Evil plans to destroy Etias. The king, known as the Reaper, must save the realms.
The human girl wiped a grubby hand across her tear-stained cheeks. The moisture only deepened the color of her eyes, a swirl of a blue sky swallowed up into the midnight heavens of her large black pupils. Even at her tender young age, those eyes cut through the grime and the grief on her crumpled features.
The young man beside her spoke with quiet determination.
"Please listen, Melina. I pledge to you on everything I am that I will come back to get you."
He understood her trepidation. Nothing in her life so far led her to believe in the words — or the actions — of others. He clutched her slender shoulders, masking his wince at the bony prominences of her emaciated, malnourished frame under the weight of his fingers.
"Wh... when... will you come back, Bleiz?"
"I don't know—"
"I won't let you go!" she cried out.
Bleiz rushed to hush her cry, peering over his shoulder at the slumped form of their drunken father, snoring only a short distance away.
"When I have a house for us, one where you can grow as many trees and flowers you want, I will return to you, I will."
With a sniffle, she rubbed her eyes again, her thoughts for a moment captured by the hopeful future Bleiz described. It was a shared dream that lived in stark contrast to the nightmare of filth and decay that was her reality.
"Swear on it?"
Holding up her little digit to him, she waited for him to respond. While glancing downward, he hooked his pinky finger on hers, sealing his oath to her.
"I promise, Mel."
A group of gray elves kneeled before Madame Medri while Niaris and Astiroth flanked her. The lich stared at the gathering, her great scythe in hand as she gestured to the leader of the bunch.
"Symania, what news do you bring?"
The noted elf woman, Symania Tathviel, stood to attention, her cowl resting on her shoulders, her sharp features evident to see. Her eyes stood out the most on her face, her irises swirling hues of the sunrise which glowed in the graveyard's darkness.
"The Reaper is searching for information," the gray elf said. “He is becoming increasingly suspicious, and word has it that he is building his army in preparation for battle, though he knows not from who.”
The Madame paused at the news, bringing a withered hand to her chin in thought. "Good. Let him discover what is pending. He will not be able to stop it."
The withered witch reached into her pocket, pulling a small necklace with a gleaming ruby attached at the center. She held it out for Symania to take. Symania raised an eyebrow, casting her mistress a confused look.
"The gem that holds Azara? Mistress, why are you giving this to me?”
"I want it to get behind the castle walls, so I may use Azara as my eyes and ears within the Reaper’s home," was all Madame Medri offered as she held up the necklace to the gray elf. "Wear it. Use Azara's powers as your own. Familiarize yourself with her abilities.”
Symania took the necklace from her, dangling before her glistening eyes. She smirked to herself, sensing Azara's anger at her presence.
"Now go," said Madame Medri. She watched the group disappear into the fog, remaining motionless as whispers crept from the fog surrounding her.
You trust such incompetent fools with a being such as Azara?
Madame Medri glanced over her shoulder to see the cracked statue standing a few yards behind her. The eyes of the decaying bust glowed an eerie crimson, mist swirling around its face.
"Do not fear," said the lich, turning to face the statue. “Even if those fools fail their simple task, Azara is still well under my control. Besides, neither she nor the other Faceless Daemonesses are my secret weapon anymore."
You speak of the vessel?
Madame Medri lifted a whither hand, gesturing out to the fog. "Come, Dante."
There were a few heartbeats of silence when, from behind a gravestone, an adolescent boy stepped out into view. He appeared no older than thirteen years. His skin was a dark-gray, and his black eyes resembled the most profound depths. There was no shine of youth or innocence in those eyes. His black hair was unkempt, spiking in various angles with his bangs dangling over part of his dark gaze. The boy wore only a pair of pants and what appeared to be a ragged tunic on his shoulders. He lifted his head to look up at the statue, his visage blank of recognizable emotion.
I see nothing special about your champion.
"This child will be the death of thousands," the Madame said without hesitation. "Dante possesses three natural elemental powers, and his headcount surpasses those thrice his age. Dante shows no mercy. He will be a fitting vehicle for you after the merging is complete.”
How do you intend to keep such a creature like that under your control until that time?
"I have my ways," said Madame Medri, her ever-present grin spreading wider. “Once he is ready, we shall prepare his body for derolyle.”
Dante glanced at the lich from the corner of his eyes, but said nothing, silently wondering what she could be referring to.
