The voice of my captor flowed through my mind like a poisoned spring.
“How long do you think you have been my guest, Arkazul?” the voice resonated in my mind. “It is customary for my guests to keep track. Although there are many of you down here I remember . . . What is your count and I will tell you if you are right.”
To hear him say my name . . . to hear Arkazul instead of “cur” or “dog,” meant that he was about to tear my mind to pieces again. Vadomir, my captor, the red hand of Yadomir, never showed kindness without pain being close behind.
“A hundred years?” my voice echoed back. I refused to open my eyes and witness the horrors that always followed his thoughts when he was down here visiting the dungeons.
Carefully hidden deep beneath layers of pain, disillusion, fear, and horrors, lay the door to my chamber of secrets, where I kept the ancient teachings of elemental magic—away from his torments. Sometimes, when I was sure that he was not around, I was carefully sneaking in that hidden corner of my mind to study as much as possible about the magic of the elements that my kin had blessed me with. It is my legacy and it was carefully constructed deep in my mind by the Elders just before I was put to sleep and taken to the great Sayaldrim Library after my birth ceremony. I was to dream for a hundred years guided by ancestral teachers’ wisdom and magic knowledge, dreaming the dream that teaches the magic elements control—but, without any guidance, my progress was painfully slow.
He is here now. That door is closed and buried. Whenever I hear Vadomir’s soft, viper’s voice, I always have to lock the door, and then turn my mind into a dark, cold tomb.
“A hundred years,” Khazimir’s voice echoed throughout my mind, a hint of humor in his voice. “Precision is what defines you? Yes, you are correct.”
Before my mind’s eye, his thin, elegant face materialized, a lipless smile mocking my pain. “If that is true—-- mind you—--but if it is, then perhaps we should look back on all of your old and forgotten memories, hmmm? Perhaps this time you will show me the door?!”
“No,” I begged. “No, please.” I thought of the pain that would follow—having him forcefully going through my mind again filled me with rage, but I was powerless down here, chained to the Crystal.
“Stop fighting me and give me what I want!” Khazimir hissed.
My head erupted with the heat of a thousand white suns. It burned so badly that I had to open my eyes to release the blinding light. It shot from my eyes, filling the cavern with a bright flash that quickly died. The only light source in the cavern now was the Tayrul Crystal—my unforgiving cellmate—and it was cracking my mind open each time Khazimir commanded it.
Right above the Crystal, in the dim light, my memories started to grow and form into shimmering shapes. My memories—pulled out by the Tayrul Crystal that I had been chained to. This was Khazimir’s way of torturing me. He had done it many times before and now he was doing it again. I was helpless to stop my failures from flooding into my mind once again. And as they did, Khazimir spoke.
“You failed early didn’t you, Arkazul? You couldn’t even manage to stay asleep. Every Aedolas finds their element before waking from the long Sleep, but not you. See the emptiness of your great dreams, white walls, marble ceilings . . . witness your failure once more.”
It was as if I was there, watching myself awaken from the Sleep. I looked so young then . . . wide eyed and baby faced, unaware of the totality of my failure.
“When they found you wandering the halls, dazzled like a newborn, they did not comfort you, did they? Oh no. They took you to the Elders—"
The scene played before my eyes.
“Such a case,” Elder Orin said through his venerable beard, “has not been seen in our time.”
“Failure to achieve enlightenment and mastery over an element is unacceptable.” This
was Elder Vianna, hawkish in face and character. “I hope the Gods are not watching you right now, it would break their hearts. It has certainly broken our hearts, Arkazul.”
The Elders bowed their heads in shame.
“For this,” she continued, “you are exiled. To have one such as yourself among us is to let our great people rot and fester from the inside out. You are a broken.”
“These are the people you would defend . . . these are the ones you refuse to betray,” the poisoned voice cried out.
“I told you,” I moaned through my mouth, wishing I hadn’t. “I don’t know any magic! You’ve seen as much! I—”
“Another lie, I am sure of it. Surrender the dream, show me how to reach the elements, and I shall free you,” the voice whispered.
The coward was somewhere, perhaps miles above, in the fortress, sitting in his chambers among his creatures, abominations and tormented souls, taught to listen to him and him only. He would not dare come into my prison himself. And who could blame him? The Crystal knew no master—it was always hungry for memories . . .
