By Kris Kramer
A Rise of Cithria story
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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?
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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!
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