Edgard etched away as quietly as he could, careful to make sure that the quill dancing up and down the brown parchment that was soon to become page 83 of the holy text, God’s Teachings and Runes, wasn’t loud enough to be noticed by the villagers in the other room. He had been scribbling with his quill all morning, hoping that he could finished the day’s work before the sermon was over, and the other brothers poured into the study to hammer away at their own quotas. Just two more to go. He grinned as he reached the bottom of the parchment and reached for another leaf.
The pages, which were stacked in front of him, were one of the few things in the room aside from a series of long wooden tables that the Brothers, Edgard included, used as their workspace. The individual stations that each Brother claimed as his own were nothing more than spots on benches next to the tables. These would-be desks, arranged in neat lines with their scratched up oak boards, battle scars from errant quills of uncareful workers, were the only noteworthy things in the almost vacant Church workroom.
“There is a little something to be said about irony,” a young female voice said from the doorway. With her dark blue dress that matched the color of the deepest ocean, or at least how oceans were depicted in Water Guild’s paintings, she stood out like a ray of sunshine piercing through gray and black clouds rather than simply being framed by the dull wooden walls of the study. “Yes, irony. Mr. Dudrune, the only person in the entire town without a god-given job is the only working bee this morning,” Mae said, giggling as she stepped through the doorway.
“There is also the Father. Is it not his job to convey the words of God unto the people?” Edgard’s face hung in suspension as he tried to discern whether he should frown or smile. She knows I don’t like being called those names and that she shouldn’t be back here. Half of him argued against the joy welling up in his heart, but, inevitably, just seeing her after two days apart was enough to win over his stubbornness, and he let himself smile. “What are you doing back here anyway, dear? You know you will get in trouble if one of the other Brothers catch you.”
“Well, technically,” she said, her own smile widening, “I didn’t even mean to end up in the study. Why, I went to use the lavatory, and when I came back, I got lost in the hallway. This building is so big, and I just couldn’t remember where my sermon room was.” She touched her forehead with the fingers on her right hand as she feigned a befuddled expression. “I’m so used to buildings with just one room, and this one has so many . . .You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Dudrune.”
Edgard laughed as he saw her confused facade crumble into giggles after only a moment. “You really are incorrigible,” he said with a grin. “You know though, the Father is going to catch you one of these days, and then you’re going to wish you hadn’t snuck in here so much.”
“A little fine and double shifts for a few weeks? A fair price to pay to see my little Edgard all cheered up.” She sauntered across the large room to where Edgard was sitting. “After all, if I didn’t come, then what would you be left with? Nothing but the bullying of jealous brothers who wish they could catch a girl as good looking as me.” She winked at him as she took a seat on the bench next to him and leaned her back against the table, facing him and the doorway. “Besides, you’ve taken plenty of risks for me, so one for you isn’t a big deal.”
Edgard hadn’t ever really taken any risks. He was in charge of inventory most of the time. Since his symbol couldn’t produce the slightest ounce of magic, the town thought that he would never be able to abuse his position as stone treasurer. After all, what good would the stones be to a shut-in who couldn’t even use them? For that reason, no-one ever checked the inventories and only went by Edgard’s word. That’s why taking a few of the stones every now and then to lend to Mae so that her family could have a better harvest was about as much as a risk as rain in the summer.
“If you say so,” he acquiesced as she scooted over and leaned against his shoulder.”
“I do.” She rubbed her head against his arm.
“Well, if you’re really feeling guilty about all the risks I take”–he let a mischievous idea pop into his head–“then maybe you could pay it off with a kiss or two.”
“Nuh-uh, we already agreed: No funny business until the Father grants you your own home. Then we can do all that couples stuff behind closed doors.” She shut him down right away.
“Ugh, but I already have a place to myself,” he grumbled, but he saw her shake her head at the argument. They both knew that it wasn’t actually his place. It was his mother’s, but she hadn’t been around for half a decade, so he had come to think of it as his place more than hers.
“But, knowing my luck, the second I try to move in, she’ll come back from whatever relative she’s visiting, and we’ll be left without house or home, literally.” Mae made a pouty face. “Just be patient. We’ve waited this long, so what’s the harm in a few more months?”
Edgard felt the air leave his lungs in one long breath as every chance of victory went with it. Arguing with her is harder than the small grinding stones at a mill. “Fine, fine, a few more months, but, when we do make it official, I’m going to have to hold you prisoner in our home for a few months to get retribution.”
“Retribution?” she gasped indignantly. “Why whatever wrongful act have I committed?”
“Careful with that one.” Brother Derian walked in with rosy cheeks, grinning ear to ear like he had just been given a promotion and had celebrated by drinking an imported cask of Nikdrin’s Widow Maker. Edgard might have even taken him for drunk, given his usual proclivities, if it weren’t for the fact that he managed to walk all the way through the halls without falling down or breaking something. “The words coming out of her mouth never affect the expressions on her face.”
“Maybe you should be careful about what comes out of your mouth.” Edgard found himself standing up with clenched fists before his brain could even sound a bell of reason in his head.
“Brother Failcast, just because God doesn’t love you, doesn’t mean I don’t.” Brother Derian’s grin never even flickered, much less faded, as he stepped up to Edgard with open arms as if he were about to hug him. “I’m just trying to stop you from making a mistake.”
“Awww, Edgard, don’t listen to him.” Mae grabbed one of Edgard’s arms and pressed herself against him until she was only an inch away from his ears. “After all, some mistakes are fun to make.” She promptly gave him a kiss, let go and darted towards the hall. “But it’s not fun getting caught making them, so I best get going before Father Wynchell finds me back here too. Toodles!”
