cleaning and tending to other household chores.

She led them through a door into an other room, where there was a long table, with ten chairs around it. In two of the chairs sat the Shelezar couple, now sitting with their newborn child, born during the two weeks that Soren had spent healing from the ordeal with the raft.

Now, they were losing the child. It turned out what Leondrea needed to see Soren for was important. She may have been the self-proclaimed sovereign over Ortus – but at least she took the title seriously. Now, she needed Soren to travel into the forest of Perdinitium – which bordered Ortus to the west – to seek out a woman, knowledgeable in magic and potions.

Soren didn’t challenge Maya’s wish to join with him this time. Her fighting skills could be of use in the ork-infested forest, and she always had a fascination with witchcraft. To deny her this would be like denying a probably dead child their final wish.

The two prepared for the journey – nearly a day’s travel – before making their way into the woods.

***

“So, what do you think she’s like?” Maya asked as they trudged through the undergrowth. She narrowly avoided a twig snapping back after Soren pushed past it.

“Who?”

“The witch.”

“She’s not a witch, she’s a medicine woman.”

“Isn’t that just the Mikron version of a witch?”

Soren held up his hand and Maya stopped dead in her tracks. He held his finger to his mouth before pointing to the ground in front of them.

A rope was barely visible, pulled taught across the path and covered in leaves. Up above was a large grate made of lumber, covered in wooden spikes designed to impale whoever tripped the rope. Chances are, where ork traps lie, orks are soon to follow.

Soren motioned for Maya to move quietly and carefully stepped over the trap.

The girl followed in kind and the two continued to make their way through the woods, keeping a careful eye out for any traps that might be lying in wait.

For a couple of hours, they continued to trek through the forest, until something else caught Maya’s eye.

A pair of yellow eyes watched through the leaves of a shrub. It almost looked like man, save for the dog-like teeth in its mouth, and the fur which covered its body.

A low growl emanated from it, repeating the same two sounds again and again. “Ah” as it breathed out, “Ree” as it breathed in.

Maya tapped Soren on his shoulder and motioned to the wolf-man.

Soren looked to the poor creature. “I noticed it around when we first left Ortus,” he whispered, “It’s been following us the whole way. I suppose it maybe used to be a man. Or perhaps it’s just a mutant ork who drank a bit too much Trenqil.”

He continued walking without a second thought, stopping again only because Maya pulled on his tunic.

“Don’t you think we should try to help him? He looks kind of familiar.” She studied the man, but couldn’t quite tell where she knew his face from.

Soren let out a sigh. “I think we should stay out of trouble.”

Maya listened closer to the faint growl. “Really, I think he might be saying something.”

“Leave it!” Soren snapped. “We’re getting what we came here for – one thing at a time. As soon as that babe is healthy, we can help that man. But, for now, we need to focus on the task at hand.”

Maya looked to the ground before nodding solemnly. She’d never really seen Soren angry in the month and a half she’d known him – seeing him just about every day.

***

As the sun began to set, they reached a small shack.

From the outside, it looked rundown and tiny – just a teensy bit bigger than an outhouse. The door looked liked a massive piece of bark leaned up against a shoddy frame, and there were cracks between each of the boards that acted as the shack’s walls. Looking through the cracks, it appeared there was no one and nothing inside.

Soren held up his hand to knock, before a shrill voice called from within, “Come in!”

Soren dropped his hand and shrugged, sighing.

The door creaked open to a dimly-lit room, certainly a good bit larger than the shack outside. Inside, the shack was about the size of one of the houses in Ortus.

In the middle, an old woman – with wrinkled skin and a large nose – stood at a massive cauldron, stirring with a massive wooden spoon. Rats ran through the rafters.

Soren thought he heard words in their squeaks, though certainly such a prospect would be ridiculous.

The old woman smiled at him, baring pearly white teeth. The fact that they looked so healthy in contrast to her pallor skin and thin, grey hair was, quite simply, unnerving. Her lizard eyes also didn’t help. The more Soren studied the woman, the clearer it became that she was no human. Maya was right, this was no medicine woman – it was, in fact, a witch.

“You must be the errand boy I’ve been waiting for. And I see you’ve brought a little friend with you.”

Maya squeezed around Soren through the doorway and took in the room.

“Would you like some sweets, my dear?” The witch asked, reaching into a pocket on her robe and pulling out a small cake.

Maya eyed the witch indignantly. “I’m not a girl.”

The witch smiled weakly. “You are to me,” she said, as she placed the cake back in her pocket. “You are for medicine for the sickly babe?”

“That’s right,” Soren answered.

“Hm.” The witch stared into the cauldron for a moment. “Well, unfortunately, I am missing one last ingredient for the necessary potion – if you would be so kind as to get it for me on the morrow, I will make the potion in a jiffy. And perhaps I will throw in a little extra special gift for the errand boy, hm?”

Soren furrowed his brow at the witch. Errand boy? “I am no errand boy.”

“Ah, but you are,” the witch took the spoon up out of the cauldron before scooping up some of the contents and taking a sip. She smacked her lips before twisting her mouth in disgust. “Needs more salt.” She tapped the spoon on the edge of the cauldron before setting it on a table next to her and making her way across the room, searching through the contents of a shelf. “You are the one looking for the Dreamer, are you not?”

Soren brought in a sharp breath before clearing his throat as he choked on his own spit. “How would you know that?”

The witch grinned, once again displaying her perfectly healthy teeth. “Then you are the errand boy.”

“Mm.” Soren forced a smile as he crossed his arms. “You said look on the morrow; where are we to sleep?”

“Well, here, of course,” the witch answered as she poured a jar of salt into the cauldron, “I have cots already set out.”

She motioned to one corner of the room, where moldy cloth was nailed to the wall.

It wasn’t much worse than Soren’s cot on the Retribution. Maybe it would remind him of home.

Maya’s expression of intense disgust made it clear she had very different thoughts.

“Makes you miss those straw mattresses you complain about so much, doesn’t it?” Soren whispered as he started walking over to the cots.

Maya scowled at him before following behind.

“Wait!” the witch yelled. “Aren’t you going to eat first?”

The two turned around to see the witch gesturing at the cauldron.

“I’m- uh-” Soren started.

“What- what exactly- is that- exactly?” Maya stammered.

“Rabbit soup.”

The two exchanged skeptical looks before slowly making their way to the table where the spoon rested.

The witch gave it one last stir before scooping soup into six bowls, setting three on the table and three onto the floor, which the rats quickly scurried over to.

As they ate, the witch asked, “You may call me Chorklenya. What may I call you?”

“My name is Soren, this is Maya.”

Maya gave Soren a cautious look as he said her name.

“Nice to meet you, then. It’s not often I get human visitors. Too often is it orks which come knocking on my door.”

Soren raised a brow for a moment as he ate his soup. It wasn’t bad.

The witch continued to speak and ask questions, often in circles at times while they ate – her favorite question to ask over and over was if they had happened to encounter any strange mushrooms on their way to her. The answer was always no. She always replied to their answer by saying to steer clear, or they could be wandering the woods forever.

After they finished eating, their bowls were handed off to the rats to lick clean as they went to bed.

***

At the break of dawn, the pair went out into the woods in search of the final ingredient for the potion – a flower, with blue and white petals and purple leaves.

“Still sure she wasn’t a witch?” Maya asked they wandered through the underbrush.

“She most definitely is,” Soren answered, “worse than that, she’s an elf.”

“Really? I always thought elves were supposed to be… majestic… mesmerizing… pleasing to the eye…”

“Most are – and that’s the trick they use to bring you in, before they destroy everything you love.”

“Oh.”

The two wandered a bit more before Maya spoke up again. “So, what was with her weird eyes? Like, was that a witch thing?”

“That was an elf thing,” Soren replied as he stooped down to inspect a flower. It certainly looked like the right species based on the flower itself, but the leaves were the wrong color. He got back up and scanned the area around them. “They say elves are the spawn of dragons and men, created by the dragons to be slaves. That’s what brought them to Kithria in the first place – allegedly. Trying to escape slavery.”

He walked over to another flower and stooped down again. He pulled his dagger from the sheath on his thigh and cut it off near the root. “This should suffice.”

“Good,” Maya answered, “now we just need to find nine more.”

“Mm.” He cut a few more from the place where he’d found the first.

“You say allegedly. Is there another explanation?”

“Well,” Soren started. “No. However, from what the historians can tell, elves did enslave humans during the time of their empire. I’m not sure why anyone who was a slave would be have slaves themselves – seems a bit odd to me.”

“You have an interesting perspective Soren.”

“How’s that?” He found another patch of flowers, adding two more mature ones to the pouch supplied by the witch.

“You seem to always think that the way a good person is made is that bad things happen to them, and the way a bad person is made is that good things happen.”

“That’s been my experience – everyone on my crew was a good person, every single one of them faced hardship in their life. The nobles I grew up with, who wanted for nothing, were the most selfish people I’d ever seen.”

Maya nodded as she thought on this before noticing the wolf-eyed man from before staring at her from another shrub. “Well, I would say it’s less what happens to someone that makes them who they are, and more how they respond to it. When someone has something taken from them, they have two options: they can do what they can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else, or they can take from others what was taken from them. One would make such a person good, the other, bad. It’s all a matter of their reaction, not what happened to them.”

“Mm.” Soren crouched down and cut a few more flowers, bringing their total to eight, before standing up to the wolf-eyed man standing inches away. Soren stared into his face, trying to ignore the rest of his very hairy, very naked body, and couldn’t help to think that something seemed familiar about him. Before he could think on it any longer, Maya let out a shout and the wolf-man ran away.

“Did that man seem familiar to you?”

Maya curled her lip. “No.”

Soren bit the knuckle of his thumb as he thought before turning around. “Two more flowers to go.”

It didn’t take them long to find the remainder of the flowers, and they headed back toward Chorklenya’s hovel.

When they were nearly there, they heard a voice calling to them. Or, rather, voices, as they each heard a different one. A voice, calling out to them. Asking them to be free.

The two exchanged glances.

“Did you hear that?” Soren asked.

