The cold northern wind gusted around Naiya’Nal as the dragon set her down at the top of the highest tower. She did not think much of the chill since she had grown accustomed to the cold after living in Sarda for so long. She was the apprentice of Lorica’For, but her real master was Voth, a being of both human and non-human characteristics. He planned to use her to help end the war that had plagued the world since its creation. According to him, she was the fulfillment of the final two prophecies. Already she was ‘the last and the best’; and one day, she would fulfill the other prophecy that said ‘seduction gathers the world’.
As the dragon flew down to the dragon arena, Voth welcomed Naiya’Nal and handed her a goblet of Josloy’s kendi. “What news from Narva?” he asked.
“She has found the orb to be very helpful,” Naiya’Nal answered with a grin. “She tried to convince me that I would find one useful, but I know I don’t need one.”
“Has she finally managed to suppress the rebellion on Panei?” he asked.
Naiya’Nal smirked and laughed. “If Narva burned every city in that land, only then could she conquer all of Panei. However, she claims the orb will enable her to succeed quickly so she can finally move against Tanarad. Her goals are quite lofty for someone so inept, if you ask me.”
Voth nodded and walked over to a table against the wall. The tall red candles flickered to life as he neared them. “You have done well,” he said. “You err only in your criticism of Narva’s ability. I chose when she was ready to continue alone and therefore to question her skills is to question my decision.”
Naiya’Nal bowed her head. “I did not mean...” she began, but stopped as Voth raised his hand to silence her.
“I am confident that Narva’s training was complete. Are you confident in your own?
“There is always more that I could learn, but I believe my mistress has taught me everything she can.”
Voth coughed and turned to face her. “Indeed! She has told me the same. You have learned much quicker than expected and will soon take your place as the queen of this world. However, there are two things which must be done by you before your training will be complete.”
Naiya’Nal smiled. After fifteen years of training, she had finally reached the end. “What must be done?” she asked.
Voth handed her a sharp dagger. “Lorica’For awaits you in her room. She has lived a long life and waits only for you to bestow to her a more permanent slumber after her many years of loyal service.”
Naiya’Nal raised her eyebrows. “I need to kill her to complete my training?”
“She is already waiting for you,” Voth replied. “She has taught you all she can and only requires that you release her spirit to rest.”
Naiya’Nal bowed and grasped the dagger with both hands. “When I return, I will take the second assignment to complete my training.”
Naiya’Nal found Lorica’For standing in her room waiting. Tables stood against the walls to either side and two candles provided light for the room. She stood facing a round reflecting basin built into the floor by the far wall. She spoke as Naiya’Nal entered. “For many years I have waited for the day when you would stand at my door,” the woman stated. “I have taught you everything except one thing.”
“What is that?” Naiya’Nal asked, stepping through the doorway.
“Everything you have done has been at the orders of either Voth or me. You have done nothing for yourself.” Lorica’For partially turned her head, but not enough for Naiya’Nal to see her eyes. “Voth may plan to make you his queen, but if you wish to learn more, you must go beyond your orders and make your own decisions.” She once again looked toward the reflecting basin.
“Is there anything else you can teach me?” Naiya’Nal asked.
“No,” Lorica’For replied. She held out her hands to either side, clenched her fists, and lifted her chin. “You are nothing more than a slave. Follow the orders of your master.”
Naiya’Nal moved swiftly toward the old woman and grabbed her from behind. “Even slaves can become great,” she uttered, swiping her sharp blade across Lorica’For’s throat.
Naiya’Nal breathed deeply as she let the limp corpse fall forward into the reflecting pool. Blood colored the water red and Naiya’Nal turned to leave. She stopped at the door and turned her head. “I will not forget this final lesson,” she said. “Someday I will understand.”
When she returned to the top of the tower, Voth was still waiting for her. “Lorica’For slumbers,” Naiya’Nal said. “What is my final test?”
“If you are ready, I have an assignment which will test all of your abilities,” Voth stated. “There is an enemy stronger than any you have yet encountered.”
“There is nothing I cannot overcome,” she confidently replied.
Voth chuckled. “I admire your confidence,” he admitted. “However, confidence alone will not resolve this next conflict. Your assignment is to travel to the waters of the Awa between Mayve and Hayve. There you will find one of the Awa who will assault you with magic. Bring me her staff as proof of her death and your training will be considered complete.”
Naiya’Nal turned to leave. “Wait,” Voth ordered. He held out his white hands and pulled off his ring. “I want you to wear this, for you have the courage of a dragon.”
Naiya’Nal smiled as she took the ring and placed it on her hand. It was silver and shaped like a dragon with two tiny amethyst stones for eyes. “I will depart in the morning,” she said with a bow. She turned and headed toward the door, but stopped before she walked through it. She looked back at Voth and smiled. “I will return victorious,” she said. “One cannot fail what prophecy predestines.” With that, she left the room.
