Full Book

Full Book

A Chapter by The Flame of the Knight
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Here is the full book, not just chapter one

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Prologue:

The fires were rising around him, and Zack could feel their heat. He hadn’t felt their heat in years, not since he and... He couldn’t remember their name. His compatriot. His best friend. Zack only knew that he had to stop his enemy no matter what, because he knew that his life counted on it. No, not just his life. Everyone’s lives.

His opponent wore black armor, revealing little about his true nature, but Zack knew. Zack knew that this was a force of evil that he had to rid from the world. Zack picked up his sword, the crimson blade curved into a crescent moon shape. The flame surrounding him flickered their light against the blade and into his eyes.

Memories flooded to the surface of all the people that had been hurt, those who had become like his family over the years. With time he had known that he had loved each and every one of them in their own way, even if they had been less than savory to him on more than one occasion. Somehow that made Zack trust them even more, because despite everything they were still there and had his back.

His armor was heavy, he normally didn’t wear any but this was a special occasion, sometimes you had to dress up because you had known that this could very well be the day you will die.

With determination in his heart that he didn’t truly feel, Zack attacked his opponent, who wielded a staff of pure darkness. A strike with his sword made Zack’s arm shake, and let go of the blade. And with a strike from above with the staff, Zack could feel his soul disconnect from his body and drift away into the beyond...

 

 

Chapter One:

The storm raged outside, lightning arcing through the air, striking the ground causing the pests of the fields to scurry away in terror. They shouldn't have been awake by now, but in a storm, what kind of animal can truly sleep? The storm had circled this town for years, the town of Ville de Voyage. Some days were worse than others, being nothing more than a light drizzle, sometimes with some much needed sunlight peeking through the layer of clouds on the better days, and on the worse days there would be lockdowns for the safety of the public.

The tenants of the town were used to the storm, not paying much mind to it most of the time. And this even goes for sleep, the storm never rests but the townsfolk do, and peacefully as well. Though there is one in the town who sleeps fitfully, though it has nothing to do with the storm.

Zack is tossing and turning in his bed on the East side of town, just as he seems to every single night. His sheets are soaked with cold sweat, and his dark curly hair was sparkling in the light from the LCD clock screen and the flashes of lightning from the outside. He snorts in his sleep, and then he jerks awake, the snort having given himself the final push to finally escape his dream.

He put his head in his hands, wiping away the sweat and tears from his face. His hands trembled slightly, and he pulled a rag from his cluttered bedside table and wiped it through his hair to remove the excess sweat from his head. His throat was raw and dry, almost as if he had been screaming all night, but he knew he hadn’t been, he was just thirsty. He glanced at the screen of his alarm clock, and the display read that it was 15 minutes until 3 AM. Still too early to justify staying awake, but too late for him to be able to get a sufficient amount of sleep for his day at school tomorrow. No, not tomorrow, today. He groaned and pulled himself up and sat on the edge of his bed. He clicked the bedside lamp on and illuminated the room in the warm light of the LED bulb, far more energy efficient than the CFL bulbs he had practically grown up using.

On his dark wooden bedside table, there was a myriad of pens and notebooks, his futile attempts at trying to recollect and jot down his relentless night terrors. Alongside them was a tall glass of several day old water, the cup giving off the musty smell that Zack often associated with bodies of water outside, like creeks and lakes, though the constant storm tended to keep the area smelling fresh, a silver lining. The lamp was thin with only a power outlet on the base of it, and the brass colored coating around the switch was wearing down with many years of use.

After giving the cup of water a tentative sniff, he shakes his head in disgust, vows like he normally does to be better about replacing the water cup every day like he always says he will, and he stands up. Zack stretches and his back pops multiple times in a satisfying way. His room was far more spartan than his nightstand would have suggested. He had no pictures on the pale yellow walls, mostly due to not having many memories to put there. The only piece of decoration on the wall was a poster for a book he had liked as a kid and had begged his mom for.

The dresser was large, way too large for the amount of clothing it stored. Out of the six drawers, one was full of undergarments, two had various t-shirts, and the fourth had several pairs of jeans, and one pair of bright red pajama pants he had become attached to over the few years he had had them. The remaining drawers had some more notebooks, and a few trinkets he had kept for the longest time, since he didn’t go anywhere now as he had gotten older.

This was partly due to his mother. Zack had never known his father, as he had passed away long before Zack could even remember him, and early on his mother did her best to keep the pain inside. But one day, around the time Zack had turned 12, about four years ago, she had turned cold towards him. Perhaps he got old enough to remind her of his late father and that dug up the pain, perhaps because she travelled so much for work there was no real time for her to show him any affection, and perhaps Zack wasn’t a worthy enough son.

This thought brought a tear to his eye, as it always did. The fear of not being a good enough son to his mother who had tried to give him a decent life all by herself. He wiped the tear away, and as soon as he had touched his hand to the doorknob to go downstairs, there was a loud clap of thunder that shook the very foundation of the house, and the power died.

He knew this wouldn’t work, but Zack flipped the light switch by the door off and on repeatedly. Of course. He was familiar enough with the house to be able to walk down to the kitchen with little issue, but he didn’t like the idea of it. He had no issues with the darkness, but there was one stair on the way down he had difficulties with even when there was light to see with.

With a creak the door opened and Zack went through it, walking towards the staircase. He held his hand around where the railing should be, and once he felt it he grabbed onto it. Slowly he stepped down, and like clockwork his foot slipped off of the stair and he slid down the stairs on his back, bruising his back in multiple spots. He only sat at the foot of the stairs for a moment, feeling the new marks on his back throb along with his heartbeat.

The kitchen now felt like it was a mile away, but he still managed to stand up and walk his way there. Pulling a clean glass from the upper cabinet, Zack filled the glass with cool tap water. He brought it to his dry mouth and drank greedily. The taste was unpleasant to him, like the tap water here always was. Metals and dirty flavors permeated the water, and there was a hint of algae in the water like always. He knew the water wasn’t unsafe to drink, but it was still unpleasant to him, though his dry mouth and throat would disagree.

Two glasses of water down, and he felt he was satiated well enough. He propped himself against the sink on his arms and looked out of the window at the storm. Zack could see the trees whipping violently in the wind as each thunderbolt arced across the sky. The rain was pelting the window in a torrent of droplets. The house was really sturdy, the wind barely making a creak from the support structure. The kitchen was almost as barren as his bedroom was, the laminate flooring in the pattern of grey wood. The countertops were a dark brown, a very confusing color for something that would have food on top of it. The window had flaking white paint around it, and there was a small leak dripping into a small cup of water that Zack poured out. The kitchen was tidy, if dusty. His mother hadn’t cooked in several years, and Zack was only really versed in using the microwave for frozen meals.

This is his life, as unappealing as it was. Being 16 it was about as much as he could ask for right now. As much as he might love his mother, he knew that getting away from her was the best thing for him. Sometimes he considered running away, but he couldn’t get the urge to do it, the thought of just leaving was hard for him.

There was a lull in the storm, and Zack looked out the window. His breath fogged up the glass, making it hard to see, but it almost looked as though there was a cyclone of clouds forming, and at the center of it was a multicolored ball of light. That was impossible. Even with the turbulent weather, tornados a hundred miles away from Ville de Voyage were incredibly rare. As for the light, Zack just assumed that he was hallucinating, or perhaps he was still sleeping and the now dull throbbing in his back was just a byproduct of a particularly vivid dream, and he will forget all about it the moment after waking.

Lightning arced around the ball of light, and some struck the ball but nothing seemed to happen. A heartbeat later, ferociously red lightning came lashing out of the orb, striking up into the sky and piercing the ground, and wherever it struck the ground the nearby area burst into white and blue flames. Zack could almost feel the intense heat of the flames, and this was confirmed by the nearby rain boiling away as the droplets approached.

Zack panicked, and knew he should try to find shelter, but the thought that followed was what if the house caught fire in the same way? He could potentially be trapped inside the burning house, and with how hot the fires were he knew that he wouldn’t last for more than a minute or so in the intense heat. He had no idea what to do, his legs wouldn’t move.

And in a flash of red light, he could feel intense heat pouring into his body. The lightning was arcing through a now molten hole in the glass, and Zack felt only agony. He found himself blown away from the sink and he didn’t even realize he had hit the wall so hard he left a giant hole in the drywall. It felt like boiling hot metal was now coursing through his veins. The lightning finally stopped, the arcs from the orb had ceased. Though it felt like eternity to Zack, the lightning only flowed into his body for a few seconds, still far longer than typical lightning strikes.

His shirt was smoldering and tattered, and Zack felt his chest to feel for any injuries, but his chest was now numb to his fingers, but with the heat now embracing his hand he knew that he must be on fire, even if he couldn’t see any. The glass in the window was still hot, and as the cold rain droplets splattered against it small cracks began to appear from the thermal shock.

Zack stood up slowly and staggered forward. The fires outside had began to die out, and the cyclone of clouds had vanished. Zack could only make out the faint image of the orb in the distance, before it finally vanished from his sight. He began to cry, begging that this was a dream and that didn’t actually happen, his body still burning inside. His legs gave out, and his head hit the floor beneath him, and his vision turned black, falling into nothingness.

 

 

 

Chapter Two:

The sun hung high into the clear blue sky over the bustling city in the desert. The air was hot and dry, and the breeze however slight it was did nothing to cool the air, it only dragged sand through the sky and with it, more heat. Car horns honked incessantly, and the people walking around were talking on their cellphones, somehow able to parse out what the person on the other end was saying. It was the middle of the work day for Los Trinitas, so these people were either heading to or from work for their lunch.

Jack slipped between the passersby, and tried to act natural. Sirens were going off in the distance, a sound that Jack was all too familiar with. He had a plastic t-shirt bag held under his arm that was filled to the brim with food, mostly snacks. The sirens grew closer, and his heartbeat picked up slightly, but he knew what to do. The people near him recoiled slightly, especially if they were down wind from him. He didn’t smell the best, as his life style wasn’t conducive to regularly cleaning up. His golden hair was shoulder length and full of grime, and his clothes were tattered and worn out in many spots. His shoes had several holes in them, which made for a pleasant feeling on his toes when the breeze entered his shoes just right.

The sirens turned the corner and Jack slipped into an alleyway, ducking behind a dumpster to make himself less noticable, and waited out the sirens. The police knew him well enough, and his appearance was unique enough that the cops wouldn’t have a hard time at all finding him. The sirens clicked off and the normal sounds of the city came back to the forefront in his ears. This was a bad sign. He peeked out behind the dumpster along the dirty brick wall of the alley, and he saw the black and white police cruiser had parked just outside of the alley. The business people seemed to not even notice, just walking around the vehicle without so much as a second thought, typical for them as Jack had noticed that they were typically too involved in their own world to care about anything else happening.

The figure in the cruiser hadn’t moved, still sitting in the driver’s seat. Jack could see them talking on the radio, possibly getting some instruction on how to proceed. The door opened and a uniformed officer stepped out, the blue outfit being contrasted only by the shiny golden badge on his chest. The man wore a hat, and Jack was far enough away that he couldn’t see any distinguishing feature about the man. He crept backwards slightly, ready to run if the cop came close enough to spot him.

The officer only stared down the alley, and Jack’s pulse began to rise. They had never taken this approach before, usually they would have come down to search the alley. Perhaps they felt this wasn’t the best idea, seeing as the last time they had done that and caught him Jack had accidentally broken the nose of one of them. Jack looked behind him, and was slightly relieved to see that the alley was blocked off from that direction, so no one would be trying to sneak up on him from behind.

Jack turned back to see that the officer had vanished, cruiser and all. This almost troubled him more. Jack crept out from behind the dumpster slowly, and walked toward the opening onto the street. No sign of any more police officers, no sign of anyone having noticed the cruiser had disappeared. He took a deep breath and tried to bring his pulse back down and act naturally. He slipped into the flow of foot traffic again, and within a half hour he had made it back to his camp.

Camp was a generous term, and Jack knew it. In one of the larger alleys in the city, he alongside a dozen or so more homeless had set up their own place to stay, as Los Trinitas wasn’t established to have its own homeless community or shelter like other cities were. Over time though, some of the more peaceful homeless people came to live here, the ones that just had a rough go of it, or in some cases like with Frank and Janet, just preferred the ease of living on the streets to trying to make their way through the corporate world.

Though most of them were in a similar situation, Jack tended to stray away from other people here, with his group consisting of only himself, Slath, Frank, and Janet. They had a pretty peaceful life. Their tent was nothing more than a bright blue tarp draped between two unused dumpsters, giving each of them about 4 feet horizontally to sleep. They had old blankets with moth holes and rips from them being forced to lay on the rough ground. A communal fire was burning in a metal trash can despite the heat of the desert noon, because once the sun goes down the temperature would drop dramatically and they weren’t always able to start another fire. Jack had been tasked with it more than once, and it was a frustrating experience every time, so they had agreed to leave the fire going.

Frank had been sleeping, though Jack didn’t understand how considering the heat, even in the shade of the two adjacent buildings, was sweltering. Jack kicked him awake and dropped a pastry on his face. “Lunch,” He said to the now yawning Frank. Jack threw packaged pastries on the sleeping spots of Slath and Janet, both of which seemed to have left the alley.

Jack sat down on his blanket, and opened up his pastry, eating it ravenously. The pastry was flaky and delicious, and his stomach growled hungrily for the food despite the food already travelling towards his gullet. In three massive bites the pastry disappeared, and he sorely wished he had eaten it slower. He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, and then asked Frank, “Where’s Slath?”

“Gone.” Frank said curtly, and continued to eat his pastry, clearly practicing more self control than Jack had given.

“Gone where?” Jack prompted, annoyed at the response but Jack knew that Frank wasn’t always entirely forthcoming with information when asked, a relic of Frank’s time in custody Jack had assumed. Frank had grizzly grey hair, and a long brown beard with streaks of grey leading towards the end. Jack could see the white flakes sprinkled throughout Frank’s hair, and his stomach churned slightly like it normally does. Jack was a relatively clean person despite his current living situation.

“Job hunting.”

Job hunting. Janet was one of the many homeless that had just had a difficult time trying to support herself, and was working hard to dig herself out of the hole that she was in. Frank, and to an extent Slath, were perfectly content with staying with this lifestyle. Slath was in many ways Jack’s caretaker, and it took years of convincing to get Slath to even halfheartedly attempt to look for a job. Jack was only recently 16 so he could potentially get a job, but unfortunately he was lacking on his documentation, like his birth certificate and his Social Security number.

Jack had no idea where this information would have been, as he had been living on the streets for as long as he could remember. And every time Jack stopped to consider it, he actually had no idea how he even came to live here, one day he had woken up in the park and shortly after he found Slath. He wasn’t able to remember his old life, his parents, friends. Nothing, like that information was just gone.

Knowing better than to press Frank for any more information, Jack spread out on his blanket looking up at the underside of the blue tarp. Despite Los Trinitas getting little rain and never getting any snow, it was prudent to make sure they were able to sleep with some comfort in knowing they wouldn’t get drenched.

Thunder rumbled overhead, and Jack went to look up at the sky. The sky was still a clear blue, but perhaps there were clouds outside of his line of sight. “Did you know it was going to rain today?” He asked Frank, and the old man snorted in response. “Yeah, I didn’t think it would either.” Jack finished, and stood up, walking to the mouth of the alley.

This was a quiet part of the city, or at least as quiet as it could be. There was still a large amount of people walking past, and cars drinking and honking, but for the most part it was peaceful here. Jack was content with his life at the very least, if not necessarily happy. He knew it could always be worse, though not by much. He was still healthy, he had a tarp over his head to sleep at night, and he was able to eat somewhat regularly.

Slath waved Jack down after emerging from behind two tired looking individuals who were discussing about an upcoming meeting. Slath was very tall, about a foot taller than Jack was, and was very thin. His short black hair was untidy as always, but his clothes were somewhat clean, as he must have had a job interview today. Slath helped take care of Jack over the years, but Slath wasn’t very considerate with informing Jack on what was happening.

“Ey Jack! You find food? I’m starving.” Slath said, clapping Jack on the shoulder and walking past him into the alley. Slath grabbed the pastry without Jack informing him about it and he ripped the plastic packaging apart with his teeth, eating it with less self control than even Jack had. “So good.” Slath said, his mouth full of pastry.

Jack laughed at this slightly, Slath always amusing him in some way. Despite their situation, Slath always seemed so optimistic about everything, like the odd piece of sweet bread every once in a while. Jack sat down next to Slath. “How was the interview?”

“You don’t know I was on an interview.” Slath said, jokingly offended.

“Well you’re wearing your clean shirt, so clearly you were doing an interview.”

“Yeah, I was.” Slath said, then looked down guiltily. “I didn’t wanna say anything, ‘cause I thought it was a for sure thing and I want to surprise you.”

Jack nodded. “And you didn’t get it?”

Slath shook his head, “No I didn’t.”

Jack shook Slath by his shoulder. “That’s fine, Slath, you’re doing your best.”

Slath acted like he didn’t hear Jack, and after a short pause he said, “Did you hear that thunder? Maybe we’ll get rain later.”

“Yeah, maybe. Where is Janet interviewing?” Jack asked him.

“Not sure if she’s interviewing but she’s applying at a few fast food chains around here, which would be great for us ‘cause that’s free food.”

“Because that worked out the first time.” Frank had interjected, finishing his pastry finally.

“Hey, at least she’s trying.” Jack said defending Janet. She was always nice to him, even when he was a kid. In Jack’s mind, Frank was always sort of the angry grandfather, Slath was the dad, Janet was the mom, or maybe an aunt, and Jack was the kid. This was their group, and despite their flaws, they were a family.

Frank stood up and threw away his pastry wrapper, and Jack saw white flakes float down to the ground and he felt the urge to vomit, but he suppressed it. “Frank you need a shower.”

“Not me.” Frank said, looking up at the sky.

Jack followed his gaze, leaning out from under the tarp. Dark grey clouds were quickly covering the sky, and with it, small flakes of snow fell down from the sky. The temperature started to drop, the once stifling day now cooling Jack to the bone.

He stood up and walked to the opening of the alleyway, and all of the civilians were stopped, looking up at the sky as well. It was August in the middle of the desert, snow shouldn’t even be possible right now. Jack went back to the tarp and stood near the fire, needing the warmth from it now. “Frank do you know what’s going on?”

Frank shook his head, still staring up at the sky. “No kid, I don’t. Lived here for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A bolt of lightning crossed the sky, going from cloud to cloud. Jack went and sat under the tarp again. The snow drifted down and melted on the ground, leaving small wet spots wherever the snow had landed. The dry ground had a pleasantly sweet smell to it, a smell that Jack often loved but wasn’t able to smell very often.

Thunder shook the nearby buildings, and the three of them sat with their backs against the wall. Jack hoped that Janet was somewhere safe, trusting that she would find shelter. The clouds overhead churned slightly, Jack assumed they were going in a circle but he wasn’t able to see where the focal point of it would have been. “How about a tornado?” He asked Frank.”

“Less than snow in August.” Frank said.

A flash of blue light lit up the now darkened alleyway, followed by a loud crack. Jack took a look out from under the tarp, and there was a portion of the building that had massive shards of ice protruding out of a single spot. The lightning struck again hitting a spot closer to them, the lightning a brilliant blue color, and more ice sprouted.

“Out!” Jack shouted at them, at everyone. “We need to get out!” He was met by looks of apathy from most of the homeless, and one even told him to shut up. He pointed up to the ice and inhaled to emphasize the point, but before he spoke, Jack was struck in the chest by a bolt of the blue lightning.

He went flying, and now the homeless who had just a moment ago disregarded him ran out of the alley, hoping they won’t be next. Jack’s head hit the metal dumpster hard and made his teeth vibrate, but he almost didn’t feel it. Cold was pouring into him from the lightning that was still arcing into his body, causing his body to start to go numb. Was this how dying felt? That must be it, he was struck by lightning and he was now dying. Perhaps if the lightning hadn’t killed him, hitting the dumpter would have done the trick.

Ice began to protrude from Jack’s chest where the bolt arced into him, and then the lightning stopped. His body was smoking, the cold air billowing down onto the ground and causing the wet spots from the snow to freeze into a layer of ice. Slath ran up to him and tried to get a response from Jack, but Jack wasn’t able to hear anything. Jack’s vision began to fade as Slath shouted at presumably Frank to get help, and Jack finally slipped into the nothingness he assumed was death.

 

 

Chapter Three:

The thunderclap woke Zack from his slumber. He sat up, his back aching, and he realizes that he was sitting on the floor in the kitchen. What was he doing here? He stood up and stretched, his back aching horribly from sleeping on the floor. He touched his chest and was startled to find a massive hold in his shirt.

Then he remembered the lightning.

Zack looked at the window and a large portion of the window had melted away, and the area surrounding that had cracked from the rain. Other than the window and the wall that he had broken with his body, Zack couldn’t see any other damage to the inside of the house. There was some sunlight coming from through the clouds, and Zack checks the analog clock hanging on the wall in the kitchen: 8:47. Zack’s heart dropped, he was late for school! Very late. He ran upstairs and grabbed some clean clothes and put them on in a hurry, leaving the ruined shirt in the trash. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked terrible, his usually darker skin was pale, and his dark eyes were surrounded by dark circles and the whites of his eyes looked irritated and red.

Part of him felt ill, so he tried to feel his forehead, but it felt fine to him, so he figured the flu was out of the question, he just looked terrible. He cleaned his face with a square of toilet paper and a small pump of hand soap, and after grabbing his grey book bag, ran out the front door and ran through the rain towards his school.

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Zack made it to school just in time for third period, slipping into class only a few minutes after everyone had been seated. He was drenched from the rain, and he assumed partly from sweat. He tried to smell himself and his nose protested at the odor of smoke that came from him, though he would prefer smoke over body odor.

He sat down and took his heavy textbook out of his backpack, A Brief Study of Study: A History of Historians. Mrs. Rimmons, a tall and frail looking woman with the temper of the storm outside, and his teacher for this class, called on Zack and asked him why he was late.

“Sorry miss, I woke up late.” He said to her, coming up with the closest answer to the truth.

“See to it that it doesn’t happen again, Mr. Jelani.” She said. “So as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, philosophers were also historians to an extent, and...”

“You’re steaming.”

Zack jumped, and looked around. The girl he sat next to, her red hair tied into a pony tail and her green eyes were hidden behind black framed glasses. Her name was Abbigale, Abbi to her friends.

“What Abbigale?” He asked her, not sure what she meant by him steaming.

“You’re literally steaming,” she whispered at him. “Look!”

Zack looked down at himself and gasped, the water that had been absorbed into his shirt and pants was rising out of his clothing, drying them. His heart began to beat rapidly and the steam came on faster and faster, and then Abbigale touched his arm and jolted back in surprise. “You’re burning up!”

“Is there a problem over there?” Mrs. Rimmons called over to them. Even from this distance, Zack could see her pupils dilating in anger, which he shouldn’t have been able to see from across the classroom like that. His could hear her swallow, and heard her lips separate, “Mr. Jelani, you skipped class yesterday and you have been in class for all of two minutes and you’re already causing a disturbance. One more and you will be in the principal’s office.”

“Yes ma’am, sorry ma’am.” He told her and he closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He needed to calm down. With the third breath, he could feel his body start to relax. He opened his eyes and saw that he was no longer steaming.

“Are you ok?” Abbigale asked him quietly.

“I think so, yeah.” He responded. “Thanks.”

She smiled at him slightly and turned back to the front.

Zack looked around. From his seat, he could see the wear on the cabinet doors from being opened so many times over the years, he could see the dark spots on the white board where the eraser couldn’t quite pick up all of the ink, and he could see the droplets of tea on Mrs. Rimmons’ mouth from when she took a drink.

He took a deep breath and concentrated on the smells. He could smell the smoke from his body, and also the sweat. The paper from the book was sullied by the ink from the printer. Abbigale wore a cantaloupe perfume, and he could smell her bar deodorant. The kid in front of him that he hadn’t met yet used a dandruff shampoo.

The saliva in his mouth was natural, but he could still taste the food particles that were in his mouth from the sandwich he had for dinner two nights ago. He felt sick to his stomach, his senses felt as though they had been sanded down and sharpened.

Then he remembered. “You skipped class yesterday.” But that wasn’t possible, it was Wednesday. He was sure of it, he couldn’t have been sleeping for two days. He was afraid of what her answer would be, but he asked Abbigale, “What day is it?”

“Thursday.” She said quickly when Mrs. Rimmons wasn’t watching.

Zack broke into a cold sweat and his heartbeat became wild. “Thursday? So I slept for two days?”

Abbigale looked at him, confused. “Is that why you missed yesterday?”

Zack nodded. He could smell smoke again, but it was a different smoke than what had been on his body. He looked down and saw that where his hands touched the desk they sank into the top layer of coating and began to smolder against the particle board beneath.

He pulled his hands off of the desk and saw the black marks from his fingers, then he raised his hand.

“What now?” Rimmons wasn’t pleased and he could hear it by the way her throat had constricted when she saw him.

“I’m actually not feeling very well still, may I go to the nurse?”

“Absolutely not!”

“But miss-”

“No, and that is final.”

Some of his classmates began to snicker and Zack tried to ignore them, but he couldn’t, and his pulse became faster still.

“He feels super hot, miss, maybe he should go?”

“Is that so, Ms. Reed?” Mrs. Rimmons came stomping around to Zack and pressed her hand against his head, and jumped back in surprise. Her pale thin fingers were blemished along the knuckles with fierce red marks. “Get out of my classroom.” She said, angrily.

“I can go?” Zack asked her, unsure.

“Go and don‘t come back if you are going to play tricks like that. I expected better from you, Mr. Jelani.” She said, and she stormed towards her lunch bag and pulled out the ice pack she had in there, pressing it to her hand. “Go!”

Zack got up hurriedly and stuffed his book in his bag quickly, hoping that the expensive textbook on loan from the school wouldn’t get ruined by his burning hot flesh. He saw that the plastic chair he had been sitting in was melted around where he had been sitting. He bent down and whispered, “Thank you Abbigale.”

“Abbi.”

He looked at her and smiled, then he ran out of the classroom door into the deserted hallway. His footsteps echoed through the halls, and he was able to hear the lessons being taught all the way up and down the hall. What was happening to him?

Zack was only vaguely aware of the fact that his clothing seemed somewhat immune to his burning flesh, more so than his desk was at the very least. He needed to get out of here. He walked through the front door, and his hands heated the cheap metal door lever to the point where they gave in slightly. He heard the school security guard shout at him and telling him to stop, but Zack just keeps walking until he reaches the main street, then he runs back home.

Back at home, Zack ran up to the bathroom, sure to not even brush against the walls or doorframes for fear of catching them on fire. He turned the shower on cold, and with all of his clothes on, he climbed in and sat down. The water poured over him and steamed dramatically. He could feel the fiberglass underneath him start to melt and give slightly, but the water was keeping it cold enough to not cause him to fall through.

His heart was still racing and he told himself to breathe, to count to ten, to do anything that will help him calm down. After five minutes he was still steaming, but less than he was, some of the water that touched him able to pour down into the drain.

Relax, Zack. Just relax. Everything will be fine if you can get it together. This thought felt weird, foreign to him. He had enough to deal with right now, perhaps this was just his stress manifesting psychologically for him.

Fifteen minutes later, Zack was no longer steaming, his clothes were damp and sticking to his body. He felt so cold now, the cold water chilling him to the core. He turned the water off and stepped out of the shower, closing the sliding door behind him. He looked at himself in the mirror just like he had done earlier. His complexion was a little darker again, some of his natural color returning. The rings around his eyes were still there, but they had gone away somewhat.

“What is happening to me?” Zack asked himself again, not expecting an answer, and predictably not getting one. Things like this just didn’t happen, not in real life, maybe in fantasy books he’s read, but not to real people in the real world. He got into pajamas and climbed into his bed, the comforting cushions helping him relax. His thoughts about what had happened in his very short day ringing in his ears, Rimmons’ berating of him, him burning the desk, melting the door. All of it came from the lightning from last night. No, not last night, two nights ago, he even lost a full day because of it. The only upside of this came from him finding a friend in Abbi, however slight that friendship might be.

“Tomorrow will be better.” He told himself. “Tomorrow will be better. It has to be.”

*

Zack’s day was in fact better. Rimmons’ had found him in the hallway before the school day began, she found him in the library, and she ended up apologizing for her reaction to him yesterday, and Zack apologized for being late again. Now that they apologized, Zack was welcomed back into her class. Abbi asked him if he was feeling any better, and Zack honestly said that he was.

Maybe it was his attitude today, but he didn’t have any issues regarding him burning anything, or causing any issues or embarrassment for himself. He had woken up yesterday stressed and upset from the lightning incident, and perhaps that started the day off on the wrong foot.

Zack went to all of his classes, and he was excited for this school year. He was taking good classes, woodshop, physics, chemistry, literature, and Rimmons’ class, history. His math class today was cancelled, instead there was an assembly at the end of the school day, since it was the Friday of the first full week of the school year.

He sat at the edge of the bleachers, sitting against the metal railing that helped ensure that no one would fall over the edge. The gymnasium was illuminated by dome shaped industrial lights hanging from the ceiling. The center of the floor had the cartoon design of the school mascot, Victor Viper, surrounded by a green circle. The paint used for the design was old and faded, from here Zack could even see that some of the outlines were completely worn away.

The gymnasium filled up slowly with students, and Zack saw Abbi down below. He was tempted to wave to her, but he didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, or feel embarrassed if she didn’t see him or wave back. Thankfully he had picked a good spot, because very few people sat near him which is what he preferred largely, disliking being around most people. He was already uncomfortable because of the cacophony of noises from all of the other students, 200 of them in total.

Once all of the students had been seated, Coach Parson, the principal, picked up an old corded microphone and walked on top of the visage of Victor Viper. Zack could see the many years worth of duct tape over various parts of the microphone cable from where he sat.

“Attention everyone! Thank you all for coming, and welcome to the new school year!” Coach Parson was full of energy, and Zack was surprised to hear that it was genuine excitement, and Zack had to admit that it was somewhat infectious. Parson waited for the halfhearted applause to end before he continued onto the rest of his speech. “We scored a lot in last years competition with the other schools in the region, and if we are ready to take the championship next year we need to do more training, everyone does because we are all a team.”

Zack ignored most of it at this point. Coach Parson was originally the basketball coach at the school, hence his preferred title, and once the previous principal had retired, Parson took over. Zack felt like he did an acceptable job as principal, if he was very hands off in his approach. The most he seemed to do was try to excite the students by comparing everything they were doing to a football game. This is part of the reason Zack generally disliked his principal, coaching basketball games was not the same as running an education center.

“And now, everyone give a hand to our motivational speaker, Mr.-” Zack wasn’t able to understand what Parson had said. Mr. Who? It was almost like the microphone distorted the name, but Zack was the only one who seemed to have noticed this.

The mystery man walked to Coach Parson and accepted the microphone graciously. Zack could see the grey suit that the man wore had threads of silver thread running through the fabric, a strange and seemingly expensive choice. This was probably a businessman of some sort. He had no hair, none on his scalp and none on his face, not even any eyebrows. His skin was bright white, the color of printer paper. This gave him a sickly, almost ethereal glow.

“Every day our people are faced with challenges and adversity, but this can be overcome by trusting your compatriots.” Zack noticed that the words the man was saying weren’t matching his lip movement. “True strength comes from within your heart, and what makes you who you are.” The man turned to look directly at Zack, and only now did Zack see that the man’s eyes were reflective silver, and seemingly pierced into Zack’s soul.

“Let’s have a great school year!” The man said suddenly, and Zack had the suspicion that he had mentally jumped ahead in time after the man stared at him, but everyone around him had heard a beautiful speech presumably, based on the applause at any rate. The man gave him a really bad feeling and he knew that he needed to get out of here, and fast.

The students rose and began to leave, walking through the doors back through the hallways. Zack wanted to take the fastest route out, and he jumped over the railing and landed on the ground with a hard thud, his ankle hurting from the impact.

He approached the side door that opened to the track field, and before he was able to push it open, the silver man’s arm grabbed his and stopped him in his place.

“They are coming for you, Zakariyyah Jelani, the Followers.” His voice was intimidating, though it was still as monotone as it was when he was speaking to everyone.

“Who are you?” Zack asked the man, trying to pull his arm away.

“North is where you need to go, little Red, your home awaits.” The man stared directly into Zack’s eyes, and Zack could see a reflected image of a castle in the man’s silver irises. The man blew silver smoke into Zack’s face and then disappeared into the same smoke, and Zack was almost more afraid about this than of the man confronting him. His fear caused something to be unlocked within him, and he pushed the doors open hard. He didn’t notice that his hands were engulfed in vivid red smoke, and the metal on the door began to burn, despite there not being any fuel for it.

Zack ran away and he heard the siren of the fire department. He turned around and saw his school, going up in flames. A strong suspicion grew in his chest, and he looked down at his hands. They were engulfed in what appeared to be red smoke, at some points it looked like fire. His heart plummeted. He was responsible for this. The Silver Man was responsible for this he knew, at least indirectly. Zack shed a tear and he prayed that everyone escaped in time.

He knew  he would pay for what had happened in some way, and Zack wasn’t looking forward to facing the consequences of this. And he knew that no one would believe him about the silver nameless man who evaporated into smoke.

Zack made his way home, acting as natural as he could, and in his preoccupation he didn’t notice the green robed figure following him.

 

 

Chapter Four:

            A pleasantly warm rag was pressed against Jack’s forehead, a few drops of water running down his temples and around his head where they collected into his hair. His eyes were still closed, and he was wondering if he was still dreaming. But no, he couldn’t have been. His body was too stiff, his back aching from the hard ground beneath him. The sounds of the city were amplified to him, and Jack considered that it was early in the day, rush hour. Jack’s eyes opened and he immediately shut them, the light from the sky practically blinding him. He covered his eyes and sat up, opening his eyes slowly to help adjust them to the light. As he sat up he kicked off the

            Arms wrapped around him and there was a small squeal, “Oh thank God!” Janet said, her voice cracking slightly. “I thought you wouldn’t wake up!”

            Jack looked at her, his vision still slightly blurry. She was kneeling next to him, her skirt caked with dirt. She was young, maybe five or so years older than Slath who was in his early twenties. Her face was very thin, as she had told Jack this was just how she had looked. Her eyes were a dark brown and kind. Her curly black hair was tied behind her head in a bun.

            Though he noticed more about her in this moment than he ever had: She had a very faint scar on her chin. She had a small freckle underneath her left eye, but otherwise there were none. Jack could see some spots where she had worn makeup for her job interviews where she didn’t quite clean well enough to get it off.

            Jack put an arm around her and hugged her back, “I’m ok, Janet. What happened?”

            She shook her head and pulled away. “I don’t know what happened, Slath wouldn’t give me a straight answer and you know how Frank is, but I was coming back from my job hunting and I found a really nice place to work, you know I thought we really made a connection and it’s not that far-“

            “Janet.” Jack interrupted her kindly, knowing that sometimes she needed a guiding hand to keep on topic.

            “Right.” Her cheeks turned red slightly, then she continued. “Anyways when I got back after that snow storm, Slath was panicking and saying that he needed to go get help, and Frank was looking after you but they wouldn’t tell me more than you got struck by lightning.”

            Jack remembered now. The lightning came from nowhere, and the snow. The snow seemed to have been connected.
            “But Jack, you were- you were covered in ice!” She told him, her voice cracking in the middle of the sentence.

            “I what?” Jack looked down at himself. There was a large hole torn into the chest of his shirt, but his skin was fine. Looking at his arms and legs they seemed intact as well.

            “It was like you were making the ice, you had so much frost on you and you had this, I dunno, this chunk of ice coming from your chest, that’s what the hole is there from it tore through your shirt.” Janet had big tears streaming down her face, but Jack could see in her smile that they were tears of relief.

            He glanced around and saw that the alleyway was completely empty other than them. This never happened, not even when the police came by to try to shuffle all of them somewhere else. “Where is everyone?”

            “After the lightning everyone ran away, except for Frank and Slath. Frank told me that they were saying something about the lightning being blue and one even said that the end times were coming but that’s not likely, I mean blue lightning? It’s unlikely enough that it came through the buildings and hit you and nothing else.” Janet smiled at him and Jack uneasily smiled back. He stood up slowly, and saw that he was laying on top of Slath’s blanket, and he had kicked off his own and Frank’s. They had given their to him. Jack looked down around where he had been lying, and he was surprised to see a circle of ice on the ground. Even though the alley had shade most of the day, it was far too warm for ice to from on the ground.

            The fire was still going despite the residents of the alley having left, Frank must have been in charge of keeping it going. There was a bucket of water on a new, second can with a lid, next to the flames to make sure the water warmed. An inefficient solution, but it worked based on the warm rag that was on his head.

            Wait, where was Frank? Janet didn’t actually explain where he had went. “Where’s Frank?” Jack asked her.

            “He’s… He’s meeting up with some old acquaintances.” Janet said hesitantly, which for her was abnormal.

            “Acquaintances? You can’t mean he’s meeting up with his old cell mates.”

            “It’s for you. Frank had told me a few months ago that he had wanted nothing to do with them ever again, they were the reason he had been locked up after all. But he knew that they would probably have medicine and medical supplies for you while Slath went to look for someone to be able to help.” Janet defended.

            “There’s no way we can reach them is there? I mean, I’m up now so there’s nothing for them to worry about.” Jack didn’t want them fussing over him in general, much less if there was no reason for them to.

            “I don’t think so, but they said they would be back within a few hours and they left about an hour ago.”

            Jack nodded. “Okay. Have you eaten anything today? I’m sure the pastry I got for you yesterday wasn’t enough.”

            “Yesterday? Oh, Jack, you’ve been asleep for three days, I didn’t tell you? This is probably the third trip they’ve taken, Slath has gotten a couple of leads from actual healthcare people, I couldn’t tell you how considering he doesn’t have any money that we know about, and Frank got some leads on where to find his friends, and managed to find the metal bucket. You know most of them are plastic right? That clearly wouldn’t work…” She trailed off, seeing the expression on Jack’s face.

            He was out for three days? That wasn’t right. Maybe Janet had just fallen asleep while she was watching him and now she thinks that more time has passed than what actually happened. He needed to find Slath, and get a straight answer from him.

            “Sweetie, you worried us so much.” Janet said sincerely, she touched his hand then jumped back. “Oh, God you’re still freezing!”

            Jack looked at his hand and inspected it. His skin looked fine, and felt fine, he even touched his body with the cold fingers to make sure but they felt warm to him. He was ready to dismiss this as a circulation issue, but then he saw whisps of blue smoke trailing from his fingers, so faint that he wouldn’t have even noticed it had his vision not improved somehow.

            His ears perked up slightly, and he tried to listen through the traffic. There was a specific rhythm, almost like heavy set footsteps running in their direction, growing louder and louder. It got closer and Zack was about to hear the labored breathing accompanying the steps.

            Frank appeared at the mouth of the alley, and he stumbled towards them against the wall, using it for support. He was bright red and sweating profusely from the exertion.

            Jack ran to him and supported Frank towards his sleeping spot, “What happened?”

            “Slath- trouble- Sunrise- park.” Frank managed to get out through his gasps for air.

            “Slath is in trouble?” Jack asked, not sure he understood.

            Frank nodded. “Saw him there, bunch of guys following him.”

            “Keep an eye on him.” Jack told Janet and he ran out of the alley towards Sunrise park. It was a fifteen minute walk, perhaps a five minute run if running the whole time. Jack ran as fast as he could, running through traffic every time that he needed to cross, not waiting for the crosswalks like he normally did. The horns of the vehicles set his teeth on edge, so much louder to him now than they used to be.

            His shoes made a rhythmic clapping sound against the sidewalks, an almost hypnotic sound to him. The air felt fresh, fresher than the alley. It filled his lungs and he gulped it up greedily, though he came to realize about halfway to the park that he wasn’t breathing hard from exertion. Typically when doing this run at a more casual pace he was sweating and breathing hard, but now he was only sweating from the heat of the day.

            Despite his concern for Slath, Jack felt almost more alive than he had been before the lightning. The day was more real to him now, thinking back on the days before made him feel like his past had a veneer over his senses.

            The park stood ahead, the bright green of the grass and trees a stark contrast to the white sand pits that children often liked to bury each other in. The park extended far into the city with many hills and pathways surrounded by trees, and was even habitable to some wildlife, squirrels and pigeons predominantly.

            Jack looked for any signs of Slath, and after a few minutes he was afraid that Slath was gone, but he finally heard them, Slath’s voice barely indistinguishable against the voices of the children in the park and the traffic blaring nearby. He wasn’t able to understand what Slath was saying, but he sounded panicked. Jack turned his head back and forth, trying to determine the direction, and once he had an idea on where it was coming from, he ran towards them.

