Thursday, September 12, 2013

Heeding the call - a fantasy novella

It's been a long time since I actually posted here, I have my reasons but I won't bore you with them right now. Instead take some time and read this fantasy novella I wrote as an entry to the Sword and Laser anthology competition. I didn't get my story accepted, but I still think it is good and maybe some of you will too. So sit back, relax and enjoy my original story!

Heeding the call
- an origin story

Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was lost both physically and mentally and she didn't know how to become unlost. Everything around her was dark. It was cold and the wind was blowing. Her cloak was billowing around her and she had to clutch at it to keep warm. She had been such a fool running away like she had, but she didn't have any choice at all. Not really. She couldn't risk hurting her family. What if she ended up hurting her little brothers with her malady? No, she couldn't think about it. It would be better if she simply disappeared and left them with their parents. They would all be happier and safer without her. The symptoms of her illness had been getting more and more severe as of late and she knew she couldn't keep hiding them much longer. The spasms would come during the night, crippling and painful. They made her curl up in her bed while clutching her abdomen. She often had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. It was like she had a burning fire inside of her, coursing through her veins. She had nightmares of pulsing green eyes that haunted her. Some mornings when she woke up the sheets would be bathed in sweat and ripped as if some terrible beast had clawed at them. She would hear a voice in her head that whispered to her of secrets and fire. The voice never whispered horrible things, but it was urging her to go somewhere, somewhere she had never been. She kept seeing images of a house in her mind, flashes and details. She always saw the same grand old house made from stone, not notched lumber like she was used to. It was abandoned long ago and overgrown with ivy. Broken shards of glass from the windows and crumbling stone littered the grounds around it. Layers of dust could be seen on the inside. The visions came and went, more and more frequently over the past weeks. Slowly she had been feeling like she was loosing her grip on reality. She couldn't tell if the thoughts in her head were her own or belonging to the mysterious voice. Constantly hearing things had also made her jumpy. She had almost hit one of her brothers with a large wooden log once when he had tried to sneak up on her to scare her as a prank while she was chopping wood. She had screamed like a wild animal and had almost bashed his head in. He had cried then and she had dropped the log instantly to bend down and comfort him, but he had backed away from her before running of. She had scared him and it had hurt so badly, like someone had torn her heart out of her chest. That's why she had to run away. She couldn't trust herself around others, not unless she was able to cure this madness. She didn't think she would be able to though, she had known a man who heard voices in his head once. She had loved him and he had killed himself. She had seen his body swinging from the great pine tree that stood not far away from their hut. The entire village had seen it for that matter. He had been her husband, and a very troubled man. The voices in his head had driven him mad too, but his voices had been worse than hers. They had told him to murder her. To eat her flesh. Sometimes in his sleep he would speak with the voice of someone else. He would threaten her, lie to her and tell her of all the evil things he wanted to do to her. It had frightened her something fierce every time it happened. She had tried talking to her husband while he was sleep talking, but it was like talking to a stranger, someone she didn't know and who decidedly did not like her. Whenever she told him of the things he said in his sleep he would hug her and beg her forgiveness. She would always forgive him, because she knew that he was not himself whenever it happened. It didn't mean that she was not scared, but she tried very hard to hide it from him. Once, and only once the stranger had taken hold of him. He had drawn a knife and tried to kill her. He had managed to cut her arm when she had tried to get away from him. The sight of the blood streaming from the cut had brought her husband back to her though and he had fallen to the floor, burying his face in his hands. He had sobbed violently and she had knelt down beside him to comfort him even though she had been the one with the knife wound. In the end he hadn't been able to take it anymore. He had hung himself because he didn't want to hurt her. He would rather kill himself than harm his family. He hadn't left her any note, because he couldn't write or read, and neither could she. She hadn't needed a note to know, to understand why he had done it. She knew, and she had admired him for it. She didn't blame him for the choice he made, but she missed him terribly. Despite his illness he had been a good husband and life had been very empty after his passing. Had it not been for her parents and her siblings she might have hung herself as well. Her brothers had been too young to remember what had happened when her husband had killed himself so they did not understand her sadness. She had never told them about it either. They didn't need to be burdened with such a heavy and dark story. Now she almost wished she had hung herself. It would have been better to be dead than to be walking alone in the deep dark of night, freezing and wet and hungry with a strange voice in her head as the only thing to keep her company. Unfortunately she didn't have her husbands courage, so what other choice did she have. She pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and continued to walk, tears still streaming down her face. She had no idea of where she was, but somehow that didn't seem to matter anymore. Lost or not she was putting a greater distance between herself and her family with every step she took.

