The Entropus Trilogy Book 1: Basilisk

 

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Prologue

Very long ago, before even the dwarves came to what was later named Bulgaren, the elementals roamed the Land. The Land itself was separated, though not with borders, into four domains, each ruled by a different elemental tribe.

  The Earth was inhabited under ground by the Gnomes; beings that were formed from the earth and returned back into it once they died, and in the forests and woodlands by the Dryads; people who could understand the speech of trees

  The Fire, wherever it burned was presided by the Salamanders; a race of pyro-morphs, also called Phoenixes, that often took the form of either black and gold draconic beings or huge birds with flames for plumage.

  Water was home to both the Nereids and Undines; ultimately the same, the only difference being that Nereids lived in the sea and Undines preferred the fresh streams and lakes.

  The skies were ruled by the Asvyns; later generally known as the Vanes. Like all elementals they lived in two separate bands, the Sylph who flew without wings and drew power from the sun, and the Jinn who had the ability to become one with the shadows and drew their strength from the moon and stars at night.

  Each tribe drew their power and strength from their designated dominions by harnessing the energy collected in particular talismans known as Unity Amulets. The Unity Amulet of Earth was called the Gaeus, grown deep within the roots of the oldest tree by the first Gnome and Dryad. Ardereos, the Unity Amulet of Fire was forged in the core of the firey pits of the Burning Plains. In the aquatic gorges of Colvek Channel where ocean and stream meet, the Nereids and Undines formed the Maritimus, Unity Amulet of Water. The Sylph and the Jinn created the Entropus when night and day were one.

  Without these Unity Amulets to collect and filter the magical energy, the elementals could not exist. And without the elementals to control the magical balance, neither could the Land.

  When fused together, all four Unity Amulets created the Omnis, a talisman that could be used to control the Land’s magic to perform tasks that could not be completed by the elementals themselves. The elementals would only be able to maintain their full potential whilst their amulets and the Omnis were intact. 

   During their reign, the different tribes of elementals had little to nothing to do with each other until the First War, a cataclysmic battle in which the forces of Earth, Fire and Water stood to end the age old conflict that had brewed then erupted between the two branches of the Asvyns.

  In the aftermath, the surviving elementals of the Water, Earth and Fire tribes disbanded in peace, some living together and some living like hermits in seclusion. Their amulets remained whole. The Air elementals were no longer the Asvyns, but now separate races, the peace-preferring and magic-harnessing Sylph and the destructive and power hungry Jinn. The Entropus was cracked.

 

After the beginning but still at the start, before human inhabitation of what would be called “Bulgaren” in the years to come but was then known as “Bywlgera”, the elven necromancer Lord Dando, discovered the Entropus and harnessed its destructive power, summoning demons from the Netherealm to find and destroy the remaining Sylph and Jinn in order to gain wider control throughout the continent.

  Dando made a deal with the Incubus lord, Loge; three years of service from a legion of demons in exchange for Dando’s wife and daughter. Even the demon lord himself had been surprised when Dando agreed.

  During that time, the Sylph and Jinn, though still at war, recognised a common enemy and formed a temporary strategic alliance. They summoned the Omni Ligers, the five guardians of the Aetherealm, to destroy the demons. By the end of the three years only two hundred demons of the original thousand remained.

  His term in Dando’s service spent, Loge had cursed the Omni Ligers, turning them into the undead and preventing their return to their posts in the Aetherealm. Now, they were the Necro Warghs. To Dando himself, the demon plunged him into an abyss of insanity before finally sending his soul into the Netherealm. He kept the wife for several more months and the daughter for several more years in his service before likewise disposing of them.

  With Bywlgera run with demons and the Omni Ligers unable to return to the Aetherealm, the Sylph and Jinn were once again at odds with each other over who was responsible for the chaos created. This led to the Second War which, in turn, resulted in the crack in the Entropus expanding and halving the amulet. The Sylph and Jinn, although still powerful magic beings, no longer had the abilities that marked them as elementals. For the Sylph it was their power of flight without wings. For the Jinn it was the ability to meld into the shadows. The breaking of the Entropus, one of the Unity Amulets, disrupted the natural balance of magic and very slowly started changing the land into what would eventually be, in the eons to come, a corrupt new world with a sky that is neither night nor day. The two halves of the Entropus were sought after and found by their respective makers and hidden away as if to pretend that it never existed.

 

At the end of the beginning, not many years after human habitation if measured by a historical timeline, the Sylph and Jinn, eternal enemies forged by a reason that time itself forgot, were still revered by all magical beings as the potentates of magic despite their lack of elemental status. The changes in the land were still so undetectable they seemed insignificant.

  From a young age the two races were taught their own history of the Land and the Wars, and to hate each other without question. And so this way it remained for centuries until the beginning of the reign of Garmin, seventh king of Bulgaren’s middle-country, Swordavahr. The Entropus was now merely a thing of legend, forgotten by all but those who remembered the old stories.

  It so happened that two travellers became the most unlikely companions. There was Callista, a Sylphide barely out of adolescent years, who was fathered by a human. And there was Andsvid, the Jinn, who was in search for something he knew that he would never find. Disdaining acquaintances became reluctant companions and then friends and finally lovers.

  This unity alone had the power to repair the Entropus which could have restored the balance of magic and end the corruption. But the Entropus had been lost and forgotten through time. Few remembered the old legends. Even fewer believed them.

  And so it was that the biggest chance of evening the balance of magic, ending the corruption and clearing the skies, came and passed, ignorant of the differences that it could have made.

 

***

 

The basilisk shook his head and growled, closing the book. How typical it was for humans to leave out some of the most important details. Although, as much as the humans had left out, they were right on some level that the basilisk could not ignore. The Entropus had to be repaired. And then there was the matter of Loge to deal with. He closed his eyes and settled down on the rug next to the old wooden chest, the scar on his back aching at the memory of the Incubus lord.

  He knew he would have to act soon; it was not long before the Entropus would be damaged beyond repair. And then, not even the combined power of the Jinn and the Sylph themselves would be able to set things right. That thought, not the idea of a world plunged into an eternal twilight, but of what forces would be unleashed, made him shudder.

 

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Chapter 1

    I pulled Seraphim to a halt and jumped out of the saddle. I could tell that something had passed this way. I looked down at the wolf sitting at my feet and staring up at me expectantly. I gave him the signal and watched as he trotted through the bushes, picking up the scent.

      Reu lifted his nose into the air and barked once. That was his way of telling me that he had the scent. I swung myself back into the saddle and touched the horse lightly with my knees. Seraphim began walking forwards slowly. I sat back and strung my bow. I didn't particularly know what type of bow it was. It was too small to be a longbow, too big to be a short bow, and too straight to be a recurve bow. I held one of my goose feather arrows ready in the groove on the wood.

      Up front, Reu stopped, a paw raised slightly off the ground. I peered furtively around a tree and lifted the bow up and ready. The stag was grazing by the slow moving river. It was a fourteen pointer with strong antlers that were beginning to shed their velvet. I carefully pulled the string back to my ear, taking aim at the beast's neck.

      The arrow flew straight and the deer was dead before it hit the ground. I guided Seraphim towards the fallen stag and dismounted. I studied the large animal for a moment. It was huge! It looked to be about five hundred pounds. There was no way I'd be able to carry it home by myself. I opened my ox-skin bag that was tied to Seraphim's saddle and pulled out a thick coil of rope. I expertly tied the rope around the stag's antlers and to the back of the saddle.

