The Dragon Sentinel, Chapters 1-6

 

Chapter 1

Sounds of screaming filled the air. All was still for a terrible moment, then he heard a scream again. With a glance at Marika, Mardel took off at a run. She fell into step beside him, matching his every stride.

They came upon a scene of horror. A monstrous beast – wolf, perhaps, or once a bear, he could not truly tell – clambered over the wreckage of a poor man’s traveling chariot, little more than a simple wooden box on wheels. Strips of the shredded chariot cover were strewn about the road, along with a few personal belongings and the remains of a chest. A woman ran toward them, covered in blood, a bundle of linen clutched to her chest.

The beast leapt forward in the same moment as Mardel. He was not quite fast enough to catch the monster before its claws dug into the woman’s back and she crashed to the ground, her body wrapping around her precious bundle. In one motion, he’d unsheathed his scythe and brought it swinging upward to connect to the beast’s throat. The beast jumped back in anticipation, but the scythe still connected.

Mardel pulled back, circling carefully as the beast did, looking for an opening. They jumped forward, striking and dodging with equal precision. Mardel moved forward then backed away in rapid-fire succession, luring the beast slowly away from where the woman still lay on the ground. The beast followed, increasingly angrier that he couldn’t seem to best his opponent. Marika had run to where the woman lay and bent over her inspecting the wounds. The beast glanced toward the two women, refusing to surrender his prey.

Mardel swung out again trying to keep the beast focused on him, but the beast could not be deterred from his prize. Turning away from Mardel, the creature ran and jumped out toward the women. Mardel called out. Too late. The beast grabbed Marika, throwing her off of the woman where she lay. In a rage, Mardel rushed forward, striking the beast on its hind leg and dragging it away from the women.

Without a breath he struck again, and again. The creature roared and twisted around, striking out towards Mardel with his front paws, too slow to catch his quick dodges. The creature attempted to hobble to its feet, but could not stand. Mardel swung again, this time on the beast’s neck. The beast fell. It struggled to stand once more, but could not. With a final blow, Mardel severed the neck from its body.

Gasping for breath, he straightened, looking toward Marika and the woman. Marika sat still on the ground, her hands pressing tight to her left side in an attempt to quell the blood gushing from the wounds that stretched from back to front. Mardel stumbled over to them, kneeling beside the woman. She was still breathing, barely. He reached out to carefully pull the bundle from her arms, but she cried out with a weak “no!” Her arms tightened around it and she began to softly cry.

“I will not hurt you.” Mardel said. “The beast is dead.”

Her cries softened, but her grip did not loosen. A sudden small wail broke the silence and the woman bent her head toward the bundle and fumbled with its wrappings, wincing in pain at each movement. Mardel calmly lay a hand on the bundle, then pulled apart several layers, the fabric falling open to reveal a baby. Bloody still, and red-skinned. A new-born.

Marika leaned forward, eyes wide with concern.

“The beast must have smelled the birth blood.” Mardel said in a low voice. He looked up at the sparse trees lining the road leading out to desert. How far had the beast traveled? It had not seemed a desert inhabitant. If it had brought a family…

Mardel glanced down, looking between the woman and Marika. The woman was crying again, pulling the babe to her chest. Marika was wrapping her torso with the bit of cloth they carried on hunts. Her wounds were severe, too much for those small cloths. How could he have forgotten to find wrappings?

He stood, surveying the wreckage. Another body lay near the destroyed chariot. He went there first, checking the man for life. Not a breath. With a small knife he cut the good portion remaining from the chariot cover into long strips. He picked through the rest of the mess, finding little of use, but keeping a small brooch that had been carefully tucked away in a leather pouch. Perhaps the babe would want something from its parents, once it grew old enough to hear the tale. If it grew old enough. Mardel’s chest tightened. It will.

He sat beside Marika, helping her to wrap the wounds with larger pieces of fabric. They would need cleaning, but stopping the blood flow was enough for now. Mardel and Marika sat for a long while beside the woman, her arms holding her babe for the first and last time.

She passed like that, her last breath fading into the stillness of the late afternoon. Even the small creatures quieted their singing in deference. Mardel gently lifted the baby in its wrappings, settling it in his arms. A girl. She had fallen asleep some time ago and he did not want to wake her. Give her some reprieve from hunger.

Marika sighed. “She seems healthy enough. But will need to eat.” Mardel nodded.

“You cannot travel far.”

Marika stood, careful not to loosen the bandages. “We must not let this mother down.” Marika said. “We will find milk.”

Mardel followed, wanting to protest but knowing they had no choice. They should have left hours ago. He set the babe in Marika’s right arm, then lifted the woman’s body from the ground. He would give them a proper memorial. Along with the chariot and small bits of belongings, he set the man and woman to fire on a makeshift funeral pyre. They stood in silence, watching the flames climb in the sky, sparks and ash blowing away to disappear on the wind.

As the flames began to burn lower, Mardel looked over to Marika. She leaned against a tree, eyes closed.

“We need to find water.” He said. She nodded, opening her eyes in a slow blink.

“Let us go, then.” She said.

 

He had always thought Marika had an uncanny talent for survival. In a quarter hour she found animal tracks and in another half hour they came to a stream hidden in a small ravine. The water trickled a steady and serene path. Marika sat and unwrapped the bandages. Mardel dabbed a cloth in the water and cleaned the wounds on her back.

“It’s bad, huh?” She asked.

“No… you won’t die.” Mardel replied with a joke as they usually did, hoping to appear optimistic. He knew she likely would not believe him. Marika chuckled, then grunted, gritting her teeth in pain. It was bad. Too much for their small bit of medical supplies to handle.

You’ll need a physician.” Mardel said. But she would need to walk. He did not bring this up, though she must have considered it as well.

He rinsed the baby, splashing her frail body. She woke again with a shriek. She screamed while washed her, arms and legs flailing. When the last of the blood had been washed away, he wrapped her again in the blanket, then dipped a finger in the stream and let her suck on it. At least she would be hydrated, if not fed.

“How far do you think the nearest village is?” Marika asked.

“Can’t say.” Mardel replied. “We’ve not been in this area before.”

“Which is why we were here.” Marika said, her wry smile not quite reaching her eyes.

“If I remember correctly from our maps,” Mardel said, “the nearest village should be due West.”

“Through the Dead Forest.” Marika said.

Mardel nodded stealing a glance at her. She was more interested than she wanted to let on. She was always interested in forbidden places and fairytales. The terrifically dangerous ones in particular. He’d never have traveled through the forbidden Forest, but now they would have no choice. Both Marika and the baby needed attention as immediately as possible. Finished with bandaging Marika’s wounds, Mardel stood and peered out, at the tops of the trees that they would soon be traveling through.

Most dared not enter and the rest recounted tales of extreme bad luck. Sturdy chariots falling apart without cause, people disappearing without a trace, inability to light campfires, and monsters. Mardel doubted the legends but one. He had no desire to greet the creatures sure to be inside.

Glancing at Marika again, Mardel sighed. She would certainly be of no assistance in her state. She would not even be able to fully pull back her bow with the wounds on her left side, much less aim accurately. Turning westward, he studied the treetops again, subconsciously stretching his arm out to flex his fingers and arm muscles. Whatever lay before them in the Dead Forest, he would be prepared for it.

 

Marika was growing weaker by the hour she would not be able to withstand the pace necessary for much longer. The travel wore heavy on her, but she did not complain, though her wounds could not heal with the constant movement. Still, they must continue. They had been traveling for a day and half a night already and had hardly made any headway into the forest. They needed to be moving twice as fast, but Marika’s frequent breaks slowed them considerably. He’d have stopped and slept, but they could not afford the risk.

