Batuhan pressed his body up against the cellar door and pushed harder. This time, whatever was on the other side gave way and the door slid open.
There was a solid thud as it hit the pavement and then a ringing clang as it rolled into something metallic.
Before he could look to see what it was, a cloud of smoke rolled in through the opening and filled his nostrils causing a fit of coughing.
The young engineer quickly closed the door until he stopped coughing. He glanced back at the three, dark screens where he had been participating in an online meeting just a few minutes before. No lights indicated that he still had no power.
He brushed the soot off his once-white jacket and pulled it up around his nose before pushing the heavy iron door back open. He could see the large dent in the door where the chunk of something heavy had landed.
He looked down at the ground to see large chunks of concrete and twisted metal scattered around the exterior entrance of his basement.
Batuhan stepped carefully over and around the rubble toward the street. The eerie sound of silence seemed almost deafening in the wake of the blast. His ears still rang from the sound of the explosion.
For a split second, the young, twenty-two-year-old wondered if he had gone deaf. But the sound of gravel crunching under his black loafers caused him to sigh in relief. At least he hadn’t lost his hearing.
An acrid, metallic scent filled his nostrils with each breath. A foul, almost bitter odor mixed with the familiar smell of gunpowder.
Batuhan pulled the jacket away from his nose for a better whiff. Without the jacket to filter the smoke and stench, the young fellow almost gagged.
He stopped breathing long enough to spit out the foul taste it left in his mouth before covering his nose again.
He reached the main road that led to the center of the compound. It too was covered with rubble and debris.
The sight before him was so staggering that he dropped the jacket covering his nose and gaped at the apocalyptic scene that met his gaze.
A gaping black hole was all that remained of the huge factory that employed most of the citizens of his town. Batuhan had worked there himself a few summers during his high school years, and even while working his way through college.
He had only quit working there two short weeks ago, after getting a new job with one of their competitors that allowed him to work remotely from the home office he had set up in his parent’s basement.
Fortunately, his parents had been out of town visiting his sister for the week. He pulled out his phone to let them know that he was okay, but there was no signal.
He took a few pictures and videos to document the destruction that surrounded him. Then continued to stand there in a daze, unsure of what to do next.
The entire factory and surrounding warehouses had completely disappeared. And in their place lay a black hole encircled by firey orange lines that seemed to have swallowed up the buildings
Batuhan couldn’t get over how perfectly aligned they were, and there seemed to be some strange etchings or runes written in flames. Although he had no idea what they meant.
Flames had spread to other buildings in the surrounding area, and gray smoke rose from the destructive fires that consumed the city into the sky, blocking out most of the light from the setting sun.
The giant orange orb lay on the horizon opposite Batuhan as if in the same stupor as he. Still trying to understand what had taken place before it dipped under the horizon and lost sight of the scene.
Batuhan looked around for someone, anyone he could ask what had happened. But there wasn’t a single soul to be seen.
Surely someone besides himself had survived. Other homes in the city had basements. It’s not like the blast could have annihilated everyone he ever knew and loved.
As he turned to scan the area immediately surrounding him for survivors, Batuhan was struck by the fact that even the buildings this far up the road had been destroyed by the blast.
“Hello!” he shouted into the smoky stillness. “Is anyone out there? Does anyone need help?”
Batuhan turned his back on the bottomless pit that seemed to have swallowed up every last soul in the city. As he walked back past the home where he had grown up, Batuhan noticed the entire second floor was completely gone.
He opened the garage door and started his car. But as Batuhan pulled out, he realized that he wouldn’t make it very far. There was too much rubble for his tiny electric car to get around.
His confusion gave way to anger at whoever or whatever had caused this. As he focused his attention on imagining who or what could have caused this amount of destruction, Batuhan’s imagination began to run wild.
Anger quickly gave way to fear as sunlight faded and darkness began to fall.
Batuhan walked back down the road toward the outskirts of town, looking for a house that hadn’t been destroyed in the blast or a vehicle far enough past the debris that he could leave town.
He eventually found a house at the edge of the city that hadn’t been wiped out, but no one was around. Bathuhan found the keys to an oversized, gray 4×4 on the counter that allowed him to make it out of the city where the roads were clear.
Several hours later, he came to another large city. But again, all he could see was smoke rising into the night sky. Lit up by the flames from buildings that were still burning. The familiar orange circles and sigils surrounding a large black crater from where the destruction had emanated.
Batuhan drove through the night, coming upon city after city with the same familiar scene. Here and there, he chanced upon a survivor like himself. He stopped to chat briefly, but none of them knew any more than he did.
Smaller towns had been spared the circular obliteration. Panicked seized the townspeople when he told them what was going on and showed them videos. Most fled the town and fled for the hills.
But Batuhan was exhausted after a long night of searching for answers. He finally gave up and crashed in a small hotel. Batuhan paid extra and convinced the night manager to let him set up a small cot in the basement where he crashed and dreamt of strange creatures arising from the strange holes in each city to overrun the land.
Txomin entered the ring of swords and paused to look around at the spectators. A feeling of helplessness washed over him as he realized what was about to happen. This was the end. It was his end.
He wanted to turn and run. Like he had done the last time. But there had been nowhere to run to. And after catching him, they beat him within an inch of his life for the second time.
That had been almost two months ago. He had healed enough to be brought back into the ring of death.
The once valiant warrior had survived many battles. But after his valley and been attacked and overcome by the Vrazers.
He had fought bravely by the side of his fellow comrades, but it had been futile. One by one, Txomin watched them fall around him.
Not a single Vrazar had been killed in the battle. In fact, Txomin had later tried to wrack his brain to remember if he had seen any of them sustain a single wound. But he couldn’t remember seeing them be hurt in the battle.
Txomin looked around at the masked faces watching him in total silence. The only sound was that of the wind picking up and whipping his hair around his ears and the rustle of leaves around his knees.
The last time they had brought him here, he had been one of the last gladiators to enter the ring. The grass and flowers had been crushed under the struggle and fight for the survival of those who had fought and died before him.
As soon as they had released his chains and placed a sword in his hands, Txomin had sprinted for the woods. But they were faster. Faster than any mortal being had a right to be.
He tried to remember seeing them run. How had they surrounded him so quickly? He didn’t even remember them moving. They had encircled the ring of swords, and then they were encircling him.