      I drew the dagger from my boot and slit the beast down the middle, cleaning it out and making it about a hundred or so pounds lighter. I knew I shouldn’t have gutted it, many of the organs could be used for other things, but I decided I’d come back for them later. I stepped closer to the shallow river and cleaned the blood off the blade. I looked up and, squinting. Did I see right? I did. On the other side of the river was a small clearing. On the far side of the clearing and mostly hidden by large shrubs was the mouth of a cave.

      A cave! Out of the thousands of times I had explored this forest, I had never seen this cave before. I didn't know whether to explore it or ignore it. My curiosity got the better of me. I turned back to Seraphim and cut the rope that bound him to the dead stag. As soon as I cut him loose, the horse reared with a loud whinny and boxed the air with his great shaggy hooves.

      'Steady, Seraphim,' I grabbed the horse's reins, trying to calm him down.

      I rubbed Seraphim's neck, holding his head down with the reins. His jet black fur shone in the fading light. I climbed up onto his back and tried to steer him towards the river. He took a few cautious steps forwards into the water then turned and trotted back.

      Frowning, I slid out of the saddle and tried to lead him into the water. He pulled backwards, tossing his head. The horse's eyes were wild and his ears were flat against his head. I relaxed my grip on his reins. It made no sense. Seraphim was never scared of the water. In fact, he enjoyed it.

      I reached into my bag and pulled out a carrot. Seraphim's ears perked upwards with interest when I showed it to him. I knew that the horse would do practically anything for a carrot. Seraphim headed boldly into the middle of the river as if to show me that he wasn't scared. I climbed into the saddle again and passed the carrot into his mouth. This time, Seraphim crossed to the small clearing. Reu came out of the water next to us and shook his padded feet. The water was running shallow right now though I suspected that it ran deeper and further under ground.

      I jumped down and crossed over to the cave. Parting the bushes, I surveyed the opening. It was a jagged hole in a large cliff face. I looked at the entrance. It looked cold, uninviting, menacing. Sculpted over the years by wind and rain, twisting it into an evil snarling mouth complete with jagged teeth on its top jaw. The sunlight shining down into the clearing only emphasised the crude leer that the gaping hole portrayed.

      I tied Seraphim's reins to one of the shrubs and started towards the cave entrance with Reu following reluctantly behind me. I hesitated and looked up at the razor-like stalactites above me. I swallowed, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck rise slightly. I had half a mind to turn back and head back to the farm.

      I looked forwards resolutely. There was something about this cave that drew me towards it, telling me to explore further. I took step after step away from the menacing jaws and deeper into the mouth. As I went farther into the cave, I became aware of a horrible stench, kind of like rotting meat. The more steps I took, the heavier it got. The silent and steady sound of slowly running water accompanied me as I walked on. Maybe the river ran into a pool in the cave?

      Straight ahead, I saw a small patch of light. I paused in my step then started running towards it. It never seemed to get any closer. Suddenly, the tunnel stopped and opened to an even larger grotto shroudered in light. I used my arm to shield my eyes from the blinding whiteness. My eyes soon adjusted to the light which, I realised, was filtering in through a miniscule hole in the roof of the cave. I was curious about how a tiny patch of light could be so luminous in such an area.

      Surveying the grotto provided my answer. It was beyond amazing. Veins of gold and silver traced and entwined together along the walls like metallic snail trails. Clumps of crystals seemed to just grow randomly around the cave. Stalactites and stalagmites sprouting from the floor and roof glittered with tiny diamonds. But what couldn't help grabbing my attention were the mounds and mounds of gold, silver and other treasures which were piled on the floor.

      'Wow,' I breathed, now used to the putrid stench. 'Zordrak definitely doesn't know about this place.'

      I looked cautiously around the side of one of the stalagmites, remembering the countless stories of dragons and griffins hoarding treasure. But surely if this were the lair of such a beast I would have heard about it? I took a step forwards and lifted my hand to one of the piles of gold.

      'Stop!'

      I jumped in shock, and turned around. There was nothing there.

      'Not another step if you value your life.' It sounded harsh and challenging, but not altogether dangerous and angry. The voice seemed to be everywhere at once.

      I waited for my heart to slow down. 'Okay,' I spoke composedly. My heart wasn't getting any slower, but I wasn't scared. Not really. 'Who, or what, are you? Show yourself!' My voice was steadier than my hands.

      Whatever it was sighed. 'I beseech you, if I reveal myself to you, have no fear.' Now the voice sounded less intimidating and more pleading.

      'Er, sure.' My mind was a tangle of curiosity and confusion. With a bit of terror as well, I suppose.

      There was a loud thud behind me and I spun around. I leapt back, startled. Immediately, my heartbeat started getting faster. I recognised the creature standing before me as one of the most dangerous creatures in all of Swordavahr. In fact, as one of the most dangerous creatures in all of Bulgaren. Although every book I had read and every painting I had seen had given me a different description, there was no denying what the creature was. The creature standing before me was a basilisk.

      I didn’t know whether the basilisk was small or large; every book I had read gave different sizes that varied between a foot high and taller than a house. This one was not much taller than me. I didn't know much about the creatures, but I knew enough to know that he (the voice was obviously male) didn't have his most lethal weapon yet; the ability to kill with eye contact. I don’t know how I knew; maybe because he visibly didn’t seem old enough. He was shaped somewhat like a giant bird but covered in tiny emerald scales. A pointed narrow reptilian shaped head was attached to the body by a long thick neck. Jagged triangular teeth curved over his green bottom jaw. High brow ridges grew above large lamp-like yellow eyes and on either side of a thick mane-like crest made up of rows of thin bright red feathers which ran from his nape to halfway down his neck. A pale orange throat pouch with visible red veins ran along the underside of the upper half of his neck. Large black bat-like wings that looked useless for flying but impressive nonetheless grew from his shoulders and were pulled tight against his sides. His front claws were more or less like arms ending in five fingers; four of which supported curved powerful talons and one that was more or less like an opposable thumb. His strong back legs ended in claws that roughly resembled those of the large running birds that the desert tribes ride but green and without the back toe. A long serpentine tail ending in a pointed arrow head completed his description.

      'You're a-' I started after getting over the initial shock.

      'A basilisk, I know. I am in no dire need to be informed of the name of my species by the likes of you.' He said, lifting his vibrant red crest. Unexpectedly, the basilisk threw his head and neck forwards. His eyes met mine and flashed red. 'Who are you, human, and why do you dare trespass in my domain?'

      I stepped back and looked hastily for Reu. The wolf was backed against one of the walls with his ears pinned down.

      'ANSWER HUMAN!' The basilisk bellowed, stomping the ground and showing his rows of curved, pointed fangs. His eyes blazed red with fire and his front claws flexed threateningly. I noticed with interest more than fear that the inner talon on each of his feet seemed to lift up, retracting back towards the leg. The sharp points on the curved appendages seemed to glisten in the light.

      The basilisk noticed me looking at his toes and seemed to puff out his chest with pride. He relaxed his claws and his eyes went back to yellow, making him look less threatening. 'You need not look with such worry at them,' he trilled, pulling his lips back which showed his glistening white teeth. A smile? 'Come now, what is your name?'

      I was still speechless. Up until now, I had always thought of basilisks as dangerous beasts and nothing more. I didn't expect them to know human speech, let alone use it in a more sophisticated way than most humans did.

