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Paragon Ruin Chapter 2

Mortal Earth is populated: Day 1

War of the Fear: First war. White Elves and dwarves went underground and eventually became Dark Elves and droogs. Year 1,012

Equality War: started 1,980, ended 2,005 and the Kingdom formed


I crumple into my chair, plopping both arms on the desktop, but refrain from resting my heavy head against them. I stare, slack-mouthed, at the list half-covered with my body, the ones requiring immediate attention at the top: Trading Cycle security. Malandore wall security. Security for travelers between realms. Security. Security. Find a way to pass through the Dream. Security.

If I stare long enough, the desperate ideas popping into my mind alone should conjure positive results with no other effort. I should cluster them at the top, in a circle instead of a list, to not confuse one as more desperate than the other.

Beside me, another paper teases, half consumed by ink formed into words I’ll report at the next Torc’s Council with my thoughts on how to handle each item. But I’m void of ideas because only two methods remain to handle them all: acquire more soldiers and kill the Nightmares, both tasks two years in development.

Overwhelmed, I do rest my head on both arms, hoping some unconscious miracle of an idea will bleed out of me and onto paper. I reached out to the other torcs for help with this most recent Trading Cycle attack, but Elyulara reminded me that Caravan Master Kitannia is not bound to the Kingdom and falls out of their protection. Anything they offered would be a point of courtesy.

But I want the Trading Cycle protected; the wagon train’s revolving tradition is the Kingdom’s last normal identity still surviving, keeping me courageous that things once good will be so again. That’s my sentimental want. My practical want is to safeguard the caravan because the Kingdom’s heightened alert state has blacksmiths beating more on their forges for regular citizen-turned-soldiers and Kitannia has been buying and selling them in support of this gross war-time profiteering. This has turned her caravan into a literal mobile armory, easy pickings for a motivated army.

For motivated Nightmares.

I’d sent the Caravan Master my concerns. She’s yet to reply. That, too, goes on my list. Forced between all the rest.

A subtle scratching noise brings my focus back. I lift my head and stare over my forearms at the gryphon feather quill, suspended, ink bleeding out the tip as it scratches itself across a blank sheet of paper.

My overworked emotions have gummed up the rational processes in my brain, and I take longer than I otherwise should to register the oddity over my quill writing words on the paper without my effort. But then, I wished ideas would bleed out of me and onto paper. Maybe I’ve found the unconscious trigger to make it work.

I watch, transfixed, as the quill spells the words to fix this mess of a world, disappointed when the quill spells something different.

remember your sin

I chuckle. “Which one?” I shove the quill off my desk, sending it fluttering to the floor. “Useless quill.”

Next, a paper appears out of the air, dropping on my desk. I recognize my handwriting across the crinkles:

I know what you want, but I cannot give it. I truly am sorry.

Cold horror drains my blood and fills my slippers. I stand and back away from the note I wrote the day I sentenced Cohthel Faunt to death two years ago. My gaze darts around my office. “Who’s there?”

No one is there. I look at the note, at that sin remembered, next looking for anything to explain why I’ve lost my sanity.

As suddenly as my damning note appeared, a man pops into my reality opposite my desk.

I choke and retreat as far back as my office wall will let me, undecided if my over-stressed mind birthed this apparition. “Who are you? What do you want?” I slide near the tapestry, my sword hidden in a niche behind.

“You forget sins without consequence, I see,” The stranger’s black hood shadows the man’s face, pulled against the round of his trimmed blond beard. “Do you not remember writing me that note two years ago? Was I really that insignificant to you? Do you treat all kindred with indifference? Or just me?”

I almost collapse. I lean into the wall for support, clinging to the hope that my stress-induced delirium has summoned this apparition, otherwise, I can’t escape believing the boy I sentenced to death two years ago stands in front of me for real.

He pushes the hood off his forehead. I tunnel-vision on the metallic blue mask spreading the right half of his face from nose to ear, hairline to jaw. There isn’t a hole for his eye. But the left half of him looks more like his father, Rodrue Faunt, than I want to admit. Now Cohthel has arrived, after two years, to exact revenge on me for sentencing him for a crime he did not commit.

“Boy.” I raise my hand. Drop it. He’s not a boy, but I can’t bear the guilt of last seeing a boy I knew to find again a man I do not. “I…you understand what I did—”

“I understood,” he interrupts with strange calm, “knowing you would tell the other torcs the truth about my father framing me for kidnapping those dragon eggs. But you didn’t.”

