Lenoa soaked her hands in the lake, washing dried blood from her knuckles. She avoided looking at the damaged, sanguine-stained trees around her, or the growing ring of things dying and deceased within the forest. She brought her hand to her teeth, chewing splinters from her skin and spitting them back to the water. Anything to break the reflective plane that continued to remind her of whomever it was looking back. No longer a guard, captain, or knight. No longer royalty, a princess, or a queen. Just “her.” Just the ‘lost little Nephilim.’
She’d been encamped at the lake for some time, ever since she was no longer her. The freezing burn of anemic dragonfire and little essence nearby assaulted her veins for dominance like thunderous hornets trapped in a wither basket. Maintaining any form of control was the most she mustered.
The yellow jacket sun buzzed with warmth throughout the semi-evening wood, in spite of the cerulean moon hanging overhead. Sweat dripped from her brow as Lenoa stepped into the lake, soaking her legs. She no longer wore bracers, or any other armor. She had purloined a leather surcote with her heraldic crest, and other key provisions before she abandoned the castle. She’d renounced her title yet retained her feathers and thorns.
A sickly bird squawked as it flew overhead. It circled for a moment, watching her watching it, before it left as casually as it came. The time passed in stillness, as it had learned to do around her.
At some point, bushes in the tree line began to ruffle, and gave way to a large furry creature trundling to the watering hole. She sighed, swallowing a gulp of saliva before stepping from the lake and back to her camp. She drew her hunting knife from a satchel and made her way through the wood line.
She came upon the boar unaware, gorging itself within the lake. She readied her knife, watching the creature fill itself with glee. Though her veins began to throb with anticipation, her knife-hand trembled. She clenched the grip tighter, but couldn’t keep it under control. “Dammit!” she shouted. The boar turned about, examined her for only a moment, and charged. Before she could react, the boar grazed Lenoa’s leg and dropped her to the ground. She rolled over as the boar came charging back. Her knife-arm tensed, and she screamed as she stuck the boar on its way past.
The boar lie injured near the waterbed, unable to move as Lenoa climbed to her feet. She hobbled over to the squeal-snorting giant pig. A tightness formed in her throat as she saw the look in its eyes—the fear she had introduced to so many before. She watched on for a moment longer. The boar continued to squeal as it bled. She removed the knife, exhaled, and granted it a final bit of mercy.
She rested beside the dead boar, sheathing her knife and taking deep breaths. Cicada chirping echoed through the air as she drew each breath. Before long, she scooched up to the lake, forming a cup with her hands to gather some water. After a few gulps, she began to feel an all-too-familiar sensation hit mid-slurp. She drew her knife and positioned the blade across her scarred arm, breaking the skin just enough to let the blood rush to the surface.
Her vision became blurry, but not altogether disappearing as she found herself vicariously in the throne room yet again. The stinging from her father’s backhand remained palpable on her cheek once more as she lie across the cold marble floor. The sinking hole feeling within her chest reminded her what awaited in the corner of the room. What always came next. The lynx guard. Her father. Everything. With the little control she retained of her knife hand, she pressed the blade until the crimson pain brought her back. The vision aborted.
She laid back next to the dead boar, breathing heavily as scarlet clouds passed overhead. She was, and forever would be, a murderer. And this was her price. The blood streaming from her arm trickled along the sand until it pooled with the boar’s.
“Honey, that’s kinda gross. Want some help?”
Lenoa arched her neck while remaining on the ground, looking up to see an upside-down Emarosa, head-cocked, staring back at her. Lenoa sighed, closed her eyes, and rolled over, burying her face in the sand.
Emarosa chuckled, pulling Lenoa from the sand. Lenoa glared with little effort as she blew a mess of blonde-ish tresses from her face. Regaining her feet, Lenoa stood over Emarosa, eyebrow cocked, as she looked over the dark mystery of a woman with prismatic hair.
“No hug?” Emarosa asked, arms outstretched.
Lenoa rolled her eyes, grabbing the dead boar’s legs and dragging it the short distance back to her camp. She cleaned and prepared it while Emarosa watched, the latter eventually taking a seat across from the small campfire now catching flame. She held her hands out, the heat of the flames making her fingers dance. She flicked a finger, and watched as the flame danced in kind. She giggled. Lenoa scoffed, continuing to prepare her dinner.
Emarosa looked up to her, through the flame. “Not even gonna say hi? Last time you wouldn’t stop bitin’ my head off, and now you’re quiet as can be.” Lenoa prepared a piece of the boar and took a huge bite, spitting out a small chunk of fat. Emarosa gestured toward the boar, to which Lenoa shrugged as she continued chomping along. Emarosa grabbed a piece of the boar, taking bites in between Lenoa’s raucous chewing.