      I took a breath and let it out slowly. It wasn't everyday someone met a basilisk, let alone one that wasn't entirely hostile. 'My name is Cally,' I began. 'Do you... do you have a name?'

      The basilisk cocked his head one way then the other. ‘Does not everyone? It is...' He made a series of guttural sounds. ‘I suppose with a human tongue my name is pronounced “Tauron”. It means "Gathering Chaos" in my tongue, and something to do with cattle in yours I believe.'

      'Oh.' I was beginning to feel a lot less cautious around him. Maybe it was because he spoke to me with more acceptance than most of the people in my village did. 'Do all basilisks have names to do with disaster, death and destruction?'

      He pulled his head back and peered back at me curiously. Then he let out a strange gurgling sound. A laugh? 'Do all humans speak their mind? No, I used to know a basilisk whose name directly translated to "Honey cake".'

      ‘You don’t look like how they describe or draw basilisks in pictures and books,’ I stated.

      He tilted his head and made a throaty growling noise without opening his mouth. ‘I look not as how you have come to expect, yet you knew me instantly with only the visions of others who had also never seen my kind as guidance?’ He made the gurgling sound again. It was definitely a laugh. ‘Tell me, how came you to realise that I am a basilisk and what do those blind artists and embellishing poets and bards depict me as?’

      It took me a moment to make sense of what Tauron was saying. I wasn’t illiterate, my parents had made sure of that, but at the same time I wasn’t used to speaking to someone who used such complex language. ‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully. ‘It just sort of... clicked in my mind. The “blind artists”, as you call them, usually paint basilisks as huge snakes with crowns or two-legged winged creatures with the head of a rooster and tail of a snake. Poets and bards... well, they describe anything from what artists paint to two-legged snakes with combs on their heads and creatures almost dragon-like. A lot of them also say that basilisks are about a foot tall, three at the most.’

      At this, Tauron’s eyes darkened slightly. ‘I understand now why humans label artists and poets and bards as “creative”.’ He muttered. ‘Those creatures that you have read about and viewed pictures of are not true basilisks, but cousins. Mayhap with the exception of the crowned snake, that sounds like a simple wyrm or drakon. Both two-legged beasts you spoke of are possibly the two different species of cockatrice, which are a foot tall.’ He snorted disdainfully. ‘The cockatrice is the basilisk’s closest relative, yet to compare my kin with theirs is like comparing an eagle to a pigeon or a warhorse to an ass.’

      Ouch. I cringed slightly. ‘Sorry. So,' I was more interested now. Tauron seemed like the complete opposite of the basilisks in the stories I had heard. 'How come you've been hiding here all this time? I've practically been living in this forest my whole life and I've never seen any signs of a basilisk.'

      Tauron drooped his head and flattened his crest. 'You have never seen neither hide nor scale of a true basilisk in this forest because there has not been one present here in a matter of decades. In fact, there have not been any basilisks present anywhere in a matter of decades.' He looked at me squarely with sad eyes. 'I am the last.'

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Chapter 2

    'I'm sorry,' I murmured in awkward sympathy. It was the only thing I could think of saying. What else was there to say?

    Tauron smiled grimly. 'It is okay; my time will come soon anyway. The war between man and basilisk always was and always will be until one of us is gone forever. And considering the fact that I am the last of a dying breed, I can already foresee the victor as man.' He tilted his head matter-of-factly. 'You see, humans have discovered that a basilisk does not gain his most infamous power until he is two hundred basilisk years old. That is about... seventy eight human years.'

      I raised an eyebrow. Although, to me, it wasn't mathematically possible for seventy eight years to be divided into two hundred separate "years", I kept my mouth shut. Although Tauron seemed sociable, he was still a basilisk and I was still wary.

      'How old are you?' I asked in what I hoped sounded like only vague interest.

      Tauron made the strange gurgling sound again. 'If a basilisk asked that to another basilisk, he would most definitely get his throat ripped out.'

      I felt myself go pale. I didn't particularly like the thought of having my throat ripped out.

      'Do not worry,' he hastened upon seeing my reaction. 'You knew not of the customs of my kind. In answering your question, I am over one hundred and ninety basilisk years though not yet two hundred. I think. How old are you?'

     No one had ever asked me that before. 'I'm turning sixteen,' I explained. 'In winter.' I noticed that the cave was getting darker. The light was fading. Not even the reflective beams from the cave's treasure hoard illuminated the area to its full extent. How long had I been in here? It surely couldn’t have been that long.

      'I better go,' I spoke reluctantly. Although I was excited about meeting a basilisk, I knew that I had to get back to my stag and get it home before something, or someone, else did. 'It's getting late. Will you be here tomorrow?' I added hopefully.

      Tauron scrutinised me carefully. 'You can not reveal my existence.'

      'I won't,' I smiled. 'I promise.'

      Tauron pulled his head back and growled, narrowing his piercing golden eyes at me. ‘A broken vow bound by a promise is punishable by death in my culture.’ His gaze never left my own.

      Although his words scared me and I was more than slightly intimidated by the huge lamp-like eyes with their expanding and contracting slit pupils, I kept my gaze. I felt as if he was challenging me whilst at the same time, trying to see through my thoughts and into my soul. I couldn’t help but wonder how his pupils both grew larger and smaller in the failing light.

      'You speak the truth,' He spoke finally, then extended a claw to me and pulled his lips back in what I took to be a grin. 'In that case, I will see you tomorrow if you wish. It does get lonely around here.'

      Not entirely sure what to do, I shook Tauron's claw and wondered why a basilisk would use such a human gesture. The scales on his claw felt smooth like those on a lizard. 'Till tomorrow.' I stepped out back into the tunnel and hesitated. It was too dark. I couldn't see a thing.

      I sensed rather than saw Tauron step out next to me. 'You cannot see the way back,' he pointed out.

      'No, I can't.' I admitted pragmatically.

      'Hold onto my neck,' He instructed.

      I felt around where I thought the basilisk's head was and found something that felt like a wrinkly version of a shaved rabbit or a featherless baby bird. I drew my hand back slightly. It was warm and seemed to have a heartbeat.

      'Not that part of my neck,' I felt Tauron shift uncomfortably. 'The soft tissue on my throat pouch tears easily and is what bounty hunters used to aim for when hunting my kin,'

      'Oh, sorry.' I tried again and this time my hand touched smooth scales.

      Tauron started to guide me through the cave. I wasn't worried. Maybe I should have been, but I wasn't. Although Tauron was a basilisk and this was the perfect opportunity to get a decent meal, I trusted him for some reason. He stopped outside the cave entrance.

      'Thanks for that,' I said, smiling slightly.

      Tauron shook himself, a pleased growl coming from his throat. 'Think nothing of it.' Then he trotted back into the dark cave.

      I reached down and gave Reu a pat before parting the bushes and moving to where Seraphim was tethered. The horse greeted me with a happy whinny when he saw me emerge from the cave entrance. It was getting darker. The stars were already starting to blanket the sky.

      Seraphim gladly pranced back over the water to where the stag carcass was. I dismounted and bent down to pick up the rope. The wind picked up, blowing towards me. Then I smelt it. Smoke. Carried on the wind from my farm. I looked up in disconcert, trying not to worry. I failed miserably. Now I saw the smoke. And it was no bonfire that we used for cooking. I jumped onto Seraphim's back and flicked the reins.

