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I had always believed the prophecy to be true. It told of the coming of four special beings with the ability to wield the elements and to restore balance to a world imbalanced by evil and darkness. As a child, I imagined that these special beings would be big and strong, all-powerful like the gods themselves, wielding swords of light, spears of fire, and shields of unbreakable steel. The prophecy was hope. A glimmer of light in a sea of darkness.
A cruel deception.
I have seen the darkness. And it has suffocated my light of hope. There is no hope. There is no escaping the darkness.
The irony of my conviction. My youth yielded nothing of the morbidity that dictates my thoughts now. No, my youth was filled with happiness and sunshine, a bright light that I never imagined would ever end. My mother was the center of it all. Our days together were filled with laughter, games in the garden, often joined by the flora fae, and meals by the warm fireplace. The war did not touch us there. And there was no darkness. Only love. Yet, on that dreadful day when the inevitable pounding came at our door, unwelcomed and unsolicited, I knew. I sensed it before it came. The darkness had finally reached our safe haven. It had taken over their minds, their senses. There was no reasoning with them. They, whom my mother had aided, nourished, and healed. They had become the enemy, consumed with hate, only wanting one thing: blood.
The gods bestowed upon me a gift of presentiment. But on that day, it was not a gift. It was a curse. For all my knowing, I couldn’t save her. Mother, of course, believed otherwise. Even as she breathed her last dying breaths, she still had hope. She assured me that my ability of foresight was a gift and that it would not only save my life, but the lives of many.
She died in my arms. It was then that I lost all hope and realized that it was a cursed illusion. There had been no hope for her, just as there had been no hope for me.
Despite all that has happened since, I suddenly find myself clinging desperately to that illusionary hope. As I run for my life, I hope that escape will only be a little bit further, that I won’t die in this desolate, dark forest, and that the child I bear in my arms will not face a fate worse than death. She is not mine. She is not even human. As a matter of fact, we have not yet met. I am still unsure of what compelled me to pull her out of the cold water and into my arms. Perhaps it was out of a secret need to redeem my failure so many years ago. Perhaps it was to save the innocence that was so clear in her small elven face, an innocence that was robbed from me so long ago. Whatever the reason, the only thing I know now is that I must save her.
I race through the frozen, dark forest, fleeing daemons, deformities of darkness, that only promise a torturous death should they catch me. The child in my arms weighs me down, but pure fear drives me forward. I try to think of the fae blood that runs through my veins and hope still that it will give me the advantage I need to escape.
The woods are quiet. Too quiet. There is no sound, not even the scurry of rodents as they make way for my frenzied flight. Dawn is approaching, yet the birds do not leave their safe haven to greet it. It is almost as if the animals, and even the trees, know that something dark, something sinister is in their midst.
My foot catches on something. A root. Or a rock. It doesn’t matter. I’m falling. And so is she.
I crash to the ground, my hands scratched bare by the rough, frozen ground. I quickly scramble to my feet, my pain the least of my worries as I whirl around, my eyes frantically searching for them. Only darkness greets my desperate, wild eyes. Darkness and silence. The silence reaches an unbearable pitch when I finally hear it. It is a horrible sound. It turns my blood cold and raises the hairs on my body. It is a hollow echo of a true Siren’s Shriek, but my mind whirls and my stomach heaves all the same. I push myself to my feet and pull the child into my arms again, forcing my feet into a haphazard flight through the darkness that cruelly hides the path of escape. The terror that threatens to paralyze me strangely fuels my will to survive.
All too soon, the sounds of slapping wet feet suddenly accompany my own. I realize with dread that they are upon me. A daemon a few paces behind me releases another piercing screech. The vibrations shake every bone in my body and threaten to throw my balance askew. I feel their swampy breaths all around me. Sucking, gurgling, and salivating at the sight of fresh prey. A feeling of hopelessness begins to gnaw at the pit of my stomach.
Just as that small glimmer of hope begins to fade away, I see it. The opening. Our escape. We are almost there.
A wet, gnarled hand tangles itself through my loose hair and yanks me back. A strangled scream escapes my lips and my free hand shoots forward, desperately reaching for the freedom that is only inches from my fingertips.
They drag me back into the suffocating darkness. It presses all around me. I claw at it as it begins to envelop me in its cold and dreadful embrace. I am gasping for air when it happens. A light so piercing I have to shut my eyes against its shining brilliance breaks through the trees and thinning branches overhead. To the creatures, the light is like a fiery blade through their dark rimmed eyes and they recoil in agony. They whimper in pain as they retreat back into the darkness, all the while letting me go free.
The morning sun has finally arisen.
Without hesitating another moment, I run towards the light, its warm touch reassuring. When my eyes finally adjust, I realize that I am standing in a clearing and out of the stifling forest. I fall to my knees, the relief too great to bear.
I made it. We made it.
I look down at the child in my arms, still unconscious. She is perfectly unaware of the danger she just escaped. But that is all right. She is safe and that is all that matters. A small smile turns the corners of my mouth.
Behind me, the creatures continue to howl and screech. Their screams are no longer filled with the pain caused by the morning light. Instead, they are filled with outrage and animosity. Their prey has eluded them.
Though their cries cause chills to run down my spine, I fear their threat no longer. The daemons, no matter their original race, are so called because they have betrayed the light. The sun is their greatest enemy.
I climb to my feet with difficulty and walk across the clearing. Up ahead the land dips down into a cliff and after a few shaky steps I can see across the horizon. The morning light is blinding, but so beautiful and breathtaking that the darkness of just a few moments ago is nearly purged from my mind. Below, the small town of End of the Road is immersed in its radiance, the cluster of worn structures made stunning by its golden light.
The vision that follows is unexpected as it is startling. A great journey unveils before my eyes and a great purpose is revealed. All that was and will be becomes suddenly clear and in this moment of clarity, I am made aware of my purpose and the purpose of the child in my arms. She is precious. So, so precious. The fate of the world is in her hands and, inadvertently, in my own.
As I come to understand what is being revealed so blatantly by the gods, there is only one feeling that starts at the pit of my stomach and slowly grows until I am suddenly overwhelmed by it.
Az'ria's hands shook as she tried to keep her bow and arrow steady, but it did little to disturb the intense focus of her golden eyes as she glared at her prey. She knew her prey well. It was distinguishable from the others due to the permanent parting in the middle of its bushy tail. The squirrel dug at the earth and sniffed the air in a carefree manner, completely unaware of its impending doom. Yet the creature could not be more antagonizing. He has eluded each and every one of her attempts on his life. Still, Az'ria would rather bathe first before she gave up. The little thief was going to pay for practically eating an entire reserve of her food. She was going to kill him. And then she was going to eat him.
“Steady, Zee,” Evelyn whispered softly behind her. Evelyn was crouched behind Az'ria, much closer than Az'ria was comfortable with, but Az'ria found that she did not mind Evelyn's closeness. Evelyn had a calm and serene aura about her that Az'ria found soothing. It helped that they shared a few common traits, such as strange hues to their skin—while Evelyn's glowed a strange green color under certain lights, Az'ria's glowed brownish under the sun and pale under the moon; bright reddish hair; and, in certain lights for Evelyn, bright golden eyes.
Having such similarities had somehow cemented their friendship in Az'ria's mind. In actuality, they had very little to do with Az'ria's growing affection for the older girl. Unlike the others in their strange little group, Evelyn's words often eased Az'ria's agitation instead of making it worse.
At the older girl's quiet suggestion, Az'ria's quivering hands steadied a bit. Closing one eye, Az'ria zeroed in on her elusive quarry. The sounds of the woods no longer distracted her, not even Evelyn's quiet breathing behind her. The squirrel's movements were somewhat sporadic. But there! He paused to sniff a nut. It was now or never.
Az'ria leaned in for the kill. She leaned too much and lost her footing on the branch she and Evelyn were perched on. She released the arrow quickly, but it was too late. Her aim was off. And she was falling. Evelyn reached a steady hand to her shoulder and the danger of falling a story down was gone.
“It's all right,” Evelyn said serenely behind her. Looking over her shoulder, Az'ria found Evelyn sporting a wide grin.
“You're laughing at me,” Az'ria remarked with a frown.
“Not at all,” Evelyn said easily, her smile widening. “You did excellently today.”
Looking at the spot where the squirrel had been only moments before, her red-feathered arrow stood a number of paces to the right. The squirrel, naturally, was nowhere to be seen.
“I missed,” Az'ria pointed out.
“Yes, but you did better than last time,” Evelyn said as she turned, swinging her bare feet over the branch so that they dangled freely on the side. “You didn't use foul words to express your disappointment.” And with a merry giggle, she slid off the branch.
Scowling now, Az'ria watched as Evelyn swung from branch to branch. Her movements were fluid and light, her feet barely making contact with a part of the tree before she was leaping to the next. In a blink of an eye, Evelyn was safely on the ground, her bow and quiver hung securely over her shoulder. She made climbing up and down trees seem like child's play.
Once, Az'ria tried to copy the older girl's movements only to drop face first into the hard ground below. She had never felt more stupid. She could barely climb a tree properly. Surely, going down was not going to be any easier.
Az'ria studied the nearest branches to determine the best course of descent. This was probably the most difficult – and annoying – part of practicing archery with Evelyn; climbing down every tree Evelyn always felt compelled to climb. Az'ria simply did not understand why they couldn't practice on the ground like the rest of the world most likely did.
“Just use your wings, Zee,” Evelyn called up from below, that wide grin still stretched across her face. Az'ria could never tell whether the elf was mocking her or not.
“I'm not supposed to,” Az'ria called half-heartedly. It was true. She wasn't supposed to let her wings show. She was the only one with the ability to morph, the ability passed down to her through her dragon blood, and was always told to hide her true form.
“As if that has ever stopped you before,” Evelyn remarked.
Smiling despite herself, Az'ria wiggled her shoulders a bit and loosened the secret flaps on the back of her tunic. Soon, a pair of webbed wings spread behind her. The few rays of sun that filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead altered their brownish color to a flickering, reddish orange hue. It was almost as if they were on fire.
Extending her wings to the fullest and then flapping them lightly, Az'ria relished in the freedom she always felt during the rare times she released her wings. It felt good to stretch them out.
She tried to envision a short trajectory from the branch she was crouching on to the exact place she wanted to land. She was not a very good flyer, and Faeolyn assured her that envisioning a course of flight always helped. Though the theory had yet to be proven, Az'ria found that it helped. A little. Her landing needed more practice.
After a few moments, she stepped off the branch and glided to the ground. The feel of rushing air was exhilarating, and for a few moments, she was distracted by it. Naturally, she became disoriented and started flying off course. Before she knew it, she was toppling to the ground ungraciously. Evelyn's soft chuckles only added insult to injury.
“Stop laughing at me,” Az'ria demanded, pushing her now bright orange hair out of her eyes.
“I'm not laughing at you, dear sister,” said Evelyn earnestly as she helped Az'ria to her feet. “I would never.”
Then Evelyn gave Az'ria one of those rare smiles, the ones she only saved for her “sisters.” Az'ria did not really understand why or how she knew that Evelyn only reserved this special smile for them. But when Az'ria was on the receiving end, it was hard not to appreciate the feeling it evoked. It was a warm feeling. A feeling of belonging.
“Fine,” Az'ria grumbled.
She could not say she was bothered by Evelyn's secret smile. It made her feel as if she was truly part of a sisterhood, as Evelyn liked to think they were. But a past full of betrayal and captivity had made Az'ria mistrustful and doubtful. Besides, they were nothing alike, she and the others. Evelyn was part elf, part dryad. Az'ria was a drakonian, part dragon. Faeolyn was a hateful angel. And Nadyanelle was part mermaid. They were not even sisters of the same race!
Yet, despite these undeniable facts, there was a longing inside Az'ria to be a part of something, to be a part of a family. Accepting the others as sisters offered that opportunity. But she would rather die first than to accept that spiteful angel, Faeolyn, as her sister.
“Come,” Evelyn said. “I think it is time to meet with the others.”
Grudgingly agreeing, Az'ria retrieved her arrow—but not before cursing that wretched squirrel who only bought himself one more day—and turned to follow Evelyn.
As they walked, Evelyn pointed out how the trees were changing. And the leaves. And even the shrubs and undergrowth. This was not news to Az'ria. Evelyn has been pointing out these changes for some time now. What those changes were exactly escaped Az'ria. In her eyes, one tree was just the same as the next, their only difference being their location. But Az'ria supposed it was in Evelyn's nature to be privy to the changes in the woods. She was part dryad after all. One with the trees.
Needless to say, Az'ria was not completely unaware of the changes taking place in the woods that had become so familiar to her. Changes that went beyond the natural shift of the seasons. Az'ria might not have been able to see the changes, but she certainly felt them. Something was amiss. Her ability to note these changes did not differ from that of her dryan companion; Az'ria's natural senses simply picked them up differently. Where her eyesight failed, her ears made up for it. Nadyanelle claimed that it was the reason they were so large. Her natural ears protruded rudely from her skull and were several inches long, and perhaps this was the reason she could hear for miles, but she could still hear just as well in her human form where her ears shrunk in size considerably.
The sounds of the forest were different. The animals seemed timorous. The birds did not chirp as often or as merrily as they did before. Instead, their twitters were full of warning and strain. Even the flora fae, the only fae flourishing in the Dragon Forest, were more skittish. It was as if something terrible was coming and the woods, with all its living creatures and plants, were conscious of its approach. It was as disturbing as it was unnerving. What was coming?
The sound of soft footsteps and trailing hoof beats reached her ears. She recognized them instantly.
“Brokk is here,” Az'ria announced.
It was several moments before he appeared.
“What did I say about coming empty-handed?” he asked in way of greeting, the perpetual scowl over his dark eyes preceding his form over the remains of a rotting tree trunk a few paces from Az'ria. Graybeard, the mule that often acted as their pack mule, trailed behind him, the look of utter boredom pulling his long face. His namesake gray beard twitched under his chin as he chewed with disinterest on a mouthful of undergrowth.
Brokk's tone, as usual, was gruff and harsh. He was always gruff and harsh. Sometimes just gruff, like every time he opened his mouth to speak. To anyone. Sometimes he was harsh, like when he had to cut the firewood, or fix a hole in the wall. There was never any in between.
Az'ria did not find anything about him particularly interesting. Gruff and harsh got boring very quickly; therefore, he was a fairly boring man. The only exception was when he was training them to fight. Only then did the gruffness and harshness disappear, to be replaced with a passion that only a fool would miss. He was a warrior through and through, from the tips of his dirty brown hair and sharp chiseled nose to the tips of his ugly crooked toes. It was not until he had begun training them that the disdain Az'ria had felt for him slowly morphed into a semblance of respect. After two years of hard training, there was no denying that Brokk was a master in the art of combat. Az'ria often wondered how he had ended up at the cottage.
“You also said to never be late,” Evelyn countered sweetly, flashing him an easy smile as she headed straight for Graybeard. He was getting crankier and crankier with the passage of time, and Az'ria had to wonder if it had to do with being around Brokk all day. Thankfully, he had Evelyn and Nadyanelle to drown him in adoration.
“Don't get sassy with me,” Brokk said to Evelyn gruffly. “Did you at least gather some nuts or berries?” As usual, a brief undertone of disbelief slipped into his tone at the mention of nuts and berries.
Naturally, Brokk was a meat eater. He believed that a healthy diet involved some sort of meat, be it rabbit meat, wild turkey meat, or even squirrel meat. It didn't matter, as long as it was meat. This was most likely the reason he simply could not wrap his mind around the fact that most of the girls did not rely on such a fatty diet. Instead, they ate berries, leaves, nuts, and occasionally fish. Every once in a while, Az'ria craved the solid substance of meat, but even then it was limited to small prey. And she didn't mind if it was not cooked. Somehow this fact did not disturb Brokk as much as the fact that Evelyn relied on a strict diet of berries, fruits, and leaves. Az'ria had a mind that the years he spent drinking the bitter and foul drink they called ale distorted his common sense.
“The best berries and leaves are nearer to the cottage,” Evelyn answered as she rubbed Graybeard's neck and then proceeded to bury her nose into his gray coat. Brokk grunted in reply, a clear indication that he did not approve.
He turned to the makeshift saddle on Graybeard's back and began to relieve the mule of two empty bags.
“Let's not waste time, then,” he said as he shoved one bag towards Evelyn and the other towards Az'ria.
