By Kris Kramer
A Rise of Cithria story
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Alayna stepped quickly through the tall grass, fate driving her through a distant, lightly-trod forest path blanketed in darkness. Clouds covered the sky, blocking out the moonlight and the stars, giving them cover as they’d crossed the river and began their trek to the castle’s secret entrance. A good omen, she thought, although, not without its problems. The men in front her, Centnar Sevris and Decnar Joah, were little more than black silhouettes bobbing left and right through the unseen brush, navigating the path with ease. Alayna stumbled occasionally on a branch or a rock, but she handled it much better than Gunnar, who seemed to trip on something every third step. After a while, she’d taken to holding his arm to help steady him.
Twenty-four soldiers followed the two priests, walking in a single file line as they left the protection of the forest and approached the small millhouse nestled at the base of the wide hill ahead. Alayna had seen the place a hundred times in her youth. The stonework marked it as Thandaran, as did the long, crumbling wall in front that stretched out along the northern base of the hill – the remains of the actual breakwall the town was named after. Legend told that the wall had once circled the entire hill, built as a defense by the Thandaran general Verterax against the native Anduains over five hundred years ago. With that wall, the Thandarans held off wave after wave of Anduain savages in a battle that lasted an entire summer. Their victory helped secure a foothold in Andua, and led to the rebirth of the island as Caldera.
She had no idea that mill, a fixture of her childhood and a source of pride for Breakwall, sat on top of a secret tunnel leading into the castle. A tunnel that, according to Gunnar, had been built to allow former lords of Breakwall to ferry secret consorts in and out. It somehow cheapened the city’s history.
A wide creek wove along the side of the hill which was funneled into a narrow, man-made ravine that pushed the water underneath the mill, driving the slow-moving wheels that at one time ground flour and cut wood. The water still flowed, but the wheels were in disrepair, as all of the mill’s operations had long since moved into the town along the river bank. No one lived or worked in that place anymore, and hadn’t for hundreds of years. Which, as Gunnar had explained, made it a fantastic secret entrance.
They entered through the front door, which creaked loudly upon opening. Once inside, Sevris motioned everyone to stay where they were as he fashioned a torch, then stepped into the storeroom and crouched down next to the back wall. He reached his hand into what looked like a large mouse hole on the floor. A twist of his arm produced a loud click, followed a moment later by the middle of the floor dropping away. Alayna gasped as a dark hole appeared only a few feet in front of her. Sevris stuck his torch into the hole and peered over. After a quick check, he lowered his legs into the abyss, and then climbed down on an unseen ladder.
Joah followed, and then Gunnar. Alayna went next, doing her best to ignore the slippery residue on the rungs. The ladder went down a few dozen steps before depositing her onto a damp, rocky floor amidst the others. Water from the creek seeped down the walls, disappearing into recesses below she couldn’t even imagine. Sevris had already moved down a narrow tunnel, lighting torches that lined the walls. Gunnar followed, motioning Alayna to do the same.
“You go ahead,” Joah said, giving her a gentle nudge on her shoulder. “I’m staying behind to make sure the rest of these ladies follow us to our doom.”
He grinned, and she forced a wan smile in return before following the sentinel into the long tunnel. The air was warm and thick with moisture, making it hard to breathe. Sweat beaded up all over her skin and she constantly wiped the sleeve of her robe across her forehead as the stepped gingerly on the slick floor. Every sound carried from one end of the tunnel to other. It struck Alayna as odd that no footstep, grunt, cough, or whisper went unheard. She supposed secret didn’t have to mean quiet.
She marveled at how fate had led her here. She was sneaking into Breakwall Castle, to kidnap the Lady of Breakwall, a woman who had once been as close to her as a sister. Alayna’s father had been the town’s dock master, but both her parents had died when she was young and Lord Morgantin took her in. She’d always assumed he’d done it mostly to give his daughter an extra plaything, but she never held that against him. She’d enjoyed growing up in the castle, her and Violet running through the opulent halls at night, handmaidens chasing after them with threats of whippings, or worse. Violet never let her forget that she was essentially a princess and Alayna only an orphaned dock master’s daughter, but they were young and carefree and she never took the insult seriously.
