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Paragon Ruin, Chapter 4


I take fourteen days planning my route and three days compiling data on the camp. Three days is more than enough since the Nightmare camp tucked inside the Dusutri Realm has dropped all guard except for a snoozy-looking human teenage boy throwing rocks at a glass bottle he’s set on a tree stump twenty feet away.

The rest of the camp’s occupants lounge. Bored. Lazy. Waiting for their next assignment, settling into the vague promise of their kingship they think their very birth has earned them. I both hope and dread to find my father, Rodrue Faunt, in this camp, but unless he’s out on an assignment, he’s not assigned here.

Multicolored tents, patched and discolored, have been haphazardly erected. Weapon and armor styles vary depending on what the human defector brought with them from their homes. No uniform except in purpose. No formation except in scheme.

Similar Nightmare camps defile the Eloshonna map with up-hill advantages, quick egress narrows, coupled with wide-open spaces to see in advance and shoot down any of the flying races. All camps live near a dark elf door, which makes attacking one impractical.

These camps function as safe spaces for new human recruits, but the flow of defectors has slowed since Torc Thoraus’ mandate for the “loyalty ID.” From the angle of my hope, they appear to be deciding whether to cut their losses and relocate everyone to the Element Plain inside the Dream where the real hive gathers.

This camp should have cut their losses sooner because now I’m doing it for them.

I wait deep into the night when everyone goes to sleep except for the rock-throwing watch. Lazy and complacent myself — not in the mood to skulk and sneak through the dark with bated breath — I walk through the center of camp, stepping out of the way as a man exits his tent and nearly collides with me on his way into the trees, presumably to release his waters.

“You’re being unfair,” Atalixsphere, in common on my back, mumbles in my ear. “I feel bad for them. None of them sneak into Malandore invisible.”

Two years ago, Atalixsphere swore exclusive service to me in payment for when I carried her on my back from Yl Elyuon to Malandore. I hadn’t realized until I walked out of the Bladehand Towers — she took one look at my mask and said, “Please go back in and ask them to mask the other side, too.” — that she’d sword herself to a lifetime of service. She’d waited for me, was the first face I saw when I stepped into the blinding sunlight. Her devotion — and my balming bladehand R’th cloak — hustled my courage into taking one step…and then another…into this new life of mine.

“Their parents should have taken them to Fate’s shrine and asked for invisibility, then.” I reach the tent on the end; a garish affair, the largest in the camp and just the kind the camp hierarch would command from, if indeed these camps functioned under any command and control.

The campers positioned their tents specifically for the quickest egress among the boulder and tree-stuffed landscape if the camp fell under attack and they needed escape. They were under attack now. Just didn’t know it yet. Atalixsphere is right. I feel bad, too.

I stop in front of the tent door and listen, then look behind us. Although we — so long as she remains on my back — stay invisible, the effects I pose on the environment do not. Affirming no witness stands to see the tent door seemingly open on its own, I push the flap aside and enter.

I entered this tent last night to get the layout and finalize my plan. Accumulatively, I’ve been working on how to accomplish the next two minutes for the last seventeen days. Markie shared advice in a letter while I remained sequestered in the Bladehand Towers which betrayed the secret on how to short-cut every task: do it right or do it again.

Torc Thoraus’ daughter, sleeping on the pallet across from the tent door, does not stir as we enter. I confirmed last night Neleci sleeps on her left side, away from the door. Another kindred lives in this tent: a man, though he’s been absent the three days I watched the camp. He’s gathered his effects in severe order to the right side of the tent: a large pair of boots scrubbed clean and side-by-side next to a crisp pile of folded clothes on the edge of the rug, and other camping comforts and tools organized in cook pots.

I loosen my arms and Atalixsphere slides off my back, hooves making no sound as they land on the rug covering the dirt floor. She becomes visible once she touches the ground, transfiguring out of the two-legged, two-armed common form and into that burst of gold R’th light reforming her natural body: black, horse-like, and white wings she keeps tucked tight into her ribcage.

I ghost toward the bed. Neleci looks thinner than I last saw her two years ago. Likely the result of bad eating in the Nightmare camp over the last year. She used to have full hips and breasts. I reach out a hand to her and, with tender pressure, run my hand down her arm while simultaneously lying next to her in the bed.

She shifts and moans, pushing into me. I sling my right arm over her and suck her into my chest.

“Mmm. You’re back,” she says, eyes still closed. “I missed you.”

I slid my left arm beneath her ribs, circling her in my arms. She moans in sleepy pleasure, but questions rise in her tone when I slide an arm under her legs and stand. An unwashed scent wafts off her body and catches my nose.

