The sun peered through Wraith’s small window.
Another sleepless night.
His dreams of late had taken a far darker turn than they ever had in the past, but today was an important day and he wasn’t about to have it ruined by fleeting nightmares. Determined, he rose from bed and patted around the floor looking for his boots. After some minutes of searching blindly in the darkness of his room his hand brushed against the familiar leather, which he quickly pulled onto his feet. The cold stone floor seemed particularly unforgiving this morning, so he did not hesitate to spend as little time there as possible.
He got to his feet, carefully avoiding slamming his head into the lamp that hung in the center of his small dormitory, and maneuvered to his trunk where he kept his clothes and a few personal items. It took him a minute to find a clean shirt that he pulled on before he cranked the lever on the side of the lamp so that he could get a better view his tiny living space. The room was so obviously too small for him he had to hunch his head forward to not constantly scrape against the ceiling as he went about gathering the other things he needed for the day. Trousers to go over the cottons he was already wearing, his belt with various loops and empty pockets, a simple leather vest he strapped tightly to his chest and a small dagger he tucked into his boot.
The monks always said no weapons outside the training grounds, and the Oaken Order Templars were even tougher on the restrictions, but he had grown not to trust many people, and keeping the blade made him feel a little safer in a group of mostly strangers. By the time he was eight he was wielding knives, sticks and whatever he could find in the city slums, it was a life a lot of kids had to endure when so many dangers lurked in the dark corners of the world. He never wanted any sympathy from the people at the monastery because of his upbringing. There were a lot of other kids less fortunate than him who weren’t picked up by the Order simply because there was no possibility for them to be able to use magic. The slight chance that he had that ability made him dangerous, or so he understood.
It was different for humans of course, magic came far easier to the other races of the world. Elves, dwarves, the rare Ourki, even the Felnar could wield magic of their own accord, albeit in their own way. No, today was special because the Order would put him in a room with possible candidates where he would see if he could share the bond that only two Dularen could, where his mind would meld with another and he would become the energy pool from which another could wield unimaginable power.
The idea was terrifying and unsettling in equal parts. Master Yasly said that the Duli could tap directly into the life force of their Dular, and that potentially one wrong move or stray thought could suck all of the life force right out of him, or any other Dular that was being used to cast some sort of spell. He shivered. Master Yasly also said that Dularen only pair with their exact match and that they always end up making good teams together. The notion only comforted him slightly, especially considering the other person can hear your thoughts, and you can hear theirs. It certainly seemed like he would be left with little personal space or alone time, two things he greatly enjoyed.
He shook it off and tried not to think about it anymore than he already had. Today was the day, whether or not he was prepared for it, it was his path to become a protector of those who could not. Dressed and ready to go he pulled his door open and set out into the main corridor.
The light startled him a little, the small window and tiny lantern barely casted enough light to compare to the massive chandeliers hung every ten feet or so from each other in the main corridor. Small wooden doors identical to his stood under every chandelier all the way around in a circle, the only thing that made them any different from each other was the entrances to the large garden courtyard that separated the two halves of the monastery living quarters. There were only a few people that were bustling about in separate directions, however his destination was the cafeteria so he could grab a bite to eat before going to the ceremony.
He passed by the garden and peeked up at the open sky.
Damn. The sun was nearly directly overhead. Skipping lunch then. Wraith worked his way out of the living quarters and to the eastern part of the monastery, where Abbot Priol told him they would start the rituals. By the time he finished his twenty minute walk across the soft, pale, grass laden field to the Templar basilica almost everyone was there that he knew was due to take part in the ritual. There were men and women, even a few kids that couldn’t be more than sixteen.
As far as he could tell he wasn’t the oldest there, though few he recognized and even fewer he knew. He had been preparing for a few years for this day, but some of them had probably only been there for months. The youngest child, a scrappy boy with dark curls looked pale, and Wraith shot him a smile of reassurance and he looked a little less nervous over how he was before. Priol stepped into the middle of the room and addressed everyone in the room.
