“All of the preparations are complete,” the sorcerer said after boldly striding into the cramped room. “Derran is securely established in the village and is waiting for your arrival. As we discussed, he’ll remain with you until we have stabilized our borders and it’s once again safe for both of you to return to Mystandia. He’s an extremely competent swordsman as well as a Master Sorcerer. There’s no other whom I’d entrust with your safety. You may rest assured you are in good hands. I’ll contact you as often as I’m able and will keep you updated on our situation here in Mystandia.”
An uncomfortable silence engulfed the room as the sorcerer’s deep voice rumbled to a close. He studied the young woman huddled forlornly by the fireplace. She was dressed in a tattered brown traveling dress and a dark-green overcoat that had been patched more times than could be counted. Her shoulder length golden hair glistened in the firelight as she stared into the crackling flames. Giving no sign to acknowledge the sorcerer’s words, she absently turned a small purple and silver glass orb in her left hand.
“It is time, Haeleena,” the sorcerer murmured softly. He’d put the journey off as long as he dared. She couldn’t linger any longer.
Haeleena looked up at him as a tear glided down her heavily freckled cheek. The war had destroyed both her home and her family, and it was now forcing her to flee from the only world she’d ever known.
Richter looked up at the opening in the earth sixty feet above him. As his muscles ached, Sion shouted down at him to hold on, and he heard another sprite voice shout in the distance, “Your lord! I must speak to your lord! He has to know!”
The chaos seed hung there, battered and bruised. A stack of prompts flashed in the corner of his vision, waiting to be read, including one that had the clear, pulsing border of an absorbed memory. None of this interested him at the moment, though.
Despite everything that had just happened, despite all of the things that were waiting to be done, and even despite the mystery of what he had ‘to know,’ there was only one thing on Richter’s mind. He sighed heavily in frustration and pain, then shouted up to his people looking down at him, “Would you hurry the fuck up! I’m literally hanging off a cliff down here!
All that kept him from falling to his death was one hand clutching the hilt of his short sword. The weapon was jammed into the wall of the pit he hung over. As he had fallen, Richter had managed to desperately plunge the clear green blade into the stone as he fell. To be honest, he hadn’t actually expected it to work, but luckily the fey metal had been up to the task.
As he swayed slightly in the air, he swung his other hand up with a pained grunt. His muscles felt like they had been stretched and seared, and his free hand was shaking slightly as he came down from the battle high. Despite this, he was able to grab a small shelf of stone. Now somewhat more secure, he breathed out slightly in relief. That feeling didn’t last.
An internal voice told him, no screamed at him, not to, but Richter just couldn’t resist looking down. Both arms extended above his head, he twisted his neck back and to the right. Beneath him, a sea of black satin Dark magic undulated and hinted of hidden monsters.
Gazing at the pool of pitch-black magic beneath him, fear began to worm its way through his heart. That internal voice sat back, smug, and said, ‘See, dumbass? You shouldn’t have looked.’ The voice wasn’t getting any argument from Richter anymore. He kept staring for a few seconds, afraid that a creature of the Dark would rise up and attack him, but thankfully the level of roiling liquid began to drop.
Whether it was because the spell duration had elapsed or whether it was because the Witch Doctor had been killed, Richter didn’t know. Even if he did, though, it would be safe to say that he gave absolutely zero fucks.
D. E. Boske
Dawn broke early on the Logan Plains. The fiery orb rose in the sky and burned across his vision, leaving him temporarily blinded. When his vision returned, he scanned the distant horizon, searching for a sign.
They should have met two days ago. Darian’s absence did not bode well. The Mage was never late. The elf scanned the sky, silently cursing the lack of cover. He did not wish to be out in the open when the sun was full in the sky, as there were reports of heavy goblin activity in the area. The elf knew dark times were ahead, he could sense it. There were other far more nefarious creatures that populated Corillia and lately, Kyler’s elven senses screamed warnings that things were about to get interesting.
He removed some bread and cheese from his pack and consumed it without in-terest. He took a deep draw from the flask at his belt, knowing he would need to con-serve the rest.
The Logan Plains was a vast grassland where the vegetation grew several feet high across much of the vast open plains, making it the perfect hiding place for ambushes. The summers were sweltering, but at night, it grew cool. The winters were harsh; the bitter cold winds blowing down from Thunder Peak stripped everything bare.
“Rah!” I let out a loud grunt as I swung my fist through the air, feeling the telltale buzz of my haptic glove shoot up my arm as my fist passed through the jaw of the shimmering opponent in front of me. A heartbeat later the simulation reeled backwards as I quickly followed up with a combination of punches, breaking through my virtual opponent’s defense.