Even the baby no longer cried, but had taken to soft whimpering and fitful slumber. She would not last much longer, either. Marika leaned on him as they walked, her weight slowly getting heavier. Mardel wasn’t sure if that was because she was leaning more on him or if he was simply getting more tired. Perhaps both.

“What will you do when I’m gone?” Marika asked. Mardel looked over at her, concerned.

“You’re not going to die.” He replied.

“I didn’t say that I was.” She said. “I’m just asking.”

What would I do once she is gone? He was silent for a long while, unsure how to answer. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said, finally. But that was not entirely true. He had thought about what he wanted to do, what he must do – without her. The Illusive Mountain. No he could not tell her about that task as he never had before. Even now he could not speak of it.

“I suppose,” he said with a half-smile, “I’d have to move to Elbon and settle into an average life.”

She chuckled. “No, you wouldn’t. City life has never agreed with you.” They were silent for a long while, shuffling slowly through the dead trees. Dust stirred up as they walked, dry brush and branches cracking beneath their feet. Moonlight shone almost as bright as day it seemed, illuminating everything around them.

“Would you visit ma and dad?” She asked. Mardel straightened at their names and leaned more in support of her body. So many unexpected questions.

“I don’t know.” He said honestly. That was truly something he had not thought about. How many years had it been? he wondered. Too many, was the first to pop in his mind, then no. Enough. They had made their choice. And we made ours.

He stopped abruptly, looking down and waiting for his brain to make sense of what he was seeing. The dirt and blackened trees of the Dead Forest ended and a bed of grass began. Thick and luscious, like nothing he’d ever seen before. A new set of trees grew just inside the grass line, full of life and greenery. It seemed they had stumbled upon a different part of the forest. No, a different part of the world. Mardel and Marika stared in wonderment.

“What is this place?” Marika asked.

Mardel could not answer but only shook his head. Many spoke of the burning of the forest as a bad omen, that it started the drought some 20 years ago, continuing to this day. But Mardel had never heard of a place unaffected by the drought. Magic. His throat closed and he could not breathe.

“Per-perhaps there is someone here with medicine and milk…” Mardel trailed off. He had no desire to enter the lush land but what choice did he have? If there was not someone here with medicine for Marika, she would surely die before they reached the village.

Marika perked up as they stepped onto the grass and through the green trees. Hills rolled softly before them, covered in flowers and ferns. A building sat in the distance, nestled among a copse of trees. A castle, Mardel thought. No, not quite a castle. Relief and trepidation washed over him in equal amounts. But for Marika, he would never dare to enter here.

“There,” he said, swallowing hard. “Someone lives here.” He did not know if that was true, but it was something to plan for. This home so deep in the forest could easily have been abandoned decades ago. For Marika’s sake, he did not dare imagine if that were true. And what sort of healing might an enchanter do? He shuddered, then took a step forward. Marika must be tended to. Even by an enchanter.

With a renewed fervor, they made their way forward. It seemed each step took an eternity but they pressed on. Marika gripped Mardel’s arm, leaning ever more on him, but he did not falter. Finally, they came upon the front steps of the almost-castle. One painstaking step at a time they moved up toward the doors. Marika stumbled, falling to her knees and staying down for longer than she ought. In one motion Mardel knelt and lifted her up into his arms. Just a few steps more and he stood before the great doors. Quite imposing. Marika reached up and slammed the knocker down, harder than Mardel would’ve thought she should. They waited for a long moment, then she knocked again, faster this time.

The doors swung open mid-knock, taking Marika’s hand with it for a moment before she let go and pulled back. A woman stood in the doorway, not quite a crone but perhaps somewhat older than his parents.

“What do you want?” She asked.

“My sister. Mardel said. “She is harmed by a beast and needs tending to. Now.”

“There is a village a day’s walk from here.”

“She will not last another day.” Mardel almost shouted, then took a deep breath. “She needs caring now.”

The woman sighed, then opened the door wider to allow them in. A great hall stretched before them, the largest Mardel had ever been in. Doors were set in the walls, a staircase set at the end.

“And I have a babe,” Mardel stated. “Newly born. She needs mother’s milk.”

The woman shook her head. “We have no mother’s milk here.” She said. “Nor even a cow.”

He set Marika to sit on a couch by the door, then turned back to the woman, his hand instinctively resting on the babe where she lay strapped to his chest.

“What am I to do, then?” He asked.

“Go.” Marika spoke, breathy and exhausted. “You must go.” The last was punctuated with a tired cough. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the cushions.

“I can’t leave you.” Mardel said. He gripped Marika’s hand, trying to impart strength.

“You must go.” Marika said. “Please. Do not let the babe die on my account.”

Mardel’s head dropped. How could he leave Marika here alone in a place so obviously unwelcoming? But if he did not the babe would certainly not last until Marika was well.

“Go.” Marika said again, “I will be here when you return.”

Mardel nodded. “I will return,” he said, wanting to assure himself as much as Marika.

“Have no fear,” Marika said, squeezing his hand. “I am not so easily broken.”

 

Mardel left that hour, carrying a replenished food and water supply, promising to return in a few days’ time. He had not rested, but there had not been time. None of that mattered now. All that mattered was finding mother’s milk for the baby and then returning to Marika to see her healed.

The oddness of this little patch of land struck him again as he stepped outside and began to make his way west. The flowers spreading across the hills like a blanket sparkled with every color he could imagine. Trees and ferns and bushes grew in patches. He had never seen greenery so bright, almost blinding in its vibrancy. Unnatural. He would not be sad to see this place far behind him and Marika.

Birds sang in every tree it seemed. Cicadas chirped in their nests and branches rustled as small woodland creatures rushed through them. He was just beginning to be trapped in the peaceful lull of the morning when something caught in the corner of his eye and he shook himself free of the enchantment.

His head whipped to the side, but there was nothing but trees. He looked behind himself, toward the mansion. Mardel’s heart beat a quick drum and he swallowed in his suddenly dry mouth. Marika. He could not turn back now or the babe would die. This whole land was accursed enchantment. I will return, Mardel vowed. And if a monster is here I will kill it. He could not worry about Marika, he could only worry about moving as fast as possible to return to her.

 

Chapter 2

Xander stepped outside as dusk waned, the last bits of sun fading into night. Stars began to twinkle, one by one in the ever darkening sky. He looked up, as though to search for answers, though he had yet to ask a question. Tonight, the moon made an imprint on the sky, surrounded by a giant circle. It looked like a circular space in clouds, but he was not convinced it wasn’t something more magical. Such a sky always seem to signify the start of something important. The night he’d discovered a new species – the eoslet. The night the enchantress had come.

With a growl, he left the manor and took off at a run toward the forest edge. Only a bit of the forest lay inside the protection, but it was enough. He hadn’t seen her in years but still felt like she was watching. Just around the corner, just behind his shoulder. He stepped in-between the trees and under their branches, then let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding in.

Here, among the trees, he could breathe. The constant bustle of wildlife during the day turned to near silence at night. Just the slightest rustle of leaves and branches as small creatures rushed beneath the bushes. An owl hooted in the distance, marking the start of its daily venture for food. Xander moved just a little further, then sat beneath his favorite tree, a hundred-year-old weeping willow.

As he leaned back, he pulled a pencil and few loose papers from his knapsack. There were rarely notes to take, but he liked to be prepared. He leaned against the tree trunk, closing his eyes and opening his ears to the sounds of the night.

