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by Collin B. Greenwood
Stillness wrapped the world in gray, smothering it with a woolen gray blanket of clouds. Rain would come soon, but it had not, not yet. It was too soon. Later in the day it would pour, its merciful fluid washing away days and days of memories.
He let his eyes open slowly. Famished with hunger and thirst, he found no appeal to the rising of a new sun. It would not be seen, regardless. The choking clouds would not allow their better to pierce through their wicked, looming defenses. It was just as well. The clouds had been with him since that day, that fateful and accursed day, and they would be here to see him make an end of all that he was. And so, he begrudgingly arose to greet them, and to bid adieu to them in the same breath.
It was a slow rising, slower than the sun. Little energy remained available to him, but he was determined to see all the sights one time, one final time.
Little light filtered through the windows of the chapel. He didn’t need much to know where he was going, and the light would sting at a time like this. Light was harsh, judgmental. It burned the skin and made one thirsty. He would leave in darkness— it was what he deserved.
His shrine of solitude and reverie opened with a mournful creak of aged hinges, a farewell. He would never enter those doors again, he knew, and nor would any other mortal soul. He stopped a moment to look at them, to take their essence with him. They were firm, cherry wood doors with a flawless finish. Intricately carved, with a golden handle. He wondered at the time it must have taken their creator to create such delicate features, time that would never again be given to the artisan. Would the creator now regret what he had done, creating such a piece that served no utilitarian purpose? While more aesthetically pleasing than a simple door, that same simple door would have served the same purpose. The time that was spent on this aging, decaying piece of art that none would behold would never be regained; time that the creator could have spent with his loved ones.
Yet, time was all that was left to their beholder now. He turned from the door slowly. There was much yet to behold on this day. This day was a eulogy, an unseen nocturne for those that had died days before, or were about to.
He went on his way.
The world was bathed in ash. It was as gray as the sky, and darker where homes stood out, charcoal monuments to people who had once lived within them. It smelled of smoke and death, of panic and pain. They did not cast shadows, for the dimness of the light was distributed evenly, everything laid bare and barren before the day. It was silent, and still, and the air held no wind, no heat or cold. It was an untainted scene of disaster, a painting of a tragedy that would never be known.
And there, at the edge of disaster, in a tiny copse of trees that stood away from the carnage but still knew it, there sat a grave. He approached this grave with a solemnity that bordered on reverence, a respect and a grief mirrored in his sorrowful gaze. It was simple. It sat just beneath a willow tree, a tiny stone marker with no name.
The child had so much potential, potential that would never be realized. His death had been an error, a mistake made by fools. Fools that he had no room in his heart to forgive.
Slowly, quietly, he fell to his knees before the grave, running his hands along the dampness of the stone. This boy had not been the first to fall, nor had he been the last. He was simply another victim of chance and ill fortune, another soldier of destiny whipped ever on by the cruel oppression of time. His memory would be forever marred by the fateful words that scarred the death of any good person: What if? What if things had been different? What if the choices that they made could be taken back? If the wheel of events were kind, then every man could live to fulfill the destiny they chose… But that was not the way the world worked.
The only service that he could give the boy now would be to remember him. And so, sitting close by the grave, he rested his back against the willow tree, closed his eyes, and remembered the boy. To remember was all he could do, and that in itself was every bit as much a tragedy as everything else that had occurred.
* * * * * * * * * *
Half of the town would be leaving soon, and Falden resented that. The town was a nice enough place; it had more than one could ever ask for. No family wanted for anything. Nobody was poorer or richer than anyone around them. It was sunny, and had a nice warm island breeze that came through the windows just right.
But the town was boring.
He knew he shouldn’t even consider the notion. The men of the town were going in the boats to the mainland in search of Prye, the missing scout. Amaris, who had been with Prye, said that she had been taken by wild men of the woods. The town went into an uproar when they heard the news. The older men said that King Ecto had said that such a meeting with the natives was inevitable, and that they were to try to make peace with them. But the King was a distant, faraway figure who lived far away. This matter was pressing, it was at their doorstep.
It excited Falden. Stories of the wild men from the mainland were full of swordplay, magic, and adventure. He longed to see them. He wanted to show them what he was made of. He wanted to slay a pack of wild men and prove that he wasn’t just a child.
And so, when the boats were sent in search of the wild men, to search for Prye and bring her back, Falden made a resolution.
He’d be going with them.
“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Ordinaj said when Falden told him what he was planning. “What if the wild men find you? It’s dangerous out there!” Falden’s friend shook his head as he talked, messing up his long black hair as he regarded Falden patronizingly.
“Don’t be such a wimp!” Falden shot back, giving the scrawny Ordinaj a small shove that nearly caused him to fall over. Falden was much more athletic than his friend, who preferred the use of magic for mundane tasks, and it showed. Where Falden was broad-shouldered and muscular, Ordinaj was thin, gaunt even, and very pale. Where Falden had light hair, Ordinaj had dark.
“I’m not a wimp!” shouted Ordinaj, shooting Falden one of his signature fiery glares. He had red eyes- a rarity, but not unheard of among their kind- and when he glared daggers, he really meant it.
To his own surprise, Falden did take a step back when met with the fire of that look. Ordinaj had never glared at him like that before. He tried to hold the glare and even challenge it with one of his own, but found that he could not. He looked away, grumbling, and said “Look, I won’t even be far away from the others. I just want to see what the mainland looks like! It’s not like I actually expect to run into one of the wild men.”
“But they’re going out there to find the wild men, Yefalden!” The skinny boy spat with vehemence. “You will run in to one if you stay with them!”
Now it was Falden’s turn to glare at his friend. The addition of “Ye” to Falden’s name was a grave insult, paramount to calling him an outright total and complete idiot. “I’m going and that’s that!” he insisted stubbornly.
They locked eyes for a moment, and Falden took a little of his injured pride back when he saw Ordinaj turn away this time. It was not out of fear as Falden had hoped, though. Ordinaj was walking away. “Fine!” Ordinaj conceded, walking quickly away. “Your funeral. I’ll see you when you get back… in a casket!” he stuck out his tongue childishly at Falden, over his shoulder, as he walked away and back to the town, away from the forest clearing where they held their secret meetings.
“Shouldn’t have even told you,” Falden shouted once Ordinaj was a way off. He said it more for himself than for Ordinaj, not even sure if the other boy would hear it.
Turning to leave, Falden fumed for a moment or two before picking up a stone and giving it a good toss. It hit a tree with a loud click against the bark, then flew off sideways into a bush. Falden followed the trail of the projectile with his eyes, and that was what led him to notice that he was not alone. A woman was walking through the trees in the distance. She had blonde hair and was dressed in shining silver armor. Some adult. Falden scowled, hoping she hadn’t heard the exchange. Those were the kind of talks that most adults would chastise him for.
He looked around, knowing he should try to sneak away before she noticed him too. Luckily, the far off woman seemed more absorbed into what she was doing, which was wandering around looking at the ground in a spacy dreamlike fashion. She had her arms folded near her midsection, her blue eyes full of seeming worry and deep thought.
Falden recognized her, then. Evorlette wasn’t so bad, she wasn’t like some of the other people in the town. She always did her own thing, even though she was sometimes called immature or dumb for it. Kind of like him. Still hoping she hadn’t heard the exchange, he approached her slowly to try and figure out what it was that she was doing.
A twig beneath his feet gave him away just as he was about to reach cover. Quickly, Evorlette’s thoughtful concentration was broken and her head snapped up. Then, seeing Falden, she smiled and tilted her head slightly. “Oh, it’s just you,” she sighed.
“Yeah, so what?” he answered unsparingly. She was still an adult, even if she wasn’t one of the bad ones.
“Oh, nothing.” She laughed, still grinning sheepishly. “It’s just… all this talk about what’s going on on the mainland has got me sort of jumpy, you know? Wild men, and people getting kidnapped.” The smile faded for a moment. “Poor Prye… she didn’t deserve it.”
“You’re scared?” He smirked a little. “That’s dumb.”
“Oh, and you’re not, Mr. Hero?”
“Not a bit!” Flexing, he showed off one of his abnormal-for-his-age arms. “I could take a hundred of those savages!”
Evorlette only laughed. “I’ll bet… I’ll bet.” She started to look a little distant again. “Oh, I hope they’ll find Prye…”
“Why are you out here in the woods all by yourself, anyway?”
Looking him over expressionlessly, she answered, “I could ask you the same question.”
“Well I asked you first!”
Chuckling, she let the smile return to her face. “…Alright. If it’s any of your business, I come out here every day. It’s nice fresh air, sunlight, and great for thinking.”
Falden raised an eyebrow at that. Those couldn’t be her only reasons. Who would just walk around and think? That sounded majorly boring.
“And why are you here?” she asked.
“None of your business,” he answered coldly, grinning broadly before adding “Bye!” and running off into the trees.
Evorlette watched him go with a smile on her face for a while. As soon as he was gone, though, the smile left and she continued her walk through the woods, arms folded, face towards the ground that was polluted with the shadows of overhanging branches.
There were three ships heading to the mainland- supply barges, but they would be carrying only the supplies needed for the crew this time around. They were small, really only large enough to fit about three people’s suitable living conditions. These three barges were simply named the Brave, the Honest, and the Pure.
As expected, each vessel would be taking three people along for the ride to the mainland to look for Prye— except for one, the Pure. The Pure, captained by Ketsu, would have only he and Rend. The Honest would have Amaris, Evorlette, and Karet, while the Brave would have Egorias, Imerre, and, though it had been decided reluctantly, Tymathaen, the blind woman. Tymathaen’s prophetic magical abilities were widely felt to surely be of some use on a search-and-rescue mission. Falden didn’t need to worry about any of that, though, his target was the Pure.
The ships would be leaving the next morning, and it would be tonight, before the voyage began that he would make his move.
He awoke late. A bit of moonlight shone through his window, illuminating his room and painting it gray. His things were neat and organized, but cast strange, stretching shadows on the wall. He let his gaze linger on those shadows for a moment longer than he ought to have, for they seemed to stare back, and he felt a shiver go over him. There was something about that darkness, something not right.
He shook it off. Wild men would be scarier than that, no doubt, and if he wanted to see one- and he did, in spite of what he’d said to Ordinaj- he would have to get through these.
He dressed quickly and silently in the dark, and banished all thoughts of something watching him; he banished all fears of something blindsiding him in the darkness behind that he could not watch.
His breath was the only sound, he knew, but that didn’t chase away that feeling that he heard voices whispering strange things.
He shook those thoughts away again, finished dressing, and grabbed the small pack that he had readied earlier. It was a pack full of various items he thought might come in handy, pins, a rope, flint and steel, and a bit of food in case he could not steal what he needed off of the barge as he planned. It was only about a day to reach the mainland, but he didn’t want to spend that day hungry.
With everything set, he tiptoed his way outside of his bedroom and past the room where his parents slept. They would not be participating in the search, and he’d be long gone by the time they even started missing him.
He winced a little when the front door closed louder than he hoped it would. He waited a little, but heard no noise at all from within the house, and so, reassuring himself with a small, quick nod, he went on his way.
It was louder outside, and not so frightening. A full moon lit his way, and the familiar sounds of the sea and of ocean birds that were surprisingly still awake made him feel more at home. It was odd that he considered himself to be more at home here, surrounded by the sights and smells of the ocean, than he did in his own room. Smiling, he knew it was because of the adventure-lust that filled him. The ocean shouted adventure to any who could hear its cries.
And he certainly could.
The barges, all three of them, were tied conspicuously to the long pier that was only a couple dozen feet away from him now. He hurried the last few steps, eager to feel the wetness in his feet and to sneak aboard the Pure. He knew the one, it was the last of the three, farthest along the pier. He’d been staring at it from his window for hours, dreaming of the coming moment, and of adventure.
There was a small pile of long boards near the end of the pier— gangplanks. Falden looked at them for a moment. It was a bad idea to use those. He had no one to secure either end, and so the board would easily slip and fall off, taking him with it into the deep and dark water. Worse, even if he did make it across, he had no way to put the gangplank back on the pier without going back himself, and if he were to bring it up with him onto the boat, it would look very fishy.
The rope from his pack would work, he supposed. Heading back to the beginning of the pier, he fished around in the shallow water until he found a large stone. This he tied up with his rope, then walked quickly back to where the Pure was stationed. Three tries was all that it took to get the rope to wrap itself around the nearby mast, and he made sure to test the rope’s support with a sharp tug before he allowed himself to be suspended by it over the water. Hurriedly, he shimmied up the rope, nimble as a cat, and was soon on the deck of the Pure.
“Awesome,” he whispered to himself as he pulled the rope onto the deck, untied the rock, and stuffed the rope back into his pack while tossing the rock overboard. “Now for a hiding spot…” He scanned the deck, no easy feat in the darkness. Ropes looked like snakes, the anchor like a gigantic beetle. There was always below the deck, though. There was what looked like a closet near the back of the ship, in an outhouse-shaped structure by the helm. Falden knew better, and realized it for what it was, a stairway to down below. Opening the door, he was surprised and a little confused when he realized that the staircase spiraled down— an unconventional and rather unique stair for a ship. He followed it down. There were a few crates down there, enough to make a rudimentary wall that no one would think to look past. It was perfect. Hiding in plain sight, he knew, was the best way.
