Purple haze: eve of ages

By David Mccartney All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Original Post

Part One of:

Purple Haze
Book One:
Eve of Ages

David J. McCartney

Copyright © 2013 David McCartney

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-304-13297-0

DEDICATION

To my family and friends, and my future readers.

CONTENTS

Prologue Pg. 1
1 The Maiden Pg. 17
2 The Knight Pg. 35
3 A Willful Mother Pg. 56
4 An Unlikely Alliance Pg. 74
5 A Time of War Pg. 96
6 Spawn of a Seed Pg. 117
7 Down to the Locker Pg. 148
8 Thieves and Cut-Throats Pg. 166

9

10

The Pits of Despair

Wrath of the Sea

Pg. 189

Pg. 205

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank Mr. Richard Green for the beautiful cover art.
&
A special thank you to all my beta readers who have helped me along the way.

Purple Haze
Part One

Prologue

Adark ceiling of clouds covered the sky and the rain was coming down heavy. Commander Camrok raised his sword to the sky as the lightening cracked above. His sword shined like the lightening itself.

Camrok was a virtuous middle aged man, with long dusty brown hair that dropped passed his ears. He was tall and sturdy with thick arms. He had a blocky head, and kept a rough-spun cloth wrapped around his head in order to cover his left eye. He had lost his eye many years ago in a battle against the dragon slavers. He wore a patched leather jerkin, trousers and a dragon scale shield that could withstand dragon fire.

The commander reared his white spotted war-horse atop a tall hill near the base of a mountain called the Great Peak.

The Great Peak stood alone at the northern most end of The Green Valley kingdom. The Green Valley stretched nearly four hundred leagues from north to south. People mostly inhabited the southern region where rich fertile fields and forests were abundant. As you made your way north, the land grew dry, and the trees became sparser. As you approached the Great Peak, the lands grew more rocky and barren.

In the field, between the mountain and the hill, there stood a stone perch. On the perch sat three dragons, yet four remained in this world.

Beckoning, the commander lowered his sword in an arc, pointing toward the dragons. "Rally!" cried the commander. “Follow me, men!"

He spurred his horse into a hard gallop down the hill with a one-thousand-man army close at his heels.

The land about the mountain is desolate; it is a barren wasteland ridden with ash and dead trees. This was home to some of the most dreadful creatures such as dire-bats as big as a man, wild dogs and dragons, but these were no ordinary dragons.

The dragons of the Great Peak are the last of their kind and most fearsome of them all. A full grown dragon was forty times the size of an average horse with the strength of two hundred men. Their scales are as black as night but shine a deep shade of purple in the moonlight. Their scales were their armor, as durable as any steel imaginable. They had a powerful sense of smell and eyes capable of seeing leagues upon leagues. They had wings that stretched nearly fifty meters long and a roar that shook the ground beneath your feet.

The dragons of the Great Peak are renowned for their power. However, one dragon rose above all others, for this dragon had the power of the purple haze. This power granted only to the wisest and most powerful dragon of all. The purple haze allowed the Grand Dragon to scorch lands in an inferno of deathly purple fire. It could melt flesh and bone, and even stone. Above all, the chosen dragon is blessed with unnaturally long life. The common people named it Drakroth.

Camrok halted his host at the bottom of the hill. The commander had hoped that their plan to assault the Great Peak would lure Drakroth out of his cave from atop the mountain, but the Grand Dragon can only be moved by greed and anger.

Camrok and his men observed the dragons suspiciously. They were small, only ten times the size of a common man and could not yet fly, but they could spit flames one-hundred feet, and they were quick and had claws as sharp as razors. They had the strength to crush boulders to dust.

"Hatchlings!" a man mocked as the rest of the men stared at the dragons sitting on the perch.

"They are no match for us!" laughed Hyles Trant. He was a buxom man with thick arms, a large bald head and a crumpled smile. Some say he had the strength of five men.

"Nay!" roared the commander in an overpowering tone. "Don't be fools lads, the creatures may be younglings, yes, but they can light you up at any moment and tear you to shreds in a heartbeat."

The dragons watched them from atop a stony surface awaiting the perfect moment to strike.

"Men it is time to send our steeds away." Ordered Camrok. “We'll have better luck on foot from here.” As he did, the others followed.

This was no place for horses. Horses frighten easily, and they rear in the face of fear. Thus, the men dismounted and sent their mounts home.

When the last horse had departed, the warriors reformed the line. Ten rows of one hundred men-at-arms there was. All the men had swords. The middle row also had spears and the two back rows had swords and bows.

These men were no ordinary soldiers. They did not train to fight in the Kings army. These men are known as Flame Eaters. To any commoner who may have seen them fight, their tactics would have seemed odd and their combat skills questionable, but they did not train long hours to fight men. They fought to rid the world of dragons. They fought for peace and for the hope that one day the northern end of the valley might see green once again.

The lines began to march forward. "Weapons!" cried Camrok.

One-thousand whispers of steel upon leather echoed off the mountain’s rocky walls as the men unsheathed their swords. The dragons stared and sniggered as the warriors made their march.

The army broke into three packs going left, right and center. The dragons began to hiss and lash about angrily. The dragon in the middle stood on its hind legs, stretched its neck and let out a thunderous screech. A few of the men fell to the ground clenching their ears at the sheer sound of it. They screamed in fear as blood gushed out their ears and dripped through their fingers. They had gone mad with fear that froze them where they lied. The best part of their army held firm and began the charge.

The rain had stopped, and even miles away, the men's war-cry could be heard echoing off the valley mountains. Just as their cry had faded, the middle dragon gave reply. Its scream pierced through their ranks like a shock wave. It leaped up from its stony perch and spat a ball of flames down towards the center group. The flames whirled and roared as the fire approached the warriors.

"Shields!!!" ordered commander Camrok. Some men were not so quick to raise their shields. The blaze tore through them, melting skin, flesh and steel until nothing remained but a burnt pile of bones where they once stood.

The quicker men dropped to one knee and raised their shields to cover them-selves from the roaring flames. The heat was suffocating, and sweat trickled off their brows. Theirs shields turned black with ash as they deflected the flame. Their shields are forged to fight off dragon fire, but they were not completely impervious.

No sooner did the center dragon touched back down did it spring towards the men. The other two dragons lunged forward too. Flames flew in every direction, and screams echoed through the air as the dragons screeched and hissed. The dragon on the right ran straight through the men’s ranks, clawing and ripping any-thing in its path. His tail cracked left and right, sending men toppling.

Being the smallest, the dragon on the left was frail, and its scales were soft. Archers from the rear row volleyed arrows towards it, sending the beast into a crazed rage. It stumbled up onto its hind legs yelping with pain and anger, exposing the soft skin underneath.

“Now is our chance, lads. Send it screaming to the afterlife!” yelled Hyles.

The men hurled spears, aiming for the soft spots on the creature’s belly. As the dragon was about to retch up a flaming blaze, a spear caught the dragon in the neck and pierced through the dragon's scales and into its throat. As it struggled to spit its flame, the spear’s wooden shaft burst into flames as blood spilled from the hatchling’s neck. A man with a scarred face and broad arms sent another spear sailing into the beast’s chest. The dragon fluttered backwards, yelping, gushing molten fire out of its mouth all over its own face. It staggered and screeched swinging its body back and forth, and finally toppled backwards onto the ground stiff, a small puddle of blood seeped from the dragon’s mouth onto the ground.

Hyles climbed the beast and yanked the spear free from its chest, and then with both hands he plunged it into the beast's heart. When it came to dragons, one could never be too careful. “And stay down.” he thought as he pulled his spear free and turned his head towards his next target.

“Two more to go!” a man cried as he ran past Hyles.

The field turned to smoke and fire. The dragons slashed and clawed. The largest of the dragons breathed fire all over, bringing death with it. It ripped men to pieces with its claws and grabbed others with its mouth and flung them in every direction. This dragon was fearless. The other was smaller and quicker but not as powerful.

The larger beast set his eyes on Camrok. The commander was shouting orders from the middle of the pack, when the biggest dragon bolted after him. It tore through the lines of men in its path, knocking them aside and trampling any in front of it; crushing them with its weight. Camrok stood still as stone, waiting. When the dragon was almost on top of him, the commander rolled to the side, and the dragon ran past. The beast sunk its claw into the ground and swung itself around and roared.

Just as the large dragon opened its jaws to spit fire, an archer loosed an arrow that struck the smaller dragon in the eye that sent the smaller beast flailing into the larger dragon, knocking them both to the ground. The larger dragon got to its feet in a raging fury, unleashing a blaze of fire straight into the smaller dragon. Quick as lightening, the greater dragon grabbed the other dragon by the neck and sunk its razor sharp teeth deep, twisted and tore out its throat. Flesh and blood gushed out as the smaller dragon fell forward and met the ground with a shaking thump.

Dragons are a proud race and do not take it well to have their pride tested. “This one has a temper. Now it’s our turn.” thought the commander. “Archers, rope this scum!” he shouted.

The archers notched strange looking arrows. The tips were sharper than any ordinary arrow, and they were barbed with large bend back claws. At the other end of the shaft was a long rope. They are called grappling arrows.

The men took aim and loosed their arrows at the beast’s winged arms. The arrows pierced through the dragon’s wings. Approximately fifty men held the wings on both sides, struggling to restrain the beast from flailing around. The dragon cried and stomped about, trying to break free. At that moment, a spearman rolled in beneath the monster’s hind legs and plunged a spear into its left calf. The dragon yelped and fell forward while the men held strong and kept the beast down.

“My axe.” asked Camrok to his squire.

Commander Camrok sheathed his sword and took hold of the double-edged axe that was handed to him. He held the axe over one shoulder as he walked towards the dragon. “Your kind has attacked and tormented the kingdom for the last time. Come now, and meet your end!” said Camrok as he positioned himself beside the beast’s neck.

The dragon had stopped moving. It closed its eyes as it panted with exhaustion. When Camrok raised his axe above his head to finish it, the dragon’s eyes bolted open with rage. The dragon swung its head to the side, crashing into commander Camrok, sending him bashing into a nearby burnt tree. Camrok struggled to his feet holding his sides as the dragon jumped into the action and swirled in circles, breathing flames. Soldiers flew in every direction as they struggled to keep hold of the ropes. It was no use, the dragon spat fire everywhere. It clawed and bit and killed any in its way.

“No!” Hyles yelled out in horror. His battle with the smallest dragon had taken him far from the other two. He ran to re-join Camrok, circling around the stony perch, to avoid being ripped to shreds by the dragon. When he reached the other side of perch, he saw Camrok in the distance limping toward the dragon holding his axe in one hand and holding his side with the other.

“You overgrown lizard, face me you coward!” shouted Camrok.

The dragon stopped flailing and turned an eye to Camrok. It let out a quick screech then charged at Camrok anew.

The commander broke into an awkward dash, but as the commander raised his axe to deliver a crushing blow, the dragon leaped straight over him. Camrok turned around to face the dragon, but it was too late. The dragon was on him in a blink of an eye. The commander swung his axe downward, but the dragon twisted its neck outward and avoided the blow, causing Camrok’s axe to get wedged into the ground. The beast arched its head to the side and snapped its jaws down into the commander’s belly. It picked him right off the ground and shook him the same way a wolf shakes its prey. The dragon threw him, and Camrok’s limp body slammed into the stone wall of the perch. He fell to the ground, dead.

Hyles’s face turned as pale as freshly fallen snow. He ran over to Camrok as fast as his tired legs could take him. “My lord.” cried Hyles as he shook the commander by the shoulders. "Wake up, My lord, wake… up!” he shouted. He grasped his commander’s jerkin and lowered his head onto Camrok’s chest, sobbing.

A sudden rage overtook Hyles. He jumped to his feet and pull out his sword. Hyles’ sword seemed to glow as his rage grew.

He jolted toward the dragon in frenzy. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He took the dragon by surprise, swinging his sword down and sliced half the dragon’s tail off. The beast shrieked, but did not seem to react much to the wound afterwards. The dragon only swung around and snapped at Hyles. He avoided the blows by stepping into them and ducking sideways. The dragon did not let up as it snapped and hissed. Hyles saw his opportunity, and he waited for the foul creature to snap at him once more. When it did, he dove down under the creature and thrust his sword up into the beast’s heart. He pushed with both hands and twisted his blade to finish the beast for good. The dragon wiggled and flailed, trying to flee. It was no use. Its efforts only killed it faster. Hyles jumped out of the way in time to avoid the beasts crushing weight as it came crashing to the ground. The battle was won.

The men cheered and cast down their weapons. “Hyles, Hyles, Hyles!” the men cried, but Hyles did not join them in celebration. He ran over to Camrok and picked him up and walked back to the men. The noises and cheers died down fast. In their silence, Hyles spoke. “Commander Camrok fought with honor. He embraced his fate and met it face to face. We came here in the hopes of slaying Drakroth, yet he does not show his face. It is enough bloodshed for one day. Men gather as many stones as you can find. We must bury Lord Camrok. Then we make for home.”

Few men survived this battle. Nine-hundred fifty-one brave souls lost their lives that day. Those that remained stood around Lord Camrok’s mound and bowed their heads in silence.

The hour was getting late, and the clouds had cleared. The sun was setting behind the mountain as Hyles, and the men walked among the dead. Hyles drew his sword and walked over to the biggest dragon. He grabbed the dragon by one of the horns and sawed it off and handed it to his squire. “This day was a waste. Drakroth will never wake.” he thought.

The men were making their way up the hill heading south to face the long journey home. Hyles came up last. At the top of the hill, he looked back at the Great Peak. The suns last light was in his eyes. “One day perhaps, one day.” He thought to himself, as though he were speaking to Drakroth himself.

As he turned his back on the mountain and made his way downhill, something echoed in his mind. “Not for you.”

1: The Maiden

She was finishing her story. “As sir Hyles Trant, turned his head from the mountain, he knew that one day Drakroth would rise and avenge his brothers and sisters.”

The girl stared at her mother in amazement as she lay in her feather bed. “Mother I wish I could have seen a drag-on.”

Her mother only smiled at her. “Alyssa, my child, the dragons have been extinct for many hundreds of years.” She said while she stroked her daughter’s hair back.

“But you said that Drakroth did not die during the fight at the Great Peak.” complained Alyssa.

“People said that Drakroth died in its cave many years ago.” Alyssa’s mother replied.

Alyssa eyes grew with excitement. “Then, can I be a warrior too?”

“My dear, I have told you time and time again. Fighting is for men. Some things should not change.” She scolded her daughter. “Come now, it is time for bed.”

“Very well.” Alyssa frowned and crossed her arms, vexed. “She never lets me do anything.”

Alyssa was a comely girl of fourteen who lived with her mother, Mylene. They lived in an old rugged wooden house with a stone foundation on the eastern side of town. Alyssa had long brown hair that never curled, with pale green eyes that shimmered in the sunlight and looked nearly black at night. She was a curvy girl and skinny as she was tall. Alyssa was a high-spirited girl, and she loved to laugh. She was greatly courteous. Her mother had seen to that. Her favorite thing to do was spend time with her friends in the forest just outside town, but some days she liked to go alone. She grew fond of the woods. The creatures grew accustom to Alyssa's presence and her to theirs.

Her mother got up off the bed and leaned over to kiss her daughter on the brow, then blew out her bedside candle.

Alyssa’s mother was nine and thirty, but she looked ten years her age. Her once long dark brown hair is now streaked with grey, and her once smooth skin is slowly starting to wrinkle, but for all that, Mylene still remained a strong and determined woman. When Alyssa’s father had died in a hunt but was never found, her mother grieved for several months. She would barely eat or sleep, and she would sob many hours a day. The memory pained her and left her scarred.

Mylene shut the door. The old floor boards creaked as she walked away from her daughter's room. It grew dark when her mother shut the door, but the full moon shined that night and light streamed in through the cracks in the shutters. The night was slightly cool, but the glow of embers in the hearth kept her comfortably warm beneath her sheets.

She shut her eyes and sleep followed. Alyssa dreamed that she was standing in a grassy field with the morning sun at her back. She wore a steel breastplate over a shiny ring mail coat, tanned leather boots, breeches and gloves all plated with steel. She held a sword in her right hand and had a dragon scale shield strung across her back. In the distance, she could see the outline of many trees standing in a straight line across the horizon. She heard the forest call to her. Compelled, she walked towards the trees. It felt as though she walked for hours, but the trees never seemed to get any closer. Suddenly, the ground under her feet began to tremble, and the trees came rushing up to where she stood. She tripped back and suddenly the trees were straight in front of her. The trembling stopped, but before she could get up, the sound of a deep growl gave her pause. She heard something stir in the brush before her. The growl got louder, and she glimpsed a pair of deep purple eyes glowing like diamonds held up to the sun. They seemed to burn like flames. Alyssa stared at them, stricken with fear. The growl broke into a thunderous roar that shook the trees. The sheer sound could make anyone’s heart stop. What followed was an inferno of purple fire that came roaring straight at her.

Alyssa woke gasping, kicking and lashing at her sheets. Her entire body was covered in a silhouette of suet. The hearth had gone dark, yet she felt as though she was on fire. Alyssa threw her blankets aside and got out of bed. She opened the shutters of her window to let in some cold air. The air felt good. She stuck her head out and inhaled then exhaled. “Awwwee, Crisp.” she felt rejuvenated.

The night was gloomy, and the earth was covered with a thin sheet of mist. The streets were empty, and the torches were doused, yet the moonlight shone against the stone paved paths, giving sufficient light. The wind whistled through the leaf-less trees that stood near her house. Alyssa looked up into the tree that stood out-side her window. She saw a black bird perched up on a branch. It was a rather large bird with small beady eyes and feathers that shone jet black under the moonlight. The bird looked straight into her eyes. It did not move. Alyssa stared at it in wonder. Looking deep into its eyes, she began to feel a sense of dread. The bird flew off the minute Alyssa felt scared. It is as though the bird knew how she felt. Alyssa quickly closed the shutters and ran back to bed, pulled the sheets over her head and fell into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning, Alyssa and her mother broke their fast on warm bread with honey and a little milk to wash it all down. Alyssa had thought to visit the forest today, but her mother had need of her in town.

When Alyssa’s father died, Alyssa’s mother had to abandon their home in Ruinpine’s town center at the southern end of The Green Valley. They moved to a small wooden house at the eastern side of town.

Ruinpine was the way waypoint of the south. It stood on the western side of the valley river surrounded by tall grey brick walls. The gates were always open since the town is used as a crossroad for the trade routes of the north, south, east and west. The trade routes ran straight through Ruinpine and crossed at the market square, where merchants would raise their tents and sell their goods. The northern road led to the Capital, where the king of the Green Valley sat on his throne and the lands beyond the valley. To the south, the valley flattened out into endless grassy fields that met the Lowland sea and the trading harbor. The eastern road led to the ferry where travelers crossed the valley river to make for the city of Ceptai which is renowned for their rich wine. Ceptai is built on the shore of a great lake called The Eye. The western pass led through the Valley Mountains to the sandy lands of Pryganta.

Mylene worked in the market square selling meat for the butcher. He was a robust man with a bald head, small eyes and a grim face. He always wore the same apron that was tarnished with meat juice.

Today, Mylene was not working, and she needed Alyssa to help gather and bring supplies back from the town market. “My dear, can you fetch me the basket from the larder?” Asked Mylene. “And gather your things. We leave on the hour.”

“Yes, mother.”

Alyssa never liked the larder. She would avoid going in there when she could. As she approached the door to the larder, she noticed that the latch was un-done. She stopped in front of the door and pushed it open a cracked to have a peek. The room was empty but for the food that was there. The door creaked open as Alyssa stepped inside. Sunlight streamed in on her right where the shutters were open. The cool air and warm rays calmed her mind as she turned to her left to find the basket. As she picked up it up, she heard a flutter behind her. Startled, she quickly turned around clenching the basket with both hands. There it was again, the bird. It stood on the window sill staring at her. Alyssa did not say a word, but when the bird let out a “quaw.”, She jumped and away flew the bird.

“Alyssa?” she heard her mother cry. “We must get going.”

“Coming!” She shouted back still staring where the bird had sat.

Their walk to the market was pleasant. The sun felt good on Alyssa face. When they arrived at the market square, they found themselves in the middle of a large plaza. The streets were buzzing with people. Traders shouted their stores when they walked past. In the middle of the square was a large fountain carved out of polished stone. In the summer time, children would play in that pool, but today the pool was empty and the air too cold. When Alyssa was younger, she would play with the other children in that pool while her mother had errands in town.

“Alright, here is a list of the food we need.” Mylene said as she handed the small piece of paper to her daughter.

“You’re not coming?” Alyssa asked, confused.

“I need to fetch some things at the tailors. Please, wait for me at the eastern entrance of the square.” Her mother kissed on the brow and departed.

On her way to the grocer, Alyssa took a detour down Forgers Way. She had a fascination for the local smiths. Most of the smiths made horse shoes and farming tools, but others made weapons and armor. She loved to walk past the shops and see all the goods that were for sale and to hear the ring of steel on steel and the feel the heat of the forges.

As she was walking past a shop called Smith’s Crow, she saw the same black bird perched up on the sign above the entrance way. The bird flew away as quick as their eyes met. She did not understand why she was seeing this crow everywhere. She lowered her eyes from the sign towards the open door and she got a glimpse of an arsenal of weapons and plated armor. Curiosity took her as she found herself walking into the shop. Two candle torches hung at each end of the shop. The light reflected off all the polished steel which gave the room an awe inspiring glow. Swords, axes, and spears hung from the walls in various shapes and sizes. Armor, shields, bows and crossbows, every weapon and armor imaginable, some things Alyssa had never seen.

She gazed about the shop as though she were in a dream when a man at the far end of the store walked out from the backroom. “Can I help you, m’lady?”

“Huh?” she said, surprised. The man was dressed in a rough-spun robe of dusty black and wore his hood up. Alyssa could not see his eyes nor could she make out his face, except for the long grey pointed beard that fell past his chest. “Who...who are you?” she hesitated. The man ignored the question.

“Did my friend scare you?” he asked.

“Friend?” she asked, confused.

“The bird, child, who else?” he replied.

Her eyes widened, and she began to step back. “I... I don’t know what you mean.”

“Ohhh, but I think you do. In fact, I know you do.” He curled his lips. “Pity that you haven’t taken note of him be-fore.”

Alyssa did not say a word. How does he know?

“How do I know!?” the man said in astonishment.

She backed up into a suit of armor that was perched up for display. She had lost her words. Her hands began to tremble. All she could do was reach around and clench the breastplate in her hands as she stood there paralyzed with fear.

“Please, do not be afraid, m’lady. It was not my intent.” The man lowered his hood. He was an old man with large wrinkles and grey hair that ran around his head. He was bald on top, but it was his eyes that gave Alyssa pause.

“Those eyes.” His eyes were as black as night. Astonished, she released the armor at her back. “You’re a Mind-Walker.” she declared in amazement. “I read about your kind in tales of legend. It also said that your kind had long disappeared.”

The man smiled. “Aye disappeared, waiting is more accurate, my dear. It is no mere coincidence that we meet today, Alyssa.”

“You know my name?” She was taken aback by that.

“Of course I know you Alyssa Rothaide, daughter of Grimald Rothaide. Our meeting is no mere coincidence. Our little friend has been keeping me informed on you.”

The idea of this old man spying on her frightened her. “Why? What do you want with me?” Her hand began to tremble again.

“I have seen your future child. It is a grim one.” He paused as if lost in thought. “Alas!” he shouted. “There is some destiny about you. I have seen what is to come!”

Her hands stopped trembling, and her eyes widened with curiosity. “Yes?”

“On the night of the crescent moon, your…”

“Alyssa, There you are!” It was her mother’s voice.

Alyssa turned around to find her mother standing in the doorway. “Mother!” she said, surprised.

“Where have you been?” said Mylene, upset. “I asked you to go buy the food.”

“I was just…I’m sorry.” She looked back at the man, but he had disappeared. “Huh? Where did he go?

“Come along child, we still need to buy food and get home before dark.”

Alyssa followed her out of the shop, but as she crossed the doorway, she heard a whisper in her mind “Follow the crow”. She stopped and took a last look at the inside of the shop, but no one was there.

Her mother called out for her. “Alyssa, come along.”

“Yes, mother.” She said and followed her mother back out into the streets in search of the food market.

