The Draft of Rianna’s Tearful Chalice…all 50,540 words…unedited…

Do you know what happens when two timelines collide? I didn’t. To this day, I am confused as to what occurred on that fateful day in October. According to the ‘experts’ time paused, then sped up. We leapt forward over twenty thousand years in the blink of an eye. 

We went from a planet that had one species of humanoids on it, to being surrounded by dozens of new, alien life forms. On Earth, we were the only species around, in this new timeline we were the new guys. As usual, we did what we had done time and time again throughout our history. We started a war.

Our elected officials, calling them jackasses seems petty at this point, they signed off on it and away we went. Nukes were dropped, rail guns discharged, and blood was shed. So many people died that the ground was forever damaged. Between the radiation and bloodshed, life was forever altered. 

I, Jayce Wellspring, was conscripted to fight in the war as a scout, or hunter if you prefer. The war lasted days. The species of this new timeline banded together and wrought massive casualties on the ‘new guys.’ Somehow, I survived it. I don’t know whether claim my existence as good luck or bad. 

Come to find out, there are two races of Dwarves on this ‘new Earth.’ The inhabitants here called the planet KA-87. The Righteous Dwarves live underground. They spend their lives overseeing the development of their culture. Some say they’re the elite when it comes to the economy and trading. Personally, they’ve always seemed brickish to me. 

“A little too self-absorbed for my taste.”

The Shunned are their Dwarven brothers who aren’t allowed to live underground with them. They’re shunned. Why? Well, it has to do with their criminal nature. The Shunned are master criminals. There is nothing they can’t steal, smuggle, or con you out of. The Righteous Dwarves, for all their elitism, can’t help but fall prey to one scam or another. Hence, the shunning. 

Then, there are the Elves. Their skin is golden. Guess how self-absorbed these clowns are. They are magic wielders. Some are healers, others are all about destruction. We had no way to defend ourselves against these guys. 

They are the political influencers of this time. The Elves and Righteous Dwarves make up The Council. The lesser species, human included, are not allowed to sit on The Council.

Lesser Species serve as cannon fodder to be thrown against whatever enemy arises. Or they can be ‘monster hunters’, or they can be criminals. I chose to hunt monsters. Well, I didn’t choose. Starvation chose for me. 

When you’re shot through time and wind up on the same planet, just in a different timeline, it takes some getting used to. Like I mentioned earlier, we showed up and started a war. On the day of our surrender to the Elves and Dwarves, I was discharged. 

“What am I going to do now,” I thought as I pushed through the growing throng of Dwarves and Elves on the pier. They’d shown up to celebrate their victory over the rag-tag humans. Staffs and war hammers were everywhere. The Dwarves raised mugs of one type of alcohol or another and shouted. I slid through unnoticed. Well, mostly unnoticed. 

My stomach growled and reminded me that it had been days since my last meal. “Yeah, I know stomach. Let me get out of here, and I’ll steal something.” A rough hand grabbed me by the arm and spun me around. A black-haired Dwarf stared at me from his one good eye. An eyepatch covered his bad eye.

“Where are you going, human?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“You don’t like it here? Leave.”

“Trust me, if it was that easy, I’d leave today.”

The dwarf scoffed at my remark. At a campfire I was told that Dwarves are an all-male society. At that time, it meant nothing to me. What did I care? I wasn’t a Dwarf. This Dwarf seemed bent to get me riled up. Between the growing throng of celebrants and this guy, I was on my last nerve. I turned to walk away.

“Hey human, I’m not done talking. Get back here.”

“Look, sir.”

“I’m a female, human.”

I stared at the Dwarf. It was the first time I had seen a female with a beard to the floor. I rubbed my forehead and uttered, ‘oh.’ The dwarf stepped close to me and grabbed a handful of my shirt. She yanked me down to her eye level.

“Do you have a problem with me being a female, human?”

“Nope. Not at all. You have fun with that.”

“You’re not scared of me at all,” she said, cocking her head to the side to get a better look at me. I shook my head no.

“Nope, you can only kill me once.”

“Wrong, human. I can kill you, then go get one of the Elves and have them resurrect you, then kill you again. I can do that as long as my money holds out.”

“Surely you have better things to do.”

“I do. I recognized you from the Battle of Sentient. You were a hunter.”

I sighed. “Talk about crappy luck,” I thought. “This beastly Dwarf is going to end me here on the docks.” She let go of my shirt and drank from her mug.

“I have a proposition, human. You were a hellion during the battle, so maybe we can work something out.”

“What do you want,” I asked. 

“You’ve got three choices, and two don’t count. You can stay in the military and be a meat shield for one of the ‘superior races’, or you can be a criminal. I don’t recommend either of those choices. The last one is you can be a monster hunter.”

“Un-huh. What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that you have no idea how to catch monsters. I could train you, for a fee.”

“Look, I appreciate the gesture, really, I do. But I haven’t eaten in days. I’ve got to find some food.” The Dwarf handed me what I assumed was a sandwich. 

“Here. Eat this and follow me.”

She led me to a table that was far from every other table and sat down. I was munching on the food she’d given me when I arrived at the table. I sat across from her.

“This is really good. What is it?”

“Feetal.”

I stopped chewing and swallowed it. “What is feetal?”

“It’s a slug found in the marshlands south of here.” 

She laughed at the face I made. I ran my tongue around in my mouth and washed the slug down with what I hoped was potable water. She waited until I found some tiny bit of composure before she continued.

“I’m Hekla,” she said by way of introduction. “I am with the House of The Wolves.”

“What is that?”

“We’re a clan of monster hunters. The House issues contracts for monsters and when the contracts are complete, they pay you. They serve as both contract issuer and bank. You could even store your money at the House. It simplifies things.”

“I would be what to you exactly? An indentured servant? A slave?”

“You would be a novice monster hunter. Forms of slavery are allowed here, but I’m in disagreement with those who practice it.”

We had zipped twenty thousand years into the future, and slavery was still in effect. It wasn’t even frowned upon in this timeline. “What I wouldn’t give for a time machine, so I could go back and smack those race-baiting idiots.” 

“So, what do you say, human? What do you choose? Are you going to be a meat shield, a criminal or a monster hunter?”

I bit into the feetal and chewed while I contemplated my future. “I’ve seen enough carnage to fill three lifetimes, and I don’t want to be a criminal, regardless of what timeline. I’m left with monster hunter.”

“Looks like I am going with you to the House of Wolves.”

“Good choice. Here’s how it works. For every contract we complete, you get 15% of our gross to start. That will put food in your belly. The more you learn and the greater an asset you prove to be, the higher your percentage grows. It will cap out at 45%. At that point, you can take contracts for yourself.”

“Is there a time limit to reach the max percentage?”

“No. You can work it at your own pace.”

“Okay. What of armor?”

“It’s on you to purchase it. For now, I will purchase you a set. You will pay me back upon completion of our first contract.”

“Understood.”

I finished the feetal and non-potable water. Hekla watched me eat the slug. She nodded approvingly. 

“Your desire for survival is strong,” she said. 

Hekla hadn’t mentioned what type of monsters we hunted, and I really didn’t want to ask. It was enough that she wanted to help me. After all the bloodshed, the carnage, and the mental scars, having someone take me in was a godsend.

“Jayce Wellspring, monster hunter.” It didn’t sound half bad when I said it to myself. How bad could it be?

I was about to find out.

After my disgusting but life-saving meal, Hekla and I walked to a small beige tent. A wolf was painted on the canvas. A skinny, lizard-humanoid looking person stood behind the counter. It stared at me with its red eyes, like it was sizing me up for its next meal.

“Hekla the Brave, what is that following you around?”

“This is my apprentice, Jayce Wellspring. He was a human hunter during the Battle of Sentient.”

The thing chuckled. It shook its head, rows of sharp teeth flashed when it grinned. I stayed quiet, as to not draw more attention to myself.

“It survived Sentient. Survival must be important to it. What do you need today?”

“Do you have any human hunter armor?”

“I have one set, but it’s bloody. My scavengers found it on a battlefield.”

“We’ll take it. How much.”

“Thirty gold pieces.”

“Not even. I’ll give you twelve.”

“Twenty.”

They settled on 17. The lizard handed over the armor. It was scratched up, bloody, and smelled of death. Hekla handed it to me. 

“Go change,” she said. 

I walked to a corner room and put it on. Nothing fits like good armor. This wasn’t good armor, but somehow it made me feel complete. I walked out and Hekla nodded.

“Now, we can get to work, but first, we go to the House of The Wolves.”

The fraternity was located at the back of the city Voliguard, in the district of Lower North Farraft. You couldn’t miss it. It was the only building with a wolf’s head carved above the door. 

I followed Hekla through the door. It was like stepping into your favorite chapter of your favorite story. A long bar extended on the right side of the room. The entire place was filled with characters. This place had it all, fisticuffs, ale, damsels of all kinds-some even pretty, in the right light-swashbucklers, pirates, and even prissy men. 

Hekla took a seat at the bar, I sat beside her. The bartender, a stout Dwarf with a silver beard and eyes, locked eyes with her. 

“What is this you brought into my fraternity?”

“Jayce, this is Kegger. His brother Brewmaul runs the city of Bahl Darhim. He’s the owner of The House of The Wolves.”

“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Kegger. I’m Jayce Wellspring.”

“Put your hand down, cur. Your kind is not equal to those of us of the superior races.”

“Shut your clap, you old ninny. Ignore him, Jayce. Kegger’s just messing with you. Send my usual to my table.”

I followed Hekla to the table and waited. She looked at me and nodded at a chair. I sat down in it. 

“Let me explain something to you, Jayce. Your kind is new here. We just fought a war, well, it wasn’t much of a war. Things are different here, and if you hope to survive-nay thrive here- you must adapt.”

“Okay, tell me how.”

“First, you must learn the rules. Kegger gets a big head around humans. He’s Righteous Dwarf through and through. His brother is a big shot, and he is on The Council. So, what should you do?”

“Stay away from Kegger.”

“Aye, smart lad. If you’re not gonna have nothing to do with Kegger, who else shouldn’t you have anything to do with?”

“The Elves.”

“Aye. They’re known as The Stranged. Their kind are magical, meaning some heal and others destroy. If you ever cross blades with one, know this: They must channel the spell before they can cast it. It requires concentration. Also, every spell drains their stamina. For that purpose, they travel in pairs.”

“So, make sure to take back-up?”

“It’s not a bad idea. Here’s the kicker. They’re not to shoddy with blades. If you close with them, you should keep an eye on their hands.”

A frail human girl carried a tray over her head, or tried to. Drunken dwarves groped her, and Kegger swatted her on the butt when she passed by. I met her eyes, but she looked away.

She brought Hekla’s drinks to the table. Hekla said nothing as the girl put the order down. A tall Elf walked over and grabbed her roughly. I felt my lips pull back as my temper soared. Hekla put a hand on my knee and gave me a slight shake of her head.

“You humans,” the Elf remarked, as he stared in my eyes, “belong on your knees. Not to worry, though, as soon as Fez Schimel finds Rianna’s Chalice, he’ll dust you.”

“Aston, what brought you out of The Chubby Dagger? I figured you still had your head in a barrel of wine.”

“Ah Hekla, you’re still a drunken lout. What do you see in these lowdown humans?”

“What was her name?”

“Who, Hekla?”

“The female that broke your heart? Izra, Esther, something with a ‘ra’ in it.”

“When Schimel finds the chailice you better mind your step, you swollen swine.”

“Schimel is as likely to find Rianna’s Chalice, as you are to find a suitable companion on your own. Thank God, your daddy is rich.”

I don’t know if an Elf could blush, but I can attest to the fact that they get flustered. Or at least Aston did. Hekla chuckled, and I gave her a smile. Her grey eyes grew cold as she drained the last of her drink.

“It’s illegal for you humans to strike a member of ‘the superior races.’ Had you done what you were going to do, you would have been put to death right here. Understand this, Jayce, you’re not on your planet anymore.”

“Did you not see…”

“I did, and I understand your resentment concerning your people’s plight. If you want to help them, you must learn to play the game.”

I scoffed. Like a Righteous Dwarf would understand about our plight. Her grey eyes shimmered in the low light of the tavern. Hekla beckoned the girl over and asked for another drink. I paid no mind to the glimmer in her eye. I shook my head and shot back, “Or I can go find this chalice.”

Hekla laughed out loud. Everyone in the tavern turned and looked in our direction, even the slave. “Oh, that’s rich,” she snorted. “You’ll go find the chalice. HA! Do you even know what you would seek?”

My face red with embarrassment caused me discomfort. I shook my head no, and Hekla leaned forward and whispered, “It’s a prophecy.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. 

Twenty thousand years into the future, and the end of the world was connected to a vision of things to come. It’s like a time traveler came back to the last days of the 20th Century or the beginning of the 21st and said, “Ooh, nice prophecy! I’m gonna take one back with me.”

Hekla leaned back into her chair, pulled out a corncob pipe and packed it with tobacco. Her grey eyes took on a dreamy glaze and she began quoting it, “Beware when the tears of the universe overflow from Rianna’s Tearful Chalice. The end draws nigh. Only the Chosen can withstand the culling.”

It wasn’t much in the terms of a prophecy. Perhaps, something got lost in translation. Hekla lit her pipe and sucked in lungfuls of smoke. I shrugged and said, “Is that it? The end draws nigh? What does that mean?”

Hekla shrugged her massive shoulders and retorted, “What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, something more like ‘A fireball for you, a firestorm for your family.’ You know, something more specific than a bland bunch of words.”

“No one knows specifics, Jayce. That is what makes it so terrifying.”

I scoffed and shrugged my shoulders. Between the Dwarves and The Stranged, they wiped out humanity’s forces with ease. For God’s sake, we’d nuked them, but mention a few lines of mumbo-jumbo and they soiled their diapers.

“If you want to know more about it, Jayce, speak to Kegger.”

“No thanks. I’m good with not knowing anymore about this world’s prophecy.”

“A few minutes ago, you were all ready to go find it. What would you do with it?”

“I’d wish humanity back to our place in the timeline.”

“It’s not used like that, Jayce. You either save this world or destroy it. There’s no wishing the present away.”

“Okay fine. Who this Fez Schimel, and why does he want it?”

Fez Schimel, an Elven political heavyweight, member of the plutocracy, and searcher for Rianna’s Tearful Chalice, was having a bad day. One month shy of his one hundredth year, he sat in his study and took deep breaths. 

A map of the planet KA-87 was spread across his desk. His long, thin fingers were laced together. Schimel had long silver hair that parted naturally in the middle, his goatee was neat and trimmed. Like all Elves, he was tall and thin. However, his most noticeable feature was his milk white eyes. 

“It must be there. I’ve searched everywhere else. It must know the good I plan to use it for. Who does not seek utopia? A nirvana of delight?”

The Towering Tips, the Calderstable Mountain Range, it must be hidden within these regions. Unless, no. Why would anyone hide it in the Bloodless Sands?

 The map began to glow with golden hue, and Schimel smiled. Magic, he muttered. Someone has hidden Rianna’s Chalice with magic. Now, he was getting somewhere. Born into wealth, Schimel had attended the best schools, the best universities, and had a natural gift when it came to magic. 

This time his hard work would not go unrewarded, but first, he needed to mingle. Someone out there must know something about the prophecy he didn’t. 

Besides, he was not the only servant of the Divine. 

A contract board stood in the back of The House of The Wolves. Hekla nodded in it’s direction and said, “Go pick us out a job. Bring it back here to me.” I made my way back to the board and looked at the one lone job left.

“Monster hunter wanted. Wolves, or something like, is trapped within my shed. Pay is three Amblygonite shards.”

I took the contract from the board and walked back to the table where Hekla sat alone. Hekla extended her hand, and I handed the contract to her. She tugged at her beard and said, “That will do. Are you proficient with that crossbow you carry?”

She pointed at my pack and the automatic crossbow stuffed inside it. “Yeah, Hekla. I’m proficient with Malice.”

Hekla leaned forward and pulled on her beard and muttered, “Malice?” I grinned and nodded. “It’s a human thing, I reckon. We name our weapons, mine is named Malice-or Mal for short.”

“It’s a weapon. Why does it need a name?”

“Like I said, Hekla. It’s a human thing.”

“Your kind is very strange, Jayce. This job is within the city, in the Midtown Grove. Get some rest. We leave at first light.”

Dawn came early. I fell asleep across the table, my mouth open, and slobber had built up in the corner of my mouth. “Shh,” Hekla whispered, as she inserted a Habanero into my mouth. “Wait for it,” she mouthed to Kegger and the rest.

They snorted and covered their mouth to keep from laughing out loud. She put her hand under my chin and closed my mouth. Instantly, my eyes opened. 

“Mmm,” I grunted. My mouth was on fire. I grabbed the nearest container and turned it up. The House of The Wolves howled with laughter. There was nothing in the container. I rushed out the doors in search of water.

A horse trough was across the street, and I raced toward it. I stuck my face into the trough and opened my mouth. It was nasty, but my mouth was no longer an inferno. Hekla leaned against a post watching me, clutching her ribs and doubled over. 

“I see you’re awake now, Jayce. Are you ready to ride out?”

“Yeah, I’m ready. Let me get my pack.”

She dropped my pack at my feet, my face blood red from the pepper, water still dripped from my chin. Hekla grinned and punched me on the shoulder.

“As a Lesser Species, I should never get out of bed before you. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, Hekla. I got it.”

“I’m your trainer, yeah? Friendship does not exist between us, Jayce. In time, it might be possible, but for now, you’re my trainee and things must appear a certain way.”

“I understand.”

“From this point forth, you sleep in the stables with the slaves. I have a room in The House of The Wolves. Make your bones, and in time, you will have a room here as well.”

“No problem.”

“Then, let’s get underway.”

Midtown Grove was located in the middle of Voliguard. It was unlike any other district of the city. Expansive gardens and paths were carved throughout the district, tall shrubberies and other foliage dotted the landscape.

It was as if someone had found the only place on KA-87 that allowed anything to grow. They hadn’t. Instead, the entire place was an elaborate hoax. The shrubbery along with everything else was an illusion. 

As Hekla and Jayce walked through the area, Hekla brought Jayce up to speed. She turned to him and said, “It’s rumored, none know for sure, but Arn Two-Hammers developed this city. During a feast, he declared this city monotonous. The Elves created the illusions you see here to break up the sameness of the city.”

“Huh,” Jayce responded. 

“You’re not impressed?”

“Eh, it’s fine. I guess.”

“Why do you not like the story?”

“Because humanity is the same way, I reckon. We’re never satisfied with how things are, and constantly want to change things we don’t like.”

“Such as?”

“Our bodies, cities, homes, anything. Nothing is off limits.”

“Hmm,” Hekla responded, her brow furrowed underneath the weight of her thoughts. Jayce glanced at her. At no time had the dwarf exhibited an ability to consider matters on a deeper level. This new development startled him. 

They came upon a modest home complete with a shed that sat off to the left of the main building. Hekla came to a stop at the end of the walkway.

“We’re here. Kegger sent a courier out here last night and informed the owner to vacate the area.” She lifted the massive warhammer and held it by the end of the handle. “I’m going through the front door of the shed. You take the high ground and cover me.”

Jayce gave her a nod and surveyed the area. Just like on Earth, the shed came with a loft. He pointed at it, and Hekla nodded. She waited until Jayce began to climb to the loft before she opened the door. 

Howls, maddening howls cut the early morning air as the door swung open. In the semi-darkness, Jayce saw red eyes. He brought Malice up and took aim when underneath him he heard another roar.

It was Hekla. Her war cry sounded throughout the shed, and Jayce let an arrow fly. The air struck true, and Hekla charged into the fray. Wolves, not the small type from Earth, massive, slobbering hounds, with blood covered fangs bared, leapt toward Hekla. 

Jayce let Malice sing. He unleashed six arrows, each one slamming into the side of the Alpha. Hekla slammed a broad shoulder into one wolf and sent it flying. The dull thud, followed by a sickening crunch, of the hammer caving in the head of another sounded. While Hekla spun the hammer in a wide maneuver, the Alpha circled to her open back. 

As it leapt at Hekla, its mouth wide for Hekla’s neck, Jayce fired an arrow that buried into the head of the wolf. It crashed to the earth and landed at the feet of Hekla. Blood covered her face, a wild grin spread across her face as she saw the arrow that protruded from the skull of the animal.

She lifted her eyes toward the loft and gave Jayce a nod. I nodded back and climbed down to join her. Hekla extended her hand toward me. “That’s good shooting,” she shouted, slamming her hand on my back. “Dang good shooting, Jayce. I’d been a goner if you hadn’t struck him in the head.”

Hekla handed me a blade. It was made of a black stone-like material, its craftsmanship unequaled by anything I’d ever seen before. “Here,” she said, as she thrust the blade toward me. “You’ve earned this. It’s from the war. The metal is made from bloodstone from the Bloodless Sands. I don’t know this for a fact, but they say it never grows dull.”

“Um, thanks.”

“You’re welcome, Jayce. You killed the Alpha, take his head as a trophy.”

“Why, what’s the point of that?”

She laughed and slammed another heavy hand into my back. “Proof, trainee. You must show proof the deed is done. Take his head.”

I cut the head off the Alpha and put it into my pack. We walked out of the shed, the family that issued the contract stood on the stoop of the house and watched us leave. Hekla tossed a wave at them, and together we headed back to The House of The Wolves. 

The place was empty when we arrived. Only Kegger stood behind the bar, wiping glasses with a dirty towel and shouting at the dirty human slave from last night. Hekla walked up to the bar and sat down. She beckoned me to come sit down next to her, and Kegger glared at me as I drew near.

“Didn’t you have a job to do, human scum?”

“Show him, Jayce.”

I grabbed the wolf’s head and threw it on the bar. Blood splattered on the face of Kegger. My hand caressed Malice, and I prepared myself for what came next. Kegger stood there for a moment, his face wet with blood, and then he licked at it with his tongue. He laughed and said, “Sit down, human. I’ll go get your payment.”

Hekla grinned, walked behind the bar and poured herself a drink. She pushed water toward me. “Drink up. You need to rest some. We can look at the board later for another job.”

Kegger came back with three shards of Amblygonite. Hekla took two and pushed one toward me. Kegger grinned and walked away. I frowned but said nothing, and Hekla said, “You remember our deal, don’t you? Besides, you owe me for that armor.”

“I remember, Hekla.” I pushed the shard toward her, but she shook her head no. “You saved my life out there today, Jayce. That’s no small matter, you keep the shard. My life is worth at least that much. Still, you owe a debt, and you must pay it back.”

“Thanks, Hekla. I mean it. I’m headed out to the stables. Do you need anything before I leave?”

“No, I have everything I need right here. Be ready to move at sundown.”

“I will,” I responded, and then I drained the water in one long gulp. 

The stables weren’t much to look at. Hay was thrown on the ground, and the beasts of burden littered around on the ground floor. Bales of hay were stacked in the back, and I crawled on one and fell into a deep sleep. 

There are smells that stables have, and this one was no different. An hour or two went by and soon, I couldn’t smell anything. In the theater of my mind, I heard a voice, faint, but a voice, nonetheless. 

“Jayce? Can you hear me? Jayce.”

I closed my eyes tighter and rolled over onto my right side. The voice became clearer. It wasn’t angry like a drill sergeant, or manipulative like a narcistic lover, it was sweet like honey and as melodious as your favorite song. 

“I hear you,” I mumbled. 

A hand touched my shoulder. I turned over and opened my eyes. The most beautiful Elven stood next to my bale of hay, and she smiled at me. Her green eyes shimmered in the low light of the stables. 

“You must find the Chalice. Our lives depend on it. Seek the Chalice.”

I blinked and tried to sit up. A soft but firm hand pushed me down. I looked into the eyes of the slave girl from last night. She gave me a sad smile.

“It’s okay, monster hunter. You’re okay.”

“What is going on? What time is it?”

She sighed and said, “It’s early afternoon. Your keeper is getting hammered at the bar with Kegger. I heard you muttering out here.”

“Where’s the Elf?”

The slave girl turned and looked around the stables, so did I, but no Elf was anywhere to be seen. She shook her head and giggled. Her laugh sounded like dry bones rubbing against one another. 

“There’s no Elves here, monster hunter. They’re far too rigid for such a common place. Although, Fez Schimel comes by sometimes, and Aston. You met him last night.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

She gave me another sad smile and nodded at the straw mixed with the manure of the beasts. “I better lie down before Kegger decides it’s time for me to return to work.” She turned to walk away, but I took her by the hand.

“I’m done sleeping. Rest here, you deserve a good sleep. Besides, I broke it in for you.”

“Okay,” she murmured. “Thank you.”

“Of course. I will see you later.”

The waif climbed onto the bale of hay, and soon was snoring. The beasts chuffed and swished their tails. I took apart Malice and cleaned my weapon. Then, I cleaned the arrows. 

This was my job now, and I had to make the most of my equipment. I took the stone in my hand and glanced at it. Yet another thing I had no idea about, I realized. KA-87 was a cashless society. Instead of currency, jewels were used as payment. The Righteous Dwarves owned 57% of all mines that dotted the planet, but The Stranged demanded 65% in taxes. 

Even twenty thousand years in the future, the government hadn’t learned to live within their means. It didn’t surprise me in the least, there would always be those who preyed on the bones of the weak. The government whether human, Dwarven, Elven, or some other species not yet discovered, always had their greedy hands out.

I dusted myself off and walked toward The House of The Wolves. Human slaves worked the grounds. They were guarded by Dwarves. For the most part, the Dwarves left the slaves alone, unless the slaves rebelled. Then, the Dwarves would crush as many as needed to quell the rebellion. 

Still, as long as the slaves remained docile, the Dwarves were content to leave them alone. Perhaps, it had something to do with shared features. Either way, the Dwarves seemed mostly a ‘live and let live’ sort of folk. 

I walked up the steps to the door and pushed it open. Hekla sat at the bar, two Elves sat in close proximity of her. One was Aston, the boor from last night. I didn’t recognize the other. 

“Come on, Hekla. Join forces with us. We all seek the same thing.”

“Nah, Fez. I’d rather not. Besides, that old prophecy is probably just an old wife’s tale.”

“I’m going to find it, Hekla. Soon, and then I will bring about a world fit for us all.”

Hekla took a long pull from her stein, burped, and wiped at her mouth. She grinned at the Elves and nodded.

“Yeah, that’d be something to see. Good luck to you on your journey.”

The Elves stood and took their leave of Hekla. I walked over, and Hekla gave me a grin. She lifted her chin in the direction of the Elves and whispered, “Did you see me tell them to go pound sand?”

“Yeah,” I whispered back. “I saw that.”

“Are you hungry, Jayce?”

My stomach grumbled, but I shook my head no. She rolled her eyes, lifted her chin at Kegger and he nodded wordlessly. He brought out a plate that held a rack of meat, a few potatoes, and peppers. He shoved a glass of water toward me. 

“Eat up, Jayce. We’ve got work to do.”

I wiped my eyes and yawned. Hekla pounded her drink and burped again. She looked me over, as I tore off a piece of meat and shoved it into my mouth.

“How many jewels does this cost?”

I chewed and shoved more food into my mouth. Hekla grinned and said, “I worked out a deal with Kegger. You eat for free, but you help the slaves with clean up when we’re not on contract.”

“That sounds like a good deal,” I said around a mouthful of sustenance. “How much for my room in the stables?”

“Nothing, Jayce. You’re sleeping with the slaves. When you get your own room here, then you pay Kegger.”

“Okay then. I appreciate the help, Hekla.”

She gave me a nod and went back to her drink. I finished my meal and let out a loud burp. Hekla and Kegger let out a loud laugh. Hekla slammed a hand into my back. It was a good time. The first good time I had had since the Battle of the Bloodless Sands.

After I downed my water, I scooped up my plate and glass and took it into the kitchen. Human slaves washed dishes, separated the silverware, mopped the floors, and cleaned the latrines. The men had it much worse than the women. 

Many of the men bled from their noses and mouths. An angry dwarf snarled at me and pointed at the sink.

“Get in there, scum. Go on, don’t make me tell you again.”

I scraped my plate into the trash and put my dishes in the hot water. I said nothing to the dwarf and began cleaning. Hekla stuck her head in the door, saw me washing dishes and snapped.

“Put your apron up, Jayce. We’ve got work to do!”

The angry kitchen manner shouted something unintelligible at Hekla, and she responded with something equally scalding. The manager’s face lit up like an Old Earth Christmas tree. 

I dropped what I was doing and walked toward Hekla. The manager lifted a middle finger at Hekla, she responded in kind. My pack sat on the stool where Hekla was sitting when I had gone back. I checked Malice and made sure no one had tampered with my equipment. It was in the same shape I had left it. 

Hekla nodded her head approving of my actions. She stepped close and handed me a contract. “Help wanted. Izora Calderon has escaped from Black Gate Prison. Wanted dead or alive. Last seen in the vicinity of the Bloodless Sands. Payment is ten rubies.”

“Who is Izora Calderon?”

“An Elven sorcerer. One of the worst. Let’s get on his trail.”

“According to this, he’s in the Bloodless Sands. That whole area is…”

“…filled with bandits, worms, and now an Elven sorcerer. Yeah, I know, Jayce.”

“As long as you know.”

An old human man, Tom was his name, waited for us at the stables. He held two horses by the reins, and Hekla gave him a shiny piece of sapphire for the horses. 

“Thank you, human.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Hekla handed one pair of reins to me, and then boarded the other horse. I climbed onto the other. She clicked her tongue, and her horse broke into a gallop. I followed her since she seemed to know where she was going.

We crossed the drawbridge, and I turned to look at Voliguard. The city was built upon the banks of The River Beck. It looked serene, not unlike palaces, or castles, we had on Earth. It was majestic. 

The Bloodless Sands awaited. I wasn’t eager to return to the wastelands, but this is where the work took us. At least this time, I’d have someone with me that could fight.

It was hot. The sun rose to its apex and beat down on us with a vengeance. Like some angry god that figured all humans and dwarves needed to die miserably for crossing into his bed chambers. Hekla wiped at the sweat and kept going.