Edgard’s face reddened as the implications of Mae’s flirtation sank in. The dirty thoughts started dancing across his mind.
Brother Derian’s smile broke into laughter as he watched Mae leave. “You should really give up on her and find yourself a nice, dull girl that won’t make you so hotheaded or leave you in suspense so often.”
“I might like her because she does those things,” Edgard answered automatically, not actually thinking about his response as his eyes and mind still followed the after image of Mae’s disappearing figure.
“And I’ve heard people say magebane tastes delicious and goes down easier than iced water in the summer, but it’ll still kill you.” Brother Derian shrugged and put his hand on Edgard’s shoulder. “Anyway, that girl is never going to settle down with you. It’s almost pitiful to watch.”
“She will.” Edgard sighed. “She just wants me to get my own place first. That’s all.”
“And, before that, she wanted to wait until you reached the rank of Brother, and, before that, she stalled you out by telling you it wasn’t going to happen until her parents said it was okay. You’re almost nineteen years old, Edgard. You should be working on your second or third child by now, not chasing around a set of pillows for your bed.” Brother Derian sat down at his own table and started setting up his workspace as he talked.
Edgard knew that, for all the grief Brother Derian gave him and the variety of insulting monikers he came up with, the man actually meant well most of the time. He was the only Brother who still talked to him after the initial hazing and harassment that came from being a “failure” at magic had died down, and if it didn’t feel downright embarrassing to say, he might even call Brother Derian his best friend. That’s why it was even harder for Edgard to just ignore Brother Derian’s advice as merely spiteful digs from a jealous jerk towards someone who caught the best girl in town. He almost always felt compelled by their awkward friendship to provide an argument or excuse when questioned, but then it always came back to something as simple as ‘Well, I like her, and that’s all that matters.’
Edgard turned back around and began diligently rushing to finish the last two pages, certain the conversation was over. Which it would have been, had he not, halfway through writing another page, realized a counterpoint to Brother’s Derian stab at his age and desperation. “But you don’t have a girl?” he blurted out, breaking the silence. “You’re older than I am. If getting some dull girl and settling down is so important, then why haven’t you? Are you planning to die alone?”
“Ouch, the wound you are digging with that one, Brother Cowbrand.” Brother Derian cackled a bit.
“Cowbrand?” Edgard sighed. He had heard a lot of names to pun or play off the fact that he was the only one in town that couldn’t use magic, who didn’t have a god-given purpose, but this one was a new one.
“Well, Brother Dimprint, I was just thinking that your rune, your imprint, was about as useful as a cow’s brand . . . so I kind of merged them. I’ll think of a better one next time.” Brother Derian shook his head.
“You ever going to just call me by my real name?”
“What would the fun in that be? Coming up with names for you is one of the few activities I get to do everyday that’s actually entertaining. Everything else just feels too repetitive–like,, if they had enough gears, they could find a way for a machine to do what I do.”
“There will never be a machine to replace us scribes.” Edgard laughed at the idea. “After all, copying text is one of few jobs that can’t be done by a five-year-old with a magic battery. You can’t honestly tell me that putting words onto paper, publishing the immortal words of the divine–”
“Oh, come on!” Brother Derian hit his desk in frustration. “You . . . You, of all people, are not going to try to sell me that cup of hogwash, are you? Between all eight of us Brothers, we finish dozens of books a year and only need the one we’ve had all along. I mean, I’ve had my same copy, which has been passed down for almost three generations now, since birth, and it’s none the worse for wear. So, where are they all going? What’s the point? You’re not allowed to profit off the books, and you can’t trade them or sell them, so what are we doing this for? Just writing them out so they can be stacked in someone’s cellar?”
Edgard, sensing Brother Derian’s frustration at the subject, felt elated as he donned his imaginary holy preaching mantle and prodded Brother Derian with the Father’s words: “But Brother Derian, it is not in the bee’s task to question why he gathers honey.”
“Don’t give me that,” Brother Derian grumbled. “After all, does it not also say that it is the product of our work that is to sustain happiness? Here I am, slaving on a brand new book with no progeny to show for it. There are no full bellies to compliment me for my toil, no tangible artistry to view on my walk to and from the house, not a single mark of my existence in this town. For all the rest of the town knows, I’m just a leech who eats their food, lives in a house they built and stares at brown parchments all day. How can a man be happy with that?”
Edgard looked at his inkwell and frowned. “You’re a leech who does what God tells you all day. It was your rune, your magic, that landed you in the brotherhood. Who are they to question what you do when what you do was divinely ordained?”
Derian noticed where Edgard was looking, and his face also fell a bit. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that . . . Of course I’m happy doing God’s work, I would just like to know where all the books go.”
Not wanting to dwell on the subject of his own inability, Edgard brushed off the comment. “You mean you were trying to change the subject from why I have to knock my girl up four times when you haven’t even found yours. Be honest. Is it the looks? Can you not find a girl ugly enough to match?”
“Hey! You go insulting my handsome face again, and I won’t fill up that inkwell of yours.” Brother Derian’s jolly demeanor returned almost instantly as he reached down to the ground, scooped up a few rocks and put them into an empty inkwell with water. The once-clear water glowed momentarily only to have black ink be in its place when the glow vanished. “If you want it, you have to say you’re sorry.”
“Fine, fine. I’m sorry for insinuating that you might actually have a chance with a girl if she were ugly enough.” Edgard chortled. “I mean, everyone has to have standards.”
