Athea’s footsteps matched her wolf’s. Gangly trees framed the sky. The further she got into the dark wood the more her impending future faded into the midsts. She preferred hunting hairlings to receiving congratulations for an event that hadn’t happened yet. Wishing hail for what was expected enticed her to draw her weapons.
The walls of duty closed in around her. Night was near. The usual signs of the dimming sky was Athea’s favorite time to hunt despite the risks involved. She went further than advised. Dreams of what the dark lands looked like forced her awake when everyone else could sleep. Whispers of the dead tugged at her toes under the fur blanket. She wondered if it was a warning, but couldn’t be sure. Paranoia often blurred the lines of reality and illusions of fear. Now in the deep woods the idea faded. It would be a challenge to convince herself back to the village. The large mountains stood fierce behind the trees adding to how trapped she felt—living for a destiny she never wanted, something she would have never chosen for herself. Athea believed in a soul’s journey. Her father often asked her what she thought she was chosen for. Athea didn’t know what it was, just what it wasn’t. The power could have gone to any of her siblings, but it went to her. A curse.
A soft rustle brought Athea’s eyes to the sound’s source. A small grey hairling stood frozen between two hailberry bushes. She fanned out her hand signaling to her wolf. Mayhem stood dead his tracks. His wise eyes set on his master awaiting her cue. Athea pulled out her bow, then slid an arrow from her quiver. She nocked an arrow as she locked the prey in her sights. Her fingers tightened around the string. She arched her shoulder back as she pulled back the tension. Her eyes narrowed and focused. The fletching twisted in the wind as the arrow soared through a clearing in the brush. The moist soil soft under her hide boots. The cutting through the flesh was faint but a sound Athea would recognize anywhere.
“Mayhem, laana!” Athea extended her finger toward the rodent’s small carcass. “Gentle this time,” she warned.
Mayhem nodded before trotting into the wood. Athea slid her crossbow back into the gearpack. She leaned against a tree trunk. Her fingers danced across the dozen dead hairlings hanging from her belt. Dread of tomorrow’s ceremony whispered for her to run. She wouldn’t. Athea was stubborn and angry but she was always loyal. Something she called a fault but her father called a trait. The thought of her father brought a smile to her face. Lately the smile was tainted with sadness. He was ill. His time was ending. Fear and selfishness followed these thoughts. Her village’s safety would be up to her. Her father, Chief Meshvar, lead the Dagee, in The War From Nowhere, despite the loss of their allies the Nari. He fought them long enough to get his people to safety behind the great mountains. How could she follow that? Another war was certain, it was the when that was unclear. Mayhem sauntered back. His jaw loose around the tiny corpse.
Athea hung the limp hairling on her belt next to the others. A gust of wind rushed her way. The smell of smoke inescapable. It didn’t carry the scent of a campfire nor did it hold any resemblance of a spice or fat that indicated cooking. Her tribe had their faults but their survival skills wouldn’t lead any of them to cook past nightfall. Death loomed heavy in the air. She turned to her wolf, Mayhem. His gray eyes fixed on forces she could not see. Athea brought the tips of her fingers to her mouth.
She spoke the words, "Vine to vane. Ash to spine."
Athea lay her fingers over the root-rich soil. Green and blue orbs hovered in the space between. All the energy kept coming back to her. There were no connections to receive her message. Usually, her community rushed in, roots connected all of them, but there was only silence. A desperate plea of panic rushed around in her gut. Mayhem whined. His eyes narrowed. He studied a distant cluster of sap weed trees.
“What is that?” Athena whispered to her wolf, both her hands grasped her scimitars—an extension of her after years of training.
Mayhem inched closer to the invisible threat. The bushes tousled. He growled and snapped his enormous jaw in warning. Athea pulled her weapons from their sheaths. Her words only audible inside her head. Broken twigs and crushed leaves sang in peril though there were no visible signs of anything.
