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Call of the Harn

 

Call of the Harn

written by: JOSEPH HENRY GEORGE

Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Henry George

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Author’s Note:

This is to be the first installment in this epic. Read it not like a series of books, but rather one great story, because, truth be told, that’s what it really is. I only separated them into sections because I knew you wouldn’t appreciate a two-thousand-page book. Nor would the printing companies.

It has been nearly ten years in the making now. I knew I would write since I was just a kindergartener, and I knew that I would write the story that meant the most to me.

I’ve written this tale a thousand times, and a thousand times over again, because it never was right. But several years of practice, an extended journey to Hong Kong and back, and it all fell together.

There will undoubtedly be moments where you simply do not understand, or perhaps don’t even care, but trust me when I say this; it all means something. This is not to be just another epic tale where good defeats evil and we all go live happily ever after. It is not for you to read, and then put back on the shelf, only to collect dust until you find something new and improved, and toss it to the trash.

Think me pretentious, or a fool, but this is to be read again, and again, because it tells of more than just epic battles and vast landscapes. It is a writing of life, and sometimes the lack of it.

Read, not for you, but for them.

They deserve to be heard, once in a while.

Chapter I

. To an End .

Cold.

It is a word that could be used to accurately describe what he was.

The temperature in the air.

The stones beneath his bare feet and against the small of his back.

The bitter words which pierced through, into his heart, and shattering against the walls of his mind which so very much knew that he, like nearly all the others, would not make it.

It was also an accurate description of what steel and iron tasted like.

But this captor did not resort to such types of punishment, as a wound can only bleed so much. No, there were far more efficient, for more…entertaining ways to get what was wanted. You simply had to know how.

Clicks, in the dark, surrounded him. A moment, or two perhaps, left him confused and frightened by what had entered through the low set archway and into the room, but only for a moment as he recognized that sound from a few tidbits of his past.

Those teeth appeared, then, grotesque and opaque, stealing the light despite their utter whiteness. There was no light to see by, but it was there, in his mind, chattering up and down in mindless and voiceless words.

The wretched beasts, they didn’t need the light.

They had no eyes to see it by.

Just those pale, white teeth.

It came quite close at that moment, and he could feel as much as hear the chomping that ensued as it poured over his frame, sensing each muscle, each vein, drinking in the world around it with only a few sharp bites at the air. He was grateful, then, that he could only make out the vague shape of it, as previous encounters with the monsters had not been some of his favorite.

He knew what was next, though, so there were still many things to be frightened about.

But it would have to wait.

I had a few words to say.

“My dear friend….” Usually comforting words, when spoken by compassionate lips. And trust me when I say that they surely were. I had little desire to inflict pain upon this poor soul.

The gods know he had already received enough of that at the hands of others.

That creature pulled from him, if only a pace or two, silencing its fluttering trap for a few moments.

“My dear, dear friend…why do you resist your detention? Have I not given you all that you’ve wanted, all that you’ve asked for?”

And what was he to say to that? I hadn’t asked to be answered, no, the answer I already knew, because we’d had this conversation before. It wasn’t the first time his antics and attempted escapes had landed him in a precarious situation. So why did he keep trying? What was there that led him to believe he would, or even could succeed?

Or perhaps it wasn’t that he wanted to escape at all….

Food for thought, although my mind wasn’t particularly hungry these days.

I craved something more.

His personal answer came in a most pitiful way, “I’ll never stop fighting you. You know that.”

It was spat out, more so than spoken.

Spiteful lips.

Cankerous teeth.

I wouldn’t complain, and so I laughed.

He could see me now, as I had conjured a bit of light which snaked out from a suspended sphere. A candle would have done fine, of which there were plenty, scattered around that quiet and empty room, but I so enjoyed the aura of mystery that surrounds one who keeps himself distanced from the mortal realm.

“Yes, I am sure of that, and it does not shock me.”

A rush, cloak fluttering in shadowed tones of energy as I spun around the pillar that held him captive, only to rest over his shoulder, my lips inches from his ear.

He smelled of dank and damp.

My fault, in all honesty.

He’d been staying with me for some time now, a fact which I was most grateful for, but he surely didn’t appear to be all that pleased with the arrangements. But I didn’t blame him.

His was the type, as you may have already seen, that does not give in.

Oh, but all of this falls on deaf hears, both his, and yours. I did not care to convert him or to charm him into submission. I don’t desire brainless and heartless minions for servants. It simply isn’t my style.

Breaking is, though.

Breaking is something that I could live with.

. Beauty and Beast .

- Seventh Age, year 718

It all came up to meet him so fast.

There was this burning sun, and this bitter whirling of wind, flicking beads of whitened sand off the tops of the crags like spray from the temperamental waves. All around the roiling sea lay frozen in time, scorched and blanched by an eternal fire.

The desert was lonely.

And a bit hungry.

Hard sand tasted bitter against his parched, and bleeding lips as he impacted the earthen floor, leading with his face. Tripping on flat earth may have seemed a stupid thing to do, but it wasn’t really his choice.

He’d run out of those long before.

No tears were to be shed, certainly not from the heavens above. Never a wisp of clouds in the sky to veil the face of indignation and wrath at this funeral of silence.

And as the great, fiery serpent glared down with its one, malignant eye, mocking, there was not a soul to care about the boy.

No spectators, that is, none but the sun and the wind.

And Death, and I.

She came on winged steps, weightless, urgent to claim that prize which was rightfully hers.

Sprouts of shattered foliage sprang up at each print to choke out the deadened ground beneath, paving the way back for the return of a kindred brother.

To home.

Her pale, and perfect frame drawing towards the child in effortless motion.

Such raw beauty there was.

Icy lips pressed to his. A breath in, to draw out that essence of his spirit, and a breath out as She lifted his poor, pitiful and now limp frame in her arms. Her form was enough to excite the chambers of the heart.

Untouchable.

And like that, he was gone from this world.

. Ocean of the Sun .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Blood slipped to the floor, staining into the pelt laid as a carpet.

Just a single drop.

Enough to bring him to consciousness, his eyes flashing open in instant readiness, for whatever might come.

But he was alone in the tent.

Emitting a few groans as he sat up on the cot, his finger brushed the underside of his nose, a thin coating of red coming off.

Red.

Such an ugly color. But gratefully there wasn’t much of it out here. Mostly just flat tan and a few shades of dirt.

He hated the desert, everything about it. The fact that it was as dry as the stale bread they’d been eating for the past two days was only the beginning of his dislike for such a forsaken place.

How anyone, or anything, could choose to exist here, was beyond him.

One thing was for certain, though; they would not be much longer.

Oh how he longed for Arribinthia once again. The cobblestone streets. A quiet meal, alone, alongside the shores of the placid lake. A luxury long overdue.

Rising, he went to wash his face, hoping the splash of mildly cool water would clear the grogginess from his body.

There was a ruffling at the tent wall, perhaps the wind? A moment later, though, the cloth curtain was separated and a man entered quietly, dressed in traditional garb of a soldier. The half plate mail, purple on white with the Emperor’s three-pronged crest emblazoned across the front of the tunic.

A grey shoulder cape was draped over his right spaulder, to signify rank.

“General,” he opened, “if I have disturbed you….”

“No, Grinvelld,” his commander returned, “you shouldn’t have let me sleep so long.”

Grinvelld looked sheepishly at the ground, and then said, “I figured that you needed it.”

Heavy eyes glanced up at him, fixing his gaze. Not angry, just, thoughtful.

“We all need more sleep, my friend. This hellish desert wants to take us all.” was Feilden’s reply. Strapping braces to arms and sword to his side, he stepped to face Grinvelld. “Sleep is for pompous kings and fat dogs.” Proffering a half smile, he slapped the soldier’s arm, raising his eyebrows.

A comical gesture, of sorts.

And to finish, added, “Sleep is only a vision, a dream, and it fades quickly.”

“Then,” came Grinvelld’s comment to such a thought, “I am most certainly a visionary man.”

A hand of Feilden’s rested on Grinvelld’s shoulder. “Well, this is some kind of dream that we’re stuck in here.”

Chuckles, in agreement.

“Yes, it is. But remember one thing,” the soldier returned, “you picked it for me. If I had my rathers, I would be sitting in front of the fire back home, with a mug in my hand and my wife strumming soft tones on the lyre.”

“Aye, so would we all.” Feilden’s face tightened for a moment as his mind wandered to some far off place and lost itself in a hopeless vision. But only for a moment, before snapping back to the reality at hand. “Emaar, it’s good to have you with us.”

A few moments of silence hung in the air. A bit stale, perhaps, but not wasted.

“So, why did you interrupt my moment of solitude?”

Right, Grinvelld had completely forgotten about reporting. He answered quickly, the smirk fading from his features as he slipped back into the role of his position. “The men,” was his reply, “they are ready for you.

He was tall, for his age.

A stocky child of the western hills, bred from unforgiving elements and a constant struggle for life, no doubt. His mop of dirty blonde hair partially covered his face, but there was no need to see anymore, Feilden already knew. The boy’s eyes reflected spirit, and an ultimate courage which showed in his straightened form and slightly raised chin.

He certainly was not afraid. Bravery alone, though, was only a willingness to step from the edge. No, there was something else there.

Ignorance.

Naïve. The young man, though deceivingly large of stature, had not sprouted his wings. Still just a fledgling in a world of buzzards. They eat their own. Cannibals, in every sense of the word, and it was this that worried him the most.

“How old are you, boy?” He probed. Not that he needed to know, as he could have guessed it as it was from the moment he was brought in. Similar situations, he’d seen them before.

“Old enough.”

Bold, but a lie. The kid had guts, to be sure. But what intrigued Feilden the most was the fact that the child understood very well that the man standing before him was not in dark. He knew very well of his pretended ruse. And yet…he stayed his course.

Perhaps frightened of consequences to come, were he to admit his guilt? But no, eyeing him from head to toe revealed a lowly farm boy in peasant’s clothing, evidently a runaway. This ragged appearance screamed of a hatred for the lowly life, and a heart bent on achieving something great.

Reminded him of someone he once knew.

“And how are you with the blade?”

The boy cocked his head to look at Feilden without moving his shoulders, as if to make some snide remark, and answered smartly, “As good as any man.”

For some reason he was drawn to believe that this, by chance, might be true. If so, it was the one diamond among the rocks, and was all that had carried him this far.

Who was he to let the boy in? Every responsibility rested on him to do as he had with all the rest. Some came for protection, others to seek out alleged fame and fortune. All in vain. All too young, and too ignorant to know that this fate was not the one that they had dreamed for. No, it could not be….

“What’s your name, boy?”

The statue broke from its stoned form as he glimpsed the door opening before him. Lips curling at the edges into a partial show of excitement. Feilden watched as the fire jumped from his pupils, and for a moment he thought the boy would erupt in emotion, fists loosening their iron grip of the air, the chest falling from its high position.

But control regained its footing and the thickset youth snapped to attention.

“Matthias, son of Arrimour of the household of Dras-En.”

He would certainly make a good soldier. Feilden’s thoughts betrayed what he knew he must do, but how was he to refuse?

“Death, Matthias, son of Arrimour, does not wait. Not for you, not for anyone. Are you prepared to stand in the face of it?”

When he spoke of her, I was there.

Listening.

Almost without hesitation the boy drove his reply home, “Nur-es brathak tain!”

Usage of the well known Elder Tongue phrase brought memories flooding back across Feilden’s mind. Memories long since buried beneath ash heaps of blood and gore.

Immovable. I am immovable.

There was no way back now.

But no! He could not! Too much was at stake, and the consequences would go too far. Not this time….

“No one will watch your back out here, mind you.”

He couldn’t believe the words as the spilled from his mouth, helpless to halt their ushering out of his lips and slipping to the dry wind. And so he continued, “Every man’s life is his own, and you take ownership of it, today. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” His exuberance at this sudden ray of hope showed, but only for that second, and then his chin snapped back to its rigid station, eyes forward.

The boy’s heavily tanned arms showed strength and raw determination as muscles flexed and toughened sinews pressed at the skin.

Feilden exhaled hard, to mask his inward sigh. Underneath, he knew, was still just a young child.

Only as old as you were. He shot to himself. Do not forget that. What was he to do? The remembrance of his own past weighed heavily on his conscience, bending his will and forcing his hand. For him, there was no other option.

The boy would stay.

Darkness had veiled the desert valley that lay below, but it was easily broken. Fires of the camp dotted in the blackness.

There were less than he had thought, a fact which spread some relief over his aching mind. His men, he knew, were of no concern. What was a handful of desert nomads in comparison?

But something still tugged at his thoughts, nagging and mocking in chattering tones of reminder.

“When should we move?” Grinvelld asked, coming to stand just to his left.

Seven days journey into the heart of Corbith-Atar, all for some trader’s goods. It seemed a waste already, and blood had not yet been spilled. But there was this commodity that could be bought only at the highest of prices.

Reputation.

The White Wastes, stretching from the southernmost part of the empire, Standing’s Point, to Vraaldes Aldice, the southernmost edge of the world.

That boy’s body still laid on, out there, somewhere, aimlessly adrift on sandy depths. The spectre of Feilden’s waking nightmare, and he couldn’t shake his mind from it….

“Sir?”

“Now, we should go now, while they still sleep.”

. Broken .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“My father, is first and foremost a soldier. He’s never tried to be anything else.”

“And rightly so,” the dark haired man said to the other, “look at what he’s been doing for the last twenty years. It’s not as if he has any other vocational talents.”

His friend sighed and shook his head.

“Besides, you should be grateful he let you come on this mission Aviin. It surprised the rest of us.” The man’s name was Brighton, and he’d been a good friend of Aviin’s ever since they were stationed at the Point. He was a bit older, in years, but Aviin had always been mature for his age, and so they got along.

“Grateful? Hardly! He allowed that…child to come, and yet he questioned giving his own son the privilege.”

Brighton eyed him, furrowing his brow. “Yes, a privilege it was indeed,” he agreed, in a manner of speaking, “and now where is he?”

The question silenced Aviin. There was only one answer that could be proffered to that, and he knew very well where that boy was now. Food for the birds, at least, that’s what he would have said if there weren’t more pressing matters on his mind.

“Alright, it is true that his decision was, well…rather stupid.”

“Aye….” Brighton’s face flashed with a sad grimace. How could he make such a choice? The thought never left the recesses of his mind, but he knew that Aviin had been thinking similar things.

Aviin ran his hand through thick locks of blonde hair, leaning back against the rock. The whole situation had fired up his emotions, when only a few hours before his father, the general, had made him to look a fool in front of the entire regiment. It started out as a simple question of which advance party he should join.

But Feilden is stubborn. They all knew that.

He glanced to look at his son. “Aviin, I want you to stay with Kashter and Rili.”

What? Stay with those two Garps of men on camp duty? He must have lost his mind?

Dumbfounded by such a request, Aviin let his mouth hang upon a bit, which only served to aggravate his commander, who stated emphatically, “That’s an order.”

Aviin did not move.

Many of those who had been tending to their own tasks stopped to watch as the storm began to build. It was not the first time. Nor would it be the last.

“Did you hear me?”

He advanced a few steps, deep lines pressing into his brow, all the while his son’s rigid form stayed square, and challenging, but silent.

A defense, always effective.

There are those that say a sword can bring an army to its knees. A pen can conquer nations.

But silence, my friend, is as the Stanciar’s Pearl; priceless.

“I said, did you hear me?” Feilden’s tone of voice rose with the intensity of the scene. It was thick, malleable.

Electric.

Static in essence, but charged and deadly. Just waiting for one, only one, to reach out and touch it.

But the son still stood his ground, despite the forward push into his territory. Ron-es brathak tain. And he could not be broken, not this time. Not again.

Hot rushes of anger roiled into Feilden’s features as he stepped directly in front of Aviin, their bodies almost touching. The father came to reclaim what was by nature’s decree his honor and rule. The son’s only purpose was to defy. He knew that this battle was his to win.

The general, he wasn’t the type to let in or give up. In all his years of fighting the Emperor’s battles for him, he’d never lost. Today, he would be victorious, no matter the cost. And so he broke a cardinal rule of the game.

“Farshta! Aviin!” He swore, “Look at me when I speak to you!”

He allowed emotion to come before the code.

Oh, how I enjoy watching this exchange. To see two, matched in battle, fight to the death. I knew who would win, I always knew.

But I wanted to see the blood drip from his heart.

Feilden’s hand exploded from his side, as if a sprung bow, and made hard connection with the tender flesh of Aviin’s cheek. Open handed, stinging as it flew. The sound of it ricocheted off the tent walls and into the emptiness of the desert.

And now all eyes were riveted to the scene before them.

It was shocking, to say the least, particularly for Aviin’s face. But something else hurt far more than the sting of his father’s hand.

. Of Something Called Flame and Smoke .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Fire sprouted from the tent as temperatures rose and the oil in the skins succumbed to the heat. Blazes all around lit up the black, burning from the low set, scattered camp to the small clumps of trees that dotted the valley.

Chaos reigned where just moments before there had only been the sound of silent droning that comes with such an expanse of space.

Two advance parties had collapsed from the sides, unannounced, wreaking havoc through the village of huts. Men scrambled for anything to defend themselves with, but any that rose up to brace the tide of destroyers that swept upon them were cut down.

Sounds of blood woke me from my sleep.

It hit the sanded floor in staining blots. Bright in the night.

Some order returned as the barbaric men fleeing before them recognized the emblems stitched to their tunics.

Imperials.

Soldiers from the empire.

Recognizing what they were after gave their relatively animal minds a chance to form some sort of strategy. Their women ran to hide the children, though some stayed to fight with their husbands and fathers. Such was the way of these barbarians. Such was the only way. The desert was an unforgiving place.

Strict orders had come from Feilden that they were not to harm the innocent, but the gender of something that means to kill you becomes less important in the moment of struggle.

They fell to the earth like blossoms before the spring frost.

The fighting escalated, and quickly moved to the heart of the tiny oasis. Here the ground was soft and inviting. But Feilden’s men paid no mind. It was not to the rare presence of water that they had come.

Barbarians seemed to spring from all edges of the blackness, their faces marred from the elements and painted with a sort of glowing ink, dancing before the dark in sharp tones of color. They fought like true animals, seeking for blood and wielding tooth and claw the same.

But it was all for naught.

When the blare of a horn sounded, the main body of Feilden’s small force rose from the southern side of the oasis to cut off the last retreat and secure their long awaited prize.

Aviin’s heart pounded as he ran, thumping in rhythm with his iron shod feet. The men, those he had deemed his friends, roared with all their terror, invigorated by the anticipation that had grown heavy over the last hour of waiting, or so.

“For Asix!” They vigorously yelled in unison.

For Asix….

His thoughts strayed to his father’s command, and what he would do when he knew that his son had broken it. There would be a reckoning to pay.

But, only a few steps behind the rest of his group, Aviin quickly was returned to the reality at hand as fighting broke out all around him. A bit stunned, he scrambled to a stop, realizing, not for the first time, that this was all new to him.

Killing. The art of taking life from another.

Death would not wait for anyone, not even himself. This he knew well, and it seemed that it had already come to test his wits. One rather tall man broke through the line and came rushing at him with teeth bared and eyes smoldering, hungry.

Aviin started, his sword rising in natural defense to parry the approaching blow. The barbarians thrust slid harmlessly off, and for a moment Aviin nearly rejoiced, but the curved blade returned in a high swipe to sever his arm. The flat of his own took the impact, jarring him with a force he had not expected, and drilling into him for all time that this was no game.

And suddenly all of the hours, countless hours, spent sparring beneath the heat of the sun pumped into his veins and activated that inner part of yourself that seems to lay quiet for so long. Like a sleeping dragon, bursting forth from the hibernation.

He parried two more blows, stepping back to regain his footing and shifting his weight to a more aggressive position. The man saw his move, and reacted in an attempt to force down his defensives, but Aviin’s speed was greater than his.

And so he dodged again, this time taking advantage of the man’s slight over reach.

They were fighters, this was obvious, but they had spent their days battling with the wind and the sands and whatever nameless beasts make their home here.

They were not trained for this.

As he spun on his heel to recover from the last advance, the tip of his sword slipped right past the man’s chest, slitting a thin line across the bulge of his bicep.

First blood.

Nothing fatal, but it served to aggravate him all the more, his yellowed teeth grinding together as he dealt a resulting weak blow to Aviin’s back plate, bouncing off harmlessly.

Words from his father came back to him, “You have to feel through the fight,” he had said, “It’s like dancing, only, while holding sharp objects, which means you have to be all the more careful.”

Parry to the right.

Then the left.

An open book was laid before him, begging to be read by piercing eyes.

“It’s not a test of strength, it’s a test of control. You’ll know you will win when you’re calm, and you don’t have to think.”

Rage, intense and so vile, infected the man’s features as he was foiled again. He took a chance, and lunged. The curve of the scimitar refused to let Aviin’s blade through, catching a bit on the edges, but it gave him a foundation to push from. Balance was tipped from the scale. The barbarian attempted to recover, but found that Aviin’s firmly planted leg stood between him, and fate.

He stumbled, dropping weapon and guard, but not of his own choice.

The blow forced Aviin lower to the ground, his sword touching earth, then ripping across with the power of his full chest, clipping into the man’s free standing foot and once again destroying what edge he had.

And he fell. Having made a partial turn and with nothing to grasp, gravity took control and drug him down with intense strength, unbreakable in its grip.

Aviin’s sword was there to meet him, pulling out of the long sweep and rising up in a curving arc.

The earth’s pull slipped him onto the length of the steel, starting from the point of contact at the hip and forcing up through the chest, parting muscle and bone and sinew like paper, clinking over each rib, breaking across the sternum, diving into the cleft of the chin and ripping at the mouth. A complete victory.

He had won.

He had killed a man, the first one.

Flashes of gold and silver sprang to his eyes as he envisioned the honor, and the satisfaction it would be to present this man’s head to his father.

He looked down, and saw the collapsed form dropping heavy and without support, writhing all the while.

He looked to the left to see the fires of destruction still raging through the camp.

He looked to the right, to find two people, small and short, children, one dragging the other back as she fought with all her might to approach the fallen man. Screams rose from her lips and tears from the eyes.

A father?

Glancing again to his victim, he saw something else there. It was liquid. Hot, and red.

Why so warm?

It was as if he was touching him, reaching into the black cavity of his wounds, feeling over the severed bones and the quivering muscles.

It was as if it was touching him.

Glinting from the gray of his sword was a thick coating of that same crimson, running to the hilt and pouring over to slip down the length of his arm.

Yes, he had killed a man. This one. His prize, his victory, his honor, his conquest,

His responsibility.

Too soon he realized the full gravity of what his actions had done. Spirit rushed from the man’s body, to be carried away on Death’s wings.

A soul, he had murdered a soul. A living being.

He had watched the pain mar his brown eyes as it dug in. Pain on that child’s face. Daughter or not, it was still the same.

Something rose up inside him, a thick knot of vile tasting liquid called guilt, choking out his mouth and spilling to the ground to mix with the blood. Aviin’s body lurched in an attempt to stop the onslaught of nausea that began to overtake him. His vision seemed to close at the edges, drawing in towards the center. There was this pounding in his temples, tearing at his mind.

More bile slipped past his lips, bitter and sour.

I watched on as this pitiful figure succumbed to the sickness. They all have it, in some form or another, but few as plaguing as he.

Weak.

And pitiful.

Hardly worth my time.

But I was not the only one watching then. A figure stood just a stone’s cast away, shadowed from the light, his eyes staring down the poor soul before us and shaking his head in what I can only call disappointment.

We both were. He perhaps more than I.

. an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLVII .

It is the eighteenth year of the reign of the Lord Karx, year 974 in the sixth age. Many Doomspeakers have risen up and begun to preach in the streets of the southern peninsula and its towns. Their presence has begun to stir bouts of insurrection against the High Order, which are being quickly crushed by Lord Karx’s heavy arm of rule.

Amidst such times of war and desolation, there can be no division amongst the people.

To quell any spark of rebellion, he has sent his High Elders into the land to preach the law set forth by Arkus III in the days of Tribulation, to reestablish a stronger unity between the clans.

But, while the efforts succeed in restoring peace to the land, a new threat arises as the fanatical preachings of these Doomspeakers gives birth to an increasing amount of so called believers in the Old Religion.

Fallen, they have been known.

A new statute mandated by Karx will be set forth, demanding that all such subjects renounce their corrupted faith under penalty of imprisonment, or death.

. Her .

I remember the day when She was called, oh so long ago.

She wore colors then, a green dress of silken leaves, draped over her delicate shoulders. So vivid and bright and young. A youth of my past, no longer to be.

But it was a time of great change for all of us.

There were others, of course, but none such as she. God-like in beauty and form, she possessed the strength to resist the temptations that would surely come. But she alone was human enough to feel their pain.

Both were prerequisites to this appointment.

She never wanted it, in fact, she asked to be spared from such a thing. But submissive in nature, she was resigned to this fate before accepting to take it upon herself.

A few offered assistance in minor forms, but most just pitied, and then went on their way, having secured for themselves something far better than those dismal prospects.

Oh, how I long for those days before the gray mantel of her indignation fell. Veiled by the tears of this world, she was never again to see into the light.

Chapter II

. The Knowing .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

Black lay the hills around. Perhaps it was the lack of moisture. Perhaps the heavy-set clouds that hung low over the sky. The going down of the sun?

A high density of shale permeating the plain’s soil?

He supposed it could be all of those, but one thing stuck out to him more than the rest.

Shadows had grown heavy in the land as of late.

Everyone felt it.

A lurch from the plow jolted the poor boy back into his farm work. The Toraq pulling the clunky piece of machinery let out a groan as two sharp discs clinked into a stone and refused to budge for a few moments. After a strenuous pull, though, they continued on.

Five or six acres, and it wasn’t high noon yet. They were making good progress.

Lyrus clicked to the beast, urging it to continue forward with the work. They were of a hardy type, caught from the Foothills to the north. This one had only been trained for a few weeks, but, seeming to be of a more docile nature, it had taken well to the pull and never gave much trouble.

A bit different from the past two they had bought.

This one had only three horns sprouting from the base of its skull and curling outwards. Probably a fight.

But not one that it had picked.

There was a call from down the hill. Lyrus pulled on the reigns, letting the dilapidated machine grind to a quick halt. He could see the figure of his father motioning for him to go down to the house.

Unsure why, but not one to disobey a command, he set to unhooking the harness and locking the wheels of the plow. The beast was happy to be released from its burden and celebrated by shaking the dirt from its thick, blue hide, coating Lyrus with a layer of dust.

“Now come on, you stupid animal.” He retorted, but with affection to his voice.

It’s not as if it had done any wrong.

“You have to think about others now, you see, otherwise you’ll end up like Frump and Kimp.”

They’d gone off to another home, at least, that’s what mother had said, but he knew that she was only saying that to keep the other children from crying. He was old enough to know things like that.

“What took you so long?” His father asked, a bit perturbed that he had been forced to stand there for some time. “I’ve been calling you for the better part of ten minutes.”

Lyrus pulled the Toraq towards the barn, and answered, “Sorry, father, I was talking with our new friend here.”

“Well, next time come a little faster. This is important.” His father seemed a bit frustrated, though he couldn’t tell why.

“Yes father.”

He quickly pushed the animal inside its pen, shutting and bolting the gate behind it. Before leaving he threw a handful of dried feed into its pen, smiled, and then went back to the main house.

Everyone was seated around the table already. The younger children making a fuss, his mother attempting in vain to keep them quiet.

Aldreaus, the oldest son, had a hard look on his face, and the next in line, their only daughter, sat quietly, with her head down, hair veiling her face.

Lyrus thought he saw a tear fall into her lap.

“What’s wrong mother?”

She looked at him with her soft, green eyes, and curled her lips into a tight smile.

“Oh, nothing is wrong, we only had some news for you.”

Stooping to lift a little creature into his lap, he took a seat next to the youngest member of the family. The animal was some sort of four legged pet, a Fytleck, with feathery blue skin and two little beady eyes that looked up at the boy, probably seeking for food.

A family pet. Not all that uncommon.

“Yes, we thought that you should know, even if you’re too young to fully understand. Aldreaus and Maritha already know.”

His father was a tall man, and broad in the shoulders. You could tell that he had worked a long time in the sun and the dry heat, the way his skin shone with a golden tinge. There were few wrinkles through his sun cured and muscular flesh.

Lyrus knew that he wasn’t too young anymore. He had passed his twelve year, only a season before.

He had received his first mark, right under the left eye. He wore it proudly, despite the fact that it was still a bit red and swollen at the edges. Soon, though, the others wouldn’t laugh when he showed them.

His father looked to his wife, brows furrowing in thought.

Smile and light broke from her features and she shamefully buried her face in her hands.

“Keltrith was attacked, not two weeks ago, and raised to the ground.” He stated. “The King has declared open war again.”

War? Again?

He could not remember a time when they had been at war. Only in the books they read at school. For him it was only the first time.

Lyrus looked at each member of his family, the tiny wheels in his head clicking like a well wound clock. War means we have to fight. Uncle Geoffric died at war. That means….

Suddenly, he knew.

He knew it all. Why his mother and sister were crying. Aldreaus, who normally had much to say about all things was sitting quietly in a stupor of thought. Why his father seemed so vulnerable and weak, even though he was renowned throughout the town as the strongest of men.

Truth dawned on him before the words ever left his father’s lips, but it was no freeing light that came to warm his soul.

Only a coldness left when that little piece of his heart fell out.

. At The Edge of All We See .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“No, that would be a terrible idea. Think, you would not make it more than two steps before they cut you down.”

“Yes, I know, I know. But do we have any other option?” Savill remarked in frustration.

“We’ll think of something. Don’t worry.”

Duraan?”

“Yes.”

“I’m cold.”

He didn’t answer for a long time. The way to comfort her was beyond him.

“It hurts, Duraan. Hurts so much. I want to sleep.”

“Yes, yes, you should sleep. You need it.” He reached out with all his might to send some connection of comfort to her, some small tendril to caress her aching soul. Something was there to feel, but it was faint, very faint.

She seemed to be somewhere between consciousness and a delirious state. There was not much care, only a desire to escape this pain that she spoke of.

But it worried him.

Pain, that wasn’t physical or mental.

“Duraan, I can always do it.” She replied to him of a sudden.

“Do what?”

“You know, Rift. It wouldn’t be too difficult right-“

“No, no, that is a terrible idea. Worse than the first that you had. Put it away from your mind.”

There was a bit of annoyance at the edge of her thought now, nagging at him a bit.

“Then what am I supposed to do? Sit here, and wait? For what?”

“I don’t know, Savill, I don’t know!” His heart sank with hers. “But you are too weak, you would get pulled in too far.”

And that was something that she couldn’t disagree with.

Weak.

It wasn’t what she wanted to be.

. Color .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Lost, it was all lost.

The fighting had moved on as the men drove the barbarians into the pitch dark of the night, cutting asunder those last few of the resisters and laying claim to the prize they sought.

And he had claimed his, only now…he wanted to give it back.

But my friend, you do not understand, life is not to give and take. Not for you, and certainly not for him.

Death claims only those who’s time has come, and all his wishing couldn’t summon her to leave her forlorn lair below.

He was on his own this time.

Aviin struggled to rise as the world swam around him. So many colors. Deep tones of purple crowded his vision, stabbed by shards of red and orange. Blue streaks cut into the mess, contorting the images around him into an unrecognizable patch of nothingness.

He felt lost.

He wanted to disappear.

Staggering away from the carnage and seeking solitude. There was no care as to where he should go, only that it had to be far away.

The thought, now, of facing his father, was more than he could handle.

At the edge of the camp, where the last few ragged tents had been erected, there was darkness to hide his shame. Here, no soul could see the pain that racked his body and tortured his mind. There was only the sound of his silent weeping.

And the wind.

Death stalked through the remnants of what was left. Not much more than over turned tents and torn bodies. Only one of them bore the emblem of the Emperor, clad in half plate mail forged in the furnaces of the Royal Barracks, his luck having run out.

Having found a place to himself, Aviin buried his head between his legs, breathing deep and attempting to gain control of his body, but it didn’t want to release its grip of those terrible images. He watched as they played before him again and again, each time becoming more vivid, individual details standing out in stark contrast against the backdrop of his past. Etching into his future.

But then another sound caught his ear and pulled him from the drowning of his emotions.

It was faint.

Like the call of an Eve Singer.

Following to where, he couldn’t say. The world was utterly black, and growing cold with each passing moment, but there was something to be found.

All at once he stumbled upon a stick, driven into the ground and tied with a rope.

Someone was there.

Aviin started back, afraid, but quickly realized that this person, whoever they were, was not moving.

Dead?

His heart began a deep, pounding rhythm, forcing the vile taste back to his throat. He coughed, quickly covering his mouth to mask the sound.

But they still had not moved.

Moving forward carefully, he tentatively reached out a hand, placing it on the figure’s shoulder, all the while expecting it to reanimate itself.

But nothing.

He bent closer to see through the blackness. There was a makeshift rail that had been tied between a driven post and a large, pointed rock. Another length of cord had been used to bind hand to rail, forcing them to kneel, or sit awkwardly on the ground.

Long hair fell past its face, hiding any feature that might be recognizable to him. And it’s…her, arm was warm beneath his hand.

She sat, legs pushed to one side, body slumped over the rail. There was no support for her relatively tall frame which hung painfully in ultimate discomfort.

Aviin let out a long sigh as he realized that she was, in fact, still living, her chest compressing, then retaking that precious life giving force. But she was certainly not conscious of the world around her. Lacerations, partially closed and scabbed with darkened blood, showed in several places, attesting to the state of her body.

Lying at death’s door.

Why is she here, like this? He wondered to himself, running through possible scenarios. A member of the trade caravan that hadn’t escaped? No, they killed all the rest…. So where is she from? And why here?

Answers came as his eyes adjusted to the black, revealing something very unexpected. Something that frightened him, but curled a taunting finger that drew him deeper.

Something that I had known all along.

But I don’t need eyes to see in the dark. These are some things that you will learn very quickly.

I had known her for such a long time, always there, at the edge of the plain of my thoughts. A silent memory that never spoke much, but it’s words like shards of crystal; beautiful, and tearing.

Red.

So piercing and crude.

Yet, it was not the color of the blood he had so freely spilled that night. Only the rush of spring’s touch as it caressed the wide fields of the Quiet Hills, painting the grass a deep vermillion, but not so stark as to seem overpowering.

But it was still red.

Appalled at what he saw, Aviin nearly drew away and fled, but there was that intrigue, still playing at the strings of his decision turning mind. Thoughts of disbelief clouded his mind as he drew upon his past, filtering through all of those events, and questioning if they were true?

He had never told anyone of the dreams, not his father nor any of those that he trusted. They would have thought him a fanatic and turned him out to become a ward of the empire. No, it was his own safety that had stayed his hand, for those many years.

And now?

With shaking hands he reached out, grasping a few thin strands and rolling them between his fingers. They felt the same, and yet….

He could not pull away.

. To Slay A Man .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Grant to me vision, my deity.”

Smoke, burned from sticks of incense, had filled the small sanctuary to the point of blocking almost all visibility. But one would not be able to tell if the thick mist was simply impenetrable, or if mild herbs were fogging the senses. Perhaps a bit of both?

“And lead me in the paths of light and truth.”

Either way, Aviin knew where he would find General Feilden. He was always to be found in the same spot, sitting before the shrine of Kholiris.

Majestic in form and power, she gripped her maned javelin in delicate fingers, the weapon of her choice, looking to be broken. Those piercing eyes, though, staring down from her perfect feature, silenced any thought to touch or harm.

Goddess of the field of war, and of tradition, she had never lost a game of Stones, not even to her companion brother who stood in the adjacent alcove. It was to her that Feilden prayed, and from her, he believed, had come all his victories. But now?

Now, he sought counsel in a very different matter. This is why he had sent for his son.

“Don’t stand and say nothing.” Feilden uttered abruptly, catching Aviin off guard. He had meant to observe his father for a few moments more, but this veteran of a soldier had ears trained better than the younger man’s feet.

“You asked for me?”

“Yes,” Feilden’s shoulders rose a bit, but he did not turn to face his son. “I thought you might like to do your devotions, alongside me?”

The request brought foul thoughts to Aviin’s lips. His father knew how he felt about that, and yet, he asked on a rather consistent basis. But it wasn’t worth stating again. Remus, emperor of Asix, might force them to claim Lydria and Brey as their token gods, but he could never put an iron trap over their hearts and force them to believe in such nonsense.

All the soldiers knew that this barrier between father and son existed. Some even went to such low lengths as to have some fun by edging it on.

Feilden would have none of it, though.

And guess who became the scapegoat for all of his anger and frustration?

“Is there something important that you wish to discuss?” Aviin asked, definitively, something which his father took in personal offense.

Great, here he goes again. The closed eyes, silent composition and forced exhalation of the breath. He would remain this way, until some brilliant way of further destroying his son’s confidence and position was revealed.

From the gods, of course.

As if sensing the level of contempt rising, Feilden suddenly turned, rising to his feet and fixing his son with a blaring stare, his jaw working in and out.

He rhetorically framed a question, tossing it to Aviin in anger, “And what would you have me say?”

What could he say? The situation was well understood. Perhaps it was Aviin’s younger age, or his penetrable heart that yearned for something more than the cold embrace of a soldiering parent, but he desperately sought a charitable extension of grace.

Silence was his reward.

This time, he could not let his father win, so he forfeited the battle, and spoke, “And how would you have me answer? The whole camp knows now, and I’ll live with it for the rest of my life.”

“And what will I do with it?”

A third question, for a three pronged spear to puncture his final gleam of trust.

His emotions almost overcame him. Fighting back the hot break of tears and gripping the flood in his chest, he bit down and clenched his fists and released but a part of his building rage, “I did it for you, father, and nothing else! Why do you not except it for what it is?”

There was a short pause, the flames dancing in Feilden’s eyes.

“I asked Kholiris for a son,” he eventually said, “that could grow tall and strong like his father, and regain the honor that was lost, for his family.”

The final line bit hard and deep, poisoning Aviin’s bitter soul.

“And she gave me a child.”

Speechless, the so called “child” stood, broken again, bleeding out his heart on that stoned floor and letting it seep to the feet of the marble goddess. She drank it up like water from a spring, that twisted smile there all the time.

“And one that shrinks at responsibility and duty.”

“What?” Aviin bit hard. “Is this about what happened out there? I killed him, didn’t I?”

“Yes, that you did. But I look into your eyes, and they tell me much, too much.”

“And what do they say?”

Feilden’s jaw worked in and out, contemplating his words carefully. Finally, he gave his answer, “That you will never kill again, because you are a coward in the face of death. You shrink at the honor of claiming victory.”

“A coward? It isn’t death that scares me, it’s taking life from another. I learned to value it, father. It means something.”

“And are you to tell me that those…beasts have what you call life?”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head in frustration at his father’s impudent and stubborn character. “They are still Adonai, just the same. You know that.”

“No!” He cried back. “They chose their lot when they attacked that caravan. But it is not for you to say. You are to obey the commands of your ranking officer, and nothing else. If your ability to do so has decreased, then perhaps you are no longer fit for duty.”

This thought had been on his mind, but only now did it crush down with full weight of pressure, and he realized, not for the first time, that his heart had never been to claim that prize of a life.

Only to please his father.

“And if so? What then?”

But Feilden’s answer did not come. Something was roiling inside of him, building into a heavy force and pressing at the edges of his lips. Something that ate at him.

The next sentence caught Aviin entirely off guard. He was unprepared for such a thing.

“Dishonor, you dishonor me.”

Such venom and spite.

“You dishonor your family name! You dishonor your country and your kin! You bring shame to the household of Vrein….”

All of it clenched through his teeth.

His eyes fell, head nodding in response. The only response he could give. And the last strand of what they had remaining, to bind them, was cut with a butcher’s knife and laid for all the world to view.

Reader, do you like what you see? Because I do.

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLVI .

And so it is that the commander of the Fallen armies has been slain in battle. His head was raised on a spear and placed at the entrance to the city of Ellebore. All who traveled through its gates were to see the consequences of rebellion against the high crown.

And the uprising has been put to death for a short season. For nearly a year the kingdom was free of its corruption and all the insurrectionists were hunted down and put to shame for their actions.

Peace has been reestablished in the land, and unity between the clans restored. A council of the high Lords was held to discuss rebuilding the kingdoms governmental systems. Lord Karx wished to end, for the last time, the possibility that the Old Religion could resurface and become a threat to them again. As a consequence of their council, a new law will be established that mandates each family place a statuette, of their choice, of one of the seven gods at the entrance to their home.

The going down of the sun each day will also be celebrated with a public time of devotion, where each subject was to pray to their god.

In this manner, they hope to build a firmer web of unity, and to bring about the true strength of the kingdom in all its glory and splendor, as had existed in past days under the rule of the High Kings.

. Po .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Momma?”

Patters of heaven sent moisture dripped steadily from the edge of the roof, pooling at the corner of their small home. The woman watched with grateful eyes as the rain quenched the earth’s great need.

It had been a long time.

“Yes dear, what is it?”

