Spear Gate — Chapter Nine, Pt. 3

A minute later, and four guards stumbled into view. They were laughing at each other and themselves as they all but tripped over their own feet. Maelys had no idea how drinking was regulated in the city, but this was clearly overstepping boundaries.

“Well, well, well,” one of the guards said. The only female among them. “Honored to serve, Exalted One.” She curtsied a little, but the effort of lowering herself disrupted her balance. She fell forward, grabbing one of the iron bars for support so she didn’t collapse all the way to the floor.

“Careful, Mills,” another chuckled, the only remotely sober one of the bunch. “You’ll lose your lunch if you go around bowing to everyone you see.”

“I’ll lose my lunch whenever I damn well pl—” in that moment, she choked up. Maelys shifted backwards, afraid she really was about to throw up, but the guard managed to hold it in.

“Why are you here?” Varra said, voice flat and unamused.

“Just thought we’d come to say hello,” she replied, having recovered from her potentially foul mishap. “And pay our respects to yet another Hand gone. Maybe someday we’ll have another someone like your mom. But it sure wasn’t you.”

Maelys watched the exchange, confused. What sort of relationship had she had with her subordinates for them to treat her like this in her circumstance?

“And we thought it’d be fun to give you a little news,” the shortest of the guards said. “Your friend here’s considered a liability. The Hand of Justice is going to have him executed tomorrow.”

A chill shot through his body at that. Executed. Tomorrow?

“Been awhile since we’ve had a public execution,” the sober one commented.

“Terrace has been altogether too boring lately. I’m glad to see a change of pace,” the girl said.

“What do you mean? There’s been tons of strange stuff happening lately.”

“That’s what I’m referring to you dolt. First the weird Constructor. Then the Spear Gate. Then Varra’s arrest. It’s all pretty exciting.”

“The way you phrased that it sounded like you found all that boring, and only the execution excited you.”

“Well what does it even matter? Damn, I thought I was the drunk one.”

Varra didn’t seem the least bit phased by the conversation. “I appreciate the information.”

“I’m sure you do,” she replied, grabbing the bars with two hands to get closer. There was a moment’s pause in the conversation as the levity among the four guards died down. Maelys was unsure as to what was happening as Varra and the drunk girl stared at each other.

Then, the girl spat at the former Hand of Defense. A lob of saliva landed on her chin. Varra flinched, but said nothing.

“That’s for my pa.” She tried to do it again, but this time the spit trickled out of her mouth and dripped down her own chin. She frowned, pushing a fist into her face to wipe her jaw.

“You good, Mills?” the short one asked, walking up to her.

“Don’t even think about touchin’ me,” she sneered. He backed off.

“We should go,” the sober guard said.

“Yeah, whatever. But don’t think this is over,” she snapped at Varra, who still hadn’t moved an inch.

The guards started shuffling out the way they had come, leaving the two of them alone once more. Maelys remained petrified and confused, having only witnessed what was really only an exchange between strangers. And of course, there was the big question.

How much longer did he have to live?

Spear Gate — Chapter Nine, Pt. 2

“So that’s what you were referring to in the courtyard earlier today,” Eathe said.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I had planned on telling you because you should know. But now we’re pressed for time, and as much as I would prefer the other two not hearing this, I think it’s better this way.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m not curious. How much is there to tell?”

“I’ll give you the short version. The first part is common knowledge: the Spear Gate has been around for all of recorded history. Even the most ancient texts in Tal’Doraken note it’s existence and the Constructors that guard it. The Hands believe that Aenias created both, for they are both of the same indestructible material. Terrace was built around that obelisk, but not as a city. At least, not at first. Terrace was originally a prison.

“The Spear Gate is not just an obelisk, as you now know. It’s a portal. You see the Gate is at the spot on the planet that is closest to Eranos. The sister-planet lies directly above it, and on the opposite side is another Spear Gate, and when the Gates open, the two connect. One can simply walk right through. One foot on Asamos. The next on Eranos. And vice-versa.

“In an age far gone, long before Tebrein claimed independence from the rest of the continent, records have stated that the Gates were always open. Thousands of alien beings from the sister-planet flooded through. Your ancestors, Xan. The Athaxi.”