Az'ria was not very enthusiastic about gathering berries and nuts, but her supply of food in her secret hiding places did need some replenishing. Living in a tiny house filled with too many people often made Az'ria feel trapped, and she frequently escaped to a specific secret place—she had a few—and having a nice stash of food helped pass the time. Nevertheless, she let her annoyance show as she snatched the bag Brokk handed her and sulked after Evelyn. Best to give the impression that she hated the chore than to arouse suspicion by acting otherwise.
“What, no Fluffy again?” came the insolent voice of Faeolyn suddenly, causing Az'ria to cringe. She materialized next to Brokk, her radiant white, feathered wings stretched out behind her. She was a tall fae, nearly as tall as Brokk, with a head full of white blonde hair and a pair of dazzling blue eyes adorning her creamy white face. Everything about her was radiant, and Az'ria could not have imagined a less radiant being to possess such radiant qualities. Faeolyn was a brute with a brutish attitude. How could the god Gorlois, the god of the angels, get it so wrong?
At the moment, the brute was picking on her. “Fluffy” was the name of the wretched squirrel Az'ria had sworn revenge on, the name chosen by none other than Nadyanelle, who had an abnormal fascination with all things furry.
“Shut up!” Az'ria spat, baring her fangs at the angel.
“Oh, come on, Zee. How many moons has it been now? Five?” Faeolyn asked, a mocking smirk stretched across her perfectly full lips. Az'ria had a mind to remove that hateful smirk with her claws.
“Leave her be, Fae,” Evelyn said serenely as she placed a comforting arm around Az'ria's shoulders. “She has the makings of an excellent archer.”
“Don't tell me you were chasing a squirrel all morning?” Brokk asked incredulously, his brows knitted in disapproval as he popped his head over Graybeard's saddle.
“Of course not,” Evelyn answered smoothly, moving to inspect a nearby bush. “We climbed trees, too,” she added with a smile.
Brokk groaned as Faeolyn's rich laughter filled the small clearing. Az'ria would have liked to think the hateful angel cawed like a crow. Instead, her laughter was a throaty, rich sound, almost like ringing bells.
It wasn't long before the small group began to make their way back to the cottage. Brokk trailed behind with Graybeard, as was his custom, while the Az'ria, Evelyn and Faeolyn walked ahead, picking the daily gatherings for dinner. While gathering food was a peaceful pastime for Evelyn, as she admitted to Az'ria once, it was a fierce competition between Faeolyn and Az'ria, and Az'ria nearly tripped over her bare feet as she tried to outdo her rival. There were few things she could do better than Faeolyn and picking food was one of them.
The chore was not very difficult. Az'ria spent a fair amount of time with Evelyn, who taught her a great deal about the plants and trees that grew near the cottage. With Az'ria's extensive knowledge of the vegetation around them, she was able to not only gather enough food to outdo Faeolyn, but also put some away in her secret hiding places.
By the time Az'ria reached the cottage, she was well ahead of the rest of the company with a hefty bag filled to the brim with food. She did a little victory dance before going around the cottage, relieving herself of her bow and quiver as she settled behind Nadyanelle and Samanthya's little garden to sort her acquisition.
The cottage that was their home sat on a low hill in a small clearing in the space between the Dragon Mountains and the Dragon Forest. It was small and meager—insignificant almost—amongst the imposing trees that surrounded its front and the vast, tall mountains that stood at its rear.
At first, Az'ria was surprised that the small lodging did not cave under the weight of the forest for it was no ordinary forest. It was an ancient forest, one that was once home to the great dragons of history. The dragons are gone now, but the forest has not yet forgotten their majestic memory and reminds all that dare to venture its mysterious paths of the greatness that once ruled there. Not that very many travelers venture so far down south of the mainland—and if any do, they steer clear from the Dragon Forest. Faeolyn claims that most believed it was haunted. Az'ria believed that the forest was simply choosy about who entered it.
Apparently, the forest chose to allow her, and the rest of the company, to stay. Furthermore, the forest protected the cottage. It kept it hidden and safe. None of the fierce predators that lived in the forest ever came near the cottage. What was more, no matter how often they picked the berries, nuts, and herbs from the giving plants around them, they never grew sparse. It was as amazing as it was intriguing.
For many months, Brokk investigated their surroundings, never quite able to explain how the plants were consistently replenished with food the very next day, or how game was always plentiful. Az'ria had to admit that the strange phenomenon was curious, but she was not one to question good fortune. Besides, she did not think of their never-ending food source as good fortune. She, like Evelyn, believed that the forest was taking care of them.
What Az'ria did not understand was why the forest was caring for them. In comparison to the great dragons that once roamed the mighty forest, she and her companions were fairly ordinary people, even for fae.
A noise in the trees opposite the garden interrupted her thoughts. Turning her head, she listened for any telltale sounds of the others. She heard none.
Dismissing the noise as her imagination, she continued sorting. The noise came again, this time more distinctly than before. It was a whisper.
Az'ria was on her feet instantly, her hand instinctively going for the small hand-carved dagger she kept strapped to her side. Though whoever was whispering could be any one of her companions, Az'ria had the uneasy feeling that it was not.
“Is that you, Fae?” she called as she scanned her surroundings. No answer came. “It's not funny,” she said. Her tone was not nearly as annoyed as she wished it to sound. The feeling that something else was in the woods was making her tense.
The whisper came again. And this time, it called her name.
“Stop it!” Az'ria yelled, grasping her dagger and pointing it towards the source of the voice. It was hard to tell where it was coming from exactly. It seemed to be coming from all directions.
“I said stop it!”
A pair of hands suddenly gripped her shoulders, causing Az'ria to start.
“Az'ria,” Samanthya said, her voice eerily calm. It was all that kept Az'ria from attacking her with her dagger.
“Sam!” Az'ria cried in alarm, whirling to face the slightly older woman.
“Do not be alarmed,” Samanthya said, her large brown eyes distant as she stared across the clearing. “They do not wish to hurt you.”
“What?” Az'ria asked as she turned to stare out to the woods. She did not notice any difference, although the feeling of another presence lingered. “Who? Who's out there?”
As if in response, the sound of a thousand branches and leaves rustling filled the small clearing suddenly, though Az'ria did not feel the caress of a wind. It was an angry rustling, as if the trees were suddenly disquieted by something.
“It's all right,” Samanthya said, pulling Az'ria towards the cottage. “They're gone now.”
Az'ria felt shaken, though Samanthya's calm manner, which was slightly out of the ordinary, gave Az'ria some comfort.
“Come,” Samanthya said, her hands still on Az'ria's shoulders. “Dinner is almost ready.”
Az'ria allowed Samanthya to lead her inside. It was not until the small drakonian was inside the protective walls of the cottage that she realized she had allowed Samanthya contact for so long. She said nothing of the matter, though she escaped Samanthya's grasp as soon as the stairs to the second level were visible. She ran up on all fours, climbing desperately towards her secret place inside the cottage. It was located inside a large hole in one of the corners of the single room upstairs. The room itself was not very large. It was only half the space of the small cottage and served as the sleeping quarters for all the women of the house. The hole, which Az'ria had made larger over time, was located on one of the walls erected to give the room a “squared” look. Beyond it was the small space between the slanted roof and the floor. It was just large enough for Az'ria—and Nadyanelle, whenever she squeezed in with her.
Once inside, she quickly fished her small handheld mirror from an even smaller hole she had clawed into the corner of her small space. She found the mirror not long after she was rescued. She was surprised that no one else noticed it. Needless to say, all were mesmerized by the rarity of the mirror, and after Az'ria had meticulously cleaned away the dust and debris that encrusted the small treasure over time, it was clear that it was a very valuable mirror. Over time, all lost interest in the mirror, save for Brokk, who insisted it would buy them months' worth of food and supply. Eventually, he, too, lost interest in the mirror when he found out just how sharp Az'ria's fangs were.
For reasons unknown to her, the mirror always brought her comfort. It was a curious little mirror as it was clearly handcrafted with what appeared to be the finest metal and adorned with precious jewels that sparkled and glittered, even in the dimmest of light. She would study it for hours and never tire. More often than not, the wonder of the mirror put distressful thoughts and feelings out of her mind, and she was usually content during the time she spent with it.
Given that the mirror always brought her a sense of comfort, she ran her fingers over the cool metal and gems in hopes that it would quiet the sudden unease she was currently feeling.
She felt unnerved and vulnerable, almost like she felt when Samanthya had first brought her to the cottage. It had been an unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar people. Though this had been a theme in her life, the unfamiliar people of the past were never kind people. They were bad people that did bad things. It had taken her a very long time to grow accustomed to the home Samanthya insisted the forest and the cottage were. Now, the one place Az'ria trusted had been invaded. The forest had betrayed her. It allowed something foreign, something unfamiliar, in.
What was it? Who were they? How did they know her name? How long had they been there? Had they been following her and the others?
These were questions she could not answer or find an explanation to. She was becoming agitated.
Samanthya knew who they were. How could she be so calm? Did they really mean no harm?
Az'ria stared into the mirror in her hands and found that the distress she had hoped to soothe away with the help of her mirror was far from gone.
Nadyanelle sat on the kitchen floor, just out of Samanthya's way, humming a happy tune, one she was making up as she hummed. Samanthya was bustling about, preparing dinner, but she paused often enough to indicate that she was enjoying the light melody. This only served as encouragement and Nadyanelle hummed a bit louder as her fingers weaved an intricate design with the fresh flowers she had gathered from the garden not too long ago.
Weaving flowers was her specialty. The mermaids had taught her when she was younger. They taught her how to sing too, but Nadyanelle preferred to hum.
At the moment, Nadyanelle was creating new sets of adornments for her sisters for the coming winter season. Not that they would feel much of the change. The weather hardly changed so far down south of the mainland. There were only slight changes, such as cooler nights, and a twinge of yellow and occasionally maybe orange on the trees. Needless to say, change—albeit small—was coming and what better way to commemorate it than by wearing freshly made adornments?
She had just finished Faeolyn's majestic crown of soft yellow daisies when she suddenly realized that Samanthya was standing next to her.
“Nadyanelle, would you fetch some water for me, please?” she asked, holding the large pail used to transport water. She looked down at Nadyanelle with her oddly large eyes, a small smile that seemed very out of place, playing on her full lips.
Samanthya was a curious being. In most aspects, she was very ordinary. Bushy brown hair; pale skin with rosy, round cheeks; and a frame that seemed especially made for ordinary woolen dresses. She was not very old. She was actually very young in human years—just over two decades old. Her eyes, however—large and warm brown, sometimes glowing a strange gold color—were far from ordinary. They were exquisitely beautiful. But they were also a little scary—as if able to see things far beyond what ordinary eyes could.
“Of course,” Nadyanelle replied enthusiastically, quickly rising to her wet, webbed feet.
Despite her… oddness, Samanthya provided for them unselfishly, every day, and without complaint. Nadyanelle wished to be of more help to Samanthya, but she was much too clumsy to be of any real assistance. She was actually more of a nuisance, though Samanthya never said so. She was kind enough to solicit Nadyanelle's special services every once in a while, and Nadyanelle was more than happy to oblige.
The task of fetching water may have been considered mediocre, or even burdensome, by the rest of the company, but not by Nadyanelle. She had special abilities. Nadyanelle assumed that because she was different—not entirely mermaid or entirely human, but a cross between the two—was the reason she possessed the rather convenient talent.
Obediently taking the pail from Samanthya, Nadyanelle skipped out of the front door, down the stone walkway to the foot of the hill, and then through the worn path that led to the healthy river that flowed down the mountains and wound its way behind the cottage. The river was fairly old and had cut a deep, winding groove through the earth. Thus, it was difficult to scoop the water necessary unless one climbed down the rather steep wall of rock and earth that stood on either side of the river. This is where Nadyanelle's talent came into play.
Setting the pail on the edge of the dipping land, Nadyanelle got down on her hands and knees to look down at the clear water flowing steadily just a few paces below. The sun was shining brightly overhead and reflecting off the water like millions of sparkling jewels. There weren't many water sprites in the river; they usually preferred still waters. Those that dared the harsh flow of rivers were usually in a rush, so Nadyanelle did not greet them so as not to disturb them. Reaching out a hand, she positioned it over the rushing water and commanded a thick vein to rise up. It took a few moments for the water to obey her command. Water in rivers have the important purpose of transporting nutrients to the land and living things and were not usually keen on being disturbed. Nadyanelle had to convince it that in essence it was still accomplishing its purpose, just in a different manner. After doing so, the water was fairly compliant.
After the pail was filled the brim, Nadyanelle thanked the water and sent it rushing back into the river. The pail was too heavy to carry now, but this was not a problem for Nadyanelle. She simply asked the water inside to flow in a fashion that would make it easy for her to carry and was soon on her merry way back towards the cottage. As usual, Samanthya complimented Nadyanelle's efforts, filling Nadyanelle's small heart with joy.
Content, Nadyanelle returned to weaving flowers, resuming her merry tune as she did so. It was some time before she realized her surroundings had grown quiet. Too quiet. This was unusual, as Samanthya never stood still longer than a few moments. This was something about her that drove Az'ria wild, but Nadyanelle had long ago accepted it as part of the young caretaker's personality.
Curious to see if Samanthya had exited the kitchen, Nadyanelle poked her head around the cabinets she was sitting behind to find that Samanthya had not left. She was standing in front of the small kitchen window, still as a rock. Nadyanelle held her breath as she watched her. Several long moments passed before Nadyanelle concluded that something was wrong. Samanthya never stood still for that long.
Cautiously, Nadyanelle stood and approached Samanthya, watching her frame the entire time. Samanthya did not even twitch at Nadyanelle's approaching footsteps. Upon reaching her side, Nadyanelle found that Samanthya's eyes were wide and transfixed on something out the window. Looking out the dirty panes of the only window in the kitchen, she found nothing out of the ordinary—or at least, nothing out of the ordinary for her.
“Sam?” Nadyanelle called timidly. Samanthya did not respond. Instead, her eyes began to move back and forth, though Nadyanelle could not surmise that Samanthya was actually watching anything real. Then, quite suddenly, her eyes stopped moving, startling Nadyanelle. A glimmer of movement outside the window caught Nadyanelle's attention. Looking out the window again, Nadyanelle recognized the two forms of her older sisters. She gasped, wondering if they were in danger.
“Stay here, Nadyanelle,” Samanthya said suddenly, her tone ringing with caution.
Nadyanelle stared up at the older woman with wide eyes as she nodded her head obediently. No one argued with Samanthya when she took that tone of voice. Not even Brokk.
Wiping her hands on the front of her linen dress, Samanthya turned and exited the kitchen through the kitchen door.
Nadyanelle stayed exactly where she stood, looking out the window anxiously. Evelyn, Faeolyn, Brokk and Graybeard had emerged from the woods, seemingly in good spirits. Az'ria, however, was not among them. Nadyanelle gasped again, sure that her fiery sister was in trouble.
Voices sounded near the back of the cottage. Nadyanelle turned to look out the window in the far side of the living room, but could not see anything. One voice in particular—was it Az'ria's?—sounded agitated. Nadyanelle stood transfixed, with her hand over her mouth, afraid to even breathe.
What felt like hours later, Az'ria, followed closely by Samanthya, entered the cottage through the back door. Nadyanelle breathed a sigh of relief, and was about to approach the two when she noted the look of distress on Az'ria face—and that Samanthya's hands were on Az'ria's shoulders, almost as if she were leading her. With the exception of Evelyn and Nadyanelle, Az'ria allowed no one to touch her. Strangely enough, Az'ria seemed unfazed by the contact.
Nadyanelle barely made it to Az'ria's side when the little drakonian fled up the stairs, climbing them on all fours. Nadyanelle looked up at Samanthya, nearly on the verge of tears, as she waited for an explanation.
“It's all right,” Samanthya said to her calmly, offering Nadyanelle a small smile. “She's just had a small scare, that's all. You should go upstairs and console her,” she added.
Nadyanelle was about to do just that when the kitchen door opened and the rest of their small group clambered into the kitchen. They were clearly unaware of what had just happened for they proceeded to go about their routines as usual. Evelyn, as was her custom, immediately made her way to Nadyanelle and embraced her after setting down her sack, bow, and quiver.
“Did you finish the necklaces?” she asked as she looked down at the pile of flowers Nadyanelle had gathered, stroking Nadyanelle's pale white hair unconsciously.
“Um… not really,” Nadyanelle answered distractedly.
“How was it?” Samanthya asked the group as she tended the pots on the small stove.
