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Chapter 1: Awakening

"Where are you taking us anyway?" Nyla asked as she struggled to free the skirt of her dress from the clutches of a bristle bush.

"It's not far now," Jarius assured her, taking a sip from the battered canteen that hung from his shoulder, "It'll be worth it, I promise."

"This isn't like those 'dragon eggs' you found that were just a bunch of rocks, is it?" Darian asked, stopping to cut the branches that had snagged his cousin's skirt with his flint knife.

"Those really were dragon eggs, they just turned to stone because they're so old," Jarius said, "And no, this is way better."

They pushed their way through the undergrowth until they came to a small creek that babbled quietly as it flowed past them. The white firs and soldier pines in this part of the forest grew to staggering heights and the air smelled of pine needles and decay. Jarius stooped down to refill his canteen while Nyla watched a pair of white-tailed squirrels chase each other along the boughs of the canopy. Darian knelt by the creek to take a drink and caught his reflection on the water. Loose black curls framed a face tanned as dark as old leather and his piercing grey eyes were as pale as ice. He glanced over at Jarius. The boy's nest of straw-blonde hair splayed in every direction and his bright green eyes brimmed with mischief and good humor. He was the same age as Darian yet already his chest had begun to thicken and his shoulders broaden, nearly fitting the hand-me-down clothes he inherited from his older brother. Nyla was a head taller than them both, however, despite being over year younger. Darian looked back at the watery likeness of himself and studied the way his frayed shirt hung limply on his wiry frame. He frowned, then cupped his hands together and took a drink.

They followed the creek until it disappeared into the brush then Jarius turned and led them up a steep rise covered in prickly sword ferns. At the top they finally saw what he had been clamoring about. Half-hidden in the vegetation were the ruins of what appeared to be some kind of ancient temple. Ivy slithered up the sculpted columns like leafy serpents and beards of moss seeped from gaps and cracks in the walls. Jarius held his arms out boastfully.

"What did I tell you?" he gloated.

"I never doubted you for a moment," Darian said, staring at the ruins in amazement.

They bounded down the slope then climbed a set of cracked stone steps leading to the front of the temple, where a pair of strange deities had been carved into the wall. The one on the left was a woman, a set of dove wings folded about her body and her head lowered as if in prayer or sorrow. The second was of a hellish monster wrapped in chains, its hideous visage twisted in rage as it screamed at the sky.

"What was this place?" Nyla asked, her dark blue eyes filled with awe.

Jarius shrugged. "Who knows? It's all ours now."

Since there did not seem to be an entrance they settled for wandering around the temple grounds. They found a path that led to a wild, overgrown garden teeming with colorful flowers and plants, many of which Darian had never seen. There were clusters of scarlet roses with thorns as long as a man's finger, giant bellflowers that gave off a sweet, heady fragrance, and everywhere grew vibrant bunches of pink and yellow trilliums. A wide pool of stagnant water lay in the center of the garden, its surface covered in a layer of bright green algae. The path ended at a giant heap of rubble, where part of the temple wall had collapsed. As they began making their way back Nyla stopped and gasped in excitement.

"Oh, look! Those are ghost-flowers!" Nyla exclaimed, pointing to a patch of pale blue flowers growing along the ledge, their long, translucent petals shimmering in the sunlight and seeming to vanish and reappear at random.

"Flowers have ghosts?" Jarius asked, staring at the ethereal flowers in bewilderment.

"No, you simp, they're rare flowers that only bloom once every few years," she explained, "I read about them in one of my father's books. The petals can be used as a remedy for many common ailments, including ulcers, toothaches, and constipation."

Jarius scratched his head oafishly. "A bo-ook?"

Nyla rolled her eyes then headed for the fallen wall.

"Constant-pacin'?" Darian asked in his best rube accent. The boys snickered at one another as they followed after her. The heap of rubble was over twenty feet high and the roof ledge another six or seven feet above that, yet Nyla was undaunted and started to climb.

"You're gonna risk breaking your neck just for a flower that'll give you the runs?" Jarius asked.

"A handful of those petals can fetch a silver at market," she replied, looking back at him with a shrewd grin.

"A silver?!" Jarius blurted out excitedly, "Now that's something us illegitimate simps can understand!"

"Illiterate, not illegitimate," Nyla corrected him, shaking her head in exasperation, "Try to remember the difference, for your parent's sake."