"Leave," the lich dismissed him with a wave of her rotting hand. The boy said nothing, turning on his heel to walk back into the fog.
Dante never knew where to go, aimlessly exploring the grounds of the cemetery unless they called upon him. He would attack random creatures that wandered into the graveyard to give himself some means of entertainment. As he walked, a small female voice spoke from off in the distance.
"What are you doing out here?"
From behind a nearby dead tree, a petite figure stepped out to reveal itself. A girl stood beside the old trunk, her strange orange eyes glowing in the dimness of their surroundings. She appeared a year or two younger than Dante. Her long black hair fell around her pretty face, and although it was dark outside, Dante could see large curved horns protruding from the girl's scalp, arching to a point in front of her forehead. She waited for him to answer, staring at him.
Dante turned to the girl before sinking into a shadow to hide, though where he hid was much darker than the rest of the shadows. The girl stepped forward, wearing a ragged and torn dress.
She gave a tiny grin as she spoke, "You're silly... I can see you."
Dante did not move, trying to blend in harder into the shadows, hoping the girl would just go away. The darkness only grew darker for his efforts.
The girl looked down at her dress, unsuccessfully brushing the dirt from the ragged fibers as she spoke aloud, "I've seen you around here before. My name is Xenlia. I haven't been here for long..." She paused for a moment. "That lady with the red eyes... she's scary. I dislike her. But she says I have to stay here."
Dante stayed still for only a moment before his head slid up out of the shadow, looking at her before he spoke, his voice void of emotion, "... I have to stay here too."
Xenlia lifted her eyes to look at him. "Why do you have to stay here? That lady says it is because I will be useful when I am grown up. I do not know why, though. She never tells me how I'll be useful. I hate it here."
Dante kept hidden in the shadows, staring at her through his wild hair. "They say I am a vessel... a weapon." He glanced around as if waiting for someone to yell at him for revealing such information.
"A vessel for what?" she questioned, a puzzled expression on her face. "How are you a weapon?"
Dante shrugged. "I don't know, but I'm always fighting, killing... or being beaten."
"They sound like nasty people..." said Xenlia, lowering her gaze for a moment before she asked, "What's your name?"
"... Dante," he whispered, afraid to say it too loud.
"Dante... Have you ever thought of leaving?" She turned her head to look far beyond the foggy forest. "I have. A lot of times. I have nowhere to go."
Dante followed her gaze before shaking his head as more of his body slipped out from the shadow, still cautious. "No. My father said he would kill me if I left."
Xenlia looked back at him. "I never knew my mother and father. I don’t know what they look like. I remember nothing before coming here." She contemplated the idea. "When I'm bigger and stronger, that's when I'll leave this place. No one can stop me." She gave a big smile at the thought, caught up in the fantasy. "You should come with me!"
Dante looked at her, shrinking from her suggestion. "I can't. The red-eyed lady and my father would kill me. They say others in the outside lands would try to kill me too because I’m a monster."
Xenlia shook her head, her long black hair swishing back and forth with the motion. "They wouldn't hurt you, because we could protect each other when we are bigger." She gave another little grin. “You don’t look like a monster to me.”
Dante looked to the side for a moment, his head lowering as he spoke, "I'm not in control of myself, though. Especially when I’m angry or sad."
"But you can be if you practice a lot," said Xenlia, maintaining her enthusiasm.
Dante lifted his clawed-hand, rubbing the back of his neck. "Practice? What kind of practice?"
She pondered on the thought for a moment. "When I'm sad or mad, or I want to cry, I focus on something around me. You need to find something you can focus on too to practice so you won’t lose control."
Dante glanced about his surroundings. He owned nothing except his torn, ragged clothes. His gaze dropped in defeat. "... I have nothing."
Frustration bubbled in his voice, his breathing heavier before he reached up to grab his head, fighting his own ire as his sharp fingers curled into his scalp. Xenlia noted his mounting frustration. Unafraid, she reached out to take his hand from his head, pulling it down to give it a light squeeze as she held it.
"Focus on me," she said, encouraging him to look into her eyes, a gentle glow emitting from them. Her orange eyes appeared to stop their eternal dance for a moment before they spun in the opposite direction.
Dante growled, resisting for a moment before his eyes connected with her. As black as his eyes were, Xenlia could see pure rage, aggression, and pain. His hand squeezed her tight as his other remained pressed at the side of his head. Xenlia squared herself with him as she reached up to take his hand from his head, holding them both between them. Though his tight squeeze hurt, she did not show it.