The sun was shining, after the darkness of the night it was almost blindingly bright as she pried her eyes open. It was cold despite the sunlight, her breath came out as little puffs of mist, and the ground felt hard and cold beneath her. Her clothes felt like the moisture had seeped through them, but she hoped that they would feel warmer and drier as soon as she got up and started moving. Last night felt more like the memory of a nightmare than reality. She remembered little of it. At some point she had been too tired and sleepy to keep going so she had huddled down at the foot of a large tree with her cloak wrapped around herself. She had fallen asleep almost instantaneously sinking into her nightmares once again. In the light of day the surrounding forest looked very different to her. If asked she wouldn't have known which way she came from or which way she should go. Her stomach was growling and she hadn't brought any food along for the journey. Food was scant enough at this time of year, and her family needed it more than she did. She wondered what they were doing now. The thought alone brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away and tried to suppress the memory of their smiling faces, and warm embraces. If she thought about them too much her resolve might waver and she might turn back. Instead she got to her feet and started walking. It was better to occupy her mind, looking for food, berries or nuts or anything else that would be edible. She spent some time foraging the forest floor. She came across an area where big ripe blueberries were growing. She sat down among the berries and ate as much as she could stomach. Her fingers had turned a dark shade of pinkish purple before she finished. She gathered a few handfuls in the pocket of her apron before she got back up again, and tried to decide on a general direction she could follow. She wasn't sure why, but she felt herself moving towards the east. It was like some invisible hand was nudging her to go that way. “Yes, that way Hana, east is the right way” the now familiar voice in her head whispered. Up until now she had ignored it at every turn, but now that she was on her own and could not pose any harm to anyone but herself she didn't see much harm in indulging it this once. So she went east, deeper into the forest. She walked all that day and the next day, only stopping to rest or gather food and water. At night she would hear the noises of large animals in the distance. Wolves would howl and the sound of their cries would echo between the distant mountains. One night she actually climbed a tree to make sure she would be safe. She tried to sleep, but the constant fear of falling made that impossible. The nightly spasms were still there too of course, they hadn't changed and they made it hard for her to restore her strength and her mental faculties. The voice in her head was getting louder and louder. It was no longer a whisper, it spoke now. She could hear that it was the voice of a male, if it was an old or young voice she couldn't tell, but it was a pleasant voice. It was no longer as scary as it had been when it was only a whisper. She found that fact slightly strange, but her fatigued mind and body was not capable of caring about it overly much. Maybe it was less scary now because it seemed more real somehow? The voice itself was growing annoyingly chirpy, almost cheering her on. It beckoned her to keep going. She was so close now it kept telling her. She had no idea what it was she was close to, and if she was honest she didn't really care as long as she could rest easily for one night. Her feet were aching, and her legs were scraped from climbing through bushes and up and down hills. To sit inside with a warm fire and plenty to eat would be heavenly. The fifth day of her journey she came upon a small road or maybe it was a large path, she couldn't tell if there was any difference. It wound away in front of her like a brown ribbon amidst a sea of green There were signs of recent passage but it was obviously not a road that was much traveled. Since it seemed to continue more or less eastward and it also offered her an easier route to travel than the forest did she simply chose to follow it. Not having to struggle with difficult underbrush or branches slapping her in the face was like a blessing from above. She didn't even consider the possible threat of lurking bandits. This road had been out of use for a long time and bandits usually preyed where people traveled regularly, or so she had been told by a merchant once. The road seemed endless to Hana as she walked. There was no way of telling where it lead, but since she didn't have any particular place she needed to get to and because the voice in her head was quiet for the time being she simply soldiered on. When the night started to fall upon her once again she decided that she would stop and find a suitable tree to seek shelter under, but before she could even begin to look for one she was startled by a loud howl that ripped through the silent night. It was accompanied by several other howls, and they were terrifyingly close. Hana felt her heart start to beat furiously inside her chest, and sweat prickled up on her neck and hands. This was bad. She had no chance of outrunning a pack of wolves or fending one of for that matter. It