The Tall Man and His Door

I’ll have to admit to you before we even get started that it has been many years since all of this had occurred, but I’ll try to recall the details of the traumatizing event as best as I can. It happened when I was a kid, ten or eleven I think. I can’t be certain, but it was close enough to my birthday that either could be true and it wouldn’t matter one way or the other. The only reason I remember that was due to how chilled my bones were from the weather outside. There wasn’t snow or anything like that, just a wretched coursing freeze that would cause your vision to collapse inward from the periphery if you stayed out in it for too long. At least when you’re that small anyway. Looking back, I could probably go out in the same weather with nothing but a thick shirt as I am now, but adults have a way of dealing with things that kids haven’t quite obtained yet.

To make matters worse, neither parent was home and no one knew how to operate the thermostat. My mother had often been in and out of the hospital throughout my childhood and this so happened to be one of those times. For that night it was just myself, my younger brothers, and the man my father had left us with already passed out drunk on the living room sofa. He had been a friend of the family simply due to the nature that he happened to live across the street at the time and for any other reason was beyond me. I recall that we thought it was rad at the time whenever he watched us for the night because he would let go wild and ravage the pantry for whatever we wanted to eat for dinner, but of course, now I realize that he only did so to avoid having to prepare anything himself. His meal consisted of a bologna sandwich and enough beer that he wouldn’t wake until the morning came and he was relieved of his post.

With everyone else fast asleep, there I was shivering with a thick duvet wrapped around me as I worked on a story I was writing at the time. I was often awake at times no other sane person would choose. Over and over they told me that I’d grow out of my childhood insomnia, but that day has still yet to come. I always figured that if I was up I might as well be working on something, so I grabbed my dim little desk lamp and continued to fill the pages of yet my fifth composition notebook on this epic tale I had hoped would blow all the minds of my middle school mates. Sadly, I got so wrapped up in the creative process that I didn’t even notice what had been going on in the dark corners of the neighboring rooms until I heard the obnoxious slamming of a door down the hall. 

More annoyed than perplexed, I left the comfort of my work to see what could possibly have caused that infuriating noise. I remember thinking to myself that it was probably just a ghost or an imp; something unpleasant that I wasn’t unfamiliar with. It couldn’t have been either of my brothers, that’s for sure. Both were much too small to slam a door at all, let alone that loudly. I’m not sure I could have back then either. I approached my youngest brother’s room and reached through the door, laying just slightly ajar to allow a modicum of light from the hall to filter in, to flip on the lights. Up and down I toggled the lever, but the ceiling lamp was unresponsive.

Nervously, I tiptoed through the doorway. I always had a problem with the dark, I think at least, in a relatable way. It wasn’t even so much as what could be in the spacious vacuum of potential danger that rests before me, but that no matter what could be there I may never know since I won’t be able to see it until it is too late. Fear isn’t the word I’d used to describe the feeling. Maybe reverence is more appropriate. One reveres the dark because while they may not know what lies in waiting for them they are fully aware of the gamble of proceeding forth. And taking that gamble, I hugged the wall until I ran into my brother’s bed. I swiftly lifted his blanket, but he was not underneath.

Just then, the light in the hall cut out startling me. It would have been difficult for him to reach the light switch, but I wouldn’t have put it past my brother to figure out how to use a large toy to cause mischief. I called out for him, but no answer. Edging my way back out into the hall I called out for my other brother, but still no answer. I could feel the rhythm of chest increase in tempo as I made my way toward the living room to hopefully wake the only adult in the house.

Boom! Boom! Boom! I wasn’t even halfway down the hall and all the doors along it slam shut in a chain of thunderous claps. Without opening my eyes, I managed to sprint to the side of my sitter only tripping on the coffee table next to him. Try as I did, he was so inebriated that a full-grown man couldn’t have awoken him even without more creative measures void from the mind of a panicking child. Then, in the distance, I heard a click. When I looked back down the hall, I could see the faint light from my desk lamp bending around the corner. I reached beneath the couch cousin below my sitter’s snoring head and pulled out a combat knife far too large for a child my size to be wielding. It was my dad’s from when he was in the army. He liked to keep it there just in case any intruders decided to set their appetite on our lower-class domicile since he often opted to sleep on the sofa.

As I made my way back down the hall, the doors all remained shut. I’m still not sure if it would have been more or less stressful if the doors to the other rooms had opened back up, but it didn’t matter as I clung to the wall opposite of each one with the knife pointed at the furthest extent of my tiny reach as I passed. The blade shook wildly in my grasp. I’m certain it was a mix of its weight and my nerves. The hallway felt longer now than at any other time in my life. And for some reason, the closer I got back to my room the dimmer the light from my end table became. It felt dense and foggy. Not that I could see any sort of condensation in the air. No, it was almost as if there was this thick, invisible miasma cloaking the air around me and letting less light through than should otherwise be the case. Once in my room, the shroud was so heavy that all I could see was the faint glimmer of the bulb and the notebook I had been logging away at just beneath. Everything else was as if it became the darkness. I placed my hands down to feel the bed so I wouldn’t bump into it; then used it to make my way over to the only thing I could fully comprehend in this distortion of my normal reality. Just as I reach the lamp, it too goes dark.

