Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
The Paragons granted the common form to all non-common races. Diviners believe the Paragons did this to simultaneously celebrate both everyone’s differences and everyone’s equality, though such sights into Paragon actions are limited for Diviners to interpret.
- Diviner Insights
Wagons on the caravan road had beaten down the tall blond grass of the Element Plain. Flat, broken only by the Autumn Mountains behind them. They walked along the shore of the Sea of Istali on their left. The grasses slushed as the wind slithered over them. The wind never stopped blowing.
“Is the Caravan Master looking for a consort?” Sycain asked. The man could go all day without saying a word and then burst out with the most random questions and statements, and then return to reticence.
Markie laughed. “I figured even after a week you would’ve picked up she most definitely, positively, wants no personal relationships in her life. Not in a friendship, in family…and especially not a lover.”
“Truly?” Sycain scratched his hairline. Even for this hot day, and he’d stripped down to his sleeveless vest, he still wore leather vambraces covering both wrists up to his elbow. “I never noticed. I always thought her cute and considerate.”
“Considerate. Huh. She’d thrust you threw with your own sword if she heard you call her cute.”
“Well, see in order to get at my sword, she’d have to put her hands all over me. And no lady has been able to resist my charms once they touch me.”
“Give it another day and you’ll change your mind about her. Is she attractive? Yes. But there is clear reason why no man in this caravan has even propositioned her. Take me, for example. I’m a widower, and I’m not even interested in her. She’s too aggressively dominating, which has made her successful as a businesswoman but distasteful as a potential wife. A friendly warning, Sycain, you don’t want to pursue her. You’d be safer and more successful courting a dragon in common form. Everyone knows she’s rich, and so much as winking at her will get you tied to a tree for wolves to pick at, because she’s so protective of herself she thinks even a friendly handshake from a stranger is to be treated with caution.”
“Certainly she needs an heir to carry on her empire, no?”
“I hear she plans to gather all her money and retire on some island by herself when she’s ready. Alone.”
“No one wants to be alone.”
“Because she’s not met a man worthy of her yet.”
Compressed air escaped Markie. “Okay, Sycain, I’ve given you fair warning. I will not be responsible if she ties you to a tree, nor will I run back to free you.”
Sycain withdrew, returning to his corner of the wagon.
“The Element Horses live here,” Markie said to Cohthel, sweeping his arm to cover the expanse of the Element Plain. Conversations made the time go by faster. “Ever heard of them?”
“Do you know where they came from?”
“They pulled Fate’s chariot onto Eloshonna when she first arrived eight hundred sixty-two years ago.”
“They taught it in school.”
“…Ah. Alright. Then, don’t want to bore you with old school lessons. But I did see Lord Wind once.”
“You can’t see the wind.”
“Lord Wind looks like a ghost. A gust of wind rushed by in the shape of a horse. It’s hard to explain.”
Cohthel looked out over the tall grass. Despite the shameless chunk the Element Plain absorbed on Eloshonna, he expected the massive Element Horses would’ve been easier to spot, but they weren’t.
Anxiety broke sweat through Cohthel’s in-need-of-another-wash shirt as they approached the Dark Elf Gate seeded into the Element Plain and hidden by the tall plain grass, his impulses sparking to react with animosity.
Dark Elves scattered their doors throughout Eloshonna but declared this entry their Gate: a massive hole drilled through the dirt big enough a dragon could fly down with wings spread. The Dark Elves — or their Dark Dwarf allies? — carved sloping steps into the earthen stone which reached until all vanished into impenetrable darkness.
Cohthel’s physical cues must have been visual because Markie put a large hand on Cohthel’s shoulder as they walked. Cohthel had worn a hole through his boot sole, but Markie replaced them a few campfires ago over guesses at the R’th God Astorous’s disappearance and why the R’th God stopped imbuing newborns with R’th. “What’s got you so anxious, Evermore?”
“Dark Elves. They attack members of the Kingdom and here we’re about to trade with them.” He looked at the taller man. “Does that not bother you?”
Markie tapped his nose. “A deer and ecthore will share the same watering hole because the ecthore understand if the deer don’t nourish themselves, the deer will wither and die prematurely and the ecthore will have nothing to eat. But if that does not settle you, falkons brought in rumors that Torc Thoraus decreed an actual armistice between the Kingdom and Dark Elves good for one year.”
Cohthel’s eyebrows shot up. “How’d he do that?”
Markie’s smile sunk. Cohthel noticed his tightening jaw. “Coercion. Free falkon rumors said the Dark Elves are holding a human from Malandore as a political hostage, forcing the Kingdom and Dark Elves to withhold hostilities.”
