The creature was rushing toward me when I heard it. A low, distant thudding sound. It distracted me almost long enough to get me gouged, but I jumped out of the way in time, spinning around to face the beast with my sword drawn.
I could still hear the calling, but I focused on the battle.
Writhings are thin, elongated, serpentine things with antlers and short, sharp legs. They tend to stay away from humans, as they have sensitive olfactory senses and highly dislike the way we smell.
Which made this one’s persistence even more incomprehensible.
Sure enough, it turned around and glared at me, as if this was personal.
It wasn’t like I had stepped into its lair or anything.
“Hey, I’m not happy about this either,” I said. “How about we leave it at this and each go our separate way? I’m sure you’d rather not smell me any longer than you have to.”
To be fair, I did not particularly care for the way it smelled either—like the stink of an overripe fruit left to rot in the sun.
The writhing screeched as it promptly rushed toward me again, intent on slicing me in half with its long, sharp tongue.
I swung my blade down on the twisting, slimy appendage as soon as it shot out of the creature’s mouth. It shrieked as it felt the metal sink into its soft skin. A spray of green blood gushed out as I once again stepped aside.
“Seriously, you don’t want to do this.”
It was pointless, of course. It was not like these things could understand anything anyone said. At least, there was no definitive evidence that they even had any form of intelligence. They were merely creatures of habit and instinct, for all anyone knew.
As it spun to face me, the distant thudding became much louder—so much so, the ground beneath us now vibrated in rhythm.
The writhing was perturbed by this, its head swinging from one side to the other in alarm. I took advantage of that moment to slash at it, cutting right through its thick skin. The head let out one final agonizing hiss before it fell to the ground, quickly followed by the rest of its spasming body.
“Sorry, buddy,” I muttered, “but I got better things to do than dance all day with you.”
I wiped the green blood off its skin, then sheathed my sword.
The earth was still shaking, and I frowned.
Was this what I had been looking for?
I walked through the trees, trying to follow the sound.
Whatever was causing this was of a magical nature. I could sense it. It was powerful enough to stink up the air. And I was looking for a mage, wasn’t I?
I quickened my pace.
The sound increased in volume. I was getting closer.
I knew little about the man, not even his name. Only that he traveled through these lands, never stopping more than a night in any given place—like some stray and restless dog... Not my words. Either way, he was powerful enough to make people fear him and stay away from him.
But what drew me to him was the description of the amulet he wore around his neck. It bore the drawing of a half-closed eye with a sun in the place of its pupil. A symbol I had only seen in my dreams. The image had haunted me for years. Ever since that day I’d first woken up, with no memory of who I was, let alone where I’d come from.
This errant mage may hold the key to my past.
The sound suddenly stopped and I froze in my steps, looking around me with a frown.
The silence was deafening.
For a few seconds, at least.
Then the birds started chirping again, lizards scurrying through the bushes, insects stridulating. It was as if nothing unusual had happened. Life was back on track.
I walked on in the same direction I had been headed. I couldn’t be far from the source. Maybe there was still something to see, something to find.
What I did find was a clearing in the middle of the forest.
But there was nothing there.
Not even the leftovers of a campfire. No upturned stones. No cracked branches. No footprints. Nothing.
How was this possible?
I stared at the ground.
Could the sound have originated from elsewhere? Even further from here? There was no way to be sure now that it had stopped.
There was something I could do, though.
I lifted my hands and made an elaborate, calculated Gesture.
The air before me shimmered, glittered, blurred. Colors twirled within, and an image appeared. It was hazy and dark, in the shape of a large humanoid being. It stepped straight toward me. Except it didn’t, of course. It was an afterimage, a remnant of something that had happened here recently.
The creature made a sharp turn before it reached me, then headed toward the east. The image faded.
I also knew now why I had found no traces.
The place reeked of magic. It was everywhere. On the earth, the grass, the rocks, the trees... Its presence had been obfuscated, and only through the prism of my spell had I been able to discern it. Now that I had, it was glaringly obvious everywhere I looked.
It was not so much about intensity, I realized, as it was about how often and how long spells had been cast in this place. Someone came here regularly to do whatever they were doing.
As I turned toward the east, I thought I heard the shuffling of feet and the rustle of leaves from somewhere behind me. I spun around, hand on hilt... but I saw nothing. I waited a moment, but all I noticed were branches swaying in the breeze.
Not wishing to waste any more time—my target had a head start—I turned back toward the east, where a mountain loomed high above the forest.
I followed the tracks as quickly and quietly as I could.
