Nightmare Chapter 5

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 5 (of 6)

Read – Chapter 1Chapter 2 – Chapter 3 – Chapter 4

“Looks like the whole town is running away with their plunder.”

Sevris handed the bronze telescope to his decnar, Joah, who twisted the cylinders, adjusting the focus so he could watch the Breakwall docks on the far side of the river. At least a hundred men, women, and children formed a line – a surprisingly well-mannered line – from the town to the main pier. Each one loaded crates or sacks or chests onto a waiting merchant ship, already sitting low in the water from excess weight. Four boats had already been filled to the brim and set off down river, to a destination Sevris could only guess at. Another five ships waited in line behind the current one. A few he even recognized from the regular stops they made here.

“Can you tell what they’re taking?” Sevris asked. He and Joah stood at the top of Barrow Rise, a tall, tree-covered hill on the west side of the Vitrix River. He kept men here daily, as it provided the best vantage point over Breakwall.

“We’re too far away,” Joah said, scratching the thin beard that covered his square jaw. “But if we’re to attack, then we should do it now, while they’re all distracted with their thieving.”

Sevris took the telescope and looked again, squeezing the focus as tight as he could on one of the men carrying a small chest. He recognized it as an old Anduain treasure box kept by Lord Morgantin. An oak chest, with carvings of birds on the side and a wide tree on the front. It sat on a thin table pushed up against the wall of Lord Morgantin’s chambers, and it held a collection of pocket watches the lord had collected from far away cities.

He looked away, tired of watching an army of refugees looting every last scrap of worth from Breakwall Castle. He understood his men’s zeal for combat. They wanted to fight for their home, and consign these thieves to the justice they so richly deserved. But they were horribly outnumbered, they would be fighting against some of their own kin, and any attack they ventured would either fail, or turn them into wanted men throughout the kingdom, instead of just Breakwall.

So instead they sat here, trapped in the woods on the wrong side of the river, watching helplessly as their home was ransacked.

“Not yet. We’d die on the steps of the castle, surrounded by two hundred of those scum.”

Joah turned back to the river. He said nothing, but there was no mistaking the disappointment on his decnar’s face.

Footsteps crunched on the ground behind them. Sevris turned to see two of his soldiers, Orik and Pait, approaching through the forest’s underbrush.

“Sir,” Orik said with a wave of his hand. “Got some visitors down in the Barrow. The sentinel, Gunnar, and some pretty blonde little thing. They asked for you soon as they showed up.”

“Gunnar?” Sevris repeated, a flitter of excitement in his belly. “He’s here?”

“Aye.” Orik dropped a small pack on the ground, provisions for him and Pait while they scouted Breakwall during the night. “Says it’s important, too.”

Sevris turned to Joah, who raised an eyebrow.

“Guess the old man finally came up for air.”

Sevris nodded. He hadn’t expected to see Gunnar again. At least not alive. If the crafty old sentinel had managed to survive the chaos of the last few weeks, then he could prove useful to Sevris’s band of outlaws. He tossed the telescope to Orik, who caught it easily, then motioned to Joah.

“Let’s go see what he wants.”

 

*

 

A bundle of thick vines covered the narrow cave entrance leading to their hideout, making it hard to spot if you weren’t looking for it, especially in the darkness under the forest canopy. Sevris pushed the vines out of the way and slid sideways into the opening, which wasn’t much more than a large crack in the side of the hill. A short, jagged tunnel edged downward, eventually depositing him and Joah into a small room with carved walls and a broken stone slab lying on the floor. He walked through an opening on the far side and into the passageway leading to his new home these days, a place he feared was all too fitting for him.

Barrow Rise got its name from a series of catacombs built beneath it called Eldritch Barrow. It was carved out by Anduains long ago, in the centuries before the Thandarans even had this island on their maps. The Barrow’s crypts had been looted and desecrated by those same Thandarans, leaving it nothing more than a collection of moss and vine-covered passageways, with depressions in the walls where bodies had once been interred. Stories were told to this day of the ghosts and spirits that wandered the tunnels of the Barrow, seeking vengeance for the disturbance. Not that Sevris paid them any mind. Unfortunately, some of his men did, which made for some harsh convincing when Sevris decided to make the Barrow their new home.

Sevris and Joah walked through the darkened passage, heading for the faint light at the end of the hall. He turned the corner, finding a modestly sized room filled with blankets, packs, armor, and food, along with two dozen of his men, each looking somewhat haggard and dirty. Sitting at the side, in stark contrast to the dirt-covered soldiers, was a young girl with gleaming blond hair, wearing the brown Resurrectionist robes of a war priest, along with white-haired old Gunnar, his lord’s sentinel, sporting his typical gray robes.

The priest turned and smiled at the sight of a familiar face.

“Aron Sevris,” Gunnar said. He stood and reached out a hand as they approached. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”

“You as well, Gunnar Baelson.” They shook. The girl stood up and glanced at Joah before looking away and brushing the dirt from her robes. “I have to say, I’m surprised to see you.”

“Sober,” Joah whispered from behind.

Gunnar’s smile faded at the comment. “I’ve been away for too long. I apologize for that. But I do have a reason for leaving, one that I hope to explain to you now.” He glanced at the other soldiers nearby. “Preferably in private.”

Sevris crossed his arms. “My men can be trusted.”

Gunnar nodded, then leaned in to whisper. “This isn’t about trust, I’m afraid.”

Sevris frowned at his friend. “Explain.”

“I only ask because what I have to say might be unsettling.  If you want your men to hear it, then I’d suggest you listen to what my friend Alayna and I have to say first, and then you can choose what to relay to your men. Issues of morale and all that.”

Sevris furrowed his brow. He thought to argue, but the serious look on the sentinel’s face warned him otherwise. He sighed and then motioned Gunnar and the girl to follow him around the corner.

“Speak,” he said, once they were alone.

“You remember Alayna? A former student of mine?”

“The dock master’s daughter,” he said to the girl, who blushed.

“Centnar.” She bowed her head.

“We think we know what’s happening in Breakwall. And,” Gunnar held up a finger to emphasize his point, “we think we know how to stop it.”

“Go on.”

Gunner turned to Alayna. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning. That will make this easier, I think.”

She nodded, then swallowed.

“I was assigned to the Esteran Army, under Lord Rondell. We were sent to the Endless Caves, in the Red Hills, to search for enemies that might be hiding there. I was part of a patrol scouting the caves ahead of the army when these strange creatures attacked us. They used magic to put us into dreams, all of us. At least ten of us were completely overtaken in one fell swoop.”

Sevris felt the hairs on his neck stand up. Was this some new Anduain magic he hadn’t heard of?

“When I woke from the dream, I was standing outside the caves, in a field not far from Trenant. I ran to a nearby village–”

“Tell him about the dream,” Gunnar said, nudging her shoulder.

Alayna nodded. “Yes, of course. When I was in that dream, something… spoke to me. Some demon who was testing my will, to see if it could control me. It saw everything in my mind, my training, my childhood, my parents, the castle. It tried to take me, to sway me like some sort of temptation demon, but it failed, and then it left, telling me it had found someone else. I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now.” She glanced at Gunnar and then back at Sevris, her eyes pleading. “It saw Violet in my dream, and it decided to take her instead. Somehow it escaped those caves and came here, to prey on her vanity and greed. That creature is inside her mind now, and it’s turned her into some kind of twisted monster.”

“A demon?” Sevris glanced at Gunnar. “Sounds more like Domination magic.”

“It’s not,” Gunnar said. “I’ve already tested her for that and found nothing. And whatever it is, it’s affected me, too. That’s why I left. It was wriggling its way into my head, trying to take me as well. It wasn’t quite as vociferous with me, but I’m convinced it’s real.”

