This was the end. A vertical mountain spewing pristine water into a ferocious pool hundreds of paces below. From there, the water gains momentum before twisting its way along the perilous path into the High Mountains, violently lapping at its crumbling banks, reaching out to clasp any foolish enough to make the treacherous journey and drag them into its icy embrace. Trees and vines extended from the confining rock face, pushing travellers to the brink as roots waited to snare feet and send innocents tumbling into the greeting rapids. Jutting rocks, forked rivers, lakes, farms, and cities then turn the once pristine water into brown sludge that trickles into Maga Veteemä. Perhaps more aptly: This was the start.
The Hooded Figure flicked their eyes up to the towering High Mountains, concerned about the landslides caused by the persistent early rain. Heaving boulders, slabs of granite, and thousands of rocks littered the untrodden path beneath their feet - just another complication in finding the Jaws of the Mountain.
A shadow flashed across their face, too quick to be one of the clouds which lumbered across the sky. They raised their hands to shield their eyes and squinted into the sun. There it was, the outline of myth gliding majestically through the air, a Kullgas Hawk, the largest of the Mother’s creations assumed extinct. Although they didn’t honestly believe, if there was ever to be an omen, this was it.
The hair on the back of the Figure’s neck stood up, making them glance over their shoulder to the edge of the little dense forest, searching for any sign of movement, any single indication of the person who had been trailing them for days. They can’t have made it this far. They had to leave their horse over a day ago. Satisfied, the Figure retook their reigns and continued at a canter along the smooth, almost vertical mountain face. The further from the forest they travelled, the more the impenetrable black rock shifted to powdery snow.
The Figure searched the mountain’s shimmering facade for anything out of the ordinary. The glare from the snow burnt their eyes as they followed a beetle scrambling into a shadowy bulge. The Figure rubbed their weary face and knelt in for a closer look. The sun was in the west, its light disturbed by the peaks of the mountain and far from reaching the circular bulge, which looked much too perfect amongst the chaos of nature. A wave of excitement surged from the depth of their stomach.
The Figure’s heart raced as they pulled a tiny leather-bound book from their breast pocket, devoid of any markings on the cover. The well-worn bindings flipped open to reveal a sketch of a carving in a rock face, inside a cross with four circles in its vacant spaces, an X within each of the circles. They cautiously approached before gently tracing their hand across the bulge, wiping away the snow as softly as Taara would embrace a newcomer to the feast. Sure enough, there it was, buffered by the elements for centuries but visible to their naked eye, the carving of a cross with four circles, each circle with its own X. Years of meticulous planning and attention to the smallest details had paid off. They had finally found it.
The Figure traced their hand along the mountain face, walking in tandem without ever losing contact as if searching for another unseen carving. It was only six paces before they stumbled as their hand fell into the blackened rock. A deception like nothing they had seen. The Jaws of the Mountain revealed themselves in plain sight, a crack that looked no more than a natural indentation that stretched the whole way up the mountain face. Their mouth hung open as they studied the impossible feat, made possible by the knowledge of those they sought.
A distant snap dragged the Figure from their trance as they turned and scanned the forest edge. They ducked and notched an arrow to their bow, focusing on the sprinkling snow falling from an outlying pine. They can’t have made it this far. The Figure listened closely but were troubled by nothing more than the breath of Tuule-Emä rustling the evergreen leaves.
The Figure’s eyes furiously scanned the tree line before catching on a deer. It burst from the threshold, its pounding hooves echoing about the clearing. They sighed and released the trembling vice grip they held on their bow, slinging it over their shoulder, relieved they didn’t have to embarrass themselves with their below-par aim. After one last searching look at the pine, they turned to their side and slipped into the Jaws of the Mountain.
The first twenty paces required a side shuffle as the jagged rocks pressed their weight against both chest and back. The Figure couldn’t help but think how easily they could be swallowed, never to be found or buried except beneath the weight of the world, where they would never grow. Thankfully, the path soon opened into a constricted corridor, helping the melancholy thoughts briefly subside. It was unlike them to hold fear, but the past few weeks had been full of firsts. And lasts.
The Figure pulled their bear skin cloak tight around their under armour, shivering as the speckle of light that followed them hundreds of paces above provided little warmth. The twisting path disoriented any understanding of distance or time, each bend looking the same as the last. They had been completely devoured.
The journey was perilous. Their shins left bruised by the serrated rocks that appeared from darkness. The temperature continued to plummet as plumes of frost breath curled above their head, mocking the Figure as it danced into the sky and floated away with ease. If only they could fly. Their breathing grew shallow as the melancholy returned. Which death would greet them should the Mother’s decide today was their last? Falling rocks? A blocked path? A missed step leading to a broken leg? Never had the Figure been plagued with such obtrusive thoughts, perhaps a natural consequence of being on the precipice of greatness? Or guilt.
As suddenly as it was found, the Jaws of the Mountain spat the Figure out. The sight – breathtaking. The Figure stumbled backwards on the verge of tears and reached for the mountain to steady themselves.
Koronia was built magnificently into the mountains that surround its every axis. An illusion, it seemed, as strained eyes worked to differentiate fact from fiction. Every point of space was transformed from undefined landscape to intricately built architecture. A wall of pure rock rose from the ground, no taller than three people but sturdy enough to repel even the most determined invaders. A single weakness glinted in the dying sunlight. An iron gate that broke up the monochrome rock and confirmed to the disbelieving Figure that Koronia had been reached. They stared at the beauty before them, the only living human to have seen such a mythical sight. Twice in one day had the Mothers blessed them. There was no time to revel in delight or take in the buildings of hollowed rock or the untold history of Koronia. There was a job to be done.
The Figure forced themselves towards the gate, concerned by the rust that had taken hold and left a small cavity in the lower left corner. They knelt by the opening and shook the surrounding bars, which held firm, repelling anyone larger than a child. Frustrated but unsurprised, the Figure began their search for another way into the city.
