FRESH STORY CONTENT!! 5/31/2022 — Derek Barton

As promised, here is a reprint of Chapters 4 & 5…AND THE NEW CHAPTER 6! ENJOY!!


4

Jueneva woke, covered in thick orange and red animal furs, a glowing fire warming her new room. She could not even remember coming to the chamber, or climbing inside the bed, but here she was. Sighing loudly, she let the last few days’ events roll across her mind, weighing her down. It was so hard to let go.

In a sense, she was relieved to finally understand why she was different, why her family always ran, why the world always seemed to teeter on a finite edge. Her true family had been murdered when she was but an infant. Now her adopted family had also been murdered. Those responsible she only knew by a broad name:  the Kreszecs. Other than that, she had no real information on who they were or what reasons they had for wanting her and for destroying her family’s rule here in Akkei Maliss.

A soft rap at the door cut into her thoughts. “It is Executor Buore, miss. May I enter?” His muffled voice came through the door.

“Yes, please.”

She rose and stretched, pretending to not be emotional and tussling with her feelings. Her body ached from all her exertions of late. The desire for more sleep made it even harder to pull out from under the furs, yet she had other more pressing concerns.

The specter floated in and crossed the barely lit chamber. Only a small, mirrored vanity occupied one corner of her new quarters opposite the fireplace. In the other corner stood a tall dress cabinet. There were no real decorations like thick rugs or elaborate tapestries on the walls. Yet she was alright with the modest accommodations and often lived with few personal possessions.

“Good morn, Boure.” Today she found she could look him in the face and not feel the reflexive fear of the dead. He was good-natured and surely had been a great asset to her late family. He would be needed further in the future of Coueryere Castle.

“It is sure to be, your majesty.”

She jumped. The word majesty jolted her as if he splashed cold water suddenly in her face. Majesty? Hmmm. I guess he is right. And I suppose it would be better to start acting in that fashion.

“Executor, I have a few requests of you today.”

“I would be honored to fulfill those for you.”

“First, can you find me a weapon?  I will be leaving the castle for a short spell. A bow would be my choice if you can make that happen.”

He frowned but nodded and bowed.

“I sense your disapproval. You often show your emotions openly.”

“It is only that I do not see the need to risk your safety. The ruins are dangerous inside and outside, but in here I can give you some protection.”

She found comfort in his overprotective sense of responsibility for her. He was like a long-lost uncle trying to step up and make up for lost time.

“The meat in the pantry I am afraid is too far gone for me. I want to hunt and restock the meat pantry. My father showed me how to track and hunt at an early age. Even said I had a unique talent for it. Perhaps that is another aspect of my Dirithi heritage?” She chuckled to herself and tried to not dwell on her pang of grief for him.

“You had other requests, miss?”

“Yes.” She sighed aloud and was unsure how to proceed. “When I came here two nights ago, I… I encountered… Well, you were not the first spirit I found here in the ruins. What or who is that Flaming Skeleton?”

Again, his face crinkled as he disapproved of the content of the conversation. “That Flaming Skeleton is not to be taken lightly, miss. He is not one of ours and not from this realm. He was one of the Krezsec Generals that invaded. Few of their invading army were stopped, he was among those few. Now, General Loas Toc haunts these hallways at certain nights and always he relieves his final hours. You saw the hanging men?”

She nodded, her face paled at the memory of the bloodied uniforms, spotted with flaming handprints from the general’s fiery touch.

“This is my family’s seat of power. He will not be tolerated much longer. I am going to have to find a way to expel his presence.”

The Executor only lowered his head to stare at the floor. He had no answers for her.

“Tonight, when I return, I want you to take me to the Throne Room.”

Boure straightened and a smile cracked his face, he beamed with pride. “Indeed, your majesty. I will see to its preparations for your audience myself.”

That statement brought a strange thought to her mind. “There are others? Other court members or staff?”

He nodded. “Not as many as before – remember only the restless spirits remain here. Some have made peace and moved on.”

Before she could ask more, he bowed again and backed out of the room through the closed door.