Sevris frowned. He appreciated that Gunnar had come to him, but his explanation could be the product of ale, and Alayna could just be an excitable young girl.

“An interesting story. I can think of a better one. Lady Violet has always thought of herself as a queen, so she arranged for the deaths of her father and the steward so that she could take over and rule like one.”

Gunnar nodded. “That is the reasonable assumption. But think beyond the death of Lord Morgantin and his steward. Hundreds of refugees appeared here, out of nowhere, almost all at once. No rhyme nor reason as to why, but there is one important clue that no one managed to piece together.” Gunnar’s eyes lit up as he talked. “They all came from the same place.”

Sevris felt his interest in this story spike. “Where?”

“On our way here, we spoke to some of the refugees, subtly of course. They all come from villages or outposts stationed along the Banner Road between Corendar and Trenant. The exact same path Alayna took only a few days ago. If what she says is true, this creature abandoned her and found someone else, then came to Breakwall by that very same road, infecting people as it went.”

“Coincidence. Thousands of people use that road.”

“To travel to Corendar. Not Breakwall. As much as we love our home, Aron, we are but a speck in the shadow of the great city.”

Sevris’ mind raced. Maybe these two really were on to something. “It still doesn’t mean some creature is infecting their minds.”

“What about the boats? Who sent for them? What messengers sped off to contact every merchant ship between here and Norlinn? That is an impressive feat for a girl who only a few months ago couldn’t be bothered to wipe her own arse.”

Instinct took over and Sevris shot Gunnar a look before softening his glare. He had to remind himself that she was the enemy now.

Gunnar raised an eyebrow and looked around the cave. “I heard you were fighting off waves of refugees. Looks pretty quiet to me.”

“They stopped bothering us two days ago. We’ve been using the time to scout the town, but we aren’t learning much. Save for the fact that they’re plundering the castle and then running away downriver.”

“They stopped attacking? All of them?” Sevris nodded. “At the same time?”

Sevris pursed his lips. He knew what Gunnar was getting at, and he was almost inclined to agree with him the more he thought about it.

“A directive from the Lady,” he offered.

“True,” Gunnar said with a thoughtful nod. “It could just be more coincidence.”

Sevris frowned. “Let’s put aside why this is happening. You said you had a plan to stop her?”

“We do. Although it’s slightly unsavory.”

“Tell me.”

“We sneak into the castle, find Violet, and take her to the church in Corendar. We let the sentinels there determine if she’s… tainted.”

Sevris’ eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “You want to kidnap the Lady of Breakwall?”

“She’s not herself!” Alayna exclaimed before catching herself. “We have to do something.”

“She is the law of this domain. You and I can see the darkness in her eyes, whatever that may be, but without any proof of her corruption, Artoran justice will not be kind to us if we act against her directly.”

“Sevris,” Gunnar said, “I know this is dangerous, and perhaps a tad bit foolhardy, but what else can we do? What are your options, now that you’re relegated to a mausoleum? You’re already acting against the recognized lord of this land simply by being here. You’re a fugitive, and worse, most of the town sees you as the leader of a rebellion against that same lord. If Violet asks for help from Corendar, which she has every right to do, they will send troops, and flush you out of here without a second thought.”

Gunnar pressed a finger into Sevris’ chest, and the centnar raised an eyebrow at the intrusion.

“Your head is already on the chopping block, Aron. The only question is when it gets taken from you. If we can get Violet to the Church, and we can prove that she’s tainted somehow, then we can either cure her, or find a new Lord of Breakwall. Either way, you get to go back to the castle as a free man.”

The words stung Sevris to his core. Gunnar was right. He had held back because of his devotion to Breakwall, its people, and his men. He couldn’t attack without losing some or all of what he held dear. But if Gunnar was right…

“Tell me the rest of your plan.”

Gunnar raised his eyebrows in thought. “Well, it’s only part of a plan. I was hoping you could help me fill in the gaps.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, a direct attack seems like a waste of men. Especially since I don’t see any siege weapons in your cozy little crypt. So maybe a sneak attack?” He lowered his voice. “Like, perhaps, through the entrances that only a few of us know about?”

Sevris nodded. There were two secret entrances to the keep, one from a drainage gulley leading out from the kitchens and another from an underground tunnel that started in a rarely used storeroom and ended in the basement of a small millhouse on the outskirts of the castle. Only half a dozen people knew about either entrance, and all of them were dead now. Except for Sevris and Gunnar.

“Would Violet’s father have told her about them?”

“So she could sneak out?” Gunnar asked. “I doubt it.”

Sevris nodded to himself as the plan formed in his head. Suddenly, he could act against his enemy, without worrying about his numbers disadvantage.

“We go in at night,” he said, mostly to himself, “when most of the castle is sleeping. We strip ourselves of armor and wear light boots. We move fast and strike without hesitation, making for the Lady’s… ahem… chambers.”

“Then we sneak her out and get her to Corendar as fast as possible,” Gunnar finished for him.

Sevris pursed his lips. “It feels dishonorable.”

“Don’t put the burden on honor only on yourself, Centnar. There are some cases where the ends justify the means.”

Sevris looked away, letting the plan form in his mind. He could finally do something about this tragedy, something that wouldn’t see his men and their families destroyed by open warfare. He turned to Gunnar and nodded, allowing himself a quick smile before returning to the main room. The soldiers under his command all looked over, curious as to what news he might have.

He turned to Joah. “Ready the men.”

Joah got to his feet. “Sir?”

“We go to do what we should have done three weeks ago. We fight to save Breakwall.” He smiled broadly, sharing the excitement welling up on his men’s faces. “And we do it tonight.”

 

***

Chapter 6 coming next week!

Want more Cithria? Check out the Rise of Cithria series on amazon!

Get started with the first book for FREE!

Nightmare Chapter 4

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 4 (of 6)

Read – Chapter 1Chapter 2 – Chapter 3

Gunnar’s eyes dragged open, fighting the intrusion from reality every step of the way. He rolled onto his side on his lumpy, straw-filled cot and stared at the fuzzy brown wall across from him. Why was he awake? Had someone called his name?

“Gunnar?”

A knock on his door. Damnit, someone had called his name.

He groaned and glanced over at the window to see sunlight. It was daytime, so he couldn’t very well chase off any visitors under the pretense of it being too early or too late in the day. He’d have to find a completely different reason to chase them off. He reached over the side of his bed and found a jug on the floor. He shook it, feeling the comforting slosh of ale within. That would make getting out of bed easier.

“Gunnar, are you in there?”

More pounding. He lifted himself into a sitting position and took stock of his situation. His head pounded, and his thick, white hair quite literally stuck out in every direction. His joints ached, his back was sore, and his ankle itched from some rash he’d picked up while foraging through the woods.

He’d had better mornings.

“Gunnar!”

He recognized the feminine voice yelling at him from outside his door and furrowed his brow. He hadn’t expected to hear from her for some time. He forced his old bones off the bed with a groan and shuffled over to the door. A quick twist of the latch unlocked it and he opened the door to find his former student staring up at him.

“Gunnar?”

“Alayna?” He squinted. Her long, blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, showing off round, blue eyes and the kind of smooth, oval face that made old people like Gunnar especially bitter. She wore brown Resurrectionist robes, but last he’d heard she was off with the Esteran army, doing Goddess-knew-what over near Trenant Keep. “What in the nine hells are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the Red Hills?”

Instead of answering his question, she frowned at his general state of dishevelment.

“Gunnar, you look awful. Are you sick?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Sick of life, maybe. Nothing more serious than that.” He walked back over to his bed and sat down, reaching for the jug as he did. A good swig of ale would wake him up.

“What are you doing?”

He looked up to see young Alayna crossing her arms and fixing a stern glare at him. She’d always been good at casting judgment on him, and he’d usually roll his eyes and acquiesce. But not today.