“Wha-what are you doing?”

I had become visible, otherwise, her unveiling eyes that can see the invisible would have seen my features detailed in a gold R’th color. Now, standing in the darkness of the cold tent, I’m nothing more than another unidentifiable shadow.

Smaller than a horse, Atalixsphere crouches low for my long legs to slide over the saddle between her neck and wings.

“Wha-what?” Neleci protests again, awake and confused. “Who are you? What are you doing?”

“I’m kidnapping you.”

Neleci gasps, perhaps recognizing my voice, most certainly not recognizing it as the man who shares her bed.

“My name’s Cohthel, by the way, but you might remember me as Evermore. You can scream when you’re ready.”

Passengers secure, Atalixsphere ducks her head and plows through the tent flaps, galloping down the center of camp to the cadence of Neleci screaming for help. When enough witnesses exit their tents in sleepy dazes, I heel Atalixpshere’s flanks and the pegasi jumps, spreads her wings, and sails upward and over the tree tops.

Neleci fighting to dismount switches to clinging to my neck as the ground falls away into a rolling ocean of moon-touched sylvan. Spring chill dives down the neck of my shirt and flaps the legs of my pants.

“Put me down! Put. Me. Down!”

Atalixsphere glides southeast, far enough away to discourage our captive from escaping barefoot in nothing more than her sleep dress. The pegasi descends after several miles, lowering through a wide gap in the tree tops pre-established by me.

Her hooves touch the frosted earth. I loosen my grip on Neleci. She kicks and scrambles and dismounts in a wild tangle of desperation, running across the piney dirt back into the trees.

A falkon in common waits beside the fire he’d built to stay warm, wrapped in a blanket. The two-foot high falkon — while in common — looks at me with round yellow eyes as I dismount. I nod to the falkon. The falkon transfigures back into his natural body and shoots through the black ice night.

I follow behind Neleci as she runs, hands deep in both my pockets. Her pale dress glowing under the violet moonlight, I watch her shuffle left, then right, backtrack, left, backtrack again, stop to pull a thorn out of her barefoot. She sits on a frosted log, pulling both feet into her hands and rubs them. I sit on the log next to her.

She squeals and leaps up. “Go away!” She runs — stumbles — forward. She doesn’t get far before she stops again and sits on the ground, hissing in pain and wrapping both naked feet into the folds of her wool dress.

“Atalixsphere’s tending a fire back at my camp,” I call, having not moved from the log. “She’s making hot soup. And I brought extra blankets.”

“What do you want with me?”

“Come with me to the fire and I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me now!”

I grab a stick and drive the tip into the frozen earth.

“Tell me!” Tears drench her words. I see her shiver despite the dark.

“Two years ago, in the schoolyard,” I say. “You kissed me the night before. Your first kiss, you told me. The next day at school I ran from you because I didn’t want a relationship with you. Remember?”

“Is that why you kidnapped me? You now want a relationship?”

“Remember what I said to you that day? I told you I didn’t want a romantic relationship. But I did want to be your friend.” I pause, achieving the impact I want when she doesn’t respond right away.

“We were barely friends,” she retorts with chattering teeth. “I kissed you, I c-camped with you, and then you ran away and j-joined the caravan.”

“Time and distance have no impact on my loyalty. I make promises and don’t break them. Remember my promise?”

She grumbles, hugging her knees.

“I told you I would keep your secrets and tell you when you’re wrong. That I would make sure you never hurt yourself. That I’d protect you…” I pause, stressing my next words with every passion in me, “and rescue you when in trouble.”

“I don’t need rescuing! I cut off the Kingdom and defected to the Dreamer on m-my own.”

“And I also promised, that not even through torture, would I betray your secrets…” I pause, “to your father. Your mother. Didn’t you tell us you had a younger sister who is…twelve now? Do you remember them?”

She tosses her black hair and presses her face into both knees. In the cold and the dark, I can’t tell if her shaking betrays shivers or tears. Realizing she won’t move by her own power, I walk over and lift her. She doesn’t protest, arms wrapping herself so hard her bones must hurt. I carry her back to my pre-established camp where Atalixpshere, back in common, stoked the fire into roaring pleasure.

I sit Neleci on the blanket spread out next to the fire, draping another over her, then sit nearby on my blanket. She grabs a hot rock bordering the fire and nestles it to her bosom. No one speaks while Atalixsphere cooks the thick soup stuffed with potatoes and hunks of venison and onion, Neleci accepting her bowl without a “thank you.”