wasn't full dark yet and she could see dark shadows moving amongst the trees. Some of those shadows stopped to regard her for a while. She could feel their eyes on her and she realized that she was holding her breath, afraid to move or make even the slightest of sounds. They had wolves in the woods near her home too, but they never came close to humans unless they were starving and were looking for food. She had never faced wolves in the middle of the wild and she only had a small knife in her belt. It was not a weapon, it was just for cutting pieces of meat or fruit and wouldn't help her much against a wild animal with fangs and claws. The longer she stood there the more she got the feeling that these were not ordinary wolves. They were bigger, and their eyes were brighter. Some of the wolves had emerged from the foliage, circling around her. She could hear low growling from some of them. They were great shaggy beasts, easily twice the size of the normal wolves back home. Their teeth were long and yellow and their clawed paws were quite large. She swallowed hard, trying to remember how to breathe. “Help” she muttered weakly to herself. Hana expected to be torn to pieces as soon as one of the wolves decided he had had enough of circling her body. When she heard the sudden unexpected sound of a blaring horn and of galloping hooves behind her the relief was so great she actually fainted on the spot. Had she been awake she would have seen a man in a cloak sitting astride a great horse charging into the pack of wolves. His horse came dangerously close to trampling her prone body, but deftly jumped over her and skidded to a halt in the middle of the path. The man atop it was brandishing a great burning torch in one hand and a long gleaming sword in the other. The wolves were furious, but shied away from the fire, they were deathly afraid of it and would not come near it. When they tried to snap at the horse's legs they quickly found that it was a bad idea as one of the wolves tasted the steel of the mans blade. It was not enough to kill it, not instantly at least. The injured wolf yelped and fell over in pain. The other wolves tried to get close to the horse a couple more times but to no avail, the horse kicked wildly at them and the torch was a constant threat. At last they gave up and retreated. The wolf that had been wounded was left behind, it whimpered pathetically where it lay. The man jumped down from the horse and approached the wolf. The torch he had put down on the ground close to Hana. The wolf growled at him as he got close, but the man did not react to it. Instead he looked at the wound in the faint light of the torch. It was too great, the wolf was dying slowly. He did not want to see it suffer so he raised his sword, then drove it deeply into the animals neck giving it a quick and clean death. After cleaning the blood of the great wolf from his blade the man turned around towards the fainted woman he had just saved. She was a small thing with dark blonde or pale brown wavy hair cropped to her shoulders, she was not a very beautiful girl, but pretty enough in a plain sort of way. She wore simple clothes so he thought she might be a peasant or a low born villager. The question he could not answer was why she was all alone in the middle of the Grey Forest at night. He would have to ask her that when she awoke. He picked her up and carried her to his horse where he slung her across it's back in front of his saddle before he himself climbed into it. Then he rode off in the same direction from whence he had come, further east along the same path Hana had followed all day.

Her mind was filled with howling wolves, they were chasing her and snapping at her feet. She was running out of breath and her chest burned, it would not be long until she would fall and they would be upon her. As she ran the howls of the wolves turned into roars, and the wolves had turned into dragons with sparkling green eyes. Their mouths were open and fire was brewing within. Right before the dragons were about to breathe their deadly fires down upon her she woke up with a start. Sitting up straight she found herself staring into a bright and cheerful camp fire. It was still dark, but she thought that it might be close to dawn. Next to the fire sat a man. His skin was fair, his hair was dark and wild reaching to right below his ears. She could see that he was slender, but strong. He wore sturdy clothes of good quality that were only slightly frayed and worn, and his skin was only lightly colored by the sun so he had probably never worked a field in his life. No, he was definitely not a farmer, he looked more like a fighting man. He was handsome, very handsome. That however did not make her less anxious. Pretty faces could hide ugly secrets. She gathered her cloak tightly around her and discovered that she had been wrapped in blankets. She looked at the stranger that was sitting across from her. She tried to say something, but she didn't know how to start, and so she sat their staring at him with her mouth hanging half open. It seemed like he understood that she was struggling with uncertainty and initiated the conversation instead. “Bad dreams?” he inquired one eyebrow raised. She nodded meekly. “Yes, very bad dreams.” She held her hands up against the fire to warm them, and also to have