“Surviving.” He took a drink, wincing at the warm, barely palatable flavor.

Her glare softened.

“I went to the town and it was overrun with people I’ve never seen before. And I didn’t recognize any of the guards.”

“Heh!” he chuckled. “You went to Breakwall, eh?” He took another swig, this one tasting worse than the last. He’d just have to keep trying until it got better. “That little hamlet isn’t what it used to be.”

“Where is everybody? And why are you out here instead of in the castle?”

“The guards you know are gone.” He waved his hand, dismissing them. “No use to anyone, now.”

“What? Why?”

“Haven’t you heard? Lord Morgantin is dead. The Lady of Breakwall now rules, and she does so with an iron fist.”

“Violet?” Alayna’s eyes bulged. “What happened to Lord Morgantin?”

Gunnar shrugged. “Who knows? Tavern rumormongers claim the steward poisoned him, and then Lord Selvan’s guards cut down the steward in retaliation. But Centnar Sevris says otherwise, and because of that he had to flee the castle with about thirty of his men, accused of aiding the steward. Now he hides in the caves, fighting the refugees that seem to show up in droves. Me, I left the castle a few days before Selvan’s death. Wicked sorcery going on in that place, I can feel it in my bones. And I’m a sentinel.” He tapped the side of his head. “I should know.”

He took another drink and a thought came to him. He pointed an accusing finger at Alayna.

“You didn’t answer my question, young lady. Why are you here? Did you give up the priesthood already?” He wagged his finger at her brown cassock. “You know you can’t keep that thing if you do.”

She shook her head.

“I didn’t quit. I just… I needed you to do something.”

He narrowed his eyes. He wasn’t feeling in the mood to do anything of worth today. “And what’s that?”

She pursed her lips, adopting a pensive look. Whatever this was about, she wasn’t eager to just blurt it out.

“I need you to check if I’ve been tainted by a dominator.”

He blinked.

“There’s a hundred and one sentinels between here and Trenant who can do that.”

“I know. I just… I wanted you to check first.”

He sighed, his bones suddenly feeling heavier than usual. Magic left a bitter taste in his mouth lately, and he hesitated to use it.

“That’s a very expensive way to say hello to your old teacher. And I’m grateful you’ve finally recognized just how much better I am at sentineling than all those other hacks. So, seeing as how you’re here and all, I’ll do what I can.” He stifled a belch. “Later. I need to sleep first. My vigor has run away with a younger woman I think, leaving me high and dry. Well,” he reluctantly put the jug back on the floor, “mostly dry.”

She looked at the jug with disdain. But then her eyes widened, as if a realization had hit her.

“Have you been having nightmares?”

“Huh?” He squinted at her. “Nightmares? Why do you say that?”

“Have you?”

“Of course I have! World’s going to hell in a handbasket. The nightmares help me forget that lovely little fact.”

“Have you had any lately?”

“Nothing more than usual,” he said, avoiding her gaze.

“Is that why you’re drinking so much?”

Gunnar frowned. He hated when she saw right through him. A useful trait for good sentinels, but particularly annoying right now. He’d had plenty of nightmares these last few weeks. Terrible ones. Drowning in pools of his own blood; standing on top of the mile-high Silver Spire in Thandar only to get knocked over the side by a gust of wind; chased by a big, hairy, frothing-at-the-mouth Vargava in a wide open plain with nowhere to hide. All of them suitably horrendous. But none quite as terrifying as the ghastly corpse of his once-beautiful wife climbing back into his bed, caressing him like a lost lover, and then pinning him down and eating his flesh.

Of course, he hadn’t told a soul. His value as a sentinel was in controlling the mind, not in falling prey to childish dreams.

“I drink, because it makes me feel young again.”

“Or, it helps soothe your mind,” she said, undeterred in her assumption. “You’ve always been sensitive to the ripples of Domination. That’s why you’re such a good sentinel.”

“And you’re a brat. Stop dissecting me before I’ve even gone cold.”

She crossed her arms.

“I need to know, Gunnar. It’s been too long already.”

He squinted at her. “What does that mean?”

“Check me for Domination, first, and then I’ll tell you.”

He sighed. She would win the argument, as usual. Mostly because she faced the conflict head on while he wasted his time trying to hide under the bed. He waved her over and she stood in front of him, her back straight and her head held high. He took a deep breath and gathered what little of his will remained. He reached out and rested his fingertips on her temples, looking for the telltale vibrations of lingering magic.

All magic left a residue of some kind. A good sentinel simply had to know how to read it. Domination magic was one of the easier ones to sense, since the enchantments were so vastly different than body or elemental magic. It stood out like ink on parchment. And fortunately, he found none of it on Alayna.

He removed his hand. “Nothing.”

She didn’t seem surprised.

“You’re sure?”

“I know what I’m doing, girl. If I say there’s no Domination magic, then there’s no Domination magic.”

She looked away, retreating to a distant thought.

Finally, “Something’s wrong, Gunnar. Something’s very wrong.”

“Welcome to our lives, Alayna.”

“No. You feel it, too. I know you do. I can see it in your face, and your behavior. Everything about you is changed because of it.”

Inwardly, he seethed. As much as he liked Alayna, he didn’t need her to tell him what a wreck of a person he’d become these last few weeks. Especially when she was right.

Something was terribly wrong.

“That’s why I’m here,” she continued. “I… I had a dream. A nightmare, actually. Except, it was more than that. I felt a presence in my mind. It was watching me, reading my thoughts, and dredging through every single memory I hold dear. It was a creature so vile and disgusting that I cried when I woke up and remembered what happened.

“I thought it might be just that – a nightmare. But it was too real. It spoke to me. It taunted me. And I could almost feel its hands rummaging through my mind like a wicked little child playing in the dirt.”

Her face went pale as she told the story. She was frightened, and Gunnar knew how rarely Alayna let herself be scared of anything. That only made his unease grow.

“So I tried to convince myself that I’d somehow been attacked by an unseen Dominator, trying to play tricks on me. I prayed that was the case. Letting the Anduains get the better of me would be a thousand times better than what really happened down in that cave. But if you weren’t able to sense any Domination magic, then…”

She left the rest unsaid, except through the fear in her eyes.

Gunnar looked away. He reached for the jug again, mostly out of instinct, but he let it sit on his lap. His taste for ale was gone.

“I have failed in my duty,” he said.

Alayna stepped closer. “What happened?”

He let out another deep sigh. “You’re right. Of course, you’re always right. Damn girl.” He shook his head, angry at himself more than anything. “There’s a darkness in Breakwall, something malevolent and vile, and I’ve known about it all this time.” He stared out the window, unable to look Alayna in the eyes. “That’s why I’m here. When I was in the castle, I could feel it chipping away at the back of my mind each night, trying to slither its way in. This went on for days, a churning in my head like a wench stirring soup, but instead of fighting it like I should, and warning people, I ran away. Been hiding here ever since. I serve the Lord of Breakwall, and I failed him with my weakness.”

“No!” She crouched down next to him and took his hands in hers. “Something did this to you. Violet, too. She’s not who you think she is. That… thing in my head has her, I’m sure of it. That’s why this is happening. It told me, in the dream, that it wants to be a god in this world. Somehow it’s using her to make that happen.”

Gunnar leaned his back against the wall.

“What does it matter, now? Lord Morgantin is dead. So is Ansen. All the trustworthy guards have fled across the river, and we’re stuck out here in a shack in the woods.”

“We have to get to her, Gunnar. We can fix her. You,” she poked a finger in his chest, “can fix her.”

“We can’t get to her, and even if we could, what would I even do? It’s not Domination magic. I don’t even know what I’m fighting against.”

