The night was always the loneliest time for Tredan. He remembered years ago a time when he never felt this way. Was it a decade? Two? After so long, keeping track had lost its importance, and wandering the world had become Tredan’s only occupation.
His new life had begun at the end of the war, when the Havat empire invasion had put Tredan’s homelands under their control. The war had lasted less than a year and the soldiers Tredan had fought alongside had either been killed or enslaved. All of them except Tredan, for he had seen the defeat coming and at the last charge abandoned his post.
Fleeing to the woods he looked back to see fires breaking out atop the castle walls. Tredan ran until the screams of his people were finally silenced, then until the guilt was finally outweighted by exhaustion. After days of running, he was lost deep in the forest of Balisk. He searched aimlessly for a road, or even a hunting trail. It had been a month–at least it felt like a month–before Tredan found other people.
He took refuge with the village’s blacksmith for a time until he had earned enough to travel on. He left that place in the dead of night; too many knew of his old platoon, the Black Wolves, and their many exploits in the ever declining defense of their country. They had tried–by the gods, they had tried–year after year to stem the invasion.
Failure still gripped Tredan no matter how much he drank and no matter how far he ran. And now, years later in the midst of unfamiliar forests, he gripped himself tight by the fire. He was shaking from the strain as the faces of his comrades raged at him from the flames.
He was still wandering the next day aimlessly walking a trail to an unknown destination. It had been so long since he had seen a village. He had no food, no water, and only his old sword at his belt. His thoughts of nourishment fled as he left the forest’s edge, looking out at the old ruins of a castle, its remains scorched and overgrown with vegetation.
This was his home. The place he had fought so hard to defend and run for so long to forget. Walking the grounds again depleted him of emotion. This place had not even been worth rebuilding. He attempted to fill the ruined halls the memories he still had. Tredan fell to all fours weeping at his cowardice, until the growls of an animal pulled him back. The largest wolf he had ever seen looked down at him with from a roof top. Eyes as yellow as the harvest moon, and mid-night black fur bristling at Tredan’s intrusion. The falling sun masked the beast’s movement as Tredan drew his blade for the last time.
Aleine was running harder than she had ever thought possible, sucking in the warm air and exhaling with a hiss as she bolted across the open water. The water walk technique which was so embedded in her body over the past decade was taxing to her magic. She spun around on one of her steps and balanced as she froze more of the area. Feeling the heat rise up her scaled skirt and over her bare legs, the flush of warmth soothed the ache in her muscles.
She scanned the dense foliage for any sign of movement, keeping her eyes moving while she pulled her bow from her shoulders. She felt the worn grip of her recurve bow with a light metal spine in the wood. It was almost older than she was, but strong enough to handle the magically aided draw that she put on it.
Nocking an arrow, she caught the scent of burned flesh tinging the air and a moment later her prey burst forth from the tree line. Aleine had lured the Toridea towards the village so they wouldn’t have to carry it far. Now was her shot–the beast had taken a few arrows already, it was angry, and its acidic saliva ran like a river all its own. The great reptile outweighed three grown men and was able to glide through water silently when it wasn’t enraged.
This one was, however; its gills flared and eyes widened as it stared down towards Aleine. She drew her arrow back, the comforting sound of the strain filling her ear over the thrashing of the charging beast. In the span of a heartbeat, as the Toridea’s front feet reached the height of its step, she released the arrow.
The long thin head whistled as it sped through the space between prey and hunter. After years under the best marksman in the village, Aleine’s aim was nearly as good. In a spray of blood and saliva the beast fell into a forward roll from its interrupted momentum. With a second arrow loosed into the under belly the beast was fished, its few remaining breaths labored and wheezy.
“Good shot,” Hafwen called to her from the shore line, as a smirk cracked her stony face. She had raised and mentored Aleine for nearly two decades, all for the trials she would face tomorrow on her twentieth birthday.
The large wooden doors to the village opened and a group of men walked out nodding politely to Hafwen. As they approached Aleine, who was slushing through the river towards the shore, a few patted her shoulder and gave passing praise. Aleine looked over to Hafwen who was shaking her head and pointing to her kill. After all this time she hounded Aleine to keep up her basics, and now wanted her to retrieve her arrows.
As she lowered her head and turned to her task, one of the younger men was still beside her.
“Care for a lift?” his voice cracked a little making Aleine smile as she accepted. He hoisted her upon one shoulder and continued to the kill. The men in the Misten’s tribes where large mountains of honed muscle, their natural strength letting them maintain the villages. The men generally stayed at the village as defense and also building and repairing building, a task made much easier by their ability to work in chest-deep water.
With the day’s hunt done, Aleine returned through the gates of the Aquar Equian tribe’s Village, where the preparations for Aleine’s trials were already under way.
Hafwen paced on the deck in the mid-day sun absently playing with the braid in her hair. She had been hunting in the forest when the messenger from Celestaon had summoned her. She had never actually spoken to the eldest of the village; few did, but fewer still were summoned personally.
Now anxiety was setting in after spending all morning waiting for the elder on her porch. Hafwen had trained to function without sleep, but four days was pushing it. She watched all the people breaking for a meal and heading towards the communal house. The smell of seasoned meat had been filling the air and taunting her for the past couple of hours.
A couple of builders passed close to the deck and glanced up at Hafwen with broad smiles and flexing arms. She smiled back as best her weary mind would allow. They continued on, leaving Hafwen to fall on the railing of the porch and repeatedly tapping it with her forehead in frustration.
“You will injure that pretty face child,” a gentle voice cooed to Hafwen, sending her into a surprised attack pose that she almost landed.
The full chested laugh of woman over a hundred years old was a wheezy, chirping sound. It was almost as embarrassing to Hafwen as the barely stable footing she found.
“Elder Celestaon!” Hafwen said hurriedly once her mind was at ease again.
“Come in child. I am sure you could use some rest.” The old woman waved a hand as she opened the door to her home.
The threshold of the Celestaon’s home was like a portal to some other world. The smells of a thousand herbs and the cool air that caressed her skin was in sharp contrast to the world outside. Misten was a marsh drenched nearly all year long, where everything your senses perceived came with an overtone of wet. The Elder sat in a chair covered with the furs of half a dozen beasts and stared at Hafwen.
“My child, I will come to the point.” The old woman’s eyes had a fierceness to them that stunned Hafwen. “I have asked your Constelari all about you in the days since you were sent hunting. They tell me you are solitary; that you spend your days training, and have honed yourself into one of our finest hunters. You are also a devote woman wise beyond your elders.”
“Thank you.” Hafwen’s words came out meek, as she thought, why was Celestaon praising her?
Celestaon wasn’t smiling though. “What I am about to ask you will be more difficult than any beast you’ve faced. You have been given a Starlen, starting today.”
Hafwen was speechless. Given a Starlen—the tribe’s term for young member. They were never given like this; she had thought to take on a Starlen in a few years—everyone did eventually, as it was a responsibility to the tribe. Taking in a child to raise them, watch them, and eventually welcome them into your own Constelari.
The soft footfalls of the Celestaon’s handmaiden pulled Hafwen from her thoughts of imposed responsibility. The small girl carried a squirming blanket over to Hafwen who reached for the child with trembling hands. Pulling the child up to her chest caused the blanket to fall, slightly exposing the baby to the humid air of the cabin.
Hafwen stared at the markings on the child and in disbelief stared down her own loose shirt to her markings. She cast a glance to the elder, the highest authority in the Aquar Eques tribe. Celestaon laced her fingers, resting her wrinkled chin in them, and said, “her name is Aleine, and she is going to have a very trying life. We must do what we can while she is with us.”
In hurried movements the Celestaon grabbed up the baby as the other elders pushed her a path through the crowd. The moment of wondering bought her time to escape the questioning and get to her home. The still early morning chill hung in the air and after a night of preforming the illumination the Celestaon was weary. Down the wooden steps she hurried to the watery lands, and, as she reached the edge of the steps, she prepared to run across the waterway.
As her bare foot was about to strike the surface she reached out with her Reach and pushed the heat out from the surface and below. A process so second nature it took little thought at her age. The slabs of frozen water contrasted to her warmed skin but each step of contact was so brief most were barely noticed.
Behind her she heard the uproar of her tribe members. This was unheard of, but she couldn’t let them see the child’s mark. The tribe has no place for anomalies—every member must fit. This needed thought, and she feared the direction of impulsive Constalari leaders.
Celestaon’s home was close now, a place few would invade out of the respect her role demanded. The simple clay home was built on to a large wooden platform upon stilts to save it from the harsh change in tides and the natural swamp conditions. She finally reached the set of steps to her home and turned to see a couple of elders escorting the parents by canoe. She pushed through the door and into her home, the scent of herbs welcoming her. The gentle stirrings of her guest pulled her from relaxing, and she began absentmindedly rocking the child.