The two ate in the otherwise stillness of the shoreline, Emarosa gleaning bits and pieces as she watched her partner. Being relatively petite, she finished her meal in little time while she waited for Lenoa. Once the latter finished her meal, Emarosa stood, turned about, and began heading back into the forest. After a moment she paused, turning back, “Aren’t you coming?” Lenoa stared at her before looking around. No apparent alternative in sight, she scratched her head, rose, and shuffled up to Emarosa.
“I won’t make you ask. We’re gonna take a little field trip while I teach you about Nephilim. I bet you’re jes’ dyin’ ta’ know, yeah?” Emarosa smirked as she led the way through the wood.
“Nephilim are the kids of Elohim and Lilim. Your dad, of course, was Elohim. Your ma—” Emarosa turned back, no sound of footsteps behind her. Lenoa remained tense, breathing heavily and trembling as her fingers continued to form and un-form a fist. “Crap, I’m so sorry sweetie.”
Emarosa cast her gaze to the ground. Before long, she raised her head, flicking her hair from her eyes. “I didn’t mean ta’ jes’ make it sound like I don’t care about what happened. He had his issues, but your dad was a great man. Maybe one of the greatest. He just…” she hesitated, “…he lost his way. As people like him sometimes do.”
Emarosa moved to give Lenoa a hug. Lenoa pushed her back, but was eventually overcome. Emarosa rested her head on Lenoa’s chest for a moment, holding her and listening to her heartbeat. After a time Lenoa eventually began to relax. “Shh, it’s alright honey.” Emarosa released her, sliding her palm along Lenoa’s cheek, not unlike a mother. Lenoa’s eyes widened. Emarosa’s thumb slid across Lenoa’s cheek before leaving her face and continuing onward.
“Anyway, your ma must’ve been Lilim. Same as all the other folk ya’ know. I guess the only real difference is how much essence we’ve taken in over the generations. We Elohim prolly had way a little too much. Makes us weird. Usually Neph-ies are jes’ kinda weird, but you…oh, we’re here.”
Emarosa led the way into the Sticks, which, while still a hovel, didn’t seem as…dead. Some people actually appeared fed, as though they might last the day. Before getting into the town, a firm hand on Emarosa’s shoulder spun her around, bringing her face-to-face with a tense Lenoa once again. Emarosa’s grin faded.
“You know why we’re, hun. C’mon.” She led the way to a burnt down shack near the edge of a cliff overlooking the great sea. The sound of quick, rapid breathes caught Emarosa’s attention as she turned about. Lenoa’s face flush, Emarosa took her hand. “You’ve been tryin’ ta’ block it out. Your subconscious won’t let ya’ though, will it?” Lenoa didn’t respond. Emarosa nodded. “Do what’cha gotta do. I’ll be here.”
Emarosa waited patiently as eventually, reluctantly, Lenoa moved passed her, like a small child wandering out on her own for the first time. She moved toward a small patchwork grave marker near the edge of the cliff. Emarosa watched as Lenoa knelt, her fingers gliding across a crude etching that spelled out “Amir” across the grave marker. Lenoa laid beside the grave, her palms resting upon the dirt plot. She closed her eyes.
Emarosa focused on the crashing of the waves against the bedrock below, drowning out the sound of whimpering turning to sobbing. She glanced toward the horizon, resting her gaze on waves splashing against the brilliant hues of the never-setting sun.
Lenoa sat staring into the mid-night sky, watching the lamps of welkin glisten and shine across the empyrean. Whether or not they had anything to do with souls was beyond her, but it was an odd thought. It was a memory she had gleaned shortly after they’d first met—she and Amir. Daydreaming was something she’d never tried for herself, until now.
“Hey,” she called out to Emarosa, sleeping beside her in the small camp they’d made outside the Sticks. “Hey!” she called out again. No response. She kicked Emarosa sharply somewhere near her kidney. “Ow! What’re ya’—why?” Emarosa shouted with a sleepy, pained expression as she sat up. “Tell me of him.” Lenoa demanded. Emarosa took a minute to regain her composure.
“Ya’ dunno?” Emarosa asked.
“Our father was conquest personified. Little else.” Lenoa stated coldly.
“Hm, he was determined. Hum—” Emarosa hummed along as she rocked back and forth
with her knees between her arms. “He was…I dunno.” she laughed. “Intense? But not as simple as that. Elohim are effusive by nature—we suck at hidin’ and controlling our feelings, and ourselves—but him? Somethin’ else. Like an avalanche. Sometimes tranquil as snow. Others so overwhelming all ya’ can do is try not to get swept up in his wake.”
Lenoa chuckled as she cocked an eye, which did not escape Emarosa’s notice. “Hey, I’m not your ma’ in case you forgot,” she pointed her finger at Lenoa, “I chose the ‘not swept up’ route. Even so…” Lenoa watched on as Emarosa seemed lost in thought.