“It is well known that your people dream until they unlock the secrets of magic. That is why—”
Another image flashed before my mind’s eye and I saw the empty streets of Aada Korith, the unique city of the Aedolas. Pure white stone walls with gilded windows, the marble streets . . . Those people—the people I had grown to think of as my kin—were watching me being carried away to the Palace of Truth. The few people who were on the streets, making the sign of the evil eye as I passed, did not speak.
“And then you realized something, didn’t you?” the voice exploded like a giant bell in a great cathedral.
There were no children. The city had not one child in it. No laughter. No joy or happiness. The children were missing. All of them were back in the Sayaldrim Library. All dreaming about what they would become. And I . . . I was to become nothing.
“Do you know why they looked at you with such hatred? Do you understand?”
I thought I had understood, even when taking that walk of shame from the Palace to the eastern gates. I remember looking into the eyes of a woman who had barely poked her head out of her front door. I saw in those eyes not just hatred, but loathing.
“So, the High Mages take every child right after birth and lock them in the Sayaldrim, each child in their own magical casket. All for the sake of keeping the magic hidden.”
“Is it any worse than what you do?” I shouted in the streets of my memory. The eyes of the hateful woman shimmered and vanished followed by her house and then by the street until the scene had changed to my broken reflection in a forest pond. I stood and called out into the twilight forest. “Is what my people did to me any worse to what you do to your prisoners?”
Back in the forest, I could sense his presence, his eyes peeking through the branches of the trees. He laughed, making the trees of memory rustle in his breeze of amusement.
“I am not lying, I am a stranger to magic, whatever flicker I possessed in the past it is gone now, kill me now and end my torment, I beg you,” I asked him while looking at my reflected image in the ponds’ water.
“Perhaps you are not lying after all. Only an unaccomplished child like yourself would ever believe death is worse than a broken heart. Never underestimate what a broken heart might unveil or achieve. Remember this—PAIN IS POWER!”
“Your master taught you this harsh lesson?” I asked him again and without waiting for an answer I continued, “Your master is the groom of Death, her wishes are his commands and Death wants only death”
“My master seeks to prolong life not to end it. Blood magic is not death . . . it’s immortality given to mortals, it’s life renewed!” he hastily replied.
“And what of you?” I shouted to the interloper above me. “What of your abominations and monsters that you have spawned? What do you seek?”
“I am not my master. I seek more than just blood magic. I want to master the elements.”
The eyes vanished and the memory played on as it had many times before. They banished me from the city, a helpless child, and I wandered aimlessly through the forest until nightfall. As the darkness surrounded me, I stopped, seeking refuge under a grand old tree. As I struggled to build a small fire, I realized my people were never meant to use their hands for labor but their mind. But I was a failure and cast out into the woods—it was clear that I was meant to die. And perhaps that would have been better.
Ah!” a voice cried out in the darkness of the forest. “Look what we have here. A lost soul . . . all alone…”
My first instinct had been to run, but my clumsy legs—still getting used to walking—failed me. I tripped over the roots of the tree and landed on my face. The voice laughed as it grew closer. It was as sweet as poisoned honey, that voice, and when I looked up, I found it belonged to the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
Short hair billowed around her face, even though there was no wind, and her dark red armor shimmered in the light of the second Sister.
“Did you get lost, my dear?” she asked. “Perhaps we can help you find your way—”
The Basharii assassins slipped from the nearby bushes like waking nightmares—shadows brought to life. I felt the breath of one on the back of my neck and screamed, throwing myself closer to the armored woman. At that moment, my cloak fell away revealing my tunic and the crest that was stitched into it. She drew back almost as if she were afraid.
“Yaadir!” she hissed. “It is a cursed Aedolas. Take him! Take him now!”
Cold metal arms closed around me and lifted me off the ground. I felt the cold chills down my spine.
“A foul breath, isn’t it. Foul as the smell of a pit full of dead rotting bodies, is it not? My beloved Yaadir does not enjoy spending time on the surface even at night . . . he has grown quite fond of the dungeon’s darkness now.” Khazimir’s voice echoed again in my mind.
The breath from the blackness beneath the helmet had driven me into a dark sleep. From the forest, the patrol carried me to Yadomir’s Keep. There, I had remained until Khazimir had decided to lock me away in the dungeon. What a prize I was for him, nobody before him had ever seen an Aedolas child. He chained me to the Crystal, hoping that the infernal device would tear out my secrets.
“Secrets I will discover nevertheless.”
Tears filled my eyes and I cried out in the darkness as my memories spun through my head at lighting speed. Pain, so much pain . . .