She kept her gaze locked while speaking, "You have me now. We have each other."
Dante held stares with her again, this time his whole body going still as if in a trance. His grip loosened in her hands, his face expressionless once more. Xenlia gave him a little smile, still holding his hands as she nodded.
"See? From now on, when you feel that way, just focus on me. When we are not together, just think about me. That will calm you down."
Dante looked at her for a moment longer before speaking, "What if that doesn't always work?"
"I'll find you to make sure it does," she said with confidence and a nod of her head. They could hear the voice of Madame Medri from far off in the distance.
A brief look of fear crossed over Dante’s face as he pulled his hands away from her, turning to the direction of the voice. Xenlia glanced in the direction of the lich as well before looking back at him.
"If you need me, come find me. I will always be right there. Promise." She pointed toward the dead tree. With that, she leaned in to give his cheek a light peck. "That's how you give a promise," she explained with a grin before she scurried away into the fog.
Dante's eyes widened as he lifted a hand to graze the spot where her warm lips pressed. He never experienced a sensation like it before. Dante watched her disappear into the fog, his eyes never leaving her as she skipped away.
The now fourteen-year-old Melina woke with a shiver, a flimsy, tattered blanket her only cover against both the cold air above her and the frigid earth floor below. Small rays of sunlight streaked the dark bedroom chamber, cutting through the planks of distressed wood joined by a few remaining nails. Figures moved as shadows outside the room, fluttering the ancient drapery which acted as the only door separating her "room" from the rest of the house.
Doubling over, she cursed to herself.
Her lower belly cramped and ached again as it had on and off for the past two days. She kept the pain to herself as complaining only resulted in punishment and even more misery. A strange sensation moved between and then along her inner thighs — something thick, sticky, and wet. Her brows furrowed, she reached to find the source. Her heart stopped as she tugged her hand back to see blood smeared across her fingertips. Blood? Blood?! Why was she bleeding?
Her panic overcame her well-earned instinct to hide everything from her parents. She leaped to her feet, dashing past the drapery barrier and out of the room. Her eyes darted around the shabby central room until she located her brittle and bitter mother, hunched over a ritual book. Off to the right, her father slumped back in an overstuffed horsehair chair, his ever-present bottle of whiskey close at hand. Incoherent, his chin stooped on his chest as he snored. Melina turned her attention back to her mother.
Slim and petite to the point of frailty, with angular features framed by long, stringy brown hair, a strong resemblance remained between mother and child. But where her mother's eyes sank into dark, fathomless pools of a deep brown, Melina's eyes shone a brilliant blue that still reflected something akin to hope.
The older woman turned to her with her usual mixture of annoyance and repulsion.
"What do you want?" she scowled.
Unsure, Melina held up her blood-laced fingers and gestured to her stained dress. A wicked smile spread over her mother's face.
"Finally, you are a woman now!"
Rushing over, she grasped Melina's head and crushed her into her bosom in a surprising display of interest and feigned affection.
"A woman now?" Melina repeated. She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.
"Yes, yes!" her mother squealed as she shook the confused teenager with glee.
"What's this now?" her father slurred, awoken by his wife's cheering. With another swig of his liquor, he stumbled to his feet, glaring at Melina with his own faded, blue eyes.
Her mother rambled on, ignoring her husband's drunken interruption, "Now you can do our Goddess Qetelias' work! Your womb is ready to accept a man's seed and prove to Her your fertility!"
With horror-filled eyes, Melina pulled away from her frenzied mother. The older woman's pleasure vanished as she stared back at her daughter.
"You are at the perfect age to bear children - many, many children. Your father could sell you to a few of the local tradesmen for fertilization!" At the thought, her mother became excited again, clapping her weak hands together. "You can stop being a leech and contribute something to this family. We will be rich!"
Her father snorted his agreement. "Desperate merchants will pay good coin to sleep with a nasty dog like you." With that, he raised his mug in a salute before swallowing another gulp. The girl flinched at his assessment of her worth. But her mother's words rang again and again in her ears.
"Fertilization?! No, no ... I don't want children—"
A stinging slap cut off Melina's sentence before it left her lips. The stunned girl tumbled to the floor in a heap as her father laughed at her expense.
"Foolish girl," he said with a sneer.
