THE DAY HAS COME:
Writers were asked to look over the sample pictures below and write a 1k to 5k word story/sample chapter. I’m asking you to read the ten sample stories below and rank them. The writers were given only this criteria: It’s an epic fantasy story, think dwarves, minotaurs, sky pirates, gnomes, elves, wizards, swordsmen, ninjas, all can be part of this story. It’s meant for Tween/Ya for the audience.
They used the below sample images (potential covers) from iStock for inspiration. After you have read all ten stories, please email your ranking 1 through 10 to thequestfortruthbooks (a) gmail (dot) com. Please vote by February 28th at midnight MST. The ranking should go like this – Sample # Rank #. The higher the points the better. Rank 1 – 12 points, Rank 2 – 10 points, Rank 3 – 8 points, Rank 4 – 7 points, Rank 5 – 6 points, Rank 6 – 5 points, Rank 7 – 4 points, Rank 8 – 3 points, Rank 9 -2 points, and Rank 10 – 1 point.
You are encouraged to comment below and discuss the stories you liked and why, this is an open discussion. Plus feel free to interact with the authors who entered and authors feel free to interact with the voters.
And now for the stories. These have been randomly ordered and assigned a number. They have in no way been altered or edited by me. Please take the time to read each story and then voice your opinion on the entry.
A Warrior: Chapter One
I was born to fight. Every day of my life has been filled with training, schooling, preparation for what I know will come. I’ve read so many stories where the guy fights off the evil, saves the beautiful damsel, and becomes a hero. That’s all I ever wanted. And that’s all I have ever been ready for.
But my path was not going to go where I wanted it to.
Welcome to my story.
I am an orphan. I was left on the step of a Warrior School without any explanation at all. I was wearing what all babies wear here: a pale colored blanket signifying what family I was from. I was wearing pale green, which meant I was from the Reshian family. A family of hard working, brave men and women that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. But that blanket couldn’t tell me who my parents were, or if I had any relatives at all.
It was strange, wondering if there was someone out there who was wondering about me. It hurt sometimes too, knowing that my mother gave me up without even something saying that she loved me.
I suppose before I go on I should explain things a little better and introduce myself. I’m Barret Reshian. My world isn’t like many others. It’s formed on pillars of truth, grace, bravery, and love. Iagene is an old fashioned world, filled with small towns and farms and castles. Some men are raised as knights, Warriors who defend everyone. Others are workers and leaders, providing for the city and guiding it. Women are equal with men, but in different ways. They train us in the gentle arts and give us something to fight for.
My destiny at first appeared to lie as a Warrior. I seemed to be made to wear our silver armor, save the world, and defend what we believed in. My skills had been honed to perfection. My swordsmanship was flawless, my horsemanship excellent, my manners and loyalty boasting for themselves; all of my masters agreed I was the best example of a Warrior in the whole school.
But it all changed because of the color red.
Just because I am a human does not mean everyone else I knew was. There were tall beings called Shadesers, something like a bird and a man put together. Itungs, short people like dwarves but slimmer and hardier, with blond hair and no beards. Women like the wind called Flores, made out of green sparkles and pink rose petals. They all lived at the Warrior Schools, each with their own specialties. Shadesers were bullheaded and rushed right into the fray of battle without thinking, and were easily swayed to the other side. You could never trust a Shadeser. Itungs were known for their ingenuity and quick thinking in tough situations, not to mention they could practically disappear in a crowd. Flores were nearly indestructible because they were never in one place at the same time for more than a moment, plus they aren’t really one piece. Flores were good to have on your side, but were bad when they were not, because they were amazing archers.
My life was changed by a Shadeser, one who I thought was my friend. Ronan was, or at least appeared to be, a great friend. Besides the fact that he was stubborn bird boy who often pulled me into trouble, we got along well. Shadesers are from the Red family, a family that wasn’t above sneaking and spying. I had thought Ronan to be an exception to the family, but as it turned out he was just like every other deceptive creature in his line.
Several things happened and each one made me wish I had never done any of them.
The day started out normally. I woke up early, snapped on my leaf and pale green training armor, and rushed through breakfast to get to training. I greeted my teachers and they set me to work like always. I was paired up with a human girl everyone called Wren for her size. No one knew her real name, because she was an orphan like me. We fell to furious blows with our broadswords. For such a tiny girl, Wren had some skill and strength. Her sword slipped the tiniest bit out of her hand, and cut open my leather glove. When I didn’t stop attacking, she was off balance and I cut her face on accident.
“Augh!” she cried, dropping her sword and holding her cheek where a thin line of blood had appeared.
“Wren!” I let go of my own sword and gasped. “I’m so sorry I didn’t know I– I’m so so sorry! I wasn’t trying to hurt you!”
Tears slipped out of her big brown eyes. She didn’t say anything to me. A Flore ushered her away to get bandaged, and the pain in her eyes pierced right through me.
I felt so bad. I wished I had never been paired up with her. What happened next was even worse though. Of course my favorite instructor came rushing over when he saw what was happening. Geron was the toughest, most advanced tutor you can have at a School. He scolded me for not stopping my attack.
“I thought she was good enough to get back in rhythm and keep going!” I talked back, something that you just don’t do at a School. My attitude had gotten me in trouble before.
“Barret Reshian! Do not argue the point! You should have waited for her to say that she was ready, and you know it. No more sword for you today, get a bow and join that group. Now!” Geron knew the worst punishment for me: no sword training. He yanked my sword out of my scabbard and pointed at the archery targets. I sullenly grabbed a wooden bow and a quiver with arrows.
I whipped out arrow after arrow, sinking them into the target with the full power of my childish anger. I splintered several of my arrows, and the sound of them shattering made Geron come over to talk to me.
“Why are you still angry? You are a Warrior, you should be able to take a reproof,” Geron asked softly, knowing I would rather keep my disgrace under wraps.
“Because I feel like I should be able to make my own decisions now. I am old enough and trained enough that I shouldn’t have to be told what to do all the time.” I didn’t stop shooting my bow.
“Barret… Everyone has this feeling that they could do what they want at a certain age and that they know everything that they need to know. I went through the same thing, thinking I was experienced enough to survive on my own. I left my School and guess what? As soon as I thought I was fine, I was taken and held captive for a year. I was released only because I made life miserable for my captor. You’ve heard the story a dozen times. You can never be too prepared or too ready for the world. And I don’t think you are.”
I didn’t reply, but sent an arrow deep into the middle of the target. Geron left me alone, knowing I just needed my space. I spent the rest of the morning whittling new arrows because I had broken so many. I watched my friends practice and laugh together. Only Ronan ever looked at me.
I never apologized for my temper tantrum. Wren never came back out, and I never got the chance to try to make it up to her. That afternoon, I went out in the courtyard without my armor on and started throwing punches at a cloth dummy. I was still mad. Suddenly my feet were knocked out from under me and a smelly sack was put on my head.
I was carried on the back of some bird, most likely Ronan himself. Next thing I knew, I was dropped on a hard floor and screeching filled my ears. The sack was taken off and I shot to my feet like a spring. I was surrounded by red robed creatures with green eyes. They watched me from inside dark hoods that twitched and moved like birds heads do. I instinctively reached for my sword and found nothing but empty air. I wasn’t tied up, but I was so closely watched escape was impossible.
“You really think I would have let you keep your sword?” a laughing voice mocked me. I looked beyond the group of howling bird people and saw a huge man sitting upon a beast like a leopard.
The man had a flaming red beard and towered over seven feet. Everything about him was massive, his chest, legs, arms, sword. His beast matched him, a hulking cross between a regal leopard and lumbering bear. I knew who he was.
“Ah, Jerush. I should have known. What tortures do you want to inflict on the human race this time, oh king of the birds?” I raised my voice to match his, booming it out in a confident way that I really didn’t feel.
“Oh ho! A cocky one this time, heh Ronan?” Jerush observed. My head swiveled and sure enough, there was my “friend” Ronan. I knew my eyes were saying exactly what I was thinking: “Why?”
Ronan simply turned his head away.
“What’s the game plan here Jerush. I haven’t got all day, especially since your bird brains came and swept half of it away,” I answered the giant’s question with a witty return of my own. I casually flipped the one section of my dark hair that was always in my face back and forced myself to relax.
“Oh I think that you will have all of the time in the world to answer to me, because you won’t have anything better to do besides die!” Jerush hissed.
“You might want to work on the evil hiss there. It’s not as ‘evil’ as I think you would like it to be,” I bantered. My cocky attitude was the one thing everyone said would be my downfall, but sometimes it just managed to amuse as much as it annoyed, and that kept me alive.
Jerush merely raised a bushy eyebrow and waved his hand. “I will attend to you later. Right now, I have better things to do.” A Flore wisped up to him, and said something to Jerush. I looked at her, and knew that she was one of the Warrior’s finest students. She glanced at me, and I thought I saw shame in her sparkle eyes. I was hurried away and shoved into a holding room.
For a Jerush cell it wasn’t that bad. I had heard stories of tiny rooms that you could barely lay down in or turn around in. Everyone knows who Jerush was, because he is our oldest enemy and a constant threat. No one knows where he came from, or why he hates humans as much as he does. He randomly kidnaps us and tortures us only to either kill us or send us back out into the world to tell the others gruesome stories of their time. No one knows what he will do. No one knows where he will strike. And no one ever escapes from his grasp.
I sat on the cot thinking until it was pitch black in the cell. They weren’t doing anything with me today, thank goodness. I stared at the ceiling, not able to fall asleep for a very long time. By now, I would be missed at the School and my instructors would be heading a search party for me. It was almost routine at this point, it having happened so often.
A whispering wind floated past my ears and I sat up, alert. Green sparkles and pink petals threaded their way into my cell through the tiny barred window. The form of the Flore I had seen earlier appeared and I waited for her to speak.
“Barret,” The Flore’s voice was like all of the others: low, mysterious, and soothing. “Don’t believe the worst about me, please. Part of me was caught and I had to come and get it. When I came they forced me to stay, keeping some of my body locked up in a place where I can’t get it out. I’m staying and pretending as if I have been persuaded to join their side long enough to pick up information, earn their trust, and get what part of me I don’t have even though I could survive without it.”
That was the one downfall of the Flores: they had to go where part of them were. If even one petal gets caught, they have to follow it and get it back or else they can never go in a straight line again. Or they can make that part die and join with another Flore to produce more petals. But not very many Flores were willing to give part of themselves away for the sake of someone else. They were rather selfish.
“That makes more sense. I was prepared to give up on you when I saw you with Jerush. Please forgive me. But how do I get out of here?” I asked, rubbing my hands on my knees anxiously.
Tara, the Flore, said, “You don’t. There is no way to get out other than falling or flying, or riding Jerush’s gottard out. We are on the top of the highest mountain in Iagene.”
I ducked my head and ran my hands through my messy hair in frustration. “You mean I’m stuck here until Jerush either lets me go or orders one of his goons to kill me?”
“I’m afraid so. I will help you in any way I can but not very often, or else they might get suspicious,” There was a noise down the hall and we instantly froze. “I must go!” Tara said so softly I could barely hear her. She floated up to the ceiling and got out safely.
A guard, a human one, came up holding two lanterns. He opened the creaky door and shoved one lantern, a blanket, and some crusty bread at me. “Here,” he said gruffly, and then left without another word.
I ate most of the bread but something told me to save some of it, because I didn’t look like I would be getting much food. I wanted some water, but there wasn’t any, so I blew out the lantern and tried to get some sleep.
I knew I would need it.
A thief in the night
The wart covered beast raised his wrinkled nose to sniff the air once again; the scent was stronger here. Much stronger. His target just on the other side of that wall. But attaining his prize would require a great deal of skill and finesse. Breaking into the King’s castle wasn’t a task he could delegate to any of his moron underlings. This was a job for a master thief such as himself. He chuckled to himself as he imagined the hero’s welcome that awaited him as he rode back into the settlement with the enemy’s children in tow. He wondered for a moment about the feasibility of snatching one of those deplorable stallions from the Monarchy stables. Wouldn’t he be a sight to see? Dragging those snot nosed kids behind him as he rode in one of the King’s own horses. But no. He couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by useless fantasies at a moment like this. There would be plenty of time for pilfering animals later.
The sound of hoof beats in the distance betrayed the presence of the king’s mounted patrol. If the enemy wanted to capture him unaware you’d think they’d be smart enough to be a bit on the quieter side. And that was why goblins were smarter than humans, he mused as he tucked himself quietly into the lush undergrowth.
