A lot of effort went behind this story, most of it mental strain. There’s also quite a few people who contributed. Well… okay, there were only three people who contributed, but that’s a few, isn’t it? Mainly my mother, who let me bounce ideas off of her (they weren’t very big ideas, so it didn’t hurt), and who read and helped edit the story itself. Also Steffen Sanders, who helped edit and Greenling (I don’t know his real name!) who gave support and praise. I read in some “how to be a director” book my sister brought home that actors and other such artists need praise and I completely agree with it. Of course, all “first publishes” have their faults, so I’m pretty darn sure there’s still a few errors and stuff in this one.
This story was written for a very good friend of mine as a Christmas present. I actually started the writing of a story in October or so, way before Christmas was coming around. It went pretty far over 70 handwritten pages front and back. Then, I went back, read what I had done and almost died of laughter. It was really, really dumb. So I scrapped that idea and started working on an old one that I had been meaning to finish for a long time. Well, that got pretty far too and I was quite happy with myself. But then, I realized that there was no possible way I could end it, so I scrapped that idea. Time rolled on and December was barking at my heels when I started a little history of Lyyn and Logan that took place in the ten-year (or so) gap in my friend and I’s fanfiction thingy. It got… three or four pages. The thing is, I started writing it on my old computer by taking the computer and hooking it up in my room. Because I have such wonderful luck, two days after I started, they stole the plug-in cord! Just up and took it away from me, so I couldn’t continue! Well, I was pretty much panicking by this time. Christmas rolled around and, frustrated, I began scribbling up something on my sister’s computer to let off some steam. It slowly morphed into a fantasy work that, to my surprise, had elements from three books I had started. I kept it up sporadically for three months, finally completing it March 20 2003. So, now here it is and I certainly hope you enjoy it, even if it isn’t as long as I had originally intended it to be.
Their captor paced at the front of the room, eyeing his victims hungrily as they worked with ducked heads. His vicious green eyes bore into the backs of each neck; his lips were parted slightly to show his vampiric teeth. The heat of the room seemed far more pronounced as his gaze fell on her. She tried desperately to look busy, but the more she tried, the more she looked as useless as a dirty sock. Sweat made her back tingle and made her shirt cling to her skin uncomfortably, but she daren't move or shift to fix it for fear that he would pounce on her like the wild animal he was. He seemed to know that, though her pen moved, it wasn't writing the material he had put down for her. He kept staring at her, eyes glittering maliciously. The light danced on his spectacles, the heavy click of the clock pounded in her ears. Each second stretched to an hour, each minute to a year. His withering gaze never wavered. And then....
The cold screeching of the bell made the entire classroom jump and then snicker nervously as they all came to life. The rustle of books and bags almost drowned out the teacher's voice as he bid them farewell.
"Don't forget: stories are due when you come back from the break. I expect each and every one of you to have a completed portfolio on my desk before the bell rings for class," he snapped as a parting shot. She felt her legs go numb as she staggered out of the hellish prison, shouldering her heavy backpack. A story? She had completely forgotten it!
"There goes my Christmas vacation," she growled to herself as she shuffled out into the already packed hallway. The usual packs and herds of makeup jockeys and beefy teenaged boys clogged the veins of traffic, forcing her to pause every other step and wait for some poor geek to get through the tiny opening left for movement. If anything, High School had taught her inhuman patience. But she wasn't in the mood for it today. With a snarled "excuse me", she rammed through, upsetting some squeaking peacock of a girl and her musclehead boyfriend. They glared at her venomously, but she didn't care. The only thing that really unnerved her at that moment was the looming threat of the story project she would be forced to give up her vacation for. With a sigh and shoving aside a glossy anorexic, she said aloud the words only the courageous dared utter: "I hate English."
"Ooh, careful where you say that," a familiar voice cautioned. "Mr. Hermit's spies are everywhere."
"I don't give a crud if Mr. Hermit hears me or not," she growled, pausing to turn and glance at the speaker, a brown-haired green-eyed young man about her age. He sported a tuft of hair on his chin and a pair of well-trimmed sideburns. "I'll say whatever I please and if he doesn't like it, he can go suck on a rotten egg." The boy grinned, showing his barely crooked teeth.
"You're in such a pleasant mood this fine Friday afternoon," he chuckled, sticking out his arm to ward off a stumbling football player who had been pushed by one of his companions. "Shouldn't you be elated that school's out for Christmas break?"
"No," she grumbled, shoving the football player back into his friend and pressing forward through the writhing sea of sweaty teenagers. "That's what normal, straight-A students would be right now. Hermit decided to chuck that stupid story project at us again just before I got out of there."
"Harsh blow," came the muttered reply.
"It's like he lives to make us B students feel like flunk-outs," she raged on, almost slapping a mop-haired geek across the mouth as she raised her arms in distress. "I couldn't write a story if I plagiarized one! Not to mention anything he gets from me will be picked apart so much that by the time he's through, it'll actually come screaming back to me."
"Oh, c'mon, Ryn!" her companion pressed. "Hermit's not out to get you. He's just a strict guy is all."
"Oh yeah," she growled sarcastically, "this coming from the guy who was born with the letter 'A' tattooed to his forehead." Right after she said it, she felt awful. He said nothing, but she knew he was hurt. They burst out of the hall onto the crowded sidewalks. Engines roared and five different varieties of music blared, choking the twittering of any birds that dared stay around that place. The sky was exploding with the sunlight, but apparently the breeze missed the memo that said today was going to be a good day: it was biting cold. Ryn yanked her coat around herself protectively and tried to find the safest route out of the roiling crowd. There didn't seem to be any. She was stuck.
"Look, I'm sorry, Leo," she apologized, trying her best to sound sincere around her awful disposition. "I'm just in a bad mood right now and anything I say is definitely not going to be pretty."
"Don't worry about it," he mumbled in reply, adjusting the black pack on his shoulder. "I figured you didn't mean it." He grabbed her shoulder and hauled her through a tiny opening just as it began to close. They were finally out in the semi-open and she could actually breathe without inhaling someone else's body fumes. "But you gotta admit, you're a good writer, Ryn. I've read some of your stuff and I think you'll pass this with flying colors."
"Most of my 'stuff' is essays," she countered truthfully. "The last time I wrote anything fiction was back in kindergarten when I wrote about the apple tree that grew a pinecone."
"Hey," Leo snickered, "you never told me about that one."
"For a darn good reason, too," she replied, smirking. "I think I burned it sometime after fifth grade anyway."
"Yeah, right. I'll bet you've got it stored away in a box somewhere in your closet, just like everything else with any remote sentimental value," he sneered.
"Anyways, Hermit wants something without an ounce of truth to it," she changed the subject. "And that's not my element. I'm an artist, not a word processor."
"So draw him a little picture book," he joked. "Besides, you've got two weeks to think of something. That should be plenty of time to come up with some wacky idea."
"Actually, I have two weeks to write it," she corrected. "We were supposed to have an idea already." They were split apart as a large group of raucous soccer players came barreling down the sidewalk, holding their team captain aloft on their shoulders. When they got back together, Leo held a pen in his hand. It was an interesting piece of work with an outer casing of what looked and felt like bone with a very detailed carving of a large cat with wings and feathers on the top of his head down to the middle of his back, just before his haunches. The lid was black and curved slightly into a sharp point, and the etched head of both a cat and an owl watched her sagely. He held it out to her.
"Maybe this'll help," he offered.
"Thanks, but I've already got a pen," she snorted.
"I'm serious, Ryn," he prodded. "This is a very special pen. My dad bought it for me in Africa. It's supposed to bring the user wisdom beyond what they usually know and the endurance to write it down." She took it and pulled the lid off, examining the tip.
"They make ballpoints in Africa?" she asked skeptically.
"Just take it!" he urged. "Geeze! Does everything have to be factually accurate in your world?" She grunted, but pocketed the object anyway. It was a beautiful pen and getting a present from Leonardo Zerkins was about as rare as waking up in the morning without a pimple.
"If it doesn't help me, Leo, I'm gonna make sure it's stuffed so far up your nose that it'll take an oil digger to get it back out, m'kay?" she threatened jokingly.
"Whatever." He grinned.
"I'm home!" Ryn shouted as she stepped into the living room. It was void of any life, as usual, but she added, "I'll be in my room!" anyway. She slogged into the kitchen and grabbed a sandwich and a glass of milk, looking over the refrigerator for any notes left for her. As usual there was the "Ryn, we've gone out of town for business. Take out the trash and feed the cat. Love, Mom & Dad" note. She wondered when they weren't out of town for business as she crumpled the note in one hand and tossed it into the trashcan. The noise made the orange and white tabby that had been lounging on a nearby shelf open his green eyes and glare at her. She gave his tail a playful swat and he smoothly flicked it out of reach, letting out a booming purr.
"At least you're not out of town for business," she muttered as she plodded down the hall to her room, cat padding along behind. She set the glass of milk and sandwich on her desk and slung her backpack into a corner not so gently. She didn't care if she damaged anything in it anyway: she could pay for it if it came to that. The cat hopped onto her desk and plopped himself right in the middle of a drawing she'd been working on.
"Hey!" she snapped, scooping him up and placing him on a chair near hers. "You'll smear it!" He just stared up at her adoringly, purring like mad. "Dumb cat," she muttered as she cleared a semi-workable place on the paper-riddled desk. Her mother had given up trying to get her to keep an organized room, so art supplies, papers, clothes, stuffed animals and anything else she could and couldn't think of were scattered haphazardly around on the floor, shelves, TV, dresser and even the bed. Only her beloved movie collection and VCR were left uncluttered, and that was only because she used them both more often than any of the other furniture in her room.
Her eye caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror that hung on the far wall. She never had cared much about her looks. Now, her deep rusty hair hung at her shoulders, framing her pale face and pronouncing her dark brown eyes. It was her eyes that always got others' attention. They were so dark, it was hard to distinguish where her pupils ended and the iris began, giving her a mysterious, brooding look. It didn't help that she rarely smiled either. But, again, she didn't care about her looks.
With a sigh of resignation, she pulled out a sheet of lined paper and reached for a plain black BiC pen, but stopped herself. A strange warmth came from her pocket and she reached in and pulled out the African ballpoint pen Leo had given her earlier that day. She thought she saw the owl wink at her, but she laughed at herself for being so stupid.
"Okay, O Mighty Pen," she sneered. "If you're supposed to help me, now would be a really good time." She took off the cap and put the pen to the paper. The cat suddenly leaped onto the desk again, making her jump.
"Dang it, O'Malley!" she snapped, scooting him off of her paper and onto a corner of the desk. "Sit there and don't move or I'll throw you out the window and you can go play in the poison ivy." He "mrowred" and shoved his nose under her hand for attention. She scratched his ears. "There. Now shut up. I'm supposed to be working." With a grumble, she put the pen on the paper again and began to write the word "beginning". Nothing happened.
"Oh, that's perfect," she growled. "Leo gave me a pen that doesn't work." She shook it vigorously a few times, then tried again. This time, it made a mark in greenish ink. "There, that's better," she said and began to scribble again in her chicken scratch handwriting. But as her writing progressed, she began to feel a strange sensation move up her hand. It made the hair on her arm stand up and yet felt deathly warm. She shrugged it off with a grunt.
"Stop scaring yourself, Rynoah," she muttered. But she couldn't shake it. The feeling crept up past her elbow and along her shoulder. She stopped writing and looked back at what she'd written. She couldn't read it. Where plain English should have been were a bunch of incomprehensible symbols that shimmered wetly as though the ink hadn't dried yet. The feeling reached her neck and stopped momentarily. Her heart raced, yet the heartbeat she heard was painfully slow and relaxed. Seconds ticked by, seemingly forever.
It hit her so hard, she fell face forward onto the desk: a pain so horrible that it froze her scream in her throat. Her fingers wrapped around the pen, which seemed to have expanded and grown heavier in the last two seconds. Something wet trickled onto her face and her first thought was of the milk that had been sitting on her desk. She'd spilled it... and yet this wasn't milk. It had a sharp, bitter tang to it that made her recoil inwardly. The lights in her room snuffed out with a loud boom, like thunder. Her heart raced, yet she could still hear it beating slowly, steadily. Voices murmured in languages foreign to her and hands as cold and light as a winter's chill passed over her.
Rynoah, she heard the voices rasp. Rynoah. Tironah. Tironah. Tironahhhh.
"They're falling back!"
The voice rang in her ears, so loud and near that she almost had a heart attack. She was laying facedown on the muddy ground with rain splattering against her back. The mud stank of a smell she couldn't quite place; it made her lift her head in disgust. But what she saw then made her wish she'd never opened her eyes at all.
A man, throat torn wide open and trickling red, lay just in front of her. His face was twisted into a grotesque gape of pain and one cheek was split clean open, exposing his teeth. His blood, mixed with the rainwater, had created the mud puddle she was laying in and she felt her stomach churn dangerously. Her limbs went watery as she tried to scramble back with a whimper. The slide of metal against rocks brought her attention to the object in her hand: a large broadsword stained black with a tar-like substance. Her forearms were covered with bracers made of a tough animal hide and metal plates etched with the symbol of a winged cat eating a serpent. She looked down at her torso, which was armored with a similar material as well as her thighs and shins. Her feet were fit comfortably in a pair of black boots topped with metal. All these items were incredibly light, barely weighing her down despite how heavy they looked. Even the chain mail worn underneath the jerkin was as light as any regular shirt, adding to her wonderment. Where was she?
A hand clamped on her shoulder and pulled her to her feet roughly. She grabbed her sword and whirled around, holding it up defensively into the face of her attacker. It was a man around his late thirties. He was dressed similarly to her, only his bracers bore the symbol of a slithering dragon holding a bundle of arrows in its mouth and he wore a breastplate instead of a jerkin. His hazel eyes widened as he took a step backwards, surprised at her sudden hostility.
"It is only I, Tironah!" he said, swatting her sword aside. She shoved it in front of herself again, causing his eyes to narrow in annoyance. "What has come over you? Have you been bitten?" he demanded, pushing the blade out of his face again.
"Who are you?" she snapped, trying to point the sword at him again. He held it firmly in his gloved hand, keeping it pointed at the mud.
"Stop this foolishness, Tironah," he commanded sternly. "We are rallying over there." He pointed at a small circle of tall stones where a writhing mass of bodies was beginning to gather. All of them were soldiers with swords or maces or bows in their hands. She lost count of how many of them had blood on them, or how many of those stained individuals were actually wounded. All around the muddy field lay bodies heaped here and there in positions she knew no living creature could take. It made her stomach do double backflips throughout her chest and she felt her knees go weak again. They buckled under her, but the man she had been so intent on running through reached out with his arm and caught her, propping her up against him.
