Aurora’s Demise (Lorelai Epilogue)

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

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

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

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

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

No one else sat in the cart with them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crackle of flame stopped.

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

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

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

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Lorelai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty Jades.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelai sniffled.

“Would you like to come with me?”

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

“What is your name, little one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelai shook her head.

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

***

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

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

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

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

Lorelai,

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

Amari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Ren, eh? Let me see her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Are they all Crimsons?” Lorelai asked.

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

“Where is she?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salazar’s eyes shot to his companions.

Alianna raised a brow and frowned as Amari recoiled slightly.

“You did what?” Amari snapped.

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

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

“How does he breathe fire?” Lorelai interjected.

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

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

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

Lorelai nodded.

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

Lorelai smiled. “That would be nice.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelai protested, “But we need to help!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her head rested in Alianna’s lap.

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

“I’m here, little one.”

“I’m… free.”

Amari sobbed and forced a smile. “Yes.”

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

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

Lorelai smiled as she shook. She could hardly breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jonathan Kinkaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked down his pants. Small and hairless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you excited?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “Yes, they are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could have beat me.”

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

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

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

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

And turns my frowns upside-down

I hope you have a happy, happy day

As you put on your birthday crown

Happy birthday!

Jacquie

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

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

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

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

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

If only that were true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

But that didn’t have to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The raven cocked its head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could always ask the orks for supplies.”

Leondrea shook her head.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a trick of the light.

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

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

“And why is that?”

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

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

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

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

“Quiet!”

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

A light slapping noise echoed through the pass.

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

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

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

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

Skullcrusher whimpered slightly as the creature grew closer.

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

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

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

Soren nodded to Karkog before jumping from the cliff face.

Karkog grunted hoarsely and sprang into action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They rested for a minute before Karkog interrupted.

“Danger.”

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

Raphael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Abba, save me,” Caleb whimpered.

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

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

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

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

Caleb heard a chuckle from the door. Nivael.

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

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

He turned back to Caleb.

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

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

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

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

Nivael scowled.

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

“What was that?”

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

Nivael shook his head.

Eventually, Caleb’s words turned into screaming.

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

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

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

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

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

Zedekiah reached out His hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zedekiah placed His hand on Caleb’s forehead.

Caleb felt a burning sensation. But it was comforting.

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

“What does it mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you speak like that?”

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

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

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

“Is that Orkish grammar then?”

“Not Orkish language mine.”

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

Karkog shrugged. “Giant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shouldn’t we be in Amaranch by now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was yet another mile until they did.

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

The party exchanged confused – and worried – glances.

“We’re stuck in a loop?” Maya cried.

“Or something like that,” Soren said.

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

“No, surely not,” Leondrea answered.

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

Maya tilted her head. “So?”

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

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

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

Soren sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this then?” Soren sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

Soren looked back to the others, motioning them over.

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

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

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

The hare was nowhere to be seen.

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

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

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

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

Maybe the shadow of the hare, he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, a long, dark hallway greeted him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room seemed empty.

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

He took a step forward.

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

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

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

Slowly but surely, he made it across.

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

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

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

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

When he looked down, he saw the hare.

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

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

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

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

The hare tilted its head to the side.

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

The hare continued staring at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, no time had passed at all.

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

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

Soren scanned the orks that surrounded him and his friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Not dead he.”

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

“Seen sorcery me. How escaped before he.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Not easy. Specific snake.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arise and unsheathe the blade.”

Soren complied.

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

Soren once again complied. Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hashlakos,” Karkog muttered under his breath.

“God-killer,” Leondrea translated.

Alonzo looked to Soren pleadingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soren shrugged.

The Madam rolled her eyes. “Very.”

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

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

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

Soren and Leondrea both gave Maya a disapproving look.

“We’re doing this,” Leondrea declared.

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

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

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

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

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

Without hesitation, Maya made her way down the ladder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ork wobbled his head.

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

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

“Correct.”

“So what?” Maya asked.

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

The ork growled. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“Alonzo.”