“I am a failure! Unaccomplished! I can’t tell you anything about the secrets of the elements and magic! Please just kill me! Kill me now!”
That terrible, shrill laughter again.
“Perhaps in another hundred years.”
Then his voice was gone and I was left alone in the dim light of the Crystal.
I cannot say if I believed him or not—had it been a hundred years? My treacherous mind was playing tricks on me again—or maybe it was the Crystal or Khazimir sneaking into my mind again. “Maybe it’s only been a year . . . a week? Oh Gods, what if it’s only been a single day?”
I shut my eyes and gritted my teeth so hard I was sure they would shatter. My hatred for that voice had been growing ever since my imprisonment and now it was at breaking point. I pictured the face of Elder Vianna . . . then the face of the hateful woman in her doorway. I forced their faces down all while they were shouting: “Failure, Weakling, Dream Breaker.”
I saw the face of the beautiful Basharii woman—Lady Ardinne—then the shape of the face of Yaadir obscured by his read helmet, then Khazimir. Suddenly, the face began to shrink into a pinpoint of light in the darkness. Then, the light—not blinding this time, but soothing—filled my mind. I wondered if I had finally managed to will myself to die. I hoped for it. Longed for it.
I was floating above the cell and I could not see myself chained to the Crystal anymore . . . then I was shot through the ceiling, passing through walls and furniture and creatures with the speed of thought.
Suddenly stopping, I realized I was inside the Ethereal Labyrinth. That is where only a handful of Mages manage to reach. And that was true. I was actually in the labyrinth. It was made of crystal and bent the soothing light of the stars around into beautiful spectrums of color. Above and below, swirled the cosmos and all of its secrets that I thought would be hidden from me forever.
I continued through the labyrinth until I reached a transparent wall with an opening in it. I stepped through. The chamber I was in was amazingly beautiful and peaceful. On the clear crystal walls surrounding it, the colors flickered and I could hear the echoes of an old familiar tune. I was sure I’d never heard the tune before, yet I somehow knew it. I opened my mind and fell back into my memories, searching for its haunting melody. There was no other door and the opening through which I came in vanished, turning back into a crystal wall.
Then the crystal room turned into an austere kitchen with a wooden table with a washbowl on it. In the middle of the chamber, sitting on a small round chair, was --a woman, cradling a child in her arms as she sat by a warm, inviting fire. Her face was a study in maternity and unconditional love. She smiled and kissed the bundle in her arms as tears gathered in her loving eyes. She began to sing the tune that the cosmos had been playing until then.
Oh, mother of mercy hear my prayer, let my love pass to this child so fair. If we should be parted and forever lost, pass all my love on him no matter the cost.
Before she could continue to the next verse, a man appeared in the room, panic in his eyes.
“They are coming for him,” he said. “We must leave! Now!”
But as the words left his mouth, water from the washbowl on the table slithered onto the room’s floor like a snake and, quick as a flash, it shot into the man’s mouth and down his throat. The man tried to pull it out but his hands passed through it. The woman screamed and made for the door but found the way barred by a woman with a hawkish face. Elder Vianna, but younger . . .
“Tis a crime,” she said coldly, trying to grab the child from his mother’s arms.
My heart couldn’t bear to witness the crime of child culling. I stepped between them, caught Vianna by her hands, and pushed her into the outer nothingness . . .
The walls flickered and faded, allowing me to pass into another crystal room. Inside the floor, a closed circuit of fire and water wove in its own maze like a pattern. Each time the fire and water touched, they shot off in the opposite directions. It appeared that both were trying to reach the four corners of the tile while trying to keep the other at bay.
“Help me,” a voice echoed through the room.
“No, please help me,” pleaded another.
Intuition told me the elements needed my help and they were trying to get my attention. After what I had just witnessed in the last room, I refused to let the water prevail. I lay on the floor, spread eagle, my hands and feet touching the four corners.
“No matter the cost,” I muttered, repeating the final words of the song. I willed the fire to my hands and my feet, repeating the words over and over again. I heard the hissing of steam and felt the floor beneath me begin to grow hot. For a moment, I feared I had made a mistake, that I would burn myself alive with the heat beneath me. But just as I was sure my skin would blister, the heat evacuated from the floor and the steam burst through the walls, melting them away to reveal the next room.
In the middle of this room, an island of fire was being slowly consumed by a pool of water. The voices I had heard earlier spoke again. “Put it out,” the voice of a woman, sensual and desperate, said. “Put it out and claim me as your own.”
