In the Caverns of the Rock Lord

In the shadows, on a massive throne of obsidian sat a creature that looked as though it had been carved into a bloated, grotesque mockery of a human form. The Stonewights, his underlings, stood about him with axes and bent swords at the ready.

And the Stonewight who sat upon the obsidian throne was the greatest and cruelest in this clan. For this he had been elevated to the status of Rock-Lord.

He knew how to fashion the armor and weapons his guards presently carried—and out of his disobedient underlings, no less!  Any Stonewight who opposed him was held down by the Rock-Lord’s massive hands around his throat. And as they struggled against his grip, he would take a hammer, a pickaxe, or any other tool made for fashioning weapons, and begin to carve the underling into a new weapon for more loyal Stonewights.

Axes, swords, daggers, tongs, and instruments of torture, this Rock-Lord could fashion better than any other, and it was for this reason that all of his underlings feared him.

Presently, as the Rock Lord leaned forward his movements made a sound of crunching gravel that reverberated across the cave walls. Slowly, like the air was made of tar, he reached down to grasp the underling bound at his feet, who tried to utter pleas for mercy. Yet he had dared to speak against the Rock-Lord, and the Rock-Lord was not known to tolerate such insolence.

The Rock-Lord tightened his fist around the underling’s throat, raised a hammer overhead and pounded down.

The underling let out a pitiful howl, and the other Stonewights stirred at this.

After several minutes of this, one of the Stonewights approached, and, in a tongue full of harsh consonants and sounds from the back of the throat, asked, “Why do you do this? This underling was a trusted advisor. Is this truly necessary?”

The Rock-Lord did not reply, yet the longer his underling stood there, the heavier his hammer began to beat down upon the underling like the warning of a war drum.

The Stonewight thought it best to make an addendum to his question: “That is, should you wish to tell me. I would never question your authority.”

The Rock-Lord’s hand clasped even tighter around the underling’s throat. His hammering had wrought it into the shape of a curved sword. The underling was silent, now, save for the occasional pitiful groan of a dying creature.

The Rock-Lord still did not answer the Stonewight’s question. He did not look up, and when the weapon was finished, he felt a strange power surge through the lifeless underling and into his hand. He drew back, as though the newly-wrought weapon had turned red hot.

“My Lord?” The Stonewight said, “My Lord, what ails you?”

The Rock-Lord swatted the Stonewight away. “I have sensed a powerful presence. A presence one so lowly as you cannot feel through the stones of the land.” The Rock-Lord breathed heavily, for he knew that presence. He had been waiting for it for a long time. “And he is not far,” the Rock-Lord hissed. “Yet he has woven a powerful magic—strong enough to keep the Ever-Changing Land from shifting the area. I must drive him out, and back into these lands.”

“What man is this who wields the power to still the Ever-Changing Land? And why would you seek to bring him here?”

The Rock-Lord looked up to match the Stonewight’s stare. His hand tightened on his hammer with a sound like grinding boulders. He did not need to say a word to make the Stonewight cower. “Because I have met him before, and I am overdue for my vengeance.” He turned his gaze on the rest of the underlings. “Send word to the Traveling Dark—bring me Dyvian Gray.”

Dyvian Gray finished paying his debts to the local innkeeper, Phira. He bowed to her. “Thank you for allowing us to stay the night.”

“And thank you,” Phira said, tapping her foot impatiently, “For stilling our town.”

“You’re quite welcome—oh!” Dyvian reached into his purse and brought forth five more gold coins. “I hope this will pay for the damages. I apologize for the inconvenience.” The words had scarcely left his mouth before Phira snatched up the coins.

By inconveniences, Elegia knew he was referring to the gaping hole in the side of the inn.

Elegia, being only half Forest Spirit, had little to no control of her abilities. As a Forest Spirit, she could bend trees, roots and anything wrought from wood to her will. Yet she could only do this in the midst of a panic, or during other times her subconscious mind was allowed to take over.

Last night she had dreamed the branches outside her window had made a bed for her, woven out of its own wood.

That morning, she awoke to find herself cradled by that very same tree, and turned to see the wall of her room reduced to rubble. But Dyvian had told her not to worry. He would pay for the damages, same as always.

Elegia was a raggedy girl. In fact, she did not look like a girl at all. In her threadbare clothes it was plain to see she was a bit taller than most, with broad shoulders, and a freckled face with a flat nose. But what truly set her apart from other women was what was inside her trousers. Many told her that she was not a woman because of what was in her trousers, yet Elegia felt more like woman than a boy in all regards. She had the mind of her mother.

At least, that’s what Dyvian told her. Her mother had died when she was little, waylaid by highwaymen and used for firewood. Her father died of grief upon hearing the news, and Dyvian took her in a few days later.

They had been wandering ever since, for everyone knows that a Wizard never stays in one place for very long. They are always contracted to still the Ever-Changing Land for human settlements.

Elegia had just finished packing her travel sack when Phira furrowed her brow at the Half-Breed. “Well,” she said, tapping her foot. “Are you leaving my inn or not?”

Dyvian open his mouth, ready to assuage her anger, but before he could speak, a knock pounded against the door.

Elegia scrambled for the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stranger, but the moment she put her face against the glass, darkness began to spread across the outside world like frost on the windowpanes during a snowy morning. The outside world went black. She ducked beneath a table, perspiration collected on her forehead like dust to a cabinet.

“Don’t open the door,” she said to Phira. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Phira looked at her, her pupils dilated and her face red, sweaty and piggish. It was though the unnatural darkness spread a fear that permeated throughout the room. “I don’t plan to,” she said, hoarsely.

Elegia noticed that Dyvian was studying the windows. He seemed to be the only one who could do so without being overcome by fear. Yet a rivulet of sweat ran down his temple. “Damn it all,” he muttered. “I never thought they’d get out of the caverns.”

“What’s going on?” Elegia whispered.

“We’re being hunted by three siblings,” he explained. “They are called the Traveling Dark.”

The knock resounded again, this time the door rattled. “Let us in,” a breathy voice like wind on the windows. “We are three weary travelers who seek food and shelter. Will you not show kindness to a stranger?”

“Don’t let them in,” Dyvian said to Phira. He came towards her, towering over the woman. His lean, gaunt face reminded Elegia of the goblins she’d read of in storybooks. “Look away from the walls and do not heed their voices. It is wind on the windows. Nothing more.”

The creatures continued to speak, and Elegia closed her eyes and told herself that is was just the wind.

“Why do you help me?” Phira asked, “What do you want? What—” but the sorcerer cut her off.

“Have no fear. These things do not come for you.”

“Then why are they here?”

“Excuse me,” Elegia interrupted, consciously tuning out the dark presence all around them. “But what do we do?”

“Hush, child. I’m thinking.”

“Now is not the time for thinking!” Elegia hissed in a strangled attempt to shout.

“Of course. You’re right,” Dyvian said. “Forgive me.” He turned to face Phira. “You are safe. This I swear.” He took her by the shoulders. “Which makes what I have to do all the worse.”

“What—?” was the only word Phira could utter before Dyvian pressed his lips to her ear and whispered something that Elegia could not hear. Phira collapsed, and Dyvian lowered her gently to the ground.

“What have you done?” Elegia whispered.

“A small magic. She is safe from the Dark for now, at the expense of her consciousness. Now follow me—out the back door.”

Elegia did so, following him through the kitchens, where Dyvian picked up a boiling pot of water. He braced his hand on the doorknob. “When I open this door, you run. Do you understand me? Do not falter and whatever you do, do not look back. Have I made myself clear?”

Elegia nodded, and Dyvian flung the door open, throwing the boiling water into the air in the same motion. He ushered her out in front of him. “Go! Go!

The empty pot clattered to the ground, and something sounded that was either a hiss or the rustling leaves.

Away from stilled lands they ran; into the Ever-Changing Land did they went, cloaks trailing behind them. Elegia felt three presences chasing them, like the echoes of one’s footsteps in the dead of night.

Only now the offbeat footfalls of their pursuers felt more like three destriers breathing down the back of her neck.

Beyond them lay a valley, and beyond that, a forest. Elegia felt a tug on the hood of her cloak and for a moment thought the Traveling Dark had caught her. But when she turned to look she saw Dyvian, who righted her off the path.

“Where are we going?” Elegia asked through heavy breaths. “You’ve taken us off the path!”

“Taking a path is the best way to ensure your own capture. You cannot follow a steady route to your destination. Not with creatures like this at your back. And especially not when the land itself is not linear.”

Elegia felt pinpricks in her side, and fought to keep running. “How much longer?” she shrieked.

“As long as it takes. Think not of what is chasing you. Only the road ahead.”

“Or lack thereof.”

They duo crested a stony hill, cloaks snapping like war banners. Dyvian urged her down towards a ravine laced with gullies. They kicked up explosions of water as they ran through the stream.

Laughter chased them.

“You cannot escape us,” another voice said. A second one, like horses galloping along the gullies. “Surrender to us, sorcerer, and we will spare your friend.”

Elegia pushed herself to go faster, so that her legs were numb and moving of their own accord. On the edge of the ravine was a sparse forest. As they drew near it, Dyvian used her hood as though it was a horse’s reins. “Stay where you are, child,” Dyvian said. “I will not let them harm you.”

The Wizard straightened sauntered back toward the ravine. Three trails of black, cylindrical smoke raced overhead, swirled above Dyvian and then crashed to the ground, where the smoke curled away.

Beneath it were three figures that were not figures. They were part of the darkness that surrounded them, and did not seem entirely there. Elegia only caught glimpses of their visage when they moved.

A third voice spoke in a voice like the craw of a far off raven. “Give into us, and we will spare the Half-Breed.”

Dyvian reached beneath the folds of his cloak and drew a gleaming sword. He leveled his blade at the darkness. “You are liars, all three of you. I know your true purpose. Leave this place. This will be your final warning.”

The second voice spoke again. “You burned me—”

“You had to take form to attack. Do not fault me for taking an opportunity when I see one. You of all creatures must respect that.”

“I was willing to let this slight pass, if you surrendered. It will now be punished.”

The Darkness drew their blades with a sound like shrieking wind. Their sword strokes came swift; Dyvian looked like he was parrying lightning. Every time his blade met his foe’s, Elegia caught glimpses of an image in solid form, yet it vanished too fast to mark anything about it.

Two rows of black smoke circled Dyvian as he fought his opponent. He stumbled back through mud and muck, using sword to block the Darkness’s attacks. The circles of black smoke kept him confined.

“Yield, and I shall let you live,” the second voice said.

“Leave this place!” Dyvian shouted. “This is not your ground. You are in no place to make deals.”

The Darkness leapt forward, forcing Dyvian back. Explosions of water kicked up from what few gullies remained in the clearing.

All three voices spoke as one. “You dare to claim what ground is and is not ours? You will die for this!” They struck, sending sparks skittering off Dyvian’s blade.

And all at once, Dyvian was defending himself from three sword strokes—three bolts of lightning-that-was-not-lightning. “Bravado is easily uttered,” he said, “But you will find it hard to proof.”

