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.”

Sunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunny stared back.

“I will take her.”

Sunny didn’t move.

“She will be mine.”

Sunny stayed silent.

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

“Who are you, oh tiny guardian?”

“My name is Sunny.”

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

“What is yours?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Darkness answered.

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

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

“You could leave,” Sunny replied.

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

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

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

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

It looked down.

Sunny had claws of his own.

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

It felt itself burning from the inside out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were right to fear me.”

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

It burned.

It ached.

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

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

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

Through the window, Darkness learned fear.

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

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

Sunny held it in place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the girl stirred.

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

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

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

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

Soren scanned the orks that surrounded him and his friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say again?”

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

“You were waiting to ambush us.”

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

“What’s he saying?” Maya asked.

“Claims he defected.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm.” The ork smiled.

“… or this snake swallow you?”

The ork’s smile dropped.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” Runt replied.

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

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

And this ork warband had one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Runt pulled a knife from his boot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three humans looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

Leader snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A guttural scream sounded from the passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rustling grew closer.

And closer.

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

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

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

“Hello, Soren,” the rat squeaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a rat!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can let me down now.”

Soren complied and she brushed off her clothes.

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

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

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

The other two jogged to catch up.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“What can I do for you both today?”

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

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

“And? Were you able to read it?”

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

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

Soren shrugged. “I guess.”

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

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

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

Soren thought for a moment before shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arakim nodded. “Interesting.”

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

“Perhaps the Dreamer is a rival of Imakar?”

Soren considered the prospect before he remembered the red crystal.

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

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

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

“What’s a genie?”

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

“How does it stave off mortality?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you going that way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course she does.”

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re going to get my dog back.”

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

Her face tightened in rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“New here, eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

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

“Who was that?”

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

“Hmm. I’ve never seen him before.”

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

“Maybe he’s new,” she added.

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I have a sip?”

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

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

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

“Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“So, how do you know they’re bad?”

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

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

“It’s not the same.”

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

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

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

Soren was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me what you know about the Dreamer.”

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

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

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

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

“That is the one.”

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

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

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

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

“Why would I want the Djinn?”

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

“Where can I find the Djinn, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Soren!” the witch called.

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

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

Soren sighed. “Good to know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your sword is heavy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two stared at it in wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Djinn said something else as Maya slowly stepped away.

“Yeah, so he’s gonna fight you now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a moment, the cloud disappeared.

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

The giant crouched down and stared Soren in the eyes.

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

“I want to know where the Dreamer is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which war?”

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

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

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

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

Soren and Maya stood alone.

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

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

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

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

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

A raven sat on a tree branch watching him.

“What do you want?”

The raven did nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

“She thinks everything she says is important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Who?”

“The witch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Soren dropped his hand and shrugged, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” Soren answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maya scowled at him before following behind.

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

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

“I’m- uh-” Soren started.

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

“Rabbit soup.”

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

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

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

“My name is Soren, this is Maya.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You say allegedly. Is there another explanation?”

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

“You have an interesting perspective Soren.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did that man seem familiar to you?”

Maya curled her lip. “No.”

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

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

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

The two exchanged glances.

“Did you hear that?” Soren asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maya’s look of disgust faded. “Oh.”

“Yes. ‘Oh,’ indeed.”

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

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

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

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

Soren glanced around quickly, but saw no one.

They continued a bit further. It followed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five meters.

Four meters.

Three.

Two.

One.

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

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

Soren walked over to him.

“Can you stand?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he replied, “Aryia is fine.”

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