Lenoa clutched her outer thigh as her breaths grew short. A burning rose in her chest as her sight darkened. She reached desperately for her knife, but found only darkness. Lost to her vision, she found herself shorter, darker, elsewhere. A small group of wooden doll-like creatures lay before her, seemingly dead. She gathered them up and sauntered off toward the lake, her vision-puppy following close behind. Lenoa lurched forward as she regained her body.
Looking up, Emarosa also seemed winded, though far less so. Lenoa stared at her with curiosity. “No visions fer me, luckily. Just—” Emarosa caught her breath, “Dragonfire, right? A lotta it was jes’—” a tree crashed to the ground several meters deeper into the forest. “That, I guess.”
Emarosa stood, rushing toward the source of the noise, with Lenoa following close behind. They reached a downed tree that had almost taken out a majestic willow towering nearby.
“Oh no, no, no, no!” Emarosa dropped to her knees, digging through the debris.
“Was that tree your friend?” Lenoa scoffed.
“It’s not tree, it’s what lives under it!” Emarosa scrambled through the leaves, tossing them about.
“Lives under it?” Lenoa asked as she nearly stepped on an odd wooden doll. She knelt closer, brushing some mushrooms aside to examine it. It couldn’t be a doll: there were no carving of any kind. More like small, hardy wooden limbs with joints and resin. Almost like a little person. The more she looked at it, the more familiar it became. Not unlike the things in her vision. She picked it up, the entirety of it fitting in her palm.
“We found a timber homunculus.” Lenoa said, holding the doll out for Emarosa to see.
“Yay! It’s alright!” Emarosa sighed with relief. “We need ta’ get it back ta’ the spring. This area’s been purged.” Emarosa started heading back toward the lake. Before getting too far, Lenoa grabbed her shoulder, pulling her back. Their eyes met only for a moment before Emarosa looked away.
“Sorry. Should’ve—it’s your dragonfire. It’s corrupted, so Elohim are purging it. I was out here trying ta’ save as many—“ Emarosa shook her head, “Ugh, it just won’t make sense!” Emarosa jerked her shoulder away. “We need ta’ get back to the spring! I can explain then.” Emarosa grabbed Lenoa’s hand, dragging her and their newfound wooden doll toward the will-o’-the-wisps lighting the way. Before long, they disappeared behind the waterfall once more.
Emarosa and her guest emerged on the other side of the waterfall, to the shimmering cavern that appeared to have no end. Crystals somewhere high in the roof above glittered like a family of fireflies celebrating every passing moment in ecstasy. The spring’s citrine essence coursed a cool freshness within Emarosa’s veins. The feeling of home.
Emarosa led Lenoa to her tent, where she was greeted by a clan of tiny wooden creatures running about and playing games on the table. Lenoa stared wide-eyed, watching the little lumber people inspect her with their eye-like resin beads. “Like I told you before, little Nephilim, there’s a lot more to the world than just your kingdom,” Emarosa spoke. Lenoa stood, breathless as the creature she carried in her palm seem to wake up. The creature looked around, saw its kinfolk, and leapt to the table with glee.
“What—is this witchcraft?” Lenoa turned to Emarosa, shouting. “We knew you for a witch!” Emarosa burst into laughter as she moved to the table, playing with the newest edition to the woody family. “These are the Bog. Prolly found life in the essence.” Emarosa giggled as the recently awakened bogling climbed along her arm, scaling it like the side of a mountain. It struggled as it made its way up her shoulder, and finally into her hair.
From atop its new perch, the spritely bogling watched Lenoa closely. She met its gaze, and stepped to the side trying to shake it. The more she moved, the more interested the little Bog seemed. It leaned toward Lenoa, peering into her. After a moment, she seemed to calm, holding her palms out to create a platform for the little bogling. It stood and rummaged in a circle until it finally took a chance. It leapt from Emarosa’s hair into Lenoa’s palms. Emarosa clapped for the little bogling.
“Ya’ heard it, didn’tcha?” Emarosa exclaimed. “The Bog can’t speak, but their thoughts are louder than most others. Anyone with a connection ta’ the essence should be able to hear ‘em.” Lenoa ignored Emarosa, focused instead on the little wooden creature now nuzzling her palm. “It’s soft, and…warm.” Lenoa spoke. “That’s life.” Emarosa smiled.
Several people forced their way into the tent, driving Emarosa and Lenoa to the back as the ring leader stepped forward. “This Nephilim is part of the scourge,” the ring leader pointed to Lenoa. “All traces of the apostate and his corruption must be purged.”
