Author's Note: A story I wrote for a writing contest on a forum I used to be on. An awful lot of the story was decided for us already, unfortunately, that it didn't leave a lot of room for our own ideas. The occupation of the main character was decided, the nature of the situations he faced and even his encounter at the end. Despite this I still feel as though I did a good job with the story overall, though I would've liked more control over it.
For the record, the winner of the contest was never announced. Bummer.
Jonan ran the cloth up and down the smooth, steel of his blade, polishing it clean. As he worked, he gazed into the blade's clear face. The face that stared back at him held barely a trace of the youthful features it had once so proudly displayed. Now, it was a face worn by age and the rigours of a long life serving his people. His lengthy, unkempt brown hair, showing shaded greys, hung loosely behind him. A heavy growth of stubble grew across his face. Had it really been that long since he'd had the chance to shave? Had he really been in this forest for that long?
As he sat, polishing, he reflected upon his journey. In the week since he'd left the city of Hoodami, located in the province of Altair, he'd had to fight almost daily in order to protect his cargo. He'd delivered important objects before, and often had to fight to protect these items. Never before though, had he had to fight so fiercely, so frequently, to protect his charge. Even when he'd left the main roads and entered into the forest, the attacks hadn't let up.
He glanced at the small cylindrical package, no thicker than his arm, and about half as long, tied to his waist. He didn't even know what it was, let alone why so many people were after it. He'd lost track of the amount of blood spilled under its name, by his hands. He'd killed before, but never to this extent. Normally, it didn't affect him, but he supposed everyone had their limits. Now, at the end of each day, he needed this quiet, reflective time, to put his mind at ease.
Shoram, a small village hidden within the forest. This was his destination. Where exactly in the forest it was, he didn't know, and neither did the one who had given him this mission. Jonan was at home in the woods though, he wasn't afraid, he knew how to survive. He was sure he'd find the village eventually, deliver the package, and be done with the mission.
Jonan had asked his client what the package was. His client had responded that, like the location of the village, he didn't know this either. Although, his client did know something, one thing he couldn't stress the importance of enough. With these final words, Jonan set out from Hoodami.
By the gods it was hard though. He didn't know if he was prepared to face another day of combat over this tiny, mysterious package. He'd allowed himself only as much sleep as he could safely take since the first attack. Most of the time, he just rested, keeping aware of any noise or movement out of the ordinary. The constant attacks and lack of sleep had left him feeling fatigued. He hoped that his journey would be over soon.
Why not just give up now? Asked a voice in his head. His voice? He wasn't sure, he was too tired, but he assumed it would be.
Leave the package here. Go home and sleep. Let whoever finds it, whoever is after it, keep it. Surely it can't be that important? He thought to himself. He dismissed the idea immediately. On his honour as a ranger, he could do no such thing. Never before had he given up on a job. He wasn't going to start now.
Is it worth it though? Worth the hardships? Worth the pain? Worth your life? Leave it now, and never look back. The idea was tempting, he did have to admit. How nice it would be just to leave everything now, and head back home.
That's right. Nobody would blame you. You've done the best you can. Everyone has their limit and you've reached yours. How could anyone fault you? This was it. He couldn't continue on with this journey any longer. Putting his blade aside, he reached down and began to undo the cord keeping the package attached to him.
Yes, you're doing the right thing. He tore the package away, and was about to cast it to the ground, when he stopped. He wasn't sure how, but something inside stopped him, made him realize that this wasn't right. Those thoughts weren't his, could never be his. He could never give up on a job just like that, his honour as a ranger wouldn't let him.
With his free hand, he reached down to retrieve his blade and began looking at the forest all around him, examining every tree. As his eyes moved, darting from tree to tree, the forest seemed to blur, as if something was clouding his vision. The long shadows cast by the setting sun danced as they also blurred around him. He wasn't disoriented though. Jonan had faced this before, he knew just what he was up against.
His eyes settled on one tree, a few strides distance from him. This tree seemed to be more real, more solid than the others. He knew this to be nothing more than a trick as he stepped forward to dispel the illusion placed upon him. He swung his blade in an upward slice, cleaving the tree in two. Immediately, the illusion vanished. The forest around him came back into focus as the tree before him vanished, leaving an elderly sorceress in its place. She stared at him with dying eyes. A long gash across her waist and up to her chest oozed blood over her otherwise spotless blue dress.
"How? Why?" was all she said as she collapsed first to her knees, then flat onto the forest floor. He recognized the voice that had been in his head now as hers, and not his.
"Surrender is not an option," he said to her dead body, repeating the words of his client. The simple words that he couldn't stress to Jonan enough.
