The Eighth Rune Ch3

Edgard awoke in a cold shiver, grasping his chest and panting like he had just ran around the town twice without taking a breath. What? What’s going on? He looked around him. I should be dead. I died. I know I died. He found himself staring at his hands, expecting to find blood, burn marks, anything from the night before. No, no, this isn’t right. I am dead. I died. I . . . He found himself having to sniffle up snot that was escaping his nose. It hurt so much . . . and then I died. The sniffling continued as tears found their way down his cheek.

“What the heck?” He wiped his eyes clean for a second. “That, that, that was just a nightmare,” he reasoned to himself aloud even though he was alone, but he didn’t believe the words even as they came out of his mouth.

Am I going crazy? He couldn’t stop shaking as he stacked his basket with his dirty, old clothes and started to put on a new shirt and pants. Halfway through putting on the new shirt though, he stopped. The red line, he mouthed. He had almost forgot that Wilfred, Wilheard and Cedric had all pointed out a red line on his chest the day before. They said one of the lines was red. He quickly produced one of his mother’s mirrors from the tool closet and spied at his chest. Sure enough, there was a red line. There were two in fact. What he had assumed were multiple, separate lines turning in upon each other apparently were long strands of lines connected in a way that didn’t make sense until these two had begun glowing red. So there are nine lines total, and that’s . . . two. Two out of nine are red. He poked one of them.

What does it do? What does it mean? hHe wondered, trying to make sense of it as his hand instinctively traced the now-red lines on his chest. Even after he had put his shirt back on and gone back to doing his daily chores, he was still tracing it, still running the line over and over again in his head. What does it mean? What does it do? Why is it turning red? His mind bounced around with a hundred ideas, but each one was more silly and preposterous than the next. None of them made sense. None of them seemed close to possible.

“Hey! Brandless!” The same jerk neighbor that harassed him everyday drilled his annoying voice into Edgard’s head until it came between him and his thoughts.

Ignore it. Just ignore it. Edgard tried to keep his cool. He had been through hell, twice now, and his world and his sanity were crumbling to bits as he tried to distinguish reality from the horrors from which he had just awoken, but this idiot kept insisting on harassing him every single morning with the same snide barrage of insults.

“Brandless! You daydreaming?” the man’s familiar taunt resounded in Edgard’s ear. “Don’t tell me you aren’t excited! We both know what a big day it is!”

Edgard found his blood boiling as he tried to control his rage. It wasn’t the man’s fault. He was the same man he had been every day his entire life, but today Edgard really needed to hate someone. He was angry at the helplessness of his own situation, at his recurring death, and he needed to be angry. This guy was a convenient outlet.

“Come on, Brandless! I know you can hear me!” he called out again as Edgard walked back to his door.or some reason,  the taunt worked this time. Edgard snapped.

“WHAT?!” Edgard, in an entirely un-Edgard-like fashion, shot back in the loudest outburst he could muster. “What is it? What could you possibly have to say that is worth listening to? A snide joke about me lacking magic? That same stupid suggestion that I pray with the mother to get a rune? Huh?” Edgard’s face turned red as he screamed angrily at the man.

“I was just trying to be helpful.” The man shrunk back a little and shrugged. “You don’t have to be such a jerk.”

“Whatever!” Edgard stormed off, slammed the door behind him and threw the box of clothes he had been carrying onto the floor. He almost picked them up and put them back in their proper place, until he saw same apple he had eaten for breakfast the two previous mornings sitting uneaten on his table. That’s right. Why am I bothering with tomorrow’s clothes at all? I don’t even need them . . . because, at the end of the day, I’m going to have to live this day all over again. Trapped, stuck here for eternity eating the same dang apple and drinking the same dang cups of mead for Cedric over and over again. He wanted to cry. It was too much. He didn’t get why whatever was going on had to be happening to him.

I need air. He grabbed the apple and went outside. Normally, eating outside was taboo. ‘At the table or at the stable’ was repeated constantly to kids in the town, but he just couldn’t be bothered. He wasn’t even sure where he was going as he let his feet carry him. Maybe I need more than air. Maybe I need to run. He stared at his feet. Could I run far enough? Would I be safe when I got there? His thoughts pulled his gaze towards the closest road leaving town. No, what about Mae? he thought, letting out a sigh. If the dream is true, if I’m bound to die again, then I can’t run until I get Mae.