I followed along. We didn’t talk much, mostly because the heat made us ride in sullen silence. It took too much energy to converse. Hekla guided her horse next to a north facing canyon, where there was ample shade. She dismounted and pulled out a flagon of water.

She took a sip and wiped her mouth. I dropped down from my horse and plopped into the sand next to her. Hekla handed me the flagon, and I took a sip. It was cool and refreshing, and I handed it back to her. She screwed on the cap and put it back in her pack.

“There are wells further in unless Calderon sealed them. If they’re sealed and we need water, you know what to do, right?”

“Yeah, look for water.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Um, I’d find a Y-shaped stick, hold a tine in each hand and search for water. If the branch gets tugged, you’re near water.”

Hekla scoffed and shook her head in disgust. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Jayce. Who told you that, your ancestors?”

I said nothing in response to Hekla. We both were hot, the sun had scorched our flesh, and I knew Hekla was irritable-because I was as well-and hadn’t really meant what she’d said.

“Out here,” she said, in a low voice, “you follow clouds of insects or reptiles. If you’re lucky, and you find a bee, follow it.”

“Got it.”

She nodded and stood. I climbed up on my horse and waited for Hekla to get on hers. Then, we started off again. We rode until the sun went down. I recognized the area. 

“It seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it?”

I sat down on a dune underneath the full moon and looked at the remnant of the war. Husks of burnt-out vehicles littered the area. Fire had scorched everything. The war had cost us everything. 

Blood seeped out from the impression my butt had made in the sand. The copperish smell of it made me sick. 

“Yeah, it does feel that way, except it wasn’t.”

“Calderon fought against your people, Jayce. The Stranged saw no problem in using people like him. It was a bad time.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

Our horses had bedded down, and I stood. Hekla glanced up at me and said, “Where are you headed?”

“I’m gonna go lay down. It’s gonna get cool.”

“One of us needs to stay watch.”

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

“I’ll replace you in four hours. See you then, Jayce.”

I watched as Hekla walked to the campsite she’d chosen. We would camp at the base of the sand dune and lie out on the open ground underneath the stars, like the cowboys of old. 

She disappeared behind the dune, and I took first watch. Memories from the battle plagued my mind. All soldiers bear the scars of their wars. Some scars are physical, others are emotional or mental. All scars though leave marks. 

I thought of long-lost friends. A guy named Hinkey was the clown of the platoon. He could turn anything into a joke. We didn’t know it at the time, but the war would end in a few short hours. My squad was tasked for a patrol through the Bloodless Sands, we just called it The Sands. Hinkey, with a wild smile on his face hollered, “This it y’all. One last ride together.”

I’ve not heard more prophetic words in my life. As we patrolled the area, we were ambushed. Hinkey was on point. A burst of magical lightning struck Hinkey. His body burst from the voltage that pulsed through him.

“Hinkey! Jesus, find those Elves!”

I called in a heavy volume of artillery on the forward positions. Rounds impacted into the earth, and eruptions broke out all around us. The Elves were gone, and I had lost my first man in the entire war.

I put my hand on my head and turned around startled at the noise behind me. It was Hekla. She put a rough hand on my shoulder and asked, “Who’s Hinkey?”

“He was the one person I lost during the war.”

“I’m sorry, Jayce. Losing people is always tough.”

“It’s alright, Hekla. People die. It’s the way of life, or it’s war. It might be both.”

“How did he die?”

“Lightning bolt to the dome,” I said, tapping my head. “He exploded all over us. If it had happened to someone else, Hinkey would’ve said they were a flying meatsicle.”

Hekla laughed, and I grinned. The loss of Hinkey had changed me, as all loss changes those affected. Months later, the loss still ached. No one had briefed us that the war would soon end. 

A few hours later, our chain of command officially surrendered. Hinkley had died for nothing. We’d gained nothing in our six-month war, except for the dead and the wounded. 

Hinkley’s wife and children came to his funeral. My squadmates and I showed up to say goodbye. He was buried in The Sands, in a mass grave that held humans, Dwarves, and Elves. 

None of us knew what to say. We weren’t given an option to sit out the war. You weren’t given a choice of where to go or what to do. You were told when, where, and how. That’s it. Hinkley, in his former life was a thief. He robbed banks by hacking into their systems. I had worked as a bridge builder. None of that was taken into consideration.

On the first day of basic training, I stood next to Hinkley. We were the same height, and the drill sergeants had lined us up by size. 

“Listen up, PRIVATES! You’re not special! Your momma doesn’t work here. The only reason you are here is to be a meat shield for someone smarter, meaner, and faster than you are.”

“Screw that,” I whispered under my breath. Hinkley chuckled and whispered, “He’s talking about himself. I have no intention of dying in this piece of crap war.”

That statement sealed our friendship. We went everywhere together, did patrols together, and Hinkley had opened to me about his dreams outside of the war. Dreams that no longer mattered. 

Hekla let me have time to work through the various emotions I felt. After a while, she said, “It’s not easy losing your friends. I don’t imagine it’s easy to remember them when you lost the war too. Still, if you feel the need to talk about it, I’ll listen.”

It was strangely liberating to talk to Hekla. She’d been on the other side of the war, but here we were together in the Bloodless Sands. On the same team, and to me, that’s all that mattered. 

“Jayce? Can you hear me, Jayce?”

The sweet-sounding voice of the Elven cut through my mind. I shook my head; I knew I wasn’t asleep. Still, the melodious voice continued to call my name. She stepped from the shadows and walked toward me, still calling my name. 

“Jayce. Come on, Jayce. Wake up!” I felt a hard hand smash into my back, and I snapped awake. Hekla had leaned close to me and was staring in my eyes. She smacked me lightly on the cheek.

“Hey, Jayce. Are you with me?”

“Yes, Hekla. I’m here, quit hitting me.”

“What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I responded quickly. How was I to tell Hekla, I kept seeing an Elf that called to me? 

She leaned closer, close enough for me to smell the alcohol on her breath. Hekla kept her eyes on mine and said, “You’re seeing a beautiful Elf, aren’t you? She’s calling your name as she walks toward you, right?”

“How could you possibly know that Hekla?”

“That’s not important, Jayce. Who she represents is what’s important, and why she’s calling your name is even more important?”

As tired as I was, I could still add things up. I shook my head and whispered, “no, no, no, no. I want nothing to do with any prophecies. I’m not a chosen whatever, I want nothing to do with any of this cataclysmic, apocalyptic bullcrap. Tell her to go find someone else to screw with.”

“It’s not that easy, Jayce. The Chalice only calls one person to her side. No one can find it otherwise. You must answer the call.”

“No, I don’t,” I snapped, then I realized that the Elf wasn’t the Herald of the Chalice. She was the Chalice. “You mean to tell me; this drop-dead gorgeous Elf is Rianna’s Chalice?”

“She or he is whatever is necessary to bring you to its side.”

I sighed and shook my head in disgust. This is not what I had intended, nor was it something I was interested in pursuing. Some people lived for a cause, or a reason to stand up for the weak. To be a hero. I am not that kind of person. 

My life had been upended when time had leapt forward. So had everyone else’s, but I had to make the most of it. How bad was my luck to end up the herald of some unwanted prophecy?

“Jayce, come to me.”

 Oh joy, the voice was back. I shook my head and tried to clear it, but the tug of her voice was difficult to ignore. Hekla slammed another heavy hand into my back.

“You can’t ignore her, Jayce. We need to get you to see Ria. She can help you, but first we need to complete this job.”

Chapter Two:

Out in the piles of wreckage, Calderon watched the pair of hunters on the dune. The magical looking glass zoomed in on the faces of each. He emitted a low curse. Hekla, I should have known Calderon thought, it would be you, but who is this with you?

The human with her was not known to Calderon. Besides, he seemed daft to the Elven sorcerer. He’s either struggling to stay awake, or he’s nuts. Calderon watched as the human seemed to sway under the tug of some otherworldly entity. 

This will work to my advantage, Calderon surmised. I can ignore the fleabag human and deal with Hekla. Once I’m done with her, I can put this idiot out of his misery.

Unseen by the pair of hunters, Calderon crept through the shadows toward the flank of his enemies.

Hekla kept checking on me. The lilt of the voice would fill my mind, warm it in fact, and it kept distracting me from the job. There was no warning of when it would occur. Things would be normal, and then I would be outside of my skin walking across the Bloodless Sands in search of this stupid Chalice.

Hekla gave me a look. It wasn’t kindness or concern; it was more of a look of pity. She leaned close to me and whispered, “Stay here. I’m going to check our flank.” I grunted a response to her and stretched out atop of the dune. 

I must have dozed off because the sound of battle woke me. Hekla’s war cry filled my ears, and I rolled to my feet. Lightning flashed, the electrical sure hummed in the dry air. Without another thought, I grabbed Malice and sprinted to the edge of the dune. 

Hekla had her warhammer cocked back, her body glowed blue from the electricity that flowed through her. Blood covered her face, and I dropped to one knee in the soft sand. 

“Fine, you stupid dwarf. I will finish you up close and personal,” Calderon snapped. “It’s the least you casteless curs deserve.”

“Come at me, Elf.”

I lifted Malice to my shoulder, took aim, and when Calderon brought the knife into view, I fired. The barbed arrow pierced the blade and his hand, pinning the one to the other. Hekla smiled and swung the massive hammer into an uppercut, smashing it into the chin of Calderon. The sound of shattered bone filled the night air. 

Calderon slumped to the ground. Hekla stood over the corpse, took the knife from Calderon’s lifeless fingers, and took his head with his own blade. She turned and looked up at me, then gave me a two-finger salute.

“I know you don’t think I’m carrying that head back to Voliguard,” I hollered down the dune. She laughed as she walked up the hill toward me. She had two fingers shoved into the nostrils of Calderon, and shook her head no.

“No, this one is mine Jayce. I’m gonna strap his head to my saddle so everyone can see he is no more.”

“Calderon was a bad man, I take it?”

“The worst. He hurt people because he liked to, but now people can live in peace. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah, I’m done with The Sands.”

We climbed on our horses and started back toward The House of The Wolves. I don’t know how I knew it, but I would come back here. The voice would not leave me alone, and whether I wanted to or not, I would have to answer the call. 

But it would not be today, and I would not undertake the journey without first knowing what I was getting into. I needed to speak with Hekla’s friend.

It was late in the afternoon when we finally made it back to the tavern. People stood and gawked at Hekla when she rode by. The head of Calderon banged against her horse’s side, but the animal didn’t seem to mind. Kids pointed and scrunched up their nose in disgust.

Hekla stopped at the front door and dismounted. She handed her reins to me, and I dismounted as well. Hekla untied the head, stuck two fingers in the nostrils, and said, “I’m going inside. Put the animals up, and then come join me. We will have dinner and get paid.”

I nodded and waited for Hekla to enter into the tavern. Once she was inside, I walked the horses back out to the stables. The old man that had seen us off was waiting at the entrance. Behind him, lying on a pile of thrown hay that covered piles of manure, was the body of the slave girl. 

The old man nodded when he saw my eyes grow wet. He didn’t say anything, just took the reins of the horses and put them in their stalls. I knelt next to her and put two fingers on her neck to check for a pulse.

“What happened?”

The old man stopped next to me and said, “It doesn’t matter, son. My daughter is dead, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

White hot rage filled my being. This new world was not to my liking. Sure, we were strangers here, but what gave these things, these vile deformities, the right to rape and murder us at their whim?

I stormed to The House of The Wolves, hellbent I would set this crime right-even if it killed me in the process. The place was packed, and Hekla sat at the bar with her mug raised high.

“Hear, hear,” she shouted. “Here’s to the end of Calderon!”

A roar went up from the patrons, laughter and jeers broke out amongst the crowd, and Hekla downed the drink in one long gulp. She slammed the mug down and snapped, “More, and keep it coming Kegger.”

I sat down by Hekla and stared at the bar. Hekla waited for me to say something. The swinging doors of the kitchen burst open, and a new slave girl rushed out carrying a tray of drinks. 

Dark brown hair had fell into her eyes, and she tried to blow it to the side of her thin face. One dwarf smacked her on the buttocks, another bumped into her knocking the tray from her hands. 

“New girl,” Kegger yelled, “you’re paying for those drinks, and you’re not going to enjoy it.” The two dwarves chuckled and licked their lips provocatively. My rage built within me. Hekla dropped down from the stool and walked over to the new girl. She knelt beside her and helped clean up the mess. 

“Hekla the human sympathizer,” one of the dwarves jeered. Hekla looked up, smiled sweetly, and punched him in his crotch. Her left hand flashed and collided with the dwarf’s nose. She grabbed his nose with her left hand and twisted.

The crunch of cartilage brought tears to the dwarf’s eyes. Hekla pointed a thick finger at the other and said, “Leave now.”

“Leaving, please don’t hurt me.”

Hekla leaned toward the dwarf she held by the nose and whispered a few words to him. The dwarf paled, and his bottom lip began to tremble. He nodded his head and muttered something in return. Hekla let him go and pointed at the door. 

The bloody dwarf rushed outside. Everyone left in the tavern watched the show but made no comments. My rage had decreased some due to the actions of Hekla. I got off my stool and helped the slave girl carry the broken steins and wasted food in the back. Kegger watched us operate without saying anything. Hekla went back and sat down at the bar as if nothing had occurred. 

After placing the broken mugs in the waste, I went back to the bar. The kitchen manager, Brewhound, said nothing to me when I walked by him. His eyes followed my every move, but he didn’t utter a word to me. 

Hekla was working on her fifth drink, or so the four empty mugs in front of her led me to believe, and she gave me a wink. 

“Kegger told me what happened to the other girl. Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay, Hekla. That girl did nothing to no one. She was thrown out there in the straw, on a bed of manure, like some piece of trash.”

“I know, Jayce. No one affiliated with The House of The Wolves had anything to do with it. The person responsible was a former member, but he is no longer welcome here.”

“Aston, right?”

Hekla turned her mug up and killed the rest of the drink. She gave me a slight nod in response to my question. It was enough to let me know I was right. Hekla pushed a ruby to me, and said, “Here’s your pay. For services rendered. You showed up at the right time, but we’ve got a problem.”

“Oh yeah? What now?”

“Rianna’s Chalice, Jayce, you must find it before Fez Schimel.”

Chapter 3:

I knew Hekla was right. If Schimel was looking for Rianna’s Chalice, I had no choice but to search for it as well. My biggest issue at the moment though was that I had no idea of where to begin searching, or how to even utilize the chalice to stop the end of the world. According to the prophecy, or at least the way it made it seem, was the Chosen One showed up to the chalice and knew what to do.

If I was the Chosen One, then I was the most unprepared one in the history of the Chalice. I had a prophecy, no answers, and tons of questions, and that’s no way to begin a quest, especially in a land that was not my own. Hekla gave me a grin and began her sixth drink. 

“You’re wondering why the chalice chose you, right?”

“Among other things, yes. I have many questions and no one seems to have any answers.”

Hekla burped and laughed. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her words slurred. She kept wobbling on the stool, and ever so often, she’d hook a foot around the leg of the stool to try to keep her balance. 

“Thas not true,” she slurred. “Rias got answers. I finish dis drik, we go se her.”

“I have no idea what you said, but okay.”

Kegger looked at me and said, “What you said isn’t true. Ria has answers. When Hekla finishes her drink, she’ll take you to see her.”

“Who’s Ria?”

“A priestess. She’s an Elven priestess, and Hekla’s best friend. They fought together when they were young.”

“Ria’s not a monster hunter?”

Kegger doubled over with laughter and wiped his eyes. “No, Ria is not a monster hunter, and Hekla isn’t a Righteous Dwarf.”

A loud snore came from Hekla. Her head leaned on the bar, her mouth opened, and a pool of spittle formed at the corner of her mouth. For just a moment, I considered putting a Habanero pepper in her mouth, then I decided against it. I met Kegger’s gaze and said, “Hekla is a Shunned Dwarf?”

“God no, human. Hekla is an anomaly. She was born into servitude on a different planet. Her owner brought her to fight in the pits. She earned her freedom by killing hundreds of opponents, and then she distinguished herself in battle against your world’s paltry forces. She’s a hero of the people here.”

“And that’s why she’s treated different from everyone else.”

“Yeah, that and she’ll kill you if you try to get to familiar with her.” 

I went to wake up Hekla, but Kegger shook his head no. “Don’t do that,” he said. “She will wake up in a bit. When she does, we’ll get her to her room.” I nodded and excused myself from the bar. The slaves in the kitchen was working, and I jumped in and helped finish up the dishes. Together, we humans finished our work, and we all walked out to the stables together. Our Dwarven guards said nothing to us, but they watched us with something more than curiosity. 

The eldest among us, Tom included, were given bales of hay to sleep on. All the younger ones slept on the ground or sitting up against the walls. I found a corner and crawled up as best as I could. Snores soon filled the air, as humanity tried to adjust the rancid conditions, we found ourselves in. My dreams were of a beautiful Elven woman chained to an altar, Fez Schimel stood next to her and plunged a dagger into her breast. As the blade descended to its final resting place, the Elven woman turned to me and whispered, “Hurry, Jayce. You must find me before it’s too late.”

I woke with a start. The dream seemed so real, as if the Elven woman would die if I did not find Rianna’s Chalice before Schimel. Sweat dotted my forehead, and my breathing was erratic. Hekla, I must find her. I need to see her friend, today. Time is of the essence. I ran to the tavern and crashed through the door. Everyone glanced in my direction. Hekla and Kegger was at the bar huddled up and speaking in low whispers. 

Kegger glanced at me as I drew near. He met Hekla’s eyes and lifted his chin in my direction.

“I’d appreciate it, Kegger. You know I don’t forget my friends.”

“I’ll take care of it, Hekla. Looks like your human is about to come apart at the seams.”

He walked away leaving me and Hekla at the bar. She turned and favored me with a grunt. I gave her a slight smile, and asked, “Are you hung over?” She glared at me and grunted again. “I figured you would be, but I need your help.” Hekla sighed and motioned for me to continue, so I did. “I had a dream, Hekla. The Elven woman,” I whispered, “she was tied to an altar, and Schimel plunged a dagger into her chest. Before she died though, she asked me to hurry.”

Hekla rubbed her head, then her eyes, and then she yawned, but she said nothing about what I just told her.

Instead, she looked in her mug and sighed. Just a day or two ago, Hekla was having a meltdown about the Chalice, today she acts if she doesn’t care if the universe implodes. What is going on here?

The door to The House of The Wolves opened. In stepped a person of unknown origins. The person wore a dark robe, complete with a hood, and they stepped with an urgency I hadn’t seen since my brief career as a hunter. They kept their head bowed, their hands in the pockets of the robes, and they came close to us and sat at a table. Hekla nodded at me and then the other person. 

“Jayce, this is Ria. She is a priestess and has come to answer your questions of the chalice. Sit at the table and ask her what you will.”

I slid from the stool and sat in a chair across from Ria. Her hood remained up, but I could see the bluish tint of her skin, and the yellow-gold tint of her eyes. Her eyes locked with mine, and it was as if the universe opened and revealed its secrets to only me. Her full lips pulled into a warm smile, and her features softened. 

“Ask, Chosen.”

“Last night, I had a dream. The Elven woman was tied to an altar. Schimel killed her, but before she died, she asked me to hurry. Is the Chalice an Elven woman? How do I find her? Why can’t Schimel prevent the end of the universe? Why me?”

Ria’s smile grew broader, and she put a hand to stop me. “One question at a time, Chosen. Let’s begin with your first one. The Chalice takes on whatever shape it must to influence you to seek it. It could be food if that’s what it took to get you moving.”

“So, it’s not a woman,” I said. I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice, but it still came out bitter. Ria shook her head no. “Why would it be? Are you feeling, okay?” I shrugged and said, “yeah.” She gave me another smile; she really was quite attractive to be an older elf. “Your next question is difficult to answer. The Chalice will guide you to her. Only you can find her, everyone else, including Schimel, does not possess the ability to hear the call. As you draw near to the Chalice, the voice becomes clearer.”

“And how do I figure that out?”

“Where have you heard the voice unhindered?”

“Here and in the Bloodless Sands.”

“You fought in that battle, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I fought that battle.”

“Did you feel an emotional tug when you were there last?”

“What do you mean?”

“Was it more than just a voice? Did other things happen than just a dream or a few words?”

“Yes, I saw her walking toward me from out of the wreckage.”

“Begin your search in the Bloodless Sands then. I will go with you and Hekla. We must get underway soon. As to why Schimel can’t prevent the end of the universe, that answer is twofold. He’s not the Chosen, therefore, he can’t do the work of the Chosen. Second, Schimel does not desire to preserve anything. He seeks to destroy his enemies, of which humanity is on that list, and in the ashes of the destruction, he would build a utopia for the superior races.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. As if this day couldn’t possibly get any worse, Ria continued, “As for the reason why the Chalice chose a Lesser Species, I have no idea. You’re not a believer in the prophecy. You don’t share our faith, and you’re not a member of our society. Ergo, you of all races should not bear the burden, but the Chalice chose you. It’s my duty to ensure you reach it and save our world.”

I closed my eyes and tried to find a silver lining, but if there was one there, I didn’t see it. Ria smiled at me again and removed her hood. As of now, our party consisted of an angry, drunken dwarf, a blue priestess, and a human. It had all the makings of an old Earth joke. 

A Dwarf, an Elf, and a Human walk into a bar…

While I chatted with Ria, Hekla went and took a shower. She came out dressed in clean armor, her hair and beard soaked with water. Hekla seemed refreshed, and more than a little chatty. While she pulled on her boots, she asked me questions. “What did you think of Ria?” I shrugged and said, “She seemed nice enough.” Hekla nodded and responded with, “Yeah, wait until we get on the trail with her before you make a judgment.” While Ria showered, I checked my pack. 

Malice, my crossbow was stuffed in on top of my clothing, bolts of all types was packed away in the pockets of my pack. An Old Earth KA-Bar knife filled out the rest of my kit. I strapped it to my waist and looped a piece of 550-parachute cord through the sheath and around my quadriceps. So far, I’d been able to engage my targets with Malice, but you never knew when the enemy might close with you, and you would need a sharp piece of metal to cut your enemy’s heart out.

Hekla looked at the blade on my thigh. She was a warrior through and through. It didn’t matter that she carried a hammer bigger than she was, nor did it matter that she could one-shot almost any enemy we faced. I had a blade, and she wanted to look at it. She unsnapped the loop that held the blade in, and she pulled the knife free. Hekla ran a finger over the flat side of the knife and said, “Hmm, it’s primitive but sharp. I like it.”

When Hinkey had died, I found his blade and kept it, instead of turning it in with the rest of his gear. He didn’t need it anymore, and I didn’t need two knives. I took it out and looked at it. Hinkey had written his name on the sheath in hot pink letters and had added glitter to it. The silliness of it made me chuckle. Hekla put my blade in my sheath and secured it. I handed her my friend’s blade, and said, “Here’s to new friends, Hekla. Hinkey would be pleased you have it.”

“Friends?”

“Yeah, friends. We’re going into the unknown, and you didn’t hesitate to join up with me. That makes us more than friends, it makes us family.” Hekla swallowed hard and for a brief second, her eyes shimmered. Then, she gave me a hard look and said, “Someone has to keep you from killing yourself.” I slapped her on the back, and she tightened up. Her eyebrows furrowed, and I said, “That’s for almost breaking my back the other day. You remember, right? Out in the Bloodless Sands?”

Her frown disappeared, and she laughed. Hekla wagged a finger at me and retorted, “When you were daydreaming while I killed Calderon? You needed more than one crack to the head, Jayce.”

“You’re forgetting something, Hekla. You were a blue dwarf, a Smurf on Old Earth, from all the lighting pulsing through your body. My shot gave you an opening.”

“That’s true. We make a good team, Jayce.” Hekla grabbed my forearm and squeezed, and I returned the grasp. “Yeah, we do. I appreciate what you’ve done for me, my friend.” I felt hot tears fill my eyes, but I blinked them away. I had seen many people die during our short war, and the loss of Hinkey still weighed on my mind, but here in this new timeline, on this new planet, I had found a friend. 

Ria came in, her pack slung over her shoulder, and she asked, “Are you both ready to get underway?”

“Yes,” Hekla responded. “We’re ready when you are, Ria.”

“Then, let us leave.”

Tom had drawn three mounts from the stables. Ria and Hekla mounted up with a flourish, and I waited until they were underway before I climbed up. The girl was no longer lying on the mixture of hay and manure. My mouth tightened into a hard line, and I gave Tom a nod. He nodded back, a single tear ran down his cheek, and I rode away. Things were different here, but Death had the same sting here that it did back on Old Earth.

No amount of time could fill the void left by loss. 

While I raced after Ria and Hekla, Schimel and Aston were traveling to The Towering Tips. Aston trailed behind Schimel, and wondered for not the first time, why he’d decided to follow him into the mountains. At the base of the mountain, the sun warmed his bones, but as their mounts climbed ever higher, the weather grew colder. At a third of the way up, Schimel stopped, and they made camp. Aston gathered scraps of wood to make a fire, while Schimel tended to the horses. They sat together and prepared a meal. While the meat cooked, Aston asked, “Why do you think this is where the Chalice is located?”

“The Chalice is bound to a prophecy. One that predicts the eradication of the known universe. It only makes sense to make it as hard to get to as you can. Therefore, by a process of elimination, I deduced that the Chalice is not on the peak, but somewhere near the peak.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

Schimel stared at Aston for a long moment in silence. He wasn’t used to being second-guessed, and the question irked him. Aston gestured his apology to Schimel with his hands and kept his mouth shut. A long silence hung in the air, much like the ice crystals that formed on their faces. Schimel after some time passed answered, “If I’m wrong, then I go back to the drawing board and try to discern another location.”

“Or you could just follow that one human from The House of the Wolves.”

“Which human, Aston? There are many slaves there.”

“He’s not a slave, Schimel. He’s a monster hunter.”

“How do you know of this? Hmm? What makes this one more special than any other?”

“I don’t know, Schimel. I overheard Hekla talking to Kegger. She claimed he might have been Chosen.”

“The Chosen is a myth. Still, if Hekla is claiming him as the Chosen, people will follow him. Rest, Aston. We ride at dawn for The House of the Wolves.”

“What if they’ve left already?”

“Someone will know where they’ve gone. The Chosen gets no privacy.” Schimel left the remainder of his thoughts unsaid, for Aston was not worthy of hearing them. Schimel could use blind loyalty to his advantage. People like Aston followed whoever was more popular, they also elected leaders who were charismatic and popular. They were not without their uses, but people like Aston had no place in the future Schimel envisioned.

It would have to be enough for Aston and his ilk to help usher in the New World. Because they would be ushered out in the fiery eradication of the old one.

I caught up with Hekla and Ria at the drawbridge of Voliguard. They had come to a halt and waited for me. Ria had her hood up, but I could feel the heat from her gaze boring into me. Hekla and Ria started across the bridge, and I followed. We traveled until we reached the area where we had faced Calderon. Together, we built up the campsite, and I took first watch. Hekla stretched out at the base of the dune and was soon asleep. Ria came and kept me company.

“Tell me of yourself, human. What was your Earth like?”

“There’s not much to tell, Ria. I lived on Earth, went to work, spent the weekends working on old vehicles or patching the roof of my dwelling. Earth was like this. Some areas were wet, hot, and humid. Other places had beautiful weather year around.”

“Did you take a mate? Sire children with her?”

“No, I did not get married or have children.”

“What is this married?”

“You know, you find someone compatible with you and you agree to spend the rest of your life working to build a family unit together.”

“Why would you encumber yourself with such trivialities? Take what you want, sire children, live your life.”

“Yeah, that’s not how we did things on Earth. Taking what you want with no regard to how the other person feels about it is technically rape.”

“What is this rape you speak of?”

“Um, it’s when your forced against your will to have intercourse.”

Ria shook her head and muttered, “primitives.” She sighed and continued to ask questions. “Do none of you understand you live your own lives? That what you choose to do, or not do, brings about consequences, and even if no choice is made, there are consequences to not choosing. I ask this, because you are the Chosen. When the time comes, you must choose. If you do not choose, the Chalice will choose for you.”

I sighed and shook my head. “See, there you go again. You’re talking about me choosing, but you’re not telling me what I must choose. Stop talking in circles and riddles and give me a straight answer, please.”

Ria stared out over the vast desert. The moon was full and beamed down upon us. My gaze fell upon the wreckage. It looked like an Old Earth junkyard, except instead of old cars and trucks, it was tanks, aircraft of all sorts, and more than one type of wheeled vehicle. 

“The Chalice allows the Chosen to set the world right. It influences the mind of the Chosen. That’s why you can see it and hear it. Only the Chosen can empty the Chalice and utilize it to make things right. You can choose mercy or vengeance. Life or death. Whichever you choose, you will remake the world, and then you must live with the consequences of your choice.”

“That’s why Schimel wants to find it.”

“Yes, Jayce. He is convinced that he can wipe out his enemies, and the forge a new world out of the ashes.”

“How would he use it? I thought only the Chosen can use it.”

“There is much we don’t know about it, Jayce. It’s only a prophecy, but much of what is written about it has come true, and if that’s the case, then the rest of the prophecy must be true too.”

I found myself becoming flustered with this whole idea of ancient writings influencing the actions of people. My father had taught me people can only act within their nature, and I held onto that as a core belief. Sure, we are sometimes influenced by outside actions, but our responses come from our nature. 

Ria and I sat on the dune in silence for hours, looking at the wreckage of our nature, each of us lost in our thoughts and memories of who we were then, and who we had become. 

Schimel and Aston broke from their camp at daybreak. Once they’d traveled down the side of The Towering Tips, they put the spurs to their mounts and raced back toward Voliguard. It took two days before they arrived at The House of The Wolves. Dust covered their faces, their clothes ragged and covered in filth, both Elves stumbled into the door and made their way to the bar. 

Kegger looked upon them and set out two glasses of water. Aston and Schimel gulped down the water. They drank it quickly, and Kegger sat a pitcher on the counter. Schimel poured another glass and sucked it down as quickly as he had done previously.

