When darkness greeted her sight and her chest had gotten tight, she had all the reasons to have a fright.
The air wouldn’t go in, no matter how many times she gasped for it. Instead, dirt and vile stench were all she’s inhaling. Wet earth. She could feel them on her tongue, squirming as she heaved. Some had rolled their way into her throat. Moist and crumbly—perhaps the soil, or worse, perhaps other things. Worms, maggots, anything. Why it’s there in the first place was a mystery to wonder. She coughed it out a few times before it suffocated her any further.
Her arms flailed, thrashing around only to bump the surface all over her. The surrounding felt familiar against her skin. It was wooden, hard, and thick, enclosing her in like a box. Or a chest. Or a coffin.
Coffin. The mere thought made her shudder.
I'm not dead yet, aren't I…?
Once, twice, three times. She pushed and pushed but the barrier wouldn’t budge. Not even an inch. Soon, came the growing panic, the whirling sensation in her head became overwhelming. Dizzy. She could feel death approaching.
“Hey!” she screamed. Perhaps anyone would hear her distress call. But to her dread, her voice was stuck in her throat. Again and again, she yelled. No use. Nothing came out except for a wheezing noise of her asthmatic gasps. She began to lay punches, hoping to make a tiny bit of a fracture.
However, the more she struck the wooden topside, the more dirt fell through. A similar consistency of what’s once inside her mouth flopped onto her face.
Soil? Where am I? Am I buried?
Her fear escalated as there’s nothing she could do to breach the casket. Her palm roamed all over the impeding structure, looking for some sort of gap to break away. But there was nothing. No panel, latch, handle, nothing at all.
Except for the rift across her face, right where the ground poured through.
She slipped her hand. The vertical opening was too small. Only three of her fingers managed to get outside. She could feel the damp earth. Moving up and down, her digits touched something chunky. Something she could not make of.
The texture was recognizable. There’s only one thing with such twisted fibrous strands—a rope. Someone had laid a rope horizontally across the surface. The supple cord wouldn’t bend no matter how many times she nudged it. This must be the thing that held the casket tightly.
I need to cut it down!
Again, her hands wandered around. There must be something she could use. Something sharp. Wood fragments, a stone, a splinter, anything. Unfortunately, there was nothing other than the ragged outfit on her body. Not even footwear wrapped around her feet. Meanwhile, as seconds passed and the walls inside her chest stiffened, she began to panic.
No, no, I don’t want to die, not like this!
She grabbed the fold of her tabard, loosening the collar in hope to breathe easier. She knew it was futile. Tight or not, clothes or no clothes, it’d be the same. There was little to no air to begin with. Perhaps it’s best to just give into the abyss.
She was ready to accept the inevitable when her elbow poked something below her garment, a solid object with a definite shape right on her left waist. She pulled it out from its nesting place.
It was a dagger.
A glimpse of hope returned to her. At last. A means of a way out. Whether it’d be favorable or not, she had to try. Clinging into a tiny spark of optimism, she inserted the blade into the gaping fissure.
It fitted. Clumsily, she dragged the blade back and forth. Hands trembled that she couldn’t even cut properly. Ramming and ramming, the tear on the leash gradually became imminent.
Come on. Come on, just a bit more…
Her grip on the weapon became unsteady. The chest pain was unbearable she could feel her lungs closing in. A few seconds more and she would depart from this life.
With her remaining strength, she gave the casket the strongest push she could make. She was prepared to embrace the air, but, to her horror, as the lid tossed open, a heap of soil collapsed through, smothering her altogether. Desperately, she clawed her way out as her throat filled with dirt once more.
The sunlight welcomed her sight once she emerged from beneath. Rolling over, she threw herself flat on the ground, coughing and spitting lumps of earthen masses out of her mouth. Finally, she could breathe again. The expulsion had freed her air passage clear. Up and down, up and down. Her chest raised and fell with every breath she took.