“Hello students.” Priol turned towards Wraith and pointed directly at his chest, he was a middle aged, short, a little pudgy with flecks of gray hair around the side of his head. His eyes were glazed over with thick cataracts almost completely concealing the dark eyes underneath.
“Today you all will undergo the most important change of your lives. The Order of the Two Oaks was founded many years before any of you were born, and so if I were to ask you about its origin I’m sure I would get a slew of answers.” He continued in a mocking, high pitch voice “It was created to control the Dularen. It was created to keep magic out of the wrong hands. It was created to preserve relations with the other races.”
He spun around again and pointed to a young woman about Wraith’s age, she didn’t flinch and although the she was far shorter than him, she stood tall. Her brown hair fell around her shoulders framing her face in contrast to her light skin and sky blue eyes. Wraith stared for a moment transfixed by her confidence and poise, defiant in her demeanor.
“The Order was created to protect you from yourselves.” He gestured for the other Templars around the room to come forward. There was one Templar for every candidate in the room, and each held an identical bowl out to the person in front of them. Wraith looked down at the bowl and examined its contents closely before reluctantly taking hold of it. It was a dark, near black liquid that smelled faintly of dung and dry leaves. There was also something floating in the liquid, which he could’ve sworn looked like some sort of insect. He grimaced knowing they were going to make them all drink it.
“I’m sure you’ve been told many times before that this process is quick and painless, and for the most part that is true, however, as you can tell, this dram is disgusting.”
“Smells like bull shit.” Someone called out from across the room.
“You’re not wrong.” Priol smiled at the remark “The mixture will make you susceptible to the process of joining your mind with another to become Dularen. You’ll most likely pass out and seize at which point you’ll begin to receive a rush of mixed emotions, memories and the like until you can gain control of the flow of consciousness and quell it to the point that you won’t be driven mad.”
“Sounds like bull shit.”
“As ridiculous as it may seem, I can tell you that that is exactly what will happen. Upon doing this the body of the Ular will strengthen, bones will harden and you’ll probably become very hungry provided that your other half does not sap the life out of you.”
“Excuse me Abbot Priol, sir.” The pale young boy raised his hand
“What do you mean by ‘Sap the life out of us’?”
“Right. You’re new.” He placed one hand on Ailus’ shoulder and nodded slowly “As Dular your job is to be a pool of energy from which the Duli draw to use magic. Imagine it like a farmer who is watering his crops. He uses his pitcher full of water to pour onto his plants but if he uses too much water, he can’t water any more plants.” At this Priol took the bowl of liquid being held out to Ailus and placed it in his hands “Except in this case if the farmer uses all the water the pitcher disintegrates and ceases to exist. And then the farmer dies because he can’t properly water his crops. Simple really.”
Ailus was shaking, so Priol lifted the bowl to the boy’s lip and tilted it forward so that he had to drink. A few others in the room followed suit and drank their servings too. Wraith continued to suspiciously eye his concoction.
“Tastes like bull shit too.” Someone called out again, following in Ailus’ example. The room echoed with nervous laughter. No going back.
“Indeed. Drink up everyone, it may take some time before you begin to feel the effects.”
Wraith eyed his drink one more time before closing his eyes and gulping it all at once to avoid the taste. He fought his urge to gag as something soft and round slipped past his teeth and down his throat. He could’ve sworn he felt it trying to crawl back up.
A few minutes went by where nothing happened. Someone across the room was tapping their foot. Another near him was nervously shifting side to side from one foot to the other. It seemed like hours passed before he heard a commotion off to his left.
Two young men were caught by their perspective guards as they fell to the ground. The younger of the two had hair shaved close to his head, but his eyes were glazed over with a white pallor. He was shaking violently and foaming at the mouth. The other jerked only intermittently when his counterpart would groan out loud.
Shortly thereafter the room fell to a series of groans and cries as several more fell to the ground incapacitated. One of the prospects even made for the door of the room and tried to leave, only to be caught by a guard grabbing the nape of his neck. As soon as he was pulled back to the center of the room he too fell to the ground in a fit of seizures. Still others stood around utterly confused by the commotion, but otherwise unaffected
Panic gripped Wraith, no one had told him the joining was like this and he wasn’t sure if he was at all ready for that kind of com-
It’ll be ok. A voice rang like a bell in his head, overpowering his initial fear.
