Shattered Fortress

Sir Herald of Vagary set out on a quest to save his mother from the darkness that encroached upon her heart. Day by day, the darkness grew in strength. The local alchemist said she’d be dead within the month if she did not receive a blessing from Elkanna, the goddess of light. Thus, Sir Herald left her in the capable hands of the village elders and travelled to Mount Henyo.

The path to Elkanna's temple was treacherous. Sir Herald nearly lost his mind in the Shadow Isles. A tempest shipwrecked him in the Sea of Wandering. Lost in the vastness of Repellam Desert, he followed a misty-eyed apparition into a pit where he stayed for two days until a caravan of bards pulled him out with a rope. They fed him, gave him a new skin of water, and dropped him off at the foot of the mountain.

He tilted his head back and stared at the snowy peak. The brisk air gusted against his rusted armor, rattling it. He breathed it in and began the long trudge up the winding stone steps leading to the temple.

As he approached the first plateau, the sun descended. He pulled out a thick cloak from his leather rucksack and wrapped it around himself, starting a fire. In a separate satchel, he had a few pieces of dried meat and some stale bread, but he thought he’d better ration it. Sir Herald still had a long journey ahead. He pulled off a piece of the bread and chewed, washing it down with some water. He was more eager to get warm than to eat supper.

Hands warming over the flames, Sir Herald heard a sound, like a walking stick thumping against the hard ground. He turned. “Who goes there?”

An elderly woman with a hooded forest-green cloak raised her staff in surprise. “Please, good sir. I, too, am a fellow worshipper, eager to receive the blessing of Elkanna.”

“How do you know of my quest?” Sir Herald asked, pushing his hands off his knees to stand.

She waved, palms out, turning her head back and forth. “No one comes up this mountain but to see the goddess.”

“That makes sense.”

Staff pointing at Sir Herald, the woman said, “Tell me, young worshipper. Why do you seek the touch of light?”

He sat on a nearby rock, extending his hands to the fire. “The darkness has overtaken my mother. I wish for her to be well.”

“Ah. Yes,” said the woman, sitting on the ground to face Sir Herald. “Healing is one of the many properties of light, but what if I told I had something much more potent for your mother than light?”

“I’d say you’re selling me a bill of goods.”

She took off her hood to reveal a set of jade-green eyes that pierced his very humanity. “I do not jest about Elkanna’s light. I know full well the extent of her power. But the journey up the mountain gets worse as you progress. You can take what I’m offering now and save yourself the trouble.”

Lost in her eyes, Sir Herald sat mesmerized. “What are you offering?”

The woman pulled a jewel from under her arm. “This is a diamond worth a thousand fortunes. Sell it and you’ll be able to get all the medicine your mother could ever need. You could give her nutritious food to eat, nice clothes to wear, and a sturdy bed to rest her weary soul.”

Sir Herald picked the diamond out of her fingers and studied it, each facet reflecting the flames with a sparkle. “What do you want for it?” he asked. A haze of green mist wafted over his pupils.

“All I ask is that you forget the name of Elkanna and tell the world Gibil healed your mother.”

His mind went adrift in the diamond's presence. He dreamed of buying his mom a castle, feeding her with Calpurnia’s Grapes of Plenty and beef from Lord Rico’s ranch. He could buy friendship, loyalty, and power. The vision of sitting on a throne adorned in silk robes and gold rings made the mist hovering over his eyes change the color of his irises to a lime-green. The corners of his lips curled into a twisted grin. “Gibil?”

She slithered forward. “That’s right, my boy. Gibil.”

A star shot through the sky and broke Sir Herald’s trance. He shook his head. “What is Gibil to Elkanna? Everyone knows there is not a single human herb that can heal a person from the darkness. She must receive a touch of light. I’m sorry, but your fortune won’t save my mother.”

He pushed the diamond back to the woman and stomped out the fire. “I need to get back to my journey. Time is of the essence.” With a twist of his body, he picked up the rucksack and satchel. When he came back around, the woman had gone. No staff. No cloak. And no diamond.

He raised his eyebrows and rubbed the back of his neck, the name Gibil echoing in the back of his thoughts like a distant memory. Sir Herald slapped his forehead to push out the name and continued his trek.

Up the grey steps, he marched. Hundreds of stairs. All uneven. Some thick and jagged. Others thin and smooth. All of them carved out of the mountain. He climbed, throwing his hands under his armpits to keep warm. He reached the next plateau in the middle of the night.

With a hatchet, he cut some branches from a dead tree and used his flint to start a new fire. After he put on the first big log, he retrieved a copper mug from his bag, filling it with water. Into the mug, he dropped a small piece of ginger root and a cinnamon stick. He placed the mug over the fire for a boiled tea that would raise his body temperature.

As he waited for the water to heat, he rubbed his biceps. He saw a green steam emanating from the mug that mystified him. He grabbed the handle and brought the tea to his face, looking down at it. The green steam entered his nostrils, immediately sending a warm shiver down his spine. He blew the steam away, closing his eyes and taking a sip. Sigh.

When he opened his eyes again, a blonde, slender woman in a skin-tight, olive-green dress sat on the other side of the fire. She blew Sir Herald a kiss. “Hello, fellow worshipper. Thank you for letting me join you on this auspicious night.”

“I don’t remember—”

“Hush,” she said, lifting a finger over her mouth. “Thinking words will only ruin the moment.” She moved close to him and rubbed her arm against his. Hand placed over his heart, she blew a puff of green steam into his mouth. “The only thing that matters now are feeling words.”

He sunk in his seat, eyes moving to the back of his head. “That feels good.”

She blew another puff into his mouth.

A bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face. He took off his cloak and threw it on the ground, wrapping his arm around the young siren.

She snuggled up to him. “Your embrace sets an inferno inside my heart.”

He closed his eyes and leaned in for a kiss, but she put up her index finger. “We can only continue if you accept a token of my love.” She pulled out a red gem that seemed to burn from within. “Please take this piece of my heart and I will belong to you.”

“What is it?”

“A ruby worth a thousand loves. Claim it as your own, and you shall never want for anything in your life. It shall fulfill each craving you have. Your love nest shall never be empty.”

Sir Herald stroked her hair back. “But I have nothing to give you in return, my love.”

She smiled. “All I request are feeling words. Tell me how much you hate Elkanna and how much you love Ishtar.”

Mouth gaping open, he stared at his lady love. “I—”

She slid her palm to the side of his neck. “Hush. No thinking words. Only feeling words.”

“I hate—”

She sneered. “That’s it. Say it and everything you desire will be yours.”