            Slath was cornered, back pressed up against a tree, and there were three figures surrounding him from each side he could escape through. They wore identical jeans, the dark blue fabric wearing down in different places. They each wore vests in very bright colors, one in red, one in blue, and the third in a brilliant yellow. Their shirts must have been custom, because they had white hoods up and covering their heads, but otherwise looked like typical t-shirts. Or they would have been, if not for the single long sleeve on the right hand side.

            The yellow appeared to have a knife and was holding it towards Slath. Jack could see from his position fifty feet away behind a bush, that the blade of the knife was tinted yellow as well. Jack could see what almost appeared to be yellow smoke coming from the knife, and he was reminded of the blue smoke that had been coming off of his own hands earlier.

            “You’re done runnin’, where’s the Blue!” The man in yellow said to Slath, holding the knife closer to him.

            “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” He said in response, eyes wide and fixated on the knife.

            “He doesn’ know what we’re talkin’ bout.” The man in blue had said with a laugh. “That why you ran off when you saw us?”

            “I wasn’t runnin’ from you, I’m tryin’ to help a friend.” Slath was sweating, and he was speaking faster than he normally would.

            “Look me in the eye, White.” The woman in red said to him in a slow and calculating voice. This confused Jack, thinking it was a racial situation, but then Jack realized that all of them were white, so they must have meant something else.

            Shaking, Slath turned to look the woman in the eye, and his gaze became glossy. She began speaking to him, but Jack wasn’t able to understand anything she was saying despite hearing her clearly, like she was speaking in a different language. She held her finger in the air and with the red light now coming from her finger tip, drew a symbol in the air that looked like an urn or a vase, the light now dissipating. The symbol evaporated into smoke and drifted towards Slath and entered through his nose.

            Jack was fixated by what was happening, was he witnessing magic? It must be, Slath looked as though he was under a charm. Slath groaned, and they asked him again where the “Blue” was, whatever that meant. Slath shook his head, and then the man in blue punched Slath in the face, and Jack could hear the cartilage in his nose breaking. Slath collapsed, and writhed in pain slightly, but he was still too dazed to really do anything.

            “You fool!” The woman in red shouted at the man, and she began to yell at him, but Jack wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. He stood up and walked towards them, grabbing the man in blue from behind, wrapping his arms around the man’s neck. This was the b*****d that hit Slath, and Jack was going to make him pay. The man in yellow was startled, and shouted, “It’s the Blue, get him!” He held the knife in an icepick grip, and growled, “Stop messing with him Smith and grab him!”

            Smith must have been the man gasping for air against Jack’s arm. Jack squeezed hard, blocking off more of the airflow. Jack didn’t want to kill him, but he knew if he held on long enough the man would pass out. The woman in red shouted something that Jack didn’t understand, and he was blasted back from the man in blue, who he now knew was Smith.

            Jack fell on his back, and very quickly the woman in red sat on his chest, holding him down. Jack tried to push her off but was unable to do so, she weighed more than he had expected her to. The man in yellow knelt by Jack’s face and held up the yellow tinted knife. “So, you’re the Blue. You don’t seem that strong.”

            “What the hell are you talking about?” The woman held Jack’s right wrist, and the man in blue, Smith, held Jack’s left with his foot.

            “Your services are required by our master.” The man said. His breath smelled of old fish, and now that he was so close Jack could see his face, a ragged beard along his scarred face.

            Jack spit up at the man, some of it landed on the man’s cheek but the rest fell back and landed on Jack’s face. He spluttered, and then pulled again against those holding him down. “I don’t know who your master is, and even if I did this isn’t the right way of recruiting someone.” Jack spoke more calmly than he felt, and he wasn’t speaking very calmly. His eyes were now fixated on the knife as the man held if point down over Jack’s nose.

            The knife pressed against Jack’s nose, but the edge of the blade was off to the side. “You’re right, where are our manners?” The man said, nodding to the man in blue. “Kill the White.”

            Smith’s face contorted into a gross twisted smile that chilled Jack to the core. “Say no more.” And he let go of Jack’s hand, then pulled his own knife, the edge of this one was a cool blue. He picked up Slath and Jack closed his eyes, then shouted.

            A torrent of blue light exploded from Jack, blinding him even through his eye lids. The woman in red was blown skyward, and the man in yellow staggered away. Jack was now free. He stood up, and saw the woman fall towards the ground, and she fell slowly with red smoke coming from her fingertips, almost like a rocket slowing her down.

            The man in blue’s knife was blown from his hand, and Jack went after him. Slath was still dazed, but he was safe so Jack left him be. Jack punched the man in the back of the head when he knelt down to grab his weapon, and he fell forward now from the impact. Jack’s fist was now engulfed in blue smoke, and he punched the man again, but at this point the man was cowering on the ground.

            Jack stood up and turned to face the other two, the woman in red only stood off to the side, her hand touching her chin, almost as if she was thinking. The man in yellow’s hands were now coated in what appeared to be yellow flames, and the earth around him was churning slightly. The man lunged at Jack, and without thinking, Jack leaped back and tumbled over the blue man who was trying to stand up.

            The man in Yellow grabbed his knife and plunged it towards Jack, who dodged the weapon by rolling to the side. Then he struck again, then again, the knife plunging into the dirt beneath him. Panicking, Jack grabbed the arm of the blue man and pulled it in front of him, and Jack was sickened by the sight of the blade passing into the man’s flesh. The man in yellow let go of the knife and stood back. Jack scrambled up as well, and took position away from Smith. Smith stared at the knife then screamed, as grey stone emanated from the point of the knife and engulfed his body slowly, turning him into a statue frozen in horror. Jack knew that the man wasn’t only covered in stone, but had physically turned into stone. The droplets of what was blood still fell for a moment, but had turned into drops of silvery metal.

            The man in yellow stared at Jack with hatred, and Jack stood firm. In the man’s hand formed a spear of what appeared to be yellow light, and threw it at Jack. Jack tried to avoid it by ducking, but in his haste he fell over. The man threw light after light at Jack, until finally one struck true. It pierced Jack’s calf, and Jack yelled in pain. He looked down at his leg and was horrified to see the light sticking out of his leg, the entrance wound now turning slowly into stone.

            Grab it!

            Jack grabbed the shaft of light, and it immediately turned from brilliant yellow to vivid blue. He pulled it from his leg, gritting at the pain, and without standing up, Jack threw it at the man in yellow. It struck the man in the chest. He would have moved, but he was too startled by the turn of events. Ice started to spread from the light in the man’s chest, located directly in the center of his sternum too close to his heart. The man fell to his knees and cried. Slowly, his body began to turn into translucent ice crystals, until there was nothing left other than a frozen ice sculpture wearing yellow clothes.

            Jack stood up slowly and searched for the woman in red, but she had completely vanished. Where would she have gone? Jack walked towards the man slowly, limping because of the wound in his leg. The look of sadness on the man’s face filled Jack with immense guilt. He had just killed a man. It was self-defense, yes, but he had taken a life.

            Slath stood up slowly, his trance now over. “Jack? Oh God, Jack!” He ran towards his friend and hugged him. “You’re okay!”

            “Yeah, I’m ok.” Jack said quietly, eyes fixated at the statue.

            Slath looked at Jack’s handiwork, and also saw the stone statue a few feet away, the yellow knife still in the stone arm. Slath walked over to it and wrapped his hand in a tatter from his shirt, and grabbed the handle of the knife.

            Jack wasn’t truly paying attention to this, but he knew what was happening to some extent. “Come on, Jack.” Slath said, pulling Jack’s arm. Jack stepped on his bad leg and gasped in pain, and then Slath saw the opening in his leg. “Right. Let’s get you back and I’ll patch you up.” Slath said, pulling Jack’s arm over his shoulder and helping him walk back to the alley.

            “I killed someone.”

            “And you saved me. You fought back and you saved my life. I wasn’t gonna tell them where you were.”

            “So they were looking for me?” Jack inquired, wincing in pain as his leg throbbed. The adrenaline in his system must have blocked some of the pain.

            “I’ll explain more later.” Slath said.

            “What about them?”

            Slath smiled and laughed shortly, “They’ll be fine. People will think it’s an art thing.”

 

 

Chapter Five:

            The shower was running again, and Zack became aware of the fact his life seems to be revolved around this torrent of water now, because it helped to keep him from burning anything. His heartrate had gone down, and he was no longer immediately boiling the water when it touched him, On the way inside he had crushed the doorknob, the metal melting in his hands, and the carpet leading up smelled of burning plastic now. His mother was going to be furious.

            His backpack was untouched, at being until he took it off and the top handle began to burn. Anything directly connected to him seemed to be impervious to the burning for some reason. He was grateful for this, his clothes being very important to keep intact, but it was intriguing to him.

            He let the water pour over his face. What would happen now? Zack didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He wasn’t sure if anyone knew or even suspected that the fire at the school was connected to him Even if they saw him, what would they say? His hands were glowing red and his touch set fire to aluminum? It was outlandish, even to Zack who was living in this nightmare.

            Zack inspected his hands. They were pristine, aside from the ragged nails that became the victims of his boredom. But there was no sign of the red smoke on his hands anymore. The silver man caused this, he was confident of it. But just as the authorities would have difficulty believing that Zack caused a fire with his bare hands, they would have an even harder time believing that Zack’s magic fire hands were caused by a man in a silver suit who disappeared into smoke.

            People were going to start asking questions, he knew. Perhaps whatever magic the Silver Man had cast on Zack, he had cast on everyone to help cover Zack’s identity, but he had no way of knowing. Even if that were the case, what if Zack was asked about it? He was an awful liar, and he knew it. What was the penalty for arson in this province?

            Zack turned the water off and stepped out. He looked at himself in the mirror for the third time. His clothes were soaked, and he looked miserable.

            If I focus, maybe I can dry my clothes. Zack thought to himself. He closed his eyes and thought about how he would call on the red smoke. How was it being brought up anyways? He was upset every time it happened, stressed and tired. He tapped into that feeling, the feeling of being drained, of feeling miserable. He opened his eyes, and nothing happened.

            “Okay, not that.” He said out loud to himself. “What about pain?” Zack grabbed a pair of sharp pointed tweezers off of the countertop, and taking a deep breath, he jabbed them into his hand as hard as he could will himself to do. Blood started oozing out of his hand slightly, it was a small prick. But it did the trick, red smoke began to flow from his fingertips. He tried to capture that feeling he had when he felt the pain, the flutter in the chest, the cold sweat, but there was something else. The relinquishing of the control that he wasn’t even aware he was maintaining. With this, now he knew, at least in some way, to tap into his newfound power. He released some of his control again, and his clothes began to steam, and in a matter of seconds he was completely dry. He smiled to himself. With some concentration, he pulled back and regained control of himself. Maybe he could do more than commit crimes and dry his clothes with this.

            He pressed a ball of toilet paper to the cut on his hand and he went into his bedroom and sat on the bed. What was he going to do?

            He was going to leave.

            It wasn’t what he wanted to do, but part of him deep down felt like he had needed to. If he stayed, then he could possibly be locked up. But what the Silver Man said had struck a chord with him: “North is where you need to go, little Red, your home awaits.” What could he have meant by that? North is where you need to go, that was easy enough to parse out, but it was troublesome considering that Zack already lived very far North as it was. The main thing that stuck out to Zack was, “Your home awaits.” Last he knew, this was his home. But it only confirmed something he had long suspected: This was no longer his home, and he had felt that way for years now.

            This was the perfect excuse for him. He went into his mother’s room, so rarely used that even the bed sheets were dusty, and he pulled a duffle bag out of the closet. He shoved several shirts and a change of pants into it, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a roll of toilet paper. Taking a look around the room, he considered what else he could take. He loved his books, but they were too heavy. He grabbed a notebook though, and a pen. Perhaps he won’t need them from now on but he appreciated having them. Zack crouched down and pulled a small picture frame from under his bed, in it was a photo of himself as a small child, couldn’t be more than a year old at this point, in the arms of his mother. Her smile was sweet and loving, and her wavy brown hair cascaded down her shoulders. Next to her was a tall man, his bald head shiny in the light of the sun. Through the narrow pair of glasses that the man wore, kind brown eyes could be seen, peeking out at the world. Zack’s parents. His mother was the one he was familiar with, and grew used to the looks he would get from other kids whenever she had gone to school functions as a kid, because he was so much darker than she was. He knew he got his looks from his father, and the resemblance was definitely there, though his skin was lighter than his dads, and Zack still grew his hair out, and he was currently missing the glasses.

            He stashed it into his bag and zipped it up. That was it. He could pay for anything else he needed when he was gone. He had some money from the summer, plus allowances from his mom for keeping the house clean and maintained. In the kitchen, Zack grabbed the stash of money from underneath the sink that his mother thought he didn’t know about. It was about $300, but it felt like a fortune to him now.

            A loud crack rang through the house, and Zack’s heart leapt. It wasn’t a lightning strike, the sound was too hollow. Growing up in Ville de Voyage made one very familiar with thunder. Green light flashed against the window, blinding him. He crouched down behind the kitchen sink and peeked up slowly. He saw a green robed figure standing outside of the house, holding what appeared to be a tree branch. The figure held the branch with both hands. Because of the hood covering part of their face, Zack had no idea what they looked like. A blast of green energy shot out of the top of the branch and flew towards the house, but erupted as a faint wall of red appeared in its way.

            The house is warded. Zack thought to himself, then he paused. He wasn’t sure how the word had appeared in his head, but he knew it was true, if a ward is a protection over a person or a place, then what he saw was definitely a ward.

            There was another blast of energy, and Zack came to the realization that this was a similar type of power to the one that he now wielded. Some envy crept into his mind, but he pushed it away. Whoever this was, he assumed that they were a threat to him. Perhaps if Zack could make them believe he had left, they would leave him alone.

            Zack crouch walked to the basement stairs. He wasn’t a fan of going down there, but he felt this was a necessity right now. He went through the door and closed it behind him softly, and as soon as the latch clicked into place, he heard a shattering sound, like a ball of glass had just erupted, and he knew that the ward had just broken.

            He ran down the stairs as fast as he could while being as quiet as he could, and came to the concrete flooring. There was a small window leading outside, and it cast a little bit of light down in the basement. Dozens of years’ worth of old furniture met his eye, almost all of them covered in white sheets to keep them from getting dusty. A bookshelf was against the wall, and he was greeted with his mom’s old personal library, which was full of old romance novels with questionable titles, many having to do with lust and heat.

            Zack crouched down and tried to listen to his environment. He heard the front door blow off of the hinges with a sharp pop. It fell to the ground inside the house, and Zack heard the footsteps of the intruder do a cursory walkaround. He was certain the stranger had seen his burned footprints on the ground, but luckily there was nothing tying him to being in the basement.

            The stranger took to the stairs, and on the stair that always gave Zack trouble, the figure slipped and shouted in surprise. The shout was hard to place, somewhat familiar to him but still strange. They climbed up further, and Zack heard the soft creaks of wood behind him. Turning, expecting it to be another intruder, Zack held up his hands and red smoke came from them. But no, the bookshelf he had been standing next to swung open to reveal a hidden room. The trick stair must have been the switch to opening this door.

            Zack slipped inside and closed the door behind him as softly as he could. He turned to see what appeared to be a laboratory of some sort. There were vials and beakers full of mysterious liquids, plants of all varieties, most of which Zack was unfamiliar with, and large ancient looking tomes. The felt larger than the entire first floor combined, but somehow Zack had no idea that this was here.

            He walked and saw vials with cork toppers on them and picked one up. Liquid Explosion. While the name confused him, he took it and stashed it in his backpack anyways. He looked at the books along the bookshelf, and they were unlike any he had ever seen before. The old leather was cracked and frayed along the spines, and the embossed lettering was a brilliant gold, and Zack could only assume that it was in fact real gold. They seemed to glitter in the faint light in the hidden room. Some of them had unintelligible titles to Zack, some had a series of pictures in lieu of letters, and some were in the romance languages so they were at least recognizable to him. Highlights of the ones he could understand were: From Ma’at to Yggdrasil: A Guide to the Realms of the Nexus, Flame Friendly Flora and Fauna of the Nexus, and finally, Hidden Mysteries of the Flames.

            Flames and the Nexus. These were terms that Zack wasn’t familiar with, but he knew deep down that they were important. He pulled these three books off of the shelf and shoved them into his duffle bag, even though they are massive. Perhaps they held answers to the ever increasing number of questions that he had.

            His eye was also drawn to an ornate mirror, the silver metal reflecting the limited light of the room but there was also something else in the image it projected, but Zack wasn’t able to make it out. He put it in his bag as well.

            Zack knew that the intruder wouldn’t be able to find him in this room, partly due to if the bookshelf had opened Zack could easily close it afterwards. He sat and waited for what felt like an hour, listening to the sounds of bubbling and churning from some of the more volatile looking vials. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since the sounds of the intruder leaving had blessed his ears.

            He began to smell smoke. Something upstairs was burning and the smoke had made its way into the hidden room. Zack stood up and opened the door slightly. Thick smoke had coalesced at the top of the basement ceiling, and Zack knew that the stranger had to have set fire to the house, perhaps to flush him out, perhaps to destroy any evidence of what had transpired there.

            Zack covered his face with his shirt, knowing that inhaling smoke would be a big concern, and he ran upstairs. He needed to get out, left unattended the fire could cause the house to crumble in on top of itself. The kitchen was aflame, and Zack could see the various woods for the cabinets burn and curl in the fire. The laminate flooring was beginning to melt, and the plastic was sticky under his feet.

            He was only vaguely aware of the fact that he wasn’t being burned by the flames, and he ran out of the still broken front door. Now that he was outside and away from the roaring flames, Zack could hear the sirens of the fire department in the distance. With his goal in mind, no matter how foolish it may be, Zack walked away from the home he had been born to, and towards his new home. But his first stop was the bus station.

 

 

Chapter Six:

            The taste of the cloth in Jack’s mouth was horrid, the boiling had done little to remove the actual grime in the fabric. He clenched it between his teeth and held onto the blanket below him in pain. Feeling the makeshift forceps enter the flesh in his leg filled his chest with unimaginable pressure, the anxiety close to boiling over inside of him. He was on his back, looking up at the cloudless blue sky, bordered by brick walls on either side in the alleyway.

            Slath was kneeling on Jack’s right leg, the leg that had been injured in his fight with the hooded figures. Jack couldn’t look down at it, but the image of the grey stone taking over his leg still haunted him when his eyes closed. Slath was pulling out the chunks of stone that used to be his leg, and the shards that had grown as well.

            Jack yelled into the rag as Slath pulled out a longer shard of stone. He could almost feel it pull at the muscles in his leg. “Alright Jack, one more, take a deep breath.”

            Jack did as he was told and nodded, waiting. He yelled again so he wouldn’t have to hear what was happening, and the pain flared in his leg. He wiped a tear from his eyes, and tried to sit up, but Slath pushed him back down. “Stay down until I clean it up, there’s still a lot of bleedin’.” Jack did look up though, and he saw the mess that was his leg, and he looked away immediately. There was a small fire next to him now, that Frank had set up using the main fire to start it with. There was a kettle of boiling water inside of it, water that was pulled from water bottles stolen from a nearby convenience store so that it would be clean.

            Slath grabbed the kettle with a rag over his fingers and checked the water. Jack could see the steam rising from it, and he knew that the water must be boiling. Slath held the kettle over Jack’s leg, and Jack began to panic. “Slath what the hell are you doing?” With a look from Slath, Jack became still but he was breathing heavily. Slath poured the water onto Jack’s wound, and in anticipation of pain Jack had sworn as loud as he could, but the pain was dull. He looked down and saw the water slowly cascading over his leg, and didn’t feel much more than some warmth. The only pain he was feeling was from the nerves in his exposed flesh being stimulated by the water.

            “What the hell?” Jack breathed, and he fell backwards, hitting his head on the ground harder than he would have liked.

            Janet came up to him after coming into the alley, and she handed Jack a roll of bandages. Slath accepted them for Jack and told her that they would need antiseptic ointment for the wound, or better yet, spray. Janet accepted her new task and left, leaving Jack and Slath alone again.

            “Okay, now that she’s gone we can talk.” Slath said, pouring some more water into Jack’s wound.

            “Slath, what the hell?” Jack was almost yelling, wanting some answers as to what was happening to him.

            Slath took a deep breath and lifted Jack’s leg up onto an old stool that someone had thrown away recently. “Well, I don’t know how to explain this, or even where to start.” He said, speaking in a slower, more deliberate way that Jack wasn’t used to from his friend. “Those men are what are called Followers of Arkotos. They must have known about the lightning and had come to find you.”

            “What was the lightning?” Jack asked him, clutching onto what he felt was most pressing to him at the moment.

            “I don’t know.” Slath said simply.

            “You don’t know. Okay fine, what do you think it is?”

            Slath looked at Jack. “Listen, I’m not an expert in this, my brother would be a good person to talk to but I’m pretty far removed from this. But basically you have this power in you, something called Flame. The Followers also have Flame, different types. Your Flame, the Blue Flame, governs water and ice. That’s why that one had… Well, that. That’s why the water didn’t scald you either, you get some protection from water. It’s not perfect but it’s good for sterilizing.”

            “So I have something called a Flame, that controls ice. That makes sense, right. Okay. And why didn’t I have this Flame sooner?” Jack had to bite back a laugh, this felt so outrageous to him.

            “It’s not real fire, or like, I dunno. I’m not the right person to ask. I don’t have Flame at all, not useable Flame at least. They call people like me Whites. My brother is a Red, that Flame controls fire and heat.”

            Jack smiled, “And what, Yellow Flame is for rocks?” Nodding to his leg.

            “Basically. The last one is Green for Air.” Jack hadn’t been expecting this answer but wasn’t surprised by the response. Slath knelt down in front of Jack. “Listen, I don’t know what you want from me. I don’t know a whole lot more than that, but what I do know is that that Red got away and she saw you. They know you now, and they know you live somewhere in this city.”

            “What are you trying to say?”

            “You need to leave. They are going to contact the authorities about you, ask about someone matching your description. They’ll go to the shops and stores that you may have hit and they will tell the Followers which direction you ran. They won’t stop until they get you, Jack.”

            Jack shook his head and sat up this time, feeling the muscles between his leg and back strain from the strange angle. “Leave? Slath I don’t want to go anywhere, especially if those thugs might come back for you.”

            “They don’t know me and they can’t track me.” Slath said simply. “You’re untrained, and you’re juiced. I’m Flameless and I can tell you that you’re one of the stronger Flame they have probably ever seen, the way you threw that Yellow’s attack back at him like that. You’re exactly the type of person they’d want to take.”

            “What’s so wrong about these guys anyways?”

            Slath closed his eyes and thought for a moment. “They are followers of Arkotos, I’m not sure what he or it is, but it’s a source of death, at least so I’ve heard. They pick up Flames and use them to create death and chaos.”

            “And you want me to leave you at their mercy?”
            “If you don’t leave, then you’re putting me, Frank, and Janet in trouble.” Slath said simply. He reached into his neckline and pulled out a small white pendant on a length of cord. “Here.”

            “What is it?” Jack asked, accepting it. He inspected it. There was a small gemstone that was surrounded by thin silver threads. The gem was a deep blue, and Jack could almost see a flicker of light inside of it, but he thought it was the flames from the fire next to him.

            “It’s a way to get out of here.” Slath said. “I want you to get out of town. To the city limits at least, but I’d prefer if you went even further. All you need to do is step on it, and it’ll send you away to someone who could actually help you more.”

            “And you had this with you the whole time?” Jack asked. “Where did you get it? Actually, how do you know about any of this? Why didn’t you tell me about any of this sooner?”

            “I never thought we would be in this situation.” Slath said. “I think you’ll find out more at some point, Jack, but right now you just need to trust me.”

            Jack sat back and looked up at the sky again. His life was about to change drastically. He had wanted a change in life, tired of what he had been given as his lot, but now the thought of it changing was upsetting to him, especially the thought of losing Slath though now he knew Slath was hiding more than he had told him. He wiped a tear from his eyes, this one a genuine tear.

            Slath poured some more water on Jack’s wound, and then wrapped it up in the clean bandages that Janet had delivered. Jack was confused that Slath hadn’t waited for the antiseptic, but he was then pulled up before he could say anything. Slath made sure that Jack could hold his own weight on his leg, and Jack could feel a throbbing pain, but it wasn’t unbearable. “You need to leave. Now.” Slath said firmly.

            “What about Janet and Frank?”
            Slath looked away. “I’ll explain it to them. But then I need to remove their memories of you.” He pulled out a small vial from his pocket, and Jack could see a green liquid sloshing around inside of it.
            “You what?” Jack was shocked.

            “If they remember you, then they are in danger. The Followers might even kill them, and I’m not going to let that happen.” Slath said confidently.

            Jack was now scared of Slath. His oldest friend was now someone unrecognizable to him, he was keeping so much from Jack and had been likely since they met, and now he is going to do something to his other friends with that ominous liquid. “Who are you?” Jack asked him.

            “Your friend.” Slath said and squeezed Jack’s arm. “And an ally. We’ll meet again.”

 

*

            Jack would miss the warmth. He thought he had hated it but now that he was leaving, he felt it was a comfort that he would grow to mourn the loss of. The sun was beginning to set now, the horizon turning a golden orange with red bleeding through. His mind was racing, the main focus was on who Slath was. But Slath had been there for him for years, so he was putting his faith in Slath’s hands.

            The pendant was around his neck, the metal never growing warm against his skin, chilling him. He had put on an old shirt and pants, something that wasn’t torn up quite as badly as his other clothes had been.

            He was in the industrial district now, the warehouses and shipping yards growing huge before him. The day workers were beginning to leave, and the night crew was arriving. He needed a ride. Though he could walk, he knew he couldn’t walk far enough without causing more damage to his leg, as his limp was growing progressively worse.

            Jack came up along an old silver pickup truck, and engine was idling. He crouched down and looked around, looking for the owner of the vehicle, and he saw what must have been the owner of the truck talking to another individual, his back turned to Jack. The license plate on the vehicle was for Colorado, and Los Trinitas was in Arizona, so the chances of this driver heading out of town were high.

            He climbed into the back of the truck as quietly as he could, the bed full of old tools and crates. It was an uncomfortable fit, but it would work.

            “-be back in town in a few days, then I’ll drop off the palettes.” The driver must be heading towards his vehicle, because his voice was getting closer and closer. Jack tried to position himself out of sight from the back window and his legs under the crates to block the sight of them.

            The door opened and then closed with a metallic thud, and with a grinding of gears, the vehicle began to move. The sensation was strange to Jack, laying on his back in the bed of a truck staring up at the orange sky, moving through the streets of the city. The car horns were almost amplified in the bed of the truck, reverberating off of the metal walls.

            He wasn’t sure how long he had been in the bed of the truck by the time it came to a stop along the highway. Vehicles flew past them. Jack had no idea why the driver had stopped. Part of him was concerned that the driver had seen him, and part of him was hoping the driver just had to relieve himself. The sky was transitioning from red into purple, the sun must be along the horizon now.

            Jack sat up and looked around. There was no sign of the driver. Jack looked over the side of the bed towards the flatlands at the edge of the highway, and again nothing. He stood up slowly and climbed out of the back of the truck. The driver had vanished completely. His heart began to race, and he walked away from the truck quickly, hoping no one would think it was his truck and he was abandoning it.

            Hands pulled at him from behind, and Jack shouted, thrashing back, but the force of this caused his leg to erupt in pain. Jack was turned around and he saw the driver of the truck who had vanished. His coveralls were a pale silver in the light of the sunset, matching his truck. His face was vacant, and his eyes were a reflective silver.

            “Jackson Smidurson, cast aside your shackles and embrace your destiny.” The man said, his voice menacing yet also lacking in emotion. Jack tried to pull away but the man’s grip was steel. “The time has come, Blue, to fulfill your purpose in this life.”

            Jack pulled away as the man released his grip, and he fell back to look at the man. But he wasn’t there. He had disappeared again, and this time, so had the truck, the shoulder of the highway now empty. Jack just stared at the spot, and only when the honk of a horn snapped him out of his thoughts did Jack move. He looked around and saw that the city was several miles away. He must have been far enough away at this point.

            Taking the still cold pendant off of his neck, Jack dropped it on the ground. Taking a deep breath, knowing that by doing this, everything he knew would be gone, Jack prayed for the first time in his life to whomever would listen, and he crushed the pendant underneath his foot.

            All around him a flurry of light appeared, red and blue and green and yellow, a barrage of different sensations, cold, hot, damp, dry, pounded at his senses. He felt himself get pulled up into the air, and he was then flying off into the distance, the city blurring beneath him as he spun rapidly.

            “Goodbye.” He whispered to himself, though he knew that Frank and Janet wouldn’t have been able to hear him, and he shed his last tears.

 

 

Chapter Seven:

            “I’m sorry sir: Smith and Hadley were killed and the Blue managed to escape.” The woman’s voice came through on the cell phone as slightly crackly and somewhat distorted, though her voice was still recognizable.

            Lenon gripped his phone hard and he could feel the vein in his forehead pulse menacingly. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, counted to three, and then spoke, his voice smooth as glass. “This is unacceptable, Natuan. How did the Blue get free?”

            The woman responded simply, “He overpowered them. Smith killed Hadley when the Blue put him in the way, and then the Blue turned Smith’s harpoon back at him.”

            “The Blue… Did what?” It wasn’t unheard of for a harpoon or other similar Flame construct to be overrun by the Flame of another, but Smith was incredibly powerful. He smiled to himself, because Natuan wasn’t able to see him. If the Blue was anywhere near as powerful as he was being led to believe, then he needed to get the Blue into the fold, as his Master doesn’t have enough Pure Blues.

            “Find him.” Lenon said to her, and flipped his phone closed, ending the call. Lenon’s green robe was one of the only robes of the Followers to have an extra pocket for something like a cell phone, as they were generally banned for the cult, not that Flames typically used phones anyways.

            Lenon paced around his office, the stone floor was marbled in white and grey. The walls were covered in cork boards and research documents, with a few hand selected pictures that were relevant to the cause. He rubbed a hand across his scalp, the scars on his head having blocked hair growth for years, though he still enjoyed the feeling.

There was a knock at the door, and before Lenon had a chance to tell them to go away, the door opened and a tall man with black hair came in, his skin sickly pale. But his eyes are where the life was, they were a brilliant yellow and glowed slightly though the office was lit by fluorescent lighting. He wore the most unique attire of the Followers, a yellow vest and black jeans, a black leather belt holding up a dagger and a thorned whip on his hips.

Jason. The defector from the Newfoundland Flame Stronghold. And wielder of the Primordial Axe. He was one of the strongest Yellows Lenon had ever seen, and this was before getting the additional power from the Axe and from their master.

Lenon crossed an arm across his chest and bowed his head to Jason. “M’lord.”

“Have you found them yet?” Jason said, his voice deep and soothing, but Lenon was still put on edge.

“My scouts found the Blue, but he killed two of them and managed to escape. The third reported back. As for the Red, he was found in a small Canadian town, but they have been holding off before grabbing him since Reds can be so dangerous when they aren’t controlled.” Lenon gave the report quicker than he would have to anyone else, perhaps other than his master.

“You have access to prisoner chains don’t you? That should be sufficient enough to keep a Red under control.” Jason said, his eyes glowing slightly brighter, and Lenon knew that he was becoming angry.

“Y-yes we do, m’lord, but getting them on him would have been the problem.” Lenon said.

Jason glared into Lenon’s eyes, the yellow color deeply upsetting to the man. This was unnatural for the eyes of a Flame to stay colored, normally only happening when the Flame was channeling massive amounts of power. But based on his appearance, Lenon knew that Jason was permanently powered up. “Fine. But I expect the Red to be in your custody by the end of the day, if he gets to the Stronghold then we won’t be able to go after him.”

“Yes, m’lord.” Lenon said, bowing again and Jason walked out of the office, the door closing on it’s own accord. Only now that Jason had left did Lenon realize that he had been holding his breath in anticipation. Or was it fear? 25 years of being Arkotos’ right hand had given him a sense of security, but after Jason had been recruited he was now third in command, subject to the whims of the Yellow.

Lenon received a call on his cellphone, the ringtone a cheery jingle that didn’t reflect his mood. He flipped it open and held it to his ear, not bothering to acknowledge whomever was on the other end of the line.

“The Red is gone.” The woman’s voice said.

“WHAT?”

With a crack the phone was crushed into shards of plastic and metal, the copper wires now exposed. The battery was leaking, though it was largely intact. Lenon threw it against the wall and stormed outside. The Followers he walked passed nodded and bowed, the more formal of the two being from the newer recruits, though Lenon was partial to the head nod, as it allowed them to keep working.

Lenon stepped up to the PA system, tapping the microphone. The cold metal handle was pleasant in his grip. The PA booth had glass windows on all sides, giving him an ideal view of the inner workings of the Followers. The experiments against the Quorpets, he liked to think of them. Godkillers. Birdlike monstrosities being tamed by various hooded figured, arcs of Flame being pulled out of gemstones by metal diodes, and the researchers determining when they can attack.

“Death’s Wisdom to you all.” Lenon said. “The Red and the Blue that had been discovered by Research Squad 11 have escaped our grips. Based on the reports of the Quorpetian Scripture acquired for us by our beloved leader, this can only mean one thing: We need to progress to the next Pillar World. Xibalba is already destroyed, now we will turn our attention towards Yggdrasil.”

He pointed towards the bird creatures. “Are the subjects ready for flight?”

The red hooded man that responded was almost too far away for Lenon to hear him, but he made out, “No sir, only one has succeeded since our supervisor fled.”

“Then keep working.” Lenon told them. “The rest of you, report to your supervisors for your own duties. I want fifteen squads of five to go into Yggdrasil and report back your findings. We can’t move until Fimbulvinter begins, but we will remain vigilant until our time comes to enact our master’s wishes.” At this he gave them the same bow that he had given Jason, an arm crossed over his chest and a bow. Each and every one of them did the same, minus the figures trying to tame the bird creatures. Lenon will let those ones slide, given the circumstances.

Though they were full of secrecy as to who their true identities were, he was always surprised by their level of devotion to the cause. Perhaps it wasn’t devotion. It was fear. The fear of death will make most men do anything asked of them, even if it was a futile effort.

Lenon left them to organize themselves, as he stepped outside into the open air. Or as open as the air could have been, given where they were. Destroyed buildings were before him on all sides, the only one still standing being the former warehouse that the Followers used as their main base of operations, though they had others around the world. The ceiling of the cavern loomed overhead, the concrete supports still intact after leveling the city.

This was the first test, to see if Jason was powerful enough to topple a city by himself. This wasn’t accurate, as he had needed help from the other Yellows in his company, but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Ashes still drifted in the breeze that old Greens had put in place to keep the air circulating, the underground cities not having natural breezes strong enough to keep the air breathable. The ashes still sickened Lenon, and he blocked out all thought of what they were.

Lenon took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the relatively fresh air. As a Green, he was more attuned with the air around him, and it rejuvenated him. Soon he will be breathing the air of the Norse Gods, and perhaps in Yggdrasil he might be able to redeem himself by capturing the Red and the Blue.

He smiled at the thought. Redemption wasn’t something freely given by Arkotos, the Quorpet of Death.

 

 

Chapter Eight:

            The bus rattled along the stretch of highway, causing Zack to sway slightly. His legs flexed trying to keep his body upright, as the bus was far bumpier than he had anticipated it to be. The forests blew past him through the window, and he looked at his expression in the glass. He could see fatigue, fear, anxiety. But there was also excitement, anticipation. He felt more alive than he had in years, and he hadn’t done much more than get onto a bus.

            The bus pulled over into a fueling station, and Zack took the opportunity to stand up and stretch. He wasn’t sure how long he had been on the road, but the sun was setting past the horizon. He had bought a yearly pass, so he could ride as much as he had wanted or needed to, though it had taken a large portion of his money.

            Zack went inside the small station and bought an aluminum water bottle and filled it up with the water from the tap, and he grimaced at the potential taste of the random water. He channeled some of his power into his hand and it turned a faint red. He touched the bottle and in a matter of moments, the water began to steam and then boil slightly. Perhaps this was a way of ensuring that the water stayed safe for him to drink?

            His stomach growled at him as he stepped back onto the bus, and he was regretting not buying anything for himself to eat on the trip. He considered that he should have packed food as well before the fire, but that was in the past now.

            Zack returned to his seat, the dufflebag still where it sat. There were only two other people on the bus that could sit sixty, and they both sat as far away from Zack as they could. Fine by him. Even though he was technically on the biggest adventure of his life, he wasn’t keen on the idea of being surrounded by strangers, especially ones that rode cross country on an old run down bus that smelled of moth balls.

            He opened up the bag and pulled out one of the ancient books that he had taken from his mother’s library: Hidden Mysteries of the Flames. Zack hadn’t been trying to grab this book specifically, but he wasn’t unhappy with the choice. He opened it, and the old leather along the spine cracked slightly, sending chills down Zack’s spine. He was adverse to opening new books up too far to avoid their spines from cracking, but here he was with a book older than anything he had known, with the spine cracking out of his control.

            The book was handwritten with intense precision that he was baffled by, the handwriting neat and tight, but without the errors that something like a pen or a quill should have made. Zack wondered how many copies of this book had been written. It couldn’t have been that many, but he wasn’t even sure how this would have been done, imagining a monk kneeling copying everything word for word.

            Flames, known by the Quorpets as the Essentials, or Ormet, are the topic of consideration by many researchers today. Zack stopped for a moment. He wasn’t sure of how old this book was, but the language in it was strangely modern. Instead of Shakespeare, he was greeted by something more contemporary. Questions that have been asked over the last 50,000 years, the earliest reported instance of the Flames existing, follow one of these archetypes: Where did the Flames come from? Why can some mortals control and channel them? And what do they have to do with the Quropets, and the Primordial Weapons?

            Flame. Is that what his new power was called? Flame? He brought some to the surface of his right hand and held it up to see. It was a small amount, he could feel the minimal drain on him, and it seemed to be more of a vapor than an actual flame, but perhaps he just needed to release more of it. The thought of this scared him a little, after the incident at the school, but he was more resolute in what he was doing and was confident that nothing would happen.

            He focused and more energy flowed from his hand, and indeed, as the vapor became more and more substantial and the color became a brilliant red, the movement of the energy did become more flamelike. “Turn the heater off!” A voice from behind him shouted, one of the passengers on the bus was getting riled up.

            “It is off.” The bus driver said calmly over the intercom, and at this Zack cut off the flow of power. He took a deep breath, his heart racing from the startling loudness, but the power in his hand didn’t go out of control. The Flame didn’t go out of control. He still wasn’t sure if that’s what it was called, but it was the closest thing he had to an answer at this point.

            By now, the sun was well below the horizon and his fleeting reading light was gone. He didn’t have a flashlight or anything to be able to read more of the book, and thought the power he had would illuminate the pages, he didn’t want to bring any attention to himself. He put the book back into his bag and pressed his forehead against the cool glass, looking out at the now exposed coastline, the water cresting on the rocks. He never really understood how close he had lived to the water until now, sure he had been on the bus for a few hours, but that wasn’t too much of a trek.

            Zack closed his eyes, and within a matter of moments he had drifted off to sleep, unencumbered by the nightmares.

*

            Zack had only slept for a short amount of time, it couldn’t have been longer than twenty minutes based on where they were. The bus was lurching up and down slightly, and the driver was swearing profusely. “Sorry folks, but we’ve got a flat.” He said dryly over the intercom. “I’ll radio for help, and you’ll be on your way then but it could be ‘bout an hour.”

            Zack didn’t want to wait for an hour. Now that he thought about it actually, part of him thought he only needed to walk, because wherever his destination was it was relatively close. He could feel it, like some part of his brain was itching and convincing him that nearby was his salvation. He got up and walked towards the front of the bus, “Mind if I get off?”

            “We’re in the middle of nowhere kid, why’d you wanna get off for that?” The driver asked him, incredulous.

            “I need to go that way anyways.” Zack said, pointing to the North West, whereas the road was going North East.

            The driver stopped to consider him, the scraggly beard peppered with grey hairs. “Fine, but you dyin’ is not on me.” He said, the door opening with a hiss. Zack put a dollar in the collection box for the driver and stepped off into the cool Canadian air.

            Making sure he had everything before the door closed behind him, Zack crossed the road and walked into the tree line.

            The canopy overhead was thick, letting very little of the bright moonlight peek through. He held up his hand and released some energy, and the brilliant red light began to glow, lighting his path. He made sure to walk on the more solid chunks of ground, avoiding the tree roots as well as he could, knowing that if one broke and he fell that he could be seriously injured. But he also needed to keep the Flame in his hand in mind, that if it so much as brushed one of the trees he could be looking at a wildfire, so he kept the light low in front of his chest.

            What kind of predators could be out here? Zack knew a little about the wildlife of this region, but he wasn’t sure whether or not they were hostile toward humans. Well, most of them would be assuming they wee hungry enough. He hoped that they weren’t.