From his hideout, the thief had a clear view of the two riders making their hourly rounds. It didn’t help that they both carried fiery torches that lit up the exterior of the stone wall, exposing all the imperfections and impurities in the fortification. The imperfections were bad for the integrity of the wall, but good for a master climber like himself. He chuckled again at the stupidity of his foe. It was almost like they were asking him to break in to their so called “fortress”.
As the sound of the riders faded into the night, the thief extracted himself from the foliage and scaled the wall with the skill and ease of a squirrel climbing a tree. Once atop the wall, he took a moment to make a mental diagram of the grounds. Though the night was as dark as pitch, his keen eye was still able to make out the unmistakable outline of the creatures in the stables. To the south, he located a forge where a metal smith’s hammer still sang out into the night as it worked to shape yet another useless human tool.
An unassuming building in the center of the fortress compound caught his eye. It was a three story stone structure with a freckle of windows clustered along the façade. One of the windows on the third level had been flung wide open, and as he watched, the thief could make out the movement of curtains stirring about in the breeze.
With a quick glance around, the thief noiselessly lowered himself onto a nearby tree branch and easily scurried the rest of the way to the ground. With his fingertips, he tapped the nighthaven berries in his shirt pocket to make sure they hadn’t been crushed in transition. The juice from these berries would ensure that the children would remain in blissful slumber for many hours to come. They would wake with a crippling tummy ache, but that wasn’t his problem.
Finding his berries still intact, he clung to the shadows at the base of the tree. Even in the inky blackness of the night, traversing the yard wouldn’t be easy as there was absolutely nothing he could use for cover between his current hideout and that dormitory.
With nothing to lose but his life, the thief set out across the yard at a fast clip, making quick work of the distance and scurrying up the dormitory wall without raising alarm. Only once he reached the relative safety of the open window sill did he have the confidence to pause and collect his thoughts for the next phase of the journey.
Slipping inside the window frame, the thief took stock of the slumbering inhabitants. Too large to be his targets, he considered clubbing them in their sleep just for the fun of it, but decided against it. He needed to stay focused on his prize. Clinging to the shadows, the thief moved noiselessly across the room to exit into a long hallway lined with doors.
He stepped to the first doorway and found it unlocked. Like he needed more evidence that these people weren’t very smart. He eased it open and scanned the bed for signs of the children. Finding no one inside, he moved on to the next room. And the next. He searched through several rooms until he came upon one littered with child sized instruments of play.
Without delay, he moved to the beds and found a young boy and a young girl snoring gently in two small beds. If he looked at them cross-eyed he could almost find them cute, the way their soft brown curls caressed their pouty little cheeks. He withdrew the berries from his shirt and gently massaged them to release their juices.
Moving quickly, the thief tucked the broken berries into each child’s cheek and hoisted them one at a time into a sling on his back. The added weight of the children did nothing to slow him down as he traced his path back to the spot on the wall he’d selected earlier as his point of entry. Up and over he went, eager to reach the cover of the forest. Once there he could trade caution for speed and rendezvous with the raiding party that had targeted a second manor farther to the east. Together they would travel back to the shadow lands and return to the settlement as heroes.
Worath would be so pleased.
The Council of Elders
The general turned away from the planning table, his red cape swirling behind him, as he stormed out of the room. How could this have happened? What right did they have? He paused beneath a large stone arch to collect his thoughts. He mustn’t let his emotions cloud his judgments. This was a time for meticulous control, not rage filled vengeance. Many great leaders had made that mistake before him, and he was not about to follow in their footsteps.
He took another deep breath and made his best effort to clear the fog and cobwebs brought about by his emotions. He glanced around, noting the silence. Not just silence, but the absence of sound. The sounds of giggling and scampering feet that that he would have heard if the children hadn’t been…
He shut that thought off as soon as it formed. His beloved children, Ellery and Alexander. Too young to be of any use to the invading hordes, but they had been taken anyway. Stolen from their beds as part of a political ploy to draw him out into the open. To act on his only vulnerability. It was a very strategic move on their part. Quite a good one too. But it wasn’t going to work.
With a sigh, General Caligulus continued down a narrow stone corridor to his messenger’s quarters. At a time like this, his only hope was to summon the Council of Elders. Surely their wisdom and guidance would shine a fresh perspective on the dire situation.
Caligulus strode into the room with a swirl and joined the elders who were already seated at their appointed position around the polished stone table. Matthias the Noble could see distress in the man’s movements, as if it was physically painful for him to be away from the children he adored. Matthias’s sons were long grown and quite capable of defending their own families, but his blood still boiled at the thought of the goblin raiders causing harm to those he loved.
It had been easy enough for the Monarchy to ignore the raiders when they had kept to the shadow lands, but lately they had gotten bolder. Under the leadership of that slime ball Worath the Bold, livestock had been disappearing all over the countryside.
But with this latest move on Worath’s conquests had gone too far. The Monarchy wouldn’t idly stand by while the wart-covered raiders continued to gain momentum and wreak havoc on their community. Kidnapping children from the King’s own court. The idea put a fowl taste in the Nobleman’s mouth.
The general cleared his throat to bring the council to order. “I trust you are aware of the circumstances that have brought us together,” he said with a low tone to his voice. His face was the picture of calm, but the fear in his voice betrayed his confident demeanor.
The members of the council shuffled about in their seats filling an otherwise awkward silence. A fiery redheaded council member was the first to disrupt the quiet. With a clang, he flung his bronze water vessel against the wall, “Burn them out. Every single one. Their warriors, their common folk. Their wives and children. Their livestock and beasts of burden. Burn it all.” He looked around the room with a rage in his eye, eager to find support among his fellow council members before continuing. “The settlements to the south are less than a full day’s ride. If we leave before nightfall, we can be upon them by daybreak. We’ll give them a taste of their own medicine.”
A wise old elder with a silky white beard rose calmly and ushered the slightly crazed council member back to his seat. “Peace dear child. That is not the way of the Monarchy. To strike too quickly is to open us to our own vulnerability. We must proceed with caution, attention to detail, and the leadership of the Almighty God.”
The redhead glowered at the man for a moment before stooping to retrieve his water vessel. Matthias sensed the younger man’s embarrassment at receiving such a rebuke, and lowered his gaze respectfully to allow his fellow council member to recollect his emotions privately.
After another moment of awkward silence, General Caligulus cleared his throat and spread his hands out wide on the stone table top. “Friends, it is your wisdom that I covet. Not your fiery inclinations towards retribution. If I wanted goblin blood on my hands, I would have been on horseback an hour ago.” His eyes searched probingly around the table, eager to find support. “I think we all know the implications of forming a vigilante party bent on reclaiming what is properly ours.”
Matthias nodded knowingly, his mind flashing back to the tales his grandfather had shared about the Great War of ’35. How both the Monarchy and the goblin settlement had suffered debilitating losses that affected both populations for decades. He cringed as he thought about the implications of entering another war with such a formidable foe. Surely there was a better way to right the situation.
A blond headed elder with piercing blue eyes spoke from across the table. “What of a delegation?” he started hesitantly, “the general and a few riders will go down carrying the banner of peace,” he shot a warning glance at the hot-headed red head before continuing, “they can take a presentation of stallions as a gift…” he trailed off.
“Yes, yes, that will do just fine,” the mature gentlemen with the white beard piped up. “Perhaps they will agree to a trade,” he said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
“Either that or they’ll just kidnap the general and eat all the horses,” snorted the ruddy haired elder.
At that, the room exploded into a shouting match as those who supported the idea of a delegation stood their ground against those who were eager for swift and brutal retaliation.
The General lifted his empty water vessel and slammed it back to the table repeatedly, eager to regain control of the gathering. “And so it is,” he began, “with the wisdom of the elders,” he glanced at the white haired elder, “and the blessing of the King, the Monarchy has elected to mount a delegation party, to set out in three days time. If this party fails to return after one week’s time, a second party will be dispatched. This party will be authorized to take up their weapons and seek retribution by order of the King, using whatever terms they deem necessary,” with that he gave a nod to the red haired gentlemen. “Are we all in accord with that ruling?”
As the elders clamored their approval, the general stood and raised his empty vessel, “then be it so, and may God have mercy on those monsters’ souls.”
Based on Picture 4
They had waited eighteen years for the Passing, years spent studying and training. Always inside the Citadel, protected from the evils of the Wastelands outside, just on the other side of the mountains.
Now, for Karine, the ceremony of the Passing had come and gone. All those years of waiting…for this?
She climbed the stairs to the room she shared with Andromeda, mechanically, step after step. Andromeda wasn’t there. No, of course not. It was her month to put the younger ones to bed, her favorite chore. She’d be back before the first shift of Nightwatch was over.
Another part of Karine’s mind screamed, No. She’s not at Nightwatch, and you know it. Andromeda isn’t coming back. Ever again.
They would come for her soon, when they realized she was gone. Karine was sure of it. She collapsed on her bed.
All those years of waiting, wondering. After completing their eighteenth year, the young men and women simply disappeared during the night, never to be seen again. No one knew where they went. It was a great mystery, an exciting secret.
The younger children came up with stories, of course. Karine had held theories of her own, mostly one that Willen invented. “They go out to slay dragons in the Wastelands,” he had said once, in Year Nine.
“Why don’t they ever come back to visit?” Karine had asked wistfully. Marianne, the Year Eighteen who had put her to bed during Nightwatch had gone to the Passing a few days before, and she missed her.
“Because once you kill a dragon, you have to rule the dragon’s land,” Willen had said importantly. And she had believed him.
Now, Karine longed for those innocent days. Before she knew the truth.
Or is it before I knew the lies?
Rion had known what the Passing meant, or at least guessed. He had been trying to prepare her, Karine realized now. All of those comments, the ones she had brushed off as jokes…he had meant them.
“When we leave here….” “There’s something greater beyond these walls.” “Power, Karine. It’ll be ours, someday.” “We have a destiny, Karine.”
He had always taken her hand then, and even though his words had confused her, she had felt safe. Brave, even.
So this was their destiny. One simple choice: sign the scroll and join the Seekers. Or die.
The others almost seemed to expect it. Had she been the only one who didn’t know?
When the Reverences brought out the scroll, Karine had left the room. For fresh air, she said, and, seeing her pale face, no one had doubted it.
She had been gone far too long. Everyone else had likely decided.
She was the only one left. What will I do?
There was a knock at her door. Karine rose mechanically to answer it. All of the Reverences had keys, of course, but if she didn’t open the door willingly, she might receive a penalty.
Not that it matters anymore.
It was Cyr, stout, unlined face glowing in the light of a candle, the edge of his red robe scraping the floor. He held the scroll.
Karine bowed. “Good evening, Reverence Cyr.”
He wasted no time. “Have you decided, Karine?”
“It’s so soon,” she said, aware that emotion was creeping into her voice and hating it. “I wasn’t prepared.”
“Is this not what you’ve been training for all your life?”
All her life. Eighteen years, waiting for the Passing.
She was afraid to ask the question. She was afraid not to. Finally she turned, straightening her shoulders, and gestured to the scroll. “What about the others?”
“Eight joined us. Three died rather than face their duty.”
Those were the only two options, then. Karine would have expected nothing less. The Citadel’s two pillars were strength and loyalty.
“I need more time,” Karine said, her pulse quickening. Would she dare postpone an order from a Reverence?
“I am not used to extending a Passing,” Cyr said, raising an eyebrow, and Karine’s heart sank.
Then he continued. “However, in this case, I will make an exception. Not until the morning. You must leave before dawn. But you have until the last shift of Nightwatch to decide.”
“Why?” It was the Logic Master’s favorite question. It was not Karine’s. Answers to why were rarely straightforward, the way she preferred. But she had to ask. “Why am I an exception?”
For a moment, the rubber mask of Cyr’s face slipped, and Karine saw the first real flicker of emotion in his eyes. “Much depends on your choice. We are at war,” he said, and Karine remembered again how she hated that bland, wormy voice. “And in a war, one must choose a side.”
“Come back before dawn, then,” she said, turning away.
“And what will I find? A Seeker…or a corpse?”
She turned, slowly. Is there really a difference?
No. She knew that with certainty, looking into Cyr’s dead brown eyes. She would die either way.
“Peace, Reverence Cyr,” she said, bowing again.
“Peace, Karine.” He shut the door, leaving her in darkness that she could feel as well as see.
Karine knew for certain that Rion had joined the Seekers. He was stronger than she could ever hope to be.
How did they do it? Rion and the others? After all that they learned at the Passing, how could they sign their names?