“Yes.”

They looked around them for something, anything that might be calling out to them, before both their eyes locked on it at the same time: a mushroom, with an orange cap, covered in red striations, and a shiny, white stalk. As their eyes met it, they fell into a trance.

They both walked toward the mushroom – beginning slowly before picking up their pace. Soon, they were racing toward it.

Maya reached the mushroom first, breaking it from the ground and holding it high above her head to admire in the slight sunlight peaking through the canopy.

She pulled the mushroom down to her chest as Soren swiped at it, before bringing it close to her mouth – she couldn’t explain it, but she felt an extreme need to bite into it.

As she opened her jaw, Soren swiped it from her, bringing it to his own.

He was faster about it than she was, but, as the mushroom touched his lips, he felt a burning sensation in his hand and chest.

The symbol that he wore around his neck began to glow, and the mushroom burned from his hand outward. He was overcome with sadness that such a beautiful plant would be destroyed before the witch’s words echoed in his mind.

As the mushroom – now turned to ash – fell to the ground, he stared at the tree in front of him. He had been one bite away from cutting his mission short.

Maya stared at him in disgust. “What did you do to it?”

Soren stared back blankly. “I think it was poison. Remember what the witch said? ‘Eat any strange mushrooms and you could be wandering the forest forever.'”

Maya’s look of disgust faded. “Oh.”

“Yes. ‘Oh,’ indeed.”

The two made their way back to the witch’s hut. They exchanged the flowers and waited while she mixed up a potion. She handed it to them, along with a small bag of powder.

“Take this with you, as a reward. It will help you when everything is for naught. A small pinch in the hand will go a long way.”

She winked as they made their way out of the shack and traveled back to Ortus, silent for most of the way – these were ork hunting grounds, and they didn’t make much distinction between man and beast.

The canopy began opening as they got closer to the edge of the forest, and the underbrush thicker. As they walked, another set of footsteps followed them.

Soren glanced around quickly, but saw no one.

They continued a bit further. It followed again.

Soren let out a yell before they stood silent. Then the footsteps broke into a run.

The naked, wolf-eyed man jumped out through the green undergrowth, grabbing Soren by the head as he flew through the hair.

Soren, fell to the ground, the air knocked out of him. The wolf-man spun on all-fours and stared at Soren with hunger in his eyes. Perhaps he was an orkish mutant. Perhaps the reason he seemed familiar was he looked like one of those which Soren had fended off from that Ingaard village.

Then, he heard the growl again, more closely. “Ah-ah” with each breath out. “Ree” with each breath in.

A dagger flew by the wolf-man’s head as Maya hurled insults at him.

Soren shook his head as he gained his bearings. “Don’t kill him, we can help this man!”

He sprang to his feet as the wolf-man ran at Maya.

She just barely jumped out of the way and he spun on his arms and legs to face her. Then, a name caught his attention.

“Aryia!” Soren yelled. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s who you’re looking for?”

“Ah! Ree! Ah!” the wolf-man yelled, continuing his previous breathing pattern.

Soren took a pinch of powder from its pouch. She said it would get him out of tough situations – he could only hope this happened to be one of them.

As he dropped the powder into his palm, the wolf-man began running, and Soren waited.

Five meters.

Four meters.

Three.

Two.

One.

Soren blew on the powder as hard as he could, sending it right into the wolf-man’s face.

He recoiled and spun around, rubbing his eyes as he sneezed, again and again. Finally, he stopped rubbing his eyes and stared off into space, dazed. He fell over with a thud into the dirt as he continued staring at the sky.

Soren walked over to him.

“Can you stand?”

The man’s eyes met Soren as he let out a sigh and sat up.

“Thank you.” He rubbed his temple. “Thank you for freeing me from that curse.”

“No problem,” Soren replied. “Who are you?” He was sure he knew the answer.

“My name is Rolph. I live in Ortus.” Panic struck the man’s face. “Do you know my daughter? Is she safe?”

Soren knelt down and placed a hand on Rolph’s shoulder – the hair that covered him seemed to be falling out, clinging to Soren’s hand.

“Yes,” he replied, “Aryia is fine.”

New chapters release every Friday. If you like what you’re reading, you can subscribe using the module in the right sidebar or read previous chapters at xaviermakes.com/iotd.

A New Project: Untitled Game

Xavier describes his creative process in making a (currently untitled, text-based) game and discusses other topics such as programming, game development, and linguistics.

I’ve begun work on yet another project, because I have difficulty focusing on only one project at a time (or, rather, I have difficulty focusing on one project for an extended period of time, resulting in me rotating which project I’m working on).

The project itself is a currently untitled and I’m not sure what the main story will consist of (though I have a general idea), but I know a few things about it:

  1. It will be created using a game engine (story-making tool?) called Twine. That means that it’s going to be a text-based game, kind of like those old choose-your-own-adventure books.
  2. The game will take place in Kithria, the world I have created for low-fantasy stories, games, and whatnot.
  3. Like most of my other works, it will explore various social themes, including (but probably not limited to) racism and sexism.

Below are some of my thoughts so far as I’ve been working on the game.

Working with Game Engines

Disclaimer: I am aware HTML is technically a markup language and not a programming language, thus why, when I’m referring to both, I use the term ‘computer language’.

HTML is relatively simple as a baseline. Before I started working on this game, I had a little experience with HTML during my time as a CS major and the web developer for the Daily Egyptian. I could take a template that already existed and mess around with it to make the website I wanted. As well, I could make a (admittedly garbage looking) webpage from scratch fairly easily. What I could not do was create a beautiful webpage from scratch. And I still can’t. But Twine is based in HTML, so it should help me learn, maybe. Right?

Wrong!

I learned a similar thing when I first started working on Project Divus, in which I played around with Unity a bit. For those who don’t know, Unity is a game engine that is based in the programming language, C#. Making a game using Unity, however, requires more knowledge on how Unity works than how C# works. This is because Unity has its own classes, methods, and functions built in that the programmer needs to know how to call properly. Unless you’re adding completely unheard of functionality, the chances of you needing to know C# seem to be pretty slim, and knowing C# won’t make you proficient in using Unity.

This also applies to Twine. The only actual HTML I have used in the 6+ hours I’ve spent working on this game (at the time of writing) is to make a table so my buttons don’t look weird. Other than that, it’s all been calls to macros built into Twine or SugarCube (a sort of secondary engine built on Twine), none of which are accessible in basic HTML. Both pieces of the engine (Twine and SugarCube) have their own documentation, just like basically every computer language (Unity also has such documentation).

This all comes down to one main idea: engines themselves are, in effect, child languages of whatever language they’re based on. This is perhaps why creating an engine is so difficult and time consuming – in fact, many developers forgo it because creating a proper engine can take years for a relatively simple game – because you are trying to build a new language.

As well, this goes to show that just because someone is proficient in a given computer language doesn’t mean they’re proficient in engines based on it and vice-versa. Although, knowing a single language from a family of languages makes it far easier to understand other languages; e.g. object-oriented languages, such as Java or C#; or Romantic languages, such as Spanish, French, or Latin. Obviously knowing one language won’t make you fluent in the others, but I know of plenty of university students who have been able to decipher Latin documents because they know Spanish.

Nothing in Game Development is Simple

I already knew this was the case. Most people who have tried game development already know this to be the case (probably). Those who don’t know this to be the case would be anyone who has never tried to develop a game or watched someone develop a game (or who has used a very simple drag-and-drop engine, which generally aren’t powerful and are less of making a game and more making a level in a game unless you really know what you’re doing and you put a lot of time and effort in, but I digress). Making what you think could be the simplest addition to a game takes a long time. I mentioned before that I have spent 6+ hours working on this game in the past two days. All that time was spent on character creation (which I’ll discuss later), and that part isn’t even done.

On top of that: if you’re not careful, a single wrong word can spend hours to fix (especially if you, say, wrote a line of code that you knew you would be using again and just copied and pasted it to the new location only to later realize it was wrong). On the bright side, none of the bugs I accidentally included in my code took hours to fix. They each took half an hour, and there were approximately a lot of them. Most of that time, of course, is finding out what you did wrong; often, once you’ve found the problem it’s fairly simple (though it’s usually either changing a single character or sifting through the whole document to find every mistake). I once had a project to create a parser for a programming language in one of my CS classes; it took me 2 hours to figure out how to fix it (with the help of my manager at the DE of the time) and all I had to do was change a 0 to a 1.

So, yeah, programming ain’t a walk in the park. But you probably already knew that.

Trying to Make Things Interesting

I mentioned, like, a bunch of lines ago that I spent over 6 hours over the course of the last 2 days working on character creation for this game. That’s because I’m trying to make things interesting. You see, appearance (and gender) in this game is more than an aesthetic choice. My plan is to make it where characters in the game will make judgement calls based on what you look like. If you’re a Shelezar but look like a Mikri and the character happens to be racist against Mikri, they’ll treat you as such. If you’re a woman and you’re interacting with a character that thinks women are lesser than men, they’ll treat you as such. The flipside is also true: if you look like a Kapfian, military personnel may favor you because Kaps are known for their combat prowess. If you’re a woman, members of certain cultures will favor you because that’s their culture. And setting up the appearance mechanics – the part where the player determines the character’s appearance on top of the part where the game goes through and sees what people group they might be confused with – took me most of those 6 hours. That means that I definitely need to make that appearance mechanic matter. Because you shouldn’t devote time to something that won’t matter. It’s bold because it’s a life lesson.

The main issue I need to find out now (before I move on from character creation; that’s right, it’s not done yet) is whether I want to follow through on another idea I had: basing the game mechanics on Lady Luck’s Chosen Few. Right now, the mechanics I have set up for the game are fairly simple and much more reminiscent of standard TTRPG mechanics: a number is generated and modified by four attributes the PC has (in this case Endurance, Strength, Agility, and Wit) and the result of an action that has multiple (more than one) pass-fail states is determined based on the final number. It’s simple and it’s easy. Making a game based on LLCF mechanics will be far more complicated. That being said, trying to work those mechanics into a text-based game like this will be a lot easier than trying to work them into a more standard video-game. So, I still need to make a decision on that.