“You look parched. Aston, drink your water and get out of my building. You know you’re no longer allowed here.”

From the stables, Tom had watched the pair of Elves enter the tavern. He held a pitchfork in his hand, one of the metal tines had broken off, and he was attempting to make repairs, when he had another idea. 

Inside, Aston shook his head and complained. “Kegger, she was a lower species. You and I both know she had it coming. I took what I wanted because that is our way. You smacked her around, why shouldn’t I?”

“She wasn’t yours to smack around, you daft imbecile,” Kegger shouted. “You had your way with her, and then you killed her. Now, I am out money because of your stupidity.”

Aston gestured at the new slave girl and remarked, “You got a new one. She’s even prettier than the last. I bet she’d make an excellent chambermaid. You could even sire offspring with her, and they’d not look half-bad.”

Tom watched as the dwarven guards moved throughout the yard. Their patterns were easy enough to discern. The tine had broken in half, the rusty jagged edge was shaped like a Raptor claw. It was easy enough to conceal. Tom sharpened it until the edge shined. 

“Hey, Stablemaster. Kegger wants to see you indoors,” one of the guards shouted. Tom nodded and tucked the tine into his right pocket. 

Aston and Kegger were still word jousting when Tom entered the tavern. No one paid any attention to him. Schimel poured another glass of water and ignored the two buffoons. He had no interest in their petty squabbles.

Tom walked toward the pair, as Kegger yelled, “She was the daughter of my stable hand. You had no right!” Aston laughed and turned to leave, nearly bumping into Tom. Tom plunged the tine into the heart of his daughter’s murderer. Aston emitted a soft ‘ugh’ as the tine pierced his heart. Tom said nothing, as he drew the tine out and it made a ‘slurping’ sound, and then he shoved it back into Aston’s chest a second, third, and fourth time, while hot tears raced down his cheeks.

“No,” Kegger yelled. 

Schimel turned, his hands covered in flames, and grasped Tom’s head. The fire grew hotter, as Tom’s head began to melt. Tom laughed. Soon, the remains of Tom were nothing more than a puddle of liquid human flesh on the hardwood floors. Schimel smacked his lips and ran his tongue over his top lip. He took a rag from the top of the bar and wiped his hands. 

Aston was crumpled on the floor; the tine was buried in his chest. Schimel shook his head and took a sip of water. Kegger went and got a mop and muttered curses while he cleaned up the mess. 

Schimel raised a glass in toast to the puddle that was once Tom, and said, “To a father’s love for his children, Lower Species or not.” Kegger shook his head in disgust and tossed the mop aside.

“Why are you here, Schimel? Better yet, why did you bring this imbecile with you?”

Schimel ignored the second question from Kegger, but replied, “I understand a human monster hunter left in search of Rianna’s Chalice. Where’d he go?”

“Why would I tell you that? It’s none of your business.”

“You know I am seeking the Chalice, and for what purpose I plan to use it. What do you think the human would use it for? Hmm? Do you think he would use it for the benefit of us all?”

Kegger sighed and shook his head. He leaned on the bar and stared into Schimel’s eyes. He learned nothing from his action. Schimel was as unemotional now, as he had been when he melted Tom. It was unnerving how collected the Elf was. 

“All I know, is that they planned to start their search in The Bloodless Sands. He’s not attuned to the frequency of the Chalice yet.”

“They who?”

“Hekla and Ria are with him. They all went together.”

Schimel smiled and nodded. He laid a flawless diamond on the counter and walked away. Kegger scooped up the diamond and shoved it into his pockets, picked up the mop and continued trying to clean the remains of Tom from the floor.

Schimel stopped by a table of mercenaries before he left. An Elven woman with gray skin, full lips, and black hair met his gaze. A black eyepatch covered her left eye, and Schimel smiled.

Yes, she will do nicely, he thought, as he tossed a bag of precious gems to her. She opened it and smiled, grabbed her pack, and followed Schimel out to the horses.

The pair rode off into the sunset in search of the human and his party. Things were looking up for Schimel, and soon he would have the very thing he’d coveted his whole life.

We left at first light, our eyes affixed on our purpose, to find the Chalice and set the world right. Or something like it. Ria had stayed awake the entire night with me, two lost souls seeking an answer to the plethora of questions that haunted us. When I asked her why she did not sleep, she replied, “There’s plenty of time to sleep. I want to see the moon in all its glory, and the sun when it rises from its bed.”

I clicked my tongue and my mount started forward. The sun had not yet risen from its bed, but the heat soared. On Old Earth some would say, “Its a dry heat.” So are house fires, but you don’t see rushing into them. 

Our mounts carried us through the desert and by noon, we could make out the Calderstable Mountain Range, way off in the distance. By late afternoon, we could make out details of the rock face. We stopped and made camp with the going down of the sun. 

Throughout the day’s travel, we’d avoided loose sand. Hard tack was available, and it was easier on our mounts, but as we drew within a day’s travel to the mountains, we had only loose sand. Ria stood at the edge of the hard tack and gazed at the range. 

“The easy part is over,” she said, as I walked up beside her. “From here on in, our journey will become more perilous.”

“In what way?”

“The worms. They reside in the loose sand. Every step sends tremors, and those tremors signal prey to the worms. Should the sand grow teeth under your feet, pray for a quick death.”

“That’s wonderful, Ria. Thanks for sharing.”

She gave me another smile, and she walked away. Hekla sat at the campfire. Ria walked over to her and sat beside her. They began to chat in low voices, and I turned my attention to the horizon.

The sand began to shimmer with waves of heat. Whispers of my name filled the air, as if I was being summoned. “Jayce? Hurry, Jayce. Come to me.” Black spikes broke the surface as worms slid through the loose sands. They crept closer to where I stood, and my name grew clearer in the stillness. Amid the loose sands, the Elven woman beckoned.

“Come to me, Jayce. I am here.”

From a dune behind us, Schimel and his companion watched us. “Worms,” he muttered to no one in particular. “It had to be worms.” The woman watched the swirling beasts and pointed at me. Schimel looked through the magical looking glass and zoomed in on me. 

“Yes, I see it. He’s not affected by the beasts. They seem to know he is the Chosen.” The woman nodded and remained silent. Her silence, part of an oath she’d sworn in childhood, offended Schimel. Whereas Aston had said too much, the woman said too little. Or maybe Schimel was just hard to please.

He stretched out next to the campfire and was soon asleep. The woman rested on the dune and watched the party below her. Unknown to her, a shadow within the shadows watched her and Schimel. 

I stood at the edge and watched the worms. The massive creatures had rows of teeth, much like the Moray eels of Old Earth. Where Moray eels grew to almost ten feet on Old Earth, these worms were over 100 feet and weighed at least five tons (Old Earth measurements.) Like the Moray, these ‘worms’ had pharyngeal jaws. Their eyes were black as night and unflinching. 

They didn’t fear me, and I wasn’t afraid of them. When one was less than an arm’s length away, I reached out and touched a scale. The worm ignored my touch and kept going, Hekla and Ria watched in amazement. I watched as the worm flipped onto its back and came back toward me. As it drew near, I put my hand on its stomach and let it slide past me. 

Somehow, the worm knew I was not a threat, and I sensed it was here for my protection. Ria and Hekla approached me, and the worms disappeared under the sands. “Hmm,” Ria muttered. “They seem to not fear you, or sense you are a threat to them. I don’t understand how this has come to be.”

“That makes two of us. I don’t know either.”

Hekla lifted her nose in the air and sucked in a deep breath. She looked at me and said, “There’s danger on the air. What did you see?”

“I saw the Elven woman again. She was out there in the middle of the loose sands. My name filled the air, and the worms chanted it also. I don’t know. I’m going nuts I think.”

“Worms can’t speak, Jayce.”

“I know, Hekla. That’s what I just said.”

“Hold on,” Ria interjected. “You said your name filled the air, and that you saw the Elven woman out in the loose sand. What did she say?”

“Come to me. I am here. That kind of hokey crap. She told me to hurry.”

“We’re on the right path. You must follow your instincts, Jayce. Do you think the chalice is out in the loose sands?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t see the harm in checking before we move on.”

Hekla snorted and then burst into a full gale of laugher. “No harm,” she sputtered while wiping her eyes. “There are gigantic freaking worms out there with rows of teeth, but he doesn’t see any harm in checking.”

“It’s your call, Chosen. Go if you feel like you must.”

“Okay, Ria. If something should happen, get out of here and take Hekla with you.”

“I will.”

The sun beat down upon us, but I took one step out on the loose sand and black spikes popped out of the surface all around me. I took a deep breath and walked toward the spot where I saw the woman. 

As I walked, blood squirted out from underneath my feet. Worms broke the surface and dove back under, but none attacked me. I stopped where the woman had beckoned me from. All around me, the massive worms swam through the sand. Underneath my feet, the earth began to rumble. I tried to back up, but the worms had me blocked in. 

The earth exploded not far from where I stood, and a gigantic head burst through the surface. Seven eyes were on each side of the beast’s head, and they all focused on me. 

“Jayce,” the worm whispered. “You come for the chalice?”

“Um…”

“Chosen, you are. Chalice you must use.”

I’d never conversed with any animal before, especially some mutated worm that looked as if it could swallow an inter-galactic Super Walmart. “Where is Rianna’s Chalice?”

The worm leaned close to my face, its eyes were the size of a rim off an Old Earth vehicle. It took everything I had to not soil my shorts. “Hidden,” the worm responded in a slow, monotone voice. “Through Sylvania’s tomb you must go.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered.

The worm turned its gaze upon Hekla and Ria, and then further behind them. It turned to me and said, “You are not alone. Take your party and go west to the mountains. There you will find aid…and enemies.”

Without further ado, the worm dove underneath the sands and disappeared. I waved to Hekla and Ria and motioned for them to bring our mounts and join me. We walked in a circumspect manner until we reached the hard tack on the other side. While we traversed the loose sands, not one worm disturbed us. As soon as we crossed over, worms burst through the surface and began to swarm the area. 

I looked back in the direction the speaking worm had, and I noticed two figures standing atop of a dune. The worm’s words turned over in my mind.

“You are not alone.”

Hekla followed my stare, and she put a strong hand on my shoulder. I looked at her, and she raised her overgrown eyebrows. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy, Jayce. Quests always come with a cost.”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “Any idea who that is?”

“It’s Fez Schimel,” Ria said. “Someone fingered you as the Chosen.” I mounted my horse, and Hekla and Ria did the same. 

“Well, the worms should hold them up for the time being. We need to head west toward the mountains. The worm said we’d find allies and enemies there.”

“Wonderful,” Hekla grumbled. “I love meeting new people.”

By sundown, we’d made it into the shade of the mountains. The temperature had dropped, and the sun no longer caused us to wither under its fervent glare. We dropped down from the mounts and made camp in the ruins of what appeared to have been a village at some other time, or perhaps in a different timeline. 

Ria put rocks into a circle, chanted a few words and sparks flew from her fingertips. “Show off,” Hekla sneered. Ria gave her a smile. I tied to the horses to jutted pieces of pillars. Ria nodded and said, “This was once a temple.” Hekla scoffed and sat down next to the fire. 

“Oh, how can you tell? By the architecture?”

“Yes, but also because this is where I raised my son.”

Hekla looked over at Ria, her eyes locked with Ria, her lips wore a sideways smile, and she shook her head no. “You don’t have a son, Ria. I’ve known you for years, and you’ve never mentioned one.”

“It’s from another life, Hekla.”

I let them talk, if I’d learned anything on this trip, it was to let Hekla and Ria have time to get caught up with one another. “Excuse me,” a voice called from the darkness. “Might I join your camp?” 

A tall, dark elf stepped from the shadows. He wore a turban about his head, was shirtless, and a long, jagged scar ran down the right side of his face. Claw marks covered both shoulders. 

“Tomak? Is that you?”

Ria came toward us, and he bowed to her. “Hello, clan mother. It is I.” She embraced him as she would her son and pulled him into her bosom. “Why are you out here, Tomak?”

“I had a vision of the Chosen. Shia, guardian of the Chalice, summoned me to help him,” Tomak said, pointing a long finger at me. “Shia said, enemies would try to overwhelm the Chosen.”

“Yeah,” I interjected. “That’s what the worm hinted at.”

Tomak’s face scrunched up at the mention of the worm, and he shook his head. He had long black hair and a thin, sparse goatee, and they shook with the movement of his head. “Worm? What worm?”

“The one I conversed with half-a-day ago. It’s a long story.”

Ria guided Tomak to the camp. Hekla had grabbed her hammer when Tomak first approached the camp. Once Ria had recognized him, she kept the hammer by her side, but its head rested on the ground.

“Tomak, this is Jayce. He is the Chosen. This barbarian princess is Hekla. She and Jayce are monster hunters by trade.”

He gave us a wave, and we greeted him in return. He tapped himself on the chest and said, “I am Tomak, and I am a rogue.”

I sat next to Hekla, and we listened to Ria and Tomak speak long into the night. Sleep came calling, and for once I did not have dreams. It was as if Tomak had brought a sense of calm to the party. 

All I knew was that this had been an adventure so far, and more would be had before we reached Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.

Chapter 4:

Schimel and his companion contemplated their next move from the towering dune. Even from this distance, they could see the spikes of the worms jutting from the surface. This new development caused Schimel to fret. “All this time invested, and now I’m thwarted by giant worms, who hunger for flesh. There must be a way.”

“Come,” he snapped at his companion. “It’s time to see if we can’t find a way across.”

They mounted their beasts, and she fell into step behind him. For now, he was glad of her silence. This part of the journey had dragged on long enough, and Schimel had no words to waste on her. 

As they drew near to the swarming worms, the earth rumbled and once again the giant worm who spoke erupted from the surface. 

“What seekest thou?”

Schimel stood before the worm, unafraid of the massive creature that stared at him. He licked his lips and answered, “Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.”

“For what purpose, Elf?”

“My purpose is my own, worm. Suffice to say, I seek to create a better world.”

The scales of the worm shook in a rhythmic motion, almost like music, and Schimel waited. “You would create a better world, when you can’t even take care of the one you inhabit now?”

“I would, but first, I would end those who pollute this world with their malice, their poisonous words and deeds. Tolerance, compassion, these are traits, attributes, of the world I would build.”

The scales shook again, and again, Schimel could not decide if the worm was considering his words or laughing at him. The latter infuriated him, but he managed to keep his temper in check. 

“A world of love, you would create after exercising hatred to kill those who oppose you? Very well, elf. Go your way.”

The worm dove under the surface and the swarm went with it. Schimel and his companion passed through without any trouble. Schimel took it as a sign that his endeavors were blessed. 

Who doesn’t dream of a world where everyone loves each other? Everyone dreams of a society that cherishes each other, prizes love, peace, and gentleness above greed, corruption, and hatred. People also wanted those who dared cross them or God forbid, disagreed with them to be burned to a crisp in a firestorm that eradicated all the bad in one fell swoop.

Or at least that’s what Schimel thought. As he had no issue gathering followers to his cause, whether that was because of his wealth or his charm, he could not surmise, he thought himself to be on a righteous path.

No one dared to tell him otherwise.

Our party of four left before sunrise. Tomak took point and led us toward Sylvania’s Tomb, a cavern that led through the mountain range to a place known only as The Cliffs of Failure. Hekla walked beside me, and Ria walked with Tomak. 

We entered a man-sized hole, and inky blackness, along with several spider webs greeted us. “Torches,” I grumbled, as I searched my pack. “That’s the one thing I forgot to pack.”

“It’s not an issue,” Tomak responded, as he unscrewed a vial that had holes punched in the sides. “We have light.” In a shower of magic, a pixie shot out of the vial and lit the area up with golden light.

“Freedom,” the pixie shouted. “I am free!”

“Sylvie, this is Ria, Hekla, and the Chosen. Introduce yourself.”

“As you wish, master.” Sylvie the Pixie darted between the three of us. She hovered near my nose and peered into my eyes. “Hmm,” she said in a low voice, “you don’t look like much. Are you sure you’re up to the challenge human?”

“If I’m not, then none of you have a future.”

Sylvie laughed, and her whole body shook. She swept a blonde tendril of her hair from her brow, and kissed her hand, and used her full lips to blow the kiss to me. I pretended to catch it, and she smiled. 

“You will do.”

Hekla leaned close and whispered, “Don’t listen to her, Jayce. Pixies are deceivers, and they’re not to be trusted. When dealing with them, keep your eyes upon them at all times.”

“What makes them so bad?”

“The males are lustful and will ruin a relationship without a second thought. The females of the pixie world are the worst. They’ve got their own agenda, keep their own counsel, and will do anything they must to achieve their end goals. Be careful.”

“I will.”

Tomak instructed Sylvie on what was needed, nay expected, and Sylvie led the way deeper into the cavern. Hekla explained to me that Sylvania’s Tomb was a former Dwarven mine, and once the jewels, gold, and silver was gone, they’d abandoned it. 

It was also home of a notoriously vile band of Shunned Dwarf brigands. “Wonderful,” I sighed. Handrails stood by the ledge, some appeared to be sturdy and in good shape, while others had rotted. In some cases, the wood was wet. I went to touch it, but Hekla grabbed my hand and said, “Spider venom, Jayce. The toxin is fatal. Don’t touch anything in here.”

I sighed and nodded, and kept walking. A chittering sound echoed throughout the rocky walls, and from out of the darkness came a sound like scurrying feet. My heart raced and I took several deep breaths to try to calm my nerves. I reached in my pack and took out Malice. Hekla held her hammer in her rough hands, her grip had tightened so much her knuckles had whitened. 

Tomak put a hand up, and we all stopped. Voices called out to one another from below us. The Shunned Dwarves were close. Along the upper path, torches marked the way. We crept along taking great care to avoid kicking loose rocks or making unnecessary racket that would draw attention to us. 

“Bloodhammer has had all he’s gonna take,” one of the guards said to the other. “He’s done what was asked of him, and he still not in charge. I’d kill that Elf if it was me hanging out in the wind with nothing to catch me.”

“Well, you’re talking about Fez Schimel. He said he’d get Bloodhammer promoted if he located the Chalice. Now, Schimel is on his way here to find it.”

Hekla gave me a slight nod of acknowledgement, and once again the worm’s words shot through my mind. “You will find allies and enemies. You are not alone.”

The guards passed underneath us, and we moved on. As we pressed forward, the chittering of what we assumed were spiders, and the scurrying of their steps grew louder. It was disconcerting enough with light, but it was downright creepy when the sounds came from the darkness. 

Further on in, we ran into booby-traps. It was mostly bear traps, and some pressure plates that triggered wall spikes, or flames that shot up from the ground, and in the rarest occasions downward burst of flame that fell upon unsuspecting travelers. 

Adding Tomak to the party had been an inspired choice. His expertise in traps, for instance, had paid off. The top floor led to a slope and it led to the ground floor, which was the same floor the Shunned Dwarves were on, and so were the scurrying feet. 

Schimel and his companion, her name was Jasmine according to what she wrote on a piece of parchment, entered the cavern. Bloodhammer and six of his men met them and led them to their headquarters. 

“Have you found the Chalice?”

“We’re close. It’s only a matter of time before we have its location,” Bloodhammer answered. Before you get yours, Elf, I get mine. For someone who can’t deliver on what he promised, he sure is in a hurry.

They walked into a expansive and well lit room. Bloodhammer motioned for Schimel to sit at a long wooden table that had seen better days. Splinters aplenty jutted from it, cuts and notches, kill marks Schimel figured, were cut into the table as well. A double-headed Axe rested next to Bloodhammer’s chair.

“Rianna’s Tearful Chalice is here, Bloodhammer. The power to end life and create it anew rests here in this labyrinth. Find it, and I will keep my promise to you. Also, scavengers are within these walls as well, and they seek to usurp my goals by reaching the Chalice ahead of me. Find them and kill them.”

“You’re in my house, Elf. Remember that. You don’t come here and demand anything from me. Besides, you usually come in from the other side.”

“I am not demanding, Bloodhammer. That was me asking with urgency. As soon as you complete your task, I’ll take care of your problem.”

Bloodhammer motioned for two black clad dwarves to join him. He leaned toward them and said a few words. They nodded and left. Bloodhammer gave Schimel a cold smile and said, “Your scavengers are being hunted. It’s just a matter of time before we find them. No one comes here uninvited and survives the trip.”

Tomak motioned for us to follow him, and we started down the slope. The ground floor was well lit, and free of booby traps. We would need to exercise caution to slip past The Shunned and Schimel, if we planned to escape with our lives.

Like shadows caught in the corpseglare of a lamp, we made our way further into the labyrinth. Unbeknownst to us, eyes tracked our every move and waited for us to make a mistake.

Chapter 5:

Our plan to slip past the brigands and escape unscathed didn’t go as planned. Tomak guided us, and we stayed close to the walls to avoid detection, but we’d missed signs of a roving patrol on the top floor. 

We hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when the alarms began to ring. Tomak threw his arm forward and shouted, “Run!” Without hesitation, the party charged forward. Out of the shadows, black clad dwarves stepped out and blocked our progress. Hekla shouted out in her berserker fury and swung her hammer into the side of the head of a Shunned dwarf. 

Blood and brain exploded out the side of his head. I pulled Malice into my shoulder and let my bolts fly. Tomak, a blade in each hand, sliced and slid away. He was here one moment and gone the next. 

Ria chanted and floated off the ground. She had her eyes closed tight, her hands tilted palms upward, and balls of fire floated around her. When she opened her eyes, fire crashed all around us. It consumed our enemies, and Ria slumped to the ground.

“We’ve gotta move,” I snarled. “Everybody and their mother heard that.”

Hekla nodded and handed me her hammer. Then, she bent and picked up Ria. Tomak led us up a side path, and back into the shadows.

The sounds of battle caused Bloodhammer and Schimel to forego their arguing. “This isn’t over,” Bloodhammer roared. He grabbed his battle axe and charged from the room, Schimel was hot on his heels. 

As they ran across the uneven cavern floor, more dwarves rushed out into the hallway and jockeyed for position. “Move,” Bloodhammer screamed. “Make a hole!” The dwarves moved to one side and fell into step behind the mad dwarf.

No one came into Bloodhammer’s house and disrespected him. He would have their heads for the damage they’d caused.

Stealth and subtleness had its place in a warriors toolkit. This was not the time for it. We raced headlong into the darkness and kept going. Sylvie the pixie darted ahead of us as we chased after her. 

“This way,” she snapped. “Follow me!”

Above us something hissed. I had Hekla’s hammer and Malice, Hekla carried Ria as if she weighed nothing, and Tomak was sprinting after his pixie. We never noticed the spiders until they dropped from the ceiling.

These weren’t small spiders. Each one had six eyes, four faced forward, two eyes were on the sides of the spiders heads. “It had to be spiders,” I shouted. Hekla put Ria down and put her hand out. I handed her the hammer. 

Hekla took the hammer and whispered, “I dub thee Bone Crusher.” Behind us, our enemies closed in, with Schimel and Bloodhammer at the front. Hekla charged forward, the spiders hissed and spit venom, and I unleashed Malice. 

A spider hissed and leapt at Hekla. I fired a bolt through it’s eye and it crumpled to the floor. “Automatic,” I snapped. “Automatic activated,” the digital voice of Malice responded. 

The spiders didn’t know what hit them. Hekla waded in like a blood-covered battle goddess, and Malice spewed bolts with a righteous fury. Tomak scooped up Ria and raced in the hole we’d created. 

“Go, Jayce. Now,” Hekla screamed as more spiders dropped down. Bloodhammer and Schimel watched as we waged war with the arachnids. Hekla and I were covered with venom, but we stood side by side fighting. 

“You must get to the chalice, Jayce. Run and don’t look back.”

“I can’t leave you, Hekla. You’re my family.”

“The world needs you to stop the destruction. Go, I will be okay.”

Our eyes met, and I knew I would never see my friend again. A lump formed in my throat, and Hekla gave me a wink. I nodded.

“You catch up. I will wait for you at the entrance.”

“I’m right behind you.”

I dropped back and laid down a barrage of fire into the arachnids. Hekla roared her battle song, and the last time I saw her, she was neck deep in the middle of them swinging Bone Crusher with all her might.

Tomak and Ria waited for me at the exit. Ria leaned against the cave wall, blood poured from her mouth, and she took shallow breaths. I could hear the death rattle in her breathing. Tomak had tears in his eyes, and his eyes shined brighter with them when he noticed Hekla was not with me. 

“Ria can go no further, Chosen. This was her last quest.”

“Do not talk about me like I’m not here, youngling.”

Ria struggled to sit upright. She looked at me and Tomak and grinned, her blood-dusted lips pulled back into a grin. “I’ve got enough magic left for one spell. Go, find the chalice, and set things right. This will become the final resting place for my son and the Shunned Dwarves. Go now.”

“You’re going to kill your son? Schimel? Why would you do that?”

“Come, Chosen. We have no time,” Tomak said, as he placed a hand on shoulder, but I shook my head no. “We have time, as a matter of fact, we have all the time in the world.”

Ria tried to stand, but slumped back toward the ground. I took her by her right arm and lifted her up. Tomak took her by her left, and she smiled ever so softly at me. She placed a hand on my face, and whispered, “He is consumed with hatred, and he would burn his enemies into ash. Go do what you must.”

The Cliffs of Failure awaited. Tomak and I propped Ria against an Aspen tree and watched. Ria’s body began to glow in white light as she spoke the words. Her frail body glided into the air, and she raised her arms and face toward the heavens. 

“Forgive my son,” she whispered as the earth rose up to seal the exit. Ragged spikes of earth erupted from the ground, boulders crashed all around, and when at last it was done, Ria collapsed to the ground completely spent.

Tears stained the face of Tomak. He wiped at them, but they dribbled down his chin and fell to the earth. I handed him a cloth, and he nodded his thanks to me. I walked down to Ria’s body and took her hand. She was beautiful and still radiated the beauty of white light. 

“Thank you, Ria. May your spirit be free.”

Schimel screamed his frustrations at the walled off exit. He kicked at the wall, salvia dripped out of his mouth and onto his chin, he smashed his right hand into the wall like a crazed maniac, and none of the dwarves, not even Bloodhammer, dared to interrupt him.

“Petulant child,” Bloodhammer thought. 

After Schimel calmed down, the elf and dwarves walked back to the main chamber of the cavern. Bloodhammer kept his axe close to him, just in case Schimel tried anything. Schimel smiled, when he noticed the dwarf’s attempt to keep his weapon close. 

“Bloodhammer, tell me you have another way out of this pit?”

“Of course, your mother could not seal all the exits. I will take you after dinner, and you will come out ahead of the scavengers.”

“Heh,” Schimel chuckled. “I’m starting out behind them, but will come out ahead of them. That works for me.”

Jasmine wrote something on the notebook she carried and shoved it to Schimel. A haughty grin crossed his face, and his eyes grew dark. He nodded at his companion and wrote on the parchment, “Not yet.”

Bloodhammer watched the pair scheme, at his table no less, and knew the elf and his companion were up to something. He cut his eyes to the guards and gave a slight tilt of his head. 

They weren’t the only ones who could scheme and hatch a plot. In time, they would find themselves outmaneuvered, but first, they would have dinner. 

Tomak and I built a funeral pyre, and Tomak whispered a few words to commemorate the life of this Elven priestess. “May the winds guide you home,” he said, as he ended his prayer. I whispered, “Amen.” Sylvie, the pixie, produced the fire that consumed Ria’s body.

The wind kicked up, and Tomak gave thanks. According to him, whatever god Ria had pledged her life to, they had accepted her into their arms. If it gave Tomak comfort to believe that, I saw no reason to infringe upon his beliefs. I had my faith, and I would not appreciate anyone suggesting my faith was invalid.

We began the long trek to the Cliffs of Failure. Words were not spoken for several hours, until we bedded down for the night. Tomak and Sylvie rested near the fire, I sat away from them and gazed upon the stars.

“Jayce, can you hear me?”

“Ria?”

Unlike my dreams, I did not see an embodiment of a woman approaching me. It was Ria’s voice whispering in my mind. “I’m going nuts,” I whispered to myself. Ria’s voice continued, “Tell Tomak there was nothing he could have done to save me. He’s to finish my quest and bring honor upon us both.”

I turned and looked toward the camp. Tomak stared deep into the fire, his eyes locked on the yellowish orange flames without blinking. Ria said nothing else, and I took it as a sign that she was done speaking with me. 

“Tomak,” I said, breaking his concentration on the fires. “come here for a second, will you?”

“What is it, Chosen?”

“Um, I don’t know how to say this without sounding nuts, but here goes. Ria’s voice was in my head, and she asked me to convey to you that there was nothing you could have done to save her. Instead, she said to finish her quest and bring honor upon you both.”

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a hug from Tomak. He threw his arms around and me and squeezed me tight.

“Loosen up some, Tomak. You’re gonna squeeze me until I fizzle.”

He chuckled and wiped at his eyes, and then he sat beside me and stared at the stars. “You’re not what I expected, Chosen. However, I am proud to share this journey with you.” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just muttered, ‘likewise.’

Sylvie floated over to us and pointed her tiny arm in the direction of a stationary star. “Do you see the arrow pointed at that mountain?” I followed her arm, and I noticed what she called an arrow.

“Yeah, I see it.”

“That is where we must go. It’s a long journey, fraught with danger, and you’ve managed to lose two who dared to assist you.”

Her words colored my cheeks red, but it wasn’t embarrassment. Rage flooded my heart, and I wanted to smash Sylvie flat. She turned and locked eyes with me, as if she could sense the thoughts in my mind, and then she smiled. 

“It’s a good thing you have Tomak and I left to balance out the equation. Otherwise, you’d just be a dumb human out for a stroll in the Calderstable Mountain Range.”

“Lucky me,” I grunted. Sylvie said nothing else, and Tomak was engrossed with the stars. I stood and said, “I think I will call it a night.” Without another word, I drew close to the campfire and stretched out on my blanket. 