A breeze rippled through the branches above, barely touching him. The fur lessened the impact, anyhow. The soft bark of painted foxes indicated the pack had started a hunt. Holding his notes up to catch a bit of moonlight, he wrote in “fox hunt – early” and the date. He still couldn’t hold a pencil well enough to write decent notes, but it would have to do. With a sigh, he dropped his hands back down and sat in silence.

On nights like this, he often wished for a friend to speak to, share ideas with. There were none to be found, only his handful of servants who mostly avoided him, and he them. Not many people wanted to get too friendly with someone who looked more beast than man. He couldn’t really blame them, he’d likely have done the same, before.

So, he spent his nights in the forest, often sitting for an entire night without seeing or hearing anything of interest. A sudden cry jolted him awake, though he hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep. Sitting straight up, he turned his head in the direction he thought the sound had come from. Everything was still. He slowed his breaths, trying to hone his hearing.

A soft whine sounded, and he stood, moving steadily forward to whatever creature needed his help. His shoulders brushed against tree branches, sending a flock of birds into the sky in a panic. As the sound of their beating wings faded, the night quieted again and he stepped forward, more carefully this time.

The distressed whine had calmed, but he was still able to find the source, a rabbit lying on the ground. He tiptoed forward, not wanting to cause further distress to the injured creature. The rabbit tried to jump away, but fell back with a scream as one leg refused to move. Broken. Xander sat and held himself still as a statue. He’d sit as still as long as needed to put the creature at ease.

 

The sun was just peeking over the horizon and beaming down, burning his skin even through the fur. Not as hot as it would be at midday, but still hot enough for him to notice. He’d been sitting for longer than he realized. He missed the moon, his welcome friend through the night. Skin fiery hot, Xander picked up speed. The taste of sweetbreads teased his tongue, his stomach rumbling at the thought. Heleen always made sure his morning meal was ready and waiting when he returned from nighttime strolls.

He had a more important task today, though. Glancing down, he pulled his arm tighter to his chest, doing his best not to jostle the rabbit. Fatigue struck him as he stepped in a side door, his preferred method of avoiding human contact on his way to his room. The thought of his bed brought another wave of exhaustion. Perhaps he’d nap and then eat, once he’d settled the rabbit in a comfortable place.

He snuck up the hallways by habit, though he doubted the tiptoeing was necessary. He’d not run into anyone else in his halls in 10 years. The servants knew well enough when to stay away. Finally reaching his bedchamber, he slipped inside and sighed, then stopped. Something felt different. There was not the usual warmth or scent of food on its tray. The fireplace was dark and gray, the fire from yesterday evening long having gone out. No food tray was set out. His stomach grumbled just at that moment, reminding him how famished he was, and how exhausted.

What could be more important than this? Than him? He felt selfish even thinking it, but was entitled to some selfishness after such a long night. He tore the blanket off of his bed and threw it on the floor. With a gentler motion, he set the rabbit on top. Still breathing. As he turned to leave, he realized that the notes from the night before were still clutched in his paw. He set them on top of the armoire and left the room, making his way toward the servant’s quarters.

The servant halls were starkly empty, which surprised him, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Heleen kept only a few in employ and they were likely all busy with the day. Still, it added to his sour mood. He didn’t particularly enjoy being gawked at, but needed an explanation.

Rounding a corner, he paused, taken aback at seeing a door ajar. How many times had he been chastised as a child for forgetting to close doors? Heleen was a taskmaster about it. Taking a breath, he pushed the door open and peeked inside. The room was empty, save for a figure lying on the bed, torso covered in medicinal bandages. A head and arms lay atop the blankets, the dark skin a stark contrast against the tan blanket and pillows. A strange woman. She moved slightly in her sleep and he jumped out, shutting the door. Heart pounding, he rushed back down the hall so fast it shocked him.

A stranger in his home. Why was he not informed? Or asked, even. How long had she been here? Days? Weeks?

Perhaps she is an explorer, to help me. No, he brushed the thought away. Heleen had never supported that search, and in twenty years few people had ever come to apply. Besides, the woman would not be exploring much of anything for a while, if her wounds were as severe as the bandages appeared.

Voices sounded far down the hallway.

“She will need more doctoring than we are able here, that’s for certain.”

Xander paused. Another voice replied, and both were swallowed by the manor. He took off at a quick walk, following where he thought the voices were coming from. He came to a standstill in a small common area between several closed bedroom doors. A section of servant’s rooms, perhaps?

Heleen and Tunde stepped out of one of the rooms, then stopped upon seeing Xander standing there.

“What is this?” Xander demanded.

“What is what?” Heleen asked. Xander huffed, angry at having to explain himself.

“The woman!” He shouted. “Why is she here? When did she come?”

“She only just arrived,” Heleen answered. “Late last night while you were out. I did not get a chance to tell you.”

“And my breakfast? There was no fire.” He’d wanted to tell her about the rabbit, to find a healer of animals to assist, to marvel at the hope it brought. But now it seemed not the right time and he was shouting.

“I’m sorry. I’ll have a maid sent up.”

“I want her gone.” He turned and left the room, stomping back to his own. Already he longed to be outside again, exploring the fields and trees and lakes. Stepping inside his doorway, he glanced over at the rumpled notes still sitting on the armoire. Awkward scribbles that nobody would read. Grabbing the papers, he flung them into the dark fireplace. No fire burned there, and the papers just lay on top of last night’s ash, mocking him.

 

“A monster hunter, she said.”

Xander jolted awake at the whispered voice.

“A woman, at that.” Another voice whispered, so low he could barely catch the words. He lay very still, breath at a standstill. The curtains pulled around his bed hid him from view, but he still did not want to risk spooking them. To his dismay, the maids finished and left the room without another word, the door shutting behind them with a soft click.

Monster hunter. The words rang in his head, around and around. She has come for me. Heart pounding, he sat up and tore the curtains open. The fire crackled hungrily, looking for something to devour. Food was laid out on the table, but he could not eat. Not now.

A monster hunter, here. He would stay hidden until she was gone, then. He’d heard tales of such, but never had one come here. Perhaps they’ve heard tales of me. Not unlikely.

He knelt beside the blanket where the rabbit lay. Carefully, he reached out a hand and stroked its back. Cold, and still as stone. His hand recoiled, a sob catching in his throat. She. She had done this. If he’d had more time, if he’d been attended to as he ought.

He pulled the blanket around the rabbit’s still form and stood. The pile was absurdly large, dripping out of his arms and slipping to the floor. He draped half the pile over his left arm and opened the door. This was ridiculous, but he kept on. A bright mid-morning  sun shone through the few windows he passed, reminding him that he’d likely regret this tomorrow. His arms tightened and he looked down at the blanket, only the rabbit’s head peeking out. For today, he would take care of what he ought.

Outside, away from the manor, he stepped into the garden sanctuary. His heart dropped as he stood inside the stone wall. What would once have been a refuge for recovering animals was now little more than a forgotten ruin. Weeds grew in abundance, climbing up the walls and smothering the grass. The walkway stones were barely visible. He sat in the overgrown grass beneath an oak tree, the blanket slipping from his arms to rest on the ground.

His hand dug deep into the weeds, grasping them by the roots and yanking them out. The work came easy to him, a familiar practice. How many years had he neglected this garden? It had been perfect, once, and his joy to maintain. Until…  He ripped out a clump of weeds, heaving it into the tree trunk.