      The horse reared and boxed the air before starting a steady gait. I tightened my grip on his reins with sweaty hands, looping the leather around my wrists. I glanced down as the horse picked up speed. Seraphim's great shaggy hooves were caked with mud. Large puddles in the soggy leaf litter indicated that it had rained recently.

      He leapt gracefully over the mossy fallen log that I had come to think of as the halfway marker between the river and our main paddock. The rain started falling. First lightly, then, quickly, it got heavier. That was the problem with the area I lived in; it was always either pouring or too hot. I sped the horse up, trying to ignore the morbid thoughts that were racing through my mind.

     I jammed two fingers into my mouth and gave two sharp whistles; the first short and the next slightly longer and lower. Reu barked and headed home, running faster up front. Thunder rumbled somewhere above and lightning lit up the sky. The wind blew against me as if trying to blow us back the way we came.

      Seraphim charged into the paddock and it was as if time just stopped. I didn't hear anything. I didn't feel anything. I didn't see anything. Anything apart from the smoking debris that was once my home.

      It was in ruins. Everything I had known my whole life was gone. All gone. Just like that. Although it was raining, smoke was still lifting into the night sky, spiralling upwards in long sinuous coils. Then time started again. I pulled Seraphim to a halt in front of the wreck and jumped off. I could hear Reu snarling wildly at something. I ran towards the sound and almost fell over in shock.

      I recognised Zordrak's insignia on the man's armour. He was one of the king's guards from the village. There was probably a reasonable explanation for his being here, but I couldn't help it. I felt the anger rising. I was shaking angrily. Somehow I knew that it was him who did this. I strode over to the man who was holding up a piece of wood and trying to ward off the angry wolf. The guard still hadn't noticed me. I drew my bow and pulled one of the arrows back near my ear.

      'DON'T MOVE!' I bellowed. 'I swear, if you move I'll send this arrow right through your skull.'

      The man froze then turned and faced me. He looked slightly relieved then laughed. 'You're not going to shoot me, girl. You don't have the heart.'

     I took a last minute aim at his arm and released the arrow. 'You bloody sure?' I growled, getting another arrow ready. Reu relaxed slightly, but his yellow eyes never left the man.

      The man gripped his shoulder in pain as blood flowed freely from beneath the arrow shaft. 'Come now, girl,' he groaned. 'Put down the bow before you shoot yourself in the foot.' He took a step closer.

      I lowered the arrow and signalled Reu to attack. The wolf sprang up with a bear-like roar and grabbed the man around the throat, dragging him down. I shot the arrow into his other arm and called Reu to stop. Reu sat back obediently but I saw his muscles trembling. He growled menacingly, flattening his ears.

      'Now,' I walked over to the bleeding figure and pulled the dagger from my boot. 'Why did you do this?' I demanded fiercely. 'Where are my parents? I tried to hold back my rage. I was shaking hard. It was as if all my anger was trying to burst out all at the same time. I knew that, if it came to it, I would be able to kill the man. Kill him and care as much as I did when killing a cockroach.

      The guard smiled cruelly through his pain. 'What are you going to do, girl? Kill me? Go ahead. I've done my duty. I'm not going to tell you anything.'

      I saw his sword laying on the ground a few steps away and reached for it. 'I'll give you one last chance,' I tried to sound calm but I couldn't stop my voice from trembling.

      'Go sew yourself a dress like a good little girl and put down that sword,' he sneered, 'because I'm not telling you anything.'

      I let out a cry of rage and, before I really considered my actions, drove the sword into his skull, impaling him between the eyes.

      He let out an unearthly cry of pain then fell silent. His open eyes were blank, but still seemed to laugh at me. The reality of what I had just done came and smacked me in the face. The sword fell out of my trembling hands and I collapsed to my knees. Reu stepped over to me and rested his chin on my shoulder. I hugged the wolf tighter to me, thinking about what I had just done. I had killed someone. Sure, the bastard deserved it, but I had killed someone nonetheless. I wasn't sad, not for the dead man in front of me, anyway. I was shocked. I had killed a man. The words sunk deeper. My body was trembling all over and my heart pounding. I had killed a man.

      I stood up on shaky legs and started to dig through the rubble to see if there was anything salvageable. I found six water skins, the sword my father said he'd give me when I could beat him sparring, and my mother's hooded brown robe which was bound at the neck with a silver buckle shaped as a feather.

      After I packed up the salvaged items, I looked back at the ruins and the only part of my home that still stood. A wall. I crossed over to it and something half buried in burnt bits of wood caught my eye. I moved to it in curiosity, wondering if it was what I thought it was. I reached towards it and pulled it free. No sooner than I had picked it up, I threw it back down as if I was throwing away a hot piece of metal, and gasped in disgust and shock.

      It was an arm. It looked as if someone had separated the arm at the elbow and cut away most of the flesh, revealing a blood stained bone with a few bits of meat stuck to it. I soon recovered from the shock of finding a half chewed arm and moved cautiously towards it. I rolled it over with the toe of my boot. There, on one of the fingers, was a gold signet ring with a black and white chequered pattern on the seal. I pulled the ring off the grotesque hand thinking that it would be able to buy me a few meals, and kicked the arm aside.

      I looked up at the last remaining wall. It made me sad to see it like this. It was like seeing an old friend on their death bed. I reached a hand up and brushed my palm along the rough stones. It was like touching a furnace. I pulled my hand back in shock as pain jolted through my body. I gasped and fell to my knees. I gripped a piece of wood tightly until my knuckles turned white. It felt as if my whole body was on fire; like I was being stabbed with multiple burning daggers that seemed to reach everywhere at the same time. I took breath after deep steady breath until the excruciating pain had dulled to just pins and needles. Then it went away all together. I stood up hesitantly and brushed my hands off on the leg of my trousers.

      I crossed over to Seraphim and held onto his neck for support, mulling over what just happened. All I did was touch a wall and I felt like I was getting filleted with a sword while being cooked at the same time. I pulled myself up onto the saddle and started the horse off at a thundering gallop away from the wreckage and the life I once knew. 

      As I rode blindly through the forest, I couldn't stop the tears from rolling slowly down my cheeks. Everything was gone. Just like that. One minute I had a home and the next it was gone. I wondered why it was my farm. We had nothing the king valued, unless he was after sheep or horses. At this thought, I pulled Seraphim to halt and turned him around. I had forgotten all about the animals. I couldn't just leave them. They had been my responsibility.

      'Home, Seraphim,' I growled.

      The horse nickered and tossed his head before cantering back towards the farm. We got to the back paddock where I had left the sheep. They were still there. I smiled in spite of myself. As blank minded as they were, sheep, in a way, were one of the most loyal animals. But that was because they relied on people to get them food. I whistled to Reu so he'd help me round them up. Shepherding always took my mind off things.

      I rounded the animals into a pen and instructed Reu to watch them before heading towards the village. Fandor was a large village compared to most others. With about four-hundred people, it was almost large enough to be called a town. To the north and at the bottom of the hill was Rolling King Beach. To the west were my farm and the forest which stretched south. To the east was the dirt road that was the quickest way out of the village. The dwellings people lived in were mainly made with a loam mixture and stones and wood.

  I didn't look at the people who were sitting under shelters outside their homes as I rode past them. I wasn't in the mood for their taunts right now. Not after what just happened. I got off Seraphim's back when I came to the home of Giles, the pig farmer. Even from where I was, I could hear and smell his pigs behind the house. I raised my fist to the door and knocked.

