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.
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.
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.”
Do you ever wonder who might be watching you? Read this short story asking ‘How Far Will A Watcher Go To Overcome The Effects Of A Devastating Vision That Srips Him Of The One Thing He Treasures Above All Else?’ Another short story I wrote for my English student. So, if you have questions, leave a comment. If you want the audio, you can listen on Gumroad or Patreon
Azarael swooped down lower over the city. He watched closely everything that went on. Nothing escaped his attention. He was the silent observer who watched events unfold as people lived out their lives like characters playing a role on an endless soap opera that never let up. No commercial breaks for him to grab some popcorn and coke. Not a single moment for him to relax and take some time off. He had no concept for vacation. Even though he saw others taking a vacation and leaving the city while others came on vacation in his city, he didn’t consider taking one himself. He prided himself on his attention to details and not letting a single scene escape his sight. He was like an eternal webcam viewing and recording everything that went on in the city below. He had honed his focus and skills till he could do it without really even trying. He had been asking for a promotion and to oversee more cities. But so far, he had been turned down all three times. After thousands of years, he had honed his skills to the point where he could focus on one person doing one thing, and yet still be completely aware of what everyone else was doing in the entire city.
And yet, Azarael never intervened. He never tried to stop anyone from doing anything. Nor did he help anyone even when they looked like they could use a hand. He had developed a strictly hands-off policy. Don’t get involved was what he always told himself. Everyone has their share of problems, and they just have to learn how to deal with them. That’s how they grow stronger was what he said. It’s like helping a chick out of an egg or a butterfly out of a cocoon. Ultimately, they don’t get the exercise and blood flow that they need to develop their skills and talents to their full potential. Help them out of a mess, and they would be weaker for it. Leave them to resolve it themselves, and they would grow through their own effort. Besides, most of them didn’t really want the things they said they wanted.
Humans were so fickle. They said they wanted something and worked towards it. They complained because they didn’t have it. But then, as soon as they got it, they didn’t want it anymore. They complained about the the new problems that it brought into their lives. Humans! So double-minded. Always griping and moaning. They grumbled and complained about everything. They were never satisfied. Walking blobs of insatiable desire. Always walking around angry, wretched, and frustrated. Constantly ungrateful. Persistently irritated. Give them an inch and they’d take a mile. No, thanks! Forget it. There was no satisfaction in helping them under those conditions. Better to just stay at his post and do what he had been doing for the past few thousand years. Just watch and observe. Record it all.
Azarael never forgot anything that he saw. It was always perfectly filed and stored away in his memory for perfect recall as needed at a moment’s notice. Until one day, all of that changed. Something caught his attention. Something grabbed his eye. He turned to focus a little more attention on it. It was easy for him to split up his attention wherever he needed at any time. He still paid attention to everything else going on around the city.
It was actually pretty rare for something to catch his attention and cause him to divert his focus a bit more. Mostly, just because he had seen it all. There wasn’t much that a human could do to surprise him anymore. After several thousands of years of watching humans and their eccentric behavior, he had just about seen it all. Or so he thought until today. He siphoned off a bit more of his attention to this strange sight that he was watching. It was so odd. So, strange. And frustrating in an almost excruciating way. It was agonizing to watch. He wanted not to see what he was seeing, but he couldn’t stop watching even if he had wanted to. And ever more quickly, larger and larger portions of his attention were focused on this one, singular event. As he continued to watch, he began to lose sight of everything else around him.