“The same,” Faeolyn answered lazily as she stretched her arms over her head. “Boring, as usual. Where's the little drakonian?” she then asked as she looked around the kitchen. “Off counting her berries and nuts? She is so predictable sometimes.”
“Oh,” Nadyanelle said, backing up towards the stairs. “She's upstairs. I'll get her.”
Without waiting for a reply, Nadyanelle turned and quickly began to climb the stairs on all fours. She was not very good on her feet, especially when they were continuously wet, and climbing up the stairs on all fours ensured that she would not slip and break something important.
She wanted to get to Az'ria before any of the others did. Az'ria was a very sensitive fae and was easily agitated by the others. But Az'ria and Nadyanelle had formed a bond long ago and Nadyanelle was sure that she would be the only one to not only extract the details of what occurred, but also the one to adequately comfort the little fae.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she was cautious as she made her way to Az'ria's secret hiding spot. In actuality, it was not much of a secret, given that all, save for Brokk, knew about it. Nadyanelle assumed that because everyone avoided the hole, it gave the illusion that it was, in fact, secret.
Tentatively, Nadyanelle poked her head inside and found Az'ria curled up against one of the corners.
“Az'ria?” Nadyanelle called quietly.
“Go away,” came Az'ria's immediate reply. She did not sound like she meant it, though.
“What happened?” Nadyanelle asked, slipping slowly into the hole.
Az'ria did not answer.
“Was it Fae?”
“No,” Az'ria answered quietly.
Nadyanelle had slid into Az'ria's space and sat opposite the fiery fae, their bare feet touching lightly.
“What is it?” Nadyanelle insisted, cocking her head to the side.
Az'ria stole a glance at her through the corner of her eyes. Her brilliant reddish orange hair was loose around her shoulders and her bright golden eyes were peeking through the strands that covered her face. Her large, webbed wings were drawn about her.
“It's…” Az'ria began to say, her brows knitting together as she seemed to struggle with what to say next. “Did you feel… do you feel as if… as if we're not alone?” Az'ria asked at last, giving Nadyanelle a meaningful look.
Nadyanelle blinked at Az'ria for a few moments, wondering what she was talking about.
“Are you talking about the gods?”
“No, not the gods. I mean here in the forest.”
“Oh,” Nadyanelle chirped, sure she knew what Az'ria was talking about. “Of course we are not alone. The forest is full of life, with animals and trees, and even the—”
“No,” Az'ria interrupted. “I mean besides them. Oh, forget it.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Az'ria moved her wings more closely around her. Nadyanelle noticed that Az'ria was hugging her jeweled mirror to her chest.
“What happened outside?” Nadyanelle pressed.
Az'ria looked at her again before she answered, her eyes filled with doubt. “I… I don't know. I feel like… like there's something out there,” she said, jabbing a finger behind her, clearly referring to the forest outside the cottage.
“Well… I don't know,” Az'ria said with difficulty, her brows furrowing with frustration.
“I don't think the forest would allow that,” Nadyanelle offered reassuringly.
“You're afraid that there's something bad in the forest, right?”
“I never said I was afraid,” Az'ria quickly said defensively.
“But it's making you feel uncomfortable,” Nadyanelle insisted.
“Well… I guess. What makes you so sure that the forest wouldn't allow anything bad in?”
“Well, we have stayed hidden and protected for years now,” Nadyanelle reasoned. “I don't think the forest would suddenly change its mind.”
“Nadya, the forest does not have a mind,” Az'ria pointed out with a quirk of her brow.
“Sure it does. Why else would it tell the dangerous animals to stay away?”
“It does not tell the animals to stay away. It just… keeps them away—”
Something snorted rather loudly from outside the hole. Nadyanelle looked out to find Faeolyn squatting several paces outside the hole. She was looking at them with a smirk on her face.
“Quit huddling like babies and come downstairs,” she commanded.
Nadyanelle immediately felt Az'ria's sudden flare of anger. It was as if a fire had suddenly blazed next to her.
“Don't come up here and bark commands!” Az'ria spat, her fangs bared.
“I'm not barking commands, Zee. I'm speaking them,” Faeolyn said calmly.
“Is it time for dinner?” Nadyanelle asked eagerly.
“You should know. You're the one that helped Sam in the kitchen, remember?” Faeolyn said with a chuckle.
“Go away,” Az'ria said angrily as she glared at Faeolyn. “No one invited you.”
“Fine, suit yourself. I'm sure you'll enjoy your food when it's cold and moldy,” Faeolyn called as she stood and turned to go back down the stairs.
“I think we ought to go downstairs,” Nadyanelle suggested when Faeolyn was well out of earshot. “Aren't you hungry?”
“You're too soft,” Az'ria accused, her golden eyes bright as she looked at Nadyanelle.
Nadyanelle pouted, not sure she appreciated the accusation.
“Now you look like a baby,” Az'ria said as she pawed at Nadyanelle's face. Nadyanelle giggled merrily, pawing Az'ria back. This, of course, led to more pawing and giggles. Eventually, measures had to be taken.
Faeolyn, with a seemingly hint of mirth, called up to them from downstairs: “Sam says that if you don't stop that nonsense this moment, she will flog you both red!”
“Faeolyn!” came Samanthya's outraged cry from somewhere in the background.
“She's very serious!”
Dinner, later that evening, was full of commotion as usual. Az'ria and Faeolyn got into another spat while Evelyn and Nadyanelle gingerly set the table as Samanthya attempted to restore order, quite unsuccessfully. Brokk sat at his usual seat and sampled whatever food happened to fall prey to his expert fingers. Samanthya's rapping against his knuckles with her wooden spatula did very little to hinder his amusement. Eventually, the company sat and ate.
“I noticed some strange tracks not far from the practicing grounds today,” Faeolyn commented as she picked her way through her leaf and berry bowl, completely ignoring the hot porridge Samanthya had set next to it.
Across from her, Nadyanelle gasped. She was easily the youngest of the group, most likely still in her pre-adolescent stage in mermaid years. Given that she was not entirely mermaid or human, however, it was hard to tell. The way she behaved, however, gave adequate evidence that she was still a child. Evelyn patted her head to ease her sudden disquiet.
“How strange?” Az'ria asked curiously, the play of annoyance and curiosity on her face a clear indication that she was fighting against having a proper conversation with Faeolyn.
“Strange as in I've never seen them before,” Faeolyn elaborated, throwing Samanthya a scornful look when Samanthya pushed the porridge bowl closer to her. “It's good for you,” Samanthya insisted.
“I haven't seen anything,” Brokk said offhandedly to Faeolyn, reaching across the table for the clay jug of water.
“Of course you haven't. You weren't there,” Faeolyn countered.
“Could it be Cifael's spirit?” Nadyanelle asked timidly.
“Pray tell, Nadya,” Faeolyn said, resting her chin on her fingers as she leaned towards Nadyanelle. Nadyanelle stared up at her with her large turquoise eyes, her round face full of innocence and ignorance so pure, it was nearly palpable. “How could Cifael's spirit be roaming the mainland, specifically the Dragon Forest, if he is resting in eternal sleep?”
Nadyanelle blinked several times, clearly unsure of how to answer.
“Can't he?” she then asked uncertainly.
“It'd be a scary thing if our spirits could leave our bodies when we're sleeping,” Evelyn said to Nadyanelle, motioning Nadyanelle's attention back to her food as she threw Faeolyn a hard look. Faeolyn enjoyed teasing and pestering the others; Evelyn did not appreciate it when she directed her vexatious amusement on to Nadyanelle, who more often than not did not understand Faeolyn's ulterior motive, even if it was benign.
“Oh, yes! Of course,” Nadyanelle said, bobbing her head in agreement. Across the table, Faeolyn shrugged her shoulders at Evelyn, clearly feigning innocence.
“More scary is Cifael waking up,” Az'ria said, her golden eyes bright as she looked at Evelyn. “He was a traitor and a killer.”
“He was an honorable angel,” Faeolyn countered, sucking her fingers noisily as she turned her predatory attention to Az'ria. “He united the races in a time of war and founded the Knights of Unity. That does not make him a traitor.”
“He killed hundreds of humans later in his rage. If he couldn't control his anger, that makes him a killer,” Az'ria argued.
“And what of his legendary feats? Hmm?” Faeolyn baited. “Do they count for nothing?”
“It doesn't matter when you kill,” Az'ria insisted, her nostrils flared, her eyes wide, and her bright orange hair seemingly on fire. She looked ready to leap across the table and start sparring with Faeolyn.
“Do you think Arthmael's Shield was really buried with him?” Evelyn inquired, hoping to distract the two fae from pouncing on each other.
“That's a myth,” Faeolyn dismissed with a wave of her hand.
“God Arthmael wouldn't have given it to a killer angel,” Az'ria said, looking at Faeolyn pointedly. “He would have given it to a dragon. One of his creations.”
“Like I said, it's a myth,” Faeolyn insisted.
“Can we not fight tonight?” Samanthya asked in exasperation.
“Speaking of knights,” Faeolyn said, now turning to face Brokk, who was seated to her right. “You were a knight once, weren't you Brokk?” she asked innocently. She was hoping to catch him off guard. She's been trying to pry the past from him ever since he began their combat training.
“Speaking of which,” Evelyn interjected smoothly. “What will we be doing during tomorrow's training, Brokk?”
“Evelyn,” Faeolyn called tartly. “I asked him a question first.”
“Yes, I know. But we all know what the answer will be,” Evelyn answered, winking at Brokk.
“We should let the man speak for himself,” Faeolyn insisted, throwing Evelyn a meaningful look.
“How about you stop trying to start a war and eat your food, hmm?” Brokk said to Faeolyn as he stood.
“You're finished?” Faeolyn asked in surprise.
“Unlike you, I wasn't running my mouth,” Brokk answered her, the hint of a smirk playing on his lips. “Ladies,” he said with a quick nod of his head before exiting the kitchen.
“Hey!” Faeolyn called somewhat angrily. “Evelyn asked you a question.”
“You'll find out tomorrow,” Brokk called gruffly from the depths of the living room.
“How rude,” Faeolyn commented.
“Leave him be,” Samanthya said, pointing to Faeolyn's still full porridge bowl. “Eat.”
“You sure know how to take the wind out of a girl's wings, don't you Evey?” Faeolyn pouted.
“I do try my best,” Evelyn replied sweetly, offering her angelic sister a wide smile.
“What are you two talking about?” Az'ria asked confusedly.
“Don't worry about it,” Evelyn said to her. “Just finish your food.”
It wasn't long before the company had finished their meal and was leaving the dinner table one by one. They would eventually meet again in the living room where Nadyanelle had made it a ritual to adorn their hair in braids and flowers.
After helping Samanthya clear the table, Evelyn made her way into the living room where Brokk had started a warm fire in the fireplace. Nadyanelle was applying her hair braiding techniques to Az'ria bright red locks, adorning them with fresh red hibiscus from her garden. Az'ria busied herself by studying the small pile of flowers Nadyanelle had neatly placed in her small woven basket.
“Oh, how pretty, Nadya,” Evelyn remarked, settling down next to her.
Deep in concentration, Nadyanelle did not answer. Evelyn smiled as she began to weave her fingers through Nadyanelle's white locks, a favorite pastime of hers. She enjoyed hair braiding just as much as Nadyanelle, but Nadyanelle's hair was so peculiar that Evelyn found herself burying her fingers in them nearly every evening, never quite able to explain its peculiarity. Her hair was a white iridescent color, fading into a turquoise blue color at the tips. As if that was not unique enough, the tendrils were always in a state of dampness, never fully drying. The effect was a sleek, glossy texture that felt like running water every time Evelyn ran her fingers through the locks. It was a bizarre, yet extraordinary, occurrence.
Evelyn was quite lost in her investigation of the gentle water fae's locks when a seemly spot in the whiteness of Nadyanelle's hair and skin caught Evelyn's eye. Shifting her eyes away from Nadyanelle's lustrous white hair, Evelyn's eyes came to rest just on the back of Nadyanelle's left shoulder, where her birthmark was peeking out from underneath Nadyanelle's linen smock. Her birthmark was nearly as peculiar as her hair. It appeared to look like an upside down triangle. It was an angry red color that contrasted harshly against Nadyanelle's pale white skin.
Pulling the smock securely over Nadyanelle's shoulders, Evelyn covered the birthmark. It reminded her of her own, which was located on the front of her right shoulder. Just opposite of Nadyanelle's. The others had birthmarks too, all seemingly collected around the same area. Faeolyn's was located on the outside of her right arm; Az'ria's, in the front of her left shoulder. Samanthya claims to have a slight birthmark on the right of her waist, though the girls had yet to see it. Brokk, naturally, discloses nothing about himself—though Evelyn and Faeolyn were quite sure they had seen the markings of a tattoo on his forearm once. While that did not constitute as a birthmark, it was a marking nevertheless.
Evelyn did not like to think about these strange coincidences. The fact that they all had a marking of sorts was only one of the many curiosities surrounding the company. More like strange coincidences, such as how they came together. Evelyn, Nadyanelle, and Az'ria were rescued, though Evelyn was unsure if that constituted as a strange coincidence, given that the war had resulted in thousands of victims of war. Evelyn, Nadyanelle, and Az'ria were just a few of the many. While Faeolyn, too, was touched by the war, her happening by was surely as curious as the coincidences surrounding the group. Apparently, her guardian abandoned her, although Faeolyn claimed that Anemone had dumped her in the Dragon Forest. Evelyn is unsure of how Samanthya and Brokk came together, but it certainly was not out of love. The two had a very strange—or rather estranged—relationship that somehow did not interfere with their daily routines, and this was the most curious phenomenon.
Despite their indifferent attitude towards each other, Brokk and Samanthya managed to work together to ensure that Evelyn and the others had a suitable place to live and food to eat. This noble and extraordinary act, seemingly without any motivation or ulterior motive, lead Evelyn to believe that there was more to the group as whole than met the eye. What she could not answer was why. Why were Samanthya and Brokk making such a great sacrifice? Were they, too, victims of the war? Did they have similar pasts like Evelyn's? Like Az'ria's? Did they have a need to help other victims?
The last question was dubious. If Samanthya and Brokk had an equal desire to help others, they would, at the very least, be on talking terms. The two hardly glanced at each other. Their utter lack of interest in one another did not escape the notice of the girls. As a matter of fact, they were so acutely aware of it they made a game of who would break the silence first. Evelyn and Faeolyn had a secret wager that the two will eventually marry one day. Faeolyn wagered her gleaming sword that Brokk would be the first to break and profess his love to Samanthya. Evelyn, of course, had her doubts. If ever a man more tight-lipped, it was Brokk. Six years later and Evelyn and the others still had no clue where Brokk came from, how he had come to be such a skilled warrior, or why he chose to stay in the cottage.
Evelyn studied the man in question now as he settled into his beloved couch, where he spent his nights, and covered his face with the back of his arm, ignoring the chatter around him. He had his covers about him for warmth and seemed to immediately fall into a peaceful sleep, though Evelyn had a mind that he was quite in tune to what was going on in the room.
“Come on, Sam,” Faeolyn said in frustration. She was attempting to gain access into Samanthya's storage of herbs and medicine—again—through tactful coercion, but was failing quite miserably. Samanthya was not one to be so easily fooled. “If I don't take it from your cabinets, then I'll just find it in the woods.”
“Good luck finding it,” Samanthya replied knowingly as she continued to mend whatever tunic she happened to lay her hands on this evening, rocking slowly in the rocking chair Brokk had made her not too long ago—a surprising act that nearly shocked Faeolyn featherless, but was simply a project he had made for himself to keep busy, as oppose to any act of kindness towards Samanthya. Or so he claimed.
Behind her, Faeolyn groaned angrily.
“There!” Nadyanelle exclaimed suddenly, leaning back to admire her handiwork on Az'ria's head. Az'ria turned her head and looked at Evelyn. Evelyn had to admit, with her hair pulled back in braids and bright orange flowers adorning her crown, she did look quite lovely.
“You look beautiful,” Evelyn complimented her.
Az'ria looked at Nadyanelle and Nadyanelle beamed at her happily.
“Thanks, Nadya,” Az'ria then said uncertainly, touching the elaborate braids tentatively.
“Nadya,” Faeolyn called, having plopped down next to Evelyn when Samanthya's stubbornness proved impenetrable. “You realize that your creations will be a hairy mess in the morning, don't you?” she said with a heavy sigh.
“But at least she looks pretty now,” Nadyanelle said merrily.
“I suppose you're right,” Faeolyn remarked, smiling at Az'ria.
