Seth – Chapter 22

When Sho Thym awoke, the complete silence and darkness made him wonder if he had died. Fortunately, his other senses quickly compensated and left him feeling certain that he was still alive. He was quite sure that the dead didn’t experience headaches like this.

There was a pressure behind his eyes that felt like someone had hit him in the face with a bag of rocks. His mouth was dry and tasted bitter. His tongue felt fuzzy and all he could smell was dust. Worst of all was the cold draft blowing on his head and down his neck.

Sho Thym reached to pull his hood over his head, but as his hand touched the collar of his shirt, he realized that it wasn’t there. The horror of losing his father’s cloak hit him in several successive waves of panic and nausea. His father’s cloak was missing. The familiar egg from his mother was inside it. It was all he had of them. He was cold and exposed. How would he shield his mind from the thoughts of others? How would he block out the monster in his nightmares?

The worry began to swirl faster and faster around Sho Thym’s head, until his breath became short and the panic began to grip his heart. He sat up and grabbed blindly around him, frantic to find anything, but all he felt was cold, stone floor. Sho Thym was about to scream, but a moment before he did, a green glow emerged from the other side of the room.

“Is someone there?” Sho Thym called. Though the green glow was not bright, he found himself squinting and avoiding looking directly at it. It seemed to move and hang in the air like smoke, but it had a sickly sheen to it. Like rotten meat left out in the sun. While the glow was clearly visible, it’s strange light did not illuminate Sho Thym or the surrounding area, making it the only thing he could see.

As the green glow swirled silently nearby, Sho Thym tried to think how he could have ended up in his current surroundings. His memory was such a blur of images and events that he had difficulty discerning what was real and what was nightmare. He recalled their run through the woods to escape danger, the town full of zombies, the large building with the creepy old man, and a musty brown couch where he was going to rest.

After that, the memories became much more surreal. A feeling of intense dizziness and nausea. Cold, dry hands grabbing his arms and legs. The terrible face of a marble statue wearing half a mask of flesh. Intense pain in his neck. A howling rushing wind. Two laughing voices, one high pitched and close, the other low and far off.

Recalling the laughter sent a fresh shiver through Sho Thym, and the movement brought him back into the moment. He realized that while he had been lost in thought, the green glow had been growing in size and intensity. Not only that, it seemed to be slowly snaking towards him.

Sho Thym hurried to his feet and shouted at the spectral light. “Stay back! I’m warning you!” He tried to take a defensive stance, but without his cloak he felt exposed. In his fright, his hands awkwardly flailed around him, trying to remember what they were useful for.

Stick. He normally used his hands to hold Stick. And it was only when his hands grasped aimlessly that he realized that he had lost his uncle’s powerful wooden staff as well. He was completely defenseless. His heart started pounding and his mouth was sputtering as panic began to take over.

“I’m a dragon hunter!”

Sho Thym didn’t know why he had blurted that out. Even though he had traveled with Krall, Piggy, and Solimar, he had never considered himself one of them. They had been so foreign and different from him, and he had only joined them to go along with his friend. He had always felt out of place and uncomfortable around them, and when Dawnold told him they had died, Sho Thym had only felt a strange emptiness.

But none of that really seemed true anymore. He was standing cold, alone, exposed, and afraid in the darkness, but as soon as he had shouted the words “I’m a dragon hunter,” he felt something surge through him. There was a distant roar somewhere in the back of his mind.

“I’m a dragon hunter!” he shouted again. The distant roar grew louder in his mind, and a sharp pain pressed against the back of his eyes, but Sho Thym used that pain to press forward. “I learned to track from the great Solimar Silverbow. Krall the Relentless taught me to fight, and Piggy the Boarhearted taught me to scrap and snort. So this is your last warning to stay away from me!”

He may have been stretching the truth a bit, but Sho Thym didn’t care. With every word he spoke, he trembled a little bit less, he felt a little less scared and exposed. He didn’t feel so alone. Yes, the dragon hunters had been strange and wild and scary, but Sho Thym had been one of them. He was a dragon hunter, which meant he could be scary too.

And it was working. The green glow had stopped moving towards him, and it was no longer growing larger. It hung still in the air, as if waiting for Sho Thym to finish.

“That’s better,” said Sho Thym. Instead of flailing about, his hands were now firmly on his hips, looking like his Uncle Grodin used to when Sho Thym had been naughty. He took a step forward and pointed a finger sternly at the glow. “You’ve stolen what’s rightfully mine,” he scolded, “and I demand that you return my property and take me to my friends, now.”

Sho Thym almost added, “or else,” but stopped himself before he said it. He decided that dragon hunters don’t need to threaten to have their demands taken seriously. And besides, he didn’t know what to say if he was asked, “Or else what?”

Then there was silence. The silence felt odd to Sho Thym, and the longer it lasted, the more it nibbled and bit at the edges of his newfound bravado. He found himself wondering what Krall or Solimar would do after making such demands. It felt wrong to sit down or turn his back on his enemy, but how long should he just stand there? If he kept talking, would it appear that he was just nervously rambling on? Could the thing even hear him? Was it even alive at all, or was he simply rebuking a strange wisp of smoke?

Sho Thym was about to repeat his demands, but just as he took a breath to do so, the floating green glow dropped down to the floor, spreading out and making a quiet hissing sound as if it was deflating. The glow became less harsh to look at, and appeared transparent now as well. Sho Thym could see the stones of the floor beneath, and he realized that the glow was now faintly illuminating the room around him. He didn’t like what he saw.

Chains and shackles hung on the walls. Metal bars surrounded him to the front, left, and right, and a wall of solid rock was behind him. With growing dread, he realized he was being held in a dungeon, and by the look of the roughly hewn rock wall, he was likely underground. And he was certainly in no position to be making demands.

Then the green glow spoke to Sho Thym. The sound was quiet and distorted as it seemed to echo and bounce off of every wall in all directions at once. But there was no mistaking its source, because the green glow brightened and dimmed with every syllable.

“Mighty dragon hunter,” the voice said, “you misunderstand our predicament. I did not steal your property or take you from your friends. I approached you to seek your assistance.”

Sho Thym looked again at the vaporous green glow near his feet. The way it floated just above the ground gave him the strange impression that it was almost bowing to him. Or groveling. Rather than menacing like before, it now seemed rather sad and pathetic to him.

“Who are you?” Sho Thym asked.

“A prisoner, like yourself,” said the voice. “Though I have been imprisoned far longer than you, and my cage is much smaller.” As soon as the voice had said this, the green glow swirled backwards across the room, though the bars of Sho Thym’s cell, and moving to a separate cell on the far side of the dungeon. As it moved, Sho Thym saw an elegant metal staff, leaning against the wall in a corner. Atop the staff was a large green crystal, which the green glow retreated into, making the crystal shine like a beacon in the dark dungeon.

“I was once a powerful mage,” said the voice, “but I was betrayed by those I trusted, and I am now a prisoner of the necromancer Vdekshi. He uses the enchanted silver staff you see to keep me trapped within this cursed crystal. It limits my power and prevents me from defeating the monster that has us both trapped.”

“I’ve heard plenty of Vdekshi,” said Sho Thym. “He’s the one responsible for the crazed dragons that terrorized a village, poisoned my friend Dawnold, and killed the other dragon hunters.”

“I am sorry for the loss of your friend,” said the voice.

“Oh, Dawnold didn’t die,” said Sho Thym. “He’s incredibly strong and resilient, and I think he wasn’t poisoned as badly as the others. Still, he’s been different ever since then. More angry all the time.”

“Your friend survived the madness poison?” said the voice. “Incredible. I thought was impossible. But I’m afraid it means that he’s now in greater danger than ever.”

“Why?” Sho Thym asked.

“Vdekshi is absolutely obsessed with that poison,” said the voice. “If he’s learned that someone exists who can survive even the smallest trace of the poison, he will stop at nothing to destroy them. I believe it also explains why he has captured you. Obviously he intends to torture you until you reveal everything you know about your friend.”

“Torture?” screamed Sho Thym, now gripped with panic. “What kind of torture?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the voice, “because it will never come to that. Vdekshi has made a grave mistake today, imprisoning us together. You’re a tremendously powerful wizard, I can sense it even from my crystal prison. I can unlock even greater power within you, which we’ll use to defeat Vdekshi and save your friend.”

“How?” Sho Thym asked.

“Just leave that to me,” said the voice.

“I don’t even know who you are,” said Sho Thym. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Seftis,” said the voice. “And if you and I work together Sho Thym, there is nothing in this world that can stop us.”

Illustration of Sho Thym
by Ryan Salway

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Seth – Chapter 21

Seth offered to take the first watch of the night. He told Dawnold and Sho Thym that he needed to keep an eye on the lantern to ensure it kept its light, but in truth he doubted that he could have fallen asleep in a strange building surrounded by zombies. At first, his companions had offered to keep watch along with Seth, as they felt just as uncomfortable with their surroundings. However, as night wore on and the silent threat outside made no further attacks, the exhaustion of the day and their desperate escape eventually caught up with them.

Mari, the strange silent man who had become their reluctant host, had remained in his hiding place behind the stairs after giving them some tattered blankets. Mari was strange to say the least, and he had made Seth very uneasy when he had first come out from hiding, but he seemed too frail to be dangerous and he hadn’t objected when the three of them climbed the stairs to explore the second story of the building.

The upper floor was in far less disarray than the one below. Instead of a jumbled mess of overturned furniture and broken fixtures, the rooms upstairs seemed as though they had not been abandoned at all. Most of the rooms appeared to be offices of some kind, and each of them had one or two desks, oil lamps, and several stacks of parchment and envelopes that were brittle to the touch. Most of the ink on the writing was so faded or smudged that it was illegible, but the little that they could read made them think the building had once been some kind of town hall.

Two of the offices were much larger than the others, and the door handles were more ornate. Seth supposed they had perhaps been the offices of some rather important officials, such as a mayor or sheriff. In addition to the desks and parchment that the other offices had, these rooms also had a few other accessories. One of them featured a large bookshelf with several volumes containing maps of farms and boundary lines. The other large office had a cabinet with several bottles of extra writing ink, as well as some lamp oil that Dawnold and Sho Thym had used to light lamps of their own.

