Funny you should ask that. Since I published it on Amazon.com, I also enrolled it in KDP Select. It’s a way for Amazon Prime members to borrow my book for free, and I get royalties based on how many people borrow it. As part of being able to do this, I’m not allowed to sell my book on any other website (or blog), nor am I allowed to post it anywhere, even for free. But, that’s okay. After I pull it from there, I’ll resume posting it here.
In the meantime, taking its place will be Jennifer Steel, Agent of the F.S.I.A. You may remember me posting some excerpts from that a while ago, but I’ve been rewriting, and revamping, it. I hope you guys like it.
My novel, Into the Realm: The Chronicles of Carter Blake is now live on Amazon. For now, it’s only available as an e-book. As soon as I get enough money to get the cover expanded, I’ll be offering print versions, too. Here is where you can order it. When my next post goes live, you’ll be able to order it from one of my side bars. 😀 I hope you guys like it.
I didn’t mention the attack to anyone. I don’t know why. I must have gotten some of the creature’s stench on me because Angriz delicately told me about my odor.
“Carter, you stink. Ask Keeper Dearbhaile to throw the soap at you, I mean to you, and head west of camp. There you will find a hot spring. Wash. Please.”
“Hey, Angriz,” I said.
“Stop being polite and tell me how you really feel.”
“Fine. I don’t think I have ever smelled something so-”
“Alright!” I shouted with exasperation. “I get your point! I smell! I’m going!”
He wasn’t done yet. “Thank you, my friend. You have no idea how much that means to me!”
“You are an asshole,” I said.
I glanced over my shoulder in time to see him try to hide a laugh. I asked Keeper Dearbhaile for the soap, and as soon as I had it, I promptly pegged it at Angriz’ head. Just when it was going to collide most satisfyingly with the back of his head, it stopped and slowly tumbled in mid-air. It then flew back into my waiting hand.
“Please do nae play-” she began.
The soap flew back through the air on a perfect trajectory and slapped into the back of Angriz’ head.
“With the soap, Carter,” Keeper Dearbhaile continued drily.
“What the-?” Angriz said, rubbing the back of his head as he turned.
I didn’t wait. I turned and ran for where he’d said the spring was. I saw the spring had formed a wide and deep pool. Just as I reached the water’s edge, something walloped me in the back of my head. The world rotated crazily, and I landed in the hot spring. I surfaced, spluttering. I heard Angriz’ booming laugh even though he was back in camp. Figuring he was responsible for my sudden dunking, I cussed him under my breath. Eventually, I called him everything but a half-dragon.
I pulled off my sodden clothing and began tossing it to shore. My pants got caught in a tree. It looked like the tree was trying to put my pants on while they were upside down. I began to laugh at the absurdity of that thought. Then I thought of how I must have looked muttering under my breath like a crazy man, and laughed even harder. Soon, I started laughing about hitting Angriz with the cake of soap and clutched my ribs, I was laughing so hard. I stopped laughing abruptly when I heard a twig snap nearby. I submerged my body until all that was showing above the water was from my upper lip to the top of my skull.
I hunted around with my eyes until I saw Keeper Dearbhaile coming towards the water. I froze in shock as she began calmly removing her robes.
“I’m still in here, Keeper Dearbhaile!” I shouted.
“I know,” she replied.
“What are you doing?” I said with some trepidation.
Okay, I admit, I only pretend to be smooth around the ladies. I always heard, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” and figured it applied to everything. It doesn’t work with women. Unless they somehow know I’m still fourteen.
“I be gettin’ ready tae bathe,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Not while I’m in here!” I said, nearly panicked; what if the worst should happen?
“And why not? ‘Tis just a bath. Elven bathe together all the time. ‘Tis only natural. How else are ye goin’ tae get yer back clean?”
I was unable to continue the argument because just then, the full moon came out from behind a cloud, revealing her nude form. My mouth dried up and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I was entranced by my second sight of a live, nude female. Her soft brown hair was pulled back and twisted into a braid. Her pointed ears were revealed fully for the first time. They weren’t as surprising as I thought they’d be. Then again, I was distracted.
She had firm, up thrust breasts, a line outlining her abdominal muscles, a defined “V” shape where her abs descended to her pubis, which had no hair. There was a very evident inward curve to the outline of her body at her waist and a sharp flare outward at her hips. She had muscular, yet feminine legs and delicate feet. She performed a swan dive into the water, revealing the graceful curve of her back, and entrancing half-moon indents above a round, plump bottom.
Keeper Dearbhaile abruptly surfaced next to me and squirted the cake of soap into my distended mouth. I spluttered and gagged while she laughed merrily. I hurriedly scooped water into my mouth and gargled before spitting it back out. I growled as I lunged to duck her under the water, but she escaped me as easily as an eel. She popped up behind me and called my name. I turned and received a face full of water as she used the flat of her hand to shove it at me.
I roared, laughing as I vowed to get her. Keeper Dearbhaile laughed, then swam quickly out of reach. I waited until she surfaced. While she still had her back to me, I sunk under the water and arrowed right at her. I intended to surface quietly behind her and ambush her.
Keeper Dearbhaile must have cast a spell of telepathy because when I surfaced, she was facing me and she slapped both hands at the water’s surface, splashing me once more. She dove beneath the water again and came up some distance away behind me. I turned and looked at her.
“Come and get me, Carter,” she sang.
“No, I think I’d rather you come for me,” I said.
“Are ye certain?” she said.
Without thinking, I said, “I am.”
Keeper Dearbhaile held her arms out beside her, her hands appeared to be grasping something unseen. The water boiled and rose five feet from the surface. She curved her arms up to her shoulders, and rotated her hands in my direction; the water followed her every movement. I saw what she intended too late. Her arms shot out towards me and the water rocketed at my face.
“No!” I shouted, right as about twenty gallons of water hit me as if from a fire hose.
It was over in less than a second. I blew water from my mouth like a horse.