Conclusion

So far, I’d say I’m happy with this project. Despite the pitfalls I’ve run into, it’s going pretty well and I’m making some decent headway. Admittedly, I should maybe not be putting another project on my plate, but I’ve decided to disregard that fact in an effort to add one more thing to have consistent updates that I can share publicly, alongside Isle of the Dreamer. So I’m making this now.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 3: The Snake in the Temple

After speaking to the scholar, Arakim, Soren makes his way to a temple to find out more about the Dreamer, where danger lies in wait.

Soren limped from the library, Maya in tow, as he opened the atlas given to him by Arakim and looked through some of the notes. His Mikri was a little rusty, so it would take him some time to interpret, but he had plenty of time given that he needed to wait for his leg to heal.

“So, when are we going to the temple?” Maya asked. She was almost as interested in Soren’s adventures as Aryia – perhaps more interested in the adventures themselves than Aryia was. It made sense that a child – or, woman, rather – of her life would want to do the dangerous things.

A person of poverty, Soren reasoned, wouldn’t want as the wealthy do, seeking everything they can get their over-privileged hands on. And it would only make sense that someone who’d suffered as she did would do anything but work to ensure that no one should suffer the same fate.

For Soren, it only made sense that those with little would want little. His crew, who had only the backs of their mates and what little gold they charged, wanted for nothing. If only the world worked that way.

He stowed the book into the satchel that hung on his shoulder – found among the ship’s wreckage – before looking to the road ahead and making his way to Aryia’s shack. “We aren’t going anywhere. I’m going back to Aryia’s to heal and read up on this temple and the surrounding land, and you are going back home.”

“I know I don’t look it, sir, but I’m not a girl,” Maya protested, crossing her arms, “I’m a grown woman. Maybe older than you.”

“Mm.” Soren turned down the road toward Aryia’s, quickening his pace and forcing Maya to jog in order to keep up.

“I can help, you know.” It was an awkward jog – too fast for her to possibly walk, but too slow for her to jog properly. “I can fit into spaces you can’t.”

“Yes, and if I need you, I’ll come get you, but I’m not putting you in unnecessary danger.”

As they turned down another path, Aryia’s shack came into view.

“But I’m not afraid of danger!” Maya attempted walking for a brief moment before returning to the awkward jog. “I can handle myself, you know!”

As Soren reached the shack’s front door, he turned to face the girl. “Go home, Maya. If- if I need you. I will let you come with me. But we’ll see.”

Soren turned and entered the home, wishing there was a door he could shut behind him as Maya followed him, dropping into one of the chairs at the table.

Aryia entered through the back door that led into the garden. She glanced at Soren, suppressing a smile, before muttering flatly, “Good, you’re alive.”

Soren sat in one of the chairs himself. He took off his boots, revealing his ripped breeches underneath. His leg was covered in bandages with blood outlining where the creature had bitten him.

Aryia immediately dropped her facade of disinterest as she rushed over and started trying to take the bandages from his leg.

Soren swatted her hand away.

“Leave them, it’s better for the wounds to heal.” He picked up the loaf of bread that was sitting on the table, ripping off a piece and taking a bite. “My captain appeared to me. Told me that the real job of the crew was here.”

Aryia sat down in the chair, taking a piece of bread as well. “What is it?”

Soren stopped chewing as he stared into space pensively. “No idea.”

Aryia and Maya exchanged glances.

“How are you to know what to do then?”

Soren set his piece of bread down as he swallowed. “He said that I’ll know what the job is when the time comes to complete it. But my first clue is to find someone called ‘the Dreamer’. From what I can gather, a myth from giants that used to live on the island.”

“The Dreamer?” Aryia asked, sitting up straight in her chair. “My father mentioned it once. When he first arrived, the Raven said that no one could leave the island except if the Dreamer allowed it. What happened when you tried to leave?”

“Suddenly, I was in water – there was no light, except” – he reached up and grabbed the charm that hung from his neck – “I think the Watcher was protecting me. I was attacked, by a fish, I suspect. Deep in the ocean.” He shook his head. “I swum back toward the island, best I could, and suddenly I was on the surface of the water again. I don’t think this is an island in the Sea of Stones – at least not on its surface.”

Maya ground her teeth. “You mean to tell me we’re on the ocean floor?”

Soren’s face grew stern as he looked the girl in the eye before nodding slowly. “Precisely. I think the Dreamer is the only way out because you need to be transported to the surface to escape. There’s no other way. The question is: who’s the Dreamer, and what does he have to do with my crew’s final job?”

The trio speculated for nearly an hour before Maya became bored with the conversation and left. At that point, Soren decided to lie down and let himself heal, only getting out of bed when supper was ready.

***

Soren spent the next two weeks healing and translating the atlas. Slowly, the language came back to him. On the morning he intended to go to the temple he gathered up supplies from the shed before making his way to Otto’s.

“I’m going to ancient temple – got any ‘inventions’ that could help me out?” he asked to the seemingly empty building.

Otto suddenly appeared behind his counter, rubbing his hands together gleefully, baring his perfectly straight, white teeth. “Yes, yes, I believe so, my dearest Soren. Come along, come along.”

Otto led him down an aisle of the store to a pile of small leather pouches, picking one up in his hand.

“I call this a ‘fireball.'” He handed it to Soren, who turned it in his hand.

Besides the small pouch that made up the majority of the device, where an opening would be consisted of a small iron band, fastened to hold it shut around a wick, roughly the length of his thumb. It smelled faintly of sulfur and charcoal.

“It’s an explosive charge, you see. The leather pouch there is stuffed with gunpowder – the stuff you use to fire your cannons – and that there is a fuse of the same sort. You simply light the fuse, set the charge, and BOOM!” Otto jumped into a star shape, with his feet double shoulder-width apart and his hands high in the air. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before looking back to Soren. “Everything in a ten-foot radius is burnt toast. Perfect for dealing with wild animals and orks, or getting into places you’re not supposed to be – when stealth is unnecessary, of course.”

Soren nodded slowly, investigating the fireball before handing it back to the inventor. “I’ll take ten.”

Otto grabbed a paper bag from right next to the stand and placed ten fireballs into it, before snapping his fingers. He held one finger in the air as his eyes widened. “You know what you need now? Something to light it with!”

Otto scurried over to another stand, where there were several small flasks, made of glass and topped with metal. “I call these ‘lighters.'” He picked one up and handed it to Soren.

It was comprised of a small rectangular vial, topped with a piece of metal that had a small wheel and a lever on it.

“I call it that, see, because it lights things.” Otto gave a sinister grin. “On fire.”

Soren looked closely at the vial. It was filled with a dark liquid.

“The wheel there is made of steel and in the cap is a piece of flint,” Otto explained, “so, when you spin the wheel, it ignites. The little lever there opens a small valve that lets the fumes from the oil inside escape, ever-so-slowly, producing a flame. You can use this to light the fireballs – among other things, of course.”

Soren attempted spinning the wheel a few times, producing a spark, then pushed the lever. Nothing happened.

“You must be quick,” Otto instructed, taking the lighter from his hands. He quickly flicked the wheel and pressed the lever in rapid succession, causing a small candle flame to appear. He handed it back to Soren.

Soren imitated the action, creating a flame himself. “It’s like magic.”

“Not magic,” Otto corrected, “invention.”

“I suppose I’ll take it,” Soren replied, handing it back to Otto, who placed it into the paper bag with the fireballs. “Anything else for me?”

Otto stood up straight, peering over the stands he had set up throughout the store before shaking his head. “Not for now, no. Perhaps in the future, my dear Soren. Shall we?” The inventor motioned toward the front of the store, where the two returned and Soren paid for the items. Otto gave him a complimentary pouch specifically for the bombs before ushering him out of the store.

Then, Soren made his way out of town, toward the temple.

***

As he pushed through the undergrowth, a stone structure came into view. It looked like it could have been a mausoleum, with a large stone archway big enough for a giant. In front of the entrance was a massive statue of a snake, its hooded head reaching almost to the top of the archway, and its tail wrapping around it several times. The rattle it had was nearly as big as Soren.

As Soren approached the entrance, he heard a faint hiss at his feet. A small snake coiled loosely around his ankle and stared up at him. He paid it no mind as he looked through the archway, which led to a staircase leading underground. He took the lantern he’d fastened to his belt, lit it, and began his descent.

The snake slowly followed behind him. It almost seemed curious, like a small child.

The stairs seemed to go down for a long time before it finally opened into a larger chamber. The air was dry, and his lantern wavered for a moment as a wind that smelled like bad breath blew through the chamber.

The chamber itself was certainly larger than most of the shacks in Ortus. The flagstones that made up the floor seemed, for the most part, to be perfectly intact, and the ground was cleaned spotless. Statues lined the walls – giants, with single eyes that made up most of their heads and horns that grew like crowns. Most of the depictions of giants that Soren had seen in the past had two eyes, and looked much more human than these. There were two doors – one straight ahead of him, as the large as the entry way into the temple, and the other hidden in a corner, larger than a door for men, but too small for a giant to fit through.

As he stood, investigating the room, the snake that had followed him down slithered beside him, still staring at him.

He smiled at the snake – for what it was, it was quite adorable.

Soren elected to go through the side door, which led into a bed chamber. On the one wall was a bed with tattered rags dangling from the four posts and a moldy mattress, upon which a skeleton laid. A small table sat next to the bed with several rusted objects that looked like they were used in ceremonies millenia ago.

On the other side of the room was a dresser, with a smashed mirror on top of it and a strange instrument sitting on top – Soren wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like, but it didn’t appear to be damaged or anything. As far as he could tell, it was in pristine condition. The fact that Arakim hadn’t taken it to his library surprised Soren. That said, he didn’t seem to have any sort of artifacts there – only books about them.

Soren decided to take the instrument, which was a ceramic tube with seemingly random undulations and curves. One end opened widely like a trumpet while the other was rounded, with a small hole that Soren assumed was for blowing into.

