Watching

Thunder clouds rumble over head, bright tendrils of white, electric power tangling through purpled blackness in a mad, mysterious dance. All the secrets of the universe seem caught in the atmospheric battle above. The tang and spice of a desert storm tickles his tongue as Varence licks his lips thoughtfully, face tilted skyward to watch the show. He hasn’t been to this part of the world in a very long time.

“Monsoon season,” says a woman’s voice, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Varence smirks slightly, but he doesn’t turn. He doesn’t have to. His heart mocks the rumbling thunder around them, wild and uncontrollable.

“And dangerous,” he says, leaning back nonchalantly against the red brick wall of the club. The bricks still carry the heat of the summer sun and the heavy bass from within reverberates through him, warring with the storm outside.

A woman, slight and delicate, peels herself from the shadows and he glances her way as a particularly vibrant crash of lightening illuminates her. She’s beautiful, so beautiful that his heart clenches inside his chest. It hurts to look at her, as usual, and he looks away almost immediately, but not before bitterly noting the bundle held carefully between her graceful arms.

“All beautiful things are,” she murmurs as she glides to his side. It starts to rain, gentle drops pattering off nearby rooftops and creating circular, widening patterns on the grease stained concrete. He can smell her, something sweet, something heady, something intoxicating, and it calls to the basest parts of him. It wakes memories he’s spent a millennia trying to forget. The warmth from her gently glistening skin is like a welcoming fire through a fierce blizzard. He aches to touch her, but he knows better. He knows he’d only be burned. His fists clench at his sides.

“Thank you for coming,” she says and he looks into her eyes, gold and blue swirling, mating in a never ending pattern. He could loose himself in them, in her. She wears a simple aqua summer dress that leaves her shoulders and knees bare, and her long, fiery hair cascades in ever moving ringlets down to her slim waist. Against her slight breasts she carefully, reverently, holds a blanket wrapped, sleeping baby. He resists the urge to wipe a stray rain drop from the infant’s creamy cheek. One look and he loves her instantly. He hates it, but he can’t help it. After all, the baby is a part of her.

“Why did you do it, after all these years?” He asks and he can’t quite keep the pain from his voice.

She sighs and shakes her head, eyes sad, “I wish I could explain it to you, I can only say, as the mortals do… that the heart wants what the heart wants.”

He snorts and shoves himself away from the wall, temper mounting. “And what about your baby? Was it worth cursing her to a life of fear and danger?” He speaks to the storm because he can’t bring himself to look at her again.

“Don’t be like this, Varence, I didn’t intend for this to happen, you have to know that-“

“Her kind were outlawed for a reason!” He shouts and hates himself for it. Years of bitterness, longing and pain pushing aside rational thought. “They’re dangerous and she’ll be hunted by both heaven and hell and you- you dare to ask me to watch out for her. After what happened between us, after everything you took from me, from us. Why! Why me?”

He swirls, intent on wringing a millennia of unanswered questions from her, and stops short. There is such a deep and pervasive mixture of sadness, regret, and grief in her eyes that it steals the breath right out of him. He feels defeated, broken. Her tears mix with the building rain but he knows them for what they are and it reminds him of the last time he had seen her cry. With her hand slipping from his as he’d slid slowly down into the darkness and dissent he’d chosen, cast out and reviled.

“I knew that I could trust you… I knew you would take care of her. Love her. I know the gravity of my choices, don’t think I don’t. But my daughter deserves a chance to live, a chance to be more than those archaic legends. More than a history written in blood and death.”

Varence shakes his head, “You’re a fool. You know that? Your child will never know peace, she’ll never find a place in this world… or the next. She’s an abomination. And you’re a hypocrite.”

She’s crying in earnest now and she steps to him quickly, thrusting the child into his arms with a cry that tears at his very soul, “Please! Please take her! I can’t bear to do this with anyone else, please, promise you’ll protect her as best you can. I’ll be watching, I’ll always be watching. I’ll do what I can, but the best thing I can do for her now is to leave. She stands a better chance that way.”

Despite himself, his hands and arms encompass the tiny babe. She weighs almost nothing, like he’s holding a small rain cloud. He looks down in disbelief at the miniature, upturned face. She’s awake and studying him with steady, vibrantly blue eyes. His heart is lost and he deflates, all the fight going out of him.

He looks back toward the woman who’d irrevocably damaged his heart and asks, “What of her father?” He doesn’t want to know, not really, but he has to know. He hadn’t thought she could look more shattered, but she wanes further, a mere ghost of the woman he remembers.

“He won’t remember me… or her. I made sure of it.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, but endlessly hollow. Before he can speak, she reaches out and touches her daughter’s face with a slim, perfect, shaking hand. She traces the fine, soft features and the baby coos gently. She presses a final, lingering kiss to her daughter’s cheek and it’s unimaginably painful to watch.