Celestaon sat at a table as the door opened and in shuffled the parents and the elder for the Merchant Constalri. Outside the arguing of the clan trailed in behind them.
“What is going on?” the mother asked worry etched in her words and the on father’s face.
Celestaon simply looked between them and their child, “She doesn’t have any markings for our clans.”
The parents starred uncomprehending how this could happen to their child. “What does this mean?” the father asked, wrapping his arm around his wife.
The other elder had the same quizzical look; she had never heard of such a thing before. She stepped over to Celestaon’s chair and looked down at the now awake child. They had named her Aleine, and she was squirming with her eyes darting around unable to focus on any one thing.
“We will have to convene the other Elders to ultimately decide,” Celestaon’s words still held a muted tone, “but her mark is troubling.”
Celestaon unwrapped the child showing them the markings that formed a faint eight pointed star. No more than a fingers length in diameter but clear as day. Every clan member from the seven tribes of Misten went through the Illumination produced a few spots that helped place them in one of the seven trades. Everyone had a place; a purpose, and this bound them to their fellow tribe members. Aleine had nothing like the rest and her place could not be determined with such a showing. To followers of the seven celestial chiefs she may as well not be of the Misten clans.
“We will most likely have to exile this child; she will be cast into the other lands of Savea.”
Celestaon knew the child’s odds. Misten was one of the southern most countries. To wonder the wilds alone was the end of all but the most experienced mages, and they must give her up to the wayward nature of fate.
August 21st, 1931.
I am writing this brief prologue as an insight into my thoughts today versus those of my time at the estate of Professor Bjorn Heimdall’s mysterious acquaintance. It was at his request that I had made the journey from my position here in Maryland to meet with him. Under all other circumstances, our relation to each other would have been cut down to that one particular visit of his. It was a miracle then that I met with him after the conference at the Barnett College in 1923. I had never been more excited to have met someone who shared my interest in the less appreciated ideas pitched around the proverbial campfire.
Heimdall and I shared a particular fondness for ancient civilizations. Though not by any means the only ones, we two were among the quiet minority of those who fancied the idea of entire time periods left forgotten, and that the age of our world was even greater than any representative of science could have guessed. We had our reasoning for such things, but I would rather not recount them here so openly. I would urge all who read my pages to reconsider at once before you damn yourself to a fate no soul should experience.
Perhaps though, you have that very thirst for adventure I once had. I can only hope the rest of my journal serves well to dissuade you from potentially catching your death.
– Doctor Louis Hampton, Archaeology Department at Century University.
November 6th, 1927
Today, I had been welcomed. I was quite surprised to learn that we would stay the night in Lord Aldragar Covington’s castle, as Heimdall knew him as a friend and supporter of his research. The place itself was far more impressive on the exterior than any manor house I’d seen, but being here in the flesh only helped. I find myself with the help of a guide who had insisted upon hurrying back to catch up with an issue regarding his family at home.
I had run into Heimdall a short distance from the place and we embraced each other for a moment, before taking to a carriage afforded by our gracious host. We had been informed that Lord Aldragar was attending to personal matters and would not return for some time. We were treated to hot meals and the roar of a fireplace as the two of us made haste to catch up with each other’s latest exploits. I had asked Heimdall of Lord Aldragar and how they had come to know each other.
Heimdall’s explanation had caught me off guard: He himself once told me that our own encounter was a miracle, and it helped that we had similar interests. His description of how he came to know our benevolent host seemed unlike him, as he stated he was drawn to the man’s eccentric nature and enthusiasm for seemingly hopeless pursuits. Still, I should be open to see the other fellow who held favor with the Professor. He insisted on moving his discussion to other topics though, and I obliged him. He spoke a great deal on society after the fall of near utopian Atlantis. This night, he seemed particularly focused on his studies into the metal called Orichalcum. It was rumored to have been only second in worth to gold among the Atlanteans and had occult basis as being capable of amplifying an energy—such as electricity many times over. Aldragar had funded Heimdall in the hopes of finding some of this metal, or any other artifacts. He offered me his energy when speaking on his discovery. It was odd then that he would suddenly halt and forget what had happened next.
“I will retire early.” he said, his voice gone monotone.
“From our business or for the night?” I mused, trying to get a chuckle. I had no such luck, as he departed without banter. When I took to my chamber, I found it almost as cold as the outside and took to the heavy blankets, cocooning myself in the hopes that I could be transferred to a new room once Lord Aldragar had returned.
November 7th, 1927
My first encounter with Lord Aldragar was perhaps the most offensive I’ve had with anyone in my entire life. I can accept theory, but he seemed to challenge me at every turn. I could not help but gaze into his eyes, whose brown shade seemed rusty red to my eye. Heimdall did not speak much for me, offering more of his vigor for Aldragar. It seemed insulting that he would go to such lengths to make a fool out of me. I had the remainder of my breakfast and left immediately after. No more did I want to see Bjorn’s greying beard scratched, or the ghoulish countenance of Lord Aldragar.
I should note that I can’t find much by way of more recent conveniences here in the castle. Aldragar said that the castle was a harder place to renovate. Still, he’d promised it was remote enough for us to do our business without prying eyes or fears. To my surprise I was not granted a new room, and left with the chilly one. Rather than argue with my host, I sought to examine some of the possessions he had here. I had quite enough of Aldragar for the time being.
None of Aldragar’s more recent acquisitions were housed here, so it was all antique. The place was mostly filled with heirlooms. I recognized some prominently displayed 11th century pieces, such as armor and weaponry. They were well preserved, and the veteran in me could not help but take up a sword. During the Great War, I had fought in the U.S. 3rd Cavalry Regiment. I once again knew the feel of a saber as I inspected a half open case and found a remarkable silver blade. I took the moment to test it, and found myself enamored with how it handled. My intermission had been interrupted by Aldragar however, who offered a hiss and attempted to take the blade from me. He recoiled in pain however, having attempted to grasp the blade itself.
“Doctor Hampton! Away from my collection!” he’d barked at me. Lord Aldragar looked to be in pain, perhaps having cut himself on the blade. He accepted no excuse, and hurried me out with a malicious glare. I eventually saw him once again as I passed through the halls, unseen as I saw him take raw meat into his hands. He slurped them into his mouth and mashed them with his teeth. The most striking aspect though were that in the blink of an eye, I could have sworn his canines were on par with the tusks of a boar. His snide features seemed more grotesque with each savage bite, and I had to force myself to look away.
I did not dare to run, but I still had to slip away before he could catch me. If he knew I stood as witness to his actions then my life would be forfeit.
The still night’s chill pushed them into the embrace of their tribal elders. Arrayed in all corners of the large log building where the bodies of old crones had filled the area’s space that was not filled with the smoke of incense and pipes. The loving couple stared at the still bundle they carried; their eyes glazed with the thoughts of what fate would hold. As they handed the bundle to the eldest of the tribe a small gurgled coo caught the ear of all present. The moment following the outburst hung in the air as everyone waited for it to pass into silence and mumbles once more. Cloaked in robes of reed and scales six woman circled a small pedestal at the center. Then with the silence of stars the elder placed the bundled child on the stone marker as she joined the circle.
To begin the child must be asleep and secure in its infant mind that all was well. The eldest of the tribe a bony woman who had forsaken her name long ago for the title of Celestaon, as our speaker to the stars. She unwrapped the babe smooth in her motion as she did with all children ready for their Illumination. She spoke the names of the Seven Celestial Chiefs those great beings that held the dark at bay. The elder invoked their attention to look upon the new member of their tribe with grace.
The parents kneeling in anxiety as their hopes for their child were not their own now. Both the man and woman had been deemed merchants to trade with other clans and even the people beyond the land of Misten. Their fate much like their child’s was set with this very ritual so many years ago.
Finally, the prayers ended and chants began as the Eldest placed her hand upon the chest of the baby. She felt its warmth and the flutter of its heart beneath her wrinkled palm. With the subtlest of senses, she focused her magic’s reach upon the center of the child’s chest.
From within the babe gently at first came her own raw magic, liquid and glittering in its form. So benign in nature but leaving its mark none the less, the stain all mages bore for pushing their magic out into the world. The raw magic was trickling slowly out and the marks subtle blemishes at first began darkening.
A set would appear before the child awoke and ended the ritual. This would tell them the child was almost out of its magic as the body would fight the pull as only it could.
The cries of the child brought every one’s attention to the end of the ceremony. Waiting for the Celestaon to announce where the new member of their tribe would belong. The leaders of each Constalri shouldered their way to the center ready to embrace the child should she belong. After the crones huddled around the child they called for the Star-chart to find the closest match to the speckles of stain the magic would have left. As the lingering anticipation grew no answer came, all were left guessing.
