The Knights of Nevertheless: Escape from the Shadows

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Chapter 18: The Second Demise

Onar slept for only a couple of hours before he began to stir. His mind raced with a hundred different questions about the Great Wall of Fire and even more questions about what it was like on the other side. He slowly turned on his side and raised himself on one elbow. Seeing Archer sitting against the willow, he quietly went over to sit at the base of the tree with him, plucking an elpece stem along the way.

“Can I ask you something?” he said after a short pause.

“Of course.”

“I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t just move from Terra Dombren to Menetoy. Mom’s been telling Stranth and me for a long time that the world is a dangerous place, but until we met up with our father’s companions, I had no idea just how awful peacekeepers really are— and these hideous creatures we keep running into— why does anybody stay here if they’ve got another choice? What keeps them here?”

“Men prefer darkness to light; they prefer power to submission. There can only be one king in Menetoy; he has always been king; he will always be king.”

Onar thought on this for a minute, then asked, “So people stay in the Shadows because they don’t want to have to obey King Agathos?”

“Or more accurately, they don’t want to follow his example.”

Onar gave him a quizzical look.

“King Agathos leads by example; he rules by the law of liberty. He’s a servant of the people as much as their ruler and judge. In Menetoy, a man earns honor and glory through servanthood rather than bloodshed. Menetans are free to pursue their hearts’ desires, but they understand service to others brings the greatest rewards, not only to themselves but to the whole civilization. They are not compelled to do anything, but they are fiercely loyal to one another. The typical Terra Dombrian is loyal only to himself. In this land of lawless darkness and anarchy, misdeeds against a neighbor go unnoticed; the cries for justice fall on deaf ears and hearts of stone. A hunger for power and dominance drives men to wickedness. Any Terra Dombrian could choose to cross the Great Wall at any time if he’s willing to be purged of his need to dominate others, to place the well-being of others ahead his own desires. But instead, they choose to follow a warlord whose overweening pride drives him to demand their abject subservience. It is folly,” he said somewhat wearily, shaking his head.

Onar brought the elpece stem to the tip of his nose and twirled it around, taking in its invigorating scent.

“Will we really stand in the courts of the king?”

“You will indeed.”

“We’ll actually meet him?”

“Aye,that you will.”

“What will we do? I don’t think I’ll know how I should act.”

“You’ll know when you see him. Your heart will tell you.”

Onar sighed contemplatively. He felt peaceful as he tried to imagine it and comforted by Archer’s words. The glow of the elpece and the music of distant crickets made the rest of Terra Dombren seem so far away, almost as if they were in another world already.

“You haven’t had any sleep, Archer. Why don’t you let me take over the watch?”

Archereus looked at Ava’s younger son and smiled approvingly. Nodding, he stood and stretched; he joined Ava and Stranth on the mossy carpet of elpece and stretched himself out on it. He glanced back at Onar deferentially; then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Onar nodded appreciatively. He leaned his head back against the tree and gazed up into the canopy of the willow illumined by the soft glow of the elpece rising from the wooded floor. He tuned his ears to the subtle sounds floating on the air around him. The river gently spilled down in its banks behind him. Bats twittered outside the willow curtain, feasting on the abundance of flying insects. Owls hooted in the distance. He wondered what the wild life of Menetoy was like. He tried to imagine what ivory palaces looked like, but since he’d never seen ivory, he had nothing in his own experience to liken it to; it sounded pretty. To live among people he did not have to fear or view suspiciously sounded delicious. He sat in the silence of his own thoughts, hardly conscious any longer of the night breeze blowing the dead leaves across the woody floor.

He meant to ask Archer about the creature that tried to carry his mother off that afternoon. It looked very much like the creature they had killed close to the cave, the one Archer had called a dongrel. Only this one could fly! There was something familiar about the dongrel that appeared today. Perhaps it was just that he had seen one before. Still, something stirred in his mind that he couldn’t quite piece together.

