The end of the beginning
“There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.” Said a rugged man sitting across from a fire, its light casting deep shadows over his face.
He poked at the fire with a charred stick, the light shifted and revealed a younger face across from him. The other man frowned and leaned closer to the fire, warming his hands.
“What are you on about, Lionel? The dragons are a myth.” The younger man said.
Lionel swung his fire stick up to the mountains, slinging a brief streak of flame in a crude arc against the blue night. He closed his eyes.
“Listen to the air, Glass. If you pay close enough attention, you can hear the legends of the beasts themselves told from the same winds that blessed their wings. Listen.”
Glass chuckled and picked up a red hot rock that had fallen away from the fire pit, rolling it around in his palm before tossing it into the flame. He fished a bag of tobacco out of his coat pocket alongside a pack of papers and rolled a cigarette, lighting it against the skin of his fingertips. He took a long draw, frowning and tilting his head back to the sky. Smoke billowed from his lungs.
“You always fill your head with nonsense?”
Lionel opened his eyes slowly with deliberate calculation.
“It’s not nonsense. I occupy myself with the pursuit of answers. The arrival of the Flame is an inexplicable phenomenon, impossible to figure out by scientific or logical means.” Lionel said.
“You sound like a Cultist.”
“Hardly. I’m just inquisitive.”
“Then you’d fit in with the Draconic Order.”
Lionel cast a hard gaze over the fire at his younger companion. Glass wasn’t looking, but his skin hardened under the old man’s glare.
“Mind your accusations, boy. We may share blood, but that in itself is a thin reason for me to remain cordial with you.”
Glass cleared his throat, took one last drag at his cigarette and passed it to Lionel.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Lionel accepted the cigarette with a forgiving smile, but froze solid before getting a grip on it. The tobacco fell to the ground and before Glass could complain, Lionel clasped a hand over his mouth. The older man crouched, placing his palm on the ground and closed his eyes. A moment passed. Lionel sprung to his feet, pulling Glass up with him.
“We’re leaving, now.” He said.
Glass didn’t argue. The duo slung their bags over their shoulders, stomped out the fire and they sunk up into the shadows. Lionel was just finding his stride under the weight of his pack until something caught his ears and he latched onto Glass, diving behind a fallen log. Glass cursed, picking the foliage out of his hair, and the duo peered back into the opening where they had their camp.
A band of a dozen or so hard shadows slipped into the clearing and kicked around at the recently abandoned campsite. They overturned the coals, found the fallen cigarette and scrounged the Earth like dogs. Upon finding scraps of fire that hadn’t the chance to suffocate yet, the shadows crowded around the heat, bringing the coals to their chests, hungry. Some laid down over the fire pit, but were brutally punished for their selfishness. Cries echoed from the shadows’ gullets, but not wails of agony, rather, something guttural, something final and absolute, happy.
Lionel pulled his eyes away from the scene and the duo sunk back and away, barring his teeth.
“Cultists. I didn’t think they’d follow us this far.” He cursed.
Glass tightened the straps on his pack and peered up over the deadfall back into the clearing. The shadows were slowly growing tired of the dying fire.
“Well, they did. I say there’s only a good thirteen of them down there. We have the drop on them, we can take them here.”
“I disagree, thoroughly. We’re outnumbered, outmatched. They would never travel in such a small group. Remember, they’re hunting us because of what you—”
“Oh come on. You can’t be harping on me for that now. They had it coming and you know it.”
“I’m not giving you flak, I’m just saying that I doubt the Cultists would ever forgive you so long as they know you’re alive.”
Glass sighed and sunk back into the darkness, retiring his ambitions of heroism. His knuckles were raw, recently ripped, and the sting subdued his racing mind. Lionel noiselessly rose to his feet and the duo was off, stalking through the bush and woods with an unmistakable sureness to their step that would only belong to one who had tread the forest a thousand times. Their feet landed with no sound, threading space, sure not to snap stray branches or rustle dried leaves. Slashes of moonlight cut through the foliage above, speckling the ground, which the duo weaved around to remain in the darkness.
