Chapter 10: It’s Been So Long…

I’m so sorry this took so long to get done. I’ve had the final draft sitting in my hands for a couple weeks now, but between work and personal issues, I haven’t had the time to post it. SO here it is. After countless months, it’s here.

Chronicles of Koeleth: The River’s Tale

Chapter X

White Wings

 

“I had the dream again. Only, this time, there was more.”

Tom’s face reflected his inner anguish; this was not the first time he and Theo had discussed this topic.

“Again?” Theo asked, trying to hide his concern behind a skeptical façade. “You’ve got to let it go, man.”

“I wish I could, Theo, but…what if history repeats itself?”

“You’ve grown; you were naïve and stupid then, but not anymore. Well, you’re not naïve anymore, at least,” Theo quipped, trying to lighten the mood. “Besides, I’m here this time to make sure you don’t screw it all up.”

“Thanks a lot!” Tom replied, his words oozing with sarcasm. “You’re a real friend!”

“Listen, Tom,” Theo said, his jovial smile fading into a stern gaze. “There’s something going on in that head of yours that you need to sort out. What is it?”

“…Fine. Let’s find a quiet corner. I don’t like the idea of talking in the open.”

 

The old man dropped his head for a moment, staring into his now empty teacup. Without a word, the bartender topped it off. Despite his earlier comments, he and the farmer were sitting at the old man’s table, enchanted by the elder’s story. Several veteran barflies were stumbling their way into the tavern, ready to drown their sorrows in mugs of firewater. A handful of them congregated around the small group, curious as to what was going on.

“Well,” the bartender impatiently urged, attending to the new audience. “Tell us, old man.”

The man stirred his tea for a few more silent seconds before continuing his tale.

 

“So, you had the dream again,” Theo began, echoing his companion’s ominious remarks. “What happened?”

“It started off as usual. The typical jeering and mockery from that vile wretch of a woman,” Tom spat, his vitriol on full display. “I saw their deaths unfold all over again. I saw the arrows stuck in Ed’s body, all over, like a bloody damn pin cushion. I saw Smiles, a gaping hole in his shoulder left by an Arilese axe. I saw Morgan the Fire-Daughter, the spray of blood from her heart coating my face.”

Tom took a deep breath, barely containing the tears welling up in his eyes. Taking a sip of ale to regain his composure, he recalled the final death.

“And then there was Moony. The image of his anguished face and the heat of his blood are burned eternally into my mind. I had to watch for the hundredth time as he took his last few breaths in my arms. The taste of iron and the smell of death filled my lungs. There was no end to the crimson stream coming from his wounds.”

Tom took two deep swigs of ale, trying to drown his agony.

“And?” Theo asked, already well aware of what followed.

“And then it was my turn. I felt the cold steel of her knife as she perched it in my back—just enough to wound, not to kill. It was a bitter kiss that touched my lips.”

Tom slammed the table hard enough to draw the attention of even the drunkest of vagrants. Tom apologetically waved away the watchers.

“The usual, then?” Theo inquired rhetorically, sipping uneasily at his own drink. “So what makes this time different?”

“She didn’t stop at my past. She showed me glimpses of a horrid future. I watched helplessly as innocent people were executed. In particular, a child, who seemed familiar, was slain, his body dissolving into a brilliant light.”

“Who?” Theo asked nervously.

“I don’t know. The visions weren’t as clear—or as real—as the ones from my past. The people were just faceless shadows, and the executioners were abstract monstrosities. Except the last one. That one felt too real…”

Tom’s thoughts trailed off as a somber look adorned his face.

“What? What is it?” Theo pressed.

“It was you.”

“What…happened to me?” Theo said, after a few moments of silence.

“You stood there, baring your chest to a demonic beast. It slashed at your chest, and you did nothing to prevent it. That…was the last thing I saw before I was consumed by a dragon. The dragon proceeded to devour the beast and the executioners, leaving a swathe of death in its wake. All the while, that woman mocked me. That’s where the dream ended. And then I woke up screaming. I admit the latter half of the dream was a bit out there, but it felt too real to ignore.”

“I…I see. Well, I think you shouldn’t take it so seriously. It is just a dream after all. Besides, why would I just let myself die? I’m too selfish for that.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll try to forget it. Still, I don’t like the timing of this.”

“Take it easy, friend,” Theo encouraged, placing his hand on Tom’s shoulder. “And rest up! Bad dreams or no, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us.”

Tom sighed, agreeing with his fellow mercenary’s assessment, and set off for bed.

 

Tom awoke in his inn room late in the morning, only to find that his roommate was not in the other bed. A quick check revealed that the only other person from his company that was still at the inn at all was Aaron, who was passing the time by sleeping. Tom woke up the insouciant thief and the two of them left to rejoin their comrades. Upon arriving, they found that the camp was already preparing for travel and the others were busy at work helping them. Theo was helping Suren and the camp’s tailor pack up their supplies. The others were helping in their own capacity, as well. Grace, Dennis and Gabriel were already discussing the travel arrangements for the days ahead, so Tom joined them while Aaron nestled himself into a tree to sleep. When she saw Tom, Rydia, who was contentedly playing by herself, immediately got up and ran over to him in wolf form. After a quick pat on the head, she bounded off to once more entertain herself.

“Good morning, Mr. Riversedge,” Gabriel greeted, a twinge of mistrust still in his voice. “We have been discussing the plan, and given that there has been an…upset in the plan, we thought it would be best if we redirected our course. Seeing as our previous course has been compromised, and since you seem like a capable traveler, we would like your opinion on the matter.”

