Milky moonlight seeped through the blinds and striped the bedroom carpet. A wobbly ceiling fan whined as it whirled, the vents hummed, and the clock continued to tick like a woodpecker with insomnia. Colorful grinning dinosaurs stood against the walls, their vigilant eyes eternally wide, beneath glowing plastic stars stuck to the roof with bits of bubble gum. Underneath the artificial constellations, two boys tossed and turned. Outside, a cloud drifted over the moon and the room was filled with a thick darkness. The younger brother yanked his feet back beneath his comforter so he would no longer feel the demons breathing on his toes. Wrapping the blanket tight around his throat, to keep vampires from the tender flesh of his neck, his eyes were drawn to the cracked closet door which seemed to budge, ever so slightly, open. You’re imagining it! He knew he was but it didn’t matter. Already, fear’s cold talons had a firm grip on his heart.
With their parents’ room across the hall, he had to whisper so as not to wake the wardens.
Silence slipped back between them.
“Lets go on an adventure?” The younger proposed.
“Where?” The bigger asked.
“To another planet.”
“An imaginary planet?”
“Well…” who am I to judge if its real or not, the little brother thought, he responded, “I went there in a dream.”
“What’s it called?”
The cloud was finally brushed aside and silver light returned through the blinds.
The brothers rolled onto their sides, facing each other, and the older nodded. Together, the two boys left Earth. Their minds, intertwined, drifted off to a far away world in an unknown galaxy on this the first of many visits. Each coming night was spent exploring. They fought through the foliage of foreign forests then sunk to the darkest depths of the seas where submarine civilizations spawned. They climbed mountains into mighty blizzards and battled in citadels draped in snow and corrupted by magicians. They road across the sunset upon rickety steam engines and braved tunnels beneath barren lands deep within the alien planet’s core where nightmares became daydreams. Together, they journeyed in a world they believed to be imaginary, a world they would soon forget as responsibility constricted their creativity like a boa to a bunny. Soon it would seem as nothing more than a dream shared between brothers, nothing but a faint memory.
But dreams have a tendency to come true when forgotten.
- - -
Warriors surged forward. Blades cut through the shadowy wisps of their opponents as shields bashed the bones of skeletal foes. These undead soldiers were no match for the living breathing persons united against them, but they were not alone. Mortal beings were joining their opponents: blood thirsty wizards seeking to steal the energy from the souls of the enemy, vagabonds hired in search of glory, and idealistic fanatics intent on slaying the infedel. As the dead were banished back to the earth, the living met and steal clashed against steal. The sulfuric scent of explosives and the must of thousands clouded the air like a putrid fog. The familiar sounds and smells of battle put the general’s mind at ease – this was his domain.
He strode forward, raising his L shaped staff high and sending shards of sharp ice shooting from his fingertips. Movement flashed in the edge of his vision. He moved to block but was thrown off his hooves. Heart tumbling in his chest, the fallen forced himself up and turned to face his attacker.
A giant bulbous skull, far larger than his own, sat atop a burning suit of armor. The armor was black, beaten, dented, and scratched but still the insignia of a wolverine was plainly visible across his breast. Green flames consumed the knight, engulfing his entire body, but did not char the ivory bone beneath.
“Benjamin Fasthoof,” spoke the fleshless face, trapped in a perpetual grin, “the one who got away.”
General Fasthoof stood up straight, but still appeared tiny compared to the eight foot monster. For a moment, he attempted to come up with a response but in the end he knew he’d fair better to keep his mouth shut. This was Hermes Retskcirt. This was the man who should have died a million times – the man whose sole purpose in the Black Crown Pact was to hunt down the Samurai and there was only one left to hunt.
“She’s thirsty,” the skeletal knight raised a knotted blue staff, “and her thirst must be quenched.”
There was a chance for escape but Ben thought otherwise. I’m tired of running, he lied to himself, unable to admit the truth – he was tired of living. His friends were gone, his love had betrayed him, and his war looked to be immortal. So, he charged. With his elgroon high, magic burst from his body. The sorcery hit the emerald flames that engulfed the skeleton and evaporated. The Samurai wasn't done yet. Ice crawled over his right fist and engulfed his forearm, the tip melting into a sharp point. Standing so close to the monster that the fringes of the eerie flames tickled his skin, he thrust his arm up into the dark knight's chest plate. The ice blade cut through the cold metal and Ben thrust deeper. He forced his frozen weapon far into the shell of the opposing knight's rib cage, well past where the undead's heart should've rested, but to no avail.
Dread swept over the Samurai like a cold winter breeze as Hermes' shadow fell over him. The skeletal knight strode forward, one giant gloved hand gripping the arm that impaled him. With his free arm, Hermes raised the staff. The sun glinted off the rust hued gem stone. For a split second the stone shone with the brilliance of a thousand lightning bolts, then it fell dead and Benjamin Fasthoof was no longer there.
The Samurai had disappeared from the face of Mystakle Planet, out from beneath the light of Solaris.
With one wavering eye, he read the clock, “1:15 P.M.”
Not a minute more, not a minute less. Sheets of gold slipped between the rivets of the venetian, slicing his shoulders as he rolled away from the clock. How long has it been since I’ve slept this good? Tightening the comforter around him, he burrowed into his pillow. Sleep, my long lost companion, I’ll never leave you. The afternoon sun’s warmth provided a secondary blanket, like the embrace of a lover, seducing him back to sleep. A curve took hold of his lips and crescented into a smile before flat lining.
Tearing off his blanket he bound out of bed, lunged through looming mountains of laundry, hurdled the cat humming on his hoodie, and came to a skidding halt in the doorway. His bare toes cringed as he glanced at his hip, What the…, then back at his bed, of course, where his pump-site lay half buried beneath the folds of his comforter, twisted like a dead viper.
Yet there was no time to replace it. Being on time was far more important than insulin. He ventured to the bathroom where he grabbed a shriveled tube of toothpaste, globbed some onto his brush, and plunged the rigid utensil into his mouth.
“You alright, Joe?”
His brother leaned against the door frame, watching their reflection in the mirror.
“No!” This was the first and last intelligible syllable to escape Joe’s fluoride foaming lips. “Mah hum hite oht hank’d out, I hook hike hit and,” tossing the brush into the sink, he spat, painting the faucet in pale polka-dots before finishing his answer, “I’m going to be late!”
“Oh,” the brother drew back from the mirror, gritting his teeth empathetically, “but you quit?”
Fighting the urge to roll his eyes, Joe took a gulp of mouthwash and nodded as the sting of alcohol swarmed his taste buds.
“Oh wait…” jabbed the roof with his index finger, “you had an interview!”
Joe spewed the alien-green liquid, slid past his brother, nearly tripping on the dog behind him, “And if yall would get out of my way, I still will!”
Flying back to his room, he tore his way into his closet, a small walk-in with a dresser, and yanked the first button up he saw off its hangers. He could hear his brother approaching from the hall, once more hanging in the doorway. Can’t he just let me get ready? Halfway through his buttons, he glanced out the closet and caught a glimpse of his clock’s impatient hands: 1:18. No time for buttons, on to the slacks! His khaki’s lay crumpled in the corner, but a loyal grease-stained pair of black pants – a legacy from his days working in a camp kitchen – waited on its hanger. As he slid on his pants and stooped to search the past week’s abandoned britches for a belt, his brother wandered into the room.
“What time is the interview?” He asked.
“1:30,” Joe mumbled back. Stepping on the crotch of his favorite acid-washed jeans, Joe pulled his belt free. As he slid it around his waist, he snagged a tie off the dresser and charged out the closet. His sibling stepped backwards, out of the way, but the dog stood wagging his tail behind him. He tumbled over the hound and onto Joe’s bed as the dog hit the deck. The cat perked up with a meow.
“Sorry, Stephen,” Joe grimaced, reaching over the embarrassed hound to offer a hand.
“Don’t worry about it,” Stephen shrugged assistance away and laid back, “Need any help? A drive?”
Why can’t you be this helpful every day?
“Yea, grab the mirror,” Joe said. He popped his collar and draped the red tongue of clothe over his shoulders. His brother maneuvered past the debris that was Joe’s possessions, clasped the rectangle of mirror which hid half-way beneath the bed, and held it up for Joe to see.
“You got everything?” Stephen asked.
“Wallet’s in the car…” Joe muttered, his mind attempting to ignore the distracting life forms around him as he tied his tie, “don’t need my phone…I’ll fix my pump when I get back…”
The little brother lowered the mirror to peer over the obsidian frame with his gray-blue eyes, so similar with just a hue of difference from Joe’s own.
“Calm down, breathe, you’re gonna be fine, bro.” Stephen wore a smirk that Joe’d been conditioned to recognize as mischevious, but Joe did his best to ignore it, “Don’t give up.”
“I gave up-.” He paused as he slapped himself in the jaw with the necktie, “-a while ago.” Finally, the job was done and, though the knot was less than satisfactory, the time for perfection had come and gone.
“It’s okay though, I’ve come to terms with it.” Joe shrugged, heading for the door, “I’m not compatible with civilization.” He patted his pockets as he checked one last time to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, all the while he continued his pessimistic tirade, “I have given up on humanity.”
Satisfied, he was about to leave when Stephen wrapped his arms around him, hugging his arms to his sides. This time, Joe did not fight back the eye roll.
Through gritted teeth, “Bro, I got to go.”
“You’ll be fine,” Stephen said, “don’t give up, I love you bro!”
Joe pried his way free and made it for the door but once again he was halted by the sound of a distinct jingle behind him. Spinning around he found the source of his brother’s odd behaviors: his keys.
“Dude, I don’t have ti-”
“They were in my room.” Stephen stated. He yanked his hand back when his brother reached for them, then declared his ransom, “Tell me you won’t give up.”
“Not cool.” Joe stated, his temper fixing to boil over.
Stephen shrugged, “Just say it.”
The words dove of his tongue, “I won’t give up.”
“That’s the Joe I used to know!”
Stephen tossed the keys, Joe caught them and sped out the door. Despite the situation Joe couldn’t help but emit a bitter chuckle as he, shaking his head, slid his keys into his pocket and sprinted down the stairs. His brother, the cat, and the dog watched him descend from the banister. Though the animals weren’t litening, Stephen felt the need to reassure himself out loud.
“He said he’d be back,” he whispered, “he said that to me, it’d only be a blink of the eye.”