Perhaps the most welcome discovery was that each of the large offices had their own couch. The couches were musty and covered in dark brown bear fur, but they were long, soft, and far more comfortable than the hard floor. Seth found it odd that Mari had not moved the couches downstairs, but discovered the reason when they tried to pick up the furniture to do just that. Each couch was firmly bolted to the floor at the legs, and at the base of the legs were carved the words, “OFFICIAL USE ONLY. DO NOT RELOCATE.”

Seth felt uneasy about leaving Dawnold and Sho Thym alone in the rooms, but he didn’t want to deprive them of the comfortable couches. At the same time, he realized that he needed to return downstairs soon, as a look out an office window showed that the zombies outside were slowly closing in again in the absence of Seth’s lantern to keep them away.

Dawnold shared Seth’s uneasiness, and suggested that he and Sho Thym keep the doors to the rooms open in case Seth needed their help. Sho Thym agreed and assured the others that they had plenty of lamp oil to keep them burning until sunrise. And, having said that, the young wizard laid back on his couch and fell almost immediately asleep. The couch in the other large office wasn’t long enough for Dawnold’s tall frame, but he draped his feet over the end, and before long he was also sound asleep.

Seth returned downstairs, stepping carefully and quietly to avoid awaking Mari. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Seth raised his lantern high above his head, and the magical light within intensified. As the beams of light illuminated the windows of the building, he could hear the zombies outside shuffling quietly away. Seth gave an appreciative glance at the lantern, grateful that he had been entrusted with such a powerful gift.

Looking around the large circular room, and the winding spiral staircase, Seth tried to imagine what the building would have looked like before the town had fallen to ruin. He imagined light filtering inward through the windows, sounds of carriages and markets outside, and people walking up and down the stairs. It was the people that Seth liked to imagine the most. He imagined some as simple and sturdy farmers, some as town officials in more elegant attire, and all of them were hurrying one place or another on urgent business.

Seth had not even realized his daydreaming had become actual dreaming until he suddenly awoke to the sound of footsteps and an eerie, haunting tune. He looked up and saw a woman walking toward him, wearing a long purple dress and black cloak. Her face was obscured by the cloak’s hood, but it was clear that she was the source of the music. Seth jumped to his feet, lifting his lantern and brandishing his shillelagh, but he lowered his weapon when he saw a lock of red hair fall from beneath the hood.

“Aluanna?” Seth suddenly felt foolish for being so alarmed. It now seemed so obvious that the music that had awoken him was Aluanna’s beautiful music. Still, he was no less surprised to see her there. “What are you doing here?”

Aluanna stepped forward, removing her hood to fully reveal her face. She was as lovely as ever, but she wore a frightened expression that worried Seth. “I had to find you Seth. You need to come with me, immediately.”

“What happened?” asked Seth as he began gathering up his belongings. The melody in the room continued, reassuring and unnerving him at the same time. “Did you discover the song about the Sword of Wheat?”

Aluanna nodded, then looked over her shoulder. “Yes, but that’s not safe to talk about right now, Seth. Your life is in danger and we need to get out of here now!” She took a few more quick steps towards Seth until she was directly in front of him.

Seth reached out to put a hand on her shoulder and the music in the room seemed to intensify. Seth would not have presumed to embrace a lady of her stature, but she seemed so distressed that he felt compelled to comfort her somehow. “I don’t understand. Where is the rest of your band? How did you get past the horde outside?”

Aluanna threw herself into his arms, burying her face in Seth’s shirt. “The rest of my band was killed,” she sobbed. “I was the only one who escaped. The zombies are gone right now, but we have to leave before they come back. Please Seth, I’m frightened!”

The words shocked Seth, and he felt his stomach drop. Aluanna’s band had seemed so vibrant and full of life the last time he saw them, and their deaths seemed unimaginable to him. “I… I’m so sorry,” Seth stammered. “Let me go get Dawnold and Sho Thym and we’ll leave right away.”

“No!” Aluanna pleaded, her eyes darting in panic. The beautiful melody in the room seemed to slightly waver and shift in pitch, like a key change poorly executed. “The others will be fine,” she said. “It’s you they want, Seth. And they’re going to succeed if we don’t leave now!”

The tempo of the music seemed off somehow, and Seth began to question for the first time just where the music was coming from. “Who?” Seth asked. “Who’s after me?” Aluanna hesitated, and Seth took a step away from her.

As soon as Seth had removed himself from Aluanna’s embrace, he realized just how wrong the whole scenario was. The woman in front of him had the face and features of Aluanna, but the similarities ended there. The wisdom and dignity and confidence he so admired in her were gone. She grasped again at Seth, but the concern was an obvious charade, and she was tugging at his lantern like a thief.

To make matters worse, Seth could hear that the off-beat rhythm he had noticed earlier was not part of the music at all. It was the sound of pounding on a door upstairs.

“Let go of my lantern!” Seth shouted, yanking it free of the woman’s grasp.

“Come with meee!!” screamed the imposter, lunging at Seth.

“Shurrah!” he shouted, and a blast of light hit the woman, sending her sprawling backwards. As Seth’s eyes adjusted to the intense light emanating from the lantern, he could see that she was an old woman, withered with age and seething with hatred. Seth stepped forward to question the woman, but before he could say another word, she pounced for the door, escaping into the night.

For a moment, Seth considered pursuing the woman, but as the last of the music faded from his ears, the sound of the pounding upstairs startled him enough to bring him fully to his senses. He bounded up the stairs, with his shillelagh in one hand and his lantern shining brilliantly in the other. As he neared the top of the stairs, he could hear Dawnold’s voice shouting above the sound of the pounding. When he arrived at the door a moment later he saw that it was pitch black, and it seemed to muffle the sounds behind it.

Seth raised his lantern and swung his shillelagh at the door. The black coating shattered like a shadow made of impossibly thin glass, and the shouts, banging, and other sounds behind the door were instantly amplified. He swung again, leaving a noticeable dent in the door, but failing to do any more substantial damage. Suddenly, Seth heard a loud “CRACK” in front of him, and a moment later the entire door burst off its hinges. He had only just managed to step away in time to avoid being flattened by the door, Dawnold, and the six zombies who were trying to wrestle him to the ground.

Seth remembered the anger he had seen on Dawnold’s face the first time he had met the large, dark skinned man, but that had been nothing compared to the fury that Seth was witnessing now. The zombies were biting, grabbing, and doing everything they could to bring him down, but Dawnold shrugged off their attacks and threw each one off of him as if they offered no more resistance than a sack of flour.

Looking past Dawnold into the room he emerged from, Seth could see almost a dozen more zombies scattered across the floor. Several were missing limbs and two had heads that were turned to face behind them, but all of them were lurching to stand again and resume the fight. Seth raised his lantern and shouted “Shurrah!” There was another flash of blinding light, and the zombies all fell to the floor, completely still.

Seth hardly had time to feel relieved before Dawnold grabbed him by the collar. “What happened?!” Dawnold shouted. “I thought you were keeping watch!”

“I was!” Seth said, instinctively pulling away from Dawnold. While Seth considered him an ally, he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the kind of beating Dawnold had given those zombies. “I don’t know what happened! I think I was put under some kind of spell. There was an old woman who looked like Aluanna, and she was trying to lure me away. I’m sorry, Dawnold!”

Dawnold released his hold on Seth’s shirt and pounded a fist into his other hand. Seth noticed for the first time that Dawnold’s knuckles were bloody, probably from hitting the locked door so many times. “The witch!” Dawnold said. “How did she get here? We’d better warn-” Before he could finish his sentence, Dawnold ran to the room where Sho Thym had been sleeping.

Seth followed immediately behind, and when they arrived at the room, Seth saw that the door had the same jet black appearance as the previous door. Dawnold began kicking and ramming his shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t so much as budge. “Wait,” he said, and smashed the door with his shillelagh. Again, the black layer shattered and dissolved. Dawnold wasted no time kicking down the door, ripping it from its hinges.

Behind the door there was no fight, no mass of zombies, and no Sho Thym. There was only a huge gaping hole in the wall where the window had once been, and floating on the other side of that hole was Laronius. The vampire sneered at Dawnold and Seth, and then disappeared into the night.

Seth

Seth Art by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 20

The moment the door was shut, Sho Thym didn’t know whether to feel relieved or terrified. He was glad that the zombies that had been attacking them were now outside the seemingly sturdy walls he now found himself within, but what was inside with them? Something had shoved Seth to the ground and slammed the door shut, and Sho Thym was certain it hadn’t been Dawnold. Before panic could set in, Sho Thym decided to do what he did best, and put his impressive mind to work.

Seth’s lantern was still giving off light, despite his fall to the floor, which Sho Thym was grateful for. But the swinging lantern cast shadows and swayed and danced across the walls of the messy room, and Sho Thym found it difficult to look in any one direction for long without feeling dizzy. He pulled back his hood and firmly grasped Stick, the magical staff his uncle had leant him. Sho Thym tried to open his mind to sense anyone else in the room with them, but between his own fear and the disorienting shadows, he found it hard to focus.

There was a loud creak from one of the floorboards by a nearby staircase, and the sound startled Sho Thym, Dawnold, and Seth all at once. Sho Thym turned his attention to that corner of the room and saw what looked like a large broken harp covered by a tattered sheet. The sheet moved slightly as if blown by the wind, but Sho Thym couldn’t feel any breeze at all. If anything, the air felt so still and stale he suspected the windows hadn’t been opened in years.

“Hello?” Sho Thym called out, trying to sound braver than he felt. “If someone is in here, we haven’t come here to hurt you.”

Hurt me? Pah! Skinny boy like that couldn’t hurt me if he tried. What hurts me is that light. It’s too bright for my eyes! That big fella looks like trouble though. Better stay out of sight until I can tell what they’re doing here.

The reply was so faint and rushed that Sho Thym wouldn’t have understood it at all if he hadn’t been listening closely. At first he had thought that he had heard a whisper, but when he looked at Dawnold and Seth for their reactions, it was clear they hadn’t heard anything. That meant he had sensed the thoughts of someone in the room with them. He gripped Stick more firmly and tried to listen for more stray thoughts, but there was nothing.