something else to focus on instead of the strangers face.”I hope this is not very rude to ask, but who are you and how did I get here .The last thing I remember is wolves and darkness and the sound of a horn.” The stranger grinned at her. “It is not rude at all, I am Aru. I am a traveling sell-sword and a minstrel and the horn you heard was mine. I had just set up camp for the night when I thought I heard something and decided to investigate. I saw you standing there surrounded by the beasts and thought that it would be a shame to let a pretty girl go to waste like that. I blew the horn to distract them and then I charged. You probably fainted from fright so I took you back to my camp and made sure you wouldn't get cold while you were unconscious.” He told the story with a smug look on his face, like rescuing damsels in distress was a simple task for a man like him. Hana screwed up her face at that, she wasn't sure she liked him at all. Aru didn't seem to have noticed her dislike, he was too busy studying her face. Now that she was awake Aru could see that her eyes were almost as blue as the sky above on a sunny day. Maybe she wasn't as plain as he had originally thought, or maybe it was just her personality that made her seem more attractive. He wasn't sure. Hana at least had the manners to thank him for his help.”Thank you Aru, I owe you my life.” Aru waved his hand at her, pretending to not care about it. “Never mind it. I was happy to help. I'm sure you would have done the same if you were in my stead.” Hana smiled at him, not so sure she would have. She was after all going insane, mad people weren't necessarily the most reliable of saviors. She said nothing of it though. Aru continued to talk however. “If you don't mind, I would very much like to know your name miss, and your reasons for being all alone in the middle of the Grey Forest at night.” She bit her lip, not knowing what to say. Thinking about why she was here made her want to cry. Tears were pressing their way out of her eyes, but she pushed them back. She would not cry, not in front of this stranger. With a gargantuan effort she steadied her voice and said “My name is Hana, and, and I' ran away from home. I have been walking for days with no idea of where I was. To me this forest is all just a world of green.” His eyebrows creased, and he looked at her inquiringly. “Why did you run away?” She tried to speak, to say anything but the words wouldn't come. They had been blocked by a large hard lump that had lodged itself in her throat. The tears came unbidden to her eyes again, and she choked on them before she began to sob. She was so tired, and she had kept her dark secret hidden for so long. She couldn't take it any longer. “I had to run away, I had no choice. I am loosing my mind! I hear a voice in my head, it bids me do things and whispers secrets to me. I have nightmares, horrible nightmares where green eyes and fire surrounds me and while I dream I thrash like an animal and rip the sheets, and I have no idea how it happens. I'm turning into a monster just like my husband!” The last sentence came out as a miserable wail. Once she had started to share her troubles she seemed to be unable to stop. It felt so good to confess her fears to another human being. If he left her she wouldn't blame him at all, at least she had been able to tell someone about it. It was a terribly selfish thing to do, but she didn't care. She didn't know what she had expected, but she had not expected the gentle touch of a sympathetic calloused hand on her shoulder. “There there, I am sure it is not all that bad” Aru said somewhat awkwardly. His voice betrayed how utterly uncomfortable he was. It was clear that he was not used to wailing women worrying about their sanity, then again who would be? He was comforting her the way one would do a crying child. His awkward sympathy and clear discomfort was almost funny, and she could not help but laugh a little. This seemed to confuse him even further. “Please, forgive me! I didn't mean to burden you like this. I wasn't going to say anything about it really. I just couldn't help myself, and here you sit trying to comfort a mad stranger..I just had to laugh.” He smiled at her then and then he too laughed, albeit a little nervously. They sat in silence for a long time after that, while the sky grew lighter as the dawn broke and the sun started creeping over the horizon. “Where are you going to go now?” he asked her. Hana thought about it for a little while. “I don't know, I only know I have to go east. There is a place not far from here that I need to find. At least that's what the voice keeps telling me. It's quite persistent.” she said hesitantly and sighed. “I suppose I have to get going. I don't want to be a bother to you anymore.” As she got to her feet so too did Aru. He held his hands out to stop her. “I can't possibly let you wander of on your own like this. You don't have any food or a horse, and you are clearly not well. Let me take you where you need to go at least, it is not an inconvenience I promise it. I was going east myself.” He didn't really know why he was so intent on helping her, but he felt responsible for her somehow, having saved her life and all that. He was also quite curious about what mysterious thing it was the alleged voice was guiding her towards.