Tomorrow was a new day, and I would need my strength if I was to find Rianna’s Chalice.

Bloodhammer, Schimel, Jasmine, and a handful of Bloodhammer’s trusted advisors sat around the table eating roasted lamb, deer flank, vegetables, and various fruits. All the silverware was furnished by the deposits in this very mine. The bowls, mugs, and other furnishings were encrusted with jewels and laden in silver and gold. 

Each bowl and mug had a different design, and each furnishing was forged within the walls of Sylvania’s Tomb. Bloodhammer was a warlord, a thief, a killer and an exile. Most Shunned Dwarves lived a life atop the surface, but stayed near the Dwarven Cities of Bhal Dahrim, Vernruhm, and Hil Wohrum.

Bloodhammer had fled Vernruhm after killing the son of Galina Hokul of Clan Cavebender. Galina Hokul, ruler of Vernruhm, had decreed that any dwarf, Righteous or Shunned, that sheltered Bloodhammer would receive their comeuppance along with Bloodhammer. The sentence he faced in not only Vernruhm but all dwarven strongholds, was death.

To this day, Bloodhammer refused to lend aid, or receive any, from any dwarf. He did not know for certain, but he figured a hefty price tag was attached to his head. Bloodhammer operated from Sylvania’s Tomb, and raided caravans of merchants, raped, and pillaged, only here.

He was as safe as he could possibly be within the walls of this tomb. One of the first things he did was place various traps at every entrance. He kept the place dimly lit and dusty to camouflaged the traps more easily.

Red-haired and white-tempered, Bloodhammer had long scars on both sides of his face, a testimony to the skill of Galina Hokul in the art of short blades. He was fierce with any weapon, but he favored, as did most dwarves, a heavy axe or hammer. 

By his ancestors, he swore as he watched Schimel and Jasmine eat his food and plot his demise, Sylvania’s Tomb would not be his last resting place.

Schimel on the other hand, was enjoying his meal. He and Jasmine joked and drank until their bellies were full. He leaned back against his chair and lifted his mug, and said, “To good friends, hearty companions, and plentiful food! May you, Bloodhammer, always have enough to sustain you, and may victory always reside at your door.”

“Hear, hear,” Bloodhammer responded. The dwarves joined him in beating their mugs against the table. Schimel and Jasmine watched the celebration without further words. Bloodhammer raised his glass and said, “To hearty friends, dead enemies, and a beloved death song. May you find Rianna’s Tearful Chalice and save us all from our pitiable lives!”

“Hear, hear,” Schimel said. Jasmine raised her glass in salutation to the two toasts. After a few moments of silence, Bloodhammer stood and said, “Come, my friend. Let’s get you underway. The exit is this way.”

Schimel and Jasmine followed a few paces behind Bloodhammer. Schimel kept his hands visible, but Jasmine kept her hand upon the hilt of her blade, as if at any moment she might be ambushed by the host.

Some would call her paranoid, but she’d learnt many tough lessons throughout her years as a mercenary, the most important being that peace was the lull before the storm. Her eyes flitted from one dwarf to another, and then to the upper floors that gave assassins a vantage point. 

The exit stood at the end of a long, straight, dwarven made hallway. Bloodhammer turned and gave Schimel a smile. He gestured at the exit and said, “I wish you well, my friend. Safe journeys to you.”

“You go no further,” Schimel said, more as a statement than a question. Bloodhammer shook his head no, and responded, “No, my friend. I feel constrained to depart from hence. I’m sure you can find your way out.”

Jasmine’s eyes searched the upper floors, but no torches illuminated the shadows. Still, she felt as if something was wrong. She tried to signal her feelings to Schimel, but the fool had his eyes closed. 

“Idiot,” she chided herself. “Death harkens, and you sold out for a few jewels.” Bloodhammer strode by, when Schimel grabbed the dwarf by the throat and opened his eyes. Lightning coursed through Schimel’s veins, his eyes showed flashes of power, and Bloodhammer shook in his hands. 

“You’d dare betray me,” Schimel whispered. “I would see you dead, first. I’m no common merchant, Shunned, nor am I some whiny damsel you raped. I’m Fez Schimel, son of Ria, and your executioner!”

Bloodhammer attempted to fight off the surge of electricity that pulsed through his body. Even as he tried to resist, he could feel his body weaken. Jasmine tore into his guards like a caged up tiger, finally loose of its captivity. She sliced them into pieces and turned to Schimel.

He smiled at her, and loosened his grip on Bloodhammer’s throat. It was all the chance Bloodhammer needed. He spun toward Schimel, grabbed two handfuls of his clothing, lifted him from the ground and charged toward Jasmine. The intention was to use Schimel as a shield, but Jasmine darted to the opposite side and triggered a fire trap. 

Bloodhammer and Schimel was caught in the burst of flames. Both screamed. Jasmine watched as Bloodhammer was reduced to a puddle of pink. Bloodhammer had dropped Schimel as he was consumed within the flames. The fire scorched Schimel’s face and body. Charred marks was all that remained of his nose, mouth and eyes. 

Jasmine picked up the coat of Bloodhammer and tried to smother the flames as gently as she could. Once the fire was put out, Jasmine picked up her companion and carried him back to the main chamber. 

The Shunned watched as Jasmine poured a basin of water. She peeled off the burned clothing where she could, and where she could not, she wet the rag and cleaned the burns that covered Schimel’s body.

Schimel felt for her hand. Jasmine noticed his motion, and took his hand into hers. In the silence, Schimel and Jasmine found each other.

Chapter 6:

Bhal Dahrim stood in the upper region of the Calderstable Mountain Ranges. A beautiful city from afar, it was even more so up close. Wrought iron gates protected the city from invaders, not that any could march an army of any size into the passes, and tall, slabs of marble served as a natural drawbridge. 

Tomak and I walked across the bridge and into the city of Bhal Dahrim. We’d been on foot since we left Sylvania’s Tomb. If we had any hopes of making it to The Cliffs of Failure before winter set in, we’d need horses. 

Besides, I was tired of being called Chosen and walking. I’d feel much better about being called Chosen, if I had a horse. Tomak agreed with my assessment, thus, our reasons for entering the city.

The dwarves of the city gazed at us with curiosity, but none spoke of our arrival. I intended to make sure no one spoke of our departure. 

While Tomak and I sought food, shelter and horses, Jasmine sought to take care of Schimel, and to help him heal as well as she could. He surprised her. Every day, he fought to recover what would have been mortal wounds for anyone else. By day three, his eyes were narrow slits, as well as his mouth. A week after the accident, his nose and part of his mouth had returned. 

He could speak in guttural whispers now. The first thing he asked was, “Bloodhammer?”

She’d patted his hand. The skin on his epidermis was healing quicker than she’d imagined. The Shunned Dwarves left her and Schimel alone. Some had even cooked meals and brought water to her when it needed changing. 

Never in her 26 years, had she witnessed such a thing. A runaway at 14, Jasmine had joined a mercenary band to learn the trade. She’d gotten more than the lessons of warfare. Every night for five years, her ‘superiors’ had taken her against her will. On her 19th birthday, she’d reported to her ‘commander’s tent’ but instead of him having his way with her, she had fell on him. 

That night, like a soft sigh she went tent to tent massacring the men who’d mistreated her. At daybreak, none of the camp remained alive. Blood soaked the ground. Jasmine had added many tears to Rianna’s Chalice. To prevent herself from speaking of the crimes she committed, she cut out her own tongue. 

Now, in the company of this man Schimel, she wished she had her tongue back so she could tell him, that she loved him.

Tomak turned to me and said, “Chosen, you must make a choice. Should we visit The Drunken Lurch or The Salty Ingot for food?”

“Why must I choose, Tomak? Have you not passed this way before?”

“I have, but I’ve never tarried here.”

“Well, I don’t mean to be a food critic, but The Salty Ingot doesn’t sound like the kind of place you’d find good food.”

“And The Drunken Lurch does?”

“Well, I’ve been around a few lurches, and drunks will eat anything, but still…”

“The Drunken Lurch it is then.”

Dwarven sailors, pirates, mercenaries, and other sorts littered the grounds of The Drunken Lurch. A metal figure hung from the roof. Tomak and I stared at it for several moments before entering the pub. 

I suppose it was meant to be that of a drunk trying to find it’s way home, but it didn’t look like one. Inside the pub was chaos. Dwarves, Elves, and a slew of Lower Species were scattered about. The slaves were human. 

Human women were rubbed, shoved, and slapped. Human men were punched, kicked, and in some cases beaten to the point of death. The more things changes, the more they stayed the same. Tomak and I shoved our way to the stools and sat down. 

A Dwarven female with twin lighting bolts tattooed to her left shoulder, sized us up and tilted her head back to look at us. Her eyes locked on mine, and I met her stare. 

“What do you want?”

“Food and drink,” Tomak answered. She nodded and never took her eyes from me. She extended her hand and said, “Hekla the Younger.” I squinted at the woman. 

Tomak smiled, and extended his hand to her. “I’m Tomak, this is the Chosen.” Hekla the Younger laughed, and it was like walking down memory lane. She sounded just like Hekla, my Hekla, the one that died in the Sylvania’s Tomb.

“The chosen of what? Human suffering? Look around, Tomak. Humans are slave, or cannon fodder. Their short miserable lives aren’t worth saving.”

“Screw you, Hekla. If I want to hear your lip…”

Hekla leaned close, and her hand drifted to the massive hammer leaned up against the bar. She gave me a cold smile, and said, “Shut your mouth, human scum. You have no right to speak to me in such a tone.”

Her eyes cut left and then right, and then she pulled me close to her and whispered, “If anyone here picks up that you’re the Chosen, you will meet a swift end. Meet me at the gates in one hour…Chosen.”

Plates of beef, pork, chicken, and fish were brought in, as well as soup, ale, and water. Vegetables and fruits were plentiful as well. Tomak and I tore into the food with much exhilaration.

We made short work of the food, and we shoved the leftovers into our packs. Dried meat would come in handy during our journey. One hour later, we met Hekla the Younger at the main gate of the city.

She was pretty. Her hair was strawberry blonde, her eyes a piercing blue, with a well-developed body, and a smile that lit up her cheeks and caused her eyes to shine with mischief. 

“Now, I suppose you two knuckleheads are searching for Rianna’s Chalice, eh?”

“Correct,” Tomak answered. “Why couldn’t we talk in the tavern?”

“Because of the Night Riders.”

“What’s that?”

Tomak sighed and rubbed his forehead. Hekla smiled and scrunched up her nose. “You’re kinda dumb, aren’t ya?”

“I reckon,” I muttered. 

“Night Riders hunt the Chosen. In truth, I’d forgotten about them, but they hunt more frequently the closer we get to our goals.”

“Okay,” I said, pulling Malice from my pack. “We’ll just kill ‘em and keep going.”

Hekla burst into laughter, doubling over and slapping her knee. Tears ran down her face, and she wiped her eyes, even as she howled. The guards watched her in amusement, even pointing and joining in with her. 

I sighed, and turned toward Tomak. He had a grin on his face as well. I rolled my eyes and said, “Let me guess, they’re unkillable?”

“Yes, Chosen. They’re specters.”

“Wonderful,” I grumbled. “The one thing I don’t have a bolt for.”

“Oh, I have to join you,” Hekla said, with one hand on her breasts and the other clutching the hammer. “I’ve gotta see the Chosen kill a Night Rider.”

Tomak looked at me and raised his eyebrows, and I sighed. “Welcome to the party, Hekla. Let’s grab a room at The Salty Ingot, and we can leave at daybreak.”

Our trio walked off in search of shelter for the night. Hekla walked behind us, still laughing and wiping the tears from her eyes. As much as this younger version got off with me, it was nice to have her back.

The Salty Ingot was a rundown pub in the worst part of the city. Rowdy cretins that represented the worst parts of society filled the pub to its maximum capacity. We got a room on the lower level and checked in.

Our room was under a rickety roof. The tiles that made up the roof had shifted or came loose and leaked. The hardwood floors were wet. Hekla grinned as she put her pack in a dry corner and leaned up against it. Tomak found another dry corner and plopped down in it. 

I found a semi-dry corner next to the door, and I took my blanket out of my pack and laid it out. From my youth, I’d hated wet clothing. I didn’t mind having an extra layer of protection between me and the floor.

Besides, the room smelled wet, like wet dog to be exact, and we’d be on the road in the morning. All I had to do was get through the night. As is typical of a pub, the inhabitants were rowdy until the wee hours of the morning. None of us got much sleep, but for me and Tomak it was nice to sleep in a room for once.

Even as rickety as the roof was, regardless of how rowdy the scum were, having a room inside of a building was downright civilized. 

At daybreak, we left our room. Drunken dwarves and elves were asleep where they fell. We tiptoed around them as best as we could. All were asleep except for one elf. She sat next to the door and smoked a wooden, curved pipe. 

Unlike Ria, God rest her soul, this elf was young. Her red hair and green eyes set her apart from her kin, as did her tanned skin. The only Elven feature was the shape of her eyes. She stared into my eyes and smiled around the pipe.

“Hello, Chosen.”

We all stopped in our tracks. Tomak put a hand on the hilt of one of his blades. Hekla’s grip tightened on the hammer. I smiled at the pretty elf. 

“Hi,” I replied. “Do I know you?”

“No, but I know you. My name is Keishara Faelen, and I wish to join your party.”

“Oh, and why would I allow that?”

“Because I’d just follow you from afar if you don’t?”

I laughed and my companions relaxed. Keishara smiled and lips pulled back into a gentle smile. “I don’t suppose you have any talent to go along with your charming personality, do you?”

Lightning sparked in her eyes and the air in the pub grew static. I nodded and raised my eyebrows. “Magic,” I grunted. Ria had given her life to protect us, and her loss still cut to the quick. There was no telling what was waiting for us on the trail, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone like Keishara with us.

“Welcome aboard, Keishara. Grab your gear, we must move on.”

She picked up her pack and slung it over her shoulder and tapped out her pipe. Her green eyes shined with mirth, as she looked at her new party. 

“Lead on, Chosen.”

One last piece of business remained, and we stopped at the stables on the way out of Bhal Dahrim. An older woman was up throwing hay to her mounts. She eyed us warily as we told her what we wanted, but in the end we received two mounts. 

Hekla and Tomak rode on one, Keishara and I on the other. Together, we left Bhal Dahrim in search of the Rianna’s Chalice.

While we moved on toward our goal, Schimel was regaining the use of his scorched vocal chords. His speech had improved in clarity, for a few sentences, and his eyes had begun to form anew. Jasmine cleaned his remaining burns, and she smiled when she noticed the first few sprigs of hair that peppered his burnt head. 

He was getting better every day, and soon they would be able to leave this cave in search of his heart’s desire.

The main road became a horse trail not far from the city of Bhal Dahrim. Our progress was slowed to a walk because of the unevenness of the terrain. Keishara wrapped her arms around me tightly and refused to look down. 

“Are you okay, Keishara?”

“Yes, Chosen. I don’t like heights. Sometimes I am overcome with vertigo.”

I looked down at the ground, we were nowhere near the ledge, but I said nothing. Her red hair was curly and it tickled my face as she drew even closer. I could feel her trembling breaths on my cheek.

“Tell me of your home, Chosen. Anything about it, just give me something else to think on.”

“Sure, okay. Um, I’m from a place called Earth, you all know it as KA-87-whatever that is about-and my timeline was 20,000 years ago. Our scientist theorized that our two timelines became intertwined, and we were shot 20,000 years into the future.”

“Your kind must have been overwhelmed by the strangeness of your new home.”

“Yeah, you could say that I reckon. What about you Keishara?”

“I am Elven.”

“Yes, I am aware you’re an elf. Where do you hail from?”

“Voliguard.”

“What is your trade?”

“Magic.”

“Okay, Keishara. If you don’t want to talk to me, I won’t force you.”

“We are talking.”

“How old are you? Are you married? Dating?”

“I am 110 years old. What is married? Dating?”

“Married is married, Keishara. Do you have a someone who you are faithful to? Dating is getting to know someone, you know, you learn their likes and dislikes, and you find out if you have anything in common with them. If you do, and you like how they complement your life, you continue to see them. That may, or may not, lead to a deeper relationship aka marriage.”

“What strange customs you humans have.”

“So, no.”

“I have many spouses, Chosen. Some are intelligent, others creative, and some are funny. Each one serves a purpose and completes me.”

What could I say to that?

I laughed and said, “Well, there you go.” My wording seemed to confuse her, and she replied, “Where did I go, Chosen? I am still here.”

For a 110-year-old, Keishara seemed rather dense to me. Still, if she had a fraction of Ria’s talent for magic, we were in good hands. If she could tell the difference between us and her enemies.

We rode until we came to a dense forest, and the trail guided us into thick foliage that caused us to dismount and lead our horses through. Keishara dismounted and walked beside me. 

“This is a place of death,” she said in a low voice. “Be on your guard, Chosen.”

The smell of death was strong in the air, and I breathed in through my nose and released my breath out my mouth. Something was wrong here. The gnawing feeling in my guts informed me things would get worse before it got better.

Hekla the Younger and Tomak moved up to our side, no words were needed. 

The Night Riders hunted us.

Somewhere in the woods, a horse nickered. Tomak and Hekla had made fun of my statement about ‘killing them’ last night, but at the moment they both seemed keen on the idea. 

We moved deeper into the unrelenting wood. Each step seemed more oppressive than the last. Keishara’s eyes darted from one clump of brush to the next, as if we’d miss a spectral rider atop of a black mangy horse that gorged itself on the corpses slain by its rider. 

A clearing opened up in the woods, and ruins of what appeared to be a village jutted from the ground. It seemed to have existed in a time long ago forgotten. We made camp and the wind kicked up. I pulled my blanket from my pack and wrapped it about my shoulders. The blanket warmed me, and I leaned back against a pillar. 

Keishara came and sat beside me. She was different from the other Elves I’d known. She turned her face toward me and whispered, “Might I rest my head upon you, Chosen?”

“Sure,” I responded. “If you will tell me why you wanted to join my party.”

Keishara put her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. She murmured, “Because I am called to protect you, and I have nowhere else to go.”

Her statement warmed and chilled me at the same time. I bit down on my lower lip and considered what she’d said. “What do you mean called? Did the Chalice call you Keishara?”

She cracked her eyes open and smiled at me a whimsical smile, and whispered, “The Chalice called all of us to your side. Even the Night Riders do the will of the chalice.”

“Rianna’s Tearful Chalice summoned the Night Riders to hunt us? Is it bi-polar? Am I taking too long to reach it? I thought it wanted us to find it!”

Keishara sighed and let out a slight snore in response to my remarks. Night had fallen, stars twinkled in the heavens above, but I felt overwhelmed. Too many things didn’t make sense, and in the span of days, I had spoken to a worm, fought spiders and angry dwarves, burned the remains of Ria, lost my friend Hekla, and found a woman named Hekla the Younger.

To put the cherry on top, we were in a forest of death with the Night Riders hunting us, and a beautiful Elf slept on my shoulder. God only knew what would happen next, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to face my next obstacle.

Schimel had gathered enough strength to sit up. His epidermis had healed enough, and his internal organs had recovered enough functionality that he could sit for an hour at a time. He still needed rest, but he felt like he was growing stronger. Soon, he and Jasmine would leave Sylvania’s Tomb. The hunt for the Chalice continued. 

His eyes and mouth had fully formed, and he could issue orders to the Shunned Dwarves. He’d called a meeting with the remnant left and he’d given them a choice. 

“Join forces with me, or die like Bloodhammer.”

Jasmine had smiled at the directness. None of the remnant had turned away his hand of friendship. Even now, the dwarves built armor, weapons, and prepared to march in service to their liege. 

Soon, the Chosen and whomever sided with them would be given the same ultimatum. 

Join or die.

In the wee hours of the morning, the Night Riders come. Seeking the Chosen, their bloodlust unsated. As they have done before, so they will do again. It is their nature to hunt, to slay that which would use the Chalice, for good or evil it matters not. 

The Chalice must pour its wrath unchecked. Those who dare to stymie the tide are unnatural and must be punished.

I woke to the sounds of Hekla’s war cry, the pounding of hooves, and a lightning storm. Black mangy horses ridden by black-clothed specters charged toward us. Tomak and Hekla stood ready to engage, and Keishara channeled her wrath into multiple bolts of lightning. 

“Come at me,” Hekla shouted. “Come, specter! Meet your doom!”

It took me seconds to rip Malice from my pack, and I pulled my weapon into my shoulder. “Automatic,” I commanded. “Automatic mode, activated.” There were five specters, and I released a bolt as, Hekla charged. Keishara released her lighting and the air grew electric. 

As quickly as the specters appeared, they vanished. Keishara slumped toward the ground. Hekla and Tomak looked around, but the specters were gone. I ran to Keishara and cradled her head in my lap. No blood seeped from her mouth. She opened her eyes and smiled at me. 

“Specters prefer easy prey,” she whispered. “I must regain my strength.”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “I know. Rest for now.”

I covered her with my blanket. Hekla the Younger and Tomak came back to the camp. I wiped at my mouth and closed my eyes. Hekla came and sat beside me. She punched me lightly on the shoulder.

“She’s going to make it,” Hekla said, lifting her chin at the unconscious Keishara. 

“I know, Hekla. How are you holding up?”

“Pretty good,” she snapped. “Given that Tomak told me that my older self died in service to you.”

I scoffed and Hekla grinned at me. She wiped her blond hair from her eyes. “I’d imagine that was quite a shock for you,” I replied. “And to tell the truth, your older self took me in, not the other way around. She helped me when no one else would. We didn’t have a boss-slave relationship, we were friends.”

“Friends,” she muttered. “She sounds like your family.”

“She was. We’d bicker over something trivial, but at the end of the day, I trusted her and vice versa.”

“That’s good to know. I’m glad you had her by your side.”

“Yeah, she was a good one. Her hammer was named Bone Crusher.”

Hekla the Younger cut her eyes to me and said, “Why would she name her weapon?” I laughed. “It’s an Old Earth tradition I taught her. My crossbow is named Malice. She named her hammer right before…”

“The end. She named it and went to sign her death song.”

“Yeah, she was neck deep in enemies.”

“That’s a fine death.”

Keishara stirred and both of us looked at her. She settled back down and rolled onto her side. Hekla looked at the sun. It was growing late. 

“We need to be moving, but the sorceress needs her rest. One more night here, and then we go,” Hekla said. “Tonight, we need a guard. The specters may come back.”

“I agree. We should do it in pairs and in two-hour blocks.”

“Agreed, Jayce. We should fortify our area also.”

I nodded and we went to work. Defenses were built and put into place. Tomak joined in and soon we had a defensible position built up around the camp. Keishara slept until late afternoon. 

She stretched and let out a loud yawn, and then buried her face in my blanket. A few moments later, she brought my blanket to me.

“Thank you for sharing your blanket with me.”

“You’re welcome. How did you rest?”

“I slept well, but I’m hungry.”

“Look in my pack. There’s dehydrated meat in the front pocket.”

She walked over to the pack and pulled out a piece of dried pork. Hekla and Tomak watched her from the other side of the camp. Keishara waved the meat at them, and they waved back. 

Then, she came over to me and sat down. She looked to be a teenager on Old Earth. Her clothing even suggested as such. She wore a tee made from hemp and a long, multi-colored skirt and no shoes.

“What is it, Chosen?”

I found myself staring at her beauty, and I shook my head to clear it. “Nothing, Keishara. I’m just lost in thought.” She leaned toward me and looked in my eyes. “Are you thinking of Old Earth?”

My face blushed red, and I nodded. “Mmhmm. Yep, I am.”

“And what are you thinking of?”

I looked at her. All red hair and green eyes, her clothing, and her wild and free spirit, and I said, “You look as if you just came from Woodstock.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“I don’t know. It was before my time, but people who went seemed to enjoy it.”

Keishara stared at me for several seconds before shrugging and moving on from the subject of Woodstock. I was thankful for that. Here on KA-87 as like on Old Earth, stories took on a life of their own and lived in the minds of the people who heard them. 

As we bedded down for the night, Schimel and Jasmine walked the rough hewn rock hallways and checked on the progress of the dwarves. There was not a single dwarf lazing about. Schimel had spoken, given them a deadline, and expected his newfound forces to be ready by the time he healed up. 

Jasmine stared at him as he inspected the weapons and armor the dwarves had laid out for him to look over. His hair was almost completely regenerated, his eyes were milky white, and his nose and mouth were whole. Even his teeth regenerated. 

Schimel ran finger along the blade and smiled at its sharpness. Things were coming together, and soon he and his forces would storm the region.

“Let it all burn,” he mused to himself. “I will rise from the ashes and rule with tolerance and compassion, but the refuse must be eradicated. Nothing pure comes from the diseased. Let there be all-consuming fire.”

Night fell upon us and Tomak and Keishara took first shift of guard duty. I couldn’t sleep. My mind raced through the dream I had last night, the words spoken in the dream played in my mind. In the wee hours of the morning, the Night Riders come. Hekla was stretched out on her blanket next to the campfire. There would be no sleep for me tonight. I would not get caught with my pants down again by the insatiable specters. 

The night passed without incident. We broke down our camp and made our way deeper into the woods. As we walked through the forest, the air hung heavy with a feeling foreboding, and unbeknownst to us, an army of Shunned Dwarves in heavy armor set out in search of Rianna’s Chalice. 

The morning sun shined brightly through the dense leaves of the trees as we moved onward. A gentle breeze blew and rattled the leaves. It was a gorgeous morning, if you discounted the growing anxiety, and the sense of impending doom. Our search continued, and I wanted nothing more than to be done with this quest. 

Given the difficulty we’d had so far, I considered for not the first time, that I was trapped in a role-playing game on Old Earth. It reminded me of the levels where you struggled between underpowered and overpowered. My problem was I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I reached my goal. 

“Reach your goal and everything will be explained,” is a crappy way to end a video game, much less an apocalyptic prophecy concerning the end of the known universe.

We trekked onward, keeping an eye out for Night Riders and the mangy black steeds they rode on. Wild animals and Night Riders were the only threats we concerned ourselves with. 

Unknown to us, another threat was quickly racing up behind us.

Chapter 7:

Every army had a reconnaissance unit, and Schimel sent his recon unit out with specific instructions. Find the Chosen, mark their location, return and report. Do not engage, and do not give away our pursuit. His instruction were clear and precise. The longer he kept his presence unknown to the Chosen, the better. 

He had no intention of engaging with ‘the scavenger’ until he was healed. Jasmine rode alongside of Schimel and wrote on a sheet of parchment, “Why not kill the Chosen and assume his mantle?” Schimel looked at her and gave her a smile. Jasmine’s heart raced as he wrote his response, “Because, I may need him to get me to the Chalice. If I offer my hand in friendship, he might take it. If he doesn’t, I will use alternative methods of persuasion.”

Jasmine wrote back, “I understand. Thank you for explaining your intentions concerning the Chosen.” Schimel smiled at her, and she smiled back. Her heart fluttered every time he looked at her. She’d never felt this type of emotion with anyone else. 

She was in love with Fez Schimel, and she would book no threat to him or his dreams. He had not fully explained his plans, but that did not bother her. Schimel had not raped her, nor had he mistreated her. In fact, he had given her a chance to be something more than she had been. 

Jasmine was no longer a mercenary beholden to no master. Instead, she was second in command to Fez Schimel, the soon to be deliverer of the world. It was a heady experience to rise so far above her station, and to love the man that dared to save the world from itself. 

The sun glinted off smooth-faced rocks and through the tops of the evergreen trees. It was a beautiful day to pursue and to overcome those who stood against the will of Schimel. 

Tomak had taken point, and Hekla walked ahead of me and Keishara. We caught up with Tomak at a clearing. He knelt next to a brook, and behind the cover of the dense shrubbery, and waited to see if anyone waited on the other side of the clearing. 

We knelt beside him and watched also. Deer meandered into the clearing and grazed upon the brown grass. Tomak turned to me and whispered, “I’m going to cross the clearing. Wait here. If it’s clear on the other side, I’ll wave the next person across.”

“I understand.”

We watched as Tomak darted across the clearing, while he focused on keeping a low silhouette to the ground. He disappeared into the brush on the other side, and reappeared a few seconds later.

He motioned for the next person to join him. Hekla crossed over and took a position facing the flank. Tomak held up two fingers and motioned for us to join them. Keishara and I raced across the clearing and into the dense foliage. 

I took a shallow breath and blew it out. The others gathered around me, and Tomak pointed at the peak of a mountain. “We’re getting out of the woods. Soon, it will be all uphill from here.”

We all chuckled because we knew it would only get tougher from here. Our joviality was cut short by the nickering of multiple horses.

The Night Riders were close and drawing closer.

One of the major problems with an army was the pacing. Wagon wheels must get replaced, heat drained the energy from the stoutest soldiers, hunger weakened them further, and diseases could take a toll if one individual became sick. 

Schimel was learning this lesson the hard way. While lying on his back and trying to recover from the severe burns that covered his body, having an army seemed like a good thing. There were many benefits of having an army. Strength was often derived from numbers, and in this case-going into an unknown area, laden with unknown dangers,-an army could minimize the threat.

In essence, no one dared attack an army without superior numbers on their side. Of course, the Night Riders were specters, and they feared no one. In this case, an army was beneficial in a different way. If the specters attacked, there were plenty of bodies between them and Schimel. 

He considered this while his army caught up with him. His pace, well, the pace of his horse was too fast for the armored footsoldiers to keep up. Schimel and Jasmine had to stop to make sure the dwarves kept going. The higher the sun rose, the greater the temperature grew, and the more drained the dwarves became. 

According to an old map Bloodhammer had kept in his desk, a set of ruins rested not far from their current position. He beckoned for Jasmine to hand over her parchment, and he scribbled on it, “We will push to the ruins and bed down. From this point forward, we will move at night.”

Jasmine nodded her agreement. Schimel muttered curses as the dwarves passed them. Why must everything be so difficult?

Tomak, Hekla the Younger, Keishara and I knelt in the brush and remained quiet. The nickering of horses moved away from us, and we could hear them backtracking the way we’d came. 