As he blew into it, it sounded like a woman vocalizing, holding a single note at just the right pitch. As he did so, the snake that had been following him perked up. He could have sworn it smiled. When he stopped, the snake put its head back on the ground before slithering up his leg and coming to rest on his shoulder.

Soren put the instrument in his bag before heading back out into the entry chamber.

As he stepped through the door, he heard a faint clattering, like bone against bone. Supposing it was just bones falling off the bed simply as a result of time passing, he kept walking and investigated the walls further. Much of the inscriptions were lost, as the stone had worn or grown. But in one place in particular, a full inscription remained. He recognized it from his days in his family’s noble house to be the written language of giants, but it had been so long, he’d no idea what any of it meant. Perhaps it was the inscription Arakim had copied down.

He turned around to continue further in the temple to find himself face to face with the empty eyes of a skeleton – save for a faint glowing darkness within them.

The skeleton from the bed chamber stared at him for a moment before lunging forward. Soren had failed to notice its hands weren’t human when he studied it before – the creature he looked at now was no man, but a wight. The skeleton of a man joined with the bones of other creatures, set by the ancients to act as guardians. Possible only to kill by ‘cutting its bone from its joint.’ An improbable task if ever there was one. The art to create them had been lost, but the fear of them remained.

Soren just barely managed to leap out of the way of its sharp claws – likely that of a bear or dire wolf from the looks of it – before drawing his blade. He set his lantern on the ground to give him light while he dodged around the beast he now faced.

The legends behind the creature had never described their speed. This one moved with an almost supernatural speed – though time seemed to slow in the moments before it hit him as the necklace that hung around Soren’s neck glowed. He swung at the monstrosity again and again, knocking its bones to the floor only for its bones to roll their way across the floor and back to its body.

Then, he felt a sharp nip and heard a whisper in his ear – a whisper mixed with the hissing of a snake, spoken in a tongue which Soren heard only once before. On the day Ishmere died.

The old captain had shouted at the dragon and the dragon shouted back. Soren hadn’t understood a word at the time. But he understand exactly what was being spoken now, even if he couldn’t put it into words.

He returned the sword to its sheath and took the charm of Imya in his hand, slipping the necklace over his head. He waited for wight to lunge at him one last time before stepping, just enough to dodge its claws, and pressing the icon into its forehead. The symbol glowed – shone – as if the sun was there in the room with them. It burned into Soren’s hand as the Wight let out a foul shriek, the darkness in its eyes turned to light.

From its eyes outward, the thing turned to dust and fell to the floor. Then, another wind that smelled like foul breath swept through the room, taking the dust up and out of the temple.

Soren hoped – prayed – the danger was over as he returned the necklace to its proper place. His hand was now branded with the symbol of Imya.

Then, the noise began. A rattle that filled him with dread as the snake on his shoulder cowered. He looked around to find the source, determining it must have come from the door ahead. As he searched, he also noticed something else that was peculiar. He could read the writing on the wall.

As it slithers, so it lie
Its skin shall never let it die
And that upon which back it shake
Only then its will you break

Soren took in a nervous gulp as he waited. One snake, not quite so large as the statue outside, but certainly large enough to swallow a man whole slithered into the room. Followed by another. Followed by another dozen or two. They slithered toward Soren cautiously as he cautiously backed away. A few snapped and hissed as they drew ever closer. It sounded as if they were speaking, though there were too many voices at once to discern any sort of meaning.

Then, Soren remembered the instrument. As he reached into his bag and began pulling it out, one of the snakes leapt at him, narrowly missing his face. He quickly brought it to his mouth and blew. Immediately, the snakes calmed. He stopped playing as he took a breath and the snakes became hostile again.

He continued playing and, as they became docile, he hatched a plan.

He grabbed the snake that had leapt behind him and tossed it near the rest. He swept them all up around each other and took one of Otto’s fireballs into his hand. Then, the whisper in his ear spoke again.

He returned the fireball to its pouch and stopped playing.

“Why do you attack me?”

The snakes hostility remained, though they became less aggressive.

The snake that first entered the room reared up, bringing its face as close to Soren’s as possible before speaking in Shelezar.

“It is because you seek to destroy us.”

Soren furrowed his brow. “How so?”

“You seek to wake the Dreamer?”

“I suppose.”

“Then you seek the destruction of all we know.”

Soren glanced to the snake on his shoulder, still eyeing him curiously.

“Why does waking the Dreamer spell the destruction of everything?”

The snake returned to the ground and slithered further into the temple, the rest of the snakes in tow – save for the one on Soren’s shoulder.

Soren picked up his lantern and followed.

The door lead to a hall. Lining the walls were murals, displaying fighting and wars. Acts of violence, between the beings depicted in the entry hall’s statues and beasts of the earth – snakes, birds, wolves, spiders, bats, and many more.

At the end of the hall was a wall. It was cracked in various places. Soren stepped up to it and ran his hand along the edge. There was a seam with the wall. When he turned around, the group of larger snakes that had led him into the hall were gone. The only snake that remained with him was the one that sat on his shoulder.

He drew his sword and tapped the pommel on the wall. It was hollow on the other side. He pulled a fireball from the pouch once more and took the lighter into his hand. After the fuse was lit, he set it at the base of the wall and ran. As he made it halfway to the entryway it exploded. When he turned around, the weak wall had been replaced with a doorway.

He stepped through the door to a chamber even larger than the entryway, with a vaulted ceiling, and walls covered in more murals and more faded inscriptions. And in the center was a snake, even larger than the statue outside, curled up and sleeping. Hopefully

Soren took a few steps into the room when he heard a voice sound from it.

“You dare to enter my domain?” The snake hadn’t moved.

Soren stopped in his tracks and stared at the snake. When he heard nothing more, he began walking again. Soon, he was interrupted.

“You dare to break my door down, that the inventor so kindly made for me? You dare to attempt to murder my children?”

Soren slowed his breathing as much as he could as the snake’s eyes opened.

It slithered in a circle, raising its head high in the air and extending its hood.

“Why are you here, you son of Man?”

Soren placed his hand on the hilt of his sword as he answered, “I search for the Dreamer. I have been told by my captain to find him.”

“And who might your captain be?”

“A man named Delmore,” Soren replied, tightening his grip on the sword.

“And who told your captain to command you as such?”

“The Watcher, Imya.”

“I see.” The snake flicked its tongue, tasting the air. “The Watcher is no friend of the Dreamer. But the Watcher is also no friend of Naga!”

At that, the snake lurched forward.

Soren leapt out of the way, pulling his sword from the sheath and swinging at the snake. The blade contacted its scales, deflecting off with a spark, as Soren fell onto his side.

The snake turned and coiled up again, preparing for another jump and bearing its fangs – dripping with venom.

Soren jumped to his feet and waited for the snake to lunge again. As it came close he swung his sword, catching it right in the corner of its mouth and knocking its head to the side. It was uncut – like Soren had just hit it with a large club.

Soren began darting around it, hitting it wherever he could, to no avail. He leapt and dove around it, sometimes forced to jump over its body to get out of the way of its strike. No matter how many times he hit it, the blade always bounced off. Then its rattle sounded.

The sound echoed in Soren’s ears as he recalled the writing on the wall. And that upon which back it shake/Only then its will you break.

“The rattle,” Soren muttered under his breath as the snake coiled itself into a circle once more.

The snake seemed to notice his eyes focus on its rattle as it brought its tail around behind it. He would have to get past its head.

He returned his sword to his sheath and unfastened his belt, dropping it on the floor. He took the satchel from his shoulder as well. He would need to move fast and unhindered. The snake on his shoulder slithered off, resting on his things.

The giant snake waited.

The only thing he left on him was his clothes, and the knife strapped to his leg.

He ran, as quickly as he could, his eyes on his goal.

The snake launched forward, straight at his torso.

Just before the snake caught him in its jaws, Soren dropped to the ground. He slid, right under the snake’s head, and took the knife in his hand.

He jumped up, and clambered up the snake’s uncoiling body – jumped for the rattle, and sunk the dagger into it. It met some resistance at first, but the moment the bone-like substance was pierced, it gave way.

Soren tumbled to the ground as the giant snake let out a loud shriek, writhing on the ground. Then, it froze.

Soren stood as the snake, its head in the air, mouth wide-open as it stared at the ceiling, began to darken. It was like it was being burned from the inside, changing to charcoal, then ash. It crumbled into a massive pile on the floor. One final time, a wind swept through the room, this time smelling of a sweet Spring breeze. Its ashes were carried out the door, leaving an odd trinket behind.

A small, red crystal, encased in a golden amulet without a chain. He picked it up and put it in the pocket on his breeches before gathering up his things and standing before the grand mural that decorated the far wall of the room.

It showed a massive battle, not unlike those in the hallway. But this one showed, instead of the creatures that were shown in the battle outside, twisted shadows, like a pale imitation of nature. And there were many giants, not just the one-eyed, horned ones.

An inscription was carved into the wall below it, fragmented by the wear of time. It was the language of the writing before, and Soren understood it just as well.

In days dark, shadow ruled, untested
When good never woke and evil never rested
Man suffered much, by they that enslave
And found their comfort in only the grave
Then giants arose from rock and stone
And took the shadows from their throne
They freed our people, our cage asunder
And sent the shadows deep down under
So now the mighty Dreamer sleeps
Atop the mountain, Slumberkeep

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 2: The Man in the Library

Soren attempts to leave the island, before being stopped by mysterious circumstances. Then he heads to the library to try to find a way to finish his crew’s last job.

After spending several days looking through the wreckage, trying to find some special cargo that stood out, Soren found nothing. Not one thing that didn’t seem any more extraordinary than what they would usually be carrying. Regardless, he gathered up whatever supplies he could and moved it to the village, storing anything he thought could be useful in the small shed on Aryia’s property and selling the rest to a local merchant in the village, Otto.

