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Prisoner of Conscience
 
Chapter Six

Bleed.

The soldiers’ cries for help died in their throats as Erland crushed their trachea. His fingers flexed around their necks before he tossed the broken bodies to the side. Weapons dropped from nerveless hands. As many died as fled in terror, giving up their master to the wingless death heading his way.

Break.

He left a trail of bodies behind him as he stalked through the halls of the house, leaving no room unturned in his search for dargon to kill. The rattling of the chains around his ankles and wrists were an added note to the song of violence ringing in Erland’s ears.

One chain still dangled from his neck, the collar chafing. It was a minor annoyance.

His nostrils flared, inhaling death and the bitter stench of the blood that spattered his body. It wasn’t his own, but he was covered in it, looking as if he had bathed in sanguine fluid. His knees wobbled. His wing stumps twitched. His back was a mess of blood and gore.

Scream.

He was a mad thing, a crazed beast with a taste for slaughter. He was the monster the dargon created.

The dargon had only themselves to blame for trying to break the will of a maris. It was they who had created this monster.

He left scarlet claw prints in his wake, tracked from pools of blood.

Shatter.

A dargon shrieked at him from the shadows, an axe gripped between two of her hands.

Erland sidestepped the desperate attack. She careened past him and he grabbed her arm, yanking her back. Her feet went flying out from under her and he slammed her into the ground. The axe skittered from her fingers. Erland flexed his claws and drove them into her chest without a second thought. She jerked, body going limp and still as he retracted his talons.

Flee.

Erland shook his hand, blood spraying from his fingers. He stepped over the body, feet moving silently on the carpeted floor. His nose twitched at the acrid scent of blood and ash. In a window to his right, he caught movement.

Erland whirled, hand raised to strike. He paused. It was only his reflection.

Unevenly shorn hair clung to his scalp. His face was speckled with blood and grime. Dark circles ringed his sunken, hollow eyes. His lips were thin and worn. Bones jutted sharply beneath skin burned red from the sun, then scarred by the resulting blisters.

Erland turned away from the sight of this blood-spattered monster.

Die.

He turned a corner and met with a spear. He snatched it from the dargon, snapped it in half, and threw both pieces over his shoulder.

Erland kicked the dargon across the hallway. His slim body cracked against the wall. It crumpled to the floor without a sound.

He moved on, running into fewer dargon. They had either fled or were out tending to the quickly spreading fire and the escaping cattle.

Erland slammed through a set of double doors. Startled screams met his entrance and dargon tried to scurry away from him. This was a kitchen, a wood stove in one corner and fresh pies cooling on a rack in the other. There was glass-doored cabinet filled with glass and ceramic dishes carefully stacked inside.

Most of the dargon, bodies ringed with thinner metal rings to indicate their servitude, fled through a side door. A few dargon, braver than the rest, stayed to fight.

A foolish youngling rushed him with a brave shout spilling from his lips. The dargon had only his hands, as there was not a weapon among the kitchen staff.

Erland met him head on, picking up the young male with one hand and shaking him, as if he were an errant child. The dargon's large head wobbled on his scrawny neck before Erland tossed him aside.

The youngling crashed into the cabinet with glass doors. The glass shattered into sharp shards and rained down upon the fallen dargon. He lay unmoving as glass and ceramic came thundering down around him. The noise joined the symphony of destruction playing in Erland’s head.

His innui flared a warning.

Erland whirled and found two dargon approaching him in tandem. They clutched large butcher knives, their hands white-knuckled around the carved wood handles. They trembled but threw themselves forward.

Erland twisted to the side, avoiding one unskilled blow. He didn’t move fast enough to evade the second. Burning pain raced across his left arm as the butcher knife opened up a thin gash.

He growled, the smell of his own blood fueling the flame inside him. He tackled the dargon on the right. His claws slashed through weak flesh, tearing into tanned skin and digging deep into the muscle beneath. His opponent screamed and writhed, fighting back with a desperation that was pointless against Erland's greater strength.

