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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Fantasy · #2312064
A young woman wakes up on a deserted beach with no memory of how she got there.
Darklands:~The Seeress of Light

Chapter One

On the western coast of an unknown land, a storm raged. Dark clouds scudding across the night sky. Waves were driven inland, and lightning illuminated the darkness. The rain fell in sheets, making visibility impossible. Through a long night, the storm continued. At daybreak, it finally abated, leaving debris scattered across a sandy beach and torn-up trees inland. The waves lapped gently now as they receded, revealing a prone figure of a woman. The figure did not move for several minutes; then, slowly, agonisingly, she began to shift. Struggling to stand, she looked around, studying her surroundings. She was of medium height and wore a faded black leather tunic with short sleeves. A matching skirt partially torn and threaded bare at the bottom. Her lank, long, fair hair blew in the offshore breeze. She blinked, shading her deep blue eyes from the sun with a hand.

“Where am I? How did I end up here?” She asked aloud. The sun beat down relentlessly, making her feel hot, dizzy and thirsty. She haltingly walked towards the shelter of the tree line. Once in the shade of the trees, another thought came to her. “Who am I?”Panic crept into her thoughts. “What the hell happened to me?” She took a deep breath to calm herself and shook her head in confusion, trying to remember who she was and how she ended up on a sandy beach. “Was I on a ship that sunk in the storm?” That was the only explanation that seemed to fit right now.

Try as she might, she couldn’t remember a thing before waking up on the beach. More importantly, right now, she realised she needed water and shelter. Walking further inland, lush undergrowth grew all around her. She passed one or two toppled trees. “The storm must have been bad, ” she surmised. After walking for what seemed ages, she thought she heard running water. Stopping, she listened intently. “Has to be running water,” quickening her step, she headed in the direction the sound was coming from. She entered a clearing before her, a rockface with water running down to form a pool at the bottom. She sighed with relief, parched; she half ran, half stumbled, falling prone at the water’s edge. She dipped her head under the water and gulped several mouthfuls. Sating her thirst just enough, she knew better than to drink too much at once. She lifted her head from the pool, shaking the excess water from her hair. She waited, then cupping her hands in the crystal clear water, she drank a little more. She stared at her reflection in the pool. Her head started to hurt, and her vision blurred. She could see a man next to her reflecting in the water, similar in looks to herself. “From his looks, we have to be siblings. My brother, I think...” She tried to remember but couldn’t recall his name either, or what sort of person he was, or even where he was now.

A sudden disturbance in the undergrowth on her left made her sit up warily. A tiger emerged on seeing her. The beast growled and prepared to attack. Instinctively, she got down on all fours and faced the tiger, staring into its eyes. She didn’t know why, but it seemed right somehow. The beast halted, gazing back at her. The tiger relaxed and went and drank from the pool, occasionally looking up to stare at her warily. “It seems I know something about animal handling.” She hadn’t lost all her memories, some things she instinctively knew. She also felt that there was something different about her. She didn’t think it was because she understood something about controlling animals either; she supposed that was just a natural ability she had. She stared across at the tiger, and the animal stared back intently. She sensed its hunger and felt even more hungry herself. Her stomach growled noisily.

The tiger rose and slinked off into the woods. A while later, it returned with what looked like a half-eaten pig-like animal in its jaws and laid it at her feet. She rose automatically and bowed to the tiger in thanks. She didn’t fancy eating raw meat, though. Looking around her surroundings, she found some firewood and got two slender pieces of wood; rubbing them together, she managed to start a fire. “Survival skills as well. Good to know.” She wished she could remember who she was. Deep down, she felt she hadn’t arrived here by ship.“So, if I wasn’t on a ship, how in Hades’ name did I get here? It doesn’t make any sense.” She shook her head in denial, but the feeling remained. She sat half-dozing for a while, then decided to return to the beach. She was barefoot; her feet were scratched and bleeding, and she needed to find something to cover her feet. Anything else useable there would be good as well.

She looked across at the tiger as it drowsed. She was still wary of it, so she left quietly so as not to disturb the beast. Retracing her steps back to the beach, she searched along the coast, eventually finding a pair of worn sandals. They were a little large but fitted comfortably enough. A while later, she uncovered a rusty dagger half buried in the sand. Lastly, as she was about to give up her search, she found a battered canteen. The sun beat down relentlessly. She stared out to sea; there was nothing, no ship on the horizon, nothing but a vast ocean as far as the eye could see. She began to feel a little dizzy with the heat and thirsty again. She tucked the dagger into her skirt and carried the canteen in her hand.

As she returned to the clearing, the tiger was gone, but somehow, she could sense it not too far away. She drank from the pool and rinsed the canteen out well before filling it. She considered her options. The sun was just past its zenith, which meant there were still a few hours of daylight remaining. She decided to travel further inland, hoping to find some civilisation. “A town or settlement, people at least.” She felt so alone and lost. Her surroundings felt so new and unfamiliar to her. After a while, she became aware the land was gradually rising, becoming an uphill trudge. The undergrowth began to thin out until there were few trees and nothing but lush grass under her feet. The light started to fade, so she searched for a place to camp for the night. She could sense the tiger still following her at a safe distance.

