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End of Dry Days: ninth edition
Where the sun rises from the south and sets in the north, the East suffered through wars from the Warlock’s army of Derkbocas. The Warlock was a mysterious sorcerer and harnesser of evil magic, punishing and reigning evil over the races. The Five Sisters wielded Warlock like a scepter so they could ruin the world and then controlled it.
The territories were divided by suspicions and prejudices; horrors partitioned between towns and cities, and curses lingered over the graves created by the Five Sisters.
The Derkbocas were an army of enslavers that acted upon the wishes of the Warlock. Their deep patrol ransacked the town of Naglim and herded the surviving Naglings towards the Warlock’s caves to serve his greed. Down a forbidden road and deep into the Doren Woods, they heeded none of the rumors of a vengeful spirit that destroyed travelers. They arrogantly believed that their master’s evil grasp on them would protect them against harm.
The Naglings were tired from the violence, weary of their doom but they were determined to free one of their people from enslavement. While their enslavers were mindless of their actions, the adults freed a nine year old child and coaxed her to flee.
Cut loose by her own people, Ka (Kae) raced through the open forest. She followed the thick and clumpy leaves like a paved road. On a normal day, she would have found the darkness suffocating and frightening, but not that darker night. That muggy night, the forest seemed open and free as she hurtled across overgrown roots and bushes, her raven black hair fanning behind her like a sail.
Her captors pursued aggressively, their boots clomping against the hardened earth in heavy strides. Their heavy groans and pants trailed behind her, bouncing against the gloomy haze. Her people were naturally agile and quick, but even with the three jointed legs, her captors kept pace like an enraged Lylecat.
A flash of lightning struck the night’s sky; no thunder responded after it. Another strike of lightning outlined the crumbling silhouette of a stone tower waiting up the hill. She altered her course for the stone walls, hoping to find the means to evade her captors. Behind her, she heard the faint whistling of an under-thrown spear; it thudded to the earth and rattled down a ravine. The fear of death put a maddened skip to her race.
If she could only lose them; lose their interest. What was one Nagling compared to all of her people? Why pursue this far when they have thousands to enslave? For that matter, why did her people assist in her release? Ka wondered.
Another strike of lightning filled the horizon with light and highlighted the crumbling tower from a forgotten kingdom in front of her. The lifeless tower was so much closer than she expected that she almost stumbled backward, as if the stone walls pursued her.
No longer was the tower able to fortify its battlements, protect against its enemies, or spy over its own people. Tonight, Ka would give it a chance to save one lost soul. She coiled inside a gash in the tower’s rock wall to enter its hollow entrance. The tower opened into a dark abyss. The rest of the castle was buried beneath her feet. There was no sign of battlements, ramparts, hoarding or castle’s peak.
She searched the horizon for her pursuers. She could not see their bodies but she could hear their harsh breaths approaching. They paused, slowing their pace and their breathing. Her pursuers’ hearing was better than most; their eyesight was worse compared to a Nagling who were gifted with excellent sight and was said to have been the offspring of fairy creatures of old.
At first, she saw no one. Their boots did not thud against the leaves. Their breathing was no longer hardened by the struggling gasps through thick air.
But then, there it was. A bulky form crossed up the hill, pausing every step while searching the surrounding woodland. They knew that she was close. She controlled her breathing by taking shallow inhales but nothing could stop the wild pitter patters of her heart. As the Derkboca moved closer, she slowly cowered into the tower’s gaping wound.
The lightning struck hard, and this time, the thunder howled after it. The storm was coming, but the third moon peeked like a spying eye between the clouds creasing the sky. The clouds were determined to storm, filling the sky and sending gusty winds to sway the trees, but the elements still avoided the third moon, allowing it to watch the Nagling from its perch in the night sky.
Ka wished the rush of howling sounds would disguise her thumping heart and heavy breathing. She had limited experience in the real world, a few outings beyond the Naglim border, but nothing as serious as the exciting things that she had read in books.