A coldness surrounds him, breathing across the room at me. “You’re not in my place to judge the problems telling them would have created…” My voice drags, like prisoner chains, out of me. “Cohthel—” His name tastes bloody in my mouth, the name having rotted in my teeth for how long their essence lingered after the unfair death sentence I helped give him. “Every decision I make damns me. You wouldn’t know how much I’ve hated myself since, how I taste guilt in every bite of food I’m obligated to eat. Hate me all you want. I can’t take my choices back. So say whatever you want. I’ll even write them down so I can never forget. And invisible your way out of here again…like you did when I helped you escape your sentence.”

I sit back at my desk. Procuring another quill, I dip the hollow tip in the inkwell and hold it over the paper, looking at the bladehand. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Helped me? I helped myself. You left a door open I planned to open myself. You did nothing but glaze your guilt with paltry attempts at redemption.”

“You can’t say much to me I haven’t said to myself, Cohthel. And when I haven’t been telling myself those things, I’ve been working to break through the Dream and kill Nightmares.”

“The Dream?”

I can’t look away from the masked half of his face — the mark of the bladehand; some obvious, unnatural scar. I want to ask but refrain. Cohthel, now a bladehand, won’t talk about his transformation. Bladehands never do. Speaking about their scars reminds them of the last test they had to take, the test every bladehand has to fail absolutely to pass. They must fail that test so they will pass all others. Some come to understand this. Others do not.

“Yes. The Dream. A barrier infesting the Element Plains. No one goes through and comes back. That is where the human Nightmares have stationed themselves, where we suspect they’re holding the Dreamer.” I watch something blossom in his brown, father-like eye. “Yes, Cohthel. The torcs know the Dreamer swayed the humans to fight for him,” in summary of that day where I could do nothing to make the torcs understand my reasons, making me bear my mistake naked in front of them. “They found out, just like you wanted. And war did not break out between the realms, like I feared.

“They renounced me as torc for six months and assigned the next torc proxy to govern while they decided whether to charge me or absolve me. But they concluded my withholding that information didn’t administer any undo harm to the other realms anyway. I wanted to have a retrial on your behalf to prove your father framed you, but since I fed them all a story that you had committed suicide, I’d have to admit that I lied — again. Wouldn’t have mattered, now, since I guess they locked you in the Towers anyway.” I shrug, as if it wasn’t a big deal anymore, as if I’d never bore the guilt for weeks while I hunted for the boy I did help escape.

The door to my office opens. A woman steps in, balancing a silver tray between her hands. She looks at Cohthel and the tray dips, cups sliding toward the edge. “Torc Thoraus! So…so sorry. I didn’t realize you had a…visitor.”

Of course, she would hesitate at the oddity. No one comes into my office without express approval by both knightlords stationed outside my door. I trust the boy who can turn invisible will not impose harm on me, but I will commission Torc Elyulara for an elf to stand guard in my castle anyway who can see all things invisible.

“It is quite alright,” I say, worrying explaining all this will cause more questions I have no energy to answer. “Thank you.”

She sets the tray on the corner of the desk, casting Cohthel an obvious glance, and leaves. I pour a cup of steaming cinnamon water. “Tea?”

Cohthel shakes his head. Dropping a mint leaf into the liquid, I sip. “Saying sorry is not enough. Not nearly. I can’t undo what I did. But, if you just wanted to hear those words, you got them.”

Cohthel drops into a chair. Deflated. Worn heavy by his burdens I try sympathizing with. He lifts both hands, not looking at me. “I was aware of the Dream, Thoraus. And of the torcs discovering humans siding with the Dreamer.” He looks up and meets my gaze before I blink and look away. “I just wanted to see how much you’d confess of your own sin…or if you’d lie again.”

I shut my eyes.

“I’m not ready to forgive you, Thoraus.”

“I know,” I whisper, trying to feel the sting of Cohthel’s words edged into daggers. But that guilt falls in an ocean of others. I sip my tea. “I lied that day because I didn’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice.”

I laugh as if life and death shared jokes and I stand at the punch line. “Easy to say when you did not stand on the stage of the other torcs accusing me of sympathizing with you, accusing me of being a Dreamer sympathizer if I defended you. The torcs didn’t give me two years like you got to think it over. They gave me an hour. What would you have done?”