“We have to do something!” Alayna said, desperate for a solution. “What if we go to Corendar, and warn the Church?”

He frowned at that suggestion. He liked to avoid stepping foot in that overly sanctimonious city.

“They wouldn’t believe us. In fact, they’d probably lock us up for treason.”

“Unless,” Alayna’s eyes brightened, “we bring them proof. What if we bring Violet to them, so they can test her?”

“How? I already said we can’t get to her.”

“What if we had help? You said Sevris was hiding out with some of his men. We can convince them to join us. With soldiers, we could get into the castle, find Violet, and take her to Corendar.”

Gunnar let the idea float about in his mind for a few moments. It wasn’t perfect, but he had to admit he didn’t dislike it.

“Kidnap a Calderan Lady? That’s a bold strategy. Dangerous, too.”

“Not as dangerous as this creature will be once he wins.”

Gunnar sighed. It turned out he would be doing something of worth today.

 

***

Chapter 5 coming next week!

Want more Cithria? Check out the Rise of Cithria series on amazon!

Get started with the first book for FREE!

Nightmare Chapter 3

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 3 (of 6)

Read – Chapter 1Chapter 2

“How many are there now?”

Ansen Havarton, Steward of Breakwall Castle, leaned over the massive mahogany writing desk that filled the center of his stark office. Dozens of parchments lay scattered across the top, a regular fixture of his daily routine as he pored through notes, letters, inventories and budgets. Two soldiers stood opposite him, a centnar and a decnar, both wearing polished breastplates, flowing red capes hanging from their shoulders, and stylized helms nestled in the crooks of their arms.

“We chased away around thirty,” the centnar said, “but there could have been another dozen or two hiding on the far side of the river. We don’t have an accurate count right now.”

Ansen slammed his fist onto the desk.

“Why here? Why are we suddenly a refuge for these people?” He looked at the two stone-faced officers, neither of whom appeared to have any more answers than he. “Is someone spreading rumors about buried treasure underneath the castle? Or a legendary sword? The tomb of a lost Thandaran Emperor? Tell me, because I am at a loss to explain why over a hundred vagrants and refugees have come from all over Caldera to Breakwall looking to find charity.”

The soldiers averted their eyes. Ansen huffed at them, then moved from the table to stand next to the narrow window that overlooked the courtyard of the castle from three stories up.  He’d claimed this room as his office twenty years ago, after taking over as steward from his father, also named Ansen. The view allowed him to see much of what happened in the castle from on high, but he also secretly enjoyed the fact that no one liked climbing three long flights of stairs to come see him.

As usual these days, the courtyard was busy with merchants delivering goods, soldiers sharpening swords, villagers coming and going, and couriers hurrying through the gates. The castle was as it always had been – the hub of a bustling Artoran town lying in the shadows of Corendar. His work organizing this castle and the town it lorded over had been much of the reason why some of the earls seriously considered his lord as a successor for Tanchet’s debacle of a reign as King of Caldera, before Thaine Trannoch was plucked from the army. But now a disease had taken root in the town, and though he couldn’t see it, he felt the symptoms.

“Twenty at the docks, fifteen at the village church, another eight at the castle chapel, ten or so near the way house along the Corendar Road, and now upward of fifty hiding in the forest?” Ansen shook his head. “On top of that, Lady Violet has somehow found the motivation to personally provide them with food and alms, which means they have no incentive to bugger off now.”

The centnar grunted. His name was Sevris, and he’d been captain of the guard in Breakwall for almost as long as Ansen had been steward. “Poor timing for her to suddenly find her heart.”

Ansen gave him a warning glance, but nothing more. Lady Violet, despite being only a lord’s daughter, normally carried herself like the spoiled, whiny princess she imagined herself to be. That was probably inevitable when her father once aspired to sit on the Calderan throne.

The decnar, a dashing young man named Joah, cleared his throat. “People are saying all the refugees bring her gifts. Expensive ones, too. Seems easy to understand why she likes them if that’s true.”

Sevris grunted in agreement. Ansen leaned against the window with a resigned sigh.

“Keep sending men out to the forest. At the very least, make the Lady’s new friends see the value of congregating on the other side of the river.”

Sevris bowed his head and left, along with his decnar.  Ansen continued to stare out the window, watching the chapel specifically. A young woman in stained, muddied clothes stood at the open door on the far side of the courtyard, looking out as if waiting for someone. Another newcomer to Breakwall, with a story that didn’t line up and a purpose that was fuzzy at best. Most of these refugees offered eerily similar tales about why they’d come to this place – they all claimed that they needed a new home, and Breakwall was where they wanted that home to be. As flattering as some in the castle found that notion, Ansen had trouble understanding why they didn’t go to Corendar, only a day’s travel to the north. The Church there was far more capable of handling such a large number of poor and homeless migrants. And they’d find more help in the form of alms and charity from the cluster of nobles there.

He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. He wasn’t himself these days. Troubling nightmares had plagued him the last few nights, bringing with them gruesome visions of black-robed men dragging him from his bed and taking him to the darkest part of the woods where they cut him and smeared themselves with his blood. Once he woke from the nightmare, drenched in a cold sweat, he couldn’t go back to sleep. Nor did he want to after such vivid horrors. But his lack of sleep lately was keeping him irritable and exhausted. And far too excitable. Worst of all, the fatigue kept him from making sense of this new dilemma.

He’d simply have to focus on his work. When life refused to make sense, Ansen had learned long ago to keep his hands busy until it did. He returned to his desk, picking up a small stack of documents that his lord would need to review. He left his office and walked down the spiral stairs to the second floor of the castle.

He found the door to the castle’s drawing room, where Lord Morgantin held private meetings with visitors or officials. He knocked gently and opened the door to find a large room decorated in the finest of Calderan luxuries. Red and gold-trimmed curtains framed two wide windows that overlooked the northern reaches of the Breakwall domain. Numerous elegant tapestries hung from the dark stone walls, and a thick, plush red rug covered the middle of the floor. Small wooden tables were arrayed around the edges of the room, each one displaying silver or gold artifacts, or fancy collections of mugs and dinnerware.

Lord Selvan Morgantin sat in a high-backed chair in the rear-center of the room. He was thin and impossibly tall, an imposing man who literally looked down his nose at everyone. But he was also a good man, for a Calderan lord.

Seated on a plush bench to his left was his only child, Lady Violet Morgantin, who engaged him in conversation with a furious scowl on her face. Upon Ansen’s entry, however, they both stopped and looked at him.

“Ansen,” Lord Selvan waved him in. “Enter.”

“My lord,” Ansen bowed his head and took a few steps into the room. “Can we speak a moment?”

Lord Selvan nodded. The steward hesitated briefly to see if Lady Violet would leave the room, but she remained seated, turning only slightly to face him. She was twenty-two years old, having been only a babe when Ansen took office, and still unmarried. She’d had suitors, but she’d tired of them all for various reasons, usually a lack of money, or a lack of manners. A few simply stopped calling on her, providing decent enough excuses, although everyone in the county knew the real reason they lost interest.

“I bring word about the recent troubles we’ve had.”

“The murders?”

“Yes, my lord. I believe it to be a symptom of our refugee problem.”

“Problem?” Lady Violet balked. “Why do you use that word, Steward?”

Ansen blinked. The Lady of Breakwall had only recently become involved in the day-to-day affairs of managing the Morgantin domain and he still wasn’t used to it.

“Lady Violet, the mercy you show these people is commendable, and lauded throughout your father’s lands. But the fact remains that these people are unknown to us. They are draining us of food, water, supplies, and coin, and they all give us different reasons for being here. Sometimes two different reasons on the same day. And now, immediately after they blacken our shores, we have two murders to address.”

“So you assume the killers are amongst these refugees? Despite having no proof of that fact?”

