The Eighth Rune Ch2

“Good Morning.” A light voice tickled across his ear, sending a shiver through his spine.

“Huh?” Edgard leaned up, quickly feeling the welcome comfort of his bed. My bedroom? What happened? Edgard blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes. Did . . . Did I get knocked out? He rubbed his head and his face where the inexplicable attack had been aimed, but felt nothing out of the ordinary. Was it just a dream? He looked around, trying to grasp anything in the room that was different–except nothing was. He was definitely in his room, the same comforting room he had found himself combing through a hundred times when his mother left, looking for clues. Every scratch, knick and cut across the wooden walls left by his shifting around the several paintings there, having never quite felt settled, were still painfully visible. He was even lying on the same extra-straw-filled bed that he had made himself after deciding that the issued one was just too lumpy to put up with.

“I’m home . . .” he said aloud, still looking for the voice that had bid him a good morning. So it really was just a dream, he thought as he shifted out of bed and put on his pants and shirt. It was just a dream, he told himself again unconvincingly. Even though everything pointed to the events of the previous night having been just that, the memory was too real. The details were too sharp, and nothing seemed nonsensical or fanciful as with most every dream when it is remembered after waking up. He had never had a nightmare like that in his entire life, so trying to swallow the fact that it was merely a dream was difficult, but to imagine anything else was even harder.

“And you’re talking to yourself,” he meekly laughed as he remembered the ‘good morning.’ That’s all it was, after all–just me talking to myself. He sighed again as he got out of bed and put on his clothes.

Does that mean I have to redo those pages again? He found himself grumbling as he imagined having to redo all the pages he so vividly recalled scribbling out. Then again, I should have known it was a dream when Mae dipped out of a sermon to see me, and Derian offered to work for me. Mae might occasionally be sneaky, but Derian would never be that kind, would he? Edgard found himself questioning his relationship with both of them as he finished adjusting his pants, shirt and the necklace his mother had given him before she left.

Edgard couldn’t keep his mind off the dream as he went about his usual morning routine. Even as he swept the room and loaded his dirty clothes into the daily deposit basket for washing, he found himself perplexed by what it could have meant. Why would I be dreaming about Derian pushing his little sister on me though? That particular detail stuck out in his mind quite prominently. It may have been the fact that it was the most improbable part of the dream, other than the fire at the end of course, but it also felt like it might carry some meaning. Do I like her? He paused for a moment as he carried the bin with his dirty clothes in it. No, that’s just silly. He shook his head and carried continued carrying the bin outside.

As he lugged the container, which was, as he had noted to himself, sized perfectly to carry one of his books better than dirty clothes, he did his best to avoid eye contact with his neighbors. Most of them were as equally unenthusiastic about talking to him, and but the ones who that did catch  had a gleam in their eyes when they saw him he stepped out of his home were never the ones he wanted to see.

“Hey! Brandless!” one of the more aggressive townsmen shouted from his own place. Edgard often suspected that this particular jiber waited at his own window, peering out from behind the white shutters, waiting for Edgard to pop out before he made his entrance. Edgard wondered if casting insults at the town’s verbal punching bag was the highlight of this particular tormentor’s day.

Don’t feed the animals. Edgard took a deep breath in through his nose as he gritted his teeth and pressed forward toward the stack of fresh-clothes bins in the center of the gravel road in front of his house. Just keep walking, don’t make eye contact, and maybe he will go away. Except, he didn’t in the dream. He kept pestering me this time about the– Edgard’s inner monologue was cut short by the same annoyingly-loud and insulting neighbor.

“Brandless! You daydreaming?” the man taunted, laughing as he walked towards the middle of the road– or perhaps toward Edgard. It was hard to tell which. “Don’t tell me you aren’t excited! We both know what a big day it is!”

You get to meet the region’s Mother and ask her to pray that you’ll get a rune. Edgard recalled the way it went in his dream the night before and how much the words had grated on his ears.

“You get to meet the region’s Mother and ask her to pray that you’ll get a rune! Who knows? Maybe this time it’ll work since your own failure of a mother isn’t the one making the prayer!” the bully mocked further.

In the dream, Edgard had almost lost his cool and punched the man. He remembered the hatred for this man who had insulted his mother and the blood rushing to his own face, but this time it didn’t bother him that much. How sad is it that I can predict what you’re going to say, word for word, in my dreams? You really are uncreative., He mouthed the words but didn’t speak them aloud. There was no point. It would just start more trouble. It always started more trouble.

Even though Edgard stood firm in this conviction, deliberately cold-shouldering his irritating neighbor and refusing to to even turn and glance at the fellow, he still found his knees unsteady as he walked back inside his mother’s home. He dropped the clothes next to his bed for tomorrow and shut the door behind him. It wasn’t that it upset his day in any way–it didn’t even slow down his step–but the fact that the man had gotten to him, had caused him to be that agitated, felt worse to Edgard than any curse or utterance the insensitive jerk could have assailed his ears with. One day, Edgard told himself as he sat down at the square table in the middle of the house and looked at some of the fruits he had brought home the day before for breakfast. One day I’ll be eating with Mae and our kids, and that guy won’t even bother me at all, he thought optimistically as he took a bite of an apple he had picked up.

And, one day, I’ll be smart enough to pocket more than one apple, he mused as his stomach rumbled immediately after finishing his light meal. But he’s not wrong. I could ask the Mother for help with the magic issue while she’s here. He poked his rune through his shirt. Maybe I’ve done something wrong, turned my back on God somehow, and this dud is my punishment.

Edgard’s walk to the church for work was as quiet as always. There was a great deal of comfort in the fact that very few people worked in the center of town and, as such, his walk was for the most part lonely with few exceptions ever finding their way to his side of the gravel road. That general solitude one of the reasons his journeys were often so uneventful, except today. Today, the Mother and five of the sisters from [7], the town’s sister city, were coming in to assist in performing the annual blessing of [8]. It was a once a year occasion that the town Churches took turns hosting. That meant that everyone was preparing to show their best face to both the visiting clergymen and [8] on the eve of his blessing day.

The event meant that almost every building Edgard passed was being worked on. Fresh coats of paint and chalk drawings were being added to every stone surface one could lay eyes on. Not a lot of them were impressive. Most were only okay at best as everyone participated in the event and very few people had experience working with either medium. For instance, Edgard himself had, across his own wall, made done a haphazard attempt at open books scattered across his wall with each page depicting a different person on their knees praying to the Lord. While it was certainly better than any of the bordering neighbors’ places, it wasn’t anything that a twelve-year-old with decent hand-eye coordination couldn’t duplicate. He had been too busy thinking about an argument he had had with Mae to give it his hundred percent, and he wasn’t a great artist to begin with.

Since the murals were usually very feeble attempts at art, most of them were fun to look at, but nothing to write home about. As a result, it was all the more surprising when Edgard passed Derian’s place, a slightly out-of-the-way route he took each morning with the hope of meeting Derian on the way, and saw an almost-finished painting of a young girl wandering through the woods alone. Along with girl, there were pictures of floating, spirit-like people moving stones and obstacles out of the way as they cleared the path ahead of her. It’s more beautiful in real life than it was in the dream, he found himself thinking as he stopped and stared at it.

Wait, this was in the dream? Hhe questioned himself, debating if it was a real case of déjà vu, or if he had just added the detail of this painting after he had seen it. There is no way he knew this miracle of talent would be on the wall. That girl, too . . . He walked closer, sticking his hand out to touch the face of the girl drawn on the surface. She’s perfect. It’s stunning. Distracted by his thoughts, he was oblivious to one of the neighbors leering at him as he extended his fingers even closer to the cheek of the two-dimensional beauty.