Red. Beaming out of the gaping maw of my closet door was light so glaringly red that beneath its gaze no other colors or tones were recognizable. Alarmed, I swiftly leaped up into the top bunk of the bed, only to find that my other brother whom I left up there sound asleep was also missing. I peeked above the guardrail to see a narrow silhouette in the closet so tall that it was cut off by the top of the doorway. In a rather stiff and uncanny motion, an arm stretched out from the figure and grasp trimming or the threshold with its sickly yet still masculine fingers. Crouching down so it could fit through, the entity robotically hoisted its way into my room to reveal that it was actually a man of sorts.

Although it wasn’t the peak of the silhouette, his head still stood higher than the door frame itself. Atop sat a flimsy old top hat with a couple of holes in the brim that was so tall it bent in half and dragged across the ceiling as he walks. With each step, it made a sound against the sponging that went schiff… schiff… schiff. The man wore a dingy black suit, like you would expect to see on an undertaker, that hugged his slender form a bit too much as if it wasn’t quite tailored for him. In his left hand he walked with a cane, but not with a limp and not in step with his stride which made his motion appear even more discordant. Beneath the hat, his thin, greasy, black hair squirmed down the sides of his weathered face like worms desperately escaping his head. His grin was slimy, filled with crooked teeth, and surrounded by a patchwork of stubble. And in the center of his ghostly pale sat a narrow, slightly-hooked nose just beneath his solemn black eyes so dark I couldn’t make out with the pupil stopped and the iris began. 

“Salutations, my new friend,” the tall man said to me whilst licking his chapped upper lip, “How might you be doing this fine evening we have here?”

Not knowing how to handle this situation, I cautiously scuttled back away from the guardrail toward the far corner of the room and remained silent. Not detoured in the slightest, his smile widened as he approached the bed. I have no doubt that… thing could have climbed up between the bunk and the ceiling, sprawled out like a spider, with little inconvenience. Instead, he chose to swing one over the railing and leaned against the bed casually.

“Aw, you don’t want to talk to me?” He asked with a contrived pout. “It’s alright, little boy. You can talk to me. I’m very friendly.”

I still chose to remain silent. He came off as a bad hypocrite and nothing sounded sincere. Displeased with my silence, the tall man reached into his coat and pulled out what appeared from that distance to be some kind of treat.

“How about this,” he said extending his just inches from where I sat. “If you give me your name, I’ll give you some candy. Sounds like a fair trade, right? Very friendly.”

“I was always told not to give my name strangers and you’re pretty strange,” I said, choosing to reply that time.

He chuckled for a second and responded with, “That fair, but where I’m from you are the strange one. If you won’t give me your name for candy, how about some shiny new rocks?” His fingers peeled back like old paint to clutch the treats. When his clutch released the candy has vanished and was replaced with tiny gemstones. “I know how much you like collecting these things and brought them just for you.”

I swallowed my own saliva hearing that. How could this monster whom I had never met know that I like collecting rocks. There was an assortment of ones I found around the city stored beneath the bottom bunk as we spoke, but only my brothers really knew about that. I panicked and start waving the knife in his direction and shouted, “I’m not buying what you’re selling, mister!”

As if disgusted, the tall man drifted back from the blade immediately. Once far enough away, he collected his composure, dusted off his coat, and began smiling again. His stance slowly cricked toward the closet down as he calmly stated, “I see we are done here, then. There is nothing I possess for which you would give me your name. I’ll take my leave.”

I can’t remember why I said it. Even then I wasn’t sure why these words escaped my mouth, but I muttered, “I want my brothers to be safe.”

Just before crossing the threshold, the creature stopped dead in his tracks. In the blink of an eye, he was back leaning on the guardrail just as before with a wild grimace. He took off his hat as if to show courtesy, revealing that the hair above it was matted and infested with small bugs. 

“So, it seems we might come to an arrangement after all,” he snickered.

“What do you mean?” I asked with the knife still pointed at him.

“You see, both your brothers are back at my home,” the tall man replied.

“Then bring them back here!” I shouted without hesitation.

“No can do, little man. I only do favors for my friends. But if you were to give me your name and I gave you mine, I’m sure we could work something out,” He said in a most untrustworthy tone.

“All I have to do is tell you my name and you’ll bring them back?” I questioned suspiciously.

“Mhmmm, how about it?” He asked right back.

I retracted the knife back to my chest and thought it over for a couple of seconds. I knew that I had no reason to trust if this man even had my brothers, but both of them were missing and with the paranormality of all this I doubt they could have escaped him if they tried. I may have just been lucky that he’s seemed to be afraid of the knife. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to tell him. I took a deep breath and could see every single one of his teeth for how wide his smile grew.

“Don’t even think about giving that liar your name,” interrupted a rough yet girlish voice. “It’s not just an exchange of pleasantries. He already knows your name. Giving it to him is how he gets you, since as a kid that’s all you really have to give away.”

There on my dresser sat a young girl just about my age and size in pigtails and pajamas. She had a cocky air about her without an ounce of fear toward this creature looming over her at roughly twice her height. I couldn’t really place why, but it felt like I had known this girl for a really long time. Maybe I had. Everything was getting fuzzy in that red light and all I could recall was who I was as well as my missing brothers.

