As promised in my last post, I am reposting this story (this week the first three chapters) for you — I hope to add new content next week for it.
THE FLIGHT OF THE DIRITHI
Jueneva shook awake but didn’t raise her head off the cottony bed pillow. Another shrill scream pierced the early morning hours. She didn’t recognize the source, but guessed it came from Yabina’s hut. A second child 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 near by. Horses pounded the dirt paths near the front of their stone home.
“Kampen-yans! Kampen-yans! Run. They have found us.” Other shouts echoed the call. The horses went deeper into the village, their riders 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.
They’re gone? Father, brother…lost?
“Hurry up, we’ve got to go 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 voice. It 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 shouts for help and the screams for mercy mixed and filled the air. 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 answered in foreign, violent tongues.
Others ran alongside the pair, making for the bridge at the back of the village which crossed over a minor rivulet of the Corafin River to the other side, bracketed by heavy pine tree woods.
The trek there was an eternity. Other villagers were bolting over the river when they arrived. They bypassed the bridge entrance and climbed 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, Juel. Grab the other end so we can drag it away.”
When they did so, the shallow mouth to a tunnel appeared. However, the only way to go inside was to crawl on hands and knees.
Her mother 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.
Not one to be squeamish about mud or dirt, Jueneva did balk going in the pitch black after her mother. It felt wrong, dread coiling around her neck like a hangman’s noose. 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. Her brother’s face appeared in her mind’s eye. Fresh tears and sobs choked her, stopping her from trailing after.
“Shhh. Shhh. Juel, we’ll be alright. Shhhh.” Her mother tried to calm her.
Juel shook from cold as much as from her emotions. Water dripped from the tunnel’s ceiling as foul stenches burned her nose and made her gag. This was not a proper life. Nothing was ever resolved.
When the sudden grief faded, she had to ask,”Mum, why?”
“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. They won’t stop hunting us.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Some day it will be clearer to you, but for now, we don’t have time to work it out.”
“No! Tell me the true reason we are different. Please!”
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 Juel 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, throwing her 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 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. Ye do have the sight.” He strode over and placed a thick, gray-furred boot on Ckala’s chest as she remained prone and panting from the pain.
“Indeed,” the Kampen-yan 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.”
The Lord looked over Jueneva, meeting her wide and terror-filled stare. “Aye, ye do have but good reason for fear. The deep darkness ye will bring to the land will be of legend. The power I’ll have will be even more.”
Ckala slapped the ground at her side, getting Juel’s attention. “No! No! Jueneva, remember above all else, you must survive and grow stronger!”
Before the bearded Svaklan could react, her mother thrust the small leather pouch into the air and striking it hard against a pine sapling along the muddy river bank. As a gold and silver talisman slipped from the pouch, Ckala screamed, “Akkei Maliss!”
A blast of fire and wind erupted, the magical pulse throwing all apart from each other. Jueneva laid on her back inside the tunnel, her breath stolen.
What was that? Was it from the talisman?
“…remember above all else, you must survive and grow ever stronger!” Ckala’s words repeated to her.
After several moments, she could breathe normally and she struggled back to the cave 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 portal now stood towering over her.
It had to lead to one place…
In the distance, breaking branches and baying hounds could be heard. Other Kampen-yans 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 the snow fell black…
This was a world where alone as a Dirithi, she’d 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’d return to reign supreme once and for all.
This new harsh reality, the brutal truth of who she really was did bring the unwanted tears. Jueneva sunk back to the ground, hugging her knees into her chest and buried her face. Never had she felt so naked, desperate and alone. She wept, finally releasing the wracking sobs bottled up inside. For a long time, she wrestled with the feeling of loss and grief for her mother and the rest of her family.
The storm gained strength outside. Gusts of icy rain and snow flurries whistled in through the large hole in the roof. The gloomy daylight had also dimmed significantly. She had no provisions, only mud-soaked clothes on her small frame and no real sense of where she was. It left little doubt that the time had come for action and decisions. Trying to recapture the grim resolve she had before entering the portal, she picked herself up and took a more concerted effort at looking around.