A branch snapped and the duo froze. Lionel turned critical eyes to his company and Glass shrugged. They stood as still as the ground beneath them, searching the spaces between the trees for any shift in light too sudden or unnatural. Seconds, minutes or hours passed without any sound or movement, it was impossible to tell how much time had passed. Impatience won over Glass and he shifted his weight forward to speak to Lionel.
The air was cut. Lionel turned and repelled Glass with a stiff arm. an arrow embedded itself in the tree by where Glass stood. The duo broke out into a sprint as arrows missed only by the grace of poor light and sure feet. With his heart beating out of his chest and the Cultists’ distant shouts and hollers at his back, Glass suffered a brief lapse of judgment. He swung himself over a deadfall and cut away from Lionel in an attempt to divert their pursuer’s attention, but he slammed dead on into one of the Cultists.
The world spun, the ground taken out from Glass’ heels, and he hit the ground, hard. As he tried to get air into his lungs and find his footing, he was dragged to the ground, sand-like hands grasping at his throat. Glass’ greatest efforts to repel the Cultist were only met with futility, for the angered man, stringy in build, was fuelled purely by hunger, rage and a neglect of pain. The Cultist drove Glass to his back and raised a knife like a forester would wield an axe, pure malice in his eyes. Glass thought he would know death.
A yelp and gurgle leapt from the Cultist’s gullet and he was propelled against a tree. The moonlight reached to reveal Lionel plunging a knife through the man’s neck while fending off another with his free arm. In a brief moment of respite where one of the Cultists was dead, or dying, and the other was clutching a bleeding eye, screaming, Lionel pulled Glass to his feet, his voice was level and precise.
“Loose the pack, we’re running.”
Lionel spoke with a tone that one simply obeyed, and the two of them were running. Glass nearly tripped on bodies felled by Lionel several times. The blood that stained the old man’s clothes was not of his own.
Only after a few paces was their path cut off by another band of Cultists coming up from the sloping forest. A break was made for the high mountains above, opposite the valley. Branches whipped Glass’ face, roots reached for his heels and deadfalls threatened his balance, but he kept picking up his feet and had run a sizeable distance before he realized that he had lost Lionel somewhere along the way.
A rabid fear tore into Glass’ chest, eating away at his posture and composure. He dove back into the path he had come from, calling Lionel’s name and casting all caution to the wind. Distant shouting and calling rang over the trees some way back. Glass arms and legs pumped as though all he had done his whole life was run.
A body, cut up and dead still, cold, halted Glass. He stood over the body, concern pulling at his brow, his eyes tracing each laceration and puncture. A vulgar holler pulled him back to reality and he was off again, his eyes frantic, chasing each sound the forest made for any sign of Lionel.
A hand caught Glass mid stride and he was pulled behind a rotted trunk to meet the bloodied face of Lionel. The old man spoke in a low but scolding voice.
“What the hell are you doing?” Lionel demanded
Glass swatted the holding hand.
“I came back for you.” Glass said.
“I told you to run.”
“You said we were running!”
Lionel put a quick finger over his lip. Dead leaves crunched and rustled as a party of Cultists stalked by, cursing and whispering under their tongues. Glass covered his chest with his palms in fear that his heart beat would be heard. But they passed.
“I need to do this alone, Glass. I can’t be worrying about you.” Lionel said.
“You think I’m a liability?” Glass postured up.
“I care about you, brother. You are young, strong, but lacking in experience. Head along the mountain pass towards the Charred Lands and I’ll meet you along the way.”
Glass’ blood boiled up into his mouth. He grit his teeth, refraining so desperately from hitting Lionel across the face.
“I have something you don’t, Lionel. I am blessed by the Flame. I can fight!” Glass said.