The tall man broke character and a second set of eyelids opened up to reveal that beneath those fake, drawn-on black irises were glowing red eyes that matched the light gleaming behind him in the closet. He wrenched his body over to her and angrily screamed, ”You mind your own business, you realmless urchin! This is between me and the boy.”

“If it involves this boy, it is my business,” she laughed “Besides, you don’t scare me. You have no real power in this realm, you glorified scarecrow.”

The tall man raised his cane like he was about to strike the girl, but recomposed himself yet again instead. He swiveled back to me and said, “Fine. If we can’t make a deal then I’ll leave with just your brothers in my possession.”

“No, wait!” I hollered possibly too quickly. “You need to give them back!”

“I don’t need to do anything,” he retorted. “ Your parents gave them their names and then they gave them to me. By the rules of my land, they belong to me now. Of course, maybe we could shake on a deal and I could trade two for two. Both of you are far more interesting than those snot-nosed brats anyway.”

“Ha! I’m not giving you my name for anything in the whole universe,” scoffed the girl.

“No dice, then,” he replied.

Then I blurted out, “What if I went and got them myself?”

The pigtail girl shook her head rapidly side to side with utter disagreement with this plan, but the tall man seemed delighted by the notion.

“I control this gateway here, you see,” he stated in a bow, gesturing to the closet. “I’m not just going to let some kid waltz right into my home and take what is mine. Even to do that, you’ll have to give me something I want.”

In a possibly foolish act, I jumped off the top bunk and landed between the tall man and the closet door. He reached to push me out of the way but stopped when he saw I was still holding the knife. Reflexively, he pulled back toward the nightstand where I had worked previously. 

“How about your life; is that worth it to you?” I said in rage. The girl was giddy and wide-eyed trying to figure out where this was going.

“You’ve put us in a tight spot, lad,” he said in a more serious tone. “If can’t get past you and your fancy little plaything, then I can’t get home. But likewise, if I were to perish the gateway to my realm will close on its own. The only way I can see about solving a dilemma like this is to make a wager.”

“Don’t make bets with devils,” the girl cautioned. “It never ends well.”

“What kind of wager; what are the terms?” I nervously asked as the girl grasped her face in disappointment.

The tall man’s boney fingers curled across and stroked his chin as he pondered what the bet should be, though he probably already had it in mind from the start. He raised up just one finger to display that the terms had come to him and spoke, “I shall be gracious enough to allow you entry into my realm, but you must traverse it to my home yourself. Should you manage to reach your brothers, to simply touch the littlest piece of them, then I will not only allow all of you to return home, but I will escort you there myself.”

“What’s the catch?” queried the girl.

“Unfortunately for you, the road is not an easy one,” the tall man replied. Especially for someone of your size. There will be many things that will wish to see your demise. Should you fall in my realm, you soul will be mine.”

“I don’t really like those terms,” I said while lowering my knife just ever so slightly, “but deal.”

“Then we must shake on it,” he said slyly.

I reached over with my weaker hand so I could keep the knife in a fairly defensive position and he reached over with his in turn. And just as we went to shake, I felt another hand clasping mine. It was the girl’s.

“You want in on this two, pigtails?” he chuckled.

“Not really,” she groaned. “But if he’s really committed to doing this, I guess I’m going, too.”

“What is it to you if he does?” the tall man curiously questioned.

“Now, that is actually no business of yours,” she replied.

The hands went, then the hands went down. Again the hands went up, then the hands went down. Thrice the hands went up, but on the third time that they went down red light behind them cut out. I heard a hollowing tap on the floor, despite the room being lined with carpet, and this time a pale cyan light shone in from the closet.

“There’s your door children,” the tall man whispered between them menacingly. “Just cross that threshold and your challenge will begin.”

And of course, that’s exactly what we did.

Na’s Journey

In the fourteenth year of the Era of Change, this is the chronicling of a planet called Mirra’.

“There ya go, lad,” kindly speaks the old man working the stand in the bazaar, “that should be more than enough flour to get ya through the week.”

“Thanks, Cullen,” I respond. “It’s been such a rough season that my dad completely forgot to send anyone to restock the kitchen. Always be the first to volunteer before anyone is asked, as he always says.”

“Already such a hard worker ya are. How old are ya gettin’ now, Na?” he curiously asked. Cullen Retroyce has had a monopoly on quality baking goods in Port Claude for longer than I’ve been alive. He’s always taken interest in his customers since very few can afford his prices.

“Only nine just last season,” I smile out through my teeth.

“Hah-ha! Well, don’t go volunteerin’ to run down here every time. Yer gonna grow up too fast,” Cullen laughs off as I lead the cart westward out of town. The town is walled off on all sides except the one that faces the Eastern sea and I always love taking a moment to admire the archway of the city’s front gate on my way in and out since it is so different from the one at the ranch. I can’t dilly dally for too long, though. Ahead of me lies just about a hundred mile ride back to my family’s ranch, but it doesn’t bother me at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Sacred Talon Ranch and have my entire short life. I love my dad, my sibling, our employees, the animals, and even the work itself. But to be honest, and it may just be that I’m starting to be less of the little kid I’ve always been, I just want to be anywhere else. I had a small taste of that devilishly delightful desert often called adventure once in my life a few years ago and these rides to and from town are the closest thing I get to that rush.