"You dare to deny our Goddess's will? Defiant wench!" her mother shrieked.
She entwined her bony fingers in Melina's long hair, grabbing a fist-full as leverage to drag her across the dirt floor. Melina reached up as she cried out, clawing at her mother's hands, twisting her slight frame in a panic to free herself from her mother's relentless grasp. The older woman threw open the lid of a large, wooden crate on the other side of the room. In a fluid motion, she lifted the small, squirming girl, tossed her inside, slammed it shut. Flat on her back in the box, knees to her chest, Melina shouted and clawed at the slatted lid. The tumblers in the lock clicked as her mother sealed it from the outside.
"Stay in there for the rest of the day and pray to Lady Qetelias for forgiveness for your blasphemous ways!" the woman's angry muffled voice demanded.
The shriek of the girl came from somewhere deep inside her, something primal, trapped, and desperate. She fought against the walls of the crate as her fingernails bent, broke and bled, but to no avail. The crate then gave a quick, hard jolt as her father kicked it, bouncing her head against the side. Melina stopped her struggle and curled up in her little dungeon, crying without a sound.
Hours later, her mother threw open the lid of the crate without a word and released her from the temporary confinement. Now lying on the dirt floor of her bedchamber, Melina stared up at the shadows crossing the darkened ceiling. She contemplated what it would cost her in mind, body, and spirit to live her mother's definition of womanhood.
As she sat in the gloom, she heard her mother mumbling her prayers to Lady Qetelias. Melina pictured her mother's prone form before her miniature statuette of the deity of virility. A large lump swelled in Melina's throat at the thought. She hated that sculpture - Qetelias' smooth features portraying this false personification of maternal instincts.
Melina closed her eyes, scoffing aloud as she pondered on the notion of the fabricated reality of the gods and goddesses of Etias. She asserted them to be nothing more than a lie by the priests of their respective religions to control fanatics such as her mother. Why did the gods allow their subjects to interpret their decrees? According to the doctrines of Qetelias, she represented fertility and a mother's love. Yet, Melina's mother embraced twisted the teachings into something much darker.
Meanwhile, her father was another mindless drone to the drink. He drank to avoid his raging lunatic of a wife, and he drank to forget their status in the world as humans. He drank to overlook the fact he was drunk. What had Melina done in her previous existence to earn such a living? Not only was she considered the weakest race in the realms, but she was born into a family of fanatical, narcissistic drunks who cared more about producing children than raising them.
As far as it concerned Melina, her predicament was because of the falsehood that was Lady Qetelias. She wondered if her mother never discovered the goddess if she would turn out different. Melina doubted it. Qetelias was an excuse for her mother's ways.
A thundering crash and an anguished cry jolted her from the spiral of her thoughts. She sat up, peering around her dank surroundings with a fearful gaze. More screaming rattled through the shack, pursued by the loud and deliberate footsteps nearing her room. She huddled further into the corner, making herself as insignificant as possible.
The curtain divider flew open, and someone stepped into the small chamber. The low, evening light revealed a man covered from head to toe in fresh blood. Unable to move or to speak, Melina sat frozen in fear under the tattered blanket she used as a feeble attempt to mimic invisibility.
The bloodied figure kneeled in front of her. She inhaled the iron-rich smell that surrounded them both. Then a familiar voice spoke.
"I told you I would be back. I will always come back for you."
Melina dropped the fabric shield covering her face to look into the hazel eyes of her brother, Bleiz. She took only a moment to overcome her sense that this might be a dream. She sprang into his arms, and he wrapped her secure in the strength of his warm embrace.
Taller and stronger than three years ago, Bleiz was now a man. He lifted her frail body into his strong grasp, carrying her to leave everything behind them.
"What about Ma and Pa?"
He shook his head but said nothing, showing his desire for silence. Out in the conjoining room, Melina saw her father sprawled on the floor, seeped in a pool of blood as it spilled from several grievous stab wounds in his chest.
He was dead.
Their raving mother prostrated herself over his corpse, praying to her goddess to spare her own soul over her husband's weakness and to destroy their murderous son.
Stomach twisting in knots, Melina turned to bury her face into the crook of her brother's neck. Their crazed mother proceeded to shriek accusations and insults at her son's retreating form. Bleiz did not acknowledge her screams and never once looked back. He moved forward with Melina nestled in his arms, out past the dark forest and into a world beyond the darkness and sorrow of their childhood.