“Hey! Don’t contaminate it with your Godless touch, boy!” the neighbor finally yelled, forcing Edgard to instinctively draw his hand back.

That’s right. Yesterday he did that too, he thought with a frown. No, it wasn’t yesterday . . . It was in the dream. Edgard started to feel like the lines were blurring a bit. Something didn’t sit right. Wait, no, I’m just overthinking things.

That’s right. Yesterday he did that too, he thought with a frown. No, it wasn’t yesterday . . . It was in the dream. Edgard started to feel like the lines were blurring a bit. Something didn’t sit right. Wait, no, I’m just overthinking things.

He shook his head and carried on with his walk. If Derian wasn’t leaving his place about now, that meant that he had probably spent the night sleeping at the Church after drinking all night. Derian had a habit of doing that, after all. He said it helped him deal with his conscience, but, from what Edgard could tell, Derian’s conscience was probably the best one in the town. He was the only guy who was nice to everyone. He’ll probably walk in early after giving a short sermon to avoid having to talk too long while hungover again, and it’ll just be me and him working through the day once more. Edgard nodded at his own thought. Maybe today wasn’t going to be a bad day. Sure, he’d have to walk to the church alone with only the disgusted eyes of fellow townsmen to keep him company, but at least he’d have a chance to talk to someone while finishing up his pages. Just like I did . . . in the dream.

When he finally got to the church, he looked in Derian’s usual sermon room. There were only eight sermon rooms, and Derian’s was near the back, which helped him sneak out a lot, but it was also the least attended sermon. Most people preferred the sermons of one of the older brothers or the Father. The Father was considered the authority on speaking after all. I could still probably give a better sermon if I were allowed. He had heard all of the Father’s sermons and knew them by heart, and he also knew every piece of scripture and accepted holy literature that could expand it. If God said that through suffering and we come to understand him and each other better, then Edgard felt like he should be a peerless expert on the divine.

Except I apparently don’t know enough to figure out why my rune won’t work. That was the reason he wasn’t allowed to give sermons. The Father said that, while he was a Brother just like many of the others who had their own sermon rooms, and he had attended enough sermons and had done enough for the Church to technically be qualified, the people of the town would never accept someone rejected by the Lord giving a lecture on the Lord. Even if he quoted the words directly from the book, the townspeople would probably accuse him of perverting the scriptures just by speaking them.

When Derian saw him spying on his sermon, he grinned ear to ear and waved him in the room. “Hey, come on in. I’m just getting to the good part. I’m about to tell these four lucky listeners” –he nodded his head towards the only four people listening in a room with pews to seat a hundred– “about the quintessential rune of the traveler’s guild, the gust rune, and how it came to be.”

“Oh, we’ve, umm . . . We’ve heard that one before,” one of them quickly said. “There really isn’t a reason for you to tell us that one again.” The four of them, likely drinking buddies of Derian in the off hours, were from the Hunters and Growers guilds, neither of which cared for the work the travelers did. To them, the travelers were thieves who left with their hard earned work and came back with nothing but empty hands and expectations of more.

It’s not that the position was unacceptable, as they were doing the Lord’s work when they took the excess food, leather and pelts the town produced and shipped them down the river to more needing people, but one still got the feeling that the travelers elicited a gut response in the two guilds that was akin to that caused by robbery.

“Nonsense. I spent all night preparing it for you guys.”

Derian was likely lying. If Edgard guessed correctly, Derian hadn’t prepared any sermon and was hoping they’d just leave once he brought the subject up. Otherwise,he’d have to wing it and hope they didn’t pay attention enough to catch him on the poor lecture. “In fact, Edgard would probably even like to help me deliver it–if you don’t mind.”

“Of course I would. It’s not one of my favorite, but every story and rune from God is important to every person who carries one of his marks.” Edgard played along. This wasn’t the first time Derian had done this to him, and he knew the gambit all too well. Heck, if I hadn’t come by, it’d have taken him a while, but he’d have ditched them rather early, just like he did in the dream. His smile flickered as his feet hesitated for a moment as he realized he was thinking about the dream again. Why do I keep coming back to it? he asked himself, and then continued on as if the question never really deserved an answer.

“Oh, he’s going to help too?” another one of the guys almost grunted the words out of his mouth as his face sank. “You know, Derian, we’ve got a lot of work to get done. We’ll just come back later in the week for another short sermon.” They shrugged in turn and got up.

“Sorry, we would love to stay and properly help you honor God, but God did give us the important task of handling some weeds today, so . . .” He let the sentence drag, not bothering to finish it as he got up and started heading to the door.

“See you at the bar, Derian,” the last one said as he got up too. “And good luck teaching Edgard about God.”

Edgard stood there, shocked as he watched them file out of Derian’s lecture room only a few minutes into the start of the sermon.

“FizzleCast, you really are a lifesaver.” Derian laughed as soon as the door shut behind them. “I’m still a bit hung over, and the thought of having to teach them about the origin of the same ten growing and hunting runes they love so much over and over again . . . No, thank you.”

“You know, you could try actually preparing a good sermon that isn’t just retelling one of the stories of the runes? Right?” Edgard felt a bit exasperated by the situation. On one hand, he understood not wanting to do the same thing over and over again for people who were never grateful, but, on the other hand, he would have actually loved to give a sermon. Each time Derian put him in that position, he secretly hoped the listeners would stay to hear him deliver a hopefully profound and meaningful lecture about the importance of one of the many aspects of God.

“Yeah, or I could go work with you and finish all my pages before the sun sets. They’re having holy trivia night over at [10]’s bar in honor of the blessing tomorrow. Also, my sister wants some help finishing her picture on the house. Have you seen it?”

And here I was secretly hoping you’d offer to finish my pages, just like the dream. Oh well, I guess that’s why they call it a dream. Edgard chuckled to himself at the thought. With all of those things to look forward to, there was no way Derian would ever volunteer any of that free time just to try and help his sister date him. “Yeah, I saw it. It was pretty amazing. She’s got a lot of talent. That picture of the girl was so realistic. It kind of took my eyes for a loop when she didn’t move.”

“That’s a pretty accurate depiction of her, isn’t it?”

It is? Edgard hadn’t realized it, but as soon as Derian mentioned it, two and two slammed together. “Yeah, it is.”

“Speaking of Hilda, there is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. How are things going with Mae?”

“Same as usual, I guess. Why?”

“Well, I was wondering if you’d be up for taking a bet with me.” Derian’s ear-to-ear grin returned with full force and then somehow grew wider. “You see, there is this guy from that Flame Guild–”

Edgard stared at Derian as he stood behind his pulpit talking in the empty room, but he didn’t hear any of the words. The sound of Derian’s voice seemed faded as if coming from another room, the walls became spots of white in a field of vision that was going black, and his face felt numb as his jaw slid a few inches open. What? No, no, that’s exactly how it went in the dream . . . That’s exactly the story from the dream. The cogs turned and his heart tightened. Why is it all the same as the dream? Why is everything the same as it was in . . . He wanted to say ‘dream’ again as it had been his go-to excuse so far that day, but it wouldn’t come out. The only thing he could see now, he could hear now, he could feel now, was the fire, panic and desperation that had been at the end of the memory he had been labeling a dream all morning.