            His water bottle quickly diminished as he hydrated, partly to disguise his hunger. He would have been able to eat something he finds here, but Zack was concerned about eating something poisonous. He would just wait, and he drank the last of his water. The air outside was chilly, but it was pleasant, the warmth coming from the light in Zack’s hands warming him up the rest of the way. The duffle bag on his back and his footsteps were the only hints of noise around him, other than the owl that he passed, hooting contentedly to itself, but Zack wasn’t able to see it.

            How long had he been walking? Perhaps an hour, perhaps three. His track of time was disappointing and always had been, causing him more than one instance of trouble being late for class. He never felt a need to have a watch, so he was never given one or purchased one. And he was never able to get a cell phone for one reason or another, his mother claiming that they could be dangerous, and without a consistent income he wouldn’t have been able to buy one.

            Zack kept walking, but his feet were beginning to ache. He wasn’t used to walking this much, and his shoes weren’t as comfortable as he would have preferred. He decided to take a rest. Taking a look around, Zack saw a nook inside of a tree, some minor protection from the elements though it was a calm night. He set the duffle down and put his back against the bark of the tree, resting on the ground. He took a breath and let his feet heal slightly.

            How much further did he have to go? Where was he going? The questions just kept coming, and he felt as though he was getting fewer and fewer answers than he would have liked. At the thought of this, he pulled out the book again, and opened it to a random page about halfway through the book, and held up a hand for light:

            -within each person’s soul. The Flame cannot be broken nor destroyed, despite attempts to see otherwise. As a Flame, the source of energy can neither be created not destroyed, but it is in fact pulled from the world around and from within the Wielder. Even the portion of Flame that holds a Wielder’s soul will remain even after the death of the mortal shell, and join compatriots in a chosen afterlife suited to the particular individual.

            “Wow, that’s cheery.” Zack said to himself quietly, and opened to another page at random. This page had no words on it, instead there was a drawing. Four mountaintops with what appeared to be balls of fire on top of them, circling a center plateau with an even larger, bigger flame. The artwork was crude, but definitely effective. Those must be the Flames that the book had mention earlier, the ones that everything drew off of or something to that extent.

            Zack closed the book again and rested back into the tree nook, becoming comfortable. He could sleep some more, as he had only gotten a little bit of sleep on the bus. He rested, feeling the pain ease from his feet, and Zack huddled into the nook more. He began to drift off to sleep…

            Until he heard a snap and jerked awake. The sound was close. Zack got up quickly and looked for the source of the sound. He saw nothing, until he saw the reflective eyes of a wild cat, a lynx. It growled at him. Zack held up his hand, Flame pouring from his fingers. The initial burst of light scared the cat, but it walked back up to him. Zack took a step backwards, then another, then another, until there was another snap, this time from Zack himself. He had trodded on a small stick.

The sound provoked the lynx. It attacked, leaping at him through the air, claws extended. Zack fell backwards to avoid it, and he landed on the ground hard. Before the lynx landed however, there was a flash of red light, and the distinct smell of burning fur. Zack’s blindness faded, and he was able to see the lynx rolling on the ground, the fur on it now singed and black. The flames on it quelled, the lynx got back to it’s feet and glared at Zack. Clearly it contemplated attacking him again, but at the thought of being burned again, the wild cat ran off.

Zack fell to his knees. He felt drained, though he hadn’t done anything, other than the blast. Wherever the energy came from, it took its toll on him. He opened up his water bottle to take a drink, but it was empty. Right. Now that he was more lucid, he was able to understand what he was hearing better. He heard a small trickling. Zack stood up and followed the sound of the water, and he saw a small creek, running down towards the ocean lazily. The water looked clear and refreshing. He knelt down and filled up his bottle with the creek water, watching for any small fish that might flow into there by mistake, but he didn’t see any.

Heating up the bottle with his hands, he watched it come to a boil rapidly. What a handy trick, Zack thought to himself. It was useful having the ability to boil water at will to make it safe to consume. After sealing the bottle and putting it in the creek to cool rapidly, Zack stood up and set off back to the North West, the direction that the feeling in his head directed him to.

 

 

Chapter Nine:

            Zack’s feet ache. His head was dripping with sweat from exertion. The sun was nearly above him by now, having walked miles and miles with infrequent stops. If this is what his life was beginning to turn into, he may as well have stayed home. His stomach was upset from the strange berries that he had found. At first he figured they were poison, but he saw a squirrel eating one with no difficulties. Hadn’t he read somewhere that the animals were good at not poisoning themselves? Perhaps, or perhaps the poison wouldn’t kill him yet. But he had needed the nutrition, what little it offered. Just before sunrise he had realized that he was burning his own fuel by creating the light from the energy, Flame.

            The duffle on his back was getting heavy now. There wasn’t much in it, but after hours of carrying it he wanted to be rid of it. Just a little further, he thought to himself, though the thought had a fuzzy feeling to it, different than his other thoughts but still his inner voice. It’s the exhaustion. It’s playing tricks on me.

            The forest seemed to go on forever, for miles and miles. Only once did he find anything nearly as threatening as the lynx from the night before, and that was the pile of bear droppings. Squirrels ran past, playing in the trees, birds fluttered around everywhere, even some bees flew around. But the forest seemed peaceful. Was this what the silver man had meant? Would Zack be resigned to living out here by himself? He had no survival skills, and if he had known about the forest he would have at least tried to find a wilderness survival book of some sort.

            He threw the duffel onto the ground and sat next to it. He rested his head against the tree and took a deep breath. The air was cool to him, but for some reason he knew that the day must be warm. He wasn’t as sensitive to heat anymore, he realized. Even when he wasn’t using his energy to boil water the scalding water wasn’t a danger to him. “What am I doing?” He asked himself. He must be crazy.

            A squirrel ran up to him, stopped just outside of striking distance, and skittered close to Zack, staying just within the line of safety.

            “Hey little guy.” Zack said to it and smiled. “Sorry, I don’t have anything for you.” The squirrel sniffed him and sniffed around him. Once the squirrel decided that Zack was not a threat, it checked the duffel for any sign of food, but there was none to be found and it ran off.

            Strange, he thought. Only suburban squirrels were that friendly. Was there someone who may have been feeding it? The thought renewed Zack’s energy somewhat. The fatigue still coursed in his very bones, but he pulled himself off of the ground and grabbed the bag, putting it over his shoulder once again.

            He didn’t have to walk very far before he had his answer.

            There was a whistling sound, and he felt a strange breeze blow against the back of his neck, then heard the THUNK of a hard impact in wood. He turned to see the tree just to the side of him seemingly grow what appeared to be an arrow shaft out of it, the fletching a vibrant green color. Before he had the chance to take a closer took, he felt a cold metal press against the back of his neck and a hand grab the back of his shirt, “Don’t move.” A voice told him.

            Zack remained as still as he could, his hands coming up in front of him reflexively in a sign of surrender, but other than that he was statuesque. The metal came free from his neck and he could hear someone moving, but wasn’t able to see them. He looked down and saw imprints in the grass of what appeared to be footprints moving. “Who are you?” The voice said. It was a woman’s voice, maybe not a woman but an effeminate voice close in age to his own. It has a slight lilt to it, perhaps the remnants of an accent?

            “Uh, Zack? Jelani.” He said to the person, hands still raised.

            “What’s in the duffle?” The girl said to him.

            “Just some clothes and books I guess.”

            “Put it on the ground.”

            Zack obliged and pulled the duffle off of his back and set it on the ground. The mysterious person started to dig through it. It was surreal watching his clothes come out of the bag by themselves. The mirror came out and it stayed there for a moment, Zack having completely forgotten about it. “I forgot about that. There’s a little bottle in there somewhere too.”

            “This one?” She said, the bottle of liquid coming into view.

            Zack nodded. “Look,” he said, “If you’re gonna rob me just do it and go away.”

            “Rob you?” The voice seemed surprised. Suddenly the image of a girl appeared in front of him out of nowhere, Zack jumping back in surprise with an embarrassing exclamation. “I’m not here to rob you.” She told him. Now Zack had a face for the voice. She was tall, perhaps a head shorter than Zack was but he was already tall for a boy his age. She had brown hair tied into a braid that trailed down her back, and a stubborn face with thin cheeks and thin lips. Her eyes were a stunning hazel, almost shifting between brown and green and yellow.

Zack had to admit that she was pretty. But he put that out of his mind. “Okay you’re not here to rob me, then why are you here?” He asked her.

“I was hunting.” She said, showing him her bow, the dark wood curved into a crescent shape. “And you are trespassing.”

“I’m sorry,” He said, sincerely. “I didn’t see any signs. I’m just looking for more people like me.” He didn’t know how to go about explaining all of this to a random stranger, but that felt like a good start.

“People like you?” She asked him, arms crossed sternly.

Zack nodded, then released some of the last of his energy into his hands, the red smoke visible in the bright sunlight.

“You’re a Flame? Great!” She said, her stern expression turning into a wide smile. “You can follow me back to the Stronghold.” However, her face turned serious again. “Not saying we’ll keep you, but you can at least meet Medic. Walk in front of me so I know there’s no funny business.”

Zack nodded. “Can I get my things back together?” He asked her.

She gestured for Zack to do what he needs to do, and after everything was haphazardly put into the bag again, Zack threw it over his shoulder and let get guide him towards the “Stronghold,” as she called it.

*

Another Red! Brooklyn thought to herself as she guided this stranger, Zack, towards the Stronghold. She was excited about the prospect of having someone new at the Stronghold, especially someone who seemed to be closer to her own age than Medic is. She was walking behind him, getting some pleasure out of the fact that he was still holding his hands up in surrender. She felt good about today. She felt good about every day, granted, but this was the day that everything changed, she knew it.

“You know, you never told me your name.” Zack had said to her, turning his head slightly to try to get a glance at her, but still making himself able to see the ground in front of him.

“Brooklyn.” She said simply, not wanting to talk to him too much, to help keep the air of intimidation about her.

“What’s your accent?” He asked her, kindly. “It seems almost Scottish?”

Brooklyn was confused, she thought she had lost her accent years ago after spending so much time with Medic. And Jason. She shook her head, forcing away the thought of Jason. “Irish, actually. I lived in Ireland as a kid.”

“And what brought you all the way to Canada?” He asked her, genuinely curious.

“None of your business.” She snapped at him.

At this Zack remained silent. Brooklyn looked around at their surroundings, looking for the markers. Then she saw a rainbow flag in all sorts of colors tied up and hanging off of a branch of an ancient looking pine tree. The flag itself was small, almost unnoticeable if you weren’t looking for it, but there it was. Then there was another marker, then another. They tended to get more frequent as you got closer to the Stronghold’s barrier, as they helped to keep you on track.

They crossed the threshold and suddenly a massive castle appeared in front of them, and Zack gasped in surprise. “Keep walking.” She said, pushing him forward. She smiled though, as she had a similar thought her first time seeing it. The stone structure had hundreds of windows on all sides of it, though most of them didn’t actually open inside of the castle, they were there for decoration. Wooden support structures towered almost as high as the stone ramparts. They were already well within the preliminary ring for the Stronghold that extended out about five miles, keeping out random intruders. The secondary ring was a physical wall that circled the castle, complete with a moat and a drawbridge, which could be barricaded by a portcullis. The rest of the walk to the castle would just be a few minutes, as the castle had a small courtyard area before getting to the castle proper.

Though she had lived there for at twelve years, she would never get tired of the cliffs. The cliffs to the north of the castle were breathtaking, rising high up above the Stronghold and shielding that side from harsh winds and potential attacks, though it hadn’t once been attacked in her memory.

The drawbridge was still down like she had left it when she had gone out to hunt. She didn’t need to actually hunt for food, as the castle provided, but it was good to train with her bow on live targets, and despite her pleading Medic was still reluctant to act as a training dummy. They crossed the wooden drawbridge, and Zack looked down, potentially for sharks or alligators like in the movies. “We don’t put the alligators in there unless it’s Wednesday.”
            “Why Wednesday?” Zack asked her.

“We have to have fun sometimes.” She said to him with a smile.

The doors of the castle were massive, thirty feet high and nine feet across each, far bigger than was necessary, but the castle was far older and had been used for far more than the current situation would suggest. Brooklyn pushed the doors open easily, the magic in them helping them coast along smoothly. The entry hall was big, beautiful, and run down. The marble floors, once pristine and gilded with white and gold patterns inlaid in the ground, were now dull and grey, the once smooth finish now dull and in some places pitted.

The stairs were in better shape, having been maintained better due to their necessity, but they were still far from their original opulence, with the wooden banisters on the sides splintering. A large door on the right, about half of the size as the entry door, led into the dining hall, and the massive staircase led straight in front of them towards the upstairs floors. On either side of the staircase were doors that led down into the dungeons.

Brooklyn took the lead now, walking over to the door on the left and opening it up, nodding to Zack for him to go down. He did so reluctantly. The door closed behind them and plunged the stairway down into darkness until Brooklyn flipped the switch on the wall, and old lightbulbs flickered to life slowly. They were getting old and would need replacing soon. The walls on either side of them were a black, smooth stone, as if the walls were made of obsidian. Now that Brooklyn considered it, they could be obsidian, that wasn’t unreasonable.

“Go through the first door on the right.” She told him.

“What room would that be?” He asked her, some fear in his voice.

This guy is a scaredy cat. Brooklyn thought to herself. “Prisoner’s quarters.” She smirked.

“Really?”
            “No, not really. We call it the Rec Room. You’ll see.” She said.

Zack finally arrived at the door and opened it up, bright light flooding out into the hallway. The Rec Room was massive, the size of a two professional basketball courts put together. The floors were a polished wood, and the walls were made of grey stone bricks. Along the righthand wall from the door, there were tables with chairs stacked on top of them, and on the lefthand wall there were weapons racks, full of ancient training weapons for the old inhabitants of the castle, one of the only things original about this room. Industrial lighting hung from the ceiling.

A bald man was sitting at one of the tabled reading what appeared to be a musty old book from the library upstairs. He wore all white, and his shiny head reflected the glow from the lights above giving him an almost ethereal quality. “Medic?” Brooklyn said to him to get his attention.

The man stood and turned to face them. His face had a black, closely trimmed goatee, and his eyes were a deep brown. He had stress lines on his face, largely around his cheeks and eyes. He saw Zack and smiled, revealing perfect teeth. “Ah, Brooklyn, who’s this?” He said, his deep voice as smooth as chocolate.

“This is Zack, he wandered into the perimeter.” She said, and nodded to Zack for him to go forward.

“Nice to meet you.” Zack said, holding out his hand to shake. Medic looked at the hand, and after a hesitation he grabbed it and shook. Zack only now noticed that Medic only wore one sleeve, covering his right arm. He didn’t think anything of it, perhaps Medic just had a skin condition that he preferred to cover up. “You’re the Medic here?”
            Medic smiled and shrugged. “Well, I suppose so yes. At least I’m the only one here who can do healing and I’ve been practicing for a few years now.” He said, modestly. He gestured to the table for Zack to sit. “Are you hungry?”

“Starved.” Zack said, and even Brooklyn could hear his stomach growl.

“Excellent. Brooklyn dear?” Medic said, turning to her.

Her face became red, Medic knew that she hated it when he referred to her like that, like some subservient. “What?” She snapped at him.

“Can you please grab something for Zack from the kitchens?” He said kindly enough.

Brooklyn sneered at him and turned to walk towards the door. She hated him sometimes, and she hated that he was the one in charge of the Stronghold. She missed Jason sometimes. Things worked out better for her when he was here.

She pushed the door open and looked back at them. Zack was looking at her, and she could almost see the look of pleading in his eyes to not leave him alone with Medic. She winked at him in return, a gesture of goodwill, and she left, the door clicking behind her.

 

 

Chapter Ten:

            Zack placed his hands in his lap, unsure of what to do with them. Here he was, in this strange castle in upper Canada with a man named after a military position who immediately gave him unsettling vibes. Did Canada even have castles? He would have to find out. Later, though.

            “Please, relax.” Medic said to him. “This is home for Flames. At least, it used to be.”

            “It used to be?” Zack asked.

            “Until around fifteen years ago, yes. At that point, at least from what I’ve heard, there were upwards of seventy Flames living within these walls.” Medic nodded to the weapons rack on the wall. “Hence we have an arsenal of some sort for when it’s needed.”

            “What happened to them?”

            “Oh, many just left.” Medic said simply. “There was no reason for them to be here. You see, there are also cities for Flames like us, deep underground beneath some of the major metropolitan hot spots around the world.”

            “There are cities beneath cities?” This wasn’t the weirdest thing Zack had even considered until recently, but at this point he did find it hard to believe that no one would have discovered something like this happening. Not to mention that the cities aboveground could potentially cave in the one underneath.

            “Yes. Quite a few of them, really.” Medic said with a smile.

            “Okay, hold on.” Zack said, putting his head in his hands. One step at a time, Zack. “Where am I, exactly?”

            “You are in the Stronghold.” Medic said kindly.

            “And you said this was a home for Flames?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “What exactly is a Flame?”

            This question took Medic off guard. “You don’t know what a Flame is?”

            “I have some idea.” Zack said, he took his duffel off of his shoulders and opened it up, pulling out the book he had been reading earlier, Mysteries of the Flames. “I wasn’t able to read much of it but it’s a source of power?”

            “No, Zack. It’s the source of everything.” Medic said. He picked up the book and gingerly turned it to a page in the middle of the book, showing Zack an image of a hexagonal shape separated into six sections, each of which had a different design. The top right had what appeared to be fire. The bottom right had a motif of water and ice. The bottom left had stones and metals. And the top left had air and clouds. The top and bottom ones were empty, the top one white and the bottom one solid black. “You’re familiar with the classical elements, correct?”

            Zack looked up. “Sure. Earth, wind, fire, and water right?”

            “Right. These are the basic foundations for everything around us. And the World Flames are the embodiments of those foundations. Some people, like ourselves and Brooklyn, are born with the ability to house, and by effect, channel some of this Flame to suit our likings.” Medic held up his hand and dull red smoke radiated from his fingertips.

            Zack held up his hand and did the same, but it flickered and died after only a moment. “It was just working.” He said, confused.

            “You’re tired, and hungry.” Medic explained. “You see, the Flame uses up your natural energy preserves. If you’re hungry, it will have less to use up, though if you wanted to force it, it would start to feast on your fat, until it started to eat up your muscle until it starts to use up your soul.”

            This seemed to track slightly with what Zack had read in the book, at least the part about the soul being part of the Flame. He nodded. “Why is it called Flame if there’s one for water and earth?”

            Medic nodded, expecting this question now. “Because the purest form of it looks like a flame, at least to a point. We just call it Flame to make it easier on everyone, that’s the way it’s been forever.” He leaned in closer to look at Zack. “Tell me, Zack. Why is it you know so little about Flames? You’re what, sixteen, seventeen? Surely you’ve played around with your Flame enough to know more about it than you do.”

            “Is it something we normally have from birth?”

            “Well, yes.”

            “What about getting it after birth? Let’s say, from a lightning strike?” He was coy about it, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.

            Medic stared at him, putting a hand to his chin in thought. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of such a thing, Zack. I’m assuming this happened to you?”

            Zack nodded. “A few days ago, yeah. Red bolt of lightning right through my chest. Woke up and started catching things on fire until I started to control it.”

            “Understandable.” Medic said. “For most of us, those born with it, have an innate control over their Flames, because we’ve spent so much time managing it. Though some of us might lose control, just like one can lose control of their physical bodies.”

            “Can you teach me more?” Zack asked him. “I saw someone shooting blasts of energy, and there was a shield over my house, a ward. Can I do those things?”

            “Of course you can, Zack, but I can’t say I’m a very good teacher. I’ll do what I can, of course. There’s plenty of time here.” Medic said.

            “How many people are here?”

            “Well, if you stay, that would bring us all the way up to three.”

            “Only three?”

            Medic nodded sadly. “Yes, only three. Alas, our last third, Jason, left us about a year ago to go do something, and he never returned.”

            “What was he doing?” Zack asked him.

            “Perhaps I’ll explain later. But tell me, Zack. Do you want to stay?” Medic asked him.

            Zack thought about it for a moment. This had to have been the home that the silver man had told him about, and though Medic had something about him that made Zack uneasy, he seemed honest. It was the best opportunity that he had been given regarding his new power, though it had only been a few days. “What would happen if I didn’t?” He asked.

            Medic shrugged in an unhelpful manner. “There’s not much to have happen right now.” He said, “There’s plenty of information out there to guide you in the right direction on teaching yourself, and you could easily find one of the movie if you tried. This is just easier, and if the Followers come after you then you have a safe refuge.”

            The Followers.  The silver man said something about the Followers. “Who are the Followers?’ Zack asked him.

            Medic looked into Zack’s eyes and didn’t speak for a moment. The buzzing of the lights overhead was becoming irritating to him. “The Followers are disciples of Arkotos, the embodiment of the Flame of Death.”

            “And they might be after me?” Zack asked.

            “Well, there’s nothing to say that they will go after you.” Medic reassured him. “However, you’re naïve, and you’re untrained. You’re a prime target.”

            Zack thought back to the figure outside of his house. Was that one of the Followers, coming to get him? He couldn’t believe that they had already found him, but Zack had somehow managed to escape.

            He nodded and then made his choice. “I’ll stay.”

            Medic clapped with a wide smile on his face. “Excellent!” He stood up. “Once Brooklyn get’s back I’ll have her take you to the top floor and you can pick out your own room.”

            Zack was taken aback by Medic’s reaction, not expecting such a strong outburst. Medic nodded to Zack and left the Rec Room, leaving Zack alone in the bright space.

*

            The stairs were going to be the death of him. Zack had only walked up two flights, but his legs and lungs were already burning, though Brooklyn seemed to have barely broken a sweat. They were on the landing of the first floor above the entry hall.

            Once Zack had been able to regain his breath, he looked around at his surroundings. Rows upon rows of shelving, each one covered in books that would last Zack a lifetime. There were also wooden compartments in the shape of squares that appeared to hold ancient looking rolls of paper.

            “I guess I’ll give you the tour, huh?” Brooklyn asked him rhetorically. “This is the library.” She walked towards the shelves. “We have a lot of different books here, but lots of them are history and theological. We don’t have much fiction, if you were wondering.”

            Zack hadn’t been, but this was a downside for him regarding the library, but he would make do with what he had available to him. “Have you read many of these yourself?” He asked her, genuinely curious. It was hard to get a read on her.

            She shrugged. “Couple dozen of the larger ones I would say, but honestly they start to all blend together once you get into different authors and groups, since a lot of them talk about the same things.”
            “Are there any chairs around here?” Zack asked her, not being able to see anything.

            “Sure.” She said, guiding him along different rows of shelves. Zack could only begin to imagine just how many books existed in this place. And part of him considered that the library was too large for the castle that it inhabited in. There were old wooden tables and chairs to accompany them, as if it had been set up at one point for schoolwork, but it was exactly what Zack had wanted. There was even a lamp on the table, retrofitted into a sconce that once would have held a torch or a lantern.

            “It’s beautiful.” Zack said to her.

            She smiled at him, and Zack could see that she had a small gap in her front teeth, which gave her a more innocent look. “Ready for the rest?”

            The third floor had been far less exciting to Zack personally, though the sight of it still amazed him. Furnaces and old fashioned forges were everywhere, along with accompanying workbenches and grinders. Crates of old tools lined the walls, and Zack could see multicolored gemstones lying on some of the anvils. “Isn’t it dangerous to have something like this inside of a building? Especially so close to the books?”

            “Not as dangerous as you might think.” She told him. “The castle protects each section from one another whenever it needs to, like if there’s a stray ember or something.”

            “The castle does that? How?” He asked her.

            She shrugged. “I’m not really sure. There’s a type of magic around here, and I suppose that’s part of it.”

            “How does magic relate to Flames?” He asked her.

            She shrugged. “They’re really the same thing, we can use Flame to do spells, so it’s like magic. Magic is just more… Specific.” Brooklyn started up the stairs to continue on.

            In a strange choice, the medical bay took up the next floor. There were dozens of white tables, each with their own sets of surgical tools and chemicals. Racks of cloth dividers were pushed against the wall. “Wouldn’t this be better off further down?”

            “I suppose, maybe they didn’t think about it.”

            “I’m annoying you, aren’t I?” Zack asked her.

            This took her by surprise, and she turned around. “What? No!”

            “You just don’t seem happy with all of my questions.” Zack told her. “I can always ask Medic, it’s alright.”

            “No it’s not that, I just…” She stopped to search for her feelings. “I dunno, I just don’t have a lot of answers about this stuff, you know? In my time here there haven’t been a lot of people to even use this stuff, and now that I’m thinking about all of it, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

            Zack nodded, feeling like he understood what she was saying. Brooklyn seemed to have reluctantly taken on this role of guide, and he felt like Medic forced it upon her.

            “There’s one more floor.” She said. “C’mon.”

            The final floor was where the living quarters were located. Zack was surprised to see that it looked like a hotel, only with grey stone walls and a narrow red rug surrounded by more stone instead of wallpaper and carpet. Doors stretched out in three separate directions, left, right, and in front of them. The hallways seemed to stretch for a mile each before ending at a wall. On either side there were rooms with heavy looking oak doors, each complete with matching brass nameplates where the door number would have been. “These are the living quarters. Moreso rooms than quarters but it works.”

            “There must be a thousand rooms!” Zack said in wonder.

            “More or less.” Brooklyn said. “The hallways break off in some spots to loop around on each other, so instead of there being three long hallways there’s a handful of large cube shapes.” They walked through some of the hallways, and found themselves in what almost looked like a living room. A bright fire was crackling in the fireplace, which was grated off with bronze pipes. Dusty couches were put into groups all around, and there were large tables with goblets and what appeared to be chessboards. Above the fireplace was a painting of a fierce man with blonde and red hair, wearing a silver and bronze chestpiece with several symbols emblazoned on the front of it.

            “This place is massive. How do you not get lost?” He asked her.

            “Years of practice.” She nudged him. “Pick up your jaw and let’s head back to the rooms so you can pick out your own.”

            At the opening of the floor by the staircase, there were a few rooms that had actual names on the doorplates, as opposed to being blank. The first door said “Jason,” the second also said “Jason.” “Who’s Jason and why does he get two rooms?”

            She laughed shortly and Zack cold almost see her blush slightly. “No, different Jasons. The first door is where the old leader slept, he was a Pure Yellow. He left a while ago. The second one is for Medic. To help with the confusion everyone that was here just called him Medic and the name stuck.”

            The third door was labelled “Brooklyn.” The next door was blank. “So I can just pick a room?” Zack asked her, to be certain.

            She nodded to him. “Any one you like. Look, you pick a room, and when you get inside, there will be a key on the desk. Pick it up, and the room is yours. After you’re done, go down this hallway,” She pointed to the hallway on the right, the opposite way from where they had gone, “And you’ll find some bathrooms. Feel free to shower, and there’s always soap and stuff for everyone.”

            “You’re leaving me?” Zack asked her, heart sinking somewhat as he had become fond of having her to guide him.

            “I’m not gonna follow you into the bathroom, Zack.” She said with a smile, and Zack could feel his cheeks burn bright red. She opened up the door to her room and went inside, but before the disappeared she told him, “Dinner’s at six, don’t be late.” And with a click, the door closed.

            Zack was alone in the quiet halls of the Stronghold. Which door was he going to pick? It didn’t seem like too big of a deal, but he didn’t want to regret his decision. In the end he had picked the door directly opposite of Medic’s, close to the stairs without being the first room there. The door was as heavy as it looked, but it swung open smoothly. The room was almost as spartan as his room at home was, the grey walls giving an oppressive feeling to the room.

            It was a small room, only a few paces in either direction. A window sat on the wall opposite the door. Opposite the tall, formal looking bed was a fireplace. A dresser sat right next to the door on the righthand side, and just below the window was a desk made of dark wood. And right where Brooklyn said it would be, was the key.

            Zack picked it up, and after a moment it began to glow a bright red, and it burned his fingers momentarily, causing him to drop it. He bent down to pick it up with his other hand, sucking on his burned fingers, and after he stood back up, he saw that the view in the window had changed. At first it was an image of some trees, the forest outside, but now it was a moving image of an empty beach, waves cresting on the shore softly. It was beautiful.

            He turned around, and he almost dropped the key again. The room was now far larger than it had been before, easily forty feet in either direction. There were red banners hanging from the walls, emblazoned with he hexagonal chape that Medic had shown him. The fireplace was now roaring, with a stack of freshly cut wood next to it. The bed, once having white sheets on it, now had dark red sheets that looked heavy enough to keep anyone warm in the arctic. A bedside table sat on either side, with short lamps for light. One of them had an electric clock not unlike the one that he had at home, and Zack was now considering how they would have electricity in all of the rooms, but he decided to not question it. He took a step forward to look at the dresser, and he was surprised to find a heavy carpet now rested on the stone floor, part of it beneath the bed.

            The dresser was now full of clothes, and Zack was somehow surprised to see that they would fit him perfectly. Nothing serious, but shirts and pants and several pairs of undergarments. In one door there sat a new pair of shoes, which Zack knew he would need at some point soon.

            This room was outstanding. And despite all reasoning, in his new home in the middle of the Canadian wilderness in a castle that didn’t make sense, he knew that despite all of the things he didn’t know yet, he knew that this room was his.

 

 

Chapter Eleven:

            In a flurry of light, Jack was deposited onto the ground face first, landing hard. He felt a pop somewhere in his back, and his nose was throbbing in pain from the impact. He got up onto all fours and saw drops of crimson blood drip from his face, and he touched the source. The impact had caused his nose to start bleeding. Great, he thought. Sitting on his knees, he tore a piece of his shirt off and rolled it up into his nostril. He felt ridiculous.

            Jack stood up and looked at his surroundings. Trees, lots and lots of trees. The air was fresh to him, and more humid than he had been used to living in a near desert. How far away from Los Trinitas was he? Squirrels ran past, and chittered at him, expressing their dislike to the foreigner who probably startled them all from their slumber. He made a sucking sound with his teeth back at them, then smiled.

            He felt liberated. He was out of Los Trinitas! It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as he had hoped, but it was something. Jack wasn’t able to see much around him. The sun was already down well past the horizon. The trip only felt to him like a few hours, and depending on how far East he had gone this could mean that it was close to midnight. Was he still in North America?

            Part of Jack wanted to go forward and get to where he needed to go, but the part that won out was the part of Jack that wanted to hide somewhere for the night. His nose hurt, his leg was throbbing, and he hadn’t slept or rested. That being said, he had been asleep for well over twenty-four hours before all this had begun. But whatever had just happened to him, the thing that happened when he had stepped on the necklace, seemed to have sapped the energy out of him.

            He could feel a strong desire to move a certain direction, towards something specific that he knew not what. It was a strong pull, almost physical inside of his head. But to him, it felt strange, as though it was something from outside of him having made it’s way in.

            Jack dismissed the thought and moved to what must have been the North. Slath had said the necklace would being him to something called the Stronghold, didn’t he? Then were was it? Maybe it was hiding in plain sight but he wasn’t able to see it due to the lack of light.

            Jack kept walking and realized that the night should have been cooler than it was, but he was untouched by the chilled air. His Flame, as Slath had said it was, seemed to have given him some immunity to the cold, which he appreciated as his heightened senses wouldn’t like being blasted by the chill.

            Crickets chirped and Jack found a nook in a tree, the perfect size for him to be able to sleep in. He had slept in far worse, after all. But as he went to lie down in the tree, he noticed a multicolored shred of fabric hanging in the tree. He almost didn’t notice the cloth, but it had brushed against his head as he had bent down to inspect the spot. “Hello,” he said to it in an interested voice. “And why are you here?”

            He looked around and found another tree with the cloth on it as well, and another off in the distance, barely distinguishable in the darkness, the moonlight shining through the trees helping somewhat.

*

            The castle was unlike anything Jack had ever seen before. The massive stone structure towered over him, and Jack felt like he was miniscule. The drawbridge was down, and the gate that came down to cover the opening was still up. For the late hour, Jack would have assumed that it would have been sealed up to stop intruders like him from getting inside.

            The doors to the castle were enormous. Jack banged on them with his fist, but it was such a relatively small impact that it made very little sound. He pushed on the doors as hard as his injured leg would allow, and nothing happened. Was it locked? Did he come at the wrong time, was he too late?

            Might as well find somewhere to sleep until morning, he thought to himself. Jack looked around. The inner wall of the castle grounds wasn’t an option, as it didn’t appear there was actually somewhere to take shelter along them. He went off to the left to search, and he found nothing until a large colosseum-like structure came into his path. The arena was somehow too large to fit within the walls of the castle and at the same time didn’t take up that much space.

            He went inside through the open archway, and the center arena was a dirt ground, with what almost looked to be old weapons thrown away by warriors long since dead. Jack would have to investigate in the morning. There must be some sort of lodging in here somewhere.

            Searching and searching Jack came up empty handed, the may pathways within the structure just leading around the base as a giant ring, connecting to the different entrances onto the field and the stands. Finally, he made his way back to the entrance he had come in through and sat just within the walls. He rested his head down on the ground. He wasn’t entirely comfortable sleeping on the bare ground, but it was better than trying to do so in an alleyway.

            He had been drifting off to sleep when he heard the voice. “I figured I would find you here.” Jack snorted slightly as he sat up straight and got to his feet, but then staggered slightly as he remembered that his leg was injured. There was a man in front of him, his bald head reflecting some of the moonlight. “Don’t be alarmed, you are welcome here. But wouldn’t you like to come inside?”

            “Who are you? How did you know I was here?” Jack asked the man, trying to keep his distance. He pulled the cloth out of his nose, worried that he wouldn’t look intimidating with he cloth in there.

            “I know, my friend, you are uneasy. I happened to be watching for activity and saw you come in, but I didn’t see where you had gone until I had found you here.” The man said. Tough his voice was pleasant, Jack could feel the words almost slither down his back, making him shiver slightly, but that was likely due to the situation he had now found himself in. Jack couldn’t help but feel as though there was something familiar about this man, though he was certain he hadn’t met him before. At least in the last few years that Jack could remember.

            “You didn’t answer my question.” Jack said. The man was a little bigger than Jack was, though Jack knew that if he needed to he could fight off the man using his power.

            “My name is Medic, Jackson. I am of no threat to you, in fact just the opposite. I wish to give you entry into our home. It’ll be a big day for us, as we just had someone else join us earlier today.” Jack was uneasy at the fact that this person knew his name, but he wasn’t going to press the issue after the silver man.

            “Join you? You’re not one of those Follower guys are you?”

            Even in the darkness jack could see the man turn slightly pale, though it didn’t make much different due to his already pale complexion “I most certainly am not.” He said, clasping his hand on his arm. “We don’t necessarily work against them anymore, but we are in no way associated with those murderers.”

            Based on his reaction, Jack decided to trust the man on this topic. “Fine. You said you’re a medic?”

            “Well, to a point, but people call me Medic.” The stranger said, shrugging.

            “Well, if you patch me up, I’d be willing to listen to your proposition.” Jack said to him, slowly becoming aware of his leg pulsing painfully as his initial adrenaline began to subside.

            “You mean your nose? It seems as though the bleeding has stopped, and nothing is broken.” Medic said with a small chuckle, but when Jack held out his leg and lifted the leg of his jeans, the man’s smile disappeared as he saw the dirty bandage, soaked through with blood. “My God,” he ran to Jack and tenderly touched his bandage. “It seems fresh, this happened within the last day or so?”

            Jack nodded. “How can you tell that through the bandage?”

            “The skin I can see isn’t red yet, so infection hasn’t started yet. Come, we’ll get this fixed for you.” Medic said standing and gestured for Jack to follow along.

            Jack wasn’t sure what he was going to see inside of the castle, having never seen or read of them in his life. The stairs that led to the inner castle initially scared Jack, worrying for his leg, but Medic guided him to a doorway on the righthand side of the stairs.

            “This is a direct pathway to the medical wing.” Medic said. “It’s normally upstairs a few levels, but with this, it expedites the process.” He turned the knob on the door and it opened to reveal a massive room with dozens of sterile white tables everywhere, with privacy curtains pressed against the wall by the door.

Jack stepped through after Medic and was surprised when he looked out the window to see that the courtyard outside of the castle was far below them. “How are we so high?” He asked, bewildered.

            “The doorway we went through has a special charm on it.” Medic said. “I’ll explain it later if you like. There is a downside to this method though, you cannot access the rest of the castle if you went through this doorway, only through the stairs.”

“But I can see the stairs right there.” Jack said, pointing to the stairways leading up to the upper floors, and down to the lower floors.

“Try and go downstairs.” Medic said with a smile.

Jack limped over to the stairs and tried to take a step down, but his body physically wouldn’t move downward, as though there was a layer of glass over the stairs. The sight made Jack almost lose his balance, but he managed to stay upright. He tapped it firmly with his foot saw blue energy entwined with red, yellow, and green radiate outward in a shardlike manner. “Is it glass?” He asked.

“The ward blocking the stairs is glasslike when it shatters, yes. But no, it’s a spell, nearly unbreakable.” Medic sat down on a chair next to one of the tables, and pulled out a box of instruments. “It was put into place many years ago, I assume it was to help ensure that if someone failed to block that door, that any intruders would only have access to the sick and wounded, not the rest of the castle.”

“That’s horrible.” Jack said, stepping off of the ward, walking towards Medic.

“This castle has been around for a lot of unfortunate times, Jack.” Medic said solemnly. He put down a white sheet of paper on top of the platformlike bed, and gestured for Jack to lie down.

Jack did as asked, and he could feel Medic rolling up his pant leg. There was a painful tug on the bandage as Medic pulled it free from the congealed blood, and Jack squeezed his fists tight. Medic pulled out a bottle of clear liquid and poured it into Jack’s leg wound. Jack winced as he was expecting it to hurt, then he remembered what happened with the boiling water and relaxed slightly.

Then the true pain started.

            It felt as though fire was coursing into his body through his leg, the pain almost more excruciating as the initial wound was. He yelled at the top of his lungs, fists clenched so tight that they began to hurt, his too long fingernails flexing into his palms. Slowly the pain diminished, and Jack was left sweating and gasping for fresh cool castle air. “What the hell?” He said exasperated. “That was horrible.”

            Medic pressed a cool rag to his head for a moment. “Fire water. It’s a cleansing potion, designed to completely remove any coagulated blood for surgeons.”

            “You didn’t warn me about the pain?” Jack asked, now becoming angry.

            “If I had warned you, then you wouldn’t have let me do it.” Medic said simply. “This was for the best, there was too much blood to be able to work properly, and cleaning it any other way would have taken longer, and some would have hurt even more.”

            Jack hated this logic, but he agreed. He nodded to Medic to ask him to keep working.

            Medic took out a pair of medical tweezers and began to root around in Jack’s wound, agitating it, the pain now nothing compared to what he had just experienced. “There’s a lot of tearing here. What happened?” He asked Jack.

            “There were these people, wearing these like, matching hoods, but in different colors.” Jack started. “They were attacking a friend of mine. They fought back, one threw this, I dunno how to describe it, this like bolt of yellow light and it got me in the leg.”

            “You’re very lucky then, Jackson.” Medic said to him. Jack started to feel a warm sensation, and he looked down to see red energy radiating from Medic’s hands, flowing into and over his leg wound.

            “I feel lucky.” Jack said bitterly.

            “Well from what I was able to see, it barely missed your shin bone.” He poured some blue liquid into the wound that caused a tickling sensation. “If the harpoon had hit it, then the stoning would have spread more rapidly, on top of shattering the bone. I could have fixed it, but it would have taken months before your bone had healed back properly enough to walk.”

            “I understand the stoning part well enough, but harpoon?”

            Medic stood up and retrieved a roll of gauze wrap from a neighboring table. “Harpoons are specialties for some of the more powerful Flames. They are tricky to pull off, needing to be incredibly condensed Flame essentially, which is way past what I can do anyways. But they need to be sustained long enough for the change to take effect, in the case of a Yellow, the stoning. Whoever threw this wasn’t focused enough, or probably wasn’t powerful enough to keep it going.”

            “I pulled it out.” Jack said.

            “You, you what?” Medic asked, dropping the gauze in surprise. Once he recovered from his momentary shock, Medic threw the roll into the garbage can and grabbed another one.

            “I pulled it out.” Jack repeated. “After the man threw it. It turned blue, and I threw it back and-“ He stopped short, the gravity of his deed striking him again. “Oh god, he turned to ice!”

            “You seem troubled by this.” Medic noted, wrapping Jack’s leg with an abundance of the gauze.

            “I killed a man.” Jack said quietly, surprised Medic was able to hear. His vision began to warp and change as wet tears formed in his eyes.

            “Jackson?” Medic asked, putting a hand on Jack’s leg. “Listen to me. I know what happened. If you hadn’t, then you and my brother both would have died, or worse.” He said.

            “But how do I live with something like that?” Jack asked. “How do I live with the guilt of taking someone’s life? He was awful but… I killed someone.”

            “You live, Jackson. That’s how you live with it, you live. You talk about it if you want to. But try and find solace in the fact that you lived to see another day, and they would have likely killed someone else as well.”

