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Aleph-Null: The Awakening of The Celestial Heart

by Thomas James Donoghue about a month ago in Fantasy
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Volume 1: The Weeping Woman & The Wild One. Act 1, Part 4 - Outline

Aleph-Null: The Awakening of The Celestial Heart
Photo by Billy Freeman on Unsplash

Act 1 - Part 4

Chapter 1

Our characters, now set on their paths, are drawn to meet each other.

The Weeping Woman walks along worn game paths through the hills in the valley, heading west. She experiments with her abilities, examining the world with her newly enhanced perception, focusing on the smallest details as she walks her path and sees for the first time the depth and complexity of the fabric of reality and the interplay of all life. She follows a flickering glow to the west. She can feel bright and brilliant light, a soul calling out for help.

The Wild One wanders in the woods heading vaguely west as well. Depression and anxiety grip her tightly, she feels utterly alone. The slightest sounds from the wild animals set he leaping for cover whenever something as harmless as a hare darts across her path. She sleeps rough in the forest, using her cloak as a blanket, mossy roots as a pillow, and eating berries and mushrooms to stave off her hunger pains.

Petyr hunts for her. The loss of his sons at Liays hand sinks deeper in the pit of his stomach. He tracks her through the woods but can hardly keep her trail. There is no rhyme or reason to her movements, she snakes the creeks and rivers, wanders up hill then seems to double back, he feels she is mocking him. He fears he may never find her. Still, he and his brothers comb the wilderness looking for any sign of their quarry from horseback with their hounds in tow, noses presses to the ground for a scent.

As the weeping woman walks high in the hills, she can feel another signature in The Ether, darker, filled with anger and desire for violence. She hopes not to cross paths with this spirit, its pain so close to her own, a murky mirror image.

Devlyn The Huntsman makes his way from Aegisglade back to his home in The Riverlands. He will need to cross through the valley that The Wild One and The Weeping Woman called home.

The smirk has not yet left his face from the enormous bounty he just received, glowing with the pride of his triumph. Yet, he can not shake an uneasy feeling from his fitful sleep on the night of the full moon. Still, he presses on, his horse trotting along briskly and his faithful dog just ahead on the road sniffing at a crossroads signpost.

As night begins to fall, The Wild One builds a small fire in a dry riverbed, a fork off the main flow that is full and raging in the spring after the melt, but this time of year is dry and full of old sticks and logs that catch quickly for her. She sits by the fire, staring into the flames, trying to warm herself and find some form of comfort. She had found some wild carrots earlier in the day when she spotted a rabbit nibbling on its greens. She roasts them on a flat stone near the fire, finally able to eat something more substantial than a handful of berries or a chewy mushroom from the side of a tree. After she eats, she can not find sleep. Her mind still races, and she stares into the fire, trying to make sense of herself.

In the twilight, The Weeping Woman can clearly see The Ether. Her vision is free of the blazing light and energy of The Sun. She can follow the flickering of the soul she follows directly, seeing it blinking like a beacon, resonating a low din in her mind.

Peter and his brothers set up a small camp in a clearing on the south side of the valley, frustrated at their lack of progress in their hunt. They build a fire and run a few rabbits and pheasants through with sharpened sticks to roast for their meal. They eat and drink from a cask of ale and down shot after shot of grain alcohol to settle their minds until the night darkens and they pass out where they sit.

Devlyn sets up a small camp, using his cart as shelter to hang the corners of his canvas tent. He had procured several fine dried sausages from Rory's wife and some excellent cheese and wine, which he enjoys as the view of the sun setting over the city shines purple and orange. He shares a few morsels with Rufus while Winfrey grazes in the field before they all lay down in the soft grass for some rest.

The Weeping Woman continues walking into the night, she had thought she would be starving by now, but the cool water in her leather flask has kept her satiated. Even a tiny sip is enough to quench her thirst and rejuvenate her, an effect of her awakened power, perhaps? She is unsure but glad all the same.

The Etheric light she follows flickers before her, filling her vision almost entirely. She approaches but begins to hear a soft whimpering amongst many layered voices. They all speak in the same cadence, arguing over each other. She slows her pace, knowing she has reached the troubled soul that calls out for some semblance of peace.

