Amir scurried through the rubicund gates—the Royal Guard pursuing him like the first fox of the season. He’d made it passed the first of four sets of archways—each waning in size as he drew closer to a small bit of freedom. Above each of the gates stood the filigree of a small prince. If Amir could make it through the last archway, to the last of the decorative sovereigns guiding the way, he’d be free. He continued to heave through the thick evening air, forcing too many labored breaths through exhausted lungs. Fatigue radiated through his thighs, but fatigue was better than death. He choked on a cough as he stumbled through the second gateway.
The raw ache of overstretched tendons wore on his calves, the pain forcing Amir to push harder still before he could push no longer. Sprinting toward the third gate, his foot caught on some careless bramble. He hit the hard surface of the castle trail face-first, catching a mouth full of alluvia. He spit the dirt from his teeth as he spun his head, trying to see which of his pursuers would have his flesh first. But he wasn’t surrounded. Not yet. Not far behind him, just beyond the second gate stood an old friend, a fellow farmer, catching a regal spear through his chest as he stood between Amir and the guards.
A friend gone in an instant. But that’s life. Amir dug his fingers into the earth, bits of blood seeping as his nails cracked, pulling himself forward in a mad frenzy. He cleared the third gate. A small contingent of relief rose from within as the fourth came into sight. He might make it. He shook his head—thoughts like that get you dead. The tumultuous thumping in his chest—thump thump, thump thump, thump thump—refused to cease as the gate drew ever closer, but not close enough. Springing forth with everything he had left, Amir leapt, diving through the fourth gate and rolling into a ditch just outside of the castle.
He whipped his head around, lying low and looking back toward the gate. It remained open, though no pursuers followed. They wouldn’t enter the Sticks by choice. A small sigh escaped Amir’s lips.
He gazed into the perpetual early-evening sky, lost for a moment in the never-ending sunset. Beyond the orange haze, the world above shone with shiny sparkles—perhaps millions upon millions of tiny lamps lighting the way for lost souls. Amir finally caught his breath. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small flask of brilliant citrine liquid. It wasn’t much, but it was all he managed to get.
Amir looked back through the gates, to his now forsaken second home. A bantam castle on the precipice of the rotting land. Its walls composed of glowing rust-colored aqueducts, its bastion standing at the crest of an old cliff overlooking the great sea. He could still feel its ephemeral pulse resonating within him as his eyes followed the vermillion lines gleaming in its towers. The Dominion of Dragonfire: Emarosa—the only refuge from the unknown terrors still lingering in the world.
And he was now a refugee.
Beyond the door of her chamber, decorated only with the barest of necessities and an old, worn piano, feckless voices assaulted each other over whose luck would be poor enough to greet her. Standing before her window, she kept herself apart from the world, her consciousness rising with the moon hidden behind careless clouds. If only for a moment, she let her mind wander, drifting through in the semi-darkened sky that never wakes. The stupid sun remained in its place on the edge of the great sea’s horizon, as if it could never remember whether it was supposed to set or rise. One of the more foolish guards announced himself before entering.
“Captain, there’s been a breach,” he reported. The voice brought unwelcome disruption to her meditation. The Captain of the Guard let her gaze rest upon the streams of shimmering crimson flowing along the castle’s exterior walls. She exhaled as its essence continued to suffuse into her blood. She turned to her subordinate. “Where?” she asked. The guard described the incident in detail. Draped in a mix of moon and sunlight gleaming through the window, the captain’s leather armor revealed the feather and thorn pattern etched within it.
The captain approached her subordinate, now at his knee, and extended her left arm toward him. Her callused fingers remained outstretched, waiting. “Draw our sword,” she commanded. The guard trembled as he drew the captain’s weapon from her hip and handed it to her, hilt first. She scoffed at his quivering. The rapier’s blade soon found itself licking the guard’s neck, eager for a taste. “Where is the thief?” she asked. The guard replied with the only place a person could hide outside the castle as his response. She flicked her wrist, drawing blood from the guard’s neck. “Do not forget what little mercy we possess.”
She sheathed her sword and returned to the window, looking beyond the walls to the hobbled-together dwellings of the Sticks. The only place that could sustain those no longer welcome in the castle. She could see faint traces of citrine-light rising from a shack within its bounds. Her dispassionate voice barely broke the silence. “Assemble in the courtyard and prepare to move. Do well and we’ll inform the king. Fail…” Her gaze drifted toward the dangling bodies near a cliff outside the castle walls.
She paid no mind to the sound of her subordinate scurrying from the room. She looked back to the golden essence rising like a weak fog from the Sticks—the essence no other than herself and the king ever seemed to notice.
An intrusive thought shut down her senses as a vision of a memory played itself in place of her consciousness.