The masked figure stomped its feet, head cocked to one side. They made no noise of protest at this, though.

Varra continued. “The Constructors halted their advance, but the flood was constant, and what’s more, the Athaxi seemed to have powers of some kind. Then, one day, everything stopped. The Spear Gates closed and the Constructors went silent. A fractured number of Athaxi remained here, stranded. Hundreds of years passed, and slowly the Constructors began to reawaken, even if the object that they guarded never did. And so, people flocked to Terrace. It’s location and circumstances were easy to defend after we found the secret to controlling the Constructors. Which brings us to today. Knowledge of what the Gate is has been kept hidden.

She paused, and her brow furrowed under the orange torchlight. “But things have been changing. Twenty years ago, when my mother was the Hand of Defense, the Spear Gate opened. A single person stepped through from Eranos, but he was no Athaxi. He called himself Rozire.”

Maelys’ jaw dropped at this. Rozire was from another planet?

“His purposes were unknown, and he was apprehended. But we found out that he had powers of his own, and one day he vanished without a trace. He didn’t go back to Eranos. The Gate did not open again.”

“You’re saying he’s still around?” Eathe asked. Maelys perked up at that. If Rozire was here, he could get everyone out of this situation. Everything would be fine.

But Varra shook her head. “I doubt it. The boy told me that he entered the Meadows with Rozire. He hasn’t been seen since, and—”

“He must be here, then,” Eathe interrupted. “How far could he have gotten?”

“Eathe, nobody has seen him, and we don’t really know what he can do. Magic isn’t of this world.”

“Well,” the former guard captain said. “What do you know of his magic, boy?”

Maelys reddened. “I’m hardly any younger than either of you. And I don’t know. He’s never used any magic around me.”

Varra made a confused sound. “Don’t lie to me, you used magic just after I found you. Rozire’s magic, in fact.”

“What are you talking about?” Maelys and Eathe said in unison.

“Your master’s staff? It has a runestone in it. The Athaxi used runes to manipulate the world around them. You used Rozire’s staff to summon flame.”

Maelys held his hands up. “That doesn’t sound familiar. He’s used his staff as a torch sometimes, but he’s always used flint.”

Varra grunted. “Boy, you don’t have anything to gain from lying to us, we’re in the same position as you!”

“I’m not lying!” Maelys yelled. “And stop calling me ‘boy’! This all sounds insane and I have nothing to contribute.”

He took a breath and looked away from the others.

“Rozire found me and took me away from a bad place. An island off the coast of Tebrein, near the Sanguine Archipelago, but independent. We spent several months together. He told me he was a cartographer and showed me how to make maps. He never said why we were going to Upper Terrace, and when we got here, we were attacked by a Constructor, and he vanished.”

In that instant, he felt a spark in his head. He had told Maelys. They were looking for his mother, a woman whom he had never known. Why in Upper Terrace, and what did Maelys have to do with any of this?

Voices came from down the hall. Everyone glanced at each other, and a tense moment passed. Eathe shrugged at Varra in a rare request for orders.

She leaned in close to him. “We’re done for now,” she whispered. “Come back sometime tomorrow. For now, hide in one of the further cells. They won’t check for any additional prisoners. And don’t make any sound. They’ve only heard me and Maelys talk.”

Eathe nodded and tugged at Xan’s robes as they pulled away. With a silent wave of dismissal, the two of them ventured further into the dungeon to avoid the approaching patrol.

Spear Gate — Chapter Nine, Pt. 1

Maelys’ entire body ached, sore and heavy. As he woke, he found himself still wrapped with an unshakable chill, but the chill was everywhere, now. Coming to consciousness, he realized he was lying on stone. Cold, hard stone that did little to ease the discomfort of the Red Teeth that still coursed through his body. He let out a strained groan as he sat up to lean against the rock. It wasn’t any more comfortable, but at least the pained muscles could relax a bit.

The room was dark. The slow, orange glow of a torchlight twisted around the stone walls and iron bars.

“Rise and shine,” a feminine voice said nearby. Maelys glanced towards it to see a woman staring back at him from the other side of the cell. It was hard to make out details in the darkness, but she seemed young. Her voice carried an air of authority with it, but it was contrasted by her posture. Her shoulders were slumped and her head was low.