Jueneva dressed and prepped herself as best as she could. There were several dresses hanging inside the cabinet but were not warm enough or proper for the cold elements outside. She found only one riding pantsuit. It would have to do. She could not be weighed down or wear anything restrictive if she was to hunt and chase prey. At the back on a hook, she did discover a thick deer skin coat with buttons and laces down the front. It was exactly what she needed for the wintery elements outside.

Another soft rap announced Boure’s return. He entered with no invitation this time. In his hands he carried a silver and ivory bone longbow and a matching white quiver filled with over a dozen arrows. Symbols were etched all along the exquisitely crafted weapon. She took it in awe and hefted it in her hands.

“This is wondrous. It feels like I am barely lifting anything!”

“Indeed. This came from within the Vault. I believed it was forged with guiding magics, but I cannot remember for sure. Either way, I am certain it will be of great use and affect in your hunting.”

As she lifted the quiver’s strap over her head and down onto her shoulder, he said, “I really do not like this idea. I feel I may be inadequate as your Court Advisor, but, your majesty, as there are no other formal Courtesans left, you will have to settle for me. You see, as I stated before, in the castle domain I can protect you, but I cannot leave the compound to help you outside. You will be all on your own. This is not a wise excursion. We will find another way to find you proper meals.”

Jueneva shook her head. “No. I will not be stuck inside, nor will I hide here. The Restoration cannot happen to my family’s rule if I do not take risks or fight back. What happened here must be avenged. I appreciate your words, I do. And I do not step out lightly and without caution.”

Boure dropped his gaze again to the floor.

“Executor, please escort me now to the best entrance to begin my Hunt.”


5

The world before Jueneva was awe-inspiring but horrific at the same time. Her breath caught in her throat in a gasp. The skies overhead was a mottled gray with dark blue patches between the storm clouds. A charcoal blanket of ice and drifts of black snow covered the entire forest surrounding the immense castle ruins. Thin icy strands formed by wind-driven flurries resembled macabre spider webs. They stretched out from tree branch to tree branch snaring everything. The forest tree lines were more shadowy walls than landscape.

Straightening her shoulders and stiffening her back, she pulled the fur-lined jacket hood over her head. She then marched with purpose through the double doors. On her back the ivory long bow gave her some confidence and determination to find real food for her night’s dinner.

A hollow thrumming filled the air as more wind rushed among the bare tree branches. The sound was an eerie, flat whistle and set the hairs on the back of her neck on end. Instinctively, she crouched and planted her boots firmly into the snow, ready for flight.  

Silvery lightning flashed high above as the whistling raced to a crescendo. As it faded a rolling rumble of deafening thunder vibrated everything, even the ground she stood upon.

Every fiber in her begged her to rush back inside, to wait another day for the snows to pass. Nothing in the foreign landscape gave her any comfort, it stared back at her defiant with teeth bared. A dread enveloped her, and she wondered if this was a sign or a premonition.

“No! I will not delay my fight one more hour,” Her voice carrying out, building. “Backing down is not in my nature!” It didn’t matter that no one was present to hear her or witness. Jueneva needed to hear and believe in the statement. Needed to feel the promise in her words.

She pressed on after a moment and found a thin animal path twisting to and fro beneath the forest canopy. With effort she avoided touching the webbed limbs as much as possible. Other than the storm and its bizarre winds, the forest seemed devoid of life. Her frustration grew as she followed the trail. Finally, her trek came to a large mountainside with a series of tunnel mouths. The openings spanned nearly a dozen or so handwidths and spotted the mountain rock somewhat in a beehive fashion.

Jueneva crouched and peered down into the nearest hole, her eyes trying to adjust to the shadows inside. Her eyes didn’t spy any movement, but her ears picked up the soft scraping of stone. Something was approaching and it was coming fast!  She sprang to the side, lying flat against the wall.

A beast, long and low, erupted from its hive and rushed out onto the path oblivious to her presence. In her own realm, they referred to these creatures as centipedes. However, the one before her had to be hundreds of pounds and its head was bestowed with a series of red antlers that grew along its back. More unusual was the appearance of a black latticework streaming from the antlers to the middle of its oily black body.

