Deep beneath the palace, a limping soldier followed the echoes of low voices, then screams. By the time he reached the room, it was empty save for a single body. She was on fire.
He rushed over, ripping free his jacket to smother the white-hot flames. They hadn’t spread far, but the damage was severe. His own hands and arms blistered, he carefully and laboriously carried the body back through the corridors. He didn’t have the courage to check if she was still alive. Not yet.
After dismantling the slingshot machines, the Mind Scythe had pressed in quickly. Their superior strategy, strength, and skill made it possible for them to begin cutting down Kritons in earnest. The enemy hadn’t taken long to retreat, and only a small group of spies was sent to follow them to make sure they were really leaving.
But in their wake, they left destruction. Bodies, carnage, sections of the ground ripped open, scorch marks on rocks and trees. It was a solemn victory for the Mind Scythe. Manicot might have been saved, but the cost had been high.
Joree tried to muster the strength to stand. There was still something he needed to do. As he tried, someone put a hand on his shoulder and gently but firmly pressed him down.
“You just sit right there.”
“I’m fine, Jistan,” Joree complained. He wasn’t really fine, but he didn’t need a minder.
“Yeah, right. You look about as lively as some of these corpses.” Joree looked up at the new voice. Aniah stood there, face dirty and hair in tangles. Her hand was wrapped in a white bandage. Joree glanced down at his own arm. He vaguely remembered the medic stitching it up and covering it with a bandage as well.
“I need to-”
“We’ll go get them,” Aniah said, almost exasperated. “You’ll just pass out and then we’ll have to carry you.”
Joree frowned but didn’t protest further.
The sound of knocking at the door nearly made Narissa scream. Her nerves were frayed from staring at the door and waiting for someone to break it down.
“Narissa? It’s Jistan and Aniah. Are you guys okay in there?”
Immediately, she relaxed, letting out a relieved breath. “It’s okay,” she said reassuringly to Eshi, whose face was buried into her shirt.
But then a spike of concern ran through her. Why only Jistan and Aniah? Where was Joree?
Quickly but carefully extricating herself from Eshi’s grasp, she rushed to the door and flung it open. “Joree?” she asked, bracing herself.
“He’s fine,” Aniah said with a dismissive wave. “Didn’t manage to get himself killed. Not for lack of trying, I might add.” A slight frown creased the corners of her mouth, but she moved on quickly. “Come on. It’s safe to go to the city now. Although,” she wrinkled her nose, “probably we’ll want to take a…round-about way. It’s a little…” She trailed off.
“Messy,” Jistan finished.
Horick stared at the carnage before him with a mixture of regret and disgust. He hadn’t arrived in time to be of any use; not that his presence would have made much of difference. Besides, this wasn’t his task. He had no responsibility towards these people.
But that was a lie. His witness had been key in his brother’s banishment. He had been instrumental in unleashing a monster on this world.
He smiled wryly at the thought. Who would have guessed that you could actually make Hell worse?
His humor evaporated quickly. Silent soldiers and medics scanned through the bodies for any survivors and gathered the bodies of the dead for identification. When there was enough left to identify.
He caught sight of a familiar figure, sitting underneath a makeshift canvas pavilion that had been set up to cover the wounded. The young man was waving away the attentions of an elderly medic woman who seemed to be trying to force him to drink something.
Horick approached, and the man looked up. “Ah,” Joree said. “It’s you. How went your…other task?”
Horick shrugged. “I found my brother. But he doesn’t know where my niece is, either. So I guess I’m back where I started. No leads.”
The youth grunted, wincing as he tried to get into a more comfortable position. Horick studied him closely. He had heard the whispered stories of what Joree had done here, most probably exaggerated. But still…
“Who are you?” Horick asked.
Joree snorted. “You’re the stranger here, sir.” He seemed about to say more, but abruptly stopped. His face, though haggard and worn, broke into an exuberant smile. “Mom!” he cried.
Horick turned to see Jistan and Aniah approaching with two other figures. One was an older woman with straight brown hair. She had a solidness about her, one untainted by age. She held the hand of a young girl with hair that looked like fire.
Horick wasn’t sure if he was still breathing. He stood like a statue, unable to force movement into his limbs. By the time they were a few paces away, he still felt petrified, unable even to speak.
The little girl smiled at Joree, her face radiant. “You’re alive!” she exclaimed.