Maelys frowned. “Where are we?”

“The dungeon under the barracks. It seems we’ve both fallen victim to crimes we didn’t commit.”

Something in the way she said that sparked some recognition. “We’ve met before haven’t we?”

The woman crossed her arms and looked away. “Yes. I’m the H—” she stopped herself with a sigh. “My name is Varra.”

Varra. Rozire had mentioned that name. It had seemed so long since his teacher was at his side, though, that he couldn’t remember anything beyond simple recognition. He coughed and felt a stain of wetness on his arm. Dizziness followed, and Maelys wavered a bit. He pushed against the ground to steady himself. “Maelys,” he said after a moment, more a confirmation for himself than an introduction to her.

He anticipated a response, but there was none. Varra seemed content that the conversation had finished, which suited him just fine. He didn’t have much strength, and talking seemed like a waste. The questions of what had happened and what was to come came to mind, but they seemed trivial. Unimportant when compared to the prospect of getting some rest.

But just as that thought came to him, he heard a dull rhythm. The loud clanking of footsteps echoing down the corridor. He opened his eyes again to look at Varra, and watched as her composure completely shifted. She remained seated, but her back straightened and she pulled her hair out of her face, head lifted to address whoever approached their cell.

Maelys was surprised to see two figures walk into view. The one that carried a torch was a tall young man wearing plated armor. He wore no helmet, and his hair was much lighter in color than what few people Maelys had met in Upper Terrace. The other figure was small and hunched. Even sitting on the ground as he was, their head wasn’t much higher up than Maelys’. What little skin their simple white robes exposed had a glossy texture, as if they were covered in sweat. This figure wore an intricate mask over their face, and overall there was no indication whatsoever of the person’s gender.

“Well, Exalted One,” the armored one said, a smile on his face as he looked at Maelys. “These are somewhat different circumstances than what I thought we would be having around this hour. Unless you expect me to believe these are your chambers.”

“I’m over here, you idiot,” Varra huffed, words peeking out from gritted teeth. “And it’s just Varra now.”

He looked to the other side of the cell to where she was, then back to Maelys. “Oh, my. You’ll have to forgive me, you two look… nevermind.” He walked a few paces towards Varra. His face grew more serious then. “Xan told me what happened.”

The hunched figure nodded vigorously, smashing it’s hands together. “Yes, yes. Xan saw the lady being dragged out of the palace towards the dungeon. Some time after the light faded, yes.” The voice sounded somewhat masculine to Maelys, but jumped up and down in pitch. He vaguely recalled seeing this figure in the infirmary, but had never heard this voice before.

“Thank you for fetching Eathe for me, Xan,” Varra said.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me how to do your job?” the guard asked. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think we both know the other Hands are going to replace me as soon as possible.”

“Well, funny enough the conversation I wanted to have with you has only been made more necessary by recent circumstances. I have a plan.”

“Are we going to bust you out?” Eathe said, skepticism and worry coloring his tone.

Varra shook her head, trailing a hand through her hair. “No. At least, not yet. That will only get us killed. No, the four of us have some work to do. We’re all outcasts in one form or another, so we have to stick together. I can get us through this, but we’ll all need to work together as one.”

She beckoned everyone to come closer. They all did so with reluctance, but when she was insistent they all did as they were told. Maelys was far too lost to agree to anything just yet, but he had little choice.

“We’ll start with introductions,” she said, voice slightly louder than that of a whisper. “You all know me, but I’ll go first anyway. I’m Varra, former Hand of Defense of the city.”

The light-haired guard started to introduce himself, but Varra cut him off as she pointed in his direction. “That’s Eathe, former Guard Captain of Upper Terrace and de facto Hand of Defense. A capable tactician and a loyal friend. You’re going to be the one pulling all the strings for now.”

She addressed the masked figure next to Eathe. “Xan, Upper Terrace’s only Athaxi resident, and our only medical expert. Xan, you’re going to have to be our eyes while everything is going down. Nobody is going to think anything of you wandering the streets since you’ve been around longer than any of us. And since Maelys is here, you coming to the dungeon frequently isn’t going to arouse any suspicion.”