I always like to sing on the ride between town. I’m not as good of a singer as my father, but he always tells me it’s just because I “have yet to put enough time into the art.” As you can imagine I go through a lot of songs on a route so long. A lot of them are repeats since I only know all the words to a few and the rest of the time it’s just me humming until the chorus comes back around again. My favorite song though is of the old tongue very few people speak anymore. My father thought it was of the utmost importance for all of us to learn the old tongue and used ancient songs to help us learn. This one I happen to remember the words better than most songs in my native tongue:

Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, huànxǐng wǒ,
xīngguāng hé lùzhū zhèng děngzhe nǐ;
zài báitiān tīng dào de cūlǔ shìjiè de shēngyīn,
yuèguāng xià de kōngqì yǐ quánbù xiāoshī!
Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, wǒ de gē hòu,
yòng róuhé de xuánlǜ xiàng wǒ qiú’ài shí liè chū;
shēnghuó zhōng mánglù de rén dōu hěn guānxīn,
měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, xiàng wǒ xǐng lái!
Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, xiàng wǒ xǐng lái

Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, zài hǎishàng,
měirényú zhèngzài chàngzhe kuáng yě de lorelei;
zài xiǎo xī shàng yǒu zhēngqì,
děngdài jíjiāng dàolái de míngtiān tuìshǎi.
Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, liáng zài wǒ xīnzhōng,
jíshǐ shì xiǎohé hé hǎishàng de zǎochén;
ránhòu suǒyǒu bēishāng de yīnyún dūhuì xiāoshī,
měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, xiàng wǒ xǐng lái!
Měilì de mèngxiǎng jiā, xiàng wǒ xǐng lái!

It’s a very difficult melody to sing right since the old tongue was a tonal language, but it always puts me at ease since my dad would have us all sing it before bed every night. I don’t even think I was saying half of the words right until I was five. Man, were things better back then. Everyone was still around and I didn’t feel so alone all the time. Mak would have loved these trips into town and we’d get to sing all our favorite tunes together like we used to. I think I’ll sing his favorite song to take my mind off of it. You know, the one about the coconuts? It goes-

Actually, hold on to that thought. Is that smoke in the distance? A lot of it, in fact! Way too much to be wayward travelers setting up camp. That much smoke has to be fuming from a blaze the size of a… oh. no!

Frantically, I whip at the Saedir pulling my wagon to pick up the pace. The eight foot tall, feathered, raptor let out a beastly squawk that rings through the surrounding woods like a church bell as it kicks into high gear. I kept a brisk pace up until now, but if we didn’t have to worry about losing the cargo old Sari here could have gotten us home in an hour flat. I really don’t care if we drop anything now. I just need to make sure it isn’t… my house.

As I bear witness, all four stories and two acres of the manor at the forefront of the property where my family and all of our workers lived was caked in an inferno as bright as the guts of a ripened mango. Consumed with fear and pure instinct, I rush into the burning edifice. I know that this is the very last thing I should be doing, but I need to find him.

“Dad!?” I shout at the top of my lungs which are now slowly filling with exhaust from the flames, “Dad… echk, Dad!?” Dang, why the heck did I run in here? I’m going to pass out. My vision is closing in, but an adult figure sprints directly at me as I lose consciousness.

“Na!” I hear shouted at me as a stinging pressure connected with my face. “Nanoson Riknia, wake the heck up! Don’t you die on me, runt!” That stinging sensation connects a couple more time before I jolt up. The breathe I took was so deep that it was almost as if the air I inhaled had pulled up off my back. Suddenly the world exists again and I can tell what is going on around me. A man relieved by my condition sits next to me, but he’s not my father. Well, maybe a man isn’t the proper word to use here by most standards. He is definitely what we would consider male for his species, but he is neither an adult nor human. Though we are not related at all, I know him as my brother. Rascal Riknia, or Ras’cal li Ohn as he was born, is one of the species that were here before my ancestors landed on the planet known as an Ancaima, meaning “dark one”. Rascal stands at about average height for humans and has a rather slender build despite performing strenuous tasks all day long. It is likely his species can’t get very bulky, but he is strong none-the-less. His long, shining, silver hair that he ties back in a ponytail contrasts against the graphite color of his flesh. Like all members of his race, Rascal has glossy white eyes that can still see in the light but work better in the dark depths of his native woods, long goat-like ears, and single horn sprouting out of the crowning of his head. He and I have always had the same taste in outfits and even now we have on a similar set of clothes: leather hiking boots,a long-sleeved gi top made of white cotton, a loose, black overshirt with short rolled up sleeves and matching slacks made out of soft canvas, a white sash on top of it all to keep the shirts tied down, and black, fingerless gloves. The only thing he doesn’t have on is my black headband because it always gets pushed down by his horn. My father adopted him even before Anna was born, so as far as I’m concerned he’s just my older brother and nothing less.

“Rascal, where is Father?” I ask still choking on lingering smoke.

“Na…” He is clearly having trouble with whatever he wants to say. “Let me take you around back.”