Both hands dug in with a fury, tossing weeds and scooping out dirt. Sweat was dripping into his eyes and his hands ached when he finally stopped and leaned back. He turned to the blanket and wrapped his hands around the rabbit, gingerly lifting it. He laid the creature in the small grave, then moved to scoop the dirt on top. He paused, glancing around, then pulled a cluster of wildflowers from their stems. Laying the flowers atop the rabbit, he sighed, then scraped the dirt pile back in.

 

Without quite realizing how he’d got there, he found himself in front of the door, his hand on the knob. He had not planned to come back to this room, not until she was gone, at least. Yet, here he was. He couldn’t squelch the curiosity. A morbid curiosity, perhaps.

He’d only glanced at the woman for a brief moment before, and not through eyes containing knowledge of what she was. Monster hunter. The words wouldn’t leave him, had been torturing him all day. She hadn’t looked particularly unique when he’d seen her before. But then, she had been unconscious.

With a burst of adrenaline, he twisted the knob and leaned his weight into the door, nearly falling to the floor at the foot of the bed. She lay there, much the same as the first time he’d seen her, but this time her eyes were open and locked onto him. He stood frozen in place, unsure of himself.

“You must be the master.” She said. She moved as though to sit up, but winced and let her body fall back to the bed.

“Are you a monster hunter?” He blurted. She chuckled, grimacing with each heave of her shoulders.

“Have you monsters that need hunting?” she asked.

“No.” He straightened, daring her to disagree. She did not, only looked at him in a curious silence. There was more he wanted to say, questions he’d wanted to ask, but the words would not come. It all seemed foolish now, and he wished again that she had never come.

 

Chapter 3

He’d been running for ages it seemed, barely stopping for a drink or a breath. The Dead Forest was long behind him, and for that, he was grateful. If he’d happened upon a monster, he’d have been much too exhausted to battle. It seemed he was safe for the time being. Nothing but vast, empty land stretched out before him. Mostly dry and dead like the forest had been.

One hand rested on the babe’s back for a brief moment, feeling her body rise and fall with her breaths. A moment longer, little one. Just a moment, he may have stated out loud, were he not in such a hurry.

Finally, just at the top of a rise, he looked down to find a village oasis, a dozen homes pitched around a natural lake. Small, but efficient. This was a young village, most of the homes built from whatever wood was harvestable and covered in pelts and hide. Some only contained a roof and one or two sides. Still, it was full of life. Mothers with babies slung on their backs herding goats, children playing makeshift dice games with stones and twigs, men on camels and horseback bringing in new loads of wood and freshly hunted animals for pelts and meat.

He made his way to the largest makeshift building, which usually indicated the dwelling of the Chieftain. A man sat in front of the doorway, quietly surveying the village. Mardel gave a bow of deference, then a nod as he straightened.

“A blessed hunt you’ve had.”

“I pray you as well.” The man gave a deep nod, but did not stand. “Forgive my impolite greeting, I’ve not the ability to stand at whim.” He waved a hand toward his feet where Mardel noticed for the first time the lack of a left leg, and bandages covering his right. “I am Falak. What brings a monster hunter to our village?”

“I’ve need of a mother’s milk.” Mardel stated, his hands already working hurriedly at the knotted fabric wound around his chest and the new-born. Keeping a tight grip on the babe, he pulled her from his chest and unraveled the fabric. She was a mess, having soiled herself more than once.

“Puta call Dahara.” Falak waved at a woman standing near and she dashed off, returning a few minutes later with a woman who looked of an age with Mardel. She reached out instinctively, taking the new-born from Mardel’s arms and tut-tutting softly.

“When did she last eat?” Dahara asked, barely looking up from the babe’s face.

“She hasn’t.” Mardel replied.

“She needs washed.” Dahara stepped hurriedly away and Mardel bowed to Falak then followed her to the edge of the lake. She glanced at him before taking a rag from her waistband and dipping it in the water.

“She’s in good hands.” She said, without looking up. The babe shifted groggily, then let out a wail.

Mardel nodded, though the woman still had not turned to look. He could not leave the babe without knowing she would live. Dahara scrubbed the last bits of uncleanliness off of the babe, then sat and pulled the new-born up to her chest.

The babe lay at her breast, almost lifeless, though still whimpering from the washing. With some coaxing, the woman roused the babe, wetting her lips with a few drops of milk. The babe twisted her body, turning toward the source of milk. With a few tries she latched on, slurping hungrily. The babe settled in as Dahara began to rock back and forth humming a slumber song.

“She is strong.” Dahara said, glancing up at Mardel. “Like her father.”

“I am not her father.” Mardel said, the words coming out harsher than he intended. Perhaps he was, now. She had no-one else.

“Come, let us eat.”

Mardel turned to find the Chieftain standing behind him with the assistance of a large wooden staff. Mardel nodded, then followed in calm deference, making no move to assist or walk ahead. One painstaking step at a time, they moved to the doorway.

“I was attacked during a hunt, some few months ago.” Falak spoke as they walked. “The beast disappeared as quickly as it had come. Though we’ve searched, we’ve been unable to uncover its lair.” Once inside the tent, he lowered himself to sit on a pile of furs and pillows and gestured for Mardel to do the same. Servants rushed forward with bowls and utensils, then brought out several large bowls of food. Falak filled a bowl and handed it to Mardel. He barely glanced at the dry stew inside before gulping it down.

“I had hope you may be of assistance.” Falak spoke as he filled a bowl for himself and began to eat. “You are a Beast Seeker, are you not? You will stay a few nights?”
“I am afraid I must go. As soon as I can.” It was customary to stay two nights with a welcoming village when traveling, especially when expressly invited, but Mardel could not. Marika was injured and alone. He was too long getting back already.

“But you are not well. When was last you slept?”

Mardel paused his eating for a moment to consider, then shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

“Surely you are in no state for travel. Is someone in danger? Let us assist you.”

Mardel shook his head. He’d stopped fully trusting anyone other than himself and Marika decades ago. He was in no state for unfortunate encounters, but especially not one against three or four if they happened to turn on him.

“Please, at least rest.” Falak pressed, and Mardel conceded. He did want to make sure the babe would be well cared for.

“For a night, if you insist.”

 

Mardel sat up with a jolt, then stood, moving with nothing more than a soft whisper. His scythe was still in hand, as he always slept. There had not been much sleep this night. Stepping out of the tent, he let out the breath he was holding. They’d think him rude for not staying to morning, but he could spare no more time.

With a quick survey, he determined his path was clear. Everyone here slept peacefully, unaware of his leaving. Moving at a brisk walk, he made his way through the village. He stepped too close to an animal enclosure and a goat bleated and took off at a run, waking several others who followed in the dash around their pen.

Mardel picked up his pace, quickening to a jog as soon as he’d passed the last home. No voices followed him out, and he looked ahead, settling into the run. I am coming, Marika.

He couldn’t quite remember how long the first run had been, but this time it seemed even longer. His hand moved to feel the babe’s back before he realized that he’d left her behind. A pang of disappointment hit him, though he should have been relieved.

Do not take Marika from me! He did not know who he was speaking to, he was no zealot. Still, he would plead to any who might listen. Marika, his only sibling, his closest friend.

He was wheezing, but he picked up pace. Everything around him was a blur, dust, trees, half dead plants all whirling past him as one. Not much longer. Don’t stop. Don’t pause. He ran the words again and again through his mind. Not much longer. Don’t stop. Don’t pause. One more step. Just one more step and he’d be there. Though that one step stretched on and on and on, for each one, he believed it.

 

Chapter 4

Xander woke with a start, back aching and right hand burning in excruciating pain. He rolled into the shade, but it was too late, his hand and forearm had been sitting in the sun for who knows how long. Cradling his arm to his chest, he sat up, squinting against the sunlight. He must have dozed off last night. What time was it?