The other dargon shouted and a weight attached itself to Erland’s back. Arms wrapped around his neck and a blade scratched at his metal collar. Erland roared, bucking his body and throwing his attacker off. He slashed his claws through the throat of the dargon beneath him before leaping to his feet and whirling around, searching for the one that had thrown itself at him.

Empty pale eyes stared back at him; the dargon had fallen on her own blade. One less monster to worry about.

Erland moved on.

He prowled through the halls with tunnel vision bathed in crimson. A few brave dargon tried to bar his way, but they were quickly broken.

Blood spattered on the walls here as it did everywhere Erland had been. It covered expensive paintings and hand-sewn rugs and gem-draped chandeliers.

It was on the top floor, the last, large room on the hall, that he found the master of the house. Erland slammed through wide, opulent doors, twisting one from its hinges.

An arrow whistled through the air, clipping a bit of flesh from his ear. Another struck him through the shoulder, the pain a distant sensation.

Erland darted to the side, avoiding the next barrage. He scanned the room, finding his opponent standing just inside, with a bow raised.

Nothing about this dargon indicated that he was the master of the house. His clothing was perhaps of better quality than the average slaver, but otherwise, there was nothing special about him.

Still, somehow Erland knew that he was the one responsible for Erland's condition. For the shackles around his wrist and throat.

The dargon shouted at him, most likely an order for him to stop. Erland ignored it and stalked forward. He pulled the arrow from his shoulder, breaking the shaft into pieces with nothing more than a squeeze from his fist.

Another arrow soared toward him and his hand snapped up, in a split-second grabbing the projectile out of thin air. The dargon’s brow arched in surprise as he took an unconscious step backward.

A retreat?

A maniac grin spread across Erland's face. He sprang forward, leaping atop the dargon and bearing him down to the ground.

They crashed to the floor, taking with them a stand and vase, which shattered on impact. Erland’s greater weight pinned the dargon male to the floor.

Erland glared down at his enslaver, immediately catching sight of gleaming metal rings dangling from the dargon’s arched ears. He growled, claws snatching them without a second thought.

Marisian rings of strength. Not just his own, but Vyalee’s as well. He would know these anywhere.

How dare he?

A howl of distress poured from Erland’s lips. His fingers curled tightly around the earrings.

He slammed the fist of his broken hand down on the master dargon’s chest. He felt it crumple beneath the blows, ribs cracking in a nauseating crunch. Repeated dull thuds. Over and over, again and again, until his rage felt as if it were bleeding out of him with every stroke.

The dargon became a mangled mess beneath him, his face a mass of pulped flesh and bone.

Erland felt no satisfaction. He waited for it to come. He waited to feel justified. Perhaps even at peace.

It never came. Instead, the rage continued to simmer. It built up inside of him, coiled in his belly like a snake ready to strike, and thundered through his veins.

Erland jerked away from the dead dargon, his hands dripping blood. He turned and stumbled toward the door. His head spun.

Memories turned to nightmares. Vyalee, falling. Flying arrows and a cry to surrender. Think of your marling. The one he'll never get to see now, thanks to Erland. Fighting could have saved them. Surrendering cost them everything.

Erland stumbled through the doorway. He had to...

So much blood. Everywhere he looked. He smelled copper and smoke.

He needed to leave. He needed to get out of here. He needed to go... home.

Home was all he had left.

Erland staggered out of the house, snatching up a torch along the way. He thrust it against a lacy window curtain as he passed. It caught fire, sending a tongue of flame licking up the wall, and he knew that the house would soon be a dance of flame and ash – skyborne or grounded, dead and gone.

Erland’s fingers clenched tighter around the rings, stained with gore as they were.

He fled into the thick leaves of the forest as he had intended to in all his other escape attempts. He took nothing but the rings with him.

Erland crashed through the underbrush, creating enough noise to scare away all the small creatures. He ran blindly, surrounded by the fresh scent of the greenery. It did nothing to cover the stench he carried with him, the stench of blood and death. His stomach clenched unpleasantly. His heart thudded a distressing beat.

Through the trees, he could see the stars. He used them to steer his course north, toward Kayel.

He pushed himself long and far, scrabbling across the ground and almost blind in the shadows of the trees.