Suddenly everything went black. Wraith stood clad in only his trousers in a room with smooth stone walls. The floor was a smooth black tile, and as he looked up at what should’ve been the ceiling there was only an impenetrable blackness through which he could see nothing. Distracting him from the ceiling, water started pooling at his feet, puzzled he knelt down to examine the source of the pool. In the water he saw his reflection, or rather a distorted version of it. His thick black hair he normally kept short was far longer, and various scars laced around his shoulders to his chest. A thick beard concealed his strong jawline and a long thin scratch that ran from his forehead to the corner of his mouth blotted out the color of his one blue eye with white scar tissue. His other eye was spared save a similar scratch that went farther around his face to his ear. He stood back up, horrified at what he saw. Water kept filling the room till he was nearly ankle deep. An unfamiliar fear gripped him, he was going to die here. This was where it all ended.
As the water rose waist high, a hidden door sprung open and flushed water from the room into the bright hallway. When his eyes adjusted to the bright light flowing into the room he realized the person who opened the door was the young woman who he had stared at in the basilica.
Come on. Her mouth didn’t move, but he heard her words and stepped out of the room into the hallway. She too was different, her hair was short and there was some sort of scar left from a bite mark on her neck that looked like it would’ve been far too deep to even survive. Her eyes had the same fire he had seen before, but a permanently furrowed brow seemed to show otherwise age and experience beyond her years.
Where are we? Wraith was surprised to hear his words echo around him without speaking, just as she had done, before he remembered that he was buried somewhere in his own head. Or hers. He couldn’t really tell which.
I’ve never seen this place before. She gestured towards the blank stone walls and the ceiling, shrouded in the same darkness as the flooding room. Do you recognize any of this?
I don’t know Wraith shrugged it could be one of my dreams but this doesn’t seem as… Morbid as they usually are.
She frowned at him. That’s not encouraging. Let’s find a way out of here.
The two worked their way down the hallway, it seemed endless and as far as they could tell it kept going the same direction forever. What’s your name anyways?
I am Taria Sholtar Daughter of Ysa and Barlowe. Most call me Taria. And yours?
Wraith. Just Wraith.
That’s a bit of an odd n-
Before she could finish her thought Wraith grabbed her shoulder and pointed at a discolored stone in the wall. Without a word Taria pressed on it and another hidden door swung out to reveal an entirely different scenery. As they stepped into the doorway what they thought was a room was actually an exit from the hallway. Looking back at the door as he stepped out Wraith saw empty space in place of the door, and no evidence of the hallway they were just in. Examining the field before him, he gingerly stepped onto the hard black ground.
It was nothing like he had ever seen before, smooth black shiny stone as far as his eye could see. In the far distance stood a mountain like he had never seen before. Its peak was gone as if it had been torn away and from the gaping wound poured a red river like blood of the earth.
“It’s the old man.” Taria said, this time aloud “A mountain that pours out molten rock year round.”
Wraith knelt to examine the ground beneath him to find it flaked at his touch and it seemed as if the rock itself was as fragile as it was ominous. “We should go towards it. Maybe it’s our way out.” This time it was Wraith who lead the way towards the massive mountain. As The Old Man got bigger, it seemed to never get any closer only for Wraith to realize that the lone mountain towered higher than any building he had ever seen before. Before they reached the mountain there came a horrible stench like rotting food and molten iron. Shortly after, they realized that the stench was rising from a battlefield that spread as far on either side as they could see.
It didn’t take long after seeing the bodies till they reached the edge of where the battle seemingly took place. Among the corpses were members of nearly every race, as well as strange men clad in armor as black as the stone beneath them, who were missing arms, legs, and even their heads, but in all cases it seemed any flesh that had shown to the air had melted away in a pool of black ooze beneath them. The stench was overpowering and grotesque and even the sky seemed to shield itself from the offensive odor with a thick wall of dark clouds that didn’t break on either horizon.