Cohthel feared for Mother. “Who was it? Who did they take?”
“Torc Thoraus’ very daughter. Can’t remember her name. Too young for me. Tragic is what it all is. Heartbreaking.”
Cohthel’s heart froze. “What!” He blubbered more questions, but Markie stopped him with a raised hand.
“That’s all the falkons would give out for free. Any more detail and they wanted payment. Guess we’ll have to get back to Malandore and ask our kin.”
Cohthel’s steps faltered, lagging behind the increasing distance between him and the wagon. Markie looked back at him, concerned. Distracted and all his energy zapped, Cohthel stepped off the road, the wagons rumbling by.
Neleci…political hostage…Why? How? Sick to his stomach with anxiety, his head filled with air, threatening to detach from his shoulders and float away, but his heart turned to cold stone and sunk into his gut, holding him in place. Then the cold stone crumbled into fiery rage virgin to Cohthel, ripping through his chest; the Undergod tangible in his blood.
The daggering sunlight turned the Element Plains into a white ocean, except for a single black blemish swaying like a gob of sour bilge…the Dark Elf responsible for taking Neleci hostage. Without thought, Cohthel pulled on his invisible veil and rushed the Dark Elf walking beside his wagon ahead. Cohthel didn’t have a weapon. His hands would have to do. This must be why Fate gave him invisibility, to protect and defend those he loved.
He slammed into the Dark Elf who didn’t have time to shout his alarm before his chest crashed into the dirt. With fingers, fists, and palms, Cohthel struck everything he could reach. The Dark Elf, unable to see the unseen like White Elves, squirmed and flung his arms on gambled instincts, unable to evade Cohthel’s invisible knuckles seemingly intent on crushing bones.
Arms attacked Cohthel’s middle, hauling him backward. Cohthel spun in the embrace, but the White Elf reacted faster — older, stronger — and turned Cohthel’s body into a whirlwind straight into the ground. Heat pounded in Cohthel’s limbs. He fought to rise from the ground. More hands grabbed him, but his fight didn’t chill into darkness until a needle prick dug into his shoulder and silenced him.
Cohthel swam in soupy consciousness, sweating, melting in what must be the dinner pot boiling over the fire. He opened his mouth because he couldn’t breathe out his nose, eyes simultaneously sticky and dry. He tried moving his limbs, surprised they remained attached and not chopped into pieces swimming in this soup with him.
“Evermore?” The voice reached his ears, rippling through the liquid. “Can you hear me? I think he’s waking.”
Cohthel clacked his numb tongue. Someone must have assumed he wanted water because they put a spout to his lips. He suckled, the cold wash cooling the heat from the boil. Clarity returned, bringing faces floating in his darkness.
“Evermore.” Markie. “Can you hear me?”
“Yup.” Cohthel forgot how to form words. By now he understood the influence of a drug. “Yup I cun.”
“Do you know where you are?”
Cohthel looked up, surrounded by a small enclosure of dark wood. “Building.”
“The sick wagon.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
Nothing in his words said Neleci or hostage, but Cohthel heard them with more clarity than temple bells. Tears welled in both eyes. He strained to wipe them, discovering both hands had been cuffed in front of him. “Why am I bound?”
“Do you remember what happened?”
His story of what happened was scripted across all ten of his split knuckles. “Dark Elves took Neleci as a hostage. She’s my friend and I will never leave friends behind. I will always fight for them because all kindred matter.”
“If all kindred matter then why did you attack Urouhi?”
“Dark Elves are not kindred.”
“You’re going to rely on a controversial definition to excuse your actions for attacking someone innocent? What if a human had kidnapped Neleci? Are humans excusable? So the torc should brand and exile you from the Kingdom for another human’s crime?”
“He…” Cohthel gloried in his justification when he showed the Dark Elf his wrath. He reached and reached but that same justification eluded him now.
“Urouhi abandoned Dark Elven ways — their culture, their religion. He came to us, us, and enlightened the Kingdom about a culture we knew nothing about. And now we can defend against Dark Elf hostilities. Because of him, we know they hear heartbeats, see in the dark, use handprints to kill and capture, the members of the Seeing have access to R’th because of the singular goddess they worship. Do you know the Dark Elves keep an open kill order on Urouhi for his betrayal? Kitannia threatened the Dark Elves that if they brought harm to Urouhi she’d cease trade with them, and the Kingdom will march underground and eradicate their race. And yet, despite knowing he’d forfeit his life, he came to us anyway. And you’re going to attack him for a crime he did not commit?”