Rascal lifts me onto his shoulder and trots carefully around the perimeter of the burning building. It’s still hard to focus with what little breath I can manage, but a great sadness drowns out all other surrounding activity as I witness the only home I’ve ever known flicker away before my eyes. It’s not even my stuff disappearing that bothers me, but those of my siblings. See, two of my siblings have been runaways for several years now. They didn’t run off together. When we were five, my twin brother Mak ran off during a tantrum and no one who had the ability bothered to stop him. We were still practically babies for Bob’s sake! Sure, a few years later someone finally set out to find him, but Mak was already dead in all likelihood. Two years after Mak left, my older sister Anna skipped out on us as well. I guess one day she just had enough of this simple life, so she packed a single bag and snuck out to the port in the dead of night. She was only ten then, but I’ve always been less worried about her. I once saw her hold a ranch hand hostage with a spoon and he was like three times her size. It’s never the psychopaths you have to worry about. Still, I may never see either of them again and that junk of theirs was all I had to remember them by. Oh, but if I thought that bothered me, this… this is worse.

“Take it all in, kid,” Rascal sighs out as he sets me down, “this is what I saw first when I came to check on the house fire.” The ground around the shed just behind the house is in wild disarray. Several trees are knocked over, small craters disturb the dirt, scraps of varying fabrics are scattered everywhere, and worst of all a sword larger than the average man is chipped and lying in a sigil of blood. I had seen that sword many times in my life for it belonged to my father. It must weigh more than I do, but I’ve seen him twirl it around in one hand like a small dagger. Beneath his blade, drawn in what I assume is his own blood, is an icon I was also all too familiar with. The very reason I wear gloves is to hide my fatemarks. On the backside of each hand, I have a jet-black, slender, four-pointed star with a crescent facing out from each fold. Father told me to keep it covered because the image was one of grave misfortune and now it lay before me at the worst of times. From one of the tips followed a trail of blood, clearly leading to the source heading deep into the neighboring woods.

“Hey, let’s go! Dad could still be out there somewhere!” I scream without considering that I’m the last person to get this information. Rascal grabs my collar to stop me from running headlong into a forest that even during the day grows pitch black quicker than you realize.

“You don’t think we didn’t already send a search party, Na?” Rascal shouts down at me almost in anger that I would think he took this situation less serious than I did. “We’ve fortified this manor well and yet it has still been burning unnaturally for the last half hour before you arrived. I’ve had the few men I can spare out searching those woods nearly the whole time. I only just got back out myself when I heard you screaming, which you better be grateful I have these dark elf ears of mine or else no one would have heard you were in there. We’ll keep on it for as long as we can, but you know better than anyone what crawls those woods at night and I’m gonna have to pull them all out sooner than later. That thick trail of blood goes in for many meters before it fades off and you’re gonna have to come to terms with the same conclusion I struggled with just ten minutes ago: you and I might be all we have left anymore!”

I’ve never seen Rascal speak for that long without interruption in my life. He’s always been more of the hard-working type that just wanted to smile and listen to whatever you had to say to help the chores fly by quicker. He’s not mad at me though. Sutel may be my birth dad, but he’s also the only father Rascal has ever known. Born into the servant class of his species, being gifted to father was the best thing that could ever happen to the boy. Heck, now he knows how to run the ranch better than dad ever did and has people practically serving under him. He’s only yelling because he’s heartbroken at the loss of his hero. We all are.

That night we slept in the closest barn on the property once the fire finally put itself out and I cried until I could stay awake any longer. At least from what I can piece together. I think Rascal slipped me a tainted drink to help quiet me. I know he and the others were drinking their worries away for the time being. It’s bright out now though, I should probably see where everyone is at.

“Up you go,” Rascal hollers as he blind-sides me and plops me on a saedir. She was already packed with what few of my belongings could be salvaged.

“What the hell, Rascal?” I yell in confusion. “What happened to all that being all we have left talk from last night!?”

“I did a lot of thinking last night and until the homestead is rebuilt this is no place for someone your age,” he says with a fake grin.

“You were a drunken wreck last night!” I rip back.

“True as that may be,” he says, “Sutel always talked about you staying with Jagan should anything happen. I already sent a carrier to secure your transport and it should be ready when you arrive at Claude.”

“Uncle Jagan!?” I complain. “He lives like four thousand miles away!” He stared at me a bit confused. “Like, six and a half thousand kilometers. You know how far he lives!”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Rascal says calmly, “I’ll still be here when you get back. As soon as you have a room again I’ll send for you. You’ll always know where home is. Now get out of here!”

Without giving me a chance to respond or say good-bye, he whips the back of the saedir and it takes off gliding down the road all on its own. I could turn this old gal around, but part of me doesn’t want to. I really don’t want to see my Uncle Jagan. It’s not even really the dealing with the death in the family part that worries me as he’s lost more siblings than he has left at this point. Every time I see him, Jagan makes me study more than my dad ever did. I don’t like school. Never have. I can read languages I’m never going to need when I could have spent that time in more rodeos. But this might be what I need. Something more than just the regular trip to town. Something to break this familiar rut.

I guess it was due to the recent events, but there was something about today that I couldn’t appreciate the front gate like I normally do. I’ll just grab my single bag off Klea and hoof it from here. If I send her back before the town’s commotion startles her, she can find her way to the ranch without any problems.