- - -
“Oh come on!”
Joe stared at the light. Glaring, his brow narrowed into a squint as he dared the crimson plastic of the traffic light to rethink its color selection. The light shone back with nonchalant brilliance, the dulled yellow and green bulbs above laughing as their comrade mocked the young driver. Even the summer sun seemed to be chuckling at his situation as it smeared its heat through the rolled up windows of Joe’s Honda Civic. The Alabama sun was killer, but gas prices were much more fatal and if he were to blast the AC, as his dripping pores begged him to, he would be forced to watch the little yellow hand of the gas meter inch its way to the big Times New Romans “E” – and this “E” could be crippling to an unemployed twenty year old. Instead, he rolled down his windows and sat with his back stuck to the leather by perspiration. His eyes remained locked on the traffic light that swung gently in the wind from where it hung below the overpass. The blaring car radio was his only comfort, though the lyrics seemed to be as jeering as the traffic lights’ glare.
“I've gone through life white-knuckled in the moments that left me behind”
“Dear Lord, if you value my future, please turn this light green!”
The light turned green.
Joe’s foot hopped from the brake pedal to the gas as he dropped his eyes back to the street.
He slammed on the breaks. In front of him was an elderly woman, if elderly was even the correct term for her. The stoop of her back was something from the nightmares of an orthopedist. Joe found himself wondering if it was really her back or if it was a pet monkey clinging to her shoulder blades, hidden beneath her golden floral dress. With each inch she moved along her head shook, shuddering as if in a frostbiting blizzard instead of a blistering drought. The wrinkles of her face sagged to such an extreme that her eyebrows, with what little colored strands of hair that were left, sagged low over her eyes and her cheeks drooped down around her chin like a basset hound’s. She was absolutely ancient, maybe mesolithic, possibly prehistoric. She could’ve counted the seconds she had left to live on two hands and yet she was traveling with the speed of an oak tree.
“They say I’ll adjust, God knows I must, but I’m not sure how.”
Cars flew by Joe on every side as he contemplated the penalty for running the crone over. He quickly assured himself that – although she was crossing the crosswalk while the “DO NOT WALK” sign could be read across the street – he wouldn’t be able to live with the knowledge that he’d killed someone’s grandmother. Great, great, GREAT, grandmother, he corrected himself. His hand nervously felt the center of his steering wheel, his fingertips tap dancing on his horn as his patience or lack thereof toyed with his mind.
“This natural selection picked me out to be-”
The light turned yellow. He looked at the clock above the CD player. It read 1:30 P.M.
“Kill me now!”
“-a dark horse running in a fantasy.”
Finally the lady passed to obstruct the next car and he was free to go. Once again his foot shifted to the gas, the Honda hummed as it struggled to accelerate then sent him flying beneath the overpass.
“Flesh and bone!”
I’m going to be late. There was no doubt of that. It was just a question of how late. His mind was set, focusing on the street before him, focusing on the internal map in the back of his head that gave him directions, focusing on what he would say when he ran in fifteen minutes late, focusing on anything and everything but the traffic light that had been dangling over the old lady’s head. After the hag had passed, he hadn’t glanced up to make sure the light was still yellow. If he had, he would’ve seen that it had been red for at least three solid seconds before his foot fell on the accelerator like a brick.
“And I’m running out of time!”
He also didn’t notice the Wal-Mart truck barreling down the parkway towards the intersection.
The truck driver couldn’t have known that a metallic green Honda would come zooming out from under the overpass. All he knew was that as he neared the intersection, his light turned green and that meant that it was safe to go. Joe didn’t notice the semi until the shadow of the massive mechanical head reached out over his car. He turned on impulse and his eyes widened even before his brain registered what he saw. The metal grill of the eighteen wheeler and the two circular head lights on either side gave it an animalistic appearance, as if it were some mythical beast bearing down upon him, lips curled back from its teeth and eyes wide so as not to miss its prey. And in the right side mirror, Joe caught a glimpse of something dark, a figure, possibly a person, a really tall person – but no, it must’ve been a shadow or an optical illusion because it looked almost as though there was a man standing beside his driver side door, right over his shoulder, in the middle of the street.
“Flesh and bone!”
He never got the opportunity to turn and look behind him.
In fact, he didn’t even get the opportunity to be present as the semi-truck plowed into the passenger side of the little Civic and sucked the rest of his automobile beneath the starving eighteen wheels.
Joe was no longer in his car. He was no longer in the intersection. He was sitting on his butt in soft, damp soil surrounded by healthy, green foliage with rotted leaves padding the earth beneath his hands. Monstrous trees climbed into the sky around him, their tree trunks as big around as his car had been long. The trees climbed higher than any tree he’d ever encountered and covered the sky with a dark deciduous canopy. Birds screeched overhead and beasts moaned in the distance. Although he’d heard birds and he’d heard beasts, these creatures sounded strange, different, alien and yet, somehow familiar.
“What just happened? Where am I?” Joe whispered to himself, his heart pounding so fiercely that it was almost painful. His body still trembled and his skin switched from hot to cold. “Am I…am I dead?”
“On the contrary, you would be dead, if I hadn’t saved you.”
His legs jerked, flinging himself through the air so that he landed on his feet, chest heaving with each frightened hiccup of a breath. He faced the speaker. The speaker was a little man, a very little man, the tip of his head reaching Joe’s hip and Joe was not particularily tall. He was one of three dwarves Joe had ever seen in his life. Yet, this was no ordinary little person. He was wearing what appeared to be a green dress, or rather, a kilt jump suit - as he appeared to be masculine. The top was sleeveless with four small marble-like buttons traveling down the man’s torso until they were interrupted by a leather belt with a gold-handled knife stuck snuggly between the Knome’s tunic and girdle. Below the belt the same green material that was above continued, reaching down to tickle at two little brown slippers. The same color, a faded once deep green, cone sat atop the little figure’s scalp. The tip of the cone sagged down the back of his head. As for the man’s face, he was old – old as the lady that had dragged herself across the intersection and possibly older. Yet he was healthy, his face had a few wrinkles, but not many. His age was seen in the grey beard that descended from the cone-hat and tumbled down from his chin, stretching half the distance to his belt before stopping, and in his sparkling blue eyes that radiated the sense of wisdom familiar to Joe from his own grandparents. Yet, the old man’s peculiar height was not his only peculiar aspect. His nose was squashed, it drooped abruptly over his mustache, and his ears, which stuck out goofily from behind his bushy side burns, were pointed at the ends.
“Are you some kind of an elf?”
“Elf?” The little man chuckled. “Hah! I’m hardly tall enough to be an elf. Why would you…” He stopped, mid-sentence, his lips frowning, eyes squinting, then he smiled again and continued, “Oh, I see, you meant elf as in a North Pole elf, as in a Santa’s-little-helpers elf. I forget that elves don’t stroll about on Earth. No, I am not a North Pole elf, nor a south pole, nor an electric, earth, water, or fire elf. In fact, I am a Knome and that is spelled with a ‘K’ not with a ‘g’. Although, I don’t think-”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but you said ‘on Earth’,” Joe said, completely intending to interrupt, “as if this isn’t Earth?”
“Bingo!” The Knome paused, tapping his bearded chin with his index finger, his eyes drifting into the treetops. “Well…technically this is Earth and Earth is this…but un-technically, you are correct! You are no longer in the world known as Earth and you’ve strode in, or rather, I’ve pulled you into the world known as Solaris! But we really should be moving along because there are some people in this universe that aren’t to happy with me. So, if you don’t mind following me, I’ll continue-”
Joe planted his feet firmly in the soil, “I’m not going anywhere until I figure out what’s going on.”
The Knome spoke with the swiftness of an auctioneer, “We really need to leave. I promise all will be explained. Don’t worry, I mean, you can trust me. I just saved your life didn’t I? I did. You’re safe with me. In fact, you’re probably safer than you’ve ever been with me around. I’m a pretty-”
“Hold up.” Joe snapped, his nerves starting to be tested by the long-windedness of the little man. “Stop talking. I need to think.”
Joe turned away from the Knome and leaned against one of the giant trees that surrounded him. I’m going to be sooo late. What I need to do is turn around and tell this man, creature, gnome…Knome…this guy to send me back to Earth immediately…but what is it about this place that’s familiar? He ran his hand across the flakey brown bark, idly peeling chunks of wood from the trunk. And then again, I was about to be seriously injured or even killed by that truck. Would I even be alive if I was back on Earth? What if I go back and I’m dead? What if…Joe stood up straighter and ran his palm over his face, a grin stretching across his lips. What am I thinking? Am I crazy? “Solaris”? I’m obviously in a hospital dreaming away while doctors try to figure out if they can get my brain back online with reality. He scraped another sheet of bark off the tree and watched the squirming insects panic in their sudden nakedness. They, the insects, were different – but not too different. Not something beyond the capability of his own imagination. At least when I wake up I’ll have a solid excuse for missing the interview.
Turning to face the Knome, Joe asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz!” The Knome said, bowing his head so that the green cone hat flopped towards Joe. Standing upright again, face flushed, eyes flying from left to right, he continued with the same hasteness as before, “Can we go now?”
“Sure, where are-”
Without warning, Ekaf leapt forward, flying past Joe and into the thick brush that surrounded them. Joe stared at the area of woods the Knome had disappeared through and waited for him to return. But he didn’t.
Turning around, Joe yelped and stumbled backwards. A peculiar being had emerged from behind one of the giant tree trunks. The person was taller than Joe, at least six foot tall, and was dressed in metallic plates held together by chainmail. In the center of his chest there was a circle surrounded by tiny triangles that pointed outward, a symbol Joe easily recognized as a sun. His entire body was covered in armor, from armored boots to his armored gloves, all the way up to his neck. The helmet atop his head was covered in carvings of mythical creatures, dragons and dinosaurs, minotaurs and monsters, and it was crested with horns that cut a line down the middle of the man’s scalp. The sliver of face that was visible was wrinkleless and wispy with eyes that were glossy chrome disks. It wasn’t the armor that made the man look so peculiar, it was the transparency. Joe could see through the man’s flesh. There was no muscle or bone. The man was nothing but a bluish cloud hanging onto a humanoid shape encased in a steel suit of metal.
The man raised his mouth guard and asked, “Where is he?”
