The cry continued through the night. The creatures were still on the move when Jed and Kara departed in the morning. Despite the lack of sleep, Jed felt well rested. A rationed piece of Kara’s bread helped restore whatever energy he lacked.

Jed took them northwest for a while and then moved back to their original route. But they realized that wherever they moved, the creatures seemed to change their path as well.

Meanwhile, the moans went on until Kara pressed a hand against her chest and nearly broke into tears. Breaking from Jed, she drew closer to the creatures before stopping to study them. Now able to make out their features, it appeared they were Forenians. But Jed couldn’t overlook the strange glow around them.

“I understand them,” Kara said. “They’re speaking in the old tongue.”

Jed strained his eyes as he studied their agonized faces. Their mouths indeed moved, their lips conjugating words he couldn’t comprehend a word.

“They’re in pain,” she said as she listened carefully to their speech. “They’re lost and pleading for help…they were trying to cross the Field and didn’t make it…now they’re caught between our world and the next…yet they don’t seem to realize we’re here.”

Her eyes brightened. “We should try calling them.” She was about to, but Jed put a restraining hand on her.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “They may have been here for a long time. Maybe they need help like we do.”

“How can we help them? We don’t even know if we’re going the right way.”

Kara bit down on her lower lip, glanced at the crowds longingly, then joined him. As they moved, the crowd turned in their direction and for the next day maintained a parallel course. Their unremitting pleas for deliverance tugged and wrenched at Kara’s heart, but Jed could not ignore the soulless, doll-like gazes that recalled the only time he’d seen his father draw his gun, during an encounter with a homeless drug addict.

That night, Kara was animated as she perused the manuscripts. Her small finger tapped a page as she brought it over to Jed.

“It’s the Prayer of Revival,” she said. “It can bring people back from the gap between the two worlds. If I recite it, that could restore them.”

Tossing a twig in the fire, Jed scowled. “There’s no pointing endangering ourselves.”

“I have to do something,” Kara said. “I can’t just sit here and watch them like this. I’ve seen too many of my people suffer already.”

“We need to look after ourselves.”

Her reaction made him step back from campfires flames that now matched the brightness in her eyes. She sprang up from her seat and stood in front of him, her voice uneven and broken. “Well, what would you know? You can’t read the texts. I can see why you wouldn’t care. They’re not your people. You’ll never know what it is like to see them in agony and feel their pain. There’s a connection between Forenians, and you don’t have it.”

She calmed only to wipe her wet cheeks and looked away from Jed. “There’s been enough suffering. If I won’t help them, what am I doing here? What are you doing here?”

Puzzled when Jed offered a sympathetic look, her face softened as she put the manuscripts by her bed and then climbed into it. She didn’t seem to be speaking to Jed any longer. “Am I wrong to want to help them?”

“They don’t want help,” he said.

***

Jed awoke to the sound of Kara singing at the bottom of the hillside. He hastily looked at her bed. The manuscripts were still there. A terrible feeling settled into his stomach.

Snatching his things, he ran down to meet her.

With her arms extended wide, her eyes closed as she raised her chin high and sang the prayer from memory. Her joyous face and melodious voice had a hypnotic-like effect.

In front of her, the phantom-like beings gathered in an unorganized mass. Though they listened, their expressions offered no hint of emotion. Their ears seemed trained on the words themselves. When she was finished, she opened her eyes and gazed hopefully upon them as if awaiting their embrace.

The agonized faces instantly turned to rage. With weapons drawn, they raised a battle cry and charged at Kara. All that saved her were several arrows loosed from Jed’s bow, striking down the first wave of enemies.

Kara ran back toward Jed as he continued firing. A few took shots in their side, glanced at their wounds, and pushed forward.

“They’re wraiths,” Kara said. “The undead spirits of ancient Forenians.”

Jed aimed at one of the heads and let fly another arrow. It plunged into the wraith’s head as it dropped, its complexion growing dark. Grabbing Kara’s hand, he led her over to another hill and kept her at the top.

With only a handful of arrows left, he drew his shield and short sword as he charged down the hill and threw himself into their midst. When the first one attacked, he sidestepped and thrust hard, slaying them in a single stroke. He immediately turned and blocked a blow with his shield, dropping to his knees as he cut at their legs.

Realizing he would soon be surrounded, he ran back up the hill, then pivoted back to strike a wraith in the head. As he continued fending them off, he noticed their bodies disintegrated shortly after their deaths, only their clothes remaining.

He soon had to change tactics to counter those could strike him from a distance with longswords. Running to Kara, he had her retreat to a boulder formation as the wraiths overwhelmed their campsite. He switched to his bow again. The wraiths did little to avoid his aim as he struck one after another until only a few were left. Unwilling to use up his final arrow, he reverted to his short sword and went on the offensive. Their swordplay closely mirrored Telman’s. Anticipating their strikes, he delayed his move until they had extended themselves, then closed in to ram his sword into their gut with both hands. As they collapsed, he pulled a bloodless sword back and watched them pass into the next world with an eerie sense of relief on their faces.