The whirlwind was another curiosity. Questions about that burned in his mind all day as they backtracked from the Epangelia River. But they had walked so far and so fast by the time they stopped, his only thought was of sprawling out and going to sleep. They didn’t even eat any supper! This sudden realization made Onar decide he was hungry. He looked at his mother and brother sleeping peacefully midst the saffron glow of the elpece carpet and Archer. How he wished his father had been a man like him! He half wondered if Archer sort of liked his mother and whether she was starting to like him back. They certainly looked at each other a great deal. When Archer had scooped her up to carry her across the pond today, Onar couldn’t help but giggle a little bit. It seemed almost romantic. His mother had turned all red in her face as if she were embarrassed, which only made him want to laugh more.

He asked himself whether it would be right for his mother to love someone else so soon after his father’s death. He didn’t know if there were any rules about that sort of thing. While he doubted if his mother had loved his father for some time, he was sad to suppose she didn’t. He didn’t know why he felt that way. He felt angry with his father for not trying harder to win his mother’s love. A small part of him even felt a twinge of anger toward his mother for not loving his father. He felt guilty for feeling that way, because at the same time he could hardly blame her; his father was such a cruel, mean man.

Onar grew stiff from sitting so long under the tree. He stood to stretch. By the dim glow of the elpece, he could see up into the willow branches. It must be a rather old tree to be that big and have such a large trunk. He climbed up into it to alleviate his boredom. The dark woods outside the screen of willow branches seemed like a completely different dimension. The sounds of fluttering bats and hooting owls gave an eerie quality to the night air. The wind no longer whistled but moaned. A somber mist from the rivers tangled around the base of the other trees on the forest floor, creeping along slowly as if in search of something or someone. Onar could feel the probing curiosity of the current floating past. Hunting. For what? The elpece carpet seemed to repel the sinister-looking mist, as it floated past without penetrating the willow pavilion. He detected an unseen movement and heard the crack of twigs snapping somewhere in the darkness. Something was lurking nearby in the predawn gloom.

Onar clenched his dagger between his teeth as he shimmied back down the willow trunk. He stopped to listen when he reached the ground. The sound of silence grew large and surreal. He did not want to disturb the tranquil scene of his family as they lay sleeping among the soothing elpece vapors. With quiet steps, he walked over to his gear and retrieved his sword and bow. Gathering a bouquet of elpece, he parted the drape of the gently swaying willow tendrils that brushed the forest floor.

He stepped forth. The cool night air sent a chill down his back. He moved toward the sound he had heard while up in the tree, dropping elpece petals along the way to mark his path. Their soft glow was diffused by the rolling mist sweeping over them. He looked back at the willow gleaming brightly against the backdrop of blackness all around.

There it was again— the crack and rustle of something moving through the trees. It sounded too heavy to be a rabbit or other tiny rodent. Whatever it was seemed to be aware of Onar’s presence, of his searching. He could feel the tension mounting from the thing that was alert to his penetration into the dark shadows. He could almost hear it panting. Again, Onar glanced back to see if he could make out the willow in the expanding distance. He saw the drops of light scattered along the path, marking his way back. Turning again, he peered through the gray fog sent to foretell the break of another dawn. The thick breath of some creature rising through the cold behind the shadow of a distant tree was visible in the murk of the early morning mist. The first vestiges of light were beginning to penetrate the dense thicket when a dark form stepped from behind a large tree.

“Hunting, boy?” a voice growled— a voice that reminded him of his father.

“Perhaps,” Onar answered with bravado. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“Aye, and a good night it is for it,” he said stepping closer.

The form took several steps toward Onar. He could see only the outline of the creature moving toward him; and though there was something very familiar in the gravelly voice, the figure that approached him was more beast than man and therefore a menace. Onar drew an arrow from his quiver and set it in his bow.

“That’s close enough.”

“You took another shot at me a few weeks ago; is this any way to greet your father, boy?”

Onar swallowed hard. The voice did sound very much like his father’s, but that was impossible. His mother had told him that his father was dead.

“Don’t you know your own pa?” Les finally asked, stepping closer and transforming before his very eyes into his familiar form.