Movement in the hills put the Figure on guard as they reached for their bow and an arrow, holding it cocked and ready to loose. Fittingly, a bear and her young cub sauntered out of their small den. She picked up on the foreign presence and quickly placed herself between her cub and the Figure while clicking her tongue in warning. Slowly the Figure lowered their bow and calmly waited for the bear, who yawned before escorting her cub past the Figure, remarkably undisturbed by the presence of people.
The sun dipped below the peak of the southwest mountain and threw the whole city into shadow. It would soon begin, and the Figure was late. Returning their bow to their shoulder, they placed their hand on the wall and jogged alongside it, feeling for discrepancies.
Finally, their hand felt a distortion in the wall, and upon closer inspection, the Figure found a chunk had been scratched from the surface. They scoured the wall, discovering another missing piece within reach, and another above that. The Figure took a deep breath before removing their beaver fur gloves and stretching out their aching, curled fingers, massaging them to bring them back to life.
They latched onto the icy rock and began the gruelling process of scaling up the wall. The grooves left by the scratchings were shallow and challenging to clasp, but the Figure slowly ascended. Freezing fingers burned as the wall cut into their flesh, willing the Figure to let the mighty city rest in peace. Finally reaching the top, they hauled themselves over the threshold and grunted as their chest plate caught on the top of the wall, painfully pinching the skin on their chest and causing a drop of blood to drip down to their stomach. They panted as they looked at their swollen fingers, concerned by the tips that had lost all sensation and held a tinge of purple. Rapidly replacing their gloves and breathing hot air onto their fingers, the Figure was relieved to find steep steps leading down from the wall into the streets of Koronia.
The eerie, empty streets were difficult to traverse as the dilapidated houses stood rotting with vines strangling whatever life they once held. This was not what they had expected, not even close. No busy stalls, no mothers caressing babes, no signs of life. They followed the winding street that grew warmer as they ventured further into the city. The vines began to recede, revealing the houses below that showed their proper form untouched and undisturbed by the weeds seemingly invading the city's every crevasse.
“Lady Dorin has been expecting you.” Boomed a voice that startled the Figure as it echoed through the streets. Up the cobbled stone path stood a large man dressed in a vast black coat that ran from his shoulders to his feet. It hung open above a simple black woollen uniform that left him unprotected except for basic leathers covering his chest. Branded in the middle was an M that sat above a shield depicting a silhouetted bear. The Figure instinctually placed their hand on their hilt but knew if it came to it, they didn’t have a hope in the abyss. “Follow me.” The man commanded as he turned and began walking quickly through the streets.
The inner city was in immaculate condition; there wasn’t a single thing out of place. As they marched through an open courtyard, the Figure made out one male and three females standing obediently at their post. They stood perfectly still and stared disconcertingly as the Figure approached. It was as though they had each seen a creature from the pits of the abyss, their eyes wide with terror despite their unparalleled abilities. In a flurry of movement in perfect unison, they created a line behind the Figure and joined the escort through the deserted city centre. There was no going back now.
They arrived at a large stadium expertly carved from the surrounding rock, its smooth exterior twinkling in the dying light like the stars that lit the night. It was flanked by enormous pylons that climbed high into the sky, casting firelight across the quickly darkening surroundings. They entered the exquisite stadium and ascended a set of stairs before emerging into the barren stands with a sprinkling of people every thirty paces. In the centre of the stadium was a massive fire, so large that it cast light on any area that the pylons may have missed. From the fire moving outwards, there were five different terrains of snow, grass, rock, water, and sand divided evenly in the arena.
“Weapons.” The man barked as he held out his hand, waiting for the Figure who slowly undid their scabbard and handed it over along with their bow and quiver. How naked they felt, not that their weapons would’ve provided them with much protection. The Figure followed as the man climbed the steps towards a group of adults deep in whispered conversation. They arrived and hovered, careful not to intrude but close enough to make it known they were waiting for acknowledgment. The Figure looked from one apprehensive face to the next, unable to differentiate who it was they were waiting to address them. They could feel every eye in the stadium watching, staring at the intruder. The lack of people present was of particular concern; the stadium should’ve been overflowing, though they were rather thankful there weren’t more people to make the Figure feel further out of place.
Finally, a woman donning a beautiful brown fur coat that looked as though it would keep even a southerner warm in the harshest of blizzards turned and inspected the hooded Figure in front of her. Her narrow eyes darted up and down the Figures body, her clenched jaw so tight they wondered if her teeth had been ground to the gum. Time felt distorted as the silence dragged on, the other onlookers returning to their conversation, unable to hurry the woman who did everything at her own pace.
“This is the Talutaja of Koronia, leader of the Morphiei and rightful heir to Maailemätuld. Lady Dorin -”
“They know who I am,” Dorin said. “I didn’t think you’d make it. Sit. I’ll begin the proceedings.”
Dorin watched closely as the Outsider bowed before taking a seat. They were exactly what she had expected; their hood pulled so low their face was shielded from sight, and their cloak so puffy above their rigid silver armour that their form was unidentifiable. Humans were all the same, deceivers and liars. She was unsurprised when Llian, Harrish, and Jamie shuffled to their own space, away from the Outsider.
Dorin nodded to two of her guards, Yan and Mako, who sat three rows behind the Outsider with their eyes unwavering from their position. She began descending the stairs and making her way to the arena with two of her other guards, Samwel and Isa, following close behind, no doubt reluctant to leave her side while the intruder was present. Isa rushed forward and unlatched a gate, swinging it open and allowing Dorin to make her final descent into the waiting arena snow.
She paused momentarily, allowing flashes of her own trial to flood her mind. It was a brutal affair in which she had lost the tip of her little finger on her right hand and broken six bones. Not that it had stopped her from winning and joining the ranks of chosen. Or celebrating into the early sections of the morning.
