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CALDORA: Chapter 5: Better Off Dead

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Better Off Dead  

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            Raven woke up in a sitting position, his hands and feet shackled to a stone wall by relatively long chains. The only light in the cavern filtered through a small window on the opposite side. The cave was damp and cool, with drops of water dripping audibly from the ceiling. To quench his thirst, the half elf tilted back and caught the droplets that kept dribbling onto the top of his head. Then he stared into the darkness, listening to the trickling water.

            Raven drifted into a reverie about the incident with the forest dragon, playing it over and over again in his mind. He knew the attack was coming; he heard it, he was ready for it. He thought about how easily he could have used the momentum of the dragon’s charge to cleanly cut through its skull, or sidestep it and counter with a neck-snapping backswing, or just plain dodge the lunge altogether. But one fraction of a second could make the difference between that and… if only Jason hadn’t been there.

            Raven snapped out of his daydream at the sound of approaching footsteps. He cocked his head to the side and stared expectantly at the doorway.

Kranti, the half-were named after the great dragon, strode into the room, his heavy two-handed sword dangling at his side. He was covered in velvety, tawny fur from head to toe, topped with an orange mane. He was not a lion or a human, but permanently stuck somewhere in between of the transformation from one to the other.

“Well, well, well,” Kranti paced around the prisoner, eyes glowing amber, “You’re finally awake. Hope you rested well because I will personally make sure that the remainder of your stay here will be a waking nightmare!”

Kentabri walked into the room and leaned on his staff, only visible as an odd, gray blur due to his camouflage.

Kranti stopped pacing, drew his sword and swung it at Raven, stopping it abruptly at his chest, “I can kill you right now!”

The half-elf didn’t flinch.

“No you can’t,” Kentabri batted Kranti’s sword to the side with his staff, “And Aloquin sent me here to make sure you won’t.”

Raven forced himself to grin spitefully.

“Kentabri!” Kranti appealed to his friend, “I hoped you, of all people, could understand!”

Kentabri twirled his staff into its sheath on his back.

“You were there when he slaughtered my army, ruined my reputation, stole my rank!” Kranti raved, aligning his sword with Raven’s throat, “Killed Seinga!!”

“She killed herself,” Raven said evenly.

“Shut up!” Kranti roared, drawing blood with his weapon. Sensing a hand on his sword arm, Kranti bared his fangs and growled at Kentabri, then he threw the sword aside. The half-were flexed his fingers and unsheathed his claws, “I guess this will do.”

Kranti lunged at Raven, viciously cutting away at his arms and torso. Raven closed his eyes, feeling the flow of blood under his torn shirt, wincing with every stinging swipe. The half-were slashed him across the cheek.

“Elves are so fragile,” Kranti purred, licking the blood off his claws.

Raven lifted his head to flash him an icy glare.

Kranti grabbed the half-elf by the collar of his shirt and pulled him up to his nose, hissing, “You will learn to fear me, elf.” He proceeded to knee Raven in the stomach, followed that up with an elbow to his back, and another to his ribs. A numbing uppercut sent the half-elf cracking against the wall, and was succeeded by a torrent of kicks and punches quicker than his dazed consciousness could discern.

The tamunid took a step back, knowing he could not restrain Kranti and at a loss of what to do. He turned to see Aloquin enter the room, dragging the whimpering Lakai along on a leash. His servant woman peeked around the edge of the doorway worriedly. Kentabri started making wordless gestures of helplessness but the god raised a hand to calm him.

“Woah, woah, woah!” Aloquin zapped Kranti into a wall, “My prisoner, not your prisoner!” Raven slumped to the ground, gagging and coughing up blood. “Ugh, what a mess,” the wizard walked up to him and nudged him with his foot, “Trellia, clean this up.”

The servant girl rushed in, gently lifting Raven off the ground and resting him against the wall. She brushed the hair from his face and wiped the blood off with the sleeve of her white dress. Kentabri helped the half-were to his feet.

“I said you can play with him, Kranti,” Aloquin said coolly, “Not kill him.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Raven watched Kentabri lead a limping Kranti away through the door. The servant girl bent down to mop the blood mixing with water off the floor with the sleeves and skirt of her gown. Lakai crawled sniveling into a corner.

Aloquin stared curiously at the half-elf for quite some time. Raven laid back against the wall, keeping his movements to a minimum due to exhaustion and pain. “You know, Raven,” the god rubbed his chin, “I like knowing as much as I can about both my followers and my prisoners. Now, there is something odd about you, and I can’t quite pinpoint what it is. However, I have ways of finding out,” he tugged on the leash, “Lakai, look inside him, tell me what you see.”