“Dudboy, you listening?” Derian clapped Edgard’s shoulder roughly, snapping him back to reality. Edgard had been so consumed by his own thoughts that he had completely zoned out as Derian had talked.

“Yeah, yeah, I was.” Edgard lied as he shook a bit, the lingering dread from his thoughts still very much real.

“Well then, what do you think?”

“About what?” he answered, still slightly confused and almost giving away the fact that he had lied. Seeing Derian’s disapproving face, he quickly attempted to cover up his fib, “About me trying to court Hilda?”

“Well, dang, Edgard, I never knew you felt that way. I was just asking if you had any ideas on how to get rid of an unwanted suitor, but that’s not a bad one.” Derian chuckled, and used the hand that was still locked on to Edgard’s shoulder to kind of push him towards the door. “Let’s get out of here though before anyone else shows up for a sermon. If the Father sees the empty room, I’ve got Honest Ed to tell the truth for me–that they all just left at the start.”

Honest Ed? Who has ever referred to me as . . . Wait, he’s using my name again. What’s so different about today? Edgard, who had always wanted people to call him by his actual name, suddenly felt like something slimy was touching him when he remembered that the only time Derian had called him by his name in the dream, in his life, was when he wanted something big. “Wait, no., I don’t feel that way. I was just–”

“Telling me how nice she looked in the painting? Suggesting you could date her instead of the flamer? Yeah, no, I get how you feel.” Derian clapped his back again with the hand that was already there. “It’s good to know I can count on you. For a moment, I was worried you’d end up with that phony girl, Mae.”

“Hey, Mae isn’t phony, she just–” Edgard instinctively came to her defense, but Derian cut him off again.

“Moves the target any time you get close to hitting like a cruel archery instructor?” Derian laughed. “You’re never going to sleep with her. Just give up on it.”

“It’s not about sleeping with her. I love her.” Edgard’s head sank. How come my only friend in Church is such a sleazeball? He inwardly cursed his lack of options. He often wished he could have gotten a grower rune, one that worked, because they all seemed like much more down-to-earth and gentle people.

“Love.” Derian sighed. “You’re such a kid.”

“What? It’s true! I love her!” Edgard declared again unabashedly.

“No, you don’t. When you talk about her, it’s always ‘the prettiest girl in town’ nonsense. When she comes over, you get teased, and she leaves before you can eat your fill. You’re not in love with her; you’re just a horny dog who’s been chasing a steak he’ll never eat.” Derian’s voice turned chilly like an icy winter wind on wet skin. “It’s painful to watch, Brother.”

“What do you know?” Edgard didn’t even know how to respond. He just knew in his gut that Derian had to be wrong. Derian didn’t know better than him after all. “All you do is drink and have fun by yourself. What do you know of serious relationships?”

Derian winced, and he stopped where he was before they even made it out the sermon room door. “You know, how about you go ahead and work without me. I have some things I need to do.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Edgard left with an empty feeling in his stomach. He didn’t like that Derian questioned his relationship with Mae, but he also didn’t like what felt like a rift between him and his only friend.

As he made his way into the study and began his copying work, the conversation with Derian played out in his head over and over again, even eclipsing his concerns about the dream, until finally he was interrupted by Mae at the doorway.

“There is a little something to be said about irony,” Mae teased, flashing her ivory-white teeth that seemed to perfectly match her pale complexion. “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 with a  giggle.

“Is this relationship real?” Edgard looked up at her from his work. He was still only halfway through page 82, further behind than he had expected to be, but the weight of the conversation with Derian was still on his mind. What if he was right? What really separates my relationship with Mae from her relationship with anyone else? Sure, she’s nice, but isn’t she nice to a lot of people? She’s made me promises, but he’s right: she has broken most of them, and she comes up with new excuses each time.

Mae’s face looked like she had seen a ghost as her mouth hung open and an aghast expression stuck on her face like it was pasted there. “Why would you even ask that?” she said, backing up instead of coming in. “Do you not care for me anymore? Are you breaking up with me?”

“What?” Edgard blinked. “No, no of course not. I just . . . How come you never want to be with me?”

She looked to her right for a moment, bit her lip and then rushed over to Edgard. “Sweetie, of course I want to be with you! We just have to do it right and proper, and I won’t lie–I’m a little scared.”

“Scared of what?” Edgard had never heard this before.

“Sweetie, of course I want to be with you! We just have to do it right and proper, and I won’t lie–I’m a little scared.”

“Scared of what?” Edgard had never heard this before.

“Well, I’m scared of having a kid with you. I really want to, but I don’t want to rush either. What if his rune doesn’t work?, lLike yours? What if we take our kid to the Blessing of [8], and the lady comes out and reveals that he doesn’t have a purpose from God either?” Mae’s nose wrinkled up, and her eyes kept blinking to the point of watering as she spoke. “I can’t imagine spending my life with anyone else, but I’m not in a rush to have a kid either . . . And that’s what our activities would lead to if I got you alone.” She hugged him. Her scent was like fresh peaches on Edgard’s nose as her long brown hair covered up his face.

“Okay.” He resigned himself to her embrace.

After she had let go, she backed up and looked at him with a cocked head. “What brought this about anyway? You know it’s only going to be a few more months until you get your own place. We can be together all the time after that, but let me at least have that time to prepare myself for the change too, okay?” she spoke with a seriousness that Edgard wasn’t used to hearing from her.

“Alright, whatever you say, dear,” he replied with a smile. Yeah, it was just all in my head. He paused, and after a moment, he let out a deep breath he didn’t know he had been holding. “But, that said, is it really okay for you to be back here?”

“Well, Mr. Dudrune, I’ll have you know that I’m not back here on purpose!” She started heading back to the door. “It just so happens that with a building this big, and so many rooms in it, I simply got lost on my way back from the lavatory. Naturally, all I am doing here is asking for simple directions. Would you . . .” She managed to make her doe eyes seem even bigger as she cast him a puppy dog face. “Would you be so kind as to help a poor girl out with some directions?”

“Oh, I’d be happy to help a girl as pretty as you out with anything.” Edgard grinned as he stood up.

“So . . .” She gave her most mischievous and coy smile–the kind that told Edgard he was about to get it. “If I weren’t pretty, you wouldn’t help me? Like, if my face got broken, and the healer couldn’t do anything about it, you’d never give me any assistance?”

“What? No, of course I would still help you out. You’re my girl after all,” he quickly replied.

“Oh, so she is your girl?” Derian walked in from the hall, giving Mae a stern look as he did so. “Then perhaps your girl should go before I have to notify the Father.”

Mae bit her lip again as she glared at Derian. “And perhaps a man shouldn’t meddle in a woman’s affairs.”

Edgard, instantly feeling the  awkward tension between the two, almost inched a step backwards towards his desk out of instinct before he stopped himself and  pushed on ahead towards Mae instead. “Well then, perhaps I’ll just have to show her the way back to her lecture.”

“Oh. No, Edgard, I think I’ve got it.” Mae turned around and stomped out.

Great. So first you ruined my morning, and now you ruin this. What is wrong with you?! Edgard wanted to yell at Derian, but only “Why?” came out.

“Because I’m your friend.” Derian plopped down into his chair. “Because you’re too pathetic to do it yourself.”

“What was that?” Edgard snapped.

“Nothing,” Derian grunted. Look, just get out of here for the day. I’ll pick up the rest of your work.” Derian filled up an ink vial and started working, not even turning around to spare Edgard a single glance as he walked over to his table.