He broke through a thick stand of trees and emerged into a clearing, nearly crashing head first into one of the escaped horses. Erland skidded to a halt as the stallion neighed in surprise, skittering backward. The maris forced himself to calm, knowing he could escape much faster if he had transportation.

Without his wings, he was slow and cumbersome.

Erland took slow and steady steps toward the horse. He held out a hand for the creature to sniff, more than aware that his fingers were still covered in blood.

He murmured low words of encouragement. Its ears flattened against its head as it backed up a few paces, but it did not immediately turn and flee. Nostrils flared as the horse nickered.

Erland’s gaze flicked over the stallion, catching a familiar marking. “Coren,” he murmured. “They called you Coren.” He took another step forward, fingers brushing the horse's long neck.

The horse stayed in place, his eyes meeting Erland’s. Perhaps he recognized another beast of burden who had escaped from the dargon.

A smile twitched at the corner of Erland’s mouth. He circled to the horse's side and pulled himself up bareback, fingers twining in the tangled mane. He nudged with his knees and the horse took off, crashing through the thick underbrush.

They disappeared into the night, former slave and beast of burden. They steered clear of other dargon settlements and keeping close to the forest where they could hide at a moment’s notice. Erland forced himself not to think of anything but finding safety far from the dargon’s reach.

Anger bled out of him. Erland didn't know what to call the emotion that replaced it. Apathy perhaps.

The frantic pulse of his heart calmed to a peaceful pace, his breaths slowing to match. His nostrils grew dull to the scent of gore and blood that covered his body, and stained the stallion’s white hide.

Night's end brought with it exhaustion. Dawn began to creep over the horizon, chasing away the cloaking darkness of night and bringing in the brilliant bright of sunrise.

Erland discovered a small river hidden behind within a thick copse of trees and far from any evidence of civilization. He dismounted and led the worn-out stallion to the river, allowing Coren to drink.

He waded into the cold water himself, downstream from the horse so as not to contaminate the water. After his first few steps, he could see the water turning scarlet as blood and gore were carried away. His mind was empty, but the trembling in his body grew stronger and stronger, a tremble that had little to do with the chill.

Erland stood thigh deep, letting the river's current tug at his legs. He stared into water, curling his fingers around the swirling eddies. Blood and gore coated his arms and chest, matted down his hair and splattered his face. He washed it away, the water turning pink around him.

The tight coiling inside of him, strengthened by fire and fury and tempered by hatred, finally gave up its fight and loosened. The last of his anger flowed down the stream with the rest of the blood.

Erland took a deep shuddering breath and covered his face with his hands.

The last few hours crashed down around him. Screams echoed in his ears, shrill and desperate. His nose twitched, the stench of blood and ash caked inside, the taste of it on his tongue, bitter and acrid.

His innui twisted and writhed before settling down. His feral side was calm and sated, satisfied. But the part of him more intelligent was horrified.

Erland dropped to his knees in the water, letting it wash around him. The chill stung at the stump of his wing, pulling away the dried blood that had caked all over his back. He closed his eyes, another shuddering breath torn from his body. His clawed hands, mangled and whole alike, curled into fists.

The wind tugged at his body. He felt he should be at peace. He had been avenged. He had taken from the dargon what they'd stolen from him. He'd achieved vengeance for Vyalee.

It was the right way. It was the Maris way. It was...

It was not the way he would have done.

Erland screamed. It was guttural and raw, torn from his throat. It echoed around the empty forest, startling birds from their nests to send them screeching into the sky. His fists slammed down into the water, splashing it up around him.

He'd... killed them all. He'd slaughtered them. Guilty and innocent alike. He hadn't cared. He took their lives without mercy, laughing as their life's blood splattered on the walls and stained the ground. He had left a trail of bodies in his wake: male, female, and child alike.

It was not combat. It was not honor. It was murder.

Erland hunched, eyes squeezed shut against the memories. He replayed, over and over, the moment when he lost himself.

Erland shivered. He was unclean.

His hands plunged into the water. He scooped rocky sand from the riverbed and scoured his body with it, everywhere he could reach. He could still feel their flesh rending under his claws, getting trapped beneath the nail. He could still smell the blood on his body no matter how much he scrubbed. He dipped his head beneath the surface, scraping his scalp with his fingers until his hair was white once again. He scrubbed until his skin felt red and raw.