"You must have taken a nasty hit to your head," he murmured. "Come, then. We will have you back in the battle again in no time!" It didn't occur to him that she didn't want to go back into any battle. She was going to tell him so, but her throat was dry suddenly and her brain was so scrambled that she could only manage a weak gurgle as he picked her up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way to the gathering. Once they were within sight of the group, a cry went up.
"Jygel! Our lord returns!" they cried. She heard a few of them murmur discontentedly about their lady having to be carried off the battlefield, but it only added to her confusion.
Jygel set her down, holding her against his side with one arm while he conversed with a dark-haired man before him. She didn't catch what he said, but she could guess what it was when he passed her over to the dark-haired man. She shoved him away from her grumpily and stood with shaking knees.
"I don't need any help, buddy," she growled, causing more murmurs from the crowd. Jygel only smiled forcefully and turned to address them all.
"We were successful in driving back our foes," he said in a voice that commanded respect effortlessly, "but it is to be expected that they will attack again during the night. Eight shifts of night watch will be enforced tonight." A few men groaned softly. The rain pattered on all the plates of armor, making an eerie musical accompaniment to the dreary ensemble. Rynoah again wondered what strange dream she'd wandered into and even, to her horror, found herself trying to remember where she came from. She knew who she was and had a hazy memory of how she'd gotten into this mess, but no true recollection of her real home or parents. Try as she might, she couldn't bring these things to light and it made her even more frightened.
"Tironah?" She was jerked back to the present—or was it the past? —when Jygel spoke. The group of men was beginning to disperse and, through a small gap in their ranks, she could see a large campsite set in the center of the encircling stones. "Are you feeling well, Tironah?" Turning to face him, she suddenly realized she hadn't heard a word he'd said and he obviously knew it. He looked concerned. "You look pale. Shall I summon the healer?"
"No!" she exclaimed, making him raise an eyebrow. "I mean, no, thanks. I'm fine. Just a little tired is all." He wasn't buying it and she could tell. Who was he, anyway? Her father maybe? It was her best guess. Who else would recognize that she wasn't this Tironah person?
"Of course," he muttered, still eyeing her suspiciously. "You should go and get some rest. We have set up camp—"
"I want to stay out here a little bit longer," she cut him off quickly. Actually, she wanted to be alone to try and figure out a way out of here, but he didn't have to know that. He stared at her for a moment during which she thought he was going to decide she was possessed and have her flogged or some such torture, but then he only nodded.
"But you will get some rest later," he said commandingly. "You have fought long enough for two men."
"You bet," she agreed and, getting another strange look from him, added, "I mean, of course I will." The man just shook his head and set off towards the campsite at a jog, soon lost in the small army some fifty yards ahead. Rynoah sank down to the spongy grass and dropped her sword beside her, bringing her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around them. She was so confused! Moments before, she had been starting to write a story for school. Now she was stuck in some strange time warp in someone else's body in the middle of some great battle and there was no way she could get back home. At least no way that she knew of.
She didn't quite know how long she'd sat there in the wet grass pondering how and why she was here, but when she was brought back from her musings by a helmeted soldier shaking her shoulders, it was almost pitch black. Not even a star blinked in the heavens and the moon obviously didn't want to grace the earth with her presence for the only light that burned was the torch the warrior carried and a faint glow from the campsite below. The rain had slowed to a soft misty sprinkle and it was then that she realized how thirsty she was.
"My lady? Why do you sit here in the night chill?" the soldier asked of her. She pushed herself to her feet wearily, grabbing her sword.
"I was just thinking," she replied lamely. "Guess I lost track of the time."
"Lord Jygel will be worried, my lady. You had best get back to camp and get some sleep," he said kindly.
"Oh, right." She nodded and took a few steps towards the camp where a few fires were burning, but stopped and turned back to her companion. "Um... where exactly do I sleep?" Seeing his confused look, she added hastily, "It's pretty dark out here and I can't really find my way around."
"Your tent is the fourth on the right once you walk into camp, my lady," he answered slowly. "You should be able to recognize it by your crest on the door." She wanted to slap herself right then.
"Oh, of course. How stu—silly of me!" she covered lamely. "I guess my mind's still in the battle." The soldier chuckled nervously and she could only turn and run back towards camp, feeling completely stupid and out of place.
Naturally, the tent was right where the watchman had said it would be. She saw the caricature of the winged cat on the doorway and almost dived inside. It was warm, dry and dark in the tent with only a glowing stone set in a brazier hanging from the ceiling for light. She took in a deep breath, smelling dry grass, incense and....
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she exclaimed, seeing Jygel in the shadows removing his armor. "I got the wrong tent!" He laughed.
"No, you did not," he assured, hanging his breastplate on a stand that had been pounded into the ground.
"I didn't?" she repeated, confused. "Then what are you doing in my tent?"
"Your tent?" he clarified. "It is my tent too!" She felt her heart freeze up and start climbing up her throat. Her mind started to hurt trying to make sense of what he'd just said as he grunted, unclipping his bracers. "What a mighty blow you must have received to forget we were wed not a fortnight ago!"
"Wed?!" she choked. "Do you know how old I am?!"
"You celebrated your sixteenth summer last year," he said, looking at her strangely. "Your seventeenth is upcoming."
"But... but you're old enough to be—!" she sputtered, stopped and tried to get her wits back.
"Tironah, you consented to be my wife," he reminded. "You were not forced into this marriage."
"But I'm only seventeen!" she squeaked.
"Most girls are wed at fifteen years of age," he grunted.
"To guys that are twenty years older than them?" she snapped.
"Some older than that!" he shot back, working on his shinguards. "I cannot see why this has suddenly become a complication."
"It's... I... uh..." she stuttered, at a loss for words. He kicked aside his shinguards and took a step towards her cautiously, looking suspicious.
"Tironah, are you certain you were not bitten?" he asked softly. He reached out a hand to examine her face but she took a step back.
"I... I'm just confused," she muttered, feeling the shakiness from earlier return. "I think I just hit my head too hard somewhere out there."
"Come, let me take a look," he said, catching her by the shoulder and pulling her closer to the light. She froze as he examined her head thoroughly for what seemed like forever. Her stomach was winning Olympic gold medals for gymnastics by now. She just wanted to run away and never come back. This entire battle-wedding business had her spooked beyond anything she'd felt before and she wasn't sure whether she would break down and cry in the next few minutes or scream like a banshee.
"Yes, there is a lesion here," he mumbled finally, touching a place on the back of her head. Pain shot down her spine and she cringed away, clutching her skull. "I will call for the healer."
"I don't want any healer, okay?" she snapped grumpily, rubbing the spot on her head gently. Sure enough, there was a lump the size of Rhode Island sprouting there. Jygel eyed her worriedly.
"As you wish," he acquiesced. "But you must get some sleep. Take off your armor; I will fix the bed." He turned away from her, for which she was very grateful. She didn't want some strange man watching her take off so much as a hairpin, even if he did claim to be her husband. Even so, she tiptoed to a dark corner and looked around for the buckles. The bracers were rather simple to figure out and were the first things to go. The shinguards and plates on her thighs were a little more difficult, but she managed without too much trouble. It was the jerkin that stumped her. Try as she might, she couldn't undo the buckles. Jygel finished unrolling a bundle of skins and blankets directly under the light and it didn't take him long to figure out she was having trouble.
"Here, let me help you," he offered, coming towards her. She backed away.
"No, I think I can handle it, thanks," she squeaked. He didn't look impressed.
"Come here!" he commanded sternly. Fearing that she'd make him angry if she didn't, Rynoah slowly came to him. He turned her so that her side was facing him, lifted her arm and flicked the buckles open. She immediately sidestepped away and pulled the jerkin off.
"Okay, thanks, that was nice of you," she babbled, holding the jerkin in front of her like a shield. He bent over and scooped up the rest of her armor.
"Be calm, Tironah," he snorted, taking the jerkin from her. "You act as though I am going to harm you." He held out his hand. She just looked at it. "Your chain mail," he grunted.
"Oh, right!" she exclaimed, slipping the shirt of metal rings over her head and slapping it into his expectant hand. Strangely, he hefted it as though it had some weight to it, not like it didn't weigh more than the cloth apparel she was now left dressed in. Weird, she thought to herself as he turned and began to hang the items on the stand beside his own armor. Even the stand sagged slightly under the weight. Yet, when she had worn them, they'd been as light as a feather.
When he turned back around, she was still standing there.
"Why are you not in bed yet?" he demanded. She couldn't think of a viable answer to that—she knew "Because I don't belong here and I'm not going to hop into bed with some guy who is old enough to be teaching me History 102" wasn't going to work—so she timidly sidled over to the bedroll and lay down. Strangely, it wasn't as uncomfortable as she thought it would be. The thick layer of, what seemed like, wool underneath her seemed to pad any rocks or lumps in the ground and the furry blanket above locked out any cold that had escaped the tent's walls. Besides, she was soaking wet and almost any covering would have made her happy.
Any comfort she found fled when he dropped down beside her and clamped an arm over her middle. She found herself eyeing the door thinking that being outside in the drizzling rain wasn't such a bad idea after all. With a snap from his fingers, the stone above flickered out and he nosed her hair.
"Pleasant dreams, my beloved," he murmured into her ear. That rain outside was looking more and more comfortable. To her relief, however, he only gave her a peck on the cheek and settled down to sleep. He was out like a light after a few minutes—or hours, as it seemed—but she had more difficulty. The sudden realization that she was thousands of miles and years from home ran over her like a steam engine and tears she couldn't hold back stained the roll underneath her. It was dark in here, almost a complete blackness, and the sound of someone breathing so near to her made her feel claustrophobic. She shut her eyes tightly, trying to ward it off, and finally dozed off into a fitful sleep.
The wind rustled the tall wheat-colored grass, making it whisper softly under the falling sun's orange glow. Wisps of clouds traveled overhead in the purpling dusk sky. The sun was barely kissing the horizon and seemed larger than normal, engulfing the land in a serene glow. The landscape was familiar; she had seen it on a television program before. She overlooked the grassland as she sat with knees drawn up to her chin on a large outcropping of rock high above the ground. There seemed no apparent way on or off this lookout point. She wasn't even sure how she had come here or when. But she didn't ponder on it: the grassland was too beautiful to bother with such petty troubles. She didn't need to ask why or where or how; not this time. Not with the soft wind caressing her hair and the sun warming her face.
A presence was near. She could almost taste it on the breeze yet it didn't startle her. Nothing could frighten her here. It was unsurprising: she had nothing to fear. The watcher stepped up beside her and she turned to look at it.
Beautiful dark red feathers glistened on his back and on his neck like a mane, ringing his feline face. Fangs jutted from his upper jaw, ending at his chin, but they didn't seem like deadly weapons. Wings ten times larger than her spread slightly, shading his huge cat-like frame. His chest and underside were a sleek cream color, dappled with black spots. He eyed her warmly with intelligent yellow eyes.
"Hello, Rynoah," he said in a deep, booming voice. "I am Feligon the Red, patron of legends."
"I know you," she replied. "You were on my pen."
"Yes." He smiled, eyes twinkling. "That pen was given to you to aid you in your storytelling. I am here to teach you."
"Teach me what?" she asked. The large cat, who was easily a foot or two taller than her at the shoulder, sat down facing the never-ending sunset. Wind played at his mane of feathers and thick fur as he surveyed the grassland.
"Teach you to tell a story that is not true," he replied. "Teach you how to conjure a legend."
"You're teaching me by sticking me in someone else's body?" she asked skeptically. The corner of his mouth twitched slightly, a shadow of a smile.
"In a way," he replied, flicking an ear. "You see, Tironah is... not quite real, so she cannot have a true body."
"Whoa, wait," Rynoah muttered. "How's that possible? How can you be 'not quite real'?" The cat snorted softly to himself.
"She is real to the one who created her," he explained further. "But no others save you and I know of her 'existence', so to speak."
"Oh, so I'm in someone else's story? Like a video game?"
"So then it's not really real." He grunted.
"That depends," he replied cryptically.
"On your perception of reality." At the quizzical look from her, he was spurred on to continue: "I am the one who set you in this story. I am the one who will be guiding you, but I can only take you so far. For example, you were puzzled at how light your armor was. In this so-called 'reality', that armor is truly as heavy as it should be, but when you wear it, you will have to imagine how weighty it is to feel it, for in your mind and 'reality', that armor is non-existent. Do you see?" She nodded as another soft breeze ruffled the feathers on his back and wings, making them softly whisper.
"But why do I have to think how heavy it is? I don't have to do that in my reality," she asked.
"Technically, you still remain in your 'reality'," he said. "I only took your mind and placed it in the body of this character. Your true body is still sitting at your desk in your bedroom."
"Oh, I get it," she gasped. "I can’t really feel how heavy it is because I’m not really there, so I have to make myself be there.” Feligon chuckled, a deep purring hiccup.
"That is precisely it," he clarified. Rynoah grinned, happy she was able to understand this weird dream she was having. "But I must warn you, once you have weighed your apparel, it will always weigh such, so I suggest you wait until a situation when you will be free to adjust to it."
"Can I do this with other stuff too?" she wondered. Feligon suddenly leaped to his feet, sniffing the air. His ears were erect and tail held stiffly down, alert and wary. She waited in silence as the wind brushed against her, a slight chill to it. Suddenly, he looked at her and his yellow eyes were cold and hard.
"You must leave. Now. But I will continue to watch you," he said urgently. Then, he bound away as she found her sight fading into darkness and heard the clap of distant thunder and pealing bells....
The clang of bells ripped her from the dream like a hot knife through butter. Jygel was already sitting up and grabbing his armor when she sat bolt upright, confused.
"What's going on?" she demanded groggily. "What's happening?" She was hit in the chest by her bundled up armor, though it didn't feel like much more than a sneeze. Jygel was clipping on his shinguards hurriedly.
"It is as I said it would be," he replied. "They have returned.
She could see her desk again, only she wasn't face down on it. She was in a sitting position, pen lying on the paper. It seemed a few hours had passed because the room was pitch black. She heard the chimes again but didn’t register the sound. Instead, she slowly looked around the room, trying to figure out what had just happened.