Lightning flashes lit the Derkboca’s harsh teeth, long and pointy daggers of ivory. The teeth were knives hammered into flat jaws that rattled against one another as they walked. Their faces were wrinkled with deep ravines that intertwined like many vines, and their eyes were large gashes cut into the faces. She had seen pictures of her captors before in school books; they had frightened her even into her ninth age. Those pictures did not give them the ugly tribute they deserved, she thought.
The armor and weapons complimented their deformed features, with overlapping straps and multi layers of metal and stone. The colors of their uniforms were mixed with grays and blacks with a spattering of white chalk that discharged a white powder puffing around their short and bulky bodies.
The second Derkboca emerged behind a tree, closer to the tower and young Ka. She held her breath and tightened her arms about her body to keep her pursuers from hearing her shiver. She wondered if they could sense her frightened soul. Many times, she had read about the unique magic that could sense creatures and detect ailing spirits. But she had no means to ward away their evils.
To calm her nerves, her fingers rubbed the fur that was beginning to grow on the outside of her left arm. She closed her eyes and mentally hummed a calming tune, something she did often when she was upset by her peers while trying to fall asleep in the orphanage barracks.
Peering around the tower’s side, Ka saw that the first pursuer had disappeared behind some growth, so fixed on the closer Derkboca that its peer had slipped from her mind. But the one that was closer seemed to gaze at her. It kept staring; its weapons rattling against the strength of the wind. It stared for long moments and then tilted its body towards the east.
As she held her breath, she realized that tears were gently falling from her face. Could they hear the pittering of the tears on the leaves? Could the creature see her through the darkness of the night?
The Derkboca moved away while grunting to its comrade. In response, the other Derkboca emerged behind some trees and shrugged its entire body; it shifting and tilting like rings jostling on a pike.
Another flash of light beamed from the east, but it did not come from the storm. It was a bright blue that filled the forest on all sides and darkened the trees in red. The Derkbocas looked in the direction of the east where a shimmering figure hovered in a cold haze on top of a hill. The figure seemed out of place from the world like it was painted on top of another painting. Its body was translucent; a bluish shimmer flowed over its body. The ghost was armored and uniformed. By its angry but narrow eyes, Ka could tell that it had been spirited from the world but was never released from its burdens of duty.
A couple of seconds passed after the flash of light and then the Derkbocas crumbled like loose rocks scattering on the leaves; their weapons clattered to the ground.
In one moment, Ka was relieved, and then her bewilderment became fear. The ghostly figure hovered over the crumbled corpses like Death loitering over the inevitable. The ghost turned towards Ka like it rotated on a pedestal revolve.
Ka was sure that the spirit could see through the dark night and spot her shivering form in the bowels of the tower‘s shadows. She shook her head like she could ward off its evil from penetrating her heart with such a simple gesture. The ghost continued to stare for long seconds, unwilling to release its gaze; fixing a quiet stare on her scared soul. It opened its jaw to speak but only the howling of the storm burst from its lungs. Her heart pounded in her throat; her hands slipped off the tower stones. She felt a cold breath touching her body, but instead of it coming from the ghost, it came from behind her, somewhere deep within the graves of the tower.
And then she fell.
She remembered her books. Lots of books lined the bottom of her bed, stuffed and stacked in long rows. Her favorites were tucked beneath her mattress and her current read was hidden beneath the pillow so she could paw its binding as she slept. They were all gone. Every word and every picture had been transformed into ash.
The village was burned, and her people were enslaved. For years, the Warlock used Derkbocas to terrify and conquer the East. They slowly stormed through one village, a city, a town and then another, until there were no more free races. Her people had been next. Slowly, people were disappearing from the world, either by hiding, death or slavery.
She was sad for her people but she doubted that her village would be sad for her. She was no one of interest, just a curious child.
Ka feared that she would be alone in the world with no one left to share her interests. She may have been tolerated by the Mother, but she would miss the noise of the orphanage. She would miss her friend Phalae. Living there, she stood alone among the dozens of children who were abandoned by the death of their parents, just like her.
She saw the panic of her people. She saw the death of the few brave soldiers. She saw the buildings burn and crumble.