“That’s it!” I called. “I surrender!”
Suddenly, Angriz’ voice boomed over us like a peal of thunder.
“LOOK OUT BELOW!!!” he bellowed.
A split second later another deluge hit me as he cannon balled into the pool. He turned to Keeper Dearbhaile as soon as he surfaced and using his big hands, sent one, two and three waves at her. She had a chance to let out a squeak, then they all hit.
“All right!” I crowed. “Two on one!”
I swam up beside Angriz and prepared to help bombard Keeper Dearbhaile. Angriz cut his big right hand down and across his body, hitting me with a four-foot wave.
“No way!” he said with a laugh. “Everyone for themselves!”
Near sunset, we stopped and began to set up camp. Angriz had been silent all day. Once we had a fire going and tents set up, he gruffly said he would return and headed off into the growing darkness.
“Any idea as tae what be goin’ on with Sir Angriz?” Keeper Dearbhaile asked.
“Indeed,” I said. “Now, I’m not a telepath, but I’d be willing to wager my services for three years, no task refused versus you answering five personal questions that he is angry we aren’t going after Lady Orwen and by what happened in Rivorei.”
“What kind o’ personal questions?”
“Any I may devise.”
“That wager doesn’t seem fair tae ye.”
“Don’t worry about me. Do you accept?”
I smiled. “Are you afraid I am correct?”
“Nae. I just think if yer goin’ ta risk servitude, Laird Blake, I should as well.”
I laughed. “Are you certain? Remember, I have traveled with Angriz for a while.”
“Aye. I be certain. The loser gives one year of absolute service tae th’ other fer one year. That, I’ll agree tae.”
“Done,” I said. “While we wait for his return, how about we begin preparing dinner?”
“Good idea. How does rabbit stew soun’?”
“Excellent, milady,” I said. “Would you do something for me Keeper Dearbhaile?”
“Call me Carter.”
“Really? Thank ye so much!” she gushed.
“I don’t get it. Why are you so happy that I invited you to use my first name?” I said.
“Oh, ’tis a gran’ honor, mi-, um, Carter. For me people, th’ use o’ birth names without titles be only for ones considered equals.”
I grinned, then volunteered to get the rabbits. Before I could head out, Angriz strode into the firelight. He carried a four point buck under one arm. He let it drop to the ground near the fire.
“Dinner,” he announced.
He then began to clean the deer for dinner. As he worked, I decided to talk with him. I decided to be cautious as he wielded a wicked looking knife.
“Angriz,” I ventured.
“Yes, Carter,” he said.
“I’m sorry my choice upset you.”
He heaved a sigh. “There is no need for that,” he said. “You made the more difficult choice. To be honest, it is the best one. Lady Orwen would have been quite displeased when she learned that we had chosen her rather than ending the war more swiftly. I admit I was angry with you for your choice. However, I realize that was unfair because I had vowed to go wherever you lead and I refused to help you choose. Most importantly, it is not your fault we are in this position. I hope you can forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Angriz. I know that you care deeply for your friends. I would despair if you did not.”
He nodded in acknowledgment of my words and finished preparing the buck for our meal. “There’s also the mystery of what happened in Rivorei.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rivorei was a town that belonged to Lady Orwen. It makes no sense for it to have been destroyed. Especially as she has been abducted.”
“Maybe that’s why?” I said. “Maybe it was a punishment for being involved.”
Angriz shook his head. “The children wouldn’t have been killed if that were the case.”
“In the history of my world, sometimes the children were killed so that no one would have to worry about them getting revenge when they grew into adults.”
He shook his head. “It’s not the way of the Orwens. Nor of their people.”
I let that go. He seemed remarkably innocent for a warrior. I shoved my hands in my pockets, not sure how to continue. I felt the odd piece of stone I had found earlier. I pulled it out and showed it to the big guy.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
He looked at the medium-sized piece of flat rock with the odd shapes etched into it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this stone before, but the markings resemble Dwarven runes. Maybe Keeper Dearbhaile will be able to translate them.”
Keeper Dearbhaile produced a large kettle of water and placed it on the fire as we talked. She added various vegetables and spices to the water as it heated. I took up an ax and walked over to a grove of maple trees. Spotting a couple of young ones, I felled them and began chopping the green wood for another fire. From the corner of my eye, I saw a strange green light playing around the outside of the pot. ‘Is she using magic to cook the food faster?’ I thought. ‘I hope it doesn’t change anything within me. Better not say anything to her. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.’ When I had a sufficient quantity, I stacked it in a pyramid shape. I ringed the stack of wood with medium-sized rocks from the forest floor.
“That’s goin’ tae produce a lot o’ smoke,” Keeper Dearbhaile observed.
“Exactly,” I responded.
She had claimed both hind legs of the deer for her stew by the time I finished with the wood, so I began carving the remainder of the meat into chunks and strips. Angriz drew another knife from a hip sheathe and joined me at my labor. Just as Keeper Dearbhaile announced dinner was ready, Angriz breathed a thin stream of fire over the maple wood. The intense heat of his breath dried the wood just enough for it to ignite.
While the deer meat smoked, we sat down to our meal.
“The stew is delicious, Keeper Dearbhaile,” I complimented. ‘What kind of rabbit is this again?”
“Ach, shut yer mouth, ye great galoot,” she said to my teasing. “Thank ye for killin’ tha deer, Sir Angriz.”
I passed her the stone I’d shown Angriz. “Can you translate this? Angriz thinks it’s Dwarven.”
She tossed the rest of her biscuit into her mouth, brushed off her hands and took the stone from me. Her eyes widened and she leaned closer to the fire, tilting the stone to the flames.
“Where did ye find this, Carter?”
“Back in Rivorei. After I stepped in that muck.”
“This is part of a larger one, but this section seems to be orders from Drago the Clanless to his troops!”
“What do they say?” Angriz asked before I could.