Two lamp-like eyes glared at her from the darkness, making her freeze in fear. They searched her face hungrily as her heart caught in her throat; the bells pealed again. The eyes blinked and then the creature let out a meow. Her breath went out in a rush.
“It’s only you,” she sighed, stroking O’Malley’s head. He purred pleasantly as the chiming began again, impatiently. This time, she realized what it was.
“The phone!” she screeched, leaping to her feet and rushing down the stairs. Several times, she almost broke her neck but managed to reach the telephone intact. She thumbed the “On” button on the cordless handset and answered with a startled “Hullo?”
“Rynoah, are you all right?” It was her mother. “Why did you take so long to pick up?”
“I’m fine, mom,” Ryn replied a bit coldly. “I just... fell asleep is all. And the power’s out.”
“Your father and I can’t make it home in this storm,” her mother went on. “There’s food in the kitchen.”
“Storm?” she repeated, confused.
“Where have you been? It’s the worst snowstorm in history, they’re saying: a total white-out!” She glanced in the general direction of the window, but it was just a big black emptiness.
“Guess I slept through it,” she mumbled.
“Well, just take care of yourself. There’re some candles in the knife drawer, just be careful not to cut yourself getting them. Did you feed the cat?” Almost on cue, O’Malley “mrowred” indignantly.
“Yeah, I did,” she lied. “Everything’ll be just fine, mom. See ya later.” She hung up and dropped onto the couch with a sigh. The cat rubbed up against her leg and meowed again hungrily. She flipped his long tail with her finger, but her thoughts remained partially on the world she’d just left behind. It had been on the verge of chaos when she’d left, or at least she thought it was. Her character was married to a man almost twice her age and appeared to be the daughter of someone of importance. She wondered if Jygel was someone of importance too, or if he had just married into it. Perhaps they both held some authority and had married to merge their kingdoms or something. She didn’t know and the cat was hungry, so she stopped pondering and got up, groping her way to the kitchen to get them both some food.
The candles were where her mother had told her they’d be. However, naturally, she sliced her hand in the process of getting one. The pain made her swear aloud and warm blood trickled down her wrist. It took her a moment to muster the courage to get another candle, but she did so without incident. Once she had what she needed, she slammed the knife drawer with a growl and felt around for the box of matches. A bright light flashed in the window and thunder exploded, making her jump a mile high.
Since when did it thunder during a snowstorm? she demanded silently, finding the box and promptly spilling half its contents on the floor when she tried to strike one. Muttering things best left unwritten under her breath, she finally managed to light the two candles and examine her hand. The cut bled faithfully, leaving caking trails down her forearm, but it didn’t look excruciatingly deep. She washed it, put ointment on it and applied a bandage, then set about making herself a couple sandwiches. Before she could turn back to go to her room, she saw O’Malley watching her expectantly.
“Almost forgot again, buddy!” she exclaimed, getting a packet of soft cat food from a cupboard. She held it in her mouth as she balanced a candle in his food bowl and her sandwiches in a free hand. O’Malley followed her the entire way back to her room and watched as she set the bowl on her desk, steadying the candle on the corner.
“Here,” she offered, dumping the contents of the packet into the bowl. He proceeded to unceremoniously devour it, leaving her to sit down to her sandwiches undisturbed. Finding the others that she had made before half-eaten and stale, she threw them away and quickly snarfed down the new ones. As she did so, her eye caught the paper before her. Green ink littered the lines; she moved the candle closer for a better view, reading the last few sentences:
It was still dark when her alert ears picked up the sound of ringing bells. Her love was also instantly awake and leaped to his feet, grabbing up her armor and tossing it to her.
“What’s happened?” she asked, catching it and beginning to slip into it as he fastened his shinguards with a trained hand.
“It is as I said it would be,” he muttered bitterly. “They have returned.”
Her heart froze to read it, yet at the same time she wasn’t surprised. Looking through the previous pages, she saw everything that had occurred was written down in a hand that wasn’t her own. Everything, that is, except for her dream. The story was also altered so that no evidence of her possession of Tironah’s body was evident. Yet, it was missing a complete beginning, which frustrated her. Finishing the rest of her sandwich, she picked up the pen without thinking and began trying to write the start. The warm feeling began again and she frowned.
“All right, Feligon,” she said aloud, making O’Malley glance up from his dinner, “take me to the beginning.” This time, familiar with the process, she slipped back into the body of her alter ego without incident.
Rain splattered her face as lightning streaked the inky sky. She was standing on a slope, sword in hand, looking down at a sort of bowl below. It was darker than pitch, but she could hear and almost feel the others around her. Each wielded a weapon of some sort and shifted restlessly; she could hear the sounds of armor and rough leather rubbing together. Another flash of lightning lit the night, allowing her to see what appeared to be a roiling oily mass just at the base of the incline.
“Vena above,” the man beside her swore softly. She could barely make out the strong features of Jygel standing with sword drawn. “There are more of them this time and there are less of us.” His lips were pursed and his jaw set determinedly, yet he rested a heavy hand on her shoulder. For some reason, it made her heart go plummeting into her stomach. “Stay strong, my love. We may triumph yet.” The words did no good to bolster her confidence. In fact, she felt even weaker. The only thing stopping her from running away was the wall of able-bodied, armed men standing at her back. They didn’t inspire confidence so much as they cut off her escape.
My fault, she thought to herself. I shouldn’t have asked to go back to the beginning. The black mass at the bottom of the hill advanced even more, a noise like the roar of a lion being carried on the wind to them. Jygel’s hand left her shoulder and rose above his head. Thunder boomed angrily as the rain came down harder, anticipating the bloodshed that was to come. Everyone saw the action and tensed, waiting. Everyone except her.
They stood frozen like that for what seemed like an eternity. The roar grew louder and louder as the murky cloud of doom came ever closer. Lightning snaked across the sky; thunder snapped like a bullwhip. Suddenly, with a cry that shook the earth, Jygel dropped his fist and charged forward. The whole of the army surged after him with cries as majestic and fierce as his own, forcing her forward at their head. The roar below them heightened as the black blanket broke into a furious pace, barreling straight at them. The distance between the two groups was covered speedily and it was then, in the lightning-lit field near the camp of men, that she got her first look at the enemy.
Glistening yellowed fangs sprouted from decaying muzzles. Blood-red eyes bore into her soul, making her blood freeze. Claws black as obsidian and as cruel as the steel of her blade were bared in readiness; broad chests covered in mangy, half-rotting fur were hidden behind huge circular shields scarred and beaten from centuries of use. They towered over her head by feet, saliva dripping from their gaping maws and puss lining their nostrils. Their lips were rotten and curled back, exposing the greasy black gums. Some of them were missing flesh from their bodies, exposing black-stained bones and half-healed muscles. Their bodies were lean and muscular, however; able to snap her in half without a second thought.
Before she could recover from the shock, the two armies merged with the clashing of metal and wood and flesh. Rynoah found herself in a fight for her life as massive beasts slashed at her from behind their heavy shields. Every time she swung her sword, its blade hacked off something or smashed against a sturdy shield or gouged some beast. Howls of pain rose from the men as the rotting animals snarled and mauled as ruthless as the bite of frost. She wanted to turn around and run as far away as possible, but wherever she faced, more black creatures rose from the melee. She didn’t know how she managed to fend them off, but she didn’t let up with her slicing.
The fact was that the creatures were solely trained for brutal combat. Where the men had battle prowess, their opponents ran only by instinct with a fragile hierarchy that was ignored once first blood was shed. They were fast and lethal, yes, but lacked the skill the men had. They dropped like lambs at the slaughter, but though they fell short in trained combat, they still outnumbered them ten to one. Slowly, they were prevailing.
The cry for retreat came after what seemed to her a thousand years. She took it up enthusiastically, more from fear than authority. Everyone nearby heard her calls and began to fall back. She lunged at the back of a large dog and buried her sword deep into its heart; it fell with a pained scream. As she was retrieving her sword, a brute leaped at her from behind. She didn’t see it until it was too late; its eyes burned like the fires of Hell and its claws flashed dangerously.
“My lady!” A man tackled the hurtling animal to the ground and sought to bury his only remaining weapon—a dagger—into its throat. The animal was too strong for him and knocked him away. Before he could regain his feet, it was upon him with enraged snarls. His screams tore through her as no knife ever could, freezing her to the core and rendering her useless to help him.
Something hit her so hard, she stumbled. Everything became blurred and her ears rang horribly. She only remembered the shouts of someone and the sound of great wings flapping.
The wind was dead, as seemed to be everything else. Nothing stirred save the mist that covered everything. She could feel it on her skin and taste it on her lips like the breath of a ghost. The grasses were stiff and cold and the sun was hidden behind rain clouds. It was as though everything was frozen, locked in time. Yet somewhere in the distance, she could hear the flapping of wings. The mist swished; something was stirring.
“Why are you here, Rynoah?” a deep familiar voice asked from nowhere.
“Wake up, Rynoah!” His voice suddenly had a note of panic in it. “Wake up! Now!” She saw the outline of his lithe, huge form in the fog.
“But… I am awake, Feligon,” she replied, confused.
“I am,” she repeated. “I am… I am…”
The darkness stank. It was cold as ice and the floor was rock hard, sending stabs of pain up her back. It confused her to be there, but she was too sore to move to explore her surroundings completely. Water drip-dropped softly somewhere in the vast emptiness, adding to her loneliness. Something skittered on little clawed feet past her face, making her shiver and recoil, only to have more pain slash at her side. She gasped and waited for the pain to subside before she relaxed a little again. Wherever she was, she had to get out of here.
“Help!” Her voice came out cracked and soft, but obviously loud enough to hear for something stirred. “Anybody? Help me!” Footsteps echoed on stone and she suddenly froze. She’d never thought that she was, perhaps, in the hands of an enemy and crying out wasn’t the best course of action. But she was in pain and an attempt at sitting up proved she couldn’t move anyway, so they’d eventually find her. It was a chance she could take. “Hello?”
Metal slid on wood, exposing a small rectangular shape of orange light high up in a far wall, silhouetting the shape of what looked like a human head. She was overjoyed and tried to say something else but choked and went into a fit of coughing that made her entire body explode in pain.
“She is awake,” a deep, harsh voice grunted coldly. Rynoah ground her teeth as the pain began to grow dim again and she tried again:
“Hello? Can you help?”
“We should tell Jeich,” a softer feminine voice replied, ignoring her pleas for help.
“To hell with Jeich,” the dark voice growled. “Let him find out himself.”
“Hey! Help, please!” Rynoah exclaimed, trying desperately to get their attention.
“Do not speak so!” the light voice gasped. Rynoah found herself panicking. “If he hears you, Dresh—”
“Let him hear me,” the man snapped. “I care not.”
“I do care!” the other argued.
“I care too!” Rynoah spat, as loudly as she could. “I care about getting some kind of help, thank you very much!”
“Bite your tongue!” the man shot back. “I know not who you are or where you fare from, but I will not hesitate to beat you if you speak one more word. Jeich will deal with you.” With that, the rectangle shut with a slam and all was dark again. Rynoah felt tears forming in her eyes and tried to fight them off, but she failed. For the first time in a long time, she cried silently. Her tears finally lead down the path to sleep and she dozed fitfully in the darkness. Continually, she would wake up unsure of the time or where she was. Slowly, thirst and hunger contributed to her weariness, finally forcing her into a deep, dark sleep.
From a dreamless sleep, she was awakened by the sound of footsteps on the hard stone outside her prison. She made another attempt to sit up, but the effort sent her stomach reeling with the pain, forcing her to lie still and wait. A bolt unlocked and the door swung open, flooding her with light. It hurt her eyes and she had to squeeze them shut to block it out, but they soon adjusted and she was able to see the two figures standing in the torch light.
The first one she noticed stood closer to the doorway. He had long jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail that brushed the base of his neck and a well-lined face. His chest was bare save two thick leather straps that criss-crossed his torso and a spike-laden metal plate covering his left shoulder. Black trousers tucked into calf-high black boots and a belt of thick rope completed his apparel. He stood with muscular arms crossed over his chest glaring at her with orange eyes that seemed to burn in the light. They made her cringe inwardly, but the other man was far worse.
He wore his hair cropped short and a small beard on his beautiful face. Though still powerful-looking, he was considerably leaner than his companion. He looked kinder as well, with his long blue-gray cloak and handsome face, and younger; Rynoah guessed he was in his early twenties. He wore a tunic and trousers of reddish-brown velvet over brown boots made of soft animal skin. Still, something about him made her fear him straight off. He watched her with a hint of disgust in his gray eyes.
“How long has she been awake?” he finally asked, making her shudder involuntarily. His was a pleasantly soft voice, but not at all kind or gentle. It had the hard edge of one who is used to being obeyed.
“Couldn’t say,” the first man grunted in a familiar deep voice. Rynoah knew immediately that he was Dresh from earlier. The cloaked man glanced at him from the corner of his eye.
“Did I not order you to keep a close eye on her?” he asked so venomously that she felt like withering away. Dresh only glared at him with those strange eyes, not at all intimidated by this fearful being. They stayed that way for a moment or two, and then the cloaked man snorted disdainfully and returned his attention to her, kneeling down and grabbing her chin roughly in his hand. She was forced to look up at him, but made a feeble attempt to get away. It didn’t work, of course, and he only grinned maliciously like a child watching a wingless fly scurry around the windowsill.
“You are no brave warrior,” he sneered. “Tironah the Battle Maiden cannot even face me without cowering like a dog.” He jerked her head harshly, making her cry out in pain. “Face me!” he mocked. “What is the matter? Is the sight of your own half-brother so frightening? Come, dear sister, I will not harm you.” She knew there were tears in her eyes, but she couldn’t really help it. She had no idea who this psychopath was and she wanted to say she wasn’t Tironah, but every time she tried no voice came from her mouth. Finally, to her relief, he tossed her head away from him as though she had suddenly bitten him and stood up.
“We shall see what dear father has to say about this,” he chuckled cruelly, turning on his heel and striding to the door. He almost knocked over a woman who was just entering carrying a tray and he snapped something at her in reproof. She only bowed her head as he stormed down the hallway, out of sight. Dresh glared after him as the woman came to Rynoah’s side.
She was rather short, not much taller than Rynoah herself, with dark red hair and shining blue eyes as deep as rivers. She had a rather soft complexion that made Rynoah like her right away and sported a plain green dress with a fang from some animal hung around her neck. On the tray she carried was a bowl of cold water and a rag, a roll, a piece of cheese and a goblet of something strong-smelling Rynoah couldn’t identify. The woman set the tray on the floor and shook her head.