He did not attack this time, he merely parried blow after blow. Sparks flew from his sword, and he shouted a spell that sounded mostly of vowels. Upon utterance, the sparks on his blade turned to lightning and crashed down behind Elegia, who threw herself to the ground, and when she turned, she saw a tree hewn in half at the middle, its branches on fire.

“Defend yourself!” Dyvian shouted.

“Take the Half-Breed!” the second voice commanded, and the Darkness pulsed at Elegia. “Take him!”

Two clouds of darkness flew over Dyvian, who was too busy defending himself from the second sibling to assist Elegia.

Elegia was acutely aware of her own trembling. “Back off, you!” she shouted.

The third voice spoke, patiently. “My quarrel is not with you. Stand down, and you will not be harmed, boy.”

“Don’t you call me that!” Elegia shouted. “Don’t you call me a boy!” She lunged at the darkness, which passed through her as easily as fog. She crumpled to the ground.

They closed in on her. She backed away on all fours until she hit the hewn tree. They were almost upon her when she outthrust an open palm. She closed her eyes and awaited their killing stroke.

To her surprise, nothing came. She opened her eyes to see the Darkness was reeling back from a coil of fiery wood that had lashed out from the burning tree. The Darkness retreated, screeching.

She snapped a branch from the tree and swung as the Darkness, and daylight peeked through what might’ve been their torsos. The Darkness shrank back, ready to retreat.

She was dimly aware of the second voice speaking. “My siblings. What have you done to my siblings? It lashed out three more times, and then the darkness receded like a wave sinking back into the ocean.

Dyvian sheathed his blade beneath the folds of his cloak. Elegia noticed he had been wounded. The Wizard had been cut along his torso and left arm, though the lacerations bore no deep gashes, the way Dyvian moved suggested it stung. He looked at her with a face as blank as stone.

Elegia dropped the flaming stick. “Did I kill them?”

Dyvian shook his head. Between labored breaths he said, “Can light kill darkness? No, it only scatters it. You have wounded them, and that shall serve. This way, child.” He pointed to the sparse forest. “We have to move before the land shifts.”

“The land is shifting? Why so soon?”

“All I can say is that it is due to sorcery of the master to the Traveling Dark.”

“Why would a sorcerer force the land to shift? It does that of its own accord. And what happens when a shift is forced?”

Dyvian did not answer.

Elegia gave in to her the Wizard’s silence, and walked with him. Weariness made her muscles awkward, as though there were lead in her kneecaps. She followed him as if the coercion of his willpower dragged her forward.

As they traveled, she became an expert on Dyvian’s back. He never compromised, nor slouched to admit a doubt about his authority. Her walking became rhythmic, after a while

“Will you answer my question?” she asked.

“No.”

The absence of emotion in his denial spread a contortion across Elegia’s face. Yet Dyvian’s back compelled her like an ultimatum: keep moving or die; I permit no other alternatives. He stalked ahead of her like a silhouette walking through a nightmare.

She was so consumed by her thoughts that she did not notice Dyvian stop. She thudded into his back and fell to the forest floor. He scanned the horizon as Elegia pulled herself to her feet.

“Elegia,” Dyvian said, “Do you want your question answered?” When he finished speaking, there was a rumble in the distance. She scanned the horizon behind her. Trees toppled and then disappeared, as though the ground had swallowed them up.

“Is this your doing?” she asked.

“Do you want your questions answered?” he asked again.

“Yes.”

“Then I’d like to ask a favor.”

“What’s that?”

“Run!”

And she did.

Thick trees snapped at their ankles like breaking bones. Stones emerged all around them, jagged, like the teeth to the gaping maw of giant rising from the ground.

“You’re not running fast enough.” Dyvian growled. “Do you want to know why this is happening? Do you want to know about the Traveling Dark? Do you?”

“I do!”

“Then run, Elegia!”

Dyvian’s seized the hood of her cloak and hauled her out of the woods. He followed close behind; twisting so that his back felt the brunt of the impact.

When Elegia looked back, there was a mountain in place of a forest. It rose from the ground, breaking trees as it did so. What few did survive dotted the precipices. “The shifts,” she said, “They’ve never been that dangerous.”

“That is so,” Dyvian said, through labored breaths. It was the first sign of fatigue that the sorcerer had shown. “Not to worry. The land shall right itself in good time. As for your questions—we are being hunted.

“No, that is not right. I am being hunted by a creature I once knew long before I met your mother, and longer still before I took you in. He is known as Grold the Rock-Lord. When I first met him, he could track anyone as long as they walked along the stones of the land. He was powerful, and began to conquer the Ever-Changing Land so that it was stilled into nothing bought rock and stone. Other clans still do this, but they know by example that there are consequences for conquering in excess.

“I sought to right Grold’s reckless march across the Ever-Changing Land. Our encounter reduced his power to a fraction of what it once was, and I cast him and his followers into the deepest caverns below the Ever-Changing Lands. This included the Traveling Dark.

“It would seem the Ever-Changing Lands has brought those caverns close enough for him to find me, even in his weakened state.”

“Then let’s go,” Elegia said, “We have to keep moving until we find this Rock-Lord, right? Either that, or he keeps chasing us until…” Elegia did not like the end of that thought.

Dyvian nodded, “That is so.”

So the two continued onward. They came down a winding path as the sun was setting.

As they wound down the path. She noticed the fields of grass opposite the road looming taller and taller. She looked to Dyvian for some kind of warning, but the Wizard did not seem to notice. The ground rose on either side as if it were about to swallow them. She wiped a sheen of sweat from her brow and prepared herself for the worst.

And then the land stopped. “Dyvian?”

“What is it this time?”

“We’re in a gorge.”

“I noticed.”

“But we’re not going downhill.”

“The land is changing.”

There was a rumbling in the distance, but Elegia could not see what caused it over the depths of the gorge. All she saw was a cloud of smoke rising into the air as though from a giant’s hearth.

The road had widened, and they were walking through a large basin now. “What was that?”

“A mountain just crumbled,” Dyvian said, matter-of-factly.

“Oh.” And after a span of three heartbeats, they crested the gorge and came to a marsh, cut in half by a twisting file of wet, compact sand.

Mist curled about pools of muck and water. Elegia followed Dyvian down the sandy path that kept them above the murky waters.

And then he stopped abruptly, so that Elegia almost rammed into him.

He caught Elegia by the shirt before she could fall on her back. “Tread carefully. The Mudwights just won a battle against Icewights for the rights to this section of the Ever-Changing Land.” He peered through the marsh. “This may mean trouble.”

“Mudwights?”

“That would be us, dear boy.” It was a voice from behind her.

Elegia turned to see a group of six creatures crawling from the muck and onto the path. They looked vaguely like humans, if humans were made of dirt and mud.

“The dirt-men,” Dyvian explained. Elegia saw the truth of this. As their leader advanced on them, she saw mud slough off of his jaw, and the dirt of his shoulder crawled up his neck to patch the gap.

“I will admit we are not the best with names,” their leader said. “Mudwight makes us sound like a cruel, sadistic people.”

“A fitting warning, then.” Dyvian said.

“You little—” their leader smacked Elegia aside, and his fist exploded into clumps of dirt. Elegia fell, and the mud crawled off her cheek like a thousand tiny worms, inching their way toward the leader’s wrist. She sat in the mud and as the leader seized Dyvian by his collar and pulled him close. “I ought to kill you for those words.”

“Like you killed the Icewights?”

Another one spoke. Elegia hadn’t noticed him creep up on her. “The boy’s a Half-Breed!” he shouted.

The leader turned and gave her a look that made her feel naked. “Half Forest Spirit,” he growled.

“I’m not a boy!” Elegia interjected. “I am a girl! And yes I am a Half-Breed—what of it?”

The leader crouched to be at eye level with her, and stroked the leftover flecks of dirt off her cheek, unaware of the new line of sand he had created. “My apologies, my lady,” he said. “My name is Grollek. And because I have erred, I will in turn forgive your crass remark. Mudwights and Forest Spirits are not known to get along well. They use our soil for their trees, and our murky waters kill their trees in turn.”

Elegia chose her words carefully. She spoke slowly, as if talking to a child. “I am not affiliated with the Forest Spirits, and I am sorry for any wrongs my kin have done to you.”

Grollek turned to the others. “This one has manners, unlike the other.” His followers laughed at that. “I admire your respect, girl. Tell me, and be honest—are you afraid?

Elegia nodded. “I am.”

“I’m not surprised. You are not the first to say so. I will not deny my people are easily provoked, and quick to violence. But you have done me no ill. Yet. Therefore I have no cause to mistrust you. Yet. May I ask a question?”

“You may.”

“What brings you to my domain here in the Ever-Changing Lands?—ah-ah! Do not look to your companion for help. Tell me the truth.”

Elegia’s could hear her blood pumping. She breathed deep and said, “The Traveling Dark.”

The Mudwights exchanged glances. Some of them shifted from one foot to the other, while others growled or balled their fists.

“They were hunting us,” Elegia continued. “I used a burning branch and I—I think I hurt one of them.”

“Hurt?” Grollek said, as if the word were foreign to him. “Hurt the Traveling Dark? I did not know such a feat was possible. And that’s forgetting the fact that they haven’t been seen since old Grold took his tumble down the caverns.” He turned to his followers. “Did any of you know this?” Sarcasm laced his voice. “Centuries I’ve fought with you lot, and not one of you has told me that the Traveling Dark can be hurt?”

The others laughed, which only served to make Elegia’s heart beat faster.

Grollek locked eyes with Elegia. “Why were they hunting you?”

Elegia grinned “You only asked permission for one question.”

Grollek nodded slowly. He smiled his approval. “Clever girl,” he mused. “Clever, isn’t she?”

The others murmured their agreement.

“You have spoken the truth, and have been most kind in doing so. Fortunately for you, I am not without my own sense of honor. Six of my men will guide you and your companions to safety. And if you truly are hunted by the Traveling Dark—well, I see you are weaponless.” He waved one of his companions into the water, who obeyed the command.

“Do you have any experience with a blade?”

Elegia shook her head no.

“Pity.”

The Man o’ the Muck resurfaced, carrying a sword made purely of ice. It was a great cleaver of a blade, yet parchment thin, and when the creature turned it on its side to sheath it, the blade seemed to disappear.

Grollek took it. “This used to belong to an Icewight. It is enchanted. May it serve you better than it did her.”

“Many thanks,” Elegia said.

“And thank you, girl, for your honesty.” He turned to DMudwightyvian and growled, as if to make a point. After helping Elegia to her feet, Grollek waved six followers along to escort the duo

Grollek watched them go, and smiled. “Safe journeys.”

The file of sand went ever on and on, as they marched along. Marsh water slapped against either side.

The Mudwights brought them to the end of the sandy path, which yielded to a forest where sunshine and blizzards fought with a sound like whips cracking in the sky. Grollek’s men stopped on the edge of the file. “Our protection ends here,” one of them said.” Be on your w—”

But before the Man o’ the Muck could finish the sentence, an axe bit through his neck and he crumpled into a pile of dirt, deceased.