After we waited to see if the Night Riders would circle back to us-they didn’t- we continued to push toward the mountain we could see through the canopy of trees. Hekla walked beside me and whispered, “What do you think they were hunting?” I shrugged. As far as I knew, we were the only people out this way. 

This wasn’t Old Earth, and I was not aware of what lay behind the next bush or the next hilltop. I was a stranger in a strange land. We kept walking until we cleared the woods. All around us were crag-faced mountains, and a wooden door that seemed to beckon us to enter it. 

Tomak walked up to me, his face drenched in sweat and breathing hard. He pointed at the mountains and then at the door, and asked, “What now?”

There was no reason to go back, and it was in times like these when I missed Ria. I took several breaths, wiped my mouth, and pointed at the door. “I guess we keep going, Tomak. There’s nothing for us to go back to.”

“True enough.”

We walked through the door and prepared to face whatever lied in the shadows. Tomak once again took point, and we walked deeper into the shadows. I took rear guard and pulled Malice from my pack. My last experience in a cavern had cost me two friends. I had no intention of losing anymore.

Schimel and Jasmine led the dwarves to the ruins, and they pitched in making camp. The cooks set up firepits to cook upon, tents were set up, and by sundown the work was done. 

“Have you heard anything from the scouts,” Schimel asked one of the dwarven commanders. 

“Nay, we’ve heard nothing.”

His answer did not sit well with Schimel, but there was nothing he could do about it at the moment. Traipsing through the woods at night was asking for trouble, and they had enough trouble as it was. 

Lead scout Dru Rebhorn had lost track of the Chosen and his party, after they had crossed the clearing. “Curse it all,”he grunted. The heat beat down upon his armor, heating up his core temperature and reminding him of Bloodhammer’s death. 

Rebhorn had left the rest of his scouting party behind to track up ahead. It was bad enough they were sent out to keep track of the Chosen, but they were given specific instructions on what to do and what not to do. As if we are children, Rebhorn groused. And like children, his party had grumbled under their breath the entire time. As he drew near to where his party waited, Rebhorn heard the nickering of horses. 

“Does Schimel or his silent companion not trust us to complete our task?” Rebhorn stopped short when he saw the bodies of his party lying hacked to pieces on the blood soaked ground. Five black clad riders turned their attention to him, and Rebhorn only had time to scream before a bloody sword cut into the soft flesh of his belly.

Schimel and Jasmine, along with the whole host of the camp heard screams from coming further ahead. The long cry filled the night air and sent chills down Jasmine’s spine. She turned and looked at Schimel. His milky eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he seemed as shocked as she was. 

Jasmine pulled her parchment out and wrote, “What was that?” Schimel took the notebook from her without taking his eyes from where the scream had originated. He took a deep breath and looked down at the written question.

“That was the last member of our scouting party meeting a gruesome death, I fear. Send for the commanders, we must prepare for what is hunting in these woods.” Jasmine nodded, wrote out instructions for the courier and sent them off. 

Whatever was out here, she thought, has frightened Schimel. If he’s afraid, we all should be afraid.

Jasmine had no idea how true her thoughts were. For something in the darkness watched the camp, watched and waited, and soon would bring violence into their midst.

Tomak led us deeper into the cave. Unlike Sylvania’s Tomb, there were no torches lit to illuminate the way forward. Sylvie the Pixie bobbed out of her place of rest within Tomak’s pack. She stretched and showered the area with golden light. Corpses littered the ground all around us. Stone coffins were carved into slabs of marbles. All coffins were planted one end into the ground, the other end pointed skyward. 

It mattered not if the owner of the coffin were rich or common. At the end of the journey we all ended up fertilizer for something else. The place had been ransacked. “Goblins,” Tomak whispered. “Goblins, goblin-kin, and trolls. They slaughtered these dwarves.”

A loose piece of parchment was on one of the coffins. It was held in place by a slender dagger with a curved blade. Someone’s blood, or something’s, was smeared onto the parchment. Whoever had written it was wounded at the time. 

“Herein lies the body of Commander Helga Twinhammers. She of the Legions of Haskel, victor over countless foes in the Rematching, and esteemed leader of our last stand. We fought the goblins and trolls for sixteen days, and took losses every day, but her faith held.”

The letter continued. “Onward! Push them back!” We joined her at the front, screaming, cursing, and slashing at our foes. Arrows deflected off the iron-like skin of the trolls, but Helga would not quit. I watched in stunned silence as she ran up a walkway, and leapt onto the back of a troll. The troll roared in frustration and began to spin in dizzying circles. Helga held up and calmed it by driving her dagger through the soft flesh of its skull.

I continued to read of the exploits of this now deceased warrior. Everyone else scavenged for items we could use on our journey. The bloody letter continued.

“Day 17: I, Joshnuel of Clan Lokvari, woke to the news of Helga Twinhammers passing. Mourning sounds came from all camps. Soldiers, berserkers, and other hard men sobbed like broken boys. I feared my tears would soon join theirs. Our commanders wept in front of us, and the roar of goblins filled our halls. Our sorrow would have to wait.

Dwarves pounded on the breastplates and banged swords against shields, and our chants drowned out our approaching death, “Blood in, blood out.” This became our mantra, our code. It was time to give the devil his due.

Only smudges of the letter remained, but some of it could be read: Goblins are everywhere, as if they were bred last night to replace the losses we inflicted upon them. Massive man-beasts leads them, beasts with bloody faces and teeth…they’re too strong…

…forgive us, Helga. We can’t defeat them…

Run, fools…

A corpse had fallen across the coffin of Helga Twinhammers, others lay about the coffin, and the story of Helga Twinhammers made sense to me. Joshnuel and some of his compatriots had fell back to defend Helga’s body. They were trying to protect the woman they had held in such high esteem, and they had died trying to do the right thing. 

Tradition had demanded they fight to the last man, and from what I saw around the room, they had. 

Hekla the Younger noticed my glance at her, and she gave me a sad smile. “This,” she said as she gestured about the room, “is what we dwarves pray for. To die in glorious battle, to look our enemies in the eye and smile, that is our preferred end.”

“I’d choose to live and fight another day,” Tomak said, as he passed by. “There’s no glory in dying or ending up in the belly of a hungry troll.”

Hekla grinned and snapped back, “That’s why elves have no glory to speak of. You play your political games and call yourselves superior. Glory belongs to those who resist tyranny, who stand strong against the tides of whatever is popular, or wrong. We dwarves are hearty people, strong in our faith, and ruthless to our enemies.”

Tomak turned and lifted both middle fingers at Hekla. She grinned and threw a skull at him. I grinned. Twenty thousand years into the future, and flipping people off was still the preferred method of insulting someone. In a far, distant future, the middle fingers were used to convey displeasure. At least we had that in common.

That simple thing made KA-87 feel almost like home.

Meanwhile back at the ruins, Schimel informed Jasmine and the Shunned Dwarves what was coming. “Prepare your men for battle. Steel their hearts, for the Night Riders are coming.”

One of the commanders snapped, “How do we defeat something that is not flesh? What weapons do we have that can end a specter?”

“I have my magic, but I must have time to speak the words. You must hold them off until I have channeled the words into physical form.”

“You will have it,” Jasmine wrote upon her parchment.

“Thank you,” Schimel responded. “I go to the highest point to prepare. They come!”

Five horses burst from the shadows, five ghostlike specters rode atop the carnivorous, insatiable beasts, and raced toward the camp. The specters drew their weapons as they closed with their enemies.

“Hold,” the cry went up across the lines. Horns broke the silence of the night, and the dwarves shouted their fury at their foes. Then, the Night Riders were upon them. Heads and limbs flew into the air as the horses broke into the lines. Red streams of blood shot into the air and splattered against the cold ground. 

Jasmine picked up an axe and slammed it into the side of one of the horses. The beast stumbled. Dwarves clamored about it and swung hammers and axes into it. With a fury they railed against the beast and rider. 

Dozens of dwarves lay dead about her, and Jasmine looked toward the hill to see where Schimel was in preparation. He was nowhere to be seen. Rage filled her heart, and she released her fury upon her enemy. 

Schimel was gone and had left them all to die. Jasmine screamed her rage, the dwarves bellowed, as the Night Riders cut them down. 

And in the wee hours of the morning, Schimel slinked away through the shadows in search of his heart’s desire.

One by one, Schimel’s army fell to the Night Riders. No mercy was given, and at last, the only one left was Jasmine. Hot tears streamed down her face, and in her heart she prayed for a chance to avenge those who stood and fought with her. She knelt in front of the five specters, put aside her weapons, and bowed her head. Jasmine knew her fate was sealed, and she would not struggle any further.

The blow never came. She looked up, and one Rider still looked at her. The other four were gone. Jasmine gulped air into her lungs, and the Rider tapped its chest, where the heart had once beat, and whispered, “Vengeance.”

The gesture wasn’t lost on Jasmine. The specter wasn’t named vengeance, it was telling her to seek it. She nodded and tapped her heart. The Rider turned the horse and galloped away.

Jasmine had no intention of letting Schimel’s betrayal go unpunished. She would have her vengeance, even if it killed her.

Schimel ran through the forest. He was days behind the Chosen, and must catch up with him if he hoped to persuade him to join with him. His mind turned to Jasmine and for a brief moment, he felt a pang of regret.

He knew she had cared for him, had nursed him back to health after sustaining life ending injuries, and now she was nothing more than a victim to his betrayal. She had stood beside him, protected him, and helped him convince the dwarves to join his cause. 

“Right girl, wrong time,” he muttered.

 It didn’t do him any good to look back. His future beckoned him, and while he wished he could have returned her affection for him, she had to have known he wasn’t the kind of man to tie himself to one woman for any amount of time.

Schimel didn’t slow down until he came upon the mountain range and the wooden door. Four pair of tracks led to the doorway, and he chuckled as he pushed the door open. 

“Everything is going according to the plan. Time to get acquainted with the Chosen.”

Chapter 8:

Jasmine walked the camp and stripped the dead of equipment she could use. She shoved dehydrated meat and fruit into her pack, along with extra bottles of water, salt tablets, and other necessities. 

Then, she stripped off her armor, and dressed in an all-black outfight that allowed her to blend into the shadows. Jasmine handled various weaponry, until she found what she wanted.

She decided on twin daggers, forged within the walls of Sylvania’s Tomb, and a compound bow. Jasmine removed the sheath of arrows from a decapitated archer, and went to the alchemists tent. 

Rows of healing potions, and other alchemical creations lined the shelves. Many people thought dwarves as dense, unintelligent, but a few-rare though they were-possessed an aptitude for science. Jasmine found what she was looking for behind the counter.

“Blood poison,” the wrapper claimed. “Infects the blood of your opponent with an incurable affliction.” She rummaged around in the chest and found another container that said, “magic nullifier.”

Jasmine coated half of her arrows with blood poison, and the remainder with ‘magic nullifier.’ The, she started a campfire and drew the daggers across a whetstone. She would begin her hunt in the morning. 

She had one more male to end, and this time, she would enjoy the killing.

This cave was nothing like Sylvania’s Tomb. There were no hallways cut through the rough hewn rock face. We climbed up, leapt over chasms, and climbed down as we must to make forward progress. We’d walk on level ground for several feet, and then had to do something else to move forward inches at a time.

On and on it went. There were no voices, no chittering of spiders, just silence and our grunts of effort on occasion. It was as if Rianna’s Tearful Mug of Universal Sorrow was testing us further, to see if we’d brave harsh conditions and take leaps of faith. 

I hated it. 

For not the first time in this ‘adventure’, I considered quitting. Screw the universe. Death is preferable to climbing another rock face, or leaping over a chasm in low light conditions.

Yet, we kept on going, and through it all, my friends stood by my side.

Jasmine took off from the camp before daybreak. Schimel already had a healthy head start, and she wasn’t in the mood to give him anymore. She’d brought him back from nigh death, and he had betrayed her. Unlike the mercenaries who ruined her life, Schimel had pretended to care about her. 

I was a tool he used to keep him alive, and when I no longer served his purpose, he tossed me to the side without a second thought. This time, he will pay with his life. Unlike Bloodhammer, I will finish the job. Schimel will look me in the eyes and beg for mercy, but he will find nothing but wrath.

Jasmine broke into a quick-paced jog, and dashed through the woods like a shadow. Her only purpose now was to gut Schimel and find her way home.

This cave was nothing like Sylvania’s Tomb. There were no hallways cut through the rough hewn rock face. We climbed up, leapt over chasms, and climbed down as we must to make forward progress. We’d walk on level ground for several feet, and then had to do something else to move forward inches at a time.

On and on it went. There were no voices, no chittering of spiders, just silence and our grunts of effort on occasion. It was as if Rianna’s Tearful Mug of Universal Sorrow was testing us further, to see if we’d brave harsh conditions and take leaps of faith. 

I hated it. 

For not the first time in this ‘adventure’, I considered quitting. Screw the universe. Death is preferable to climbing another rock face, or leaping over a chasm in low light conditions.

Yet, we kept on going, and through it all, my friends stood by my side.

Jasmine took off from the camp before daybreak. Schimel already had a healthy head start, and she wasn’t in the mood to give him anymore. She’d brought him back from nigh death, and he had betrayed her. Unlike the mercenaries who ruined her life, Schimel had pretended to care about her. 

I was a tool he used to keep him alive, and when I no longer served his purpose, he tossed me to the side without a second thought. This time, he will pay with his life. Unlike Bloodhammer, I will finish the job. Schimel will look me in the eyes and beg for mercy, but he will find nothing but wrath.

Jasmine broke into a quick-paced jog, and dashed through the woods like a shadow. Her only purpose now was to gut Schimel and find her way home.

Schimel was alone in the dark. It was silent, and he missed his companion Jasmine. Silence would still have lingered in the air if she’d accompanied him, but at least with her by his side, he had something else to focus on. Traveling on your own is for the birds. It’s like eating alone in a restaurant, or going to the movies alone. Sure, you can do those things alone, but where is the fun in that?

Besides, Schimel wanted an audience to witness his remaking of the world. Becoming all-powerful, even if it was only temporary, was not something that should be done without people there to ooh and ahh. Schimel was a diva, and this momentous occasion was far too important for only a solitary witness to observe.

The nay-sayers would not relent if there was only one witness to the event. They’d hurl accusations, call him a fraud, or worse, and it would never end. His feat would go down in history as a wild fabrication put forth by a madman.

If several people, even if it was the scum and rejects of society, witnessed it, then the nay-sayers would have to agree with Schimel’s account. 

He craved their adulation, no, he deserved it, and by God, he would have it.

As he pushed on through the darkness, Schimel never considered that death had followed him in the cavern. Blind ambition and unfinished business had dire consequences for anyone-even for the self-proclaimed savior of the universe.

At long last, we made it to what appeared to be level ground. Tomak and Hekla the Younger sat on the ledge and peered into the darkness. Keishara and I sat next to them. All of us were breathing hard. 

Tomak looked over at me and said, “Chosen, you have been quiet.”

“Yeah, Tomak. I’ve been thinking of Helga Twinhammers.”

“What about her?”

“Ah, you know. So far on this trip, I’ve spoken to worms, fought Night Riders, and experienced more strange phenomenon than one man should encounter. The one thing missing is a ghost. I’m just wondering what’s gonna pop out of the bag of strangeness next.”

“You think the ghost of Twinhammers haunts this place?”

“I don’t know. It’s quiet eerie in this place.”

Hekla nodded and gulped air into her lungs, “You’re correct, Jayce. Something is amiss in here.”

Silence fell over us all. Keishara gave me a small smile, and I smiled back. I had come to realize that I liked it when she smiled at me. Sylvie the Pixie burst from her bag and stretched. Golden light illuminated the darkness around us. 

Jewels dotted the landscape. They were everywhere. Diamonds, rubies, precious jewels of all kinds, there was enough on the ground to make everyone of us wealthy for several lifetimes. 

I scooped up a diamond the size of my hand and giggled. The rest of them joined me in picking up the jewels. Hekla shoved several rubies into her pack. I kept the diamond. 

Tomak was shoveling jewels into his empty pockets. All of us were laughing, except for Sylvie. She shook and flittered from one to the other. “Snap out of it,” she screamed at us. “It’s an illusion.” None of us paid any attention to her. 

She zipped up to me and slapped me. It felt like a mosquito had bitten me on Old Earth. I spun about and stared at her. 

“Why did you do that, Sylvie?”

“Because stupid, this is an illusion. There’s no jewels here, it’s a trap.”

From out in the darkness, the howls of goblins grew louder. “Of course, it is. Wake up the others, we’ve gotta move.”

Sylvie grabbed Tomak by his nose hairs and twisted. He yelped in pain, I slapped Hekla. She rubbed her cheek and glared at me, until she heard the footsteps of the goblins. That left Keishara. Sylvie poked her in the eye, and Keishara unleashed a volley of Elven in response to it. 

“Get on your feet,” I shouted. “We’ve got company.”

Thunderous plodding footfalls echoed throughout the chamber. “Kill them,” the goblins shouted. Trolls, massive beings with thick skinned raced toward us. We stood on the edge of the cliff and waited. The trolls sprinted at us, their hearts set on crushing us once and for all.

“Wait for it,” Hekla said, as the trolls grew closer. “Wait… now!”

We leapt to the side, and the trolls, with a headful of momentum went over the side. The goblins screamed their frustrations as we launched our counter attack. Keishara shot fireballs into their midst. Hekla let out a roar and waded into the thick of the battle, her hammer crushed whatever she bludgeoned. 

I pulled Malice into my shoulder and fired. At this range, one bolt would kill three or four goblins. “Automatic!” Malice spit out bolts, and the carnage was filthy. Tomak backstabbed an alpha goblin and disappeared into the shadows, only to reappear behind another.

“Push them back!”

A ghostly apparition appeared from the shadows. The goblins saw it and screamed in fear. Helga Twinhammers pointed a dead finger at them and shouted, “Have at you accursed fiends! I swore vengeance upon you! Your time has come.”

I reloaded Malice and continued to lay down a barrage of fire. The tide turned in our favor. The goblins, caught between us and the ghost of Helga Twinhammers, didn’t stand a chance. 

Keishara and Sylvie channeled their energy together and the chamber became a meteor dumping ground. Massive boulders crashed into the goblins, squashing them like bugs under the weight of Keishara’s white hot rage. 

When the spell was over, Keishara slumped toward the ground. I caught her and laid her down gently. Sylvie seemed exhausted also. Her light flickered and then extinguished. Darkness fell upon us once again, and silence filled the chamber. 

“Is everyone okay?”

Each one answered in the affirmative, well all except Keishara, who was passed out from the immense exertion the spell called for. I cradled her in my head, and for some reason I felt that the worst was yet to come.

Jasmine raced across the clearing and across the brook. She knew she was closing with her prey. Soon, she would have her daggers at the throat of Schimel, and her bloodlust would be sated.

Or she would be dead. 

Either way, she planned to take Schimel with her. Jasmine kept the same pace, quick as a rabbit she dashed through the area. She did not fear the Night Riders, not since the one had sent her on this quest to find, and to kill, Schimel.

It didn’t take her long to clear the woods, and she found herself facing the mountain ranges. A series of tracks led to the door, and Jasmine smiled. It was as if the gods of her world had ordained her mission of vengeance. 

She pushed the door open and slipped inside. It was dark in here and silent. Jasmine shoved the door shut and knelt low to the earth. 

It was time to hunt. 

Schimel made good time through the dark cave. He, like those ahead of him, climbed up and down and leapt across precarious chasms, as needed. Unlike the party he pursued, he only had himself to worry about. 

The sounds of a fierce battle, accompanied by the screams of raging goblins, filled the cave. He had no idea how close he was to the party until trolls began flying off the side of the ledge above him.

A troll smashed into the ground in front of him, and Schimel dropped back. More trolls followed the one that had crashed into the earth. Somewhere above Schimel, he heard a woman shout, followed by instructions to push them back.

For a moment, Schimel considered joining the fight. It could endear him to the Chosen, but in the end, he decided it best to make his approach when they exited the cavern. Herein the system of caves his intentions could be misconstrued, not to mention as a sorcerer he would have to channel his spells if things went awry, and they outnumbered him four to one.

No, he would wait for a prime opportunity to make his presence known. He leaned against the wall and listened to the battle. The sounds of dying goblins filled the air, and Schimel knew the Chosen had defeated his enemies. 

He smiled and closed his eyes. There was no sweeter feeling than knowing you had survived another encounter.

His time would come, and he would savor that feeling.

The ghost of Helga Twinhammers stood shimmering in the darkness of the cave. She knelt beside the corpse of one of the alphas. I walked over to her, and she looked up at me. 

“What are you? Where did you learn to fight with such fierceness?”

I touched my chest and said, “My name is Jayce Wellspring. I’m not from here, but I served in my world’s military. To answer your question, I am human.”

“Human? Hmm, you have my thanks human. You defeated an enemy I could not. You avenged my men. Why are you here?”

“I seek Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.”

Helga Twinhammers scoffed and shook her head. “Another fool on the same fool’s errand. The chalice is a myth, human. The prophecy is not real.”

“Be that as it may, commander, I’ve come this far. I would see it done.”

“Then, you must go forth and seek. Trust no one, Jayce Wellspring.”

As she spoke the last of the words, her glow shimmered, and she vanished from our sight. Behind me, the other three stood staring at the spot where Helga Twinhammers had disappeared.

“We need to keep moving,” Tomak said, as he started down the path. The rest of us nodded and fell into step. I needed time to think things over. What had the spirit meant? Trust no one. 

Whatever remained of this journey, I would need to exercise a greater awareness than I had so far.

Jasmine crept through the cavern like a silent predator on the hunt for wounded prey. Her black suit made her nigh invisible. Atop of a pillar of stone, she tried to see further than the chasm stretched before her. It was pointless. 

She took great care in calculating the distance between her place and the lip of the cavern on the other side. When she went into hunter mode, Jasmine made her moves in a slow and methodical manner. 

Each move was connected to the previous. In truth, she seemed a ballerina skilled not only in dance, but also in the arts of death. Jasmine took a deep breath and released it through her nostrils. She took three steps, leapt,and landed on the other side. 

Each step drew her closer to her prey. He had relayed his plan to approach the Chosen, to persuade him to join Schimel’s cause, but she doubted he would make his attempt within the cavern. 

He was far too smart for that. As a sorcerer, he knew he needed time to channel the spells, even a minor spell required undisturbed concentration, and outnumbered he stood no chance against a party. 

However, if he could get into the wilds, things were more to his favor. He could cast invisibility and slink away, only to reappear with a fully channeled spell at the ready. 

Both Jasmine and Schimel had a deadline. She needed to find and kill Schimel before he found and approached the Chosen. 

With every step of progress, she drew closer to her prey, but she was also racing the clock. Time was not on her side, and she must find his trail before he found the party of ‘scavengers.’

Fez Schimel waited several hours before he began his climb to the ledge. He found enough handholds for him to reach to almost the top, but there was nothing to grasp onto to get him close enough to reach the ledge. 

“Come on, don’t do this to me.”

His mind began to wander, and he closed his eyes to calm his mind. As a boy, his father tried to teach him to levitate.“It’s a matter of concentration, the same as any other spell. Calm your mind, focus on the air around you.” Little Fez Schimel, the would-be savior of the world, could not cast the junior spell. Even as an adult, he could not bring himself to release himself into the arms of faith.

“I’ll die,” he told his father.

There was something horrifying about releasing your control of the universe and trusting that it would catch you. Here on this ledge, the awaiting maw of the abyss underneath him scared him more than a one-on-one battle with one of the Night Riders.

Schimel’s breath trembled. “Don’t look down, don’t look down,” he chanted to himself. His grasp on the handhold tightened. “God, I’d do anything for Jasmine to be here, right now.”

The Old Earth saying ‘be careful what you wish for,’ could not have been more aptly illustrated than in this moment.

The moment when the silent hunter happens upon it’s unaware prey.

Jasmine had climbed down and found the tracks of her prey in the loose sand of the cavern. From the shadows, she watched Schimel climb as high as he could. She took the bow in hand, and notched an arrow dipped in magic nullifier. 

Schimel gasped and tightened his grip. Jasmine smiled and released the tension of the bow. The arrow sailed true and pierced Schimel’s right shoulder. His scream echoed throughout the cavern.

Jasmine notched a blood poison arrow and fired it into his right shoulder. Again, Schimel yelled. He turned his head and tried to look down at the floor. Jasmine stepped from the shadows. 

“Don’t, Jasmine. I’m so close,” Schimel cried out, the pain that pulsed within his body was magnificent. His blood boiled, he had not one spark of magic left to him. Hot tears burned down his face, as he stared at the woman who had loved him, nay nurtured him, and helped him recover his health while waiting at Death’s door.

“Please, I need your help. I was wrong to leave you there. We can start anew. Please, have mercy on me, Jasmine.”

Jasmine looked at him and gave him a tight lipped smile. She drew a tear from her right eye to the edge of her jawline and notched another arrow. 

She took aim and fired an arrow. It pierced the eye of her great love and ended his life. Then, she sat down in the dark and sobbed. 

Her love was dead, and she knew that inside her heart, she was too.

Chapter 9:

Somewhere in the darkness of the cavern, as scream broke the silence. We all stopped and turned. It had come from behind us, back the way we had come from, and we all stood immobile-like statues-with our breath held. A few moments of silence was followed by another scream.

“Let’s keep moving,” Hekla the Younger whispered to me.

I nodded my head in agreement. Whatever was happening back there had nothing to do with us. Tomak and I walked ahead of Keishara and Hekla. It was nothing personal, I just wanted to be in front. Just in case whatever was causing the screaming decided to come after us. 

Preparation was the better part of valor, or so I told myself. 

In truth, I hated caverns. The oppressive darkness, the creepy things that lived within it, it was enough to make your skin crawl.

Since we entered this cave, we had fought goblins, trolls, and been visited by a ghost of a dead Dwarven commander, and we weren’t even close to leaving this cave system.

Sylvie kept flying ahead of us illuminating the surroundings. Even with her light, it was slow going. The inky blackness of the cave caused us to slow way down. The trail narrowed up ahead, and we all went back to a single file line.

Keishara tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Who do you think that was screaming?”

Hekla had taken rear guard, Keishara walked in front of her, and Hekla responded to her question with an unseen shrug, “It doesn’t matter now. Whoever it was, they aren’t screaming anymore.”

Tomak whispered, “Which means whomever was killing them may be on our tail right now. So shut up, and let’s get out of here.”

Tomak had a way with words. He was a slight Elf, but he was nasty with his blades. He reminded me of an Old Earth saying, “Dynamite comes in small packages.” Tomak’s thin frame held many sticks of dynamite judging by his skill at combat. The elf was fearless.

Our trail widened and we began to walk two-wide. Tomak put his hand up, and we all halted. Below us fires raged. Goblins and trolls danced and screamed. We all crept to the ledge and looked down. 

A massive camp of enemies were below us. Behind the pillars, a massive golden scaled tail swished back and forth. 

“Chosen, do you see what I see?”

“I don’t know, Tomak. What did you see?”

Tomak tore his eyes from the camp and looked at me. “You saw that tail with the golden hue to it, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I saw it. What is it?”

“A dragon,” Hekla whispered. “How though? They’ve been extinct for hundreds of years.”

Loud flapping sounds buzzed the air, and below us multiple dragons ascended into the air. “Yeah,” I whispered back to Hekla. “They weren’t extinct. They were hibernating.”

“The Chalice,” Keishara whispered. “It sang them to sleep, and now it’s waking them up. We must be getting close.”

One by one, we slid down the ledge and walked a several feet from the ledge. We gathered in a half circle, and each of us refused to look the others in their eyes. To do so would give validity to what we’d just witnessed.

“Well, that’s just great,” I said, hoping to break the dour mood with some levity. “We’ve come all this way and now have to dance with dragons.”

Keishara shook her head no, which caused her curls to bounce, and she said, “Dragons will kill you, Chosen. You do not want to dance with them. They will kill you, cook you, and then eat you.”

I stared at Keishara, and her eyes bore into mine. Her lips were tight, no humor was found on her face. Her eyes narrowed, and the veins in her neck was taut enough to walk over.

I grinned. Hekla snorted, and even Tomak found a bit of a smile. Keishara stared at us like we’d all lost our minds.

“What is so funny? The dragons will kill him.”

Tomak chuckled and said, “he was only kidding,” as he explained it to her. Realization dawned upon her, and she wagged her finger at me and giggled. Hekla grinned and leaned forward. She seemed to lose some of her smile though, when she nodded at the ledge and whispered, “Let’s not forget that big camp of goblins, trolls, and that big freaking dragon they’re worshiping.”

I waved a hand dismissively and quipped, “That’s too easy. I’ll go down there and explain that we’re trying to bypass their camp. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Mmhmm, I’m sure they will,” Hekla remarked. 

Footsteps sounded behind us, and we all whipped around with our weapons raised. A black-clad woman, an elf no less, came into view. 

Hekla’s lips pulled back into a snarl, and she pointed her axe at the woman. “Who are you?”

The woman held her hands up, a piece of parchment in one hand, and she handed it to me. On the parchment she wrote, “I mean you no harm, Chosen. There’s another way out of here.”

Hekla took a menacing step toward the woman and repeated her question, “Who are you, elf?” Jasmine held up one hand, and with the other wrote, “My name is Jasmine. I’m a paid companion, a warrior, and until recently, your enemy.”

She tore it off and shoved it at me. I read it, looked at Jasmine, and showed it to the rest. “Schimel,” Tomak groused. “He hired her.”

I took a step toward her and leaned close to her, and asked, “Was that Schimel screaming?”

Her eyes darkened with tears, one slipped free from the corner of her eye. She nodded and tapped the bow, then pulled out two empty bottles and handed them to me.

“Blood poison and magic nullifier,” I read aloud. I didn’t need to know anything else. Jasmine had killed Schimel for her own reasons, and I didn’t doubt for one moment that she would kill me should I cross her.

Hekla came up to me and knelt beside me. 

“Jayce, what do you want to do with her?”