However, there was nothing new of the indoor courtyard than what she noted before, so she walked hesitantly to the pair of barred doors. She considered the rusted metal brackets that held twin thick wooden boards, but she could not guess to what its true purpose was. It was a flimsy barrier at best and could not pose any serious obstacle to anyone wanting to get into the courtyard. With little effort, she lifted the boards off and inched the doors barely open.
A knock, soft and from beyond the door, froze her to the spot. It was not done with force, but with purpose.
Another knock floated to her ears, this time echoing from much deeper inside the building. Another pair of similar knocks followed close behind the first. A burst of wind howled through the hole again, the sound deafening as she stood in the prior silence. Then all grew quiet once again.
On the other side, she could not see much detail or form past a few feet. Soft twilight filtered in from snow-capped skylights on the roof and barely outlined what appeared to be a long rectangular room.
Stay in the courtyard, freeze to death in the chill or walk into the gloom and die in the pitch dark?
She moaned internally at her dilemma, determined to not voice her fear aloud, not allowing the terror to become real. A sudden burst of wind coiled around her like a snake, forcing her decision. Slipping in, she snapped the pair of doors tight behind her.
To her shock, as she blinked her eyes rapidly, the room brightened. Yet the light source was not external. The chamber remained unlit except for the skylights along the borders of the room. The features inside were dotted in tiny gray beads. The chamber mostly empty remained shrouded by night, yet the beads outlined everything. Her new darksight had to stem from her Dirithi heritage!
Coming to Akkei Maliss must have unlocked the fierce beast within her blood. Jueneva hoped she could find other advantages. Her instincts told her she would need every ounce of human and dragon strength she had to survive here.
Ten feet into the room, she ran her hands along an ornate banister and realized that the empty center of the rectangular room was an open floor. She could make out at least three more floors below her. These ruins were immense and were once elaborate.
Do I dare hope for food somewhere secured away? I need to at least find a place to lay down and rest, she thought. Her strength waned as her stomach growled.
She walked along the passage bordering the open floor, finding a total of three passages. The one leading to the doorway, the other two in opposite west and east directions. The air remained chill in the hall but at least it was free of the outside elements. When she stepped into the eastern passage, the knock came to her again. It floated down the hall towards her. The hall ended ahead in a t-section. The knock repeated from the right hallway.
The knocks repeated. Light rapping against hollow wood. Knock… Knock… Knock….
She crept slowly in the shadows, making her way toward the source. If she were to stay inside, she had to be sure the area was safe before allowing herself to close her eyes and rest. Kneeling down close to the corner, she peeked around the wall. Hanging on thick cords of rope, several men’s corpses were swinging slowly from side to side, their boots occasionally taping against the hallway. Her hand shot up to seal her squeals from escaping. The men were all in ragged and bloody uniforms, their hands bound behind their backs, their heads lolling to one side. As she studied them, a growing orange light grew at the other end of the hall. It was approaching her from the other side of the line of bodies. In the bright light now, more than a dozen victims were swinging from a square ceiling beam.
Jueneva heard heavy boots now, foot thuds heavy and marching towards her. She ducked back around the corner, bracing her back against the wall. Her hands still pressing tight against her lips.
What fresh hell have I plunged myself into?
The march of the lone pair of boots came to a sudden stop, less than a dozen feet away. The orange light flickered and waved, casting irregular shadows along the hall. Above the crackle and popping sounds of a fire, she made out the creaks of rope, the tapping of more boots. Whoever had the fire had walked through the hanging forms and intentionally forced more of them to swing.
Her terror caused massive trembles up and down her limbs but still, she had to know, had to see what was happening right beside her. She again knelt slowly to get as close to the ground as possible to dip down and catch a glimpse.
A disembodied pair of legs, shrouded in glowing orange and white flames, stood before the swinging men. The boots were facing the victims. Spots on their uniforms were burning where they were pushed.