When Naiya’Nal left for Mayve, she did not wear her black and purple cloak, but disguised herself as one of the common women of the world. The Awa lived in the water and Naiya’Nal would need to take the time to accustom herself to their environment. She would not be able to breathe the water so she would have to lure her enemy to the surface or discover a way to remain underwater.
As she made her way to the shore, she saw the head of an Awa woman poke from the water. “I am looking for a friend,” Naiya’Nal said. “Can you help me?” For a moment, the scaly light green head with white hair and beady purple eyes stared at her, making Naiya’Nal realize that she shouldn’t have spoken so quickly. She had heard stories of the fish-men before and should have remembered that they had withdrawn from the rest of the world.
“There are no associations between fins and feet,” the Awa woman replied, showing no emotion.
“I am looking for someone,” Naiya’Nal corrected herself. “I would wish that she would think of me as a friend.”
The fish-woman took a deep breath. “I too wish I could think of you as a friend,” she said, “but I know why you have come.”
Naiya’Nal knew instantly that this had to be the Awa woman that Voth told her to kill. Without hesitating, she tried striking the fish-woman with a blast of lightning, but was startled since it did not strike her target, but curled back around and dissipated.
“You are stronger than I had expected,” the fish-woman noted. “However, there is much you must learn. Come, you will stay with me tonight.”
Naiya’Nal hesitated. This had to be a trap and she did not want to be caught. “How can I trust you?” she asked.
“You attacked and I allowed you to live,” the fish-woman casually replied. “A better question would be to ask why I am showing trust to you. Your arrival tells me your mistress is dead. Am I wrong?”
“You knew Lorica’For?” Naiya’Nal asked.
“I knew her,” the fish-woman said quickly. “Come with me and we will talk.” She held out her hand and beckoned for Naiya’Nal.
Naiya’Nal waded into the sea. Up close, she could see the detail of the old scaly face. “I will trust you,” she said, taking the fish-woman’s hand.
Naiya’Nal held her breath as she submerged under the surface. The old fish-woman’s fin propelled them rapidly down and into a cavern where there was an air pocket to breathe.
They stood waist deep in calm water. “Where are we?” Naiya’Nal asked, noticing that they were surrounded by rock.
“Even the Awa must breathe air,” the fish-woman replied. “We are inside an air bubble trapped in an undersea cave. Light is provided by glowing sea slugs.”
Naiya’Nal reached into the water and attempted to pick up one of the glowing creatures. It stopped glowing as she touched it and escaped into the current. The fish-woman took her hand again. “We must go. We have far to go.”
They submerged and as before, the fish-woman pulled Naiya’Nal swiftly through the water. This time Naiya’Nal admired the world around her. The water was clear and the sun illuminated the many shades of coral and plants growing on the sea floor. Fish of all shapes and colors swam around them and seemed oblivious to their presence. They stopped at several other bubble caverns before they finally arrived at the fish-woman’s home.
She lived in a cavern similar to the ones they had stopped at for air only hers was larger with several rooms inside. On the far wall, facing the entrance, hung a purple banner with a yellow thunderbolt outlined in red. “I didn’t know the Awa raised colors, being underwater,” Naiya’Nal said.
“Although the Awa do have their colors, those are not them,” the fish-woman said, looking up at it. “I am surprised you did not recognize it, Naiya’Nal,” she said. “The other slaves had all been taught about the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar.”
Naiya’Nal slowly took a step back and slowly reached for her dagger concealed on her back. “Who are you?” she demanded.
The fish-woman smiled. “I’m sorry; I forgot to properly introduce myself. I am Ta’Ero.”
“No,” Naiya’Nal said. “How do you know my name and why do you refer to me as a slave?”
“I remember when you were born, Naiya’Nal,” Ta’Ero said. “I was helping to defend our realm from a swarm of danbobs when I felt the power of your first heartbeat. The Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar planned to train you to use your power, but the enemy took you before we thought you were old enough. I would have died to save you from them, but I do not have feet and cannot go far from water.”
“You mentioned earlier that you knew my mistress, Lorica’For,” Naiya’Nal said. “Was she also part of your Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar?”
“All Dark Witches are our enemies,” Ta’Ero replied, “even you. It was only in the last few years that Lorica’For managed to contact me in search for a few answers.”
“What did she ask?”
Ta’Ero sighed. “All your life you have been trained to do the bidding of Voth. You have never given his orders a second thought. You think what he tells you is true, but that is far from reality. Tell me, how are your parents doing these days?”
“I never knew my parents,” Naiya’Nal said, looking down at the ankle-deep water she stood in. “They escaped the same night I was rescued, but later they were found and killed by the enemy.”
Ta’Ero took Naiya’Nal’s hand in her own. “That is where you have been lied to,” she said, looking into Naiya’Nal’s eyes. “They were not killed, but have been taken as slaves by Voth. All these years they have managed to survive only to be imprisoned when they demanded to see you.”
“How do I know that you aren’t the one telling me the lies?” Naiya’Nal asked defensively.
“I expect you to kill me before you leave,” Ta’Ero said. “You might even attempt to destroy the entire realm of the Awa in your leaving. However, I have told you enough to make you doubt what you know. What you do with this doubt is up to you.”