They had been traveling together for several hours when they glimpsed a tall stone tower in the distance. The voice in Hana's head became extremely excited at the sight of it. “There, go there! You are near. Hurry to the manse!” Hana drew in her breath sharply, which Aru noticed. “What is it?” Hana pointed at the spire. “That is where I am going.” Aru looked at the tower and then back at her.”Alright, then that is where we are going.” She nodded tentatively. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate Aru's offer to help her on her way, but she didn't know if she could trust him. He had saved her life sure, and he had not claimed any reward for it, but she kept thinking that there must be something else than valor motivating him. She had seen him casting appraising glances her way back at the camp. Most sell-swords she had met were rough men with basic manners and basic appetites. Why would he be an exception to the rule. So far he hadn't done or said anything inappropriate, in fact he had said precious little at all. She didn't think she would share a whole lot about herself to a mentally ill person she had just met either, so she didn't blame him. They were both sitting on top of Aru's horse. She was sitting in front of him, desperately clinging to the saddle. When Aru spurred his horse on towards the tower, Hana tightened her grip on the saddle horn as the horse started moving at a greater pace. She was definitely not used to riding yet and having a man this close to her again was a strange sensation. She could feel his breath on her neck now and then. It gave her goosebumps and she almost felt guilty for liking the press of his body against hers. She was a widow after all. It felt unseemly even for a young widow to feel like this, but she still did.

They cleared a bend in the road and in front of them a large mansion revealed itself almost hidden amongst trees and ivy. It was surrounded by a tall stone wall, and wrought iron gates were set into it. They were rusty and one of them had fallen almost all the way of it's hinges. The windows were all dark and most of them were missing panels of glass. Here and there pieces of the building and the wall had tumbled to the ground and were littering the grounds around the house. The grass in what had at some point probably been a pristine garden had grown tall and wild. Finding this house was like walking into a dream. It looked just like her visions had showed her, only it was bigger than she had imagined it to be. To her it looked almost like a castle. The tower they had seen was the tallest part of the building and was situated on the left side of the house farthest away from them. It was so strange. The house was real! It hadn't been a figment of her imagination. Did that mean that she wasn't going insane after all? If this was true then what of all her terrible nightmares? She shuddered and Aru asked “Is something wrong?”
“I have seen this place before in my dreams and in visions.”
“That can't be true, I mean unless you are a seer or something of the sort.”
Hana shook her head. “I can assure you that I am not a seer or a witch or a sorceress, I just know that I have seen this place before. It's calling to me, or something inside it is calling to me, I don't know which it is. I just know I have to go there!” Her eyes had taken on a glazed distant look and her words trailed away. The voice within her head had grown so strong and urgent, it was as if a choir was chanting inside her mind, blocking out everything but the house itself and the strange beckoning from within it. She scrambled down from the horse frantically and started running towards the house. Before Aru could dismount and tie up his horse she had disappeared through the rusted gates and was halfway to the main door of the sprawling mansion. Upon reaching the door she grabbed the handle and yanked it hard. The door flew open and then fell of it's frame slamming loudly as it hit the ground next to her. She paid the door no notice. She felt delirious as she sprinted past it and into the gloom of a long forgotten hall. She had started to talk to herself, but the words were not hers. ?Up the stairs, follow the hallway, you are near, do you feel it?? She felt it, something unexplainable that was pulling her onward. Her feet never wavered for they knew exactly where they were going. She thought she could vaguely hear someone calling her name in the distance but it didn't matter. All that mattered was the voice. She turned a corner and at the end of the hallway she was following there was an open doorway. She knew instantly that this was where she was meant to go. A faint glowing light that looked almost green was pulsing beyond it. She started running again and almost fell as she skidded to a halt inside an old room. It was large, maybe it had been a study of some sort or a dining hall. There was little evidence to support either theory. The only things in the room was a stone chair on which sat a decomposed and dusty skeleton wearing moldy robes that had in their day been made from the finest velvets. Had she not been completely distracted by the delirium of her mind the sight of it would have shocked and repulsed her greatly. The only thing she cared about right now however was the source of the green glow. It was coming from an object, a tiny clear gemstone resting on a stone pillar or stand of some kind that was covered with a moth eaten piece of cloth. The stand was situated at the far side of the room. She walked towards it with slow sure steps. The voice in her head spoke to her once more. ?This is what you have come for, you must take the stone and swallow it! It is the only way to release the spirit within. There is no time to explain it any further, quickly now before he wakes!? In her trance Hana could do nothing but obey the voice. She reached out with a tanned hand, picked up the gem and placed it in her mouth. A tiny part of her that was still herself screamed that this was madness, but the other voice quickly drowned it out. She swallowed and felt the stone glide down her throat, scraping it