Sho Thym decided that perhaps saying something would prompt more thoughts from the stranger, so he cleared his throat and spoke again. “If the light is hurting your eyes, would you rather we put it out?” Seth gasped at Sho Thym’s words, but Sho Thym ignored him and focused to sense the stranger’s reaction. He was surprised at the panicked response.

Is the scrawny boy crazy? Put out the light and the dead will begin pounding on the door again. The door may be solid, but poor Mari’s ears can’t take that banging anymore!! Leave the light on, foolish boy!

“Alright, we’ll leave the light on!” Sho Thym shouted to the dark room. “I was just trying to be considerate.”

Do you… Do you hear me? Can you understand Mari? Are you my imagination? Mari thinks you must be because you talked back to me, but I didn’t move my mouth. I didn’t speak. Mari’s hasn’t spoken for years because then I might have to speak of what I did. And Mari doesn’t want to do that.

“Yes, I can understand you,” Sho Thym said, some amount of calm coming back to him. “But no, we’re not figments of your imagination. We’re real, and if you just come out here where we can see you, I could show you that. Your name is Mari?”

There was a sound of wood scooting against wood in the corner, and a gaunt man in oversized clothing came crawling out from under the stairs. The clothing was worn and faded, but appeared as if the outfit had once been quite handsome. Copper buttons studded the sleeves and collar, and the chain of a pocket watch hung from the vest to the inside of one pocket. The length of the clothes seemed to match the height of the man, though he was stooped over, even after he stood up from the floor. The width of the clothing was definitely wrong though. The collar ringed far to wide around his thin neck, and the baggy clothing hanging onto his frame resembled a tent built with too few poles.

The man looked at Dawnold warily. None of you are going to hurt Mari?

“No,” Sho Thym said. “We’re not here to hurt you. We’re just looking for a place to stay the night. Preferably a place that doesn’t have zombies crawling all over us.”

The man looked eagerly at Sho Thym and the illuminated lantern. You will keep light going through the night? You will keep the monsters from banging the door?

“Yes, we’ll keep the lantern lit, Mari,” said Sho Thym. “Though I can’t promise you that it will keep the zombies from pounding on the door.”

Mari then turned to Sho Thym with a stern gaze. And you will not ask Mari any questions tonight?

Sho Thym fidgeted. He didn’t like being forced into silence, but he also didn’t want to anger the stranger and find himself back outside with the zombies. “Alright,” said Sho Thym, “I won’t ask you any questions tonight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask you questions tomorrow.”

Mari grunted, but then shrugged and walked back to his hiding place under the staircase. When he returned he was carrying three heavy blankets.

Tomorrow’s problems can wait for tomorrow. Tonight is the night we’re alive. Stay alive. Keep the light bright. Sleep when you can.

“OK, it looks like Mari is letting us use the blankets,” said Sho Thym. “Who wants to take the first shift as lookout?”

Suddenly, Mari’s eyes darted upward and he wagged a finger in Sho Thym’s face.

Don’t look out the window in the darkness.

“Why not?” asked Sho Thym.

Because the darkness looks back.

Illustration of Sho Thym by Ryan Salway

Illustration of Sho Thym
by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 19

A pale moon hung high overhead as the sun sank closer to the horizon behind the trees. As a chill wind blew past Seth’s face, he held up his dented lantern like a shield. There was a prickle down the back of his neck that he tried to attribute to the cool wind, but there was a suspicion in the back of his mind that there was more to it than that.

“Are we still on the path?” Sho Thym asked. “I can’t see it anymore.”

“It was difficult to find even in full daylight,” Dawnold said. “It’s growing so dark now that I doubt we’ll be able to follow much at all, even with Seth’s magical lantern. We may be better off unpacking and setting up camp for the night and trying again in the morning.”

Without the tauroks and wagon, Seth, Dawnold, and Sho Thym had been required to divide up the most essential travelling gear and carrying them on their own backs. Sho Thym had been disappointed to part with the sturdy beasts of burden, and Dawnold had been reluctant to entrust Aluanna’s band with the belongings of his former companions, but Aluanna had informed them that the twisting forest paths they needed to take would be far too unpredictable and treacherous for the slow and awkward beasts. When faced with the choice of turning back, risking the lives of the tauroks, or sending them with Aluanna’s band, Dawnold had decided they would be better off solely on foot anyway.

Sho Thym had just begun to remove his heavy pack with a relieved sigh when Seth heard it. There was a sound of movement and disturbance in the woods that didn’t seem right. Seth couldn’t quite figure out what about the sounds put him at such unease, but he didn’t stop to deliberate. “Put your pack back on, Sho Thym,” Seth said. “We can’t stay here.”

“What’s the matter?” Dawnold asked quietly.

“We can talk while we walk,” Seth said. “Don’t bother whispering though. We might as well talk loud enough to hear each other.”

“Why do you say that?” Dawnold asked.

“Because…” Seth began to talk, but suddenly his mind was racing.

“Because whatever is out there isn’t bothering to be quiet,” Sho Thym interrupted. “That’s what you were just thinking, isn’t it Seth? I could feel the pieces fall into place in your mind. That’s what’s bothering you. Whatever noises you’re hearing, their being made by something that doesn’t care about being heard.”

“Exactly,” Seth said, quickening his pace. “Everything in the forest, whether it’s predator or prey, wants to be as quiet as possible unless it’s trying to find a mate. What do you hear right now?”

The three were quiet for a moment and all three heard the sounds of cracking branches, shaken leaves, and shuffling dirt. Even worse, they heard the sounds coming from all around them.

“Well I hope that isn’t anything looking for a mate,” Sho Thym said.

“Alright,” Dawnold said, picking up a large rock while he walked, “Seth is right. We can’t just stop and break camp. But where are we supposed to go? The sun is setting and we’re in the middle of the woods. We can’t see the trail anymore. We don’t even know what direction to go in.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Seth said. He held up his lantern higher, scanning the area in front of him. He tried to open his mind to the subtle nudging he’d experienced before when letting the lantern’s light guide him. He looked for anything. A gleam from a stone, a beckoning shadow, a spot that held the light for just a moment longer than the others. But Seth could find no sign of the direction he should go.

Instead, the lantern swung in his hands as he walked, and the light shone upwards into the tops of the trees. Seth looked up and saw shapes moving among the branches. He realized with a sense of dread that they were surrounded not only on all sides, but from above as well. It was while he was watching the shuffling climbing of the shapes up high that his feet slipped and he fell.

The slope beneath Seth was too steep for him to adjust his footing, and the mud was so slick that it wouldn’t have done him much good even if he could. He tumbled and slid without being able to stop himself, but he was at least able to keep his hold on his lantern and shillelagh, and he managed to keep himself from tumbling head over heels.

When he landed at the bottom of the slope, he was wet and muddy on his backside, but he was unhurt. He looked around and noticed that Dawnold and Sho Thym were still at the top. He was just about to call up to them when he heard Sho Thym begin shouting.

“Aaah!! Who are you?! What do you want from us?” The young wizard sounded more panicked than Seth had ever heard him. “Dawnold, they’re mindless! My magic isn’t working! Help!!”

Immediately, Seth heard Dawnold howl with rage, followed by a loud cracking noise that echoed through the nearby hills. “Let go of him!” he bellowed. It was clear to Seth that their struggle was not going well, and he couldn’t find any way to climb up the slope to help them.

“Down here!” Seth called. “It’s slippery, but trust me! You’ll be safer down here!”

A moment later he heard a loud grunt from Dawnold, followed by the sounds of something large sliding down the mud. At first he tried to position himself to catch Dawnold and Sho Thym, but as he saw the speed they were coming down at, he decided it best to just get out of their way. They landed much harder than Seth had, but neither seemed badly hurt.

“Are you alright?” Seth asked, helping them to stand. “What attacked you up there?”

Sho Thym suddenly froze with a look of terror in his eyes and stared right past Seth. “Those!” he screamed.

Seth spun around and found that the three of them were completely surrounded by a dirty, foul mob. Except there was no shouting, jeering, or threatening from this mob. There was not even breathing. Every body illuminated by his lantern light had the same vacant expression and lifeless color. It was obvious to Seth the moment he saw them that these were not the faces of the living. Seth’s breath caught in his throat. “Undead.”

Dawnold immediately picked up the largest stick he could find nearby, and started swinging it wildly. “I thought you said it was safer down here! Now there’s even more of them!” Dawnold swung his stick hard into the head of one of horde, but it didn’t even flinch when struck. It merely grabbed the stick and wrenched it away from Dawnold’s grasp with an unholy strength. It began to step closer to Dawnold, but then lurched and stopped.

Seth looked down and realized that the shuffling movements of their attackers were shifting side to side, but not forward. Their feet paced at the edges of where his lantern was illuminating the ground.

“Wait!” Seth said a moment before Dawnold tried to throw a punch at one of the bodies. “Step back, Dawnold. They can’t come any closer as long as we stay within the lantern light.”

Sho Thym looked around them, dumbstruck. “Seth’s right,” he said. “Look around. The light is actually keeping them back!”

Dawnold stepped back, but still held a large rock in his hand and kept his eyes fixed on the bodies in front of them. He took a few steadying breaths, and then finally spoke through clenched teeth. “Well what do we do now, then? We can’t just stay out here like this all night. What if the light goes out? Or these things find a way past?”

Seth was about to say something about the light never going out, but before he could speak, something caught his eye. There was a gleam in the distance. Almost as if the light from his lantern were reflecting off a pond in the treetops, or maybe…

“A window,” Seth said.

“A what?” Sho Thym asked.

“Through those trees in that direction,” Seth said. “There are buildings. Or at least a building. I saw it just for a moment.”

“I don’t see anything,” Dawnold said, squinting his eyes in the darkness.

“Trust me, it’s there,” Seth said.

“Like we trusted you to slide down here?” Sho Thym shrieked.

“You’re better off down here than you were up there, aren’t you?” Seth said.

“Fine,” Dawnold interrupted, “but how do we get there?”