“Alright, that’s it. You’re going to have to deal with Brother Gordon if you want more ink when you run out.” Brother Derian put the freshly made ink on his desk and turned back to his parchment as if the conversation were over.
“You’re not ugly, okay? Now, don’t make me talk to Brother Gordon again. He gives me the creeps.” Edgard got up and grabbed the inkwell before Brother Derian could respond one way or the other.
Brother Derian kept the grin plastered across his face as he went back to work. “You know, just yesterday, my sister was asking about you,” he said. “She always fancied what a hard worker you are. She’s even at marrying age this year, so maybe you should give her a go. I’d rather her be with a stick in the mud like you than some of the other lechers lining up. You know, one of the fire guild’s boys came by yesterday and tried to tell her that he was going to wed her as if she didn’t have a choice in the matter!”
Edgard hid a frown as he tried to come up with a way to dodge the incoming verbal arrow. He actually liked Brother Derian’s sister. Despite her plain appearance, she was funny, outgoing, and easy to talk to, but she just wasn’t Mae. In fact, if it weren’t for Mae, he probably would have tried to planned to court her once she was ready for marrying. She, unlike Mae, would likely have been more than happy to move into the big, fancy two-room house his mother had left when she disappeared, and they’d likely have been working on children–ones that could do magic, God willing. “She’s a looker, but what kind of man would I be to date his only friend’s sister?”
“So it doesn’t count if I’m trying to push her on you like last week’s leftovers at dinner? Fine, tell you what: You’ve only got a page or two left, right?”
“Yeah, two.” Edgard squinted his eyes skeptically. What are you up to, you old drunk?
“I’ll finish both of them for you and do two more every week if you can promise me one thing, Edgard.”
Edgard gulped as he realized the seriousness of the request that was about to follow. After all, Brother Derian had never actually said his name out loud before. “What is it?” he asked, hesitant on whether or not he really wanted to know what type of request his bullying friend would make of him.
“You promise that if your girl doesn’t agree to marry you when you finally get your own place, you break it off with her and at least try courting my little sister.”
Ha! So I don’t have to do anything after all, Edgard grinned to himself. Mae might have moved the target line for when they were going to settle down a few times, but she had made it clear as day this time, and there was nothing left to request. “You’re on, and make sure not to cut corners on my book pages like you usually do with yours.” Edgard got up, refreshed.
“That’s great news. Oh, and by the way, I talked to the Father yesterday. He’s taking back your mother’s place and giving you your own one-room house this week.” Brother Derian’s eyes closed as he laughed to himself like he had pulled a joke on Edgard.
So . . . So I actually am going to get my own place? Edgard’s mouth fell open. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, but you can’t tell Mae about it until the Father tells you the news himself. He’ll kill me if he finds out I sprang the surprise early.”
What? What kind of torture is this? I’m getting a place early, but I have to keep it a secret from the girl I love? “Sure, sure, I can wait,” Edgard agreed anyway. He was still stuck in a phase between shock and joy, trapped in physical stasis as his mouth struggled to get the response out. This was going to be everything he wanted, and all he had to do was wait a week.
“Now, if I were you, I’d get out of here as soon as I could. The rest of the brothers are coming in soon, and I don’t think you want to have to put up with them.” Brother Derian knew him too well.
“Yeah, good looking out,” Edgard said as rushed towards the door.
He considered peeking in on Father Wynchell’s sermon and checking up on Mae as he made his way through the halls, but then he realized exactly how early he had gotten off for the day. If the Father sees me free so early, he’ll find me extra work, and I won’t get out of here until the sun sets. Edgard grimaced at the notion. It had happened to him before. He had finished early once a few years ago, and the Father had made him scrub the stone floors until they could reflect his face. Afterwards, he was even made to replace the lightly-scented rushes that covered the stone floor. A thought occurred to him, What if I’m not in the back working when she leaves? His heart sank. Will I be able to find her for the rest of the day? He panicked. It was almost enough to tempt him into returning to work until she left on the off chance that she might visit his station again, but he shook his head and dismissed the idea.
No, today is going to be a good day. She knows where to find me if she wants to, he said to himself. Despite the confidence of his thoughts, he wasn’t entirely sure of as he rushed further down the hallway and out the main door. He was, however, absolutely positive he didn’t want to get stuck working all day with the other Brothers around, especially if they were irritated with dense pupils. That type of irritation would only make their harassments worse and likely more physical than usual. He flinched at the thought. Nope, not going to let that thought ruin my day. Happy times. His smile returned as he made his way back to his home.
Any lingering doubt from Edgard’s previous uncertainty and internal struggle over whether he should stay in case his romantic interest came looking for him faded as he opened the door and was greeted with intricately inscribed stone roads lined by green grass and flowers of a dozen colors. It was always enough to make his chest feel lighter and his eyes grow wider as they struggled to take in the beauty that was, for the most, absent inside the Church. Most of his days, he got out too late to see it in such perfect lighting, instead being forced to work quietly in the drab building of only a few different poorly lit shades of life. His days were filled with brown wooden walls, white stone floors and walls lined with red paintings of the different runes God blessed his children with. Other than the black ink he used to copy verses and runes, which wasn’t exactly a part of the church, and the identical blue uniforms that everyone had to wear in the town, there was never any color in the building, but outside was another matter.
Outside was different–and it wasn’t just the presence of roads either. The eight guild halls that surrounded the church on all sides, separated only by the stone roads, were elaborately decorated with the guild colors and pictures of their accomplishments. The four-foot walls of the Irrigator Guild’s building, or the ‘Water Guild’ as most of the town referred to them, were painted out like an ocean in such vivid detail that, at a glance, it might appear the water was actually moving, dancing along the surface of the walls.
