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Despite the devastation wrought after 196 years of battling trolls – killing two-thirds of the Commonwealth – the united army of Liraehne cleared the lands. The great Fanaal Emperor Tian’Tal pushed the trolls to the edge of the Frontier, making a stand at the outpost of Tarn, but it was the leadership of Queen Kalynn Wytestarr who led the final victory within the Crax. Of those who went to war, many would never return home, some not because death claimed them but because their wounds made travel impossible, and the outpost swelled into a city.

As Tarn grew, with farmers and families restoring a sense of normal after so much loss, the great heroes and leaders began to pass into legend and new powers began to arise to fill the voids left behind. 

This is the story of one of them.

Author Chuck Sperati Writing Distracted Logo
Onvical
Ambyr Valry
Cariss Mesila
Torgin
Elis Rhees
Elis Rhees

Part Twenty-Three: Unbound

“Sheriff Burkard?” the ordinarily sing-song voice croaked as Serony stepped through the doorway and into the small jailhouse. “Amyna, I need—”

Across the room, two figures turned towards the voice – one the Sheriff of Tarn and the other the woman who appointed her, Mayor Select Guil. Even in her sleep-deprived state, Serony could see that she walked in on a tense discussion. Amyna stood with her arms crossed over a decorative yellow canvas blouse highlighting her short blonde locks. The heavy leather coat and cuirass she wore about town were draped over an armor stand nearby. With her brow lowered, lips pushed together, and neck muscles standing taut, she made for an imposing sight.

The fact that the older woman standing before her, wearing an elaborately embroidered cloak dyed a deep blue, appeared utterly nonplussed by the Sheriff’s stance provided clear evidence of her authority. Turning back to the Sheriff, the tailor and landowner turned politician smiled pleasantly. “It seems that one of our residents requires your services, Sheriff. As I am confident we now understand one another, I will allow you to return to your duties.”

Interrupting any argument that Amyna might offer, the older woman turned and strode out, offering the elfen a pleasant smile as she passed. Not only did that grin not reach her eyes, but to Serony, the colorfully elegant dress felt out of place on a woman with so many thick lines on her face.

A crash drew the elfen’s attention back into the room. Leaning over, with her hands on the small desk and its former contents spread across the floor, the Sheriff gripped the edges. Taken aback by the strength of the woman’s arms, the elfen waited in silence, afraid of what might happen if she interrupted the moment.

“I’m getting really tired of people telling me what I can’t do,” Amyna said, at last, pushing herself up to a standing position. Her expression softening, she seemed to actually see the elfen for the first time. “Serony. Is everything okay? You look—”

“I know how I look. I-I haven’t been sleeping or eating well.”

Starting around the desk, the woman looked past her guest. “It’s not Rovi, is it?”

“Not really. I mean, he’s okay. I left him with a neighbor,” the elfen replied, taking a tentative step forward. “I-I need your help.”

“Sure.” Taking the smaller elfen by one golden hand, Amyna led her over to a bench and sat down next to her. “What is it?”

“I want you to go out to Onvical’s cabin with me to prove that he’s a fraud.”

The Sheriff blinked a few times, her mouth working open and closed without saying anything. “Serony, is this about what happened to Rhist?”

“No. Yes. I mean, not really, but it’s related.” Dropping her hands into her lap and her chin to her chest, Serony quietly sobbed, tears streaming over her sharp golden features. “It’s that witch, Cinia-gri Tualla. She, or rather her spirit is—well, I guess you could say, she’s haunting Rovi.” Looking up and seeing the doubt in the Sheriff’s face, the elfen felt a sudden need to defend herself. “I know you humans don’t have the same views of the dead as we do, and I might sound and look insane, but—”

“Okay, okay. Just tell me everything.”

And that is what Serony did. Starting with the imaginary friend, she told her about Rovi’s strange questions, growing solitude, and the excursion to the small plains that held the remains of the gnomun garden. The woman listened patiently as Serony described how the ghost talked to her son and the things she’d say to him, her expression carefully crafted to encourage her to continue. She maintained that expression until Serony pulled the ivory box from the rucksack she wore on her hip.

Staring down at that box turned a pretty unbelievable story into something that felt plausible.

“Can I?” Amyna asked, reaching for the box.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” the elfen replied, pulling back. Seeing the expression on the Sheriff’s face beginning to return to that gentle tell-me-everything cast, she reconsidered. “Okay, but please don’t open it. I don’t know why, but I feel like opening it would be disastrous.”

Amyna held it in her hands for barely a moment before pushing it back to Serony. “I can’t,” she stated, standing up.

“I know how it sounds, but—”

“It’s not that. It’s Guil. She just finished telling me how I have to assign patrols to watch over that cabin and, under no circumstances, is anyone to go inside under penalty of immediate death.”

“What?”

“If we catch someone breaking into that cabin, my instructions are to kill them on the spot, regardless of age.”

“Wh—you can’t. That’s—”

“Insane. Yes. It is.”

“But I have to do this. It’s the only way I can free Rovi from her.”

Long before Amyna became the Sheriff of Tarn, she lived on a farm outside of town that had been in their family for generations before the trolls came. By the time she reached an age where she could help on the farm, the trolls had taken all five of her older brothers. Her mother told her that they fought to protect those who couldn’t. Years later, when asked why she wanted to train as a soldier, she had answered the same way.

Those words rolled around her head while the elfen continued to plead.

Coming to a decision, Amyna turned and walked to the armor stand.

*              *              *

Standing at the edge of the clearing, Amyna and Serony stared at the cabin. The old wood had taken on an ashen quality that gave a look of rot. Long dark shadows seemed to flow away from the place, pooling on the ground with a murky blackness. With the windows shuttered, it seemed a place abandoned far longer than the previous afternoon when its lone occupant rode out of town in search of the man who had set traps for him and his companions.