“I can nae make out all of them, but they seem tae be sayin’ that the next target be Hawgrave City.”
“Hmm,” mused Angriz. “That’s three days to the east. We don’t have time to help them.”
“But we have tae do somethin’!”
“Dearbhaile, is there a way you can use your magic to send them a message?” I asked.
She gave me a comical look of surprise. “Aye!” She slapped herself in the forehead. “Why did I nae think o’ that?”
She pulled a small bird charm from her necklace and whispered to it for a few minutes. She cast it in the air, and to my delighted surprise, it flew east. After dinner, I gathered the dishes and took them to a nearby stream to wash them.
Just as I finished, the Slitter that had adopted me leaped up onto my shoulder. It had a tendency to come and go as it pleased. I turned my head to look at it, and it poked my cheek with a sharp claw. As I recoiled from the pain, a knife flipped by my face, missing me by about a centimeter. I nearly vomited at the sight of my attacker as it stalked out of the bushes.
It was a gaunt, somewhat humanoid creature with two long, pale, writhing tentacles beneath its arms which hung nearly to its knees. It had a flat face, broad bat-like nose, pointed ears, wide mouth and six-inch fangs. Wicked talons capped its skeletal fingers. Its hairless, waxy gray skin was covered in weeping sores that oozed a pale greenish fluid.
Something had me rise up on the balls of my feet and go loose limbed. As if my movement were a signal it was waiting for, the gruesome creature launched itself at me. Suddenly, the world slowed to a crawl. In slow motion, I saw the creature flex its leg muscles and spring for my throat. The world then returned to normal and I saw the creature was still running towards me. My brain froze in bewilderment, and my body tried to follow, but it continued traveling backward and I tripped over a root as the thing sprung exactly as I had already seen. Tripping saved my life. The creature flew over my head as I slammed into the ground. I rolled to my right and rose. The monstrosity scrambled to its feet and charged again, swinging its arms in arcs, leading with its scythe-like claws.
Again, the world slowed. I saw myself backing up rapidly, wheeling my arms out of reach of those vicious claws. I saw myself back into a tree, stopping myself with my right foot sweeping back into the tree. I then kicked off the trunk with the same foot. My foot then rocketed forward and caught the creature underneath its jaw. Once more, the world snapped back to normal. This time, I was waiting for it and began the exact movements I had just seen myself do.
It seemed confused by the circling of my arms, but it pressed forward nonetheless. At the perfect moment of my retreat, my right leg swung back, hitting the tree and halting my movement. I immediately swung it forward again, bending my knee and snapping it straight as it whipped through the air. My foot flashed forward and exploded under its jaw. The creature’s mouth crashed closed, breaking many of its teeth. It wobbled, dazed. I came forward, caught it by the back of its head and with a twist of my body, rammed it face first into the tree I had kicked off of. Bone crunched and a blue fluid squirted as its skull was crushed.
I let the creature slump to the forest floor and bent at the waist, panting from my exertions. Unfortunately, I chose to catch my breath right above the body as a foul stench began to rise from it. I vomited my dinner on the creature’s carcass. I staggered away, wiping my mouth. I sat down, hard, on an up thrust root (probably the one I tripped over) and rested. Several minutes passed as my heartbeat and breathing slowly returned to normal. My eyes kept trying to return to the dead thing, but I resolutely continued to avert them again. Finally, I got up and walked over to the forgotten dinner dishes. I paused to rinse my mouth of the flavor of bile, gathered the dishes and returned to camp.
The midday sun beat down on our head when we arrived at the remnants of the town of Rivorei. The fires, having consumed all they could, had all but burned out. The acrid stench of smoke, burned wood and charred flesh hung in the air like a wet blanket. The horses refused to get any closer, so we dismounted, tied their reins around some trees, and entered on foot. The city walls, once proud evidence of the town’s prosperity, were melted like wax candles. We walked through the sagging, gaping hole in the wall. I was amazed by the scale of the destruction and the absolute silence. I was cognizant of Keeper Dearbhaile sliding her hand into mine, but at the edge of my awareness. The cobblestones underfoot were still warm from the fires that just raged through the city . A charred wooden wall had the blackened remains of a person hanging from a spear through the gut.
We found ourselves walking through what had been an alleyway, the buildings on either side slumped from the fire. I stepped in something squishy and wet. Looking down, I realized I had my foot in a stream of a thick pinkish brown liquid with a greasy film. ‘What the hell?’ I went to one knee and dragged my finger through the slurry. I caught the stench of sewage and blood. I recoiled so hard I fell on my butt.
I noticed something odd sticking out a little from the mess. I fished the thing out and dried in on my pants. It was a flat, grey stone with some odd etchings on one side. Keeper Dearbhaile helped me to my feet, her eyes brilliant with unshed tears. She moved further into the ruined city and I stuck the stone in my pocket without thinking about why I did so. I turned to ask Angriz what he thought had happened here, but he was gone. I turned and headed out of the alley.
I found him in the center of what might have been the market square. The scattered piles of burned wood and bodies made identifying things difficult. Men, women and children lay about, hacked into pieces. Some had arrows, or spears, in their backs as if they had been killed as they tried to flee. He was looking at a huge emerald flag hanging above a pyramid of slain townspeople. In the center was an emblem of a colossal silver dragon clutching a dozen spears in one fist and the throat of a vampire in its other.
“Shit, Angriz. Isn’t that the flag of the Orwens?” I said.
I awoke with a start. Sunlight streamed through windows I hadn’t noticed before. I took a few minutes just to look around the room, savoring the joy of sight which was something I hadn’t realized I had taken for granted. Things I would have overlooked before I had become blind, I now took pleasure in. ‘Sight is awesome!’ There was a mural on the far wall from where I sat. It was of a forest clearing with a blue dragon which sat, posture regal, upon a stone plinth and at her feet was a clan of elves kneeling, worshipful. I assumed it was a female because my hostess was. I took a deep breath and turned my thoughts to my dream.