“Leave that to me,” Seth said, sounding more confident than he really felt at the moment. He took a step forward, and the lantern light moved with him. But the mob didn’t move. Their feet were now within the circle of light, but they still came no closer. If this was going to work, Seth would have to get them to move back.

“Shurrah,” he said, taking another step forward. This time the bodies did begin to shuffle backwards until their feet were out of the light. “Come on,” he beckoned to the others.

Their progress forward was slow and unnerving. The hardest part had been when they had left the mud bank completely behind them, allowing the horde to move around behind. Still, they continued forward, and the barrier of the lantern held. Soon they came to a clearing and saw the remains of a ruined old village. The buildings were in varying degrees of collapse and decay, and inside they could see the shambling forms of more animated corpses. The one building still intact stood in the middle of the ruins.

It was either an old church of town hall. In either case, it must have been what Seth had seen from afar, because it still had glass windows intact in its central spire. At the top of the spire was a large brass bell. They continued to move slowly towards the door of the large building, until they finally reached its solid wooden door.

All three attempted to push against the door, but it held firm. For a brief moment, Seth thought perhaps he saw candlelight from one of the windows of the building, but realized it must have merely been the reflection of his own lantern light. They were just about to search for another entrance around the back, when they heard a loud creak from behind the door. Whatever had been holding the door closed, it was now opening.

Dawnold stepped carefully into the doorway, followed by Sho Thym. Seth stepped in behind them, holding his lantern high to keep the mob outside the door. A moment later, the door slammed shut, and the bolt locked behind it.

Seth Art by Ryan Salway

Seth
Art by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 18

Treshigan stood over the body of a frail old woman lying on a bed. The woman’s thin white hair was braided and pinned into place with an ivory comb, and rings, bracelets, and other jewelry adorned her wrinkled and knobby hands and arms. Her face was covered in heavy makeup, which failed to conceal the deep frown lines and other wrinkles etched across her face.

Treshigan loved and hated the woman on the bed. She lay completely still on the table. Her eyes did not flutter, and she did not even breathe, yet Treshigan knew she was still alive. If she were dead, then that would make Treshigan dead as well, and Treshigan was still very much full of life. At least she was for now. But she had failed Vdekshi, and she feared what may happen next.

As a breeze blew in the window and stirred the old woman’s hair, Treshigan scolded herself for coming into the bedroom at all. She knew it would only make her more upset, as it always did, yet she could never resist it for long. She brought her hand close to the old woman and looked longingly at the jewelry that had meant so much to her.

There was a large brooch fastened near the old woman’s collar that had been a present from a wealthy merchant. “A token of your beauty,” he had told her all those years ago. It was the first of many such tokens that she had offered to Vdekshi to be imbued with his supernatural power. She remembered her amazement at how it had gleamed so beautifully that day. How poetic she had found it that a token of her beauty had become the source of her beauty restored.

But the brooch no longer gleamed and shone so brilliantly. Its magic had been spent, and it was now as dull and gray as the old woman’s hair. The same was true of every piece of jewelry the old woman wore. The pearl necklace and earrings given to her by a loud and conceited sailor now appeared to be made of little more than ordinary pebbles. A tinkling bracelet had lost all its sparkling beauty and sat flat and silent on the old woman’s wrist.

After surveying the lackluster collection, Treshigan’s eyes fell last upon her most recent loss. On the old woman’s right hand was an ornate golden ring with a large diamond set on the top. She glared at the thick crack in the diamond, and muttered a curse at the dark-skinned dragon hunter who had caused it. Treshigan had expected the magic within the diamond to last much longer, but the crack had ruined all of that. She hated to lose the ring, but its magic was gone, and so Treshigan had taken it off and put it on the old woman, just like she had with every other piece of jewelry she had once treasured.

The only jewelry left to Treshigan could hardly be called jewelry at all. On her left hand was a simple brass ring that had been given to her by a foolish young farmer who had been stupid enough to think that she could ever love someone as poor as him. Treshigan told herself that she had held onto that ring longer than the others because it meant the least to her, and she was embarrassed to be seen with it.

And yet she knew it was the faint magic remaining in that polished brass ring that separated her from the fate she saw in the bed before her. Treshigan shuddered at the thought, and held her left hand close to her chest. She could not bear to lose it all again.

“How pathetically tragic,” said a cold voice behind her.

Treshigan managed to suppress the urge to jump and turn around, but just barely. She didn’t want to give her unwelcome guest the satisfaction of knowing that his silent creep into the room had alarmed her. He was always doing things like this, and he knew that Treshigan hated it.

“Whatever you want, Laronius,” she said, “I suggest you go somewhere else to get it. I’m not in the mood for your sick games right now.”

Laronius silently floated next to her, and looked down at the old woman on the bed. “Ah, but sadly, there is no other place I can get what I want right now,” he said. “Because what I want at the moment, is to help you.”

Treshigan laughed, and this time she did turn to face him. “Help me? You’ve caused me nothing but grief since the day we met. And besides, I don’t think you’ve helped another living soul in your entire life.”

Laronius shook his head. “Such harsh words,” he said. “Do you ever consider my feelings before you say such things.” A moment later, a wicked smile spread across his face. “Still, you may have a point. It’s not as if I come across many living souls on a regular basis here, so helping them is hard to come by.”

“Why, take you and dear old Granny here,” he said, gesturing to the old woman. “She’s alive, but has no soul. You have a soul, but… well you’re hardly alive, are you?”

Treshigan’s face went red and she had to resist the urge to slap the vampire across the face. “What do you want, Laronius?”

“I already told you,” Laronius said in a singsongy voice. “I want to help you. And it just so happens that the way I can help you is by letting you help me.”

“Of course,” Treshigan said, rolling her eyes. “But you still haven’t said what kind of help you want from me.”

“There are some dangerous intruders marching towards our fortress right now,” said Laronius. “You’ve met two of them already. They were with those dragon hunters you encountered during your last little trip outside.”

“A weak, untrained wizard and an empty-headed muscle man,” she said with disgust. “I don’t know why you’d call them dangerous.”

Laronius wagged a patronizing finger at her. “I believe it was that kind of thinking that got you into trouble the last time you met them, Tresh,” he said. “Besides, they aren’t the only ones heading here. One of the intruders is… not going to be easy to defeat with our usual forces. It would be unwise to outright attack him, which is why I require someone with your more… subtle talents.”

“My subtle talents will do little good if this intruder is traveling with those two fools,” said Treshigan. “The dark-skinned one has already seen my face when my magic was broken. He would recognize me in an instant.”

“Oh yes, I’m well aware you’re worthless against those two,” said Laronius, waving a hand. “That’s why we’ll be bringing in two of your sisters for them.”

Again Treshigan laughed, though there was nothing remotely funny about the conversation. “Has Lord Vdekshi learned nothing from his past failures? He should know by now that my kind does not do well working together.”

“I think you’ll find that anyone and anything can work together when the motivation is right,” said Laronius. He then added with a gleam in his eye, “Besides, I didn’t say anything about Vdeskshi being the one sending you and your sisters to perform this task.”

“You mean you expect me to do this because you tell me to?” said Treshigan. “Why would I ever spend precious time and magic doing your bidding? You have nothing to offer me in return.”

“Too true,” said Laronius, “but I’m not the one sending you on this errand. You know that there is a far greater power behind the magic that Vdekshi plays at. And he is more than capable of giving you what you want.”

Treshigan grinned, and for the first time since returning to the fortress she felt a rush of triumph. “Your bragging and taunting has finally gotten the better of you, Laronius. I’ve suspected for years that you were secretly plotting with the demon in that twisted rock, but I never had any proof. Now you’ve all but confessed to it. Once I tell Lord Vdekshi what you’ve been up to, I doubt you’ll find your position here quite so privileged.”

Laronius’ smile turned from mocking to menacing in an instant. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll tell that big oaf anything.”

“And how will you stop me?” Treshigan said, putting her face directly in front of Laronius’. “If you kill me, you’ll have to answer to Vdekshi for it. I may have failed him, but he still considers me valuable, and I’m not yours to command.”

“My dear Treshigan,” said Laronius, not backing away, “why do you think you’re still here at all? Why do you think Vdekshi hasn’t already taken that little brass trinket from your finger?” He leaned in close until his mouth was right next to her ear. “Because he’s forgotten you,” he whispered.

Treshigan’s sensation of triumph suddenly sank like a stone and settled somewhere below her stomach. Laronius let the moment linger, and then stepped back from her.

“Look around, you silly little girl,” he said, gesturing to the window. “Haven’t you noticed that Vdekshi is gathering his forces together? He is preparing for war! I told you about the danger of the intruders. Why would he bother with dispatching a little failure like yourself when he has other matters on his mind?”

“Of course, you could go to him,” Laronius continued. “Remind him that you’re still here and that he hasn’t yet punished you like he intended to. Remind him that you’re still hoarding some of his valuable magic that he could be using in more worthwhile ways right now. But really, why?”

Treshigan felt like crying, but she refused to let herself show any emotion in front of her tormentor. “Maybe I would,” she said, “just for the satisfaction of dragging you down with me.”

Laronius dropped his smile, and a strange expression came over his face. It almost resembled compassion and genuine concern. He reached out and touched Treshigan’s hand, and the gentleness of it made her more afraid than anything else he’d done yet.

When he spoke, his voice was no longer mocking or harsh. It was deep and rich, and reminded her of the way that young farmer had spoken to her once. “Once again, I would ask you. Why? Why suffer under an inept and ineffective master, when you can serve one who rewards his servants the way they truly deserve? Why beg and grovel for a few more morsels of power, a few more gleaming trinkets, when you can earn true freedom?”

“What do you mean?” asked Treshigan, and she found her body was shaking.

“I mean Vdekshi doesn’t begin to understand, or he refuses to understand, the power at his fingertips,” said Laronius. “He is content to grant you the illusion of youth and beauty, while my master can actually give it.”

“He can take… this,” said Laronius, waving a hand at the body of the old woman, “and restore you to what you once were, and so much more. He can give you what these trinkets never could. He can grant you the freedom to never feel powerless to another man ever again.”

Treshigan brushed her hair behind an ear and stood tall and straight, fixing a smile back on her lips. “Alright,” she said. “Tell me more about this errand my master has for me.”