“Poor thing,” she cooed, checking the girl’s head and neck for injuries. Dresh grunted and stood closer to her.
“Did he harm you, Lithia?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she replied shortly. “Help me to sit her up.” Rynoah was about to protest, but Dresh moved too quickly. He didn’t look at all thrilled at the prospect of having to touch her, but he grabbed her up by the shoulder and side, jerking her upright rather quickly. She tried really hard to contain the scream that leaped from her throat, but it was in vain. Dresh flinched and Lithia sucked in a breath.
“Be gentle!” she chided.
“I am,” he growled in reply, managing to sit Rynoah up. Once she was upright and still again, the pain melted away to a dull throb and she was able to breathe normally. Lithia shook her head again.
“Bring me a torch,” she ordered, then turned her attention back to Rynoah as Dresh did as she commanded. “Where does it hurt?” Rynoah was reminded of the nurse’s office as she tried to pinpoint all the locations that she hurt.
“Shoulder, head, hip,” she started counting them off, pointing to each corresponding part. Attempts to point to her ribs and back resulted in agonizing pain, so she only said their names. Dresh came back wielding a burning torch, which he held so the light fell on her. Lithia lifted her tunic far enough to expose the black bruise that covered her entire left side, waist and most of her back.
“Ah, Vena,” she swore softly. “They were not gentle with you, Tironah.” Exactly who “they” were, she didn’t really understand, but she bit back the urge to point out that what she had just said was too obvious. Lithia gave her the goblet.
“Drink this. It may help the pain,” she instructed. Rynoah took the drink and gulped it down, drowning her thirst with its sharp, horrid taste. It hit her stomach with the velocity of a subway train, making her almost heave it right back up, but at the same time it began to make her feel numb and light-headed. As she sat trying to make the room stop making funny shapes, Lithia touched the cold cloth to her forehead and eased her back onto the floor.
“You may eat later,” she assured through the mists of the drug. “I fear you are in no health to do so just yet.” And with that, she took her tray and her orange-eyed companion and departed from the room. In the darkness, Rynoah could still hear them outside the door arguing in hushed voices:
“I do not like this, Dresh,” Lithia’s melodic voice cautioned. “Jeich’s intentions are foul.”
“Did you expect any less?” Dresh grunted.
“But I cannot stand by and watch him do to this one what he did to the others before her,” she protested. “Not this one. She is different.”
“Do not get involved, Lithia,” he replied darkly. “I do not want to see you get hurt.”
“You are not my dictator,” she shot back. “I will get involved if I wish.” He let out an irritated sigh and there was a pause between them.
“Then what is it that you suggest?” he asked finally, a hint of restraint in his voice.
“We can bring her with us.” Through the fog of drug-induced sleep she was slipping into, Rynoah’s heart leaped. The thought of getting away before Jeich could come back and do whatever it was he did with the “others before her” was a most comforting idea. But her excitement was quickly quelled when Dresh objected, a little loudly.
“It is too risky,” he argued, lowering his voice once again. “If we escape alone, Jeich will not pursue us long, but if we take his bargaining chip, he will not rest until we have been tracked down and butchered like cattle.”
“Then we can return her to her husband,” Lithia countered. “She was wed not a fortnight ago and he will be desperate to have her back. With his powerful position in the military and her place in the family of Yorn, we will be given protection for sure!” Rynoah was torn between screaming in horror and crying joyfully at the thought of going back to Jygel.
“No, Lithia!” he objected again. “I will not take that risk. We do not even know where their camp is.”
“But she will!” Lithia pressed. “She can tell us where to go.” Rynoah saw strange shapes in the shadows and tried to curl up, but her bruised body protested painfully. She let out a soft whimper that was barely audible.
“She is injured besides,” Dresh went on. “It would only slow us down.” She didn’t get to hear the rest of their conversation, because at that moment her senses gave in to the drink and she fell into a deep sleep.
The horizon was blood-red with the glow of flames in the grasslands a great distance away. Smoke and ash choked the air, making her eyes and nose sting painfully. The land was in turmoil; a danger loomed ominously nearby and the breeze, once gentle and soft, was harsh and cruel. It carried on it a sharp taste that made fear crawl along her spine. She wondered if she should flee when the sound of beating wings caught her attention. He was soon beside her, fur slightly stained with the charcoal of flames and his face grim.
“Feligon!” she exclaimed and ran to him, throwing her arms around his thick neck. He smelled of smoke and burning flesh, but he was still as strong as he had always been.
“There is little time, Rynoah,” he informed her. “I thought we had more time before Jeich struck at you, but I was wrong.”
“What’s with him, anyway?” she asked, pulling away to stare up at his soot-smeared face. “He said something about being Tironah’s half-brother.” Feligon glanced up at the reddened horizon as though determining how long it would be until the flames of the fire reached them. He indicated that she should sit with a nod of his head and she did so. He sat on his haunches beside her, spreading his wings to shield her as best he could from the hissing breeze.
“Jeich is Tironah’s half-brother through an affair her father had with a servant,” he explained, snorting ash from his nostrils. “He has been hounding the ruling family ever since he was fifteen years of age, wanting acceptance and recognition from his father. Yorn, Tironah’s father and ruler of the Eastern Kingdom, has systematically refused. Enraged, Jeich took up the secret arts.”
“A form of what you would call ‘black magic’. It is forbidden, and thus why Jeich was banished and his teacher assassinated. But he built himself a tower in the black forests of Worgol in the southernmost parts of the Eastern Kingdom and there he called up a terrible force that had once plagued the land for many centuries: Blacken. Under Jeich’s incomplete control, Blacken swept the Eastern Kingdom, leaving in its wake destruction and chaos. Yorn accepted help from the Western and Northern Kingdoms and took under his command the captains Jygel of the West and Tyrox of the North. Under their might, Blacken was beaten back but Jeich was not so easily broken. Yorn failed to recognize Jeich’s power until it grew to such strengths that no wizard or witch in the entirety of the land could rival him. He performed a dark ritual to give himself complete control of Blacken and used it to create an army of extreme proportions, laying siege to Yorn’s kingdom with the fury of a hurricane. In the struggle, Yorn’s heir and captain, Denloth, was captured before aide from Jygel and Tyrox could arrive. Jeich held Denloth captive for many days, demanding that he gain recognition from his father, but again Yorn refused and Denloth was lost.”
“Jeich killed him?” Rynoah gasped. “Just like that?”
“No, he was not killed,” Feligon replied. “But do not interrupt, Rynoah. I haven’t much time.
“Grieved at his son’s loss and with a bleeding pride, Yorn appointed his second son, Gire, as captain of his forces. Again, Jeich laid siege to the Eastern Kingdom and Gire was captured as well, following the same fate of his brother. Yorn had only one child left: a young fifteen-year-old girl named Tironah. She was well-learned in the art of war, having grown up in the middle of the war with Blacken, and she bravely took over the command of the Eastern Kingdom’s military. Yorn appointed Jygel to watch over her and protect her from capture, which he was successful in doing for a year. All of Jeich’s attempts to capture her were foiled by Tyrox’s and Jygel’s vigilance; in the year’s time Jygel fell in love with Tironah and they were married, creating a blood alliance with the Western and Eastern Kingdoms. But Jeich was clever; he knew that if he could separate the Northern military from the Eastern and Western, he would most likely be successful in his attempts to capture Tironah. He conjured another army and with their might, he attacked the Northern Kingdom, forcing the king to call back his military. Jeich then threw his forces at the Eastern Kingdom and you know the rest.” They sat in silence for a while before Rynoah spoke again:
“So, what’s going on at this exact moment?” she asked. “What have I missed?”
“After your capture, Tyrox was discharged from his place in command and exiled for reasons I do not know. He returned to the Eastern Kingdom in anger and the Northern Kingdom cut off all ties and communications with the Eastern and Western Kingdoms. I fear the Northern Kingdom may be allying with Jeich.”
“What about the Southern Kingdom? Is there a Southern Kingdom?”
“There is, but it does not trouble itself with the affairs of its neighbors. It is ruled by the hard hand of Ligen, who keeps the walls of his kingdom well fortified and protected. They have a fragile trade route with the Northern Kingdom. I also fear that they may be allying with Jeich under the influence of the Northern Kingdom.”
“And Jygel?” she questioned, returning to the matter at hand. “Is he okay?”
“He commands both the Eastern and Western military now, and they are out in force searching for Tironah before it is too late.” She let out a sigh of relief, glad that he wasn’t horribly injured. After all, he was her only hope of getting any form of protection when she got out. If she got out.
Feligon got to his feet with a snort, giving his wings an experimental flap and stirring up the ash that had settled on them and the ground.
“You must go. Be wary, Rynoah. Be on the lookout for any way out of your predicament. Return to Jygel as soon as you can.”
“What’s Jeich gonna do to me?” she shouted, but the scene was already fading out and she was slowly returning to consciousness.
Compared to the warmth of the fire-singed plains of her dreams, the cold darkness of the cell was as bleak as a rainy night with no hope of sunrise. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep this time, but when she tried to move the pain wasn’t so great and she was able to sit herself up after a while. Her side and back and waist were still tender to the touch but at least she could move somewhat. She took the opportunity to feel around in the darkness and her hand fell on what felt like bread and cheese. A smell test of the items proved that they were indeed food and she devoured them hastily, glad to be able to keep her hunger at bay for the moment. With her strength returning, she decided to crawl around her prison to ascertain its dimensions and any ways of escape that may have been available. It was a relatively small room with stones comprising all of its walls and floor. The only opening was the large, heavy wooden door that had apparently kept in many more prisoners and survived. Running her hand along its rough surface, she could feel what she thought were scratch marks in the wood. No human nail could have made such deep impressions, she knew, and wondered if perhaps Jeich had kept his soldiers in here as punishment. But despite the many gouges, the door held firm against her attempts at knocking it in and it only caused her more pain when she tried, so she gave up after a while. Someone pounded on the door from the other side and Dresh’s gruff voice told her to be still or he would lay the whip to her.
“Dresh, help me please?” she pleaded. “I didn’t even do anything to deserve this! I need to get back to Jygel and then we can kill Jeich, all right? You don’t like Jeich, do you?” There was no response. He had gone. She leaned her forehead against the wood of the door and sighed. It seemed all hope for escape was lost, but she didn’t want to give up. Not yet. She would try again, once she’d gotten a little more sleep and felt stronger. Grinding her teeth against the throbbing pain that was beginning in her side, she crawled back to the center of the room and lay down with her back to the door, closing her eyes. She thought of Jygel and how long it would take for him to find her here. Days, maybe? Weeks? How long did she have? She wondered if Yorn would finally realize that Jeich was serious and give in to his demands or if he would still remain prideful and let Jeich do whatever he wanted with her. It seemed pride was a poison with him, drugging his love of his children so that he would sacrifice them to this monster all for the sake of pride. Rynoah grimaced. What a jerk, she thought to herself.
The heavy bolt on the door scraped and light flooded over her back as someone entered. Without even having to turn around, she knew it was Jeich.
“It appears father hasn’t quite figured out that I am entirely serious,” he sneered at her. “What a shame. He will come around eventually, but for now I must continue what I have been doing.” Rynoah felt her legs to numb. She didn’t have time at all. It was too late. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for the deathblow to land.
Jeich lifted his hand palm-up and fingers crooked. He didn’t even have to speak; a ball of dark light appeared in his open palm. It grew until it was about the size of a basketball, a writhing mass of shadow and power. Rynoah felt it hit her square in the back and froze, waiting. Nothing happened for a split second, and then pain spread through her muscles slowly like a serpent slithering through the grass. The pain became more and more intense until she felt she would explode. Her mouth gaped open in a silent scream as she tried to draw breath through the aching. Her body writhed on the ground in agony, fighting whatever it was that possessed her.
Slowly, she felt her muscles tearing and merging. Her bones snapped and joints popped out of place only to come back together in differing formations. Her fingers became short and her nails grew curved and jagged, darkening until they became as black as obsidian. Her thumbs shriveled away into her arms, which in turn became thinner and more sinewy. For a brief moment, her eyesight left her and then returned worse than before. All color was gone from her world, but she could see much better in the darkness though all the shadows merged and wavered strangely. Specific details in the walls were hard to make out. Her attention was drawn away from her sight as her mouth stretched and her jaw jutted out in front of her face. Her upper lip split all the way up to her nose. Teeth became sharper and longer; ears tore and bled as they slowly moved atop her head and became pointed. A fire spread through her skin and then settled down again as the pain finally subsided and she was left on the cold floor in a daze wondering if this was what it was like to be dead. But she couldn’t be dead, she decided, because she could hear Jeich turn and walk away.
“I hope you enjoy your new self, my sister,” he added as a parting shot, “for it will be your final form.” She could hear his footsteps all the way down the hall and up a staircase and then a door shutting behind him. In fact, she could hear almost everything now. The drip-dropping of water was louder and she could even hear a trickle somewhere. Something sniffed at a corner and someone shifted nearby. The smells she picked up were also amazing; flesh, the crumbs of bread somewhere, metal, wet stone, cheese, the remains of the drug she had drunk the night before. A stench rose from all around her; the smell of death and blood and sweat. But still her eyesight remained poor and it was enough effort to continue to breathe let alone move so weak was she.
Light footsteps echoed on the stone floor, coming closer. A shadow fell over the light of the doorway and she heard Lithia sigh.
“We are too late,” she whispered.
“We have to take her with us, Dresh.”
Rynoah lay on the floor still with Lithia and Dresh nearby. Lithia had moved her into a more comfortable position on her belly and she lay with newly-formed muzzle on paws listening to them argue. Dresh continued to pace the floor, heavy boots making Rynoah’s head ring as they hit the hard stones.
“She will do us no good in her current state,” he snapped. “Look at her! She cannot even lift her own head!”
“Then we can carry her!” Lithia protested. “She needs help now more than ever.” Rynoah flicked her ears experimentally, though the effort was incredibly great. She found that if she flipped them certain ways, she could hear things better.
“That will slow us down, Lithia,” he continued. “We will be caught before we can get a safe distance away!”
“She will recover her strength soon,” Lithia protested. “See! Already she moves her ears. The others took longer to do even that!” Rynoah tried to say something, but all that came out was a garbled growl. The sensation of the noise tickled her throat and she did it again just for enjoyment.