“This is a lot more like one of my dreams.” Said Wraith simply
“What is this? Is this real?” Taria knelt and lifted one of the helmets of the black armored men, only to find a human skull roll out of it covered in the same ooze they had seen around the other bodies. “We need to get out of this place. We need to leave.”
Wraith nodded “We don’t belong here.” As they stood up to continue working their way towards the mountain across the gore of the battlefield, a great screech rung out from the mountain. Out from behind the peek rose a massive monstrous shadow with wings that spread nearly end to end of the mountain base. Wraith and Taria both shielded their ears in an attempt to abate the pain of the roar, which only seemingly encouraged the creature to flap its massive wings and rise from the ground towards them both.
They stood shocked, paralyzed with fear at what was before them. They both knew that this wasn’t real but it felt that way. The stench of blood and gore mixed with the sulfuric smell of the river of molten rock flowing out of the mountain only reinforced the terrible notion that it all felt so real. It didn’t take many flaps of its great wings to get close enough for them both to realize the monster was in truth a dragon of old, something they thought long dead. Its massive black talons and jet black scales stood in dark contrast to the great big amber orbs on either side of its head. Huge spikes rose across its back all the way to its tail where a club like tail-end waved to and fro guiding the beast towards its two targets. It roared again, this time instead of the horrible screech wisps of lightning shot from its mouth towards the two. In a brief moment of clarity, Wraith jumped forward in front of Taria in an attempt to shield her from the dragon’s wrath.
Wraith jolted awake, this time laying down on a soft bed in what appeared to be the monastery infirmary. He looked to his right to see the neighboring bed was occupied by Taria, who looked as she did when he first saw her. Her brown hair fell to either side of her face as she too rose slowly up, and turned and looked at Wraith.
You tried to save me. He could hear her thoughts as they scraped against his. He flinched at first only to realize that’s why he was so uncomfortable. He was nervous.
I guess so. He could feel her presence even when he wasn’t looking at her, like someone was watching him from afar. He thought with purposeful words towards the presence in the back of his mind, and noticed a shift in its disposition to be less hostile towards him.
Thank you. Taria sat up in her bed and clapped her hands together. “Ras dugar y fir londar!” she exclaimed aloud. As she opened her hands, a small fleck of flame sprung between her palms and grew increasingly bright. At this, Wraith felt as if needles were poking his hands and feet. His hair stood on end and he shivered when it felt like ice was being poured onto his back. Taria took note of his reaction and extinguished the flames, closing her hands and muttering something to herself, it went as quickly as it came.
“That’s… Unsettling.” Wraith shivered again and got out of his cot. He landed with a soft thud onto the same familiar cold stone floor and brushed himself off. Realizing he was wearing only his trousers, and his boots. Luckily it seemed no one found his knife, as it was still safely tucked away. He grabbed the neatly folded cotton shirt sitting on the stand next to his cot and pulled it over his head. “I’m going to find something to eat. Want to come?”
Taria stood up, already wearing a similar shirt her size and nodded, leading their way out of the infirmary. They walked in silence, barefoot through the quiet hallways of the monastery, towards the commissary, the only place they could get food.
“Wraith!” A deep voice boomed from behind them, and they both turned simultaneously to see who it was. “Glad to see I could catch up to you!” the stocky man bustled up to Wraith and patted him on the shoulder, nearly having to go to the tip of his toes to reach his intended target. He smiled a crooked smile as if the left corner of his mouth refused to lift, and turned his attention to Taria. “And you must be Wraith’s Duli! I’m Quartermaster Dilon; I heard you two made quite the commotion at the ceremony.” He reached his hand out to greet her, which she reluctantly took.
“What do you mean commotion? We just woke up in the infirmary and were going to get something to eat.” Taria shook free of his grip when Dilon rose one hand to his chin and scratched it fervently, shaking about his jowls.
“Well I suppose you wouldn’t know what happened then. You two were the last to start the joining process who actually started. Wraith here didn’t actually fall down, instead he started punching the wall of the basilica trying to get out. And you,” he pointed at Taria “It started snowing inside and you erupted in flames.”
