Amalia neared the forest and she felt the trees wince away from her. Roots withdrawing. Leaves shivering a warning.
A message her master would hear.
What would he say? An ancient incantation? A curse upon her?
Then again, there weren’t a lot of those ancient curses that he hadn’t already uttered in her name.
She stepped into the forest. Leaves crunching beneath her bare feet. Warm, soft earth pressing up between her toes. The taste of rain on the air.
Earth, water, and trees. Simple life. Only months ago she’d scoffed at this simplicity. Seen the trees as bars in a cage.
And now the cage rejected her. Feared her.
Now she knew the cage wasn’t a cage at all. It was a sanctuary.
It was home.
Heavy steps shivered through the earth. Heavy steps that should have crunched down on leaves and stone and sticks, but the steps were silent. The trees took the sound away.
The way they used to do for her.
Amalia fell to her knees. Accepting the crackle of dead leaves that followed. And the way the sound traveled.
She’d betrayed more than her master when she’d left.
The ground still trembled with slow, heavy, and silent footsteps. Amalia hung her head. Waiting.
When the footsteps stopped. She didn’t raise her face. She’d beheld all the shame she could bear.
“You made your choice,” a wheezing voice spoke. “You are forbidden here, human.”
It wasn’t the voice of her Master, but one of his Guardians. Probably Ghan. The eldest of the three Guardians.
The one who had carried her to the Master so many years ago. Wet with blood and rain.
He’d carried her into this new life. And she’d walked away from it.
“Please, Ghan. I had to see.”
“You didn’t trust The Master.”
Amalia’s head hung lower. “I didn’t want to believe him.”
“Humans are incapable of true belief.”
“Then why did you take me to The Master at all?”
A wheezing sigh. “Too much blood. Didn’t know you were a human.”
Amalia lifted her gaze to Ghan. A hulking form. Armored and carrying a sword. His yellow not the soft eyes that had looked on her before. Now they were aglow with light.
Ghan was prepared to kill her.
And, only a few paces away Rihl approached. His sword bare. His eyes aglow.
“I need The Master’s help, Ghan.”
“And suddenly the human is not the source of all knowledge. All wisdom.”
Amalia’s expression tightened. Her fingers clenched down on the leaves and earth beneath them. “I need The Master’s help.”
“The Master gave me the honor of killing you.”
Amalia took a steadying breath. Searching Ghan for the friend she’d once known. For the compassion he’d showed her a thousand times over. “They’re dying. The humans. My kin. My clan. All of them. It’s a sickness like no other we’ve ever known.”
Ghan shifted his grip on his sword. His eyes still bright. “Humans are faithless. Death becomes them.”
“I have faith enough.”
Turquoise light burst from Amalia. A pillar of power. Lifting her. Filling the empty spaces inside her.
If a betrayer she had become, then a betrayer she would be.
Cyneric should not have been able to hear the ravens. The soft beats of their wings in red sunset. The rasp of their calls to each other. Not over the stomach-churning cracks of spears against shields, swords against armor, axes against bone.
His horse pranced and turned beneath him. Defeat and death were imminent. Even the seasoned warhorse felt the instinct to retreat. And, from atop the horse, Cyneric could see the stretch of the battle. If they retreated now, their clan would have at least a few of their fathers and brothers and sons to complete the year’s harvest.
He wore the horn. If he put it to his lips, the battle would be done. They would flee through the cover of night. Some would not make it. But some would.
A raven flapped closer. The bird circled and glided. Circled and glided.
Right over Cyneric’s head.
He should have put the horn to his lips. He should be watching the battle; their line would break soon and he would be the first the enemy sought out and killed.
But he couldn’t take his eyes off the ravens. Birds of death, the soldiers called them. And with the way their glistening black feathers contrasted the oranges of the sunset behind them–and the reds of the carnage beneath them–the birds certainly seemed like the bringers of death.
Or the bringers of fate.
Maybe they were one-in-the same, death and a soldier’s fate. But Cyneric only feared one of them.
The realization grabbed hold of Cyneric, like a brisk breath of wind between the joints of his armor. He wasn’t afraid of death. He’d seen it as a child. His two sisters. His eldest brother. His mother. Death was a season you couldn’t escape long.
It was fate that terrified Cyneric. A fate he couldn’t escape. A life planned before him and no matter how he thrashed, he could not escape the sinking pull of fate.