Maybe conjurers, Athea wondered then dismissed thought. Conjurers wouldn’t be this far north. Her grasp around her weapons tightened.
A large part formed in the trees as a body collapsed from the underbrush. His large frame hit the dirt ground with a thud. A leather cord strung through a copper medal hung from his bloody hand. He was from her village. She raced toward him ignoring Mayhem’s warning.
Bent at the knees she turned the burned body to face her. The familiar glazed eyes of Kolton, the butcher, stared back at her. He held no acknowledgment that he knew Athea, the future chief, the one whose power skipped her first three siblings–a legend before she was born.
“What happened to you?”
“It found us,” he muttered through gasps. Blood pooled at both corners of his mouth. His body fell limp in her arms. Mayhem howled. His eyes waiting for Athea’s cue.
Her mind came to no other options. Athea stood up. “Let’s head home,” she slapped her leg as she glanced once more at the still body. She would come back for the Kolton’s body once she understood the situation.
Athea and Mayhem trudged through the thicket, following the path they took to the hunting ground.
I sensed something before I geared up. I should have listened. I wouldn’t, she thought as she positioned her weapons to block her chest. I was too angry.
The smoke grew thicker the closer they got to camp. The dead hairlings thumped against her side as she ran closer. She ignored any fear warning her to slow down. Her eyes burned around the edges; her lungs struggling to work past the smoke. She cupped her hand over her eyes as one does to block the sun but the act served as no help, but her effort eased the panicked despair climbing her spine.
Mayhem’s side brushed against her leather protected thigh. Wind rippled through her braids; the same breeze pushing soot-laden air into her face. The roar of the fire reached her ears now. Mayhem whined for their family. The stench of burnt flesh threatened to swallow them as the approaching flames grew near. Devastation flooded Athea. Charred bodies littered the cursed ground. Her village engulfed in angry flames. The fire that swallowed the council huts formed a distant circle. Silhouettes of the others staggered around the tortured corpses. A sense of dark magic lingered near the devastation. Athea collapsed to the ground. Pain goaded to eat her alive. Her father and everyone she knew, gone. Ruin ran rapid in her newly broken soul. An ominous fog stamped through the forsaken grounds. A force resembling nothing human. Dark shadows hastened around the bodies whose souls will never get the opportunity to grow properly with the earth.
Her scimitars glowed green—an enchantment indicating dark magic only used by those consumed by hate.
We weren’t hidden well enough. It was foolish to think the great mountains would be adequate.
Athea’s emotion escalated in her, creating thousands of fissures.
She cursed herself.
All that time I wasted wishing my fate was anything but leading the village.
Athea never considered the idea of everything being taken from her. Her chosen legacy stripped away.
Her mind spiraled. Concrete thoughts were no longer coming together, only fragments of darkness and loss. Mayhem nuzzled her hand. His eyes set on the horizon past the village. He took two careful strides toward the cliffside. Her companion was right; the distance was the first step.
Tag darted through the murky waters of his once beautiful world. Thick kelp forests that once stood tall now black and lifeless crowding the river’s floor. The waters are barren and quiet. How had he escaped the darkness? Thoughts of how or why swirled in his mind on ravenous repeat, haunting him much like the impending darkness. A total of 1,657 moons have passed since the day darkness crept in and stole everything dear to him.
Hastily he maneuvered through the familiar territory. Once this was a rush, and now it served as a reminder of what was stolen from him. The little light sinking through the shadows reflected off of his turquoise-green scales projecting a rainbow of colors onto his chiseled abdomen. Not wanting to draw too much attention to himself he slowed his pace and wedged himself between two rocks for cover.
Tag waved his hands slowly through the water as he listened for any signs of life, invoking his ability to become one with the element.
