Jed entered the temple as though arriving for worship service ten minutes late. As he looked around, he wondered for the first time since he had arrived in Forenia whether it was all a dream.

The room felt as large as the Field of Baldae. White chandeliers hanging in the air were like constellations below the dark vaulted ceiling. Tall narrow stained-glass windows adorned the clerestory, yet no light shone through. The stone sculptures were now restored, their features uncannily humanlike. He stopped in front of each and studied their defined faces like they were his own ancestors.

On the walls, carved illustrations told stories, the skyward narratives running up toward the clerestory where the stained-glass windows concluded each tale.

After wandering for what seemed an hour, he proceeded down the nave. The sculptures, with their dignified but severe expressions, seemed to guard the space against violence.

The entrance to the crypt was a modest door near the right-side aisle. The curved stairway lit entirely with mounted torches led him down farther than he was prepared to go, but he didn’t stop. The air was dry and clean, the limestone-like walls glistening as though new.

Opening another door, he entered a large room partially lit by a handful of torches. No columns held up the ceiling. Carved out of the walls were sculptures of men, each with a crown on his head and a ceremonial sword. On the other side of the room was a platform with a towering sculpture of a cloaked Forenian, his hands extended outward with a fatherly demeanor. On the platform was a plain-looking sword. Between it and Jed was a wide canal full of unknown liquid, a narrow bridge leading to the other side.

As he approached the bridge, a shadowy figure appeared near the platform. The demonic being had a fragmented appearance, sections of his body and tattered cloak missing. His broad hood covered the upper section of his partial face. With two gloved hands, he held a longsword facing the ground.

“I’ve come for Impora,” Jed said. “Stand aside. Everyone ese who has fought me has lost.”

The figure spoke in a hushed voice. “I will not.”

“What is your name?”

“Whatever name you give me.”

Jed looked down and finally noticed the armor-clad skeletons scattered around the room. Each had their own sword run through them. They had been defeated, but he had no fears he would join them.

“You killed them?” Jed asked.

“No. They killed themselves.”

“Why?”

“Fight me, and I’ll show you.”

Grasping Telman’s longsword, Jed ran across the bridge and threw an overhead attack against the demon, who parried the blow and struck back. He then threw himself into a relentless attack, overtaken by a state of forgetfulness in which all hesitation was purged.

Compared to his duels against Melakia and Skollgard, his performance then would have ended both fights within moments. But the demon proved a far worthier opponent. His strategy was dissimilar to Jed’s, and each found themselves desperately fighting their way out from the corners and with the canal to their backs.

Jed had never appeared more self-assured. He almost laughed as he knocked the demon to the ground, slashing at its ghostly arm. Though no blood poured from the wound, the demon shrieked and fell back. A second later, Jed achieved another hit on the same arm.

Drawing away, the demon then counterattacked and with the very tip of its sword sliced through Jed’s shoulder. He winced, but kept fighting. He missed a parry and received another cut on the upper arm.

Ignoring the pain and the dripping blood, Jed circled the demon and maneuvered him to the bridge. Lowering himself with bent knees, he held the longsword at his side and swung up hard, knocking the demon’s weapon away. A short thrust struck him in the chest. Another echoing shriek rattled his ear as the demon floated back toward the platform.

“Give up, now,” Jed said. “I’m unstoppable.”

“I’ll give up when you do.”

“I’ll never give up.”

“Then neither shall I.”

The demon feinted a swing to the head, then brought his sword down. Jed was too slow. Another spot on his upper shoulder was now red. Crying out, he lunged forward. His attacks grew more ferocious. The demon time and time again avoided a killing stroke to the heart.

“What is it you fear?” the demon said.

“Not you.”

The voice sounded so certain. “It is something else. I can sense it.”

Jed swung from high to the right, but the demon dodged it and kicked him back.

“Your father,” the demon said. “You’re afraid you won’t live up to him, or your grandfathers before him. You’re afraid you’ll never live up to them.”

“No.”

“That’s why you’re so bold. You’d rather die than yield. It would be courage, if only what you dreaded was the failure to do what is right.”

“That’s why I fight.”

“You fight because you’re terrified of not being what you think someone wants you to be. But who are you? Do you even know?”

Jed gritted his teeth. “The one who defeats you.”

With the demon on the opposite side of the canal, Jed lowered his sword. The demon did the same, appearing just as wearied. Panting, Jed waited to catch his breath before speaking.

“The sword is mine.”

“It will be mine, or no one’s.”

“I won’t end up like these dead men.”