A wave of needles traveled down his hand and arm, landing in his belly and he leaned over to retch. He hadn’t eaten in a full day and a half, and nothing came out, though he heaved more than once. With a sigh, he sat back, leaning heavily into a tree. Peeking with one eye, he attempted to mentally prepare himself for the trip back to the manor.

Why didn’t he ever prepare for this situation? It happened so infrequently that he never thought to bring some sort of blanket or other large covering to shade himself while he walked back to the manor. Once should have been enough to make him remember, and this was the third time in the last month.

Perhaps he could just stay here until evening. Seven hours? Five? He couldn’t tell the sun’s position from where he sat, but there were definitely some hours left in the day. Too many to wait out on an empty stomach.

Xander stood, pulling a leafy branch from the nearest tree. Imperfect, but it would have to do. Holding the branch over his right arm, he moved through the trees, hoping to get as close as possible to the manor before having to get into the sunlight. It didn’t matter, really. It was a long walk no matter where he started from. Still, he sized up the challenge, prepping himself.

His skin suddenly prickled and he instinctively dodged to the side and whipped around to find a strange man swinging an oversized scythe at the spot he’d just been standing. The man stumbled with the momentum of the swing, but found his feet and swung again. Xander jumped backward, moving toward the manor. The man’s swings were slow, easy to dodge. Lucky. Lucky this man was off his game.

“What do you want?” Xander shouted, putting his hands up in a symbol of deference. The man paused, eyes widened in shock. He’d likely never encountered a talking beast before.

“Where is she?” the man shouted back, raising the scythe with both hands, ready to swing.

“Who do you mean?” Xander forcibly lowered his voice, attempting to reduce the inherent intimidation of his form. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He dropped his hands to his sides and stood perfectly still.

The man lowered the scythe, but did not put it away. “My sister. Take me to her.”

He stood still, mind not really connecting. Why would he know anything of this strange man’s sister? With a jolt, he remembered the woman. Nobody had told him she had a brother who would be returning to her.

Xander nodded. “I will take you to her.” He stepped away, praying the man would keep a safe distance. He could not fully blame the man for his fear – not many could fathom a monster who could speak. A beast who was no true beast at all. Only a man.

He walked at a brisk pace to bring the man to his sister as quickly as possible without appearing to be running away. The manor came in view, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the man jump forward again, scythe swinging. Xander dropped, then rolled to the side. He leapt up and swung a fist out of instinct, connecting with the back of the man’s head. The man fell to the ground, unconscious.

He stood for a long moment in the burning sun, staring down at the man, unsure what to do. This man obviously had not the scruples of his sister to recognize that though he looked a type of monster, he intended no harm. He’ll kill you if he stays. Xander took a deep breath, then blew it out. He could take the man away, back to the forest. He looked backward, the tree line seeming so far away. He’d been in the sun for too long already. Tonight. He would do it tonight.

 

Moonlight filtered through dead branches, lighting a faint path through the once-glorious forest. Before, he wouldn’t have been able to navigate his way through the near-pitch darkness, with only the moon his halfhearted guide. Now it was easy as a midafternoon stroll. He moved swift, silent; he did not want to be out of the Protection for long. The horse he led let out a soft whinny, but did not otherwise break the silence. Thankfully, his prisoner did not, either.

Xander had not left the Protection since it was instated when he was a boy, but he remembered traveling through the lush forest with his parents. The happy memories. Pieces and snippets and half-remembered moments flooded his memory. They floated by, stabbing his consciousness, but refusing to be grasped. Suppressed so long that they were no longer easy to recall.

He let out a heavy breath and shook himself, forcing his eyes and mind to focus on the nearest tree, then the next one. As he walked and saw – truly saw – the state of the forest, disbelief and helplessness plagued him. This was another type of sadness. The forest he remembered was unrecognizable now, nothing more than blackened tree stumps and dust. He’d heard whispers and servant’s gossip about the great burning, the dragon’s disappearance, but he’d never seen it until now. The devastation. The loss of so much vitality and beauty.

A slight breeze ruffled through his fur and he shivered. A hawk screeched in the sky, ringing in his ears cruel, cruel, cruel. He shook his head with a fury, though to whom he did not know. Were it cruel, it was too late to turn back now. First trussing him like an animal and locking him inside the garden, and now leaving him deep in the forest. He would kill me, I have no choice.

Would she ask about her brother? She should know that he was well and had come back for her, but Xander could not face her with such news, when he’d have to explain why her brother could not come back. I will not see her. She need only know he didn’t come.

The trees thinned, gradually giving way to what he remembered as hill country, but only appearing as slight shapes in the moonlight. Xander stopped and threw the reins loosely around a branch. Whatever the man may think, he was not sadistic. Xander would not leave him tied like a stuck pig this close to monster hideaways. Though if the tales were true, most everywhere was close to monster hideaways these days.

Xander pulled a knife from the pouch at his side, bouncing it in his hand for a moment. “A knife.” His voice sounded odd in the silence. Unnatural. “She will not be harmed, and will leave as soon as she is well enough to travel.” I didn’t ask for her to stay, I don’t want her in my home, he wanted to say, but instead just dropped the knife on the ground beside the horse and turned back to the trees.

“Coward!” The man shouted from behind him, just before landing on the ground with a thud as he maneuvered off of the horse’s back. Xander began to lope away, the sound of the man scrambling for the knife fading behind him. Once he reached the threshold of his estate, he’d be safe. Why had he come so far? He should have left the man somewhere in the forest, just a short distance outside the Protection.

The night air whipped past him as he wove in and out of the trees, leapt over fallen logs, paused for a brief second as his feet touched the ground again. Were it daytime, he may have stopped for a short time, examined the forest as it now stood. He had not seen it since the burning, and his own estate had not been touched because of the Protection. Still, he’d not expected it to have remained so… dead. How long had it been now? Years. Decades.

He ran faster, away from those thoughts. Away from… them. Away from abandonment.

A low beat sounded behind him as he ran, just a whisper in the dark. It sounded again, then again, faint at first, but getting louder every minute. Wings, if he were to be any judge. Xander paused for a second and glanced behind him, scanned the night sky. Nothing. Turning back around, he broke into a full speed run.

The wing beats sounded still, in between the ringing in his ears. Dust whipped up, caught in his throat, but he didn’t slow. Surely the winged beast would be upon him before he was safe at his home again. Just as the fear began to creep through his body, he saw the hedge marking the edge of his manor.

He did not stop, did not risk a glance behind. On he ran. Faster. The beast was close, its presence burning hot on Xander’s neck. His breath grew ragged, pained, but the adrenaline kept him moving. Then the hedge was just before him, twenty feet, ten feet, five feet. A whoosh of air engulfed him as the beast flew close, and Xander leapt forward, over the hedge and landed with a crash on the other side.

With a groan, he rolled to his side and sat up. Only one creature he knew of was large enough to cause such a wind. He stood, unsteady on his feet, and turned around, both afraid and eager to see if he was correct.

The dragon was gliding away, having found no space to land in the forest. It took a wide turn and headed back toward Xander. He stepped back, almost tripping on nothing, breaths slow and not quite reaching the back of his throat. The creature somehow seemed twice as large as ones he’d seen during his childhood.

The dragon flew toward him, staying close to the top of the trees. He’d never really seen the Protection in action before. What if it doesn’t work? The question tickled the back of his mind, but he did not move.