He climbed over the boxes with the same skill set that he had used to climb onto the ship’s deck. He moved a few of the boxes around, making himself a nice little cave, a fort really, and modified it here and there until he was satisfied with how it stood. He threw a sheet over the whole, for added effect, and then finally curled up in a corner to return to sleep.
“I’m telling you, that’s not the case.”
The voices came from above, waking Falden from a deep and disturbingly restful slumber. He hadn’t slept that well at home in his own bed, and it was shocking to him that he had been able to sleep so soundly so quickly here. Something about the motion of the waves had rocked him to sleep, taking him back to days he’d been to young to remember. He found that when morning came, he wasn’t aware of it for quite some time. In fact, he would have thought that it was still night, were it not for the voices that filtered down through the boards of the deck above, gruff twin roosters signaling the rising of the sun.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little pessimistic?” the other voice countered. It carried a lighter, more jovial tone, as if this man weren’t taking the conversation very seriously. “It’s not like they’ll set upon us the moment we touch dry land.”
The boards creaked as the water washed around them, a sturdy sign that the ship was indeed at sea and headed for Falden’s hope, dream, and fear— the mainland, with all of its promise and ominous connotation.
“They might,” remarked the practical, cautious voice. This one was deeper, brawnier, but even with that, this was the voice of a man who didn’t gamble in anything. “We have no experience with the natives, and so we can’t assume anything.”
“That’s why we’re going armed, isn’t it?”
Both of the voices chuckled softly, then trailed off into low conversation that Falden couldn’t quite understand. He knew that the men were Ketsu and Rend, but knew not which was which. He didn’t know either man very well, and cared not enough to get to know them. They were among the grown-ups that Falden considered oppressive and wanted nothing to do with. He didn’t even know what they looked like, but he imagined thick-muscled brutes with sunk-in eyes who thought with their muscles, wore striped sailor shirts, and would rather smash things than talk.
He arose slowly, making a hasty resolution to steal himself some breakfast. With the men talking as they were, they would not be paying any attention. It would be simple to steal a bite or two, and he didn’t want to decrease his miniscule supply of food. He’d save that for times when he could not steal.
He peeked out of his makeshift fort, waving the white, cottony sheet aside and peering narrow-eyed into the abyss. The room was almost as dark as it had been at night, but some light intruded the lair through the bottom and sides of the door up on deck. It was just enough to see by, though colorless. It made Falden feel rather like one of the monsters he always read about, a lurker in the dark.
Falden crept out slowly, toward a box on the far side that was ripe for the looting. It sat alone in the corner, set aside for easy access. It almost certainly contained food, and judging by the size of the box, they wouldn’t miss one or two little morsels…
That was when he heard footsteps coming for the door.
He flew back to his cover remarkably quick, and just in time. Both men came down the stairs as the room flooded with light, half a second after Falden reached his cover.
“Supplies are good,” commented one voice, the practical, deep one from earlier. “We have enough down here for months, if it comes to it.”
“It won’t, I’m sure!” answered the other, laughing reassuringly. “Have a little faith, man. Prye will be back before we can so much as think too hard about it. You’ll see!”
“I wish I could take it as easy as you. I’m just really freaked about this. First encounter… Ecto said it would happen, but saying and doing just isn’t the same.”
“You just relax. Say, was this thing in the corner here when we did last night’s inspection?”
They began to approach the fort that Falden had built. In his heart, Falden felt birds flee from their concealment to the sky. A panic began to set in, every footstep the ring of a church-bell to his sinful guilt. Were they going to investigate?
“It, uh, doesn’t look familiar.” The steps got closer. “I wouldn’t worry about it, though. Some of the other guys might have thrown in some extra supplies last minute. You know how these things go.”
The steps grew excruciatingly close. “…Are you sure? It sounds a little—”
Falden couldn’t contain himself. He moved, ever so slightly, and the small sound carried much more than he hoped. He winced, which only made more noise.
“What was that?” interrupted the other man. A brief silence took place while both men listened.
Falden didn’t dare move. His heart had stopped, the cornered birds inside terrified of the hunters.
“I’m telling you man, something’s up. I don’t know…”
“No,” the other consoled. “Rats, I think. Every ship’s got ‘em. Even ones this size, I guess…”
The words had been a deception, for before Falden knew it, the sheet was thrown off of the box fort, and both men stared down at Falden curiously. Unable to bring himself to look up at them, Falden hugged his legs close and stared down at the floor, angry at being discovered.
“Rats,” the other man agreed. “Big ones.”
They did not turn around, for they were already half a day’s voyage westward toward the mainland. Instead, they set the boy to work, busy work that would keep him from getting into any trouble and would allow both burly, muscular men to keep close watch on him. The first task they set him to was to mop the entire ship from bow to stern.
Falden went about the task silently, not looking up from his work except when he was sure the others were looking away, which wasn’t often. In these brief moments, he’d take the time to examine both men and make sure he knew which was which. He wanted to know his captors so he could find a way to pay them back later.
The bigger of the two was Rend, heavily muscled and dressed in a tight-fitting white shirt and brown slacks made of some kind of dark brown fur. A fur of a lighter brown coloration hung about his waist, reaching down to about his knees. This odd belt of fur held his longsword, an instrument of death with a black sheath, unadorned with decorations of any sort. He had a thick mane of brown hair that was left completely alone and hung wherever the wind blew it, which was generally right in the man’s face. Both of his eyes were hidden by this mane, but the man’s jutting iron jaw protruded out and scowled firmly every time he looked at Falden. From his voice every time he spoke to Ketsu, Falden knew that he had been the voice of caution and reason, the practical man of no risk that he had overheard earlier.
Ketsu’s skin was of a dark tone, his hair and eyes black as coal but finely combed. He always wore a smirk of overzealous confidence, a confidence that was probably held in his own abilities, guessing from what Falden had heard him say. He wore a white buttoned shirt with a black vest and pants, and the whole was covered in brown belts that held braces of knives. A broadsword hung on his back, but unlike Rend’s blade it was greatly crafted, inlaid with shining crystals of some blue stone set against a black hilt. He generally sat around by the ship’s bow, staring into the distance with that confident smirk.
“Can’t be too long now,” Ketsu commented when the small party had gathered for lunch. The other ships were ahead of them, but only just, being sure that they all stayed together. They were all catching the same wind, and unless the wished to use the long oars, the ships would remain in close vicinity, as per the plan.
“You’re looking forward to this, aren’t you?” Rend growled lowly, taking a huge bite from a wedge of cheese that was enough for several meals were the man half his size.
“Don’t tell me you’re not.”
“I’m not,” Rend answered immediately, still chewing.
“Why?” Falden cut in from his seat on the ship’s railing, earning a surprised look from Ketsu and an odd look that wasn’t a scowl from Rend. It was the first thing he’d said to either of them.“I mean, this is an adventure… Who wouldn’t want this?”
“…You’re young,” Rend muttered, looking not at Falden but at the ship’s deck. “Soon you’ll learn that not all adventures go as we hope. Some end in tragedy.”
Falden heard the words, but it went against all he believed in to trust in them, so he shoved them mentally aside.
Ketsu tapped his boot nervously against the crate he sat on. “I’m not in this for the adventure, per se, but it’s an exciting field to be sure. I guess… I’m just bored. We can’t all be like you, Rend.”
“That is true… but I find it aggravating that I must be surrounded by thrill-seeking children.”
Instantly angry at being referred to as a child, Falden grumbled lowly. His lunch was finished, and so he left to continue his busy work as the men continued their discussion.
“Come on man,” Ketsu whined. “I’m no kid!”
“Maybe not in age, but in heart…”
Ketsu made a strange noise of dismissal and waved Rend down. “You’ll see… I’m going to prove to you that I’m no kid. Tomorrow, when we look for Prye. You’ll see.”
Rend smirked, an oddity on his strong, usually featureless face. “I guess I will, won’t I?”
“You bet you will. Man, I hate being called a kid. That’ll be the last time you do that, mark my words.”
Rend actually chuckled.
A low, thin mist hung about that night when they finally reached the mainland. It obscured vision only slightly, blurring edges and contours just enough to give everything a haze of uncertainty. The mainland was a black mass ahead, a shadow dotted with specks of red-orange campfires. The mainland barbarians were patrolling the coast, warding it for reasons unknown to the visitors who would soon set foot on this strange, foreign soil.
The wind had been with them, for they had not expected to arrive until the morning of the following day. Grateful for the haste granted them by the favorable wind, Rend and Ketsu had spent the early hours of the night in preparation, gathering supplies and rations.
Little had been said regarding Falden’s fate, and he now sat in apprehension mixed with excitement. His adventure was so close at hand, visible in the distance, and mere words from these men could snatch it from him.
And yet, he found that he was also afraid. It was one thing for him to wave sticks at shadows and call them wild men, imagining feats of remarkable courage, slaying thousands with his remarkable— imaginary— might. It was quite another thing to feel the presence of actual figures, to know that actual eyes could be watching you. To know that the real wild men were not so distant. His heart was torn with second thoughts.
In mere minutes, the continent would stretch out before them. It was only a hundred meters or so distant now, and drawing closer every second. Falden turned away, sitting down by the railing and staring at the deck beneath him, hugging his knees to his chest. He didn’t know if he wanted to go anymore, and that frustrated him. He told himself that he was no coward, that he could do anything. He built up some resolve, and felt a little better about it, but still could not bring himself to look back upon the not-so-distant shore.
When they landed, he hardly noticed. The ship bumped against the shore smoothly, and Rend and Ketsu went over the sides with ropes in hand to coax the small barge to a motionless position on the soft beach.
A shrill whistle from Rend, off the side of the ship and on dry ground, alerted Falden to the fact that they had landed. “Boy!” Rend called, for the men did not yet know his name.
Falden did not answer, and so Rend tried again. “Boy! You are welcome to stay on the ship, but it will be a long time before we return! Is this what you want?”
Falden got to his feet, turned, and marveled at the sights that surrounded him. What had been a black mass in the distance was now a rocky shore. The expanse of the blue sky, open on the raging sea, was now thick with puffy gray clouds that would surely be white in the daytime. Beyond the shore stretched a field of grass, waving greetings to him in the turbulent wind. Farther beyond that, dark peaks of monstrously huge mountains loomed like giants in the great distance, nearly seeming a part of the night and the mist themselves. Insubstantial giants they were, and yet more real than anything Falden had ever seen. They were real to him, for he felt that he were only now escaping illusion and taking his first childish steps into the wide world of all that was.
He shook himself from wonderment, remembering that Rend had called to him. “No! No! I’m coming with you!” he shouted back, all thoughts of fear gone. Surely nothing of evil could exist in such a beautiful, such a large place.
And he was glad that he had gone.
Overeager, he cleared the ship’s railing with a tremendous bound and went hurtling into the new world. He landed on his feet, but underestimated the power of his leap, the force of which sent him tumbling into the soft sand. It was soft and moist, and the landing did not hurt. It was not like the sand back on the island. It was new. It was freedom. And he liked how it felt.
He had to force himself to let go of the feeling, for he wished to lay there in that sand and look up at the stars. He’d never felt this way before. He felt that he was at home, that he should stay there forever. But he could not. Regretfully, he let it go. There was an adventure to be had.
Standing up, he ran to where Ketsu and Rend waited. Ketsu’s smirk had returned to his face, but Rend seemed distant, almost sad behind his earth-colored veil of hair. As Falden drew near, Rend’s face became again expressionless.
“Let me make something adamantly clear, boy,” he began to command. “This place is dangerous. And if you want to come home safe, you need to listen to us. Alright? Think of me as your commander. Do you understand?”
“Yessir,” Falden slurred, willing to say whatever it took to appease the man. He didn’t want to stand and talk. He wanted to see what was in that field. He wanted to run and keep going and never come back…
“Good,” Rend acknowledged, accepting the boy’s answer as sincere. “Ketsu, you watch behind us and I’ll take point. We need to meet up with the others; they should be along the shoreline. Boy, you stay between us…” Something occurred to him. “… And I can’t keep calling you “boy” forever. Do you have a name?”
Falden almost gave the man a sarcastic ‘no’ but knew that this was no time for funny business, not if he didn’t want to get sent back home in a hurry. He answered simply, “Falden.”
“Well, Falden… Welcome to Largonia.”
Largonia. The name shouted hope, shouted new beginnings and promises of adventure. Falden loved the name, and his mind echoed it endlessly. It became synonymous with everything that drove him, synonymous with his spirit.
The three began to move out, and Falden made his first imprints in the sand of the shore of his destiny.
Marching on the new turf held his interest at first, as the new land seemed to hold something new and exciting in its scenery, but Falden quickly began to lose interest when he realized that while the shoreline was new, it was also vast and quite monotonous. Walking with his head down and suddenly quite tired, he let his thoughts drift away to fantasies of unrealistic expectation, in which he was the hero who rescued Prye and returned to the island having earned his place among the ranks of adults, to be respected and admired. Unnoticed by Falden, Ketsu and Rend kept the pace slow for the clearly tired boy.
It wasn’t long, though, before Falden was shaken from the heaven of his fantasies by a whistle from Ketsu. Rend brought the line to a halt and looked back to Ketsu questioningly, and Falden shook himself from his thoughtful trance.