Painful shame slipped into his heart. You matter more to me than paint, he told Mother. You matter, he thought once about Mianda. Everyone matters. Kindred kindness. Always. But where did he draw the line? Dark Elves weren’t kindred. And yet Urouhi, a Dark Elf, walked unharmed under Kingdom protection. Dusutri weren’t kindred either, but that would disqualify Mianda.
Markie answered Cohthel’s dilemma. “The Paragons created all of us. They didn’t split us down the middle. We did that. Either we all matter or no one matters. You can’t pick based on the current whims of your emotions.”
Cohthel fought to sit. “But Dark Elves are so bad!”
“So we should discount the good Dark Elves, like Urouhi?”
“N-no…” Cohthel was right. He knew it. He just needed to find his justification again.
“Wouldn’t society live more productively if we celebrated change, like Urouhi, instead of punishing all attempts? If we encouraged those changing for the better, we’d see the day when hostilities stopped, would we not?”
“Dark Elves started these hostilities.” There. He found it.
“Urouhi didn’t start these hostilities. He broke away from them.”
Cohthel’s shoulders ached from their bound-forward position.
“Kitannia doesn’t care if you disagree. I begged her to give me a moment to talk to you before she did.
She plans to charge you for the assault and for making a fool out of her since we had just started our performance to enter the Dark Elf territory.”
“I did that?”
“You disrupted the entire performance. The whole thing stopped. If you wanted attention, you got it.”
Cohthel dropped his head, groaning.
The door to the sick wagon opened and the Caravan Master thumped inside, listening outside the door for her cue. Without pretext, she dove straight to the core of her concern. “Per my agreement with the Kingdom, I can’t dump you off in the Element Plain and make you walk back to Malandore. So I’m forced to drag you along with me. Since you’ve proved you will attack others while invisible, I am going to chain you to your wagon.”
Cohthel shot straight up. “You’ll do no such—”
Markie snapped his fingers. Loud.
His statement shriveled beneath her cloudy gaze. “When you are unchained for bowel voiding and baths, Esefyl will escort you. You’ll remained chained until Urouhi accepts your apology, and then he will decide when to unchain you. Now come with me.” She left the wagon.
“I’m not getting chained to the wagon. I refuse!”
“Don’t fight her.”
“This is Kingdom injustice! I’m going to report her to Torc Thoraus the second I step into Malandore.”
“You think you have any grounds? She’s already drafted her report and sent a falkon to Torc Thoraus.
You hang on her grace alone while she decides whether or not to charge you with assault.”
“I demand a trial before I get chained to a wagon.”
“I know you’re angry, but you’ve got to swallow this and follow along.”
“I will not!”
“Don’t talk to me like you’re my father.”
Markie rose to his feet in a flash. Cohthel leaned away from Markie’s Bladehand energy permeating the sick wagon. “You attacked someone. Get that through your head. You are at fault here. You committed the crime. You get to pick your choice. You don’t get to pick your consequence. You can either walk out with me or walk out alone. Your choice, and your consequence.”
A wraith rose before Cohthel, having replaced Markie; an anathema — would have looked righteous in blood-smeared armor. Markie had not once raised his voice to anyone in the caravan. Always smiling, laughing, telling stories, and teasing. Cohthel loathed himself and because of himself he’d summoned this shade.
Small and dry. Cohthel would slip through the cracks of the floorboards, rattle as he fell. What Oath Ghost possessed him to do what he would never do, say what he would never say?
“I’ll go with you,” Markie, Markie said, the use of his shade expired and sent back to the hostage of the Undergod.
With Markie’s return came shame, arriving for Cohthel as real and corporeal as the man helping him power through his error. Cohthel could not move. He would sacrifice every meal to stay in this wagon to avoid facing the judgments and rumors.
Markie bent to one knee and held out his hand. “I’m with you.”
Tears burned the back of Cohthel’s nose, that betraying flash again of Markie replacing Father. The vision lingered longer than the first time, but Cohthel banished the temptation with ripping force.
When he found Father, Cohthel would show him he could own his choices and consequences.
With Markie’s help, Cohthel stood. He followed Markie out.
Night had fallen outside the wagon, the carts circled for camp. Torch R’th rocks rippled in golden pools.
The camp must look like a halo from those flying above. The Caravan Master, the White Elf Esefyl, a dwarf, and a dragon in common stood ready as Cohthel approached.
“I’d like to apologize to Urouhi now.” The need to repent swelled inside Cohthel.
Kitannia stood in front of him holding a length of chain. “Hold them out.”
Cohthel opened his mouth to argue but caught Markie’s face, who shook his head.
Cohthel held out both wrists. She snapped the chain link through the middle of his cuffs.
“You Faunts are all the same.” She sneered. “Violence appears to be entirely instinctive for all of you.”