Closing her eyes, she began to regain composure. Breathing was never been this delightful. Like a luxury, she did her best savoring all the fresh air she could. She didn’t dare to imagine what’d happen if she didn’t come out sooner. Or if no dagger was there to save her soul.
She snapped her eyes open. It’s still there within her grasp. She brought it closer to her face. Suddenly, flashes of images started appearing inside her head.
People. People with pitchforks. People rallied with weapons. Screaming, crying, wailing. Fire. Huge fire. Hanging ropes. Bodies on the hanging ropes. People threw rocks at her, people threw rocks at…them. Someone grabbed her by the hair, pouring something into her mouth. Something hit her on the back. Darkness.
She shook her head. No faces. She couldn’t see faces in those images. It was a blur all over.
What happened? Why am I here?
She tried to stand up but her legs gave way. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead as she glanced at her side.
The shallow grave she just broke through. One amongst many others. Five. There were five of them, laid side by side six feet underground. All of the burials looked recent. The dead seemed to have suffered the same fate as her.
Who are these people?
Her heart pounded faster.
…Why am I the only one alive?
Holding the flagon closely, she finished her drink in one swig. Her hooded figure observed the whole tavern. The reek of alcohol and meat mixed with old boots and sweat wasn’t exactly unusual to look about. Something else had piqued her interest.
The atmosphere. The expressions. The behavior of the patrons. Everything was different than weeks ago, the last time she visited. Men and women, young and elderly, everyone seemed to be in a festive ambiance. They danced, clapped, and sang along with the minstrels, unaware of a pair of eyes watching from the corner.
“Not feeling the party, eh?”
She turned her gaze to find a man stood by the table, pointing at the stool beside her.
“May I sit here?”
The man was holding a decanter in his hand. He wore peasant attire and a felt hat, looking harmless enough. She then nodded.
“Want some?” he offered the drink in his metal jug, noticing her empty glass. She flatly refused.
“So why don’t you dance? Or sing along?” he asked again, attempting to initiate a conversation. The man didn’t seem to catch on her demeanor. This irked her since she wanted to be alone. But then again, she had to keep her calm or risked making a scene around. Perhaps this man could provide information she’s been looking for.
“I don’t know what I shall celebrate for.”
“Huh? You don’t feel happy with our victory?”
“Is this what it’s all about? I keep hearing vampires being spoken.”
“Ah,” the man clicked his tongue, “not from here, are you? Let me guess, a merchant?”
“Yes, from the north. Last week I heard the southern border is open for trade so I came here.”
“It is. Damn, I envy you traders. Haven’t had a chance to go beyond the outpost myself. My work prevents me from leaving town,” he poured ale into her flagon, “my treat. Enjoy.”
“Deep Woods is one hell of a trouble. Still, can’t believe we finally open the border. How was your journey?”
“Fine, I guess. I got lost so many times.”
“Deep Woods is Deep Woods. Sometimes you can go in but not go out,” he raised his mug to his lips, “no vampire attacks?”
She shook her head and sipped her drink.
“Heh, of course not. Cause we’ve killed them all. Every last one of them.” He smirked, “Still, welcome to Svaros, though. Not much in here. We’re still recovering but hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Those vampires, I thought they’re extinct already?”
“They are. Not their sodding spawns, though. You know the halfbreeds?”
“I’ve heard stories. They can walk in the daylight and all those things.”
“Well let me tell you. The southern border was closed for a long time because of those animals,” he eyed the barmaid behind the counter, “what’s worse, they could be anyone and we never knew about it.”
He finished his drink and poured for another.
“Those…abominations. Mating with humans. How disgusting,” he growled, “first thing they’re your spouse, your friend, your neighbors, next thing they’re beasts. Draining your herds dry and kidnapping your children. That feeling when you had a traitor among your own people…”
She kept listening.
“Every month,” he looked at her in the eyes, “we sent search parties to the woods. None returned. Grieving widows and widowers everywhere. Took my Gonzo too last year.”