He watched less and less of everyone else as his attention narrowed in focus. Soon, he saw nothing else that was going on around him. He could no longer recall the events that had happened outside of his center of focus. And when all was said and done, his focus was so intense that he couldn’t undo it. He could no longer do his job. He could no longer watch as he had before. So, he turned and left his post. The one he had been given thousands of years ago. The post he had never abandoned. He had heard of stories like this. Watchers who no longer watched. Relegated to the lowest levels of existence for having lost their focus. He had laughed and scoffed, calling them weak and silly. Never had he suspected that something like this would happen to him. That something like this could happen to him. And yet here he was. Finished. It was over. He was free to go. Do his own thing until he could get his broad span of attention back. But he had never heard of any watchers ever returning once they had left their post. Impossible? Maybe so, but he would not give up without a try. If one existed, he would find it and return to his post. Like those he had refused to help he needed to struggle and find his own way without expecting anyone else to do it for him. This was his burden, and he would bear it. Forget the Engineers. He was on his own. If they caught him, they would put him out of commission for good. No, he had to find a way to restore his attention and take back his post. He would do whatever it took. He would go, wherever he had to go. Do whatever he had to do. He walked slowly away from his post.
His boss felt sorry for him, but there was nothing he could do. Like Azarael, all he could do was watch and observe. Maybe this is your chance to do something special. Maybe it’s time for you to develop new skills. It could be a new phase of life since you were already so well developed. Consider it a blessing in disguise. An opportunity of sorts, if you will. Azarael sighed. That was not what he wanted to hear, but since he could no longer observe everything, he would go down and observe what he could up close. He still had to watch. Only he had to do it up close and personal now that he could no longer focus his attention from his post so far away. He continued to walk slowly until he arrived and stood in the very streets he had once watched from so far away.
It was strange to be standing here. A place that he knew so well and had watched so often yet had never been himself. There was a whole new level of sensation that enveloped him. Before he had watched only with his eyes, and yet now, it included so much more. The smells, the sounds, the tastes, and the sensations. He soon lost himself in these strange and varied experiences that more than made up for his lost attention span. He realized that his observation from afar had been like watching a horror movie without sound. Without the eerie, creepy noises to freak him out, he had never fully understood how terrifying it was to be here going through the crazy experiences of life that humans did.
Azarael couldn’t say that he still understood fully why they did some of the crazy things that they did, and yet, somehow, things made so much more sense now as he watched them up close with all these added new sensations. He still didn’t jump in to help them, but at times he felt the urge. He felt like he could empathize with them and understand what they were going through at a whole different level. And over time, with careful practice and exercise, he discovered that his skills began to return. After some time, they seemed to be stronger and better than ever. Once again, he could see everyone in the city and everything they did at any given moment. He could fully divide his attention over millions of different places and individuals.
And yet, he felt no desire to return to his post. He didn’t want to watch and observe from afar. Let the other watchers speak ill of him. He no longer cared if they felt sorry for him for having lost his skills. He had found something far better, and he had no desire to go back. So, he stayed, and lived, and walked among mere mortals as one of them, yet not being one of them. Continuing his task of watching and observing and recording everything they did. And from time to time, he helped one or another in their times of desperation. Just a little. Not enough to harm them or cause them to lose their way. But just enough to see them through their moment of desperation and give them hope that they could see their way through once again to the other side. And the sensation he got in return after a moment like this was worth more than the biggest promotion in the world. Worth more than watching and observing all the cities of the world. The new sensations of watching up close and personal made him want to narrow his focus to immerse himself fully and enjoy every observation in a way that he never could before. He smiled and breathed in a deep breath of gratefulness and appreciation for having been brought down here. Not that he ever wanted to see what he had seen again or go through that experience ever again. But without that, he never would have left his post and experienced all these new and amazing experiences that now seemed so natural and vital to his life. He often wanted to go back and tell the others what they were missing out on, but he knew it would do no good. They would have to go through their own crisis and moment of need to be brought down here to experience this moment of truth. They couldn’t be forced or coerced. They had to come on their own in a moment of desperation and need to fully experience it and realize what they were missing. Otherwise, they would simply flee back to the safety of their post where all they did was watch and observe ever more and more as they expanded their skills and reach without actually immersing themselves in it to fully understand and experience.
He moved around frequently spending time in every part of the city to fully immerse himself in the experience and understand those he watched up close and personal. It was like nothing he ever imagined in all those thousands of years from his post in the distance.