A harness! Who, by the Fates, would ever dare to ride such a monster?

Another shot out of its opening further left of her position and followed the first on its multitude of tiny, clawed feet. She heard the second beast hiss and chatter seeming to call after the other. Both of the mammoth insects skidded to a sudden stop in the dirty snow and curled back to face her.

Without a thought she had the bow in her hands with twin arrows notched. Upon seeing the weapon, the first centipede hissed in obvious anger at her. It charged closer and reared up to tower over her. The second moved to its right also rising and boxing her in against the rocks.

A gray-skinned arm, heavily tattooed with red dyes, swept in and around her shoulders pressing a serrated bone blade under her chin and flat against her neck. Hot breath warmed her ear as a husky, gruff voice spoke to her ear, “Doshe mi lees tonva dess.”

She had no inkling of the words meaning as there wasn’t any emotion or inflection in the statement. Her only reaction was to let the bow and arrows drop into the snow and keep her empty hands out before her. “Easy… Easy now,” she cooed to the blade owner standing behind her in the tunnel. “We can talk this over.” She hoped diplomacy would work as she was obviously outmaneuvered and outmanned.

Her hood was yanked back suddenly, and a cold metal loop snapped shut around her neck!

Jueneva screeched, her hands clawing wildly at the manacle. She was thrust forward, but her legs buckled, and she crashed to her knees. A long spear handle was fastened to the neck manacle.

Now desperate she lunged and crawled for one of her arrows on the path. As her fingers curled around it, a sandaled foot pinned her arm down. The other sandal kicked her between the shoulder blades, blasting the air from her chest.

The blade owner then jerked her up with the manacle back to her knees.  Leaning down next to Jueneva’s ear, “Keras mo vet fet?” There was a deep-seeded anger within the words.

Her captor was a thin but muscular woman. She had jet black braids on one side of her shaven head. The blood red tattoos ran down the whole left side of her gray body. “Doshe esca roto pemma diem.”

She hauled Jueneva painfully up onto her toes and hung her suspended by her neck over the trail. Jueneva with tears of fury and a bloody nose could do nothing but meet the woman’s stare with a gaze of fiery defiance.

Another woman rode up to them on the back of a matching, giant centipede. The newcomer studied the scene before her but then gasped. She shot her hand out, pointing at the bow laying partially buried in the black snow.

The newcomer kneeled and dug out the ivory bow. Her slender fingers traced along the silvery runes and patterns etched in the wood.

The blade owner’s hot breath washed over her face. “Doshe modta bri freyes Coueryere.” The look of outrage in her eyes spoke volumes.


6

Jueneva woke up stiff, hungry and cold. Again. 

She scanned the boards that made up the walls of her cage.  Nothing had changed about them in the three days of her imprisonment. They were warped by rain and age but were an inch thick and still robust enough to prevent her breaking out. It was a few handspans taller than her own height, but only half as wide as her home bedroom had been. She figured about the width of a closet actually.

She peered through an old knothole in one of the floor boards. The mountain cavern floor was far below her. Her cage suspended on massive ropes from the ceiling. So, even if she managed to break one of the wood boards somehow, she would face a nasty fall and injury.

What is Boure doing at this moment, she wondered. Is he going berserk with worry? Falling back into misery that again the ruins are without their ruling family? Or maybe he is working up some rescue plan?

She actually hoped for the latter as she did not want anyone hurt or any blood spilled on her behalf.  Her opinion of the people who had captured her had shifted since their first encounter. The odd resident tribe were not vicious or seemed to be of an evil bent. The only rough treatment had been at the time of her arrest. She believed it was a matter of territory and somehow her trespassing along with the bow had spurred them into action. As a warrior tribe surviving in this harsh realm, she tried to understand and forgive their territorial, aggressive over-reaction.

Jueneva was confident she would find a way to speak with them.  Maybe with diplomacy she would win their acceptance, freedom and maybe a trade of supplies with them in the future.