Her child pressed against her leg, looking up with those deep blue eyes that reminded her so much of the sea. “When will Po come home?” He asked, real desire to hear the answer showing on his little features.

It was a question she’d asked many times, perhaps too many as it was a constant worry of hers. And so, she gave the reply that had always been there, the one that set things at rest and let them be, “Oh, soon, my love, very soon. She usually comes back in the fall.”

The boy’s young mind, now satisfied with the given answer, brightened a little and he hugged into her leg, pressing his face against the twilled skirt.

“That’s good, I want to see her again.”

And so did they all.

She sighed, but not too hard, not enough to worry her son, but enough to release her feelings.

There were those mountains, stretching from horizon to horizon, a protection from the dangers of the south. Jagged crests piercing into the clouds, topped with a dusting of white powder. Aptly termed Eira’s Crown, they called to her, invited with a taunting finger.

Two would return to cross through the pass and make their way back home. Two were missing every night at the fire, but at least she knew where one of them was. The thought gave her little comfort, though. Drog hunting was certainly no layman’s vocation, and though she trusted that her husband would be safe from harm’s way, there were always those few.

Brought back on a cart, with a flower in hand and a mark of the slain drawn in black paint over their eyelids.

But she was determined that this would not happen to her own.

“Come Jaerus, let’s make some bread.”

Delighted at the prospect, the boy skipped off into the kitchen in search of ingredients and began arraying them on the counter. This was his favorite part of the day.

She let one last breath out, then shut the door.

. Blood is a Beautiful Thing When Dry .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Raucous, they all stood, clambering over one another to get the best view. This was something they had not seen in such a long time, and like ravenous beasts on their first kill, they watched on, hungry for more.

Standing’s Point was the farthest edge of the conquerable world. Even Drath-Eis, balanced up in the great hills of the north, was still closer to home.

These men were starved of all things, including food and drink. Separated from home and kin, from all that they knew to be their own, and drug into a world of the desert’s solitude.

But someone had to do it.

Feilden sat, one arm perched on the chair’s rest, features gripped into that unbreakable strain of his.

Who knows what thoughts permeated into his mind at that moment? Surely not pleasant ones as he considered what to do with their newfound problem.

The subject of their attention was collapsed on the floor, quietly sobbing in short bursts of breath. He almost broke, to see such a pitiful and worn character, having endured so much, only to arrive into this predicament. And a woman, of all things.

But it was not this point that stirred so much energy into the thin hall.

How do I get into these things? Feilden bemoaned himself and his fate. I didn’t exactly sign up for this.

She had been brought back with the caravan, her wounds bound and her health nursed back. The whole time the plan had been to get her on her feet, and then send her away, very far away. And then, there was the talking to no one at all, but to something not present….

The strange way that she stared into the wall, moving hands, as if to enhance her conversations with the empty air.

And then there was the other issue.

Two nights before a guard left his post while on duty, ranting of some freakish appearance, a spirit come to slay them all, that had walked in from the desert side.

He didn’t believe in ghosts, just as any smart man wouldn’t. But then…. He said it was the boy, Matthias.

The specter of his dreams.

Come back to haunt them from his dry grave and to take his revenge for their not recovering his lost body. Soon, he was everywhere, in every hall, in every dorm, always there to watch and plot his nefarious wishes. Nightmares conjured up by ignorant minds, no doubt.

But it still had him worried.

And now this.

Had it been any other person in this same situation, she surely would have been returned to her home by an escort, kept safe and unharmed. There would be no question.

But the hair.

That was something that they simply could not ignore. They had checked to see if it was a dye, but no.

Feilden’s confidence to handle the situation was waning fast, dying like the sun that dropped for the horizon’s edge, and for a night of rest, all the while stealing his away. Ideas ran across his mind, but each one was to be turned down. Ultimately, there was only one choice. The deep pondering was only a ruse to avoid the inevitable, and it pained him, it did every time.

“Daughter of Eoiyn, by order of Emperor Remus, lord of Axis, you have been summoned before this council to be questioned.” He said, rambling off the preliminary remarks that so embodied their current political station. There was something about telling the truth and of hiding nothing from the crown, but the whole time she laid there in the same position, not caring for the world that there was someone speaking to her.

Losing his patience, the general motioned to several soldiers. “Stand her up.”

They moved quickly to pull her to her feet. She pulled her arms away, pushing one of them back, and he was happy to go. The two men shrank back, as if frightened.

“You are required to answer all questions that the Emperor, or those he anoints as his spokesmen, may demand. Do you understand this?”

Their eyes met, fire and ice clashing in a fury of torpid war, but in the end she couldn’t fight this war forever, and she knew that.

Nothing would stop her from throwing as much venom into those so-called answers, though.

“If that’s what your gracious monarch wishes, then so be it.”

Contempt.

Something he hated with a passion.

“You are now a ward of the state, do you know what that means?” But she gave no answer to this, perhaps not wanting to admit that she did not understand. “It means,” he continued, rising to his feet to stand above her, “that you are at the mercy of the law, and nothing else. If deemed necessary, action will be taken to protect the people of Axis and its borders. If you are found to be of no threat, you will be released.”

He stepped down two stairs to stand directly before her, the two of them locking eyes for a moment. He could see the determination in her face, the resolve to not lose this fight.

“But if deemed necessary, you will be kept captive, until determined that you are to be of no harm.” And almost as an afterthought, he turned his head slightly to look straight into the recesses of her left eye, feeling for something, and added, “Does that frighten you?”

A moment of silence, even from the crowd of obnoxious men.

“Yes.” Came the answer. So honest, and so bold.

Her demeanor matched the color of her hair. So very fitting.

“Good, then we should get along.”

Feilden was in search of only a few things, mostly for his own sanity, but he knew that in the end they would need to send a rider to inform the Emperor of the situation. It had happened before, but not quite in this way. There was nothing else to consider, but he did not wish to be so rash as to mistreat this poor soul.

“I only ask that you answer a few, simple questions, the first being where you have come from?”

Willing to comply under the current circumstances, she answered quickly and without adornment, “Canton, of Felltown.”

“A long way away from home. And how did you come to the desert?”

“I was captured.” She said, squinting a bit.

Feilden chuckled lightly. “Yes, that much was obvious, but how did you come to be in the White Wastes at all? What brought you here?”

“I travel far, to get away from….”

“From what?” He pushed, trying to force her to keep up.

“From men like you.”

More truth had never been spoken, and Feilden understood that very well. It made complete sense. Others had done the same, hiding themselves from Remus’ reach, sometimes for generations.

But he would always find them.

Everyone knew the laws and customs well, and it had been that way since the beginning, long before the current Emperor ever came to be in power, trailing itself back to the days of the High Kings.

Of course she was running from them. Who wouldn’t?

He shook his head in aggravation that it had to be him. First the boy, then his son, and now this. Running tired hands through his greying hair, Feilden rued the day and wished it could all just be over.

But she was still there, and so were the rest of his men, stirred up by the recent happenings.

Witch.

That’s what they had called her.

A bit superstitious, but so the legend went. Their kind had been eradicated long before, though traces still floated up from the depths, resurfacing from time to time.

“You know the law, and what it means.” There was no doubt of that.

But her next move surprised him, because she was so intensely serious. It was not a question or a plead.

“Let me go free.” She said.

A statement, of what should be. Something about her changed, that fire in her eyes leaping up in renewed strength, then of a sudden sputtering out to be replaced by a thick darkness.

But not fear.

To be free? How he longed for that warm embrace. But it was only a child’s dream. No, he had gambled on the boy, and lost his wager. Aviin had risen to the occasion, only to fall farther into the abyss of his own shame.

This time, though, there would be no mistake, no matter the consequences that would be rendered of his conscience.

I, am brathak tain.

. Dusk Will Dawn .

Golden streams of twined silk fell from past her shoulders.

The same color as his.

Aviin’s thoughts reached for this vision, wanting to hold on longer. Some nights he lay awake, thinking only of her and trying, desperately, to grip on to the few memories that still existed of her presence. She was so far away, and, rusting through with the years, her countenance grim dimmer in his mind’s eye.

Truth be known, this was the true rift that had cleft father from son. It was the one thing that had kept them at such an indifference, both refusing to move from their defenses. But something about it still troubled Aviin.

He never knew why.

Why had his father done such a thing? The courage to confront him, face to face, had never been born. He knew what the general would say, and so, to him, there was no point in going that far.

She must have been so beautiful, his mother. Did they share the same green eyes? So many questions left unanswered.

A bitterness, tight and pervading, crept into his heart and clouded out all other senses, rising and ebbing like the flow of a great ocean of anger and hatred for this man’s actions of the past. It did not matter to him, the stories that he was told of his mother’s choices, there was simply no room to refute the fact that his father was at great fault in his mind. And though time and earth would pass away, it could never change from its driven direction.

He found himself at the edge of the bed, hot tears streaming down his cheeks and staining the cool stone tiles.

Mortal, as you all are. Betrayed by your emotions and left to slay your own soul, using your own sword of self-pity.

This, I never understood.

And so here, we find him, a shattered man at the beck and call of his internal struggle, tossed about on the waves of uncertainty, with this deep hatred for one man, and one man only, rising.

. But Blood Stains Red .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“And what reason,” Feilden prompted, “do I have for doing such a thing?”

Quickly came her answer, but not with so much force, as if…unsure, “Because if not, then you will regret your decision.”

Fortunately for her, though, this was truth in every sense of the word, and it punctured Feilden’s soul with a poisonous fang, leaking into his blood and buzzing through his system. Regret, it was his greatest weakness, and it showed.

“Do you understand what the consequences would be, if I were to release you?” He asked, but it was rhetorical, talking to himself, only an attempt at providing a way out. “You would be a fugitive, wanted by the Emperor and his company. I would be in open opposition to the crown, and at fault of treason and mutiny.”

He stepped just a little closer to her. She could smell his breath, stale and with a tinge of alcohol at the edges.

“They would have both of our heads for it. And that is simply som-“

“Let her go!”

This voice interjected and cut into the raw silence that had built in the room as the soldiers watched, a voice that Feilden recognized well. And from the crowd emerged a figure, tall and thin, with sandy blonde hair and green eyes and a face just like his father’s.

There were some whisperings amongst the men, most surprised to see such opposition to their commander in charge, but not entirely shocked that it had come from this one. He had on a fresh set of clothing, as if going to some important event. Face recently washed and still a bit red at the edges.

Dark circles showed under his eyes, adding age to that youthful form.

“What did you say to me?”

“I said, let her go, father.”

Feilden’s reaction was to exhale one, short laugh, confused and perhaps a bit more shocked than the rest at this soldier’s conduct. Who was he to stand in the face of the law?

“I thought I ordered you to remain at your post, soldier?” He stabbed, contemptuously.

Yes, his trick of assigning Aviin guard duty was certainly a good way to keep him from the trial, but then, he had not included the fact that nothing would keep him from coming anyways.

He had talked to her.

Only briefly, of course, and she never said much, whether in dream or in person didn’t seem to matter much, but he gathered that she was of the northern people, and a long way away from her home. She had come to the southern wastes simply because it provided protection, and distance from those that might cause her harm.

Her plan…it had worked out very well indeed.

The sound of battle attracted her, she recognized them as simple merchants, and went to aid them in their struggle against the barbarians.

She hadn’t said how, but eventually she was captured by them, and drug into the wilderness. The others were left to die in the desert sands, their bones to be picked clean by scavenging animals.

Her own survival rested entirely on one thing….

Her hair.

And now, it was trying to get her killed, and not for the first time.

“Did you honestly think that it would stop me? No, someone had to speak for her, because I knew that you wouldn’t.”

Here, he had misjudged his father, and it drove Feilden mad with rage, but he kept it at bay, at least for a short while.

“This is not for you to say. She is in my custody, and I will not take orders from anyone, especially not you.”

Several had made comments to him of Aviin’s strange conduct ever since they had taken the girl captive. How he talked to her, and how he seemed to constantly be thinking of her, standing at the compound’s edge and watching her with curious eyes.

Some said that she had him under a spell.

“Get back to your post, soldier.”

“If you give her up, they’ll only kill her! You know that.” Aviin retorted, seeking for more ground to dig into.

“You are out of line!”

“And you are going to send her to her death!”

Finally the general’s patience had worn thin and he motioned for those standing as guards to take action. “Take them!” He cried aloud. “And throw both into a cell. I want them out of my sight!”

“Fine, kill her, why don’t you!” Aviin cried, furious and enraged. “Why don’t you just do it yourself? You’re good at that!”

Feilden paid him no mind.

But then the borders of their relationship were pierced through with a rending blade, one last, final thrust to sever that thread of what remained. A final sentence, and a final attempt to beat his own father at his own game.

Uncalled for and unprecedented was his advance, and though nothing showed, it was apparent to all the world that Aviin, at last, had won.

“Kill her,” he spit venomously, “just like you did my mother.”

There was a scuffle of movement as the men seized both Aviin and the girl by the arms, dragging them forward and forcing their arms behind the back for tying. Aviin struggled to break their grip, but two against one was something he couldn’t handle. She, though, exploded in a fury of action, ripping one hand out and shoving the man back.

Gasps circled around, and someone yelled out.

“Watch out! The hag is using magic!”

Absurd! Feilden wondered. There’s no such thing.

And there wasn’t, at least, not since the mages schools had gone into disarray and burned themselves to the ground.

But then there was this strange energy that seemed to float around the edges of her crimson locks, dancing about as she fought with the guards. That same wisp of flame sprouting brightly against the backdrop of her darkened pupils.

They forced her hands together and one quickly wrapped them as she kicked at the other.

There was the sound of rushing wind, as if some great storm had suddenly risen out of the air. A dark and ominous presence seemed to feel the room.

“Don’t let her go!” Was Feilden’s final remark before the world around them exploded. Great lights flashed before their eyes, throwing them back, the girl yelling all the while, her form glowing with an intense heat, flickering in and out of visibility.

Eyes gone black.

Chapter III

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLIIX .

It is the thirty-second year of the reign of the Lord Karx. He has fallen sick from the fever, and passed from this life. There was great mourning in the land over his death and many come from all corners of the kingdom to pay their respects to the king.

Lord Karx’s second son, Drathair, ascends to the throne to replace his father, the firstborn having been slain in battle many years before. Drathair ruled with wisdom in his father’s stead, but many thought this an opportunity to put forth their own designs.

One Lishta, a counselor to the king, rose up while he slept and put a dagger to the king’s heart, ending his life and his short rule of only a few months.

With no heir to the throne, the High Elders fight over who should be named king, and while they fight many have begun to form secret combinations, all seeking to crown themselves and bring the clans under their rule.

It has not been one year since the death of Lord Karx, and already war has broken out in the land, clan against clan, house against house. Many thousands fall at the sword’s edge each day.

. The Leaving .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

“Maritha! Don’t stand there like that. There’s chores to be done.”

Her words sounded harsh, far more than was usual. Maritha responded by sucking back the few drops at her eyes and returned to quickly scrubbing the window pane clean.

Lyrus knew that she didn’t mean to be hard, but he understood why it came out that way. They were all feeling that same emotion.

Ever since father and Aldreaus left.

It had only been two days, but already their home seemed such a dismal place. His mother had thrown out the flowers father had picked for her. Now it was just the bare wood of their walls and the cold stone floor that kept them company.

Of course, the two younger ones could not understand, and so their demeanor had not made much of a change.

He worked hard to keep them quiet, but what was he to do? They were like two little Vitrin pups, their games always turned into a fight, but fighting to them was still only a game anyways. There was simply an eternal round of energy that only ceased its movement when they grew too tired to keep their eyes open.

The mother turned to watch them as they played with a few wooden toys, prancing them about as if on some grand adventure far away.

Far away….

Emotions overcame her as the full weight of their situation crashed down upon her shoulders again.

It was not so much the fact that she was left alone, to care for four hungry bellies on her own. Nor was it that she would be away from her beloved husband and son for so long. Aldreaus’s first time to battle, still did not frighten her that much. It was simply….

War.

A consuming fire that would sweep the land and leave only ash and sorrow in its wake. They had won the fight once before, and so it seemed for the last time. But now? The darkness that came seemed to pervade even into the farthest reaches of the kingdom, seeking out all that was light and good and snuffing the flame of hope out in one great breath.

“Promise me.” Lyrus’s father had said in conversation with their mother. “Promise me that at the first sign of danger, you’ll take them away. Go to the sea, it will be safe there.”

“But I can’t leave the-“

“No, you must promise me.” He took a deep breath, holding her face in his hands and crying with his eyes, but no tears spilling over. “Tainya, you are strong. That’s why I chose you, remember? You can do this for me.”

And yes, she was strong, but I have a way of breaking things. She would be as the rest, for none could withstand that debilitating thing called grief and mourning.

She soon would know.

Despite all her promises, there was no intention to take the children away, to run from this danger. If need be, she would fight alongside the rest to defend her homeland.

And perhaps die with them too.

. On Being Saved and Saving Again the Soul .

- Seventh Age, year 718

The Edge.

It was this place he went often.

Some say that nothing exists out there, beyond that drop into a deep black that seems to go on forever, yet goes nowhere at all. It was a complete void of existence, so bereft of life and light that it was tangible to the senses. You could hold it in your hand and let it slip through the holes between your fingers.

Feel it glide past, like some ethereal presence.

Here, at the edge of all things, where time and space vanished into the frozen twilight, he stood, watching into the distance, as if…seeking for something.

How silly. There is nothing out there to find.

But still he came.

Thoughts and feelings poured out of him, littering the dark sky in bouts of technicolor streams, sparkling as they went and displaying before him like a mural to be read. And read he had, so many times before.

The past is often the only place to flee to, when the future seems so imminent and bleak, bearing down on you with full force.

Perhaps still not a safe place, but at least you know what to expect.

At least, so one would suppose. And here we find him, standing against that boundless cliff, staring down into the depths of his suffering. Visions of all the possibilities danced before him, mixing into the scheme of his colorful life, most of them leading to only one place. One specific particle of his consciousness stood out, speaking a viper’s words to him. Hushed tones urging him to listen.

Let go.

I cheered him on.

Let go?

Such an absurd thing to think of, but then, was it really? It had crossed him before, and entertaining it had turned this ghost of a dream into a frequent, and welcome quest.

I urged him forward.

What would it be like? Would I fall for an eternity, or is there a bottom, somewhere?

Ahh, there was so much going for him, pressing him to take that first step. My hand was outstretched, fingers reaching in the blindness for a hold of something.

Anything.

He was there already, in heart and mind, leaping with faith and finding satisfaction in that initial plunge. He was practically gone. And yet? It always kept him back, just that one little matter that always seemed to arise, whether I made attempt to stop it, or not.

She came, too.

On those pale, bare feet over the stale earth. That crown of flames dancing in the wind and splitting into the foreboding nature of my scheme.

She always came.

He turned to look, to see who this hero might be. What he saw, I assure you, is not what I viewed each time. An angel of light. A siren of the east. A paladin of Lydria.

Whatever he saw, it was enough.

Flickering of the torches was the only sound that he could hear, besides the quiet clomp of a shod foot and the occasional ruffling from the adjacent cell. Each time it came he prayed that she would wake, but a crack in the mortar revealed only her quiet form, just as it had been the night he found her.

Rubbing his groggy eyes, he attempted to wipe some of the dirt from his face but was only rewarded with more on his hands, and no way to refresh his stale lips and parched throat.

Perhaps he deserved this punishment, at least, his actions had warranted such? But his thoughts were not selfish.

Neither were his dreams.

For three days they had laid there, without food or water, and not a word spoken between them, or the other soldiers of the camp.

At first he had counted some as his friends, but he soon came to the harsh realization that there is no such thing in the face of one’s own reputation.

And there it is again.

It ruins great men, especially when the rest tell them that they already are.

No, not a single man, even such as Brighton had turned their backs, and despite the pained look on their faces and the intent in their eyes, it was still a show of where their true allegiances resided.

They were alone in this one.

And now she came to linger at their door, biding her time, as she always does. Her perfect, blackened lips quivering in anticipation of the medication that would satisfy her own hungering soul.

She had claimed two victims from the short light show of a few days before. Two unlucky men who would never return to embrace their families.

But the girl wasn’t to blame.

And even if you could, there was no amount of chastisement that could put her lower. She was there, on the knife’s edge, and even the slightest of touches would send her toppling over.

In Feilden’s mind, enough blood had been shed as of late, and so he spared her that indignity, but none of his rage. She lay shackled to the wall, with iron manacles braced to her arms and feet. Whatever sort of dark magic had caused such destruction among his men was sure to stay locked away, at least until he decided what should be done.

For now, he would fume in his anger.

But lucky for his son, there was nothing left that he could do to further harm him. Even physical pain would do little but leave scars in his flesh. The rest had already been done, and his spirit was slain.

Of course, if the girl were to be taken….

An envoy had been sent to the Emperor’s palace, informing him to make all haste in retrieving this newfound commodity, and the general was sure that this would at least get him some points on the board of promotion, at least to leave this blazing hole of a place. Something he had been looking forward to for a long time, ever since the Cardon incident.

Aviin had brought that back to his remembrance. It had never left him, to be sure, haunting, like all the rest, but at least he could mask it over with a suit of armor and slay those demons by the sword.

A flogging had been spared, by request of the men who insisted that Aviin was only acting out of a free spirit and a desire for the betterment of another.

True, in some sense, but it was still a selfish thought, and had put his entire regiment in jeopardy. An action punishable by death.

Aviin had been thinking, though, something he did often, and a new idea sprouted in his mind. While she was close, the dreams had become more vivid, almost to the point of smelling the stale grass and the scent of her warm presence.

He had never before attempted to speak to her.

But if she could listen….

“Do you remember the time we went to Kkarpaville? And swam in the lake?:

Did she remember? Those sorts of memories had faded so fast, trailing off into an opaque scene, somewhere in the distance.

“Yes, and you forgot that you don’t like the water.”

She felt his laugh coming through, and pictured that great big smile of his.

It was all teeth, from ear to ear.

“Well, yes, but under the circumstances I don’t think it would have crossed your mind either.”

“True, but you did jump straight in, without giving it a second thought.” She chided, laughing to herself.

Duraan defended himself with a restatement of the cold facts. “And what was I to do? Covered in that Targ slime! You would have done the same, trust me.”

“But I wasn’t….”

“Oh, and it was so sticky and gross. Smelled bad, too. You know, I should have….” He trailed off into the void.

“Duraan?”

“Yes, Savill, what is it?”

“It’s growing.”

Concern erupted into his thoughts, but he masked them over quickly, and covered it with as many tranquil tangents as he could.

“What is that?”

“Duraan, I can feel it rising, pushing out of my chest and wanting to release. It’s strong, more so than before.” Her voice becoming a bit faint at the edges and seeking for something to bolster itself up with. “I don’t know if I can hold on to it much longer.”

“Savill, you have to. For your sake and for my sake, you have to suppress it. You know that.”

“Yes, but you try doing it sometime! I’m not as strong as I used to be.”

He sighed, and sighed again, wishing for all the world that he could help her, but she was too far away this time.

“I’ll find you, Savill, just hold on for a little while longer.”

“Okay, but hurry. Please.”

And for that moment he felt the power recede and return to its home inside of her, but wasn’t sure how much longer it would last.

You see, the darkness was growing.

Faster than they had hoped it would.

Chapter IV

. Into the Night .

- Seventh Age, year 718

She lay heavy in his arms, far more than he had expected.

Strange, because she was thin and emaciated from the most recent, and tragic events of her life.

Or perhaps it was that his own strength was failing him?

Whatever the case, he ran, and how he regretted making the decision to bring along a full set of half-plate mail. It was heavier than the girl.

But it did not matter, he would just run faster.

His footsteps were deep in the sand, revealing his path of escape to all the world, and though he dared not to look back, he was almost certain that Feilden’s men would be tracking him, and at a much greater speed.

The advantage was still his, though, because the desert wind would make the final push at completely wiping any and all trace of their having walked that specific path. With each step sinking into itself, and the last few grains trickling in over the side.

Overhead the bright sun slowly crept its way to sleep, tucking itself behind the distant mountains at the far edge of the desert. Their shadows ran long in the fading light, and the sweat ran thick and full, down his forehead, through his undershirt and soaking into his tunic. But he could not stop to rest now.

With a pounding heart tearing at his lungs, he pressed onward, pushing what little strength remained into his legs. Funny, though, how it wasn’t the legs that wanted to give out and collapse to the floor.

As long as he could reach the eastern wall before they managed to catch up, he knew that they would be safe. All his days running scout duty along the wall, it seemed, would pay off. He knew of one small break in the stone barrier that had never been repaired.

It was their ticket out.

A part of him could not believe the events that had transpired over the past few days. It seemed almost too…perfect. But not one to complain or waste an opportunity, he had seized the moment with his sharpened wit, and now, here they were.

Running for their lives.

But they were not in so much jeopardy as he made it out to be. He only wanted to be sure that they couldn’t find him, and with the onslaught of the night bearing down upon them, there was little that the soldiers could do but to turn back and return to their outpost.

Spending a night in the desert was not a prospect that they enjoyed.

And neither did he.

Aviin, slowed his pace a bit, pulling to a lighter jog and letting his muscles rest. They were tight, and aching from the strain of being pushed to the limit, but they would not break. Training had done that for him.

There was this energy that seemed to be flowing from her form into his own. It had not stopped since there was that connection between them, which worried him. The color had drained from her lips and was receding past her cheeks now. How she had survived without nourishment for such a long time was beyond him, but there was still the pulse of her heart beating against his own, and so he turned to the more pressing matter at hand.

And into the desert they fled, becoming one with the solitude of such a vast space, lost, at last.

. How to Ruin a Man .

- Seventh Age, year 718

A sparse scattering of clouds hung over the grey stoned city, ambling along at a quiet pace. Streets bustled with activity, traders vigorously promoting their wares from far off lands in the markets, and it was otherwise a normal day in Arribinthia.

But a heavy aura hung over Graffert Street where the royal barracks had been built nearly a century before.

A war was being waged inside those spacious halls.

A man was being evaluated, and his credentials reconsidered.

In the end, had it been any other, they would have faced a short viewing before the court, sentenced to a temporary term of restricted duty, and the pain would end.

But here, it seemed, there was much to be understood before one could make such a simple and quick judgement.

Feilden, after all, was no mere foot soldier in the ranks, and wouldn’t be tried as much.

Long halls opened into the main area where they all sat. Such a high ceiling stretching up for a great distance before branching into a domed roof. Adorning the walls was an assortment of banners and heralds, all marking the many different clans and households that existed in the kingdom. At the end of the room lay the High Judges seat, and behind him towered seven majestic figures, all carved into the sandstone, all gods in their own right.

Lydria.

Brey.

Kholiris.

Draal.

Gyream.

Yvre.

Thoaxis.

The council of judges had been discussing with his commanders for some time, and it was no surprise as to what that conversation might include. He swore, under his breath, and wished it all away.

This was never a part of his vision, nor was it anything that had ever entered his mind. It simply should not have happened, but there was no changing things now.

The past has a way of sticking and staying.

And now it would be a black mark on his record for the rest of time. An inerasable stain to his name, branching out its venomous tentacles and seeping into every corner of his life, wrapping and tearing with its tendrils of a constant reminder that he had broken the code.

A commander, in the royal army, and he had disobeyed orders.

“Farshta!” He muttered again. “

The Fates did not favor him of a sudden.

But his anger was not so much at his current position, as it was something that he had expected. One cannot step from the bounds of what has been set, and hope to escape the confines of the law. It simply could not be done, and that order and control must remain, or the army would fall before battle even came to them.

In fact, the whole world seemed to run on these rules, and breaking them always recurred a most unpleasant consequence.

Gravity was quite obvious to him, and now he was spiraling in this free-fall of a descent, seeking for direction and stability, but all the while knowing that there would come a point when the air ran out, and there was only cold, hard stone to greet him.

But how could he have acted differently?

In that circumstance, any man would have done the same, and if it had not been him, there would be no correction to give, and no punishment to receive.

His tired eyes closed, overshadowed with his greying hair that so characterized the line of work that he had chosen for himself.

Actually, it never was a decision of his.

His father had made sure of that.

And now, he would have to do the same for his own son. Without a mother to care for him or teach him the ways of life, there simply was no other option. Rather than a Tum-tum stick in his hand, there would be a sword. Double edged and able to kill. No soft crib for a bed, only the hard leather of a soldier’s cot.

And not even a warm embrace when he returned home, victorious from their most recent journeying.

All of this came back to him, like branded shackles, burning into his flesh as they bound him to the wall of bondage to his past, and drawing tighter as the moments ticked by.

“General?”

The voice intruded into his thoughts and pulled him from the terrible vision of his memory of so many years past. He started, realizing that it wasn’t the seven hundredth and seventh year any longer. Things had changed.

Grinvelld had entered his quarters, seeking confirmation of some order that had been given.

“Yes, take them with you to Havendale, and see that their wounds are treated properly.” He answered in response. There were four more, all with those burns that never seemed to heal, despite them being the farthest thing from a mortal wound.

Magic has that effect on things.

Whatever had happened, the marks on Feilden’s record were striking at the paper now like some crazed Were-cat. Heads would roll over this one, but it was not his own that worried him the most.

So much had been lost.

Matthias, the boy.

Now his son, and of course the girl with him.

One of his good soldiers in the fight out in the sands.

Seven others would be on the recovery path for several weeks at the least.

And of course, there was that memory bringing all of the rest of it back.

His wife was added to the list.

But throwing his defense of a stone heart and an iron mind, he pressed forward. There was so much to be done, and the timing was not in his favor. A runner had brought word from the capitol that there was talk of rebellion in several of the border towns that dotted the edge of the desert’s peak to the west. They wanted it to be crushed without further room for advancement, if such plots were being laid.

He did not wish to go.

How could he?

That rage that had filled him just days before was not subsiding, but he knew that he must keep it in check, especially while in the presence of his men.

Once was enough.

Actually, it was once too many times.

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLIIX .

In this time of great confusion and uncertainty, a new claim to the throne has arisen in a man named Eiris, but known to many as Kall, Slayer of Beasts.

Exiled two decades earlier for rebellion against the king’s rule, he traveled to the northern mountains where he spent his days hunting the great monsters of the forest, gaining for himself a reputation as a man that could not be slain.

After revealing his true lineage, the High Elders’ council determined that he was in fact the only living heir to the throne, and by right of law, it was his rule to claim.

Now seated upon the throne of the great Karx, his uncle, Eiris begins to set at defiance all those laws which he deems unnecessary, withdrawing the heavy taxes from the heads of the people, granting parole to many of those prisoners who swore oaths to serve the crown, and traveling through the kingdom in search of weaknesses to eradicate from the people.

This drastic altering in the daily lives of the people will bring unwelcome resistance at first, but soon they will begin to recognize the good heart of their new king, and rally behind him.

In the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Karx, Eiris instituted a new festival into the lives of the people. Calling it Uldruth Inth-Astea, Jubilee of the Thousand Moons, to commemorate the thousandth recorded year on the Vraalden calendar. Funds from the royal treasury are being dispersed to the major cities of the kingdom, providing the people with a day of celebration.

A special festivity is planned to be held at the capitol where Lord Eiris will present a ballad that he has written while at war in his early years, and ask the people to accept it as their new anthem.

. Of a Rising Obsession to Fire .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Aviin shivered against the cold, staring into the sparse flames and willing them to grow larger. The slight warmth that they offered was almost stolen away by the wind that blew through the wild. Brisk and bright, it was biting.

And cold steel offered little protection from such an element.

The girl was certainly colder than he, which is why his own tunic was laid over her shoulders, but then, it would do little to ward off the chill that had quickly set in.

This was something he had not planned for, and now he would pay the consequence of his mistake. Stupid, he thought, but something excusable under the circumstances.

Rubbing his legs in an attempt to press the cold and the ache from them, he mentally chastised himself again for making such a rash decision and acting upon it without much thought. In the end, though, it was the only thing that had made sense.

She would have died, otherwise.

And he to be left in that cold, stone box for who knows how long.

No, he made the right choice, and by Yvre’s ear, he would make it out of this place, the both of them alive and well.

Aviin chuckled aloud lightly.

Then again, he didn’t even believe in those sorts of superstition.

One thing was for sure, though, he had to get her to a healer as soon as possible, which would be a hard task. The nearest town that he knew of could be nearly four day’s journey from where they were, if the weather permitted and his body did not give out.

Or worse….

That thought crossed his mind, peaking around the corners of his consciousness, only to be silenced with a swift blow.

I will not think of such things! He commanded his own self. She will survive.

But one thing that I could not understand was what force he had driving him to do such a thing. To go to such great lengths in an effort to keep fate from taking its toll and Death her victory.

It was not the thought of a life’s end that concerned him, no, there was something different here, something that I could not put my finger on.

Aviin added a few small sticks to the flames, looking at their quickly depleting pile of fuel that had not been so big to begin with. He would need to find more soon, but the thought of leaving her unattended forced him to stay a little longer.

He wanted to go back, to talk to her again, but sleep was a privilege that they couldn’t afford to pay for now, and perhaps not for a long while. Conjuring up visions of her in his mind stayed the desire, but not enough to banish it from his heart altogether.

Then a thought came to him, that made him smile and cringe, all at the same moment.

My father is right. His conscience said, speaking to itself. I’m becoming a fanatic.

. The Calling .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

Brittle lay the valley below, broken only by a staggering of sparse trees on occasion, and the dry bed of the Kryllist river.

Their crops would not grow.

Their animals would not survive.

And eventually they would be forced from the land and into a journey for the east.

But it was something that his mother would simply not allow.

Lyrus continued to dig, breaking through the hard and dry soil only by jumping, quite earnestly, on the shovel. With each effort, it seemed to shake another little piece of himself out. He was growing thinner, as they all were, and there was no surety that there would be anything left when he walked back down from that hill and to their home.

Now the hole was deep enough, so I watched as this young boy knelt, picking up a small bundle that contained the still form of their family friend. He had always been there, to run around the legs of the table and scoop up any morsels that slipped, or sometimes deliberately dropped, from the people above.

But not any longer.

Sucking back the tears that were being shed for more than just this little life, Lyrus set it into the hole and began covering it over again.

It was unfair, in all honesty, but life seldom panders to our hopes and dreams. In fact, it’s better to keep them locked away, for the Fates have this funny way of taking what you give them, keeping it for a short time, and then returning it all skewed and twisted.

That’s what they do, they bend time itself.

Sometimes it just doesn’t go back to where it came out from.

Cruel, to ask someone so young and so ignorant of the world’s ways, to be privy to such experience. He should have been playing with his friends, romping in the streets on glorious escapades as they slayed terrible beasts using only their little, wooden swords and donning the armor of a pail helmet and ruck sack for a chest guard.

There is a certain number of years that should pass before one is required to contemplate the nature of things such as life, and death, and all those heavy things.

Yes, my reader, she came even for something as unimportant as a Fytleck.

It’s not in her nature to forsake her duty.

Darkness lay on the horizon, as it had ever since the day that they left. Lyrus wished he could see farther into the distance, to view his father, and Aldreaus, and the happenings of their wars with the enemy.

He knew very little of them, only that they were called by names such as The Black.

Dread Reapers.

Orr Tav.

The Shadow Seekers.

They were out there, somewhere, and if his father had anything to say about it they would be turning tail and running for whatever place they called home.

Staring off into the distance, he felt it all calling to him. Speaking his name.

And one day he would answer.

. Eyes Like Daggers .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Aviin raised her head, letting a few drops of their precious water spill into her lips. Tasting the moisture there, she instinctively pulled it in, and sought for more. It brought him relief to see that her disposition to survive was still intact.

At least for the time being.

She had not taken any food, but then, he didn’t exactly expect her to chew it for herself. Not having brought anything to boil water in, there was no way for him to make a soup, so for now, the water would have to do.

Sparse patches of grass, though dry, were showing as they went farther north. Hopefully they were nearing the countryside and could soon leave this wilderness behind.

Two more days, perhaps.

Though there was no real way for him to measure how far they had come, and in exactly what direction they should go.

Leaning back against a broken stump, Aviin took a few moments to clear his mind and run an inventory of the situation. With only a small portion of the dried meat he’d snatched at the last moment, a few mouthfuls of water in the skin, and his weapons, they were not in any shape to continue to survive off of the elements.

The armor lay out there somewhere, ready to rust back into the earth.

It was a dumb idea to begin with.

She had talked to him again. Only briefly, but it was something. He now craved sleep like a type of chemical, constantly aching for it, but never quite being able to return to that blissful state. On occasion he would break through the wall, and the dream would return.

She was there, always, just watching.

At his approach, some concern showed in her eyes, more of a defense than of a fear. Her pale skin glinting in the faint light.

Aviin looks into her emerald eyes and asks simply, “Are you well?”

Perhaps a bit odd, given the circumstances. But it was a dream, after all.

They stand on a grassy knoll, the deep green of lush foliage spread at their feet like a carpet, then faded off into the black stone that cascaded over the edge.

“Yes,” she replies in a questioning sort of way, “I think so.”

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

No change comes to the features of her face. Not the wrinkling of her forehead or the curling of the lips in even the slightest way. No recognition?

“No, but you know me.” And then she continues. “But how?”

It takes him by surprise, because he had been asking that very question, and as of yet, no answers proffered themselves as possible.

Only the one, the one that they were currently in.

“Do you know how we got here? I mean, how we are talking with each other, right now?” Aviin asks, hoping that some sort of an explanation for how this all worked out would come.

She looks down before replying. “I was not here a moment ago, but where I came from, I don’t know. You called me here, did you not?”

Called? If he had, there was no way of telling how.

“Is that what happens? I call you here?”

“Well, we are here, aren’t we?”

It is all so confusing to him, this strange paradox into a plane that he had never understood before.

“Yes, but I do not understand why? What purpose do you have for coming to meet me?” Aviin asks, still probing for more.

But then she gives him a bit of information that he had not thought to suppose, something that twists the nature of their meeting in this twilight zone.

“It is your dream, so you already know why I’m here.”

His eyes close, as if to keep the approval hidden.

Yes, he knows very much why she has come.

Standing there at the edge, night after night, peering into the distance, and for the longest time, there was very little that kept him from releasing that iron grip of his and letting things go.

His mouth opens to voice an opinion…and then it’s all shattered by a noise that rouses him from the twilight of his thoughts and brings him back down to reality.

It was dark, cold, and very late. Quiet embers were all that was left of the fire, so he quickly set about stoking it with a fresh supply of fuel. With the flames now dancing higher and spitting their smoke into the starry sky, he turned his attention to the other matter now at hand.

Those noises he heard had to come from somewhere, and it certainly was not him or the girl. Something was out there, it seemed, watching them. Scenarios flashed through his mind, ruling out those that were most improbable, and only two came to him.

The first was that some wild animal had found attraction to the light of the fire and come close to investigate. As long as there were no rogue Rhond-Kyire roaming the wastelands of the south, they should be safe.

Or, it was possible that Feilden’s scouts had managed to follow them for such a long distance. Less likely, but more threatening if true.

Animals did not have a conscience to guide them. They feared, and therefore were vulnerable, wary of anything that might hurt them. Aviin’s mind began running different possibilities of what might happen, visualizing where he would go to defend himself, and if the approaching presence was an attacker, how they might make the first strike.

Possibly the most viable way of escaping harm would be to climb a tree, but that was something the girl could not exactly do in her current condition. There was a small patch of brush just a few steps from the fire’s edge, a little bit into the dark. If there was trouble, this might be their best defense.

The slight noise of crunching earth was barely audible above the natural droning of the night, coming from the north and circling around their camp. Aviin drew the sword from its scabbard and laid it on the floor in front of him.

A slight glimmer of movement.

The rustling of a deadened tree branch.

It was close, too close for him to be comfortable. Rising, he peered into the darkness, searching for any sign of their stalker. What he saw was not surprising.

Two little, pointed eyes, glinting back at him. The reflection of their fire glowing over the pupils.

Some type of animal, undoubtedly hungry and seeking any sort of food that it might stumble upon. And here it was, thinking that this would be its next meal.

The hilt of his sword felt good.

Then there was a flashback to that night, not so very long ago.

Nightmares of blood spattered onto his vision and fogged up his senses, bringing with it that tightness that closed around his mind, forcing out the world. But Aviin fought back, pushing with his might and clearing everything from his thoughts.

He looked to the girl, lying peaceably near the fire, soaking up the warmth.

He was prepared to make that sacrifice, in her defense.

Those eyes blinked, turning from side to side, matching him up. Then suddenly the creature jumped from the small rise and landed itself directly in the sphere of the fire’s glow, illuminating its features.

A cat, of some sort. Gray, with orange spots and streaks of white running along the length of its body.

It was not so big as he had thought it would be, but a crack in its mouth revealed deadly canines, so he readied himself, taking a defensive stance, and being sure to stand between the girl and their newfound intruder.

He had never seen its type, but then, it was not as if he had traveled abroad very often. Only once or twice, and then the only purpose was to visit acquaintances of his father, not to sight see. It had always been that way, ever since he could remember.

Focus! Don’t get distracted.

The beast circled to the left, eyeing the girl in what seemed to him a very desiring way. Flesh, that’s what it wanted.

And blood.