As she managed to light a fire and settle for the night, the tiger came padding into camp; it stared for a moment, then settled down not far from her. It was just as wary of her as she was of it. Right now, though, she felt grateful for the beast’s company. She stared across at the animal. It was big, even as tigers go, with thick orange-tan colour fur with three black bands across its back. Short, pointed ears, a jaw wide and powerful enough to bite through skin and bone. Green eyes, which she believed held more intelligence than a person would expect from such a beast. It was unlike any tiger she had seen before; if indeed she had seen one before, she couldn’t remember for sure. The stars started to come out as she lay down on a mossy patch of grass. Looking up at the night sky. Something was off about the stars, but she couldn’t think what it might be. Eventually, she fell into a troubled sleep.

Chapter Two

She woke suddenly in the darkness and sat up. She had been dreaming, and in that dream, she heard her name called. She remembered. Her name is Aurora. “Aurora Mas...Masira. My name is Aurora Masira.” There was something else the man she saw reflected in the water. They had been arguing about something. “Then... Then, Oh, damn, why was it so hard to remember. I am sure he is my brother. But it seemed like we didn’t get along if what I remembered in my dream is correct.” Aurora laid down again and tried to get back to sleep. She kept going back to the part of the dream about the argument. She was sure it was a past memory, not just a dream because she remembered her name at the same time; it seemed important for some reason. Sleep evaded her as she lay tossing and turning until daylight broke. Aurora rose and stretched her arms and legs to get stiffness out. There was no sign of the tiger, then she heard a rustling, and the tiger appeared with a small deer in its jaws.

“It seems we think alike. I will have to give you a name, seeing as we seem to be travelling together.” Aurora smiled, collecting some wood; she made a fire. She managed to skin the deer with her dagger, cutting it into sizable chunks and cooking it over the fire. When the meat cooled a little, she threw several large pieces to the tiger. The animal devoured it in no time and started licking his jaws clean. “I bet that is the first time you have had cooked meat. Do you like it?” The tiger continued licking his jaws and looked up at Aurora. “I think I’m going to call you Bandit. Do you like the name? I think it suits you.” She said with a grin. Aurora put out the fire, collected her few possessions and started off again. The land under her began to level out after some time and then suddenly fell away below her. She stood looking down at a wide valley shrouded in a mist that partially hid the sun.

“Well, what do you think, Bandit? Should we keep going?” She looked down at the tiger at her feet. Aurora found it curious how quickly each had become attached to the other. She was no longer wary of Bandit nor he of her. As she started downhill, the tiger at her side, Aurora, thought it seemed like they were meant to be together. The further they travelled down into the valley, the more she noticed that many of the trees were stunted, as were most of the vegetation growing in the valley. She found it puzzling. Then she looked skyward; the mist should have cleared by now, but it was still there. Aurora squinted, still looking skyward at the fog, which seemed unnatural. There were gaps where sunlight managed to break through. However, the mist appeared to shroud most of the valley.

“It’s a very strange place, Bandit. Is this where you come from? Is this your home?” She said, taking her eyes off the strange mist above. There was no path as she worked her way downhill, scraping past low-growing bushes and undergrowth. There were a few animal trails here and there, and she spotted a rabbit running for cover. There were birds also; she heard their calls of alarm as she passed by and spotted a few in flight. But the valley did not seem to be full of life as she believed, like any other valley. “It has to do with the strange mist blocking the sunlight. Is it ever going to clear? If not, how far does it extend.” Aurora spotted what looked like the roof of a house further down among the trees. “At last, some human habitation,” she said aloud. Quickening her step, she headed in the direction of what she hoped might be a dwelling with people at last. It started to rain, first, just a few drops, then in a torrent, soaking her to the skin. Aurora looked skyward again. The mist was still there; even rain did nothing to disperse it.

Aurora stopped as she reached what she thought was a house but was, in fact, a small hut. “Hello, is anyone there?” There was no answer, only the sound of rain falling amidst the trees. The door swung open on one hinge as she pushed it. Inside the hut, a broken cot stood in one corner, and a small rickety table in the centre. The room was dusty, with cobwebs everywhere, no sign of it being lived in for some time. The roof leaked in one corner, but otherwise, the hut was dry. Aurora sighed, sitting down on the only chair next to the table. She started to shiver. Standing again, she shook herself and had a closer look around. An old chest of drawers revealed a striker and flint. A belt with a short sword lay on the floor. On the side of the hut hung a long cape with one or two holes in it, but still usable. A backpack hung under the cape.

“Whoever had lived here must have left in a hurry to leave all this behind.” She grabbed the shabby blanket of the cot, shaking it out well to be sure there were no bugs in it, stripped off her clothes and wrapped the blanket around herself. It made her skin feel itchy, but anything was better than sitting in wet clothes. Bandit hadn’t entered the hut with her; she wondered where he had disappeared to. Outside, the rain continued and showed no sign of letting up. It was nearly dark, so Aurora decided to stop the night in the hut. Later, her clothes had dried a little, and she gladly got rid of the scratchy blanket and dressed again.

After a restless night’s sleep, she woke feeling as if she hadn’t slept at all, neither did she remember anything more about her past life. She gathered up her growing list of belongings, fastening the belt and sword around her waist. The rest, including the cape she put in the backpack, hung it over her shoulder as she set off once more; it wasn’t long before Bandit joined her. They were well down into the valley now. Aurora spotted a trail that may have been made by people passing by. She came across a stream refilling her canteen and having a drink. Hunger nagged at her, and Bandit hadn’t brought anything to eat since yesterday. Even if he did, it was too wet to light a fire. She would be prepared to eat raw meat right now; she was that hungry. Bandit disappeared again, and she hoped he was going to catch something to eat.