“Before I killed her, Lorica’For said I needed to learn to think for myself and then she called me a slave. You also say I am a slave so you know what she meant,” Naiya’Nal said. “What do I have to do?”
“Find the truth,” Ta’Ero replied. “Search the dungeons of Voth for your parents. If you find them alive as I have said, you must choose whether to believe the lies of Voth or if you will question all he has told you.”
“And if I decide that Voth is a liar?”
“Unfortunately, I will be dead and unable to guide you,” Ta’Ero said. “Travel to Tanarad and seek out the red armbands. They have stayed loyal to the truth since the creation of the world. Their captain will guide you.”
“At the moment, I cannot trust your words,” Naiya’Nal said. “I must kill you as I have intended, but I also intend to put your words to the test.” She stood straight and slowly pulling out her.
“Not now!” Ta’Ero ordered. “You cannot use your magic to kill me for I would defeat you as before. I will think of you as a friend if you would at least wait until I am asleep. Then you can pierce my heart without my knowing.”
“I’d love to stay,” Naiya’Nal said, suddenly bringing her other hand from behind her back and thrusting her sharp dagger into the fish-woman’s chest. As the fish-woman’s eyes closed, Naiya’Nal dropped her to the floor. “Unfortunately, my plans do not include your hospitality.” Blood flowed from Ta’Ero and stained the water where she floated motionless. Naiya’Nal grabbed the staff propped against the wall in the corner, and swam out the entrance.
Naiya’Nal swam through the sea, holding her breath. She could see where other fish-men had built their homes. She held out her hand toward the first one. The strong unseen force of her magic collapsed the structure and a myriad of bubbles escaped to the surface. A green hand reached up from the rubble and the buried Awa slowly grasped for help until it died and went limp.
Other fish-men suddenly emerged from among the homes. A spear swished past her head and she turned to face the threat. Without thinking, a stream of fire shot from her hand and engulfed the fish-man. She smiled as she realized the water did not quench her magic. She turned and burned another of the Awa.
Naiya’Nal surfaced for air and dove back under. Compared to the fish-men, she was invincible. She smiled as she incinerated a group of the fish-men. Even while many were dying, more and more fish-men were coming at her. She swam in a circle sending fire in all directions. She surfaced for air once more and as she gasped for air, she felt a spear graze her thigh.
The water was growing warm from the hot fire and the boiling water around the burning fish-men hampered her visibility. She needed to keep surfacing for air and could not keep fighting against this enemy. Her leg stung where the spear had cut it. Once more, she dove under, but instead of fire, she merely began to push her enemies so she could have a chance to escape.
By the time Naiya’Nal reached the shore, she was exhausted and meandered inland until she felt safe from the relentless Awa. They had just kept coming as fast as she could defend herself. Escaping had also been difficult. They had fins and could swim rapidly while she could only go as fast as her legs propelled her. As she bandaged her thigh, she hoped she would never come back to the realm of the Awa.
Naiya’Nal did not return immediately to Voth when she returned to Sarda. Instead, she made her way down into the dungeons carved deep under Voth’s castle. She carried a torch as she walked through the dark passageways. The air was cold and stank of rotting mold with the humid stench of hiding vermin.
Dragon glyphs carved above the cell doors provided numbers that kept her from losing her way as she quickly went through the dark meandering tunnels. At times, she felt she was retracing her steps, but the glyphs kept increasing as she went forward. “All prisoners to the bars to be seen,” she kept repeating.
Most of the cells she passed held decomposing corpses that would probably never be removed. Humans, Barbidons, beasts, anything that could have opposed Voth had been locked up in this maze. The occasional noise or movement proved that some of the prisoners were still alive, but most were dead. She felt sorry for the pitiful creatures living in the squalid conditions and even though she knew some of them had been placed there by her actions, she knew she was powerless to intervene on their behalf.
Naiya’Nal was beginning to doubt the words of Ta’Ero when she heard a woman shout her name further down the tunnel. She knew this had to be one of the two people she was looking for. No one else down here would have known her name. She ran toward the cell and found the hands of a shriveled woman reaching through the bars.
She dropped her torch on the floor as she grabbed the hands. “Mother?” Naiya’Nal felt a tear run down her cheek. “I was told you were dead!” She looked past the haggard woman and noticed an old man lying on a mat in the corner. “Is that my father?”
“It has been many years since you were taken from us,” her mother said. “You have grown into a fine woman.”
The man slowly sat up and crawled over to the bars. He coughed as he spoke. “I knew you would come for us, Naiya’Nal.”
Naiya’Nal knelt down. She reached through the bars and grabbed his hand. He was shaking and she knew he was very ill. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Everything I have ever been taught was a lie.”
“Can you get us out?” her father asked.
Naiya’Nal looked over the cell door. “I cannot break the magic, but I promise I will do everything I can to get you released.”
“Then hurry, please!” her mother pleaded, glancing at her sickly husband.