That changed once they became teenagers, and Violet took on more of her courtly responsibilities. They grew apart quickly, wanting different things and taking wildly different routes to get them. But she still cared for Violet. She still thought of her as a sister, if an estranged one. And she had to wonder, how much of this was her own fault? If she hadn’t fought that creature so harshly back in the caves, he could have taken her instead of Violet, and Breakwall wouldn’t have suffered. She’d have gladly sacrificed herself for her people. That was her responsibility as a war priest, and it was doubly so as a citizen of Breakwall. She only wished she’d known at the time what was at stake, because she might not get another chance.
Eventually, a brick wall blocked their way, with a narrow iron grate in the center. Sevris waited as the rest of his ragtag army caught up, then lifted a thick latch set in the grate. It clinked loudly, echoing far down the tunnel and then back again, and Alayna winced. No one else seemed to be nervous, though, so she forced herself to be calm.
They stepped through the grate and into a room with stone walls that matched the build of the castle above. Sevris led them through a door at the far end and down a hallway that ended at a circular stairwell that looped up a good forty feet before disappearing through the ceiling. The centnar held a finger to his lips and carefully climbed to the top.
Alayna held her breath as her own steps brought her closer to the castle proper, where bustling servants and curious guards could be found around every corner. Would they have to fight to get to Violet’s room? Would they have to kill or hurt anyone who accidently stumbled upon their little army? She hoped not. She prayed silently to the Goddess, begging Her to get them through this with as little bloodshed as possible.
The ladder ended in another storeroom with wide, barren shelves, save for small trails of grain and flour. Sevris had already opened the door and Alayna almost didn’t recognize the kitchens beyond. They were empty and lifeless, devoid not only of people, but also of food, barrels, and cooking utensils. A stark contrast to the lively, bustling place she remembered as a child.
The men congregated near the storeroom as they came up the ladder, although Sevris sent a few to monitor the three doors leading out to two hallways and the dining chamber. Each one indicated with a shake of their head that no one was near. Once everyone had reached the kitchen, Sevris motioned to Joah.
“Take your men and bar all the outer doors. I don’t want to be surprised by a night watchman or a servant who might be wandering the halls. Once you do that, set up patrols to watch the halls between here and the back stairs, to cover our escape. When we leave, I want to do it fast. And quiet.”
Joah motioned to some of the soldiers nearby and hurried off. Alayna watched with some trepidation as he disappeared through one of the doors, taking half the men with him. She suddenly felt naked, wandering about the castle in the middle of the night, like a thief, with only ten men to watch her instead of over twenty.
The rest of them filed into one of the halls, their pace quickening until they reached a wide, stone staircase at the back of the castle that led to the bedchambers above. They moved up to the third floor, where Sevris again signaled them to stop.
“We split up here,” he whispered to his waiting men. “Dirk, take five men and check the Lady’s old room. I’ll take the rest and go to the lord’s chambers. She could be in either one, but if you find her, make sure you keep her tied up and gagged and then bring her here. We rally here with the Lady, and then we make a run for the tunnel.”
Dirk nodded and left with his men, splitting the number in half once again. Alayna and Gunnar followed Sevris and his remaining four soldiers toward the lord’s chambers, the floors and walls bare and bereft of any adornment. Again, nothing like what she remembered. Her heart thudded in her chest as they approached the double door leading to the lord’s chambers. Except for that horrible dream, she hadn’t seen Violet in over six years. Would she still have some semblance of her old self? Would she even look the same? The creature’s true form, revealed to her in that original nightmare back in the caves, sent a chill down her spine. Even more so because she’d seen Violet herself morph into the creature. That image suddenly seemed far too fitting.