At least today her cage was less packed. Her cellmate had been released the night before.

Her cellmate was a young woman too, with the same tribal tattoos, black hair, crystal green eyes and dark gray skin as her kin. The girl was shy and even nice, but she refused to talk with Jueneva while they stayed in the cage together for two and a half days.

On the first night. Jueneva had been imprisoned with the primitive clan, she was not given any food. By next morn, she was starving. When breakfast was brought, she wolfed down the greenish lumpy stew they bowled and served her. When she was finished, Jueneva licked the clay bowl clean for any remnants.

Her cheeks blushed when she spotted her cellmate staring at her. The girl did not have as much an appetite and had only partially eaten her own stew. She giggled and scooted the bowl to Jueneva.

It was one of the nicest gestures a stranger had ever done for her. In fact, she noticed that the small tribe of women warriors was overall good-natured and friendly toward one another.

As she had not much to do while in the hanging cage, so she studied the tribe. They spoke a staccato-beat language, short and clipped. The words were very hard to understand so she made no progress on understanding the meanings. However, their actions revealed quite a lot.

They might be called The Revie-ati, she was not positive, but the phrase was said a lot and seemed to be used concerning themselves. There were roughly fifty-some of them, mostly women. They had children, elderly women and only two old men besides the near two dozen warrior females. There were no young males – something had happened with them a few years before, but she could not make out any other details.

Their leader called Paora had been killed recently. Possibly by a creature. A gemstone altar or memorial of some fashion had been erected and the surviving members would come by daily to whisper prayers or words of goodbye. It touched her heart seeing how they gave respect and honor to their fallen.

The layout of their cave compound was simple. Several areas were dug out along the west and northern walls for sleeping quarters and two large areas were opened for meeting and for eating. Along the south wall, a stone oven had been set up for a kitchen. They ate as one, together like a huge family. In the eastern wall, a tunnel had been cut, leading further into the mountain which led to an inner spring which was used for fishing, gathering drinking water, and a bath and bathroom. Three main openings were made to enter and exit the compound and one other led to what seemed to be their centipede stables.

Last night at dusk, an excited teenage girl, a year or two younger than her cellmate, rushed in and spoke excitedly. The words Abdi laetra da were shouted a lot as the clan jumped up all at once and rushed about the cavern. From the little knothole, she could not fathom what they had been doing.

She had tapped her cellmate on the arm and made an expression of worry and question, but she had no idea if her meaning came across. Either way the girl only shook her head and scooted further away into the opposite corner. Minutes later, a heavy female guard had come and opened a trap door.

“Losda mooah, abdi laetra da keiva Mealli,” the guard had said, brandishing her spear tip only at Jueneva and not her cellmate.

The girl nodded and crawled over to the trap door. She glanced at Jueneva, graced her with a goodbye smile then climbed down a rope ladder hooked to the trap door.

Once at the bottom, the guard handed her a change of clothes and a thick fur jacket of some kind of animal. Other members spoke Mealli greetings to her, so Jueneva guessed it might be her name.

Within minutes, Mealli had left the compound on an unknown mission or errand.

Not one member of the tribe slept. The Revie-ati ran to and from, bringing in lots of wood or worked at digging up a large, wide trench in the center of the cavern. It led straight into the river tunnel.

Jueneva stressed and worried all night at what this would mean for her as well.

Whatever or whoever the Abdi leatra da was, it was coming soon, and it absolutely petrified this fierce tribe…

A New Journey — Derek Barton – 2021

Last year I started a series of writing prompts on this blog that were later collected and published in the 12 Months of Hell & Horror Day Planner. There was one story, The Flight of the Dirithi, that took on more of a fantasy theme than the modern horror theme of the other tales. Yet like many of the other stories I’ve had occupying my thoughts and demanding to be written, this The Flight of the Dirithi nagged and prodded me to be further explored.