“I say we follow her. If she knows a way out of here that isn’t crawling with dragons, goblins, or trolls, I think we should take it.”

“Where’s Schimel?”

I shrugged and said, “Somewhere deep in a ravine with poisoned arrows stuck in him, I assume.”

Hekla stared at me with disbelief written all over her face, so, I handed her the two bottles.

“She killed him?”

“Looks like it to me.”

Hekla nodded okay and went back to tell the others of our plan to avoid the dragons. I motioned to Jasmine that we were ready to travel. 

“We’re right behind you,” I whispered.

Jasmine wrote on the parchment and passed it to me, “follow me, stay close, and stay quiet.”

Her note ranked pretty high in terms of the most useless advice I had ever received. It was up there with such classics like, “just follow your heart,” or “snap out of it and be happy.”

We followed her as she led us back in the direction we’d came from. Sylvie raced ahead and illuminated the way. 

Our back tracking reminded me of another Old Earth saying, “When one door shuts, another one opens.” Jasmine’s sudden appearance gave me cause to worry, but I knew for certain I wasn’t prepared to take on a camp of goblins, trolls, and dragons. 

If I could stave off my impending death for just a while longer by following this silent killer, I was more than happy to do so.

Besides, what alternative did we have?

Sylvie dashed ahead and the area was washed in her light. Jasmine stopped at the right side of the ledge and looked down. I felt a tug on my sleeve, and Hekla motioned for me to join her. 

Schimel was pinned to the ledge. An arrow shot through both shoulders, and another arrow stuck in his eye. 

Jasmine looked at us, and I returned her stare. Hekla met my eyes, and I shrugged.

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” 

Then, I walked back to Jasmine. As I drew near, I could hear the flow of running water. 

“A stream,” Keishara whispered. “How did we miss it?”

Hekla shrugged her massive shoulders and said, “probably because we were neck deep in goblins and trolls. Then, that ghost showed up.”

Keishara shrugged and motioned her surrender with her hands, “I guess.”

Sylvie flew a few feet from the ledge, and her light showed us the way down. As far as I could tell, no dragons had noticed us. It wasn’t that far from the main camp, but for now, we were safe.

Jasmine went down first, followed by Hekla. Tomak and Keishara went next, and I brought up the rear.

Tomak took Sylvie in hand and spoke a few words in Elvish. Her light dimmed, and we crept through the shadows until we reached the stream. Downstream, the goblins still danced. Trolls strolled back and forth on patrol. The dragons rested up high on salt rock formations.

I felt overwhelmed all of a sudden. Here we were on level ground with our enemies, and I could see no way out. Jasmine took my hand and led me into the stream. We stayed low and crept upstream. 

The rest followed us into the stream. After we walked several feet upstream, Jasmine and I crossed over to the opposite bank. Hekla exited the stream behind us, and Tomak and Keishara were the last out. So far, so good. 

Jasmine pointed at a large hole in the wall, and motioned for us to head toward it. Freedom, or something like it, waited on the other side. 

As we drew close to the hole, the air grew sweeter. Sunlight flickered above us, and I almost shouted for joy. We climbed out of the hole, and I had never been so happy to be above ground. 

Sparse woods made up the area, and we walked about a mile from the hole before we celebrated our exit from the cave. Jasmine wrote on her parchment and handed it to me. “It was nice meeting you, Chosen. Go, and bring peace to our land. I go in search of a home. Farewell.”

“I could use a drink,” Hekla quipped. Tomak and Keishara laughed and agreed with her. I met Jasmine’s eyes and extended my hand to her. She gripped it tightly and gave me a sad smile.

“Farewell, Jasmine. Take care of yourself. I hope you find what you are looking for. One day, we will meet again.”

I watched as Jasmine walked away and disappeared into the brush. Hekla, Tomak, and Keishara hollered for me to join them, so I did. 

Soon, they had a campfire going, and we all stretched out on our blankets. We were content, but my mind kept replaying what we saw in the cave. 

“Now, I’ve seen everything.”

Chapter 10:

Jasmine walked away from the camp, and bitter tears flowed down her cheeks. She’d felt like she belonged with the Chosen’s party, but she knew this path the Chosen was put upon, didn’t come from fate or prophecy, but because he had sufficient will to use the Chalice.

Besides, she had accomplished her goal.

She had tracked, hunted, found, and slain the man that betrayed her heart. Her heart grieved with every arrow she’d placed in Schimel’s body, but he had betrayed her-not the other way around. Schimel had used her as a tool, and she could not let that go.

Now, her heart ached, but her conscience was clear. As her mentor had told her, “You do not leave your enemies alive, love. You end them, and make sure they stay dead. That way you can rest easy at night.”

From the wood line, she heard the nickering of a horse. Jasmine came up short and stopped in her tracks. The solo Night Rider was back. He stared at her, and she at him.

“Vengeance?” He whispered it so low, Jasmine was afraid she had misunderstood him. The air around them seemed to chill, as if they stood in a cemetery late at night. She nodded and put her hand over her heart. She bowed her head and said, “Vengeance. It is done.”

The Night Rider gazed at her, and in a sense she felt he looked at her like he might have at his own daughter. He put his hand on his chest in a solemn salute and whispered, “good.”

Then, he was gone.

Jasmine stood there for a long moment and considered what had happened. Why was she spared the fate of Bloodhammer’s Shunned Dwarves? What had she done to deserve a reprieve from the gruesome deaths so many had received that day?

She didn’t know, and she didn’t care to find out. It was enough that the Night Rider had chosen to spare her. The fact that he had checked to see if she had followed through on her quest bothered her, but she had passed the specter’s test. 

Now, she would leave these woods and go search for a place where she would belong. Even on this ragtag planet, there must be a place where she could find peace and solace and fit in. Her self-mutilation aside, someone must have a need for a woman as talented as she was. Or, perhaps she would find her way to a monastery and live a life of tranquility high in the mountains of the Calderstable Mountain Range.

Jasmine did not know what the future would hold, but she was glad to have survived this ordeal. She was glad to have a future.

We camped for the night, and then at daybreak we headed for the Cliffs of Failure. We could see them in the distance, and a sense of foreboding set into my mind, like a thick, relentless fog. 

Hekla noticed the change in my mind first. She walked up beside me and tapped me on the shoulder. 

“Why are you so down in the mouth, Jayce? We’re not far from the supposed final resting place of the chalice.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you okay? The journey is almost over. Soon, you will reset the chalice, and life will go on.”

“I don’t know that I want to, Hekla.”

Hekla scoffed at me and shook her head. “What’s that supposed to mean,” she quipped. “You are the Chosen. That means you’re supposed to reset it, dummy.”

“Look around you, Hekla. There are people enslaved, Night Riders out there killing people who hunt this fabled thing, and now freaking dragons. Dragons, Hekla. Things that never existed on my world. Not in the sense they do here anyway.”

“Calm down, Jayce. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay, Hekla. All these things I just mentioned, Rianna’s Chalice is responsible for it. If I don’t reset it-BAM! END OF THE FREAKING WORLD!-and if I do, slavery continues. The Righteous Dwarves and Elves continue to snub their nose at the Shunned Dwarves and the rest of us. Life goes on.”

We walked in silence a bit longer. Keishara and Tomak said nothing to me, but I could tell my rant hurt their feelings. They couldn’t no more change their race than I could change my skin tone. 

I didn’t expect them to, and I wouldn’t have even if I could. We are as we are made, and there was no defect in our Creator’s design. 

Things were amiss in this New World I had landed in, and I had the power to stop it from capitulating into total chaos, thus, I had a responsibility to do something about it. 

I just didn’t want to. 

“Guys, lets stop for a minute,” I said. Everyone stopped, but no one looked at me. 

“Look, I know I said some pretty horrible things back there. I didn’t mean it the way it probably came out. Tomak, you’ve been by my side since Sylvania’s Tomb. We put Ria to rest. You’re my friend. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Hekla the Younger, you’re the spitting image of Hekla the Brave, the woman who saved my life. What can I say about you? You’re stout-hearted, a roaring piece of fierceness in a dwarven shell. I appreciate all that you’ve done for me. 

And Keishara, you’re you. All the wonderful, gooey emotions that make up who you are…you’re great. I am beyond thankful that you are here with us.”

I took a deep breath. It was time to tell them the truth. 

“There’s a voice in my head that is screaming at me. That this world is not worth saving, that our society is not worth redemption. It won’t shut up. I know I must reset the chalice, but I don’t know that I have the will to use it. Or even if I have the strength to even make it to the chalice.”

Tomak came over and put his hands on my shoulder and looked me in my eyes. “Then, we will make sure you get there, my friend. For Ria, for Hekla the Brave, and for all the rest of us.”

Tears wet my eyes, and I nodded. “For Ria, and for Hekla the Brave,” I whispered. “Lets go a little further.”

We set out together, four friends with a renewed sense of purpose. To find Rianna’s Tearful Chalice and to empty the surplus of the universe’s tears.

It would be done, and I would stand before the chalice and make the world right.

But first, we must make it to the Cliffs of Failure.

We made good time, better than I expected with the fog that clouded my mind, and the screeching, unrelenting voice in my head that continued it’s unabated assault. We stopped for the night under tall pines and aspen trees. 

Keishara came and sat next to me. She put her hand against my forehead and frowned. 

“Chosen, you have a fever.”

“Yeah,” I grumbled. “I’ve had it all day.”

She leaned over and looked me in the eyes. Her green eyes lit up when I met her gaze. I raised my eyebrows and waited for her to say something else. She licked her lips and leaned closer.

“What are you going to do when this is all over?”

“I’m going to hunt down a wife, have some children, and sleep for two eternities after we’ve had them.”

Hekla laughed and raised her mug in salute to my plan. Tomak grinned and shook his head, but Keishara leaned closer, her eyes still locked on mine.

“Am I wife material?”

I coughed and swallowed hard. She continued looking into my eyes, and I cleared my throat. “Um, sure. You would make someone a good wife, I’m sure.”

“That’s not what I asked, Jayce. Would I make you a suitable wife?”

What do I say to that?

She looked like a vision of heaven, and my heart raced in my chest. Keishara was a beautiful woman, what with her red hair and curls, her pale skin and green eyes. She was fierce in battle, and kind the rest of the time. Intelligence and wit came in equal shares with her. 

“Um, I’m sure you would make me a fine wife, Keishara. Um, but we still have this whole ‘save the world thing’ going on at the moment.”

Hekla and Tomak no longer existed, there was only Keishara and I at the camp. Her full lips pulled into a soft smile, and she nodded her head in agreement. “I think so too,” she murmured. I woke startled and sat up. My breath trembled in the night air. 

Everyone else was asleep, but a figure stood at the camp fire. She looked at me, and I stared back. I stood and walked toward her. 

“Who are you?”

The blond woman turned and looked at me. She tilted her head and seemed to look into my soul. She didn’t frown, but she didn’t smile either. 

“I am Shia, guardian of Rianna’s Tearful Chalice. You have come a long way, Jayce Wellspring. Further than I anticipated.”

“Are you the voice in my head?”

Shia tilted her head and stared at me without blinking. I now knew how women on Old Earth felt when men gawked at their beauty. I felt naked underneath her gaze.

“The voice in your head is your own doubts about the rightness of your quest.”

“I don’t understand.”

While Shia’s attention was turned from me, I kicked Hekla’s boot. She didn’t respond, and when I looked up Shia smiled.

“Your friends are in a deep slumber. Come, Jayce Wellspring. Lets converse about Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.”

She walked deeper into the forest, and I followed in her wake. Shia stopped atop of a small hill that overlooked a large lake with serene waters. The moon sat high in the sky, its beams danced happily across the surface of the lake.

Shia sat on the soft green grass, and I sat next to her. Her blonde hair shifted in the gentle breeze. 

“What do you know of the chalice?”

“It’s said to hold the tears of the universe. That when it overflows the universe is forever eradicated.”

“That is not true. Words such as apocalypse, cataclysmic, are attached to such things as Rianna’s Chalice, but it does not make it so.”

“So what happens?”

“Life is altered. There is always a price to pay, Jayce Wellspring. I would not have you suffer needlessly.”

“Well, that’s nice of you,” I scoffed. “Why are you here, Shia?”

“I’m here to take measure of your heart. You have made it further than most, and that is a testament to the strength of your will, but how much loss can you bear without losing your mind?’

Below us, the lake shimmered and the waters pulled back to reveal Hinkey. Over the waters, his voice called out, “Hey, Jayce! I hope things are going well for you, bud.” The waters shimmered, and the scene of his death played upon the waters.

Then it showed Hekla the Brave, Ria, and I put my hand up. Tears wet my face, my bottom lip trembled, and I muttered, “What do you want, Shia?”

“Why do you weep, Jayce Wellspring?”

“Because these are my friends, you heartless shrew. If you’re here to torment me, then you should get on with it. Because come daybreak, I’m headed for the Cliffs of Failure.”

The waters shimmered, and Shia showed me the scene of Kegger slapping the slave girl on her buttocks. Then, the scene of her dead on the filthy hay. Another scene played, and it was the stablemaster, Tom, being turned into ash by Schimel. 

“All around you, people pay the price for what you are, Jayce Wellspring. Your friends die, your companions meet gruesome ends. Would you have them suffer? You can turn back and let the events unfold. Life will go on.”

She stood and trekked back toward camp, and once again, I followed in her wake. My tears felt like boiled water on my cheeks, and my heart ached. Shia wasn’t wrong, people had died for me, and because of me. 

Shia led me back to camp, and when I walked up the campfire, Shia vanished. All around me, my companions stretched and yawned. Keishara saw my tears, and she walked over to me. She brushed them from my cheeks. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she tilted her head to look me in my eyes. 

“Oh no,” I thought. “I had a dream about this, no way am I having this conversation again.”

Her green eyes met mine, and she gave me a soft smile. Keishara leaned close to my ear and whispered, “I want to talk to you later. It’s about this dream I had.”

My heart raced, and once again, a lump grew in my throat. “Okay,” I managed to mutter, “we’ll talk later.” Hekla and Tomak watched from their blankets and grinned. I knelt next to the fire and looked at my companions.

“Um, we had a visitor last night. Her name is Shia, and she’s the guardian of Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.”

“What? You didn’t wake us,” Hekla bellowed. 

I put my hand up, and said, “I tried to wake you, Hekla. She cast a spell on the camp, and you guys were in a deep sleep.”

“What did she want, Chosen?”

“I don’t know, Tomak. We went for a walk, and she showed me the impact I had on the lives of those around me. Danger awaits us at the Cliffs of Failure, I feel that in my bones. It’s nothing like we’ve faced so far.”

“Then, we should get underway,” Hekla snorted. “There’s no point in sitting around a campfire talking things over.”

The others murmured their agreement. I took a deep breath, and looked at my friends before I spoke. Their eyes met mine, and I said, “It doesn’t feel right to expect you guys to follow me any further. If you do, you do so of your own free will. You can leave at anytime, and I will bear you no ill will.”

Tomak stood and stared at me, “I swore to Ria I would see this done. Lets get to it.” Hekla stood beside him and said, “hear, hear.” Keishara joined them, and said, “I can’t have my husband off traipsing in the mountains with only these heathens for company. I am with you to the end.”

Tomak burst into laughter, and Hekla joined in. I put my hand on my head and chuckled. Keishara stood and watched us laugh. “What? I can’t,” she exclaimed. “You are my beloved.” Her words caused Tomak and Hekla to howl with laughter. 

Keishara shook her head and crossed her arms. Her right foot tapped the ground, and I walked over to her. I slipped one arm around her tiny waist and pulled her to me. Tomak and Hekla quit laughing. I stared into Keishara’s green eyes, leaned toward her, and her lips parted. 

Our lips touched, and we seemed to melt into one another. Keishara wrapped her arms about me, and it was the single most wonderful kiss of my life. 

“Aww,” Hekla crooned, as she slammed a heavy hand into my back. “We don’t have time for this. Let’s move.”

I pulled away from Keishara and her warm embrace and cleared my throat. “Right,” I muttered. “Lets get on the road.”

The Cliffs of Failure loomed high against a black clouded back drop of misery. My test would soon begin, Shia had given me just a taste of what awaited within the crags and crevices of the home of Rianna’s Chalice.

Was my will sufficient to the task? I did not know, but I knew I had to try. If for no other reason than for my friends, and my newfound love.

Jasmine walked along the road that led to Voliguard, and she came to a crossroad with roads leading in all directions. Her life as a mercenary waited for her in Voliguard, but she wasn’t keen on returning to a life of violence under the command of someone else. 

Harbormasters were always looking for help. She could work in relative peace and if things grew to hectic, she could sneak aboard a ship and sail the ocean blue, but that didn’t seem to fit her desire either. 

Neither did farming, fishing, or maid. Her thoughts briefly lingered over the possibility of owning a pub, but she decided against it. Without the tongue to speak, she would be miserable trying to instruct her employees on what she wanted. Yes, she could lead them by example, but if she was doing all the work- who would mind the shop?

Jasmine looked toward the Calderstable Mountains, and began her trek to the monastery. Grape vineyards grew on both sides of the road, and tranquility seemed to fill her soul as she walked along the dirt path. Children chased each other through the rows, and some even waved at her. 

She smiled and waved back. Yes, this is what she had craved. Smiles and laughter and just a touch of peace. The world made sense to her now, and she had not even arrived at the monastery yet.

Chapter 11:

Shia waited for us at the base of the Cliffs of Failure. Her blonde hair was put up into a tight bun, her eyes were dark-like lifeless planets-and she carried dual Elven swords. 

“You’ve come, Jayce Wellspring. A narrow suspension bridge crossed over a massive chasm behind her, and she gestured at it. 

“This is the beginning of your trial. Your friends must wait here. They cannot accompany you any further. I can transport them to Voliguard if they wish.”

“No,” Hekla snarled. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Same,” Tomak said also. 

“Sister, there must be another way for us to join the Chosen.”

Shia smirked at Keishara’s statement. Her pointed gaze bore into Keishara’s green eyes. She waved a hand dismissively at her words. “You were always weak, Keishara. You know the rules, the same as I. The Chosen must walk this path alone.”

“Fine then, let’s have it done.”

“You have time to say your goodbyes, but do not linger. I will await you on the other side of the chasm.”

I turned to my friends and gave them a smile. They all seemed solemn, as if I was dead already, so I walked over to Hekla and gave her a hug. She wrapped her muscled arms around me and squeezed me tight, and said, “Don’t keep me waiting, Jayce. We have monsters to slay.”

I let her go and shook Tomak’s hand. He looked away and said, “It’s been an honor to fight at your side, Chosen. I wish you well on this part of your journey.” I pulled him into an embrace, and he did not resist. “Thank you for walking with me, my friend.”

Keishara waited for me by the suspension bridge. She hugged me tight and whispered, “I never got the chance to tell you of my dream.” I smiled and nestled into her mess of curly red hair until I found her ear. “It’s okay, Keishara. I had the same dream. You would make me a fine wife.”

I heard her whimper and felt a wet tear on my neck. Shia stood on the other side and said, “It’s time, Chosen. Come across.”

“Goodbye, my friends. I hope to see you all soon.” I wanted to use a line from a famous Old Earth movie, “I’ll be back,” but I had no idea what waited for me on the other side, and it was far too soon to assume I would return at all.

Once I crossed the chasm, the fog in my mind lifted. Shia motioned for me to follow her, so I did. We entered the first crag, known as The Hall of Mental Query and Clarity. Rows upon rows of benches filled the area. A tall specter with a battle scarred face, by which I mean his face bore scars all over it, stood in front of a doorway, and waited for me. He wore gold armor, was slight of build, but had a heavy presence about him. 

Shia and I walked up to him. He looked at my weapon and said, “There’s no need for weapons at this point of the test, Chosen.”

I sat it down on the bench behind me, and turned to face him. He studied me, and said, “Welcome to the Hall of Mental Query and Clarity. Behind me, through the door you see yonder, you will be asked questions. Your answers must be true, or you will die. IF you pass, you will then move to the next level. IF you do not pass, your corpse will feed the ravens at the bottom of the chasm.”

“I understand, specter.”

“Then, you may begin.”

Shia led me to the door, a heavy marble slab of a door with an intricate pattern carved into it. It was beautiful and white, with shades of grey and black etched throughout. Shia caught me looking at it. 

“You are wondering at it’s design?”

“No, I am admiring it.”

“Why so? It’s only a door.”

“Look at it, Shia. The door is mostly white, but it would not be beautiful if these other colors did not mix with it. Because of the intermixing of the colors, you have this beautiful door, the design itself is a thing of beauty, but alone it is nothing.”

“It is a door, and it serves a purpose. That is all it is.”

“Yes, to you that is all it is. To me, it is much more than just a door.”

“Enter,” Shia snapped. “Enter, and be tested, Chosen.”

I walked through the door, and it slammed shut behind me. The room was dark with a lone pit of fire at the end of the path. The air was chilled, and the pit itself was nothing special, but the fire was blue. 

The earth about me rumbled, and crack appeared on the surface. They exploded upward as the worm I had spoken to earlier in my journey burst forth. 

“Chosen, you have come to be tested,” it said. 

“Yes, I am here.”

“What of your companions?” 

The ghosts of Hekla the Brave and Ria stepped forward from the shadows. Both looked at me and smiles stretched across their faces. I smiled back and nodded to them. 

“Search your feelings, Chosen. What did you feel when you knew of their deaths? Were you sad? Happy? Tell me, what your truest feelings were.”

“How do I answer that? No, I wasn’t happy they died. Was I sad? Sure, but I was also angry.”

“Why were you angry? Your kind dies, none save the elves are immortal. The Dwarves have long lifespans, but they die. Death is proof of living, the burden of your mortality.”

“Why was I angry? They died, that’s why! I don’t care what happens to this world, it’s not mine, and yet somehow, I ended up ‘chosen’ to bear this burden.”

The ghosts of Hekla the Brave and Ria seemed saddened at my outburst, but the worm seemed pleased with my answers. “You speak true, Chosen. You may pass.” I tried to make it to my friends, but they vanished with the disappearance of the worm. 

Behind the cistern of blue flame, another door opened and Shia appeared next to it. “Come, Chosen. More questions await. You may admire the door if you wish.” I walked past her, and entered the room without uttering a word to her. 

The door slammed shut behind me. 

This room was light and warm, and the ghost of the slave girl from The House of The Wolves stood before me. Behind her, a cistern of fire burnt with orange flame. She beckoned for me to come toward her. 

“Come, Chosen. I would have words with thee.”

Unlike her deceased body, she was not dressed in the filthy rags I found in. She was not lying on crap-covered hay, no dwarfs or elves slapped her around and made rude comments about her. Instead, she was dressed in white, a beautiful woman given a second life-a better life.

“You come to seek the chalice,” her spirit said to me as I drew near. “To do so, you must answer my questions.”

“I understand.”

“When you found my body, what did you feel?”

Even now, as I witnessed her transformation from a enslaved girl who worked for a mean dwarf, hot tears filled my eyes. She had not deserved the fate she was given. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. 

After all, it had worked out for the best.

“Um, rage. I felt murderous rage.”

“Why did you not protect me?”

Her question cut me to the quick of my soul. As a human being, as a man, I had failed to do my job. This innocent girl had been raped and beaten, and I did nothing to stop it. She was murdered, and I let it happen. My tears broke free from my eyes, and I sobbed. 

“I wanted to, but I didn’t. We had a job to do, to hunt a sorcerer, and I chose to pursue it.”

“Yes, but that does not answer the question. Why didn’t you protect me? You knew what they were doing to me, and you didn’t stop it.”

“I didn’t stop it because I was focused on other things.”

She scoffed and nodded her head. “Yes, there were more important things going on than the rape and murder of an innocent girl. You care not one whit of innocent life. As long as you can go about your life unfettered to the cares of anyone else, you are happy.”

“It’s not like that. I hope to change…”

“Your answers are true, Chosen. You may pass.”

Behind the cistern, another opened, and once again Shia appeared. The ghost of the slave girl had vanished. I wiped my tears and walked toward the door. “Two more questions, and you can rest.” 

I didn’t say anything to her. Her presence irked me. It seemed the purpose of this ‘test’ was to stir up my angst and despondence. Two questions in, and my frustration was at an all time high. This time, neither Keishara or Hekla would help me find a better head space. 

It was on me, and I must find a way to bring a sense of balance to the equation.

Outside of the Hall of Mental Query and Clarity, my friends sat on the other side of the chasm. Hekla leaned on one of the post of the suspension bridge and muttered to Tomak, “I wonder how he is doing in there.” Tomak shrugged and said, “The world hasn’t ended yet, so pretty good I take it.”

Hekla turned to Keishara and pointed a thick finger at her. “You girlie, you’ve got some explaining to do,” she snarled at her. Keishara put her hands up and scooted back saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You have this wrong, Hekla.” 

Tomak watched the exchange but did not stop it. Hekla took two menacing steps toward Keishara. She balled up her right hand into a tight fist, and said, “Explain it, then. Or I’m gonna smash your face in.”

Keishara stood and kept her hands up. Tears wet her eyes, and she said, “Shia is my biological sister, not just the guardian of Rianna’s Tearful Chalice. She’s my flesh and blood, but all these years in service has taken a toll upon her.”

“Why aren’t you a guardian of the chalice as well?”

“I was, but I refused to pay the price. Shia cast me out.”

“What price was unpayable? What does the guardian do?”

“The Chosen becomes the penance for the universe. He must bear the cost, and Shia will kill him when he is accepted as the sacrifice.”

“No,” Tomak snarled, “this is unacceptable. Let the universe be damned. I am not going to lose him.”

“I agree,” Keishara said. “We must interfere with the ceremony, but we can’t reveal it too soon, or Shia will activate the defenses.”

“What defenses?”

Hekla glared at Keishara. She’d had a bad feeling about the sudden ‘love’ Keishara had for the Chosen, but she’d never expected this. 

“The golems. They’re scattered all over this place, and if Shia activates it before we’re ready to act, she will kill us all.”

Hekla sneered and growled, “She would kill her own sister?”

“Yes,” Keishara said. “She is consumed by her duty to the chalice. Shia doesn’t care if the universe implodes or not. She is bound to the chalice, and nothing else matters.”

“How do we get in? Is there another way to get in without being seen?”

“Yes, but it’s dark and fraught with danger.”

“That’s not a problem,” Tomak said, “I still have Sylvie.”

Tomak reached in his pack to free the pixie, but she was nowhere in sight. Keishara and Hekla waited while Tomak rummaged through his sack. 

“She was with us last night,” he exclaimed. “Where is she now?”

Keishara motioned for Hekla and Tomak to follow her, and she led them into a shadowy side path. It would circle them around to the other side of the Cliffs of Failure, to where Jayce would face his final test.

Sylvie had left in the dead of the night, prior to Jayce awakening and communing with Shia. Of course, Jayce had no way of knowing that Sylvie was Shia, and Shia was Sylvie.

He had no way of knowing that his every step, every loss, and near encounter was all directed by Sylvie. “If you want something done, you might as well do it yourself.”

So, Sylvie had taken steps to ensure his arrival to the Cliffs of Failure. Keishara knew Sylvie as her sister Shia, but she had no idea that the truth was much darker than that. The last time Keishara had seen Shia, they were just entering their teen years. 

Born and raised in the monastery that sat high above the Cliffs of Failure, the sisters prepared for live in service to Rianna’s Chalice. They knew the history of Rianna, and that of her fabled Chalice. 

It only became Rianna’s Tearful Chalice in the past century. Prior to then, it was only known as Rianna’s Chalice. 

No one knows for a fact what caused it to become a container of tears, or if it was always intended to be such. Instead what is known is that the prophecy was amended to curry favor with the religious zealots of KA-87.

Sylvie chuckled as she walked the passages of her home. She had led “Chosens” to their deaths well before they got to this point, but she was giddy knowing that Jayce was ‘the one.’

He was the male embodiment of Rianna. She was a true Chosen, as was Jayce. Sylvie smirked and recalled the history of Rianna.

Rianna, that beautiful tragedy of womanhood, was a story that could make the hardest man sob. She was born in the rancid squalor of the Lower Species. Raised in poverty, Rianna learned to defend herself, and those around her. An agile thief, a brilliant strategist, Rianna excelled at anything she undertook. 

When, war came to KA-87, Rianna volunteered her services to the ‘greater good.’ She was sent to the front to die with the rest of the scum. 

According to one general, the plan was ‘to use the Lower Species as cannon fodder,” and then send in the Superior Races to clean up. 

Rianna had a different plan. During the night, she and a few hand-selected warriors went tent to tent in the enemy camp, and took the scalps of their commanders. 

The next morning, Rianna and her ‘scum brigade’ charged into the enemy camp with the breaking of the day, and in hours had massacred the entirety of the camp. 

Her name was sealed in glory that day, but alas, it was also the day she made an enemy of the Council.

Sylvie smiled and transformed back into Shia. Jayce would be moving on to his next test, and soon, he’d face the last test.

“I don’t know where that stupid pixie went,” Tomak growled as he poured out his entire pack. “She was in here, now she is gone.”

Neither Keishara nor Hekla commented, but judging by the looks on both of their faces, they both thought the same thing.

“Sylvie’s betrayed us.”

Tomak began pushing his gear back into his pack. He grumbled and muttered under his breath, but the others had nothing to say. 

Instead, Keishara and Hekla stood on a ledge that oversaw the walkway, and on an overhang not far from their position was an altar, and Rianna’s Chalice.

“From here, I can shield you and Tomak with my magic,” Keishara said, as she pointed where the two could cross. “You two engage Shia, and I will channel my spells from here. With my magic and your physical prowess, we should be able to end her before she kills Jayce.”

“You really love him, don’t you?”

“Yes, Hekla. I love him.”

Hekla grinned and nodded. “Good, because he will need you when this is over.” Then, she walked over to the ledge and inspected it. 

“Cross here, and you will shield us. Me and Tomak distract her, and you hit her with a spell.”

“Yes,” Keishara said, motioning to the altar. “That should give you both time to reach Jayce at the altar, and…um, end my sister.”