Xan stomped their feet on the ground, making soft thumps. Maelys had never heard of an ‘Athaxi’ before. Everything about this creature was strange.

Soon Varra pointed towards him. “And lastly, we have Maelys. A bundle of questions himself, but undoubtedly a big piece of the puzzle. He has some connection with Rozire and the Spear Gate, though how much remains to be seen. Maelys is the key to figuring out what’s really going on. Also, it goes without saying that none of this information leaves this room. And it especially doesn’t reach the ears of the other Hands.”

Eathe nodded. “That goes without saying. So what’s our first move?”

“It starts here,” Varra replied. “The Hands have arrested me for treason against Tebrein. I think it’s only fitting that I commit the crime that put me here. I’m going to tell you three everything the Hands know about the Spear Gate and our watchful sister-planet.”

Spear Gate — Chapter Six, Pt. 3

The Shadow began just as Varra reached the infirmary, where the boy was kept. The quicker she was the better.

“Exalted One!” a woman a measure older than herself greeted her as she entered. Her name was a mystery. “A pleasure, as always. What’s your business, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Varra slowed her step, but kept purpose in her gait. She didn’t have time for conversation. “Is Xan here?” she said, voice curt.

“I’m afraid not,” the lady replied. “He stepped out just a while ago to go fetch some supplies. He wasn’t more specific than that. You know how he is.”

“That’s fine. I won’t be too long, I’m just here to see the prisoner. If I don’t see you again on my way out, make sure to tell Xan I stopped by.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The infirmary wasn’t a large building. It was directly attached to the palace, though it had no connecting doorways on the inside. Really, it was an afterthought. Everyone in Upper Terrace could afford to have a doctor come to them. The infirmary was designed to be useful on a larger scale, expanding a wing of the palace into a sick bay in times of war, which had never been brought straight to the capital, for all Varra knew. This meant that the infirmary was a glorified storage facility for medical equipment. Few people were actually treated here.

As such, she had no trouble finding the boy, who had been left right where she had last seen him, except now he was kept in shackles, which chained him to the bed post behind him. He wasn’t quite lying on his back—a few pillows elevated him into something approaching a sitting position. He was no longer covered in so much blood. A change of clothes and a fresh bath had ensured that the moderate amount of blood on his chest and legs were recent, and that his condition hadn’t improved.

Varra approached him cautiously. Xan had assured her that the disease, which he had called Red Teeth, wasn’t contagious. Still, blood wasn’t the most sanitary thing to be around. Nor was it easy to clean.

“Boy,” she muttered, prodding his shoulder. “I have a few questions for you, most of which require your consciousness.”

He stirred, but didn’t open his eyes. He seemed to be muttering something, but it was too incoherent to make out. She prodded him again, and with a wet cough he became more lucid, eyes fluttering open. His eyes glazed over the surroundings, focusing slowly once they found Varra, and then widening. “M… mother…” he croaked.

The Hand of Defense frowned, taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“We’ve been… looking all over for you…”

“You must be mistaken,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m no mother, and even if I was you’re far too old to be any child of mine.” As she thought about it, they were of very similar age. Within a few years, to be sure. But she didn’t want to tell him just how young she was. Too many people pointed that out often enough. “But you seem awake enough. Can you understand me?”

The boy started to say ‘yes’, but it turned into another cough, and Varra had to sidestep to avoid getting any blood on her.

“Very well. What’s your name?”

“…Maelys.”

“Good. You’re safe here. For now at least. You’re in Upper Terrace, if that clears anything up.”

He started coughing uncontrollably at that. Varra found a nearby pitcher of water and poured some into a small cup on the table next to him. She had to help him drink it, since his hands were bound, but he seemed grateful at the gesture. Beyond that, she needed him to think she was a friend.

“Did you come here alone?” she asked.

His eyes lost focus for a few moments before he shook his head.

“How many other people did you go into the Meadows with? Just one?”

He nodded.

“His name was Rozire, wasn’t it?”

Again, Maelys’ eyes grew wide. He nodded again. “…staff?”

“I have the staff, don’t worry.”