The habitual setting expelled Tag into the past. This was Irya’s favorite place to spend time. His fists clenched remembering his sister’s laughter as she hid behind the rocks waiting for him to find her. Of course, he always knew where she was. The boulders may be grandiose, but nothing could hide her fire red hair. This was her happy place. This is where her big green eyes filled with joy and contentment. A place where she could let her spirit shine and let the fears of the dreaded doom fade away.
Tag shook the image from his mind. His wavy black hair framed his face as he remained still. He covered his nose in reaction to the pungent scent that crowded the surrounding water. The smell of smoke that contained traces of one’s death obscured his vision. A scent unfortunately familiar. He knew not far from where he hid the blackness consumed what little life was left in this world.
A throbbing sensation began to creep up Tag’s neck leaving a blazing warm trail to his temples. Someone was trying to communicate with him. Massaging the sides of his head aided in releasing the tension just enough to open up his mind and locate the source.
“Why are you back here?”
Before he could answer, the large eel presented himself by sending an electric current his way. Tag drew his hand up and deflected the insult using his powers.
“I should have known you would be here, Morea.”
“Where else would I be? You silly fool, haven’t you figured it out yet? There’s nowhere to go. It’s the end for you and I. It’s only a matter of time.”
His thick black-coiled body was partially hidden under the dead kelp and debris present on the riverbed. Green spheres bore holes into Tag’s gray eyes paralyzing him but only for a moment. Morea’s voice echoed in his head while images of his friends and family flashed through his mind.
Another electric current careened its way toward Tag. With one swift movement of his hand, a brilliant orange illuminated the dull waters. Morea slithered to the right to dodge Tag’s retaliation. The aura engulfed Tag, his birthright. He was destined to rule the people of his underwater world before the world hatred grew into a dark force that took all his people away.
“I see you still have power.”
“Are you provoking me so I’ll end your life, Morea? Because I will!”
“No. I had to challenge you. I wasn’t sure if you had given up and lost the fight that you were born with.”
“Why would you care either way?” Tag spat. His heart skipped a beat as he readied himself to strike back.
“I want to live,” Morea revealed. “I want to fight the darkness, but I need your help.”
“My help?” Tag threw back his head. A maniacal laugh escaped his lips. “How can I help you?”
“You are alive. The last Nari. Draco is most certain that this is not by mistake.”
“Well then I need to speak with him. Now. I need answers.” Tag emerged from the rocks and swam with fury toward the Depths.
“Wait for me!” Morea slithered alongside Tag whipping his spiny tail from side to side. “You don’t even know where you’re going.”
“Oh, but I do, Morea, you forget I’ve been alone for quite a while.” With his heart hammering against his chest and his spear safely guarded against his leg he propelled himself down into the Depths looking for Morea’s source.
“He won’t be happy.”
Morea’s voice wavered. Tag knew this was reckless. Not only is Morea’s source one of the only living creatures left in the river; he’s also a mortal enemy. “You’re a Nari, he’ll be sure to kill you.”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.” Tag weaved in and out of the unfamiliar rocky landscape, his long black hair trailing his every move. The smell of decay reached his nose and his posture fell. He knew by coming here that he could very well end up like every other living thing, dead. This was his only shot. He needed answers.
Through the muddied, unsettled water Tag spotted Draco. A feral growl escaped his lips. Draco’s two black eyes locked on Tag. It was too late to prepare. Tag was motionless. A chill ran down his spine. With fists clenched he prepared for death. The fate he wished he encountered with his own people by the merciless Darkness. Now he waited for Draco’s painful attack. The water dragon was known for his torturous ways. Dismembering bodies and plucking the flesh of the bone was his forte.
Frozen by what most would call fear, Tag waited to join the ranks of his fallen comrades that have gone up against Draco. This part of the river has always been considered Nari territory but when Draco argued that his kind had been here longer and he deserved the Depths. Anyone that thought otherwise ended up in fractions of what they once were.
Tag moved his gaze over Draco’s body. Scar’s etched alongside his back and sides were glowing reddish hue against his emerald green scales. Each scar signified his strength and ability to survive.