She thought that her people would disappear like many of the races who were destroyed by the Warlock and the Five Sisters. The Trellids, the Firthtins, the Caravoon, the Doren, the Brethren…
The columns looked like trees, giant stone trees carved from root to branch. Ka was not sure if the columns had been carved from stone or had existed as petrified trees. After so many years, the columns held the ceiling up, preventing the earth from caving inside, but the ceiling was cracked from vines, roots and stalagmites fighting for supremacy over a broken foundation.
She lay on the floor of a large room, the inside of once a great hall; the last remains of a castle trapped underground like a coffin. Behind her, a stairwell led into a dirt wall, never to ascend anywhere. Doors were broken, and archways were collapsed.
She noticed an orange glow emitting behind the column so she crawled around it and spotted the fire. The flames fanned fiercely as if attempting to fight away an abrupt death. Two ragged chairs warmed themselves in front of the blaze; a rickety table cradled some bread and water of to the side. The fireplace was once carved with unique designs of a language, now chipped and dulled. Above the fireplace, the portrait of an angry man glared forward but it retained its perfect colors, its beautifully etched frame and its angry brow.
Ka did not like the look of the man in the portrait; it upset her.
“You fell. You fell into my castle.” A man in a two layered robe strolled from behind the column. She did not think he was hiding, just that she hadn’t noticed him. His outer coat lay below the waist, and the second coat draped over the legs, dragging across the floor. The coats were different colors, but the fire’s vibrant glow prevented her from distinguishing the colors. His beard was lazy and so was his walk, but sad.
He pressed his fingers onto the table and it wobbled in disagreement. “Some measly scraps to rebuild your strength, and then you can go.”
“A ghost…” she began to speak of the horror she witnessed and then changed her mind. “He looks very mean.” Ka gestured at the portrait.
“My father was mean. Of course, when your kingdom sinks below the earth because of a curse…well, I will not bore you. I will not bore you with such trivial things that a young one cannot resolve. You have your own problems to contend with.”
Ka watched the food; her stomach agreeing with her mind that she must eat. As she eyed the food and crept toward it, the mysterious man scanned the young Nagling’s smooth and silky face as she brushed her long black hair back so none of it was eaten with the food.
Finding courage, she found the bread edible and the water went down well enough.
“There was a ghost. A…fuzzy creature that…”
“Yes. Yes, you had begun to speak of it but then turned away.”
“It destroyed them.”
“Odd,” the man considered. “Usually, it scares most away and destroys others. It destroyed others and scared you within. Very odd.” The man moved to a book that was set on the mantle and began to read the foreign tongue, muffling the words under hissing breaths.
Ka did not recognize the language, and she was the best in her linguistics class, familiar with all the current languages spoken aloud throughout the eastern lands. She assumed it was a dead language, or a forbidden one. She thought she recognized one word that meant “young noble one” or “princess,” what her people would call a “Free One.” Her proctors had been very encouraging with her studies, even for an orphan.
Naglings were also known for their education as well as their swiftness. They were not known for their abilities with steel or machines of war. Most of her people who had traveled to other lands would serve as advisors.
Ka had studied many of the races and had immediately recognized the Derkbocas from sight. Similarly, she recognized the man as one of the Brethren’s race. His nose parted down his face and then split into two nostrils wrapping around the cheek and facing the ears. The ears stretched long across the sides of the head and down the neck. The cheeks were lined with five gills that rippled when he spoke. The lump on his back was his hind arms, folded casually behind him. Making him appear like he were blind, his two eyes were completely green with no pupils or capillaries. This race was commonly known as Thist, but this one was obviously Doren, or what was left of the people.
“Why did it do that?” she asked between nibbles of bread.