Why is he doing my work this time? Does he feel bad for what he said? Edgard stood befuddled over his desk, looking at the two and half pages he still had left to finish. That’s easily going to take a few hours to finish. Why is he being generous when I didn’t even agree to anything this time? He felt a bit skeptical about it. Derian might have been trying to make up for the argument, but if that were the case, he would have probably started with an ‘I’m sorry,’ not just a ‘get out of here.’ “Whatever,” Edgard said as he turned and walked out.

As he was leaving the place, heading back to his home, he looked up and saw Cedric heading towards the food hall off in the distance.

“Hey!” Edgard, still feeling rather frustrated about Derain, decided that maybe having lunch with Cedric wouldn’t be a bad idea. It’d give him someone to talk to and might give him a chance to get some things off his chest. “There you are! I am heading to lunch. Do you want to come with me?”

Cedric grinned. “Little man, are you actually telling me you’re going to go voluntarily?”

Edgard laughed. At least this one never changes. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I’m heading there now, and I was hoping to talk to you about something one-on-one if you don’t mind.”

“Me? Mind? Never. It’s a grower’s job to help the sprouts take shape after all,” he said merrily and chuckled heartily at his own joke. “Come now. Let’s go.” Cedric signalled with his head like he wanted Edgard to start walking first, likely not trusting him to actually follow.

“Sure thing.” Edgard turned around and started walking toward the food hall.

“So what’s on your mind, little man? You look angry.”

“It’s just that my buddy Derian is giving me a hard time about Mae when he doesn’t even have a girl himself!” Edgard vented. Who does Derian think he is, talking to me about relationships?!

“So?” Cedric chuckled, giving Edgard the feeling that he was being patronized.

“So?” Edgard struggled to understand why his point didn’t make sense. “So he is supposed to be my friend, and he’s giving me crap about the girl I like.”

“So?” Cedric asked again with the same chuckle.

Ugh, you big, lumbering fool, how is this not easy to understand? Edgard’s anger at the situation grew a bit. “So why shouldn’t I be upset? How does he have the nerve to–”

“Be your friend? I don’t know,” Cedric interrupted him, but his words were half-masked by his laughter. “Little man, you think too much and do too little, that’s why you never grow.”

“What?” Edgard was a bit befuddled. “How is that being my friend?”

“If he weren’t your friend, would he care at all about who you thought you were dating?” Cedric’s laugh started to unnerve Edgard.

How is this so funny to you? He wanted to ask, but the big man likely wouldn’t have cared.

“It’s no different than me making you do something you don’t like because I know it’s good for you even if you don’t agree.” Cedric clapped Edgard’s back harder than ever.

That is definitely going to leave a mark. “I’m not sure making me eat food is the same as telling me my relationship isn’t real.”

“Well, have you spread her legs over the hay yet?” Cedric asked , completely out of character. He was a hearty guy, and as rowdy as the next, but he rarely ever talked about that type of stuff.

“Uhh . . . no?” Edgard winced. Why would you go there first? You’re not on Derian’s side, are you?

“Have you fondled her baby feeders?” Cedric pressed.

“Not yet, but we’re waiting for our own place before we start any of that,” Edgard explained. Why do I have to explain this? This should be common sense, right?

“So you haven’t spread her over the hay, and you haven’t played with her baby feeders. Next thing I know, you’re going to tell me she doesn’t even sneak out to see you every day.” Cedric’s laughter grew, and so did Edgard’s irritation with it.

“She sees me when she can. She has a lot of work to do everyday!”

“An irrigator like her working when the sun has set?” Cedric’s laugh stopped. “I think your friend is just trying to do what’s best for you. If a mule won’t pull the cart even when the hunter urges, then what is there left to explain?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Edgard found himself wanting to be mad at Cedric too, but Cedric hadn’t directly accused him of anything. In fact, the way he had laid it out had only fed Edgard’s anger towards himself and his inability to make his point.

“Nothing. Nothing at all, little man; but, where I come from, a man’s friends are there to teach him to think with his head, not with his heart. That part is for feeling, not for growing, and you definitely need to grow, shorty.”

“Where you come from? We come from the same town!” Edgard’s exasperation was nearly exploding as he tried to make sense of Cedric’s odd statement.

“So we do. So we do,” Cedric said, opening the large door to the food hall. “Now, let’s put this nonsense behind us and get a good meal and some nice mead. You’ll be less grouchy with a belly full of brew.”

How is that all you think about? Edgard sighed. “Alright, fine.” He decided to let it slide. He had already stirred up trouble with one friend, and he didn’t have many left. “But let’s eat upstairs this time,” he said as they walked into the room.

“Are you sure about that? Look! There is a nice set of chairs over there. I haven’t eaten with those two in half a year. Just go wait there, and I’ll be back with some food,” Cedric said, pointing to the table with the twins. “Can’t wait to catch up with them.”

Of course. I can’t wait to get teased by them about not having a rune that works and have them show me their . . . Wait . . . Edgard realized he had an opportunity to test his dream further. If the dream really was a prediction, a forecast, a prophecy of what would happen today, then I know both of their runes. I know that they know that a rune can’t appear on the chest or that I even have one. Edgard,wanting to test the prophetic limits of his dream, began to concoct a plan. I can’t quite remember all the details of the conversation we had, but I still have a rough idea of what happened before the–he gulped involuntarily–before the fight.

As he approached the two chatting men, he tried to remember what they had said. They called me the runeless runt, right? He guessed, hoping his memory served him correctly. They also had . . . What were the runes they had? It was the . . . It was the . . . Come on. Think, Edgard. If you don’t know, then you can’t test this thing. He chastised himself as he approached the table.

Both of the chatting growers turned to face him as he reached them. “You’re the runeless runt, aren’t you?” one of the two short, plump men said with the same statement-not-question tone Edgard remembered.  

Runeless runt, check. Edgard felt a mixed bag of emotions as he started to come to grips with the fact that his hunch about the dream was beyond being some ludicrous feeling or theory. Looking down at the table, he saw the painting of the man taming the beast, making the three-eyed forest creature bow its head and conceal the sharp fangs that made the frinus so fearsome, and he suddenly remembered. That’s right! They had the runes that transformed seeds! he cheered internally.

Morbid curiosity, a desire to prove his hypothesis–that the dream had offered some kind of foresight into his day–correct regardless of how awful its predictions had been, made him press the conversation in a direction he hoped would once again get them to pull up their sleeves and show him their symbols. “Well, what runes do you have?”
March 12th’s Section

“Ha! You hear that? He wants to see one of the great Grower Guild runes!” The first twin gave a slow backhand to the other twin’s shoulder. “Come on, Wilheard, let’s show the sad sack what a real God-given rune looks like!”

“Right you are, Wilfrid!” The other twin started rolling up his sleeve without a moment’s hesitation.

Wait, their names are Wilheard and Wilfred? Are they actually related? Edgard blinked as they both were now hard at work rolling the blue sleeves up their arms. Can they be? He looked at them more closely. There haven’t been any actual human twins in this town for generations. How could . . . Are they brothers? He cocked his head to the left as he more closely inspected their facial features for differences.

“See! Look at that face. Of course he’s surprised to see these runes. These are the pride of the Grower’s Guild after all! You won’t see a finer pair here!” Wilfred loudly boasted, some of the food he had just eaten making its way back out of his mouth and onto the table.

“Yep, complete opposite of the runeless runt. No offense,” Wilheard heartily agreed. Their faces showed a mirth that Edgard would only expect proud fathers to have on the wife’s delivery date.