They made their way through the streets and back to the Market plaza. At the south eastern end, they found the grocers shouting out their supplies. Onions, carrots, potatoes, and much more! Get them while they’re fresh! Alyssa was taken by the vigorous smells. Merchants lined the streets with their baskets full of goods. There was every kind of fruits and vegetables. She could smell the fresh loaves of bread and mouthwatering scent of pastries.

Mylene preferred one grocer more than the rest. He had everything one needed under one roof. As they entered, the man behind the counter greeted them with a smile on his face. The man had a long mustache that seemed to bounce when he spoke. “Welcome, my ladies.”

Mylene nodded in reply. “Good day.”

The shop was filled with many en-chanting smells. The baskets on the shelves were full of different assorted delicacies. Their stay was short; they picked up what they needed and made for home.

It was mid-afternoon when they neared home. Alyssa saw the mysterious black bird sitting on the same branch as it did last night. Once again, their eyes met, but this time the crow did not fly off. It only sat there and squawked. She remembered what the old man told her. Follow the crow. Simply, she was not sure what the man meant by it.

When Alyssa and her mother got in-side, they made preparations for supper. “Alyssa, I need you to fetch water from the well.” Mylene demanded.

“Yes.” Alyssa replied, without question. She picked up the empty wooden bucket that sat on the kitchen floor and made her way out the back door to the well. As she stepped out the door, the sun greeted her nicely, and a warm breeze flapped her skirts.

The well was a made of stone and had a wooden roof. It delved deep into the earth to the spring that flowed below. She strung her bucket to a long rope and lowered it into the well. She pulled, bringing up the water-filled bucket, focusing to make sure she did not spill any water. Suddenly, she heard the sound of flapping wings. She looked up, and the crow sat on the other side of the well’s ledge. Her eyes widened, and her mouth tightened. Their eyes met again. “What do you want!?” she yelled at it.

The bird cocked its head. “Quaw! Quaw! Qu… come.”

“It talked”! Her hands loosened, and the bucket fell back into the well. The bucket hit the water below and sent echoes up the well. The bird flew away east towards the forest. Alyssa had just enough time to catch the rope before she forever lost it at the bottom of the well. “No, I’m just hearing things.” Quickly, but carefully she pulled up a bucket of water and carried it back to the kitchen.

As she entered the kitchen, her mother was cutting up vegetables for the stew. “Who were you talking to?” Her mother asked.

“No one, mother, I almost dropped the bucket is all.”

“See that you do not, it’s the only one we have left.” Mylene frowned. “Put some water in the pot and get a fire going. I want that water boiling tonight.”

“Yes.” she sighed. “May I go out and see my friends after?”

Her mother frowned again. “No, my dear I need you here tonight.”

Ever since Alyssa’s father had passed away six months ago, her mother became overprotective and angry. She would keep Alyssa from leaving town and rarely let her see her friends. “You never let me do anything! You never let me see my friends!” she shouted. Alyssa had con-fronted her mother several times before only to give in to her mother’s wishes, but this time she did not let up. “Father would let me...”

Mylene cut her off. “Do not speak of your father in this house!” Mylene yelped. “I will hear no more of this! You are to stay here! If your father were here, he would not put up with this.”

Anger swelled in Alyssa’s voice. “No.” her voice was grim with disobedience. “I just want to see my friends in town.” She lied. She intended to find the crow. “It’s not as though I want to go out and get myself killed in the woods!”

Her mother swung her arm and slapped Alyssa in the face. “Enough!” she shouted. Mylene was breathing heavily.

Alyssa stood there stunned, holding her cheek as tears welled in her eyes. She did not say a word. She picked up her skirts and bolted for the door, crying.

Realizing her mistake, Mylene cried out to her daughter. “Alyssa, my child, come back!” She ran to the front door to try to catch her. Alyssa slipped her mother’s grasp and ran out into the evening air.

When her legs ached, and her tears had dried, Alyssa realized she had run a long way. The night was dark and cold. A new moon was in the sky, which made it impossible to see. All Alyssa heard were branches hitting each other and the whistle of the wind. She was surrounded by tall pine trees and other trees that were as naked as she was on her name day. “Where am I? How far did I go?”

Suddenly, Alyssa realized she was lost; stranded with no memory of the way she had come. Alyssa knew the eastern forest well, to a set point. She always stayed within earshot of the towns ruckus roar. She stopped for a moment, to listen, but she heard nothing.

Alyssa did not have the heart to go on; she found a tall pine tree with branches that hung low to the ground. She crawled in under the pine canvas to keep the cold wind off her. Then, she sat with her back against the tree and tucked her knees up to her chest, pulled her arms into her sleeves and slowly drifted off into a rest-less sleep.

2: The Knight

The sky was dark, and the rain fell heavily. The sand of the melee grounds had turned to mud. Issic held his shield up to his chin as he circled his opponent. The rain trickled off his armor, and Issic was soaked from his head to his toes. Water dripped in through the eye holes of his helm and made hard for him to see. Frustrated, he cast off his helm and threw it to the ground.

Issic Frennit’s opponent was a renowned warrior. His name was Sir Morris Landerly. Sir Morris was tall and powerful. He had taken to fighting in tourneys after he retired from the Kings army. He was captain of the vanguard for many years, but his time had passed. None the less, his old age, did not seem to matter when he fought. His wins were beyond count, and he had only lost twice in the past five years.

The roar and cheers of the crowd exploded as Sir Morris launched another attack at Issic. Both men wore breast plates over a chain mail shirt with a sword and shield.

Morris swung his sword right, and Issic met it with his. Left, right left, both men blocked each other’s assaults flawlessly. Issic stepped back and raised his sword high and brought it down at Morris with unrelenting force. Morris caught the blow with his sword, but the force had sunk Morris to one knee as Issic pushed down his sword into Morris’s.

Sir Morris had strength on his side and pushed to his feet. He slid his sword free and bashed Issic across the face with his shield. The blow dazed Issic for a moment, leaving him exposed. Sir Morris threw away his shield and lunged at Issic. Morris jumped in the air and brought his boot down into Issic’s shoulder sending him toppling to the muddy ground.

The crowd jumped to their feet and roared with cheers. The sounds of the crowd were so loud that nobody heard Issic's screams of pain. “No. I will not go down like this.” Issic told himself.

Sir Morris was basking in his triumph with his back turned to Issic.

“Morris!” shouted Issic as he struggled to his feet leaning on his sword and dropped it once he got to his feet.

Sir Morris twisted around to have a look as Issic broke into an unarmed dash and crashed into Morris. The force sent both of them crashing to the ground. Issic had Morris locked under him and smashed him in the face with a metal fist. Morris’s nose and mouth bled, but his fire was far from out.

As Issic swung a hard right fist, Morris caught the attack in his hand and smashed his head into Issic’s and then rolled him over. The rain fell in Issic’s eyes in his struggle to deflect blow after blow from Morris’s iron fists.

Issic’s broken shoulder was throbbing, and he could not lift his arm anymore. The pain left him overly exposed. Morris smashed Issic with a powerful right fist that left Issic dazed. Sir Morris roared and bashed his fist into Issic’s throbbing shoulder. Issic shrieked and coughed up a bit of blood. Morris raised his fist again and sent it crashing into Issic’s temple. A horn blew, and the crowd cheered and cheered. The fight was over.

The world seemed to grow darker. Issic only remembered a shadow looming on top of him. The weight of the shadow was crushing him. The cheers and roars of the crowd seemed to echo and fade in his ears. The blood and rain blurred his vision until darkness took him.

Issic woke just long enough to realize that he was lying in his feather bed at home. The pressure in his head throbbed and gave him a migraine. He passed out again into a restless sleep.

Issic was a young man of sixteen. He was six feet tall with a gallant face and body. His hair was dusty brown, close cropped and thick. He had bright blue eyes with a hint of silver, and his skin is lightly tanned. Issic had always been as comely as he was fair. However, his fight with Sir Morris Landerly left him with a broken nose and a swollen face. His forehead and cheeks were purple wrinkled with red and blue from the swelling. The medic had bandaged his arm and put in a shoulder-sleeve, to keep the pressure off his fractured shoulder.

He had slept a full day before he woke up again. Slowly, Issic sat up, but the world around him began to spin. He took deep breaths to try to focus on not passing out again. Slowly, the room around him stopped spinning.

“My lad!” Issic did not notice his father, Ennic, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. Ennic pulled his chair closer to his son’s bedside. “You had us all worried, boy. I'm glad to see you’re awake. I left a cup of fresh water on your night table.”

Ennic was a rather large man with thick arms and a long bushy beard. He served as one of the captains of the King’s army. His service granted him knighthood when he was but only nineteen. The king had given him a house and income in the castle keep with the other lords of the city.

“How long have I been out?” Issic asked as he took a sip from the cup of water. “Ah… It hurts just to drink.” He coughed.

“About three days now. The medic said that you shouldn’t push yourself too much.”

“I’m fine.” Issic insisted. He pulled the covers aside and got to his feet. Immediately, his head began to spin. He fell back onto the bed out of breath.

Ennic jumped to his feet to catch his son. “Whoa! You need to slow down.”

A sudden frustration flashed through Issic's eyes. “No! I need to get out of bed and join my brothers on the training field.” he said with a weak angry voice. “I can’t lose again!”

“Enough, boy.” Ennic said in a comforting tone as he sat back down. “This was your first Tourney. You won second place in the melee, and you are only still a young lad. You show promise in combat, and I couldn’t be prouder to call you my son.” he smiled and laughed joyfully. His beard seemed to bounce as he laughed. Issic had always found it amusing.

With disappointment looming in his mind, Issic turned over onto his side and closed his eyes. His father did not say another word. He stood up and carefully placed the chair back in the corner, then silently took leave of the room.

Sleeping, Issic dreamed about the mother that he never met. He always pictured her as a tall and fit woman with long brown hair and the same blue eyes that he had. His father would never speak of her. Issic’s uncle had told him the story about his mother and father.

A few years after Issic’s father was granted a house and lordship, he had started bedding whores and common girls. The income was good, and he had nothing do with his time but train and bed woman. Months later, his father heard a knock at his door. When Ennic opened the door, he looked down and saw baby Issic bundled up in a basket with a note beside him.

“He’s yours. Deal with him.” it read.

There was no name on the note. Ennic took in and kept the baby with love and care. Still to this day Ennic never spoke of Issic’s mother.

Issic woke the next day feeling a bit better. He still had a headache, but at least his mind was not spinning. He got out of bed slowly and opened the shutters and sat in his window seat. The sky was blue, and the sunlight poured in through the window hole. The castle keep stood on top of a small hill that overlooked the city. Most of the city is made of granite stone with flat roofs that shined bright white in the sun. From where Issic stood he could see all of the city’s magnificence and the valley river beyond in the distance. Just below his window was the keep’s garden. The colors and smell were enchanting, and the sound of the running fountain in the center of the garden could calm even the most troubled of minds.

His arm was still bound and healing. Issic called out for his father, but he got no reply. Moments later a knock came at the door of his room. Issic walked over to the door and opened it. A young woman named Anbel in a rough-spun dress of tattered grey stood in the doorway with her head bowed. She had the darkest eyes that matched her hair. She was one of the household maids his father had hired. “Apologies, my lord, I overheard you calling for Lord Ennic.” she stated with her eyes fixed on the ground.

“Aye, where is he?” he asked, flushed with confusion.

“The king sent his summons. Your father will attend court along with the other high lords. It is a matter of some importance. That is all I know.” she sounded disappointed.

“Very well, I will seek him out after court dismisses. In the mean-time, I think I will take a stroll outside, but first, fetch some hot water and fill the bath.” he commanded.

“Yes, my lord.” Anbel replied still looking at the ground.

Before she could turn and go, Issic cupped a hand under her chin and lifted her head. “There, that’s better. I have told you many times you don’t have to stare at the ground when you are speaking to Me.” he smiled.

“Yes, my lord.” she said, staring into his eyes. Then she quickly retreated to fetch the hot water.

When the bath was prepared, Issic made his way to the bathroom and stripped down naked and sat in the marble bath. He kept his right arm up and out of the water to keep the bandages dry. The heat felt good against his skin, and the steam that filled the room cleared his airways.

When he finished up with his bath, he walked back to his room to get dressed. His clothes were already laid out on his bed for him. He wore a black velvet coat trimmed with gold over his robes with a warm pair of cotton pants. Issic felt clean. Somehow being clean and not smelling so bad made his headache almost disappear.

His walk through town was pleasant. When he stepped out into the fresh air, Issic felt rejuvenated. The warmth of the sunlight calmed his mind and the throbbing seemed to disappear. He stood in the garden for a while taking in the sun. The scent of flowers and bushes were captivating. He could hear the sounds of children playing near the fountain and the birds chirping in the trees around him; Yet even in the garden the sounds of the city below could be heard. Issic walked out of the castle keep through the portcullis. When he reached the bottom of the hill, he decided to follow the path that arched to the right. Many people acknowledged Issic as he made his way through the white stone streets. Some men nodded their heads and said “my lord.” While some shook his hand and congratulated on his first melee. Women gathered up their skirts and curtsied. It was mid-afternoon when Issic reached the market row on the far side of the city. The sounds and smells were beyond counting. Bakers and grocers cooked, baked and boiled. Traders and traveling merchants shouted their wares, and many of them offered him gifts. He refused them all telling them to save their wares for people in need.

As he was making his way through the eastern streets on his way back to the keep, women flaunted themselves, but he just ignored them. Even a man-whore tried to lure him into a brothel without success. Brothels and every temptation imaginable could be found on the eastern side of the city, yet, Issic would not make his father’s shame his own.

Issic stopped at the fork near the bot-tom of the hill that led back up to the keep. In the middle of the crossroad stood a large statue of Melingra the divine, who was the goddess of all living things. It is said that she was able to change into any creature imaginable. The ones that claim to have seen her in human form say that she was the most beautiful person they had ever seen. They said she was nearly eight feet tall. She wore a pearl white gown that always seemed to glow. Her eyes were a light green and her hair was a radiant golden-blonde that only complemented her eyes all the more.

Issic sat down on a bench staring the white marble statue of Melingra. Dusk was settling about him as he got lost in thoughts of his fight with Sir Morris. He reflected on his mistakes and what he could have done different to change the outcome.

Night had settled when Issic had got back home. He found his father sitting in the same chair as the day Issic had woken from his injuries.

“Come here, boy.” Ennic’s voice sounded grim.

Issic did not say a word. He walked over to the window seat and sat down.

“We have received reports from Hollow Reach to the north. Farmers say there fields were scorched along with some of the store-houses and homes were burnt to the ground. Herds have disappeared. Some men also claimed to have heard thundering screams in the sky. Then the grown lit up in purple flames.” Ennic said in distress.

Issic’s face became grim, as well. “Who could have done this?”

“The court believes that the sages have come over the western mountains, to terrorize our lands with their magic.”

“…and what do you believe father?” asked Issic.

Ennic stirred in his seat and leaned on his chin. “I don’t know…” he said, lost in thought.

Issic did not want to say it, but he knew. “Dragon…” he thought. He knew the idea sounded unlikely ever since leg-end dictates they were extinct. He could understand the courts point of view. They did not want to, overly, upset the realm with thoughts such as dragons. Sages seemed the logical explanation.

The sages of the western lands were capable of creating storms of green fire but never purple. They were banished from the Green Valley for the crimes of witchcraft and slaughter. It would not have been the first time they rebelled against the Valley.

“I must leave with on the morrow with a small host of men to investigate the attacks at Hollow-Reach.” declared Ennic.

Issic sprung to his feet. “I will go with you, father! I can be your squire.”

His father frowned. “Son, I do not doubt that you are ready for this quest, nor do I doubt your skill in battle, but I cannot allow you to come in your condition. You must stay here to recover your strength and watch the house.” Ennic got up and laid a hand on his son’s good shoulder. “Alright? Get better and resuming your training.”

Issic’s father was not one to disobey. “Very well, father.” said Issic reluctantly.

Ennic smiled. “We’ll talk when I re-turn.” he gave his son a quick pat on the shoulder then left to begin his preparations.

Disappointed, Issic sat back down on the window seat cursing his arm as a jolt of throbbing pain ran through it. When the pain subsided he turned his head and peered out the windows the night city below.

Days passed since his father had left and Issic continued to curse his arm. He spent his days reading or walking in the city. It seemed to take forever for his arm to heal.

His father had been gone for nearly a fortnight now, and Issic had still not received any word of what was going on around Hollow Reach. The lack of news made him feel a little uneasy.

When the day came for his bandages to be taken off, Issic was relieved. The swelling his face had washed away and looked like new, but his arm had grown weak from his injury. The next day, he returned to join his brothers on the training grounds.

The training grounds can be found just inside the castle keep walls on a large field of dirt. On one side, archers practiced shooting arrows into bundles of hay, and on the other side, swordsmen were sparring together, and others beat the training dummies. At the far end of the training grounds, men practiced mounted combat.

The sounds of steel on steel, arrows whistling, horse hooves thumping the ground and the shouts of the master-at-arms filled the air. Issic entered the armory and put on a leather jerkin over a chainmail shirt. He chose a blunted short-sword and shield, and then, he made his way to the training grounds to practice his form while beating on a dummy. The dummy was made of hardened wood. It is essentially a cross shaped to resemble the outline of a human. Issic’s hacks and slashes did little effect on the dummy. The swords blunted edges were never made to be lethal. The blunted weapons made the training equipment great for practicing, whether one wants to whack a dummy or spar with another student.

After a half-hour of practicing his form with the dummy, Issic began to get tired. Suet trickled off his face, and his right shoulder began to throb again. It had been weeks before Issic was permitted to resume training and his absence started to take its toll, but Issic did not give up.

“Issic!” he heard his Master-at-arms call.

Issic took one final hard swing at the dummy then turned to face his master-at-arms with suet dripping from his chin. Issic was panting with exhaustion. “Aye, Sir Hendrel.” he replied.

Sir Hendrel was a nimble older man. He was only an inch or so shorter than Issic, yet the man’s strength was unnatural. He was dark skinned and had wispy grey hair on his head. Above all, Sir Hendrel was ripped and had arms with bulging veins. He served in the King’s army for thirty-five years before becoming Master-at-arms. As honorable as he was, Hendrel had a short temper. It was not uncommon to see recruit beaten bloody for disobey-ing him or being lazy. Some recruits had taken to calling him Master-of-discipline. “Attend boy!” he shouted as though he thought Issic was deaf.

Issic jogged over to Hendrel. “Aye sir, what would you have of me?” he stood waiting for instruction.

Hendrel gave Issic a wry smirk. “How does my lord’s arm feel today?” He never liked Issic. The idea of a bastard born child rising so high annoyed him greatly. The common people loved Issic fiercely, which only annoyed Hendrel more. “You seem a little worn out this morning. I think I’ll have you coach the recruits today.” He laughed.

Issic’s mouth tightened.

Hendrel smirked again. “Choose your next words carefully, boy.” he said in his raspy voice. “Don’t think that because your arm is recovering means you’ll be getting any special treatment.”

Issic did not say a word; he only sheathed his sword. He turned towards the new recruits and walked over to them, his heart pounding with frustration.

Hendrel shouted after him. “Good my lord, it saves me the trouble of beating you bloody.” he taunted. Issic ignored it.

The new recruits were sparring with each other not far from where Issic had been beating his dummy. They were standing in a line paired with another recruit. Their swords swung left and right, “Sloppy.” Issic thought as he stood among them. Their form was way off; their swings were too heavy and unbalanced. They were all young, about twelve to fourteen, except for one boy who looked to be about twenty. He was taller than Issic and blocky. He had a shaved head with an angry face.

As Issic was coaching them, the oldest boy seemed to grow aggressive with his partner. His assaults were pressing and unorganized. His partner kept his shield up as the aggressive boy kept on him, pounding and pounding the shield until the shield slipped his partners hands. The next blow caught the younger boy full in the face sending him crashing to the ground with blood gushing from his nose.

“What is the meaning of this!?” shouted Issic as he shoved the recruits aside to get to the older boy. He grabbed the older boy by the shoulder and swung him around.

The older boy pushed Issic’s hand away and then shoved him back. “I do not need instruction from a pup!”

Issic staggered back and then regained his balance. He smiled coolly. “What is your name, my friend?”

“My name is Botley. What’s it to you?” he replied dryly.

“Well, Botley, you must be a true warrior if you do not need my instruction, a demonstration perhaps?” Issic shouted out to the recruits as he drew his sword.

Botley hesitated, but just as he was about to charge Issic like a bull, a horn blew. AAAoooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuu! Botley stopped in his tracks. Issic and the recruits gazed around to find the source. The horn blew again. AAAooooouuuuuuuuu! Then, a man shouted from atop the keeps ramparts. “Open the gates!”

Issic caught a glimpse of the men that filled the courtyard as they filed in through the gate. He turned back to Bot-ley and sheathed his sword. “Excuse me my friend, we shall revisit your remark another time.” he turned away and ran to the courtyard to meet the riders.

The courtyard was made of polished stone. It is a large square pavilion that lay in front of the main entrance to the castle.

As Issic entered the courtyard, he took notice of the number of riders. “Is this all that is left? So few have returned.” He asked the nearest rider.

The rider made a grim face and did not answer. Some of the riders stared at Issic, but when their eyes met, the riders turned their gazes elsewhere. Issic looked about the riders. He could not find his father. His body jumped with nerves. “Where is my father?” he shouted, but the riders kept their silence. At that moment, Sir Hurst a tall, gallant and slender man dismounted from his horse. The man walked over to Issic holding a bundle. He handed the bundle to Issic and watched him unwrap it. Inside the cloth was his father’s sword. Issic’s eyes met the man’s. “I’m sorry.” said Sir Hurst.

The world around Issic seemed to slow down and become gloomy. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but he got cut off when the doors to the castle burst open and there stood king Holtz. He wore his golden crown and glimmering red surcoat. He also wore a pair of black-velvet pants with gold trim to match his crown. Two men-at-arms stood at his side as he came forward. “By the gods.” the king swore in distraught. “So few of you have returned. What of the sages? Any tidings from Hollow Reach?” demanded the king.

“We were attacked, your grace.” re-plied one of the riders.

“The sages are not known to engage in open combat…”

“Not sages, your grace.”

The king frowned. “What is your meaning, sir?”

“It was no sages, sire” replied Sir Hurst in distress. “It was some kind of demon.”

3: A Willful Mother

She dreamt of yesterday, the night she had struck her daughter across the face. At the sound of the slap, Mylene’s eyes popped open, and she let out a gasp. Her body was covered in suet. Mylene quickly tossed her covers aside and ran to Alyssa’s room. When she opened the door and looked inside, all was silent, and no one was in there. Mylene’s face turned white and her eyes widened in fear. “I thought she would return in the night... Melingra save me, what have I done?” she thought to herself. A sudden feeling of panic took a hold on her. “I need to find her!” she declared aloud.

Mylene ran back to her chamber, her nightgown flapping behind her. She got dressed in a simple leather jacket over a woolen shirt with woolen pants tucked into her boots. Mylene did not even break her fast. She bolted out the door in search of her daughter.

The morning was very gloomy. The sun was just beginning to come up, but it did not make an appearance that day. The sky was overcast and the ceiling hung low. The air was crisp but fresh, and everything was covered in condensation due to the thick fog in the air.

Even early in the morning, the streets swarmed with people. Between the people and the fog, it would make Mylene’s search very difficult. Instead, she decided to look around her neighborhood before taking on the rest of the town. She triple checked her house to make sure Alyssa was not hidden in another room, but the house was empty. Mylene searched the store house in the backyard with no luck.

It was not long before Mylene had checked her entire neighborhood. She knocked on people’s door asking if they had seen Alyssa, but she only got the same answer from everyone she asked. Nobody had seen her daughter.

It was midday when Mylene had be-gun searching the market square. The fog had cleared, and the sun shined bright in the sky. The streets were busy with people pushing and bumping into each other. Her heart dropped. Mylene did not know how she was going to her daughter, Ruinpine is a big town. As she stepped out from the rushing mob into a clearing, Mylene spotted some of Alyssa’s old friends sitting around the market square fountain.

“My dears have any of you seen Alyssa today?” She asked the girls sitting by the fountain.

The girls broke from their conversation and looked up at Mylene with con-fused faces. “No, my lady.” answered one of the girls. “Has something happened?”