“Save me,” said the second voice, the voice of a child. This voice seemed happy and playful, but behind that laughter there was a twinge of fear.
“What if the water engulfs the fire . . . or maybe, the fire consumes the water?” I wondered. Hesitation took over for only a moment. “No need thinking of what could have been. Embrace what is before you.”
Vianna of the Elders . . . she banished me . . . left me to die. Yet, she was still alive.
I held out my hands towards the fire in the middle, closed my eyes, and allowed my body to be consumed by it. It embraced me like an old friend and within moments, the water vanished into a cloud of steam. Then the steam began to melt the labyrinth and I fell through the crystal floor, a fiery ball of fire plunging deep into the cosmos below.
“I am glad you chose me,” a child's voice filled my ears. My body could take the shimmering shape of fire, I felt I could melt mountains and bring so much destruction, yet help in
so many ways. Fire can clear paths, fire can make a field fertile again, fire can extract the metals from the hard rock and reshape it, and fire can defend the innocents and punish their oppressors.
I opened my eyes to witness the emptiness around me. I was becoming fire. With each move, the small fireballs that circled around my limbs and body were growing and I felt stronger and stronger. They all met hovering above my face and formed into a bigger fireball.
“My name is Xei,” said the voice coming from the fireball in front of my eyes, shooting towards me a smile made of thick smoke. “You chose me and I am glad. I saw in your heart the power to wield my precious, powerful, and untamed flame. You are worthy of it. From now on, you are my flame brother, a piece of myself, and I am a piece of you,” the voice continued. “We are bound for eternity, one soul, one mind, one body.”
Entering back into the material world was like a shock to my being. “I can feel my body now,” I whispered to myself, and Xei was there too, hovering above my left shoulder now. One look at the Tayrul Crystal and the thought was brought to life without even trying to voice it.
Xei hurled himself towards it and smashed it into burning pieces. I saw the bloody crystal bursting into a thousand pieces and my memories released from it were now running wild in the cavern. There were rushed footsteps outside the heavy door . . . the guards must have heard my brother playing with the Crystal.
“Arkazul, congratulations, you have discovered your element,” the viper’s voice filled the cell. “You know I cannot let you live now. Ah, such a pity, you were indeed my favorite. Now you must die!”
“Too long you have tormented me, monster, I will make you pay,” I shouted back at the walls.
I looked down at myself and realized I was half naked and the putrid rags I used to call clothes were falling apart. I needed . . . “An armor,” Xei quickly whispered. “Let me fix that for you,” he continued while he embraced me with his living flames. The rags melted quickly and fell onto the cold stone floor, still burning while my body was being engulfed by protective flames that took the form of a battle armor. I could not believe my eyes, not a single twitch or pain followed. Shouts were coming from the corridor beyond the door.
I looked at the door of the cell and touched it while the flames followed on my hand and quickly melted the metal bars. Xei whispered to me again, “You can dance like I do now, brother . . . fire is yours to command, fire is your bloodkin, and you were reborn as fire.”
I passed through the melted cell’s door and I ran into a Basharii soldier patrol that was coming my way. They froze and stared at me full of awe. Reading the fear in their eyes, I started to dance around the hallway passing through flesh and metal, killing them as if nothing was standing in my way. At first, there were screams, and then the dungeon became quiet. Every living being in the dungeon’s hallway was turned into ashes. I started to walk slowly toward the stairway and I realized that I was stepping in the burned remains of my tormentors. But it felt good somehow.
“You learn quickly,” Xei noticed with an innocent laugh. We made our way to the great stairway that was leading to the upper part of the citadel and began our ascension toward revenge and freedom.
“Stop him! Don’t let him get away!” a voice broke the silence of the dungeon.
I knew that voice very well. Lady Ardinne was coming down to greet us, followed by a Basharii patrol. Behind her was the abomination Bloodlord Yaadir, encased in his red shimmering armor. His glowing eyes protruding from the darkness beneath his helmet made him look even more frightening than he was.
Chasing away the fear, I climbed faster and faster toward them. “It’s your turn to be afraid now,” I yelled at them and the echo of my voice made my threat repeat itself a few times throughout the dungeon. There they were, in front of me, the ones who’d captured me in the forest . . . but this time, I had the advantage and they still had no idea.
Xei detached from me and the intensity of my armor diminished somehow, but it was still there. He was floating above my head as flames blazed from my eyes and my fingertips. I looked at her, in her eyes, and on her beautiful face, I saw a twinge of fear, yet very well hidden. Fear, my oldest friend, my companion from the dungeon, was now holding her heart with a tight grip.