***

Sophia quietly walks into the riverbed, stepping softly as to not disturb the stones. She sees Liya sitting, legs crossed, staring into the fire. She moves around to not approach her from behind and calls out to her with her mind, sending out her kind intent. The two have not yet connected, but Liya stirs nonetheless, feeling Sophia's presence and peace shining towards her.

Liya stiffens at the sight of this stranger. She jumps up to a low crouch, grabbing her staff and levelling it at Sophia. She does not fear Sophia but herself instead, terrified that she will lose herself again and cause even more destruction.

Sophia approaches calmly, introducing herself, and asks if she can share the fire with her.

As she speaks, Liya remains silent but feels the peace and calm radiating from The Weeping Woman washing over her. She lowers her staff and gestures to a stone across the fire for Sophia to sit on. She had thought these feelings had left her forever.

Sophia sits and sees the fear in Liya's eyes as the flames dance between them. She sees the cracks forming in Liya's lips from dehydration, the river is close by, but the water is full of life and not safe to drink so far from the springs higher in the mountains, a clever girl to know this and not make herself sick even though she must be parched.

Sophia freely offers her waterskin to Liya, and their fingers touch for a moment as she hands it to her.

A flash of Liya's pain and confusion runs like a bolt of lightning through Sophia's mind, but she remains composed, shedding a single tear for this poor girl alone in the wilderness, sitting in her sorrow with no soul to comfort her.

As Liya drinks the water, cleansed and energetically charged from being in Sophia's Etheric aura, she can hardly bring the mouth of the leather flask from her lips. She takes several large gulps and feels it rejuvenating every cell in her body.

Liya feels her mind quiet for a moment as she thanks Sophia and apologizes for taking so much.

Sophia smiles and says not to worry. She was happy to help, asking only for the young girl's name.

Liya introduces herself hesitantly, unsure of quite what to say. She offers her name and stutters as she explains herself, trying to come up with a reason for her predicament.

Sophia tells her that she need not worry, whatever reason she has for being here is hers to keep. Instead, Sophia offers the story of how she came to find her here, alone in the woods.

Sophia begins to tell her story backwards, starting with her vision of Liya's light in the dark of the night, following it, feeling her pain, hearing her cries, and feeling drawn to her by destiny, called by a kindred spirit.

She tells Liya of her meeting with The Sovereign, how he had saved her from a fate not entirely different from the one she finds Liya in now, lost and hopeless with no direction.

She tells her of Cullen and his passing, how she thought she had died with him, lost in his passing and blinded to any hope of how to go on.

She tells her of The Ether, how it bound her to her husband, the Sovereign, and now to Liya. She explains how she used it to guide her, showing her the way to this small fire in the middle of nowhere and the brilliant light shining beside it.

Liya listens intently, Sophia's words resonating in the center of her heart. She feels her pain and hope rising and falling as her story continues. She feels a deep catharsis in this sharing. They both shed a tear as their spirits harmonized at this moment.

Liya feels her own words jumping out from between her lips. She can not hold back any longer.

She tells Sophia her story in the same way, beginning with her lighting this fire, staring into the flames as her mind would repeatedly race to play the previous night, trying to figure out what happened and how to go on.

She tells her of her flight from her village and how she could never return, even though she missed her family terribly.

She approaches an expression of the massacre she can not fully remember but stops short and breaks down into tears.

Sophia comforts her, sitting beside her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, weeping with her.

Sophia feels Liya's anguish and does what she can to share her burden. She sees flashes of blood and terror, pain and alienation, but it is all blurred and murky. The darkest reaches of her soul are still blocked off by a powerful mental wall that Liyas subconscious has put up to protect her. The two sit together and work through the tears, breathing in unison as they reach together into the calm and timeless moment that Sophia opens from her heart and shares with Liya.

Sophia uses the resonance of her Ether to harmonize Liya's and tamp down the jagged edges of her psyche. She cannot breach the sealed core of her mind where her darkness has been walled off, but she can patch the cracks from which it seeps, poisoning her conscious mind.

She is finally able to help her achieve some semblance of peace.

As the two catch a deep breath and look into each other's eyes, they know that their fate lies together, sisters in loss, searching for everlasting peace, not just for themselves but for all.

Chapter 2

As dawn breaks, all three parties begin their days early, rising with the sun.

Devlyn is awakened by his animals as they stir from their slumber and make their morning noises, stretching and shaking the sleep from their bodies.