Now fed and warmed, she resumes her fight. “I demand you take me back.”


“So, so what, you’re going to keep me…” She looks around, “here until…when?”

“Until you lose the desire to return to the Nightmares.”

“We are not nightmares. We are kings and queens, our Paragon-blessed birthright. And now that I’ve seen the truth, I won’t go back to the Kingdom.”

“Then to answer your question, you’ll be here a long time.”

“I won’t hurt you, Evermore—”

“Call me Cohthel.”

“…since Thaen still deeply loves you as his best friend and brother, but even he won’t allow you to hold me prisoner.”

“Is that who shares your tent?”

She tucks her chin into her chest and turns away.

“I’ve known Thaen my entire life,” I say. “I recognized his method of organizing his belongings, his boots a half a size too big, and every folded shirt he stacked in that pile.”

A long stretch of silence. “What is he…the ‘torc’ in charge of your camp? Your Camp Torc?”

“Don’t mock us. He commands all the camps outside the Dream. Which is why he wasn’t at camp when you kidnapped me, otherwise he would have stopped you.”

“Are you married, then?”

“Did you kidnap me because of some sick fascination toward knowing your best friend’s private life?”

I bow my head. Hard; still wrapped in Thaen’s life and unable to sever the ties of our friendship, our brotherhood. Like Neleci and Rodrue, Thaen is also on my list of kindred to rescue from the Nightmares. I just hadn’t planned on Neleci and Thaen coming, literally, hand-in-hand. In order of events, I planned to rescue Neleci first and Rodrue second, but I will now count this as fortunate because if I can convince Neleci to abandon the Nightmares, she can convince Thaen. Rodrue will now be last when I wanted him first, but I had to pursue Neleci after my conversation with Torc Thoraus.

I became a bladehand to meet Father on equal standing. I wanted to rescue him first to quell this infection seething through my blood, to believe that sacrificing the last two years away from Markie, the father I’d wanted and finally gotten, and half my face was worth it, that I have left the Bladehand Towers having gained instead of lost. If I can cure Rodrue from the Dreamer’s ideals, maybe I can cure myself of my missing half and believe that, though it will still be there, it will no longer be infectious.

I hate having become a bladehand. Pulling Rodrue from the Nightmares is the only way I can move on from the error of which I’ve made my life, to show the Dreamer he has conquered nothing at all.

Neleci switches between looking too long at my mask and not looking at me at all.

I switch subjects with abrupt force. “When did you start believing the Dreamer’s claims that the other realms should worship humans as kings?”

“I don’t owe you answers.”

“I thought the Nightmares’ job was to recruit? You’re not recruiting me very well. Tell me why you joined so I can determine if it’s worth joining at all.”

“You have no intention of joining.”

“What do I know? No one’s explained their story to me and gotten me interested.”

She stares into the fire a long time. I count on a lot of gambles here. I can plan and predict a kidnap, but I can’t predict the vast expanse of kindred reaction. Atalixsphere remains in common so she can fit under the wool blankets to stay warm. She’s laid down and is now asleep.

“I joined because I spoke to the Dreamer myself and he explained how the other races have obscured the humans' birthright.”

“When did you speak to him?”

“While I was a dark elf political hostage underground.”

“Oh. Interesting. Okay. This, this Dreamer. Who is he? Another human? Where did he come from?”

“He has an ancient R’th gift that Astorous himself gave the Dreamer. You know what that R’th gift is.”

“Yes. And this somehow keeps him alive. Does he have a body?”

“No. His soul is attached to an object, and he’s able to communicate to you in dreams when you are close to this object. He says he feeds off dreams, and someday he’ll feed off enough that he’ll be able to create a real body.”

“Okay. So you spoke to him. He was convincing, was he?”

“Very.” Her tone brightens in that false sense that I might agree with her. “He explained the Paragons birthed humans to rule over the other races on Eloshonna as kings, that the other races formed the Kingdom to make sure we remained their equals, smothering us to obstruct our rise to what the Paragons intended.”

“He explained? How does he know what the Paragon’s intended?”

She sits up straighter, gathering that command presence I remember she used to get what she wanted, and I prepare for quite the conviction until she says, “A feeling.”

“That’s it? A feeling?”

“The Dreamer has remarkable insight. I’d say he even knows more than the Diviners.”

“A feeling? Neleci, if you’re going to recruit me, you’ve got to have a stronger argument.”

“You would have to meet him to understand.”