*** This is a short story that will be published in this years Exit 109. The arts and literary magazine will be up for grabs at The Octopus Garden Premier on April 18 at Heth Plaza from 4:00-6:00pm! Come see us and grab your own copy to read this short story and view many other pieces! ***
Bethany clicked “Send” and her message posted to the forum. She had been sending messages back and forth with Matt for a little less than three months now. When she had first been contacted by Matt’s screen name, “USNavalstud”, she figured that he was some loser. She had him pegged as a sad, bored, married man in his early thirties who resented his family, career, and life; and, for the most, she was right. He was a frightened little man who only flirted with a sexual identity online.
He was fun to flirt with. They would chat about risque subject matters; various sexual scenarios they dreamed of, fantasies which he never dared share with his wife. One night, she snapped a photo of herself in just her bra and panties; he fell silent for a few minutes, and then asked if she wanted a picture of him in return. Playing the part of a good tease, she said that she could wait as she had to go to bed.
Bethany had not been lying on that account, she was a freshman in the local community college and she had Intro to Statistics at 8am. She knew that Matt would be practically chewing on his keyboard until he could send her a picture of what would most likely be his erect penis. He would have to wait. After Intro to Statistics, Bethany was meeting her best friend and partner in crime, Emma, for lunch and a study date. After which, she had Composition at 2pm and then US History at 4pm.
Emma gabbed at her about the new Hollywood Undead album on iTunes around mouthfuls of a flat-bread salad wrap. Bethany couldn’t help but think about Matt. She had all but figured out exactly how she would seduce, and then have, this new guy. Emma had to throw a ring of sliced onion at her to get her attention.
“You’re playing with fire,” Emma said, “Meeting guys for sex on the Internet? Are you stupid or just tired of life on this planet?”
“Whatever. They’re all alike – they think with their dicks.” Bethany waved off Emma’s chiding by pointing out that in the past two years she had become quite the man eater. It was true. From her first encounter at 16 to her recent foray into BDSM; men were but playthings to her and they all thought with their dicks. She always came out satisfied, glutted, and repleted. Only one had ever escaped her, Jason; a 36 year old welder. Jason was an odd one. Aside from having a strange obsession about salt in his food, he had a knack for avoiding messy situations and a kind of luck that was just uncanny.
“Ever see that movie, ‘Strange Land?’” asked Emma around a half-chewed mouthful of what seemed to be chicken salad. “Where Dee Snyder plays a psycho and meets girls online and then tortures them?”
Bethany laughed. “No one is going to want to torture me when they see tits like this.” She grabbed her bosoms and squeezed for emphasis. “Besides, all of that stuff about serial killers online is urban legend.”
“So, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and New Orleans John were all legend? Try reading a book sometime.”
Before she was able to offer up any more on the subject, she was cut off loudly by Bethany. “Tits!” Not only was she squeezing her breasts, but now she had hopped up and was trying to hit Emma in the head with them. Emma did her best to glower as she almost lost the last of her salad but quickly gave in and laughed with her best friend.
He looked at the pegboard on the wall of his workshop. Refusing to become a creature of habit, he perused the selection before him. One must not grow stagnant and remain with the same instrument for too long, after all. Systematically he went over every tool which hung before him. After several long moments, he selected the three-pound sledge hammer, lifted it from its pegs on the board and placed it into a brown leather duffel bag.
Bethany had been driving for over three hours now and was beginning to merge onto I-40 W when the psychic i-Pod began playing “Still Remains” by The Stone Temple Pilots. This was her most recent “favorite” song, having discovered it about two months ago on the local classic rock radio station. She adjusted the volume slightly inside of her white Escort and began to sing along with Scott Weiland. She hoped that she and Matt would be able to make love while this song played.
Slightly annoyed that Emma had bowed out of acting as safety net and travel companion, Bethany cracked open a Red Bull with one hand and sipped tentatively. As the song ended, she grunted her disapproval in her choice of energy drinks. “This lone wolf shit is for the birds. How any guy does it is beyond me.” Emma’s alleged excuse for bailing on her this weekend was studying. More likely that Emma was jonesing for some Black Ops and the PlayStation Network was hosting a double experience point weekend.
Bethany refused to allow the lack of Emma to turn the weekend into a total wash. However, if Matt was a no show or even worse — a sissy, a troll, ten years older than his pictures suggested or some gimp – she would simply excuse herself outside of his hotel room because she forgot her bag of toys in the car. Then, she would run like hell.
Of course, once freed of the undesirable, she had a weekend to kill in Nashville. Jason had once mentioned a place called Jack’s World Famous Barbecue. With a guy like Jason, this place was most likely worth checking out. Saturday would be leisurely sightseeing. If she was in no rush to come home early on Sunday, the Titans were hosting the Carolina Panthers.
First things first, she decided; don’t put the cart before the horse. She would first find out if she was getting laid tonight. Then, she would have a bite to eat.
It was just slightly past 8 when she finally arrived at the hotel. The sun had fully set, and the sounds of a Nashville night were beginning to stir. Even before she set foot out of her white Escort, she had made up her mind that she loved this city. She sent a text to Emma letting her know that she had arrived. Three minutes later, with no answer from Emma, Bethany checked her makeup in the rear view, grabbed her overnight bag and got out of the car.
After the final set of texts with Matt confirming the room number, Bethany knocked on door 214. As she watched the shadows move across the small peep hole, she immediately snapped herself into something that most would consider to be good posture. The door slowly opened, revealing a tall man with short cropped brown hair, large brown eyes, and a spattering of freckles. He was of an average build wearing a green and black rugby polo and khakis. He smiled shyly at her. If this was indeed “Matt”, then he was even more of a loser than she had imagined.
Awkward, she noticed a slight twinge in her stomach. Not butterflies or the anticipation of a new lover’s first kiss. Something different.
“Why do these guys always look better in their pictures,” she wondered to herself. “Matt?” she said, giving a beaming smile.
He smiled a little more widely. “Yeah…”
“Oh. My. God! It is so good to meet you!” She hopped up and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on the cheek.
A whiff of the fragrance he was wearing made her frown slightly against his neck. It was light, not too overpowering, Notes of sugar, vanilla and something fruity.
She drew back and looked up at him, fluttering her eyelashes and then breathlessly whispered “Are you going to invite me in, baby?”
He blushed despite himself and smiled. It was quite genuine, and she was suddenly glad for her smoldering display. He stepped back and to the left and allowed her to come inside. As he was closing the door, he slipped the “Do Not Disturb” sign onto the outer handle.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs at the knees and smiled at him. He regarded her briefly and looked down at his lap in which his hands were folded. “How was your drive?”
Bethany was now beginning to lose her patience and decided to take the bull by the horns right there and then. She slipped off her sandals, and stood up, stretching as she did so.
“Well, I have been on the road for the better part of six hours…” she began as she pulled her top off over her head and dropped it on the floor. She reached behind herself, unclasping her bra and sliding it off of her shoulders and down her arms allowing her breasts to spill out. “… and I am all sorts of tense”. She walked slowly towards him and without waiting for any nod of approval, sat down in his lap and kissed him fully on the mouth. “Do you know where a girl like me can relieve some tension?”
It was not long at all before he had her tied to the bed. In fact, Bethany could have sworn that Matt broke some sort of speed record for getting a woman’s hands secured to a headboard. Her hands had been tied with nylon cord that went around the back of the headboard and hung across the bed knobs which adorned the corners. Her legs were spread eagle by means of nylon cord around her ankles which ran down and between the mattress and box springs. He had allowed her a few moments to get her panties off before he tied her in place, but aside from removing his shirt, he remained dressed. He had placed a brown leather duffel bag on the dresser and was rummaging through it, probably for toys.
Growing slightly bored, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the sultriest voice she could muster. “Come on baby, get out of those pants and show me what you have for me.” She became aware of his heavy breathing and that he must be standing near her now. She smiled, opened her eyes and looked up at him.
Over his head was a sort of sack, a pillowcase perhaps . . . his eyes shining at her through two holes which had been encircled by black streaks of what was perhaps shoe polish. A horizontal line which must have been there to represent a mouth was several inches below the eyes. The sack was off white, dirty with sweat stains, dark smears and fingerprints of sienna, onyx, and viscera. She also became very aware of the large hammer which he held in his right hand over his head.
She had enough time to blurt out a rather surprised “Oh shit,”. Then the hammer plummeted towards her face.
He washed himself in the shower. The cold water sprayed over his body, and he felt calm. Lathering, rinsing, and repeating would have to wait until he got home. He did not want to leave them too much evidence, after all. As for the body, he would be taking it with him and disposing of it somewhere far away from this hotel.