It had been terrible, listening to the three Reverences speak. They told Karine and the others secret horrors and histories: what life was like out in the Wastelands. The purpose of the Citadel. What happened to those who left after the Passing.
That was why Andromeda was dead. Karine knew it as certainly as she knew her mathematics tables. Andromeda would not join the Seekers. She was brave enough to choose death before signing the scroll.
What had she said before Karine had run out of the room? She closed her eyes and saw Andromeda, standing strong and proud before them. “It is not right. I will not fight on the side of evil. No matter what.”
“Remember your training,” Rion would say. “Put aside your emotions and think, Karine.”
She lit the small lamp on the desk and picked up her journal. “It’s for the best,” she wrote, in perfect script like the Language Master had taught her. “The Histories are harsh, yes, but the Seekers did what needed to be done to maintain order. And that is what we continue to do today.”
The Language Master and the Logic Master were both old…perhaps they would ask her to take one of their places instead of becoming a Seeker. That happened to some after the Passing, she knew, although it was a rare placement. She could hope, at least.
“The world is a better place,” she wrote.
It was a lie, right there in her own handwriting. She wrote more. “The Seekers protect the world. We bring peace.” It didn’t look so bad, not like that. If she wrote it enough, thought it enough, said it enough….
Yes. She could believe it. Not now, of course. But soon. Rion would help her. He would help her become strong, because he loved her.
Either way, she would die. But she couldn’t die without Rion. She wasn’t brave enough.
She blew out the lamp and felt her way to the door. She would walk down to Assembly Hall in the dark.
Even though she knew they were sound asleep, she was afraid one of the children in the nursery might wake up. What would she tell them if they came out and asked where she was going, what she was doing?
Andromeda’s voice seemed to reach past the Great Beyond and chide her. “Yes, Karine. What about the children? What would you tell them?”
She gripped the door handle tightly. “I would tell them that I am going to bring peace to the world,” she whispered.
Someday she would believe it.
She began to descend the stairs, gripping the railing tightly. All was quiet. Nightwatch had begun. And she had no choice but to go to Assembly Hall and sign her name to a lie that was slowly becoming the truth.
I will sign my name next to Rion’s, she decided. With each step she took down the worn, familiar steps, the fear in her chest began to calm.
Because she had no choice, not really. The day she was born, her destiny had been decided. She was Karine of the Citadel. The Seekers had chosen her.
* * *
I was in trouble again.
Logically, it didn’t make sense. Yes, I had failed the last mathematics exam. But that mark had been announced a week ago. I hadn’t earned any penalties for challenging an elder or speaking without permission…not for a few days, anyway. And I had been to class on time for once.
The most logical explanation was that this was a mistake of some kind.
Unfortunately, the fact that logic was my worst class didn’t make me very confident in that conclusion. Neither did the fact that I had been called into the Logic Master’s office for one of his stern reprimands.
I had never gone a term without one, so it was no surprise, really. I could speak eight languages perfectly, run ten miles without stopping, and fight with nearly any weapon known to man. But I could not, apparently, think logically. It was always my poorest mark.
The Logic Master looked up at me from the top of his glasses, perched on the end of a bony nose that the younger Years made fun of when he wasn’t listening. “Sit down, Callin,” he said, although he wasn’t sitting himself.
I glanced at him nervously. That’s strange. We had been taught never to sit before an elder sat. “Sir?” I asked.
He waved at the chair. “Go on, sit.”
I sat. It was an even worse offense to disobey an elder’s command. “I’m sorry about the last exam,” I said, trying to save him some time. “I know I should have studied more.”
But the Logic Master just raised a hand. “Peace, boy. That’s not what I wanted to speak with you about, Callin. I wanted to speak with you about your first rhetoric assignment.”
I groaned. Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that? The Logic Master hadn’t yet announced our marks for the rhetoric assignment. The next day, everyone in my year would know that I was at the bottom of the class. Again.
I was already coming up with a list of clever comebacks to Aron’s merciless mockery when the Logic Master said, “I have never had a student earn such a high mark in this area.”
For a moment, I thought I had heard wrong. When I practiced my speech in the bath house, I had thought it was convincing. But when I gave it, no one looked interested at all. Afterward, Aron had laughed at me and called me a sentimental idiot.
“I…excuse me sir?” I sputtered.
“The other students don’t know it, of course. But objectively, compared to all standards, I know differently,” he went on, speaking each word with perfect precision, like he was repeating mathematic tables to me. “The way you speak…you have something that the others do not.”
“We have everything in common at the Citadel,” I said quickly, quoting the Catechism just in case this was the Logic Master’s idea of a test. “We are all the same.”
“So you say. But you don’t believe that,” Logic Master said, watching me carefully.
No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from those calm blue eyes. They saw everything. And, oddly, they never seemed to blink. Not at the right times, anyway.
“I stated the fact from the Catechism,” I said, trying to think logically. “What is belief except agreeing with the facts?”
“No,” the Logic Master said forcefully.
I blinked, surprised. It was the closest I had ever heard the Logic Master come to raising his voice. Could there actually have been…expression in his voice? How strange.
“There is more to belief than that,” the Logic Master continued. “It’s about what is true, not what is factual. And it’s more than a statement of assent—you have to feel it.”
Now I knew something was wrong. The Logic Master never mentioned feelings, unless he was telling us to discard them. “Do you need me to help you to the Clinic?”
The Logic Master shook his head, and suddenly he looked very old. Maybe he had always looked like that. I had never noticed. “No. They can’t do anything for me there.”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything. I stood there awkwardly, trying not to stare. Of course, it would be disrespectful to leave before I was dismissed—I could get a penalty for that. “You were telling me something about my mark in rhetoric?” I prompted.
He shook his head slightly, like he was jarring himself awake, though his eyes had never closed. “Yes. Rhetoric. Callin, there are two things about you that the Citadel would consider alarming: something that you have and something that you do not have.”
I winced. ‘Alarming’ usually resulted in penalties. Not that I hadn’t gotten my fair share of those over the years. Somehow, though, I always managed to stop just short of dismissal.
“You have passion,” the Logic Master continued. “You care very deeply about things that others do not.”
I was about to protest, because that sounded strange.
Then I remembered the time I had grabbed the switch away from a Year Eighteen when he was overly harsh in dealing out punishment to a Ten. I had gotten a dozen penalties for that.
Or the way I wrote stories about heroes in my journal, ones that I thought were good, exciting, even. Once, I showed them to Aron. He had stopped reading after a few paragraphs, bored.
Or the day I dared to disagree with Reverence Petrad during the weekly Service when he said that the highest duty we had was loyalty to the Citadel. I didn’t say anything out loud, of course—that would mean immediate dismissal. But even the thought had surprised me. I don’t know what I thought my highest duty was. But it wasn’t that.
So that was called…passion? Aron always called it stupidity.
“Is that…a problem?” I managed.
Usually, “perhaps” meant that the Logic Master was avoiding giving a definite answer because he wanted me to decide for myself. It wasn’t that he didn’t know. The Logic Master was always certain.
Then why does he look so confused?
“What was the other thing—the thing I don’t have?” I asked, ready to end the meeting. Even if the Logic Master didn’t give me a penalty, the Training Master would if I was late to archery lessons.
“You don’t have ambition, Callin,” he said evenly.
I could feel my face flushing. I wanted to protest, but what would I say?
“I know,” I said, eyes turned down. I thought about my roommate, the Citadel’s best athlete. “Aron tells me all the time that I ought to be more competitive, more motivated to do well in school….”
I shrugged. No excuses. That was one thing that even Year Fours learned. Excuses are for the weak, and the Citadel stands for strength. Strength and loyalty.
“There’s only one reason why you haven’t been dismissed years ago. Why you won’t ever be dismissed.”
That couldn’t be true. Any student could be dismissed. The Reverences told us this nearly every day. “And what’s that?”
The Logic Master looked away. “It…it is not to be spoken of. But when your Passing comes…if it comes….”
“If?” Everyone in the Citadel lived to be eighteen. It was a safe place, protected from the evils of the Wastelands. There was no sickness that couldn’t be treated, no enemies, no danger.
“If it comes, Callin, it will be the most important Passing in a century.”
“What does that mean?” I could get a penalty for my tone by now, but I didn’t care.
The Logic Master opened his mouth, and, for a moment, I thought he was going to tell me. Then he said, “It is not to be spoken of.”
Before he turned, I thought I saw a flicker of something in his eyes. Fear.
But that couldn’t be. There was nothing to fear inside the Citadel. That’s what the older children would tell us as they put us to bed at the start of Nightwatch. “Don’t be afraid of the dark. Nothing can hurt you inside these walls.”
I decided to risk asking a foolish question. “Are you afraid, Logic Master?”
“I don’t know,” he said hoarsely. His hands had begun to tremble. “It’s all so strange.”
I glanced around the office, trying to find a way to escape. “Are you sure you don’t need to go to the Clinic? They can—”
“No!” the Logic Master blurted. “Then they would see…they would know what’s happening to me. I was the first of the Experiments. They didn’t know what it would do to me, how long it would last….”
The Experiments. What was he talking about?
He kept going. “Suddenly, nothing is logical. Nothing is certain. Perhaps by the end I’ll lose my mind all together.”
Or maybe you already have. I stopped myself from saying it. After all, crazy or not, the Logic Master was my elder, and still perfectly capable of giving out penalties.
“Something disturbs my mind. A mind that, for decades, has been clear and rational,” he continued, talking past me instead of to me. “All is not well in the Citadel, Callin, and, for the first time, I realize it.” He stopped, a look of hopelessness on his old, drawn face. “But what can I do? Dear Elian, what can I do?”
“Who is Elian?” I asked.
A dim look came into his eyes. “I don’t know, Callin. I can’t quite remember. But I think that…that he was my enemy once.”
“Then why call to him now?”
“I don’t know that either,” he said, a tone of disgust creeping into his voice. “It’s only a feeling, that Elian, perhaps, is the only one who can help me now. You see, I wasn’t supposed to have feelings, not after the Experiments. Not feelings like these.”
“You mean that you chose not to express your feelings?” I asked. That’s what he always told us to do in class.
“No. I mean that I could not feel. Not until now.”
“The Reverences thought it would be better,” the Logic Master said. “That those without emotion would be the ideal warriors, easier to command. They were right, in a way…and they were badly wrong. By stripping us of emotion, they lost something vital.”
“But I…we…the Years at the Citadel now…we have emotions. Don’t we?”
“Yes,” the Logic Master said. “The Reverences changed their minds and halted the Experiments. Due, in part, to a report I prepared after training years of students for their Passing.”
I didn’t understand. Part of me wanted to go back to life as normal. Every day in the Citadel was just like the one before. It was boring, but comforting.
The Logic Master leaned forward, as if something might be listening. There was a strange glow in his watery old eyes. “You and I—we can save the world, Callin.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. “Does it need saving?”
“More than you know. From them.”
“Who?” The way he said “them,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
I had heard that name once, nearly two years before. I had decided not to go straight to my room after dawn duties, like I was supposed to. It was almost time for that year’s Passing, and the Reverences, all four of them, were gathered in the Assembly Hall together, dressed in their formal red robes. I had peered into the doorway and listened.
“The strength of the Seekers is increasing,” the senior Reverence, Petrad, was saying, “We are closer than ever to achieving our goal.”
“But what of the Resistance?” Reverence Emeria asked.
“The Seekers have the world firmly in their grasp,” Reverence Petrad had responded firmly. “It has always been so. And that cannot be resisted.”
That was all I had heard before my fear of penalties overcame my curiosity. This was my chance to find out what I hadn’t that night. “Who are the Seekers?” I asked. “What do they do?”
It was as if the Logic Master didn’t hear me. “We have done more than find the enemy, Callin. We are the enemy. Don’t you understand?”
I answered honestly. “No.”
He seemed impatient at my stupidity. “I am a Seeker. All of the Reverences are Seekers. And you will be too, someday, unless….”
He didn’t finish his thought.
“What do seekers seek?” I pressed.
“Different things, depending on their assignment. I was told that I, as a Logic Master, sought the truth.” He shook his head. “Now I begin to doubt.”
Doubt. What a strange word. One we hardly ever used, except to describe the savages who lived in the Wastelands. Inside the Citadel, there was no need for doubt. The Catechism and the Reverences told us everything we needed to know, everything true.
But is it true? Do I believe it?
I winced. Those were the thoughts of…something worse than dismissal. I wasn’t sure what. Betrayal? Heresy? Rebellion? Those were all words of the Wastelands too. In the Citadel, we only knew loyalty and strength.
