Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
Dragons: can only die if their crystalline heart is shattered.
Appearance: Walks on four clawed feet. A long tail reaching an average of 20 feet. Entire body covered in scales. Scale colors range across all spectrums. Leathery wings extend out behind the shoulder blades. Top of the head averages 11 feet.
Contribution: cargo-carrier, Kingdom-wide defense
Realm: Mirror Lake
Namesake: all names include a double consonant and end with “raa”. This heralds back to dragon lore during the first century of Mortal Earth’s creation.
- “A Youngling’s Guide to Eloshian Races, year 2,862”
Markie predicted his warning of stormy seas as accurately as a cleric in the service of Sovereign Weather.
Sycain hid below deck, staying out of the captain’s way, re-hiding as she passed by on her prowls. Kitannia always rode at the head of the caravan, leading. Every couple of miles, she would peel off and ride to the back of the caravan, circle, and ride back up the other side, nagging everyone about the condition of care for her horses and wagons.
“She’s looking for me.” Sycain slid into his spot beside Markie from out of the trees. “I know women can’t resist me, but I can’t have me being a distraction to her. Can you believe she’s twenty-nine years old? Do you think she’s still a virgin?”
“Cohthel, cover your ears and hum.”
Cohthel pretended to do both.
“She must be under a lot of sexual tension. She’s going to break and I’m the lucky fellow who’s going to catch her. I told you she just needed to find the right man.”
“I have no idea why you’re attracted to her.”
“She’s wild, and restless, and ambitious and dangerous. How are you not allured by that?”
“For the same reasons you just said.”
“That’s alright. No competition. Will make my chances easier. Look! She’s coming back around. Think I’ll stay put so she can see me. Keep the tease going.”
“She’s going to dump you off in Malandore.”
“She won’t because she’s going to hire me. Unlike everyone else here, I don’t need a three month break between runs. I’ll go and go and go.”
Markie sighed. “If you say so, Sycain.”
By the time the caravan circled for camp, Kitannia had nearly driven everyone to kicking each other in the stomach. The campfire camaraderie unraveled in terse conversation, muted singing, and company dispersing for bed earlier than normal.
Cohthel, equal victim, didn’t know who to punch: Kitannia or Sycain.
Sleep brought sweet reset for the day, until Cohthel’s eyes snapped awake after a few hours, heart pounding with anxiety and confusion.
The scream ripped through the night again, sounding like a pegasi but far away from the caravan circle and not where a pegasi would be, not near the Ecthore Realm on the other side of the continent from the Pegasi Realm.
Cohthel rose to his knees, bleary-eyed, looking at everyone else inside the caravan circle. The two caravan members — a falkon and dwarf — keeping security on the caravan for that hour took off toward the tortured sound now coming in muffled squeals somewhere deeper within the trees.
Cohthel slapped his cheeks to sting his blood back awake, looking at Markie who shrugged. After another moment, a zinging realization snapped through Cohthel.
Kitannia threw back her heavy tent door canvas as if it were silk and not leather. Coming straight from bed she didn’t bother with boots or even a shirt to cover the near-naked strip of cloth concealing both breasts. She did, however, grab her sword. She ran toward the sound barefoot.
The falkon flew back into the R’th light of the caravan. “I need a litter!”
An elf and seadweller leaped forward, grabbing a litter out of the sick wagon. They carried it together behind the falkon flying back into the trees.
“Must be Atalixsphere. Sounds like some animal got her,” Markie said. “Though the ecthore keep them culled. No one’s ever been attacked before.”
The triage appeared within the trees, entering the ring of caravan R’th light. A rush of attendants surged forward to see. Cohthel joined them.
Atalixsphere, carried on the litter, had transfigured into common. Her back hooves remained, matching black-furred legs bending backward at the knee. Her front legs shortened into arms with five fingers on each hand. Large, elongated ears reached through white hair edging a long face. She retained her white wings but they had shrunk.
And so much blood.
The break snapped easily through her hollow leg bone, and now Cohthel saw every detail of her long face half caved in near the eye, clotted with blood. And over her right hip, branded clean through her black fur down to pink skin so there would be no mistaking, no hiding, no healing from, read the word: Animal.
The shock of the offending brand shot over Cohthel’s soaring anxiety. Thaen in Deep Winter: Knuckling Animals. And his weird story about going underground to rescue Neleci from the Dark Elves, saying he didn’t tell anyone. Cohthel knew there wasn’t a connection; of course, it’s only a coincidence. But Cohthel constantly worried about his best friend and what he wouldn’t say happened to him down there, all the little details he avoided telling, the Dark Elf R’th he might have contacted.