I remembered it with extreme clarity. I’ve never been able to do that before. There was the tall, muscular man with the cinnamon hair and uncomfortable Armani suit; the curvy woman with the dark hair who was about my mother’s height; that strange, yet familiar, control room with its many screens, the technicians, polished granite floor and the sleepy, rumpled looking man who stood in the center; and the asteroid which I knew was going to destroy everything the big man knew and loved. A rapid knock at my door, startled me. ‘By all the hells! I almost soiled myself!’ The urgency of the knock caused me to leap from the bed, dash to the door and yank it open.
“What is it?” I said to a surprised Keeper Dearbhaile.
Her eyes grew large as they traveled down and then she blushed scarlet. Wondering why, I glanced down as well. Imagine my mortification when I realized I had forgotten I’d slept nude, just for the experience mind you, and had answered the door that way. I gave a yelp of embarrassment and jumped behind the door. I stuck my head around the edge and repeated my question.
“O-Oh!” she stammered, playing with her necklace. “Lady Soo-jau sent me to get ye. She said ’tis urgent.”
“I’ll be right there!” I shouted as I slammed the door.
My face aflame, I scrambled to where my clothes hung drying from the washing I gave them the night before. As I began to get dressed, I ran myself down for not being smoother with the accidental flashing. I wondered how Angriz would’ve handled it. “Nah. He wouldn’t have answered the door that way. He’s always aware of everything,” I said to myself.
For once, I was glad to have simple deerskin clothing rather than my jeans; it just pulled on and I was ready to go. I picked up my shoes and carried them in my hand as I re-opened the door. Keeper Dearbhaile stood waiting with her hands clasped in front of her. Not knowing how to handle what happened, I resolved to not say anything about it unless she did.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Aye,” she replied.
As she led me to the Vaush-Tauric, I asked, “Where’s Angriz?”
“With Lady Soo-jau.”
I nodded and said nothing more until we were before the Lady. This morning she wore a light red dress which flattered the color of her scales and was seated on a raised dais on a bronze throne with ornate designs. Something about her posture told me she was upset.
“Carter Blake,” she began without preamble, “your original quesst hass come to a conclusssion. Your sssight isss ressstored. Now you have a choissse: you and Angrizzz may go to the ressscue of Adora Orwen and perhapsss sssave her life; or you may go north and perhapsss encounter the architect of thisss war. What will you do?”
I paused for several moments. To tell the truth, the sudden hissing from my hostess scared me. After a bit of thought, I assumed it was due to her being upset and was able to put my unease behind me.
At last, I said, “You didn’t indicate a direction for the rescue attempt.”
The Vaush-Tauric sighed. “I do not know the direction she is to be found. All I was able to learn is: To aid her, you must first journey to Rivorei City. There, you will find your clues as to where she is hidden. Know these things as well: One, there is not time to achieve both goals. Whichever you decide, you lose the other. Two, thirty days from today, Adora Orwen will be dead and the architect will be gone to another realm. Three, if you and Angriz split up, you will both die.”
I thought about this for a couple of minutes. Then, I had an idea:
“Would you aid us, milady?” I asked.
“I cannot,” she said. “Because of what I am, I am both bound to this location and forbidden from interfering.”
“What is a Vaush-Tauric?” I asked. “And why are you forbidden from helping?”
“She is a conduit to the draconic gods,” Angriz rumbled.
Smoke rolled from his nostrils. Something told me he was upset by this choice.
‘Why me?’ Aloud I said, “Angriz, your thoughts would be appreciated.”
“From a strategic perspective, it would be best to go after whoever is behind this war. However, Lady Orwen has been my friend since she was a child.”
For some reason, hearing it in Angriz’ voice crystallized it for me.
“What a minute!” I exclaimed. “I thought Drago was behind this war?”
“He is a pawn in the scheme of someone else,” Lady Soo-jau said.
“Alright,” I said. “We know what happens to Lady Orwen if we fail to rescue her. What happens if we find this architect? Will stopping him stop the war?”
“No, but the number of people who die will be limited.”
“Hellfire,” I said. “Why must I make this choice? I’m only fourteen!”
“A man’s age,” Angriz said.
“Not where I’m from. I don’t want this kind of responsibility. This is nuts!”
“Nonetheless, Carter, you must take this on.” Lady Soo-jau spoke in a soft voice meant to soothe.
“Why?” I demanded. “Because the Great and Mighty Mordecai pulled me from my world? Or because Morgrid the Soul-forger ordered him to do so?”
“No,” she said. “You must because you are the Walker of Worlds.”
“What the hell is that?” I shouted.
“I cannot say,” she said. To her student she said, “Keeper Dearbhaile, you are to go with these men and aid them in any way you are able.”
“I will now take my leave of you,” the Vaush-Tauric said. “Good fortune to you all.” She vanished like a dream in the morning light. I looked at my friends and let out a sigh. “What should we do, Angriz?” I said.
“Wherever you lead, I shall follow, Carter.”
“And I also,” said Keeper Dearbhaile.
‘These two are adults declaring they’re going to follow me. I don’t even shave!’
‘Why are you doubting yourself?’
‘No one’s life has ever been in my hands.’
‘Come on, how is this a question? Faceless strangers versus your friend, Lady Owen. There’s no contest.’
‘Any other time, I’d agree, but what would she say if we told her we rescued her instead of trying to stop the war?’
‘Who says she needs to know?’
Internal argument complete, I knew what needed to be done. I looked at Angriz and Keeper Dearbhaile who waited, expectant.
“We’re going north,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. “It would be selfish of us to let innocent people die just to rescue our friend.”
My companions nodded agreement and we walked from the throne room.