I’ve actually never been to the end of town where the port was. My father always warned me against it since it is always crawling with vermin and unsavory folks. Everything we ever needed was in the town square at the bazaar anyway. The docks have a specific stench to them. Not just fishy, as the open market has that smell as well, but grimy. There is filth to the air that rolls in with the eroding salt water against the unkept boardwalk and the dirty people leaving their ships for the first time in weeks or even months. Rascal didn’t even tell me anything about who I’m traveling with. How on Earth am I going to find my ship?

“Ahahahahahahahahaaaaa!” Suddenly I’m jolted into the air by a bear hug with the feeling of gelatinous pillows pressed against my back. I already know exactly who it is. “I’ve got you runt! How long has it been?” she asks still squeezing the air out of my lungs.

“Just about two years, sis,” I struggle to wheeze out. I didn’t even know Anna was in the area, but with how quickly that carrier reached her Rascal had to know. I wonder how many other times he knew she was in town and never told me. Actually, he did volunteer to pick up the essentials just about every three months or so. That sleazeball has been sneaking around and hanging out with my sister without even telling me. He’s dead when I get back. But in the meantime, “Anna… can you please let go of me?”

“Oh no, runt. I’m not letting you go until we’re in my quarters,” she says maniacally.

“Wait… what!?” I utter in worry.

“I’ve got so many dresses and accessories and I’ve missed my dolls so much,” Anna plays out in a forcefully innocent tone that implies quite the opposite reality, “I guess just one will have to do.”

“Noooooooooo!” is all I can muster yet no amount of screaming can help me now. My sister is not healthy in the head. The signs of her sadism were evident early on in life and once Mak and I were old enough that we could understand what was happening she began torturing us in various ways. Nothing physically harmful, at least I don’t think anything was lasting. No, she preferred psychological scarring because it’s a connection between just you and her. Her most favorite activity was to play dress-up and make pretty little girls out of her dirty younger brothers. It’s emasculating, to say the least, and because it never ends with just dressing up I think I’m just going to run through this next few hours on auto-pilot if it’s all the same.

I’ve been on this boat for a fortnight now and it hasn’t been all torment from wake to slumber. It’s odd getting used to not have steady land beneath your feet all the time, but the chores are a fun change of pace from the same old things I did at the ranch every single day. The first mate even let me have his bed because he was grateful to finally have someone light enough to tie up and hoist down the side of the ship to wax it without assembling their hanging scaffold. Turns out the ship actually belonged to Anna, who as captain gave it her middle name of Maris. I can’t be certain, but I’m fairly certain my sister is a pirate queen. I know that sounds crazy since this ship seems like any other merchant vessel and I’ve seen her trading papers, yet at the same time we keep meeting up with other ships, crates bearing other companies’ logos are constantly boarded on and off, and even the captains of these other ships act as if they work for her. She could just be a very effective merchant, but I never see any money being exchanged. Either way, all the detours have added two days onto a normally efficient overseas route.

Knock! Knock! Knock! The large ornate door to my sister’s room is decorated with a mixture of flowers, skulls, and the words “Annacelia Maris Riknia, Queen of the High Seas” carved into it. Today’s the day we make shore and not once has Anna spoken of dad. She obviously knows if she is taking me to Jagan’s. Even if Rascal didn’t include it in the letter, I’ve never gone to visit him without dad before. I knock again. “Anna!” I shout loud enough that the deck crew stops to look up for a second before going back to work, “Anna, are you awake!?”

“Yuh, yuh,” she replies through the door while clearly still half-asleep, “C’mon in!”

“Ah, for the love of Bob,” I cry out while covering my eyes. It wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve walked in on my sister while she was completely naked and it won’t be my last, I’m sure. She’s just sitting there swaying around and rubbing her eye with a drunken look to her face. She wasn’t awake at all!. “Please, put some clothes on!”

“Fine, fine,” Anna groans out in judgementally, “who are you, my dad?” And she finally mentioned him. Looking at all the empty wine bottles lying around her chambers, I’d guess she is handling this worse than I am. If I want to be fair, even though she split when she was only ten that still means she spent one more year with him than I did. And she knew what he was like when mom was still around. I bet he was a different person back then, but I wouldn’t know since she left when Mak and I were two. I should bring it up now that my sister’s bare breasts aren’t staring at me eye-to-eye.

I take a deep breath and say, “Anna, we haven’t talked about his death.”

CRASH! A bottle flies into the wall mere feet from my head. She angrily grits out almost gutturally, “What’s there to talk about?” Anna scares me like no other person can, especially as she opens up another bottle of wine.

“I know it was rough between you guys before you left, but don’t you…” She slams her brush down on the vanity dresser and I quickly drop my question.

“Listen up, Nanoson!” she barked firmly using my given name. “It wasn’t like that with us, okay. I wasn’t ever close to him like you or Rascal. I don’t care that I’ll never see him again, got it!?” She faced away from me, but her mistake was doing so in front of a mirror so I can see the tears roll down her face. She struggles to wipe it down as best as she can so she may start over with her make-up. “Woo! Today is the day, isn’t it?” she asked forcing on a grin. “Why don’t you wait up on the deck and I’ll be out there when I’m done.”