So they don’t know I have a rune, and, if I told them, they’d definitely not know where it was. The only thing left to confirm is the portion and three sets of drinks that Cedric brings down to the table, Edgard thought to himself while unbuttoning the top button to his shirt. “You know, I actually have a rune,” he said, deciding to see if the location would surprise them.

“Really? Then roll up your sleeve and show us!” Wilfred demanded. “Come on!”

“Oh, I’m showing you right now. Just look.” Edgard pulled the shirt apart in the middle to reveal his chest and the rune on it to the two surprised men.

“Woah, that’s neat,” Wilfred said as he gazed at Edgard’s rune. “But, what’s with that one line?”

“That one line?” Edgard contorted his face in confusion. That’s not specific at all. There are a ton of lines. Why would one in particular stand out?

“The red one, the one that isn’t all black like the others,” Wilheard clarified as he raised one of his stubby fingers to point at it, making what Edgard could only assume was a drawing of the line with his finger as he did so. “It’s not really a line though. It’s more a shape. Wouldn’t you say so, Wilfred?”

“Yeah, like there are a bunch of the same shapes, and that particular one is red. How come it’s red? Ours aren’t colored. Is that why it doesn’t work?” Wilfred’s smile slowly faded as his brain seemed to turn on for the first time. “Wilheard, does anyone else have a rune with any color?”

“Course not. I’d know.” Wilheard also started to wear an odd expression that made it look like he was eating some awful-tasting, thing in slow motion.

“I don’t know either. It shouldn’t be,” Edgard said in a panic. The two growers weren’t the only ones freaking out either. He hadn’t expected this at all. He had seen his own rune more times than he could count reflected in water and mirrors, but he had never seen a red line. They were all black just like everyone else’s runes. What could have changed? Why would it be different now? He tried to look at his rune but couldn’t get the right angle. Where is a mirror or a clean plate when I need one? he grumbled, looking around for a reflective surface he could access quickly.

“It’s red.” Cedric came up behind him carrying two plates and glanced down at the rune his two guildmates were staring at as he passed Edgard, who was still struggling to catch a glimpse of himself. “Here you go,” Cedric said as he shoved a plate in front of Edgard and sat down with his own. This time, the plates didn’t just have large portions. There were also had four cups of mead this time. That’s different than the dream, right?

“Four cups of mead.” Edgard looked at his plate too. It was different. His theory was wrong. He didn’t have perfect foresight of what would happen today.

“Yeah, little man, I was going to get you three, but then I remembered you’ve been having a rough day, so I figured, why not get four?” Cedric cracked a big smile.

So it isn’t just different. It’s different because I changed it. It should be three. It should have gone exactly like I had seen it in the dream. The dream wasn’t wrong. I changed it. He took a deep breath and turned to see the door.

Cedric patted Edgard’s back so hard he almost went face first into his food. “Come on, have a cup! You’ll feel better!”

“How do you always get her to give you extra? I can’t even get that lady who served us today to give me a single extra apple,” Wilfred grumbled.

“Just a wink and a smile, lads. That’s all you need,” Cedric said with a chortled at the two before looking over at Edgard. “Little man, it’s just mead. I promise it doesn’t taste that bad.”

Edgard didn’t realize his frowning mouth was hung open, and his eyes were as wide as they could be. To the others, the expression must have made him look like he had seen a ghost, but, to Edgard, it was the natural reaction to the last ounce of necessary proof being placed on the scales of reason and convincing him that his dream was absolutely prophetic. He realized he may have changed some of the events by knowing what was going to happen, whether he had realized it or not, but what he hadn’t directly meddled with had stayed the same. The twins were still waiting, the girl was still loading up plates for Cedric, and Derian had still wanted him to date his sister. Nothing was different, which meant that, while he hadn’t actually seen a ghost, a lot of people in the room would soon turn into one.

What do I do? His heart started beating so hard it felt like it would almost break out of his chest. I can’t stop what’s coming. I can’t stop them. I don’t even have magic. I need to get out of here. He turned his eyes from his mead to the room, trying his best to grasp for anything that could help him escape with his life. I’m going to die.

“Little man, you either drink that right now, or I’ll have the two Wils hold you down while I force you to drink it. Get some mead in your belly, smile and stop panicking like you sat on a flame cell,” Cedric demanded sharply, his voice piercing into Edgard’s worry and knocking him out of his daze.

“What? Oh, fine.” Edgard picked up two of the cups, one in each hand and chugged them both. He didn’t have time for Cedric’s force-feeding. He needed to think. His current predicament was a problem that needed solving more than mead drinking, and he definitely didn’t need to be distracted while he planned. Should I just leave now? If I start heading for the door, could I make it out of here before they arrive?

“Woah! I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink that fast! Good job!” Cedric clapped his back. “Now, where is my smile?”

Edgard took an unsteady step backwards in the direction of the door. He knew what was going to happen, and he knew he needed to escape, but he didn’t know how he was supposed to manage it. His panic must have started to show on his face because Twin One immediately started commenting.

“Uh-oh. Looks like he’s gonna blow!”

“Hah! I knew this kid couldn’t handle his drink,” Twin Two chimed in.

“What were you thinking, Cedric? There’s no way a whelp like him can keep up!”

Edgard completely ignored the comments without responding. He was too engrossed with his own problems to worry about these two mocking him. His head swiveled from side to side as he tried to remember exactly what was going to happen next.  

“Now, Edgard,” Cedric began as he stood up from the table, “you should have known better than to down those two glasses so quickly. Here, just sit down and let the feeling pass.”  Cedric reached out a hand and grasped Edgard’s shoulder as if he were going to guide him into the chair that awaited him. “Take a deep breath and relax, little weed. The feeling will pass in a minute.”  

“What . . .” Edgard began speaking, but he was too preoccupied to finish the sentence.  Think, Edgard, think . . .  There’s still time. What was next in the dream? First it was the twins and my rune, then Cedric with the trays and the mead and then the . . .

“The mead’s already addled his brain! Just look at his face! It’s already losing all its color!” Twin One was clearly enjoying the moment, sure that Edgard wasn’t able to hold his drink.

“Oh-ho. You should have known better than to let a scrawny runt like him have a go at God’s own amber nectar, Cedric!”

“Edgard, what’s the matter with you?” Cedric asked, looking concerned. “I’ve seen you drink more than this and handle yourself before.” The worry disappeared off his face as if he suddenly realized what it was that was bothering the younger man. “Ah. . . I get it.  See, I told you that you need to start eating more. Just put a little food on your stomach, and you’ll be fine.  Here, sit down. Eat a little, and you’ll feel better in no time.”

“Eugh. Not sure that eating this will do much good if that smell is any indication of the food,” Twin One added in. It smells like they’re burning another batch in the kitchen now.”  

It was the smoke. Edgard’s head whipped about from side to side, and he spun around in almost a full circle looking for the tell-tale sign, shaking off Cedric’s hand in the process.

“The boy has gone looney! Just look at him! He looks like a dog chasing his tail!”  Twin Two guffawed heartily, banging his fist on the table in his fit of laughter.  

“I have to get out of here,” Edgard muttered, almost inaudibly.  

“Not before you sit down and have a proper meal, you don’t,” Cedric said firmly. “Those betties down in the kitchen haven’t ruined this batch, just the next.”  

“I have to get out of here,” he repeated again, louder this time.

“I’m tellin’ ya, little man, it’s a proper meal you need to fix you up. Now, sit down and eat.”