He turned off the shower, stepped out and toweled himself dry. He began to dress and smugly looked at his reflection in the mirror. It was at that moment that he noticed something was terribly wrong. The mirror also held the bed in its reflection. The bed, with its gore-soaked pillow and stains; the nylon cords were still looped around the bed knobs and across the mattress. However, there was no girl. The girl, whose face was obliterated, smashed into nothingness, was not on the bed where he left her.
He took four deliberate, bold strides out of the bathroom and into the main room, stopping just before the foot of the bed. That was when something heavy, most likely his hammer, struck him in the back of the head.
He first became aware of the pain in his head and neck. Not only from the blow which had incapacitated him, but also in which the way he was sitting. He was tied to the bed, but in an upright position with his back against the headboard. He then became aware of the dryness in his mouth as well as the particular aroma of the gag in his mouth. Viewing himself in the mirror which was on the wall, it appeared that whoever had restrained him had used the girl’s panties to fashion a makeshift gag. His eyes then settled on the woman sitting in the chair by the door. Only the nude lower half of her body was visible in the low light of the room.
“A gentleman would make sure that a lady was satisfied before he finished up, you know. . . .” This was the girl’s voice, but the woman in the chair could not be her. Her legs were much longer, more muscular, and had not been shaved in weeks. The hands and forearms which rested upon the arm rests were far more rugged than the girl’s, but that was her voice, soft, sweet and mocking. The person in the chair leaned forward, her breasts considerably shrunken against the muscles of her chest and two rows of nipples running down her abdomen. “And to top it off, you just had to cum in my eye, didn’t you?” The face looking at him was hamburger. “That stings worse than anything, you know.” The face, pulling itself together resembled Bethany’s, but it was flattened, hairy, and fierce. She stood up out of the chair and walked- padded- towards the bed. What should be a five-foot-one girl was now a hunched-over Amazon of nearly eight feet. “Is this what guys like you are into?” Her voice was becoming deep, raspy, and guttural; almost as if she were beginning to growl her words rather than speak them. “I mean, is hurting a little girl what it takes to make you happy?” Her ears, pointed and broad, began to poke out of the mane of hair that was completely covering her face. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth for a long moment. “You’ve really cramped my plans for the weekend.” She looked at him one more time and then her blue eyes faded to complete black. “On the plus side, though. . .” The werewolf began to salivate. ”I won’t need to call out for dinner tonight.”
Even if the villagers had gasped, Jarren had not heard them as he made his way through the clinging brush and headed deeper into the Pines. He let no fear show on his face as he left, and had no fear on it now, for he let his anger at anything and everything overwhelm him and take control. Fear would come later. He needed to get as far away from those human monsters as possible before dying horribly by the claws and teeth of some wild one.
Jarren never slowed, walking aimlessly and allowing an emotional blindness to push common sense from his mind. He lost track of time, and after a while realization that he was lost sank in and now he faced a danger even his frantic planning had not foreseen. How was he to return now? Even if he got a kill, how would he haul the game to the village before the following morn? Where was the village? He would have cursed himself for his foolishness, but that blind drive had been the stopping factor preventing him using the bow and bringing the chief down like an animal.
It was then that he noticed how numb his legs were, that his feet felt like they were being pricked with tiny white-hot needles, and how his toes seemed to have a dead feeling that for some reason Jarren felt outweighed the other discomforts. He removed his doe-hide boots, seeing his feet swelled and toes an unhealthy bluish hue.
Jarren flexed his fingers, and discovered them through disuse as blue as his toes. Cold sweat ran down his eyes and cooled his chest as he looked around at where he had stopped. Just like at the edge of the forest, the massive pine trees seemed to have no limit. Trunk after thick trunk fractured his view of surroundings, their appearance so similar that Jarren had to rub his eyes to keep from thinking he was seeing double.
It was now that fear began to take hold, its icy fingers turning the young man’s head this way at that at noises that weren’t there and making things that flitted within the corner of his eyes. Once again he felt more helpless than an infant, for even they had someone to look out for them. All he had was the neglecting villagers and a chief who brings uneasiness to every place he goes.
Maybe it was better like this, came a doubting voice in Jarren’s head, none of them wanted you back at the village, so what better thing to happen than for you to disappear in the Pines? Why not just sit here and let your next life bring comforts stolen from you in this one? Why not—
He didn’t mean to shout, but the voice in his head made him more uneasy than he had ever felt in his life. He didn’t want to believe a word of it; wanted only to be left in peace at the cabin and live his pathetic little life. But no . . . that was not how it worked. Not now and not ever. The way of life that had governed his people demanded that every male on his fifteenth birthday be put through this rite of passage, be abandoned in the Pine Forest to collect meat and bring it back to the village for others to feed upon. Traditionally none of the first kill is fed to the hunter, for he must learn that his life will demand many sacrifices for the welfare of the village, and therefore must go without when necessary to feed those who could not provide for themselves.
These thoughts burned his mind like a fire, throwing bitterness into the stewpot and taking a turn with the ladle. The young man had to control himself, though. He had to. Jarren forced himself to lean against one of the massive pines and collect his thoughts and emotions. The day had only begun, and he could not have been walking for more than an hour. Why, then was it so dark? So eerie?
It was like nothing Jarren had ever felt before; something that crept into his subconscious and lurked like a sentient being. There was no noise, and so every breath the young man took seemed amplified out of proportion. Every adjustment his foot made in the dead, dried pine needles boomed through his thoughts. Every sound was a wolf with gleaming fangs, a bear with knives for claws.
But if there was no noise, were the fuel for his nightmares imaginary as well? It did not seem like any life could be supported here. Even deer breathe, and Jarren was sure that such a noise would break the Pine’s stillness as fully as his own beating heart. His muscles were tensed, but Jarren had still seen nothing to worry over. The longbow in his hand was strung already, and the young man did not even notice that his nervous hand had brought one precious arrow onto the string.
That is, not until he saw a shadow dart between two trees and an arrow, his own arrow, soaring swiftly from his hands and disappearing into the gloom. The realization that he had just lost one of his five arrows had not yet entered his mind before Jarren caught himself continuing to stare hard after the fleeting shade. He stood frozen for a few moments, not daring to believe that what he had seen was real. It had to be his imagination. There was no other way.
Do you hear me, Jarren? You didn’t see him. He wasn’t there!
Yet even so the young man could not help but drift his hand to the dirk resting upon his light hide belt.
Dendric awoke beside Veasson in the moonlit grassy field of Redorand’s Rebuke.
The man stood up quickly, forgetting for a moment why this simple action should have been an impossibility, and looked around for any sign of the chaos within which he had just been. Veasson’s eyes snapped open then, and he too rose to his feet.
And before them, smiling sadly, was the ghost of Redorand. In the darkness of night the spirit’s form was easily perceptible, and only when they saw him did the two’s hands fly to the wounds they had received only to find they had disappeared.
“You’ve helped me, my friends,” Redorand said with a smile, “even if in a small way, and so I shall forever be in your debt.”
“He healed us! How does he keep healing us?” asked Veasson under his breath, more to himself than anyone else, but Dendric replied regardless.
“You were a paladin,” he stated more than asked, and Redorand’s continued sad smile gave him all the answer he needed. “You served a king, and the Helm corrupted you. That’s how you were able to resist him and heal us.”
“May the gods find mercy for my soul,” the spirit sighed.
“I could never know if you were a good man, Redorand,” continued the fighter, “but I know what you are now.”
“And that is?”
“One who would seal himself away with an evil artifact to keep it from corrupting the world, and that should be good enough for any god worth worshiping.”
Redorand’s form began to shimmer and lessen, and he turned his head and looked upward towards the starry sky. “Your words do me kindness.”
“And I feel that my god accepts me once more.” The ghost disappeared then, but not before turning back to Dendric. “I may be accepted now for fixing the failures of my past,” he said, “but it was not I who sealed myself within the tomb, nor I who buried the Helm with me. How could it be, after all, when it was done after my death?”
Dawn broke the night’s grip slowly, one thin ray of white after another permeating the small cabin. Their luminance drew Jarren gently from sleep, as though remorseful that the coming day must begin. The young man arose and dressed himself in a simple blue-dyed shirt, brown breeches, and a leather vest. On a thin hide belt he securely strapped a dirk, a blade that had once belonged to his father, so as to keep the man close while within the Pines. It all seemed so surreal to Jarren now that the time to prove himself in such an important rite of passage was upon him.
The young man stepped out into the early dawn and stood motionless for a while, feeling the wind’s chilly breath and watching the silver clouds which choked the sky. A crisp, clean smell caused by last evening’s snow was present, morning ice clinging to the drooping limbs of nearby trees. Jarren could sense everything around him, could smell the oncoming winter and the last remnants of autumn. He could hear the rustlings of birds and squirrels as they ferreted about, searching for food under the crusted snow, and he could see the clouds suddenly alight with the sun’s stunning radiance.