The air surrounding Glass’ fist wavered like boiling water and youthful tendrils of flame began to dance off of his knuckles. Lionel was quick to snatch his brother’s wrist and extinguish the flame, forfeiting a moment of worry, a lapse in his sure nature.
“Have you lost your mind? You can’t control it. And you’ll have the entire Order tearing this forest apart to find you before you even get a chance to break the tree line. You know how the sages are. Even if it works, you’ll guarantee our death.”
A grimace flashed on Glass’ face and he eyed his brother toe to head. The malice in his face quickly dissipated at the discovery of Lionel’s wounds.
“You’re hurt.” Glass said.
“I’m working on it.”
“It’s the lighting.”
“Not me, I’ve been running my whole life.”
Before Glass could further contest, the Cultists were on top of them. Lionel was quick to act, putting distance between them and Glass. Initially intent on jumping into the fray with his brother, Glass stiffened. His eyes shot wide as he watched his brother commit the work of a poet with the blade. It was beautiful yet equally terrifying.
Glass’ love and trust for his brother pulled him up the forest to the mountains, but his devotion and dependence on Lionel held him where he stood. Glass’ continued presence caused Lionel to miss his footing. He was stabbed under the ribs, stifling a yelp. Fury ignited Glass’ fist once more and he leapt forward, his body overpowering his logic, and he swung.
He saw it all, knew it all within a flash. The future bore down on Glass’ senses with unrelenting truth. The scent of seared skin and flesh stung his nose. Lionel’s arm crumbled into ash, reaching to Glass from the jowls of a wicked flame. Screams bombarded his consciousness and he recognized all too well the voice of his brother, tortured.
The young man recoiled from the vision, sealing his eyes shut and clasping hands over his ears. He retreated into himself, into the Earth. When Lionel, bloodied and rasping for air, lifted Glass onto his feet, the sanctuary under his eyelids was invaded by scenes of his brother disintegrating into the dirt and Glass clawing into the ground after him, the fingertips torn raw.
“Stand up!” Lionel shouted.
Glass yelped and pulled away, clawing at his eyes, drawing blood. Lionel caught his brother by the collar and shook him violently.
Still haunted by the phantom of what could have been, Glass forced his eyes open, channeling what little strength he could muster into his legs to hold him upright. The episode had drained the young man to the core with no intent on having him recover. Lionel was in unfavourable shape as well, hardly able to keep his own posture. Cultist corpses lay strewn about the forest floor, either writhing and wishing for death or dead. Even then, furious eyes still peered in on the brothers from the shadows of the woods.
Lionel pushed his brother back up the way from which he came, fighting a tear from building under his eye.
“Get out! I’ll find you!”
Defeated, horrified and powerless, Glass turned and ran from the nightmares. He was in no shape to fight, rattled to the bone with fear of something he couldn’t escape, himself. The only thing that kept Glass running instead of turning back to his brother was his certainty of death.
“I’m no use if I’m dead. I’m no use if I’m dead.” He would repeat to himself.
His pace quickened, but it was as though Glass was running through waist high waters. No matter how much effort he put forth, it seemed like he was going slower than his last step. The Cultists cut off the mountain path, forcing Glass to cut right and back down the forest. They shouted after him.
“It’s him! It’s the anointed one!”
Driving himself through rigorous brush, Glass broke out onto a cliffside overlooking a river. From that height, there was no telling how quickly the water moved or how deep it was, but it was naturally unwelcoming to any attempts at life. Lionel’s cry of desperation rang over the tree tops, a final effort. Glass retreated a step and was met by the call of the Cultists.
“Catch him! We’ll never go hungry again!”
They leapt out of the trees like cougars, and their eyes bore the same wild hunger they had when they swarmed the camp fire. Trying desperately to hold onto the voice of his brother, unsure that he would ever hear it again, Glass threw himself off the cliff. The wind cradled him briefly, a genuine embrace before he entered blackness, the cold blanket.
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