Let’s Get Out of Here, Just You and Me

Let’s get out of here, just you and me. I don’t need the promise of tomorrow and yesterday tastes bitter in my mouth. I want to watch the sun rise over a landscape that breaks into all the things I never thought I’d see; all the things I was too afraid to reach for. We’ll take your car and I’ll man the radio, I’ll play the soundtrack of my life and you’ll smile like you don’t know. We can chase the memory of passion lost, a trail growing colder with every mile we leave behind.

Let’s ditch this town, this tired collection of haphazard streets and lawns built on haste and disinterest. I imagine blue skies and sweet air that isn’t heavy with all the choices we’ve both made, the words we never should have said, and pretend, for a minute, that the grass really might be greener. I want to grab your hand and leave the path we’ve started down, I want to scream fuck it all into the bleeding sun and give it all up. I want to take for granted everything I have with you and recapture the uncertainty.

Let’s stay up late and watch the stars move in tandem with the moon. We’ll remember younger days of whispered promises on shooting sparks in the void and the wild hope of a tomorrow that might never come. We’ll laugh at the sheer enormity of everything we can’t see and feel free in the face of all the things we could never hope to understand. We’ll pretend we’re not afraid and fall asleep as the moon dies and the stars sputter like the dreams we built in the dark, forgotten under the press of the sun.

Let’s make promises we can’t keep. They taste the sweetest as they roll off our eager tongues, like the temporary pleasure of a stolen candy and forgotten just as quickly. I want to pretend for a few hours more that this might last longer than a few hundred, uncounted heart beats. I want to sit here, hands clasped and sweaty, and pretend for just one second more that this might mean something. Something more substantial than time long lost and passed.

Let’s turn ourselves into something we’re not. I’ll be that girl the broken slivers of me once dreamed of being and you can pretend you’re everything I thought I wanted. We can build ourselves using the pieces others left behind; all those lofty ideals and unrealistic gems of plastic brilliance. A fair and convincing façade from across the room, just don’t get too close or you’ll see the cracks in the warped glass. We’ll be actors in a play that has no audience aside from our two silly hearts that are so damn set on ruining the lines. You’ll say you love me and I’ll smile and say ‘I know.’

Let’s say goodbye. And this time we’ll mean it, I swear. When we hug, our bodies disjointed and graceless as they collide in a mockery of the passion they once possessed, we’ll force our smiles and our words will slither all across our teeth. I’ll turn to leave and you’ll stand at your door, the one that was always hard to cross, and I won’t turn and you won’t wait. The door will click closed and I’ll get into my car and drive away. The anticlimactic ending to a tired song that I’d long forgotten the words to, but a part of me will always remember the chorus.

Let’s get out of here, just you and me.

The Queen’s Armor

The Queen’s Armor

By Brianne McDonald

 

Princess Amara did not turn when the door to her private chambers opened in the half darkness of a swiftly falling, winter night. Her fingers, pale and long with no ordination save her marriage ring, clutched the cold stone inlay of the windowsill with sudden, but contained, desperation. The moon, near full, was high in the sky and it held her gaze. The touch of its cold, silver rays chilled her far more than the snatches of frozen air that swept across her skin from the edges of the window-glass. It was a chill that dove beneath the surface of her skin, past bone and steadily thrumming blood, to the core of her.

The Capital stretched out from the roots of the palace in long, cresting waves and eddies that spanned toward the distant, shadowed mountain peaks of the south. Those peaks were violent and jagged, razor teeth in an angry, eager maw. She had never liked the look of them, not since she’d first laid eyes on them shortly after her hasty marriage almost five years ago. The city though, so vibrant, so full of life and variety, –so unlike the world she’d grown up in– she had loved almost instantly. Within its many turns and folds she’d often stood where she stood now and imagined a simpler life. A happier one that was not so far removed from everything she wanted. But the twinkling lights of thousands of homes and the lives they encompassed could not draw her away from the damning eye of her Goddess, hung like a noose among velvet and diamonds.