Otto was a peculiar man. A Shelezar, like Soren, with a bald spot atop his head that shone brightly, well-kept hair on the sides of his head, and a scraggly beard that would have most certainly matched Delmore’s hair far more than his own beard. His eyes were a muddy brown and he had a hooked nose that looked more like it belonged on a bird than a man, and spectacles sat on top of it – a sort of elven witchcraft that gave sight to the blind. Though, Otto claimed they were no such thing; “Not witchcraft, but invention. They bend the light such that it enters the eyes right, so that things do not blur.” Soren knew better than to believe such nonsense.

No matter, he made a good deal of money selling what he could, which he decided to pocket in case it would be useful for him later on. He spent the next while healing as he helped Aryia tend to her garden and fixed the fence every few days. During that time, he also met some of the townsfolk – namely the ones that Aryia provided food to.

Perhaps the most interesting was a family of two Shelezars who had five children on the island already with another on the way. They, like Soren, had been caught in a terrible storm and thought themselves dead, but somehow survived, washed up on the shore. The next part of their story, Soren found particularly hard to believe.

You see, when they awoke on the shore, a raven landed in the sand beside them. Then it spoke, telling them that they would be stranded there forever, but that there was a man by the name of Otto up a path that led away from the beach. At that time, there were few people who lived on the island, many of which had died or otherwise disappeared by the time Soren arrived. Thus, the married pair were of the longest to live on the island. But as time passed, their appearances had changed little.

When they’d first been marooned on the island, they were in their early twenties, having just been married in the church of Alesia, and were going on a voyage to celebrate down in Mikron when they were caught in the storm. Their eldest son was now nearly a man, and yet, they still appeared to be in their early twenties.

It seemed to Soren that anyone on the island not born there never aged at all.

Two weeks after resolving to complete his crew’s shipment, he all but abandoned the endeavor, determining by reason that Tyrell had simply not been in the miraculous wave that seemed to carry the rest of the crew ashore, and that the cargo itself had perhaps been stolen by whatever god summoned the storm. Instead, he spent the latter two weeks helping Aryia with her garden in the morning and building a raft on the beach in the afternoon.

Almost exactly a month after being stranded on the island, his raft was complete, and he made his way back to town as the sun began to set.

He ducked into Aryia’s hovel, where she was cooking soup over the fire. “I’ve completed the raft.”

“Oh?”

“I’m planning to leave tomorrow.” He grabbed two bowls and spoons from a shelf and set them on the table, along with cloth napkins for each of them. “You’re welcome to come with me.”

Aryia seemed to ignore him as she stirred the soup a few more times before tasting it. “Soup’s done.”

“If you don’t want me to leave, you can just come with me.”

“Everyone who’s attempted to leave has died,” Aryia replied, keeping her attention on the bowls she was serving soup into, “washed up on the shore, just like the rest of your crew.”

“Well, I survived that once. If – if I fail, I suppose I’ll survive it again.”

Aryia would usually wait until he finished praying to begin eating. Tonight, she gave no such respect.

After praying, Soren continued, “Will you be there to see me off at least?”

Aryia shook her head as she stared into his eyes. “I will not watch you go to your death.”

Soren shook his head as they continued eating.

***

The rest of the night was uneventful and the two went to bed without a word. Soren woke before the sun the next morning, anxious to sail away. He would be the first to be able to chart the island on a map. If only he could see the stars from the island – the sky was always too cloudy.

No matter, he made his way to the shore as the light of the sun began to shine over the horizon. By the time he’d reached the shore, a slight sliver could be seen. He moved the raft closer to the water and waited. He imagined what his return could be like.

Many ships that sailed in the Sea of Stones would break due to its namesake. Many of them, maiden voyages or ships that were in desperate need for repair. But the Imya’s Retribution was a ship of great renown. Its crew was experienced and its parts in good repair. That such a ship would go down and have a single survivor would gain Soren great fame. Or infamy. Regardless, he needed to get back, so that no one would crash on the island again.

As the first half of the sun came into full view, Soren got up from where he sat and pushed the raft out to sea. He began to row until the current began to pull the raft away from shore. He went for what felt like an hour – a very slow hour. The weather, despite the clouds above, was calm. Not a bit of rain in sight. He turned to see the island behind him, far in the distance, when, suddenly, it vanished.

Everything was dark, save for a faint light from the symbol he wore on his neck, which now burned his chest. He was submerged in water. It was cold – almost freezing – as a fish brushed his side before he felt something lightly bite his leg.

The salt burned his eyes as he thrashed, trying to fight off whatever was biting him as it continued to tear into his legs. He tasted his own blood in the water as his consciousness faded. He knew he was dying.

As he clenched his teeth and pushed through the pain, he tried to swim back the way he came from. It was a struggle, but, eventually, the sunlight over the island came into view as his vision faded.

***

He awoke on the beach. It was night and he was positioned to stare at a fire as the salt of the ocean burned the wounds on his leg, which were tightly bandaged.

A familiar captain sat at the fire beside him, a cloth cap covering his hair, with a neatly trimmed beard covering his rough face. His mismatched eyes stared into the blaze.

“Don’t do that again,” the man, who was the spitting image of captain Delmore, said.

Soren tried to sit up, but the pain in his leg pinned him to the ground. “You’re dead. I held your funeral.”

“That you did.” The captain looked to where the funeral pyre had been built. “Which is why you shouldn’t try that again. I can’t save you a second time. As my soul fades from this world, so too does the power that the unnamed god has offered me.”

“What am I to do, then? What is this place?”

The captain looked around him. “This is the Isle of the Dreamer. A cage of sorts.”

“How do I leave?”

The captain chuckled. “So many questions. You always were the curious sort.” He looked up to the starless sky. “The short answer is, you can’t. Not without losing everything you hold dear – not that it hasn’t already been taken from you.”

“So, what, I just live here forever?”

“You do as you promised – fulfill the last mission of Imya’s Retribution. A mission which would not require leaving this island. Under Imya’s direction, I supplied you with all that you would need from the outside world. This task is one that is millennia in the making.”

“So, what? I’m destined for this? Born for this?”

“You chose this path, Soren. You demanded the notice, not only of Imya, but also of the unnamed god. When you chose to reject the life fate handed to you, that is when you were added to the plan. When you were chosen to be their champion. And the task still remains up to you.”

Soren let out a huff as he turned to lay on his back. “What is this ‘mission?'”

“The gods have not permitted me to tell you.”

Soren slammed his fist into the sand, screaming curses to the starless sky. What sort of employer doesn’t tell it’s employee what they are hired to do?

“But, know this: you will know your mission when the time comes that you should complete it. Your first step is to find the Dreamer. There is a man in town – an academic. He may have a way forward.”

Soren let out a sigh as he closed his eyes. The crackle of the fire and the orange light that pierced his eyelids faded.

When he looked again, his captain was gone, and no sign of the fire remained.

***

Unable to stand, Soren slept on the sand. He awoke in the morning to the water lapping at his feet, and a raven watching him.

“You going to talk?” he asked, staring into the bird’s black eyes.

The raven craned its head before flying away.

“Guess not.”

Soren sat up, no longer racked with pain from whatever sea creature was attempting to eat him. A young girl sat on a log nearby.

“Do you normally talk to birds, sir?”

Soren gave the girl a blank stare as he stood. It would probably be best if he stayed off his leg as much as possible for a while.”Do you normally watch strange men sleep?”

The girl stood up and started following him. “No, only when I think they might die soon. Figure if they’re dead, they won’t miss what’s in their pockets. Aryia’ll be glad you’re still alive, though.”

Soren gave a cynical smirk. “Sure she will. And what have I told you about calling me sir?”

“I’ve called grown men ‘sir’ for the last twenty years of my life, sir. Don’t think that’ll change much soon.” The girl was named Maya. She’d been stranded on the island for the last ten years, when she was being transported to Felshra by a group of slavers – she was the only surviving cargo, and after a couple nights of careful planning and execution, she came to be the last living person from the ship.

She was a Birik, with pale skin, wavy, black hair, and a tiny little nose. Her ears almost looked a bit pointed, making Soren wonder if she had an elven father, but he reasoned it would have been impolite to ask. She always wore the same traditional garb of her people – a thick robe, one side overlapping the other, fastened with a wide belt that covered her mid section. It’d been taken from her by the slavers, but when they all mysteriously died in the night, it came to be back in her possession.

As they approached town, they first passed by the lodge of ‘the madam.’ Her name was Leondrea, but she refused to answer to anyone who didn’t refer to her with the aforementioned title. She was a Shelezar noble who crashed in the same ship that the honeymooning couple were on – she was on her way to a hunting trip in the southern continent.

As they drew near to the lodge, a growl emanated from the large shed that sat beside it, before a wolf, whose shoulders reached the top of Soren’s head, charged out, stopped only by the anchor chain that connected somewhere inside its shed. Its tail flailed wildly as it barked ferociously at the pair.

“Do you know any academics in town?” Soren asked as Maya blew a raspberry at the madam’s mutt.

Maya shrugged, smiling, as she focused back on the path ahead. “I’m surprised you haven’t met everyone in town yet.”

“Well, I didn’t plan on staying here too long, but plans have changed.”

“Well, there’s Otto, of course, the inventor. There’s also Arakim, I suppose – he’s usually at the library.”

Soren chuckled. He’d never expect a library to be built among such a crude village as Ortus. “Sometimes I forget just what kind of people end up on this island – and the sorts of things they feel the need to add.”

The two made their way to the library. It was a single room, not much larger than Aryia’s hovel, but it was chock full of bookshelves, most of which had no empty space. A good portion of the books there were written or copied from memory by one man – Arakim.

As they entered, a Mikri sat at a table in the center of the shack, writing yet another book. He had the dark skin that was an intrinsic quality of the southern continent, along with very curly, black hair that grew out into a ball-shape that sat on his head. His hands were covered in ink and he held a quill, which he pinned into his hair as the pair entered. He stroked his hand through his full beard, which likely would have become the color of his ink if it wasn’t already.

He spoke with a smooth and collected voice, reclining in his chair. “What can I do for ya?”

Soren sat on the other side of his table. “I’m looking for the Dreamer.”

“Hmmm.” Arakim stared down at the pages he’d just been writing on, waiting for the ink to dry. After a moment, he blew on the pages before closing the book when the ink didn’t budge. “The Dreamer. Haven’t heard too much about that one. Rumors – here and there.”