Maybe you’re not as wicked as you think. A female voice spoke to the person whose memory had entrapped the captain. The only difference between shadows and light is whatever blocks the path. So stop being so damn stubborn and let me help you!
The smell of manure in the farming fields returned, along with the bright of the moon and the sun. The bustling noise of the townsfolk outside interceded once more. Whatever or whomever the vision was, it had faded. The captain scoffed, hawking a loogie out the window as she headed for the courtyard, slamming the door behind her.
Amir stumbled into the Sticks, his body still bloody and bruised. The small shantytown was barely a place for the living, as most there were nearly dead. Unlike the lush farmlands of the castle, the Sticks remained rundown and desolate, surviving on very little. Only a rumored few had ever held out long enough become wizened.
Waiting inside a crude shack lie Amir’s decrepit twin, Wren. The brothers’ hair, like their skin, was stained the color of mud, though Amir’s locks a bit more garnet while Wren’s a bit more thin. Amir set the flask upon the table, moving to check on his sickly brother. As he did so, Amir eased his sore body onto a flimsy stack of wood fashioned into chair.
“Did you really steal dragonfire from the castle? It won’t help,” said Wren. Amir sat up, taking his brother’s hand. It weighed almost nothing, like the rest of Wren’s body. Wren batted his brother’s hand away, turning his head toward the window as he laughed a weak, depreciating laugh. “Believe me or not, doesn’t make it any less true. You know the caustic can’t tolerate dragonfire, even if we die without it. Just like everyone else.” Wren chucked a half-hearted chuckle as he looked back to his brother. “Stealing it from the castle won’t help the Sick. Nothing ever does.”
Amir sighed. A violent stomach-growl reminded him of the second, more successful part of his mission. He pulled a set of bruised plums from his pocket, brushing the dirt off. He handed one to his brother as he chomped on the other. The sweet taste of its nectar filled his mouth. The fruit’s skin catching in his teeth served a reminder of why they fought so hard to continue on. Amir pulled his makeshift chair closer to his brother’s bedside.
A flaming arrow sailed through the window frame, setting a wooden table-ish stump ablaze. Amir fell from his chair, choking on a bit of plum. He massaged his throat, working the small piece of fruit as he rose. “Brother, it’s the royal guard! You have to run!” Wren shouted. Amir grabbed his brother, trying to lift his nearly weightless body as the ache in Amir’s calves burned once more. “You can’t carry me and make it out of this. Just run. If I give them the flask they may leave it be,” Wren pleaded. Unable to carry his brother, Amir wrapped himself over the weaker twin’s bed, shielding him as the fire spread from the table to the floors and roof.
The shanty door burst into splinters as the Royal Guard stormed into the hut, dragging the brothers out. Wren struggled to no avail as he was seized and detained. Amir rushed toward his brother, making it only a few feet before the sting of a hard leather bracer sent him staggering backward into the ground. He looked up to see the Captain of the Guard towering over him. Her countenance wasn’t quite that of a smile, though she did not seem displeased as one of the guards exited the shack with the flask in hand.
“Bold peasant to steal from the king’s personal apothecary. For the caustic?” The Captain of the Guard glared at Amir while the latter gritted his teeth, keeping his eyes on his brother. He watched Wren, who seemed to be motioning to the small cliff face nearby. Amir had played there many times before. Whether or not he wanted to go, he knew where it led. He shook his head. “Amir, it’s okay. They may take me to the Stockade, but they’ll execute you.” Wren sputtered out between gasps. The Captain glanced only briefly at Wren before she returned her attention to Amir and drew her blade. A knot grew in Amir’s throat.
He scrambled back to the bluff’s edge, glancing over only once. Tugging like that of a small squirrel racing around his insides made it near impossible to breathe as he looked back to his brother, grimacing. Wren nodded as the Captain began her approach. Amir drew rapid, shallow breaths, avoiding any thoughts of how far down the next berm was.
The Captain thrust her blade, nicking Amir’s hand. He exhaled, looked passed her rusty complexion, into the Captain’s bitter emerald eyes. They held no hint of clemency. Amir rolled back, grasping at the petrous surface that dug into his cheek as he slid-fell down the side of the cliff.
The Captain of the Guard plunged after her target, sheathing her weapon as she fell. Tumbling against the steep cliff face, she covered her head with her vambraces until she managed to grasp some shrubbery strong enough to halt her descent. Not far from the ledge below, she grappled her way along the craggy wall, climbing the rest of the way down. Only a meter from the ground, she dropped onto the berm below.
She shook off the dust and debris, ignoring the tears in her armor. Instead, a glittering plume of emberlight emanating from a pile of boulders in the cliff side stole her attention. She rushed to the stone pile, and tried to remove the rocks from the earth. They were set in place, and had been for a time. She would make no progress with without assistance. She continued on.