His horse danced beneath him. The ravens flapped and circled. Flapped and circled above him. Around him.
Ravens. The omens of death. The bringers of fate.
Cyneric snatched up his horn. He pressed it to his lips. But the call he breathed into it was not of retreat.
It was a forward advance.
As Cyneric urged his horse into the fray, the sounds of battle returned to his ears. The scrape of sword meeting sword. The splintering of wood. The fracturing of flesh. The cries of anger and anguish and terror.
And, in the midst of the chaos, Cyneric joined his sword to the sound, joined his will to the combat.
The ravens continued to glide and circle over Cyneric. But he chose not to hear them. He chose to pretend away his fate. If only for the few moments before his death found him.
ART CRED: Olga Tereshenko https://www.deviantart.com/olga-tereshenko/art/Knight-concept-734301701
Mist thickened the air. Grav wheezed, his damaged lungs working hard in the thick, wet air. His nose and cheeks were numb. His lips had just enough feeling left in them for him to know they were cracked and bleeding.
The trees about him were solemn and compassionless witnesses to Grav’s plight. He was not the first human to get lost among them. The First Relic’s gift showed him the people who had walked and died here hundreds of years before. The Second Relic’s gift filled his body with the soft, warm, pulse that told him that Dandrien was still out there. That Grav was still being pursued.
Grav rummaged in his clothes. Past the yellow and orange wrappings and into the pocket of the familiar, heavy leather jacket. The jacket that wasn’t his. The journey it had started wasn’t his either. Not really.
Both should have belonged to his brother.
A sensation, like scalding water, poured down his spine.
“I haven’t found it yet, Dandrien. You sure you want to kill me now?”
“Yes.” Dandrien’s voice was close.
Grav pulled the metal hilt out of his pocket. His cold, clumsy fingers fumbled with the button. Once the button was found, a sword’s metal blade extended out from the hilt. At full extension, the hilt began to hum in his hand and the blade’s edge glowed a faint turquoise.
“You can barely walk, Grav. You fight and you die faster.”
Grav laughed a ragged, wheezing laugh that ended with a violent cough. “I have the Rememberings of a millenia. Are you sure you can beat that? Even your lifetime of combat experience cannot compare.”
Grav did remember the swordsmanship of generations. He’d seen the techniques in his mind when he’d bartered for the antique weapon he now held. But the muscle memory of those disciplined warriors did not transfer with their memories. It’s quite likely he couldn’t perform a thousandth of the skill he’d seen. But it didn’t matter what he could do, only what Dandrien thought he could do.
Grav kept walking. Kept wandering. If he kept moving, he might have a Remembering. And a Remembering might just lead him to the last relic before he died.
“We destroyed them.” Dandrien’s voice echoed through the still, frozen forest. “The first two relics. They’re gone.”
Grav stopped. His grip on the hilt of his weapon found fresh strength. The jacket on his shoulders–the jacket that wasn’t his–grew heavier on his shoulders.
“To be fair it was an accident.” Dandrien’s voice shifted like the mist. Close, but never close enough to touch. “The scientists tried to drain the relic of its power. Instead it exploded. They’re sure they can do it right with the third one.”
Grav pushed his legs forward. He had to keep moving. To keep trying to find the third relic. Maybe Dandrien didn’t know where he was. Maybe he was trying to goad Grav into speaking, so that he could locate Grav once more.
“Can you imagine the kind of weapon we can make with a powersource that lasts a millenia? If you wanted to honor your brother, or the millions who’ve died in these wars, then you’d help us end it all. With the relic’s power, The Contingent can end a planet’s worth of suffering with one, final weapon.”
As soon as Grav spoke the word, he didn’t need the Second Relic’s gift to know he was in peril. A net of orange lasers encompassed him mid-step. He halted just in time to keep from passing through the human cheese grater of lasers. But now he could not move an inch in any direction. The heat from the lasers wakened his numb skin. Grav breathed in short, burning, half-breaths, trying to keep from coughing or extending his chest too close to the lasers. His legs began to tremble. Months of exertion and fatigue led to this one moment where his body might fail him. Where his sheer will to live, if only to see more of the worlds not consumed by violence, would not be enough to save him.
“Only the most adept warriors have managed to last seconds in this trap. I’m impressed. But soon your body will give out and you will die.”