I found myself in a high school gymnasium. The basketball hoops were cranked up to the ceiling with crêpe paper chains connecting them. LED Christmas lights were twined around the chains, windows and doors. The bleachers were secreted away behind recessed sliding doors of their own. Blue and gold carpet covered the hardwood floor. I guessed they were the school colors. At the far end of the gym, a stage had been erected with instruments at attention, waiting for the band. Tables, with white coverings and lit by Chinese lanterns which floated in mid-air, were scattered around a wide open levitating section of floor I assumed was for dancing. The lanterns and Christmas lights provided the only illumination, and yet were all that was needed.
I felt myself drawn to this large guy who reminded me of Angriz. He was taller than me, broader shouldered and narrower at the hip. He had dark gray eyes, cinnamon colored hair in a pony-tail and a Van Dyke beard. He wore a black three-piece suit with a lavender shirt. He was talking with a much shorter woman. The top of her head came up to the bottom of his ribcage. Her hair was a dark golden brown, her eyes the color of a Hershey’s Kiss. Her skin was a light tan. The young woman’s lips were a moist looking bright pink. She had high cheekbones and a heart-shaped face. A lilac blouse, black jeans and black sneakers trimmed in white made up her outfit. In her left ear was the black and yellow emblem of Batman. In her right ear was the red and yellow “S” shield of Superman.
She smiled up at him as he bent to kiss her. Just by that, I somehow knew they were in love. I also somehow knew that they were not destined to be together. She moved away from him and he went over to the stage where some folks had begun playing music. The large man climbed up on the stage, which had risen into the air, and passed the man on the keyboard a note. As he hopped back down and approached me, I heard the opening notes of Breaking Benjamin’s “I Will Not Bow” begin. Breaking Benjamin is one of my favorite bands.
“Hello, Carter,” he said to me.
“How do you know my name?” I asked with puzzlement.
He smiled. “Follow me.”
“Where?” I said, the hair on my neck stiff as steel wool.
“Why should I trust you?
“Carter, don’t you realize when you’re dreaming?”
He led me passed the stage and over to the steel double doors I remembered from my time in public schools. He pushed the bar that opened the door to the right and stepped through. I followed him, wanting to know how he seemed to know me. I strode through the door and, rather than a school hallway, or a parking lot (which I would have expected), I found myself walking along an asphalt road that wound through a mountain, or else we were underground. Either way, the tunnel was huge.
It looked like it would run for miles before we came to a destination, yet after five steps, we were before this titanic door. Victory Keep could go through it with feet to spare. It swung open in silence and the big guy sauntered through. Again, I followed him.
I was amazed by the sights. The ten meter screens with their images from various spy satellites. The ten techs sitting in front of their control panels typing. Sixteen operators chatted into their headpieces with various operatives around the world, and the many assistants scurrying about the place. I was in some sort of control room. I watched as the huge guy crossed the mirror polished granite floor to the middle of the room where a much smaller man stood studying reports and on occasion looking up at the central screen. He pointed at the screen the other guy was looking at.
It showed the cold, dark reaches of space. There flew a huge, dense mass of rock. It was potato shaped, cratered from meteor impacts and was the size of the state of Texas. It was flying right at the camera. Before I shouted a warning, the big guy spoke to me.
“If you have my back, I’ll have yours. That’s how I work.”
Then alarms whooped, and Klaxons screamed of danger. A loud-speaker shouted:
“Warning! Warning! Impact from heavenly body imminent! Warning! Warning!”
There was a huge shaking of the ground beneath my feet and…
A few days later, Angriz and I arrived at the Weirdling’s glen. My guide placed my hand upon a tree. “Wait here, until I’m able to introduce you. She doesn’t like strangers to be brought unannounced. I’ll bring her to you, first.”
“Alright,” I said.
“One more thing: she’s not like anyone you’ve met before.”
“Alright,” I said again.
I waited until Angriz tromped off before I laughed to myself. It seemed heartless to remind him everyone here was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Still, I found myself wondering what he meant. I soon found out. About ten minutes later, Angriz returned with someone who had a much lighter tread.
I noted an unfamiliar odor. I recognized Angriz’s scent. He smelled like hot steel, with a faint tang of pine. This came from his preference for sleeping on pine boughs. This new scent, while not unpleasant, unfamiliar; flowery, but with a faint acrid undercurrent. They stopped a few feet from me.
“Carter, this is Soo-jau. She is the Weirdling I told you of.”
“Angriz,” a soft voice said. “I wish you would stop using that common term. Please identify me the proper way.”
Leather creaked as Angriz bowed. “I’m sorry, Lady Soo-jau.” He directed his next words to me, “She is Vaush-Tauric.”
“What’s in a name?” I said.
“Well said,” said Soo-jau. “A flower by any other name smells the same.”
‘She misquoted William Shakespeare to me, and has no idea who he is. I find that funny as hell for some reason.’
“Thank you, my lady.” I held my left elbow in my right hand, and tapped my lips with my left index finger. “Speaking of scents, yours is interesting. What is it, pray?”
“Carter!” Angriz sounded shocked I would ask such a question.
Soo-jau chuckled. “You are smelling my relaxation salts.”
“Another scent is beneath. Something acrid,” I said.
“Indeed,” she replied. “Tell me, how does Angriz smell to you?”
“Huh?” Angriz sounded confused.
I ignored him for the moment. “Like hot metal and pine. He likes sleeping on pine needles.”
“Can you guess why hot metal?”
“Maybe because he breathes fire.”
“You are correct. What breath weapon do you think I possess?”
“I would say one of acid.”
“Are you a full dragon, Soo-jau?” I asked.
“I am. Only full dragons can ever be Vaush-Tauric.”
“Angriz tells me you will be able to restore my sight.”
“We’ll get to that, but first, I wish to perform a test. Come here.”
She took me by my hand and led me further into her glen. Water gurgled into a fountain. She released my hand and moved away. I marked her movements by listening to her footsteps through the grass. I turned my head so I would be able to follow her light step easier. The sward sprung up as her feet left the ground. She levitated.
“Why are you flying?” I asked.