Ansen tried very hard to remain calm.

“My lady, we haven’t seen anything so vile in these lands for a decade, and the last time it happened, the killer brazenly declared himself in the West Gardens after killing a man he accused of improper relations with his wife.”

“It still sounds incredibly circumstantial to me.”

“We have three witnesses who claim that a man in mud-stained clothes was near the Redbird tavern when Eric Gavelson was killed. As for the boy in the village, another refugee had been bothering his family for food only the day before. No one else is suspected in either crime, and the people of Breakwall believe that these murders were committed by someone hiding amongst the refugees. It is my duty as steward to see that these criminals are found, and I must start with the obvious suspects.”

“Your entire argument is based on nothing more than–”

“Violet,” Lord Selvan said, casting an annoyed glare at his unruly daughter, “that is enough. You’ve had your say on this matter. Please leave us.”

“Of course, father.” She gave a slight bow of her head and left the room. Ansen watched her for any sign of annoyance, but she left with as much grace as she could possibly muster. She really had changed. A few weeks ago, she would have thrown a tantrum before storming out red-faced.

Violet closed the door behind her, and Ansen turned to the lord, who shook his head with a weary smile.

“That girl does nothing but perplex me, Ansen. One day she’s screaming at her handmaiden for leaving a speck of dust on her dresser. The next, she’s bringing food to men and women living in filth or hiding in caves.”

“Perhaps she has finally discovered her noble purpose in this world.”

Lord Morgantin shook his head. “If only that were true.”

“You should have faith in your daughter, my lord. Some people find their calling late in life.”

“Perhaps. As I always say, my friend, I pity the fact that you’re fourteen years younger than I. When I die, and she becomes the true Lady of Breakwall…”

“I will have my hands full, yes. But I welcome the challenge. And if I find that I cannot rise to it, I can still retire to my home in Artalia.”

Lord Morgantin laughed.

“You would sooner leap to your death from Goldcliffe than leave anything here undone.”

Ansen smiled. His lord knew him well. “I live to serve, my lord.” He set his papers on the table near the lord’s chair, before taking a seat of his own.

“Now,” Lord Morgantin adjusted to face his steward, “to the more pressing issue, justice must be done. You wish to send for sentinels from Corendar?”

“Yes, my lord. I spoke with Didach Antonis at the church, and he says some of the sentinels there claim they can read the truth of a man’s intentions. I would like to summon them to question the refugees and see if they sense anything amiss.”

A flicker of surprise crossed Morgantin’s eyes. “Sentinels can read a man’s thoughts, now?”

“Antonis claims that it’s actually more subtle than that. They use their magic to sense changes in feeling or mood. When someone lies, they get scared, or angry, and the sentinels can see that in the man or woman’s temperament. Apparently it’s an old Inquisitor trick.”

“Don’t we have a sentinel?”

Ansen shrugged. “Gunnar is not in Breakwall, as far as I can tell. He left two days ago, without any notice.”

Morgantin sighed and shook his head. “That man… He used to be dependable. Now, he drowns himself in the vices of his church. What sort of message does that send?”

“I agree wholeheartedly, my lord.”

Selvan reached out for the documents, flipping through them with little interest.

“Send for the sentinels. And do what you must to resolve this. I have faith in you, Ansen.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

 

*

 

A knock on the door pulled Ansen from his work. He looked up to see a red-faced young man standing in the doorway of his office, fidgeting with a piece of paper in his hands.

“Yes?”

“I-I have a summons for you, from Lord Morgantin.”

Ansen squinted at the man. Evening had come, casting the room in darkness, save for the candles on his desk. “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Lord Steward.” He bowed, awkwardly.

“Just Steward. I’m not a lord.”

“Yes… Steward.”

“Where am I being summoned to?”

The man looked at the note in his hand.

“The gardens, Lor-,” he paused, “Steward.”

Ansen nodded, glancing down at the pile of papers still cluttering his desk. Oh well, if the Lord of Breakwall wanted to summon him for a leisurely walk in the gardens, he couldn’t very well say no. He could probably stand to take a break, anyway.

“Tell the lord I will be there momentarily,” he said to the man, who bowed again and then disappeared down the hallway.

Ansen stood, stretching out the stiffness in his back and neck. He grabbed his coat from a rack in the corner. He’d become a bit more susceptible to the cold in his later years, and it wouldn’t do to be shivering all evening. He threw the coat over his shoulders, closed the door to his office, and went downstairs.

The castle was nearly empty, as it usually was this time of day. A lone servant carrying an empty platter scurried past as Ansen strode down the wide hall leading to the gardens. Ansen opened the thick wooden door at the end of the hall and stepped out into the cool night air. A cobblestone path meandered through a thick copse of hedges, ending at a clearing with a round gazebo in the center, typically the starting point for his walks with Lord Morgantin. The gazebo was empty, though, and he looked around, seeing no sign of anyone.

He heard some conversation in a nearby work shed, and decided to ask the gardeners if they knew where Lord Morgantin had gone to. He approached the door, turning as two dark-robed figures appeared at the edge of his vision. He began to ask the question of them, but as he discerned their appearance, he froze, seeing only the attackers from his nightmares.

No. This isn’t real.

His rational mind took hold, reminding him that he was awake, and in his own lord’s garden. He relaxed, ready to dismiss his fright as mere paranoia, nerves from his lack of sleep. But as soon as he opened his mouth to question them about their suspicious clothing, they lunged at him, knives flashing in the moonlight. He cried out as they jabbed deep into his flesh, over and over, until he fell to the ground, writhing in the throes of death.

The dark-robed attackers backed away, and a new figure emerged, standing next to Ansen’s head. A woman, with black hair and a bright red dress that somehow shined in the darkness.

“Lady…?” he croaked.

Lady Violet leaned over and ran a finger next to one of his wounds, her face devoid of emotion. She pushed on it, and for a moment he thought she might be trying to stem the flow of blood. Instead, she held up a hand stained dark red, the blood dripping from the glittering rings that lined each of her fingers. She rubbed the blood across her face, tasting it on her lips. A wicked smile greeted him as she exulted in the act.

She crouched down next to him, turning his head to face her.

“Had you been a weaker man, you may have been useful to me. But I have no place for servants of your will. Go in peace, Ansen Havarton. Your time as Steward of Breakwall is at an end.”

He tried to fight, to shout at her. But he only managed to get out one single word.

“Why…?”

A curt laugh escaped her lips. She looked around at the garden, surveying her realm.

“Your world pleases me. What other reason could there be?”

 

****

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Nightmare Chapter 2

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 2 (of 6)

Read Chapter 1

“… okay?”

Everitt lifted his heavy head to see the burly, thick-bearded barkeep watching him from the other side of the bar, his hands squeezing out the last drops of grimy water from a wash rag onto the sticky wood countertop. Streaks of sunlight slipped between the wooden planks of the wall behind the barkeep, and Everitt squinted as one slashed across his face.

“Huh?”

“I said, are you okay?” The barkeep leaned forward, planting two meaty hands on the bar. He squinted at Everitt’s face, examining him. “You don’t got the Rylish fever, do ya?”

“No,” Everitt said, forcing a weary smile on his face. “I’m fine. Been a long walk home, is all.”

“Mmmhmmm.” The barkeep frowned, not believing a word. “Walking makes your head hurt?”

His fears are many. But he offers me nothing.

Everitt froze. It had been days since he’d last heard the voice in his head. It whispered to him sometimes when he met people, opining on the strength of their will. He was fairly sure the words weren’t his own, but that only begged the question ‘then who?’ The Goddess? The Grim King? An ancient Anduain spirit or a Bergsbor deity? Any of those possibilities made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Men who heard voices tended to get thrown into a Church hospice and never seen again. So he did what he’d done since leaving Trenant Keep. He ignored it.