Before anyone else could say another word, Az'ria was on her feet and running towards the stairs, climbing them faster than what Evelyn thought was possible for such a tiny fae.
“What did I say?” Faeolyn asked with genuine surprise.
“She's getting a look at herself in her mirror, I'm sure,” Evelyn assured the older girl.
“Oh, right.” Faeolyn looked at the small mound of flowers Nadyanelle still had at her feet. “Do me next, Nadya. Use the hibiscus. I like those,” Faeolyn then said.
Several hours later, Nadyanelle was nodding off in Evelyn's arms as Evelyn brushed her hair, and Faeolyn, her hair pulled back from her face in twisting braids, was polishing her sword—as if it needed polishing—having stolen it from its resting place with the rest of the assorted weapons Brokk had them use when training them. It was no secret that she wanted nothing more than to be a warrior. She had had on-and-off training before coming to the cottage. Currently, she was trying her hardest to beat Brokk in a spar.
In the background, Brokk was filling the silence with his loud snores.
“Fae,” Evelyn called quietly.
“Do you ever think we are all here for a purpose?”
“We all have a purpose,” Faeolyn answered quietly as she continued to give her shining sword her undivided attention. “The gods created us all for a purpose.”
“I mean besides that. Do you ever wonder why we are all here, in the cottage?”
Faeolyn paused and turned to look at Evelyn, her blue eyes bright in the flickering light from the fireplace.
“Actually, I do,” she said conspiringly.
“Really?” Evelyn asked in surprise. She and Faeolyn were fairly close. They often spent many nights speaking of happier days, often until the morning light spilled through the small window in the upstairs loft. “You've never said so before.”
“Well, you never asked, Evey,” Faeolyn answered with infuriating calmness.
“That's a terrible excuse,” Evelyn accused.
“Do you want to know what I think or not?” Faeolyn challenged.
“Now, I'm not too sure, but I think—”
Faeolyn looked up suddenly, starting at Samanthya's abrupt appearance next to them.
“I think it's time for bed,” Samanthya said quietly, her voice ringing with finality. The shadow over her eyes gave her an air of both mystery and foreboding.
“Sam, it's rude to sneak up on people,” Faeolyn reproached the young woman.
“It's late and I'm sure you're tired,” Samanthya said, bending down to take Nadyanelle from Evelyn's arms.
As they filed up the stairs, Evelyn's thoughts were burning with curiosity. She had never questioned their living arrangements before. The more she thought about it, however, the more baffling the situation became. Why were they all here? What was the purpose of keeping to the Dragon Forest and not living instead in End of the Road, where supplies and food were only a walk down the road?
“Look at her,” Faeolyn said when Evelyn reached the top landing, squatting down to peer into Az'ria's secret hole. Evelyn stole a look to find the little drakonian curled up inside, her head carefully placed over her arm.
“We should get her out,” Evelyn said.
“No. Leave her inside. She'll never get used to sleeping in an unconfined space,” Faeolyn said.
“We should try to help her break the habit,” Evelyn insisted, grimacing as she thought of the reason Az'ria liked to sleep in confined spaces.
“Not yet. Let her be where she feels comfortable.”
Walking to the far side of the room, Faeolyn dug out Az'ria's thick blanket from the tall bundle that was composed of their makeshift beds and blankets before returning and covering the little fae in it.
“There. No threat of catching a chill now,” Faeolyn said as she looked at her handiwork with pride.
“You do care for her after all,” Evelyn commented as she smiled at the taller fae.
“Only when she's sleeping,” Faeolyn said with a sly smile, her blue eyes shining with her iconic mischief.
“Of course,” Evelyn replied.
“Here,” Samanthya said as she suddenly appeared before them again, holding out their linen nightgowns.
“What is it with you and sneaking up on us?” Faeolyn accused. Evelyn was reminded of her earlier question.
“Sam,” Evelyn called as Faeolyn began to change, muttering under her breath. “Why do you think we are here in the cottage?”
Samanthya did not answer her immediately, but instead looked at Evelyn for a few moments. Her features were unreadable, as usual. Though, her eyes seemed to glow a warm honey gold color, a color that was brighter, mystical even, than her natural colored eyes. Evelyn thought it was a trick of the candle light.
“All will become known in time,” Samanthya said finally before pointing a finger to the forgotten nightgown in Evelyn's hand. “Get changed and come to bed. It's late.”
Without another word, Samanthya turned and proceeded to make their beds, carefully laying out the thick, feathered stuffed blankets that acted as their mattresses.
Unsure of how she felt about her unanswered question, Evelyn did as she was told and soon slipped under the covers between Faeolyn and Nadyanelle. It was a long time before she succumbed to sleep, her mind whirling with questions that had never bothered her before. Why were they here? But more importantly, what were Samanthya and Brokk keeping from them?
The next morning, Faeolyn found herself on her favorite spot on the thatched roof of the small cottage, nibbling on the end of one of her soft white feathers. The sun was just over the horizon and was spreading its warmth ever so slowly across her skin. It felt glorious. It was said in angelic legend that Gorlois, god of the angels, had captured tendrils of fire from the sun and blew life into it, thus creating the race of angels. This was why the angels took residence in the flying lands of Asilia: to be closer to the sun they worshipped. Faeolyn was sure that the nice cozy feelings the rays of sunlight invoked were the real reason angels worshipped the sun.
Below her, Samanthya was already busy in the kitchen, most likely preparing breakfast, though she was known to find chores to do. She was never still, that one. Brokk, who was always avoiding Samanthya, had also awoken at the crack of dawn and was currently in the woods, probably collecting firewood or something of the sort. He was good at finding chores for himself too. The rest of the company was sleeping the morning away, which Faeolyn thought was a much better idea than to be roaming about at some ungodly hour.
She herself was not really an early riser. As much as she enjoyed the sun, lucky for her, the sun stuck around all day before it disappeared below the horizon. This morning, however, Faeolyn had felt restless. She had had a restless night, and when she finally decided to abandon her warm bed next to Evelyn and watch the sunrise—which really, should be the only reason anyone woke up early—she found that she continued to be restless.
It was no wonder why. Evelyn, who was not usually a curious person, had asked the very question that has been pestering Faeolyn since the moment she came to the cottage. Why were they at the cottage? More specifically, why did Faeolyn have to come live at the cottage?
She used to spend endless nights and days pondering this question, wondering why Anemone, her best friend and guardian, had decided to dump her at the cottage with the cryptic message that Faeolyn had a more important task to complete before they could be together again.
What a cruel woman that angel had been. An important task? A task? Who was she kidding? She was told to dump Faeolyn. Of course she was. She had to have been. Why else would she have parted with Faeolyn? They were like sisters. They were supposed to travel the whole world together. All they had managed was a few places on the mainland. That's pathetic. They had barely explored the southern part of the mainland, where the merpeople were said to have walked out of the waters and lived as men and women of the land. They were supposed to do that together. Then one day, she just up and changed her mind? No, that wasn't like Anemone. She was known to disregard the rules, but not change her mind—at least not as suddenly as she had done on that day.
Faeolyn remembers that day very well. They were in the Oasis of the Phoenix, a favorite location for both of them, where the sun always shone hotly overhead, the waters were crystal clear, and the trees were like a green sea in the middle of the desert. They were preparing to leave; they were going to follow the mountain southward, past Azi'lyth, the ruined lands of the drakonians, to the southernmost tip of the mainland. According to phoenixes, Za'aras' army had not ventured that far south; thus, it was a land free of the war. Anemone and Faeolyn had spent the better part of the previous five years knee-deep in the aftermath of the war, trying to heal and aid as best as they could. They had both decided that a little trip away from it all was due.
The morning of, Anemone was not herself. Faeolyn would later rack her brain on that single memory for days, trying to decipher what was different about her friend. She told Faeolyn, quite bluntly, that they would not travel together, but that she would escort Faeolyn back to Elvanna Woods—that's where they had met Evelyn, in Elliem—and then into the Dragon Woods, where they would part ways. Naturally, Faeolyn threw a fit when Anemone would not explain why.
Several days later, Faeolyn found herself knocking on the front door of the cottage. The rest is history, as the angels love to say.
Settling into the cottage with five other people was difficult to say the very least. Most unsettling was the fact that one of the members was a drakonian. Drakonians were the bringer of war; Za'aras, the self-proclaimed queen of daemons, was a drakonian. This was why they were called the banished race. But somehow, through some clever manipulation of the gods, no doubt, Faeolyn and Az'ria became friends. Or rather, Faeolyn was able to see past Az'ria's race and see the tortured child underneath all that fiery red hair.
Yes, life was hard at the cottage. But Faeolyn was brought there for a reason—or, as she soon came to believe, by someone. Did Anemone have an encounter with a god? Or with the goddess? It was said, after all—was it dryan legend or elven?—that the goddess Taimat was the only one of the four gods to reside on lands of Earthia. As legend goes, the Woods of Taimat had been named after her when a fae saw the divine goddess walking through the woods.
More pressing, what was the purpose? Why were they here? What were they to accomplish?
Faeolyn, on occasions, tried to ask Samanthya that question but soon found that the young human was more stubborn than Graybeard the mule. She refused to give Faeolyn a straight answer. What was she hiding?
Just as the questions began to multiply, Evelyn's placid voice called from below.
“Oh, you're up,” Faeolyn said in surprise, shifting on the thatching to look down at the gentle fae over the edge. “I'd thought you'd still be snoring a storm in our shared room,” she teased.
“Don't be ridiculous,” Evelyn said with an honest, sincere smile. “I'm not the one that snores. You are.”
“Denial, dear sister, is most unbecoming of you,” Faeolyn warned.
“Are you coming down?”
“Eventually,” Faeolyn answered vaguely.
Evelyn was the only one in their small group—with the exception of Nadyanelle, who was simply too naïve for her own good—that was utterly unfazed by Faeolyn's teasing. She seemed to possess an inordinate amount of patience and good humor. She was also terribly shrewd for her young age.
“We could use your help,” Evelyn insisted.
“Oh? With what, dear sister?”
“With helping Samanthya. Or did you forget that preparing breakfast is a group effort?”
“The woman has been up since dawn. What is there to help her with?”
Below, Evelyn crossed her arms over her chest and quirked her brow at Faeolyn.
“Is it my fault that she wants to drag us all into the misery of preparing food for five grown people?” Faeolyn insisted.
“Very well. I'll go ahead and inform Brokk that weapons training will most likely need to be delayed,” Evelyn said passively, turning to walk away and most likely follow through with her word.
Faeolyn had completely forgotten about weapons training. Otherwise, she would not have wasted so much time on fruitless thinking and instead prepared for Brokk's eventual demise.
“Don't get so carried away, Evey,” Faeolyn called, rolling off the thatched roof and spreading her wings behind her to slow her descent to the ground. She landed effortlessly and quietly next to Evelyn. “I never said I wasn't coming. I just needed to point out a few facts.”
“Of course you did. I should have known,” Evelyn replied, not a trace of sarcasm on her honest, pointed face as she wrapped an arm around Faeolyn's shoulders before they made their way towards the kitchen.
The actual preparation of breakfast was performed by Samanthya. Evelyn and Faeolyn helped for other reasons. Inhuman reasons. Evelyn was pretty shrewd, but Samanthya took the berry bowl. Every fae is born with a set of skills, abilities, or physical traits that separate them from their cousin human race. Samanthya used each of their skills or abilities in order to complete her tasks, such as Evelyn's uncanny ability to climb anything and reach all those unreachable spots, even those spider webbed areas in the corner of the ceiling. It's probably a plus that Evelyn had no aversion to insects. Faeolyn's precious wings were used to blow out the smoke from the blackened stove out the small kitchen window to prevent the walls and ceiling from turning equally as black. As a result, Faeolyn's silver-white feathers got blackened with soot that would later take an exorbitant amount of time to wash off.
Faeolyn's opinion of Samanthya usually deteriorated by the time breakfast was ready. It was really no wonder.
“Really, Sam, do you need to use so much firewood?” Faeolyn asked irritably.
“Stop complaining, you goose. Your wings will get all dirty anyway by the time we are done with training,” Evelyn commented cheerfully as she set the table. Of course, Evelyn liked her job as the cabinet climber.
Before any acidic words could tumble out of Faeolyn's mouth, Samanthya shoved a small bowl in her hands.
“It's for you,” Samanthya said before disappearing from Faeolyn's line of sight.
Looking down, Faeolyn was quite surprised to find the small bowl full of gooseberries. They were Faeolyn's favorite and were darn difficult to find.
“How—” Faeolyn began to say, but the bushy-haired young woman was out of sight. “How does she do that?” Faeolyn asked Evelyn bewilderedly. Evelyn shrugged her shoulders as she looked curiously into Faeolyn's bowl.
“Gooseberries,” she commented lightly before taking a handful and popping them into her mouth.
Not very long after, the kitchen became crowded with the rest of the group. Az'ria, who was usually fairly subdued in the mornings, hissed at Faeolyn upon spotting her. She certainly hadn't forgotten today's scheduled training.
By the time they were dressed in their training outfits and ready to join Brokk in the woods, it was about mid-morning. As usual, Brokk was irritated by that fact. When he first began their training, he had required them to be up before dawn and trekking after him to the training grounds, a small clearing deep in the woods. He soon found that getting the girls out of bed was a much more difficult feat than actually training them. He opted to focus on training instead. Didn't mean he wouldn't give them an earful every time they appeared for training halfway through the morning.
“Good morning, Brokk,” Faeolyn sang cheerfully, the deep scowl etched on his chiseled features far from diminishing.
“You're late,” he practically growled.
“We're here,” Az'ria pointed out. “Let's get started.”
“You can start by loading the supplies onto Graybeard,” he stated, pointing a finger at the two sacks resting next to Graybeard.
“You've been up since before dawn and you couldn't get it done yourself?” Faeolyn complained. Brokk simply glared at her.
While Evelyn showered the mule in adorations and kisses, Az'ria and Faeolyn mounted the two sacks containing the steel and wooden weapons on to the makeshift saddle. Brokk inspected their handiwork. Just as he was tightening the ropes that held the supplies over the saddle, Samanthya came out of the cottage and did something most extraordinary.
“Brokk,” she called, the name sounding strangely foreign in her voice. Everyone, with seemingly looks of shock, turned to stare at her.
“Yeah?” he replied uncertainly.
“Don't go too far. Stay close.”
The girls turned their heads simultaneously to look at Brokk as they waited for his response. He looked utterly confused, but agreed to her request without incident.
“All right” was all he said before returning to his task of securing the supplies. It was as if they had been exchanging pleasantries all along and not avoiding each other like the plague.
Faeolyn gave Evelyn an expectant look, but Evelyn did not seem to want to make an issue of it as she shrugged her shoulders and turned to Az'ria, who was already swinging her small wooden dagger furiously, giving Graybeard quite the scare.
“Will you stop that,” Brokk called to her irritably as he attempted to calm the beast by stroking its neck.
“So,” Faeolyn said as she went to his side and patted Graybeard's head. “You and Samanthya are talking now?”
“Drop it, kid,” Brokk quickly warned, giving her a rather hard look.
“What?” she asked innocently.
“Are we leaving yet?” Az'ria asked impatiently.
She, like the rest of them, was wearing her customary sparring tunic, which was made out of wool, cut at the shoulders with secret flaps in the back—courtesy of Bertha, their outside contact, who Faeolyn was positively sure had a wicked sense of humor—and long enough to reach her knobby knees. A hemp belt was tied around her tiny midsection. Evelyn stood next to her looking, as usual, regal in her woolen tunic and elegantly braided hair, making Az'ria look like a five-year-old child. It didn't help that Az'ria was barefoot and had an air of impatience and disarray, making her look more the part of the woods than Evelyn did. And Evelyn was an earth fae.
“Patience, child. All in due time,” Faeolyn said to Az'ria.
“I'm not talking to you,” Az'ria spat.
“We're going. Don't start bickering,” Brokk said in a tone that bordered boredom and irritation. “Keep close together and don't wander off.” He looked at Evelyn pointedly as he said the last part. She was too busy waving goodbye to Nadyanelle, who had appeared at the cottage's kitchen door to wave them off, to notice, however.
“Did you hear me, Evelyn?” Brokk called impatiently.
“Are you sure Nadyanelle shouldn't learn?” she asked him distractedly.
It was decided during the first few sessions of training that Nadyanelle would not partake in training given her age and her clumsy disposition.
“You know the answer to that,” Brokk answered as he began to lead the way into the woods.
Sighing heavily, Evelyn trailed along, walking alongside Faeolyn.
