The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 5

The deadline

 

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

             Things weren’t working out in my favour but I never expected them to. I was about to set something in motion that would change life as we know it and I just didn’t have enough time to do it right. It had to be rushed and thus resistance was inevitable. Just like this defensive mother in front of me. From her point of view, I’m just a sinister thief who’s trying to deceive them and trying to take their peaceful lives away from them. She’s pointing a sickle at my face which is a totally fair reaction on her part. I’ve tried my best to talk myself through this situation but I only seem to keep making it worse with every next word I utter. Now, a new element has walked into this scenario. As it turns out, the old man I spoke to in the bar happens to be the Lord of Vereen. I am not sure if his appearance here is going to turn the odds in my favour but I’m willing to roll the dice on this one.

 

‘Oh yes lad. I’ve been the lord of this prison for about three decades now. People often do tell me that I never dress the part, or even act it. When was the last time you saw a noble getting drunk at the local inn in the middle of the day?’ he said smiling as he walked inside. He walked past me to Mirriam and made her lower the sickle. Her face tried to contain her ever-growing rage and it was clear that she didn’t want to explode in front of the lord.

 

‘I’m sorry to admit it but I did overhear your conversation while I was at your doorstep. I never could resist some drama.’ he said to Mirriam. He then turned to me and began. ‘You’re Mikhail’s friend aren’t you?’

 

I nodded. It wasn’t entirely true as I barely knew him. But we were comrades of a great cause and just stating that he actually is a friend of mine would win me the Lord’s trust.

 

‘Mikhail. He’s the one who deserves the title of the lord. He handles the business, he talks to the people, he provides for the people and keeps this place and it’s people warded from the malignant claws of the world outside. He’s worked by my side for the last decade and made this place what it is. He’s like a son to me’ his eyes were losing focus. Suddenly, he looked up at me. ‘I’ve been locked up in this place for a while but I’ve also lived a rich life before everything collapsed around us. I’ve been places and I’ve met people. All kinds of people. That’s one of the perks of being a noble.’

 

His attention now diverted to a very confused Mirriam. He slowly walked up to her and asked her to take a seat. She sat down on the couch and he sat right next to her. ‘Mirriam, how much do you know about the soul?’ he asked her.

 

A question like that seemed pointless to her. The brow-raise on her face was trying to imply that she was disappointed in the lord for even considering to think about the situation. Unable to protest, she did give it a thought. ‘I don’t know much but I do know that it is the force that connects all life.’ She clearly knew more but she didn’t want to discuss the science of the soulkeepers. Not right now.

 

‘Mirriam, you wouldn’t know this but just around the time you moved to Vereen, all but one of the soulkeepers were murdered in their sleep. The soulkeeper of the light fled out of the country and was never seen again, leaving the entire place soulless. The murderers made sure to break the cycle and destroyed all delivered eggs so that the soul wouldn’t pass down to new prospects. They even went as far as to pillaging the soul temples.’ Mirriam was baffled to hear this as Wilson went along with the tale of the soul keepers.

 

‘This move backfired. The fabric of the soul started to crumble in the entire country. Greenery died, animals limited procreation and the climate kept getting worse and worse. The entire country has been dying ever since. The entire country except places like ours.’ He continued. ‘Like our friend Randall here, I too have spent a considerable amount of time with soulkeepers. By spending time with them I gained a decent understanding of the soul. Before Mikhail ever came here, I was at the liberty to leave town at my will. Out there in the early years after the massacre, I felt a strong emptiness in every town and city. I always had the suspicion that the soul was slowly dying in places outside Vereen but I was never sure about it. Then Mikhail arrived and with his own understanding of the soul he hypothesized a similar explanation and confirmed my suspicions. He had a fair understanding of the soul and our consensus was that Vereen had managed to latch on to the soul unlike the rest of the country.’

 

The grievous tone in which he told this tragic tale was really hitting the nails on Mirriam. Even I, who has known the tale for such a long time felt the weight of his words. Whatever it was that he was trying to do, it was working and I let him go on knowing that he would do a much better job than I.

 

‘The two of us took upon the responsibility to seal this place and protect the last surviving fragment of soul. Mikhail did everything from managing operations to planning the expeditions and all I could do was become the town mascot. While Mikhail was busy handling all the important tasks, I had time to sit back and think. Being a mascot isn’t too much fun so I did a lot of drinking and thinking in the time I had. My theory was that our town was the host to a prospect. Three kids were born around the time of the massacre. Clyde, Vivica and your son Edward.’ It was coming. Both me and Mirriam could see it and she did not want to hear what was about to come.

 

‘Soul keepers stand out Mirriam, even when they are prospects. Randall saw it and so did I. For the last three years, I’ve observed these three kids. While they are all odd in their own way, Edward is a particular kind of peculiar. Soul keepers have a natural affinity towards all soul bearers. Their compassion is enormous and overwhelming to an astounding degree. They are immune to all diseases and the most notable trait is how the environment reacts to them. A prospect is loved and protected by every creature that’s not human. Most creatures are extremely protective of a prospect and are even willing to go as far as give up their life to protect them from any harm.’ The old man kept going at just the right pace. This is what I should have done but I was not a familiar face either.

 

‘I’ve known it for some time now Mirriam. Your son Edward is the soul keeper. The last soul keeper in the country. I’ve known and I’ve done nothing. I didn’t know what to do. But someone has come along. Someone who knows what to do.’ He looked at me trustingly.

 

‘But…but he’s a thief. He’s just a thief’ said Mirriam. Of course, what would a thief do.

 

Wilson came to my rescue again. ‘I was not supposed to tell this to anyone. Mirriam, our Mikhail was a thief too. A notorious one. He was a member of the thieves guild just like our Randall here. Mikhail left that life behind to only conserve this little town and Randall is doing just the same.’

 

She was lost in thought and it was the perfect time to offer my piece. ‘Mirriam, I originally came here to scout this town. The thieves guild is expanding its influence across the west by establishing control in one place after the other and the next settlement in line was Vereen. On my way here, I saw Ed in the woods and soon came to the discovery that he was a soul keeper.’ I paused. It was time to make a proposal and I had to make the stakes clear. ‘After seeing him and this beautiful town, I was reborn with a new mission. I loved the way the world was and I want things to go back the way they were. The only thing that matters to me is now to protect you and your son and fulfil his destiny as a soul keeper.’

 

It was assuring, but not enough. I moved closer to her and stared right into her eyes. ‘There are people coming Mirriam. A group of men from the guild follows me as a means of backup. They serve as a safety net for the operation. Once they come here, it exposes the town and the secret behind it to the entire nation. People will come and eat away at everything and you and your son will end up as spoils of war as a best case scenario. They are about a day or two behind me so we are running short on time. We need to leave this place right now.’

 

She clamped her hands on her face and tried to wrestle through the terror in her heart. ‘Why? Why did it have to be him?’ she was close to a break down.

‘I’m sorry’ that wasn’t going to comfort her but it was necessary.

 

‘Where are we going? And when are we coming back?’ she asked in a trembling voice. The question confused me. Did she not understand what was going on? Was she unable to think properly? I looked at Wilson and he looked back at me with the same concerned expression. He went on to enquire.

