Thom had imagined that when Kaya left it would have been more dramatic. He had expected many of the villagers to turn out to watch her go, wishing her well in the hunt for Sorceress who had killed Sila. Cheering her on as she left.
What actually happened was far less like the stories of a hero going off to battle.
Instead of a crowd appearing to cheer Kaya on as she went to hunt down the Sorceress, the only ones there to see her off were Thom himself, Elder Terrance, and Milithid. The sun was barely over the horizon when Kaya announced she would take her leave.
As goodbyes went, Thom wasn't sure it was the best way to send off a hero. Milithid had gathered a small collecting of healing herbs and ointments and gave them to Kaya, and the Elder simply wished her the best of luck. Kaya once again promised she would stop the Sorceress, and she thanked the Elder and Milithid for their hospitality.
Kaya smiled when she looked to Thom, peering down at him in all her ornamented steel plate with her helm tucked under an arm. She placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled faintly. "Thank you for listening to my ravings." She said, and Thom grinned and nodded.
"Good luck." He said and she nodded and without ceremony, she turned and left.
Thom had, briefly, entertained ideas of trying to follow the warrior woman. Very briefly. He had fantasized of the idea of learning to fight and being trained by Kaya to help her track down and fight the sorceress. To leave behind farming and carpentry and the other skills he had learned over the years.
However at the thought of facing this monstrous Sorceress, an image swam up in the back of Thom's mind. A broken body lying in a puddle of blood with only one eye and bone wet and red naked to the air. The image made him shudder involuntarily. Thankfully however no one noticed.
"Once you've found this… Sorceress," the elder was saying, "we would be honored for you to visit us. Miss Kaya." He said and Kaya nodded her thanks.
"Hopefully I will be able to take you up on that, Village Elder." She said and she bowed her head respectfully. Although Thom thought he saw a glint of something in her eyes, a sadness that she did not want them to see. It was gone however the very next moment.
"Stay safe." Kaya said, before turning away. They had guided her to the edge of the village, along the same path that Thom had been showing her the day before. The north road that would lead towards Kelswit, the nearest real town. From where roads could take her all over the kingdom in her hunt for this Sorceress.
They waited until Kaya was nearly out of sight, passing into the forest on the north side of the village, before the Elder sighed.
"Well now that that is done." The elder glanced down towards Thom. Although not by much the man was taller than Thom. In a few more years he suspected he would overtop the old man. "I believe you have some work to be about, Thom."
"Yes sir." Thom said bobbing his head, and he started off back through the village. They had already discussed how, without Sila helping, Obram the village woodsman would need assistance with cutting wood in the morning. It had been decided since Thom was not needed tending the fields, Ebram had enough farm hands for that, he would go assist Obram until he was done for the day.
"Thom?" The Elder called out before he had gotten very far, and Thom turned.
"Remember the man is grieving. Be respectful, understood?" Thom nodded, he had no intention of being otherwise and he found it strange the elder would remind him. He spun and continued on while Elder Terrance and his Milithid spoke quietly to one another. Heading off towards the woods to the south where Obram would be cutting wood.
As he passed through the village, Thom saw many of the villagers going about their daily chores. Women and young children helping carry loads of laundry to be hung in the sun to dry from lines of rope stretched between the eaves of houses. As he walked Thom passed by the smithy where the smith himself was inspecting the work of some of his apprentice boys. All of whom were older than Thom and had, in the past, decided to express their opinion on his being smaller. Taleb, Colim, and Fetick were all two or three years older. And all three of them had been helping Smith Rogal since they were only a little younger than Thom.
Thom picked up his pace a bit, but none of the apprentices noticed his passing by. Not that Rogal would have let them get away with getting distracted from their work.
Not far away Allan was working outside carving lengths of wood to shape. Allan was the village carpenter and he waved as he saw Thom coming by.
"Elder Terrance going to send you to help me today?" He called and Thom stopped to smile.
"Probably, I need to go help Obram this morning but once we're done chopping fire wood I have no idea what he'll have me do." Thom said and Allan nodded, his face going somber.