She walked for some time along the side of the cliff, the crashing of the great sea’s waves echoing all around against the shore too far below. The weak pulse of dragonfire from the water beneath the cliffs resonated in her veins—not as concentrated as the castle’s—but not altogether unwelcome. It burned differently within her, chilling, but it was of no matter. The Sick never bothered her much.
She continued along the winding stretch, tasting the salty air that seldom reached the stony castle walls. She took only a moment to gaze upon the sea, to the never-setting sun. The ball of blazing flame looked so different reflecting in the open waters. It seemed less…stupid. An unfamiliarity welled within her. There was no memory of a time when she had been alone outside of the castle’s walls. No memory that belonged to her, at least.
Following the trail she came upon her prey, the injured farmer, sitting back against the cliff. He managed a weak, half-hearted smirk as she approached. The captain pulled the farmer to his feet and searched him. With him unable to resist, she drew her sword.
“Was it worth it?” She glared into the farmer’s dark eyes, and received little more than a shrug. The captain slammed the farmer into the cliff side, bringing her blade to his throat. “Toy with us again and it’ll be the last you do!”
The captain’s vision blurred and went black as the world became quiet. A well of deep, isolated anger surged as a foreign memory crept into her existence.
I don’t care if you think you’re evil. I mean, look at me—you say I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of saint. I get mad and hurt people, I hate, and have done terrible things, the same way you can calm your anger and help. Overwhelming guilt burdened the captain’s vicarious awareness as the female voice spoke on. C’mon, trust me, like I trust you. We’ll get through this together.
The world, the guilt, the memory faded—exorcised with the captain’s conscious return to her body. She gritted her teeth, growling as she stabbed her blade into the dirt of the cliff side, nicking the farmer’s cheek along the way. Staring into his eyes, she recognized the fear that comes before drawing the last breath. The fear she had introduced to so many before him.
She clutched the hilt of her weapon tightly, cracking her knuckles as she steadied her shaking hand. She stared into his pathetic eyes, to the weak tears fighting their way through blood on their descent along his scarred cheeks. Slow, deep breaths attempted to abate her blood lust.
The farmer cowered, sniffling as he looked up to her through the soppy mess in his eyes. After a moment, she released her weapon and took a step back. She noticed that, ignoring the bleeding, he was scratching at his throat.
She exhaled. “You can’t speak, can you?” The farmer shook his head. The captain sighed, looking away. Further down the path, into the Thickets, she caught a faint fleck of what looked close enough to emberlight. The captain reached for the hilt of her weapon, grabbing it with both hands to yank the blade from the cliff side.
She sheathed her weapon and pulled the farmer up, turning him around. “You’ll come with us, bound. Resist in any way, both your and the caustic’s life are forfeit.” The farmer sheepishly nodded and kept his wrists together as the captain bound him. Now her prisoner, she dragged him off into the Thickets.
Amir stumbled along behind the captain, bound with an improvised leash, struggling to keep up. The pair had trudged along the Cliffs for the better part of a day until they had reached the verdant edge of the Thickets. Though he was an injured prisoner, other thoughts dwelt upon Amir’s mind. As far as he knew, no one had ever returned from a venture beyond the Sticks. Whether they had succumbed to the Sick, or something else altogether was anyone’s guess.
The captain jerked her leash, jolting Amir forward and redirecting his eyes to the bitter viridian glow of the woods. The boundless greenery, along with the fresh breeze swirling around his lungs kept Amir enthralled. It was only as the cut on his cheek began to bleed that he was reminded of the peril of his situation. He wished his brother could see the charm of the forest, the beauty of healthy life—anything other than the ailing melancholy of the Sticks.
“Enough of the sentimental. Your brother will be fine until we return. You should be more concerned about the Sick. This forest has unusual dragonfire. It isn’t enough to keep even a small person like you alive.” Amir stopped, canting his head toward the captain. She turned about, returning his gaze only briefly. “It’s of no concern to you.” She yanked his leash, dragging him on.
They continued through the dense forest, Amir watching the captain follow some sort of trail like a trained hound. He tried to find a kind of clue as to what she was following, or where she was going, but could see no indication of either. Though the pulse of dragonfire weakened in his blood, he remained fascinated with the scampers and skitters of wild life, and the small pools of clear, clean water throughout the forest bed. He whistled an old tune as they trampled through the marshes. “A mute that likes to whistle. Aren’t you interest—”
Amir continued whistling his song, stumbling into the captain who remained frozen in place. He backed up a moment, staring at her, waiting for some reaction. He walked around her, looking into her eyes. Though a shimmering emerald hue, they seemed dull—vacant. He nudged her, knocking her off balance. He tried to catch her, but only managed to pull the leash causing her to fall face-first into a small pool of water.