Behind him was the wielder: a Stonewight. As the five other Mudwights advance on the enemy, another sprang up from beneath the sandy file, as though the ground were an attic they’d crashed through. The Stonewight cut down two more with a hooked blade. And before the Mudwight could prepare for these two attackers, a dozen more had sprung up from beneath the sand and below the depths of the murky pools, and, waylaid, the Men o’ the Muck fell, with six piles of dirt to mark where they had once stood.

The Stonewight advanced on the duo. “Dyvian Gray,” one of them said, “The Rock-Lord would have words with you.”

“What of the other one?” an underling grunted.

“He is of no use. Dispose of him.”

And the creatures were upon them. Eleven Stonewight assailed Dyvian, while a single underling raced for Elegia.

Elegia backed away, swerving through the wilderness. In her panic, she was dimly aware of the wooden web she left in her path as tendrils sprang from the trees as she passed them.

She did not stop to think how she did this, for she knew that it was only through her panic that this was possible—to let her subconscious mind take over and bend the wood to her will.

Elegia came suddenly upon a patch of snow and ice. She slipped, fell, and landed on her stomach, driving her breath out of her body.

It was slow work, getting to her feet. Vertigo held her down before she managed to regain her breath. And when she did, the Stonewight was upon her. He had hewn his way through her web and he readied his axe.

As he swung, Elegia slipped, backing away from its arc. Her head reeled from the second icy impact, and she rolled out of the way as the Mudwight brought the axe down where had just fallen.

As she stood, she remembered her blade, and ripped it from its scabbard and leveled it at the Stonewight. It felt awkward in her hands. Swords never looked this heavy. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.

The Stonewight laughed at this, with a sound like marbles rattling in the back of his throat. He took another swing at her.

Elegia blocked the blow, and the impact of the two weapons vibrated her blade and made her hand sting. She thrust her blade forward, stabbing the Stonewight through the chest.

The creature’s face quickly turned to shock as ice crept along his body. He craned his neck in an attempt delay his own demise, but within seconds the ice had completely covered him.

Elegia tore the sword from his chest and he crumbled to pieces.

And then she remembered. “Dyvian,” she muttered, and she raced back, ducking and dodging through her wooden web. She passed lashing winds and sticky heat until she was at the clearing again, whereupon she saw the bodies of six Stonewight hewn about the ground.

Then she saw the tracks along the sand and she knew where Dyvian had gone. By the look of it, the Stonewight had dragged him through the sand and into one of the marsh-pools.

Elegia dove in, and swam downwards. The murky waters clouded her vision. Her heart rattled in her ribcage. Her throat burned with the need for air when she saw the tunnel at the bottom.

She entered the tunnel kicked her legs harder, now. The roof of the tunnel compelled her to push forward. Blackness rimmed her vision, until at last she saw a way up and followed it. She surfaced, gasping for breath. She caught the ledge and hauled herself over. She landed on her back, coughing and sputtering and wishing she could lay there forever. “Of all the times…to lose your Wizard…” she gasped.

The words had scarcely passed her lips when, a hand reached out of the water, grasping the ledge within a finger’s breadth of her face. Its sandy form compacted as it drew itself up and over the ledge.

Elegia had only the energy to roll out of the way of this new arrival. When he had hauled himself over the edge, she saw that she was staring at Grollek. “What a time to lose your Wizard?” he echoed, “What a time to lose my followers!”

“What are you doing here?” Elegia asked.

Grollek brought himself to its feet. “I found my followers slain amongst the Stonewight I could not be sure who was responsible; you, or the Stonewight. So I followed this path, and told my followers that if I do not resurface within half an hour, they are to follow me to ensure my safety.”

The Man o’ the Muck looked about the dank cavern. “I believe I now know who is responsible for this slight—this is Grold’s lair, or I am the Wood-Lord himself.”

“You know Grold?” Elegia asked.

“I know of him. Everyone knows the tale of the Grold and Dyvian Gray. Come,” he gestured for her to follow, “We can talk as we walk. I have a debt to settle with the Rock-Lord.”

Elegia followed. “You didn’t seem to get along with Dyvian too well in the marshes.”

Grollek looked Elegia over, the way people did when they tried to decide if she was a girl or a boy. “Are you telling me that the man you were traveling with was Dyvian the Wizard? One who has stilled the Earth? And Conquered the Conqueror? And—”

“And raised a girl named Elegia,” she interrupted, thumbing her chest. “He’s the very same.”

Grollek chuckled, mirthlessly. “Why does he hate us so?”

“His encounters with your people have been…less than pleasant in the past.”

Soon after this they came upon the mouths of two caves, forked left and right. “As our conversation ends, so does the trail,” Grollek remarked.

Elegia looked from one tunnel to the other. “Which way?” she asked.

Grollek frowned, peering down both tunnels.

“Should we—”

“We are not splitting up,” Grollek said, before Elegia could finish. “Do you know what happens when people do that?”

“I do,” she said, “Which is why I was going to ask if we should check for spells and enchantments in the tunnels.”

Grollek smiled at that. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you? Maybe Dyvian did raise you.” And with that, Grollek peered down each tunnel in turn. “Grold will have set traps for both caverns. The trick is to find out which trap he’s more likely to use to prevent access to his throne room.”

“So tunnel with the deadlier spell is the one we have to go through?”

Grollek nodded.

“And how do we find out what spells protect each tunnel?”

“Easy,” Grollek said. His left arm fell to his side, and as two fingers sloughed off his hand, he sent them worming down either tunnel. The two watched as the fingers inched along either path.

And when Elegia could barely tell his fingers from the real worms in the tunnel, they witnessed the spells.

In the left tunnel, the cavern shook, and rocks rumbled. In a span of three heartbeats, the tunnel had collapsed, blocking the entrance.

And as the left tunnel collapsed, the second finger continued on, inching forward until it vanished around the corner.

]“No trap,” Grollek said. “That doesn’t make any sense. There must be–ow!

“What is it?”

“Something stabbed the other finger.”

The two looked at each other, and then down the tunnel. “The right tunnel,” they said in unison.

They followed the cavern, treading as though each step could spell their doom. The two rounded corner to find themselves in a chamber upon which the walls, floor and ceiling were all inlaid with scale-like jewels.

The chamber was empty, bathed in the jewels’ pulsing glow. Elegia noted a curious design along the length of the ceiling: a set of four green diamonds that stretched the length of the chamber, yet did not gleam like the others.

Ten paces opposite them was another tunnel.

As they approached the tunnel, Elegia drew her ice sword. Grollek, too, had drawn its axe.

Elegia blinked the sweat out of her eyes and started forward when death struck at her soundlessly.

The shadow that swept across the gleaming floor was her only warning, and her sidelong leap all that saved her life. She caught a flashing glimpse of the hairy black and green horror that swung past her with a clashing of frothing fangs.

Grollek swung back, axe at the ready, when it saw the horror strike the floor, wheel and scuttle forward with appalling speed. The Wayward Muck was facing a gigantic spider.

The monster advanced on Grollek and the Wayward Muck swung its axe in an arc that bit into one of the spider’s eyes. It scampered away, screeching. “So you took my finger,” Grollek muttered.

Elegia started forward to help Grollek, but by the time she raised her weapon the spider had slammed the Wayward Muck into a wall and turned around, ready for her. She backed away from the snapping pincers and swung wildly. The beast recoiled, evading her blade. Then it jumped forward, lashing out again with deadly pincers. She jumped out of the way and let loose another untrained swing. Again she missed, but her swing was close enough to send it scuttling back.

“It’s not a club, you fool!” Grollek shouted, “It’s a sword! Don’t swing it like–agh!” Grollek let out a cry as the creature’s pincers cut through the muck of its torso. Grollek brought its axe down on the spider’s pincers and the beast shrieked, releasing the Wayward Muck. Grollek fell to one knee, sand trailed from its wound.

Thoughts tumbled through Elegia’s mind as the monstrosity surged toward her. It had backed her against the jeweled wall, pincers snapping. One of its pincers stabbed her hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Blood ran down her palm, stinging her hand. She could feel her pulse in her fingers.

The creature lurched forward, and with a burst of adrenalin Elegia grabbed its pincers. There was a coarse feeling brushing her wounded hand that made it sting It took all her strength to keep the thing at bay. Her muscles burned from the exertion.

She released its pincers and dove forward in the same motion, so that she was under it. The spider wheeled around, expecting her to have run, but she’d seized her sword and ran it through its belly. Blood and things she didn’t want to think about rained down on her as she slid out from under it.

The spider did not even let out a death-screech before its lifeless body crumpled to the floor.

All was silent. Elegia sheathed her sword and approached Grollek, who was still on one knee its breaths came heavy, and Elegia helped the Wayward Muck to its feet. “I have decided,” Grollek proclaimed, “That I would very much like to kill Grold.”

The two stepped over the fallen beast. As they entered the mouth of the tunnel it had guarded, Elegia heard voices echoing far behind them.  

Grollek seemed to read her thoughts. “Have no fear. They are my followers, come to aid me.”   

“Are you sure?”

“No. But thinking so calms the nerves, does it not?”

They entered the cavern.

It seemed to stretch on endlessly. Elegia lost track of time walking, until, as they came closer to the other side, they heard a voice echoing harsh and dry. “I have waited ages for this,” the voice said. “If you will not willingly break your spell that binds me to these caverns, I have other ways of convincing you.”

“I will tell you one more time, Rock Lord,” said a voice Elegia knew belonged to Orym. “You must let me go. I will consider releasing you, should you make peace.”

“It’s too late for that, sorcerer,” Grold boomed. The Rock Lord’s husky voice echoed off the cavern walls. “This is my ground! You made it my ground when you cast me into these caverns! I have nothing to fear from you.”

“I made it your place?” Orym echoed. “I was righting your wrongs I’m not proud of what I’ve wrought–”

“YOU HAD NO RIGHT!” The Rock Lord boomed. “No right! One thousand years I have been trapped beneath the earth, because you, Orym Tar, decided to forego diplomacy. Because you saw no other way to right the situation than eternal imprisonment. And for what? Glory? Who gave you the right?”

“I could ask the same of you!” The Wizard shouted back. “You were conquering and Stilling the land. What would you have had me–?”

“So you rushed headlong into pitched battle with me?”

“Grold, I was a newly-made Wizard.”

“I take no pleasure in this,” Grold said. “Truly I don’t. But it has been one thousand years. Release me.”

Elegia came to the mouth of the tunnel, with Grollek just behind her.  

Before her stood Orym, bound hand and foot, and flanked on all sides by Stone Soldiers. And Grold sat in his obsidian throne. He looked as if he were trying to stare the Wizard to death.

“Grold, I understand your desire. But your lust for vengeance has made you blind. You have angered many people. You sent the Traveling Dark to herd me like cattle into the Ever Changing Land–”

“–and they were successful.”

“Perhaps. But it has been a long time since the Traveling Dark have been wounded. They will not take kindly to that.”