Sevris paused at the door, gathering his men to charge in without any hesitation. He opened the door and rushed inside, followed by the other four soldiers. Alayna and Gunnar went in last, only to stop at the sight of an empty room, dust outlines on the walls and floors signaling where furniture had once been. A single, half-melted candle sat on the center of the floor, it and Sevris’s torch providing the only buffer against the all-encompassing darkness.
“She’s not here,” Alayna said. She let out the breath she’d been holding, and the tension eased from her shoulders. Dirk and his men would have to do the hard part of taking Violet by force, tying her up, and dragging back to the meeting point. Alayna was quietly grateful for that.
“Maybe you aren’t looking hard enough.”
Alayna spun to see a female figure standing in the doorway leading to the sitting room. The woman stepped through with purpose, the candlelight quickly revealing the pale skin, black hair, and calculating smile of Lady Violet. She wore riding clothes under a thick, red coat, along with leather boots and gloves. They hadn’t caught her sleeping. They’d caught her just about to leave.
“Violet,” Alayna whispered. “Is that… you?”
Violet pretended to look offended.
“Who else would it be, dear? Don’t you recognize me?”
Alayna’s heart went cold. She recognized exactly who she was speaking to.
Sevris stepped to the front. “If it is you, Lady Violet, then you wouldn’t object to joining us in Corendar, where the Church can make sure of that.”
Violet’s smile faded, and she eyed the men in the room like a snake sizing up mice for dinner.
“This place reminds me of my home.” She stepped deliberately to the center of the room, throwing a dissatisfied glance across the empty walls. “If not for the light from the candle and your torch, we’d be standing here in near total blackness, unable to see each other, our minds racing to imagine the worst horrors possible stalking us in the dark. But that torch, or a single candle on the floor,” she leaned over to pick it up, holding it close to her face, “illuminates everything, casting aside the horrors we imagine for those we can no longer deny.”
The smile returned.
“Let’s not pretend anymore, shall we? I know what you’ve been told by Alayna and Gunnar, and I know how much you want to believe in their words. That makes this so much easier for you, doesn’t it? It gives you a reason to act against me, without sacrificing your honor, or turning you into outright brigands.”
She held out her arms.
“Well, if it makes you feel better, then it’s all true. I am far more than just Lady Violet, the lord of Breakwall. I am the ruler of a realm none of you feeble, weak-minded beasts can even fathom. Where I come from, I am a god, and I have every intention of making that true here.” She examined her fingernails, as if bored by the conversation. “It’s already happening. The longer I stay in this realm, the stronger I become in it. The more I can make it mine, just as I do to your dreams.”
Gunnar coughed. “No more of that, my Lady. The Church sentinels and inquisitors will be busy for some time investigating your claims, which you can tell them all about in person.”
Violet glared at the sentinel, then sniffed.
“You.” She pointed at the man at the far left. “Your name is Alec. You have a wife here in the city who begged you to see reason when you questioned her desire to serve me. She’s carrying your first child, and you want nothing more than to find her and drag her out of here. You only serve this man,” she motioned to Sevris, “as long as you think he can help you with that. Otherwise, you’d have done the same to her as you’re about to do to me.”
Alec’s eyes darted back and forth between Violet and Sevris.
Violet frowned. “Alec, you let me into your dreams eight days ago, and you never pushed me out. I see everything inside of you now. More than that, I own everything inside of you.” She pointed at the soldier standing next to Alec. “Kill him, Alec, and I’ll return you to your wife.”
Alec slowly drew his sword, but his hand shook. Sweat poured down his face. Alayna couldn’t tell if he was fighting Violet, or himself.
Sevris dropped his torch to the floor and pulled his own sword. “Don’t do it, Alec.” The rest of the men followed suit, all of them turning to surround the suddenly isolated Alec.
“I… I can’t…”
“Alec,” Violet said, reprimanding him, “I’m not convinced you want to see your wife at all.”
