The woods were indistinguishable from one place to another. He moved from tree to tree, anticipating its grotesque limbs to come to life and strike him. The flesh-like bark and the thin trunks planted like a kneeling man left him unnerved. Apart from the howls, something there seemed to speak to him in a multitude of small whispers. The forest teemed with life that could be felt within him but not seen.

The tree stands widened as the werewolf’s tracks abruptly stopped. Jed looked out and before him were the ruins of a great stone edifice. Its roof was gone, its outer walls fragmented. Thick vines crawled up and down both sides and wrapped around the pillars like serpents. A large flight of moss-layered stairs led up to an entrance where the wooden doors had rotted away.

At the bottom of the stairs were two werewolves sitting like watchdogs. Their ears perked as they saw Jed approach, but to his bewilderment, they withdrew as he grew close.

Ascending the stairs, Jed slowly walked through the concave-shaped entrance. Though moonlight still shone down into the wide, vast interior, it felt as though he were encased in a tomb. On the walls behind the crawling moss were ornate carvings lined with green foliage, and along the transept, there were stone sculptures of cloaked warriors on small platforms with sword and shield in hand, their features eroded by time and elements. Chiseled into their armor was the same crest embroidered on the wolfmens’ garb, all defiled by large claw-size scratches.

Behind a pillar head, he spotted a werewolf, this one standing upright. It growled hostilely at him, but did not move.

“What do you want, intruder?”

He tried to keep his voice firm. “The girl.”

The werewolf chuckled. “You’re quite the arrogant one. Our master awaits you in the temple’s inner sanctum.”

The werewolf pointed at the end of the chapel at an interior walkway. Jed looked out the corner of his eye and didn’t move.

“If we wanted to kill you, we’d do it now,” the beast said.

Jed raised his longsword, gripping the bone hilt with whitened knuckles as he prepared to strike. The creature nodded, then barked reproachfully to werewolves attempting to sneak up behind him. However, he kept his guard up as he entered the dark and musty walkway. It wasn’t long before he came out the other side to a smaller space. The ground was littered with fallen spires and crumbled archways. Unattached columns rose to support a nonexistent ceiling. Climbing across the debris, he saw an unmarked doorway above on a broken ledge, absent of any green. Nor were there sculptures or wall carvings.

Throwing his rope up, he secured it and then climbed up to the ledge, entering the sanctum.

A door appeared behind him and closed, a bolt sliding across on its own. In front of him in the circular room was a stone platform where the werewolf leader stood near an altar with Kara bound beside it. The religious and historical texts were on a wood table by the altar. The werewolf silently studied them with knitted eyebrows.

Smiling, it left the table and with an amused tone spoke to the boy. “I am Skollgard. Whoever you are, you’re not one of us.”

Skollgard licked his lips and ran his claws through Kara’s hair. “But she is. Oh, that’s right. The beast who speaks to you now has the spirit of a Forenian in him, a Varexian no less.”

“How?” Kara said.

“We refused to go when all others did. Then the days grew short, and disappeared completely. Now it is only night, forever. The moonlight transformed us. It was so long ago; I cannot remember what I once looked like.”

He brought Kara’s face close to his. “I want that complexion again, to have eyes that radiate the Spark, not darkness. With you, it can be done.”

“You can’t read the texts,” Kara said. “Varexians were never taught.”

“I know the ancient Forenian rituals performed well before those manuscripts were written. Before there was even the written word. A time when our people were ‘primitive,’ yet strong and proud.”

Taking a ceremonial knife from the table, Skollgard placed it against her neck. “To assume my old form again, a sacrifice must be made.” He gestured at the altar. “You will perform that role quite well.”

“My blood can’t wipe clean your crimes,” she said. “You’re cursed because you broke your vows to the king.”

“We stood against him because we knew our people would grow weak if they left the forest. Judging by what I see, we were right.”

Jed jumped on the platform. “Let her go, and I’ll let you go.”

Skollgard noticed the longsword. “That was Melakia’s. How did you come to possess it?”

“Fight me and I’ll show you.”

Skollgard hesitated before unleashing a fiery howl that shook the room as he raised his claws toward the moonlight, as if drawing power from it. Wielding a curved sword from his side, he eagerly approached Jed.

“I’ll sacrifice your worthless corpse as a burnt offering,” he said. “With that sword, I’ll remove your heart.”

The words flowed automatically from Jed’s mouth. “Come and take it.”

Skollgard unleashed a rapid series of strokes aimed for Jed’s center, and he countered each and drove the wolfman back against the altar. Moving around the room on all fours with the sword in his mouth, Skollgard broke into sprint and lunged at Jed’s throat, then rolled to the side and cut at his leg. Jed barely evaded the tip as it tore at his boots. Off-balance, he was unable to fend off a powerful blow against his sword and stepped backwards.