She made for one of the ten large iron doors that opened into the arena and waited for Samwel and Isa to open them. It took considerable effort to pry open the doors enough for Dorin to enter. Inside was a cramped, messy waiting area with blunted weapons and leather armour of all shapes strewn about large tables. A small hearth in the middle of the room had kept the worst of the outside cold at bay—no signs of life.
Dorin frowned. “Gylan?” she called.
A massive brute of a man stuck his small head out from behind a pillar. His eyebrows shot up when he saw Dorin, his bare shoulder whacking into the post as he stumbled forward. “Lady Dorin,” he stammered. “What can I do for you?”
“Where is he?”
“Bathing,” Gylan replied, pointing through a nearby door. “I tried to get him ready. He wouldn’t listen, he said -”
“Get his things. I’ll fetch him.” She said as she stormed through the hall. She swung open the bathing door to find Flint soaking in a tub. His eyes remained closed as his chest rose and dipped slowly above the water line. The room was bare except for the tub and two buckets of steaming water.
“Come to wish me luck?” Flint goaded without opening his eyes, his young voice pinging about the stone room.
“You’re going to need a lot more than -”
“I’m ready.” He announced.
Dorin shuddered at his arrogance. “I know you think you’re ready.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it,” Flint said, opening his eyes as he paddled the water with his hands.
Dorin waved Samwel and Isa away as she closed the door and entered the room. She picked up one of the steaming buckets of water and poured it onto Flint before turning it upside down and taking a seat. She removed her gloves and stretched out her hands before dipping them in the water. It was freezing cold. “You’re young,” She said. “If you pass -”
“When I pass.” He glanced at Dorin with a grin.
Dorin inhaled sharply as she withdrew her hand from the water and flicked it about before replacing her gloves. “If you pass, you’ll be expected to lead these people,” she said, “Don’t take that lightly.”
Flint’s blue-grey eyes held hers. She began to worry about the extra weight he carried about his chin. She had allowed him many comforts through the bitter winter, and he had rather taken to lounging about eating candied apples and sweet bread with that girl he was always with.
Flint smirked as he splashed Dorin, who recoiled. “All that thinking, and you still didn’t see it coming,” he said.
“I learnt from the best.” He mumbled, laying his head back on the tub and closing his eyes.
“That doesn’t make you the best.”
“Mother - Stop pretending this is about me.”
“Start believing that it is,” Dorin replied more curtly than intended. Flint’s eyes flicked open and shot about the roof as his lips drew tight. He refused to look at her. “I don’t want to lose you,” Dorin admitted.
Flint sat bolt upright, his pudgy face taking up her whole view. “You won’t.” He reassured her with that always charming smile.
Dorin tried to keep her mouth shut. She willed herself to leave him be. She knew that nothing she said would be of any help now. “I’m worried about your attitude; it’s -”
Flint screwed up his face and flopped down into the bathtub. “Why do you have to do this now?” he asked, “I don’t want to hear it.”
“That doesn’t neglect its importance,” Dorin stated as she tapped on the side of the tub.
Flint’s eyes again searched the roof as if the wooden beams were the rich mosaics that Dorin used to stare at as a young girl, their kaleidoscope shapes and bountiful colours hypnotised her for sections. But Flint’s eyes weren’t filled with wonder. They were holding back tears. Dorin reached down and took the back of her son’s head, pulling him up and leaning forward so the two were touching foreheads. They inhaled and exhaled as one. Sharing the moment as one.
“You don’t need to be scared,” Flint said as he stroked a piece of Dorin’s long brown hair. “I’ll be okay.”
“I am scared.” Dorin said, “So are you.”
“No.” He fired back in an instant. “I don’t get scared. I’m not weak.”
“There’s nothing weak about being scared,” Dorin said with such intensity that Flint withdrew. “You cannot pretend your emotions away, they must be addressed and sorted. Lest you end up like me.”
“Do you want me to be scared?” Flint asked. “I was feeling good before you got here.”
“That’s not what I was -”
“Let me be.”
Dorin cursed herself for her folly. “I’m about to make my speech,” she said as she rose beside the bathtub. “You have five parts.” She moved to the door before looking back at her son, whose eyes were screwed tight as his lips gently wavered.
Flint took a deep breath and sunk further into the tub as his Mother closed the door behind her. Why did she have to bother him now? He needed to focus on the task that lay ahead. Patterns, blocks, jabs, and thrusts. Smooth movements. Why didn’t she trust him? Trust. Maybe doubt? Doubt in his ability to… Win? No - Rule. It didn’t matter what she thought. This would be the most crucial moment of his life. He must focus on the trial. His training. What was it Gylan had always said? Outside noise would slow you down, chew you up, lead to death. Focus on the trial! Nothing but the trial. One single event that would determine his life. His whole life… And Mother still didn’t believe in him. He caught his reflection in the water; he may have been a skinny boy, but he could do anything.
A knock at the door broke Flint’s concentration. “What?” He yelled.
Gylan’s odd accent and raspy voice wafted through the door, “We need to get you ready.”
He was right. It was time. Flint willed every other thought from his mind. From here on out, nothing but the trial. “Cloth.” He said as Gylan entered the room. He handed Flint the cloth which he used to wipe the water from his prickled skin, careful not to press too hard on the cuts, bruises, and scrapes he had acquired from his first two challenges. The bath he could handle, but the draft that flooded in from the outside turned the water on his flesh to ice. “Where are my things?” Flint asked with a shiver as he stepped from the tub.
Gylan pointed into the hall and said, “Awaiting you, Talutaja.”
That word caught in Flint’s ears, grating as uncomfortably as his knee after an exceptionally high jump off the wall. “I’m not a Talutaja yet.”