At that moment, she became aware of a low, deep humming sound. Far lower than the horn blaring of a constructor. It even sounded like it was coming from beneath the ground. The humming grew louder and louder, until the very walls seemed to resonate with the tone.

“Wha…?” the boy sounded.

Varra didn’t bother with any explanation, or even any words of departure. She left the boy, racing back through the building as quickly as she could. Her mother had told her about that sound. It was something she remembered vividly, even though she had heard it only once nearly two decades prior.

It was the sound of her nightmares coming to life.

Spear Gate — Chapter Five, Pt. 3

Cold. Intense, unshakable cold. Everything felt like it was freezing, but Maelys didn’t even have the strength to curl up. He had been spending all he had trying to breathe. Why was breathing suddenly so hard?

He could barely even keep his eyes open, and his vision swam. Rozire was there, then he wasn’t. In his place was the mirage of trees and leaves, flowing like a river in the sky as he lie there in the grass.

He faded in and out. Time passed, and the forest grew quiet. Only the breeze kept him company. Breathing was still nearly impossible, and if anything, it was getting more difficult. He had to do something, but what?

Eventually, Rozire returned. He knelt down and inspected Maelys, but didn’t seem keen on being near him. The figure left, and he started to wonder if it was really Rozire that had come back for him. Perhaps it was some forest spirit, or maybe Aenias himself, here to guide him out of the realm of the living.

His suspicions were confirmed when the figure pulled him to his feet. Maelys could not stand on his own, but Aenias was understandably strong and didn’t seem to struggle with his weight very much. It did, however, seem strange that God only had two arms. Where were the other three? And shouldn’t Aenias have the power to restore Maelys’ strength so he could walk on his own?

It was hard to hold on to consciousness, but Maelys doubted he needed to be awake for his final journey. Perhaps he could regain some strength leaning on The Maker itself while they traversed through the trees.

The next thing he knew, Aenias was speaking. Maelys had expected a soft, regal voice. Something eloquent and benign. Instead, the voice was loud and demanding. Aenias was still holding Maelys up, though at this point he might as well have been a corpse. Perhaps he was, in a way.

He tried to focus on his surroundings. The forest was no more. Instead, they were surrounded by stone walls in every direction. The buildings were larger than anything he had ever seen before, and they were so close together. Tales told of the Maker’s Palace of Stone deep inside the planet. He had never thought to see it with his own eyes, bleary as they still were.

It was unfair how he was still in so much pain. It was freezing, and breathing was still difficult. It was as if something was caught in his throat. Wasn’t all suffering supposed to cease when you died?

Maelys tried to speak, to beg the Maker to ease his pain, but the words strung together into a wet cough.

More figures approached the two of them, and Aenias all but pushed Maelys off towards them. Without the strength to stand, he fell, but hands caught him and he was laid down onto the floor. Then, the very ground beneath him lifted and he was moving again. What awesome power The Maker had to command the earth itself. Just like the thing he and Rozire had been running from.

A jolt of panic. Rozire.

Maelys shot upright and looked around. Few people milled about the streets as dawn approached. All the ones he could see wore armor, and many were staring back at him. Closest to him was a young woman, whose worried expression became alert and guarded as she took a step away from him. They pulled their swords out as he realized he was holding a staff. He had always been holding it, he realized. Rozire’s staff. And it was engulfed in flame.

The litter he had been lying in came crashing back down to the ground as the soldiers carrying him dropped it to defend themselves. He felt a dull pain as he was dropped, and with a sharp inhale, his body convulsed and he coughed. Blood. Blood everywhere.

The cold, dark void returned as the adrenaline faded as quickly as it had come.

Spear Gate — Chapter Three, Pt. 1

The ground trembled in his pursuer’s wake. Dirt fell as Maelys ran, and all around him trees uprooted and fell against one another as their once sturdy foundation sunk and swam. Twice Maelys tripped, but his momentum carried him through and he managed to keep his feet beneath him. The monster roared behind him, and the blaring of the horn made the leaves shudder with terror. He wasn’t even sure if it was gaining on him, but he dared not look back.

“Rozire!” he called into the forest. He hadn’t seen his mentor since the thunderous footsteps began.