“We leave tonight,” Dresh snarled. “If she cannot lift her head, I will not take her, do you understand?” Lithia nodded in response and Dresh left the room in a huff. Rynoah continued to flick her ears and growl—amongst a variety of other noises. The more she practiced, the easier it became and she found herself enjoying her new senses. Lithia watched her for a long time as she tested out her new form, trying several times to lift her head but failing miserably. She managed to wag the tip of her tail and twitch her left shoulder, but that was the extent of her movement.
After a while, Lithia left her alone in the dark room. Rynoah continued to test her muscles and limbs. It took her a very long time, but she finally managed to get her head up and even move her legs a little before exhaustion overcame her and she fell into a fitful slumber.
Noise. A lot of it. Light flooded over her where she lay on her side and she lifted her head, blinking at it. Shapes moved there; she lifted her lips and growled at them instinctively.
“You see!” Lithia’s voice hissed. “She can lift her head.” Dresh grunted and his shape came towards her. He scooped her up effortlessly and she pedaled her legs weakly, trying to get comfortable. He was wearing a tunic, she noticed, and a sword was strapped to his belt.
“Make haste,” he whispered. “We haven’t much time.”
It was a rather bumpy ride as he carried her down the hall and up a staircase, pushing open the heavy wooden door at the top. He peeked around as new smells overwhelmed her nostrils. She could pick out the scent of leather and wine amongst the barrage of sensations and she knew it must have been the top levels of the tower she was in. Judging by the lack of sunlight coming through the windows, it was night. After a pause to make sure no one was coming, Dresh stole through the door and down the tapestry-infested corridors. Lithia followed on ghost feet, as silent as anyone could have been on stone floors. They traveled down the corridor quite a ways before Dresh took a sudden right, almost smashing Rynoah’s head on a corner. Before them was a hole in the wall barely big enough for Rynoah to slip through in her current state. Through it, she could smell forest and filthy water. Dresh paused and glanced behind them to ensure their solitude.
“I will throw her in first,” he said to Lithia. “You must go after and make certain she doesn’t drown. I will come as quickly as I can.” Rynoah’s eyes went wide when she realized he was talking about her and she whimpered. He quickly cuffed her on the muzzle. “Hush!” She couldn’t help it. The idea of being tossed through a hole in the wall wasn’t exactly a life-long dream for her and she wasn’t even sure where she would be landing once she got outside. No time to protest, however, for he lobbed her through the hole before she could even try to bite him. Her legs clawed the empty air as she fell and fell for what seemed like forever. She thought she would probably hit a rock and break her back but instead she landed in stagnant water. It engulfed her entire body and she paddled her legs desperately but was far too weak to really push herself back to the surface. Water ran into her nose, making her choke and sneeze. It was filthy and had a horrid taste to it. Her lungs burned for air.
Something hit the water beside her and arms flailed. One hit her in the shoulder, causing her to jolt and then fingers entwined in her shaggy black fur, hauling her upwards into fresh air. She opened her mouth wide and gulped in the oxygen into her lungs, ignoring the pain of someone yanking on her fur. It was Lithia and she was obviously a rather good swimmer. Rynoah felt herself being hauled through the water to the shore nearby as another, heavier being hit the water behind her. They reached the shore, swiftly but didn’t have time to tarry or catch their breath. Dresh scooped her up again and they set off at a run for the dark trees of the forest.
The forest was almost pitch black. The trees were twisted and mangled and their trunks were as black as oil. Their branches curled down like fingers reaching for their victims and their roots grew upwards from the ground, trying to trip those that passed. Most of them were leafless with pointing limbs that were sharp enough to cut her as they passed. She yelped as one particularly sharp branch gouged her flank.
They ran most of that night, pausing only to rest a little once in a great while. Rynoah was feeling sore by the time daylight rolled around and her limbs were stiff with cold. The cut on her flank had scabbed over, leaving a sore spot where the blood had caked and she wanted to get down and walk out her stiffness, but Dresh pressed on. The farther they went, the thicker the forest got until Rynoah thought it would suffocate her. The trees pressed in on her from all sides, menacing and poisonous. Hardly any sunlight filtered in through their dark limbs, sending the forest into relative night.
It wasn’t until high noon that they finally stopped in a small clearing far away from Jeich’s tower. Dresh collapsed at the bottom of a tree and Lithia lay up against him, looking for warmth. Rynoah took the opportunity of their immobility to test out her legs and what she found wasn’t at all wonderful. She was extremely shaky on all fours and more than once she ran into a tree or tripped on a root. She continued to practice until her paws got too sore and her legs gave out on her. By then, Dresh and Lithia had fallen asleep at the base of the tree and all she could do was collapse beside them and try to sleep as well, but sleep wasn’t so easy coming to her. Everywhere she turned, a root or twig or rock stuck into her sides, making resting uncomfortable. Finally, she gave up her attempts to find a comfortable spot and lay panting, ears alert and nose to the wind. If she couldn’t sleep, she would keep watch for the two exhausted people who had, more or less, just saved her life.
Noon was long past when they awakened again. By then, Rynoah had made laps around the clearing and was quite confident on her feet, if not a little shaky still. Her new eyesight took some getting used to, as she couldn’t focus as well as she could as a human and things were blurred as well as colorless. Dresh refused to carry her anymore, forcing her to tag along behind them as they took a slower pace through the woods. She was truly amazed at how many prickly things were on the forest floor and more than once they had to pause and wait as she picked a pine needle or twig or thorn from her paw. By the time twilight was beginning to fall, she was almost certain her feet were bleeding. However, as the days progressed through the woods, her feet became accustomed to the harsh terrain and she felt less and less pain. She also grew so familiar with her new mode of transportation that she was galloping ahead of them within a week. By the time they set up camp halfway through the woods, she was jumping, stalking, balancing on her hind paws and even swimming a little.
Night found the two humans past exhaustion. They collapsed in the darkness, unable to make a fire for fear its smoke or light would be seen by any pursuers they had acquired. Rynoah snuffled at Dresh’s pack hungrily, rousing him enough to get a bite of crusty bread. She realized how O’Malley back home felt when she neglected to feed him on time. Thinking about O’Malley made her heart ache and she settled on her haunches nearby, staring at the trees as they whispered softly to themselves. What would happen to her in this state? Would she ever return to normal? Ever since she’d transformed, she hadn’t had a visit from Feligon. Did that mean all ties with her reality were severed until she regained her rightful form?
A howl split the silence of the night, making her jump slightly. It rose and fell, only to be answered by another infinitely more mournful cry. The two wolves, the only creatures they had heard since they escaped into the forest, continued their sorrowful correspondence. Rynoah listened as they shared their woes across the distance, filling the void of the forest with their own emptiness. She felt an urge she’d never felt before: to run to them and call with them. Her throat worked spastically, trying to express this emotion. One of her companions stirred behind her and sighed, but that only made her more desperate to voice her empty feeling. Suddenly, not thinking about it, she threw back her head and let out a heart-piercing, drawn-out howl that rattled the branches above her head. The cry pulled the stopper on her emotions and the air was flooded with them: fear, sorrow, anxiety, anger. It seemed to liberate her soul… and also awakened Dresh.
The rock bounced off her flank painfully, breaking the howl off with a surprised yelp. She whirled around.
“Be quiet,” he hissed. Rynoah glared at him and lifted her lip slightly in a silent snarl. He ignored it and rolled over, only to be hit lightly in the stomach by his companion.
“Be lenient with her,” Lithia chided, voice glossed with sleep. He grunted in annoyance; Rynoah could almost imagine him going on about how they shouldn’t have brought her along in the first place. The wolf-girl shook herself as though she could shake off the embarrassment she felt for being caught doing such an inhuman thing and curled up in the comfort of a niche made by a tree’s roots. She was ashamed for her actions and yet, somehow, liberated. The other wolves didn’t respond to her cry, yet she felt a fierce instinct burn at her mind, egging her to turn her tail on her companions and run into the woods to find the others. She was horrified at this new notion and pushed it from her mind as fast as she could. What was wrong with her? Was she going insane? The idea troubled her until, finally, she drifted off to sleep.
The camp was in a furious confusion, dragging her from a restless slumber. She opened her amber eyes groggily and stared at Dresh where he stood at the edge of the clearing, sword drawn. Lithia had her dagger in hand and was glaring in the opposite direction, trying to pick out a shadow in the dark expanse of the trees. Rynoah got to her feet quickly and looked around warily, not sure what had rattled her friends’ so. She tiptoed away from the tree she had slept under and followed Dresh’s gaze, trying to figure out what he was glaring at.
A dark shape flitted across the very edge of her peripheral vision, bringing her attention sharply to the left. A huge black wolf trotted just outside the clearing, circling at a leisurely pace. Its yellow eyes shimmered slightly in the moonlight as it paused to look at her. Dresh saw it and made a threatening move toward it, but it only galloped a short distance away and disappeared in the shadows. Lithia waved her arms and made a loud hissing noise, startling the second wolf that had begun to stalk towards them all. It retreated a safe distance, pausing to look over its shoulder directly at Rynoah. She whined softly, slightly disturbed by its strange behavior. They seemed to beckon her away into the heart of the forest, but the feelings she had experienced before were replaced by fear. She was no animal to be run by instincts and she showed it by flattening her ears and tucking her tail between her legs, crouching until her belly almost touched the ground.
The first wolf suddenly appeared from seemingly nowhere and made a dash towards her. It was pulled to a halt when Dresh suddenly leaped in the way. The blade he wielded fell with a swift stroke; the wolf leaped back with a scream of pain. Blood gushed from its muzzle where Dresh had laid it wide open. The poor creature scrambled away and then began to rub its face in the dirt, yelping and crying. Its companion suddenly rushed to its side and sniffed curiously, then regarded the camp with a somber gaze. Rynoah could almost see the betrayal and hurt in its face. Then, it turned and padded away, shortly followed by the injured canine. Rynoah whimpered softly and shook herself, spooked beyond all reason. Dresh wiped blood from his sword and sheathed it. He glanced at Lithia to ascertain her status, but she only waved a hand dismissively, causing him to turn his attention to the wolf half-crouched in the center of the clearing. Rynoah glanced back at him and suddenly took a hold of herself again, flicking her ears and sitting up as though nothing had happened. He pursed his lips and then grabbed up his pack.
“We may as well continue on,” he grunted. “It will be daybreak soon and there is no knowing what pursuers your racket alerted.” The last venomous remark was directed at her and she flattened her ears in annoyance. He was beginning to get on her nerves with his constant coldness towards her. However, she had little choice but to follow him as he began to hike in the opposite direction to two wolves had taken.
They walked until nearly twilight that day. The farther away from Jeich’s tower they traveled, the more lively the trees looked until Rynoah was beginning to suspect that they were in a normal forest despite the lack of birds and other wildlife. The edge of the trees was a welcome sight, for the woods gave way to a large patch of open grassland. The dying sun gave off an orange glow over the tall grasses, broken only here and there by tall rocks. Dresh took in a deep breath as though it was the first whiff of fresh hair he’d ever had.
“The grasslands of Worlin,” he sighed. “We will be free to make fire tonight.”
The stars blinked down on them from the majestic open sky. The warmth of the fire seemed to keep at bay any shadows of malicious intent that lurked in the sea of grass and Rynoah settled down by it contentedly. It was the first night they had been able to cook anything and the hare Dresh had brought down with his sling had been the best-tasting meal she had ever consumed. Now all three companions lay watching the fire’s comforting dance, each lost in their own thoughts. Nary a sound disturbed the quiet evening save the chirping of crickets and the occasional whisper of grass in the breeze. Dresh and Lithia fell asleep in each other’s arms and Rynoah was dozing peacefully, content with her life despite her situation. She was safe for now and soon she would be returned to Jygel. He would know what to do, she decided. He had to.
A footstep fell somewhere outside the ring of firelight. Immediately, Rynoah was on her feet, ears erect and nostrils twitching. Another footstep fell, cushioned by the soft dirt and plant life on the ground. She glanced to Dresh and Lithia who remained in slumber, unaware of the danger. A shape moved in the shadows outside the firelight. Rynoah felt the hair along her neck rise and her lips parted to reveal her gleaming fangs. She growled, low and warningly, making the shade pause. Still, her companions slept on.
“Hush, wolf,” a soft voice whispered. It only made her growl louder and she took a threatening step forward. Someone stirred behind her and soon Dresh was on his feet, sword drawn. The blade shone dangerously in the firelight as his burning glare pierced the shadows.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “Be quick with your answer as I am quick to anger.” Lithia discreetly drew her dagger, but stayed sitting up on the ground. The shade raised his hands placatingly.
“Be well, traveler, for I mean you no harm,” he assured. “I merely saw your welcoming fire as I passed by this way and I thought I would see who camped here.”
“You have seen,” Dresh growled. “Now what is your name, stranger? Who do you serve?”
“Patience,” the other murmured. “Allow me to sit at your fire a while and I will tell you all there is to know of me.” Dresh contemplated it and after a pause, he lowered his sword, much to Rynoah’s surprise. The stranger could have been anyone, including Jeich in disguise. Why did Dresh show such trust in him? The man on the other side lowered his hands and stepped into the light.
He was a little taller than Dresh and seemed a little leaner, but not by much. A scar ran from the edge of his left temple to his bearded chin and his dark red eyes were hard and wise. His hair seemed to have been raven black at one point, but now it was streaked with silver, making it seem gray in some lights. He wore a cloak of red with weaved patterns of gold and fur about the edges of it. A hard black jerkin with metal rings about the hem and sleeveless holes covered his torso and on it was etched the figure of a vicious hound. His trousers were black and loose, tucked into his black metal-plated boots. Rynoah saw a glimpse of a sword at his belt and remained on her guard as the stranger smiled, slightly crooked.
“I thank you,” he said, slightly inclining his head. “You may put away your sword, friend, for I have no intent to harm you and yours.” Dresh did so cautiously, but he didn’t seem to let down his guard completely.
“You wear the Hound of the North on you,” he observed. “Do you serve Kaiheb?” The man grunted and a cloud passed over his features.
“I did,” he mumbled. “I was loyal to him for many years, but he has forsaken our friendship and cast me out of his kingdom.”
“I know of only one man who was exiled from the Northern Kingdom,” Dresh said. “He was a great leader of the military.”
“I am he,” the stranger confirmed. “I am Tyrox.” Rynoah started and an irrepressible whine drifted from her throat. It caught his attention and he glanced at her. She tried to tell him who she was, but all that came out where broken growls and whimpers. Dresh saved her, for which she was very thankful.