Azarael loved to go to the center of the city as the crowds slowly began to build up throughout the day. Especially, in those peak moments when they rushed to and from work. Hurrying about in their bustle and daily grind. Always running away from something and towards something else, but never fully aware themselves of what it was exactly. And yet, he knew that he couldn’t stop them to point that out. Only when they lost something they thought was important, would they realize that it was the little things that surrounded them that really mattered more than whatever it was they prioritized now. But that was okay because he understood now that this was what life was about and all those experiences leading them to discover what was truly important once they immersed themselves in that which they had once only observed from afar.
Thank you for reading the short story ‘Immersion’. If you want to listen to the audio, just click the button below that says ‘I want this!’ It’s $0.99 cents, but you can pay what you feel is fair. Or you can listen to all the audios for the month on my Patreon page.
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When the city of Myxol is burned to the ground by the rebel slaves who once served his family, Elijolf struggles to avoid getting caught while saving his friends with the help of a strange old man. But when an ex-slave holds Kadlin hostage and the slaves call up Chilyrium the Dragon Master out from the caves, Elijolf must do whatever it takes to fight off the rebels and avoid being burned to a crisp while he opens a portal to save his friends. Read The Fall of Myxol & Rise of Chilyrium now >>
Update: May 24, 2018 – I recently had a new cover created for this book, that looks much nicer.
“Halldora!” Thorgaut shouted with glee.
He jumped up and ran over to her. He grabbed her in his arms and spun her around genuinely glad to see her.
“I thought I’d never find you again,” he said after putting her down. “You cloaked your place good.”
She blushed at his enthusiasm at seeing her and beamed with pride over his compliments.
“Well, it’s a trick I learned from an old friend,” she replied. “It seems you’ve picked up a few skills yourself since I last saw you.”
“Not because I went looking for them,” he said. “That’s for sure. I got waylaid along the way over and over again.”
He noticed a flicker of worry briefly cross her face as she frowned. She caught herself though and smiled him right after.
“What is it?” he asked. “And where is Vriobrum?”
“Vriobrum can’t walk very fast and would have held me back,” she said with a laugh. “I came running as soon as I sensed your presence. Besides, someone has to stay back and keep an eye on the house. There are a lot of creepy guys running around in the woods these days.”
Thorgaut chuckled and then turned serious. “Speaking of creepy guys, have you seen three of my friends who are out there looking for me?” he asked.
Halldora grinned sheepishly. “I have,” she said. “Would you like them back?”
“What did you do to them?” he demanded with a scowl. A sudden realization of what Halldora could have done hit him, and a look of horror crossed his face.
“You didn’t,” he said. “No!”
“What?” she asked mischievously.
“You didn’t turn them into shufflers to join your undead army. Did you?”
She laughed over that one and punched him in the arm.
“Of course not, silly.” she managed to say once she stopped laughing. “You seem to think I’m an evil person. I’m not like those wicked, old witches from the fairy tales your mother used to tell you when you were a child.”
Thorgaut breathed a sigh of relief. “So, what did you do to Liut and his companions?” he asked. “And yes, I want my friends back.”
They started walking back to the rest of the group who were still eating by the fire. Halldora took his arm with one hand and hitched up her blue dress with the other.
“Not the best outfit for a walk in the woods, but I left in a hurry,” she said. “Anyway, your crazy friends tracked you to my home. You were gone of course. They thought I had eaten you or used you to perform some evil ritual. Then they saw Vriobrum and tried to kill him.”
“So, what evil spell did you cast on them?” Thorgaut asked. “Did you turn them into disgusting-looking toads. They’ll live in the lake until a charming princess comes along to kiss them.”
Halldora smiled and wrinkled her nose. “Yuck,” she said. “I hate toads. So, no! That would be too cruel. I put them to sleep until I could find you and prove that I hadn’t done anything to you.”
“Well, then let’s go get them,” he said.
“Relax,” she said. “They’ll wake up and be here shortly.”
Thorgaut shook his head. He was still trying to wrap his mind around all these crazy events and strange people he had met here in these woods. He had only been here a week, but he would miss this place once he headed home with his friends.