The girl’s question felt as though someone had hit Mylene in the stomach. “My daughter and I got into an argument before she fled out the door.” She would have said… but the words stuck in her mouth. “No, nothing you need to concern yourself with. I just thought you would have seen her.” She lied. Mylene did not want to get these girls involved in this mess.

“Apologies, we have not seen Alyssa today, my lady.” said the girl.

“That’s quite alright dear.” Mylene smiled a fake smile and took her leave.

Mylene decided to go see where she worked for information concerning Alyssa. When she entered the Butcher’s shop, the butcher was chopping chunks of meat on the table. He took notice of Mylene and gave one last swing of his cleaver. “Your late, woman.” he said in a bitter tone as the cleaver sliced through the last piece meat.

Carcasses hung from the ceiling on hooks all around the shop. Bears, elks, turkeys and many more are cut up and hung from hooks with a bucket underneath to catch the dripping blood. The room was warm from the fire in the hearth, which made the air stuffy and the smell was awful. Mylene had gotten used to the smell, but something about the hanging animals was unsettling today.

Mylene did not know what to say. “Was I supposed to work today?” She thought as she watched a carcass swing back and forth.

The butcher eyed her suspiciously. He walked over to her, cleaning the blood and guts off his cleaver on his apron. He was getting impatient. “Aye, are you deaf, or did you actually forget about your work?” he waved a hand in front of Mylene’s face. Then he snapped his fingers.

Mylene popped back to reality. “Sorry...” her eyes were full of confusion.

The butcher frowned. “Why are you late?”

Her heart sank. Mylene did not know what to say. “I cannot find Alyssa any-where.” She said in a weak voice. “We got in an argument last night before I slapped her across the face.” Tears welled up in Mylene's eyes.

That took the butcher by surprise. “That is horrible.” he said. “Please, my lady, go search for your little one. Know that I would help but I cannot leave the shop unattended.” His face grew grim.

“Thank you.” She was grateful. Mylene bolted out the door, to continue her search.

Mylene decided to retrace her and Alyssa’s steps from the day before. As she was already in the market square, she decided to ask her favorite grocer if he had seen her daughter, but the old man knew nothing of Alyssa’s disappearance.

Worried beyond relief, Mylene’s search led her to Forgers Way. The Forgers Way cut out from the market square in the south western corner. It ran south then cut back east in parallel to the market square connected by a narrow path that lead back up into the square.

As Mylene passed under the archway into the Forgers Way, the heat in the air was pleasant. However, if it was summer and the sun was up as it was today, the air would be suffocating and the heat would bring on a pouring suet.

The smiths worked hard day and night at their forges that lined the street. The sounds of hammering steel filled the air and buildings that lined the way muffled the roar of the market square. Mylene found herself asking the smiths if they had seen her daughter. “Excuse me, have you seen my daughter? She is fourteen, tall, and she has long brown hair with green eyes.” She would ask. Some say that they saw her the day before, but none had seen her today. When Mylene could not get any information from them, she kindly thanked them and continued her search.

The search was becoming wearisome, and the lack of information was putting Mylene on edge. So far, retracing her steps had not helped at all. She had but one place left to look.

When she reached the end of Forgers Way, Mylene almost tripped over a wood-en sign that lay on the ground. Nobody seemed to be around at that moment. The hammering sounds had died down, and the roar of the market was still muffled by the surrounding buildings. She kneeled down to observe the sign. It read ‘Smith’s Crow’. She noticed that parts of the sign were damaged, as though someone had hammered in a nail and forcefully tore it out. She got back to her feet and looked to her right. Mylene saw an open door, and inside was an empty room with another door at the far end. Mylene raised her eyes and noticed that the sign post above the entrance was broken. The only thing hanging from the post now was a pair of broken chains where the sign once hung.

Mylene frowned. “This can’t possibly be the same shop I found Alyssa in yesterday.” She thought to herself.

She caught a glimpse of someone walking by on the other side of the street. Mylene called out. “Pardon me. What has happened to this shop? I was here just yesterday, and it was full of items.”

The only reaction Mylene received from the women standing in front of her was a very perplexed look. “That store has been deserted for many years. There could not have been anything in there.” the woman said as she turned away from Mylene.

Mylene grabbed her by the arms and pulled the women in close. “That’s not possible!” She grasped harder. “I found my daughter in there yesterday. The shop was full of equipment.” The women’s body became tense. Mylene could feel it in her grasp. “She thinks I’m crazy.” She thought to herself realizing. Mylene loosened her hold on the women’s arms and the woman immediately wiggled free. Tears began to well in Mylene’s eyes.

“Get away from me!” the women screamed. “If you don’t believe me, just go in and see for yourself.” the woman walked away at an increasing pace and then took a right down the narrow alley towards the market square.

Mylene sunk to her knees, and then she fell forward onto her hands. Tears dripped to the ground as Mylene wept for her lost daughter. “I’m so sorry I hit you. I’m sorry for everything.” She cried out loud. “But I will not give up on you.” She pushed herself to her feet and turned back towards the abandoned shop. Something was not right about that shop. Mylene could feel it in her gut.

As she entered, the wooden floor boards creaked as though they had suddenly aged a hundred years over night. Dust clouds puffed up where ever she stepped. The wall candles were so used that the wax hung nearly a foot long. One of them had a spider web attached to it and many other webs hung from the ceiling and the corners, all covered in a thick layer of dust.

The room sent a frightening chill down Mylene’s spine. She made her way to the other end of the shop, going slowly to make sure the floor boards did not break beneath her feet. When she neared the far end of the shop, she could hear a faint fluttering noise coming from the room behind the service counter. It was not like Mylene to get frightened easily, but this place was different. She knew what she had seen yesterday, and that brought on a significant sense of unease for her.

She stepped up to the door and put a hand on the knob and then pressed an ear up against the door. She could still a faint fluttering coming from inside, then came silence. Mylene held her breath and listened quietly. When a massive THUMP hit the door, Mylene jumped back and hit the service counter. With her back against the counter, Mylene stood there frozen with fear, staring at the door knob that wiggled ferociously. It was as though someone was locked inside and was trying to get out. As quick as the sounds began, they had stopped, and the room fell silent again. Moments after the silence fell, a familiar sound came from the other side of the door.

Reluctantly, Mylene stepped up to the door and pressed her ear up to it again. The sound was faint, but it was clear to her that someone or something was crying in there. A sudden burst of hope washed over Mylene. She grabbed the door know with both hands and tried to open the door, but it was locked. The crying got louder and Mylene started pounding on the door, but it just would not give.

After a while of struggling on the door, the room fell silent once again. That is when it happened; the entrance to the old shop slammed shut, and Mylene jumped where she stood. The room seemed to grow dark and bitterly cold. Mylene’s heart began to beat faster than she could count. The door knob grew ice cold in her hands and became unbearable to touch. Dread washed over her as she took a step back from the door. The room then burst into sounds. She could hear the crying, her daughter laughing and the screams of her husband dying. The light of the day was absent as the room grew darker and darker. Suddenly the door burst open with a BOOM as though someone had lit a keg of rum. A cloud of darkness sprang from the room, making it almost impossible to see. Mylene covered her eyes with her hands but peeped through the crack between her fingers. She could see the outline of someone standing in the doorway in front of her. As the shadow stepped forward, the room began to shake.

Mylene shrieked. “STOP IT!” She lowered her hands and carefully watched the approaching shadow.

Suddenly, the trembling stopped, and orb-like light emerged from the shadow. “Mother!” the shadow cried out, echoing.

The light shined brighter in front of Mylene, and the cloud of darkness cleared. She flinched and covered her eyes from the blinding light. Moments later, the light dimmed down, and a pair of arms gently embraced her. “Mother.” This time it was her daughter’s voice that whispered in her ear, but something was wrong. Her daughter’s voice seemed to echo, and her body was cold as ice.

“My child, I have been looking all over for you.” Mylene broke their embrace and froze when she saw her daughter’s face. Her daughter’s eye bulged out of her eye sockets. Her face was gaunt and lifeless as though something had drained all the blood from her body.

“Mother.” her daughter moaned.

Tears streamed down from Mylene’s eyes, down her cheeks, and dripped to the floor. “Alyssa. I’m… so sorry for… for everything.” Mylene began to sob.

“Alyssa? Who is Alyssa to you?” a voice called out.

Mylene wiped away her tears and looked up. Her eyes met an old man’s. The room was clear; the entrance door was open and in poured the daylight. Mylene barely noticed the man standing in front of her. She only turned her head this way and that way, confused. “Where is Alyssa?”

“My lady, I can assure you no one by the name Alyssa was here today.” the man declared.

That caught her attention. Mylene turned towards the man who stood on the opposite side of the counter. His eyes startled Mylene. They were black as night. The man wore a dark-grey robe with his hood down. The man was heavily aged with large wrinkles, greyish-white hair that ran around his head, and he had a bald spot on top. “What do you mean ‘no one by the name of Alyssa was here today’?” Mylene frowned.

The man seemed to ignore her question. “You are Alyssa’s mother are you not?” He circled around the counter with his long sleeves nearly dragging on the floor.

Mylene’s heart nearly broke through her chest. If this person knew anything about her daughters whereabouts, she was determined to find out. “How do you know she is my daughter?”

The man’s eyes seemed to stare into her very soul as he stopped in front of Mylene. “How!?” he laughed. “I have known you and your family from afar for many years my lady.” The old man grinned.

Mylene’s eyes grew wide and her mouth twisted in distaste. “Who are you? Where is my daughter?” She demanded sternly.

The man stood silent staring into her eyes, then, a blank expression flashed across his old face. “I cannot read you.” He smashed his fist down onto the counter top in an anger that seemed to come out of nowhere.

“What in the hell are you talking about?” Mylene clearly thought this man was insane.

The man stepped forward with amazing speed and caught Mylene by the wrist.

“Get off… your hurt…ahhh!” Her wrist felt as though it was being burnt by a branding iron.

His voice seemed to echo like thunder. “You are meddling with fate. Prophecy has been written. I cannot read your mind, but I can assure you that your journey will not have a happy ending if you cannot except the past and embrace your future. What you seek shall return, but none will be the same. You are the first that I have met that can keep me out. You have a gift, chase that instead. Do not dwell in the past.” he released her. “Follow my sign.”

Mylene was terrified. She took back her hand and held her wrist with the other hand. Her skin stung and throbbed at the touch. She turned her wrist around to find a small brand on her arm. The brand looked strange to her and yet somewhat familiar. It was a straight line with barbed tips at each end. It is almost like a drawing of an arrow with arrowheads at both ends. When she looked back up, the man had vanished. “Huh?” she was confused and frightened.

Mylene stood behind the counter holding her wrist. The shop was the same old beat up shop she had entered in the first place. She did not know what had just happened. She bolted for the door and outside she met a sunset sky.

She felt her heart start to beat faster when she noticed how dark it was getting. Mylene had been afraid of the dark of night ever since her husband had died. Mylene started getting night terrors and would always wake up in a cold suet and out of breath. For a time, she was not able to sleep anymore and would find ways to keep herself busy at night by candle light. Now, to this day, she always needed to sleep with a candle lit by her bed.

Mylene got home a few minutes be-fore the suns last light left the sky. She quickly checked Alyssa’s room in the hopes her daughter had returned, but no one was there. She was alone.

Filled with regret, the only thing she could do is undress and climb into bed. Her candle burned by her bed. As weary as she was, sleep did not come easy. When it did, she dreamt again of the night she had struck her daughter. She could hear her daughter weeping and screaming.

Mylene was kicking and flailing about in her sleep, knocking over her candle. Her dream quickly changed when the smell of smoke mixed with it. Her daughter’s screams came from the shop, from behind the counter, behind the door. The entire shop was engulfed in flames. Mylene pounded on the door at the back of the shop to get her trapped daughter out of the fire. When she tried the doorknob, her hand screamed in pain. Mylene woke up screaming to find a similar scene.

The candle had been knocked off the night table in the night and rolled over to the drapes which started the inferno. Mylene’s far wall was afire. The heat and smoke was suffocating. Coughing and eyes watering, Mylene struggled for air as she climbed out of bed. Her only thought was to gather what information she could while she could before the flames took her and the house. She stumbled to her dresser and grabbed a clump of clothes. The larder was spared from the flames for now. Mylene took the time to pack a bag of food before she bolted for the door.

Her lungs were filled with smoke, and she was coughing uncontrollably when she darted out into the night. Mylene quickly slipped on her boots and headed for the eastern gate before someone noticed what had happened.

When she reached the street of crossroads that branched to her road, Mylene looked back at her fiery home. The flames had nearly engulfed the entire house. A single tear ran down her cheek. ”I’m coming Alyssa. I will find you.” She decided then and there.

She turned her gaze away and dashed for the eastern gate and the lands beyond in search of Alyssa.

4: An unlikely Alliance

It had been two days since she ran away from home. Alyssa would have given anything to find her way back but deep down she knew she had to get away. She had been following the mysterious bird ever since it had appeared to her two nights past. Sadly, in her heart she knew that the bird wasn’t leading her back home. It was as the old man said. “Follow the bird.” But what did he and this bird want from her? “He was about to tell me before mother had found me in the shop.” She thought to herself, frowning.

The morning after Alyssa had run away, she woke curled up with her back against a tree with the bird sitting on her knees, lightly pecking her forehead. When her eyes saw the bird, Alyssa got a scare and the bird hopped back, flapped its wings and land on a branch in front of her. It stared at her with its tiny black eyes cocking its head back and forth. Alyssa wasn’t afraid. She understood now that this bird wouldn’t harm her. To her surprise, Alyssa felt safe around the bird. “Hello.” She said to it.

The bird cocked its head to the right. “Quaw... Good morning!” it said in a raspy voice.

Alyssa jumped again, pushing back against the tree she had slept against. Then, she slowly leaned forward in amazement. “You do speak.” Her eyes twinkled with wonder.

The bird nodded. “Qu-yes... quaw! Quaw! It is difficult…”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Bird! Bird!” it squawked. “Come.”

“Where?” Alyssa was puzzled.

The bird stood flapping its wings. “Come. Come” then it flew off deeper into the forest.

Unsure of what to do, Alyssa’s curiosity got the best of her. She crawled out from under the low hanging branches and cautiously followed the bird.

It wasn’t long before she found the bird hopping around on the ground within a small clearing. Berry bushes were everywhere. “Eat! Eat!” it said. “It’s safe.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but smile. She had not eaten since lunchtime the day before. Her stomach growled, and she raised her hands to her belly. “I guess I am hungry.” She smiled again.

When she had her fill, the bird flew off again, squawking so she could follow the sound. “Come. Come.”

Two days passed this way. She followed, and the bird led. At times, she would ask where they were going, but the bird would only say: “Come. Come.”

They followed a small game trail that led only deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees were thick. Mostly pines and evergreens grew in the southern region of the Green Valley and it made her going all the more troublesome. Every once in a while, they would come into a clearer patch where aspen and maple trees grew. The sun pierced through the canopy and left a stream of light shower down to the forest floor. Alyssa found that beautiful, and for a time it would calm her mind. But that did not last long. She would grow impatient with the bird at times. She needed to know what was going on and where they were going.

She heard the bird in the distance. It squawked like it always did. “Come.”

When at last she caught up to it, Alyssa found the bird sitting on a branch that hung across the trail, fluffing its feathers. Before it could turn and fly ahead, Alyssa stopped. “I’m not going another step until you tell me where we are going!” she yelled at it. “Curiosity may have gotten the best of me, but I have my limits!” she was annoyed.

The bird sat on its branch and cocked its head as though it didn’t understand what she was saying. When the bird opened its beak to speak, the bird stuttered and fidgeted. “Quu... It’s... Quaw! It’s difficult to say. Quaw!” the bird squawked uncontrollably.

“Just tell me where we are going. I’ll be happy with that.” she whined, annoyed.

Almost immediately, the bird’s fluttering stopped. It stared at Alyssa for a moment with its tiny black eyes, and then spoke. “We are going to Flame-Eater Shrine.” Its voice seemed to change, and in that moment the bird almost sounded human.

Alyssa’s eyes grew with curiosity. “Who are you?”

“Bird! Bird!” It said in its birdy voice. “Come.” It squawked and flew off once again.

“Hey! Get back here…wait!” she yelled after it and then ran after it.

Another day passed this way. The bird flew ahead and perched up on a branch, and it would squawk while it waited on Alyssa to catch up. The bird seemed to know where it was going, and so Alyssa kept her silence. The air began to grow cold, and their path seemed to grow steeper.

The Flame-Eater Shrine is located to the west over the Green Valley mountains perched up on very tall stony cliff on the western side. The shrine could be reached from the eastern side of the mountains. Travelers would have to take the northern path from Ruinpine towards the Capital and then branch off following the eastern forest path to Luxton on the slopes of the eastern mountains. From Luxton, a small path led into the mountains towards Flame-Eater Shrine. It is the only path and a dangerous one.

When Alyssa ran away from home, she had taken the western gate out of Ruinpine and had gotten herself lost in the western forest a few miles above the western road. That was where the bird found her sleeping under the long hanging branches of a tall pine tree. From there, they ventured north towards Luxton.

The next morning, after a few more hours of walking through thick and entangling woods, they stopped at a small stream that ran down from the mountain. The bird found some blueberries for Alyssa and the stream provided plenty of fresh water. The air was warm that day, so Alyssa decided to dip her feet into the stream and rub some water over herself. It had been days since she had a proper bath. As she was taking her makeshift bath, she found herself thinking about her mother and the night she left Ruinpine.

As the day went on, Alyssa found herself thinking more and more of home. She often wondered, was her mother worried about her. She missed her friends, her home and even more so her father. But she knew in her heart that she must go on. It wasn’t only because the old man in the shop had fore-seen her future, but Alyssa told herself she had to grow up and take her own path. Her only comfort now was the bird, which strangely enough gave her much comfort.

The wind started to pick as the after-noon wore on and the clouds began to come together. The air turned cool, the wind worsened and made the tree tops bend. Their going was harsh and made even worse when the sky darkened, and the rain began to fall.

The bird stopped on the ground in front of her to let Alyssa catch up, and when she did the bird fluttered. “Come! Quuaw! We..qquu must… Hide!”

She gave the bird a quick and wearisome nod. Tired, wet and cold, Alyssa followed the bird as fast as she could go. After several minutes of what seemed hours of running through the forest, Alyssa and the bird came out into a large clearing with a very big willow tree in the center and an old rundown house built under its branches. The house must have been there for years because the branches of the willow had grown in around the small house and barely made the house notable.

The bird flew off towards the house, but Alyssa stood on the edge of the tree, staring at the broken entrance way that peaked through the hanging branches. The air seemed to get colder, and colder. She was soaked all over.

“Quaw...Come!” the black bird shouted back at her. But Alyssa was hesitant, and she was afraid of what could be in-side. “Why has this home been abandoned? Why is the door broken in? What happened here?” She thought to herself as she stood there shivering in fear and cold. “We should get out of here.” She shouted back to the bird.

“No. Quaw! It is safe. No qu...No one here.” it squawked and fluttered from where it stood on the roof of the house.

When the rain turned to ice as it fell, Alyssa snapped out of it and quickly ran to the house, covering her face as she ran to shield against the falling pelts. The bird quickly followed when Alyssa entered the wooden house. When Alyssa was inside and her eyes adjusted to the change of light, she understood why this house gave her pause. The entire house was made of wood, and it reminded her of home. But this house had one significant difference. There were no rooms and no hallways. It was simply one big room. The floor board were twisted and molding. There stood a stone hearth against the right wall and a long table in the center of the room. At the far right corner of the house where it appeared to be the driest, a straw bed lay flat on the floor. Alyssa walked over to it. Water dripped through the ceiling but not in that corner. The tree was keeping it dry. Standing in the only dry stop of the house, Alyssa looked about. There were holes in the roof near the entrance way, and branches had grown in through them. The only window in the house was on the left side, and she saw that the glass was shattered in, and the branches had clawed their way in there too.

The longer she looked about and examined this house, the more she came to realize that the house wasn’t as deserted as the bird had said. She saw a fairly new spoon lying on the table, freshly cut firewood stacked beside the hearth and a pair of worn boots at the end of the bed. Alyssa felt uneasy. She didn’t know if someone actually lived here or had just left and she didn’t want to find out.

The bird flew over to the dresser that stood beside the bed and began pecking and pulling on a piece of cloth that was sticking out of the top drawer. “What have you got there?” Alyssa asked. She opened the drawer and found a cloth shirt. She pulled it out and held it out in front of her.

“Change. Quu… You’re wet.” said the bird.

That took Alyssa aback. She was not the sort of person to steal from others. “I… can’t…” she said in a weak voice.

The bird fluttered and flapped its wings the way it did when it got impatient. “Quaw! Quaw! Change or die ...qu... of phenomena.” it squawked back.

The drawers were filled with clothes, everything she needed. Alyssa pulled out a pair of woolen socks, a shirt and leather jerkin to go over it. She also found a pair of cotton trousers. When she gathered what she needed, she gave the bird a shy look. The bird cocked its head and turned around. Alyssa undressed and placed her wet clothes on the floor and quickly changed into the clothes she found. The clothes weren’t dirty or clean. They were just aged and a little bit too big. She also slipped on the boots she found at the end of the bed. They were worn and used, but they seemed to fit perfectly.

They made a fire in the hearth to keep warm until the rain and ice pelts stopped falling. Whoever lived in that house did not show their faces that day.

That night Alyssa slept dressed on the bed, on top of the covers to avoid getting fleas and lice all over her. The bird slept at the foot of the bed near the fire. Alyssa couldn’t sleep. Her mind was occupied by the thought of home and her mother and father and her friends. This house re-minded her too much of home, and she couldn’t take another second in there. She sat up in bed and saw the bird sleeping. She smiled. “I guess even it needs to sleep sometime.” She slowly climbed out of bed and slipped her on boots. Quickly yet quietly, she gathered some firewood and some embers from the hearth with the shovel that hung from a hook beside the hearth.

She noticed that the rain had stopped when she stepped outside, and she was glad for it. She took a deep breath and felt the cool fresh air enter her lungs. She sighed with relief and made her way around to the other side of the giant willow tree. Once on the other side, she found a dry spot to place her wood and place her embers. In minutes, she had a nice fire burning in front of her, keeping her warm. The ground was dry beneath her feet, so she decided to sit down. She felt better outside than inside that house. Her mind began to empty as she sat here staring into the flames.

She stared at the flames for what seemed hours. Before long, the late night hours brought sleep to her. As she started dozing off, Alyssa heard a soft rustling sound in the distance. The sound quickly caught her attention, and she could feel her heart start to beat harder and harder. She stood up and stared at the tree line in front of her. “Probably just a squirrel.” She told herself.

When she sat back down and turned for towards the fire, she was ambushed. Something or someone struck her across the head with a blunt object and sent her tumbling to the ground. The flames continued to burn as someone's hand grabbed Alyssa by the hair and dragged her to her feet. She managed to focus long enough to see three people closing in around her. Alyssa kicked and screamed, but she couldn’t get free. Panic took over her when she was taken by the arms by the other two people. The man holding her by the hair slid his hand up and grabbed hold of her neck and then all three of them pulled her back, slamming her into the great willow’s trunk.

Before she could scream again, the man released Alyssa's hair and neck, and then he covered her mouth with one hand and pulled a dagger up to her throat with the other. Alyssa couldn’t even move. She tried to scream and wiggle-free, but it was useless. She couldn’t make out their faces either because they kept their hoods up. She could only tell them apart by their voices. One she knew was a man in his thirties or forties. He had a coarse and deep scary voice. The other to her left had a younger voice that seemed fairer but no less threatening and the other on the right never seemed to speak.

The one on the left laughed. “Well well, look what we have here Yanga. A little bitch that thinks she can help herself to our little home.” He squeezed her arm tighter. Alyssa tried to scream again, but the sound was muffled.

Yanga uncovered her mouth and slapped the man on the left in the back of the head. “You stupid fuck. Why don’t you tell her all our names!” his voice boomed.

“I’m sorry…I was just…” the boy on the left loosened his grasped on Alyssa’s arm when Yanga pointed his dagger at him.

“Just keep your mouth shut, or I’ll cut that slimy tongue o’yours out!” said Yanga as he waved his dagger pointed at the boy’s face.