Joe stared, breathless, as cold sweat breached his forehead. He could see into the man’s mouth when he spoke, but there were no teeth, no tongue, no throat, just a hole in the smoky existence that was the man. The man drew his sword out of the sheath at his belt. Joe felt a dropping sensation in his gut, the same feeling he got as he fell from the peak of a roller coaster. A single word formed in his mind and his conscience screamed that word to his muscles, “Run!”
Spinning on his heels, Joe froze. Four other ghostly men surrounded him. Each had their black swords drawn and each had the pointy emblem of a sun across their chest plate.
“Knome,” the ghost said, raising the tip of his blade to tickle Joe’s shaven neck, “or your life.”
“Okay, okay, listen,” Joe said, trying to keep his body from shaking, “I don’t know what’s going on. I just got here. I don’t know…”
Joe stopped in mid thought. He stared at the ghostly knight before him, his brow drawn together. This isn’t real. He closed his eyes. This isn’t real. He bit the inside of his lip. This can’t be real!
Joe opened his eyes. The Knome was standing between him and the ghostly being. In the Knome’s hand was the dagger he’d seen earlier, the one with the golden handle, but instead of it being a knife, it was now a sword and a massive one at that. Ekaf had to hold it in both hands and, even still, the weapon must’ve been twice the little man’s height. Joe was positive it weighed more than the Knome himself. The blade was such a pearly white that it almost seemed to glow, bringing vibrant light to the dense wooded forest.
“All right, fellas, I don’t mean to be rude but I’m skipping the small talk and going straight to the business. I’ve got a deal to barter.” Ekaf said, “I’m quite fond of you spirits, you’re magnificiently efficient beings, so I’ll let all five of you leave, unharmed.”
The spirits didn’t seem to find the Knome’s joke funny. As Joe turned to examine his little savior’s face, he realized it wasn’t a joke.
“You are under arrest, Knome.” The spirit said.
“Joe,” Ekaf said, his eyes not leaving the spirit, “watch out.”
The spirit lunged forward, bringing his sword up then swinging it down at the little man. Ekaf ducked under the swing and took two steps to the right, dragging his blade through the dirt. He brought his sword back, as a baseball player does before their swing, then swung in the time it took for the spirit to recover. He hit the armored legs, knocking the man’s calves out from under him and sending him toppling onto his back. But as the spirit hit the earth, the other four charged from the periphery.
Ekaf didn’t turn, but he heard the men coming. He ran forward. Hopping over the spirit he’d knocked down, he kicked off the man’s helmet and ran up the tree in front of him. He was parallel to the ground for a split second before he pushed off the trunk and flipped over the guards running towards him. He landed behind the four and before they could spin to face him, he’d swept the men’s legs out from under them with the flat of his blade.
“Let it be noted that I chose not to kill each last one of you,” the Knome said as the original guard stumbled to his feet. “Good day!”
With that, Ekaf turned and zipped off into the woods with nothing more than a nod to Joe. This time Joe followed, crashing through the brush, his arms raised in front of his face to protect from the barrage of twigs and branches. They busted through briars and bushes, ran over rocks and roots, twisting their ankles while getting slashed by tree limbs here and there. Joe’s panting slowly turned into gasping. His gut began to cramp, his head throbbed, but the little Knome in front of him – who’s legs pumped like the needle of a sewing machine – didn’t slow.
Finally, Joe spoke up.
“Hey, hold up,” Joe gasped, leaning against a tree with one arm and clutching the aching muscles beneath his ribs with the other. “I gotta have a break.”
Ekaf slowed to a stop, standing three yards or so from Joe, eyeing him with bright blue eyes. Stroking his beard, the Knome turned to stare into the woods, patting the golden handle of the knife that was back in his belt.
“What’s with…” Joe said in between pants, “…that knife?”
Ekaf didn’t answer. He continued to stare into the brush. Joe followed his gaze, leaning around the tree trunk. He couldn’t see anything. He looked back to the Knome.
“Are they coming?” Joe asked.
Ekaf hesitated then shook his head and looked back at the young man. “I hear them but they’re far off. We can take a break. What’d you ask me?”
“What’s with that knife?”
Pulling the ivory bladed weapon from his belt, its blade now no longer than Joe’s hand, Ekaf said, “This is the Duikii.”
“Dookie?” Joe snickered.
Offering the weapon to Joe, Ekaf corrected, “‘Dui’ as in ‘do’ and ‘kii’ like the ‘ki’ in ‘kind’.”
“The doo-ky?” Joe mumbled as he took the knife, holding it tightly in his fist. The handle looked almost as if it were some twisted limb snapped off of a tree coated in golden paint, but as he held it, he could tell it was made of something much heavier. For a dagger of that size, the thing weighed ten times what he’d expected. Vines of gold wrapped around the hilt, fake leaves and shimmering berries were carved into the side, turning the deadly weapon into an art piece yet, somehow, each curve, each twisted golden greenery, added to the comfortableness of the handle against Joe’s palm.
“One word, Duikii. It’s the brother of the Suikii, Ruikii, and Thruikii. They are the Four Swords, forged by a great Knomish blacksmith named Grandfather. He was legend, shoot, still is.” Ekaf shrugged, his eyes twinkling as he watched Joe flip the dagger from palm to palm. “It’s a charmed weapon so be careful with it, it’s got a few special abilities that-”
The dagger came to life. The vines squirmed around the handle, growing and spreading. The blade, the shimmering radiant white, grew with the hilt, becoming longer and broader. Joe stared, eyes bulging, jaw dropped. The dagger was now the broad sword that he’d seen Ekaf with back in the clearing.
“It can get even bigger!” Ekaf said with a proud grin, as if the sword was his own creation. “It has killed many a foe and spared many more. That blade is older than you, my boy, older than your planet in fact, and it is sharper and stronger than almost all other weapons - second only to the Mystak Blade-”
“The Mystak Blade?” Joe asked while swinging the sword at imaginary opponents. “What’s that?”
“A sword that makes your Excalibur look like a twig…”
As Ekaf blabbered on and on about alien weapons, Joe paid little attention, dancing about the brush, sparring with the trees. Without disturbing his monologue, Ekaf bowed his head and took the cone shaped hat off. Holding it like an ice cream cone with one hand, he retrieved a shiny, silver key and a dull plastic cube from within the cone like a magician pulling a bunny from a top hat. Plopping the hat back atop his head, Ekaf held the cube up to his eye. It was tiny, two inches by two inches on each side with a circular button in the center of one of the facades. The Knome pressed the button. With a bumble-bee like hum the cube came to life. The once dull sides became screens filled with miniscule textual options. The circular button became a light, shooting a hologram up a few inches from itself, creating a hovering image that floated in thin air. The fuzzy neon apparition was a word: EMPTY.
“Whoa, what’s that?” Joe asked as he tugged at the Duikii which was now imbedded in a tree trunk.
“A key. I swear they have keys on Ear-”
“No, the box!”
“Ah, this is a warp cube. Just as you came from a parallel universe, Earth, and we’re now in Solaris, this warp cube lets me store items in a currently empty…um…dimension.” As Ekaf spoke, he operated the cube. He tapped a few of the options on the tiny screens of the cube and the hologram word transformed into: SCAN. Joe’s arms fell limp, leaving the sword in the side of the tree, his head cocked to the side as he wondered how his subconscious had managed to imagine such a complex dream. Ekaf continued, “Despite what you saw with our little tussle back there, the blades and armor and all, this world is not ignorant of science. Our science is just…different, that’s all. You see, we have guns too, however, a good swordsman can block a bullet..”
As the Knome prattled on, Joe’s eyes fell on the key, a large silver key that looked like it belonged in the door of an ancient European church. Joe interjected a query, “Where’s that key go to? A tree house?”
“Earth…” Ekaf answered, before returning to his prior point of explaining the differences between Earthen and Solarin sciences, “We have motorized vehicles but we also have wind and beast power transportation just like in the olden days in your world…”
Ekaf ran the key through the greenish light that shot up from the warp cube. The key flickered, as if it were just an optical illusion, then disappeared. It was gone, as if it never existed. Then, a few seconds later, the green letters of the hologram were replaced by the key hovering above the cube. With that Ekaf tilted his cone-hat back and slipped the warp cube back atop his head.
“…Most things your people accomplish with electricity, we manage with magic.”
Joe chuckled with bewilderment.
“Who were those guys back there?”
“They were Knights…” he hesitated, bit his lip as he pondered, then continued, “from the Key Library, which is where that key came from. You see, I’ve broken a few laws here and there and now and then-”
“Like you just did?” Joe asked, “Saving me?”
“No,” Ekaf shook his little noggin, “actually, they could probably care less about you. Well, not less, but they definitely don’t want you as dead as they want me, that’s for sure. Though now that they know you’re with me, they may just…”
“Then lets get going!” Joe exclaimed, “Won’t they be back?”
“They were following the trail of the key, but now that it’s locked safely in a separate dimension, the trail is gone-”
“Oh. So no more running?” Joe asked.
“Bingo!” Ekaf said. “Now, let me get my sword and we shall go on our merry way. I don't know if you’ve ever held a sword before, but, if you haven’t, get ready to get used to it. Solaris isn’t the safest place, we may have lost those spirits but these woods are home to far worse things.”
The two trudged on, finding their way onto a trail as Ekaf elaborated on the importance of swordsmanship. His voice drained to a dull murmur in Joe’s ears as he took in the world around him. Head swiveling, he stumbled onward like a child. They hiked through crispy leaf laden meadows beneath the twiggy canopies of trees that still clung to winter like a salary-laborer to his vacation. Cutting through old woods, the trail led them onward into the ranks of new saplings that rose above the ashen remains of scorched forest. Then it curved upward, hanging on the hillsides, and ascended onto orange carpet dropped by shingle-barked pines, before the trail fell back to the valleys. Between the green mountains, simmering streams striped the lowlands, producing thick glossy leafed foliage and bright colored flower buds that eagerly waited to blossom. Each bizarre bird call, each lude leaf, and each strange scent sank into Joe’s brain, planting the seeds of questions, millions of questions, in his mind. One of which he was about to ask when he looked down to see Ekaf had stopped.
Joe opened his mouth but the look in the Knome’s sparkling blue eyes silenced him. Shaking his head slowly, so slowly that Joe wondered whether or not the movement was imagined, Ekaf snaked a hand down to the miniscule hilt at his hip. Ekaf mouthed two words.