The only thing that kept him from running again was the memory of the cruel beating he had endured after. Having died in the ring would have been a more pleasant experience than what they had put him through.
The Vrazsars were silent, cruel, and meticulous throughout his beating. He didn’t remember how long he had suffered under their punishment. It felt like forever.
Txomin felt like they had an uncanny ability to sense just how much he could take before passing out. They kept him conscious throughout most of it. But the relief of finally losing consciousness was the sweetest thing that had ever happened to him.
The Vrazsar in charge of the battles stepped forward and raised his arms toward the sky as if waiting for the others to cheer. But they remained silent. They raised their hands in unison with the being at Txomin’s side.
They stood there with their arms raised to the sky for a good thirty seconds. Txomin thought about making a run for the woods again. But he knew he wouldn’t make it. They would simply catch him again, and punish him like the last time.
Had that been why they had brought him out first this time?
He ignored the dreadful Vrazsars holding their hands to the sky as if in worship to some unseen being to whom they sacrificed these poor gladiators.
Instead, he focused on the beauty of his surroundings. The petals on the flowers before him that would soon be crushed under the feet of bloody warriors struggling to survive.
It seemed almost surreal to see the flowers having regrown and bloomed again so beautifully after the death and carnage they had witnessed only a few short weeks ago.
Yet, here they were. In full bloom again, as if nothing had ever happened to them or their kind.
Txomin wondered if humans could be like that. Would they ever overcome the Vrazars and flourish again? It hadn’t been that long ago that they even knew of the Vrazsars existence.
They had simply come out of nowhere and begun to overrun the land with their deadly armies if they could even be called armies. They were more like a small band of grim reapers that crossed the continent, consuming whoever stood in their way.
Maybe someday, a warrior would rise up who could face them and match their strength to defeat them and restore peace to the land once again.
Txomin looked back at the rest of the gladiators behind him. Most of them had no idea what to expect. Still unaware of the fact they would soon face each other to the death.
The Vrazsar soon lowered the hands in the fateful silence. The tall, masked being beside him, undid his chains and handed him a sword.
The muscular, burly man rubbed his chafed wrists, locking eyes with his captor. They had done their worse to him two months ago when they had beaten him almost to death.
He no longer feared them. He hated them. That was the feeling that swept over his body as he took the weapon his captor held out. Rage roiled through his body as he schemed a way to get out of this mess.
Txomin and his fellow humans had been unable to wound or kill these creatures. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember ever actually attacking one of these creatures.
A vague recollection of their battle pushed its way back into his memory. Only this time, it seemed that his fellow warrior had never attacked the Vrazsars at all.
Flashes of memory and visions of the battle seemed to indicate that he had his fellow fighters had slaughtered each other.
Was that how he had survived? Had he been the one to kill his friends and family? Had the Vrazsars merely looked on as they struck each other down on the field, just as they were doing here with the gladiators?
The idea that the Vrazsars weren’t so untouchable flashed through his mind. As the large, dark figure before him turned to hand a second sword to his opponent, Txomin shifted subtly and prepared to attack.
He lunged and brought up the point of the sword towards the Vrazsars heart and pressed his body forward into the dark fiend’s direction.
As before, the other Vrazsar rushed in around him. Again, without actually moving. They weren’t there, and then suddenly they were all around him.
Txomin held his breath, waiting for them to tear him away and beat him almost to death again. Or maybe this time they would actually finish the job which would even be welcome relief instead of suffering through recovery only to be brought back out here in a few more months.
Only he didn’t back off or give up on his death grip as he hugged the Vrazsar’s body and continued to press in the sword as furiously as his rage and hatred would allow.
The body of the Vrazsar he was holding went limp, and a collective sigh from the others surrounding him began at the same time. Behind the masked expressions, Txomin could almost see the surprise and shock in their eyes.
The Vrazsar went limp and slid to the ground. The others dissipated into the wind and swirled around him.
Txomin pulled his sword back and stared down at his hand in pleasant surprise at this unexpected turn of events. He turned to grin at the other gladiators who still didn’t know how close they had come to dying.
He tried to tell them that they were free to go, but words failed him. Txomin couldn’t speak. Literally. The men were staring at him in fear and horror.
They backed away from him and either fell backward over their chains or dropped to their knees begging for their lives.
Txomin looked at them in confusion as he tried to understand what was going on. He looked down at himself and realized he was no longer wearing the simply gladiator outfit that the Vrazsars had sent the men out to die in.
A long dark cloak covered his body that was eerily similar to the cloaks the Vrazsars had worn. He realized that even his hand was covered in a black glove that glowed with the same strange blue light the Vrazars had worn previously.
He reached up a hand toward his face. It was no longer soft and fleshy. It was cold and hard to the touch. Smooth and icy just like the same mask the Vrazsar had worn.
Txomin tried to pull it away from his face, but it was stuck in place. He dropped his sword and tried to pry it away with both hands to no avail.
The wind whipped his once-black hair around across his face. Only now it was white as snow in stark contrast to his black outfit, just like those of the Vrazsars before him.
After a minute or two of struggling with the mask and trying to understand what had just happened, Txomin gave up and picked up his sword.
He sliced through the chains of the gladiators and motioned for them to leave. They didn’t hesitate and took off at a dead run.
Txomin focused on the back of one man and instantly, he was there at the man’s side. The terrified man screamed when he saw him and threw himself to the ground.
He focused back on the ring of swords and instantly was back inside the ring as before just as if he had never left.
The once-human slid the sword into a sheath across his back. He didn’t know how he knew it was there, or maybe it hadn’t been there before.
Txomin didn’t know what he could know or do as a Vrazsar or whatever it was that he had become. But he swore that he would do whatever was in his power to undo the damage they had brought to his land and his people.
Then he would travel to the ends of the earth to uncover the truth and avenge the destruction they had brought and wreak havoc upon those responsible.
“No!” Oskar screamed as he watched the Dragon dive from the sky toward the city.
The base of its throat glowed a deep, bright reddish-orange as it hurtled down through a cloud and burst through the bottom a split second later.
A stream of fire spewed out of its mouth as it opened its jaws. An instant later, the steeple of the church burst into flames.
The focused stream of fire engulfed the entire building in a matter of seconds as the dragon continued its headlong dive.
The dragon pulled back and swerved to the side at the last possible second. By then, most of the building had burnt to a crisp. Only the skeleton of the building remained where the thickest beams once held the church together.