He introduced Halldora to Svart, Katla, and Ariana. She seemed extremely excited to meet the spider. She said she had heard a lot about them and always wanted to meet one.
Ariana seemed nervous around her. Thorgaut probed her to find out what it was, but she wouldn’t tell him. He perceived that Katla was jealous. She politely offered Halldora some of their soup and chatted with her about the weather. But after Halldora turned to talk with Svart, Katla scowled at Thorgaut and gave him a dirty look.
Thorgaut shrugged his shoulders and pretended to look confused. But he didn’t need to use his mind-reading skills to figure out what was wrong. He had sensed that Katla had a crush on him for quite some time. She never came right out and mentioned it, but he had a gut feeling about it.
They had a little fling when they were younger. Thorgaut kissed her once and thought she was the love of his life. And then she told him that he wasn’t her type. It had devastated him because soon after that she had started hanging out with his best friend, Liut. Later, Liut had broken things off with her.
After that, things were awkward between the three of them. They each went their separate way for a while. But over the past two summers, they had gone on several raiding parties together. During that time they had all patched up their friendship. They had all gotten along great after that.
Over the past few months though, Thorgaut had a gut feeling that the Katla was hoping to be more than friends. He sensed that she regretted having rejected his advances. But it was too late. Thorgaut had long gotten over his feeling for her.
He didn’t want to put himself back in that situation. And he didn’t want to complicate his friendship with either Katla or Liut. Besides, there were plenty of other women in the world that he could choose. No need to get all bent out of shape over Katla.
So, he found her attitude towards Halldora moderately humorous under the current circumstances. He tried not to smile or show it though when she looked at him. Katla was a charming girl and a good friend. No need to blow things all out of proportion over nothing. Besides, Halldora had blown him off, and there was no reason for Katla to be jealous of her.
Thorgaut asked Katla for another bowl of soup. He ate a little more slowly this time and relished the delicious flavors in each bite. Katla was a great cook. She blushed and smiled when he complimented her. But then she scowled right after when she saw Halldora.
He knew she was dying to ask what had gone on between them, but ignored her unspoken questions. He kept shoveling spoon after spoon of the delicious food in his mouth. He didn’t know if the food was really that delicious or if it seemed that way because of his heightened sense of awareness. Maybe it was due to his extreme hunger after all these adventures. He didn’t pause to overthink things too much though. He just sat back and enjoyed the meal with his friends.
A little while later, he heard more footsteps coming through the woods. He motioned everyone to be quiet. He heard Liut’s voice first. He jumped up and grinned as they came into view.
“Welcome back boys,” he shouted out. “What took you all so long to get back?”
Liut grinned and strode toward him. They greeted each other with a typical Jorundarfell forearm handshake. Then Thorgaut gave him a big hug. He didn’t think he would ever see his friends again.
Thorgaut greeted Bior and Grimar. They all turned towards the rest of the group and noticed Halldora sitting beside Svart. Bior and Liut jumped backward and pulled their swords out.
“It’s that witch woman!” Liut shouted.
Grimar charged forward running headlong straight toward the surprised woman. Before he got to her though, she waved her hand and wiggled her fingers. He fell at her feet as though dead.
“Silly men,” she said. “I told you that I didn’t do anything to Thorgaut.”
Thorgaut put out his hand on his Liut and Bior’s arms.
“It’s okay,” he reassured them. “Halldora is a friend.”
They looked at him like he was off his rocker, but obeyed by putting their swords back in their sheaths.
Katla held out a bowl of soup for each of them which they accepted. The men sat down on the other side of the fire from Halldora so they could keep a wary eye on her as they ate.
Grimar was so concentrated on Halldora that he didn’t even notice Ariana was a spider. Grimar started to sit on her as if she was a log. The spiderling hopped back, and the man fell on the ground. He tried to hold his bowl of soup up during the fall, but it poured out all over him.
Liut saw Ariana the giant spiderling and threw his bowl in her face before grabbing his sword. “Spider!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Look out, a spider!”
He looked wildly around at everyone. They continued sitting calmly as if this were a typical everyday occurrence. Liut didn’t understand why no one did anything. They seemed more surprised to hear him scream like a little girl than to see the spider in their midst.