“We shall see.”

The battle persisted beyond what Jed thought he was capable. His arms gradually became weary, but whenever he saw the demon’s limbs still nimble, he regained endurance. Something about it seemed to demand every ounce of effort in him. Thoughts of his father also spurred him on.

The two traded wounding strokes until Jed’s wet tunic was scarlet red. The blood felt warm and poisonous on his skin, yet every time he was tempted to despair, he saw the demon move slower, its blows weaker against his blade. He might have slain the creature then, had his agility and power not also been drained by wounds and exertion.

Offering one last assault, Jed met the demon in the center of the bridge and clashed, their hilts locked together as one. They pushed their weight back and forth as they stared into the other’s eyes. Though the demon’s face was murky, the two amber eyes glowing back at him reflected his face as clearly as a mountain range on serene alpine water.

Twisting his hilt, Jed shoved the spirit back, then drove his sword into its side. A terrifying screech fell from its formless mouth as it frantically brought its sword hard against Jed’s chest. The boy’s hilt reduced the force as it tore through his flesh. Nearly brought to his knees, Jed remained upright as he watched the demon also struggle to keep his footing.

Placing the tip against its heart, Jed held his sword with bent arms.

“Yield.”

“I will never surrender.”

Jed did not strike. The demon’s pale eyes had no spark, yet there was no hate in them.

“You think you won,” the demon said. “But you won’t get what you seek from me.”

“Why do you fight me?”

“You attacked me.”

Jed’s mouth opened slightly as he deliberately brought his sword down and away from the demon. It occurred to him that for the first time, he had thrown the beginning strike.

The ghostly figure did not move as Jed grimaced at the bodies near them, then sheathed his sword with a heavy breath. His arm quivered as he extended his hand toward the demon.

“I do not want to kill you,” he said. “Somehow, we must both use the sword…if you’re willing.”

The spirit paused. Its movements seemed drawn out as Jed anxiously watched it raise its sword, then place the weapon back into its scabbard. A quasi-invisible hand reached out and accepted Jed’s gesture.

“I am willing.”

In a flash, the demon became a beam of light. When it faded for an instant, Jed stared at the figure shaking hands with him. The being with a mirror-like reflection stepped toward him and dissipated into a formless essence before seeping into his body. A cooling sensation raced through him as the blood vanished from his clothes and his wounds were healed.

Ahead, the large stone sculpture was gone from the wall. It now stood as in bodily form before the platform. His eyes were like a furnace that drove out all darkness and shadows from the room as he raised his hands.

“Come,” he said.

Jed approached. The man’s aura compelled him to kneel in reverence. His heavenly voice echoed through the room.

“I am Forena, who with Impora created the people of this realm. I commend you for your actions. You have resisted your inner demon. With such courage and virtue, you have shown yourself worthy to bear my sword.”

Taking Impora from its platform, he held it in his palms as he lowered it before Jed’s face. “With this, I can return you to your home world. Or you can bear it in my name, but I cannot assure you shall live. Speak the word, and I shall do it.”

“I stay.”

“Such a swift reply. Why?”

“I’ll never be the man I want to be if I leave now.”

Smiling, Forena held the sword high. Around them, the crowned sculptures’ stony exterior softened as they took a human form. Each holding a scepter in one hand and their sword in another, they formed a semi-circle around Jed. With soft voices, they chanted the same cryptic words Telman had used to restore the temple.

“The kings of old are here to bear witness,” Forena said. He then placed the blade in Jed’s hands. Despite its mundane appearance, he sensed its full power as he wrapped his fingers around the hilt.

“Help the rightful heir reclaim the throne of Forenia and unite the realm,” Forena said. “But remember this: Whosoever bear this sword shall it wield.

“I will remember.”

“Good. Now receive my divine blessing.”

Placing his hand on Jed’s head, Forena spoke urgently in a strange tongue. An indescribable current flowed through Jed as the kings’ chant turned to shouts. The force surging within him became so intense he cried out, but the effect doubled again and again until finally he felt his spirit passing into another realm.

***

“Is the girl ready?” Grancaliga asked as he approached a colonel standing outside her door inside the royal castle. He wore his formal dress uniform, his large boots glistening from a recent polish.

The colonel nervously opened the door, then waved the general in. He entered to find Kara gazing out the window. She wore a red ceremonial dress that perfectly matched their eyes. The lengthy hem fell down her, stitched with gold. A front section of the dress once featuring the Forenian royal crest had barely visible stitches, and the patch replacing the crest was hardly noticeable.