Onar wondered if he was dreaming, and without realizing he had spoken aloud, said so.

“You’re not dreaming. I’m here, son.”

“You can’t be! You’re dead.”

Dead?” he scoffed. “Is that what your mother told you?”

Onar didn’t know what to say. He had never known his mother to lie before. And yet here he was; his father was indeed standing right before him. He had never felt so conflicted. He simply froze.

“Well, perhaps your mother had reason to think I’d gotten myself killed, but I’m here now. I’m here for my family.” As he mouthed these words, he came close enough that Onar could see his eyes, sunken black orbs they were. Les reached out to touch the tip of the arrow in Onar’s bow. “You gonna keep pointing that thing at your pa?”

Onar hesitated. He didn’t want to let down his bow; but this was his father standing before him, or was it? His eyes looked deranged and empty like the soul that had once been there had departed leaving a hollow void as deep and dark as the abyss. Just moments before, he had had the appearance of a wild animal. A black cloud swathed around this thing that claimed to be his father— that looked like— even sounded like his father. But that could not be his father peering back at him through those vacant black eyes.

“I’ve come for my family, boy. Why don’t you take me to your mother?”

Onar hesitated, still uncertain what to do. He lowered his bow and slung it across his back. Turning, he suddenly rolled around to the far side of a tall narrow tree, pulling his sword as he came up behind Les.

“No. I won’t take you to my mother.”

Les tried to act surprised, even affronted. “Look boy, I don’t know what’s got into you of late, but I’m still your father . . .”

“No, you’re not. You may have been my father at one time, but you’re a dongrel now, and you’re up to no good. I saw you try to kidnap my mother today. I won’t let you hurt her.”

“Now boy, what makes you think I’d want to hurt your mama?” Les asked, taking a step toward Onar. The creature was growing impatient. His expression was turning to anger.

“Go back where you came from, and let us start a new life—”

“Don’t I get to be a part of this new life?” Les mocked with a low growl. Looking away from Onar, he noticed the elpece drops lighting a path.

“You’ve already chosen a different life for yourself, haven’t you? The life of a dongrel— seems to me you’re not interested in being a part of our life.”

Les darted behind a nearby tree. Taking Onar by surprise in his dongrel form, he hurled him off his feet. Les gave him a stunning blow on his chin. Onar was momentarily dazed as he lay in the mulch. Les sniffed the air and shot toward the dimly lit willow whose faint glow was fading in the break of day. The closer he got, the more excited he became, certain that Ava would soon be in his grasp. He let a rambunctious howl escape his throat as he drew closer.

Leaping through the veil of willow tendrils, Les was immediately thrown on his back. Two arrows suddenly protruded from his chest at almost the exact same spot. The image of Stranth and another man, both aiming and firing arrows directly at him, burst upon his sight. He looked down and saw the arrows that pierced his chest. He tried to rush toward Ava but felt himself being blown backward by the force of the arrows’ blow.

Onar came rushing through the tangle of willow limbs. He saw his father fall to the ground with the arrows shot through him. His mother slowly approached her husband. She knelt beside Les with a dagger in her hand.

“You should have let us alone,” she said softly, not unsympathetically.

Les’s features were slowly returning to normal as he lay dying. “Nevertheless, know this before you die,” she said with gritted teeth. “I am taking my sons to stand in the courts of the king of Menetoy. They will be servants of his light. We will live no longer in darkness.” Putting her face closer to his, she whispered to him, “They are everything you are not and everything I ever wished for you to be.”

As death began to cloud his sight, Les looked into Ava’s face that was still close to his and saw in her eyes and on her lips a victorious smirk. His last emotion was bitter envy.

“Boys,” she said, rising to stand, “your father has been mortally wounded, and he is suffering. We should put him out of his misery. Turn away. You should not witness this.”

Before she could direct them to the far side of the willow, however, Onar came forward through the remaining drape of weeping willow branches. With sword in hand, he severed Les’s head from his shoulders.

“That was no job for a lady of the court,” he said. “And I am no longer a child.”

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