“Calm down, I’m here, I’m here!” came a familiar voice. Maelys stopped and turned around to see Rozire pacing up behind him. “No, don’t stop, you fool, we keep running!” Pushing on the boy’s shoulder, he sprang into motion once again.

“I was worried you had died!” Maelys choked. “After I fell, and that swordsman appeared, I–”

“I’m alright. We need to focus on getting away from that thing.”

“What about the swordsman?”

Rozire glanced at his pupil and winked. “I told you I’d protect you.”

“Funny,” Maelys grinned as he leaped over a particularly large root. “I don’t feel very safe at the moment.”

“Imminent death at your heals adds a spice to life, wouldn’t you say?”

The forest quaked when the creature stomped on the ground once more, and the ground before the two of them climbed upwards, defying gravity as it rose to their heads and then some, halting them immediately.

“Hallowed One’s curse,” Rozire muttered. “This way.” He shoved Rozire to the side, parallel of the dirt wall, and they took off once again.

“What is going on? Did that thing just do that?” Maelys said as he followed orders. He tried to swallow the fear, but with his chest heaving from the exertion it became a cough.

“It’s called a constructor,” Rozire nodded. “They can mold the elements around them to suit their needs. That means it can shape the dirt however it wants, and it can also create water to boot. Those things are the keepers of the Meadows. They make sure it looks pretty for the folks in the upper city while they keep it treacherous to discourage the less fortunate. Not to mention the creature itself can kill us in lots of creative ways.”

“So it’s not a man, but it’s intelligent?”

“They do have some intelligence, but I’m not convinced it’s a living, breathing animal, actually. Nobody’s sure. The constructors have been around as long as the cities they guard have, though. Lots of speculation, but nobody is stupid enough to get close to one on purpose.”

“You keep saying ‘they’,” Maelys trailed off.

“Yeah. There are over a dozen of these things in the Meadows.”

“What if we run into another one?”

Rozire chuckled a bit, though he was clearly starting to lose his breath. “Can’t get any more dead than we will be if this one catches up to us.”

The deep, horn blaring roar shook the woods once more. Again, the ground ahead of them lurched upwards. Before they could change course, the two adjacent sides walled them off as well. There was nowhere to run but back towards certain death.

Rozire clutched his staff and let out a long breath. “Looks like we have no choice.”

“What?” Maelys cried. “You want us to run towards that thing?”

“No. We’re going with ‘Plan B’.” Rozire was calm, but serious.

“What’s ‘Plan B’?”

His mentor looked up at the sky, where the outline of Eranos was only barely visible through the cover of the trees. “Remember when I got to your little town? So far away that the sister-planet looks nothing more than a distant hill in the horizon?”

Dread sank into the back of Maelys’ throat.

“I told you I was looking for an apprentice in cartography. A young man with a thirst for adventure and a willingness to get into trouble.”

The deep thunder of approaching death was getting louder, but something about Rozire’s demeanor calmed him. “You never really taught me anything about map-making.”

“Yes, well. Here’s the truth. I am a cartographer, as surprising as that may be to you, but it’s the least of many occupations of which I may claim. I wasn’t looking for an apprentice.”

Maelys frowned as his mentor turned to face him. “I don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t suppose you could even if I told you everything here and now. But I’ll tell you some, to get you started. You see, I was looking for your mother.”

His breath caught in his throat, eyes widening. “My… mother…?”

“She’s always been the elusive type. I’ve been looking for her ever since she left Upper Terrace. When I found you I knew I was on the right track, only to find out the trail had gone cold when I learned that you had never known her.”

Another thunderous boom, beating in sync with Maelys’ own heartbeat.

“I wish I could tell you we were going to Upper Terrace because that’s where she is, but the chances of that are slim at best. I gave up my search, and instead I was going to finish my true task. I brought you along because,” he paused at that. “Well, never mind that for now. What’s important is that you make it out of here alive.”

He pulled out the vial of Red Teeth.

Maelys snapped out of his stupor. “What? What are you doing with that?”

“When we were separated, I tried to use it on the constructor,” Rozire explained. “It had no effect, as I feared. Things can never be too easy, I suppose. Here.” He offered the bottle to his pupil, who took it with quivering arms.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way, leaving you with so many questions, but I can’t say anymore. Do you trust me?”