“Easy-peasy,” Tomak said, as he stood next to Keishara, “unless its not.”

“Well, nothing is ever easy,” Keishara said. “Why should it be now?”

Chapter 12:

Another open door, another series of questions. This time, it was the pixie, Sylvie. “What did I do to you, Sylvie?”

“You’ve done nothing to me, Chosen. This is your your trial. Suffice to say, you’ve performed well. First question: What do you desire more than anything?

I just stared at the pixie. How was I to define the single thing I wanted the most?

“That’s impossible to answer. I want lots of things. One thing above all others, is not something I can just put down.”

“Come on, Chosen. Throw your heart into it. Is it love? Wealth? Power? Prestige? Give me something!”

I just stared at the pixie. Her eyes flashed with anger, her face drew back to reveal an insidious side to her. “Un-uh. I’m not playing that game.”

“Fine, Chosen. I will ask a different question. What is Rianna’s Chalice?”

“The prophesied end of the world.”

“WRONG! Rianna’s Tearful Chalice is the rage of the unseen, the cries of the lonely, and the end of all things!”

Lightning flashed all around us, and I backed up. Sylvie threw her head back and laughed. She transformed into Shia and back to Sylvie. My mind could not comprehend what was going on.

“I am the physical embodiment of Rianna’s Chalice, and you, Chosen, you will die.”

“Un-uh,” I muttered as I unslung Malice, “you first.” I unleashed a volley of arrows at Sylvie and ducked behind pillars. 

My arrows struck true, but it did nothing but anger the pixie. “You dare strike me mortal?”

“I dare, you minute imitation of Satan. I freaking dare!”

The pixie howled with fury, and for some reason, it tickled the crap out of me that this would be villain was stuck like my grandmother’s pin cushion.

“I’m going to kill you, human.”

“You probably should have,” I yelled back,”cause you’re gonna look really funny with all those arrows protruding from your buttocks at the next homicidal maniac meeting!”

She whipped about to burn me to ash, and I lined Malice’s front sight with her butt. I fired, and she howled with rage.

“Uh-oh,” I muttered as I saw her tilt her head back to channel a massive spell. I didn’t know much, but massive spells wasn’t something I was prepared to deal with. 

I raced toward the pixie and slammed Malice into her midriff. She made an ‘oof’ sound, and I raced past her. From above me, I could hear Tomak yelling for me to look up.

Sylvie the Pixie had transformed into Shia, ‘the guardian’, and I heard Hekla roar. I looked up. So did Shia. Hekla had leapt from an opening in the roof and smashed her hammer into Shia’s chest.

“Have at you, tiny monstrosity!”

Shia collapsed under the raw violence of Hekla and her hammer. Her breathing became laborious, and I walked over to her. 

“Why, Sylvie, or Shia, whatever your name is.”

“I’m Shia, sister of Keishara, and I would give anything to see her before I die.”

From somewhere near the back of this room, a door unlocked. Keishara raced to us, Tomak not far behind her. 

“Sister,” Keishara cried. 

Hekla picked up her hammer and slung it over her shoulder. Tomak and I stood by and watched the tearful reunion of two estranged sisters.

“I couldn’t resist the pixie, Keishara. Her call was too strong.”

“Where is she now?”

“Chosen, she fled when your companion drove her hammer into my chest. She abandoned me to atone for our sins.”

“Of course, she did.”

“You must get to the chalice, only you can prevent what is going to happen. Only you…”

Keishara cradled her sister’s head, and sobbed. I didn’t mean to be insensitive but if the world was on a deadline, then we needed to get moving.

“Keishara…”

“Follow me, love. I have said goodbye.”

The foundation of the room began to shake, fissures opened all around us, as we sprinted from the room. Keishara sprinted up the stairs and down a long hallway. Boulders and fixtures collapsed all around us, but we kept going.

There was no time, and we seemed to get further and further away from our objective. Keishara dashed through an archway, and raced toward an altar that stood on an overhang. 

The chalice was in sight, and it shimmered with an awful incandescent light. It brimmed with sorrow, and Keishara waved me to it.

“Pick it up, Jayce! Hurry!”

Without hesitation, I grabbed the chalice. 

Electricity coursed through my body as I stood between space and time. The universe opened up before me like a book. Every action taken, every tear shed, every cry of a newborn, every heart wrenching sob of despair, I heard and saw it all. 

The anguish of the universe coursed through me. Hekla pointed and shouted, ‘look!’ Tears streamed down my face as my mind tried to make sense of what I was seeing. My hair grew gray, wrinkles formed on my face and around my eyes. Both hands grew thin with age. 

And still, I felt as if I were young. A voice called out to me, and in my mind I could see the familiar sway of the Elven woman. 

“I hear you,” I stammered. “I see you.”

“Come with me, Chosen.”

“Yes,” I stammered. “I will go with you.”

The force of the chalice held me in place, but I walked hand in hand with the Elven woman. “I am called Rianna,” she told me as we walked through time. “Your will has brought you to me. You must choose, and whatever you choose, you must pay the consequences of your choice.”

“What if I don’t want to choose, Rianna?”

“Not choosing is also a choice, and there are consequences associated with not choosing.”

She led me across the universe while holding onto my hand. I saw the birth of Hekla the Brave and Ria, the beginnings of Hekla the Younger, the tragedy of Tomak, and more. Rianna smiled at me, and I smiled back.

The sins of the universe were many, and none seemed more wrong than the next. Like preachers on Old Earth would sermonize, ‘there are no big sins, or little sins! There’s only sin.’

On the way back, I watched the heinous crime that the small slave girl had suffered. My anger burned hot as I watched as dwarves and elves raped her repeatedly, and Aston had driven his blade into her heart when he and his friends finished with her.

I saw the mocking laughter that went up when Tom walked in on it.

And then, I saw Schimel melt Tom in front of Kegger and the rest. No one did anything to stop it. Hot tears blurred my vision, and Rianna wiped them away. “There’s no big sins or little sins, Chosen. There’s only sin,” she whispered to me. 

“Maybe to you, but to me, this must be rectified.” 

Rianna seemed to sadden at my words, but she nodded and said, “You have earned your right to choose. Do so, and I will make your will manifest.”

I closed my eyes, and the world went black.

Rough hands grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me back from the chalice. Hekla knelt next to me and slapped me. I came out of consciousness and looked around. Tomak knelt on the other side of me grinning. Hekla snatched me into a big bear hug, and I groaned. 

“Easy,” I sputtered. “Easy, that hurts.”

Hekla let me go, and Keishara walked toward me. She raised her eyebrows and said, “What did you do?”

“Nothing, I don’t think. I can’t remember.”

“No, you did something,” she said, as she motioned at Rianna’s Chalice. The chalice lay broken in pieces on the overhang. “Something has happened, we just don’t know what.”

I sat up and tried to think, but my head ached. Tomak reached for me, but his skin had turned ashen grey, and his skin had begun to flake off. 

“Chosen,” he whispered, as his flesh collapsed into a pile of ash. 

“What is this?”

I turned to Keishara, and her eyes were wet with tears, as her skin began fall to the ground. “You chose this,” she whispered. “No,” I shouted, as I ran to her. I took her in my arms and her body turned to ash.

Hekla was the last of my companions, and I turned to her. She was fine, and I began to cry. “What did I do?” Hekla tried to comfort me, but I was inconsolable. She grabbed me by the collar and dragged me from the overhand. 

The clouds began to darken, thunder boomed, and it sounded like the vengeance of your favorite deity unleashed on KA-87. Lightning scorched the sky and lashed the earth with its fury. 

I couldn’t remember what I had chosen, but I knew this wasn’t it. 

We ran toward the woods, and searched for cover. Hekla waved me to keep going. “Get to the cave. Hurry!”

I paid no attention to what was about us. The Night Riders could have been hot on our trail, and I would not have cared. Keishara and Tomak, my dear friends, were gone. All Hekla and I had left was each other.

The hole we had crawled out of was directly in front of us. I dove into it, followed by Hekla. She landed atop of me, and I groaned.

“Dang it, man. We’re different, and I’m not your mattress.”

“Shh, Jayce. Dragons, remember?”

I remembered. We lay in the dark and closed our eyes. The main camp was in high gear. The dragons roared with ferocity. I opened my eyes and could make out movement not far from where we had landed.

“We’ve gotta move,” I whispered to Hekla. 

“I know,” she whispered back. “Cross the stream and get on the opposite bank.”

We moved as one, and like shadows in the night, we slipped unnoticed to the other side. 

Chapter 13:

Hekla and I climbed up the rock face to the ledge where we had first saw the dragons. We moved all the way to the edge, and climbed down where Jasmine had nailed Schimel to the wall with her arrows. 

On the ground we made camp. We sat in the dark, in stunned silence, and listened to the camp of enemies not far from where we tried to rest. 

“I can’t believe Tomak and Keishara are gone,” I told Hekla. She nodded and said, “Yeah, they were good folks.”

“How did this happen?”

“You chose it, Jayce Wellspring.”

Rianna walked toward us from the darkness. I thought her a figment of my imagination, but Hekla leapt to her feet and brandished her hammer. 

“Sit down, Hekla the Younger. I have much to convey to you and your friend.”

Hekla sat down but kept her hammer handy. I sat Malice on my lap, and Rianna chuckled. She sat down next to us and closed her eyes.

“You don’t remember anything, do you?”

“No, but I know I would not choose to make people suffer. Especially those I loved.”

Rianna laughed and raised her eyebrows. “You know that for a fact, do you?” I nodded yes, but in my heart I couldn’t help but feel a bit of unease cross my heart.

“I showed you the death of the slave girl at The House of The Wolves. I showed you the relentless rape of her, and how Aston ended her.”

“So what?”

“I told you there was no little sin or big sin. There is only sin, but you closed your eyes and made your choice.”

“No, I didn’t. I may have closed my eyes, but choices must be spoken.”

“You spoke it with your heart.”

“What did I choose then?”

“You chose to make those who enslaved your people pay for their crimes. Even now, meteors crash into Voliguard. The Elves innocent and not so innocent are burnt alive.”

“No, Rianna. That is not what I wished.”

Hekla leapt to her and swung her hammer in an upward arc, and cried, “Let me smash her, Jayce!” Rianna didn’t bat an eye. Instead, she proceeded with her tale. 

“The dwarven cities are closed off. No one, no one out.” Hekla roared, and a dragon returned her shout. 

“Now, you’ve done it. However, I brought you a gift.”

“Wonderful, gifts from a psycho. What is it?”

“You can have one of your dead companions back, but only one. Choose.”

More dragons shouted, and the air filled with the flapping of many wings. “Jayce, choose Keishara. Do it now, we’ve got incoming.”

“Make it so,” I shouted at Rianna. 

A flash of brilliant white exploded in the cavern, and Keishara exited the portal. Dragons screamed in pain as the white light blinded them. I grabbed Keishara by the hand raced toward the exit. Except there were no exits, and we climbed to the next ledge. 

“Keep going,” Hekla shouted. Keishara and I leapt across the chasm, Hekla hot on our trails. We didn’t bother to climb down, instead, we bailed into the darkness and hoped we would land on solid ground.

I landed with an ‘oof’ and pulled Keishara on top of me. Her breath trembled upon my face, and Hekla snatched her up. “We don’t have time for that mess, get moving.” Again, we ran as far as we could.

Behind us, mad dragons pursued us. They screamed their fury, and we kept running. The exit was up ahead, and we didn’t stop. I shouldered the door open, and we tumbled out into the burning heat.

I stood and slammed the door shut, and I prayed the worst was over. 

Then, I remembered the worms.

We dropped to the ground exhausted. Hekla gulped the air greedily, as if there was only enough to fuel her lungs, and then she burst into laughter. 

“What was I thinking letting a war cry rip in that cave? Holy hells, that had to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

“It was pretty dumb,” I said, and a chuckle escaped me. Soon, both of us were laughing. The only one not laughing was Keishara. She stared at me and licked her lips.

“You chose to punish my people?”

“It’s not like that Keishara…”

“You would whitewash a whole race of people, a demographic, or even a portion of people as vile evildoers? What makes you humans so righteous? You showed up here, on our world, and started a war.”

“Keishara, I didn’t know the chalice would read my thoughts. Rianna showed me horrible things, I got angry and I closed my eyes. In that split second, she wrought this.”

“No, Jayce. You did this. My people are ash. Tomak is gone, forever.”

She stood and stormed off. I stood, but Hekla pulled me back down. “Let her go,” she said, as she stretched out on her blanket. “You won’t endear yourself to her tonight.” I stretched out on my blanket and closed my eyes.

From the dense woods, Sylvie watched and laughed.

I woke with a start. Hekla and Keishara were packing their things, and I rubbed my eyes. “Morning,” I muttered. Hekla gave me a nod and lifted her chins toward the woods. 

“Yeah, I’m coming.”

I threw my blanket in my pack and slung it over my back and took Malice into my arms. Since I was the bad guy, I took point. The least I could do was avoid another terse conversation with Keishara. 

If she couldn’t bring herself to understand what had happened, then it wasn’t on me. I kept a distance of 150 Old Earth yards from the others. The brook came into view, along with the clearing, and I took a knee like Tomak had done. 

Keishara ignored my hand signal to stop and walked straight out into the clearing. Horses nickered, and mounted cavalrymen pointed weapons at her. 

“Halt, Elven. Put your hands up!”

“How dare you speak to me so, human scum?”

Swords were unsheathed, and Hekla and I raced out to join Keishara. The commander of the cavalrymen put a hand up and addressed me. “Identify yourself,” he snarled. I met his eyes and said, “I am Jayce Wellspring, monster hunter.”

One of the soldiers handed his commander a sheet of parchment, and it made me think of Jasmine. The commander looked at it, and then looked at me. He gestured with his right hand and said, “This is he. Bring the horses for him and his slaves. The Council awaits.”

“They’re not my slaves, they’re my friends,” I growled at the commander. He shrugged and said, “Whatever helps you sleep at night. I wouldn’t mind having a turn with the elf myself.” Keishara began to chant and channel a spell, but Hekla put her hand on her shoulder. The gesture calmed Keishara, but she glared at me from afar. 

Horses were brought to us, and we mounted them. The squad of soldiers fell into a columns of two formation, with us bringing up the rear.

“What in the hell happened,” I mouthed to Hekla. She shrugged and turned to face the front. We rode for several hours and came upon scattered remains at the ruins we had stayed at previously. I nodded at Hekla and she nodded back.

“Jasmine’s group of Shunned Dwarves,” Hekla said, in a low tone of voice only I could hear. Keishara ignored us. Things were not going the way I thought they would. 

We rode in silence, the three of us. The commander and squad spoke in hushed tones, and I couldn’t make out anything they said. Keishara on the other hand heard everything, and she paled at the tone of their conversation. 

Whatever was being said wasn’t good. Keishara looked at me with tears in her eyes. Her skin was paler than usual, her eyes wet with tears and wide with fright. Her bottom lip trembled, and for once, she seemed a-shiver with fear. 

Hekla the Younger, fearless warrior and berserker seemed to have the same condition. Under her dark skin and authentic nature, she seemed concerned about what the future may hold. 

“It’s going to be alright,” I whispered to them, but if what I feared had happened, then I wouldn’t put money on it.

The Council, or former Council made their home in The Great Northern Reaches, in a city called Yimond. From all accounts, its beauty defied description. Like most cities on KA-87, Yimond had four districts: The Lower Acre, The Upper Wood, The Northern Grove, and The Great Oak Cross. 

Our ‘saviors’ had been kind enough to avoid shackling to our horses. My ‘slaves’ acted accordingly, but the soldiers gave Keishara lascivious looks. 

I could tell Hekla was fighting to restrain herself from clobbering them. She wasn’t the only one. I wanted tangle with them all, but our equipment had been secured ‘for our safety’s sake.’

Thus, we had no choice. We would ride it out until we reached Yimond, and if things went south-then we’d fight it out.

Chancellor Galdor Strongheart walked the ramparts of The Upper Wood. He hated the name of this district. As its name implied, it was the highest point of the city. The wealthy and influential resided within it’s boundaries, and they looked down upon those who resided below them. 

Nothing had changed by humans accelerating 20,000 years into the future. Human nature was as nasty as it had always been. 

Strongheart watched as a courier raced up the hill to where he stood. “What news do you bring,” he asked the man. The courier tried to catch his breath and talk at the same time.

“The southern patrol returns with Jayce Wellspring and his slaves.”

“Slaves? You mean his compatriots?”

“The commander said slaves, Chancellor. They will arrive before nightfall.”

“Thank you, courier. Return to your commander and tell him to bring Wellspring and his people to my private quarters immediately upon arrival. I will present them to my cohorts in the Council.”

“As you wish, Chancellor.”

Strongheart waved the courier on his way and resumed his walk. “What is this nonsense of slaves? Has the remainder of humankind lost their minds?”

He didn’t know how this mess had gotten started, but the Council could rest assured, he would find out exactly what had happened to reverse mankind’s fortune. 

But unbeknownst to Chancellor Strongheart, evil lurked in the hearts of his opponents concerning him and his beloved city, Yimond.

True to his word the commander, a soldier called him Commander Wolchek, the squad had arrived to Yimond before dark. 

As instructed, he escorted us to Chancellor Strongheart’s private quarters. A human servant met us in the foyer and led us to private study on the second floor. Dense neutral colored carpet covered the stairs, the handrails were carved from mahogany, and the temperature was kept at 70-degrees at all times. 

Chancellor Strongheart was a middle-aged man, with his prime being a few short years behind him. His beard was as black as it had been in his twenties, his eyes were steel grey, and his body was built like a powerful locomotive. Strongheart looked like what you would imagine when you first heard his name. 

“Commander Wolchek, thank you for getting them here safely.”

“Of course, Chancellor.”

“I’ll take it from here.”

Strongheart waited until Wolchek had left, and the door was shut behind him before he turned to us. 

“Jayce Wellspring, I assume?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sergeant in the Global Earth Alliance Forces. Hunter. That Jayce Wellspring?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You were at the Battle of Sentient? My son-in-law was in your squad.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, his name was Hinkey.”

As if this day couldn’t get any worse, I thought. Of course, Hinkey was his son-in-law. He spoke of Chancellor Strongheart all the time. Idiot.

“Yes, sir. Hinkey spoke in glowing terms about you.” Strongheart smiled and said, “Of course, he did. He had to. He was married to my daughter.”

I chuckled, and Strongheart looked at my companions. He waved a hand at them and said, “Tell me these aren’t your slaves.”

“They’re not, sir. These are my friends. May I introduce you to Hekla the Younger and Keishara?”

“You may indeed. It is a pleasure to meet with such worthy traveling companions. Any friend of Jayce Wellspring is a friend of mine.”

“Well met, Chancellor Strongheart. I am Hekla the Younger. Were you a warrior at Sentient?”

“I was a commander, far removed from the perils of the day. Were either of you there?”

“No, but I’ve heard tales of human bravery there.”

“Have you heard the tale of Jayce Wellspring, and his actions at Sentient?”

“I have not. Jayce has not let us in on his past, sir. Would you do us the dubious honor?”

Keishara turned and looked at me, for the first time since her emergence from the portal, without glaring at me. I cleared my throat. 

“Perhaps later at the tavern, Hekla. We need to go over why you are here, and what is expected of you tomorrow.”

“Then, speak on sir. You have our attention.”

Strongheart sat at his desk and motioned for us to join him. He met my eyes and said, “Tell me what caused this extreme reversal of our fortune.”

I took a deep sigh and released it. Strongheart pulled out a journal and opened it. Pen poised on paper, he waited for me to begin.

“Sir, I don’t remember much of it. The chalice was shimmering, like it was about to explode, and I grabbed it.” I trailed off, and Strongheart looked at my companions. 

“He began to shake,” Keishara said, in a low voice. “Like he was having a seizure.” Hekla added, “he began to cry, and nothing we could do could dislodge him from his trance.”

“What was it, Jayce.”

“It was all the anguish of the world, sir. As if the universe had opened to me, and I could see everything. Every sin, all the crying and despair. I didn’t see anything good, just heartache and…” I tried to stop myself, but a sob escaped from my throat. 

Even now, the pain of that moment lingered in my mind. Strongheart wrote down what we said, and he asked another question.

“Do you remember making the choice to kill the dwarves and elves? This is important Jayce. Did you tell Rianna to kill them all?”

“No, sir. I did not order them killed. Rianna showed me what happened to the slave girl at The House of The Wolves in Voliguard. An elf named Aston killed her, after he and his drunken friends had raped her for days. Schimel melted her father when he killed Aston.”

No one said anything, but my heart couldn’t take it. Tears ran unashamedly down my cheeks, and I cleared my voice. “I wanted revenge so bad, but I would never kill indiscriminately. I closed my eyes, and I don’t know what happened next. The next thing I remember, Hekla was waking me.”

Strongheart put his pen down and nodded. He set it aside and looked at me. “You’re here to stand trial for the genocide of two races of people. The Righteous Dwarves and The Stranged. I am your representative.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. 

“Hekla and Keishara will stay here until your trial is over. You though, you’re to stay in prison until you’re called before the magistrate.”

“No,” Hekla snarled. “That’s not right, Chancellor. Jayce saved the universe.”

“I know, Hekla. The man that fought at Sentient wouldn’t kill two races of people for no reason, but we must do what is fair to everyone, or else we’re the same as those we replaced.”

I stood and extended my arms in front of me. “I’m ready, sir.” Strongheart nodded and summoned a guard. Shackles were put on me, and I was led to a cell.

As the iron bars shut behind me, I felt cold eyes upon me. No one else was in here but me, but from the corner of the room a golden shower of light illuminated the dark.

Sylvie had returned.

She strutted toward me, and she was no longer a pixie. Sylvie had transformed into a lifesize woman of average height, and above average dimensions. Her blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and she smirked at me.

“Well, hello Chosen,” she purred seductively. “Have you seen the damage you’ve done to this pathetic little rock?”

“What do you want, Sylvie?”

“I want to talk to you, monster hunter, besides, who else is going to come down here and keep you company? I don’t think Shia’s sister favors you anymore.”

“Funny stuff, but you were always funny. Thanks for stopping by, Sylvie.”

She snarled and grabbed me by my chin. She leaned close to me and whispered, “I can get you out of here, and we can run away together-just you and me.”

“No thanks. I will stay and pay for what happened.”

“You would prefer death to what I offer you?” She place both hands on my face and closed her eyes. I could feel her rummaging around in my head, and her lips made an ‘O’ and she giggled.

“You can’t resist this,” she sighed. I watched as she transformed into the sultry minx from an Old Earth film. Her hair became fire engine red, her lips full and pouty, her body became this voluptuous curvature of insane dimensions, and she purred, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

My heart raced, and even though I knew Jessica Rabbit was a cartoon character, and Sylvie was the devil, I had a hard time restraining myself. 

“Why did she choose Jessica Rabbit?”

Because she’s the devil, and she knows you can’t resist it. How do I get out of this pickle? What can I do?

At the end of hallway, the door creaked open. Sylvie stepped back and disappeared in the shadows, and a shadowy figure stopped at my cell door.

“Jayce, we need to talk.”

“Okay, Keishara. I am willing to listen.”

She stepped into a small sliver of light, and I swear she’d never been more beautiful. I hoped with all my heart that Sylvie was watching. 

“Look, about earlier, I shouldn’t have been so hard on you. The universe didn’t implode, and you saved the lives of many people.”

“Just not the right ones. I didn’t want people to die, Keishara, I wanted us all to be equal. Why should anyone have slaves?”

“You’re an idealist, Jayce. It’s one of the reasons I like you, but was there no slaves in your world?”

I sighed, for she wasn’t wrong. Slavery existed, even in the 21st Century, when people considered themselves more intelligent-more enlightened for God’s sake-and still slavery was a staple in certain cultures. 

“Yes, slavery was still in effect in certain places.”

“So, why was it so wrong here? Was it because it was my people and the dwarves keeping slaves, or was it because your people were the slaves?”

“Does it matter, Keishara? I will pay for what I’ve done.”

“Yes, Jayce. It matters to me. If we’re to be together, I need to know your motivations.”

“It was all of it, Keishara. Slavery is wrong, no matter who does it. When I saw what happened, I was filled with wrath at the injustice done to her.”

Keishara went to say something, but I continued. “Then, when I was taken in for questioning, the slave girl was one of them asking questions. She asked me Keishara, “Why didn’t you protect me?” What could I say to her?”

“I don’t know, Jayce.”

“Should I tell you what I told her? Because, I told her the truth. I was too busy to care. That’s it. All of us knew what was going on, but we didn’t want to cause waves.”

In our talking, I had moved close to the bars, so I could look Keishara in the eyes, and she reached through the bars and took my hands in hers. 

My heart raced, and for a scarce moment, I considered what this might mean. Keishara put her forehead on the bars, and whispered, “I love you, Jayce. Come back to me.”

Elation flooded my heart, and when I went to kiss her, Sylvie stood in her place grinning like a lunatic. She dropped my hands and walked away. 

“Toodles, Jayce. Have fun at your execution.”

My heart sank as I watched Sylvie dance into the darkness and out of my life for good. 

Chapter 14:

Dawn came early, and I sat on the dirty mattress prisoners received in this dank, dark pit. My guard came down and threw my breakfast through the bars and onto the filthy floor. 

He grinned at me and walked away. I refused to eat it, and instead, left it for the worms and other creepy-crawlies to munch on. 

The day passed slowly, almost like it was going backwards in time, but late in the afternoon, Chancellor Strongheart stopped by my cell.

“How are you holding up, Jayce?”

“Not bad, sir.”

“It’s probably going to be another week before the magistrate will see you.”

“I understand.”

“Hekla asked about you. Keishara hasn’t said anything about you. I would like to tell them the story of you at Sentient, if you don’t mind of course.”

“Whatever you want to do, sir.”

“I think it will help your friends to understand the man you are, son. If things go bad…”

“You can tell them, sir. It’s fine.”

“Okay then. If you need anything let the guard know. He knows how to reach me.”

“Will do.”

I watched as he walked away, and for one second I wished I had a picture of Jessica Rabbit.

Chancellor Strongheart walked into his house and found Hekla and Keishara in his study. Neither one looked as if they had slept, and both seemed low in their spirits.

“Have you ladies eaten?”

“Yes, your staff has been very accommodating.”

“Good, I’m glad.”

“Have you spoken to Jayce?”

Hekla and Strongheart both looked at Keishara, for it was the first time she’d asked after him, since he was led away in shackles.

Strongheart nodded and said, “Yes, I saw him today. He’s okay. After dinner, I would like to tell you both of what happened at Sentient.”

Both women nodded, and together they walked into the kitchen. The staff was busy preparing dinner. They all greeted Strongheart cheerily, some offered to let him sample their dishes but he declined, instead, telling them he preferred to taste each masterpiece in its completed state.

Hekla and Keishara both noticed that Strongheart loved his staff, and more so, they loved him. 

They sat at the table, a long magnificent table made from the finest wood available here on KA-87. A beautiful spiral design was carved into the center of the table, the place mats were egg yolk white doilies, each with a spiral design etched into the center. 

Fine china adorned the table, goblets of leaden crystal each with intricate designs that complemented the table and doilies sat next to the plates. The silverware was dug from the silver mines of Holkum, smelted there and then forged into the beautiful silverware now resting on white lace napkins. 

Neither Hekla nor Keishara had ever seen such finery in their lives. Keishara leaned close to Hekla and whispered, “Are we under dressed for this occasion?” Hekla snorted and followed Strongheart to the end of the table. 

He gestured for them to sit at his side. They each took a seat, Hekla to the left of the Chancellor, Rianna to the right, and they all sat in the tall-back chairs that matched the table. 

“Thank you for joining me for dinner,” Strongheart began. “Tonight, it will just be us three. I asked Jayce to relay what he did at the Battle of Sentient, for I fear that what has now happened may cast him in a bad light.”

Neither Hekla nor Keishara said nothing, instead, they both waited respectfully for the Chancellor to continue.

“I’ve known of Jayce Wellspring since he joined the Armed Forces. He did not volunteer to take the battle to our foes, he was forced to take up arms. When we our unplanned arrival put the Wheels of Fate in motion, we overreacted.”

Hekla scoffed, and Strongheart gave her a sad smile.

“I can’t make excuses for what happened. Jayce wouldn’t. At the Battle of Sentient, it was our last ditch effort to make headway into a war we started. Jayce and his squad was sent out to recon a vantage point, unknown to us, this vantage point was flooded with elves.”

All eyes were on the Chancellor, both Hekla and Keishara waited with bated breath to hear what happened next. 

“Jayce cautioned his men to remain quiet, but my son-in-law was a clown, and he wanted to keep spirits light, so he mocked Jayce. One of the elves charged lightning and struck Hinkey in the top of his head, turning him to ash.”

Strongheart sighed and gestured with his hands. “War happened next. Both sides engaged. The dead piled up, and when the smoke cleared, Jayce and his men were victorious.”

Hekla nodded her head approvingly. “If you’re gonna fight, make sure you win. It’s a sound strategy.”

“Indeed, Madam Hekla. However, Jayce’s men couldn’t let the death of my son-in-law stand ‘unavenged.’ They took matters in their own hands while Jayce reported the event to higher headquarters. The men began to execute the prisoners.”

Keishara’s eyes grew dark and she flexed her hands. Hekla looked across the table and met her eyes. She shook her head no at Keishara. Chancellor Strongheart continued with the story. 

“Jayce heard the shots and raced to where they stood. The Elven prisoners were dead, and his men stood there laughing. He had his men disarmed and unequipped, and then executed each one of the men that had killed the elves.”

Keishara’s eyes grew wide, and Hekla scoffed again. Strongheart took a deep breath and sighed. Carts began to bring out food and placed the dishes on the table. 

“Jayce Wellspring is one of the most honorable men I know. He fought for us, even when he didn’t want to. When confronted with evil, he chose the side of good. He’s always stood for what is right and honorable, and I can’t see him choosing to wipe two races of people out of existence because he witnessed evil in the world.”