“I am Dresh,” he introduced. “This is Lithia and the wolf you see before you is the current state of Tironah, the Battle-Maiden of the East.” Tyrox looked surprised.
“Then I am too late to save her from the fate of her brothers,” he murmured. He knelt and held out his hand to her; she bumped it with her nose. “How is her mind? Is she still the girl I was sworn to protect?”
“She is strong against the magic,” Lithia piped up. “She seems to understand everything still and responds to her name.” She didn’t mention the night before when Rynoah had seemingly lost her cool. Rynoah looked puzzled. Why wouldn’t she respond to her name? Tyrox grunted and cupped her chin in his hand, looking into her eyes.
“She hasn’t lost herself at all, it would seem,” he chuckled. “There in the wolf’s eyes is the spirit of Tironah staring back at me.” Rynoah pulled her face away and shook herself. She didn’t like people holding her chin anymore. Tyrox stood.
“A brave thing for you to do, stealing her from Jeich,” he praised. “Where is it that you take her?”
“We planned to take her to her husband, though we know not where they are,” Dresh replied. Tyrox rested his hand in the curve of his thumb, thinking.
“It would do no good to take her to Jygel in her current state,” he mused. “She needs to be freed of this curse.” He looked up with a small smile. “I know of someone who may be of help to us. He can be found in a small town less than two days’ journey from here and is knowledgeable of such matters. It is on the way to Jygel’s current location and I can be there before dawn. I will tell him of your arrival.”
“How would you travel so swiftly?”
“I have a horse, which rests a little ways from here.”
“It would be best if you rested tonight,” Lithia argued. “Bring your horse here and you can leave at dawn.” Tyrox bowed.
“My thanks to you, kind lady, but it would be best if we acted quickly in this matter,” he declined. “We have no certainty as to the moment Tironah may succumb completely to the curse.” She was beginning to see what they were talking about and, remembering Feligon’s words, took all knowledge she had of wolf behavior and locked it away in a dark corner of her mind. She wasn’t entirely sure, but she decided that if she thought about it, she would probably start digressing into the beast as she partially had the night before. That was something she didn’t need right now.
“She has withstood it this long,” Lithia insisted. “Rest. In the morning, you can take her with you.” Tyrox glanced down at Rynoah, who wagged her tail a little. She wasn’t going to be traveling all night and if he planned on taking her with him, he’d have to stay. He snorted.
“If you insist,” he muttered. “I will return shortly.” Turning, he strode off into the darkness and Dresh settled back down on the ground beside Lithia. Rynoah lay down on the other side of the fire and ignored them completely, focusing on keeping her memories of wolf behavior out of mind. Tyrox returned soon enough and behind him plod a huge black horse that eyed Rynoah warily as they approached. With a word, Tyrox left the beast on the edge of the firelight and sat down by the crackling flames. Dresh and Lithia were already halfway asleep, but it seemed Tyrox would not sleep a wink that night. He sat with bowed head, deep in thought throughout the night.
Dawn crept upon the grasslands of Worlin, rousing Rynoah from a peaceful, dreamless sleep. The three humans were already awake and making preparations for their separate journeys when she stood and shook herself. Tyrox adjusted the girth strap of his saddle.
“I will send messengers to Jygel once I reach the village,” he informed them. “If Jeich pursues you, which I am certain he is doing as we speak, he will be met with the power of an army when he gets there.” He turned and inclined his head to her. “Forgive me, Tironah.” He stooped and lifted her in his arms effortlessly, but attempts to put her on the horse’s back were futile. The animal shied away, shaking his proud head nervously. Tyrox looked grim as try after try failed. Even when Dresh held his head, the horse refused to allow her on his back. Finally, Tyrox set her down with an exasperated sigh.
“It is no good,” he resigned. “I will make the journey alone and you will bring her to the town. Make all haste and travel at night if you can. I will watch for you at the inn.” He swung up on the skittish stallion and, with a nod of his head to them all, he turned and galloped away to the northeast. Dresh hoisted his pack onto his shoulder and grunted.
“It is to the town we go,” he muttered.
The crowded streets of the town stank of manure and mud and things she did not want to identify. The rain from the night before made the smells all the more prominent and the constant jostling she received was also highly unwelcome. Many a time, her paws were stepped on or sunk in a mud puddle, testing the final reserves of her patience. She took to baring her teeth at anyone who strayed too close, making Dresh tug her already tight lead painfully. The rope had been his idea: something to make it seem she was his pet, but she hated it with a passion. It cut into her throat and rubbed her fur the wrong way, which, she found, was extremely irritating. It didn’t help that she had hardly slept a wink for almost three days either, something that put all three of them on edge. When they finally reached the Golden Fish Inn, she felt ready to lay open the next person who bumped against her.
The outer room of the inn wasn’t much better, but compared to the streets beyond, it was as peaceful as a graveyard. The sharp smell of ale and tobacco smoke perforated her nostrils, making her sneeze several times. Here and there were men or women sitting at tables with mugs or plates before them and a counter was set at the far end of the room where a bartender worked feverishly to keep his customers happy. A staircase led up to the second story where, Rynoah assumed, the rooms of the inn were located.
Someone waved to them from the bar and they pushed past the crowded tables. It was Tyrox, holding a pint of ale in one hand.
“It is a relief to see you alive and well,” he greeted. “My companion will be here shortly. But you must be tired, my friends. I have a room that you may rest in.”
“Thank you for your generosity,” Lithia said before Dresh could refuse any charity. She took his arm and started to pull him away, but Rynoah refused to follow. Dresh left her behind with Tyrox after the old warrior requested that he do so. After the pair had left, he stooped down and removed the rope from her neck. She wagged her tail gratefully and he smiled.
“An unfitting position for such a powerful warrior,” he said. “We will have it taken care of soon.” He strode away from the bar with Rynoah following at his heels and sat at a table in a darkened corner near the entrance. Rynoah sank down to the floor thankfully and sprawled herself out under the table, away from wandering feet. Tyrox kept an eye on the door while he slowly drank his ale.
The room slowly filled up as noon approached and patrons ordered lunch. The smells of meat roasting wafted in from the kitchen, making Rynoah’s stomach growl hungrily. Now and then, someone would laugh loudly or bellow a curse at some rival or enemy. Barmaids rushed here and there with pitchers of ale, refilling pints and serving plates heaped with steaming food. Tyrox sat quietly observant yet still commanding in his silence. Rynoah wondered why he was exiled from the Northern Kingdom, for he would certainly make a powerful enemy. She was almost certain that he carried that scar and still drew breath only because he defeated a very powerful foe before it could defeat him. The way he carried himself signified authority and battle prowess; he demanded respect wherever he went. Then why was he exiled?
The room suddenly went deathly silent. Everyone stared at the doorway where a man stood. He was dressed all in black and silver and carried with him a staff dyed black etched with the figures of serpents. His green eyes pierced souls as he glared about at his surroundings. His gloves were fingerless and he wore a long-sleeved shirt under a black vest. His cloak was long and flowing, shadowing him in mystery as well as fabric. Reddish-brown hair cropped short topped his mischievous face, which was clean-shaven. The air about him was dark and Rynoah immediately disliked him. He watched the patrons with a partial smile; a sneer of defiance.
“Why do you stare?” he snapped at them and they suddenly jumped back to life, murmuring quietly. The barmaids bustled about, avoiding his gaze with down-turned eyes as he looked around the room again. He spotted Tyrox and strode over to him as the old warrior stood and held out his hand. They shook hands, both grinning with camaraderie.
“It is good to see you, Neas,” Tyrox greeted. “I am glad to see you are still alive.”
“They would never catch me,” Neas returned, slapping Tyrox on the shoulder. “I am too sly for them.” He glanced down at Rynoah; she bared her teeth and bristled. “Ah, this must be Tironah.” He knelt down to look at her better, but she backed away right up against Tyrox’s legs. Neas laughed. “What a way to treat the one who will return you to yourself, Battle-Maiden.” She didn’t care if he was the one that was going to murder Jeich; he still gave her the creeps and she didn’t like him. He straightened and returned his attention to Tyrox.
“What of Jygel?” he asked.
“He will not be here for three days at least,” Tyrox replied. “It would be best that he not see her in this condition. We should return her as quickly as possible. How soon can the ceremony be performed?” Neas glanced down at her and she glared back.
“Tonight, if necessary,” he replied. “But perhaps we should talk of this in a more private setting. Here, there are too many ears.” He glared at a barmaid as she passed and she looked ready to faint from fright. Tyrox chuckled.
“I have a room we may use,” he said. “Come.” He led them through the crowd, which parted as Neas passed through. Rynoah stayed almost right on his heels the entire way, casting untrusting glances back at the dark man following behind.
Once they were up the stairs, the sounds of the outer room died away. It was cooler up here as well and Rynoah found it extremely soothing. They passed many closed doors until they reached one through which Rynoah could smell Dresh and Lithia. They passed this door and entered the one next to it. It was a sparsely-furnished room with a hard-looking cot set off against the wall, a cracked bureau with a basin and pitcher on top and a table near a rather small window that overlooked the crowded town square. The walls were worn and she could see a rat hole in a corner.
Neas closed the door and locked it as he entered. Tyrox sat at the table casually and Rynoah curled up at his feet, keeping an eye on Neas the entire time. Neas smirked.
“The process may take a long time or it may take only an instant,” he said, seating himself on the cot and resting his elbows on his knees, fingers touching. “I haven’t much experience countering curses, but I am confident I will have her returned to her rightful form by dawn tomorrow. There is, of course, a risk involved. If he still has a hold on her and combats my counter-curse, she may die or will remain horribly disfigured.” Rynoah didn’t like the sound of that. She flicked her ears back in annoyance. “I do not believe he could have a hold on her still. If he did not suspect she would escape, he would not have put forth any effort to perform a spell like that. It is an energy-consuming spell, after all.”
“When do you plan to begin exactly?” Tyrox asked. Neas got to his feet.
“After sunset,” he replied. “I will return then. I suggest you get some rest, Battle-Maiden.” He nodded at them both and then left the room. Tyrox gazed out the window for a long time, deep in thought. The sun had begun to travel into the west when he finally stood with a stretch. He looked down at her with a smile.
“Get some sleep,” he instructed. “You will need it.”
The door opened and she was instantly awake. Twilight blanketed the town outside and the room was dark. Tyrox was already up and had a lone candle lit on the table, illuminating him in an eerie glow. Neas entered the room with a candle of his own and Rynoah got up from her place under the cot and stood glaring at him. Tyrox looked up and nodded at him.
“If you have no use for me, I will leave,” he said, making Rynoah freeze. Neas raised a hand and shook his head.
“I will be in need of you and the woman that brought her before the night is through,” he informed. “But stay seated. We will begin once she gets here. Meanwhile,” he looked at Rynoah, “we should prepare you.” She bristled slightly as he drew out of his cloak two bowls, a small cube of what looked like blue chalk, a pouch of animal skin that smelled of herbs and a charm of silver fur. He proceeded to draw a circle on the wooden floor with the chalk and put a line at each of the compass points. As he was doing so, the door opened and Lithia and Dresh entered. Neas glanced at Dresh dubiously, but the large man only glared back. Neas shrugged and continued his preparations. He waved the charm in the air and muttered an incantation, then set the two bowls and the candle on the floor, kneeling before them. He continued to mutter as he drew out of the pouch a pinch of strong smelling herbs and sprinkled it into the bowl on the left. He raised the charm again, keeping his head down and eyes closed. The herbs disappeared in a puff of foul-smelling smoke that wafted up to the ceiling and circled there in a strange way. He performed the same action with the bowl on the right and then opened his eyes and looked at Rynoah.
“Step into the circle,” he instructed. She did so reluctantly, sitting on her haunches and staring around the room nervously. Neas bowed his head again and sat that way for several long moments. Then, he motioned to Tyrox and Lithia, head still down. “Kneel at the east and west points of the circle,” he told them. “Keep your heads down and your eyes closed.” They did as they were instructed and Neas picked up his staff, holding it before him straight up. “I ask that there is complete silence during this ceremony,” he said to Dresh, though his gaze never wavered from the floor. “Do not interfere no matter what you may see.” Rynoah shivered slightly as though a sudden chill had struck her. Neas slowly got to his feet, staff still held in front of him and head down. The blue marks on the floor began to glow softly the higher he got until the light illuminated almost the entire room. The candles snuffed out and a wind began to ruffle her fur. A voice whispered in her ear in a language she couldn’t understand, making her flatten her ears and look around warily.
The staff began to glow, lighting his face with a yellow glow. She thought she saw a different face there and she backed up with a whine. He closed his eyes tightly.
“Do not move!” he shouted over the now whistling wind. She froze to her spot, tail tucked between her legs as the glow from the staff became brighter and brighter. It changed from a glaring yellow to a deep blood red right before her eyes, making the room menacing with its light. Suddenly, Neas’ head shot up and his eyes flew open. Her heart stopped dead: his eyes were completely black! He suddenly leaped forward with a cry like the scream of a cougar and jabbed the staff down at her from over his head. The tip of the staff hit her in between the eyes and everything went black.
“It is good to see you are back, Rynoah.”
She couldn’t see him through the heavy smoke and ash that covered the land. It was intensely hot now and she could hear the crackling of fire somewhere nearby.
“Feligon? What is happening?”
“It is falling to ruin, Rynoah,” he replied. “There is little time left.”
“We’ve almost gotten it taken care of, Feligon. Just hang on.”
“It is not I that must hang on!” he snapped. She was taken aback. He had never lost his cool before. “It is not I! It is her!”
“Her?” She didn’t get an answer. Someone’s voice called her from the dream and it faded away.
“You hit her too hard!”
She opened her eyes and immediately shut them again, blinded by an intense light. Her head throbbed painfully as the shooting rays beat on it and she groaned, rolling over and covering her face.
“I told you that I was not experienced in countering curses!” Neas’ voice replied. She wanted hit him for speaking so loud, but every movement made her head ache like mad. “Be grateful she is returned to her original form and not dead!”
“Please, both of you!” Lithia interrupted. “She is awake.” Shadows fell across her face and she opened an eyelid painfully to look up at Dresh, Tyrox, Neas and Lithia standing over her.
“Tironah?” Tyrox said worriedly. She opened her mouth to say something, paused as another pain ran through her head, then tried again:
“My… head… hurts.” Neas smirked almost triumphantly and Tyrox sighed, shaking his head.
“I told you,” he muttered, glaring at Neas, who ignored him.
“It is good to see you in the land of the living, Battle-Maiden,” he greeted.