 

‘Mirriam, do you not know?’ She looked at him, expecting more bad news. ‘Know what?’ she asked him.

 

Wilson took a long pause before answering. ‘A prospect has to blossom into a full-blown soul keeper by the time he or she is 16 years of age. The prospect can only live if they have hatched the egg in their 16th year. Mirriam, your son has less than two years to live!’

 

 

 

end of volume 1

Next chapter coming soon

The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 4

A Confounded Mother

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

‘Randall. Does she know you? Have you ever met her or Kenny before? Because, if not, it won’t be easy to convince her to leave. Do you want me to accompany you?’ I was glad to see Mikhail get back to his calm self. My multiple assurances had given him ample comfort to move on with the situation at hand.

‘I’m sorry Mikhail, but this is something that I have to do alone. I bear the burden of a secret just as you do. I hope you understand.’ Surely, it seemed that he could work with that. Understanding the position I was in, he gave me an affirmative nod.

 

‘Here, this should be more than enough to take care of them.’ He handed me a large pouch, full of coins. ‘They’re not used to a harsh lifestyle and suiting their needs out there will cost you an arm’.

‘That’s kind of you Mikhail but I can take care of them. There’s no need for this.’ I offered the pouch back to him. ‘We have more than we need Randall. Even spending 10 bags of gold like this wouldn’t faze us. Listen, they are like my family and their well-being is my responsibility. Let me do my part.’ He smiled coyly.

 

‘All right, I won’t turn down free money if you’re being so insistent’. I weighed the bag in my palm. ‘And that’s a lot of money. I could buy a dozen horses with all this dough. Well, thanks for that. But I implore you to not let your guard down once I leave. I’m going to try my best to avoid anyone else from coming here but just in case something goes wrong, be prepared. Do not station your men at the town borders. The follow-up squads are a team of three. One or two of them march into the town for inspection while one of them stays outside waiting for their return. In case the mission is busted, the one waiting outside rushes back to base to bring reinforcements.’

 

Mikhail watched in shock as I described the protocol to him. ‘When did the guild become so meticulous?’ He asked me in awe.

‘We’ve had to change tactics since we banded together again. Before the Knight of Wisdom first nabbed and disbanded our guild, we were quite disorganised and sloppy. That was a good lesson for us to and it drove us to being more careful with our future endeavours. Anyway, in case the follow-up group somehow does show up, furtively send guards in through the forest. You managed to spot me so easily so I don’t expect you to have trouble spotting them either. They won’t be trying too hard to hide as long as they have nothing to hide. The ones waiting for the return for the rest of the party will probably loom around in the forest path. Eliminate them first before ambushing the others inside.’

 

Mikhail seriously absorbed everything I was offering to him. ‘Are you really okay with this Randall? I know how much you care about them. Your brothers in the guild.’

 

‘Trust me Mikhail. This is really difficult for me. Never have I wished such a fate upon my brothers but our mission here is larger than their lives. It’s bigger than you and me and we understand that. This is why we are willing to make such sacrifices.’ I hooked the pouch he gave me on my belt. ‘Remember. These men are as skilled as they are sly. Do not underestimate them for regular troopers. Their job is to slip out of the tightest knots. You have a lot of men here but they are all inexperienced. Strategize carefully or it will be the end of this town.’ That made him nervous but he needed to understand the stakes before walking into something like this. He has plenty of men like I stated earlier but the follow-up squad is the best at what they do and a bunch of inept soldiers won’t be much of a problem for them. The odds of them capturing or slaying the squad are quite low so I’ll have to try my best to make sure that it doesn’t go so far.

 

‘All right Mikhail, I’ll take my leave. I wish you luck for the many uncertainties in the near future. What you are doing here is quite noble and your work has been extraordinary. You’ve played a great role in preserving the last remains of the soul. History will remember you for that deed. I hope for the sake of us that we never have to see each other again. You’re a good man and I’ll ever be grateful to you for trusting me.’

 

He was quite tired and confused. He didn’t say anything in response but gave me a respectful nod. He walked with me all the way to the inn where Sheena was still tied. I untied her loose and climbed on top of her. Just as I was about to start I saw Wilson Fawk blast out of the entrance of the inn. ‘Hey lad! I see that you’ve met our chief merchant.’ He shouted to me as Sheena slowly walked away.

‘Oh yes Wilson. I was glad to see that my old friend was the maker of this town. See ya later old man’ I waved to him as I left.

 

 

‘Oh, he knows you too huh Mikhail! What do you reckon he wants from the Forrests?’

 

‘Ah, the classic squeeze information out of a drunk man in a bar. You know, you should be the last person to give away free information to a total stranger’

 

‘He’s seems like a good man Mikky. I’ve met too many people in this lifetime. Judging people is one of the very few things I’m good at. Moreover, I knew that you were next in line to meet him so I didn’t have much to worry about. You know, you seem like you have a lot on your mind. Why don’t you get to work? I’ll go walk this booze off’

 

 

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The riveting smell of the harvest ready crop filled my lungs with ecstasy. The farmlands were the most beautiful part in this town even though they didn’t look as opulent as the town-centre. The plush scenery was a gift to these eyes of mine that haven’t seen much apart from gloom and despair. After a few minutes of riding it was hard imagining that I spent the last decade in the wastelands. I imagined setting up a cottage on the edge of the town. Tilling and sowing in the morning and relaxing in this paradise in the night. What a peaceful and beautiful life would that be? Why would I ever leave this place again?

 

The first sight of a carrot farm blew that innocuous dream out of my mind. I came back to the reality which I accepted years ago. A life without sin is not a life of mine. Blood and treachery are my closest friends and a bunch of thieves are what I have for a family. People like me do not deserve a plenteous life like that. It’s for the regular folk who’ve suffered as a result of poor choices made by a puerile king. I don’t deserve that life until I redeem my sins by giving that life to the people first. This is the only way I know that can wash my countless sins away.

 

“Mirriam and Edward” said the signpost on the fence of the carrot farm. I promised myself that I wouldn’t leave this place without them but I had no clue about what to tell them. How do you explain something like this to anyone? How do you expect someone to leave everything behind at the command of a total stranger? I had no answers to these questions. I didn’t have time to prepare for this so I decided to act on instinct from this point onward.

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I knocked the door twice and awaited response. When there was no answer for a while. I knocked again.

‘Wait up Ed! You’re unusually sooner than usual today’ I heard a soft feminine voice come from the inside. It grew louder with every consecutive footstep I heard. ‘Done playing alre….?’ she paused when she saw me.

 

‘Hello….. Mirriam?’ I asked in a slightly confused tone. Apart from the greying roots of her long and wavy black hair, she looked really young to be a mother of a fourteen year old. The boy certainly got his looks from his mother. A pointy chin, a small but sharp nose and a long neck. The only thing he didn’t inherit were those brown eyes as he had crystal bluish-green eyes. She was in a farmer’s attire and was sweating hard when she opened the door. She quickly wiped her forehead with her sleeve as I greeted her and gave me a smile behind two very confused eyes.

‘I’m Randall, a friend of Mikhail’s. I wanted to talk to you about something and he told me that I could find you here.’ I looked around both ways and asked her ‘Do you mind if I come in?’