“My goat,” He gulped another glass, “sodding bloodthirsty demons preying on us poor folks. I raised that thing for years and it’s gone in one night!”
"Why didn’t the king send his Paladin Knights? They used to hunt vampires long ago."
“He doesn’t care about us, young lady. He doesn’t care about southern lands. Hell, nobody does except for peddlers like you. Bet he doesn’t even know our messengers never made it to Irkalla! Bah, have to fend for ourselves all the time.”
His eyes started to turn red as his speech became a slur. All those shots had finally taken control.
“But tell you what, that doesn’t matter anymore, eh? You merchants are here. We rebuild. People are happy. And those things are sodding dead.”
“How can you be sure? You said anyone could be a halfbreed?”
“Did you pass by the gallows? There we hung their chieftain and his underlings,” he said, “joined the militia myself. Drew them into our trap like a blind fish they’re.”
“All of them?”
“Some escaped. But we followed them to their camps. Burned them to the ground. Left no one alive,” he said again, “now it’s been two weeks and still no attack. We did it, you see. We won.”
She left the tavern after putting a few bronze coins on the table. The man had gotten even more intoxicated and started to make his way to the barmaid, leaving her alone in her seat. It didn’t matter. She’d heard enough. The plan had worked. Effortlessly so. Knowing that nothing she did for the town of Svaros was in vain, she could finally go back to her research, to her cure.
Nothing can stop me now.
Four days. Four days she dragged her feet through the forest, or so she thought. She remembered witnessing four sunrises without a drop of water. The riverside path she took was as dry as a desert. It's as if this barren land was left by humans long ago, leaving it untouched and desolated. On top of that, not a single animal could be seen. Even insects seemed to have migrated somewhere else.
She had lost any sense of direction. First, she went to the north when it turned to be nothing but wilted jungle. Another time she decided to walk east, following the sunrise, again it was all lifeless trees. This bleak woodland appeared to be endless no matter how far she ventured. After the fourth sunrise, she just stopped counting as her body became weaker and her mind grew emptier. She was like a walking vessel with death lurking closer.
She stood on a ledge overlooking the whole woods. The darkness limited her already feeble eyesight. Only dense, desiccated ground as far as one could see.
Where am I?
The night air pierced her skin. She trembled when the wind blew slightly. Cold. Her tattered clothing and barefooted state provided no warmth to her body. Her grip on the dagger loosened as she shivered. She could only watch as the knife fell out her hands, hit against a rock and came off the ridge.
Her body reflexively jumped forward, attempting to catch the only thing she had. However, without grasping anything to hold on, she failed to keep her balance and slipped off the edge.
Then, everything happened so fast.
The woods rustled as she tumbled for what felt like forever, rolling down hitting trees and branches along the way. She lost control of her own body. It’s as if she wouldn’t stop falling through the air.
Halfway down, the trees gave way and before she knew it, she was hurtling over the dry grass, earth, and rocks, until her body run into a large tree stump and she finally fell into darkness.
She woke up by the sounds of anvils and hammers. An unfamiliar view greeted her sight. The stained walls, wooden furniture, and those bookcases were nothing she’d seen before her eyes.
There’s that sound again. The clanging metals. She looked around. The windows were open wide. Curious, she tried to sit up. A cracking noise of her bones could be heard somewhere in her back.
I’m still alive…?
She stared outside.
There was a metalworking shack across the street. An old man with a lavish beard was giving instructions to the three teenagers before him—a girl and two boys—seemingly to be his apprentices. He was praising her for hammering the iron right and asking the others to follow through.
Where am I?
The neighborhood was full of mercantile establishments. She could see the forge, armorer, potter, tailor, butcher, and so on. People went back and forth with their carts and baskets. Children were playing in the street, chasing after each other with what appeared to be wooden sticks. She heard them saying ‘My turn! My turn to be the Dragonbane!’ While some of the adults yelled for them to move out the way.