The little bogling in Lenoa’s palm clutched her wrist. Lenoa stepped forward, to the warrior woman, while sheltering the bogling. “Guard your tongue, knave. We are heir—” she paused, “We shall not allow you to harm these creatures.”
The warrior woman stood face-to-face with Lenoa, her fury palpable. Emarosa drew deep breaths to keep herself calm, the acrimony of the warrior woman resonating through her. The warrior spoke, “We’ve no qualm with innocent lives. We banished your progenitor for his heretical ways, and even now he continues to spread malediction.” The warrior clutched Lenoa’s face, bringing it a nose’s width from her own. “Nephilim, you harbor no rancor for life, but you are your father’s daughter. If you care for anything, absolve his sins—to include your own—and leave this world.”
Emarosa broke the warrior’s grasp, pushing Lenoa far enough back to take her place. She faced the warrior. “Enough. We all want ta’ end the corruption.” Emarosa glanced back to Lenoa, “her included. Go do your acolyte things, and I’ll do what I can ta’ make sure things don’t get any worse. Just like I always do.” The warrior leaned in close, snorting into Emarosa’s face hard enough to blow her bangs from it. Emarosa drew a deep breath, puffing her chest out and staring back. The Elohim entourage turned about and withdrew from the tent. Noisily.
Emarosa wiped off her face as she moved to a small shelf near her bed. She rummaged until she found a small pendant that held an opaline glow, and a small jewel with some cloth to match. She fingered the silver chain around her neck, pulling her own pendant out to compare. She turned to Lenoa and placed the rummaged items in her hands.
“Fun bunch, huh?” Emarosa sighed. “I hoped we’d have more time, but don’t we always? The purge… they’re destroying all dragonfire.” Lenoa countenance grew grim.
“Dragonfire was never meant ta’ exist. It’s unnatural. It’s like the essence, but it’s tainted. Prolly what hurts your caustic. We dunno know what caused it, but it’s killing the world. Even our own wellspring…” Emarosa glanced out the window, to the citrine fountain radiating wondrous light. “It used to be pure, but it’s been getting darker and darker, like your dragonfire.”
“Your ‘purge’ is going to kill everything!” Lenoa shouted.
“Eventually, though the dragonfire will do the same soon enough. It won’t end with just your caustic.” Emarosa closed Lenoa’s fists around the opaline jewels. “These hold the essence before it was corrupted. They’ll sustain ya’ even when there’s no dragonfire left. And they don’t have that nasty side-effect of making ya’ wanna kill for funsies, either.” Emarosa smirked.
“There are two.” Lenoa remarked, glancing at the jewels. “One for you, one for the bogling.” Emarosa remarked, placing her hand on Lenoa’s shoulder. “Honey, whatever happened to cause the corruption, it was right after your dad… If there’s no way to stop it, it’ll destroy us, your kingdom, and everything your father built. I know you never wanted it, but by birthright you’re a queen. Maybe it’s your time to live up to that.”
Lenoa scoffed, turning away. The bogling climbed her arm, trying to wrap itself in her sleeve. She sighed, gently petting the bogling with her finger. She plucked the small jewel from her palm, fitting it onto the bogling with some cloth, before donning the opaline pendant herself.
Lenoa looked to Emarosa, exasperated. “You expect us to save the world? Us? You must be kidding.”
Emarosa grinned. “’fraid not. Unless you wanna let us all die. Either way. Figure all those years of waving that fancy title around—looks like it’s time to live up to it. Wish I could come, but whether the world ends tomorrow, or generations from now, there’s still other work to be done. Good luck little Nephilim!”
Emarosa smiled as she saw the pair off. As she watched Lenoa go through the waterfall, she was reminded of the last time someone had asked her to come with. She’d refused then, too. Perhaps if she hadn’t the world would be a very different place. Though better or worse who could say? Emarosa turned back to the table, tending to the Bog once more.
Lenoa returned to the Thickets, her new friend riding with glee upon her shoulder. She made her way back to her old camp, taking a moment to rest with her little bogling. “We’re to stem our father’s corruption, tiny one, before those wretches kill everything to save themselves. Any ideas?” she spoke to the bogling. It turned its resin eyes to her, doing its best to make a shrug as it slid down her shoulder and ran about in the sand.
She watched the bogling for a time, chuckling at its antics. At some point it tripped into the lake and managed to waddle-float its way out. It laid upon the shoreline, drying itself as if on a beach. She stroked its blocky lumber head with gentleness as she thought aloud. “This kingdom exists only because our father willed it so. It was but the Deadlands before. We must prepare if we’re to stop the Elohim’s purge.” Lenoa sighed as she rubbed her forehead. “Yet we alone cannot rout them. We must return to the Dominion.” Lenoa packed up her necessities, as well as her friend, and marched toward the Cliffs.