“You heard me rise?” she asked, head titled to the side.
She nodded as if my answer was what she was expecting. “This is part of the test. I suspected you might be able to track my movements by sound. Your head movements confirmed my suspicions.”
“Hunh,” I grunted.
“Carter, does magic exist in your world?”
“Not real magic,” I answered. “We possess tricks we call magic, or illusions, but they are really slight-of-hand and misdirection.”
“Were you always blind?”
I told her about what happened. I got chills reliving the experience. As an atheist, to have witnessed the appearance of a real angel was…startling to say the least.
“You seem to take the existence of magic rather well,” she said.
“In my world, I deal with things which to others would seem to be magic more often than not. Something we named nuclear physics deals with splitting atoms. We call this process fission. This generates an enormous amount of heat. My friend and I once experimented with creating the opposite, called cold fission which generates a tremendous amount of cold. I am used to the unusual.”
“What are atoms?” she asked with interest.
“In simple terms, they are the building blocks of everything.”
“What about not simple terms?”
“Well, as I learned, an atom is the smallest component of an element having the chemical properties of the element, consisting of a nucleus containing combinations of neutrons and protons and one or more electrons bound to the nucleus by electrical attraction; the number of protons determines the identity of the element.”
“Hmm. I think I prefer the simpler way of saying it. I can learn a lot from you.”
“And I from you,” I said. “Now, what about the remainder of this test?”
She laughed. “Alright. This part is simple in concept: Catch me.”
“That’s all?” I asked, suspicious.
I sighed and agreed. ‘This is silly.’ I lunged to where I had heard her voice from last, hoping to catch her off guard. This time, the laughter came from my right and a little behind me. I whirled and leaped. I landed hard on my stomach, my hands clutching the empty air. The air left my lungs in a rush as I slammed into the ground. Belly flops on the ground are painful, let me tell you. I groaned and rolled to my feet with care, cussing as I did. Further laughter came from my left, close by, so I swung my arm outward, intending to grasp her at the last moment. Soo-jau laughed again as my hand closed on empty air. Though I sensed no mockery in her constant laughter, only fun and enjoyment of the game, I found myself growing angry. I whirled left, then right, becoming angrier and more disoriented as I flailed about. I ceased talking, my only sounds grunts and gasps. I think she sensed my anger because her laughter also halted.
I found a scaled face with a flailing hand, and clamped down. A grunt and faint “Ow.” To my shame, I realized I had Angriz and caused him some pain. My anger melted away to be replaced with concern.
“I’m sorry,” I said, releasing my grip. “Are you okay?”
He pulled away. “No worries.”
With a clearer mind, I had a flash of inspiration. I stretched my hand out until I touched his leather clad chest. I moved to my right, stretching my arm out. I took two steps further away.
“Angriz,” I whispered. “Do me a favor?”
“Hold your breath for thirty seconds.”
He took a deep breath, and did as I requested. I shouted, startling Soo-jau. A brief gasp of surprise revealed her presence to my left. I waited, counting to three in my head. She moved to my right as I anticipated. I leaped at her without turning my head. I manage to wrap my arms around her waist. Our combined weight overcame her levitation spell, bringing us both crashing to the ground. I released Soo-jau, and rolled to my back so I lay beside her. She lay panting in unison with me for a bit. Angriz resumed his normal pattern of breathing. A moment later, she sat up.
“Congratulations,” she said. “None ever caught me. How did you?”
I smiled, happy with my own cleverness and another chance to teach.
“After I hurt Angriz…-”
“You did not,” he said.
“My shame caused my temper to evaporate,” I continued as if he hadn’t interrupted. “When able to think again, I had a flash of inspiration: my hearing improved tenfold after I’d lost my sight, so I wondered if I might be able to hear you moving through the air. I had him hold his breath, and shouted. I guessed the suddenness of my shout would surprise you. You gasped and I knew where you hovered. I figured that you wouldn’t stay in place after giving your position away, so I listened as hard as I could for you to move. When you did, your mass caused a breeze. The day was otherwise calm so I knew where you ended up. The rest, you know.”
“Ah. Excellent,” she said with some pride in her voice.
I tingled with the sincere praise. I rose to my feet and held out my hand to her. When she accepted, I pulled her up from the grass.
“So, did I pass your test?”
“You did, Carter Blake. All of them.”
“All?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes. I wished to test your character, you adaptability, and your hearing. I figured you might get angry, though the speed with which you regained your composure surprised me. I admit, though, I did not expect you to catch me. I planned to call an end to the test when you tackled me.”
“So, what happens now?” I asked.
“Now, I begin my preparations. We will learn if I am able to aid you. Return tomorrow.”
“Mother was unconscious, cradled in Father’s arms. Her dress was flung up above her waist, torn and caked in drying blood. Rage and grief churned within me, erupting in an anguished howl that I later learned echoed throughout the countryside and brought the villagers at a run.
“The roar startled my father back to reality. ‘Go for the healers!’ he cried. I turned without question and raced back out. I had never sprinted so fast before. Before I even got to the main road into the village, I beheld the Elder running beside Healer Smythwick, followed by the rest of the villagers. For the first time, I ignored our Elder and spoke only to Smythwick. ‘Come fast,’ I shouted. ‘My mother is hurt!’ Without hesitation, I whirled back to the house. I stopped running as I reentered. Father had by this time covered my mother’s nakedness, restoring some semblance of her dignity. I heard footsteps behind me and knew by his scent the Healer had arrived. I was ushered outside with my father while he began examining Mother.
“After what seemed like hours, he emerged from our cottage and reported that my magnificent, beautiful mother had been raped and clawed with viciousness. Bites ran down her neck and arms. My father stiffened and bade me wait. He then went in to her. I began to search the areas near the door for clues. Most would not have used ‘methodical’ to describe me any other time, but I was then. I found a red scale as father came outside once more. I showed it to him and received a curt nod. He looked at the Elder with glowing golden eyes and spoke. ‘Watch over Aurora for me until we return,’ he ordered.