Lakai cautiously moved over to Raven and put a trembling hand on the half-elf’s arm. Flinching, he pulled his hand away but one look at Aloquin showed that he meant for him to continue. Lakai closed his eyes tightly and clasped Raven’s arm, feeling a rush of excruciating pain shoot through his body.

“A-Aloquin, I d-don’t think-” Lakai pleaded.

“Don’t think, just do,” the wizard snapped at him, “What do you see?”

“I see…” Lakai had a hard time sorting out the jumble of images and emotions that flooded into his mind with the constant sensation of prickly thorns gouging into his palm, “I can’t see anything! It’s too painful!!”

“You see pain!” Aloquin exclaimed.

“Pain! Pain!! And more pain!!!” Lakai howled, shuddering.

“Good! What else?”

“Rejection…” he searched through memories of a deserting father, of being sent away from the mother, of existence as a ridiculed outcast, “F-fear of r-rejection… of trust, of attachment.

“Bonfires,” Lakai saw pillars of flame. Exploring further, he heard screams, and saw people running in terror, “War?” saw the body of a mutilated girl in the rubble, “…Death… Anger, rage, hatred.”

Raven watched the boy closely.

Lakai saw visions of battlefields littered with bodies, “It’s getting hazy…”

“Go deeper,” Aloquin prompted.

The silhouette of a person standing amidst the carnage, “There’s…” brandishing a sword, “There’s something…”

“There’s what??” Aloquin demanded.

“Something…” he saw rivers of blood gush over the battlefield, picking up strewn body parts, coming together in a circle, a moat. The bones of the slain gathered together to form a skeletal castle and drawbridge.

“There’s something else…” Lakai’s voice was no more than a trembling whisper. The clouds in the sky began to churn wildly, “I think we should stop now…”

“Go deeper!” Aloquin said firmly.

The heavens rained blood. Lakai shook his head anxiously “I really think we should stop now!” A flash of lightning illuminated the figure of a man at the castle gates.

“Deeper!!” Aloquin commanded.

The next burst of lightning placed Lakai face to face with that man. His skin was charred black, his crimson hair billowed in the wind, and the war paint on his face was drawn with blood. He grinned menacingly, revealing jagged, gleaming white teeth. Lakai stumbled backwards, gawking at the monstrosity.

“He is mine, boy!” the man hissed, whipping out two shining serrated blades and clanging them together. His eyes burned red with bloodlust. Guessing his next move, Lakai frantically scrambled up and dashed the other way. Sure enough, the being charged straight at him.

Aloquin watched baffled as Lakai broke out in spasms of hysterical screaming on the floor. He scraped at the ground, shrieking and kicking at anybody who came near him. Raven tore his arm away. The boy backpedaled into a wall wide-eyed, trying to catch his breath.

“Interesting,” the wizard muttered.

Trellia bit her lip.

“Well then,” Aloquin smiled nonchalantly, “I guess we should be going now.” He pulled on Lakai’s leash.

Trellia hurried over to Lakai, helping him up and supporting him as he, she, and Aloquin left the cell.

Raven watched them leave, then turned back to stare into the blackness of the room, listening to a silence only broken by the faint hum of running water. Suddenly he heard a caw and lifted his gaze to the window. His raven was perched on the edge of it, watching him. The half-elf managed a smile at the sight of his dear friend but knew this was no time for sentimentality.

Go lead Jason out of the forest, he sent a mental request. The raven cawed in acknowledgement and flew into the woods beyond the window. Raven was left alone again. He knew he was in Kayintas.

*          *            *

            Jason wandered aimlessly through the forest. Every rustle, creak, and growl he heard sent chills down his spine. For the first time since he set foot in the North Forest he felt afraid, very afraid. He had no weapons, Raven was nowhere to be found, and the growing number of fires sparking up in the distance told him it was night.

            “This is silly,” Jason laughed nervously to himself, “I’ve been inside Caldor itself, how could this be any wor-” he stumbled and fell face-first onto the rocky floor. Chastising himself for his ability to trip over level ground, he looked back to see the sheen of a blade. It was a slender, lightweight two-handed sword made of faery metal which he immediately recognized to be Raven’s. The King frowned at the implications: the half-elf never left his sword – he slept with it!

            Jason heard a caw from overhead and looked up to see a raven sitting in the branches above. It fluttered over to a branch farther away and cawed again. The King identified it as none other than Raven’s own bird and, lacking anything better to do, decided to follow it. The raven switched branches again and again; Jason hoped it was heading north. They were making rapid progress until they heard a hungry growl from behind a copse of trees to their right.

            A bulbous ogre thundered onto the scene, beating one fist on its chest and waving a spiked club in the air with the other.