Amir dropped to his knees beside the captain, rolling her with his shoulder. With her now on her back, he took a breath trying to figure out what happened. She remained lying on the ground, expressionless. He continued trying to find ways to help her as he heard the approach of heavy footsteps, followed by a snort growing louder behind him. He turned his head to a furry piggish-creature glaring at him. Before he realized what was going on, the animal charged.
Amir threw himself over the captain, shielding her as the piggish-creature rammed into them. The impact threw Amir onto the ground, the leash dragging the captain along with him. Watching the creature circle around, Amir winced as he struggled to lift himself, shifting his bound hands back and forth until he reached the captain. Again he covered her, and again the creature rammed itself into him.
Amir drew labored breaths, unable to pick himself up a third time. He remained on the ground with a mud-stained face, staring into the semi-lit sky. Blazing clouds drifted by overhead. He cracked a wry smile, letting out a small whistle. Hopefully the animal would notice. Hopefully it would only kill him. He listened as the creature charged once more.
Bracing for the impact, he jerked as his side stung with a dull-burning stickiness. Beyond that, a wretched death-squeal echoed out. He looked down to the pig-creature’s tusk disappearing within his own skin, while the piggish thing itself lay disemboweled by a rapier. The light dimmed as a figure towered over them with the leash in hand. The captain fell upon him, her fingers clenching tightly at his throat. “We warned you! You tried to murder us!” Unable to defend himself, Amir met her with a breathless gaze.
“Wait—that wasn’t…” she slowly released her grip. Looking up, he could see her eyes were no longer tarnished, dull emeralds. They were, behind the rage, something that could almost be mistaken for tender. The captain glanced around before releasing him. She shook her head as she examined his abdomen, the boar-tusk still protruding. The captain drew a wicked knife from her side, sawing the large tooth from the piggish-creature. She bandaged the remaining part of the tusk in place to prevent further bleeding.
No longer bound to the violent carcass, Amir tried to rise. As he did so, he found pain in his side rivaled only by overwhelming nausea. His thoughts became less organized, coalescing into a thick, murky haze. “Dammit! The Sick.” The captain sheathed her weapons and pulled him from the ground. She shifted his weight around as she hoisted him up, pulling his arms onto her shoulders. The last thing Amir could recall was the captain hauling him off toward what looked like a blurry lake filled with angels.
The captain rushed toward the vibrant glow of light rising from the lake, half-carrying half-dragging the sickly farmer on her back. Will-o’-the-wisps appeared and faded as she approached, illuminating the way forward. She made her way around to a small waterfall on the far side of the embankment. The closer she got, the more her veins throbbed—burned—froze. Her grip involuntarily tightened on the farmer as adrenaline surged through her body. She heaved him higher into her back, grunting as she charged through the torrent of water. She emerged on the other side of the waterfall, dry, onto the warm snow-covered shore of a crystalline spring.
Fluorescent trees rose to momentous heights from the earth, seeping with something pure, volatile—not the same, but not unlike dragonfire. In just being near the crystalline sap her blood shivered. The crystalline spring, residing in the middle of the momentous cavern, gleamed with power. It emitted a wondrous fountain of light that reverberated within the captain at her core. As she gazed on, she noticed the walls and ceiling of the grotto were studded with shimmering somethings. “It’s bigger on the inside…” she remarked.
The captain began to quake, dropping her prisoner. The burning freeze flowing through her body overwhelmed her existence—her very concept of being evaporating from the moment. A memory regurgitated itself over her being, this time wholly visceral.
Maybe I was wrong about this. I only wanted to help you, but this is going too far. The captain’s consciousness stood as a man in a time passed, in this same location, before a woman whose voice remained hauntingly familiar. Getting a visual for the first time, the woman was smaller than the captain had expected. Dark skin, dark eyes, darker hair. The strength of the vision held little weight, however, against the additional appendage now present in the captain’s vicarious pants. So far she despised being a man.
We’re dangerous enough as is. If we get too close—
The man the captain was trapped in grabbed the woman and drew her close, bringing their lips together. Their eyes opening just for a moment, the captain caught the familiar reflection of her father in the woman’s eyes. The captain mentally shuddered as she felt their shared penis harden. The woman broke their extended kiss, wide-eyed, as she turned away.
The shimmering spring returned, along with the injured farmer lying on the ground next to her. The captain spat violently onto the ground, scrapping her tongue with her teeth. She grabbed at her crotch, letting out a relieved sigh at finding no excess junk. She checked to see if her prisoner still lived.
She looked up as the woman from the visions, aged several decades, quickly approach. The captain drew her sword, unable to restrain herself as her adrenaline-filled body lashed out of its own accord. The woman stepped back and kept her distance, as some sort of furry pet slowly sauntered on from behind. The captain paused just long enough to re-evaluate the situation as the woman spoke.