“You put your faith in something like the Traveling Dark? Who was the one who wounded them?”

“Your pride has made you arrogant. Your Stone Soldier killed the Wayward Muck on their own ground. Listen to me, if you are so keen on diplomacy. I failed once. I don’t wish it to do it again.”

“What can the Wayward Muck do?”

“They are quick to anger, and do not forget a slight. They will find you. Grold, you must make peace–”

Elegia turned to Grollek, and saw that its followers had arrived. She did not realize how great a force it truly possessed. The Wayward Muck seemed to blend together, as if the cavern was brimming with dirt.

Grollek put a finger to its lips.

Must I?” Grold exclaimed. “No one would dare seek to harm me on my ground! I will not ask again. Release me!”

Orym smiled. “There is a reason I’ve cautioned that it is only me that you should not fear.”

Attack,” Grollek roared, and the Wayward Muck were upon the Stone Soldier, cutting them down from behind before they could realize they what fate befell them.

Grold came to its feet, seized a battle axe and, with a cry like the boom of a landslide, the Rock Lord threw itself into the fray.

Elegia ducked and dodged between clashing blades and the clangor of weapons. With her ice-sword drawn, she wound across the battlefield towards Orym. As she did this, she saw two Stone Soldier still flanked the Wizard. When he spotted Elegia, he called forth the ash he had packed away in his bag. It wisped into his hand and he threw it in the Rock Soldier’s eyes. The two had not a chance to react; they staggered back and hit the ground.

Elegia met Orym, who muttered “Making good use of that sword yet?”

“Remind me to thank Grollek,” Elegia said. She swung her blade down on the iron that bound his hands and feet. The enchanted blade formed a layer of ice around the chains. Orym tugged with his wrists and his bonds shattered. She did the same for the chains around his ankles.

“We need to get out of here,” he said.

She greeted that statement with a slap. “What about Grollek? We can’t leave–”

“Elegia, trust me. Head for the tunnel. Now.”

“Trust you? After years with you, you forget to tell me this, and now you ask me to trust you?”

“I take no pride in this!” He swung his arms toward the battle all about them. “But we must go.”

“Why?”

Orym went grim-faced. “The Traveling Dark are coming back.”

The two darted for the mouth of the cavern. The Rock Lord bellowed from behind them. “You will not escape me, Orym Tar! I will have my vengeance!”

As they entered the mouth of the cave a Darkness crept through the tunnels. It was not before. At least then she could see her hand in front of her face. Now it was as though she’d entered a void.

A voice resounded off the cavern wall. “Sorcerer. You burned me. You wounded my kin.”

“Actions we took to preserve our own lives,” Orym reasoned. “Do not tell me you wouldn’t have done the same in our place.”

The tension was thick enough that Elegia felt she could pluck it as easily as a lute string.

“Who sent you out to harrow me?” Orym continued, “Who bade you find me and bring me to the Ever Changing Land? I presume Grold promised you a reward, no?”

“We were promised freedom.” the Darkness said.

“Then make your peace!” It sounded more an order than suggestion. “You have been misled. I will free you, should you desire peace.” He unstrung his sack of ashes and tossed it to the ground “I have said what I must. Now do what you will.”

“Orym?” Elegia whispered, “What are you doing?”

“Atoning.”

The Darkness seemed to stare down the Wizard and the apprentice assessing the situation. “You are but pawns in the Rock Lord’s game,” the Darkness said.

Orym could not keep the quiver from his voice. “Please, don’t.”

“And I don’t concern myself with pawns.” The Darkness passed. Elegia looked down the length of the tunnel as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She looked back and saw Darkness spread throughout the Rock Lord’s throne room.

“We will meet again, Orym Tar.”

Orym walked through the tunnel as though he had all the time in the world. “My friend! My friend, you have come to aid me! Thank you–no. What is this? What is? What are you–?”

The Rock Lord’s scream was like marble scraping steel. Agony laced its cries. And as Elegia followed Orym out of the tunnel she knew that the Rock Lord was no more.

It did not feel like a victory.

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A Self-Professed Coward

a-self-professed-cowardIn my experience, when you smash a sacred relic over a guard’s head, he usually has the decency to fall over. But sometimes you underestimate the strength of a man’s helmet.

He turned to face me, but by the time he freed his sword from his scabbard, I’d rounded the path winding down from the tent he guarded. I counted myself lucky he was too dazed to call for help.

To be clear, I did have a sword, but my swordsmanship can be described as mediocre if you’re being generous, and I wasn’t about to engage someone whose fighting prowess I’d never even seen. Not only that, but it’s horribly dangerous to run full sprint with a sword in hand.

Thankfully, I can always count on my friends. Okay, friend. Singular. Sort of. He’s my brother. Does that count?

I heard the guard’s muffled scream as Orym clamped his hand over his mouth and cut his throat.

The guard hit the grass like a sack of flour, staining it a ghastly red. Orym looked from the corpse to me. “You’re a coward, Azoc.”

“That may be so,” I told Orym, “But look where this man’s bravery led him.” I kicked the corpse as my feet, careful not to bruise my toe on his helmet. “We tried it your way. Now it’s my turn.”

“Yours is the way of cowards,” Orym muttered.

“And yours is the way of fools,” I countered. “Come now, brother. We didn’t come to the highlands for nothing. We have a Witch to visit.”

We returned to the tent by way of mountain pass. Orym and I had been to seven of the Eight Cities if Nyn to seek a cure for his curse. To date, no one had been able to help with his condition.

As we neared the tent I chanced to see a dozen boulders carved with runes. It was either a protection spell or those were grave markers.

I winced, anticipating some horrible force would strike me down, yet nothing came. “Some enchantress,” I muttered. “Doesn’t even have a protection spell.”

“Were you hoping for one?” Orym asked.

“No, but isn’t it expected of a Witch?”

Orym held the tent flap high and I glimpsed a hag bent over a brazier. There was a rune two different runes on either side of the brazier.

“After you,” I insisted. Orym entered, shaking his head. As he drew upon the Witch he stepped aside. I could’ve sworn it was to make me look upon her garish visage.

The gray fumes of her brazier misted up, weaving in and out of the tangles of black hair that spilt over the sides of her head. Her face was both wrinkled, yet at sharp as a knife. What teeth remained poked through her gums like brown tree stumps.

I cleared my throat, but the Witch spoke first.

Without looking up, she hissed, “What do you seek?

“Y-you’re mistaken, it’s my brother who does the seeking, not I.” Orym scowled at that. “We’ve been through all Eight Cities of Nyn. We seek—um—tell her, Orym.”

“We seek a cure for—” her next sound made even Orym pale. He snatched a fistful of my cloak, as if anticipating my next move.

The Witch sucked in a breath of air between her teeth, though it sounded more a death rattle. Her eyelids fluttered, showing two white lines. “The taint of the White Wizard lays in you.” She pointed at Orym. “A shard of Being is in you. How can this be so?”

Orym shrugged. “I killed him.”

The hag stood statue-still. The only sign she even lived was the hiss of her breath.

Orym’s hold rose to the back of my neck. “Do not run.”

“Me? Run? Never.”

“And the coward’s tale?” The hag asked.

“My tale? Ah, I see. My tale. Well, we were conscripted in Morgad to fight the White Wizard. It was a glorious battle. I made my way quickly through the ranks—” This was not, strictly speaking, a lie. What I didn’t mention was that my move through the enemy was more of a sprint than a glorious battle. “—I was the first of the Morgadians to reach the castle, and like my brother here I sought the White Wizard.” I’d wrapped my lie in a truth. While I hoped I might take him by surprise and win a bit of glory and land and all that that implies, my foremost concern was finding a place to hide until the massacre was over. “I had the misfortune of—well, kinship. There’s little else to it,” I paused, trying to find the right title to address her with. “…Madame. My brother killed the White Wizard, and his final curse rebounded. He has a shard of the Wizard inside him.”

The Witch finished for me. “And you want me to drag the shard of Being out?”

“Yes,” we said at once.

The Witch stopped breathing, and even the air seemed to still. She opened her eyes, milky ovals showing through the tangle of hair draped over her face. The tip of her tongue traveled like a worm across her lips. “The Fates are kind to me this day. A spell-struck man comes before my brazier. I will take the shard of Being out of you…for myself.” She bent forward, and her tangles of hair caught fire. “Burn!” She rasped. Flame traveled up the strands of her hair as if she’d bathed in oil. The left brazier-rune flashed as she burned, laughing while her skin blackened and her eyes melted. She crumbled to dust and the wind carried her up the down the highlands to the Eighth City of Nyn. The rune dimmed, having done its work.

“Orym?”

“Azoc?”

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

Run!

I turned in time to see a dozen dead men rise from the earth. “Huh,” I said,  “So she did have a protection spell.”

Skin sloughed off their fingers as they dug their way out of their own graves. The creatures were not so much men as they were bits of gristle wrapped around charred bones. There wasn’t a man among them without a blade in hand.

“Let’s try the other way. I turned to run but Orym caught my cloak—within a three steps it snagged my neck and I fell onto my back. The rune on the right side of the brazier lit up and fire burst forth toward Orym, who danced out of the way. Then the rune dimmed as the dead men shambled forward.

I drew my sword and proceeded to hide beneath the brazier. “I told you we should’ve have asked around before visiting a local Witch. But did you listen? Of course not.”

Orym ignored me, which for some reason frustrated me more than the horde of dead men straggling into the tent. He leveled his sword at the dead men, who closed in. Brute and fool he may be, but strike me down if I can’t admire his skill. The man’s a poet a sword. Give Orym a weapon and he’ll look almost beautiful. Each cut splintered bone and lacerated flesh. But even in pieces, the dead men moved.

“Azoc!” He grunted as he gave ground to the dead men. “Azoc!”

“Careful,” I muttered. Someone’s hand hit the ground near me. It rose onto its fingers and scuttled toward me. I scrambled back, smashing my head against the bottom of the brazier in my panic. “Sound desperate enough and I might feel guilty.”

“You should,” Orym said as he parried an oncoming slice of death.

I put my shoulder to the brazier. “How many times do I have to tell you, Orym—” One hard shove, and it tipped over on top of the oncoming hand. “Bravery gets you killed.”

Orym turned as the flames sprang to life and he danced out of the way of the oncoming fire, bisecting a corpse on his way out of its path.

I saw the glow beneath the brazier too late, and fire sprang in all directions, catching me and my brother.

There was a searing white pain, and then nothing.

The pain retreated, and the two of us stood amidst blackness. I could feel a chewed up wooden floor beneath me. “Where are we?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“There’s a window over there.” I groped through the darkness towards it, and saw the Eighth City market below us. “Okay,” I said, “Wherever we are, it can’t be good.”

“If I can use the Wizard’s shard of Being—”

I seized Orym’s arm and he pivoted to face me. I fought down every instinct that told me to turn heel. “I won’t let you do that.” He glared at me, but I set my jaw and dug my heels into the ground. This was my brother. I was with him when he was a child shitting himself. He didn’t scare me. “I won’t let you do that,” I said again. The shard of Being is what we want out of you. If you use it—”

I know what will happen!” Orym roared. “It was I who cut the head from the White Wizard’s body, not you. Or have you forgotten how you hid from the slaughter?”