            Jason stopped dead in his tracks, knowing he had to think fast. “I order you to step aside,” he commanded, “In the name of the King of Caldora!”

            The ogre roared and swung its club in his direction.

            “Was worth a try,” Jason mumbled, rolling to the side. He brought up his newfound weapon defensively. The ogre raised the club, snarling, and turned to strike at Jason again.

            Jason caught sight of a glint of silver in the foliage. A shadow swooped down from the trees, sliced across the ogre’s back, and pushed off of it to leap back into the branches. The ogre wailed in pain, whirling around and pawing at its injured back. The same being somersaulted down again and scored a double kick on the ogre’s head. Anchoring two daggers in the ogre’s shoulders, the being slid down its torso, ending the cut in a crisscross slash at its abdomen and jumping away as its intestines spilled onto the floor. At the same time a barbed whip coiled around the ogre’s neck and was swiftly withdrawn, tearing it open. The ogre felt sluggishly for its throat before tumbling lifelessly to the ground.

            The King blinked and lowered the sword.

Keramis sheathed his daggers and shrugged casually at Jason. “They don’t call it the Forest of Big Birds for nothing,” the elf smirked.

            A leather-clad woman swung down from the trees on her barbed whip. Her eyes were the deep blue of the evening sky and her bouncing, curly black hair had an indigo luster to it. “Good evening, King Jason,” she curtsied, “I am Lianna, sixth rank of the North Forest.”

            “And I am Karaci, seventh rank of the North Forest,” Karaci materialized beside her and bowed low to Jason. His hair was as smoky-gray as his large, rounded eyes, but his face was young and handsome as befitting his age. His voice was light and airy, and his very presence had a calming effect on the psyche. Karaci was the leader of the karaci people, a humanoid race that could turn invisible at will.

            “Hello,” Jason said looking from Keramis to Lianna to Karaci to Lianna who winked at him. He then pointed to the bird, “This raven was leading me somewhere.”

            “Leading you out of the forest,” Karaci corrected.

            “Well no offence to the bird,” Keramis grinned at the raven, “But we felt that you needed a more intimidating escort.” The elf fixed his gaze on Raven’s sword.

            “I-I found this,” Jason explained regarding the sword, his company becoming notably uneasy at its mention, “Where’s Raven? I couldn’t fin–”

            “In Kayintas,” Keramis interrupted.

            “As prisoner,” Karaci clarified.

            “Well we have to go get him out!” Jason stuck the sword in the ground.

            “The only way we can be of any use to him is if you go back to the Crystal Castle and get help,” Lianna smiled sadly, fastening the whip to her belt beside the faery metal short sword sheathed at her hip.

            “We can lead you to where this forest borders the Open Field, will you find your way from there?” Karaci asked.

            Jason nodded, picking up the sword.

*          *            *

            Raven was rudely awakened by a sharp pain in his ribs. Looking up groggily, he saw the forms of Kranti and Beyati come into focus before him. A handful of no-ranks fanned out behind them.

            “Good morning, cousin,” Beyati sneered. The orc was a traitor to his family cave and one of the very few people who actually benefited from the Kranti-Raven War.

            “Aloquin and I had a talk,” the half-were said through a tight grin, “And he showed me that there are many fates worse than death. Now I would like to show them to you.

            “It is knowing that you have no help,” Kranti punched Raven in the lungs.

            “No hope,” Kranti hit him across the side of his head.

            He pulled the half-elf up to his face, baring his teeth, “And no mercy.” Kranti kneed him in the groin and sent him smashing into the wall with a powerful roundhouse kick before dropping him to the ground. Beyati smirked, adding a kick of his own.

            The no-ranks stood back watching the orc and the half-were kick and punch and bash Raven with sadistic zeal. Gaining confidence, they crept out from the background and joined in, biting, clawing, and jumping on the hapless prisoner, savoring this opportunity to pound on such a renowned opponent. Raven felt the pain of fresh wounds mingling with the throbbing of yesterday’s; the only thing he could do was close his eyes and hope to be knocked senseless.

            Aloquin abruptly rushed into the room, carrying a golden chalice and a knife. Everybody scurried out of his way. The wizard knelt down by Raven and jerked his head back roughly by the hair, placing the cup to the half-elf’s lips.

            “What? No blood?” Aloquin frowned, slamming the back of Raven’s head into the wall several times until the cup collected enough of the blood that trickled from his mouth. The god cut a lock of the half-elf’s hair with his knife and rushed out of the room, absently shouting back “Carry on!”

            Kranti and Beyati exchanged perplexed glances, then resumed the beating. The no-ranks followed their example.

            “Why did you need his blood and hair, again?” Kentabri asked Aloquin as they walked through the tunnels.

            “Energy, Kentabri, energy!” the wizard beamed.