As Edgard admired the craftsmanship of the guild hall, his eyes fell to rest on Fire Guild’s building. So one of them wants to steal up Derian’s little Hilda? He mused. Much like the nature of their magic, they had a habit of being flashy, demanding, and harmful to those around them. They weren’t actually of any higher import, they followed the direct tenants of God the same as everyone else, but they had a tendency to show out and act both haughty and superior. They were often inclined to jump to conclusions and fill in ambiguous details on their own, and it left them with what felt like, to Edgard, rather unscrupulous, self-centered morals.
They way they chose to ‘define’ work, for example, constantly annoyed Edgard. The scriptures taught that when a person was working and fulfilling their purpose with God he was to be considered first before all those who were off duty. An earth breaker that was busy twisting the soil, aerating and tilling the ground before the growers planted their seeds, was always more important than anyone eating in the common mess hall or in the church’s cafeteria. In this sense, a haughty attitude was perfectly acceptable and understood from all who were working when talking to those who were on breaks, lazing about or had no purpose to fulfill.
The Fire Guild, however, understood the meaning of work to be a little different. Their flame cells, the batteries that held the excess of their magical energies, were used to power everything from the stoves in the kitchens to the lights in the ten-foot-tall hanging street lamps. As such, they always acted like they were busy working, no matter where they were or what they were doing. Since their flame cells were almost always in continuous use, they counted each cell as them working. Against the wishes of God, who taught everyone always to strive for equality, they even developed a sort of semi-hierarchy within their own guild based on who produced the most flame cells and how much energy it would produce before it burned out and had to be refilled.
That’s probably also why Derian doesn’t want his sister marrying into a guild like that. As a rain caster, she’d be seen as a second-class citizen inside her husband’s home hall if she ever married a Fire Guild creep, Edgard reasoned. He could only guess that was the reason why Derian was okay with adding another two extra pages into his newly-begun shift. He had hopes of someone other than a burn-boy wedding the sister he constantly doted on. I don’t even get it. They’re not the only ones who make magic cells.
Edgard sighed. The whole thing bothered him mostly because, as someone without the ability to enchant or cast spells, he was a non-entity beneath them in every way. The only thing that would ever matter to someone with beliefs like those shared within the Flame Guild was someone’s magical abilities.
“Careful there, Edgard. You might trip if you don’t pay attention to where you’re going,” warned a voice mere inches in front of him. It came from rather large, stout man who stood a head taller than Edgard.
Edgard had somehow managed to look at everything but the road in front of him as he walked home. He had been so absent-mindedly absorbed in his thoughts, taking in the beauty of the town in a light he was rarely fortunate enough to see it in, that he had paid attention to everything except where he was going as he pondered the events of the day.
“Oh, sorry about that, Cedric.” Edgard scratched his head, feeling rather embarrassed about the situation.
“You heading to the food hall?” the stoic barrel of a man asked as he leaned over a bit and eyed Edgard up and down. “Or were you skipping meals again?”
“I . . .” was actually planning to skip the meal again and come back later when it was more peaceful, yes. He bit his tongue and shut the thought out before it could grow. “I’m heading to the–”
“The food hall. Good. I’m on my way too. We can walk together.” The man turned Edgard around 180 degrees and put a hand on his shoulder as if to say, ‘No, you can’t run away,’ while they walked. “If you don’t grow any meat on your bones, you’ll never be able to stand up for yourself,” the grower griped at Edgard as they walked.
“I shouldn’t have to stand up for myself,” Edgard mumbled, half-hoping his instinctive and snappish reply had gone unnoticed by the other man. They had this same conversation often: Cedric caught Edgard almost every other day when he tried to go straight home without dinner.
“And I shouldn’t have to tell you to eat your food, but here we are.” Cedric’s deep bellied voice boomed so loudly that people across the stone street turned to look, further heaping shame onto Edgard. He wasn’t purposefully yelling, or trying to draw attention to them, but that was just how Cedric spoke sometimes; and, given the generally quiet, hushed nature of the town, it always drew unwanted attention when he did.
“You know, it’s kind of eery how you always find me when I’m trying to ditch.” Even though Edgard was only four years younger than Cedric, he always felt like a child when being admonished by him.
“You should know that a Grower will always know where the weeds are.” He chuckled heartily and slapped Edgard’s back so hard he almost stumbled face first into the ground.
“Are you implying I’m a weed?” Edgard asked as he recovered his balance and straightened up.
“You grow erratically, don’t subsist on proper nutrition, and most of the other gardeners don’t like you.” Cedric made no attempt to dance around the sensitivity of Edgard’s outcast nature as he bluntly listed out the reasons. “I’d say that pretty closely describes a weed, wouldn’t you?”
“You just have to rub it in now, don’t you?”
“If you show up tomorrow and eat your lunch and dinner without me having to hunt you down, then I’ll stop calling you a weed. Deal?”
“I’ll think on it.” Edgard didn’t like the idea of lying, and he had no way of knowing if he’d have to skip out to avoid the bullies that weren’t concerned for his health.
“That’s your problem, Edgard, you’re always thinking about stuff. There is no good in that. I thought, as a Brother, you would understand that our purpose isn’t to think, and it’s not to solve the world’s problems and reinvent the runes. It’s to fulfill our purpose and find happiness. Just look at me: I wake up everyday, I go out and tend my crops, I eat my meals, and I come home to a well-raised pair of twins and a cute a woman. That’s happiness, and there is no thought involved.” Cedric slapped Edgard’s back one more time to seal his point and then laughed a little. Then, after a moment passed, he gave Edgard a squinty eye, sighed and followed up that up by saying, “Life is about finding joy in God’s gifts,” before dropping the subject altogether as they walked the rest of the way to the big five-story-tall food building in silence.