The giant fiend shrieked furiously at the moon as it climbed back into the dusky sky to prepare for its next dive.
Oskar knew it would dive thrice at the city before it landed to consume the charred bodies of its victims. He had heard the legends of old.
And he knew why the ancient beast had come to his town. Oskar had awakened it earlier that day when he found its lair.
Several days earlier, he had found the cave entrance while heading his father’s sheep.
It had just started to rain, so he had led the twenty-six rams, ewes, and lambs inside to wait for the storm to pass.
Oskar made a torch to explore the area. He had been ready to turn back when a gleam ahead caught his eye. The tunnel led straight back into a giant cavern filled with gold.
He saw the giant, scaly beast curled up in the far corner of the cavern, and immediately turned to leave as quietly as possible.
But his greedy heart couldn’t resist grabbing a few gold coins lying on the rocky floor in front of him.
The shepherd boy had breathed a sigh of relief when he reached his sheep without incident. He immediately left in the middle of the pouring rain.
The sheep resisted leaving the dry shelter, and it took everything he could to coax them out and get them to leave. He forcibly pulled the last two out with his bare hands. Then he had to push them back when they tried to run back inside.
They all ran toward a bunch of trees where they huddled together till the storm passed. Then, Oskar led them all straight back home.
His parents were surprised to see him back so early in the day but didn’t ask many questions since they were busy working.
He knew they would grill him about it later at the supper table. But just before his mother called everyone to the table, the church bells had begun to toll.
Oskar’s heart sank when he heard them. He knew what was coming. Justice. The dragon had come for him. The boy watched from the window as the dragon began its second dive. This time much closer to his home.
The second building charred to a crisp before the dragon pulled back to climb back up into the sky for its third and finally dive. Oskar sensed that his home would be the next target.
He screamed for his family to make a run for it as he raced out the door and down the street. Oskar looked back over his shoulder at the winged reptile spewing fire at his house.
Oskar watched his home go up in flames with most of his family still inside. He stopped running and dropped to his knees as the beast landed on top of the flames consuming the building he had once called home.
Its giant tail lashed out and knocked down three of his neighbor’s homes as if they were dollhouses. Another flame of fire spewed forth and consumed his friend, Bjartur’s place.
“No! Stop! It’s my fault. I stole your gold.” Oskar screamed just before the dragon spewed more flames at Svanhildur’s house. Svanhildur was the girl Oskar had always had a crush on.
He couldn’t bear the thought of her burning in flames and being consumed by this monster.
Oskar pulled the gold coins from his pocket and stood up to hurl them toward the dragon. The coins landed in the firey rubble of what had once been his home.
The dragon scooped them up in a winged claw and stepped forward. The trembling boy fell back down onto his knees and waited for his firey end.
“You are a brave lad,” the dragon whispered into his head. “Foolish for stealing from Gimrir, The Voiceless One. But still a brave lad nonetheless.”
Oskar opened his eyes and wiped away the tears to see the dragon clearly.
“I will forgive you if you promise to serve me for the next five years. One year for each coin you tried to steal.”
Oskar nodded silently, not trusting his voice to speak up.
“I can’t hear you, boy,” the dragon whispered into his mind once again.
“Yes, I will serve you for the next five years,” Oskar whispered hoarsely.
“Then return to my cave within three days and present yourself before me,” the dragon commanded.
Oskar stood to his feet and protested. “But if I stay here, the townspeople will lynch me. They will blame me for this destruction.”
The dragon shrugged its wings. “Maybe that’s the punishment I truly intend for you.”
Then it sighed. “I’m not that cruel.”
“Whoever harms this boy will feel my wrath,” the dragon blasted out a thought that everyone in the village could hear. “If this boy does not return to my cave within three days, I shall fall upon you with a dreadful vengeance and consume the rest of your puny village.”
As the dragon spoke, a searing pain shot through the palms of Oskar’s hands. The symbol of the dragon appeared etched into his skin.
Then the fiery, fierce beast spread its wings and shot up into the night sky. It circled the village three times, spewing flames into the night and consuming the clouds that had gathered.
Oskar stood there, watching through the smoke until it disappeared into the night. He ran toward the river and swam off into the night, hoping a crocodile or snake might take his life.
But it seemed that even the wild creatures of the forest had heard the dragon’s command and would keep him alive.
He had been marked by the dragon. And he would be forced to obey its commands for the next five years.
Oskar had no idea what all that entailed, but he didn’t look forward to it one bit. He regretted ever having found that cave. He regretted having taken those five gold coins. He regretted having been the cause of his family’s death.
He swore he would serve the dragon for five years while seeking out the dragon’s weaknesses. Then, he would find a way to kill it, if that was the last thing he ever did.
Oskar shivered under a tree on the edge of the river for several hours before he began his final trek toward the dragon’s lair. He would wait there until the time came to present himself to Gimrir, but there was no way he would return to face the villagers after the pain and destruction he had brought upon them.
They might not harm him for fear of the dragon’s retaliation, but they would despise him and shun him. And that was a pain far worse than death for Oskar.
It didn’t matter if he served the dragon for five years or fifty. As far as Oskar was concerned, his life had ended the moment he took those five golden coins.
Oskar stood on a hill at the foot of the dragon’s mountain overlooking the village as he grieved his loss and bid his family a final farewell.
Andrey stood on the ramp overlooking the gaping hole before him. It was mesmerizingly perfect. The hypnotic design of the detailed lines surrounding it held his gaze.
A noise behind him caused him to break his gaze and turn his head. He started to duck but realized that would just make him look suspicious. But the two people in the cart didn’t even look in his direction.
He breathed a sigh of relief as they drove on past. The orange suit and helmet he wore looked just like theirs. There was no reason they should suspect he didn’t belong here.
The guerilla soldier squared his shoulders and began the long walk down the ramp toward the hole drilled into the plain below.
A pink hue from the early morning sky gave everything an eerie look. Andrey paused again as the ground began to vibrate. A deep hum from the hole vibrated in his belly.
The rectangular shapes surrounding the deep hole began to move slowly like giant teeth on a cavernous flywheel.
Andrey flinched as a bolt of lightning streaked up from the hole toward the sky, and then snapped loudly as it got pulled back down to connect with the slowly turning flywheel.