“Take a look at that,” Ketsu remarked, pointing ahead of them. Falden had failed to see what was so obvious to the eyes of the other due to his trance, and Rend had missed it through the vision-impeding tangle of his hair. There was a brightly lit campfire ahead, a yellow-golden beacon in the midst of the shadow. “Do you think that could be them?” Ketsu asked.
“It is likely,” Rend answered, with a yawn. “We have been walking for quite some time, and we should have come to them by now.”
“Unless we went the wrong way up the shore.”
“That, too, is likely.”
“Why don’t we just see who they are?” Falden threw in sleepily.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the natives of this continent, Falden,” Rend commented. “With the capture of Prye, they’d be looking for more like her.”
“But, like you said, that could be them, right?”
“Perhaps. We’ll have to take a look, but stay out of sight until we have made sure. In fact, it may be best if you stayed behind while one of us took a look.”
“Uh, okay.” Falden agreed quickly, tired of marching and eager for the break this solution offered.
Ketsu chuckled. “So, which of us will it be?”
Rend smiled with his reply. “You spotted it, my friend, though it was right in front of me. Clearly this is a task better suited to your keen vision.”
“Perhaps if you gave your hair a trim?”
“Bah!” Rend laughed. “A man’s hair is his mane! A mark of pride and the glory of battle!”
“And also quite bothersome to the eyes, it seems… Very well, I’ll scout ahead while you two stay here. Sit down, take a load off. I’ll be back soon. And,” he added with another signature smirk, “maybe I’ll prove my manhood to you both.”
“What if there’s trouble?” Rend asked quickly as Ketsu turned to leave.
“I’ll use my magic to give a sign. Watch for a bright light.”
Nodding, Rend finally plopped down into the sand and quickly got comfortable.
For Falden, that was a sign that he could do the same. A bit less gracefully, he came crashing down with his back to the earth beneath and stared up at the stars as he had wanted to since his arrival. He took long, deep breaths, and, before he knew it, he had closed his eyes. While sleep did not quite come to him, he felt truly at peace, a rest of body, mind, and spirit, a nirvana that was the greatest feeling he had ever known. He did not quite know why he felt that way, but somehow he felt that he belonged here, as if his entire life had just reached its apex.
Listening to the washing of the sand upon the shore, let more and more of himself slip away into the land. He wanted to become part of it, to become a rock on that shore, a permanent piece of it so that he might always feel as he felt at that moment.
It was when he began to feel that his wish had been granted that he was awoken by the sound of distant speech.
“Rend, you old brute! Is that you?” cried a voice far away.
“Brother!” Rend called back.
Falden let his eyes slowly open, now truly tired and wishing for nothing more than rest upon the peaceful, moist sands.
“Come, Falden!” Rend spoke with eagerness, gently shaking the boy to make sure that he was awake. “It’s the others! Let’s hurry to join up with them!”
Something occurred to Falden just then, a hazy realization whose implications did not line up completely for him. “But if the others are here, and Ketsu’s not back…”
Rend’s grin faded as the hidden meaning behind the boy’s words hit him. He turned away, looking to the campfire, then shouted to the distant voice. Just as he did so, a flash of light on the horizon tolled doom.
“Imerre!” Rend shouted madly. “Ketsu’s in—”
Another flash of blinding white light.
Falden was awake now, and frightened for what that flash meant. Could it really be the wild men, the nightmares he had faced in so many of his wildest imaginings? Could the moment finally be at hand?
Then, he felt his hopes and fears both dashed upon the rocky shore. Rend turned quickly to him, his face twisted into an angry snarl. “Falden! Make your way back to the ship, wait for us there! Do you think you can make it on your own?”
Falden nodded, pale.
“Go!” Rend cried again, and Falden took off running, limbs fueled suddenly by desperation, a need to flee from that fire and those flashes of light. He could not face the wild men. What had he been thinking? He was foolish, so foolish to think that he could face them!
There were shapes in the night, figures that ran toward the fire. They were the others, Falden knew, and yet he ran away from them. There was no one, nothing that he could trust now. He was frightened, and alone, and he ran for the ship with everything that he had.
Strength fled ahead of him after only a few minutes of running, and he found that he had to slow or he would collapse. The sudden rush made him feel woozy and insecure in his own body, a sensation that he found far from enjoyable. He drifted along in a dark, hazy world, his feet moving beneath him; but motion was pointless, this was an abyss without direction.
Nevertheless, the action of walking in that endless, hazy darkness did indeed take him to his destination. The ship seemed, in the lack of light, to be a shadowy fortress against the shore, a bastion of cruelty. A prison. This prison, however, was also his only hope, a secure and guarded place against the horrors of battle being done this night.
In his distant state, he plodded through the wet sand, his mind twisting it into a marsh that lay at the foot of the distant fortress. Never did he imagine that he could feel so tired, and the sand dragged behind him, leaving a deep, very visible trail that did not wash away with the tide.
By the time he at last reached the ship, he almost continued to walk, for he was sure that he had not reached it yet. The dream-world that his imaginings had summoned stretched on for far longer, and while his feet ached and throbbed in protest, his head told him that he had to go on. When he saw the ship, though, a mild surprise registered somewhere in his mind below the conscious. His legs knew that it was, at last, time to give out. He fell at last into the sand, that blanket on the shore, and did not rise. He at last lay in the spot he knew was paradise.
It was late that night that men approached the boats on the shore. Recognizing them as foreign vessels, the men came in the darkness and searched, seeking clues about the strange “winged ones” and their island to the southeast. When they found the boy collapsed in the sand before the boat, they examined him closely. He had pale skin, paler than the western men, and it was this that identified him for what he was, for his wings were retracted as many had seen the other do. The wings appeared only when they wished them to.
Knowing the child to be an enemy, they ran him through before he awoke.
Falden died that night.
* * * * * * * * * *
His wings were faded; where once they had been a pure white, shining brighter than the winter snows, they were now as gray as the clouds that hung above him. As gray as stone. No longer was he a celestial being, he had fallen, fallen to the earth and its colors.
To retract them, though, would be a shame. They were a distinguishable award, a medal for deeds that had not ended as hoped. He would let his shame be displayed, for that was all that separated him from the humans who had taken away everything from him. Friends had died. Families. Homes. Innocent children, like the one who lay in the grave before him now.
No, he would not put his wings away. He would keep them out, now, forever. In sleep, in death, and in all that came between. They would mark him as a proud survivor of his kin, the dead. The living did not bear witness to the horrors of his mind. Only the dead could know him now. It was with the dead that he belonged, but he would not yet become one of their number. There was… more to do.
Letting his head bow slightly in respectful adieu for the boy whose death had not been his own fault, he left the unmarked grave, and walked away from the copse of trees.
His path doubled back in a wide-swinging circular motion, bringing him to the ruins of what once had been a large structure. It lay in ruin now, a heap of blackened wood, but the burning had come much earlier than…
He shoved that sequence of thought quite forcefully from his mind.
Letting his feet guide him where they wished to go, he found himself standing at what once had been the structure’s entrance. Surprisingly, a circular piece of wood could be found laying there. Half of the letters were now obscured by burns and the fading of time, but he knew what the sign had once said: “The Shore View.”
It was an inn, a place for wayfarers, not that any were had on the island in the entire time that the structure had been up. It was unconventional to have an inn on an island with only one city, but still somehow the structure had made a profit, renting out rooms to those who had no homes. On an island in the midst of early settlement, this amounted to many, for some had to wait for new homes to be constructed.
It reminded him of one who had not been considered worthy of a grave. The death of this particular victim went widely unnoticed, for she had been one of the inn’s homeless patrons, a harmless old woman with a talent for the mystical. Rare it was to see her even leave the inn, but she paid her due reading fortunes and making charms that were supposed to bring love and luck.
He had known her, though. Her prophetic powers were without equal, and her charms worked whenever she truly wanted them to work for the person in question. But it was when she told the whole truth, that fateful day, that she was believed to be a liar. That truth, a prophecy of doom, had befallen her as well as others.
All who suffered should be remembered. Bearing this foremost in his thoughts, he held his hand serenely over his heart, giving sway to reminiscence about the victim who had not been given a grave.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tymathaen hobbled her way along the path, waving her cane in wide semicircles around her feet. Today she cursed the biting wind that whipped at her gaunt frame, she cursed the earth that rubbed itself against the soles of her shoes, and most of all she cursed fate for cursing her and everyone on the island that the Gods had forgotten about.
It was cold, and the ground was hard and rocky, dangerous for an elderly blind woman but certainly not deadly. The only deadly thing was to become sedentary, and Tymathaen would never allow herself to fall into that trap of self-pity and self-inflicted helplessness. It was a day for gathering the herbs, and rain or sun, she had to do it. She would know when she came across them, not by sight or some other earthly sense, but by Sight, the guidance granted her by the magic.
It showed her many things, things that would be unknown to dwellers of material substance. There was a world beyond the one they knew, a darkness and a light that transcended the vastness of eternity. It was the Void, a brilliant, shining sphere of thought, and it was this that was tied to her Sight. So long as the Void was, she would be able to sense that to which it was tied— which meant forever, for the Void was and would be until the end of time, the realm of thought and light.
Void was all that she did not curse that day, for it was this alone that made her task possible. She saw these as they were in the Void- a mass of thoughts, and she had to separate those thoughts into logical backdrops and objects.
So used to it was she that she could separate thought from thought mindlessly, and she knew this scenery with or without the gifts of the Void. As such, her own thoughts began to float around in the bubble of her Sight, and she let them frolic. Having no real need to pay any sort of attention at all, she heeded the shadowy form of her own thoughts.
What fools, the shadow of thought whispered. What fools, all of them! We had been better before we dared to mingle with outsiders.
Tymathaen knew that these angry words floating around in her skull were not of a foreign nature. Truly, she agreed with the specter. The dwellers on this tiny island were foolish to have thought to reclaim the lost Prye. It had been stupid beyond compare to spend the raiding party, and they should have left well enough alone. The events portrayed by the shadows in her mind did not play out well. There would be rivers of blood, gallons of sweat, and oceans of tears before the end.
No matter, she thought back at the shadowy form of her thoughts. Things will play out as Fate intends. The Wheel will continue to turn, and the Void will consume all in due time….
Just then, a sound carried itself on the wind. It was a cry, a wail of mortal agony, though hardly could it be heard above the howling of the wind’s gale force. Tymathaen raised an intrigued eyebrow in wonderment; the shadows had shown her nothing regarding the distant sound. Now who might that be… She let her footsteps take on a bit more haste as she allowed curiosity to attract her to the sound like a bee to a flower.
A distinct shape began to appear in the white field of her thoughts, as she was certain that she drew closer to the source of the sound. It was a girl, somewhere in her early adulthood. She knelt in a field of dying, yellowed grass, shaking with the force of repeated, unending sobs.
Tymathaen drew near, examining the girl with a strange, hovering presence. Still lost in sobbing, the girl did not even notice when the other drew near, frowning deeply.
“Tell me, young one,” Tymathaen spoke suddenly, “what is it that troubles you?”
The girl’s ill trance was broken, and she looked up at the sorceress fearfully. “Tymathaen… you startled me.”
“I have that effect on people, my dear.” The sorceress began to grin, wide and toothy. “Now answer my question, if you would.”
The girl looked away from the witch, staring down at the earth, her eyes filling with tears. “My beloved is lost to me. He was taken on the ships, and the wild men claimed him. He will never return.”
Ketsu. Tymathaen knew who the girl was, now. She was Karet, affianced to Ketsu, who had died on the foolish mission to rescue Prye. Her smile faded quickly, turning once more into a deep frown.
“I am alone,” Karet cried. “I do not know what I will do.”
Tymathaen looked at her blankly, seeing the sadness that floated off of her thoughts. “Perhaps I could provide you with a distraction. Come with me, child. I will read what the shadows have to say about you.”
Karet rose gracefully, eyes staring with hatred towards the earth beneath, that in which her beloved now lay. He would not awaken, he would not return to her. The impossible futility of hope was pointless, and she would be doomed to emptiness, doomed to fade as Tymathaen had faded. She’d become old alone like the witch who stood before her now. “I will come with you…” She chanted monotonously, as if in a dream.
The witch’s dark grin returned, her face twisting with the wrinkles of the expression’s creation. Her hand reached out and grabbed Karet’s, guiding her quickly away. “Right this way, dearie. To the inn we will go, to see what the shadows speak.”
Karet allowed herself to be led with a lethargic apathy, her hand mindlessly clutching that of Tymathaen. The witch led her with an eager haste, that shadowy ear-to-ear grin a shining crescent moon on the night of her face. Tymathaen hunched over so much as she walked, and grabbed Karet’s hand so tightly that the girl nearly lost her balance more than once.
In minutes they had reached the inn, and Tymathaen barged through the door with Karet in tow. It slammed open forcefully, shoved open with more strength than one of Tymathaen’s age and frailty should possess. Eyes watched them come and go, patrons sitting silently on their chairs as they drowned their minds in drink. Tymathaen’s spirits were not the only ones that could be found in that inn.