At first, these were invisible, only perceivable through my magic. But after a while, I saw the trail of broken branches and, finally, footsteps. These were large and oddly shaped, more like hooves.
When I heard the huffing, I slowed down.
Whatever moved ahead of me was large and slow.
I soon saw it.
Twice my height, it marched through the trees with resolve.
It held a glowing orb in one hand and a wand in the other.
All of them—minotaur included—reeked of magic.
The creature finally stopped in front of a tree. It hit its trunk twice with the tip of the wand, and the wood split in the center. It was a small crack, but the minotaur nonetheless stuck its hand through the opening. Its shape blurred. Then, with a swoosh, it was sucked into the hole.
I frowned as I walked out from behind the bushes where I had hidden.
Stepping up to the trunk, I examined it. The crack was only large enough to stick a hand in. For a moment, I wondered if the wand had pulled the creature through, but then I realized the tree itself was imbued with magic.
“Fine,” I muttered as I held out my hand.
I stuck it into the hole.
It did not take long for the spell to grab me and pull me through.
I felt sucked in.
The other side was a small dark room with walls made of gnarled wood. It was dark, but not so dark that I couldn’t see the opening at the center, with stone steps leading down.
Though I could not see the minotaur, I could hear its hooves thumping loudly as it dove into the depths of the earth.
The stairs stopped at the entrance of a dark, earthen tunnel. I could see a flickering light in the distance. It was moving away from me, and I guessed the creature must have lit a torch.
Again, I followed.
After a few minutes, I realized we were headed toward the mountain I had seen in the distance. There was no visual way to ascertain it, but I could sense the knowledge of this in the mind of the minotaur.
I had started probing it, gently and carefully, ever since I’d seen the torch. But its thoughts were odd, muddled, foreign. It is usually not wise to probe species other than your own, as it can lead to an unexpected—sometimes lethal—outcome. So I did not persist.
More light appeared in the distance. There was much more of it now, and I guessed we must be approaching the creature’s destination.
The tunnel widened until it finally became an enormous cavern.
A booming voice resonated against the rocky walls.
“Have you caught enough?” it asked.
I hid behind a boulder and watched as the minotaur stopped before a huge shape. I shuddered as I realized what it was.
“Not as much as the last time,” grunted the creature I had followed.
The dragon lifted its massive head and turned it toward its visitor. Its scales were copper and silver, its gleaming eyes blue. It opened its jaw in an unpleasant grimace, white fangs slashing at the air as it growled.
“He will not be pleased.”
The minotaur lifted its right hand, showing the orb.
“There is only one inside.”
“Then one human should suffice. Bring me a prisoner now, so I can complete the merging.”
The minotaur set the orb gently down in a small stone alcove, then turned and headed toward a side tunnel.
What was I doing here? I wondered. I had come hoping to find that errant mage, instead I’d run into a minotaur and a dragon, conspiring to do gods knew what. Logic would want me to get the heck out of here before either of them noticed me.
I slid through the shadows, keeping to the walls until I’d made my way to the opening the minotaur had gone through, and I followed.
It had occurred to me that the mage I was looking for might be one of the prisoners in question. I could not risk losing him to such creatures.
After a couple of minutes, we reached a larger space with four barred doors on each side. Beyond these were rotting corpses and broken skeletons. Except for one lone human being.
The man jumped back and cowered when the minotaur stopped before his cell.
“Leave me alone!” he cried.
The creature snorted, then opened the door.
“Come!” it commanded. “The time has come for you to serve your purpose.”
The man grabbed a rock that was jutting out from the floor and tried to hold on tight, but he was no match for the minotaur’s strength. The creature pulled him off and dragged him out, screaming and kicking.
That was when I noticed it. The amulet around the prisoner’s neck.
For a moment, it came into the light of the torches hanging on the wall, and the flames revealed a half-closed eye with a sun in the place of its pupil.
I had no idea what they planned to do with this man, but I suspected it would be nothing good for his health. And there was no way I’d have any chance against a dragon. I had no choice.
This was going to be ugly.
I drew my sword and stepped into the light, pointing my blade at the creature.
“Let go of that man.”
The minotaur paused and blinked, startled by my appearance. But only for a second. It sneered, then.
“You will die too. We only need one of you today, but you will serve tomorrow.” It motioned with its chin toward the still open cell. “Go in.”
I laughed. Did it seriously think I would do that?
It took a step toward me, still holding the prisoner—who had fallen silent, staring at me.
“Go in,” it repeated.