Several more bolts of lightning snaked up out of the hole in the ground to connect with the teeth of the giant engine. The staccato pops and snaps of electricity sounded almost rhythmic against the consistent, low rumbling growl of the giant motor moving all of the parts in harmony.
The movement and sounds grew and intensified until a single giant bolt of electricity broke free from the wheel and shot up into the sky where it disappeared into the clouds.
A loud boom erupted from the ground and the entire flywheel ground to a halt with a terrible shrieking sound of metal grinding against metal that sounded like his sister shrieking at him when Andrey had teased her as a child.
A billow of black smoke rose up from the hole in the ground. Andrey could almost smell the scent of burning plastic even though he knew the oxygen pack on his back would filter it out.
Movement caught his eye, and he looked around to see several carts with uniformed people bustling about from one end of the compound to the other. Some seemed to be fleeing from the explosion, while others were headed in his direction.
They ignored Andrey though and buzzed right on past him toward the hole. He started down the ramp in their direction, but a low beeping sound caught his attention.
He looked down and realized that he was running low on oxygen. Andrey kicked himself for not having paid attention to it earlier when he had taken it from the guard he had knocked out.
Now, he would have to find another victim to ‘borrow’ oxygen from if he wanted to stick around.
A huge roar erupted from the hole in the ground and the men in carts took off in his direction. They slowed down as they neared him. Their faces expressed sheer terror.
He realized they were motioning for him to hop on. “Let’s go, bro!” One of them shouted and reached out a hand to pull him aboard.
Andrey hesitated for a split second, but then hopped into an empty seat. He pointed to his almost empty oxygen tank and the man in the front seat pulled out a spare from the dash.
He nodded and thanked the man as he took it. The man wasn’t even looking at Andrey. His eyes were fixed on the hole beyond Andrey’s head.
“What happened,” Andrey asked when he realized they weren’t driving back to the main entrance.
“They managed to get the portal open for a split second before we were attacked.”
“What was it?” Andrey asked innocently.
But he already knew. That was why he had come. His job had been to sabotage the engine and prevent them from opening the portal in the first place.
Undercover agents had been misdirecting the work for years and even sabotaging the project when necessary to keep the scientist from opening a portal. However, all of the undercover agents had been systematically discovered and removed.
Andrey had been tasked with blowing up their project but had arrived too late. Now, he needed to get back to his base and warn his superiors.
“I have no idea. We couldn’t see anything. The power went out and we lost the cameras.” the man beside him said.
“We heard people screaming down below.” the driver piped up from the front.
Andrey saw a convoy of soldiers driving toward them in the direction of the hole. But he knew they would be no match for what they would face there.
His intel from agents over the years let him know exactly what lay on the other side of the portal these scientists had been working on over the years.
The men on this cart were doing the right thing. The only thing they could do would be to get as far away from here as possible.
He had failed to prevent this, but there was nothing he could do now. Andrey just wanted to get as far away from here as possible and let others who were trained for this come deal with the aftermath.
Andrey finished connecting the new oxygen tank to his system and leaned back in his seat. His mission was over, and it was time to go home.
A sense of sadness filled his heart. It wasn’t the feeling he had expected to feel upon leaving. He had always hated it here in Vazyr.
But he had lived with the constant tension of getting caught far too long. The relief of getting out of here alive was overwhelming. He did feel a twinge of regret for not having enjoyed it here and living more fully.
He likened it to spending the entire summer liking a girl but never having the courage to tell her how you felt until the last time you saw her.
Then you found out that she liked you too, and spent the last few hours ‘in love’ only to experience the bittersweet loss of something you had only just discovered.
Andrey knew he would miss it here and almost hoped that he would get a chance to return again soon, which felt weird since he had spent so long hating every moment in Vazyr.
He shrugged the feeling off when they reached the city limits. Andrey packed his bags and took one final look around the city before leaving. A city that would most likely not even be standing by the end of the week.
“Goodbye, dear Vazyr. I hope you survive and that I get to see you again soon.”
“Where are you, Floater?” Jusuf shouted into the dark cavern. “I know this is your lair.”
A white blip appeared in the ether about three feet above Jusuf’s head. He took a few steps back as the blip began to spread and open into a wide white ring that lit up the cavern with an eerie orange glow.
Large chunks of rock bigger than Jusuf began to form around them and hovered in place as a humanoid shape began to shimmer into sight. It was the general shape of a person which was a relief to Jusuf. He had half-expected to see an ogre or large beast.
Jusuf squinted as he looked up into the bright light, trying to see the Floater’s face, but the being was faceless. As the humanoid solidified from the ether around him, the light from the large circular portal dimmed enough so that Jusuf could look up at it without having to squint.
A small white circle of light covered the area where his eyes, nose, and mouth should have been. The image had solidified enough that the young warrior could make out eight, large tentacles protruding from the Floater’s back. Each tentacle ended in a sharp point.
The warrior pulled his sword and took a step forward. The Floater didn’t flinch or pull back. It simply spread its arms to the side. A terrifying sense of dread and helplessness filled Jusuf’s entire being.
His legs felt like jelly and wobbled as he attempted to take another step forward. Jusuf dropped to one knee and groaned at the weight pressing down upon him. He tried to raise his sword, but it felt so heavy that he couldn’t use it to threaten the creature floating before him.
“What do you seek, human?” the floating being asked as its tentacles wriggled around behind its back like worms seeking earth to dig into.
It was strange hearing the Floater’s words without it actually having a mouth to speak from. The words felt strange, almost as if he weren’t even hearing them with his ears. It felt as if the words simply formed inside his head, directly in his mind.
Jusuf felt the pressure growing in the atmosphere around him. It was all he could do to breathe.
“I. Come. To Avenge. My. Sister’s. Death.” Jusuf barely managed to gasp.
He felt the Floater moving around in his head as if sifting through his thoughts. A visual image of his sister appeared in his mind. Her sixteenth birthday. A time that the entire family had come together. Each member laying aside their differences and fragile ego to celebrate the coming of age of one of their own.
Jusuf thought the entire ritual completely ridiculous. They called themselves family. Banded together against anyone that opposed them. But when they didn’t have anyone else to fight against, they began to attack one another.
The constant bickering and petty fights were so trite, that he often confronted them. But that never resolved much. That would simply cause them to turn their pettiness on him and speak ill of him to the rest of the family. Often to the very person he had been trying to defend. And then both of them would turn their pettiness on him.