Gylan bowed, “Of course.”
Why was Flint correcting him? That attitude was precisely what he needed. He would be a Talutaja no matter what his Mother believed. A new wave of confidence hit him. He knew he was the best, so he ought to act like it.
Gylan led Flint into the cramped hall where his undergarments had been nicely laid out. He placed on his drawers and pants before turning his back on the rest. He had rather grown to enjoy the feeling of the ice on his skin. It invigorated him.
Gylan cleared his throat, “What about your -”
“I don’t need them.”
“Your armour will chafe.”
“I don’t need them,” Flint said again as he searched for his armour. Gylan’s concern was far from significant; Flint had to ride this wave of confidence to the end. He found his armour sitting on a wooden mannequin a few paces off. Perfectly crafted, the toughened leather allowed far superior movement to steel. Each piece was etched with the traditional shield of his people. The bear had long been a symbol that allowed him to draw from its strength, surviving through the toughest conditions each winter; they continued to emerge no matter the odds. They were gentle creatures with a playful nature, purposefully overlooked in favour of their ferocity which only reared up when provoked. Flint would be calling on that power today. He removed the studded gauntlets and placed them on his arms, each with a blunted blade that ran down either side of his forearm, making them both deadly and protective. He grinned at Gylan as he turned his back on the rest of the armour.
“I must object.”
“There’s no use,” Flint assured him.
“You could be killed.”
Gylan had lost faith, but he hadn’t. “It slows me down.”
“Your mother will not be -”
“I order you to be quiet.” Flint said, slamming his fist on the table. His first order. It felt good.
“You’re not a Talutaja,” Gylan said.
“Yet.” He replied, disappointed that he had set himself up. It was a glancing blow. He needed to be smarter. Flint moved the conversation along, trying not to dwell on his failures. “Weapons?”
Gylan nodded towards a weapons rack filled with blunted swords, axes, and maces. Flint walked over and inspected the weapons, none of them particularly taking his fancy. He pushed aside the largest mace to reveal what he had been searching for, two long daggers that were chipped and rusted, tucked into the corner, unused and unloved. He reached over the blunted swords and picked up the daggers, feeling their weight and balance before tucking them into his gauntlets, concealing them. They would do nicely. Gylan made a noise Flint could only assume was disapproval, but he knew what Flint was capable of and had never been one to force his will. He had never needed to, not when you possessed the skills he had.
Gylan’s steps boomed as he moved to the large iron door and listened. “Lady Dorin is almost finished. Final preparations. Some armour?”
Flint shooed Gylan out of the way and stood ready at the door; the feint sound of his mother’s rousing speech seeped through the iron cracks.
“… Will give us a chance to celebrate the champion from today’s trial, of whom will win their blade and join the ranks of Chosen. We wish everyone speed.”
“Speed to strike.” Flint instinctively muttered under his breath, along with everyone else within earshot. Today he hoped it would bless him true.
The door swung open with impressive speed as Gylan pulled on a heavy chain. The freezing night air pinched Flint’s lungs as his bare skin pimpled. This was it. He stepped forward into the bitter snow and blocked the desperate cry for warmth his feet howled for. He heard the audience behind him gasp at his lack of attire. It would only make his victory sweeter. But it was so cold. Already he could not feel his toes, and the sky was beginning to fill with storm clouds. He should’ve listened to Gylan and placed on his thermals. Mind over emotion. Mother was right; he wasn’t ready—too many hasty decisions bought about by the inability to control his arrogance. Focus! Repress. Remember your training, analyse the situation.
Flint forced himself to look around the arena, taking in as much as possible. Nine other champions, five with swords, three with axes, one with a mace. Each had started moving towards an opponent, three of them towards him.
His heart jumped as he saw Telesia seated directly opposite him in the stands. She looked breathtaking in her loveliest yellow gown, filling him with a warmth greater than the sun. She vigorously bit her nails as her head swivelled from side to side, scanning the arena. She momentarily stopped to look Flint’s way as she swept a piece of her golden hair behind her ear, allowing him to catch the vibrant blue of her eyes that reflected the firelight. She looked as sweet and innocent as a butterfly. He wondered if he dedicated his victory to her if she would consider celebrating with him? Maybe they could share some ale and swap stories long into the night.
The singing of clanging metal drew Flint’s attention as the first two champions initiated. They attracted the gaze of everyone in the arena, who held their breath as the fighting increased in ferocity and speed. It wouldn’t be long until he was in the throngs of battle, yet here he was, staring at Telesia like a lovesick pup.
Flint had to find a more advantageous position. Snow would slow him down; darkness would hide his speed. To his left was a patch of grass surrounded by rock, dimly lit by the pylon that struggled to cast its light at such an angle. Perfect. Without hesitation, he moved across the snow, sure to have his foot planted to avoid any unwanted slippage. He arrived at the grass, his feet grateful for a rest from the blistering cold but partly immobilised from the length of his inaction.
He snatched a glance towards his competitors, some within ten paces. At long last, he could allow his instinct to take over. He crouched in the grass, distorting his image in the darkness. The first few beats of battle were crucial.
He grasped his daggers tighter and pushed out the ringing that echoed through his ears. Use your time wisely. Marx with the two-handed mace he knew well. They had often battled in one of Gylan’s fighting games called dispatch. There was only one rule: the last one in the circle won. He was as strong as an auroch, and any blow would surely be the last. His weakness was his speed, slower than even the salmon that swam upstream each year to breed. Tralë held an axe in either hand, making the weapon that Flint found most problematic twice as dangerous. She could swing it with equal speed and precision, making the metal protruding atop the handle challenging to block. Arcelia wielded the more conventional sword with a standard grip. Although full of speed, he would have no trouble doing away with her.
The champions were almost within striking distance. Older. Larger. Tougher. Slower. He drew his daggers from his gauntlets, holding them backwards away from his body, hiding them from view. This was it. This was his moment.