The boys jostled playfully with each other as they scrambled up the rubble. Nyla was nearing the roof when the crumbling block she was balancing on came loose and went tumbling down the heap, leaving her desperately hanging onto the edge of a broken slab. Darian and Jarius watched in dismay as she dangled by her arms over the open air.

"You can do it!" Darian called out, doing his best to keep the panic out of his voice, "Don't stop!"

Nyla set her jaw determinedly and swung her leg onto the edge, her grip slipping slightly as she did and causing Darian's heart to skip a beat. Then her other leg followed and she was crawling breathlessly onto the slab. The boys let out sighs of relief and continued their ascent. When Nyla finally reached the top of the rubble she leapt and grabbed hold of the ledge then pulled herself up.

"It's so beautiful!" she exclaimed, raising her arms in triumph.

The boys finished the climb a few moments later and clambered onto the roof. Darian stood and marveled at the elevated view of the gardens and the forest beyond. The roof was covered in a thick layer of ivy and dried leaves, as well as several patches of the peculiar pale blue flower.

"Father won't believe this," Nyla said, kneeling on the ledge by the ghost-flowers and breathing in their scent.

"As soon as I get my silver I'm goin' straight to The Mule and ordering a whole chicken," Jarius announced as he walked to the nearest patch and began picking the flowers greedily, "With dumplings and scalloped potatoes, and a pint of mead!"

"Don't forget the honeycakes and candied apples," Darian added, crouching next to Nyla and clipping one of the flowers with his knife.

"Now you're talkin'," he said, licking his lips, "We'll eat like kings."

Darian held the flower close to his face to study, noticing the gossamer petals were only visible from certain angles, then suddenly he felt the carpet of vines and leaves shift under him.

"Surely you two can think of something better to spend it on other than stuffing yourselves silly," Nyla said as she got up, tucking one of the flowers behind her ear then starting toward a different patch, "The very least you could do is..."

"Wait!" Darian shouted.

The roof gave way completely and then they were both falling into darkness. The drop seemed to take longer than it should, and for a moment Darian thought it would last forever, and then he crashed into something hard and everything went black. He drifted in nothingness for a time, random snippets of distorted memories playing through his mind, and he wondered if he was dead. Someone was calling his name yet the voice sounded far away, as if it were shouting across a great chasm. He cracked open his eyes. The world was lost behind a brilliant wash of sunlight that left him momentarily blinded. Gradually his vision began to focus and he saw the light was coming from a ragged hole in the roof above him, where a blurred figure was frantically circling around the edge.

"Can you hear me?!" the figure shouted, "Nyla! Darian!"

"Jarius..." he replied weakly.

"Darian! Are you hurt? Where's Nyla?"

He sat up gingerly, wincing as daggers of pain ran up and down his back, and saw his cousin sprawled next to him, blood running down her face from a gash on her brow.

"I'm here," she groaned, dabbing at the gash with her hand and cringing,


"Gods, I thought you two were snuffed for sure!" Jarius said in disbelief.

Darian slipped on pieces of shattered stone as he tried to stand and almost went tumbling down the pile of debris they had landed on. A veil of unsettled dust floated listlessly about them and a stale, fetid odor filled his nostrils. He took hold of Nyla's hand and started to pull her up but she cried out and clutched her left ankle, which was twisted awkwardly beneath her.

"I think it's broken," she whimpered.

"Do you see another way out?" Jarius asked.

Darian turned around and saw they were in a large chamber, the walls covered in archaic glyphs and cryptic reliefs that depicted outlandish scenes. Before them was a large dais, upon which rested a looming statue of another bizarre idol. Half of it appeared to be a young man with a powerful build and an eye of blue crystal that glittered faintly in the gloom. The other half was a sinuous, loathsome thing, a single, leathery wing outstretched behind it and a blood-red crystal set next to the blue one. Darian gazed at the grotesque statue in astonishment then spotted a corridor in the shadows on the far side of the chamber.

"There's a passage," Darian said, "I'll try and see where it goes."

"That might not be a good idea," Nyla replied, staring wide-eyed at the floor around them.

He looked down and his blood turned to ice as he realized it was not a pile of debris they had landed on but a pile of festering bones, the air rank with their foul stench.

"I'll go for help," Jarius said, shrugging his canteen off and tossing it down to Darian, "Don't worry, I'll be back soon!"

"Hurry!" Nyla called after him as he disappeared from view.

"What do we do now?" Darian asked nervously, imagining predators lurking in the shadows all around them.

"I don't know," Nyla said, eying a rotten bone next to her that was big enough to come from a human, "Just get me down from here."