Kara faced Grancaliga, a distant air about her. He avoided commenting about her beautifully braided hair. Getting her to wear the dress had required enough effort.

“It’s time,” he said.

She said nothing as she looked back out the window.

“You gave me your word,” Grancaliga said. “I will hold you to it.”

Kara sniffed and wiped her nose as she turned around, her eyes directed at the floor.

“What if I decide I won’t?” she said.

“Then you will be responsible for what I do next. Think well of what that might entail.”

“I am ready.”

She was headed for the door when Grancaliga stopped her and pointed at the manuscripts lying on the writing desk. “We must not forget those.”

Outside the door, an escort of 20 soldiers awaited them.

“How shall we get there?” Kara said.

“We are to walk,” the captain of the guard said.

“Is the weather fair?”

“Quite.”

Four of them accompanied Kara as she walked behind Grancaliga, who was flanked by six men on each side. The rest followed, proudly waving his personal standard. They moved to the upper castle level and to the tower until they reached the top. There, the mountainside merged with the tower as though one had come out of the other. The procession moved toward the summit, where a large stone door bearing the royal crest blocked a passageway.

When they reached it, Grancaliga ordered all to a halt. The guard then stepped away from him as Kara was brought to the door. Opening one of the manuscripts, she came to a page and stammered. Grancaliga glared and was about to protest, but held his words.

“Take your time,” he said.

“Why so gracious?” she asked.

“I am a cruel man, but it is out of necessity, not pleasure.”

“It makes no difference to me why a Forenian betrays his people and the throne.”

The soldiers and colonels all grew tense. Those standing near Kara stepped back slightly. The general eyed them, then smiled at Kara. “If you prefer, we can stand here for a while until you decide to honor your word. In the meantime, I’m certain my men and I have no qualms marveling at your beauty.”

With pursed lips, Kara moved to the door and began speaking. She recited from the manuscript for over a minute. The royal crest on the door lit up as the stone creaked and cracked and dust flew into the air. It slowly swung outward on its ancient hinges, revealing a darkened path.

Lighting a torch, a soldier went to approach the entrance, but Grancaliga took the torch and led the way with Kara behind him. Ducking beneath the doorway, he moved quickly through the passageway until they reached a small room. The soldiers all came with lit torches that fully brightened the room.

In the center was a stone slab with the Forenian royal crown sitting atop it.

No one moved for a while. Grancaliga smiled broadly as he stepped up to the slab and delicately picked up the crown. Facing his men, he held it high above his head.

“The era of the monarchy long came to an end,” he said. “We shall now make that evident to all.”

He almost dropped it as he spotted Kara running through the passageway, having slipped through the ranks. The crown in hand, he raced ahead of his men out the mountain and onto the tower. A look of terror fell across his face as he saw Kara stand on the parapet; the other side leading directly to the bottom of the castle.

Her legs shaking violently, Kara sobbed as she glanced behind her. “I won’t deify you! I’ll die first!”

Grancaliga first restrained his men from any brash action, then held his hands up. He walked as close to her as he dared. “You don’t want to die.”

“Only if living is worse than death.”

“If you fall, our history will be forgotten. Even if someone somehow learned to read.”

“You intend to destroy it, anyway.”

“No. I plan to build a future unshackled by outdated institutions and disunity. That has been my dream since I was a child. Everyone mocked it. What could the son of a commoner ever do? But I had the will to achieve it, to build a more perfect, unified Forenia. That’s how I conquered armies twice the size of mine. I never lost the will.”

“The will to dominate.”

Grancaliga held the crowd in front of her. “What does this trinket represent, if not that?”

“Responsibility and duty. That’s why you would destroy it.”

He stared at her, then tossed the crown at her feet. “Come down from the wall, and it will be given to you for safekeeping.”

She seemed disgusted. “After all you’ve done to get it, the lives you’ve taken and cities you’ve razed, you want me to believe you’d just hand it over?”

“Before, no. But what difference does it make if you deify me?”

“Then there’s no reason for me to accept your offer.”

Grancaliga chuckled. “I will certainly destroy it if you choose the alternative. And then I’ll take out my wrath on this castle, this city, and all the inhabitants in it. Their lives are in your hands. Are you truly willing to sacrifice them for a few moments of moral self-righteousness before death?”

Taking in the full breadth of Merce Haelle below, Kara wiped a tear from her eye, stepped off the parapet, and hastily picked up the crown.

“I keep my word,” Grancaliga said. “You should be more trusting.”