Alec’s expression went blank, as if he were seeing something in his mind. Suddenly, his face twisted into horror and he charged the man next to him, who defended himself just as furiously. The others came to his aid, while Gunnar grabbed Alayna’s arm and pulled her out of the fray. Within moments, the rest of the men had disarmed Alec, and two held his arms tightly while he struggled against them like a rabid dog.
“You. Richard.” Violet pointed at another of the men. “Do the same. Kill the others.”
Richard looked at Sevris and the other soldiers, his eyes wide with fear as he pointed his sword at them.
“Stop it!” Alayna shouted. Violet turned to her, and Richard froze.
“Are you impressed, Alayna? I couldn’t do this when we first met. Now, it’s almost too easy. It makes me yearn for the days when some of you actually stood up to me.”
Alayna stepped forward, shrugging off Gunnar’s attempts to hold her back. “Violet! I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me. You have to fight this monster that’s controlling you. It’s doing terrible things in your name, but you can cast it out, just like I did. I know you’re strong enough!”
Violet smirked. “It’s not about strength anymore, my lovely. It’s about desire. Violet is getting everything she ever wanted. She will be the face of a goddess. Remembered forever as the woman who united all the peoples of this world into one. In fact,” Violet raised a hand, pointing at Gunnar, “she’s eager to get this over with.”
Gunnar’s eyes bulged and he cried out in terror at some unseen being before him. It lasted only a moment before he crumpled to the ground, cradling himself and moaning. Richard, held at bay by Violet’s speech, leapt into the fray, attacking the two prone soldiers, before Sevris cut him off. Alayna ignored the fighting and ran to Gunnar. She couldn’t get into his head to help. She had no skill with Domination, yet, only healing. So in a panic she did the only thing she could do. She cast a healing spell to soothe the sentinel. His agitation seemed to lessen but he was still unresponsive to anything she said.
Alayna glanced back to see that Sevris had disarmed Richard, and was pinning him to the ground.
“Sevris!” she called out. The centnar glanced at her, only barely looking away from Richard, who still struggled mightily. “We need to get her before she hurts anyone else!”
Violet laughed. “Get me? You have this all backward, my dear. I know everything that’s happened in this castle tonight, or in your caves this morning. I was in Gunnar’s head the entire time, listening to every word as you planned your attack. I’ve been waiting here all night for you to show up, just so I can tie off every last loose thread from this little adventure. You won’t be getting me. I will be getting you.”
She glanced at Sevris, who blinked a few times, as if just remembering where he was. Without warning, he plunged his sword into Richard’s chest, who squealed like a stuck pig. Alayna cried out in horror, but it made no difference as the centnar turned to the other soldiers and attacked. Distracted as they all were, he cut them down easily. Killing each man with simple, precise strikes. Once they were dead, Alayna watched in horror as the bloodied warrior turned to face her.
“Now the sentinel,” Violet commanded. “Leave the girl.”
Sevris stepped toward them, and Alayna moved to stand in front of Gunnar, heedless of the danger.
“Don’t listen to her! She’s controlling you!”
Sevris paused, his eyes narrowing.
“Do it now,” Violet said, a hint of annoyance in her voice.
“Be strong,” Alayna said. “Remember who you are, what you care about. Think of your honor.”
Sevris remained still. He stared at Alayna, but it wasn’t her he saw. He’d retreated back into his mind. He was fighting the nightmare. Alayna froze, silently praying to the Goddess that he was winning.
“No!” Sevris suddenly shouted. He turned and charged across the room, reaching Violet in four long strides. He grabbed her, then spun around behind, clutching her with one arm and holding his sword to her throat with the other. Violet dropped the candle, which rolled across the floor and settled in the corner. For the first time tonight, her face showed true fear.
“You’re coming with us, my Lady,” Sevris growled.
Violet squirmed in his iron grip, finding no recourse. She went still, and locked her eyes on Alayna, who felt a deathly chill in her bones.
“Ilsan,” Violet said calmly. “I need you.”
A man appeared from the sitting room, having hidden there this entire time. He wore loose, black clothing that covered every part of him, including a hood wrapped over the top of his head and a facemask that revealed only his cold, dark eyes.