He sprang from the grass on a diagonal, leaping between Marx and Tralë, forcing them to swing at one another. As their blades connected, he rounded on Arcelia, and the two engaged. She was always defensive-minded, forcing Flint to throw fake jabs and sweeping strikes to draw her out of her shell. She would leap backwards every time he stepped closer, determined not to allow Flint within striking distance. He watched keenly as she parried a fake jab, thrusting her weight behind the countermove. Of course, he had expected it and ducked underneath, then slammed the hilt of his dagger into her ribs. She doubled over and scrambled backwards as she coughed. It was almost too easy.
Flint turned to find Marx and Tralë both rushing to his location. In a split-beat decision, Flint flopped to the floor and rolled beneath Marx’ swinging mace, which clattered into Tralë’s left bicep with a sickening crunch. The audience gasped as Tralë wailed, dropping her left axe, then gritting her teeth and roaring as she rushed towards the two boys. Flint pushed off the ground and returned to his feet in time to leap backwards, away from Marx’s mace, which clattered into the ground. Flint twirled as his dagger connected with Tralë’s axe, kicked her in the back, and sent her flying into Marx, causing them to tumble to the ground. Flint was enjoying himself.
A bell began to chime in the distance, nothing but a distraction.
Flint sucked through his teeth, unable to wipe the grin off his face as Marx threw Tralë off his body and retook his mace. He took one look at Flint’s grin and bellowed as he leapt forward. Flint ducked left, dove right, and pirouetted easily around Marx’s endlessly swinging mace. Marx finally considered his training and stopped chasing Flint, his chest heaving as he struggled for breath. Flint returned to his crouched position. He could do this all night if required, if only that ringing in his head would go away.
Marx, Tralë, and Arcelia grouped together. He guessed they were waiting for him to strike first, but he would not be drawn from his position. They turned their bodies away from the battle and lifted their faces to the firelight, each focusing on something different. They peered at the clouds that had turned ominously dark. Flint would not be distracted by their trickery. Though, the pounding in his head seemed determined to distract him from his trial. No – Not in his head… the ringing was outside of him. Filling the whole arena with its rhythmic toll.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
It shook his bones. The battle bell of Koronia.
One of the iron doors burst open, and William Totter, the eyes on the wall, rushed through the threshold. Everyone’s gaze in the arena followed as he quickly traversed the terrains and ascended the stairs towards Mother. They watched in silence, breath held as he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
Mother’s reply was short and sharp. Her mouth scrunched into a tight ball as William Totter descended the stairs. They all watched as he retraced his steps, careful not to lose his footing on the rocks before quickly disappearing back through the iron door.
As one, Flint felt his people turn their heads to Mother. Her expressionless face searching the clouds, withholding whatever secrets William Totter had bestowed upon her. But Flint knew his mother well and could see her stubbed little finger tapping manically against her thigh. Her gaze fell upon the arena stands as she pointedly scanned the anticipatory audience. “The day has come that we have feared. All those with blades will fight.” She said. “Any young will return home and stay there until they are instructed otherwise. I wish you all speed.”
“Speed to strike.” Everyone but Flint chanted back in tentative unison before dispersing with absolute precision.
Flint remained crouching in the grass as Marx, Tralë, and Arcelia rushed away to take up another challenge. His burning legs and cramping feet held him in place as the stands quickly emptied, which was no concern to Flint, who would take victory no matter who was watching. His knuckles turned white as he gripped his daggers and scanned the battlefield for any who tried to stop him.
“With me.” Mother’s voice called from fifteen paces away. “Now.”
Flint stared at her blankly, wondering what she, Samwel, and someone in a giant cloak that he had never seen before were doing in the arena. An Intruder. “What’s going on?”
“Now.” Mother snapped in a voice so commanding she dared not be made to repeat herself.
“What about my trial?” Flint asked. “I must have my trial. I can’t join the ranks of chosen unless I -”
“There’s not going to be any chosen.” Mother said as she marched towards him. She grabbed his wrist and yanked him to his feet before pulling him from the stadium.
Flint searched over his shoulder for Telesia as they wound their way towards home. He wanted desperately to see her mischievous smile as they shared a candied apple, biting from each side as the smell of her lavender perfume gradually inched closer. But never close enough. Oh, how he wished he had been brave enough to touch her. He continued his search but grew embarrassed as he imagined Samwel and the Intruder laughing at the salty tears that streaked down his cheeks and blurred his vision.
As they arrived back at the palace, Flint turned to search for Telesia one last time but was cut short by Mother, who hastily pushed him through the double doors. As he stumbled through the threshold, his foot caught on a grey square of matting that sat at the entrance and sent him tumbling to the floor. He sobbed as he wiped the tears from his eyes with his grazed palms and watched as his mother searched the sky.
“Weapons.” Mother said to Samwel, who handed the Intruder a bow and a quiver. “Go and say your goodbyes.” She said, shooing Samwel away before peaking once more at the sky. She ushered the Intruder inside. “Close the door.” She barked as she stepped over Flint’s body. She whispered something into the Intruder’s hood before hurrying into her chamber.
Flint returned to his feet as he choked back tears and leaned against the closed door. He was afraid of the Intruder who was slowly doing a lap of the room, intrigued by the art that Flint had always found unappealing and plain.
It showed Morphiei champions, great Korols and Talutajas who had gone before. The Carsereas family. They weren’t in the heat of battle, slaying their enemies or celebrating triumphantly, but sitting dully against a clear blue sky. Every painting except one, the smallest that sat tucked away in the corner. So fine were the brush strokes that it was impossible to make out from afar, looking nothing more than a sliding scale of colours from light to dark. As you moved closer, the image took form; from the left, a great city spanning the forest, the sun's light blessing it with an angelic glow that slowly dulled as a battlefield revealed itself. A cleared hill that runs red with blood, the lone army fighting amongst itself as sworn Kalips turn on their brethren. The right side faded to almost complete darkness, except for a single flame that lit the abyssal sky.