"Alright, you take care of Obram, okay? He's taking Sila's… well… yesterday hit him very hard." Thom nodded, his smile fading as as he murmured an acknowledgement and Allan went back to work. Thom setting out again, passing more and more familiar faces. Men and women and children he had known his entire life.
All of those who weren't otherwise occupied would wave hello or shout morning to him as he passed, and he would return the greeting.
At the edge of town Thom passed by Edric's house, frowning a bit as he walked past.
Usually he would see Nivan putting up wash or tending to chores with her children. Edric would have long since left for the fields to help Ebram. The man was a hunter, but when game wasn't prevalent enough he would usually spend his days in the field. Ebram never turned the man down, even if he did not need any extra help.
It was strange Nivan was not out hanging the wash, but he let it slip from his mind as he headed further away from town. Out towards the woods where they gathered most of their firewood.
According to Elder Terrance this entire section of wood had once covered the town and connected to the wood in the north. However decades ago when the village was founded his father had helped cut them down to make the homes. The first building to go up had been the village common house. What would eventually become the village Inn.
Now the area was simply open land with tall grass. According to Ebram the soil had not been suitable to planting, which was why they had planted on the east side instead and had not bother to try and sow crops here.
Just past the edge of the forest, Thom found the clearing where they would collect firewood. Small trees would be cut down and dragged out here to be cut into pieces either for firewood or maybe even for Allan to work with depending. An old stump showed scars from hundreds if not thousands of axe blows into it's body. Beside it lay five thick branches cut from an old oak tree at the edge of the clearing. Each log about as thick around as a man's leg, perfect firewood.
Thom had expected he would find Obram hard at work, as ever, cutting down the logs and then dividing them evenly. All the firewood would then be carried back to the village in the small hand cart that Obram had. Deposited at the Inn for the use of anyone who needed it. In winter especially the amount of firewood usually needed to be enormous, and the pile would be divided out amongst everyone.
Obram's cart was up against a tree on the far side of the clearing from Thom, but he did not see Obram anywhere. That worried him, where had the man gone? It wasn't like Obram to not be here.
A moan caused Thom to jump nearly out of his skin, and he glanced about nervously as the ground continued. Followed by the thumping of something of something hard on wood. The sound was coming from the cart.
The moaning came again, and this time Thom found it wasn't scary. It sounded more pathetic than scary. Like a wounded animal crying out in pain.
Carefully Thomm approached the cart. Fetching the axe from where it lay lodged in the tree stump. Grasping the smooth wooden haft with both hands. Even if it sounded like a wounded creature. For all he knew it was a wolf, or a badger. Both had been known to lash out at people who drew to close to them while wounded.
When Thom peered into the cart, axe at the ready over his shoulder, it took him a moment to actually understand what he was seeing. There Obram was laying in the cart amidst several skins of wine. All of which appeared to be empty, save for the one he was actively drinking from.
The man dropped the wine skin when he saw Thom, well more when he saw the silvery gleam of the axe. Shying away and shielding his face with his hands.
"No please." He moaned and Thom blinked, staring down at him and lowering the axe.
"Master… Obram?" He asked and the man blinked bleary eyes and lowered his hands. Taking another look at the figure with the axe.
"Oh… Thom. Young man, you should not sneak up on men while he's resting." He scolded, although the effect was lost by the way his words slurred together. He barely even seemed able to see Thom, and he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun that peeked through the trees above.
"I'm sorry sir." Thom said, frowning as he looked at the man. "Uhm the Elder sent me to help cut wood?"
"Ah!" Obram explained, as if he had been startled by something. The big man clawing at the edge of the cart to sit himself up.
"Right, right. Very good yes. Just the five logs today, cut down into chunks. Shouldn't take to long to-" the man burped and then his fumbling attempt to climb from the cart while drunk ended in a collapse that shook the cart. Obram lay mumbling in the bed of the cart.
"I'll… i'll be right up." He mumbled defensively. "Just let me… let me get my balance."
Thom watched as the man tried again and failed to get up once and twice more before finally he seemed to give up and just lay there in the cart. He frowned all the while, and finally just shook his head.