Peter and his brothers are stirred by a troop of chipmunks scurrying over them for the scraps of bread they had left lying scattered around them. They shoo them away, annoyed, heads dry and thumping from too much drink.

Liya and Sophia hear the songbirds singing before they open their eyes to the riverbed filled with soft rays of sunlight. They have a short discussion about where to head next now that they have made their connection and begun Liya's awakening, her path of growth and training, and the exploration and exultation of her power. Sophia explains further that the bandits who had taken up settlement in her village must be dealt with. She sets her sights on Aegisglade to find Freeblade Knights or men at arms under the charge of The Magistrate to join her in routing them from the valley. She asks Liya if she will join her in this cause, and she agrees happily, glad to have a friend and a purpose, someone to share the path with, and a path to walk at all.

Devlyn disassembles his camp and packs his things away in his cart, hitching it back on to Winfrey after he replaces and tightens her saddle. He continues on the road to the east, a long journey before reaching his home in The Riverlands. He thinks to himself about what he will spend his silver on, and the first thing that comes to mind is a hot meal and a pint of dark ale. He knows of an inn just about a half-day journey along his way. He could also use a bath, warm bed, and shelter for himself and his animals. He notices dark clouds on the horizon, moving quickly, and decides to spend some of his wealth on the comforts he would usually go without on any other trip through the valley.

Peter and his brothers nurse their hangovers with more drinks as they break down their camp, moving slowly with heavy eyes and knots in their stomachs. Mykal feels the least nauseous of the three, and as he goes to relieve himself behind a tree, he can smell smoke in the air. A realization fills his mind, their fire had gone out in the night, the ashes were cold when he tried to warm his hands this morning. The wind was blustering directly into his face, causing him to piss on his shoes, but with it came the unmistakable scent of woodfire, it had to be her. He returns to his brothers, still fixing his trousers, and tells them of his discovery. The men sober up quickly at the thought of their quarry being so close and move with a new effort. They load their horses and call their hounds, who had been harassing the chipmunks and squirrels, pointing them in the direction of the scent of fire and watching them bolt off ahead of them.

***

The two women keep a brisk pace throughout the morning while Sophia tryies to explain more of what she understands of The Ether as they walk.

Her words are cryptic, half-remembered from The Sovereign's teachings. She does her best to recall his lengthy yet instantaneous expositions directly into the deepest reaches of her mind. She can not access every memory, but she pieces enough to help Liya understand that they both have an enhanced connection to the sympathy of all life and the ability to tap into the energy that connects all things. Their true purpose would reveal itself in time. At least, this is what The Sovereign had said. She tells her that all they both need to do is listen to the quiet in their heart, and they will be able to right the greatest wrongs and use the power of their light to bring a new world into being.

They also discuss the nature of violence in the world. Liya is filled with questions, curious as to why such a gentle person as Sophia would fall in love with a warrior like Cullen.

Liya is ignorant of the nature of war and combat. Her first brush with mortality was the day she took the boys' lives.

She had seen the elderly pass and was not so naive to not know of death, but the notion of killing had never been something she concerned herself with. She had seen the boys of the village scrap and row, fighting amongst themselves to prove who is strongest, but nothing more than a few bruises was ever produced. It wasn't until the two boys drew the blade against her that she understood what real fear was, and in that fear, she turned into something she can hardly remember, let alone explain.

Sophia does her best to answer her, explaining that violence is a tool used by humanity throughout all time and that all living things of sufficient complexity use it as a means for survival and to bring about the chance for flourishing. Not all violent acts need to be evil. This was the path that Cullen walked, the path of valour and honour. She explains that honing one's strength and prowess, using it with intent and knowing when to show mercy was the noblest aim. Some kill to conquer, and some kill to survive, but some fight and need not kill. They show compassion and are willing to reach out even to an enemy, and they are the ones who make lasting connections in the world. By reaching the limits of mortality and morality, and choosin life, the bravest and most honourable warriors shine out into the world as a beacon of hope. Though the world is dark, there can still be light even at the end.

Liya ponders this for a long while. Ultimately realizing that even though she has this incredible capacity for destruction, its proper, measured, use will lead her to fully understanding herself and her place in the world. However, she is still filled with worry and doubt. She prays that she will be able to walk the noble path of mercy.

As they walk, Sophia tries a new tactic to help Liya attune to her power, asking her to find a peaceful place in her mind and open up her imagination. What would she like to do?