A servant smiled at Strongheart and took his bowl and filled it with Beef Borscht Soup. The servant filled the bowls of Hekla and Keishara as well. Racks of tender lamb, pork, and beef were brought to the table, as well as Cassoulet, pots of rice, beans, and vegetables. 

Strongheart gestured at the food and simply said, “Dig in.” Servants cut into the tender, moist meat and loaded each plate with meats, vegetables, beans and rice. 

Hekla tore into her food with wild abandon. Strongheart laughed to himself, and Keishara watched the devouring with humor at times, and disgust at other times. 

After dinner, the trio retired to the study. Keishara took a seat near the fireplace, and watched the flames. Hekla let out a loud burp. Strongheart flipped through his notes of Jayce’s case and made notes inside the ledger. 

A courier knocked at the door of the study. “Who is it?”

“Chancellor, it is Robard, courier of the Council, I was sent to bear news to you at this late hour.”

“Enter.”

Robard stepped into the room and presented himself to the Chancellor. Guards searched the man before he was bid to sit.

“Well, what does the Council require, Robard?”

“The Trial of Jayce Wellspring begins tomorrow at noon. It will be public, so that all may hear of his deeds.”

“I see. Thank you, Robard.”

“Thank you, sir. I take my leave.”

Chancellor Strongheart nodded and the courier left with the same urgency he had first shown up with.

“Curse them all,” Strongheart snarled. “A public trial, it’s not a trial-it’s a public execution.”

“What do you mean, Chancellor?”

Strongheart stared at Keishara without answering. “Now, she wants to act concerned.” He forced a smile and waved a hand as if he’d misspoke.

“It’s nothing, Keishara. I’m sure we will manage just fine. This will soon be over.”

Hekla watched the exchange and said nothing, but she knew that this change, would change everything.

After finishing with his notes, and setting out his clothes for the following morning, Strongheart stole away to the dungeon to bring Jayce up to speed.

The guard opened the door leading to the cell with a smirk, and closed it behind the Chancellor, giving him time to speak to his client alone. 

Jayce was stretched out on the mattress he had shoved into the corner. Strongheart stood at the cell door and whispered his name. 

“Jayce? It’s Strongheart. I need to speak to you.”

He heard Jayce grunt as he stood. Jayce walked to the door, limped to the door, and forced a smile at Strongheart.

“What news do you bring? Is my time of execution set?”

Strongheart’s eyebrows furrowed with worry as he looked at Jayce. Dried blood seeped from his mouth, open cuts were on his face, his left eye was bloodshot, and Jayce appeared to have not eaten since he was thrown into the cell.

Appalled, Strongheart grabbed the bars and hissed, “What in the name of God happened here, Jayce?” 

Jayce slumped toward the ground and moaned. “Ah, the usual, sir. The guards needed to release some aggression, and I was the only target they could find.”

“Were they human?”

“Ah, they all look the same when you’re getting beaten, sir. I don’t recall.”

“I have to get you out here. I’m going to get you released to my house and custody under the guise of preparing for tomorrow. I’ll be right back.”

Moments later, Strongheart and the Warden walked back to where Jayce leaned against the wall. “This is unacceptable, Warden. Look at my client.”

“He did that to himself,” the Warden said. “My guards know better than to treat prisoners in such a manner.”

“He is to be released into my custody, TIME NOW. I will have your head for this.”

“You have no proof, Chancellor. Take this garbage home with you if you wish. I care not one whit what happens to him. Tomorrow, he will be dead, and your name will be ruined.”

The Warden unlocked the door, and Strongheart gripped me under my arms. “Come on, Jayce. Don’t give this mutt the satisfaction,” he whispered to me. I grunted and pushed with my feet. 

I stood, and Strongheart helped me walk out. Each step seemed to renew my strength. People gasped when they saw me, so I winked at them with my one good eye and muttered ‘hello’ to them. 

We made it back to Chancellor Strongheart’s chamber. Keishara was the first to see me. Her mouth dropped open, and she flew to my side. 

“Jayce, what did they do to you?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Prison hospitality isn’t what it used to be.” Hekla was snoring in a plush chair with her short legs propped up. Upon hearing my name, she turned her head and looked at me.

“Holy bellbottoms, Jayce. You look like you fought the Night Riders by yourself. Are you okay?”

I gave her a thumbs up and sank in the nearest seat. Strongheart pulled an ottoman close and sat on it. He looked at me, and said, “Your trial starts at noon. They have witnesses who claim you set out to destroy both races. One witness is Rianna herself, another is a pixie named Sylvie.”

“Of course, they do.”

Hekla slammed her hand down on the arm of her chair and said, “Those traitorous curs. I will have their heads!”

“It’s more like they will have mine, Hekla.”

Keishara shook her head and whispered, “Don’t say that, Jayce.”

I grinned at her, and winked at her from my one good eye. “It’s true, Keishara. What is done is done. I don’t care anymore.”

Strongheart motioned for two servants to come close, and he whispered to them. Both nodded and gently took me by the arms. 

“Jayce, they’re going to help you get cleaned up. Try to rest. Noon will be here before you know it.”

“Okay,” I muttered, as I allowed the two male servants help me to the washroom. 

“I need to help him,” Keishara said. “I can help heal him.”

Hekla touched her arm, and said, “You heard the Chancellor. He needs to get cleaned up, and then rest. Things will turn out okay.”

“And if they don’t, Hekla?”

“Then, life goes on.”

A hot bath does wonders for your mood. I sat in the tub and lathered up. My soreness seemed to melt away under the soap and hot water. 

It took a while for me to get the dirt and grime off my body, and it took several hair washings to get my hair clean of lice and rat poop, but in time I emerged a cleaner version of myself. 

I wouldn’t run a marathon anytime soon, nor would I be much good in a battle, but I could stand trial and give an accounting of what I had done.

Or had not done, such as it was. 

I dressed, and the door to my room opened. Keishara looked at me, and licked her lips. “Um,” she began. “I shouldn’t be here, but I need to apologize to you, Jayce.”

“It’s okay,” I grunted as I stretched out on the bed. “There’s no need for an apology. I understand.”

She came and sat beside me in a chair next to my bed, and she took my hand and held it. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe in a manner that didn’t cause my ribs and sternum to ache.

“I was so angry at you, Jayce.”

“Keishara, I know. Things were bad, and now they’re worse. I was the Chosen, and I will now pay for what has happened.”

“You walked where no dared, Jayce. I understand that now, but at the time I wasn’t thinking clear. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“It’s okay,” I muttered, as sleep took me in her warm bosom. 

My mouth dropped open, and blissful sleep flooded my mind. Soon, I drifted in restful slumber.

It would be noon soon, and the time for dreams would be no more.

I woke to the sound of feet creeping toward my bed, and I pretended to still be asleep. The soft patter of feet continued, until I felt the mattress crumple under the additional weight.

“Jayce, are you awake?”

I cracked a eye open and looked at Keishara, and then behind her at the pre-dawn sky. White lace curtains fluttered with the gentle breeze. 

“Mmhmm,” I grunted. “I am.”

She smiled at me, and her green eyes took in my grotesque appearance. My cuts were purple and yellow, my left eye was swollen and ached, but my one good eye took in her morning beauty and that made all the difference to me. 

“Today’s the day,” I said in a weak voice. She touched my face, leaned over and kissed my cuts.

“I don’t want to lose you, Jayce.”

Her voice trembled, and her eyes grew wet with tears. I touched her cheek and smiled at her through my busted lips. “It’s okay,” I said to her. “Someone must pay for what happened. I was there, thus, it’s my fault.”

“We should have let the chalice overflow, Jayce. At least, I would’ve died with you holding my hand.”

“You’re far too beautiful to die, Keishara. Let me die instead.”

Her tears raced down her cheeks, and she embraced me tight. We lay on the bed, a broken human and a beautiful elf, just the two of us fearing the unknown. I knew someone must bear the blame for what happened, but it did not comfort me to know this. Keishara was once again by my side, but for how long no one knew. 

A knock sounded at the door, and I let go of Keishara. “Yeah,” I grunted, as I stood. “Gimme a second. I’m coming.” The door swung open as Hekla came in, and she covered her eyes with one hand, and shouted, “Are you two decent?”

“Yes, Hekla. We’re decent,” I grunted.

 My ribs and sternum ached something fierce with each movement. I took hold of the corner post of the bed and steadied myself. Hekla looked at Keishara on the bed, fully clothed, her tears stained her cheeks, and she looked at me wearing one of the servants bathrobes. She shook her head in disgust.

“Well, how in tarnation are you two supposed to do anything indecent fully clothed?” She howled with laughter and slapped her knee. A smile crossed my face, albeit temporarily, as my bruises and cuts reminded me of their existence. “It’s after nine, you need to get ready,” Hekla said. She drew near to me and whispered, “I’ve got my hammer back, so if things get hairy…” She gave me a wink, and I pulled her into a hug. 

“You’re a great friend, Hekla. I love you.”

“Shut up, Jayce. Get dressed, we must go address the morons.”

Her words were fierce and stubborn, but she clung to my hug like it was the last one I’d ever give her. “Come on, elf. Let the human get dressed to meet his doom.”

I dressed in fresh black trousers, a white collared shirt made of hemp, and one of the servants put a black eye patch over my left eye. I look like a pirate, I groused as I checked my appearance in a mirror. My leather books completed my outfit, and I walked down the stairs to the lower floor. 

Chancellor Strongheart, Hekla, and Keishara waited for me downstairs. They looked at me, and Hekla was the only one to laugh. “You belong on the docks, Jayce. Timber me shivers and all that!”

“Un-huh,” I said, as I walked toward them. “You’ve got jokes.”

“Yep, and you’ve got bruises, cuts and broken bones. Come on, already.”

With friends like these…

My trial would take place on a rotunda leading to the government headquarters known as The Prophecy Towers. 

The Prophecy Towers were two narrow buildings that reached toward the sky. Both crafted from ivory and marble, encased in white gold, they were a sight to behold. Large gardens surrounded the towers, filled with various species of flowers and herbs, all in bloom at the same time. 

Yimond was a multi-cultural city, neither Dwarven nor Elven, but a hybrid city of all races. The towers were a testimony of ingenuity of all races working together toward a common goal. Lower species had worked hand in hand with those whom considered themselves superior, to build this wonderful achievement. 

The fact that the Council chose Yimond as it’s home, did not go unnoticed by the common folk. As stuck in tradition as they were, the Council at least acknowledged that the Lower Species were as vital a part as the wealthy and influential. 

Two podiums were set up on the rotunda facing toward the seats of the Council. Behind the podiums, onlookers could gather and stand witness to the proceedings. 

My jury, such as it were, would consist of the survivors of the catastrophic events that befell the Elven and Dwarven cities. 

Guards in gleaming, ceremonial armor stood at the base of the stairs. Commander Wolchek led them. He nodded to Chancellor Strongheart and motioned for his men to make a hole for us to pass through. 

His eyes took in my injuries, but he said nothing. Once we passed, the line came back together. 

Each step caused me more pain. Hekla grabbed my wrist and squeezed, “come on,” she whispered to me, “don’t give them the satisfaction to see you struggle.”

I inhaled a deep breath into my lungs and dug deep. We walked up to the podium, and I was able to sit down next to it. 

The defense team for ‘my victims’ gave Strongheart a slight nod, and he nodded back at them. A jury of dwarves and elves took their seat in the jury box, and one by one, the members of the Council filed in and took their seats. 

They were dressed all in white, their faces wore serious frowns, as if they took this trial in a solemn manner. I knew better. This trial was a facade, a gesture to oblige the masses. 

No justice would be found here. History would record it as such, but the scales of justice were tilted heavily against me. 

This was avengement. 

I don’t know what I had imagined, black robes and powdered wigs, I guess, but the Council wore nothing other than white, their hair neatly groomed, and their demeanor soured. 

Like curdled milk, I thought. A small smile crossed my lips as I thought of the Old Earth line, “Are you ready to rumble?”

“Will the accused please stand?” The head judge, a lithe Elven woman of many years, spoke these words into a device that looked like a microphone from Earth. 

I stood. She looked at me, scribbled something down on a loose piece of parchment, and said, “You may be seated.”

The Council, human, dwarves, and elves watched as I sat back down. I could feel the eyes, the hatred, of the onlookers upon my back, from the jury seat, and even from those in the Council.

“Before we get started, the rules will be stated. I will not brook any infraction of them. The Accused will stand to address The Council, and will at all times address us with respect and decorum. He will address us as ‘Your Honors’ Is that understood?”

I stood and said, “Yes, Your Honors.”

“Next, the jury has a duty to listen to all of the testimonies prior to judging. You are too take this duty as serious as any other duty you may have. Failure to do so will see you removed.”

“Furthermore,” the judge continued, “No civil disruptions will be accepted. You are onlookers, not jury members, nor Chancellors. If you act out, you will be put down. You have the right to witness the trial, you do not have the right to interrupt or sway these proceedings. Commander Wolchek, deadly force is authorized to keep the peace.”

A few murmurs escaped from the crowd, but silence fell over the rotunda. The jury glared at me, but they kept their peace. 

“Now, the Accused is now called to take the stand. Chancellor Wojek of Holkum, you may start the questioning, when the Accused takes the stand.”

“Thank you, Your Honors.”

“Come forth, Accused.”

I stood and walked to the stand, and shut the gate behind me. A dwarf stepped forward, and said, “Raise your right hand and say the words.”

“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

“Take your seat, human.”

I sat down in the chair and took a deep breath. My trial had begun. 

Are you ready to rumble?

Chancellor Wojek of Holkum, approached and asked me, “Are you aware of the charges laid at your feet?”

“No, I know only of what I’ve heard in passing.”

“You stand accused of the genocide of two races of people, the Righteous Dwarves and The Stranged. You would do us all a great favor, if you would confess to your crimes.”

I stayed silent, and Wojek shrugged. “It was worth a try,” he said, as he turned from me. “Are you aware of what has happened since your return?”

“No, I am not aware of anything, sir. I was tossed into a cell, and I had no company-minus Sylvie the Pixie-on my first night in the prison.”

“What did you say, human?”

I cleared my throat and spoke louder. “On my first night in prison, Sylvie the Pixie visited me in my cell.”

Strongheart leapt to his feet and shouted, “I move to dismiss the testimony of Sylvie the Pixie, Your Honors!”

“That is preposterous,” Wojek snapped. 

“No one, not human, dwarves, elf, or magical beings were to have any contact with the prisoner-minus his counsel. Here is the documentation signed by The Council,” Strongheart shouted, as he waved the documentation.

“Your Honors,” Wojek began, but the head judge held up her hand. 

“Chancellor Strongheart, was your client unharmed prior to being placed in the cell?”

“Yes, Your Honors.”

“Was he in relative good health, of sound mind?”

“Yes, Your Honors.”

“Chancellor Wojek, did you have any knowledge of the pixie’s whereabouts at all times?”

“Um, no. I didn’t not have accountability of the pixie at all times, Your Honors. But…”

“Then, the testimony of Sylvie the Pixie is removed. We will not entertain her stories in this court. Carry on.”

Wojek turned to me, his irritation was written all over his face. His eyes narrowed, his beard seemed to bristle with his anger, and his lips turned down into a fierce frown. 

“The Elven city of Voliguard is smoldering ash, human. Elven corpses litter the ground, reduced to charred embers, puddles of waste, but it gets worse, my own people are buried alive in our underground cities. Food is in short supply. Mothers are eating their young, and we can’t get to them. Two million dwarves are spread throughout those cities, and none of them have a fighting chance.”

I felt a tear slip from the corner of my right eye. My tear seemed to infuriate Wojek, because he leapt toward me and slammed both hands down on the gate between him and me. 

“You did this! You alone are responsible for this…this reversal of our world. The blood of millions stains your hands, our dead is nigh uncountable, and I will see you dead for your crimes.”

“ENOUGH!”

The rotunda grew silent as the air about us bristled with magical energy. The head judge loomed large over the rotunda, her boring into Wojek, and he shrank from her sight. 

“I apologize, Your Honors. I overstepped my bounds,” Wojek said, as he knelt on one knee and lifted to show his hands empty.

“There can be no justice when hatred rules your heart, Chancellor Wojek. We, The Council, knew this to be a futile gesture. If you would avenge your people, pick your weapon. We will settle this in the ways of old.”

Guards brought a table and set it up between the two podiums in view of the onlookers. Wojek smiled, and said, “I agree to your terms, Your Honors. I will avenge our people.” He stood and turned to the table.

The dwarves in the jury box sneered and gave him their support. The Stranged said nothing, but watched everything with emotionless eyes.

“Hold, Wojek. You will not fight a defenseless man. There has been enough savagery. Jayce Wellspring, do you agree to these terms?”

I stood and turned to face The Council. “Yes, Your Honors. I agree.” Strongheart shook his head no, and Keishara began to sob. “Jayce, you’re in no condition to fight. Wojek will kill you,”she sobbed. 

A roar went up from the crowd. Sylvie the Pixie smiled. “Very well, The Council will see it done. The fight is to the death. Should Wojek win, then the terms of avengement is met, and no harm shall befall those who walked with The Accused. If The Accused should win, and Wojek fall, all crimes against him shall be forfeit. How say you?”

Another roar went up from the crowd. The dwarves in the jury box shouted their approval, and the head judge nodded.

“Wojek, choose your weapon.”

The Righteous Dwarf walked to the table and selected a silver battle axe. He lifted it in one hand, over his head and shouted. Shouts came from the crowd and they began to chant his name, “Wojek! Wojek! Wojek!”

He looked at me and slowly drew his finger across his throat. The head judge spoke over the jeers and said, “Accused, pick your weapon.” I stood and walked to the table. Every step pained me, and I knew I did not have the strength for a prolonged fight. A silver dagger lay on the table, and I picked it up. I walked to the center of the rotunda and waited. Wojek walked proudly from side to side in front of the onlookers and beat upon his chest, and shouted curses aloud.

The onlookers roared their approval, as he walked toward the center of the rotunda. His eyes held malice, and I whispered, “Hinkey, guide my blade.” The head judge had walked down to join us, and she stretched a hand between us. 

“This is not an honor fight,” she said, in a low voice that only Wojek and I could hear. “This is war,” and then she shouted, “FIGHT!”

Wojek rushed toward me, his axe raised high above his head, and brought it down with a ferocious swing. I stepped out of the way slashed the blade across his ribs. Scarlet stained his side, and the sight of his blood fueled his rage. 

I took a deep breath and waited, but I hadn’t need wait long. Wojek swung a series of blows at me, from one side to the other, and he lunged at me with the axe extended in front of him. At the last moment, I stepped to his right and let the axe pass over my shoulder. 

As his upper torso drew near, I slammed the dagger into his armpit and twisted. He grunted, as blood seeped from his mouth.

“Yes,” Hekla roared. “Kill that heathen!”

I caught Wojek’s beard with my left hand and pulled his head toward me, and slid the knife from his armpit. I drove it into his jugular vein and delivered a series of rapid strikes that yielded multiple puncture wounds. Red hot blood splashed upon my face. He dropped to the ground, and I collapsed on top of him.

A hush fell over the rotunda, and the head judge checked Wojek’s neck for a pulse. There wasn’t one. She stood, and scarlet stained her dress, and she declared Wojek dead. Sylvie smiled at me, and then vanished from sight. 

Hekla, Keishara and Strongheart gathered around me and congratulated me on my victory. I didn’t feel victorious. As the onlookers melted back into the crowds, and the jury box emptied, the head judge came to me and placed both hands on my face. 

The Council watched as the head judge transformed into Rianna. The Council smiled, and filed out of the rotunda. “Hush, Jayce Wellspring. You did well. Stay still, and let me heal you.”

Warm light flooded my body, and the world grew white. Once again, I stood before time and space, holding the hand of Rianna. She smiled at me, and said, “Ask what you will, Chosen.”

“Wait, before you do anything, let me get my thoughts together. What do you mean when you say, “ask what you will?”

“You have fulfilled your destiny, Chosen. The fate of the Righteous Dwarves and The Stranged are sealed, unchangeable, but you may ask for whatever you would like and I will make it so.”

“Then, I would have my friends back.”

“It is done.”

“I have some questions, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Ask, what you will.”

“Why did you eradicate the Righteous Dwarves and The Stranged?”

Rianna smiled and shook her head, and said in a tender voice, “I did no such thing, Chosen. Their numbers were to great for humanity to thrive here. Their arrogance was too strong, their will to unpliable.”

“So, you killed them in this gruesome way, for what? To teach them a lesson?”

“Life ends, Jayce Wellspring. You know this well, but life also continues. From the ashes of yesterday, you build your tomorrows. This is the purpose of the Chalice. To remind people that life has unexpected twists, consequences, and turmoil, but life goes on.”

“So, yeah. You did these horrible things to teach them a lesson.”

“Not just them, Chosen. You as well. You’re a monster hunter, and the world is full of monsters to slay, especially now. Alas, our time is at an end. Go to your friends.”

The white light faded, and I blinked. The head judge was gone. I sat up, and Hekla the Brave, with Bone Crusher lifted high above her head, let out a fierce war cry. She stopped and stared those around her. 

Ria sat on the ground, her blue skin smooth and unblemished, as if she was not a day over twenty years. She ran her hand down her smooth skin and smiled. 

Tomak was still knelt down, and he saw Ria admiring her skin. “Mother,” he cried out, as he raced to her. Ria leapt to her feet and embraced him. His tears wet her neck, and hers did the same to him.

Hekla the Brave dropped Bone Crusher to the ground and looked around. Her eyes fell upon Hekla the Younger. She cocked her head and stared at her younger self. “Hail, barbarian kin!”

Hekla the Younger turned and stared at her older self. She smiled, and they walked toward one another. Hekla the Brave extended a hand toward her protege’ and Hekla the Younger grabbed her predecessor’s forearm. 

“Hail,” she said. 

Chancellor Strongheart knelt beside me and patted me on the back. “You did it, Jayce. I knew you could survive it.” I laughed and shook my head no. “I don’t have another fight in me, sir. If you guys could just make peace with each other, that’d work for me.”

Keishara knelt next to my side, and turned my face to meet hers. Her green eyes were wet with tear, but she leaned close and asked, “Do you think I’d make a fine wife, Jayce Wellspring?”

I grinned and said, “Only if you would agree to be mine. After all this, I’d hate to miss spending the rest of my life with you.”

She giggled, leaned close and asked, “How many children should we have then, dear husband?”

“As many as you want, dear wife,” I whispered in her ear. 

“Excuse me,” Hekla the Brave said, in a loud voice. I swear The Council could hear her, as well as the shopkeepers, grocers, and other people within the walled city of Yimond.

“Have you forgotten your old friends, Jayce?”

I stood and returned her smile and walked to embrace her. She hugged me tight, and I said, “I have not forgotten you, my friend. My heart rejoices at your return.”

“As does mine,” she growled at me playfully. She tapped her hammer and said, “You remember Bone Crusher, dontcha?”

“Who could forget that monstrous hammer?”

Ria walked toward me, arm in arm with Tomak, and she embraced me. “I could have sworn I was dead, Chosen.”

“Nah, just sleeping Ria. Look at you! You don’t look a day over twenty.” She smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “That’s sweet of you to say, Jayce. But that doesn’t explain how I got here.”

“Rianna brought you all back to me,” I said. Ria smiled and nodded. “I figured you cut a deal with her.”

“No, I didn’t. It was the other way around.”

Ria released Tomak’s arm, and went to talk with Hekla the Brave. Tomak and I looked at one another and embraced like brothers.

“It’s good to see again, Chosen.”

“And you as well, my friend.”

My voice cracked, and Tomak pulled me into another hug. “I never doubted you, Chosen. You were, are, my friend. I knew you would make the right choice.”

“I wasn’t so sure,” I said. “But, I’m glad to have you all back with me.”

Below us, a robed figure watched our reunion. The monk stood silent, beads in hand, and the monk smiled. I walked to the ledge, and the monk looked up at me. 

“Jasmine,” I exclaimed softly. I walked down the steps to her, and she lowered her hood. Her black hair was shaved, but her eyes were clear. She smiled at me, and I hugged her. 

“You look great,” I said. “Monk life agrees with you!”

She pulled her parchment out and wrote, “You look tired, Chosen.”

“I could sleep for several days, I’m sure. Are you a monk here? In Yimond?”

She nodded and pointed to the southeastern quadrants of the city. Jasmine touched her heart and bowed to me. I waved it off and shook my head no.

“No, Jasmine. You are my friend, and I am honored to know you.”

She smiled and on her parchment wrote, “Dragons?”

Chapter 15:

From afar, Rianna watched our reunion and smiled. Her Chosen had excelled in his task, and for a time, his life would be relatively trouble free. Sylvie the Pixie floated through the air to her side and watched us. 

“He did good, didn’t he? Caves, goblins, trolls, your chalice. You got what you wanted out of the deal, and he got his friends back. So, everything is as it should be?”

“For now,” Rianna responded. 

“What does that mean, for now? What scheme are you hatching now, mom?”

Rianna laughed and waved a hand at Sylvie. “The Chosen learned what he needed to know, and that is sufficient for now. Humankind has a track record for corruption, malice toward their own kind, and a hunger for war. They despise anything different from them, which makes them the perfect test subjects for future experiments.”

“I don’t understand your fascination with them, or why you would even use one, even one like Jayce Wellspring, to bring about this ‘prophecy.’ You could have just killed the people you wanted to and been done with it.”

“And that is why you’re not in charge, Sylvie.”

Yimond’s chapel sat behind a clump of trees, and was surrounded by flowers and fountains. A human priest was inside, and Keishara and I walked toward him. An older man, he walked with a stooped back and an awkward gait. 

“How can I help you?”

“Do you do traditional marriage ceremonies?”

“Yes, for human couples. Your bride is Elven.”

“Does that matter?”

“I don’t suppose so,” the old man muttered. “When would you like to get married?”

“Now, if at all possible.”

“There’s no witnesses…”

The two Heklas, Ria and Tomak, along with the rest of our friends burst through the doors. “I will witness this union,” Hekla the Brave shouted. “As will I,” Hekla the Younger shouted. They rushed to the front, their weapons banging against the pews as they piled near the altar area.

Chancellor Strongheart laughed out loud. Helga Twinhammers appeared near the altar, as did the slave girl from Voliguard.

“Fine,” the priest said, “but all you need is the vows.”

“Then, that’s what we want,” Keishara said. “We’re in a hurry. We’ve gotta baby-making to do!”

Our friends roared with laughter, and even the priest grinned at her comment. So much for subtleness. The priest motioned for us to clasp hands, and we joined our hands together. 

“Tell me your names,” the priest instructed. We told him, and he cleared his throat. 

“Do you, Jayce Wellspring, swear to love and to hold, to cherish in good times and bad, to protect, care for, tend to , listen to, and walk the path of life with your beloved, all the days of your life?”

I gazed into the eyes of Keishara and smiled. Keishara smiled back at me, and I whispered, “I do.”

“Do you, Keishara, swear to love and hold, to cherish in good times and in bad, to protect your husband, care for, tend to, and walk the path of life with your beloved, all the days of your life?”

“I do,” Keishara said. “Can we go make the babies now?”

The priest laughed and finished up by saying, “Then, in the sight of God, I pronounce you man and wife. You may now go make the babies.”

Our friends roared with laughter and congratulations. I pulled Keishara to me and kissed her, and she responded by pulling me tight against her. It was the second best kiss of my life, the first naturally being that first kiss under the moon. 

We left the chapel and began the long journey back to Voliguard. Chancellor Strongheart had provided us with enough money to purchase mounts for each member of our party. 

He stood at the stables and waved until we disappeared from sight. Strongheart was a good man, and it pained me that he would not join our party. 

“I’ve got enough work here to keep me busy for three lifetimes,” he said to me, when I asked him to come with us. “This isn’t our old home, Jayce, but it’s all we have now. Someone must work to unite humanity with the other races. I’m here if you need me.”

Keishara and I rode together on our mount, she had named it Chase, and in the times we could get away, we practiced our baby-making skills. Her pale skin glowed with the promise of new life, and her tiny bump nestled my lower back as we rode toward the city that would be our home. 

Hekla the Brave rode next to us, and demanded we name our firstborn-son or daughter-after her. “I’m the bravest in this party, and I demand name rights!” She would not relent, so I told her we would have our child-whatever we named them-call her grandmother.

She said nothing else about it. 

Ria and Tomak rode behind us, but they both agreed to stay with us until this business with the Chalice was over. At times, I could feel that this was only the beginning, and Ria told me she had the same feeling. 

It did not seem that the will of the Chalice was completed. Instead, I felt like I was trapped between two events, one that was completed and the other still unfolding.

There would be no time to rest, I feared. We needed to be prepared for whatever would happen next. 

Hekla the Younger rode in the rear. She and Hekla the Brave ribbed each other often, but both had indomitable spirits. She agreed to stay, and help us however she could-as long as our child did not call her grandmother.

Jasmine had been with us to the gates of Yimond, and seen us off on our journey home. She still had her combat skills, and she had written on her parchment, “When you call, I shall come. Like an arrow in the night, I shall fight at your side.”

We traveled for many days until Voliguard came into view, but nothing could prepare us for what we witness. Against a fiery orange background, dragons filled the sky. Their shouts ripped at the foundation of the walls, fire, ice, and darkness exploded from their mouths. 

Hekla the Brave pulled up next to me, and unslung Bone Crusher. Tomak and Ria locked their gaze upon the dragons, danger flashing in their eyes. 

“Keishara, find someplace to hunker down. I’m not a dragon hunter, not until now, but I do hunt monsters. Go, and keep our child safe. I’ll find you when this is over.”

“Go to the back of the city,” Hekla the Brave told her. “You can slip through the gates, and head for The House of The Wolves. Tell Kegger, we’re coming home.”

Hekla the Younger rode up and unslung her hammer as well. She turned to us and said, “Well, I’d hate to miss the party. What about it, Jayce? You ready to kill a dragon?”

I smiled, and pulled Malice from my pack, as we charged as a family toward the danger.

“Come at me, bro.”

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