 

She paused for a moment to take it all in but finally caved in. ‘Oh please, do come in.’ She opened the door completely to let me in. I stepped in and followed her to the lounge. The insides of the farmhouse were more elegant than the rough exterior. ‘We’ve never had anyone visit from the outside. I was a bit surprised but then a friend of Mikhail’s is always welcome here. Please, have a seat.’ She offered me a seat on a jute couch in the lounge.

 

‘Oh no, it’s fine.’ I reluctantly refused. This was not a friendly social visit and I wanted to get to the point really quick. ‘I presume your son isn’t home’

 

‘Edward? No.’ She responded in a way that defined the impossibility of that scenario. ‘He stays out all day long. He doesn’t get along with the rest of the kids for some reason but he still manages to find something to kill his time.’

 

I kept looking at her wondering how to break the news. When the silence began taking its toll, she began. ‘So! You wanted to talk to me about something?’

 

‘Yes!!’ I responded abruptly. ‘Yes’ I said again in a much gentler tone. ‘It’s about your son.’ I could feel her discomfort as soon as she heard that.

 

‘What is it?’ The spunk had died out of her voice.

 

‘I met him on my way to the town. I saw him in the forest. I even spoke to him.’ I kept strategizing on how to go on. This was no easy task. Her attention got heavier with every moment of silence. ‘Ma’am, I….. I have good reason to believe that your son might be a soul keeper.’

 

Her eyes told me how peeved she was at me. A reaction so full of rage and disgust as if I had told the most offensive joke of the century. It probably was. ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about. You’re saying that my son….. my Edward is a soul keeper?’ She asked me to make sure that that’s exactly what I was implying.

‘Yes.’ I had nothing more to say to her. Nothing safer, nothing more comforting. ‘Yes, I do’

 

‘Do you understand what you are talking about? Who are you anyway and what makes you think you can just barge into my house and say such a putrid statement?’ Rage quickly seeped into her voice. It was completely understandable.

 

‘Listen Mirriam. I am Mikhail’s friend. I come from the capital. Not the west. From the mainlands.’ I didn’t have too many words so I had to make every word count. ‘Look. I know it sounds crazy. I can hardly grasp the magnitude of things as I say them. It’s just as shocking to me. I used to know a couple of soulkeepers back when they weren’t an extinct breed. I’ve worked with them long enough to identify a prospect. Believe me. Your son is a prospect’

 

She rushed to the door. Pointing her hand outwards, she yelled at me. ‘LEAVE!! NOW!!! I won’t listen to another word of this.’

I squeezed my face with my hand thinking of a way to make her listen. I wasn’t going to leave without them.

 

‘Please. Hear me out Mirriam. This is not a joke. Your son, he’s fourteen right? Just look at the facts. Tell me, when was the last time he was sick?’ Her angry red eyes started to flutter with hints of shock. ‘You must have also noticed his affinity with animals. You must have noticed how they flock around him. He looks like a natural, doesn’t he?’

 

Just when I was starting to make progress, the kid showed up at the door. Mirriam grabbed by his arm and pulled him into her protective grasp. The scared and confused kid spotted me and a hearty smile cleared up his psyche. ‘Hey mister!’ He exclaimed happily. He then turned to his mother. ‘Hey Ma! Shugu hurt her wing today and was bleeding out. This man saved her life.’

‘Shugu, that pigeon?’ She tried talking normally to not spook the kid out yet.

‘No!! The sparrow’ The way he responded highlighted his disappointment in his mother’s bird-name-remembering skills.

‘Oh, that’s very nice Ed. Listen why don’t you go inside. Just stay there for a while hon. Do not come out till I tell you to. This man will be leaving now.’ The kid didn’t want to go in but she had made it very clear what he had to do. She walked him inside and came to face me again. ‘Listen Mister. I don’t care what you say. You need to leave. Please, just leave and never show yourself to us ever again.’

 

I bowed my head down. ‘I’m sorry Mirriam. I can’t. I can’t leave here without him.’

Without hesitation she drew her sickle out of her belt. Pointing it towards me, she made her threat. ‘You’re not taking my son anywhere. Leave now and don’t make me use this.’

 

I raised my hands and faced my palms in her direction signifying that I had no intention to fight, resist or even defend myself, making clear my stance on total surrender. ‘We don’t have much time Mirriam. If we don’t settle this now, things will take a very ugly turn.’

 

‘What do you mean we don’t have time’ she asked me. She was notably scared. I could make things up so that things tip in my favour but I knew that lying now would only cement bad things for us in the future. I had to be honest and clear about this.

 

‘I’m a scout for the thieves guild. Some people are going to show up after me so we need to leave before they arrive. Mirriam, you need to get your son to safety before more people find out what he is.’

 

‘THIEVES GUILD? A THIEF!?’ She walked to me with the sickle on her stretched out arm.  She stopped when it was an inch away from my neck. I didn’t shudder and my wide open arms still screamed surrender.

 

‘You should put that down Mirriam. Even with a sickle in that position, there’s no way you can hurt him. He’s quick and you’re not a person who could ever hurt someone else.’ She and I quickly turned our gaze to the source of the voice which came from the door. It was old man Wilson.

 

‘Lord Fawk!!’ She uttered in absolute shock. The sickle was still on my throat.

‘Lord? You’re the lord?’ I said, muffled in shock.

 

 

Here’s the next chapter : Chapter 5 – The Deadline

The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 3

A Convincing Bargain

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

Being held hostage isn’t fun. This wasn’t my first playing captive and it sure as hell wasn’t my last go at it. In my line of work, something like this isn’t considered out of ordinary. I knew that this was ultimately going to lead to a very constructive conversation so I didn’t bother wasting my time and energy looking for escape routes and weak links in the squad holding me hostage. Instead, I just basked in the peace and glory of this peculiarly beautiful place.

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The town centre was much busier than the inner parts of the town. Anomalous things weren’t an anomaly around here. Every person I could see was clearly well off. Everyone had all the food they needed, they wore the best clothes you could buy in a place like this and it applied to even the smallest vendors. The structures in these parts were extravagant for a small town and were very well maintained. I saw several specimen at the butcher’s porch that people would sell their kids for in the mainland. I saw a few stalls sell apples. Apples!! A single apple would sell for 2 golds in the mainland. These weren’t even imported from the outside. The apples were clearly grown here. Only one thing could explain how these people were able to grow apples in the desert lands of the west.

 

I saw a lot of things that I never hoped to see again. Things of the past that I thought would never resurface. The sight of all this made me well up. Now, we were at the gates of the lord’s keep. For the first time since I entered the town, did I see guards. The thugs around me were just hired muscle. The guards opened the gate and we walked in.

 

The lord’s keep wasn’t too extravagant. It was no better than the rest of the buildings in the town centre except for the size. The keep was huge. It was large enough to cram every person in the town if they needed shelter in special circumstances. The grounds spread wide and were well-tended. Multiple teams of guards circuited around the grounds which felt quite unnecessary. The place looked like it had too much security. Much more than it could possibly need.

 

We made our way inside the building through the main door into a giant hall. Two parallel stairs ran up to the first floor like most manors and on the sides were offices, quite heavily occupied and busy. I was taken around the stairs and into a very shady room. They asked me to sit inside while most of the party left except two who stood guard in front of the room. I still had all my weapons and equipment on me which made me wonder why they went to such lengths to abduct me but never bothered to disarm me. That’s the most reckless and irresponsible work I’ve seen from an abductor yet.