I wasn’t feeling very loyal or strong, talking with the Logic Master. I could feel the fear in his eyes sinking into me, like some kind of terrible disease that even the orderlies at the Clinic couldn’t cure.
“Come find me tonight, at the first shift of Nightwatch,” the Logic Master said suddenly, his voice back to its usual business-like tone. “Up on the observatory deck.”
Only approved science groups were allowed on the deck after curfew. “But—” I protested.
“It’s your choice, Callin,” the Logic Master said, sitting down behind his desk. “But you are, perhaps, the world’s only hope.”
Now I was sure of it: the Logic Master had finally gone crazy. The Science Master taught us that this was what happened to people when they grow old and their mind deteriorates. I just never expected it to happen so suddenly…and to someone I knew.
“Couldn’t this wait until my Passing next year?” I asked, humoring him. I quoted the Catechism again. “At the Passing, everything will be made known.”
“And what happens, Callin, if what is made known is something you would rather not hear?” the Logic Master said, his voice a deadly whisper. “What then? If faced with a choice between your death and the death of others, which would you choose?”
I froze. Those questions were the questions of legends, the stories I wrote in my journal. Those were questions for heroes.
The Logic Master shuddered, as if shaking off a dark, oppressive fog. Then he picked up a stack of papers and adjusted them so they were perfectly even. “Good day, Callin,” he said, without looking at me.
“Peace, Logic Master,” I responded automatically, bowing.
But, as I turned to leave, he said, “No. Not peace, Callin. We are at war.”
The Blind Trial
The whispers started as I stepped into the arena. They echoed, bounding around and around the walls, until the entire place sounded like a hive of bees.
I smiled. No matter. They were giving me a good idea of the size and shape of the place.
A hand brushed my bare arm. “Umm, Tanna?”
I turned in the direction of the timid, squeaky voice. “Counselor Raynor? I didn’t know you were an official for the rider selection.”
“Just this year,” he said, an edge of nervousness making his words a bit sharp. “Were you lost? Did you…”
“This isn’t an accident, sir. I’d like to try out for the position of dragon rider.”
A sharp intake of breath between the counselor’s teeth rose above the whispers of the crowd. I folded my hands behind my back and waited, tilting my head slightly so I could hear the echoes better. The arena was round, perhaps a hundred yards in diameter. The floor was made of sawdust…I could feel it shifting under my feet, smell the spiciness of it over the sweetness of dragon and the sourness of sweat, taste the grittiness in the air.
Footsteps echoed along the entrance tunnel, and a new voice rang out, harsh and upset. “What’s this, Raynor? Who is this? Why is she here?”
Raynor’s stiff robe rustled as he turned to the newcomer. “This is Tanna, Sir Medrik. She’s here for the rider selection.”
“But…but that’s ridiculous!” Medrik spluttered.
The air current stroking my skin changed, and the sour sweaty smell intensified. I could feel Medrik leaning toward me, studying me. I straightened.
“You’ll get yourself killed, girl. Go home,” he snapped, and with a swish, turned away.
I clenched my fists and forced my voice to remain steady. “There are no rules that say a blind person is not allowed to try out for a riding spot.”
“Tanna, he’s right, please, go home,” Raynor murmured in my ear. “You don’t belong here.”
My fingernails dug into my palms. You don’t belong here. I’d heard those words far too often…in scribe school, at the bakery where I’d worked last year, in my family’s pottery shop. The last had been after I’d knocked over a shelf of pottery someone had moved into a normally-clear path. My father hadn’t been harsh about it, but he’d been firm that he couldn’t afford smashed pottery. He hadn’t used those exact words, but the message had been the same.
You don’t belong here.
And so, I found myself here. I’d been enthralled with tales of the dragon riders since I was a kid. This was something I could do with my life. If I got killed in the trials…well, I’d be out of everyone’s way, at least.
But I wouldn’t get killed I’d been blind since birth, and I knew how to read the air currents, the smells, the sounds. Plenty of kids with no disabilities had failed. Time to see what a blind girl with a few extra advantages could do.
“I’d like to prove that, if I may,” I said shortly.
Medrik exhaled loudly. “Have the handlers be ready to run interference, Raynor. Tell them to be on their toes. This girl’s going to need it.”
“So you think,” I muttered under my breath, turning back to the arena.
Raynor and Medrik’s footsteps receded, and the entrance tunnel’s door squealed shut, wood grating on metal. The lock-bar dropped into place, amplifying a single heartbeat so it thudded through my chest.
I rubbed my sweaty palms together, took a few steps forward so there was space between me and the wall. The whispers had died, and the arena stretched around me. The vast, empty chill sent prickles up my arms and neck.
Another door squealed, somewhere, making me cringe. The sound was so loud, echoing everywhere. I took a step forward, turned my head, trying to locate it. Before I could, the noise died, and the arena fell quiet again.
A single, loud huff of breath sounded right behind me. I spun around, stretched one hand out, and touched a wall. A solid wall. Heat spread over my neck and shoulders. I heard snickers, words starting to rise into the air, and underneath it all, the distinct slither of scales.
“Stop it!” I yelled. My voice blasted my own ears.
The voices died, but the crowd’s breathing sent whispers of wind through the arena, stirring up eddies that tickled my skin and added to my confusion. I gritted my teeth, held myself tense and ready to spring at any second.
Vibrations trembled through the floor. I dug my toes into the sawdust. Those tremors weren’t from a large dragon. A loud thwump blasted my ears as the dragon took to the air.
The faint, almost fruity sweetness of dragon sweat brushed my face, stronger than before. A puff of wind swept my hair across my face, and again I tasted sawdust. It was soaring.
It had come close, very close.
I held my ground, and again the dragon swept past me, this time flapping its wings. The blast knocked me back a step. Sawdust pelted my skin, filled my nostrils. I ground my molars together and crouched.
When the dragon swept past again, I lunged. The crowd gasped. I smacked into a slick, scaly side, felt a line of fire erupt down my leg as a talon gouged me. The dragon twisted, footsteps thudding into the floor, and my fingers slid, losing it…
My palm smacked into a bony ridge. The wing. I was hanging onto the wing, my side pressed against the dragon’s front leg and side.
I gripped it tight, dug my fingernails in. The dragon lurched and snorted. The scales against my hip flared with heat. The dragon’s neck flexed against my back.
“Stop!” Raynor shouted. “That’s enough!”
Oh no, he didn’t. I threw my free arm around the neck. Sweat dripped onto my lips, salty and stinging. The crowd was yelling, rustles filling the air as they jumped to their feet. Shouts and footsteps came my way.
I yanked myself over the wing. The dragon exhaled, and fire singed the toes on my right foot as I threw my left leg over the dragon’s back and fell forward, wrapping my arms around its neck.
The panic hushed. The dragon relaxed, then shifted from side to side. I felt muscles flex and pull, and a gentle breath huffed straight in my face, smelling of burnt meat and coal. I sat up and felt a rough, scaled head rub under my chin.
The dragon had accepted me as its rider.
My spine relaxed, and I felt like sliding to the floor. Instead, I placed my hands under the dragon’s chin and scratched. A low purring noise rumbled from the dragon’s throat.
A hand touched my ankle. Raynor’s voice rose beside me. “Welcome, Tanna Medstaire, tenth rider of the Blackstar Squad!”
The arena erupted in deafening cheers. The dragon roared.
I grinned and raised my clenched fist. I was a rider, bonded to a dragon, and even if we failed in the rest of the military trials, I would always be a rider. Nothing would change that.
The Discovery and the Rescue
Jeremiah stopped to catch his breath as the chilly autumn wind swirled the fallen leaves about his feet, warning of the quickly approaching storm. He spotted the remains of a campfire just a few feet from the tree he was leaning on. He stooped to investigate and found that a few coals in the middle were still warm.
“Someone must have been here very recently,” the young man thought to himself as he rolled one of the coals in his hands.
His quick green eyes darted over the surrounding woods. After seeing nothing else out of the ordinary he lifted his eyes to the patch of sky visible between the thick branches above his head. Dark thunderheads were marching across the sky threatening to break open any minute.
There was a cave just a mile from the ridge he was standing on. If he hurried he might be able to make it there before he was completely drenched. As he bent to pick up the sack he had dropped, a flash of red caught his eye.
“No, not the Crimson Hoods!,” he gasped out loud.
Jeremiah quickly drew his sword and ducked behind a thick tree trunk. His heart beat wildly and he tried to keep his breathing steady as he tried to think of a way out of the sudden danger. A twig snapped on the other side of tree he was leaning against. In a flash he leapt from behind the tree, sword poised to fight.
He was not greeted by a threatening Crimson Hood, but by Stephen, his brother-in-law.
“Jer! What are you doing? You could seriously hurt someone with that thing!” Stephen shouted as he took a step backwards.
“Steve! How?… What are you doing here?” Jeremiah gasped as he put down his sword.
“Why I’m looking for you of course!”, he said with a cocky grin. Glancing over his shoulder he shouted, “Over here!”
“But how did you even know I was back in the country much less out here?”
“I have my ways,” he said with a wink. “Besides I am a Captain in the Intelligence Branch you know. What kind of Captain would I be if I didn’t even know where my wife’s twin brother was?” He reached down to grab Jer’s sack and then handed it to a soldier who had joined them. “Bring this to the ship and put it in the room next to my office,” he directed the soldier.
The soldier grunted, turned stiffly, and marched back through the trees.
“Ship? What ship? We’re in the middle of a forest Steve, what can you possibly mean by a ship?”
“It’s an airship, the latest invention by the King’s scientists. It is propelled by the wind using sails like any other ship but uses hot air to float in the sky. It is surprisingly effective and quite impressive to look at. But you’ll see soon enough. We landed in the clearing just beyond those trees,” he pointed ahead in the direction where the soldier had previously vanished.
As they entered the clearing, Jeremiah was amazed at the magnificent ship that stood before him. It bore a striking resemblance to the King’s warship the Montpellier. The bow of the ship was formed by an intricately carved horse’s head, its flowing mane disappearing into the ships frame. There were indeed large white sails, but oddly there were two sets of sails; one set was above the others and seemed to roll over into a sort of pouch that hung over the entire ship like a huge cloud formed by fabric. At the top of the tallest mast was a tower containing a large fireplace, its chimney vented directly into the man made cloud.
Jeremiah followed Stephen’s lead and climbed the rope ladder onto the deck. Still speechless at the sight of the magnificent ship he only nodded when Stephen asked if he would like to come into his cabin. Once inside he was greeted by a tight bear hug from his twin sister.
“Finally! We have been looking everywhere for you!”, Melissa shouted joyously.
“I’m glad you did!”, said Jeremiah with a smile. A look of confusion passed over his face. “But how did you know to look for me? Or that I’d be here? You never did answer when I asked you earlier Steve,” he said as he turned back toward his brother-in-law.
Stephen sighed deeply. “It’s rather a long story. Sam, your valet, arrived at my office nearly three weeks ago now. After recovering from his panic and hard journey, he related to me how the Guard had betrayed your authority and were seeking allegiance with the King’s enemies. He told us that your right hand man had been killed assisting in your escape. I immediately began making inquiries about the Guard and you. I told Lynn what had happened and she sent out a search party for you. They discovered that you had been seen traveling in this direction and relayed the info to me as I had the fastest means of transportation.”
There was a sharp knock at the door. “Come in,” said Steve loudly.
The door opened and the soldier who had earlier carried Jeremiah’s bag stuck his head into the room. “Sorry to bother you Captain, but we need your permission to take off. The storm is nearly on top of us and I think it would be best to get out of its way to avoid damaging the ship, Sir.”
Steve nodded. “I agree. Circle around the storm and then head south. We will land near St. Jude’s Monastery where I, and my men, will disembark. Afterward you and the crew are to take the ship back to the castle and await further orders.”
“Yes Sir!” The door closed behind the soldier with a soft thud.
After the footsteps faded away from the door Jeremiah asked, “Does the King know that he can no longer trust his Royal Guard?”
“Yes, I notified him myself after hearing what Sam said. He is having them interviewed one by one to see who can be trusted. I have been instructed to bring back some of Lynn’s men to help guard the castle on my return trip. She has trained quite a formidable army in the past two years you have been away.”
“I always said she’d make a better soldier than me.,” said Jeremiah with a faraway look in his eyes.
“Ahem,” Steve cleared his throat bringing Jer back to the present. “I think it would be best if we all got some sleep. It’s getting late and it will be a few hours before we arrive at the monastery. We will arrive before daybreak and we have a long, hard ride to Lynn’s camp from there. They moved the camp deeper into the foothills to keep it hidden from the King’s enemies.”