“I … haven’t … found … the … third … relic …”
Dandrien laughed. “I’d tell you to look up, but that would be cruel. Trust me this last time, it’s there. Floating above you.”
Grav fought a thousand urges to look up and see the relic. But the lasers about his neck and head would not allow for such movement. He’d be decapitated before his eyes could register what he saw. But he did feel a warmth on his back. A warmth, up until now, he’d assumed was the head of the lasers. Now he realized it must be his brother’s jacket and the emblem on it glowing once more.
Grav waited for something to happen. If he was going to die, at least he could know the final gift before he went.
But nothing came. Not an awakening of his mind or a strengthening of his intiution. Nothing but a calm assurance. Was that Grav’s resignation to death or the final gift of the relic?
Grav smiled. A motion that Grav’s face had almost forgotten how to do. He’d found all three relics. He’d proven his brother right. Maybe it didn’t matter if he understood what the final gift was. Maybe it was good enough just to have reached the end of his journey before he died.
“Grav … What are you doing?”
A blue-white light washed over the ground. Grav couldn’t move to see, but felt the source must be the relic hovering over him.
“Stop it. Grav! Turn it off!”
The light grew brighter. Grav closed his eyes tight.
“I’ll let you go …”
A scream–Dandrien’s scream–filled the space between the trees, echoing in ripples like the fog.
And then it was quiet and Grav dared to open his eyes.
The lasers were gone. As was the wash of bright light. The forest itself had changed, the fog retreating a hundred paces in every direction. The empty space revealed a burn mark on the earth several feet behind Grav. That must have been Dandrien. What was left of him. And ahead of him, at the edges of where the mist’s retreat, was an archway. An archway made of the same stone as the relics and decorated with the same symbols.
Something inside Grav knew what it was. It was a portal.
And then Grav remembered. Really remembered. The Loen, all of the people he’d seen, they’d all found the relics, too. They’d all stood here, in front of this archway. They’d all entered in, never to return to this world.
The relics weren’t just a way to remember the past; they were the way to escape to a better future.
Grav’s free hand moved to the leather jacket he wore. His brother’s jacket. “Thank you.”
He felt the relic above him. Felt the calm emanate from it. Felt that this relic would lead him to the portal. To a life only his brother had dared to imagine was possible.
Dry leaves crunched beneath Grav’s boots. Grav hesitated. These were Reaka leaves. Reaka leaves named such by the Loen people. A people indigenous to the Northern War Zone.
A people who died a hundred thousand years ago. Without written record. Without any remaining evidence of their passage.
And yet, Grav knew them. He knew their language. He could see their faces. Children laughing and arguing and laughing again as they chased each other around the trunks of the Reaka trees. Adults who knelt and gathered the leaves and fruit as they did their own version of chasing the conversation around trees in playful and not-so-playful ways.
Reaka leaves. The Loen people. Things Grav shouldn’t know. Things he hadn’t known before the first relic. But now his mind was opened to experiences and people he’d never imagined. To a dying world’s forgotten potential.
Grav took as deep of a breath as his hazard suit would allow. The air’s poisons were filtered away with the hum and rasp inside the mask, but he could still taste the air. The contradiction of wet earth, laden with vegetation, and the acrid, dry death of the Reaka trees.
Maybe this world’s potential would never be re-realized. Maybe they would fight and kill for the rest of time.
But he wanted to remember. He wanted to know what came before. For himself. For the people like the Loen–a people more worthy of remembering than the ones he knew.
Static crackled in his ear. “Did you have another Remembering?”
“Yeah.” Grav continued walking. More Reaka leaves crushed and crunched under his steps.
“Grav, are the comm’s clear? Do you read me?”
“I hear you, Dandrien.”
Dandrien was an agent of The Contingent. The only group who believed Grav’s story after the first relic. The Contingent had funded this venture into the Mid War Zone. He owed them.
“Grav? Do you see the second relic?”
Grav looked up. He saw the stack of grey stones beyond the line of dead Reaka trees. The symbol carved in the top was more intricate than the first relic’s. “Dandrien, I–”
Before he could answer, before Grav could utter another syllable, the relic lit up. And what filled Grav was not more knowledge. He gained no more Rememberings than he’d had before.
What he gained was dread. A palpable, heavy, tingling sensation that pulsed within him.
He was not safe. Not now.
“Grav? Your vitals are … unusual. Can you hear me?”