I ducked under a wild punch, feeling a slight buzz in my headgear, telling me the attack had barely grazed the side of my head. My leg shot forward, landing a vicious strike against the simulated boxer’s side, sending him crashing into the ground. I raised my fist to strike down at my fallen opponent when the program paused itself, a sudden buzzing sound filling my ears as a message scrolled across the Augmented Reality goggles I wore.
INCOMING CALL: PETER
ACCEPT? / REJECT?
“Ugh, Peter has to be the only person who still uses a phone to call people.” With a small grunt of annoyance, I sucked in a deep breath, feeling sweat run down my back as I forced myself upright. I cleared my throat before answering the call.
“Peter?” I said after my earpiece beeped, indicating the line was connected.
“Yo, Marc.” The voice behind the phone sounded rushed, excited. “Where are you?”
“Eh? I’m exercising in the ARES at my gym. What’s up? You’re up pretty early for you, is everything okay?” I asked, concerned. Peter was one of my best friends, but he was a night owl. Having him awake this early in the morning was unusual.
“The ARES?” Peter sounded confused for a moment. “Oh right, that Augmented Reality training thing!”
“Yeah, and I was winning too.” I breathed, letting some of the annoyance creep into my voice. “What’s up? You okay?”
“Yeah man, I’m fucking great! I’m calling because I’ve got news! Huge news!” He paused for a moment to take a breath.
“Creative Tech just announced a new title, this time; it’s a VRMMORPG!”
“Sweet shit Peter! Did you just call me for that?!” I said rolling my eyes, as I looked at the frozen simulation in front of me.
“Announcing means they’re still years away from a product, and VR is a flop. VisionQuest tried it, failed miserably, and that was in development for fifteen years! Hell, the best they could do with their tech was to repurpose it for these ARES rooms anyway.”
“Why all the hype now?” I asked, while internally thinking ‘Why are you calling me about this?’
“Because they are releasing tomorrow.” I could hear the smugness in Peter’s voice.
“I know, right?” Peter spoke quickly, excitement evident in his voice. “The only bit of information we have is that there’s a stream scheduled for noon today, and that more information will be available afterwards. A ton of hype has started building on the net about it already and the news has only been out less than an hour.”
I looked at the frozen simulation before me, remembering the slight delay that all ARES had. I sighed and began stripping my haptic gloves off. “Alright man, color me interested, I’ve been looking for a new fix anyway. What’s the game called?”
Gavin bounded down the keep steps, eager to discover the cause of the cacophony echoing through the tower. The snorting and whinnying of horses competed with the voices of knights calling to each other across the courtyard. He stuffed his green tunic into his black breeches as he ran. In too much of a hurry to comb his hair, Gavin tried to smooth the brown cowlick with his fingers.
As the youngest prince of Pembroke Castle, Gavin dutifully attended his daily lessons. As a page, he was learning to handle a sword in battle and take care of the weapons, equipment, and horses of the knights. Soon to be a squire, he worried about how he would act in battle. Well, not exactly in battle. Squires tended the knights’ horses and guarded the supplies while they fought. The unspoken rule of warfare stated that squires couldn’t be put in danger. However, others in the castle had talked about the times the enemy had sent warriors behind the fighting to attack the supply line. Squires who hadn’t run away had been injured or killed.
Gavin worried about disgracing his family and the crown, worried that he would be scared enough to run or worse, get injured or killed.
The simple truth was, he was afraid.
Burying those thoughts, Gavin burst into the bailey courtyard amassed with horses and knights milling about. Dust swirled, choking the air, causing him to cough and sneeze. He recognized his older brother Robert across the chaotic courtyard and raised his hand in salute.
Robert led his black gelding over and handed Gavin the reins.
“Hi, Gav.” Robert tousled Gavin’s hair.
“What’s happening? Where are you going?”
“Someone broke into the throne room last night and stole the King’s Ransom…” Gavin gasped.
The medallion was made of gold and embedded with emeralds so dark the jewels looked black except in the sunlight. Then the deep green sparkled lighter and reminded him of the first blades of grass pushing up through the dark earth in the spring. The tremendous weight of the medallion required him to use both hands when holding it.
Stories passed down said that a traitor over the channel had used it to force a king to ransom his kingdom. To be in possession of it meant to be in possession of power. Many men wanted that power. Gavin’s grandfather’s grandfather had found it as a young man during the siege of a French castle. Though only seventeen, that prince had recognized its importance and had risked his life to bring it home. To protect his find, he’d spent the night in a storeroom listening to the screams of the defeated forces and the drunken laughter of the victors. He’d presented it to his father, and it had been in the possession of the King of Pembroke Castle ever since.
“…and killed one of our men,” Robert finished, breaking into his thoughts.