“No matter the cost!” I shouted, filling the passageway towards them with a blast of flame that quickly reached and engulfed them. They burned as intense as my rage was. I could feel them turning into ashes. I could hear their bones cracking under the unforgiving wave of fire.
As the fire started to die out, I looked up at them. The soldiers were reduced to small pools of metal and ashes, while Lady Ardinne was hiding behind the massive burned body of Yaadir. Red symbols were glowing on his hands. His armor looked badly damaged, dripping the red substance that seemed to be carefully woven by magic into his metallic case, onto the cold stone floor.
“Kill him,” she hissed pushing him towards me. “He must die quickly as he ordered, you know how dangerous he is now.”
As I tried to summon the fire again, I fell on the ground on my knees and hands, trying to get up while the massive red demon was crawling toward me. My feet were not listening, my hands were scraping the stone stairs trying desperately to keep me from embracing them. The burst of rage and magic was taking its toll on me. As he got within a few paces of me, I could feel his foul odor, but I would not allow them to take me once more. With the strength that I had left I willed Xei, and through our bond he saw my feelings, he saw my pain and the torments I had to endure. In a blink of an eye he quickly hit Yaadir’s armored chest and went through it, slowly burning his way through magic, metal, and flesh.
Turning my eyes toward her, I saw that she was already chanting a spell and before Xei could touch and embrace her in his fiery arms, she vanished into nothingness.
I did not stay around long enough to find out where she went. Once my power was replenished I unleashed my rage again and burst through the cavern in a blazing bolt, consuming all that came into my path. And as I passed, I melted the chains of the others locked away in this damned dungeon. The whole castle seemed to be engulfed by flames by the time I reached Khazimir’s throne room.
There he was waiting for me, sitting on his throne, calmly reading from an ancient tome. Once I made my way through the open doors, he sat the book on a small table and rose to his feet, portraying majestic pose and elegant posture, imbued with magic of the ages and the wisdom of an immortal.
“I knew it,” he said, while his elegant clothes were turning into a red scaly armor pulsing as if it were alive. “I knew you were holding out on me.” He snapped his fingers and from the balconies above his throne, his wicked pets pounced. Then, with an elegant gesture of his right hand, three blades flew from his armor and spun through the air directly at me. I dodged to the left while Xei made quick work of his scary desert hellions. Lying on the floor now, half burned but still alive, they tried to continue their charge with their last breath. Loyal until the last drop of blood.
The magic daggers missing their target, parted in three different directions, and were waiting for their master’s command once again.
I gathered my might and felt the fire taking over my body. “I want him dead, I want him burned down to a crisp, I want revenge . . . no matter the costs,” I whispered to myself. Then flames began to drip and ooze and erupt from my levitating body in all directions. They ran through the throne room, setting the blighted tapestries on fire. Soon, the entire throne room was one great bonfire and the lord of the fort and I fought inside of it.
His daggers were always one step behind me. One of them struck me in my left shoulder. I tried to remove it as quickly as possible but it seemed the magic blade was melting my flesh and combining its material with
my body. A wave of tremendous pain followed my removal attempt. I started running away from them but, no matter how fast I moved, the other two daggers followed closely.
“Once they taste your blood,” Khazimir cackled, “they will never stop!”
I launched a fireball from my fists but he somehow blocked it in the air with a sepulchral hiss. He could stop my flames in the air, but they still burned if touched, and soon enough I had him surrounded by fire and there was no escape for him now.
A moment later, his second blade pierced me and, this time, I felt the pain taking over my body and throwing me onto the floor. The bloodthirsty daggers lifted me through the air and pinned me against the wall. Khazimir laughed again as his third dagger danced before his eyes.
“You have done well, child, but you have lost.”
I felt the fire flicker in my eyes and I saw the demonic flash through his dark-red eyes. With an elegant gesture, he ordered the last dagger towards me and I saw it fly toward my chest.
As the two daggers were poisoning my blood and having me pinned for their brother to pierce my chest, Xei engulfed my entire body in flames, whispering in my mind, asking me to show him a place far away from here, a place where we could both be safe.
With my last strength, I showed him the lake where I was captured and all of a sudden, the flames from the room vanished into thin air. Us with them. We emerged on the shore of the lake, destroying everything around us with the flames that followed us. And then, I closed my eyes as the magic poison of the daggers took over my senses.
To be continued...