“I will return as soon as I can,” Naiya’Nal said. She stood up and picked up the torch. She lit another torch on the wall so they would not be left in the darkness, and took one more look at her parents before she sprinted back down the corridor.
Naiya’Nal stormed into Voth’s chamber at the top of the highest tower. “Here is your proof of my actions,” she stated, throwing Ta’Ero’s staff at him.
Voth dropped a jar, causing it to shatter and spill its contents onto the floor. “Your training is over; why are you upset?” he asked. He turned and faced her.
“Did you think I would never find out about your lies?” she asked. “Will you tell ever me the truth or do I need to find it on my own?”
Voth stooped down and picked up the fish-woman’s staff. “What lies do you speak of?”
“Everything you ever told me about my parents was a lie,” she stammered. “They are not dead, but still alive and hidden away in your dungeons.”
“Then I will have them released and brought up for you,” Voth replied with a smile. “Za’Chavog,” he called.
One of the Barbidon servants entered the room. “Master, how may I serve you?”
“Release the prisoners in cell de’me’meku. Bring them up here.” The Barbidon left the room and Voth turned back to Naiya’Nal. “Your parents are dead. What other fables have you just heard?”
Naiya’Nal maintained her silence and walked over to the parapet. “Your lies cannot keep me as a slave,” she said, looking down at the choppy lake waters far below.
“You are my assistant, not a slave, and one day I will make you queen over this entire world,” Voth replied, trying to reassure her.
Naiya’Nal snorted in disgust. “When I attacked Ta’Ero, she rendered my magic useless. If I am your assistant, then why have you not taught me any defenses against magic?”
“You have been taught only what you need to know. If you needed to know more, I would have taught you.”
She sighed. “I can see how it would be smart not to teach such things to your slaves. Imagine what would happen if one of them used it against you.”
“Anything you do to others can also be done to you,” Voth said. “The magic you experienced is not as much of an advantage as you would assume.”
“I have always wondered,” Naiya’Nal said, changing the subject, “why have you forbidden me from travelling to Etnyben?”
Voth frowned. “You know the white plague is in that land. I am only helping you by keeping you from it.”
Naiya’Nal shook her head. “Even I know that the white plague is only found around the ruins of Nazada at the very bottom of the world and that the rest of Etnyben is safe. I have heard that a man named Josloy led an army against an enemy near the Red Mountains in that land many years ago. If he had no encounter with the plague, then there is no reason to suspect that I would encounter it. Lorica’For once mentioned the lost Huvudets in connection with Etnyben. I believe you are hiding something and since I am your assistant, I must know why you forbid me from assisting you with your activities there.”
“I see there is no fooling you,” Voth said. “Lorica’For taught you well when it comes to uncovering secrets.”
“Then what are you hiding from me?” Naiya’Nal asked. “What is so secret that you must hide it from your greatest assistant and future queen of this world?”
“Prophecy alone will reveal secrets which elude even the greatest strategists in the entire world. I cannot tell you what may be hidden beyond those lands and I still forbid you from going there.”
Naiya’Nal sat down with her back to the parapet. “I don’t quite understand,” she said, “Are you trying to manipulate prophecy to your advantage, or are you allowing prophecy to manipulate you?” Voth ignored her question and turned back to what he had been working on when she entered.
Naiya’Nal sat in silence until the sun went down before she asked her last question. “Voth, what are you?” He spun around and faced her again. “I know you are not of the three races or their variations,” she said. “I also doubt you are one of the Lunari since you are more than light and shadow. You show no signs of age and I have never been told your origin.”
“You are correct that I am none of those, but I do not tell of my beginnings,” he stated. “However, it was I who urged the shadow Lunari to shun the light and those who live in it.”
Za’Chavog entered with Naiya’Nal’s parents. Her mother had walked, but the Barbidon had carried her father on his back. The Barbidon tossed the old man to the floor and left. Her father coughed a few times and looked up at Naiya’Nal as her mother knelt beside him.
Naiya’Nal jumped to her feet and briefly looked at her disheveled parents before looking back at Voth. “I hate you, Voth!” she said. “You are a despicable being. Because of you there has been almost three million years of war ruining countless lives across two worlds. Tell me Voth, how many more lies will you be telling?”
The shadow surrounding Voth grew thicker. He held out one hand toward Naiya’Nal and the other toward her parents. “NO!” Naiya’Nal screamed. Her parent’s began to float upward. Now she knew why there had never been a fixed ceiling on that highest chamber of the tower. She tried to run and stop Voth, but his magic pushed her backwards where she fell to the floor. She held out her hand toward Voth.
“Don’t do it,” he warned. She let loose with her lightning. It curled around her just as it had when she attacked Ta’Ero. She was helpless and watched as her screaming parents rose higher and higher in the sky toward the rotating ring of green fire that had always hung in the sky over the castle. Voth once claimed he made it from fallen stars and she could see many rocky shards among the flames. The rocks and green fire spun faster and faster as her parents rise higher and higher.