“I love you, Evelyn. Good bye,” she mummers and then turns to him once more. She cups his cheek and he hisses in pleasure pain. He’s waited many long, long years to feel her touch again, but not like this. Not when she’s only saying goodbye again.

“Thank you,” she says quietly and he wants nothing more than to hold her, to keep her here with him forever. But she was never his to have, never his to love. She steps away.

“Now, I’m as alone as you always felt you were, Varence, I hope that might earn me some forgiveness,” she whispers brokenly, and then is gone, melding back into the shadows.

He stares at the spot where she’d stood, “I never wanted that,” he whispers, “I never wanted that for you.”

The sky breaks open above him and lightening crashes, the trailing thunder caries the sound of her grief and he walks away, tucking the baby into the folds of his jacket to protect her from the rain. He doesn’t look back because he knows there is nothing left to see.

The Night Drives

The highway spreads out beneath my truck like a black, pulsing vein. I can feel it shifting under the racing tires, alive and restless, as the sun sets violently in the rear-view mirror painting the inside of the cab in shades of rose.The fantastical words of Tolkien rise up to meet me, as though they had merely been lying in wait between the lines in the asphalt; “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”. It’s faintly silly, applying the words of imaginary characters from worlds that don’t exist upon my own, terribly realistic life, but they bring me comfort. They’ve always brought me comfort, faint reminders of a child hood that barely seems to belong to me.

A desert sunset makes the sky bleed, dripping in hues of pinks and reds, the sun a bright, bloody drop slipping toward the edge of nothing. The road is a dark, slithering river that leads me away from everything I’ve known and my heart squeezes uncertainly in my chest. My knuckles are white on the steering wheel and my back aches from the impossible tension between pinched shoulder blades. I’m afraid, I realize. Underneath the elation and hope is a strong, thrumming note of fear. I turn the music up louder, the bass pumping rhythmically against the soles of my feet, but some silences cannot be drown out. This one grows stronger with the escalating darkness that creeps carefully up metal railings and brush-lined roads that gray and crumble with age.

Headlights are few and far between and they seem years away right until they reach me, momentarily blinding, and then they are gone again, lost in their own counter current. I feel alone for the first time in years, and I take note of the cadence of my breathing and the rhythm of my heart. I wonder if they have always had such a distinct tune or if this is something new, something vitally different. Could I have changed so quickly? Or have I always been this way and I just forgot how to see, hear, and taste it?

Here, alone in the falling night, there is nowhere for me to run but ahead. The ghosts of my past linger, ever nipping at my heels, but for now I have the lead. For the first time in what might be forever, I feel like I might be gaining ground instead of losing it a little bit at a time. With sudden clarity I can see all the choices that led me here, to this moment, and I feel like I’m on the brink of something. Something that looms, waiting in the familiar, yet foreign landscape, as if at any moment I might find myself flying off the edge of a chasm. I wonder why the idea excites me. Why I suddenly long for a gaping maw of uncertainty. Maybe because, prior to this moment, my life seemed etched in stone, every moment planned and accounted for. The sudden emptiness of a future undecided fills me up until each breath shutters. I laugh, I laugh for the pure wild joy of something I hadn’t really understood I was missing until I’d found it. I’m laughing and crying and I swear to myself I will never forget this moment, even if all I’m doing is pressing one worn tennis shoe to an old gas pedal.

Ahead, purpled mountains fade to sharp fanged teeth, ominous and exciting as the path dips, curves and lifts, every second taking me just a little further away from everything I want to leave behind. I’m going seventy five on the interstate and I crack the windows because I need to feel the air on my face. The wind is harsh, tearing at my hair and chilling my cheeks, but it makes me feel alive, it makes the whole thing feel real.  And God, do I need this to be real.

Brothers In Fire

Prologue

The sun pressed with heavy hands on Himthel’s back and neck, threatening to overpower his already trembling knees as he stumbled through the surrounding destruction. A fiery wind tore at his fraying cloak and pulled at his ash spotted beard with vicious fingers, sucking the moisture from flaking, burning skin.

Around him charred blackness extended as far as the eye could see, an enormous coppery sun commanding the wasteland like a ruthless dictator. Twisted forms of blasted trees were his only companions as he took each laboring step, every press of his tattered boots a testament to his resolve. Ahead, shimmering dreamlike in the heat, was a vast obsidian tower with the crown blown off, set like a decaying wound against the snow-capped Summer Mountains. Nothing moved for miles. Nothing living ventured into The Desolation. Even the sky was free of birds and no insects chirped or stirred. It had been half a century since man had dared make the journey to the ruined temple, but an unforgiving purpose drove Himthel forward at the point of a twisting spear.