When they finally got to the place, they looked around and didn’t see many tables open on the first two floors of the food hall. “You wanna try the third one?” Edgard looked around at the crowded rooms. The rectangular tables, barely big enough to fit four people comfortably, were covered with engraved marble tops, each one uniquely colored and designed with different stories and runes from the holy text painted into the etchings on their white surface. However, it would be hard for one who had just walked in to see the splendor at first as the tables were mostly occupied at the moment. They weren’t all taken, but there was a particular painting on one of the tables on the third floor that Edgard alone must have favored because it was always free for him to sit at.
“Nonsense, plenty of places are open. Look, there is a perfect place to eat and with good company too.” Cedric pointed across the room to a table that had two spots open, the other two filled with a pair of his usual acquaintances from the Grower’s Guild.
Good company for you, Edgard wanted to snap back, but found himself mute and without a reply like usual. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” He couldn’t feign the same enthusiasm Cedric had, but he didn’t think the other man would catch or mind the tone of his half-hearted lie.
“Then it’s settled. Go take a seat, and I’ll get us each a meal.” Cedric slapped Edgard’s back again in the same spot. Edgard feared that, by the time they parted ways later on, he’d have a giant Cedric handprint between his shoulder blades.
Edgard looked at the two Grower Guild members and hesitated as his eyes found their way back to Cedric, who was already on his way over to the food. After a brief pause, he followed behemoth friend. “Thanks, but I don’t mind getting my own food,” he spoke timidly as he glanced back at the table.
“Edgard”–Cedric stopped and turned to face him with a hard flat look that would leave a wall jealous–“there is no way I’m letting you pick out your own meal. The last time I did that you barely put a potato on your plate. You need a balanced meal, a good pint of mead and a sweet dessert to chase it down. I’m going to get everything. You just wait over at the table, and don’t let anyone take my spot. I haven’t had a bite with those two in half a year, and I’m looking forward to catching up with them.”
“Yeah, sure thing.” Edgard barely managed to get the words out as he sighed, took a deep breath and headed over to the table alone. The idea of sitting down at their table like an unwanted stranger didn’t settle well, but neither did the idea of disappointing Cedric, one of his few friends. You can do this. You can do this, he told himself as he walked up to the table. At least this time they aren’t girls. He felt somewhat relieved, remembering how hard it had been to do this the last time Cedric had asked him to sit down with a couple of ladies who instantly assumed he was trying to hit on them. That had been more uncomfortable than when the Father used to strike his hand with a wooden stick for each mistake he made on a parchment.
The two growers, who had previously been chatting away as if it was their job, hushed up in an instant and turned to face him when he approached the table. “You’re the runeless runt, aren’t you?” one of them asked in the way that most people make a statement. The twins–Edgard instantly started to think of them as such in his head–were identical with their short stature, plumper-than-usual bellies and mangy, unkempt hair.
“I have a ruin.” Edgard averted his eyes the moment they met with those of the man who had just addressed him, choosing instead to stare at the table as he sat down. It was one of the paintings he wasn’t familiar with. He knew the story, the depiction of man first taming a beast with the help of one of the primary Hunters Guild runes, by heart from reading the holy text, but he had never seen it drawn out with such vivid greens and bright yellows.
“Did we say you could join us?” the other asked. “What if we were holding these chairs for some of our brothers going to the fifth floor for food?”
“Are you?” Edgard’s hopes rose for a moment. Cedric can’t fault me for not being here if they were originally someone else’s seats. I can go claim my usual table on the third floor, and he won’t be able to complain. “If so . . . if so . . . I’m sorry, and I can go.”
The two of them squinted their eyes as they stared at him. Then, the one on Edgard’s right who had first called him ‘runeless’ broke the silence, saying, “You actually have a rune?”
“Yeah,” he frowned. This was always fascinating to everyone. They assumed that, since he couldn’t use any magic, he must not actually have a rune.
“Can we see it? Here, you can see ours too if you show us yours. Just take a look at mine.” The one on Edgard’s left, whom Edgard was now referring to as Twin Two internally, excitedly rolled up his right sleeve and proudly displayed his rune. It was a beautiful design, one with an intricate set of circles and squares framing what almost looked like roots struggling to crack open a seed, but it wasn’t anything special to Edgard. He had seen it a dozen times along with all the other runes he had been forced to draw out in the holy book, including some that hadn’t shown up in decades.
The other man rolled up his sleeve to produce the exact same rune, grinning as if it were the greatest symbol a man could have in the entire town–not to say their God-given power wasn’t great. It was actually something spectacular. They could take an ordinary seed, one that might take years to grow, and turn it into a new, golden one that could become a mature plant in less than a month after planting. On top of that, as long as they and other growers maintained the plant, it would be capable of producing several harvests every single month instead of only one per year.
“Now yours,” they said in harmony.
“Okay, I guess, but only for a moment.” Edgard didn’t remember ever agreeing to it, but their looks said they didn’t care. Their eyes blinked a hundred times more than they ever should have as he began unbuttoning the top of his shirt to rather than rolling up his sleeve. Right in the middle of his chest was a long, etched-out rune that seemed to turn in on itself a thousand times. All the other runes Edgard had seen were pictured in the holy text, but his was not. His rune’s design may have appeared to be nothing more than a jumbled up mess of lines and circles to someone who had never seen it before, but to Edgard, it was an intricate pattern with an infinite number of repetitions. He had spent countless hours as a child studying it, hoping to find similarities between his rune and others, wishing that he could grasp why he had been cursed with the ugly, worthless symbol instead of the other runes given by God, but nothing had been made clear.