Confused, Taria examined her long hair to find no singe marks, as Wraith looked at his hands for any sign of a scratch or bruise. “What do you mean erupted in flames?” Taria asked
“Priol said he’d never seen anything like it. The room got cold and then you just went up in flames! It took four guards to wrestle Wraith to the ground, and even then all they could do was knock him out and hope for the best. Once he was out your fire disappeared with it and they rushed you both back to the infirmary to make sure you weren’t hurt.” He chuckled and gestured at Taria “Your clothes weren’t even burnt. Anyways I should let you both go. Things to do, inventory to keep.”
Dilon waddled off while Taria and Wraith continued towards the commissary, conversing aloud since they were still unused to the ability to speak to each other without words. “So I don’t exactly know anything about you.” Wraith turned to make eye contact with her, she returned his gaze with fierce blue eyes, and a kind smile.
“I’ve been at the monastery almost my entire life. My parents used to be teachers here but the last time the monastery was attacked, they were killed in the fight protecting the students. That’s why we have walls now.” Taria looked down for a moment, and Wraith knew without looking at her that she was still saddened by the loss of her parents. He could feel it.
“I’m sorry. I never really knew my parents. I grew up in Zeldima, stole food for most of my life until a couple Oaken Knights picked me for being Dular and took me here five years ago. It wasn’t really my choice but I was so starved back then I couldn’t put up much of a fight.” He shrugged and laughed “Sometimes I wonder if they regret bringing me here just because I eat so much.”
“You don’t exactly fit the profile of a thief.” Taria gestured towards him. Wraith was very imposing, and he knew it. He had to duck when going through doors just to avoid hitting his head on the frames.
“I was practically a sack of walking bones back then. I started training and basically doubled in size. Even grew a little taller.”
“Wow. How old are you? I just had my nineteenth year.”
“I don’t really know.” Taria held back a gasp and let him continue. “One of my friends from the city who was older guessed me to be about thirteen right before I got taken here. I just say that I turned eighteen and people don’t really question it.”
“Do… Do you even know what time of the year you were born?” Taria was afraid of asking him something too personal
“Sometime in the beginning of the year. Nothing exact. Jerot would always joke with me that I was really a hundred and just didn’t remember, but as far as I’m aware I age normally so who knows.” They reached the commissary, though it was mostly empty there was a small line to get a plate of whatever they were serving so they got in the back of the line and quietly continued on.
“No one will ever believe that I’m older than you. Especially since I’m practically half your height.”
Wraith laughed at that, the remark cheered him up from the previous subject of his knowledge about where he came from. “More like three quarters my height, it’s not that bad.”
“Right.” Taria grabbed a plate from the stack of identical heavy stone plates and held it out to the man in the window that peered into the massive kitchen, only to have some bland looking gruel slopped on with an equally gray looking bread roll.
Wraith followed suit and they sat down at one of the plain wooden tables in the otherwise plain looking stone room. “So do you know any spells that will make this food not terrible?”
Taria frowned at the sad gray mash “It would probably kill you before this became something eatable.”
They reluctantly dipped their bread in the food in relative silence while the commissary filled up with more and more people. A few people who Wraith recognized from the ceremony gave them both a wide berth, and sat a few tables away. The room filled fairly quickly before someone else came to take the two remaining seats left with them.
“Tar!” Wraith flinched at the high pitched squeal behind him, Taria didn’t seem surprised and instead turned only to be swept up by a hug from what Wraith only saw as a women wearing a long patchwork dress with a mess of curly blond hair.
Taria attempted to respond to her assailant only to have the air squeezed out of her before the women took the seat between her and Wraith. She rested her head on her hand facing Taria and sighed heavily. “So. Did you actually find someone this time?”
Catching her breath, Taria got a chance to respond “If you’d pay attention, Dina, you would’ve seen him sitting there.” She pointed around her hair towards Wraith, catching him by surprise, his mouth still full of the last bite of his roll.
Dina whipped her head around to face Wraith. She stared at him for a while, as if she was sizing him up. Her high cheekbones and bright eyes gave her a foreign look, to the point that Wraith would’ve picked her to be an elf, if he couldn’t see her rounded ears and lack of facial tattoos.