A quick trip down a dimly lit wooden hallway, lined with candles, led them to Tymathaen’s room, and again the door was thrown open with surreal strength. The witch almost dragged the apathetic girl into the cramped, square room, and sat her down on a pillow before a low table.
In spite of her tears, Karet did take a bit of a look around. An odd spinning device hung from the ceiling above her, decorated with the feet- or hooves- of various animals, and intertwining string. The table before her was decorated with the skin of a reddish-furred canine, though whether to call it a wolf or a fox Karet did not know. Atop the skin lay a mirror, framed in an unfamiliar white metal that flowed into intricate patterns, spirals and branchlike, leafless protrusions.
Blinking through her watery eyes, Karet looked at the mirror more closely. Already she was grateful for the distraction. What would she see in the mirror, she wondered?
Tymathaen finally released Karet’s hand, and began to touch the mirror gently. Her fingers left impressions on the glass, fingerprints and small scratches, but to Karet’s surprise both faded away as quickly and as easily as they had appeared. Humming, the witch began to stroke the mirror with more force, leaving bigger scratches and marks, and causing the mirror to emit a horrible screech. Still, the marks faded the moment they appeared. Transfixed completely, Karet could not tear her gaze away, and would not move even in spite of the hideous sound.
Abruptly, the mirror cracked loudly, and the glass spider-webbed in every direction. Karet jumped a bit in shock, but Tymathaen continued to run her hand over the now jagged glass. It did not restore itself as before, but remained splintered. Her hand continuing to move in wide circles around the frame, Tymathaen pushed even harder. That was when pieces of the mirror began to fold inward, and then disappear entirely.
White light began to shine where the pieces disappeared. Tymathaen looked at Karet, who sat on the pillow awed by the emanating light. Her grin, once a crescent moon, was now a thinner, wider sliver of light on a shadowy, wrinkled face. “My child,” she croaked, “Touch the light. Join me, and see what lies before you.”
Numbly, Karet reached one hand to her face, rubbing her eyes clear of tears, then stretched forth the same hand, placing it into the source of where the light now shone. The mirror had no glass anymore, but was a completed, tiny door of brightness, a window into a future Karet could not foresee— but Tymathaen could. Trustingly, she let her hand sink into the light-
For a moment, everything was white. It was a strange “beyond”, an expanse without form— but that lasted for only moments. Instantaneously, shapes began to form. At first, they were colorless blurs, smears on a blank paper world, but then solid form came to them, and colors began to burst forth in brilliant patterns.
In no time at all, Karet found herself standing next to Tymathaen in the midst of an encampment. The witch faced away from her, examining their surroundings with a curiosity that bordered on hunger. Tents made from various skins formed a ring about them, many of which were completely identical down to the minutest detail. A wide, circular fire pit was dug into the earth in the center of the ring of tents. It was immense, big enough to house a bonfire whose flames would easily reach ten feet in height.
Karet knew the place.
Tears came unbidden to her face. “Tymathaen, you said that we would see the future. This is the past. Take me away from this place!”
With a disgusted sound, Tymathaen whirled on her heel— far too agile for a woman of her age— and stared down Karet. She struck a condescending tone. “Do you think it’s just that easy, girl? Do you believe that I have power to command the Void? No, no…” She frowned deeply, but no longer sounded so angry. “It takes the form of the strongest thought present. These are shadows, reflections of your grief. We will see what is meant to be… So long as you allow my thoughts to take precedence over yours. Scatter your mind!”
Karet nodded wordlessly, and tried to turn her thoughts elsewhere, tears still falling from her eyes.
The scenery did not change.
“Silly girl,” Tymathaen muttered to herself. “You refuse to let anything become stronger than your grief… Very well… I shall have to overpower it with my thoughts, then.”
Tymathaen closed her eyes and her face contorted into a vicious scowl. Shapes began to merge, and some lost their color. The shapes seemed almost to be fighting each other, colors blending and twisting intricately and violently in a chaotic dance. Noise was generated, too- white noise, and a shrieking, irritating noise that was one part whistle and one part howl.
Still, the tents and fire pit remained- distorted, and so twisted that they didn’t even resemble their former shapes, but they stood proudly nonetheless.
Tymathaen opened her eyes with a triumphant smile, but when she saw that the world they stood in had only been altered, not replaced, she stomped her feet and pulled her hair in a childish rage.
It took her a while to calm down. Karet remained silent, forlorn, looking at the twisted tents with a distant depression.
When Tymathaen’s sense at last returned, she looked directly at Karet and frowned more deeply than Karet had ever believed possible. “My, girl… Your grief is certainly strong. You must have loved him deeply.”
Karet moaned. “Please… Take me away from here… How do I leave?”
Shapes began to appear, twist, and color themselves in again. Tymathaen looked them over with caution and apprehension, unsure if the forming thoughts were her own, or Karet’s. Quickly, the shapes took on humanoid form. They were dark-skinned people, dressed in the furs of animals, and stared angrily at the world around them as if they wanted to destroy even the works of their own hands. As the girls looked about them, they noticed that each of the human shapes had the same face, that mask of violence and anger.
With a sudden cry, the shadow-men drew weapons, and began to charge about, leaping about in wild circles. They brandished their weapons with howls and shouts; then a few lit the surrounding tents— still half-formed— on fire.
The scene had transformed itself from one of peace to one of madness.
Karet shook her head, shouting above the hoots and hollers of the wild madmen. “No… NO!” she screamed, holding the sides of her head and sobbing greatly.
Tymathaen’s frown became a snarl as she scanned the sword-waving apparitions around her. “Heavens above, girl, get ahold of yourself!!!” Growling loudly, she began to wave her arms, reciting syllables of powerful magic. “Irif!” she cried, and a crowd that had begun to come too close for comfort burst instantly into flames. The explosion rocked the ethereal world, and even the spell’s caster was knocked onto her knees.
Wild men charged at them, then, waving their swords and letting loose barbarian yells. Tymathaen climbed to her feet just quick enough, and began to fire off syllable after syllable of spells. Here and there, men burst into flame, others were struck by bolts of lightning from her fingertips, and still more simply vanished as if they never were.
All the while, Karet simply stood like a docile lamb, seemingly unaware of what was happening around her. Her face was pale, haunted. She seemed lost, and yet, her thoughts and grief remained more powerful than Tymathaen’s rage.
Swordsmen came ever closer, and Tymathaen, for all her power, could not destroy the endless tide that flowed from Karet’s thoughts. The world shook, and fire and energy burst in immense circles in every direction, but it would not be enough.
Abruptly, it all faded.
It was a quick and effortless transition. There were no orbs of color, or shifting shapes, not this time. It all simply flew away, fading into white in half a second with the sound of a rushing wind.
Collapsing onto her knees again, Tymathaen huffed in exasperation. “I’m… far too old for… spells like those…” she wheezed. “Karet,” she sighed without turning, “Please control yourself. I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea to bring you here.”
There was no answer.
Could it be that she was still stunned from what she had seen? Had she entered so far into shock that she was now beyond thought? Had she fainted?
Tymathaen turned, pulling herself up in a wobbling, awkward movement. She scowled at the air behind her.
Karet was gone, of course.
The girl was far too much trouble for no pay. Angrily, she knew she’d have to track the girl down- for no other reason than that nobody deserved to spend an eternity trapped in their own grief and loss. But to track someone’s thoughts was no easy task. She was grateful for the Sight, it would make the task that much easier.
She frowned deeply, blind eyes half-closing in weariness. Never, she thought to herself, the words echoing in the Void around her, never have I known someone whose thoughts had more power than mine.
She scanned the empty expanse around her. A trace of a thought hung in the emptiness, a tiny sad thing that took on the appearance of a mildly translucent, sky blue ball. It was another sad thought, but Karet, for reasons not yet known to Tymathaen, had wanted to be alone. The Void had taken Karet’s wish as its command, and had separated them. Karet’s thought was still the strongest there, and thus, Tymathaen could not form the Void to her own desires, but she could not access Karet’s thought, either. So, she was forced into the white expanse that was unformed Void.
She reached out and touched the sky blue orb, but it pushed away her hand with a flash of light that was almost aggressive. She was not permitted to access this thought, not yet. Tymathaen breathed out a heavy sigh. Unbelievable, girl. Unbelievable. By outsmarting Tymathaen at her own game, and defeating her in her own world, she had condemned herself to an unhappy fate.
Rescue was still possible, but it would require amounts of concentration that the witch had never before reached. She had to focus all of her will on a single thought- she had to force Karet’s thought to allow her entry, and from there return her to the natural world.
Settling herself gently to the floor, she began her meditation. Just before she began to focus, she allowed herself a light chuckle. She’d never let Karet enter the Void, ever again.
Tymathaen shut her eyes tightly, then opened them into a glare at the blue ball that hovered before her eyes. She stretched forth her hand, her head chanting again and again the same line: You WILL allow me entry.
Her hand touched the orb, which pushed against her like a repelling magnet. She felt herself begin to lift off of the floor, and she sat now cross-legged in the air, her hand reaching toward the orb. Sparks began to fly as the witch forced her hand closer and closer to the thought, chanting now aloud the words which echoed in her mind: “You WILL allow me entry!”
Abruptly, the orb began to change in color as Tymathaen came closer and closer to it. Bits and pieces of red began to swim in the translucent blue. Tymathaen was winning, but she could not allow herself to think that. She closed her eyes again. All of her will, all of her strength had to be focused.
You WILL allow me entry.
Wind echoed through the shapeless Void, and she was able to open her eyes again. She’d found her way in. Allowing herself a smile, she pulled herself to her feet and looked around to see where Karet had taken herself.
It was a wide, dark hallway, formed from bricks of gray stone. She could see both walls, to her left and to her right, as well as the floor and ceiling above, but when she tried to look forward or back, her vision extended only two feet or so.
Curiosity filled her. She took a few steps forward, and two more feet of labyrinth appeared before her. It was unlit like the rest, but here, picture frames hung on the walls adjacent to her. Briefly, she paused to take a look at the one on her right- not with her unseeing eyes, but with her Sight, which allowed her to see all within the Void.
The frame was a finely polished oak wood, decorated in spiraling patterns that all pointed- eventually- diagonally toward the center, the picture itself. As for the picture, it was of a dark-skinned male with a cheerful smirk. Tymathaen knew immediately that this was Ketsu, Karet’s betrothed. Knowing this, she frowned. It was another sad memory, pictures of him. Karet’s thought had been that she wanted to see him again.
Somberly, Tymathaen spread her aged, bony fingers, and brushed the painting itself, very lightly. As she suspected, nothing was felt when her fingers met the canvas. They passed right through. Her expression took on a mild slant as she bit her lip in thought. Finally, she pressed forward, forcing her entire arm through the painting, reaching in seemingly in a hurry without a moment to spare.
It took her in; she’d already won her battle with the sentinel. Everything around her transformed into a mist, a gray fog that hung immovable in the air, unstirred. Slowly, as if awakening from a slumber that had been undisturbed for ages, the fog began to part, with a begrudged reluctance that made the inhuman clouds seem close to annoyed. Walls formed where clouds had once hung, stoic and silent, leering at the unwelcome visitor.
The room was circular, unlike the straight passage that Tymathaen had stood in just moments ago, and was also decidedly more interesting. Colored tapestries hung from every part of the chamber, and the floor itself was, rather than stone, a red carpet of a material that looked like silk. Scanning the tapestries, Tymathaen looked up, and beheld a huge, golden chandelier, glowing with candles enough to light the entire room in a bright, warm, yet strangely ominous glow.
There, sitting atop the golden chandelier, was Karet, with Ketsu at her side. They sat on the chandelier as if they did not care that they were up so high, legs dangling over the side as they held each other close. Neither of them noticed Tymathaen at all. On the floor, she glared up at them, her frown now so deep that it appeared almost to be falling off of her face.
“Girl,” she muttered too low for the others to hear, “You cannot stay. This world you’ve made is only an illusion. It will only bring you further sadness.” She clenched her fists, and stood stall and demanding. “KARET!” she howled.
Turning from the embrace of her former fiance, Karet gazed far downward. She smiled at Tymathaen with apathy in her eyes. “Is this the future that you wanted to show me, Tymathaen…? Did you want to bring me here, where I could be with him forever…? It’s a very nice present… Thank you…”
“You cannot stay here,” the witch hissed. “This is an illusion. This is no life for a young girl such as you. There is so very much for someone like you to live for.”
“No,” Karet answered simply. “No, I will not return with you. I will stay here with my love… Forever…” She turned, and kissed her illusion.
Fire burned in Tymathaen’s eyes. The girl could not see how she condemned herself! How she would be subjecting herself to endless torture! How could she make her see, but to dispel the lies that hung around her? She sat down, and once again closed her eyes to concentrate. In a moment, Ketsu vanished.
Karet stared blankly at the space where Ketsu had been for a full minute before she turned to the witch and glared hotly. “This is no longer your world, witch!” she spat. “My thoughts are stronger than yours! I will erase you!” Suddenly, the girl began to hover, and her thin frame glided gently to the floor in front of Tymathaen. “This world,” she growled, “is mine to command.”
The chamber burst into flames, filling with a fiery heat which affected only Tymathaen.
“Why don’t you see, you silly girl?” Tymathaen answered calmly, and with a smirk and a tilt of her head she turned her half of the room into solid ice.