Amara felt the pressure of his gaze between her shoulder-blades, drawing her attention as the door closed softly behind him. Muscles tensed beneath a cotton nightgown and a fur lined, heavy winter robe. Her heart stuttered traitorously and her breath caught as the familiar, heavy press of his boots across lavish rugs neared. The smell of him hit her: leather, sweat, horses and spice. Her eyes fluttered helplessly, a desire that she’d long suffered pressing in on her and she wished him gone with an intensity matched only by her desire for him to stay.

“Amara, we must-“

“Don’t,” she said, her voice broken, “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything. I can’t bear it.”

She heard Brant’s steps falter and then stop. He was close, so close she could turn and stare up into his eyes that were as familiar to her as her own. Close enough that she could press her lips to his as she had imagined in weakened moments, alone at night when her husband had been away and her hand could slip unseen beneath her gown. Close enough that she might reach out and trace his jaw with her finger tips and catch the warmth of his skin against her palm as she’d long dreamed of whilst lying next to the man who had been her husband. Not her husband anymore, no, not after the terrible message they’d received the night prior.

The moist heat of Brant’s breath gently parted the loose falls of her hair and skittered across the back of her neck, effectively weakening her knees and quickening her breath. Her subjects called her cold, aloof, unfeeling; and it was a reputation she’d acquired through hard work and perseverance. Her mother had helped her to cultivate it and her husband had both appreciated and despised it. A façade only one man, one person, had ever torn away from her. And she could almost hate him for it.

“Tell me what I should do then, Amara. Tell me how I can best serve you. If it is to be in silence, then so be it, but don’t send me away, not again.” His voice carried a raw, desperate quality she’d never heard from him before. Her heart, already unsteady, pounded against her ribs in protest. She couldn’t speak the words she knew she needed to say, for her, for him, for her son and daughter, and for the kingdom she was now expected to rule. She couldn’t speak them because she knew the hope that echoed from him now. It was the same hope that had spread through her like swift poison at the awful news. The news broken to her, to their entire court, over the lavish Winter’s Feast, to a series of gasps, cries and shouts. The same hope that had overwhelmed her shock, loss, and terror for one bright, dreadful moment before reality had snatched her back up in its unforgiving wake. It was a hope, though short lived, that had been replaced by an all consuming guilt.

He grasped her suddenly, ripping a soft cry from her startled lips, and spun her fiercely around to face him. The touch of his hand, not felt for nigh on three years, burned through her thick robe like a fire too close to fragile skin. He pressed toward her and her hands, trembling now, caught at the stone weakly to brace herself.

Brant’s face was ferocious in the silvered darkness, the heat of his eyes battling the chill in her soul like a spark in an empty hearth. He gripped her arms in his large, rough hands and she hissed in pain and pleasure. The pain was far removed from physical expectation but was more akin to a near-frozen limb subjected to warmth, only rather than a limb, it was her heart. And she couldn’t bear it, not now, not ever again. If ever she’d needed her armor of snowy expressions and winter stares, it was now.

She opened her mouth to banish him from her presence, this time for good, but he was too quick for her, too determined and stubborn. He’d always been so damned stubborn. His lips bruised hers with their force and his teeth clashed against hers so hard her ears rang, but nothing could dull the sweet pain that rose up in her unbidden and unwanted. She tasted blood as his tongue pressed forward like a battering ram, not requesting, but demanding entry into her mouth.

Amara had seen men break. She’d watched as the world had taken them apart one small, almost forgettable piece at a time, until they were little more than flesh and weary bones. Her mother had taught her that women, though rarely physically superior to men, could build themselves emotional armor and weapons stronger than almost any plate-mail or sword. She’d crafted her armor and weapons carefully, learned to use them with wisdom and care. Now she felt the pieces of them break down around her as Brant’s grip on her loosened and her arms rose to draw him in closer.

She had loved her husband, Vrance, the Heir Apparent to the throne, now dead somewhere, likely loaded on a creaking cart alongside the body of his father, the King, on his way back to her with a beaten, ruined army trailing behind. She had loved him as much as she could love a man after her heart had already been taken by another. He had been good, kind, and honorable, a competent warrior, and a fair tactician with an even, merciful hand. The type of man doomed to die, her mother would have said. In comparison, Brant was not often kind, he was harsh and blunt, his honor he wore like a gilded cloak, to be tossed aside when necessary, and mercy was a thing to be avoided unless entirely warranted. He was also, more than likely, the father of the three year old Prince who would tomorrow be crowned King, making her the Queen Regent.