“Perhaps you should ask him?” At the man’s suggestion, Ka’s eyes turned white while shaking her head. The man conceded, “Perhaps not. I would avoid him. You may have been lucky.” The man slammed the book close and then tilted to the side. He eyed her from that angle for long seconds. Ka was tired of being stared at for one night and pretended to look around the room. “Very lucky.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am the last of the Doren. My people are gone or buried or migrated to another kingdom.” He pointed to the ceiling. “He was the only guard who was not here when the curse took place. He’s filled with emotion, as with most shades of the netherworld when they do not return in bliss. He must be filled with a feeling of regret or a desire to fulfill an obligation. An obligation usually set in stone, in prophecy. A prophecy foretold by some fool who no one would believe or listen to until everyone realizes their mistake. And here we are. A buried castle, a lost heir, a ghost roaming the walls, and a little girl.”
“I won’t be staying.”
“You most certainly will not. You may sleep the night off, but by morning, I will shove you out. Good night.”
The man of Doren stomped away and threw the door closed on the way out. The door clanged on the archway and defiantly crept back open. Ka watched the blackness through the doorway for a second. The man shifted from rude to curious like a teetering pendulum.
Ka curled into a chair with the least holes and stains, and tucked her legs beneath her jade tunic. She pawed about her clothes, checking the tunic for the book and the small dagger, and then patted the brown umber vest that carried the empty vial. When exploring the forest, she had used the vial to collect specimens so she could investigate their elements when returning to her books.
She pulled herself into a ball, a common shape she was taking recently, and laid her fingers against the line of fur on her left arm. Phalae was her favorite adult friend whose right arm had two lines running down it, but the Mother had shaved her line once a week.
Ka would have removed her small black shoes, but thought better of it, just in case she had to run again. Still scared but feeling a little safer, she felt compelled to be ready at the slightest noise, the eeriest of sounds; the harshest of calls.
She noticed the rug. At first glance she thought it was patterned in random shapes, maybe even stains. But it wasn’t. It was a map of the surrounding lands. Doren was centered; the Nagling homeland was in the wrong place. In fact, Naglier occupied more territory and lay closer to the other races. She studied the map trying to plot her direction for tomorrow. Eventually, her study hypnotized her to sleep.
Some sleep came to her but the cold awoke her randomly. Her knees quaked and her nose felt like an icicle. She pulled her clothes tight around her, but it did not help. Opening an eye, she looked to the fireplace and wondered why the fierce blaze couldn’t ward off the chill in her bones.
On the table, beetles fought over the few bread crumbs remaining on the plate. The portrait was covered in shadow, except the frame that shimmered lightly in silver. The book seemed to glow, but Ka assumed that was impossible.
A familiar cold feeling rushed through her body, starting with her toes and running up her body like racing beetles. Suddenly, she shook wildly to scare away the feeling. She felt eyes on her body, a focused glare following her emotions.
Ka saw the ghostly guardsman. At first, it appeared like a satin silk curtain wafting against the breeze that would flow through an open window. Then it shaped into the guardsman. She was not sure what to do; she remained quiet and still as if she could hope to outwit the ghost by pretending to be a statue.
The guardsman stood in front of the fireplace with open arms; the fire was still hot. The ghost moved through the blaze and into a room on the other side. Ka had not noticed the room before that moment. Still not sure if she should fear or trust the ghost, she watched it hover away. It patiently waited on the other side of the fire. She tried to convince herself that the fireplace was walled up and there was no other room on the other side of it; it could have been some evil and ethereal illusion. She shook her head defiantly, thinking she was delusional, tired, or still sleeping. She returned her gaze to the ghost and discovered it still there, waiting.
“I am not following you.”
The fire stopped. Like turning off a lamp, the logs ceased to burn.
Mostly out of curiosity, Ka stood from the chair and glanced through the opening. She wondered if it was possible that the ghost contained some magic and could wield it so easily. The guardsman had saved her from the Derkbocas and didn’t seem intent to hurt her. Although, she knew nothing about magic or the world of the “unliving” and couldn’t be sure. It made no sense to invite terror into her life; her unknown journey had spiraled her towards a frightening storm.
On the other side of the fireplace, there was nothing but the waiting ghost and more broken walls. Boldness pushed her, and she leapt over the logs. The excitement dissipated from her quickly after she took a long look at the ghost. The boldness drained away, leaving her pale and cold. Reconsidering her brash action, she checked the exit. The logs remained cool, and the opening remained viable.