“What time… is it?” she asked, trying hard not to talk too loud to avoid causing herself any more pain than she was already suffering.
“It is dawn.”
“On what day?”
“The morning after I returned you to your natural form.” Rynoah looked at her arm and, sure enough, she had a hand where a paw had once been. She flexed her fingers, enjoying the sensation of being able to use them again. Memories of the past night came back to her and she grimaced.
“You hit me,” she growled, looking up at Neas angrily. He grinned.
“If you feel well,” Tyrox cut in, “we should take some horses and go out to meet Jygel. He should be near enough that we can reach him before nightfall.” It took her a few tries to finally sit up; she found herself in the cot in Tyrox’s room. The morning sun glared in from the window, making her head reel, but she managed a nod as she gouged the heels of her hands into her eyes.
“Yeah, I think I can make it,” she groaned. “Let’s just get this over with and quickly, alright?” The others looked at each other quizzically, but Tyrox nodded.
The sunlight coming in the window was bad enough; being out in it was far worse. However, the farther along she went, the more bearable it became until she was beginning to feel somewhat normal. The sudden change from heightened senses to average was a little harsh, however; she found herself hearing things and smelling things that didn’t exist. A couple of times, her eyes even unfocused, leaving her blinking desperately for several minutes. Neas had assured her it would wear off soon enough and she would be feeling normal in no time. Now, she sat astride Tyrox’s steed, half awake and recovering the use of all her muscles. She remembered what it was like when she was first transformed and felt extremely grateful that she had been knocked out for the return, even if it meant a monstrous headache when she woke up.
They rode for several hours through open farm land that made up the area around the small town they had just left. Many farmers and their sons were returning from the fields after a long day’s work and they nodded or waved to the travelers as they passed. A few of them murmured behind their hands at the sight of Neas, who would watch them with an evil gleam in his eye. Rynoah still didn’t completely trust him; he reminded her too much of Jeich. She wondered if, perhaps, the secret arts twisted and molded its practitioners into these dark beings who had no love for life save their own. Maybe they sold their humanity for the power to perform magic. But then she remembered, vaguely, the first night she had spent in camp. Jygel had snuffed out the glowing stones with a snap of his fingers, but he was a good man and completely trustworthy.
Feligon did say that the secret arts were the equivalent to black magic, she mused. Maybe there’s white magic, too. If that was the case, why did Tyrox seek out a black magician to counter the curse on put on her? Wouldn’t white magic have been a better option? She was confused and she finally gave up trying to figure out the strange mechanics behind magic practices.
The sun was beginning to fall into the west when open farmland gave way to green meadows and a few sparse trees here and there. Insects hummed softly, occasionally nipping at her. The world seemed to be tired and yet there was a tenseness to the air that made her feel slightly uneasy. It was as though everything was waiting expectantly, ready to flee or pounce. Tyrox nudged her, making her snap her head up and her thoughts to go back to their corners. In the distance, she saw a large number of mounted soldiers and foot soldiers coming their way. At their head rode a stalwart figure whose armor burned with the reflection of the dying sun. A banner waved in the soft breeze: a dragon whose mouth bristled with a bundle of arrows. Rynoah heaved a sigh of relief as the head figure raised his hand. It was Jygel.
Tyrox nudged the black stallion into an easy lope that covered the distance between them and the army in little time. He drew up beside Jygel and smiled broadly.
“My friend,” he said, “I have returned, as I told you I would.” Jygel drew her from the saddle and into his arms with a heavy sigh. She just let him hold her, happy that she was finally safe and sound.
Because the army was so large and the homesteads so small, they made camp in the open meadows that night. A huge bonfire was built and fresh meat from the farmers’ herds was served. No ale was given: even such a celebration as this was sober for the threat of Jeich’s forces was still near. Tyrox, Jygel, Rynoah, Neas and Dresh sat around the giant fire. Lithia had retired early and lay nearby under Dresh’s watchful eye. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight with so many enthusiastic soldiers around.
Jygel was very watchful of Rynoah as well, making sure she got plenty of food and was comfortable at all times. She felt a little silly having someone worrying over her so much and a little guilty as well. After all, it wasn’t her he was married to, it was Tironah. It felt as though she was tricking him and she didn’t like tricking people. Now, he spoke with the other three, trying to ascertain her entire journey through their explanations.
“I must thank you,” he said to Dresh, “for bringing her with you when you escaped. You did so at great risk to you and yours.” Dresh grunted dismissively. “As a sign of my gratitude, anything of mine that you wish for is yours. All you must do is name it.” He glanced at the ground and nodded a little, seemingly embarrassed at the praise.
“I will consider it,” he snorted. Jygel nodded and then continued his interrogation:
“After the forests of Worgol, what happened?”
“I found them in the grasslands of Worlin,” Tyrox put in. “We rested that night and I left for the town of Gilron at dawn. It took a day to arrive and it was then that I sent you the messenger bearing the news of Tironah’s discovery. Two days later, Dresh and Lithia arrived with Tironah and now we are here.” Jygel glanced to Neas, who had been quietly watching the flames leap this entire time.
“And what is your role in this?” he asked. “I have heard nothing from you.” Neas glanced up and eyed Jygel somewhat coldly, sizing him up before answering:
“What you have not been told is that your wife was cursed when they found her.” He glanced to Tyrox, who was looking into the fire dodgingly. “It was I who broke it.” Jygel looked at Rynoah, who didn’t really understand why they were being so secretive about her transformation until she glanced at Neas. He looked a little disgusted at having to admit his position as a practitioner of the secret arts, but there was still the clear glare of defiance in his face. All military forces were charged to kill any sorcerers they may have come across and now Neas had been led directly into a camp of them. He would fight to the last breath if he had to. Both men looked back at each other, each sizing the other up. Finally, Jygel shook his head.
“You saved her life and for that I am indebted to you,” he said. “I will defy my orders and forsake the oath I swore to kill all those of Sentyon’s secret arts.” Neas relaxed a little. “In doing so, I settle the debt between us.”
“I would have asked for nothing more,” he responded in a low voice. Jygel returned his attention to Dresh.
“I must ask where you fare from, for I know that you are not from the Western or Eastern Kingdoms.” Dresh tossed a stick into the fire absently.
“Lithia and I come from the Northern Kingdom,” he answered.
“You have heard of their refusal to give us assistance?” Jygel asked.
“I have,” Dresh replied. Lithia stirred slightly, drawing his attention away. “I do not support their decision. It is to ally with Jeich that they have broken away from the Eastern and Western Kingdoms. Kaiheb has fallen under the illusion that Jeich will reward him for the support when he gets his recognition as heir of the Eastern Kingdom.”
“Then you will ally with us?” Jygel pressed. Dresh snorted.
“I want no more part of this,” he growled. “I wish to find a quiet place to take Lithia and trouble myself no longer with the trials of the world.”
“You will not even lead us back to Jeich’s tower so we may assault him?”
“No,” he replied shortly. “She can lead you there. She knows the way.” He nodded at Rynoah, who was feeling the effects of the late hour and the lack of a good night’s rest. Jygel eyed her a moment and then nodded slowly.
“Very well,” he resigned. “If that is how you want it to be.” He yawned and got to his feet. “I believe I will retire now. Are you coming, Tironah?” He reached down a hand to help her to her feet and, tired as she was, she accepted without really thinking. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her away to a bedroll just inside the glow of the fire. As he removed his armor, she crawled under the blankets and was almost instantly asleep.
Smoke screened the grasslands from her vision and clogged her lungs. Everything was blanketed in gray as far as she could see and the sun could find no path through the thick cover. The outcropping of rock she stood on was the only thing she could see and it stood like a lone tower in the grayness. She sat down with her knees drawn up to her chin and waited patiently. It seemed everything was dead. No. It was weeping.
“You may already be too late.” He was beside her already and his fur was dirtied with soot. Some of his feathers were scorched; the majesty he had once was stained with the horror of flames.
“For what?” she asked, looking up at him.
“For the end,” he replied. “It may never finish.”
“But we can kill Jeich now,” she argued. “We’ll wipe him out. He won’t even know what hit him!” Feligon shook his head.
“It is not Jeich that worries me,” he stated blandly. “You forget, Rynoah, that this is not real.”
“It is to the one who created it,” she repeated. “Remember?”
“Of course,” he said. “And that is what worries me.”
“Why would that worry you?” she demanded. “What, is the creator losing their confidence?”
“No,” he grunted. “We are losing her.” An explosion sounded somewhere nearby, making Rynoah jump and Feligon leap to his feet. He crouched, looking around warily as another explosion sounded, closer. Voices shouted, muffled and incomprehensible.
“What’s going on?” Rynoah shouted over another booming explosion.
“… hope….” It was the only thing she heard before the scene was lost in a blinding flash.
She sat up with a gasp, eyes wide open. Dawn was only beginning over the meadows and a light mist covered everything. Dew wet the top blanket of the bedroll and all the grass surrounding. The strewn-out bodies of collapsed soldiers were scattered about haphazardly, some of them even sleeping sitting up. She could see no sign of Dresh or Lithia or any of the others she could put a name to.
Jygel stirred beside her and then sat up, looking worried.
“What is it?” he asked, putting a concerned hand on her shoulder. She shook it off.
“Just a nightmare,” she dodged. He quirked an eyebrow at her actions and grunted, unamused.
“Would you like to talk about it?” he pressed, but she just shrugged him off and lay back down. He stayed where he was, looking down at her.
“Tironah, what is the problem?” he demanded. “You have not been yourself ever since you received a blow to the head almost three weeks past. I know it could not have affected you this long.” She didn’t really have any excuse, but every attempt to tell him that she wasn’t Tironah was foiled when her voice wouldn’t work. Her mind raced quickly.
“I apologize,” she said, slowly, thinking of each word. “The past events weigh heavily on my mind.” He lay down beside her and touched a hand to her cheek.
“You have always been able to confide in me,” he stated softly. “Can you not do so now? Perhaps it will ease the burden.” She was beginning to feel claustrophobic again, but daren’t move away from him.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” she replied bluntly. “I cannot put words to it.” It was true. She couldn’t make her voice work when she tried to tell him she wasn’t Tironah. He sighed and kissed her cheek.
“There is nothing I can do?” he asked.
“Just give me time,” she replied, thinking fast. “Perhaps when Jeich is destroyed.” He only nodded. “Speaking of Jeich, we should be going,” she added quickly, sitting up again.
“Yes, you’re right,” Jygel said with a yawn. “I will awaken the troops.”
It had been two weeks since they’d left Gilron. Dresh and Lithia had parted from the army that morning, taking with them three horses and plenty of food. Rynoah missed them, strangely, especially Lithia. Even the lack of Dresh’s gruff personality was beginning to pull at her. Neas had also left, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was still watching her somewhere in the shadows of the trees of Worgol. Jygel caught her looking over her shoulder many times and he seemed worried about her paranoia, but he gave her space, which she was grateful for.
During the morning, a scout had climbed a tree and spotted Jeich’s tower not more than a half-day’s journey from their current spot. Jygel had given her an extra sword and armor, which was a bit big for her. During the day, she had weighed it in her mind and found that Feligon’s words were true: the armor really was as heavy as it looked. It made her shoulders sag and her arms feel like lead, but she was adjusting. It didn’t help that storm clouds loomed overhead, threatening rain. By the time they reached the edge of the forest near Jeich’s tower, it had begun to sprinkle. The troops began to spread out, forming a veritable wall. The mounted troops had planned to charge out and slaughter any forces guarding the gate while the foot soldiers came in behind and killed those the mounted forces missed, allowing the mounted warriors to storm the tower, but there were no creatures of Blacken to be seen. Jygel gazed out at the empty space between the tower and themselves as though trying to spot any invisible foes in the drizzle.
“I do not like this,” Tyrox muttered uneasily. “Where are the troops? Surely he knew we were coming.”
“Perhaps he is more foolish than we thought,” Jygel grunted. He raised his hand, readying a signal to the mounted soldiers behind him.
It hit like a clap of thunder. Screams arose from behind and the savage snarls of Blacken’s minions echoed after. Cries of “Ambush!” rang like the pealing of bells and horses began to whinny in alarm. The flank began to disintegrate and scatter like dust. Jygel reined his horse around as Rynoah tried to hold hers steady.
“Into the open!” Tyrox shouted over the rising chaos. Already several riders were spurring their horses into the open as a flood of foot soldiers pressed them from behind. Soon the entire force was running out into the open, only to find, to their horror, the hidden Blacken warriors that had lay in wait under the moat water. Screams of man and horse were heard as the slaughter began. Rynoah couldn’t hold her horse and defend herself at the same time and she quickly lost her mount, falling under the hooves and feet of others. She desperately tried to hack her way back to her feet and succeeded halfway before Tyrox appeared from nowhere, cutting back Blacken minions like butter. He grabbed her by the arm and swung her up behind him on the prancing black stallion he rode.
“I am amazed they unseated you, Tironah,” he shouted over the mayhem, cleaving a dog-like head in two. She worked hard on another, ignoring him. All those months of riding lessons really didn’t amount to anything in the middle of an intense battle.
Animal-men leaped at them left and right and were brought down by Tyrox’s skill or Rynoah’s extremely good luck. But even then, the entire army was surrounded and slowly the Blacken creatures were slaying them, driving them one way or another into another mass of the black beasts. Their future was looking extremely grim and Rynoah wondered if this would be the end of the story. She wondered if she could actually die here and her body would remain in a coma in her own reality forever. She wondered how long it would take for someone to find her there, slowly starving to death until death took over. It scared her, and her arm was almost torn off by a Blacken soldier because of it. Tyrox knocked it away before it could sink its claws into her and let out a vicious snarl when another leaped at them and latched onto the horse’s shoulder. Rynoah’s sword fell desperately and the creature fell under the horse’s crushing hooves, its muzzle split completely in half.
“I can see no way out of this,” Tyrox shouted, looking over his shoulder at her. “We may not live.” She wrenched her sword out of another animal and frowned. Even he was losing hope, and he was older than she was. He had seen many more battles.
A sound like the rushing of a train settled over the battling mass. Darkness as complete as night suddenly fell over them and thunder roared angrily. A crimson mist rolled in from the forest, blanketing the ground in its swirling dance. The mist had a chillingly hot touch that made the hairs on Rynoah’s neck stand on end. The Blacken creatures began to yelp and howl in fear, backing away from their opponents with uneasy looks. The men could have taken the opportunity to slaughter them had they not also been confused and frightened.