The spirits found us! Joe thought, But where are they? Aside from birds, itty bitty beasts, and bugs, Joe only spotted one other living creature: Ekaf. And looking past him he saw nothing but forest. A couple yards from a stream barely a step wide the trail curved left to dodge the base of a hill. Nothing. Thick brush populated by a thick leafed, dusty barked bush filled the valley they stood in, split only occasionally by an integration-minded tree. Joe couldn’t tell if the plant was one or a million of the same. As far as Joe could see into it, which wasn’t far, the flora made a web of itself, so one could not easily sneak through and flank them. In some places the plant rose higher than Joe’s head, stacked on top of each other and packed in like sardines as if it were a type of mangrove that grew on dry land. Behind him there was only more of the same. No one.
Where was the sound of scraping as blades slid from their sheaths or clinking as armor rattled on running men? They couldn’t have snuck up on us. It can’t be them. Ekaf was no longer watching Joe. His head had stopped shaking and he had turned to look back down the trail. Are we lost? Following his gaze, Joe was just as puzzled as before. For what felt like ten minutes, Joe waited patiently for Ekaf to explain but finally he gave in to his curiousity and asked.
“What is it?”
The Knome didn’t have to answer Joe’s question, the rustling in the brush up ahead did it for him. What had appeared to be two fallen branches began to rise from behind a clump of the inertangled foliage. No longer did they blend in with the rest of the forest. Joe had barely noticed them before, he’d instantly wrote off their pale smoothness as rotting limbs who’s bark had flaked off. Now, as he watched a beam of light glint off their round, glossy sides he realized they weren’t once part of a plant but currently part of a beast. He was staring at a pair of curved horns.
As Joe’s heart sank towards his intestines, he watched as a long black snout lifted from the cover of leaves. A fat black nose, dripping with slobber, pulsated in front of beedy black eyes that stuck to the side of the monster’s head. The face was bull-like but the horns were far too large, more like an ox’s, and the jaws were far too long and narrow, almost like a reptile’s. The general size of the creature dwarfed any cow Joe had ever seen. Its shoulders were broader and its back steeped into a hump, just behind the neck, much like a buffalo. But unlike all the animals Joe’s brain attempted to compare it too, he knew this was no herbivore. With a blood curtling growl, the lips rippled, revealing rows of teeth longer than his hand and sharp as the blade in Ekaf’s belt.
“That’s a barren,” Ekaf said, “now run!”
Joe didn’t have to be told twice. He spun on his heels then bolted down the trail, back the way they had come. No sooner did he move then did he hear the beast crash through the forest after them. There was a horrible roar then a loud chink – Ekaf’s fighting that thing? – and Joe, continuing to run, turned his head to catch a glimpse. Ekaf stood with his tiny legs spread and the Duikii stretched, longer than Joe had yet seen it, with the flat of the blade held against the barren’s horns. Joe turned back to the trail in time to see he’d run off. His ankle twisted as it landed wrong in a clump of gnarled brush and sent him tumbling to the right. He fell into the bushes and his head smacked an up reaching rock
Light as white as the pearls atop heaven’s gates filled his vision, but he wasn’t about to stop. Groping the stone he’d bashed, Joe scurried through the shrubbery, away from the trail, then plopped down between roots. Listening, he could hear heavy steps and the same rolling growl he’d heard when his eyes first met the beast. But, as far as he could hear, there was no sign of Ekaf. Oh God…The sound of the steps were now drowned out by the noise of breaking branches. His blindness faded and sight returned but now all Joe wanted was to close his eyes…Oh God its just me and it now! The steps stopped. The growling did too. All he could hear was the beast’s breathing as its hulking head reached over the grove of greenery he hid within. It’s a dream! It’s all a dream! You’re back in bed! You’re late for your interview. Now come on! You’ll be back on Earth when you open your eyes!
A drop of saliva fell onto his shoulder, splattering and splashing his neck.
His eyes opened. He could feel the barren’s warm breath comb through his hair, he could smell it too – like rotten meat. He was sitting beneath the shadow of the monster’s head.
Then he was up. Scurrying to his feet, he tore through the woods towards where he’d last seen Ekaf. Behind him branches snapped and limbs splintered as the predator pursued. Joe burst out of the woods and back onto the trail. Still, there was no sign of the Knome but his sword lay alone on the path beside the stream. Joe dove on it, rolled to the opposite bank of forest, then rose, bringing the blade up with him, ready to swing as the barren closed in – but it didn’t.
Joe lowered his weapon. The barren was there, just across the trail, standing in the shade of the woods and watching him with thoughtless black eyes. Staddling the creature’s neck, Ekaf stroked the beast’s mane with a handful of long fat leaves. Over and over, he ran the leaves down the barren’s head, starting as far down the snout as he could reach and stopping before the mane. With each successive stroke, the behemoth’s head fell a little lower and the growl grew a little softer and there was Ekaf, smiling goofily at Joe, as if it were all some sort of joke. As the adrenaline left Joe’s system, rage took its place.
“What the hell was that?” Joe demanded.
The barren perked up, grunting and refocusing its gaze on Joe. Hocking a loogie on his leaf, Ekaf sped up the rhythm of his petting then shot Joe a pale faced, wide eyed, what-are-you-doing type glare. After the animal’s head drooped once more and the eyelids began to bat like a college student in a dreary class, Joe reposed his question in a quieter manner.
“What’s going on, is that your pet?”
The goofy grin returned as the Knome scoffed silently but still he refrained from answering. The barren had returned to the almost hypnotized state it had been in when Joe had first turned to face it. Its knees began to shudder, its body began to wobble, until finaly it collapsed. Ekaf hopped off the giant carnivore and beckoned for Joe to follow him down the trail. Still fuming and still holding the Duikii, Joe followed. A few yards after they rounded the bend, Joe grabbed Ekaf by the shoulder and demanded an explanation.
“What was that?”
“I’ll explain, but keep walking,” Ekaf yanked his shoulder free and kept moving, “and give me my sword back before-”
“No.” Joe snapped.
“Why not?” Ekaf stopped in his tracks.
Joe repeated himself, “What was that?”
“What?” Ekaf asked, “Me saving your life?”
“How’d you know to pet it like that?”
“All barrens are like that.” He smiled, “I’ve always wanted to try it and, if it wasn’t for you, I probably never would have gotten such an opp-”
“You’re telling me that those things, those giant man eating cows,” Joe shuddered, “will fall asleep if you pet them on the head?”
“Not exactly, you’ve got to use a leaf-”
“A wet leaf.”
“A wet leaf?”
“Or damp grass, a wet towel, shoot, you could use that red ribbon hanging from your neck if you-”
“Baby barrens are raised by their mothers. Their mothers lick them on their heads and it puts them to sleep. It still works once their grown up. The trick is getting back there to pet them. Few get that chance and fewer succeed.” Ekaf explained, “You know how old I am and how long I’ve wondered if that’s an old husband’s tale? Man, you know I think I bet on that once too…if I could only remember who it was…I bet they’d owe me at least a thou-”
“Wait! So you left me alone with that bear, uh, that…”
“…barren so you could try something you didn’t know would work?”
“That’s one way to look at it.” Ekaf shrugged, “Another way you could look at it is that I just saved your life…again…and that we should get a move on before I have to do it a third…or I suppose would it be the fourth time? If you count the little run in with those spirits…Anyways, can I please, please, pleeeaase have my sword back?”
This little man is going to get me killed. Joe handed the sword back with a sigh. Ekaf shrunk it down and slid it back in his belt. Then again, I should’ve already been dead twice now. The two continued on down the trail.
“Where are we?” Joe asked.
“I thought I told you.” Ekaf replied, his pace unmarred.
“Well, I know we’re on Solar…uh…Solaris, but I don’t know where in Solaris. If this is an entire planet, like Earth, then this forest must have a name.”
“Ah, well, this is Zouzu, Tadloe. It’s a worm shaped continent and Zouzu is a section of woods and swamps in between the Saluman and Green River.”
“No, Zouzu…like ‘zow-zu’. ‘Zou’ meant district to the ancient elves of Tadloe and ‘zu’ meant south.” Ekaf exlaborated, “Tadloe is just one of the ten continents beneath Solaris but, long ago, the people of Solaris though Tadloe was the center of the-”
“Hold up,” Joe interrupted, “how come yall speak English here? Even those spirits spoke English?”
“How come you speak common tongue?” Ekaf countered, then he chuckled and explained, “Long ago the language was called Etihwy, it was an elven language, and the Etihwy elves were magnificent sea farring merchants. They spread the language across the known world and it stuck. Ofcourse, there are dozens of other languages, but almost everyone on this planet – everyone that travels that is – knows common tongue, or Etihwy, so you’ll be able to fit right in…if it wasn’t for that ridiculously narrow bib like apparel you got around your neck. What is that? An ascot?
“Its called a tie.”
“That’s a dumb name.” Ekaf stated, “That’d be like calling my tunic a button. Who the hell came up with that and why do yall wear them? Everytime I go to Earth, near about your day and age, I see folks strutting around in those ridiculous tongued-collars…”
Joe cut Ekaf off for the ten dozenth time as another question spilled out his lips, “So it is just a coincidence that two different dimensions developped identical languages?”
“Depends on what type of person you are.” Ekaf shrugged, “There are those who declare everything a coincidence and then those who don’t believe in coincidence at all. Which are you?”
“There are no coincidences.” Joe stated firmly, “You?”
“Neither,” Ekaf paused to hurdle a branch, “I’d say I’m inbetween, I-”
“Wait, I meant to ask this before, where are we headed?”
“To the northern border of Zouzu, the Saluman River. We’re actually headed for Suinus, the city at the center of Tadloe, built in the base of an ancient crater, but we’ll be camping beside the Saluman River tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll cross it and stay with a friend in the woods, one more, before we arrive in Suinus on the third day – where we can get into the Key Library, and I can rid myself of this key and get you home while we’re at it!”
“Two nights in the woods? We’ll be sleeping in a tent in the same woods as those barrens?”
“On the contrary!” Ekaf raised a finger into the air, “I haven’t got a tent, but on the second night-”
“Kill me now.” Joe whispered.
“Nothing,” Joe replied.