Arriving at the base of the Cliffs, bogling on her shoulder, she increased her pace. She kept her eyes seaside, trying to avoid recollections as she crossed the familiar precipice. Reaching the base of the bluff’s trail to the Dominion of Dragonfire, she came across a collapsed cliff-face emanating emberlight. The bogling slid down the side of her surcote, running to the rock face. Without warning, it threw itself at the rocks. Lenoa rushed to grab the bogling, but it slipped her grasp and continued to try to find a way inside.
As she knelt near the cliff-face, her veins began to bulge as they burned. Her breaths quickened in concert with her blurring eyesight. A stoic hatred coddled her very being, as if welcoming a lover who’d been stolen away long ago. It awoke in her something close to a vision, a memory. A fountain within a cave the color of dandelions. Raging, burning dandelions.
She felt her consciousness being tugged away, yet not fully removed. She clutched her pendant, it digging into her flesh as she took slow, deep breaths. An echo drifted through the back of her mind, Shh, it’s alright honey. Lenoa repeated the chant quietly, holding herself as she gritted her teeth. She snatched the bogling, clasping it close as she tried to slide herself away. Slowly, she gained enough distance to retake her feet. She stuffed the bogling within a pocket in her surcote as she staggered up the bluff’s trail.
By the time she’d reached the top of the trail, she’d regained her composure enough to free the bogling back onto her shoulder. The two approached the rubicund gate with the filigree of a small prince standing above. She’d never paid him much mind, but looking at him now, the prince almost appeared somber. She approached.
“Raise the portcullis!” she demanded. She was met by several guards, all seemingly recent recruits for she recognized none.
“We shall not!” the lead guard intercepted her. “The Dominion has been closed off by order of the Viceroy.”
Lenoa stood baffled, as if the word ‘no’ was forbidden from use in the context of her. Her fingers itched for her dagger, though she took no pleasure in the thought. She raised her voice, “Do you know us?”
“Be gone commoner, try your luck some other day,” the guard instructed her. “She can try my luck anytime,” one of the guards in the back murmured audibly, followed by snickers.
Lenoa’s mind raced back to just moments before, when her blood ached to leap from her veins. She grinned her wide, former guard captain’s grin, as her fists tightened and without warning laid out the guard in the rear. The bogling fell from her shoulder as she was seized, and taken to the Stockade.
The bogling scurried along behind the guards as they dragged Lenoa to the Stockade. It watched as they dragged her to the blocks, stuffing a sack over her head to muffle the screaming. It hid within the grass, scampering along until it reached her. It climbed the wooded block (not unlike itself), but was unable befriend it or gain its assistance. It thought aloud its desire to help. Though nothing happened, Lenoa seemed to calm just slightly.
The bogling dropped down back into the grass, following one of the guards that had imprisoned her. They entered the large, stony castle and navigated odd corridors. They descended a flight of steps followed by another flight of steps until they were somewhere cold, damp. The guard used words with another guard, handed over a bunch of metal, and took a seat.
The bogling continued to watch for some time, seeing the guard do various things. Of most interest, the guard took the metal bunch and used it to open a room with metal bars. The metal bunch appeared to free things that were trapped. Once the guard returned to his seat, the bogling wasted no time in climbing the chair and into the guard’s pocket. It looped the keys onto one of its wooden limbs and escaped the cloth fold as quickly as it had entered.
The bogling noticed the guard staring at it as it landed on the ground, and fled as the guard began to give chase. The bogling dashed between one of the metal bars, leading the guard to rush into the bars and fall to the ground shortly after. The bogling did a joyful dance in celebration of its victory.
“Hey little fella, what’cha got there?” a kindred voice asked from on high.
The bogling looked up to see a scraggly man with a dangling pendant staring down at him. It canted its head as it wondered if the big thing was important, or possibly, a tree.
“Trying to find your friend, huh? Wish I could help, but I’m stuck in here, you see. If you’d be kind enough to let me borrow those keys, I’d be happy to return the favor.”
The bogling’s resin drop eyes spun in spirals while it danced from left, to right, to left again. It stopped, and swung one its arm-limbs to toss the keys. The metal did little more than slide off the bogling and fall to the floor. The bogling lowered its head.
“Aw, no worries little guy. You did great! C’mon, let’s go help your friend.”
The man scooped up the keys in one hand, and the bogling in the other, and unlocked his cell. The bogling watched from the man’s hand as he dragged the unconscious guard back into the cell. After changing garbs, the man locked the guard in the cell and escaped with the bogling into the courtyard.
The bogling jumped down into the grass and dashed to the block where Lenoa had been held, finding it empty. The bogling jumped at the block, batting at it with its timber limbs. It tried to climb the block before the man plucked it up.
“Sorry little guy, no one’s here. We’ll have to look for your friend somewhere else.”