I winced. I would have preferred if he struck me. “That shard will eat you, alive Orym! Have you taken too many knocks on the head to remember that? I can’t let you use the shard of Being. I won’t let you!”

And then I noticed he was grinning. This set my heart pounding, as Orym never smiled at anything good. I followed his eyes to see he was staring at my hand. I hadn’t even noticed it had gone to the hilt of my sword, much less that I’d drawn it three inches from its sheath.

I looked up to lock eyes with Orym again. He raised his eyebrows and I slammed my sword back in its sheath. “I don’t make idle threats,” I said.

“You don’t make any threats.”

“Shut up.”

“Azoc, was that courage I saw there?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On if you’re still plan on using the shard.”

Orym shook his head. “Not after that,” he said. For once his smile seemed warm. “You wouldn’t have done that unless you were ready to cut me down for it…so how do we survey where we are?”

A bodiless voice gave us our answer. “A shard of Being is a powerful thing,” said a voice from the darkness. Torches flared to life along two walls, licking the air and illuminating a carpeted path. The voice came again. “I must have it.”

“Now would be a good time to look for the front door,” I began, but Orym would have none of it.

“We can’t run.”

“We can. You just don’t want to. Now is not the time to play hero!”

“Do you see another path?”

He had the right of it, so we started forward.

As soon as we started walking the torch-lit path, the flames stopped their dancing and stood at attention like sentries. I chanced to see that each torch had the same rune that had cast fire at us from the brazier, only now it was etched along each wooden haft.

I turned to warn Orym, but before I could say anything there was a crackling behind me and I turned to see that there were runes on the floor. And they were vanishing fast. The floor crumbled behind us. Seeing this, Orym grabbed me by the back of my neck and threw me forward. I stumbled and lost my footing, which turned out to be a good thing because the torch-flames decided they’d very much like to burn me. The stumble was all that saved my life.

Orym saw this and followed my example, crawling after me. The fire whorled overhead; lashing the air intermittently. “Are you sure she’s a Soultaker? She seems content with simply killing us.”

“Soultakers burn, Azoc,” Orym growled. He kept his head level with the floor. “Bringing the house down on us would not give her our souls. She only wants to block our means of escape.”

I turned to look at him as we crawled forward. Fire cracked over our heads. “Do you ever stop to consider whether charging headlong is a bad idea?”

“I’d rather not—” Orym began, “—keep your head down!” He grabbed a fistful of my hair and shoved my nose onto the floor.

“You can be quite overprotective, did you know that?” I howled.

“When I tell the story of how my brother died, would you like it to be the tale of how he was too simple to keep his head low near a fire?”

“Personally, I’ve always liked the dying peacefully in your sleep kind of story. It’s boring, yes, but it’s much more fun than burning.”

“Then keep moving.”

Sparks trickled down every now and then, forcing us to roll before it took flame. I can’t say how long we crawled before we found a staircase, but I can say that it was too long.

Orym led the way. The staircase was mangled and twisted—as if it had been made from clay then crushed in a giant fist. I’m fairly certain it was mocking me, for the runes carved onto each step forced it to stay sturdy. Yet if you were to look between the gaps you would see nothing but blackness below. I had to fight the urge to drop something small to see how long it took to hit the bottom.

Yet when we were at the top, the second floor crumbled below us, torches and all. I cannot say how long it fell, for I never heard it hit the bottom. I did, however, see flashes of light as the torches whipped the air even while falling.

Orym raised an eyebrow. “Are you still interested in trying the front door?”

“Let’s go.” We reached the top to find a new hall much the same as the one before it. As we started down the way I found my legs trembling at the thought that it could give way at any moment. There were no torches, only a room at the end. Daylight streamed through it, though the sun had set not an hour ago. “Draw your sword, Azoc,” Orym whispered as the room came closer.

“That really gets in the way of my running,” I said as I drew my sword. I knew I had to do it, but telling Orym that would only bolster his pride. And there is nothing half so dangerous—or annoying—than a prideful Orym.

We came upon the room to see a cat and an armored man with a coat of arms emblazoned on his helmet. Both were asleep and slumped against a staircase. Orym tensed, and I did what I could to copy him. As he neared the cat I noticed that something had been shaved onto it’s fur. Some kind of marking…

“Orym, look out!”

The cat sprang into motion, growing bigger and bigger in mid-leap. Orym staggered back, holding it at bay with the point of his sword. It had grown to the size of a panther, and stalked Orym, tail flicking back and forth. I prepared to charge it from behind when the armored man leapt to his feet and charged me first. He tackled me into the hallway and in our confused, tangled fall I managed to drive my sword downward through his armpit, where he had little armor to protect him. Blood leaked from beneath his breastplate and stained it red.

And then he smacked me away, pulling my sword out of him and throwing it to the floor behind him in the time it took me to find my footing. That was when I noticed the red gash on his neck. “Orym killed you…” I muttered. I looked to the carving on his helmet. It was no coat of arms—I had seen that symbol on the dozen rocks that marked the dead men that had tried to kill us.

He staggered towards me, bringing his steel down in an attempt to cleave my skull—little did he know that my best skill is avoiding all forms of physical violence.

That skill wasn’t completely applicable to my current predicament, but after years of avoiding your enemies’ blades altogether, you manage to develop some quick reflexes.

He hacked at me again, and I turned sideways. His hack turned thrust midway through his form, but I fell inside his reach and caught his wrist. With my other hand, I took his fist and pulled back. The bone jutted from the wrist, yet the grip on his sword hadn’t even slackened.

He swung at me with all the grace of a human-morningstar. I stumbled and fell next to my sword. His hand was whirling as I reached for it and I brought my blade into his path as his own came down hard and face. I kicked to my feet and cut his wrist from his hand.

He ran for me, but I sidestepped  and left a leg for him to trip over. He crashed to the floor I pounced. I can’t remember too much of our struggle. He fought me, but when your fist is decaying, punching your foe does more harm than good. After I time, I managed to pry his helmet off and the man returned to death.

I made sure to toss the helmet into the pit, just to be safe.

I reentered the room to find Orym. He had taken a few scratches but was otherwise unhurt. The cat-panther lay dead in a corner, blood pooling from its underbelly. “Staircase?” he asked between ragged breaths.

“Staircase,” I said.

We climbed to the fourth floor, and again the preceding one crumbled into the pit. There was a hall, same as before, but this time there was a voice in the room at the end.

“Fire, fire, it must be ready. My guests are weary, and they need fire. Flames must turn flesh to ash, yes, yes. It leaves the soul bare beneath.”

Orym shook his head and mouthed, Not a sound.

I nodded, and we approached the Witch’s chamber. Orym didn’t dare run, for fear of alerting the Witch, yet I saw him fighting the urge to, which resulted in a quick, leaden walk that was funnier than I’m willing to admit, given the circumstances.

We entered the Witch’s chambers, and she didn’t even have the common courtesy to look up before throwing black-powder at us. It burst into flame in midair and forced Orym and I onto either side of the room.

“I may not be the most sociable man in the world,” I said, “but even I know it’s polite to give a simple ‘how are you’ before getting down to business.”

The Witch cast another line of black powder across the room. Once again it burst into flame, keeping me confined alone to one side while I heard Orym dodging spells and fighting the Witch. The only thing I heard was my name. “Azoc!” Orym shouted. And every time it grew more desperate. “Azoc! Azoc, please!”

“I’m trying!” I shouted, trying to make myself heard over the fire and the cacophony of his own combat. “Please, Orym, don’t die on me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself!”

“Azoc! Where are you?

My hands were trembling so that I hard to sheathe my sword rather than risk dropping it. I wove through rows and rows of tables lined with odd-colored liquids filled with various eyes, both animal and not. Strange substances were brewing in pots, thick as paste and light as broth.

“Azoc!”

“Come on, come on,” I muttered to myself. “Think of something! Ninth Hell, there must be something you can do.” The line of flame on the other side of the room beckoned for me. But that was suicide! It would do little good to run through fire to my brother’s aid only to die as soon as I’d passed the wall.

“Azoc, please! Hurry!”

I looked to a cauldron bubbling over the fireplace for something I could use, then turned to a table with a bowl of thick, silver liquid. Nothing of use.

“Don’t make me use the shard of Being!”

That did little to help my trembling. I could hardly think anymore. I was looking at all the Witch’s potions and brews yet not a thought passed my mind. There may well have been something I could’ve put to good use, but in my panic I may as well have been overturning an empty room.

I tossed aside tables and potions, and all the while my gaze kept going back to the fireplace.

“Azoc. Brother, I need you…”

I tossed a table aside, I scanned more bottles and potions and cauldrons.

And this time when I looked back to the fireplace I realized why I had been drawn to look. For above the it, in the center of its stone perimeter was an etching—and one I knew from earlier that day. That selfsame rune had glowed on the left side of her brazier as she burned in the tent.

I stopped shaking. “Orym! Orym, can you hear me?” I withdrew my sword and started for the fireplace.

“Help!” His scream was raw and scratchy.

“I’ll take that as a yes!” I called back. I went to work. “Take the offensive. Push her toward the fire! Toward me!

There were thumps and thuds and in a moment I could see the Witch’s silhouette on the other side of the flame-wall. Then Orym’s shadow, tall and massive. She backed closer to the fire and Orym cleft through empty air. As she stumbled backward the wall of fire vanished, and she turned to find me ready. She looked to Orym, who prepared to make the killing stroke.

But the Witch fell back before Orym had the chance. She backed toward the fireplace. “You’re think you can stop me? I will take the shard of Being—and both your souls, as my reward.” She stepped into the fireplace laughing. A tendril of flame shot Orym square in the chest. He stumbled back and fell, the front of his shirt blackening and falling away.

“Orym!” I started towards him and knelt beside him.

I was distantly aware of the Witch cackling. She had started to gloat. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” But the laughter didn’t last long. To her credit, it did not take long for her to realize I had hacked apart the rune above her. The screams came shortly after.

Of all the things I had seen that day, I would not have guessed they would pale in comparison to a Witch’s death-screech.

As she burned, the fire that cut across the room dwindled down to nothing. I heard crashes and shrieks as the house rebuilt itself outside the chamber.

None of that mattered. The only thing in the world was my brother lying on the floor, his chest burnt. I looked at Orym—really looked at him—for the first time that night. I saw my brother cut and bruised. And to my relief, the burn was not mortal.

“You desecrated her rune,” he muttered

“I was left with few alternatives. You threatened to use the shard of Being. What was I to do?”

He seized me by my collar and pulled me close. “It’s gone.”

What?

“The shard of Being. She burnt it from me before burning herself.”

“You’re kidding.”

He shoved me away. I scrambled to my feet and helped him to his. “I never kid,” he said. “It’s gone. Honestly and truly gone.” Orym winced as he sheathed his sword. The two of us stood there as we soon came to grips with the realization that our quest was over.