“That’s . . . What does it do?” Their harmony persisted even in their befuddlement as they continued blinking excessively, and their faces contorted in confusion.
“If it did anything useful, he wouldn’t have been forced into being a scribe.” Cedric laughed as he set down two trays fully stocked with every vegetable a man could think of on the table before sitting down next to Edgard. Each tray also had three glasses of mead and two slices of tart.
“Ugh, the lady who served us wouldn’t even let us take an extra apple,” Twin One griped as he saw the heavily-fortified wall of food in front of them. “How did you do it?”
“I just gave the old bitty a wink and a smile. You should try it. Maybe shave your head first though. You two look ridiculous with those dogs on your scalps.” Cedric gave the two twins the same squinted stare they had given Edgard when he first sat down. “Wait, you two working with Cuthberht?”
“Yeah?” Their harmony in answering left a creepy chill running along Edgard’s spine.
“Ha! I knew it. I almost grew my hair out when I worked with that grump too. The cantankerous old man really knows how to teach a man to enjoy his labor, doesn’t he?” Cedric started eating before he even finished his sentence, shoveling vegetables and pieces of fruit into his mouth without missing a word.
“Best type of job there is!”
I really need to get out of here. Edgard winced as the twin’s synchronized voices seemed to echo off each other before striking his ears and leaving him rattled and feeling uncomfortable.
“Now, Edgard, either you wipe that miserable look off your face and drink that first cup of mead in one go, or I’m going to keep getting you more of the stuff until you do,” Cedric demanded, setting one of his massive, heavy hands on his friend’s shoulder.
Edgard, who wasn’t sure if the hand was to hold him in place or support him in his endeavor, didn’t really feel it was his place to argue when surrounded by three growers. Growers always have been a bit crazy, but this could have gone a lot worse if it was any other guild. He tried to think positively as he grabbed the handle of one of the small, twelve-ounce wooden mugs brimming to the top with a golden amber mead and did his best to down it in one gulp. He got through most of it just fine, but the last little bit splashed back awkwardly, and he almost spit it up before forcing himself to finish it. He wasn’t good with alcohol, and the two additional cups awaiting their turn presented a daunting task.
“There. Done.” He took a deep breath and wiped some of the spilt meed off with his sleeve.
“Now the smile,” Cedric demanded, his hand still firmly pinning his friend to his seat. When Edgard gave in and forced a smile on his face, Cedric just moved his hand to clap Edgard’s back again. “There you go, little guy. Now tell me if you don’t feel better already.”
I don’t feel better already, Edgard wanted to say just to be contrary, but the big oaf was right: He did feel a little better. Whether it was the fact that the mead was the first bit of nutrition in his system since last night’s light dinner, the fact that it tasted delicious or just that, as awkward and uncomfortable as it was, he didn’t feel as lonely as he usually did, Edgard was actually happier than usual. “Thanks,” Edgard said meekly, but that mark is seriously going to be there tomorrow if you keep hitting my back so hard.
“No problem,” Cedric said, his mouth once more barely holding in the veritable garden of nourishment it contained as he spoke while chewing. “So”–Cedric paused for a moment to down one of his three cups of mead like it was a shot at the tavern–“You all hear about that new kid in the guild? The Pulverizer?”
“The Pulverizer?” Edgard was lost. He knew every rune in town and had never heard of a pulverizer rune. “What is a pulverizer?”
“It’s not a what,” Cedric said with a laugh and slammed the table with his empty cup. “It’s a who! There is a new kid in our guild, a new splitter to be exact, and when that guy’s rune fires up, and he strikes a tree, it’s like the flame guild’s fireworks on the first of the month! He can take out a great oak in a single swing. That’s why we call him The Pulverizer!”
Edgard’s attention to Cedric was cut in half as the other man rambled. It wasn’t that the subject was tedious or boring–Edgard had always had a personal interest in hearing about the different degrees of power the same rune could exhibit depending on the person–but there was a commotion at the door that drew his eyes and thoughts away.
“What’s going on?” The harmonic twins stood up to look over Cedric and Edgard in the direction of the door.
“Is something wrong?” Cedric asked as he and Edgard both turned their heads to get a better look at what was happening. Cedric hadn’t even managed to finish his sentence before the usual awkward hubbub and loud bustle that filled the crowded dining room area exploded into piercing feminine shrieks and yells. “Let’s go!” Cedric shouted over the clamor. He didn’t hesitate as he jumped up from his chair and darted towards the exit.
While Twin One and Twin Two joined him, Edgard found himself stuck frozen in his chair. Should I go too? he thought, but then looked at all the men exiting the food hall, all the bigger, magic-capable men. No, I should let them figure it out. Even if I went, I couldn’t do anything. He readjusted himself to face his meal and stare at his mead. They’ll understand when they get back. They know I can’t do anything. He tried to reassure himself, but those thoughts quickly came to an end as he looked up and saw smoke. Where is the- Oh, no. He started to panic as he realized that the smoke wasn’t coming from anywhere in particular, but from all around him. Suddenly, the wall in front of him turned black and went aflame.
The building is on fire! Where is the Water Guild? This time, he did jump out of his chair. Is that where everyone was going? I have to get out of here!