In the distraction, Alyssa saw her chance. She pulled her arm free from the man on the left and turned quickly to the one on the right and kicked him in-between the legs and ran where ever she could go. She did not make five steps before Yanga grabbed her by the neck and drove back up against the tree again. Alyssa let out another scream. “HELP!” she cried to anyone who might hear.

“Quiet you bitch!” Yanga threatened her by sticking his blade at her throat again.

The fear in Alyssa brought tears to her eyes. “Please sir.” She cried. “I was only shielding myself from the rain.” She sniffled as tears ran down Alyssa's face as.

“Rain!?” Yanga laughed. “Yet I find you outside, sitting here by this little fire. Why are wearing our clothes you thief!”

“No, I’m not a…” but before she could finish her words the one on the right raised a knee and struck Alyssa in the gut. The rest of them watched her fall to her knees. Alyssa covered her stomach with her arms to block out the pain.

“Keep your mouth shut you beggaring whore!” The one on the right shouted. It was a woman voice, young and no more than five and twenty. “Cut her, Yanga!” she yelled.

Yanga squatted down and pulled up Alyssa’s head by her hair and then leaned in close to her face. “Have you ever been fucked by a knife?” he grinned. “What do you think Celeace? From lip to lip?” he laughed and then grinned again.

“Uhh…Boss?” asked the man on the left.

“What!?” Yanga said, annoyed. “Do you want to get cut too, Onga?”

“You idiot, you just yelled out both our names.” Celeace sighed with annoyance.

Yanga frowned under his hood. “It makes no matter.” He growled and kicked Alyssa in the stomach, and Alyssa shrieked with pain. “This one will be carved open soon anyways.” Yanga pointed at Alyssa with his dagger.

“Would you just get on with it!” complained Onga.

Yanga pointed his dagger at Onga. “What did I say before, you little shit?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Onga leaned back on one leg and crossed his arms.

Yanga pointed his blade back at Alyssa, who now lay on the ground with her knees curled up to her chest. “Besides, I like to hear them squeal.” He laughed and raised his dagger as if to stab.

Suddenly a sound came from the branches above them. “Quaw!” it was the black bird. “Leave her alone!” It said in a deep clear coarse voice. That’s when it happened. The bird swooped down from its high branch and in the blink of an eye, its beak, its feathers and skin all peeled back and disappeared. The creature that hit the ground in front of Alyssa was no bird. It had four legs and stood at least four feet tall on all-fours. It looked like a dog, but something about it wasn’t dog like at all. It had a dark black coat of fur that only covered its back, the top of its head and the length of its tail. The rest of the beast’s body was a dark brown skin. Its eyes were the same, all black only larger.

The beast stood in front of Alyssa. Its fur stood on end as it barred its massive teeth at the brigands and growled. All three of the bandits took some steps back. The only weapon they had was Yanga’s dagger.

“Charah!” yelled Onga.

The beast’s teeth bulged from its long snout, and its deep, raspy bark sent the brigands running, all but Yanga. The man stood his ground in front of the creature. Alyssa lay on the ground behind the dog-like creature holding her stomach with one arm and leaning on the other. Tears were brimming in Alyssa's eyes as she lay there trembling uncertain what would happen next.

Celeace and Onga had only run a few feet towards the tree line when they realized Yanga had not followed. “Where the hell is Yanga?” Celeace cried out to Onga. They stopped and looked back at the willow tree and saw Yanga still standing there. “Shit! What is he doing? Does he want to get himself killed?” Celeace said in a soft-angered voice. “Come on Onga, We got to go get him, or that Charah will rip him to pieces!” Celeace took off towards the tree leaving Onga trembling with fear. He did not follow.

Meanwhile, Yanga stared at the beast with his dagger pointed and ready. His eyes reflected light from the flames beside him, giving them a murderous glow beneath his hood. “You really think a little girl and her pup are going to make me piss my pants?” he laughed while waving his dagger in front of him. Then, he raised his hands up to his hood and lowered his hood. His eyes turned to Alyssa. “After I cut down your dog, I’m going to fuck you with my dagger you little bitch.” The man was bald, and his eyes were small. He had a short picky beard. His face was ugly and as broad as he was tall and this man was near six and a half feet tall.

“You mean if you cut me down.” Growled the beast before it bared its teeth and snarled.

Yanga seemed to take offense to that comment. He lounged at the beast with his dagger going straight for the creature’s head. The beast jumped to the right and dodged the blow, and then just as quick it jumped up and sank its teeth into Yanga’s shoulder.

As Celeace neared the tree, she watched to horror as the beast bit into Yanga’s shoulder and sent him falling to the ground with the beast still on top of him. “NOO!” she shrieked as the beast swiped a claw across Yanga’s face. She sprinted as fast as she could run towards Yanga. The wind pushed back her hood revealing her face. Alyssa caught a glimpse of her. Celeace appeared to be fair of face, but her heart was as dark as her long dark brown hair.

When Celeace came upon the scene, she instantly went to help Yanga. “Get off, Charah!” She kicked the beast in the side of head, sending it rolling off Yanga. The beast staggered a moment and quickly regained its momentum. Celeace helped Yanga to his feet. “Come on, you idiot!” she yelled. The dog spread its front legs, bared its teeth and growled at them. It gave a threatening snarl. But before Celeace and Yanga retreated, they gave Alyssa and the creature cold hard stare and said “This isn’t over.” And then ran away into the trees.

The dog stared out at the tree line for a moment and then turned back toward Alyssa who still lay there in fear, staring at the dog. As the dog step forward, Alyssa’s fear rose and she collapsed where she lay.

When she woke, the sky was blue, and the sun was out. The air was warm, and the breeze was pleasant. The fire had burnt out, and all that was left was a pile of ashes. She could hear birds chirping and grasshoppers in the clearing around the tree. She sat up and turned her head around to find a huge black dog sleeping next to her. Fear rose up in her again, and she jumped her feet and let out a small scream. The dog jumped to its feet, alert.

“Stay away!” whimpered Alyssa.

The dog stared at her and then sat down and cocked its head just like the bird did. The dog did not look the way she remembered it last night. It was the same size and had the same eyes, but this dog had fur all over, and it was silver-grey. It just looked like a domestic dog. “Child, please. I mean you no harm.” said the dog in a voice that sounded almost human.

“Who are you?” She took a step back. “You look different. What are you?”

“I guess those are the only questions worth asking at this point. Fine, I am what I am. I’m neither one nor another. I am what I have become, what they have made me be. I am the raven if that gives you comfort.” the dog replied.

“They?” she asked confused.

“Those from the Flame-Eater Shrine.” it relied.

“But…The bandits…one of them called you ‘Charah’?” her fear turned to curiosity. Alyssa squatted down in front of the dog.

“Aye that is what I was last night and what I am now. I am what you saw last night. During the day, I am also what you see now, a dog.” It cocked its head and gave what seemed to be a smile.

“What is your name?” she asked suspiciously.

“I suppose I can’t tell my name is ‘Bird’ anymore.” The dog lowered its head and sighed. “Tell you what, I’ll tell you everything you want to know once we reach Flame-Eater Shrine. Deal?” the dog looked straight into her eyes.

“Fine.” she pouted.

The dog barked and its tails wagged. “Great child, Luxton is a day’s march from here. Follow me.” The dog got up walked north with Alyssa beside it. Before they reached the tree line, the dog stopped and sat down and then looked up at Alyssa. “I’m sorry, I know I’m being secretive, but this is no place for what I have to tell you.” The dog got back up continued to walk.

5: A Time of war

The night was dark and still. Issic and his father led a group of ninety-eight riders over the Hollow Reach fields. Everything was silent. There was no moon that night, and relying on their torches to help them find their path, the men pressed on.

The Hollow Reach fields are farm lands. Acres and acres of farm land, both crops and herds, which stretched beyond sight just north of the town of Hollow Reach, the last city north of the Capital.

As the men strode on in aimless darkness, one of the horses began to panic and then reared, tossing its rider and his torch to the ground. The rider struck the ground hard as the others dismounted to try and calm the horse down. The man’s torch fell a few feet to his left, and when the rider got up to go get his torch, he understood why his horse knocked him off.

Ennic who led at the head of the host heard the commotion among men and signaled Issic to follow him to see what had happened. When Ennic approached the men, the commotion fell silent, and the men seemed fixed on something. “What is going on here?” asked Ennic, looking at Sir Hurst who had fallen from his horse.

To see Ennic better, Sir Hurst raised his torch. “My lord, my horse got spooked and…” he hesitated.

Ennic dismounted, walked up to Sir Hurst and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You look troubled sir. What happened here?” Ennic frowned at him with suspicion.

“I think you should see this.” said Sir Hurst. He beckoned Ennic to follow him.

Issic stretched his neck in curiosity, then dismounted and followed Sir Hurst and his father. A few yards away they came upon the other men circled around something on the ground. “Make way!” Ennic ordered as he pushed past the men to investigate the scene.

Issic began to push through the crowd of riders when he noticed that his father had gone silent. “What happened?” he asked his father. When Issic looked down, he saw the horror. A cow or what were left of a cow lay dead in front of them. The poor animal was torn from head to toe, its white coat stained with blood, and its guts hung from its belly. Issic’s eyes were fixed on the poor beast.

Suddenly the sky flashed purple and the sound of thunder came after, loud and almost deafening. Issic got a scare and had to cover his ears. Another flash lit the field but no thunder and for a second Issic saw the true horror. The entire field was ridden with animal and human corpses and all as gruesome as the cow at his feet. “What is happening?” Issic yelled out. When he turned to get an answer, no one was there. Frightened, Issic turned his head back and forth searching in panic. He kept turning alone and in the darkness of the moonless night. But when the purple light flashed once again, a man appeared in front mere inches from his face. The face resembled that of his fathers, only withered, aged and tainted with cuts and running blood. Issic screamed, and when the purple flash disappeared the man was gone but something was left behind. Issic lowered his eyes and saw a shiv stuck in his chest, and his surcoat was stained with fresh blood. Issic felt very weak and began to shake before his body gave up and fell to the ground

When Issic woke he found himself being shaken awake by Anbel. His body was covered in a cold suet. “You had a bad dream, my lord.” Her bright blue eyes sunk to the floor when Issic looked at her, and her cheeks turned red. She wore the same kind of rough-spun cloth dress that she was permitted. Her dusty blond hair was braided to one side today. “Are you alright? Would you like to talk about it, my lord?” she asked with her eyes fixed upon the ground.

Issic sat up. “I’ll be fine, and I can’t remember.” He said frustrated as hit the bed with his fist.

He had been having many nightmares about his father lately and he always woke up in a cold suet remembering nothing. Issic had mourned his father’s death for two weeks before those dreams began, and when they did, Issic didn’t have the patience to mourn during the day anymore.

Anbel backed away a little at the sight of his frustration. “Apologies.” She said in a soft voice.

Issic climbed out of bed and took Anbel by the hands. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re not to blame my dear.” He let go of one of her hands and raised her chin. “Why must I ask you every day, not to stare at the floor?” he smiled.

Her cheeks reddened when their eyes met and then she turned away. “I… I will gather your days clothes and I’ll pour you a hot bath my lord.” She scurried away as quick as she could go.

When he was bathed and clothed, Is-sic marched down to the porch, to enjoy a small breakfast. Before he could reach the porch, a knock came at his door. Anbel was the one to answer. Issic did not pay much mind to the door these days. He simply went on and sat down in his chair on the porch with a platter of food laid out for him on the table next to him.

The view from his porch was lovely. It overlooked the castle courtyard on the left side. From up there you could see how perfectly level the stone cut paved floor was and the white marble fountain in the center towered beside him. If one looked beyond the courtyard on the right side, one could see the castle training grounds. Issic liked the view and the sounds that came with it, but no matter where he went in this house, the thought of his father always pressed down hard on him.

“My lord, there’s a man here to see you.” Issic got a small scare. He did not see Anbel come out onto the porch.

“Who is it?” he asked.

“Sir Walter, my lord. The king’s messenger.” She answered looking straight into his eyes.

“Thank you. You may send him in.” he smiled. Anbel nodded and stepped away.

The man that stepped out onto the porch had been the king’s messenger for nearly fifteen years. He was a rather plump man with a round belly and face. He always wore tight clothes, mostly linen striped with red and white with gold trimming.

Issic turned around in his seat to have a quick look at his guest. He got up and walked over to greet the man. “Florence!” he laughed smiling. “My good Florence, how have you been?”

The man smiled back at Issic, but Florence’s face went grim at the question. “Today is a better day, but my thoughts have been weighed heavy of late.” His smile disappeared. “I am truly sorry for your loss my lad. None can understand your loss more than I.”

Issic couldn’t help but agree. Sir Florence Walter had been one of his father’s oldest friends. He would visit several times a week, and they would talk about times long past. There wasn’t a night that went by without a laugh when Florence made a visit. Florence had always been considered as part of the family. Issic always saw him like a goofy uncle.

A flash of discomfort flashed across Issic’s face. “Thank you.” he replied, trying to change the subject. “But come and sit down and have a drink so that we can talk about better days.” He signed at the chair beside his.

Florence hesitated. “I must apologize. I am here on duty today.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. “I am to deliver this to you and take my leave.” He handed the letter over to Issic.

Issic thanked him and shook his hand. “Very well, it was nice to see you as short as the visit were.”

Florence smiled. “Take care, lad.” He gave Issic a quick bow. “Good day.”

“Good day.” Issic replied and bowed. Then, Florence took his leave.

Moments after Florence’s departure, Anbel stepped out onto the porch and found Issic standing beside his chair. “Do you require anything my lord?” she asked. When Issic didn’t answer her, she stepped up to him and placed her hand on his arm. “My lord?” she asked again.

“Sit with me.” his eyes were focused on the closed letter. Anbel’s eyes shot wide-open, and her arms fell to her sides. All she could do was stare at Issic with uncertainty.

Normally, salves and servants were not allowed to share the same table as their masters, but it was clear to her that Issic didn’t care for such formalities.

Hesitantly, she sat down at the table in the chair next to Issic’s. He sat down next her and continued to fumble with his letter. Anbel could feel something wasn’t right with Issic. “My lord is something troubling you?” she asked in a comforting voice.

He did not even look at her. “This is the king’s seal.” He showed her the wax seal that bound the letter with a weary look on his face.

Anbel was confused. She did not understand why Issic would hesitate to open such a letter. “What’s wrong with that?”

He turned to her. “Good news never travels with the king's seal. I have seen my father get letters bearing the king’s seal and now look at him.” Anger flashed across his face as he squeezed the letter in one hand.

“Open it my lord, perhaps it’s not as bad as you think.” She reached for his hand, but Issic pulled away.

Frustrated by what it might say, Issic opened the letter, fearing the worst again. His face immediately changed as he began reading it. “I can’t believe this.” He was baffled.

“What is it?” she asked. “Is it bad?”

“I don’t know what to make of this. They want me to take my father’s place on the council and the King requests my presences tomorrow at court.” He was surprised. “Why would they choose me? I can think of plenty with more experience than I to replace my father.”

“Do you mean to refuse my lord?” Anbel asked.

Issic was surprised by that question. “Of course not!” he said offended. “If they want me to be part of the council then I will oblige. I shall make myself present tomorrow!” he declared.

Anbel squeezed his hand and gave him a small smile. “I am truly happy for you.”

“Thank you Anbel. Now come let us have breakfast together.” They nibbled on the fruit dish they had on the table.

Issic did not go out that day. He stayed inside or on the porch and read only to fall asleep in his chair and wake up the next day.

When he woke up in his chair, he felt confused and lost for a moment. That feeling soon passed when he realized he was sitting in his chair on the porch. He called out for Anbel and as quick as lightning, the girl was there. “Yes my lord?” she waited for instruction.

“I need to prepare for today’s court. I will need clean clothes and a nice bath.” Something in his mind made him hesitate the order he gave Anbel.

“Yes my lord.” She left to begin her duties when all of a sudden Issic rose from his chair and took her by the wrist. “Wait.” he demanded. “There’s something weighing my heart down, and I need to speak to you. Maybe you should sit down.” He let go of her. Anbel was confused and unsure.

Her unease was noticeable when she spoke. “Did I do something wrong my lord?”

“Do not call me that anymore.”

“I don’t understand.” Her eyes sunk to her lap.

“You have been my father’s servant six years, ever since you were ten years old. You and I grew up together. I don’t like the prospect of master and servant. That was something my father did, and I will not!” he held her hand and looked her in the eyes. “I want the awkward moments to end.”

Anbel did not know what to say. Her eyes grew with tears, and her cheeks turned red. “I…” it was the only words she could manage.

“I am giving you the title of freedom. You may do as you will. You are welcome to stay with me if you want to, but you will live here as a free woman not a slave. No longer will you have call me lord or take orders from me. To tell the truth…” he hesitated. “I… I have grown very fond of you of late and I rather have you by my side, but as a free woman.”

Tears welled in Anbel's eyes. “I …” her words were all messed up. She did not know how to respond. “I don’t know what to say.” She gasped.

“I’ll go prepare for court by myself. Please think on what I’ve said. I shall expect an answer on my return.” He gave her hand a nice squeeze and smiled.

After Issic was washed and clothed, he made his way towards the door. He saw Anbel still sitting in the same chair he had left her. “I’m off to court. I will be back in the evening.”

Anbel did not answer. All she did was nod with her back facing him. Issic understood that she needed time to sort out her thoughts, so he left for court.

He made his way down the eastern tower that led up to his front door and came out at the bottom beside the keep's gardens. Issic then turned left, crossed under an archway and emerged at the north-eastern side of the courtyard. The sun shined hot today, which made the white stone courtyard sparkle. The fountain in the center of the yard was running strong, and the sound of the days training bounced off the stone walls of the keep.

As Issic was crossing the courtyard, he heard a voice call out to him from a distance. “My lord!” the sound of this voice sounded familiar to him. When Issic turned to have a look, Botley came running up. Botley was clad in a full suit of armor but held his helm tucked up one arm. When finally he reached Issic, he was out of breath and panting. “My lord, do you have a moment?” he asked between breaths.

“What is it Botley? I’m needed in court today. Walk with me and speak your words.” Issic said.

Botley’s large blocky face seemed discomfited. “I wanted to apologize to you for being such a fuck on the training grounds during your instructions. I deemed you a lesser man. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and for that I’m sorry.”

That took Issic aback. He never expected to share a sentiment with Botley. “It is alright Botley.” That was all Issic could say. “Was I wrong about him? He doesn’t seem anything like he did on the training grounds when he contested my judgment.” he thought to himself.

“And I would give any one-service you wish of me as payment for this debt.” Added Botley.

Issic shook Botley’s hand and placed another hand on his shoulder. “Thank you. I will remember those words my friend.” Issic released Botley’s shoulder and walked up the steps to the castle doors. The old castle doors were very tall and rusted at the hinges. They were more ornate than they were to be used. The door were made of a dark redwood and fortified with gold braces. Etched into each door was the goddess Melingra in human form. Her hair was painted with, gold and her eyes were made of emeralds. Their arms were stretched out towards each other, and their hands held each other’s in the center where the doors met.

Instead, Issic entered through the side door in order to avoid opening the old, noisy doors. Once inside, the large doors that led to the Kings hall on the far wall were closed. The guards posted in front of those doors beckoned Issic through. Once on the other side, Issic walked out into the Kings hall but it was empty.

The Kings hall was always full of people normally. Beggars, merchants, priests, soldiers and land owners would swarm the keep on other days, but today was different. Issic found himself walking down the long hall alone. His footsteps echoed off the dark red wall and golden beams. The windows streamed the light in and gave the hall a beautiful glow. A common long wooden table sat on the dais at the end of the hall and lined up behind it was the King and Queens chairs along with the council members chairs.

Issic walked up to the dais and rubbed a hand on the soft wooden table in admiration. Suddenly, Issic heard foot-steps that weren’t his own. He turned around and saw a man emerge from the hallway that link to the left side of the Kings hall.

“Issic!” said the man in a seemingly cheerful mood. “I’m glad you made it, my lord.”

Issic knew the man who greeted him. “How are you, Sir Walsh?” Issic stepped down from the dais and shook the man’s hand.

Sir Walsh was an elderly man in his sixties. He always wore his armor, heavy and steel plated with the colors of the crown. He had long served the King, first as his squire, then as his lord commander and now as his most trusted advisor. He was the man second in command, the kings will and word. But not the next in line for the throne.

“I have been well Issic…”the smile on his face left briefly. “…despite what has happened.” He tapped Issic on the shoulder. “Come, we are waiting in the king’s private conference chamber.” Sir Walsh led the way down the hallway to the left the turned into another hallway on the right. At the end of the hallway, they turned right again and headed up the stairs to the king’s private chambers. The guard waiting outside the door beckoned them in. Issic had never been in the king’s private room before. When he entered the entrance way to the chamber, Issic stood in awe. Plush dark red carpet lay on the floor and wall were painted a matte gold. Issic walked forward and to his left the room opened up behind an open archway. He stepped through, and he was amazed by the beauty of the conference chamber. The red carpet covered the entire floor and golden paint on walls shined in the torchlight. The walls also had beautiful etchings and moldings. On the far wall stood a massive hearth and etched all around it were leafy vines. In the center of the room stood a breath taking table made of rich dark mahogany. That is where everyone was waiting for the meeting to begin.

All the chatter in the room fell silent when Issic entered. The sight in front of Issic made him feel a little uncomfortable. The council members were sitting around the table, but the king wasn’t there. But the thing that troubled Issic was the many men in full body armor that stood all around the room. Issic stood near the archway with Sir Walsh just behind him.

One of the soldiers on the far side of the room shouted. “All kneel for the king!” and everyone dropped to one knee. As the men kneeled, the king walked out of his bedroom from the door on the far left side. He wore a shiny dark red robe with golden fur trimming. He walked over to Issic and gave him a slight hand gesture, telling him to rise. The rest of the men rose just after.

The King had deep and powerful voice, the kind of voice that was meant to rule. “Issic my boy, I am truly sorry for your loss.” Issic had never heard the king speak like that before. The king had such a comforting voice that it seemed unnatural, but it quickly changed. “These are troubling times my lad.” His voice sounded grim. “There have been reports among the common people that a particular some-one has been spreading the word of our little issue up north. ‘Dragons’ seems to be everyone’s favorite topic at the moment. Now, look at me boy and tell it true. Have you told anyone about the incident up north?” His voice raised.

“I didn’t know the subject was to be kept in secrecy. Nobody told me.” Issic replied as the color flushed from his face.

“A lie my king.” Sir Walsh stated. “I had the king’s messenger deliver the message a week ago. He said that the servant girl took the letter.”

“I am not lying!” shouted Issic.

“They say lies are a coward’s weapon.” the king stated. “Your lies only prove to us that you’re your father’s son.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Issic’s hand began to shake.

“Confessed reports had been brought to my attention that your father fled the battle field just before he burst into flames and vanished leaving nothing behind but his sword.” Replied the king. “Don’t deny it. You told that little slave of yours everything. Oh but I almost forgot. She isn’t a slave anymore, is she? Very strange isn’t it?” the king grinned.

“She didn’t do anything. Please your grace. There must be a misunderstanding somewhere.” Issic pleaded.

The king showed no remorse. “I can tolerate the fact that your father was a coward, but for you to stand here and lie to your king's face is a great offence.” The king paced back and forth in front of Is-sic.

“Your Grace, please listen to me.” Issic began to suet in the heat of the moment.

“I have heard enough from you boy!” the king’s voice echoed. “Let’s see what your little bitch has to say. Bring her in!” ordered the king.

Anbel was brought forward by the shackles around her wrists. Her upper lip was cut, and bleeding and her left eye was swollen and black. Issic was speechless. The look he gave her was one of utter confusion. Issic turned back towards the king. “What have you done to her!?” he shouted.

The king turned back to and punched Issic in the face. “Keep your mouth shut!” The king walked up and stood close to Anbel. “Now my dear, tell everyone here how Issic told you everything.”

Anbel did not say a word. The king nodded to the guard holding her shackles. The guard quickly turned her towards him and slapped her across the face. The king grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. “Speak! Tell us the truth!” ordered the king. But she would not make a sound save that of crying.

The king grew inpatient and let go of Anbel. “Guard, find her a cold and musty cell.” But before the guard could take her away, anger overtook Issic, and he lunged at the king. Fear flashed across the king’s face as he saw Issic attack him. Before Issic could even land a punch, Sir Walsh grabbed Issic by the collar of his shirt, drew his sword and hit Issic in the back of the head with his hilt.