The Intruder jumped back from the painting like a disobedient child as Mother re-entered the room. “Sit,” she commanded Flint, pointing at the couch.
“Do not talk back to me.”
Again, Flint found himself choking back tears of frustration and confusion as Mother whispered furiously at the Intruder. She reached into her coat pocket and produced a vial of liquid, a small glass bottle with a black lid. Flint leaned in. “Ensure this gets to Erramore. Each of the five may continue our line. Leave. Now.”
The Intruder tucked the vial into a small satchel and started for the door, taking one last searching look at the paintings as if they were masterpieces before pushing their way past Flint.
Mother ran up the staircase to the upper tier that held their chambers. “Fey? Mariel?” she yelled as she entered Flint’s room. She soon re-immerged with clothes bundled in her hands.
“Mummy?” Flint heard Fey’s panicked voice ask.
“Mariel, fetch her biggest coat, put on her travelling shoes, and meet me downstairs.”
“At once,” Mariel replied.
“Why? Where are we going?” Fey asked.
“Do as your told!”
A scream from outside reverberated around the palace, followed by a crack of thunder that shook the building's foundations.
Flint watched as his mother raced down the stairs and sat beside him. She grabbed his hand and held it in hers, smiling a strained smile. “You are one of the most gifted fighters I’ve ever seen. Your instincts, unparalleled. But you’re too young.” Mother shifted uncomfortably. “I was waiting. I thought there would be a right time, but now…”
“I understand,” Flint said, trying desperately to convince his mother.
“Arrogance will get you killed.”
Flint dropped his head, pained by how little his mother trusted him. She reached forward and clasped Flint’s face, turning him so the two of them were looking eye to eye. She gently stroked his cheek in a way she had never done before. Panic gripped Flint’s chest as more screaming filled the palace, and the clashing of blades echoed up and down the streets. Dorin reached into her coat and pulled out two black, perfectly crafted daggers that had ruby veins running down the grip, the Morphiei weaponsmith symbol of an M on the cross-guard and a W on the pommel, and a pair of gauntlets that had two pockets to house the blades. Flint’s mouth fell open as he looked at the weapons, even more breathtaking than he had imagined.
“I give to you these blades in honour of your trial pass.” Mother’s eyes filled with tears as she held the blades out to Flint. “You are chosen.”
“But I didn’t -”
“I need you to listen to me.” Mother pleaded, “Take Fey and run. As far as you can. Do not stop. Do not come back.” Her watery eyes grew large and wild. “If you think you’ve gone far enough, go further.”
Flint ripped his hand away from his mothers, unable to hear the foolish words pouring from her mouth. “I’m going to fight. Whatever’s out there won’t stand a chance against me.”
Mother forcefully grasped the back of Flint’s head. “Fighting will get you killed. I need you to show me you’re the youngest to receive your blade because you’re ready, not because you could.”
“I’m ready!” Flint assured her. Mother’s falling face felt like a dagger to his heart.
They both turned to find Mariel and Fey standing in her travelling gear.
“Find a blade, Mariel.” Mother said.
Mariel scrambled from the room as Mother handed Flint his clothes and knelt in front of Fey. Flint began to dress with haste.
“Your brother is going to take you now. I need you to do exactly what he says.” Mother said.
Fey scrunched up her face, “I don’t want to.”
“Do it for mummy, okay?” Mother swept a piece of Fey’s hair behind her ear. “Okay?”
“Okay.” Fey sighed as she looked at Flint.
Mother reached behind her neck and undid her large necklace that held the symbol of the four circles connected by a misshapen cross with an oversized vertical. “Keep it safe. Don’t forget who you are or where you’re from.” The two of them touched foreheads. “Mummy loves you very much.”
“I love you too.”
Mother stood back up and faced Flint, pulling him close as tears streamed down their faces. They touched foreheads together and took a deep breath, sharing the air they breathed for one last time. As they pulled apart, Mother removed a black ring from her finger and slipped it onto Flint’s.
“This is yours by right. Destiny dictates that one day you will rule, but right now, you’re too young.” Mother’s voice cracked, her overwhelming emotion betraying her stoic façade. She paused, taking her time to word her sentence carefully. “Promise me you will not meddle in the affairs of humans until you are ready.”
Questions raced through Flint’s mind. He sorted them as quickly as possible, searching for the most important. “How do I know when I’m ready?”
“You’ll feel it.” Mother sighed, followed by the shake of her head at her intangible response. “Now promise.”
“You must never break a promise.”
Flint took a breath, shut off his thoughts and grounded his feet. “I won’t let you down.”
Mother nodded as a calm washed over her face. “Five elixirs lost with the power to continue our line. Use them wisely, find your allies. You cannot afford to make mistakes. There is no shame in running if it means keeping your life. Bide your time. Continue your training. Get it right.”
“What about me?” Fey whispered.
Mother did her best to conjure a reassuring smile. “My love, you’ll advise him every step of the way.”
“What about you?” Flint asked, his question hanging in the air long enough to answer itself.
“Keep her safe.”
Flint wanted to scream some sense into his mother but instead nodded. “I will.”
“Don’t tell anyone who you are. What you are.”
“Flint -” Mother breathed, barely audible. “Remember your name. Never forget it.” Another scream outside was cut short by a large thump. Dorin grabbed both her children and pulled them into one final tight embrace. “I’m so sorry. I love you both so much.”
“We love you too.”
Mother removed her favourite coat and placed it across Flint’s shoulders. He tried to muster a smile as he grabbed Fey’s hand and made his way towards the door.