His legs, shaking and unsteady, managed to navigate their way towards the large crowd of people crammed together trying to push their way into the stairwell. The mob of people was slow to push out of the room. Bodies pressed against one another, and he was quickly surrounded on all sides by the frantic townspeople as they fought against one another in their desperate attempts make their way out of the burning building.
“Calm down! Everyone remain calm!” Cedric’s deep voice was unmistakable as it boomed out over the screams. Edgard wasn’t certain, he couldn’t see much over the back of people’s heads as they milled about in the doorway, but he thought he caught a glimpse of the larger man just further ahead and inside the stairwell.
Thick, black smoke was beginning to fill the room and it hung heavy in the air choking everyone trapped inside. Cries of panic quickly turned to coughing and wheezing as people struggled to get their breath.
“Oh God, what is happening?” one of the women wedged against him gasped out between breaths. Edgard noticed that she had ducked her head down and covered her face with her long hair in a weak attempt to ward off the smoke.
What is happening?
The building suddenly shook violently, and Edgard was pitched forward, unable to keep his balance. Surrounded as he was by the throng of people, he was unable to keep his footing under him this time as his weak legs failed him.
“God has forsaken us! We are doomed! This is His judgement! ”
There was a sound of an explosion from somewhere outside and the building shook again. Edgard gave up on getting his feet underneath him altogether and instead chose to crawl over the tangled mass of people in his attempt to reach the stairwell. He scrambled over them, clawing his way towards the exit, no longer caring what they thought of him.
“Agh! You little . . .” a voice growled from behind him.
Edgard ducked his head and redoubled his efforts to escape the burning building. He risked a quick glance back when he reached the stairwell and caught sight of an angry pair of eyes facing him. It was one of the members from the Flame Guild pushing himself to his knees, and he was apparently none-to-happy about Edgard having clambered over him in his attempts to escape.
Despite the blanket of black smoke that filled the stairwell, he could clearly see the bright glow of flames below, pulsating out of the entranceways to the cafeterias on floors below him. He stopped at the top of the stairs on his hands and knees, unsure of what to do. He could make out the forms of people clinging to the hand-railing, hunched over or curled up in small balls all along the stairwell. They were all as afraid as he was.
“What are you trying at? You think you’re better than us?!”
His moment of indecision had cost him as the member of the flame guild stumbled onto the landing. Strong hands reached down and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, dragging him halfway to his feet.
“I work harder than anyone here!” The man’s voice was coarse, and he struggled to get the words out, but he was clearly angry enough not to let something like a little smoke or lack of oxygen stop him from venting his anger. “Worthless, runeless cowards like you have no place–”
The building rocked again with the sound of an explosion, and the man was spun around and toppled forward down the stairwell, dragging Edgard with him. The two became entangled as they bounced downward, crashing into the huddled people along the way. The twisted lump of bodies crashed to a landing at the bottom, two levels down from where they had started.
Edgard was dizzy and disoriented from the trip down the stairs as he stared up at the smoke billowing out the door just in front of him. There was a sharp pain radiating out from his leg, and he had hit his head so hard when they landed that he had to blink to clear away the stars. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and the world swam sideways in front of him.
What the . . . I have to . . . He could hear screams from outside but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Where did . . .? Oh, God! Several other people who had been dragged downwards with him started to move, trying to free themselves from the pile of bodies. The sudden shifting of weight put new pressure on his leg causing him to scream out in pain. He squeezed his eyes together tightly and willed, pleaded and begged for the pain to stop.
He suddenly felt himself being pulled out of the pile by someone much bigger than he was. Who . . .? What . . .? Then the realization hit him. The guy from the flame guild! He jerked one of his arms upwards to cover his face and ducked his head down into it, keeping his eyes closed the entire time. Why at a time like this!? The world is ending, and he wants to abuse me today?!
“Edgard!” a voice bellowed at him. “Edgard! Get it together!”
That . . . I know that voice. “Cedric?” he choked out from behind his arm.
“Edgard, we have to get out of here!”
The much larger man hoisted him halfway to his feet and shoved him forward and out the doorway. Edgard stumbled forward a few steps, and pain exploded up his leg again. He only made it a short distance outside the building before falling face first into the dirt next to the street.
I have to—
His thoughts were interrupted as a giant blaze of heat flew by just above here he lay. He could hear the sound of another explosion as it crashed into the building behind him. Edgard jerked around just in time to see the bright flash and have a blast of debris and rubble fall onto him, effectively pinning him down underneath several large sections of the building that had been knocked loose. A cloud of dust generated from the stones and mortar immediately blew up into the air, causing him to choke and cough, once again struggling to get his breath.
“Oh ho! Another one bites the dust!” a voice cried out in obvious amusement.
“Really? That’s the best that you can come up with?” a second voice chided derisively.
“Hey, all I can do is work with what I’ve got on hand. I just smoked that scrawny kid.”
“How long have you been waiting to dust off those old jokes?”
“Ach. You just have no taste. It’s too bad these people are so weak. I might have been able to come up with something better if they were actually capable up putting up even the semblance of a fight. I’d have to say they’ve”–the first voice paused as if adding dramatic effect–“fallen on hard times.”
The second voice groaned. “Really?”
“Of course! You’d think they’d at least try and go out in a blaze of glory!”
“You’re hopeless,” the second voice admonished.
Edgard squeezed his eyes shut tightly and concentrated on holding his breath. Each breath he took sent a stabbing pain into his chest and the acrid combination of dust and smoke caused him to cough uncontrollably, which, in turn, caused his chest to hurt again and forced him to fight for breath in a vicious circle. If I just don’t breathe, maybe they will think I’m dead and go away. Think I’m dead. Think I’m dead. Go away!