Rozire had asked that question dozens, if not hundreds of times over the past few months. It had become a catchphrase of sorts. But now, there was no joviality in his tone.

Maelys nodded.

His mentor’s face was grim. “I need you to drink that. All of it. Constructors have some way to detect the presence of life around them, and it targets the biggest threats first. If you drink that, you will be effectively invisible.”

Trees exploded and fell. Through the thinning foliage, Maelys glimpsed gold.

“Once you get to Upper Terrace, they’ll take you to an infirmary. Unless the city has drastically changed since I left, the worst they will do is kick you out of the city when you’re better. Go there, and find Varra. You can trust her. Now drink.”

Maelys took a deep breath and exhaled. His hands were still trembling, but he managed to pull the cork off and, before he allowed himself to hesitate, drank the bottle.

The liquid was cold, but as soon as it fell down his throat, he felt as though he had been thrust into an inferno. His vision darkened, and he could feel the hard slam of dirt against his knees. He heard his mentor’s words swim in and out as he lost consciousness.

“…st of luck, Maelys… Aeni… your path…”

Spear Gate — Chapter Two, Pt. 2

Maelys followed behind, boots slamming into the grass below. The acoustics of a town going to sleep was replaced by a forest waking up. The calls of thousands of restless crickets bounced off the wall, amplifying the noise. It was accompanied by the occasional bird call and other common predators.

“We’ll have to be careful we don’t attract any unwanted attention,” Rozire whispered back, gazing into the forest. “The Meadows are large enough to house a steady population of all kinds of beasts. Mostly animals you can find all over the place. Watch out for bears, and don’t touch any of the plants. Got it?”

Maelys nodded furiously. If they encountered any bears, there was no way the two of them could survive. Neither of them had any defenses to speak of. A staff and an umbrella couldn’t discourage a rabid squirrel, let alone a rampaging monster. It was no wonder so few people even tried to sneak into Upper Terrace.

“Is…” Maelys jogged a little closer so he could whisper as quietly as possible. “Is that what the Red Teeth is for? To poison any bears?”

They passed beneath the first few trees as they entered the Meadows. Leaves crunched under their shoes, and Rozire ducked under branches that were too tall to bump into. He realized that some trees were partially uprooted, while others were partially submerged in an unusual amount of dirt.

“It would be a waste to use it on a bear,” Rozire finally responded with a shake of his head. “And in any case, they’re easy to avoid. We don’t really have to whisper, by the way. Things will probably smell us or see us long before they hear us.”

Maelys may not have been the most experienced survivalist in Tebrein, but he wasn’t confident that either of those statements were very accurate. “Where exactly on your travels did you have to learn how to avoid bears?”

Rozire winked to his pupil. “You still have quite a bit to learn about me, you know.”

At that moment, a deep, distant sound echoed through the trees, like the sound of a low note on a horn. The sound continued for a few seconds, and when it stopped, the rest of the forest was nearly silent.

Maelys shot Rozire a glance, who returned it. His mentor’s demeanor remained unconcerned, but his grip the staff tightened visibly.

“What was that?” Maelys mouthed, almost completely silent now.

“That,” Rozire said, voice unchanged. “Is one of the true guardians of Upper Terrace. Lower Terrace and the Meadows wouldn’t stand a chance in the event of a full scale assault. An army would just burn down the forest and kill nearly everything inside. But that, my boy. That could stop an army, if it needed to. Those are the things we’re actually scared of. It’s what makes the Meadows so dangerous. Don’t worry, though. They’re pretty noticeable.”

As they started to pass beneath the forest, Maelys stopped.

“What’s wrong? You’re not having doubts now, are you? We’re only a night’s journey from one of the largest cities in the world!”

“I’m not going,” Maelys said.

“What? Don’t give me that, you’ve traveled halfway across the world with me and you’re going to stop now?”

“This isn’t what it used to be.”

“What are you talking about, we’ve been in lots of dangerous situations before.”