An image of the thin, wiry man appeared in Gavin’s mind. It wasn’t pleasant. Aldred had managed the estate and castle’s daily needs and also watched over the treasury. That meant that he frequented the throne room. Invariably he was with the king when Gavin needed to talk to his father. It bothered him that Aldred shared the private conversations he had with his father, always made him feel unimportant. But his father would be upset at his death.
“As soon as Father gets here, we’re going hunting. Man-hunting.”
“Might I go along as your squire?” Gavin asked.
Robert seemed to see the hesitation Gavin knew was etched on his face.
“Not this time, Gav. You’ll get your chance to join us soon enough. And Gavin…” Robert paused. His body stiffened as he spotted the king making his way through the crowd on his black stallion. “You’ll do well.” He mounted his horse and held out a hand. Gavin handed him the reins and watched as Robert joined their father, King Wallace.
“You know your father’s rule,” a soft voice behind Gavin said.
Onnie winced as an apple fell from the gather of her apron, striking root. She stooped, inspecting the small gash and bruise on the pink skin. It had been perfect for market; now it would be tossed in with the cider apples. No great loss, but she hated to see a pretty thing marred. She reached to gather it up again, then froze as a harsh, foreign laugh sounded across the orchard.
Spinning on her heels, she searched for the sound’s source. There—a pair of men, walking through the trees as though they owned them, their rollicking voices nearing with every step. With great hilts bristling at shoulder and hip, with leather and mail gleaming, they could only be mercenaries. They weren’t in any regular army—fearful enough—and they couldn’t be bandits, bold as brass as they strolled, picking the apples off the trees.
Onnie pressed the apron hem to her nose, shrinking against the trunk. Only thing worse than bandits were mercenaries, everyone knew. Only difference between them was that one kept hidden, and the other had your lord’s coin and protection. Was the trunk hiding her? How she wished it were bigger. Were the men coming closer? Maker save her, they were. She muted a whimper.
“No, it gets better. See, what does he do then,” one was saying, “but try to loose a warning bolt, right by the messenger’s head. But it turns out he fancies himself a better bowman than he is, because—hold, what’s this?”
They stopped. Onnie, who’d been edging towards the trunk’s other side as they walked by, tried to spring to her feet to bolt, but her foot tangled in her apron, sending her sprawling at the men’s feet along with two-dozen apples. Likely ruined now, she thought dimly, watching one roll between a large pair of boots.
She pushed up to her knees, staring with mute terror at the pair looming over her. One had an eye patch, and a terribly scarred face. The other had a bristling brown beard, and both had wicked grins.
“Aww, it’s a little apple blossom, all alone,” drawled the bearded one, stepping closer still. “Where’s your minder, girly? Surely you aren’t old enough to be out in the woods on your own.”
Onnie’s lips quivered as she fought to find her voice. “It’s our orchard. You shouldn’t be here.” It came out in a whisper.
The mercenaries laughed. “Well, we weren’t doing any ill, were we? Only taking a little walk. Sure, we might be taking a few bites as we go, but where’s the harm? Now, now. No need to shriek. We’re only having a chat.”
No use in shrieking, there was the truth of it. If she screamed now, her mother and brothers might come out, but her brothers were children, whatever they said to the contrary, and children armed with pitchforks would be quickly cut down by these monsters. She’d have to try to run again.
She’d hardly gathered her legs under her when the bearded one stepped forward again, his boot coming down on her tunic’s hem. For the first time Onnie could think of, she actually wished her tunic would rip, but the contrary thing stayed whole, pinning her to the earth. The apple-sweet air now reeked of sour sweat, and worse.
Let me be. She mouthed the words, but her breath had knotted in her chest so she didn’t think she could even squeak. If there was any point in squeaking, or in saying anything to the brutes.
“Help the poor girl up, Creyl,” the man with the eye patch chuckled, stooping down to wrap a massive, callused hand around her upper arm. It clamped tight as a shackle, yanking her to her feet. The tunic did rip, then, as her arm bruised. Ruined. She stared up into the one-eyed leer, feeling faint. She wished she would faint, hoped she might.
A third figure appeared in the trees, lanky and lean and leading a mule. Oh, two were more than enough to champion for Hell. What had she done to fall so foul of Chance and the Maker?
“What’re you louses doing?”
Onnie blinked, focusing on the newcomer. A woman’s voice? A young woman. Of a height with an average man, she wore a round shield on her back, and some menacing looking ball-and-chain weapon hung at her hip. Her blond hair was short and tousled, her face pale and her eyes bright blue and—flat. Onnie dropped her gaze. She’d hoped for a rescuer, but mercs were as mercs did. This one being a woman, really more of a girl, didn’t change that.