Spinning around, Skollgard brought his sword down and across Jed’s chest. With a loud, agonizing cry, Jed dropped to the floor in agony as Kara wept in despair.

“You may have killed Melakia,” the werewolf said, “but I was always better than he.”

His black eyes widened as Jed picked himself up and raised his longsword, pushing back the jarring ache in his chest. His tunic was torn through, revealing the scale-plated chainmail still intact.

“You survive only by stripping my men of their things,” Skollgard said. “Just like you fight with another man’s sword.”

Jed offered no words before throwing himself back into the fight. Skollgard barely kept one step ahead of the boy. Emboldened by his short recovery, Jed found within himself a renewed strength. He was frightened by his own boldness and aggression in the face of death by such a fearsome enemy, and yet in doing so, he felt some deep barrier within shatter, unleashing a part of himself he had never known.

“Why are you willing to die for her?” Skollgard said. “What’s she to you? You’re nothing to her.”

Jed stabbed hard, twisting his longsword. He violently shoved the hilt guard against the opposing blade, pushing Skollgard down the platform.

“You’re both here for Impora, aren’t you?” the mutated Varexian said. “Have our people fared so poorly they must return here, where they should have stayed? Are there no more Forenian men that their women must turn to a stranger?”

Ignoring the taunts, Jed kept up his offensive. Skollgard’s actions grew wild, frantic. In desperation, he called to his minions in the other parts of the temple. They burst through the sealed door and set themselves upon Jed, wrangling the longsword away from him as they ripped at his chainmail.

Skollgard tossed his sword to the side and approached Kara as he and the other werewolves began chanting.

“We shall become men again, brothers!” he said with outstretched hands.

Jed pulled out from the pack, leaping onto the platform. Deprived of his longsword and shield, he drew the short sword from his side. Skollgard face became as white as Kara’s as he stared at the small blade. His voice was solemn. “Where did you get that?”

Jed said nothing, perplexed as the other wolves whimpered and slowly backed away.

“Fool,” Skollgard said between gritted teeth. “You will never be king.”

The fallen Varexian prepared to plunge the knife into Kara’s heart. His hand raised in the air, he became still. His facial features contorted as he struggled for breath. Blood dripped from his quivering jaw.

He looked down at his chest, where Jed’s short sword had sunk deep. Wobbling back and forth, he fell against the altar and attempted one last time to slay Kara before dropping to the floor. Jed wasted no time grabbing Skollgard’s blade and striking down the remaining wolfmen still stunned by their leader’s demise.

Kara got off the altar and pleaded with a dying Skollgard. “Where is Impora?”

The werewolf flashed his sharpened teeth a final time as he let out his gasping breath.

“You’ll never find it.”

Kara held back her tears as she looked over at Jed leaning against his blood-soaked blade. She knelt beside him while they watched the corpses gradually revert to their human form. Skollgard proved to be a tall, sturdy man with long hair, lying beside the altar with the short sword still in his chest.

Kara averted her gaze for a moment before impetuously kissing Jed on the cheek.

“Thank you,” she said.

Initially astonished, over time a smile appeared on his face. He hadn’t known quite what to think of her, what he thought of her, until then. They both tried to voice their feelings, but each time they went to speak, the words dissolved on their tongue.

“How much more will this go on?” Kara finally said. “It’s more than I can bear. These were my people.”

“No more than I.”

She lowered her head. “I know…and that’s all right…there’s nothing wrong with who or what you are. You’ve been as brave as any Forenian warrior would ever hope to be. But it is different when they are the same people as you. They’re supposed to care for you. They aren’t meant to fight you. When they do, it’s like a brother or sister or a cousin betraying you. That is all I’ve ever known. That’s why I hope for a king again. Yet it seems like everyone fights to prevent that from happening. They would rather die. What is it they fear so much?”

Jed looked down at Skollgard’s curved blade by his side to find it transformed into a majestic-looking longsword. He brought it back to the man’s corpse and placed it across the body, then laid the clay-cold hands over the hilt.

“Won’t you take it?” Kara said. “You took Melakia’s sword,”

Jed got off the platform. “Some are best left alone.”

He led her out of the inner sanctum as she took a final glance at Skollgard’s body, now adorned in his temple guard ceremonial tunic.

“What is it?” he asked.

“He got his wish.”

Moving through the chapel, Kara consulted the texts as she looked about. “Skollgard’s lying. The Impora simply must be here. But of course, it’s impossible to follow anything written in the manuscripts. They describe the temple as it was, not as it is now.”

They searched several cloisters outside the chapel. The silence now pervading over the temple felt more unsettling than the wolf howls or the winds blowing through the Field of Baldae. Placed against the wall were more stone sculptures, the broken heads lying at the feet. Vines cracked through the floor and ran the full width of the walkways.