Anbel shrieked and wept uncontrollably.

The king regained his composure and pointed at Issic who lay unconscious on the floor. “There is your proof. A cowards attempt at freedom.” cried the king. “Take his bitch away!” the king pointed at Issic again. “Sir Walsh, take this one to the pits.”

6: Spawn of a seed

27 Years ago

Panochu cried out. “Orchi, where are you? You win. Come out. I’m not able to find you. Please, it’s freezing!” Panochu heard a faint giggle coming from behind the large boulder in front of him. He ran over to the boulder and then slowed down to sneak up to scare Orchi out of his hiding place.

Orchi burst out laughing went Panochu jumped out beside him. “Ahaha, you found me Panochu! Now it’s your turn to hide.” Orchi giggled.

“Okay! This is the last one for today though. Supper will be ready soon, and it’s getting dark too and colder.” Replied Pa as chill went through him.

Orchi laughed. “You’re always hungry. Fine, I’ll count to a hundred.” Orchi leaned his arms on the boulder with his face buried in his arms and began to count. “One…Two…Three…” Panochu giggled and ran off in search of a new hiding place.

Panochu and Orchi had been best friends ever since they met each other at Flame-Eater Shrine. They were born on the same day to different parents, in the same hour and the same minute. They both nearly looked identical. Panochu and Orchi both had short dark brown hair and both had a smile that suggested they were both happy and care free. The only noticeable difference was their eyes. Rather than the dark brown eyes that Panochu had, Orchi’s were blue and as bright as the blue sky. They both wore orange apprentice robes marked with the Shrine’s symbol. The Flame-eaters prophesied that one of these boys would grow up and become the greatest leader the Shrine has ever seen.

After a few seconds searching for a good hiding place, Panochu knew a place that no one will ever find him. It was a place of secrecy, and it was forbidden to all except those who have been admitted to the ranks of Flame-Eater at age fourteen. This place had no name and it is considered a dungeon to the natives. Unfortunately, Panochu and Orchi were only seven, and they were forbidden to enter there. However, Panochu decided he would sneak in and hide there anyway.

Small flakes of snow began to fall as Panochu ran across the rocky yard to-wards the training dojo that stood in front of the mountain’s wall. The recreation house was the one at the far end of the yard looking out over the western lands below. Panochu didn’t want to hide in there because he knew that Orchi would find him too easily.

The sky was getting darker when Orchi was done counting. “Here I come, Panochu!” Orchi yelled out laughing. Orchi’s stomach growled, and he raised his hands to his belly. “Ohh… I’m so hungry too.” Orchi took a moment to focus and think and then his stomach growled again. “I’m going to find you quickly and then I’m going to eat a whole chicken by myself!” he thought to himself.

Orchi spent almost twenty minutes searching the Shrine for Panochu. He began by looking outside and around the yard and then down the eastern path, but he found nothing. His next stop was the recreation house where he found the others feasting on supper. He asked if anyone had seen Panochu, but no one did. The chapel that was carved from the rocky grey mountain of the southern wall proved no better. Orchi couldn’t find Panochu anywhere. The only place left to look was the dojo. Orchi ran out of the chapel and ran across the yard to the northern wall where the dojo stood. “He must be in the dojo.” thought Orchi as he ran across the snowy yard.

The dojo almost looked haunted when Orchi pushed the creaking door open. A sense of dread pierced his thoughts as he stepped in. The darkening sky and falling snow didn’t make the dojo look any more appealing. The dojo was empty as it always is at this time of the day and the candle torches were all doused. At least the shutters were open, and the light from outside lit the room enough to see, but not for long. Suddenly, Orchi heard a sound coming from what seemed the back of the dojo. Something else caught Orchi’s eye as well, a small light reflected off the floor in front of him. Or-chi squatted down to see what it was. “Water…” He said as he rubbed his finger in it. “Panochu must have come through here and left snow on the floor. Heh! I’ve got you now!” he giggled.

Orchi got up and followed the path of melted snow to the back door of the dojo. He opened the back door and stepped outside. Immediately, Orchi noticed only one set of tracks on the ground, and he knew they were Panochu’s tracks. He followed the tracks north a little while until the only thing that stood in front of him was the rocky northern wall and a stone-carved door. That is where the tracks stopped. Orchi stood in fear staring at the door. It was open a bit.

He could hear the noise again. The sound grew clearer as though somebody was humming. Curiosity caught a hold of Or-chi and he pulled the door open all the way. The echoes of someone humming quickly filled his ears as he stepped in. Inside was a perfectly carved tunnel that headed north into the mountain for about twenty-feet. Beyond that was a stair case. It was the kind of staircase that lounged the walls with a clearing in the center. One couldn’t even see the bottom of the staircase because it was delved so very deep. The only light was a single torch that hung on the wall at the top of the stairs.

“Panochu?” Orchi called out. “Where are you?”

Suddenly the humming got louder and louder until Orchi heard Panochu call out to him. “Orchi! Come down here you need to see this.”

Orchi knew that yelling back and forth wouldn’t get Panochu out of here, so Or-chi decided to grab the torch and go get Panochu. “Why are you humming Pano?” asked Orchi as he began his climb down the steps.

“I’m not. Just come down here and you will see its amazing.” Replied Panochu from down below.

As Orchi began to near the bottom, he could make out a bright blue light. “What is that light?” asked Orchi nervously.

Pano echoed back. “Come, you will see.”

The humming got even clearer when Orchi finally reached the bottom. The only pathway possible lay directly in front of the last step. It was another tunnel. This one led south, nearly a hundred feet. Orchi did not need his torch at this point. The light he saw on the way down turned out to be far brighter than he thought. Whatever was at the end of this tunnel emitted such a large amount of light that it lit up the entire bottom tunnel. “Ahhhh! It’s so bright. Where are you Pano?” asked Orchi as he tried to cover his eyes.

“Down here.” Replied Panochu. “Just come down the hall and your eyes will adjust.”

Orchi understood that he had come too far to turn back now. Instead, he marched forward and covered his eyes from the blinding light. When he reached the end of the tunnel, he emerged into a chamber filled with light. He found Panochu standing near a pedestal in the center of the chamber with his back turned and his eyes fixed on something. “Whoa! Crystal…” Orchi couldn’t believe his eyes. The chamber was made of carved crystal, and it was perfectly polished to reflect light. The ceiling was immensely high. It was beautiful. “Pano, come on. We are not supposed to be in here.”

Panochu did not reply. He only stood there in silence. When Orchi noticed that Panochu hadn’t said a word in a while, he walked over and stood beside him. “It’s beautiful.” said Pano.

Orchi looked down and saw a strange looking crystal floating in midair a few inches above the pedestal. “What is it?” Orchi asked with confusion and amazement as he reached out to hold it.

“I’m not sure, but it looks like an eye.” Replied Panochu.

The eye was the one emitting the immense amount of light that lit the entire room. But when Orchi lifted the crystal off the pedestal with both hands, the light died away. The eye now only gave off a faint glow no brighter than a small candle.

Both the boys got a scare when the light disappeared. “What happened?” asked Orchi with a grim tone in his voice.

“You broke it!” complained Panochu. “You shouldn’t have touched it.”

“Hey! I didn’t break anything and don’t get mad at me. I’m not the one who came down here to hide!” argued Orchi.

“Okay…Okay. Just put it back and we’ll just get out of here. I’m hungry.” Complained Pano.

Orchi smiled and giggled. “Yeah, I’m going to eat a whole chicken to myself!” As Orchi reached out to put the eye back, he noticed that the light changed color. Instead of a blue light, the eye was now glowing a deep shade of purple. “Pano look!” Orchi said in awe. “It changed color.” The boys looked deep into the crystal eye and what they saw looked much like a tiny purple flame. They stood amazed as the light reflected off their eyes.

Suddenly a spark jumped off the eye and struck Panochu on the nose which made both the boys back away quickly. Orchi then tried to set the eye back on the pedestal, but the light was too captivating and he couldn’t open his hand to let it go. “Okay let’s go Orchi.” Pano took off down the tunnel thinking Orchi had put the eye back and was following right be-hind him. All of a sudden, Orchi’s hand, the one holding the eye, began to smoke, and Orchi let out a death-like shriek. Pano had run half way down the hall be-fore looking back, and when he heard his friend scream, Panochu turned around and saw Orchi still standing in the chamber with the eye in his hand. Pano turned back to go help Orchi. “Orchi!” Pano called after him.

Orchi couldn’t stop screaming. The eye seemed to be burning through his hand, and yet he wasn’t able to let it go. Pano called out for Orchi again, and when Panochu reached the chamber’s entrance, Orchi turned towards him. Orchi’s eyes had changed color. They were a deep purple that glowed like the eye in his hand. At that moment, the room began to shake. The crystal on the walls began to crack and shatter, sending sharp fragments falling to the ground. Before Pano could step back into the chamber, a large crystal fragment fell from the ceiling and had crashed in front of the entrance. Panochu couldn’t get through. “Go! Get out of here. Now!” yelled Orchi between shrieks. The crystal fragment blocking the entrance was so clear that Panochu was still able to see Orchi standing there unable to move with his hand seemingly burning. That’s when Panochu became witness to everything. The eye ripped free from Orchi’s hand and hovered above the pedestal. The eye began to glow brighter as an aura spiraling energy formed around it and began expanding fast. Within seconds, it was the size of Orchi’s head. Then the eye burst in front of Orchi and then all the purple light streamed into Orchi’s eyes as he screamed for his life.

Pano cried out and began smashing on the crystal barrier blocking the entrance, but it was no use, the blockage was too strong.

Suddenly, all the light in the room disappeared except for a pair of faintly glowing purple eyes. The screaming stopped, but a voice emerged from the darkness. “I said get out!” It was Orchi’s voice, but another voice spoke the same words too. Pano was so frightened that he didn’t question Orchi’s demand, so he ran for the exit.

As Panochu began his climb up the stairs, the ground beneath his feet began to tremble, and the air was filled anew with the sound shrieking. When Pano reached the top of the stairs, and made it out of the tunnels, he pushed the heavy stone door closed behind him. A moment later, the door collapsed in on its self because of the shaking ground.

The Shrine was in total chaos. Children were screaming. Men and women were running this way and that way trying to figure out what was happening. Pano ran through the dojo and out to the yard. The shaking started getting stronger and more violent. People screamed and yelled. A loud deep scream came from underground, and the earth shook even harder beneath Panochu’s feet, and the yard square began to split from the center out. Then, like an explosion, something burst through the ground in the center of the yard and shot straight up into the sky.

The night was dark, and Pano couldn’t quite make out the shape that hovered hundreds of feet above the shrine. But as the creature began to descend towards the yard, Panochu recognized the dark purple glowing eyes he had seen on Orchi. When the creature finally reached the yard, Panochu could not believe what he was seeing.

The Flame-Eaters Shrine was a place of peace and solitude. They kept no legions. They had no way of defending themselves such a demon.

The creature that stood tall and fearsome in the yard was one of the most horrific sights anyone had ever laid eyes upon. It stood at least seven feet tall. Its silhouette resembled that of a person and a giant lizard. It had the purple eyes of a serpent, a human-like mouth but with teeth like a wolf’s. Its skin was no skin at all. It was covered in deep black scales over an incredibly muscular body. Its hands and feet had massive razor-sharp claws and strong but sleek horn sprouting from its cheek bones. It had a voice that shattered glass and shook the ground beneath your feet but the thing that marked Panochu the most was the wings. Huge dragon like wings sprouted from its back on command and disappeared at will when it wasn’t flying.

Panochu stood behind a balance beam beside the entrance to the dojo, starring out at this thing that was his best friend for so long. The creature stood in the yard near the hole it made and turned back and forth as though it was lost or searching for something.

Trembling and with piss in his pants, Panochu summoned up all the courage he had and shouted at the monster “Orchi!” Immediately, the demon turned its gaze upon Panochu. Its eyes looked straight into Pano’s and then it gave him what seemed a smile. Then, quick as lightening its face changed into a frown of anger, and then the beast sprouted its wings and jumped up into the air and screeched creating a small shock wave. The beast hovered above the yard and stared at Panochu for a minute and then it screeched again. Then, it pointed an open hand at Pano and summoned a ball of scorching-hot fire sending it straight at Panochu.

Fortunately, the grand master of the Shrine was standing close by, and he raced towards Panochu and pushed him out of the way in time to save Pano and himself. However, the dojo suffered irreparable damage. The creature’s blast reduced more than half the dojo to rubble. When the Grand Master and Panochu got clear of the smoke, they looked up into the sky in search of the beast, but it had disappeared. Some of the others spotted the beast flying off towards the west. It disappeared for sixteen years.

11 years ago

Time went on, and the people of the Flame-Eaters Shrine kept their silence. They had not heard anything about the demon since that ungodly night. The hole in the middle of the yard had been built into a sanctum, and the dojo was rebuilt beside the ashes of the old one. The Flames-Eaters were once dragon hunters but now they watch over the world from coast to coast, seeking knowledge in their meditation. It frustrated the Grand-Master to no end that they didn’t see the demon coming. There might have been no sign of the beast since, but they would never forget that day.

One day while meditating, Panochu sensed something. It was something he had not felt since that day sixteen years ago. His eyes popped open. He had the same color eyes as the glowing light he saw down in the crystal eye chamber. Ever since the night when Panochu got a small zap from the crystal eye, his eyes began to turn blue. Now his eyes were as bright and as captivating as the crystal chamber was, but something else had changed in him, something he had yet to find out.

Panochu stood upon the flat rock he had sat on and peered out into the distance atop the cliff looking west. Before he ran off in search of the Grand-Master, the only word that came out of his mouth was: “Orchi!”

The lands west of the Green Valley were named Pryganta. Pryganta is desert lands with sand dunes as tall as mountains that stretch for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The days were scorching hot and the night bitter cold. Many travelers die on the road west. If you were lucky enough to reach the north-west side of the desert without dying, you would find the oasis city of Dalport where the river splits in two.

A man who names himself Ihcro had been venturing the sand lands of Pryganta. He could ride for days and nights without stopping or getting wore out. The people that met him in the villages or on the road referred to him as the Purple eyed man. The reason the people of Pryganta have taken to calling him the purple eyed man is because Ihcro always wore a shemagh over his face and the only thing that showed were his eyes.

Shemaghs are worn by the Prygantians to shield their head and faces from the hot sun during the day and keep them warm at night. It is a long linen cloth, which they would wrap around their heads.

Ihcro had his sights on Dalport for a long time now. He was hoping it could provide him comfort and possibly a new home.

He was mounted on an ash-grey horse with white hair atop a towering dune of sand staring down at the city before him. “Dalport.” He smiled happily.

Dalport was surrounded by sand, and the way the sun outlined the ripples in the sand was beautiful but not as beautiful as the city itself. Dalport was known far and wide as the oasis city of Pryganta. It was located at the throat of where the Prygan River split in two far to the north-west of Flame-Eater Shrine.

Ihcro had heard stories of the beauty of Dalport from the people he crossed in the Prygantian desert. They spoke of the green inside the city, how the grass and palm trees would sway in the wind, and the clear sparkling water of the forking river.

They also spoke of the massive three-hundred foot walls that surrounded the city. Dalport's walls are made of sandy yellow brick as to match the color of the sand around it. The only way in or out was through the main gate. The people of Dalport were a peaceful lot, mostly industrialists, who keep to themselves and don’t look for the troubles of war. As peaceful as they might be, the city did not lack in proper guarding. Dalport was well protected and knew very well how to fight from behind their walls.

His decent to Dalport was easy, but as Ihcro was about the cross under the portcullis to enter the city, he got held up by one of the guards. “Halt!” the guard ordered. The Guard was dressed in a traditional Prygantian battle armor which was comprised of a full-plated protection. His armor was sandy-yellow with a heavy black cloak and hood attached to his back.

Ihcro’s head didn’t even turn to look at the guard. His horse just kept on walking in past the gates. The guards grew impatient and began to chase Ihcro’s horse into the streets as Ihcro slipped into an alleyway near the gate and vanished into the city.

His plan had worked. Ihcro had created a diversion to gain access to the city. He made himself a dummy out of tumble weed and spare clothes, and then strapped the dummy to his horse’s saddle and sent the horse into the city to get the guards attention while he slipped in behind his distraction.

Ihcro spent the next few days pillaging food from the markets, and he would sleep in dark alleyways to hide himself from watchful eyes. He was a black sheep in this place. The people of Dalport were peaceful and very indifferent towards outsiders. Ihcro had to avoid walking in crowds in order to avoid being arrested. The people he did cross never seemed to like what they saw. They would give him odd looks, and some would even mutter some kind of remark. Many of Dalport’s people were rich traders or crafts-men who wore rich silks and linens. They don’t appreciate crossing paths with the low born. But that wasn’t the case for all the people of Dalport as Ihcro will quickly learn.

One day, as Ihcro was prowling about the city markets, he came upon a pastry shop. The baker had left racks of baked goods outside to cool down before he sold them. Seeing his chance, Ihcro grabbed a pastry from the rack without even turning his head. His subtleness al-ways worked before but not this time. A short and very skinny man with no hair ran out from the shop. “Aye, you with the head wrappings, put those back you little thief!” The man waved a large wooden spoon at Ihcro.

At the sound of the man’s call, Ihcro bolted down the street. “Hey, get back here!” the baker yelled as he chased Ihcro down the street. Ihcro knocked people aside, and to the ground as he ran through crowds with the baker on his heels. Ihcro cut to the left and went down an alleyway and as he ran, he felt a strange presence, something he had not felt in many years. Yet, he still ran on.

Ihcro threw down his shemagh in the alley and blended in with the crowds in the streets on the other side of the alleyway. As the baker emerged from the alleyway, Ihcro knew that he had lost him. But just to be safe, Ihcro conspicuously walked through the crowd and cut back into another alley where his strange feeling became a reality.

He could feel the sweat on his brow as he stopped in the middle of the alley to catch his breath. His heart was pounding ferociously, and his mind was racing. He grabbed hold of his head. “NOOO!” he shouted out loud. But his voice was different. It was almost as though someone else was inside of him and wanted to speak. A deep and gruesome voice echoed his voice right now. Ihcro flailed around while holding his head. He lashed out so violently that he smashed his head on the brick wall in the alley and then fell to the ground unconscious, lying face down in a puddle of goat piss.

The rest was a blur. Ihcro remembered regaining consciousness for a moment when someone came upon him lying there. This person turned him over, and Ihcro couldn’t believe his eyes. She looked like an angel, beautiful, as though Melingra herself stood over him. “Are you alright sir?” the women asked. Ihcro couldn’t reply. He tried to lift his head instead, but he instantly passed out again.

When Ihcro woke, he was lying in a soft bed with the sunlight streaming in through the shutters onto the bed. A woman sat on the side of the bed dabbing a wet piece of cloth on Ihcro’s forehead. Ihcro turned his eyes towards her. She was stunning. Her bright green eyes danced in the sunlight, and her long silky golden hair shined. She had a small sweet smile and pouty lips. She was thin and of average height from what Ihcro could see. When Ihcro tried to sit up to get a better look at her, she gently pushed him back down. “Please do not struggle. I found you lying unconscious in my alley. I carried you back here myself.” She said. The woman held up a cup of water to Ihcro’s lips. “Here drink.” He took a sip and then coughed when the water reached his dry throat.

“You are most kind.” he smiled. “You seem different from the other people of Dalport…Who are you?”

“My name is Lexia, and I like yourself, came to Dalport an outsider.” She replied. “Now tell me, why were you passed out in my alley way?”

A stroke of pain flashed in Ihcro’s head. He raised his hand up to comfort it. “I …” he hesitated. “I don’t know. A heat stroke I guess.” he lied. He didn’t want anyone to know his secret.

She eyed him curiously. “What is your name?”

He raised his head again and looked into her eyes. “Ihcro.” he replied. “You are kind Lexia. Thank you.” He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze and then smiled.

Her cheeks reddened as she smiled back. “Now, you need to get some sleep Ihcro.” As she retreated from the room, Ihcro lay his head back down on the pillow and stared out the window.

The sky was blue, and the roof tops gleamed pleasantly as the palm trees swayed peacefully in the warm wind. Ihcro found himself thinking. “I could do this. I could win her heart and stay in Dalport with her. It’s perfect here. I could start over.”

As time went on, Ihcro grew better. He recovered from his incident in the alley way. Ihcro and Lexia relationship grew and turned into love. Sometime later Ihcro told Lexia everything. He told her about the shrine, the chamber and his curse. He had never killed anyone, but he was afraid that the demon in him would break free and slaughter people. The news was hard on Lexia, but in the end, their love was stronger, and she accepted him as he was.

Sometime later their love flourished even more, and Lexia became pregnant, and nine months later they were blessed with beautiful baby boy whom they named Clorei.

9 years ago

Ihcro, Lexia, and Clorei lived in little home near the center floor of a tower that stood in the center of Dalport. For the first time in a long time, Ihcro had a place to call home. He had a gorgeous wife who loved him and him her and a beautiful son. Ihcro was finally happy. But some people were never meant to be happy. That was Ihcro’s true curse as he would find out.

One afternoon while Ihcro’s wife and son were at the markets, Ihcro was helping some of the local farmer’s with their autumn harvest just outside town. While he was taking a break from the work, his eyes saw a most unwelcome sight. He peered across the desert sands. “Men, hundreds.” He declared to one of the farmers beside him.

The man beside him was scything the wheat around and then stopped to have a look. “Aye that would be men.” The farmer squinted and leaned forward. “Those are armored men…”

Ihcro cut him off. “…from the Flame-Eater Shrine.” Suddenly Ihcro felt very anxious. He did not hesitate. He threw off his working gloves and ran back into town in search of his wife and son. He ran as fast as he could go, bashing into people and throwing them left and right in search of his wife and child. He searched every carpet selling store in town but couldn’t find them. Instead, he found them at home in the tall tower, adjusting their newly bought carpet in the living room. Ihcro stumbled in. “Lexia, Clorei, thank Melingra you are safe.” he sighed and sunk to his knees, exhausted from all the running.

Lexia caught him in her arms before to could fall forward. “What is it, my love?” she was worried.

He did not wait to catch his breath. “They are coming for me!” he gasped. “You and Clorei have to get out of here. Quick, before they get here.”

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Not a simple knock but a knock that suggested someone was trying to break down the door. Their heads turned to look at the door. Frightened, baby Clorei began to cry and ran to his mother’s arms. Lexia picked him up and turned to Ihcro. “Where are we supposed to go?” Her voice was thick with panic.

“Make your way to Whets in the south. I will meet you there.” The knocking at the door became louder. “There’s no time. Go! I will find you.” Ihcro embraced his wife one last time and gave her a kiss and then kissed his baby boy on the forehead. “Go!” shouted Ihcro. His wife and son made their way out by the back door.

For a moment, the room grew silent. The banging on the door stopped and Ihcro stood in his home alone facing the door, listening. Then, the door broke open, and the red warriors filed in one behind the other and circled Ihcro. When they had him surrounded with no hope of escape, Ihcro could only raise his hands in surrender as they closed their lances in around him. Ihcro did not move nor did he speak. He only stood there with his hands up with his heart pounding and sweat streaming down his face.

The men that stood around Ihcro were fearless. They wore no heavy armor only treated red leather jackets and red dyed pants boot and gloves. But the last man to enter the house was different. Ihcro was sure he had seen this man before. He wore the same attire as the other men but instead of a leather jacket, he wore a finely made breast plate grooved and fashioned with muscle outlines. Painted on his breast plate was the symbol of the Fire-Eaters. The man stepped forward and grinned at Ihcro. “Sir Hyles Trant would shift in his grave if he could see you now, Orchi Trant!” the man said.

Ihcro couldn’t believe his eyes. "Pano…," he said in disbelief. He lowered his arms.

Pano nodded. “Yes but its Grand Master Panochu now.” he said in a proud voice.

Ihcro was shocked. “The old Grand Master is dead? Did I…”

“No. No one was harmed the day of the incident. The Grand Master died a year ago of old age, and I was appointed Grand Master.” Pano nodded at his men and the retracted their lances to their sides. Pano then started pacing. “I didn’t know it until two years ago, but the crystal eye gave me something as well.”

That was when Ihcro saw it. “Your eyes… They are blue.” he said in surprise.