Advancing a step, it made as if to draw closer, but the glint of Aviin’s longsword forced it to retreat. Stinging with a cold ring and threatening in the vilest of ways.

This was his advantage, because he knew that it would not put its own life in jeopardy. That was something it could not afford to do, despite great risks of starving to death. Even in the most desperate of situations, retreat and life was a more viable choice, which they often made.

Aviin made a move, jabbing towards it and giving the length of his steel a nice rap against a stone, letting it ring in sharp ferocity. A bluff, but certainly a challenge.

But to no effect.

The cat’s head leaned to one side, ears flicking to catch the sound.

It snarled, bearing all of its weaponry in one great smile, and releasing that deep growl from the chest to match Aviin’s own show.

It had seen a blade before, perhaps even fought against it, and suddenly it was a whole new game, the board changing entirely.

Beast lunged, springing its attack from thin air and making a vicious swipe at Aviin’s legs. He was able to block with the flat of his blade, the animal’s thick fur sliding off of its edge, unharmed. He countered with an upwards strike, being sure to pull in before he went too high.

The cat dodged back, then sprang again, seeking to tear into his arm. A single claw ripped over his shoulder, piercing into one of the holes between chainmail links. Enough to draw blood, but nothing further.

It was not a game any longer, though.

Aviin grunted with the pain, gritting his teeth and making a few strikes at the air, hoping to scare the animal away a few steps.

“Stay back!” He found himself yelling as it went to distract him with a swipe at the feet, then dancing around him with a superior agility and moving for the girl. He interceded by lashing out with his boot, connecting a solid hit to the base of its hip that sent it skittering off course.

It was really after her.

A new rage sprang up in its eyes, making another round and searching for a weakness. Aviin had seen that look before. It was surprising to view it in a common beast, but he was grateful for the training that he had received, even if it was under his father’s tutelage. Squaring up and lowering his center of gravity, he made himself less vulnerable by opening a path to the center of the clearing, giving it only one way to its desired prize.

The fire loomed to his right, the only support he had in this fight, but all he had to do was hold his ground, and eventually the beast would grow tired and leave.

It continued to attack, with each advance growing in intensity and speed. Aviin was soon being pressed hard to find new ways of defending his position. Rocks and sticks did little to fend it off. His sword would sever anything that came too near, but it was a matter of keeping himself tight and close.

If he went out too far, or lost his center of gravity, then all would be lost.

This animal was a lot more intelligent than it had appeared at first, dodging his attacks, breaking down his defense and sneaking out of any traps that he tried to lay.

There wasn’t much left for him, besides a serious commitment to slay the beast.

And even then.

Of a sudden it leaped, high and fast, twisting in the air to avoid the tip of his sword which snaked by, narrowly missing its face. Two strong paws connected with his chest, forcing him back and off his feet.

He could have sworn he saw it smirk.

When connection was made with the ground he rolled as hard as he could, evading a snap of its jaws. Claws raked into his mail guard, pulling against his strength, but he punched at the beast, knocking it from him and spinning into a crouching position.

But it did not stop there.

He was forced to retreat.

A quick strike drew a thin line of blood from its side, enraging the beast even further.

The tree offered some protection, but now she lay there, completely vulnerable and without defender.

Powerful paws slapped at his legs again, nearly knocking him to the floor. He felt razor’s edge sever through thick leather and cutting deep wounds into his calf.

He yelled aloud in pain, ripping the blade down and inflicting a similarly intense wound to the beast’s neck. Leaping back, it moved towards the girl.

“No!” Aviin leapt to his feet, rage filling his body. “No! You can’t have her!”

It had placed itself over her form now, growling and preparing to hold its ground.

The beast wanted to ensure that this kill remained its own.

“You back off or I’ll cut your cursed head off!”

There was this crackling as energy flowed from his chest, down his arm, and to the edge of his blade. Blue and icy, shooting out tendrils of burning light.

It took him by surprise, and the beast as well. They both stared in silence for a moment, dazzled by the show of color and the intensity of the scene.

Magic! He can use magic? He asked…only the voice, or rather thought, was not his own. Only an echoing in his mind.

What was that? He questioned to himself.

The animal had fallen still, it’s lips silent and the fur on its neck flattened out.

“Can you hear me?” The voice asked, while at the same time the animal leaned forward, staring Aviin in the eyes.

“I can hear something.” He replied aloud, confused and still on edge.

A few drops of blood dripped from a cut on his temple.

“But…how?”

“How what? I don’t even know what’s going on!” He looked to the cat, saw the acknowledgment of his statement in its features, the tilting of the eyebrows, the lifting of its head. “Wait, can you hear me?”

Silence, for a moment, then broken by the soft nodding of its head.

Neither of them could bring themselves to believe it.

. A Few Words on What it Means to be Mortal .

Few stories can tell the saga of a life.

And fewer still will do justice in recounting the journey of a soul through time and space.

But for me, I cannot be bound by such trivial things. It is your trouble, and you can keep it that way.

An interesting thing it is, to watch as the gates of eternity are split apart for a few moments, while She enters in to lay another of your brothers into the coffin of their own making. It is not an uncommon thing, but the occasion of being able to peer into that otherworldly portal is certainly a rare occurrence.

One that most have never been privileged to view, nor would they ever want to. A million different wriggling souls, all jostling for position amidst the fire and the burning. All seeking a way out, but with no chance of escape as the door to their freedom forces shut, collapsing in and sentencing their hopes to a silent death.

But I enjoy watching their faces.

Regret.

Shame.

Guilt.

It was all there. The agony of an unfinished life, one that never amounted to much and was born in the wilderness of insecurity and of something you call sin.

To me, there is no such thing.

But that is the life you lead. Think about it.

. Champion, Rising .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Well, you did kidnap her, after all.”

“Kidnap?” Aviin shook his head in disbelief at the retorted comment. “Hardly. I saved her life, okay. She would have been sent to the Empire if I hadn’t “kidnapped” her like you said.”

The cat straightened its legs and moved away from the fire a bit, but never letting Aviin’s line of sight go to the girl.

“And exactly what were you expecting to do, bringing her out here?” It then asked.

It was a very odd thing, to have another’s thoughts pressing into your own. A bit irritating and itchy, like that one spot on your back that you simply can’t scratch, but inside your head.

“What else was I supposed to do? Look around you, we’re entirely surrounded by the wild. It wasn’t as if I could have just…teleported myself to some other country where the grass is green.”

The animal had to admit that his words were true, but perhaps he did not understand the full weight of their circumstances. Its mind turned to the girl, though.

“And how long has she been without food, or water?”

“It’s been a few days. I dribbled some mashed jerky into her mouth, but not much. She’ll take the water, though.”

“And where were you planning on taking her?”

A great question. He thought fast, but no answer came. It had never been a part of his plan, because he didn’t know where, in the literal sense.

Eleven years burning at the outpost.

Eleven years trapped away from the world. And now this is what he had to show for it. Sensing his instability, the cat growled lightly and there was a twinge of pain, as if being scolded by the rod, at the edge of his conscience.

“Hey!” Aviin started. “Don’t forget the ‘life saving’ part, alright. If it wasn’t for me, she’d be dead a long time ago.”

It shook a maned head, twitching pointed ears and glaring up at him.

“Yes, thank you for that. But what I must understand, is why?”

Why?

“I just asked that question.”

Aviin pushed back, hoping to close out his own thoughts from the beast’s reach. He had no idea how to control what was being felt or heard, and he had no idea what the animal could gather.

“Can you hear everything I say…think?

“Not as much as you’d suppose. But you still haven’t answered my question. Why? What led you to do something like this?”

His mouth opened to respond, but then he shut it quickly and turned on his mind instead, being sure to do his best at trapping out any foreign interaction. There was no way to tell if it was working, though.

He was still new to this game.

“How about you answer that question first, and then I’ll give you mine? Fair enough?”

The cat stamped a foot and bared the whites of it’s teeth a bit, then said in a very stern way, “No.”

“But I’ve already answered more than a few of your own, therefore, it’s your turn.”

Eyes rolled.

“Okay, fine, you get it your way.” The animal slapped at his mind again, sending a sharp, but otherwise harmless pain. “I just happen to be her guardian, and loyal friend. I’ve been following her ever since the incident in the desert, but there was never a chance to free her.”

A lot of other questions surfaced, begging to be asked, but opportunity was in short supply at the moment.

“And then I came along.”

“Yes. But by Yvre’s ear, how did you manage to connect with her?”

“Connect? What do you mean?”

It sighed, rolling its eyes again which only served to aggravate Aviin all the more. “You’re talking to me. You connected with her in some way. I felt it, before, on several occasions. Sometimes it was stronger than others. Did someone teach you?”

“Teach me what? This is all very confusing.”

“To mind meld?”

Mind meld? I have no idea what this freaky cat is trying to say.

“Hey, watch yourself. I’ve got six sides, and five of them are sharp.”

It took a moment before Aviin figured out what message it was trying to send. He chuckled, because it was funny, but the animal didn’t seem to be very amused.

“It’s obvious to me that you don’t have a clue.” It said in a matter of fact way. So sharp and blunt. “When you connected with her mind, and shared thoughts or emotions or whatever it was that transferred between you two, I felt it. It’s called mind melding because the two trains of thought become one. But what has me confused is that you are able to do it so flawlessly and completely.”

There was that pain again, forcing into his head somewhere, digging a path, as if…looking for something.

“There’s almost no barrier here….”

Pressure increased in great steps, escalating to the point where Aviin’s eyes closed and his jaw clenched in concerted effort to block it out. He felt the cat’s mind digging into his, perusing through memory and feeling like a library.

Finally, after a few moments of intense agony that left him with a beads of sweat dripping from the ends of his hair, the presence pulled back, leaving him for a moment with this hollow spot that quickly filled with sweet relief.

“You didn’t lie, you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.” It said in surprise, eyes brightening and the stern look fading from its face, ears clicking forward.

“Yah, of course I don’t!” Aviin yelled in quieter tones. “What do you think you were doing?”

“I read your mind.”

“Sure, like a book. And what did it say?”

“You have a dark past.” Came the answer. “Really dark.”

Dark?

Or just black?

Remember, it comes in more shades than one.

“There’s a lot that we need to discuss, a lot you need to tell me.” The cat looked to the girl, then back at Aviin. “We don’t have much time to spare, but for now, she’ll be okay. We can wait until morning.” It added, sensing his discomfort about her situation. “Sit, and talk.”

“And the same goes for you.” He remarked as he stepped towards the warmth of the fire.

The cat snarled, grinning with that vicious smile of its type. “I still don’t trust you.”

Aviin sat, keeping his distance, and said, “I don’t exactly trust you either.”

. To Kill a Drog .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Momma!”

Sighing, she went to the window. It had been a consistent droning of calls such as this that day. Always needing something.

“Yes dear, what is it this time?”

“Momma, it’s father!” The boy cried, running into the house and pointing in the direction of the road that ran along the front of their home. “Father’s coming!”

A light sprang into her eyes and danced over her lips as the quivered in joy. She should have been used to it by now, but for some reason she always worried while he was away. Nightmares plagued her of his return, only…not in triumph.

She ran out to meet him, careless of the muddy streets and her newly ironed dress.

A few other returning men were walking their way home again. She picked out the one that was undoubtedly her husband, calling out to him.

“Venistarre!”

“Eorria, my love!” He exclaimed, the scruff on his face and neck splitting to reveal a deep smile. Arms opened to accept her embrace as she threw herself into him. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”

“And you.”

He set her down, taking her face into his burly hands and looking at her with big blue eyes that swam like the sea.

“I’m glad you’re well.”

“Hey Veni!” Another called out from a ways down the path.

“What’s the spot?” Venistarre asked, waving to him.

“Don’t forget to kiss her for me!”

She looked shocked at such a thing. He just laughed and waved off his friend. “Oh, don’t worry my love, he’s only messing.”

“I would hope so….”

The boy arrived then, nearly knocking his father to the ground as he wrapped around his leg.

“Father, father!”

“Hey, it’s my favorite son!” His figure bent to the ground, ruffling the child’s hair. “Glad to see you defended the keep while your old man was away.”

The mother pursed her lips, not exactly pleased with all these foolish ideas that were being planted in her child’s mind. She didn’t want to raise a warmongering soldier. She wanted to have a little gentleman.

“I’m just grateful that you made it home safe.”

He laughed aloud and looked up at her. “What, me? I’m a Triar, we always find our way home.”

“Father, did you catch any Drogs?” The boy asked, jumping up and down with an energy that never could seem to expel itself.

“Did I catch any Drogs? Did I catch any Drogs? What do you take me for?” His sarcastic, playful nature only riled the child up all the more. “We took out two of those big boys, the both of them trophies by any right. Nearly five men tall.” His arms got really wide as he built the vision of how the hunt had been. “There we were, trapped at the cliff’s edge, cornered by the brutes. One of the men was already hurt, and it was a thousand foot drop to the bottom.

“Then,” he continued, “they attacked!”

He scooped the boy up in his arms, yelling all the while and throwing him around a little. His son emitted squeals of laughter that brought a renewed smile to his mother.

Finally setting him down, the man put a finger to the air, then a hand in the satchel at his side.

“We put spears right through it’s ugly little eyes, but it kept coming. Closer, and closer to the edge. Almost upon us. Just sniffing the air and looking for something to eat. It got so close I could have touched it.” He pulled his hand to reveal a large, serrated tooth resting on his palm, and proffered it to the boy. “So, I did what old men like us do, and I kicked its teeth in.”

Eorria was further displeased with his story, though. “Venistarre Triar.” She scolded, stomping her foot and clenching her fists. “You aught not to be so reckless!”

He rose to face her, his face withdrawing into a silent agreement.

“Yes, true…but you’re so cute when you get mad.”

“What?”

Venistarre chuckled, then dodged her half attempt at smacking him and danced away as she began chasing him back to the house, yelling and laughing all the while.

One home.

One to go.

Chapter V

. The Trying .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

It had been two days.

The land was dying, the earth dried up and swept away by great storms, the forests cracking under the pressure of a dark mist that hung heavy over the floor of shed skin.

Only, this time it wouldn’t emerge as a new being.

This time, there was no second chance.

Two days had passed without newfound food, and their meager store of bread and some dried meats was growing thinner as the days passed by.

Most had left. Some by choice, others forced, and still more than a few to a far different land of promise than they had been expecting. It was good business, that is, working with nature at times like these.

Almost took no effort.

Mother’s face was growing pale and thin, looking for all the world like a ghost. She denied it, but Lyrus knew it was a result of her giving much of her own food to the younger children. She didn’t want them to suffer, because they least of all would understand why this all was happening.

He had asked why, on several occasions, and each time it was met with a stubborn acclamation that they would not leave.

“Your father will come home, eventually, and we will be here to meet him, standing on the porch, and smiling.”

But in the background, he could hear Maritha’s strained voice muttering in low tones. “That’s if he ever does come back.”

She heard it too, and so their mother cried, like she had a thousand times, and would for a thousand times more. Thus is life.

I have little patience for such things.

Already they could sense that something was coming. A horizon opened to the north, a thick cloud that built each day and seemed to rise up into the air and shroud out their view of the sun. There was no stopping it.

Word had come, once, of how they fared at war, and little was said.

“No news is good news.” Was mother’s proactively positive reply.

But he knew what it truly meant. No news, means there’s no one to deliver the message.

Or perhaps no one to give it in the first place.

. Rapture Revealed .

- Seventh Age, year 718

He felt like a new man, with a full belly and the sweet taste of roasted meat at the corners of his mouth. Real meat. Not any of that dried, tasteless paper that they had survived off of for the better part of seven days.

No, the cat, who’s name he had learned was Duraan, had chased down a few random creatures that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky for them, but a gift from the gods.

If it could be called that.

Aviin tore a piece and savored the moment, letting the flavors of energy flow through his system. It tasted like being born again, which made him laugh. So much had happened in only a week’s time. And there journey was still stretching long before them.

A sigh pressed from his chest, his eyes straying from the sun’s light, to the cat lying in the shade of a small tree, to the girl who’s form had been propped on the dark side of a rock. Her chest rose, then fell, then rose in a satisfactory rhythm.

“And what should we do about her?” He asked, directing his question to Duraan.

“What else is there to do, but to keep walking?”

“No, I mean, she needs a healer. Someone to tend to her sickness.”

The cat’s irritated voice crossed in front of him, speaking of his disdain for ignorance. It was merciless, and angered him greatly, but what was he to do?

“She’s not sick. It’s a sort of comatose state that she enters. Protection, in the most basic of language.”

“So what is she doing then? Sleeping?”

“Oh, no, not sleeping.” Duraan explained. “She’s most definitely awake and conscious.”

Aviin snorted, then regretted it, then laughed again because it was such an absurd comment. “If she’s awake, then I must be dead, because there’s no stone under Draal’s beard that could sleep as hard as she is.”

“You’re very naïve, I hope you know that.”

Aviin raised one eyebrow and made a little face at the cat, who smirked in his own way.

“You see the world as being flat, and so-“

“Oh really? I thought it was round….” He trailed off, scratching his head in a sarcastic way. Duraan was not amused, but he never was about much.

“Yes, that’s funny. And while you sit here and crack jokes, she’s somewhere out in the third or fourth plane trying to stay alive.”

Aviin drew quiet.

“There’s more to this life than just what you see, there are whole other dimensions of time, space and reality that you can’t even comprehend. Things that no one can, because you’ve never touched it with your own hands.” Duraan rose to his feet and stepped to face Aviin, forcing him to turn in an awkward position to look. “What you can’t see, to you, doesn’t exist.”

“That may be true, but it doesn’t mean I can’t believe such things.”

Duraan eyed him sharply, shooting out tendrils of his thoughts to connect with Aviin’s.

“And do you believe?”

His was a hard decision to make. For him, nothing outside a wielded blade and a suit of armor had existed for such a long time, that he was privy to believe that anything might exist out there.

It wasn’t something he had heard before, though. All so strange and fantastic, to the point of discounting it as some dream or conjured idea.

But he couldn’t deny the dreams.

“Why are you telling me all of this?” He asked, sitting a little straighter. The cat laid still for a moment, thinking. This part still confused Aviin. How did an animal become as smart and intuitive as an Adonai? It did not make sense, because it could not happen. And yet, here they were.

Finally, it gave its reply, “I thought you were her friend, are you not?”

“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t have saved here if I wasn’t.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true. There are many others that would have different prerogatives, and very different intentions of what to do with her. But you don’t….”

Brackish trees spattered the dry ground around them, like so many dead men’s bones, all arrayed as scarecrows amidst the vast field. But what were they protecting? This was the edge of the wild, and they soon would enter the southern country of Lanket Vel-Dume.

“She comes to me in my dreams.” He said of a sudden, and now Duraan was intrigued.

“Dreams? You mean, the ones you have at night?”

“Yes. It’s always the same, for the most part. I’m standing at an edge, she comes to pull me away….”

“And then….”

“And then I wake up. I talked to her, though.”

Confused as to what he meant with his words, Duraan urged him forward into more detail. “Talk? You mean, about the weather and the latest happenings at the capitol and-“

“No, of course not.” Aviin retorted. “I would never bore her with such menial things.”

“Oh, if not, then what?”

His eyes drifted to the horizon, as if delving into the past and rousing out all those old days.

“Some things just can’t be said.” Aviin remarked in answer to the question placed before him, then almost in no connection asked, “What’s her name? She never would tell me.”

“Savill, of Gyffare.”

“We talked of life, and death, and I promised that I would save her.” He looked to Duraan, eyes falling from one to the next. “And so I have.”

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLIX .

It is the third year of the reign of the Lord Eiris, and the Orr Tav have entered through the gateway at the city of Stone Maidens. The entire city has been evacuated, the people moved to outer lying towns, and the royal army was called forth to fight for their king.

Lord Eiris led his men to battle, and to victory. But after only a few months of relative peace, they come again. Now they pour from the gateway in great numbers. At first in the hundreds, and soon by the thousands.

The king has succeeded in holding them at bay, but only for a short time until they were outnumbered and could not hold out any longer.

The plague enters into the people, raging throughout the land and overcoming many.

Eiris has declared war against the beasts and began the call for the men of the realm to march forth and gather beneath his banner. Many came to fight, and many die on the plains of Uldred and Thurn each day. Thousands succumb to the influence of the plague, and were murdered by their brothers to protect the kingdom.

Despair and darkness becomes our greater enemy as the forces amass in what remains of the city of Stone Maidens.

. The Falling .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

It may seem to some a sad thing. To others, little emotion will rise to their throats to choke out the breathing.

I myself do not feel, but I must admit, it seemed a colossal punishment to have one so young as he was to walk such a path.

Only a few days before he had buried a friend. An animal, but a friend nonetheless.

Only today he had buried his mother.

And his youngest sister.

Maritha had been of no help to him, carving that shallow grave into the hard ground. It had grown cold, though winter was still many months away. Her tears had frozen in the morning chill that swept the land like a vicious Kraul, howling and gnashing its wicked teeth. Biting into everything.

It was not that he did not feel the depression and the anguish over the loss of so much that caused him to refrain from weeping, but rather, he now had to be strong, for his sister and his brother.

They needed him.

A scanty loaf of bread, one of their last, sat on the table, but none of them wanted to eat much, so they just sat and stared in silence.

And then a knock at the door broke into their stunned suffering.

Lyrus rose to answer, confused as to who it could be. There were so few left in these parts. The rest had moved on.

Word had come a few days before that most of them perished in the wilderness, preyed upon by hordes of ravenous beasts that seemed to be turning vile with the descended dark that had now begun to overshadow the land.

Upon opening the door, he found it to be none other than Mr. Quintery, a fellow farmer whose wife had been too sick to leave.

“Hello, sir.” Lyrus said, a troubled look on his face. “What can we help you with?”

The man was tall, and very thin. So were they all, but him especially. His older frame not supported well by the lack of all things good. He looked down at Lyrus with sunken eyes, then to the other two children at the table.

“We ate our last few morsels last night.” He said, licking his parched lips. “We figured that you may have some to spare?”

Lyrus’ heart went out to the man. He certainly was in desperate need. But they couldn’t exactly afford to give up what little they had. He planned to take them farther south, hoping that the grasslands would have fared better.

They needed the food for the strength to travel.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Quintery, but this is all we have left, too.”

His eyes grew dark and somber.

“You could give me some.”

Lyrus sighed heavily and shook his head. “No, I really am sorry, but if we give you some, then we will have none. We haven’t eaten much in a long time.”

“There’s enough here for the all of us.” The man argued, stepping into the threshold. “Just give me a small piece.”

“Sir, I have to ask you to leave our house.”

He glared down at the young boy, snarling with his long nose curling at the end.

“If you don’t, then I will just close the door.” Lyrus placed a hand at the latch and began to push slowly.

Then those eyes went completely black, veiled by some dark membrane that ate the light. He seemed to grow a little.

“No!” He cried. “You little prick! Get out of my way!” Shoving Lyrus aside, he burst into the house, lunging for the table and the food that they had. “Today I feed!”

Maritha screamed, jerking their younger brother out of harm’s way and scooping up the bread. Mr. Quintery wasted no time in charging for her, leaping to the top of their table.

“Maritha, run!” Lyrus cried, searching for something to defend them with. She dodged under the table, narrowly escaping his clawed grasp, and fled from the home, followed closely by his now transformed appearance that resembled beast more than man.

Lyrus remembered that his mother had always kept a dagger beneath their bed, for times of trouble and danger. Was this such a time?

Frightened screams confirmed his thoughts.

His sister had run behind their small log house, searching for a hiding place to escape her mad pursuer. The man ran clumsy and flat footed, slapping his tattering shoes to the ground and stumbling into random objects strewn around the yard.

She went to leave the yard, but a clammy hand slapped against her ankle, dragging her to the ground and slamming the air from her lungs. She fought hard to retain their precious bounty, kicking at the man’s face, desperately trying to escape.

Free, she ducked around the corner, falling to the ground again, her hand wrapping around a pole.

Three tines stuck from the end.

A fork, for pitching hay.

Now wielding a sharpened blade, Lyrus rushed to his sister’s aid, following the path of turned ground that led to the back of their home. Sounds of desperate struggle pumped his blood and sent terrible visions through his mind.

Someone screamed, an evil, terrible cry that stood his hair on end.

Rounding the edge of the house, the sight that met his eyes nearly brought him to his knees.

Maritha was there, cowering behind a crate, sobbing and shivering.

On the ground lay a writhing figure that resembled Mr. Quintery, only his features had gone pale and dark around the eyes and mouth.

Three pointed spines stuck from his back.

The pole out the front, rapping on the ground as he shook.

. Incubus .

And then, I’ll eat some Truvvian truffles.

Her mind had wandered far, but at least it was in a wonderful place.

Back home.

With warm smiles of her friends and family all around, and the safety of a world tucked away from the empire’s reach. It was this that gave her the most distress. Had it not been for Remus’ outrageous, and bias laws, there would be nothing in her life to keep her from being happy, as she wanted to be.

But the gods seldom give us what we want, do they?

Trust me. I know something of these things.

The world around wore a mask of thick fog, draped heavy in the air. It was better this way, though. She didn’t have to see where she was going.

Her direction?

Who knew. Even I could not ascertain to what place she desired. Perhaps she did not even know. There was only her and the silence of air to keep company. But a good friend it was, never talking back, never giving spiting remarks.

Never telling you that you were wrong.

It was for this solitude that she searched, and here, it grew in abundance and she could reap the harvest.

How long had she been away? Then again, it did not matter much, because time was such a nonexistent thing in this world. There was no way to tell, so she put it from her mind, choosing rather to dwell on the more positive present. Who was she to waste an opportunity such as this?

A tree came before her.

Tall and wisped, swaying to the music of our silent hall, and the sound of the sky standing over them. It looked content, and pleased with itself. Letting the strands of its silken hair run over her hands, she strode to its trunk, placing a palm against the strong grain and watching as it began to glow beneath her touch.

This was Rorith.

And it had grown strong.

. The Rising .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

The dark was at his mind, knocking and seeking entrance into the chambers of his soul.

It took Maritha, almost too fast.

She had changed the day before, a strange appearance descending over her. And then, she was gone. Joreth, the youngest, was still fine. But when Lyrus looked into his reflection that morning, he saw the same black at the edge of his eyes, slowly creeping in.

There was a war to be waged, and on this field of battle, no reinforcements were to be found. No help from his kin.

They were all gone, well…except for a few.

He looked to the west, to the future.

Even the sun seemed to understand as it was driving in that same direction.

There was nothing left of the fair dales. Even the abandoned homes seemed weary under the weight of so much sadness, bending in the middles and cracking at the edges. He, and his brother, were no exception to the rule, but the Fates favored them.

At least, that’s what they thought.

But reader, you must understand this, sometimes it is better to die.

That’s why She is so beautiful to me.

Lyrus swore, something he had never been tempted to do before. His father did often, and told him that such things were not for gentleman, but he didn’t feel like having manners, then.

Nothing remained for them on the plains, nor of their family, but he knew of at least two that would be waiting for him.

It was to them that he would go.

Curse the dark and curse the war, this was his calling, and he would make that answer.

Chapter VI

. Whelp .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Arrows impacted, sinking deep into the soft wood of a rotting stump. He felt the force thumping against him, grateful that there was at least some cover in this place.

Insanity had broken loose only moments before. Walking along the path was the easiest route, but apparently not the safest. The men had come from the forest, though, which meant that they were either a marauding gang whose territory they had stumbled through, or they were being followed.

At first his fear was that they were Feilden’s men, tracking them through the wild and finding this a great time to launch an offensive, but that was silenced when Duraan knocked a man to the forest floor and began tearing at his chest. There was no armor, and no insignia, just flesh, and it bled red.

Just like the rest.

Nearly frozen at the sight of it, he was rudely shaken from his stupor when two more of them began firing a barrage of pointed projectiles at them. Ducking behind the first cover he could find, Aviin made sure that Savill was out of harm’s way.

The rush to his system was intense as he pondered what the best course of action would be. There was no telling how many men were out there, but one thing was for sure, they were after something.

Probably the girl.

But the arrows stopped coming and there was a small patch of silence, just for a moment.

“Show yourself!” Came a cry. “We promise we won’t shoot you if you come out!”

Bad idea. Was all he could think to himself. But then, he had spent his days around a much less honorable sort of men. Here, it could be different.

Peaking around the edge, he saw three of them standing on the roadway, bows knocked and at the ready. The third man had advanced a bit, an axe still perched in his hands. He was short, and fat, but of a hard type.

“And how do I know you won’t kill us?” Aviin threw back. “Men like you are bound to go back on your word.”

“It’s that, or we kill you anyways. Take a chance.”

It smelled like a lie to him. Where was Duraan at a time like this? He’d just, disappeared.

“I’m in the woods, you fool. Where’s Savill?”

He glanced at her, as if to check to see if she was safe for a second time.

But a new problem now presented itself, how was he to answer back? He couldn’t exactly just start yelling.

She’s safe, she’s very safe. Was all he could muster.

Perhaps that would deliver his message.

“Hey! We’re waiting out here!”

He could hear them advancing towards the obstruction, keeping out of his vision, but he knew exactly what they had in mind. Cutting off both sides of retreat left him with the only option of running straight ahead into the woods, but they would probably shoot him down before he made cover.

Wheels spun and the cogs of his mind clicked together, searching for a way out.

“You sure you want to do this?” He asked aloud, trying to question their confidence.

“You sure you want to die?”

Perfect, so he continued. “Alright, it’s your life.”

And they stopped coming. Like wild animals, wanting the kill, but afraid of getting injured, so they became overly cautious. He’d played this game a thousand times before, at least, on paper, and in his head.

“But we’re not the one’s who’ll be strung up a tree.” Their leader said, advancing another step. His rebuttal was weak, a sad attempt at undermining Aviin’s own surety that he would withdraw victorious in this match of wits.

“True, but I’d rather get hung on the end of a rope than have my soul ripped out.”

This was quite fun, and he nearly laughed as he felt the men’s suspicion rising. He peered from his hiding place again to find them still at guard in a defensive stance, but a little less frightening than before.

“What are you saying?” The man asked, leading himself into the trap that had been set out.

“Well…” Aviin began, sucking some breath in, for a more dramatic push. “Unless you’ve learned how to block your mind from her…then you’ll have a hard time resisting.”

“What?” One of the others started.

Aviin began pushing at Duraan’s mind, pricking him to take action. His short, unorganized plan pivoted on this one point.

Do something, do it now!

“This man’s crazy.” The other said, shaking his head and moving forward with an eye for killing. “Just cut his throat and he’ll stop squawking like a bird.”

“Rerick, I don-“ His words were stopped as daggers of pain stabbed into his mind, reaching in with clawed fingers and raking. The man yelled out, falling to one knee and holding his temples. “Ahh! It’s inside my head!”

The other two stuttered in their steps, shocked at what was happening. Soon, each of them in term succumbed to this unseen attacker, going in rounds, first one, then the next.

“Make it stop!” One cried, while the other furiously nocked an arrow and prepared to end the madness, but he was cut short by another mauling of pain at his skull. Aviin leapt to his feet, raising his hands high in the air and screamed as loud as he could, “Run! Run for your lives, or the witch will take you!”

And so, they did.

The three of them fleeing from where they had come, stopping only to pull their injured comrade with them. In a few moments, silence returned to the trees.

“Ha! Their gone! We scared them off!”

Duraan bounded from the woods to check on Savill, his first priority to secure her safety. But she was happily nestled in a spot of earth that had been hollowed out by the rain, breathing in deep, quiet breaths.

“I’ve never seen anything like that.” He remarked.

“I can’t believe it actually worked!” Aviin rejoiced over their victory.

“And I can’t believe you called her a witch.”

He stopped, looking at the cat and shrugging his shoulders in an annoyed way. “What else was there to do? It worked, didn’t it?”

“True.” The disapproval left his mind. A simple step, but a rather large one in the progression of their relationship. “But let’s stop talking and do something, before they come back, and in greater numbers.”

“Okay, but where are we going? This whole time I’ve just been following you, but I think it would be good to know our destination.”

Duraan licked a smudge of dirt from Savill’s face, which Aviin winced at in slight disgust, and then sat down on the crunching grass. “Yes,” he started, “but you yourself said that you don’t know anything about this area.”

“Okay, I may have said that, but a man has to learn sometime, right?”

Great, now I have to train this child like he was some whelping cub. Duraan thought to himself in frustration.

“Hey, I heard that too.”

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter XLXI .

There has been peace for a season in the kingdom as the gateway was collapsed and held shut by a constant watch of the king’s sorcerers. Lord Eiris returned home, victorious with his army of heroes.

But the winter now descends upon us from the north and our weakened state of affairs has left most crippled. Many died without support or aid, and lack of strength to save themselves.

Lord Eiris sent his men into the country to help those in most desperate need, but his relief efforts did little to sway the freezing cold that had come upon them. It is becoming the coldest winter of many years, and most are unprepared to face it’s challenge.

Many have begun to band together, flocking to the larger cities, working as clans and houses to defend against the bitterness of the winter’s wrath and to survive for another season.

Some die, but most will live to see the return of spring once again.

And so it was that Lord Eiris won the war and returned our freedoms for a time. Four more years passed in relative peace under his rule, with no sign of the Orr Tav’s return.

. A Little Taste of Truth .

Allow me to teach you something, dear reader.

It is my story, after all, so I am allowed to do that, am I not?

We talk of something called pain, but I don’t know if you truly understand what that means. You see, there is laid in every Adonai, every human’s fabric a few stitches that will always be out of place and discolored. Your nature is incomplete, because somewhere along the path to your existence, someone messed up.

A little tear came in, well…for some it is small, but for others….

And now you will spend the rest of your short, miserable life in best attempts at repairing the damage done.

Does this satisfy you? Your hunger for fame and fortune, for the honors of the world? Is this not enough?

We can speak of another thing as well, because feeling that exquisite thing referred to as pain, and being hurt, are two very different matters. One, I do not know.

The other, I am well acquainted with.

You must learn to harden yourself, my friend, for the worlds we both live in have little or no respect for the weak and vulnerable.

Nur-es, brathak tain.

. Bartering for Souls is a Risky Game .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“I understand the red hair thing.” Aviin spoke, slowing his pace a bit. “But what I don’t understand is why the big upset over it. It’s law, but so is not stealing from your neighbor, and plenty of people do that.”

“But you don’t understand Remus. He’s strange, and different.”

Aviin had never really understood him, nor their current political situation. These sorts of things never interested him, and they were not a presence of threat in his life, so there simply was not the need.

Remus, the emperor of Axis.

Nearly seventy years on the throne now.

Some called him the Shtanni.

Immortal.

The man who could not age, though Aviin himself had never seen him.

Once, when he was young, they traveled through Arribinthia, and he saw a statue carved in the representation of their lord and ruler. But nothing particularly spectacular about the man’s appearance stunned him.

He was just young.

Perhaps too young.

“So he’s after any person born with red hair, because it’s law. But why has he made such a big deal of it that they suddenly have become bounties, to be hunted down and given up for a reward?”

Duraan chuckled, at least, he purred in stuttering tones. “Who knows? The mind of the Emperor is a closed book, and sealed at that. There’s no telling what he has planned in those walled courts of his. All I know is that he hardly ever leaves his palace. Just stares down at the world from that high perch like a half starved bird, wanting more for himself.”

“How did you learn to speak?” Aviin asked of a sudden, the thought jumping into his mind.

“Do you mean the Adoni tongue?”

“Yes, what else?”

“Now there,” replied Duraan, his mind withdrawing to some far off place, “is a story to tell.”

They had come far, very far, since leaving the desert’s edge and were now surrounded by ancient growths of thick forest. Trees standing tall and thin against the sun. It was a peaceful place amidst the wooded crowds, and these mighty kings seemed to be sleeping their days off in the warm summer season.

It marveled Aviin, to see so much of the world, something that did not skip Duraan’s eye.

“You should tell me sometime.”

“Yes, but not this time. For now, we should cover another matter that stands in need of a resolve.”

“Which is?”

“That you should really stop saying everything aloud and just use the connection we have. It will be much easier that way, and I really grow tired of having to listen with my ears all the time.” He glanced to the left, into the shadowed depths of the vaulted forest’s lair, his probing ears twitching at the slight noises of the glen. “There are so many other things to hear….”

Savill shifted slightly on his back, making the weight uncomfortable, so Aviin stopped for a moment to retie the makeshift brace that they had put together.

“Right, and exactly how do I do that?” He asked. “Remember, I’ve tried before, and it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

“Look, it’s because you’re over thinking it. You don’t need to try so hard. When you think a thought, do you have to tell yourself to do it first?”

He snorted, then sighed and shook his head. “No, of course not. It just…happens.”

“Right, so quite forcing it and let it flow.”

“Yes, and then the problem I have is that the whole world can hear my every waking thought. I don’t want someone in my head like that.”

Duraan poked his comrades mind a few times, trying to get him to focus. “Understand this, that the only way you will ever keep someone out is if you never let them in from the beginning. But I wouldn’t worry about that. The number of people that can look into your mind, or connect with you, is severely limited. In fact, I only know two.”

“You, of course. Then who?”

“Savill, who else?”

Obviously, but it had slipped his mind because it seemed so natural. According to Duraan’s way of thinking, they had been like that for years.

Somehow.

“I’ve been talking with her, I’ll have you know.” Duraan’s new information startled Aviin from the thought he was upon.

“Talking to her? But how? I thought she was stuck in some other place?”

“Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still connect with her mind. She’s not lost, just not here.”

“And you didn’t tell me?” Aviin spoke in frustration at being kept away from this knowledge.

“Please, use your thoughts and not your voice. I really am growing tired of listening.”

Fine, stupid cat.

“Ahh, there you go. Good as gold.”

He could sense the contempt now, but rightly so. Pursing his lips and closing his eyes, he focused only on thinking that one idea.

“You’re still trying too hard.”

So what do I do, just not even try!

“Yes, do that. It seems to work better.” Duraan laughed to himself, shaking his head at what to him was a naïve, and ignorant boy.

One thing was for certain, while he liked the cat’s company, he still found him entirely maddening. It seemed that there was always some snide remark to make.

He hoped that they would arrive at their destination sooner than later.

“This was your mother’s.”

A random thing to say, at least, only because he never spoke of her.

Ever.

He had extended his hand, holding out a small medallion on the end of a thin chain. It glowed a faint blue in the light of the morning sun.

“She would have wanted you to have it.”

The boy was confused, but after a small shake of the piece of jewelry and another affirmation that it was in fact for him, he took it, rolling it between his fingers and thinking of his mother.

Of what she must have looked like.

Her soft voice.

Pale skin and beautiful eyes.

But it was all a dream, conjured by his mind. A hoping mind, but still just a vision, and it too would pass.

It surprised the boy, though, that his father would speak of such things now. Perhaps it had to do with his coming of age and his ordination into the life of a citizen of the empire, though he had not passed the questioning or presentation phase of the initiation yet.

The necklace felt heavy in his hands, but only because tied to it were so many hard questions and unanswered problems. Split ends and broken pieces of the few memories he still retained.

And a lot of what others had told him. He never heard anything from his own father’s mouth. Perhaps he was too ashamed to tell?

Or perhaps he didn’t care?

It was into this world that she awoke. Not entirely, but it was with this last piece of what he retained of his mother that Aviin had purchased Savill’s safety.

The innkeeper did not seem very keen to allow them room and board, especially when they refused to reveal the exact reasons why, but when the medallion was placed before her eyes, the rest of the world seemed to drone out and she thought only of how much it could bring on the right market.

Duly named Dry Tear Stone, it was a rare and precious gem that could only be found in the frozen wastes of the Ice Realm.

A world away.

Promised this in return for her service and no questions, she gladly accepted the offer and bid them on their way. Aviin was reluctant to let go, but he was willing to sacrifice the dead for the living, at least in this one case.

Coming to her senses in a matter of moments, Savill gasped, jerking in the bed and nearly falling from its edge.

An unfamiliar figure stood just at the end, watching her with excited features. Who was he? Her heart pounded, mind still throbbing from the abrupt intrusion to her wonderful sleep.

Aviin made to help her, knowing that she must be exhausted, but she didn’t want that.

“Don’t touch me!” She cried, sending him in retreat with a pained look on his face. “Who are you?”

“Savill, don’t worry, he’s here with me.”

She recognized the voice and scanned the room, her vision still cloudy, but able to make out the form of Duraan crouching on the other side of the bed. Nearly falling to her knees, she embraced him around the neck, pulling him tight and nearly squeezing him to death.

“Duraan! It’s been too long!”

“Yes, yes, it has been. But now you’re killing me….”

Savill released her grasp a bit. “You have no idea how grateful I am to see you.”

“Actually, I can tell. You don’t need to say it again. And I’m glad too, to see you well.”

“There’s so much to tell you. So many things happened while we were apart.” She rose to her feet, smiling down at him and wiping a wet tear from her eye as emotions swept over her.

“I know, I know….”

“No, Duraan, I mean in the rifts. I found him.”

“Found who?”

Caught up in the moment, she had nearly forgotten that there was a complete stranger still standing in the room, watching her, so she turned to face him.

“Who in the five realms is that?”

