Nightmare Chapter 6

By Kris Kramer

A Rise of Cithria story

 

Chapter 6 (of 6)

Read – Chapter 1Chapter 2 – Chapter 3 – Chapter 4 – Chapter 5

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.

“She’s lying.”

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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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!