He darted out from the doorway and Alayna caught a flash of steel in his hands as he charged straight at Sevris. The centnar turned, trying to use Violet as a shield but Ilsan was too fast. The black-clad man ducked around the lady and jabbed his blades into Sevris’ side. Sevris cried out, pushing Violet away so he could face his attacker properly, but it was already too late. Ilsan darted in again, his hands moving faster than Alayna thought possible. A moment later, he retreated from the centnar, who stared down at his bloody torso in shock.
“Aron?” she said.
Sevris’ mouth fell open, but no words came out. He looked up, his face wrenched with pain, and pointed his sword straight out. He managed a single shaky step toward Ilsan, who regarded the soldier coolly. Before he could take a second, though, he dropped to his knees, his sword clanging to the floor.
“No!” Alayna cried out. Sevris’ eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he toppled to the ground, moments from death.
Violet calmly adjusted her coat. “Now the sentinel.”
Ilsan moved toward Gunnar. Alayna ran to stop him but a quick punch to her gut dropped her to the floor, struggling to catch her breath. By the time she looked up, Ilsan had already cut Gunnar’s throat.
She tried to scream, but there was nothing left in her lungs. Instead, she coughed and sputtered, wheezing to get some air.
“Hold her.” Violet’s voice. “Don’t hurt her.”
Ilsan’s iron hand clamped down on the back of her neck, pinning her to the floor with incredible strength. She struggled at first, before giving up entirely. What else was there to do? Violet approached her slowly, then leaned over and grabbed Alayna’s chin, lifting it up to look her in the eyes.
“It was a valiant effort, my friend. You continue to not let me down. But your fight is over. I’m leaving now. I don’t know where, yet, but it will be somewhere quiet. Out of the way. Without an oppressive king or church looking over my shoulder. When I find that place, I will start over. My new followers will build me a home, a home that will grow along with my power over the minds of men. My home will turn into a kingdom, and then an empire. When I return to this island – and I will return – it will be at the head of an army of millions. I will be more than a god. I will be the God. I will rule this world. And then… I will abandon it for a new pleasure.”
Violet stroked her old friend’s hair.
“I want you to know that I won’t kill you, Alayna. I respect you. I have since the very beginning. So much so that I’ve chosen you to bear the responsibility of knowing that I will cover this world like a blight, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
Violet leaned in close to whisper in Alayna’s ear.
“What good is a nightmare, if no one is left to suffer it?”
Violet let go of her, and Alayna’s head dropped in defeat. The Lady of Breakwall left, followed by the silent Ilsan. Alayna sat on the barren floor, hunched over, weeping, as their footsteps echoed softly through the hallway, eventually fading away entirely. Only then did she dare to move from her spot, crawling over to Gunnar’s body and cradling his head in her lap.
She cried for some time.
Finally, she rose, her tears spent, and she ventured out of the room, Sevris’ torch in one hand, his sword in the other. She wandered the castle, tentative at first, waiting for another nightmare to spring out from the darkness. But none came. Emboldened, she explored, finding only empty hallways and bare rooms, the only sound her own footsteps. She found more dead soldiers, men Sevris had sent off. She didn’t find all of them – Joah was missing, along with a few others – but she found enough.
She went to the courtyard, and then through the open gate. The town below was dark and lifeless. The streets were empty. The houses abandoned. Nothing was left. No one remained save for two dogs that watched her curiously from the door of the tailor’s shop.
She went to the dock and looked downriver, seeing only the faint glow of light from a distant boat, just before it disappeared around the bend. That was the ship that carried Violet – her body if not her mind – off to some unknown land, where she would cultivate the terrible power inside her.
Until the moment she came back to terrorize them all.
There were no stars, and Alayna remember how she’d thought that was a good omen when they first set out that night. Now, it only added to her crushing loneliness. She sat down on the dock and stared at nothing, losing herself in the still, silent darkness that surrounded her.
Her nightmare had only just begun.
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