As it neared the clearing where Xander stood, the dragon dove, directly at him. Instead of landing on top of him as one might have expected, the dragon tumbled down an invisible wall and landed on the ground just beyond the hedge. Xander’s heart sank. He’d almost hoped the Protection wouldn’t keep the beast out, but should have known better. They still mean me harm.

Picking itself off of the ground, the dragon moved forward, but could not cross over the hedge. Once, twice, three times the dragon thrust itself forward, but the protection held fast. The dragon leaned back and roared, long and angry, muffled by the Protection. With a shake of its head, the dragon turned and scrambled up the trunk of a tree, cutting out chunks of bark with its claws. As it leapt upward, broken branches and leaves fell like a rain shower, littering the ground below.  With one last look at Xander, the beast leapt to the top branches, spread its wings above the treetops, and took flight.

A gust of wind hit Xander where he stood as the dragon flew away. He stood fast, taking in the glorious and terrifying feeling. He’d never seen one so close before. He watched as the dragon got smaller and smaller in the sky, finally swallowed up by treetops. One thing stuck in his mind long after the dragon was gone.

The dragon had no rider.

 

Chapter 5

The tree fell with a crash, split cleanly in two by his scythe. It would dull the blade, but he didn’t care. The forest was dead, gone. Who cared for a few blackened tree stumps? He felled another tree, and another, swinging with wild abandon. Nobody would count the dead trees.

Mardel slowed, paused to catch his breath. Dirt and ash swirled in his nose, sweat trickled down his back. She’s gone. The thought hit him in the gut, and he swung his scythe again, once, twice, chopping down the largest tree yet. Not if I have a say.

He’d searched for hours last night, riding crazily through the forest, before exhaustion took over and he had to stop to fall into a fitful sleep. He’d stumbled upon the man-beast’s home by accident the first time, but could not find it again. Turning, he looked out over the destruction he’d wreaked. The dust settled, a soft rain over the felled trees.

“There are better ways.”

Mardel jumped at the voice and whipped around, scythe ready in the case he had woken a beast. Another speaking beast. Who had heard of such a thing?

It was no beast, however, only a man older than the forest itself standing some feet away. He leaned over a twisted cane, the support necessary for his frail body. Tattered robes dangled from shoulder to feet, loosely tied in the middle with a braided rope. His skin hung in wrinkles upon wrinkles, many shades lighter than Mardel’s own. Perhaps from the Stranji peoples, though he had not the eyes of a Stranjian.

“What do you mean?” Mardel demanded, raising his scythe just a bit. He had no patience for folly, and certainly not now. “Better ways of cutting the dead forest?”

The man shook his head and smiled, as though sorry for Mardel’s ignorance. “Of rescuing your sister, of course.” With another shake of his head, the man turned and shuffled away.

Mardel stood in a stunned silence, expecting the man to turn back around and explain, but he did not stop.

“Halt!” Mardel started after him. “How did you know, and what did you mean?”

“Know what?” The stranger stopped and turned, smirking now. “You must be more specific.”

Mardel bit his tongue so as not to reply scornfully. He started slow, controlling his tone. “That my sister needs rescuing. Do you know her? Were you following us?”

“I do not. Never met the woman. Delicate and charming, I presume.”

Mardel chuckled at that. Delicate was not a word he’d ever heard used to describe Marika. “Certainly, you have never met her. The man-beast, then.” Mardel tightened his grip on the scythe at the realization and raised it to his chest. “You mean to trap me.”

The old man laughed and opened his arms to show deference, then coughed, the hack shaking his entire body. “Once, perhaps, I could have made such a plan.” He wheezed, then sighed. A sadness overtook him, betrayed in his eyes. “Alas, I have not the strength anymore. Come take a rest with me.”

Mardel almost laughed at the old language, but decided against it, on the off chance the old man truly was dangerous. He paused for a moment, considering the potential risks of following the man to his home, then took off after him, each step an argument in his mind. If the man is of the Stranji, his frail state may simply be a ruse. Stranjians are said to be great warriors. Not that Mardel had ever met a Stranjian. They had fallen out of good relations with Mardel’s people many years ago and rarely mingled now. On the other hand, the man is quite old, and even if he had been a warrior once, would be no match to me.

Mardel studied the man as they walked, looking for breaks in performance, for signs of hidden strength. The man’s walking pattern did not change, and stayed a painstakingly slow pace through the forest. Either he was a proficient actor, or truly had none of his youthful strength left. He led Mardel across a riverbed where only a small stream remained, through trees gradually growing a little thicker and greener, up a hilly incline, stopping before quite reaching the top.

 

The hillside was more alive in plant life than the majority of the forest, but still dry, as though the plants and trees were sucking every last drop of moisture from the air and ground. Nothing like the ridiculous greenery of the man-beast’s home. The man pulled some overhanging leaves to the side and ducked into a cave.

Mardel stood outside for a moment, bouncing the scythe lightly in his hands. Most beasts lived in caverns below ground, winter and summer monsters both. But for Marika…

With a growl, Mardel raised the scythe to a defensive pose and pushed his way through the overhang. Holding the weapon in one hand, he felt with the other for a wall, then leaned against it as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Lanterns flickered as the man lit them, lining the left side of the room. A cluttered table sprung out of the stone in the center of the room, several wooden chairs placed haphazardly around. Small alcoves were carved into the wall and filled with books, vials, loose papers, and a dozen other items Mardel couldn’t identify in the dim light.

“Sit, if you have a care.” The old man turned from the last lantern and gestured to the chairs.

“I’ll stand.” Mardel replied, carefully inspecting the wall for cracks and hidden openings before turning his back to it and facing the old man. “What is your name?” He demanded.

The man lit a few candles on the table and sat down. “Supraevi.” He stated, as he picked through the piles of papers on the table, opening and closing them, tossing them to the side when finished. Finally, he settled on one and pushed aside the clutter before setting it flat on the table and smoothing the wrinkles. Folding his hands, he looked up. “And your name?”

“I thought you should know, since you knew everything else already.”

Supraevi shook his head. “I have been keeping watch over Xander for some time now. An enchanter cannot know everything, however.”

“But…” Mardel started, but couldn’t finish. He’d have stated enchanters did not age, but the man would obviously have rebutted him. If there’s one thing more dangerous than a ravenous beast, it is an enchanter, so his parents had always said. “Never trust someone who can destroy you with a word,” they’d cautioned. One of the useful bits they’d infused in his psyche.

He had been a fool to trust this man. Without a word, he turned and left the cave, breaking into a run once he’d stepped into the sunlight. He expected to be stopped any moment, to look down and find his legs stiff as tree trunks, or the ground a cavern for him to fall into. No such calamities befell him, and so he ran, and ran, and ran. He realized he’d left the horse behind, but counted it lost.

He’d find another way to free his sister. There must be another way.

 

The Dead Forest was much larger than he’d first considered, or so it seemed. Mardel had been traveling through for a day and night and was getting nowhere. Usually, he was adept at following the sun and stars, but the forest had a way of turning him around, confusing his directions. He’d been walking strictly in an easterly direction, but he hadn’t reached the edge of the trees. Not even come close.

There was no sign of the man-beast’s home, or the enchanter he’d run from. He stopped and turned a slow circle, each direction looking equally the same as the one before. Blackened tree trunks, slivers of yellow weeds growing in patches, dirt everywhere. An abysmal sight.

Dragons had burned the forest and a good part of the land surrounding during the Sentinel War some twenty years ago. Mardel had never seen one, or even a hint of one, particularly because they had disappeared immediately after. He doubted their existence, at times – how could one hide such a large population of massive creatures? – but seeing such destruction by fire, he could believe it.