raw. Once inside her the gem blazed to life. It felt like her insides were on fire, just like in her nightly spasms. She clutched her stomach and chest in agony. Was she going to die now? The pain she had experienced earlier was as nothing compared to this. She doubled over as the sensation spread to her arms and legs and her head. It forced her to her knees and further down until she was reduced to crawling on the floor. The world was on fire around her it seemed. Her mind swam with the burning image of green eyes the color of emeralds and the now familiar voice thundered in her head. “I am the great dragon Velheran, and you are my mortal instrument, the only soul to heed my calling in the lapse of thousands of years. Long has my essence been imprisoned in this stone by the sorcerer to which this place once belonged, but now you have broken my prison and for that I am forever thankful towards you human. Now my spirit can find rest at last. As a token for your service I give you what little remains of my once vast powers. May they serve you better than they have served me.” With that the voice faded and the world around her slowly returned back to normal leaving her on the cold floor heaving for her breath. The presence of the voice was gone making her head feel almost empty. She could feel a tingling sensation that was running through her entire body however. She could also hear footsteps scuffling across the floor near to her and she lifted her head thinking that it was Aru finally catching up to her. It was not. The skeleton in it's moldy robes had risen from the stone chair and was slowly shambling towards her. It's eyes and mouth and nose were missing, but she could swear that it looked sentient. A hissing voice emanated from the empty husk and she could feel some dark power building in the room. “You dare destroy what is mine, you insignificant little worm! I don't know what brought you here, but I am going to destroy you and then I am going to paint the walls with your blood as a warning to others who might be foolish enough to enter!” Hana was completely baffled for a split second and then she screamed, completely struck with horror. The undead skeleton grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. The touch of it's bony fingers hurt and sent a dirty slimy sensation through her. At that moment Aru came crashing into the room with his sword drawn. He had been looking for her everywhere but had not been able to find her before he had heard her scream. As he laid his eyes upon the skeletal abomination he recoiled in fear, but quickly gathered his wits when he saw that it had gotten a hold of Hana. He bellowed and charged, slashing his sword down intending to crush the skull of his opponent. The skeletal creature simply flicked it's hand in his direction and Aru was sent flying through the room. He slammed into a wall and tumbled unconsciously to the ground. His sword skittering across the floor. The skeleton then returned his attention to Hana once more. Twisting her wrist until she thought it would snap. She screamed in pain and it looked to her like the skeleton was smiling. How was this possible, magic like this didn't exist. It belonged in fairy tales and legends they weren't supposed to be true! She was scared, but she was getting angry too. The last few days had seen her beaten down, scared, starving and alone. She had been a victim to her imagined disease for so long, too long. She refused to remain a victim. If this vile thing intended to kill her she would fight it until her last breath. Her chances were minimal,in fact they were none existent, but she would not lie down to die. Not now when she had finally reclaimed her lost sanity. On pure impulse she stretched out her free hand and grabbed the underside of the skeletons jaw and then she yanked at it as hard as she could. With a dry tearing sound the bone and remaining ligaments snapped and the jaw came flying off. Absolutely shocked she looked at her own hand as it dropped the remains of the jaw to the ground. Where had that strange power come from?! She had no time to think about it though, as the skeleton roared wildly in rage. It had let go of her arm and she could almost feel the dark magic the undead sorcerer was about to unleash upon her as he started chanting. There was nothing else to do but try to interrupt the spell. She gathered her courage and then she ran straight into the sorcerer, knocking both him and herself to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs and dust. The skeleton roared once more while it clawed after her face. She fended it off to the best of her ability, but somehow it managed to wrap it's hands around her neck. It was attempting to squeeze the life out of her. The enormous pressure cut of her oxygen supply quite effectively and she could feel a pressure building followed by a lightheaded sensation. Her eyes were bulging from their sockets and her face was turning red. Her eyes started rolling and she felt herself losing consciousness. She struggled against it and struck her hands against the skeletons chest. Sparks suddenly flew from her fingers followed by long twisting tendrils of green energy. They crackled and spat and danced around the skeletal figure forcing him to loosen his grip on her throat. The air smelled of burning flesh and fabric. It was enough to make her want to gag, but she didn't dare take her focus of the magic flowing from her hands. The undead sorcerer was writhing below her violently. Smoke was rising from him and she could see that the animated corpse had started to disintegrate. Bits and pieces kept falling of it and vanishing in small puffs of green sparks. The skeleton finally let out an almost human wail of pain and bitter disappointment before the rest of it's remains simultaneously exploded into a million little green embers that danced through the room. She was left sitting on her knees all alone surrounded by fading green embers. She heaved for breath and a fatigue like she had never felt before washed over her. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell to the ground.