            Jack looked at Medic and wiped the tears from his eyes. Medic seemed sad, as if he was fighting with a similar guilt to Jack’s. Medic looked into his eyes, and Jack could almost see the pain in his soul. “Thanks, Medic.” Jack said quietly, and sat up. He looked down at his wrapped up leg. “You said something about your brother, though?”

            “Yes, my brother.” Medic said with a smile. “I’m Slath’s brother. That’s how I knew your name. After you took the flight stone from Slath, he contacted me and told me to keep an eye out for you.”

            “You didn’t want to explain that to me sooner?” Jack asked him. “I would’ve trusted you quicker if you did.”

            Medic nodded. “Yes, I suppose you would have. But then again, Slath mentioned that once you learned he was keeping this world secret from you that you seemed distant towards him.”

            Jack looked down at his hands. “It was just a lot.” He said. “In a matter of days, I go from a normal homeless kid to turning men into ice, to flying to a castle who knows where. It is a lot.” He rectified.

            “You’re handling it extremely well, Jackson.” Medic said kindly. Now that he had mentioned his relation to Slath, Jack could see some resemblance, though nothing past them having similar noses and smiles. The rest seemed completely different.

            Medic stood up and stretched. “Well, that’s enough excitement for one night” He said. “Should I show you to your room?”

*

            Medic returned to his own room, and sat back in front of the scrying stone that he had used to find where Jackson had come from. Or Jack, as the younger had instructed him to call him, but Medic happened to enjoy the way Jackson was to say.

            The scrying stone, a large ruby disk with red Flame rippling along the surface, showed the colosseum on it’s surface, the Flames, creating the image. There were hieroglyphs carved into the surface of the stone around the rim, the actual spell allowing the stone to show distant images, though this one was only powerful enough to show the surrounding five miles, which happened to be the general area of the Stronghold.

            His chair was soft, but it was worn down over the years. It wasn’t originally his chair, many people having sat in the wooden chair with the leather cushion. Perhaps it was time to get the pad retufted. The room was large, larger than the newcomer’s room would be at this point, Medic having added several expansion charms into the doorway over time in order to give himself more space, and once Slath had spent time at the Stronghold he had expanded it once again, putting up a wall between the brothers as well for some privacy. Slath, being Flameless, wasn’t able to have his own proper room in the Stronghold, an unfortunate downside to whatever spells had been used to bind the rooms to the tenants.

            The coin that Slath had spoken through was sitting alongside the stone, the gold metal lined with various symbols that he wasn’t able to understand, being an ancient form of Greek. Slath’s would have looked the same, except his would have a small gemstone inside of it to power the enchantments inside of the coin, while Medic’s ran off of his personal supply of Flame.

            He put his head in his hands and took a deep breath. What were the odds of two newcomers coming in the same day? And such strange Flames at that. Medic had never heard of lightning giving people the gift of Flame, or returning as was apt in this situation. Slath had described what had happened to Jackson, Jack, and Zack had told him about the lightning himself. This couldn’t have been coincidence.

            Medic knew the stories, about the Flames more powerful than the rest bringing a change into the world. He was confident about Brooklyn being one, and poor Jason was another, though he was now out of Medic’s reach. Medic rubbed his covered arm, the old pain returning, just enough to remind him that it was there.

            Not wanting to invade their privacy, Medic spoke to the scrying stone, “Clear your visions.” Spoken in ancient Egyptian, and with a touch of his Flame, the image on the stone rippled away with the Flames inside of the gemstone.

            He needed to make sure that he was correct in assuming that Jack and Zack were the ones he had been anticipating for years.

            Medic smiled, considering the coincidence in the two having similar nicknames. There was more to them than even they knew.

 

Chapter Twelve:

            Jack hadn’t been in his room very long before he had stepped out. After years of living on the streets, the thought of being cooped up in a single room, though it was a perfectly nice room, sickened his stomach somewhat. He would have to get used to the idea of being stuck inside like that. His fingers still felt like they were burning from the key, which was now sitting in his pocket.

            He limped down the tall flights of marble stairs, though he could feel that despite the new pain, he was healing. Jack hadn’t been able to see too clearly what Medic had done to him, but it was related to what those strangers had done. This Flame, as Slath had called it, confused him. It was a part of him now, but despite the fact that he hadn’t had it for too long, it felt like it was missing from him previously.

            The castle was empty, the only sounds he could hear being from the wind outside making it’s way indoors through cracks in the windows and seals. Though Jack was largely unaffected by the cold, he shivered. This was unlike anything he had ever been in.

            Jack’s stomach growled. Medic had said that breakfast would be served early in the morning at 8AM, Jack wasn’t able to sleep knowing that food was still so far away. The walking had always kept his mind off of the hunger pangs. He opened the door to the left of the staircase in the entrance hall, just opposite of the medical door. Where did this door lead to?

            He was greeted by oppressive darkness. Normally, Jack would have been scared of the stairs descending downward, knowing better than to trust a place he couldn’t properly see, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him. He felt down with each step, making sure he didn’t put his full weight down before knowing there was a solid surface for him to stand upon.

            He felt the walls, the texture was glasslike underneath his fingers from how smooth it was, but there were protrusions and ridges everywhere that he could feel, though luckily it appeared that someone at some point had removed any of the sharp edges. Were these tunnels carved, or were they naturally occurring?

            Jack stepped forward, expecting there to be another step, but instead he had stepped too eagerly onto the floor, having arrived at the landing. Even in the daylight, how was anyone supposed to use these tunnels? Perhaps the sunlight lit them up? But the tunnels were underground, so Jack figured that was unlikely.

            He was drawn further along, and though he had held his hands in front of him to hopefully avoid hitting his head against the walls, he had done so. Jack swore and rubbed at his now ringing head, forehead tingling uncomfortably. In his pain and flash of anger, a short flash of blue light had escaped from Jack’s hands, and he could feel the flow of power escaping his fingers.

            Jack stared down at his hand, the darkness returning slowly as the blue energy faded. He closed his eyes and tried to find that well of power. He hadn’t been able to try actually using this power of his before, as he hadn’t had much opportunity to. The sensation of him releasing the power was pleasant, like a relief. Slowly at first, his hands began to glow, brighter and brighter as Jack released more of this energy out of his hands. He let the power flow freely now, and his hands appeared to be coated in light and dark blue flames. Now I know why it’s  called Flame, Jack thought to himself, mesmerized by the light show emanating from his hands. In his peripheral vision, Jack could see frost begin to build up on the black stone walls of the tunnel that he was in. Looking up, Jack could see that there were lightbulbs affixed to the top of the hallway, and he cursed at himself for not trying to find a light switch.

            Jack pulled back on the power, the light diminishing, but he left enough of it to light his way before him. The hallway still seemed to go on forever, though Jack wasn’t sure how long he had been walking. His stomach was beginning to growl, and as it did the energy in his hand seemed to flicker.

            He should turn back. But he didn’t. Jack kept walking down the hallway, more confident now than he had been before now that he was able to see. Doors were lined on either side of the hallway, many of which appeared as if they hadn’t been opened in dozens of years.

            A sharp scream pierced the still air, Jack stopping in his tracks. It was a woman, Jack had figured. It was coming from down the hallway! Years of being on the streets had told him to not worry about anyone other than those he depended on, like Slath and Janet. His heart grew sad, as he remember that his friends were now essentially lost to him.

            The scream rang out again, and Jack threw away all of his inhibitions, running towards the source of the screaming. It happened again, this time growing louder, and then again louder. A simple wooden door sat at the end of the seemingly endless hallway, Jack panting as he had reached it. His stomach growled again, and the light flickered. It would take him forever to get out of the tunnel if he had no light to see by.

            And again, the scream rang out, Jack wincing slightly at the intensity. Whoever that was who was screaming was in trouble. Jack pushed at the door and it didn’t open. He pulled on the handle, and it wouldn’t open again. He kicked it, and the door didn’t even budge.

            “Help me!” The voice shouted to him. ”Help me, Jack!”

            His heart stopped. He knew who this was. He had to help her! He hit the door repeatedly with his hand, the energy licking the door, turning part of it to ice. Jack poured more of his Flame out of his hand and pressed it to the door, the energy spreading along the woodgrain, turning parts of the door to ice. But he knew that was all that he had left, the energy in his hand now fading beyond his control.

            Jack kicked the door one final time and it shattered, pieces of wood and ice flying outward. He was blinded by the sight of true fire, the flames burning so hot that he could feel his face tighten from the heat. The smoke filled his nose and made him cough. The scream came through again, the Jack could see who had screamed. But he wasn’t able to understand who he was looking at. Her features were blurry, as if from an old TV signal. Her hair seemed to be made up of countless possible hair colors, and her form was shifting rapidly.

            “Oh Jack thank God!.” She yelled, trying to stand up. But her leg, oh her leg! It was broken in several places, and in one spot Jack could see blood coming through her pant leg. She reached up for him. “Sweetie help me!”
            He had to get her to Medic, he could help her. The wall behind her was painted white, picture frames burning up from the intense heat of the flames. The carpet on the floor was melting away. Jack made his way into the room slowly. No matter how far he seemed to walk into the room, the woman wouldn’t come any closer. He ran now, ignoring the flames he was passing, and finally she was within reach, her hand outstretched. He lifted his hand to grab it, but before their fingers touched, a growl came from the flames. A fiery maw revealed itself from the fire and it grabbed the woman by her bad leg, and it pulled her into the flames. Jack could hear the pain and death in the woman’s screams.

            “Jack?” A voice said to him.

            Jack had fallen on the cold floor of the entrance hallway. Daylight was coming in through some of the surrounding windows, warming him. Had he been dreaming? No, it was too real, he had smelled everything, felt the heat, but when he touched his face all pain and tightness was gone. The smoke was gone from his lungs, his breathing now normal. Jack stood up and saw Medic walking down the stairs toward him quickly. “Jack are you alright?” Medic asked him, walking up to him.

            “Uh, yeah.” Jack said, but his heart was still racing from the dream. “Must’ve sleepwalked.”

            “Awful long way to sleepwalk.” Medic said, inspecting Jack’s face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

            “Just a bad dream I think.” Jack said. “Is it time for breakfast?” His stomach had growled as he asked the question. He was starving, and whatever he had just experienced made him feel drained. Medic nodded and gestured for Jack to follow him through the door directly to the left from the foot of the stairs, and he walked away.

            Jack followed just behind and he held up his hand. He released his hold on the power and let what little he had left flow outward, and blue mist trailed from his hand. So that part of the dream was real, at least.

            The breakfast was comprised of only Medic and Jack, at least at first. Jack sat across from him, the dining hall having long wooden tables that must have been crafted from trees many hundreds of years old. The dark, almost black wood was varnished with a smooth glasslike texture. Golden plates, four of them, sat near each other, two on each side where someone would have sat. They were accompanied by crystal chalices.

            Medic told Jack to put some Flame in to the plate, and before he did, jack watched Medic. The red energy came from Medic’s fingers and into the plate, and slowly as if the bottom of the plate was molten gold, food began to rise from beneath it. Eggs, bacon, and a short stack of pancakes. The smell made Jack’s mouth almost hurt as it began to water rapidly.

            Jack repeated the procedure, and an identical meal to Medic’s rose from his plate. On intuition, he did the same to the chalice next to him, and as if filling from below, orange liquid rose in the glass, and from a sip Jack could determine that it was simply orange juice, nothing more.

            And he was elated.

            He had never been exposed to this much fresh food at once, the bacon still sizzling slightly on the plate. Jack picked up a fried egg with his fingers, and Medic looked at him, an eyebrow raised.

            Jack set it down and brushed his fingers on his still ruined shirt. “Sorry, got carried away.”

            Medic smiled. “It’s quite alright, but please Jack, we have silverware to eat with, and no one is going to take this from you.”

            Jack grabbed a silver form from next to the plate and began to eat. It was divine! The bacon was fatty and crisp, the eggs were runny, and the pancakes had a festive taste to them that Jack recognized from pumpkin pastries he had been lucky enough to eat a few times in the late fall. He didn’t even realize that there was no syrup on the pancakes.

            Two figures entered the dining hall, a boy around his age with darker skin and curly hair of a large build, and a girl, also around his own age it seemed, with paler skin and a rope of light brown hair braided and draped off of one shoulder. Jack was too preoccupied with eating to do more than glance in their direction, but once they sat down next to them, the girl sitting next to Medic, and the boy sitting next to him, Jack found that up close the girl was quite pretty. He slowed down with his eating, almost unconsciously.

            “Medic, who is this?” The girl asked Medic, touching her plate with green energy. The boy followed suit, his energy a more vivid red than Medic’s.

            Medic swallowed the bite of food he had in his mouth and nodded. “I suppose introductions are in order. Zack, Brooklyn, meet Jackson, though he prefers Jack.”

            Jack set down the fork and reached out his hand to the girl, Brooklyn. She glanced down at his hand and shook her head slightly. Jack was now self-conscious about his hands now, and could visibly see the dirt on them still. Part of him was regretting not cleaning up the night before.

            “Good to meet you.” Zack said to him, curtly. Perhaps he had similar misgivings about Jack that Brooklyn had, but based on the way Zack held his arms close to his body as to seem as small as possible, Jack figured that Zack had only arrived very recently.

            Medic nodded towards Zack. “Zack here arrived yesterday a little after lunchtime, and Jackson arrived after midnight.” Zack only shrugged in agreement. “Though Zack will need some time getting used to everything still.” Medic noted.

            Jack looked at Zack. “You’re new to everything here too?”

            “Everything in general.” Zack said quietly.

            “Yes, the both of you have a fresh start with all of this right now.” Medic said, using his fork to cut through some of the pancakes. “Eat though, and Jack it might be best if you shower and clean up afterwards. Then we will discuss everything.”

            And so they all ate. The sounds of chewing and drinking were only disturbed by the occasional question from Brooklyn or Medic about something minor, or Medic telling Jack that by putting more power into the plate he can get seconds. Jack did so and was surprised to find that his energy was already fuller and brighter after having eaten. Jack couldn’t help but notice Brooklyn’s stare at Jack’s hands, which Jack assumed she had found more grime that even he hadn’t seen, but she had been looking at his energy. He pretended to not look as he ate more pancakes, but he could almost hear the unspoken exchange between Brooklyn and Medic, and Jack was almost certain it had something to do with his energy.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen:

            The blue decorations in his room surprised Jack, though he had been fully aware of them when he had touched the key. But now that daylight was pouring in through the false window, the vibrancy of the blue struck him. The view outside of the window was of a cherry blossom tree, with pink petals, some of which were drifting from the branches. The tree itself was located on the edge of a cliff, facing towards the ocean. Though Jack hadn’t paid it much mind the night before, the view of it in the daytime was breathtaking.

            Jack looked in the drawers of the dresser, and found many pairs of shirts and pants, more clothes than he possibly had ever had access to as a kid on the streets, not including the one or two charity events he had been able to attend of course. He pulled out a clean change of clothes and went to find the bathroom. Medic had told him where they were, but fatigue had gotten the better of Jack so he couldn’t quite remember. Was it left or right?

            Jack went left, and quickly had found himself in the middle of a cozy sitting room with a warm fire blazing in the corner. Pleasant, but definitely not the room he had been looking for. He backtracked and found the restroom and stepped inside. There was a long row of toilet stalls, each with their own doors and latches. Opposite those were the sinks, soap pumps and mirrors. The castle was strangely modern for such an old structure. To the left, on the same side as the sinks, was another hallway with a dozen different shower stalls.

            They were large inside, with a dressing bench inside, a stack of towels, and some simple toiletries and soaps sitting on a shelf just below the shower head. Next to the changing bench was a laundry chute. Jack undressed, and after a moment’s consideration, he decided he was going to throw away his old clothes one he had showered, seeing a trash can by the sinks.

            The water was pleasant to him, never too hot nor too cold. This was likely due to his Flame protecting him, based off of what Slath had told him. Not that he was complaining, this was definitely a benefit to his new powers. He washed off several week’s worth of dirt and grime, and by the time he had turned the flow of water off, he had felt more human than he had before turning it on. Though he had always tried to remain somewhat clean on the streets, there was only so much that he was able to do on a regular basis. But this; he could get used to this.

            He dried off with the towel and threw it down the laundry chute, and he got dressed. His clothes seemed to fit him perfectly, and not a hole in sight. Scooping up his old clothes in his arms, he tossed them into the trash can. There was something final about this act. Almost as if Jack could have taken back the last few days and had everything return to normal, and with discarding the remnants of his old life, it was now gone completely.

            Jack returned to his room and had found a fresh pair of shoes there for him. He wondered where these must have come from, and decided that he would ask Medic about it when he had the chance. His heart was fluttering, as if he was nervous about the conversation ahead of him. A look at his shaking hand confirmed this. He had so many questions that he needed to have answered.

            There was a knock on his door, and Jack opened it to reveal Brooklyn. She was looking down the hallway, but when she realized that the door had opened she looked at him. She smiled at him, and held out her hand. Jack hesitated before taking it and shaking. “Medic told me that you might need someone to show you where the Rec Room is?”

            Jack nodded, “Yeah, I do.”

            He closed his door and they walked down the stairs, Jack limping slightly still. His wound was still angry and red, but it felt better than it had beforehand. “Look, I want to apologize about earlier.” Brooklyn said.

            “What do you mean?” He said to her.

            “At breakfast. I’m sorry, I’m just not good in the morning especially with new people. And…”

            “I was filthy?” She didn’t respond to this, but Jack knew this was her exact thought. “It’s fine,” Jack said. “I’m used to it. Don’t worry about it.” He knew he was being dismissive, but he couldn’t help it.

            They walked in silence the rest of the way down the stairs. She turned to the right and led Jacck to the stairway that he had gone down during his dream. No, it wasn’t a dream, it was so real. But how did he end up back in the entrance hall?

            The door opened and Jack was surprised to see that the tunnel was now lit, warm lightbulbs wired to the ceiling of the tunnel. Now that there was light down there, he was more comfortable with this situation.

            At the bottom of the stairs, Brooklyn turned to the first door on the right and opened it up, more light streaming into the hallway. But Jack wasn’t interested in the new room. He stared down the hallway, noticing that the lights only revealed a dozen or so other rooms before they stopped, darkness continuing onward.

            “Everything okay Jack?” Brooklyn asked him, she was staring at him with concern.

            Jack could hear the echoes of the woman’s scream again, but he knew this was in his head. “Yeah, everything’s fine. Let’s go.” He told her and they entered what must be the Rec Room.

            The room was massive, far larger than it should have been, and the polished floors showed few signs of use. His eye caught the weapon racks at the back of the room, and for some reason he was drawn towards them. He looked around and saw that it was only himself and Brooklyn in the room, Medic and Zack having not arrived yet. He picked up a sword, the blade tarnished with age and wear, and the edge was incredibly dull, though this was likely a safety precaution. It was roughly two and a half feet long, with a ridge down the middle, almost tracing the two sides of the blade. He gave it a few cursory swings, the surprising weight at the end of the weapon catching him off guard, and he lost his balance slightly.

            “You’re going to hurt yourself.” Brooklyn called to him. She had taken a seat on top of one of the tables along the opposite wall as the weapons racks. She seemed so far away from him, though he was able to hear her perfectly.

            “I’ve never used a sword before.” He called back. Though he barely even knew what a sword was, not having much access to anything that would even show one, it felt good in his hand, if it was really heavy to him. Jack gave it another swing, this time across his body, and before he could stop it’s movement it hit the wooden weapon rack behind him and tore off a piece of wood.

            Brooklyn started to laugh at him, and Jack could feel his face burn bright red. He put the sword back where he found it and walked over to her, sitting down and putting his head in his hands. “Smooth moves.” She teased. She was still laughing as the door clicked open, and Zack walked into the room, followed shortly after by Medic.

            Jack glared at Brooklyn, who was trying to stifle her laughs to some success. Medic nodded to them and sat down across from Jack as he had at breakfast. “Brooklyn, play nice.” He chastised her.

            She took a deep breath and said, “Fineee.” Jack could tell that she wasn’t going to let him live it down. She sat properly in a chair next to Jack, and Zack sat across from her.

            “I’m happy to see the two of you getting along.” Medic said, and he set a large book onto the table. “So. This is an interesting situation that you two have put me in.” He said, gesturing to Zack and Jack.

            “How’s that?” Jack asked him.

            “Typically, children are born with Flames, so they become accustomed to everything revolving them early on in life.” Medic began. “The rules, the guidelines, the meanings. The two of you, while you’ve learned a little in the last couple of days, are woefully unprepared for this.” He took the book and opened it up to a page in the middle, a drawing of a hexagon with lines segmenting it on the page. “Zack, I’ve already talked to you about some of this but I wasn’t expecting us to have another visitor so please forgive me for repeating myself.”

            Medic took a deep breath. “Our world is made up of four fundamental energies; earth, wind, fire, and water. You may be familiar with them as the classical elements, or the alchemical elements. Everything is made up in part by these elements in one capacity or another.”

            “What about trees? Or glass?” Jack asked him.

            “Well, trees are grown in the earth, take in water and air, and some trees, like pine trees, propagate through fire spreading the seeds.” Medic explained patiently. “It’s not an exact science, and there’s still plenty we do not understand of course, like where the actual elements factor in, but you can attribute the world around these four core energies.” He tapped to the drawing in the book. “They are embodies by what we call the World Flames, one red, one blue, on yellow, and one green.” He said, tapping a section of the hexagon with his finger with each word. “There are two other Flames that we don’t discuss as much, but the golden Flame for Life, and the black Flame for Death.”

            “You did mention the Death one yesterday,” Zack said. “But why aren’t they talked about much?”

            Medic nodded. “Simply speaking, no one has ever been born with control over the Gold and the Black Flames. It’s unnatural for a human to have that power. Arkotos, the leader of the Followers, is what we call a Quorpet. The sentient embodiment of the Flames. Normally they are largely hands off, for lack of a better term, but Arkotos has had a group of Flames working for him for at least 500 years, these being the Followers.”

            “The Followers being what attacked me, right?” Jack asked, and Zack seemed to nod in agreement.

            “Correct.” Medic said. “I assume they have developed a way of tracking those with powerful Flames, or at least strong surges of power. And from what I know from you two regarding the last few days, the detected incredibly large surges of power and that instigated them to search for you.”

            “What could they want with us though?” Jack asked.

            “You’re powerful. I haven’t seen much from you, Zack, but based off of what Jack told me regarding the attack, I can only assume that you two are some of the most powerful Flames alive right now.”

            Zack asked a question this time, “How would we know how powerful we really are?”

            “There are tests.” Brooklyn said. “Nothing too crazy or anything, but they’ll give you a good idea on how pure your Flame is.”

            “So there are different levels of Flame then?” Zack asked them.

            “Indeed.” Medic said, flipping through the book until he found a specific page and turned it towards them. The page showed four silhouettes drawn side by side each other, each one had different amounts of energy surrounding them. The first had none, the second had what appeared to be whisps of smoke, the third had a substantial amount more smoke, and the fourth was covered in what appeared to be fire. “Everyone falls into these categories here: Flameless, then weak Flames, then just Flames, then Pure Flames. Pure Flames being the rarest, and the most powerful. Despite there being no way to distinguish between varying levels of ‘pure,’ they are without a doubt stronger than the other three.”

            “Which one are you?” Jack asked him.

            “I am a weak Flame.” Medic held up his hand and released his energy, faint red smoke almost invisible in the bright gymnasium lights overhead. Jack could feel the warmth coming from the energy. “I can do some basic Flamework and spells, but other than that I need some help.”

            Zack rubbed his chin. “Okay, so what exactly makes you weaker than us? I don’t understand.”

            “It’s like this.” Medic said. “If you cast a spell and it takes fifty Flame points to use, then you are left with a reserve. For me, that would take up all of my Flame points, assuming I only have fifty. But for you two, you might have 500 Flame points, so you would be left with 450 more. Exact same spell, exact same effect, but you have more use of it.”

            “And if you don’t have enough Flame to do something?” Jack asked.

            “Well, chances are it just wouldn’t work. However you can force your body to go through with it. This is dangerous though, as it will burn up your body for fuel.” Medic pulled something out of his neckline, a bright red ruby with a heart of Flame. “We do have ways around this, however. Gemstones can actually store Flame inside of them, and as a Flame wielder we can draw upon this Flame instead of our personal stores.”

            Jack grabbed the stone from Medic’s hand and inspected it. The housing for the gem was ornate gold, with wire wrappings around it to keep the stone in place. The gem itself was a cut ruby, and it sparkled as the Flame licked the inside of the gem’s surface. “It’s beautiful.” He said, and he handed it back.

            “Very, but it’s also very dangerous.” Medic said, putting the chain back around his neck and tucking it away under his shirt. “If a stone with a high concentration of Flame inside of it were to break, it could easily explode, destroying anything nearby. A relatively empty stone on the other hand wouldn’t do much, if anything at all.”

            “So they’re batteries.” Zack said simply. “You charge them, and you can use them.”

            Medic nodded. “That’s a good enough comparison. Gemstones on the other hand have some limitations. Unlike batteries, where if you have more and more stored up they are largely safe, filled gems can be volatile with one another.”

            “Is that bad?” Jack asked.

            “Very.” Medic said. “And unlike batteries, once a gemstone is completely depleted, it cannot be used again. A gem will charge itself naturally, assuming there is Flame inside anyways, pulling from the world around it, or even off of a Wielder. Once it is entirely used up, the gem will shatter internally, or sometimes it’ll even crumble and fall apart. You could use the remains to house Flame, but they’re so small it wouldn’t contribute anything really.”

            “How does someone charge a gem?” Jack liked the idea of having a store of energy with him at all times.

            “Or would it not be worth it for us?” Zack inquired, clearly he was thinking more critically than Jack was.

            “It is always worth it to have a gem with you.” Medic said. “We have some empty ones upstairs somewhere for you if you would like one. To charge a gem, you must pour your Flame into the gem, and this will essentially set the capacity. If you only put a small portion into a gem, you cannot add more later on.”

            That seemed a little peculiar to Jack, but he just accepted it as most of what he was learning wasn’t making sense to him anyways. “So if I had a few gems, assuming they don’t react with each other, then I would have more Flame to use?”

            Medic nodded in confirmation.

            “What is Arkotos after?” Zack asked him.

            Medic stared at him, and Jack was surprised by the abrupt nature of the question. Perhaps he had been too excited about being able to play with his new ability now that he understood better on how to use it to miss the bigger picture, but Zack had caught onto what he needed to. “Arkotos wishes for the death of all of us.”

            They fell silent, and Jack could feel a chill run down his spine. “Of all of us? Even his Followers?”

            Medic shrugged. “I’m not sure about the Followers. I can’t imagine most of them would want to die, but there are undoubtedly a few that would enjoy that.”

            “Why does he want to kill all of us though?” Zack asked further. “What does he have to gain?”

            Medic glanced at Brooklyn and she nodded slightly. “Well, I don’t have anything conclusive for you. What I do know is this. With every death, Arkotos presumably has more power as someone dying generates a spark of the Black Flame. He wants to increase his power for something, but I don’t know what. He wants to tear down the Pillar Worlds.”

            “The what?” Jack asked him.

            “I suppose I should have brought those up sooner, I apologize.” Medic turned back to the page with the hexagonal shape on it. “The main Flames, Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow, are attached to what we call the Pillar Worlds, powered mostly by each of the Flames, hence we call them the World Flames. Based on human influence, each of the Worlds, or Realms as we sometimes call them, have roots in the many mythologies of the Nexus. Our world. The world of the Yellow Flame is already gone, Xibalba, based on Aztec legends. Yggdrasil for the Blue Flame for Norse myths. Ma’at for the Red Flame, Egyptian this time. And the last one is Olympus for the Green, for Greco Roman myths.”

            “So the world’s myths are based on these other realms?” Zack asked him.

            Medic shook his head. “No, quite the opposite. As humans developed, they needed stories to give them perspective on the world around them, the myths and legends doing exactly that, and adding some moral dilemmas into the equation sometimes. The believers of these stories, the ancient Flames, their faith in the stories influenced the development on the Pillar Worlds for their specific Flames. For Yggdrasil for instance, mostly Blues lived in Scandinavia, so it was their stories that influenced the realm of the Blue Flame. In a sense, the belief in their gods made their gods real, just not here in the Nexus.”

            “And you said that Xibalba was already destroyed?” This time it was Jack, surprising even himself, but he felt this was important to ask. “What does that mean?”

            Medic shrugged. “This is where it gets tricky. Nothing like this has ever happened. But the theory is that if two of the Pillar Worlds fall, then the Nexus will begin to crumble. For one to fall, the world needs to experience it’s own apocalypse, and at the final moments the World Flame will be revealed, and only then can it be consumed by Arkotos. As long as the Flame remains pure, the remnants of the world survive, but since Arkotos consumed the Yellow World Flame, Xibalba is gone completely.”

            Jack thought about this for the silence that followed. Something burned inside of him, some sense of duty, that he couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t his, but perhaps it wasn’t entirely foreign either. “Is there anyone fighting back?”

            “Jason did.” Brooklyn spoke up. “Until…”

            “Jason fought against Arkotos in Xibalba.” Medic elaborated, as Brooklyn wiped a tear from her eye. “He was Pure, just like the three of you are.”

            Jack looked at Brooklyn and understood that she must have a pure Green Flame. “So then it’s our responsibility?”

            “Jackson,” Medic started, but Jack cut him off.

            “Well if we’re super powerful, then we should be the ones to fight back right? Jason’s gone, clearly. Maybe it’s because he was by himself.” Jack said confidently. “If the three of us are Pures like you say, then maybe standing together we can defeat Arkotos.” Where was this confidence coming from? Brooklyn stared at him, dumbfounded, and Zack looked pale. But Jack felt good about this. He knew that this was the right thing for him to do, for them to do.

            “There’s no way of knowing what they’re doing until it’s too late, Jack.” Medic said calmly.

            “What do you mean?”

            “When Jason was here, we had some scouts left, people who would spend their time living in the Pillar Worlds and would return here to report back on anything important. Everyone is gone, though. We don’t have scouts left, we don’t even have a reliable way of getting into the pillar worlds.”

            Zack spoke, “What if we made a way? Couldn’t we find something to get into the other worlds with?”

            Medic thought about this for a moment. “I suppose you’re right.”

            “So it’s settled then.” Jack said with a smile.

            “No, not yet.” Medic said. “I think it would be best if we took some time to bring the two of you to a level of competence with your Flames, and maybe some swordplay and Flamework to go alongside it. We can’t rush into this. In the meantime, I’ll figure out a safe way of entering the other Worlds. Alright?”

            Jack stood up and smiled at them. “Well, that’s good enough for me.” He was shaking, though he did his best to not show it to the others. Part of him knew what undertaking he had just agreed to be apart of, basically leading, but somewhere inside him he had a sense of relief as if he was holding his breath for many years, waiting to hear the right words.

*

            Brooklyn stayed behind as Zack and Jack had left. What had just happened? The suddenness of the events of the meeting had left her slightly shaken. Brooklyn hadn’t spoken her agreement, but it was expected of her to comply. Which she found exhilarating. She had been wanting the freedom do avenge Jason for the last year, but at every step Medic had stopped her.

            “Is this what you were waiting for?” Brooklyn asked Medic, who was sitting at the table still, staring at the book.

            He jumped slightly, as if surprised that she was still there. “What do you mean?”

            “You wouldn’t let me go out to fight. Were you waiting for other Flames that were willing to stand against Arkotos?” She inquired.

            “That wasn’t necessarily my intention, Brooklyn.”

            “Then what was?”

            “Protecting you, just as Jason had wanted.” He said simply.

            Brooklyn stared at him. “He asked you to keep me locked up in this stupid castle instead of helping him?”

            “You’re hardly locked up.”

            “I could have helped him?” Her voice was raising, her anger starting to bubble within her. “He died because of some damn promise?”

            “You would have died too, Brooklyn.” Medic looked at her with a tear in his eye, shame radiating off of him. “I wasn’t going to be responsible for the death of the both of you.”

            “So it was all about you then, as usual.” She said.

            “Brooklyn.”

            Instead of responding, Brooklyn clenched her fist and allowed her Flame to emerge. She hit the table with her hand and the green energy radiated quickly from her hand to cover the table, and within a matter of moments it had vanished, turning into fresh air that assisted the stuffy room. She stood up and looked back at Medic. “I am going to help this time, in any way I can, and you cannot stop me.” She stormed out of the room, slamming the door open in the process. She wiped away a tear as she ran up the stairs and outside.

            “Stupid Medic.” She muttered to herself, as she crossed the drawbridge. She had spent enough time here, practicing with her Flame, training with the various weapons, reading at least a few of the books. She was prepared for anything, or so she thought.

            And it was all based around two boys who hadn’t even been in this world for longer than a week. She was going to help them become ready for what lies ahead.

 

Chapter Fourteen:

            Zack unpacked his duffel bag. His fatigue had caught up with him the day before, so he hadn’t been able to do so until now. The only thing missing was his book, Hidden Mysteries of the Flames, which he had given to Medic who had promised to return it to him. The clothes came out of the duffel, along with the toiletries. He still had his money, and he set it on top of the dresser. The books came out now, From Ma’at to Yggdrasil: A Guide to the Realms of the Nexus, and Flame Friendly Flora and Fauna of the Nexus.

            There was that term, Nexus. Medic had mentioned it during their meeting, and now Zack knew what it meant. The Nexus was the connecting point of the Pillar Worlds, though he was still generally unsure as to how that worked. Medic answered a lot of the questions that Zack had, but unfortunately that opened up far more of them. And then there was Jack. How was he so comfortable proclaiming that they were going to fight against the embodiment of death?

            Zack shook his head and set the bag down on the floor, the contents now on the bed. He stuffed the clothes into the dresser with every intention of folding them later, and the book went on top of said dresser. The toiletries wouldn’t do him much good now, as the castle seemed to provide all of that for them. He put them into another drawer in the dresser, perhaps they would need them in their fight against Death.

            Sitting down on the bed, the soft mattress comforting him, Zack sat back against the headboard. It was still hard to believe that this all was real, that he was actually here and that he was a Flame. He liked the idea of being a powerful one, even if the practicality put a target on his back. He had trouble keeping his eyes open. He was still so tired, and the bed was so soft…

            The mirror.

            The mirror! Zack sat up and got out of the bed, reaching down and grabbing the duffel off of the ground and rooted around in it until he found what he had been looking for. The ornate silver mirror. And, as Zack had forgotten as well, the small bottle of orange liquid with the label in tidy handwriting which named the potion Liquid Explosion. Gently he set the potion down, though if the glass were to have broken, it would have by now. The glass must be surprisingly strong.

            Zack held the mirror in both of his hands, the silver feeling almost delicate. Though he knew it to be a mirror, the face of it was dull. He could see himself well enough, but the image was muddied by what appeared to be a type of fog.

            Almost by instinct, Zack poured some Flame into his index finger, and tapped the face of the mirror. Red energy flowed from where he touched, and it spread to the ornate frame of the mirror, symbols now burning bright along the borders. Though Zack saw what appeared to be Egyptian Hieroglyphs, he was able to actually understand them as he read, the meaning seemingly flowing into his mind: “Flames guide you on your journey.” Endearing, for a mirror.

            Slowly, the image in the glass began to clear, the fog that vaguely reflected Zack’s visage moving out behind the frame of the mirror, and in the image he saw his mother. His heart skipped a beat, and he inspected the sight closely.

            She was wearing her hair in a ponytail, accompanied by a business appropriate suit and slacks. And to Zack’s regret, she was sifting through piles of ashes. The remnants of her house. The fire looked as though it destroyed a lot, leaving little more than ashes behind. Zack could see that she was below ground level, perhaps she was trying to make her way into the secret room.

            The doorway opened up for her, after a nudge, and Zack was surprised to see that the room had collapsed in on itself, no longer massive as it was when he had seen it, but it was now smaller than even a closet. Everything that had been in the room had retained it’s size, but due to being blocked behind the door, everything was crushed up, furniture, plants, potions.

            She seemed to wipe away a tear, and Zack almost shed one himself until he realized that she had only been covering her nose, probably so that she wouldn’t breathe in anything dangerous. She clapped her hands together, red energy engulfing them, and she held them out towards the rubble, and slowly it began to flow out of the opening of the secret room. Despite it being in a haphazard way, everything stayed somewhat intact as she moved it, the remnants of the tables and bottles staying together and such. What was she doing?

            Once the doorway was cleared, the energy from her hands faded, and she collapsed onto her knees. Clearly this had taken a lot of her Flame to do. But she stood back up and inspected the brutalized remains of her secret room, and it appeared as if she was taking inventory on what was in there. Would she realize that the mirror and potion were gone?

            Zack channeled some more Flame into the mirror to ensure that the image wouldn’t fade, and suddenly he could actually hear her! “-glad he’s gone, just like the others. Takes my things and burns my house down, how did he even know about this room?”

            Heart heavy, he cut off the flow of power and set the mirror down. To think that he regretted leaving her. But now he had some closure on worrying about whether or not she had actually cared about him towards the end. Tears emerged from his eyes, and he picked up the mirror that still displayed his mother, and threw it as hard as he could at the wall. It didn’t break as he had anticipated, it only hit the grey stone brick wall and slid behind the dresser.

*

            The library was where Zack had found his solace after his revelation about his mother. The many mysteries held within the pages brought some sense of strange comfort to him, the understanding that there was still so much for him to learn, not only about the world that he had left, but also of the world he now found himself in.

            Zack had little interest in the forge area, the dangers there were very real if you were untrained in the arts of smithing. Or would he be protected, as he had a higher tolerance for heat? Perhaps he would have to test this theory at some point.

            The medical floor was irrelevant to him, as he rarely got hurt, and any information regarding the act of healing would exist in the library anyways, not in the sick ward. There was the Rec Room, where he would sometimes go to get some exercise, typically sparring with the equally untrained Jack in sword fighting, most of the time he spent active was outside, wandering the castle grounds, marveling at the massive wall around the castle and the colosseum, which he noticed was larger on the inside as well.

            Meals were spent with the others in the dining hall, and as much as he enjoyed spending time with the others, he didn’t truly feel as though he belonged with them, except perhaps Medic. Jack was as new to the Stronghold as he was, and already he seemed to be well liked by Brooklyn, Medic, and Zack. He was able to keep up with their conversations better, able to be one of them better. Zack, on the other hand, had little in common with them. Medic was a man of learning, so he had that in common with Zack. But Zack found that he just spent more and more time by himself in the library. Though he had a new family, he was still largely alone.

*

            Jack loved the Stronghold. The consistency involved was incredible to him. Day to day life, waking up, eating, running outside, eating, sparring, eating again, and then sleeping, brought so much joy to his heart after so many years of not knowing where his next meal would come from and having to steal to get what he needed.

            He hadn’t forgotten the promise that he had made to fight against the faceless danger that was Arkotos several weeks ago, but part of him was hesitant to do so. Jack had found a life that he was actually enjoying here, could he potentially throw it all away just for some silly promise and some alien sense of duty?

            Of course, he could.

            The stale air of the Rec Room filled his lungs as he stepped inside early in the day, a little before breakfast. He usually waited until after lunch to do any swordplay, but having woken up early he felt he should make the best of his time. The lights flickered on and began to buzz from the electricity after Jack flipped the light switch, and he walked over to the weapon’s rack. The sword he had first picked up, the short sword that had gouged out a chunk of wood from the rack itself, was what he grabbed again, this time with more confidence.

            His arms hurt less and less every time he swung the heavy blade, his body becoming stronger from the repeated use and training. He stood, feet parallel to his shoulders, cutting in front of him with each swing of the blade.

            “You’re still doing it wrong.” A voice said to him, and Jack started, looking around and seeing nothing. He heard the scarping of wood against wood, and he turned around to see a wooden staff coming off of the rack, faster than he could even understand, and it cracked into the handle of the sword and came free from his grip, clattering to the floor.

            Holding the staff, Brooklyn materialized in front of him, a smirk on her face. “What the hell?” Jack said, anger flaring slightly as he held his hand. She hadn’t hit him directly, but the shock had made his hand go numb.

            “You’re still doing it wrong.” She said again, as if Jack hadn’t heard her the first time.

            “And you tell me that by knocking it out of my hands?”

            “Well, you need some sort of negative feedback, wouldn’t you say?” She smiled at him and with a wave of her hand, green energy circled the handle of the blade and it lifted into the air, at the perfect height for Jack to grab.

            “Alright, I’ll bite. What is the right way then?” He asked her, feeling irritated.

            She grabbed another sword off of the rack, this one had a much thinner blade but the sword was at least six inches longer, with a slight curve to it. She threw the staff off to the side. “First, feet shoulder width apart, dominant leg back slightly.” She did as such, putting her left leg back slightly.

            Jack stood across from her, instead he put his right leg back.