I cannot say how long the silence lasted. But at the last I decided to break it. I indicated to the burn on his chest. “That’s going to leave a few scars,” I said.

“Count yourself lucky I don’t give you a few to remember this occasion.”

I decided it was in my best interest not to mention the handicap his injuries would have on him during the coming months. “We were separated by fire!” I said. “What was I to do?”

Orym grinned. “Run?” He suggested.

“Oh, brother, how little you know of me.” I sat next to him. “Call me coward, call me craven, but have I not been at your side through all of this? You think I haven’t learned the price of cowardice? While I hid from the White Wizard’s slaughter, you struck him down.”

“And yet you still run if the need suits you. Why?”

“Because there are worse things than being a coward.”

“And what would those be?”

“Being brave,” I said. I glanced at the fireplace. “Being dead.” The fire cracked and spat to fill the gap in our conversation. “The shard of Being,” I said. “You didn’t—”

“I didn’t.” Orym hung his head. “But I came close. Ninth Hell, the urge was strong.”

“I’m glad you fought it,” I said, and then started out the door. Orym chased after me. “Azoc! Where are you going?”

“We should leave,” I said, “Before we discover if the Witch had anything more hidden up her sleeve in the event of her death.”

Orym followed me down each stairway. A dead cat was slumped next to a bloody, helmetless guard, and on the floor below, torches danced on either side of the wall. And instead of a window, we now faced a door.

It was only when we were back on the streets that Orym spoke again. “Where are we going?”

“Away,” I said. “Nyn is spent up, but there are other cities.” I looked to him. “Where do we go from here?”

“Well,” he said, “There are always men in need of a sellsword or two.”

We left the Witch-house behind us, but the sound of flames yet echoed in my head. Like a Witch’s cackle.

 

Peter Pendragon and the Zoo of Death

zoo-magic

When going to the zoo, you really don’t expect to be attacked by a creature that looks like it stepped out of a Picasso painting.

The fact that that’s exactly what happened to me is surprisingly unsurprising.

#

“I’m glad you agreed to this, Peter,” Dad said. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to stave off the silence. He was taking me to the zoo. The zoo! Did he forget how to act around kids after I turned five?

“We haven’t had much time to see each other lately,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“So which animal do you want to see first?”

“Anything but lizards,” I said. “The last thing I want is to run into a dragon.”

Dad’s laugh was just a little too forced. “How many dragons have you killed? Three? Is that why you brought Excalibur?”

“I haven’t killed any.” I said, “Where’d you get a number like that?”

Dad shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “All these creatures—it’s pretty easy to lose track of what you have and haven’t fought.” He chewed on his lip. “So if you haven’t fought a dragon, why’d you bring Excalibur?”

“I mean, you never know.” I shouldered my backpack—Arthur’s old scabbard, enchanted into a new form. “It helps to be prepared.”

After twenty more minutes battling the silence teetering on the edge of our conversation, we arrived at the zoo. Dad half-dragged me in. The first thing past the gates was a petting zoo.

“That’s kid stuff,” Dad told me, “You don’t want to go there.”

Okay, I thought. Sure, don’t ask me. I’m just along for the ride. Dad decided to lead me to a section of the zoo filled with gorillas. A few of them were doing some obscene things behind walls of thick glass.

Two males roared at each other from across the exhibit, pounding their chests.

“What do you think?” Dad asked.

“Well, I’m wondering why those two monkeys are fighting.”

“Do you see that one way back there?” Dad extended a finger towards a gorilla watching the other two have temper tantrums.

“Yeah.”

“That one’s female, and the other two want to, um…let’s just say they want to have her.”

“They want to bang?”

I’d never seen anyone choke on air before that moment. “If that’s the way you want to put it.”

“But why would they do that?”

Dad glanced back at the gorillas. “I don’t know. Basic instinct, I guess.”

“Huh…” I muttered, “Weird.”

From there, Dad tried to take me to an exhibit on birds—but not before a few chimps thought it would be funny to bang on their cages as I passed by. We left them behind, their pounding growing quiet like an untalented drummer coming to a realization.

We never reached the birds. Before we could, we came to an exhibit where the air thickened. Lions and tigers stalked on either side of me. I locked eyes with a lion from behind the protective glass and felt a sudden dread that the barrier separating us was not as strong as it appeared to be.

We continued like that for some time. Dad had given up on trying to talk to me. At this point he’d probably decided to enjoy the sights.

That is, until we came to a place where the air was noticeably moist. My heartbeat pounded in my neck and my breaths went shallow.

Dad saw my face and wrinkled his forehead. “Peter, are you okay?”

I tried to say yes, but words were not a thing for me at that moment. Instead, I scampered over to look into a pit of rocks and water. I tried to point to him—to show him what I was afraid of.

A crocodile dipped underwater. I could’ve sworn it was a log a moment ago. It surfaced and slapped across the rocks towards another one—wait, wasn’t that one a log, too? How was I not noticing these things?

It turned its beady eyes on me, and I paled. My heart tried to sledgehammer its way out of my chest. “Dad,” I croaked, “Can—can we go somewhere else?”

Dad nodded, “Don’t worry, Peter,” he said, he rubbed my back in a way I will never admit to being comforting. “You’re safe.”

“I know, I just—”

“You just what?”

“I can’t stop wondering, you know? What if it’s enchanted? Like, what if it turned into a dragon after it saw me? I don’t think I can fight a dragon, Dad. I don’t think I can do it—”

Dad kneeled down to be at eye level with me. He put a finger to my lips. “Peter, I want you to stay calm. There’s nothing here that will hurt you. And even if there was, you have me here to protect you. Let’s move on, okay?”

A chill shook my lower back. My hands were all clammy and my face was wet with the moist air.

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s move on.”

We skipped a section on snakes entirely, but not before I saw a water snake gliding through a pool and forgot to breathe for a few seconds.

“Peter?” Dad said.

“What?”

“Are you stressed?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you want to leave?”

“Um…I actually—”

And that’s when I saw Dawn Cross. She was wearing khakis and a green shirt with the zoo’s logo on it. She brushed her unfairly beautiful hair out of her unfairly beautiful face and said “Hey, Peter.”

I said something to the effect of “Ummmmmm…”

“What’s in your bag?” she asked, shouldering her own.

Oh, y’know, just the legendary sword Excalibur. “Nothing important.”

Dad frowned at us like he knew something we didn’t. “Do you want me to leave you boys alone?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Dawn said.

“Yes,” I said.

Dad laughed. “Meet me back here at the entrance by five, Peter.” He slapped my back and went off toward the lion’s den.

“Not a boy,” Dawn hissed under her breath. “Not a boy, not a boy…”

Dawn and I wandered the zoo in this kind of silence that I didn’t want. But every time I tried to speak words dried up in my mouth. Anything I said was guaranteed to worsen the situation.

Dawn broke said silence with the worst question to ever be asked in the history of forever. “So what was that business with Excalibur yesterday?”

My first reaction was to make a how the heck do you know that? face. The next was shock. I’d said two words to her since I knew her! Finally, I berated myself into saying, “What—what do you mean?” And then I hated myself for saying it.

Dawn looked at me as if I’d asked which type of dragon she’d prefer to be barbecued by. “You—you don’t know?”

“Know what?”             

Dawn rolled her eyes. She let her bag hit the ground with a metallic clang! Then she unzipped it opened it to show me the lance inside, dangling into the black space of the bottomless bag. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with a Sheath for my weapon.

“You’re a Descendant,” I said, then wondered why I felt the need to say it aloud.

“I thought the ring would be a good enough clue,” she said, “It was a gift from the Lady of the Lake, way back when. It protects against magic.” She took it off and handed it to me to inspect.

“I thought that was why you never talked to me,” she said. “You know, with the, uh, history between familial lines. I mean, is the lance not a big enough clue?”

Sometimes it takes a painfully obvious realization to understand how big an idiot you are. “Sooo…Lancelot? But how would that make us distant?”

“I mean it was either that or…uhm, this.” She waved a hand in front of her crotch. “And I really didn’t want to consider that option.” Her voice went strangled, “Please tell me I’m wrong. Like, actually tell me. Because I don’t like that option.”

“Of course I don’t want to be distant from you. Can I—can I not be?”

She smiled, “Please don’t be.” She hefted her lance, “Okay, so let’s not talk about this again ever.”

“Why?”

“Because reasons. Don’t ask. So, what brings you here?”

“My Dad, uh, brought me here for fun.”

“Some Dad,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she meant it as a compliment or not. “I got a job here a few months ago. My grandpa wants me working early. Paying for whatever I do after High School and all that.”

“Some grandpa,” I said, trying to match her tone. “So are you on break?”

“I’ve got a few more minutes, yeah.”

“Any places here you’d care to show me?”

“Lion’s den?”

“Sure.” We started off, glancing at people as we traveled by. There was only one problem. They didn’t seem…normal. Everyone was a blur, moving too fast for me to see. A feeling washed over me like my entire body had fallen asleep.

“You feel it, too?” Dawn asked.

“I take comfort that it’s not just me,” I said. “Wait—your ring!” I had forgotten to give it back. “You need it. Put it on and figure out what’s happening.”

Dawn snatched it, but she refused to wear it. “I’m not leaving you here alone. I’m going to help you.”

“So what do we do?”

“You want my advice?”

“Yeah.”

“Check your phone.”

I did. The minutes were passing by like seconds. It was already three o’clock.

“Peter,” Dawn said, looking over my shoulder at the time.

“Yeah?”

“I think I’m late to clock in. Do you know what’s going on?”

“Best guess?”

“Give it to me.”

“Magic.”

You don’t say!

Minutes ticked by faster and faster until the hours were going by like seconds. In the space of a heartbeat it had turned six o’clock. The phone was beginning to fade as my skin started to tingle.

“Um…I’m late to check back with my Dad.” I said.

“I think that’s the least of your problems.”

The sun was going down and the crowd was thinning—no, fading. In a few seconds it ticked to nine and the tingling vanished. And the time ticked by normally.

I blinked, struggling to see my hand in front of my face.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“I think we’re in trouble.” Gradually, I began to see her through the darkness. I couldn’t make out the look at her face, and when I realized how long I’d been staring I asked, “Where are the lights?”

Dawn said something in Spanish that I think was a curse. “I don’t know. I think the power’s out.”

“Do you think we’re alone?

“Nope.”

“Me neither.”

“This isn’t good.”

“You’re telling me you didn’t imagine your trip to the zoo going this way?”

Dawn punched my arm. “Focus, Peter. This is serious.”

“I can’t have a little fun?” I teased.

“No, I’m serious. Peter—”

Dawn was interrupted by a guttural growl like a bunch of pebbles caught in Darth Vader’s breathing machine. It came from behind us. We turned around to see a lion stalk toward us. It lowered its head and stared us down. Its tongue flicked to catch the snot on its nose.

Dawn pulled her shield off her back and hefted her lance. It was only a little bit longer than a sword. “You know something?”

“What?”

“I’ve always been curious—magical weapons can’t hurt Regulars, right?”