He chuckled. “By the strict definition of that word, I suppose.”
The child finally noticed Horick, and a puzzled look crossed her face. “I-I know you. I think.”
This broke the spell. A sound that could’ve been a sob tore from Horick’s chest and he dropped to one knee so that he was looking into her eyes. She took a hesitant step back.
“Do you remember me?” he asked softly. Slowly, she shook her head.
“I don’t remember anything from before, not really.” She looked at the ground, seeming ashamed for some reason. “Sometimes I just know things, but I don’t know why or how. I can sometimes see…flashes. But that’s all.”
Horick felt his heart break. The rift had torn more from her than just power. Tentatively, he reached out and placed a hand on her cheek. She flinched, but didn’t pull away. Carefully, so carefully, he Connected with her. But this time, he wasn’t trying to change or convince or even explain. He just gave her images. Memories from his own mind; her dancing in a field of grass, playing chase with her mother, petting ‘Fluffle’, her baby zill.
She gasped. For a moment she stared into space, and then her eyes cleared. She focused on his face, and then smiled and threw her arms around his neck.
“Okay,” Aniah suddenly exclaimed. “I’m lost.”
“She’s his niece,” Joree said, sighing. “Figures. Probably should’ve guessed.”
“That’s it,” Aniah said, stomping a foot as if to emphasize her point. “I want an explanation for what is going on. Now.”
The air was cool and still across the land, the faint chill a reflection of the mood of its occupants. It had been hundreds of years since unrest rocked the foundations of their idyllic existence.
The criminal was not easily subdued. His special skillset meant that he could predict what others might do, could find their weaknesses and their desires. But he was finally captured and put into Stasis. Unfortunately, that was not a permanent solution. Eventually, he would wake, his body adjusting to the poison and growing immune.
The only permanent option was banishment. He would be cast off into another realm, a place that would strip him of his powers and his ability to progress. Some people called it the Flames of Damnation. Most just called it Hell.
By Arkadish law, the convicted had to be conscious to enter the portal. A final mercy, some called it. Once activated, the portal would suck him in immediately. It was tailored specifically to him so it presented no danger to the guards set to watch over him while he was given few short moments to say goodbye to his wife and child.
Their mercy was their mistake. He bent down to hug his daughter, whispering something in her ear. She didn’t let go of his hand, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Suddenly, the criminal lashed out at his guards, using his gifts in a morbid, violent fashion. They screamed and collapsed. Immediately, the portal was activated by the Watchers, stationed outside the room as a failsafe. At that same moment, the criminal wrapped his arms tightly around his daughter. Both were sucked into the void, leaving a screaming mother behind.
Years later, after much debate and strife, another portal was created. This one was not a banishment portal, merely a transitionary one. A single person was allowed through in order to search for the missing child.
What he found astounded him. He expected endless fire, or barren wastelands littered with pockets of steaming air, or acid rain that seared his flesh. He expected the howling, vicious wretches known as Wraiths, the occupants of Damnation. Instead, he found a slightly harsher, less appealing version of his homeland.
And the people were similar too. They looked normal, even if they wore strange clothing and tended to grow rather dilapidated as time passed.
But the real secrets took him longer to discover, and they were horrifying.
Himself and the child were sucked through the portal. She was of his flesh and blood, so she wasn’t ejected. But her transition was not nearly so seamless as his.
Both were stripped of their gifts. Unfortunately, those gifts did not remain in the realm of Arkadia, as the residents there always assumed. Instead, they were dispersed across the realm of the mortals. No mortal could hold all the power at once, so it entered into whatever crevice and crack it could fit into. Some people could hold more, some much less.
The criminal’s power acted as it was supposed to, distributing out easily across the world that he had been banished to. The girl did not emerge from the rift as quickly, and it took a little longer for her power to wrench free, leaving her in a state of limbo, where time did not pass as it should and her memories were set into a sleeper state. By the time the power had separated from her, only a tiny fragment of the world’s population remained to take hold of it. The people in that small land were flooded with power beyond what their minds and bodies could handle. It twisted them, changed them down to their very core until they were barely human. The remaining power of the criminal had nowhere left to go, so it reversed back and started cramming into whatever vessels it could. Those people were also driven to a state near to madness, unable to cope with so much power.