He didn’t like confrontation and normally apologized just to keep the peace, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had quickly learned his lesson and learned to stay out of the fray.
It was ridiculous that they could only stand together when fighting a common enemy. Jusuf thought they should always stand together and seek to get along in harmony. He had left home for a time and tried to make a life for himself outside the village. But it was hard and lonely surviving without allies, even if they did make life difficult for themselves.
So, he ended up returning to the village to be close to his family again. His sister’s birthday celebration had been the perfect excuse to return. Then, three days later, this tragedy occurred.
“I did not harm your sister,” the Floater spoke into his mind. “She was killed by a husk. I have come to seek the husk and return it back.”
Jusuf had no idea what the Floater meant by the word ‘husk’.
The mental image of a being floated into his mind. It looked like a ghost but then morphed into a dog. Then it morphed into a crow. And after that into a human.”
“You mean a shapeshifter?” Jusuf asked. “Like the legends of the skinwalkers I heard as a kid.”
Jusuf felt the Floater rummaging through his memories. The stories he had referred to came to the forefront of his mind in a very visual way that was almost chilling.
The Floater acknowledged them but didn’t seem to agree. “Only legends. Warped by lack of knowledge.” The Floater said.
“Husks are much worse and much more pervasive than your stories speak of. Once unleashed, they are difficult to capture and return to where they belong. Your entire village and your world are in grave danger.”
A sense of dread and terror filled Jusuf’s being as his sense of awareness of the damage it could do began to grow in his mind.
“How do I capture and return it?” Jusuf asked although he had no intention of doing so. His entire being was consumed with anger and hatred for this thing. All he could think of was killing it and avenging his beautiful sister’s death.
“Husks are impossible to kill. You only kill the form they inhabit. But it can only be captured. And even that is almost impossible once they are unleashed.”
The Floater hovered lower until its feet touched the floor. It moved toward Jusuf without actually taking steps. The pressure on the human’s body intensified.
But when its hand came to rest on Jusuf’s head and the young man felt a surge of energy flood through his entire being. Strength returned to his legs and he was able to stand once more.
“I sense that your heart is pure and your love for your sister is great. I will give you the strength of Airidai greater than any mortal in your land if you swear to use it to help me find the husk and return it to where it belongs.”
“I swear,” Jusuf said. And he felt that he meant it with all of his heart. “How do I find this husk.”
“You can’t find the husk directly. You wouldn’t recognize it if you were looking straight at it. It takes the shape of other creatures and people. It changes form frequently. And if you kill the form it has taken, you only release it to take another.”
“Then how will I recognize it? And how can I capture it?” Jusuf asked.
“Ask the villagers about pain and suffering and grief. And when they seem to relish talking about it, you are getting close. Bring them to me, and we will deal with them accordingly.”
The Floater reached down toward Jusuf’s sword. As the young man raised it to give it to him, the blade reflected brightly in the light from the ring of light overhead. But when the Floater touched it, an even deeper glow seemed to come from within the weapon itself.
“Go,” the Floater said directly into Jusuf’s mind. “The sword will help ward off the husk’s influence on you and those you love. But be wary of those in your family who may have already fallen prey to its control.”
“My family? But why?” Jusuf asked.
“Because your sister was the bait used to lure the husk out. It will feed off the grief of those closest to her among your family.”
With those words, the Floater moved backward under the ring of light and rose back up into the portal.
“Wait,” Jusuf called out. “How do I find you? What is your name?”
“Aridai,” the Floater pressed into the young man’s mind. “Return here, and I will reappear.”
As Aridai floated up through the ring of light, the circle closed in until it became a single white blip that faded out of existence along with the stones that had surrounded them.
Jusuf looked down at his sword before sliding it into his sheath and promising himself to do everything within his power to find this husk and bring it to justice.
Liselotte pranced down the street at her usual crisp gait. The clicking of her high heels echoed hollowly along the red brick walls of the shops that enclosed the narrow cobblestone streets of Kungsburg.
It was late. Everyone had long closed up their shops and gone home to get ready for bed. Liselotte hated this tiny town. She longed to return to the big city with its bustling nightlife. Back home, shops would still be open and everyone would still be out and about.
The petite woman sighed as she pulled the red scarf tighter around her neck to block the cold wind that had started to pick up. Clouds had been rolling in all afternoon. Thick billowy grey fluffs of vaporized water just waiting to cool enough to condense and fall in her direction.
She was ready for it as soon as she felt the first drop splatter against her forehead. Her large, trusty, black umbrella ready to defend her against the spiteful sky.
The umbrella popped open eagerly with a loud pop and a gleeful hiss that sounded like a giggle.
“Don’t get any ideas, Fritjof,” she scolded.
The woman felt the critter scurry up her back and curl up on her head as close as it could get to the umbrella. Fritjof hated water, and that was one of the reasons she kept him in the umbrella. As long as she opened it when it was raining, it wouldn’t run off and cause mischief.
She could feel it breathing deeply, filling its lungs with fresh air. Fritjof’s tentacles uncoiled to their full length as it stretched joyfully and with deep satisfaction.
The dark, musky monster hissed angrily as a raindrop struck one of its tentacles and curled its tentacles back in.
Liselotte hadn’t missed a beat the entire time. She kept up her brisk pace. It still felt weird to think that she was running around with a Vok’in hovering just over her head, but she was starting to get used to it.
She listened as the critter muttered to itself about the cold, damp weather and tried to convince her to go somewhere warmer and drier.
“No, that doesn’t look comfortable or pleasant,” she said when it showed her mental image of a burning desert filled with plants that looked like plump purple cactuses.
It hissed in frustration and then sighed in resignation. She didn’t stop walking or wait to hear what it said next.
Liselotte’s stomach growled and she felt a pang of hunger and thought of her favorite restaurant back home.
Fritjof caught a whiff of her thoughts and perked up.
“No,” she retorted immediately. “We’re staying right here and going to bed.”
But it was too late. The Vok’in had caught enough of her thought to sense a warmer, drier place. It was insistent in reinforcing the thought.
She shook her head and tried to say, “No!” firmly. But it came out weakly as it pressed the image forcefully into her mind.
Liselotte could feel her eyes lighting up at its persistent pressure, and it was all she could do to keep it from taking over.