He was nearly delusional with heat and thirst when he reached the crumbling steps of the temple, clinging to life by the thinnest of threads. He began his ascent slowly and it was nearly sunset when he at last achieved the upper most platforms, half crawling on blackened hands and bloodied knees. Once the temple had been made of the finest stone and marble, the careful, dedicated work of four generations of his brethren, now it was only a blasted skeleton of itself. Wavering and rasping, Himthel made his way into the gaping maw of the central citadel. Silhouettes of twisted, incinerated bodies decorated the walls of the circular chamber within, an immortal mural of the horrible terror that had been unleashed and all that remained of his acolytes and peers.

Above the broken tower rose to a shadowy zenith, the bloodied sun only a distant pinprick. Hovering several feet above the rubble and ash, illuminated in a thin ray of sunlight, hung a figure cloaked in white and gold.

“I didn’t think I would see you again, brother,” the figure said, turning gradually. Framed in a gold threaded hood was an achingly handsome man of indeterminable age. Flaxen hair hung down to his trim waist and golden eyes gleamed and shifted.

“You are not my brother,” Himthel rasped and his voice was like sand across dusty floors.

The god-like creature looked crestfallen, “How cruel, have I not been magnanimous, brother? I let you live, after all.”

Himthel fell to his knees, not in reverence, but in deathly exhaustion. The man laughed and it sounded like bells and music; Himthel winched at the sound, pain radiating in his skull.

“I must say, you did not age well,” the man remarked and drew nearer, feet ever off the decimated floor.

Himthel pulled what passed for a sneer, chapped lips breaking and bleeding, “Funny, I could say the same for you.”

The man smirked, “What brings you back to this place? Thought to die among the remains of your pathetic followers?” His silk draped arms reached wide as though embracing the destruction and decay, “Or were you hoping for recompense? I’m afraid your god no longer lives here.”

Fighting back unconsciousness with quickly dwindling strength, Himthel said, “I come with a message.”

Another tinkling laugh and the figure came forward till he hovered just before the prone old man, “And what message might that be? What have I to possibly fear from you or any other mortal?”

With fumbling hands Himthel drew something from his faded red cloak, holding it between them like a challenge. Slowly and with deliberate dramatization, he unfurled his fingers like the petals of a wilted flower. Against his steady, wrinkled palm, lay a medallion of gold and silver, split into fourths. Barely visible seams ran between each section, alluding to four pieces which created the whole, each side etched and carved with a specific deity.

In a voice that seemed to come from everywhere and no where all at once, Himthel said, “The war has only just begun.”

The earth shook and the shadows deepened, a heart stopping scream of pure fury rent the air. The tower erupted like a spout of flame, shooting hell fire hundreds of feet into the sky. The surrounding land was again awash in a wave of violent destruction, only this time there was nothing left to destroy. The pillar of flame burned for two days and the message was clear to those who knew how to listen.

War.

Ruins Built Upon Ruins

The ancient port city of Runiel loomed out of the purpled mist like a humped-back whore, thick legs spread wide in lewd welcome to all hapless ships that came her way. It was the type of place one could get trapped, or killed. There were few places in the Summer Lands that Fett Riedel hated more than Runiel but he’d been so long at sea he would kiss the filthy streets for simple joy of solid ground beneath his water logged boots.

He stood at the prow of the ship, ignoring the frozen spray of salty sea water as their small craft maneuvered through choppy waters. His heart trembled in excitement and trepidation, making his legs restless and his hands jittery. The Towers of Runie appeared suddenly like the broken fingers of a massive fist, all odd angles and strange twists, and they seemed to offer him a silent challenge. Tread here if you dare, they said, and he suppressed a shiver. The technologies and sciences that had built those alien structures were as forgotten as the people who had built them and they made Fett’s skin crawl. Like he was staring at a fresh corpse. The more modern city stemmed from those towers like rotting roots to the edge of the rubbish clogged bay. Fett had a sense the city might have been beautiful, once, but not in the last hundred years, at least. Now it was merely a place of ruins built atop more ruins, a place full of the dead and forgotten.

The Balance was weak within the city, its citizens leaning toward strange pagan gods and even a touch of the False God to the East was present, if the rumors were to be believed. And Fett tended to believe such rumors, even if they proved to be mostly false there was always a hint of truth buried in the rubbish. Years on the streets in Ironfell as a lad had taught him to be superstitious and cautious. Bravery was all well and good until it got you killed, shoved off into a ditch and forgotten. He was no coward but he wasn’t a fool, either.

Those towers gave pause to reason, though; there was something sinister about them. Fett imagined that a giant monster, like those in the old tales of Chaos his mother used to tell him in their tiny shack of a home, lay beneath the earth with only a gnarled hand protruding, its owner merely sleeping, lying in wait. He suppressed another shiver and shrugged his oil slickened cloak closer about him, rubbing the salt from his beard with a leather gloved hand. Gods, he couldn’t wait to have a nice bath, maybe with a pretty maid to wash his back and-

“We’re nearly there,” said a soft voice to his left and he nearly tumbled off the side of the ship, clasping at a bit of rope desperately. He banged his knee hard on the wood ledge and cursed.