The bogling watched the man’s face turn flush as a dagger came across his neck. Behind him stood a very displeased Lenoa.
“Unhand the bogling, now.”
The man released the bogling, who dropped to the ground and sprinted to Lenoa’s leg, scaling it with some tenacity until it reached the loving cradle of her clavicle. It hugged her, as much as a small wooded creature can hug.
The bogling glanced behind Lenoa to see a guard covered in what looked like black metal cats. Uninterested in such a peculiar sight, it turned back to the odd man-friend, whom had just been released. It waved to the odd man-friend, who stole the dagger away from Lenoa before turning it on her. The bogling’s sap curdled as it felt what she felt. It slid down her sleeve and into her pocket.
“You are dead,” she cried in disbelief.
“You first,” the scraggly farmer wearing Amir’s face replied.
Lenoa stood face to face with Amir’s ghost. He remained thin and sickly, though not as much as she’d remembered. Certainly well enough to wrest a knife from her. Then she noticed the opaline pendant around his neck.
“Lord-butcher, what are you doing? And where did you get that?” she asked, motioning to his neck.
“Defending myself. I won’t let you or yours kill me. And this?” he held up his pendant. “A gift from my brother, you know, Amir? The helpless, innocent farmer your father and friend behind you slaughtered?
Lenoa raised her hands in surrender. “Wren, stop this. Like you said, We lost your brother, and our father. Let that be enough.”
Wren waved the dagger to the lynx-armored guard standing behind her. “And him? You want peace with him too?”
Lenoa glanced back over her shoulder, the lynx guard standing idly by, watching. “He freed us. He is an asset that owes us a debt he cannot repay. We need him to cure the Sick.”
Wren stared back in disbelief, long enough for to Lenoa to disarm him. No longer having a weapon, he surrendered. Raising his arms, he asked, “You can cure the caustics?” “Let us see,” she replied, motioning for the lynx guard to take him into custody. “Both of you, understand one thing: we are in charge. In the absence of our orders, the bogling is in command as the Captain of the Guard.”
She marched about the castle, her prisoner and subordinate following in league. The guards and other nobility watched on, some confused, some in awe, as they made their way for the throne room. Lenoa burst through the doors of the throne room, disrupting the court as all eyes moved to her.
On the throne sat a wild-eyed barbarian, clearly battle-scarred and afraid of little. He rose, his guard watching on. He examined the entourage, taking particular note of Lenoa. Her heartbeat quickened, her veins pulsing. “Not now, dammit!” she muttered to herself. Her biceps tensed as she slowed her breath, concentrating on her pendant, the bogling, Amir, and the situation at hand. The wave passed, her remaining in control.
“A girl adorned in feathers and thorns, rumored to have visions. That would make you the late king’s daughter, Lenoa Furiae of House Deas. Am I right?” the viceroy asked.
She watched on, unable to place something peculiar about him. His mere presence tugged at her insides, like the warrior woman of the Elohim. But weaker, yet darker. Corrupted. Familiar. Almost like…
“You’re Nephilim…!” she exclaimed.
“I’m Ederic, viceroy of Emarosa, the Dominion of Dragonfire,” he nodded respectfully.
“We must change that name…” Lenoa muttered under her breath. She spoke aloud, “You know us viceroy. Then you know that throne is ours by birthright.”
“I know you walked away when this kingdom needed you most, and now it looks like you’re causing a ruckus by freeing a man we’ve sought for some time. The man who killed our king, your father. I know not a damn thing here makes sense, but it’s my job ta’ fix it,” the viceroy explained.
“The way I see it, you have two options. The first, you’re welcome to rejoin the royal court. Not so keen on marrying someone I just met, so let’s not rush to the whole queen thing. You were a strong guard captain right? Maybe you’d be well-suited as a Chamberlain or Duchess.”
Lenoa spat before the viceroy.
“Alright. Second option is banishment. I’m not about to murder the late king’s daughter unless I have to, but I can’t have you showing up causing a ruckus every time you get bored.”
Lenoa spat once again.
“You’re starting to piss me off. Guards!”
The room stood idly by, nothing but the breeze passing through the air. The viceroy looked to his guards, before looking back to Lenoa. She smirked.
“They remember what happened last time they crossed us. They’re ally at our side is a reminder of that. Beside, you have no concept of what you are, the nature of dragonfire, or how to rule. Though it brings us no great pleasure, our father taught us well the way of dominion, and this insult cannot go unsuffered. Usurper, in the name of the dominion and the lands she safeguards, I sentence you to death.”
Wren witnessed the spectacle of the court at blade-point, being held captive by the lynx guard. Once again, he found himself stuck as a plaything in the royal menagerie, for events well above his station. The old king’s daughter claimed to be different, to be creating a new future, and yet her she was, doing little but causing more death. He listened as Ederic spoke.