“Already awake I see, Jarren,” issued an old voice from behind the young man, withered with age yet undeniably strong and as frigid as the winter morning’s breath.
The young man turned swiftly, and when his eyes found the voice’s source he immediately regretted leaving his cabin.
It was an old man, his pale face a web of wrinkles and age spots. His hair was shoulder-length and thinning, whiter than the snow around them and blowing faintly as the breeze brushed passed. As with all the admittedly few elder inhabitants of the village, the man was thin with wiry limbs and fingers like bones. Only the eyes made a lasting impression apart from the sheer age of this man, for they were ice-blue and sharper than a dagger’s edge. Neither Jarren nor anyone else in the village liked to look at this one directly, for fear that those eyes could see past theirs and into their hearts and souls. With a sigh, young Jarren said resignedly and keeping his own eyes on the ground: “Life to you, Chief.”
“Your day has arrived, and I have come to collect you for the Pine Forest.”
Jarren gave an involuntary shudder when he heard the chief say “collect,” as though he was no more than a goat sold to another master; that new master being the Pines.
“If you will follow me, I will minimize conversation. I know all too well the excitement you must feel to reach this final path away from being just another damn child.”
Jarren almost couldn’t contain himself from cracking completely and breaking down into nervous laughter. Excitement? Was he really that blind? Surely his old age made him forget the option opposite from returning home with food after venturing into the Pines? And so Jarren made no comment despite a sudden desire to scream at the doddering old fool.
No, he thought, realizing his mistake, no doddering old fool; the chief of the village. Jarren decided then to simply let everything pass in silence and instead listen. Listen to everything that went on, and listen for anything in particular that could help his odds in the forest. He kept pace with the deceivingly swift stride of the old chief. Five minutes passed before they made their way to a small clearing marking the village’s edge, the immense trees of the Pine Forest looming overhead and casting ominous shadows over the clearings’ occupants. These were many, as the whole of the village seemed to be awake, awaiting Jarren’s departure.
The chief left Jarren’s side then, much to the young man’s relief, and stepped into the middle of the clearing to stand before the entirety of the crowd. The old man’s eyes swept this way and that, and everywhere they went those who stood there bowed their heads or averted their eyes. He seemed not to notice. “Today we ignite the spark of acceptance within this young man, for any who enter the woods willingly and return the following morn with game will be celebrated as a hunter!”
Where cheers would have erupted there was only silence. Some of the women and children chattered their teeth, trying to cover as much exposed skin as possible from the unrelenting iciness of the temperature. The village’s men, those who had survived their ordeal, looked on at the young man; some with sympathy for the coming trial and others with skepticism that this scrawny youth would succeed where their own sons had failed.
“This path to acceptance is not without risk, however, and if this boy is to survive the dangers of the Pines, then he has truly earned his place among our people as a man.” The chief ended the sentence with a dramatic flair of his wizened arms, looking perfectly ridiculous to any who were strangers and did not acknowledge the man as anything more than, as Jarren put it, a doddering old fool. “Come then, young Jarren, and carry with you the expectations of the village and its people; for should you fail, you will not only fail yourself, but the village and its people as well.”
Jarren did not know which emotion was stronger; anger at the chief for his off-hand comments regarding his life, or the fear of entering the Pines and possibly making those comments come to life. Both roiled within him like living creatures, throwing from him all concentration and proper thinking. It was because of this, because of how unfair life seemed at the moment and how no one seemed to be by his side that he simply strode directly across the clearing ignoring the comments of the chief and bent to pick up the longbow and quiver of five arrows before stepping into the forest itself.
The intricately carved double doors were smashed to pieces, their splinters littering the inner room’s threshold and several feet beyond. Within, a white marble pedestal stood on a raised platform. The skeletons that were arranged were human this time, and arranged to be bowing towards the stone structure.
Behind the pedestal was Rissien, except his appearance had shifted dramatically. His robes were rich and forest-green, inlaid with numerous emeralds around the embroidery. His face and hair were clean, revealing regal features that one would expect from elven nobility, and adorning his head was an elegant yet regal golden crown of emerald-inlaid leaves sprouting from enwrapped golden branches.
Dendric and Veasson returned to their normal forms, but Redorand took a step forward.
“You know not what you deal with, fool elf,” said the ghost with eyes narrowed. “I know what it feels like, but you cannot let it in!”
“You are the fool, ghost,” drawled Rissien. “Your kind should know to fear me. Here, let me show you why.” The elf raised his wand and chanted under his breath, but all that resulted from his effort was the emanation of another stream of haunting laughter that echoed from Redorand’s ghost. However, this time, that haunting laughter was mocking . . . and terrifying.
“You think you could banish me? Me? In my own tomb?”
Rissien closed his eyes and continued chanting, and for a moment it seemed that Redorand’s form wavered the slightest bit.
“You evoke the power of the Helm? This early?”
“The Helm is my crown,” Rissien said through gritted teeth, ceasing his attempt at a banishing spell. “With it I can show my people what true supremacy they could have! It is our rightful way to—”
“Enslavement. It is your way to enslavement, death, and enslavement again.”
“The Helm has promised me power, and I can feel that it holds what I desire!”
“Rissien, this is madness! That crown must be destroyed!” shouted Dendric, stepping forward and partly through the insubstantial Redorand to face the elf clearly. Rissien seemed unimpressed.
“Of course a human would fear that which he does not understand.”
“And only a fool would believe he is the master of what he doesn’t know the power of!”
“I KNOW THE POWER IT HOLDS!” screamed the elf, and with his voice came a wave of sonic energy that threw Dendric back and knocked both he and Veasson from their feet. The shouting spell had deafened both of them, and cracks now lined the double doors’ stone frame.
Redorand floated forward, and Rissien evoked another wall of force directly in front of him. This only halted the spirit long enough for it to pause for a second before phasing through with minimal effort. The spirit began to speak then, but his words were not aimed at the enraged elf that now carried in his scarlet-glinting eyes a growing sliver of fear.
“Come now . . . you belong with me,” Redorand began. “You know that you want to be worn by me! Not some magic-waving elf . . . you’re a warlord’s helm, and only I can give you the glory you desire . . . that you deserve. That is the reason you chose me in life, is it not? Because I am and will always be the most fit to don you, and will always have the most to offer you. Forsake him! Forsake the inferior!”
“How dare you!” screeched Rissien, but he suddenly looked concerned. His hand came up to adjust the crown on his head, and his eyes gave an involuntary twitch.
“It is your path to choose the most worthy,” spoke the powerful spirit, “and with this elf you have chosen wrong. Come back to me . . . I miss you. I need you . . . and you need me. You. Deserve. Me.”
Dendric had a hard time following what was happening. Everything, even his sight, seemed blurred and muffled by the sonic shout. However, as he watched, he could not help but notice that Rissien was losing control and the ghost of Redorand was slowly and steadily advancing. Once he stood directly in front of the elven wizard, he spoke something that sent Rissien into a fury.
Another super-charged shout ripped through the air to send cracks webbing through the stone ceiling above Dendric and Veasson, and the two threw their arms above their heads to block the falling debris. A lightning bolt flash-flooded the room with light, going directly through Redorand and blasting a huge chunk of rock from the wall beside the two humans. Streams of acid sprayed from mage’s outstretched palms, and then gouts of fire and frost. Everything simply phased through the spectral apparition, and when it reached out its hand toward the elf Rissien fell backwards to land sitting with his hands out like small shields.
Dendric tried to shake the deafness from his ears, but after such a cacophony of spells he would be surprised if his hearing would ever return. He did see, however, that Rissien was screaming. Obviously screaming, and his crown was no longer golden with emerald leaves, but instead white.
The crown melted and melded on the elf’s head, becoming molten gold as it glowed white-hot and clenched down on Rissien’s skull. The elf flailed about, but smoke and steam were billowing out and the flesh of his head was charring black. Only after what seemed like an eternity of agony, the elf’s body became completely immolated in golden flames that swiftly reduced the corpse into an elf-sized pile of black ash. The artifact’s glow lessened, and it rolled several feet closer to the ghost before coming to a stop.
“You chose me,” smiled Redorand, “You chose me, just as I chose you. I am the only one worthy of wearing you, my glorious helm.”
And, indeed, the crown had now melded and taken the form of a battle-worn yet still shining steel helmet.
“And yet,” Redorand paused. “Yet, never had I done you harm. Never had I drawn too much from you, and yet here I am, a shell of my former self. You gave me freedom from the life of a king’s servant, and you gave me his throne, but what else did you give me?”
Redorand’s ghost glared down at the helmet, his expression one of the utmost disgust. “You polluted my dreams with your visions of battle! You ignited our conflict with the trolls, an unstoppable force! You used me and sent hundreds of honorable men to their deaths!”