“Well, I’m not going to meet him unless you convince me why his feelings are worth more than mine. I have a feeling you should cartwheel around the fire. Go on. Cartwheel.”

“I won’t take offense to that because Thaen has always wanted you to join us. The Dreamer shows visions of the Paragon’s giving birth to humans — their first children. All other races are either experimental derivatives of humanity or animals given social coherency.” She shoots the sleeping Atalixsphere a scathing look.

“Of course, the Dreamer is going to show you visions. That’s his R’th.”

“Like I said, you’d have to meet him to understand.”

“Okay, so what convinced you to meet with him? Did someone with an argument as compelling as this one engender that initial desire?” One of my unexpected gambles achieves a positive result: Neleci stops talking and looks down.

Embarrassed. Or ashamed? I’ll drive them both deeper. “What, what Neleci? What convinced you to finally meet the Dreamer for yourself? You said you met him as that political hostage underground with the dark elves, but you did not go underground willingly, did you? No, dark elves kidnapped and took you underground. A hostage, a prisoner, did you ask to speak to the Dreamer? Or did they force—”

“Of course, I fought it.” Her voice cuts the spring air. “Because I didn’t know better. But once I spoke to him, I understood. Consider it a medicine you didn’t want that your mother forced you to take, realizing later you felt better because of the medicine.”

“Hmmm. That analogy makes sense. Sometimes we don’t know the benefits of what we initially refuse.”

She grins at my agreement.

“Does every human meet the Dreamer?”

“The request is a long list. Naturally, everyone does, but he can only speak to one human at a time. Eventually, everyone will. Even you.”

“Understanding I kidnapped you and so I get this personal one-on-one with you to talk about the Dreamer, what’s your pitch to convince other humans to join first and then give them the vague promise they will eventually meet the Dreamer for themselves?”

“Most humans have this innate sense that they were always meant for something greater. Now they can enact on it.”

“What if they turn you away with a polite, ‘no thank you’? You walk down the street and knock on the next door?”

“No one refuses us.”

“Of course they don’t. Kindred agree with everything at the point of the sword.”

She adds more wood to the fire. “It’s not like that.”

“Then how is it? Please describe it for me.”

More wood.

“Come on Nightmare Recruiter.”

“You’re making us out to be villains.”

“Then convince me you’re not.”

For her oratory in school, she scrambles for words now.

“Maybe I’m bitter,” I say, “since my first recruiter into Dreamer ideology came in the flesh and blood of my father, Rodrue, two years ago, who nearly killed me because of my refusal. I’m certain either he or Thaen, told you that story.”

“A mercy killing.”

“Mercy killings?”

“It is better to die than deny your self-worth.”

“How selfless! How noble! Why aren’t the streets singing your praises?”

She concentrates on fraying the worn edge of the blanket with her dirty fingernails.

“But, but maybe,” I stress with growing passion, “I was made unconsciously biased toward your mercy killings when I met a woman who also shares the Dream R’th — given to her by the R’th God Astorous — and claimed she had killed the Dreamer once and worked now to do so again.” I reach beneath my blanket for my R’th sword Atalixsphere put there, and pull it out.

Neleci feigning disinterest in my confession now looks at the sword which appears to be constructed with compressed R’th gas: gold, glowing, and — though she will never know — sentient, having given itself the name of Cinder Dream.

“But never mind the petty squabbles of mortals,” I continue. “Mortal Earth herself got involved. A little-known fact about R’th — besides controlling all procreation, it has another side job: protecting life. The Earth R’th will sometimes create objects tailored to specific threats and then finds a kindred willing to use the object and eliminate whatever is killing life outside life’s natural order. This sword presented itself to this woman I met, and she understood its purpose was to kill the Dreamer. Did I speak too fast? Let me say it again. Mortal Earth created this sword specifically to kill the Dreamer.

And if that isn’t a wild enough claim, I will add that the Goddess of Fate herself gave this sword to me, with Cleric Shollomoon and my stepfather as my witness. So, Recruiter Neleci, that is my rebuttal against joining you. What is your counterargument when the earth itself wants the Dreamer dead, and I’m a link to make sure it happens?

“You want the other realms to serve you? They already were! Where do we get glass? The elves. Mechanics? Dwarves. How about every flying race offer their transportation and cargo services? You’ve even lost the benefit of falkon messages and rumors. The other races gave you more services two years ago than they are giving you now. You have regressed the Human Realm, not advanced us.”

She does not speak. Does not look at me. She lays on her side and sidles closer to the fire, covering her head.

She shivers the entire night. Only this time, she does not ask to share my blanket.


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