Kitannia at one corner of the litter, then the dwarf, elf, and seadweller, carried the litter into the covered sick wagon. Cohthel remained rooted next to Sycain and Markie, no one willing to approach the obvious question: who did this and why?
A weighted fog surrounded Cohthel, seeming to tax his and the whole camp’s energy — everyone moving as if through water. Unable to return to sleep, fires choked back to life as if fighting suffocation and unsettled mummers hummed through the dark.
Cohthel sat down at the nearest fire, feeling anxious for not helping Atalixsphere somehow, though he had no idea what he should do. Sycain and Markie must have felt something similar, because Sycain drew circle after circle in the dirt with a stick and Markie kept looking all around camp. Where song, dance and gossip to rival a festival always accompanying the fires, now each flicker looked too remarkable like funeral pyres.
Kitannia entered the caravan circle, having taken the time to put on her boots and a proper shirt. The quiet assembly quieted more.
“Atalixsphere is stable. She will receive proper care as soon as we reach Yl Elyuon. I have commissioned Torc Iplick to send ecthore sentries to patrol while we sleep. Everyone will be safe. So long as everyone stays inside the caravan ring.” She retreated to her tent.
Within moments, a pack of ecthore loped into the clearing where the caravan had parked. Fat tongues lolling, the wolf-like kindred circled outside the caravan, faced outward, and laid down. Long snouts rested on their massive paws. Cohthel had to admit, having their sensitive hearing and noses — as well as a fatal bite — eased his fears so he felt he’d be able to sleep as if nothing wrong happened that night.
Nothing wrong at all. No Father conflicts, no Neleci hostages. So long as he remained within the security of the ecthore ring forever. So long as he never questioned who hurt Atalixsphere and why.
Cemeteries harbored more life than the caravan train.
Horse harnesses did not jingle. Wagon axels did not groan. Not since before Atalixsphere’s attack. Not since they read the brand animal seared permanent into her skin.
The disrespect too powerful to discuss, too shocking to explain, because to give it a wedge in the day, a recurrence of thought, would honor this slander. Would keep this slander alive, a place to live, to remain in history. Made eternal. So no one thought. No one talked. Just walked.
Cohthel didn’t know how Kitannia rode down the line, calling for preparation into Yl Elyuon. Didn’t know how he stepped out of line on cue, his body doing what his mind would not; the welcomed distraction, if out of character against the atrocity of last night, at least relief to think and do something safe and unrelated. Distance from it.
The caravan approached the Elven Realm, more so from habit than intentional pattern. They arrived on schedule, something Kitannia made famous: delivering on time no matter the tragedy yanking her schedule the opposite way.
The humans had their unimpressive river bridge greeting kindred to their realm, the dwarves their god-stopping mountain doors, but two massive genbae trees found en mass at the foot of the Pegasi Realm formed the gate into the Elven Realm. Planted by the elves, these skyscraping trees guarded the entrance to the canyon and Yl Elyuon beyond.
Artificers in glass, the elves started when the saplings first sprung and wove glass spirals in the growing trees’ trunks, encasing at the same time R’th rocks so now, the trees fully grown, bore a continuous spiral of gold-glowing glass from bottom to top around their massive trunks. All the realms built their capitols on large R’th veins to accommodate light and other technologies the dwarves experimented with. According to them, they had discovered a way to create heat from the R’th stones.
But the glass-infused wood trunks weren’t the only art the elves enslaved to their will.
The broad green leaves taller than an elf and crowning the tops of each genbae tree in the summer months became canvases for art, Markie explained to Cohthel. Travelers could not see the details of this art from the ground, so the elves partnered with the dwarves and fashioned steam-powered lifts to take passengers to the top. Admires could then walk along the hanging walkways through the leaf art where elves either carved pictures into or painted the giant leaves.
The elves called this elven apprenticeship “Gate Tender” and the elves monitored, nurtured, and beautified both trees creating the landmark gate.
Beyond the impossible gate seamlessly blending natural and kindred-make, a narrow bridge arched over a chasm where two heavy waterfalls crashed on either side. The caravan horses touched the bridge between the roaring falls without a flinch, faring better than Cohthel who clung white-knuckled to the back of the wagon, afraid the bridge damp with spray would collapse or he would step off the unguarded side. Made worse because he couldn’t see the bridge’s end veiled in mist so heavy he tasted the damp.