So…we shall together explore and travel the path beside this young Dirithi as she runs for her life and freedom. As she escapes to her destiny…

This first part will be the introduction I wrote last year (with some edits) then with a small addition. I want to add to this story every couple weeks — maybe a 400 to 500 word addition. I don’t want to promise more as I am deep in the development of the third book in the Wyvernshield Series. I’ve been promising this novel now for a long time and it wouldn’t be prudent to disappoint everyone again. I’m excited to get the story out to you too and I’m just as anxious to see the epic conclusion!

***Awesome Concept Art by Wonhong Kim, ArtStation

FLIGHT OF THE DIRITHI — 1.28.2021

Jueneva shook awake but didn’t raise her head off the cottony bed pillow. Another shrill scream pierced the silence of the early morning hours. She didn’t recognize the source, but thought it might have come from Yabina’s hut. A second child’s cries from another hut farther away joined the first, ending in sobs. 

More shouts, deeper in bass, came from guards near the southern wall.

Cries of alarm sprang out all over the village. Jueneva squeezed her eyes shut, praying to wake from this sudden nightmare. Her breath burst from her. She hadn’t even realized she was holding it in. Her chest hurt from the effort.

“Jueneva!! Come! Come, child.” The last shred of hope she had faded as her eyes opened to see her mother, Ckala standing in the doorway to her room, her arms out and beckoning to her. In one hand, she gripped a thin, leathery pouch. A backpack straddled her shoulders, filled with their travel clothes and road rations.

“We know what this means. It’s over, nothing can be done now but hide. We must hurry,” her mother pleaded over the crash and clatter of men battling nearby.

 Horses pounded the dirt paths as they charged past the front of their stone home.

“Kreszecs! The Kreszecs! Run. They have found us.” Other shouts echoed the call. The horses went deeper into the village, the messengers warning others in the bare light of dawn.

Jueneva grabbed her blanket and wrapped it tightly over her shoulders and head. Silent tears traveled down her cheeks. She thrust her feet into her leather thong sandals at the foot of her bed.

Father, brother…lost? They’re gone?

“Hurry up, we’ve got to get to the bridge,” her mother said as she grabbed Jueneva’s hand and hauled her down the hallway. “If we should get separated, head there and wait for me in that bed of tanglevines. If I haven’t come by sunrise, go under the bridge and find the three black stones. You’ll recognize them on sight. Dig through.”

“Where are we going, mum?” Jueneva grew even more scared at the sound of her own shaky voice. It had somehow diminished in the night, shrunken to the frightened pleas of a toddler.

“It’s not important where we are going, only that we get away from here. Please, run!”

Outside the door to their stone house, the air filled with shouts for help mixed with the screams for mercy. The sounds of battle echoed in from the wood gate house along Harner Road. Horses whinnied in fright, metal clashed with metal, wood cracked and splintered. Women begged while children shrieked. Thick and gravelly voices growled back in foreign, violent tongues.

Others were running as well, making for the bridge at the back of the village. It crossed over a minor rivulet of the Corafin River to the other side, bracketed by heavy pine tree woods.

The trek there lasted an eternity. Most of the refugees bolted over the river and into the surrounding forest when they arrived. Her mother took her and bypassed the bridge entrance, climbing down the short but deep embankment. Surefooted, her mother made a direct run at a pile of three, smooth black river stones. She let free Jueneva’s hand, used both hands to part the rocks. Underneath was a strong fishnet, covered in wet leaves and mud. “Help, Juenie. Grab the other end so we can drag it away.”

When they did so, the shallow mouth to a tunnel appeared. Immediately she realized the only way to go inside was to crawl on hands and knees. Terror gripped her heart. It would be pitch black inside and who knows what might have made the tunnel its home.

Ckala rummaged through the backpack and removed a silver box. It popped open revealing a smooth gold stone, glowing with an amber aura. The stone barely gave more light than a wax candle, but it was enough.

“Let’s go.” She plopped down on her belly and began to squeeze inside, ruining her traveling blouse.

Not one to be squeamish about mud or dirt, however, Jueneva balked. It felt wrong, dread coiling around her neck like a hangman’s noose. She would not leave her mother though, so she willed herself to enter the earthen grave, defying her instincts.