Her jaw dropped as her hands fell to her sides. Her eyesight started to tunnel as she was about to swoon, when a floating, rotting skull wreathed with more fire appeared above the legs. It twisted to face her. Its jaws were opened in a permanent scream. It roared, “YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
Instead of collapsing, her legs snapped tight and her body launched forward, her feet instinctively beating a mad dash away down the other hallway. She dared not to look behind her to see if it gave chase.
The frantic girl did not stop until her breath rasped in and out of her chest in burning gulps of air. She was heaving and weeping again resting on her hands and knees. The darkness in this area was reassuring though as she knew the Burning Man was not near. She tried to control her tears but could not help the squeals and moans she made.
Now hopelessly lost in these haunted ruins, she despaired if she would be safe ever again.
Her darksight revealed she was in an open, sparse room. It was furnished with only a wobbly wooden square table and one stone bench. The concrete walls were marked with more of the miniature runes but nothing else.
Completely exhausted, surrendering to whatever might find her, Jueneva climbed onto the table. She chose to sleep here versus the cold stone floor. Her ankles and feet hung over the end, but she slipped regardless into dreamless sleep immediately.
“YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
The intense words floated in Jueneva’s mind as she drifted between nightmare and awareness. The flaming skull growing and looming over her in her dream, casting her in its fiery red glow. Its heated breath roasting her skin.
“You do not belong here.” The spoken statement, less intense, was repeated in more of a concern or inquiring tone. And it was not said by the leering skull.
She felt a hand upon her shoulder, shaking her. “I say, this is no place anymore for the living.”
Her eyes popped open wide, startled from the touch. An older man, heavily wrinkled around the eyes and mouth, stood near her table bed, floating a few inches above the floor. He had a similar gray and blue uniform as the hung men she had seen earlier. His long white hair was pulled back in a single braid. Other than being semi-transparent and having a faint luminescence, she would not have immediately realized he was a spirit of some type.
The room around them remained pitch dark except for the faint outlines presented by her darkvision. His arms were folded across his chest as he patiently waited for her to respond.
His black eyes perplexed and frightened her. There was a depth and a high intelligence in them. This was not a simple aberration or manifestation.
She scrambled down from the table and crab-walked back into the farthest corner from him. Her arms wrapped reflexively around her knees and pulled her body into a tight ball.
The spirit rubbed at the side of his face and paused with his mouth slightly open in mid-statement.
“I see. Well, perhaps if you have some answers you will feel more at ease, no?” He bowed low, dropping his elbow before his face in an odd gesture or salute. He rose and tapped his boot heels together. “I am Court Executor Boure of the Coueryere Castle, once the ruling regime and residents here. And you are?”
He waited again for her to participate in the conversation. Jueneva was not in the frame of mind of conversing with a ghost. The multitude of stories told to her as a child flooded her brain with superstitions and fears. She could only hope the spirit would leave her alone soon.
“Alright. Well, this simply will not do, young lady. We cannot have you unattended in the labyrinth of the castle. There are… There are things that would not be pleasant for you to see or encounter. No more of such chatter on that. For now, I do observe that you are not properly dressed to be here, nor do you have any provisions or food it does appear. If you allow me to escort you, I can lead you to a proper bedding.”
Jueneva looked up slowly from her huddled knees but did not answer him.
He took it as a sign. “And while our Rule ended abruptly here many eons before, there are sealed food jars in our kitchen and the guard noshery. This endless winter is certain to keep most of it from rotting. Would you like to explore it, young lady?”
His polite form of speech and attention to decorum eased her tension some and the idea of eating broke down her guarded walls. She nodded as she rose to her feet.
“Then please follow me.”
It did not take long for them to reach the large kitchen area, which had four stone tables lined with black oak benches and shelving crowded with wax-sealed pottery jars. She kept quiet behind Boure, but took in the sights of the decorations. Most of it remained untouched, only dusted in fine gray and black powders.