“This is different,” Maelys argued, raising his voice. “Before it was hiking through mountains and meeting interesting people! Discovering new and exciting things! Now it’s breaking the law, committing blasphemy to do it, and risking our lives along the way! And for what? You’ve never even told me anything!”

“Sure I have. I’m a cartographer mapping the the world. I don’t carry parchment with me because my job doesn’t truly begin until our journey ends. We’ve talked about this.”

“You don’t need to go to Upper Terrace to mark it on a map.”

“I realize that, but you don’t understand. Upper Terrace is the end of the journey.”

Maelys paused. “Upper Terrace is your home?”

His mentor shook his head. “Not exactly. It’s more complicated than that. But suffice to say, once we get into the city safely, our lives will change drastically.”

He looked back to Lower Terrace, the wall still visible through the trees, then ahead, where the forest fell into shadow. The path ahead was still unclear. “Promise we can get there safe?” he asked.

Taking note of the genuine concern on Maelys’ face, Rozire softened, his demeanor losing his jovial air for a moment. “I’ll protect us. We have nothing to worry about.”

Maelys nodded, and took the lead as they started off into the wood proper. His mentor followed behind, and before long they were back to traversing over roots and through bushes in relative silence.

“What is it like in Upper Terrace?” Maelys asked after a while, grabbing a firm dead branch off the ground to use as a walking stick.

“Well, life there isn’t really all that different from anywhere else in Tebrein. You’ve seen all manner of towns and villages, even larger ones like Tal’Doraken and Thornwall. In most of those cities you have the normal folk being governed by one house or lord. Upper Terrace is the same, but all the people are unspeakably rich and the ones lording over them make a council which also rules the nation of Tebrein.” Rozire paused to look up at the sky, which drew Maelys’ attention. It was a clear night, without a whisper of a cloud, but with the thickening canopy only a faint outline of the sister-planet could be seen. “It’s also much bigger than most cities, save Lower Terrace, of course, but it isn’t densely populated. People use their money to buy bigger houses or buy their neighbor’s houses so they can claim more land. It’s a game the nobility like to play. If you don’t have enough money, you get pushed out.”

A lot of that didn’t sit well with Maelys and his idea of why Rozire would have any business in a place like that. His mentor was the richest person he had ever met, as far as he knew, but with how big the houses seemed to be from a distance, he doubted even Rozire could afford to survive in such a society. Beyond that, he hated politics. On their journeys the two often went out of their way to avoid having to deal with them if it could be helped. Either way it didn’t sound like a place to stay.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Rozire said. “This doesn’t really sound like an adventure. And you’re right, it’s not. But it gets better. I have some friends in the pal—”

Following a soft crash of distant thunder, the ground began to shudder. Maelys wrapped his form around a tree trunk as tightly as he could as the tremors intensified. Dozens of birds flooded out of the trees they were nested in, flying northwards.

Rozire cursed under his breath, grabbing his pupil’s collar and peeling him off the tree. “We have to go. Now.”

A second boom of thunder, closer now. It was like a god setting foot on mortal soil, the very ground beneath them quaked in fear. Maelys, too stunned to do anything else, allowed his mentor to pull him from the tree, but instead of turning and running in the direction the birds had gone as Rozire had done, he fell to the floor in shock.

Through a gap in the trees he saw it. A gold shimmer, like a piece of plate armor. Moving in his general direction.

Before he could glimpse anything more, the world went black.

Soon, a face appeared in it. A crooked smile with pale eyes on a shapeless form, staring straight into his soul, a burning hunger from deep within. From somewhere, it pulled out a sword.

And lunged for him.

Maelys sparked into action, pulling to his feet and sprinting the way Rozire had to have gone. Deft leaps and ducks took him over roots and under low branches. It was several moments before he even realized that his blindness seemed to have already been cured. A glance backwards gave him no view of the shadowy swordsman, but it did little to help his terror.

The ground was still shaking, and at the same time it also seemed to be steadily sinking. He was climbing a hill yet not getting any higher. “Rozire!” he shouted, jerking his head back and forth in a panic to find his mentor. He was nowhere to be seen.

The sound of a low horn blared throughout the forest once again, this time much closer. Not the call of a beast on a leisurely stroll. It was the roar of a monster on the hunt.