by Isaiah Robinson
Moonlight settled his features; its soft silvery light feigned the youth he once had. Resting on a straw-stuffed mattress, Faiben stretched out his hands before him. In the moonlight they bore no scars, no calluses, no crooked fingers. They were the hands of a simple man, a man who knew no sorrow. Yet even in this sly silver glow, his hands still trembled and shook.
He knew no one noticed the trembling, but his heart felt otherwise. He laid them by his sides hoping to still them, to quell the pain.
Faiben gazed out the wooden window on the side of his bed that overlooked his fields. The sound of plodding hooves made its way towards him; his aegean-green eyes trailed the dirt road leading to Lord Amon’s manor. Despite the dark of night, he could make out a carriage and a half dozen men on horseback. He put on his dark charcoal trousers, leather boots, and slung his rusty sword across his back before heading out to meet his guests.
✷ ✷ ✷
“Your Lord is sick,” said the soldier on the dark-chestnut destrier. He wore a polished steel chest plate bearing the sigil of Lord Amon’s house, a ram’s horn laid beneath a silver dagger. Unlike the other soldiers, his chest plate had an additional red stripe crudely painted down the middle. The Captain of the Guard.
“Not a doctor,” Faiben said with arms folded across bare chest, hoping to obscure his trembling hands.
“He’s already seen the best physicians in Vymeria and he’s yet to improve,” said the Captain as he climbed off his horse and drew Faiben away from the others.
“The Lord informed me that you know… a ritual.” The captain hesitated, knowing that performing any sort of ritual was punishable by death.
“Can’t do. My apprentice isn’t ready. Too dangerous.”
The captain’s concern quickly gave way to anger. “It wasn’t a request.”
✷ ✷ ✷
“Elle. It’s time to get up,” Faiben said while nudging his young apprentice awake. She didn’t move. He noisily opened the windows and lit the candle next to her bed. Still asleep. Losing patience, Faiben stood at the foot of her small, straw mattress, grabbed the legs of her bed, and violently shook her awake.
Elle jerked from her sleep, her ink-black bangs framing her look of distress. Once she realized it was only Faiben, her silver eyes quickly softened.
Faiben took a breath. “I know you’ve been frustrated with your apprenticeship.”
“N-No,” Elle stuttered while clumsily climbing out of bed. “It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot about art, and painting. I’ve really improved my fundamentals.”
“Bullshit. I know you hate it.” He knew she was too good to be stuck on some farm in the middle of Vymeria. And she knew it too. She could have chosen any master, even apprenticed under one of the royal artists in the Capital City. Yet she was here. Because of Faiben.
Before Elle could dissuade him, Faiben continued. “I made you paint thousands of circles, squares, and triangles every day for the last two months, never allowing you to paint a real piece of art. On top of that, I forced you to run and train everyday like a soldier.”
Elle was silent. He knew he was voicing every thought she was too polite to voice herself. His brows were pulled into his typical scowl, but his eyes felt gentle and warm. “I’ve been training you because I’m the only one that can do what I do.”
“Farm and paint?”
“I kill daemons.” The room grew quiet. The only sounds were wind and burning wick.
“Demons? Like the ones in fairytales?” Elle said, attempting to take him seriously.
“No, those don’t exist. And these are much worse.”
“… And why do you need me? A painter?”
“Shapes,” Faiben said matter-of-factly. “Everything you see is shapes. Some shapes are simple.” He motioned to the two square windows bookending her bed. “But some are more intricate. Too intricate to be seen if you don’t know where to look.”
His eyes scanned back and forth looking to find the words. “If you paint them perfectly it opens up gateways to … another place. A place that’s incomprehensible. A place that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I call this place the Realm of Echoes.”
“The Realm of Echoes?” Elle asked, her silver eyes unwilling to break eye contact.
“What happens in that realm, echoes into ours.” Faiben looked at Elle. Did she believe him? Did she think he was crazy?
“Why are you telling me this now?” Elle asked.
“I wanted you to be ready, but we’ve run out of time. The Lord needs our help.”