“All of us?” he questioned stupidly.
Kitannia handed the cuff key to Esefyl, and then walked toward her tent and vanished behind the canvas flap she slapped aside.
Instinctive violence? You Faunts? Was she talking about Father? Of course not. Father was kind.
Esefyl swept the chain into her long-fingered hand and pulled, exactly like a dog on a leash. He forced himself to abandon the chaos sparking in his head about Kitannia’s comment and followed the White Elf with tightening shoulders, looking over his shoulder at the dragon in common and dwarf trailing behind like a prisoner escort. I’ll apologize and Urouhi will give the word to unchain me. Kitannia said he would decide how long my punishment lasts. His stomach cramped with embarrassment thinking of facing him, of exposing himself raw, forced to hold the shame naked, glued to his hands, unable to put it down or hide it. Markie walk beside him like a silent sentry, an extra vessel to bear Cohthel’s consequence.
Esefyl walked toward a fire where Urouhi sat with the droog, a human, and falkon in common. He lounged sideways, his elbow resting on his popped knee. He raised his white head upon Esefyl’s approach, his expression darkening when he looked past her to Cohthel shuffling behind.
Cohthel clenched his back teeth seeing the Dark Elf’s face. A bandage clung to his cheekbone below his right eye. Cohthel shared that pain across the knuckles on his left hand.
“Evermore would like to apologize,” Esefyl reported without emotion or care.
Urouhi shook his head.
Esefyl stepped away from him, pulling Cohthel’s chain.
“No, wait, I want to apologize!” Cohthel ground his heels and Esefyl stopped pulling. He had, once again, drawn everyone’s attention. “Urouhi, I’m sorry. I was not myself. I’m not that kind of kindred. I don’t know what possessed me. I got bad news from home and I reacted without thinking. Please, please forgive me.”
In the following silence, Urouhi watched him. Everyone watched him. Listening, happy for the drama breaking the daily mundane they would now talk about, write home about, expound and stretch and add to and take away so when he stepped into Malandore he would be a murderer who could turn invisible so watch out because you won’t see him coming.
“Your heart beats so loud,” Urouhi said clear and slow, aware of his captivated audience, “I think you are more afraid of being chained to the wagon than you are of not receiving my forgiveness.”
Cohthel didn’t know why everyone laughed, but the butt of jokes never do. Urouhi, however, did not look smug. Did not laugh. He frowned, and his singular frown hurt more than the surrounding laughter.
Cohthel followed like a whipped dog to his wagon. Esefyl secured the chain to a link in the wagon bed.
Left him standing like an idiot without a word. The chain allowed him to reach the lockbox under the wagon and lay beneath, but no longer. R’th light didn’t even reach him here. It, too, disassociated.
Spending too long deciding whether to cry for his guilt, hide for his shame, or scream because of this social injustice, Markie came over, carrying two steaming bowls.
“Eat.” Markie set one bowl on the wagon. “Otherwise that drug they knocked you out with will give you bad gas in a few hours.” He leaned against the wagon, shoveling stew into his mouth. “I’m here if you want to talk.”
“I didn’t mean to!” Cohthel gripped the chain in his hands, the links singing against each other. “And now I’m being crucified. I won’t believe no one here has made a mistake.” He didn’t know what embarrassed him more, Markie’s full attention or Sycain’s total lack. The man was leaning against the side of the wagon, singing to himself though he stood not six feet away from Cohthel’s plight.
“You’re defensive because you’re embarrassed,” Markie said. “That’s normal. But claiming your actions, making restitution, and never doing them again will separate you from the rest of the chaff on this mortal threshing floor.”
Cohthel couldn’t bear the entire shame of his actions by himself. He wasn’t aggressive. Undergod’s knuckles, he didn’t even want to fight Thaen on the training grounds!
“I understand the helpless rage.” Markie set his bowl down on the wagon. Cohthel slurped his without appetite, deciding the stew needed his onion, bergamot, and nettle seasoning. “Wanting to do something but unable. I learned that I could use that rage as a tool to work for me instead of against.
You used your rage against you today. Next time, use that fire for fuel and not for fury. Think of your emotions as a currency. But instead of throwing all your links out on the ground, letting others collect them, you keep them. Save them. Build them. So they’re ready when you finally purchase your warhorse.”
“How long will I be treated like an animal?”
Markie sighed. “Urouhi is your judge right now. Appease him first with an apology he accepts.”
Cohthel hurdled his stew bowl into the wagon behind him, brown sauce exploding across the chromatic paint. Ignoring Markie’s protest, he spun and stared into the dark expanse of wasteland outside the caravan circle, watching shadows turn into monsters.