“I agree. Besides you must be exhausted already from your travels,” said Mellissa as she laid a hand on her brother’s shoulder.
“I am pretty tired,” agreed Jer. “Wake me an hour before we land. Now, which way to my bunk?”
“It’s right through here,” Steve said as he opened a door into a room adjoining the office they currently occupied. “I’ll see you back here in a few hours. Let the adventures begin!”
“Haha, first some sleep, then let the adventures begin!” Jer said closing the bunk door behind him.
A lone figure moved stealthily among the thick branches of a tall tree. The fog, combined with his dark clothing, made it child’s play to remain undetected to those below. But he was not focused on those below him for the moment. He was concentrating on climbing towards a thick branch above him that was at the appropriate height. When he was on top of the right branch, he stepped carefully along it, moving away from the trunk of the tree. Having moved as far as he dared, he squatted with perfect balance, watching the situation below.
About ten soldiers were guarding a single prisoner. At first glance, the prisoner looked harmless. He was an old man, with a grey beard speckled with white. He stood with his back towards the tree, a solemn look on his wrinkled face, and his hands tied in front of him. However, a closer examination would reveal that this old man was remarkably fit for his age. He also was dressed in dark, tight fitting clothes and soldiers’ boots. In various places, thick leather and steel armor plates were sown onto his peculiar clothing. The most telling piece of evidence was his eyes. Green, and fearless. It was plain to see that this man had seen many battles… and had emerged victorious from all of them.
Perhaps it was the old man’s quiet confidence and courage that made the ten soldiers around him both nervous and alert. The soldiers themselves were a varied group. A few were dwarves, armed with short swords and leather armor. Others were men, who sported heavy war spears and steel armor. One of the soldiers was a massive Minotaur, towering at seven feet tall. The Minotaur, who carried a huge battle axe, wore no armor; however, it was obvious it didn’t need any extra protection. The Minotaur is a tall, powerful beast that resembled a bull, except it walked upright like a man. Its body was covered with thick hair that offered it substantial protection in battle.
The final soldier was a man in an impressive red cape and cap. Standing with a clear air of authority, he carried a long musket tipped with a bayonet. Like the other human soldiers, he wore steel armor. He looked to be in his thirties, and had a dark brown beard to match his brown eyes. Without a doubt, he was the commander of this force.
The figure in the tree, high above, took stock of the situation. Realizing that the time was right, he looked to a tree opposite of him, where another dark clothed figure also waited in a high branch. He slowly raised his right hand to the other figure, waiting for a response. The other figure raised a hand as well, signaling that all was in place. The first figure nodded to himself.
“She gave me the signal,” he thought. “That means she has attached the device to the old man… and remained undetected by the soldiers. Excellent. Now it’s up to me.” He slowly pulled out a long rope from his small pack, tightly secured to his back. He tied one end of the rope into a noose, and attached a small, steel weight to the noose. Then he looked down at the old man. “The device she attached will keep him from any real harm. The time is now.”
Without hesitation, he threw the rope down, noose first, towards the old man’s head. The steel weight assured that the noose would fly straight and true. He had executed this move many times, and he did not fail this time either. The noose landed around the old man’s neck, and the steel weight tapped lightly against his chest. The old man responded with catlike speed. He raised his tied hands over and behind his head. There was enough slack in the rope, from the tree above, for him accomplish the movement. The old man grasped a hook on the device attached to his back, and connected it to the noose around his neck. Then he raised his hand. The entire maneuver had taken less than two heartbeats.
Hardly waiting a second, the tree climbing figure jumped from his perch on the thick branch, holding tight to the other end of the rope. As gravity propelled him towards the ground, the rope – which was still wrapped around the branch – pulled taut. Like a bizarre pulley, the figure flew down towards the soldiers, while the old man was pulled high into the tree. The old man smiled as he sped upwards, having absolutely no difficulty breathing at all.
As the figure hit the ground hard, he drove the other end of rope – which had a stake attached to it – into the ground. This ensured that the old man would stay safe high in the trees while he did his work. Now that the figure had landed in the clearing with the soldiers, it was easy to see that the figure was dressed almost exactly the same as the old man. However, the strange figure wore clothing of a dark blue color, as opposed to the old man’s black color scheme. Another exception was that the figure wore a hood and mask that identified him as a soldier belonging to an order of legendary proportions: The Royal Ninja.
The young ninja now found himself among several soldiers, outnumbered and hopelessly outmatched… or so it seemed. The Minotaur was the first to react. It yelled a guttural war cry, and rushed towards the ninja. The ninja merely pointed his arm at the oncoming monster. A second later, a faint hiss could be heard. Then the Minotaur stopped immediately, and fell to the ground, unconscious.
The rest of the soldiers were too stunned to move for a few moments. That impasse gave the young ninja time to pull out his weapon, something that looked like a sword at the hilt. However, the blade had been replaced by a long, blunt steel rod. Essentially, it was a blunt katana sword. Finally, a human soldier recovered and rushed forward. The soldier thrust his war spear forward towards the ninja’s chest. The ninja reacted swiftly, sidestepping to the side and grabbing the spear with the vice like grip of his left hand. At the same time, he used his free hand to swing his weapon hard into the soldier’s helmet, knocking the soldier unconscious instantly.
Almost as soon as the soldier went down, two dwarves attacked from the ninja’s side. The dwarf on the left thrust his sword low, while the other dwarf delivered an overhand blow. The ninja turned quickly to meet the oncoming blows. He swung his armored forearm around to deflect the left dwarf’s sword. Simultaneously, he brought his weapon up to block the right dwarf’s attack. With both attack’s halted, the ninja kicked hard into the right dwarf’s chest, sending it reeling back. The left dwarf tried a wide slice, but the ninja quickly parried with his weapon. With blinding speed, the ninja then proceeded to use his left arm to deliver a quick punch into the dwarf’s gut, knocking the air out of him and causing him to drop his sword.
“Two down, eight to go. Those dwarves won’t stay stunned for long,” the young ninja thought. A human soldier swung his war spear in a wide arc towards the ninja’s head. He avoided the blow by ducking and rolling past the soldier. Meeting no resistance, the soldier lurched forward, off-balance. The ninja took the opportunity to hit the soldier in the unprotected back of his knees with his blunt weapon. The soldier screamed and fell to his knees in pain. The ninja ended the soldier’s potential threat by hitting him hard in the head with his weapon, rendering him unconscious.
Looking up, the young ninja saw the commander in the red cape level his musket towards him. Reacting quickly, he deftly pulled a folded steel plate from his backpack and swung it hard in front of him. The action caused the steel plate to unfold rapidly like an umbrella. The steel plate was now much larger, creating a shield in front of the ninja. The move was just in time, as the commander’s bullet hit the shield a heartbeat later.
Dropping the shield, the ninja picked up his weapon, sheathed it, and ran towards the commander. A boulder stood in between the ninja and his target. He ran forward, jumped onto the boulder, and used it as a stepping stool to jump even higher. The commander was busy reloading his weapon and didn’t notice until it was too late that the ninja was landing on top of him. When he landed, he used the power of his momentum to land a hard punch into the commander’s temple. The commander fell unconscious immediately.
Sensing a presence behind him, the ninja drew his weapon again and turned on his heel sharply. Seeing a war spear speeding towards his head, he brought his weapon up to block it. The two weapons met with a resounding crash. Another human soldier and a dwarf approached from behind him. The young ninja dove to the side and rolled. Before he could reach his feet, a dwarf thrust his sword towards him. But before the dwarf could finish the move, a familiar hiss could be heard, followed by a soft sound of impact. The dwarf’s eyes dimmed as it fell to the ground, motionless.
The ninja stood up to see himself surrounded by two humans and two more dwarfs. The ninja took a brief moment to breathe, and then ran towards his attackers. A human soldier swung his war spear towards his target. The ninja blocked it, and then disengaged his weapon to parry another blow from the second human just in time. Keeping his weapon locked with his enemy’s, the ninja spun around so that he was positioned behind his adversary. He then kicked the human soldier hard in the back of the knees. As the soldier went down in pain, the ninja hit hard in the head, knocking him unconscious.
Wasting no time, he shoulder-charged the nearest dwarf and then spun around to strike the other dwarf in the head with his weapon. As the first dwarf started to get up, the ninja hit him hard, as well. The dwarf sank to the ground to join his comrade in unconsciousness.
Only the human soldier remained. The rest of the soldiers lay still on the ground around him. The soldier simply dropped his weapon and ran away, deep into the forest.
Now that the fight was over, the young ninja yelled out, “Heather! You can come out now!”
The other figure waiting in the tree jumped from her vantage point and rolled upon landing to lessen the impact. She was arrayed similarly to the other young ninja, wearing clothing of a dark reddish-brown color. She walked towards the young ninja and pulled off her ninja hood, revealing her face. She had green eyes and dark, blonde hair that was tied in a bun at the moment. She had a slightly mischievous smile on her face, like that of a child winning at her favorite game.
She said, “Thirty-two seconds, Brandon. You’re getting slower. Especially since there were only ten soldiers with only one firearm.”
The young ninja, Brandon, also pulled off his ninja hood. He had blue eyes, but shared Heather’s dark blonde hair. He had a slightly more serious look on his face, but his eyes betrayed his true feelings. “I would have been quicker if you had felled more with your blowpipe. Seriously, now. Only three? Thirty-two seconds was plenty of time for more.”
Heather’s smiled in mock incredulity, “And let me do all of the work? Nice try. Besides, you need the exercise. I’m sure you’ve gained three pounds in the last week. And I don’t mean three pounds of muscle.”
Brandon smirked. “And who has been cooking the sweet cakes all last week? You and I both know that neither I nor Master Randor can cook such enticing delicacies as you can.”
A new voice interrupted their banter. “If you’re done criticizing one another, would one of you mind getting me down from here?”
The two young ninjas looked up at the old man, still hanging in the tree. Brandon couldn’t help smiling. “Of course, Master Randor. My sister and I were just finishing anyway.”
Randor sniffed in mock disdain. “I should hope so. You are among the most skilled warriors in the land, and you still bicker like children after every battle. And just because Heather attached the system of ropes and pulleys to keep me from suffocating, it doesn’t mean that this position isn’t uncomfortable.”
Randor’s displeasure, however, wasn’t entirely sincere. In truth, he was quite proud of his two apprentices. He knew that neutralizing nine enemies was no small feat for anyone, much less two teenagers still learning the skills of a ninja. And he also knew that Brandon and Heather were only bickering to calm themselves after such an intense fight.
As she moved to climb the tree, Heather commented, “You did volunteer to allow yourself to be captured.”
Randor shook his head. “That doesn’t mean I volunteered to remain up here like a plucked chicken any longer than I have to.” Then he turned his head towards Brandon. “Brandon! Do you have the musket?”
Brandon was already moving towards the unconscious form of the commander. He replied, “Going now, sir. I must say, however, I still don’t understand why we need it. I thought the Code of the Ninja stressed nonlethal tactics whenever possible and reasonable?”
Randor spoke as Heather began to cut the rope. “Indeed, that is true. But there is a war coming. Some may deny it, but it is inevitable. The time when such measures are necessary will come whether we want it to or not. And we must make sure our Kingdom receives all of the advantages we can supply it. Besides, there are aspects of the musket that can be used for purposes other than war.”
The rope was cut completely, and Randor fell quickly. But he was expecting it, so he rolled upon landing, making it look easy. Without changing his conversational tone of voice, Randor continued, “As of now, only our enemies hold the secret of powder and shot. It is now time to even the odds. This musket was indeed a great find.”
Brandon tied the musket to his back straps and walked back towards Randor and Heather, who had just jumped from the tree as well. He said, “What now, Master Randor? Do we return to the training grounds?”
Randor nodded. “Indeed. And we must hurry for two reasons. Firstly, those soldiers you knocked out will not stay unconscious forever. And neither will those who fell to Heather’s sleepy darts.”
Heather queried, “And what is the second reason?”
Randor motioned for them to follow him quickly, and they all began to run through the forest. Only when they were a sufficient distance from the soldiers did Randor answer Heather’s question. “The second reason is that we are only going to the training grounds to pack for a journey. A journey that must begin as soon as possible. We are going to the Royal Castle in the capital city of Gaztelua… to see King Robert himself.”