“What does he have to do?”

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

Soren looked to Leondrea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ork snarled. “Karkog.”

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

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

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

The leaf-saliva mixture was now a paste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ork replied in his own native tongue.

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Soren asked.

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

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

Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 8: The Noble in the Serpent

Soren recalls his past before arguing with Rolph about Aryia’s request.

He was now the nameless noble. He didn’t sign the letter he’d written to his family, but used his own signet ring to seal the letter – the last thing he would ever do with it. His family would come to one of two possible conclusions: these really were his wishes and he was, for all intents and purposes, dead, or he was taken after being forced to write the letter and seal it. He hoped that it would, in fact, be the former that his family decided on.

He snuck away from the castle he’d lived in his whole life that night. It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, avoiding the guards – he’d spent much of the last few weeks studying their movements and rotations, and it was even easier given that they were carrying torches to light their way.

He made his way to the southwest tower that overlooked the bay. As he stared at the water below, he hesitated. Then, he shook his head. What’s done is done.

He leapt from the window and into the waters below, clutching the pouch of gold that hung from his belt. He swam to shore and made his way into the nearby mercantile district. He needed to find an inn to stay in, and quickly. Even if they didn’t assume he was taken, someone sneaking around the city after midnight would look awfully suspicious – and to do so without a torch was illegal.

He wandered through the streets, ducking out of sight whenever he heard voices, and eventually made his way to the Green Serpent, which displayed a green, hooded rattlesnake on the sign outside. When he walked through the door, he never expected that it would take him on a path that would end in that same tavern five years later.

He sulked into the tavern and made his way along the wall, watching to make sure no one saw him – or, at the very least, recognized him. Only one man appeared to be staring at the noble out of the corner of his eye, though the man looked away when his eyes met with the nameless noble’s.

Once he was seated, he waved down a barwench. As she came over, so did the man who’d eyed him coming in.

The barwench raised her eyebrows as she placed her hands on her hips. “What can I get you?”

“An ale and a room please,” the noble replied, studying the man walking over to him.

As the barwench walked away, the man sat down.

He was a mutt of a man, with blue eyes that betrayed northern heritage, and a wavy, brown hair indicative of Shelezar. His light skin led the noble to believe the man was likely Baril, rather than Kapfian. Not quite as bad as a Kap, but still not to be trusted.

“Lose your boat?” the Baril asked.

The noble raised a brow in confusion.

The Baril laughed as he nodded at the noble’s clothes. “Well, you’re dressed awful nice, so I’ve gotta believe you’re some sort of wealthy man, which means you probably own a boat if you’re here in Ingaard. But you’re drenched in water – which seems to indicate that you do not, in fact, have a boat. Thus, you must’ve lost it.”

From the way he spoke, the noble began to wonder if perhaps the man was, in fact, Gelthan. Or raised as one.

“Or maybe,” the Baril said, lowering his voice as he drew his face closer to the nameless noble’s, “you’re a new believer in the Unnamed God, and you’ve washed away your old life?”

The nameless noble raised a brow at this. He’d never heard of any ‘Unnamed God’.

“Sure,” he replied, forcing a bit of a smile as he gave the Baril a sidelong glance. He did just throw his old life away. Perhaps this was the start of a new one.

“Well, maybe you’d like to join our crew,” the Baril said, gesturing to the group he’d been sitting with. “We’re all believers, too.”

They numbered ten back then. By the time the nameless noble’s journey with them was over, they were five times that – and they were all dead.

“Sure,” the nameless noble repeated, once again forcing a smile, but this time giving the Baril a straight look. He knew he needed to come up with a new name: after all, he’d shed his old one. It seemed to him that suffering was what made a person good-natured. Those around him never suffered, and they were all terrible. Perhaps he should name himself after that. “My name is Soren, by the way.”

The Baril looked back to the noble and nodded, holding out his right hand. “Name’s Tyrell.”

Soren stared at his hand in confusion.