Was this what the Elder and Allan meant? He thought, suspecting they had known that Obram would be unable to actually chop firewood today.
With him in the cart how will I even get the firewood back to the village? He thought in frustration as he hefted the wood axe. Selecting one of the logs of oak and pulling it aside as best he could from the other four.
Thom spent the better part of the morning chopping at the five logs. Breaking them down into smaller logs so he could split them later. Usually that was what Obram did. He would cut the logs and Thom would stack them in the wagon. With Obram currently occupying the wagon and unlikely to help, the job of cutting wood took significantly longer. Sometimes Thom would have to take multiple swings to even cut through the log.
By the time he had cut up all five branches, he had a pile of logs ready to be split and his shirt was slick with sweat and sticking to his skin. He looked up at the cart and could hear the sounds of snoring, Obram had fallen fast asleep in the wagon and Thom sighed in irritation. Why did he have to work all because Obram had drank himself into a stupor?
Thom took a long drink from the waterskin he had brought with him, grateful for once for that habit that Milithid and Ebram had drilled into him. A farm hand could always do to have water on hand when tending the fields. It was a waste to walk all the way back to the nearest well when one had a thirst.
A job that should have taken only a few hours instead lasted well into the afternoon. Thom splitting the chunks of log into two parts and stacking them off to the side. He had decided hours ago he would need to return to the village for a different cart, or at least some help moving the cart with Obram in it. The man wasn't waking up and Thom had given up on moving the cart himself.
Once the final log was split Thom sighed with relief. He buried the hatchet in the stump and started back through the woods towards village. A breezed picked up and Thom sighed with relief, raising his hands to let it cool him down.
There was a smell on the wind, the thick smell of smoke and he wondered if someone had decided to cook a meal outside. However the smell began to grow thick, and choking, and Thom wasn't certain anylonger it was from a cook fire.
The dense forest hide the village from view, and he did not see the clouds of smoke until he exited the forest itself. A billowing black cloud filled the sky and the stench of wood and grass burning mixed with a far more pungent smell on the wind that he couldn't place.
Flames licked at the base of the massive black cloud from various houses on the edge of town. Bright red and orange infernos dancing erratically beneath the darkness. It took some time for Thom to understand what his eyes were seeing, and when he did he started running. Eyes wide with fright as he ran for the village, running towards the miasma of black smoke.
"Elder!" He shouted as he ran, his boots crunching on rocky dirt as he rushed for the village. Hand raised in front of him as the smoke got in his eyes and his mouth. His eyes began to water and his mouth went dry. He could taste the smoke as much as smell it, and he could feel it choking him as he came closer. Passing into the ominous cloud he began to cough even as he ran. Unwilling to stop, unwilling to even think.
He tried shouting. Shouting the names of people he knew from the village.
"Elder!" He bellowed. "Allan! Milithid!" He shouted the words but his voice grew hoarse and he choked on the smoke. He passed by a burning home, the heat of the orange flames striking him full in the face. A flickering ember fluttered on the air into his path, and he ran into it. Crying out as he felt the burning on his arm.
More embers were flickering and falling and it was becoming hard to breath. The combination of heat and ash was making each breath a struggle, and his head was beginning to grow light.
Suddenly thom burst through the dense fog of smoke into relatively clean air. The smells of fire and smoke still filled his mouth and nose, but the air he breathed was remarkably cleaner as he collapsed to the ground. Choking and gasping for air. Tears were streaming down his face, and Thom could hardly see as he tried to figure out where he was.
Looking up he saw shapes. A tall boxy two story building, it had to be the inn. He saw flames dancing across the thatch roof, and the door lay in the dirt as if it had been blown from it's hinges. The wood lay blackened and smoldering there in the dirt.
Around the village green, that empty space in the middle of village that travelling merchants would set up, he saw people. A dozen shapes laying there and at least one standing over them. That last shape looked familiar, like a man. It was holding a smaller gray haired woman up in the air by the throat.