If one were to look at the contents of Heather’s backpack, that person would be hard pressed to guess her trade. For instance, there were several small glass vials packed neatly inside. These vials, in fact, held various chemical liquids – all designed for different purposes. Some of them induced a state of unconsciousness, which she used to coat her blowpipe darts. Others caused stomach aches or other nonlethal ailments. Still others did the opposite, curing various common illnesses. The remaining vials carried basic chemicals that could be mixed to create new compounds.
Heather’s pack also carried a few notebooks. All of them were written in a unique code that only Royal Ninjas knew. One notebook carried the various recipes for mixing chemicals. Another carried a list of assets in various villages. While mixing chemical compounds was a skill all Royal Ninjas were expected to know (though Heather had greater skill in that regard than Brandon did), the second notebook showcased Heather’s unique abilities. She was a very likable person most people found it easy to converse with. Randor had noticed this early on. Consequently, she had, over the years, formed networks of people who supplied her with reliable information of the goings-on in the surrounding countryside. Heather kept a notebook that detailed who could be trusted and who could offer the most reliable information in each village they had visited.
The remaining notebooks would hold any information they gleaned that needed to be stored. The rest of the backpack held her weapons and tools, including her blowpipe, emergency knife, and lock-picking kit. As for the backpack itself, it was made of dark leather, so that it would blend into a ninja’s clothing and act as a form of armor. The backpack had to be tied securely and expertly with no loose parts, allowing the ninja to retain his or her speed and agility.
Brandon’s backpack carried less varied objects, which reflected Brandon’s own unique training. Although all ninjas were trained to fight if necessary, Randor had trained Brandon specifically in advanced combat techniques. Consequently, Brandon carried his emergency knife and blunt katana. He also carried the standard-issue lock-picking kit, and basic carpenter and blacksmith tools.
The carpenter tools were given to him by Randor because Brandon showed skillfulness in creating various gadgets. Randor recognized the advantage in being able to build new, useful tools when the situation demanded it. The blacksmith tools were also courtesy of Randor. He believed that Brandon should know how to build new weapons or repair his own should they become damaged. By now, Brandon was both a skilled carpenter and blacksmith.
When they had all finished packing, Randor led them outside to their horses. They mounted, and immediately began to ride west towards Gaztelua, the capital city of the kingdom. As they rode in silence, Randor reflected on his two apprentices, the twin sibling warriors.
He had begun training them when they were both 10, just six years prior. When he found them, Heather and Brandon were orphan pickpockets. Randor had been visiting a nearby village, investigating rumors of possible rebellion. He was walking through the marketplace when he noticed the two children easily plucking coins from several unaware peasants. Three things about these street urchins deeply impressed Randor. Firstly, both of the siblings moved quickly and silently, exhibiting the nascent skills of a Ninja. Secondly, each one looked out for the other. Randor had sensed a deep loyalty between the two that gave them confidence and assurance beyond their years.
The last and most important thing he noticed was the siblings’ choice of targets. Randor witnessed several incidents where one would begin to approach a possible victim, and then stop and turn away. He noticed that the abandoned targets included mothers with their children, crippled beggars, and the like. That sense of moral boundaries, no matter how small, resonated with Randor. Consequently, he sought the siblings out and took them in as his apprentices.
Randor’s choice of apprentices was by no means unusual. Ninja apprentices were recruited from a variety of places, from peasant villages to barons’ castles. The Royal Ninja operated quite differently than the rest of the Kingdom’s military. The Ninja did not have a central headquarters or a formal ranking system. These warriors consisted of Ninja Masters who each set up their own outpost in a certain area of the Kingdom. From these outposts, these Masters kept watch and guarded the surrounding villages. Unlike the rest of the military, the Royal Ninja rarely visited the capital city, only arriving annually to give an account of their actions to the king himself.
Randor shivered slightly as the wind rushed through the forest, signaling the coming of winter. He was glad that they began their journey so soon. The snow that would come in a few weeks would have certainly slowed their progress.
Upon thinking of their destination, Randor said to his two apprentices, “Remember, make no mention of the weapon we stole from the enemy until we see the king. We need to remain as unnoticeable as possible for as long as possible. Ideally, I would like for no one to know we are in the capital city until we reach the Royal Castle.”
Brandon caught Heather’s attention and they both smiled as they both had the same thought. But Randor noticed the gesture from the corner of his eyes and could tell what they were thinking. He said, “And try not to use the Royal Castle as your personal playground. I know that the high, intricate walls will be tempting, but we must show some respect. It is the Royal Residence, after all.”
Both of them lost their smiles immediately. “Yes, Master Randor,” they said together. They both knew what he meant. As Royal Ninja, they were very skilled in climbing and running on all manner of surfaces. For the two young trainees, the higher the surface, the better. They had both been contemplating what it would be like to practice their skills of speed and agility on an entire castle.
Sensing their disappointment, Randor said mysteriously, “Of course, a Ninja must always find new opportunities to further hone his or her skills.”
Brandon looked up at that statement. He said slowly, “You mean, you will allow us to climb the…”
Randor answered, “Yes, but only when I say so. The king is familiar with my teaching methods. He will understand. Besides, the castle is not the only ‘playground’ for a Ninja. The city itself will hold many challenges and mysteries to keep you occupied for the full extent of our visit.”
Heather looked to Brandon and smiled in eagerness. Brandon grinned back, trying to keep his own excitement in check.
Fight for Ardenia
Terror surged through Wren’s body. One last shot of adrenaline provided him with the strength to lift his body back up on to the top of wall. He surveyed in horror the impending doom that was the destruction of Belfield. Thunderous noise filled the air as the ground ripped apart and walls of the city crumbled into the ground. Shrieks and cries filled the air as building began to sink into the ground in a cloud of dust and fire.
How is this happening? What power do the dwarves possess that could suck a whole city into the ground? Wren’s mind was filled with confusion, dread and sadness as he realized that his questions would go unanswered. He could only hope that they would not be forgotten.
Rodwen lifted her weary head to survey her new surroundings. The room was dark and damp almost as if the room itself was trying to repel moonlight that was seeping in through the heavy brocade curtains. The cold air pierced through her thin frock as yet another shiver shot through her body. Her tired stiff arms pushed her slight body up on the monstrous four poster bed. As she crept to the edge of the bed, she realized she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Reaching a bare toe to the floor, she was relieved to discover that the floor was covered with dark mahogany wood instead of stone. She started to take timid steps towards the washbasin as she wrapped her arms tightly about her body in a feeble attempt to block out the cold. As she took another step one of the floorboards moved and groaned in an unusual manner, giving her pause. She pushed on the board with her bare toe discovering it to be quite loose. Rodwen quickly knelt down, working her fingers underneath the edge of the board and prying it up. A tiny piece of folded paper lay beneath it. “What could this be?” She thought to herself, but she had no time to read it before the door burst open.
“I suppose I should welcome you to my home but we both know welcome probably isn’t the best word for this situation.”
Rodwen’s eyes met the dark skinned man’s gaze evenly, as she gained her composure and crumpled up the paper she had found tightly in her fist.
“You call this a welcome, Cordon!” her voice rang out strong and firm yet with complete control. “Coming with the Red Guard under cloak of night to bring me somewhat forcedly to this dingy place.” She made a rather large sweeping gesture for effect with her free hand.
“I would appreciate it if you showed me a little respect in front of my men.” He exclaimed, a little taken aback by her commanding presence.
“Oh, I understand, Prince Cordon,” Rodwen replied evenly. “Then I must insist that you treat me as a royal guest and address me by my proper name, the Lady Rodwen, Mistress of the Emerald Lake, heir to the Elven throne. But enough of these so-called pleasantries, I demand to know why you have brought me in such a manner and by whose order. Surely my father did not agree to this.” There was a hint of hesitation in her voice.
The tension in the room was palpable as they stood staring at each other.
Cordon took a step closer to Rodwen.
“In an attempt to create some good will,” Cordon now spoke in a softer, gentler tone,
“forgive me, my lady, for my abruptness. My nerves are a little raw tonight, leading me to make some impulsive decisions regarding your care.”
He was now standing so close that she could feel his breath on her face. He caught her eye with a long, meaningful look.
“Dwarves,” she said, in almost a whisper.
He merely nodded.
“Listen to me very carefully, my lady. There is much to discuss, but now is not the time and this is not the place.” He held her gaze for moment, then dropped his eyes quickly and intently to the loose floor board beneath her foot.
“I will bid you farewell, for now,” he added, gently and cautiously.
Prince Cordon turned quickly and followed his men from the room in a flurry of red cloaks.
Rodwen walked to the door, watching them disappear into the dark stone hall.
What dismal places humans build, she thought. How am I ever to learn to live here, much less love that infernal man? But she knew the treaty formed by their father’s was unbreakable. She did not want to disappoint her father, and yet, considering how he had brought her here, she had every right to walk out that door and break their agreement, unless . . .
Could her father have had some part in this?
Her thoughts turned for a moment to her betrothed. Cordon was her polar opposite in looks with his dark smoky eyes and curly hair that was as black as the night surrounding them, and yet, there was something strangely peaceful and comforting about his presence. Rodwen blushed a little as she shocked herself with this thought.
The destruction of Belfield had only been the beginning of their suffering. Many of her elven friends has mysteriously disappeared without a trace. They had searched the realm for these missing elves without any success. Perhaps that is why her father had allowed the prince to take her in such a fashion. She knew that these desperate times called for unusual action, but at what cost? No elf had even been betrothed to a human, but then again, perhaps the kings were right in joining these two vastly different nations. After all, there was the prophecy. For over 2000 years, human and elf alike had contemplated the meaning of this prophecy which declared that there would be a time when the two nations must unite in order save the land. There were many different interpretations of what “unite” might mean, but the traditionalists believed it meant there must be an actual joining of bloodlines.
A draft blew through the room pulling her from her musings, and she shuddered, suddenly remembering the paper.
She opened up her tightly clenched fist to reveal the piece of crumpled paper. The following words were scrawled across the page.
There is a traitor among us. Meet me at the old red oak at dawn.
Prince Cordon stopped for a moment to catch his breath. He had never gone toe to toe with an elf quite like Rodwen. She was intoxicating with her long flowing silver white hair and piercing blue eyes. He had heard stories that their very presence held magical power, but he never experienced it in this way.
What must she think of him? She probably hated him, and he wouldn’t blame her if she did.
This was a difficult situation. After the terrifying destruction of Belfield and the disappearances of elves, it appeared as if the dwarves were gaining ground. In an attempt to keep their upper hand, the dwarf armies continued their attacks on outlying human towns and elven settlements. Then, alarming news had reached the two kings forcing them to join forces in an uncharacteristic manner. They had heard rumors that an enchantress from across the Raging Sea had come to Ardenia covertly, and now they had confirmation that the dwarves had aligned themselves with this mysterious woman. They did not possess much information about this woman, but they did know she was dangerous and powerful with her magic tied in some way to the elements. They could only imagine what she might do achieve her end game.
Furthermore, the dwarves seemed to have an uncanny amount of information about the locations and plans of the human and elf armies, leading the high ranking army officials to believe there was a traitor in their midst. The thought that one of his men might be a traitor saddened Cordon, leading to many sleepless nights.
When his father had first approached him with the plan to join the bloodlines, Cordon had been adamantly against it. While he respected his father, he felt that the King Thorrich was putting too much weight into the prophecy as if their marriage would save Ardenia. This had been the source of many heated arguments, but once the military generals had voiced their concerns of this possible traitor, Cordon began to change his thinking. With the uncertainty of not knowing who to trust, he felt strongly drawn to Rodwen as if he could share anything with her without fear.
The Elven King Aenor feared his daughter was an easy target while residing in their lovely, yet loosely fortified villa on the shores of the Emerald Lake. With their nuptials scheduled for the next blue moon which was quickly approaching, Aenor strongly suggested that Cordon come and take Lady Rodwen immediately to a secure location as secretly as possible for her protection. So the Prince had put together a small band of men he felt to be trustworthy (although there were lingering doubts) to procure Lady Rodwen.
The region of Ardenia where the elves resided was peculiarly lush and warm compared to the mountains where he resided. It was only a one day journey east, but as soon as one crossed the Tangy River, the air grew surprisingly warm. The large and gorgeous villa, nestled among century old trees along the bank of Emerald Lake, rose before them in the moonlight, beckoning them to approach. His eyes searched for the open balcony King Aenor had described, and upon its discovery, he alone approached the base of her turret, readying himself for the climb. He had determined that it would be best if he alone entered her chamber to steal her away. He justified his somewhat questionable manner of approach by telling himself it was for her safety.