Finishing his turn, he aimed himself south. Perhaps he could find his way out in that direction. It would need to be soon, food and water in the Dead Forest were sparse, and he was nearly out already.

The back of his neck prickled and he gripped the scythe just a little tighter. Something was behind him. Bringing the scythe up in one quick motion, he spun around to face a Scorpios.

“Oh, gods.” He uttered, unwittingly. Time seemed to slow as he looked over the creature. He’d never even heard tales of real encounters with scorpii, and never one so large.

It was monstrous. Four feet tall at the least, and a tail stretched out over the creature’s head, stingers at the ready. Long claws snapped at him and he rolled out of the way, jumping up and skipping backward. The scorpios’ many legs moved equally as quick, following after him. They danced, Mardel swinging the scythe and the scorpios whipping tail and claws out of the way, then striking toward him in a perceived open spot.

Mardel darted through the trees, forcing the scorpios to circle around when it could not go between. In a moment of chance, he bent to retrieve the small dagger from his belt. As he glanced down, a sharp pain struck his arm and he wrenched it away, but too late. The scorpios’ tail retracted, dripping with his blood. Mardel threw the dagger, but it merely bounced off of its thick skin.

Grasping the wound on his arm with his left hand, he took off in a run in the most uphill direction. Distance. He needed to get as much distance between him and the scorpios as possible. He slipped, but did not fall. Leapt over tree trunks. Zig zagged through as many tight tree stands as crossed his path. Finally, he stopped and swung around, slicing his scythe through the air as though it was the scorpios’ head.

The tip of the scorpios’ tail flew to the left and landed in the dirt with a cloud of dust, the two stingers twitching. The creature shrunk back in pain, then jumped forward, snapping its claws with a vengeance. Mardel slipped to the side, swinging the scythe in exhausted desperation. He nicked the claws here and there, but couldn’t connect. Finally, he wound up his energy and aimed for the center, his scythe lodging deep within the creature’s head.

The scorpios screamed and fell. Several spasms ran through its body, then it was still. Mardel dropped to his knees from where he stood, the adrenaline having run its course and leaving only pain and fatigue. He sat, breathing the dust-filled air, grateful it was over.

It was so different without Marika. Monsters of all varieties seemed to replicate at immense speeds. He and Marika were some of the few attempting to quell the flood. Now… gone. No! He pounded his fist into a tree trunk. An unexpected pain shot from where he’d been stung, so violent he dropped to his knees and gripped the wound as though to stop the pain through sheer willpower.

Mardel sat, inspecting his right arm. Blood covered the arm, seeping out of the hole the scorpios had left. He had nothing to wrap it in, so he pressed his hand to the wound again, wincing at the pain shooting from shoulder to fingertip.

Poison. He’d been bitten and stung before by venomous beasts, this would be no different. Find a Crone’s Finger tree, wrap the leaves tightly against the wound. He’d done the same many times before, though he hadn’t come across any Crone’s Fingers in this forest. I’ll find one. Soon. He needed to wrap it soon.

He stood, unsteady on his feet. Leaning on a tree, he took a gulp of air then let it out in a slow breath, attempting to calm his racing heart and pounding head. It didn’t work. Forcing one foot out, he took a step, then another, and another.

The forest was darker than it should be in the late afternoon, and he didn’t recall sundown. Monstrous beasts seemed to be watching him from every shadow. Eyes, so many eyes. Each one boring into him, just waiting for him to stumble so they could pounce.

His own eyelids kept slipping down without warning. So heavy. Yet he walked. The ground shifted and he missed a step, losing his balance and landing hard on his knee. No fear. You must show no fear.

With a groan, he stood back up. He must continue walking. As his eyes scanned the trees ahead, a small bush covered in spiny yellow flowers caught his eye. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Still, there it sat, waiting for him. The pounding in his head had intensified, pulsating with every beat of his heart. He started to run, though it felt more like dragging himself through a sea of quicksand, his body weight sending a heavy jolt down his leg with each step.

Closer. Two more steps, he told himself. Just two more, after he’d gone those two, then two more again. His feet bumped against each other and he fell, crashing face first into the ground. No, I must keep going! The beasts would be out in full force now. He tried to stand, but could not move more than a slight roll. Panting, he scraped at his back for the scythe. His fingers brushed the handle, but couldn’t reach far enough to grip.

Unwittingly, his eyelids shut and he slipped into the dark.

 

“I’ll never eat at an enchanter’s table!” His voice rang out viciously, cutting through the darkness.

“Sure you will.” Another voice rang out, laughing. “I’ll make you.” Then laughed and laughed and laughed.

He tried to get up, to cover his ears. Invisible constraints kept him in place, a prisoner of his own skin and bone. Then came the pain. Searing, white hot fury tearing through his veins. Ten thousand needles assaulting every inch of his body. He screamed, but no sound came out. All he could hear was the laughter, grating, sinking the needles deeper in his skin.

“Stop!” He blubbered, crying now.

“Stop!” The shout rang in his ears and throat. Mardel opened his eyes to find only a dark stone ceiling above him. It was just the dream. It had been a long while since he’d last suffered through it.

“Do you like rabbit?”

Mardel’s head whipped to the side, then his whole body jerked back as though in slow motion. The old enchanter stood by the fireplace, a bowl of stew in hand. Mardel’s stomach howled, but he shook his head and tried to move. “No.” The word felt heavy in his mouth, not fitting quite right as he pushed it out. He attempted to roll on his side to sit up, but his limbs would not cooperate. His body was heavy and half numb.

“What have you done to me?” Heart pounding faster every second, he tried to scoot away from the enchanter, but his body was a lifeless log. Immovable.

“Saved your life.” The enchanter chuckled. “The Scorpios’ venom immobilizes its prey. You’ll be numb for another few hours at least. You need to eat.”

“No!” Mardel thundered. “Let me go.”

“You are free to go.” The enchanter waved toward the unblocked doorway. “You will have difficulty moving until the venom has been neutralized.” Accepting Mardel would not take the bowl, the enchanter began to eat it himself, watching Mardel with what seemed a sly amusement.

Mardel tried to stand again, but had not the strength to even sit upright. “What do you want with me?” He relaxed, panting. Not once did he take his eyes off of the enchanter.

“To help you find the enchantress you seek.” The old enchanter shuffled out of view and Mardel heard what sounded like a search through a great mess of papers. “Once your strength has returned, you will need some assistance for your journey to the Illusive Mountain.”

Illusive Mountain. His heartbeat quickened and he swallowed in an attempt to whet his suddenly dry mouth. He wasn’t quite sure if it was fear or an eager anticipation. Perhaps both. Why would he assume I’d seek out a mage of any kind? “What enchantress?” He blurted out.

“The same who set a curse on your sister’s captor, making him a beast.” The enchanter came back into view, a map in hand.

“He was… a man?” Mardel examined his face to see if the old enchanter jested, horrified at the prospect of losing one’s humanity in such a way. There was no laugh in his eyes.

“Is a man still, beneath the skin.” The enchanter set the map on a chair beside the fireplace and began to rummage through the alcoves on a far wall.

Mardel turned his eyes to his lifeless limbs. Move! He silently commanded, attempting to lift an arm or a leg. The best he could muster was turning his feet in a slow circle, and raising his arms a bit above his body. Not enough strength to get up from where he lay. He laid back and closed his eyes. If the enchanter wanted him dead, surely he’d have had the opportunity by now. Perhaps he wants more than that. Some used to… experiment.