“Damn the Four woman, you can’t sneak up on a man like that!” He said, indignant as he righted himself. His face went red as a few passing sailors nudged each other and snickered behind dirty hands. He shot them a seething glare and they went quickly back to work.

The small woman wore a half smile on her full lips as she came up beside him. Her steps were silent and she exuded grace and confidence. Telia was a real beauty, easily one of the most beautiful women Fett had ever seen, and he’d seen a few. She also scared the shit out of him. With her ethereal exquisiteness and the strip of fine lace and silk covering her sightless eyes, she was not only beautiful, but mysterious as well. A heady combination for any man and one he was not immune to, despite several weeks in her company. And, if stories were to be believed, she was also a lethal assassin. Fett tended to believe such stories, especially when they revolved around a woman who made him feel uneasy in his own skin.

A lot of things made him uneasy these days.

They stood in silence for a span, watching the fog part as the bay welcomed them eagerly. It had been a long time since Fett had seen so many ships in one place. He gripped the worn hilt of his sword; he didn’t like crowds anymore than he liked being confined to a ship. He missed the open valleys of his birthplace and the looming presence of the Iron Mountain. Things had certainly been simpler then, but a man can’t make a living on naught but comfort.

“Do you sense it?” Telia asked at a near whisper. He glanced at her, raven hair unbound and billowing about her like a cape. She smelled of something spicy, something exotic. Fett swallowed heavily.

“S-Sense what?” He asked, silently cursing her for making him sound like a fumbling boy.

“Death,” she said, a cat like smile curled her lips.

“Hell of a thing to say,” he countered, damn tired of suppressing shivers. He didn’t like feeling nervous, made him grumpy.

Her smile only widened. “Don’t be afraid my evil smelling swordsman, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Woman had a hell of a sense of humor. Fett scoffed, “You ever been to Runiel?”

“No I-“

“Well let me tell you, it’s one of the most filth infested cities in all of Summer. I was nearly knifed twice the one time I had the misfortunate of staying and I only stayed the one night. You sense death here? Damn straight you do, whole city is infested with it.”

She wasn’t smiling now and she’d tilted her head at him in the unsettling way blind people had. More unsettling was the fact that she moved with perfect ease and certainty, she didn’t even carry a cane. He wondered what she Saw, or sensed, and had a distinct feeling he didn’t want to know.

“You’re upset,” she stated, “What is it?”

Fett growled and shoved a hand through his greasy hair, wincing as the honeyed strands caught on wet leather.

“Damn place makes me uneasy,” he admitted. He wasn’t the type to bear his soul to man or woman, but Telia was different. She was not just any sort of woman, speaking to her felt like confessing, like she might forgive him his shortcomings or some such bullshit.

Maybe he was just getting soft or maybe she’d cast some sort of spell over him. Of all the Four Schools, the Daughters of Darkness were by far the most mysterious. Those practices which were widely known, or believed at least, were enough to give a man pause. The thought of her casting some sort of charm over him was comforting, it was easier to lay blame on others than examine himself. He’d learned that a long, long time ago.

She was smiling again, a sort of wistful expression, face angled up, as though she were looking at the towers as they stretched branch like across a wintery blue sky. They were even more unsettling up close, twelve in total, and their dark green surfaces gleamed eerily in the morning light. There were no windows and Fett knew from unfortunate experience that there was only one door, a door no one had been able to open. He should know, he’d tried.

“There are many things to be uneasy about and we’re headed into the thick of it,” she turned toward him again and there was something challenging about her stance, “If you’d like to break our contract, now would be the time. Soon, there will be no turning back.”

Fett tried to think if he’d ever heard more ominous words. He didn’t think so. His pride didn’t even let him consider breaking terms, however. A sell-sword lived nearly on reputation alone and he was living on a small, lonely island as it was. Besides, never let it be said that Fett Riedel was out manned by a tiny woman in purple silks, possible deadly assassin or no.

“It’ll take more than some creepy towers and street thugs to scare me off, I just figured you needed a better appreciation of what we’re walking into.” He straightened up, chastising himself for acting a skittish foal.

Telia placed a delicate hand on his arm and his whole body tensed. He could feel her warmth even through the thickness of his jacket and tunic.

“I think I have a better idea of what we are walking into than you might believe,” she said. This time he didn’t bother to suppress the shiver that tore through him. She squeezed his arm for a moment, perhaps out of comfort, before pulling away.

They were silent until they finally pulled into port and even then Fett couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he was making a huge, possibly deadly mistake.