“That’s Aviin. He’s the one that brought you to me. You could say he’s your guardian angel.”

She laughed, silent, but still audible to his freshly trained mind. “Some angel.”

“Be careful, he can connect with the both of us, and he knows how to read.”

Suddenly, she felt bad for her thoughts, realizing that they might have transferred to him as well.

Another person who could meld? How? She was cocerned by all of this, but let it rest, for the time being.

“My friend said that you saved me?” She directed at him, his face now seeming a bit familiar.

Aviin nodded, shying away from being to forward, thinking back to her frightened reaction of only a few moments ago.

“Yes, you could say that. I kept you from being put into the Emperor’s hands.”

“Aviin…” Her mind began to turn as things clicked together and the puzzle fit itself into place. “I know that name.”

“Yes, you should. I told it to you more than enough.”

. Across Sorrow’s Embrace .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

Uurda was no place for a child.

And children leading children? Like stock, blinded by the fear of an approaching predator, running for the edge.

But Lyrus had no intention of letting anything happen to the youngest of his family. They had taken the rest, but they would not take this one.

He had vowed, swore an oath, something that he had never done before, and now…it had to stay true. It was not that he feared consequences, he didn’t actually fear very much at all, but rather, he hated the thought of not being in control.

“Sansa.” He shook the boy’s form, trying to wake him, but carefully. “Sansa, it’s time you got up.”

The sun had risen a great way into the sky already, warmth dripping on the land…and drying it like reeds to shake in the wind. This was why they had to move west.

This was why they had to find father.

Yes, a worthy quest for such a boy as this.

Do not think me harsh, or crude, though. There were many who turned a mocking face and laughed that day. It is a fact that you will have to come to grips with, that is, that some make stupid choices.

And I never miss an opportunity to exploit them for it.

Though, this one had a rare tenacity that is hard found among men, even great men.

They had walked from the Kryll plains, over hill and wild to reach the lower plateaus of the tired basin, hanging low in the earth. Farther south lay Arribinthia, nestled against the cool embrace of Trita-fok and lapping at its shores. To the west, in their direction, was the sea.

It was only then that he realized the true immensity of the world that they had been born into. Before them, stretched like skins on a rack, rolled away an endless covering of dirt and scrub. A thin stretch of mountains barred their entrance into the western lands. They would cross them, at some point.

But for now, they needed food.

“Sansa, wake up.”

The young child peered at him through half shut and groggy eyes, grinding at them with his fists. Lyrus tenderly pulled them away and used the hem of his shirt to wipe away the crusted dirt from his face.

“Sansa, I need you to help me with something. We’re going to camp here for a few days and rest, but we need a shelter. Can you do it?”

His proposal was met with another question laden with a bit more snap, “Who made you my boss?”

No one had said anything about being in charge. They were brothers, that’s what brother’s do. But he understood that lack of food and sleep, and all else that a growing child needs, certainly wasn’t helping his mood, so he knelt down next to him and spoke softly.

“Sansa, I know it’s hard, but if we work together, then nothing will stop us from finding father again. Do you want that?” He asked, smiling at him.

“I want to sleep.” The boy complained, rolling over and tucking himself into a fetal position. “I want to go home.”

His attempts at convincing Sansa to help were futile, despite the kind words and soft voice. It wasn’t in Lyrus’ nature to get angry, and not in his brother’s to listen. So he stopped trying.

Yes, wouldn’t they all like to go home.

He stared off into the distance again, finding himself in visions of all that was lost. Even then, he could feel that dark entity bearing down on them. Only a presence, and far away, but still there.

They didn’t have a home anymore. They didn’t belong to anything.

And they needed food, badly.

Below them lay the stark remnants of a once thriving market town, but as of recent years many of the settlers had gone off to other places in search of greater wealth. Now, the town remained, but the spirit that had once enlivened its streets was fled away.

A thieves’ city. It was no place for them.

After what had happened with Mr. Quintery….

No, home was gone.

So very, very far away from what they had before. The distanced they had traveled alone was enough to bar them from every returning again. But that was not the only reason.

He thought of his mother. Her beautiful voice, calling to them from the house to come and eat.

Maritha, and how she used to annoy him by tickling a stalk of grass in his ear.

It drove down into him with great force, pounding air from his lungs and the swelling of emotion rise through his chest to his lips, then his eyes, then spilling out like clouds laden for too long and squeezed by the warmer temperatures.

Ripport, the Fytleck, too came jumping through the shaking grass to lick at his fingers.

To mock his pain.

And he asked himself on question, so simple and so easy, yet brimming with irony.

Is this even worth it?

Chapter VII

. This Hammer Falls .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

“Get that ballista firing!” He screamed, vigorously motioning to the men and swearing as he went. “Come on!”

It was Dromarg’s prison on the wall, with men running back and forth, and only a part of them effectively filling their duties. Enough to make him spit poison.

Only a few paces down, large chunks of earth and stone impacted into the base of the high, and seemingly impenetrable barricade, sprouting flames which were fanned by the crisp wind. No army had ever managed to scale its height, and none ever would.

But then, this was no force of Adonai or Targ or any other sort of beast such as them. The monstrosities which now marched against Hammer Fell were of a much different type.

“Get down!” Some screamed as hurtling masses of blazing material soared through the sky, this time dangerously close to clearing the wall and breaking into the undefended town behind. Most had been evacuated, but that would say nothing of the men, and of all that their hard work represented.

But for fifteen years he had defended this citadel, and for fifteen years he had held any foe they faced at bay. The Fourth Division wasn’t about to let that change.

“Eirrmond!” He scaled a few flights of stairs and ducked behind an escarpment. “I need my report.”

The man that came to meet him was a beast of a human, thick fleshed and heavy boned, he looked as animal as the monsters that they had faced recently out there on the edge to protect the kingdom and all its people.

“Commander!”

“General Stykes, apologies fo-“

“Just shut your face and report! We’re at war here, man!”

Eirrmond growled, but moved on. “We’ve lost three more, sir, and several others injured.”

More casualties to add to the list. It was not that they hadn’t been warned, anyone could have seen it coming from miles away. Perhaps heard is a more accurate term. But there simply seemed no way of stopping these giants.

“And what have you got for me?”

“The bolts stick, but they don’t seem to have any effect. Our trebuchets are primed for use, but they’re still working on the calibrations.”

Stykes was not happy to hear the news. “They should have been running the better part of an hour ago….” What were they going to do? Every moment meant another step or two closing the gap between them and complete chaos.

If they made it to the wall…no telling what could happen.

He had never seen a thing of this sort, only remembering back to stories told around the fire about the great beasts that inhabited the northernmost regions. About monsters that could breath fire and raise entire cities to the ground in a single night.

Perhaps these two were not quite that intense, but they had defied their preliminary defenses, and so far the threat was unabated and rising.

Like two mountains, they marched on heavy feet, gaining ground fast. Their thick and black skin, etched with streams of flowing fire, defended easily against their ballistae. One had even tried ripping the long bolt from its side and using it as a weapon, crushing two men after hurling the ammunition like it was a child’s toy.

He swore, then swore again and more vehemently than the first time. “You get those trebuchets working, or it’ll be the end of us!”

“Aye, sir!” Eirrmond responded, storming off to yell at his men and put things back in an acceptable order.

More rocks clashed against the stones laid hundreds of years before, shocking each man to the core. This place had been a stronghold for as long as the kingdom had been alive, and would probably continue to stand for ages to come.

No army would ever breech into its heart.

Stykes glanced out to the beasts, now closing fast.

But perhaps, there was this one chance….

There was a sudden surge of voices, cheering into the morning air as a particularly well aimed shot met its mark, exploding in a mesh of dark blood and flesh that broke apart, as if it were hardened clay.

The beast stumbled, its form tripping through the air and landing on one knee.

Ground rumbling beneath it.

A cavity had been opened into its chest, revealing organs, at least, that’s what they appeared to be. Beating and twisting in life as that same force drained from the monstrosity of a creature. Heavy bolts began pounding into it, ripping through its vulnerable mortality.

Corrupted by the plague.

Summoned by the darkness.

But it was still privy to death, and death was only a few moments away. The men began working with a renewed vigor, slamming ammunition into the siege weapons and doing their best to bring the same fate to the dying beast’s companion.

Three more were lost as stone clashed with stone, grinding to dust.

But then, it was over. Having sought out its weakness and capitalizing on the opportunity, it was soon barraged with a hail of fire and flame and all that comes with it, and it crumbled fast. Victory was theirs, bringing a sweet sigh of relief to Stykes’ lips.

They’d only lost seven men, a miracle in its own right. Things could have turned out a lot worse, but it seemed that the gods favored them.

Stykes uttered a silent prayer to Lydria.

“Commander!”

Oh, what is it now? He shook his head, but turned to meet the man who had called out, straddled on a Kyrist, clicking its sharpened hooves on the stone floor.

Wasting no time, he slipped from the saddle and removed his helm, proffering the usual show of respect by flashing the sign of the Harn, the left arm rising to meet his shoulder, for strength and valor.

The right gripping his own forearm, a show of balance and control.

But the pleasantries of culture were lost on the both of them. He was from the southern wastes, and hard as the stone they lived off. The other, wearing freshly shined and adorned armor that only the King’s Guard were privileged to wear, was above such things, though his rank descended beneath that of the commander’s.

“What news have you?”

“Commander, a scout reported a number of Orr Tav, marching this way.”

“How many?”

He had not said, but then, it was hardly a matter of numbers. The messenger had appeared very shocked, that look of fear on his face. No, they didn’t need to know how many, only how soon.

“Enough to scare off an entire regiment. They pulled back to the third ring.”

“Tribiss! Do we not have our defenses for a reason?” Stykes fired, eying the man squarely and hard. Challenging his authority.

“I hardly had a say in the matter. But if it was a large enough issue that they had to relocate to a stronger point of defense, then it’s something we should be worried about.”

The commander’s teeth ground together and his eyes seemed to flare out a bit. “Targ dung! Does this madness never end?” Rhetorical, perhaps, but the man before him felt it in need of a reply. Lonely, standing out there on its own, without a friend, so he matched it.

“I suppose that’s what the men at Arch Hide were thinking, you know, when the orders came.” He smiled, with venom.

The bite stung, slipping more poison into Stykes’ veins. Not that he didn’t have enough already. But he wasn’t about to take such a thing from someone of lower ranking. Stepping to the man, he put his face right up next to him.

“I don’t want to hear another word about the incident. We’re at war, man! Do you even know what that means? Men die! They’re mortal! And I don’t want some city boy to come riding in on his high saddle and tell me how to win it.”

Some of the men laughed at the apparent fright that came over the younger man. A bit of spittle had spattered on his face, which he flicked away with his finger, then regained his composure.

“Mind yourself, commander. The King might have some choice words if he were to hear about this.”

Stykes spat.

“Let him hear. He’d probably say the same thing I did and move on.” He looked around him, at all those that had come from their country and home, to fight for the realm, to defend what they knew as home and family and life. Most weren’t soldiers. Most had never seen what it was like to stare the enemy down, to duck beneath the blade and feel yours sink to the hilt.

Most had never seen death.

Or blood.

“No,” Stykes continued, feeling the rage reside in him for a bit longer. “You get back on your pretty little pet and ride yourself to Break Point, and command the forward guard like you were told.”

Hesitation.

Perhaps a few silent words uttered.

“Sir!” He came to attention, then spun on his heel, mounting with a kick of his right leg and clumped off without much more. Stykes was glad to be rid of him. He understood the King’s desire to have trusted men in every corner of the realm, to bind the kingdom and its people, but sending children who knew nothing more than books and drawing boards was a mistake.

This was his post, and he would guard it the way that he wanted.

And nothing would get past.

. Draanus Vinder .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

“Get your hands off that!”

Child yelled and woman screamed as she frantically slapped at him, ripping away the tired and age wrinkled loaf of bread that she had on display. It wasn’t much, but it was food.

Lyrus watched from the corner, realizing that this wasn’t going to be easy. The streets were covered in various stages of starving people, some more desperate than others. Everyone was on guard. Tension, static in the air. And he knew that if he were to try anything, it would all come crumbling down. Not because he wasn’t crafty enough to get it, but because he wanted it more than the previous boy to attempt it.

Three armed guards walked past, chatting about something that had happened by the gates that morning.

This was what scared him.

Sansa was still hidden, outside the city, and if he got caught….

There was no time to waste thinking about what might happen, only to act.

His breath came fast and short, fingers twitching, ready to flash like lightning. This would be their saving grace….

“Lyrus. Oh Lyrus, what are you doing?”

He spun around, nearly choking on his own breath as he came to meet the face of his mother. So pale and forlorn, but with a partial smile.

“Mother? But I….”

“Shhh.” She placed finger to his lips. “I raised a smart boy, but you’ve already forgotten the gift I sewed into your coat.”

Confused, but then remembering how she had asked to borrow it, and later returned it, this time with the stitching a bit more visible and a hard disc nestled in between the layers. Lyrus looked down, feeling it between his fingers.

“Mother! You-“

She was gone, vanished into the stale air.

He sighed. Of course she was gone. He’d watched her go the first time, and he’d watch her go again.

But this time she’d saved them a good deal of strife.

Strolling from the alley, he walked up to the woman, who eyed him very angrily and waved a hand at him like it was a dead fish.

“Go on you street vermin! I don’t want any of your like here. Nothing for free today.”

“I can pay.” Lyrus stated, proffering the coin to her. “How much will this buy?” The woman’s eyes seemed to triple in size, peering from the thick shawl that she wore over her head like a bonnet.

One gold kief.

A small fortune for any man. But for her….

“Four loaves.”

She nodded, to let him know that it was her only offer.

Four loaves? That would hardly feed us for two days. He looked up at her, his hand withdrawing a pit and fingers playing at the coin. “But, that’s so little.”

“Times are hard. It’s what you get.”

He couldn’t believe that it was really worth that much. Lyrus knew times were hard, but it didn’t seem to be that terrible. His mind wandered back to Mr Quinterey, though, and things started to fall into place. Men would kill for even a taste of food, so perhaps she wasn’t lying. It still felt awfully outrageous, though.

“Now be a good boy, give me the money and you can take your pick.”

He looked at the stock of dry and hard food, not very appealing, but it would keep their stomachs silent. His hand opened a little, and she reached for it slowly. Licking her lips a bit.

Then suddenly there was a man there, standing next to him and cupping his hand back into its grip of the precious bounty.

“Zira! You should be ashamed, stealing from a boy.”

Her eyes went to the man, then quickly shot to the ground. “Stay out of this.” She grumbled, kicking at the dirt. “You would have done the same.”

He pushed Lyrus back just a bit, so he could get a better grounding in front of the woman, and pointed a chastising finger at her, waving it up and down. “You know very well that I wouldn’t, you old cheat. Things are hard enough for everyone, even without you trying to bleed everyone dry.”

“And who are you to say I’m not charging a fair price?” Came her challenge, lips and eyes curling into a sneer.

Placing hands on the edge of the stall and leaning way over to stare her down, he shot back, “Zira, don’t tempt me.” Each syllable an emphatic statement.

And she knew better than to push it farther, mouth clamping tight.

“That’s what I thought.” Spinning around, he knelt to be at Lyrus’s level. “Young man,” he said, “you’ll have to learn this lesson fast; never trust a woman when there’s gold involved.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, but Lyrus didn’t say a word.

“I’ve never seen you before. Who are you traveling with?”

“With….” He looked at the man, and thought of his actions of just a moment before. “With my mother and father.”

He snorted some air from his nose, wiggling the ends of his thin mustache. “And you’re leading me to believe that during the darkest times these parts have ever witnessed, they’re sending their young boy with enough gold to buy his way to the western isles to buy bread, in a city filled with thieves and vagabonds?”

Lyrus threw him a sheepish look, but couldn’t help the guilty appearance from coming over him.

“No, I don’t believe that. It’s not really any of my business, but…I get the feeling it would be good if you tell me the truth.” His eyes shone a bright blue, a color the sky hadn’t shown in such a long time, and they confirmed what his voice spoke, “My name is Dranuus Vinder. I’m this forsaken city’s unelected warden. You can trust me, for what it’s worth.”

And he believed him.

. Stones that Break Bones .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

“I’m sorry to hear that. Truly, I am. I know what a loss like that means.”

Lyrus slipped his hand back into the pocket, feeling the cold touch of the coin, still there, still safe. It meant a lot more to him now that Dranuus had kindly informed him of its true value. He’d made it explicitly known that it should never be shown in public again.

“Most men would kill just about anyone to get something like that.” He’d warned. “Even for much less.”

“Why did you help me?” Lyrus asked in a confronting way.

“Well, that’s what any good man would have done, isn’t it?” Lyrus’ silence didn’t have him convinced. “Alright then. I’m a hard man, but there’s this soft place, and when I see someone being taken advantage of, I get real angry. That’s not the first time she’s done that, mind you.”

“Thanks, then.”

They had left the city gates and were now traveling off the beaten path, to where, Dranuus couldn’t tell, and Lyrus hadn’t said anything further, only that they were going to find his younger brother.

“You know, you’re not like other boys your age. How old did you say you were, again?”

“What do you mean?”

“Most would have stolen the bread, whether they had money or not. But you offered to pay, like an honest man.” His pace quickened and he turned to walk backwards, staring down at Lyrus. “By Yvre’s ear, what are you doing in these parts?”

“We walked.”

“Yes, but from where? And what’s your destination?”

Lyrus began to recognize specific landmarks around him. That rock that looked like an old man’s nose. A clump of bushes with a patch missing right at the top. They were almost there.

“We’re going to find my father.” He answered, retracing his steps to the town in his mind.

“And where is your father.”

Ducking into the small grove of trees that they had arrived at, Lyrus pushed past the brambles and branches, only to find an empty clearing they had made, but no sign of his brother to be found.

“What? He was here, I know it, I told him to stay here and wait until I returned.”

“Your brother?” Dranuus grunted, slapping a stick or two out of his face. “Well, he’s not here anymore. You said he was six?”

Lyrus began to worry and his heart pounded into his throat.

“I didn’t think he would leave. We have to find him, he could be anywhere.”

Dranuus pointed to the ground, facing south. “There, his tracks go off that way.” And sure enough he could see the form of his footprints in the dirt, hardly visible. Lyrus would never have seen them, were he by himself.

“He went off this way.”

Lyrus followed Dranuus’ lead, walking down past the patch of thick trees and over a small, dry stream. And suddenly, he saw it.

“Sansa! Sansa!” Shooting off like an arrow, he pumped his arms, running for the form that lay off in the distance a bit.

“No, don’t run!” He reached for the boy, but Lyrus had gotten off too fast, so Dranuus drew his sword and followed behind him, looking about for any signs of danger.

Sansa was there, lying on his side in the dirt, an arm laid under him, his legs pulled tight, as if in pain. Lyrus was now holding him in his arms, yelling something that didn’t quite come out coherent. When his hands came away, there was blood staining into them.

“Sansa! Why did you leave. I told you to stay, there, and I would…come back for you….”

His head hung down, unsupported and sliced at the base. A quick death, but not a pretty one, unless you consider the dye that fresh blood makes to be beautiful.

There are some.

Whatever the case, Sansa, was dead. No one could deny that fact. Overcome, Lyrus found himself beyond emotion. No tears, no anger, not even a sadness to take control of him. He only felt alone, abandoned by everything, so much that he was not even given the privilege of being distraught.

There was only a quiet. Dranuus’ hand at his shoulder, kneeling down beside him and coaxing him away.

He was so hot.

Sweat dripped from his brow and onto Sansa’s tunic, staining it an even deeper shade of purple.

His eyes became heavy, and the sun seemed to be covering its face.

Had you walked by that day, you would have seen a man gathering stones. A few moments later he left the elongated pile of rocks, carrying a boy in his arms.

. Brathak .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

Eyes, blank, and black.

He’d seen it before, so many times, but not quite like this.

“Commander?”

Stykes was listening, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Coming back to the world, he looked at his officer, then to the left at the chained-up man, if he could be called a man any longer. The plague had done its job, and now they were witnessing the full effect of its poisoning character.

He was like a tomb, rigid and straight on the exterior.

And full of dried bones and decay on the inside.

There was nothing left to be done. It was over, for him, at least.

“Commander? What do you want us to do?”

“You know what has to be done. We’ve been-.”

The man interrupted, rudely, but not for the wrong reasons. “But sir, we can’t just-.”

“I know you don’t want to do it, soldier!” Stykes cried, his emotions getting the better of him. “You don’t think I hate it as much as the rest? Farshta! He was a good man, and a legend of a soldier.” There was nothing in there anymore, though. Just a darkness, after the soul gave in and let go. He was going to die anyways, because he never would succumb to the temptation. “But there will be casualties at war, and we can’t risk the safety of the men, including yourself. Now get it over with, before you force me to do it myself.”

Stykes bent to pick up the soldier’s hand, already gripping at the broadsword’s hilt, and set it firmly in his other palm. “Our lives depend on the loyalty of every man, every soldier. When you swore fealty to the king, you swore fealty to me that you would do this one thing.”

The soldier said nothing, swallowing hard, but he didn’t need to speak.

He knew what must be done.

Stykes walked out of the hall to the sound of ghastly cries, the metallic sound of a blade making its feast and the screams of silence that boast such a noise.

Outside, though, it was a much different atmosphere that had overtaken the wall.

“…cowards, to fall in the face of our enemy and grovel for mercy? They will offer none, so give none in return!”

“And are we to believe that this cause is for us alone? Never! I would have you remember who you fight for! And why we came….”

It brought satisfaction to his heart, to see such leaders becoming of his men. The few trusted individuals at his side were rousing the men to a vibrant energy that pulsed along the edge of the wall.

Thirteen rushes had come, and thirteen crashed against the citadel like waves against the rocks, spraying blood and death, but retreating with the tide. And they would do the same, again and again, until the end of time.

But then…he had doubts.

Sir Braxis, from the King’s Guard, had pulled his regiment from the defenses, leaving a few smaller groups to serve as a distraction while the main force retreated back to Hammer Fell. There were, he said, simply too great of numbers for them to hold out against, and retreat was their only option. The others were given orders to lead the armies away, if possible, but to circle back to safety as soon as the chance was given them, but most had not returned yet, which could mean only one thing.

Five thousand strong, perhaps six.

It was a force with the strength to sweep through the entire kingdom, killing at will and raising city by city to the ground if they made it through this final line of defense. They had a tough armor, but inside it was as vulnerable as a man’s heart.

One good stab, and it bleeds.

Two, and it perishes with the passing time.

As they drew near, the plague became stronger, sweeping through his division and taking the lives of many. Most, he was grateful to say, were good men with pure hearts, and they died quickly, refusing to give in to the draw of that evil power, though a few had done so.

Stykes had never seen so much violence. Man turned beast became an ugly thing.

But it would end here, in one way or another. Within in the hour they would be upon them, breaking against the wall. Who would die first?

He sighed, looked at his men, swore, then exhaled again.

Certain that every single one of them would rather turn and run for the capitol, and greater numbers, Stykes pitied them. There was his duty to perform, though, and that was something he couldn’t forget, so he gathered his wits about him, and began pumping the air with his energy and rallying them to his call.

“Who are we?” He cried aloud, inviting them to remember why they had come. He gripped a man’s shield, pulling him close and staring into the depths of his soul, reaching for whatever courage and bravery might be there and ripping it to the surface. “Who are we!”

“The Fourth Division!” The man yelled back, chest heaving in and out.

“Who are we?” He asked again, this time in a quiet tone of voice, seeking for something more.

The soldier thought hard, his mind running, trying to guess what he might want to hear. But nothing came. A bit dissatisfied, Stykes drew back a little, but kept the man’s gaze.

“Nures-dra, brathak tain.”

He seemed confused, and the rest couldn’t hear very well, so Stykes took to a more drastic approach. Leaping up on the ramparts, he ripped a flag from its post, holding it up for the world to see.

The split horns challenging against the tattered weave.

“Nures-dra, brathak tain!” He screamed as loud as his body would allow, reaching some, who began to raise their voices. “Who are we? What did we come for?” Looking out at the ragged group of soldiers, he saw only those that had managed to survive the onslaught of the enemies force and power. So many of them weren’t fit to be here, but at times like these, there simply was no other choice.

It was stand, or die. And although many here were cowards in the face of the future, they would still fight to the last, if need be.

“Death is our victor and blood our reward!” Stykes continued, feeling a surge of energy flowing from man to man. Albeit small, but it was there, almost tangible. He had this way of smelling fear, and the rancid stink began to leave their bodies as neighbor and friend, brother and son rallied together. “And our bodies shall be laid in the tombs of the ancients, to rest in the halls of our forefathers!”

This too was a dream of every man. To be buried by their kin, to rest for an eternity next to those that they had loved. Who would not want that?

“They will sing our names for ages to come!”

True immortality was born in a bard’s song.

“And we cannot fall!”

He stated that last one, loud and clear, pounding out each syllable as if it were the beating of a drum calling for war, igniting the hearts of those he served.

“Nures-dra….” Some started.

Then, with a pleasing and powerful rush, the rest caught on, mustering beneath the banner and clashing sword to shield.

“Brathak tain!”

And for that one moment in time, inseparable from the rest, and short, but still as real, they lived up to that name.

They had become it.

And they were immovable.

. Harn .

- Sixth Age, year 1014

Fire had burned low in the stone hearth, casting its faint light into the room and dancing against their faces.

Child lay on the floor.

Man, in the chair.

And a woman was busying herself, clearing the remnants of their dinner from a table.

“You said he’s from the eastern plains?”

Dranuus nodded slowly, sipping at a cup of light ale and watching the boy curiously. “Yes, I did.”

“Well, that’s so far. How do you reckon he came to be all the way out here?”

“He said he was searching for someone. He’s smart, I’ll give that to him, and I believe he knew that they would never survive out there.” Thinking back to the events of the previous day, he chuckled. “But I don’t think he figured that there’s more than just Targs and angry men that can bite.”

“And his family? They didn’t come with him?”

Silence bordered the room. What was he supposed to say to that? So he proffered the only answer that he could bring himself to give, “No, but that’s who he’s looking for. His father, he said, is somewhere out here in the west.”

“Well, it was good of you to do such a thing.” Wiping her hands on the towel draped over her apron, she came up behind him, placing a kiss on his cheek and sitting on the arm of the chair. “I married a good man.”

“Yes, and I married a beautiful woman.”

Now she laughed. “I would hope so, for both our sakes.”

“We’re very fortunate, you know, to have all this at such a time.”

Many would kill to stay one night in a place such as their home, built atop the crest of the hills, just outside of the town. A self-made wealthy man, Dranuus hadn’t always had the means to provide. His family entered the world poor and lacking of all comforts, and that hadn’t simply changed with age.

Being apprenticed to Hyrinn Tael the trader had, though.

Yes, they were very fortunate.

“Is it fortune, or preparation and sacrifice that built all of this?” His wife asked, smiling down at him as she rested a hand on his leg.

Nearly twenty others had made this their home, by invitation. Mostly those families that simply couldn’t find the means to put food on the table. The noises of their late conversations could be heard through the house and down its halls, telling the saga of suffering and of this war, and also some relief that could come when men banded together, and fought together.

“I just hope that our stores of grain will keep us through. Everything depends on that.”

“And if not?”

He looked into the fire and watched flame shifting its form as it feasted on the dry wood. This was how their town would look, if the time came that they couldn’t hold out any longer. Already issues had arisen as some men, usually those without family, took to dishonest means of acquiring food, and other items of general need.

Keeping them locked up was required of the town guard, but feeding them while they wasted away their time in a cold cell?

Some things would need to change.

“One thing’s for certain, though, I don-.”

She put a finger to his lips, then pointed at the boy who’s eyes were now flashing open. He made no move to rise, but simply lay still.

“You look tired, son.”

“I’m not tired.” He retorted, quickly rising to his feet and wiping the dust from his pants.

“I see that.” Dranuus extended his hand and offered the mug to Lyrus. “Go on, this will wake you right up.” But his arm was slapped away by his wife.

“Don’t give that to him.” Her face showed some shock, but she was also laughing, surprised that he would do such a thing. “He’s too young for strong drink.”

“He’s older than I was when I started to enjoy a bit of ale and beer, on occasion.” Came Dranuus’ rebuttal, but he lost the fight because he withdrew his hand, winking at Lyrus. “And he has a name.”

“Oh, where are my manners.” She flustered to her feet and gave a short curtsy, offering her own name, then asking his. “I’m Tainya Trottent, but you can call me Mod, at least, that’s how most would refer to me. And you are?”

“My name is Lyrus, son of Lyrathair.”

“Lyrathair….” She returned to her previous seat and motioned for him to find a chair. “It’s a good name. Your father must be a good man, to raise a son like yourself. He must be proud.”

Lyrus said nothing, as what was on his mind didn’t seem to be worth placing before these two strangers. Sensing his desire to avoid the subject, Tainya Trottent continued on with the question she had been thinking on. “You’re looking for him, aren’t you?”

Lyrus nodded in the affirmative.

“And where, did you say, they might be?” Dranuus asked, becoming curious again. He had brought up the same topic earlier, but they were interrupted when the boy’s brother wasn’t to be found.

“My father,” Lyrus began, the past flooding back into his mind. He suddenly remembered each day as if it was a lifetime, pouring over the images of his memory. “He left in the spring, to fight for the Harn.”

“And where was he stationed?” Dranuus prodded a little farther.

“My mother said that he was with the fourth division, at least, that’s what I remember her saying.”

Husband and wife looked at one another, hiding the dismay from their features, but doing nothing to mask the sinking that dropped into their stomachs.

“Are you sure about that? There are a lot of places that your father could have been sent.”

“We received a letter from him, once. My mother read it to us, and he said that he and my brother were in Hammer Fell, working as blacksmiths.”

Dranuus’ eyes grew a bit wider. “Your brother was with him, too?”

“Yes, he was old enough, so they took him as well.”

Embers and sparks seemed to fill the room, shifting on the walls and ceiling as Dranuus moved to kneel down in front of Lyrus. Then, saying his name aloud, he voiced the very thing that had followed the boy though his nightmarish dreams, “Whatever anyone tells you, or you make yourself to believe, your father, and your brother…they died as heroes.”

  • * an excerpt from the book of draal: Chapter I .

When the worlds still had not been created and all that existed in our universe was unformed stone and matter, there came into existence a family of sentient beings. In what time or place they were conceived is beyond us to know, but one thing was for certain; they were gods in every right and privilege. Their purpose was to bring to an end the rise of a fallen brother who had taken upon himself to liberate the expanse of space, by locking it all away, safe from sight and sound.

This was his goal, to save the universe from itself by taking what can only be gained through knowledge and experience and life.

The light would illuminate any and all intelligent minds.

The warmth would let them believe that all was well, for a time, and therefore could go on to dreaming of grander things.

These, too, were to be stolen away and kept secret, as there was no room for problems to arise in this grand scheme. His was a plan of perfection, in which no wrong would ever happen. He simply would not allow it, and he vowed to build the Universe on these foundations.

But the others did not think it so wise. Though each had their own opinions on how the planets and stars should be formed, all agreed that taking away the natural element and replacing it with some form of required existence was not a correct path. They wanted freedom, and agency to be had amongst the universe’s species, a complete ability to choose for themselves whether to live or to die. Only then would there be purpose.

Vaalen Ishtrid began to set in motion the creation of the universe before it was time, and as such committed an act of treason and rebellion against the council of the gods.

In open opposition to their decision, Vaalen Ishtrid left the halls in the heavens to seek a more gullible audience. Finding his way to the Titan Mists, the fallen god roused those that would rally under his name and began to amass a small army in attempt at regaining his control.

. Red Again .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Life.

He contemplated on how good it had been to them for so many years now. He didn’t really have much to complain about, and for that he thanked the Fates.

Eorria stood across from him, silent, but speaking strings of words with her eyes. It took him back to the day that they’d been married, now over twenty years past. He didn’t know whether to count it a victory, or to simply put it at luck and leave it there.

But no, they’d worked hard. Very hard.

“Father? May I have a piece of toffee?” Their boy asked, interrupting into his thoughts, but not unwelcome. He started to answer in the affirmative, but then quickly looked up at the boy’s mother, to be sure she didn’t have other, choice opinions about the situation.

Pursed lips and a hand on her hip told the whole story.

“Well now,” she began, “I suppose you can, but there’s one small little matter we have to clear up first….” The boy glanced up at his father’s big face, who stared down and brought his mouth into a circular shape. “Jaerus wasn’t a very good student at school today, at least, that’s what another certain boy’s mother told me.”

“Uh oh. What’s this she says?”

Not wanting to own up to his folly, the child sheepishly looked away, but a few moments of silence coaxed an answer from his lips.

“It wasn’t my fault. Lypa was poking me with his foot and I couldn’t tell him to stop because the teacher was looking right at me the whole time.”

“So, you didn’t do anything?”

“Well, other than yell when he poked too hard….”

Father laughed while his mother shook her head and moved to start chopping vegetables for their evening meal. Outside the shadows stretched their limbs and the sun was dipping into the earth, seeking refuge from the light. Sometimes even it had to rest a little.

Venistarre’s scraggly beard shivered a bit as he chuckled lightly, mostly in response to his wife’s reaction. She was always like that, always worrying, but truth be told, Jaerus was probably right in what he said, and there was nothing that would lead him to believe any differently.

This was how life had been so good to him.

A beautiful wife.

A perfect son.

And, with spring now in full bloom, the missing part to their family would be coming home soon, at least, so they expected. Canthon had always been her home, despite the need to find shelter elsewhere. But she would always come back.

“Disobedience is never a good thing, mind you….” he began, looking at his son, then back to his wife, “but sometimes it’s just not our fault, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about there. Did you tell the teacher?”

Jaerus nodded. “Yes, I tried, but she didn’t listen.”

“Hmm, do you remember when you were helping your mother cook supper, and accidentally dropped the bowl of soup?”

Yes, how could he forget?

“Sometimes adults make mistakes too, it’s a part of life. The best thing to do is to not worry about it, and let things go.”

Jaerus let his mind mull over his father’s words for a bit before latching onto another bit of information. “But how can I forget when I have to scratch the royal creed ten times? It will take me forever….”

Ahh, now there was a true problem.

One that threatened to tip the scales of balance itself.

His father thought hard of what answer to give, the finally, after some time, proffered his thoughts, “Well, let me ask this; was it your fault?” The boy, confused, but honest, shook his head. “And is it Lypa’s fault?” A bouncing of the head up and down. “Then who should really receive the punishment?”

“Lypa?”

“Yes, of course him.” Venistarre leaned over to look into his son’s eyes, captivating the audience like a performance at the grand amphitheater in Arribinthia. “Sometimes we’re called on to take another’s punishments, even if they don’t know it. It’s a gift, given to us by our Creator, because it means that we can finally understand what it must be like to be them. Does that make sense?”

Did it? Turning it over and over, Jaerus finally came to the conclusion that he did understand, and said as much. His mother, however, was not so convinced.

“Venistarre, dear, please don’t try to confuse the boy.”

“Confuse? I’m not confused, are you?” The boy shook his head. No, he seemed to understand very well. “See, just as I thought. My dear, you’ve managed to raise a natural gen-.” His words were severed off abruptly as his lips shut tight, head leaning to the side and straining, as if searching for a sound.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. I thought I heard….” He had risen and walked to the door, pushing it open into the dark of night and resting still while the vision slowly crept out farther. The town was just to the south, not far in the distance but a short way from their own home. All was still and quiet for sometime, but his eyes seemed to latch onto a certain point on the horizon.

A place where there was a bit of red light, the sun leaving behind its last few traces of matter.

Only, the sun did not set in that direction.

“Fire!” Venistarre cried, running for his coat. “There’s a fire in town.”

. As if .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Let me make one thing clear,” she shifted on the bed, moving to a more comfortable position and glaring over at Aviin, who sat on the floor across from her, “whatever you saw in those…visions, it was all just a dream. Something that your mind conjured up.”

“Yes, of course, how could it be anything else….”

But he wasn’t so sure about that.

They’d talked for some time, about everything that had happened recently. Mostly he asked questions and she gave only partial answers, not really wanting to delve too deep into the extent of her life. For him, though, everything was so shallow and fake.

He hadn’t done anything at all, not for the twenty one years that he’d been alive. His father had made sure of that….

There was nothing to tell.

“Even so, I still think that there’s a reason, I mean, things like this don’t just happen.”

“Yes, they do.” She countered. “Not everything in life is meant to be that way, sometimes it just is. Don’t try to blow this out of proportions.”

Aviin was slightly confused at her attitude. Strange, because he had thought that she would be excited and grateful to finally meet him in person, especially after all that he had done for her.

Eyes fell to the floor for a moment, rolling around and collecting dust as they went.

This wasn’t how he’d pictured it.

“Then why? Or maybe a better question; how?” he asked, wanting to know what she was thinking, and from the tightening of her cheeks, he could tell that she was probably asking that same question. Perhaps she knew the answer, but just wasn’t willing to tell….

Then his thoughts strayed to other places, mulling over the situation and searching for any bit that seemed particularly important.

It went back to Corbith Atar, where they had first met, or rather, where he had first seen her, in person. “How did you find yourself being kidnapped in the desert?”

Saville’s eye’s flashed at him, and for the first time he witnessed the fire that lived inside. With a good deal of indignation at her lips, she retorted, “Sometimes things happen, alright?”

“Okay, I wasn’t trying to pry into personal matters, or anything like that.” Perhaps a small lie. “It was just a little…strange to me.”

A fact that she couldn’t exactly argue with.

“What’s going on back there?” She felt the presence at her mind ask, not concerned, only curious.

“Just dealing with this garp of a man, that’s all.”

“He is a little odd, I suppose.” Duraan’s thoughts drew closer, probably on his way back having finally found something to prey upon and fill his stomach with. “But he’s not bad, once you get to know him.”

“And what defines bad….”

There was a slight coughing sound that emanated from Aviin’s corner, as if to draw her attention back. Remembering that he, for some reason, had the ability to listen in on their mental conversations, and even join in, was not the easiest thing for her to process.

It had never happened before. Except for that one time, back before she’d met Duraan. A dark moment in her past, to be sure….

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Aviin asked calmly, but there was a bit of irritation rubbed along the edge of his words.

She eyed him, scanning his features and analyzing his character, or what she could gather about him at least. He’d only mentioned his being a soldier, that is, his previous engagement as one. His story seemed a bit unbelievable, though. To commit the crime of desertion, carry an unconscious woman off into the wilderness being chased by a regiment of imperial soldiers…. It just seemed like some tale that her father used to tell.

“And I should ask the same question.” She shot back at him. Saville stood to draw back the tattered curtain and stare out the window into the streets. Hardly a soul moved out there, as barren as their relationship. That was what had her confused.

Why had he done what he’d done? Even good men she’d met would have cowered away from even the thought of doing something as serious.

“You do realize that they’re going to be looking for you now?” Saville asked, still turned away from him, her breath spattering on the glass, then quickly fleeing as it lost the war against the warm spring air.

He hadn’t thought that far, yet, but it made sense. He’d seen it before, but still wondered to what lengths his father would go.

Perhaps he would just forget about the whole thing?

A doubtful proposal.

Not after what had been said.

“Yes, you made a really great decision back there. Now only every soldier in the empire will be looking for us. Did you calculate that one into your plans?”

Shocked at how much spite she had laced into her comments, Aviin was taken aback for a few moments, not quite believing that she had uttered those words.

He rose to face her, fists clenching, then thrusting open in an attempt to purge the anger from his voice. “Hey, I saved your life. You owe a debt to me.”

“What debt?” She stepped a little closer. “I never asked to be saved, now did I?” Brushing past him, she flipped the cowl of her cloak to cover her head, and her mark of indignation, and slipped from the room, leaving Aviin to fume.

But he didn’t know whether to revel in all his frustration, or to cry.

This was not how things were supposed to go, not at all.

Chapter VIII

. Stromvale .

- Seventh Age, year 49

Pitiful.

Not that he deserved any, but it sure was a scene to behold. Arms shaking against the rough wood as his thickset form struggled to lift each step and press forward, all the while dragging that blanched, and broken tree behind him.

Hewn by rough hands.

Drug by rough hands.

Stromvale loomed to his left as they snaked up the winding switchbacks that meandered up to the top. At the base lay a field of jagged stone, the remnants of storms past where the wind had chiseled into the rock face, splitting it open and letting the fragments of it’s heart spill out.

That was to be his bed for the night. And many nights to come.

Thick hair hung over his face, drenched in sweat and dripping blood from a cut over his left eye. That one had come from a soldier, clouting him for stepping out of line.

Or something like that.

The pole, as thick as a man and a bit longer, had been sitting in a yard somewhere for years, possibly decades, and was not a forgiving burden. With nothing but two hands and his own strength, of which there was a considerable amount, to take action, it was no small task to carry the weapon of his departure into the next life.

Once he had attempted to place it on his shoulders, but they quickly denied him that reward. A maximum effort would be required.

And definitely a maximum of pain to be paid for his debts to society.

That’s the way of your kind. I’ve seen it over and over again, that odd desire to look into another’s eyes, an inferior’s eyes, and see that bitter sweet tinge of suffering and agony there.