As they entered the woods, Faeolyn felt a twinge of foreboding. It didn't help that as the canopy of branches overhead thickened, a seemingly gloom seemed to envelop them. She looked back towards the cottage to find that Nadyanelle was still at the door, a saddened look tugging the corners of her round face. For reasons unknown to her, Faeolyn felt unsettled.
Az’ria was busy counting her footsteps as they made their way into the woods. They trained three times a week and three times a week Az’ria counted the eight hundred and twenty-one steps to the training grounds. It kept her from running ahead and hacking away at the unthreatening trees around the large clearing as she helped herself to a head start. Brokk reminded her, constantly, that their training sessions were not a competition but a process of learning that was made futile by competing. But he didn’t understand the unspoken rivalry between Az’ria and Faeolyn. Since their very first meeting, they were destined to contend, if not despise, each other. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they were opposing fae—Faeolyn a fae of the heavens and Az’ria, descendant of the dragon race, a fae of the underground.
It didn’t matter. Faeolyn, having had some training before coming to the cottage, was more advanced than Az’ria, which meant that Az’ria had to train harder to catch up. And she was determined to beat the know-it-all angel, whatever it took.
Az’ria was visualizing a sequence of moves when ahead of her, Brokk stopped suddenly. Looking around, Az’ria saw that they had not yet arrived at the training grounds and were still a good distance away. As a matter of fact, they were not even on the slightly worn path that led to the training grounds. They had veered off it some time ago from the looks of it.
Brokk walked around the area, inspecting the trees and undergrowth as he went. Az’ria herself probed the area with her eyes and was not very satisfied with the layout. Unlike the rather large clearing that Brokk had chosen for them nearly two years ago when he decided to begin their training, this field was filled with trees—thick trees with thin trees flanking its large sides and sapling filling the gaps in between. The canopy overhead was thick, blocking out much of the sunlight. Worse yet, the ground was not only covered in shrubs and undergrowth, but littered with protruding roots, twigs, and a number of fallen branches. Az’ria did not find any of these observations particularly ideal for practice.
“This is a good spot,” Brokk said shortly. Az’ria stared at him incredulously.
“You’re not serious,” she called bluntly.
“Very,” he said, his features grave. “Walk around,” he instructed them all, motioning to the area around them.
“Please explain what you mean by ‘walk around’?” Faeolyn asked bemusedly.
“Get a feel of your surroundings,” Brokk answered curtly.
As they did as they were told, Az’ria mumbled a number of curses under her breath, sure that the turn of events were not to her advantage.
“The trees are especially restless today,” Evelyn said absentmindedly as she placed her hands on the trunk of the nearest tree to her.
“The trees have been restless for the past two moons,” Faeolyn said. “You’ve been telling us so.”
“Today it feels different,” Evelyn insisted.
“How about we get started?” Brokk suggested, reaching into one of the sacks containing the assorted wooden weapons that they often used. Brokk made them himself, using wood from fallen trees. Everything he made of wood was from fallen trees or branches. Evelyn would have his hide should he dare approach a standing tree with an ax.
“Here, Az’ria,” Brokk said, extending three short wooden daggers, her favorite choice of weapons, towards her. She plucked the weapons from his hands and tucked one under her hemp belt on her back before practicing several moves with the other two. Knowing she would wield her favorite weapons pacified her foul mood. She was all right with a bow and arrow and downright terrible with a sword, but daggers were made for her. With daggers, there was no need to aim high, or to have an eye for precision. They key was quickness of feet and the ability to spot the weak points in the body, two things she found she was very good at.
“Your favorite, Fae,” Brokk said as he handed Faeolyn a wooden long sword.
“Fantastic,” Faeolyn said with a smile, that evil glint she always got in her eyes during weapons training twinkling merrily in her blue eyes.
“Take a bow, Evelyn,” Brokk said, reaching into the second sack and retrieving a quiver full of dummy arrows. They were like real arrows, except for the arrowhead, in which Brokk fashioned round, flat-ended wooden arrowheads. “Here,” he said, holding out the quiver to her.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve given us our weapons of choice,” Evelyn commented as she took the quiver and slung it over her shoulder.
“Correct. Today’s lesson is about awareness of your surroundings. Instead of focusing your attention on how to use a weapon you are not comfortable with, I want you to focus on your surroundings and how to use it to your advantage.”
“Very clever,” Faeolyn said, executing a number of practice swings.
“I’m going to put up a boundary. If you step out of the boundary, you die,” Brokk said critically. He took their training very seriously.
He proceeded to take out pieces of brightly colored rags from one of the sacks and then tie them around selected trees, creating a large circle. All the while, Az’ria continued flicking her daggers, warming up for the practice fight that would eventually ensue.
After Brokk was finished, he picked up a wooden long sword for himself and took a defensive stance. This meant that they would all spar together. Brokk often said that if they were attacked, it would most likely be by more than one foe.
Wordlessly, the girls followed suit.
“The goal is to immobilize the enemy. Remember that the enemy is not our friend,” he added with a pointed look at Evelyn. “The enemy will attack you. The enemy will kill you. Do not give them that chance.”
He looked at each of them in turn, his features gravely serious. Az’ria gripped her weapons tightly as she stole a glance at the rest of the group. They were ready.
Immediately to Az’ria’s right was Evelyn, and without a moment’s hesitation, she shot an arrow directly at Az’ria’s heart. Az’ria managed to duck out of the way just as the arrow’s feathered end grazed the side of her upper arm. She quickly took cover behind a large tree.
She gulped breaths of air as her heart pounded in her chest. The sparring match may not have been intended to harm, but it was real nevertheless. She took a quick glance around the tree at her back and found that Evelyn was closing in on her.
Evelyn would be the hardest target to reach given her wide range of attacks. She would also be the deadliest for the same reason. The only way to eliminate her was to distract her.
Knowing she had only seconds before Evelyn would come around the tree—she was an expert climber and tracker, just to add to her long list of deadly skills—Az’ria took another quick glance around the other side of the tree and found that Faeolyn and Brokk were engaged in an intense swordfight, defended by the large trunk of a tree. She also took notice that a smaller tree was a little ways’ from where Faeolyn and Brokk were dueling, just big enough to shield her.
Without thinking twice, Az’ria made for the tree as fast as she could while watching her footing. The undergrowth was thick and protrusions aplenty. One false step and she would be eating the undergrowth with an arrow or two sticking out of her back. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Naturally, her hearing was piqued, and the twang of Evelyn’s bowstring alerted her to Evelyn’s attack. Her aim was never off. Desperate to be out of the elf’s deadly range, Az’ria spread her wings behind her and sailed the last few paces to safety. The arrow whizzed by her ear, the sound of the flat end pushing against the air filling her senses. Leaning against her new shielding tree, she gripped her weapons tightly as the thought of dodging death yet again made her breathless.
Not too far from her shelter came the sounds of wood clanging against wood, a clear indication that Brokk and Faeolyn were still deeply engaged. The sound of another arrow flitting through the air reached Az’ria’s ears. It was not moving closer, however. Az’ria smiled, her ploy to divert Evelyn’s attention working splendidly.
Az’ria moved around the tree carefully, away from Brokk and Faeolyn, who had stopped exchanging wooden strokes as the threat of Evelyn’s arrows loomed not too far from them. Instead of risking a glance to her bow-and-arrow-wielding foe, she listened instead. She slowed her breathing and tuned out the various noises of the forest: the rhythmic rustling of the leaves overhead; the sporadic, rapid feet of rodents as they scurried about; the occasional break of a twig. All of these sounds faded into the background as Az’ria focused on one sound: Evelyn’s bow. It made a very peculiar, very unique noise every time Evelyn pulled at the bow-string. A pulling, taut vibration that came seconds before Evelyn released an arrow. It would be the moment Evelyn zeroed in on her target, a small window in which her attention would be too preoccupied to notice an attack.
The moments that passed were long and painfully silent. But there! There was the sound of pulled, flexing wood. It was unmistakable. Accompanying it, however, were the faint sounds of distant footsteps. Az’ria shook her head, sure that she was hearing things, and focused on the task at hand. She only had seconds.
Pinning one of her daggers between her fore finger and thumb, Az’ria stepped from behind her tree, her eyes quickly locating the slender elf before taking aim and throwing her dagger at an unsuspecting Evelyn. She held her breath, but it was no use. Evelyn saw her. Moving with unbelievable speed, she not only dodged the attack, but also aimed her nocked arrow at Az’ria’s head. Using her wings to cut through the air, Az’ria dived for the safety of her tree again, the offending arrow hurtling towards her grazing her cheek as it missed.
Az’ria barely breathed a breath of relief when something hard prodded her neck. Looking up, she found herself at the wrong end of Brokk’s wooden long sword.
“You’re dead,” he stated flatly, his features full of disapproval.
Az’ria hissed in anger. She hated losing. But she hated losing too soon even more.
“Never risk your life on one single move. Always stay on your guard,” he instructed as he pressed his back against the tree, next to Az’ria, gripping his sword defensively in front of him as he spied on Evelyn.
“How am I supposed to keep track of so many people?” Az’ria complained.
“The real world doesn’t care if you’re outnumbered or not, Az’ria. Remember, the enemy will kill you, whether you like it or not,” Brokk advised curtly, throwing her a sharp look before poking his head around the tree. He snapped it back just as an arrow came hurtling from between the trees, its projection a downward slope.
“She’s up in the trees,” Brokk said quietly, his eyes scanning the area around them. “Evelyn is a good adversary.”
“I’ll say,” Az’ria agreed, the sound of faint footsteps registering in her hearing, closer this time. Az’ria immediately perked up, sure she was no longer imagining it.
“Brokk,” she called urgently.
“Shh! he hissed in reply.
Faeolyn suddenly materialized next to Az’ria, her sword pointed at Az’ria’s heart.
“Having a pleasant conversation, are we?” she said, her voice full of triumph.
“I’m already dead,” Az’ria informed her angrily.
“So am I. But even in death, Az’ria, always be on your guard,” Faeolyn said, lowering her voice to mimic Brokk’s as she said the last part.
Above them the branches of countless trees began to ripple violently, as if a powerful gust of wind had unsettled their peaceful swing. Leaves began to rain down on them in a fluttering fury.
“What—” Faeolyn began to say.
“Shh!” Az’ria hissed, moving her head to the right as she tried to get better auditory reception.
“Brokk!” came Evelyn’s sudden call, her voice full of panic as she appeared next to him, having dropped from a branch above them, her features pale.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, looking around the group confusedly as if unsure she should be the only one he directed the question to.
“I hear it,” Faeolyn whispered urgently.
The footsteps were getting louder. They were heavy and unfamiliar, full of sinister stealth, like the sounds of a fox’s steps before he leaps for the attack.
“Intruders,” Az’ria blurted. “Intruders. In the forest.”
In that moment of uncertainty and fearful anticipation, Az’ria and her sisters looked at Brokk, their teacher and leader. It took Brokk only those few, precious moments to determine a course of action.
“Stay calm,” he said firmly, holding their gaze with his fierce one. “You’re going to drop your weapons and follow me to Graybeard. There you will arm yourself with your real weapons and then you will follow me back to the cottage. No one goes ahead, and no one stays behind. We stay together and if the situation calls for it, we fight as a team.” They simply nodded their heads.
Though he did not run, he walked with urgency. A dreadful, ominous feeling began to unfold itself in the middle of Az’ria’s gut as she struggled to keep up. Something terrible was happening. She didn’t need to know what it was to know that it was bad. At the edge of her mind, terrors of her past were lurking, waiting to paralyze her body and mind. Brokk’s simple instructions kept Az’ria’s focus and those horrible memories at bay, however.
With shaking hands, she fished the real, sharp-edged daggers, resting patiently in their sheaths, from the sack of real weapons and waited breathlessly for the others. She noted that Evelyn, who stood next to her as she slung the quiver of pointed arrows over her shoulders, continued to look pale, the honey color of her skin disappearing underneath the seemingly dread that twisted her pointy features into worry. Somehow, the distressed expression on her elven friend’s face made Az’ria feel marginally better. She was not the only one suddenly filled with fear.
“Ready,” Brokk called. It was command, not a question. “Stay close to me.”
Without another word, he began to lead them towards the cottage.
Az’ria was unsure of how long they jogged through the forest, only that quite suddenly, burning wood assaulted her senses. It was closely followed by a single scream that Az’ria recognized as Nadyanelle’s.
There has been a pestering feeling of foreboding tugging at the corners of my mind for some time now. A feeling far too similar to the one I felt on that day.
Given the events that unfolded on that day, I am naturally anxious and afraid of what the next moment may hold for us. The steady flow of the day, without much effect to routine, is slow torture. It is made worse by the inability to decipher what the grievous crisis will be or when it will occur.
Regardless, I try my best to stay calm and appear unperturbed. It is important for the others to continue to believe that all is well. In the time we have spent together, they have inevitably become sensitive to my power of presentiment. I suppose it is no longer a secret, though I have never acknowledged it out loud. I fear that in doing so, their view of me will change.
This morning is no different than the mornings past. I awoke before the sun broke over the horizon and ensured that all is as it should be around the cottage before beginning my usual routine. Brokk had prepared the necessary items and tools needed to teach the older girls weaponry. I thought his sudden decision to teach them two years ago a good idea, both for him and the girls. His reasoning for taking them deep into the forest to train is beyond me, however. I don’t understand why he doesn’t teach them at the small expanse of grassy land outside of the cottage. I’m sure it is no different from the clearing in the woods. Not that he would explain it to me.
He and I have not spoken directly for years now. It occurred perhaps shortly after we moved into the cottage. One day, he simply stopped talking to me. He didn’t need to say why; I knew that he blamed me for his imprisonment in the cottage and the sudden charge of four little girls. It was I who had insisted on his help, after all.
Interestingly enough, our lack of communication relieved us of many awkward moments and conversations. Maybe it was better that way. In all the years we have lived here, I had yet to break that unspoken agreement. Until today.
He and the girls ventured every other day or so deep into the heart of the Dragon Forest. Never had I been compelled before to stop them, even if I didn’t quite agree with Brokk’s choice of location. The old dragon spirits, however, had made an appearance and their sudden appearance was out of the ordinary and far from a coincidence. As a matter of fact, I had been under the impression that the stories of the lingering dragon spirits haunting the Dragon Forest were just that: stories. Apparently, I had been wrong.
Their appearance was both surprising and frightfully mysterious, though that was not what disturbed me the most. It was the fact that I had not sensed their coming. And I was, and still am, frightened by this. Is my gift failing me? Why could I not predict their appearance? These are questions that not only make me doubt my ability to protect the girls, but question if the feeling of foreboding I had been feeling is authentic, or simply a creation of my mind to put my anxiety at ease.
I told Brokk to stay close, and it felt like a necessary thing to do, though I cannot be sure if it was.
I would soon find, however, that my gift had not, in fact, failed me.
Brokk and the older girls left some time ago, and Nadyanelle and I find ourselves in the kitchen, tending to the herbs and vegetation that would serve in today’s meal. Nadyanelle is standing next to me, humming a cheerful melody. I recall, quite randomly, that I had been doing the very same thing exactly seven years ago. Back then, I was in mother’s kitchen. It was a bright place, and not very different from the kitchen at present. On that day, however, I remember looking out the window and seeing an ominous red glow tainting the outside world. It was as if the sun had gone from a shining yellow color to a dark red one. It was that horrifying sight that triggered the violent vision that convulsed my body later. I was forcefully made aware of what was to come and immediately became consumed in fear. And it was that damned fear that kept me from saving my mother as the villagers came and destroyed all that was dear to me. I had barely escaped with my life, but my heart was forever scarred.
It has been a very long time since I had recalled those particular memories. But now, it was as if I had never locked them away.
I realize that my hands are shaking. In front of me, the warm rays of the sun filtering through the small kitchen window are slowly changing into a blood red color. My breath catches. Very slowly I lift my eyes. Before I even see the color, I know that the world will be tainted in red and what will follow will not be preview of horrors to come, but instructions. I steel myself for it, my heart pounding loudly in my ears. I cannot make the same mistake again.
I look out the window. The vision strikes me like a bucket full of ice-cold water.
I have only moments. Yet the red glow renders me immobile. The horrors continue to play in my mind like a villainous, oppressing plague.
“Sam, what’s wrong?”
It’s Nadyanelle. I shut my eyes. The red is like fresh blood, spilling and staining.
I have only moments.