Seth – Chapter 17

Laronius hovered upside down in total darkness, his feet pressed against the ceiling of the dungeon. It was one of his old childhood games brought to life. As a young boy he had spent hours lying on beds, chairs, and boulders with his head upside down, imagining that the whole world was upside down with a dirt ceiling and nothing but an endless abyss below. Laronius was disgusted at the memory of the snot-faced boy he once was, but the game still amused him. He even found it useful.

Since becoming a vampire, his skin burned and blistered when exposed to direct sunlight, and even under thick robes on stormy days he could not stay out in daylight for long. So Laronius had been forced to stay underground during the day. He resented any kinds of rules or restrictions, and so at first he had tried to defy the limitation by staying within the inner rooms and secret passageways of the fortress above the ground. Unfortunately, even rooms in the heart of the stronghold had some kind of window or other access to the sky outside, and he found that he spent far too much time trying to maneuver within constantly shifting shadows.

Recalling his old game of turning the world upside down had proved a valuable tool in maintaining his pride. Once safely underground by himself, he would float to the ceiling and rotate himself to reorient his perspective. He would then tell himself that the door he had come through now led to a bottomless pit that only fools would stumble into, and he would then begin “climbing his way up” through the seemingly endless underground levels of the fortress.

No one bothered Laronius when he explored underground. Vdekshi and his servants all called the area belowground the “dungeon” of the stronghold, but only the three levels closest to the surface actually had any doors or locks, and those had all been added by Vdekshi when he claimed the stone keep. In reality, the rooms below seemed to be an intricate network of cellars and storerooms. Some rooms even had wells and underground springs, which annoyed Laronius with the way they disrupted his upside-down game.

In fact, it was the game that had caused Laronius to explore so much of the subterranean halls. Normally he would have been wary of being confined so deep below the ground, even as a vampire, but when playing his game, Laronius imagined himself ascending higher and higher through a great tower. It was by venturing so “high” that Laronius had discovered his favorite rooms.

“The Mausoleums,” as Laronius called them, were something of a curiosity. The first time he had come across the various plaques, medallions, and stone carvings inside, he thought he had found a collection of great trophy rooms. Certainly there were depictions of individuals performing incredible feats and challenges. It was the repetition of names and the unusually advanced ages of the people recorded on the markers that tipped Laronius off to their true nature. These were not rewards for the living, but memorials for the dead.

They were certainly no royal tombs, by any standards. For one thing, there were no bodies, bones, or even ashes to be found anywhere, despite considerable searching by Laronius. Nor was there any display of wealth or status anywhere. No jewels or precious metals, not even a single coin. The markers themselves all seemed sturdy and expertly crafted, but none of them could be called ornate. It was if not a single one of them had tried to show up the others. Pity.

Of all the Mausoleums, Laronius’ favorite was the one he called, “The Tunnel to Ruin.” The door outside the Tunnel to Ruin appeared little different from all the other doors, except that it had a lock. It had taken Laronius countless attempts, and more than a little patience, but he had finally managed to pick the lock. And when he stepped inside, he considered it worth every moment.

Unlike the majority of the rooms that had the shape of proper rooms or cellars, the Tunnel to Ruin was remarkably long and sloped slightly downward. For the first few steps into the room, it was about as wide and narrow as a hallway. The stone walls were smooth to the touch except for the hundreds of names, ages, and lines painstakingly carved into them. From the way the lines seemed to connect each name to another, and the way they seemed to be grouped into family units, Laronius had gathered it must have been some kind of extensive pedigree.

Continuing further into the room, the quantity of names grew from hundreds to thousands, and the width and height of the room increased to fit them all. At the most spacious portion of the Tunnel to Ruin, the walls and ceiling were actually high enough and wide enough to fit the entire cottage where Laronius had grown up. It did not stay that wide for much further though.

Continuing downward, the room quickly became narrower, the walls rougher, and the names far less carefully carved on. Several family lines seemed to end abruptly, while others diminished with each additional generation. The room itself came to a jarring end to a wall of cold, jagged, naked stone. At the end of the room, lying on the floor, was an old broadsword.

It was not polished, but it was certainly not in disrepair either. The blade was sharp and it showed no signs of rust or decay. Like the memorial plaques, the sword appeared sturdy and simple, except at the handle. Engraved on the wood of the handle as well as the metal hilt was an intricate carving of wheat growing on a sunny field.

The sword was not hanging on display or even resting against the wall, but was lying crookedly on the floor as if simply discarded by its owner. Laronius had tried to lift the curious sword, but had been disappointed at every attempt. Not only did the sword fail to even budge, no matter how hard Laronius strained to lift it, he always experienced the unnerving sensation whenever he grabbed the sword that he was being watched and judged. Laronius hated to be judged.

Above the spot where the sword lay was the final name in the great family tree. This name had not been carved carefully or neatly. Indeed, unlike the other names, it did not appear to have been carved using any kind of chisel at all. Instead, it appeared as if the sword below it had been used to slash out jagged letters into the rock, spelling out the name, “Seth the Traitor.”

It had been several years since Laronius had discovered the Tunnel to Ruin, and he had all but given up on his seemingly useless search for any clues about the fate of the room. Now, he hovered next to the sword and final name again. He grinned wickedly as his words echoed in the empty room.

“Well Seth, if you won’t let me pick up this remarkable sword of yours, it looks like I’ll have to get your great-grandson to do it for me.”

Seth – Chapter 16

As Seth stepped into Aluanna’s large tent, the first thing that he noticed was the scent hanging in the air. It was not powerfully fragrant like a perfume or incense, but it was very pleasant and hung lightly on the still air. The mild earthy scent reminded him vaguely of flowers blooming in the spring, and brought a smile to his face. His heartbeat quickened at the thought that he was privileged to be standing there, but when he looked down at the mud on his boots, his face flushed with embarrassment.

If Dawnold and Sho Thym had noticed the wonderful smell when they entered the tent, they gave no sign of it. Dawnold wore a guarded expression, as if preparing for an argument or interrogation. His arms were not folded like the night before, but he was definitely not relaxed. In one hand he held a piece of rope that had broken off of the wagon covering as he had hastily tied it down. Seth winced as he saw that the rope was dripping dirty water inside the tent.

Sho Thym still looked thoroughly frustrated with his wet clothes and face. Seth wondered to himself if Sho Thym was still angry with him for assisting Dawnold with the wagon. Out of the corner of his eye, Seth noticed that Sho Thym was rubbing one hand on his clothes to dry it off, and then the other, but made a disgusted face whenever he switched hands for hold his wet staff.

Aluanna regarded the three of them with a hard and determined look, though Seth couldn’t tell if this was because she was offended by their appearance and demeanor, or because of the gravity of what she was about to say to them. Toj had certainly made it seem serious when he came to fetch them, as it was the first time he had seen the satyr without his usual half smile. Seth felt the urge to apologize, though he couldn’t quite think of what to apologize for.

Thankfully, Aluanna did not make Seth endure the uncomfortable silence for long. As soon as flap of the tent had closed, and it was clear that no one else would be entering behind them, Aluanna spoke. “I was hoping I would have more time to get to know you three before having this conversation,” she said. “But the arrival of the rains means that I no longer have that luxury.”

“Has something happened?” asked Seth. “When we spoke last night I thought-”

Aluanna raised a hand to silence him. “Please don’t speak yet,” Aluanna said abruptly, cutting him off. Seth’s face went red again and he took a small step back. “Toj, do you have your fiddle with you? Good, I believe you know the song I need you to play.”

Dawnold took a step back and defensively put a hand on the door flap of the tent. “Is he casting a spell?” he asked, staring darkly at Aluanna.

“A mild one, yes,” Aluanna said matter-of-factly. “But he isn’t casting it on you, so there’s no need to glower as if you’re going to hit someone. His playing will merely ensure that anything said within this tent will not be heard outside of the tent.”

Toj began playing a lively but low melody on his instrument, and everyone looked at Dawnold to see what he would do. After a moment had passed, Dawnold seemed satisfied that there was no danger, and lowered his hand as he stepped away from the door.

“Are you worried that you have spies in your camp?” Sho Thym asked quietly. “Because if you suspect one of them, perhaps I could-”

“No,” Aluanna said, waving her hand and dismissing Sho Thym’s offer. “Dealing with traitors is something I can handle. It’s being overheard by those putting their faith in me that has me worried.” As she spoke, her shoulders seemed to slump and she rubbed her neck in a tired sort of way. Seth was taken aback at how quickly her stern and regal stance turned to one of exhaustion.

“Lady?” Seth said, concern growing on his face. “Is everything alright?”

Aluanna straightened up and opened her mouth to speak, but stopped. She looked over to Toj who was still playing his tune, and the satyr gave her a small nod. She took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders again. “No,” she said quietly with a slight smile on her lips. “I can truthfully say everything is far from alright.”

“Then how can we help?” Seth asked eagerly.

“You can start,” Aluanna said, her serious expression returning, “by telling me plainly and specifically what your intentions are.” She sat on a round stool next to a cot, and then gestured to some other stools in the corner for Seth and the others.

“I shared my story with you last night,” Seth said as he sat down. “Did you not believe me?”

“You told us all what brought you here,” said Aluanna. “You didn’t say anything about what you plan to do now that you’re here.” Aluanna turned her head to look at Sho Thym and Dawnold. “And your friends here have told me neither.”

Dawnold gripped the rope in his hand tightly and water dribbled more quickly from it. “Vdekshi created an abomination,” he said, anger growing on his face. “A dragon warped with poison and dark magic.” At Dawnold’s mention of the dragon, Seth noticed Sho Thym place a hand to the side of his head.

“Her brood killed our traveling companions,” Dawnold said, and then paused. “They killed our friends. Vdekshi is responsible for creating those monsters, and I’m going to make sure he never does it again.”

“You intend to kill the necromancer, then?” Aluanna asked.

“If necessary,” said Dawnold. As Seth stared at Dawnold’s hard expression, it occurred to him for the first time just how terrifying someone Dawnold’s size could be when angry.