How did I come here?
She swallowed. The last thing she saw was the massive stump before the blackout. She didn’t remember being near any civilization before. There must be someone who’d come to her rescue.
Who brought me here?
While she was deep in thought, suddenly the door creaked open. She turned to find a brunette woman in white smock under a brown kirtle. In her hands were a book and a sack of something unknown. They looked at each other for a few seconds before her brows creased in shock,
“You shouldn’t be up yet…!”
She didn’t know where to begin.
Laid on the table was an amount of food one would expect to be several days’ worth. At the sight of what appeared to be some roast her mouth watered. On the side, plates of potatoes, cheese, sausages, and pickles with a basket of bread stared back at her. The wafting aroma kept luring, calling out her famished soul. She couldn’t keep her hands any longer.
Without hesitation she grabbed the pork leg, ripping a chunk off with her teeth.
The brunette stood by the bookcase with her arms folded, watching in amusement. No words were exchanged. Only glances. She didn’t care if the woman would judge her in silence. She didn’t even care being watched gnawing clean on the bones. Everything, even the grease and pickle juice flowed through her fingers were ambrosial. As if losing control, her body moved on its own, stuffing her face like it’s her last meal on earth.
“I wonder when was the last time you saw food,” the woman spoke after a long silence. In her voice was a mix of awe and wonder. Meanwhile, she only looked at her wordlessly while munching on another handful of sausage links. The brunette continued to stare at her, hand on her mouth, obviously holding back her laughter. Perhaps she was still thinking about the loud stomach grumble she heard moments ago.
A clump of meat got stuck in her throat as she moved onto the next plate. Along with the surging air, the pressure pulled the muscle of her chest. Weird noises started to come out of her mouth.
“Good lord,” she saw the woman rushed to the door, “I’ll get you more water.”
Dropping the bread, she snatched the napkin nearby. Eyes winced every time her body jerked in a spasm. She regretted having eaten way too fast like that.
“Here, hold your breath and drink slowly,” she returned with a metal carafe. She could feel the woman’s hand stroke her back lightly as she drank.
Only when the hiccups died down, she realized the disaster on the table. Plates, bowls, scraps, grease, and carcasses spread everywhere in a disarray manner. Guilt washed her. Hunger had taken over her conscience that she’d forgotten she was in someone else’s home.
“Do you wanna eat more?”
She shook her head. Her stomach felt full by just looking at the ruins before her. That was a lot of food. No normal person would satiate such amount of helping in one sitting. Sick and amazed at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel disgusted with herself.
“Alright, then,” she began taking the plates, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
To her surprise, her voice had returned. Though it’s still hoarse and somewhat inhuman, it was strange to finally talk after what felt like forever. She made a sound in between a cough and a sharp inhale in attempt to clear her gorge.
“Let me help, please.” She said again, much clearer this time.
“I don’t think you’re able to walk just yet,” the woman nodded towards her legs, “you didn’t notice the bandages?”
She immediately looked below and found beige cotton fabric wrapped neatly around her right knee. A brownish stain could be seen in the middle, presumably dried blood.
“I don’t know. Did you trip and fall or something? I found you here with your ligament torn already.”
Her lips parted in a daze, “That…that bad…?”
“You’re technically crippled right now.”
She could only watch in silence as the brunette continued to wipe the table. And in that moment, instead of being a helping hand, her body decided to release a reflex, expelling a blob of foul gas in the form of a very loud belch.
The woman shook her head in disbelief. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to crawl back into the grave.
"You’re in Ceville.”
She turned away from the window and found the woman stood at the bedside, looking at her with a smile.
“My name is Morgana.”
“You’ve been staring outside the whole time. Figured you must be wondering where you are.”
“No, I was just...well, yes. Yes, I was,” she blinked in confusion, “how…how did I come here?”
“To my house? Elder Nerida wants me to look after you.”