“Take a breath. The essence is much stronger here than out there. Your body prolly feels like it’s exploding and freezing at the same time, yeah?” The woman nodded enthusiastically. “C’mon. Got a place just over there,” the woman motioned behind her. “You and your friend could prolly use some rest.” The woman said as she knelt to pet what appeared to be her puppy.
“You expect such docility of your betters?” The captain replied, tightening her grip on her weapon.
“Betters?” the woman chuckled. “Honey, you’re barely hangin’ on.”
“We are Heir Apparent to the Emarosan Dynasty—the Crown Princess of Thorns—Lenoa Furiae of the House of Deas. You do not question us. You. Will. Submit.” The captain’s body tensed with the strength of a feral tigress. Her biceps tightened, stretching the feathery thorns of her taut leather armor. She drew her dagger with her off-hand.
“Huh.” The woman laughed as she seemed to be pondering something. “So that’s who you are, is it? Guess that would explain it,” the woman extended her hand. “I’m Emarosa.”
Emarosa brushed the captain-princess’ blade aside as she knelt to check on the injured prisoner. She checked his pulse, and leaned in to listen to his breath. “So you call it ‘the Sick,’ huh? Clever. And the essence,” Emarosa looked up to the captain-princess as her puppy scurried about, “Dragonfire? Makes sense, I guess. Much as anything, anyway.”
Emarosa recognized the murderous intent still lingering in her new acquaintance’s eyes as the captain-princess returned the gaze, somewhat dumbfounded. “You can kill me if you want honey, but your prisoner-friend needs help kinda now-ish. Why don’t we take care of him first, and if you still wanna kill me after I can be just as dead then.” Emarosa and her puppy waited as the captain-princess reluctantly gathered up the injured prisoner-friend. Once collected, they proceeded on toward one of many large patchwork tents near the spring.
Emarosa welcomed the captain-princess and the unconscious guest she carried into the tent. The farmer now resting in her bed, Emarosa better tended to and re-bandaged Amir’s wounds. “Explain, now.” The impatient regal commander commanded. Emarosa offered her a seat and poured something very much like tea for the two of them as she sat down.
“Your prisoner—or is he your friend? I can’t really tell…anyway, he’s not far from death—you’re a poor warden.” Emarosa shook her head in disapproval. “But I’m sure you saw the spring while you were tryin’ ta’ murder your way in here. It’s purified essence.” Emarosa nodded toward the spring. “Something sorta like your ‘dragonfire.’ It’ll probably help your friend’s ‘Sick,’ if his injuries don’t get him. But let’s talk about you, lost little Nephilim.”
The princess smacked the cups from the table, jumping across to pin Emarosa to the ground. The elder woman, older but strong, flared with strength as her veins bulged, only barely contained within her skin. She grabbed the captain-princess’ arms and propped her knee up, tossing the royal heir without effort.
Emarosa swiftly mounted the captain-princess and clutched her skull, digging her nails into her highness’ flesh. Emarosa remained eye to blood-shot eye with the captain-princess, the latter refusing to scream out as snot ran from her shaking, blood-flushed face. Crimson trickling onto her fingers, Emarosa released the captain-princess with some embarrassment, the latter lying far less dignified than her life had prepared her for.
“Sorry! Guess we both got a bit of your father in us, huh?” Emarosa smiled, offering the captain-princess her hand. Her highness refused, pulling herself up as she glared deathly at her elder. Emarosa continued on. “His essence, I mean—for lack of a better term. Elohim have lived near the fountain for a good while—much longer than the couple of decades your ‘kingdom’ has been around. Living that close to the essence… heh, well, it is what it is.”
Emarosa moistened a rag and offered it to the captain-princess, who stubbornly refused. Ignoring her resistance, Emarosa began wiping the blood from the young sovereign’s face. “Do not touch us, hag!” the captain-princess reached for her weapon once more, but was halted by Emarosa’s firm-yet-gentle embrace. The elder whispered into her ear, “Hush, hush. Just breathe.”
Once again, Emarosa prepared the table complete with tea, and offered the captain-princess a seat. The royal youth remained steadfast, keeping a grip on her weapon. Emarosa waited, watching the captain-princess with curiosity as she sipped her tea. After some time, the captain-princess eventually snatched a cup and took a small sip. Emarosa’s lips widened.
“There ya’ go. Feels better, doesn’t it? Calms the blood. Take it your father never taught you about Elohim?” The captain-princess reticently shook her head. “Figures. We’re a bit different than your garden-variety Lilim, like your friend on the bed over there. For instance, the closer we get to one another, the more we sway each other. Even if only physically. Like pulling our own personal tides.” Emarosa made a wavey motion with her hand. “That bit of fury I did on your face, for example? That was definitely some of your father. Still there even after all these years…”
Emarosa could see the skepticism in the captain-princess’ face as her eyes went vacant. Emarosa waved a hand in front of the captain-princess, before standing up and walking around her. Seeing no response, she took the cup from the captain-princess’ hand and sat back in her chair as she waited. Eventually the captain-princess lurched forward, readjusting herself to her new position. Emarosa looked on as the regal youth glared into her. “Wretch!”