I muttered some Words under my breath, and an invisible shield formed around me. It would not help much if the creature applied too much physical pressure against it, but it was better than nothing.
A few more Words and my blade started to glow.
The minotaur squinted at me.
“We have ourselves a wizard,” it said.
I took a step to the right, with my blade pointed at the floor, using it to mark a line in front of me.
“Cross this,” I said, “and you shall die.”
It growled, its hand squeezing the prisoner’s neck. I could see the man’s face going white.
“And so shall he.”
That was unfortunate.
I frowned as I assessed the situation.
Whatever was in that orb, they needed a human vessel to finalize what they had planned. I saw no other living ones here. So unless there were other cells in these tunnels, it was not likely it’d kill its prisoner. Unless, of course, it thought I’d make for an easy replacement.
It’d be bitterly disappointed, in that case.
But the man would still be dead.
Which was not an option.
He held answers I needed.
I stared at the amulet, then at the minotaur, then at the cell.
“Do not try to trick me, human! I will not hesitate to rip this one’s throat out. Then I will feed on his entrails while I watch you die at the hands of my master.”
“Very well,” I said as I started toward the cell. “I shall live to fight another day.”
The minotaur grunted. “Doubtful. And drop your sword before you go in.”
I did no such thing.
As I walked, I made circular motions with the tip of one finger. The Gesture was completed with a flick toward the ground.
I paused in front of the cell door and turned to look at the minotaur.
“There’s just one thing,” I said.
It looked suspiciously at me. “What?”
“I’m just wondering why I should go in there when you can’t force me to.”
“I’ll kill him!” it hissed.
“Alright. Go ahead.”
I read panic in the prisoner’s eyes.
The minotaur roared.
It had tried to clench its grip tighter around the man’s neck, but it had found that it could not.
“What have you done?”
“Paralysis,” I said. “It’s a handy spell.”
I thought it best not to mention it would only last a minute.
Acting as if I had all the time in the world, I walked up to them and freed the prisoner from the chokehold.
He stepped quickly away, and I motioned to the invisible line I had drawn on the floor.
“Get behind that,” I urged him. “Quick!”
Without asking questions, he did as told.
Realization dawned on the minotaur and it growled.
“I will rip your flesh off and eat you alive!”
I lifted my sword and plunged it into the creature’s chest.
It would not be enough, I knew. It had magic in it, but it would at least weaken it enough to give me a fighting chance.
The scream that came out of its throat resonated through the rocky halls. I worried it might draw the dragon’s attention—then again, what could it do in such narrow corridors?
I pulled away and stepped back just as the minotaur regained control of its movements. There was a large hole in its hairy chest, and it was profusely leaking ochre blood.
It then rushed me.
I stepped to the left as I slashed down at its legs. The blade went through its thick skin and it screamed again as it lost its balance and fell.
Its head hit the ground beyond the line I had traced.
A low, deep, throaty gurgle came from the creature as its face began to melt, its body spasming. A bitter, strong, sickening smell assaulted my nostrils.
The prisoner knelt to look at the fast decomposing head—the rest of the body remaining intact.
“A curse line?” he asked, glancing up at me.
I nodded as I sheathed my sword. “No one ever believes it’s true when I say they’ll die if they cross that line.”
He chuckled. “Nor should they. You do realize these things rarely work, right? Especially when used on non-humans?”
Again, I nodded. “Couldn’t hurt to try. I’m puzzled though that it did work.”
He stood and faced me.
“I might have had something to do with that.”
“How do you mean?”
“I sprinkled some fairy dust on him.”
He grinned. “A little spell I made some years ago. Turns stone into acid.” He pointed down at the head. “Worked like a charm.”
Part of me hated that the guy had messed with my plan... but on the other hand, minotaurs are tough creatures and I was just glad I didn’t have to fight it any longer than I had to.
“I’m Reikk,” I said.
He held out his hand and I shook it.
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
I chuckled at his startled expression.
“Let’s get out of here. We can talk once we’re in a safe place.”
We stepped around the minotaur’s corpse and hurried down the tunnel from where I’d come. There were many branching corridors, and I picked one that would not lead us back to the dragon. It at least seemed headed in the right direction—that is, back toward the tree.
“How did you end up in that cell?” I asked quietly as we ran.
“I’m not sure. I got jumped by some bandits. Next thing I knew I was laying in that dark place.”
“What did they want from you?”
“I don’t know, but I saw that beast take prisoners out every day. They’d bring them back dead and toss their corpses into the cells to rot.”
At some point, our tunnel must have connected with the first one. I realized this when we reached the steps going up.