She grabbed onto his shoulders as he wrapped his arms around her waist and carefully lifted her up. Together they picked their way down the rancid pile of bones then hobbled across the chamber and sat on the steps of the dais. He unstoppered the canteen and took a drink as he glanced up at the hole. It would take Jarius at least an hour to return from the village with help, and the light outside was already beginning to dim.

"This is all my fault," Nyla grumbled as she pulled the smashed ghost-flower from her hair and tossed it away in frustration.

"Yes, yes it is," Darian said wryly, handing her the canteen.

She smirked, though before she could respond a sound came from behind them. They whirred around and peered down the corridor yet there was nothing to see but darkness. Darian held his breath and strained his ears, hearing only the rapid beating of his own heart. The sound came again, closer this time, soft and rasping, like something scratching against stone. He got to his feet and drew his knife, holding it before him as if it were a talisman for warding off evil rather than a weapon.

Out of the corridor came a monstrous wolf culled from the very depths of the Nether, its bristling fur blacker than the shadows from which it stepped and its yellow eyes smoldering with malice. It snarled at them threateningly, revealing fangs as long and sharp as daggers, and its wickedly-curved claws scraped against the floor as it came.

"Just...leave me," Nyla pleaded, her eyes welling with tears, "There's no sense in both of us dying. Run!"

Darian stood rooted in place, frozen with indecision and fear. Even if he could leave her behind, the thought of his cousin being ripped to shreds made him feel empty. He let out a long, resolute breath, then steeled his nerves and turned to face the nightmarish wolf.

"What are you doing?!" Nyla shouted, trying to push herself up on her good leg. "Darian!"

The beast stopped a few feet away from him and dropped into a crouch, muscles coiling as it prepared to strike. Darian's heart was pounding so hard he thought it would burst yet he forced himself to hold his ground as the beast sprung, filling the air with its freakish size. Darian slashed at it wildly with the knife and fell backwards, terrible jowls snapping shut inches from his face. The wolf swiped at his hand with a massive paw, sending the flint blade clattering somewhere out of reach, then sunk its teeth into his stomach and tore away a bleeding chunk of flesh. Darian screamed and flailed helplessly as he felt himself being gorged upon.

Suddenly the wolf yowled in pain and wheeled about to find Nyla standing shakily behind it, the knife buried in its side. She turned and staggered toward the dais but the enraged beast lunged at her throat. Darian struggled to get up but a fresh wave of agony left him writhing in his own blood. A heavy weariness began to settle over him, and he knew with a terrifying certainty that he was about to die.

"I'm...sorry..." he wept, listening to Nyla's wails of anguish as he closed his eyes.

He let himself slip into the blackness, no longer feeling anything but sorrow and regret, and anger towards the fiendish wolf that would soon be feasting on their corpses. Anger! There was so much of it!
His eyes snapped open, everything around him bathed in a fiery red glare. A seething torrent of overwhelming rage surged up from somewhere deep within him and coursed through his veins as if it were his own blood. The excruciating pain was replaced by a dull, throbbing burn, and when he got to his feet he saw the wounds on his ruined stomach were melding themselves together.

The wolf released its jaws from Nyla's neck and growled savagely before launching itself at him, its muzzle dripping with her blood. Darian snatched up a jagged piece of stone off the floor and slammed it into the wolf's head, the force of the blow sending the beast flying backwards and leaving it crumpled at the base of the dais. He stalked menacingly toward the felled wolf, knowing it was finished but not caring, the anger in him building to a frenzy. He lifted the jagged stone up then drove it into the wolf's skull, again and again, blood spraying everywhere with each impact. He brought it down one last time and the stone shattered, leaving him grasping a bloody, gore-covered lump.


Nyla's voice was so faint he could barely hear her over the rage roaring in his ears. He crushed the lump to dust in his hands then looked upon his cousin. The wolf's fangs had ravaged the side of her neck and shoulder, the pool of blood under her growing steadily larger with each moment. Her eyes were glazed and her skin had turned a ghastly white. The roaring quieted as the rage that had filled him began to withdraw back from where it had come. He took a step toward Nyla then cried out and collapsed to the floor as the pain returned all at once. The fiery glare around him deepened to a soft, violet glow, and he realized with a start that the glow was coming from the crystal eyes of the statue on the dais. Before he could do or think anything further the darkness closed in about him again, implacable and absolute, his pain and woe soothed by its comforting embrace as he fell away into nothingness.

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Son of Eld
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