Emarosa nodded. “When I’ve had to be.” She leaned down to pet her puppy. “But you… how long have you had your visions? Nephilim usually aren’t much different from Lilim.”
The captain-princess leaned forward. “Enough! We’re not interested in your philosophy! This expedition is fruitless. We’re leaving,” she hissed.
Emarosa sighed a weak, defeated sigh. “Probably for the best, I guess. More Elohim will turn up soon enough anyway.” Emarosa stood, shuffling over to her bed as her pup scampered along behind her. She pulled something from the nearby shelf as she inspected Amir’s wounds. She turned back to the captain-princess. “I can see why you ‘captured’ him. He’s kinda cute,” she chuckled as she smiled at the royal heir.
The captain-princess stormed passed Emarosa, knocking her and the pup out of the way. The regal youth hauled Amir onto her back, turning a derisive eye toward Emarosa as she made her way for the door. “Whatever he is now, try not to hate him,” Emarosa started. “Your father, he never intended any of this. He just—” The captain-princess ignored her as she hauled off back into the warm snow and headed for the waterfall.
“Just like him…” With little left but a sigh, Emarosa called out, “Good luck little Nephilim! You’re gonna need it! …I’m jes’ sayin’…” as the captain-princess and her prisoner disappeared behind the waterfall.
The captain breached the waterfall, returning to the lake’s shore and never-night skyline within the dense forest. She staggered back into the tree line as her limbs weakened, her blood no longer dancing, her adrenaline waning. Before long she collapsed, dropping Amir to the ground. She retained enough strength to roll her face from the mud before even her reserves left her. She looked up, to a fading careless cloud drifting by.
* * * *
Idiot crunching, munching, chomping grated at her nerves until finally irritated enough she opened her eyes. She turned her head to the injured farmer chewing on berries beside her. He offered his hand. She scoffed, pushing up off her elbow until it slipped, nearly dropping her back into the mud. The farmer caught her shoulder, and helped her up.
“Do not ever touch us, peasant,” the captain spat as she elbowed him away. Amir shrugged apologetically, offering berries in recompense. She glared at him, before her own stomach, tumultuous and growing louder by the minute, broke her demeanor. She rubbed her forehead as she sighed. “Fine, farmer. Do your job.” The captain grudgingly extended her hand. Amir poured a small contingent of berries in to her palm, and did a thing most queer for a person in his situation: he smiled.
The captain cocked an eyebrow as she spoke, her voice resolute as timber. “Ever the optimist, are you?” she scoffed. “You’ve reason enough, we suppose. You should be dead. There’s not enough dragonfire here to sustain you. Your body should’ve already broken down. Even—” she hesitated, “…even our own royal personage has trouble this far out after a time.”
Amir shrugged and continued munching his berries. “You don’t care in the least, do you? Only concerned for your brother. So much so you risked death.” The captain slurped the berries from her palm. “We can see you’ve committed no malicious offense toward the crown, and the trespass has been amended. We shall consider enslavement rather than execution.” Amir looked up, wide-eyed. “It is the best offer a king’s thief shall receive. Do not protest and we may release the caustic as well. As a slave you may not leave the castle to see him, but he may live, if caustics can be said to do that. He’s done no crime.”
Amir leapt across, hugging the captain with tears in his eyes. She shoved him back, smushing her remaining berries into his chest. “Off, cur! Do not presume familiarity with us!” Amir looked down with glee to his berry-stained chest, and offered the captain his share of the berries. She canted her head, watching him suspiciously. She watched on as Amir ate one of the berries. She raised her head, accepting the remaining food. “You may make a good pet.” She chuckled.
Having their fill of water and berries, the captain rose to her feet and turned to Amir. “Must we restrain you?” Amir shook his head. The captain glanced back just once, to a will-o’-the-wisp dancing near the waterfall. She snorted, turning away. She marched her way out of the forest with Amir close behind.
They reached the outskirts of the Sticks, to the shanty hovels where the Sick devoured the caustic like carrion gifted unto maggots. The filth of their suffering permeated the air. Though she had ignored it before, the captain could not deny the wretched taste on the wind as it drifted about her. She diverted away from the Sticks to a side trail along the Cliffs.
Ambling near to where they had fallen before, Amir stumbled, his side still weak from the boar tusk. The captain sighed, finding a spot to sit while Amir rested. Her back against the same cliff-face she’d found the farmer not much earlier, her eyes moved to the never-setting sun resting on the horizon. It burned a dull topaz, and yet simply remained in place like a lost child looking for its mother. A gentle breeze carried songbird melodies to her, and for once, the captain did not mind. The crashing of the waves below was not inconsequential, but simply life.