“You really plan to kill me, princess? I stepped up while you ran away. I kept the kingdom running and even turned it around a bit—you’ll notice we don’t keep bodies on display by the cliffs anymore. The Sticks have more food. Aside from the king-killer, our dungeons are practically empty. You’ll note even in your case execution never came up because honestly? Life is worth a damn. It’s the most important thing we got—no point in wasting it.” Ederic preached.
“During your time as princess and Captain of the Guard, what did you accomplish? You led raiding parties at the king’s behest, murdered scores of people who probably did nothing worse than steal food for their families, and you were so wicked you assaulted your own guards for sport. Now you just show up after abandoning your people, demand to be in charge, and order the execution of the person who fixed your mess? Pretty bold.” He finished, looking to the guards who still took no action. Lenoa rebutted.
“How convenient your short reign has been. No travesty befallen your walls, no real hardship to speak of. Simple to criticize the actions of others when you’ve not been tested yourself. We are not faultless, but we are not feeble .”
Ederic cocked an eyebrow as he stared at her, she approaching the throne with her hand on her feather and throne chest piece.
“You’ve played homemaker when you should act as king! The Sick still ails our people, dragonfire still burns away at us from within. What have you done to free us of its curse? To liberate the dominion and her people?”
Ederic scoffed. “What curse? The caustic are allergic, that’s all. We need dragonfire to surv—”
“We do not!” Lenoa stormed up to the viceroy, veins burning. “The myths you’ve been fed about dragonfire are a lie! Like a fool you believed, instead of acting as monarch and challenging everything outside your rule. Our kingdom is besieged by two enemies and you know of neither. It’s true we have been cruel, and we have been merciless.” Lenoa leaned in close, whispering to the viceroy, “The longer you stay here, little Nephilim, the more you will be too.”
She addressed the court once more, “But our path has led to salvation. We can stop the enemy approaching our gates, and more importantly,” she turned to Wren, “we can remedy the Sick.”
Wren watched as the court judged the usurper and the deserter. Two strong, flawed leaders, neither willing to back down. At least one of them would have to die. He leaned in close to the lynx guard, whispering into his ear. The guard met his gaze with overwhelming regret. Wren nodded to the guard, and after a moment the guard returned the gesture. Ederic spoke out.
“Simply put, princess, I don’t believe you. But you and I? We’re fighters. You want this kingdom? You want to prove how much you care about the people? You wanna execute me? Fine. You’re welcome to give it your best, but it’s you and me. To the death.”
Wren loosened his hands as Ederic retrieved a bo staff from behind the throne. The viceroy then whispered to the chancellor, who had the constable bring the princess a rapier with a feather and throne-etched hilt.
“You remember that no doubt. Forgot it on your way out last time’s what I hear.” Ederic spoke to the princess. She examined her blade as though she was looking at a memory she’d forgotten she’d lost. She rose it high, aiming it at Ederic as the viceroy struck the first blow.
Lenoa fell back, blocking an onslaught of staff strikes with her rapier. She pushed back, parrying blows and thrusting at the viceroy. Potent dragonfire suffused throughout the throne room, blistering in her veins, leaving her little but smoke clouding her judgment. She tried to draw from her pendant as she defended against the viceroy’s strikes. Blow after blow pushed her back, unable to deflect his strength. She could see the blood lust scorching in the viceroy’s eyes.
Lenoa caught a blow to the head, cutting her just above the eyebrow. She fell back, her blood splattered to the ground. The bogling sprung from her pocket, fleeing in some unknown direction. Its terror echoed in her heart. The terror she felt the moment she watched Amir fall. She blocked on the oncoming blow, kicking the viceroy back as she jumped to her feet. She drew a deep breath, enkindling her oath to never let that terror live again.
Lenoa tossed her blade aside, rushing the viceroy. She charged, dodging a swipe by ducking into a roll and leaping up into him. She tackled the viceroy to the ground, gaining control of his bo staff. She forced it to his throat, and pressured into it with the entirely of her resolve. She looked into his eyes.
“Submit, and we’ll let you walk,” she spoke. The viceroy’s veins bulged in his neck as he tried to push back. His untempered rage echoed within her. She could see it, touch it, taste its impression so like what she had used to be. A tear welled through her scream as she knew she’d have to kill him.
The bo staff lifted from the viceroy’s neck, into Lenoa’s throat choking her. Trying to look up, she made out a vague impression of Wren pulling the staff against her throat. He dragged her from the viceroy, tossing her and the weapon aside. She coughed violently as the lynx guard helped her up, motioning for the other guards to assist her. Caught in a gasping haze, the last she saw of the viceroy was a muddled look as Wren dragged him off.