Liya closes her eyes and thinks about the time before she fled, the happy moment when she danced and practiced her acrobatics, usually uninterrupted. A move that had always illuded her, and the first thing to come to mind, was a triple twisting flip. She did not know if such a thing had a proper name, but her best so far had been a double variation, never able to fully commit to giving herself enough rotation to complete the maneuver.

Sophia smiles as they pass a low stone wall, a fence or border for some old property long overgrown and reclaimed by nature. She motions towards it and tells Liya to try it, to use the The Flicker of The Ether to see how far she can push herself now.

Liya accepts the playful challenge and steps onto the wall, focusing on the memory of the stillness in the air, the weightlessness. Before she knows it, she is already high above the ground, spinning and twisting, unsure of how many revolutions she has made before her feet touch back lightly onto the wall's stone.

Sophia whistles loudly and runs up to Liya, applauding.

Liya extends her arms with a flourish and bends into a low bow before hopping off the wall and back to the road, asking how many flips she had made, she had lost count.

Sophia laughs and says that she lost count after ten. Her body was like a bur in the air.

Liya can hardly believe her ears, she feels dizzy for a moment, or at least she thinks she should, but she knows her newfound friend would not tease her in such a way or lie to her to make fun. She had helped her reach a new height she never thought attainable by giving her the strength to believe in herself.

The two smile and laugh together as they continue down the road.

Liya asks Sophia for a demonstration of her power, curious what else The Ether can bring into the world, but Sophia replies with a simple boop on her young friend's nose, saying only, "I found you didn't I?"

Liya feigns a frown and pesters her again and again until Sophia gives in.

Sophia sighs, "Oh, alright," there was something she had wanted to try since her meeting with The Sovereign. She places her hands together and closes her eyes for a moment, focusing her mind and opening up her Vision of The Ether. They glow with white-gold light when she opens them, and she tells Liya to look down the path a short distance.

Sophia disappears and reappears a few dozen meters away in a flash, but as her form recompiles, she is visibly exhausted and takes a knee.

Liya rushes over to her and asks if she is alright, to which Sophia replies that she is fine, just tired. Maybe that was a bit too far for her first attempt at teleportation.

As they continue along the road, Sophia explains what she saw as she travelled through the immaterial realm.

She was in a spiralling fractal projection of the world, a grid of energy without form. She had set her path and walked along a stream of Ether, but each step, pulling her body through the formless realm, took great effort. The Sovereign must have a more efficient way to move through this maddening plane of existence, or perhaps he is simply more practiced.

The two walk into the afternoon having a lively conversation about the nature of The Ether and its myriad applications. Could it really be true what The Sovereign had said? Was their power only limited by their imagination? They hope out loud to each other along their journey to find inspiration to expand their creativity and forge many new applications.

They laugh again heartily at their silly little back-and-forth rhymes until they see an inn as they round a corner through the trees where the valley opens up into the plains.

Chapter 3

Peter and his brothers arrive at the source of the scent, a few embers smouldering in a small fire pit in the middle of a dry riverbed, where The Weeping Woman and The Wild One had spent the previous night.

Their hounds circle the area, noses pressed to the ground, looking for a new trail.

The three men walk their horses through the undergrowth behind the hounds until they see a path leading to the road.

The sun is already high in the sky. It is early afternoon before they remount their horses and follow a few fresh footprints in the dust of the road. They make their way along, frustrated as the trail fades into nothing. They know their quarry must be close, but they lose hope of finding her. If she had made it out of the valley, there were far too many directions for them to check before she would be too far gone.

Devlyn arrives at the inn just before noon. He rode all morning and was glad to give his horse a break. He dismounts and takes off Winfrey's tack, laying it in his cart and letting her graze the grass in the fields around the inn while he enters to make his introductions to the Innkeeper. Roofus watches the animals in their pens and runs the perimeter, chasing after the geese. Devlyn talks with the Innkeeper Sven and his wife Ingrid, who remember him from his previous visit a few seasons ago. They chat briefly, glad to have some business in the off-season. They had seen few on the roads of late, save for a caravan that did not stop on its way into the valley.