“Don’t you guys see it?” he asked in a shaky voice.
Halldora started laughing first. Everyone else followed along right after. They roared at the hilarious scene that had played out in front of them. Svart rolled on the ground holding his stomach.
Thorgaut found it funny as well but tried not to show it too much. He wiped a tear of laughter from his eye and snorted his laughs as he introduced Ariana.
The spiderling didn’t seem to find the situation funny at all though. Ariana scurried off to the other side of the fire beside Halldora. The spider put as much space between herself and the screaming man as she could.
Halldora woke Bior from his sleeping spell, and Katla gave the men all another bowl of soup. They told him about the spider though before he saw her so there wouldn’t be any more surprises.
It took awhile for Thorgaut to give them a brief rundown what he had been through over the past few days. He glossed over the craziest parts. He focused on meeting Halldora and being attacked by the wolves in the woods. He told them a condensed version of escaping the strangers in Svart’s house and their trip down the cave.
He didn’t mention anything about undead wolves or the NightWalkers though. He also didn’t tell them about his run-in with Abyss Snarer. He portrayed the spiders as friendly like Happy Feet and her children.
Thorgaut didn’t want them knowing about him being bitten by the undead. They’d tie him up and wait for him to turn as Arnulfr had done. And he definitely didn’t want them knowing about his new mental and healing powers.
Liut, Bior, and Grimar all thought they had only been gone a day. They had left the day after Thorgaut when he didn’t return. That would have been the day Thorgaut got caught in the snare. They had tracked him to the campground where the shufflers attacked him. From there, they had trailed him into Halldora’s meadow.
Halldora put them under a sleeping spell when they attacked Vriobrum. Then she left them there while Thorgaut recuperated at Arnulfr’s house. She had located his presence when he had regained consciousness that night. She told him that she had planned to pick him up the next day. But she lost him when he entered the cave to escape the men with the strange device.
She told him that the strange men were undead bounty hunters trying to make a name for themselves. They had been in the area for the past several months. They were the main reason she had cloaked her section of the woods. Halldora had set up the shield to keep their device from locating her shufflers.
Thorgaut was happy to have completed his crazy journey through Knulkforrest. It had been a freaky adventure, but he had come out stronger than ever. His new abilities were an added bonus. And on top of that, he had discovered a new appreciation for life and was ready to embrace his destiny. He knew his purpose was to rule over Jorundarfell and be a good leader for his people.
Thorgaut urged Halldora to return with them to Jorundarfell, but she declined. They both knew that she wouldn’t be welcome there. He knew the people of the town would try to burn her at stake.
He tried to feel Halldora out about creating an undead army for him, but she refused. He made it sound like he was joking about a crazy idea that came to him in a dream. But she immediately shot the idea down saying it was dangerous and risky.
Halldora hinted that there was an extremely terrifying threat behind his idea which left him intrigued. He could sense the fear lacing her words and wanted to ask why that was. But Katla came barging in with some silly excuse to interrupt him. Thorgaut didn’t get a chance to talk with her alone again after that.
“It’s already dark,” Halldora said. “I shouldn’t have left Vriobrum alone. He’ll come out looking for me.”
She gave Thorgaut a long hug and bid everyone farewell. Then she disappeared into the woods. Thorgaut watched the woods swallow her up. He sat on a stump by the fire looking into the darkness long after she was gone. Svart and Katla went off to sleep. Ariana had gone into the woods to find something to eat.
Thorgaut talked with Liut for a while before heading to his spot to get some sleep himself. Liut and Bior offered to keep watch in the night since they had just woken up from a week-long nap.
The next morning the group woke up early and ate a quick breakfast that Katla had prepared for them. It was a strange mix of roots she had discovered while they were gone. She cooked it up with some rabbits Ariana had caught for them in the night.
And then they were off. The small group traveled back down the river the way they had come. They made for an odd group. Five adults, one boy, and two large spiderlings. Ariana had invited her sister who had also joined them as they were leaving.