It didn’t help. He could not escape it.

Erland slumped in the water and dropped to his knees. The cold water sloshed against his abdomen. He trembled.

He recognized the emotion now.

It was shame.

The sun crept further across the sky. Erland’s horse remained on the riverside, chewing on fresh grass.

Erland stayed in the stream, ignoring the pangs of hunger in his belly, and the fact that the water no longer washed pink.

It was midday before he moved, forcing himself to his feet and stretching sore, aching muscles. He felt numb on the inside, stiff and lifeless on the outside.

He did not know who he was.

Erland shook his head, sending a spray of water droplets as he did so. His gaze dropped down to the water, catching his own reflection. Crimson eyes hardened at what he saw.

A human, he looked just like a human,. He was a maris without wings, hair shorn and ragged. His ears were bare, his flesh was marked with wounds. He couldn’t see where one scar began and another ended, couldn’t begin to count them. One hand was mangled; he would never again grip a sword with it. His ribs were visible, making him appear old and frail. The dargon had come painfully close to killing him through starvation.

Erland frowned. He kicked at the water, disturbing the reflection. Erland stormed out of the river and reclaimed Coren. The stallion nickered, sensing his distress, but did not flee.

Eralnd swung himself back onto the horse’s back, urging him forward with his knees. He was tired, but he had no desire to rest so close to the dargon homeland. He could go for another twelve hours without sleep if necessary. He would wait until sundown before stopping again.

For the next week, Erland headed north. He and Coren kept the same plodding pace, never once looking back to the mess Erland left behind.

The land gradually changed around them. It faded from the verdant fields and forests of the dargon homeland, to the gritty and mottled hills and mountains more familiar to Erland. Especially as these were the ones he and his companions had been patrolling before his capture.

Erland rested during the night, and used an old trading route during the day, the once-beaten path well overgrown and abandoned. Still, Erland was no fool. He kept his senses stretched for the slightest hint of approaching strangers, and made special note of hiding places at any given moment: a thick stand of bushes, a small hollow beneath a collection of boulders, the large arms of a tree.

However, he met no one.

The collar was a constant aggravation. The chain clanked with every sway of the horse. He'd tried removing it, but the dargon must have somehow fused the two ends shut. He would need a blacksmith to remove it. Or tools. It would have to wait until he got home.

Home.

Never had the word carried so much hope and so much apprehension. Erland did not know how he would be received. With relief or with hatred? With happiness or with anger? Would they even recognize him now?

It didn't matter in the long run. Answers were owed and Erland was tired. He missed the smoky scents of the torches. He missed hearing the sounds of his own language, and the bold tales told around campfires. He craved his sister's cooking, and the warmth of the cave where he'd been raised.

He missed being home.

The ache in his heart for Kayel worsened at night, when he was lying alone, waiting for exhaustion to send him into slumber.

He dreamt in those quiet hours. Some nights were better than others. Some nights held gruesome nightmares. Others held memories of the past.

Smoke curled up into the darkened sky, obscuring their view of the stars. It tickled their young noses, too accustomed to the burning evermoss and not the spicier elm.

Vyalee pointed to the sky, gesturing at a strange set of stars. “That’s the evil Boar. He was a titan in ancient times. Father told me so,” he said, lisping slightly. Unlike the noblemaris, Vyalee was beginning to grow his adult fangs and wasn’t used to the sensation of the larger, sharper canines.

Erland rolled his eyes. “Your father doesn’t know everything, Vy,” he said. He squinted trying to see what Vyalee saw. “I don’t see it.”

Vyalee waved his hand. “See?” He traced a small group of stars which, if Erland tilted his head to the side, might form the tusked beast. “It’s there. You’re just blind, Er’.”

The noblemaris sniffed and looked away, trying to spot one of his own. Alas, his father had not taught him any of the constellations. He would have to make them up. Or maybe Gelsuru knew a few.