✷ ✷ ✷
Lord Amon breathed silently, his chest rising and falling like the dark, cobalt tides of the Vyermian coast. The black herb’s smoke was fast-acting, but Faiben made the Lord breathe a double-dose to ensure a long slumber. The Lord’s face was laden with deep wrinkles and damp with glistening sweat. He slept deeply, but his dreams were troubled.
“That should give us enough time,” Faiben said as he laid the herbs on a nearby table. He reached beneath his cloak and removed a knife and a small glass vile. Grabbing Lord Amon’s hand, he swept the blade along his palm in one smooth motion. The wound was shallow, but it served its purpose. He filled the vial with the Lord’s blood and tucked it away in a pocket.
Faiben and Elle were alone with the Lord; his guards, just outside. With his back towards Elle, Faiben checked his hands. The pain had dwindled, but the trembling had not. He hid them beneath his wool cloak and turned around.
Elle dressed warmly as Faiben instructed; The Realm of Echoes was much colder than Vymeria’s early autumn. She wore leather boots, warm pants, and a thick wool cloak. Kneeling on the ground, she organized her assortment of brushes and little, paint-filled bottles. To her side laid a second, smaller box that she had never seen before.
Would she be ready? Faiben thought to himself as she grabbed the small wooden box. He knew the question wasn’t about her. He had survived the darkest nights, journeyed to realms unseen, but now his life was in the hands of a young girl – a painter. He began to pace.
“Elle.” She looked up from the small box in her hands. “Open it.”
Inside it contained a pipe and a small glass bottle brimmed with bright-red herbs.
“What is it?” Elle asked, her eyes scanning over its contents.
“It will open your eyes to the unseen shapes.” Her shoulders tensed. It was clear she had never taken herbs.
“My plan was to train your eyes to see the unseen shapes,” Faiben relented. “But we’ve run out of time.”
“I see… If I may ask… Why don’t you draw the shapes? You can see them, can’t you?”
Faiben’s cheek muscles pulsed slightly as he clenched his jaw. Should he tell her the truth? His hands shook at the thought of it.
“Yes. But you are my apprentice and you do as I say.”
She looked away and gave a small, insignificant nod. He knew she was only trying to understand… but she couldn’t. She would never understand.
Faiben broke the mounting silence. “Just don’t lose the sound of my voice.”
Following his instructions, Elle packed the pipe with bright-red herbs. She used the nearby candle and a paper scrap to light the pipe and breathe its acidic smoke. She began to cough violently, and her eyes welled with tears.
“Again,” Faiben said sternly. This time she inhaled deeply and held it in. Faiben proceeded to count to himself. 3… 2… 1…
Before she had time to exhale the smoke, her silver-flecked eyes were fully dilated. They darted around, taking in the whole room at once. It was as if it was her first time seeing the world. Her body was calm, but her eyes were wild and untamed.
Faiben was flooded with memories at the sight of her. He remembered the first time he had seen the unseen shapes on Mount Ghylendrithyll. How the ground beneath his feet rippled like the seas of the Hallowed Coast. How the golden light danced before his eyes. But he dismissed the memories as quickly as they came. He had to focus on the task at hand.
Elle’s body began to convulse like she was kneeling in the middle of a storm. Her arms stiffened like ice and her head snapped backwards as she began to cry out. Faiben rushed to her.
“Elle! Follow my voice! Flee the darkness!” He searched her face for any sign of acknowledgement. She wasn’t ready, he thought to himself. I should have found another way.
She began to grit her teeth. Beads of sweat dripped from her face, her bangs clinging to her forehead. She was slowly regaining control. Elle gasped for air and stilled her shaking body. Her eyes snapped open. They were glowing like silver stars burning in the night sky. She did it.
Elle grabbed her paint brush, dipped it in the bottle of white paint, and began to capture the unseen shapes on the ground before her. As she drew, an intricate pattern began to emerge. After all these years, Faiben still could not find the words to describe it. The pattern was more detailed than any piece of art he had ever seen, more detailed than any pattern he ever found in nature. It almost seemed to be alive. It felt complex, yet simple. Grand, yet intimate. Chaotic, yet calm. It was paradoxically beautiful.
Elle’s brush darted back and forth, detailing the masterpiece before her. As she drew the final stroke, the paint began to … shift. It seemed to transform from white to a pale blue. And it began to glow, just like her silver eyes.