‘Of course, Rhynskald.’
“Father beckoned for me to follow him, and set a brisk pace headed east. He set an incredible pace. About three hundred yards into the woods, he began to transform. First, scales spread over his skin in a spiral pattern. His body lengthened; his limbs bulged as his back grew broader. He dropped so his hands touched the ground. His clothing was ripped to shreds and fell to the earth. Father’s fingers and toes sprouted long, sharp claws. His face stretched and broadened, growing a magnificent ridge of horn as his nose and mouth lengthened becoming a maw with huge fangs. The whiskers on his face also grew longer. Tremendous wings burst from his backbone as his neck stretched until it was as long as his body. A tail swept out behind him, thick and sinuous. This wonderful transformation happened in a matter of seconds. I was astonished to behold him as a splendid gold dragon.
“I stared, mouth agape. Father swiveled his huge head around and peered down at me. One melon-size eye blinked closed. He gestured for me to come to him. ‘Come, we have a red dragon to hunt.’
“I stepped forward, filled with trepidation. A colossal paw, tipped with massive claws, grasped me. With a swift few steps, my father launched himself into the air.”
When Angriz paused, I took a moment to divert him from the anguish he must have relived, “Why did your father call you Swenlyn?”
“That was my name at the time,” he answered. “We dragons go through different naming processes than others do. We are given one name after hatching, or birth. We receive another at puberty, and one more upon reaching adulthood. Some are named for their deeds, and some by their enemies. Mine was the latter.”
I cocked a surprised eyebrow at him. “Why would you carry a name given by an enemy?”
“Because it turned out to be my True Name.”
I thought for a second: I’d heard of the significance of them before. I just couldn’t remember where. Mental forehead slap: BattleHammer.
“I may be wrong,” I began, “But if someone knows your True Name, they have power over you, right?”
“Yes, but only if secret. However, in the open, as mine is, then any True Name spells would backfire against the caster.” His smile was clear in his voice.
“Ah, right. Sorry for my interruption. Please continue.”
“My father flew through the night. His massive paw shielded me from the cold air. As we traveled, I asked about our family. ‘Father, does you being a dragon mean that I am one as well?’
“‘No, Swenlyn, you are half-dragon. Your mother is human,’ he said.
“This provided my next question, ‘Why do I look like the other children?’
“‘Half-dragons resemble the offspring of their non-draconic parent until adolescence,’ he answered. ‘That is when your body begins to change. Nothing looks different at first. Then, your scales begin to develop with what appears like a full-body rash which itches like hell.’
“‘I won’t be able to continue playing with the others, will I?’ I asked.
“He sighed, ‘As long as they allow it. I’m afraid they will be much like other children I have seen in my travels, and ostracize you. Odds are you will be very lonely, son. However, as you grow, your strength, agility and intelligence will, too. They grow at a much faster rate than anyone’s except a pure dragon.’ With that he fell silent.
“At last, close to dawn, we came to the Saffron Mountains. We landed on a broad ledge near the summit of Mount Killimin, the highest peak in the range. He released me from his grip and transformed back to the man I knew. Several feet away, a black cave led into the mountain. Father held my eyes for a moment, seeming to find something. He nodded, more to himself than to me.
“‘Wait here,’ he commanded as he strode into the cave. Hours passed as the sun rose higher into the sky. Too long, he had been gone. The silence, the not-knowing was toying with my imagination and I was considering following him. He would not have tolerated my disobeying him. And yet, if he were in need of me…how could I just stay?
Much to my relief and horror, the silence was destroyed by a terrific roaring. Inside the mountain, a titanic battle was being waged. Pebbles bounced and tumbled down from above the cavern entrance. Dust thickened the air as the ground shook.
“I dove to one side as a searing wall of flame shot from the opening. My right shoulder took a beating from a sharp rock half buried in the rubble. I rubbed the bruised and singed muscle as I rose. Moments later, Father strode out. He was tired, dirty, sweaty and covered in blood. I wondered how much of was his and what amount belonged to the red dragon still inside. His battle-weary eyes locked on mine. For a moment I thought I discerned more than just the father, the warrior I knew him to be: all strength, integrity and discipline. Something else stood looking at me which I did not recognize. He seemed as if he were a king. No, a king of kings. His appearance was at once majestic, yet menacing.
“He beckoned for me and forgetting all else, I ran to congratulate him. He was safe! He’d won. But before I could celebrate, he spoke, wary and tired, ‘It’s not yet over.’ I slid to a stop a foot or two from him. In his hand was an enormous silver greatsword with an intricate filigreed pommel. He offered the hilt to me. Not yet understanding his purpose, I grasped the sword and followed.
“We returned to the cave and walked for a long distance. This was not a single grotto, but a series of immense caverns. The last hollow we entered was breath-taking. The ceiling soared far above our heads. Tiny eyes measured our progress. At any other time, this would have been beautiful; flowstones, rising stalagmites, beautiful curves, nooks, a small stream that was no doubt a tributary to some deep underground lake.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I espied the red dragon lying not far from us. He was huge, but not as big as Father in his draconic form. He laid in a pool of his own green lifeblood. Gore also sprayed over the nearest rocks. Chunks of flesh and scales littered the floor. The red’s breathing was quick, shallow and ragged. Father and I drew closer. I detected the crimson dragon’s lava-like eye roll to watch us. He tried to get to his feet, but was unable. His tongue rolled out of his mouth and dragged on the cavern floor. Dust clung to it.
‘His fate lies in your hands, my son. If you do not choose to finish him, there is a good chance he will survive.’ With that, my father turned, and headed outside. I lowered the sword point to the ground at my left side, and I gazed at the red for some time.
‘What is your name?’ I asked.
‘S-Skor-Skoroth,’ he panted.
‘Did you rape and torture my mother?’