Inside the light illuminated enough only for her to see the soles of Ckala’s sandals as she crawled ahead. Moments went by without a word between them. In the silence of the river tunnel, her dead father’s and brother’s faces appeared in her mind’s eye. Fresh tears and sobs choked her, stopping her from trailing after.

“Shhh. Shhh. child, we’ll be alright. Shhhh.” Her mother tried to calm her.

Jueneva shook from cold as much as from her emotions. Water dripped down her back from the tunnel’s ceiling as foul stenches burned her nose and made her gag. This was not a proper life. What horrid fate did she wake to? Nothing was going to be resolved.

When the sudden grief eased some, she had to ask, “Mum, why?”

“What?”

“Why? Why are we always hunted?” Jueneva was nearing her twelfth-moon cycle. All her memories revolved around them being on the run. It wasn’t normal. She noted by her fifth-moon that other families could put down roots and live in seeming peace.

Her mother stopped and twisted to look down the tunnel at Jueneva. The pain in her eyes spoke volumes.

“I never wanted this type of life for you, sweet-tears. There is a curse lying in your veins.”

“What does that mean? Did Da and Je’steo–“

Her mother shook her head violently. “No! Not now. We grieve another sunrise. Not today! We must run so their sacrifice won’t be for nothing. The Kreszecs will never stop hunting us.”

“I do not understand.”

“Someday it will be clearer to you, but for now, we have no time to work it out.”

“No!  Tell me the true reason we are different. Please! I have to know!”

 The words came slowly and whispered in the dark like all dangerous secrets. “You are Dirithi.”

Dirithi? Dirithi! A half-dragon offspring. The last heirs of dragon blood. Not human, not dragon. Shapeshifters.

“No more talk. Come!”

The single word consumed her and bellowed like a tempest inside her skull. It explained so much and yet conjured so many more questions.

They took up the hike again under the river. The winding tunnel went deep underground and paralleled the rapid stream.

Finally, faint dawn light shined through the exit. As her mother crawled out, she graced Jueneva with a broad, relieved smile. Seeing it light up Ckala’s face, her own smile crept out as she stood on her feet, covered in grime.

An arrow whistled through the air, catching her mother in the shoulder, rocketing her backward, tumbling to the ground. Another arrow hit the ground between Jueneva’s sandals.

“Svaklan, I told ye they were predictable. Right where I said, right when I said. No?” A man spoke in an ugly, thick accent but spoke with robust confidence as he came down the embankment on the back of a brown horse. He had a crossbow in his arms, an arrow already loaded and trained on her.

Ckala didn’t answer the man’s taunts, only shook her head in stubborn defiance. Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Another man with a pair of long ponytails gliding down the back of his head, nodded and grinned through his thick black beard. “Aye, m’lord Kosoth. Ye do have the sight.” He strode over and placed a heavy, gray-furred boot on Ckala’s chest as she remained prone and panting from the pain.

“Indeed,” the Kreszec Arch Lord said as he rode his horse up a few feet in front of Jueneva. He then followed up with a mock bow. “All these wasted years, but here we are, the end of our storied chase. The Gryatt is mine and will be returned after all.”

Kosoth looked down at Jueneva, meeting her wide eyes and terror-filled stare. “Aye, ye do have but good reason for fear. The deep darkness ye will bring under my command will be of legend. The power I’ll have will be even more!”

Ckala slapped the ground at her side, getting Jueneva’s attention. “No! No! Jueneva, remember above all else, you must survive at any cost and grow stronger!”

Before the bearded Svaklan could react, her mother thrust the small leather pouch into the air and struck it hard against a pine sapling along the muddy riverbank. As a gold and silver talisman dropped from the pouch, Ckala screamed, “Akkei Maliss!”

A blast of fire and wind erupted, an intense magical pulse throwing all apart from each other.

Jueneva laid on her back inside the tunnel, her breath stolen away.

What was that? Was it from that talisman? 

“…remember above all else, you must survive at any cost and grow ever stronger!” Ckala’s words repeated to her.

After several moments, she could breathe normal again, and she struggled back to the tunnel entrance.