Thorgaut was finally headed home. It had been a marvelous journey. The adventure of a lifetime that he would never forget. Only he didn’t realize that for him, it was only just beginning.
Thorgaut walked down the tunnels. He followed the maps in his head that Happy Feet had left him. He probed out mentally for Ariana. He didn’t sense her presence. Either she was too far away, or she was cloaking her mind.
He debated whether to head back to his friends or try to locate Halldora. In the end, he decided to find his friends first. It was important to reassure them that he was okay. That way they wouldn’t be searching for him. Also, he knew he might not even find Halldora’s meadow. It was well cloaked, and Thorgaut didn’t know if he could locate it even with his recent, mental powers.
His trip to the cave entrance was uneventful. He saw many new, fascinating species of animals. Strange and exotic creatures that he never knew existed.
He sensed the presence of a few giant spiders probing out at him. He didn’t want to end up as spider bait or have to fight them. So, he mentally slapped them and shredded at their minds painfully to scare them off. He projected an enormous, ferocious version of himself down the rest of the tunnel.
Not one of the spiders attempted to mess with him after that. They didn’t even expose themselves as he walked through their caverns. The spiders pressed back into their webs weaved in dark corners. Others pushed themselves farther down their crevices trying to avoid his mind probes. He chuckled as they strived to make themselves smaller and less detectable
Thorgaut also sensed the presence of weird creatures that he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t tell if they were human or animal. Some seemed to be a cross between the two. Others were wholly different and foreign to his senses.
The Viking didn’t stop to discover who or what they were. He was curious, and someday he knew it would be fun coming back to explore further. But for now, he was anxious to get home.
There was one interesting thing he came across. It was a plant species with a certain amount of intelligence. They actually seemed to be able to communicate with him at an elementary level. He approached them warily as he probed for danger.
The plants didn’t seem to be a threat nor think of him to be one. Thorgaut noticed that it seemed to exude an aura of healing intelligence. They actually seemed to be offering their services to him if needed.
Thorgaut knew his body had fully healed itself of everything he had been through and experienced. So, he politely declined and thanked them for their gracious offer. He quickened his pace after that. He knew he was arriving at the cave entrance.
As he exited the cave, he could see the river a short distance away. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low on the horizon behind him. It took his eyes a minute to adjust to the sunlight.
“Sunlight!” he thought. “It felt so good to be out in the open and breathe fresh air once again. He inhaled deeply, paying attention to each and every scent that assailed his senses.
An awareness of Ariana’s presence pressed into his mind. She greeted him excitedly as she popped out of the forest. She scampered over in his direction.
“Hey there,” he greeted her back. “I see you made it safely. How is Svart?”
“He’s doing well,” she replied. “He snapped out of Abyss Snarer’s control soon after we entered the tunnel. What happened after I left you?”
The spiderling probed his mind for a mental image. He played out a brief vision of the spider jumping at him. Then showed Ariana a scene of him stabbing Abyss Snarer in the forehead with the fang. And finally, a view of himself ripping off the giant spider’s head.
“Wow! Nice job,” she muttered admiringly. He could tell her level of respect increased immediately. He thought he even sensed a bit of fear tinge her emotions as she realized how fast and powerful he had become.
He held back the images of Abyss Snarer biting him and wrapping his body in her thread. He felt it was unnecessary. And frankly, the Viking warrior felt a bit miffed at having been caught off guard like that.
He also didn’t want to reveal the extent of his healing powers. The less Ariana knew about his healing capabilities, the better. She might share it in the collective mental web. They might use that kind of knowledge against him someday. Besides, keeping it a secret could come in quite handy at some point.
“How did my friends react when they saw you?” he asked.
He imagined the look of shock on their faces when they saw the spiderling and chuckled to himself. Even though Ariana was small for her kind, Ariana was still much significantly bigger than any spider the humans had ever seen.
“To say I surprised the girl would be an understatement,” she replied. “She screamed and climbed a tree as soon as she saw me.”