 

My feet twitched while I sat there thinking about how I was losing precious time. I kept thinking about my encounter with the boy over and over again. I was convinced that I was right about him but I still kept looking for any explanation to prove myself wrong. How convenient would that be? Time flew and after what seemed like half an hour, the guards called me out. I walked out and they escorted me to a room beside the office near the stairs. The door was closed. One of my escorts walked up to the door and knocked thrice.

 

‘Come in’, came a voice from inside.

The escort opened the door and I saw the back of a man, sitting on one end of a long table. He had long straight greying hair and wore a lavish robe. I walked in with my escorts who directed me towards a seat on the opposite end of the table. One escort stopped by the door and closed it from inside while the other one stayed by my side.

 

‘Please…. Have a seat’ said the man. He only looked a few years younger than me and was sporting a very calm and confident demeanour. I sat down facing him, waiting for him to speak. He peered at me as soon as he saw me but shook his head and began.

 

‘I’m terribly sorry for putting you through such a tiresome ordeal. You see, we don’t get too many visitors here. As you may have noticed on your way here, we have more than a few good reasons for being so cautious. It’s been years since I’ve had to do something like this. That’s how uncommon a visitor is for us. So, tell me. What brings you to the town of Vereen?’

 

‘I’m very sorry about abruptly troubling you my lord. I just came here looking for an old friend of mine and I recently learned about his demise which leaves me with nothing more to do here in your town. I assure you that I will leave here at once without giving you any more trouble.’ The man looked reasonable so I had to walk the same road as him if I were to get out of this fix without causing any problems. But the man suspiciously peered at me again as soon as he heard my voice.

 

‘Haha, please. Do not mistake me for the lord. I’m just the head of the merchant’s guild in this place and I provide counsel to the lord. He is too busy to worry about such trivial matters so I decided to deal with it. I used to be an outsider just like back in the day and I have a strange feeling that I’ve seen you before.’ He leaned forward in his chair as he peered at me. This would be the worst place for my cover to break.

 

‘I don’t suppose you have. I’m sure you must be mistaking me for someone else. I’ve never been to this place before and I come from a place much farther than the capital. I have no memory of seeing you either.’ I tried to be as composed as possible.

‘It’s not just your appearance. This voice, I remember it.’ Suddenly his eyes opened wide.

‘Do you mind pulling your left sleeve back?’ he asked me with excitement.

I looked at him for a few seconds and put my hands on the table. ‘Actually, I do. I would like to leave. My business here may be unfinished but my employer expects me to show up soon.’

 

‘Oh but we’re not done yet. Please, I insist.’ He sneered at me as he said that. Both the guards in the room squeezed their hands on the hilts of their swords to show me that they meant business. I leaned back on my chair and sighed. Slowly, I pulled my left sleeve back, revealing the long scar on my forearm. I knew I was busted.

 

‘If it isn’t Randall Smith!!’ he said in total astonishment. ‘What in the world brings the Randall Smith to Vereen!? Definitely not an old friend.’

‘How do you know me?’ I asked him. Not too many people knew about the scar. He sighed in response to the question and commanded his guards to leave the room for the two of us. As they left, he began again.

 

‘You may not remember me but I was in the guild back in the day. A few years before it was disbanded by the High King. I wasn’t a big name like you. I was just a fence who dealt with the small rat thieves. Back then almost everyone in the guild knew about that scar and how it came to be.’ He smiled. ‘I still find that story hard to believe.’

The small clues were enough for me to pick on. I closely examined his sharp, pale face for a while. ‘Sheepus… is that you?’ I knew my guess was right when I saw the shock in his eyes.

 

‘Wow Randall. I consider it an honour that you remember me even though it has been so long. But I don’t go by that name these days. My days as a small time fence are behind me so as a merchant in the nobility, I use my real name. Mikhail Holloway. I insist that you keep my past between us. I’ve left that life behind for a long time and I don’t want it to affect my standing in this place. You see, I’ve got a good thing going on here and I don’t want anyone to mess it up.’

‘You don’t have to worry about that Mikhail. I’m just here to meet someone. It’s a one-time thing. I assure you that I will forever be out of your lives once I’m done with my errand.’ I told him reassuringly.

 

‘Who is it that you want to meet?’ He asked me inquisitively.

‘Mirriam Forrest. I was hoping to meet her husband Kenny before I came here but I recently learned of his demise so I’ll have to make do with her. I have something that belongs to them. All I want to do is deliver it and see how she’s doing before I leave.’

 

‘No! How do you know Kenny? I did a thorough background check on him after his death. He lived in a remote island before he came here. He hardly knew anyone and lived a reclusive life. There’s no way you know him. Who sent you?’ I grew uncomfortable as his stance got more and more offensive. Kenny’s murder was probably one of the very few blotches on his perfect record with this perfect town and the mention of his name had seemingly hit a nerve.

 

‘Wait a second. I know that the thieves guild was re-established since the cold war. They’ve established strongholds throughout the Western Kingdom. Don’t tell me you got back into the guild.’ He paused and stared at me for a moment while my resolute silence gave him the answer to his questions. ‘You’re a scout for the guild, aren’t you?’ I remained unshaken throughout. Neither did I respond nor did I react. I could talk my way out of a situation like this with most people but fooling someone as smart and well-connected like Mikhail wasn’t something I could manage. This was the time for negotiation, not deception. An alpha merchant like him wants to cut the best deal possible and I had to come up with the best bargain if I wanted a way out of this.

 

‘You!! You’ve doomed this place.’ Astounded, he stood up from his seat. ‘All these years I’ve cloaked and protected this town. The era of despair hit immediately after the Waynecastle massacre and trade was just tumbling in every corner of the nation. I couldn’t bear the ugly sight of it so I fled back here, to my hometown. I didn’t have any family back here, but this was my childhood home. I was surprised how different this place was from the rest of the world. I worked with the merchants here for a year. We ventured to different towns and cities and saw how the world around us was crumbling. We merchants understood what we had while the rest of the townsfolk to this date remain obnoxiously ignorant of the outside world. They don’t know the plight of the people living outside and that was only because we merchants protected them from this information.’

 

‘After the one year I spent travelling and trading, I realized why Vereen was still alive and prospering. I felt the presence of the soul in this place. That realization gave me a sense of mission. After learning about the darkness and desperation glooming around, I took a pledge to protect this place from the evil outside. Taking charge and leadership was the first step. I quickly climbed the ranks in the trade business using my skill and experience as a fence. I vowed to the lord to hide this town from the world outside.’

 

‘A lot of steps had to be taken. Firstly, we made it so that going out of the town was frowned upon if you weren’t a merchant. Then the merchants were asked to hide the truth about the suffering of the world outside, even from their own families. We understood what was at stake here. We had to keep the circle small so we kept other people from trading outside. We always had enough money so we created all kinds of jobs here so that every single person had something to do without having to leave town. We hired guards and maids that we didn’t need. Hired accountants, bankers and bureaucrats that we could do without. We made this town completely self-sufficient. Everyone has a job and everyone is wealthy.’