            “And now, two hands on the handle, like this.” She put what must have been her dominant hand on top, and her other hand on the bottom. Jack did the same, but she shook her head at him. “You’re gripping it too tight.” Brooklyn said. “Relax. Imagine it like you’re shaking someone’s hand, you want a firm grip, but you don’t want to hurt them.”

            Jack readjusted his grip, and he was surprised at how much better the sword now felt in his hands. “That’s better.” He said with a smile. “And you waited now to tell me any of this?”

            Brooklyn shrugged. “I hadn’t figured to until medic suggested I help you out. I guess he saw how bad you are.”

            “I’m not that bad.” Jack said defiantly.

            “Oh, yeah?” She said with a smile. “Try to hit me.”

            “What?” Jack was surprised. “I’m not going to hit you with a sword.”

            “Relax, you won’t be able to get me anyways.” She winked at him. “Just do it.”

            Jack hesitated, but he nodded and swung out at her, but before the blade really had a chance to move through the air, Brooklyn had moved out of the way of the blade and slapped Jack’s stomach with the flat of hers. “You started too high up for an attack. That means you’re more easily telegraphed, and you’re more easily countered.”

            Jack growled at her slightly, the pain in his stomach now irritating him. “Whatever, one more.” He said. Jack swung again, and this time she had just moved out of the way. Jack could feel the blade move too far out of the way, and in the time that it took to bring the weapon back to a starting position, she had struck it with her sword.

            “You overdid it.” She said simply.

            “I noticed that.” Jack said bitterly. At least she hadn’t hit him this time.

            “You need to relax.” Brooklyn said with a smile again.

            “You need to stop being so damn smug.” Jack growled at her again. He was now sick to his stomach. He had enjoyed coming down here to swing the sword around, and now she was ruining this for him.

            “I’m not being smug, Jack. Look, I’m sorry I did that, I shouldn’t be trying to humiliate you.” She actually stopped smiling now that she had realized that Jack was genuinely mad at her. “I’ll go easy on you.” Brooklyn stepped back and held the sword in one hand. “No Flame helping me this time I promise.”

            “You were using Flame?” Jack asked her, some surprise in his voice.

            She nodded and held up her hand. Green energy, only a trickle so it was faint vapor, came from her hand. “Green’s can use their Flame to have the air around them speed them up. I should be able to teach you how to do it too, since there’s water in the air, but it won’t be as effective.”

            “Maybe later.” He considered this for a moment, however. That was a brilliant idea, if only he knew how to manipulate water like that. “You’ll go easy on me though?”

            “Promise.” She said and got into a fighting stance.

            Jack did as well, holding his sword up. She swung at him first, noticeably slower than the first time, but still faster than Jack had anticipated. He jumped back from the attack, and swung out at her, but she parried his attack and knocked him off balance. Their fight only lasted less than thirty seconds, only five of which Jack felt as though he had some semblance of control, but as he was on the ground with Brooklyn’s sword pointed at his neck, something burned inside of him.

            He smiled wide at her. “One more.”

            Jack this time had a better idea of what to expect, having a better eye on what to anticipate from Brooklyn, noticing her arms tense as she was about to attack, noticing her shoulder muscles, as toned as they were, power the swings almost as much as her arms did.

            He parried several attacks of hers and swung at her a few times. The excitement that had began to burn had started to grow, and grow, and grow, until as they swung to meet their swords in a strike, a flash of blue energy exploded from Jack’s weapon and when it made contact with Brooklyn’s blade, her sword shattered.

            Jack dropped to his knees, not expecting the burst of energy that came from him. His sword blade was glowing blue slightly, and he knew that he had accidentally poured his Flame into the weapon.

            Brooklyn stood there, hands holding the handle of her sword. The blade that was still attached was now dramatically shorter, having broken off a few inches from the cross guard. Jack could see small fragments of the metal blade lying on the ground, covered in frost.

            “Oh my god I am so sorry.” He said, and he started to pick up the fragments of the weapon.

            “Sorry?” Brooklyn said, her face indescribable.

            “I lost control, I’m sorry.”

            “Jack, that was awesome!” She said, her face turning from surprised to elated.

            “It- what?”

            “You used your Flame without meaning to yeah, but that’s a great way to do it.” Brooklyn clapped him on the shoulder. “We should do this more often, that was a blast. Get it? A blast!” She laughed at her own joke. “Medic never fights with me anymore, I have a new sparring partner!” Brooklyn threw the handle off to the side and began walking towards the door. “You hungry?”

            Jack was dumbfounded, he could only watch as Brooklyn left the Rec Room. The shard of blade he had in his hand fell to the floor. “What just happened?”

 

 

Chapter Fifteen:

            Jack stood alongside Zack with his arms behind his back, waiting for Medic. Brooklyn was already there in the Rec Room, lounging on her table still. Medic had asked for them to meet him here, but he was running late. The anticipation was excruciating, as Medic was going to teach them more about using their Flames. In the room there were long lengths of chains, piles of firewood, even large blocks of ice. How all of this was set up, Jack didn’t know.

            Medic arrived ten minutes later than he had told them to meet him, “I just needed to look for something first.” He had said.

            Medic handed Brooklyn the ends of two chains, and she got up from her spot and walked over to the center of the Rec Room. Green energy surrounded her hands, and she threw the chains up in the air. The ends of them tied themselves into bows, attaching themselves to the top of the light fixtures.

            “As I told the two of you, I’d help you learn to control your Flames, at least showing you the basics.” Medic said, standing in front of them. He gestured over to Brooklyn. “She, being a Green, is able to actually condense and move air around, and if she concentrates correctly she can use this as a minor form of telekinesis on objects.”

Jack held up his hand and opened his mouth to ask, but Zack nudged him and said, “Telekinesis is the ability to move objects remotely.”

“Precisely.” Medic said. “Now, as Flames we can expend our Flames to manipulate the world around us related to our Flames, however the further removed they are, the harder it becomes.” Medic sent a small bolt of Flame at one of the piles of wood, and it began to burn rapidly. “For example, as Reds, we can manipulate fire and where it moves, even allowing it to come free of its fuel source.” His hand began to glow, and flames came off of the firewood and took the rough shape of a circle in the air. “However, fire has no real substance, even less than air. That, on top of the heat, makes it difficult to be able to do much with moving the actual fire. But we can move the embers.” Medic’s hand glowed a brighter red, and slowly one of the pieces of wood began to rise, meeting the ring of fire in the air. The flames engulfed the wood, and it rapidly turned into charcoal. Medic grunted in pain and the wood fell, the flames that didn’t latch onto the charcoal vanished. “I would try moving the wood itself but clearly, the embers were beyond my limited abilities.”

“Real quick, Brooklyn can you fly then?” Zack asked her. “If you can condense air, you should be able to make a pocket of it below you right?”

Brooklyn shrugged. “I mean, yeah, but that takes a lot of Flame to do for extended periods of time.” She demonstrated, her feet emanating green smoke from her shoes. Air tinted with green energy formed into a circle in front of her, and she jumped onto it. Slowly she lifted a few feet, then lowered back down and Jack could see sweat coming from her forehead. Jack couldn’t help but to clap a little, to which she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Before we try to have you control your elements, we need you to control your Flames.” Medic said to them. He held out his hand, and a perfect ball of red energy appeared, hovering just above his palm. “The sphere is what most children start with, and since the two of you are at least a decade behind, we are going to start here.”

Medic explained to them that it was as simple as pouring Flame into only their palms, and willing it to rise and circulate. Jack felt stupid standing there, hand engulfed in his vivid blue Flame, and being unable to will it to only come from his palm. Zack was having better luck than Jack was, though the resulting image was red Flame coming from his hand, and it forming a constantly shifting shape before him. Better than Jack’s, but still nowhere near as pristine as Medic’s was.

After their failures, they then attempted the chain. “If your Flame is pure enough, it’ll completely change an object into the element of your Flame.” Jack’s Flame engulfed the lower three feet of the dangling chain, and he was disappointed to see that the chain was still seemingly intact. Zack’s disappeared completely.

“Why did my chain not turn into water?” Jack asked Medic.

“Oh, but it did.” Medic said. He held the links up for Jack to see, and Jack saw that they were completely clear. With a hand with warm energy surrounding it, Medic rubbed the chain and slowly the links began to melt. “Blues don’t just make water, they can also freeze it into ice. One of the perks, you could say.” But Jack had stopped listening as he watched the rest of the chain disappear, now droplets of water on the ground. Part of him was elated at what he had managed, but part of him thought back to the man in the park who had likely melted by now.

Walls and blasts were next, as Medic said they were, “Quintessential skills for Flames, because they can act as weapons or as tools.” The blasts were simple enough for them to learn, being little more than channeling Flame into their hands and sending it outward. Shields were simple as well, though gave Jack difficulty.

“Concentrate Jack!” Medic said, throwing balls of his own Flame at Jack’s shield. Jack was sweating profusely, though the Flame wall before him was frigid, but the shape of it kept moving and wouldn’t completely consume Medic’s projectiles. Jack had to extinguish flames on himself on more than one occasion. The wall was suppose to rise from the floor a distance in front of him, as Zack’s had, but Jack’s was visibly pouring from his feet, moving a foot before him, then rising up.

As another attack from Medic singed Jack’s arm, he shouted and the wall of Flame erupted in front of him, causing frost to form all around him. “That’s enough!” Jack shouted at Medic, and in his anger he had let his Flame release, and now his arms were engulfed in blue energy.

“Jack, this might be important for you.” Medic said calmly, hands raised slightly and staring at Jack’s arms.

“I’ll practice it on my own.” Jack said bitterly. His stomach was growling now, despite the fact that Medic recommended they eat large lunches today.

Zack just stood off to the side, his arms crossed. Brooklyn came up behind Jack and put a hand on his shoulder. Jack looked back at her, then nodded. He took a deep breath, and cut off the flow of power, the energy no longer pouring from his arms. Medic seemed shocked by this reaction, but he shook his head and smiled. “Well, you know the basics now, so you can go from there on your own.” He nodded to Zack. “One more lesson?”

Zack stepped up to Jack, “You okay?” Zack asked him.

Jack was still breathing slightly heavy, but his anger was calming. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“One more then.” Zack said, nodding to Medic.

Medic smiled. “You might be excited for this one, Jack.” Medic handed the two of them candy bars.

Jack took his and looked at it. “The last lesson is candy?”

“No, the last lesson isn’t candy.” Medic said. “Just eat it.”

Jack unwrapped the bar, the chocolate having melted somewhat from being in Medic’s pocket. Jack released some energy near the bar to cool it down rapidly, turning the chocolate brittle, and he ate it greedily. He may not be a large fan of chocolate, but Jack had an unfortunately powerful sweet tooth. His stomach stopped growling, and a fatigue that he hadn’t quite noticed began to ease, his Flame absorbing the energy from the bar and giving him strength.

Medic dug into his pockets again and pulled out two gemstones the size of clementine oranges, one ruby and one sapphire, both with precisely cut edges giving them an elegant look. Medic gave one to the each of them, matching their Flames. Jack began to smile, knowing exactly what they were going to be doing now.

“I gave you two the candy to ensure that you have enough Flame to properly take advantage of these stones.” Medic said. “Remember what I said to you a few weeks ago, that once you set a gem’s limit, you cannot add more to the stone, so the more you can pour in now the better.”

Jack held the stone. It was heavy, and the inside of it was dim and cold. “Where did you get gems this big? These must cost a fortune!”

“The armory had lots of gems.” Medic said simply. “Finding ones this big was hard, because normally they are cut down smaller for tools and what not, but there are still plenty available.” Medic pulled out a third stone, a green emerald, and handed it to Brooklyn.

“I have some.” She said and crossed her arms. “Plus, you never gave me any chocolate.”

Medic raised an eyebrow at her, and after a moment Brooklyn took the stone anyways. “Consider it a payment for helping out today.” He said.

Medic turned to Jack, and then to Zack. “So this is easy. You will pour your Flame into the stone, and once you feel that you are draining too much out of yourself, cut off the flow. Stones this big should hold most of your Flames, but you still do not want to go too far with it.”

Together the three of them released their energy and poured Flame into each of their stones, red, green, and blue energy lighting up the Rec Room. The flow of power was pleasant to Jack at first, almost a kind of relief. The heart of the gem began to grow brighter, and the light coming from his hands was reflecting off of the cut surface of the gemstone.

After a minute, Zack’s light dimmed and he had nearly dropped the stone, but then held up the ruby, perhaps to inspect the Flame inside. Then Brooklyn stopped filling her gem, Jack noticing that the green light faded.

It’s probably good enough. He thought to himself, and he tried to cut off the flow of power, but it felt as though the current couldn’t close, and he poured more and more energy into the stone. His stomach began to growl, and a sharp pain rose in his chest. Jack knew he was screaming in pain because his mouth was open, but he wasn’t able to hear anything, only the sound of the energy channeling into the stone. His vision began to fade as he dropped to his knees, desperately trying to cut off the flow.

He fell to the ground, and then he felt the energy stop as a force hit his hand, causing pain to flare. Jack sat up, his vision clearing now, and his breath ragged. His hand was scraped, and his finger had a damaged nail on it. The gem that he had been filling was sitting across the room, frost forming around it on the ground. “What happened?”

Zack grabbed Jack by the arm, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what to do.” He said, a tear in his eye, looking at Jack’s hand.

Though his hand did hurt, the deep unsettling pain that broken nails cause, the damage didn’t seem to be bad. “It’s fine, you probably saved my neck.” Jack said with a smile.

“You seem to have a control issue.” Medic said, walking up to Jack. “You couldn’t cut off your Flame, and the gem almost took all of it.”

“And if it took all of my Flame?” Jack asked him.

“Well, you would have died.” Medic said simply. “Perhaps I should have started you with smaller stones, those would have stopped taking in energy and you would’ve had an easier time stopping.”

Jack glared at Medic. “You’re serious? You knew about that and you didn’t go with the safer option?”

Medic looked down, ashamed. “I just wanted to push you.”

Jack shook his head. “No, pushing us to the point of death when we are just getting our bearings isn’t cool.”

Brooklyn stepped between himself and Medic, facing the latter. “Look, let’s not get angry and do anything we would regret. Medic, just fix up his hand, and we can forget about this, okay?”

Medic nodded, and Jack glared at him before nodding anyways. For some reason, part of him was not surprised at the turn of events, the part of him that didn’t fully trust Medic despite his friendly demeanor. Jack held his hand to Medic, and in a matter of moments, Jack’s nail had been repaired and the pain had lessened significantly.

After taking his hand back from Medic, Jack walked over and grabbed his gemstone. It was a bright blue, the light coming from it flickered as if there was a candle inside of it. Jack could almost sense the power inside of the rock. Somehow, he could almost feel the Flame inside of the gemstone interact with the remainder of the Flame inside of his body, and when Jack held up his hand to release energy, he directed the flow through the gem in his left hand, and out of his right. The light inside of the stone diminished ever so slightly after he did this, but it gradually returned to its original brightness.

Despite Jack still being angry with Medic, something nudged at his mind that needed to be answered. “Medic, if your Flame is so weak, why don’t you stock up on some gems like this?”

Medic looked down at his feet. “Honestly? Because I don’t think I could trust myself to.”

“What do you mean?” Zack asked him.

“I’ve had some issues regarding trying to augment my power too much, and it caused some accidents.” Medic said simply. “A big regret.”

Jack nodded, understanding what Medic meant. Despite his initial excitement at having more Flame accessible to him, Jack could understand the appeal of gaining more and more, no matter the consequences.

This is the most I’ll do for myself. Jack swore to himself, putting the gem in his pocket.

*

Lenon sat in his office, roughly drawn map of Yggdrasil in front of him. The last few weeks had been spent pouring over maps from every damn textbook, childrens book, even movie to try and determine where the World Flame would appear once his minions kickstarted Ragnarok in Yggdrasil. But the answer was simply this: He didn’t know. His master would know where it was, but he had wanted Lenon to try to find it himself, in order to have troops ready to keep anyone away while Arkotos himself consumes the Flame.

He rubbed his forehead, exhaustion threatening to overtake him. Where would the Flame be?

A knock came at the door and Lenon looked up to see him. Jason. “What do you want?”
            “Our researchers have found a way to start the Fimbulvinter in Yggdrasil.” Jason said, his yellow eyes flaring slightly. “It’s time. Have you found it yet?”

“No I haven’t found it yet.” Lenon snapped, his usual poise having diminished as his fatigue overwhelmed his patience. He closed the book he had in front of him, the childish drawing of Thor, the god of thunder, on the cover.

“How can it be this hard for you?” Jason asked him. “All you need to do it read stories.”

“Bah!” Lenon laughed sharply, and stood up, stretching his legs. “Yggdrasil may be shaped by the thoughts of the world, but the issue is that very few people other than the Flames even know there is a Flame anyways, much less where it is. Chances are it’ll be somewhere in the damn branches.”

Jason thought about this for a moment. “You may be onto something.” He said.

Lenon stopped and stared at Jason. “What?”

“No, really.” Jason picked up a sheet of paper from the desk, on it was a depiction of a tree with a rainbow jutting out from the branches to the “real world.” “That might in fact be where it is, somewhere along the branches. Or even… The trunk.”

“I’ll send my troops to search the trunk of a 50,000 mile tall tree.” Lenon said snarkily.

“You might not need to.” Jason said. He sat down and threw the paper back. “Assuming that the Red and Blue the escaped your custody find out how to get into Yggdrasil to stand against us, which is unlikely anyways, I’m sure the gods of that realm will do what they can to ensure the overall survival of Yggdrasil, don’t you think?”

Lenon considered this. “And the gods will point them where they need to go, so we follow them?”

“Precisely.” Jason said with a smile.

“Well then, now we have a plan of action as far as that goes.”

“Not quite.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, our master believes there may be a way for you to capture one of the rogue Flames, maybe even the both of them.” Jason nodded to the door, and a birdlike creature flew in through the open door. It flapped its wings and landed on Medic’s desk, where claws should have been there were humanesque hands. The head of the bird wasn’t that, it was the head of a man. The bird was far larger than any other, and it stared imperiously at Lenon.

“The Griff trials were successful?” Lenon asked, touching the bird.

“So far, Mark here is the only one to have survived and remain docile.” Jason said. “But he’s strong enough to carry people short distances, and with his hands he can even carry weapons.”

Mark sqwaked at Lenon after the third poke to the hands, and Lenon backed away. “I know exactly how to get them.” He said to Jason. “Leave it to me.”

 

Chapter Sixteen:

            The armory smelled of ancient ashes and oxidizing metal. Zack was looking through chests full of old tools and weapons, Jack looking nearby. It was October now, several weeks after the initial training session with everyone. Zack pricked himself on a sharp edge of a knife, grunted to himself and put his finger in his mouth, sucking on the wound. He gently picked the knife up with his other hand and tossed it haphazardly to the side.

            “Aha!” Jack proclaimed, and with the sound of scraping metal, Jack pulled out a shiny sword with a wide, straight blade and a leather wrapped handle. He held it up and swung it a few times, and was clearly happy with how it felt.

            “Why did you want a new sword again?” Zack asked him.

            “Well, I’ve gotten pretty good sparring against Brooklyn, so we’re going to use sharpened weapons now.” Jack said, rotating the blade in his hands. He brushed it with his thumb to check the edge.

            “So, you want to use a real sword against her.”

            “Yeah.”

            “When you even admitted that you’re getting better.”

            “Right.”

            “Doesn’t that sound dangerous?” Zack asked him.

            Jack shrugged. “Well, she’ll be using a sharp one too.”

            “You have no idea how stupid that sounds.” Zack said with a short laugh. He looked in another chest. “There’s so many here.”

            “Yeah, it’s a little sad honestly. Someone had to make all of these.” Jack said, setting his sword down to the side. Jack looked into the chest he had pulled his sword out of, and pulled out a short, curved knife. “What did you want?”

            Zack shrugged. “I don’t know really, just something that feels right. I want to start practicing fighting, you know?”

            “We won’t use the sharp swords against you.” Jack reassured him.

            “I would hope not.” Zack said with a smile. He grabbed onto a long thin knife from the chest, and held it up. The grip felt decent in his hand, though as he swung it part of the balance just felt off.

            “How about a hammer or a mace?” Jack asked him.

            “No, too heavy I think.”

            “Dagger?”

            “Already a no I think.” Zack said with a sigh. “Why can’t I find anything I like?”

            Jack shrugged. “I’m sure there’s something here, if not maybe you could try making something? I’m sure there’s enough info on it in all of those books you read.”

            Zack shook his head. “I haven’t seen anything about forging yet. And honestly I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing that, I might hurt myself.”

            “Or blow up the castle.” Jack added. He had opened up another chest and was sorting through it. Zack couldn’t see any weapons in there, but dozens of glittering gemstones infused with Flame caught his eye.

            Letting Jack have his fun, Zack took a look at the sword Jack had chosen. From a distance, it had appeared that the blade was steel with a dark pattern forged into the blade, Damascus, Zack though, but it wasn’t. The layers used in Damascus forging were there, however instead of different types of steel, it looked as though the steel was interwoven with gold. Though the gold should have made the blade weak, when Zack flexed it in his hands the blade flexed and returned to normal. Giving it a good swing, Zack could understand why Jack would be into it, the blade was heavy, heavier than Zack preferred, but it was still light enough to use with one hand if needed.

            There was a loud clang and a small flash of yellow light, and Zack nearly dropped the sword in surprise. He looked over to see Jack holding up a round shield made out of steel and a yellow tinted metal, a wide smile on his face. “Did you need to do that?”

            “Check this out.” Jack said, excited. Zack couldn’t see, but Jack did something behind the shield and in a flash of yellow light, the shield broke down in a spiral, circling where his arm should be, until the remaining pieces of metal tucked themselves beneath a face plate of a watch, the crown replaced with a gemstone emanating faint yellow light.

            “That’s awesome!” Zack said, excited as well. The shield was one of the cooler things he had seen here in the castle. “Can I try?”

*

            “I have an idea.” Medic said to them all, sitting down in the Rec Room again.

            “This had better be good.” Jack said, crossing his arms. Zack knew that Medic had just interrupted his and Brooklyn’s sparring time, which they seemed to treat as sacred. Jack was wearing a blue tank top, soaked in sweat, which made Zack sit as far away from him as possible. Though he had to admit, in the time that Jack had been here, he had filled out very well.

            “What is it, Medic?” Zack asked, slightly more optimistic than Jack. He had been sitting with Jack and Brooklyn, watching them spar, trying to get some idea on what he would be doing once he joined them, and was acting as a sort of referee for them.

            “We need a scrying stone.” Medic said. He hadn’t sat down, he was pacing back and forth in front of them all. “A stone that will let us see whatever we wanted, for the most part.”

            “Don’t you already have one?” Brooklyn asked him. She was next to Jack, and seemed to not mind the odor, though she probably had a similar issue anyways as her forehead was dripping.

            “I do, however it only shows me everything in and around the castle.” Medic explained. “I can’t see much more than that.”

            “Wait, does this mean you can watch us?” Jack asked, an eyebrow raised.

            “I suppose so, yes, however I choose not to, to respect your privacy.” Medic seemed to think that this would quell any trepidation on Jack’s part, but Jack began tapping his foot impatiently. “Anyways, Jack, I was considering what you said about fighting against the Followers, and to do so, we will need to know what they are doing. However, the Followers’ bases are all warded from scrying stones, same goes for Arkotos himself.”

            “So how would a scrying stone help, then?” Zack asked him. “If we can’t see what they’re doing, would it even matter then?”

            “Well, yes and no.” Medic sighed and turned to face them. “We might not be able to see what the Followers are doing, but we might be able to see their influence. Be able to determine whether or not they are meddling in the Pillar Worlds, going places where they shouldn’t be.”

            “So, we can have some warning on it then and can fight back.” Brooklyn said, agreeing with Medic’s logic. “But they won’t be able to do much, right? The World Flames aren’t exposed until the end of the Pillar Worlds come, which won’t be until their predestined apocalypses.”

            “Well, yes and no.” Medic said. “We don’t really know how this works, the Pillar Worlds have never truly fallen in written history.” He began pacing again. “But part of me wonders if the Followers could potentially kick start the different endings for the Worlds.”

            The group remained silent for a moment, and Medic resumed his pacing. The electric buzz of the lights was crushingly loud to Zack in the silence, and despite himself he couldn’t help but wish there was music in the room for times like these. “What do we need to do then?” Zack asked, blessedly breaking the silence.

            “We need some gemstones. Massive ones. Bigger than those that I gave you the other day.” Medic said. “The forge will have them presumably. My stone is a large ruby but it’s not powerful enough for something like this, if we can have four stones with massive amounts of energy in them, then it should be enough.”

            “I don’t know how I feel about doing the whole gem thing again, Medic.” Jack said, to which Brooklyn nodded.

            Brooklyn added, “Aren’t scrying stones normally one complete gem?”

            Medic nodded. “Yes, they are. But we don’t have any Yellows anymore that could potentially create larger stones unfortunately.” He stopped pacing again and made an arch over his head with his arms. “There’s an archway in the colosseum, it used to be a portal to the various worlds of the Nexus, at least before the gems cracked up after having been expended completely. Scrying stones are one step removed from portal stones, so we would actually be at an advantage doing this, allowing us travel into the worlds.”

            “How would an archway help us though?” Zack asked Medic. “Don’t we need some sort of smooth surface or something to actually see what is happening?”

            “I’m working on that. Perhaps we can connect my stone to it as a way of looking into the spell.” Medic said.

            Jack stood up. “Cool, so we’re done here?” He asked. “We can look for your gems tomorrow, we’ll meet up after breakfast or something.”

            Medic looked up at Jack and Zack could tell that he had wanted to say something but had thought better of it. “That’s fine. Tomorrow after breakfast.”

*

            The October day was cold, the dew having frozen onto the blades of grass, and the wall surrounding the Stronghold wouldn’t allow sunlight in for it to melt. Zack worried about snow in the winter, would the snow even melt before the summer?

            Jack seemed perfectly content with himself, wearing nothing more than a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, while Zack was wearing a thick sweater with an argyle pattern on it. Jack had made fun of the sweater, but Zack was kept warm by it. Brooklyn had her hair tied back in a pony tail, and was wearing a thin wind proof jacket that was zipped up, presumably to block any air. The three of them had left the castle together and made their way towards the colosseum that existed within the castle grounds. Zack had never visited the place, though he wish he would have as he was caught off guard by the massive arena that sprawled out in front of him. Though the building itself was on the small side, the interior was massive, stretching further than the exterior would suggest. The stone walls and gates were still intact, along with the seats and bleachers, some of which had sun bleached pads on them for comfort.

            Medic was waiting for them at the end of the arena, inspecting the archway. It appeared to be made out of metal, with intricate symbols carved into several sections of it. There were six holes around it as well, seemingly meant for the placement of gems. Zack could feel his in his pocket, still cold from when he found it. He hadn’t charged his yet, and based on the lack of glow coming from Jack and Brooklyn, neither of them had as well.

            After seeing them, Medic waved to them. Zack could see him inserting a large ruby into the archway, red light emanating from it signaling to Zack that it was already filled with as much Flame as Medic could muster.

            “Good morning.” Medic said to them. “I just checked on the lettering, it all seems to be in order, though my glyphs may be on the rusty side.”

            Zack looked at the glyphs in question, and they were unlike any symbols Zack had ever seen before. They must be very old, very very old, but they were elegant in a way that he couldn’t understand. “What are they?”

            “They are Quorpetian. Or at least it was accepted by the Quorpetians, the embodiments of the Flames, to be their language. That way there is no restriction on who can use the gates and what Flames they may have.” Medic explained. “Did you bring your stones?”

            They all held up their dark gems, Jack having chosen a diamond and Brooklyn had chosen a sapphire. Zack held up his ruby. The gem itself wasn’t relevant, as far as he could tell. They held the same amount of Flame, and there wasn’t a coloring restriction. But he was partial to red. All of the gems were larger than avocados, Brooklyn’s being the largest by a fraction.

            “And you all ate a lot? We need as much power into your gems as possible for this to work.” Medic said, antsy. He seemed more on edge than his usual controlled self.

            “Medic, just tell us what we need to do. Just charge them?” Jack asked.

            Medic opened his mouth to speak but Brooklyn cut him off, “Yes or no, no long explanations.”

            With a look of annoyance, Medic nodded.

            Zack held his stone firmly with both hands and poured his Flame into the gem. The familiar sensation of relief washed over him as he let his power flow. His stomach rapidly went from overfull, to growling at him in a matter of minutes. After giving it the rest that he could, Zack cut off the flow of power and staggered to his knees. He knew he almost pushed himself too far, but this seemed to be important.

            He looked over to see Jack pouring Flame into the gem, the flow seeming far slower than it was the first time, possibly as a way to keep some sense of control over everything. A long minute passed, and Jack nodded, but instead of cutting off the flow he tried to continue. Suddenly there was a snap and a bolt of blue Flame shot out of the stone at him, causing his connection to break. “What happened?” Jack asked Brooklyn.

            “Did you try to use the other stone as well?” Brooklyn asked him.

            “Yeah, figured that would be good to do, extra juice.” Jack said.

            “Stones reject the power from other stones.” Medic explained, and Zack got up to his feet slowly. “It’s always been a mystery as to why, but scholars assume it is due to the Flame becoming the stone’s after leaving your body. So instead of it being exclusively Jack’s Flame, it is Jack’s and the Stone’s Flames.”

            “Even though I filled the stone in the first place?” Jack asked, and he shook his head. “Whatever, it’s done.”

            All of the gemstones were placed into empty spots in the archway, Medic’s stone noticeably dimmer than the others. Zack’s stomach growled and Medic gave them all cereal bars to satiate their stomachs. Medic let them rest and eat, as he pulled a large flat stone off to the side onto a table and connected it to the archway with copper wires connecting them.

            “Will wires work?” Zack asked Medic.

            “Yes, well enough at any rate.” Medic explained, wrapping wire around the flat ruby with Flame in the core of it. “Metal conducts Flame very well, as it does electricity. Energy is energy after all. And some metals, like copper and gold, conduct slightly better.”

            “Is that why the archway is metal? And the sword in the armory, some of them have gold inlaid in the metal.” Zack asked, connecting the pieces together.

            “Precisely.” Medic said with a smile, now stringing some wire along to the archway, wrapping it around. “Gold is great to use, but nothing beats Quorpetian Iron. It’s an alloy. Iron, chromium, carbon, and a very specific amount of gemstones, though no one really knows the exact recipe anymore. I’m sure there’s more, I am not an expert in any of this.”

            “Clearly.” Zack said, noting the wire.

            “I do what I can.” Medic said, shrugging. “But it should be ready.” He nodded to Brooklyn and Jack, and they came and gathered around him. “Right. In theory, with the extra power from the added gems and the glyphs on the archway, we should be able to see anything we want in my scrying stone. Who would like to do the honors?”

            Jack shook his head, and Brooklyn did the same. Zack, however, was curious. “I’ll do it.” He stepped up to the stone and looked at the flat surface. “What do I do?”

            “Say Vision, then say what you want to see, and then tap the flat surface with some Flame.” Medic said to Zack, though the word vision seemed to sound funny to Zack, but he ignored it.

            Zack did as Medic said, and as he said the word vision he knew his mouth didn’t match what he had heard. “Vision, Ma’at World Flame.” Nothing happened. “Did I do it wrong?” Zack asked Medic.

            “No no, you did fine. However, the World Flames are going to protect themselves from any sort of spell like this.” Medic explained. “Try something else.”

            Zack considered for a moment, then recalled something he had read recently. “Vision, Primordial Sword.”

            Flames and rocks appeared on the surface of the stone, a barren wasteland. And in the center of the image, appeared what looked to be a massive tombstone in the field of fire. “You have read some about the Primordial Weapons?” Medic asked Zack, who nodded.

            “Vision, Primordial Trident.” Zack said, and this time it showed… The Stronghold? The vision was from a distance, several miles from the castle, but the structure and the cliffside was unmistakable. Even the colosseum was in the image. “The Trident is here?”

            “The what?” Jack asked, looked at the image. “What’s the Primordial Trident?”

            “It’s a weapon of great power.” Brooklyn said to him. “But they were myths the last time I checked.”

            “Worlds of myths are connected to the Nexus, I’d believe anything.” Zack said. “Do you know where it is?”

            Medic shook his head. “Heavens no, I can’t even imagine anywhere that the Trident would be. But if we could get a hold of it, that would be a serious boon in our favor.” He looked at the image thoughtfully. “At least it isn’t in Yggdrasil or something.”

            Almost as if Medic’s words caused it, the archway began to glow bright, the metal becoming ripping hot, melting the copper wire connecting the scrying stone to the archway. In the archway, white and blue energy began to swirl rapidly, causing a mesmerizing sight. Zack could feel the portal pull on him, and clearly they all felt it. Medic held onto the table, which wasn’t going to move anywhere as it was bolted, but everyone else was skidding towards it.

            Zack began to lose his footing, and he fell towards it, crawling at the ground. Jack blasted Brooklyn with a flash of blue energy, knocking her far away from the portal, but in doing so, Jack had blown himself off balance, and stumbled into Zack, causing the two of them to get taken into the portal, into the flurry of white and blue.

 

Chapter Seventeen:

            The light dissipated, and Zack felt a lurching sensation in his stomach as he fell towards the ground, landing face first in the frigid creek below him. The pain that came from his face was nothing compared to the jolting shock of cold from the water. Zack thrashed around in the cold, his sweater squelching slightly from the water that had soaked up into it. Finally finding his feet, Zack stood up waist deep in the creek, shivering violently.

            “H-hello?” Zack called. He looked around him as he waded towards the rock covered shore. Pine trees spread before him in either direction, leaving several feet between the water for a riverbed of some sort, the flat smooth stones grinding against each other under his feet. “Hello?” He called again, louder than before without the shiver.

            There was a sound in the distance, but Zack wasn’t able to understand it properly, though it did sound like a voice. Zack tried to release some Flame to boil off the water, but he only managed a weak steam before cooling off completely again. He had used up too much of his Flame with the gemstone, and perhaps the portal took some extra from him when he went through.

            Who exactly had gone thorough? It all happened so fast, the portal opening up and then there was a flash of blue light. Jack. Jack had saved Brooklyn from getting caught in the pull. And Medic had been secure behind the table. “Jack!” Zack shouted as loud as he could. “Jack I’m here!”

            Another sound came, and Zack could swear that it was a voice shouting his name. Zack tried to shoot a blast of Flame up into the sky, which was a greying blue, but he wasn’t able to summon any and his stomach growled violently. “I’m by a creek!” Zack shouted. He wanted to go and try to find who was calling him, hopefully it was Jack, but he didn’t want to leave before whoever it was arrived.

            The sky was darkening rapidly, and Zack felt scared by the thought of being caught in this forest alone at night. There weren’t any animals that he could hear or see, but there was a pile of what appeared to be bear droppings, which certainly didn’t ease Zack’s nerves.

            Nearby there was a rustle of leaves, and Zack held up his hands in defense, though he knew he would be near useless. The trees seemed to move out of the way, revealing Jack, who looked terrible. His long blond hair was tangled in several places, twigs and sticks entwined in the hair. Chunks of it seemed to have been ripped out as well. Jack’s clothes were dirty and torn. Zack ran up to him. “Oh, my god, are you alright?”

            “Yeah, fine.” Jack said, popping his neck, the sound sickening Zack somewhat. “The trees broke my fall. Your nose is bleeding.”

            Zack reached up and toughed his nose, and his fingertips came back with red liquid on them. He was so cold he hadn’t even noticed. “It shouldn’t be too bad. Do you know where we are?”

            “Yggdrasil.” Jack said confidently.

            “You think we’re in Yggdrasil?” Zack asked him. “Why do you think that?”

            Jack took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh air. “It feels so different. Can’t you feel it? Almost more raw, more primal. But not, too. The trees seem older than the ones by the Stronghold but they seem wiser for it.” He reached down and picked up a stone from the creek bed. “Besides, only after Medic said ‘Yggdrasil’ the portal opened up, so it must be connected.”

            “You think Medic sent us in here?” Zack asked.

            Jack only shrugged. “Maybe not intentionally.” He admitted. “But whatever it was, we’re here now and we need a way out. You’re the expert here, what do we do?”

            Zack stammered slightly before being able to answer. “I don’t know!”

            “Zack, you’ve read all of those books, have any of them mentioned getting from one of the Pillar Worlds back to the Nexus?” Jack’s voice was firm, but kind.

            “Not really.” Zack admitted, closing his eyes to try and think. “The most I remember seeing is about how portals will sometimes connect to each other and return you to the same places, so if we find a portal back and direct it towards the Stronghold, it might drop us right back to the Colosseum.”

            “Alright, so where is a portal then?” Jack asked, then looked up at the sky where their portal had dropped them from.

            “We’ll need to find some way to open one up.” Zack said. “Or find someone else that can. If I remember right it takes less Flame to travel from a Pillar World into the Nexus, something to do with the barriers between the worlds being thinner on our side or something.”

            Jack dug into his pocket and pulled out a gemstone, illuminated from the inside with vibrant blue light. “Could we open a portal with this?”

            Zack grabbed the stone and held it in his hands, cupping it as one would cup a handful of water. “You managed to keep a hold of this?” Zack asked, surprised.

            “It was just in my pocket.” Jack shrugged.

            “We might be able to use it, if we can find some food so we don’t burn ourselves out.” Zack said, holding up his hand to demonstrate that he was out of Flame, short of burning up his own body for it. He handed the stone back to Jack, knowing that he would need it. Zack looked up at the sky, and was worried about how rapidly it was growing dark, the moon passing overhead. “It’ll be dark soon.” He said.

            “Wasn’t it still early in the Nexus?” Jack asked, looking up as well.

            “Yeah, but time probably works a little differently here. Besides, we’re very far north, days will be shorter now anyways.” Zack looked at the creek, the clear water trickling past them.

            “Well, we need to find somewhere to sleep then.” Jack said. “Let’s follow the creek downstream, it might lead us to the ocean. I can smell salt water in the air.”

            “The ocean? Jack, we can’t swim to where we need to go.” Zack said.

            “I’m not saying we should swim, frankly the water would probably put you into shock.” Jack said. He started walking down stream on his own accord, not waiting for Zack, who hurried after him. “If we can actually see out to the ocean we might be able to see if there’s anyone sailing past, maybe some fires along the shore.”

            Zack had to admit, that was the best idea that they had available to them, as far as he could tell. There would be no use going further inland if they couldn’t see anything past all of the trees.

            They walked for what felt to Zack like an hour. Part of him wished that Jack had been wearing that shield watch device from the other day, but he supposed that Jack figured it wouldn’t be necessary. The creek remained peaceful as the sky turned red and then purple, deepening as the sun must have travelled past the horizon. At first Zack hadn’t been able to smell the salt in the air as Jack had, but now it was far more pungent, and he was reminded of his bus ride to the Stronghold when they went along the coast.

            The ocean roared before them, though the waves were relatively calm, the sound of them breaking along the shoreline was jarring after so much relative silence. Zack looked in either direction, one way there was a dark coastline with trees and rocks pressing against the ocean, and in the other direction there was a dark coastline with trees and rocks pressing against the ocean.  “There’s nothing here.” Zack said.

            “Not here, no. Look.” Jack said quietly, as if talking loudly would scare something away. Jack pointed towards the distance, and there was a small speck of light that slowly grew closer to the shore, and as it got closer, the light got brighter.

            “Is that a ship?” Zack asked, slightly scared.

            “Must be.” Jack said. “It’s coming towards the coast, looks like they might land that direction.” He pointed to the left, which based on the sun’s remaining rays on the horizon must be west.  After a few moments of watching them, that seemed to be the case, and now Zack was able to see men aboard the ship, the long, short structure cutting through the waves. The sail was pulled up, being rowed by most of the men on board, and Zack could almost hear singing coming from across the waves.

            “Are they dangerous?” Zack asked.

            “No! Well, kinda. It’s complicated.” Jack said, rubbing his head. Zack could almost swear that Jack’s eyes had glowed a pale blue, if only for a moment. “I don’t really know. I mean, I do, but I don’t?”

            “Let’s just go and find out.” Zack said. “Hopefully, if they’re dangerous they’ll at least feed us first.”

            Night had fully fallen by the time they had worked their way far enough along the coast to find the village. The boat was on the shore, the front end of it tied with a rope around a nearby tree. The men on the boat had tied it for safekeeping, presumably. A short distance into the land, there was a small clearing where the trees had been cut and removed to make room for nine hutlike structures, build around in a half circle surrounding a massive fire pit. The hut in the middle was the largest, though still relatively small. The one on the end farthest from them looked worn down, like it had been abandoned for several years.

            On logs surrounding the fire were the villagers. The men from the boat were sitting with their families, laughing and drinking, and, blessedly, eating, cutting slices of meat off of a large spit hanging over the flames. There were around thirty people altogether. The smell of cooked meat pained Zack, his stomach growling. They crouched down by a bush, watching the villagers. “So, what’s the plan?” Zack asked.