“The village’s elder,” Morgana sat down, putting her palm on her forehead, “hmm, your temperature is normal.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No. The opposite even. It surprised me that you woke up a day earlier than I expected.”
“A day earlier? How long was I asleep…?”
“Two days. You’re unconscious when the villagers brought you to my door.”
“Ah…” she looked at her leg again. Slowly, she tried to move it around. Painful. She bit her lips. The ache made her eyes begin to water. Morgana noticed what she’s doing and stopped her right away.
“Don’t. Unless you want to make it worse,” she adjusted it back up, “you’ll be able to walk in several weeks.”
That sounded like a really long time. She sighed and looked at Morgana again. Her eyes—green eyes were examining the bandage closely. Faint dark circles rested below those eyes. She could see tiny freckles across her turned-up nose and high cheekbones from this distance. Her downturned lips were of the light shade of red sandstone. She wore her hair in a side braid, loosely hung around her shoulder. Her pale skin was a little reddish, possibly from being outdoor working under the sun. The woman was fairly thin—her collarbones were prominent against her skin. If she had to guess, Morgana probably was around the same age as her, if not younger.
“How did you end up in Ravaged Woods?”
“They said they found you there lying on the ground.”
Ravaged Woods. So that’s the place she was lost in. No wonder it bore such a dreadful name, suitably so. It did look like something had pillaged and caused such extensive destruction to the whole forest. To find a civilization such as Ceville beyond the area was like a mirage, like an oasis in the middle of a wasteland.
“I…” she mashed her lips together, not knowing what to say, “…I broke through my grave.”
“I woke up inside a casket. I think—I think I was supposed to be dead or something…”
Morgana stared at her with her forehead wrinkled,
“You’re actually serious.”
“That must’ve sounded crazy,” she sighed, rubbing her temples, “I wish I was joking. I don’t understand what happened myself.”
“Why would you be dead?”
She shrugged, “I’m not sure. So I just kept walking. Next thing I knew I was in that…dead woods.”
Suddenly, she remembered the second before her body fell off the edge. The reason why she lost her balance in the first place.
Her fingers immediately crept into her pockets. Nothing. Moving inside her robe, again, nothing. The fold of her girdle, the backside, everywhere. Nothing. Nowhere. That thing must’ve lost somewhere, laid deep in Ravaged Woods.
“Hey, hey, are you alright?” Morgana saw her mumbling to herself in a state of distress.
“What is it?”
“I lost it!”
As if realizing something, Morgana bolted from her seat and walked to the corner of the room—towards a wooden dresser. Fumbling around a little, she returned back to the bed.
“You’re looking for this?”
There, in her hand, a short knife with some sort of strap served as an extension on its leather scabbard. Nothing remarkable with the grip, a few scratches could be seen on the surface. The crossguard shaped like a two-headed serpent. Her eyes widened.
“That’s…! Wait, how did you get that…?”
“The elder asked me to keep it before some scoundrels exchanged it for a few silvers,” Morgana handed it over, “he said they found it near your body.”
She rubbed the weapon nervously. Not believing it would return again. It was what kept her sane. As if she had any belonging worth saving.
“Thank you. Thank you for everything…”
“Not me. You should thank those children if you must.”
“You were lucky they frolicked in the woods.”
“I—I see…” she said, “…but still, I wish there’s something I could do in return.”
“You’ve helped me clean the pantry though,”
Her cheeks reddened.
Morgana chuckled, “I only patched your leg and give you my bed. It’s just part of my job.”
“You’re a physician?”
“Unregistered one. Elder Nerida is the only physician here. I’m his apprentice.”
“What does that mean?”
“What, unregistered?” Morgana arched her brows, “It means I can’t perform a surgery or charge you a coin.”
“That’s too bad. Why do you need to be registered?”
“Wait a minute,” the brunette shifted in her seat, “are you a foreigner?”
“You speak like an Irkallan though. Are you a Kelredano? Gailanese?”