“Whahahahaaaaaaaa! What are you doing?” Not but two seconds past the door and several deckhands tackle me to the ground begin tying me up. Across from us, the first mate is pouring what appears to be red salt on the deck in a big circle. This smelly ape of a man sets me square in the center of the odd looking pattern of salt facing the shore off the port side of the ship. Blam! Anna’s door bursts open and she wasn’t wearing her normal black and white vest and blouse combo. She is wearing mage dress with the fur-lined, strapless top and the front open at the bottom to show off her knee-high boots with the skulls and her fishnet stockings. Though more intimidating are the witch’s hat and the six and a half foot tall battle scythe she is swinging around. That’s why she was facing the mirror! Whether the tears were faux or genuine, she used them so I’d let my guard down.

“This isn’t funny, sis!” I shout while squirming about panicking, “You’re supposed to take me to Jagan’s.”

“No, I only said I’d get you to shore,” she retorts.

“This is why you can’t keep a boyfriend!” I scream back, but all she does shrug as if she doesn’t entirely disagree.

“Taqeph!” she shouts before snapping her fingers in the open hand. In a flash, the salt ignites into a bright red flame making the arcane symbol spread on the floor clearer to see. This is what she loved the most. Since she was a young child, before anything I can recall, Anna had studied magic. Apparently, our parents tried to get her into healthy subjects, but she had a fancy for the Arcane Arts and promising to teach her spells was the only way to get her to do anything. This one, in particular, is an overpower enchantment. It amplifies the force carried out by whoever is under its effects. Normally, you’d apply the symbol to just the user with paint or blood, but judging by the size of this circle she doesn’t plan are getting any closer to shore.

“Tell Uncle Jagan I said hi,” she says playfully as she winds up for a slapshot, “Or don’t. I couldn’t really care less.” And with that, I am off like a cannonball soaring through the sky. The force of the wind feels like sharp claws trying to pull off all of my skin from behind. The ground is coming up on my faster than I expected, though I’ve been in the air for but 6 seconds. As I descend, I crash into all sorts of trees before finally coming to a stop in the basin of a waterfall. I’m now in the rainforests of Carnashka.

I’ve only ever been in three different countries in my life thus far: my home of Thamia, Jagan’s home of Nebbana, and Carnashka since it is the closest route in between. The other two countries aren’t bad at all, but I can’t stand Carnashka. Actually, I mostly can’t stand the jungle. It looks beautiful, sure, yet it’s also a dangerous dank dump frivolously filled with ferocious fauna and flora that desperately desire to devour anything and everything. That’s right, even the plants want to eat you here. Okay, only a few of them, but that still bad enough. Because of this, there are almost no rest stops. Every single human town in Carnashka in along its shoreline where the weather most of the time and the terrifying creatures stay away. The only other villages I’d be able to rest at belong to the Goferna, or River Elves as we typically call them. They litter the entire continent of Fitsyoo and build their homes on lakes and major waterfalls that lie along the expansive river systems across the land. The only problem is the nearest stop is fifty miles away from where Anna left me. At least she dropped me off reasonably close to the route my father always used. If I can find the especially wide river than I can follow it all the way to the River Elves and hopefully make it there before nightfall.

“HELP! PLEASE, ANYBODY HELP!!!” From the distance, I hear a call to aid and screams of pain from what sounded like another child but if he had glass jammed in his throat. I don’t know why I have this instinct to run toward danger, but out here if I don’t help him who will? I finish scaling a nearby cliff face and before me lie more danger than I bargained for. Maybe fifty yards away there stands a group of seven bandit soldiers holding a badly injured Ishpah captive. The Ishpah may be the only species we are one hundred percent certain native to this planet. They can be found on every continent and many have integrated into society at large, but on average they still aren’t very technologically adept and are mostly bullied into the servant class of civilization. They range from around two the three feet tall and between fifteen and thirty-five pounds. Ishpah are the least humanoid yet sapient species having feline heads with tall, narrow ears, fur all over their slender simian body, hand-like feet with opposable thumbs, a long fuzzy tail, and mammalian wings that stretch more than twice as wide as they are tall. Oh, and there is a little glowing orb floating about their heads. No one knows what it is per se, but it seems to aid in magic and might act as a conduit for mana. This little guy looks to be wearing a leather overcoat and some khaki formal wear. Even in cities, it is rare to find Ishpah wearing human fashion, but he’s really out of place here.

This is where the trouble lies. These soldiers are Yuzeima, sometimes called Desert Elves despite not actually being Elven. Yuzeima are a desert-dwelling warrior race that raids other societies for anything they can’t get in trade. Their armies consist almost exclusively of women, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they go down easily. In their race, women outnumber men fifty to one. Due to this nature, they separate into communes with a single man who fought of other potential patriarchs and up to a thousand or so women performing all the necessary jobs of their cities. When it comes to athletic tasks even the average Yuzeima can put most human men to shame. Each one I see is nearly six feet tall with a sculpted body that looks more like a bronze statue than any woman I’ve ever met. And like any proper soldier, they are layered in armor and carrying an assortment of weapons to boot. Come on, think. I want to help this dude out, but what can I do here?