            “We go up and talk to them.” Jack responded, nodding to them. He looked at Zack, and Zack could see the pale blue glow return. “They’re supposed to be kind and accommodating to strangers, fearing that they might be a god in disguise. We talk to them, ask them for help, offer our services, and maybe they can point us in the right direction.”

            “You really think that will work?” Zack asked him.

            “It feels too easy, but I have a hunch.” Jack said with a smile. Jack stood up and walked towards the villagers, and began speaking to them in a language that Zack couldn’t understand. Perhaps this was related to Jack’s newfound knowledge on these people, but he seemed to be speaking their language as they were responding. Jack gestured towards Zack and himself, presumably explaining the situation.

            The man sitting in the middle of everyone, a large man with greying red hair and a long, scratchy beard stood up and walked up towards them, and Zack realized that the man was half a foot taller than the both of them, and looked as though he could lift a horse. He put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, then looked over at Zack. And his expression turned from serious to happy. He roared with laughter and waved for them to follow him.

            The man sat back down at his spot, alongside an older woman with blonde hair, braided off to one side. Zack couldn’t help but notice it was similar to how Brooklyn tended to do her hair. Jack sat at the log closest to the dilapidated hut, which the children of the village had been sitting on, but at a word from the leader, they dispersed. The man spoke to them, and Jack gestured to himself and to Zack, and this time Zack could hear Jack say their names.

            Speaking directly to Zack now, the man asked him something. “Ragnar wants to know why you don’t speak.” Jack whispered.

            Zack whispered back, “What do I say?” Though he must have spoken louder than he had intended, as several members of the village, all men, shot out of their seats on their logs and stood in front of their families.

            The man who had greeted them, the leader Ragnar, stood much more slowly, and glared at Zack. “You English?” He asked, the language clearly foreign in the man’s mouth.

            “I speak English.” Zack said. Jack whispered in his ear and Zack repeated what he said, “I am a traveler from a far away land, with my friend. I have no connections to the English.”

            Ragnar grunted, satisfied. He gestured for the others to relax, and they did so, but they were still staring at Zack. “Thanks for the warning.” Zack muttered to Jack, his voice trembling slightly.

            “Relax, I think he just wanted to put the fear of God in you a little.” Jack said with a smile.

            Ragnar spoke to Jack again, and Jack responded to him in the same language, which Zack had only now realized must be Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. “He asked us where we are from, I told him a magical land far from here, and we need assistance getting back.”

            “Eat.” Ragnar said to Zack, gesturing to the charred mound of meat in front of him.

            Not hesitating, Zack managed to pry a fist sized chunk out of the spit, and he sat back down and ate it greedily. The meat was burned slightly, the char leaving a horrible taste in his mouth, but it was quickly replaced by the gamey flavor of wild meat, so unlike any that he had tried before. “What is this?” He asked to Jack, who then translated.

            “He says it’s wolf.”

            At the stunned expression on Zack’s face, Ragnar and his compatriots began to howl with laughter. “Silly Englishman, is only elk.” Zack smiled sheepishly, though if he had to be honest with himself he would have eaten the meat anyways, finally sating the hunger.

            Now that Zack had eaten a little, he could feel his Flame replenish, almost like a fire burning within his veins. He hadn’t run out so completely before, so the feeling of losing it was saddening to him. He knew it wasn’t gone gone, but the thought of burning up from overuse was disconcerting to him.

            Zack looked around at everyone present. They all seemed happy now that they had settled down, many of which eating happily, others chatting with each other, and some of the kids were poking each other in the arms. Everyone seemed to have a partner, and they all looked beautiful together. For some reason, this unsettled Zack slightly, like this was fabricated. The only people that seemed out of place were Ragnar’s daughter, who was the spitting image of her mother, though she was close in age to Zack, and the man on the opposite end of the fire as Zack. He sat alone, his bald head reflecting the firelight. His beard was short and black, and his skin was not only darker, but parts of it seemed almost singed black. He smiled at Zack when he noticed he was being watched and held up a horn with a metal rim around the top, drinking from it deeply.

            “Ragnar agrees to give us some supplies if we help the village.” Jack said, snapping Zack out of his introspection.

            “What do we need to do?” Zack asked Ragnar.

            “Pick tomorrow, enjoy tonight.” Ragnar said, passing along his own metal rimmed horn down the line. Once it reached Jack, he held it to his lips and took a long drink from it, and handed it to Zack. Zack held it and sniffed the liquid inside, the pungent smell of alcohol greeting his nose. Zack almost shook his head, but Ragnar was staring at him with a smile on his bearded face. “Drink, be man!”

            Zack took a deep breath and took a large swig of the liquid, the initial taste of it was absolutely vile. It took lots of self control to avoid spitting it out, but he managed to swallow it and handed the horn back to Jack, who took another swig before handing it down. The burning of the alcohol down into his stomach was unpleasant, and he felt his cheeks get slightly warm. But once the taste of the alcohol itself dissipated, Zack was left with a pleasant aftertaste of honey.

            “It’s mead.” Jack said to him, grabbing himself a piece of meat. “Honey wine.”

            “It’s awful.” Zack said as quietly as possible. “How did you manage to drink it?”

            Jack shrugged and gave Zack a smile. “I kinda liked it. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. I’ve absolutely tried worse, I promise.”

            As the night went on, the families of the village broke up, going into their own huts after saying goodnight to everyone. At the end, it was Ragnar, his family, Jack, and then finally Zack. Ragnar stood up and grabbed one last piece of meat, then kicked dirt onto the flames to smother them somewhat. He spoke to Jack in Norse again, and nodded to Zack, then he and his family walked off into their hut, a heavy wooden door closing.

            “He says we can stay in the old hut.” Jack said, standing. He stretched his back and walked towards the dilapidated hut, and Zack followed.

            A leather flap as opposed to a door stood to block the elements from the hut, and it had done a surprisingly good job as the inside was freezing. Inside, there were two woven racks that acted as cots, one on each side of the hut, and dug in the ground in the center was what looked to be a fire pit. Zack put several split pieces of wood into the pit and set the fire using his Flame, the warmth immediately improving the temperature inside. The walls, now that there was light to see by, were worn down, the sticks used to actually build the structure were falling out, leaving many holes in the walls for the heat to escape, but it was better than nothing.

            Zack remembered that he was soaked through to the bone still, his clothes still wet. He released some Flame all over his body, and the water that was absorbed into his clothes all evaporated away, even his socks and shoes were dry now, thankfully. Jack sat back on one of the cots, the one closest to the ocean, and he stared up at the ceiling. Zack sat on the remaining cot, taking his socks and shoes off. He could feel the prunes on his feet from being wet for so long.

            “What’s the Primordial Trident?” Jack asked him, still looking up at the ceiling.

            “You remember that?” Zack asked him. He too sat back on the cot, the woven material underneath him was decently comfortable to him, though not as nice as his bed back at the Stronghold was. “I read about them in one of the books in the library. Each Flame has an associated Primordial Weapon, no one really knows where they came from, but they are immensely powerful. The Sword is the weapon for the Red Flame, the Trident is for the Blue.”

            “Why would you want to know where they are?” Jack asked him, turning his head.

            Zack turned his head to look Jack in the eye. “Well, if we are going to fight against a being made out of Flame and his Followers, I think we should be better armed than some sixty year old swords, you know?”

            “And you’re still with me on that?”

            Zack pondered this for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure what he would expect in their mission to fight against Arkotos, he wasn’t even sure what Arkotos was or what he wanted. But part of him felt a need to protect innocents from him. “Absolutely.”

            Jack nodded. “Good.” He turned his head back up and closed his eyes.

            Zack closed his eyes as well. “The book said that only those chosen by the weapons can actually use them. How do we know we will even be chosen?”

            “We won’t know until we find out.” Jack said simply. “Even if we can’t use them, maybe we can find someone who can.”

            Zack sighed. He found that Jack could either be incredibly optimistic when the situation was dire, our that he could be in a very poor mood. Normally though, it seemed as though the poor mood was around Medic. “Assuming we can get back to the Nexus.”

            Zack waited several moments for Jack to respond, and one glance over at his friend told Zack that Jack was somehow already asleep. Unless Jack was actively smiling, he seemed to always have a brooding look on his face, but now that he was asleep, Zack was surprised to see that Jack was actually at peace somewhat, the frown having faded to a slight smile. Part of Zack could see why Brooklyn was attracted to him now that the angst was gone, even if he was a bit of a yutz.

            “Goodnight, Jack” Zack said. He poked his finger in the flames to shift the wood, and once the fresh wood was exposed to the fire, giving more exposed fuel to the flames, Zack closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Eighteen:

            The daylight coming through the holes in the wall woke Zack from his slumber. The light was blinding to him at first when he opened his eyes, then he turned over, hearing the woven slats beneath him creak slightly. Confused, Zack sat up and looked around him. Confusion marred his perspective, but then he remembered the events of the day before.

            He put his socks and shoes on, trying to not be repulsed by the new stiffness in the socks. They crunched against his feet unpleasantly. With a shock, Zack realized that the fire was still somehow burning. Not nearly as brilliantly as it had the night before, but there were still tongues of flame rising up, and warm embers in the pit. Not wanting for the fire to keep burning, Zack kicked some dirt onto it to smother the remainder of the fuel. He had left his sweater on overnight, and it had helped to keep warm, but Zack pulled it off and set it down on his cot, as he could feel already that the day was pleasantly warm out.

            Outside, he found the hustle and bustle of the village, at least, that’s what it felt like. As there were only thirty people in the village, the fact that everyone, including the children, made the place feel like a metropolis. Jack was carrying water from the creek nearby in large buckets, following two women, one of which was the leader’s daughter. Jack set his two buckets down and was speaking with them, though Zack knew he wouldn’t have been able to understand even if he were closer to them. Jack laughed heartily, a sound that surprised Zack.

            Jack noticed that Zack was watching and he waved, then ran up to meet him at the hut. Zack met him about halfway, close to the pit for the bonfire. “Hey, how’d you sleep?” Jack asked him.

            “Better than I expected.” Zack admitted, though there was a stiffness in his back that wasn’t there before. “How long have you been up?”

            “Dawn.” Jack responded. “Little bit of light came through the wall and woke me up.”

            “That wall doesn’t face the east though, does it?” Zack asked, confused.

            “I don’t really think it matters here.” Jack said, pointing up at the sky.

            Zack looked up, and although the sunlight hurt his eyes and left glaring afterimages as his vision shifted, Zack could almost make out the shape of a chariot in the sky, so far away but as bright as, well, the sun. “A sun god?” Zack asked him.

            “Sol, yeah.” Jack nodded. “She might not follow the ‘rises in the east’ rule like the sun does in the Nexus.” He looked down and blinked hard, trying to remove the images from his view. “Anyways, let’s get you to work now that you’re up.”

            Zack took a deep breath. “Right. What do I need to do?”

            Jack pointed towards a pathway through the trees inland that Zack hadn’t noticed the night before. Above the tree line, there was a small plume of smoke rising into the sky. “There’s a forge that way, separated so it’s not so loud. I said that you would be able to help them.”

            “Did you mention my Flame?” Zack asked, feeling uncomfortable mentioning it around the strangers.

            “No, figured it would be best to keep that quiet. Mine too.” Jack admitted. “Rorick is the smith here, he’ll probably tell you what you need to know, I think he speaks English as well, better than Ragnar does at any rate.” He turned to see Ragnar’s daughter waving to him. “Oh, Hilde needs something. Go see Rorick and we’ll be out of here soon.” Jack said, though Zack head something reluctant in his tone.

            Zack waved to Jack and nodded to Hilde. Jack ran off and spoke with the girl before they walked towards the ocean. Taking a deep breath of the fresh sea air, Zack walked the path towards the forge, the shade of the trees blocking the heat of the sun.

            The forge was little more than a pit filled with coals, an anvil that looked far too modern than anything else around, and a trough of water. The man that Zack had sat across the night before, who must be Rorick, was striking a red-hot piece of metal against an anvil, sparks flying from the metal. Zack just watched the man work for a minute, noting the suspicious lack of gloves on Rorick’s hands.

            Zack made himself known, and Rorick gave him a glance before striking the metal three times, then putting the metal back into the burning coals. “You are Zack.” It wasn’t a question. His voice was coarse, as if he was unaccustomed to speaking to anyone. “Jack said you would be able to help me?” This was a question, and Zack nodded, noting that the man had only a touch of the accent that Ragnar has, like Rorick had spent little time here.

            “I can try to.” Zack said simply. “If you’re willing to teach me.”

            Rorick nodded and handed Zack a pair of heavy leather gloved that had been sitting next to the flames. The interior of them was warm, hot even, but Zack wasn’t affected by this. The texture on the inside and outside of the gloves was coarse, and admittedly very itchy. “Use the tongs, when I say, place the metal on the anvil, and return it when I say.”

            So, they went to work. Hours spent, Zack transporting the hot piece of metal back and forth from the hot flames, Rorick slowly working it into a shape that Zack hadn’t been able to figure out. Was Rorick actually working on something here or was he just playing with his toys? Once the metal was formed into an acceptable shape for Rorick, he pulled out more metal, and they continued the process.

            And this was the rhythm for days. Zack spent every daylight hour, and even some of the nighttime hours, working with Rorick, sometimes being able to hammer the metal himself, sometimes having Rorick explain the fundamentals of forging like this, and sometimes feigning shock at an ember landing on Zack’s skin, as the true effect it had on him was minimal.

            Nights were spent around the fire, spending time with the members of the village, which Zack had learned was called Blekking. There was much camaraderie here, though some things felt oddly sterile to Zack. There didn’t ever seem to be any arguments, though Zack wasn’t able to understand what they were saying he could hear their tones, and it was always positive. There was always a healthy supply of mead, which Zack drank to be polite but he kept it to a minimum, and there was always a large animal to roast over the spit to cook. Life in Blekking seemed almost too perfect to Zack, and that made him suspicious.

            Jack, on the other hand, was in love.

            With Hilde on one side and Ragnar on the other, Jack was bellowing laughter at jokes some of the others had made, had taken the time to listen to the children when they told him something they found interesting, and was rosy cheeked from the mead, though Zack could see it in his eyes that he was still far from impaired. During the days Jack helped with everything from sailing the longboats on the ocean, chopping wood, repairing the huts, even a short stint working with Zack in the forge.

            And Zack often woke early to see Jack waiting on the beach for the sun to rise and bathe him in the warmth of a new day. This sight, perhaps, made Zack the saddest. His friend was so in love with this village, and would find it hard to leave, and Zack was slightly concerned that Jack would stay here anyways, disregarding his vow to fight against Arkotos.

            The fourth day, Zack found Rorick standing by a cold forge, kneeling on the ground, eyes closed, whispering to himself. Zack was earlier than he had been before, but he was still surprised that Rorick hadn’t started working yet. What was he doing, anyways? Was he praying? Zack came to the realization that despite living in a world that has gods actively inhabiting it, he neither had seen anything magical, nor had any inkling of prayer coming from the others of the village, not that he could note, anyways.

            “Hello, Zack.” Rorick said in his lightly accented English.

            “Sorry for interrupting.” Zack said, embarrassed.

            Rorick shook his head and stood up. “No need for apology.” He said, and pointed a finger at the forge, and red energy bolted from Rorick’s fingertip and flew into the coals, and within moments the forge was ablaze.

            “You’re a Red.” Zack said, intentionally making it a statement.

            “And so are you.” Rorick said. “Tell me, Jack is a Blue, correct?”

            Zack, reluctantly, nodded. “How long have you known?”

            “When you first helped me I knew you were a Red, and I knew Jack was a Blue immediately. Though based on your clothes I could guess that the both of you are from the Nexus.” Rorick took a step towards Zack. “Are you familiar with what you must do?”

            “What do you mean? You mean fighting Arkotos?” Zack asked, taking a step back from the man. “Yeah, we know.”

            Rorick took a larger step towards Zack. “You must let Yggdrasil fall.”

            “Why would we do that?” Zack asked him, trying to take another step back but was blocked by a tree behind him.

            “Because the Nexus depends on it.” Rorick said. Moving faster than Zack would have thought possible, Rorick touched Zack’s temples with glowing red fingers, and Zack could feel his body start to turn cold, and he crumpled to the ground, the dirt encrusting his skin as he faded into darkness.

*

            There was nothing but a grey ocean, wide and expansive, churning beneath Zack. The sky was nearly as grey as the waters, but the lack of movement helped differentiate between the two. Zack looked at his body, but couldn’t see anything. He could specifically feel his arms and legs moving, but when he tried to touch his chest, his arm seemingly phased through his own body. The feeling was surreal, of knowing his body existed but was unable to even contact itself.

            Rorick’s voice spoke inside of Zack’s head, “In the beginning there was only Ginnungagap, the endless ocean of grey waters.”

            “And then, there were Niflheim and Muspelheim, the realms of Frost and Flame.” Icy white light appeared to Zack’s left, and brilliant orange light appeared to his right. Sparks flew from Muspelheim, and snowflakes from Niflheim, and they connected in the center of Zack’s view. As they did, a violent explosion erupted, but as it faded Zack could see a shape floating above the water, too far away to properly judge the size of it. “The energies of the two realms collided, and birthed the giant, Ymir. And with the dawn of this new life, the Yggdrasil rose.”

            Branches slowly rose out from the grey depths, and in a matter of minutes a large tree with nine distinct branches appeared, roots dangling down towards the ocean, Ginnungagap, Two of the branches, the ones furthest apart, had touched Niflheim and Muspelheim, the ends of them branching off into small tendrils, wrapping around the realms in cage-like spheres.

            The giant, Ymir, climbed the branches of the tree and small figured fell off of him, as if birthed from his flesh. “Then, death.” A crack of white energy, and Ymir fell across three branches, the tallest one, and two of the middle branches. “Using Ymir’s body, the gods fashioned realms from his essences. Clouds from his brains, trees from his hair, oceans from his blood.”

            With each of these, the branches that Ymir fell upon had their own cages built surrounding the worlds being built, clouds, water, mountains, all of it. A rainbow formed, reaching from the very top realm and connected to the realm in the absolute center of the tree. “And his skull as the sky.” Domes appeared over each of these realms, each with two distinct eye holes in each, though there was only one skull.

            “Life prospers, and within the heart of the Yggdrasil, is the World Flame.” Bright blue light emanated from the tree, between the top realm and the middle realm. “As you may know, but the Flame is only accessible when the Yggdrasil falls back into Ginnungagap, when the twilight of the gods has come.”

            The tree ignited. Flames burst from one of the top sections, spreading over the entirety of the tree, and Zack could almost hear the sounds of those burning on the tree. Slowly, the tree began to sink, lowering back into the grey ocean, the flames seemingly extinguishing. “But as of life, death isn’t the end. The tree will rise again.” It rose back up out of the water, the bark and leaves on the tree singed and smoldering. “And in it’s heart is the World Flame, once again.”

            The light returned to the center. “You need to allow the World Tree to fall. Once this cycle has passed, then the Flame will be safe once more, but failing to stop Arkotos will mean damning the Nexus and preventing Yggdrasil from rising again to support the worlds.”

            “How am I supposed to stop Arkotos?” Zack asked, his voice seemingly everywhere as he didn’t have a proper mouth to speak with. Instead of answering however, the tree began to dissolve, and Zack’s vision began to fade, the illusion before him crumbling.

*

            Zack awoke, gripping his head as he sat up, the throbbing immense. Rorick was still standing there, fingers glowing with red energy. “How long have I been out?” Zack asked him, to which Rorick laughed sharply.

            Rorick helped Zack up with a hand, and Zack wiped the dirt off of his sweater and jeans. “What was that?”

            “I showed you what you needed to know, Zack.” Rorick said. “I’ve been here for many years, slipped between the Worlds by mistake, and ended up stuck here. A vision was sent to me, and I have passed it along to you. Yggdrasil must fall, so it can rise again.”

            “Why did you only show this to me? Shouldn’t Jack have seen it too?” Zack asked him.

            “No.” Rorick said. “Jack must believe there is a chance to save Yggdrasil as long as he can. Blekking, for as real as it may seem to you and him and even myself, is an illusion, to convince Jack to fight.”

            “He was already willing to fight though.”

            “Yes, but to him there were no stakes. Now, the stakes are immense for him. That is the difference.” Rorick said.

            “So I can’t tell him about any of this then?” Zack said, his heart sinking. He didn’t want to keep secrets from Jack, not after what they had been through together.

            “Not yet. Not until he realizes on his own that Yggdrasil needs to fall. If he finds out too soon, his resolve will fail. And he cannot know about Blekking being a false reality, as it will drive him once this World is safe.” Rorick fished in his pocket and pulled out a copper disk, roughly the size of a CD, set with 30 various gemstones of varying types, all cut in a similar fashion. They were all infused with Flame, and Zack could feel the massive amount of power resonating from the metal. “This is your way home. A gift, for a brighter tomorrow.”

 

Chapter Nineteen:

            Jack woke before the dawn again, the gentle sounds of the waves crashing along the sandy shores almost luring him back to sleep, but Jack needed to get up. The hole in the wall of the hut, which he hadn’t patched as he had all of the others in the preparations for winter, still allowed him a pleasant view of the waves.

            Sitting up quietly, Jack slipped outside of the hut, making sure that Zack wouldn’t wake. The sunrise felt oddly personal to him, as though despite them being in the same situation, he had one thing he could really claim as his.

            Jack made his way down to the beach, an incredibly short walk from Blekking. The sand was cool to the touch as Jack sat down in it, a spot that he had largely deemed as his. The cool mist coming off of the ocean seemed to fill him with new life. The horizon was dark still, but rays of sunlight were beginning to rise over the horizon as Sol and her chariot made their way over Midgard.

            “Mind if I join you?” A voice said in Old Norse, and Jack nearly leapt out of his skin.

            Jack turned to see Hilde standing behind him, a heavy woolen blanket covering her, protecting her from the cold that Jack no older noticed. “Of course not.” He said to her, patting the sand next to him. She sat down, closer to him than he had anticipated, and almost unconsciously he had smelled himself to make sure he wasn’t repugnant to her.

            They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the view and the smells and the sounds. He glanced a look at her from time to time, her blue eyes staring out at the horizon, and from this angle Jack was surprised to see that her nose has a slight curl to it at the end, something you couldn’t tell by looking at her directly. She was very pretty, Jack admitted, and something inside his chest fluttered at the sight of her. Though he did his best to keep his eyes on the horizon, waiting for the sun, he also wanted to look at her.

            “My father says you will be leaving today.” She said to him, breaking their long silence.

            Jack nodded. “I need to return home.”

            “Your home cannot wait?” Hilde asked him.

            Taking a deep breath, he shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

            She pulled the blanket around her shoulders closer, and Jack glanced at her, mind drifting slightly imagining them under that blanket together, watching the horizon. In his daydreaming, Jack had missed the cresting of the sun. “There is nothing saying that you cannot make this your new home. Everyone here likes you, and my father is taken with you.”

            Jack couldn’t say that he hadn’t thought about it. In fact, Blekking had made him incredibly happy. “I have a duty I need to see through, Hilde. After that, maybe I will be back.”

            “Can you tell me what this duty is?” She asked him.

            “I have a lot of people I need to save.” Jack said simply. “And I can’t do it from here. Zack and I both need to do this.”

            Hilde nodded. “I can accept that.” She said. “Is there a girl, too?”

            Jack’s cheeks flared red. “Hilde!” But he laughed slightly. “I don’t think so.” He said truthfully. He thought that Brooklyn had liked him, but he had blasted her with Flame as he disappeared into the portal.

            “Then take this.” She said, and she wrapped her arms around his neck with a leather cord. At first Jack was concerned that she had meant to strangle him, but then she released her hands and Jack felt cold metal against his skin. He looked down, and saw a silvery metal amulet with what appeared to be a face on the top, and two protrusions coming from the bottom of the piece.

            “What is it?” Jack asked her.

            “That is Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. It will protect you and guide you back to me.” She said.

            “It’s beautiful.” He said to her. “Hilde, I don’t know what to,” He was cut off when Hilde kissed him lightly on the lips, and she stood up and walked off, back towards Blekking.

*

            Ragnar stood before several bags, his arms outstretched. “Friends, take gifts.” Jack noticed that Ragnar had said this in slightly broken English so that Zack could understand him. Jack grabbed one bag and opened it, inside were several days’ worth of dried meats, and Zack had a pouch with two water skins inside of it. There was also a heavy cloak, that Zack threw over his shoulders, the dark wool looking incredibly warm. Ragnar then handed Zack a dagger, long and curved. “Rorick gives you this, says you like.”

            Zack took it by the handle and gripped it firmly. Though Jack couldn’t see much, Zack’s face made him assured that Zack was happy with this dagger. “Thank you, Ragnar.”

            Ragnar then unhooked an axe from his waist and handed it to Jack. Speaking in Old Norse, he said, “Take this axe with my blessing, Jack. And take the necklace with Hilde’s blessing. I hope they both serve you well.”

            Jack nodded, and thanked Ragnar, then shook the large man’s calloused hand. Zack did the same, and they walked up the coastline.

            “Hilde didn’t see you off?” Zack asked once they went out of earshot of Ragnar.

            “I saw her this morning.” Jack said, solemnly.

            “Right.” Zack said.

            “So how is it we’re getting back?” Jack asked him.

            “Rorick gave me a one-use portal.” He said, simply.

            “I thought portals needed to be massive.” Jack said, looking at the disk of copper and gems that Zack had pulled out.

            “They do if you want to use them more than once.” Zack said. “I assume all of the gems will explode when we use this, so you can’t use it again.”

            “How did Rorick get this anyways? Actually, how did Rorick know what we needed?” Jack asked, confused.

            “He’s a Red. He says he got trapped here quite a few years back, but he grew to like it, so when he found this, he kept it hidden since he didn’t want to use it.” Zack explained to him.

            “Alright, I can believe that, but why wouldn’t we just do it in the village, or just outside of it?”

            “If I remember right, Rorick said it needed to be done on a border between the realms here.” Zack explained, nodding to a point far off in the distance. “The closest one is a three day walk, one on the shore, two heading inland.”

            “Explains why they couldn’t just sail us there.” Jack said simply.

*

            The portal device began to pulse rapidly in Zack’s pocket, leading him to pull it out and inspect it. The device had grown warm from the Flame inside all of the gemstones reacting to being on the borders of the realms in Yggdrasil. And about time, too. Zack’s feet had been bleeding the last time he checked them from the wear on his shoes.

            “I think we’re here.” Zack said to Jack.

            “So this is a border, you said?” Jack asked him. “It looks normal to me.”

            Around them, trees rose tall and gnarled, leading Zack to wonder how old these trees were, exactly. “I don’t understand it well myself. The other realms of Yggdrasil are physical spaces, but there are also pockets slipping between each other.” Zack reached down and picked up a rock, and threw it in front of them. It soared, then vanished.

            Jack saw this, and walked towards where the stone had vanished. He reached a hand out, and his fingertips disappeared. The air around his fingers seemed to distort as he pulled back, regaining his finger tips. “Wanna take a look?” Jack asked with a smile.

            Zack set the device down and walked up to where the border was. He slowly pushed his head into the barrier, and on the other side he saw a mountain range, several miles below where Zack’s head had popped out, though the mountains on this side were far, far larger than any range on Midgard, or even on Earth in the Nexus. The top of it, however was destroyed, crumbling with time, which awed Zack as the mountain would be even taller than it was now.

            He pulled his head back, and looked at Jack. “It’s insane.”

            Jack inspected it as well and came back with a smile on his face. “That’s impressive. Maybe we’ll come back and take a look at it when we’re more prepared.”

            “Is that a date I hear?” Zack asked, with a grin.

            “Maybe if things don’t work out.” Jack said back, then nodded to the portal. “Let’s go.”

*

            They were dropped back in the colosseum, the portal stone on this side activating enough to keep the portal sustained. Zack welcomed the warm ground below him, and sat on the ground, exhaustion permeating through his body. Jack, however, stayed on his feet, a resigned look on his face. “Are you gonna be okay?” Zack asked him, to which Jack just responded.

            Taking a deep breath, Zack stood up and together, they made their way back to the Stronghold.

            Inside it looked largely the same, the same pitted flooring in the entrance hall, the broken windows overhead. They checked the Rec Room and didn’t find Medic or Brooklyn, which was surprising as one of them is normally there. The dining hall was empty as well. Walking up the stairs, however, let Zack know where they had gone.

            Shouting came from the upper floor, the armory and forge, and Zack was surprised to hear that it was Brooklyn who was shouting.

            “-going after them, and you can’t stop me.”

            “They will be fine, I assure you!” Medic pleaded with her.

            “You don’t know that. You. Do not. Know. That.” She responded sternly.

            “Brooklyn, Jack can take care of himself.” A third, new voice said. Zack wasn’t familiar with the owner of this voice, as there had only ever been Medic and Brooklyn at the Stronghold before himself and Jack had arrived, but the expression on Jack’s face changed to something of longing.

            They reached the top of the stairs, and were greeted by the sight of Medic standing alongside a tall man with long black hair, opposite of Brooklyn who was red in the face from emotion and was breathing hard. They were standing in such a way that they hadn’t seen the two of them return.

            “I don’t think you realize what’s in Yggdrasil, giants, trolls, maybe even Followers.” Brooklyn said. “They’ve been gone for over a week, someone needs to go after them.”

            “And tell me, Brooklyn, what will happen when you arrive into Yggdrasil? Search around randomly until you find them?” Medic asked her, tone not unkind.

            “I’ll do what I need to, I’ll ask around and even fly around until I find them.” Brooklyn said.

            “You don’t need to do either.” Jack said, making their presence known to the trio.

            Brooklyn turned to them, and Zack could see that she had been crying for them out of worry. She hugged Zack quickly, then threw her arms around Jack before pulling away. “Oh my god, you’re back!” Then, unfortunately, she gagged and took a step back, holding onto her nose. “Oh my god, you’re disgusting.”

            “Appreciate it.” Jack said to her, then walked over to the man that Zack did not recognize, and Jack grabbed him in a single armed hug. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

            “It took a while to get here, had to go the Flameless way after waiting to make sure the Followers were off of your scent.” The man said. He walked over to Zack and held out his hand. “Good to meet you, Zack, I’m Slath.”

            “What kind of name is Slath?” Zack asked, shaking his hand firmly.

            “A good one.” He responded.  “It looks like the two of you made it out alright.” He said, grabbing part of Zack’s cloak and inspecting it.

            “There was a village there that helped us. A Red gave us a portal to get back home.” Zack explained simply.

            “But, eight days?” Brooklyn asked them.

            “Walking dozens of miles through the forest takes a while.” Jack shrugged.

            “Speaking of, Medic?” Zack said.

            Medic hadn’t been paying much attention to them, staring off in the distance as everyone greeted and mingled, but upon being spoken to directly he snapped his attention back. “Yes?”

            “I know my feet are beyond torn up, Jack’s probably aren’t much better. Could you watch us up?”

            Medic nodded. “Of course. I’ll meet you up in the medical wing.” He sniffed the air, and a sour expression appeared on his face. “Please though, shower first.”

 

Chapter Twenty:

            The winds along the peaks of Jotunheim, one of the Nine Realms of the Yggdrasil, ripped through Lenon’s robes. Despite wearing several layers under his robes, and a glass face shield to block the wind and snow, he was still finding it difficult to navigate his way along the impossibly tall ridges.

            His spies had found a portal device along one of the many edges between Jotunheim and Midgard several weeks ago, but the gems had all exploded during use, so there would be no way of potentially tracking who had used the portal. Lenon tried to not let it bother him, especially now as he was hiking along the peaks of the tallest mountain in Yggdrasil.

            Behind him, several Followers carried bags full of equipment, rations and gemstones mostly. Jason should have been the one to do this, but the master just had to entrust Lenon with the job. That being said, this was his idea, so he was just getting the credit he deserved in some twisted way.

            The sun hadn’t quite reached it’s zenith yet, blessedly. If they missed noon, then they would have to stay within Yggdrasil for another cursed day. Because of the elevation, the Followers had to hike their way up the mountain, as a portal wouldn’t properly function going this high in a separate realm, as portals only properly worked connecting with the basic realms, like Midgard.

            A rock came out from beneath Lenon’s feet, causing him to stagger slightly, but he was caught by a tall Yellow behind him. Lenon fought back the urge to curse at the man for touching him, deciding that being saved by someone beneath him would be better than falling fifty miles to his death. Why did they have to make the mountains so damn tall?

            Finally, the reached the peak, or what was left of it. The uppermost portion of the mountain had been destroyed, broken apart by the god of thunder, Thor, some thousand or so years ago, at least according to the children’s mythology book Lenon had brought along with them.

            The crumbled remains of the peak was nothing more than a pile of cracked boulders, some of which were crackling slightly with electricity. It would have been an impressive sight if not for the week long hike up here. And the week long hike back down. Lenon groaned.

            They scrambled up to the top of the pile and waited. In the distance, they could see the sun coming towards them, as they were so high that they were alongside Sol’s flight path. Grabbing his bow and a long metallic cord, he tied the cord to the end of an arrow and held his position, bow drawn. Slowly he infused the arrow with Flame, the green energy surrounding the fletching, for a true shot despite the raging winds around him. The Yellow Flame who had saved him held onto the other side of the cord, revealing it’s true length at the touch, it being several hundred feet long. He tied the cord around his waist several times, and wrapped his hands around, ensuring a tight grip.

            Hold.

            Hold.

            Hold.

            Now!

            Lenon shot the arrow at the approaching ball of light, and with a metallic thunk he knew that the arrow had stuck true. Sol was now visible, a pretty blonde woman with long braided hair, flying in a burning hot chariot made of gold, emanating a burning hot light that singed Lenon’s robes, his face mask offering some protection.

            As she passed them, Lenon saw that the arrow had been caught in the wheel of the chariot, wrapping the cord further and further around in a circle as the wheel spun. The Yellow gave him a salute, and was pulled off along with the chariot. And following the chariot came the wolf, a grey and brown mass of hair, easily larger than the man who had just been pulled away. Skol and Hati were tasked to chase the sun and the moon around the worlds forever, which was rather unfair to Lenon, so they were going to help them out.

            Assuming this worked. It was unproven whether or not a Soul Blast would even affect something as divine as Sol’s chariot.

            The Yellow pulled himself along the chariot, and he pulled out a long dagger with a massive amber stone on the end of the handle. The stone was enfused with as much Flame as the man was able to muster beforehand.

            Lenon pulled out a telescope with a light filter on it just in time to see the Yellow stab himself in the heart with the dagger. Blood infused with Yellow energy dripped from the wound, and suddenly a ball of yellow energy came from his chest. In a moment, all of the Flame that inhabited the man and the dagger was drawn into the ball of energy, and it erupted in a furious blast, vaporizing the man and the dagger. The energy potential was so high that the normal property of Yellow Flame, turning objects into stone, was negated completely, causing complete destruction of everything, even the man’s soul.

            The blast had hit the very back end of the chariot, not as much as Lenon would have preferred, but it was enough. The stone was heavier than the chariot had been accustomed to pulling, and the chariot noticeably slowed down, still keeping speed ahead of the wolf, but instead of always being a set distance ahead, now the wolf was beginning to catch up.

            “Mission accomplished.” Lenon said to the remaining two Flames. “Let’s head back down and find passage into Niflheim.”

            “Yes sir.” They said, and they waited for him to walk past.

            “By the way, what was that man’s name?” Lenon asked as he stopped before them.

            “Timothy, sir.”

            “Last name?”

            “No, sir.”

            Lenon sighed. “Right. Well, when this is all done, we will look through our records for him to give him a proper send off, as he won’t be able to wait for his family in death now.”

            “Yes sir.”

            They made their way back down the mountain, and Lenon felt relieved. The plan was coming together. Now to wait until the wolf finishes its job, and then Ragnarok will be upon them.

*

            Jeanette Jelani hated her son. That child, Zack, had been nothing but a nuisance to her ever since he had been born and had caused the death of Martin. Deep down, she was glad that Zack had vanished, she was glad that the remnants of her life with him had burned to the ground, and she was glad that he was likely dead. She had only kept the kid around due to commitment to her deceased husband, who had asked her to make sure that Zack was cared for. A commitment that didn’t extend past making sure the kid was alive at her house. Despite her feelings on Zack, she was confused as to how he had broken the ward she had placed around the house, but she had no way of answering this.

            Her new laboratory wasn’t as elaborate as her last one, a temporary measure for sure. The motel was cheap, and the neighbors were loud at times, but she had privacy for the most part, apart from the occasional intrusion by the housekeeping staff. She had new Bunsen burners for reducing solutions, and the remnants of the old lab were reused, seeds from some of the more exotic plants she had kept, and some of the books that had been saved from the flames.

            She knew that Zack had found the room before he had left, in fact, she was almost certain he had found it right when the house started burning. How had he found it, anyways? He had always had difficulties with the stair that shifted to act as a switch for the door, but it was asking too much for him to have accidentally triggered it and found the door open.

            Jeanette was regretful that he had taken her mirror, as it had allowed her to see members of her kin no matter where they were within the Nexus and the Pillar Worlds, even some of the smaller outlining worlds in a few cases. Not because she had wanted to check in on him of course, he was likely dead. But because of how much that mirror had cost her in her life. Even if the boy wasn’t dead, the experiment had worked completely, so he didn’t have any access to Flame.

            Grinding several plants together in a mortar and pestle, they released a pungent fragrance reminiscent of ash mixed with stale blood, the mash turning a vivid orange. Of course, he had to take her most expensive potion, too. So many of them had been destroyed when the expansion charm collapsed on the room containing her lab, but after allowing the liquids to evaporate leaving relatively harmless mash in their absence, Jeanette’s inventory had brought to light that Liquid Explosion was the only one missing.

            Such a small vial, only the size of her little finger, but the effects were extraordinary. Any living matter that touched the liquid would evaporate slowly, then the flesh that had turned into vapor would erupt into nauseous gas, knocking out anyone nearby. Creating it was a challenge, as she had inhaled the vapors more times than was healthy, but her experimentation had paid off when she had been given more money than she could have comprehended with only a single vial. The Flame black market was interested in subtle weapons of mass destruction, the victim splashed with the liquid would die, and any witnesses nearby would be knocked out, reducing the potential casualties but increasing the pain for the victim.

            And it was gone.

            Digging through her initial notes of brewing the potion, she knew that she had lost the full recipe, so she had to work on it from memory. She then poured the orange mash into a beaker of blue liquid, boiling rapidly from the flame beneath it, and with a wooshing sound, a red mushroom cloud appeared as the two mixtures combined. That was likely due to the naga venom in the blue base, but the verdict among scholars was still out.

            The liquid changed rapidly from blue, to green, then to the orange of the mash. It was done, at least as close as she could approximate due to the circumstances. Hopefully her buyer would accept this batch. Though she needed to test it.

            Jeanette reached under the grungy motel bed and pulled out a metal cage containing a dozen mice. Taking a glass dropper from nearby, and covering her face with a scarf, she put the tip of the dropper into the mixture and pulled up only a drop, any more would be a waste.

            She dripped the liquid onto a mouse in the center of the box, and at first, nothing happened. Suddenly, the orange liquid began to smoke as the flesh began to evaporate, the mouse squealing in agony. In a matter of moments, there was a penny sized hole in the top of the mouse, exposing bone, and the surrounding mice inhaled the vapor in the air, and one by one they collapsed on the bottom of the cage.

            Perfect.

            “The Followers will be pleased with this batch.” She said to herself, her voice gravelly from inhaling enough toxic fumes to last a lifetime. After bottling and corking the potions, she put them in a small package and marked them with the symbol of the followers, a trapezoid with the shortest side being along the top. This will keep them out of her hair for a few months, at the very least.

 

Chapter Twenty-One:

            “It has to be here somewhere.” Zack scanned another set of potential blueprints for the castle, this one seeming more accurate than the others had been, though was still missing an important detail. A secret passage into the heart of the castle.

            Books had been pulled off the shelves of the library, along with dozens of scrolls and rolled pieces of paper until he had found this treasure trove of schematics for the castle, drafted long after the structure had been built, but some of which were incredibly well detailed, even down to the seemingly random alcoves here in the library.

            The search for the Primordial Trident had caused this mess, what was at first an interesting tidbit he had read about had become an obsession of his over the last two weeks since getting back from Yggdrasil. The simple thought of knowing it was here in the Stronghold, confirmed by the vision stone, which he had ensured was disconnected from the portal archway, was enough to motivate him to find it. If Jack was able to wield this weapon, that would be an incredible step up in their potential fight against Arkotos who was still an unknown quantity to them.

            The vision stone had shown an obsidian lined hallway, very similar to that of the dungeons, but upon exploring every inch of the dungeons looking for somewhere even remotely similar to what he had seen, he knew that it must have been put somewhere more secret.

            And, of course, he still couldn’t find it documented anywhere.