With that Jonan gathered his belongings and reattached the package to his waist. He wouldn't be staying here. Not tonight.
Shoram was, by far, the most peaceful village in Altair. Isolated from the rest of the province, it was free of any disputes that effected the other towns or villages. In the past, when invading armies had occupied Altair, Shoram always tended to be a safe haven from the atrocities of war. That was why, as Jonan entered Shoram, he was unprepared for what was to meet him.
The first thing he noticed, before he could even see the village, was the smell. It invaded his nostrils and assaulted his senses. He recognized it immediately as the overpowering smell of death and decay. He tied a handkerchief around his mouth and nose to help filter out the smell. It helped slightly.
On the outskirts of the village, he came across a few dead bodies. Villagers, he assumed, from the way they were dressed in plain, woollen clothing. Each and everyone had been killed, presumably whilst trying to escape whatever horrors were befalling their village. Jonan examined a few of the bodies he came across. They couldn't have been dead more than two, maybe three days, he concluded. As he drew in closer to the village itself he pulled his sword free of its scabbard. Someone, or indeed something, was waiting for him and the package he held.
As he entered the village itself, he cast his eyes upon the remains of the houses that had once been home to the now dead villagers. Some still stood, suspended a few feet above the ground by wooden columns. The houses themselves were also constructed of wood. Other houses, by far the majority of them, however, had been burnt to the ground. A charred, blackened husk being the only evidence they even ever stood there.
Around the village's remains, more dead bodies lay, stricken across the ground. The grimace of pain lying upon their dead faces a sign of just how gruesome their death had been. Crows and other carrion birds fed upon the remains of the bodies, along with rats and flies. Jonan didn't need to look to know that they were likely to be crawling with maggots.
He continued walking through the village, careful not to step on any of the bodies. The first drops of rain landed in front of him, darkening the brown dirt of the village. Swiftly, the rain changed from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour. The crows continued to peck away, not willing to give up what had to be a banquet to them for just a little water.
He watched a number of rats scamper away, seeking shelter. It was at this time he noticed one rat, no different in appearance to any of the others, staring back at him. Oddly enough it appeared to almost be assessing him, sizing him up. For a brief moment Jonan thought it glanced at the package by his waist. The next moment, however, the rat was dashing away through the sudden downpour. Jonan watched it run underneath a large building, presumably a village hall based on its size, before losing sight of it.
Moving his gaze away from this building, Jonan caught a brief glimpse of movement in one of the windows. Studying it more closely he could make out shadowy figures through the rain. They were either survivors from the village or, much more likely, the ones that had done this. Making sure his sword was comfortable in his grasp, he began trudging through the muddy path towards the building.
Reaching the first of the stairs leading up to the wooden hall he stopped to listen for any conversation. The sound of voices inside reached his ears, but he was unable to make out any words over the roar of the rain. He carefully crept up the stairs, keeping low as to keep any noise to a minimum.
As he reached the landing he moved to the side of the open door and carefully peered inside. Five orcs moved about inside, drinking, chatting noisily and examining treasures they'd stolen from the villagers. Each of the orcs wore dark brown pants and had their large chests bared. The largest, who Jonan could only assume was the leader, had a splash of red body paint smeared against his green chest.
Jonan silently returned his sword to the scabbard at his side. He held his left hand out in front of him and concentrated on forming a thin column of light, calling forth the ancient magic within him. As the light gathered in his hand, he slowly shaped it into a bow. As it took form, he summoned an arrow constructed of magic in his right hand. He took aim and fired this arrow, downing one of the orcs before they even knew of his attack. Taking advantage of their confusion he let loose another arrow, taking down a second.
The two remaining orcs and their leader, now realizing they were under attack, drew their weapons and charged toward him. He dispelled his magic bow and drew his sword, ready to meet the attack. The first of the orcs reached him, fangs bared and snarling. Wielding a large mace he swung overhead, aiming to crush Jonan's skull. With his blade Jonan knocked the orc's attack aside, leaving him open. Taking advantage of this he thrust his blade into the orc's exposed belly, piercing vital organs. Pulling his sword free he pushed the wounded orc aside where he collapsed in a heap on the ground.
Jonan twisted around just in time to meet the second orc's attack. With a large, two-handed sword, the orc swung horizontally hoping to cleave Jonan in two. Reflexively Jonan ducked the blow and the sword sailed harmlessly over his head. Predicting this, however, the orc stuck out his foot, tripping Jonan and sending him sprawling to the floor.