“Right.”

“So what does it do to animals?”

I backed away. The lion’s tail swished. It fell back on its hind legs and then pounced.

Dawn raised her lance to the lion’s belly. It yelped and slumped forward on the point. The beast fell limp and hit the floor, using Dawn as a cushion. She looked at me with crazy in her eyes. “A little help would be great!

“Right,” I muttered, and heaved the lion off of her. Dawn looked at her lance and tsked. “Broken. It’s a shame. I liked that one.” She pulled a sword from her backpack that was so bright I swear I had to squint to look at it.

“Arondight,” Dawn explained, “Lancelot’s sword.”

“I love it.” I said.

The lion stirred, which took me out of the trance my admiration for Arondight put me in. We backed away as it stumbled to its feet. The lion’s belly rippled like it was made of Jell-O. It sucked up the lance and spat it out its forehead.

A unicorn-lion. Fun.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

Run!”              

We dashed past iron cage after iron cage, ducking and dodging through corners and passageways. I didn’t even bother to worry about the crocodiles as we passed.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked Dawn.

She furrowed her brow. “How could I possibly have a plan?”

“I mean you seem like the type of girl to come up with these things.”

“Peter Pendragon, I am barely passing Algebra! Plans are not my style!”

We rounded a corner to see a monkey leaping toward a pile of—of something. It had a gorilla’s body and arms, with snakes writhing across its torso, and a crocodile head on lion’s shoulders.

The monkey climbed into the thing’s back, and then melted like hot wax into the giant monster.

“The Questing Beast,” Dawn and I said together.

See, over the years various mythical beasts have gone through this evolution where they’re drawn to Descendants, because apparently we’re the only ones worth killing. And they’ve evolved to create certain means to corner us. Including but not limiting to fast forwarding time, apparently.

And I’m guessing two Descendants of different Knights of the Round Table in the same place is like flashing a neon sign above our heads saying Attention All Mythical Monsters: Please Do Not Eat Us.

“You know, I think I’ll take my chances with the unicorn lion,” I said.

“Good idea,” Dawn muttered. We turned to run, but the unicorn lion was stalking around the corner. It bared it teeth at us and let out a grumble from the back of its throat.

“On a scale of vegetative-state to erased-from-reality-altogether, how dead are we?” I asked.

Dawn swallowed audibly. “I’d say we’re somewhere around eaten by a lion with a lance in its head kind of dead.”

“That is an incredibly specific kind of dead.”

“You’re telling me.”

Dawn and I stood back to back. She faced the Picasso beast, as I faced the unicorn lion. “At least there’s a bright side to this,” I grumbled.

“And what’s that?”

“It could be worse.”

How?

I wrung my hands around Excalibur. “…Give me a minute. I’ll think of something.”

The lion was about to pounce when someone smacked it from behind with a piece of plywood. It yelped like a puppy in a thunderstorm and turned to face the attacker, only to discover its enemy had a nail gun, too. There were three shots. Pap! Pap! Pap! And the lion scampered off.

I then found myself face to face with my Dad, leveling a nail gun at the Picasso monster. “Stay away from my son.”

“Dad?”

Dad looked up as if he just noticed me. “I thought I told you to meet me at five.”

I turned to face the Picasso-beast, which charged us. Dawn slashed her sword upward, while I went to jab it in the side.

“Can we discuss how grounded I am after we’ve been shredded to death?

The Questing Beast took advantage of my quip and swatted me onto dirt floor with its gorilla hand.

I stood, groggily. My legs were shaking as I rushed at the beast again. I went to slash at it, but I forgot about the monkeys. Two of them reached for me while I was in mid swipe, clawing for my sword hand. I danced back.

Unfortunately, I also didn’t account for the snakes. Two of them slithered across the torso, peeling off the gorilla’s chest to lash out at me. I blocked one with Excalibur, but the other got inside my reach. I reeled back and its tongue tickled my nose. I brought my sword up in a slash at the snake’s neck. It snapped back just in time and stared me down. Unblinking.

Actually, I’m not sure if snakes can blink. I may or may not have had a staring contest with an animal that does nothing but stare.

In a momentary glance I saw Dad drag Dawn away from the beast. “Kids these days,” he muttered, releasing Dawn and pulling me forward by my shirt collar. “You have to know when to fight and when to run!”

A snake went for Dad, but I brought Excalibur down on it. That should’ve beheaded it. Instead it slipped off the beast and slithered back to its cage.

We rounded a corner, the beast lumbering after us, screeching in a thousand animal noises.

We reached the gates to find them locked.

“Any other plans, Mister Pendragon?” Dawn asked.

“A few,” Dad said, trying to put on a brave voice. “Give me your ring.”

Dawn gawked for a few seconds. “This is a family heirloom—”

“I am aware,” the urgency in Dad’s voice was apparent, “My wife has told me all about it—I’d even say she envies it. But if what my wife has told me is true, that’s the Questing Beast behind us, and we’re locked inside with it. If you want to see the sunrise tomorrow you need give me your ring.”

Dawn scowled, but handed it to him. Dad readied his nail gun as the beast lumbered towards us. Dad fired his nail gun at them, aiming for one at a time. With each impact, the monster reeled back and an animal slipped off the hulking pile and ran back to its own exhibit. Dad fired at the thing like a madman, fury etched his eyes. “Stay away from my son! Keep away from him you—”

The beast roared, drowning out those last few words.

And then Dad fired again, and there was a click.

All that was left of the monstrosity was a peacock, a rabbit and a tiger. Dawn held out her hand, “My ring, Mister Pendragon?”

Dad relinquished it. Dawn put it on, drew Arondight and charged. I went to do the same, but Dad held me back. “No,” he said, “I want to see this.”

The creature prepared to pounce just as Dawn struck it with Arondight. It took two slashes and the animals all scurried away.

“What happened? Why aren’t they hurt? Why am I not looking at a pile of mangled animal bodies?” I asked, to nobody in particular. “Also please don’t think I want to look at a pile of mangled animal bodies.”

“The nails didn’t seem to hurt those things,” Dawn said, “I think they’ll be okay. Or will be in the morning.”

“What do we do now?” I asked

Dad waved for me to follow, “Come on. We need to stay busy.” To keep our minds off of what the heck just happened, Dad, Dawn and I worked till sunrise to make sure every animal got back to its proper cage. We snuck out the gate as the Realm crumbled around us and we made our way to the parking lot.

“Do you need a ride home?” Dad asked Dawn.

“I do, actually,” Dawn said, taking a sudden interest in the asphalt.

“Dad,” I nudged him, “We don’t know where she lives.”

“Well why don’t you ask then?”

I approached her, avoiding eye contact and rubbing the back of my neck. “So, um, I need your address.”

“It’s only a few houses down Second Street,” Dawn said, “it’s not too far.”

We rode home in a mixture of awkward silence and I’m too tired to make a sound silence.

Dad pulled up next to Dawn’s house and pressed the horn for whoever was inside. I hoped it was still dark enough to hide the red on my cheeks.

The man who exited the house looked like Santa Clause if he had quit toy making to become a biker. “Mister Pendragon,” he said, “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“We’re just returning Dawn.”

Biker-Santa laughed and asked for Dad to come inside, but Dad waved the offer away.

“Say goodbye, you two,” Dad said, “And make it quick. Don’t want to keep your Granddad waiting.”

Dawn looked at her Grandfather, then looked at me. “How was today?”

“Life threatening. Adrenalin pumping. Dangerous. But I had fun when that wasn’t happening.”

Dawn bit back a smile. “Me too, Peter. Stay safe, all right? I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” She frowned. “No, today.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. See you at school.” She closed the car door behind her and I watched her run off to her Grandfather.

“Well,” I muttered, “Today was a mess. What was that you did back there with the nail gun?”

“A gamble,” Dad said. “The ring is supposed to protect the wearer from magic. I thought I might be able to channel the ability of the ring into the nails themselves. I think it worked.”

I settled into my seat and sighed. “Dad, that was amazing.”

“Yeah,” Dad agreed. “Don’t tell Mom.”

“Do you really think I would? She’d kill us both.”

“So how long am I grounded?”

“I won’t tell if you won’t.”

I grinned. “That’s a deal.”

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Do you know who did that—back at the zoo?”

Dad pressed his lips together. “I don’t,” he said, “but whoever did it—I’m gonna take care of them myself.”

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Peter Pendragon and the Black Knight Without a Hall Pass

You know, when you’re the heir to the throne of a long dead Camelot and one of the last existing links between the magical and technological world, it’s almost an insult that nothing tried to kill you before you turned fourteen.

Okay, that was a bit of a mouthful. Let’s start with something a little easier to swallow—everything started just after Mom left to fight a dragon.

Wait…

__ __ __

“Peter!” Dad had shouted, “Peter, wake up!”

“Five more minutes,” I slurred.

Dad shouted like he’d stepped on a Lego, “Get down here or you’re going to miss the bus!”

“I’m up, I’m up,” I murmured. Through heavy lidded eyes I managed to get out of bed and grab a fistful of clothes that smelled halfway decent. I grabbed my bag, shoved Excalibur inside (Yes, the actual sword. Yes, it fits in the backpack. It used to be a sheath, but times change. They’re both magical. Try not to think about it).

Dad was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Arms crossed and brow creased.

Before he could say anything, I asked, “Where’s Mom?”

His eyebrows shot up. “What?”

“Mom’s the one who usually does the scolding, right?” I dashed downstairs and grabbed my shoes.

“She left at three in the morning. Something about a dragon downtown.”

“Why couldn’t she take me?”

Dad looked at me as if he were imagining how I’d look as dragon-barbecue. “It’s a school night, Peter.”

“School morning, now.”

“You have everything?”

“Yes.”

“Excalibur in your bag?”

“Yep.”

“Enchanted laundry?”

“Yep.”

“Homework? Pencils and pens? Gym clothes?”

“Yep, yep and yep.”

Dad gestured me toward the door. “Off you go then. Have fun.”

“I’ll try,” I said, and then slammed the door behind me.

 

I had math first, when I went to school. And like every other kid on the planet, I hate math. And if sitting through an algebra class wondering when the day would come that someone would come skewer me wasn’t bad enough, I had to sit next to Dawn Cross.

She used to be Don, but earlier this year she started wearing girl-clothes and said she wanted to be called a she. For some reason this has made a lot of people angry.

But anyway she’s this Spanish girl and she’s got this great hair and she smells like lavender and wow her face and that smile and—well, you get the point.

“Peter!” A voice barked, “Are you paying attention?”

I was too distracted by, y’know, everything, to answer. So what should have been “Yes,” actually sounded a bit more like, “Uhhhhhhh….”

“Do you need a moment, Peter?” my teacher asked. She crossed her arms.

Everyone was looking at me. I could feel my face going red. That was it. My life was over.

When I noticed the hulking Black Knight pass by my math class, I wondered just how true that sentiment was. What was a Black Knight doing at school?

He didn’t even have a hall pass!

The whole class was getting impatient. Except for Dawn, who looked like she’d been hypnotized by the door.