“Nah. Just been hit in the head too much. Like any good soldier, I don’t know when to duck.”

The barkeep nodded slightly as he wiped down the polished wood between them, unconvinced but also unwilling to debate the issue. Everitt faked his good humor until the barkeep finally wandered away, into the storeroom in the back, and then resumed rubbing his temples. His headaches were getting worse.  And they weren’t happening due to any lack of skill in ducking.

He reached down to feel the worn leather satchel hanging at his side, its touch reassuring. For a moment, he couldn’t remember why he even had it. It carried something heavy, something someone would find important back home. A gift, he thought. The details escaped him, so he let it go. All he needed to worry about right now was getting to his new home as soon as possible.

The front door opened with a creak and late morning sunlight flooded into the small tavern, illuminating every dank corner. Once Everitt’s eyes adjusted to the harsh light, he saw a sailor standing in the entrance, wearing dark brown pants that ended at his calves, and a thin, linen shirt with streaks of brown tar across the front. Everitt hadn’t heard a peep from the high-pitched signal horn, blown from the town’s lookout tower to signal the arrival of a new ship at the dock. Had he missed it? The sailor rapped on the wall next to him to get everyone’s attention. Other than Everitt, though, no one else was in the bar, save for a sleepy older fellow named Jax sitting in the corner.

“Trade ship from Evidsar is in. Setting back out at the next bell for Conovaria and then Corendar.”

Everitt straightened up. “Taking passengers?”

The man nodded. “The captain handles goods mostly, but he’s got a few cots down below.”

The sailor left and Everitt quickly fished through his coin purse for an unar, a small copper coin engraved with a Thandaran crest, and tossed it on the bar. He gave Jax a quick wave and then left the tavern, a neglected little shack nestled in the trees alongside the Vitrix River. He worked his way down a riverbank crowded with tall grass and weeds and onto the docks of Rylicum, a small port town a day’s ride west of Corendar. He’d been here two nights, waiting for a boat that could take him on the last leg of his trip. Several times he’d almost given up waiting, opting to walk the rest of the way, knowing that would add days to his journey. Indecision had kept him paralyzed on that bar stool for two days, too impatient to leave, and too impatient to stay.

Now, salvation had finally come.

He found the ship, a long, narrow sloop with a single mast, tied up to the only dock in town. Two sailors dragged a large cart toward the town center a few dozen paces up a wide dirt path, while the captain, an older man in finer clothes, stood at the end of the dock, yelling at two other men still onboard. Everitt approached the rickety wooden dock, hailing the captain, who waved him over.

“I’m looking for passage.”

The captain regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “Headed south?”

“Aye. Breakwall. You stopping there?”

“I can.”

“I can pay.” He held up a large silver coin, stamped with the Thandaran flame. “A tren should be more than enough, right?”

The captain gave him a sidelong look. A tren was worth three vinars, the standard silver coin of nearly every trading post that accepted Thandaran money. “A tren just for hitching a ride to Breakwall?”

“A fast ride. That’s it.”

The captain rubbed his chin. “We gotta stop in Corendar for a few hours and pick up a load.”

“Nowhere else?”

“I usually dock at Conovaria for the night, just to see what furs they got. But the tanner there’s been overcharging me the last couple trips. Maybe if he sees me skipping him this time around he’ll be a little more forthcoming the next one.”

Everitt nodded. “So, one stop at Corendar for a few hours and that’s it? We sail through the night?”

“I can manage that. I can get ya’ to Breakwall tomorrow night.”

Everitt felt a huge load come off his shoulders. A weary smile formed on his lips. “Done.”

“Hop on, then, if you’re ready. We leave after the noon bells, or as soon as Enick and Roj come back with the cart.”

Strong willed, but can be bought. Useful.

Everitt winced at the strange words in his head and immediately looked away from the captain. He never had the stomach to face anyone after this demon – it had to be a demon – so prominently announced their weaknesses in his head. He stepped onto the boat and handed over the tren. The captain tapped it, then tried to bend it between his fingers. He grinned at Everitt with crooked teeth.

“Can’t be too careful. I’ve seen folks press unars together and paint ‘em silver. Fools some people, but not me.”

The captain signaled one of the deckhands to show Everitt to a cot below.  A skinny, gold-haired boy, barely into his teens, led Everitt down a narrow flight of stairs into the bowels of the ship.

“You from Breakwall?” the boy asked.

“No.” Everitt shook his head. “Not yet, at least.”

“You fought any Anduains or Bergsbor?” He glanced back over his shoulder at the sword hanging from Everitt’s belt.

He fears the captain’s lust. He will be mine completely.

“Some,” Everitt said, looking at the walls, the floor, the flickering candles hanging in glass lanterns on the walls. Anywhere but the boy. “But not lately. Not much happening up near Trenant these days. A few Anduains and Bergsbor sneaking around here and there, but that’s it.”

“You been to Hannerkeep? My brother’s there a lot. Says it’s a bit of a dump. Compared to Trenant.”

“Your brother’s right.”

The boy showed him to an open storage area with a few cots pushed up against the far wall. Everitt nodded his head in thanks and sat down on the cleanest one he could find. He listened as the boy clomped his way back up the stairs, then leaned his elbows on his knees and continued rubbing his temples.

They will corrupt easily. Quickly. They will beg to be mine.

“Stop,” he whispered, despairing at what he’d gotten these men into. The voice never responded to him, but he had to try. He rubbed his temples again, even though it made no difference.  “Please.”

This entire ship will be mine. Soon.

 

*

 

The following day, just as the sun touched the western horizon, Breakwall came into sight. Everitt waited up top most of the afternoon, eager to be off the boat and on his way. He’d tried to avoid the sailors as much as possible, but it couldn’t be helped. Every time one came by, the voice returned, claiming how easy it would be to take them. He tried in vain to convince himself it was only meaningless words. But something deep down told him that he knew very well what those words meant, and what the voice had said about him not so long ago.

The boat slowly floated down the river before the sailors brought out steering poles, pushing the boat toward the eerily familiar docks. They edged up to the nearest one and the deckhands tossed a rope to the men on shore. One of them pulled until the boat bounced off the side of the wood, then tied everything down. Everitt didn’t even wait for the bobbing to stop. He hopped onto the dock and hurried up the path that led through the town and then up the hillside to the castle. He’d never been to Breakwall before, but he somehow knew the path as if he’d run it a thousand times as a boy.

He reached the castle gates, still open during the daylight, and threaded his way through the crowd of craftsmen, merchants, and laborers leaving Breakwall Keep for the night. Once through the gates, he paused, unsure where to go next. He racked his brain for a place, a destination, anything that would finally grant him peace.

The Garden.

Everitt shivered. He’d be done with this soon, he reminded himself. As soon as he reached the Lord’s Garden.

Most Calderans knew the story of the Lord’s Gardens in Breakwall. Lord Morgantin had opened the Gardens to the public as a way to garner support from his people and to project a magnanimous air while campaigning amongst the earls to be king. He’d lost that battle to the former general, Thaine Trannoch, but to his credit, Morgantin kept the Gardens open during daylight hours ever since.

A soldier eyed Everitt curiously as he hurried across the courtyard and through the entrance to the Gardens. Everitt jogged down the cobblestone path, and then around the hedge maze, searching for his quarry. The sun would set soon, and any minute guards would kick him out. He’d have to wait until the next morning to resume his quest. Another night might kill him. He needed to finish this now.

There. Walking down the west path with her handmaiden. The Lady of Breakwall. Lord Morgantin’s daughter.

His spirits soared as he approached the beautiful young woman.

“My Lady.” He bowed, catching only a glimpse of her annoyed look. “My name is Everitt Jonus. I’ve come to beg succor in your celebrated lands, so that I may witness my Lady’s charity in person.”