“I trust you to be what you are. That’s what I fear most.”

Running a hand through her hair, he brought her close to his side as he led her back to his men.

“I want the ceremony done as soon as possible,” he told a colonel. “Are the preparations finished?”

“Not yet. We’re following the instructions the girl provided us as best we can. But…”

“What?”

“How do we know if she is telling the truth?”

“If she was willing to let this entire city be exterminated, she would have taken the leap.”

“I see. Everything should be ready in a day or two.”

“Make it one.”

Escorting Kara with her arm forcibly draped over his, Grancaliga led her back into the castle and to her room. “You must wear that dress for the ceremony. I like seeing you in it. I’m sure that boy would have, were he here.”

“If you’re determined to also get an heir out of me, know this: I will take the leap first, whether it dooms the city or not.”

He violently seized her, kissing her hard before he pushed her back into the room. She panicked while he remained in the doorway.

“The thought hadn’t crossed my mind, until now,” he said. “And to be honest, I’m content to be a god. Then I’ll require no heirs from you or any woman.”

He slammed the door shut, bolting it. As he left, her cries moved through the door and resonating down the passageway.

***

Telman and the Varexians walked slowly toward the temple as Jed emerged from the entrance. Jed strode down the steps, and by the time he reached Telman, the older man had dropped to one knee, the Varexians anxiously following his lead.

“It’s me, Jed,” he said timidly.

Looking up at him with wide eyes, Telman and the others rose. He would have spoke, but Jed raised a hand. He then brought out Impora and displayed it. The Varexians quietly gasped.

“You did it,” Telman said as he wiped tears from his eyes. “It does exist.”

Detaching Telman’s longsword and scabbard from his belt, Jed knelt before him and handed it back.

“You saw Forena himself?” Telman said. “What did he say?”

“That I should help the heir to the throne take it back. I figured it would be easier to do if he had his sword again.”

The Varexians eyed their leader, who folded his arms and smiled. “How did you know?”

Jed took the tattered banner from his belongings and gave it to Telman. “From the king’s tower. The same crest on it as your shield. The temple ruins also had some occupants who recognized your short sword.”

Admiring the banner, Telman ran his fingers over the delicate cloth before handing it to a Varexian. He urged Jed to stand.

“I see you’re waiting for an explanation,” he said. “Kara and her family had their long-kept secret. Mine did, too. Perhaps that is why we understood each other so well when we first met. Both of us bear burdens over matters that happened before our time. My family couldn’t read the texts, but the royal family preserved its oral traditions, legends, and spells. I long desired to reveal the truth. I couldn’t understand why we would not assert our rightful claim. But my father forbade it. He said the time wasn’t right, that by maintaining our silence we would survive. I didn’t believe him, until I served on the Elder Council and saw what he had endured for years. I maintained that silence even as I watched the Varexians I was supposed to lead as their king get slaughtered.”

“It was not your fault,” a Varexian said. “And we still have a chance.”

“Yes, a chance; more than a chance, now that we have Impora. Are you ready to use it?”

Jed nodded.

“Kara will no doubt be held in the royal castle,” Telman said. “Grancaliga will hold the ceremony on the tower, along the mountainside. What better way to mark the beginning of his rule?”

“How will we get in?” a Varexian asked. “The castle’s easily defended even with the small garrison that surrendered. Grancaliga must have a large force inside it now, not to mention an army that can take the field.”

“We sneak in, then.”

“Rescuing Kara won’t restore your family to the throne,” Jed said. “Grancaliga must be destroyed.”

“How can we accomplish this?” Telman said. “That sword is powerful, but can it take the place of thousands?”

A strange smile formed on Jed’s face as he brought them to the forest tree line. With Impora raised above his head with both hands, he pointed it at the vast woodlands. The blade glowed as a beam of light streaked through the air and shattered into countless small pieces, falling like embers onto individual trees.

The ground rattled as the woodland spirits fled the forest and gathered around Jed and his companions. On the trees, the leaves fell and faded out of the sight in the air, while the bark dried into thin flakes and seeped into the soil. The limbs tore themselves from the ground as the trunks turned to torsos. Twigs became swords and their branches transformed into arms encased in chainmail. Roots pulled up and gained feet as one by one marched toward the Forenians until in the place of the forestland was an immense army clad in heavy armor and brandishing all sorts of deadly armaments.

One of the soldiers came to Telman and knelt, raising the visor to his thick helmet.

“What are your orders, my lord?”

***

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
  8. Chapter 5, Part 2