That’s not me, despite what you might think.

But it’s the world you now live in, so get used to it.

In fact, I’m sure you are by now.

His face, though, marked with a slashing scar that cut over his cheek and down past his lips, was as placid and stone as the cliffs he was attempting to scale. Not an emotion, not even a hint of nature bubbling up from under the skin. Despite all that he had endured, and the knowledge that there was yet more to come, he hadn’t broken, not yet.

Oh, it was true that his teeth would clench and the muscles on his neck tighten and twist as he struggled beneath the weight. Sweat pooling over his brow and letting the salt prick at his eyes.

He would grunt, and groan on occasion.

But where another may be tempted to grit in anger, or collapse in utter despair. Where a tear might have been shed…nothing.

Collected.

Calm.

Determined to simply reach that next rock at his feet.

He didn’t much care anymore, that is, nothing seemed to matter.

Something was on his mind, though.

The Stromvale cliffs had been the final destination on many a soul’s journey through life. Not one that they had chosen for themselves, but then, that’s not entirely true. They chose, because they made at least one decision at some point that pointed their prow in that direction.

Consequence was something that they hadn’t wanted, but they still picked it out, because everyone knew what was in store if they found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

That was no secret.

Grateful that they had left the crowds behind, he nearly smiled as the splinters of wood dug into his bare and raw hands. He never liked them, that is, people, and having them clawing at his face and spitting at his feet didn’t help with that reputation very much.

One other man trailed along behind him, only, he was the one being carried. Weak, and succumbing to elements and the stress placed upon him, he had collapsed in a fit and was now unconsciously being drug to the top. Perhaps on purpose? In the end, it didn’t really matter, though. Pain was pain, and it always had been.

You get over it eventually.

That, or you die, and when death comes, it matters even less.

But he wasn’t going for death, no, not this day.

Immortality would soon be granted to him. When his shattered body lay at the base of those towering steeps, torn about by rotting teeth of stone stained in blood; when the whole world stared on in rapture at the magnificence of his life, then…he could never die.

A grin, devilish and cruel, curled at the corners of his mouth. Biting pain stabbing at his leg as he stepped on a particularly jagged rock and stumbled to his knees nearly made him laugh a loud.

Yes, they would have their fun.

But they did not foresee what would become of it.

He’d been planning on that for a long time.

The punishment was the same for everyone; to drag the means of their death to the top, then take a quick trip to the bottom. The pole would be fitted into a deep hole carved into the edge of the rock. You stood on the end, and fire was lit at the base. It wouldn’t come to claim you as they had so graciously soaked the longer half of the trunk in a flame retardant. It smelled like a Targ.

Not quite that bad, though.

You had to make a choice then. Would you wait and watch as the flame slowly consumed the wood, or did you take command of your own death, and simple drop yourself from the edge?

Things were to be complicated, though, as soldiers took clawed knives and raked at your hands and feet, shredding the first few layers of flesh into a mash of blood and open ended nerves. Some passed out, but most were left to struggle as they hoped that the fire would snuff out in the wind. They couldn’t support themselves, as it hurt too much, so often they were found in their last few moments in a most humorous position of straddling the pole.

Death’s ride, it had been called.

As the teeth of the king’s blades sliced his own hands and feet, he couldn’t help but laugh at the pain.

It was all so stupid, all for naught.

Where did they think they were going to get with this?

“An ignominious death,” was his sentence. But this?

He couldn’t have asked for anything better.

The other screamed in tones of agony that trailed over the edge and collapsed on the monster’s teeth below. They both knew it would soon swallow them into the abyss that is the ending of life and light.

But they couldn’t have been more different.

One paled at even the mention of death, and now facing it for the very first time, he was hysterical and nearly uncontrollable. The soldiers clubbed him back into submission with their gauntlets, only adding to the open marks that bled red.

What other color is there to bleed?

Only black poured from his soul, though. Like an infection that would plague the land. There was no stopping it now.

You could kill a man.

You could silence a rumor.

But legend, reader, legend is something that never dies.

Remembering back to a similar moment as he was forced out onto the unstable pole now laid into the wall of rock, he found himself back in the cavernous depths of Uth-niss Aer. Reaching for a companion, slipping to the ground and feeling his face make connection with sharp stone. There was a lot of blood then, pouring over his hands, and the other man’s as well.

A friend had been lost that day, but it was alright, because another was gained, and this more important than the last.

He saw his face, only, it was a fleeting specter that disappeared into the clouds above. Sun mocked and glared, willing the flames to perform their task if only a bit faster.

And still, he did not care.

They did not understand. All of them pompous magistrates and politicians, so lost.

He grinned, raising his head to look at them one at a time, each catching a glimpse, however small, of what it must be like to have gone entirely insane. They say that insanity is a state of the mind, or rather, a state of losing your mind, but it was so much more than that.

Shadow swept over them, shrouding out the light for a few moments.

A cloud?

All eyes still riveted on the man, he rose to full height, spreading arms wide.

This would be his last testament, and what the world would remember.

Then he fell, only, deliberately, but to say he jumped would be to lie. For him, there was no rush. All things would come in due time, unfortunately though, some things faster than others.

Down through the fog and the clouds that roiled up the stone face.

The rocks were not the forgiving type that day.

. Lost, but Found .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Yes, it was true that she could choose to do as she wished, but he still couldn’t believe that she would act that way. It seemed so…strange to him. Especially after all that had happened.

Motioning for another helping of food, he sipped idly at the mug of thick lager. Not the first time he’d tasted any alcoholic beverage, but it certainly wasn’t a habit of his.

His father had made sure of that….

A rich, nutty texture crackled at the edge of his tongue, and seared his throat like a fire brand as it went down. Not exactly what he pictured when drinking something cold. How people could ever find themselves addicted to this stuff, he couldn’t say.

The food was good, though. A heavy helping of roasted meat, served over a mess of assorted noodles and vegetables. The trip through the wilderness had left him a bit thin, and he could feel skin stretching tight over his cheekbones, falling into his features to add years to his appearance.

Over two weeks.

That’s how long they’d been walking out there.

Time didn’t really seem to be that important anymore.

Aviin was just grateful, though, that they hadn’t needed to take her to a healer or physician, but even that caused him a bit of alarm.

She was different, but in what way….

The Inn was nearly filled now, with a caravan coming through in the night. They sat at the tables, drinking and shoveling food into their faces like it was to be their last day. Conversations rang heavy around the room, sometimes bursting into laughter, sometimes angered yelling stalling everything for a few heated moments, until they all began laughing again.

What a life it must be. He thought to himself. To travel the world, always experiencing something new.

Then that realization came to him that always seems to come to those that think. He began to make sense of the world, and to put things in their proper order.

This was his new life, and it was no different than theirs.

Excitement raced through his heart as he started to understand that all those things he had dreamed about, the days as a child spent in pretend, of going on grand adventures and slaying foul beasts, were all staring him down from the future.

He was now a free man.

For what it was worth.

The traders, on their way to the next city, no doubt, to barter their wares brought from far off lands. He’d heard tales of how they went even as far as Rift’s Reach, to the other realms where strange and magnificent beasts roamed the lands, even built great cities that rivaled the Empire’s.

A small group of younger looking men and woman sat at a table in the corner. One had a small instrument leaned against her chair, which led him to believe that they would be traveling minstrels or performers.

There was a time when he’d stopped to watch them acting in the street.

But his father had pulled him away…just as always.

A few hardened gentlemen sat together along the bar’s edge, not saying much, only slowly tapping at the counter when their selected draught began to run low. Well on in years, their ragged features and ragged clothing spoke of a life spent amongst the wild, ranching or farming he couldn’t say, but there was no easy road laid before them, and certainly not one falling behind.

These were the men that had built the Empire. The men that braved the elements to provide the very basics of necessities for the rest of the people. Their harvests, whether of crops or meat, would find its way to some great hall high up in Arribinthia, to rest on the plate of perhaps Remus himself.

To feed the line of kings.

How funny it was, to think that even the greatest of men, no matter their position, would still find themselves in debt to the poorest of peasants when that day of judgement came.

So many different lives to lead, and all intriguing to his relatively juvenile mind.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t gained experience, simply…he lacked knowledge. Knowledge of anything, to be exact, as all he had known was the blade.

Ask him how to siege a castle, and he’d give you every possibility, drawling on for hours upon hours of what the weakest points in their defenses would be, the exact point to breech the walls, all things that he’d spent much of his younger years researching and being trained on.

An invitation to speak of matters that worried the Empire; how trading went in the great markets; sing a ballad of the history of the realm, all these things were beyond him.

Aviin gritted his teeth, biting past the next mouthful of ale and letting it burn away his frustration. Funny, how something so bitter could only be washed away by another similarly bitter substance.

He was beginning to understand, then, how they could do it.

Lifting mug to his lips once again, he glanced around the room.

Two more men had just entered, strolling up to the counter and conversing with the innkeeper about accommodations and the like. Their clothes were well used and spoke of some grand adventure they had undoubtedly experienced.

This was what he wanted. To be free to choose his own path.

To be like them.

“…the fool, thinking that he could get away with such a thing.”

“Aye, but Kurn will be coming with a dozen others soon enough. Then, all we have to do is play a little game of tag, and she’ll be ours.”

“What do you suppose Blue-hand wants with her?”

One of the men motioned for a drink, then a bit impatiently slammed a fist to the counter and demanded his already paid for trip into the world of forgetting

“That doesn’t matter.” He said. “All I care about is that we get paid, and trust me when I say this, if he doesn’t spit up when we get there, I’ll take her somewhere else. There’s bound to be a heavy bounty on the underground.”

“Aye, the gold is more important….”

“Rich and stupid, that’s all I care about.”

Chuckles, but only halfheartedly given.

It paid off, but not always….

Stretching his joints, the larger of the two turned for just a moment, glancing at the assortment of men around him. Aviin caught his eyes for a second, brief, but enough time for them to do a bit of sizing up.

Not impressed, the man turned back to his drink.

Aviin didn’t, though.

Instant and abrupt recognition flashed into his mind, bringing back all the images of their little escapade through the forest.

These were no mere strangers. Trying not to act too suspicious, he quickly finished his meal, slipped a few coins beneath the plate, and headed for their room. He had already explored the rather large inn, even down into the basement while no one was around, and knew that there were several places that they could slip away without being seen.

Of course, that would raise suspicion, which might lead them to start thinking.

Something they obviously weren’t very good at.

How did they not recognize me? It didn’t quite make sense, but then, there never had been a good moment to really see one another during their short exchange of words.

And garps never did have much in the way of a brain, anyways.

They would have to make their way out the front door, and be sure to do it properly.

He had almost forgotten that he was to be a wanted man as well, so now they had double the reason to be cautious.

. For Where Home Is .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“So, if you don’t mind me asking…exactly where are we headed?”

Aviin’s question seemed to shock her, as she suddenly stopped walking and stood still for a few moments.

“We…I…hold on for just a moment.” Spinning to face him, she looked him right in the eye and captured his attention for at least the few following moments. She had a way of doing that. “There isn’t a we in this. There never was such a thing, alright. It’s just you, and then me, and that’s how it’s always been.”

Perhaps a bit caught off guard, Aviin made no noise as he stood rooted to his spot, uncertainty showing in the way his mouth twitched a bit at the corner. Finally coming to grips with himself, though, he stepped forward and engaged.

“What you just said doesn’t make sense to me. ‘There never was a we?’ What exactly is that supposed to mean? I saved your life, didn’t I?”

“Yes, a fact that I’m grateful for.” Savill continued. “Truly, I am.”

How couldn’t you be, under those circumstances?

Aviin shifted the weight of his pack, mostly bought goods, but some of it acquired by not the most honorable means. What could they do, though? Food was a necessity, and soldiers didn’t have money.

“But you also have to understand that I’ve been taking care of myself since I was just a child. You don’t have to follow me everywhere to protect me or anything like that.” Than almost as an after thought, she added, “I don’t need protection.”

“Oh, yes, that much was clear when I found you tied to a post in the middle of that god-forsaken desert out there.”

“Look, sometimes you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Things don’t always work out for the best just because you want them too. Like I said, I’m grateful that you would do something like put yourself in danger to keep me alive, I really am. But I….”

“But what?” His head cocked to the side, ears waiting for her to finish that last thought.

Savill’s lips pulled tight as she bit down on them, mind thundering and urging her to speak what she was thinking, but it simply wouldn’t come. Her thoughts sang one song, emotions another, and it was all so muddled together to the point of being beyond a feasible solution. Throwing hands in the air and rolling her eyes, she turned and walked a few paces away from her previous position.

Running from the problem.

“Everything okay?” Came Duraan’s touch, but she shoved him away and closed any entrance that he might have into her mind.

Cracking apart and emitting a silent breath, Aviin’s own lips trembled at the edge of speaking what he truly needed to say, but they quickly shut, trapping back those unutterable words.

Neither of them could speak their minds.

But Reader, I believe that you understand very well. You see, it is a mortal condition to have these annoying little things called emotions. They’re a rambunctious breed that runs rampant through your kind, tainting even the best of you.

A select few have garnished the ability to keep control, but most find themselves at the beck and call of this virus.

And you are the host.

Sometimes good, sometimes not so pleasant, they seem to control your every action. It’s a bloody war you wage, so you should be used to the color red.

Red showed in her face as she fought back all the anger of past years, pending at the edge of her willpower.

Red showed at the corners of his eyes, telling the sad saga of so many sleepless nights.

How one could dream so much when they hardly ever shut their eyes, I never would know?

And red fluttered in the afternoon breeze, rustling through her hair and taunting them onwards.

“Why?” She finally asked, yet refusing to turn around. “Why are you still following me?”

Why? Now that would be a good answer.

His head wilted, lacking in nourishment.

“To be honest…I don’t have anywhere else to go.” The brutal truth, finally stated in a simple form. Now this I could work with. “All of my family is dead, or at least, dead to me. I never knew anyone else. I haven’t even traveled out of the Lcynien province, so I have no idea where we are, or where we’re going….” Trailing off into the distance, his voice lost its power and he simply choked out of speaking anything further.

And what was she supposed to say?

The truth?

Hardly worth saying, in the end, because it would fall on deaf ears. She began to realize the situation wasn’t as she had previously thought it. A man in his own right, but somewhere inside he had never been nurtured out of his infancy.

And now brought low before the altar of the world.

Sacrifice was never a pretty thing to watch.

At least, unless you enjoyed the sound of blood slipping over stone.

“Look, Savill, I don’t know what you want. I realize that how I reacted to the situation before was, well…childish. I just got caught up in this whole dream of what I thought it would be like. And the dreams themselves, they’re just, foolish notions.” Green clashed with blue as their eyes came to meet one another, swirling in a tempest’s form. He was still searching, still reaching out, but she simply wasn’t giving back. “It wasn’t realistic of me to assume anything, other than the fact that you needed help when you did.”

Nothing but the swaying of trees sounded around them, for a few moments.

Then she broke the silence, “You can come as far as Canthon, and then you have to find your own way.” Stalking off to find their furry friend, she remained silent as he followed quickly after her.

“Why, what’s at Canthon?” Aviin inquired. Not that he knew where, or what type of a place that was anyways.

One simple word gave him all he needed to know, though, and shut him up as well in a thoughtful stupor of remorse.

“Home.”

She said.

. First Contact .

Something surreal surrounded a world shrouded in only black.

Shadow.

Not to be confused with the dark.

When the light fades, it always comes in. Yet, no power resides in it to banish its counterpart, only the task of keeping watch while it’s away. A vanguard, at the world’s edge.

And it was here that he sat, only, it wasn’t as before.

No grassy knole to lean on.

No edge before him, beckoning forward, but constantly repelling his mind.

And certainly she would not be there.

Only the shadows.

But it was not cold, nor was it lonely. He was not alone, I can assure you that. For him, though, this was the first time he had come to this place. Years spent drifting idly along in the visions of his sleepless nights, and finally, he had come to me.

I watched, silently from the back, finding great interest in this poor soul. Something about him, something that I couldn’t quite place my finger on, was odd about this one. Not so much in the way that he acted or talked, or even the condition of his mind.

Emotion?

Whatever it was, it had brought him here, so now we could play our little game.

There was a solid enough floor to stand on, but his eyes had not yet opened to it, so he stood rooted in that one spot, refusing to budge for fear that he would tumble down. But did it matter? Shadow was above and below him, on all sides, cupping him in its embrace.

Where would he fall to?

Standing just at the edge of his vision, I allowed myself to be seen, but only enough to arouse that thing that you call curiosity. The little beast that always seems to rest on your shoulder, whispering you into staying just a bit longer, when you really ought to be running in the other direction.

“Hello?” He asked.

Oh, so pitiful it nearly brought me to tears as I laughed.

Hello?

Was this a cry for help? A pleading? Not what I had hoped for, as I expected more from such a man as this.

Different, but still the same as the rest.

And for this part, I always found a great deal of enjoyment from playing with their poor little consciences like some child’s toy. Unrecognizable noises, a shifting of the shapes beneath the shadows. All combined to create the perfect environment for one of my favorite scenes.

“What are you seeking?”

His expression changed from a look of confusion, to one that spoke of a deep contemplation mingling against the walls of his mind. Why was he here? To be honest, I didn’t hold the answer to that question. How could I? But one thing was for certain; I never would know, because even he himself could not proffer a reasonable explanation.

He simply was, and that was reason enough, after all.

Stepping from darkness into a conjured well of light bearing down from above, I gave him his first glimpse of the specter that was haunting his presence. Features lengthening and eyebrows pulled high and tight, I could sense that his shock was not one of horror, or fear, but rather a disbelief that what was standing before him was in fact the truth.

Yes, my dearest Reader, I would have been shocked as well, had I been on the receiving end of that twisted throw.

“Do you like what you see?”

The man’s response was silent, but the noise a heavy burden. And here we have reached the apex of what I would call my own saga.

Adonai.

Humans.

You all have this strange trait of insecurity and uncertainty. Having met a challenge or an instance that is not so easily overcome by your feeble imaginations, you sink into the abyssal cleft of a neutral stance.

You do nothing, in short.

Worlds have crumbled and rusted away as your people sat by and watched, too afraid, too embarrassed to do anything. Helpless against your own will.

This is your legacy…and he was no different.

Oh, we had met before, and it was for this reason that he removed into a stunned silence, unable to utter a single word. Even his thoughts I sensed as being stalled in mid-flight, searching for that bit of recognition that comes when you’ve met another that claims to know you, but you can’t seem to place who they were.

And yet, you do remember.

But I was not altogether that frightening of an image. In fact, I would consider myself a rare feature indeed, one that many would dream of had I been privileged to live a life as sheltered and preceded by ignorance as yourself. My desire was not for this, though.

I only wanted to have a little fun.

“What do you want with me?”

Finally, he had opened his mouth that seemed to always be in a constant motion, yet only seconds previous couldn’t muster enough strength to even breathe a little.

Drawing close to him and rising a little off the floor, I looked past him and off into the distance.

At nothing in particular, of course.

“Oh, it is not what I want that’s of concern. It’s what I need.”

He was thinking again, a bit frightening as anything was liable to happen in that clockwork machine of his. We all know what he was going to ask next, so I cut to the chase and gave it to him before wasting further time. “The world isn’t run by any one person, you see. There’s a whole lot going on behind the lines…while you’re asleep….”

A pause, for dramatic affect.

“That’s why you’ve come here.”

Yes, his juvenile eyes reflected a mirror image of what I would have seen staring back through them. They looked at me, and nothing went through them.

Was he truly this blind? I almost couldn’t fathom that one such as he, trained and raised to be a commander of thousands, would be this way.

Then again, he hadn’t exactly lived up to that potential.

It did not matter much, though, because this was not the last time that we two would gather in this place.

His day would come.

For now, he would wake into a reality of what once was, and forget our little encounter. At least, until the next time.

. Slaying Beasts .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Flashing leaves.

Grass shaking before him as his feet pounded the earth.

“Head it off! Head it off!” He cried, watching as Duraan’s lanky form powered through the tree line to his left. Ahead he kept careful watch on the fat little animal galloping away from him. Who would have thought it could run so fast, especially on those tiny legs?

Blirre-tin were odd creatures, to say the least.

Aviin licked his lips and began to salivate.

But they sure did make for a good roast.

“Well don’t scare it towards the lake, by Yvre’s ear. I’ll never catch it that way.”

“Yah yah, just run faster….”

Laughing, partly in frustration at the pain in his legs, he carefully nocked an arrow, being sure to watch the ground directly in front of him for any random obstacles. As much fun as tripping over an exposed root or a boulder would be, he didn’t really fancy missing out on a good dinner.

It had been Duraan’s idea from the beginning, probably because he had spent so many years chasing down tiny forest animals like Chiddits and Rone. Aviin didn’t blame him, though, and if the silly cat just kept running, then they’d all be enjoying the fruits of the labors that night.

If, being the important word.

But already he could see that the four-legged beast was itching to make a break through the small clearing of trees. Turning slightly to the south, he would force it to bank on that option.

Moments later, the happy beast slowed its pace a bit as it watched it’s predator suddenly stop pursuit and stand still.

Alive, for another day.

Then suddenly a roaring and sharp claws aimed at its face came ripping through the air, slashing about and catching it on the flank. Kicking and bleating in fright, it spun, blinded by fear and seeking only an escape from this new terror.

Two bounds, a high leap to clear a fallen tree…and slammed to the ground with a force which denied its strength.

Sprouting from its chest rested a feathered stick, pinning it to the ground. There was only a few struggles left in its legs, kicking at the ground and churning it like butter, but a moment or two later the bloody froth dribbled from its mouth, iced cold by a final breath.

“Yah! Did you see that shot?” Fist pumping the air, Aviin ran towards the kill, perhaps a bit over-excited about his feat. Duraan was already there, licking at the blood.

Blood….

It stained red into the ground again, steam rising as it contacted the relatively cool spring air.

There was that pungent scent that always followed it, stinging at his nostrils and reminding him of all things past, the visage that haunted his nightmares.

A single man, calling his name….

“Are you alright?” Duraan asked, looking up at him.

Aviin’s skin felt cold, and wet to the touch.

“I’m fine.” He said aloud, holding onto his stomach.

“Well, you look like a ghost that just saw its own grave. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Regaining composure and sucking down the bit of bile that had been slowly working its way up past his stomach, he bit down and returned bow and arrow to the quiver.

“Let’s just get this wrapped up so we can go back to camp, before something else with bigger teeth than yours comes along and wants to eat it too.”

“Is that supposed to be a ‘little tooth’ joke?” The cat asked, looking up from sniffing at their next meal and twitching his ears.

“What…?”

He hadn’t even thought of that, but it seemed appropriately inappropriate to make such an archaic joke as that. It would have been funny, but, he wasn’t the witty type anyways. Besides, no one said that anymore.

“Yes they do.” Slapping a twig with his tail, Duraan retorted the comment and sought to educate his naïve friend. “It has become a very common term amongst the younger generations in the major cities, and even finds its way into song and tale at the academies for music.”

Right, something he would know nothing of.

“You should really get to know your history a little better.”

“Hey, it’s not like I was ever given the chance, okay. My father did a pretty good job of keeping me locked away from the world.”

“That’s the truth….”

Aviin shot his comrade a tempered look that shut his mind up for a few moments. Then he laughed. The silly cat never could seem to be quiet, whether it was rustling through the bushes chasing after some rodent, or constantly barraging them with all sorts of random and curious concepts that seemed to dodge the filters of his brain.

Savill had refused to come with them. Duraan explained that she didn’t enjoy killing live things, but Aviin gathered that she wasn’t very keen on the idea of being around him any longer than she had too.

“So what do you think made Savill…let me come with you to Canthon?”

There were a few ideas of his own milling around up there, but as of late he didn’t seem to be so good at the guessing part of life. That, or he just didn’t understand her at all, which to him made little sense. They’d talked enough in his dreams, enough to give him at the least a clue into what her life must have been like, but every time he approached her with a question, whether it be about family or reasons for her traveling alone, she brushed him off and avoided the subject for the rest of the day.

He’d almost resigned himself to never gaining answers to those questions.

“Who knows what she thinks. She shields herself from me all the time, and even if I wanted to break into her thoughts, I don’t think I could.”

“I just wish I could understand her a little more….”

The cat peered up with its beady eyes. “No, I’m not so sure you would want that.”

In any case, they had a task ahead of them. With Duraan still sniffing at the dead animal, Aviin began the work of prepping it for the short trip back to their camp.

He’d done this many times before, as a means of procuring food for the other men, but now…it was different….

. Knowledge is a thing Hard Gained .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“It’s not like you think it is.” Licking at his paw, Duraan idly explained the situation a little more clearly to his friend. “She’s been like this since she was a child, long before I knew her.”

“Wait, so is that why she wanders through the wilds?”

“Precisely. She’d stay, if she could.” And as an after thought, he added, “At least, she would have, but I don’t know anymore, a lot of things have changed over the last few years.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Oh, it’s been ten or so years now. Who knows? Neither of us pay much attention to time or things like that. It’s just…irrelevant.”

“Irrelevant? Are you being serious? Times is everything, because there’s only a limited amount of it. My father….” Words seemed to choke back in his throat, refusing to let themselves out. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to say them, but they brought back so many painful memories, things he didn’t really want to remember. “My father always taught me that every moment is the moment that your fate hangs in the balance. It doesn’t matter what you did before, or what you have planned for the future, if you miss it now, in this moment, then you die.”

“Well, not everyone’s life works that way. Sometimes it’s good to just waste a few moments doing absolutely nothing. You’re not going to die just because you sat down and watched the world go by for a bit.”

“No, of course not.” Aviin shook his head and sighed. “That’s not how I meant it.”

“I know.”

There was that dorky smile of his again, a thing which always helped to lighten the mood. If you weren’t laughing with him, then you surely would be at him.

“You sure seem to know a lot of things.” Came Aviin’s remark to his friend’s sassy comment. Then, in a more serious tone and with a real desire to understand a little more, he asked, “How did you end up learning all that you did? I mean, it’s not everyday that an…”

Reluctant to say the word that had come to mind.

But Duraan was following him the whole way. “An animal? No, I agree. In fact, I’ve never seen anything like me before.”

“Okay, so if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly are you?”

The question sounded so hard on his ears, tinged with ice, but Duraan’s disposition wasn’t one that was quick to anger, thankfully, and he took everything in stride, even as short as they were.

“That’s a tale, I’m afraid,” he began, “that isn’t one of my favorites to tell.”

“Oh, I’m sorry if I-.”

“No, it’s nothing to do with you. They’re just not some things I like to remember.”

“You don’t have to tell me, then, if it’s like that.”

“But you want to know.”

A statement of fact. Yes, he’d played these games with humans before. Aviin nodded, to prove his point.

Didn’t they all? To know, that is….

. Rorith Exposed .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Clouds draped from the skies, dancing on strings of rain and darkening the atmosphere.

Hanging heavy around them.

Aviin was busy collecting firewood, something they’d neglected to do. He’d rather go chasing animals through the wood anyways, like some blood crazed Targ.

Truth be told, she could have done something while they were out, but there were things to be taken care of, problems to be solved. An internal struggle waged battle against the fields of here mind, tugging at the chains that bound her heart.

Two things; first, Aviin was not what she had expected.

And secondly, Rorith was calling out to her. She’d mentioned the fact to Duraan, who told her to stay away as the last time they’d gone on one of his adventures, they both nearly ended up dead, and she had found herself taken captive by a bunch of desert half-breeds that didn’t dare lay a finger on her.

It hadn’t been that long ago, either.

Needless to say, Duraan was urging her to stay away from such matters, but there was something about it that she simply couldn’t push aside. A little ticking at the conscience, with no end in the foreseeable future. Like being trapped in the darkest parts of the rifts, only, this time it was of her own choice and will.

She needed to help him.

He was dying.

That was the part that she’d kept hidden from Duraan, but only because it was such a terrible thing to consider. The great tree’s leaves were already paling and slipping from the end of his fingered grasp. Each one a little piece of history, falling away, crumbling into the abyss that was the rising dark.

Tendrils of shadow, consuming the light and writhing-as if alive-raked at the trunk, slowly climbing its height and searching for the core of all that was life and good.

There was a great need for action. But she didn’t know how, or when.

Or even what to do….

“Don’t look now, but your lover boy is coming back.” Duraan joked, kicking a padded foot at her.

“What? Would you stop talking like that? He’s not in love with me, and I most certainly am not in love with him!”

Emitting a few purred laughs, he urged her closer to the edge of releasing her anger. A little, game of his. “Hmm, that’s what they always say, to cover up. So, the fact that you made such a fuss about it only goes to prove….”

“Just shut your furry little mind and go to sleep or something, since you’re so good at that.”

“At least I sleep….”

Yes, he was right about that one thing. She wasn’t prone to getting much shut eye herself, not since he had come along.

Savill hated that she was forced to close her thoughts off to him. She hated that she was forced to even be a part of his company, to cook their meager food, and let him eat it.

She hated that he walked like a board, stiff and rigid, just like a soldier.

She hated that his eyes glimmered in the firelight, always attracting her gaze, locking them into an unbreakable stare.

Ripping from that vision, she fumbled with her shoes, tugging at the laces in a useless ruse to get away. “Just…go find yourself a hole and sleep in it, okay.”

“Fine, I’ll just wander out in the rain all by myself and find a nice deep pit and see if I can’t get stuck in the mud….” He growled back, pushing away her presence and building a stone wall around his own mind, confused at the unexpected hostilities.

“Yah, you do that….” Savill’s voice died as she found herself watching him again, this time allowing his image to penetrate another layer or two of her defenses. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. From the beginning, it was all wrong. She’d imagined someone more like her father, more like a real Adonai, and not some freak that wore the Emperor’s crest. Even now, she could picture that emblem, plastered on his tunic like a great stain to the world, hidden only by a thin coat.

It was all that kept her from reaching towards him now, to answer his desperate cries at night, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to descend to such a low position.

“Duraan, we have to talk about Rorith. It’s getting worse, and, I’ve been seeing those ghosts again, in the rifts.”

“You know you shouldn’t be going there as much as you are. Savill, you’re letting it get a stronger hold over you. I can sense it, and I know you can.” He’d been warning her for sometime, as the instance at the outpost had nearly sent her too far. There was no telling if she would be able to make it back, were she to break through that final wall. It hung like glass, barring her way, but not her curiosity. Leading deeper.

The abyss called to her, because it offered so much of what she sought.

“I understand that, but it’s the only way to gather information, and that’s something we desperately need.”

“No, what we need is more help. We should just go-.”

“No! I know what you’re going to suggest, and we won’t do that. He’s a self-righteous bigot and I won’t work with him again.” She fired back, closing out any thought of returning to grovel at Kynder’s feet. He may be the best magic wielder in the realm, but all of his dark secrets were enough to scare away just about anything.

And his disposition?

Lacking, was the only word that came to mind. Lacking in any sociable formalities or even the slightest bit of kindness.

“You don’t like him, I get that, but if things escalate anymore, then we have little choice. Just, don’t throw it from your mind.”

He was right on one account, they wouldn’t be able to manage if things grew worse. For the time being, it was under control, at least, the darkness that seemed to pervade the world was held at bay. But there was no telling how long that would last.

It was getting to her, stabbing at into her mind and clawing at her inner presence, just like Rorith, only, the tree was much stronger than she was.

Already she could sense it pressing at her eyes, and when she did enter the rifts, there was always a few moments of seeing through an altered vision to greet her. Strange things appeared before her in those meager seconds, only to vanish as the light once again resurfaced and chased away any threatening or hostile enemy.

This was her life, and she didn’t know anything else.

. Rifter .

- Seventh Age, year 689

Hearty.

Rich.

Tendrils of smoke filtered between the sticks that served as bars, slipping against the wetted nose of a young animal, igniting its senses, but mostly just its appetite. Little food had been spared lately to fill its belly, and the same went for the rest of the menagerie of creatures scattered around the large room, all locked away in wooden cages.

All captives to a ruthless and very inhospitable host.

Some would leave today, and it was doubtless that others would come to find room and board here.

Piled amongst the junk, there was one poor Rhond-Kyire, curled up in it’s uncomfortable home, with all of its fur sticking out from between the sticks, barely able to fit in such a tiny space.

These were the ones that had it the hardest.

But he, on the other hand, was treated differently, for some unknown reason.

His cage was larger than the rest.

His portions of food seemed to be much more fulfilling.

Why? He couldn’t say, but one thing was for sure, they all were saying that he would leave soon. Whenever those funny looking creatures with their bare skin exposed to the elements and without protection, their flat teeth and beady eyes came in to poke at a specific animal, chattering away in their strange sounds, the animal was sure to disappear within a day or two.

It was as if they were being…chosen. But for what was the real question that they all were asking?

Unfortunately, there was no way to tell, and no one ever returned.

Scrunching at the back of the cage, he watched as their host entered the room, fumbling through a pile of junk and finally grasping onto a strange object.

And that was another thing that made these creatures so odd; they loved to collect junk. Bits and pieces of stone and metal, of no value or use. What they should be doing was to stockpile meat, and give some of it to him.

That was what his mother and father taught them to do, during the warmer months in preparation to weather the winter away. But that was before they had come for him. They took the rest of the pack as well, but none of them went together.

Grey and spotted fur stood on end while the creature rose to look in at him, poking a finger through the bars and wiggling it in the air, taunting him. But he’d learned quickly, as any attempt to harm them always resulted in a quick and decisive blow that brought heavy punishment. The pain was one thing, but attempting to survive with no water and no food for an extended period of time was definitely not the most enjoyable thing to do.

No, it was only for them to wait.

And wait he had, and wait he would.

For as long as it took.

And the days crept by slowly as they laid there, a constant droning of noise, a mixture of grunts and howls. Anything too loud, and the host was sure to appear, threatening with his fist and shaking at the cages.

A tyrant who ruled on fear alone.

But there was a time when things changed, the day that he brought in a box, shutting and bolting the door behind him. His eyes seemed to glow with an intense, and altogether different fire about them, dancing in the dark.

Fingers trembling, voice emitting a barely audible scratching of curious joy, he lifted the lid, light streaming instantly from the cracks and penetrating into the small, dim room. Animals jumped back in their cages, as far as the could go, squealing as the brightness only intensified with each continued pulling to make the opening larger. Eventually, it stood completely exposed.

A thin, pointed shape with straight and sharp edges, resting in a small pedestal and pulsing with an intense energy.

He shielded his eyes as he looked on.

Then came a knock at the door, and he slammed it shut, pushing it into the corner and covering it with a random selection of junk.

It was like that almost every day now. He would come in, only to stare hungrily at the odd object. Even this had captured the attention of our furry little friend, who watched intently.

But nothing ever happened, at least, until the day when they came to kill.

They could all hear the noise long before the door was kicked open and three or four of those white creatures came stomping in, thick metallic plates draped over their bodies and all carrying these sinister looking teeth that glinted in the pale light.

Some of the other animals growled, but within moments they were stuck through, gargling on their own frothy blood only to fall silent a second or two later. The entire room erupted in noise as the fresh scent of blood filled its every expanse, tickling their sense and rousing them into an obnoxious fury.

More died, then.

Others came through the door, only they weren’t as the first. No black and white, only dark tans wrapped around their heads and faces.

They screamed.

They gnashed those terrible teeth, stabbing into one another like the beasts they were.

One located the strange chest and dragged it into the center of the room, quickly flipping it open, then falling back as the brightness exploded out.

More commotion. And more of the host’s creatures entered in. There was a battle being waged as they threw each other around, knocking open the cages and setting so many of the animals free.

He hung there, swinging back and forth, standing on edge and prepared for anything to happen.

One of the Rhond-Kyhire, the big one, had latched onto the white creature’s foot and tore at it, knocking him to the ground as the others quickly descended to spread his blood on the earthen floor.

Another flailed high and hard to avoid being sliced open, knocking his own tooth at the ceiling. It clinked off of wood and stone, then effortlessly slipped through the cord which kept our little creature suspended.

The cage fell, bouncing had against the others.

Cracking happened in the wood, splitting it open and spilling the contents out.

He tumbled, not very far, but for what seemed a long time.

Right towards the chest.

Right towards the light.

It flashed, as did the pain as something stabbed straight through his back leg.

“Then everything faded into darkness.”

There was silence for a few moments, as Aviin took in the story and was amazed at how intense it had been. How much it had got his blood pumping again.

“So, it stabbed you? I mean, the crystal, or whatever you want to call it….”

Duraan winced at the memory, still feeling the scar tissue on his left leg, tighter than the surrounding skin. “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”

“And I’m guessing that the crystal has some connection to why you can talk and understand our language and such.”

“Oh, in a way I suppose it does, but I learned to speak and understand, and even to read, only after a lot of dedicated and hard work. No, the crystal only gave me the ability to think. You see, that’s the only thing that separates you from the rest of the animals in the world. All they know is their next meal. But you, you can find a better way. You can ponder on the meaning of things. You can build and create.” He looked at the ground, eyes dancing with the glow of the flames. “You can progress, and that’s something that wasn’t given to the rest of us poor creatures.”

“But you can think now, obviously.”

“Yes, of course. That’s what the crystal did, it gave me the ability to be like you, to have the same abilities and powers as an Adonai. I just don’t have the hands.”

Aviin smiled and reveled in the moment, thinking of what it must have been like to be an ignorant and powerless beast, then to suddenly be thrown into the world of his own kind. Then, a very important, and interesting thought came to his mind, “Duraan, does this have anything to do with Savill, and why she is the way she is?”

“You mean, her disposition of being angry all the time?”

“Yes, I mean…no. She has so called powers, just like you. Did something similar happen to her?”

He felt his friend sigh, rather than heard it as the night sounds drowned out anything else. It was strange how the silence could be so deafening. Aviin shifted his weight to lean against his pack.

“I’ve only ever met two others that have experienced what I went through, and Savill is one of them. But her story is different, she was stabbed on purpose, rather than an accident.”

“Stabbed? You mean, someone assaulted her and attempted to kill her with one of the crystals? How many of these things are there?”

All great questions, but most of them without answers.

“She was too young to remember the details, but I could sense how vivid the memory of her being attacked was. You have to draw blood with the crystal before it takes effect, so somebody really wanted to infect her with its powers.”

“Okay, now I’m thoroughly confused.”

“As am I. Aviin, there are a lot of things in this world that don’t make any sense at all. I’ve spent so many years trying to unravel every secret I can, and each time it simply branches off into another mysterious realm. There’s simply no way to understand it all.”

“But why did it affect her differently than you?”

“That, I don’t actually know. But in all three cases it wasn’t the same. I wouldn’t doubt that it’s the same for all of the rest.”

Aviin’s head bobbed up and down in a slow motion, then his eyes shot open. “Wait, the rest? You mean, there are others?”

“Yes, of course. It’s a big world out there, and it wouldn’t make much sense that there were three and only three instances. It simply wouldn’t make sense.”

He supposed that Duraan was correct in assuming that. But how many more? And what were they like? A thousand different paths to take branched off of that one concept, leading him down a dozen different roads and clouding up his ability to make sense of it all. “I’m still confused about what these crystals are, exactly….”

“So are we. Something left behind by the ancients, it would seem.”

“Like the Rydicc Stone?”

“Yes, only, these seem to be much more of a secret. Unless you’ve come into contact with one, you probably don’t know that they even exist, let alone are the cause of some strange happenings.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask this, but, what exactly are her powers? I mean, she can survive in a coma for nearly a week; she can summon energy from the air….”

“To be honest, not even I know the full extent of what she’s capable of. The effect that the crystal had on here was, well, perfect. Which is-.”

“Perfect? You say that like it’s a good thing that she was transformed….”

“No, I mean perfect in the sense that it gave her an ability that is so much more than just some rare power. In as best of terms as I can explain it, Savill can travel through the rifts.”

“Rifts?”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve been calling them. Essentially they’re the different planes of existence, and she has free access to them.” He looked at the ground, thinking hard. That last little bit wasn’t exactly true. “At least, she can come and go, but, there is a price to be paid….”

And a heavy one at that.

“You’ve lost me…..” Aviin exhaled, shaking his head at the cat’s utter disregard for the ignorance of others.

“Okay, picture the world like a cake, because everyone knows what cake is, right?”

“Yes, of course I know what cake is. I was sheltered from the world, but not kept stupid.”

“Good. Now, a cake is usually baked in layers, and each of those layers is a different plane. The one where we live is somewhere in the middle. We’re constantly surrounded by the others, but they don’t actually exist with us, just by us. You following?”

“Just keep explaining, I’ll catch on.”

Eyes rolled as the animal rued the day that he had been made to think like them.

To think better than them.

“All things that were ever created exist on those planes, but each in it’s own right and method. Some things branch between several, like light, for instance. It would seem that anything that emits light also penetrates into several of the other planes. But other things, like a rock, might only exist here, on this plane.”

“And Savill can travel to the other planes?”

“Yes, in a manner of speaking. She can travel through the rifts that separate them, and has been learning how to gain access to the others.”

“Wow, this goes a lot farther than I thought it would.”

“Aviin, that’s only the beginning. There’s so much I can tell you, so much to learn. There’s more than just this world out there to explore.”

“Well, we should probably start with this one, being that I haven’t even been outside of the Empire yet.”