Maya began looking at the spines of the books on the bookshelf, reading their titles under her breath.

“Tell me what you know.”

Arakim pursed his lips as he looked over to the bookshelf Maya was looking at. He drew in a deep breath before standing up and looking through the books himself, tracing his finger along the spines before stopping on one. He tapped it a few times before pulling the book out and strolled back to the table, placing the book and opening it carefully.

He turned through a few pages before stopping, studying the page and exclaiming, “Ah!”

He turned the book to face toward Soren and pushed it forward, tapping his finger on the page. Specifically, a line that read, “The inscription is of a dialect of Giant, though not one I strictly recognize. From what I understand, it reads, ‘… So now the mighty Dreamer (one who imagines?) slumbers/Atop the mountain, slumber keeps.’ It should be noted that no distinction is made in Giant between plural and singularly linked verbs, nor is there any distinction between upper and lower case lettering, so I wonder if it is the mountain which keeps him slumbering or perhaps a mountain named ‘Slumber Keep’ upon which he sleeps.”

Soren sighed as he pushed the book back toward Arakim. “So, what? The Dreamer’s sleeping on a mountain?”

Arakim shrugged. “Or the mountain is keeping him asleep. Perhaps the mountain in the middle of the island need be destroyed for him to wake.” He carefully closed the book before making his way back to the shelf and returning the book to its proper place.

Soren wondered if he could make better sense of the inscription should he see it himself. “Where was this temple?”

Arakim sat back down in his previous seat, once again lounging in his chair as he pursed his lips. “Tell me” – he paused as he held out his hand, waiting for Soren’s name – “Soren, how much Giant do you know?”

“Enough.”

Arakim squinted before spouting off sounds that might have been words, mainly made of grunts, clicks, and vague growls.

Soren raised a brow.

“I know every Giant dialect nearly as well as I know the language I speak to you now.” (They were speaking to each other in Shelezar, which Soren could tell by Arakim’s accent and occasional pause in speech was not his native language.) “I could gain no further insight from this inscription, what makes you think you can do any better?”

Soren sighed. “I just want to take a look for myself. Were there any murals or anything in the temple that may offer insight?”

Arakim squinted at Soren once again before standing from his chair and making his way to another bookshelf. He scanned his way through the shelf until he found a set of three books, all with the same title: The Most Complete Atlas of this Forsaken Island. “I believe so,” he said, slowly flipping through the pages as he returned to his seat. “I didn’t particularly see the temple as important at the time – simply a place of worship of dead gods – but it could be that you could find such insights.” Arakim chewed on his cheek as he slid the book across the table to Soren. “The way to the temple is described in this book, I suspect you should find it otherwise useful – I will require payment in the future for the supplies with which to make another copy, of course. Regardless, I would advise against going to the temple without preparations. It’s a truly treacherous place.”

“I can look after myself,” Soren said as he stood, Maya returning to his side. Soren took the book in his hand before the pair made their way out the door.

Creating Kithria: Freedom of Creativity

Xavier explores the process of creating a world, Kithria, and addresses the issue of assuming inclusion or exclusion in fantasy tropes.

World building is a long and arduous process. Depending on how its gone about and how much detail is desired, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few decades. I started world building as a hobby when I was around 10 years old.

I was sitting around, in Junior High, with my rudimentary understanding of how the world works, and thought, “Hey, maybe I can make my own world.” And that was when my creation of The Void Jumper’s Continuum began (as described here). Since then, I have experienced multiple renditions and restructures of the VJC, and attempted creating many more worlds alongside it – mainly to use in tabletop roleplaying.

VJC was much easier than any other world I have tried to create, of course, on account of I have had to do very little other than take our own real world, take aspects of various mythologies around the world, make a few twists and turns here and there, add my own unique pieces (such as the Zedekiah, which I may explain in a different post), and call it my own. Making those other worlds was much more difficult.

My most recent rendition of this would be the world of Kithria, the setting for both my web novel, Isle of the Dreamer, and the default setting intended for Lady Luck’s Chosen Few. Kithria itself began as a world I created for D&D to be used in the web-series D&DE (RIP). I created it as best I could to incorporate the standard D&D races and monsters into its lore and history, and to have as unique of cultures as possible while sticking to that. In that state, I was pretty happy with it. But then I came up with the idea for Lady Luck’s Chosen Few.

I wrote up a few basic rules, got some groundwork laid, and then it just kind of sat there. It was probably in a working state at that point (at least as much as it is now), with one exception. You see, LLCF is designed to be played as a story, not as a game. To simply plop characters down in Fantasy Land and go at it didn’t seem practical in my mind, but at the same time I had no world to really use. Every world I had made in the past was for a system intended for high-fantasy: Pathfinder, D&D, Open Legend, etc. While they certainly could have been used for Mid to Low Fantasy, that wasn’t the purpose of the system and anytime I tried, it simply went off the rails when my players all decided to be magic-users.

Then, D&DE got cancelled – it was a disappointing process as I watched delay after delay come about, extending it further and further. It was only when I gave up on that project, however, that I finally gained some direction with LLCF. You see, my issue there was that I felt I had to start from scratch. I had to build my own low-fantasy world from the ground up, something I had tried to do a million times before, but always seemed to fail at for the aforementioned reasons. Now, I had a chance. And what better way to do it than with the world I just created. The world that was originally designed to be low-fantasy, made with the pressure of being in public domain, subject to the scrutiny of, like, 10 people (but possibly the entire internet)?

Now, it should be important to at least give a brief overview of Kithria’s original creation. I’m going to skip the original brainstorming, though, and go straight to the point where D&DE started becoming a reality. At that point, there were four human races (five if you include orks), three elven races, and two dwarven races. At that point, I had little intention to include any more races, trying to limit it. On top of that, my original intention was that magic would be rare. That was the plan. But, best-laid plans. Players threw fits and I felt a need to include more. I added, for that reason as well as others, two races of halfling, three of gnome, all the goblinoids, an additional elven race, half-orks, half-elves, the Touched (my own spin on Tieflings), dragonborn (as a human race in the lore), and kobolds.

Most of it, I was content with, but the only added part I was particularly happy with were the gnomes (who had been given reason to their pranking antics and were perhaps the most horrifying creature in the world – I say were because, when I created the LLCF version, I also added the Haklos, an original race of mine that is wholly alien).

All I had to do to create the world I wanted for LLCF was gut the world, getting rid of everything that didn’t have a reason. For once, I didn’t feel obligated to include things because they were part of the default. I didn’t feel like I needed to include certain things and omitting them had to have a specific reason. I felt I could work from the opposite direction: only including things because I had a specific reason. And because I felt I could omit things, I felt my world-building benefited.

No longer did I feel bound to include standard fantasy races, and I felt like those that I did include, I could do what I wanted with. I removed goblinoids, dwarves, halflings, dragonborn, and kobolds entirely; I made my elves a bit more mysterious and a lot more powerful – and a lot less numerous; and I made humans a far more diverse race, with 8 different human ethnicities (9 if you include orks) rather than the original 4 human races (6 if you included the orks and the Touched). For those who aren’t certain of the difference, I am assigning the terms as follows (using real-world examples): race would refer to European, Asian, African, or American; ethnicity would refer to German, English, Spanish, Italian, etc.

As well, I felt the freedom to completely change the geography of the world – something I did incorrectly when I made Kithria before – to be more fitting for these 8 different human ethnicities. Each ethnicity, you see, comes from a different region of the world; originally, each human race was tied to a different continent.

This resulted in another major change: Kithria went from the name of world at large (four continents closely connected together), to the name of the continent, with multiple regions (in a similar vain of the Roman provinces). Kithria went from the four continents of Kapfas, Shelez, Gelth, and Mikron to two continents: Kithria and ‘the Southern Continent’. The former is now made up of 7 regions: the cold highlands of Kapfas, the mountainous lowlands of Barush, the river-crossed Felseth, the forested lands of Gelth, the desert basin of Imin, the lush plains of Biria, and the rocky plains of Shelez; and the latter is made up of one charted region on its northern edge, facing Kithria: Mikron, a region full of lush rainforests and foreboding wildlife.

From these unique regions came unique cultures, shaped by the geographical features of their places of origin. However, I believe I have gone a little off-track, so I’m going end this post here – but my process of creating cultures is where I’ll pick up next time I talk about world building.

Just remember: don’t let the norms of world-building and fantasy limit what you create, or force you to create things that you don’t want to in the first place. Start your world-building not by asking yourself what to omit, but instead by asking yourself what to include. By limiting your options, your world-building will be much better as a result.

So, I guess that’s the main takeaway: sometimes bounds can be limiting, but they can also be more freeing than having none at all.

Planners vs. Pantsers

A little blurb about the writing process, some info on Devilspawn, and a hint of life advice mixed in.

A common divide in the writing community is that of Planners and Pantsers. For those who are unaware what this divide is, the former is as their name suggests. They plan their story, outlining, creating all the major characters beforehand, and knowing, from the beginning, exactly what the story is about. Ultimately, things will change – perhaps things don’t go exactly as they expected, or they noticed plotholes that weren’t evident in their initial plan.

Pantsers, on the other hand, do the exact opposite. Their name is in reference to writing ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They do little to plan beforehand, simply starting to write and seeing where the story takes them. They create settings and characters as they emerge, often having a vague idea of where they’re going with things, but with no clear path to get there.

The divide between these two is most evident in that each often finds their own methodology superior. Planners will give new writers the advice to outline and plan everything beforehand. This will often result in a very hardlined story and the finished product will look very much like the first draft. Pansters will give new writers the advice to let the ideas flow through them – let themselves have a trash (or other, less savory, words, if they prefer) first draft. Then, write the second draft in such a way that it seems you knew exactly what you were doing the whole time – much like a Planner first draft. So, ultimately, it would seem, they end up at the same point, just with a different methodology to get there – a methodology dependent on the personality and thought processes of the author.