Hearing Kara scream behind him, he turned. The wraith held her in his arms, a bone-hilted longsword placed against her. The rotting creature carried himself with the same leader-like demeanor as Jed’s father whenever he spoke to a subordinate.

Throwing down his shield, Jed held his short sword high and gestured at the wraith. The phantom sized up the boy, then laughed with an undead voice. “You think you can beat me? I am Melakia, the greatest swordsman Forenia ever had.”

Kara’s eyes widened. “You’re the one who led the rebellion here as our people crossed. You tried to turn back to the forest. Why are you doing this?”

“Because you all betrayed us.”

He went to slay her, but Jed had already gone for his final arrow. Shooting wildly, he then dropped the bow as he raced to protect Kara. Melakia moved to avoid the arrow, while Kara slipped out of his grip as she threw herself toward Jed.

Melakia tried to strike her down, but Jed blocked him and kicked him back. With his far-reaching sword, Melakia kept Jed at bay while the two paced around each other. Bringing the sword down to his side, the phantom swung up hard, knocking Jed’s sword away. He then slashed down with a powerful motion. Jed rolled to avoid the hit and struck back. Touching his chest, he felt a painful sting as blood trickled down his hand and tunic.

Grinning, Melakia offered a theatrical demonstration of his sword skills as Jed retrieved his weapon. His heart beat violently in his chest, and his instincts told him to panic and flee. Anything it seemed was better than death.

But he couldn’t run, even if he were allowed to live. There was only one choice.

“Are you ready to die?” Melakia said.

The specter-like being grew alarmed as Jed smiled.

“No,” Jed said. “I’m just beginning to live.”

***

The duel went on as the sun gradually dropped and hovered just above the horizon. Melakia’s fighting style was completely dissimilar to Telman’s. Jed prevented most the blows from striking him, but gradually more and more cuts ran across his chest, then his arms. He held his sword lower and lower until he could lift it only to defend himself. Though his fate seemed all but sealed, he refused to believe it. He would accept it when it came, not before.

Finally, Melakia knocked the sword from his hand and struck him again in the chest. Unable to hold himself up, Jed dropped down and crawled away on his knees. He heard Kara crying in terror.

“Watch out!”

Jed rolled to the side, seeing the longsword sink into the grass. Crawling on the ground, he came across an arrow where a corpse had once lay. Snatching it, he returned to his bow. Kara screamed again, and as he turned with the bow in hand as he saw her fleeing Melakia down the hill.

Struggling to his feet, he stared at the arrow. He then remembered his pocketknife still with him. Taking it out, he flicked the igniter, glancing at the dried grass with intrigue.

“Help me!” Kara screamed.

Plunging the arrow into a clod of dried grass, he positioned the igniter against his bow. Pulling the arrow back as hard as he could, he flicked the igniter until sparks lit the grass. He peered through the ball of flames at Melakia, who had now caught Kara and held her close.

A desperate glimmer in his eyes, he fired high.

As he brought the bow down, he saw the side of Melakia’s neck erupt into flames that soon spread across his entire cloaked body. Kara fought him off and ran. After a few feet, she realized the hem of her dress was on fire. Falling, she tried to put it out, but like with Melakia, the flames spread swiftly.

Jed arrived and tore at the hem, pulling her away as the material reduced to a black heap. A little way from them, Melakia’s cloak had done the same. His body had already vanished.

Wiping the dirt from her face, Kara breathed rapidly. She tried to weep when she saw Jed’s wounds. “Oh, you’re hurt.”

Jed gasped, leaning on his side. He felt lightheaded, his vision blurred and foggy. She helped him up to recover his gear and with great struggle brought him back to the campsite. Laying him near the fire, she went to her cloak.

“The manuscripts…they’re gone.”

She searched her cloak, then examined the area around the campsite. Covering her face with her hands, she fell to her knees and sobbed.

“What have I done? This is all my fault. I’ve undone everything.”

Jed muttered as he gestured feebly to his side.

With a held breath, Kara flipped over his shield. Tucked within the handles were the texts. Clasping them once more against her belt, she took Jed’s hand and held it in hers.

“Bless you. They would have destroyed them all.”

Jed opened his mouth but couldn’t speak.

Kara kissed his hand, gazing back at the weapons scattered across the field.

“What you did just now…”

Jed could hardly hear her. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he felt the blood flow from his wounds. He should have thought it was odd Kara merely stood over him as if waiting for him to die. But the pain stifled all thoughts until he slipped out of awareness. He felt a sense of falling, and for an instant, he prayed he was waking from a dream.

***

“Jed, wake up.”

He opened his eyes expecting to find his mother standing by his bed. Instead, it was Kara, and the Field of Baldae still surrounded him.

“Are you alright?” she said.