“How long were you down there?”
We started up the stairs, our breaths heavy from running.
“Two or three days, I think. It was hard to keep track in that darkness.”
We fell silent as we ascended.
When we reached the circular room inside the tree, I looked around for the crack. It was easy to spot, as there was light coming from it. It was not as bright as before, and I guessed that the sun must have begun to set.
I pushed my hand, then my arm through the opening and, like before, I felt myself being sucked through. I stumbled to the floor and rolled away from the tree. Tharak popped out shortly after me.
We got to our feet and looked around.
“There’s a stream further up north,” he said. “We can make camp there.”
I nodded and followed his lead.
A roar shook the ground and the trees around us.
I lifted my head, guessing what I’d see.
The copper-scaled dragon hovered above us, wings flapping furiously.
I expected it to rain fire down on us... but it did not. Instead, it followed us as we ran through the trees, trying to lose it.
In our panic, we must have veered westward without noticing, because before we knew it, we had reached that damned clearing again! We froze in our steps, realizing we were now out in the open.
We were about to backtrack when the dragon swooped down and landed before us.
“Thief!” it roared. “Give me back my belonging!”
I lifted my sword, pointing it directly at the creature. It did not seem impressed.
“People do not belong to anyone.”
“I have taken him, so he is mine! Give him back!”
“So you can kill him? I think not.”
“He will not be killed, he will be freed.”
I snorted. I could hear Tharak mumbling Words behind me. He was casting a spell, though I could not tell of which type. It felt strange. But whatever it was, I guessed it would help us. Dragons, though, are magical creatures. Because of its nature, I feared it might feel what its victim was doing. I needed to keep it distracted.
“He was held in a cage. I’d hardly call that ‘free’.”
“He had not yet earned his freedom. But he still could!”
“There is energy in other dimensions which my master craves. We harvest it, store it in orbs, then transfer it into human vessels...”
“Why doesn’t he drain it from the orb directly?”
“That would surely kill him!” said the dragon with reproach in its voice. “It needs to go through a conduit first. Only this process will make the energy useful to my master.”
“And so the vessel would be killed. Just as I thought.”
“Freed, not killed!”
“Then free your master instead,” I laughed. “And who is your master, anyway?” I asked.
“The rightful heir to this world... to all worlds! He is the son of the gods, the harbinger of storms, the enslaver of my kin...”
“No human could ever subdue a dragon!”
The sounds coming from Tharak turned into quiet humming.
“He is not human!” it roared. “He came to me in the shape of smoke. He is the Deathbringer, the Cleanser of Souls. He shall rid this world of the likes of you, and it shall be a better world for it.”
Perhaps it would—and I would not be the one to argue the perfection of humanity—but that was hardly reason enough to commit genocide.
“What is his name? Where is he?”
Before it could answer, the dragon shrieked as its wings were shredded to pieces, as if repeatedly slashed by a giant, invisible sword. Strips of skin fell from its limbs, the scales that once covered it ripped off in a bloody mess. The creature tried to fly away, but what was left of its wings would not carry it. Instead, it plummeted to the ground and burst into flames.
I spun to face Tharak, my eyes wide.
“What have you done?”
He shrugged as he lowered his hands. “What needed to be done.”
Dragons were not easy creatures to kill. Even magic had little effect on them, because of their own magical nature. What I had just witnessed was impossible. Unless...
“You used sacramant!”
“I did not.” I threw him a skeptical look and he laughed. “There are other levels of power, Reikk. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about them. But come, let’s eat. We’re both famished and it’s getting late.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the fuming carcass as we walked back toward the trees, and away from the rising stench of burning flesh.
When we finally reached the stream Tharak had mentioned, he made a Gesture that started a fire, then went to some nearby trees and picked fruits from them.
I watched him quietly as I sat by the crackling flames.
“Do you know anything about what the dragon described?” I asked as he joined me.
“I didn’t hear much of it,” he said, “I was too focused on my spell.”
As we ate, I repeated what it had said. I saw him frown when I mentioned the orb.
“What is it?” I asked.
Tharak pursed his lips as he leaned down to kindle the fire with a large stick.
“It reminds me of a story I heard a long time ago,” he finally said into the quiet night. “But no one ever believed it to be true. I mean, it is too preposterous.”
He stared into the flames.
“There is supposed to be an infinity of dimensions—of worlds, if you would. None of them are connected... at least, not directly. But one powerful enough could open a rift between them. It’d be like ripping the fabric of existence itself.”
I knew of such things, but chose not to share my knowledge.