I think I have an idea! I’m just going to shove these rocks into my jacket. Oh, these coconuts, too. Anything small and blunt will do. Ten to twenty pounds should do the trick, I hope. I honestly don’t know how well this will work, but I better get up this tree anyway. At least if I am up here it’ll be harder for them to retaliate.

“Hellllllloooooooo, Ladies!” I jest to get their attention.

“What the- where did he come from!?” says the one with the brightest red hair, “Why don’t we have anyone on watch? Cut him down!”

Good, they are coming closer to me. Exactly what I wanted. From this high up, this should hurt a lot. Right as they go to draw their swords, I reach into my jacket and start bombarding them with the plethora of projectiles I collected. I nail one of them square in the nose and I don’t let up for a second.

“Retreat! Retreat!” the same woman screams. They turn and run away as fast as their legs could carry them. This pleases me yet also leaves me confused. This isn’t my first time encountering any Yuzeima in person and a swift retreat isn’t like them. The one time I saw a horde, they nearly wiped out roughly ten times their own numbers before being pushed back. Though, I’ve also never been told about them traveling in such small scouting parties like this. Whatever the reason, they are gone now.

Shimmying down the tree, I scurry over to check on the little fella. He’s got a lot of cuts and bruises on him, but nothing too deep. It looks more like surface level torture than any attempt to damage or kill the guy. It actually reminds me of the sorts of sadistic treatment Anna hands out. Not that she ever brought harm to me, but more that this seemed like the goal was psychological. I try to wake him asking, “Are you okay, little guy?” He’s barely even conscious and doesn’t respond more than a grunt. Then suddenly, a mammoth shadow casts over us both.

“Who said you could take my plaything away from me?” angrily asking the formerly missing leader of the Yuzreima party. “I wasn’t done torturing it yet!” Just seeing the feet and calves of this one I knew this was worse than before. The reason they were in such a small party and split so easily is because the women were the entourage of a particular psychotic man. Before even seeing his face, I recognize the armor and the build of the body it rested on as I slowly scroll sight upward. This is the one I met before.

“YOU!” we both shout in unison as our gazes interlock. This Yuzeima’s name is Volkov’lui ju Tala, or as we humans would say, Tala Volkov. This muscular, six and a half foot tall, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man draped in ebony and crimson colored armor is the patriarch of the Volkovich and the crown monarch of all Yuzeima. He is one of the most feared men on the entire planet with a bounty on his head so high that it is basically a blank check. Last time we met, Mak and I trapped him into a several-hundred-foot fall that he just walked off on his way home.

“Isn’t today my lucky day,” Tala chuckles out with a terrible grin, “Now I get to pay you back for what happened at the Selmii’hetriama.” Woosh! I narrowly dodge a punch he throws the second he stopped talking.

“Dude, that was like four years ago,” I reply nervously, “get over it!” He swings at me again and I take off running with the Ishpah in my arms. I’m a fast kid when I want to be. You wouldn’t believe the things Mak and I have outrun in our short lives. This time I don’t think speed alone is going to cut it. I quickly decide my small stature might be my savior. I jump over boulders, dip under longs, and whip around trees, hoping these obstacles will keep the distance between us healthy. Instead, I hear the explosive sound of things bursting and shattering behind me. Turning my head for just a second, I see Tala bashing through everything in his path like it was confetti paper. A juggernaut with four years of suppressed anger was seeking his vengeance for me. As I turn back to see where I’m going, I slam into a rock face. Cornered.

“And now,” he says grinding his teeth a little, “I’m going to give you many, many shallow cuts.” Tala pulls out his sidearm, a single-edge, mid-length sword unique to his people. “Then, right before you die,” he continues, “I’m going to toss you a couple hundred feet off a cliff. Then we’ll be even from last time.” Mere steps before he reaches us, the Ishpah regains full awareness and his normally red orb starts glowing like white-hot fire. Tala laughs and says, “No parlor trick is going to help you now.

“Shǎnmó’èrlì!” bellows the tiny creature. Sparks secrete from all over his body with greater frequency near his orb. In a blinding flash, a gigantic bolt of lightning explodes out his orb. Tala is sent flying through the air faster than when I was launched off my sister’s ship and for a hundred yards in front of us, around thirty yards wide, the jungle was fried away in total devastation. The critter stumbles to his feet and turns to greet me.

“That was the second most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” I squeal with glee.

“S-sorry,” he stutters out. “I w-would have tried to help earlier, b-b-b-but they caught me in the middle of a n-nap. I’ve b-basically been tossed around since I woke up.”

“That’s alright, I’m just glad we’re both okay,” I say shaking his hand. “I go by Na. Do you want to be my friend!?”

“Beats being all alone l-like I was,” he says with fewer nerves than before. “My n-n-name is Corneilahhanbossilfindsertwich.”

“That is way too long and I’m never going to remember that.” I blatantly utter. “I’m gonna call you Trigger, cause you’re like a loaded gun.”

“A nickname? C-cool! I never cared for my given n-n-n-name anyhow.” Trigger spills out with excitement.

“Are you from around here?” I begin the most important line of questioning.

“B-b-born, raised, and exiled from my tribe all but t-ten kilos away,” he responds.

“Score!” I blurt out with relief. “Help me find something edible. I’m starving.”

Left to Right: Rascal, Trigger, Tala, Na, and Anna