“Nadyanelle,” I call crisply, taking a firm hold of her shoulders after I turn to face her. Nadyanelle stares at me with wide, frightened eyes. My mind is racing. I have to act quickly. And so does Nadyanelle.
“Listen to me carefully. I need you to gather a few things for me. This is very important.”
“Okay,” Nadyanelle says with a vigorous nod of her head, her voice shaking.
“Go upstairs. Grab as many woolen tunics as you can. You know the ones,” I instruct. Nadyanelle nods her head again.
“Good. Then, if you can manage it, grab a blanket. The largest one you can find.”
“Meet me here as fast as you can. Go! Quickly!”
Still nodding her head, the small child turns and quickly runs towards the stairs before bounding up on her hands and feet. She was clumsy at best, but I know she will perform without mishaps. Fear did not dismantle her as it did the others.
I do not waste a moment. I rummage through the cabinets, grabbing as many necessary items as I could and dropping them into a large sack. I duck suddenly as the first arrow shoots through the window, landing its mark on the dining table, its feathered end quaking menacingly as its sharp end burned with fire. Within moments, the table is up in flames.
“Nadyanelle!” I call, hunching over as a series of arrows were quickly following the first. I move cautiously, but with haste, towards the adjoining room as I tie the large sack in my hands to my side. I arrive as Nadyanelle reaches the bottom of the stairs. She lets out a startled, sharp cry when an offending arrow shoots through one of the windows by the fireplace, shattering the glass. The sound of her cry is not loud, but I feel its effects nevertheless. Swaying a bit, I usher her back into the kitchen.
The fire is spreading quickly. The dining table is completely engulfed in flames and the surrounding walls are rapidly following suit. Black smoke swirls around us, making it difficult to breathe.
“Quickly,” I command, pulling her close to me and shielding her with my arms as we hobble over to the large bucket of water I keep near the kitchen basin. Taking the tunics Nadyanelle retrieved, I drop them into the sack before tying it completely shut. I then take the blanket from her hands and plunge it into the bucket of water. Nadyanelle helps me push the rest of the blanket in. The fire around us continues to spread. Nadyanelle lets out another scream when the fire begins to lick at her bare feet.
Standing with my head down, I wrap the wet blanket around her. Fire was her worse enemy, and she would wither in seconds if not protected properly.
“What’s happening?” she practically shrieks, shaking violently under the blanket.
“Just trust me,” I say to her as I steer her towards the kitchen exit.
They are waiting out there, with their arrows and their fire. But Brokk is also out there. He will soon be upon them. I need to move quickly if I want to give Brokk the winning advantage.
Fire lit our exit ablaze. I pause. Kneeling in front of Nadyanelle, I take hold of her shoulders again. Her eyes are wild and her chest heaves with difficulty as she tries to breathe the smoke filled air.
“I can’t breathe,” she rasps desperately.
“I know. Be calm. I will protect you,” I say to her reassuringly. “I need you to listen to me now. When I tell you to, I want you to scream. Do you understand?”
“Don’t question me. Just do as I say. As loud as you can, okay?”
Time is running out.
Nadyanelle nods her head.
Standing again&emdash;the rain of arrows had subsided&emdash;I took the still soaking blanket and wrapped it around my head and back before I wrapped her in it again, pressing her close to me. With an arm securely around her shoulders, I wait. The moment is almost at hand.
“Sam!” Nadyanelle calls, whimpering as the fire draws closer.
Just a few more seconds…
Using all of my strength, I leap sideways, bracing myself for the impact my shoulders will make with the weakened door. As they connect, I shout, “Now!”
The piercing shriek that Nadyanelle lets loose is explosive, to say the least. The destructive waves of her Siren’s Shriek shatter the cracked door at my shoulder, every window of the cottage, and I am sure they dismantle every weapon within a hundred paces. The damages to the body are nearly as debilitating. Even as I fall to the ground with Nadyanelle in my arms, the vibrations enter my ears and wreak havoc both in my body and mind, throwing my body’s equilibrium off balance.
As my shoulder collides with the hard ground, along with the remnant pieces of the kitchen door, the world around me is no longer red, but slowly dimming to a dull black color.
Brokk jogged through the thick expanse of the forest, his eyes alert as they continuously scanned his surroundings. Blood rushed through his veins in a heated race as his heart pounded hard against his chest. A fire was burning through his body, a feeling that he had been very familiar with in his younger years. But it has been a very long time since those honorable days. The peace that settled into his being in the time he has spent in the cottage nearly blotted from his mind the battles of past. In this moment of eminent danger, however, the feeling came surging back, as if it had not been dormant for the past eight years. He felt alert and ready. And he was not afraid.
Something sinister was taking place just beyond the wall of trees ahead of him. He sensed it, felt it in his very bones—and quite suddenly, he was acutely aware of the change of mood of the forest. Evelyn had been right all along.
The cottage finally came into view in the distance, as did the intruders that were already waging their destructive war against it. Through the thinning canopy overhead, Brokk saw the flame-lit arrows sail through the sky and onto the unoffending house. It was made entirely out of wood and thatching, and it went up in flames in seconds. A sharp cry resounded inside. Brokk felt a sharp pang of fear at the thought of Samanthya and Nadyanelle trapped inside.
He ducked behind a tree, motioning the others to follow him. Placing a finger on his lips, he motioned for them to keep quiet. While they were a strong set of young women, they were most likely prone to be vocal at the slaughter of their beloved cottage, and he wanted the element of surprise on their side. They were outnumbered. And time was against them.
A quick glance around the tree revealed three men to their left and four to the right. He recognized the fashion of their dark clothing: thick hoods, leather armor, and twisted blades—they were mercenaries. What were mercenaries doing in the Dragon Forest? More importantly, how did they know about the cottage? It appeared that their target was the cottage. Did they know about the Elements?
Not wanting to waste time pondering these questions, Brokk quickly turned back to the girls. He pointed at Az’ria and Faeolyn before jabbing a thumb towards the three men to the left. They nodded their heads. Brokk then pointed up when he looked at Evelyn. With a quick nod, Evelyn slung her bow across her shoulder and began to climb the tree after Brokk gave her a boost.
Brokk motioned Az’ria and Faeolyn’s attention, having noted their paled faces.
“A quick blow to the temple or the lower abdomen will give you a better advantage,” he whispered to them. Understanding his underlying meaning, they both nodded.
None of them have ever had to experience the feeling of running their blade through a living body, not even Faeolyn, the oldest of the three. It was a traumatizing experience for most, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask that of them. Instead, he offered them an alternative. As he watched them move stealthily towards their targets, he hoped that he had made a wise choice.
He took a quick look above him. Evelyn was in position. Keeping his sword in front of him, he made for the four armor-clad men to the right. A rustling noise above him caused him to pause. He raised his sword just as a hooded figure dropped from the branches overhead, his twisted short sword pointed at Brokk’s head. Steel clashed against steel in a resounding ring. Using the enemy’s momentum against him, Brokk fell back to the ground and kicked the mask-covered mercenary over his head. Brokk quickly leaped to his feet and turned to find that his adversary was just as nimble. Behind him, the other mercenaries were made aware of his presence. Across the clearing, Az’ria and Faeolyn were fighting off more than three foes.
And time was against them.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Springing forward, Brokk swung his sword offensively. Expecting the attack, the mercenary parried it. However, the mercenary did not expect the small dagger coming to his side, through that weak point in the armor where the flesh was vulnerable. As his foe was momentarily paralyzed with shock, Brokk took the opportunity to quickly slit his throat with his sword before turning to the four men that were approaching.
Sputtering, the wounded mercenary fell to the ground with a thump, making the others wary as they circled around Brokk. Three arrows shot successively from above incapacitated three, leaving the last one to quickly react. The knife that flew from his fingers and towards Evelyn’s hiding spot in the tree was too fast, even for Brokk to block.
“Evelyn!” he shouted urgently as he watched it disappear through the leaves above.
Another knife flashed in the mercenary’s hand. It came hurtling towards Brokk’s head.
Before Brokk had time to dodge it, what felt like a powerful wave of destruction suddenly struck from all sides, deflecting the knife rushing towards his face and knocking them all off their feet. As Brokk fell to the ground, his head felt as if it had been hit by a ton of bricks. His thoughts scattered as his perception of his surroundings became utterly distorted.
The Siren’s Shriek. That’s what the men of his unit called it. When a mermaid sang, she lured any and all to the rich sound of her voice. When she screamed, however, her Siren’s Shriek could very well dismantle an entire city. Nadyanelle’s shriek was not as powerful as a true Siren’s Shriek, but it came close.
Given that he was aware of the nature of the attack, he was able to assess their rapidly changing situation before he was well balanced to take action. A glance around him revealed that while all were struggling to regain consciousness, Faeolyn was already on her feet and Evelyn was coming down from her tree. She came to his side, nocked an arrow, and shot the knife-throwing mercenary just as he readied to throw another knife. The arrow ran straight through his heart. Breathing heavily, Evelyn shook Brook’s shoulder forcefully, her fingers digging into his skin.
Shaking his head, Brokk stood as quickly as his mind would allow before taking Evelyn’s arm and bringing her up with him.
“Stay close to me,” he said over his shoulder, positioning his blade in front of him while he gripped his dagger in his other hand. He made his way purposely towards Faeolyn, who was struggling with two men, each wielding torturous looking blades. Coming up behind one, Brokk ran his sword through his midsection before throwing him to the ground, bringing up his dagger to block the offensive attack of the other mercenary. Brokk ducked from a second attack and straightened to parry the mercenary’s third attack. There was a brief window of time in which the mercenary raised his sword high over his head for an overhead attack. Brokk quickly stepped forward and buried his dagger into the man’s side. His eyes wide with shock, the mercenary staggered back before falling to the ground.
Brokk cleaned his dagger and sheathed it before turning to face Faeolyn, who stared at him in seemingly shock. At her feet was another man—dead by the looks of it. Not too far away, Az’ria was on the ground convulsing, Evelyn already by her side.
“She’s sick from the Siren’s Shriek,” Evelyn called shakily.
Brokk scanned the surrounding. Most of the mercenaries were either unconscious or incapacitated. It appeared that Faeolyn only managed to kill one man.
Sheathing his sword, Brokk quickly went to Az’ria, scooped her tiny form into his arms, and quickly made for safer ground, Faeolyn and Evelyn in tow. When he felt they had moved far away from the mercenaries, he placed Az’ria carefully back on the ground.
“Stay with her and don’t put your bow and arrows away,” he commanded Evelyn. “Fae, follow me.”
He turned and began to trot towards the burning cottage, hoping with his entire being that he was not too late for Samanthya and Nadyanelle. As he approached the now blazing kitchen entrance, he saw two figures laying a few paces from the doorway, fire licking at their feet.
Rushing to their side, Brokk was relieved to find that both Samanthya and Nadyanelle were okay with no outstanding wounds. Disentangling Nadyanelle from Samanthya’s arms, he handed her to Faeolyn before gathering Samanthya into his arms. Something clanked noisily by her side. A large sack. Not thinking twice, Brokk carefully placed it over her abdomen before heaving her up.
“Quick!” Brokk called to Faeolyn as they ran from the burning house. They made it to the mouth of the woods before the house fell on itself. Faeolyn turned around at the noise, her face pale and stricken. Brokk did not allow her a moment of mourning, however.
“Move, Fae,” he barked, his curt tone cutting through her momentary shock. Turning, she continued moving forward, Nadyanelle securely in her arms.
“To the worn path, Fae,” he called, motioning her to turn right. The worn path was the only trail leading out of the Dragon Forest and towards the only town in the southern part of the mainland. It had been created by Brokk and Graybeard during their many treks in and out of the forest.
Placing Samanthya down a number of paces into the forest, away and out of sight of the burning cottage, he instructed Faeolyn to stay with her and Nadyanelle until he came back.
Turning, he went to fetch Evelyn. Upon reaching her, he found her with Az’ria gathered in her arms, her bow and arrows discarded.
“What did I tell you?” he practically yelled at her when he reached her.
“She would have been dead, and so would you, should a mercenary have attacked,” he chided her. Her hazel eyes quickly filled with tears as she stared up at him guiltily. Brokk took a deep breath.
“You’re all right. Take Az’ria to the worn path,” he said in a less harsh tone, helping her to her feet.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered shamefully.
“Not now, Evelyn,” he said to her firmly. He felt a twinge of guilt, but ignored it. They needed to escape and they couldn’t do that if the girls were broken down in tears.
Evelyn nodded her head bravely.
“Good girl. Now take Az’ria,” he said as he helped a swaying Az’ria to her feet. Her eyes were rolling in her head and her face was a pasty, greenish pale color. Of course, she would be affected the most by the Siren’s Shriek given her remarkable hearing ability. “Go to the mouth of the worn path. The others will be waiting for you there. Quickly!”
“Where are you going?” she asked as she slung Az’ria’s arm around her shoulder.
“I’m going to get some information. Now go,” he said.
Without further argument, she did as he asked. He waited until she disappeared beyond the trees, before turning his attention to the mercenaries. The live ones were beginning to stir. Arming himself with his dagger, he gave a moment’s thought whether or not he should allow them to live. The answer was clear. If he let them live, they would ruthlessly follow him and the girls and kill them. He couldn’t let that happen. Steeling himself, he finished them off one by one, saving only one, pinned to the ground by one of Evelyn’s arrows, for last.
There was only one group of people in the mainland that surpassed the despicability of the mercenaries and that was the daemons. Mercenaries were men and women that lived only for money—blood money. They profited out of the death of innocent lives and destructions of whole crops, leaving countless families to starve so to give an opposing party the advantage, and double-crossing the allies during the war, all for an extra pouch of money. Before the war, the knights were seeking them out as a large majority of them were making alliances with the daemons. Most of them were eliminated, save for a very few. The men lying around Brokk must be a small fraction of the few survivors.
While most worked alone or in pairs, this group had to be the largest Brokk had ever seen.
When he had taken care of the mercenary’s comrades, Brokk came to the pinned man’s side, flashing him the blood-stained dagger.
“Your friends are all dead. Who sent you?” Brokk asked, his voice deadly quiet.
“I didn’t care for them,” the dying man spat, his scarred face twisting into a smirk.
“Shame. You’ll be joining them soon. Answer my question,” Brokk said, pressing the bloodstained blade to the man’s neck.
“Kill me. If you don’t do it, he will.”
“He will probably be merciful. I won’t be,” Brokk rumbled menacingly. The man sputtered in laughter.
“You don’t know who he is,” he said, a glint of fear flashing in his dark eyes. Brokk was taken aback by this.
Seeming to have noticed Brokk’s hesitation, the man, acting with surprising speed, ripped his arm from the arrow and pulled Brokk’s blade into his own throat. Blood spilled ceaselessly from his neck and onto Brokk’s hand. Brokk pulled his hand away in disgust, shocked by the mercenary’s actions.
Whoever he was, he was intimidating enough to make a man take his own life. Not just any man, but a mercenary, who by definition had no morals, loyalty, or dignity. This felt too much like the work of a daemon.
Brokk inspected the belongings of the fallen men, searching for a clue of their sudden appearance. He found none. Unable to spare the outcome of the ruthless attack another moment, Brokk wiped his hands before making his way back to the others. There were more pressing matters to deal with.
“How are they?” was Brokk’s immediate question to Evelyn and Faeolyn when he reached the small huddle of women a few moments later.
“Samanthya is okay, Nadyanelle is not so well, and I think Az’ria’s coming around,” Evelyn said shakily, holding Nadyanelle in her arms while Faeolyn kept Az’ria seated in an upright position. Samanthya was beginning to stir from her laying position next to Evelyn.
Kneeling next to Az’ria, Brokk studied her features. Her eyes were no longer rolling, but they were still out of focus. The color of her face remained pasty and greenish, however.
“You’re bleeding,” Faeolyn pointed out with surprise, her eyes trained to blood that clung to his hands.
“I’m fine,” he quickly replied, turning to Samanthya, who was now sitting up.
“How are you feeling?” he asked as he helped her up.
“Fine,” she said in a raspy voice. She looked far from fine, and the fact that she was having a hard time breathing indicated that the fire had done more damage than singing her hair.
“The sack,” she rasped, pointing to the rope holding the sack at her side. Brokk quickly loosened it. She rummaged through it for a few moments before pulling out a cracked jar full of what appeared to be roots.
“Eat this,” she said, holding the jar out. She was speaking to everyone. Taking the jar, Evelyn began to distribute its contents around the group. “More for Az’ria,” Samanthya said weakly.