When he pulled away from her, their heavy breaths condensing between them, her back was against the wall and her legs around his hips. He set his forehead against hers and said, “You’ll rule this kingdom with a cold, iron fist. You’ll save them from the armies in the south and make this city stronger than it has been in two hundred years.” His hands slid her gown up her thighs as her fingers scrambled against his shoulders and gripped at the unruly lengths of his inky hair. Vrance had been golden, like the Prince’s in all the tales and songs, bright and shining. Amara had always found him too bright to look at for long.

“And I’ll be here,” he said. “I’ll stay in the shadows as I always have. I’ll protect you from anyone or anything that dares get too near.” These words he pressed like brands against the rapid thrum of her pulse where it sped along the white column of her neck. His teeth bit down and Amara let the last of her defenses go with a soft cry.

She had loved her husband and his father. She had respected them and admired them for what they were. But they had notions of honor and peace that dark times always ignored. Raised in a country that had been war torn long before her birth, Amara understood the reality of violence that a place like the Capital had long forgotten. What her country needed now was a ruthless detachment that would save them from the evil that crept toward them a little more each day. What her country needed was a few shadows to combat the tide of darkness before it swallowed them whole.

With the watching, glowing eye of the Goddess she had once served looking on in silence, Amara opened her arms to Brant, once the King’s closest friend, and the steward of their kingdom, and let herself become the Queen she knew she had to be. She would protect and save them, and he would protect and save her.

Killing Kings

Killing Kings

By Brianne McDonald

 

 

James nudged the lifeless body of the former King with the tip of his grime encrusted boot. He glanced up at me, flecks of blood on his cheeks, “So… that’s it then?”

I glanced around the massive hall, harsh noon-light filtering through the jagged edges of shattered stained glass windows. The floor was bathed in hues of red even without the added ambiance of all the blood. It was a throne room and I doubted it had ever been as silent and empty as it was now. The air was heavy though, thick with pain, fear, and death. It caught in the back of my throat like sticky sweet bile.

I understood the intent of James’s perplexity. It all felt very anticlimactic.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I had expected. Fanfare? Angelic creatures descending from the heavens to bless and sanctify my victory? I didn’t need a holy man or ancient tome to tell me that this moment was many things, but none of them were holy. I enjoyed battle; I enjoyed the prospect of death nearly as much as I anticipated the challenge of living. Call it a character flaw. I had many. I’d long realized that not all men felt similarly, but those who did were only qualified to a certain type of life. I was not made for quiet halls and gentle palaces. I felt driven to conquer, but never to linger, always I pressed on, searching for something I couldn’t quite name. I suspected it was a certain type of vengeance, though the perpetrators of my childhood suffering were long dead. I wondered who was I attempting to punish. All of humanity? Or maybe just those I felt deserved it. Those I felt were of the same ilk as the men who had destroyed my life, who had ruined the man I might have been. It may have seemed a heroic notion, but I wasn’t misguided. I was no hero. I was a killer and there is very little that is heroic about killing. It’s mostly a lot of mess. I found beauty in death and pain. It wasn’t quite pleasure, exactly, more like a reverent awe that I’d learned to appreciate and respect.

“Yeah…” I said quietly. A drop of the King’s blood slipped down the tip of my sword blade and splattered on the golden rug beneath our feet. “That’s it.”

“Huh,” James said, crouching down with a creak of leather and the faint grind of poorly oiled armor to roll the King over. The man was large, taller than either of us and quite a bit wider, and he flopped onto his back with a resounding thud. He was at least two decades older than I, with a carefully trimmed beard and thick black, gray streaked hair. His eyes, the color of dun, where opened and glossy, a very thin stream of blood creeping from the edge of his lined mouth. James reached out and pulled the crown from his head and tossed it to me with a sly smirk.