It was getting smarter. Learning her hot buttons. It understood how to make her want what it wanted. This was why she rarely let the Vok’in out of its umbrella.
It scared her to think about what the creature might make her do. Could it take over her mind completely? She rued the day that she had ever found Fritjof and tried to help it.
“Okay, fine.” she conceded. “Let’s go to Fingrund, but you have to bring me back tonight as soon as we finish supper.”
Fritjof sighed with satisfaction at its little victory and let out that same silly giggle.
Liselotte let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes. She let the image Fritjof feed her mind grow stronger and brighter. A bright glow filled the back of her eyeballs and grew brighter and brighter until it felt like her head was about to explode.
Then the feeling passed and everything grew dark again. When she opened her eyes again, it was still raining and dark.
“Had they even left Kungsburg?”
Fritjof hissed and growled as the rain picked up in intensity.
The young woman still felt too weak to look around. It took her a few seconds to regain her strength. Something had happened. She could feel it. But she wasn’t exactly sure what yet. Liselotte turned around slowly in the darkness.
“Where are we, Fritjof?”
The Vok’in hovering just above her head chittered incessantly about something, but it wasn’t clear enough for her to understand.
“Where are we, Fritjof?” she asked again, only this time out loud.
A dark tentacle shot forward and clamped down over her mouth. Fritjof continued hissing and chittering quietly to itself. It turned slowly from side to side and began to let go of her mouth.
An image came to mind. But it was dark and blurry. The only thing she could seem to make out was the words “the in-between”.
Liselotte could sense the creature’s fear growing into a panicked frenzy.
“Get us out of here,” Liselotte thought at the Vok’in.
“You are still too weak,” it mentally shot back. “Remain quiet.”
Time seemed to stretch out forever as they stood there in the rain on that dark corner.
“Ready?” it finally asked, its tentacles moving close to cover her mouth as her lips parted.
She got the hint and simply nodded. She managed the restaurant she wanted to eat at back home. But the Vok’in knocked the image out of her head.
Instead, it pulled up an image of the street corner in Kungsbur they had come from. Liselotte ran with it and let the image fill her thoughts and senses.
The glow surrounded her eyes again. This time the pain in her brain felt even more excruciating. But this time when she opened her eyes, they were right back where they had started.
Liselotte sighed with relief and fell to her knees in the puddle that surrounded them. Her arms were so weak that she dropped the umbrella.
Fritjof immediately pulled it back up over their heads with its tentacles. It waited in silence until she regained her strength and stood up.
“What happened?” she finally asked out loud.
“Too far to jump,” it responded with the image of an athlete trying to jump across a cliff and falling short.
They had never tried to go very far before. Fritjof only made short hops around Kungsburg.
“That’s a cheesy way to get out of taking a girl out to eat,” she said trying to make light of the situation and calm down the still panicky Vok’in.
“What was that anyway,” she asked after a few seconds of silence. “Where did we go? What happened?”
The rain had stopped. Liselotte took the umbrella from Fritjof and shook off the raindrops.
It began drawing in its tentacles and slid down her arm toward the upside-down umbrella. It dropped inside, still hissing angrily. But Liselotte could still sense its fear.
She closed up the umbrella and continued walking down the cold, wet cobblestone street toward her home away from home pondering what strange places she would be able to visit if she learned to harness the Vok’in’s powers.
Hadad stirred in his bed. He opened his eyes briefly before rolling back over in his bed. It was still dark. Too early to wake up. He sighed in irritation at whoever had been making the noise that woke him up.
He couldn’t remember what it was exactly. A muffled banging in the distance? A faint scream? Whatever it was had woken him up with a pounding heart. He couldn’t remember what it had been exactly, but it seemed too real to have been a dream.
The dark-haired, 17-year-old lad rolled over again. Trying to still his racing heart and get comfortable enough to will himself back to sleep.
He breathed deeply and focused on the thumping of his heart beating rhythmically in his chest. It had slowed considerably and he felt a wave of sleep wash over him.
Suddenly, he heard it again. This time louder. This time closer. And he was wide awake. He knew for sure that it wasn’t a dream.
Hadad sat bolt upright in his bed. Unsure of what to do. Should he look out the window and risk getting hurt? But maybe he could help whoever was out there.
Someone needed help. That much was clear. But…
Hadad lived on the outskirts of the city in his family’s warehouse. It’s where his relatives stored their grain after the harvest. It was still early in the year, and most of the crops had yet to be harvested.
But this year, he had been chosen to sleep in the dark, dank building to keep an eye on things. The closest house was a hundred yards down the road. Too far for someone to come save him. Too far for anyone to hear his screams for help if he needed it.
Hadad threw himself back under the covers and pulled them tightly around his head. Hoping that whatever was out there would soon go away.
It was only his third night sleeping here. At first, Hadad felt that it had been an honor to be chosen for the task. Or so he had thought.
He had just turned 17 and felt respected by his family for choosing him. But now, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. It had simply been a chore that no one else wanted to deal with, so they had tossed him into it.
The thought occurred to him that he would be an easy target if someone came in and saw him lying on the bed. He wouldn’t be able to see them or run.
The spry lad leaped out of bed and arranged the pillows and covers to make it seem like someone was still sleeping there.
Then he scrambled under the bed as far as he could into the corner where he curled up into a ball.
The smell of smoke and ash wafted into the room. Hadad sniffed and tried to fight back a sneeze. But it was no use even though he covered his nose and mouth with both hands to try and smother it.
There was a pounding from somewhere in the warehouse.
“Hadad. Hadad.” someone seemed to be saying.
He crawled quickly out from under his hiding place and moved stealthily toward the front door. Not wanting to make any noise, he crept forward and tried to peek through the cracks.
There was nothing there. Hadad moved around to the other side to look out the cracks in the middle and then along the far side. Nothing. It was pitch black still.
Hadad unlocked the door and opened it as slowly and quietly as he could. Not a soul in sight. He grabbed a pitchfork and stepped outside into the cool night air. Then walked to the edge of the building to peek around the corner.
The only sound Hadad heard were the cicadas buzzing and the wind blowing through the trees.
He tiptoed softly to the other end of the building past the door to the other side of the building to peek around that corner.
Nothing there. The boy snorted at his silliness and brushed off his fear. He circled the entire building in a normal walk without trying to be quiet.
Maybe it was better to make some noise and scare off whoever had been out there.