She awoke to the sound of crackling flames like she had done once before and for a moment she thought she might have been dreaming, but this time it was different. It was the middle of the day, and she could hear birds chirping in nearby trees. Aru was sitting next to the fire, roasting some rabbit on a spit. When he saw that she was awake he scooted closer to her. “Good, you are awake. I thought you might not make it.” She looked questioningly at him. “What happened? Where are we?”
”Not far from that evil place. I came to my senses as darkness started to fall and I saw you slumped over on the floor. I thought you were dead.” A look of shame came upon his face. The fact that he had been knocked about like a rag doll unable to help seemed to have been a very humbling experience for him. “You should see yourself, you're covered in scratches and bruises, especially around your neck.” He shook his head and continued. “I have no idea what happened but it seems that shambling horror has vanished. I searched the grounds after I carried you outside, but saw no trace of it.?”
“You won't find any trace of it either” she said. Her memory returning to her rapidly. “I destroyed it.” Aru's eyes widened. “How?!” She creased her eyebrows as she tried to gather all the loose ends in her memory and then she described to him what had happened when she swallowed the gemstone, and the following battle with the undead skeleton sorcerer she had inadvertently raised from it's slumber. Aru whistled, looking incredulous. Had he not witnessed the skeleton with his own eyes he would probably not have believed her at all.
He was silent for a while, looking like he was trying to find something appropriate to say. When he finally spoke he said “There's something else you need to know. You, erhm, well you look very different.”
“Different how?”
Aru didn't say anything, he just handed her a small steel mirror. She gazed into it and almost dropped it in pure shock. Her hair had gone a pale pale green, it was almost white. Her eyes too had turned green, emerald green like the eyes of the dragon. She held a shaking hand up to her mouth and looked at him with disbelief clearly written on her face. She didn't know how to react to the unexpected change at all. Aru thought she might be unhappy and tried to comfort her. “It is not so bad. I quite like it actually. It makes you look mysterious and exotic.” She shook her head slowly. “It is going to take some time to get used to I think.” She stared at herself in the mirror once more, unable to speak for some time. Aru smiled and said “well, at least we know one thing. You're not out of your mind.” She beamed brightly at him then. That much was true, the voice was gone now and there was no tugging in her to go anywhere in particular or do anything at all. The dragon was gone, it's spirit had moved on to some other existence she guessed and had left her with what it considered to be grand gifts. She could still feel a faint tingling sensation coursing through her body. The only pain she could feel was the soreness of her muscles and the bruises on her body. The joy of being freed however was quickly replaced by a depressing thought. There was no way she could return to her family like this. They would not understand, and she was not entirely certain that she wanted to go back to all the memories of her past life that haunted her old home. “So what happens now?” she asked Aru in a careful and uncertain tone. She fully expected him to leave and go about his own business now that she was well again and this strange business was over. He shrugged and sighed. “I'm not sure, I simply go where there is money to be made. I heard rumors of a struggle between some lords further east. That is where I was going before I met you.” Hana nodded understandingly. “So many things have changed. I can't go back home and I have nowhere else to go. You are the only one I know outside the village. Would it be possible to go with you, at least to the next village you come upon?” He smiled mischievously. ?I wouldn't mind some company. It is a long way to where I am going.? She smiled too, she was actually starting to like Aru's easygoing and confident nature, nothing seemed to bother him for long. It would be nice to have such a friend by her side as she began to discover a new life, a new world and her new powers. “Alright, I will go with you, and we'll see what the future might hold.” Aru smiled then and they shook on it. They had some of the roasted rabbit that Aru had prepared. Hana could not remember ever having a better meal and felt her spirits slowly being restored. After filling their stomachs they packed up their improvised camp and headed out into the surrounding forest, striking east once more. Hana contemplated to herself that it was quite exciting not knowing what might await over the next hill top. She was done being the unhappy widow, she was free now to be whoever she wanted to be.

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