Karet let loose a banshee’s wail, and Tymathaen loosed a cry of her own. The room began to shift and morph, shapes gliding and twisting. The room contorted and fell into violent contortions, shaking both women with the force of the strongest earthquake. Fragments of the chandelier fell, transforming into weapons which they hurled at each other. Fires raged. Explosions roared. The air between them surged with the pure wrath of Karet, and with Tymathaen’s desperation at trying to reason with the girl.
Karet turned the chandelier into an enormous, wicked-looking blade, and let it fall above where her foe stood, but Tymathaen responded with a grunt that turned unformed shapes around her into a shell of stone. The sword hit, but clanged off harmlessly, and under Tymathaen’s command the stones of her impregnable fortress burst, flying fiercely at Karet, ready to entomb her. The stones dissolved inches in front of her face, turning immediately into dust as they met an invisible shield that Karet conjured. Karet took what remained of the stones, turned them into knives, and sent them hurtling toward her foe with lightning speed and deadly precision.
Tymathaen loosed a terse chuckle and turned them into water. It splashed across her face harmlessly, and collected quickly into a puddle on the ground. This puddle turned quickly into a flood when Tymathaen gestured with another tilt of her head, and the flood surged its way toward Karet, turning into lava as it went.
Karet was unable to think quickly enough to counter the tide, but it was not Tymathaen’s intent to kill the girl. She hardened the flood into glass, holding Karet immobile. Soon, Tymathaen hoped, the girl would run out of air and would slip into unconsciousness. It was then that Tymathaen would remove her from the Void and take personal measures to ensure that she could not return. For now, all she had to do was hold her still within the glass. Concentrate, and hold her still.
She looked down. Karet stared up at her, frozen in the glass, a cold hate showing clear on her face. It was the most hatred Tymathaen had ever seen one person portray in a look. Not that she had seen many faces, she added to the thought quickly.
The glass began to shimmer, and Tymathaen pushed all thoughts away except those of holding Karet in the glass. She could feel Karet’s thoughts as an almost solid entity in her own, pushing against her, and she pushed back.
The glass continued to shimmer, and the world around them shook once more.
A sound began to echo, a chiming of an immense bell. It was unlike anything Tymathaen had ever heard. For a moment, she allowed herself to wonder what it was. In that moment, she was overcome.
It was the bell that signaled her demise.
Pieces of glass shot upward, sharp and thin, and cut through Tymathaen like scissors through paper.
* * * * * * * * * *
He turned away, letting his hand fall to his side. Tymathaen and Karet, two more victims of the cruelty of fate. Briefly, he recalled the day that the inn caught fire. Patrons had run about, scrambling for freedom from the choking smog that erupted suddenly and without warning. Screams echoed all around the tiny island, and a crowd had gathered around the inn to watch as the flames consumed it in a glorious spectacle. It was too late to stop the blaze by then, and everyone had simply huddled in tight, whispering circles, murmuring oaths and wishes for the safety of everyone that they knew.
The murmurs soon began to coalesce, as everyone began to realize who was missing from the tightly huddled crowds. By then, the inn was an inferno. Entry was beyond any reasonable suggestion. They had all wept for she who was lost, the fortune teller who had been seen by many but known by few.
Soon, the inn was nothing but a pile of charcoal, blackened timbers leaning against each other, threatening to topple into ashes at the slightest provocation. Some had searched among the shadowy remains, and it was from these that the rumor had begun to spread.
It hung around the town, a thing spoken in alleys and quiet places but never openly. Still, everyone knew. It was said that the room in which Tymathaen had been was untouched by the flames. When some had dared to enter the chamber, what they beheld could surely have only been the work of magic of the strongest kind.
Tymathaen and one other sat within, unmoving, distant, in a state like a coma. Their eyes remained open, but those who looked within reported that their eyes had no iris nor pupil, only a silvery reflective surface like glass. The two girls stared into each other’s eyes, and between them sat a broken mirror.
He plodded slowly on, dreamlike, his steps guiding him wherever they wished. He wandered not where his thoughts told him to go, for he had no conscious preference, but rather wandered aimlessly through the decaying world of the broken city.
Moving beyond the charred husk of the inn, he let his steps guide him along the eastward cobblestone path, the gravel crunching beneath his armored feet. For a time, he looked to the earth beneath, that earth which had so hungrily consumed the blood of the fallen. It was as if it thirsted for it, and the earth had coerced Fate, her brother, into ensuring their deaths so that it might consume the object of its abominable lust. Surely, the object of this abhorrent earth was to bring an end to all beings of magic. Angels, they were once. Now, fallen.
His eyes found their way to the heavens. Fallen, indeed. Once they had resided in a paradise separate from the bloodlust of the earth. Shekra, jewel of the skies. A city amidst the clouds, shining brighter than the stars, a place where man and its horrors could not reach the angels and their kin. It was Ecto who broke their wall of seclusion. Ecto, both king and spiritual leader to the Ontha, angel-people. Believing that to live the lives of recluses was a base desire, and worthy of lesser races, he had sent them down from the skies, to visit and come to know the beings of the lower-world.
And so, he, with many others, had come to settle this place, now a ruin of tears. Ecto and those who followed him remained ignorant, high in the palace of Shekra in the clouds. They knew nothing of the sorrows their plans of settling would cause, of what disasters had taken place. He glared at the gray clouds which hid the sky. Shekra was not visible during the daytime, but shone like a jewel at night. It would be invisible now, but still he wished to curse the ignorant heavens. Ecto was a child, with visions of innocence that could not be realized. Not in this world. Not now, nor ever. Innocence was nothing but a delusion; perfection was a lie. Once he had believed it possible. Once he had listened to the words of a foolish king with delusions of grandeur. He would never make that mistake again.
His eyes set forward. He did not look above to curse the sky, nor below to curse the earth, but onward. His steps rose and fell in apathetic, endless rhythm. His wings hung pale and gray in the cloudy light.
A bend in the road led him adjacent to a high, steel gate, the west perimeter to the island’s only cemetery. It was small and humble. Very full now. Longingly, his eyes scanned the lines of granite blocks that stood solemn, straight, and new. They faced away from him, shunning him. He did not belong to their world yet. Not yet, but soon. He was the last, and his time was almost at hand.
“Evorlette,” he mumbled lethargically, knowing that hers was a grave that would never be found. His eyes again became distant as memory flooded through him. He had not spoken that name in a long time, it seemed. It came oddly to his lips, as if it were a sorcerous word to call an enchantment.
One of the last victims, she had been. Still he had hoped that she would not meet with the fate of the others. And were it not for him, she would not have.
* * * * * * * * * *
Walking was a favorite pastime of Evorlette’s. In times of trouble, she could always take a stroll in the hamlet near the shore and lose herself in her own thoughts, letting troubles slip away into a future time when her wanderings ended. With a blank mind, she was not necessarily happy, but she was not side either. That apathy, that blankness, would have been welcome now.
But it would not come. The wandering brought her no comfort now. Left unshackled, her mind would revert without fail back to terror, death, pain, anguish… These buzzing bees swarmed within her, stinging her heart stubbornly, insisting that she give in to despair.
She was among the last, now. They’d all died, she’d seen them suffer. They gave her nightmares that lingered long after night was past, the shadows of which choked her, made her die inside. She did not want to sleep anymore. Paleness and gauntness of expression, as well as a distance and a redness in her eyes, had been the consequence of that.
Hoping that wandering would help- it always had before- she’d fled to the hamlet. The shadows of regret, of pain and terror could not haunt her there. Or so she had hoped. Now, she found them constant company. They followed her everywhere she went, and she could not force herself into blankness, not anymore.
She let the trees pass by without attention, the snapping of twigs beneath her feet echoing only in the distance of reality, far from where her mind wandered. The sunlight shone down through the filter of leaves and branches, illuminating the forest floor in a brilliant display of color, but she stared at it not for its beauty, but out of mindless habit. The weight that she felt was more than emotional, it weighed down on her physically, and she had developed a slouch where once she had stood tall and serene. Where once she had been a bright light, now she stood dimmed, her eyes betraying a world-weary look as she shied away from the gazes of others.
A raven stared at her from on above, flying suddenly in to perch on a branch. It sat and tilted its head with curiosity, uttering no cry, but jumping to and fro in an anxious manner. Evorlette looked at the raven, returning slowly to reality from the dark prison of her mind, her captivity broken with the beat of the raven’s nervous wings. The carrion feeder seemed to be waiting for her to fall, to give up, fall to her knees, and surrender the ghost. It awaited another feast, like the many it had come to obtain in the recent days.
Revealing her white wings, in a brilliant flash of feathers, she stared at the bird distantly. Oddly, and rather ceremoniously, the raven mirrored the action, until both she and the bird were stretching their wings in perfect unison, mirrors of each other. Then, with a single cry, the bird completed its dance of mimicry, and took off to the sun.
Evorlette ran, beating her wings with a new energy. To fly was what she needed, to dance in the rays of the sun. She took off, rocketing through a hole in the cover of the leaves like a dolphin breaking water. Sweeping and diving in the currents of wind, twisting in elegant maneuvers and gliding with expert skill, she closed her eyes for a brief minute and let the feeling of it fill her. It had been so long since she’d been able to fly. It required much wind to fill her wings and lift her from the ground, but today a mighty windstorm had flown in, visiting the world with a freshness that she had not noticed in the forest. Strong, the winds filled her albatross wings with incredible vigor, carrying her up so high in the heavens that she swore she would touch the roof of the world.
She let a tremendous surge of wind carry her into a graceful rolling maneuver, and then finally opened her eyes.
The same wind that carried her propelled an immense cloud of smoke to the west. It originated from the island village. They were under attack. Luckily, she was always dressed in her armor, sword belted at her waist, when she went for her walks. She twirled in the air, then went headlong into a dive, tucking her wings in at her sides. She shot straight toward the black cloud that stretched like a towering demon above the burning village.
The lines at the edge of her vision blurred as she picked up lightning speed. She became a comet, an falling star to avenge the fallen. She would go to battle once more. There would be no tears to shed, not this time; she would save as many as she could. She would save them all. The city became an orange mass, a sea of fire as she sped toward it. She winced against the wind that batted at her. She couldn’t slow down. She had to get there as quickly as she could.
Finally, she let her wings flare out, catching a full, heavy wind that braced her to land. She glided along, then let her wings disappear altogether, running forward a few steps with the force of her fall. Drawing her sword, she stared around her.
Many of the buildings were nothing but skeletons already, the rest were unquenchable infernos. She’d landed right in the center of it all, in a pandemonium of screaming wives and children, with black shapes dashing all around. She looked left, then right, then spun around completely. Where could she go? Who should she help first?
A trio of screaming figures leaped from the corners with scimitars in hand. Their skin was dark, their faces painted with grotesque depictions of animals: wolves and bears and lions. They wore black leathers, as black as the soot that accented the lines of their howling faces. Barbarians from the mainland. With sword in hand, she stepped to meet them.
Without hesitation, they charged at her. She swatted the first blow away with ease, forcing it wide, and then bludgeoned the savage’s open defenses with an armored rush. He stumbled back, gaping at his opponent’s unexpected battle prowess.
Defensively, another of the three men closed in on her flank when she closed in for the kill, and she was forced to spin to meet the attacker. This one came in with a thrust, and she sidestepped with catlike grace, following through with the expected counter. The other dodged aside as she had done. They were not all without experience. The third man was hanging back, pacing slowly around her, waiting for an opening. He’d find none.
She lost a bit of ground when both of her attackers came forward suddenly, but the burning square was wide, and she had plenty of ground to give. For now, she’d let them advance and separate, then press. The ploy proved effective, as two of the men hung together while a third stuck to her right. She came in strong, with a stroke meant to quickly put an end to the straggler, but as before, he deftly ducked aside.
Quickly, she parried an attack from one of her two pursuers, then charged with one of her own- purposefully slowly. When the man raised his blade to block the attack, she pulled back, then came in low, a successful feint. However, by this point the straggler on the right was able to come in and and wound her with a light, low thrust. The quick attack was meant to wound, and impede her fighting ability. Grimacing with the attack as it pierced just below her ribs, she took an angry swipe at her offender as he pulled back, cutting open a thin gash in his left leg. He pulled back with a curse in a language she did not know.
The second pursuer came in from her left where she was unprepared, nicking her left shoulder with a timely swing.
Taking one more attempt at an attack towards the man whose stomach she’d cut, she watched her attack prove fruitless, then took a few more steps back to put some ground between herself and the three men. Already, she’d taken two crippling hits and had only landed a handful of her own. She cradled the open wound in her gut with her wounded left arm, and kept her sword tight and ready at her side, her right arm like a coiled serpent with fangs bared.
One of the men sensed an opening that really wasn’t there, thinking her a bit more wounded than she was. He came in with a high attack at neck level from her left side. She ducked lowly under, jumped back up quickly, grabbed his arm, and pulled him in close, then rammed her blade through his throat. The man choked on his attack’s result, and she swung him around to land behind her in the flames of a burning house.