Heart pounding, he lay for what seemed an eternity, eyes closed. He forced himself to breathe low and shallow, ears pricked to the minute sounds around him. Papers shuffling on the table, the clink of small jars jostling against each other, the soft crackle of the fireplace. With every breath he willed his limbs to move, begged them to comply. A leg shifted, fingers tapped, a hand raised slightly. Small victories. Not nearly enough.

 

Chapter 6

He’d been pacing in front of the library all night. He hadn’t been inside, or even in this part of the manor in nearly two decades, not since the night he came back from a year in solitude. The first year he’d spent as a cursed man. It was too painful, even now.

Standing still, he took in the massive double doors. The wood was varnished and shone in the lantern’s light. Dancing fairy folk jumped off of the oak, surrounded by dips and swirls, almost mesmerizing in its ornate beauty. He had never truly looked at the door, explored its secrets. Perhaps it held many, as most parts of this home did.

He took a deep breath, choking back a sob. Why am I here? What am I hoping to find? Possibly nothing at all. He knew he couldn’t really read with his hands in their current state. He couldn’t just let it sit, though. Surely, his massive library held some information about the Sentinel.

Sighing, he leaned his head against the door, then opened it and stepped inside. The room was shrouded in darkness, save for a light burning at the far end, just beyond the edge of a bookshelf. He moved carefully through the room, barely glancing at the bookshelves in his trek to the other light. Who would be in the library at this hour? He had never ruled that the servants could not read the books here, but still felt a possessive indignation. This had been his hideaway, once. After abandonment, he’d sought peace wherever it could be found, and this was the only place that had brought true solitude. Until the enchantress.

He rounded the corner and almost dropped the lantern. The woman sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, surrounded by a haphazard pile of books. She startled, almost jumping as she looked up from the book she was reading to find him standing there.

“I’m sorry.” She said, looking back down to scan the page and flip past it.

“Shouldn’t you…” he didn’t know what to say. “Don’t you need to rest?”

She sighed. “I can’t.” She looked up again, eyes glimmering in excitement. “You saw the dragon? I just caught it flying away.”

“I…” He couldn’t speak. Even after all these years, he could not talk of dragons for fear his emotions would overwhelm him. He stood there in a stunned silence as she moved painstakingly slow to stand, not well able to hide the agony it caused her. It was not until after she stood, leaning against the wall, that he realized he ought to have offered assistance.

She stood in trousers and a loose shirt, book still in hand. “I will go.” She said.

“You don’t…” He trailed off, trying to finish his thought but not able to grasp it. Trousers were not usual clothes for women. He’d only met one other who wore them. Taking a deep breath, he whipped around and ran away. Through the library, out the door, down the hallway. You cannot just leave her. He slowed, then stopped. The pounding of his heart rang out in the silence. He bent, hands on his knees, drawing in deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.

He straightened and started back the way he came. Standing before the library doors, he took a deep breath in an attempt to flush out the embarrassment, but it would not go. He pushed the door open to find the woman still halfway across the room, taking painstakingly slow steps.

With a sigh, he strode to her and held out a hand. “Stop, please.” She stood still, slightly hunched in favor of her left shoulder. “You will injure yourself further.” He stated. They could not walk back to her quarters together, she should not be walking at all.

Without thinking, he swooped her up to carry. She looked at him in shock, but did not protest. You ought to have asked. “I’m sorry.” He blurted. “I will carry you.” Still not the question, but it would have to do.

“Thank you.” She nodded, holding the lantern out with her right hand to light their path. She was easy to carry, though solid of body. Anyone trained in fighting monsters surely must have amassed muscles to do the work well.

Perhaps he was stronger as well. He’d never carried anyone before, so he did not have much to compare it to. I’ve fought a monster or two. A while ago, nothing worth mentioning to this woman. She’d laugh at his overstated valor. He had nothing to impress her. Why should I want to? She would be leaving as soon as she was well enough. And should.

He thought of her brother, left in the forest. Not defenseless, but unassisted. Breathing a sigh of relief, he pushed open the door to her chambers and set her carefully on the bed. She handed him the lantern and hugged the book to her chest. He turned to set the light on the table by the door. The fire inside flickered, putting him in a trance for a moment, watching the light and shadows dance on the wall.

It reminded her of fairy folk, she’d always said, holding him in her lap and weaving tales of battles and love, family and tragedy. “Yet the fire always dances,” she’d say. “Always dancing.” Then she’d squeeze him in a hug and kiss his head. Lies. With a shake of his head, he took a breath and blew out the light, plunging the room into darkness.

 

He woke with a start, morning light spilling across the floor, his legs directly in the path. With a yelp, he jumped out of the chair and moved away from the window. The room looked odd, and he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why, until his eyes caught on the disheveled bed and he realized he had not woken in his own bedchamber. After blowing out the candle, he recalled stepping to the window and looking out. No dragon flew by, though he wasn’t quite expecting one to, and he’d sat in the chair for just a moment.

The bedchamber door opened and a servant girl stepped in, nearly jumping in surprise at seeing Xander there, sending the breakfast tray clattering to the floor.

“Pardon, my lord.” She knelt and hastily gathered up the ruined food and dirtied utensils. With a quick bow, she fled the room in mortification. He looked to the bed to see the woman’s reaction and realized for the first time that it was empty.

Shaking out of his grogginess, his mind kicked into gear. Should he check the library first? Where else could she have gone? It was easy to get turned around and lost in the manor. He’d never understood why his parents wanted such an obscenely large home.

Finding himself in front of the library once more, he pushed the door and looked inside. It seemed still as a tomb. Sighing, he shut the door and stood, awkwardly turning this way and that. Why must she be determined to heal as slowly as possible?

He began walking, though without any particular location in mind. Toward the general direction of the room she was supposed to be sleeping in, though he could easily make a few turns and end up in the kitchen. He stopped in front of the bedchamber, not quite sure when he’d solidly decided to. He swallowed, attempting to push down the timidity threatening to take control, and feeling idiotic that he had no real control over his own home.

She needs healing. With a sigh, he knocked, attempting to pull back his frustration so it wouldn’t show.

“Come in.” A female voice, though he couldn’t be sure if it was the woman or perhaps one of the maids. With a deep breath, he stepped inside.

She sat up, cushions propping her up on the bed, a plate of coconut and banana bread in hand as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Perhaps nothing was, for her. He shifted uncomfortably, trying to hold her gaze, but her eyes bored through him.

“You…” he cleared his throat, closing his eyes for a moment to gather himself. “You will injure yourself walking all over my home.” He paused, then asked the question he was half certain he knew the answer to, “what are you looking for?”

“Dragons.” She set the plate down and looked toward the window, eyes brimming with intrigue. “My brother has no interest. He doesn’t really believe any are still alive.” She shrugged and looked back to Xander. “I know he will return soon, and would not want me to waste my time looking for information on where they may be located. I must find them. I must find the Sentinel.”

He wanted to ask why she so desperately sought this information, but his throat closed on him, invisible fingers sealing it shut, stealing his air. His heart thumped so fast and violently he could see it reverberating through his chest out of the corner of his eyes.

“No!” He found his voice again, quite loudly. “It’s private. My home, my books, it’s not here for intrusion.”

She seemed taken aback by his sudden outburst. Silent. Fearful? In that moment, he half hoped so, though he knew he would regret it later. She coughed, then spoke in an angrily frustrated tone.

“I’m sorry. I must find the Sentinel.”

“You may stay here to recuperate, but keep out of the library and other rooms you haven’t permission to enter.”

With that, he hurtled out of the room, unsure if he’d shut the door behind him, but unwilling to look back. The sooner she was healed and gone, the better.