Naiya’Nal screamed and looked away as the protesting cries of her parents were silenced. She knew the stone and fire had shredded and incinerated their bodies. “Voth,” she growled, “I will kill you someday.”
“Is it a lie if an event is mentioned before it happens? If so, then all prophecy is a lie,” Voth replied. He walked toward the door. “You are staying on this tower until you decide to obey my orders. If you wish to escape, the only way is over the side. The spoonfish are ravenous so I do not advise it.” He then left and slammed the door behind him.
“If I am not gone before you return,” she hissed, “one of us will die.”
Naiya’Nal curled up against the parapet and shivered in the cold drizzle. Her cloak would not keep her warm for long. She needed to escape as Ta’Ero had suggested and seek the red armbands in Tanarad. Her problem was how to escape. The door was blocked. The sides of the tower and the cliff below were too steep and too high for her to climb. Suicide over the side was also not an option. She didn’t want to experience a long fall toward a lake of hungry fish. She needed to escape so she could one day come back and kill Voth.
She heard a loud roar and knew Voth had left on some obscure errand with his dragon, Kell. If only she could fly, she could escape. The problem was that Voth could learn the location of every dragon in the sky. She stood up and began to look around. If she could kill a dragon, she could use its wings to escape without Voth knowing anything more than one of his dragons had died.
She rummaged through the piles of stuff Voth had left behind. She found old potions, magic artifacts, unknown ingredients, various weapons, armor, and even old manuscripts. She finally found a discarded dragon lance. Everyone who entered the dragon arena in the castle needed to carry a dragon lance. They were effective against the smaller dragons that couldn’t shoot flame a long distance. She also found a net she could use to entangle the dragon’s wings.
Naiya’Nal then began to leaf through the more recent manuscripts. Voth had mentioned a dragon birth a few weeks before and now that dragon would be the perfect size. She only needed to find its name so she could call it using the magic dragon language Voth had taught her. She searched everywhere and did not find the dragon’s name.
“Venzorbijnor Ilph seshakrozh,” she yelled, hoping she would be able to issue the command through her personal dragon. The dragon flew up from the dragon arena and perched on the parapet. She walked over and stroked its neck. “You have served me well, and I will miss you,” she said. “Ilph yarkrig dragons rokdazho vejishor morsh.”
Naiya’Nal watched as her dragon jumped off the tower and flew out of sight. She could hear roars and squeals among the other dragons and soon a small dragon flew up and landed on the floor. She dumped the contents of an old jar on the floor in front of the dragon. They were pieces of water worms that Voth had been saving for an arcane purpose. They had been in the jar for a long time and the putrid smell grabbed the dragon’s attention. It moved to devour the rancid entrails, but Naiya’Nal threw the net over the small dragon.
The dragon tried to escape, but the net tangled its wings. It breathed out fire and the net began to burn. However, the small dragon did not live long since Naiya’Nal hit it on the back of the head with the dragon lance. She did not want to clean up more blood than necessary.
Naiya’Nal pulled out her dagger and carved off the wings. She dried off the cut ends with some discarded cloth she had found buried in a chest. She mounted the wings to her pack and rigged a rod to hold them open. Once the wings were ready to fly, she began to clean up the mess. She wiped up the blood with the extra rags and stuffed them into the carcass. She then dragged the small dragon to the parapet and pushed it over. She watched as it plummeted down and made a barely noticeable splash far below. The spoonfish would devour the dragon and no one would be able to recover the remains. If anyone had seen the splash, Voth would believe she had jumped.
A small glimmer on her hand caught her eye and she realized she was still wearing the ring Voth had given her before she went to kill Ta’Ero. She quickly removed it and tossed it so it landed against the parapet. One day Voth would find it and know that she purposely left it behind.
The pack was heavier than she expected when she put it on her back. Still, she knew the wings could carry more than twice her weight. She stood at the far end of the corridor and prepared to launch herself to freedom or a long drop to her death.
The wings barely cleared the walls as she ran forward and jumped. For a moment she thought she had made a mistake as she plunged down toward the water, but within seconds the wings caught the wind and she was flying!
She flew for several minutes before she realized she was still slowly sinking. Dragons had to flap their wings to stay in the air, but she could only glide. She tried to lean back so the wings could catch more wind, but it slowed her down and she sunk faster. She held her arms against her side and held her legs together. She went faster and didn’t sink as fast. Soon she could see the far shore and hoped she would make it.
Naiya’Nal barely reached the far shore. The last few seconds she had to hold herself rigid so she did not touch the water. She was relieved when she finally found herself scraping along the stony shore. When she finally slid to a stop, she crawled out from under her pack and rolled over onto her back. It was warmer on the ground. She would get a quick nap before she attempted to cross the Dark Wasteland and travel to Nazval where she could board a ship to Tanarad.
When Naiya’Nal awoke, she went to work on her dragon wings. They were too useful to leave behind, but she couldn’t walk across the countryside with the wings sticking so far out to the sides. She left them attached to her pack and folded them in such a way that she could open them if needed. The rod that had held them open was broken into several pieces, but with some sticks she found on the ground, she rigged her pack so she could pull on a rope to open the wings. By the time she was finished, she could open and close the wings when she wanted.