Aluanna regarded Dawnold for a long moment, then suddenly turned her attention to Sho Thym. “And what about you?” she asked. “You look less enthusiastic than your friend is with plans of storming fortress walls and killing necromancers. So what are you doing here?”

Sho Thym seemed unprepared for the conversation to shift to him, and he stammered for a moment before finding his words. “Well, I’m friends with Dawnold and I’m here, uh… Well I’m looking… for my parents.”

Aluanna’s tone changed from probing to puzzlement. “And you believe that Vdekshi has captured them?”

“Well,” said Sho Thym, shifting in his seat, “no. I mean, I certainly hope he hasn’t, but I hadn’t really considered that before. I just, you know, I’m Dawnold’s friend. I go where he goes. Rain storms and vampire attacks included.”

“That’s quite a loyal friend you have there,” Aluanna said with a smile. Even Dawnold visibly relaxed at the comment. “And how about you?” she asked, turning to Seth. “Do the commands of the Ancient One include killing Vdekshi?”

“Well,” said Seth, his eyes darting between Aluanna and Dawnold, “I don’t actually know yet.”

“What?!” shouted Dawnold. “I thought you said you wanted to help us. You said you believed you were supposed to join with us? Why would you join us if you weren’t going to help us stop Vdekshi?”

“I do want to help,” Seth added hastily. “It’s just, well, I don’t know for certain if killing anyone is what I’m supposed to do here. That part just doesn’t… it doesn’t feel like the right path.”

“It is if you intend to walk the same path as we do,” said Dawnold.

“You should listen to Seth for a moment,” Aluanna said softly. “There is likely more at stake here than you alone can see, Dawnold.”

“I can’t believe this!” said Dawnold. “I thought you hated Vdekshi as much as we do. And now you’re saying we shouldn’t stop him? Whose side are you on, anyway?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Aluanna said, straightening her back again. “Vdekshi has been a plague on this region since before I was born, and the creatures he commands are terrible. I am no friend of Vdekshi.”

Aluanna paused and stared directly into Dawnold’s eyes. He took a deep breath and nodded. “Go on,” he said.

“Vdekshi’s forces are terrible,” Aluanna continued, “but the strange thing is that they aren’t as terrible as they could be. Have you ever heard of ghouls that stay within borders? Or phantoms that bring prisoners in alive? That is not the way such creatures behave, and yet the ones belonging to Vdekshi do. It’s as if he’s the reason they exist, but he’s also the reason they don’t just tear everyone and everything apart. Who’s to say what could be unleashed if you kill him.”

“I thought you and your band were the ones keeping his forces in check,” said Sho Thym.

Aluanna leaned forward and put her head in her hands, looking utterly defeated. She glanced quickly at Toj to make sure he was still playing before she spoke again. “If only that were true,” she said with a sigh. “My music has power to give courage and comfort, and when necessary I can enchant and confuse. I can enhance and guide the emotions of others, but what good is that against Vdekshi’s forces? Most of them feel nothing, and the ones that do feel only malice and cruelty.”

“So why fight at all?” asked Dawnold.

“Because if I don’t, no one else will,” Aluanna said firmly. “The people in the nearby villages need hope and they need protection. Without something to believe in, they’ll either abandon the land to darkness, or abandon themselves to despair.”

As Aluanna spoke of hope, Seth felt a familiar warm, swelling sensation in his chest. Hope was right. Hope was the path he needed. Seth tried to think of the right question to keep Aluanna talking about bringing hope, but before he could think of what to say, Sho Thym spoke up.

“I thought you said that Vdekshi kept his monsters within some kind of boundary,” said Sho Thym. “Why do the people need protection if they can just stay outside those boundaries?”

“For one thing, the monsters don’t always stay within their borders,” said Aluanna. “But more often the problem is hungry villagers who cross the borders desperate for some of the wheat.”

At the mention of the word “wheat” Seth’s heart gave a great leap, and he became so inexplicably excited that he nearly fell off of his stool. “What wheat?!” he asked, far more loudly than he intended. Everyone, even Toj, all turned and stared at Seth. His face immediately turned bright red and hot.

“Sorry,” Seth stammered, “it’s just that I think the wheat may be important for some reason. Can you tell me more about it?”

Aluanna stared at Seth for a moment, and he had the impression she was trying to decide something, as if he had something strange on his face and she was wracking her brain to figure out what it was. She leaned closer towards him, but the look of puzzlement on her face only became more pronounced.

“Um…” Seth wished he could just disappear as his face reached temperatures he never believed possible, “Please?”

Aluanna quickly shook her head and leaned sat up again. “There is a kind of wild wheat plant that grows only here within the borders of Vdekshi’s domain,” she said. “It’s actually something of a weed, to be perfectly honest. But it makes a delicious flour, and to people who are starving, a weed you can eat tastes as good as any other food. When I first learned that it only grew here I thought it must have been some wicked bait invented by Vdekshi, but my mother told me the wheat was here long before he was.”

“Then where does it come from?” Seth asked eagerly.

“The ground,” said Toj as he continued playing. Aluanna shot him a reproachful look, but Toj obviously felt the joke was worth a quick glare.

“I’ve never heard anyone explain how the wheat came here,” said Aluanna. “It grows all over, but I’ve heard that most of it grows in a large field on the other side of Vdekshi’s fortress. The field is never harvested. Not even the poorest and most desperate would dare go so far into the necromancer’s territory. Most of them just come in a little way, like we are now, and pick whatever handfuls of wheat they can find.”

The more Aluanna spoke, the more excited Seth became. There was definitely something about that wheat that he was being led to. Something he was supposed to do. “Dawnold, Sho Thym,” he said, “we need to get to that field. We need to… to reclaim that wheat.”

To Seth’s relief, the look on Dawnold’s face was not annoyance, but interest. “How do you believe this wheat will help us defeat Vdekshi?” Dawnold asked.

“I’m not sure,” Seth said, “but…” Seth trailed off as a thought entered into his mind. He thought of a question that seemed somehow familiar, though Seth couldn’t guess why. “Have any of you heard of ‘The Sword of Wheat’ before?”

“How in the world would you make a sword out of wheat?” asked Sho Thym incredulously. “And what would you do with it after making it? Throw it at Vdekshi and hope he’s allergic?”

“Well no,” Seth began to say. But even as he tried to think of a reply, it occurred to him just how strange his question had sounded. “I didn’t mean like that. I just meant, well…”

“I’ve heard of the Sword of Wheat,” Aluanna said, interrupting Seth’s stammering. The relief he felt at hearing her speak those words made his heart leap.

“You have?” he asked. “Where?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s the same thing you’re talking about,” she said, “but ‘The Sword of Wheat’ is the name of an old legend in this region. I heard it once when I was a child.”

“Can you tell it to me?” Seth pleaded.

“As I said, I heard it once when I was a child,” Aluanna replied apologetically. “I don’t remember much, but I don’t think the sword in the story is made of wheat.” Seeing how crestfallen Seth became, she added, “But perhaps I can ask the different storytellers about it when we travel back to the towns soon.”

“Why are you going back to the towns?” Dawnold asked.

“It’s raining,” Aluanna said simply.

“Your band only travels in fair weather?” Dawnold asked.

“Some do,” said Aluanna. “That’s why I needed to talk with you now. Many in my band will wish to return to their homes now that the rain has begun, and I need to ensure they reach those homes safely. A few will come with us to take their place, but not as many.”

“That’s why I wanted to speak with you,” she continued. “Those in my band believe in me and believe in the power of my magic. My magic strengthens them, and their faith in me in turn strengthens my magic. But we are not winning this fight, and every night I fear the time will come when I can no longer protect them the way I’ve promised. I’ve protected this land before I was even a woman, but I cannot do it alone anymore.”

Set jumped to his feet so suddnely that everyone in the tent stared again. But this time he did not blush at their stares. It was his heart, rather than his face, that was now burning. “Lady Aluanna,” he said boldly, “go and see if you can discover the story of the Sword of Wheat. I will go and find the field of wheat on the other side of Vdekshi’s fortress.”

Turning to the others he said, “Dawnold, if you truly wish to defeat Vdekshi, then I implore you and Sho Thym to come with me.”

“Lady, you said that you rely on the faith of your followers,” Seth said, turning to Aluanna again. “Now I’m asking you to have faith in me, and in the Ancient One who sent me. I ask that once you learn the story of the Sword of Wheat, you and your band will come find us at the field. I know I ask much for you to venture so far into the enemy’s territory, but I promise to deliver the hope you are looking for.”

Aluanna was taken aback by Seth’s sudden and dramatic vow, and she looked to Dawnold and Sho Thym to see if they had anything else to add.

“Of course we will go with you,” said Dawnold, rising to his feet and clapping Seth on the back. “And together we will find the secret to defeating Vdekshi.”

Sho Thym stood up as well, wiping his hands on his trousers once again. “Better than just wandering around in the rain, I suppose,” he said. Then he looked down at his feet and quietly added, “As long as I don’t lose a boot in some muddy field.”

Seth Art by Ryan Salway

Seth
Art by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 15

Aluanna awoke at dawn the next morning, as she did nearly every day of her life. It seemed somehow wrong to her to allow the sun to rise without her greeting it. She had only had a few hours of sleep the night before, but her mind was alert, and her senses clear. As usual, she would find time to clear away the rest of her weariness later in the day with a late afternoon nap. It was a habit she had inherited from her mother.

Though Aluanna had stayed awake long into the night, she knew she had retired much earlier than the majority of her band. The satyr triplets in particular always stayed awake nearly the entire night, playing their music to keep the dark forces of the forest away. She was grateful for their cheerfulness and strength, but she wondered if anyone in the band knew just how tenuous and fragile their hold on the forest really was.

Her band was loyal, but their numbers were not great. Members of her band came and went as they pleased. None were obligated to stay indefinitely, and many would come and go depending on the season, individual needs, or just on personal whims. In the last couple of years, her band had never been smaller than twenty musicians, but it also never grew much larger than fifty members at one time. How many henchmen did the enemy have at his disposal? A hundred? A thousand? It was impossible to know for sure, but Aluanna was certain that she and her loyal followers were far outmatched.