When he was back at the front door, Hadad turned to face the darkness.
“Hello! Anyone out there? Do you need help?”
But there was only silence. His shouts seemed to have stilled the cicadas and wind.
The relieved boy chuckled nervously to himself as he turned to re-enter the building.
A dark shadow flitted silently to the side. Hadad saw it in the corner of his eye and shrieked like a wounded rabbit. He launched the pitchfork from his hand into the darkness and threw himself back outside through the door.
Hadad raced down the road, glancing over his shoulder a time or two to make sure that it wasn’t following him. He finally stopped running but still kept walking toward his home under the light of the stars.
As he walked, he rehearsed what he would tell his family, but he couldn’t think of anything convincing to tell them that wouldn’t make him the laughingstock of the city. His father would be upset at him, and his uncles would be angry.
The look of embarrassment that Hadad imagined he would see though was what finally caused him to turn around. He didn’t want to be known as the boy who ran from a shadow.
Hadad returned to the door and poked his head inside. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the pitchfork stuck in the wall where he had thrown it. Something dark hung over it.
He moved forward slowly. It didn’t move. He kicked at it. Then laughed at himself. Softly at first. Then loudly as he realized it was just a tarp his uncles had hung to dry.
The boy removed the pitchfork gently so as to not make the holes any bigger than they already were from being so violently stabbed with the pitchfork. Then he hung it back up, locked the door, and went back to bed.
Hadad had just started to drift off to sleep when he heard the three loud thumps again. This time he raced to the door instead of trying to hide. But again, there was no one there.
When he turned though, Hadad notice a large, strange box leaning against the far wall of the warehouse. He hadn’t given it much thought previously, however, it did seem out of place.
He didn’t recall having seen it the previous nights. But what caught his attention was the strange, orange glow that emanated lightly from around it.
Hadad moved closer to see if he could get a better view. There was something definitely burning inside the box even though it wasn’t on fire.
He moved closer and felt heat emanating from the tall, black box. Each step closer caused the box to glow brighter and brighter.
The boy pressed his face against the crack for a better view. He could feel the heat wafting over his face, almost scalding his skin, but he couldn’t pull himself away. He felt attracted to the light like a moth to a flame.
The pressure of his body pushing up against door caused the it to creak slightly. It wasn’t loud, but it was enough to attract the attention of whatever was inside.
Something slammed against the door and Hadad leaped back. But he wanted to know what was inside. Curiosity pulled him toward the light. He never wanted anything so badly.
Hadad knew he shouldn’t, but felt powerless to stop. He felt an intense longing to see whatever golden-glowing treasure lay inside.
He stepped forward and reached out to touch the door. Then pushed against it. A loud hissing soon erupted and the doors parted in the middle as smoke and heat billowed out.
An intense lover for whatever was inside filled his heart. Or maybe it came from inside the box and embraced him. Hadad couldn’t tell which. But even though he was terrified, he didn’t want to leave.
The boy stuck his finger through the crack between the doors and tugged slightly. The door gave way easily and a dark arm slid out from between and brushed against him.
A cold chill went down his spine at the touch. He stepped away from the door as the arm felt around. Looking for him. Feeling the sides of the door.
Another arm followed. Slowly. Rhythmically. Moving around in sync and flow with the first. Each feeling around at the same speed and pace as the other, but on opposite sides of each other.
Then a third popped out. And a fourth. Then more and more. Hadad didn’t understand how there could be so many arms sliding out through the cracks.
He took a step back and tripped. Hadad fell to the ground in a sitting position but remained there. Watching. Waiting. Wondering what would happen next.
Soon there were dozens of arms pushing out through the opening. They didn’t push the door open any farther though. They simply moved around as if waiting for Hadad to do something.
Should he open it more for them? Should he let them out?
Hadad imagined trying to explain to his father and uncles what he had done. He could see the pain in his father’s eyes.
He could visualize his uncle’s angry curses berating him. He imagined their fists buffeting him around the ears for messing with something that wasn’t his.
But when he thought of his mother, Hadad could imagine the pride in her eyes. Her love for him clear in her face. Setting free these poor prisoners.
The lad stood to his feet and stepped forward. He pulled the door open. The arms reached out to touch him. Stroking his face and arms. They seemed to be thanking him for setting them free.
But they didn’t come out. Hadad could see shadows moving around in the light, but he couldn’t see their faces past the glow.
He grabbed one of the arms and gave it a firm tug. A loud shriek emanated from within, and a blast of icy cold wind swirled around Hadad’s body.
The hand he tugged grabbed him in return and squeezed tightly. The glow faded and the heat dissipated as an eerie wail filled the room.
Hadad felt the arm tugging him into the waiting mass of arms. Others tried to grab onto him, and he pulled hard to get away.
On the third tug, Hadad managed to wrench himself free and turned to run toward the door. He tried to unlock it, but his shaky hands seemed to fumble clumsily, almost uselessly.
His legs grew weak, and Hadad fell to his knees. The boy’s hands were still over his head hanging on to the doorknob, but he no longer felt it.
He no longer felt much of anything, but he could sense hands surrounding him. Dragging him back toward the box. Hadad attempted to get up, but his body felt sluggish and slow.
His body slid backward over the entire length of the floor toward the large, black box behind him. He turned his head to see what was pulling him, but couldn’t see in the darkness.
“Well done, Hadad. Welcome home to the horde.” a voice whispered in his ear as he slid through the door and watched the panels close slowly behind him.
“Welcome home to the horde,” a hundred voices whispered around him as everything faded into darkness.
When Hadad opened his eyes, both of his parents stood over him. Concerned looks on their faces. He could see fear in their eyes as his mother reached down to press her hand against his forehead.
“Why are you still asleep when the sun is so high in the sky? I don’t want a lazy son.” Hadad’s father almost shouted. “Your mother dragged me all the way down here when she found out you weren’t at school. What did you do all night? We’ve been trying to shake you awake for fifteen minutes.”
Hadad raised his arm to block the blow from his father’s outstretched hand.
But before his father’s blow landed, a black arm slid out from over the boy’s back and took the impact. The older man yelped in pain and leaped back to shake his hand and nurse it gingerly.
The boy looked down to watch the black arm slide away behind him.
“What happened, Gilgamesh?” his mother asked in a startled voice.
“I don’t know, Ninlil,” the man replied poking at Hadad’s arm gingerly. “The boy’s arm felt like a bar of iron.”