 

‘We also have very planned and careful trade expeditions when we venture outside. It’s a smoke and mirrors expedition where we make plenty of diversions and keep circling around to hide the location of our place. Our caravans are heavily armed so we have never faced an ambush either.’

 

‘For over a decade we’ve remained hidden, we’ve remained safe. But now it’s over. You’ve come here and you’ve marked this place for death. We’re strong but we’re not strong enough to face the thieves guild. Once the word reaches out we’re doomed. Everyone would rush in here and ravage this place till there’s nothing left. The desperate folks outside will eradicate the last piece of soul from the country just to live on for a few more days.’ It broke my heart to see the man’s psyche get torn apart. He knew that everything he built and protected all these years was going to crumble. The one thing he swore to safeguard was about to be taken away from him. He was vulnerable and this was the time to strike the iron.

 

‘Listen Mikhail. None of us in the guild ever suspected that this town would still have the greens. Judging from the placement of a small town in a position so awkward in the maps, we expected it to be a wasteland. I was shocked to the core when I walked in here. It didn’t take me long to understand what was going on here and as you might know, I have good reason to feel the presence of the soul compared to most people. I knew what was at stake here. What you have here is beautiful and important and it needs to be protected. I understand that. Now, if you kill me or keep me locked up, it won’t be long before a follow-up party shows up. Trust me, they won’t be too easy to capture and squeeze. Their duty is to observe and report back to the guild and that will attract a lot of attention. Not the kind of attention you need.’

 

I had laid down the stakes for him and it was time to make the offer. ‘I don’t want the guild to ever set foot here. I know it’s absurd to ask this as a thief, but give me a chance. Let me try and take their attention elsewhere. I can’t guarantee you total success but even today I am a top member in the guild and my voice is taken seriously.’ There was no collateral that I could offer but I couldn’t give him anything more than basic assurance. ‘This place is much more than a chest to be looted. This place is the future of the world. I’ve seen too much despair in this world and I don’t want to see the innocuous people here to have to face the same fate.’

 

I stood up and walked up to him. I placed my hand on his shoulder and assured him. ‘Consider me a part of your mission Mikhail. The guild is my family but I’ll even face them if I have to protect this place. Only a few people know about my venture here and I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their silence. Let me go and deal with the situation. I just have one request. Grant the Forrests’ permission to leave this place.’ A million thoughts ran through his head as soon as he heard my offer.

 

‘Why?…. Why them? What do they have to do with anything?’ The offer was solid but he needed to understand the this strange variable.

‘I’m sorry Mikhail but I can’t tell you anything about that and I don’t want you to think any more about that. The safety of this town is of the utmost importance and their exit won’t hinder it. I’ll ensure their security outside and make sure that they are under the best care. They have an important role out in the world that they can’t fulfill by living here. I know you have a lot of questions but I am not at the liberty of answering them.’ He sat back down in his seat and rubbed both his hands on his face while considering his options.

‘I know it’s a lot to ask. Entrusting something so valuable to a thief like me is an enormous gamble but you know my history and you know I have enough reasons to protect the soul.’

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After taking a moment to think, he looked up to face me. ‘I used to look up to you Randall. You were an adept thief but more importantly you were a great man. You always put the interests of your fellow-men before you and that’s why everyone respected you. Please Randall, don’t betray me. You can leave and so can Mirriam and her kid. They are family to me, like every single person in this town. I am entrusting everyone’s fate on to you. Please….. do not forsake us.’ He stood up and shook my hand. I gave him a promising nod and we left the room.

 

 

Here’s the next chapter : Chapter 4 : A Confounded Mother

The Soulkeeper and the Guardian, Chapter 2

A spirited inquiry

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

This was not good. My mind got cloudier by the second like a raging typhoon. I needed to figure things out before someone else found out about this. My arrival here had already marked this town. Something was still off about this place. A place so serene wouldn’t have survived all these years without someone protecting it and the secrets within.
Slowly, me and Sheena made our way through the forest while reminiscing about the latest discovery. The best option at hand was to assassinate the child before he ventured out into the world. A world so cruel and decaying which will devour him before he even gets to flap his wings. Sadly, that kind little bird won’t survive in its own nest for any longer. He had the misfortune of my sudden appearance. It won’t be long before the eagles come hunting and the vultures feed on what’s left of it.
I don’t have long but I have enough time to fix this. The forest started clearing up as I reached the end of the path and I was in the farmlands now. This town was pretty much structured like the last prosperous settlements on the continent. Farmlands on the outer circle, the housing ring inside it with the markets spread across them. The Lord and the prime merchants in the inner circle. Of course the difference is that the towns didn’t fortify each ring with huge walls. Every ring seamlessly merged with each other, eliminating most class differences. That was the difference between the grand cities and the timid towns. While the city folk distanced each other, the town communities were a single unit, living together as equals to sustain themselves and their own town. That’s what most towns were like back in the day. But since the Waynecastle massacre, the little prosperous towns have turned into putefying slums.

 

This beautiful exception was a breath of fresh air. I felt like I was reliving a pleasant, lost memory. It felt as if I was transported two decades back in time, back to the good times. The plush farms told me that these people had more than they needed. I didn’t want too much attention and luckily the sunny summer noon was keeping most folks inside. It took me no more than 20 minutes to get through the farmlands which made up most of the town. I still hadn’t seen as single soul outside. As the residential hub got closer, I could hear a dull afternoon market bustling. I got down from Sheena to keep my cover and avoid any unnecessary attention and made way through the shabby roadside markets.

 

There was enough noise and chatter to drift through these streets unnoticed but the townsfolk had clearly taken notice of me. Noises dulled and glances shot at me as I walked through. It was clear that these people weren’t used to visitors from the outside. One of the vendors made a run for the central market as soon as he spotted me. Word was about to spread of my arrival. I didn’t waste any time and walked into the nearest alley with Sheena. We walked through them and made our way towards the centre. A few turns and twists later, I found myself in the busy town centre. I pulled my hood up and kept walking at the edge of the giant circle till I found an inn. I tied Sheena by a pole outside and walked into the place.

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It wasn’t too lively. This being the middle of the day, only a couple of drunks sat around chugging mead down their throats. The innkeeper was at the bar wiping away mugs at the counter. He slowed down when he noticed me and got back to what he was doing as our eyes met. I slowly pulled my hood down and walked up to him. He was a heavy-set man with a large hanging belly held together by his apron. His small semi-bald, egg shaped head looked odd on such a huge body but his thick bushy mustache made up for it. I took a seat at the counter beside a frail old man.

 

‘What’s the best mead you have?’ I asked the innkeeper.

‘We have some Jilliperbrew mead but if you want something on the stronger side, we have some Lancaster too’, he said.

‘Jilliperbrew will do’ I put three silvers on the counter which he swiped away. ‘One Jilliper coming up’. He had to walk into his stores as his barrel was dry.

 

‘That kiddy mead never gives me the kick’, the old man beside me muttered. He was simultaneously drinking two meads from two different mugs but it looked like he had just started his session for the day. This was the perfect opportunity for me to scoop some information out. ‘It just helps me warm up for the real stuff. What’s that you got there?’ I asked him.