A loud snoring started to reverberate from the farmer resting beside her. As far as she could tell he wasn’t dead, though why that was the case she could surmise no answer. She glanced back to the faint scarlet-light haze drifting from the base of the cliff, but there was no need to investigate at this very moment. The dragonfire within the ocean would have to do for the time being, and without an expedition she wouldn’t accomplish much against a stonewall. She drew a deep breath, the all-too-familiar sensation of losing herself imminent. Her senses grew dim as a vision became her.
The stone cliff possessed fewer crags. She was near where she had been, although it was much before. Crawling, injured, aching veins. The body not-her-body was dying, starved for something. The essence? It drew close to a fountain within a cave. The body tried to drink from it, blood seeping from its wounds. He choked as the well spring turned the color of damned dandelions, bubbling and burning in his veins. Burning, but not dead.
The captain gasped as she regained herself. Catching her breath, she jumped as she found the scraggly farmer’s head upon her shoulder, still asleep. Her hand instinctively moved for her dagger before her other hand caught it. The two battled it out to see whether the farmer would live. The docile hand succeeded, and the farmer’s life was spared.
The captain shook Amir off, dropping his head to the ground. Glancing into his sleepy eyes, she drew her blade. Amir looked up, muddled. She directed her weapon toward the top of cliff, to the bastion standing over the great sea.
“Up, farmer. Emaro—” she scoffed as she rolled her eyes. “The Dominion of Dragonfire. Your brother awaits at the Stockade.”
Amir trundled along beneath the rubicund gates, his hands now fidgeting at his side. The earth where he had bled not long ago remained tousled. Though she persisted in knocking him back, Amir refused to leave the captain’s side. She turned to him as they reached the Stockade.
“You’re quiet, even for a mute. Are you ready to bid your brother farewell?” Amir nodded. The captain stood at the portcullis, calling out to the guard to grant them entry.
“Ser? Captain? You’ve returned! The king has demanded your presence at once!” the guard called back. She squinted at the guard. “Our affairs do not concern you. Close your mouth and open the gate.”
Amir watched as the gate rose, and followed the captain into a field of stockades, stables, manure, and other less pleasant smelling things. They walked the line, passing a number of vagrants doing their best to keep out of the blocks.
Amir’s heart wrenched and fluttered as he recognized his brother’s weary head locked within a stockade. He ran to the block, feverishly tugging and pulling at it, trying to rip it open. He realized he was panting when he noticed the guards begin to close in. As they drew near, however, the guards turned about once they recognized Amir was escorted by no other than leather feathers and thorns.
“Back, farmer. Our agreement was specific. ‘No protest.’” The captain pulled Amir back.
“The guard captain? Amir? Amir, are—” violent coughing cut Wren short. Amir turned to the captain pleadingly. The captain rolled her eyes as she motioned for one of the guards to open the stockade. Breathing rapid-shallow breaths, Amir clutched at his swollen, injured abdomen as he awaited his brother’s freedom. His fingers crossed something cool, hard beneath the bandage. He slid a finger into the bandage to try and feel it. Moments later Amir fell back to the ground, tackled by the meager weight of his liberated brother.
“Amir, you dope! Are you alright?” Wren smiled through the tears seeping from his eyes as he scruffled his brother’s hair. Amir looked down for a moment before nodding, clasping his brother’s hands in his own. The pair smiled and entertained each other giddily, like kittens discovering their tails for the first time.
“Wren. Arise before us.” the captain spoke. Amir looked to her, terrified. She turned away. Wren looked at his brother, confused, before grabbing his brother’s shoulder to pull himself up.
“Wren, in the name of the King of the first Emarosan Dynasty, Lord of the House of Deas, we hereby banish you from the Dominion of Dragonfire forevermore. We forbid you return to this realm upon pain of death. Bid your brother farewell, and return never again.”
Amir locked eyes with his brother, no air left in his lungs. He clutched him close as his eyes burned, with his brother doing the same. He could no longer breathe, but he could cry.
After a moment, and a thunderous cough from somewhere behind him, Amir’s gaze moved passed his brother, to the guards surrounding them with weapons drawn. He turned back to the captain, surrounded by guards as well. In the center stood a wizened man with sickly hair too grandiose, too regal to be mistaken for any other. He spoke in a thunderous voice that commanded authority above all else.
“I hereby rescind the judgment my daughter has placed upon you, Wren. You and your brother will answer to the crown. Now.”
The king departed, with the brothers and the captain marched into the castle, to the throne room. As the main doors to the throne room were sealed, the captain forced her way through the guards to the throne.