The voice sent tremors through his body. Mistrust cut through his every thought. He should answer Dandrien! There was no predator in this forest. There was no reason for the fear. For the sudden spike in adrenaline.
But he could not reason away the fear.
Grav looked up at the relic.
“Grav, if you can hear me, we’re sending in med-evac.”
Grav pulled the helmet off of his head.
“Stand by,” the helmet crackled in his hand.
Grav dropped the helmet and ran. Following a trail only the Loen people knew. Following an intuition that wasn’t his own.
Wet, cold mist clung to Grav. His torn pants, his brother’s jacket, his uncertain face–all wore the damp, chilling droplets.
Grav tried to clear his mind. He tried to ignore the cold, the wet, and the roar of the waterfall. Something was supposed to happen here. At this tower.
Something worth dying for.
At least that’s what his brother believed. That’s what his brother had died for. To get here, to stand here.
But now, wearing his brother’s jacket and standing before the rock, Grav felt cold. Really cold. And not from the water or the air, but from inside. From that place inside him that had wanted to believe his brother had died for something meaningful. For something old and powerful that gave wisdom instead of weaponry. Peace instead of power.
But whatever flicker of belief Grav had borrowed from his brother, it was snuffed out now. There was no light, no belief, no hope left in him. Only the frigid crashing of grief inside him. Like glaciers meeting, their unexpected forces groaning and splintering each other.
Grav shrugged off his brother’s coat. He let his numb fingers touch the charred holes in the leather. There wasn’t even any blood. Killing had become efficient. Murder was no longer messy. War was a game.
And there was no way out.
Grav turned the jacket to look at the symbol on the back. The symbol Grav’s brother had stitched on there by hand. He’d done a shoddy job of it. The thread was tangled and knotted and the stitches erratic. Grav traced the symbol, the desperate hope of one tired of the carnage, but doomed to be victim to it.
Then the string changed. The shoddy stitching on the back of his brother’s coat began to glow an eerie white. Grav held the jacket with new reverance and utter disbelief. Was this the work of his brother? Some sort of trick left beneath the leather to ease Grav’s greif? To trick him into believing?
Did he believe? Did he believe enough to look one more time up at the tower of stone? Did he dare to see if it had changed?
And if it had changed, would he have the strength to let go of the cold? Let go of the grief and believe, if only for his brother?
Grav wiped the wet from his face. He wiped the tears from his eyes.
Noindorath had her hatchlings warm and close under her wings. Hatchlings she’d just named. Hatchlings she’d never had the chance to name in the last life. Their lives had been too short. Some never even making it out of their marbled-stone eggs. They nuzzled close now. Dozens of tiny, hot breaths breathing into her. Needing her. And she needed them. Needed them like she’d never let herself need them before. Not when she had the races of men and dwarves and elves and orcs to save. The Champion of the First Ascension, Destroyer of Ralgun, and the Great Dragon God of Brynnturok she had been them all and now she was just a mother. She let her eyes close. She let her breathing match her hatchlings. She let their heat envelope her body and mind and soul.
When Noindorath opened her eyes there was no more warmth. No more hatchlings. All was cold and dark and dripping. And the air. The air smelled like rotting, spoiled flesh. There was no smell of dragon near. Not even Noindorath smelled as she used to.
Noindorath raised herself up on black, aching legs. Noindorath lumbered toward the smells. Her head found open air and a clouded sky. Her eyes beheld Zileska. A land she’d left in death centuries before. A land now rotting and ravaged, like a carcass left to the lesser creatures of flight.
A call grew inside Noindorath and she let it out. It was a low, mournful sound. She opened her wings, waiting for the hatchlings to exit the sky and land beneath her wings. Waiting for their warmth to ease her sore limbs and troubled mind.
No hatchlings came. They existed on a different plane. A plane Noindorath had been ripped from. A new sound, a new emotion, hatched inside Noindorath. Her claws gripped the rock beneath her, crushing it into an avalanche of shards.
Noindorath turned her head and beheld the flavor of not-yet-rotting humans and elves and dwarves and orcs some leagues away. She spoke her wrath, her hatred, her cold judgment of utter destruction in a single earth-trembling roar.
She launched her body into the sky and the wind and cold entered her scales through holes in her undead flesh. Pain and cold and hatred. Things she would share with the races that had robbed her of her hatchlings once again.
Noindorath the Awakened—a name she gave herself. For when she was done, there would be no living creature left to give her another.