Gelsuru had taken Erland and Vyalee, as well as five others, out into the wild for wilderness training, which would include their first hunting trip. The others were sleeping at present, but Erland and Vyalee had been too excited to follow.

Well, Vyalee was excited; Erland was contemplative. He had killed for the first time that day. The lingering scent of its cooked flesh still permeated the area.

He wondered if death was always like that, so sudden and permanent. Hot and fresh on his fingers. Dim, even, as the beast's eyes had been as its heart pumped the final beat.

Vyalee’s grandmother died recently; Erland attended her burial. The elders built up a great pyre, burning her and all her weapons upon it. Her body had been consumed by the flames, as had the wood of her favorite spear. Yet, the metal stayed behind, ash-covered and soot-stained. These were wrapped and carefully buried by Vyalee’s parents.

Pleie had been old, covered in wrinkled skin, and many of the scales were missing from her back. Her wings drooped and couldn’t sustain her weight any longer. One of her fangs was missing, the other chipped. She claimed it had happened during battle and Erland was inclined to believe her. She was still physically strong, still able to wrestle down both Erland and Vyalee when they tried to tackle her.

She died when a huge storm rose up, bringing with it torrential rains and swirling wind, strong enough to lift trees and toss them. Trying to urge the younger marlings inside where it was safe, Vyalee’s grandmother had fallen to a storm-borne tree, her skull caved in. Her death was quick, though not in battle, and she was mourned with all the honor befitting her life’s accomplishments.

The burial lingered in Erland’s memories even now.

What happened at the end of life? Where did a maris go when his or her eyes closed for the last time?

Vyalee’s elbow dug into his side, jabbing him in the ribs. Erland scowled and shot his friend an annoyed look. “What?” he demanded crossly. He rubbed the spot that was sure to bruise.

Vyalee grinned. “Nothing. You were staring off into space.”

“If you two aren’t tired, you might as well learn something,” Gelsuru said.

Both Vyalee and Erland sat up, looking at their instructor. He sat cross-legged on the ground with his sword balanced across his knees. He was rubbing a cloth across it, polishing the fine silver metal. His copper eyes watched them.

“We have been learning something,” Vyalee pointed out with a cheeky laugh.

His wings shifted and stretched out behind him, too underdeveloped to be of any use. The muscles in his back hadn’t the strength yet either. It would be several years more before he or Erland would be able to fly.

Their instructor laughed, though quietly, so as not to wake the others. “So you have,” he agreed. “But do you know of Ralen?”

Two pairs of eyes blinked back at him. Erland furrowed his brow. “I think I have heard of him before.” He drew his knees up to his chest and set his arms across them. He was glad to be closer to the fire. It had grown chilly and his underdeveloped wings were a heat sink.

“He’s… important?”

Gelsuru snickered. “Important?” he repeated with a bright grin. “Young marlings, Ralen was the greatest maris ever to have lived. His strength was legendary.”

As his instructor spoke, a vision began to take form in Erland’s mind. He saw a maris of great skill, standing tall and proud against innumerable foes. Gleaming silver scales reflected light from an unknown source as a wingspan larger than any Erland had seen before stretched out to either side of this maris. The ground shook from the force of the army, yet the maris did not pause or flinch. He grinned, fangs displaying through parted lips.

“It is because of him that the maris no longer roam. That we have found our own land to settle,” Gelsuru said, dragging Erland from his daydream.

Erland marling blinked, listening with rising curiosity. On his other side, Vyalee was equally enthralled.

“There were few who could listen to his orders and not obey. His eyes were a brilliant blue and full of charisma. His people followed him without question.”

Vyalee tilted his head to the side. He tapped one claw against a rock on the ground. “But maris don’t have blue eyes.”

Their instructor nodded. “It was rumored that Ralen had human blood in his ancestry. But no one ever thought to question him. Not when he was more than capable of taking down any maris who countered him.”

“Why haven’t we heard of him before?” Erland asked, sitting forward a bit in his excitement. “If he’s so important to our history, why hasn’t anyone ever told us about him?”

Gelsuru pursed his lips, his eyes dropping to the sword in his lap. “Ralen died a long time ago,” he answered quietly. “Now, we believe he guards the afterlife. As adults, we don’t speak of Ralen until the marlings are of an age to understand death.”