‘I got bored with sipping the same shit all these years that I now have to drink two different things at the same time to keep me from getting bored. A thousand times I’ve asked this fat-ass to get me some new mead from a new place but all he’s ever done is disappoint me.’ He emptied one of his mugs and slammed it on the counter.

 

‘How do you like your spirits?’ I asked him to grab his attention. He looked at me with his eyes wide open. ‘Spirits? I’ll take any spirit that I can get my hands on. It’s been years since I’ve seen a spirit in this rotten place.’ An energetic retort slowly turned sad at the end.

‘You know, you’re in luck today old man’. I slipped my hand inside my cloak and pulled a small bottle out of my pocket. ‘This here is a small serving of Volosil. They are usually used to light up a fire in the most adverse conditions but they do make for a good drink. It’s a single shot but it’s enough to send you flying’ I put on a smirk as I knew I had already won him over. He zoomed in on the tiny bottle and looked up at me with big wide eyes. I gave him an affirmative nod and he took it out of my hands.

 

‘Bless you lad’ he said with enormous gratitude. ‘Never thought that I’d ever see a spirit again before I died here in the middle of nowhere. I’m gonna save this for a rainy day.’ He put it in his fanny pack and shuffled through his coins. ‘So, how much do I owe you?’

‘Ah, don’t be ridiculous. It’s on me. Just glad to fulfill another man’s age-old wish’ I told him in a very ludicrous tone to which he chuckled.

 

‘You don’t look from around here. Where are you from?’ he asked me to make conversation as a form of gratitude.

‘I come from the capital. Actually I’m here on business. I was looking for an old acquaintance of a friend of mine. Goes by the name of Forrest. I wanted to have a word with him.’

‘Forrest? That poor lad died 10 years ago. Murdered’ he sighed. ‘Such a shame. He was a newlywed. Left behind a pretty young widow and a 4-year-old son on their own.’

‘Murdered?’ I asked him while I put up my best “shocked” expression.

 

‘Yes. He was out on one of our caravan expeditions. He got separated from the rest of the crew while he was in the capital. They looked for two days and finally found his body lying by a drain with his throat slit across. He was buried in the capital as they couldn’t haul a rotting body for the 10 day ride back from the capital.’ He paused for a while. ‘We should have let him stay. He never wanted to leave the place, never wanted to go with the caravan. Always asked around for someone else to sell his produce but nobody ever bothered to help. He was a good man. A good young man who died too soon.’ He took a large gulp from his second mug till it ran dry.

 

‘I didn’t expect that things would go so bad’ I told him. ‘But I have something in my possession that belongs to him. I was planning to hand it to him but I guess it belongs to his family now. Where exactly do they live? I’ve never met the man himself before and I have no idea who his wife is either.’

‘You’re looking for Mirriam. She lives by the farms with her weird kid. She’s the only one who grows carrots around these parts so her house shouldn’t be too hard to find. It’s about time someone from their past showed up. As you know, Kenny was an outsider unlike us. Nobody has ever visited him or his family since he moved in here fifteen years ago with his newlywed wife. We don’t get much outsiders here in this place anyway. It’s locked up too deep inside the drylands.’

 

‘Thank you’ I told him as I got up ready to leave. He looked up at me curiously. ‘Hey, what about your Jilliper?’ he asked me with a look implying that I was committing a great sin by wasting good mead.

‘I’m running short on time. You can have it, that is if you don’t mind some kiddy mead’. We both laughed.

‘All right, I’ll take care of it. By the way, if you need anything else, come looking for me. I’m Wilson Fawk.’

 

‘Alright Wilson, I’ll be seeing you’, I said as I walked out of the place. I hastily walked up to Sheena. As I began untying her hitch from the pole, I felt shadows creep up on me from every direction. I looked up and men with clubs and axes had surrounded me. ‘Leave your horse here and come with us. Don’t try and stir up trouble, we don’t want any either.’ said the only one of the men wearing armour and wielding a battle hammer.

 

I knew that I couldn’t fight my way out of this. ‘All right, let’s get on with this’. I left Sheena tied to the pole and walked with the group of ten armed men towards the lord’s keep.

 

 

For the next chapter : Chapter 3 : A Convincing Bargain

The Soul keeper and the Guardian, Chapter – 1

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A soothing breeze marked the end of this treacherous journey I’ve been on for the last three days. I’ve ridden Sheena for years through worse conditions but it hurts me to have her go on such expeditions in this age. For all she’s been through, she needs to laze around in a nice ranch in her final weeks. I could feel the delight in her bounce as we grew closer to our destination. Yet, this was not about finally making it to the place. There was something delightful about this town. Unlike the rest of the settlements in the west, this was the only place that felt alive. The scorching heat was now behind us and a unique warmth welcomed us inside.

The town was perfectly holed up in the valley of these dusty mountains while a spread of wild shrubbery masked the face of the town, making for a convenient camoflauge. It was unnerving to see such luscious greenery in the west, especially in the wild. There was a mile of road through the forest to go through. Judging by the parallel cavity tracks, caravans were the only ones to use the road. The fresh wind of the jungle revived Sheena’s gloomy old face. It had been years since we’ve ever been inside a jungle. Halfway through, I stopped in my tracks as soon as I heard a tiny squeak. I waited for a few seconds and heard two more. My eyes darted in the direction of the sound where I spotted two big brown squirrels.

‘Impossible’, I muttered and slowly got down from Sheena. With muffled footsteps, I walked in their direction to get a closer look. I questioned my conscience if it was worth to hunt the probably last pair of squirrels in the world even if it were to fetch me a full bag of gold. While I got closer, thier tails suddenly shot up and they darted inside the forest. They didn’t even notice me. They probably heard something inside. I decided to spend my good time on following these squirrels. Watchfully, I creeped through the place like a sharp reptile hoping to catch a glimpse of another extinct being.

The ground beneath me looked like a field of little lights from the rays being scattered across by the meshy trees overhead. Through the tiny crunches of dry leaves at every footstep, I could hear a faint orchestra of birds chirping. I was startled to see birds flock a young boy on his knees on the ground, tending to something. The two bluebirds on his shoulder flew away as I approached him slowly. He was holding an injured sparrow in his hands that was bleeding profusely from it’s leg. I stood there for a few seconds observing and he still didn’t seem to notice me even though I stood just behind him.

‘You need to tie it up before it’s too late’ I exclaimed clearly. He turned behind to face me. My sudden appearence didn’t seem to startle him one bit. The boy was young. Probably younger than 15. His jet black hair grew down to his shoulders  and he had a slender build. His sad eyes oozed empathy which made me feel emptier inside. ‘My house is an hour away sire. I don’t think she has so much time’ I could smell his sadness in the air, a sadness so pure and true which would only result from a loss too personal.

‘Don’t worry lad. Let me fix her up for ya’ I drew a fresh rag out of my jacket. It was too large for a bandage so I cut a third of it. He handed me the bird and I wrapped the rag tightly around it’s leg. It quivered with pain but never made a single sound. ‘Well, that should keep her alive for now. She’s fully grown so she’ll recover soon as long as she gets enough to eat. I’m sure you can take care of that.’ I handed him back his bird and a bright smile tore up on his face. Again, joy. As pure as that of an infant’s that gets the attention of its mother when it seeks. In the dark world which I come from, seeing something like that is as rare as spotting a squirrel. Even from kids his age.