            Jack was unhelpful in the search for the weapon, which irritated Zack as this was meant to be for him, assuming the Trident would choose him of course. He had spent all of his time back with Brooklyn and Slath, almost ignoring Zack, which after spending so much time with him in Yggdrasil, hurt him a little.

            Deciding that this blueprint was useless for him, he rolled it up and set it to the side with the others. The ghouls would put everything back where it belonged, he was certain of that.

            “C’mon, Zack, think. Where would a passageway to a super powerful weapon be?”

            “Well, this castle had a master at one point, perhaps there was some way that the master had a treasure horde of some sort?”

            “The castle hasn’t had a master in roughly a thousand years, there’s no way to find it if it wasn’t written down anywhere.”

            “Think about where you would hide something important. Would there be somewhere to hide it that wouldn’t be incredibly obvious?”

            This question stumped him slightly. Since returning from Yggdrasil, he had taken to talking to himself out loud, so long as no one was around him of course. And, as per usual, he had stumped himself.

            “Somewhere that wouldn’t be obvious… Well, that would probably be the most obvious place, right?” He asked himself. Zack then had to consider where that would be. There wasn’t anywhere in the dungeons it would be, that would be too close to where the Trident would be anyways. What if there was something up near the living quarters?

            He made his way up to the top floor and looked around. If the master of this castle had used any of these rooms for treasure, it would have been long gone by now, which led him to believe that it wasn’t in any of the rooms. The restrooms were a similar situation as well, as that had been renovated within the last fifty years. How about the common room? That had a very regal look to it, minus the chairs and couches of course.

            And upon entering the common room, it became incredibly obvious where the treasure hoard must be. The painting. The painting itself was several feet taller than Zack and about three feet wider, showing the visage of a man with blond hair and a leather chest piece with an Egyptian Ankh emblazoned on the right pectoral. Zack walked up to the portrait and tried to pull it off of the wall, though it wouldn’t budge. Trying his knife that Rorick had given him, he tried to slide it underneath in order to pry the frame out of place, but nothing had happened. Tentatively, he tried poking the canvas with his knife, but the solid wall behind it blocked any sort of incision from going through more than a few millimeters.

            Damn, was he wrong after all? He inspected every inch of the frame that he was able to reach, until on the right hand side of the frame, carved so finely that only someone who was actively searching for it could find, carved into the stone were Norse runes.

*

            With a strike of his sword, Jack shattered Brooklyn’s shield again, channeling his Flame into the sharp edge of the weapon in order to turn hers into ice. The armory, thankfully, was full of shields that they could use to practice his Flame control with. The actual manipulation of the Flame had left plenty to be desired, but upon seeing how much of an advantage it had given him in fighting against Brooklyn, he knew he had wanted to learn how to use it in this way.

            “One more?” He asked her, taking a long drink of water. He was sweating profusely, and Jack was sure that he himself left plenty to be desired.

            “I think I’m out for now.” Brooklyn said with a smile. As always, she didn’t seem to be as winded as he was, and not nearly as sweaty. This couldn’t just be because he wasn’t as experienced as she was, but because of the air itself giving her strength.

            “Yeah, my arms are gonna fall off if we go again.” He admitted to her, and he tossed his cup into the trash. The Rec Room was stuffy with their breath.

            “So, are you going to let me cut your hair now?” She asked him. “Being sweaty isn’t a good excuse because you’ll need to shower afterwards anyways.”

            “You’ve been bugging me about that all week.” Jack said. He pulled at his hair, and was surprised that it came down well past his shoulders. “It can’t look that bad.”

            “It’s not that it looks bad.” Brooklyn said, reaching over and plucking a strand of his hair out when he wasn’t expecting it, causing a small jolt of pain. She held it from end to end, stretching it out. “It’s that your hair is almost as long as mine.”

            “Your hair as six inches on mine, at least.” Jack said to her, swatting through her hands, snapping the hair. “And you braid yours!”

            “That’s no excuse.” She said to him. “I’ll cut your hair one of these days, just you wait.”

            “Am I interrupting?”

            Brooklyn jumped slightly, and Jack understood that Brooklyn hadn’t noticed Zack walk, no, run, through into the Rec Room towards them, only slowing down once he was within talking distance of them. She dropped the strand of hair in her hand onto the floor, sweeping it away with her foot. “Only a little bit but that’s normal, what’s up?” She said.

            Zack had been holding a roll of paper in his hand, which Jack only now noticed. “I think I found it.” Zack said, handing the paper to Jack who took it and unrolled it. On the paper was a series of Norse runes.

            “Found what?” Jack asked him.

            “Only the thing I’ve been looking into for weeks, the Trident!” Zack said, catching his breath. “I think I figured out where it is.”

            “Zack I already told you that there’s no secret passages in the dungeons or anything.” Brooklyn said, looking at the paper in Jack’s hand.

            “It’s not in the dungeons.” Zack said. “It’s in that common room in the living quarters.” He grabbed the paper from Jack. “I found these runes carved into the wall next to that big painting, they looked like wear on the bricks but when I looked close it seemed to be a pattern.”

            “What did it say?” Brooklyn asked Jack, who was largely quiet.

            “It said…” Jack started, but then he took a deep breath. “It said ‘face your past in order to retrieve a weapon of the past.’ Seems like a good start.”

            “I think I need a Blue to open up the passage.” Zack said. “I tried using my Flame and all I did was melt some of the frame.”

            “Zack, it can’t be that easy.” Brooklyn said. “If it were then someone would have taken it already, there used to be hundreds of Flames living here, you can’t be the only one to find the runes and try this.”

            “It’s worth a shot.” Jack said, nodding to Zack. “Worst case scenario, Zack is wrong and we lose nothing but a little time. Best case, we gain a huge advantage over Arkotos.” He stood up from his chair, the legs screeching against the polished wooden floor slightly. “You coming?” He asked Brooklyn.

            “Alright, let’s see what happens.” Brooklyn said, and she stood up as well.

            The three of them walked to the portrait quickly, not running of course, but they weren’t willing to wait on this. Jack had never really been in the common room here, in fact he didn’t spend much time anywhere other than his room or the Rec Room when he wasn’t eating. The room was quaint, the couches looking plush and comfortable, if a bit dusty.

            The painting on the wall was grand, the man’s expression very stern, with a leather chest piece to boot. “What’s that on his chest?” Jack asked. “There, on the chest piece.”

            “That’s an ankh.” Zack said, gestruring toward the symbol. “It’s a sign of life in Egypt. Not sure why this person would wear it so proudly though, he doesn’t seem very Egyptian.”

            “The armor is European as well.” Brooklyn said, and though she seemed uninterested at first, she had been staring up at the face towering over them.

            “You think he’s cute or something?” Jack asked her, feeling a slight pang of jealousy.

            “No, no. It’s just… Jack, he looks just like you.” She said, standing back to see them side by side.

            “His hair’s a lot shorter, and we have different noses.” Jack said, glancing up and dismissing it.

            “No, Jack, she’s right. It’s uncanny.” Zack said. “It’s like a painting of you. You even have the same always angry look to you.”

            “I do not have an always angry look.”

            “You kinda do.” Brooklyn said, smiling. “But it’s endearing.” She added, nudging him.

            “The runes are here.” Zack said, touching a portion of the wall just to the right of the frame.

            Jack walked over to them, and traced them with his finger. They were definitely worn out, almost as if they were carved to look like aging in the stone. At a distance, Jack wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from the surrounding stone. “So what, you think I just need to put some Flame into the portrait? Maybe in the runes themselves?”

            “Give it a try.” Zack said, taking a step back. Brooklyn, on the other hand, stood just behind Jack.

            Jack took a deep breath and released some Flame to his fingertips, and pressed them against the frame. The gold metal, which had the impression of Zack’s fingers melted into it, turned so cold within moments that first had started to form on the surrounding area. Though Jack poured plenty of Flame into the frame surrounding the painting, nothing happened. The same result occurred when he tried to power the runes, though they must just be writing, not a spell of some sort.

            “Nothing.” Jack said, deeming it a failure. He felt fatigued, having put in a decent amount of Flame, even after using it to spar with Brooklyn.

            “I have an idea.” Brooklyn said.

            “What’s that?” Zack asked her.

            “I can’t really explain.” She said, but she grabbed Jack’s hand, holding it. “But do you trust me?”

            “Of course.” Jack said, not even hesitating. His heart was fluttering slightly as Brooklyn held his hand within hers, though strangely, the Mjolnir nexklace that Hilde had given him, which sat on his neck like it did every day, seemed to grow warm.

            He regretted saying that of course, because in a swift action, Brooklyn pulled out a knife from her pocket and pulled it across Jack’s palm, far faster than he or Zack could have anticipated. “What the hell?” He shouted at her, his anger flaring. Bright red blood flowed from the cut, but as his anger began to rise, the blood was slowly turning blue and glowing dimly. There was next to no pain, but he was angry that she would do this.

            “You wouldn’t have let me if I explained it.” She said, shrugging, but Jack could see the regret in her eyes. “But blood can be infused with Flame and its particularly potent.”

            “So if you’re wrong, you just cut my hand open for no reason.” He said, cradling his bleeding hand with his uninjured one. It was beginning to sting now that it the cut was exposed to the air.

            “I’ll cauterize it so it’ll stop bleeding before Medic gets to it.” Zack said. “In the meantime, try it.”

            Jack took a deep breath, and tried to quell his anger, but keep the flow of energy going out of the cut. The blood was now glowing a bright blue. He hesitated, but then dragged his bleeding hand against the painting, the blue blood staining the golden metal. The glow faded, but slowly, the blood began to vanish, as though it was being absorbed by the gold.

            “What the hell?” Jack whispered to himself, taking a step back from the painting, forgetting about his cut for a moment and letting his hand drop and bleed onto the floor.

            The entire golden frame began to glow as if it were being illuminated by nearby spotlights, and slowly, the entire painting, frame and all, slowly moved forward and swung open as if on hinges. Behind it was a passageway, an obsidian hallway composed of stairs and walls, heading down into the depths of the castle.

            “You were right.” Jack said to Zack.

            “I was right.” Zack seemed almost as unbelieving as Jack was at the sight, but here they were.

            Brooklyn stepped up to the opening, and she immediately shivered, rubbing her arms. “It’s freezing down there.” She said, teeth chattering. “I don’t think I can go down there, even if I had a big coat on or something.”

            Jack nodded. “I’ll go alone, that’s fine.”

            “I’ll go too.” Zack said.

            “No, that’s fine Zack.” Remembering the cut on his hand, he held it out to Zack who promptly heated his palm so that the blood crusted over. “Honestly, you’ve probably done more than enough.”

            “I need to see it.” Zack said. “My Flame will keep me warm enough probably.”

            “Probably.” Jack said, inspecting his hand. It no longer stung, but the dried blood was incredibly uncomfortable. “Right then. Brooklyn, get Medic and Slath, meets us in the ampitheatre.”

            “Not the Rec Room?” Brooklyn asked, crossing her arms stubbornly. She didn’t like being ordered.

            “No, if I can’t control it, it would probably be safer there than inside of the castle.” Jack said.

            She sighed and turned, walking off to go find Medic and Slath.

            “Ready, partner?” Zack said, holding out his fist.

            Jack raised an eyebrow at him. “Partner?”

            “Just give me a damn fist bump.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Two:

            Walking behind Jack who had his left hand held before him, illuminating the obsidian hallway, Zack did his best to repel the cold air with his own Flame. Needing the warmth, Zack was tempted to release more and more of his Flame, as the cold still seemed to reach him despite the energy he was using. Perhaps it was a bad idea for him to come down here, but he needed to see where the Trident was being kept.

            “You okay back there?” Jack asked him, turning his head slightly in order for him to see Zack, but still able to see the stairs in front of them.

            “Cold. Very cold.” Zack responded, managing to keep the chatter to a minimum.

            “You can head back up.” Jack said. “I can get to the Trident myself.”

            “You can, but you wo-won’t.” Zack said, a shiver running down his spine. Damn was it cold down here.

            Jack slowed to a stop, likely to ensure that Zack didn’t bump against him. Releasing as much Flame as he was and touching Jack would have severely burned him, if not worse. “I could always wait here and let you go get a jacket or something, at least.”

            “Let’s just go.” Zack said, firmly.

            “Whatever you say.” Jack sighed, turning back around and walking down the stairs again.

            “How far down do you think we are?” Zack asked him.

            “Not sure, I haven’t been counting the stairs but we’re at least well past the entrance hall.” Jack said.

            The entrance hall was on the ground floor of the castle, and the livings quarters where the entrance to this stairway had been, was on the top floor. “Hard to believe this has been here this whole time.” Zack said.

            “And no one ever cut themselves by accident then touched the painting.” Jack shrugged. “I don’t know much about anything like this but I can’t believe it’s an accident that we are the ones that found it.”

            Zack fell silent, thinking about the vision that Rorick had given him. It wasn’t an accident at all, Zack felt. Destiny didn’t feel like the right term for it, but there was something guiding them on their journey, and something itched in Zack’s mind as he felt he was getting closer and closer to the solution. “So, you think you are able to bond with the Trident then?”

            “I’m not even sure how that works.” Jack said, simply.

            “Me neither.” Zack admitted. “The runes though, about ‘facing your past,’ perhaps there’s some sort of trial involved? And if you pass, the weapon will find you worthy?”

            “You talk like the weapon can think.”

            “Everything I have read about the Primordial Weapons over the last few weeks has said that they do choose their hosts, so there is some consciousness in that regard, but I haven’t seen much regarding actual thought other than that.” Zack relayed some of this information with his eyes closed, having walked down enough of these stairs to know their rhythm by heart.

            “We’re heading to the end of the stairs.” Jack said as a warning, to ensure Zack didn’t walk as though there was another step.

            “Can you see a door or anything?”

            “Not yet.” Jack said. “It’s too far away for my light to reach it.”

            Zack’s stomach growled slightly. “I’m running low on Flame, hopefully we can reach it soon.”

            “You have your gem, right?” Jack asked.

            “Yeah, but it’ll only last so long.” Zack replied.

            “Hopefully once we collect the Trident there won’t be so much cold air.” Jack speculated.

            Zack rubbed his arms. He was getting colder now. There was dense fog on the ground, covering their feet. Jack’s Flame in his hand wasn’t helping by any means, though Zack doubted it was making it much colder.

            “You ever think it’s odd that our stomachs growl when we get low on Flame?” Zack asked Jack to fill the space as the walked along the hallway, the oppressive obsidian walls pressing down on Zack.

            “Mine doesn’t really do that anymore.” Jack said, shrugging. “Not until I start burning off of my actual body at any rate.”

            “How does that work?” Zack asked him.

            “Not sure.” Jack admitted. “Brooklyn said something about our Flames acting like muscles a little, the more we use them the less effort it takes. Once I stopped getting as hungry doing it, I figured my body was just getting more used to utilizing the Flame. Food still sustains it of course, but your body isn’t as dependent on it.”

            “For someone who isn’t sure, you sure do have a pretty sound theory.” Zack said. “It makes sense, too.”

            Jack shrugged. “That’s my experience.” He said simply.

            Silence grew between them again, until after several long, cold minutes, Jack slowed down to a stop. “We’re here.”

            Zack looked around Jack, and saw a large white stone door, a stark contrast with the obsidian hallway surrounding them. Embedded into the door was a symbol, the same hexagonal shape with each portion outlined, a circle in the very middle.

            It was beautiful, in an ominous way, Zack decided. Jack approached the door and touched it with his injured hand, and the symbol on the door began to glow a vibrant blue, standing out even against Jack’s Flame illuminating everything.

            Zack gasped as the chamber before them was opened: a tall, sprawling chamber reminiscent of a cathedral, with an arching ceiling with large wooden supports leading upwards. In the middle of the room, which was circular in shape, resided a large white marble pedestal, surrounded by long wooden benches. And on top of the pedestal sat the Trident.

            The Trident was seven feet long, slightly longer than a traditional trident. The wooden shaft appeared to be made out of a dark, blue tinted wood, sanded to a smooth finish. About halfway up the shaft was a leather wrapping, the orange brown color contrasting very pleasantly with the blue. The three prongs on the top of the weapon were engulfed in bright blue Flames, more vibrant than Jack’s own Flame was. In the middle of the prongs, set along the support bar, was a massive gemstone the size of a baseball. The butt spike of the Trident was hovering just an inch or so over the pedestal, just high enough to where it wasn’t touching it, hovering of it’s own volition. The prongs, now that Zack was close enough to see, were carved with etchings that appeared to be a visage of water, showing the true nature of the weapon.

            “It’s beautiful.” Zack said, surprising himself as he hadn’t meant to say it out loud.

            Jack stayed silent, and took another step towards the Trident. He reached out his injured hand again, but hesitated. “I can’t do this.” He said, shaking his head and stepping back.

            “We’re already here.” Zack said, shivering. “Just try it, and worst case scenario it doesn’t accept you.”

            “That seems like it would be bad.” Jack said, looking at his friend with a concerned look.

            Zack gestured to the Trident. “I believe in you.” He said, and smiled at Jack.

            Looking down, Jack closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Slowly, he lifted up his hand again, and took a step forward. His fingers licked the Flame engulfing the weapon, and suddenly the two of them were engulfed in bright blue light.

*

            The apartment was cramped, the pitiful kitchen reaching into the living room which had been covered with children’s toys. Zack was still aware of himself, though he could tell that this vision was different than the one that Rorick had given him in Blekking, as he wasn’t able to move his head or feel his body at all. He was subject to what the vision wanted to show him.

            “Ready or not, here I come!” A woman’s voice called out, and Zack could faintly hear the sound of a child giggling. A short blonde woman with bright blue eyes and a pretty face stepped into view, her hair in a ponytail leading down her back. She swept her gaze across the room, over the small couch and then past it, looking behind herself at the kitchen.

            One of the bottom cabinets moved slightly as she looked at it, and there was a sharp giggle inside of it. The woman ran to the cabinet and swung the door open, revealing a little boy with light blond hair matching his mother’s, and dark blue eyes that betrayed his identity. This was Jack. The kid couldn’t have been much older than five or six, but it was unmistakable. There was something behind his eyes, an intensity that he hadn’t quite grown into yet.

            Young Jack scrambled up and giggled as his mom grabbed him around the stomach from behind as he tried to get away. “Oh no you don’t!” She yelled, and pulled his t-shirt up, exposing his belly, and taking a deep breath she blew raspberries into his stomach, making Young Jack squeal with laugher.

            There was a knock on the door, and Jack’s mother stopped. Jack didn’t seem to know what was happening, but he was confused as to why she had stopped. “Momma?” He asked, the voice almost starting Zack who was used to his voice being far older.

            “Hush.” She said quietly, putting a finger to her lips. Slowly, she stood them both up and waved Young Jack to go towards the room in the back, as there were only the three rooms, living room, bathroom, and bedroom.

            Young Jack listened to her, but instead of going into the bedroom he hovered by the door. His mother went up to the door and looked through the peep hole. “Damn.” She whispered. Quickly, she ran to the bedroom and closed the door, grabbing Jack in the process. Zack felt himself lurch forward to follow her.

            The bedroom was small, cramped. There were two beds, a full size and a twin size, each with a single nightstand next to them. Now that he was closer to a window, Zack could see that this was actually an apartment, and a set of sirens drove on the street below. Rain splashed peacefully off of the window. The woman set Jack down the put him in the closet, sliding the faux wooden door closed. “Stay here and stay safe, baby. They shouldn’t be able to find you in here.” She said. Speaking words that Zack wasn’t able to understand, she waved her hand, now exuding faint blue smoke, and an image of what appeared to be glass appeared in front of it. A ward. “Whatever you do, don’t open this door, Jack. Promise me. The ward isn’t strong enough to protect you if it’s opened.”

            “Why don’t you come too momma?” Young Jack asked, worry creeping into his young voice.

            “I need to make sure the bad men are gonna go away.” She said, standing. In the nightstand next to the full sized bed, she pulled the bottom of the top drawer out and revealed a gun, an old fashioned six shooter.

            There was a BANG! And Zack knew that the front door had been blown off of the hinges. Fear rose into him, though he knew that these events were long since passed. Jack began to cry softly in the closet. “Be quiet baby, please.” She said, even softer. Jack seemed to have heard, as he had stopped being as loud.

            The bedroom door opened far more gently than the front door had. “Ah, Rachel. So good to see you again.” A man’s voice said, and Zack could see a figure in a green robe, though he had his hood down to show off a long head of black hair. On his hip was a whip covered in thorns, as if made from rose stems entwined into each other.

            Jack’s mother, Rachel, held up the gun, pointing it at the man. “Lenon, get out of my house.” Her voice was shaking, and her hands were trembling. A tear rose in her eye, and rolled down her cheek.

            “I hardly believe you can consider this a house, Rachel. Or should I call you Raquel as it says on the lease? Please, you’re smarter than that, if you want to hide from us the least you can do is make it a challenge.” The way Lenon spoke was uncomfortable to Zack; it wasn’t necessarily an English accent, but the tone of what he was saying felt similar, as if he was above everyone and everything. “Unless, of course, you’re loosing your touch since Nick abandoned you.”

            With a BANG the muzzle of the gun flashed, and the bullet had flown straight at Lenon. But it had stopped. His hand was emanating green energy, and Zack knew that the bullet had been stopped by a dense cushion of air. “Please, that’s not necessary. No one needs to get hurt.”

            “Why don’t you go to hell?” She said, tears now streaming freely from her eyes.

            “Because, Hell is small potatoes. But you knew that, didn’t you?” Lenon took a step forward, picking the bullet out of the air. “So primitive.” He tossed the bullet off to the side, hitting the closet door. The spot the bullet hit had flashed blue slightly, but Lenon seemed to not notice this. “I want the boy.”

            “He’s dead, Lenon.” Rachel said, pulling back on the hammer to arm the gun again.

            “Then why are there two beds here, Rachel?” Lenon laughed. “You’re not a good enough liar.”

            “Maybe I adopted someone?” She suggested.

            “You’re too sentimental to replace your own son, Rachel.”

            “Maybe you’re right. But he’s gone, Lenon, ever since Nick’s stupid experiment on them.” Rachel said, this time with more strength that Zack could have imagined.

            There was a long period of silence between them, and Lenon’s face seemed surprised at Rachel’s fervent reaction. The silence, however, was too long. There was a small rumble as the closet door began to open slowly, until a small pale face showed in the crack. The ward around the door became more visible, as cracks began to spiderweb through the spell, weakening it.

            Zack could feel his heart drop, and he almost heard Rachel’s. Without even hesitating, Rachel fired the gun again, and Lenon held up his hand to stop the bullet, but it ended up going through his hand and into his shoulder, with him exclaiming in pain. “Infused bullet, a*****e.” She said, and shot what looked to be an oil lamp that had been hanging next to the door, and it erupted in flames. Lenon screamed in pain as his hair and back caught fire.

            As if it were rehearsed, Rachel grabbed Jack by the arm and pulled him in close for a hug. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He whimpered to her.

            “Shh, it’s okay baby, he would’ve found you anyways. I need you to be strong, Jack. Can you do that? You’ll have a best friend who will take care of you, but you need to be strong for him too. Can you do that?”

            “Y-yes?” Young Jack asked, confused. And then his eyes went lazy as Rachel stroked his head, her fingers trailing blue energy. Within a moment, he went limp.

            Lenon, who had fallen over to try and quell the flames, had stood back up. His hair was all gone, replaced by angry red flesh. “You b***h!” He shouted, any air of decorum gone from his voice.

            Rachel smiled at him. She pulled out a small necklace, with what appeared to be a pearl surrounded by gold wire. “Good luck finding him.” She said, pushing the necklace into Jack’s back, and in an instant the figure vanished, leaving Rachel alone with a furious Lenon.

            Lenon didn’t yell again. He didn’t do anything, really. Except for this; snapping his fingers, Rachel was bound with her arms and legs behind her back, wrapped with vibrant green energy. He shook his head at her and walked out. Zack could see him tentatively touch the flesh on his scalp to assess the damage, most likely.

            Rachel laughed out loud at him, but Zack could see that she didn’t feel the mirth. In fact, there was a sound in her laugh, a heartbroken sound, as she knew that this was the last time she would ever see her son again.

            The fire from the oil lamp spread rapidly, burning up the surrounding carpet, and slowly the vision retreated as Rachel’s screams of pain sounded in Zack’s ears, the apartment going up in flames.

*

            The ground underneath Zack was warm. Groaning, he gripped his head and sat up straight. The chamber which was once filled with a brilliant blue light was now dark, the only light coming from Jack, who was sitting several feet away. He had his legs tucked under his arms, holding them close to his body. And, tears. Jack was crying, tears full of blue energy from his pain and fury, providing the light. On his left wrist there was a faint blue light as well.

            The Trident was gone, and with it did most of the frigid air, though it was far more tolerable now. Zack stood up and walked over to Jack, and he felt warm tears of his own trickle down his face. He didn’t say anything, he knew there was nothing he would be able to say. Instead, he sat by his friend, and put a hand on his shoulder, providing his comfort.

            They sat there, for how long Zack had no idea. He just cried for his friend.

            “I never knew.” Jack said softly. “I never knew. I never knew why she was gone, I never knew why I couldn’t remember her, I never knew why I was abandoned, I never knew why.” He put his face in his hands.  He took a shuddering breath. “She took it from me. That’s why I didn’t know. I guess it’s because she wanted me to know as little as possible but… I wish I had known sooner.

            Zack nodded, rubbing Jack’s shoulder slightly, maintaining his silence.

            “I’m gonna kill him.” Jack said.

            “Lenon?”

            “I’m gonna kill him for what he did.”

            “Jack, he’s a Follower. You saw his robe, you fight him, you could die.”

            Jack looked at his glowing wrist. From this angle, Zack could see a black image of a trident almost burned into Jack’s arm. The light was beginning to fade, slowly. And Jack’s tears, once a source of light, had dulled as they slowed. Jack took a shuddering breath again, and stood up. “He’s a monster.” Jack said, solemnly. “And if he’s a Follower, then good. I’ll kill Arkotos at the same time, too.” Summoning the Trident in a flash of blue light, it formed in Jack’s right hand. He inspected the weapon and hefted it. In his hands, it seemed so light. He swung it like a baseball bat, then smashed the barbed prongs down onto a wooden bench. The wood turned to ice in an instant and shattered.

            “It’s beautiful.” Zack said quietly, as Jack swung it one final time.

            Jack took a deep breath, and as if on command, the Trident vanished from sight in a flash of light. The energy from it coursed back into Jack’s body, and the mark on his wrist returned to a solid black, having turned blue when it was summoned.

            “Let’s get out of here.” Jack said, wiping the tears from his face with the inside of his shirt, summoned a ball of light in his hand, and set off towards the passageway out of the chamber.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three:

            Snip

            Snip

            Snip

            Hair fluttered to the ground in clumps. Brooklyn bit her lower lip in concentration as she slid portions of Jack’s hair between the blades on the scissors. Snip, and another chunk fell.

            “Tell me again why you finally let me cut your hair?” Brooklyn asked him.

            “It was time.” Jack said simply. He seemed quiet, more than usual, especially around her.

            “You gonna tell me what happened?” She asked, trying to pull information out of him again.

            “No. Not yet.” He said. Jack was just, sitting there. Stoic. The brand on his wrist stared at Brooklyn, as if watching her. No, that was silly, it was just a mark, almost a tattoo really. They had chosen to do this on one of the hidden balconies of the Stronghold, basically only a secret to her. And to Jack now, but she had found it several years ago, the wall giving way when she pushed on it in the living quarters. Flames flickered in the sconces on the edge where the railing was, giving them light and warmth. The sun was slowly beginning to set, casting everything with orange light.

            “You know, I’m doing this for free, right?” She said with a smile, trying to play it off as a joke. “Consider telling me payment.”

            “If I pay for it then it’s not free.” Jack said, staying perfectly still, but Brooklyn knew that if he could shake his head, he would.

            Brooklyn took a deep breath. Stop being so nosey, she told herself. Clearly, he saw something that upset him, Zack too. But Zack hadn’t shut her out like Jack had. It’s been three weeks since reclaiming the Trident, and Brooklyn has only seen Jack during mealtimes. Zack was reclusive by nature so that wasn’t anything new, but not her Jack.

            Her Jack. The thought had slipped out, but it made her smile nonetheless. She liked him, and she was pretty sure that he liked her. Admittedly, she didn’t know many people her age, or really anyone, but she felt a real connection with Jack. They both liked talking about nature and life, they both liked to spar, they liked to go on long walks through the surrounding forest. She even convinced him to climb up the hills around the Stronghold and get to the top of the cliff with her.

            And with this feeling, came a strong urge of protection. She knew that he was hurting, she could almost feel the pain he felt, but at the same time she couldn’t, like there was a barrier between them now.

            Admittedly, there was a bit of jealousy to go with it, too. Zack knew what had happened, but he refused to tell her. “It’s his choice.” He had said. Well, that’s dumb. She thought to herself.

            She clipped another bunch of hair. When was the last time he had gotten a haircut? Going near his neck, she saw the leather cord holding the pewter Mjolnir pendant that hung above his sternum. “You never told me how you got this necklace.” She prompted him. Maybe while he’s distracted with something else, he’ll be more forthcoming with answers.

            “The village, Blekking. Ragnar, the leader, his daughter gave it to me.” Jack said. Vague as ever, but at least it was more than she had gotten before.

            “What was the village like?” She asked him.

            “Honestly? Wonderful.” He said, and Brooklyn could almost see his cheeks move slightly as he smiled.

            “That cool huh?” Brooklyn said, and it took a lot of effort for her to keep the spite from her voice. “I’m sure it was great.” He realizes that she has a pair of scissors near his throat, right?

            “Nothing like here, though.” He said, and nodded towards the horizon. “That’s a hell of a view.” Well, it’s better than nothing.

            Brooklyn stepped in front of him, and clipped off his bangs with a quick snap and the hair fluttered down. “Maybe we can go back to Blekking once this is all over.” She said, and she smiled to him, and surprisingly, he smiled back.

            He didn’t respond though, falling silent. Brooklyn looked at his face, and at his intense eyes. They almost seemed to flicker between different shades of blue, even when he wasn’t channeling his Flame. When that happened, his eyes began to glow a bright blue, which she had become familiar with over the months as they sparred more and more.

            She cut another bit of hair, and she decided that was acceptable. She pulled a mirror from her back pocket and handed it to him. “What do you think?” Brooklyn asked.

            Jack accepted the mirror and looked at himself. His hair had gone from a long mop of dirty blond hair, to a shorter cut, somewhat layered messy look. It looked great on him, she thought. The dirty blond color wasn’t consistent, almost turning lighter and darker in some spots, which complimented the cut well. “It’s short.” He said, but he smiled at her. “Thanks, Brooklyn. I appreciate it.”

            She smiled back and took the mirror from him before he dropped it. “Good.” She said, and sat next to him in her chair, the lawn chair having a pad on it for a cushion.

            Jack took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry.” He said.

            “Sorry?” Brooklyn asked, surprised.

            “I’ve been dismissive towards you lately, that’s not cool. I just- I just need a little time. Okay? And I’ll tell you everything.” He said.

            “You know you’re not being filmed right? You don’t need to say anything like that.” She said with her signature awkward charm.

            “I’m serious.” Jack said, turning to look at her. He brushed some of the hair off of himself nervously, and Brooklyn channeled some Flame, blowing air all over him and sent it out into the night. “Thank you.” He said.

            “Of course.” She responded.

            Jack only just stared at her. She blushed slightly. “What?” She asked.

            “It’s nothing.” He said. “You’re just cute.”

            CUTE? Her heart fluttered at this, and she smiled. “You’re cute too.” He seemed happy right now, happier than he had been. “You can take as long as you need to.” She said. “I’ll wait.”

            Jack smiled, and slowly he drew closer to her, his face was so close. She began to sweat, did she put on deodorant? Wait no, toothpaste! Did she brush her teeth before this? How about a mint? But slowly, the emotions began to fade as she leaned towards him as well, closing her eyes.

            Ska-BOOM!

            The entire castle shook, the sound causing her ears to ring and a flash of blinding light. She had been blown back in her chair, falling backwards and hitting her head on the stone, causing pain to throb with each beat of her heart. Jack had been slightly closer to the blast, whatever it was, and had been thrown a little more violently at the wall behind them.

            Brooklyn helped him up and inspected him, making sure nothing had broken. Thankfully, nothing was, though Jack now had a large cut on his forehead. “Are you alright?” He asked her.

            “Yeah, fine. What was that?” She asked, looking over the edge of the balcony. Residing in a crater within the castle walls, was a bright glowing ball of what almost appeared to be molten gold. The heat coming off of it was outstanding, Brooklyn feeling her face get tighter from here. The surrounding grass had either dried up or had burned.

            “It looks like…” Jack started, but trailed off. “We need to get down there.”

            “What?” Brooklyn asked, flabbergasted. “Jack that thing is too hot, it’ll cook you!”

            Jack summoned the Trident, a brilliant flash of blue light. “Not with this it won’t.” He said and ran off.

            Brooklyn was left there, alone. Her heart began to hurt, but instead of feeling the pain, she buried it down, and then went to follow Jack.

*

            Zack arrived to the crater just after Jack had, but before Medic, Brooklyn, and Slath. The ball of gold was so hot, that even Zack and his heat immunity had begun to sweat. The metal was glowing so brightly, especially in the fading daylight, that it was impossible to make out any details along the surface of it.

            Jack tentatively reached out with the Trident, trying to touch the metal, but he pulled back with a hiss. Despite being enveloped in his blue Flame, Jack was clearly able to be burned by whatever this was.

            Medic arrived next. “That’s not what I think it is, is it?” He asked Jack, who nodded.

            “Will you tell me what it is?” Zack asked, but they only remained silent, blinking their eyes repeatedly as the glow burned images into them. “Medic, is Slath coming?”

            Medic shook his head, keeping his eyes fixed on the ball of light. “No, he’s staying inside where it’s safe.”

            Zack nodded. Since Slath was Flameless, this was a safe option. Brooklyn finally ran up, completing the group. “Jack will you tell me what’s going on?” She asked, and Zack could hear that she was angry. She was channeling her Flame to keep the air around her circulating to keep her cooler, but Zack could notice that she was keeping her distance a little ways from the ball.

            “I’m not sure, we need to cool that ball down though.” He said. Looking at Medic, he asked, “Can you pull the heat away with your Flames? You and Zack?”

            Medic shook his head. “Not when it’s on its own, not connected to any fire or anything. And this is too big for either of us to move indirectly.”

            Jack swore. “What do we do then?”

            “Jack.” Zack said, and pointed to the Trident. “Use the Trident, pour your Flame over it.”

            Jack blushed momentarily. “Right.” He said. Holding the Trident towards the ball of gold, Jack concentrated, and a torrent of blue energy came flowing through the prongs. A violent sound, like the air itself ripping apart, permeated Zack’s ears, and the energy enveloped the golden ball. It was still close to unbearably hot, but ever so slowly the temperature began to fall. The gemstone in the Trident, which had started off so brilliantly blue, was turning dull, and then Jack was forcing through his own personal Flame. This seemed to work faster, as if Jack’s Flame was more potent than what was inside of the Trident, and finally Jack released the flow of power and fell over slightly, using the Trident to keep himself up.

            The ball was still so hot that it was glowing, but it was tolerable for him now. He stepped down into the crater and touched it. With a hiss, he pulled his hand back. Still too hot. But he could see it properly now. The ball seemed to truly be made out of gold, millions of coin sized scales connected and interwoven together. On each of them appeared to be a different Norse rune, as far as he could tell there was no pattern so it wasn’t true writing. Perhaps spells?

            “Brooklyn, can you keep the air circulating over the ball?” Zack asked from the crater.

            She nodded, and with her hands turning green, Zack could feel a pleasantly cool breeze flow over the ball of gold. Pouring a massive amount of Flame into his hands to help protect him, Zack touched the orb, and immediately the scales began to shift and move, rearranging themselves so that now, instead of it being a perfect sphere, there was a doorway. There wasn’t much pain in his hands from doing this, but there was still enough that he would need Medic to look at them. Zack looked inside of it, and he was barely able to see anything, since his eyes had adjusted to the brightness of the shell, but he had the impression that the inside was hollow, and far larger than the exterior had made him believe.

            “Jack, you good?” Zack asked him.

            “Yeah, yeah.” Jack said, standing up straighter. “Still have plenty of Flame.”

            “Anyone else want to come with?” Zack asked.

Medic seemed too stunned to react, and Brooklyn shook her head. “That’s an oven, Zack, I couldn’t make it.” She said.

Zack nodded, and held up a hand for Jack, helping him down so that he wouldn’t potentially stumble and hit the side of the shell. Jack hurried inside and sighed in what must have been relief. “It’s not that hot in here.” He said.

Sure enough, Zack wasn’t able to feel any heat, so it must be below his ambiguous heat threshold. At some point he would have to figure out what that is. The inside of the shell was massive, the light coming off of the Trident illuminating the spherical walls. Images of wolves and what appeared to be scratch marks lined the walls. The scratches were in oddly specific bunches, millions of them. Almost like someone was counting the days.

They were walking along a pathway, suspended a ways above the bottom of the shell which had more drawings and scratch marks. There were clawlike gouges in the golden pathway, and splotches of what appeared to be blood. At the end of the pathway was a gilded doorway.

“You gonna tell me now what this is?” Zack asked Jack.

“It’s the sun.” Jack said, calmly. “It’s Yggdrasil’s sun, driven by Sol. If it’s here, then I think that means Yggdrasil is going to fall soon.”

“How could it get here?” Zack asked him. “We barely made it back.”

“I’m sure there was a portal or something on board.” Jack shrugged. Zack could tell that he was tense, his shoulders stiff and unmoving.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” Zack said, though he wasn’t even sure what this was.

“I think we have to.” Jack said, and finally they reached the doorway. On it was an image of the Yggdrasil, highly stylized with lots of lines and curls around the top and bottom. And on either side of the image were two circles with lines of what must be light coming off of them, with a mass of claws just behind them.

Jack pushed the door and it swung open, and inside was madness. A wolf, large enough to eat either of them, was snarling at a woman with almost bleach blonde hair wearing gilded white armor, holding a sword glowing right radiant light. It swiped at her, and in a spattering of blood, she was thrown back towards them. “Help her!” Jack ordered, and ran up to the wolf, which towered over him. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” He called to the animal, and then swiped at it with the Trident, the impact itself not injuring the creature much, but frost began to develop on the fur.

Zack ran over to the woman, and groaned at the sight. Her abdomen was shredded, the armor not standing a chance. He tried to not look too close as he might vomit. This was horrifying. “Hey, hey, it’ll be okay.” Zack said with a smile, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “I know some healing, I can stop the bleeding and then Medic will patch you up.”

She didn’t respond, her eyes rolling around in her head. Damn. Zack began to chant in ancient Egyptian, kind words about the rebirth of flesh and the healing of life. He released Flame into his hands, and it seeped towards the wounds in her stomach, and with a sickening hiss, she began to thrash around. She had dropped her sword, but her nails seemed insanely sharp.

“It’s okay, you’re okay.” Zack pleaded with her and he channeled more Flame into her wound. Slowly the bleeding stopped, but Zack was afraid that there would be internal bleeding.

“Stop.” She spoke softly, grabbing Zack’s arm. The woman seemed lucid, her eyes fixated on Zack.

“Sol?” Zack asked, using the name that Jack had said.

            “My sword.” She said. Blood started to come up from her mouth. “Take my sword to my brother.” Despite her injury, she was speaking well, even for a Norse Goddess.

            “Your brother?” Zack asked, unsure. “Take it to him yourself, you need to get out of here.” The sounds of Jack fighting against the wolf finally made their way to Zack, and he fought the urge to watch.

            “It is not my place.” She said, and she began to lie back in his arms. “Please. Yggdrasil will fall, Fimbulvinter has come. Tell him- tell him I love him.” Sol said, choking slightly on her last words, closing her eyes, and finally, she grew still.

            At the same moment, there was a sickening sound, like juice being sucked out of a large berry, and Zack glanced over to see the Trident’s prongs rise out of the skull of the wolf, Jack having landed the killing blow, the Trident rising up from the chin of the creature, ice spreading along its fur. Slowly, the light from Sol’s sword began to fade, and then it was extinguished.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four:

            Jack’s hands were bloody from carrying Sol out of the sun chariot. Somehow, he knew that in the sky it did happen to look more like a chariot, perhaps the shell appeared when the wolf got too close as a sort of safety measure. Her body was light, but the sight of her body having no agency of its own was disconcerting, her head lolling in his arms, her own arms dangling limp.

            He had placed Sol on one of the tables in the infirmary. Medic would clean her up, he knew, before they gave her a proper send off. The group had all met up in the Rec Room to discuss what had just happened.

            Jack sat next to Brooklyn, his hands still stained with blood. Despite washing them, there were still spots of red, same with his arms. Brooklyn rubbed his back. Zack sat cross legged on the ground, Sol’s sword laying across his lap. Jack hadn’t been able to really look at it up close, but it was a short, wide blade typical of the Norse elite. The metal looked to be steel folded with gold, creating a two-tone effect that from a distance looked like dulled gold.