Jed mumbled as he sat cross-legged on his cloak. He then pulled back his tunic and gasped as he touched his chest, feeling no pain there or anywhere else on his body.

“You’re healed,” she said, coming alongside him with a thimble-sized glass container. “It’s a special potion that was brewed a long time ago. It restores a person completely, no matter their condition. My father gave it to me. Only one batch was made; the recipe didn’t even have a name. Just one drop left now.”

“Thanks,” Jed said.

Kara put the potion away as she offered him bread. “Please forgive me. I didn’t…I thought I could help them. I’m just tired of…being alone…”

Neither one of them felt like traveling that day. They sat and talked as the prairies grew dark the sky lit up with bright stars that flew like starships across their view. Some stars formed constellations and pursued others like warriors in combat.

“I don’t understand,” Kara said. “I was bringing them out from the gap between our worlds. It’s an awful place. Why did they turn on me with such hate? How could Melakia call me a traitor?”

She tore off her headscarf and held it in her lap as her eyes shimmered. She used the headscarf to dry her cheeks, then put it back on.

“Why do you wear it?” Jed asked.

“It’s a sign of submission to Forenia’s heir.”

“What do the men wear as a sign of submission?”

“Swords.”

Jed rose and without speaking went to the place where Melakia’s corpse had fallen. Sifting through the remains, he retrieved the bone-hilted longsword and its skeletal sheath. He brought it back to the campsite and placed it by his bed. It was nearly double the length of his short sword, but weighed less. A sense of pride overcame him as he cradled it in his lap; it wasn’t just a weapon of war. It was a symbol of what he had done, of what he could do.

“The manuscripts said a rebellion occurred during the journey from the forest,” Kara said. “Melakia gave up trying to reach the Perelor Mountains. Others believed him. But I didn’t realize those wraiths were them. I presumed they had gone back to the forest. Maybe they couldn’t find it. But perhaps that’s why they hated me…I’m living proof they were wrong. It’s the same thing I saw in people’s eyes when I lived in Merce Haelle. They seemed defeated.”

Jed found her sitting beside him, her head rested against his arm. “Why am I alive now? Why wasn’t I born when Forenia was united and strong? Why was I destined instead to watch a twilight kingdom fall into total darkness?”

The questions were eerily similar to those Jed had asked himself in recent months. Since he was a child, he had been steeped in the family history, how his forefathers had fought under American heroes like George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Patton. To the Hayes, wars and their cause didn’t matter so much as how the man conducted himself; brave in the face of death and faithful toward his brothers-in-arms no matter what.

Yet the face of war, and the nation itself, had since changed and become thoroughly ambiguous. Jed kept his discomforts to himself and away from his family, but in his heart, he too wished he had been born to an earlier generation where such confusion did not exist.

“I’m afraid—afraid we’ll never find the forest,” Kara said. “We’ve traveled for so long, yet it seems we’ve gone nowhere. I fear we’re missing something. Is there a clue in the text?”

“What does it say?” Jed said.

“Only what I said before: they crossed the Field of Baldae into the Perelor Mountains because they had a great faith in what they saw. But what did they see that we haven’t?”

“Maybe they didn’t see it with their eyes.”

Kara looked off contemplatively. “We just keep walking?”

Jed nodded. The side of her head buried deeper into his arm.

“I never thought of that,” she said. Her body moved away for a second. “Will you lead us tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“I hope Telman held them off a long time,” she said.

***

Grancaliga stood up from his seated position overlooking the glacial bridge where Telman and the Varexians maintain a seamless shield wall. The rest of the army had pulled back waiting for further orders.

“I don’t want them at ease,” Grancaliga said to his colonels as he pointed at the troops. “Have the men in the front remain alert; the others can reequip and bring more supplies from the rear.”

“Sir, it’s been less than an hour since we first arrived, and at the end of a forced march.”

“I want nothing to encourage Telman and his friends, to give them hope we might withdraw.”

“How long do you plan to wait?” a colonel asked.

“Telman doesn’t know how to quit. But he doesn’t know how to win, either.”

A colonel grew bold. “Perhaps we could end this quickly if you were to lead the attack.”

Grancaliga considered it, then shook his head. “Telman wants us to do that. He wants to go down fighting. Whether brave or reckless, it’s clear his greatest fear is that we will take him alive. At the same time, he’s not eager to die. Nothing stops him from attacking us.”

“Why?”

“We won’t know if he is killed.”

Moving between the ranks, Grancaliga approached the ledge near the bridge and studied Telman. The man paced back and forth near the passageway with his longsword rested against his chest. He avoided Grancaliga’s powerful stare until all others there took notice. Standing among the Varexians, Telman finally acknowledged the general with a frustrated glare.

Grancaliga nodded. “When I finally catch up with the girl, I will most certainly want him alive.”

***

For all installments from The Legend of Forenia: The Twilight Kingdom, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2
  4. Chapter 3
  5. Chapter 4, Part 1