Thom wiped at his eyes and realized he was looking at Elder Terrance. A broad smile on his face as he held his wife, Milithid, by the throat over his head. His face, unlike all the others, was clean of smoke and burns. His usual tunic and trousers immaculately clean. Whereas the others shapes were blackened with ash and smoke.
None of the others moved except for the Elder and Milithid. The smaller old woman squirmed in his grasp, clutching at the hand at her throat and kicking feebly in the air. Struggling to breath.
The elder wasn't saying anything, simply watching as Milithid struggled. Even as far away as he was, Thom could hear her desperate gasps for air.
Milithid's struggling finally ended and the Elder tossed her corpse to the ground. Then the Elder began to… change.
Where had stood the old man that Thom had known for the better part of his life stood a woman. A vision of pale skin and raven dark hair that smiled in a way that chilled Thom to the bone. Her eyes were a shimmering red light that seemed to be staring directly at him.
It took a moment for him to realize she was staring at him. That smile a thin line with a cruel twist in the corners.
"Ah, the farm boy." The woman said chuckling in a low voice. Thom was still wheezing when the woman was suddenly there. Standing over him with that cruel smile. A simple back dress clung to the pale woman's body, and her feet were hidden by the hem.
The Sorceress leaned down and placed a finger beneath Thom's chin, lifting his head.
"Oh don't look so afraid, boy." She murmured, her eyes glimmering red.
"I need someone to go tell Kaya after all. How much do you think it will hurt her? To now she failed so completely?" The woman asked the questions, but did not wait for an answer from Thom. Instead dropping his head and raising her hand.
As if a massive invisible hand had wrapped around his chest Thom found himself being lifted into the air. All at once he was flung through the air, and his back struck something solid. He would of cried out, but the blow drove all the air from his lungs.
Instead Thom fell to the ground and wheezed, gasping for breath as he sobbed into the dirt. His vision narrowed to pinpricks. The last thing that he saw was a twisted and mangled body with silver hair staring at him. A man with most of the skin flayed from his body, muscle glistening red as his eyes stared sightless lay back at him.
Kaya sat before the small campfire she had made, staring into the depths of its flame. The night had grown cold but it was a mild enough cold that the fire was all she needed. She was not looking forward to the cold of night, with no cloak or no blanket she imagined she would freeze right to the bone. She could not keep the fire going forever and God forbid it rain, but there was little and less she could do about it.
The sky however was cloudless, what little Kaya could see through the trees. She had piled her armour nearby and she sat in her padded jacketed trousers. Kindness resting in it's scabbard beside her on the ground. The silvery metal of the guard and pommel taking on the amber glow of the fire.
The trip away from the small village she had found herself in had been uneventful. Kaya had not seen any other travelers, nor beasts. The Elder had provided some small morsels to keep her until she arrived in the nearest full town. There she would begin the search for Shileen. The Sorceress who had brought all but destroyed the world so long ago.
Kaya still wasn't sure how long she had remained within the Prison with the Sorceress. She still hardly even knew where she was. When she had asked the boy she had not recognized any of the names or places he mentioned, and the map the villagers provided had done little and less to help. She saw towns in part of a kingdom, with the nearest borders marked but nothing beyond that. She would need more information one she arrived in Kelswit. So much more.
Then there would be the matter of tracing Shileen herself. The woman had been easy to find before, as the world had all but belonged with her. Her power, both real and that imparted upon being the Queen of Tolorian, had made her a figure that would have been difficult not to track.
Kaya imagined it would not be quite as difficult as she thought, the woman would naturally try and seek out power. She would attempt to wrest the world from those who ruled it at this moment. Kaya simply had to stop this before it happened.
Surely that wouldn't be too difficult. At least she hoped not.
A breezed picked up through the dark woods and Kaya sighed heavily, her thoughts turning to the village. It was clear Shileen had arrived with her there, the body of the girl had been evidence enough to that. Would Shileen have so easily left? Where had she been hiding that no one had noticed her? The woman was a Shapechanger, but her acting had never been that good to Kaya's knowledge. However, would she be able to hide now? Kaya had no experience trying to see through disguises like that, and Shileen had rarely bothered with them back then.