As he stealthily entered her room, he made note of the vast difference in the way they lived. Her room was warm and soft with a heavenly glow created by draped pieces of golden chiffon and tulle. The room itself had an ethereal feeling that almost took his breath away.
He stood motionless for a moment longer, unsure of what to do next, as he stared at her lithe body lying upon a bed of plush pillows. Then, making that fatal rash decision, he strode purposefully toward her, picked her up, placing a hand over her mouth to silence her. He swung her over his shoulders and headed for the rope he had left hanging from the balcony.
Cordon’s thoughts lingered for a moment on her reaction to their covert operation acknowledging his severe lack in judgment and understanding of how she would respond and feel about this unknown invasion of her privacy and life. What a grave mistake he had made! Could he redeem himself?
From the moment, he had picked her up she began to fight him. When he placed his hand over her mouth, he did take a moment to look her in the eyes. Recognizing him, she stopped fighting, and instantly grew silent and limp. For the rest of their journey, she did not speak a single word until their encounter in her room at his palace.
Gwyn stormed into the dark and monstrous room, her anger casting a wide berth of destruction as even the very touch of her cloak held enough power to knock over a table. The dwarves scattered like mice in the shadows. The enchantress stopped within inches of the dwarf general, a sudden picture of serenity. She looked deep into his eyes, relishing the terror she saw there. Reaching out her long thin fingers toward his face, she caressed his jawline, and whispered in a sickly sweet voice,
“They have the elven princess.”
Then suddenly, with flick of her finger, the dwarf was hovering off the ground eye level with her, twitching and struggling to get down.
“How could you let this happen?! You know she is crucial to the implementation of our plan!” She shrieked.
And with that, she released her grip on the general and he crumpled in a heap on the cold stone floor.
“I cannot believe this” Evan muttered to himself. “How can life be normal one minute and the next minute you are tearing through a forest searching for something you thought was a game?” He was rapidly becoming more agitated. It was not just the searching that was making him upset; it was the events of the last few hours. “Calm down and think through it again.” He told himself. Evan stopped and thought back on this morning, hoping to find another clue about where to look.
~ He pictured himself calmly walking down the cobblestone street to Leona’s house for one of his frequent visits. Today was the first frost of autumn. He saw his breath puffing out from above his cloak. Just before things turned for the worse he thought: Leona sure was looking nervous the last time I visited. Her bright green eyes seemed to be darting from one window to another like she was expecting someone who would be unwelcome, to say the least. I wish she would tell me what is troubling her. Standing almost two houses away, he detected something was not right about Leona’s house. The table that usually held some of her hand crafted wares or flowers was turned unkindly on its side next to potted marigolds sitting on their heads. It was not something everyone would notice, but he did. Most people would think it was an accident caused by rowdy children or a rouge dog, but Evan knew her better. Leona never let anything stay out of its proper order. Not even one hair on her auburn head would dare to stray out of place.
He started into a sprint for the door. Deciding not to knock he twisted the handle and was surprised, finding how easily it opened. Normally the door would open to a quaint sitting area and fire place to the left and an open air kitchen space on the right. The sight that greeted him was alarming. A wooden chair looked as though it had been demolished by a solid smash against the wall. A bowl that normally contained fruit on the counter was in several pieces where it had fallen, not to mention the trampled contents of the bowl. A couch was readjusted to face the ceiling, and the breakfast table had lost two of its four legs it was last seen with. The room looked as though an all-out brawl had taken place.
Stunned, he just stood like a stone. It was not until he spied the note, written in a gruff hand, that he remembered how to move. It read:
To anyone looking for the owner of this house,
I regret to inform you that she is a highly dangerous criminal against the Rulers of the Air. She is a detainee of the powers afore mentioned on trial for the assisting of a sworn enemy and knowingly deceiving an officer. On these charges she was arrested and will be sentenced. May the Rulers of the Air ever reign.
“Rulers of the Air? Oh, sky pirates,” He hissed. Sky pirates were always looking for ways to gain power and wealth. Some groups would use their ships to plunder anyone or anything they could find. Unlike normal ships though, most pirates had been able to make their ships fly with great accuracy. The specific group of pirates that called themselves the Rulers of the Air was a classy bunch. Their main objective was obtaining positions of power in government. Very few had ever successfully accomplished this. Those who had were found out soon after the election and promptly recalled.
“What would sky pirates want with her?” He was unsure why she would be of any use to them. Nevertheless the letter sparked a memory of a conversation they had a week ago. She had been saying that if she ever went missing he could find her again from clues in the top drawer of her nightstand and “a place of peace.” He had thought it was a game or maybe a joke. At the time he hadn’t considered that she was serious. There was no doubt now that she was. Slightly baffled by all he had seen, he turned down the hall toward her room. In the top drawer of the night stand was a journal. The most recent entry, dated today, confirmed that the mess out there was fresh! At least he was not far off the scent. Flipping to the back pages of the journal, he found a map of the Forest of Peace and a sketch of a dagger depicting a removable handle and secret compartment. He dashed off in search of the dagger and a way to bring Leona back. ~
The memory of this morning gave him nothing more to go on. “I need another clue!” He said urgently. He pulled the journal out of the pocket of his cloak. Flipping to the back pages, he looked at the map again. It was mostly a rough overview of the Forest. A few trails were depicted as dotted lines. Shaded areas were meant to be trees. The darker the shading the thicker the trees grew together. He had looked at all this before. Wait, if he turned the page on a slight diagonal, one of the smallest darker shaded areas seemed to form the basic shape of a dagger! That was the clue he needed. Now, having a general sense of where he was going, he raced on.
The chilled, damp forest became more unsettling the deeper he went. The sounds were like that of wind through a cave, yet slightly more unearthly. It was about midday, but the dim surroundings didn’t seem to notice. The foggy, dimly lit forest was not helping his nerves, nor were the owls cooing their haunting tune. It was the type of place where one always feels like he is being followed. Evan spun around suddenly to check if his fears would be confirmed. Closely scanning every rock, bush, and tree he saw nothing but still could not shake the feeling.
Keeping his eyes alert for another clue, he continued on the trail until he found an unusual marking in the bark of a tree. It was in the shape of an arrow strung in its bow. He walked off the beaten path in the direction of the arrow. Just out of sight of the path is where he found the next marking in the shape of a dagger. He started digging with his hands in the dirt directly below the picture. A few inches under he paused for a rest. Just when he was about to start again a clammy hand brushed his cheek. He sharply Inhaled and grabbed hold of it. It came off! Opening his hand he found, “Just a leaf,” he said in disgust with his own fear. He continued digging. After a little more digging, his hands rubbed on something hard. He scraped away the dirt, revealing a wooden dagger box. He pulled up the box and brushed the dirt off of it.
A twig snapped behind him. He opened the box and pulled out the dagger, but before he could turn around, an arrow sunk into the tree just above his head. This time his fear was confirmed.
“Don’t turn around,” said the voice of a man, “that was a warning shot.”
Evan didn’t dare turn around, but he studied the arrow lodged in the bark. Where had he seen that kind of arrow before?
“What is your purpose here?” Said the voice unflinchingly.
“I came in search of a friend.” How much should he be telling this man?
“What is your friend’s name?”
Had he seen a sketch of this kind of arrow in Leona’s journal? And even if he had, did that suggest this would be a friendly person? He had to risk it.
“Her name’s Leona.”
“You may turn around,” the man said sternly.
In front of him stood a sizable, hooded figure. He stood taller than the average man with his arrow pulled back and aimed directly at Evan. His towering and fit form gave Evan the impression that this man was probably an elf. He seemed to be searching Evan’s eyes.
Looking surer of the boy he said, “My name is Calum. I am an elf from the Forest of Peace.”
“I am Evan, a close friend to Leona.”
“Can you prove this?”
Could he prove it? If he could, this elf would probably be on his side, and possibly make his quest easier. What was something that only a close friend would know?
“I have her journal, with a map to this dagger.”
“You could easily be a thief.”
Well, that hadn’t helped. What else would only a friend know?
“She is poet and a writer in her spare time, and her favorite thing to write about is love.”
The arrow lowered. The elf seemed to be contented with this answer.
“You know her well indeed to have that piece of information, but your friend is not here. Though, I see you have found her dagger. If you came in search of this, she must be missing. Tell me what has happened.”
Evan explained all he knew and handed Captain Arnold’s letter to Calum.
“Indeed, this is distressing.”
“But what would sky pirates want with her?”
Calum hesitated, then said,
“Open the handle of the dagger, and read the letter.”
After unrolling the letter, Evan read:
To all concerned with my wellbeing,
This is, more or less, a letter of confession. Not of a crime committed but a position I am honored to hold. For many years my family has been close friends to the elves of the Forest of Peace. Like the elves, my family and I are justice and peace loving people. Many times my father would gather evidence or go undercover for the sake of the elves’ peace keeping ways. I follow upon his noble footsteps. Though no country is actually run by pirates they have several small and concealed islands where many pirates will spend time. Several times I have gone disguised into these enemy friendly areas too.
Keeping the separate groups of pirates at war with each other has made our job easier. We have, so far, been able to keep them out of government positions of power. However, one place, named Carrion Island is beginning to unite them. Though I pray it never occurs, I do expect to be found out one day. Because of the sudden increase in danger, all potential targets must write letters similar to this one. If you wish to know anything more, please contact the elves and ask for Calum.
May love and justice endure forever,
“Apparently I have been tracked by the elf that I will need assistance from.”
“We elves have kept careful records of all pirates any of our representatives, like Leona, have communicated with. Chances are it was something she did recently that brought about her capture. Are you willing to attempt a rescue?”
“I must. I would be breaking everything I ever asked her to believe about me if I did not.”
As Evan did, he felt that this would be an event that would change his life forever.
The Age of the Ridirí Knights
The Black Shadows fought vigorously against the Ridirí to protect their homes. This ancient battle was known as the Great Defeat to the Black Shadows. Their legend was to conquer all kingdoms on the face of the planet, the universe. The king of the Black Shadows had hoped to change that legend.
The Black Shadows serve as slaves to the Ridirí. Their kingdom what was once the Shadow’s. They worked endlessly for the Black Shadows, women and children serving in the palace of the Ridirí. To the Shadows they were the “ash”, the black consuming smoke. An elite group of Black Shadows had escaped captivation in the day of destruction. They were the Secret Society. The Secret Society had a plan. A decade of enslavement was about to end.
The camp was loud with noise as the Secret Society prepared for their scheme to overthrow the Black shadows and reclaim their kingdom. The pounding of metal against metal echoed through the camp, bouncing off the trees in the forest, as the blacksmiths molded weapons. Argus, the leader of the Secret Society, sat in his tent overlooking the plans that had been made in the previous weeks. “Will the plan work?” He thought. He couldn’t afford to lose men again. This plan couldn’t and wouldn’t fail.
Thresh, his best warrior, walked though the flap of his tent. “My lord, they are all in position as planned. None have left camp since the preparations have begun. I believe this will be it.”
Argus noticed a look of comprehension and worry on the warriors face. What was he keeping from him? “Thresh, my friend, you look worried. What troubles you?”
“With all due respect my Lord this all seems too easy. The Ridirí never have their guard down. They have become too relaxed for my liking; something is brewing in the land. I sense it. “At that instant the rams’ horn, signaling danger rang out through the camp. Argus and Thresh exited the tent, capes flowing behind them.
“My King, Ridirí have been spotted on the horizon. It looks as if they plan to stay awhile.” Thresh and Argus climbed to the hill top at the edge of the forest and looked out upon the horizon and there they saw the unimaginable! A camp of Tents was being put up as if they meant to stand as guard to the Secret Societies’ camp.
“Thresh take your warriors and go take a look at that camp. Find out what they are up too, report back as soon as you can, “the king commanded.
“Yes, my lord. As you wish” he replied to the king,” You heard the king – move out warriors.”
Thresh crept up to the tent of the king of the Ridirí, Arshtin. Inside he could hear the “Head Nastiness”, as the Secret Society called him, discussing battle tactics vigorously with someone. His two best warriors sat crouched next to him. A nasty odor swept through the air and entered their nostrils. They began to gag at the putrid smell, a decaying body. One of the guards began to scream and yelp as insects bit his legs. The spies’ location was now compromised. Two Ridirí knights came up from behind them and grabbed them, dragging Thresh and his team into the tent. Once inside the tent, they were stripped of their weapons. Thresh’s eyes wandered around the space until finally landing on a body lying slumped over in the corner tied to a pole. Glarrissa. She had been missing since their last mission to their old kingdom when she had stopped to see her family. They hadn’t been able to escape during the day of destruction with the Secret Society. Glarrissa had gone to see them after the mission and never returned. Now Thresh knew why. The putrid smell, Thresh realized, was Arshtin, the Ridirí’s leader. The smell of death. “Was the leader dying?” Thresh wondered.