Nothing could have prepared him for the sight outside. The black clouds in the sky were illuminated by flames that curled high into its shadowy embrace. Smoke billowed from the burning city, filling their lungs with poisoned air. A lightning bolt flew across the sky, briefly lighting their surroundings and uncovering bodies slumped against the gutter.
Mother grabbed her children’s hands and led them away from the palace towards the southern gate. They turned up an alley to find a silhouette leaning against the wall, blood spilling from its face and splashing against the rocky street below. Mother ushered both children around the panting man, who looked up towards the family, revealing a considerable gash that stretched from his forehead to his cheek.
“Gylan?” Mother said as she moved towards her friend.
Gylan held up his hand, ushering her away. “Don’t! Get away. She’s here. She’s going to -”
A piercing roar louder than anything Flint had ever heard violated his senses. All of them clasped their ears desperately trying to block the sound as a streak of fire shot across the sky and engulfed a nearby building.
As the echo of the roar subsided, Gylan’s howling drew Flint’s attention as his gash began to boil and turn a crusty black in front of his eyes. His blood hardened around the wound as the festering rot set into the broken skin, and the gash transformed his face into an unrecognisable scarred beast. Saliva dripped from his mouth as his unfocused eyes rolled around his head, all the while his scar cracking and hardening as it decayed at an impossible rate. Gylan’s head jolted up; his murderous eyes focused on Fey. Their friend, now Turned, never to return.
What was once Gylan sprinted towards Flint, its eyes vacant except for an all-consuming rage. It dove for the family, hands clawing and teeth longing to rip. It was met by Mother’s sword that skewered it through the base of the chin and out through the back of the head. It squirmed violently as it shrieked, undeterred by pain. It thrashed about, refusing to draw its final breath. Flint covered Fey’s eyes as blood poured from its neck, its life slowly fading. Mother kicked the beast from her sword, and it collapsed in a heap on the ground. She looked at Flint shielding Fey’s eyes from the horror but unable to pry his own away from the gruesome sight.
“Go!” Mother shouted at Flint, who was unable to stop looking at the mutilated body of his mentor. His teacher who had taught him how to hold a sword, how to block, thrust, duck, and jab, how to remain calm in any situation. Any situation except this one. A scream finally helped Flint wrench his thoughts into the present in time to see a hoard of people closing in on their position, each with a vacant stare in their eyes and a never-exhausting sprint.
“We can fight them.”
“The Southern gate.” Mother plead. “Please - Go!”.
Flint studied Mother’s face, desperate to savour every groove and nook hidden by the unrelenting shadow hiding her proper form. His mind was urging him to draw his daggers and stand side by side with Mother, together vanquishing the Turned who had overrun his home. But his body commanded him to lift Fey and run towards the southern gate. After all, he had promised Mother, and a promise was not to be broken.
Fey was latched onto Flint’s front, who had so much adrenaline pumping he barely noticed her weight trying to slow him down. He could hear her weeping in his ear, desperately trying to draw breath, her lungs refusing to expand between full body sobs. Flint felt numb, unable to process anything that was occurring.
“Mummy!” Fey cried with all her might, prompting Flint to turn and witness Mother skillfully throwing her sword around, hacking at the bodies recklessly flinging themselves towards her. She was masterful to watch, her blade slicing through their flesh with ease as she danced around them. She was unstoppable - until she couldn’t move. The creatures pressed in. She was surrounded and overrun. They tore her apart limb from limb.
Flint’s knees almost gave out as his mind sat still, unable to comprehend the notion of life without Mother. Nothing more than a set of images in his mind and a feeling in his heart. A heavy broken heart. She was gone. Gone.
Fey’s screech of grief lurched him back into the present. They were in danger, and Mother’s voice was filling Flint’s head, reminding him there was no shame in running if it meant keeping his life. The Turned had lost interest in Mother’s torn-apart body. They threw what remained on the ground and surged towards Flint, eager for their next kill.
If it weren’t for the head start Mother had provided, they would’ve been caught in an instant. Flint returned to running as fast as he could and dared not turn as the sound of feet hitting the pavement rapidly closed in. His shoulders ached, and his arms felt heavy as the weight of Fey began to take its toll. His legs screamed as though they were filling with rocks as they struggled to continue moving him forward at the pace he so desperately required.
A lightning bolt lit up the night, revealing the silhouette of a colossal creature flying overhead, disrupting the clouds as it hurtled through the air. The sky was too dark to make out anything more than an outline, but the growling sound that followed was enough to terrify even the steeliest of warriors.
A fireball from the creature streaked through the sky and collided with a large building that stood directly over Flint’s path. It teetered dangerously as the base bent under the heat of the flame. The fear from behind propelled Flint forward despite the rapidly crumbling building that had huge chunks of rock cracking the path beneath as it collided with the ground. The building swayed, then toppled and accelerated towards him, eager to reunite mother and son. Flint threw Fey with whatever strength he still possessed and dove as the building crushed the spot in which he had been moments before.
Flint scurried backwards from the burning wreckage, shielding his face from the flames that leapt towards him. Fey’s tiny, sooty hand extended down and helped lift him off the floor, his lungs struggling to catch a breath as the toxic air thickened around him.
To Flint’s relief, the Turned had been trapped on the other side of the building. But without hesitation, they began to fling themselves into the flaming debris. He was unable to look away as their clothes combusted and their skin peeled from their face. They fell to their knees with shrieks as they crawled along the ground, reaching out with their hands as if asking for help only to betray you with their hatred.
Fey tugged on Flint’s coat and grabbed his arm, pulling him away from the image searing into his mind. His thoughts jumped between Mother reassuring him and creatures that would surely haunt his every dream, crawling through the flame, reaching out to - Focus. Analyse.