            Medic was flipping through a book on Norse mythology, and Slath was rummaging thorough a backpack that seemed far too deep. “Here it is.” Medic said, opening the book so it would lie down flat on the table. “Fimbulvinter. Three seasons of winter followed by the twilight of the gods, Ragnarok. Seems simple enough, with Sol gone, there’s no sun in Yggdrasil, so winter is going to keep going.”

            Jack nodded, the information revealing itself to him. “Wars and famine will envelop Midgard and the other realms in Yggdrasil. Fenris is released, the trickster god Loki is released, the fire giant Surtr burns the tree. It’s chaos.”

            “And in all of that, the path to the World Flame is revealed.” Medic said. “I assume that the Followers instigated this, somehow. So we need to be ready to find the Flame.”

            Zack finally spoke, breaking his silence, “Sol said to bring the sword to her brother.”

            “Mani.” Jack said. “The moon god.” Though he wasn’t able to see his eyes, he assumed that they had been glowing blue as he accessed this information he knew he shouldn’t have at the moment. “Why bring it to him?”

            Zack only shook his head. He was clearly rattled about what had happened, as he just stared out toward the distance in the Rec Room.

            Slath, however, spoke. “You think maybe that this Mani guy would be able to point us in the right direction? Toward the Flame, I mean.”

            Zack stood up. “I already know where it is.”

            Jack’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “How? Did Sol tell you?”

            “No,” Zack said. “In Blekking, Rorick showed me this vision. It’s not in any of the realms, it’s actually in the trunk of Yggdrasil itself.”

            “You mean in between the realms?” Medic asked.

            “Kinda, yeah. Like Yggdrasil is an actual tree, and it’s in the trunk, I think a little above Midgard.” Zack explained.

            “That’s a start, but we don’t have any way of getting there.” Jack said. “You couldn’t fly is there, could you Brooklyn?”

            Brooklyn shook her head. “I couldn’t even fly myself there, Jack.”

            Jack nodded, forgetting about the demonstration she had made to them several months ago. “Do we have anything in the armory or dungeons that can fly us there? Like, this might sound silly, a plane or something?”

            “No.” Medic said simply. “I think the best course of action might be to solicit Mani and ask how to traverse between the realms.”

            “It can’t be that easy though, right?” Brooklyn asked.

            Jack shook his head. “I don’t know, but it might be. In the myths, gods can traverse between the realms, at least in some of the stories. If Yggdrasil follows being formed by the stories, then it stands to reason that there would be a way of doing it for us.”

            “You don’t think that there might be some sort of, I dunno, restriction on it for mortals?” Brooklyn inquired further.

            Jack shrugged. “The gods are mortal, so maybe not.”

            Zack set the sword on the table. “We go talk to Mani, we’ll bring the sword to him.” He said, and Jack couldn’t help but see his eyes flare red, if only for a moment. “And we ask him where to go from there. We can pack provisions and gear for the trek. I imagine there will be lots of snow, so perhaps snow shoes would be useful. Jack, you could make us water, and if you have difficulties we can always melt some snow. Yggdrasil is a big place, so chances are we’ll need several weeks’ worth of food.” He stopped and considered for a moment. “A proper portal device too, so we can get out when we need to.”

            Medic nodded to all of this. “I will see it done.” He stood up and touched Sol’s sword, tracing his finger along the flat of the blade. “It will take a week or so for the ghouls to commandeer two pairs of snow shoes, on top of them building a pyre for Sol.”

            “A pyre?” Jack asked. That certainly isn’t traditional.

            “Yes, and I know your concerns, Jack, but it will be built as a ship, to closer align with Norse custom.” Medic said. “We can’t have a proper Viking funeral here, as we don’t have a lake for the ship to sail out in.”

            “Wait a moment,” Brooklyn said, standing. “Only two pairs of snow shoes? Who would be left behind then?” Jack could almost feel her anger begin to boil.

            “Well, Brooklyn, I have a job for you.” Medic said, though he was visibly anxious.

            “You mean you’re going to try and keep me here again?” She asked, bitterly.

            “Easy, Brooklyn.” Slath said, standing between her and Medic. “It’s my fault.”

            “What do you mean?” Brooklyn asked, the skepticism creeping into her voice.

            “I wanted to wait until a better time for this, but Medic is sending me out to find more Flames.” Slath said. “There’s not many of you guys here, and fighting Arkotos is going to be huge, right? Well, all hands on deck. You need to show everyone around and make sure they all settle in.”

            “How are you going to find them?” Jack asked Slath.

            Slath took a deep breath. “Well, start at the cities of course. The closest one is under New York City so that’ll be a good place to start. Ask around, see who may be willing to come back here, send them with those pearls that I gave you, Jack. And after that, I’ll follow up on leads from everyone else, people who aren’t living in the cities.”

            “That’s why you’ve been fiddling with your backpack.” Zack said. Despite having discussed his plan, Zack was still more quiet than he usually was.

            “Yep!” Slath said, and he smiled. “Gettin’ my food all ready to go, lots of those pearls, money, clothes.”

            “And you want me to babysit the newbies.” Brooklyn said to Medic.

            “In my defense, Brooklyn, you did a very good job with these two.” Medic said, pointing towards Jack and Zack.

            “I’m gonna-“ She started, pulling her arm back, but Jack grabbed her hand gently, and gave her a look that she understood as “Not now.” She took a deep breath, clearly trying to keep her attitude under control. “Fine.”

            “Good, now that that’s all settled, how about we all go our separate ways a while?” Slath suggested to them.

*

            One week. That was their established timeframe: One week, and then Jack will lead himself and Zack into Yggdrasil. Madness.

            Jack began rummaging through his meager belongings, trying to decide what he would need to bring with them. Truly the only things he had now, were Ragnar’s axe, Hilde’s Mjolnir necklace, some clothes, and the Primordial Trident. Fortunately, this made packing a breeze. After having found an old backpack in the armory, Jack began to put his changes of clothes into it. Everything else, unfortunately, would have to wait.

            There was a soft knock on his door, and Jack rose to answer it. Brooklyn was standing there, playing with a strand of her hair, clearly waiting for him. “Oh hey.” She said, pretending to have only now noticed Jack. “You’re packing already?” She had noticed the bag lying on his bed.

            “It never hurts to be prepared.” Jack said, moving to the side and gesturing for her to enter the room. “What’s up?” He asked her.

            “I just wanted to talllllk,” She said, putting a long emphasis on the L in the word.

            “Talk?” Jack asked her. “We just talked.” He said, and somehow he knew as he was saying it that this was the wrong thing to say, as her hateful glare seemingly burned into his soul.

            “You’re so stupid that I am not even going to respond to that.” She sniffed. Harsh, though fair.

            “What do you want to talk about?” Jack said, throwing the backpack onto the floor and sitting on the bed.

            Brooklyn sat next to him. “I dunno, just anything. I don’t know if I want you two going into Yggdrasil alone again, especially if it’ll be more dangerous.”

            Jack couldn’t help but to smile. “Please, we’ll be fine!” He insisted. “Besides, with the Trident I’m probably more dangerous than most of the things in there.”

            “You being full of yourself doesn’t take away from there being angry giants and angry gods and angry goats!” Brooklyn exclaimed.

            “Goats?”

            “I assume there are angry ones, at least. I borrowed Medic’s children’s book about it and there’s two that get eaten every night.”

            “Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.” Jack said, the information coming into his mind again. Now that he considered it, the feeling was truly peculiar, as if he were remembering someone else’s memories. Which felt cruel, as he hadn’t had all of his own memories for many years.

            “Like I was going to try and pronounce those.” She said with a smile. “I’m just going to worry is all. I can help more with you.”

            Jack shook his head. “I think right now you should focus on building the Stronghold back up.” He said to her. “We’ll be back in a few weeks probably, I don’t think we could even get to the Flame yet, so when we go back in and there’s more people here, I would love for you to come with. But right now we can have multiple things done at the same time.”

            Brooklyn gave him a sneer. “I don’t like you sometimes.”

            “Me neither.” Jack admitted. “But it’s a good plan.”

            She crossed her arms. “Just because it’s a good plan doesn’t mean we need to follow it.”

            “Zack even agreed to it.” Jack said, shrugging. “I trust him with things like that.” And this was partly true, though Jack couldn’t help but remember the flashed of red light in his eyes when he agreed to it.

            Brooklyn didn’t press the conversation more, and Jack was grateful for that. After a minute or so of silence, she asked him, “Wanna watch a movie?”

            “A movie?” Jack asked her. “You have a TV in your room?”

            “And a player and everything.” She said simply.

            Jack was surprised by this, but then he felt his cheeks turn red as the implication of her inviting him to her room struck. He had never been inside of her room, or really even looked at it through her doorway. “Got anything good?”

            “Depends.” She said with a smile. She hopped off of the bed and pulled out her key. “You coming or not?”

            Instead of responding, Jack stood up and followed her, closing his door and walking the short distance towards her room. She inserted her key and turned it, and then led the way in. Jack was surprised at what he found: Her room was easily twice the size of his own, a tall wooden poster bed against one wall, and a large flatscreen TV hanging on the other. An entertainment center sat beneath the TV, with dozens of movies and a DVD player. Though her Flame was green, it seemed like she had replaced much of the green touches with purples and reds, with some blues in for good measure. It felt so familiar to him, but so different.

            In the faux window, Jack saw what appeared to be a cloudy sky during the daytime, the view being similar to what you would see out the window of an airplane.

            Brooklyn had crouched down and was looking through her movies. “How about a rom-com?” She asked him.

            “What’s that?” Jack had never really heard the term before, as the people he hung out with weren’t really movie watching people.

            “It means… Well, you’ll find out.” She said with a wink. “This one is great.”

            And so Jack learned what a rom-com was, then they watched an action movie as a palette cleanser, them scooting closer together as the night rode on, until finally they fell asleep, her head on his chest, and an arm around her.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five:

            Zack watched the flames of Sol’s pyre burn with sadness in his heart. Not for Sol, though the loss of life was tragic to him. No, he felt sadness because he hadn’t been able to help her, and she faded away in his arms. Looking down at his hands, Zack could almost see the blood still staining them.

            The pyre was located just outside of the walls of the Stronghold, the ghouls having cleared the trees from the immediate area so they wouldn’t burn with it. The pyre itself had been built into the shape of a longship, not unlike the one in Blekking, though much smaller, and far rougher. The ghouls of the castle, while mysterious and certainly useful, weren’t the most meticulous of beings. Zack still hadn’t seen one, despite living in the Stronghold for many months at this point. But he knew that they provided a service to the castle, and, according to some of the books he had read, were a part of the castle.

            Jack stood nearby with an arm around Brooklyn’s shoulders, and despite his current emotional turmoil, Zack couldn’t help but feel happy about that. Medic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, having vanished after the flames had begun. Slath, much to Jack’s disappointment, had already left to hunt for Flame recruits, leaving the day after the Sun Chariot had crashed into the Stronghold grounds. That was three days ago.

            Zack watched the fire, fixated on the warm glow they provided, and ignoring the smells of burning flesh. Though the flames were bright, there was one instance Zack could see of what appeared to be a shadow, flickering in the flames for only a moment, and then vanishing. He rubbed his eyes and tried to see it again, but he saw nothing.

            Walking up to Jack, Zack felt his fatigue settle in finally. He hadn’t been able to sleep much these last few days, and now that Sol was taken care of, Zack knew he would be able to sleep well. “Did you see that?” He asked Jack and Brooklyn.

            “See what?” Jack asked, still staring at the flames.

            “It looked like there was something in the fire.” Zack asked as nonchalantly as possible, as he wasn’t sure if what he had seen was because of fatigue.

            “There’s wood in the fire.” Brooklyn said with a smile, helpful as always.

            “Smoke too.” Jack said, smiling down at her.

            “Yeah, and a Norse goddess.” Zack said, trying to put as much levity as he could in the morbid phrase.

            Jack laughed at this, a hearty deep laugh that had actually startled Zack at first. “Little gruesome.” He said with a smile.

            “It’s good to see you laughing.” Zack said, and he meant it. After the vision they had experienced together, Zack could tell that Jack had been troubled. Sure, he still likely was, but he was coping with it better, and Zack couldn’t help but wonder how much of that was Brooklyn.

            Jack shrugged at the comment. “It’s nice to laugh sometimes.” He said. “You done packing yet?”

            Zack shook his head. “Not yet. Still don’t know what we’ll need, you know?”

            “Do you have a heating jacket yet?” Brooklyn asked him.

            “A what?” Zack asked, confused.

            “A heating jacket!” Brooklyn said again, as if that clarified things. “It has a warmth enchantment on it powered by a gemstone. You should probably go and grab one, there’s probably some in the armory.”

            Zack was surprised that he hadn’t thought about something like that. “That’s a good idea, thanks Brooklyn.”

            “I aim to please.” She said with a shrug. “You have a few days anyways, you might be able to figure out how to make one.”

            “I’m sure there’s some there, Brooklyn.” Jack said, kindly.

            Zack shrugged. “I’ll look into it, Brooklyn.” He said to her. “Besides, we’ll probably want to know where more are anyways if you want to come into Yggdrasil with us later on.”

            “I already have one, so I’m prepared. Winters can get pretty awful out here.” Brooklyn said, nodding up at the sky, the dark clouds churning and threatening snow.

            Zack took a deep breath, and looked away from the flames, still burning rapidly, though now there was the sense that all of the fuel was used up and they would slowly begin to die. “Well, I’m gonna go and find a jacket. Thanks guys.” He said and walked away, back across the drawbridge and towards the castle.

*

            Two hours of searching, and there wasn’t a scrap of fabric to be found, much less an entire jacket. Perhaps Brooklyn was wrong in her assumption of the location? But where else would it be? Maybe he could have Medic get the ghouls to find one for him. Or he could even steal Brooklyn’s jacket, as she wouldn’t be using it for a little while yet.

            The layout of the castle had always confused Zack: The floors, with the exception of the living quarters and library, were one single room stretching as far as need be, perhaps due to the same expansion enchantments that the bedrooms had. Was this a limitation of the spell, having to essentially stretch out the rooms to fill the space that they were required to? Perhaps if the castle had been built with this in mind, then the layouts would have taken advantage of the enchantments more. Couldn’t you build walls in here anyways to achieve the same thing? Zack thought to himself, but shrugged the thought away. Someone would have come up with the idea before him, he knew, and if it had worked then it would have likely been implemented already.

            “Knock knock.” A voice from behind him said, and Zack turned to see Medic standing a few feet away, holding a backpack and a box in his arms.

            “Oh, hey Medic.” Zack said. “We missed you at the funeral.”

            “I was there.” Medic said.

            “At first, yeah, but then you disappeared.” Zack reminded him. “Where have you been?”

            Medic tossed Zack the backpack. “Hunting for this.”

            Zack caught it by the strap and inspected it. The backpack had several pockets on the outside and one large pocket on the inside, like he would have used for his school books back when that was a part of his life. Suddenly he became sad, realizing that he had been away from that life for so long now. On the right strap there was a ruby, glowing softly with the energy of a Flame from within. “Enchanted?”

            “An expansion charm.” Medic said simply. “I spent the last few hours crafting the enchantment to work correctly, it took some effort but I had finally managed it.”

            Zack opened up one of the front pockets and saw that it was slightly larger than it perhaps should have been, certainly nothing horribly impressive. Though Medic seemed to have realized this, as he added, “The enchantment is largely in the main pocket.”

            Nodding, Zack grabbed the bag by one of the straps and unzipped the main compartment, and he was greeted by the sight of what appeared to be a small, tentlike room, though on one side it had the paddings from the outside of the bag. “It’s huge!”

            Medic nodded. “The bag itself is weather resistant, so you can actually climb inside it for an easy shelter.”

            “Where did you come up with the idea?” Zack asked him.

            “I stole it from someone I used to know.” Medic said simply, and Zack couldn’t help but notice Medic rub his covered forearm of only for a moment.

            “It’s brilliant. Thanks, Medic.” Zack said with a smile. He still wasn’t sure about his thoughts regarding Medic, though he had offered his home to Zack and had been a source of knowledge for him the whole time. But there was something about him, the way his vocabulary seems to sway between incredibly formal to casual, the way he keeps his arm covered, the way he seems to know way more than he lets on. Medic hasn’t done anything untoward to Zack or even to Jack, but still, there was something there.

            Medic handed Zack the wooden box that he had been carrying, and Zack accepted it with curiosity. “What’s this?” He asked.

            “Open it.”

            Zack did as he was told, and inside he found a curved piece of wood, slightly flattened almost like a boomerang. It tapered on one end to a fine point. And Zack still had no idea what it was. “What is it?” He asked Medic.

            “That is a wand.” Medic said. “In the Egyptian fashion, befitting your Flame. With it, you can channel your Flame to the tip and draw runes in the air, Quorpetian specifically.”

            “For spellwork, then? I can just use my finger though, or a dagger.” Zack said, but despite the statement, he gripped the wand by the thicker part of the wood, and he felt a warmth pour from his fingers to the tip of the wand, the end of it beginning to glow a bright red.

            “In theory, yes.” Medic admitted. “Though, as you can see, the wand almost pulls Flame out of you, making it easier to focus on what you are doing as opposed to focusing on both releasing the energy and casting the spell.”

            Zack nodded and set the box and the backpack on the ground next to him. Taking a deep breath, Zack thought back to what he had read in his months in the Stronghold about spell casting. Intent, power, and word. Three pivotal pieces. With that, however, he would have to consider how his Flame would accomplish the task. While magic is a more specific tool than Flame is, it is still a product of Flame. Almost on instinct, Zack drew a symbol in the air, lines curing around each other in what appeared to be an open ended circle, but with more flare to it. Suddenly, the coals of one of the nearby forges burst into flames, providing a warm light to the surrounding area.

            “With the Quorpetian symbols, you can accomplish tasks that would potentially require more Flame.” Medic explained. “Like setting that forge alight, to do it from this distance with your Flame would have taken far more energy than simply using the runes to order them to ignite.”

            “But that’s not what I meant to do.” Zack admitted, looking down at the wand.

            “Well, part of you must have known.” Medic said, shrugging. “Just remember, you can’t use spells for everything, only specific tasks, like starting fires. Anything more complicated takes many more years of practice.”

            “And I remember reading I can’t create anything with magic?” Zack asked Medic.

            “You can’t create more than what your Flame can.” Medic nodded. “For you, that’s fire, which is insubstantial anyways. If Jack had the inclination for it, he could create water with the wand, but he can likely do it far easier with the Primordial Trident anyways.”

            Zack stared down at the wood, and he noticed that it was made of a pale wood, reminicient of an animal bone. “Where did you get this?” He asked Medic.

            “The wand?” Medic smiled. “That was mine, given to me when I turned fifteen as a gift. In the last few years I’ve had little use for it, so I figured you would be able to give it a good home.”

            Zack was touched by the thought, and part of him felt guilty about his mistrust of Medic. “This is incredibly thoughtful, Medic. Thank you. I can’t promise I’ll use it much right now, but when I practice more I’ll put it to good use.”

            “That’s all I ask for.” Medic said, and he nodded to Zack, then turned to walk away. “Oh, and another thing: Two doors down from the Rec Room will have extra heating jackets, I heard Brooklyn mention them earlier.”

            “So she had me looking in the wrong place for two hours?”

            Medic was stunned. “You’ve been here for two hours?”

 

Chapter Twenty-Six:

            The portal was fully charged and was waiting for an input from someone to activate the stones. After the mishap of the first accidental activation, Zack had made sure to stay far away from the portal when someone was nearby the scrying stone, just a small precaution in case it opens to somewhere unintended.

            Zack was grateful for Medic’s tip about the heating jacket, as it kept him warm despite the snow falling and landing down on them in the Colosseum. Jack, of course, wasn’t affected by it, wearing a simple blue hoodie, unzipped and open to the elements. Being largely immune to the heat was a benefit to Zack, though he couldn’t argue that it was perhaps more limited than Jack’s immunity was, though that was factored the time of year as well.

            Medic, with a list attached to a clipboard, was talking with Jack to ensure that everything had been packed for the trip. Zack knew he had all that he would need; snow shoes, lots of non-perishable foods, a couple of changes of clothes, and some toiletries. They sat at the bottom of the backpack, tied down with some cords that Zack had put into place to ensure that nothing moved around too much. An enchantment that Medic had failed to mention was the weight modifying aspect of the bag, allowing for it to hold many items and not weigh much more than it did initially.

            “Axe?”

            “Check.”

            “Shield?”

            “Check.”

            “Return portal?”

            “Check.” Instead of Jack saying it, Zack had interrupted. He, after all, had been the one to find it within the same room that bore the jacket. It had been dusty, and was void of gemstones, but after some time Zack had filled them up with enough of his Flame to power a return trip.

            “Water bottles?” Medic asked, raising an eyebrow.

            “Che-“ Jack started, but then a confused expression appeared on his face. “We forgot the water bottles.”

            As if on cue, Brooklyn came running towards them in the arena, holding two aluminum water bottles in her hands. Zack was grateful at the sight and was relieved as well as he had wanted to say goodbye to her before they had left for Yggdrasil. “You forgot these.” She said, breathing with only slight fatigue.

            “So, we did.” Jack said with a smile, and he accepted the bottles from her. “Thanks.” Barely taking his eyes from her, Jack handed the water bottles toward Zack, who was relieved to find that they had been filled already.

            Uncomfortable at this sight, Zack turned away and inspected the archway from his spot. The symbols carved into the metal, seemingly both intricate and simplistic at the same time, seemed to warn Zack away from what they were about to do. Dismissing the thought, he turned away from the archway.

            “-should be everything then?” Medic asked him.

Zack had missed the specific part of the question, having been stuck in thought, so he shook his head. “Are you asking if we have everything?” He asked.

“For the journey, yes. It seems as though everything you should need is in there.” Medic said, nodding to the backpack. “Unless we missed something?”

“We should be all set.” Zack said with a smile showing off more confidence than he felt. The first experience in Yggdrasil, all things considered, was perfectly pleasant, especially their time in the phantom village of Blekking.

Jack and Brooklyn embraced, and she gave him a quick peck on the cheek, assuming that no one had really noticed, though how she could have thought that was beyond Zack’s comprehension. Brooklyn hugged Zack as well, though in a far more reserved manner. “Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.” She whispered to him.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Zack said with a smile.

Together, he and Jack walked towards the metal archway and waited on Medic, who was attaching the scrying stone to the portal with the same wires as initially. “Yggdrasil.” Medic spoke to the stone, and touched it with his Flame, and the scrying stone began to glow with a bright light. Medic did the same to the archway, and it too began to glow, though it was the symbols engraved into it as opposed to the archway itself. They went from red to a vivid blue, and slowly the air within the archway began to churn and spiral, swirling around with white and blue light emblazoned within. If this was the intentional way the portal was meant to be activated, it showed by how beautiful the sight was, and somewhat surprising as it hadn’t begun to pull either of them inside. Zack considered that with the unintentional activation, there had to have been consequences. Now that the portal had been opened intentionally though, Zack wondered why they had kept the scrying stone as a function of it, though it could just be a way of visualizing where they were going to land, which admittedly was a nice benefit.

Medic walked toward them, clearly confident as the portal didn’t pull him in as well. “Remember the plan?” He said to them, raising his voice so they could hear it.

“Find Mani, give in the sword in exchange for a way off of Midgard, and protect the Flame.” Jack said.

Easier said than done, Zack thought to himself.

“Perfect.” Medic said, and some unseen stress seemed to dissolve from his face. “I will try to adjust the location in the scrying stone, but keep in mind that this is not an exact science.”

“Do what you can.” Zack said. “Try finding a big hill or something.”

“I will ask the stone to find a ‘big hill,’ naturally.” Medic said with a genuine smile, which surprised Zack, who figured that Medic always manufactured his smiles. Medic walked away and began to speak with the scrying stone, the image on the flat surface shifting. Zack was at the wrong angle to be able to make sense of what it was showing Medic.

“A big hill?” Jack asked quietly.

Zack nodded. “So, it’ll be easier for Mani to see us, hopefully.”

Jack accepted this answer with a nod. “Right.”

“Are you two ready to go?” Medic called to them.

Zack nodded, and Jack gave Medic a thumbs up. Medic nodded to them, and Brooklyn waved.

Taking a deep breath, Zack stepped into the portal once again.

*

The cold was the first thing that Zack felt, the chill nipping at his hands and face as he fell from the sky into a large pile of snow. The snow that touched the surface of his jacket had melted and steamed, the heating charm clearly working as planned, though now he was wishing he had gloves and something to cover his face.

There was a grunt and the sound of crunching snow, and Zack knew that Jack had made his way through the portal and was deposited next to Zack this time. “Stupid portal.” Jack muttered, and based on the sounds of the snow, Zack could hear him standing up.

Zack tried to move his body to stand up as well, but he was too deep in the snow to do much, especially as the heating jacket was progressively melting the snow beneath him, causing him to sink lower and lower. “Little help?” Zack asked.

Jack turned around, looking for Zack, then smiled as he saw Zack down in the snow. “Sure, I’ve got you.” There was a blue light emanating from Jack’s hands, and with a gesture, Jack lifted his friend out of the snow by the water below him. Zack was deposited on a shallower portion of snow.

Zack shook the remaining snow and water off, then looked around. Now that he was out of his hole, he was able to see the area around them. Or perhaps, wasn’t able to see would be appropriate as well, as the darkness surrounding them was oppressive. Some moonlight, which came from the small disc in the sky, reflected off of the snow on the ground and in the trees which were incredibly dense here, but it was restricted by the oppressive amount of snow falling all around them. Zack had never seen this amount of snow at any given time before. Gusts of wind would sometimes blow, throwing the top layers of snow back into the air to land elsewhere.

Fimbulvinter. Zack had read somewhere that it meant “the great winter,” and now he could understand why.

Somehow, despite all of the snow, Zack was able to turn and see a massive hill in the distance. The only reason he had been able to see it from here was the face that the top of the hill was void of trees, leaving nothing but a large, smooth, snow covered surface to reflect light off of in the distance, and only then it was barely visible. He wasn’t sure how far away it could be, but it was exactly what he had wanted from Medic. “Hill’s that way.” He pointed out to Jack.

“I can’t see it.” Jack said, raising his voice as a long gust of wind blew past them, chilling Zack to the bone despite his jacket.

            “Follow me, then.” Zack responded, and then he began the walk towards the hilltop, trudging through several feet of soft, pillowy snow. Despite the circumstances, snowfall like this would have been startling for sure, but would also have been fun as a child, playing in the large banks, building tunnels and forts with the shapable ice. Zack smiled fondly at this, though he hadn’t been that kind of child growing up, preferring to stay inside with his books and warmth.

            As they neared the hill, Zack wiped at his face, pulling off large shards of ice that had collected on his eyebrows and beneath his nose. His face was cold, and so were his hands and legs, but the simple fact that his jacket was constantly supplying him with massive amounts of warmth seemed to counteract the cold he felt elsewhere, so he had neglected to even notice the ice forming.

            Jack was clearly having a better time regarding the snow. Zack had turned to see that the snowflakes seemed to move out of his way, almost forming a bubble around him, and the snow on the ground would shift slightly to give him a more solid place to step. Zack wasn’t sure if Jack was intentionally doing either, or if it was just his Flame acting in such a way to protect him, but Zack couldn’t help but feel a spark of jealousy.

            Zack couldn’t help but wonder what sort of unconscious abilities his Flame gave him. Protecting him from sparks, the closest thing Zack could relate to snow, was convenient, if unnecessary as he would be largely immune to burning from them. Would ash react the same way to him as the snow did for Jack? Probably not, being too far removed from fire itself. Lava? He knew there was a limit to how hot he could handle, just as Jack likely had a limit to the cold, and for some reason lava felt too unreasonable to be immune to, even being near it would likely be too much for him.

            “How cold do you think it is?” Zack asked Jack, looking over his shoulder to ask the question.

            “Can’t be more than ten degrees.” He responded.

            Zack was confused for a moment, as 10 degrees was far warmer than the temperature now, but then Zack remembered that Jack had lived in the U.S. for his whole life, using Imperial and Fahrenheit, while Zack had lived in small town Canada. So on that, it was about negative twelve Celsius. Funny how Zack had known his friend for several months at this point, and was still surprised by small details like that.

            “So, really cold, then.” Zack elaborated.

            “For you? Yes.” Jack said, and Zack could almost hear a small smile form on his lips.

            The walk for Zack was still arduous, as he was struggling with the massive amounts of soft snow on the ground, and he had to periodically stop in order to remove snow that slid up his pant legs. He made a mental note to tuck the legs into his boots. As the slope began to increase, it was harder and harder for him to maintain his footing, as the gradient made him slip more and more.

            Though the walk wasn’t longer than ten minutes, Zack was already sweating from the exertion, ready to fall over and sleep. The top of the hill was relatively peaceful, and the random gusts of wind didn’t seem to reach up here. Sol’s sword was strapped to Zack’s hip, in a sheath that was stored in the armory. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but it worked. He unsheathed the sword, the metal humming slightly. The handle was warm to the touch.

            “What now?” Jack asked, standing close to Zack. With his close presence, the snow was largely deflected away from Zack as well.

            “We need to get his attention.” Zack said. He didn’t know how they would go about doing that, perhaps Mani would just sense that the sword was nearby. Up in the sky, almost directly overhead, Zack could see the moon. From this perspective, it was a flat disc, though part of him wondered about the shell that Sol’s chariot had turned into. What would Mani’s look like?

            Zack held up the sword, point thrust upwards towards the sky. He did it on instinct mostly. Nothing happened, though after a moment, he felt his Flame get drawn into the blade, similar to the wand that Medic had given him, and within moments the sword began to glow with an intense light. Jack shouted in surprise and he moved away quickly, allowing the snow to fall on Zack again.

            Which didn’t matter anymore. The light of the sword was not only bright, but it was incredibly hot. The snow that flew towards Zack not only melted into droplets, but many of them evaporated into steam before they had the chance to land on him. The moisture that had seeped into his hair and underclothes was turning into vapor rapidly. Slowly, the area around Zack began to melt, the snow turning to water and seeping into the ground, revealing the rocks underneath, showing that this hillside hadn’t been pleasant and grassy like Zack had assumed it was.

Zack noticed what appeared to be a charred piece of wood. He moved towards it, clearing the snow in front of him, and buried under the several feet of snow was the ashes and remains of what must have been a small house. It couldn’t have been older than about a week, clearly this structure, and potentially those who dwelled within, were some of the first casualties of the Great Winter.

The light of the sword made it hard to look up at the sky in contrast, but the silver disc of the moon seemed to have moved in the sky, grown larger. Zack poured more Flame into the sword, and it was slowly getting too hot for him to handle, the heat beginning to singe the fabric of the jacket, which should have been protected from the heat. The skin on his face was starting to feel tight as well.

There was the sound of hooves overhead, and Zack lowered the sword and stopped the flow of power. Jack, who had taken refuge down the hill, came walking up slowly. “He’s here.” Jack said.

Zack looked up, and the silver disc had turned into a chariot, hollowed out and open at the back, being pulled at the front by two goats, each with grey and white hair, braces around their necks to attach them to the chariot proper. Goats?

There was a voice that spoke aloud. Zack wasn’t able to understand it, but it sounded like a command, probably to the goats. And in a moment, the chariot flew in a loop by them, and landed in the patch of rocks that Zack had uncovered with Sol’s sword. The man in the chariot was tall, wearing silver bracers and rings, and around his neck he wore a silver chain. His hair was long and black, and his skin was tanned. His eyes, glowing brilliantly silver, stared at Zack as he spoke, familiar to Zack as Old Norse, but unintelligible.

Jack responded to the man, and the man changed to English. “I was hoping for my sister.” He said, his accent melodic to Zack’s ears.

“Your sister sent us.” Zack said, and held up the sword for Mani. “To give you the sword.”

Mani nodded, though he didn’t accept the sword. “My sister is gone, then. Unfortunate. I have no need for the sword, though you will. Keep it, and fight well in her name.”

Mani turned back to the goats, and was about to crack his reigns, but Zack shouted, “How do we get off of Midgard?”

            Mani paused and turned to regard Zack. “Why would you want to leave Midgard? Fimbul is here, all realms will fall soon enough.”

            “We need to find the World Flame.” Zack said. He wasn’t sure if Mani would even know what the World Flame was, but he hoped.

            Mani considered for a moment, and then looked up in surprise as a howl came from nearby. “Hati.” Mani gripped the reigns and turned back to the goats. “In!” He commanded.

            Zack hesitated, but then got into the back of the small chariot with the man. Jack came in from behind. Summoning his Trident, Jack held it across the back of the chariot as a way of making sure they stayed inside.

            Without making sure they were situated inside of the chariot, Mani cracked the reigns and the goats began running, and quickly the ground beneath them fell away, and Zack tried to not feel ill. Between the heights and being pressed between Jack and the moon god, Zack wasn’t feeling very well.

            Once they were a proper distance up in the air, Mani shouted and cracked the reigns again, and the goats began to beat their feet against the air, propelling them forward. Despite there being nothing solid beneath their feet, they still made the distinctive sound of hooves against stone. Their speed was outstanding, and Zack was thrown into Jack, who would have likely been thrown back as well if the Trident hadn’t been placed to prevent them from falling.

            From this vantage, Zack could see that Midgard was in fact a disc like his vision had shown him, the topography being rocky and mountainous, but still averaging to a flat surface. This interested Zack, wondering what was actually beneath the disc, other than the branch holding this realm aloft. There were small lights down below, which must be groups of people who haven’t succumbed to the intense snow yet.

            “I know little of what you speak.” Mani said, shouting at them above the buffeting winds. “But I know of one who does. Seek out the Trickster God, Loptr, trapped beneath Helheim.”

            “Isn’t that a bad idea?” Jack shouted back.

            “He likely knows the most of this, and will speak with you.” Mani said. “Only Mimir would be wiser, though he is solely in the employ of the Allfather.”

            “Not Loptr, Helheim!” Jack demanded. “That’s the land of the dead. Besides, we would need transportation there, are you going to fly us?”

            “I cannot leave Ymir’s skull, mortal.” Mani said. “This is not something I am able to do.”

            “Then who can help us get there?” Zack asked the god. Only now did it really dawn on Zack that he was talking to a Norse deity, though the thought should have amazed him, cradling this gods sister in his arms as she died sobered him of the idea.

            “And tell us fast.” Jack said, almost in a whisper. Zack turned to see what caused this reaction, and a chill shot up his spine. A massive wolf, similar to the one that had landed the killing blow on Sol, was running in the sky behind them, following them. Zack hadn’t noticed the wolf beforehand, and it was gaining on them slightly. Their added weight might have slowed the goats enough to allow the wolf to catch up.

            Mani glanced over his shoulder as well and nodded. Suddenly, he turned the chariot sharply, pulling the reigns hard. “I will bring you close. There is a man, like the two of you; not of the Nine Realms. He may be able to help you.”

            “Who?” Zack asked.

            “He is called The Smith.” Mani said. He glanced over his shoulder one more time. “And here is when you leave, friends.”

            Jack shot a bolt of Flame out at the wolf, as it was getting dangerously close to the back of the chariot. Zack tried to do the same, but as he lifted up his hand, the bottom of the chariot dissolved beneath their feet, dropping them down towards the earth.

 



© 2021 The Flame of the Knight


Author's Note

The Flame of the Knight
Again, it isn't even a full first draft. Any errors will exist forever now.
I have far better ideas for this story so this version will exist only to serve as what may have been had I been stronger initially.

My Review

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71,000 words seems a bit much. The idea is to get a reaction, and see of people ask for more.

That aside, since you’re working on a novel, there are some major problems that are invisible to the hopeful writer, but which are, unfortunately, story-killers, so I thought you would want to know. Still while it’s something you need to know, it will sting. Offsetting that is that nothing I have to say has to do with your talent or how well you write.

The first problem is that because you know the story so well, you visualize the scene before you write the first word, which means you’ll leave things out things the reader needs. Then, when you read it, because the information is already in your head, you’ll not notice what’s missing. That’s why we need to edit as a reader, who has no access to our intent, and no context we don’t provide.

With that in mind, look at the opening as a reader must.

• The fires were rising around him, and Zack could feel their heat.

“THE fires?” How many fires? Where are they in relation to Zack? Why were they lit? What in the pluperfect hells is going on? We don’t even know if Zack thinks the heat is good or deadly bad, so how can this be meaningful to the reader. And before you say, "Read on and it will become clear," readers won't, because there is no second first-impression. The writing must have context as it's read or it's meaningless

Without the slightest trace of context, and because you’re not addressing the three issues an author must, on entering any scene, the words are meaningless as read—though they work perfectly for you. You didn’t see a problem, but here is where a first reader or agent would say no.

• He hadn’t felt their heat in years, not since he and...

And here is where we come to problem two, which is that you’re transcribing yourself telling the story to an audience. That can't work because verbal storytelling is a PERFORMANCE ART. HOW you tell the story matters as much as what you say, because with no actors to illustrate the emotion, it has to come from the storyteller, through such things as gesture, expression-change, body-language, and all the tricks of the human voice.

For a live performance, you vary intensity and tempo. You whisper and shout, and perform all aspects of what I like to call, The Storyteller’s Dance. But how much of that reaches the page? Not a trace. And because the reader doesn’t see the punctuation till AFTER they've read a given line, they have no clue of how you intend them to perform in-your-place. See the problem?

By transcribing yourself as you have (and as about half of hopeful writers do), you’ve provided a storyteller’s script, minus the all-important stage directions for HOW to perform that script.

The short version: We can’t use the techniques of one medium in another. The strengths and limitations of the medium dictate. But if we’ve not learned those of the one we’re trying to work in…

Think about it. On film, we can place the viewer on the scene as an observer. That’s a powerful tool. Stage work can’t flip from setting to setting, so plays are bound to more limited physical action, and require a different set of performance for the actors, and writing skills that differ, too. But both have a huge strength. The viewer can see the action, the setting, the expressions and body language, directly, and in parallel. So in an eyeblink’s time we know the situation.

The printed word can’t show us the scene, only talk about it. And if it takes longer to read about a character walking from a room to the front door than to do it in life, the story crawls.

Added to that, on the page everything is serial. So describing the scene, and the situation? As So as Jack Bickham observed: “To describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.”

So to make a story on the page work we need to mercilessly cut anything not absolutely needed.

But there is an advantage to the page, in that we can take the reader where no other medium can: into the mind of the protagonist. Done well, and the reader feels that they ARE the protagonist, and living their life in real-time.

As E. L. Doctorow put it: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” And how much time did your teachers spend on how to do that? None, because they were teaching us skills useful to our future employers, like writing reports, papers, and letters. Fiction-Writing is a profession, and like all others, is acquired IN ADDITION to our school-day skills.

So…while we’re not aware of it, we leave our school years exactly ready to write fiction as to successfully perform an appendectomy. We know we need more to work as a journalist, or write a script, but because the pros make it seem so easy, we universally assume that we’re ready to write fiction. A large whoops that hits all hopeful writers, myself included when I began.

The fix? Simple: Add the skills the pros take for granted to those you now have.

Unfortunately, simple and easy aren’t interchangeable words, so there is a fair amount of work involved. But that’s true of any profession, and since we know you enjoy writing, you’ll find the learning a lot like going backstage at the theater, and filled with lots of: “But wait…that’s so simple. Why didn’t I see that for myself?”

The easiest way to get started is with a few books on the professional techniques. You work when you have time, at your own pace, and, there’s no pressure or tests. So what’s not to love? The library’s fiction-writing section is a huge resource. Personally? I’d suggest Dwight Swain’s, Techniques of the Selling Writer, which recently came out of copyright protection. It's the best I've found to date at imparting and clarifying the "nuts-and-bolts" issues of creating a scene that will sing to the reader. The address of an archive site where you can read or download it free is just below. Copy/paste the address into the URL window of any Internet page and hit Return to get there.

https://archive.org/details/TechniquesOfTheSellingWriterCUsersvenkatmGoogleDrive4FilmMakingBsc_ChennaiFilmSchoolPractice_Others

For what it might be worth, the articles in my WordPress writing blog are based on the kind of thing you’ll find in such a book, and meant as an overview of some of the differences between fiction and nonfiction writing.

So...I’m absolutely certain this wasn't what you expected to hear. Who would? And it is a bit like trying to take a sip from a running firehose. But you can’t fix the problem you don’t see as being one, so, though it isn’t what you were hoping for, you now know what 90% of hopeful writers never learn, and have a way to get ahead of 90% of the competition.

So dig in. It never gets easier, but with work, we can become confused on a higher level.

Hang in there, and keep on writing.

Jay Greenstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/the-grumpy-old-writing-coach/


Posted 2 Years Ago



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Added on October 17, 2021
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The Flame of the Knight
The Flame of the Knight

The Dark Abyss in which I call my mind, CO



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