“Well,” the second voice continued, “what’s the plan? Are you going to just stand there the entire time and continue destroying that one building? Or can we finally move on now?”
“Our intel indicated that this building was being used as some sort of mess hall. It’s doubtful that they’re all dead in there yet,” the first responded.
“No, but our orders were only to smoke them out,” a third voice joined the first two. This one was much deeper and more serious than the others. “I doubt we’ve got them all, but we have other matters to attend to as well. We can’t have the bodies completely burned beyond all recognition. We’re already going to have to waste time and energy putting out that blaze as it is to recover the ones trapped inside.”
Recover the bodies?! What do they want with the bodies? He was so shocked by the idea that he involuntarily sucked in a breath of chalky smoke that sent him into another fit of coughing.
“Looks like that last runt isn’t dead yet,” the second voice responded.
Oh no! Edgard cursed himself and his bad luck. God, why? Why have you cursed me? Have I not tried to serve you well?
He could hear the sound of gravel crunching under a pair of boots as one of the people made their way towards where he lay prone under the pile of rubble. When they finally stopped, he twisted his head around and opened his eyes just enough to make out a shadowy form standing over him. It stretched out a hand towards him and a glowing orb of red light was immediately visible through the haze.
Edgard recoiled from the sight as much as possible while pinned as he was. He wanted to run, to flee, to hide, but he was trapped. He willed himself to disappear underneath the blanket of smoke and rocks. What is going on? What is this? All he could do was watch in horror as the ball grew steadily brighter.
A second larger shadow slammed into the first, knocking it backwards and away from Edgard. A torrent of flame arched through the smoky haze, burning it away, and the sound of yet another explosion was heard as it collided with the building behind them. Another shower of rocks and pebbles quickly rained down on him again.
“Edgard! Get up! Run!” a strong, gruff voice called out before turning into a fit of coughing.
The larger man stooped over him and roughly jerked him out from underneath the pile of rubble. He was covered in black soot and his guild uniform was singed and tattered.
“Edgard, we have to escape.”
“I can’t. I can’t move. My leg . . .”
Cedric grabbed him underneath his arms and hoisted him first to his feet and then lifted him and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of apples. The sudden movements caused him to cry out in pain again.
“Then I’ll carry you,” he responded. His voice was filled with determination, and, from Edgard’s position across his shoulder, the human parcel could tell that the larger man was steady as a rock. How is he still standing? How can he even still move? Doesn’t he realize it’s hopeless?
“As if that’s even an option,” a voice called out from behind them.
Edgard jerked his head up and found himself staring directly into the eyes of a man he didn’t recognize.
“Did you forget about me?” The man pulled back his fist, and it was instantly covered in a ball of flame. He punched Cedrick’s lower back where his kidneys would have been. The blow was strong enough that Cedric stumbled forward under the force of the impact. The fallen giant tried to regain his footing, but tripped over the loose rocks that had rained down upon them moments before. Both of the two men were sent flying, Cedrick crashing to the ground and Edgard thrown forward.
“You really are so pathetic, so weak. You don’t even know how to fight back, do you?” The man taunted them from where he stood above them. There was already another glowing orb of flame appearing on his hand again as he spoke.
Edgard lay where he had been thrown, watching the scene unfold, too horrified and confused to react. Cedric, however, seemed less willing to give up so quickly.
“You have no right to do these things!” he shouted. “We are peaceful men of God. We follow the orders of His teachings and dutifully study His scriptures. We work hard every day to act in accordance with our roles in life. Why have you come here? Why are you destroying our village and killing our people?”
An evil sneer crept across the man’s face as he looked down on Cedric. “Because it is the role of the wolf to eat the sheep.” The man raised his hand towards Cedric and a thick rope of flame was produced from his outstretched arm. It snaked up into the air like a whip and snapped down on the large grower, causing him to scream out in pain.
It was an unusual sound to Edgard’s ears. It was something he had certainly never heard before from Cedric, and he was almost certain the man had never uttered anything close to the sound. It was a deep bellow, a combination of rage, confusion, and pain, that resonated over the sounds of mayhem occurring around them.
The whip slapped into Cedric’s body again and again, tearing away this guild uniform and leaving his exposed body burnt and blistered.
“Why?!” Cedric screamed in frustration. “In the name of God, why!?”
A large spike of stone suddenly erupted from Cedric’s chest. It grew from the ground and lifted his heavy body into the air, leaving him impaled a few feet above the ground. The grower’s head dropped back and his arms splayed wide. One hand slowly tried to twist around towards Edgard, and his lips moved as if to say one last word. Edgard couldn’t hear it, but he was certain it was his name.
Cedri– Oh, my God. Cedric . . . Cedric . . . He’s . . . Edgard stared at Cedric’s lifeless body in horror, too afraid to move. His brain refused to comprehend what he had just watched happen. Cedric is . . .
“I told you not to toy with them any longer,” a stern voice warned.
Edgard unconsciously moved his head slowly toward the source of the voice. He could vaguely make out the forms of two men standing nearby watching.
“Cut his arm off and let’s move on. Kill the other one.”
“Aye aye, boss.”
Edgard’s head snapped around towards the speaker just in time to see a rope of flame engulf his vision before everything went black.
The world flashed instantly into black, and Edgard found himself no longer standing but laying down with his eyes closed.
© Charles Dean and deannovels.com. 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charles Dean at deannovels.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.