As Ekaf described the accomodations for the next two nights, Joe went back to ignoring him. Despite the frightful incident at the intersection and the disturbing revelation of where he would be laying his head for the night, Joe was beginning to feel alright. The strange old man had saved him from the semi-truck, even if that meant dragging him into a world where a threat seemed to lie around every corner. Then again, as Ekaf had pointed out, the Knome seemed to be quite the master of defense. Joe found it oddly easy to trust the little guy. As long as the Knome could keep him safe, the three day journey ahead didn’t sound so bad. He had always been a fan of hiking. In fact, he and his brother had been planning a backpacking trip through the Appalachian Mountains ever since he’d quit his job. His brother planned to hike the entire Maine to Georgia trail after college, and Joe would too – if he weren’t diabetic. Dread struck him. Joe, you better hope this is a dream. Despite that warp cube, Solaris doesn’t sound like they’ve got any insulin hanging around. The sun, although hidden behind a roof of leaves, was setting and darkness was falling fast in the woods of Tadloe. My blood sugar feels alright for now, Joe gulped, but its bound to plummet if I don’t eat.
“How long until we reach this river?”
“Not too much longer,” Ekaf replied, “before Solaris sets completely.”
“Solaris is the sun?” Joe asked.
“Bingo!” Ekaf crowed, “You’re pretty clever to be unemployed-”
“How did you know that?” Joe demanded.
“I haven’t been stalking you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ekaf said, “but I did my homework. For instance, I know you’re diabetic, I know-”
“Is diabetes an issue here too?”
Joe cursed beneath his breath, “So yall wouldn’t have any medical supplies?”
“On the contrary!” Ekaf stopped and faced Joe triumphantly, “We have everything you need! We have the ability to cure you!”
“How?” Joe exclaimed.
“Magic!” He winked, then continued his march, “The fella we will stay with tomorrow night, if you’d like, can fix you right up! You’ll never have to worry about diabetes again! You’ll be brand new…”
This is too good to be true. Still, Joe couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Another question Joe had meant to ask squeazed its way to the forefront of his mind.
“Hey, Ekaf, those knights back there, you said they were from the ‘Key Library’ which, I believe you said, is where we are headed. And you said that that key was the key to Earth-”
“A key,” Ekaf corrected, “a key to Earth, but continue.”
“A key to Earth, my bad, anyways, my question was…uh…is the Key Library a library of keys that lead to different universes?” Joe asked.
“Bingo! Well…kinda sorta…” Ekaf nodded as they trudged along. “There is a key for just about everywhere and everywhen in the world, in every world. I’m talking past and present and future. If you want to go somewhere, as long as life is there, there’s a key for it.”
Joe was impressed and jealous, “So people in Solaris travel between dimensions all the time?”
“On the contrary, the Key Library, to most, is nothing more than myth. But I swear to you, it is yet another old husband’s tale that turns out to be true. It’d be best if you don’t go spreading its name. People will already be giving us weird looks thanks to the way you’re dressed.”
Joe nodded solemnly, ducking beneath a low hanging branch.
“And those knights, you called them spirits, right?”
“So…they’re ghosts?” Joe asked.
“No,” Ekaf chuckled, as if the question’s answer was blatantly obvious, “a spirit is a race of man, like an elf or a dwarf or a human. Spirits are mortals like you and I, and like you and I and all other mortals they can be killed. Beneath that armor, there is a flame in their chests, a purple flame. It is as much a benefit as a curse for them because to kill a spirit, all you have to do is puncture the flame with malintentions.”
“Spirits, elves, dwarves,” Joe shook his head. “I’m in Middle Earth!”
The Knome stopped in his tracks and Joe tumbled over him into a bush.
“Lord of the Rings,” Joe barked as he clawed his way out of the foliage, “it’s from a popular series of books back home.”
“Interesting…” Ekaf scratched his beard as he tapped his foot twelve times upon a protruding lithic, then launched off again through the woods revamping his endless speech. “We should find ourselves in a clearing quite soon. We’ll cut through to the east and hop on a trail that’ll take us to the river. Keep your eyes peeled. You’ve seen just about the worst these woods have to offer, but there is one beast that tops it. Don’t ask their name, I don’t want to jynx us. Be prepared to be amazed because Earth has not prepared you for the types of life that have evolved in Solaris.”
- - -
Joe had no sense of time in this new world other than the sun in the sky. His cell phone was back home, in his Earthen bedroom. By the time they reached the riverside, the sun had set and moon had risen and Joe was ready to call it a night. He was still dressed for the interview – a white button up shirt tucked into a pair of loose fitting black slacks with a plain red tie wrapped around his neck that hung down to tickle his belt buckle and shoes that were not made for walking through a dense alien forest. His feet throbbed as he helped Ekaf build the camp fire.
They’d decided to bivouac in a clearing atop a bluff that overlooked the river. It was a large body of water, but slow moving. It reminded Joe of the Tennessee River he’d spent numerous summers on back in the States. He stared into the obsidian waters that reflected a distorted starry night sky, a sky like he’d never seen in urbanity. A brilliant aray of gassy balls of flame winked at Joe. The swirling masses of distant universes struck him like a wave of warm lake water, squelching his homesickness with awe. Yet as the awe grew stale, nauseating thoughts found their way back into his mind. Could I be staring at Earth? Could my loved ones be looking up in the sky right now? Staring at me? His heart throbbed. It’s a dream Joe, you never remember how long a dream is after you have it. That’s why it’s familiar. This is just a normal dream. His eyes suddenly focused on the moon, or was it a moon? The floating orb was covered with green foliage, misty ribbons of clouds, and navy flats of distant seas. Is that a moon or a planet? Then a new question surfaced as he noted there was more than one – he could count the edges of two other moons stacked one past the other.
“Are those moons?” Joe asked.
Ekaf answered without looking up, “Yes of course!”
“How many moons do you have?”
Ekaf knelt by the fire the two had made. It was a log cabin fire: two base logs running parallel, smaller branches stretching across it, also parallel, and then two bigger logs set on top that were, once again, parallel. The pattern was repeated with kindling shoved between each layer. Dragging his eyes from the masterpiece he tended, Ekaf craned his neck and glared at the lunar chain. A smile stretched across his lips and the old face that seemed to be constantly enthralled with the task at hand, whatever it was, suddenly softened. His eye lids sagged, his eye brows relaxed, and he let out a sigh.
“Just three,” Ekaf said speaking slowly for the first time since Joe had met him, “they’re eggs.”
“Huh?” Joe yelped.
“They’re dragon eggs. Moon dragons, we call them.” As he spoke, he snapped the twigs off the limbs piled chaotically beside him then laid them across the fire. “Your moon is one too. It just hasn’t decided to hatch yet. That’s why its still barren and pale. They pick and choose, the dragons do, though some around some planets are duds, but, as for ours, they’ve all hatched.” Ekaf nodded, a hint of sadness in his voice, as he nudged a few burning branches nearer to the center of combustion. “The last one hatched not too long ago though he has yet to make landfall…”
“Those must be some massive dragons!” Joe’s voice cracked as he yelped.
“Solaris is much smaller than your solar system. So are our moons. But yes, they are massive beasts. And they’re absolutely beautiful.” Ekaf sat back down, finally content with his creation. “Few ever get the privilege to ride them.”
Joe looked down from the moons to observe the dancing fire. He frowned.
“You got matches?” Joe asked.
“Nope,” Ekaf said, “never needed em-”
“Magic?” Joe pressed on, joining the Knome at the fire side.
“Yes, but don’t ask me to teach you. I’m a swordsman, my magical grammar is atrocious, just enough to get by. The friend I’m taking you to can help you with that.” Ekaf said, shifting his butt in the dirt until he found a suitable position, continuing to talk all the while, “Shoot, if everything goes smoothly, I’ll send you to a school. It wouldn’t hurt to-”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Joe plopped down across from him, “I’m not planning on staying here much longer than I have to. So this is it for the night?”
“Yup, beneath the stars tonight, buddy-”
“Alrighty,” Joe said. Looking at the soil around them, he missed his bed. He would’ve been fine with a sleeping bag, but oh well. He sighed. If he didn’t wake up from his dream soon, he was going to miss a lot more than a bed. How do you break out of a dream? I need to push the boundaries, poke at the details.
“Why’d you save my life?”
“I don’t like the phrase, ‘you saved my life’, ‘I saved your life’, all that stuff. Everyone dies. You’re still going to die. Every move you make, every breath you take, every bit of forward progress, your life has been ‘saved’. I didn’t save your life, I changed your fate. I-”
“Why’d you change my fate?”
“Don’t thank me…” Ekaf looked away from Joe and stared into the fire. “I wish I could explain it all to you in one night, that is, what I brought you here to do, but I can’t. It’s just that you shouldn’t be thanking me, I should be thanking you.”
Joe frowned, “You’re welcome?”
“Okay, okay, listen. There were once twelve people here in Solaris, twelve heroes, that we called the Mystakle Samurai.”
Mystakle, Joe thought, where have I heard that?
“Today, the last Samurai, Benjamin Fasthoof, was defeated. I brought you here so that you could save them-”
“In three days?”
Joe scoffed as he loosened his tie. He crawled over to where a smooth rock surfaced among the dirt and laid back, cupping the back of his head with his palms. Once settled, he watched his small companion. Ekaf took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his eyes still glued to the bouncing flames of the camp fire. Tiny red embers rained upwards into the night sky like fireflies, soaring up into the atmosphere to join the galaxies above. He took his hat off and sat it beside him.
“You don’t have to leave.” Ekaf said, lying down.
“I don’t have to stay.” Joe responded.
“Would you if I asked for your help?” Ekaf asked.
“Listen, even if I stay, how could I help? How could I possibly bring anything to the table that you don’t already have in spades? I saw you fighting today, what the hell do you want with a computer programmer from Earth?”
“You may not have faith in yourself,” Ekaf shrugged, “but I have faith in you.”
Joe chuckled, “Listen, if this isn’t some preposterous dream, then there is a reason you saved me and I know it wasn’t because you need my help, which leads me to believe that you’re trying to pull something over on me that I might not be to fond of.”
For a moment, there was silence.
“If you don’t trust me,” Ekaf finally said, “then you don’t have to follow me.”
“Ha!” Joe roared, “And wander around these woods alone? Unless you wanna give me the key back.”
“You wouldn’t want that,” Ekaf responded, “you’d fair better in these forests than you would underneath that massive truck.”
“Alright then,” Joe threw his hands up in surrender, “you’ve got me. I’m stuck here with you. I guess I’ve got no choice but to trust you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t put it like that.” Ekaf pouted.