Then she heard voices! A group of men appeared; they were dressed like soldiers. Aurora’s relief in finally seeing some human faces was short-lived. They looked none too friendly, and two carried weapons she recognised as muskets; the others held swords. One of those with a musket pointed it at her. The worst was she couldn’t understand a word he said. She tried to talk with them, but they just stared at her in confusion.

The two carrying the rifles started arguing. Then, seemed to agree. The one who appeared to be in charge pointed at her and waved his weapon, saying something in a threatening manner. She got the gist that they wanted her to come with them. She nodded and let the soldiers take her. “At least there may be some kind of civilisation where they are taking me.” Aurora listened to their chatter gradually; she began to make out a word or two of what was being said. It surprised Aurora; after listening for some time, she could understand the language the men were speaking. “Is this another ability I have? But can’t remember having. Will I ever get all my memories back?” Aurora chewed her bottom lip in frustration. She decided, for the time being, it would be wise to continue to let them think; she couldn’t understand what was being said. Bandit was still out there; at a safe distance, she could feel him, and she hoped for now he would stay away.

Chapter Three

The soldiers were suspicious of her and treated her a little roughly. They stopped for a break around midday. Aurora tried not to look in their direction as she listened intently to their conversation. The soldiers were part of a contingent force sent to investigate sightings of what they called the beastmasters. The word beastmasters had a certain ring to it. Aurora made a more than plausible assumption in connecting what she could do with Bandit to being a beastmaster. Apparently, these beastmasters were the enemy of the soldiers she was now with. Aurora felt justified in letting Bandit stay away and not revealing she could now understand what was being said. She didn’t want to pick sides until she knew more, and maybe not even then. Aurora barely remembered who she was or where she came from. She was in no position to get mixed up in any conflict. There was one other possibility that occurred to her: that she may well be a beastmaster, but if so, why was she lying unconscious on the beach, and why was there a language difference between herself and these people? It just didn’t add up.

It wasn’t that much further before they reached the base camp, with many tents spread in a large clearing. The camp was a bustle of activity, with soldiers bustling about while a few stood guard, watching the camp perimeter. The soldiers in camp stopped to stare at Aurora suspiciously as she passed. She was led to a tent in the centre with a flag flying on its top. “Obviously, the command tent,” she mused. Aurora braced herself, ready hopefully for anything.

The one who found her first ushered her into the tent, saluting. “Commander, we found this woman alone while on patrol. She doesn’t seem to speak our language. All we can get from her is gibberish. She may be a spy for the beastmasters, as a particularly large beast was spotted in the same vicinity as we found her.

The commander looked from the soldier to stare at Aurora curiously. “A woman alone, you say, and a beast nearby, but if she is a beastmaster, why didn’t the beast attack the patrol?”

The soldier shrugged, “Unknown, sir; perhaps she is new to controlling the beasts.”

The commander nodded, “Perhaps you may leave, sergeant. I will interrogate this woman myself.”

Aurora remained silent while studying the commander. He was tall, with a pallid complexion, grey eyes, a scar on his left cheek, and a small moustache. His uniform was worn and slightly scuffed. Aurora surmised he and his men had been here for some time. Judging by the condition of the commander’s uniform, he pulled a chair up and indicated for her to sit.

Aurora smiled, nodding, and sat down gratefully. “Thank you, commander.”

The commander’s reaction was a mixture of startlement, deep suspicion and anger. Was the anger directed at his sergeant for being deceived by her or at herself, Aurora wondered?

So can speak our language. Why pretend you can’t? What is the purpose of this deception?”

“I couldn’t, at least not at first.” Aurora sighed; please let me explain. I know it may sound unbelievable...” Aurora recounted all she knew, leaving out only any mention of Bandit, from waking up on the beach to her loss of memory right up until now.

The commander frowned, still suspicious. “So you are saying you don’t remember what happened to you or how and why you ended up on the beach?” Aurora nodded, “But you say your memory is returning slowly, and your name is Erm. Auro... What?”

“Aurora Marisa commander.”

The commander bowed his head in thought for a moment, repeating her name under his breath. “A name I never heard of before, strange indeed.”

“Believe me, commander, this is as strange to me as it is to you,” Aurora explained.

“A beast was seen not far from where my men found you. A tiger, my men said they only caught glimpses of it. Such a beast would surely attack anyone, not a beastmaster, to cross its path.”

Aurora shrugged, holding her breath. She remained silent while trying to find a reply that didn’t sound like she was guilty or making excuses. She was saved from answering as the sergeant entered the tent.

“What is it, sergeant?”

“There is a large group of beastmasters heading our way, commander.”

“Well, I guess that answers my last question. Bring her along and keep an eye on her. You will now see what the Sun Legion can do.” The commander finished, turning to glare at Aurora.

“I assure you I know nothing about these beastmasters, commander,” Aurora protested, calling after the commander as he left. The sergeant grabbed her by the arm, pushing her through the tent flap. Outside, the men were mobilising, forming up with musketeers and pikemen to the front and a mixture of bow and crossbowmen to the rear. To one side were the sworders and axemen. From the far northern end of the clearing, the beasts came with their masters behind them on armoured mounts. They stopped as they took in what awaited them. From where Aurora stood, she could make out some of the beasts. They were still a long way off, but she could see tigers like Bandit, wolves, boars and a few bears. The beasts stood waiting for something, it seemed to Aurora. Then she could hear shouts, and they charged forward with a thunderous roar.