Smoke was just beginning to filter into the room, collecting along the ceiling in a thin haze. “We don’t have time for this!” Edgard was growing more and more anxious by the second.  He knew what was going to happen next, and he knew that he didn’t want to be around for it a second time. “We have to go!”

“I think that mead has addled him right proper,” Twin One said.  

“The smoke . . . Cedric, the building is going to burn down! We’re going to be trapped inside!” Edgard turned to his larger friend, pleading for him to listen.  

“It’s just a little kitchen fire, boy. You’re not scared of a little smoke, are you? I never knew someone could be such a coward!” Twin Two jested, still clearly enjoying himself at Edgard’s expense.  

“No, it’s not that. It’s–” Edgard suddenly made his decision.  

He shook off Cedric’s hand a second time and took off running towards the door as quickly as he could. He pushed his way around townsfolk, many of them carrying trays of food and mugs of mead to their tables as if nothing in the world were wrong. He made it to the stairwell, turned the corner to the stairs and ran smack into the middle of someone’s chest. He tried to get his balance, to get his feet back underneath him and to grab ahold of the railing to stop himself, but he had been moving too fast. The two went tumbling, head over head, down the flights of stairs.  

“Uugh,” Edgard groaned when they came to a stop at the bottom. He was lying on top of whomever it was he had run into. His world was spinning from the tumble down the stairs, and the mead he had drunk was threatening to come back up for real this time.  

“Oh God, I didn’t expect that,” a voice said from underneath him. “Are you alri– You!”  

A pair of hands suddenly shoved Edgard upward and off the person he was lying on.  Edgard was roughly tossed back and into the wall as the man scrambled to his feet.

“I should have known it would be you. I’m so tired of your crap. Just who do you think you are?!” the man shouted.  

Edgard fought to stop the world from tilting on its axis as he stared up at the man curiously. I think . . .

“Well?” the man demanded.

Wait, isn’t this . . . Edgard tried to focus on the man’s face through his daze. He was having trouble making out the man’s features for some reason. Dark clouds of smoke were beginning to fill the hallway, and it took a moment for it to slowly dawn on him who it was. His brain latched onto the color of the man’s guild uniform, and clarity stuck him.

“God, help me. You’re such a worthless cur. I don’t even know why the Church bothers to keep you around. All you do is screw up the work we do.” The man reached down and hauled Edgard to his feet, spun him around and shoved him backwards through the door and into the street. “I swear, if I ever so much as see you again . . .”

Edgard stumbled backwards, arms spinning like a windmill as he tried to catch his balance. He had almost come to a complete stop when he felt himself bump into what felt like yet another person. A pair of arms briefly grabbed him around his chest before shoving him sideways and to the ground.

“See! I told you!” a voice said gleefully. “It’s just like destroying an anthill!  All you have to do is set a few fires, and the little insects scurry out in every direction.”  

“You really do enjoy this more than you should, you know that?” a second answered.

Oh, God. Edgard picked his head up from the dirt and found himself staring at several pairs of well-worn, heavy, black boots. They were caked in dust and mud and reminded Edgard of the shoes the growers wore while they were out in the fields. The growers would return home, typically after working with the irrigators during planting season, and they would track mud all over the cleanly-swept roads near the chapel on their way to services. Occasionally, someone who was careless would manage to track some into the church itself. He had spent countless hours sweeping and polishing those floors, and it made him inwardly cringe just to think about it.

Edgard watched as a pair of the boots walked around to his side and someone nudged him in his ribcage. “Wow, they sure do grow them small around here,” a third voice said.  

“Easy pickins, right? I can’t believe we’d never heard of this place before,” the second said again.  

“Ach. Smells like a cartful of fertilizer though. These poor country bumpkins must live with the pigs or something,” the first added.

“Hah! I bet they do more than live with them. Look how scrawny this one is!” Edgard was nudged in the ribs again, this time a little harder and with a small kick. “Probably spends all his time worshiping some livestock. I don’t think these idiots understand the difference between what’s for eatin’ and what’s not.”

“Maybe, if these guys bothered with a decent meal every now and then, they might be able to put up a decent fight.” The man actually managed to sound disappointed as he said it, like he had been hoping to get into some kind of brawl.

“It doesn’t matter. That’s not why we’re here. Remember, we just need–” The voice cut off as an explosion rocked the side of the cafeteria they were still standing in front of and dust and debris rained down on top of them.

“Hey! Watch where you’re aiming that mess!”

“Hah! All this talk makes me bored,” the first voice said, clearly amused by the little bit of mayhem he had just created. “I’m going to go see if I can find any fun inside. According to our intel, this building should be brimming with people. I would have thought they’d all be running out at the first sign of smoke, but these sheep are apparently too stupid or scared to run from fire.”

Edgard risked a quick glance up at the people surrounding him as he heard several people walk away from him and towards the cafeteria he had just left. His assailants were dressed in some outlandish style he had never seen before. Everyone he was familiar with wore the uniforms prescribed by the holy Church that denoted their appropriate guild and roles within life. The growers wore vibrant greens and browns, the Flame Guild sported oranges and reds, and the irrigators kept to a mix of blues and browns. These people, however, were all clad in dark colors. He could vaguely make out a strange combinations of dusty browns, dark greys, deep greens and black–lots and lots of black. He only had a moment to take in their clothing, but it was plain that they were all wearing some type of heavy leather Edgard was unfamiliar with.  

Who are these people? I don’t rememb–

“Woah, now. Don’t get any funny ideas, little piggy.” A boot slammed down into Edgard’s face mere seconds after he had lifted his head, rewarding him for his efforts.  

“Ahh! Oh, God!” Edgard cried out. He immediately curled up into a small, fetal ball and clutched his face. He could see bright-red blood streaming down the fingers clutched over his face.

“Stay down in the mud where you belong, pig,” the voice added. “Swine don’t get to see their butcher before the slaughter.”  

Someone else laughed nearby. “Now who’s enjoying their work too much?”

Edgard focused on the pain radiating from his face. He could see the blood streaming down his hands and beginning to pool on the ground in front of him.  He was sure that his nose was broken, and it was just too much for him to process. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried his best to fight back against the tears he could feel coming. Go away! Go away! Go away! Just leave me alone!

“Aww, is a broken nose too much for da widdle piggy?” Edgard’s tormentor mocked.  “How pathetic can you be?” he asked in a plainer voice. “I’ll tell ya what, widdle pigsums, why don’t we just heal that right up for ya?”

Edgard didn’t bother to either open his eyes or look up at the man talking to him. He was used to being ridiculed on a daily basis, and these taunts were nothing compared to some of the ones he had heard before. Besides, he was too occupied with the throbbing pain in the center of his face to be bothered at the moment with verbal blows anyway.

Then, surprisingly, he felt a wave of warmth wash over him that was accompanied by a slight tingling sensation. It reminded him of the few times he had been afforded the luxury of being able to take a hot bath as a child. Instead of warming him from the outside in, however, this one worked its way from the inside out. It started in his chest and spread outwards like a source of calming heat. It lingered in his face, seeming to grow hotter as it reached his broken nose, and then vanished entirely, taking the pain away along with it.

Edgard opened his eyes more out of shock than anything. The pain is gone! His fingers were still covered in bright-red blood, and he could clearly see stains on the stone below him.  Great. Now I’ll probably have to spend a full day scrubbing to get those clean. The Father is sure to blame this on me somehow. Wait, my nose! How did . . . ? He craned his head upwards to look at the people surrounding him.