This can also be compared to the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI – a popular personality assessment) dichotomy of J and P (Judging and Perceiving, respectively). J’s, within the MBTI, are those who dutifully plan, creating schedules and itineraries, while P’s are those who tend to be more laid back about planning – they still plan, but, for those who strongly lean to the P side, every plan is penciled in; nothing is set in stone. It is known, among those who properly hold to the MBTI, that being strongly one way or the other is unhealthy, and, should someone strongly lean one or the other, they should practice moving more toward center, living in a more moderate manner. As stated by Aristotle (and, to a degree, Solomon before him and Paul after), the key to living a good life is moderation.

The same could easily be said of Planning and Pantsing. To lean more toward one side or the other will not result in an opportune story. Planning everything beforehand – having an outline, with specific characters, settings, and whatnot – disregards the minute, yet important, details that, on the surface, have little impact on the story, but can, in the end, inspire fantastic subplots or twists the author never would have thought of otherwise.

On the other hand, pantsing everything – writing with a vague direction – will result in unfinished stories, with a shoehorned ending that attempts tying up every plot thread in a neat little bow while leaving plenty of frayed ends and holes in the finished product that can be difficult to fix with new drafts without scrapping or adding entire chunks of a story.

I have, of course, seen ups and downs with both these methods in my own writing. My beta readers’ favorite characters (one of which ultimately became the actual main character in Devilspawn: Tara) wouldn’t have existed had I planned everything beforehand. As well, any time I try to plan something, I forget those small important details in the planning that are so important to the story itself. But, when I plan little, I find an issue with knowing where I’m going. With Devilspawn, I got to nearly 70,000 words in the first draft with no end in sight. I did as I previously described and shoehorned in an ending that was satisfactory to my beta readers of the time, but felt lackluster to myself. It felt like it was the ending of an entirely new book as I introduced new plot threads by tying them up. Ultimately, this is what led me to write Devilspawn as one novel in two books – the first book is what was the first two-thirds of the first draft, with more details and shorter, though more frequent, time jumps, made to be longer than the entirety of the first draft (the original first draft was around 85,000 words while the ‘first draft’ of Book I is over 90,000), and ultimately tying up the two main plot threads: Agathon’s search for his brother and his loved ones’ reaction to his disappearance. The second book will take on a couple subplots from the first book as main plots to round out the narrative itself.

As well, I’m much better at making up characters as I write than making them up beforehand. My original plan for Agathon and Sarah (a supporting character who was originally planned to take much more of a front-line role, similar to Tara) was hot garbage; both characters, and the ones I made up while writing (because when I was making the Satanists because my brain went ‘yes, 7, that’s a good number’ – should you read the book, you’ll notice I removed one as he turned out to be underutilized and didn’t serve a strong narrative purpose) turned out to be much better than the ones I prepared beforehand. I believe this to be the result of the fact that I was creating the lore for characters, rather than actually making character’s as described by Matthew Colville in his video on Lore vs Writing.

But I digress.

On the nature of Planners vs. Pantsers, I propose this: do both. If you are good at planning things out beforehand, do that – but not too much. Maybe plan a few chapters ahead as you’re writing (this is what I’m doing with Isle of the Dreamer, though the actual second chapter was never outlined at all and the outlined second chapter will be the actual third chapter). If you aren’t too good at planning things ahead (like me, see the paragraph above), write chapter by chapter, asking yourself at the end of each if you’re moving toward the end of your novel (if your novel is the sort which has a main plot). In both, remember to keep the end in mind.

So I suppose the two main takeaways can be found in the Bible: do everything in moderation, and keep the end in mind.

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 1: The Girl on the Shore

Soren awakens after a terrible storm and sets out to find out what happened to the rest of his crew.

Soren tossed and turned; as he slept nightmares haunted him. He dreamt of the great waves which rocked his ship, the lightning that struck the water all around him. His mates’ cries for help. He cried their names, but they didn’t seem to hear him. As a bolt of lightning struck the mast of his ship, he awoke with a start.

The light of a crackling fire lit the room. It was dim, but it was enough that he could see what was just in front of him. A face stared down at him as he attempted to get his bearings.

The face was beautiful and belonged to a woman, a northerner by the looks of it. What she would be doing so far south as the Sea of Stones, he was uncertain. Curly red hair, like autumn leaves, framed her pale face – dotted with freckles. Between her emerald eyes was a small button nose, with pencil thin lips and a rounded jaw. She wore a ragged burlap dress, which hung low on her chest; Soren found that enjoyable, though it certainly would have been better if she had more to show off.

“You’re awake!” she cried as he sat up on the straw mattress, a toothy grin spreading across her face. Her teeth were certainly in much better condition than most of the tavern wenches Soren knew in Ingaard.

His ribs were certainly bruised, and his arm didn’t feel too good either – lucky it wasn’t his sword arm, in case the woman sitting over him wasn’t as friendly as she appeared. Not that he had a sword with him. He’d stored his below deck when he went to man the crow’s nest. The charm that captain Delmore gave him still clung to his neck, cold on his chest.

He was in a small hovel, made up of a single floor where he could see a dining table opposite the hearth from the bed where he lay. Another bed sat a few feet away, currently unoccupied, and a chair had clearly been stolen from the table for the woman watching him to sit in.

“I found you on the shore nearly three days ago,” she said, frowning slightly, “you’ve been asleep ever since – though you’ve certainly been active, what with your tossing and turning and calling out names in your sleep: Delmore, Tyrell, Ambrigon, …”

“My mates,” Soren interrupted as he groaned. Perhaps his rib was a bit more than bruised.

The woman reclaimed her beaming face as he spoke.

“We were caught in a storm.” Soren rubbed his forehead, another thing to add to his list of pains. “Last I remember, I was thrown from the crow’s nest when lightning struck the mast. Then everything went black.”

She frowned once again as her face downcast. “There was a wreckage on the shore where I found you, and bodies scattered on the beach. You were the only one still breathing.”

Soren quickly put his fist to his mouth, biting down on his thumb knuckle – a habit Tyrell tried hard and in vain to break him of. “So, no one else survived.”

The woman shook her head. “I’m sorry. But you’re certainly welcome to go down to the shore and check for yourself – or at least bury your friends.”

Soren nodded as he shifted, placing his back to the wall so that he no longer had to hold himself up. “The name’s Soren, by the way.”

“Aryia.”

Soren chuckled. “A Shelezar name for a Kapfian beauty – a perversion if ever there was one.”

Aryia pouted. “It was a name given to me by the people of the town. I’m told it means ‘song.'”

Soren smiled wider, baring his yellowed teeth – one of many ugly parts of him, at least in his mind. “You are not the perversion here, Aryia, but to assign a name from such an ugly culture to a beauty such as yourself.”

Aryia craned her head to the side. “Are you not Shelezar?”

Soren’s smile became uncomfortable. “That I am.” His appearance was as Shelezar as could be: lightly curled brown hair, like a mop soaked in mud placed atop his head, skin that was too dark to turn his blemishes to beauty marks but too light to hide them, and a pointed nose and jaw. The only part of himself he liked were his eyes – a beautifully dark brown, like rich chocolate.

“Tell me, where are we?”

Aryia took on a curious smile. “How do you mean?”

“What land, what kingdom, village, town, city, whatever?”

“Well, I suppose we’re in Ortus.”

Soren drooped his brows. “We’re in a place called ‘sunrise?'”

Aryia shrugged. “I suppose so.”

“Alright, well, which region are we in? Shelez? Mikron?” He paused for a moment. “Felsheth?”

Aryia furrowed her brow in confusion as she shifted in her seat. “I’m not familiar.”

Soren squinted at her. “You’re not familiar with your own land?”

“Ortus and Zapad are all I know – they are the only villages on this island. Well, only human villages, I suppose.”

Soren bit his thumb knuckle again before swinging his legs out from under his covers to sit upright on the bed, facing her. He worried for a moment as it seemed she’d undressed the rest of him – a normal thing when you find a drenched man, he supposed – but was relieved upon realizing she’d left him his drawers, and, with them, his dignity. It was then he noticed his tunic, breeches, and boots drying by the fire, with his cuirass lying on the ground next to them.

He let out a sigh as he stood up and started wandering the room, limping due to pain in his knee. He fidgeted with the herbs and meats that hung from the rafters and scanned the house once more. “Why is it you have two beds? Does someone else live here with you?”

Aryia bit her lip as she stared at the fireplace. “No, it’s only me.” She rested her arms on the back of her chair as she leaned against it. “My mother died when I was a babe, and my father disappeared almost a year ago on a hunt in the forest to the west. They say orks got him – or worse. So now I just live here. Me and my garden outside, keeping me well-fed enough, I suppose. Speaking of food, would you like something to eat? I’ve been making a little extra soup each day since I found you, hoping you would wake up, and I’ve mainly been feeding it to the mutt each morning. But I’ve still got some if you’d like – a bit cold, mind you – and I can’t imagine you aren’t hungry.”

Soren ran his hand over the top of one of the two chairs that still sat at the dining table before smiling at her. “That I am.”

She grabbed the pot, which sat in the corner of the small house, and lugged it over to the table before filling two bowls with soup. It seemed she had certainly made far more than enough for two people. She happily sat down and started bringing a spoonful of soup to her mouth when Soren’s calloused hand touched her arm.

“Do you not bless your food before you eat it?”

Aryia shrugged. “Why would I?”

Soren squinted at her as he craned his head a bit before answering with a bit of a stammer. “To appease the gods, that they would let it nourish you.”

Aryia shrugged once again. “It nourishes me just fine.”

Soren smiled softly as he pulled his hand away. “Humor me.”

Aryia dropped her spoon in her bowl as she watched Soren close his eyes, bow his head, and put his hands, palm-up, on the table.

“Oh, great Tyrus, may you bless this bounty, that the subsequent crop may be plenty. Oh, great Imya, may you bless this cook, that she may be protected by your watchful eye. Oh, great Golaan, may you bless this food, that it would nourish us and give us strength for tomorrow. So let it be said, so let it be done. Gods be praised.”

Soren nodded before lifting his head to see Aryia watching him curiously.