So why hadn’t they been wiped out already? Did the enemy really fear some kind of power she possessed? Or was he just playing with her because he knew he could finish them off whenever he wanted? Whatever the answer, Aluanna told herself that she had to remain confident and strong in front of the others. If any of them guessed at the fear she kept to herself, the entire band would fall apart overnight. And she was certain that her woods would be far worse off if that happened.

Aluanna looked across the clearing and saw the tall dark-skinned man her band had rescued the night before. He was one of the few people also awake already, and although he was obviously still exhausted from his encounter with the vampire, his back was straight and his expression was determined. There was something about his countenance that gave her pause, though she couldn’t quite place what it was.

Huddled in a large sleeping bag near the ashes of the campfire was the pale, bald young man that had also encountered Laronius. He was so pale and cold when they found him that she was surprised he had survived the experience. As Aluanna watched him sleep, she noticed with some puzzlement that he slept in his sleeping bag with his traveling cloak still on, and the hood pulled up over his head. Perhaps it was the only way to keep such a bald head warm in the night?

It was clear to Aluanna that the young man had powerful magic within him. One of her gifts was that she had always been able to sense the magic in others. She considered the talent a gift from her father, and it was one of the ways she had been able to gather together a band such as hers, where so many had unique gifts to contribute, like the satyr triplets. Aluanna suspected that the young man had little understanding of how to use his magic, but his potential was unmistakable.

And then there was the other man that had been with them. The one with light brown hair and eager eyes like a wolf pup. Aluanna didn’t know what to think of him at all. His story was unbelievable, but his every word was so sincere it was heartbreaking. He certainly didn’t have the confidence and strength of his dark-skinned friend, yet he seemed every bit as determined. He was not self-assured, but he was sure of… something. More than once when Aluanna had been falling asleep, she had asked herself what could drive him this way if his story wasn’t authentic.

Even stranger than the man’s demeanor was the curious sensation Aluanna had experienced while feeling the magic surrounding him.

Aluanna had always struggled to describe to others what it was like to sense magic in others. They always wanted her to describe it in terms of sights or sounds or physical touch, but that was about as useful as trying to explain the color of an itch or the sound of bitterness. The closest she could come to helping others understand was comparing it to the undefinable sensations one felt in different weather.

Most people felt like a calm overcast day, like there was nothing out of the ordinary to notice. Those with powerful magic, like the bald young man, made Aluanna’s breath shift rhythm and her skin tingle just below the surface, as if a thunderstorm was approaching. But the man with brown hair was different. Sensing him felt like there was some strange, clear pull coming from somewhere not quite behind her and moving upwards, like standing on a high, wind-swept mountain where the air just seems to disappear above you.

Aluanna didn’t believe everything he had said the night before about his quest and who it came from, but she couldn’t deny that there were things about him that left her intuition abnormally unsure.

Who were these three men? What were they really doing here in a forest plagued with the supernatural, and why hadn’t they been killed by Laronius? Others had come along in the past who would join her band and take up her fight against the necromancer, but ultimately they merely added to the strength of her fight. She knew that if she fell or gave up, the rest of the band would leave the fight within days.

These three seemed to bring a new fight all their own. The thought that there were others who could make a difference if she were gone was both a relief, and a concern. She did not know these men, and they did not answer to her, and even if their intentions were good, their disruption could shatter the semblance of balance she had fought so hard to maintain.

Aluanna was pulled from her thoughts as she heard the patter of raindrops on leaves a moment before the drops made their way to the forest floor. As quickly as dignity would allow her, she hurried back to her tent to put on her hooded traveling cloak. She may be attuned to nature as the Lord of the Forest’s daughter, but that didn’t make her immune to wet hair.

***

“Where’d this awful rain come from?” Sho Thym spluttered as he tried to wipe large droplets from the top of his bald head. He was still recovering from the rather rude awakening of water falling on his face, followed by stepping in a puddle in his rush to stand up and put his boots on.

“I think it usually comes from the sky, Sir Soggy Socks,” said Roj, and the short satyr bleated a loud laugh.

Sho Thym fumed at the sarcastic remark, but suppressed an angry retort that could cost him his spot under the canopy that some of Aluanna’s band had quickly assembled to stay dry. It was clear to Sho Thym that many of the others standing under the canvas covering were feeling frustrated about the unexpected rain, but none of them had gotten nearly as upset as he had. After taking a moment to calm down, Sho Thym said, “What I mean is, I didn’t even see any clouds last night. How could a rain storm just start up out of nowhere?”

“I would hardly call this a storm,” said Soj as he tipped his tall head under the canopy to join them. “This is just a normal early autumn shower. It may have come along a couple weeks before we expected, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. And I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the next several months.”

“Several months?” moaned Sho Thym. “How many months can rain keep going for?” The prospect of rain continually pouring from the sky nonstop for months on end filled Sho Thym with a dread hopelessness that seemed to suck all the heat and happiness right out of him, right through the bottom of his wet foot.

As if sensing this, Roj spoke up again. “Relax, Sir Soggy Socks. My brother doesn’t mean you’ll never see a dry day again until spring. He just means you ought’a get used to it because a lot more rainy days are on their way.

Just then, Dawnold and Seth stepped under the canopy and out of the rain. “We got the flaps all tied down on the wagon,” said Seth, “but I’m afraid quite a bit of water got in already, and most of your clothes got wet.”

“Well that’s just great!” shouted Sho Thym. Panic started to set in as he wondered if he would ever feel warm and dry again. “And who asked you to go messing with our tent anyway?”

“I did,” said Dawnold. “It would’ve taken a lot longer with only one person doing it, and it would have gone even quicker if there had been three.”

Sho Thym felt his face go hot red as Dawnold’s words sunk in. Sho Thym had been so frantic about finding shelter when he woke up that he didn’t even think to go help Dawnold with the wagon and their supplies.

Then he remembered something, and he smacked himself on the forehead in supreme embarrassment and frustration. “Oh no! I forgot to pick up my sleeping bag. It’s still lying in the mud!!”

“I, uh, noticed that,” Seth said quietly. “I grabbed it and threw it into the wagon before we started tying it down.”

“Oh,” said Sho Thym. “Thanks.”

For a while, everyone was quiet around them, and the only sound was the raindrops hitting the canvas above them. Sho Thym turned to Seth to apologize, but he never got the chance to start. Toj had just walked under the canopy and he was looking much more serious than his two brothers. The satyr gestured to Sho Thym, Dawnold, and Seth and made a jerking motion with his horned head.

“You three had better come with me,” said Toj. “Lady Aluanna would like a word with you.”

Illustration of Sho Thym by Ryan Salway

Illustration of Sho Thym
by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 14

Vdekshi sat cross-legged in his meditation chamber, his eyes closed. A low constant hum emanated from his throat, out his bovine nostrils, and reverberated against the bare stone walls of the room. A small bowl sat in front of him with two sticks of incense burning inside. One stick produced a thin stream of light purple smoke as it burned, and produced a sweet, earthy scent that evoked images of springtime hillsides and freshly fallen rain. Black smoke trailed from the other burning stick, bringing with it a stinging, spicy odor of fire and metal and ash.

With each deep breath Vdekshi inhaled, he imagined each trail of smoke rushing into separate nostrils. He would then hold his breath for a moment, envisioning the two colors of smoke swirling and mixing within his lungs. He would then focus on using his humming to transform the smoke mixture into a golden energy that bounced off every surface like ripples in a pond until settling in his ears. After running out of breath, he would begin the process all over again.

Vdekshi had learned the technique as a young monk early in his training at the monastery. While the exercise had not cured his youthful impatience, it had certainly tempered it. Many years ago, one of his instructors had begun a similar meditation while a nearby caterpillar was weaving its cocoon, and the elderly monk had not opened his eyes again until the moment it had emerged as a butterfly. Vdekshi had asked his teacher what he had hoped to gain from such an experience.

“Nothing at all,” the old monk had told him. “If I was trying to gain something, I never would have succeeded.”

Vdekshi contemplated the memory as he continued the exercise in his chamber. He wanted so desperately to want nothing, but there were far too many pressing matters that required his attention. He had to keep his supernatural servants active enough that they could be called upon at a moment’s notice, but he also had to restrain them enough that they did not devour or drive off the entire nearby mortal population. Maintaining such a delicate balancing act was exhausting, and Vdekshi longed for a momentary respite.

Vdekshi sought peace and acceptance of the fact that the incompetence of Laronius and his other servants had led to the escape of his prized dragon test subject. The memory of that event still evoked aggravation and annoyance that Vdekshi couldn’t seem to suppress. After all, the experiment had shown significant promise, and starting over from scratch was a frustrating prospect.

As always, there was the lingering guilt and disgust that Vdekshi felt after a necessary treatment for his… condition. He had accepted the fact decades ago that such sacrifices were necessary for the greater good, but he hoped that the meditation would remove any residual remorse. At most, the solitude offered him an opportunity to review his justifications for the deaths he caused.

And now there was a new concern on Vdekshi’s already troubled mind. It was obvious that his old servant Krall had been poisoned by his dragon while on the loose, but the blood in his body had been untainted. How? How could a simple orc figure out the answer that Vdekshi had been searching for all these years? What did these strangers he traveled with have to do with it, and why were they in his land? And why was it taking so long to get them here in his fortress where he could ask them these questions himself?

The longer that Vdekshi pondered on these questions, the more frustratingly elusive the answers seemed to be, and the more agitated he became. It was not long before Vdekshi opened his bleary eyes and rose stiffly from the ground. He regularly tried to use the old ways he had been taught to find clarity and answers, but every time he came to the same conclusion that the old ways were not sufficient for the obstacles his life faced. Things were not as simple as they once were, and while simple humming may have been able to soothe his younger, happier self, he no longer had the luxury of being so carefree. Difficult days called for difficult decisions, and Vdekshi’s eyes turned to his staff leaning in the corner of the room. The green crystal at its top glowed at him expectantly.

If this had been a meditation room at his old monastery, the staff never would have been allowed of course. For one thing, the monastery allowed nothing within the walls of the meditation chambers except the incense and the monk doing the meditating. For another thing, the monastery would have considered the staff itself to be an abomination. But, Vdekshi told himself, the staff’s existence was an unfortunate necessity, as was its constant proximity.