“Go on,” I said.
“There is energy in those dimensions, just like there is here, all around us.” He gestured at the air and the trees. “One could harvest it and harness it.”
“How? And to what purpose?”
“The story claims that a powerful wizard once created multiple rifts and drained energy from them, which he stored in orbs. He believed it would give him ultimate power, allow him to merge all worlds into one and rule over it forever.”
He nodded. “It is a part of it.”
“What’s so funny?” he asked with a frown.
“Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be,” I sighed.
“How do you mean?”
“You’d see all your loved ones die, one after the other. You’d be all alone in the world, a restless and damned soul wandering for all of eternity...”
I fell quiet.
He opened his mouth, as if to say something, then closed it and just stared at me.
“What is it that’s so preposterous about all this?” I asked.
“Don’t tell me you find any of it believable?”
“You don’t believe there are other dimensions?”
“I do, but—”
“You don’t think rifts between worlds can be created?”
“I suppose it could be done...”
“So is it the orbs, then, that bother you?”
“How big would it have to be to store that much energy?”
“The one I saw was not so big it wouldn’t fit in my hand. And then, there are the human vessels.”
“What of them?”
“As you said, there would be too much energy to store in just one orb. But you could spread it across human bodies. It would kill the conduit, which in turn would release the energy into our world, but in a form that the wizard could then more easily absorb.”
“You mean it would be changed in the process?”
“It would have to be. Such energies are not static. They adapt to the environment. First the orb, then a human body. Both of these would affect its flow, its shape, its nature. It would become better suited to our world.”
“You seem familiar with the topic...”
I smiled. “Not exactly. But I can guess at the logic.”
Though I had never been confronted with something quite like this, I knew enough about other worlds and magic and the workings of the human body to see how all of this could work.
We talked for a long time that night. Several times, I asked him what he had meant when he’d mentioned ‘other levels of power,’ but each time he smiled and claimed that I wasn’t ready yet.
“You said you’d been looking for me?” he asked at one point, curiosity in his voice.
I nodded and pointed at the amulet around his neck.
“What does it mean?”
He glanced down at it, then back at me, tilting his head.
“I don’t know who I am,” I started, “where I come from, why I have the powers I have... Even my name is just one I chose for myself, for lack of knowing my real one. The oldest thing I remember is waking up in a field, in a strange world—at least, one that felt strange to me. Ever since, I’ve been having these dreams. And always there is a half-closed eye with a sun in the place of its pupil.”
I pointed again at the amulet, which bore that exact emblem at its center.
“Odd,” muttered Tharak.
“What can you tell me about it?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. It was a gift given to me by a stranger.”
I frowned. “Why would a stranger give you something like that?”
“Well, I’d saved his life after he’d fallen down a cliff and broken his leg. All he told me of the amulet was that it held power and could protect me—”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never noticed it doing anything. I’m not sure it has powers. He might have just made it all up.”
I frowned. “It has to be significant.”
“After hearing your story, I would tend to agree.”
“What can you tell me of this man?”
Tharak looked back into the flames, with a frown on his face as he tried to remember.
“He was old. Short white hair. Deep gray eyes. With a scar on his chin. He said his name was Ztaran.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“The Ghurdhim Pass.” He waved toward the south. “But that was ten years ago, Reikk. He could be anywhere now. Heck, he could even be dead, for all I know.”
This was disheartening news, and we both fell quiet.
We finished eating, then lay down to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, the errant mage was gone.
I found a note pinned to my bag.
I won't forget what you've done, Reikk.
And someday I shall repay you.
I folded the small piece of paper and slipped it into my bag.
The flames had died out during the night.
I stood, picked up my things, and looked around.
Now that both the dragon and the minotaur were dead, I went back into the tunnels. I found the orb where I had last seen it. There were three others, laying next to it. I grabbed them all and slid them into my bag. Whoever this ‘master’ was, I did not think it wise to let him have access to these.
After exploring the underground network, I found more cells. They were filled with corpses, but there were also some still living prisoners. I freed them all.
As I made my way back to the surface, I considered my options.
The fresh air of a morning breeze blew against my skin as I stepped out into the sun.
After a few minutes of hesitation, I turned toward the south.
What else was I to do?
There was little hope I’d find anything, but it was my only lead.
Quietly, I walked through the trees, headed toward the Ghurdhim Pass.
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Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header image from royalty free stock, edited by me.
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Curious. If I had to guess, I’d say this “master” might have something to do with Reikk’s past, either directly or indirectly.
Pleeeeeze make this into a book!