But there wasn’t any doubt in either of their minds that he would go on asking questions. It seemed to be his most viable talent.

Chapter IX

. A Turning of MEn and Times.

- Sixth Age, year 1022

The ground felt good under his feet again.

Broken and torn, rippling up in the wake of the plow. Beast and man, become one, for endless hours. Only, this time it wasn’t as hot, and the ground wasn’t nearly as hard. Why his family had ever chosen to settle so far east, out there on the dry and deadened plains he never would be able to say, but one thing was for sure, he wouldn’t be going back anytime soon.

There was one thing, though, that still drew his gaze.

His mother and sister were still buried out there.

But he shook his head and kept right on with the work. It had been so long, he probably could never find the place again. No marker, no way of remembering. Only their faces still locked into his vision at night when the world fell still and he stared at the ceiling boards, unable to drift into that bliss of sleep.

And he figured it wouldn’t stop anytime soon. You couldn’t just let go of those things, despite it having been nearly five years previous.

Much had happened, and as the plow slipped through the earth and the sound of the beast clomping through the dirt sang to his ears, he reminisced about those days. They had always been so peaceful, so perfect. Even with his father’s hard temper and their abundant lack of abundance, it was still good.

They had what they needed, and that was more than most.

But things were really good now. The village had finally rallied together under Draanus’ leadership, at least, they had been forced to if they wanted to survive. He was the only one with any food left, before the drought ended.

Perhaps the Fates were looking after them, though, as those long days forged a weld between the people of Uurda and their young protector.

Two years of intense famine.

Several Orr-Tav attacks.

Even a band of marauding thieves bent on surviving a little longer than everyone else.

All conquered beneath his command.

Yes, things were good. And he was back to what he loved. There wasn’t really a way to explain it, why it thrilled him to spend such long days out in the dust, walking behind the machine and slowly culturing the land. Perhaps it was the results that were gained, at the harvest, when the labor and the sweat and the blood suddenly became worth it as you sifted through barns full until it pressed at the seams.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that, at the end of the day, you had lived up to the potential given by the gods.

It felt good to look your reflection in the eye, and tell it that, today, you were a man.

But he wasn’t quite there, not yet. Only sixteen, he still had several years before citizenship would be granted, and he could officially count himself as a subject to the King.

There would have to be one left, though, before any such thing could happen. The northern borders had become a sea of carnage and decay, but they had won those first battles, and the Orr-Tav were pushed back through the gates.

Lyrris did not understand war all that well, but he did know that it was not a game, not like they used to make believe in the village, running around in the blacksmith’s gear and pretending to slay dragons and such.

Two days earlier a rider came from the capitol, bringing unwanted news.

The news that they had feared more than the rest.

As hard as they had fought to drive their enemy back through the gate, there was simply no way to go any farther. No man dared set foot through that misted portal into a different realm, because no man had ever returned, nor was it likely that they ever would.

And now, Orr-Tav had been seen pressing down through its borders, seeking entrance into the world again. The plague seemed to be reacting to some sort of stimulus as well, welling up once again in the major cities and ravaging its streets, claiming all who stood in its path.

The choice was to succumb, or die, and it seemed that more and more these days were giving in to the dark temptations that came with it. The voices in the head, a whispering into the dark where much was promised. He’d seen it before, even felt it himself at times, when others around him had become infected.

Thankfully, under Dranuus’s direction, any and all that showed signs, even the slightest discoloring of the eyes, was quarantined and sent to Madam Hirth, the local healer, who seemed to be doing her job well.

And so he’d been counting his blessings.

One by one.

It seemed that the gods were fortunate to him, at least in these times.

. On Surviving the Plague .

- Sixth Age, year 1020

High ceilings revealed nothing in the blackness.

No torch could be lit to brighten the hall, as the flames flickered for a few moments only to be snuffed out by this dark entity that resided in that sacred place.

How fitting, that there in the Temple to Yvres, the darkness would still overcome the light. It said much about their gods, and what they cared about.

A question always on the minds of those that had come here to put an end to this madness, only, they weren’t progressing very quickly at all. This group of magic wielders and other highly educated men and women had come from all corners of the kingdoms to aid in a push against the dark.

To root out the source of this plague, and finally end its reign over the land.

So far, things had gone their way, and they were able to present detailed reports of what it was, and what had made it such a deadly disease.

But as of yet, there was no answer to the question of why? Or what they could do to stop it. This had been the topic of their research and discussions for weeks, spanning into months now, and the king’s royal ambassadors were breathing down their necks, demanding information.

They just wanted to know how to stop it.

“…sure that it’s actually an infection, It’s possible that it’s something else entirely.” One lanky gentleman finished his thought, met with a few moments of silence before another entered the conversation.

“No, that’s not possible. We’ve seen it passed from person to person with as little as a scratch, but until there’s an open wound, nothing happens. Definitely an infection.”

“I agree with Kestirre.” A third joined in, adding their oh so very intelligent opinion.

There were seventeen in all.

Including the turned one.

Black eyes reflected only a small bead of light, piercing through the shadows and haunting their very steps. It had been one of them, not so very long ago.

She, to be more precise.

And now?

It did not seem to matter whether one’s station was that of a lowly peasant or the richest of kings, nothing could stand before the blackness and hold their own.

This one had turned, and stayed that way for one reason, and one reason only. They all knew her to be a conniving, angry sort. A genius, in her own right, but still lacking in manners or even the slightest indication that she cared about others. Of course, the world wasn’t very hospitable towards those that did not take care of their own.

Remember the buzzards?

She was one of them.

That’s why she wasn’t dead, yet.

And now look at where it had brought her. Stare into those empty holes that once had done so much learning. The abyss that was now her own consciousness. These beasts, those that had changed, could only be fitted with that terrible title of a monster, because there was nothing human left about them.

Animal.

Instinctual and seeking only for the next chance to satisfy its carnal desires.

And that was another question that they could not answer; how did these things survive? There seemed to be an uncanny ability to exist, despite the lack of food and water, so obviously they were gathering nourishment from some source.

Or no source at all.

She’d been tied up, there in the temple, for well over two weeks, changing all the while, feeding off of her distemper and growing darker day by day.

First the eyes cloud at the edges, as if they’ve not been getting quite enough sleep. A sapping of the blood around the lips and fingers, growing cold, clammy and gray. Next the teeth seemed to lose any and all color, forming a chalky froth at the lips that was always dribbling out.

Gnashing, tearing at flesh and bone. They wanted only a chance to sink whatever pointed weapon into some sort of living thing.

This was where most of them deteriorated in a matter of days, first falling into a violent bout of shaking seizures and emitting wild screams, then falling silent against a high fever that eventually burned them like the mid-day sun out on the White Wastes.

No place to hide.

Here, though, seemed to be a bit of information that both caused their curious natures to ignite, and also pointed the way down the path of discovery. What separated those that died, and those that continued to succumb to the disease and let it change their being? Was it a conscious decision?

As of yet, few of the ideas they had presented held little gravity in this world of science and knowledge.

Except for one, of course. It was really a whim, not even a presentation in it’s own right, but still pulled it’s own weight.

The fattest of the bunch had laughed, and meant it as a joke when he said, “Aye, I figure that she’s just ornerier than the rest, and the bug couldn’t take her out. By Yvre’s ear, she’s a mean sort.”

Yes, ornery.

More than the rest.

. Premonition .

“Don’t look up….”

That voice seemed to come from behind him, but trailed off into the distance, leading him onward down that dusty and forlorn path. No one else to comfort him as the village homes passed by step, by step.

Each one holding a single memory of his past.

Sometimes they would call to him from behind those doors, even knock and seek entrance into the world, and into the recognition of his mind. But something urged him forward, refusing to let him turn in to those memories.

They were dead, despite being lodged in his mind.

And the dead did not belong out here with the living.

He passed one house that was ablaze, the horrific and terribly recognizable screams bursting from the walls and dragging him towards their source.

“Lyrris!” They cried. A plea for help.

But it was all fake, he knew, because he’d seen it before.

He’d strayed from the path to open one of those doors, and what came spilling out was not the thing he had expected.

This was no collection of his memory, but a city of bones, filled with the corpses of every vile experience that had permeated his perfect life, or what would have been left of his life, had those things never happened.

An open door here did not offer any sort of comfort.

And so he kept walking.

Eventually it would end at the edge of that great void, where he would stand at the cliff and stare off into the nothingness that was doubtless his future, with nothing to do but wait for the next addition to this gallery.

This time, though, it was already there. He didn’t recognize it, though. From the road he could glimpse into the home, staring through the dirtied window panes and into the eyes of a man, a very familiar face and one that he was used to seeing often.

A reflection of what he was, only, the difference being what lay in the misted fields of its white eyes.

Dark tendrils crept in at the edges, and pale lips mouthed soundless words that broke against the glass and never filtered any farther.

It had changed.

Turned, before he felt it coming.

And this was no memory, because it hadn’t happened yet.

. Who Hidden Treasures Find .

- Sixth Age, year 1022

He burst out of sleep like a Targ smelling fresh blood, ready for the kill, but there was nothing in the room besides Mrs. Trottent come to change the water in his basin.

Lyrris smiled as he watched her.

She was such a kind person, and always looking after those that found their way to their hospitable home.

Of course, he was grateful that conditions had improved greatly over the past few months there in the village, because he had been growing tired of the constant menagerie of people scrambling all over the manor in search of their next meal.

It was funny to him, though, because Dranuus seemed to care far less than his wife, which was odd being that his was always the complaining mouth.

People do strange things to mask their true emotions, he had found.

Dranuus truly cared about them, each and every one of them. They were like his family, or rather, his children to be exact. But no one would question that feeling, as he’d saved their lives on more than one occasion.

It was the same for Lyrris, and he contemplated on that point for a few moments. He owed a great debt to the man.

And now he was just trying to repay him a little.

Kicking sheets off and dressing quickly, he stole out of the room and jogged two flights of stairs to the main level.

“Aye! Lyrris, thought you’d never wake up.”

He chuckled and threw a glance at the man before turning to pour himself a mug of their light nut ale. The kind that just pretended to be a drunkard’s dream. “Long day yesterday, figured I deserved it.”

“True, true, but still….”

Lyrris spun around and looked at him, smiling as he stared into that thick and unkempt beard.

Sausage and bread, with a bit of gravy to top it off.

You could always tell what he’d had to eat most recently, just by looking into that bushy nest of hair.

“I pulled fifteen acres yesterday.” Sipping at the cool liquid, he rested an arm on the table and looked across to hold onto those beady eyes, squinting between thick flesh. “And I doubt even the immortal Brevann of Stormhold could do as much.”

The man chuckled, then pulled features into a stern look and wagged a finger at his friend. “You be careful. That’s a challenge if I ever heard one, and I’m liable to take you up on it.”

Lyrris lightly slammed the mug to the table, being sure that a bit of the nutty liquid sloshed out onto the wood surface. He planted both hands down and leaned forward before saying, “Bring it.”

Truth be told, though, Brevann was a good man, despite his rough appearance. They didn’t call him the “animal” for nothing. A master with beast and tool, he had been farming these lands since he was a young boy, living off the land. He’d taught Lyrris a lot about the trade, and the ways of the soil.

And now, they fed the entire town.

A little bet between friends on occasion had never put any strain on their relationship.

Lyrris sat and began to think over what they had left to do now. The south fields had been planted, finally, and were now only awaiting a layer of fertilizer to be spread.

But that was a job that he would pass up to some of the younger ones, thankfully.

White Creek’s fields were nearly ready to receive their first harrowing, with crops now standing waist high. Based on what they had already seen, it was going to be a good harvest at the end of this season, and that was something they all looked forward to.

Then suddenly, he swore under his breath and slid the mug into the center of the table, loosing all desire to consume food or drink.

Brevann sat quietly, just watching for a few moments.

“You alright?” He finally asked, tilting his head to the side and scratching at his beard, only to find a small morsel of something there. Plucking it from the wiry bed, he shrugged and popped it between his lips.

Lyrris winced and then laughed. “Yah, I’m fine. Just thinking about the news from the capitol.”

“Aren’t we all. It’s been the topic of choice ever since that rider came through.”

“Aye, that it has been….”

He lied, though.

Something else entirely was occupying the space in his thoughts, dragging him back to that box stashed in his room where he knew Tainya wouldn’t find it.

It was hard as any rock, made of metal and forcing the plow into a violent upheaval as it chipped over it, tumbling it through the dirt until he could finally gain control.

No sign of a lock or anything on its surface, just a rectangular form, with an obvious top and bottom to it. Something clunked around lightly on the inside. Something heavy.

I should probably show it to Dranuus. He thought, but then quickly dismissed it, or rather, his curiosity did that. Once he’d figured out what it contained, then he’d show it to the rest. But it was his find, and he had every right to keep a secret. At least for a short time. But it still belonged to Dranuus, if he were to be honest with himself. It was his land, after all.

He’d show it to him later. For now, they had another day of pleasant work prepping the fields to the east.

. Control .

- Sixth Age, year 1022

If there was ever a thing that could cause his emotions to rile into anger, it was that man.

A thief.

A drunkard.

And an all around slob that sapped off of the world and gave nothing back in return. If he had his way, they’d toss him out of the walls and lock the gates. The shadows would be better company for him anyways.

“Think what would happen to the people, though.” Dranuus had countered when the idea was suggested forward. “Think of their reaction to it.”

“They’d probably cheer for joy.” One stated, trying to push for the offensive. “They’d sing our names in the great halls for ages to come!”

Everyone laughed, even Dranuus, but he couldn’t back down. “Yes, I agree. I’d be happy to see him go myself. But with that joy, comes an attitude, a content for violence. First him….” He paused to look them all in the eye, really reaching deep to hold their attention and drive his point home. “And then who’s next?”

Silence pervaded the room, because there was no answer that they wanted to give, so their leader kept on talking. “Believe it or not, but that man is actually what’s keeping us all together. You take him out of the picture, and we’d start to fall apart.”

One man raised his hand, then began speaking before he was given the floor. “We’re not following. How is that miserable drunk doing anything good for us?”

“It’s not the good that he does, but it’s what we do because of him. You see, if we throw him out, then he’s no longer the worst we have. We’d forget what it was like to have a sneak and a thief, and we’d look for more places to point our fingers. Eventually we’d end up pointing them at one another.”

There was wisdom to his words, and they almost always listened, so the attitude of the group simmered down.

“But I still say that we do something about this. He’s gotten entirely out of hand.”

Lyrris agreed, but in the end they could only do what Dranuus suggested, and that was, not for the first time, the thing that they hadn’t wanted. But things always seemed to work out when they listened, so no one was complaining. At least, not too much.

He had been essentially assaulted by the man, though. In a playful bout of energy, of course, but when you’re head is stuck in the clouds and feet barely touch the ground, you don’t have much sense to understand that people don’t like to be tackled in the street and have their name sang in a thousand different voices all down through the town.

Every person disliked him, but what could they do?

Dranuus said he would stay, so stay he would.

But for how long?

Lyrris agreed with what he had said about their attitude towards the whole thing. He greatly disliked the man, but he was still Adonai after all, and should at least be given the respect, and maybe even care, that they showed to one another.

It was quite literally the least that they could do.

He also knew that soft center in Dranuus’ core that led him to shelter any and all that were in harm’s way. It was why he had settled in this miserable town so many years ago when it was nothing but dust and half raised shacks for homes. It was why he had given up his home and his stored food and much of his wealth to aid those that hadn’t prepared for such hard times.

It was why he had taken Lyrris in. Given him a home. A family. A job and a way to break out of the poverty and become a success.

And he wasn’t about to turn back on that gift anytime soon.

So the man would stay, for now.

All his thinking had led him back to his room where he’d already undressed down to his shorts and was washing the grime from his face and arms. Looking into the mirror, he saw patchy, but dark hair on his jawline.

This was not the vision of the boy he once had been, and not all that long ago.

There was this man staring back at him. A man with aged lines under his eyes and a series of scars marking into his flesh, branding each experience on like a badge. He had seen so little of the known world, yet felt as if he’d already conquered it. But there was also a deep sadness pervading at the eyes, sunken and deep, singing the ballad of one that had witnessed many hardships.

He was seventeen, at least, he should be. Age wasn’t all that important, but he still liked to keep track of the years as best he could.

And no boy should have been required to pass the tests he had. So many were being called upon like that during these difficult times. Children, even those who were hardly old enough to help their mothers with chores around the house, were being handed sharpened blades and told to defend their homes and families.

Dark times, filled with dark dreams.

But at least he had the farms, and Dranuus had recently agreed to sell him a small section out past the river, when the time came. He would make it his own personal estate.

He would settle down, and spend his days with the earth.

Just him, and cold soil between his toes….

That box was still sitting there, lying beneath the floorboards.

Suddenly remembering back to his discovery, Lyrris jumped to shut the door, quietly, and then began easing a knife between the cracks in the floor, prying up a single plank and sliding it out of the way. He’d discovered a loose board some time ago, and decided that it was a great place to hide any valuables.

It lay heavy in his arms, and sharp like ice, not stinging, but definitely cold. The metal gave off a dull ringing when it knocked against the floor, just once.

And that object rattled on the inside again, pleading to be set free.

Lyrris knew, because his curiosity fueled him to find a way in. But again, his attempts at locating any sort of lock or latch were futile. It was just straight, flat surface the whole way around. Like an egg, only, unbreakable and probably guarding something infinitely more valuable.

But it wasn’t a treasure hunt to him. The thought of becoming rich off of the box’s contents never actually entered his mind.

He just wanted to see what it was as that would be reward enough.

Eventually, he found something there on one of the ends, right below the small black strip that ran lengthwise around the box, separating the top from the bottom. It was a small etching into the metal, barely visible, but there nonetheless. Upon a closer inspection, he found it to be a rune.

A character of the Ancient Tongue.

Suddenly, things began to become all the more exciting. Perhaps this was some artifact, buried for thousands of years and finally unearthed, right there in the field? Or maybe it was some strange object created by another race, brought from a different realm altogether? Whatever it was, Lyrris became frustrated as any and all attempts at messing with the mark were to no avail.

An idea did come, though, and one that made the most sense to him. Scrounging hurriedly around the room and knocking a lantern from his side table, he finally located a piece of parchment and began sketching the character’s shape with a charcoal stick.

He had no idea what it meant, of course.

But there were those that did.

. A Note on You .

I never was too keen on the concept of working with them. I suppose you would find it rude, or harsh, but to me it is simply fact.

Adonai are not the brightest creatures I’ve met. And I’m sure at this point that you are disagreeing with my opinion, and to be honest, I would do the same, were I in your shoes.

Plagued with your limited vision. But allow me to help you understand something about yourself; you’re completely and utterly selfish. I’m sure that if you be honest with me, you’d have to agree. I’ve seen your kind choose personal gain over another’s life countless times. To sacrifice that which is of most value to you, at least for that which cannot last?

It’s your most beautiful quality.

So much to work with. So many possibilities sprouting from that one, terrible seed.

I could shiver in anticipation at the thought, at what I could do were I to harness such raw ability in all of you. Think of what could be accomplished. Think of how I could mold the fabric of the world, of nature, of the very universe itself, were I able to even so much as tap into that well of power.

There’s also something also which I find nearly as potent a concoction.

Anger.

Chapter X

. Coming to Grips .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Breathe….

A deep, long pull in, sucking back the precious air and letting his lungs soak up their bounty, then a short and controlled push from the chest, locking muscles in place. A moment later there was a solid thump as arrow buried itself deep into the flesh of a rotting stump, quite a distance from his positon.

Aviin shook his fist in celebration at hitting the target, again. He’d been standing out there all morning practically, brushing up on his marksman’s skills. It was something he felt like he lacked in, as there never really was much chance to use it in the past. They were swordsman, that is, the soldiers of the Empire. They fought with dignity and honor, not like the beasts of the world.

Tromping over to retrieve his ammunition, he thought back to that day in the desert, fighting back the urge to return to that fateful scene. It clouded at the edge of his mind, but he was able to resist.

Yes…honor, and dignity.

That’s what it was all for.

So he kept on practicing, feeling another piece of the frustration and the anger leave his body with each arrow and each hit. Almost therapeutic, in a way of speaking.

Sometimes he did miss, though.

Holding as steady as he could, Aviin peered down the length of the arrow shaft, watching the trajectory of his shot even before it was released…and then the silence was broken abruptly, causing him to start and sending the arrow whizzing off far past his target.

“You shoot funny….”

Her comment had disrupted his intense concentration.

“Farshta!” Aviin yelled, biting back the word as it came out. “What are you doing?”

Savill just laughed and covered her mouth in a futile attempt to keep from making a scene, but the comical nature of it all pulled her in another direction. “You should have seen your face….”

“Yah, well…thanks for losing my arrow for me. Really appreciated.”

“Oh, you’ll get over it eventually.”

But would he?

“Just…what are you doing?” He sighed, pushing the pent up breath from his lungs and calming his emotions. This wasn’t exactly the way that he wanted to work their relationship anyways, that is, yelling at her.

Even if it was for being stupid.

“You shoot like a tree.” She commented in answer, placing hands on her hips and cocking head to the side. Lips pursed, as if to tell him that she was greatly amused. As if he needed any other clues.

Aviin shook his head, rubbing at his temples and doing his best to keep his thoughts from growing too loud. She had this way of being able to hear every time he was thinking about her, whether it be positive or not.

Either way, she always had some choice words for him.

“A tree doesn’t shoot bows, Savill, so…what are you talking about?”

“Sure it does.” Some more of her illogical antics, probably just to annoy him. “And when it does, it just stands there and shakes it’s little arms. If the wind blows too hard, it’s likely to snap off.”

“Well, my arms aren’t going to break if the wind picks up. Did you come up with that yourself?”

“No, actually, that was my uncle who taught me.”

“And I still don’t have any clue what you’re talking about.”

Now it was her turn to breathe out hard and be annoyed. For what, he couldn’t say. Maybe she was actually expecting him to solve her riddles?

“Look, when you shoot a bow, you’re supposed to be fluid and controlled. I know they teach you big strong men in the army to tough it out and stand there for an age, waiting for the perfect moment to release, but that’s just a dumb way of doing it.”

“Oh, and I suppose you know how to? I’ve been practicing since I was a child. I think I can manage.”

“And I’ve been living on my own since I was a child. I’ve hunted these woods for years, and I’ve never missed a shot….”

He was silent, but only because he didn’t believe those words. Trying to think of what route to take next, he eventually succumbed to the desire to throw it back in her face. “Fine, you think that you’re so much better than me? Well prove it.” Aviin shoved the bow at her, shaking it in the air and waiting for her response. Like a bird, she snatched it away from him.

Saying nothing, she flicked an arrow from his quiver,

Pointing off a ways, to dead and rotted tree that stood up like a finger, he said, “Hit that.”

Shrugging and turning to face her target, she stood still for a few moments, eyeing the shot. Then, drawing the bow with her arm twisted backwards and the fingers grabbing from the inside of the string, she pulled up in one smooth motion, a second or two only, and sent the arrow whistling through the sun filled air.

There was a solid thudding as it impacted, sinking deep into the decaying flesh of wood.

Turning back to look at him now, there was only that placid smile that she wore so well, little dimples at the corners.

It made him so mad. Not because she’d hit the target, but because she was already smirking and mocking, before he even took his turn.

And then there was the fact that her shooting form was so strange. He’d never seen anyone do it like that, that is, draw like she had. Everyone he’d ever seen always used the same method, and here she was, doing things backwards.

That, perhaps, was the most infuriating thing. Who was she to tell him he was doing it all wrong, when she couldn’t even be normal about it?

Then he sighed in his head. She had hit the target, after all. Handing the bow back, Savill stepped aside and held a hand out, welcoming him to the shooting line and offering him a chance to hold his own. To keep up that honor and dignity that we were talking about. He knew, as we both do, that if he missed this, then he lost. And if that happened….

Breathing heavy now, he lined up the shot, preparing his mind and his body, letting them feel into one another’s motions. The bow felt heavy in his arms, and as he drew back, locking the elbow and placing a knuckle right at the corner of his mouth, he struggled to bring the target into focus.

There was the distance.

And the breeze to take into account.

His arms shook, becoming weak and the difficulty of holding the bow at full draw began to take control.

Fear crept in.

He realized that she was right.

Like a tree in the wind, he wavered.

Finally not able to take it anymore, he released the tension and gasped, coming too his senses and breathing in for perhaps the first time in a minute or two. A few beads of sweat dripped from his nose, having run the length of his forehead.

Her silent face said all that was needed. Head hanging down and swaying from side to side, Aviin dropped to a rock and rubbed through his hair as he sat.

Savill nearly laughed at the situation, but bit her tongue.

There was some pity in her heart, even for him. She felt the need to say something, anything to patch the moment back into repair, but for once, her mind could conjure up no such thing.

Finally, he looked up. “You shoot great.” Was all that came out. A final release into surrender, giving her the complete victory.

He was tired of fighting.

“As do you…just, you sometimes get nervous.”

“No, no, it has nothing to do with that.”

“I’m not following you….”

Rising to his feet, Aviin look at her, squinting against the sun. “I think I made a mistake by insisting that I come along with you and Duraan. It was a childish decision, I just didn’t really have any other choice. But I realize now that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I should have left a long time ago.”

Shocking, to hear those words usher from his lips. They stunned her into a silent stutter.

“Thank you, for not pushing me out completely.” He bit at the corner of his lips, wanting to say something more, but finally nodding, only to turn and walk off towards the camp to retrieve his things.

Savill was still rooted to that spot.

“You alright?”

There seemed to be no strength in her to answer Duraan’s question. All she could muster was to press out a weak, and inaudible “wait.” For a moment, she was angry. It bubbled to her chest and down through her arms, pooling at the clenching of her fists.

But she was not directing it at him.

“Savill, you’re making me worried. How about you explain what’s going on?”

“Duraan, he’s leaving.”

“What?”

And she was watching him go.

“Well, what happened?” He asked sharply, letting tension build quickly between their minds. “What did you say?”

Her form faded and wavered in the light, flickering in and out of what we knew to be visible. She saw Rorith, then, and watched as his roots receded from the soil of the realms, withdrawing into his trunk and sacrificing that life giving source of all that was his power.

Heard his heavy crackling sigh.

“Wait! Aviin!” Wasting no time, Savill threw her arms and pounded her feet as she drove through the sagebrush and the tall grass.

. Dark Days Past .

Black on white.

Painted into the night like a great mural and laid out for her to see, but she couldn’t make sense of the picture as it was constantly changing, flashing by, tall and thin shapes dancing before her eyes.

With each split between the trees, she swore that a figure was there, but each time it proved to be nothing but empty darkness.

“Come on my dear.” Her uncle urged, squeezing her hand a bit tighter and doing his best to rush her over the hazardous ground, but not wanting to press her too hard. To be caught was one thing, but to be chased down while injured was something different altogether. It was her young mind that worried him the most, though. She was still too young to understand these things, but her maturity was enough to take full consequence for his actions.

There simply wasn’t the time.

“Would it be better if I carried you?” His voice sounded weak, which was so very strange to her. Uncle was usually very strong, and composed. In fact, she’d never actually seen him worried or frightened.

Until now.

“I can run, Pabba.”

He smiled down at her. “Sure you can. You’ll have to be fast, though. And brave, because I won’t be able to hold your hand.”

Swallowing hard, she drew those tiny fists into hard knots. Resolute and determined. “I can do it.” Was her reply.

Yes, she would have to.

He couldn’t say exactly what it was that was tracking them, as he’d never actually found out, but he did know and recognize it.

This wasn’t the first time.

He mentally chastised himself for being so stupid as to be caught out here like this, defenseless and with few places to run to. It was a juvenile thing to do, fueled by a good desire to teach the girl, of course, but stupid nonetheless. And he was going to have to pay the consequences.

Noises, frightening noises rang through the forest, first seeming to be on the right, then bouncing over to the left. Like the chattering of a flock of birds.

She could see their red eyes, flickering in and out between the tall trees, flashing hard against the brightness of the whitened bark, and the shadow.

Red.

Just like her hair. Moonlight streaming down pierced through the covering of foliage occasionally, spilling onto the ground and setting blaze to her crown.

At one point the noise came right up to them, nearly breaking from the trees and right onto their path. Her uncle slowed their pace, pushing her behind him and drawing a thin blade from his side.

“What is it?” The girl cried, now distraught. She knew she needed to be brave, but all of her fears began to overcome her, something that didn’t go unnoticed by her guardian. He quickly pulled her to a place in a small clearing where the moon smiled down on them, offering it’s heaven-sent protection and bathing them in a soft glow.

He removed a small object from a pouch, rolling the contours of the opaque stone in his hand.

“Po, do you remember what I taught you at the Festival of the Moons?”

She thought back, wondering if she did. Mind racing, unable to calm. But as he placed a hand on either side of her face, caressing cheek with his finger, she nodded.

“Good. You always remember that the darkness is only a shadow of the light. It will always be there, but it can never win. When the sun comes out, it must leave.”

“Yes, Pabba.”

He looked down at the lump of rock, pursing his lips and struggling to fight back everything that was his life as it made every attempt to spill out onto the ground. There was so much at stake, though, and he was forced to retreat back into that shell of pretended security.

“All good things are of the light.”

His finger twirled at a strand of stray hair, pushing it back into place and brushing her cheek.

“Pabba loves you, remember that, of all things.”

“Yes, Pabba. I know, Pabba.” But did she? How could she, being a child that was so young? What did they know of such things?

Of love?

Throwing herself at him, she clung to his neck, little arms wrapped tightly around his frame. He laughed, but pried her off and gently, but firmly set her on her own two feet.

“Po, you’re going to have to be strong now, you here. Do you remember which way is south?”

She looked up, then nodded. “Yes, when the sun comes up I just walk with it behind me.”

“Aye, that’s a good girl.” His tired and worn hands brought her close again, lips touching on the top of her head, and those bright eyes of hers were locked into his, refusing to move as they glistened in the pale light of the waning moon. “Never leave the light.” Was the last thing he said before picking the odd stone up again. A few soundless words pressed to his lips, then the girl gasped as a flame seemed to ignite in the midst of the crystal, growing gradually, but with intensity.

Having been placed on the ground, it continued to build, soon enveloping them in a sphere of fluorescent mist, hazing out the dark world that surrounded them.

That crown of flames blazed like wildfire.

His hand quivered, touching her one last time, then he moved through the illuminated wall and into the black before anything could be said.

“And that, was the last time I saw him….”

The whispered tale floating off into the distant plain where it had once taken place, many years before. It was now only a figment of what remained of those childhood years, and though the vision was vivid, and palpable, it was surrounded by only an empty wake.

She couldn’t remember much else.

Aviin sat quietly, thinking of something but not voicing his thoughts. She couldn’t tap into them anymore, at least, not as easily as before.

Not without being detected by his senses. Savill marveled at his new found ability to control the energy of his mind, something that had taken her years to master, and here he was, only a fledgling in the world of such magical things, already as skilled as any. There were other things lacking, though.

Savill studied the contours of his face, at last not ashamed to look at him, but only because he was so entrenched in whatever had captivated his thoughts. So young, and so ignorant of all things. Soft lines revealed in an obvious way that he had lived a rather quiet and simple life, one not marked by much pain or distress. There was a single scar, though, faint and fleeting as it dropped from the edge of his jaw to run a short length down his neck. Like a single strand, hardly visible, but telling at least one tale.

Odd, for a soldier.

Perhaps he was better than the rest?

He seemed to understand the art of war, the strategy of that game of blood they all loved to play so much. And yet, something about it all didn’t quite add up, the equation coming out with a few left over bits.

“I take it you cared for him quite a bit? Your uncle, I mean.”

“Well, yes, as much as any young girl could. He practically raised me.”

“Because of your hair?”

Suddenly she seemed angry, probably at his questions. Were they too many? Or was it the wrong question?

“You know, I’m a little tired of hearing about my hair. The whole world seems to revolve around my hair. Hair this and hair that.” She stood up and looked down at him, fist clenched, muscles on the neck bulging a bit. It wasn’t exactly directed at him, only, it had to go somewhere. “The next time I hear someone talk about my hair….”

Laughing, in a sort of frightened way, Aviin waved at hand at her and attempted to coax her down from her bout of emotional rage. “Savill, please, just sit down. I won’t mention your…hair again.”

Still fuming, she did drop to the floor again, muttering something about men and garps.

He would keep his promise to her, but it wouldn’t leave his mind.

In fact, it never had.

You’ll remember those times, when something, some bit of information, or a moment in time.

A face.

A dream.

Or perhaps it was as simple as a sound or smell, simply will not leave you. Sticking around like that friend that you never wanted, sometimes quiet and dormant in the recesses of your life, and others resurfacing to fill your view and command your very being.

It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t stop thinking about her, as it was a simple matter to block out the images and thoughts and focus on more important matters.

But his mind wouldn’t do the same for him.

In the dark hours of the night, when sleep finally drug his eyelids shut, forcing him into that world that had nearly become his own reality. There, in that place, she always came to talk with him. He still had not answered the question of why? Unfortunately, Savill didn’t know either, at least, that’s what she had insisted was the truth.

His dreams had been different as of late, though.

“Why did you tell me that story?” He asked of a sudden, the thought popping from the air.

She looked at him, lips pulled into a thin line, and answered, “I’m not actually sure….”

. Into the Shadows We Go .

“Ahh, it’s you, again.”

He was standing there in the open, refusing to move. This time his mind wasn’t shaking in a trepid fear, but he still was not as whole as he otherwise could have been.

“Why do you keep summoning me like this?”

“But, I thought it was you who called me?”

I grinned, because it was such an amusing scene to watch his features twist into a bout of thought, mulling through a thousand attempts at resolving these issues. To be honest, it was neither of our faults. Blame it on the Fates, or the gods, whatever you like.

It seemed that time itself desired us to meet. Why? Who could say. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had been watching him for some time, but then, I did the same for so many other souls. Ahh, it’s so good to have so many friends, you see. Then you’ll never find yourself left out alone, abandoned by the world.

There will always be something to meddle in.

“You seem to be the one with all the answers.” He began, that tone masking his voice, pretending to be authoritative and strong. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here.”

“Perhaps I offer a better question for you to ask?” Walking around him in a slow circle, I had to give it to the boy. His head and ears certainly followed me, but that body remained as rigid as a tree, rooted into the shadowed floor and refusing to budge. He certainly wasn’t as weak as his spirit belied. “It is not so much why we are here that is of concern, but rather, when, and where.”

Sensing confusion, I proffered another clue. “If this were the Hall of Kings, and you were sitting in that white thrown that you mortals seem to crave so much, would we be asking these questions?”

Actually, that wasn’t the most perfect of examples. If I saw my own face walking amidst the clouds and associating with those spirits that had passed on, and lived good lives, I might rouse a few questions of my own.

“Or picture this…being in Dromarg’s Prison…what then? Surely you would not question why?”

“I get your meaning. But maybe I really should be asking, who?

“Who what?”

He looked straight at me, finally breaking through that barrier of a pretended being and delving into the corners of his own reality, drawing from his own desire. “Who you are?”

Now there, my dear Reader, is one answer that I simply could not give. It was meant for one soul, and one soul only, and that time had not arrived. So I stalled.

“I should ask the same question, then.”

“No, you already know who I am. I don’t understand how, but…” I could hear him recalling our previous conversations. “you know.”

Yes, he was beating me at my own game.

“You don’t seem too bright for an educated man like yourself.”

“And you’re young for a man who claims to have lived so long, and have seen so much….”

But this was where he went wrong. I didn’t tell, because I wanted to let him have a victory or two. War was never entertaining when you won at every battle and crushed your enemy. There was no honor or glory in that.

“Indeed. So here we are, arriving at an impasse. One of us has to give.”

“Give what?”

“In, of course.”

He sighed angrily, spitting the air from between his teeth and growing irritated with all of my games. So I decided to take matters into my own hand, stepping right up to him. He was taller than me by just a bit, so looking up wasn’t exactly the most profitable of positions. Rising from the ground to put ourselves on an equal field, I drew quite close to his face, putting my lips right next to his ear.

“It looks like I win.”

. North .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Rushing noise, pounding at the ear, roused him from his restless, but controlling sleep.

All around the world was dark, just like the place he had come from. There were small tendrils of his dreams, if they could be called that, floating before him in the air, but try as he might they vanished away as quickly as he could reach for them. Soon, it would all be gone, and there would remain only the knowledge that something had happened.

Nothing further.

She was there, staring down at him, the fire’s light glowing against her cheek.

Everything else was cloaked in the dark of night.

“Aviin, get up now!” Her voice hissing like a serpent, and breaking him from the stupor.

“Wait, what?”

“Get up and help me put out the fire!” She ordered, not wasting any time in tossing handfuls of dirt onto the flames. He followed suite.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“There’s several men watching our camp right now.” Duraan informed.

“Where are you?”

“Doesn’t matter, just find a safer place to hide. They’re not friendly.”

“Great, this is just great.” Aviin mumbled as he attempted to collect his things in the darkness. “Any idea who they are?”

“Yes, they’re Imperials.”

He could sense Savill staring at him, even though the only visible thing was a slight shape against the backdrop of the forest. This was going to be a nightmare, with the moon covered over in clouds.

“How did…this is bad, this is really bad.”

“Yes, so let’s move a little more quickly.” Savill pushed him through the brush, apparently knowing where they were headed. He could hardly make out the contours of the ground now, tripping over a rock or exposed root.

“Farshta! I think they’re following me.”

“You? And you’re the one with red hair then, I suppose?” She argued spitefully, mostly just frustrated that they had found themselves in this position, and that she’d been caught sleeping. Duraan had been on watch, but still.

“I thought we weren’t talking about your hair anymore…?”

“Just, shut up and run.”

And run they would, but the forest created a difficult barrier as snarling branches and tendrils of the forest fauna seemed to claw out at them, ripping at clothes and skin alike. The sound of pursuit could be heard around them as the soldiers searched desperately for their prey, hacking through the underbrush and yelling to one another.

“They’re going to cut us off!” Aviin yelled, hoping that Savill could hear him. It was a tactic that he would have used, and though not every imperial soldier was brilliant, most would understand basic strategy like this.

Savill suddenly jerked him to the side, nearly knocking his head against an outstretched tree limb.

“Hey! What are you trying to do? Kill me?”

“Yah, now be quiet.” Savill sarcastically commented, reminding him that he didn’t need to speak aloud, tugging on his tunic in suggestion to kneel down. For a moment, he couldn’t see anything, but after a second or two his eyes saw the stark line that marked the end of the trees as they broke open into a large clearing. He could see one shape moving swiftly through the tall grass. Had they gone out there, they would have been exposed, at least to the eyes of their pursuers, and possibly to something more deadly.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“It looks like they’re going around.” And indeed, she was right as two other figures, one rather tall compared to the other, emerged into the clear, conversing with one another for only a bit, and then charging back off into the forest, headed in the opposite direction from their current location.

“Are you two alright?” Came Duraan’s concerned presence, checking in. Savill answered and talked to him for a moment, not entirely masked from Aviin’s mind, but he was focused on something at that time.

He breathed heavy. “I can’t believe they tracked me all the way out here.” Came a remark as he rubbed the sweat from his face.

“You? What makes you so sure that they want to find you, and not me?”

“Did you see that big one?” He asked, swallowing hard to eliminate the block that comes with stressful situations. He heard, rather than saw her nod, so he went on, “I recognize him. He’s one of my father’s soldiers, a second general. I just can’t believe that my father actually sent someone after me….”

“Yah? Maybe he wants you to come home?”

Turning to glance at her in the dark, Aviin shook his head in all sincerity. “No, definitely not after what happened back at the outpost.”

“Hey….”

“What?”

“I was joking.”

Still confused, he sat there in silence for a moment, then awkwardly attempted to brush it off with a slight, but forced laughing. “Ha, I get it now.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, though. We’ll lose them over the mountains.”

“What mountains? You mean the Foothills?”

“No, you dummy, not that far. For goodness sake, that would take us another month. No,” Savill’s lips froze as thoughts and memories flooded back, and the anticipation of a reunion long since deserved continued to build. “not that far north.”

. To Transact with Men .

Such an interesting study it was to make, of them, that is.

Those two odd souls, so bound together by restraining ties, and yet always in a constant fight to pull apart.

In fact, it was quite comical, and often times I would find myself on the brink of tears as I laughed over their interactions. They were like so many others, only, it was different because they were on a different course than the rest of those mortals of which I associate myself.

These two found a broader influence into my own life.

And there was the cat as well, but he wasn’t of much interest to a being like myself, mostly because he wasn’t actually supposed to be in the picture at all.

The Fates, curse them, always meddling in another’s business. But alas, there’s little to be done or said about them.

For now, I simply enjoyed watching the show. In retrospect, they would have seemed an odd grouping, always hating each other, and yet, there were times when things took a different sort of turn, a different path along the trail of the stars. Like that time when I caught them talking, alone, about something other than hair or running from the Empire.

It wasn’t even about the color Red.

Or blood.

Two of my most favorite subjects.

They discussed about their immediate family, something of which I care little about, but it surely was intriguing to watch them spill their souls out to one another, confiding their deepest regrets and most safeguarded frustrations. You know, it is an odd thing that your kind does. To say that you love someone so much, and yet care about them so little.