Another came in after the first. She backpedaled, then stepped forward with a swing from bottom to top. She heard one of his ribs crack, and heard him grunt loudly with anguish, and he fell backward like a flailing roach. She even had time to take a cut at the other when he came forward, last of the three. She noticed how quickly the tides had turned in her favor, just as soon as her opponents began to think her weak. Breathing was slow, loud, burdened. And she still had more fighting to do.
The third man was still strong, and he rushed her suddenly with an attack meant to knock her off of her already wobbly feet. She tried to step nimbly out of the way, but her wounds made the stepping clumsy. Instead, she was hit at an angle, and went spinning to the floor. The man whose rib she’d cracked had begun to climb to his feet, too, and she found herself wishing that she hadn’t thought the tides had turned.
Then, just as the man reached his feet, a blade pierced his back, and fell again, never more to rise. The figure who had been behind the victim jumped at the one who stood above her, but the surprised barbarian blocked the blow of his bloodied blade with stunned, surprised haste. Evorlette regained her feet, and both she and the stranger pressed the man from every angle until he fell, bleeding from a dozen wounds.
Evorlette stood, heaving with heavy breaths, over the body; then, satisfied that the foe really was dead, she turned and looked around her. The fires still raged, beyond help now. Even if the blazes could be put out, there would still be nothing left of what once were called buildings. Black smoke obscured everything, shrouding it in a thickness that hid the face of the sun, making it seem much later than true time desired.
“Evorlette,” called the voice of the one who had saved her. She turned, raising her head to finally see who it had been. Egorias stood there, stretching out a hand to touch her good shoulder. His dark eyes shone with the flames around them, his armor a mirror to the colors of chaos. The darkness of his hair was black and gray like soot, in stark contrast to the paleness of his skin. He looked gaunt, haunted even. She supposed she looked the same. He seemed to take a lifetime to speak, in what must have been only a moment. “Evorlette, you’re wounded. Let’s get out of here.”
She could only nod her resigned agreement. There was nothing more she could do, not like this.
He pressed her close to him, her right arm about his shoulders while her left still cradled the open wound beneath her ribs. His left arm was wrapped around her waist, his right hand holding hers to steady her. Progress was slow, but constant— walking hurt her, widening the wound in her stomach, but was easily possible. No more barbarians were seen on the somber journey, but suffering and death were everywhere, stubborn images of blood, pain, anguish. No other survivors were found. Evorlette looked at the cruel mirror that was Egorias, and saw reflected there an apathy in expression, but a dark void in his eyes in which was sheltered a sadness greater than her own. Her own sadness was a stalking beast, ever about her and threatening to consume, but Egorias’s beast had already found him. The beast within his eyes had claimed and consumed him, until he had found that he was that beast all along. There he remained, trapped within himself, that inescapable mortal shell haunted by guilt and finding reprieve only in death, for sleep brought no escape, but only dreams of torment.
In time, the village was left far behind, and they found that same secluded wood that Evorlette had left but minutes before. Egorias gently set Evorlette in the comforting embrace of a tall tree’s roots, roots formed over ages yet seeming to be formed for this purpose only. Loving they seemed, holding her in a still, natural, earthy embrace.
She would have closed her eyes, but heard again the sound of a raven’s call, and looked above. It could not be the same one as before, she surmised. The ravens were everywhere, it could not possibly be the same haunting, dancing fiend that she had encountered before. Still, the raven hung there above her in the branches of her tree, staring down at her like an angel of death come to claim the soul as it left her body. It crowed again, once, twice, but did not move or skitter about as the other one had. That was part of what made her sure it was not the same raven. It could not be the same raven.
The sun had begun to dip below the horizon, scattering its divine flames across the heavens in violent reds and oranges. Red was in the sun that night. Blood had been spilled. Egorias took a seat next to her, but as he did so, he revealed his wings slowly. They hung limply at his sides, broken and torn. They were covered in the same soot which darkened his hair and face, staining them gray with what part of the dead remained in their ashes. Those ashes, the souls of so many dead, cried out from the earth for vengeance, binding themselves to the wings of the one who would avenge them.
“Your wings,” Evorlette whispered. “They are gray…”
“The ashes of our fallen intermingle with the ashes of theirs.” Egorias stared into the fading sun, the paleness of his face disappearing into the newly forming darkness, a darkness which was eager to take the place of the light.
Evorlette breathed deeply. “Then nothing has changed since that day?”
If Egorias grimaced, Evorlette didn’t see. Nonetheless, he paused before replying, “…No.”
The raven crowed again, stretching black wings, and flew away into the night. Evorlette watched it go, departing into the last light of the sun. Both of the angels watched it fade into nothing more than a speck on the horizon, letting the minutes fade away into silence. The sun disappeared, and the night sky began to fill with stars.
Evorlette closed her eyes, letting the darkness enter her mind, too. She doubted she would feel truly rested when she awoke, but with her wounds she had to at least try.
Morning broke crisply above the horizon, and for a breathtaking moment the forest was bereft of sound and motion. Picturesque and beautiful, it hung in its branches the hazy forgetting of dreams, dripping with dew. The trees towered serenely, silhouetted jet black against the deep blue of the waking sky, dripping with water from a light rain that had passed overhead, unseen and unheard in sleep. The leaves wept for the two who slept beneath their boughs, for suffering untold awaited them still.
Evorlette sighed, and her eyes fluttered open slowly, hazily. Quickly and without warning, pain arced throughout her entire body in waves of heat and cold. Gasping, she sat bolt upright, and moaned. The sudden motion startled and immediately awoke Egorias, who scrambled to his feet thrust instantly into dreadful trepidation.
Evorlette tried to breathe slowly, then calmly looked down to where her armor was shredded about her waist. Dried blood covered the area, and an immense scab had formed over the wound. The scab oozed with a yellowish ichor, and throbbed with pain.
Egorias grunted. “It’s infected,” he growled. “Why did I not think of this?”
Grating her teeth, Evorlette spoke softly. “Is there anything we can do?”
Egorias looked distantly into the woods, paling slightly. “I know nothing of medicine, Evorlette… But there may be someone in the village who can help. We have to look, and see if someone survived that carnage…”
Evorlette chuckled humorlessly. “No one could have survived that, Egorias. You know that as well as I.”
To her surprise, he shook his head. “No, you’re wrong. We survived. I’m sure, someone else made it… I’m not going to just give up on you. I’ll carry you. Let’s go.” He leaned down to her, grabbing her around the waist once again and hoisting her to her feet. She leaned on him more completely now, and the first few steps came awkwardly to both of their feet. Worse still, not all of the forest had the thick cover of leaves, which meant that where those rains had hit the forest floor was left with filthy pools of muddy water. They went slowly on, even slower than before. She rested her head on his shoulder, gasping at each pang of pain from her infected wound. “Stay with me,” he would whisper when he heard her gasp. “Stay with me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she whispered back. “It’s not so bad.”
The forest ended abruptly, in a wall of blackness. Beauty and life, torn by destruction. What was green, vibrant, full of color, here became black, lifeless, monochromatic. Dead. Beyond that wall of darkness lay a field of necrosis as bleak as the forest was lovely. Egorias stood for a moment, gaping in abhorrent despair. He blinked at the smoke that still hung thinly in the air, the irritation stealing from his eyes a single tear.
Quietly, wordlessly, they moved through that black, dead scar on the face of the world. There was absolutely no sound now; no birds, not even ravens. Motes of ash still hung in the air, floating dreamlike wherever the wind would take them, otherworldly presences that hung in memorial to all that had once been. The world reeked of the aftermath of flame, and of death. Evorlette gagged more than once, and finally gave in, covering the lower half of her face instead of cradling her wound. That stench was worse than pain.
The things they saw were more horrible than they could have imagined. Here and there were strewn about half-burned bodies of those who had been knocked into submission by the barbarians and then left to die licked by the flames. Their mouths hung open in noiseless screams, their glazed eyes staring outward into infinity, into the souls of any who dared to pass by. There, in the ruins of a distant home, a child hung suspended in the air, skewered by a spear that was now lodged into the earth. Neither of them looked at that one for long. They moved as quickly as their feet could carry them, keeping their eyes down on where they walked. Curious eyes could not linger in this place, they found.
Finally, though, as they reached what had once been the town square, where Evorlette had made her stand against the wicked invaders, they found him. There, a flame was still lit, burning a pile of corpses to that same ash that carried all else. This ritual burning would ensure that the honorable dead would not be left to the ravens, and that those who lingered would not have to behold the pained faces of the dead, as Egorias and Evorlette had. The stranger performing the ritual had his back turned to them. He was dressed simply, in a brown cloak with his face concealed by the hood, and he did not move.
The roar of the fire, and its dancing colors, seemed as out of place in this world as a delicate red rose in the midst of winter snows. It drew Evorlette and Egorias nearer like moths, until they stood at the stranger’s side. Still, he did not move or acknowledge their presence in any way. He simply stood, staring into the flames which carried away all that remained of his kin. They were now able to see his face, a brown-bearded face with eyes sunk deep into his skull. His eyes were dark, and his hair hung about them in a thin curtain as he scrutinized the flames, oblivious to all else.
They both knew that face.
“Imerre,” Egorias and Evorlette said in unison. At last, he turned, as if the sound had woken him from a deep and abiding trance.
“My brother, Rend…” he moaned. “…he is gone.” This was met with deep sighs all around. For a moment, there was silence, and then Imerre continued. “But there is more to it than that… His heart was pierced by the blade of an angel.” He turned to face the both of them. “It was just before the attack. At that time, only two were absent from the scene… you two.”
Evorlette paled. “Imerre, listen to what you’re saying! You can’t possibly think that we killed—”
Imerre roared, drawing a sword from his side and charging them in a headlong rush. “The first to make excuses is the guilty party!!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Egorias pushed himself in front of Evorlette quickly, drawing his blade but not uttering so much as a word in his own defense. He met Imerre’s foolish charge forcefully, catching the attack with his sword and then pushing back with renewed vigor. Imerre stumbled backward, dark eyes full of hate.
Evorlette hung back, trying to reason with him. “Imerre! Are you mad!? None of us would have done this!”
Imerre ignored her, coming forward with another slamming attack, which Egorias blocked with laughable ease. He pushed him back again, but did not come in for an attack of his own. Again, Imerre came forward with another rush, and Egorias prepared to block again. Unexpectedly, Imerre then dropped low, tackling Egorias around the lugs and dropping him to his back. Egorias spun in his fall, landing out of Imerre’s way with a cry. He charged at Evorlette with a howl.
Fear widened her eyes, fear laced her feet with lead. But not her arms. She whipped her blade outward, swatting the charging brute across the ribs and halting his advance. “Listen to me!” she cried desperately, wincing with every word she spoke. “Maybe the barbarians stole someone’s blade! Why will you not listen to me!?”
Imerre was beyond words now, in such a berserk frenzy that he could not be reasoned with. His attacks were powerful, but foolish, showing no thought at all, and Evorlette found them easy to counter even in her wounded state, though allowing the force of Imerre’s blows to ring against her blade and thus pass through her entire body was a painful experience. Twice, she managed to land blows on his arms, meant to lessen the effect of such murderous, pounding attacks, but Imerre still came on.
Egorias regained his feet shakily, and rejoined the fray, but now Imerre was spinning, ducking, dodging. The crazed man still came at Evorlette, and with every attack she was forced to block she could feel her body weakening.
She landed a counter here and there as he continued to ravage her with blunt, brutal force. The grievous damage he was inflicting would soon cause her to stagger, and then she would be beyond hope. She stepped backward, allowing for some room between herself and Imerre, the same way she had done with the barbarians. Then, she lengthened her attacks, striking loosely and lightly, in quick succession. If she did not allow him to close in with his punishing attacks, she hoped that she could hold him at bay.
But he was too quick. He clipped her with his shoulder as she was pulling back her blade, and she tripped over her own feet in an attempt to pull back and away. She fell onto her back with a tremendous groan, and was not able to rise.
“No!” cried Egorias, charging in Imerre’s way. He dived between them, blocking the attack that had been meant to finish Evorlette. The two began a new duel, the strategies much the same as Evorlette had been using. Egorias tried a light attack, but Imerre knocked it away with force. Imerre tried to hammer Egorias, but Egorias ducked and aptly countered.
Trying to regain her footing, Evorlette groaned when pain shot through her. Her wound had opened more widely. She could not move.
Egorias and Imerre still danced around each other, and thankfully Egorias always took ground where he could defend Evorlette. He landed an attack and pushed back the berserk titan. He dived under Imerre’s sideways swipe, letting a sliding momentum carry him as he struck a glancing blow across his foe’s thigh. Then, he hit a third time, rising quickly from the nimble dive and landing a terrible slash all the way down Imerre’s back. Angrily, Imerre fell face-first onto the stone street. He was still not finished. Berserk fury propelled him onward. He regained his feet, surprising Egorias, who had thought him finished, and then came at him again.
The dance was frantic now, the blows faster than ever before. Both combatants sweat from every pore, breathing slowly and deeply. Imerre hit first with a low shot at Egorias’s right knee. Egorias went over the low attack, thinking to push Imerre down with the flat of his blade, but that only gave Imerre the opportunity he needed to spin to the side and hit Egorias across the arm, and again across the leg, a rapid two-step combo.