Vdekshi stomped out the embers of the incense and tried to ignore the stiffness in his joints as he walked to the corner of the room. Grabbing the long, polished staff in a mixture between a clench and a caress, he snorted at the luminescent green stone at the top.

“Wake up Seftis,” Vdekshi said gruffly. “As much as I hate to say it, I’m going to need your help again.”

Vdekshi’s chest constricted and his stomach lurched as the light in the center of the green stone shone so brightly that everything in the room took on a sickly green hue. A cold voice emanated from the stone, each word punctuated by a pulse of additional light from within.

“That’s Baron Seftis to you,” said the voice. “And why should one such as I help a pathetic little monk like yourself?” The cruelty and disdain in the statement twisted like a knife inside Vdekshi, but also helped him regain his focus. Vdekshi used the staff in his hands to steady himself, and when he responded his back was straight and his face was hard.

“You’ll help me,” growled Vdekshi, “for the same reason you always do, Seftis. Because I am not the same simple monk I used to be, and you know who holds the keys to that prison of yours. And as much as we hate each other, you know we’d both be far worse off without each other.”

“True enough,” said Seftis, “for now. Very well, my jailer. I will give you my help once again, but I will require a favor from you in return.”

“What favor is that?” Vdekshi asked. “You know I will not grant you your freedom.” Vdekshi did not hesitate to ask the question, but he braced himself for the answer all the same. Seftis’ favors always ended badly for someone.

“Simply put, I am weary of your constant presence,” said Seftis. “I ask for nothing more than for you to put down this cursed staff and leave it alone for one day.”

Vdekshi laughed mirthlessly. “You expect me to just put you down and walk away so you can lure someone else to help you escape? What kind of fool do you think I am?”

“Words cannot express the kind of fool I think you are,” Seftis said. “Still, you needn’t worry. Lock me up deep in the dungeons bound by chains for all I care. I will still be there when you return. Only, let me have a respite from your disgusting presence.”

Vdekshi hesitated for a moment. This request was far less ghastly than most from Seftis, but that only worried Vdekshi more. Still, if his foul prisoner did have something more sinister in mind, at least this time he wouldn’t have to know all the grisly details. “Very well,” he said. “Tomorrow I will leave you locked up in the dungeon, but tonight you give me your help.”

“Excellent,” said Seftis, and his voice seemed to echo around the room. “Now what’s this trouble that has you so worked up?”

“It’s about that orc slave again,” said Vdekshi. “The one who used to hunt dragons for me.”

“The one you didn’t kill when I told you to,” Seftis added.

“And who never should have escaped if your enchantments were as strong as you claimed!” Vdekshi snapped back.

“Temper, temper,” said Seftis. “As I already told you when you brought his body back last month, I have no idea how he escaped his bonds. Nor do I know how his blood avoided being poisoned with those dragon quills in him. So unless you have some new information for me, I see no point in wasting time on old arguments.”

“He had companions with him,” said Vdekshi.

“Yes, I remember,” said Seftis in a bored tone. “The elf and the dwarf. Their remains were hardly useful either, except to note that they were poisoned.”

“Yes, but…” Vdekshi paused, reluctant to continue. “It appears he had other companions as well. Two who are still alive. And… within our borders.”

“Fascinating,” Seftis said, and the green stone glowed brighter than before.

“Judging by your pathetic tone, I would assume you’ve known about them for a while. Why did you not inform me before now?”

“Because you didn’t need to know!” said Vdekshi.

“No, I suppose I didn’t,” Seftis slowly replied. “But now I do, because you are unable to get them here yourself. Am I right?” Seftis chuckled coldly and shadows danced across the green light reflecting off the walls. “The Great Vdekshi, with a supernatural army at his command, cannot capture two simple dragon hunters.”

“Enough!” Vdekshi shouted. He was now pacing back and forth in the room. “It was my intention to invite them here as guests, not capture them. I’m not a monster like you.”

“Of course you’re not.”

There was heavy silence in the room while Vdekshi seethed and Seftis glowed with satisfaction.

“But enough of this pointless bickering,” said Seftis. “If I’m to earn my day of peace and quiet, then we had best focus on the task at hand. Tell me all the newest information you have.”

“Of course I will,” said Vdekshi, calming down a bit. “Or rather, I will as soon as my lieutenant Laronius finally returns from his mission. I summoned him back here nearly an hour ago.”

“Do you mean that incompetent coward you asked me to help you transform into a vampire years ago?” said Seftis. “I told you that it would have been better to completely remove his free will when you made him. You really must learn to control your pets, Mendoji.”

“I told you not to use that name!” Vdekshi snapped. “That name is-”

But Vdekshi never finished his sentence because at that moment the door rattled and Laronius burst into the room, covering the right side of his face with a large bandage.

“Forgive my delay, Master” Laronius whimpered. “And… for my failure.”

“What are you talking about?” said Vdekshi, inspecting the vampire’s torn clothes and disheveled appearance. “What happened?!”

“I’m afraid these strangers are far different from what we expected,” said Laronius.

“Your invitation was rejected, Master. They aren’t coming to talk. They come to destroy.”

Vdekshi Art by Ryan Salway

Vdekshi
Art by Ryan Salway

Seth – Chapter 13

Laronius stood in his chambers, staring at the mirror in front of him. He had been looking at it for over an hour. It had been years since he had paid attention to its long silver surface, and the only times he would notice it at all were the rare occasions that he would bring one of his victims out of the dungeons and into his private room to toy with them before feeding. He found a strange excitement in the expressions on their faces when they could see themselves in the mirror being drained of all their blood.

Of course Laronius could always see the mirror where it hung on his wall. It’s shape and texture were unmistakable, and his vampiric vision was very sharp. In fact, his new eyesight had been one of the aspects that Laronius had most enjoyed when he first became a vampire. He could see shapes and textures with incredible clarity, even in total darkness. He could see the heat as waves and ripples though the air, increasing his ability to track anything with a warm body. He could even see the magical energy released by certain kinds of magic. But his eyes no longer saw light or color. At least, they weren’t supposed to.

When the blast of light from Seth’s lantern had hit Laronius in the face, the sensation was so intense that Laronius thought for a moment that he had been mortally wounded. Laronius had experienced pain since he had become a vampire, even intense pain, but there had always been a kind of distant quality to it, as if his pain were something to be observed, rather than felt. But there was nothing distant about what he had felt tonight. It was bright and hot and reminded him of… an earlier time. A time before his transformation. A time when he was still weak. Still mortal.

Laronius continued to stare at his reflection in the mirror with fists clenched and rage fuming. He had known right away that something was wrong with his right eye. As soon as he had flown away from the clearing and uncovered his eye, the world looked wrong and confusing. Objects in his view seemed to shimmer and flicker in a way he couldn’t quite place. The black sky above him had been dotted with strange flickering pinpricks where he had forgotten the stars were. Everything seemed to be only half real, and if he wanted to see something small on the ground far below, he had to cover his right eye in order to focus.

But it was only after he had returned to the stronghold, entered his room, and saw his unfamiliar reflection staring back at him that Laronius began to realize what had happened to his eye. When he covered his right eye, he saw only the shape of the object he knew to be the mirror, just as he should. When he covered his left eye, he saw his reflection in the mirror, standing there in full color. It took him a while to recall just how subtle and nuanced differences in color could be, but after staring at the reflection for several minutes, Laronius had realized that while most of his skin was a grayish ashen white, the flesh directly surrounding his right eye had become pinker, the hairs of his right eyebrow were black instead of white, and in the eye itself were several thin red tendrils marking where his blood vessels had once been. No, marking where his blood vessels were.

Only, he wasn’t supposed to have blood vessels anymore. He didn’t even have blood in his body anymore. Not his own, anyway. That was part of his transformation. And his transformation was permanent. He had been told so by both his masters, and it was one of the reasons why he had embraced the transformation and endured the excruciating ritual necessary to complete it. Laronius had relished the idea that finally there would be something in his miserable existence that no one could take away from him. Vdekshi had warned Laronius the change would be irreversible, and when his other master had privately confirmed what Vdekshi had said, Laronius knew it must be true.

And yet his own harsh reflection stood in the mirror before him directly contradicting what both masters had promised him. Vdekshi had been wrong many times in the past, but his other master had never been. Laronius had called out in desperation for an explanation from his master, but there had been only silence in return. There had not even been the feeling of nausea and dizziness that Laronius usually suffered for his impertinence. For the first time in decades, Laronius felt that his thoughts were completely his own, and it made him feel small and alone and terrified.

In his panic, Laronius almost left his chambers to consult with Vdekshi and ask him how such a thing could happen to him. But he stopped himself as he remembered that Vdekshi would certainly order him to report on his activities of the night, and if he wasn’t carefully prepared he could find himself unwillingly admitting to trying to kill Krall’s former companions, as well as revealing how he had been bested by Seth.

“Seth… the great-grandson of Seth the Traitor… I’ve found him.”

Laronius had whispered the words to himself so quietly the he could hardly hear them himself, but apparently they had finally roused the attention of his master. The nausea and dizziness came on faintly at first, accompanied by a swirl of competing emotions in his chest where his heart used to beat. Thoughts and ambitions began to gather and coalesce in his mind. As unlikely as it would have seemed, if he truly had found a direct descendant of Seth the Traitor, then the implications were thrilling. He and his master may not even need Vdekshi anymore to accomplish their goals.

As important as the revelation was however, Laronius knew it was also extremely dangerous information for him to possess. After all, he still belonged to Vdekshi and could not outright lie to his master, nor disobey him. If Vdekshi asked the right questions, he would have no choice but to reveal the truth, and that could ruin everything. He couldn’t let that happen.

“But what do I do?” Laronius pleaded in a desperate whisper. “Just smile and speak like always?”

Suddenly Laronius was overcome with a feeling of such intense disorientation and queasiness that for a moment he thought the room around him was actually spinning. Laronius covered both of his eyes and fell to the stone floor trying to regain his balance. Instead, from the darkness inside his mind came a cold and terrible voice.

“Smile and speak?” rasped the voice from some unknown direction. “No, there is far too much at stake this time. I shall give you proper instructions. Listen closely, my servant.”