“That’s right. I meditated for three months after my eyes turned blue and in that time, I understood. There are two sides to everything.” Pano stopped pacing and turned to Ihcro. “Listen well Orchi. A branch can be made into a walking stick to help those who have trouble walking, but that very same stick could be used to break a man’s skull.” he explained.

“What are you saying?” said Ihcro, confused.

Pano sighed in disappointment. “What I’m saying is the crystal eye we found had a good and a bad side, but from what I could tell, the bad side was much more abundant. You were made to destroy just as I was made to protect. With my power, I have reassembled the legions. And now, I have come to take you away so that what waits inside of you doesn’t take over or spread. Seize him!” Pano’s men came forward and grabbed hold of Ihcro and then Pano walked up to Ihcro and punched him in the stomach. Ihcro lost his breath and gasped for air.

As Ihcro was standing there struggling for air with Pano's hands wrapped around his neck, he looked up at Pano’s eyes. “I’m sorry my friend.” said Pano. “I have lied. I didn’t come here to take you away I’m afraid.” he paused. “I came here to kill you.”

Ihcro fell silent and froze in fear at those words. “I’m sorry Lexia…Clorei.” Ihcro leaned his head back and closed his eyes, willing to except his fate. But his demon wasn’t as eager. As Pano drew a dagger and grabbed Ihcro by the throat, Ihcro’s eyes flew open, and his eyes glowed like they did in the chamber and then Ihcro let out a scream that was mixed with his own and the demons. It was a scream that shook the earth and the heavens. Ihcro began to change. Horns, teeth, claws, wings and scales began to sprout. His strength became ferocious. He sent Pano’s men flying and crashing into the walls and yet Pano was still holding him by the throat. Ihcro’s transformation was complete, and his eye caught Pano’s again. Ihcro raised his fist and brought it down on Pano’s arm with bone crushing force and then kicked Pano in the stomach making Pano slide back, yet he still stood.

The demon laughed. “You are strong Panochu. But let me show you true power.” The demon’s cold, dark and raspy voice sent a chill down Pano’s spine.

The demon jumped up into the air and crashed through floors upon floors before it burst out the roof of the tower causing the roof to collapse with Pano still trapped inside.

Hovering above the city of Dalport, the demon spread out his arms and bowed his head with his eyes closed. Suddenly the ground beneath Dalport began to tremble. The ground cracked and split apart. Buildings began to topple, and the streets blazed with fire. Screams and cries could be heard from miles away. In moments, the city was reduced to a pile of ash and rubble. Then finally it stopped, and the demon flapped its wings and took flight without looking back.

Pano had escaped the tower just before it had fallen only to get caught under falling rubble. But fortunately Pano’s power allowed him to create a protective aura around himself to shield himself from danger for a time. When Pano emerged from the rubble, he immediately looked to the sky in search of Ihcro. But he was gone and Pano found himself thinking. “The demon is in control of Ihcro now.”

As the years went by, Panochu had not heard a word about Orchi or the demon. But as time would tell, the beast’s chaos would arise again.

.

7: Down to the locker

Her thoughts had been weighing her down of late. Mylene’s journey has not sprouted even the tiniest amount of hope. The last thing that she had left in this world had disappeared.

When her house burned to the ground, Mylene had gathered her things as fast as she could and then fled the city in the fastest direction. She had no idea which way her daughter went and, so any heading was better than no heading.

The past few weeks were miserable and tiring. Mylene had left Ruinpine by the eastern gate and has followed on the eastern road thus far. Each day was as miserable as the last. She didn’t get much sleep or food. She would stop at inns along the road if luck permitted her to come across one by nightfall. If not, she wouldn’t stop. She would walk all day, and all night just hoping to find some clue or some small thing that could lead her in the right direction. If she wasn’t moving forward, she felt as though her mind was going to explode. All she could think about was her daughter and nothing else. The thought of finding Alyssa carried her every step.

When night time began to fall, Mylene would look for a village along the road, or an inn to sleep at. But they were scarce, and the places she did find didn’t always accommodate her. Ever since the bridge that connected Ruinpine to Ceptai was destroyed by pirates, the traffic between the two cities had slowed down. If Mylene got lucky, she got food and a good night’s sleep at an accommodating inn or hut.

Two nights past she stayed with a nice elderly lady. She made Mylene feel very welcome, and they spoke like two best friends. It was nice for her to sit down and talk and take her mind off things. Mylene knew that if she didn’t eat or sleep that it would be no good for her later along the road. She would collapse or starve to death before she could even reach the ferry to cross the Green Valley River.

It had been two days since she left the old lady’s house, and it had been two days since she had seen any village, inn or hamlet. She stuck to the road and would only veer when she had to void her bowels or when she heard the sound of running water. Mylene had learnt to appreciate her senses and in doing so, rewarding herself with fresh water to drink. She didn’t have much with her, only the leather backpack with a change of clothes and a few coins, enough for a few more days, and a small boot knife. Her husband had taught her how to hunt, but a small boot knife would do her no good. She took her knife out. “I can do nothing with this thing.” She thought to herself one day as she spotted a squirrel standing on the road. “A bow would be helpful or even a spear.” If she had a proper hunting weapon, she wouldn’t have to spend her money at the inns and on food. Building a fire was easy for her, but with-out a proper weapon to protect her, sleeping outside would be too dangerous. She didn’t want to risk running into a cut-throat while she slept and get raped.

Another day passed of walking through gloomy pine forests and grassy fields. It was very foggy that morning, but as Mylene neared the top of a large hill, the fog began to clear and in the distance she could see the Green Valley River glittering beneath the morning sun. She looked on and also spotted the broken bridge on the horizon about another days march away. As she started her way down the hill, Mylene was so focused on the gleaming river she saw in the distance that she took little notice of the small hut that stood beside the road at the bottom of the hill.

When Mylene reached the bottom, her eyes turned to the hut beside the road. It was old or looked old in her eyes. The outer walls were constructed from planked wood that looked as though it had seen to many days. There were no windows, only a front door, like a black hole en-trance of a dark cave. The hut stood in a dirt yard with a stone well on the left and a wood chopping stump in front. But what immediately caught Mylene’s eyes was the axe that was wedged into the stump. She stepped forward a bit. “Hello?” She called out. “Is there anyone here?” She called out again and still got no answer. Cautiously, she decided to take her chances. “That could keep me safe. It’s better than nothing.” She thought to herself as she stepped towards it.

She stepped up behind the axe and grabbed the handled and then pulled. But the axe was buried deep into the stump. Mylene’s face turned red from the force she put into pulling and she decided to let go and take a breather. Moments after, she tried again. This time she grabbed the axe with both hands, put her right foot up on the stump and pushed down on the handle to try and loosen it from the stump. Just as Mylene felt the axe move and loosen, a fearful chill went crawling down her spine. A voice threatened her. “Let go of the axe. Get away from my stump and get on your knees. You pirate scum have caused enough sorrow!” A boy, about fifteen years of age, hooded and cloaked, held a bow and arrow up the back of Mylene’s head. She sunk to her knees. “I’m not looking …” She was interrupted.

The boy pushed her forwards with his boot, causing Mylene to fall to her hands and knees. “Quiet! I tell you when to speak here. Lest you care to have an arrow sticking out of your skull.” his threat hit the spot. Mylene didn’t try anything. The boy pulled her back up to her knees by a shoulder. “Now then, who are you and what do you want?”

Mylene raised her hands and slowly stood up while the hooded boy kept his arrow at the ready. Mylene turned towards the boy and was startled by what she saw. She couldn’t make out the boy’s face, but his eyes shined green, and they did not have any pupils nor any white. They were just glowing green. The boy was tall, very tall. He was at least three feet taller than Mylene but very slender, and yet, he stood strong.

She composed herself and spoke. “I am truly sorry to have trespassed as I did. I thought this hut was abandoned, but I misjudged.” Mylene dared not make any sudden moves. “My name is Mylene Rothaide. I travel from Ruinpine in search of my daughter. She has long brown hair and pale green eyes. She is fourteen, but she is tall for her age. Have you seen or heard anything about someone that sounds like her?” asked Mylene, desperately.

As Mylene spoke, the boy’s green glowing eyes shot wide open, and he slowly began to loosen his bowstring until he held his bow at his side when she was done. “I am sorry, my lady. I thought you were someone else. Recently, pirates have been spotted trespassing under the cover of the night and kidnapping some of the little ones.” The boy put his arrow away in its quiver that hung on his back. “Please, no one will hurt you here. You may lower your hands. As for your daughter, I have not seen her.” He strung his bow around his back and chest in order to free his hands. “I must ask. You said your name was Rothaide?” He seemed worried but curious.

Mylene eyed him curiously, as well. “Yes. I am the wife of Grimald Rothaide.” she stated.

The boy immediately dropped to one knee in front of Mylene. Mylene stood there baffled by what was happening. “What is happening?” she asked the boy.

He stood up straight and took off his hooded cloak. Mylene covered her mouth in surprise. She was unsure how to react to what she saw standing in front of her. But before Mylene could think of how to react, the boy spoke first. “My lady, my name Weerscrow and I can tell you are surprised by what you see. But do not be afraid. We are peaceful by nature. We are elemental.” His hair was like leafy vines. What stood there nearly eight feet tall was one of the ancient beings of this world. These creatures could bend their elements at will. Little of these people remained in this age, so little that this one could be the only one left. Each elemental is a human born from the element from which they are chosen. In this case, Weerscrow was born from the soils of the earth, bound by all things that grow to remain peaceful and grow with time as a tree grows. The average lifespan of any elemental was over two-hundred years.

Curiosity took over, and Mylene interrupted Weerscrow for a moment. “You said we?”

“Yes, my earth-born sisters and I have lived here in peace for a few years and would like to keep it that way.” stated Weerscrow. That was when the children emerged from the hut. All green-eyed and they all had vines for hair. She counted nine of them, the oldest no more than eight years of age. But it was hard to tell, they were all incredibly tall for their age. Mylene turned back to Weerscrow.

He spoke again. “Your husband… He was a great man.”

“You knew my husband?” she cried out in surprise.

Weerscrow nodded. “Yes. Seven years ago when our true village in the Earth-Bound Forest was burned to the ground, your husband led the defenses against the fire elementals and in the end with many lives lost we won. He was the first human to help us and not shun us for what we are. He considers us one of Melingra’s creations just like everything else in this world. For that, we are grateful and after all the fighting our Elder anointed him a trusted friend to the Earth-bound, and he was welcome among our people always… That very same year, our elder died, and I was the oldest left. We couldn’t stay in our ashen village any longer, and so with the help of your husband, we relocated here to live out our days in peace.”

“I…” she hesitated. “I had no idea.” She thought back to all the times her husband had been away hunting and the day he was reported dead. Nothing came back to her. Nothing belonging to her husband was found. Mylene eyed the bow around Weerscrow shoulder closely. “That bow…” she pointed. “It all makes sense now, why nothing was found where the reports said he died.”

Weerscrow nodded. “Aye, your husband gave me this bow after the attack. About a year ago, as he was traveling the eastern road, not far from here, a fire elemental came out of nowhere and pierced him through the chest with its flaming arm. As he lay there dying, I came upon him struggling to keep a hold of his life. In that moment, he gave me this bow. I was desperate…” Weerscrow sighed in sad-ness. “…I couldn’t let him die this way…” he hesitated. “…if I tell you what happened next, you will have to leave here and promise to continue your search for your daughter and you will not ask me any more questions. Some things are better left unsaid.”

The subject brought tears to Mylene’s eyes. “I promise.”

“What we did to your husband was an ungodly thing. Come with me.” Weerscrow turned around and walked to-wards the back of the hut and Mylene followed unsure of what to expect.

On the other side of the hut, there was a very large mound overgrown with beautiful green grass and violets. On top of the mound grew a small birch tree. It was still quite young. Weerscrow pointed at it with an open hand. “Here is where your husband’s body lays. But before he died, I used my powers to extract his spirit and set it free into the world. That is all I can say about your husband.” Weerscrow stood beside Mylene with his head bowed deep with grief. “Now I have told you the truth. You can make one request of me and be on your way.” He turned to her.

“I cannot ask you more about my husband, but perhaps you can give me a part of whom he was to leave with.” A tear fell from her eye. “I wish to have my husband’s bow and arrows. Both for the comfort of knowing he once held it and for my very survival.” She asked.

He reached up and took off the bow and unclipped his quiver and then handed it to Mylene. “It is a fit gift for one who has lost so much. I give this to you with happiness and honor.” He nodded in agreement. “Also I will present you with another gift my lady. It is a gift only the elder can give and that being me; I present to you the gift of silence.” His eyes seemed to glow brighter for half a heartbeat and then faded back to normal.

Mylene was confused. She scratched her head. “Ummmm… what is the gift of silence?” she asked.

“Well, walked around and then tell me what you hear.” Weerscrow replied.

Mylene took a few steps and walked in circles for a few seconds, and then turned back to Weerscrow slightly frustrated. “I don’t hear anything.” She complained.

Weerscrow looked down at her and smiled. “Precisely!” he exclaimed. “You will be as silent as the wind when you walk, run and crawl. How else do you think I snuck up on you?”

Mylene smiled and thanked him and then eyed him curiously. “You are very perceptive for one so young.” She stated in amazement.

Weerscrow gave her a humble smile. “We Earth-Bound mature far faster than any other living creature. It’s what makes us whom we are my lady.” he explained. “But now it is time for us to part ways. You must resume your search for your daughter and forget our meeting ever happened.”

The last thing Mylene saw were his eyes light up so bright that the world around her turned white and then her mind went blank.

The next thing Mylene knew, she was standing in the middle of the eastern road, and the last thing she could remember was seeing the river from atop the hill. She had her husband’s bow on her back and a quiver of arrows that she couldn’t explain how she obtained. She found it very strange to be walking and not be making any noise what so ever. When the fog in her head cleared, and the world around her became apparent, the only thing she remembered was her goal. She had to find Alyssa at any cost.

As her eyes adjusted in the sunlight, Mylene could hear the cries of seagulls overhead and the smell of salt water filled her nose. She peered off into the distance and saw the ferry docks. The docks were only ten minutes away by Mylene’s judgment. She had walked an entire day in total emptiness. “How did I get here so fast? I don’t remember walking. How did I get my husband’s bow?” All these questions invaded her mind, and it made her frustrated. She stopped walking a moment and inspected the soles of her boots. “And why don’t my footsteps make any noise?” she cried out.

In the end, she decided not to question what might have happened to avoid any more unneeded stress. When Mylene arrived at the ferry, she was relieved. The village surrounding the ferry docks was small but very accommodating. Anyone who purchased a ferry ticket was allowed accommodation everywhere in the village free of charge. She didn’t wait second longer to buy her ticket at the docks be-fore she was at the village inn enjoying a nice warm bowl of beef stew.

The inn was small and typical. Wooden floors and walls covered with wallpaper. Mylene sat in the corner by candle light. The room was filled with all sorts of people chatting among each other, and someone was playing the violin near the hearth on the far wall. Every bite of stew was heaven to her mouth and the spiced wine from Ceptai made it even better. She had not let wine pass her lips for a long time, but after weeks on the road with hardly anything to drink or eat, anything tasted good.

As Mylene was eating, she noticed the man two tables over was very fixed upon her. When their eyes crossed for half a heartbeat, the man got up and awkwardly made his way over to her table and then sat down in the chair across from hers. Mylene went on eating; doing anything she could do to ignore him. For a long while the man sat there watching her eat, and he drank from his cup of ale. “Enjoying the spoils of travel like I, eh my lady?” the man said. He took another sip. “Name’s Olrick and how about you, my lady?” Ol-rick wasn’t what you would consider the noble type. He had lost an eye in battle long ago, which he then had sown shut. It wasn’t a very pretty sight, and he never wore an eye patch. His greasy brown hair flopped down over his makeshift bandana, and his words came out in a slur when he spoke in his drunken state. Olrick was a very merry person when he was drunk and sober for that matter, but when he was sober he was also a fearsome fighter. He liked to refer to strangers he met as ‘My lady’ or ‘My lord’ in a joking fashion because there was no such thing as noble blood in his eyes. As fearsome as he was, Olrick always had a passion for music and songs.

“My name is Mylene, Sir.” she replied.

Olrick laughed loud and smashed his fist on the table for his own amusement. “I ain’t no Sir Lady Mylene.” He smiled and chuckled. “Well, Mylene you came to the right place for merry meal.” Then, as Olrick finished speaking, the violinist changed the tempo and Olrick jumped from his chair and then leaned over the table and began to sing. Only a moment went by before many others clapped and stomped and took up the song as well:

Oh! The beautiful woman with long brown hair,

She walked into our pub without a care.

The next thing we knew,

She was eating our stew.

We look to each other then ask how does she daaaare,

Oh! The Beautiful woman with long brown hair.

Oh! The beautiful lady with long brown hair,

She walked into our pub without a care,

Looking at me all but aware,

That she is the one that should beware.

So eat your stew and stay in your chair,

Oh! My beautiful lady with long brown hair.

When the song was finished, Olrick leaned in beside Mylene and whispered in her ear. “My beautiful lady is unaware.” Olrick stood up straight and nodded to a man behind her. Mylene bad given Olrick a most confusing look before a bag was thrown over her head. Immediately, she began to jump about and screamed for help, but she was quickly subdued by the men of the inn.

The music had stopped, and Olrick drew his club from his belt and whacked Mylene in the back of the head, sending her crashing into her hot stew. She screamed in pain as the stew burnt through the flesh of her left elbow. She couldn’t see anything inside the bag, and before she knew it, she was pinned against a wall and her hands were bound. The last thing she remembered was the sound of Olrick’s club hitting her in the back of the head again and Olrick shouting. “One more for the locker, lads!” and the men of inn cheered and laughed.

8: Thieves and Cut-throats

At the first sight of the walls of Luxton, Alyssa and the dog halted among the bushes near the walls. It was easy to approach Luxton unseen and if there ever was a town more disapproving towards travelers this was it. The dog looked up at Alyssa. “Are you sure you want to stay here tonight? I think we should circle the town and reconnect with the path to the Flame-Eaters Shrine on the other side.” argued the dog.

“No.” insisted Alyssa. “I have been following you for weeks now. I am tired and hungry! I haven’t slept or eaten properly in days. So we are going.”

The dog bent its ears back, annoyed. “I told you what Luxton was Alyssa. It’s a town for scum, rapists and brigands. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” explained the dog.

“I know, but I can’t be afraid of those kinds of people anymore. It’s like you said ‘I am needed for far greater things.’ and I can’t be afraid of every bandit that crosses our path. That’s why we are going to Luxton and I will find myself a suitable weapon for our journey.” she stated.

The dog sighed and bowed its head. “Very well.” submitted the dog.

Alyssa giggled and wrapped her arms around the dog. “Thank you. Thank you. And besides, if we get in trouble I still have you to protect Me.” she grinned.

Luxton had once been a sacred city that served to protect the path way connecting Luxton to the Flame-Eater Shrine. Its majestic stone walls could hold off any foe but deception is a weed that never stops growing. In recent years, attacks in the streets of Luxton had grown and the source couldn’t be contained. Spies and brigands would scale the walls of Luxton at night undetected and raid the streets at night. But as time went by the attacks became less frequent and the masters of Luxton believed they had the source of deception contained. But what they didn’t know was, the brigands had formed a secret counsel and planned to torch the city in flames, destroy the ancient walls and kill the masters of Luxton. The brigand’s were successful. Later, the people of Luxton rebuilt their town into what it is today, a log-walled town of bandits, cut-throats and thieves.

This was the reason for Alyssa’s unordinary travels through the forest. It is because the northern road out of Ruinpine was now watched by bandits alike. Today, Luxton has become a far less welcoming town and was frequently exposed to nightly attacks and murders.

They were greeted by a cloudy sky as they emerged from the trees outside the city. The clouds were grey and getting darker. It was going to rain.

As they made their way towards the main gates, Alyssa couldn’t help but noticed how dirty she was. Her hair was in tangles and her clothes were stained and tore in places. Her hands were grimy and unendurably sticky. Whenever Alyssa closed her hands, her fingers would stick together because of all tree sap she touched while she made her way through the forest. “Dog, the first thing we are going to do is find an inn or pub and get a room. I haven’t bathed in days!” complained Alyssa.

“Don’t call me that.” scolded the dog.

The large wooden gates of Luxton were always closed and only the people who knew the password were permitted to enter. As Alyssa and the dog stood in front of the gates and waited, the dog turned towards Alyssa. “It’s not too late to go around child.” he insisted.

Alyssa squatted down beside the dog and whispered. “What are you afraid of? No one will touch me if you’re there. So we are going in and that’s final.” ordered Alyssa.

“Fine! Fine! Fine! Be stubborn.” The dog sighed loudly. “Just knock on the gates and stand back. I need to give them the password.” Alyssa stood back up and gave a hard knock on the gate then stepped aside. Moments after, a man popped his head out from atop the ramparts above the gates with a bow in his hands and an arrow drawn at the ready. “What do you want!?” he snapped.

“We would like to have access to the city.” stated the dog.

“Password?” demanded the guard.

The Masters shall never raise again.” responded the dog.

The guard eyed them both curiously at first and then smiled. “Wait right there.” said the guard and then he disappeared behind the wall. Seconds later, they heard shuffling behind the gates. The gate opened and the Guard walked out to greet them. “Rothaide! You flee bitten shit! How have you been?” The guard laughed and patted the dog on the head. “You know the boss will want to see you.”

“Don’t do that!” snapped the dog.

Alyssa cut in. “How does he know my name?” Alyssa asked the dog with a voice that yelled surprise.

Moments passed and neither the dog nor the guard answered her. Then finally, the guard spoke up. “I’m sorry my child. But is your name Rothaide too?” The guard was confused and scratched his head.

Alyssa turned to the dog. “What does he mean?”

Shit! I knew we shouldn’t have come here.” the dog thought to himself. But the only words he could say were: “Ummm…” The guard and the dog exchanged looks, the guard was as confused as ever and the dog looked a bit flustered.

Alyssa kept her eyes on the dog. “Well?” She raised her voice.

The dog looked deep into Alyssa’s eyes. “Alyssa, child, I…” The dog hesitated. “…This is one of those times where you really need to listen to me well.”

Alyssa’s heart began beating faster. She swallowed her spit but before the dog could speak, a sudden rage struck Alyssa. “Why are you lying to me?” she yelled and stormed off back down the dirt road.

The reaction the dog got from Alyssa came as a complete surprise. “Alyssa, where are you going?” the dog cried after her.

“I’m going home.” she yelled back.

A few seconds passed like this before the dog called back after her. “Wait!” cried the dog. Only, the dog’s voice had changed.

Alyssa stopped and stood there facing the tree line with her back facing the dog. She knew the voice that came out of the dog’s mouth.

“Alyssa, my dear, come back here. Please.” pleaded the dog.But when Alyssa turned around, it wasn’t the cute little dog she saw standing there. Her eyes squinted in disbelief. “Father?” But before she could get a better look at him, she fainted and fell forward, crashing to the ground.

She dreamt that she was standing in a grassy field again with the sea far at her back, only this time the woods that stood in front of her were burnt and there was no green left. She wore her plated armor, dragon-bone shield and steel sword. Again, the ground began to shake and the tree line came rushing up to her. The glowing purple eyes watched her every move. A ball of purple fire came searing towards and in the blink of an eye, Alyssa reached for her shield, slid her left arm into the straps and deflected the fire. A thunderous scream came from the skies and before she had the time look up, a dragon hit the ground in front of her. The force that came with the dragon knocked Alyssa off her feet. When she regained her momentum, Alyssa couldn’t believe what she was looking at. The dragon of legend, Drakroth, lay there dead. She walked up to it and stood beside its head, she knew it was dead. But suddenly, one of its eyes opened and Alyssa woke up kicking and screaming. Her mind raced as though she was still stuck in her dream and for half a heartbeat, the bed under Alyssa shook and her eye’s glowed purple. Then it stopped and Alyssa lay in her bed exhausted and covered in suet.

Moments later, Alyssa heard running outside the door and then a knock at her door. Then came another harder knock at the door. “Alyssa!” cried the person behind the door. Suddenly the door burst open and a man that looked like her father came running in. The man made a move to comfort Alyssa but she scurried out of bed in fear and kept the bed in between the two of them. The man faintly reached out over the bed. “Alyssa, please. I mean you no harm. It’s me, father.” he declared in a hopeful tone. But the response he got wasn’t as he expected.