He stood in the hall leading to the kitchen, barely inside the double-door entrance. Again, he crossed his arms over his chest as he kept his vigilance.
At the back of the kitchen hall, she discovered an inset fireplace nearly two body lengths wide and several feet deep. A wooden door partially open showcased a meat pantry and a stack of small water barrels.
After finding a box filled with cut wood, she made a cozy fire and set about prying open some of the jars. In moments, she had a plate of tough leathery jerky, two piles of cashew nuts and two more handfuls of strange green and red berries. The spicy meat did not sit well but the berries and nuts filled her up fine.
As she wiped her sticky hands on the sides of her stained blouse, she called out with a slight tremble in her words. “Thank you, Sir Boure. I am…I truly appreciate your assistance.”
He floated across the stone floor and hovered near her bench seat. “You are most welcome. Can we discuss your situation now?”
She nodded again, keeping her eyes on the floor. To stare into his focused, lucid eyes was too overwhelming. “My name is Jueneva Emaya.”
“As there are no easy passages through the DesCantan Mountains now, am I correct to guess you came via the Glass Mirror in the Shrine?”
“I think so.”
He rubbed again at the side of his temple, lost in his contemplation. He must have had that habit during his life and carried it forward into death.
“And by your garb and lack of supplies, you were not expecting to come to the castle?”
“I do not even know where I am exactly. Except… except that I have come to Akkei Maliss.”
He scratched at a spot between his bushy eyebrows, then folded his arms behind his back. “Anyone coming to Akkei Maliss and via sorcery at that, surely had to be in a dire emergency. Do you think you will be pursued?”
She hugged her arms to her body, cold shivers traversing her small form. “My family…” She choked with emotion. “Our enemies were stopped before I came here. No one witnessed my crossing.”
“Yet you really do not know what Akkei Maliss is, child,” he said matter-of-factly. “You were ill-advised to come to this haunted, cursed land. As I said earlier, this is no place for the living. You have come to one of the five Blackened Realms. Only Restless Dead reside in the Ruins of Castle Coueryere!” His voice had risen and gained volume. He shook with emotion and rage.
Jueneva stood her ground, somehow sensing his anger was not directed towards her but the cruel fate given to him.
“You cannot even fathom the dangers of the other four realms. Nothing can be saved in these lands — The Unformed, The Living Towers, the Land of the Bloodless. And even the dead cannot speak of what exists in The Swath. There is no hope to be found here. In truth, you came here to die!”
“NO! I may have come unprepared, but there was no other option but to return home.”
His jaw dropped, the words faltered before leaving his mouth.
“This castle was suddenly lost right?”
“Yes. One night as a mighty blizzard gathered outside, we were set upon by an unknown enemy who used the storm to hide within. They breached all our security, used magic to overtake all preparations. Within the night, it fell to a swift blade and all of us including the Coueryere noble family were wiped out. Our enemy stripped everything of value and left these rotting ruins. They robbed us of everything, including hope. Now the dead come here attracted by its well of misery and doomed souls.”
Jueneva stood up from the bench and crossed to the heat of the fireplace. She then knelt in front of it. The flames lit up her face and features.
“No, Boure. Not all hope. Not everyone died that night. The family of Coueryere held dominion here due to their powerful bloodlines and true heritage. My mother and father — my adoptive parents used to tell me bedtime stories. Told me of a faraway land governed by a family of mystical beings.”
He floated closer to her, trepidation in his eyes. He hoped and yet feared at the same time what he was about to witness.
“Dirithi…” he moaned in awe as he took in the sight of her illuminated features. Her true heritage of blackened eyes and ivory, spiky skin.
He sank to the ground, collapsing upon his knees and prostrated before her with his hands clenched over his head. “So long! So long without a light to cling to.” His words were muffled and mashed together as he said them like a chant over and over.
She put her hand upon his shoulder. Softly she spoke into his ear.
“I will, I swear before you, regain our power over this realm. Fate has bound me with this charge. I must bring about The Restoration.”