“Do you know nothing of the world? Nothing of the lands, nothing of the gods? Nothing at all?”

Aryia shrugged as she quickly put a spoon of soup in her mouth.

Soren shook his head as he did the same, muttering before each bite entered his mouth.
“What are you doing?”

Soren looked up from his bowl. “If blessing a whole meal is beneficial, how much more must be blessing each bite?”

Aryia stared at him in bewilderment before shaking her head and continuing to eat her soup as fast as she could.

“What’s in this anyway?” Soren asked as he chewed.

“Vegetables and spices from my garden and pigeon from Madam Leondrea’s most recent hunt.”

“It’s very good.”

“Why, thank you.”

The two sat in silence, save for Soren continuing to pray over his food, before Aryia interrupted one of his prayers.

“So, where are you from? Or, rather, I suppose, what are you from?”

Soren paused and set his spoon in his bowl. “How do you mean?”

“Well,” Aryia began, “father always said that many people ask where a man is from, but all too few ask what he is from. What has happened in his life to lead him to where he is.”

“Ah.” Soren nodded as he wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin Aryia had placed next to his bowl. “Well, I suppose I came from a good childhood. My parents were nobles, I was of noble birth, born with mountains of coin to my name. But it wasn’t for me.

“As I grew, I watched as the other nobles around me became more greedy as their pockets became more filled with gold. There came a time where I had a choice – go down the path they were on, or find my own.” Soren nodded. “I decided to find my own.

“I left my house, not a coin in my pocket and made my way to the docks for honest work. That was when I met Tyrell – he was a member of the crew I’d now call my family, see.” Soren laughed and smiled as he spoke before his current circumstances crept into his mind. “We were a merchant ship. This must have been my thousandth voyage across the Sea of Stones” – an exaggeration, of course – “just as routine as any other. At least, it seemed that way.”

“You must have been on many adventures – surely your work was more than just sailing back and forth?”

“Aye,” Soren chortled, “A great many beasts we fought on the seas – some weren’t even men. And occasionally we took on the odd job or two.” He went on to recount his time hunting a goat-sucker in northern Mikron. A great and fearsome beast, he claimed. The woman needn’t know that it turned out to simply be an infestation of thumb-sized mosquitoes on the farm that the crew fled from in terror upon seeing, taking their advance with them.

He also told stories that were decidedly less exaggerated: the time they fought off a giant squid that nearly took down the ship (though it was perhaps not as large as he made it out to be), the time they fought off an entire ork horde that was attacking a small village under the dominion of Ingaard (alongside the village’s own militia and a detail of knights), and – the only story he told as it happened – the time their first captain died, when Delmore became first mate. The story no one would believe, because the creature they fought didn’t exist – certainly not anymore.

It was the story of when Soren fought off a dragon – alongside their old captain, Ishmere. The two of them had stayed back so the rest of the crew could escape. When everyone else was on the boat, the two of them ran for the last remaining dinghy. Soren jumped in and turned to help Ishmere step inside, but he – and the dragon – were gone. He later learned that when Ishmere told him to run for it, he stayed to fight the dragon. He was devoured in a single bite before the dragon flew off. No body remained. Nothing to bury and nothing to remember him by.

Soren watched a tear fall into his soup as he finished his story and he placed the spoon carefully in the bowl. He didn’t feel much like eating anymore.

“I sleep in that bed?” He gestured to the one he’d woken up in an hour or so prior.

Aryia nodded solemnly as compassion twisted her face into an expression of sadness.

***

Soren’s sleep was restless, haunted by nightmares of that stormy night which separated him from his crew. He once again called out to them, only for none of them to respond.

He awoke, feeling even more tired than he was when his head first hit the pillow. But he was ready for whatever the day would throw at him. And, evidently, the first thing the day would throw at him was eggs and bacon.

He rolled over to see strips of bacon lain over the metal rod hung over the fire and a skillet set next to the fire with four eggs frying on top.

“This is the last of the bacon that Gar’nesh cut from the boar the madam killed a few days back. A special treat for waking up.”

She took the bacon from the fire and scooped two eggs onto a plate, sprinkling the eggs with salt before carrying it to him.

“Are you planning to go visit the shore today?”

Soren sat up as he took the plate from her hand. His body still hurt. “Of course. If for no other reason than to bury my mates.”

She put bacon and an egg on her own plate before sitting down at the foot end of his bed.

“Tell me about your captain.” She took a bite of bacon. “Unless you don’t want to.”

“No,” Soren replied, “I mean, yes, I can. I suppose it may be good for me.” He began eating as he told her of Delmore. “He always fought as if he was the last bastion of humanity … never went anywhere without his good luck charm – always seemed to keep him out of danger … prayed before every voyage, every meal, everything he did, always to the same god, no matter the circumstance – Imya the Watcher.”

As they finished eating, Soren set his plate down on the bed before putting on his clothes, which Aryia had folded and neatly placed on the chair next to his bed. He wore light-colored breeches, with a blue tunic under a leather cuirass, and cavalier boots, which he buckled to go up to his knees. As soon as he finished getting dressed, he made his way to the door.

“Is that his?” Aryia asked as he started to duck through the doorway.

He stopped and turned around. “Is what whose?”

“The charm around your neck. Was that captain Delmore’s? His good luck charm, I mean. You clutched it in your hand when you prayed to Imya last night.”

Soren held the small symbol in his hand. “That it is.”

***

“Another round for me and my comrades!” Soren shouted as he planted a firm slap on the rear of the poor tavern wench passing by. He then thrust his current mug of ale in the air. “To another joyous voyage!” He’d forgotten that she’d just delivered another pint for each sailor at the table.

“Here, here!” The rest of the crew shouted, followed by laughter as they drunkenly sung the anthem of Ingaard to the best of their ability. The best of their ability, of course, meaning that it was far from anything that could be considered a tune and each of them sung different verses, all in the wrong order.

After they each sung through two verses, the captain stood on his chair, quieting the crew down with the wave of his hand. To the crew, he was standing just fine, to the rest of the tavern, his standing on the chair was most definitely a safety hazard.

“We have received a job!”

The crew began shouting again, but quickly quieted as the captain waved his hand once more.

“It’s a pretty basic job! We take the boxes! We put ’em on the boat! We go over to Mikron!”

At his last statement, the one Mikri in the crew shouted ‘boo’, followed by the rest of the crew.

The captain waved his hand once more. “Now, now, they’re our neighbors. We get some pretty good pay from this, I hear.” He paused for a moment, scanning the crew before shouting, “So let’s do it good!”

The crew shouted with glee as the captain climbed down off the chair. They banged their mugs against each other once more, probably spilling more ale on the ground than they would drink for the rest of the night – well, assuming the tavern wench hadn’t just switched the beer out with water. It was certainly a possibility.

After a few more rounds of probably-water (on account of the crew sobering down a bit before leaving), the crew made their way back to the ship, a few mates with wenches in tow, to sleep before overseeing the loading of the cargo the next morning.

As Soren lay down on his cot, staring at the one above, Delmore sat down on a stool beside him, holding his good luck charm in his hand.

“I need to tell you something, Soren. As first mate.”

Soren looked at Delmore with his eyes alone as the giggles of a tavern wench sounded through the grate to the deck above.

“This is no ordinary job. What we’re going to be transportin’ is far more important than anythin’ we’ve done before. The guildmaster says even the gods may fight against us.”
Soren sat up on his cot. “Then why would we take the job?”

“Because the one god who matters is on our side.” Delmore grabbed Soren’s hand and kissed the symbol of Imya before placing it in Soren’s palm. “Imya tells me you’ll need this. That it’ll do you a good deal more good than it’ll do me. I’m trustin’ you with this, Soren. Tell no one. Don’t even mention it in your prayers tonight.”

***

After a half-hour’s walk, the wreckage came into view. Bodies and driftwood were scattered everywhere. Broken boxes. Barrels. A rare few pieces of cargo were intact. He thought it strange that so much wreckage would make it to the island. When the lightning struck the mast, there was no land in sight. The entire ship should have sunk to the bottom of the sea. But instead, it washed up here.

Soren began searching through the bodies. Hoping. Praying.

Larius was the first body he found, notable by his red hair and the scar that traced down from his forehead to his waist. Never liked to wear a shirt, that one. Thought he’d snag more women that way.

Then there was Ambrigon. Big fellow, with hair that reached halfway down his back and a beard to match. He was the crew’s cook – always gave himself extra helpings, not that anyone cared.

Nishon. The one Mikri in the crew. Everyone in the crew hated their own homelands, not that they would let anyone outside the crew know it (unless they got particularly drunk). His dark skin glistened as the sun reflected off the seawater that covered him.

Several bodies later and he finally located Delmore. The rat nest that he usually kept under a cloth cap was able to roam free, and his usually well-kept beard was damp and scraggly, braided with seaweed. It was as he saw the captain’s wooden smile that he fell to his knees, letting out a cry that echoed across the waves.

Tears streamed down his face. They would have soaked the sand beneath him if it had not already been soaked by the tide.

Aryia knelt down beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder, which he promptly shook away.

“It’s – my fault,” he sobbed, clutching his stomach. “They’re all dead and it’s all my fault.”

“But how can it be?”

“Delmore charged me to mention nothing to the gods in my nightly prayers that we had a special cargo in our hold. He said that we would be fighting even the gods to have it delivered. I thought it would be a good idea to pray to the god of travel, to ask him for guidance, so I did. And it’s all my fault!”

He punched the sand and fell onto the body of his captain, continuing to sob. He continued in a similar manner for nearly an hour before regaining his composure.

He continued looking through the bodies. All the crew was accounted for, except one. With Aryia’s help, he built funeral pyres for the crew. As the tinder began to burn, he stepped away, watching his comrades bodies burn, offered up to the unnamed god, keeper of the dead.

“I need to get off this island,” he said as he fastened Delmore’s sheath around his waist. “I need to find Tyrell and the cargo. And I need to deliver it – whatever it is.” He wiped tears from his eyes as he watched the pyre turn to a blaze. “I will see my crew’s last job through.”