As they drew nearer, Aurora’s senses were overwhelmed by that of the beasts stampeding towards her. She staggered, going to her knees. She felt pain and hatred from the beasts, not just towards those they faced but towards the beastmasters themselves. She sensed that given a choice, they would willingly turn on their masters. Chaos ensued, with muskets firing, plumes of smoke rising and arrows flying. It was apparent even to Aurora that the musketeers were more effective, and every shot brought down a beast, whereas it took at least two arrows to take down one animal. As they closed, the commander ordered his men to fall back. Aurora was left alone, forgotten in the heat of battle. A tiger came towards her with a growl; it pounced, its jaws wide, claws extended, frothing at the mouth. Aurora held her hands up to cover her face, closing her eyes. She expected to die a painful death. Then Bandit was there; with a roar, he lunged at the tiger and, with one swipe of his paw, sent it reeling to the ground. It did not move again. Two wolves closed on Bandit. He tore the throat out of one and crippled the other, leaving it to die in agony.

Something inside Aurora stirred. Her head felt about to burst, and her body felt like it was being seared with red hot irons. She cried out as a halo of light radiated from her. At that exact moment, her memories came flooding back. Haltingly, she got to her feet, outstretching her arms and thrusting them forward as a pulse of light surged from her. Unknowingly, she drew more energy down to her from the mists above, fueling the light radiating from her. The light fanned out, blinding both beast and man in its path.”Stop! I can’t control it. Oh no, please stop.” She screamed as another more intense pulse of light exploded from her. White hot, it spread out in an arc, scorching the earth as it passed, engulfing everything in flame. As her power finally reawakened. The nearest beasts and their masters caught in it were vapourised. The rest turned and fled, some of the beasts turning on their masters as they escaped. Aurora collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

Chapter Four

Aurora opened her eyes; her head throbbed as she tried to move. It took several seconds to realise where she was and recall what had happened. She could still hear the terrified screams cut short of the animals and their masters as they were being vapourised. “It shouldn’t have happened that way. Something magnified the power.” She closed her eyes for a moment, then decided, for now, to force the terrible events out of her head and focus on assessing her present situation. She lay on a makeshift cot in a tent. Hearing a rumbling breathing close by, she turned her head to see Bandit lying beside the cot. Aurora tried to sit up, making her head throb all the more. Groaning, she lay back down, wondering what the commander would be thinking of her now and what he planned to do with her. She looked up as the tent flap opened, and the commander entered. He stood at the entrance, staring first at Bandit nervously and then at Aurora.


“Ah...Erm, you’re awake. We managed to get you into the tent after you collapsed, but that is as much as that beast would let us do for you. Nobody has been able to get near you since.” The commander looked down, shaking his head.

“I understand, commander. Bandit and I have become very attached in a short time. He helped me survive and saved me during the battle.”

The commander hesitated before speaking. “There is much I don’t understand about you... Erm, You are a beastmaster, are you not? But unlike the others. You are different... I can’t...”

“I’m not one of them. I’m nothing like those beastmasters or whatever you call them,” Aurora interrupted crossly.

The commander swallowed, hesitant to continue. He chose his words with care. “Then who are you? If not, a beastmaster... You helped us win the battle today. You are different from anyone I have met before.”

Aurora managed to sit up as the throbbing subsided. “In my world, I had... that is, I have what is known as a nature affinity. I can commune with animals. At least most animals.”

The commander frowned, trying to make sense of it all. “Affinity with nature?” Aurora nodded, “Wait, what do you mean your world?”

Aurora sighed, taking a deep breath, “I know this is hard to believe... Anyway, most of my memories have returned. I was accidentally teleported here from Centura; that is my world...” She paused, thinking. I remember arguing with Tumas; he wanted to send me somewhere safe. Before I realised what was happening, he opened a portal and pushed me in. But something went wrong, and I ended up in a completely different world. Aurora was suddenly aware that the commander was waiting for her to continue. “Erm, as I was saying, I accidentally ended up here and lost most of my memories in the process until now. There are still gaps, but I think with time, I should regain all my memory.” I knew there was something wrong with the stars; I didn’t realise it then, but now I understand. "

“So, are you a witch as well? What you did... That light? Is it some kind of magic?

“Hardly. I’m not a witch, but in fairness, it is similar. I’m a seeress. My power is light and is mainly used in defence when I’m being threatened.”

“Hum, seeress. I have heard of a seer, not a seeress, and my understanding of a seer is someone who can foresee the future.”

“Well, I have been known to foresee minor future events, but nothing about the future is fixed anyway; otherwise, I would have known what was about to happen to me,” Aurora concluded sardonicly.

The commander frowned. It was certainly hard to believe, and he wasn’t sure if he believed all she told him. The fact remained that she had likely saved himself and his men from being overrun. She had some scary powers that much was certain. However, he still considered her to be a beastmaster despite what she said to the contrary.

“Commander, I don’t control the beasts. I can empathise and commune with them, but it is abhorrent to me to try and control any of nature’s creations.”

The commander gaped at Aurora for a moment, his eyes briefly going wide before regaining his composure. He bowed respectfully with just a hint of fear. “I understand, my lady. I will keep that in mind. You should rest more for now.”

Aurora gave the commander a concerned look.” Thank you, commander. I feel drained with all that has happened.” She hoped she hadn’t gone too far and offended the commander as he left. She hadn’t wanted to get mixed up with any conflict there was in this world. But it seemed she had been drawn into it regardless and had already chosen sides. “There is a lot I need to know about this world and its people. I should have controlled my bloody temper more before jumping in at the deep end. Damn it all. I didn’t have much choice, though it all happened so quickly. From what I can tell, the beastmasters are cruel in the way that they control animals." She lay back down, closed her eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.