Within moments, the whole room was filled with blue light and violent winds. The ground began to tremble. Faiben looked down at his hands one last time. He needed Elle. Painting the unseen shapes requires perfection and control; two things he no longer had. He laid his hand on Elle’s shoulder as he knelt beside her. She was everything he had lost.
A thunderous crash shook the room and the world burned white.
✷ ✷ ✷
Dirt and rotting flesh sullied the wind. The ground was chalky and cracked with tufts of browning moss scattered along its surface. Moths floated on murky pools of rainwater collected under long-dead trees. Crows hung from barren black branches and the sky was cloudless and grim.
The Realm of Echoes.
Elle knelt beside Faiben, the effects of the herb nearing its end. Her eyes widened in disbelief.
“Yes,” Faiben said before she could speak. “You did this.”
“But … how?” Elle said as she slowly got to her feet.
“There’s no time. It knows we’re here.” With that, Faiben removed a small notebook tucked beneath his cloak. He opened it to a blank page and gave it to Elle.
“What’s this?” She asked.
He ignored her, removing a second item from his cloak. It was the glass vial filled with Lord Amon’s blood. He loosed its top and let it blot each page. Quickly, a pattern emerged. It was a map made of blood.
He took the notebook from Elle and looked in her eyes. “Follow me.”
✷ ✷ ✷
As they journeyed, the pale light of midday began to fade. Faiben drew his sword from the worn, leather scabbard hanging high across his back. As it bathed in the sky’s dim light, the rust and age began to fade. There were runes etched along its length, its meaning ancient and forgotten. As he held it in his hands, the engravings began to burn with blue-white flame. The blade and hilt felt perfectly balanced, and for that he was grateful.
Holding the blade before him, Faiben used its pale, blue light to make out the details of the bloodmap. It led to a vast wetland littered with dead and dying trees. At the center stood a God Tree, a tree as old as the realm itself. Faiben approached it with Elle close behind.
At the God Tree’s base there laid a bundle of cloth with something wrapped inside. Faiben held the sword above the small bundle to see it more clearly. Pulling back the blanket, a face of an infant appeared. A face of forsakenness.
The babe’s skin was mangled and grey with dried flakes rimming its mouth and eyes. Its eyes sprang open and cat-like pupils reflected the dim glow from Faiben’s blade. A small smile began to creep along its face, exposing many rows of sharp teeth. Then, slowly, it began to laugh. Not the laugh of a child. But deep, resonant. Dark.
In a flash, dozens of arms ripped through the daemon babe’s body. They were long and withered, bearing three elbows each. Faiben cut away at them while Elle stood frozen in disbelief; he was her only hope. The sword seared four legs like a hot blade through wax. In Vymeria, his sword was brittle and aged, but in the Realm of Echoes it bore the might of a thousand suns. As Faiben readied his blade to swing again, his hand seized, and he dropped it to the ground.
Without hesitation, the daemon sprang at his face. Faiben turned to protect himself, but its teeth pierced through his shoulder instead. Bright, steaming blood poured down his arm like the waterfalls of Rueschar. He bashed it against the God Tree, hoping to free himself from its iron bite. But it was no use.
Faiben’s vision began to fade; he was losing blood too fast. In Vymeria he was withered and old, and in this realm, he was no different. He took one last look at Elle; so much potential wasted on an old man waiting to die. This is why you can’t rely on others.
He dropped to the ground.
✷ ✷ ✷
Soft sheets cradled his body. Honey and peppermint filled the air. He slowly opened his eyes, blinking as they adjusted to the mid-day sun. He was in his bed? He looked to his left and saw her sitting there on a small, wooden stool.
“How-,” Faiben began to speak.
“I brought us back,” Elle cut him off. “You really shouldn’t talk. You lost a lot of blood. But I had Lord Amon’s men stitch you up. He’s fine by the way.” She looked unscathed. And, somehow, different? Maybe he was wrong about her. Maybe he was wrong about everything.
“Thanks,” Faiben whispered. He laid there calmly, hands by his side. They still trembled, but this time they told a new story.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student