The Lady of Breakwall stared back at him, her stern expression unchanging. She had long, black hair, pulled back into a thin gossamer netting, and searching brown eyes. Her face was oval, with flawless porcelain skin, save for a small, flower-shaped birthmark over her left eye.

“Charity?” She blinked at him, taking in his unkempt clothes with the practiced disdain of a noble. “Do you not have any sense?” She waved him off. “Go to the Church and beg there.”

“I brought you something.” He held up the satchel. “A gift, from the north.”

The woman and her handmaiden tensed as he reached into the satchel. Their anxiety turned to wonder, though, when he pulled out a finely cut pink gem set in a circular brooch. He’d stolen it from a lord in the Red Hills who’d been visiting Trenant Keep. He’d never stolen anything before in his life but this magnificent gem he’d simply walked up and taken from the lord’s quarters while he was at a feast. It was the most brazen thing he’d ever done, and he wasn’t even sure why he did it.

“A singing crystal?” Her expression softened. He handed it to her, bowing his head slightly, and she looked at him in genuine surprise. “It’s beautiful.”

“You’ve wanted one since you were a child, yes?”

Her eyes widened. “How did you know that?”

Everitt smiled, feeling the weight of the world lift from his shoulders. “A very old friend of yours told me. She was very persuasive.”

 

*****

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Nightmare Chapter 1

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 1 (of 6)

I see everything now.

For eons, I ruled a domain void of light and color, consigned by my jailers to a place where darkness bred horrors too twisted to imagine. I knew no peace, because my subjects screamed and wailed in terror, begging for release from their hellish existence. I felt no warmth, for there was none to be had in a realm without soul.

My world was dark. Lonely. But it was my home.

My life.

My prison.

Then the lights appeared. They came to me like distant stars twinkling through the veil of a night sky, a comparison I’d forgotten until a short time ago. They never lasted long, many times winking out of existence before I could reach them with my clumsy and overeager hands. But still I sprang at each new light, desperate to discover what treasures lay hidden beyond. Occasionally, I found one that lingered long enough for me to finally see what I’d so long been denied.

A glimpse into another world.

I exulted at the chance to stare through these windows into the minds of creatures who lived and breathed and died under clear blue skies, walking on soft green grass, surrounded by others of their kind. They laughed by roaring fires, the light gleaming off of their metal clothes and tools. They ate hot food and drank frothy cold drinks with each other, praying, crying, touching each other’s warm skin. They stopped to watch water running through a brook, or down a waterfall. They smelled colorful flowers and danced to cheerful music. They stared at the distant horizon, or gazed at the night sky, which reminded me too much of my own world, but also gave me a sense of camaraderie with people I did not know.

Through these windows I watched, and heard, and felt, and experienced what it was like to be part of this beautiful new world.

And I envied them all.

They call them dreams. As they slumber, they imagine their own world in their minds, but with a twist. Some things are less, others are more. They describe it as a warped mirror, an imitation of their own reality. Others believe them to be visions of the future, or lessons from the past.

For me, dreams are unadulterated joy.

I slip into those dreams, and I look around in awe, like a child watching a prism. But just like a child, I start to touch things, and when I touch things, they change. They grow black, diseased. They crumble. They twist into something that induces terror in the dreamer’s mind, and delight in mine. When I do this to their dream, they give it a different name.

Nightmare.

*

I was clumsy in my first attempts, but after some time I knew what to look for, and I slipped from dream to dream with practiced movements and effortless grace. But still, they faded away so quickly that I never managed to truly know the people of this world.

But then, something changed. Thousands of new dreamers appeared to me, all at once, and they didn’t wink away after a few moments. I’ve learned much about these new dreamers. They come from all corners of an island called Caldera, though a few have different names for it. Andua. Sudmark. Elegant names, and fiercely espoused by the people who live there. I know the island well. I’ve seen its great cities – Corendar, Tan Arbrel, Casuuld – as well as its villages, where people live and work and farm. Some train their bodies to use weapons, so that they can slay their enemies. Others tap into The Remains, which they call magic, and they use it to reshape their reality, just as I reshape their dreams. But one thing common to them all is war. They prepare for it, fear it, embrace it, despise it.

These are not their dreams, though. Not dreams of their own making. Merely a facet of their thoughts that works to keep them docile in their reality. An interesting trick, and one I make sure to remember.

Some of them use their magic to create dreams for others, keeping them imprisoned in their own minds. They call themselves Nameless, although many of them have a name, a holdover from the laws of their gods who, strangely enough, do not dream. Ever. These Nameless learned the magic from an outsider, a trick called Domination, and they’ve cultivated it ever since.

I care little for their motivations, only that they are successful.

They do not understand the pleasure they’ve given me. I visit each one, careful not to touch anything. I only observe, searching for the handhold that lets me grab on and stay. The strong ones can throw me out of their dream, no matter how much I hold on. The weaker ones submit to my touch, but only if I come to them in a form they can accept. Then, I can do what I want, and stay as long as I choose, and the longer I stay, the more I learn.

At first, I wanted only to join them, to live amongst them in a world full of light and color. But would I have power in their realm? In their dreams, I can do as I wish. Would I be as powerful if I had substance? I did not know the truth of this question, though I suspected the answer to be promising. I needed to find a way into their world, and I would have to do so through the dreams. But people only dream when they’re asleep, or unmoving. Useless to me in my endeavor. But I did not give up, and after much searching, my persistence was rewarded.

I discovered a way to stay with them, even after the dream ended.

*

Her name was Alayna. She was the last one I tested before finding my true way into their world.

My journey had taken me through a large number of soldiers and their holy men, Calderans who called themselves Esteran mostly. Some of them were priests who worshipped a goddess with no name, and learned magic that let them heal and strengthen their fellow warriors. They came from other areas, lands with names like the Red Hills, Venria, Brinwall.

Alayna was a priest from a place called Breakwall, the name for both a town and the castle that lorded over it, in a county called Artora. Breakwall was close to Corendar, the gleaming white city I’d seen in so many other dreams, the city that lured me like a moth to a flame. Alayna had visited there, and she dreamed of it again when I found her. That’s what drew me to her initially, the chance to revel in the glory of Caldera’s magnificent capitol city.

But it was Breakwall that made me stay.

“You’ll never amount to much out there. The Didachs will treat you like a commoner.”

The words of Alayna’s friend, Violet. She was angry, and she showed it through insults and derision. A common trait of these people. In her dream, Alayna walked through a garden in Corendar with her friend, sharing last words before leaving to join the Church that was ever-present in the dreams of many Calderans.

“How I’m treated doesn’t matter to me as much as how I treat others. That is the way of the Church and its healers.”

“Pathetic.” Violet’s anger grew. She craved power, and control. Alayna did not. Perhaps that’s why I was intrigued by her. “The Church is the refuge of peasants and lesser born. Why would you associate with that?”

“Because I enjoy helping people.”

Alayna blamed the other girl for her troubles. They were friends once, but no longer. Violet had become distant and petty once the carefree days of childhood left her. Alayna, meanwhile, had seen the horrors of the world and wanted to mend the scars her people scratched upon it. The enmity between them drove Alayna away from their home, to this cavern, where she healed the soldiers fighting their war against Andua and a place called Bergmark.  I reached out with my hand, caressing the tension between the two girls as it writhed between my fingers.

“Helping yourself, I think.”

“Violet! How can you say that?”

“Who’s really benefitting from this, Alayna? People who deserve to die already, or you, who gets to think she’s saving the world? The Goddess Reborn.”