“I don’t suppose he left the front door unlocked,” the Sheriff said, starting forward.

Grabbing her arm, the elfen shook her head. “Not that way. There’s a hidden cellar door in the back, near the old well.”

“How do you know that?”

Staring at her with bright lilac-colored eyes, the elfen’s golden features remained impassive.

“The witch?”

Nodding, Serony started towards the backside of the cabin. “Cinia says the cellar door is disguised to look like a garden.”

Noting the venom in those first two words, Amyna followed. As much as she wanted to fight for the elfen and her son, seeing the cabin intensified the doubts she already felt. Being there felt dangerous and wrong. Watching Serony dig through what appeared to be the remnants of a garden, she decided that if they didn’t find the cellar doors, she’d end this excursion here and now.

Uncovering a steel ring, the elfen tugged at it, lifting the door slightly before the weight caused it to fall back into place.

“Bracken-blight,” the Sheriff muttered, nudging her companion out of the way. Taking the ring with both hands and bracing herself, she pulled the door over on its hinges and spilling the dirt off as she set it down. A set of stone stairs descended into the darkness. Glancing over, she saw that the elfen’s golden features had dulled to an almost olive shade. “We don’t have to go down there, you know.”

“It’s the only way,” Serony muttered, taking a step down.

“Okay, but hold on.” Jogging around the corner of the cabin, she returned shortly, holding up a lantern. In response to the questioning glance, Amyna grinned. “Have you ever tried to saddle a horse in the dark? Everyone with a stable keeps as least one in there.”

Moving slowly down the stairs, it might have been her imagination, but the light seemed to struggle to push away the darkness. Neither of them said anything as they stood in the doorway to the cellar. At first, it seemed like any other vegetable cellar one might find in Tarn, though significantly larger. Wooden shelves lined with jars and thick wooden bins were spread around the room out to the edge of the light. Cool air carrying the musty odor of dirt and old stone hung around them, covering a slight smell of rot.

As their eyes began to adjust to the low light, they saw that rather than fruits, jams, and pickled vegetables, the jars held fingers, eyes, and other unidentifiable body parts.

“Um—” Amyna began but did not have the words to continue.

 Taking several steps forward, Serony took off her rucksack and set it on the table. “What are those?” she asked, pointing into the darkness.

“I’m not sure I want to know,” the Sheriff replied.

“It’s a little late for that now.” Moving back to the door, the elfen took the lantern and plunged deeper into the cellar.

Not wanting to be left in the darkness, Amyna followed.

The elfen held the light on shelves situated along the far wall that held oversized skulls. Several of them had what looked like bone plugs shoved into one of the eye sockets. Most had symbols carved across their surface in various stages of completion.

“That one at the end,” Amyna whispered, not knowing why she felt the need to whisper. “That looks like what Ellis supposedly stole from them.”

Leaning forward, the two of them examined the one-eyed skull. The eye plug sat perfectly within the socket, and the symbols were not only complete but looked to have been weathered. Seated among the others all lined up that, it seemed obvious that someone had taken great pains in crafting it.

“Do you think this is enough to prove he is a fraud?” Serony asked, her voice barely audible.

Nodding, Amyna started to turn when footsteps sounded above them. Turning to the elfen, she leaned in and whispered. “We need to go.”

Holding up a golden finger, indicating one more thing to do, Serony handed over the lantern went to the table. Pulling the carved ivory box out of the rucksack, she took a deep breath.

“What are you doing,” the Sheriff hissed, “you said not to—”

“I have to do this,” the elfen stated, sliding the lid off.

*              *              *

A proper phylactery has value, such as a golden leaf dusted with jade between engraved veins. It must also have meaning, in this case, a symbol of love and protection – a gift from mother to daughter.

Her spirit drawn into the phylactery after the betrayal, Tualla spent years biding her time. Finally regaining enough of her strength to project her spirit, she’d been drawn to the elfin boy, Rovi. Within him, she’d felt untapped potential, but that body would take time to mature. Her revenge could not wait. The mother would be a much better host, leaving her with the boy as an apprentice. But some of that untapped potential in the boy came from the mother.

To quell the fight, she needed a place sodden with magic.

How appropriate for that place to be the traitor’s home.

At long last, the moment arrived. Taking the body of the mother for her own would be no challenge. Opening the carved ivory box freed her spirit from the phylactery.

But—

The elfen and the other faded into a blackness that engulfed the cellar.

For a time, Tualla floated in that blackness, trying to grasp the reality of it, and then came a voice.

This is your doing, witch.

That voice, she recognized it. Finney?

Foolish elfen. You taught him how to touch the shadow realm, and now we are banished here.

The Shadow Realm? There must be some mistake. For unbound spirits, there is no escape from the Shadow Realm—

*              *              *

A little more than a day’s travel outside of Tarn, Onvical sat cross-legged in his tent. Through his longtime undead Rylin servant, he watched the events play out in his cellar. He could not be sure if the symbols he enchanted in the floor and walls would be needed again after trapping Finney’s spirit in the Shadow Realm, but he’d decided to leave them. How glad he was for it when he sensed Tualla’s spirit attached to the elfen boy.

Feeling a momentary pang of regret, he commanded the Rylin to light the casks of oil he’d left behind.

Much of his life had been spent in that cabin, with the Rylin as his only companion. There was something bitter about sacrificing them both to end his story in Tarn. But as the old man had long preached—for every ending, there is a new beginning.

His thoughts turned briefly to the witch who mentored him. Well, almost every ending.

In the morning, someone might ask him why he laughed long into the night. In time he might tell someone her story, but not until after he’d taken the power of Caraklin for his own.

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