“See, little piggles? All better!”

Edgard took a good look at the man addressing him. He had long, greasy, dark hair that appeared to be tied behind his head. He was wearing the same dark leather armor Edgard had spied on the others when he snuck a peak earlier along with a ragged-looking cloak that appeared to have been patched together from several different materials. Now that he was able to get a better look at the man’s armor, he was almost certain it must have come from different smiths as well. He had never actually seen armor before, but he had heard all the stories about it. The members of the Travelers Guild told all kinds of wild tales when they came to town, though Edgard had never believed most of them until now. One thing he was certain of, however, was that he had never imagined anyone in those stories wearing pieced-together suits.  

“What? No ‘thank you’? Here we are being generous, healing up those injuries of yours, and you can’t even act appreciative?”  

Edgard stared up at the man, unsure of how he was supposed to respond or what the he expected. They were the ones who had broken his nose. Was he supposed to thank them for that? Why are they doing this? What is their goal? How did they even heal me? Edgard opened his mouth as if to speak but shut it again before any words came out. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees and then to his feet. He was amazed to find that he was almost the same height has most of the men standing around him.  

“Why?” he finally said at last.

“Why? Why what?” the man responded. “Why is the sky blue? The ocean deep? Why do bears eat honey?”  

“Why did–” Edgard was cut off mid-sentence by the sound of screams coming from within the building beside them. His head whipped around, and he turned towards the entrance half-expecting to find the source of the noise. Smoke was still wafting out of the doorway, but something had stopped the building from catching fire entirely. Seconds passed in silence that seemed to drag on until they felt like minutes, and suddenly the screaming was renewed accompanied by the sound of trampling feet.  

What? Edgard panicked. What are they doing? He stared towards the entranceway, his anxiety growing by the moment as the sounds grew louder and louder.

“Here we go, boys! Get ready!” one of the men shouted gleefully next to him.  “Congratulations, pig-boy, today is your lucky day. You get to watch real men at work.”   

Two of the foreigners promptly grabbed Edgard by his arms and frog-marched him back across the street so that he was out of the way. He was too stunned by how quickly things were happening to even put up a fight.  

“Stay put,” one of the men said with a smirk. He held up one hand and clenched a fist in front of Edgard’s face as if to add emphasis to his remark. Edgard felt his knees tremble at the gesture.

Edgard could feel the ground shaking slightly below his feet, and, looking down, he realized why. It was one of the strangest sights Edgard had ever seen. The earth itself seemed to rise up like a ripple in a pond, radiating outward from underneath him, and a sheet of liquid-like rock slowly crawled up from the ground. It spread out, surrounded his feet and crept its way up to his knees and then suddenly solidified. When it was done, Edgard was effectively encased in a mound of solid rock, unable to move.

“Hey, wait!” he called out, suddenly finding his voice. “Wait!”

The men ignored him, moving across the street to rejoin their comrades. The others had fanned out, forming a sort of wide semi-circle around the entranceway, and the two quickly joined their ranks. They had also drawn a variety of weapons Edgard had never seen before.  Much like the armor they wore, these weapons were an almost-foreign concept to Edgard.  Some of them were long, two-handed weapons that Edgard recognized as swords, and others were shorter, single-handed blades that resembled the tools the Growers Guild sometimes used when they were clearing away the fields.  

It wasn’t long before the first person came stumbling out of the building. She was completely covered in soot, her guild’s uniform stained from the smoke which filled the building, and it was torn to shreds. She took a few tenacious steps from the building and threw her arm up against the glare of the sudden brightness of the mid-afternoon sun. As soon as her arm crossed her eyes, one of the men’s swords crossed her stomach. She didn’t even have a chance to see the blow coming before she collapsed to the ground, clutching the wound in horror. The man quickly finished her off with a downward thrust through the side of her head.  As soon as he was finished, the man took a step backwards into the semi-circle and waited for the next to come out.

Edgard stared at the body in horror through the . The head was split open, but it lolled to the side facing him. Its mouth hung open, loose, and the eyes stared directly at him. Mildpyrd. Despite the injuries, Edgard recognized the woman almost instantly. She was only a few years older than he was, a member of the Irrigators Guild and one of the few people in the town that had never openly mocked him. Even when they were younger, she had never participated in the jokes or pranks that many of the town’s citizens liked to pull on him. Truthfully, he hadn’t known her very well as they had generally kept their distance from one another, but, aside from Cedric and Derian, there weren’t very many people he did. He knew that she had been married a few years ago and already had three young girls.   

No sooner had Mildpyrd’s killer stepped back than the second person came dashing out of the doorway. It was almost as if the butcher had some uncanny sense that told him someone was going to be coming through at any second, and he knew exactly when to step out of the way. The second victim came rushing out of the door, not bothering to stop and try to collect himself or shield his eyes against the light of day as Mildpyrd had. He rushed out of the door and promptly tripped over her dead body where it lay on the stone pathway. Remarkably, he took the fall in stride, rolling onto his shoulder, and immediately bounded back to his feet. He stumbled for a second as he came up, probably disoriented from his tumble, and it cost him his life. One of the marauders’ weapons swung upwards in a wide arc and sliced the poor fellow open from his navel to his throat. A second backhanded slash opened his throat, cutting off the scream that was forming in his throat. Blood spewed out of his wounds, covering his assailant in a bright-red shower.

Edgard was forced to watch in horror as yet another of the townsfolk he knew was brutally butchered. Oh, my God. That was Glaedwine. Glaedwine was one of the promising young men from the Hunters Guild. According to what Edgard had heard, he had been exceptionally proficient in tracking animals.  

Before Edgard could reflect on the young man’s death, however, a flood of people erupted from the door of the smoldering building. They surged out in a tightly-pressed pack, shoving one another, trying to escape whatever horror it was that pursued them. Rather than butchering them on the spot as they had the first two, however, the group of people awaiting them fanned out and acted as a buffer, preventing them from escaping. A wall of earth erupted from the ground on one side behind the awaiting semi-circle, and they quickly adjusted their formation to accommodate for it.  It was obvious, even to Edgard, that these men had practiced this maneuver many times before. The efficiency of their movements belied experience with a tactic that had been used many, many times before.  

As the mob of people poured through the doorway, several people throughout the pack tried to stop and get their bearings. They were covered in soot and ash, and many were coughing violently from the inhalation of smoke. A handful even doubled over in coughing fits, trying to get their breath, and a few fell to their knees just to the sides of the doorway.

The group of awaiting men, however, were clearly prepared. They instantly began shouting taunts and jibes at anyone and everyone in the mass, and struck out with the weapons at any person who dared to move too slowly or in the wrong direction. With the semi-circle of armed men on two sides and the stone barrier on another, the mass of people surging from the building was herded down the street and toward the spot where Edgard stood transfixed, forced to watch.  

What are they doing? Edgard wondered. He was relieved that the killings seemed to have stopped, at least for now, but this new tactic, whatever purpose it served, was lost on him.  They stream of people started quickly moving past him, many screaming in terror, and some even broke into a full-out run as they fled in panic. Their flight, however, was still being directed.  Additional men had emerged from all the side streets, preventing any of the townsfolk from venturing off route. Any time someone tried to dash down a side street, blades quickly flicked out, poking and slicing, turning the runners back in the right direction.

They’re herding them, Edgard realized. They’re driving them like cattle . . . or pigs, he thought glumly.  