Devlyn books himself a room and asks for some water and grooming tools for his animals. Upon his request, Ingrid ventures to the bathhouse, fetching a bucket of warm water and some brushes for Devlyn to scrub away the dust and musk of a long journey from the coats of his companions. He returns outside to wash them both. After spending so much time on the road, he had hardly noticed that they had all become quite smelly from many days of travel. Only after filling his nose with the fresh scents inside the inn did he notice how rank they had become. Winfrey is glad to feel the pleasant scrubbing of the brush, fluttering her lips and nodding happily. Roofus is more reluctant but takes his bath nonetheless.

He stables Winfrey, giving her a fresh bail of hay and a bucket of clean, cool water. He gives Roofus a bowl of food from the Innkeeper, trimmings from the meat he was preparing for the evening's meal. The animals eat and rest in the shade of the stable. Devlyn is glad he can care for his companions, who have helped him so much along the way.

Devlyn scrubs his hands on a rag as he returns to the inn, it is now his turn. The Innkeeper's wife draws him a bath, filling a large wooden tub in the bathhouse connected to the inn. She takes his garments to wash them after he is submerged in the pleasant floral bubbles. Devlyn has a short nap in the hot bath and wakes as the water cools. He finds his clothes folded near the door and returns to the main hall for a drink.

The Innkeeper pours a frothy ale, and Devlyn sits by a window beside the fire with a book from the shelf near the bar. It is recent publication detailing the war that had only just concluded a year prior. The stories within are told from the point of view of the warrior-poet Sigmund Rook. It was titled "How the men from beyond the sea rose and fell like the tide."

The battles it depicts took place much farther to the west, in and around the cities near the coast, Devlyn had known no one who fought in any of them, but word of the war had reached far and wide. The people of the island nation of Maralayara had invaded, seeking to build settlements on the continent and claim its lands for their own. An exciting read, full of insight and intrigue. Devlyn had heard tales of the war, the songs of the heroes sung by the bards in the cities, but to read a first-hand account was a rare glimpse into the true nature of war. He reads many chapters, smoking his pipe and tossing back several mugs of ale, quite content to be off the road and enjoying a pleasant afternoon.

As Sophia and Liya near the inn, they see that it has a large set of pens outback with pigs, goats, and geese, as well as a few cows grazing in the field just beyond. A chimney and a few steam pipes poke out from the roof, plumes of smoke and water vapour puffing out from them. The steam pipes tell them just by looking that the inn has a set of baths, and they are both elated by the idea of a proper soak. As they get closer, they see a stable off to the side of the main building with a dappled horse in one of the stalls.

Parked off to the side of the stables is a cart with a large black iron strongbox and a dog sitting inside it napping. Roofus rouses from his slumber as they approach, letting out a friendly bark as he saunters up and lays in the grass before them, showing his belly with his paws bent meekly.

They both give the happy dog a few pats and scratches before he stands back up, shaking the grass from his short fur and letting out a playful sneeze before hopping back into the cart to nap on a bundle of canvas.

They enter the inn and are greeted warmly by its keeper, Sven, a kindly older gentleman who is overjoyed to have so many patrons all at once on this seemingly random day in the late summer.

Sophia requests all the amenities he has to offer, booking herself and Liya a room for the night as she produces a modest but heavy pouch of coins.

The innkeeper jests, offering the two of them the royal treatment.

It was still a beautiful day, but the women were glad to be inside after their nights in the wilderness. As they walked, the sun shone all afternoon, but some weather seemed to be blowing in. Dark clouds on the horizon quickened towards them with a cold wind leading.

The women take in the warmth and aromas of the inn, woodfire and steeping tea, herbs and potpourri hanging from the rafters; they are glad to finally relax, and these homey charms set them at ease. As they settle into their comfort, they notice a gentleman sitting by the hearth, reading by the light of the fire.

The man looks only a little older than Sophia, world-worn and rugged but charming, with kind dark eyes, a thick but cropped beard, and shoulder-length, slightly greying hair tied behind his head.

Devlyn takes a draw from the pipe he is smoking, turns the page of his book, and feels their eyes upon him. He marks his place with a feather he pulls from behind his ear as he closes his book and meets their gaze. He smiles politely before greeting the two women with a subtle bow.

The women return the courtesy with a genuine smile and bow, but before any introductions can be made Ingrid hollers to the girls to get out of those mucky garments and into the tubs. How unladylike to be so sodden and sweaty.

The Innkeeper's wife pushes fresh towels into their arms and unencumbers them of their weapons and cloaks, resting them in an alcove beside the bar. She pours them hot tea and directs them to the baths in a hurry.