Flint suffocated the emotion bursting from his being and grasped Fey’s hand. She had been so brave. “Hold onto Mother’s coat, it’ll give you strength,” Flint said, too weak to continue carrying her. They walked briskly toward the southern gate that had finally come into view. His body relaxed as he imagined the world beyond the gates, free from the terrors that had revealed themselves tonight.
A screech from behind broke his dream as he spun around to see a single Turned that had made it through the rubble. “No. Please, no.” He begged as Telesia strode towards them. “Run!” Flint shouted to Fey, who had already taken off in the direction of the gate.
He arrived moments after to find her lying on her front and crawling through a small hole in the bottom right corner of the gate. He wasn’t sure if he would fit, but a swift glance over his shoulder took away any alternative. He’d have to fit; she was almost upon them. He dropped onto his back and started to wriggle his upper body through the hole that pressed painfully into his shoulders and ribs.
“Hurry, Flint! Faster! Go faster!” Fey cried as she grabbed onto his arm and tugged him.
He freed his upper body and began heaving himself through the gap when his pants snagged on one of the bars. He tried to wrestle them free to no avail and shimmied backwards to unhook himself. He finally yanked his pants free from the gate and lifted his eyes to see Telesia lunging towards him.
Fey’s yelling faded into the background as Telesia clawed at his legs. He thrashed about, trying hard to kick her away as he pulled himself through the gap. She lunged towards his left thigh and pinned it against the bar. He moaned as she ripped at the flesh, opening a large wound that ran down his thigh.
He stared at Telesia’s face, drenched in blood. The sweet girl in her pretty yellow dress whom he wanted to hold, to touch, to love was no more. A black wound festered on her neck as her soulless eyes searched for ways to inflict more pain. She had Turned. This was not Telesia. She was never coming back.
Flint reached up with his foot and slammed it into the bridge of her nose, trying to create some separation. She lunged harder as he lifted his leg again, trying to hold her body far enough away so she couldn’t continue tearing at his thigh.
His chest heaved as his body struggled to function with its sustained damage. The Turned grabbed onto his ankle and began to pull with all its might, trying to dislodge him from the gate so that it could finish the job. Fey held onto Flint’s upper half as he latched onto the gate, the Turned relentlessly yanking at his lower half. It pulled his torso back through the hole, his body screaming in pain, too weak to continue fighting. He let go of the gate, and the Turned roared triumphantly as it released his ankle. It dove on top of his body and tried to scratch at his face, blood and spit raining down upon him as he shielded himself from the monster’s wildly swinging arms.
Through the stench of decay, he could smell Telesia’s sweet lavender perfume. The taste of candied apple filled his mouth as Telesia and Flint took simultaneous bites. Her lips so close to his he could almost taste her. His fluttering stomach and trembling hands longed to hold her close. To feel her sweet embrace.
There was a burst of heat above him as the assault subsided. Telesia shrieked as a flaming arrow protruded from her chest. Her screeching intensified as she stumbled backwards, and her golden hair caught alight, falling from her scalp in clumps. Another arrow sailed overhead, then, as she lunged forward, a third pierced her rosy cheek, which melted from her face as her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Her mouth gaped in an everlasting scream as another arrow passed her head, then a final one pierced her neck, and she fell to her knees, then to the pavement. Gone.
Flint rolled over, gasping, to see the Intruder staring at him from afar, doubled over in pain while clutching their bow. They recaught their breath and then grunted loudly as they lunged up a set of steps and disappeared. Flint crawled back to the hole in the fence and gingerly pulled his body through the gap.
Another ear-splitting roar filled the sky as Flint’s thigh quivered from the pain. Fey helped him stumble a few steps before he collapsed, grabbing his wound and vomiting on the side of the path. His eyes craved closure as consciousness crept from his grasp. “You have to go.”
“You have to keep running.” Flint howled in whisper, the pain overwhelming his every sense.
“Not without you.”
She wasn’t understanding. It was happening to him. “Fey…”
“Not by myself.”
“I can help you. We can -”
“Fey, you have to go!” Flint said, looking at his thigh, which had begun to boil and turn black. “I don’t know what this is.”
“No. I’m not leaving.” She blubbered.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen.” The pain in his thigh surged as the world began to swirl. His mind became infested and clouded as if something was trying to take control. “Run.”
Flint reached for Fey’s face, and the two of them connected foreheads. Breathing the same air. Their moment cut short by rising pain and a loss of consciousness.
The wind was rushing past Flint’s ears, the fiery city in his command.
He cried out and squeezed onto his thigh, “Run!”
“But I -”
Flint was out of control, soaring through the sky. Searching through the smoke for any who may have evaded his clutch. A hard bank left, and he was soaring towards the gate. It is his duty to protect.
Flint wrestled his mind back and pushed Fey with all his strength. “Run!” He demanded, the word escaping from him in an unrecognisable voice. Fey turned and stumbled for the mountains, her tiny body looking no more than a speck against the backdrop of the whole world. The last hope for Flint’s people was fleeing, terrified, and utterly alone. The clouds above him swirled as something massive passed above him. All he could do was watch as the landscape lit up and a fireball streaked across the sky and devoured her tiny body. Fey was gone. They were all gone.
He had failed.
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
He had failed.
Flint turned back to the city he had known his whole life, barely recognisable in the dim light of the flames. He watched as the palace tumbled to the ground, numb to the core, unable to feel any more emotion. Like him, it had fled.
A movement drew his attention as the body of a bear came into view. He hoped it would kill him before he had time to Turn, but it lay motionless. Not motionless… a movement? A cub appeared from behind its mother’s body and meandered over. It began to lick his wound. He lightly pushed it away; it would have to wait to feast until after he was gone.
Gone. Like everyone else. That sounded nice. Gone.
Another crack of lightning, followed by the rumble of thunder filled the air. The terrified cub pushed into Flint’s arms as it continued to lick his wound. This time, Flint had no energy to push it away. He lay back his head and closed his eyes.