With his sword still held low, Imerre was open to Egorias’s grab. The protector gripped Imerre’s armor at his collarbone, then slammed the hilt of his blade into Imerre’s face, once, twice, three times. Blood poured like a fountain from Imerre’s face, and he was temporarily blinded. Then, Egorias turned the sword, and pulled Imerre onto the point of his blade, impaling him without mercy or any appeals to reason.
He kicked the man off his blade, and left his corpse lying on the road with all the others.
When he turned back to Evorlette, he found her already gone. She had passed on, into a sleep from which she would never awaken.
Egorias was alone.
* * * * * * * * * *
EDIT THE GRAVE SCENE!
He’d been alone from that moment. In the end, Imerre and Evorlette had become only two more bodies for the burning pile. He’d performed their ritual with a solemn silence, and that night he had spent alone in the ruins of the chapel, the same as every day onward from that moment.
To lose himself was easy. He no longer knew how many days it had been since that day, but why should it matter? It could not be many. He had not eaten, or had anything to drink. One day, maybe. Madness could creep in in a single day, could it not? Two days, more likely. Three if he was lucky— though the thought of being “lucky” made him scoff. Wasn’t it a bit too late for that?
What did he have left to live for? Truly, everything was gone. He had nothing left to lose. Not a thing. And so, he had prepared to die. He knew the time, and the place. And as soon as he’d finished his goodbyes to the last two victims of fate, he would be ready to pass on to the world beyond.
He made his way gravely and silently to the stone fort-like structure that loomed like an immense gray boulder on the horizon. Wide and squat, the building had no exterior wall around the courtyard, but was open. They had never expected any attack, or they might have made it more defensible. Hindsight is always more clear.
Before the structure stood a statue of an angel woman with her arms spread widely and invitingly. Her smiling face looked down on any who approached the fort and bade them welcome. He looked up at this statue expressionlessly, eyes somber and taciturn. It was his chosen resting place.
His approach was made on shaky steps. He had at first resolved the climb the thing, and to lay in the statue’s widespread arms, face toward the sun. Now, he was too tired and weak to climb, and the sun was hidden by low-hanging clouds. He sat, resting his back against the base of the statue.
Amaris, the first of two he had yet to honor with memory, was one of the raiding party they had grouped together to rescue the captive scout, Prye. As a warrior, she knew no equal in their tiny town; and yet, her temperament was full of fire, her heart full of vengeance and warfare. Her bloodthirstiness had lead to her own demise, and perhaps had set in place the enemy’s idea for a cruel counter-attack. Bloodshed on both sides led to vengeance, and vengeance led to more bloodshed. This vicious cycle would continue until one side or the other was erased.
His side had been.
* * * * * * * * * *
As soon as the Honest was tied and secured to the shoreline with ropes and stakes, Amaris, Evorlette, and Karet looked around themselves with a sort of overdue awe. The mainland was lovely, even at night, and with the moon shining bright and full above the horizon, it was bright enough to see. They could easily begin their search this night, and all agreed with spoken agreements that it would be so.
The pace, while somewhat brisk, was just slow enough to allow meandering thoughts and worries to creep in, but each woman had her own, and these were not admitted at all to the others. As for Amaris, she would not let her fear show even in her eyes. Her countenance betrayed not a single note of worry, though in truth it did lie within her, buried deeper within than anything she had ever cared to hide.
For, though she had been training her entire life, she had never been in a true battle. The others did not know that, and she would never tell them. They all spoke of her incredible skill— but how hard was it, truly, to dispatch dummies made of hay, and to shoot arrows into the hearts of stationary, colorful targets? So, her fear this night was that a true battle would come upon her, and she would find it hideously, grotesquely different than training.
If not her face, perhaps the only thing in her mannerism that betrayed this minute fear was the grip she had on the sword belted at her waist. Her hand sat on top of the hilt like a hawk gripping a mouse, so tight that her knuckles and the ends of her fingers paled visibly, even in the dim moonlight.
The others attributed this quirk to readiness, and actually tried to replicate it. Surely, they thought, Amaris’s grip was vise-like in strength in order to ensure that her tiring senses stayed at full aptitude and operated to the best of their ability.
With the moonlight illuminating the ground before them, the grass seemed an ocean of waving, blue-green spikes. A chill wind it was that had propelled their sails to the mainland, and that same chill wind continued to blow, south to north. It was, however, a quiet wind, and did not prevent or even hinder the arrival of a long, apprehensive silence. The three women fell into the expectant alarm of mice bolting from their holes, fearful of the night owl that they knew was on the hunt this very night.
And suddenly there it was, a flash on the horizon. A beacon, a warning perhaps. Amaris and Evorlette did not recognize the sign, but Karet, by her gasping reaction, did.
“It’s Ketsu!” she cried. “He’s in trouble! He needs our help!”
“Hold!” Amaris shouted, grabbing Karet’s arm as she tried to dash past. “How do you know that’s Ketsu?”
The words flooded from her mouth in hurried slurs. “It’s a warning that he and I worked out before we came! If he was ever in trouble, he said that he’d make a bright light!”
Amaris nodded, and quickly they were off. In their haste, the other two did not notice when Amaris visibly paled. They set off in the direction of the light, which was just now fading back into the darkness of the horizon. A second flash rose up after the first, nearly simultaneous. They increased the pace once the second light began to fade.
In hardly any time at all, they began to see the campfires on the horizon. There were shouts— barbarian whoops, the deep booming of tribal drums, and the flickering, dancing shadows in the night. The women drew their swords, and let the work of butchery commence.
The battle spun like the flames upon their blades. When a shadow danced nearby, a flick of the wrist dispelled it with reflected fire upon their steel. Cries and chaos bounded in contortions around them. Pumping adrenaline fueled every snakelike motion, every wrathful cry, every flash of metal that brought down another screaming foe.
It was the most exhilarating rush that Amaris had ever felt— and that terrified her. The carnage was so… real, so close… It had never been like this in any of her practice sessions. None of the blood… None of the fire. None of the shouts, the cries of fear, desperation, wrath, agonizing pain…
For a moment, she lost herself, allowing red-hot bloodlust to fill her every action. She drifted along down the arc of her blade, and became untouchable. Thought did not exist in this world of passionate flame. She was everything that her peers thought that she was in battle, and then much more. She struck with all the speed of a viper, the grace of a cat, the beauty of a swan. All who dared to wander near fell within seconds. And she walked away without a scratch to show that she had ever been there.
When the battle and its passions ceased, she stood, staring into the flames, blade held tightly at her side. She was conscious again, but when she tried to think back on how the battle had gone, it call came back to her as a flood of color and motion. She simply did not know, except that she had survived. How had the flames risen so high, to consume all that lay before her? How many had she felled? She could not recall. She did not feel that the battle was won, even though it had been. And so she stood, staring, distant, fire reflected in the mirrors of her eyes.
Amaris jumped so noticeably at being touched on the shoulder by Evorlette that she caused her to jump as well. Her sword was still held tightly in her hand, and her eyes still blazed with the fires of war. Evorlette looked at her for a brief, horrified moment, until finally Amaris cooled, sheathing her blade with a sigh of reluctance.
Evorlette muttered. “They’re gone… We got them all.”
This statement caused a brief spark to flare up in the whites of Amaris’s eyes. “We don’t know that yet. Let’s take a look around, and see what we can find.” Evorlette nodded, as did Karet, who stood a few steps behind her. “Split up,” Amaris added a moment later. “We’ll cover more ground that way. But keep your guard up.”
Turning away from the others, she whipped out her blade again and began to scan the dancing shadows where the flames flickered low. Flames ate everything around her, caught up in a ceremonious frenzy of destruction and crackling with victorious cadence. This was the thing that war wrought, this unquenchable feast of flame, death, and blood, wherein victors reveled while the defeated cried the weeping dirges of agony for those lost. Amaris was of mixed feeling— as yet, she did not know quite how to feel. There was no denying the glory of battle, that powerful, godlike feeling of superiority, but this, the aftermath, in its portrait of ruin, screamed with the tormented spirit of umbrageous, adumbrated Pandemonium. It had all the chaos of a hastily drawn charcoal sketch, but lived in vivid motion, a juxtaposed panorama, intimate in its soul-wrenching moral condemnation.
She proceeded in slow, measured steps, her face emotionless while her mind spun with stormy, multitudinous doubts. Should she be horrified, or ought she to gloat and revel in this fiery moment?
A stumbling shadow moved across her field of vision, and she turned her head quickly to confirm what she had seen. There it stood, amidst the flame and smoke but touched by neither. Her steps took on a purposed quickness, her armor rattling with the newly rapid pace. The distant shadow must have heard her then, above the song of the flames, for it turned, and in began to run from her in a panic.
It was surprisingly simple to catch the shadow. She’d had a few seconds of head start, and caught it by the back of its neck, finding a steady grip on cloth, presumably a shirt of some kind. The man she found in her grip cried out in a mournful wail, and as she yanked him onto his back before her, she saw that his face was red with tiny burns, and wet with waterfalls of tears. His skin was dark, darker than she’d seen on any angel, and wrinkled with tremendous age.
“Please,” he wept. “Please.”
He stared at her, awaiting mercy or wrath, his eyes full of pitiable pleading, all the humbleness of a beggar in want of bread- but far more intense. Far more sorrowful. She could not meet that gaze for long. She looked away, at the ground away from him. She raised her sword.
“No!” screamed the man. “No, I beg of you! Please!”
“Wait!” cried another voice, not a pitiable one, but harsh and demanding.
Amaris didn’t need to be told twice. She hadn’t wanted to take the man’s life, and would seek any excuse not to do so. She let her sword fall again limply to her side, looking briefly into the burned beggar’s eyes. Then she turned to see who had joined her.
There were two there. Egorias, and Imerre. Both held their swords out and ready, Imerre in his right hand, Egorias in his left. Their wings were spread, and oddly seemed black in the distance, and their shining armor reflected the flames around them.
Egorias came forward quickly, shaking his head and holding a hand out in front of him. “Spare him, Amaris,” he commanded. “Much can be gained from a prisoner, and dead men do not talk.”
The beggar made a sound halfway between a gasp and a sigh of incredible relief.
“Bring him here,” Imerre barked. “We’ll make him tell everything.”
Sheathing her blade, Amaris grabbed the beggar by the muddy brown cloth at his neck, same as she had before, and pushed him forward to the others.
They left the ruins behind them to burn.
It was a half hour later when the party of six arrived at the Honest. Amaris, Evorlette, Karet, Egorias, and Imerre, plus their new captive, were gathered on the deck. The unnamed captive sat in the middle of the oblong circle, wrists and ankles tied securely, and his captors glared down at him angrily. The fate of Ketsu had not been learned, but theories and vague speculation hung dark and thin, like cobwebs, in the minds of the gathered angels.
They cut right to business. Egorias began the questioning. He walked slowly, purposefully, toward the captive, ensuring that their eyes met so that he could search his every reaction. Upon reaching the ground not a foot away from their prisoner, he halted and paused before asking, “Two of our friends are now missing. One female, sent a week ago. One male, missing today. Tell me where they are.”
The captive retained his glare toward Egorias, to his credit, but he did not answer.
Imerre chimed in tauntingly. “I would answer quickly, were I you,” he recommended. “Egorias is not known for his patience.”
The captive sighed deeply, then winced slightly at the pain his burns caused him. “The pale ones, such as yourselves, have plagued us for years, not the simple week you hint at. We dealt with the two you mention in the same way we deal with all who attack us. They met with death.”
Karet gasped sharply. “No!… No!” She turned away, but Evorlette caught her in an embrace before she could flee.
The grave news caused Egorias to frown deeply. “Prye and Ketsu. Prye was sent as a scout only, and yet you gave her the harshest punishment known to mankind.” He turned slowly away from the captive, looking down at the boards of the deck. He trembled slightly, his brow deeply curved with anger, his eyes shut tightly. They flared open suddenly, and he whirled on his heel, delivering a sharp, forceful punch that knocked the prisoner flat. “For this, you will meet with the same! Come, my friends! We set sail! This prisoner will be executed for his crimes against our people, in public, that our enemies may know that what we suffer at their hands, they will suffer too!”
The prisoner did not move as Imerre determinedly left the ship, headed for the Brave, beached nearby. Amaris joined Evorlette and Karet. Karet was sobbing deeply now, into Evorlette’s shoulder. Amaris, hoping that she would be alright, watched her for a moment before heading off the gangplank and onto the sand, removing the securing lines and preparing to set sail. She knew that Karet would be an emotional wreck, and not much help during the voyage, and silently she prayed that the two of them could make it back. She remembered, though, that the Pure had only Rend and…..
She was suddenly awakened to a realization that Rend could not hope to sail home alone. Where was he, anyway? What had befallen him?
She released the line she was about to loosen, and charged after Egorias and Imerre.
She didn’t have to cry out. Both men turned as she arrived. Imerre quickly wondered why she would act with such haste— but he did not have to wonder long. His eyes widened with realization as soon as she reached them.
“Rend…” he muttered.
Amaris choked down the words she was about to speak, and simply nodded.
“You two look for him,” Egorias suggested. “I’ll have the Brave ready when you get back.”
“Understood,” Amaris and Imerre answered in unison. The two were already charging their way back to the Honest, the realization lending their battle-weary limbs new strength. They shot right past the Honest, however. Amaris gave Evorlette a quick wave as they passed, and a brief explanation that they would return soon, with Rend. Evorlette seemed to understand, and remarked that she would care for Karet.