Driven by an instinct I couldn’t name, I caught it on the edge of my sword. I let the golden circlet slide down the blade with a cringe worthy thrum until it met the worn cross of the hilt with a sharp sound like the tolling of a bell. I had no intention of wearing the blasted thing. I didn’t need a crown to govern men. A true leader was evident from the moment he stepped into a room, or so my father had always said. Besides, we could use the gold. War making wasn’t cheap.

James swiped at his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a trail of dirt and blood like a streak of war paint across his ugly face. “What do you mean to do with his son?”

I sighed and turned, heading back down the hall. I didn’t bother to side-step the bodies. They were all dead anyway. James fell in step behind me, eying my raised sword and the crown it carried with amusement. There was very little in life that James didn’t find amusing, and I’d proved to be a never ending source for him. I could hear the voices of my men and the faint crying of women from the court yard below. The sound was more sobering to me than the trail of bodies I left in my wake.

“We’ll take him with us.” I said at last when we reached the end of the chamber and turned into a deserted hall. Several vibrant trails of blood across the worn stone indicated my men had already set about collecting the dead, leaving me to my supposed moment of victory. They needn’t have bothered. King killing had proven to be remarkably easy and uneventful, actually.

James shot me a sharp look, “Is that, er, wise milord?”

“No. But we’re going to do it anyway. Be sure to bring his wet-nurse, and do your best to keep the lads from her. One babe is enough to be dragging around with an army.”

James knew better than to argue, though his look told me he certainly wished to. He knew me better than most. We’d been on the road together a long while, but I would hesitate to call him friend. The man who considered James his friend was a fool indeed, though I supposed the same could be said of me. I had use of soldiers and allies, not of friends.

I couldn’t explain my desire to bring the princling brat. I had a slew of crimes under my belt, more than I could honestly recall, but I’d yet to consciously set about murdering a child. Though sense told me that if there were ever a child to murder, this would be the one. I was, after all, responsible for the death of its mother and the wielder of the sword that had felled its father. But something within me stayed my hand, cautioned me toward mercy where it normally did not. I wasn’t in the habit of over analyzing my instincts and actions, so I did what I had long done; I embraced the impulse and moved on. The boy-child would live and maybe, someday, he might even be of use to me.

 

Telia

Clans of Fire and Iron

Telia: Part One

Vibrancy- during Light and Flame

In the 105th year AF (After the Fall)

The Gav’ath Woods of Clan Val’more, Summer Lands

Telia bent over the dying man, slim, pale fingers searching quickly for his wound. She located it almost at once in the form of a deep slice across his large chest. The injury was jagged and cruel, as though his skin had been shredded rather than cut, the work of claws and teeth rather than steel and iron. Leaning forward, midnight hair veiling her face against the peering moonlight, she lapped up his thickening blood. Its coppery warmth filled her mouth and the Visions assaulted her immediately.

Reeling back a pace, nearly overwhelmed, she shifted quickly through the scenes and images like a scholar flipping through the pages of a book in search of a particular passage. Though she’d anticipated it, what she saw nearly superseded all her years of training. So much pain. So much terror. There is nothing to fear from darkness but ourselves, she thought, calming her erratic heartbeat with a few deepening breaths.

“Please… help me,” the man – his blood had named him Roul- begged from beneath her trembling hands. His voice drew her back to the present.

His companions lay unmoving around him, hearts quiet and chests still. Six armed and armored men torn nearly to shreds, tossed aside like so many scraps of unwanted food. The smell of death, pain, and fear was heavy in the lush forest air, thickening like the blood on her tongue. Telia was lucky to have found one of them alive, a break in their long, largely fruitless journey. Vision could only be achieved through the blood of the living and unfortunately for the injured man, he would not be alive for much longer.

“Please… they came down… from the trees… their eyes,” he coughed and she felt hot blood and spittle spray across her face and chest, “their eyes burned.”

“Hush now, shhhhh,” she murmured gently, pressing a finger softly to his blood coated lips. He quieted, relaxing as the power of her voice swept through him.