            “You can get energy from his blood?”

            “No,” Aloquin told him, “These are merely the ingredients for an energy drain spell!”

            “Why do you need energy at all?” Kentabri inquired.

            “You ask too many questions,” Aloquin snapped back, casting a penetrating glare on the tamunid.

            Kentabri swallowed and fell silent.

            “But they are harmless enough,” the god laughed, “You see, me and Dinictis are twins, complete equals. But I am exerting much of my innate energy to uphold a psychic barrier, among various other things. If she was to come here – and I intend her to eventually – I would be at a grave disadvantage, and we can’t have that. Therefore, I need to create an energy reserve.”

            Kentabri nodded, “But can’t you just drain some of our soldiers? That would give you more energy than Raven ever could.”

            “No, no, no,” Aloquin shook his head and proceeded to explain a very basic magical concept, “No matter how much same temperature water one may pour into a bucket, it will still stay the same temperature. I need energy of a certain intensity. And this Raven of yours has energy of an intensity I never seen before in a mortal.”

*          *            *

           Raven hung limply off the wall, supported by unyielding chains. Time seemed to stand still in the empty darkness of the cell, measured only by the intervals between pangs of pain. The boredom was so prevalent the half-elf almost wished Kranti and his goons would come back to beat on him some more, or at least render him unconscious to pass the time. He didn’t have anything to eat or drink for two days and no longer had the strength to lean back and catch the dripping water.

It took him a few moments to register that somebody had lifted his head and poured water down his throat. Slowly opening his eyes, Raven saw the servant woman from the other day watching him, concerned.

“I brought food and water,” she said, feeding him a spoonful of squashed berries and washing it down with a cup of cool water. She wet a piece of cloth and wiped the dried blood off his arms, face, and where it matted his hair.

“I figured you’d be cold, so I brought a blanket,” she smiled, wrapping the blanket about him. Be it from bloodloss or the chill of the room, Raven realized that he was indeed shivering, though he did not notice it until he felt the warmth of the cloth.

“Oh, Raven,” she hugged him, “It’s so horrible knowing this is the most I can do for you!” Feeling his heart beating wildly, she pulled away.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she cooed, “Don’t you know who I am?”

“Who are you?” Raven slurred.

“Trellia!” she answered. He peered at her with a hazy sense of recognition. Even in humanoid form she shone with an ethereal glow, and gave off an essence that he remembered as being the only stability in his life. Trellia’s face lit up with hope, “You always came to me for solace, for peace of mind, for solitude. I never turned you away, never judged you but always supported you, always let you know that you are loved and cared for-”

“T-the forest?” Raven stammered.

“Yes! The spirit of the forest, the life of the forest!” Trellia laughed, “Call me what you will, but I would rather you call me Aurora.”

“Aurora,” Raven faltered, turning away to hide the tears gathering in his eyes.

“You always came to me for comfort and you still can now,” Aurora whispered, pulling him close in a warm embrace. She held him the whole night as he wept mixed tears of joy and despair. And for just a little while nothing else in the world mattered – not Aloquin, or Kranti, or his failed mission – except this one moment that seemed to stretch on for eternity.

By dawn his breathing became more steady and rhythmic, and she knew he had fallen asleep in her arms. Laying him back against the wall, she tucked the blanket tightly around him and hurried off to start her daily chores.

*          *            *

Jason walked briskly across the Open Field with the raven perched on his shoulder. He kept his course by following the gigantic spires that protruded from the ground along the spine of the Earth Dragon. By the dawn of the second day he saw a silhouette on the horizon walking towards him, and at midday The King met up with a rather ragged-looking Lynn.

“What are you doing here? I was just going–” Jason gawked.

“I know,” the Acora answered.

“Well we have to go help–” Jason began.

“I am,” Lynn nodded gravely, “But you have to go back to the Crystal Castle. Dinictis misses you.”

“But I have to-”

“Listen to me,” the dark elf put both his hands on Jason’s shoulders, “Why do you think Dinictis is not here? Don’t you think she wants to help, too? We can’t have you two running in there without knowing what Aloquin’s plans are. It is not that she or you can’t help – you can and you will help! But we know it is not time for that yet and we need to keep both of you safe until it is. You have done all you could! Go home knowing that.”

Lynn knew that Jason would give in to the reasoning, especially now that he started doubting the wisdom of going to the North Forest in the first place.

“I’ll need his sword,” Lynn held out a hand, “And his raven to show me the way.”

Jason reluctantly gave him Raven’s sword and the bird flew to Lynn’s arm. Lynn bowed to the King and continued heading north, Elvina sleeping curled up snugly in the hood of his cloak.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:57:32 -0700 .



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