The Helm was beginning to shake on the floor, as though vibrating with rage, and it glowed red.
“And most of all, you killed me. I donned you, and you killed me through manipulating my thoughts. And what’s more,” Redorand gave a great laugh now, and despite their deafness both Dendric and Veasson could hear the unearthly sound. “What’s more, you stupid little scrap of steel, is that I am utterly useless to you now. A ghost to carry you into battle? Haha! As of now you are a sword without a wielder, and a foolish one at that.”
The Helm of Redorand was glowing white-hot now, vibrating on the ground.
“Now, you stupid helmet,” Redorand said with absolute glee, “Now, I am going to kill you, as you killed me. A life for the magical sentience of a hunk of steel. Hardly a fair trade, in my opinion, but one I feel just in carrying out. You killed me . . . now I kill you.”
The spirit of Redorand reached down, his hand closing over searing-hot metal of the artifact. However, as his ghostly essence made contact, that part of the Helm cooled and cracked. Redorand brought down another hand, and a piercing whistle escaped the helmet as jagged cracks that seemed to glow black made their way across its surface and cutting deep.
And then, for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, Dendric and Veasson were thrown backward as the sentient helmet shattered and sent a shockwave of force that fractured the walls and blasted away the pedestal. Dendric’s eyes were blinded by the explosion, his hearing long gone, and every one of his nerves felt as though aflame. Chunks of stone were falling from the ceiling; a great clamor arose as the roar of a cave-in made the ground shudder, and he felt his consciousness slowly slip away.
An icy wind frosted pine needles and foliage as it snaked between trunks and branches, blowing from the northeastern evergreen forest and into the small village’s dwellings. The cold was natural for the coming winter, and yet something more seemed to be carried along on the gust. Pines creaked and bent as air swept across them, but they had stood strong for hundreds of years, and hundreds more would they weather.
Jarren could feel unease present on the wind, something of a normal experience to those who dwell so near the Pine Forest, and he sighed. The warm breath clouded as it left his lips, before it too flew away with the breeze. Jarren had been alive for fifteen winters, and knew that his time as a child had ended. He would have to venture into the Pine Forest for game to prove his worth to his village and hopefully return home with meat . . . or return home at all.
Due to a lack in decent farmland, his village had to rely on its hunters for survival, and even though it was a great duty to his people for every man to be a hunter Jarren did not look forward to the experience. The tales he had heard of that forest, the way the air seemed to freeze around you and how absolute the silence was within the Pines unnerved him more than he cared to admit. He also recollected tales from the experienced hunters, tales of strange creatures that lurked in the shadows. The thought that he would be going in alone nearly petrified him with fear when he had first heard it from the chief, despite the information being expected anyway.
Snow was beginning to fall now, clumps of powder rapidly whitening the dirt trail around Jarren and causing him to shiver violently. With a final look to the dark northeastern forest, Jarren attempted to calm his mind and trudged home.
The hearth fire of the young man’s cabin was pathetic indeed, its weak tongues of flame barely illuminating half of the dwelling and the heat’s radius stretching far less. Jarren could hear his teeth chattering as he sank into a hard wooden chair in front of the hearth, a chair made by his father’s hands. The walls and ceiling were stained black with soot and smoke, their clogging smell present everywhere. Jarren knew what the next day would bring; the challenges he would undoubtedly face in the Pine Forest, for either the celebration of his success or his very own funeral pyre would await his return . . . or in the case of the latter, his lack of return.
Jarren found himself thinking once again of his parents, the thought of them surfacing with the nearing prospect of entering the Pines. He wished they were with him, or that they were even alive to comfort him. He remembered the day the other hunters returned home to tell his mother of the man’s death, and how she too later died of some unknown ailment in the darkness of the night. Jarren was now the only one that occupied the cabin, and because he was fourteen at the time the boy had been able to manage the house alone.
Shadows stretched far as the sun lazily dipped below the tree-line, a reminder that his last day as a child had ended. Tomorrow was his life-day, and perhaps the only one he would not be looking forward too.
Dendric could not remember how far he had fallen, or how long he had been unconscious. When the floor disappeared, he and Veasson had plunged into blackness so complete that it had been hard to focus on anything else. Remember the thief Dendric quickly tried to rise to his feet, but one leg had fallen asleep and the other ached terribly.
“Veasson?” he asked the darkness, his throat sore from breathing in the crypt-floor’s dust. “Veasson, where are you?”
A moan only several feet to his left greeted the fighter’s words.
Dendric dragged himself to where he had heard the sound, hands searching in the pitch-darkness, until they found what felt like the rogue’s shoulder. “Veasson, are you okay? Can you stand?”
“I . . . yeah. I think so. I think . . . my arm! My arm is broken! Damn that elf to the Hells!” The thief groaned some more, but then seemed to shake himself from the pain. “My bag—it fell with me. Broke most of my fall well enough . . . along with my back . . . but there’s more torches and flint. Dagger’s on my waist . . . think I’ll get that, though.”
Dendric found the bag and began searching through it, drawing out whatever felt remotely like a torch until finding the sharp edge of the flint-shard. Veasson passed his dagger to him, and Dendric struck it and found in the flash of light what he was looking for. Several moments later light was being thrown onto the far walls of the chamber, and the two could finally see where their fall had taken them. Dendric immediately counted himself and Veasson lucky for their minimal damage from the drop.
The tall ceiling was easily thirty-five feet above them, and the stone floor where they had fallen was almost completely barren. However, huge skeletons—those of ten to twelve-foot-tall trolls—were all arranged so as to appear scrambling away from the exact center of the chamber. When Dendric aimed the torches light there, what he saw made his sweat run cold.
One large coffin was set on a mound of troll bones, its material of dark wood inlaid with silver and embedded with glittering rubies of various sizes. Otherwise, however, it was largely undecorated.
Veasson, after pushing himself with one arm into a sitting position, gave another whistle when he saw the coffin that much matched the one when they had first entered. The rogue seemed not to care, however, and there was no creaking of bone that may signal the troll remains’ awakening.
“By Lady Lissanda,” Dendric breathed, who rarely evoked the name of his deity. He struck another torch to life and handed it to Veasson, then began to move gingerly towards the coffin. Veasson made a move to stop his friend, but winced in pain and drew back before the fighter had even noticed. As he approached he could feel a presence around him getting stronger—a thrumming sensation of power that was there and yet not. When he was finally standing beside the tomb, his torch fluttered, sputtered, and then died out altogether.
The fighter turned around, hand going for the battleaxe that was no longer on his belt, and was suddenly face-to-face with an ethereal, softly glowing, pearly-white and middle-aged man. He donned battle-worn plate-mail and was resting against the hilt of a large greatsword whose tip was somehow supporting the weight that he put on it. A large hole just above his heart marked where a vicious killing blow had struck.
“Redorand . . .” the fighter whispered, for he could easily recognize the poise of the man as one who commanded respect and obedience in war and out.
“Indeed, Dendric,” the spirit’s voice spoke, and though the words were clearly audible it was as though they were echoing down a large tunnel. “I’ve watched your progress through my crypt, and am impressed by your skill . . . yet, of course, your motivation leaves something to be desired.”
Dendric could hardly tell that he was shivering, but the close proximity to the spirit made him feel as though his blood was icing over in his veins. “The . . . the . . .”
“Yes, the Helm. Many before you have sought its power, but only I have truly ever been able to control it—or else, think that I’ve controlled it.” Redorand turned around and began to walk from Dendric, and he could feel his nerves returning as the spirit retreated. When Redorand began to talk once more, his voice seemed thick with regret. “The Helm is not what most people would believe—it is not a simple magical item, but a cursed thing with an insidious intelligence all its own; an artifact of immense influence. I know not what the thing desires, but it led me to my final battle against the Green Fens trolls. It made me think I was invincible. It must not find a hold on the surface again!”
Dendric’s brow furrowed as listened to the apparition. What he was saying did not match what he had heard in legends about the Helm of Redorand; the magical helmet that granted supernatural ability on the battlefield. Redorand made it seem much more evil in its intentions. “If you were watching us . . . then why not tell us sooner? Tell me sooner? An item with intelligence? I would want no possession of such a thing! It’s an abomination of magic!”
“It must be destroyed before it leads legions more to a grisly fate.”
“Couldn’t you? If you’re a ghost, don’t you have the power to take it to—”
Redorand’s laughter washed hauntingly over Dendric, and he fell silent. “You’re a smart man, Dendric, but I’m afraid that is beyond my power. The Helm binds me, for I was the last to . . . to . . .”
The spirit’s words tapered off, and a look of sudden confusion was evident as it spun back around to face the fighter. Dendric was fearful—did he do something? Was the ghost going to blame him for something and attack? He could not fight such a being on a normal basis, let alone without a weapon and with Veasson wounded beyond combat capabilities.