‘Thank you kind sir’, he exclaimed with a new found energy. ‘I don’t know how to repay you. You saved my friend’s life!’ His happiness was infectious as I felt a smile take shape on my face. ‘There’s no need for that Sonny. You’re the kind of person that a rotten world like this needs. No wonder you people still have the greens around you. Feels like a trace of soul still looms in this place.’ He was puzzled with everything I said. His confusion made sense. These people have been living in total seclusion. They have no idea about the world outside. ‘Just stay the way you are. You seem to understand what’s most important’ I said heartily while I patted him on his shoulder.

A sudden chill ran up my spine. My hand reached the handle of my holstered dagger while I shook my head around looking for anything abnormal. I could feel like I was being watched, with malice. A hundred watchful eyes all around me, yet I couldn’t see a single person. The boy was taken aback with my perplexedness. A few seconds later, I could hear them moving. The leaves on the ground crunched, the branches around me creaked and wings flapped. I was being watched, not by people but by beasts. All kinds of beasts. From lizards to birds. From cats to hounds. Every beast around me felt like a cornered animal. One ready to fight with all its might to survive. A beast pushed so deep into desperation that it is ready to defy every law of nature to survive.

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I stood around with total awareness while the gaze of the animals around me grew weaker. My hearbeat became more stable with every passing second. What did I do to trigger a response like that? I looked at the boy standing beside me, completely confused about what was going on. ‘Mister, are you all right?’ he asked me gently. I hadn’t gathered myself fully yet. I kept staring at him without anything to answer. I had grown so accustomed to conflict that it didn’t faze me anymore. Ten people trying to choke me to death in a bar was a weekly thing. It never gave me the shakes. Violence was just another small part of my life. Yet this was something else, something I’ve never had to face. It was as if I was facing the gruesome wrath of nature. There was nothing I could do.

Suddenly, my mind cleared. For some reason, I wanted to pat the boy again. It was very clear to me that this was what I had to. ‘It’s nothing lad, just got spooked for no reason’. I took a step towards him and gave him another pat on his shoulder. I felt the rush again. The rush of fear. Every strand of hair on my body shot up while I tried my best not to look spooked again. I felt the same malice flowing from every direction. This time my heart started beating even faster. I could feel myself breath faster. I felt stupid for even considering it. There’s no way that’s true. I looked at the boy again.

‘Boy, do you remember the last time you fell sick?’ I asked him. He looked at me with astonishment. He looked at me as if he had always expected someone to ask him about this and was baffled by the odds. ‘No. I don’t remember the last time I was sick. It’s strange, I asked my mother about this and she told me that I was stronger than the rest of the kids in town which is why I never got sick. But, why did you ask me this? Did something give it away?’

I tried my best to handle my shock. After standing frozen still for three seconds, I responded with a ‘heh, no reason’ with a quirky half smile. This could just be a co-incidence. Maybe it’s the town. These people live a cultured life. Maybe the boy just got lucky.

‘Don’t mind me. I don’t know why I say the things I do. But tell me, how old are you’, I asked him hoping that I was wrong. ‘I just turned fourteen two moons ago’ he said heartily, exclaiming how proud he was to be a year older than he was. I didn’t share his enthusiasm. I was getting all the answers I didn’t want to hear. There was no way this was happening. All logic told me that it was impossible but my gut wasn’t ready to give up yet.

‘Hey, have you ever seen a squirrel around these parts?’ I asked him. A question like that on the mainland would make people assume that I was insane.

‘Yes! There are so many squirrels here. As a matter of fact, two of them are here right now’. I got more and more nervous by the second. ‘Do you see them?’ I asked him.

‘No, but I know they’re here’ he said as a matter of factly.

‘You just know!?’ I asked him while wearing a very confused look on my face and he nodded in response as if it was something very normal. For some reason, I uttered a question without thinking. ‘Can you…. call them here?’ I asked him with a shameful pause halfway.

‘Yeah, sure’. He stared behind  me and stood there without doing anything. He didn’t call out or even move a muscle. His empty stare was asnwered with some ruffling behind me. Two squirrels came sprinting from behind me from both sides and they ran up on his shoulder and started circling around while trying to maintain their grip on his shirt. The boy giggled as they crawled on him lovingly. They finally found a seat. One on his left shoulder and the other on the top of his head. The three of them looked at me.  ‘This is Shawna and this is Randall’ he pointed at both the squirrels on him. I tried my best to get this over with my sanity intact.

‘Charming friends you have there. What’s your name again?’ I asked him.

‘Edward. Edward Forrest. But my friends call me Ed. You can too.’ He answered. I forced a smile upon my face. ‘Well Ed, I have some urgent business to tend to. I’ll be seeing you again.’ I waved him goodbye and walked back to my horse at an abnormally fast pace. Sweat rolled down my face while my heart still pounded heavily.

‘No’

‘There’s no way’

‘Fourteen years! Someone should have noticed’

I kept muttering to myself on my way back. I untied Sheena’s hitch from the tree and hopped on. I looked back at the direction I came from.

“There’s no way he’s a soul keeper! They killed them all”

The Last Letter.

Dear Mom,

         I was ready to take it. I was willing to put up with all of it. Dad left us and you blamed me for it. I hated him for leaving us. But I never agreed with you. Never did I think that I was the reason Dad left. But I never told you otherwise. When you blamed me, I never argued. I never resisted and neither did I ever fight back. I was just as hurt as you were but I didn’t want you to leave me either so I put up with it. You were the only one I had mom. The only one.

      I never understood why things went so far when Todd came into your life. It never seemed to me like you loved him like you loved Dad. He would just come home and drink with you and you would lock yourselves in your room all day. I don’t understand why you started hitting me when he came into our lives. The blows got worse with time. You only used to slap me in the first few weeks. I could see that you were holding back. It excited you, but you held back. That restraint got weaker with the weeks to come. You only hit me when he was home. He laughed when you used to unleash your rage on me. Bearable slaps on my face turned to kicking me while I lay on the ground, wincing in pain.

       I never planned on revolting. I never asked you to stop. I never begged for mercy. I would just cry. I would hold back as much as I could and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I would cry. I remember you smiling whenever I started crying. You smiled for different reasons when Dad was around.

        Even though you were good at disguising my bruises, you couldn’t cover them all up. My teacher was one of the first ones to notice. Willis, the boy who sits beside me was the second. We never spoke because I was just scared of making friends. But he noticed. He noticed that I was hurting. They asked me. They asked me if you were hurting me but I lied. I covered it up. “I tripped and fell”. That was my most common excuse. The both of them saw through the lie but they needed evidence before doing something about it. They needed me to give in, but I never gave in Ma, I would never give you up.

    I was willing to put up with it. But Todd got involved. Lately, he assisted you in assaulting me. Like when you started out, he was hesitant in the beginning but with time and experience, he got more and more brutal. He knew that I was willing to take anything he would dish out. I guess he wasn’t quite convinced with a few blows. He wanted to take it to the next level.

         Maybe he wasn’t satisfied with just you. Maybe he wanted more. He came to my room on the night of Friday. You had already slept. I was on my study when he came in. I did what I always did, I avoided eye contact. I didn’t want to come off as disrespectful or rebellious. He slowly walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. I braced myself but there was no blow. He caressed his hand on my neck. I could feel his breathing get heavier by the second.