      Giles opened the door almost instantly. He was an almost toothless middle-aged man with wisps of greying hair. 'Cally? What are you doin' out in this rain?' He demanded then ushered me in. Out of everyone in the village, Giles was one of the only ones who spoke to me decently. He practically pushed me into a wooden chair and dropped a woollen blanket over my shoulders. 'Now then, what brings you up 'ere? Parents well?'

      I felt the anger rising but swallowed it down. Giles didn't know. No one knew. Yet. The farm was too far away through a forest trail. 'They're good,' I lied, managing a smile. 'Sorry for coming so late, Giles. But I came to ask you if you wanted to buy the sheep.' It was better to get straight to the point.

      He arched his brows in surprise. 'You're sellin' the sheep? Why?'

      I tried not to show my hesitation. 'We're going on a trip.'

      He leant his elbows on his knees. 'Ah, another huntin' trip with the ol' man, eh?'

      I forced down the lump in my throat. I wished it was just another hunting trip. I didn't even know where I was going. 'No, we're going to Osspeross. All of us. We don't know when we'll be back.' That’s another thing people found strange about us; although we lived in the village, we travelled around a lot. Well, my father and I did anyway.

      'Well, I guess I'll come say goodbye then, eh?'

      'No, no,' I hastened. 'My parents have already started off. They told me to sell the flock and meet up with them.' I don't know how I came up with that. Or how I lied so easily. I just did.

      'Ah. Well.' Giles scratched his chin. 'How much d'ya want for 'em?'

      'Er...' I thought for a minute. I wasn’t too fussed about the price, I just wanted to know that someone would look after them. And I liked Giles, he deserved the better lifestyle that came with sheep. 'How much are you willing to pay?'

      'Well now,' He thought for a minute. 'You aren't too picky with prices now, are ya?'

      I shook my head. 'We don't particularly need much.' I didn't even know what I'd do with more than three gold coins. I knew how to hunt so I wouldn't even buy food.

      He looked at me carefully. 'You have a flock of what? Two hundred?'

      'Two hundred and thirty five,' I corrected him.

      'Right. I'll give ya five golds.' He shrugged. ‘I know it’s a tad low but it’s all I got till next week; unless I could sell some o’ me pigs on market day.’

      ‘Five crowns,’ I shrugged. 'That's right with me. The flock's penned up in the back paddock.' The flock was worth about fifteen crowns, but I knew that if anyone found out what I had done the price on my head would be more than three times that amount.

      'Just hold there for a minute,' Giles shuffled towards a chest of drawers and rummaged around for a few seconds. He pressed the five gold coins into my hand and winked. 'Shh. Can't tell the missus about me buyin' sheep off yeh fer five gold coins. Go off her nut she will.'

      'Thanks, Giles. I guess I'd best be off.' I stood up to leave and went back out the still open door. I swung up onto Seraphim's back and pocketed the coins. 'Goodbye.'

      'Be seein' yeh, Cally. You sure you'll be right in this rain?' He stepped outside.  

      'I'll be right,' I told.

      'Okay. Give my best to your parents for me.' He headed back inside and closed the door behind him.

      Once again, I ignored the rest of the village people as I rode back in the direction of the farm. This time I went straight to the stables. They were empty. Not even the tack remained. We only had three horses; Seraphim, Galveston and Rain. All three were black warhorses with huge feathery hooves.

      Shaking my head, I trotted back outside and got back on the horse. I guided Seraphim towards where I left Reu. I sighed in hopelessness. I didn't even know what I was going to do now. My mind was a tangle of misery, anger, confusion and hate. The only things I had on me that were worth anything were a few weapons, five gold pieces, a robe and a horse. My only possessions left. Not that I had very many to start off with since I grew up on a farm.

      As soon as he saw me, Reu bolted towards the galloping horse. I didn't steer Seraphim. Where would I go, anyway? I just held on and let him go wherever his hooves took us. I was so caught up in my thoughts, I was barely aware of the sound of running water and the twigs and leaves brushing past my face and catching on my long brown hair. Seraphim pulled to a stop next to the river and bent his head down to drink.

      I looked down miserably, watching the raindrops send ripples over the surface. They started off small, and then got larger. Big things grow from little things. I thought. Even the great oaks start off as tiny acorns. The oak is one of the most revered trees and it starts off as an acorn. One single acorn can change lives after it’s an oak tree... My eyes drifted over to a soaking mound of something slightly to the left. It was a dead deer. My dead deer. I was outside Tauron's cave!

      'You clever horse,' I patted Seraphim's neck and motioned for him to go forwards. He laid his ears back and growled in his own horse-like way but reluctantly crossed the river to the clearing.

      This time, I brought him into the cave with me, ignoring the way he tossed his head back in disagreement. I swore. I had forgotten that I wouldn't be able to see.

      'This is just great,' I mumbled and, holding the horse's reins, headed blindly through the cave. The air was rank with the smell of rotting meat, but this time, I welcomed it.

      'You are returning quite early,'

      I almost jumped. Seraphim reared, making me lose grip on his reins. I grabbed for them and tried to calm him down. At my feet, Reu was pressing himself against my leg, a low growl escaping his throat.

      Tauron laughed and I could just make out his form in front of me. 'Look at the three of you. You look like three wet rabbits that are being pursued by a fox.' I felt him move his head closer to me. 'Do not grab my throat pouch this time.'

      I moved my free hand over the basilisk's neck and stepped carefully as he guided me through the cave. We rounded the corner and stared right into the flickering embers of a small fire. The flames reflected around the cave making it almost as bright as it was when I first saw it.

      'How come I couldn't see the light from the tunnel?' I queried, letting go of both the basilisk and the horse.

      'You viewed it from the wrong angle,' He looked over his shoulder towards me and his smile turned into a frown. 'You have been crying,' he noted. 'What happened?'

      'How can you possibly know that?' I peered at my refection in one of the large crystals embedded in the wall. My blue eyes weren't bloodshot and puffy and my face wasn't red.

      'Basilisk powers include sensing emotions at times,' He explained. 'Right now you are sad. Sad and angry. What has happened, if I may ask?'

      I sat down and leaned my back against a stalagmite. Tauron sat down in front of me the same way birds do. As I recalled the earlier events, I felt all the emotions flooding back with the ferocity of an avalanche.

      Then it all came out in a rush. The words and the tears. 'They burnt it... farm... gone. All gone. When I got there... the smoke. The walls. Everything, gone. I couldn't find my parents. I don't know whether they're dead or alive. Gone, it's just... And I killed someone. He wouldn't tell me what I wanted to know... I was too angry... didn't think straight. I got his sword and stuck it between his eyes. I just... I don't... he was one of Zordrak's guards!' I was mumbling through the salty droplets coming from my eyes but I didn't care.

      Tauron's eyes flashed red for a few seconds at the mention of the king's name. He growled then looked back up at me, his crest flattened against his head. 'I am sorry,' he spoke quietly. 'Truly I am.'

      I took in breath after deep breath, trying to stem the flow of tears. I wiped my eyes. I thought it funny in a way. I hadn’t cried since I was around six, and suddenly twice in one day. 'It's okay,' I gave him a wan smile. 'I would have told you sooner or later. I just... I don't have anywhere to go; I don't know what to do. I killed one of Zordrak's guards, Tauron. Me. I've never killed anyone in my life. I've never even planned to kill anyone yet, and-'

      'What did it feel like?' He cut me off. 'Killing him, I mean.'