“Alright,” Tom replied, jumping at the opportunity. “Well, if that’s the case, I have a few suggestions. First of all, we were lucky no one was seriously harmed in this conflict. We won’t be so lucky next time. We need to train some of your people to actually fight. Darren and Owen definitely show some skill and some of the others’ powers lend themselves really well to combat. They won’t be on the same level as Theo or myself, but they will do. For that, we need a place to camp for a day or two. Secondly, if you’re going to have a fighting force, you’re going to need weapons. I couldn’t help but notice that only a couple of your people, Darren and Owen, bother to carry weapons. Wealthy merchants at one time, I imagine? Regardless, if you encounter a magic-cancelling ability, your fighters need a back-up plan. You don’t seem to have a blacksmith, and I wouldn’t risk staying in town for too long, so I will need to spend a couple days at the forge. The weapons won’t be fantastic, but they only need to last for a month or so, until you get to this Cryptid Oasis that we’re headed for. Third and final, we need to camp in a safe place, if we adhere to the previous two points. Now, based on what I know, there is an ancient underground city not far from here, two days at the most. I’ve never been there myself, but it is by all accounts abandoned, and no one would waste the resources to go there without a very good reason. We’ll be hidden, protected, and safe for at least three days. Beyond that, we risk discovery and being under siege. If you want to go there, let me get together with Amelia and Collin. Amelia is the best wilderness guide I’ve ever met, and Collin is a scholar of ancient architecture.”

Confronted with all this information, there was little more that the abominations had to discuss.

“You seem to know what you are doing, Mr. Riversedge,” Gabriel admitted. “We have no reason to suspect you of using this against us, so I have no choice but to trust you in this. We agree to your plan.”

“Great. Amelia, Collin and I will put together a strategy and get back to you.”

“In the meantime,” Grace added, “we’ll tell the others.”

Tom and the triad parted ways to tend to their respective duties. Over in another area, Theo and Suren were discussing a few things and getting to know one another better.

“No, I’ve never had a serious girlfriend before. A couple of flirtatious encounters, but nothing worth noting. You?” Theo responded to Suren.

“Well, no. I’ve never had any sort of boyfriend. Not even any of those ‘flirtatious encounters’ you mentioned. How…how serious were those, by the way?”

“They weren’t. I swear on my life, it stopped at flirting.”

“W-well, that’s good.”

“So,” Theo inquired as he lifted a barrel into the tailor’s wagon. “What exactly is your power? You’ve seen mine, so it’s only fair I get to see yours.”

“Ugh! How rude! You never ask a lady that,” Suren glibly retorted.

“You make it sound like I was suggesting something crude.”

“Well,” Suren blushed in response. “It’s embarrassing!”

“How bad could it really be?” Theo jested.

“Fine, if you must know,” Suren sullenly replied. She raised her arms in the air, revealing two obscure holes in the sides of her otherwise modest dress. One quick and seamless motion later, and she had two new arms sticking out of those holes. “There. Happy now?” she muttered, her face a new shade of red.

“Wow! That’s awesome. Why are you so embarrassed about having an extra pair of arms? Think of all the uses!” Theo marveled.

“Hey!” Suren shouted in response, slapping Theo on the shoulder with one of her right arms.

“I wasn’t thinking anything dirty, honest! Jeez, ever since Tom told that one story, you just assume everything I say is perverse. I swear I’m not like that!”

“W-well, good! A-anyways, these extra arms aren’t as useful as you think. If I were a physically strong person, I could do quite a bit with them, but I’m actually pretty weak. They’re convenient when I need to hold several things at once, but that’s usually the most useful they are.”

“I see…Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think it’s an awesome power. And…” Theo began, blushing himself now, “I think you look just as cute with them as you do without.”

“W-w-well, t-t-t-thank y-you,” Suren bashfully stuttered.

For a few moments, there was only silence, save for the tailor chuckling under his breath. Theo and Suren continued working in silence, avoiding eye contact.

“Wow! I’ve never seen Theo fumble over his words before! Way to go, Suren! You really hooked him!” Tom joked. “Theo, you’ve always been so smooth when you’ve flirted with the ladies in the past, but this one’s thrown you for a loop, hasn’t she?”

“Sh-shut up, Tom!” Theo shot back, his face practically on fire now. “At least I don’t have a trail of broken hearts in my wake!”

“If that’s the best you’ve got, you’ve lost your edge! Anyways, I just came by to see if I could get Theo’s help, but it seems as if you two were caught up in a romantic moment, so I’ll come back later.”

As he said he would, Tom left the two to their own devices.

“The nerve of that guy. It’s a wonder I consider him my best friend,” Theo muttered in frustration. “Anyways, where were we?”

“I believe you were complimenting me,” Suren chimed, simultaneously hopeful and embarrassed.

“Ah, right. I’ll get back to it, then. Shouldn’t be hard when you’re so beautiful.”

Theo laid it on thick and before long the two of them had completely forgotten about the task at hand and were instead awkwardly flirting with one another.

After a couple of hours, Tom, Amelia, and Collin had settled on a course of action. In order to get to the underground city of Earthgift, they would leave the road completely and follow an old trail through a lifeless woodland nearby. It was aptly and unoriginally called the Dead Forest, and it had been so for as many centuries as Darwin’s Expanse had been a dry wasteland. The ancient and withered trees offered little protection from the hunter’s gaze. However, its lack of resources and habitable areas meant that few, if any, travelled the single path that still wound through its rotting husk. The absence of traffic meant that the abominations could travel the road without fear of being found by their pursuers. They would be able to camp at Earthgift for four days when they arrived. While there, they could take as much time as they needed to prepare for the remainder of the journey. The three schemers brought their plan to Dennis, Grace and Gabriel, who, seeing no other options, agreed to it. Since the camp was already packed, it did not take long for them to hit the road.

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