A cry rose from the forest that echoed across the land like the mighty blow of a horn. Out of the trees leaped a figure as black as oil wielding a black staff that shimmered with a ghastly blue glow. He landed in the open, staff pointed directly down. As soon as the wood touched the ground, an earth-wrenching explosion shook them all. The Blacken mutts screamed in agony and the horses reared in alarm. The wooden shields the Blacken minions used burst into bright blue flames and disintegrated into dust, leaving them virtually defenseless. The figure at the edge of the forest rose to his feet and glared at the dogs. The entire battlefield froze and became deathly silent. Even the horses stayed still as stones for the space of many long minutes. Then, one foot soldier took the opportunity to slash into a Blacken minion and the battlefield was thrown into chaos once again. Tyrox guided the black stallion towards the cloaked figure as hounds leaped at him and were blasted back when he swung his staff. In the mayhem, Rynoah could see Jygel fending off more of the ruthless creatures, sword stained black with the oil-like blood of his foes. She wanted to catch his attention, but they reached Neas before she had the chance. The sorcerer glanced up at them for a brief instant before returning his attention to the battle.
“I thought you left!” Rynoah shouted, actually overjoyed to see him. He grunted and waved his staff threateningly at another advancing group.
“Come if you dare, beasts!” he snarled low in his throat. The creatures quivered like jelly and turned tail, only to be cut down by the men waiting for them in the melee. He returned his attention to them as Tyrox knocked a Blacken warrior from his horse’s flank. “If Jeich is truly as powerful as you say, it will take more than a handful of men to destroy him. Come with me to the gate and we will see whose power is greater.” Tyrox nodded grimly, but Rynoah hesitated.
“What about Jygel? We can’t leave him down here like this,” she said. Neas began to walk towards the battle.
“If we do not make all haste, there will be little chance that anyone will survive this,” he shouted over his shoulder. Tyrox glanced back at her.
“Jygel is a fine warrior. He will hold his own until we deal with Jeich,” he assured her, nudging the stallion into a trot behind Neas as he picked up the pace. The battle seemed to part before the wizard leading them forward and they got through with little trouble. The drawbridge rose over their heads and they paused before it. Neas glowered at it and then lunged forward, staff pointed at the heavy wood. The bridge was blown backwards with an ear-splitting explosion. The dark figure before them raised his hands and slowly clutched his fingers as though grabbing hold of something. The stones above the entrance rumbled dangerously; Neas suddenly dropped his arms and they came crashing down into the moat. Rynoah covered her face to shield herself from the dust and water. When she lowered her arms, she saw the stones had made a make-shift bridge across the moat. Neas didn’t even wait for them; he sprinted across like a shadow. Tyrox swung down from the stallion’s back and followed shortly after, leaving Rynoah to jump off on her own and give chase. She slipped on the debris in the moat and almost fell into the water, but caught herself and crossed safely. She barely caught sight of Tyrox’s back climbing a staircase to the right and had to run hard to catch up. The stairs spiraled on forever and ever into darkness until Rynoah thought her lungs would explode from the hard climb. They ended at a door, which Neas blasted open much in the same way he had the drawbridge. The trio burst into the room, swords and staff drawn.
The room was gigantic. The ceiling towered so far over her head that Rynoah was sure her neck would break if she tried to look up to the top of it. Tapestries of black with silver symbols weaved into them hung on the circular walls, draping the room in somber darkness. One window faced out over the battle raging below and the sounds of it drifted up to them even at the height they were at. In front of this window stood Jeich, dressed in black robes and appearing as evil as ever. Rynoah felt her knees grow slightly weak to look at him for she could sense what great power he could summon with a thought. He didn’t even turn to look at them when he spoke:
“What fools you are to face me,” he muttered darkly. Neas eased out of his battle stance and stood holding his staff at his side.
“That may be,” he responded. “Then again, it may not be. You are too confident, Jeich, and it will be your downfall.” Jeich snorted and slowly turned to glare at them.
“You did not come here to banter,” he growled. “Come then, let us get this over with.” He unfastened the clasp of his cloak and cast it aside. It disappeared in a puff of acrid smoke, much to Rynoah’s surprise. Jeich sneered as he drew his sword. Neas crouched, staff held secure under his arm and clutched in his hand, the end resting across his back and the other pointing at the floor. He stretched his hand out in front of him as Tyrox held his sword ready, prepared to rush in and protect the sorcerer if it was necessary. Rynoah waited, not sure if she should also prepare. As she pondered it, something began to happen to Jeich.
Smoke as black as tar began to swirl around his legs and travel up his body until it consumed his head. The room grew deathly chill, yet Neas and Tyrox remained still, keeping an eye on the cloud of smoke as it began to grow, towering over them both by several feet. A sound like thunder rolled over them, shaking the walls and making Rynoah cringe inwardly. The cloud of smoke roiled and twisted like one possessed as the sound grew louder and louder.
A flash of steel swept past her face, making her stagger back. With a cry, Tyrox leaped forward in time to block a massive sword from cleaving Neas in half but the effort brought the mighty warrior to his knees where he stayed, straining against the weight of the blade. The cloud of smoke was swept aside as Jeich waved his arm. But it wasn’t Jeich.
Rynoah had never seen anything like it. His face was nothing but a black mass of shadow and he was dressed in armor as black as obsidian and arrayed with spikes. On the breastplate was etched a depiction of a winged cat, a dragon, a mighty hound and a swift eagle being crushed under the coils of a gigantic black serpent. The sword was almost as big as Rynoah herself and the man towered over them by almost ten feet. He pressed down on the sword in his hand, making Tyrox grunt in pain. He was almost bent over backwards from the effort of holding off the sword and Rynoah was about to leap in when Neas whipped his staff around in front of him and knocked the sword away effortlessly. Jeich, or what used to be Jeich, laughed in a booming, mirthless bellow.
“How did you think I gained control of Blacken?” he roared. “Did you foolishly believe a mere man could control such a destructive force?” He swung the sword down again and Tyrox had no choice but to dodge. Neas calmly deflected the blow, but it was powerful enough to send him staggering backwards. Sweat began to bead on his forehead as he glared up at the giant before him. “It is impossible!” Jeich went on. “The only way to control Blacken is to become it! And that is what I have done!!”
“You are a fool, Jeich!” Neas spat. “A fool!” The sword came down again but this time when Neas moved to block it, Jeich raised his free hand. Neas was blown back into the wall and fell to the floor with a grunt. Tyrox ran forward with a shout and Jeich was too slow to do anything more than block as he began to furiously swing. The giant was taken by surprise long enough for Tyrox to leap in and jab his sword into his knee, piercing the heavy metal of his shinguard and jamming the blade upwards. Jeich let out a bellow and swung. Rynoah screamed a warning but Tyrox was too slow.
The blade hit him so hard that he flew quite a ways before hitting the floor and sliding across it a short way. Blood poured from his side and chest, pooling out on the smooth floor. He didn’t move.
Jeich hissed as he pulled Tyrox’s sword from his knee. Thick, oily blood oozed from the wound and it stank of rot. Neas dragged himself up off the floor and took up his staff again, ignoring Tyrox’s plight. He began to sidestep around the massive thing standing before him, drawing its attention away from her. Jeich followed, turning until his back was to her and swung at Neas again. Neas snapped a word and his staff glowed blinding white. Once the blade hit, it hissed and melted away, making Jeich growl in frustration. He raised his hand, conjuring some dark spell from deep within himself. Neas dropped his staff with a cry and clutched his shoulder, face pale with pain. Rynoah began to panic as she watched him slowly drop to his knees. His muscles began to spasm; blood dripped from his nose and mouth. Jeich was slowly crushing him from the inside.
She didn’t even think about it. The sword was in her hand and she threw it like a javelin with all her might. It flew straight and sure, burying deep into Jeich’s shoulder. He staggered, surprised at the blow as blood oozed from the new wound. Neas fell to the floor gasping for air as Jeich turned on her.
“Foolish sister,” he sneered. “You will wish you had remained a wolf when I am through with you.” He raised his hand and Rynoah felt her legs leave the ground. The wall didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would, but it made a sickening crunch when she hit the floor. Pain shot through her shoulder, so intense that she couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. Before she could recover, a burning sensation swept through her body, making her scream aloud. Red spots danced before her eyes as the fire burned hotter and hotter until she was sure her skin would melt off of her bones. She started seeing flashes of her life: her cat, the homework left unfinished on her desk, her parents.
A loud warcry echoed in her ears and the sound of metal clashing rang in the air, but she felt herself slipping away into darkness…
The cloud of gray had lifted a little. On the air, she could taste a bit of moisture and she breathed it in hungrily. She wondered if she had died and gone to heaven or purgatory or some other such place. Surely Jeich had won. But she paused. Someone had screamed before she had died. Had Neas recovered himself and come to the rescue too late? Had the forces outside stormed the tower? Perhaps whoever it was had died as well and Jeich really had won. Why would she be here otherwise?
Wings beat nearby and Feligon was beside her. She looked at him, cleaned and as magnificent as he had been when she first saw him. He smiled at her.
“It is over, Rynoah,” he said softly. “Jeich fell. The land was saved.” Rynoah heaved a big sigh of relief.
“How did it happen?” she asked.
“Jygel stormed the tower and came in just as Jeich was about to kill Tironah,” he explained. “With one swift throw, he buried his sword deep into the face of Blacken and vanquished it. With its death, it took with it all the creatures Jeich had conjured to work as his army and the darkness that had possessed the forests of Worgol. The four Kingdoms were saved because of the bravery of four.”
“What about Tironah?” she demanded quickly. “And Neas? And Tyrox? Are they okay?” Feligon chuckled.
“Tironah recovered. She and Jygel will have many descendants and live for a long time after,” he replied. “Neas also recovered and he was named a hero of the Eastern Kingdom. He was pardoned for practicing the secret arts, but he will never perform magic again. In the battle, Jeich destroyed his eyesight and the hearing in his right ear, but he will meet a fine woman who will take care of him.” Rynoah smiled, but Feligon’s face became serious before he went on. “Tyrox, I regret to say, did not live. He bled to death on the floor of Jeich’s tower before any could aid him. The Northern Kingdom would not accept his body for burial in their palace cemetery, and so he was buried at the Crossroads: the place where all four Kingdoms meet. It was a fitting burial, for he was a hero of all the land.” Rynoah looked at the ground.
“But why didn’t I get to see any of this?” she questioned after a long pause. “I mean, the story wasn’t ended there, was it? There was still a lot more to go!” The large cat sighed, his huge shoulders rising and falling, drooping.
“The story has come as far as it can,” he muttered. “The creator will not be able to continue it.” Rynoah was taken aback as he looked up at the horizon where the moon was beginning to rise. “That is why you must return and quickly. That is why I took you from Tironah’s body so soon.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I haven’t the time to explain,” he replied. “Know this: the creator is dying. She will not live through the night. When you return to your reality, you must check your electronic mail. In it, you will find a message giving you the complete beginning of the story and the end. It is up to you to write them.” He glanced over at her.
“I have this final request,” he went on. “I ask that you publish this story. It is for the creator’s sake that you do this; a last wish that should be fulfilled. Let the world partake of this reality.” There was a rumble and the grassland below, scorched from the flames of death, began to crumble and fall away into nothingness. Feligon looked at her urgently. “Promise me, Rynoah!” She felt the rock beneath her shake dangerously. “Promise me!”
“I promise,” she whispered. “I…”
The light in her room was blinding when she opened her eyes and looked around. O’Malley dozed peacefully on her cluttered bed and opened one yellow eye when she pushed herself to her feet, looking around frantically for the grassland and its sunset and the familiar winged cat creature that had told her so many things. It was gone. All of it was gone. She sighed and felt her eyes water when she realized she would never see it again. As a tear fell onto the harsh wooden desk, her eye caught the paper on which the story was written. It ended right after Tironah blacked out and the rest of the empty page glared up at her defiantly. She let it fall with a disgusted grimace.
“You won’t stay that way,” she vowed to the paper. “Just you wait and see.” She strode from the room purposefully and down the hall into the computer room. She dropped down into the tall-backed office chair and pulled up her e-mail on the screen. As expected, there was only one new message. She opened it with shaky hands, anxious to see it. The screen finished loading and she read the message:
Subject: My story
Feligon has told me all about you, Rynoah. He told me that you would be helping me with my story and it seems, if you’re reading this, that you did. For that, I give you my utmost gratitude. Attached to this message are the beginning and end to the tale, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate. Again, I can’t express my gratitude, but I hope you enjoyed the story.
Rynoah smiled through tears as she opened the attachments and found both a beginning and end. She sat at the computer for a long, long time, staring at the message until her parents came home. That’s where they found her, furiously typing away.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked, poking her head in the doorway. Rynoah didn’t even look at her.
“Homework,” she replied. “Just homework.”
His paws made no sound on the hard linoleum that night. The beep of the heart monitor and the whisper of the machines were the only audible noises in the room as he quietly came to her bedside, proud head held high and ears slightly back in humble respect. She lay quietly, eyes closed, with tubes running from her arm and nose to the various machines that always kept her company now. She was pale and so frail, he feared he would snap her in two with a look. But she opened her eyes and smiled when she saw him in the pale moonlight watching her. He smiled back in his own cattish way.
“Did it work?” she asked in a voice so soft, even his sharp ears were strained to hear. “Did she get the message?” He nodded a little and his eyes shone slightly with tears. He hated to see her so.
“Yes, Katherine,” he replied gently. “She has given me her word and no living thing can give me their word and break it.” Her face lit up with joy. The heart monitor’s beep began to slow and slow. He watched its line begin to straighten with each second and then looked to her. “Yes. You can rest now, Katherine. Everything is taken care of for you.” She settled back against her pillows and her eyelids gently settled down.
Alarms beeped urgently and nurses came rushing in. They began to pump her chest and administer rescue breathing but to no avail. The girl had already slipped away into a peaceful slumber that ended all her suffering. After a few minutes, they backed off and one drew the blanket over her head significantly. None of them saw the red-and-cream colored feather flecked with black that rested on the bedstand in mute testimony to the presence of the patron of legends.
“She is dead.”
“Yes. I know.”
“It is a great loss for all of us, my friends. But there are more like her. She is not the first, nor is she the last.”
“You speak the truth, friend. Still, I cannot help but feel saddened by her passing. She was close to me.”
“You will find comfort over time. For now, we must continue our purpose. Do not remain in mourning for her long.”
“Yes, brother. I know.”