      That question took me by surprise. I thought back to when I did kill him. I was angry, hungry for blood and revenge. It was a feeling I had never felt before. I couldn't even think of the words to describe it. I dealt the killing shot between his eyes mercilessly. I had murdered the man through cold blood and I couldn't care less. In fact, I almost enjoyed it. That was what I was worried about.

      'I don't...' I started. 'I was angry at the time. He destroyed my home and I stabbed him right between the eyes when he had every chance of living and...' I looked at the basilisk squarely. 'And I enjoyed it.’ My voice was flat and numb. ‘It sounds horrible, I know, but-'

      Tauron smiled at me grimly. 'You enjoyed your kill because you were angry. To you, he deserved to die. To me, anyone who allies themselves with Zordrak deserves to die. Anger and revenge can be two powerful allies. You should not worry about killing him if you do not fear Zordrak.'

      'Zordrak,' I spat. 'He sent his men to destroy my farm. I don't even know why. We did nothing wrong. The soldiers and guards in the village never showed us any form of malice. He rules through fear, thinking that he can do anything he bloody well wants.' I felt the anger rising again at the thought of the king. The thirst for revenge returned stronger than before. I tried to ignore it but the more I did the stronger it got.

      'Your want for revenge is strong,' Tauron pointed out. 'Use it the right way and bring Zordrak to justice.'

      'Oh, that's so easy to do isn't it?' I growled in sarcastic anger. 'All I have to do is march right into Mortdale and say "Hello, Zordrak, you evil old bastard. Remember me? You sent your puppets to destroy my home" Then run him through with a sword. But it isn't that easy, okay, Tauron. All you have to do is wait till you have your powers and look at him then he's dead straight away. Anyway, I guess it's easy for you to say, it's not like you have anything to lose-' I cut myself off and regretted my words instantly.

      Tauron stood up with so much force I almost fell over. He snarled down at me, his eyes turning a dangerous blood red. His retractable claws lifted threateningly. 'And what would you know, human? To you, we basilisks are nothing more but rare and expensive trophies. No, basilisks do not have hearts, they do not have souls, they are not smart like humans, and they do not have any emotions, so let us rid the world of their rancid plague! How would you know if I do not have anything to lose?'

      'Tauron,' I started apologetically. Why was it so hard to make friends, yet so easy to lose them? 'I-I didn't mean to say that, I just got angry. I'm sorry.'

     He calmed back down and his crest drooped sadly. 'Zordrak himself killed most of my kin. I guess we are, as humans say, in the same boat.'

      The anger and hatred was rising again. Just thinking about the king made my blood boil. I knew what I had to do. Tauron was right. Zordrak had to be brought to justice, and if no one else was game enough to do it, I was.

      'I'll kill him,' I snarled, looking at my shoes. It was all I could do to keep my voice calm, but my volcanic anger bubbled under the surface. 'It's easier said than done, I know,' I said when I saw the basilisk's expression. I stood up. 'But I have to try at least. I'll raise an army against him if I have to.'

      Tauron smiled malevolently. 'I will be by your side the whole way. But,' He straightened up. 'How, exactly do you plan on persuading people to join your crusade? There are guards in every village, every town, and every city. Using Zordrak's name in vain is an offence.'

      I snorted. 'I use his name in vain all the time. If his guards come near me, I'll gut them.'

      He laughed. 'And to think, you sounded worried when you told me you killed one of them through cold blood.'

      'It's not my fault; I've never exactly killed anyone before today. How did you feel the first time you killed someone? That is,' I looked down, 'if you've ever killed someone.'

      Tauron half smiled. Suddenly, he opened out his black membranous wings revealing an impressive nine foot span from tip to tip. Behind me, Seraphim reared, braying wildly, and Reu growled, the fur on his neck standing on end. A long ropy scar ran from Tauron's right shoulder behind his wing, along his back and to the side of his left leg. He closed his wings and growled, his eyes slightly going orange.

      'Did you see the scar? Zordrak gave me that. I killed so many of his men, and when I finally came to him, he could have killed me. But he did not. He wanted me to live with my failure.' The basilisk grinned with an almost primitive blood thirst. 'For basilisks, killing feels as normal as eating and sleeping. It is in our blood.'

      'Ah,' I hesitated. Tauron didn't seem very dangerous to me. In fact, he seemed almost human. But he was still a basilisk, and this new piece of information just made me more wary. I brushed those thoughts away. If he wanted to kill me, I'd be dead already.

      He ignored my uneasiness although it was obvious that he picked it up. 'How do you plan on raising an army?' He repeated.

      I thought for a moment. 'Zordrak has no rule further west and in Osspeross. I'll go there.'

      'When do we leave?' He sounded eager. I couldn't help noticing his retractable claws lifting and twitching slightly. It made me think that he was itching to kill someone rather than something after a very long and placid break.

      I walked over to my horse, feeling the terrible lust for revenge ascending in my chest once again. 'Right now.' I started to head towards the dark tunnel.

      'Now?' Tauron cocked his head and ran in front of me. 'In this rain? Should not we wait till morning?'

      I shook my head. 'No, by morning the guards in the village will have realised that I killed one of them. If we leave now the rain will cover our tracks.'

      Tauron nodded thoughtfully. Then he smiled wryly at me. 'You are smart for a farm girl. If we must leave now, take as much gold as you need. I have no need for coloured metal.'

      My eyes widened in disbelief. There must have been more than a million coins in each pile, and he was saying I could take them. I never even dreamed of owning that much money, and here was enough to pass me off as a royal being offered to me for free! 'Seriously?'

      The basilisk shrugged. 'Honestly, Cally, what am I going to do with gold? I am a basilisk, not a dragon. Go on, you never know when you will need it.'

      I crossed over to one of the piles of coins. It was about as tall as me. I saw that all the coins were piled up neatly in stacks forming a large pyramid.

      'What do I put it in?' I questioned, looking over my shoulder.

      Tauron crossed over to the far end of his cave. He stopped in front of what I took to be an old chest. I frowned. What was a basilisk doing with a chest? Then again, what was a basilisk doing with riches befitting royalty? He picked something up then lowered the lid and trotted over to me.

      'Will these do?' He held up three hand-sized pouches, 'One for drachmas, one for denarii and one for shekels.'

      I frowned. Drachmas? Denarii? Shekels? What? I always just called them gold, silver and copper. I remember being told that in Osspeross they were called crowns, farthings and groats. ‘Could you be a bit more specific?' I asked.

      Tauron looked blankly at me then motioned to a pile of gold coins. 'Those are drachmas, those,’ he pointed to the silver, ‘are denarii, and those,’ pointing to the copper, ‘are shekels. At least they were when I collected them.

      'Oh,' I began filling one of the bags with gold. 'I always called them gold, silver and copper.' Although I was unusually well educated for a farmer, I had never heard of another name for the different coins. I tied the pouch to my belt and filled up the other two.

      I headed back to where Seraphim and Reu sat, looking unsurely at the basilisk. Once again, Tauron led the way out of the cave. He hesitated as we came to the entrance. I looked back over my shoulder at him.

      Tauron looked from me, to his cave, then back to me. He took a step forwards then looked back. He took another step forwards then took a few steps back. What was wrong with him?

      'Come on,' I called over the rain, 'before the river gets too high and rough to cross!'

      He lowered his crest and took a few steps out into the heavy rain. Thunder lit up the sky and a massive fork of lightning sliced through the clouds. Tauron shook his head and ran forwards next to Seraphim. Then he turned and ran back to his cave.

      'What's wrong?' I asked, walking over to him.