“We should start moving,” Brokk informed her.
“Are you hurt?” she asked him distractedly, reaching for his hand.
“Focus, Sam. We need to move,” he repeated to her, forcing her to look at him. She blinked at him a few times before she understood what he said.
“We need to find food. Where is Graybeard?”
“In the forest somewhere. We’ll call him when we start walking.”
“Can you stand?” he asked her.
“Yes. Nadyanelle is not well. She needs water,” Samanthya said, looking over to the water fae.
“We’ll carry her. There’s a stream not too far from here,” Brokk said, taking a small portion of the root Evelyn handed him. He bit into it. Ginger. For the dizziness.
“Come on.” Taking Samanthya’s arm, he helped her to her feet.
“Where are we going to go?” Evelyn asked helplessly from the ground.
“We’re going to Bertha’s. We’ll be safe there, I promise,” he said to her. She searched his eyes. He understood her need. In this moment of chaos, loss, and hopelessness, she needed reassurance. They all did.
“Come on. Staying here any longer is not safe,” he said quietly, reaching for Nadyanelle.
“How’s Az’ria?” Brokk asked Faeolyn. Faeolyn was as still as a rock, though her eyes were wide and a bit wild.
“What?” she asked distractedly. “Oh, fine, I think. Az’ria? Can you hear me?”
Az’ria appeared to regain some color in her cheeks, though seemed to struggle to focus. She grumbled a weak reply.
“Can you help her walk?” Brokk asked Faeolyn, feeling the need to give the seemingly shocked angel something to do.
“Yeah. No problem,” she said, a bit shrilly if Brokk didn’t know her better.
“Keep your weapon ready,” he reminded her.
The going was slow, but steady. They veered off the path a quarter or so of a league from the cottage to seek out the small stream running west from the cottage. Nadyanelle, who had been struggling to breathe properly since they began their trek, was able to finally submerge herself in her natural element. She regained much of her color and stamina after only a number of submerges. Brokk had to admit that her quick recovery was remarkable. Even her voice was no longer raspy.
Samanthya managed to salvage a pitcher from the cottage, which they filled after they each had enough to drink. The water tasted different, Brokk noted. It somehow filled him with renewed strength and fortitude.
Soon they were making their way back towards the worn path, whistling every once in a while for Graybeard. He faithfully appeared after several calls. His arrival was met with a tearful welcoming. Even Faeolyn participated in showering the mule with affection.
“Samanthya,” Brokk called when the girls were too distracted to listen.
“I know. Food,” she answered. Her voice was less raspy and she no longer looked pale. Instead, her cheeks were rosy red.
“Did you salvage any by chance?” he asked.
“I didn’t need to,” she answered vaguely. He stared at her incredulously.
“What do you mean?” he pressed.
“We’ll find enough,” she said. She made to join the girls. He reached for her wrist to stop her.
“You’ll need to be more specific. It is a week’s walk into town. In three days, they won’t be able to stand,” Brokk felt the need to remind her.
“I know, Brokk,” Samanthya said, her tone sincere. She looked down at his hand clamped around her wrist.
“Sorry,” he apologized, releasing her.
“Let us keep moving,” she said, turning to rally the others.
Dusk was beginning to descend upon them. Brokk decided that they would soon settle down for the evening. They needed their energy, especially after the day’s exhausting and traumatic events. Not to mention the lack of food.
Brokk looked over at Samanthya. They haven’t spoken much in the past few years; he still hadn’t forgiven her for deceiving him. But he was not blind. Something about her was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was an air of certainty, awareness, and knowing about her. This was different from the Samanthya back at the cottage. That Samanthya had been busy, anxious, and wary. He wondered if it had all been an act.
They stopped walking for the evening and took shelter a little ways’ from the path. Brokk made a fire while Samanthya fed the others portions of the bit of food she managed to take from the cottage. She offered some to Brokk.
“Save it for them,” he said as he settled into a sitting position not far from the fire, taking the first watch.
“You won’t be able to protect them if you don’t eat,” Samanthya said simply as she placed the small portion by his side. She then went to the large sack and fished out two smaller ones.
“What are you doing?” he asked curiously.
“Getting food,” she said. She startled him with her answer.
“You’re not going out there, Sam,” he said, not quite believing that she would be so careless as to venture into the forest at this time. “It’s not safe.”
“It’s not far and I won’t be long,” she insisted as she tied one of the sacks to her side.
“Samanthya,” he called curtly, his patience waning. He stood to block her path.
“Trust me, Bratomyr,” she said passively, laying a hand on his shoulder as she looked at him finally. The color of gold flashed in her eyes, as did a fleeting look of confidence that he had never seen before. This and the mention of his real name caused him to pause. “I won’t be long,” she repeated before turning and disappearing into the darkening shadows of the forest.
It was as if she had placed a spell on him. He couldn’t follow or stop her. All he could do was sit and stare after her.
As far as he knew, the fae were the only beings able to wield a power that most humans called magic. Of course, it wasn’t magic. It was a specific ability given to them by the gods for a purpose that only the gods were privy to.
Brokk wondered now if Samanthya was part fae. That may explain the rather entranced feeling he felt.
The moments that passed in her absence were long and torturous. Brokk ate his food quietly as he waited for her. The quiet crunching of leaves alerted him of her return. In each hand she held a sack full of food. From what he could see, it looked like leaves, nuts, berries, and roots. He stood, meaning to confront her. The expression on her face, however, caused him to pause.
“What is it?” he asked automatically, a feeling of foreboding filling his being at the frightened look on her face.
Without waiting for an explanation, Brokk pushed her behind him as he unsheathed his sword and took a defensive stance.
“They’re getting closer,” she whispered anxiously behind him.
“The dragon spirits.”
He could not see them, but he suddenly felt their presence. His knees threatened to buckle under the weight of such colossal spirits. He gripped his sword tightly, lest his fingers threaten to loosen around his only defense. Though, he didn’t think he would have had the strength to wield his weapon. Beads of sweat began to form around his forehead as he stared into the darkness beyond the trees, sure he could see the shadows of grand creatures that towered over the trees themselves.
Just as suddenly as they appeared, however, they were gone. Brokk let out his breath in a whoosh, the energy he expended in holding his ground leaving him weakened.
“I don’t think they mean us harm,” Samanthya said shakily behind him.
“They’re real,” Brokk stated, unsure he himself believed the words that tumbled out of his mouth. Since he was a child, he had been told stories of the dragons that roamed the mainland long ago. Though the dragons departed from the mainland, the spirits of the old dragons lingered. But he had always thought those stories to be myths, stories told to children to keep them from venturing too far. He didn’t think they were real.
A sudden thought struck him.
“Have they been here all along?” he said, turning to face a pale Samanthya.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
There was a moment of silence.
“Should we tell the girls?” Samanthya asked uncertainly.
“No,” Brokk answered firmly. “They don’t need to be frightened further.”
Wiping his brow, he sat on the ground, keeping his sword unsheathed and next to him. He needed a few moments to gather his wits.
“Where did you get the food?” he asked her as an afterthought.
“One of Az’ria’s secret stores.”
When she didn’t move, he turned to her.
“Get some rest. We move before dawn.”
“All right,” she agreed, moving back towards the fire and the temporary camp.
Brokk waited until she finally settled before turning his attention to the darkness before him. He had never minded the dark. It helped settle his mind, as it offered no distractions.
Tonight, however, he felt unsettled by it. For the first time in his life, it seemed to hide mysterious secrets and sinister plots.
It was going to be a very long night.
End of the Road
Evelyn lay awake in the cold ground, huddled close to Nadyanelle, who long ago had succumbed to the sleep Evelyn longed for. Her mind would not allow it, however.
Too many things had occurred, and too many questions burned for an answer. Why were they attacked? Why was their home destroyed?
Why had she been forced to kill?
Evelyn had never had to take a life before. Brokk once said that taking a life was never an easy choice to make. It haunted the dreams of many brave men. He said that in a world ravished by war, it was inevitable to do so. But he never told them how to rid one’s mind of the haunting images. Evelyn closed her eyes, and in the darkness behind her lids she saw their masked faces, eyes wide with surprise, and blood that would not cease from spilling. Dead and never living again. Like her parents.
Evelyn opened her eyes wide, afraid to close them. She moved closer to Nadyanelle, the need to feel something warm, something alive, too great to ignore.
It was a very long time later that Samanthya and Brokk were stirring them awake. As Evelyn lifted herself to a sitting position with difficulty, she realized just how exhausted she was. Before her, Samanthya placed a large leaf full of nuts, fruits, and leaves. It was a meal that Evelyn was used to. She vaguely wondered where it came from.
“Are you all right?” Nadyanelle asked next to her.
“Yes, Nadya. Eat,” Evelyn said encouragingly.
Across from her Faeolyn was sitting crossed legged next to Az’ria, who finally seemed to have recovered from her dizziness, though she still seemed a little out of it. She was staring confusedly at the leaf before her.
“Don’t take too long,” Brokk said above them. “We leave as soon as you’re done.”
He was packing their supplies as Samanthya fed Graybeard handfuls of horse feed.
Evelyn finished her food, noting with surprise how hungry she was. She lifted her eyes after she had eaten the rather nutritious leaf her food had been served on to find Faeolyn staring at her. Her brows were knitted in seemingly worry.
“What?” Evelyn asked.
“Are you okay?” Faeolyn asked.
Not wanting to attract more attention to herself, she stood and began to help Brokk.
The trek through the path leading to End of the Road was long and mostly uneventful. Az’ria, it turns out, could not remember much after being incapacitated by Nadyanelle’s Siren’s Shriek. Evelyn thought Az’ria was fortunate for this. She didn’t know if the little drakonian was able to kill any of the mercenaries, but not being able to remember was better than being plagued with the remorse of having done so. She wondered then if Faeolyn felt remorseful. She looked well. While her features remained somewhat pale, she seemed observant and alert. Evelyn, on the other hand, was succumbing to an overall numb feeling, which she welcomed.
They stopped once to eat a light dinner before moving on again. At dusk, they stopped for the night. Though the trek to End of the Road was sudden and a break from the life they lived in the cottage, there was a smooth transition between that life and the life they were now living on the road. Everyone seemed aware of the need to collaborate and, without complaint or fuss, all volunteered valuable services in putting up camp, making a fire, and making a suitable resting place on the ground.
Evelyn paired with Samanthya in boiling together specific herbs and plants—most of which she managed to salvage from the cottage—that would help each of them keep their stamina and strength. Samanthya had often made such concoctions for Evelyn, Faeolyn, and Az’ria during their first couple of weeks of training with Brokk.
The next two days followed in the same manner. Breakfast before dawn, dinner a little after midday, and stopping for the night a little after dusk. Not much was said or discussed. It seemed that all were too preoccupied with their own thoughts, losses, and sadness.
The days began to blur into one another as Evelyn continued to have sleepless nights. Her body was exhausted, but she was too afraid of what she would see if she closed her eyes. The death of her parents was coming back to her in vivid detail. Their faces had been no different from the mercenaries’ as life had slipped from their bodies.
Evelyn soon came to find that the wakeful hours would eventually cease to be free of those horrifying images.
During her time with Anemone, Faeolyn had spent many days traveling in open, forested, and rocky lands that expanded for miles. Though they flew half of the time, they did spend a fair amount of time on the ground. In time, she grew accustomed to long treks. The journey to End of the Road was no different. She adapted to the change much quicker than the others, with the exception of perhaps Brokk, who seemed to be adaptable to any situation, even one filled with nine deadly mercenaries, their twisted knives sharpened to kill.
She glanced at him now, leading Graybeard through the worn path, his eyes searching, always searching. He was different now. Changed. The attack on the cottage seemed to bring the real Brokk out of the stupor he’s been in for the past six years. Faeolyn has never seen a warrior move the way he had, not even a knight. In the middle of her sword fight, Brokk had come sweeping in, like a hawk, putting the enemy down. And it was no butchery, either. It was stealth, grace, and a swiftness that was nearly out of sight.
The new man that suddenly emerged in Brokk did not scare her, but gave her a profound sense of security. He had proven himself a worthy leader.
While the threat of further attacks no longer worried her, especially when they had Brokk by their side, there were other issues that made her wary. The war had taught her to keep her emotions in check, especially in times of danger. Danger, however, was no longer imminent and feelings of sadness, rage, and—worse yet—fear loomed at the edge of her mind. One moment of vulnerability was all that she needed to become consumed by the debilitating emotions.
And that was not the worst of it.
Something was following them. It lingered just out of sight, taking shelter in the shadows, in the darkness that seemed to press down on them the moment the sun departed over the horizon. She had sensed its presence long before they set out towards End of the Road Town. At first, she thought it was the intruders, but she later found that it was something bigger than the intruders, something vast and majestic. The others did not seem to sense its presence.
Apparently it was not malignant, as it did not attack. The fact that it did not make an appearance, however, made Faeolyn uneasy.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, another situation much closer to home was also beginning to develop. Az’ria—whose slow recovery from Nadyanelle’s Siren’s Shriek had surprised all of them—ws beginning to remember the events that followed the Siren’s Shriek. It was dawning on her that the safe refuge she had found in the cottage was utterly destroyed. As the group’s only captured fae, having endured who knew what kinds of torture at the hands of the daemons, this realization was more paramount on her small being than it was to the others. She pushed the others away and isolated herself, a reaction Faeolyn did not think was entirely healthy.
Az’ria did not worry Faeolyn as much as Evelyn did, however. Evelyn was not sleeping. And she was not talking to Faeolyn. In times of distress, Evelyn always talked to Faeolyn. Her refusal to do so worried Faeolyn, though it should have served as a warning. The lack of sleep eventually took its toll five days after the attack in the form of hallucinations. She gave all of them a fright when she screamed a piercing screech, claiming to have seen a mercenary in the forest. A scout around the area revealed that the forest was intact. When Evelyn continued chattering about mercenaries and daemons, Faeolyn knew that her dear friend was not right.
“There’s nothing in the woods, Evey,” Faeolyn said soothingly to the usually level-headed elf as she took hold of her shaking shoulders.
“They’re there. They’re in the darkness, Fae,” Evelyn cried, her features distraught.
“No, they’re not,” Faeolyn insisted.
“They’re there when I close my eyes. Their faces… oh gods, their faces. They won’t go away. I can see them. Dead. All of them. And it’s my fault. Why won’t they go away, Fae? Why did I have to kill them?”
Tears cascaded down her face. Faeolyn wrapped her arms around the smaller girl’s shoulders, lost for words. Brokk stood a few paces away, a deep frown knitting his brows together. His eyes gave way to his guilt, however.
“Let’s make camp,” Samanthya said behind her.
She cooked them all a hot meal of porridge. To Evelyn, she gave a steaming soup of herbs that would help her succumb to a dreamless sleep. Not wanting to leave her friend alone, Faeolyn kept her arms firmly around Evelyn’s shoulders.
As Evelyn fell fretfully into a peaceful slumber, Faeolyn finally understood what Evelyn had meant when she said they were sisters. They were bound. They all were—Evelyn, Faeolyn, Az’ria, and Nadyanelle. Not just by the time they spent together at the cottage, but by their common pasts. Their circumstances differed, but they had all experienced the consequences of Za’aras’ war.
Faeolyn looked at each of them in turn; Nadyanelle huddling close to Evelyn, wrapping her moist hands around Evelyn’s, and Az’ria, secluded in her spot by the fire, her golden eyes wide and confused, staring at Faeolyn, searching for answers to the questions she didn’t know how to ask. In this time of turmoil, confusion, and defeat, they needed each other.
Six days and two hundred and seventy-two paces. That’s how far along the path they were so far. Az’ria was exhausted. Too much had happened. And too much time to think about it made it more confusing.
One thing she knew for sure, however, was that the forest had betrayed them. It let something unfamiliar in. And now all that she had thought was safe clearly no longer was.
Strangely, she did not feel alone. The others were with her. She kept them away, but she certainly couldn’t ignore them. Samanthya continued caring for them, and Brokk continued protecting them. Even Faeolyn ensured that she was eating and sleeping. This too had been too much to process, but a warm feeling had somehow made its way into the middle of her chest. Suddenly, she did not want to be far from them. They somehow recreated the feeling of security that Az’ria had previously connected with the cottage. And while the forest continued to betray them, she felt certain that it could not penetrate the security, the bond that they now shared.
That is, until Evelyn broke.
She was currently riding on Graybeard, sleeping. Nadyanelle, who was probably closest to Evelyn, kept by her side, her hand firmly clamped around Evelyn’s.