Once the flood of bodies had moved past them, the original ring of marauders sauntered past in a lazy jog. Edgard couldn’t be certain, but it appeared as if the few members who had gone into the building to chase everyone else out had reemerged and joined them as well.  Wherever they were going, they were clearly not in any hurry to keep up with the mass of people.

“Come on, runt. Time to join the rest of the pigs.” One of the men approached Edgard as he moved past. He wasn’t certain, but he was fairly sure it was the same one who had originally planted him there. The man grabbed him by the elbow and jerked him forward. As if on command, the stone that had encased his feet and lower legs crumbled away like dried mud, and Edgard was tugged forward to march down the street behind everyone else.  

Although he followed along meekly, he couldn’t stop himself from staring at the horror.  Now that he had finally been moved beyond the confines of the street outside the cafeteria, he could clearly see what a state of disarray the rest of the town was in. Thick, black smoke wafted up into the air from almost all the buildings he could see as he glanced up and down side streets, and some of the smaller buildings towards the outskirts of town were fully ablaze.   Carts and barrels had been overturned, their contents upended into the street, and many were completely smashed altogether. There were scorch marks all along walls and on the stone pavers, showing the use of some sort of fire magic there as well.  

The most horrifying thing to Edgard, however, was the blood. It was almost everywhere he looked, whether in small patches or quickly-drying pools, and it seemed like there was no end to it. He had seen the Hunters Guild butcher game before, so it wasn’t a completely foreign sight, but it still left him shaky and unsettled nonetheless. Blood, he said to himself in horror. Human blood. They passed by one of the brightly-decorated walls that was closer to the street, and Edgard stumbled when he saw what it had become. There were crimson splotches all over the mural as if someone had sprayed it with a dye, and it all ended in a long smear covering up what had previously been a picture of children playing in the town’s streets.  

Edgard couldn’t stand to watch anymore. He dropped his head and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the images, and let himself be lead along blindly. What is this madness?  Why are they doing this to us? Have we not been devout? Have we not followed the teachings of God? Are we being punished somehow?

The man beside him abruptly came to a halt, and his grip on Edgard’s arm tightened, forcing Edgard to stop along with him. I don’t want to look. I don’t want to know what’s happening. Maybe if I keep my eyes shut this will all just go away again like a bad dream.  

“Open your eyes and watch, little piggy!” the man commanded.  

It was as if the man knew what Edgard was thinking. I can’t. I won’t. There’s no way– Edgard felt something hit him hard in the stomach. The breath exploded from his lungs, and his eyes popped open against his will. The same man who had been leading him along had punched him in the stomach. Edgard tried to double-over in pain and sink to the ground, but the man quickly grabbed Edgard by the hair on the back of his head and forced him to look up.  

“I said watch.”

It took Edgard a moment to realize what he was looking at. The sight and the concept behind it were completely foreign to him, and he couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on. He had been marched all the way to the town square in front of the church, and there was a large mass of townsfolk huddled together in the center of the square. Many of the women were weeping and clutching children, and he could hear the sounds of their crying even from where he stood. Some of the men were shouting at their captors, but it didn’t seem to be having any effect. Their assailants had spread out to form a ring around them, and it appeared as if they were unconcerned about anyone trying to escape.

Why didn’t they just run? Edgard wondered. Some of them might have escaped . . . And then Edgard spied it. A low, earthen barrier, maybe four feet high, surrounded everyone and trapped them inside. That’s ridiculous. Any young boy from the Hunters Guild could jump over that wall. Even I could climb over it. Why are they just standing there? What are they waiting for?

“Hey!” a deep voice rang out.  

Edgard’s head jerked towards the sound as soon as he heard it. He knew it instantly.  On one side of the group of townsfolk, a man taller than everyone else was pushing his way towards the barrier.  

“Hey!” it rang out again. “I’ve about had enough of this!”

Cedric.

Cedric reached the stone barrier and stopped. “You have no right to do this! We are peaceful people who follow the teachings of God!” He gestured back towards the people behind him as he spoke. “We work diligently every day to tend to our jobs, and we have never hurt anyone. We have never offended you. This . . . What you are doing is evil!”

“Oh-ho!” The man closest to Cedric, the one he was addressing, snickered. “Looks like we have us a big one here!”  

“Tell us why you are doing this!” Cedric demanded.

“This hog wants to know why, boys! Can you believe it?” The man threw his head back and laughed in Cedric’s face. “Because God told us to, pig! He came down to us one night, sat his dainty rump on a barstool, took a swig of whiskey and ordered us to butcher the swine!” The man laughed again. “Can you believe it? Got right lit up real quick. Couldn’t even hold his liquor!  He kept ranting on about how miserable this town was and how impious its believers were. ‘Go fix them,’ he said. ‘Teach them the right way!’ That was the last thing he said just before he left with an ugly bar woman.”

Cedric had turned redder and redder as the man spoke. “Blasphemy!” he shouted.  

No, Cedric. No. Don’t. Just go away. Go away.

Cedric grabbed the top of the stone wall and launched himself over. He never even cleared the top before a blast of flame caught him square in the center of his chest and knocked him back onto the other side where he landed on a pile of people.  

Cedric . . .

The big man somehow got back to his feet. His clothes had already been stained black from his time inside the burning building, but now his shirt hung loosely on his chest in tatters, exposing the burnt red skin on his stomach and chest. It was still blistered and raw from where the fireball had hit him. He staggered forward and grasped the barrier to support himself, clearly in pain from every movement.  

No . . . Stop. Stay down. Just stop trying, Edgard pleaded, but, of course, no-one could hear him.  

A second blast of fire hit Cedric in the chest, but the large man held firmly onto the wall.  He staggered under the impact, and he screamed out in pain, but he somehow managed to stay upright this time. His whole body sagged forward, supporting his weight on the barrier.

“You . . . You . . .” he stammered, unable to get any other word out.  

The man took a quick step forward and slashed out with his sword. Blood frothed out from Cedric’s neck, and his huge framed slumped forward over the top of the wall.  

“No . . .”  Edgard tried to take a step backward away from the sight, but the hand on his arm held him tight.   

“Let’s get to work, boys!” the man called out to his comrades, completely unphased by what had just happened.  

Men around the circle started making gestures, and a wall of flame burst to life on the far side of the circle. Men and women inside cried out in shock and terror and huddled closer together trying to get away from it. The whole circle shifted, pressing away from the fire and towards the opposite side where Cedric’s dying body lay hung over the mound of earth. They crammed up against the wall, unable to move or run. Weapons flickered out in bright flashes of red and bodies started falling to the ground. Those people closest to the wall went down and disappeared out of sight.

“No!” Edgard tried to take another step away, but he couldn’t. His heart was pounding in his ears. I can’t watch this. I can’t. “No!” he shouted this time and flailed around against his captor’s grip, struggling to escape.  

The man holding Edgard violently threw him to the ground. Edgard still squirmed around trying to break free, but the man pressed his knee into Edgard’s stomach and used his bodyweight to keep him planted to the ground. Edgard’s breathing grew short and quick as he struggled to take in air. His heart racing from the horrors he had witnessed and his struggle to get away, he couldn’t catch his breath with the man pressing down on top of him.  

“Nuh-uh, little piggy pig. There’s no running,” his captor taunted.  

Edgard stared up into the eyes of the man on top of him. He could hear the screams of the people being butchered. He could hear them crying out to God for salvation. Then the man’s blade arced down in a flash of light towards Edgard’s face, and everything went black.  


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