“Detain them unharmed!” she ordered as she caught her breath. Taking a moment to regain her feet, she searched the throne room for the bogling, who came waddling out shortly after. It ran up to her leg, and did its best to make a hugging motion. She scooped it from the ground and embraced it close, hugging it tightly to her bosom. She held the bogling, and it nuzzled her back in kind. The heat rushing to her face, she could no longer restrain it. Lenoa collapsed to the ground, bursting into tears while still bleeding, holding her bogling.
When she finally regained herself, she rose to the full attention of the court. They watched on , observing for the first time the mercy and compassion of their king’s heir. They witnessed the woman who fought and bled for them, to protect them when she had nothing gain. The woman who was willing to sacrifice everything to offer them a chance for a better life.
She was no longer a heinous villain to be suffered. Nor was she a wretched, regal brat unworthy of their love. She was a woman supreme, willing to love and sacrifice for her people, peerless in her domain. She was now their queen.
Wren scurried up the desolate hillside, his Nephilim companion disappearing from sight. Wren stumbled, tripping on a bramble, smashing his face into the cold sediment. His chest ached with exhaustion. Phlegm forced its way up his throat as he clutched the opaline pendant. Though his brother’s parting gift kept him alive, the cancer that was the Sick still devoured his insides. He screamed as his arms strained against the ground, but his body would not rise. This was as far as he could go.
Wren’s body lifted from the ground, hauled up by the Nephilim viceroy. Back on his feet, Wren and the viceroy struggled up the rest of the hill, collapsing below a hollow tree as they turned to the never-setting sun on the dominion’s horizon. Wren’s breath came to a halt as he watched the star continue to swell. Stars aren’t supposed to swell.
The normally cerulean skyline caught fire, burning a cinder red as waves of jealous heat crackled and lashed out. Scorching gusts howled as they careened at breakneck speeds, ripping through trees, clouds—life itself—without discrimination. Ederic pulled Wren close and held him, the two huddling low at the base of the tree while God-loathing explosions rent much of the castle and surrounding livery to ruins. Screeching echoed out from too many directions, though whether it was death wails, the cataclysm itself, or perhaps some ghoulish hybrid of the two, no one could say.
Wren watched as Ederic released him, the viceroy jumping to his feet to see the fate of the Sticks. The wretched sound dying in the viceroy’s throat left Wren with little hope. The tree Wren leaned against was ripped from the ground by a wicked, vicious torrent, the heat scorching Wren’s face as it tossed his paperweight body like a boring dolly. He didn’t even feel himself land. Only noticed moments later that he was no longer moving, or breathing.
Fire whirls consumed the countryside, as though existence was a hitherto unknown offense that must immediately be rectified. Ederic knelt beside Wren, pulling the farmer onto the viceroy’s lap. The pair knew Wren was too mangled to be moved much further. They watched on as the Cliffs became the shoreline for the great sea, a monsoon ushering in a massive tsunami. Wren pondered for a moment whether sinners were finally being punished for all the misery they wrought, or if the greatest forces of nature had simply decided to have a pissing contest.
The great seas waves crashed, tearing through the new coastline, slamming against the forests below. Whether from the impact of the waves, or something else altogether, the ground rumbled as the fire whirls were extinguished in the wake of the monstrous waves. The tremors grew stronger as, even from atop the large hill, the ground all around ruptured. Ederic fell back as a fissure opened to swallow him. He narrowly pulled himself and Wren from the newly emerging valley. The growing canyon groaned, making a terrible slurping sound as it drank the excess sea swells.
The pair watched on, the sun’s fury seemingly abated. The raging heat waves had calmed, the tremors subsided and guzzled the remaining torrent from the tsunami. The world darkened, the cinder sky cooling to a dark ash. Before long, flecks and specks gloated on down, exploring the new scenery. They drifted and danced as they fell, eager to see what lived in the world below them. One landed upon Wren’s cheek, dissolving not long after. Not unlike warm snow.
Wren realized he wasn’t breathing. Whether it had been seconds or hours he had no idea, but he knew it wasn’t right. He tried to move, but nothing happened. He could no longer tell if there was a him to move. All that remained was a rough hand stroking his face, and calming voice making sounds he couldn’t understand. It must’ve been the viceroy, but couldn’t it have been Amir? Just this once? It didn’t matter.
As the warm snow continued to fall, the dark clouds gathered darker, as if offended to have been left out of the earlier party. Crackles cackled among them, like devious children snickering as they plotted their next trespass. The few hairs Wren could feel stood on end. He stuck out his tongue, catching a snow flake. It dissolved warmly, just like they did when he and Amir were kids. He smiled. A thunderclap slammed out, so loud Wren’s ears rang as they seeped blood. At some point the sky flashed white, and he and Ederic were no longer together.
~ Act II: Fin ~