Seeking to finish him the orc slammed his sword downward, aiming at Jonan's face. Jonan rolled to the side and dodged the orc's attack. Determined to finish the fight, the orc tried the same attack once more. Again, Jonan managed to roll to the side. While the orc struggled to remove his weapon from the ground Jonan quickly sprung to his feet and, swinging his sword round in a wide arc, sliced open the orc's throat. His opponent collapsed, abandoning his weapon while clutching his throat.
Knowing he still had one more opponent to face Jonan began turning, searching for the leader. As he came around he found himself face to face with a thin sword aiming at his throat. At the other end of the weapon was the leader, snarling happily in victory.
"Well done, well done," he growled, "but you've lost. Hand over that package would you?"
"Why? What's in this package that so many people risked their lives to steal?" asked Jonan. The orc laughed a deep laugh before answering.
"You mean you've carried it all this way without knowing? You didn't even take a peek for yourself? You are an honourable one, aren't you?" the orc laughed once more, "It's nothing really. Just an old parchment, not of any value."
"You're lying. I've been through too much for this to be nothing of value," Jonan responded.
"Maybe so, but I don't need to tell you anything. All I need to do is kill you, and the map will be mine anyway," said the orc.
"The map?" asked Jonan. He was about to go on when a rat dashed up the outside of his pants, sinking tiny claws into his legs. Before Jonan had a chance to react the rat had chewed through the rope binding the package to his waist. Carrying it in its teeth the rat raced away into another room.
"No! You stupid bloody vermin," the orc roared. Taking one last glance at Jonan he decided the package was more important than his prisoner and raced after the rat. Not letting this opportunity go by Jonan escaped outside into the rain. As he raced down the stairs he almost ran into an elderly man whom he could swear wasn't there before. He was about to warn the man of the danger when he noticed the package in his hands. It was the same one that the rat had just stolen; the one Jonan had been carrying with him for the past week.
Jonan stood back, taking in more of the elderly gentleman. The top of his head was completely bald but a long beard made up for any lack of hair. He wore loose, tired old clothing and stood in a carefree, unimposing manner. He was short with small, beady eyes and a pointed nose, giving him a face almost like that of a rat. Jonan knew it was unbelievable, but he could swear that this man and the rat were one and the same.
"You want to know what's in this package, don't you? You wish to know just what you've been journeying for, correct?" the old man asked. Jonan nodded.
"I do think you owe me an explanation," Jonan said.
"Very well, come with me then," said the man. With a click of his fingers, he and Jonan vanished from the village.
Jonan was disorientated to now find himself standing atop a tower, looking out to a white void all around him. Especially when only moments ago he'd been in the village of Shoram.
"Welcome to my home. The Tower of the God of Portals," the old man announced, sitting on the ground and undoing the package.
"God of Portals?" Jonan asked.
"That's right, that's me," the old man responded, "anywhere you wish to be, I can take you there." He finished unwrapping the package and pulled out a rolled piece of parchment.
"So, the orc was right. It is just some old parchment," said Jonan.
"Not at all. Look," said the god, unrolling it before Jonan. Printed on the parchment was a map.
"A map? I faced so much danger just to deliver a map to a god? A teleporting god of all things too. Why couldn't you have just teleported in to get it yourself?" Jonan asked, the force of all he'd experienced in this journey hitting him instantly.
"This is it. I'm too old for this ranger stuff anymore. Once I'm out of here, I'm hanging up my blade for good. I've faced too much in this journey. No, this entire life. No man should have to have seen the things I've seen," Jonan continued on. He was distraught that his mysterious package had been revealed to be nothing more than a map. Distraught that he'd faced day after day of hardships and attacks, just for an old map. Not just that, but old memories of his early days as a ranger had also surfaced. The horrors of war, the pain of losing his family, and much more.
"Rest easy. You've done well. Not just in this job, but you're entire life. Without this map, you see, I'm powerless as a god. For my powers to be accessible, I need this map," the god explained, "I'd hidden in that village until someone could return the map to me. How I lost it is quite a long story. One I'm not sure you'd like to hear. I have a feeling you'd like to leave now." Jonan nodded in response.
"But, I can't have you leave without a reward for all your efforts. I can give you anything you like," the old man said.
"Anything?" Jonan asked sceptically.
"Indeed. Imagine your perfect world. The world of your dreams. I shall take you there," the old man said.
"My perfect world…" Jonan imagined a peaceful world, free of violence and untouched by the ravages of human construction. A place where life flourished in the forests.
"Just dream," the old man said. A world where he was with his family, his friends, all those he lost in the war. A world where, most importantly, he was happy.
"Dream," the god clicked his fingers.