She sang Roul into an easy and painless death. Partially in thanks for the information his blood had given her and partially to ease her own guilt. She could do nothing for him and he would not make it back to the village. When his last gurgling breath had receded into the balmy night, she wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve and sighed. His blood had left an awful taste in her mouth.

“Well?” Wyn asked softly from behind her. Her voice wavered tellingly.

“Another attack, they are growing more bold,” she said, almost to herself, lost in thoughts and memories that were not her own.

Turning she clicked her tongue sharply twice, waited, and clicked it thrice more in the opposite direction. The sounds echoed off the moss-covered rocks and massive tree trunks while she tilted her head this way and that like a curious fledgling. The forest was silent, as though it held its breath for her.

“They are gone now,” she said, “though it seems their path leads north, toward the mountains.”

She heard Wyn step around the bodies, felt the tremor of fear in each footfall and rounded on her in a flurry of deep violet robes. Telia slapped her apprentice hard, the sound of flesh meeting flesh a violent cry in the night. Her hand stung and it was almost pleasant, the sudden pain, it reminded her that she was alive. Watching the dead of the fallen  guard had left a residual numbness. Though she hated being so harsh, there was a lesson here that needed learning. For the both of them.

“Fear is the greatest of sins,” she said, “you must master it, overcome and embrace it, let it become part of you.”

She felt the girl’s anger, shame, and respect like a low hum on the air. Telia hoped she would not have to revisit the lesson again. Wyn was a good girl, talented, but young and sometimes headstrong. They had only been together for a few short months before they’d been sent out on this increasingly disturbing mission of rumors, shadows and death. Telia had always shied away from taking on a charge, though she knew it was an inevitable requirement of her. She had become accustomed to doing things and being on her own, relying on her senses, abilities and wits to serve her Goddess, but over the past few weeks she’d grown increasingly grateful for the girl’s presence.

“Recite our creed,” Telia commanded.

Wyn took a deep breath, “It is only in the deepest waters and the darkest shadows absolution is found.”

Telia nodded curtly and held out her still burning hand. Wyn returned her time-worn cane, smoothed by years of use, and she closed her fingers around the familiar wood. “Remember those words and when fear begins to take you… say them. Whisper them, sing them, scream them if you must, but heed them.”

“Yes Lu’selena, I am sorry.” The girl did sound contrite. Telia was satisfied.

Telia stepped away from the dead man, lifting her skirts and frowning. “We cannot pursue them tonight, but we need to warn the villagers and we are low on supplies.” They had been traveling for weeks across the southern most clans of the Summer Lands in pursuit of their quarry through forests and fields. They were both road wearied and disheartened.

“Yes Lu’selena. What…” the girl hesitated, “what are these things exactly? You’ve never truly said.”

“They…” Telia paused to considered her words carefully, “they are beings that should not be here. What brought them or how they came here is still unclear.”

“Does it have anything to do with-“

Telia raised a hand to silence her, “We should not speak of it here where anyone or anything might listen. I don’t trust the open spaces, or these woods, something sinister lingers. We must hurry now. I don’t want to be caught in daylight.”

They left the dead men where they lay the taste of life, death and blood a bitter sweetness in her mouth. She was tired, bone tired. Deciphering the blood of a dying man during the Months of Light and Burning had drained her and, not for the first time, she felt frustrated by the seasons and the ever-increasing limitations they placed on her abilities. Had they been in the months of Water and Darkness she’d have hunted down the foul creatures with ease. There was little use in complaining, she chastised herself, she had her duty and it could not wait for the changing of the seasons.

The village was not far, and their horses were where they had left them, tied to a massive thulla tree and lightly grazing. Sweet tepid air swept across her face mockingly. Telia missed the chill of winter with a desperation she was unfamiliar with, thinking with longing of the frozen Island that had been her home since her earliest memories. It is only in the deepest waters and the darkest shadows that absolution is found, she recited silently. The words gave her strength, just as they always had but even in her mind the words seemed diluted, as though they were a well she was slowly draining. Telia ignored the anxious itch between her shoulder blades and the unease in her heart.

The two women mounted wordlessly and took off toward the warm light of Southern Belle to the west, leaving the shadows of the forest behind.

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.