All those words sounded alien in her ears. She didn’t understand anything Morgana was saying.
“I…I don’t get it?”
“You don’t seem to understand the Alchemist Guild system here.”
The way Morgana stared at her as if she had two heads. Suddenly, her expression turned serious.
“Who are you?”
She stared at her hands in horror. No names. No places. No familiar faces. Nothing came up in mind. The only thing in her head was the vague images of the angry mob in an unknown place.
Who am I? What’s my name?
“You don’t remember who you are,” Morgana looked at her in the eyes. It was a statement, rather than a question.
Her grasp on the dagger tightened as her sight began to spin. She wanted to dig deep into her memories but the effort was in vain. The harder she tried to remember, the more throbbing the headache became. It’s as if her mind rejected any attempt to reach self-cognitions. Morgana scooted closer, pushed her backwards gently, helping her lie back in bed.
“You must’ve received quite a blow in the head. You should rest.”
“It…hurts…!” she groaned. The dagger was dropped in an instant. It knocked onto the floor, its sheath disengaged. Morgana paused for a moment as she noticed something off. She picked it up, examining carefully.
“Hestia?” the brunette muttered the carved letters on the blade.
The woman’s voice went straight to her head. Another flash of images rushed before her eyes. Like sequences. She heard people saying that name again and again; different voices yet still no faces. Eventually, she began to understand.
“Morgana,” she swallowed, clutching her head, “That…that’s my—I think that’s my name…”
Irkalla. 120 days ago.
Duchess Geneive had requested an audience with Grand Paladin Irvine, the kingdom's most renowned warrior for his achievement slaying a dragon in Cadaver Hills. The meeting was not to be attended by other than the two, for it was supposed to be clandestine.
"Your Excellency, Her Grace is expecting you. Please, come in." the duchess' personal servant bowed before disappeared, closing the door behind her.
Irvine looked around. Not the first time he entered her bedchamber, yet everything never failed to amaze him. The drapery, carpets, furniture, paintings, and the fireplace. Not to mention some of her personal collection of statues and figurines. The aura of femininity with a sense of class and royalty, the place gave him a strange sense of serenity as well as chivalry. Deep down he wished the Paladin tower was as stunning with less reeks of misery.
"Good to see you again, Grand Paladin Irvine."
"Your Grace, at your service," he bowed, lowering his hood. His silver hair was a contrast with the dominant red velvet of the room, shining like a sword on a bed of roses.
"Smuggled as a nurse again, aren't you? Varna is most genius indeed."
"She is certainly an amazing servant, Your Grace."
"We don't have much time. People are going to talk if you linger for too long. I want the report on the halfbreeds."
"Preparations are complete.”
“I don't want things to get to His Majesty before it’s time. Are you sure your soldiers won’t be suspicious?"
“Worry not, Your Grace. I did not tell them the true objectives. I’ll make sure your seal is delivered.”
“How can I have your word on it? I have spent so much on this expedition, Grand Paladin.”
“I believe there’d be uproar if we told these soldiers what they’re facing against.”
“Yes, people would always jump into conclusions,” the duchess sighed, “very few people understood the significance of my family’s legacy.”
“And I’m honored to help you continue it, Your Grace, for the better future.”
He saw her smiled.
“Eight garrison soldiers—new recruits. A small squad,” he said again “they will depart by sunrise.”
“Will that be enough?”
“I don’t advise to send a platoon, Your Grace. It’s best to masquerade as a small pilgrimage.”
“I see. Have one of your Paladin Knights guard them. I believe it doesn’t hurt to have a little protection.”
Irvine cleared his throat in doubt.
“Paladin? I—I don’t think I can provide anyone from my rank, Your Grace. That’d be too risky. I humbly apologize.”
“No, you can. I have someone in mind.”
“And who that might be?”
“I believe there’s someone named Hestia. She’s as naïve as you think could be.”
Cause she never disobeys orders, just like Adonis.