Alyssa face went blank and then a sudden disappointment emerged. “My father is dead. How can you be him when he is dead?” she yelled out as tears welled in her eyes.

He frowned and then tried again. “Alyssa, my dear, I swear it is I Grimald Rothaide, your father.”

The man that stood opposite Alyssa was but a shade of the man she once knew. He was tall but skinny and worn. His clothes were rags. His once fair face was now grim and unpleasant. He had scars and burns stretched across his face and chest. His hair and beard had grown long and wiry, as though he had aged a hundred years over night.

She could hold her tears back no more. “If you are really my father, where have you been all this time?” she sobbed.

Grimald sighed. “I guess that is the only question.” He paused a moment. “I was going to tell you everything at Flame-Eaters Shrine but it is a little late for that.” He beckoned her. “Please come with me. I’ll explain everything over supper. I will go get ready and I’ll have one of the assistants bring you fresh clothes and things to wash with. I’ll meet you downstairs in an hour my dear.” He left before Alyssa had time to respond.

She didn’t know what to do or think. Alyssa had grown used to the fact that her father was gone. But after standing alone beside her bed for a while, she started doubting her father was dead. As she bathed in the tub in the next room over, Alyssa grew more and more curious to see what her shade of a father had to say. The hour passed by faster than she thought. Alyssa walked back into her room and was happy to see fresh clothes laid out on the bed for her. The clothes looked similar to the stuffy clothes she had been wearing for many days. But when she bent down to try them on, she realized that it was the same clothes only clean and fresh, even her boots had been washed for her.

Her hour was up and one of the assistants summoned her for supper. She made her way left down the hall. Alyssa’s thoughts were elsewhere and she hardly noticed the history around her until now. The inn used to be one of the finest places in Luxton when the masters ran the city. It had never been touched by the raids or the onslaughts of war. The floor was made of fine grey marble and the walls of carved stone. Every room, hall and chamber was perfectly illuminated which gave the marble and stone a beautiful glowing contrast.

As Alyssa was being escorted into the dinning chamber, her eyes and mouth opened wide with amazement. The ceiling was so high that it made her feel dizzy, yet the beauty of this hall was undeniable. Nearly one hundred feet high, the support beams were made of marble as well and they stretched out across the ceiling like the roots of a tree. Dozens and dozens of tables stood across the floor. A man sat at one of the tables on the far end of the chamber just below the dais.

The table was set with a red velvet dinning cloth, silver forks and knives, even the plates were made of silver. As Alyssa approached, the man stood up to greet her. It was her father as she knew him, bathed, washed and clothed properly. Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Father?” she hesitated.

Grimald smiled and nodded. He turned towards the assistant. “You may leave, thank you.” The man bowed and took his leave as Grimald sat back down in his chair and gestured towards the seat in front of him. “Please.”

Alyssa quickly sat down, giving in to her curiosity once again. But she was anxious as well which resulted in impatience. “Alright, I’m ready to hear what you have to say.” she urged.

Grimald did not seem surprised. “Ah. Straight to the point, I see.” He picked up the flagon of wine and poured himself a drink and offered some to Alyssa. “Drink?” he gestured with the cup in his hand.

She shook her head. “No. I don’t like the taste. I thought you would know that.”

“Apologies, things change in time and as does my memory and not entirely for the better. But I will get back to that in a moment.” Grimald took a deep breath and exhaled. “No…I suppose I will start at the beginning. When you were just a babe, I would go hunting to feed our family. But one day, I ventured too far into the pine forest surrounding Ruinpine. I had walked too far north. When I came face to face with men from Luxton while I was hunting, I did the only thing I could to insure my life would be safe. I told them I have been seeking the men of Luxton and that I wished to join their ranks...” He took another sip of wine.

“Why would you join these creeps!?” shouted Alyssa.

Grimald hushed his daughter. “Quiet!” he whispered. “I am breaking every rule just telling you this. Please keep your voice down.”

Alyssa nodded.

Grimald frowned. His face was shaved and his hair trimmed short. But the days of running the wild showed. His face was more wrinkled then the last time Alyssa saw him at his best. “…as I was saying, I told them I wished to join the men of Luxton. But the only response I got was an arrow in my leg, a piece of cloth tied around my mouth and a bag thrown over my head. I did not struggle because I wanted them to think I was on their side.” He took another sip and continued whispering. “After three days of walking in blindness with searing pain in my leg where the arrow stuck out, the men removed my bindings and I was amazed to see myself standing in front of gates of Luxton. I was given a room much like yours and my wounds were treated by the medics. I was fed and cared for many days. I was even given fresh clothes. I was treated like a high lord and I didn’t understand why.” As Grimald paused, a man in a white apron approached the table with their food. Grimald thanked the man and sent him on his way once the table was set.

Both their plates were filled with delicious food. They both had half a roasted chicken, string beans, and whole boiled garden carrots with boiled baby potatoes. Since Alyssa didn’t drink wine she stuck to water. She took a sip and then poked her fork through a carrot and took a bit. The food was rich and full of flavor and Alyssa savored the flavor with every bite. She had not eaten proper food in many weeks, but to taste this now was like eating food blessed by Melingra. “What happened next?” she asked with curiosity as she finished the rest of her carrot.

Grimald took a bite of his chicken and washed it down with some wine. “The reason they kept me there like that was simply a test. The bandit lord of the city visited me one day and told me ‘You have eaten my food and taken advantage of our hospitality. It is a debt that demands payment. I was told that you wish to join our ranks. You must prove yourself in the next few days.’” He cut a piece of chicken breast and forked a potato as well and then put it in his mouth. Grimald looked at Alyssa with eyes filled with pain and regret. “The things they made me do were unspeakable. They were things I would never do. But I had to stay alive and find a way back home. So, I did what they asked me, reluctantly. After those days, I was permitted to come and go as I pleased but every once in a while I was to report back the lord of bandits. To this day I have been under cover, slowly gaining their trust and attaining higher ranks with these people. But my heart has always been with you and Mylene.” He put his fork and knife down and then leaned forward. “I’m not going to lie to you. I told you before that we came to a dangerous place. Many people will ask questions. You are my daughter, yes. But so long as we are in Luxton we shall not speak of Flame-eater shrine. Is that understood?” he whispered cautiously.

Alyssa nodded quickly. “Yes.” she replied with a more than worried face. “There is still one thing I don’t understand. The reports, a year ago, said you were dead. But you are alive and well.” She picked up a few string beans and ate them.

Her father smiled and ate a carrot. “That is another story entirely, my dear. It is a story far too dangerous to tell here. How about I tell you that one after we find you proper attire for our journey? My standing with these people is well met. Finish up your meal and meet me in your room in a few minutes. I will go gather some coins from my chest at the bankers in front.” He took a few more bites and washed it down with some more wine as Alyssa sat there savoring every bit of her meal. He laughed when he saw his daughter’s plate. It was almost empty. “Traveling affects us all differently. Soon you will be able to eat less and last longer. I am off. I shouldn’t be long.” He got up, circled the table and squeezed his daughter’s shoulder and smiled. Alyssa didn’t know how she should react to that gesture, so in the end she just smiled back and Grimald took his leave.

When Alyssa finally finished her meal, she was stuffed and decided it was time to go back up to her room and await her father. When she got to the room, she closed the door and patiently waited on her bed. “I can’t wait to see how I look with a sword and armor.” she thought to herself.

Only a few minutes passed before her father was at her door. “Alyssa, may I come in?”

“It is open.” she replied. When her father entered the room, Alyssa took notice of his clothes straight away. “Why are you in your traveling gear?” she asked confused.

“Because we are set to leave after we have found you what you require.” he explained. “Everything is packed and ready. We will be traveling light. I have also packed your bag with some food as well as mine. Now, let’s go find you something proper for the road.” he smiled.

Their trip to the smiths was a short one. As they made their way out of the towering halls of the inn and into the city, Alyssa’s good first impression of Luxton quickly diminished. The dirt streets were ridden with bumps and holes. What had been rebuilt since the war had truthfully only been repaired enough to hold the structures together. Even now, years later, the old homes, houses and shops were all burnt and their walls were ridden with ash. Now she understood why Luxton wasn’t very welcoming.

Their business led them to one of her father’s favorite’s smith shops, The Able Arm, who’s sign depicted a muscular man’s arm swinging a hammer down towards an anvil. They paused in front of the shop for a moment. “That is one of the best shops in Luxton. Nothing to rival the Capital’s forges I grant you but still they make some very sturdy equipment.” he laughed and opened the front door and Alyssa quickly followed.

Once inside, Alyssa couldn’t believe her eyes. The shop was far larger then she pictured it from the outside. The store was of normal size to her but the forges and working men stretched back in to the shop for hundreds and hundreds of feet. There were so many forges and craftsmen that she couldn’t even begin to count them. The walls were made of thick-cut boulders to keep the suffocating heat isolated. The massive room didn’t require any light or torches because of the number of forges there were. The forges lit the room in a beautiful luminous red glow. The smells in that shop were familiar to Alyssa and it immediately began to make her think of the Smith’s Way in Ruinpine where she loved to walk by and peek into the stores.

As they approached the service counter a women with a battle scarred cheek came out to greet them. She looked to be in her forties and strangely she reminded Alyssa of her mother. “Can I help you two?” asked the tenant. Grimald reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folder piece of paper and then handed it to the woman. The woman carefully examined the paper and then examined Alyssa for a moment, then turned back to Grimald. “You are certain of this?” she asked in a bitter tone.

Grimald only nodded.

The woman gave Alyssa a snarky look before she told them to follow her. “This way and keep up.” The woman walked down between the rows of smiths to the far end of the shop with Grimald and Alyssa right behind. A lone door stood on the far wall and they paused in front of it. The woman stopped and turned around. “These are very costly items my lord. You very certain of this?” cautioned the woman once more.

Grimald nodded again. “I understand that. Please lead on.”

The tenant bowed her head. “Very well.” she replied and then opened the door behind her. Inside the back room were hundreds of weapons, armor and other kinds of equipment. But something about these items was different to the equipment Alyssa window shopped for. The weapons and armor weren’t all shiny. The blades almost looked like they were made of wood. “What is wrong with this stuff?” asked Alyssa. But the only answer she got was a cold hard stare from the tenant and a hush from her father.

The back room was small and everything in it was sorted and placed nicely in its proper place. The women turned away from Alyssa and Grimald for a moment and started shuffling through weapons and armor. When the woman turned back to them, her arms were filled with assorted items, weapons and armor. “Try these on.” she told Alyssa.

Alyssa did not question the woman’s request. She simply took what the woman set in front of her without question. “Alright then.” she replied.

She was given steel chain-mail and an ancient sword and shield made of dragon bone all forged in dragon fire long ago. The sword wasn’t too long or too short. It was a simple sword with a hilt made of dragon bone and wrapped with leather bindings for a better grip. The shield was simple as well. It was made of the same material as the sword but it looked more like an oversized scale than a shield and yet it was lighter and stronger than any metal. The chain-mail was made of the finest steel and was forged in the ancient days when dragons roamed the earth. “Everything is so light.” observed Alyssa.

The tenant crossed her arms and shook her head in disapproval. “I should hope so. You are wearing some the finest fire resistant armor and weapons money can buy.” She turned to Grimald. “I believe my payment is in order.”

Grimald eyed the woman coolly as he reached into his pocket and pull out a small bag of coins. But before he tossed over the coins, Grimald took one last quick look at his purchase and then gave the woman her money. The woman caught the bag with one hand and took a look inside. “Everything is in order.” she giggled. “Now be gone and tell no one of what you saw today.”

“Thank you.” said Alyssa as she gave the woman a quick bow.

Grimald only grunted at her before they father took their leave.

They made their way back to the inn and gathered their belongings. All packed and ready to go, they made their way out of Luxton the same way they entered, through the main gate. They chose the main gate to avoid any suspicion they would have gotten if they left by the Flame-Eater’s gate. They spent nearly an hour circling Luxton trying to remain unseen and luckily they were successful, for not long after the road began to rise and rise. Finally, emits the heights of the western mountains, Alyssa and her father reconnected with the trail that led to Flame-Eaters Shrine and the histories beyond.

9: The Pits of Despair

The pits of the capital have always served as an execution arena. It was constructed long ago, deep beneath the city. Condemned prisoners are first starved for two weeks, given nothing but water every three days, just enough to keep them alive. At the end of the two week period the prisoner is then forced into the arena for judgment by combat. In the last twenty years, only four lucky souls managed to defeat their enemy and gain their freedom. But freedom came at a price. If a prisoner is declared the winner, they will be banished from the Capital for as long as they live. They will never be allowed to see their families or friends ever again. The king and guards had a name for this banishment and they called it resurrection. The king and his men have brain washed the population into thinking that being resurrected meant a fresh start in a new place.

But now as Issic sat there in a tiny confined cell with no windows, chained to the wall at his wrists in complete darkness he understood that king Holtz and his men were only trying to break his spirit before his fight. And it was working, the day Issic was taken away and Anbel torn forever from his arms, he had been beaten by the king’s guards just outside king Holtz’s chamber. He was then dragged to his cell here in the pits far below the surface of the earth.

Issic wasn’t ready to give up however. For hours and hours he yelled and beat on the door of his cell but with no success. Days past and Issic grew tired and weak. Every second felt as long as a life time and with no light and no perception of time, Issic’s hope began to wither away. But something kept him going. He would not give up so long as Anbel was imprisoned and his father wasn’t avenged.

Suddenly, the room around him began to echo and the ceiling of his cell began to shake. As Issic looked up in complete darkness to see what was happening. His eyes got sprinkled with dust. With his lack of hydration, his eyes began to sting and burn like someone threw acid in his face. “Ack!” he yelled out as he raised his hands to eyes to rub out the pain.

When the pain finally began to subside, Issic heard armored footsteps approaching. Seconds after, his door clacked and creaked open. Before Issic’s eyes could settle to the light he hasn’t seen in two weeks, one of the guards threw a large bucket of water in his face. It took Issic by complete surprise. Yet, Issic stayed true and didn’t let the guard’s actions get to him. Instead of wasting his energy on these two Issic resolved to keep calm and focus his energy on his fight today.

In a way the water was refreshing but it was far less refreshing when he learnt that he had been soaked with horse piss. The guard that waited outside his cell laughed. “I bet he didn’t even know that we just threw horse piss at him.” The other guard grinned as he squatted down to remove Issic’s chains. “Are you ready to die today?” The guard sniggered as he un-cuffed Issic’s last chain and dragged him to his feet.

Issic’s focus was on the fight and he did his best to stifle his vomit from the smell and taste of horse piss that plagued his mouth.

Issic’s cell was just under the grand stands of the arena above and as Issic was being dragged through the narrow passage ways beneath the arena, his eyes began to throb. The light that the hanging torches emitted was far too strong for Issic after being shut off from the world the way he was. However, Issic did not close his eyes. He had to be able to see to defend himself. So he forced his eyes open until they became used to the light once again. On their way, he couldn’t help but notice dozens and dozens of other doors. He knew that some poor soul was in each of those rooms suffering as he did.

As they neared the stairs at the end of the of the narrow path, the cries and cheers of the crowd got louder and louder and soon all Issic could hear was a constant roaring as they began their assent to the arena floor. “That’s right. There is a fight going on right now but I doubt it will last long. They never do.” the guard sniggered with the other.

They emerged from the narrow paths into a short tunnel and that end of the tunnel stood a barred gate that opened into the pits arena. As Issic approached the gate, his heart began to beat faster and faster. He was witnessing the horror of the pits. He could see everything from where he stood and all the while he knew that his turn was next.

The guards had brought Issic up just time to witness the death of the man who was condemned to fight the Banisher. The Banisher was known far and wide for his fierceness. He always kept his face covered with a black executioners mask. The man’s robust size and overwhelming strength gave him the advantage because he was never known to tire out. When he wasn’t fighting, he would spend most of his time beneath the pits in his oversized cell where he would sharpen his long two-handed axe. It’s been rumored that the blade of his axe was so sharp that the simplest touch with your finger would server it.

As Issic watched the fight progress, he knew the Banisher had the upper hand. The man he was fighting struck slow and weak and the Banisher deflected every attack. His axe was so sharp that sparks flew with every blow. Then, the offensive switched and the Banisher deflected the man’s last blow and pushed the man back with a heel in the gut. The Banisher pursued the man in his unstable state. He swung his axe back and forth at the man with two hands but miraculously the man jumped back fast enough to avoid the deathly blows. And now, seeing his chance, the Banisher took it. As quick as a bolt of lightning, he grabbed his axe in one hand at the end of the shaft, spun around in a circle and cut the man in half at the waist. For a moment, the crowd seized their cheers and the man had an overly surprised expression on his face, until his top half slid off his bottom half and fell to the ground. The crowd burst into a ground shaking roar at the sight of the man’s body lying there with blood and guts pouring out onto the sand.

The Banisher raised his axe over his head in triumph as the crowd sheered him on. Meanwhile, the pit attendants raced out onto the field with chains and hooks and stabbed their hooks into the dead man’s skull and feet and dragged the two halves off the field.

“The match is won…” whispered Issic in fear. He stood inside the gate in nothing but his under cloth to wear clenching the bars frozen in terror, until he realized why he was brought up from his cell early. “The king… Of course, they brought me here to witness this terror in the hopes of breaking any spirit I might still have.” The gates began to rise and the guard on his right handed him a common short sword. “But no, I will not have my spirit broken so easily. I must avenge my father and save Anbel.” he thought to himself.

The gate was fully raised and Issic was kicked out into the arena to face his fate. As he began his walk towards the center of the arena, the gate began to lower and the crowd fell silent. Then, a voice echoed through the pits. “My lords and ladies, witness his silver tongued liar and traitor meet his doom before the hands of our Banisher.” It was the king’s voice. Issic searched the stands for him.

The arena was massive. It was dug deep into the ground where no day light could go. It was lit by thousands of torches that hung on the wall above the stands. The walls that surrounded Issic in the arena were very tall. There was no hope for escape.

Finally, Issic found the king sitting in his chair on the left side of the stands underneath his tent. But what caught Issic’s eye angered him beyond anything. Anbel sat beside the king in chains. She was washed and groomed. Her eyes sparkled with tears and her nostrils were red from crying.
Anbel moved to cry out for Issic, but before she get a word out, the guards behind Anbel held her down and scolded her. Issic only had one thought as he turned his eyes back towards the king. “One day I will have my revenge.” He turned towards the Banisher and starred him down awaiting the signal for battle.

The king laughed out loud. “Begin.” The king waved them off.

The anger that flowed in Issic’s veins gave him an adrenaline boost. He held his ground taking quick deep breaths. The crowd waited in silence for someone to make the first move. The Banisher raised his axe with one hand and let out deep and fearsome war cry. The crowd took up the roar once again. Issic saw his chance. Skill and force wasn’t going to win this fight and Issic knew that. As the Banisher swam in a sea of cheers, Issic seized his opportunity and took it. Only a few meters away from his target, Issic lunged forward to strike the Banisher while he had his back turned. Issic’s approach was flawless. But the Banisher seemed to have anticipated his move. Just as Issic was about to land a killing blow to his back, the Banisher swung around and smashed Issic across the face the flat side of his axe. Issic fell onto his back and the offense immediately changed.

Issic lay on the ground holding his cheek while the Banisher rushed after him. Holding his axe with both hands, the Banisher brought it down at Issic with incredible speed. Luckily Issic rolled out of the way, avoiding death by mere inches. The Banisher brought down his axe again, causing Issic to roll in the opposite direction and scramble into a squatted position. But the Banisher didn’t hold back. He pressed an attack by swinging his sword sideways towards Issic and grazed his right arm. Luckily the cut wasn’t deep but it was deep enough for his arm to start bleeding.

The Banisher began to laugh at the sight of the blood and the crowd roared with applause. The Banisher then jumped back and paused. “Oh poor little lord-ling. Does it hurt? Do you need me to put you out of your misery?” he taunted Issic.

Issic held his arm in pain. “How can I beat this animal? I’m already dead…” Issic thought to himself in despair. Then he remembered Anbel. He looked up at her. She held her mouth with both hands in anticipation as tears ran down her face. “I can’t let it end like this!

Issic gathered all the strength he had and composed himself anew. “Hey fat fuck!” Issic called out to the Banisher. “You fight like horses ass!” Issic could not see his face but Issic could see the Banishers eyes as they grew with rage. Issic’s taunts worked.
The Banisher burst out in anger and raced towards Issic with his entire wrath. As this tall oversized beast of man rushed towards him, Issic ran off in the opposite direction towards the wall. With all his might, Issic jumped off the wall, swung his body around and landed an open foot straight across the Banishers head. The Banisher stumbled back and fell to one knee as the crowd fell silent with astonishment. The impact caused Issic to stumble and fall on his rear. Issic regained his feet as fast as his worn out body could go. The Banisher wasn’t moving and the crowd was dead silent as Issic approached with his blade raised ready to deliver his killing blow. Arms raised and the end of his blade pointing down at the Banisher’s head, Issic brought his blade down with all his strength. The crowd gasped.

What should have been a victory was not. The Banisher somehow managed to lean back and avoid Issic’s attack causing Issic’s blade to come down only inches from the Banisher’s face. Amidst the confusion, the Banisher summoned his speed and swung his axe to the side all the while disarming Issic and himself. The Banisher jumped his feet and locked Issic’s neck in his grasp and smashed in his face with a head butt. The blow sent Issic into a daze and he nearly forgot he was being choked to death. The crowd jumped to its feet and roared at this come back.

“Issic!” Anbel’s voice cried out. Issic turned his eyes to the King’s tent and saw one of the guards slap Anbel across the face to keep her quiet while the king sat on the edge of his seat awaiting Issic’s imminent death.

No I won’t give you the satisfaction.” Issic smashed his fits into both sides of the Banisher’s face causing him to loosen his grip on Issic. He took his chance and kicked the Banisher off making them both fall onto their backs. Now both disarmed and both on their backs, Issic struggled to gather his breath as the Banisher slowly made his way to his feet. The crowd cheered him on as the Banisher finally made to his feet. But the Banisher was so focused on getting back to his feet that he had forgotten about Issic. Suddenly crowd gasped and the Banisher lost his breath as Issic drove his blade deep into the big man’s lower back.

“Impossible!” yelled the King.

But something happened next that no one expected. The Banisher began to laugh hysterically and then he took a step forward and another until he slid off the end of Issic’s blade. Then, the Banisher turned around and grabbed Issic by the neck once again. Yet, something was wrong. “He should be dead!” thought Issic as the life was being ripped from him. Issic looked straight into the Banisher’s eyes and that’s when he saw something different, something un-holy, something empty. The Banisher’s eyes have turned purple and glowed like the ancient dragon of the mountain, Drakroth. But Issic saw deeper than that, past the fearsome eyes of a beast and into the Banisher himself and saw nothing. His eyes were empty. They were the eyes of a dead man.

Then, Issic looked over the Banisher’s shoulder and saw someone on the other side of the gate. The guards lay dead at his feet. The man was hooded and cloaked and just stood there starring out at them in the field with a hand holding a bar. But there was one thing the man couldn’t hide and those were his eyes. His glowed purple the same way the Banisher’s did.

Out of fear and panic, Issic stuck his sword into the Banisher’s gut, over and over again until he finally let go of him. The Banisher jumped to the side and rolled across the arena and gathered his axe. Issic did not dare move. He was struggling far too much for air to move. He thought it would be best to hold his ground and let the Banisher come to him.

The crowd cheered and cheered. They were completely ignorant that the Banisher was being controlled. The King was also too stupid to understand. He stood at the railing and watched in anticipation.

The moment had come. The Banisher charged Issic like a crazed bull. His stomach and guts hanged out.

No I can’t let him charge me! I have to charge him now! Shit!” though Issic. Then Issic raced towards the Banisher to end this. During their charge, Issic noticed the Banisher’s eye grew so bright that they hurt too much to look at. In this distraction, the Banisher demonstrated a skill that no one had ever seen. The Banished bent forward as he ran, spun his axe across his back with one hand and caught it with the other and then slid his one handed grip to the end of his shaft. He then spun his entire body in a circle and brought his axe down towards Issic’s neck.

The crowd gasped! But that tiny silence soon turned to cheer as Issic’s head bounced and rolled its way across the ground.

The crowd roared with excitement. King Holtz cheered and whistled in triumph.