The wind shifted again and Kaya heard something over th crackle of the fire. She peered up into the woods, wondering if a creature was staring back. There was the sound of rustling leaves and Kaya narrowed her eyes. Grasping Kindness' scabbard in one hand. Wolves were not usually so bold, at least they had not been. Maybe that had changed since-
A shape detached itself from the forest. At first she thought it was lunging and he grabbed for her blade, but then she watched the shape tumble to the ground. It lurched and fell forward onto the grass, the light falling on the face.
Kaya recognized the farm boy, and her eyes went wide. What was he doing here? How had he-
The smell of smoke filled her nose and even with the fire lighting him, the boy look caked in ash. He was coughing, choking, on the ground. Alive, thank god, but only just. He wheezed and gasped for breath and Kaya scrambled over to him. Kindness forgotten.
"Boy." She said, and then more urgently as she rolled him over. "Boy! Thom! What happened? How are you here?" The boy wheezed in response as Kaya rolled him over. Inspecting his face. He was burned on the cheeks and jaw and coated with ash and dust. Long intricately shaped burn scars ran up and down his arms the sleeves torn away from his tunic. No, burned away Kaya realized when she saw the blackened edges.
"What happened to you?" Kaya demanded and a voice that did not belong to the boy answered.
"You did, little Princess." The voice was smooth, silken, and it came from directly behind Kaya.
Kaya spun, letting go of Thom and throwing a hand up towards the shadowy shape that stood by the fire. Kindness lay under the shade's heel, out of Kaya's reach. Instead she summoned up a sacred art and a ball of white light leapt from her hand and impacted the shadow, which parted around it. Like water might part around a heavy weight being dropped into it.
"Oh save it, little Princess. You cannot harm me, I am not here."
"What do you want you vile witch." Kaya snapped, preparing another spell as she rose to her feet. Scowling at the smoky apparition. Tendrils of ash seemed to slide off the body, and Kaya decided it was true. The woman was not real there, only a shadow of her true shape. She could be anywhere…
"I simply wanted to give you a gift, dear princess. Little usurper. The only survivor from that little village we both found ourselves in." The shadow said, laughing, and Kaya narrowed her eyes.
"You witch. What did you do?"
"Burned it to the ground." Shileen said with that twisted little smile. And Kaya nearly let fly another sacred art.
"Why?" She demanded instead.
"Because I could," Shileen started, "because I so wanted to see your face. Your little Prison didn't keep me. You sacrificed everything, and nothing will have changed. You just delayed me a moment."
"So you came to gloat." Kaya demanded, and Shileen laughed again.
"Yes, in essence. And to tell you goodbye. You will never find me again, Kaya La Fiera. We spent ten thousand years together in that other place, and you have given me a delightful new world to play in. I thank you for that. No longer will we die and fight and die again in the Prison you made. We are both free."
"I won't let you roam free, witch! Vile abomination! I will find you wherever you go! I will-" Shileen interrupted her.
"You will do no such thing, Kaya. Little Princess, you will never find me again. Not until it is too late, not until you are too old to stop me. When you are withered and dying, I will appear before you." Shileen stepped forward, growing even more cruel. "Time is on my side, little Priness. You tasted it in the Prison, but now you will witness it in the fullness of your mortality. I will never die, and I want you to remember that."
Kaya screamed and threw another ball of divine light into the chest of the shadow. This Tim it exploded, bathing the forest in blinding brilliant white light.
The shadow was gone, it the laughter remained. A hollow whisper in the darkness of the night and behind Kaya, the farm boy moaned weakly in agony. His arms running red with blood from his burns.
Kaya sagged to her knees there beside the fire, staring at the flames for a long moment before she turned to tend to the boy. Listening as the wind blew, as if it was mocking her to.
She tended to Thom, using the healing sacred arts to heal what she could. To expunge the ash from his lungs and close the wounds. The scars on his arm she could not remove, they patterned his skin from elbow to hand. Like puckered white snakes imbedded beneath his skin. She did however stop the bleeding and he would survive the night.
Kaya wondered briefly if that would be a mercy or not.
End of Volume 1 - Heroes and Villains