Ariana suppressed a giggle as she pushed a mental image into Thorgaut’s mind. He could see Katla hanging onto the branches and screaming hysterically. They both chuckled at the thought but stopped when they saw her coming through the trees. It was hard to keep a straight face as he reviewed the scene in his head.
“Thorgaut!” Katla screamed in delight. “You’re alive, and you’re back!”
The pretty girl raced in Thorgaut’s direction. Her wild, red hair streamed in the wind. Katla threw her arms around Thorgaut when she reached him. She squeezed him tightly for a long time. She finally let go and wiped a tear from her eye.
“It’s good to see you too, Katla,” he said brushing his hand against her cheek to wipe away another tear.
“We thought you were gone for good and that we never see you again,” she said swallowing a sob. She grabbed Thorgaut again and held on. He hugged her back now that she didn’t have his arms pinned to his sides.
“Where’s everyone else?” he asked.
“They’re out looking for you,” she replied. “Liut, Grimar, and Bior left a week ago to track you down. I haven’t seen them since.”
Thorgaut’s heart froze in his face paled.
“What is it?” Katla asked. “What happened to them? What happened you all this time?”
Thorgaut shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he replied. “There are a lot of dangerous things out here in these woods. Anything could have happened to them. We need to find them though.”
He mentally asked Ariana if she could still tap into the collective mind.
“Of course,” she replied. “You want me have the spider scan the caves.”
“Yes,” he answered. “Have they seen any humans wandering around in there.”
“No,” she said. “But I have asked a few to head back up to the entrance underneath Svart’s house. They were already heading in that direction anyway.”
The three of them walked back towards the camp where they met up with Svart. Thorgaut was happy to see the boy safe and sound. He gave the blond-haired lad a big hug. Svart seemed pleased to see him as well.
“What a crazy adventure. Huh?” Thorgaut said.
Svart laughed and rolled his eyes. “You can say that again!”
Ariana tapped into his awareness. She let him know that the spiders had arrived at the entrance to the boy’s house. They hadn’t seen or sensed the presence of any humans in the cave. The spiders had even entered and scanned the house. But Thorgaut could see that everything was in place just like he had left it.
Thorgaut mentally ran back over the path he had taken to arrive at Halldora’s meadow. He knew that he had circled around and come back in this direction. Knulkforrest couldn’t be that far away. If knew its exact location he could cut straight through the trees and get there quickly. But there was a good chance of him getting lost again. He assumed that was what had happened to his friends.
As he traced his route, there was an area of his memory that seemed to be blanked out. Thorgaut figured that was where Halldora was cloaking her home. He tried probing around that zone mentally, but was fuzzy and out of focus. He could almost sense Halldora’s presence. He quit examining and analyzing those thoughts after a few minutes though. He felt angry at himself for not being able to pin the location down.
He felt frustrated because his senses didn’t function at a great distance. If he could pick out Halldora’s presence, he knew she must be close. Even though it was barely perceptible, he could still sense her. He sat down on the log and considered his options.
Katla had busied herself over the fire. She had been stirring something in a pot, and it smelled terrific. Soon she was serving the humans large bowls of soup. She offered Ariana a bowl who declined with a funny look on her face. But she tried to be gracious and thanked her for the kind offer.
Thorgaut could see the questioning look in Katla’s eyes. He knew she was dying to ask him what had happened and how he had met the spider. But he wasn’t in the mood to tell her the whole story right now. So he smiled and kept shoveling the delicious warm food in his mouth.
He scraped the last of the stew from the bottom of his bowl and smacked his lips. His sensitive hearing detected footsteps coming through the woods. They were soft and barely perceptible. He couldn’t tell who it was, but there was a faint scent drifting in the breeze that seemed familiar.
The Viking put his bowl down. He turned in the direction the steps were coming from. He motioned for everyone to be silent and put out his hand to take Katla’s sword. Everyone froze and watched him in silence.
He gasped has dark figure stepped out of the woods and came into view.
“Going to kill an old friend who comes to visit you, Thorgaut?” a quiet voice said lilting softly over his name.