Aurora woke. For the first time since arriving in this world, she slept soundly. Sitting up, she looked around. Bandit had gone. However, it was becoming second nature for her to sense Bandit’s whereabouts. Aurora reflected on a vision she had just before waking up that did not bode well for her future in this strange new world she found herself in. There was one element missing from the vision that gave Aurora hope. The bustling activity outside the tent caught her attention. She wondered how long she had slept and what was happening. The tent flap opened, and the sergeant entered. He carried a plate with food and a tin mug. She surmised the mug held water.

“Ah, you’re awake, my lady. You slept the night through. I brought you food and water. I’m sorry, it’s not much; we only have field rations here.”

Aurora smiled, gladly taking the food and water. She recognised the sergeant, noting that his demeanour had changed like that of the commander's since they had discovered what she was capable of. “Thank you, sergeant. It is more than enough. What is happening? Are we being attacked again?”

“No, my lady, we are preparing to return to the Iron Fortress. Thanks to you, we will return sooner than expected. The commander has already sent word ahead, so they will be expecting us by the time we get there.”

Aurora looked puzzled at the sergeant as she began eating the food. “Iron Fortress, where is that? Is it far?” she asked in between mouthfuls. She felt ravenous, realising she hadn’t eaten a thing yesterday.

“Oh, that’s right, the commander said you come from a far land. The Iron Fortress is on the edge of the Darklands. It protects the Free Cities of Eastmire.”

Aurora shook her, trying to take all that the sergeant said. “Darklands, Free Cities?”

“This is the Darklands, where the beastmaster comes from. Sometimes, they try to attack the Free Cities. There are also other dangers here which threaten us. That is why we have the Iron Fortress. It stands between the Darklands and the rest of Eastmire.”

Aurora frowned, “Then why are you here in the home territory of your enemy?”

“Well, that is a complicated question to answer. The beastmasters have been quiet for some time. Recently, though, rumours have been spreading that differing clans have been banding together, which caused concern among the people. So, it was mainly a political decision by the leaders to dispel fears among the populace despite the risks. To send us to investigate what the beastmasters were up to and try and find out if they were planning an assault on the Iron Fortress.”

Aurora finished the food and drank the water, handing it back to the sergeant, nodding in thanks. “I see, I think. You say there are other dangers here, like what?”

“There are many beasts that the beastmasters don’t control, and there are the orcs, and some say even ghosts roam the Darklands. There is a trail through which we have to keep to. If you stray far from it, you may never be seen again in this life.”

“That bad. What about these? What did you call them orcs?”

“The orcs are brute-like creatures worse than the beastmasters. They live only to kill anyone not like them.”

“I see, so the longer we stay here, the more dangerous it becomes, I presume,” the sergeant nodded.

I’ll let you get ready, my lady; we will be leaving soon.”

Aurora nodded, thanking the sergeant again as he left. “This is a strange and dangerous world indeed. One misstep could lead to unforeseeable consequences. If I’m to survive, I need to be careful.”

Aurora picked up her belongings and exited the tent. Immediately, a couple of soldiers began taking it down and packing it away. Most of the camp was already packed up, mounted and waiting to go.

The commander approached with a horse. “My lady, this is for you,” handing her the reins.”I presume you can ride?”

Aurora grimaced, taking the reins she mounted gingerly. “Thank you, commander. I’m passable at horseriding, although it has been a while.”

Chapter Five

For three days, they travelled through the wilderness. Never once did the commander or his men let their guard down. They rode ever alert, constantly studying the terrain ahead and on all sides. When they camped for the night, fires were kept to a minimum, and guards were posted around the camp. Everywhere Aurora looked, growth was stunted, with gnarled, stumpy trees with unsightly fungal growths sprouting from their trunks. The air was heavy and humid, and overhead, the constant eerie fog. Aurora swatted at the many flying insects buzzing around her with a hand. She now doubted if she could have ever made it through on her own, even with Bandit’s help. The trail twisted and turned at times broad. Others, it narrowed, so they could only ride two abreast. On the fourth day, shortly after breaking camp, the commander called a halt. Aurora noted how much quieter it was than usual. Suddenly, there was a guttural shout, and the ugliest creatures Aurora had ever seen burst the trees on either side. Large grey-skinned with bulbous noses and two protruding tusk-like teeth, they charged the column brandishing axes and hatchets.

“Orcs!” the commander shouted. There was no time to form a defence as the orcs closed quickly. A brutal, hand-to-hand close combat ensued. The commander ushered Aurora to the rear with some of his men to protect her. Though outnumbered, the orcs made up for it in size and brute strength despite the soldiers having the advantage of being mounted. The orcs managed to pull some of the men from their horses. Bandit attacked an orc, closing on Aurora, but even Bandit didn’t find it easy as he pinned the creature to the ground. The orc managed to hold off Bandit from getting to his throat for a while before succumbing, and then he pounced on another orc. Aurora looked around in horror as an orc split a soldier’s skull with an axe. Another soldier had an arm taken off below the elbow, and another clubbed to death. Fear gripped her as the battle raged all around. If she unleashed her power now and couldn’t control it like the last time with everyone so close together, She may kill not only the orcs but also the commander and his men. She backed away from the fighting dismounting she considered running and hiding. She shook her head, “No, No, No.I have to do something.” Again, her power surged through her, and a halo of light surrounded her. At that moment, one of the men close to her signalled the commander, who then ordered his men to fall back.