Always backbiting and stabbing.

Always arguing over pettish things.

And I thought family meant more than just being related because you share the same line of heritage?

Other things were discussed at other times, all the way over that crown of rocks jutting up from the earth and surrounding the lower lying valleys in a protective cup. She’d been right about one thing at least, though; the Empire and it’s hired hands didn’t have any interest in crossing along behind them.

I did, though, because I knew there was more to the story than we’d viewed already, and I don’t mean that it hadn’t finished.

He invited me to come along, in those pettish dreams of his. More like nightmares in my own mind, but we were making progress, if slowly. He still didn’t quite seem to get it, though, because his mind hadn’t wrapped around the concept that it was not my doing, but his.

It didn’t help that all was forgotten until the next episode, when he would return and ask a thousand questions.

I work on a trading basis, though, and he had virtually nothing to offer, so I gave none back.

It’s just good business.

. Lord of Glades .

Light of Kardashed.

The Broken Arrow.

Son of the Evening Star.

There he stood, all majestic and beautiful, robed in his wooded skin and draped with a shimmering mirage of pearlescent leaves, drooping from lengthened arms and dangling before his face.

Lying on the floor before him was the tapestry of his life, a mixture of foliage springing up to kiss his feet, to bow before his face and worship him in all their honor.

This, is Rorith.

Don’t forget that name, because all who do fade from this world, for his roots stretch through the very fabric of the universe, wriggling their way into every life and every existence, stretching out a healing hand.

Fate, though dictated by those that dwelled in no realm at all, was still his to hold and rested upon those great branches, weighing down upon him.

Thus far, his strength was sufficient to hold.

Thus far.

If you stepped close, a brilliant humming would envelop you as his voice soothed the very nature of your being.

And you would also notice something very disturbing, creeping up from the floor below. There was, at the base of his roots and inching up the length of the trunk, and thin line, contrasted against the whitened backdrop of his form.

Black, and cruel.

Penetrating into his core.

Remember how I said that Rorith is in everything which exists, his presence making its mark upon every creature, every soul, whether or not they chose for it to be that way?

This dark string is also a part of that.

. Jokes on You .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“A man walks into a Nirean hostel, and asks to be put up in a room. He explains that he wants no bed, one mirror set on the ceiling, and the shutters and door to be locked from the outside.” Duraan trotted along a little faster, realizing that he kept falling behind every time he really got going with his supposedly humorous story. “Of course, the keeper of the inn prods him with questions, but to no avail. He offers twice as much as the room would cost, so without further issue, he gets given what he wants.

“Three days later he emerges, looking like a new man. When he pays for the last day at the counter, the inn keeper asks if his stay was comfortable. ‘No.” the man says much to the dismay of the keeper, who again tries to reaffirm that it was in fact a good stay. ‘Absolutely terrible.’ Is the reply. ‘Well was it too noisy?’ ‘No, nothing like that.’ ‘Then was it the damp? We’ve had some problems with mold on the walls before.’

“The man shakes his head. ‘No mold. Perfectly fine room, if you ask me.’ ‘Then what seems to be the problem?’ The inn keeper is really confused now, and frustrated as others are listening in to the conversation. The man turns and flips him another coin before saying, ‘No problem at all, just never want to go through that again. Three of the worst days of my life.’ Smiling, he exits the inn and goes his way, leaving the perplexed inn keeper to patch up his reputation.”

“This joke is going on forever….” Aviin complained lightly, regretting the comment instantly, but then standing behind it. So far nothing funny had happened, even Savill who always seemed to laugh at the things that her furry companion said, was listening with a straight face.

“Just, let me get there. Yeesh, you’d think I could tell a story without being interrupted a hundred times.”

“It’s been once.”

“True, but just let me finish. So, as I was saying, the inn keeper is distraught and doesn’t know what’s happened, but a moment later his wife comes running down the stairs, screaming about something in the room. When they go to check on it, they can hear scratching and scuffling from the inside, and a thick brown slime is oozing out from under the threshold.”

Then, silence.

Confused, Aviin screwed his face up, before being surprised as Savill began chuckling and slapped her leg.

He was right, about her laughing about everything he said.

“I don’t get it, what’s funny about that? There’s nothing funny, because it doesn’t make sense.”

“Shows what you know.” Duraan retorted, sticking his tail up and tromping off ahead. Savill looked at him, the smile fading as she realized that he wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t understand.

“Wait, are you serious? The man was a changer, that’s why he said what he said, and wanted the doors locked.”

“Okay, but how does that change anything? And what does this slime have to do with it all?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me? Look, Changer’s have to molt their skin once every cycle of the moon, and when they do, that skin is a part of their life, so it still is alive.”

“And the slime?”

“What comes off with the skin. It’s a messy process.”

“Ahh, so, I get why it would be humorous now, I mean, if I was watching it all happen then I’d probably laugh.”

Not amused, Savill shook her head and rolled those green eyes of hers. “Yah, well, it’s not funny anymore. Let’s keep going, we’re almost there.” Aviin followed a few steps behind, head shaking and the muscles of his jaw working back and forth in frustration. It was all so maddening to him, especially how she treated his lack of experience in the world with contempt, as if it were his fault. Everything always ended up being his fault.

She was there suddenly, running into him, or rather, he into her. Stopped in her tracks and facing back in his direction, Aviin collided with her, nearly knocking their heads together.

“What in the world?”

She was stunned too, but laughed at the blunder.

“Aviin, what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to walk, okay? What are you doing?”

“No, I mean…” thoughtful about what to say next, she couldn’t help but smile once more before spitting it out, “I mean why are you feeling this way. Don’t think we can’t sense what’s going on. It’s louder than anything you could say.”

Of course, it wasn’t enough that they listened to his thoughts, now they had to censor his emotions as well.

“It’s nothing, let’s just keep walking.”

She raised a hand and pressed it against his chest, pushing him back a bit. “No, Aviin, every time you or I say that we end up arguing about it later. Just spit it out now and we’ll get it over with. I’d really like to see my family and friends again in a good mood.”

He was reluctant, but realized the brevity and logic to her words, so he gave in.

“Alright, you’ll probably think it stupid, but I hate that I can’t even get a simple joke.”

“This is about the joke?”

“No, of course not. It’s about my father and my childhood and all that he did to me. I claim to be an Adonai, but I don’t even know what that means. I can’t even laugh, because I don’t know enough about my own people to understand them.”

“Wow….”

A single word to represent a realization that began to dawn on Savill’s conscience, one that should have come a long time before, but was barred out by her own selfish nature.

Aviin pretended well, but everyone hits their wall eventually.

His was high and hard, and virtually impenetrable.

The blood of his soul dripped red as he fought back all of the intensity that was welling into his chest and forcing its way through his face. He wasn’t sure if he should swear or cry, but it was his duty to keep it all at bay.

“Aviin…I don’t….” She stepped closer, forcing him to look up at her. “Look, you need to stop beating yourself up for these things. Whatever your father did or didn’t do is no longer any of your concern. All of that’s behind you. Your past is behind you. By Yvres’ ear you’re worried so much about what once was, when you should be looking ahead to what will be.”

“I know, I get that, I just struggle sometimes.”

Savill smiled at him and carefully placed a hand on his shoulder. “Most people never even get to see their dream,” she said, “let alone live it. You’ve been given what every other person wants; a new life, a chance to start all over again, and now you get to make it what you want it to be.”

Nodding, in agreement, and desire to do just that, but it had already been so difficult to let things go, especially the things of the past.

“And Aviin…I know what I said before about you coming with us, and I…I want to withdraw that statement. There’s a lot of good people here, and they won’t turn you away, in fact, they’d welcome anyone that defected from the Empire, so….”

She couldn’t quite seem to spit the words out, so Duraan finished it for her.

“You can stay as long as you like, at least, until someone tells you that you have to leave or something like that.”

“Thanks, Duraan.”

“Anytime.”

“So what do you say?” She asked, giving him the opportunity to fulfill his dream. It was an offer that he simply couldn’t refuse.

Duraan interrupted, though, before he could answer. “Hey you two, I think we should go around to the eastern gate.”

“What, why?”

“Oh, I don’t know, might be better if you want to surprise them or something.”

Savill laughed. “I haven’t seen them for the better part of a year, and I’m not going to delay it any longer.” Giving Aviin a warm smile, she waved for him to follow along. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”

“No, I really feel like we should go around….”

“Stop babbling, we’re going straight for the house.”

“Savill….”

She hiked up a small knole, nearly disappearing from his view, before stopping and standing straight like a rod of iron.

“The god’s save us all….”

That was the last thing she said for sometime.

. How the Color of Red Constrasts the Grey .

Ash has such a beautiful color, when it’s spread over the earth like a sadistic blanket of sin. So pale, and so perfect.

Just like her.

Of course, She was there still, although much of those duties had already been attended to. No, it was the lingering ones that She waited for. You could never tell when one would just suddenly drop from the light in their eyes and sink into the glorious sleep that never requires you to awake.

Ahh, such a wonderful gift, to be able to forget all things.

To be able to let go, of all feeling and all thought. Complete, and utter freedom. What I wouldn’t give for such an experience, just once, just a taste.

She was always beckoning to me, always taunting with those sparking eyes and slender fingers and rounded hips. She wore that mottled dress-trains dragging over the broken earth and marred stone-like a queen. And truth be told, She was more royal than the rest, for a queen rules over her subjects, does she not?

There was much more than just charred wood and blackened stones there, though, much more.

Red.

Fire, and embers still marked the village, even spreading to the forest beyond. They would have put them out, perhaps, if there had been someone to do it. A few straggling survivors were far too busy mourning over the dead to think of such things. Such a pity, to watch so much potential go to waste.

But at least it was entertaining.

. Where Chaos… .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Savill…Savill, you should come with me.” Duraan coaxed, doing his best to soothe her mind with his caressing touch.

She stood there, frozen, though, not even able to breathe. How can one breathe in the wake of something so terrible?

A step or two behind, Aviin followed up the hill, only to become the same as her, literally rooted to the spot, and this is what he saw; nothing.

It was all gone.

Every last thing, from the ancient manors that had been built by the clan chiefs of old, to the humblest abode marking the edge of the fields. Stretching through the valley, Canthon was lost, and what was left to find could only slip through the fingers if you tried to collect it to piece things back together. Jutting from the earth, those black walls reached for the blue sky and the clouds, calling for aid, but none would come.

Not even from the Empire, which is perhaps why things were so bad.

“Yvre, Brey and Draal…what happened here?” Aviin’s mouth hardly moved as he spoke, his eyes blinking repeatedly in attempt to clarify that this was in fact the scene before them, and not just some vile nightmare they were having.

Words were helpless to describe what was occurring that day.

“Savill…just come with me and we’ll-.”

She uttered a single word, “how?” before bolting off down the hill, running madly and blindly, slapping at the brush that barred her way.

“Savill! Stop!” Aviin’s feet seemed so heavy as they stumbled in her tracks, doing his best to catch up but struggling beneath the weight of his pack. The world seemed to spin around him, a shifting mirage of so much smoke.

Homes had been ripped apart by some great force, the charred contents of their existence scattered a great distance from the structure. It had done a very thorough job, not sparing any energy in it’s attempt to raise this city to the ground.

He passed one house where the entire side wall had been blown clear across the street, bricks and shards of wood embedded into the opposite home’s exterior.

“What madness is this?” He inquired, to no one in particular.

Duraan answered, just as clueless as he was, “Not the slightest idea, but it’s gone, all of it. The entire town has been destroyed. Raised straight to the ground….”

How could he be so calm about it?

There was this form lying on the ground in front of him. Aviin sidestepped to avoid it, then made the mistake of looking down as he passed by.

Just a child’s face, so pale and perfect. Emotionless, but smiling nonetheless.

A thin rail, splintered on the end, protruding from its side.

Nothing wrong with that….

Things began to collapse as he stumbled on, viewing the carnage that seemed to pursue him, and he almost became lost amidst the wreckage. Remembering Savill, though, gave him at least enough direction to continue forward.

But she was not much better than he.

Kicking through the ashes and the rubble, screaming incoherently.

“No!”

The only words that he could understand.

Just uttered over and over again.

The quite form of a woman looked so beautiful there, clothed in soot and half buried beneath the fallen roof as Savill cradled her head. Tears, washing away the grime, left streaks across her face.

There were so many others, littered around them.

He came to console her, at least, to offer his presence as a bolster, hoping to provide strength. A hand, reaching out, but his strength hardly able to do as much as touch her hair.

“No….” She kept saying, like it was some magic word that could make everything better again.

“Savill-.”

She sprang from the ground, eyes ablaze and facial features contorting against the rage that had been building inside her. “Why did it have to be them!”

“I don’t know!” Aviin fired back, stunned and taken a bit off guard by her sudden assault. “It’s not like it’s my fault!” She didn’t hear his words, though. Still blinded by so much emotional stress, she began wildly stumbling around the building, or what was left of it, still crying out, ripping at the waste and desperately searching for something more.

She was calling out for her father, and brother and mother.

But no one was going to answer, at least, not anyone that she wanted to.

“Savill, I know this is hard, but you’re going to have to get control of yourself!” Duraan demanded, not very kind with his tone, but desperate to stop anything from escalating to the point of becoming a true problem for them. What was he thinking, though? How was she supposed to react in this situation?

How were any of them supposed to?

She shoved him off and threw up a hard wall, refusing to let him penetrate back in.

Stunned by her ferocity, Aviin watched, dumbfounded as her form began to move in what seemed to be an inhuman speed, flashing about, tossing beam and stone alike aside as if it were crafted with paper.

“Aviin, do something.” The cat’s voice entered his own mind, finally breaking the spell and putting him into sorts. “Do it now!”

He grabbed her by the arm, feeling the strength of a woman that belied her own frame.

It was all he could do to hold on as she ripped about, first one arm, then the other, but caught again as Duraan screamed in his mind, telling him of the utmost importance to bring things under control.

She still struggled, but less, the emotion of it all overcoming her and coming out in waves of harsh words, directed at him, but biting only into her own soul.

A few tense moments later, and she released into a violent sobbing, growing limp in his arms and forcing Aviin to drop to his knees, Savill lying heavy against his chest. Those were real tears that were shed onto the grey.

Real, not like the ones that you so masterfully cried when your mother banished you to your room for refusing some home chore.

Not like the ones that you mustered when that specific someone broke your heart and ran off with another.

Don’t ask me how I know, because one couldn’t say how or why. It just was, and there was something about it that forced me to stop for a moment, if only a short one, and contemplate the scene.

Sobbing died to a whimpering, died to a silent weeping, her chest dropping heavy, then bursting back up after a second or two, only to repeat the same labored process. He spoke a few words, but there was no recognition behind those glazed eyes. He wondered what she was thinking, but it was a childish desire to know that drove him. Why would one have any inclination to take part in such a pitiful display of human weakness? No, it certainly wasn’t for me.

And so I left them, the two, sitting there on the devastated earth, and it was shedding no tears for their plight.

Perhaps it didn’t care?

Perhaps you don’t either….

One thing is for certain, though; her aunt was dead. That much we can all surmise. Her soul had already been taken with the rest, and let me tell you, our Sister Death had a hefty load to bear that day.

Becoming, of one so strong.

Thankfully they had not come across any others of her family.

Duraan shuddered to think what might have happened.

I couldn’t stop watching.

. And Shade Meet .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Aviin awoke slowly, his conscious not caring if he was alive or dead, and it seemed to transfer over to his waking mind as well.

The world around him hadn’t changed much, only, it was quite a bit darker out now, with the sun tipping itself behind the mountains crest and singing a cruel tune as it went. The first thing he noticed was that his back hurt profusely, pounding a stinging pain along each vertebrae, the kind that comes from sitting far too long.

The other thing, was that Savill was not there any longer.

“Savill?” He cried, jumping to his feet and looking around. Literally nothing was in sight, though, because there wasn’t really anything to see. “Savill!”

Farshta! What do I do now? “Duraan! Duraan, talk to me!”

“Calm down, what’s the problem?”

“It’s Savill. I guess I fell asleep, and now she-.”

Laughter, always aggravating. Something the cat was an adept at. “No, she’s fine. She’s right here, with the others.”

“What others?” Everyone’s dead.

“No, the survivors you garp. Did you think that not a single person escaped? Just…get over here.”

Mumbling about something stupid, Aviin crawled through the rubble and left the tattered home, marching down the street before asking, “And exactly where am I going?”

“See that clump of trees off to the west?”

I can’t really see anything…. Of course they were there, so he ran at a quick trot, following his companions’ broken, but true directions which eventually led him to a marred, but still standing structure. Built of large stones hatched one on top of the other, it was an impenetrable fortress. Small, from the looks of it, but whatever had attacked them didn’t seem to have been capable of destroying this one last relic.

Men were there, only two, and they were old.

“Aye! What are you doing?” One demanded to know, brandishing a curved sword. The other advanced on him, holding a short pike and making as if to scare him off.

“Hold on, I’m a friend.”

“Yah, of who?” The man’s face was marred by a shallow burn that stretched from his ear to his chin on one side. Grotesque, and a perfect telling of what they had been through. At least he had survived, though Aviin wasn’t so sure that was a privilege any longer.

“Savill, and that…cat friend of hers too. They’re here, right?”

“And how do you know them two, if I might ask?”

“Look, I’ve been travelling with them for weeks now. Would you just let me in?”

The other man spoke this time, “What says you aren’t a spy? Maybe siding with the enemy?”

Frustrated and wanting only to see her, to make sure that she was still okay, Aviin attempted to brush past them. “I don’t have time for this. I don’t even know who your enemy is….”

The two men grabbed him by the arm, holding him in their wizened grasps, like claws.

Like birds.

Refusing to loosen their tight pinch.

“You seem alright, but just too be sure….” He quickly slung a rope around both hands, flipping it into a knot and cinching it tight. Aviin cried out as they bite sharply into his flesh, not much of a wound, but it still stung. They marched him in through the doors, grunting to a large woman who stood as guard.

There were many there, all of them women and children.

Where are all the men?

“They died fighting, something which you should understand well enough.”

Duraan’s remark sank in slowly.

Yes, he understood…. Right?

Finally they came in through a low set door after descending a level, emerging into a dimply light alcove which had most likely served as storage. Space was an issue, and the bed that sat in the back of the room had the legs broken off of it, to keep the one lying in it from whacking their head on the short ceiling.

She was there, still and quiet.

“Savill!” Aviin yelled, then was quickly silenced by one of the men.

“Shh, do you want to wake her?”

Duraan was also there, standing at the foot of the bed. He turned to look at them, then those eyes shot up in surprise at seeing Aviin’s condition.

“What do you think you’re doing!” He cried aloud, those little white teeth poking through the grey of his fur. “Take that off of him.”

“Now she’s really going to wake up….”

“Just take that rope off, before I come over there and give you a tattoo.”

Grumbling, they tugged at the knot, eventually fiddling with it enough until it slipped from his wrists, letting him rub the pain out. Aviin’s eyes were fixed on his friend’s face, but mostly his mouth.

“Duraan…” He realized what he was doing. “You can speak? But, I thought it was just a sort of…connection of our thoughts, that’s all. You can really speak, out loud?”

“Yes, you fool, of course I can. Did you think I survived this long in a world full of greedy haphazard men that are always looking for some new fun to invent just by running around and throwing thoughts at people?”

“Well, no…but still….”

His attention turned to her, and the other person lying on the bed next to her. She had her arms wrapped around the smaller figure, holding him close, as if to keep him from slipping away.

“Who is that?”

Ultimate irony coming into play as Duraan slipped back into his usually habit of communicating. But then, it was so much easier, and didn’t make any noise. “He’s her brother.”

Chapter XI

. Hidden Treasures .

- Sixth Age, year 1022

Paper held the key, but he still had no idea of how to go about unlocking the box with it.

You couldn’t exactly just wave it at the thing and hope for the best.

Actually, he’d already tried that, and to no avail.

Erra-ine Thar wasn’t the city that it might have been, before the war, but it was still a great place to find literally anything that existed in the world. Lyrris hadn’t gone there to sight-see, though. Directed by a head librarian at the Grand Keep, he was given directions to an older trader of curiosities that had made shop in the outskirts of town.

There were no questions asked, because the man caught one look at the character sketched on his light sheaf of paper, and became instantly interested. He talked of old times, long ago, when the Ancients still ruled the mortal planes. When their cities were vast and covered the expanse of the world’s surface. He spoke of many things, things that Lyrris didn’t understand, nor believed he ever could or would.

It was fascinating, but one would have needed to grow up in an educated family to grasp such concepts.

Mysterious, that’s what it was.

All that he really cared for, though, was learning what that character had meant….

“Might I inquire as to the source of this rune, my dear friend?” The man had asked, prying for more.

“It was just carved into some rock that I dug up in my field.”

“And there was nothing else there?” He looked at him with hungry eyes. Not preying, just starving. “Nothing other than…a rock?”

Lyrris shook his head, holding back a chuckle or two as the man’s excited and anxious antics continued around the room, first fiddling with that, then moving to the corner to reorganize some odd things on a shelf, as if to ploy him into thinking that it wasn’t of much importance, and he was only asking to be polite.

“No, otherwise I would have brought you more than just a single character.”

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s true.” His eyes fell, then shot back up with renewed light when another pleasant thought entered his mind. “You know, money can be arranged for the…exchange of such things….”

He was about to let it go, though, because it interested him far more than the man, who had probably seen many such things.

All that he really wanted to know was what it contained.

That was more important to him than gold, at least, for the time being.

Try as he might, there was simply no opening the box, though. The character, the man explained that it meant to release, or to set free. But there was no button to be pressed, no latch to lift and certainly no lever to turn. Just that flat, cold metal. Still impenetrable and safeguarding the treasure within.

Frustrating, to say the least.

If he couldn’t open it himself, then there was no sense in keeping it, but taking it back to that man, or to any other, would most likely mean losing it. Whether or not there was gold involved, still the same.

If it wasn’t something that you could press or pry open, then there must be another means of unlocking it…. Cogs ticked in circles, grasping for any bit of remembered information that might be of assistance.

Magic, perhaps? Though it was usually preceded by some sort of indication.

It always had that odd smell about it, and this wasn’t the same.

But then, he’d seen wielders at a fair once that could perform simple feats without even the slightest bit of display. Not even sound to accompany it.

He hadn’t really believed that their tricks were real, of course, but then, he was a child at the time. And there were other things, stories that they all heard, about strange happenings around the kingdoms. There was also myth that beneath the streets of Fairrun were carved deep tunnels, delving into the earth and sealed by doors that no one could enter to hide their dark secrets from the world, doors that could only be opened by speaking some password.

No handle.

No lock.

And but one key to enter.

Lyrris spun onto his knees and lifted the edge of the box up, staring down at the rune before throwing out a weak, “Open.”

Of course nothing happened, why would that be it?

The man, he had said something after thumbing through a book and planting a finger on another sketching of the same character. An indexing of the Ancient language. It was just a single word, nothing too fancy. Racking his mind to remember, Lyrris retraced the scene, watching as the old merchant had taken the paper from him, donning a pair of double rimmed glasses and eyes widening at the sight of something so rare.

He laughed in pure happiness, then ran to the shelf, fumbling over dusty libraries stacked from floor to ceiling, before finally laying hold on his desired volume and ripping through the pages. Eventually he stopped with an exclamation of joy, holding book and paper up to the light in comparison.

Sure enough, the runes were the same.

“To release, or to set free.”

“Is that all it means?” Lyrris asked further, then a bit taken aback at the man’s response.

“Is that all it means?” He countered, sarcastically, spurting air from between his lips and rolling his eyes. “To the mind of the unlearned, it may seem nothing at all. But in the hands of a true learner, this has the key to unlocking the knowledge of the world, my friend. Even of the universe.” He looked off into the distance, which couldn’t have been very far considering his small shop was entirely cluttered with an assortment of junk, and what were probably rather rare and expensive items. “Koi, my friend. A missing piece to the puzzle.”

Of course, he’d already found that one, but it was no less visionary.

Lyrris nearly laughed aloud, partly at the man’s odd nature, and partly because he’d remembered the word.

This time, there was no doubt that it had to be correct. Leaning towards the box a bit, and praying that it would work, Lyrris uttered back that single, unfamiliar word.

There was a click, and the sound of a small wind rushing through his room, but only right in front of him, and the two halves of the metal container separated just the slightest bit. It was obvious to him that it had worked, and that the box was now open, as light, like liquid illumination, was streaming through the revealed crack, dancing on his walls and flickering through shades of blue and purple.

That same excitement suddenly overcame him, and his fingers seemed to shiver as they reached to open it further, to find out what lay inside.

Set into the top of the lid were two round stones, emitting that bountiful light that streamed all around. The base was filled with a dark, spongy material, molded into a form that held several objects. At least, was meant to, but only one remained.

A cylinder of that same, flashing metal that made up the exterior of the odd chest. Similar runes were set into the item itself.

It felt heavy in his hands, very heavy.

Nearly the length of his arm, it was dense and seemed to be weighted on one end. Lyrris spun it in his hand, marveling at what he had found. Of all places, to be buried out there in the field. But then, his mind told him that it most likely was not that way, thousands of years before, when the Ancients still roamed the world. It was their kind that had crafted this artifact, and their kind that had buried it, most likely for a reason.

Or perhaps lost it….

This time, though, there was a button to be pressed, which he did.

How could one resist that temptation?

There was a flashing, like an explosion, and heated air rushed up past his face, forcing him to drop the object and shield his eyes from the bright glare. A soft, but very audible buzzing sound filled his room.

Two rods of pure light, red and incandescent, had protruded from the metal, branching out from either side and then curving back in to nearly touch at the tips. Past the initial shock, Lyrris realized that others might hear and reached for his newfound treasure, fumbling hurriedly until his finger finally found it’s mark, and everything went still once again.

The candle at his desk had blown out.

And there were two deep marks cut, or burned into the floorboards.

Still smoldering.

. What it Means to Be Mortal Revisited .

- Sixth Age, year 1022

Mod was already in the commons room, talking with another woman that Lyrris recognized, but didn’t really know.

“Sleep well?”

He nodded, but flopped onto a stool and began to idly sip at the light herbal tea that she was always so good at making.

“You were up late last night.” Mod commented, throwing him a sideways glance, before turning back to her current guest to continue their conversation.

Shrugging, as there was little else to say, and he went back to thinking on the night’s events. They certainly weren’t fitting to the bill of a good night’s rest.

Lyrris was going to need some more of that tea.

Arrimius was dead.

Actually, he had been dead some time before, but only now was it catching up with him.

They all stared down at his body, some scratching their heads, others roiling in anger. There were even a few of the older wives that dabbed at their eyes, perhaps not so distraught that he was gone, but simply that someone had to go.

No one was very much upset over his passing, at least, that’s what it seemed.

Lyrris suddenly found himself regretting his thoughts of only a few days before, and how he’d wished the man dead.

It seemed that the Fates had granted that one.

But it was none of their faults. To be honest, no one actually understood how it had been possible, seeing that Arrimius never left the city. He was tied to it, because he couldn’t fend for himself in the world. A crust of bread here, perhaps a partial meal from someone that was feeling rather generous. It was his home, and the streets his bed at night. With hundreds of mothers to watch over him, he never had any reason to leave.

And now….

It wasn’t so much that he had died which had the townspeople stirred up into an anxious fear, but rather the manner of his untimely death.

Blackened eyes.

Dark and clouded lips, staining into the teeth.

How ironic that it was the butcher who had stepped forward and taken Arrimius out of this world. Perhaps he had deserved it? Or perhaps not, but whatever the case, all were agreed that it had been the right thing to do.

Baffled, still, because Uurda, though not the southernmost metropolis, was still a safe haven away from the dark lands to the north.

And the plague had not been seen in those parts for years.

Everyone was asking the same question and coming up with no answers.

Dranuus stepped forward then, to help calm the electric atmosphere and bring order to the people.

“We know that this comes as a shock to all of you.” He began. “It certainly did to me. But there’s no need to panic. This is one case, and I’m sure that you all would agree, we are not surprised that it happened to this man.”

A lot of heads nodded.

“What’s most important is that we be a little more cautious for now. So, unless there is any contrary opinions, I would like to institute a quarantine for any person that shows signs of unusual activity. We’d do best to be as careful as we can.”

“And what do we do if others start getting infected?” One man raised the question.

Another stepped forward before an answer could be given, hopping up on the crates next to Dranuus. “And how do we know that there aren’t already others infected with it, huh?”

“Let’s not come to any fast conclusions here.” Dranuus countered, throwing the man a dirty look.

“All I’m saying is that being ‘a little more cautious’ isn’t going to protect my family if things begin to turn sour.”

Many in the crowd yelled out, some in agreement, others telling him to get down shut his mouth and listen. Their leader raised his hands, drawing them all to silence again before he continued on. “And what would you have us do, then?”

“My family is what’s most important to me, and I’ll do anything that I must to keep them safe, even if that means silencing any threats.” He jumped down and pointed at Arrimius’ body. “That man, I hate to say, was a godless heathen that worshipped the drink far more than he did being a good member of society, and look what came to him.”

“The fact that he was a rowdy man doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Untamed and dangerous, is what you mean. Think about it, think back to all of the times when we saw this sickness run rampant in our streets, and those that were always the first to become ill and die.”

They were thinking.

“There was poor farmer Godritch, and his wife. Sillas, and widow Trentin’s son. They all had one thing in common, every single one that got infected…godless.”

A bit of stir riled them all into a frenzy as some yelled out, countering his words and other raised a cheer as they pushed his motive forward. One woman cried out in denial of what had been said, “My husband was a good man!”

“Yes, Mrs. Puntiff.” The man said, shaking his head and releasing an exasperated sigh. “And he was a drunkard….”

Something she couldn’t deny.

“Don’t you get it? It’s a disease, and it feeds off of misdeeds and wrongdoings.” He looked them all in the eye before rising up to stand next to Dranuus again. “It’s a cursing, from the gods.”

Perhaps more truth had never been spoken before, since the worlds began. Yes, it certainly wasn’t a blessing of any sort, and it had not come from their own making, nor was it of this plane of existence.

It was as terrible and as wonderful as they said, a truly beautiful masterpiece, forged from the fires of what it meant to be mortal, to be human.

To be vulnerable.

And as Arrimius’ body lay there on the ground, so cold and withdrawn, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.

It was quite amusing, after all.

. The Call of the Harn .

- Sixth Age, year 1022

The world….

It seemed such a small place while he sat there, staring out at the rising of the sun. This was his favorite moment, when everything was still and the only sounds were those of a quiet plain, still asleep as there was little reason to be otherwise.

Such a perfect world, only, it needed a little tending to.

For once Lyrris’ thoughts began to drift back to what had once been. These were things that his mind refused to remember, and yet, his heart yearned to contemplate on them. The visions of his mother, and sister and brother and all those that had been a part of what he once was stood there before him suspended in the air, smiling and radiating light.

But silent.

Or rather, silenced as the case may be.

He didn’t regret it anymore, not after what he had seen the world do to itself, what the people were capable of. In fact, it was rather a blessing that they had been mercifully taken away from all the pain and all the suffering that had and would continue to plague the lands.

And why did he stay?

Why did he….?

Remember that calling that once had come to him before?

It hadn’t been only to come west. No, there was more, and it resurfaced now, reflecting back what his thoughts had been telling him for such a long time now.

There were other things pressing him onward now, as well, such as the fact that he couldn’t hide what he’d found for even a day. Mod had seen the marks in the floor as soon as she entered the room to change the sheets on his bed, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. He hadn’t attempted to hide it, only to think of what could be said.

“Is there anything that we should be concerned about?” Was her question to him while the two of them met, along with Dranuus.

He nearly laughed, because he felt just like he was staring back into his mother’s own eyes at that moment. She had taken him in and raised him as if he had been her own child. It was the least he could do to play the part. Sometimes, though, it was a bit frustrating, because she was so good at what she did.

Almost too good.

And why had he hid it from them? It seemed a bit childish, but then, there were times when a secret was quite entertaining. To know something that no other did. He explained as much, which they accepted. No hard feelings amongst them, how could there be? But one question still remained unanswered, both for them, and for Lyrris as well.

What was it?

Or perhaps something a bit more important was needing to be asked; what would he do with it?

Dranuus urged him to take it to a historian, someone that had the knowledge to explain a bit more. Mod was more of the opinion that it needed to be destroyed, after Lyrris had showed them what it was, and how it worked.

He’d been messing about with it, and began to realize the immense power that rested inside that little cylindrical object.

It sliced through most materials with ease, requiring only a slight pressure, burning a clean cut, even into stone. It was odd, as it seemed to run out of power, but after a short rest, it would flick open again, buzzing in the air and singing the tops of the grass.

Only earlier that day he’d hacked down a small tree in only a moment, sending it toppling to the ground with a resounding, and very satisfying shatter. It broke into his thoughts, and made its mark. It spoke to him of what was capable with something like this.

Was it a weapon?

Little else made sense, what with it’s shape and limited ability to use for other tasks. He honestly doubted that the Ancients had crafted it as a lumberjack’s axe, or any other tool for that matter.

It was this that had him intrigued, and worried.

The former, because every boy’s head had been filled with dreams of going off to war and becoming a hero as they conquered the enemy and brought peace to the land.

The latter, because those thoughts still resided in his mind, despite his growing age and connection to his town and his new family and all that had become his new home.

Lyrris looked out again, staring off into the distance.

It seemed to be a funny habit of his.

And the Harn was calling.

. Mine .

Once, I didn’t believe that life was worth living. It seemed to be a constant need to sacrifice, to invest, and the return on those investments was always so small.

Then I found her, and everything began to change.

You see, most have never viewed her through the eyes of one that has witnessed so much of her work. Then, there are a few, some of them you may have recognized already. But as a general rule, I have seen more of her, more of death, than any other soul to ever walk these realms.

A true blessing, my Reader.

One that I dare not take for granted.

She wandered through the tattered remnants of what was once a beautiful place on those quiet feet, bare and feeling into the hot ash and the jagged stones, letting it seep up the length of her legs and waist, feeding her parched and perishing spirit with all that is life and death and glory and shame.

How many times she had traveled this path, I couldn’t say. But it did not matter, only that she was here.

It was enough for me.

She was mine, because no one else could lay claim.

. A Moment to Contemplate What it MEans to Cheat .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Lying, awake, on the grey foam of our infernal sea….

That’s where we last left out friend, Mathias.

Do you remember him?

Perhaps not, for yours is the forgetting kind, but allow me to remind you of one simple fact; the desert is no respecter of persons.

And he, the boy, was dead.

But awake, nonetheless. Things like death and catastrophe have this interesting way of opening the mind and cracking the eyes, giving the bearer at least a small glimpse into the world of a true reality. Not like the type that you’ve all painted over the walls of your dull existence, covering out the windows and shrouding your view. No, there comes a point where that veil is rent and you simply cannot hide yourself any longer.

We left him in the sand.

We find him waiting between worlds, not lost, because he had finally found what it was to be himself. To no longer be mortal.

Yes, believe it or not, but death in one way or another grants that coveted gift to all who reap her kiss, though it is not something that I would encourage you to seek, for there is no going back, once you’ve made the choice.

I remember a few who have gained a hearing with that beautiful specter, had a few moments to converse with her tainted words. Most aren’t up to the challenge, as she’s a trickster, of sorts. There are these little games that she so loves to play, and she almost always wins, but that’s an understatement, in all honesty. Some have attempted at another tactic, but they error in their ways, because if there’s anything that our sister hates the most, it’s coming up short.

Being cheated.

I dare say, only a select few have ever succeeded in their ploys. And how ironic, that so many of those very souls would be concerned in this our story, the one that you’ve currently placed before you.

For another time, dear Reader.

Look at Mathias, for now. Stare into those open eyes, and tell me what you see?

Is there pain? Or sadness? Perhaps a taste of regret, or a hinting of guilt?

Reader…whatever you saw, you are wrong, because when you look into his eyes, you see nothing.

This is what happens when you die, as it is the same for all of your kind.

And I thought you would have come to understand that by now, having traversed so many paths with me, and having seen so much of this.

Three….

A number that can be built into so many wonderful things, but here it was being wasted.

It was the number of children that Aviin counted. The rest were gone.

Seven women, two old men and one young lad that had somehow escaped, probably after having run away from the fighting. There were others that had survived, to be sure, but they were long gone, not wasting any time in fleeing the destruction that had collapsed upon this quaint town.

Savill’s brother was one of those youngsters, hardly the age of seven, he was small, very small. Or perhaps it was just that he looked small, curled up in the fetal position, lying next to her on the cot. She hadn’t talked much about him, only that he was the second child of her family, and that he was hardly like her at all, whatever that was supposed to mean.

Those lines had softened over her forehead, filling in the tired creases that had come with so much sun and hardship, etched in with flakes of ash and grime that had been rubbed there by worn hands.

She seemed to be at peace.

Duraan argued in the negative, but such was his way.

Always looking on the sour side of things.

But then…Aviin rubbed at his eyes, trying his hardest to scratch away the world before him and exchange it for a better. If only things worked that way.

He turned to one of the women who had been tending to the wounded. “How long have they been asleep now?”

Those old eyes looked up at him, not really caring if the world shut out its light and ended her poor life right there and then, but of course, there were other, far more important matters to be attended to. “The better part of a day.” Was her reply, before she slipped away with some mostly fresh cloth to change a dressing.

A full day?

It seemed a bit excessive, at least for him.

He’d seen her sleep much longer, though it still worried him.

“Stop being concerned about it. I’m sure that you would do the same, were you in their position.”

Duraan’s remark set him a bit on edge. Would he? The answer came very firmly; no. He wouldn’t attempt at drowning his sorrow in a euphoric sleep that could only end when one woke to find that all the things they had dreamt away were in fact still existent. But what could he say? He didn’t understand how they were feeling, or what thoughts had been plaguing their minds.

Then again…his own returned to those early years, and the vivid pictures of his father holding that blade, so heavy in his hands. Soldiers pulled at his arms, trying to drag him from the room, but he stalled them at the door, planting hands and feet on the threshold, pushing with his might, screaming all the while.

It was his mother’s name that fell from his lips that day.

And his father’s sword that fell upon his future, cleaving it apart.

Perhaps he did understand, at the very little what it was like to lose something important, and to watch the life bleed from someone that mattered to you, spill itself on the floor and crawl away, sinking into some hole, running from sight and sound.

He flicked a thought at the lump of fur that had curled itself at the end of their cot, “Just, tell me as soon as they wake up.”

“Yes sir, anything you say divine master.”

It was an attempt at some humor, faulty, and queued at the wrong moment, but still trying, so he laughed. It wasn’t a very convincing laugh, though. And how could it be?

This was a time of deep reckoning.

Reckoning with the gods, even the ones that he didn’t believe in.

. Roads .

The long road.

That was the one that all must travel.

Some attempt at taking shorter paths, things termed “short cuts,” which are really only another way of saying a swift dagger drawn across the neck. No one ever made it through those. You’ve read the stories. You know the tales.

Sometimes there are a few hills along the way.

And other times they never really flatten out into a reaching plateau like they should. Perhaps the gods did not favor those souls as much? Perhaps they committed some crime and are being punished as their penance?

But I thought we didn’t believe in those things either?

Whatever the case, you cannot escape. Go forward into the unknown, or return to that which you so gladly left behind. Ominous canyon walls rise on your left, and on your right, barring the way to any other choice, sapping the agency from your very being.

And putting a closure on your freedom.

. Child’s Play .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Ludicrous?

It was really the only word that came to his mind as he sought for an explanation to how she was reacting to the situation.

Something in her dreams, it seemed, had ignited this burning rage, directing itself at the world and everything in it, but mostly at the arsons that had raised her humble home and scattered any and all remaining remnants of what had once been her life.

The beasts.

Kuruteill.

Forsaken, as their history made it to be. Nearly hunted to extinction and driven far north, they had nearly disappeared from the records of time, perhaps an occasional straggler making its way down through the warming climates to find civilization, but never anything more.

It was quite obviously their presence that had created such an eruption of death and decay amidst the valley, though. Undeniable, because there were those left to tell the tale, and what one had seen could not be denied, if others were there to make any sort of verification.

But something else was at play, as well.

Something that, frankly, had Duraan troubled.

Savill had seen it as well, while she was in the rifts. Several patches of darkness that ebbed and flowed, dancing from her vision as she ran.

One of the women described them as burnt people with no eyes, charred flesh that flaked off and floated into the wind. Some questioned the sanity of that terrible vision, but it wasn’t so unbelievable to others who had both seen and heard similar shapes moving in the night, silhouetted against the rising flames. One word, so foul and pretentious that even Aviin, trapped away in his little castle in the sand, had witnessed their kind first hand.

They came with the plague.

Orr-Tav were no strangers to the world of mortals. In fact, it was from this that they had been bred.

And, it seemed, continued to breed.

It wasn’t any of this that had Savill worked up in violent tantrum, though. While wandering through the rifts, searching through the wreckage and trying, attempting only, to make sense of all things, she stumbled upon a clue that ignited a desperate desire for a wild chase into the unknown.