“You think there might be more of them?” Kara said.

“If there were, they would have come before.”

“That’s good, in several ways. It means we’re safe, for now. It also means only a few Varexians refused to go with the king. You’re probably wondering why my people didn’t take Impora with them when they left. You see…the spirit of Forena dwells in this place. Only certain people can wield it. The king at the time either did not take it or was not capable of it. When our last king died, it was foretold that only Impora had the power to restore the monarchy. For everyone but my family, it’s been a dearly loved myth, but nobody believes it.”

A shy smile fell across her face. “I suppose I should count myself blessed. For a thousand years, others in my family read the prophecy, but never lived to see it. I get to witness it with my own eyes. I get to know for sure it’s true. All they had to go on was faith.”

She was about to step ahead, but then pulled herself back and allowed Jed to go first. “Maybe you might understand the text, as you did before.” She recited a passage chronicling the Forenians life prior to their exodus from the woods, their life in the fortress city of Derla Haelle. Jed raised an eyebrow and shrugged curiously.

“Maybe we should go there.”

“You think there might be clues there?” she asked as she closed the book. “I know the way.”

They departed from the temple ruins and took a path between a long row of trees. The leaves continuously covered the ground, yet the branches were full. There was a weak but peaceful humming sound coming from all directions. Kara’s dangling hand occasionally brushed against Jed’s as she sang a prayer, delighted when the spirits replied with the same melody.

“The woodland spirits,” she said. “They are like those in the Perelor Mountains. They won’t harm us, provided we do not desecrate or defile the woods. Skollgard and his men must have been prudent to avoid offending them. Then again, that may have been what caused their transformation in the first place.”

Jed listened half-heartedly, reliving his fight with Skollgard again and again. Something had changed in him. It was as though old instincts carried through generations that had long kept dormant inside had at last awakened. His chest swelled with an intense confidence he found difficult to control, reassuring him no one could stand against him.

The path continued for several miles until the woods ended with a clear demarcation. A few steps ahead there was a large wall encircling the city of Derla Haelle. The gate was still secure, but sections of the wall had crumbled. The pair hurried to the breach and climbed through it. On the other side, they found dilapidated homes and shops and other structures. The streets were strewn with rusted weapons and overturned wooden carts. The muddied ground was rough and thick.

Kara stood in the center of the street, closing her eyes as she breathed deeply. Her long hair flapped in the wind as though she had gained flight. Avoiding the mire, she made her way up the road toward the prominent stone keep in the center of the town.

“This was the king’s home,” she said as they reached the tower. She read more to Jed from the manuscripts, allowing him time to consider it.

“We’re trying to find Forena’s Crypt, where Impora was laid to rest after he carved out of wood the first of our people,” she said. “But the entrance to it wasn’t where it’s supposed to be. You think the king’s tower might tell us?”

“We can check.”

The tower door was ajar. Keeping Melakia’s longsword sheathed, Jed held the short sword in one hand, Kara’s wrist in another as they went through the great hall where a tall throne stood against walls engraved with illustrations. Kara studied the carvings while Jed searched the throne. Finding nothing, he moved up the damp, moist stairway and rifled through each room until he was at the top. The king’s quarters were austere and plain. Few things had been left to examine. No books or signs of writing tools, not even a desk. All he came across was a worn banner in the corner with the same sword and crown symbol as that engraved on his shield. Intrigued, he wrapped it and carried it amongst his gear.

Heading down the stairs, Jed rejoined Kara in the great hall. She too had come across nothing that offered them hints of where the entrance was.

“We could have missed something in the temple,” she said. “Now that Skollgard and his men are gone, we should be able to search it more thoroughly. Unless we want to look through more of the town.”

Exiting the tower, Kara froze.

A tall figure stood before them, another Forenian. His eyes glistened as he smiled at her. His voice left every hair on Jed’s skin standing.

“A pleasure to finally meet you.”

Jed reached for his longsword, but stopped when he saw a dozen bowmen behind Grancaliga.

“How did you get here?” Kara said.

“The same way I broke your Varexians outside Merce Haelle when they had twice my numbers. I dream of a united Forenia, and I will it to be so.”

“You couldn’t possibly have navigated the Field of Baldae on your own.”

The ominous man appeared fascinated. His hands behind his back, he drew close and ordered his men to lower their bows. He pointed at the manuscripts in her arms.

“I know you can read,” he said. “I saw your pen and paper in your room.”

“I’ll never tell you how to open the crown room,” she said. “You’ll never get it.”

“The crown interests me, but that is not the only thing I want. Those books you hold contain more than histories or legends of the past. Spells and prayers that can beckon the gods, or make a man one.”

She tried to protest, but his self-certainty stopped her as she lowered her head.

“Oh, yes, young one. I know. I truly know.”