“Oh, thank you, commander, that is clever of you,” Aurora felt a little less concerned. She stood her ground, thrusting her arms forward and letting the light surge from her in a widening arc as the soldiers fell back to her position. This time, Aurora noticed energy was being drawn to her from above. “So that’s why.”Aurora turned away, her face pale as the orcs were burnt to ash. She bent over and emptied the contents of her stomach. The commander busily checked the wounded and organised his men, bolstering their morale before coming to Aurora, who now sat on the damp ground with her head between her knees.

“Are you alright, my lady? This must be very hard on you.”

Aurora lifted her head to stare at the commander, her face still white. She nodded, letting out a long breath. “How have you survived here for so long?”

The commander’s features creased in worry lines as he considered Aurora’s question. “That’s just it; until the attack by the beastmasters, it had been quiet. I assumed keeping to the trail should have seen us through with little trouble. Now, not even the trail seems safe anymore.” There was another possibility the commander considered but didn’t dare mention. The beastmasters attacked shortly after Aurora joined them, and now the orcs. It could all be just a coincidence, but his instincts were telling him that the attacks were more than just unfortunate events. He looked around; most of the dead were caught in Aurora’s flames. He had a tough decision to make. Some of the wounded injuries were too severe, and he would have to leave them behind. His men knew it, too. He could tell by the way they looked at him and their expressions. “I don’t suppose you have healing abilities as well?”

Aurora shook her head. “I’m sorry, commander. I don’t know how to heal.” She looked around at the walking wounded, and then a look of realisation and horror crossed her face. “What is going to happen to the wounded that can’t walk or ride?” She already feared the answer.

The commander’s expression was grim, “We will leave them with a musket each. That is the best I can do for them. We can’t stay here. We may be attacked again at any moment.” Some soldiers were already saying their goodbyes to fallen comrades, holding back tears and telling them to survive and that they would return for them. The column was silent as they left. It was all false hope, Aurora knew, of course holding back tears of her own. Not just for those they had left but also for the world she left behind, never to be able to return to. They rode until it was too dark to see and made camp as quickly and quietly as possible. The commander sat with his head down, clearly lost in thought by a small guarded fire as Aurora approached and sat opposite. “Commander, how much further will it be until we reach the safety of this fortress?”

The commander looked up at Aurora, breaking from his revelry. “Another two days if we don’t get attacked again.”

Aurora nodded, “Have you someone waiting for you at home?”

“Is it that obvious?”

Aurora smiled and nodded, “Yes, you are a handsome man. You must have someone waiting for your return.

The commander laughed, surprising Aurora. “I have a wife and child whom I miss dearly right now. What about you, my lady? Is there someone from your world or wherever you come from who will be missing you right now?”

Aurora sighed, bowing her head briefly.“I have a brother but no sweetheart or husband. I envy you, that commander. Having someone waiting for your return.”

“Won’t your brother be missing you?”

Aurora stared at the commander, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure about anything anymore, and that terrifies me.”

The commander looked at Aurora, puzzled. “I don’t understand. What do you mean you aren’t sure anymore?”

Aurora shrugged as she got to her feet, “Don’t mind me, commander. I’m just feeling a little lost right now.” She could almost sense the commander’s eyes on her as she walked back to her tent. Some of her memories were still clouded, and this was just one of the many troubling thoughts swirling in her head. She began to doubt if it was really an accident that she ended up in this world.

Chapter Six

They rode out at daybreak. The commander quickened the pace, Aurora riding in the front beside the commander. Once again, the air was hot and humid. Aurora, like everyone else, sweated profusely. The commander and his men seemed used to the heat. Aurora wanted to immerse herself in cold water. She got her chance as they stopped by a river near noon. Aurora stood in the shallows, splashing water over herself and dunking her head under the water. There have been no more attacks since. Aurora hoped they would make it to the Iron Fortress without further incident. The light was beginning to fade when the column came to a halt. Ahead on the trail was a tiger blocking the way.

The commander turned to Aurora. “Is that your beast, my lady?”

Aurora moved her head from side to side slowly, “No Bandit is in the woods, to our left, I think.”

The commander turned in the saddle, “Ready muskets, men; it could be a trap.”

“No, wait, commander, it’s alone. I can tell.”

The commander hesitated a moment. “Even if it is a lone beast, it is still likely to attack.”

Aurora scowled, dismounting, “You forget I said that I can communicate with the beasts.”

“Indeed, you did say so, and I don’t doubt you, my lady, but you also said not all beasts, and this one looks none too friendly.”

Before the commander could say more, Aurora was walking towards the tiger. He told the sergeant to train a musket on it in case the beast attacked. Aurora approached and got down on all fours, making eye contact with the tiger The tiger growled ominously and pawed the ground, snarling and snapping. Aurora felt fear course through had she made a fatal mistake. Then, a rustling from bushes to the left distracted the beast as Bandit appeared. The two tigers confronted each other by snarling and pawing the ground, and then they both went quiet. Aurora stood and nodded to herself with a smile as she went back to the commander and his men. The commander stared at Aurora, puzzled as she mounted.

“Well... What is going on?” the commander asked

“Seems like she is Bandit's, mate,” Aurora answered.

The commander frowned, “Oh, does that mean your beast will leave us now?”

“No, she will also be joining us. I will have to give her a name. Any suggestions?” Aurora said, smiling.

The commander was crestfallen. He almost hoped the beast would leave. It made the horses nervous, not to mention his men. Now, there are to be two of them. He shook his head in dismay. As the light was almost gone, they made camp for the night. The female tiger had a deep reddish scar-like patch on one side that set her apart from Bandit and other tigers that she had seen here. So Aurora decided to call her Scarla. Bandit came into the camp with a kill, leaving at Aurora’s feet. The soldiers, though still wary around Bandit, were grateful to have cooked meat for once.