While they soak, the Innkeeper prepares a roast piglet with potatoes, turnips, and early squash for the evening's meal.

The women walk through a hallway at the inn's back and come to the baths, where they disrobe and step in slowly. The water is steaming but not too hot as they ease themselves in and wash away the hardships of their journey so far. They joke together, feigning high society's aristocratic airs and mannerisms inspired by Sven's comment on royal treatment. They relax in the steamy bathhouse while Ingrid scrubs the musk and grit from their clothing in another room just down the same corridor.

After a long soak, the women rise and towel off. A few moments later Ingrid knocks on the door to deliver their laundry. They dress in their clean warm clothes, refreshed and content.

The two return to the main hall as the aroma of the roast fills the inn. They are greeted again with stacked plates of vegetables, meat, and gravy. They eat their fill, complimenting Sven for such a delectable meal, washing it down with a large mug of cold light lager.

Devlyn is already finishing his meal when the two arrive to eat. He keeps himself busy with the fire after clearing his plate until the women finish.

When he sees their empty plates and mugs, he introduces himself properly and asks if the two women would share a drink and conversation with him. It is not often that one meets such company in the off-season when the roads are usually lonely. The women accept, naturally, glad to see that there is still kindness in everyday people.

They make idle chit-chat as the evening winds down, mainly about the weather and the food, how refreshing the baths are, and how much care the Innkeeper and his wife put into their work.

Devlyn does not presume their business but asks them which direction the two women are travelling. He offers freely that he is heading back east to The Riverlands after claiming a bounty in Aegisglade on a ghastly and mysterious creature stalking the forests to the north.

He shares this story with the women and says he would happily offer an escort. Beyond this strange Creature's appearance, he has also heard of a band of ne'er do wells in the area from Sven earlier that day. He had told him that a caravan of scruffy-looking rogues had recently made their way into the valley. He says that if the two women are heading in the same direction, it would be best to watch each other's backs, besides having some pleasant company on the road.

Sophia and Liya are intrigued by Devlin's story. Something about the Creature's description reminds them of a half-remembered nightmare. The women thank him for his escort offer but state that they are heading west, making their way to Aegisglade.

Sophia confirms the rumour of the bandits but does not go into much detail. The wound she carries is still fresh in her heart. She instead cautions Devlyn, telling him to be wary, to stick to the game paths and back roads when he can, and give the towns a wide berth.

She tells Devlyn that the bandits have a strong foothold in the area. She and her companion Liya were only just able to slip away, tasked to find men at arms and Freeblade Knights who would help route the marauders from the valley. This white lie and half-truth are enough to satisfy Devlyn and give him pause before he praises them both for their bravery.

Sophia senses that Devlyn is a good man, even without opening up her perception to read his Ether, but he is still a stranger, and they need not blather on about every detail of their true nature to him.

Sophia does offer one more piece of information. She tells Devlyn that if he sees a man with spectacles and a large ledger hanging from his shoulder by a chain, to send an arrow right between his eyes.

She has run the day she lost her husband through her mind, over and over, analyzing every moment. She has concluded that The Scribbler was the one truly responsible for her beloved's passing, somehow twisting his fate.

As the hall darkens with the setting sun, a howling wind begins to roll around the inn, thunderclaps are heard in the distance as the weather draws close. Ingrid shuts the windows as she lights candles and lamps filling the hall with a warm glow. The women feel at home and continue their conversation with Devlyn, moving on to lighter topics such as the coming winter and the harvest festivals just a few short weeks away.

Sven grabs a fiddle from the wall after finishing the dishes and packing away the leftovers for stew. He adjusts the tuning ever so slightly until it is perfect and draws the bow agorss the strings, filling the hall with light music. Devlyn picks up a hand drum from near the fire to play along. The women smile at each other, nodding and then rising to join in with a folksy dance, stomping their feet and clapping in time with the song.

Chapter 3

Thunder and lightning peel across the sky, booming nearly immediately after the flashes shine in through the windows. The inn is still filled with music, until suddenly the door to the hall flies open, and three men enter.

Sven is startled and strikes a sour note, nearly breaking a string. He shelves his instrument and goes to greet the men, sour and grumbling while they take off their soaking coats.

Devlyn puts the drum back where he found it and retakes his seat with the women.