With succinct nods, Amaris and Imerre continued their run.
After a brief period of sprinting, the pair settled into a leisurely jog, and finally, just a walk. Dawn broke above the horizon, but they paid it little heed. Imerre was confident enough in Rend’s abilities, worried as he was, that he was the first to slow, and Amaris, in spite of constant training, soon found herself tiring out, her body remembering all that it had been through in such a short time.
They walked side by side, their expressions grave and resolute.
“My brother will probably be somewhere around the camp we destroyed,” Imerre reasoned. “Remember, it was Ketsu who lit that beacon, and the two would not have strayed far from each other.”
“We have no proof that Ketsu was in that camp,” she answered. “None of us have seen head nor tail of either of them. Nonetheless, it’s as good a place to start as any.” Both paused briefly. “I wasn’t aware that Rend was your brother,” she added cautiously.
“My elder by two years,” Imerre replied. “Stubborn as a goat, but resourceful as a sly fox. Those islander fiends will not have taken him.” He lifted his head slightly, and sniffed. “The scent of smoke carries on the wind. We’re close.”
In moments, the camp- or what remained of it- was in view. It was lined by a thin veil of gray, hanging about it in a gloomy pall, an intangible, translucent funeral shroud. Bodies were strewn about wantonly on the grass. Amaris knew that many of these were lives that she had taken personally. If battle, the glorious heat of the moment, were heavenly, and the destruction that came after were satanic darkness, then this, the stillness and coldness that came after the destruction, was purgatory. The place was motionless, calm, as if accepting of the cruel fate that had befallen it.
She could only stare. Where before she was conflicted, now she was simply horrified. She had done… this? She had committed this sin, created this abominable horror? She felt… wretched. Dirty. Soiled. There, in the grass, lay the body of a child, its mouth open in the horror of death, its insides exposed to the sun and the elements. The darkness and chaos had been so absorbing before… was this what her heaven looked like when shown in the light? It was no heaven at all. War was evil. It was all evil.
All her life had been spent in training for this. This hideous abomination. This monstrous deed. How could she continue it now, knowing that this was its fruition? She knew right then that she would never take another life. She knew right then, that she would probably never even raise a weapon after that moment. Her days of war had ended as soon as they began. It was not for her. And while training had held its promise of adventure and glory, it never spoke of horrors. Training dummies did not bleed, did not die. Training dummies did not lie on the cold grass, their mouths open in soundless screams, their bodies so cold, so pale, so motionless… She would never fight again.
Birdsong soon began to fill the silence, and Amaris looked to the skies, seeing flocks of migratory birds in flights northward. Nature marched ever on, uncaring to the lives lost, uncaring to her abominable sin. But how could she allow herself to be forgiven by nature, when she had destroyed a part of its course? She felt that she could weep, but tears would not come to her pale, staring face. She was too stunned at what she’d done. The most intense grievances are the ones that are too intense to handle. Her mind had switched off, fearing that to allow such a sadness to fill her would be suicidal.
Why did she do this? Why? For Prye? Was one life worth so much more than many? Why had she killed them all? Why had she destroyed the innocent? Why had she even pursued this path?
Imerre saw something ahead, and her line of thought was cut. She followed him silently, but could not keep her eyes from those of the dead. They stared at her, emotionless, and in their apathy accused her.
They asked the same of her.
She had no answer to give. She was… a murderer. Someone horrible. Someone who did not deserve to live. She had to pay for her crimes. She had to pay with her own life.
Rend knelt in the ruin ahead, unmoving and still. He had his back to them. Imerre and Amaris approached slowly. And Rend turned when he heard their approach at last.
“Brother,” he moaned. “Death seems to be chasing me.”
Imerre frowned deeply. “Then Ketsu is dead,” he remarked expressionlessly.
Rend bowed his head. “And there is more than that. A boy from the village stowed away on our vessel. I left him there while I went to rescue Ketsu… I was too late for both. When I arrived here, Ketsu was already dead. When I went back, so was the boy, and the Pure was destroyed.” He rose, looking around him. “Death is everywhere. The air, the grass. They all stink of death. I don’t know how much longer I have left…”
Amaris remained silent. She’d felt it too, the stench of death in everything around her. Was it only here? No… She’d felt it at the Brave, too. She felt it when they were walking back. She could see it in Rend. Could Rend see it in her?
Walking slowly toward Rend, Imerre clapped him on the shoulder with an armored hand. “You will be alright. We’re here to take you back.”
Rend raised his own hand, and gripped Imerre’s shoulder tightly. They stood like that a moment, then they both turned and walked toward Amaris, making for the path that led back to the Brave and the Honest.
“This place was torched,” Rend noted. “But it was done long before I arrived. Who did this?” Amaris paled, but Rend, it seemed, had asked the question rhetorically, for he continued. “So many did not need to die. Too many have died already. We came to find Prye… we did not come to kill.”
Amaris was glad that he was not looking at her, for he would have seen her begin to tremble, biting her lip to prevent the numberless tears that were ready to fall.
Imerre, however, was looking, and noticed. He gave her a wide-eyed stare, but said nothing.
They reached the ships, and they were off before noon.
Rend joined the crew of the Brave, sailing with Egorias, Imerre, and Tymathaen. Amaris sailed on the Honest, with Evorlette and the all-too-still Karet. Karet hardly moved, and was no aid to the vessel’s voyage whatsoever. Amaris was grateful that the Honest did not require too much effort to sail, short-handed as they were. She did not believe that she’d be much help if she’d had to do any more- it was all she could take to do what she had to without breaking down into an emotional wreck. She could not simply get over what she had done. She felt scarred, impure, in every moment. She felt unworthy of friendship.
She stared out to sea, her eyes blank, in those moments when nothing needed doing.
She had made a pact that she would never fight again, but was that enough? No! She had the blood of countless innocents on her hands! Her soul was black, stained by the ashes of all that she had burned. And when she closed her eyes, she saw that face, that terrible face, of the child who lay still and unmoving in the grass, his mouth open in a soundless scream, his eyes staring blankly into hers, accusingly.
Was anything even worth fighting for? What cause was worth that terrible thing called death? She’d led the charge in her terrible haste and bloodthirstiness. She’d stained her friends. She’d stained herself.
Evorlette came, suddenly, and stood beside her. She whispered. “Did you see Egorias’s wings? They’re black… He says it happened when he flew through the ash cloud to reach us. Imerre was stained, too.”
Amaris said the words before she even thought them, so sudden was her response. She nearly interrupted Evorlette. “We are all stained,” she whispered back.
They were both silent after that. No more words were spoken during that trip- not by anyone.
* * * * * * * * * *
He wouldn’t open his eyes again. This was his final moment- the last remembrance.
Rend, brother of Imerre.
This was the final scene of the tragedy- and, ultimately, the one that had decided it. A final vengeance had been taken, a perfect reflection of all that they had done. They were paid back for what had happened on the mainland- completely.
The “pale ones” of mainland myth were erased from the world, and the only ones that remained hovered uncaring in their shining fortress in the sky. He would lift his hand and smite them for their neglectful abandonment, had he only the power… but he was far too weak, and would be forevermore.
In death, perhaps he could haunt them.
* * * * * * * * * *
With a click and a loud groan, the door unlocked and was opened. The room filled with light, but all that the nameless prisoner could see were the silhouettes of two figures ahead of him. Wincing, he shied away from them, crawling backwards toward the wall behind.
“Don’t be afraid,” a masculine voice implored. “We are here to help you.”
The nameless prisoner spat, and laughed. “What reason would you have to help me?”
“Guilt,” answered the other voice, certainly female.
Upon hearing this, the prisoner realized that the voices were familiar… a bit too familiar for comfort. “Step out of the light, so I can see you.”
They did as he instructed. To his left, the prisoner saw the one called Rend, and to his right, Amaris- the one who had captured him in the first place.
Bowing his head, the prisoner frowned and would not meet their gaze. “This is a trick,” he surmised.
“What would we stand to gain from tricking you?” asked Amaris. “You are a man with nothing left to offer us.”
Laughing humorlessly, the prisoner replied, “You would gain sport. A running target is more fun to kill. And where would I go? This is an island, you fools. I gain nothing from freedom but death.”
Rend growled. “Is there any way that we can prove that we won’t hurt you?”
“Let me stay in my cell, where it’s safe.”
Suddenly, Amaris looked at Rend. Tears began to run down her face, and she bit her lip to halt them. She gazed at the prisoner briefly, then back to Rend, then began to mutter a solution. “I will go with you, as your prisoner. I will take you off the island, and I will stay with you once we arrive at the mainland. Rend will take your place in the cell, so that you may know that the words I speak are true.”
“Why do you help me?” asked the prisoner.
Amaris looked away. “I have done something terrible. Something that you were witness to. I wish… I wish to atone for my sins.”
Rising, the prisoner paused a moment, looking over both with still-cynical glares. “Fair enough,” he replied at length. “Let’s get going.”
“I will remain,” Rend told the air, as the two left. He heard the door shut and lock behind him, while Amaris and the former prisoner escaped without pursuit.
Rend sat in the cell, just where the prisoner had been, awaiting the hour of judgment.
The island would never hear of Amaris again.
When the door opened later that morning, it was Egorias, finally come to check on his prisoner and declare his sentence before the city. Rend had taken the prisoner’s same position in the corner of the room, head slouched to rest on his knees, and for a moment and only a moment Egorias thought that Rend was the prisoner. When he raised his head, however, emotions of rage and shock flooded into him quick enough to lure out a stare and a gasp.
“Where has he gone!?” he demanded sharply.
“Calm, Egorias,” Rend responded smoothly, stretching out a hand as he rose to his feet. “Let me explain.”
Egorias began to shout. “Be quick about it!”
Rend remained cool, keeping a level head that was rather unlike his usual nature. “Too many have died, my friend. I know you see this. To take this poor man’s life would be exactly what they did to Prye, to Falden, or to Ketsu. We have seen enough blood spilled in these past few days to last a lifetime.”
Egorias glared at the other hotly, and Rend began to realize that while Egorias stood in full armor, with a sword at his side, he himself was unarmed. “You have admitted to treason!” Egorias cried. “Their blood cries for vengeance!”
“This man was guilty of no wrong!”
“You do not know that!”
“We should not seek war with these people! Did we not come in the name of peace?”
“I will hear no more of your banter, traitor!” Egorias drew his blade, and the flashing sun from beyond the open door reflected blindingly into Rend’s eyes. Egorias dashed forward, and the blade met Rend’s heart before he could finish wincing from the blinding sunlight.
His mouth hung open in pain and shock, and he could choke out no more words of peace and forgiveness. In his final moments, Rend looked to Egorias, who stood gazing intensely at him with an executioner’s glare. Hot tears flooded down his face as he gasped for air, his broken lungs drowning in the blood of his torn heart. Heavenward, he looked, though he could see only the ceiling.
Finally, Rend fell, and a puddle formed around his body.
Egorias stared down at the man he had just killed. “You were my friend, once,” he mused. “But not anymore. Farewell, Rend.” He pulled the sword from Rend’s chest, wiping the bloodied edge on Rend’s cloak.
Turning on his heel, he sheathed the blade and walked away, having no regrets.
The moment he left, he beheld the chaos. The city was aflame, and the mainland folk ravaged the streets with swords and spears. Women and children were cut down by the natives who had followed Egorias and his group back to their island. They were to be paid back for the city they had burned, and then some. There would be no prisoners, there would be no negotiation. They would all be killed.
This gave Egorias the perfect cover he needed to flee the scene of his grievous crime, and to blame it on the invaders. He did fight to protect the city, and later would meet up with Evorlette, who knew nothing of his murder.
Egorias would soon become the only survivor among his kin.
* * * * * * * * * *
There were ten victims of horrible fate, now. Prye, Falden, Ketsu, Karet, Tymathaen, Amaris, Rend, Evorlette, Imerre… and Egorias. Having completed his dismal remembrances, Egorias, the sole survivor, was now ready to die and pass on into the next world.
But he would not.
As his mind slipped into death, he found something there, something in the blackness that hangs between worlds. It was a thread, a thick cord that bound him to the land of the living. This cord would not allow him to die. It clung to him like a desperate lover, begging him not to pass on. And as he examined it, this cord that bound him to life, he found that it was black, blacker than night, blacker than onyx and shadow and anything he had ever known.
That cord was the color of vengeance. On its unbreakable lengths were written runes, runes of promise. They spoke of a forgotten magic, a magic which one might use to rebuke death, to master it and make it one’s own ally. With it, the cord promised, he would be able to reclaim his friends from death. He would be able to create an army that served his every whim. With it, he might burn down every city of the so-hated mainlanders who had killed the ones he loved.
The cord spoke of a magic of undeath, of binding one’s soul to the material plane. It spoke of a magic called “Lich”.
Egorias heeded the promise of the shadowy cord, and found that his soul returned to his body, bit by bit, as he listened to the words. But as he returned, he felt his body become cold, lifeless, dead. He was no longer a creature of life, or of death, but something between.
He had become the Lich King, Zegorias, Lord of the Dead— an avatar of vengeance.