Some people started snickering. I swear the room got a million degrees hotter. “Can I use the bathroom?” I asked.

“No you—”

Without waiting for an answer, I snatched up my bag and dashed for the door. “I’msorryIreallygottagobye!”

I doubt anyone saw the Black Knight.

See, when I mentioned the whole one of the last links between magic and technology thing, I was referring to the event creatively named the Split. The basic idea is that after Camelot fell technology and magic went down separate paths. That means only magical beings can mingle with magical beings, and the Regulars, or non-Descendants can’t see the creatures.

I’d mingled with a few faeries before, and Mom had trained me in case any goblins or other magical creatures came to kill me. I wasn’t exactly unprepared.

I rounded the corner after the thing, and the world went watercolor. The land became a blur of color. I felt a tingly sensation like when your foot falls asleep, but the feeling shot up to my ears, and I knew I was entering the Realm.

The world within our world where everything wants to kill me.

Everything settled. The Black Knight had its back to me. “Hey!” I shouted, “Do you want a flesh wound?” (I know, not my best, but I only have so much time to come up with this stuff)

He turned around, armor shrieking, and said, “He told me you’d be in the gym.”

He? Who’s he? I thought. “That’s next period.” I tore off a bracelet I’d been carrying and tossed it on the ground. This the equivalent of throwing down a gauntlet, which basically means fight me or it’s a stain on your honor.

In other words, I just triple dog-dared a black knight to duel me to the death. My heart was a battering ram in the sides of my neck and a jackhammer in my chest. I had only ever fought my Mom in the backyard. And while a lot could be said for my Mom’s martial prowess (think ballet dancer mixed with Spartan warrior) she never went all out lethal on me.

“A boy is foolish,” the Black Knight’s voice was metallic inside that helmet. He drew his sword, which was as black as his armor. “A boy does not want this fight.”

“A boy is sick of archaic warnings.”

He charged for me; and for all that clunky armor, he was surprisingly fast. He pulled his shield a shield off his back.

He thrust down, and I sidestepped, throwing Excalibur between us. I felt the impact-vibration in my arm. “Is there some sort of rule against wearing anything but black?” I asked, “Did I miss that in Knight’s Code 101?”

I will neither confirm nor deny that that is a real thing

We fought with an intensity that throws all formal training out the window. In a life-or death battle, it’s hard to remember Mom’s advice. If they use this attack, use this counter, if they counter your counter with their counter, attack with this.

That’s not what’s going through your head when you’re facing an undead monstrosity hell-bent on killing you. It’s more along the lines of ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod I’m going to DIE!

I told myself to thank Dad for reminding me to wear enchanted laundry. (Tough as steel, light as cotton-polyester fabric. On sale today from your local back alley witch!)

I stabbed Excalibur toward the visor, where it got stuck. With a few tugs it came off, his visor with it.

“Woah,” I said. “You already have a flesh wound.”

The Black Knight’s face was a bruised purplish color, and his eyes seemed to pop out of his head like the wolf from that cartoon. He growled, exposing yellow teeth.

He smacked me with a gauntleted fist and the ground rushed up to meet me. I bounced back quick enough, but my ears felt muffled and everything was blurry. He brought his sword down on me just as I dragged Excalibur into its path, blocked the oncoming slice of death.

“Thinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthink.” I lunged at him. The zombie-knight sidestepped and I overreached. His shield rammed me between my shoulder blades. I hit the ground and my sword skittered out of my hand and landed down the hall.

He paused, taking a defensive stance while I reached for my sword.

Apparently Undead knights still fight with honor. Who knew? I took up my sword and picked an offensive stance.

“Yield,” said the creepy Undead Thingy.

“Of course. Here, give me a sec and I’ll surrender your obviously superior strength and just—” I struck Excalibur’s flat against the knight’s helmet. He stumbled back, and I beat the other side before he could recover. “Whoops. My hand slipped.”

He let out an asthmatic growl, like only a creature with decaying lungs could. We bound swords, broke apart, and then entered another bind.

Then he twisted his sword against Excalibur and managed to tear my shirt. Okay, I thought. So this guy can cut through steel-tough T-shirts. This is fine. I performed the mental equivalent of an eye roll.

“That was my favorite shirt!” I said, and pressed forward. He parried my attacked and smacked the flat of his blade into my ribcage. I doubled over, but told myself to address the fact that I couldn’t breathe later. I evaded his blade with a forward-and-diagonal step, and threw my sword in a slant towards the small of his back.

Impact. He arched, and with another swipe I cut his legs out from under him. The Black Knight toppled.

I threw myself on top of him, pinning his arms with my knees as I poised Excalibur just above his bruise-colored nose. “Yield.”

“I’ll die first,” the knight spat. “Kill me.”

Can undead things be killed twice? I took in a shuddering breath. “If you insist.” How many people can boast about killing a zombie?

Wordlessly, he crumbled to dust in a neat, Black Knight shaped pile.

I did it.

I sheathed Excalibur in my backpack and felt that tingling that meant I was leaving the Realm. The world solidified around me and I was back in school.

Next stop—the nurse’s office.

It took a few minutes to get to the nurse’s office. She’s a chubby woman with stretch marks all up her arm. And she never spoke. She warbled.

“Can I call home?” I asked, “I’m feeling sick.”

“What feels sick?” she asked.

“My—my stomach hurts.” I put on my best whiny voice. “I’d like to go home.”

She picked up the phone. “What’s your number?” She rolled the cord around her finger.

I gave her my Mom’s number.

There were a few rings, and the nurse explained the situation. I could hear Mom’s muffled voice on the other end. The nurse passed the phone over to me. “She wants to talk to you.”

“What’s going on?” Mom said, her voice clipped.

“I don’t feel good—.”

“What’s really going on?”

“I can’t say it here.”

“Oh god—Peter! Did something come after you?”

“I just told you I can’t say it here.”

“Questing Beast? Troll? Werewolf?”

“You were closer on the second guess.”

The nurse raised an eyebrow.

“Witch? Goblin? Is it humanoid?”

“Yes.”

“Werewolf?”

“You already said that.”

“Vampire?”

“No.”

“Banshee?”

“No.”

“Undead?”

“Yes.”

“I’m on my way.”

My parents are sort of the reason I never have anyone over. Or—I never would if I had anyone to bring over. I mean, the whole weapons-hanging-from-the-walls thing is bound to get people chatting amongst suburbia.

I wish I was kidding. There are swords, spears and ancient paintings of knights who died somewhen around forever ago. Mom even threw a few breastplates on the walls.

This had actually prompted Dad to go through a phase where I had to wear plate mail beneath my clothes every day until I was ten. After a few months of arguing, Mom came up with the enchanted laundry solution.

“So, honey,” Mom said, dropping her purse on the couch. “How was school?” I have to hand it to her, the words only sounded a little forced.

“I told you, Mom. Someone sent an Undead Knight after me.”

“Yes, but was there anything else? Anything suspicious? Someone had to conjure him.”

“I got nothin’. This is a first.”

“Let’s hope it’s the last.” Mom knelt to be at eye level with me. “Honey, give me something. Did you kill it?”

“I mean, yeah,” I pulled on my shirt, displaying it for her. “But he ruined my shirt.”

I’m not sure if it was just me, or if I actually saw my Mom smile. “I’ll get you a new one,” she said. She headed over to the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” I called after her.

“My father had this tradition, which he got from his father, and his mother before him. When a Descendant beats their first enemy, it’s time for a good old fashioned, Camelot-style feast.”

I wetted my lips. “Sounds good. I’m good with that.”

Mom made meatballs to celebrate my victory. Even Dad came home for that. I inhaled them as soon as I sat down at the table.

Dad, on the other hand, picked at his meal like he was eating spinach. “How did your day go, Peter?” he asked me.

“Killed a Black Knight,” I said with a mouthful of spaghetti. “Just in time. All in all, it was a successful foil of the first attempt on my life. Not that it didn’t scare me half to death.”

“It managed to get a few good strikes in. It almost killed him,” Mom added. Yes, point out the Flaw of the Day. “But he killed it.”

Dad turned to Mom with this weird sneer on his face like Mom had just recited the facts of Dragon-training. “What matters is that he killed it.” He squared his shoulder, all proud-like. You’d think he did it himself. He could announce I took a shower all straight backed and chin pointed upwards. “That’s all that matters, Helena.”

Mom finished her meatballs and pushed her plate aside. “I’m just saying he could’ve done better, Ross,” she said. “Speaking of which, Peter, you haven’t trained yet.”

“Mom! I killed a Black Knight! Isn’t that enough?”

“You know the rules. Seven days a week.”

“But—”

“We’re using the flail.”

“But—”

“The flail, Peter.”

The flail is like this spikey ball-thing-on-a-chain with a handle attached to it. It provides the opponent with a ranged attack, and with a sword (which I use because Mom’ll ground me if I use anything else yet) it’s hard to get in close to attack a foe.

Mom swung the flail overhead. She had her hair up in a bun and wore an enchanted bathrobe. The only way she could’ve looked more like a stereotypical mom would be if she had that green stuff on her face with the cucumbers over her eyes.

At least our neighbors can’t hear all this commotion. Fighting with magical weapons tends to do that.

I dodged the flail and made a dash toward Mom, who sidestepped and swung again. It hit my back and I fell on my stomach. Dad watched from the doorway, laughing to himself.

I never got how any sane man could marry Mom. Hey, I’m a Descendant of King Arthur and I constantly fight off monsters. Why don’t we get married?

“Get in close!” Mom said. “Get in close!”

Forget about that, I thought. I rushed her and tackled her. We tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs.

Training ended soon after that.

Dad ruffled my hair as I came into the house. He knelt down to be eye to eye with me. “Hey, I know we don’t spend much time together—”

And by that I think he meant absolutely no time together.

“—but I’m gonna change that. Tomorrow I’m taking you to the zoo!”

I bit back my annoyance. Had he stopped counting birthdays after four? Dad stared off into space like he was estimating how much that would cost him. “Or something.” He clapped me on the back and led me inside. “Come on,” he said, “Nine o’clock. Time for bed.”

I am the only Descendant of a legendary hero who can fight monsters on a daily basis, yet still have a nine o’clock curfew.

 

Scars

This story is the expanded, and edited version of Terror in the Night. I’m posting the full text. If there are any spelling or grammar mistakes, so be it. This is for readers to track the progress a writer can make over four years. (Covered further in It Gets Better – The Difference Four Years Can Make) Editing it one final time before posting it would be disingenuous.

Without further delay, I present to you, Scars:

Continue reading “Scars”

It Gets Better – The Difference Four Years Can Make

I stumbled upon this blog last night–quite accidentally, I assure you. I like to read my old writing the way other people like to remember their days in Middle School. My plan was to scrap this blog and start fresh, creating a platform for myself and my fiction.

But then I remembered how I felt four years ago about my writing. And I want to promise any young(er) writers reading this: no matter how good (or bad) you think you are, it gets better.

Continue reading “It Gets Better – The Difference Four Years Can Make”