She was ill-prepared for the sight before her.

The horseman lay pinned and struggling weakly under his beast, while Svaklan laid motionless on his stomach partially in the water. The stream pulled and nudged at him, trying to take his body away downstream. Her mother’s form was twisted and wrapped around the base of another larger pine. Motionless.

But at the spot where the talisman had been appeared a mammoth watery circle. The talisman had been invoked and a silver, glass-like portal now stood towering over her.

It had to lead to one place…

“Akkei Maliss!”

 In the distance, breaking branches and baying hounds could be heard. Other Kreszecs must’ve followed after the sounds of the magical explosion.

More words repeated softly inside her mind. We must run so their sacrifice won’t be for nothing.

To herself, she whispered, “I’ll go where my enemies will fear to follow.”

Per the legends passed down by the tribal elders, the world of Akkei Maliss was a world where the vilest creatures came to roost. In the past, even her mother, always so brave, wouldn’t dare to utter its name. This was a world where even the snow fell black…

This was a world where alone as a Dirithi, she would learn to survive and grow ever stronger.

She nodded to her mother’s form and whispered final words of love. It was time to act. She marched slowly but with determination and resolve into the portal to Akkei Maliss.

And she vowed she would return one day, and she would reign supreme once and for all.

******

Jueneva’s eyes opened, but her vision was clouded and blurry. She found herself lying face down, chilled stone bringing on a series of racking shudders. Rolling slowly over, she rose onto her elbows, her teeth chattering. A single rivulet of blood dripped from her nose and over her lips. As she wiped it away on her muddy sleeve, her vision gradually cleared to show her a series of intricate, marble stone tiles littered with dark purple glass fragments all around her.

The tiles were aligned into a circular paths, surrounding a small patch of gray, dead grass and weeds. The ivory, black-streaked marble dais she laid across had large, gaping cracks as well as missing patches of stone foundation. The damage could have only come from a massive land quake.

In the heart of the grass stood a twisted, metal framework, standing at least ten hands high. Some of the purplish glass shards remained in sections of it. Soot and ash buried everything else around her. She stretched out a hand to confirm her suspicion. It was as the legend spoke of — the dais had a thin blanket of icy black snow mixed with the ash and soot.

Jueneva remembered her determined exodus into the portal, but had no further memory afterward. Painful stiffness in her back and neck reminded her of the terrible explosion that threw her into the river tunnel, freed her from the Kreszec men, but also took her mother’s life. Before any tears could start, she clenched her jaw, straightened her back and took stock of where she had entered Akkei Maliss.

The dais sat in the middle of an enclosed circular chamber. Parts of the ceiling had given way long ago with rot and vegetation. Howling winds could be heard outside the holes in the roof, but only an occasional flurry actually entered. Long hanging vines grew along the walls and the ceiling, competing for space with multiple sections of charcoal icicles. Faded portraits hung on the walls at odd angles among torn cloth tapestries. Lines of an unknown language were engraved in painstakingly thin etchings and covered every inch of exposed wall. At the back of the chamber was an overturned wooden desk and several broken benches. Opposite to the desk, she spotted twin silvery unlit braziers on both sides a closed, barred door.

Wherever she was, it seemed it had been a site of importance. Perhaps even a place of religious origins.

Jueneva leaned over and lifted one of the larger pieces of glass lying among the gray grass. The surface was smooth and reflective like the surface of the quarry pond near their village. She held it up in awe before her face.

She threw it away with a sharp gasp. The glass’s image had lied to her eyes, her hand reflexively pulling one of her mussed ponytails before her face.

Her once blonde platinum locks were now a deep blue hue, nearly black in shade. Again she plucked a shard from the ground to see that her eyes were now completely black, no white or iris staring back at her. Little white spikes bristled at her jaw line near her neck and ears.

Dirithi… the cursed breed.

This new harsh reality, the brutal truth of who she really was did bring the unwanted tears. She sunk back to the ground, hugging her knees into her chest and buried her face. Never had she felt so naked, desperate and alone.