“Well that’s how it is.”
“It may be difficult, but how about I try and explain it to you?”
“How you can help me, how come I think you can bring back the Mystakle Samurai.”
“Its worth a shot.” Joe muttered.
“Alright, well…I honestly don’t know where I should start or if I should even try but I suppose I will start at the beginning.”
“A novel place to start!” Joe chimed.
“Alright then, here we go…the dawn of man, well...” He paused to scratch his beard. “Well the dawn of history, man was around long before we began keeping a record. Anyways, history began with the hatching of the first moon and the rise of a man who you will hear plenty about. His name is Creaton Live-”
“Creaton Liveh,” Joe muttered, fearing the Knome was about to digress into a very long speech of irrelevant information, as he had done often throughout their hike. Who knew you could be bored in dreams? He said outloud, “Sounds intriguing but I’m not sure if I need to get your entire world history. I mean-”
“Oh no, Creaton Live is alive!” Ekaf explained.
“Wait…” Joe frowned, “did your history just start?”
“Questions, questions, questions, I told you it was going to be hard to explain. If I don’t start from the beginning, you’ll continue to assault me with questions. You’ll be confused and I’ll be annoyed. You should trust me, Joe. I’ve gotten you out of three sticky situations in the last twenty-four hours. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll start over. History began with a man named Creaton Live. For the Tribe of Live, it was the Year of the Eagle. They didn’t number their years, we started that up later.”
“So year one, Creaton Live,” Joe paused to yawn, “you’ve got to hurry before I fall asleep.”
“Alright, year one began the day the first moon dragon was born because that day was an easy event to sync the many historical accounts recovered from around the world.” Ekaf stopped as Joe’s yawn spread, then continued, “But Creaton’s story begins twelve months before…”
The Hyzoh Mountains breach the forests of Tadloe just north west of Suinus where they travel on to stop at the banks of the Rah River. For countless years of prehistory, the earth elven tribe known as the Hyzoh ruled these peaks and much of the surrounding woods between the Saluman and Rah. Eventually, they split in two by the factions of feuding families. Not only did this allow northern tribes and southern tribes to encroach upon Hyzoh territory, but this division created an entirely new tribe: the Live. In their early days, the Live were exiles forced to creep along the vertebrae of the Hyzoh Mountains. They slowly spread, trickling down the steep inclines to reach into Hyzoh land finally strong enough to fight, once more, with their mother tribe. These tribal battles redistributed territory while churning out legendary warriors - one of which being Creaton Live. His cottage sat at the top of a secluded earthen spire, above the influence of the tribes and under the spell of the wilderness.
Much like his tribal ancestors, Creaton was an outcast. In battle against the Hyzoh, Creaton and a band of men were nearly captured. One comrade fled while the rest, including Creaton, fought. Though one died, the rest survived. When they returned from battle, Creaton found the deserter and slit his throat – unfortunately the deserter was the son of the fifth wife of a man named Malcova. This would have been the end of Creaton, Malcova was the head of a Live village, but Malcova was Creaton’s brother. The mother begged for Creaton to be executed and it seemed that would be his fate until the warrior fled to the mountains. Forsaken by civilization, Malcova saw no need to punish his brother further and let the issue die.
It was there, in the Hyzoh Mountains a year before the year one, that Creaton Live shot the love of his life. Every morning he woke up, meditated, then ventured into the wild in search of the day’s meal – normally cloudlings. In fact, he was aiming at a cloudling when it jumped from its perch and something else flew into his arrow. With a high-pitched shriek, the creature plummeted towards the mountainside, snapping brittle branches before slamming into the snow. He was horrified when he found the body to be humanoid. Golden strands of hair intermixed with chocolate hid her face and curled around the shaft of an arrow lodged in her throat. Her wings quivered, crumpled beneath her, but her eyes remained closed. Creaton watched blood trickle down from her neck, painting over her smooth pale skin to soak the thin fabric of her garments, which shimmered in the light of Solaris that reflected off the snow. It took the earth elf a good while to pull his attention away from her flawless exterior to notice the radiating jewel that hung between her breasts. Each trembling breath shifted the medallion. It was a slender kite of teal crystal wrapped in a harness of yarn and as Creaton’s eyes hovered over the stone it began to rattle. Captivated, he reached out to touch it and, as his fingers and the stone connected, words came to his lips. He gently pulled the arrow from his unconscious victim and spoke the first recorded spell in Solarin history.
- - -
“Do you have to have one of those stones to use magic?” Joe asked.
“On the contrary, one can cast a spell with their mind and mouth alone.” Ekaf answered, taking the interruption as an excuse to toss more wood on the fire as he explained further. “The stone Creaton touched is a chip off the rock we call the Voidstone.” Sparks jumped into the sky in a desperate attempt to join the stars. “Everything that happens in this world has been affected by the Stone. Even you have already come into contact with its powers! That silver key, that was part of the Voidstone!”
“Is it a myth too?”
“In a way, you see, the stone shattered ages ago. We’ve learned about it through the bits a pieces scattered around the world. The most famous shard, the Stone of Krynor, assisted in the creation of the Mystak Blade and the Four Swords.”
“Are they…” Joe fumbled for words, “…alive?”
“That question is up for debate. In this day and age, the question of alive and inanimate has come under heavy criticism, especially from the scientists in Space City. In my opinion, the stone and its dust are animate but a sort of unconscious animate. You see, it behaves randomly. It has been known to whisper and also to whisp people away, across dimensions and universes. There were people who mastered the stone, or at least came to understand its ways. They were called fate programmers.”
“What happened to them?” Joe asked.
“They realized we were never meant to understand.” Ekaf spat into the fire and the flames hissed. After a moment of silence, the Knome continued, “But anyways, we call the flakes and pieces of the Voidstone found scattered across Solaris void-dust – like that which hung from the neck of the harpy Creaton shot down.”
“And it powered Creaton’s spell?” Joe asked.
“Not necessarily, another way to use magic is by channeling one’s own inner energy with specific key sounds, which make up the Sacred Tongue. This can be dangerous because wording is everything and people have a lot less energy than you’d expect. If you don’t follow habitual regiment of meditation, then you’re liable to exhaust yourself.”
“And since Creaton was already meditating every morning, when he spoke the ‘Sacred Tongue’,” Joe used both his index and middle fingers to make air quotations, “he casted a spell.”
“Okay, and what’s a cloudling?” Joe asked.
“A flying sheep.” Ekaf answered. “Though they’re pretty rare now, almost hunted to extinction. Shall I continue or-”
- - -
Creaton’s spell healed the wound his arrow left in the woman then, partly because he found her beauty intriguing and partly due to curiosity towards the blue stone, he lifted her out of the snow and took her home. She was a harpy. At this time, the only races of man to grace Tadloe were earth elves or humans. Creatures like harpies existed only in legend and, even in myth, were not considered on the same level as other “civilized” beings. Yet, as an exile, Creaton was no longer part of a tribe. To be tribeless gave you a status slightly above beast but below that of the being. There are many reasons people believe Creaton saved the harpy, each as valid as the next, though people tend to overlook loneliness.
The spell had only sealed the wound, thus it took Creaton almost a month to get the young maiden back on her feet. As Creaton helped her recover, he taught her his language – which would come to be known as Hyzoan – and she responded with an assortment of motions. Even as her throat began to heal, the scar would never allow her to speak again. She did however manage to spell out her name in Creaton’s spoken tongue: Ali-Iya.
If anything, the communication barrier brought them closer. Creaton taught her to meditate and she gave him the void-dust necklace. Her people called them lineagers and believed void-dust to be the remnants of their ancestors’ energies. Through touch, these lineagers could communicate with the living. The stones had taught her people many things, speaking only to special oracles, and these messages began to mold their culture. She taught Creaton as many of their ways as she could though he refused to practice most. In fact, there was only one ritual that intrigued him – the most highly regarded ritual of the harpies.
When he would hunt and catch his prey, Ali-Iya would place both hands on the animal and drain a cloudy white gas through the deceased creature’s flesh. Afterwards, the beast’s bones would be as brittle as dried leaves. She explained it as a way to ensure no energy would be wasted from a creature’s death. The energy gave her a euphoric sensation, putting her body and mind completely at ease. She left out the part about how miserable one felt after the effects wore off or how to stop consuming this substance she termed “energy” would mean to die.
Creaton wanted to learn but Ali-Iya told him there was only one way to participate in such a practice: to drink the enchanted marrow of a brook. Brooks are one of the two scariest creatures to wander the woods of Tadloe, the other of these being the barren. These long bodied giant lizards are not only fast and agile, but their scales are tight as nails and hard as the blade on the grim reaper’s scythe. Brook scales are often used to construct armor far stronger than any metals could achieve, thus they’re quite hard to kill. Ali-Iya told Creaton this knowing the woodsmen considered brooks not beasts to be tampered with. She did not expect Creaton to willingly pursue such a creature and succeed in slaying it, but he did. They enchanted silky black bone marrow then, beneath a full moon, Creaton partook of the concoction and became a necromancer.
Together they lived through the spring, summer, and well into autumn. As time went by, Creaton began to learn more and more from the stone strung around his neck. The more energy he consumed, the more the stone would speak to him. Before long he was able to spark a fire with a whisper and purify water with a sentence. Ali-Iya didn’t necessarily approve of the way he used the energy. She constantly warned him of the dangers. Only the oracles were allowed to speak this language and they never wielded their powers outside of ceremony, especially not to perform menial tasks. She desperately wanted to make sure he knew that this power was not something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, they had a much bigger problem than magic.
Those happy months spent with only each other’s company in the Hyzoh Mountains were anything but happy times for the villages of the Live tribes. Hordes of harpies soared in from the north to pillage the earth elven settlements. They would come in the night, set fire to houses, tear through the towns, and slay any who got in their path. The Live could no longer hold their own against the Hyzoh and the tribesmen looked to Malcova, ruler of the last village of the Live, for a solution. In Creaton’s absence, legends of Malcova’s banished brother’s excellence in combat became grossly exaggerated along with that of the very reasoning behind his excomunication. He was what mothers would tell their children would eat them if they went out too late. Many believed him to be a demon and others believed him invincible. In reality, Creaton was a magnificent warrior though no greater than his brother. The difference was, the remaining Live looked up to Malcova and despised Creaton. They wanted to send someone capable into the nest of the harpies but did not want to risk losing their beloved leader. For this reason, Malcova decided he would go find his brother and have him deal with their harpy problem.