The traveler sent to find the child learned about this terrible outcome bit by bit throughout his search. And he vowed that when he returned to Arkadia, they would never again be so flippant with throwing their trash into the Flames.
The child emerged from the rift in a slightly different location than her father. He never realized how close they were, assuming she must have been thrown into space or dropped on the other side of the world. The truth was far more simple. A Manicoti Highness found her first.
Jistan stared at his hands as Horick finally finished speaking, his brow furrowed. It was a lot to take in. He wasn’t sure he believed all of it. Or any of it. But then, he couldn’t really disprove it either.
“So what now?” Aniah asked.
Horick gave her a grim smile. “Well, the plan is for me to take Eshi home. There’s just one problem.”
“What?” Eshi asked, craning her head to look up at him from where she sat curled up at his side. He didn’t meet her gaze.
“You can’t go back through the portal without your power.”
“And you didn’t consider that before coming to get her?” Joree asked dryly.
Horick sighed. “I’ve been…figuring it out as I go.” His expression changed to one that Jistan couldn’t quite read. “And I think I have an idea.”
“Well, out with it!” Aniah exclaimed. “I’m so sick of all this mystery and subterfuge.” She was even more snappy than usual. Jistan had a suspicion that she was trying to cover up her grief with anger.
“Joree, from what I’ve heard, you can take power from others?” Horick said hesitantly, questioningly.
“Yes,” Joree replied cautiously. “It would seem so.”
“And then you can release that energy at another target?”
Horick nodded. “Then you should be able to take the power from a…Delani and give it to Eshi.”
Joree was shaking his head before Horick even finished. “Doesn’t work like that. First of all, I can’t take Pulse. Secondly, when I release the power, I don’t give it to someone else, unless you think being blasted into the nearest tree is a gift.”
Horick frowned. Narissa, however, leaned forward.
“Eshi said something interesting to me,” she began. “Something about how we use Will to break the mind instead of change it. Obviously I don’t really know what that means, but maybe the powers can do a lot more than we assume. We’ve always used them as weapons, but what if they can do other things too?”
Horick was nodding now. “Yes. I’ve noticed that too. It seems that the nature of this realm makes the powers more violent, harder to control. I have to take a great deal more care here not to snap someone’s mind when using Connection. I initially thought your minds were just weaker, but my brother reacted the same way to my touch, and he is still, for all intents and purposes, immortal.”
“So what are you getting at?” Joree asked, folding his arms across his chest.
“I think you could guide the power gently into her, instead of blasting her away with it, if you used the proper care and control.” Horick said it as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
Joree looked displeased. “Even if that were true, it still doesn’t solve the first problem. I can’t take Pulse.”
Jistan had been thinking as they spoke, and now he finally voiced his thoughts. “Maybe,” he said slowly. “You don’t have to.” Everyone turned to look at him and he swallowed somewhat self-consciously. “You don’t have to take Pulse, Joree, because you make it. No matter what power you use, you automatically convert it to the Delani power. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like.” He half-shrugged.
Everyone fell silent, pondering.
“Why is that?” Aniah asked, cocking her head to one side, looking suddenly confused. “Why can you convert Will into Pulse?”
“You’re only now wondering this?” Karrin asked drolly. Aniah glared at her, but her face flushed red with embarrassment.
“I’ve been distracted,” she muttered.
“I still don’t like this,” Joree grumbled, as if he hadn’t even heard them. “What if I hurt her?”
Eshi scooted over to him and put a hand on his knee. “Please try, Joree,” she whispered. “I trust you.”
He gave her a tiny smile. Jistan thought he understood the look in his eyes. Joree wanted to help her, but her trust didn’t change the fact that he had no idea what he was doing. That was how Jistan felt most of the time.
Shouts and exclamations saved him from having to come up with a response. Jistan only picked out phrases here and there amidst the chaos. “Help”, “Captain”, “burns”, “get the medic”.
“What’s going on?” Aniah asked, grabbing a soldier who tried to rush past them. He barely looked at her.
“Captain Ordel has returned. He’s wounded but he’ll be fine.”
The next words were like a wall of Pulse blasting them all away.
“And he has the Highness with him.”
About the Creator
Hey all! I am a graduate from BYU in Provo with a masters in PE. I have a passion for the outdoors, physical activity, sports, and health, but I also love writing! I love my parents and all eleven of my siblings!