“Fought for me.”

I drag a hand over my face.

“Thoraus, I’m going to prove everyone is worth fighting for. You never know what greatness everyone can achieve, so you fight for them all. I’m going to rescue your daughter. Unless, of course, some other great kindred stepped forward to do so?”

I jerk at the mention of my daughter and splash my tea. Hand shaking, I settle my cup on my desk before I drop it in my lap. I wipe my hand on my robe.

“I’m going to prove I am worth more alive to you than you standing protected behind my death.”

“Dark Elves killed my daughter during a raid on the road.” Flushed since Cohthel entered my office, I lose control of my voice now, too.

“It’s not nice having lies come back to talk to you, is it?” Cohthel leans back, looping a leg over the arm of the chair. “Are you lying about your daughter because you’re ashamed of her or you’re, once again, trying to protect yourself?”

Cohthel knows the truth. And all he did was look in my eyes.

Dark elves kidnapped my daughter, Neleci, two years ago and kept her as a political hostage for one year to hold a feeble armistice between the Kingdom and the dark elves. In the same school group as Cohthel, she befriended him. Gave her first kiss to him.

The Dark Elves brought Neleci to me once a month during her political incarceration to prove the quality of her health, and then she returned to me, unharmed, after the agreed-upon year.

She returned to me different.

Knightlords and rangers caught her in the middle of the night either leaving Malandore or coming back in. They reported this odd behavior to me. I confronted her. She lied at first, lies I deserved to hear because of lies I’ve told, but also lies I wanted because I would not live through the truth.

Rumors blossomed inside my realm about the Dreamer and where humans might stand in his favor. Disturbing reports came that humans, sometimes entire families, packed up and left Malandore. I employed falkons to discover this oddity, who returned saying humans were going underground through the dark elf doors.


Humans left at a disturbing rate. Frantic, I dumped too much money into building an entire wall around the Human Realm and dumped more into a system my team of advisers created to track humans as Kingdom loyalists. The city jail and my dungeons filled with Dreamer sympathizers. A nightmare, ironically.

The moniker stuck. A new line was drawn.

The human realm re-balanced after eight months, accepting this new normal and figuring out how to continue working the factories, businesses, and farming at reduced capacity. I estimated twenty thousand humans defected to the Dreamer. My tracking system and the wall prevented sympathizers from coming back into Malandore and romancing more away under illusions the Dreamer will transform every human into a king. For the first time in a long time, I sat contended.

Until Neleci ran away.

The truth stared me in the face but, to this moment, I won’t accept it. In my mind, I killed her in a dark elf raid as a martyr to her realm, and not as the chief influencer of the Dreamer’s vision before I built the wall.

“Protecting myself,” I whisper in answer to Cohthel’s question, my tea cooling into bitter sludge on my desk. “Why did you appear in my office, Cohthel? What did you hope to gain by reminding me of a mistake I have yet to forget even for one day? You want closure and someone to blame? You got it. Blame me. I’ll present that statement to you on my hands and knees if you ask. And if it helps your closure more to hear I’m broken, that’s yours as well.

“But that’s little worth compared to the realms also breaking. But if today were as normal as two years ago, I’d listen to your grievance with apt attention and, likely, with a little fear of any threats you’d make. But much has changed in your absence. I can’t even afford my nightmares the attention they deserve because they have long since wrangled fear out of me. Take it, leave it, dance with it, I don’t care.

“If that still doesn’t satisfy you, return after a year and check if the Kingdom has conquered the Dreamer and slain his Nightmares. At that time, I can receive your grievance better and welcome any lashings you deem I deserve until you’re avenged for my wrongful sentencing you to death for a crime you did not commit. Is there anything else you’d like to add? I’ll write it down and pin it to the wall so I won’t forget it.”

“I said I would rescue your daughter. Do you not believe me?”

“Dark Elves killed my daughter. There’s nothing to rescue.” Head bowed, I clasp both hands in front of me, staring at a list of items requiring my immediate attention: Trading Cycle security. Malandore wall security. Security for travelers between realms. Security.

Security. Find a way to pass through the Dream. Security.

With my peripherals, I watch Cohthel stand and replace his black hood over his entire face — half flesh, half mask now. He walks to the open window and turns invisible. Neleci told me Cohthel was a natural acrobat, unafraid to climb, jump, or dare.

How I wish my daughter still lived.


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