After what felt like forever, she squealed again and wrapped her arms around a surprised Wraith. He relaxed a little bit only to be squeezed with the most forceful embrace he had ever experienced. He felt his back crack and the wind rush out of his lungs, as well as struggling not to choke on the roll he was trying to eat. His back let out a few more pops before she let him go so he could recover for a second.
“Don’t hurt him Dina, Tar needs him intact.” Another identical, yet more calm, voice came from the opposite side of the table. Wraith was greeted by the exact face of the girl, except Dina’s doppelganger kept her hair together in one large braid that fell straight back. She too was wearing a similar patchwork dress in what looked like a hundred different fabrics.
“This is Adara, and her twin sister Dina” Taria pointed towards the two “Dina gets excited easily.”
“I’ve got a reason! This is your fifth time through the ceremony, and since you refused to go to any of the other monasteries we thought you’d never find a Dular!”
“She’s right.” Adara sat at the other open seat and pushed one of the two plates of food she was carrying towards her sister. “We were worried for you.”
Finally able to recover from the force of Dina’s hug, Wraith managed to cough out two words “You’re strong.”
“’course I am silly.” Dina patted him on the back, as he hung his head above his now empty plate. “That’s what happens when you’ve been a Dular for your whole life.”
Before he could muster the strength to ask what he was thinking, Adara answered for him “We’ve been Dularen since we were kids. When you spend so much time around the person you’re going to bond with anyways, you don’t really need the joining ceremony to spark the bond.”
“I thought you were supposed to be out scouting to the south.” Taria quickly turned the subject from her and Wraith back to the twins.
“We just got done reporting to Priol. More villages south of us are empty, more than we thought or got reports of. The other elders are getting worried and think that we should be reporting back to Duridiin to tell them what’s happening.” Adara showed no interest in her food, and instead pushed it towards her sister who kept eating while Adara did the talking.
“Shouldn’t we be doing that anyways? If people are disappearing I don’t see why that’s not an issue.” Taria showed some measure of concern in her voice, alongside her being glad she didn’t have to be bothered talking about herself or Wraith anymore.
“The council doesn’t care about some savages in the south. As far as they’re concerned if it’s not a trade settlement being swept away for no reason they just assume that it’s because they’re moving to a new settlement getting ready for the wet season in a few weeks. Commander Aeri thinks they’re making for another move to try and head north out of the denser parts of the forest. I’m not convinced.” She crossed her arms and frowned “It doesn’t make any sense. What about the women and the children? They wouldn’t be going along with the rest of the raiding party if that’s what they were doing.”
“What did I miss?” Wraith leaned across the table, inserting himself into the conversation.
This time Taria responded to him. “We’ve been running scouting expeditions in the far south for the past few months for Priol. The forest has been too quiet and as far as he’s concerned silence from them is reason to be concerned.”
Wraith looked at her with a confused expression “ ‘We’ve’ been running scouting missions?”
“Just because I didn’t have magic doesn’t mean I’m not capable. I have been here for my entire life unlike you, street rat.”
Wraith shrunk back at the venom in her voice, up until then there was no indication that she had any capacity for being so suddenly angry with him. Taria scouting for the monastery explained why he’d never seen her before, but it didn’t explain her sudden outburst of anger. He kept his mouth shut and didn’t utter another word.
He could tell she regretted her decision and wished she could take the words back. Sorry. There was a lot of warmth to the word, it didn’t feel hollow and empty like when people said it to you. It felt like it meant something. He shrugged and let them keep on with their conversation.
Adara didn’t seem to take notice and went on with her point. “Whatever it is, I don’t like it. We found another four abandoned villages today. That makes seventeen in all. The wards that prevent them from being found had even been taken down like they wanted us to find them.” She shifted uncomfortably side to side and shook her head. “For them-“
Before she could finish her sentence, the words were drowned out by an intensely loud bang. The far wall of the of the commissary exploded in a rain of stone and dust, only for Wraith to find himself lying on the floor, dazed and covered in grime from the shattered wall.