He wandered the Hyzoh Mountains for two weeks before stumbling across Creaton’s humble abode. Creaton was out hunting when Malcova arrived. Just as Creaton had immediately become obsessed with the beautiful young harpy, Malcova took one look at Ali-Iya and fell in love. When Creaton returned, Malcova’s love turned to jealousy, then to outrage as he realized it was this harpy that the other harpy’s were after. Thus, Malcova told Creaton that if he did not come help the tribe, he would tell the people about his secret guest and they would, undoubtedly, hunt him down and kill them both. (This was an absolute lie. The only soul amongst the Live brave enough to face Creaton was Malcova, but Creaton did not know this.)
Before he left with his brother, Creaton asked Ali-Iya if she wished to return to the harpies. She told him no. Leaving her to maintain his cottage, Creaton and Malcova returned to the Live tribes and prepared for the next raid from the fair-skinned northerners. Ali-Iya had lied. She would have loved to return home, but she knew she couldn’t, for she was a princess, betrothed to the warlord that led the skirmishes against the Live, and now she was pregnant with an earth elf’s child. If only Creaton had known this, he might’ve never left her.
Malcova’s village, Valleyshore, is where the modern day village of Chartree is located now. There they awaited the arrival of the next harpy war party, fortifying along the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. Three days after his return to civilization, the winged assailants came. Creaton fought with the same vigor he’d used in battle years before. His arrows rarely missed a target and each shaft dropped an opponent from the heavens. High in the sky, the leader of the war party’s attention was quickly drawn to this new dark skinned warrior and he plunged down to the wall to face Creaton. There the two men battled, bows cast aside and swords drawn. As they sparred, Malcova watched from afar.
Creaton could kill the harpy but they needed a guide to take him to their home. He saw an opening for victory and severed the man’s sword arm. Instead of retreating into the sky, the harpy’s boney fingers wrapped around the medallion hanging from Creaton’s neck and yanked the void-dust free. He spat on the blue gem, causing it to hum angrily, then threw it at Creaton’s feet. Creaton stood motionless as the one armed harpy fell to his knees, clutching at his stub, all the while cursing his opponent in his foreign tongue. The man would’ve died from blood loss atop that wall if Creaton hadn’t healed him, using the same spell the stone had taught him to save Ali-Iya.
After the battle, Malcova invited Creaton to a tribal meeting. The Live chieftains listened quietly as Malcova gave an elaborate speech asking for permission to send Creaton and a war party into the harpy’s home – the plan the chieftains had agreed upon prior to Creaton’s return. Creaton opposed this and offered a more peaceful plan. They could fill a ship with riches then have the harpy guide them into his homeland where they would bargain for an end to these bloody skirmishes. The chieftains were reluctant but Malcova convinced them and they consented to his brother’s proposal. Creaton received a week to return home and prepare. He ran the plan by Ali-Iya. She believed it was a trap, maybe not for Creaton but for her own people, yet she also saw this as the only chance the two had to be together without being hunted by the elves or the harpies. Still, she did not tell Creaton of the child within her even as he left their mountain home and returned to Valleyshore. He and the harpy warrior, along with a rag-tag group of war-virgin soldiers, set out across the ocean heading northwest around the head of Tadloe.
As Creaton and his crew wandered slowly north, it became apparent that the harpy prisoner would not provide any sort of direction. Wandering around the rainforested shores of Munkloe for maybe a week, Creaton was just about to turn back when they drifted into a low hanging fog. No sooner did they enter the vapor-induced blindness, than did they hear the screams of approaching harpies. The harpies stormed the vessel killing all of Creaton’s crew before Creaton managed to subdue them. After the attack, the only living souls left on the ship were the one armed harpy, still bound to the mast, and Creaton, soaked in the blood of foreigners. Finally, the prisoner agreed to lead Creaton into his homeland – down a branch of the Winged River, deep in the jungles of Munkloe.
- - -
“Munkloe, Tadloe, what does ‘loe’ mean?” Joe asked.
“It is land in Knomish,” Ekaf explained. “The first to assign the continental names was a minotaur named Solon Icespear who got the names from his navigator, Polo, a Knome. Even the land masses discovered well after the time of Solon and Polo, the tradition stuck. There’s Batloe, Manaloe, Foxloe, Darkloe, Dogloe, and Iceload – except a Iceload means iceberg. You want to see? I think I have a map in my-”
“You can show me later. What happens when Creaton gets to the harpy city?”
- - -
Creaton made it into the harpy kingdom. His three-limbed guide brought him to a great stone pyramid that ascended from a crystal-watered pond which acted as a cul-de-sac end to this discreet arm of the Winged River. Atop the pyramid was the throne of the harpy king who was surrounded by winged advisors – scantily-clad, angelic slave girls, who were the oracles Ali-Iya had spoke of – and beast-guards: two brooks chained tightly to the columns that held the rain shield over the harpy leader. Though Ali-Iya could not teach Creaton the language of her people, she had taught him how to communicate with her culture through simple motions that would be easily recognized. In this manner, Creaton translated the script given to him by the Live chieftains, modified for his own motives, to the prisoner who then recited it to the winged emperor.
The gist of Creaton’s request was that if he were to return with the harpy maiden, then he would be allowed to live amongst the harpies and the Live people of Tadloe would no longer have to live in fear of harpy invasion. Plus, all the riches they’d brought would be immediately presented to the winged king as grievance pay. Creaton never got his answer. Familiar trumpets sounded from the shadows of the jungle trees that surrounded the harpy city.
Creaton had been bait. A fleet of Live had followed him. After Creaton addressed the harpy king, they descended upon the city murdering and looting to their heart’s desire. The emperor drew his sword and the one armed harpy warlord jumped on Creaton, but Creaton fought them both off. Within moments, both harpies tumbled down the pyramid, blood spraying from their bodies like the blade of a circular saw. Some of the advisors fled, but some stayed. Glaring at Creaton with hate-filled eyes, they set the two brooks free only to be immediately devoured by the reptiles. Fleeing the monsters, he fell into the mysterious well which the pyramid protruded from and the beasts bounded off into the jungle. He felt as though he’d fallen into a pit of lava, even sank to the bottom, accepting his fate, but he didn’t drown. Eventually, he overcame the pain and swam to the surface. When he emerged, he found himself unharmed. His people, rather the people who had shunned him, were victorious and the great harpy city was smoking like a dying campfire. They praised Creaton as the sole reason for success and, once again, he was a war hero.
As the looting continued well into the night, Creaton found an abandoned home to rest in and contemplate the consequences of his actions. The earth elf raiders beheaded the harpy soldiers, mounting their heads on pikes which they posted like a railing around their ships. They threw the bodies of the old, the workers, the women, and the children into the pond turning the once clear water crimson. What had started out as vengeance, quickly surpassed revenge. Creaton feared that even though he did not partake in the atrocities he would never be able to look Ali-Iya in the face again.
Little did he know, his fear would come true.
In the night, the bodies thrown into the lake awakened. Engulfed in unholy flame, they marched back into their city, moaning like cattle, and slaughtered those that had slaughtered them. They replaced the harpy heads impaled along the ships with the heads of the elves. Creaton woke during the raid and fought his way through the mob of winged zombies to the docks where he snuck down river in a smaller Live vessel with only the heads of the Live warriors to keep him company. He knew in his heart that this would not be the last he would see of the undead harpies and despite the animosity he felt for the Live tribesmen he was determined to return home and warn them of the monsters they had created.
- - -
“This story is horrible!” Joe exclaimed.
“I haven’t even gotten to the bad part yet,” Ekaf muttered. “I probably never will if you continue to interrupt. Do you have any questions?”
“Did the harpies come back because of the pond or was it because they were necromancers?” Joe asked.
“The pond. It is called the Well of Youth but, like the Key Library, many have begun to doubt its existence despite its stationary position throughout our history. Most of the denial comes from the fact that few have ever visited it and just as few know enough to find it. Legend goes, the largest chunk of void-dust was found floating in that jungle lagoon and the Iyan harpies built the pyramid around it. The water was tainted by the magic of the stone and, according to the myth, once you’ve been baptized in the Well, you become a ghost.”
Joe scratched his hair, “But didn’t Creaton fall in?”
“Indeed he did. Like you do on earth, we call the spirits of the dead ghosts. If your body dies and you live on, then you’d qualify as a ghost. Remember the searing pain Creaton experienced in the Well?” Joe nodded. “At that moment his flesh died. At that moment he became a ghost.”
Joe was still confused, “But you said the harpies were engulfed in flames and brainless, why didn’t Creaton seem to change?”
“You’ll come to find there are many kinds of ghosts. Those baptized in the Well of Youth after death, return in a…less rational state. We call those demons. Creaton, on the other hand, was baptized while very much alive. We call those angels. When an angel dies, they are immolated.”
“You mean the…what’d you call it? Unholy flames?” Joe asked.
Ekaf nodded, “Once you’ve been immolated, you are considered a banshee. Even demons are considered a type of banshee.”
“Good thing I’ll be home in three days,” Joe joked, “because I am not going to remember this.”
“I could elaborate?” Ekaf suggested.
“No,” Joe shrugged, “don’t bother, tell me what happened next.”
- - -
During Creaton’s plight, his brother embarked on an evil campaign for his own dark motives, the foremost of these motives being jealousy. Malcova’s betrayal was eagerly accepted by the villagers when word spread from tribes to the north that Creaton’s ship had been seen from the coast decorated with the heads of Live soldiers. When Creaton returned, the people of Valleyshore were waiting, cursing and spitting on him as he left the ship. The tribesmen split to allow him to pass through the mob and journey into the center of town where he found his brother. Malcova directed a handful of warriors to hold Creaton down then, lifting his weapon – a war hammer – high above his head, he described to the people of Valleyshore how Creaton had kidnapped a harpy witch and kept her in secrecy while the harpies murdered and pillaged the Live, in search of their lost kin. He claimed that Creaton had gone to the harpies and helped them to slaughter their noble warriors. Then, Malcova presented Creaton with a harness crafted from the hide of a barren but with two blackened wings mounted on the back – the wings of Ali-Iya.
With a roar, he fought to free himself, but to no avail, his struggles ended as the Live warriors stabbed him and Malcova rapped him across the head.