It was afternoon on the following day that Aurora got her first sight of the Iron Fortress. It stood dark and brooding at the top of a hillside. As they wound their way up, Aurora took a closer look at the Iron Fortress; its walls were high and seemed to be made of an ebony stone. Aurora looked beyond the fortress and felt relieved to see the sun; there was no mist, just a clear sky. She turned back a moment to see the mist still hung over the valley below. As they approached the fortress, there were several outbuildings. A group of soldiers in pristine uniform out from the fortress to greet them.

“Commander, good to see you again. I heard you had a run-in with the beastmasters.”

The commander nodded, saluting. "General, yes, orcs as well. I take it the advance party made it back unscathed.”

“Yes, they did, and the story they told is hard to believe. I hear you have a special guest with you.” The general cast his eyes over the commander’s men. Aurora had gone to the rear of the column because of Bandit and Scarla.

“Erm, lady Aurora.” The commander turned, calling Aurora forward. Aurora nudged her horse to the front. “I’d like to introduce the lady Aurora general.”

The general scrutinised Aurora closely.”So this is your beastmaster, which I have heard so much about. It is an honour to meet you, my lady.”

Aurora grimaced, sighing as she faced the general. “A pleasure, general,” she replied coolly. The general gave the commander a puzzled glance.

“Ah, the lady Aurora claims not to be a beastmaster, nor does she like being called as such.”

The general frowned and gave a bow, “I see; my apologies, my lady, if I have offended you.” He amended diplomatically.

“There is no need for apologies general. She paused, glancing at the commander. “I’m used to it now being misunderstood about my abilities.”

The general looked at the commander with suspicion. “Lady Aurora claims to be a seeress and has remarkable abilities not only in communicating with animals but also in defending herself against foes, which I have witnessed for myself,” the commander explained.

The general looked dubious.“I see. Well, let us continue this conversation later when you have rested. You must be tired after your arduous journey through the Darklands, my lady.” The general said, leading the way as they entered the Iron Fortress. Dismounting, they handed over their horses to the grooms. The general turned to the commander, speaking in a low voice. “Valan, your cousin is here.”

The commander frowned worriedly, “Keiran is here! I assume it has something to do with the lady Aurora, and he is here acting on the council’s behalf? The general grimaced, “We will talk more about this later after you have got settled back in. My servants will see to the lady Aurora’s needs.”

“General, don’t underestimate the lady Aurora. She is powerful, unlike anything this world has seen before,” the commander cautioned. The general gaped startled for a moment, then, taking a deep breath, nodded." Noted Valan."

After being shown to her room by servants and having them bring her bathing water and scented oils. Aurora luxuriated in the tub, reflecting on what she had been through since her arrival. She suspected the general didn’t believe most of what the commander told him about her. She didn’t blame him; it was hard enough for her to accept. The servants brought her clean clothes to wear. It felt good to be in fresh, clean clothes again. Later, she joined the general and the commander for dinner and relayed all she had told the commander again to the general.

She could see the general was wholly sceptical, although he listened intently to what she said. Aurora retired to her room after a good meal and some good conversation, although the general didn’t believe much of what she told him about how she got here or her abilities. He was a good conservationist, more so than the commander. Aurora enjoyed talking with him.

She rose early the following morning. Breakfast was brought to her room. The commander advised that she should stay in her room and rest. It seemed more like a command than a request out of concern to Aurora. She was to meet the commander’s cousin later in the day.

“So, cousin, when will I finally get to meet Lady Aurora? You know I have to take her to the council. You can’t hide her away indefinitely.”

“She has been through a lot and is recovering. I think it will be okay for you to meet her later today. What has the council been saying about her anyway?”

“Oh, you know, the usual half the council say you shouldn’t have brought her here. That she is nothing but a filthy beastmaster spy. The rest are curious about whether she can do what you claim she can. Which I’m also very curious about. I never known you to lie or exaggerate, cousin. So there must be something special about her. I hear she is good-looking as well.” Keiran finished with a cheeky smile.

Chapter Seven

Aurora felt like a prisoner confined to her room all the time. She persuaded a servant to show her around the Iron Fortress and eventually gave the woman the slip. She went to look for Bandit and Scarla. Aurora hoped the servant wouldn’t get into too much trouble for losing her. It wasn’t long before Bandit and Scarla showed up. Aurora sat on the grassy slope that led down to the Darklands enjoying their company. She felt safer with Bandit around and even more so now with Scarla; she needed them close to her at all times... When she returned to her room, the commander was waiting, and he didn’t seem pleased with her.

Aurora sighed and looked suitably contrite. The commander seemed more handsome once cleaned up. His uniform was new and impeccable. “I hear you have been causing the servants to worry, my lady.”

Aurora put on her best smile, “I’m sorry, commander, I got bored being couped inside all day.”

“Hum, well, my cousin is dying to meet you. We will dine with him. I will return in an hour. That will give you time to freshen up and change. The servants will bring you suitable attire.”

“Thank you again, commander. It seems I’m always in your debt. By the way, won’t your wife be dining with us?.”

“My wife lives in Sunborn City. The Iron Fortress is no place for wives. An hour then, my lady.” Bowing, he left. Shortly after, the maids brought her bathing water and a new sky-blue gown to wear. “I guess the commander is a bit stuffy when in his own environment. No place for wives indeed.” She smiled, feeling slightly amused. Later, the commander led Aurura to a room where a table was laid for the three of them. “Not what I was expecting. I thought it would be a large dining room. This seems more private, intimate even.”