“What is it?” he asked cautiously, trying to brace himself on the wall of the elegant coffin behind him.
“I was the last to wear the Helm, and therefore it bound me in life and in death. I could not leave this room. However, now, I feel that the connection is no more. I am free to go on my way, yet I feel a certain debt to you as well. Or possibly pity. Perhaps even a desire to ensure that I remain the only dead human in this chamber.” The spirit floated over to Veasson, who tried to push himself away but only made his arm hurt all the worse and nearly collapsed. Redorand paid no heed, however, and reached down with a single hand that phased through the thief’s shoulder. He kept it there for a moment, Veasson yelling out with pain, but when he drew it back the thief was suddenly moving the limb as though nothing had happened.
“My arm! You’ve healed my arm!” cried Veasson with astonishment.
The spirit gestured, motioning for the thief to stand and for Dendric to come forward. After grabbing their items they did so, and Redorand’s ghost was smiling at them. He put out his hands once more, resting one on both of their shoulders, and closed his wispy-white eyelids. When Dendric looked down at his own body his heart nearly stopped—both he and Veasson had become like Redorand, their forms pearly-white and ghostly. He felt weightless, much like when Rissien had cast the spell on him to float down the entrance.
Redorand began to pull them upwards, and both the humans’ feet left the ground without effort. They floated slowly up through the chamber, their own luminescence lighting the way. When they passed through the solid rock ceiling, it was the strangest sensation that Dendric had ever felt; as though drifting through a thick wall of water. When the three finally broke the surface of the floor, what they saw was shocking.
The flood was coming, its force greater than any that had graced the city before. Buildings creaked and cracked, their windows shattering silently against the massive wall of water. Cars were lifted like pebbles, the cleansing flood reaching into every vehicle and entering every structure to purge the hatred and sin from Chictawga.
Karen watched the spectacle with absent amusement, feeling no connection to the humans as they were sucked into the flood. He simply watched as the wave roared towards him with the howl of a hurricane, before slamming into some unseen barrier only feet away from where he stood.
The water hit and shot straight up, creating a flat wall that soared hundreds of feet into the sky, catching the tips of every last building.
He turned then, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fallen Aras. When Karen saw the body, broken and bleeding on the street, his heart gave a leap. The bothersome Aras would no longer trouble Karen’s decisions, no longer limit what he was capable of. So caught up was he that Karen failed to notice that Ariel had vanished from the scene.
Karen realized this a second later, as a hand with an iron grip closed about his throat. Ariel was standing at the warrior’s side, his arm outstretched, his golden eyes resigned yet hateful; without mercy.
“The culling call sounds same for all,” Ariel breathed, and Karen’s agonized scream was lost as the more powerful Ariel moved his arm and, keeping his vise-like grip, pushed the warrior through the wall of water.
Karen writhed with pain, his golden wings fanning out. The purging substance, water yet so much more, ate away at the immortal. His wings glowed and disintegrated, his flawless skin corroded as though by acid, and though Ariel’s arm was scoured by its insertion he held strong to the dying Karen until only ash remained of him, quickly dispersed by the rushing wave that enveloped all of Chictawga.
Ariel withdrew his arm, bone visible beneath the melted flesh, and looked up. He knew the consequences of his actions, the damning words that had been used on Aras, and now on Karen. He had killed, and the culling call sounds same for all.
With a final thought to his fallen brother, Ariel walked into the wall of cleansing water.
They had several more run-ins with the undead as they walked—zombies, which Dendric and Veasson were able to deal with swiftly, some wraiths that swarmed over them after phasing through the walls, and a particularly vicious specter that Rissien had banished after it had beaten the two humans to near-unconsciousness.
Therefore, when they arrived at a set of ornately-fashioned and artistically engraved double-doors, it was with some measure of relief and excitement. There could be little doubt that the portal led to the chamber that Dendric had been looking for, maybe even Redorand’s own tomb, but he had always possessed a nagging suspicion for fanciful doors of any kind—especially within crypts.
“Hold up,” the fighter said as they approached. Veasson stopped and looked to Dendric expectantly, but Rissien seemed hardly to have noticed. His head was once again twitching slightly, and he seemed to be muttering something under his breath.
“Rissien!” the thief called out, grabbing the elf by the shoulder before he could touch to door.
What happened next was too fast for Dendric to follow, but in a flash of movement Veasson was pinned against the wall with Rissien’s forearm locked under his chin and ebony wand-tip hovering only an inch away from the bridge of the thief’s nose. Veasson’s hands gripped at the elf’s arm, trying to pull it away from his throat, but Rissien seemed to possess a hidden strength for his frame. The mage’s eyes were glowing green, their luminance visible despite the torch’s light, and his tattoos were likewise.
“Rissien, no!” shouted Dendric, moving forward, but the elf was already stepping back towards the doors. The fighter had not even noticed that Veasson had been suspended several inches above the ground by Rissien’s hold, and only when the rogue dropped to the ground, gasping for breath, did he. Dendric helped Veasson back up.
“What was—*cough*—what was that?” demanded the rogue, his voice hoarse.
“Lyaa maara si vanwa. Lae Helm si tuure,” spoke the elf calmly in his native tongue.
Dendric’s heart dropped. He did not have to understand Rissien to know the meaning of his words.
“We’re a team, Rissien!”
“Ramba moora,” said the elf with a wave of his wand, and a wall of shimmering force sprang into being between him and the human, effectively cutting the corridor.
“No! Rissien! Let us through! Let us through NOW!” yelled Dendric, but inside his head he knew that the elf would not listen.
Rissien approached the doors, standing before them. Depictions of a great battle were carved into the dark wood, showing hulking humanoid figures, trolls, swarming towards a mass of armed and armored humans. Some of the trolls were being cleaved apart by the swordsmen; others were rending knights in half with their long clawed hands. The mage could hear the artifact calling to him—could hear its voice in his head even stronger here than when he had first entered the crypt.
And he knew from what it told him that this was no helm of a hero.
The mage reached out and traced his left hand’s fingers along the depictions of battle, and felt the familiar tingle of magic that a trap-glyph might give off. No matter; after one word the magical traps were deactivated and the arcane emanations dead. His hand finally reached the large handle, and but he paused before pushing it in. His attention turned back to the two humans that had proved nothing but a hassle for him thus far. He had to save them more often than they had been useful, but anything now could result in his losing the Helm. No chances could be taken. From the magic of the room behind the door, Rissien could tell that there was a large chamber beneath them with no built exits.
Focusing back on the two on the other side of his force wall, Rissien raised his wand and chanted once more. They looked at him incredulously yet defiantly, but those expressions soon changed to shock and fear as the ground beneath their feet simply vanished. The stonework disappeared as though it had been an illusion suddenly dispelled, and Dendric and Veasson plummeted into the darkness and their torch sputtered out.
With one more wave of the elf’s wand the floor returned, but to the two humans it had became a ceiling that blocked their only way out.
Though they had been driving for several hours, the congregation’s progress was not far. Repeatedly they had to exit their vehicles to move broken-down cars in the road, and two of those times they had been assaulted by a spray of gunfire from the mists.
Aras had grown irate—the actions of the New Chictawgwans only served as a reminder of his mission, a dark reflection of the Hell-hole Chictawga had been even before the Great Flood. With War filling men with rage-clouded minds in the streets, his brother Death was the city’s longest-standing guest and most bountiful beneficiary. On both occasions, Aras had entered the fog and ended the ambushes, the gang members’ cries emanating eerily from the fog.
And each time he returned to the convoy, his greeting was more icy and reserved.
It reached the point that Aras and Mitch were traveling in heavy silence—Mitch too worried to break the stillness, and Aras preferring the quiet and strumming his fingers on the top of his steering wheel in time to a solemn tune only he heard.
It was nearing nighttime when their vehicles finally stopped, and someone up ahead yelled out in triumph. Before the mass of cars and trucks, was the concrete wall that marked the eastern outskirts of Chictawga. Just beyond was the road from the city.
Aras kicked his door open and leapt from the Jeep, rushing to the front of the convoy. The closer he got, however, the more his heart sank. While the others, who were exiting their vehicles quickly, could not hear the low noise, Aras with keen perception could hear the roar of rushing water. He rushed to the wall, and peered over with a growing sense of dread.
And saw, to his horror, a deep river just on the other side, with no highway in sight.
“No . . .” Aras found himself saying aloud, silencing the cheers of those nearest him. He brought a hand up through his black hair, and though his visage may have led to believe otherwise, it came back dry of sweat. Indeed, Aras had never known what it was like to sweat.
“My apologies, Aras,” came a voice from the south, and Aras quickly turned to face the speaker.