“He’s just growing up and becoming a man,” his mother said.
Hadad listened as his parent left the room nervously. He could sense their underlying fear. They didn’t seem to have seen his extra arm but could tell something was wrong.
“Don’t just lie there all day, boy,” his father scolded from the doorway. “Just because you watch the warehouse at night doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your regular share of chores at home.”
The boy tried to will his third arm to show itself again but nothing happened.
He leaped out of bed and shook himself off. Everything else still looked and felt normal. He brushed the wrinkles out of his clothes and made his bed before following his parents home.
Reizko crouched low behind the boulder and waited patiently for the opportunity to make a run for it. The flames from burning rock in the valley below him flared brightly into the night sky, but the heat didn’t bother him.
His companions watched from a safe distance. The heat was still almost unbearable from here. The suffocating wind blowing sparks and ash in their direction caused them to squint their eyes and cover their noses.
They wanted to turn away but couldn’t tear their eyes away from their fearless leader. As much as they wanted to accompany him, they could go no further.
Legend spoke of those like Reizko who descended from his family line who could walk through fire. Some said that they descended from an ancient line of dragon warriors.
His skin seemed normal, but the heat didn’t bother him. And he rarely bled in battle. They had seen him take blows that would have torn a normal human asunder, yet swords glanced off him like a child’s toy.
The long-haired warrior simply laughed it off and said it was his quick reflexes and sharp wits that had kept him out of harm’s way. But they had fought close beside him in many battles and knew there was something different about him.
Reizko saw a dark shadow in the sky circling in his direction. He turned to glance back at his men. He wanted to shout a warning but didn’t dare give his position away.
A silent motion with his hand would have to suffice. He hoped it was enough for them to see in the low light reflected in the smoky air.
The dark blur circled a few more times in the distance before veering back into the shadowy clouds of the night sky. Reizko hunched low behind the boulder until the shadow disappeared.
He waited for another minute to be sure it was gone. Then slid out from behind the boulder and dashed quickly to the next. Reizko moved swiftly and silently from one to the other. Zig zagging carefully across the rocky field toward the lava river flowing below.
Reizko made it to the edge of the boulder field and peered down toward the glowing orange and red river flowing past him below.
He could see the creature he had been tracking . There were three of them now. Reizko growled quietly under his breath. He had been sure they were only following one of these things. It must have met up with more of its kind.
It would prove to be more difficult to regain the Amulet of Banishment that had been stolen from the king’s treasures three days before.
The king had been reticent to tell him for what purpose it served or why it was so important. But Reizko could tell from the king’s demeanor and the desperation in his voice that it held great value.
He watched and waited as they jabbered away and two of the foul creatures slinked off toward a small hole in the rocks. The third stayed outside under the night sky as if guarding their cave.
Eventually, the lazy guard leaned up against a rock and set his weapon to the side. Reizko moved stealthily forward. Weaving his way around till he came out behind the snoozing creature.
Reizko shivered as he looked upon the guard’s countenance. Its narrow reptilian-shaped face somehow seemed oddly familiar.
He couldn’t bring himself to kill the sleeping being. It seemed too humanoid even though it wasn’t like him and his fellow men.
Reizko picked up its spear quietly so that the hideous creature couldn’t use it on him if it woke up. He crept toward the cave entrance and crouched to get through.
The warrior flattened himself against the wall so he wouldn’t stand out in the entrance against the night sky as he waited for his eyes to adjust from the glow of the lava river outside to the darkness inside.
Soft snores emanated from a short distance away. Amplified by the walls of the cave, it sounded like they were directly in front of him.
But after a few moments, his eyes could make out their dark shapes stretched out against the back wall of the short cave about twenty feet away. He now recognized the scent he had been using to follow this creature. Only in here, the foul odor was almost unbearable. Reizko tried not to gag.
Their bags lay in the space between them. The Amulet of Banishment on top in plain sight just as the king had described. A large turquoise jewel about the size of his palm wrapped in unpolished silver connected to a thick black cord.
Reizko breathed a size of relief that he wouldn’t have to dig around or search for it. Or worse, that it was wrapped around their neck.
A bit of gravel crunched in the sand underneath his feet as he stepped forward. Reizko crouched to make himself as small as possible as one of the creatures stirred from his sleep. But it rolled over and began snoring again.
A few more steps and Reizko had the Amulet in his grasp. He moved as quickly as he dared, barely breathing until he was safely outside.
Circling back up through the rocks and boulders, Reizko could see his men still there waiting for him. He lifted the large purple Amulet triumphantly over his head for them to see.
But they didn’t seem to be as excited as he expected. In fact, they didn’t seem to be looking at him at all. Their eyes were fixed in the air above him.
Reizko turned just in time to see a giant eagle swooping in with its claws outstretched. The warrior leaped to the side and pulled his sword from its sheath to meet the oncoming feathered fiend.
He swung at it, but the eagle swerved mid-air. The blade sang as it sliced through the air, but feathers brushed over it softly as the eagle wrapped one of its giant claws around Reizko’s waist. It’s wings beat wildly against his head as the monstrous bird lifted him into the air.
The warrior raised his sword to hack at the eagle’s leg but clattered uselessly against the solid, yellow scales.
The sharp clang of steel rang solidly through the sword and vibrated down into his forearm. His hand went numb and Reizko’s grip loosened from the pain.
He watched the sword drop to the ground below. His friends rushed forward valiantly through the heat to help him, but it was too late. The bird was already out of reach.
They stood watching the eagle lift Reizko up from the earth and carry him away as their arms shielded their faces from the heat.
The men watched helplessly until the darkness swallowed up the eagle clutching their fearless leader. Gogi bent down to pick up Reizko’s sword.
He almost missed the amulet half-buried in the sand. The swirling dust and pebbles from the beat of eagle’s wings covered most of it. But a gleam from the jewel’s shiny side caught Gogi’s sharp eye.
He snatched it up quickly and glanced around to make sure that none of his companions had seen it before sliding it into his pocket.
Gogi didn’t feel sad like his fellow companions. He had long envied Reizko and now had the chance to step forward to take his place.
“Farewell, Reizko!” Gogi chanted with the other men holding their hands over their hearts to salute his bravery. “May the eagles carry your soul into the great beyond, and may your campfire blaze brightest among the stars in the night sky.”