He went quiet. Erland and Vyalee exchanged glances, a bit confused over their instructor’s behavior.

“So… that means we are old enough now, right?” Vyalee asked, raking a hand through his short hair.

Crimson eyes stared into the fire. “We killed for the first time today. If not now, then when?” Erland asked. “

You are right, Erland,” Gelsuru said. He returned his blade to the sheath at his side. He folded his hands over his knees before tilting his head back, raising his eyes to the sky. “Legend has it that the great sapphire star above is the afterlife for the maris, that which is guarded by Ralen. The journey to get there after death is not easy. Those who die without honor never make it. That is why honor is so important to the maris.”

Amber eyes followed Gelsuru’s gaze. The bright star was, as always, just to the south of the moon. It was often used to navigate toward home. Gelsuru had taught them navigation last night.

Vyalee nodded before a flash of concern flitted over his features. “Then granmama?”

Gelsuru smiled. “Rest assured, young marling. Pleie was strong and took part in many battles. I am certain that Ralen welcomed her arrival. Her path was not too difficult, I imagine.”

“Path?” Vyalee repeated.

Their instructor sighed and threw a few of the collected branches and logs onto the fire. It flared a bit brighter, sending off a fresh wave of heat.

“That is the reason for the pyre and why we burn the symbols with the dead, to help them on their journey. It is no easier to make it to the respite of afterlife than it is to live life itself.”

“Death is not the end then?” Erland shifted his attention away from the fire and to Gelsuru. “What about those that aren’t maris? What happens to them? Do they have an afterlife as well?”

His best friend rolled his eyes. “Who cares about them, Erland? They aren’t maris.”

Gelsuru shot Vyalee a reprimanding glare. “Just because we maris are a warring race does not mean we do not respect life, young marling,” he growled.

Vyalee ducked his head and cast Gelsuru a meek look. His wings fluttered with apology.

“Death is not something to be taken lightly, Erland,” Gelsuru said. “Whether or not the other beasts or races have an afterlife, not even the elders know. It is because we don’t know that we enjoy battle so much.”

Erland frowned. “I don’t understand.”

His best friend laughed, the sound echoing in the silence of the night. He clapped Erland on the shoulder. “I don’t think we’re meant to just yet, Er’. Leave the philosophical stuff for when we’re older.” Amber eyes sparkled with mischief.


“Leave the philosophical stuff for later,” Erland mused aloud, repeating his best friend’s words. A melancholy smile stole onto his face.

Coren nickered. Erland patted his mane, contemplating the memory. Vyalee had expected they would comprehend it when they were older, as if it were one of those adult conspiracies kept from marlings.

Gelsuru had explained about the other maris at a later time. Those that weren’t warriors faced a different task after death, a different series of choices. While they weren’t judged on warrior honor and pride, Ralen considered their sense of duty their family and clan. Still, warriors were accorded higher esteem. It was simply the maris way.

Except, even now he didn’t understand what Gelsuru was trying to teach them. It all seemed contradictory. The maris killed yet respected life. To die in battle was honorable but Vyalee’s death had been shameful because he had surrendered, and his rings had been taken from him. He was not given a funeral pyre.

According to maris teachings, Vyalee was suspended in Alcadia right now, trapped between this life and the next. Ralen would not allow him to move forward or backward until his shame had been erased.

That was what Ralen had been promoted to, a god in the eyes of the maris. A god who watched over the afterlife, forever guarding those who had passed.

If Ralen, a maris of great strength and honor but still, in essence, only a mortal maris, could achieve godhood, then why not anyone else? Might it not stand to reason that Erland himself could do the same thing?

Erland shook his head.

Whatever the truth, he still had a long journey ahead of him, two weeks across the country on horseback at the very least. He would have to cross rugged, sparse plains and rolling hills, not to mention finding his way past the huge chasms. Once he neared Kayel, the weather would become harsher as he climbed the mountain.

It would be a long while before he could rest.

***

Last Edited November 10th, 2015

Cassandra Smith writing as Nicole Wilkinson
Copyright 2006-2016
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