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

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

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

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

A raven sat on a tree branch watching him.

“What do you want?”

The raven did nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

“She thinks everything she says is important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Who?”

“The witch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Soren dropped his hand and shrugged, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” Soren answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maya scowled at him before following behind.

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

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

“I’m- uh-” Soren started.

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

“Rabbit soup.”

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

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

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

“My name is Soren, this is Maya.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You say allegedly. Is there another explanation?”

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

“You have an interesting perspective Soren.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did that man seem familiar to you?”

Maya curled her lip. “No.”

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

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

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

The two exchanged glances.

“Did you hear that?” Soren asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maya’s look of disgust faded. “Oh.”

“Yes. ‘Oh,’ indeed.”

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

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

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

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

Soren glanced around quickly, but saw no one.

They continued a bit further. It followed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five meters.

Four meters.

Three.

Two.

One.

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

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

Soren walked over to him.

“Can you stand?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he replied, “Aryia is fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soren swatted her hand away.

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

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

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

Aryia and Maya exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He returned the fireball to its pouch and stopped playing.

“Why do you attack me?”

The snakes hostility remained, though they became less aggressive.

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

“It is because you seek to destroy us.”

Soren furrowed his brow. “How so?”

“You seek to wake the Dreamer?”

“I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

Soren picked up his lantern and followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here, you son of Man?”

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

“And who might your captain be?”

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

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

“The Watcher, Imya.”

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

At that, the snake lurched forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The giant snake waited.

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

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

The snake launched forward, straight at his torso.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soren shook his head as they continued eating.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I leave?”

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

“So, what, I just live here forever?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The raven craned its head before flying away.

“Guess not.”

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

“Do you normally talk to birds, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me what you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough.”

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

Soren raised a brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman reclaimed her beaming face as he spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aryia.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me, where are we?”

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

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

“Well, I suppose we’re in Ortus.”

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

Aryia shrugged. “I suppose so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aryia shrugged. “Why would I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s very good.”

“Why, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“We have received a job!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Soren began searching through the bodies. Hoping. Praying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But how can it be?”

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

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

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

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