As Naiya’Nal began her trek southeast across the Dark Wasteland, she cast an ominous shadow behind her in the setting sun. Between the wings on her back and her cape billowing behind her, she did not have a recognizable shape for anyone to see. She held a sword in her hand as she walked. She knew her dagger would be of little use against the creatures that lived in the Dark Wasteland.
After passing through a forest of dead trees, she found the first of the creatures she would encounter. They lived in a shoulder-high conical shell they had built on the ground and would snag anything that came near them with the claws of their long calciferous hands, which were extremely strong and razor sharp. To Naiya’Nal they resembled barnacles in the sea, but Lorica’For had claimed there was more to them than met the eye.
Naiya’Nal kept her distance and scanned the area for others. The cones were easy to spot, but it was difficult to determine if the creatures were dead or alive. She held her sword ready to swing at any movement as she cautiously walked forward. She made steady progress until morning. Once or twice, she had to backtrack and find another path around the barnacles. She had managed to lure several to attack her before she was within range, and now that the sun was coming up, she hoped to use that to her advantage.
The shell of a barnacle would provide the perfect shelter so she could sleep hidden through the day. She set her pack in a safe place nearby and moved toward the barnacle she had chosen. She threw a few stones to lure the hand from the shell. It groped around the ground and did not find anything of interest. She threw some more stones and the long fingers began to claw at the ground.
She laughed in amusement as she kept the barnacle groping around on the ground. It sensed the movement of the stones she tossed toward it, but it was not smart enough to know she was toying with it. She stomped on the ground and it jerked up and poised motionless. She took a few heavy steps to the left and watched as the hand turned to follow her motion. Perhaps she could fool it into attacking the other side while she attacked it from her side.
She walked further away and picked up a heavy rock. She held it in front of her and ran toward the creature. Just outside its reach, she jumped and threw the rock at the hand. It felt the rock fly past and tried to catch it. Naiya’Nal landed on the side of the bony cone and sliced through the arm of the hand with her sword.
The severed hand was motionless on the ground. What was left of the arm had retracted into the shell, but there had to be more to the creature than just the hand. She stepped back and curled her fingers. A ball of fire appeared in her hand and she tossed it into the shell. It burned for a few minutes and when most of the smoke died, she looked in. Some of the fire was still burning, but a thick glutinous substance filled the bottom of the shell.
She threw in another fireball to try burning out the substance. It didn’t work so she began to hack at the shell with her sword. As chunks broke off and fell in, they hissed and fizzed as they dissolved in the substance below. She continued until she removed about half of the shell, and then stepped back to take a break.
Suddenly, a gurgling sound traveled through the ground under her, and without warning, a fresh hand broke through the substance in the shell and attacked her. She swung her sword, but did not move fast enough. She cried out as the strong claws raked across her left shoulder and arm. She grimaced in pain as she cut off the barnacle’s second hand.
She had to move fast. She knew now that the creature was larger than she had expected. Each barnacle was just a small part of a larger creature living underground. She pointed her fingers at the viscous liquid and began to freeze it with her magic. Lorica’For had never known a good use for this magic, but had taught it regardless. She was thankful her training had been thorough.
The creature was unable to send any other claws through its frozen self and Naiya’Nal was safe. By the time she had frozen a sizable portion, she began to burn away the ice. The creature would be completely gone by the time she was done with it. Her open wounds caused her a lot of pain, but they were secondary to her survival. She would tend to them after clearing the creature out of what was turning out to be an extensive labyrinth.
Naiya’Nal was exhausted by the time she had finished removing all traces of the creature from its home. Blood stained her shredded cloak. She slowly crawled out and retrieved her pack. Her shoulder throbbed and by now it was all she could do to pull herself along the ground. She dropped back down into the labyrinth and lay on her stomach. She propped herself up on her elbows and placed her hands to her head. If magic could kill, magic could heal. She gathered what was left of her strength and attempted something she had never been taught.
The pain became more tolerable as her surroundings changed. Everything was such a beautiful shade of gray. For a while, she lay motionless staring into the languid gray nothingness. Occasionally the indecisive gray would be another ecstatic color such as orange or green or blue. The rest of the time, it was the same monumental gray nothing. Then blurry figures of prickly shadow and light surrounded her whispering amongst themselves too softly for her to hear. Her arm was cold and her creamy shoulder began to itch.
Naiya’Nal raised her arm and sadly laughed. Her arm below the elbow had changed into the same claw that had gouged the deep wounds into her flesh. She reached behind her and pulled a twitching rodent off her shoulder. The itch was gone.
The pain began to throb rhythmically. She grabbed the pain with her claw and tried to push it through a dancing pipe. Her arm was not long enough and the pain was stuck in the gooey brick. However, the upside-down dragon she had taken the rusted wings from comforted and licked her viciously. She gave back the bowl of soup, but the dog twirled into a clump of bubbles that floated around her.