        I am going to spare you the details Mom. I was really willing to live with anything you did. But not him, he doesn’t get that privilege. I couldn’t take it mom. What he did that night broke me mom. I hate myself for never even trying to resist. I guess I had gotten so used to surrendering myself. I think it’s time for me to surrender myself for good. I know that I won’t be able to fight back if this were to happen again. This would definitely happen again. This was the first time and I’d like to think that he held back. In time, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t hold back. I can’t take that. I can’t live like that.

         I still love you Ma. This is not easy. I am scared of doing it but there’s no other way Ma. I’m really scared. I’m sorry for leaving you. I’m sorry for leaving you like Dad did. But you have Todd, you won’t be alone. I’ll miss you Ma.

I love you

Sarah

The Helping Hand :Chapter – 1

Jonas was casually speeding on the two-lane road he was driving on. He cruises through the sketchy traffic on the road like he practiced on his video games. He was never a fan of the brake pedal either. “It’s too much work”, that would be his justification. He was having a great time till he heard some ruffling. The carefree smile turned into an ugly scowl when he looked at his sister.

             ‘What are you looking for Avi?’ The ruffling stopped. Jonas slammed his hand on the dashboard which shook Avi out of terror. ‘Don’t go through my stuff you runt. Hands off!’

              Avi took her hand out of the glove compartment and closed it shut. The tear drop that lingered in her eyes all this while finally slid down. She didn’t want him to see her cry so she turned left to see the moving traffic beside her. The light streaks left behind by the moving cars and the city lights looked wondrous through her wet eyes. She felt like a lost child in a giant oil painting like the one in her hall. Her thoughts sank in the beautiful imagery till she caught her reflection on the window glass. When reality kicked back in, she unfolded the visor and looked at her face in the mirror. She touched the swollen lump on her left cheek which shot a jolt of pain. It was less bluish than last night but was just as painful. She turned to her brother with her large pearly eyes wide open.

              Jonas looked back at her. ‘What do you want now?’, he asked her in a tone of revulsion.

             ‘Can you make this go? Please? I don’t want to look like this. Not today. Please?’ she pleaded desperately.

             ‘What I can do, is put another one of those on your ugly little face if you don’t shut up’. He got back to driving wondering how cool it would be if he could say stuff like that to his girlfriend and getting away with it.

              Avi’s lips quivered in anguish. The thought of looking like that on her birthday almost made her break down. She looked back outside to forget the pains of life. They had entered the suburbs now and they were moving slower than they were. The displays on the stores on the road caught her attention. She looked at them as they kept moving along. Suddenly, she saw something that had her absolute attention. When they drove through, she saw a bright red dress on display in a store named threads. It was just her size and it was beautiful. She felt like time had slowed down when she saw it.

                She had had enough after getting an eyeful of that. Her street gazing endeavours had come to an end. With her head tilting down, she imagined herself wearing that. Her mom, complimenting how good it looked and giving her a kiss on the cheek. The thought made her smile till the car reached a screeching halt. Jonas had stopped in a dark alley. He got out and went off to talk to a few shady people in the corner. He walked back with a tall, slender girl wearing a tiny leather skirt that hugged her skin tight and a low-cut red blouse. Every step she took with those heels could be heard so clearly even inside the car.

                  The stench of the alley had just kicked in. Her eyes got used to the gloomy environment after a sudden shift from the bright lights of the main road. The darkness here didn’t scare her anymore. She was leading a much darker life. She looked at the hobos scavenging through dumpsters and camping around fires, rubbing their hands. She wondered if her life was any better than theirs.

                  Jonas and the strange lady reached the car. He got into the backseat and she followed suite. She made herself comfortable but then spotted Avi sitting on the passenger seat.

                ‘Hey, we’re not doing it with the kid here, are we?’ she questioned in a strange accent that Avi had never heard before. ‘It’s happening right here and right now’ he told her straight in the face. The woman looked out the window and saw her two friends waiting outside near the phone booth and gazing at both sides of the street. Business was slow today and she didn’t want to forego one good client. ‘Fine!’, she said with total disgust ‘but I’m not moaning for you’.

                ‘That’s fine by me. Just get on with it already.’ He was in a hurry too. Avi was staring at her knees while they spoke. She looked at the fresh scar on her knee and rubbed it hard hoping that it would disappear. Jonas then patted on her shoulder. She didn’t turn back but he had her attention. ‘You know the drill’. She nodded and clasped her palms on her ears. She shut her eyes closed and felt her heart race even faster. When she felt the car shaking, she squeezed her hands even tighter, turning her face red. Her mind was going crazy. She wanted to cry but that wasn’t the best idea at the moment. After a minute of struggle, she found herself in total darkness. She stood in an abyss with a spotlight beaming down on where she stood. Nothing was in sight as she looked around. After running around and struggling to find an exit, she spotted something in the distance. The spotlight followed her as she moved towards the object. As she got closer, she realised that it was a mirror, just about as large as her. She stood in front of it and was shocked to see herself wearing the same red dress she saw earlier at the store. She was in awe and looked at every tiny detail in the mirror. It was beautiful, she looked beautiful.

                All that joy was sapped out when she saw someone standing behind her. Her eyes opened wide in absolute horror when she was a pale blue skinned boy with totally black eyes standing behind her. She turned towards him and a spotlight fell on him too. He was frail and just wore a pair of shoddy black shorts. His skin was dry and his bones popped out. He looked like he has been suffering for a while but he had life. Ignoring the empty black eyes, he looked cheerful and friendly. He looked like he was full of life. When the terror started fading as they faced each other, she felt like she had known this boy for years. The sense of familiarity was comforting and put her at ease. Even the claustrophobia was dying. He opened his lips to say something but then stopped in his tracks. He paused and then put on a genuine smile which was reciprocated by her.

              ‘Avi. Do you want to be happy?’ He asked her in a very caring and mature tone. Avi had never seen a smile as genuine and pure aside from her mother’s. She was still trying to reconcile and understand the meaning of what he had said and why he said it. She nodded doubtfully and smiled back forcefully. She wasn’t good at smiling, she didn’t have much practice. She couldn’t remember the last time she smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time she was happy.

                ‘Close your eyes when you need me’ he said in a very concerned fashion. The spotlight that revealed him just disappeared with a loud thud. She shook her head here and there wildly looking for him and she heard another loud thud making her spotlight disappear too. She opened her eyes and unclamped her hands. Jonas was putting on his seatbelt. He was sweating profusely and had a proud smile on his face. He turned the rear-view mirror towards him and kempt his hair right. He cleansed his face with a handkerchief and wiped the lipstick off his nose.

                    He checked his watch and drove off. Avi’s mind was still boggled by her strange vision. It didn’t feel like a vision. She kept repeating what he said. “Close your eyes when you need me.” What would she need him for. She randomly closed her eyes shut, hoping to see him again and talk to him. She had so much to talk about. But nothing happened. She tried it again, and again, but nothing ever happened. She wanted to believe that it was just a silly dream but that was just her conscious mind speaking. Deep down, she wanted it to be real. She cleared her head and stared at the most awful place from the car. She was home.

-Rohit