January first, year one, he awoke with the harness on, the black wings folded behind him. His ankles were strung together, hanging against a rigid pole of wood, and his wrists were bound to a beam that stretched across his shoulders. The Live crucified Creaton. They jabbed him with spears, shot arrows into his shins, and hung vipers from his biceps. The crucifixion was not an execution, but a celebration in which all participated. If they didn’t inflict him with physical pain, they berated him with titles such as bird-lover and sodomizer. He had remained unconscious the first two days spent on the cross. His body had yet to give, despite the multitude of wounds ailing him. He died on the third day, just as a mighty explosion filled the sky.
The first moon hatched and all watched, mesmerized, as a gargantuan dragon disappeared over the horizon as if chasing after the setting sun. The mob immediately knew they had made a mistake.
Red flames came to life around Creaton and his eyes opened then narrowed upon the villagers gathered before him. He was not dead but something inside of him had died. His heart fell silent and his rage took the reins. What little magic he knew, the bits and pieces the void-dust had whispered to his subconscious, suddenly came frothing forth. Black flames burst from Creaton, engulfing the village, and striking dead every last soul present.
The cross crumbled and Creaton fell to his knees. He didn’t move for many days. He knelt mourning the loss of Ali-Iya, not eating, not drinking, until visited by a fire elf. This escaped slave from Batloe, a desert continent south of Tadloe, had heard the legends of the power of the Live’s exile. Having nowhere to turn, as the life of an escaped slave was just as terrifying as the enslaved, the young fire elf decided to seek out this Moon Dragon Man believing him to be the savior of the religion many Tadloens practiced. The elf’s name was Chane, a name he’d given himself in place of his slave name, and he was the first living being to approach Valleyshore since the extermination.
Black fire still danced over the slow rotting corpses of Creaton’s kin as Chane approached the prostrate banshee. When he addressed Creaton, he reawakened the slumbering rage and Creaton, unwittingly, activated the second part of the spell he’d used to destroy Valleyshore. The corpses of the villagers animated. Murmuring much like the demon harpies, they stood and marched towards their conjurer. Creaton rose and, grabbing the fire elf’s sword, slaughtered the zombified remnants of Valleyshore. When the only moving beings left were Chane and himself, Creaton stopped.
After Creaton saved his life, Chane decided it was worth one more try. This time, he started by telling Creaton that Malcova still lived. In the charred dirt, he illustrated a man with a hammer fleeing up the coast of Tadloe into the lands of the Fou. Alongside the man was a strange woman, a pregnant woman, and – though the details were minimalistic – Creaton could tell this figure was supposed to be recognizably not elven.
Creaton demanded Chane take him to the Fou, but Chane refused warning Creaton that the Fou would kill him as soon as he set foot within their lands. No matter how powerful he was, he could not take the Fou warriors alone. He would need an army. But before the rage returned to Creaton’s demeaner, Chane depicted the many tribes of Tadloe all following Creaton, a burning man, to fight the Fou. After the First Hatching, accompanied with the tale of Creaton’s crucifiction and the destruction of Valleyshore, most who had heard believed him to be either a god or a prophet and it wouldn’t take much to get people to gather behind him. Convinced, Creaton decided to take over Tadloe, not only to kill his brother and reclaim his love, but to prepare for the return of the demon harpies – an ever present threat in the back of his mind.
There were twelve main tribes in Tadloe at the time: the Fou, the Rin, the Toxica, the Rah, the Soil, the Live, the Hyzoh, the Kemplor, the Inton, the Won, the Dagar, and the Ragashi. They journeyed first to take the Hyzoh. By March, the many families of the Hyzoh had been united under Creaton. Returning to Valleyshore and renaming it Chartree, Creaton built a fortress from which they would embark on a campaign to capture the northern end of Tadloe. The combined leadership of Creaton and Chane turned out to be incredibly successful. They defeated the Rah first, a small tribe to the north which was nearly exterminated by Creaton’s army after they were unwilling to bow to his command. Then, before leaving Rah, a messenger of the Toxica came offering Creaton their submission if he could defeat their leader in a dual: Escano Toxica. Hearing this, Creaton sent Chane and his army to go conquer the Soil tribe then entered Toxica lands and killed their leader within the first second of the dual. Upon winning the Toxica over, a messenger from the Rin – a tribe that settled along the border of Fou lands that provided the Fou with most of their metallurgy – offered Creaton the same deal. Ordering his soldiers to meet him in the Rin capital – just outside modern day Eastport – Creaton went ahead with the messenger. The dual was a trap and, as Creaton killed the man they claimed to be their leader, Fou warriors stormed the city. Fortunately, Chane and the army had dealt with the Soils quicker than expected and arrived right behind Creaton. They managed to force the Fou into retreat and take the lands of the Rin but couldn’t force their way into Fou lands.
In the heart of the first summer of Solarin history, Creaton and his men fortified their northern outposts, then gave up on conquering the Fou to turn their gaze south. The Kemplor tribe was nothing more than a band of fishermen spread across the Saluman River founded by, get this, Saluman Kemplor who was part human part earth elf and raised among the Toxica. Saluman Kemplor welcomed Creaton in, treating him as their holy savior, as many still do today. They then pushed further south into the marshlands. By this point, Creaton had practically mastered necromancy and many other simple magics having even taught many to Chane and other well trusted warriors. To reward his soldiers for their fearless devotion, they gathered on a hill above the massive city-state of Inton and watched as Creaton directed an army of undead to take hold of the city. From there they continued south into the lands of Won. The Won was a spread out tribe consisting of hunter gatherers with very few settled-locations. They lived in hollowed out fallen trees and caves. However, their skill, militarywise, was only equaled by the Fou. Creaton knew this and had no intention to face the same obstacles he had in the north. Instead of winning with brute force, he made use of his cunningness. They chopped a ring around the Won lands and built a moat using the excellent guidance of Inton irrigation experts and then set the Won woods on fire. Those that made it to the moat joined Creaton or were immediately killed. The rest perished in the ashes of their homeland.
This left only two tribes in the south and Creaton quickly defeated the Dagar, but there they paused before pursuing the Ragashi. The elders of the Dagar warned Creaton that the Fou waited in Ragashi lands, with Malcova, to ambush him and his men. This only made Creaton thirstier but still he was hesitant until he asked the Dagar if Malcova had a strange woman with him. They said no, but he did have an infant with the skin of an earth elf and the wings of a harpy. Now, Creaton’s mind was set. Chane protested, proclaiming that if the Fou were as numerous as the Dagar warned, the casualties would destroy the morality of their men and could unravel all their efforts at unifying Tadloe. Creaton reluctantly acknowledged this but refused to retreat. He sent Chane with the soldiers back to Chartree where the men would be distributed between their new territories as Creaton, and his undead, would assault the Ragashi alone.
Chane took his men north into the Peninsula of Banai. There he let the men vote on whether or not they would assist Creaton on this suicide mission. Every single warrior voted to stay. Thus they returned to Dagar only to find that Creaton had left for Ragashi already. With no time to waste, Chane and his men quickly followed making it to the Peace River before Creaton and his minions attacked. To all’s surprise, the Fou warriors took one look at the undead and lost their nerve. They fled towards the river, abandoning the Ragashi to face Creaton’s wrath alone. As Creaton took hold of the battlefield, the fleeing Fou ran into Chane and his men and not a single one survived.
Though Creaton claimed he killed Malcova, the body was never found, and neither was the winged child.
In the months preceding the return of the harpies, Creaton destroyed the tribal system that had ruled Tadloe. No one tribe could control multiple villages, each settlement ruled themselves according to their own law and bowing only to who they chose – most chose Creaton. They caught and domesticated dragons then trained Solaris’s first dalvary – dragon-back warriors – in preparation for the impending harpy invasion. The Hyzoan language became Tadloe’s dialect as the Fou joined with Creaton under the leadership of Farak Fou, allowing their federation to dissolve, in order to unite with the whole of Tadloe against the harpies. History never forgave the beautiful Farak, many claimed she was one of Creaton’s lovers though banshees are unable to participate in the love exploits of mortals. Her decision may have saved Tadloe for when the demonic harpies returned, the battle was close but their numbers were too few. Despite being baptized by the waters of the Well of Youth, the harpies could not overcome Creaton’s diverse group of soldiers who fought with zeal as in Creaton’s unified Tadloe the troops were all volunteers rather than draftees.
After that, Creaton and Chane turned their attention to distant lands. They conquered Batloe, making slaves of the slave drivers and masters of the enslaved fire elves. Next they attacked Sondor, managing to conquer Mannistan before reaching a stalemate against the humans of the desert and the plains. Last, they approached Iceload, Tadloe’s western neighbor, and it was there that Creaton met his match and the First Void War began its decline towards conclusion.”
- - -
“So where is Creaton now?” Joe asked.
“Far away from Tadloe,” Ekaf assured Joe, “busy leading the Black Crown Pact against the Trinity Nations.”
“The Black Crown Pact…that’s a strange name for the good guys-”
“On the contrary, they are the enemy.” Ekaf corrected.
“Huh?” Joe asked, “He didn’t seem so bad in that story, seemed like he did the best he could with the chances he was given.”
“You were the one who said good and bad,” Ekaf pointed out, “I merely said he is my enemy. There are no true good guys or bad guys. One could argue that what Creaton accomplished was good yet that his methods – slaying any and all opposition – were evil, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of whose side you’re on. I will try to finish the story tomorrow, then you can decide what you think of Creaton. Though I warn you, even if you come to respect Creaton, I would advise you to steer clear of him and his Black Crown Pact.”
“They would like to keep the Samurai out of the picture.” Ekaf replied, “I believe it won’t be long before they realize you are the one who will bring the Samurai back. They might see you as a liability.”
“You mean that they’d kill me.” Joe said.
“Well…” Ekaf would’ve tried to argue otherwise if he hadn’t been so tired, “probably.”
“Jesus...” Joe muttered.
“Hey, it’s not like you haven’t died before.”
Joe rolled onto his back and gazed up at the moons. Bizarre bugs chirped, alien amphibians fribbopped, and foreign night-fowl cooed as constant reminders that he was not home, in fact, nowhere near it. He said I’d be home in three days, but everything else he says seems to imply something different. Sleep came slow and homesickness wrapped its cold fingers around Joe’s heart, refusing to let go until the light of Solaris returned.