One of the curling shadow figures came forward and pulled together the gash on her shoulder. “Kalato timidi fasara jesaru,” it said. The others nodded in agreement. Her claw opened and closed around the dark being. She squished it against her sharp ear and smiled at the satisfying plunk.
She placed the yellow flower in her mouth and sat in the tree. The men in the sky grunted as they wiggled her toes. The claw on her arm opened and picked a steak from the mouth of the statue. It was the best drink she had ever smelled. She closed her eyes and sunk through the watery feathers.
The pins began to march across the lake and she knew that to move would upset and break the sky. The dog in the hut to her right would not shush despite her best efforts to cut its clothes into bread. Her knife shattered as she spread the butter on the coin.
A figure of light came close and began to poke at her arm. “Me ru mis gofinda, gofindru wosini. You will live.” The light nodded in agreement, but discord caused the shadow to grow larger and larger until everything hid in the flowery darkness.
Naiya’Nal flipped her eyes to find herself riding on the back of a spotted dragon. Beside her flew another striped dragon that also had a rider. As the bursting stars passed below them, a purple dragon appeared before them and attacked. Naiya’Nal clawed at the rider of the third dragon to no avail. The three of them became tangled and they plunged toward the ground.
The king caught her and they stood on the wall of a fortress looking out over a vast army that stretched as far as the eye could see. She looked at the man by her side as he put his arm around her. The glowing eyes hurt her head as the man spoke. “You are the future. Prophecy must be fulfilled.” She clacked her claw open and shut against the night sky and grabbed her sword with her other hand.
She looked at the king once more. “I have no fear of what lies ahead,” she said.
“Find me,” he replied and faded in an implosion of light. She looked up and saw a white flag fluttering in the sky. Upon its face were two red dragons locked in combat. The scene before her began to fade. The night sky began to shrink until it was only a small fraction of what it had been. The vast army and the fortress turned into stony ground. Her claw began to move down her arm until it was completely separate and she held it in her hand.
Naiya’Nal blinked away the hallucinations. She was standing inside the underground labyrinth of the barnacle creature looking up through a shell toward the night sky. In her hand, she held a severed claw. Her arm and shoulder did not hurt and she noticed that only thin scars showed where the barnacle had cut her. Her clothes were soaked with sweat and she felt exhausted. She sat down against the smooth chamber wall and drifted into a normal refreshing sleep.
It was shortly before noon two days later when Naiya’Nal finally felt refreshed enough to continue toward Nazval. As she climbed from the shell, she noticed she was closer to the end of the wasteland than she had expected. There were only two more barnacle shells to pass and they were easy to avoid. She breathed a sigh of relief as she entered Barbidonor. Here it was a patchy mixture of forest and grassland. She would reach Nazval by evening.
Naiya’Nal moved on at a steady pace. She stopped at the first Barbidon house she found. A female Barbidon peered out the door at her. She walked toward the door and the Barbidon came out and bowed at her. “How may I serve you?” the Barbidon asked.
Naiya’Nal sighed. “Food and water,” she ordered. “Relax, I will not kill you.”
The Barbidon went back inside and Naiya’Nal followed. She sat at the table and waited for the Barbidon to serve her. “What is your name?” she asked the Barbidon.
“I am Chithea,” the Barbidon answered, setting a cup of water on the table. “I have bread already cooked, but if you want meat, it will be awhile.”
“I will take what you can provide,” Naiya’Nal said, sipping the water. She did not know how many days it had been since she had left Voth’s castle, but she knew she had not had anything to drink that entire time. She drank slowly to allow the water time to absorb into her body. “Can you see the light above the highest tower of the castle from here?” she asked.
Chithea spun around from the bread she was cutting. “The death fire? It flared up six nights ago. Every time we see it, we hide in fear that Voth will come and kill us in his vengeance.”
“Then I have been without food for six days,” Naiya’Nal replied. “It was my parents who were killed by the fire; and I left shortly after that. I have been in the Dark Wasteland until today.” Tears began to form in her eyes. Chithea placed a loaf of bread on the table and sat down across from her. “All my life I had been told my parents were dead,” Naiya’Nal said. “The day I found them still alive, they were killed to make it true.”
“I would have expected your kind to be treated more nicely,” Chithea said, setting the bread on the table.
Naiya’Nal looked up at the Barbidon and glared. “All slaves are treated as slaves. The fact that I was a slave was hidden from me.”
“I’m sorry,” Chithea said, pouring another glass of water for Naiya’Nal. “I should not assume to know the affairs of Voth. If there is anything I can help you with, please let me know.”
Naiya’Nal looked around as she ate the bread and noticed small bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling. “Do you know much about medicine?” she asked.
“I can care for those who are hurt or sick,” Chithea replied, “but I am not as skilled as the human doctors.”
“That is fine,” Naiya’Nal said. She uncovered her shoulder to show the scars. “Do you think these wounds are healed below the surface?”