A young man about her own age sat at the table. On seeing them enter, he rose and bowed formally, his eyes fixing on her. He was clean-shaven and lightly tanned with laughing eyes. Slightly taller than her with black hair and deep blue eyes and, like the commander, impeccably dressed.

The commander acknowledged the former with a nod, “My lady, may I introduce my cousin Keiran Pershan, a member of the Council of Twelve.”

Unsure what the right way to address the young man was, Aurora hesitated. Allowing Keiran to take the initiative. “My lady, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” He paused, smiling broadly, “Relax, I don’t bite. You can call me Keiran. Valan has told me a lot about you. I want to hear it from you over dinner.” He gestured for her to sit as the commander pulled a chair out for her.

Aurora sat studying Keiran closely. “Thank you, erm, Keiran. I don’t know what else I can tell you. I’m sure the commander has told you everything already.” The way Keiran stared at her made Aurora blush slightly. She tried to keep herself aloof but found herself breathless. He certainly had a way about him. She surmised he probably had most of the ladies swooning over him.“Steady Aurora, don’t get taken in. You’ve only just met him,” she cautioned herself as the servants brought dinner.

Keiran looked from Aurora to the commander and laughed. “Commander! You still haven’t introduced yourself properly, Valan. Allow me to make the proper introduction. He paused, shaking his head at the commander in a deliberate mock show of displeasure. “My lady Aurora may I introduce Valan Olgan, commander of the First Sun Legion of Eastmire. Twice decorated for bravery on the field of battle.”

Aurora was impressed, and now she understood why the commander was so straight-laced since his return. He obviously has a reputation to uphold. “Commander... I mean, Valan, now I understand.” She paused, looking at the two men. “What is the correct form of address here? I’m not used to formalities. I have noted that you call me my lady, so should I call you sir or...What?”

Valan stepped in to answer as Keiran was about to speak. “You can drop any formality between us, at least in private. I was getting a bit tired of being called commander all the time, anyway... Most of the privileged are addressed as lords or ladies in public, at least.” He paused, glancing at his cousin. “Keiran here, though, has never respected formality or title, whether in public or private, much to the dismay of his peers.”

Keiran grinned mischievously. “Bah, titles it is all tedious, boring formality, would you agree, Aurora?”

Aurora smiled. She liked Keiran’s easy banter and lack of formality. Although she told herself to be cautious. “Well, where I come from, we have some formality as well, but it is, shall I say, a very loose form of formality.”

Keiran nodded, grinning; he glanced at Valan, “See, cousin, it is only here in Eastmire where the people are so stuffy.”

With that, they settled down to dinner. Aurora went through once again what she had told Valan about her arrival here. Kerian wanted to know every minute detail and listened, fascinated by her story as they ate. When they finished dinner, Keiran’s expression became serious as he stared at Aurora.”Lady Aurora... Aurora, I’m not sure how much Valan has told you, but tomorrow, you are to accompany me and Valan to Sunborn City to be presented to the Council. There, your fate will be decided.”

Aurora nodded she already knew from what Valan had told and the rumours amongst the servants. She had to ask one thing and hoped that he would allow it. “Yes, Valan has told me some and I heard the talk amongst the servants. “There is one thing I insist on if I am to go willingly with you, however.”

Keiran smiled faintly, leaning forward eagerly, “You only have to ask, and I will grant if it is humanly possible, Aurora.”

Aurora smiled back, “My beasts must come with me.”

Keiran sat back momentarily, surprised and thought for several moments. “Very well, I’m sure that can be arranged if we cage them...”

“No...” Aurora interrupted. “They have to be free. I can keep them close to me at all times.”

Again, Keiran was taken aback; letting out a long sighing breath, he glanced at Valan, who nodded without speaking. “If you can keep them close, and we take a quieter route through the city... “ He paused, nodding slowly “It may be possible.”

With that decided, Aurora thanked them both for the dinner and bid them goodnight, returning to her room and leaving the two men to discuss the finer details.

Chapter Eight

A servant woke her early after a light breakfast. Aurora sorted out her belongings. She still had all the items she had gathered in the Darklands. She kept the dagger in preference to the sword, as she didn’t know how to use a sword in any case, and she kept the backpack with the flint and striker. Everything else she discarded. She wore the clothes that Valan bought her. They set off early. Keiran had told her that it was roughly a two-hour ride to the city. Aurora rode beside Keiran with the two tigers close to her and was surrounded by soldiers hand-picked by Valan, who had been with them in the Darklands. The ride to the city was uneventful, and they entered the city, taking the side streets where there were fewer people despite Keiran and Valan’s best efforts to keep Aurora’s entrance into the city unnoticed. One or two people caught a glimpse of Aurora and the tigers, so word eventually got out. They first went to Valan’s residence; Aurora was surprised again by the size of Valan’s home. It was a large house gated house that stood on its own grounds. Kerian parted with them and went ahead to the council hall. Bandit and Scarla were left to roam the grounds while Aurora met Valen’s wife and changed clothes again. This time, she chose a long white dress. The council building was within a short walking distance from Valan’s home. Once again escorted by the commander and his men, Aurora walked to the council chambers; by this time, a crowd began to gather outside. Aurora insisted on walking up the final steps alone with Bandit and Scarla beside her. The crowd gathered on either side to stare and gape as Aurora entered the building
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