      Tauron looked down. I couldn't help noticing the veins in his throat pouch becoming a more vibrant red. He turned away from me and lifted a claw to the side of the cave. Tauron brought his arm down slowly, scratching a thin, jagged line into the rock. Instantly, the rock trembled and shook violently.

      I felt the pace of my heart quicken. 'Tauron, get out of the way!' I shouted. 'The cave, it's-'

      'Relax,' He placed a claw on my shoulder.

       I was more shocked by this than by the sudden tremor in the rocks. It was yet another human gesture. I didn't understand. Was Tauron once human? That thought was instantly pushed aside when I saw it. I felt my eyes widen in awe as the cliff escarpment rearranged itself to close off the entrance of the cave. The rocks shifted and moved until not even the tiniest crack was left.

      'What happened?' I asked, unable to believe what just happened. All my questions just came out at once. 'Did you do that? How are you going to get back in? How-'

      'You ask a lot of questions,' Tauron chortled. 'It is just a bit of magic. I-'

      'Magic?' I couldn't believe it! Then again, basilisks were counted as magical beasts. 'You can use magic?'

      He shrugged. 'Not to any great extent. Only limited basic things like what you just saw. I am a basilisk after all. We are on the same side of magic as dragons. Only our magic is not as powerful.'

      I didn't argue although I thought that being able to make a cave open and close by running a finger down the side was still quite a feat to be performed. 'So why were you so... anxious before?' I went on, walking back to where Seraphim stood waiting patiently as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

      Tauron tilted his head as his throat pouch once again went a brighter red. 'I have not left my cave since I came here.' He mumbled. I almost couldn't understand him. 'Water, food. It is all found in the cave.'

     I pulled myself up onto the horse's back. 'Don't worry. I've never left the areas around the farm and village alone either. Besides,' I half smiled. 'You talked me into this, there's no turning back now.'

      The basilisk focused his head forwards and growled resolutely. 'No. There is not. Let us be off now, which way do we go?'

      I thought for a minute. 'It's best to keep off the path. I'll say south. There's a small cave not far. It's above ground so it'll be drier.'

      Before I urged Seraphim into the ever increasing water, I cast about for Reu. The wolf wasn't in sight. I whistled. Then I saw his yellow eyes amongst the bushes on the other side of the river. The light of the pale moon gave them an eerily malevolent glow.

      I started Seraphim across. Tauron walked easily along side us. The water in the middle was higher, almost to my knees. I tried not to let the worry get to me. Seraphim had crossed deeper rivers before. I tapped him lightly with my ankles. He lifted his feet high and tried to continue.

      He didn't go any further.

      'He is stuck,' Tauron observed.

      'He can't be,' I said impatiently. 'He's crossed deeper rivers before.'

      'Was it raining? And if so, was it as heavy as this?'

      Cursing, I swung off his back and into the water. I held tightly to the reins to avoid being swept away in the current. I felt my feet sink deeper. I swore. No wonder I thought the water was so deep. I held tighter to the reins and tried to pull Seraphim towards the bank. He wouldn't budge.

      Tauron looked over his shoulder at me. 'You might have to leave him,' He said gently.

      'No!' I shouted, moving closer to the bogged animal. 'I lost my family, I lost my home, and I am not going to lose my horse!'

      Tauron shot past me into the river and behind Seraphim. The next thing I knew, the horse reared, bellowing loudly and making me lose my grip on his reins. I called out in surprise then went under the water. I tried to stand up but the force was too strong. I tried to dig my feet into the mud but I couldn't. Then I felt something wrap itself around my arm and dig into my flesh. I grabbed onto it, not caring about the wound it opened, and used it to help me stand. I looked at what it was. One of the sides of the arrow headed tip of Tauron's tail was anchored to my arm. The thin whip-like part of his tail was coiled tightly around my wrist.

      When we were safely on the other side of the river, Tauron freed me and shook himself despite the falling rain. 'All that fuss for a horse,' He growled and helped me up with his tail.

      I walked over to Seraphim and patted his neck. 'Of course,' I coughed. 'Seraphim's been my friend for about four years.'

      Tauron rolled his serpentine eyes then jumped back, hissing. All the thin feathers making up his crest were puffed out on end and the retractable claws on his feet were ready for attack. Next to him, Reu was snarling, the fur all over his body sticking up in offence.

      I frowned and looked behind me to where I had seen the wolf's eyes earlier. 'What?' I fell back in alarm.

      The creature stepped out of the bushes and growled. It was too big to be a wolf. Its dark fur bristled as it stepped closer. I stood up hastily and drew the sword out of the bag tied to Seraphim's saddle. When I turned back to the beast, it was gone.

      'Where'd it go?' I demanded.

     Tauron straightened up, relaxing his crest and claws. 'It ran away,' he answered simply.

      I tried to shake the animal out of my mind as I tied the sword to my belt and climbed back into the saddle. Something wasn't right with it. In fact, I could have sworn that I could see through it. I turned the horse south and led us on.

      My stomach ached with hunger. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I could tell that it was getting near midnight, and the river was still flooding. The water was pooling around Seraphim's hooves. I was soaked through but ignored the freezing winds that blew past my face.

      After about three hours, I was too cold and too hungry. Normally, I would have been able to put up with it. But I was also completely saturated and my whole body was stiff with pain. I looked up at the stars but there were none. I tried to check my surroundings. It was too dark. I strained my eyes but the rain obscured my vision.

      'Where is this cave of yours?' Tauron growled.

      That I knew. 'Over there,' Despite the darkness, I could see it from here. I practically fell off the horse then flexed my aching muscles. I stiffly led the way uphill towards the shelter, ducking under low branches and slipping on loose rocks.

      I impelled onwards through the biting wind and pelting rain, using my arm to shield my eyes from a few flying bits of wood and other material that got caught in the gale. The cliff face with the cave sticking out of it was like a welcoming beacon. I guided us up the roughly cut stairs that had been carved out of the stone. The twisted jagged rock path made slippery with rain water was the only thing blocking us from dry shelter and a well needed rest.

      I slipped several times on the way up, almost losing my footing completely and falling to the rising water below. I was quite certain that the water wouldn't get much higher. When we were all finally on the safety of the ledge, we headed thankfully into the cave.

      I went straight to the back of the cave where the piles of wood were kept. Most of the hunters in the village used this cave on longer trips so there was always a supply of dry wood and flint for fires. Although I wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep, I had to build a fire.

      I carried a few logs closer to the mouth of the cave, but not close enough to get hit with rain. I started the fire then looked towards Tauron. He was inspecting the top of the cave for bats. Reu was resting by the fire on his side, and Seraphim was patiently waiting for me to remove the saddle. I gave him a quick brushing down with the rag I kept under the saddle for that exact purpose.

      'Keeping horses is a big responsibility, is it not?' Tauron spoke rhetorically, watching the winged mammals intently.

      'It is,' I responded, patting the horse's neck. 'But they're good animals.'

      'Indeed. They taste good, too. Stupid bats,' Tauron spread his wings and jumped at them, snapping his jaws.

      I smiled slightly and reached for my bow and three arrows. 'Get them to fly and I'll shoot them down.' I offered in amusement. Although I could have shot three down then and there, I decided that bats would be the perfect practice for a certain type of shot.

      He looked at me sceptically. 'How do you expect me to do that? My jaws end up inches away from them and they remain undaunted by that. I attack neither your horse nor wolf and yet they fear me. Look at them, tucked away in their wings. They are mocking us!' He jumped again, this time slashing up with his deadly claws.