The bridge crossing lasted far too long before the mist parted and they stepped onto solid earth on the other side. They entered a tunnel of trees having long since turned, seasoning the air with earthy decay.
The tree tunnel ended at a valley mixing lake, more genbae trees, and canyon-carved buildings in a balanced symmetry of art and function.
The sick wagon bearing Atalixsphere rolled out of the line and straight into the elven capital of Yl Elyuon while the remaining wagons continued their performance as normal. Cohthel never again attempted talking to her after Deep Winter. Let her go like all others in the caravan had done; leaving Atalixsphere to do her job in the caravan and — literally — nothing else.
Intentionally friendless, she would be alone in her suffering. Just as she always wanted.
Kitannia returned to camp after most of the elves browsing the wares dissipated for the night.
“Atalixsphere will remain in Yl Elyuon to recover,” she said. “She’s badly hurt but they have reassured me she will make a full recovery.”
The tense energy held inside everyone relaxed, and activities resumed, if stilted. The caravan campfire camaraderie that night might have sounded like a jovial festival to anyone happening by, but Cohthel saw the questions and anxiety running an undercurrent beneath the laughter and singing.
No one had yet dared voice the question of the branded word animal on Atalixsphere’s skin: who did it?
Dark Elves, clearly, because for a Kingdom hand to molest another realm, marking permanent damage with the word carrying so much meaning — pet, beast of burden, livestock, hunted, slave, mindless-meat for kindred consumption — meant a realm versus realm crime had been committed, and such travesty would ripple the cohesive bond within the Kingdom’s nine realms.
For all Cohthel’s sixteen years, he’d never heard so much as a free falkon rumor of inter-Kingdom conflict. Crime within the same realm against the same race happened on its own frequency, but one race to another on neutral ground on a helpless victim whose only wrong was sleeping outside the caravan ring?
Knuckling animals, Thaen had said. Said after Dark Elves took Neleci as a political hostage. Happened after Dark Elves and the Kingdom signed the armistice.
Cohthel determined no coincidence. If only Cohthel figured out how Neleci and Thaen were involved. Rocks blossomed in his gut as his imagination answered him.
This armistice would end, of course. Kitannia had written her full report and sent a falkon to the Pegasi Torc on Atalixsphere’s condition and the findings. She’d include all detail, no matter how painful, no matter how curious or unbelievable. Cohthel had been in the caravan long enough to trust Kitannia would tell the truth without emotional attachment.
Except when she refused to talk about Father working in her caravan.
All but nineteen caravan attendants booked rooms in Yl Elyuon, leaving others to stand guard for the night. Sycain volunteered as one of them. Markie, ever, ever generous Markie, invited Cohthel to come along to Yl Elyuon. But the food and goblet of wine Markie shared with him during an elven theater show would not dispel the worry clumped in his heart.
Elves invented glass and flaunted that skill in poetic symmetry where they’d swirled glass into the balconies and archways cut into the marble cliffs among the many levels of buildings. They’d built houses within the massive trees within the valley as well, though water crisscrossed between the chocolate trunks where glass boats drifted up or down the lazy waterways. But even that breathtaking sight would not settle his doubt, despite elven culture notorious for erasing worries while basking in its glowing radius.
Checked into their room, Cohthel stood barefoot on the balcony stretched over a seamless lake so clear he saw the myriad colored rocks at the bottom. The wind cutting across the landscape ruffled his hair, and he caught notes of autumn apples.
He loved standing in high places. He saw more, could disconnect from everyday mortal problems. The elves had placed fun statues and other objects underwater for some elven game the innkeeper had explained. Arms folded on the baluster, Cohthel looked past the lake and its buried treasure, the distance obscured by the forested peaks surrounding Yl Elyuon, snippets of all his fears arriving at once.
I’m done talking about your father tonight, Jumpy.
Neleci as a political hostage.
I also accept the anger you will keep against me for my unwillingness to talk about your father.
He’s the wrong one, Shollomoon said.
And Fate: Evermore and Nevercease haven’t conquered the world.
And after that, I will tell you my final decision whether or not I’ll talk about your father.
Atalixsphere…was this what she wanted? Solitude in both sobriety and agony? Why are you stuttering? Are you feeble in the mind?
He stepped away from the balcony and lay on his rented bed. His growing body sunk into the mattress made with what Cohthel described as a divine harmony of clouds and bread, shrouded with a cooling spread of what must be silken stars and ocean foam. He concluded that if Atalixsphere had a bed this nice, she would be cured of her hostile, anti-social personality and consider what divine future awaited her ambitions.