Sven offers the men a table and some food, but Petyr and his brothers reply coldly, obviously in foul moods, demanding bottles of potent spirits as they scrape stools along the floor to sit at the bar.

Liya sinks into her seat, back turned to the men, with a panicked look on her face.

Sophia reaches out to her with concern and confusion, holding her hand and trying to meet her eyes.

Liya begins to breathe heavily as the men at the bar vent their frustrations to each other.

They have been following the trail through the woods all afternoon, along the road and up to the crossroads near the inn, now frustrated after looking down several possible paths and finding no fresh tracks or scent to follow. Whatever tracks they could have found would soon be washed away by the storm. They have failed.

The men continue to curse and vent until Petyr looks around the hall.

Liya sits with her hood drawn low and tries to hide from his line of sight, leaning into Sophia, but a tuft of her dark red curls peeks out from the fringe of her hood, and she is spotted.

Peter sits straight up, slamming his bottle on the bar, shattering it. He stands quickly and shouts from the center of his chest with his arm outstretched, finger-pointing accusingly, "YOU!"

Sophia understands the gravity of the situation as she pieces it together from the men's mutterings and this sudden outburst. She rises from her seat as the man kicks over his stool and starts for the table they are sitting at, his fellows not far behind.

Devlyn rises as well, sensing that something very wrong is happening here. He steps between the three men and Sophia, trying to calm the situation.

Peter tells Devlyn to mind his own business if he knows what's good for him, shoving him hard as he tries to step around.

Devlyn is unfazed, simply adjusting his footing while he reaches and grabs Petyr by the collar to stop him. As he goes to speak, to implore the man to a calmer action, one of the other men, Petyr's brother Mykal, picks up a stool and cracks it across Devlin's back.

Devlyn is again unphased but for a grimace that flashes across his face. He grips Petyr's collar tightly and headbutts him, sending him to the floor with a bloody nose.

Sophia lands a heavy punch across the jaw of the man holding the broken stool legs.

He stumbles but turns with a venomous look to The Weeping Woman, spitting a tooth into his palm.

The third man, Jhorn, reaches for his sword.

Devlyn sees the flash of steel being drawn and quickly scrambles to tackle him, taking him to the ground.

A brawl ensues, and as they scuffle, Petyr slips through the melee and darts for Liya. He tears back her hood and holds her by the throat against the wall, demanding to know, over and over, WHY?.

Sophia and Devlyn deal with the other two men quickly. Sophia lands several quick blows on her opponent to shake his balance. She dodges his attacks with her enhanced perception, looking for the right opening where she lands a spinning kick with her heel square to his temple, knocking him unconscious.

Devlyn holds the other man's sword arm high above his head as they wrestle on the ground, the blade clanging dully off the wooden floor while he tries to swing it. Devlyn kneels on his chest, raining blows down upon him until his hand falls limp from the hilt of his sword.

They have been distracted for too long.

Liya is frozen in fear, being shaken against the wall by the father of the boys she had killed. She can utter little more than a whimper, repeatedly choking out "I'm so sorry" as Petyr screams into her terrified eyes.

Liya sobs, trying to pull Petyr's hands from her, but it is no use.

Petyr is in a blind rage. He swallows hard, choking back tears of his own, and says, "It doesn't matter anymore. They're DEAD... and so are you". He throws her hard to the floor and draws his blade, looming over her just as his son had.

Sophia and Devlyn turn to aid Liya when they hear her crash across the room, but it is too late.

At the flash of Petyr's steel, Liya's eyes glow with red-golden light, her power filling her being in an instant with the depths of The Ether.

Sophia reaches out to Liya with her mind but can only utter a single word in time. "Mercy."

Liya shuts her eyes and tries to reign in the power welling inside her. She grits her teeth and stifles the scream that fills her throat. She opens her eyes again, the red-white flames radiating from them move in a calmer pattern. She looks into Petyr's soul, saying calmly, "No."

The room erupts in a torrent of Etheric plasma, dashing Petyr's body in a heap against the far wall.

The blast knocks Sophia from her feet as the furniture bounces around the room, sending Devlyn tumbling across the floor to be buried benieth a table and its acompanying chairs..

Fantasy

About the author

Thomas James Donoghue

Fiction writer currently working on my graphic novel: The Weeping Woman & The Wild One.

This story and others still to come are part of the world I am creating: Aleph-Null.

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