      I smiled and whistled. Reu padded up to me and wagged his bushy tail. He saw the bow in my hands and leapt up with a joyous bark. The bats squeaked loudly, disturbed by the echoing sound. Their high pitched voices reverberated around the cave and they started fluttering around the ceiling in a wild maelstrom of black wings.

      I swiftly and skilfully nocked all three arrows at once and tore off the top fletching of the bottom arrow and the bottom fletching of the top arrow before pulling my arm back and letting go. Three bats dropped to the cave floor. I couldn't help but feel both the pride and sadness. I had always been taught that ripping the fletching off arrows was an archer's biggest gamble. It rarely worked, hence the pride I felt. The sadness was due to my father's absence. He had taught me a lot of things, including how to use a bow. In my opinion, it was what I was best at.

      'How in Swordavahr did you achieve that feat?' Tauron asked with a look of pure surprise on his face.

      I couldn't help beaming with pride. 'If you take the right fletching off an arrow it swerves off course,' I explained.

      Tauron cocked his head. 'Fletching?'

      'Sorry,' for some reason, I had expected Tauron to know what fletchings were. 'Fletchings are the feathered parts.'

      The basilisk nodded. 'It makes sense. I take it needs a lot of skill to do that little trick?'

      That question stumped me. 'I guess, but it's a gamble because it rarely ever works.'

      He crossed over to one of the bats. 'Have you ever tried?'

      I shook my head slowly. 'No, I never really thought about it.'

      The basilisk tilted his head then nudged the bow with his nose. 'How do you know that you will hit what you aim at?'

      That question also stumped me. I didn't know how I knew I'd hit what I aimed at. I guess it was just the effect of years of practice. 'No clue. Now, are we going to eat now or not?'

      Tauron growled an agreement then picked up one of the dead bats in his jaws. I picked up the next two and threw one of the lifeless winged creatures to Reu who was on it in an instant. Tauron ripped his bat in half, making its innards spill onto the floor.

      How am I going to eat this? I wondered. I crouched down away from the bloody patch of ground and drew my dagger, wondering how it was done. I had never killed or eaten bats before.

      Tauron looked over to me, his jaws glistening red with blood. He smiled, blood tricking off his chin and onto the dirt floor. 'Imagine it is a rabbit. With wings.'

      I frowned. 'Easy for you,' I muttered, but followed his advice anyway. It was a bat. There couldn't be too much of a difference between a bat and a rabbit, could there?

 

     I scrunched up my eyes and rolled over, trying to prevent the light from glowing through my eyelids. When I remembered what happened, I sat up quickly and looked around in surprise. I was in my bedroom. Reu looked up at me from the rug on the wooden floor, his long red tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

      I collapsed back against my bed and almost laughed. It was a dream! I was in my room! My farm wasn't destroyed. I stood up and pulled my boots on before rushing out of my small bedroom and down the narrow flight of stairs. When I got to the bottom, I gasped, fear running coldly through my veins.

      My father's head was on the floor, staring up at me with empty eye sockets. His lifeless blue eyes were in his mouth. Despite my efforts, I couldn't tear my eyes from the sight. I shook my head, slowly, refusing to believe what I saw. I was barely aware of the salty tears streaming down my face.

      I turned around and would have screamed if I knew how. But all that came out was a gasp caught between horror and shock. My mother's body hung limply behind me, her wet blond hair hanging about her pale face. Her empty green eyes gazed back at me in a morbid trance. I took a step back.

      I grabbed at the banister when it was too late. My shoulder wrenched painfully as my back hit the floor. I saw something out of my peripheral vision and turned to it. It was the head. I practically flew to the other end of the small room that served as both a kitchen and sitting room. I sank down in a corner behind the table, hugging my knees to my chest and closing my eyes. Who did this? Why did they do this? It was a dream. It had to be. My mother's body couldn't just appear right behind me so that I was face to face with it when I turned around without me noticing, could it? But whether it was a dream or not, what difference did it make?

      I tensed and looked up when I heard the sound of the door creaking. I peered around the side of the table, my heart beating a mile a minute. I recognised the armour and the insignia on the man's breastplate. My hand flew instantly to my boot where the small dagger was concealed. I knew all the guards and troops in the village mainly by appearance, but this one had his face hidden behind the visor on his crested helmet. I frowned. None of the king's guards of my village had crested helmets. But there was no denying who he served.

      I crouched lower to the floor and tightened my grip on the dagger as he came closer to my hiding place. My heart was hammering so hard now; I would have sworn that I could hear it. His booted feet were just inches from me. I swallowed nervously when I saw the massive broadsword in his hands. Two long prongs sprouted from the sides of the sword half way up the blade. I held my breath, thinking that my breathing was too loud.

      Then I noticed the blood. If it weren't for the circumstances, I would have laughed at the fact that I didn't see it earlier. The blade of the sword was half crimson red with dry blood. I felt the muscles in my jaw twitch as I repositioned the dagger in my hand for the third or fourth time. Here was the bastard who killed my parents. A blind fury coursed through my body like a demonic pulse.

      It was as if the table above me just disappeared. The next thing I knew, I was on my feet the dagger pointing towards the man's throat. He calmly raised a hand and caught my fist in an iron grip. My anger clouded my surprise. I reached for the dagger with my free hand but he stopped me. I swore. This wasn't good. I struggled against his hold but it only seemed to get tighter. I felt my blood run cold when my back made contact with the wall.

      Now he held both my hands in one of his. Despite my efforts to free myself, it was like trying to push open a door locked in place with a metal bar. But the more I struggled against his grip, the tighter it got. But I couldn't help it. I knew that I should stop struggling, but I couldn't. When he lifted off his helmet, I was so stupefied, that it felt as if time had stopped.

      The man laughed and put his face close to mine. 'Remember me?' he sneered.

      I don't know if the look I gave him was more of repulsion or hate or fear. His glassy eyes were frozen in what seemed to be a look of permanent anguish. There was a gaping red hole between his eyes where someone had obviously driven a sword or some other sharp object through his head. Through all the blood and pus I could make out the shattered bone of his skull and the mush that should have been a brain. There wasn't much blood on his face, but where there was, it was dried in perennial stains. Fat white maggots crawled around in his mouth between missing teeth. I almost gagged under his rancid breath. Then it hit me.

      My stomach felt as if it just dropped away. I killed him. This was the man that I had killed... Alive! It was impossible! I swallowed and tried not to lose my bearings. I told myself to calm down. My heart was going so fast that I thought it'd explode out of my chest.

      'I remember you,' He continued, still looking at me with eyes that weren't on me. Something moved under his pale skin. He tapped the wound in his head with his free hand. 'You're the one that gave me this. Now, I'm going to pay you back,'

      I looked down. The sword was in his hand again. How did that happen? In fact, where did it go to start off with? He released my hands and took a step back, holding the sword with both hands, its point dragging eerily on the wooden floor.

      Seizing my chance, I ran forwards and buried the dagger in his back. At the same moment, my stomach screamed in agony and I fell to my knees. The hilt of the huge sword hit the floor at the same time I did, shifting the blade and sending a new wave of pain through me. I grabbed the blade of the sword and wrenched it free before collapsing against the floor.

      The world started spinning. I touched my stomach and raised my trembling hand to my face. My fingers were covered in blood. My blood. Then my hand dropped and the world went black.

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