“No!” cried Anbel as she struggled to get loose of the guards so she could go to Issic. She was not strong enough and the guards over powered her. Then suddenly, the Banisher dropped to the ground as though someone had taken away all his bones. And that’s when the ground began to shake ferociously. Not the ground beneath their feet, but the ground above them.

That was when Anbel barred witness to the roof caving in, along with a good part of the city. The cries and screams were everywhere, people died before her eyes and then there was only silence as though world around Anbel had washed away…

10: Wrath of the sea

The ship’s sails flicked and whipped in the wind under a cloudless sunny sky. The smell of fresh salt water filled her nose and the water’s surface sparkled calmly. But for all the beauty the sea could deliver, Mylene never felt more trapped in her life.

After the night Mylene had a bag stuffed over her head, Olrick and his men escorted her to their ship and locked her in a room under the deck. They kept her there for many hours until they were far from the sight of land. For hours she sat in that room with her hands tied behind her back and a bag over her head. Alone and scared, she wept for hours and hours as she began to think she would never see her daughter again.

When at last Olrick came to untie her and pulled the bag off her head, Mylene bit his hand in a desperate attempt to escape. As Olrick cursed her and his bleeding hand, Mylene jumped to her feet and raced past Olrick towards the door. But he was ready for it. As she made her attempt to get past him, Olrick grabbed Mylene by the wrist, pulled her back into the room, held her mouth and then smashed her up against the back wall of the room. The impact caused Mylene to lose her breath. She was pinned against the wall with no escape and he kept her mouth covered so she couldn’t scream.

Mylene was frozen with fear as Olrick closed in on her. The fear she felt brought on tears again as Olrick pressed up against her. Mere inches from her face, he kept her mouth covered and stroked back the hair that was in her face. She wiggled away his hand and slapped him in the face. “You fucking bitch!” roared Olrick. He grabbed her by the throat and pulled her forward and then smashed her back into the wall again. Mylene whimpered from the pain and slid down to the floor drained of energy. “Please.” she begged faintly.

Olrick smirked at her and laughed. “Good, beg me for it.” Olrick’s thoughts were quite different from Mylene’s at the moment. As he reached down to untie his trousers, a man in a navy blue sailors coat walked in the door. The man looked to be in his late thirties. He was handsome with his long dirty blond hair, perfectly dimpled chin and piercing blue eyes.

Olrick heard the man’s footsteps and then turned around to find the man standing in the door way. Olrick had a worried look on his face. “Captain!” he said surprised. “I…I…It’s not what…” As Olrick scrambled to find his word, the captain reached into his coat and pulled out an object that Mylene had never seen before. It had a handle and hollow cylindrical pipe that ran to length of the object.

The captain held the object in his hand and pointed it straight at Olrick’s head. “Olrick!” shouted the captain. “Don’t you know it’s improper to treat our guest in such a manner?” he said in a cool collected voice. “What is the meaning of this, if I may ask?” He frowned.

“I was just… I…” Olrick slurred and stuttered trying to find his words. But the captain grew impatient and squeezed the little switch on his object. In the blink of an eye, Mylene winced at the sound that came out of that object. It was like an explosion. I mere second later, Olrick fell to the ground dead with a hole through his forehead. There was blood and brain splattered on the wall behind him. It was more than Mylene could bare to see. As the captain put away his weapon and turned towards Mylene, she flinched in fear. Her body began tremble ferociously and then she fainted and slid over onto her side.

Mylene woke several hours later with a pounding headache. Her head was spinning and she was nauseous as well. She was in the same room as before. The waves outside must have been big because the ship steadily rocked back and forth. It wasn’t helping Mylene’s condition at all and because of that, she puked over the wooden floor. She spent the next few hours stifling her vomit back, but the constant swaying of the ship only made her more and more dizzy until she puked again and again.

Minutes later, the captain was standing in the doorway and lightly knocked on the wooden frame. Frightened by the sight of the captain, Mylene sat up and curled her knees up. “My lady…” he started in a soft and comforting voice. “…I just want to apologize for that ugliness earlier. I want you to know that I did not order any such action on you. Olrick broke my trust and he had to pay the price.” He walked over to her and squatted down in front of her. “I have ordered my men to keep to themselves. They will never harm you or mistreat you again so long as I am captain.”

Mylene could never trust a pirate. “How can I trust someone who kills his own men?”

The captain frowned at her question. “Olrick broke my trust my lady. I can’t have disloyal people around me.” He smiled an innocent smile and starred longingly at Mylene with his blue eyes. Suddenly, as Mylene looked into his eyes, her fear withered away and a strange warmth began to stir inside her. She looked at him in awe. “Who are you?”

His smile turned into a grin. “I’m the captain of this ship of course.” He laughed. “Who are you?”

“Mylene.” she found herself answering.

He smiled again. “Well Mylene, I‘m captain Olivander.” He took her hand in his and kissed it with graceful charm. Suddenly, as though the world around her jumped back to reality, Mylene pulled her hand back quickly. “What do you want with me?” cried Mylene. “Why do your men kidnap innocent travelers?”

The captain didn’t show any remorse. “I told them to of course. It can get very lonesome on the high seas.” Olivander stood up and put his hands on his hips. “If you are willing to be mine, I can promise you this: I will never be cruel to you. You will have a high position by my side. You will have my protection and no man will ever do you harm for as long as you are mine. But if you disobey me, you will end up like the rest of them, trapped here on this ship bound to do as we bid. And if should you try to escape…” he grinned. “…Well let’s just say you’ll be joining our friend Olrick in the locker. So what say you?”

It seemed unfair to her. On one side she would be protected and have a high position but on the other side she could end up a slave and possibly die. Mylene knew she would never see Alyssa again if she was dead. But accepting the captain’s proposal, Mylene knew that she would be bedded often, as though she were a common whore. But she didn’t have to love him. In the end she did the only thing she could do and she did it for her daughter. “I accept.” she said as she pushed herself to her feet. Mylene’s best hope of escape was to remain alive however she could. She swore to herself that the next time they would make port she would get away one way or another.

Olivander smiled warmly. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I shall inform the others! Tonight we shall have a grand feast. The whole crew will join us! It shall be a night to remember. I’ll have a servant show you to your new lodgings. There you will be able to have a nice bath and find fresh clothes for tonight, clothes for a proper lady such as yourself. I’ll join you afterwards, after I have broken the news.” he laughed with joy as Mylene forced a smile. “Prinna!” the captain called out over his shoulder. A second later, a tall girl in grey rags walked in with her head held low. Mylene judged the girl to be a little younger than Alyssa.

“Yes captain?” replied Prinna in a soft and beaten voice.

Suddenly as Mylene stood there looking at Prinna in pity, a memory flashed in her mind. Prinna's hair was unnatural. It looked like the long leafy vines found on a willow tree. Her height was abnormal as well, she was nearly as tall as Mylene but Prinna’s voice suggested she couldn’t have been older than eight. Then, she remembered everything, Weerscrow, the elementals, the death of her husband and that his spirit lives, everything. But Mylene dared not speak a word of it in front of captain Olivander. “She is earth bound.” Mylene realized.

The captain turned towards Prinna. “See lady Mylene here to my chamber. See that she is bathed and clothed appropriately for tonight’s feast.” he ordered.

She bowed her head low. “Yes captain.”

Olivander smiled happily. “Many thanks, my dear.” The captain turned back towards Mylene and kissed her hand once more and then he took his leave.

Once the captain left the room, Prinna made sign to follow. As Mylene followed young Prinna through the lower decks and up to the main deck, the men they crossed all delightfully congratulated her. Some men only acknowledged her with a grin or nod. But Mylene’s mind was elsewhere. She could only think about her daughter, her husband and this girl in front of her. Mylene had questions, but she couldn’t speak to Prinna here, not with all those eyes watching them.

As they immerged from the lower deck onto the main deck, Prinna signed towards the back of the ship. “Just a little further, it’s on the first floor of the upper deck.” said Prinna amidst the commotion on deck.

The men were everywhere. There were men scrubbing the floors, hoisting sails and working on the lines. Officers walked about shouting orders left and right.

The captain had made his announcement on the lower decks and is now standing beside the helm ready to announce it to the rest. “Attention men!” he shouted in a commanding voice. “Tonight there will be a feast the likes of which we have never seen. My lovely Mylene has graciously accepted to be mine.” Olivander pointed an open hand at her and the men took up a stomping cheer. Moments after, the captain raised his hand in the air for silence. Immediately the cheers subsided. “On another note, if any man here dare lay a hand on my beloved, they will share the same fate as Olrick. With that said, I will see you all tonight here on deck for the grand feast. Now get back to work.” ordered the captain.

When the captain finished his announcement, Prinna and Mylene continued their walk to the captain’s chamber. As they climbed the steps at the back of the main deck, Mylene caught a fresh breeze and a ray of sunlight warmed her face. She had been below deck for nearly three days without food or water and being outside brought a smile back to her face for a moment. Then she opened her eyes and noticed that there was nothing but water in every direction.

“This way my lady, we cannot tardy.” insisted Prinna.

Mylene turned her gaze back onto the ship and nodded at Prinna. She never thought her search would lead her to sail the open water with no knowledge of the ship’s heading. There was no escape from her floating prison and Mylene knew that. She would have to wait until they made port she thought.

The ship’s name was The Lady’s Grace. It was unlike any other ship Mylene had seen before. Its masts stood over a hundred feet tall and its black sails were enormous. Mylene stood just beneath the helm on the first level of the quarter deck just in front of the captain’s chamber. She had a view of the entire ship from there except the helm above her.

The captain’s chamber wasn’t quite what she expected. She had expected it to look old and musty like in the stories she heard when she was little. But this was nothing like what she imagined. The walls were painted smooth with shades of navy blue and deep yellow. The floors were covered in reach thick rugs. All the furniture was carved beautifully out of dark mahogany and the bed was so large that you could sleep four wide comfortably. The only light was that of the candles that hung from the walls.

Prinna beckon Mylene from inside. As Mylene made her way in and closed the door behind her, she looked around the chamber in awe. It looked more like a very wealthy lord’s chamber then that of a pirate’s, especially one she had never heard of. The bed was placed beside the door and Mylene brushed her hand across the sheets as she walked by. The fabric was so soft.

“It’s from Dalport. It was made long ago, long before the desolation of Dalport. It is said to be one of the rarest silks in the world. But that’s all I know.” said Prinna shyly.

But Mylene didn’t want to talk about bed sheets. She had questions that needed answering. But Prinna spoke first. “This is not the first time you have seen an earth-bound before is it?” asked Prinna with her bright green eyes ever focused on Mylene.

Mylene shook her head. “No, it is not.” she confirmed. “But nor did I remember having seen your kind until I saw you.” said Mylene puzzled as she sat down on a chest at the end of the bed facing Prinna.

Prinna raised a hand to her chin and began pondering what Mylene said. After a moment of silence, Mylene broke in. “You are from Weerscrow’s village are you not?” she asked.

Prinna nodded. “Yes, my lady.” she replied. Then, Prinna’s face lit up in realization. “I don’t understand this.” she cried out.

“Understand what?” asked Mylene as her eyes narrowed with confusion.

“As you were following me here, it was as though I was being followed by a ghost. You are as silent as the grave yet I knew you were following all the same. Like a ghost.” Prinna began pondering again.

“Weerscrow gave me my husband’s bow and something he called the gift of silence.” stated Mylene.

“And what happened after that?” asked Prinna surprised.

Mylene had to think about it for a moment. “I don’t know exactly. One second I’m speaking to Weerscrow and then I’m standing in the middle of the road a mile away from the ferry docks.”

“Impossible! “Prinna shouted out loud and then covered her mouth with both hands when she realized how loud she was. Mylene gave her an anxious look and told her to be quieter. “You shouldn’t be able to remember any of that even if you saw me. And your reaction to the captain isn’t at all like the other women.” she whispered.

“What do mean the reaction of other women?” questioned Mylene.

“No, I can’t say anymore. If the wrong people were to hear this…” she hesitated. “…They would tie me to the top of the mast and let the sun take me.” she said with a voice drowning in fear.

“I am not the wrong people my dear.” Mylene beckoned Prinna to sit beside her on the chest. She did, but slowly and hesitantly. Mylene wrapped an arm around the girl in a move to comfort her. “My husband gave his life to the earth bound. I have seen the mound at Weerscrow’s village. I swear to you that I will keep your secret. I vow to return you and the other earth bound to your village. I just need to find out what is going on here.” Mylene whispered in Prinna’s ear. “Just please help me help you.”

After a long while in silence, Prinna suddenly understood. “You are wife the of great Grimald Rothaide?” asked Prinna with hopeful eyes.

Mylene nodded.

“Do you really promise to take me back?” asked Prinna unsure of her decision.

“I do.” answered Mylene.

A smile spread across Prinna’s face and then her eyes seemed to glow even greener. “Then I accept.”

Mylene rubbed Prinna’s arm in comfort. “Good. Then we are to keep this between each other and tell no one.”

Prinna smiled and nodded. “Understood.”

Mylene turned towards her. “Now, I need to know what is happening on this boat.” she urged.

Prinna’s expression changed. Her eyes showed only fear and doubt. But in the end, she spoke. “My lady, this ship is not like any other. You are not the first woman to stumble upon this ship. In the last six months I have seen dozens of woman come and go. They all shared the same fate. But you are different.” said Prinna.

“What fate?” asked Mylene anxiously.

“The captain has a power over human emotions. He orders his men to find women and bring her here much in the manner they did with you. He manipulates his victims and gains their trust.” added Prinna.

“Olrick.” Mylene realized.

Prinna nodded. “Yes, my lady. Olrick was hired to force himself onto you by the captain. But Olrick did not know he was part of the plot. So the captain killed him his pistol to gain your trust.”

Mylene got hung up on a word she had never heard before. “Pistol? What’s that?” she asked curiously.

“I’m not quite sure. I don’t know much about it other than that’s what the captain calls his killing pipe. He did tell me how ever that it comes from a land far beyond the lowland sea, where the sun shrines hot and bright and the nights are as hot as the days. It is as he said ‘it’s one of a kind’.” answered Prinna.

“But how can something so small unleash death so easily?” asked Mylene confused.

Prinna sighed faintly. “I wish I knew my lady.” she responded. “But that is not the worst of it I’m afraid. Tonight will be no feast. It is a trap. Yes you will sit down with the captain and the crew to enjoy an amazing meal but it is not what it seems.” warned Prinna.

Mylene was puzzled. “What do you mean? It sounds like an ordinary feast to me?”

Prinna looked into Mylene’s eyes. “Tonight will be your last night in this life.” sobbed Pinna. “The captain and his crew mean to sacrifice you to the water elemental god, Primzus as payment for crossing to the sunny lands to the south.” Tears began to run down Prinna’s face. “They will hang you by the hands on the bowsprit at the front of the ship until you are dead and have been claimed by the sea.” Prinna began to cry.

As worried as she was, Mylene took Prinna into her arms and held her tightly. Prinna reminded her of Alyssa when she was upset as a child. Mylene would take in her arms and sing her a song to calm her down. “Do not cry my dear.” said Mylene as she held Prinna. “We will find a way.” Just then a sudden flash of hope lit up in Mylene’s mind. “I think I know how to solve this. But I will need your help.”

“What are we going to do? Run away?” asked Prinna in despair. “They will catch us you know. It’s nothing but open water in every direction.”

Mylene smirked and shook her head. “No, even better, we are going to blow the ship up.”

To be Continued

in

Part Two

of

Purple Haze


Appendix

A

Able Arm, The:

A secret forging shop with ancient practices located in Luxton.

Alyssa Rothaide:

Daughter of Mylene & Grimald Rothaide. She is fourteen years old. She has long brown hair, with pale green eyes. She is tall and beautifully slim-curved. She is very high-spirited, funny, social and greatly courteous. She loves nature, yet she has a curious interest in warfare.

Anbel:

Housekeeper of Ennic Frennit for the last six years. She is sixteen years old. She has dark brown hair and eyes. She is a quiet and shy girl that has a deep connection with Issic. Where she is from, is unknown, but there is more to her than meets the eye.

B

Banisher, The:

He is a large man that always wears an executioner’s mask. He is the champion of the pits and has never been defeated.

Botley:

He is a king’s army recruit. He is proud and stubborn but also loyal and compassionate. He has a shaved head and a mischievous smile. Lives and trains in the Capital. He is twenty years old.

C

Capital, The:

Located north of Ruinpine, The Capital is the largest city in the Green Valley. This is where the king makes his throne.

Celeace:

Female in her twenties. She works with Onga and Yanga as a free-lance bandit. She is also remarkably beautiful for a lowlife.

Ceptai:

A very culture rich city located east of the Green Valley. Built on the north shore of large lake called the Eye, Ceptai is renowned for their rich wine.

Charah:

A word used among the common people to describe a person who can alter their form into any creature imaginable.

Clorei:

Son of Lexia and Ihcro.

Commander Camrok:

Lord of the Flame-Eaters hundreds of years ago.

Crystal Eye:

A relic from ancient times said to contain the power of an ancient demon lord. One of them was stored beneath the Flame-Eater Shrine.

D

Dalport:

A once beautiful desert oasis city, recently destroyed by reasons unknown.

Dire-bat:

A dire bat has a wingspan of 15 feet and weighs about 200 pounds.

Dojo:

A school for training in various arts of self-defense.

Dragon:

A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that features in the myths of many cultures.

Drakroth

Last, oldest and most powerful of all dragons. His home is located at the top of the Great Peak. He has black scales that shine a deep purple in moonlight.

Dummy:

A model or replica of a human being used to practice swordplay with.

E

Earth-Bound:

A tribe of earth elementals located south east of Ruinpine.

Earth-Bound Forest:

A large mountainous forest located south east of Ruinpine. It is home to the Earth-Bound tribe.

Elemental:

A word used by the people to describe those whom have the ability to control certain elements. They are an ancient race on the verge of extinction.

Ennic Frennit:

From the Capital. Father of Issic Frennit, he is a larger man with thick arms and a deep crude laugh. He is without a wife.

Eye, The:

The Eye is a great lake that is located to the east of the Green Valley. Its waters are said to be over 200 hundred feet deep.

F

Flame-Eaters:

Hundreds of years ago, they were a disciplined army of dragon slaying soldiers. Today, they watch over the world from their high shrine in the western mountains.

Flame-Eater Shrine:

A sacred place, built by the descendants of the Flame-Eaters a few years after the battle at the Great Peak.

Florence Walter, Sir:

Serves as the king’s messenger. Close friend of Ennic’s.

Forgers Way:

A busy working street located just south of Market Square in Ruinpine. It is home to some of the best smiths in the Green Valley kingdom.

G

Great Peak, The:

The largest and tallest mountain in The Green Valley. It is situated at the northern most.

Green Valley, The:

A Kingdom and geographic land mark that stretches from the borders of the Lowlands to the south and ends at the shores of the Frosting Sea in the north. See map.

H

Hendrel, Sir:

A strong aged man with black skin and grey wispy hair. He has a short temper. He served the kings army for thirty-five years before becoming master-at-arms.

Hollow Reach:

Located north of the Capital along the valley road. It is the last free city within view of the Great Peak.

Hurst, Sir:

A tall and gallant man. He is a member of the king’s council and a close friend to the Frennit family.

Hyles Trant:

Played a key role in the battle at the Great Peak hundreds of years ago. He became commander after the death Camrok.

I

Ihcro:

Ihcro is Orchi in his adult years. It is what he has taken to calling himself since the incident at the Flame-Eater Shrine. His eyes have turned purple ever since the exposure to the crystal eye, but much more has changed.

Issic Frennit:

A young, well rounded man of sixteen. He is from the Capital. He is the bastard boy of Sir Ennic Frennit. He has a passion for knighthood and he has great interest in his father’s house keeper, Anbel

J

Jerkin:

A close-fitting, hip-length, collarless jacket having no sleeves but often extended shoulders, belted and worn over a doublet.

K

King Holtz:

Considered to be one of the greatest kings that lived, King Holtz is actually a selfish and ignorant man and abuses his powers for self-gain.

L

Lady’s Grace, The:

A pirate ship that seemed to have appeared out of the blue.

Lexia:

Wife of Ihcro. She a woman of common birth from the city of Dalport.

Luxton:

Located, northwest of Ruinpine, Luxton had once been a sacred city that served to protect the path way connecting Luxton to the Flame-Eater Shrine. Today, it is the main city of bandits and cut-throats.

M

Man-at-arms:

A soldier, almost always a professional warrior in the sense of being well-trained in the use of arms, who served as a fully armored heavy cavalryman.

Market Square:

It is the industrial center point of Ruinpine. It is where the four roads meet and where many merchants, both local and foreign, meet to sell their goods.

Master-at-arms:

A master-at-arms is responsible for discipline and law enforcement and is an officer responsible for physical training.

Melingra:

Goddess of all living things and queen of the elemental gods. It is said that she was able to change into any creature imaginable. In human form, it is said she was nearly eight feet tall. She wore a pearl white gown that always seemed to glow. Her eyes were a light green and her hair was a radiant golden- blond that only complemented her eyes all the more.

Mind-Walker:

They have black eyes. They are the ones who have seen death and have been to the other side and returned. They can see into people’s minds. It has been said that they hold the key to the future.

Morris Landerly:

He was a former captain of the king’s army. Now a member of the king’s council, he spends his time fighting in tourneys and jousts.

Mylene Rothaide:

Wife to the Late Grimald Rothaide. Thirty-nine years old. Her long brown hair is streaked with grey. She is a very strong and determined person.

O

Olivander:

Pirate captain of the Lady’s Grace. He is from origins unknown.

Olrick:

A hired hand who was given the job of finding women for captain Olivander of The Lady’s Grace (Ship). He is fond of music and singing.

Onga:

He is a free-lance bandit that works with Celeace and Yanga, He is also considered to be the slowest and simplest minded of his group.

Orchi:

Introduced as a child, Orchi was born and raised with his best friend Panochu at the Flame-Eater Shrine.

P

Panochu:

Introduced as a child, Panochu (or Pano for short) is happy and playful boy who always spent his time with Orchi as a child. He has grown to become the greatest leader the Flame-Eater Shrine has ever seen. His first act as leader was to reassemble the Flame-eaters.

Prinna:

Young Earth-Bound girl that was captured and forced to work on a ship called The Lady’s Grace.

Pryganta:

The desert lands located just west of the Green Valley. Its borders stretch far to the west all the way to the western sea.

Prygantian:

A word used to describe a person from the vast lands of Pryganta.

Purple Haze:

A legendary power granted to the wisest and most powerful dragon of all. The purple haze allowed the chosen Dragon to scorch lands in an inferno of deathly purple fire. It could melt flesh and bone, and even stone. Above all else, the chosen dragon was blessed with unnaturally long life.

R

Ruinpine:

Located near the southern end of the Green Valley, it is known as the city of crossroads. It is also the home city of Alyssa.

S

Sage:

A group of dark magic conjurers, banished from the kingdom for their practices. Relocated to the western desert of Pryganta, the sages have been orchestrating attacks on towns and villages for decades.

Shemagh:

A lengthy piece of cloth used to wrap around ones head to protect is from the desert sun.

Smith’s Crow:

An abandoned store located at the end of Forger’s Way in Ruinpine. Some say it holds strange peculiarities.

Spar:

A battle with the intent on honing your skills. Killing is not permitted. It is for training practices.

Squire:

A squire was the shield bearer or armor bearer of a knight, and at times squires included a knight's errand runner or servant.

T

The Pits:

An underground arena located under the Capital’s busy streets. Tourneys are hosted here all year round as well as executions.

W

Walsh, Sir:

He is an elderly man. Being at age with the king, Sir Walsh, was named the king’s squire during the king’s knighthood. He then served as lord commander of the king’s army for many years. Now, the king considered him his closest friend and ally. He was the king’s word and will, but not the next in line for the throne.

Weerscrow:

He is the chieftain of the Earth-bound tribe and a leader of the Earth elemental race. He has shinning green eyes and hair that’s resembles the vines of a willow tree.

Y

Yanga:

Leader of his group. Yanga is a free-lance bandit who always works with Onga and Celeace.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David J. McCartney was born in Quebec City, Canada, where he studied information technology. In his free time, he discovered a passion descriptive writing.

Seeing where his passion might apply, David began writing this book. It is part one of book one in the series called Eve of Ages.

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