The group walked silently, the sound of Graybeard’s hoof beats echoing softly around them. Az’ria glanced at Evelyn every once in a while, wishing to ignore the thought that the gentle elf was not right, but unable to. Evelyn’s torment was worse than a flesh wound. It was as if a poison had wound its way into her mind, a poison that they could not touch, could not cure.
Az’ria stared at the woods around her angrily, sure that the treacherous forest was to blame. All this time, it was only luring them into a false sense of security. She tried keeping count of her footsteps, but her building anger kept her from do so.
“Let’s stop,” Brokk announced, turning from the path and leading them a little ways’ into the woods. Like in the days past, the group moved systematically as they set up camp.
Az’ria moved away from the others, sitting close to the small fire Brokk started as she nibbled at the end of a root, her eyes darting around her surroundings, no longer trusting of it. A movement, just past the tree to her left, caught Az’ria’s attention. She paused, training her eyes and her ears toward the noise it made. It was a few moments before the culprit made its appearance. It was a squirrel. But not just any squirrel. A squirrel with a permanent parting on its bushy tail.
Like oil over a burning fire, rage suddenly erupted inside her gut. That squirrel had been the first traitor, the first sign of the forest’s deception.
Without a second thought, Az’ria leaped from her sitting position and bounded towards the squirrel. Seeming to sense the impending threat to its life, the squirrel jolted from its grazing spot and careened away from her, flitting past trees and bouncing off roots.
“Az’ria!” Brokk called behind her. She ignored him. He wouldn’t understand.
The squirrel made several attempts to climb into the safety of a tree, but like a hungry hound chasing prey, Az’ria was upon the squirrel, grabbing and clawing its hindquarters, stripping it of its retreat, making it bound back to the ground. Each time, she came closer to sinking her claws into its twitching, erratic body.
She lurched forward one more time, her curled fingers inches from the traitor, when the weight of a heavy body suddenly tackled her to the ground. They rolled on the ground several times before Az’ria fell into the right position to kick whoever it was off of her. Leaping to her hands and feet, she reached around to her back, where she kept a sharp dagger secured under her hemp belt, as she faced her enemy. She was surprised to find Faeolyn crouching several paces away from her.
“What are you doing?” Az’ria spat at the older girl.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Faeolyn said as she straightened to her full height, her features full of disapproval as she looked down at Az’ria.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Az’ria screamed as she stood her full height. There was a mix of emotions swelling inside her, most of which she simply did not understand. Faeolyn’s condescending attitude only made it worse.
“You fled the group, Zee. You put yourself, us, in danger. How am I not supposed to be angry, hmm?” Faeolyn asked calmly as she moved closer.
“What do you care?” Az’ria accused.
“I do care. We all do. If we didn’t, we would have let you die.”
Az’ria felt more confused now than she did before. Faeolyn was talking about the past. Before the cottage. Az’ria had been starving and dying. Samanthya had saved her. She had come for her. Evelyn was there too. And so was Faeolyn.
“You don’t understand,” Az’ria insisted. “I was doing it for Evelyn. He was the first—the first to betray us. The forest betrayed us.”
Something shifted in Faeolyn’s expression, something in her eyes. But it was quickly replaced by a hardened expression, one that Az’ria was not too familiar with.
“The forest did not betray us, Zee,” Faeolyn said evenly. “Man did. Man and his selfish greed. Don’t you forget that.”
Faeolyn was practically upon her, but that was not what made Az’ria take an involuntary step back. It was the hate that darkened Faeolyn’s bright blue eyes.
A noise to their right broke the momentary suspense between them.
“What was that?” Faeolyn asked Az’ria.
It had been faint, but clearly audible. Though still, Az’ria couldn’t tell what it was.
“I don’t know,” she informed the angel, their arms touching as they stood side by side, listening, watching.
“We should get back,” Faeolyn suggested.
Wordlessly, Az’ria started backing up.
The noise came again, louder and distinctive this time. It was a whisper.
“Ghosts,” Az’ria exclaimed, remembering the incident outside the cottage not too long ago. She also remembered that Samanthya said they did not mean any harm.
“Don’t be such a ninny, Zee,” Faeolyn scoffed, though her tone was strained. “There’s no such thing.”
Az’ria was about to retort when she saw the faint glimmer of what appeared to be a mist. Except it wasn’t.
Next to her, Faeolyn gasped
“What?” Az’ria demanded.
“They’re real…” Faeolyn whispered in surprise. Her eyes were wide and staring, her mouth opened into a small “O” as her face suddenly went deathly pale.
“What?” Az’ria repeated, her heart pounding loudly at Faeolyn’s reaction. Despite all of her failings, Faeolyn was a hardened fae. She was not one to be easily spooked.
Quite suddenly, Az’ria felt a presence of such magnitude, her knees nearly buckled underneath her.
“Don’t you see it?” Faeolyn whispered urgently next to her.
“See what?” Az’ria whispered back, her voice shrill. “The mist?”
“Do not be afraid,” a voice suddenly called from beyond the mist. It was deep and filled with a wisdom that felt to have transcended time itself.
As her hands began to sweat and shake, her heart pounding against her ribs, Az’ria thought the request was rather redundant.
“How is it that I can see you and she cannot?” Faeolyn asked loudly, her voice shaking slightly.
“You have the power to see those that have passed on,” came the rumbling voice.
For a few brief moments, Az’ria was almost sure she saw a brief outline of a massive dragon, its head nearly towering over them, just under the high canopy overhead. Twin lights of green flickered where she guessed the eyes should be. Behind it, other twin colors of light flickered: blue, yellow, green, and white. It dawned upon Az’ria then that they were practically surrounded by an army of ghost dragons.
The leaves rustled above. The dragon with the green eyes moved. As Az’ria watched, she realized with apprehension that it was approaching her.
“The forest has not betrayed you or the others,” the green-eyed dragon said, lowering its head until Az’ria saw its flickering green eyes twinkle in front of her.
“It was our failure to protect you. And for that, we are deeply sorry.”
Words failed her.
“Why are you protecting us?” Faeolyn asked next to her.
The green-eyed dragon lingered in front of Az’ria for a few moments. Az’ria felt his guilt emanating from its misty body, and for the first time in a very long time, she felt the sting of tears in her eyes. He lifted his head finally, releasing Az’ria from its remorseful gaze, turning towards Faeolyn.
“You and your sisters are our last hope,” the dragon said, a note of urgency in his tone. Az’ria started at the word “sisters.” Evelyn said they were sisters. Did she know something the others did not?
“What do you mean?” Faeolyn asked confusedly.
“The fate of the world rests in your hands.”
“What?” Az’ria exclaimed.
She received no answer. With a pang of dismay, Az’ria noted that the dragons were moving away. All too soon, she could not even see a glimmer of the mist that had surrounded them.
Footsteps sounded behind them. Az’ria and Faeolyn turned simultaneously to find Brokk breaking into the clearing, his sword poised in front of him and a deep scowl knotting his brows together.
“Who were you talking to?” was his immediate question as he came to stand before them, his eyes scanning their surroundings.
“No one,” Faeolyn answered plainly. Brokk gave her a sharp look. Faeolyn, however, was looking at Az’ria. She had a bewildered, almost fearful, look on her face, one that Az’ria was sure was mirrored on her own face.
“We should head back,” Faeolyn suggested. Brokk hesitated as he looked back and forth between Az’ria and Faeolyn, as if knowing that something was transpiring between them.
“Fine,” Brokk said after a while, lowering his weapon. He turned to give Az’ria a piercing look.
“I know,” Az’ria said, frowning. “I’m sorry.”
She made to move ahead, but stopped when Brokk touched his fingers to her shoulder.
“Faeolyn leads. You stay in the middle,” he commanded, his dark eyes unforgiving. Az’ria’s frown turned to a scowl, though she was unsure of why she was suddenly angry.
They reached the rest of the group a number of paces later. Nadyanelle was in tears and Samanthya was beside herself with worry, scolding, for the first time, both Az’ria and Faeolyn. That did not surprise Az’ria as much as finding that Evelyn was wide awake, a seemingly hint of knowing twinkling in her hazel green eyes.
“You’re awake,” Faeolyn commented lightly to the elf. “How do you feel?”
“Terrible,” Evelyn answered.
“You look terrible. You should try getting scolded by Samanthya. I’m sure the surprise itself will make you feel better,” Faeolyn commented with a smirk.
“This is not a laughing matter,” Brokk informed her angrily.
“I’m not laughing, Brokk,” Faeolyn said.
“What happened back there?” he asked. Az’ria paused from making her way to a secluded spot, not having felt in the least bit better by Samanthya’s scolding.
Faeolyn glanced at Az’ria. An understanding passed between them, the first in all the time they’ve known each other. What the dragon spirits had said was meant for their ears only. Not Brokk’s or Samanthya’s.
“Nothing particularly interesting,” Faeolyn said after tearing her eyes from Az’ria’s.
Brokk’s features were skeptical.
“Are you sure?” he insisted.
“Az’ria?” Faeolyn intoned.
“Nothing,” Az’ria replied.
Brokk was silent for a few moments before he spoke.
“No more running off into the woods. You should all know by now that it’s dangerous. We pack and start moving as soon as possible.”
There were too many questions bubbling in Az’ria’s mind. Questions she couldn’t answer. Brokk’s commanding tone was not making it any better. She hissed at him as she passed by him, eliciting a rather surprised look on his face.
Nadyanelle pushed a few wisps of hair from her face with her webbed fingers, pulling them back into her hair. She noted that her hair was dry. Looking down at her hands, she found the skin over her fingers wrinkled and cracked. Most eminent was the fact that they, too, were dry. Her skin was never dry. This was the nature of her mermaid blood.
She was dehydrating.
She gripped Graybeard’s reins tightly, carefully treading the ground under her woolen clad feet. Given her clumsy nature, she bruised her toes and feet during the first few hours walking through the worn path leading out of the Dragon Forest and to End of the Road. The woolen tunics she had snatched before the cottage burned down were used to make her makeshifts boots, tied with twine. They felt strange, but were soft against her battered feet and a guard against the sharp rocks littering the path.
They had emerged from the forest a number of paces ago and were currently traveling stealthily through the open land, the towering wall that surrounded End of the Road visible across the horizon. It was a relief to finally see the infamous town. They had run out of water just the night before and food was running low. They had also run out of feed for Graybeard and the old mule was starting to stagger along.
Evelyn, who had long since recovered from that awful bout of distress, was walking alongside her. She brushed a hand through Nadyanelle’s hair. Nadyanelle smiled up at her encouragingly, not wanting to worry the gentle elf by showing just how fatigued she felt. Evelyn smiled weakly back at her, her features pale and her lips chapped.
“We’ll be there soon, Nadya,” Evelyn said quietly.
“I know,” Nadyanelle said, her voice slightly raspy.
“We stop here,” came Brokk’s hard voice from up ahead. As he turned to face them, Nadyanelle thought the circles around his eyes seemed darker, accented painfully by the thick hairs of his growing beard. He looked no better than the rest of them.
“The entrance to town is only a few more paces up ahead,” Faeolyn argued. “Why not just keep going until we get there?”
“I don’t want to attract attention,” he answered, pulling Graybeard to the side of the path and relieving him of the various sacks tied to his saddle.
“So, what? We’re going to sneak in? There’re guards at the gate,” Faeolyn pointed out.
“Fae are not common in town at this time of year,” Brokk explained, setting down the sacks in a neat pile. “Angels are not common at all in these parts. How do you think the people will react when they see you, Fae?” Brokk argued, giving her a long, hard look.
“Oh.” The look of defeat on Faeolyn’s face was made more pronounced by her exhaustion.
“We need cover,” Brokk said, his tone gentler. “I’ll go into town, borrow Bertha’s wagon, and come back with blankets and some water.”
He fished out Faeolyn’s long sword from one of the sacks. She had long ago put it away, its weight having made the journey harder for her. Brokk handed her the sword.
“I’m leaving you in charge. I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said to her.
“All right,” Faeolyn said, taking her sword.
Brokk went back to the sack, taking out a set of small blades. He handed one to Nadyanelle and another to Samanthya.
“You shouldn’t be without defense,” he said simply.
Nadyanelle wrapped her fingers around the small dagger, its hilt feeling oddly out of place in her grip. She had never wielded a weapon before.
Before he could return to the sacks, Evelyn had pulled out her bow and quiver of arrows. She slung the quiver over her shoulders before she turned to face Brokk. She gave him a small nod when he looked at her questioningly.
Brokk secured his long sword over his shoulder before turning to face the group.
“Stay together. If you see anyone, don’t give them the chance to find you. Move from here. Go back to the forest, if need be. I’ll find you.”
He looked gravely at them, his eyes lingering on Samanthya.
“I’ll be back soon.”
Taking Graybeard’s reins, Brokk made to return to the path.
“Wait!” Samanthya called suddenly. She walked purposefully towards Brokk, her hands pulling a string that was draped around her neck. From under her woolen dress, she pulled out a small leather pouch, its contents clinking metallically. Upon reaching Brokk, she dropped the pouch into his hands.
“From before we met,” she said, looking down at his hand, as if unable to look him in the eye. “Just in case.”
Brokk’s gaze lingered on Samanthya, his eyes searching her face, before he secured the pouch to his side.
With one last look at the group, Brokk turned to finish the last few paces of the journey.
The hours that followed were long and agonizing. Nadyanelle started at any noise around them and was beginning to see shapes in the horizon. She sat next to Az’ria, who, since taking a seat on the hard ground with her daggers firmly in her hands, as if ready to strike, sat as still as a rock.
“Wha—” Nadyanelle began to ask Az’ria, but was quickly silenced by Az’ria’s sharp hiss.
“Okay,” Nadyanelle whispered cautiously.
Nadyanelle began to pick at the chipping skin on her hand when Az’ria suddenly stirred next to her. The next moment, the little drakonian was on her feet, staring across the horizon, towards End of the Road Town. Seeming to trust that Az’ria had heard Brokk’s approach, the others stood, too.
It was several long moments before his dark figure, silhouetted by the setting sun, appeared, a wooden wagon trailing behind the horse he was leading. And it was a horse, not their mule, Graybeard.
“What the blazes took you so long?” was Faeolyn’s immediate demand when he finally reached them.
“Be quiet and get in,” Brokk replied testily before turning to Samanthya.
“We’re fine,” she said before he asked any questions.
The girls walked around to the back of the wagon. Inside they found a large pile of blankets, several jugs of water, and a small sack full of…
“Turnips,” Evelyn stated as she looked into the sack. Az’ria plucked one from the overstuffed bag and eyed it suspiciously.
“They’re not bad,” Nadyanelle said encouragingly. “Right?”
“Excuse me,” Faeolyn said, reaching past Nadyanelle, taking one and biting into the vegetable hungrily.
“Get in,” Brokk said. “And cover yourselves with the blankets. Az’ria, you should change into your human form.”
Az’ria morphed into her human form, her wings retreating into her back as her bright red hair dulled into a dark brown color, before following Nadyanelle and the others into the back of the wagon. Nadyanelle instantly reached for a jug of water and began drinking from it. The liquid ran smooth and cool down her throat and into her empty stomach. She continued drinking, allowing the water to spill down the sides of her mouth and down her skin, the feeling almost refreshing.
“You should get in too, Sam,” Brokk told Samanthya quietly.
“I didn’t know Bertha had another horse,” Evelyn commented, passing a jug of water to Az’ria.
“She doesn’t. Now, don’t make a sound as we go into town. I don’t want to attract unwanted attention, understand?”
“Whose horse is it, then?” Faeolyn asked.
“Hush and do as you’re told,” Samanthya said as she wrapped Nadyanelle in a thick and warm blanket.
“Fine,” Faeolyn said, burrowing herself under another thick blanket, her white wings neatly tucked inside.
Before long, the wagon began moving.
Nadyanelle moved close to Evelyn, in need of some sort of contact. Exhaustion was taking its toll; soon her eyes became too heavy to hold open. She thought briefly of the cottage and whether or not she would miss it. The cottage was not as meaningful to her as being close to the others was. She would certainly miss the life they all had there. Everything would change now. She wondered where they would go. Surely, they were not going to separate. She felt a pang of fear at the thought. This was more frightening to her than having been nearly burned to death.
She wrapped an arm around Evelyn’s elbow, as if that would somehow ensure that they would not be separated, and stared worriedly out the wagon’s small opening, uncertainty of the future keeping her wide awake as they passed uneventfully through End of the Road’s gates.