Chithea walked around the table and examined the scars. “These are completely healed,” she finally announced.
“That is what I don’t understand,” Naiya’Nal said. “I got these cuts while crossing the Dark Wasteland. I did not move fast enough to escape from one of the claws. That was less than six days ago and the wounds are already healed.”
Chithea’s eyes grew wide. “You are one lucky girl! I have never heard of anyone surviving one of those creatures.”
“I don’t advise trying to,” Naiya’Nal laughed. “I’ve seen what those creatures can do and I won’t ever try that again. I’m just curious about how I healed so quickly. I tried to use magic, but something else happened, so I know it could not have been my magic that healed me.”
“My race knows nothing of sorcery so I cannot help you there,” Chithea said. “If anything, I would say it was not your time to die.”
Naiya’Nal stood up. “I am thankful for your hospitality,” she said. “I really must get to Nazval by nightfall.”
Chithea handed her another loaf of bread. “Take this. If you’ve truly gone six days without food, you will need more to eat soon.”
Naiya’Nal smiled as she placed the loaf in her pack. “Goodbye, Chithea.” She walked outside and began to head east toward Nazval.
Nazval was a busy city along the coast of the Gulf of Odium. No matter what time of day, the city never quieted down. It was here that Barbidon soldiers gathered to replenish the armies of Narva and ships of soldiers departed daily. Naiya’Nal ducked into an alley before anyone saw her. She knew someone would eventually spot her, but she wanted it to be a place of her choosing.
She entered the back door of a tavern. Inside, Barbidons were drinking their exotic brews and the large creatures were wild under its influence. She watched unseen as some Barbidons attempted to throw knives at a target on the far wall.
“Legshig,” one of the Barbidons said, “I’ve got two on the target and you can’t even hit the wall!”
“Be quiet!” another Barbidon ordered, slapping the first on the shoulder. Naiya’Nal guessed he was Legshig “I can’t concentrate when you speak.” He threw another knife at the target and missed again.
“Oh, give me a turn!” another Barbidon said, turning away from the bar. He pulled out a knife and effortlessly flung it underhand toward the target. It hit closer to the center than any of the other knives sticking from it.
“Good throw, Jetravilth!” several others congratulated.
“Try to beat that,” Jetravilth snickered, picking up his cup and leaning back against the bar.
No one had yet spotted Naiya’Nal. She pulled out her sword and threw it at the target. It hit the target dead center with a loud noise and the room grew quiet as everyone turned to look at it.
“Where did that come from?” Legshig asked.
“I thought we were throwing knives!” another said.
One of the Barbidons watching from a nearby table slammed down his mug. “We’re gathering for war, you idiots! Human swords are for children. Why would you bring a toy with you to war?”
“Human sword?” several of the drunken Barbidons stammered, looking at each other bewildered.
Naiya’Nal stepped forward and tossed her dagger at the target where it struck directly next to her sword. “You guys seem to need a bit of practice,” she said, walking through the crowd to retrieve her weapons. “If you’re going to throw something to test your skill, you might want to try aiming. Don’t just throw in a general direction.” She took down her sword, but left the dagger sticking from the center of the target. “If any of you can match that, I’ll buy you a drink.”
The uneasy silence continued a moment later until Jetravilth yelled, “We’re here all night; we might as well give it a try!”
The tavern became noisy again as Naiya’Nal made her way to the bar and sat alone at one end. “I’d like a Josloy’s kendi,” she told the bartender. She watched as the Barbidons tried to throw and stick a knife near her dagger on the target. She knew none of them would succeed, but it was amusing to watch them try. She turned back to the bar and took a sip of the drink the bartender set before her. The flavor was weak, but overall the drink was acceptable.
Eventually, Jetravilth gave up throwing his knife and sat next to Naiya’Nal. “Excuse the intrusion, but what brings you to Nazval?”
She took another sip of her drink and turned to face him. “I need to go to Tanarad,” she said. “I came here to find a ship to take me.”
“Stooping to our level when you could be flying the dragons of Voth?” he asked. “You may find us to be a raucous bunch.”
Naiya’Nal rapidly finished her drink and slammed the mug on the table. “You’ll find I too can be raucous!” Once again, the tavern was quiet and she turned to face the crowded room. “If you keep looking at me, it’s no wonder you keep missing that target!” she yelled, motioning at the target on the far wall. She turned back to the bar, ordered two more mugs of Josloy’s kendi, and passed one to Jetravilth. “I am going to Tanarad,” she said, “and you will help me.”
The Barbidon grinned. “You came at the right time. I haven’t heard of any ships sailing to Tanarad in fifteen years, but just a few days ago, Narva announced she had captured Panei and then ordered a large armada to begin sailing for Tanarad. More ships will be leaving here every day with more reinforcements.” He lowered his voice. “Please don’t kill me for saying this, but there are rumors that Narva has finally figured out how to do more with her sorcery than just sparkle at the fingertips.”
Naiya’Nal stifled a laugh. “Don’t worry, your secrets are safe with me,” she grinned.