Looking back, the ghost had vanished. In its place, a pedestal carried a sapphire winking at her. The sapphire blew shapes in the air like smoke from a pipe. First, it formed a dove, then a dagger, and last a crescent. She reached out to the gem but before she could touch it, it leapt from the pedestal and planted into her palm.
The sapphire seared into her flesh, burrowing a hole into her hand. She opened her mouth to scream but she could only make a crackled squeak. Tears escaped her eyes. Her knees buckled and she dropped to the floor. When the sapphire stopped burrowing, she wiped the tears and sweat from her face with a sleeve.
She waited. Still, there was no ghost. She waited some more, keeping her palm facing down, too afraid to see what had happened to her hand. Thinking of the suffering she had been enduring, she was angry with the ghost, and then the Doren man, and even the Mother who treated her poorly. All of her feelings rushed through her like a rage mopping up memories in a series of brush strokes.
The sapphire glowed. It lit her face in blue light enveloping her hand and filling the room. Slowly turning her hand around, she saw that the sapphire was embedded like a stone dropped in mud. Desperately, she scraped at it to try plucking it out. Nothing worked. The sapphire was ingrained into her hand.
Tears returned to drench her face. “This isn’t fair!” she cried out. “No fair.” Ka slumped to the floor and pulled into a ball. “I don’t want this.”
“How did you get in there? What’s unfair?” The man of Doren peered through the fireplace opening, rubbing his hand on the stonework. “There was no opening here. How did you…?” He stopped. His head cocked like a dog’s ears sensing the pounding sound of boot heels marching against the crumbling stonework. He did not recognize the footsteps, only realizing intruders had entered his great hall. Ka knew the Derkbocas had returned for her. “Child, this hole in the wall must have an exit other than through the fire.” While he was speaking, he grabbed the book from the mantle and opened it towards the logs. He spoke two words and a fireball leapt from the pages and re-ignited the tired logs. “Find an exit.”
“No, there isn’t one…” While shaking her head in confusion, she spotted a staircase leading upward. Turning back to the fireplace, where there was an opening, there was now a wall. Behind the fireplace wall, she heard metal screeching against stone and the harsh grunts of Derkbocas. Another fire crackled louder than the fireplace, like someone had dropped a burning house into the room. She was familiar with that sound after hearing it when the Derkbocas set fire to every house in their Naglim village.
Without considering any more thoughts, she rushed towards the staircase and ascended.
Copyright 2008, 2014
by Jax E. Garson
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The Warlock enslaves, seizes and terrorizes the eastern lands at the urging of the Five Sisters. The Five Sisters have wreaked havoc across the world, leaving the scarred earth of the Eastern lands in the hands of their cruelest servant, the Warlock. The Warlock sends his army to enslave the fairy nymph race called the Naglings.
Where the sun rises from the south and the night is dotted with three moons, a young Nagling escapes her enslavers with the help of her people. Confused by her freedom and the outside world, she convinces herself to try and free her people. Along her journey, she acquires a great and loyal friend, a rock creature called Grodic. They become fast friends and share an innocent zeal for life and curious interest in the unique world.
On the journey, her presence invokes awe and hope from citizens believing she is the sign that the end of the Warlock’s reign is close at hand. While being stalked by an enigmatic and dangerous spirit, Ka enlists the help from a wanderer, a conjuror, two thieves, and a mercenary. The thieves are driven to follow her because of their persistent greed, despite the horrors that she awakens. The mercenary pursues her out of his own cruel ambitions above that greed. The conjuror’s motives are ambiguous.
Usually isolated from other races, Ka learns the difference between “what is said, what is read, and what is true.” Behind the odd assortment of traveling companions, a tracker trails their course for a General who leads an army with a mind of it’s own. Ka’s ambition to save her people may change the course of the East for all races in this alien world. But at what cost to herself and those around her?
A hope lingers that these are the end of Dry Days.
The first volume of the Fires Trilogy and start of the Kadic Series.
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