Grancaliga finally acknowledged Jed’s presence. “So this is the outsider I’m supposed to fear? I expected a man, not a boy.”

His men became restless as they collectively noted Arthema’s bow strapped to his back.

“I confess I’m impressed,” Grancaliga said of Jed, though he addressed Kara. “I commend your ability to make it this far alive, without Telman.”

“Where is he?” she asked.

Throwing back his long flowing cloak, Grancaliga stepped to the side and displayed Telman and the Varexians bound and on their knees.

“Must I explain further?” the general said. “Or is my proposal not obvious?”

Kara looked at Jed and whispered. “If he gets the crown, he’ll destroy it. I’d rather die than have that happen. If I recite a certain prayer over him in the right setting, he’ll become a god.”

“I won’t play God, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s your life at stake, too.”

“I’m here to protect you.”

“You won’t if you’re dead.”

She turned to Telman. The Forenian seemed unharmed, but exhausted. He gave her a strange look that made her eyes moist. Without looking down, Jed felt Kara’s hand place something in his. He tucked it in his belt.

“They’ll all be spared?” Kara said to Grancaliga.

“Yes. Even this outsider, who should pay for killing Arthema. A small price in the end.”

“Why should I trust you? Why would you willingly let them live?”

“What difference will it make if they’re free? Can they stand up against a god? Do they think they’ll find the heir to the throne and restore the monarchy? Did you find Impora in the temple? No. It was a wonderful myth. Your courage is notable, but it’s time to accept my inevitable reign.”

“We’ve seen plenty of your reign wherever you conquered.”

“Those I slaughtered died for less offense than your little group here. Do not provoke me.”

“Don’t give in,” Telman said.

Grancaliga drew his great sword and struck Telman in the shoulder. Kara screamed and tried to reach him, but Grancaliga pushed her back. “A minor wound. He’ll live, but only if you come with me. Make your choice now.”

Closing her eyes as she turned away from Telman, she nodded.

“Good,” the general said. “Now hand me that dagger.”

Pushing back her cloak, Kara withdrew the knife’s edge from her side and hesitantly gave it to Grancaliga. He led her back to the ranks, ordering a colonel to set the Varexians free.

“And Telman?” Kara said. “You promised.”

Grancaliga’s icy stare seemed to wound Telman a second time. He then ordered his binds cut. “Better you live to see how pointless your stubbornness was. I am eager for the day you finally accept that Forenia is mine to control.”

Telman was quiet as he staunched the flow of blood from his shoulder.

Kara gave Jed a longing glance before vanishing within the military column as they marched away from the city ruins. Jed watched them until they reached the forest before he approached Telman. He wasn’t afraid. The desire to fight was just as strong as before.

“It’s good to see you alive,” Telman said to Jed. Ensuring Grancaliga and his men were gone, he sighed as he called the Varexians to him. “I feared Kara wouldn’t make the trade.”

Jed frowned as the older man chuckled. “There are more things at hand than you realize. I sent you with Kara and stayed behind for a reason. I would not leave these men, and Grancaliga wouldn’t have spared you. Even if he had, I figured Kara wouldn’t trade her life for yours…though based on what I just saw, I’m not so sure.”

“This was always your plan?” Jed said.

Telman rose with the Varexians’ help. “There are things I know that aren’t in the manuscripts. If Impora is real, you won’t find Forena’s Crypt in the Ansele Temple as it is.”

“How then could Kara and I have found it?”

“You wouldn’t. This has been my plan since we reached the mountain wall. Grancaliga wouldn’t kill me if he knew Kara would surrender for my sake. Had we not delayed them, we wouldn’t have reached the temple at all. The only reason we got here at all is because of Grancaliga’s powers.”

A Varexian spoke. “What if he is deified?”

“Then Impora is our only way to stop him,” Telman said. “It’s not too great a hope, but there never was much, I suppose.”

They traveled to the temple ruins. Telman spoke in a strange tongue as though reciting a poem, with his eyes closed and hands high. As each word fell from his lips, sections of the outer wall noiselessly appeared, followed by the pillars and then the ceiling. When he was finished, the entire temple was restored to its former glory.

“The crypt will be easy to find,” Telman said to Jed away from the group. “But I am in no condition to fight, and my men’s spirits are too low to face this challenge head on. The only counsel I can give you is this: the legend says only a man who truly knows himself will be able to defeat the spirit guarding Impora.”

Taking out his longsword, Telman offered it to him. “Will you go?”

Jed accepted the blade and, without remark, began walking up the steps.

“Why are you so willing to fight?” Telman said.

Pausing, Jed turned back. “Do you believe Impora will be there?”

Telman smiled. “I hope it is. Just as I hope you’ll return with it.”

“I will.”

***

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
  6. Chapter 4, Part 2
  7. Chapter 5, Part 1