Alayna’s eyes somehow grew larger, and she saw her friend in a new light, one that revealed every dark spot in Violet’s heart. Something about that look intrigued me, and in my race to understand it, I became Violet. I wanted to see Alayna’s eyes on me, and feel her wretched disgust with what her friend had turned into. Humans despise that feeling, but to me, every emotion they experience is the sweetest dessert.

“Who are you?”

At first, I think she’s asking the question of Violet. But then I realize the truth. My touch has corrupted the vision, and Violet is now something less than human. Alayna has seen through the illusion. Few people are so quick to sense my intrusion. She’s much stronger than I thought.

I am Violet, I told her. I am your friend. Love me, as you do her, and you will see the truth.

Alayna backed away, and the garden around her disappeared. Suddenly, she was back in that cave, only now the torches on the walls rage, spewing torrents of flame all around us.

“No,” she says, reaching for the sword that suddenly appeared at her side. “You’re lying. You’re not Violet.”

My touch is now toxic for her. Stone rises from the floor between us as her will pushed me away. She’s exceptionally strong in this realm. I break it apart as fast as it comes, but we both know the effort of taking her is too much. Not when there are so many who will embrace me far more willingly. The image of Violet fades away, and as I drift off to my realm, I show her my true form. Her panic is palpable.

“You’re a-a-a monster!” she screamed. “A nightmare!”

Yes. Nightmare. That is not my true name, but it is a name I embrace, for you have given it to me. You and your people, who perform for me, and provide the only light in my world, have bestowed upon me a title reserved only for the most fearsome of things.

That is what you think of me. Therefore, that is what I will be when I find my way through the dreams and into your world. Where I will stay. And where you will know me as a new god.

“No! You’re not real. Your words are lies!”

I am not real. But your fear is. The terror that claws its way into your heart is no less true than my words. I am not in your world, but I will be. All I must do is find a suitable host. And now I have.

“What?” she asked. “What does that mean?!”

I left her, retreating back into my domain slowly, so I could hear her screams as she begged to know who I would take next.

She would figure it out soon. But by then, she would be too late.

 

*****

Read Chapter 2 now!

Want more Cithria? Check out the Rise of Cithria series on amazon!

Get started with the first book for FREE!

Want more Cithria?

I know you’re all eagerly anticipating the next entry in the Rise of Cithria series (Book 5 – The Exodus). So are we (we’re looking at you, Patrick). So during this little downtime period, Alistair and I have written a couple short story/novella entries set in the world of Cithria to tide everyone over. The first of these, a prequel adventure starring your favorite nuathreen trackers, Bruce and Gil, is now available on amazon!

Rise of Cithria Origins: Bruce and Gil

Supplies are limited, so go grab a copy RIGHT NOW!

In addition, yours truly will be releasing a brand new Cithria story in the next week or so called Nightmare. I’m inclined to make it available the same way we used to release our Cithria stories, one chapter at a time on the4threalm.com. Only I’ll probably post them there and on this site. Either way, you’ll be able to start reading Nightmare as soon as next week!

I’ll post more details soon, but I wanted everyone to know that we haven’t forgotten about our Cithria fans, and while we’re hard at work getting that next book out, we’ll be doing additional spot stories like these when we can. So keep your eyes posted here for more information!

The Fall of Tavak Now Available!

For those of you who asked (I think it was one guy) the latest book in the Tales of the Lore Valley series – The Fall of Tavak – is now available on amazon.com.

Fans of the series should be happy to know that I’ve already started working on books 7, 8 and 9 (I write three of these at a time) but I can’t say when they’ll be ready. In between Cithria book 5, the sequel to Olympia, and the upcoming Goblin Hunter, Lore Valley stuff will end up getting pushed to the side for quite a few months. But I’ll notify everyone on my progress here or on twitter.

Anyway, without further adieu, go get yourselves a copy of my latest book!

Get it now at amazon.com!

The Fall of Tavak Cover

New Assar is under siege.

After a deadly storm left dozens of Assarin nobles dead and the King of New Assar missing, the Tavak Uprising swept through the coastal villages like wildfire, rousing hundreds of Anzarins to the cause, along with their unscrupulous mercenary allies. The Tavak Army reached the gates of New Assar, leaving it in shambles as an army of enraged Anzarins stormed through the streets, destroying everything in their path. Caught in the frenzy of battle are the Wind Riders, each of whom must navigate the chaos around them in order to survive.

Jonir is dragged through the city by Nevi, the fiery Anzarin woman who wants him to see just what the Assarins he’s come to treat with are capable of. Emra debates her options with Maradin Dumon, the King of New Assar, just as her hunter returns, seeking to finally put an end to her life. Iago wakes from a fever dream, alive but seemingly cursed with a painful wound that no longer exists. All the while, Galen seeks his alliance with New Assar, and must negotiate with the enigmatic Jacyn Denridar, a man who holds the fate of the city in his hands.

Buildings burn, soldiers die, and secrets are revealed as the Wind Riders face the mistakes of their past, along with fears of their future.

Book 6 of the Tales of the Lore Valley pulp fantasy series!

Basketball and Science Fiction

So, in between my mad rushes to finish the dozen or so books I’m currently in the middle of writing, I’ve decided to include some extra-curricular writing to the mix. Starting pretty soon I’ll be contributing to the science fiction website Save Sci Fi as an official contributor. I’m not sure when my first article will go up, but I’ll put a notice up here once it does.

In addition to that, I’ve already started adding some volunteer contributions to Mavs Moneyball, a basketball news site focused on the Dallas Mavericks. I’ve applied to be a contributor there as well, but I haven’t heard back on whether or not they accepted me.  Hopefully that happens soon, and I can add sports reporter to my resume.

I did write an article for the Moneyball site a couple weeks back, though, just to show off my writing chops. I’ll link that below, along with the next batch of articles I plan on writing, all so you guys can go check them out and add some comments, just to show that I do have at least a couple fans out there. 🙂

Durant’s Diminished Legacy

The Fall of Tavak

It’s about that time… time for a

NEW LORE VALLEY BOOK!

WR6 Cover - 300x487

That’s right, book 6 of my Pulp Fantasy series Tales of the Lore Valley – The Fall of Tavak, is very nearly upon us. I’ve finished the main draft, and it’s going through some final edits as we speak, in preparation for online release. I don’t know exactly when it’ll be published and available, but I’d suspect sometime in late April or early May. Certainly in time for the Fan Expo Dallas in early June, just don’t count on me having print copies by then. Print copies are a difficult thing to get done in a short amount of time…

Regardless, the ebook will be ready soon, so get yourself prepared for an explosive conclusion to the House Corovin storyline, and the beginnings of a new adventure, beginning with book 7 – Rikoso Tunga!

Also, and this is highly premature, but I’m finally starting to work on the second Tales of the Lore Valley series, tentatively called The Prophecy of Fire. It takes place in the same world as the Wind Riders, at the same time, only with different characters. The Prophecy series will showcase a different part of the Lore Valley, delving into kingdoms and legends that the Wind Riders doesn’t always have time to get to. But it tells an important story in its own right, one that will eventually (along with potentially a third series) tie together with the Wind Riders, but you don’t need to know a ton about one series to enjoy the other. However, if you’re a Lore Valley fan, I recommend reading BOTH!

Of course, the caveat here is that while I’m WORKING on the Prophecy of Fire series, it’s still a long way from becoming reality. But I’ll post some updates on that series as I go.

Free Books Reminder

Just a reminder that I have some FREE BOOKS! That’s right, if you make use of Amazon’s Kindle eReader, you can download three FREE BOOKS from Amazon RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND!

Want more info? Read the post below…

Free Books!

I usually get a pretty decent number of downloads for these FREE BOOKS but I feel the need to remind people every once in a while that they’re there. Especially the Lore Valley and Organization books.

Writer, storyteller, independent and/or self-published author, and all-around procrastinator…