He nodded in affirmation.
‘For pleasure,’ he gasped. ‘And because I was paid a sizable sum to torment your family.’
Furious, I shouted, ‘Who? Who funded you?’
Skoroth wheezed out laughter. I did not flinch as a fine spray of blood flew from his mouth, coating my face and chest. “I’ll never tell you, Whelp.”
‘What’ll you do if I allow you to live?’ I demanded through clenched teeth.
Something he descried in my eyes made him answer thus, ‘I will hunt your kinfolk and kill them, my dear… Angriz.’
He struggled to raise his head and stare at me with surprise and curiosity written on his face. The angle was perfect. I swung the greatsword up and around, decapitating him. I slashed so hard, I spun around several times before I fell over, dropping the sword as I did. The cavern continued to spin and tilt, as I raised my eyes to focus on Skoroth. His head lay under the stump of his neck. A river of blood coated the floor and me. Unable to stop myself, I brought my hand and placed blood-covered fingers into my mouth one at a time until I licked them clean. Spent and weary, I rose to my feet and left Skoroth’s lair.
Father was watching a flock of geese overhead when I exited the cave. I stood beside him, trying to find way to tell him what I had done. Not about killing Skoroth, but tasting and licking his blood from my fingers. Before I opened my mouth, my father said, ‘You did the right thing, my son. I am proud of you.’
His voice seemed to unlock the words I’d been searching for. ‘Father, I have tasted his lifeblood. Something inside me, something irresistible caused me to do it.’
‘You need not worry about that, Swenlyn,’ he reassured me.
‘I am Angriz.’
He turned to look at me with an eyebrow raised. He searched my face, and then nodded in understanding. ‘Ah. The red?’
He said nothing else. In silence, we stared without seeing. Our eyes focused somewhere other than the surrounding mountains. I imagine that deep within himself my father wrestled with the injuries of Mother, and possibly the wisdom of me embracing the name of Angriz. I was numb. I don’t remember thinking of much at all. My outer surroundings and inner thoughts blurred, leaving me unable to focus on anything.
A little before sunset in the warmth of dusk, Father transformed once again into a gigantic golden dragon. I straddled his back and we flew home. I never did press him for an explanation about tasting Skoroth’s blood, thinking we’d discuss it soon enough. But weeks passed into years and my father died before I thought to ask him again.”
Angriz fell silent, his tale finished.
“Why did Skoroth call you Angriz?” I asked. I struggled to hide my consternation that the one who raped his mother, the one who had torn his family asunder, the one Angriz had killed had been the one to reveal his True Name.
He shifted and replied in measured tones, “My appellation means both ‘Avenger’, and ‘Holder of My Fate’, in Draconic.”
“In the language of dragons, words can have different meanings depending on the way they are used.”
“Oh.” Then, it occurred to me. “Why didn’t you suffer from the Bloodtaste when you tasted Skoroth’s blood?”
“I do not know. Many times I have wondered that. Even more so today.”
Two weeks had passed before I received any news about the princess. She had been abducted.
I was startled to discover how much people rely on sight to act. We look at so many things in our lives, and yet, we don’t observe them. I’d come to realize what we didn’t see tripped us up, in the literal sense, as well as the figurative one. Hell, before I lost my eyes, I traveled everywhere without even thinking. Now, I discovered myself always considering each step: the end of the bed I used sat sixteen and a half steps from the doorway, the armoire thirty-three paces. To arrive from the bedstead, I only had to travel nineteen. The first time I tried to find the desk, I’d banged my knee on the seat of its chair which was the same distance. The fireplace and chairs, I found with ease: I hit the mantle above the hearth chest first. I wound up stumbling back into one of the two seats. They were fifty-one steps from the four-poster. I did not know the precise place of the bookcase. To tell the truth, I could go without knowing. I wasn’t about to walk into the bloody thing, nor would I be reading anytime soon. I still decided to find the shelf. The location was an unknown. I don’t care for unknowns.
A throat cleared behind me. I turned to face the sound, empty eye sockets covered by a thin strip of cloth. I didn’t want to make anyone sick. “Yes?”
“My friend,” Mordecai began. “I am so sorry for—”
“Enough! Where have you been?” I felt feverish, breathing short and shallow, skin tingled as sweat formed, then rolled. ‘Calm down,’ I ordered myself. That ever work for you? Me either.
“Attempting to find some trace of Lady Orwen.” He exhaled. “I have not been successful.”
I grunted. “Alright. How do I get my eyes back? Is that possible?”
He sighed again. “I’m afraid I don’t possess the knowledge.”
“What the hell, Mordecai?!” Arms crossed, I scowled in his general direction.
“I’m sor—”, he began.
“How can you not?” I interrupted through gritted teeth.
“I’m not all-know—” he said.
“Aren’t you a wizard?” I continued to interrupt, muscles jumping and tingling.
“My friend—” he tried again.
“Don’t even start, you fraud! You rip me from my home, asking for my help, I might add. I’m attacked by some monster and get blinded!” I ripped away the cloth, revealing empty eye sockets. “You tell me that you don’t know if I’ll ever see again!” I shouted, jamming my finger in his general direction, feet planted wide. My pulse roared. I wanted to punch the most powerful wizard in the Realm. “How dare you call me your friend?”
He growled as I fell silent. He took a deep breath.
“Are you finished?” His voice was soft.
Anger still boiled, but the rumble spooked me enough I decided to bite my tongue. “For now.”
He waited for a bit. “I tried to help you,” he said. I gave a snort of derision. “I have. Disbelieve all you must, but that is a fact. I made an unsettling discovery.”
That piqued my interest enough to ask. “What?”
His robes rustled as he crossed the room. Mordecai pushed me back on the bed, and sat next to me. The bedstead sank deep beneath his weight. He gripped my shoulders. I guessed he was looking into my eyes, or at least, where they used to be.
“My friend, you are immune to the magic of this world.”