“I see Argus is still keeping a watchful eye of my every move. I do not appreciate my privacy being compromised. Tell me young warrior, what is your place among Argus’ Society? “Arshtin asked.
“I’m nothing more than a small squad leader of my two companions. My name is but a number to my Lord Argus.”
“Argus provides his lowly little squad leader with the greatest quality weapons?”
Thresh glanced at Glarrissa, “Argus takes care of his warriors. Leaders must be able to protect those who can’t protect themselves.”
“How did Arshtin know the name of a warrior in the Secret Society, his name?” Thresh thought. By the look in Arshtin eyes Thresh knew he would have to fight his way out of the situation, but when? “Take them away. I am done with these scum. “
“Where do you want us to take them, all mighty and powerful king?”
“Take them to the tent of weaponry. Put them to work. “
“Lord Argus, the spies have not returned. Shall we send more to the camp? “
“No, I have faith in Thresh and his squadron. They are capable of handling all situations. “
“As you wish, my Lord,” the warrior said as he bowed out of the tent.
Argus began looking over the plan he had devised if Thresh didn’t return soon. The previous plan would be a failure if the situation at hand wasn’t taken care of. The king had faith in his most skilled warrior, who was known for getting out of tough situations; however something told him that there was something really wrong. Thresh was key to the defeat of the Ridiri. Without him Argus would have to find a suitable replacement; A replacement that did not exist. No one could replace Thresh.
Thresh sat in the middle of the tent on a crate of weapon pieces. Surely Arshtin had placed them here for a reason. Arshtin was not a foolish leader, but why had he made such a foolish move? Thoughts began to whirl through Thresh’s mind, as he messed with the small patch of grass under his foot. Arshtin expected Thresh to take up the weaponry here and attack escaping with Glarrissa, showing his true position among the Secret Society. Take the weapons and kill everyone in the camp. Maybe even to just leave him in the confused state he was, in preventing him from discovering something important.
On the top of the warrior’s agenda was saving Glarrissa and of course getting out. However, if he escaped what would become of this camp of enemies? The Secret Societies location would be compromised, unless it already had been for surely they would be spotted. After contemplating his options for what felt like hours, Thresh had a plan. The cover of darkness would be on the side of the Secret Society that night. The Ridirí had horrible night vision. “Marx, Lithran, I have a plan. We are going to build ourselves some fireballs,” said Thresh.
Argus felt tension among the warriors throughout their camp as the sun began to set. With the blanket of darkness it felt as if their hopes of victory were being suffocated. Everyone knew the mission depended on Thresh to lead them into victory. The Secret Society had gathered for the evening banquet and eaten their fill of food. Argus stood as the last plate was removed.” As most of you know Thresh and his warriors have been gone for far too long. Thresh has been labeled the key to our success over the Ridirí. This maybe true, however we are a race of greatness and I know as your leader that we will find a way. We will go on with our plans to strike even if our spies do not return. I give them till sunset tomorrow. Sleep well my friends and be on alert. Good night.”
Thresh peered out of the tent flap and into the darkness looking for any guards around. Silence. He motioned to his two companions and slipped out of the tent. They split up and began placing the fireballs around the enemy camp. Marx and Lithran met up at the edge of camp facing the way back waiting for their leaders return.
A guard was keeping post at the entrance of Arshtin’s tent. Thresh crept up behind him and stabbed him with his sword before the guard knew what was going on. As he slumped to the ground the warrior dragged him into an empty tent. Arshtin looked peaceful as he slept, but yet, so evil. The warrior had decided to leave him so as to let him suffer, consumed by the coming flame. Glarrissa lay curled up on the floor, still tied to the pole. He bent down and cut her bindings, waking her. “Glarrissa,” he whispered, “Its time you came home.”
Glarrissa and Thresh rejoined Lithan and Marx at the edge of camp. As the group began their journey back the fire balls began to ignite. Sparks and large flames consumed the enemy camp turning the “ash” into ashes. Thresh’s plan had worked.
Argus awoke with a start as he smelled the smoke of the Secret Societies’ legendary fireballs. He got up and headed to the hill top. As he reached the top he began to smile, there along the horizon he saw his spies and Glarrissa. The members of the Secret Society cheered and shouted as the four warriors walked into the camp. The group stopped in front of Argus and took a knee with heads bowed. “Rise,” Argus said, “I am pleased to see you all safe.”
“We would not be here, my Lord, if it was not for Thresh,” Glarrissa said as Lithan and Marx agreed in unison.
“Thresh, then, has upheld his standard to protect those he is responsible for,” Argus said as he turned to the gathered warriors,” Welcome your warriors back. Let us feast in their names this morning.” The group was ushered into the banquet hall, all except Thresh who had slipped out of the crowd. He began walking towards his tent. As we walked through the array of tents, his mind began to wander to the events that had occurred and what lay ahead. When he reached his tent he entered and placed his armor back in its cabinet. He then changed into a silk shirt and pants with his simple red warriors cloak and his brown leather boots. Taking a quick glance around his living quarters he exited and headed to Argus’ tent and entered. “My Lord Argus…”
“Shouldn’t you be at the festivities Thresh?”
“Not with the upcoming battle I have crucial information to be discussed.”
“Very well, you may present you information.”
“As we both know the Ridiri have been highly advanced and over the years have become even more so. Recently they have made a discovery in something that I assume to be something from our ancestors. With the so called item, my lord, they have made a weapon of mass destruction. I believe their plans for this weapon is to destroy us and maybe this entire race. They no longer need servants. The entire planet is at risk.”
“This is devastating news Thresh. What do you suggest we do?”
“Argus, I plan to go along with our original plan. We send an elite fleet to destroy this weapon and take the item they discovered.”
“This is a risky plan. Are you sure this is the best option?”
“I will consider this new information. For now go and enjoy the feast. We will continue this conversation later.”
Thresh exited the tent and headed to join the warriors for a feast filled with joy, a feeling that would soon be forgotten. War was soon upon them and they had to be ready to win.
Somewhere, somewhen, lies the oldest city we have ever seen. We have seen every city man ever made—and many they didn’t—but this one is unique. Fascinated, we come close and hover above it, inspect it, try to understand.
This place is crumbling stones built on crumbling stones. Once, long ago, it was only a village, but it has grown. Grown, and grown, and grown, like a monster, like a disease. Now it sprawls, ten-million-legged, stretching reaching grasping, devouring lands and people and cities mindlessly, an omnivore with organs of broken rock. At its heart, looming and leering, stands the Silver Tower: an enormous, gleaming nail bursting from the earth in the center of the city. In some ways it might have been meant as torture. More truly, it is an anchor.
Nowhere, neverwhen, lies the oldest street man ever walked. Structures old as stardust, and older, crouch over the road. On their rooftops, gargoyles hunch like arthritic monsters, guarding the old road, teeth bared, eager. Ancient stone claws, hooked and curved to tear at flesh, still gleam after centuries of neglect, sharp as steel. The humans who walk this street have done it so long they don’t even look up anymore, to see and cower at the bloodthirsty grins.
But some do look up, and fancy for a moment the gargoyles aren’t simple statues. That they were not carved, but are simply sleeping. That, perhaps, if the right moment came and the right voice said the right words, they might come to life again.
Slowly we descend, push gently through the invisible ceiling we made for the humans when first they came here. Like the gargoyles and the walls and the blackened symbols burned into the keystones, we placed this here when the city was born, hoping to protect the sons of men from everything that could harm them. Or so we said to ourselves, when we created it…but perhaps we lied. It didn’t just keep the monsters away from man. It kept man away from us.
This most ancient street is pulsing with humans, twitching with life. From here, it is like an enormous, dirt-encrusted centipede lying on its back, all its spindly legs atwitter, helpless, useless, dying….
Of course. In true human fashion, they’ve turned the most ancient, most sacred road in history into a marketplace.
We touch the ground and make feet for ourselves, then legs, then bodies pale as mist. We walk, and as we walk we thicken, until we are visible to even the dullest eyes. We make hands for ourselves, quick, lively hands with long fingers. These new bodies look like our old ones did, though smaller, weaker, less real than we were before the Chiming. Too much truth would break the people beneath us. Ah, how the mortals have fallen.
Their eyes are weaker now, their hearing softened and their minds damp. The first time we visited this city, every one of them knew us with a simple glance. They could speak our tongue, then, and hear our words without cowering. Now they are mute and deaf, blind as sheep, too stupid to notice us walking out of thin air. They have forgotten…so much, they have forgotten.
In every direction, the humans hawk their wares, selling anything and everything. Clothing, food, swords, magics, bottled lightning, dreams and nightmares for the taking, and all the myriad wishes in between.
“Didn’t we teach them that?” we say to ourselves, as we watch a man make fire with a snap of his fingers. There’s no power in it, only falseness, only artifice.
“Once,” we reply. “Long ago. They were better back then. Fire is so…basic. We remember when they mastered light.”
“It is good that we remember. They don’t. Not anymore.”
With a simple thought, we wipe the fire out, and the man looks about helplessly. Unconcerned, we walk on.
At the end of the most ancient street, we finally find a structure that belongs. It is an artful thing, constructed of curved, finger-like spires and arches lined with gold. A cathedral, a temple: sacred ground. Images line the walls, carved in centuries long past: faces with multitudes of eyes and mouths, a winged flame, an amorphous void swallowing souls. True images, those of that which passed and which shall come to pass again.
“Why are we here?” we ask.
“The same reason we are anywhere,” we reply. “Our war.”
We walk to the corner of the cathedral and turn. Before us is a long, impenetrably dark alley lined with shadows thick as bear fur. We hear—although not with our ears—the soft sighs of a child’s breath, ragged and shallow, and light footsteps on the cobblestones. A young boy, hair crusted with soot, face streaked black, crawls out of the dark. It is impossible to tell how old he is, or even the color of his hair. His eyes are an unremarkable black, but they hide a gleaming cunning.
We kneel beside the boy and smile. The expression is a little unfamiliar—it has been centuries since last we used it—but the boy doesn’t care.
“Pennies for alms, mister?” He holds out a shivering, grimy hand.
“Not for alms, little one,” we say. “But we will give you something for your name.”
“Round here, they call me Ashes,” the boy says slowly, glittery eyes searching us for treachery. We look back at him, a level stare, and he continues, “But I was born Taliesin.”
“Taliesin,” we say, tasting the word, wondering, thinking, foreseeing. Finally, we kneel and touch the boy’s forelock with our thumb. He frights, skitters backward, and we stand, and smile. We conjure a brilliant gold coin from our thoughts and let it fall from our hand, then turn, walk away. The boy doesn’t waste a moment, swarming forward to grab the gold before it can vanish. He gnaws on it the way he’s seen the market men do, wondering whether faery gold tastes like real gold anyway, and decides it doesn’t matter because even faery gold buys food. He vanishes into the alleyway, swallowed by the dark.
We watch from a great distance. We have abandoned corporeality now; physical bodies are so very heavy. It is no wonder the humans cannot fly.
“What is he to us?” we ask, skeptical. “Why have we marked him?”
“As long as we have been, there has been war,” we answer, hopeful. “As long as there is war, there are armies. And every army needs a champion.”
We look at him again, consider, contemplate, then continue, “He is true. He is unbroken. He will stand before this city when the judgment comes, and, if there is any hope, he will prove us wrong.”
“The knot around the city is loosening,” we protest. “He will not be ready in time. You must choose another.”
“No,” we say. “He is precisely what we need.”
* * *
Beneath, in the oldest city man ever made, on the oldest street man ever walked, the boy called Ashes cowered in the soot and thought about what food he would buy with the magic gold the snowy man had given him. He thought about the strange, star-sparkle gaze the man had, and the peculiar chill of the gold in his fingers.
He did not think about the way his forehead had been burning for an hour, or how no one had wandered to his alley since the man left. Eventually, Ashes stumbled to his feet and crept out of his shadow-home.
A rich man passed, and instinctively Ashes shrank back. He let out a soft, “Gods save the Queen,” and dashed away, clutching the gold coin in his blackened hands. Clouds of dust exploded from his footfalls. Like spooked prey, little Taliesin vanished into the night.
And, quietly, patiently, the city slept.