“No too much experience with the Mikri, I see,” Tyrell laughed. “Put your palm on mine, you’re pinky between mine and my ring, and grab.”

Soren awkwardly complied.

“Good enough,” Tyrell chuckled. “Let’s go introduce you to the rest of the crew. This’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made or ever will make. I swear my life on it.”

Those last words stood out to Soren, so he went with Tyrell, who quickly introduced him to the crew.

“… then, we have First Mate Delmore, and – last, but certainly most – we have Captain Ishmere.”

The old captain nodded. A thin scar stretched from the corner of his brow down to his chin, and the eye on the opposite side was completely white. “Welcome to the crew, Soren.”

The crew ate and drank a good couple hours before heading back to the boat, taking Soren with them. Before climbing onto the boat, Captain Ishmere stopped him, waving for the others to go ahead.

“Tell me, ‘Soren,’ what business does a noble like you have, prancing around in the economic district, lying about his name at this time of night?”

Soren gave Ishmere a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ishmere gave an odd smirk that almost looked more like a snarl, revealing a golden tooth. “For one, you forgot to take off your signet ring – two, I’ve had dealings with your father – three, there’s a reason I’m captain of this ship. I told the universe it could shove fate where the sun don’t shine and took my life into my own hands. I set out to find my own way, and it won the gods – er, the God’s – favor.

“You’re in important man now, Soren. You’ve done the same as I did, and that puts a target on your back – for better or worse.”

The captain gave Soren a full smile this time as he patted him on the shoulder. “But, I’m sure you already take the gods into account, given that you’re a right proper Shelezar – keep that up and you’ll go far.”

The captain gave Soren’s shoulder a squeeze before climbing up onto the ship.

Soren stood for a moment, taking in what the captain said before climbing onto the ship himself.

***

“Absolutely not!” Rolph roared at Soren.

Soren recoiled as his face twisted. It wasn’t like he was trying to get Aryia to go with him, or even suggested the prospect. She did, all on her own. Personally, Soren would have advocated for her going if she really wanted to, on account of she was an adult and could make her own decisions. But he also didn’t want Rolph to be angry at him.

“Why do you not want her to come along? I’m sure the combination of myself and the madam are more than enough to keep her safe.”

Rolph’s anger seemed to only get worse as his eyes focused in on Soren. “The orks have been more violent, more daring, lately. Sure, you killed the ogre who was commanding them; but who was commanding him?”

“There was never anything in the legends about the ogres-“

“Ogres following any chain of command, I know,” Rolph finished, “But someone, or something, had to have been.”

“Why?”

“During my time in the forest, I overheard a lot of orks talking. Eventually, I caught onto their language well enough I could get a gist of what was going on. I would occasionally overhear some things about waking someone who was dreaming. I didn’t think anything of it at the time – and it’s not like I could have done anything about it if I did – but it’s become clear to me that what they were talking about is who you’re looking for. The Dreamer.”

“You think the Dreamer is commanding the orks?”

“Or whoever is commanding the orks wants to wake the Dreamer. And, if they do, it spells destruction for the rest of us.”

“Well,” Aryia interjected, “regardless of what the ork’s intentions are, or who’s commanding them, I still think I’m safest with Soren and Leondrea. They were the ones able to take down an ogre.”

Soren’s eyes darted away from Rolph’s for a moment. He neglected to mention it was the Naga who took down the ogre. But he wasn’t about to correct her now.

“Precisely. If she wants to come with us, I say you should let her. Besides, she’s an adult, she can make her own decisions.” Soren nodded to Aryia before looking back to Rolph.

Rolph took in a deep breath before letting out a very long sigh. “Fine. But if anything happens to her-“

“If anything happens to her, the rest of us will already be dead,” Soren interrupted. “I swear my life on it,” he echoed from the mouth of Tyrell so many years before.

New chapters release every Friday (except the last two, because life is a thing). If you like what you’re reading, drop a like or a share, and you can subscribe using the module in the right sidebar or read previous chapters at xaviermakes.com/iotd.