“They have them, I swear to you, I saw them!” Her hair flicked hard against Aviin’s face as he attempted to grab a hold of a wrist or elbow or something. “Now let go of me!”

“Savill, look what you’re doing….”

“Get some control, and maybe we can talk about it!”

Duraan was doing his best to soothe her mind. Aviin had plans to take over and detain her until she could come to her senses. Some of the others were helping, or rather, getting in the way. What a scene to behold, all of them squabbling like birds over their meal.

He grunted with the effort, and she let out a suppressed yell, fighting with her fists and swinging wildly at anything that came into her path. Blinded by the building tension that was rising in her chest. It was this, or succumb to the ultimate temptation of letting loose and spilling all of those precious emotions on the floor, but no one wanted to appear weak in front of all their friends.

And trust me when I say this; these were all her friends.

Every last one.

“Savill, you’re being irrational! Now stop.”

She spun to face her companion of so many years and spat words at him with a vehement cry, “I don’t care!”

Perhaps a bit taken aback, Duraan remained silent for a few moments. Something not akin to his nature, but finally, and forcefully pounded into Aviin’s mind hard enough to make him wince at the pain. “Stop her! Before she hurts herself or someone else.”

And how was he supposed to do that?

“Do it now!”

Rolling out with a frustrated yell, Aviin pounced like the cat sitting next to him, grabbing at Savill’s wrists and pinning them to her side. She fought with her feet, kicking at his legs and nearly tipping the two of them over. Eventually he was forced to release that hold as she darted around him, throwing open the door and attempting at leaving the room.

Was it the rage inside of him that did it?

Or maybe the urgency with which Duraan continued to prod at him?

He spun on his heels and dove, covering the floor and through the doorway, one arm reaching around and pulling back against her knees. Needless to say, she fell, unable to stay on her feet any longer. It wasn’t all that hard, but her hands hardly came up in time to brace for the impact and her cheek was the next thing to make contact with the earthen floor.

It sounded hollow, just like he felt.

“Savill! Savill….” Scrambling to his feet, he stepped to her side and nervously looked over her. All that he was met with was a pair of fiery eyes which spun up to meet him, burning with intensity and searing into his heart.

A fiery bruise, now resting itself on the crown of her cheekbone.

And that fiery hair, matted from sleep, and their previous tussle.

“Savill…I didn’t mean to-.”

Slapping his hand away, the girl groaned and pulled herself to the wall, resting knees up close to her chest and wiping at the few drops of blood on her split lip.

“Great choice of tactics there.” Came Duraan’s remark, always timed to be in exactly the wrong spot, to cause the most collateral damage.

“Hey! I did what I had to, alright. And you’re not the one to talk, you told me to.”

“Yes, to keep her from hurting herself.” The cat bounded to her side and attempted at resting his furry head on her knee, an action that she rejected, shoving him off and climbing to her feet. Animal looked at man with contempt. “Not do her the favor of hurting her yourself.”

She turned on him also.

Pointing a finger at him, then to herself.

“I’m a free woman, and you have no right to stop me!”

What had he gotten himself into? So many other thoughts raced around the track of his mind, not sure where they should go. An untidy mess that needed fixing, but there was no time for that. Not now. So he just stayed his course, “I stopped you from making the biggest mistake of your life.”

“I don’t care what you think. My parents are out there, and I’m going to go find them and bring them back!”

Aviin stepped in her way again, refusing to budge despite her repeated shoving.

“Savill, listen to me when I say I understand your pain. I also lost my mother…and now my father as well. I understand what-.”

“How could you understand? You’re nothing like me!” She spat into his face, catching him entirely off guard. “And my parents are not lost.”

Aviin could see his mother standing there now, looking down at him from her high shoulders, smiling like the sun and shedding warm rays over his body. The visage was glorious, but only a temporary fragment of what had been lost and it was cut apart by all of the pent up anger that had been welling inside of him since this whole story began.

Since his story began.

An iron hand grabbed at her arm, grinding hard forcing the blood from her skin. “Your parents are most likely dead by now.” Was his way of dealing with the situation, because it had to end, and end now. “And going off and getting yourself killed as well is going to accomplish nothing! What do you think will happen? You think that you can go fight off an army, an army that slaughtered hundreds in a single night and raised a city to the ground, leaving nothing but ash and broken homes and death? Do you think yourself some sort of god, that you can deny the truth?”

It cut hard.

Duraan made some attempt at talking to the two of them, but there was nothing that could come between the rigid form of their war, two souls dueling it out.

A fight to the death, to be sure.

But I believe that we know how it will end, because it always turned out to be the same.

She always won.

There was a rushing of wind in that enclosed room, the sound of a thousand birds taking flight.

A great flashing of light.

When he looked back, there was no one standing in front of him any longer.

“May Yvre save us all….”

That was Duraan, but it was no snide remark set on cutting at some bit that he found fault with. He actually meant it, for once.

And Aviin was stunned, beyond words.

Chapter XII

. How to Rift: For Beginners .

- Seventh Age, year 718

“Savill!”

No one to answer.

“Don’t bother, she can’t hear you.”

“Well obviously, but where did she go?”

“Into the rifts, of course. Where else could she have gone?” Duraan sighed, withdrawing his presence a bit and licking at a paw in a nonchalant matter. It angered Aviin every time he acted this way, usually when a serious matter was upon them. Then, it was his way of sorting things out, but nonetheless, it wasn’t very well mannered.

It wasn’t human.

He laughed at that one, as did I.

“I thought that she just fell into a state of sleep, though. Not disappeared entirely.”

“Yes, that’s what normally would happen. But you have to understand this; usually it’s only her conscience that goes in, and nothing else.”

What did he mean? It took a few moments for Aviin to process his words, and what they had alluded to. “You mean to say that this time, she herself as gone into the rifts, and it’s not just some dream? Like the ones that I had?”

“No, certainly not. More than just her mind and her body have traveled through the planes and into another realm of existence, you understand. Her soul, her spirit, everything that is and was her, is there.”

Aviin stared down at the place where she had been standing only moments before.

“And not here….”

. Changelings .

Perhaps you would benefit from knowing a bit more of what we have in concern.

It wasn’t so much that they were a vile and terrible race that made them a distaste to the world. In fact, that’s not altogether an uncommon thing. Think of that man, the one that causes your skin to itch and writhe when he speaks, to cause your very center to shake in fear or anger or repulse at what he is. All because of something he did or something he said.

That man, the one that you hate so much, whoever he might be, is no different than these.

They once had been someone’s brother or father, a husband, a wife, a friend.

Now?

I’ll allow them to explain that themselves.

First, there is only a knowing that something strange has come upon you. Not altogether an oddity in life, as there are times when the early signs of an illness or the changing of weather can do the same, but there will be a definite difference to what you have felt, and that will be imminent as it will not come from the heart, or from the stomach.

Or even a conjured emotion of the mind.

It will radiate from your senses, whispering into your ears, caressing the skin, blindly sniffing at your nose and leaving behind a trace of breath upon your lips.

The eyes are the first to go.

It comes as a pressing upon the corners of your vision, tightening them a bit, causing that sensation you get when you’ve gotten a fleck of dust underneath the lid. You’ll scratch, and to no avail. It stays, because you have invited it in, and what sort of host would up and refuse to accept the guest that they have formally asked to enter? Something you simply cannot do.

The world begins to change, or rather, the way you look at it, and shapes take on new forms as you recognize that all is not as it seems. Many who you thought your friends are in fact your enemy, plotting to take what is rightfully yours, to debase you and steal away all that is precious to you.

Then the ears, as they close, and everything fades into a beautiful, and muffled silence.

Everyone begins to spout so many malevolent words, but they fall on a deaf hearer, one who has shut them out and become isolated in a net of careful waiting.

Seeping through the cracks comes the sound of so many evil intentions, all directed towards you.

All moving in for the kill.

You then begin to smell the fear, and also the hatred of the world. It permeates into your nostrils, flaring. It warns of a revolution to come, one that does not see you in the picture.

Crusty layers form over your skin, a natural carapace to protect the treasure hidden inside. You become immortal, because you cannot kill that which is not alive, and how would they ever find you locked away in so much protection? Each stabbing blow as painful as the last.

Leaving no scars.

And lastly, the taste of an ultimate victory, over all things, that tingles as it rests upon bloodless lips, something you don’t need once you’ve left the mortal realm.

And what have you become?

Something truly beautiful, my dear Reader. A masterpiece, painted by only the most delicate and articulate of hands.

This is the Orr-Tav.

This is what you are.

It’s in each of you to become something so great, believe me.

. Waiting Between Worlds, Again .

- Seventh Age, year 718

Chips flew past his head, lodging in his eye on occasion and causing him to sprout a new string of harsh words, and hack a little harder at the fallen tree.

“Just wait.”

That’s what Duraan had said. But wait for what? For the world to end? It sure seemed that way to him, but Aviin also knew that he was over reacting to the situation.

He wasn’t angry at anyone but himself, sometimes it was just hard to show that and make everyone else understand.

“She has to come back eventually, and she’ll be right here where we left her.” The cat chuckled as he stumbled upon a mistake in the form of a paradox. “Or rather, she left us.”

A few more angry swings of the arm, and he was through, kicking at the now sectioned log until it cracked from its hold and rolled a few paces down the slope. He’d volunteered to collect firewood, but now he was angry that he was doing anything at all. What he really wanted was to sit down, and do nothing.

The wonders that does for the soul.

But little time was available to waste. There was no telling when their assailants might return, and they were already making plans to leave for a safer location. Supplies had to be gathered and scrounged from the rubble and surrounding area. And Aviin knew that this tattered and ragged group of old women could never cart along several sick and wounded members and hope to reach any sort of civilization unless they were well supplied.

The boy, a spritely thing that was all legs and no brains, had managed to find three Toraq still locked away in a field somewhere. Skittish and nearly frightened to death, but still of use, and grateful to finally be with something that they recognized as friend and not foe.

Aviin had tracked the Kuruteill a short distance, pinpointing their chosen direction as a northeastern heading. For the mountains, of course. And where else would they go?

The brutes had made a mess of everything that they touched, and already the burying of the dead was taking far longer than it should have.

Of course, it was no help that all the workers that were to be had seemed to spend more time dabbing at their eyes than actually digging. Could they be blamed, though? Many of these people were their kinsfolk, their blood and their family, if not, then friend and neighbor. Everyone knew something of one another, and with each plot being covered over, another stitch of those tapestries unraveled itself into a split end.

He had a few of those himself.

The tree was taking the brunt of his release, even though it didn’t really deserve such treatment. He didn’t care much, though.

It was dead just like the rest, anyways.

“Right, so we’ll just sit her and wait until she dies or something horrific like that happens. What a great plan! I think you deserve a medal for that.”

Duraan wasn’t so enthused with his sarcastically forward comment.

“And what would you do? Go after her?”

Yes, the truth is hard and it hurts like cold steel.

“I….” Aviin had nothing to say, because he’d been humbled once again.

So he chopped again and again, throwing out each strike with a bout of new anger and new pain, the splinters of wood sapping his strength and forcing him to cry out, falling to his knees, arm still attempting its impossible feat. Eventually he was reduced to nothing more than a man.

Weak and feeble, sitting on the floor like a child.

His thoughts strayed aimlessly, wandering from one thing to the next as the sun slowly crept farther and farther away, leaving him behind to wallow in his pity.

And perhaps I did pity him, if only a little. It was because here, for the first time, he was broken.

Of course, there was the incident in the desert and several others along the way, but this was different.

I couldn’t quite grasp onto it, though.

When the sun had fallen almost to its bed and shadows ran long and rampant over the earth, he finally awoke from his stupor and collected his things, bundling the wood with twine and dragging it back to their meager camp.

It was there, for the first time, that he and Jaerus met.

Oh, he had been studying him plenty, and pounding Duraan with questions about Savill’s family, and her brother that she seemed so protective over.

Just another normal boy, like any other. Except one thing that Duraan had said which frankly had him a bit skeptical; that he was perfect.

When questioned further, Duraan only said that he had no other way to explain it, but that the child was perfect, in practically every way.

“You’ll understand when you meet him.”

And now? He didn’t look all that special, to say the least.

“Here boy, take some of this and get it to the cooking fire. I’m sure they’ll be needing it by now.”

“Yes sir, right away sir.” His thin little arms struggled to lift four or five pieces of the split wood, but he smiled as knobby knees braced under the weight and lifted with all their might.

He certainly was obedient, and well mannered, as a first impression.

Stacking the rest against a wall and covering with a tattered tarp, Aviin watched as a few moments passed, and soon the child returned, skipping lightly and whistling some tune to himself.

“Is there anything else that you’d like me to do?”

In reply Aviin sat on the ground and motioned for the boy to do the same. In silence, they studied one another for a moment, or two, before Aviin spoke up. “You don’t seem unhappy like the rest.”

Confused, by the assumption, Jaerus pulled his nose and his brow together in a thoughtful face. “Should I be?”

It brought a nervous chuckle to Aviin’s lips.

He returned, “When I was about your age, I lost my mother.” He felt like crying, and he didn’t know why, but it pulled itself back. “All I can really remember is that my father tried to tell me that she was making her way home to the halls of the gods, and would be sleeping on clouds and singing with angels before the night was through. But I didn’t believe a single word of it.”

He looked down at the boy, or rather across to him, and then at the ground, fiddling with a bit of wood that he found there before continuing. “I still haven’t come to terms with it. And I don’t know if….”

There was that trail leading back into the dark somewhere.

He started when there was a hand at his arm, a soft touch, hardly noticeable.

Jaerus was now right in front of him, kneeling and leaning towards him with those big eyes of his lit up in the dusk, not like fire, and not like the sun, but like a golden moon, reflecting and refracting the light.

“Your father, he was right.” A childish smile, from a childish boy, but one that knew what he was doing. “She is being watched over by gods and angels. That’s why I’m not sad for you.”

One last pressing at his arm, before he left Aviin there, alone, but not quite as much as he once had been.

Something I didn’t understand.

And neither did he, for as pearls in his eyes swelled and spilled out, cleansing through ash and blood and all that was tainted and dark and cruel in the world, no answers of why or how came to him. Only that it was.

Only that something began to change.

. A Fools Road .

Yes, this was how he liked to travel.

Nothing but the quiet crunching of leaves and gravel beneath their boots.

Did you catch the sarcasm in there?

Aviin kept himself from making any visual or audible motions that would give away his anxiety and frustration, as he understood very well that Duraan’s warning to keep from creating any friction with Savill, was in fact the most sound thing he had said for some time. There was already enough of that to go around, and as she refused to speak about much, it was a simple matter to do the same.

So the four of them walked.

Four, because the tall, thin boy had chosen to come along. Only as far as was deemed safe, mind you, but they greatly appreciated the extra pair of eyes and hands, and if anything too serious happened, they could send word for help.

“Oh yes, I run very fast.” The boy had beamed, smiling from ear to ear to reveal a broken set of teeth.

It wasn’t doubted, what with his clobbers for feet and twigs for legs. If the wind picked up, it’d take him right with it. Hence why he could travel so quickly.

Jaerus was back at the camp, and they were moving on to Kirdish-burough, a much safer city that actually had a wall around it, so Duraan had explained. Savill was against the whole thing, that is, leaving her brother. The moment she came back from the rifts, which hadn’t been as long as they’d thought, she had become even more protective over the boy.

Nothing was said of that episode.

Duraan refused to mention it.

Savill pushed it off whenever it was brought up.

And Aviin was helpless against two masters at this tricky craft.

What am I doing? He found himself saying, laughing at his own plight. He really shouldn’t have even come this far, and now he was delving into deeper caverns as they set out on a fabled journey to recover something that, in his mind, was already lost and beyond repair.

Savill insisted that she had seen them, though, and that they were still alive.

But only for the time being.

It seemed that her…gift, also allowed her the privilege of seeing back into the modern and very mortal realm that they all existed on. Travel and time wasn’t the same, and so a distance that may have taken them hours to cross, she could possibly walk in a only a few moments. Like the world being laid out on the table as a giant map.

At least, that’s what Duraan had said as Aviin pestered him with questions.

Eventually he told him to just stop asking.

That’s why the silence was everyone’s friend that day.

The boy that tagged along? He didn’t have much to say in the matter, and would have felt awkward to intrude on their current regime, so we find him romping through the woods along the path, finding odd things to occupy himself with.

Frankly, Aviin didn’t care anymore, or he would have told the child to be still and quiet. There was a lot at stake on this little excursion that Savill had convinced them to go on, and he wasn’t exactly sure if their desired reward was going to be worth it. Supposing they made it that far.

Or back again.

The beasts had a day’s journey on them already, but at the relentless nagging of Savill’s assurances that they were not as far as they could have gone, Duraan agreed to accompany her.

And where had that left Aviin?

He sighed.

Kicked at a rock on the path.

This was not how he had viewed things at all.

But then, was it how any of them had seen the future? Surely Savill never dreamed a nightmare that could conjure such foul images to play before them?

It was a doubtful, and terrible prospect.

Jaerus?

The other boy?

Any of the townspeople?

Ahh, but fate is not so kind as to bend to your will. We have already been over this once before, and I really do not like to repeat things.

Finally something was said, but it was only Savill barking another order. “We’ve been resting long enough. We need to move faster, if we’re ever going to catch them.”

The boy groaned, as he knew what was in store. Aviin and Duraan didn’t mind much, they both were used to running long distances and could easily outrun Savill, although an impacting of rage seemed to give her a new strength and resolve to push forward.

Frightening, actually.

. At Odds with the World .

It was to nourishment and growth that his tendrils and roots stretched.

Though not to water.

If there was any liquid that could quench his thirst, I’m sure that he would have already tapped into its source, and drained it clean.

Such is the way of beings that draw upon the strength of others.

How is that one of so much power and strength, wielding the very scepter of the gods and resting upon the high throne, could depend, heavily, upon the lowest of beings?

Would that not instantly deny him the position of being lord and ruler?

Perhaps there are more rules to this game that I was never taught.

But I was winning anyways.

And he would keep on searching, for an untold amount of time. However long it took, to be sure.

The world seemed to crumble before his grasp, sinking in great patches as those vines made desperate and flippant attempts at snatching pieces from the air, only to find that they had long passed.

They were Fallen.

Many still sang his name, but so few actually believed that it would rain blessings upon their heads.

Where were those promised gifts?

I surely never did witness the granting of them. And all like me found themselves in a very difficult and precarious moment, literally hanging in the balance, because Rorith was on one end, and Yvre and Brey and Lydria and all the rest piled on to the other.

Fair?

I think not?

. Preparing to Plunge .

“And what makes you sure that they’re here?”

He’d already asked that one, but it was still in need of some reassurance before he went and risked his life to rescue something that might as well be a few ghosts.

There were three of them standing up on the cliff, using the high vantage point to keep watch. Standing in the open wasn’t exactly the most brilliant way of doing it, but it wasn’t as if they were expecting anyone to follow them.

It would take a small regiment to complete this mission. And how many did they have?

Two, and perhaps a half, as Duraan wouldn’t amount to much fighting with these big brutes. Standing far taller than a man, they had trees for legs and their necks were indiscernible from the rest of their bodies as massive towers of muscle rose up from their backs and crested over the height of their shoulders.

They would be slow, but unbreakable.

Stone, no…more like iron.

It took only one look for Aviin to know, without a doubt, that they could never stand up to an enemy like this.

The rest of the group was camped at the base of the ragged cliffs. How many there were was something he hadn’t been able to ascertain just from looking, though it was probable there would be ten or so more. A group small enough to slip past any safeguards, of which there were few in these northern parts, but they still had managed to sneak through the Arkeriss Pass without being noticed.

Or perhaps they simply killed everyone that would have been there to give the warning?

That’s where the captives would be, if they were still alive, down at the base, hidden from view, most likely.

He still couldn’t fully accept that possibility, even though Savill had assured him multiple times.

“I see life.” Was her response to his questioning of her ability to recognize anything while in the rifts. “And the more pure it is, the brighter it glows. Foul things appear as black shapes, and people like my parents are easy to spot. I wouldn’t have mistaken them.”

Though he’d watched many as they claimed to have been privy to some vision or some unbelievable experience, when in reality they were only delusional. It was this that worried him the most.

Because if she was wrong, then they might find themselves in a desperate situation.

Actually, he laughed, because that was in and of itself a lie.

They were already in chin deep, and ready to take the final plunge. Savill wouldn’t turn back, not at this point.

“It’s going to be difficult to kill even one of these monsters, let alone subdue the entire group of them.” And there was something else nagging at his mind. “But I’m more concerned about the two Orr-Tav that you said were with this group? I haven’t seen them….”

“That’s because they’re not here.” Savill answered, simply, as if it were no big deal.

“Wait, you mean that they left, or went on ahead?”

“No, they went into the rifts. Looking for me.”

And even Duraan was frightened by this prospect.

“Those are not the words that I wanted to hear.” He stated emphatically, forcing out a good deal of energy that seemed to scream against their minds. “What exactly happened?”

Her head danced side to side in an angered fashion. “I led them there, alright. I knew that if I could get them far enough away, and then disappear, it would take them awhile to find their way back.”

“So you’re telling me that not that long ago they were chasing you through the rifts? They knew where you were?”

“Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

The sound of a kettle releasing its final puffing of steam came from his lips and he spun away, hands through his hair again, stomping his feet as he turned a tight circle and came back around. “So they know that we’re here?”

“No, of course not! I’ve shielded my mind and they’re days away in the rifts, by the path that I led them.”

“And if you’re wrong…?” Questioned Duraan, eyeing her harshly.

“Well, then we all die and eat with Draal tonight.”

“Yah, that’s brilliant….”

She wasn’t having any of their sarcastic words this day, so she just up and said what was on her mind. “You can leave. I don’t need either of you here, seeing that you really don’t care.”

The cat was angry, and said nothing.

The man was angry, but was at least human.

“Don’t care? No, Savill…that’s not how it is. I do care, I’m just…scared, is all.”

“Scared of what? Of death? I thought you were a soldier of the Empire? You’ve been through this hundreds of times by now, so it should be no issue.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true….” Yes, Reader, we know how true that really was of him to say.

Perhaps we know too much.

He continued, “I’m not afraid of death, and never have been. It’s the death of others…people that are…close to me, that frightens me so much.”

Eyes turned down, then back up again as Savill realized what those words meant, and their subtle nature allowed them to seep past the sentinels of her spirit and make at the least a small impression there.

It almost made her happy.

Then suppression, because their task at hand was far more important.

“Just, trust in the gods that you serve and don’t do anything stupid.”

Yes, trust in the gods….

“Alright, then what do you propose we do?”

“Nothing stupid, I hope.” Duraan dropped in his comment.

“Yes, very funny. I nearly forgot how to laugh. Now would you pay more attention? This is sort of a serious matter.”

He mumbled about something, but agreed with a little flip of his tail.

“So what’s our plan?” Aviin inquired again.

Savill turned back to him after sticking her tongue out at the cat. “Actually, I was hoping that you would have some idea of how we should do this?”

Was she asking him for advice? The moment was fleeting, because the sun was the same and he realized that if it was going to happen, it had to be soon.

“Yes, I suppose I do.” He still wanted to urge against this, but there really was no way of convincing Savill otherwise. Was he prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice with them?

To be honest with himself, he had to admit that it really didn’t matter.

“I saw a group of your people at the base of the cliff. They have them pushed into a short cavern, guarded by the rest. I don’t really know how to get to them, yet, but,” he pointed to the three standing on the top of the cliff, “we can possibly deal with them. We’ll have to separate them, though, because taking on three at a time would just get us killed.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Duraan asked smartly.

“We won’t,” Aviin smiled, a bit devilishly, “but you will.”

“Yes, and I suppose you think yourself really funny right now.”

“No, I actually mean it. You’re faster than we both are, which means you won’t have to be afraid of being caught. I figure that if you get close enough, at least one of these brutes will chase after you. We lead it into a more secluded location, where they won’t be so easily heard-.”

“And then it’s goodnight for the children.”

“And what happens if more than one of them follows me for a skip into the woods? What then?”

“Then we take out the one that stayed.”

“And if all three?”

His questions were valid, but a but annoying, so Aviin answered them, and threw a little sarcasm in for himself. “Well, that would be a real problem, but, I guess it’s a sacrifice that you’ll have to be willing to make.”

Silence, for a few moments while they processed his words, then Savill laughed.

Duraan was not amused.

“Is this the time for stupid jokes? We’re running out of daylight.”

“Right…if we have that problem, which I don’t think we will, then it might be all for the better, as it means that they no longer have any sentries. Though I doubt that they would be that stupid as to leave no security behind.”

“Okay, so let’s hope it does happen. I’ll just have to play a little game of Brigget with them.”

Reference to the well known child’s game of tag, where the loser has to remove their shoes until they tag another, brought some more laughs to the group. Aviin smiled, inside and out, because this was shaping up to be better than he had thought. A jovial nature brings with it the ability to subvert fear and anxiety.

It could also counter as a distraction, so he brought things back in.

“But here’s what I don’t know, and we have no way of telling how to do this; free your parents and the rest. I saw at least five other Kurutiell at the base, which means there are most likely two or three others. I’m sure that we could use the same tactics on them, but I don’t know if they’d attempt at using their hostages as a means of leverage or not.”

“I doubt it,” Duraan explained, “they’re not stupid, but they don’t have that sort of thinking pattern. And besides, whatever has ordered them to capture these people, apparently wants them alive, otherwise we’d have seen dead bodies by now. They have this way of making a…sport, out of everything.”

“Okay, so we shouldn’t need to worry about the others. Our real challenge is that they’re going to be hard to kill.”

“We can just pick them off with our bows.”

Savill’s suggestions seemed to make sense, but Duraan shot it down in an instant.

“No, that would never work. If you shot them in the body, they’d stay alive for a long time and we’d have a mess on our hands. And if you try for the head, well…let’s just say they have the skull of a Targ in there.”

“Then what do you suggest we do?” She countered, contemptuously.

“I’m not sure.”

A very comforting answer to be given.

Aviin looked at Savill.

She looked at Duraan, eyes blazing.

And the cat looked at his paw, maliciously eyeing a small bug that had begun to scale his mass of fur.

A very interesting combination of spirits we had here, isn’t it?

And for the life of me, I simply couldn’t see what might ever go wrong with this?

. What it Smells Like to Rain Life .

Three….

Strange, that we have arrived at this number once again.

It was the number of things that happened to come tumbling down the cliff at that moment, much to the surprise of Eorria and Venistarre and the others. Even their captors, the brutes, were stunned by this odd and very random occurrence.

First it was something large that mutilated itself beneath its own weight.

One of their own.

Secondly, a smaller form, with grey and spackled fur.

It let out a terrible howling shriek, right before impacting the earth.

And the last was a girl, at least, that’s what it appeared to be, though most would have described it as something entirely different altogether.

Skin bursting light from every pore.

The earth seemed to bend beneath her weight as it rumbled the ground, spraying rocks and dirt in a wide arching circle. She was unharmed, though, and dashed to the fallen animal’s side.

There was something else, as well, but before they could respond to the fact that bright flames danced around the crown of her head, the beasts next to them quickly and rudely shoved them all to the back of the alcove. There, in the darkest corner, sat their captor. A silent and motionless figure.

It’s mouth moved of a sudden, clicking teeth together in an obnoxious manner. Instanly, the beasts responded, dragging a heavy chest from the black.

One inserted a long, three pronged key.

Twisted.

Released.

And opened.

Within moments, the prison gates were opened as all Dromarg’s mutant minions spilled out, flowing past them, shrouding out the sun and the light and everything else.

The apocalypse, in true form.

. The Running .

“Don’t run back this way!” Aviin screamed at the cat. The stupid animal was turning back towards them, for whatever reason, and leading the three beasts straight to their prey.

Aviin might be able to outrun them, but Savill would have no chance, what with her shorter legs and lack of training in this sort of thing.

She was used to dealing with men.

But then, so was he, of a sort.

“I’m trying! Shut up and kill them already!”

“You have to split them up, otherwise we can’t do a thing to help.”

He mumbled, in heightened tones.

Savill was stationed at the other end of the rise, waiting her turn to fall upon their target. Unfortunately, though, things had turned sour almost instantly. The dumb animals were apparently even less smart than they had anticipated, and now all three were wildly crashing through the underbrush in rabid pursuit of this newfound game.

Duraan was taunting them with his thoughts, prodding their carnal instincts and raising their drive for blood.

A good tactic, if they weren’t so frightening.

Turning back up the hill, Duraan clawed at the rocky slope, scaling at a much greater speed than his pursuers which could only stumble and scramble as best their fat hands and feet could carry them.

“I got you!” Came Savill’s triumphant rant as she rose up, knocking an arrow and letting it fly. Had it punctured through the eye of the beast, they may have seen some victory, but it clashed with the thickset bone of its jaw, glancing from the edge and piercing straight down past its collarbone.

“Savill!” Duraan’s yell hit with force, the rage of one not so far from death hitting hard as he peered past his bouncing shoulder to see her action’s consequence. “What are you doing! You just made the thing angry!”

“They’re already angry, alright! Just look at it.”

“Sort of running for my life here, thank you.”

Aviin jumped in and severed their argument. “Just shut up and head towards those larger rocks! I have an idea.”

“It better be good.”

Racing from plan to plan, he agreed with himself that this would most likely be their highest chance of success. Savill’s little stunt had served to bring out the true and ultimately vile nature of these beasts, and they were now quickly gaining ground as Duraan’s swift, but short legs tore at the ground beneath him.

Something had to be done, and rather quickly.

“And now what do you want me to do?” The cat asked, fear showing in his emotions as he stalled for a moment or two on the top of a massive boulder.

“Run down, straight down.”

“How am I supposed to do that! These rocks are liable to fall over and start a landslide any moment!”

A second, to process.

It was their only chance.

“Just do it!”

Duraan leapt, stone to stone, doing his best to keep away from the precarious ones that teetered at the edge of the scale, only waiting for something, or someone to come along and do as little as poke a finger to it.

But what was following him did a little more than that.

First, it was only a few pebbles that were shaken loose.

Ten or so steps later, and Duraan’s shaggy head flipped to see a great wall of chipped stone falling at him, gaining ground and sending bits and chunks flying in all directions. Even Aviin was worried of being hit by the debris as it sprayed for a great distance.

One of them fell, tripping into a short hole. Ripped at the rock, it managed to dislodge itself, clambering over another flat one, only to be mauled in a matter of moments by the descending adversary.

Little hope of survival remained for it.

Bones would grind to powder beneath such a terror.

If Duraan had not been truly afraid before, he would be terrified now. It was all he could do to get away, and beast and nature were almost upon him. The earth growled deep from its chest, opening those terrible jaws wide to consume its next meal.

All three dove at nearly the same moment, one of the monsters launching itself a great distance and skidding through a small thicket of short trees, a move which saved its life. The stones, only the little ones, could make it past the natural netting that now protected it.

The third and last wasn’t quite so lucky, tumbling to the side and being narrowly missed by a large chunk of earth, but its leg crushed beneath another. The thing was hidden from Aviin’s view at that point, but Duraan, the sleek cat, sailed through the air, almost as if he had wings.

But it wasn’t enough.

Landing meant temporary victory that was as fleeting as was the chance for escape. It was then that the piling rocks made a perfect play, and landed squarely on his tail, pinning him to the spot and refusing to relinquish their grip.

“Duraan. Get out of there!” Savill screamed, pounding the earth with all the might her feet could muster, but still a good distance off.

“I can’t! I’m stuck!”

The other beast wasn’t, and though it had barely missed a meeting with Sister Death, it was undeterred from its previous course nonetheless. Things like that don’t frighten that which is already doomed to die a meaningless death, anyways.

Locking eyes and nostrils to its next meal, it quickly closed the gap.

Now very much afraid for his friend’s safety, Aviin made the only move he could think to do, and much to the frustration of Savill, drew an arrow, letting it pierce through the back of the monster’s leg. Right above the knee. It made a clean line through, emerging fully from the otherside.

A stumble.

Then to all four.

He smiled, as if he had won.

Then, wasting not even a second of time, it continued in that downward position, eating turf and grass alike, barreling for the final stretch.

Aviin released another arrow before Duraan was met by fate, an arrow that bounced almost harmlessly off of a rock, just to the left.

He couldn’t see clearly what was happening, but it appeared that the over zealous appetite had driven it too fast and too far. Sliding past as Duraan made a dart to the side, still trapped, but able to move out of harm’s way.

It spun back around, lunging, crashing into the sun-tanned rock.

Lifting it slightly.

The second beast had, apparently, survived the landslide and swiped at the air as it arrived on the scene, missing the cat as he slipped through the cracks of their two bodies-tail grating loose-which now collided into one another and sent them toppling.

One came away with a tuft of Duraan’s hair in its hand, the cat ruing the day that the gods had given him a tail at all for the second time.

“Duraan! Run!”

He was trying, but another injury to a front paw shot painful blasts up his leg, dulling his speed and dragging at his instincts. To run was his only chance at survival, that he knew.

One beast closed the gap in a matter of seconds, leaping into the air, crashing just to the left, knocking Duraan back off his feet.

Aviin lined up a shot, brushing sweat from his eyes.

“Shoot it!” Savill screamed.

The beast had Duraan by the head, but literally turning in his skin, he twisted out of the grip, reeling over its shoulder and dropping to the floor, darting underneath a heavy foot. Biting at its hand.

“Aviin! Shoot it now!

“No, I’ll hit Duraan!”

A sinister hold on his back leg, pulled from chance at retreat. Despite his constant and furious lashing of claws, Duraan couldn’t break loose.

“Just shoot it now!”

He couldn’t hold on any longer.

Pointed shaft whistled a sweet tune, wiggling back and forth as it took its first, and final flight.

Destination?

The head spat out from the beast’s lower chest as it spun it’s back to Aviin and Savill. The force of the blow nearly knocked it over, and in pain and shock, it rolled with the effort, arms flailing to stay balanced.

Remember what was in them?

Aviin ran, as fast as his legs would permit. The second beast was reaching for their friend, its maimed leg dragging behind it in a nearly lifeless manner.

He could see a flashing of fur as the cat was hurled through the blue sky, claws raking at the ground and the clouds in vain.

The ball of Aviin’s foot found itself colliding hard and cracking into the beast’s chest. Caught unaware by this fling of acrobatics, something that Aviin himself didn’t remember planning to do, it had little choice but to submit to gravity.

A stumble.

And right next to Duraan, there at the cliff’s edge, it made another little tumble through the air.

Had she screamed his name? Or was it just his own voice, transformed in plight? He collapsed, gripping at his ankle which had exploded in pain.

There was that same rushing of the summer’s wind, and he remembers hearing himself utter a single, solitary word….

“Stop.”

So ignorant, and childish. Not even a yell. How could that have helped anything?

It was in reaction to the madness that had come over Savill.

He watched, in disbelief.

She slipped past him with that rushing of the wind again, feet hardly making a sound.

She leapt from the edge.

Reader, you know the rest.

. Exposure to the Element of Truth .

You live such a filthy life.

So much blood.

And is that what you’ve come here for, to talk with me, about things like fame and fortune, to tell me how much you have accomplished in your life?

Shall we count the lives?

Or just the faces, the ones that have been silenced at your hand?

I do so enjoy replaying these scenes again and again, because it thrills me to watch the buzzards devour their own. The weak, the less privileged. It’s just something that they can’t resist, and I can’t stop myself from reveling in it, because it’s such a beautiful symbiosis. Just like plague and host.

Just like it.

But Reader, oh my dear Reader, have we come so far as to leave behind all that we’ve learned and gained? Should there not be more?

So why have you come?

If you’re going to survive in this world, the one that you’ve allowed yourself into, then you best begin to learn these fun facts, the ones that really matter.

Gold melts.

Iron rusts.

Stone will crumble.

Flesh rots.

And even bone grinds to dust.

A world of peace, the one that your kind seems so bent on finding, lies only within those words, and nowhere else can it be found.

Did you search them long enough?

. The Falling .

Brathak tain….

What did it mean anymore?

Certainly Aviin couldn’t find a place for it out there, where the sun glared through the bitter cloud of dust, and his world seemed to spin and shift in a pattern-less motion.

Getting down the hill was the easy part.

His next moments were like this; he stumbled from side to side, like a drunken man, but this was no liquid libation that had taken control. I doubt that even the gods drank wine as strong as this.

Savill was there, along with Duraan.

But it was not the ones that he recognized.

The cat? Needless to say, he was only seconds away from meeting her, because She was coming. His appearance screamed out to her, begging to be brought home.

I would describe it to you, but perhaps there is enough blood staining into these pages for the time being?

And the girl’s appearance too was different.

Surging’s of power raced around her, growing more intense with each passing pulse, forcing him back. He had to shield his eyes again, and through the blasting of light, he could see a writhing of blackness, of shapes, of creatures that pierced through the layers, stabbing in, then being shoved back. One slipped through a crack, diving at Savill’s form, only to be incinerated in an instant.

Tens evolved into hundreds, building up around her like a great dome of vile and putrescence.

She was lost from view, if only for a moment, then the shape of her came through the black and transparent haze.

It was not her, though, because he could see very clearly that, where once fire and flame had danced behind those sculpted eyes, there was only now a deep void. It swallowed everything around it, transforming beauty into its purest form as her skin was morphing into shadow.

It was taking over her.

It was wielding her.

The beasts crashing in from all sides, threatening in gashing tones of terror and malice, spurred on by the light, because it was the only thing they couldn’t stand to bear. At one point, they almost broke the shield of her own making, forcing it to its lowest point, nearly to collapse inward and ring that bell that so often sounds when another soul is spent.

But like the splitting of the stars, there was only a tremendous bursting of that bubble, shaking the world to its very foundations.

Rending shade.

They were all consumed in the explosions wake, and Aviin too was not immune, even at his distance.

He awoke sometime later, head ringing and singing in terrible tones that didn’t harmonize very well. On all fours, crawling towards them. The shadows spun and danced around, chased by spirits of light and deadened upon losing the game of tag.

Yes, Duraan was there.

He looked not so well.

Savill?

To his left lay the forms of several of the beasts, ripped apart by the shockwave. Behind them were several Adonai, sprawled out, not moving.

His hands trembled along with his body and his spirit.

Bile tasted sweet at his lips, compared to the waking into this scene, something which he was being forced to swallow down whole.

She was the only thing of beauty left in that world, the only thing that wasn’t bleeding.

But it made little difference; they bled red, and she wore it like a crown.

The queen of all that had been destroyed.

. The Ascension .

She came, but for a moment, I almost did not see.

In that quiet hour when all had faded into a nothingness that is so thrilling, and I watched the girl become transformed by that plaguing disease, I nearly lost myself.

She was beautiful in rare figure, I had always seen that, but in that instant, I found my heart turning to this human, because hers was a new and intriguing form.

Yes, I almost fell for it again.

But dear Reader, do not be concerned.

Death came again, as she always did, and saved me from making a dire mistake.

You see, as beautiful as that red had become, I will always love black

Epilogue:

Do not think me a fool for bringing you down such a long road, only to abandon you here, at the end of all things.

It is not the end, after all.

And this story has not been told.

Not yet.

It will continue on, if but for the lack of time to put it to paper, but rest assured, you will find some closure in the near future, if you wish.

Truth be told, I did not write this tale. I am not your host, of which you should know a great deal now. He is the true teller of this tale, the one who’s name really should have been printed on the front, but what name could I write? Tell me, has he given you one yet?

No, a ghost can no more write a saga of life than a fish can walk in the sun, and so it is that I was gifted to stumble over this last will and testament to a dying soul, one who’s voice had not been heard, perhaps not like it deserved. And that is why I write, why I plague these whitened sheets with ink and blood, because there are so many songs left unsung, and so many hearts left untouched.

Reader, do not stop, because I won’t.


Call of the Harn

Reader, how far you have come. An epic clashing of fantastical worlds and dramatic prose files into a tale of such heart-wrenching disaster, that if you read, you will undoubtedly find yourself wishing you hadn't, and then reading on to the next scene, and the next, and to the last few, dribbling words. Only the first installment of this saga, we find ourselves thrust into a dying world where the darkness of a tainted heart has begun to creep into the realms. Here in Axis, where the Emperor's hefty arm crushes all beneath his reach, we are introduced to a select few souls that threaten to bend the rights of existence, not for them, but for you. Rorith's power wanes. Savill's spirit is to be overcome. And Aviin? What can be said of this poor, wretched man, for he is nothing, and yet everything to us. And into the past where we remember the long lost tales of an unfortunate boy that simply couldn't escape the Fate's grasp, squeezed between their grimy fingers for all he had. Perhaps some books were never meant to be read? Others, never to be written.... You will not find disappointment, as it is sure to drag you on from bleeding page to bleeding page, but I cannot promise that you will be happy with your reward at the final remark, nor will you be glad that you must read on, for this story simply does not end. In all that is fantastical and mystic, though, there will be no equal. So read on, yes, read until your soul cries out and your lips pour out onto the paper alongside so many others.

  • ISBN: 9781370473595
  • Author: JosephGeorge
  • Published: 2017-04-10 18:05:18
  • Words: 75729
Call of the Harn Call of the Harn