Karen, his long, fine auburn hair catching on the low winds, knelt balanced on the concrete wall several yards to Aras’s left. His gold-flaked cerulean eyes stared into Aras, and his pearly teeth broke through the gloom of weather with soft luminance. His shirt discarded, Karen showed a body sharpened by millennia of warfare, muscles honed to their fighting edge. From his back sprouted the magnificent wings of a golden eagle, curled back and folded down at that moment.
“What is this?”
“A change of plans, Aras. New orders regarding this flock.”
“They’re to be saved from the floods!”
Karen narrowed his eyes, though their gleam remained. He so enjoyed when Aras was wrong. “As I said: a change of plans. This murderous city and its inhabitants are to be purified, their souls sorted my His hands alone.”
“These people don’t deserve to be killed!”
“A blessed afterlife awaits the faithful,” Karen sighed as he slipped down from the wall to stand on the concrete stretch of road just opposite Aras. “Yours, however, is a different matter altogether.”
Aras eyed him for a moment, unsure as to warrior’s meaning.
“You murdered, Aras. You culled from His flock.”
Aras’s heart sank, and his words seemed pathetic indeed when the realization struck him; “in self . . . defense . . .”
“Those of His hand requiring self-defense? Truly, you’ve always been amusing. We do not kill without His blessing—a blessing you did not have.”
Aras simply stood, lost for words. He had killed, and killed without considering the possible implications. Perhaps the evils of the city had clouded his mind, as the fog had clouded the murderous streets? He hardly time to think, however, before a great weight slammed into his back and had him pinned on the ground. A single booted foot rested upon Aras’s prone form, and screams issued from the human onlookers.
Ariel shrugged his shoulders, his large blue-feathered wings fanned out behind him. The powerful being focused his thoughts, and soon Aras was crying out as the back of his shirt lit with white flames and burned to ashes on his bare skin. No sooner had the clothing been destroyed, however, did a pair of jet-black raven wings materialize on Aras’s shoulders.
Karen watched with supreme amusement, but knew his next job too critical to be distracted. He closed his eyes, and the sound of rushing water somewhere on the other side of the city suddenly had the ground in tremors. People rushed back into their vehicles—some emerged moments later, leveling rifles and taking shots at Karen and Ariel. Their bullets did nothing to distract either being, however, and soon they retreating into their trucks and cars once more.
Aras struggled; knowing what was coming and sensing who was doing it.
“Why, Ariel? Why now?”
“You are my brother, Aras,” Ariel stated darkly, “and I shall remember you for the greatness once inspired. But as of now, His orders are to be carried . . . no matter my own convictions.”
Ariel reached down, his sand-colored hands wrapping around the base of Aras’s black wings. There was a moment that they both seemed to share, time stopping around them as they made peace with what was to come.
And Ariel tore the wings from Aras’s shoulders.
Pain such that Aras had never before felt coursed through him, as though eternity itself and any semblance of life he had carried before were suddenly torn through his back with the black-feathered wings. He writhed under the solid foot of Ariel, ichor pouring from the vicious wounds before gradually shifting to crimson. Ichor turned to blood, and Aras’s life essence poured onto the empty streets that marked the exit of Chictawga, the doomed city, of New Chictawga, the banner of violence.
And then Aras died; a mortal on the unforgiving asphalt.
The elf only gave a snicker before stepping forward to examine one of the skeletons. “Not too damaged,” he said quietly, “it retains the durability for a raising . . . only should you think it necessary of course, Dendric.”
“Raising?” asked the thief, but the fighter was already shaking his head.
“I want no necromancy here, Rissien,” Dendric said with force. “This is a place of the dead, and the dead should never walk.”
Rissien gave a mocking bow, scarlet eyes glinting in the torchlight; “As you command.”
Dendric dismissed the elf’s attitude, thinking back to his actual reason for being in the crypt in the first place. The Helm of Redorand, an artifact worn by the fabled warlord in his final battle, had been buried within these earthen walls. It was believed that its magic had been crushed when its wearer fell, but Dendric possessed enough knowledge on magical items to know their enchantments would not “wear off” after something as simple as the death of their user. No, the Helm would be as powerful as ever, its call suppressed only by the weight of the world above.
They set off through the crypt then, Dendric taking charge of the torch and staying in the middle as Veasson scouted ahead for traps. Rissien was silent, but this was hardly a difference in the elf’s usual mannerisms. The three absorbed the sight of countless tombs set into the walls.
Some were closed-off by rotted wood, as though instead of a body being inserted alone there had been some form of coffin placed within. The thief ran a hand across the rough surface of one of these caskets, and gave a drawing whistle. The sound echoed down the dark corridors, and the three stopped dead.
“Please tell me you are not that stupid,” breathed Rissien, raising his wand and moving forward to stand beside Dendric.
Veasson turned a sheepish glance towards the other two, but not before a creaking, cracking sound became audible from the walls around them. Skeletal limbs, animated by some dark magic, reached from the walls to drag their fleshless bodies from their holes. Several of these arms smashed holes through their rotted coffins or slowly pushed open the rusted iron-hinged lids.
Dendric drew forth his battleaxe and reached with his other hand to pull Veasson back. The rogue’s daggers would be nothing to the skeletons, but his axe was heavy enough to shatter them. He turned his head to check on Rissien, but the elf had vanished.
“Rissien?” he whispered urgently, hoping that the elf had not abandoned them. “Rissien, what’s your location?”
His only answer was what sounded like somebody chanting unintelligibly, and then a sudden brilliant stroke of blue-white lightning that arced down the hallway. Dendric’s ears rang from the peeling clap of thunder that followed, and his vision was temporarily frozen with the moment of the flash. Bracing his battleaxe in front of him defensively, the fighter took several steps rearward and almost tripped over Veasson who had fallen backward to the ground from the startle of the spell.
“What in the fiery Hells was that?!” the thief yelled, pushing himself back to his feet.
“Lightning bolt,” coughed Dendric, for the smell of ozone had suddenly become overpowering. Broken and charred splinters of bone littered the hallway, and Rissien was suddenly visible once more and standing still with his black wand pointed down the corridor.
The fighter scrambled back to his feet, about to step forward to remind the elf to warn someone when he is about to release a spell like that, when he was knocked forward and nearly to the ground once more by a hard force on his back. He spun around to see that a skeleton had managed to rise behind them, and though its heavy mace had found no purchase on the fighter’s scale armor it had most definitely left a sizeable bruise.
Dendric searched the ground frantically for his battleaxe, which had fallen from his hands after the unexpected blow, and spotted it several feet ahead of him and directly in front of the skeleton. He dove for it, and the skeleton reared back for another downward-chopping swing that would shatter the fighter’s head like a melon.
Time seemed to slow as the rusted mace fell, but it was quickly knocked off-course by the thrusting leg of Veasson who swept the skeleton off of its feet to land hard on the floor. Dendric, with axe now in-hand, rose hastily and sent a heavy steel-clad boot down to shatter the undead’s skull.
“That worked out well,” laughed Veasson as Dendric helped him to his feet. After brushing the cobwebs and dust away that had been blown up from the ground by their falls, the two humans quickly fell into line once more and walked down the one-way hallways for what seemed almost an hour.
Dendric was getting excited—he knew that the Helm of Redorand would of course be housed in the main chamber, which could only be getting closer. Rissien was growing in more and more uneasy as well, his head sometimes twitching as though suddenly catching snippets of conversation from the walls. When Dendric questioned him on this, though, all he would receive was a quick “It is . . . nothing . . . it’s nothing. Let us continue.”
Ariel’s eyes were glowing. Karen’s words, though spoken with conviction and truth, were not kind. They were not forgiving. They were not merciful.
“It is His word, a command not to be ignored.”
“Do you think me a fool, Karen?”
“I see the doubt in your eyes; the hurt of betrayal in your lion-heart, and rightfully so.”
“Then know that, yes, my wrath is seated in a sense of betrayal. Aras is our own, not of His flock.”
“The culling call sounds same for all.”
Ariel eyed the lesser with sudden fury. His shadow, something that should have been nonexistent in the vaporous air, stretched back. Only in the silhouette did two large appendages unfurl from his back and
beat the air furiously. Ariel’s eyes, not golden-flecked but nearly solid in color, bored holes into Karen, who shrank back.
“Perhaps your call is as close at hand, Karen? How does your servitude fare then?”
“His will is all.”
“Your blindness disgusts me. Are our numbers to be vulnerable to His every whim now?”
“His will is all,” Karen repeated, regaining his conviction. “Be wary—another of our kin once shared your thoughts and was cast away for the actions that followed.”
For all of his experience, Ariel could not see if Karen’s words were a simple reminder or a pointed threat. Nevertheless, he had tired of the conversation. If this new turn of events was to be carried out, then time was not something to be wasted. Aras was a brother to him, was a brother to Karen and the rest of their kind as well, but he would not die a member of their proud faction.