“Father, what is the meaning of this!?” she shouted. The king addressed the captain.
“You are not princess regent, you are a bastard and agent of the throne. You will fulfill your duties as guard captain of the realm, not issue edicts in my name or any other. Yet you have the audacity to pardon men who have committed treason and theft against the crown! Against me! Most important, you do this knowing what they stole.”
“Father, it was a mistake and the flask was returned. End it here.”
The king rose from his throne. “My daughter, a guard, issuing orders to me? You will explain yourself shortly whelp. But first, you’ve orders of your own to carry out.”
The captain glared at her father. He scowled back. Steel wills skirmished through the air, so sharp eyes dare not glance at the scene for risk of being cut. The king stepped forward, stopping before and towering over his daughter. He looked down to her as he spoke: “Execute the prisoner.”
Amir’s chest tightened as his brother clutched him close. They clung to each other, but the guards were too many to overcome. They pulled the brothers apart. Amir turned to the captain as she turned to him, wincing at the pain in his stomach. Tears streamed down his face as he forced an awkward, helpless smile. For the first time, the captain smirked back. She turned to her father.
The captain received the full impact of the king’s backhand, sending her several feet in the opposite direction. She tried to shake it off as her head rang. She saw only enough from the corner of her eye to see the king nod to the guard standing behind Amir. A moment later, Amir was no longer Amir, but simply Amir’s corpse.
The captain’s mouth ran dry. She could do little more than watch as Wren broke free of the guards, sobbing uncontrollably while clutching his brother’s body. She quivered. She froze and she burned and she felt nothing and everything at all. She quivered.
She gripped the hilt of her weapon with such tenacity the emblems broke into her skin. She tried to move her legs, but her legs would not move. One of the guards pulled Wren from his brother’s body, and began dragging what was left of Amir away. She rose. Still trembling, her eyes deadlocked with the king, the captain drew her sword as she spoke. Her chest swelled.
“This is our last order as your guard captain. Stand down. Anyone that moves against us will be cut down.” She turned around as the guards ceased all activity, remaining silent. She turned to the guard wearing the lynx armor. To the guard that had slain Amir. “Except you. You may approach.” The guard made no such move.
The captain removed her knightly crest as she approached the guard. The guard in question, the lynx guard, hesitated only for a moment. And then he ran. He burst through the doors of the throne room as quick as his heraldic namesake. The remaining guards circled in, blocking the princess’ egress.
“Daughter, enough.” The King announced. “Face your king and answer for your treason. What catastrophe could be so great that my daughter has forsaken all she was in so short a time?”
The princess faced her father, smirking with derision in her eyes. She spoke through gritted teeth. “Emarosa. Of the Elohim.”
Were it possible, the King’s skin lost color. The princess trembled, struggling to contain her rage as she watched myriad thoughts run through the king’s mind. The guards moved in closer, and between the king and his daughter.
“Emarosa lives?” the king asked. The princess remained silent. The king clutched his head, his eyes vacant. He fell to his knees. The princess’ muscles slowly relaxed at the inconceivable notion that the king could be anything but vicious.
“Do you care?” she asked with bitterness. He turned to her, his visage the closest thing he could ever muster to condolence. She dropped her weapon and moved toward the king in earnest. “Father, do you care?”
“Lenoa, my daughter…” the king raised his head. A blood-soaked blade emerged from his chest, Amir’s sickly ghost grimacing from behind.
“No!” the princess rushed through the guards to her father as Wren disappeared into one of the many corridors amidst the chaos. The princess held her father, his blood staining her hands. He pulled her close, whispering into her ear. She tried her best to listen, though she could promise no form of concentration. Unable to continue on, the king began to choke and gurgle on his own blood. The princess drew her dagger, and with one fell swoop, ended her father’s misery.
Only for a moment, her senses faded, her vision dulled. She fell into a vision of herself not long ago. Hush, hush. Just breathe. She exhaled, in the throne room once more. She kissed her wretched father’s forehead, and sealed his eyes. She held her father for some time as the guards watched on in silence.
A while later, she rose. She turned about, meeting the guards. They lowered their weapons. “The King is Dead. Long live the Queen!” they shouted as they knelt.
“Bury the king.” She commanded quietly with no great pride. She stepped passed the guards, kicking her rapier aside as she walked by.
She reached the doors and knelt beside Amir. Her fingers crossed his face, brushing the hair from his eyes so she could look into them once more. “Stupid farmer, you were supposed to be our pet…” she hesitated, “…our friend.” She hoisted his body up one more time, carrying him on her back like she had so often before. She headed for the door.
Her face was moist. Whether it was sweat or blood residue no one could say. No one was bold enough to mention the other possibility. Queens don’t cry. The doors of the throne room slammed shut as the Queen left the castle, body on her shoulders, never looking back.
~ Act I: Fin ~