Ruminating on his next course of action as he walked on, more out of habit than by decision, he soon came to Derian’s house, and, before he realized it, he found himself staring at the painting again. He wasn’t sure how long he had been staring at the girl walking through the woods, but with every passing moment she seemed to be a more fleshed-out image, separate from the rest of the painting. The girl, who was once was an unmoving figure pasted across a wall, now seemed to be stirring as if resisting the very nature of a two-dimensional picture. The way her long, brown, frizzled hair lay tossed behind her as she seemed to walk, the deep brown eyes that seemed to house a majesty of soul and feeling within, the soft, ivory skin that showed itself undaunted under the bright sun–it all seemed surreal to Edgard as he once again found his hand reaching out to it.

“Edgard?” a voice shook him as the door to the house opened and Hilda, the spitting image of the woman in the painting, walked out. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, me, I’m . . .” He tried to think of an excuse for why he was standing outside of her place like a creep. “I’m just waiting on Derian. I thought I’d talk with him on the way to work,” he lied. It strangely hurt to lie to her, like a knife in the gut, but he really didn’t have a better reason off the top of his head.

“Oh.” She looked disappointed as she fidgeted with the blue shoulder of her shirt. “I just . . .” She looked like she was about to say something as she bit her lip before stopping herself. “I mean, he didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Edgard looked confused. Why is she acting like that? Is she as nervous about this as I am? I guess it must make her uncomfortable to see me just standing outside of her house. He scratched his head awkwardly as he saw her fidget in front of him. Should I just leave?

“That, ummm . . .” She paused again, grinding her teeth for a moment. “He stayed out last night, slept at the church again,” she finally said. “But it was really nice of you to come by.” A long pause ensued, one that Edgard wanted to break, but he wasn’t sure of what to say until, finally, he was about to open his mouth, and she spoke up again. “Is there something I could help you with instead? I’m, I’m kind of good at a lot of stuff too if you need anything. I can paint your bod-building too! Later today that is, I mean.”

Later, later today? “Oh, well . . . what are you doing now?” He was caught up in the same innocent, meandering pace in which she conversed with him, and he found himself unable to commit to any thought in particular.

“I was just going to head to work.” She looked down the road that Edgard had come from. She worked with the Hunters Guild, and they often either had rather late shifts or rather early shifts. In Hilda’s case, Edgard guessed that she had one of the shifts that ran from noon to night. “But,” she carried on, “I don’t have to be there right away. Maybe I could . . . I could go with you to work and check on Derian. He’d like that, I think.”

“Yes!” Edgard found himself agreeing too quickly. “I mean, he probably would, I’m sure.”

“Okay then.” She smiled, and then her eyes drifted to the apple that Edgard was still holding. “Just give me a moment. I need to grab something to eat.” She disappeared back behind the door.

As soon as she was gone, he kicked himself. You have Mae. What are you doing? Were you flirting with her? Why? Stop it! You idiot! He started chastising himself, but before he could feel too guilty, Hilda walked back outside and smiled at him. “I didn’t take too long, did I?” she asked.

“No. No, of course not,” he replied, returning her warm smile. “I’m not too worried about being late,” he said, the words lingering as he realized the implication. I’m not too worried about being late because I am not even sure there is a point to showing up. Maybe I should just take the day off and go do my own thing instead, he said to himself, letting out a small sigh at the thought.

“What?” Hilda looked at him, the two had already started walking towards the church.

“Huh?” He didn’t understand why she was suddenly asking that.

“You sighed, did I say something wrong?” she asked again

Why is she so cute? Why is she so nervous? He found himself sighing for a different reason this time. She really was the innocent girl in the forest protected by angels. “No, it’s just, I have a lot of work today,” he answered with a shrug, but the lie stabbed at him again. Why am I lying when I don’t even have to. He felt guilty. Next time . . . Next time I won’t– he almost came to a physical stop as he kicked himself mentally for accepting his fate. There won’t be a next time. This time, I’ll get out of it. I’ll find Mae at church, and the two of us will get out of town before it happens. That’s it. We’ll just escape.

“Oh, well, I shouldn’t keep you too long then. Do you want to walk faster?” she asked,  giggling. “Maybe . . . if you’re really worried about being late and not finishing your work . . . we could even race?”

Race? I haven’t ever raced anyone in my life. He gave her a wry grin. “Sure, you’re on!” he said, accepting the challenge, though with no illusions of beating her.

The two took off in a foot race towards the church. Edgard, who had not only never raced, but never really tried that hard to run, found himself behind Hilda, who was outrunning him by leaps and bounds within a few minutes. How is she so fast? he thought as he did his best to not be completely humiliated. This just . . . This just isn’t right. “Wait!” he finally called out to her, hoping she wasn’t already out of earshot range. “Wait!” he tried again when she kept running even after the first shout.

He felt a little helpless, chasing her shadow at this point until finally she stopped and turned around to see him blocks behind her. Without saying anything, she started laughing softly to herself, softly enough that he didn’t hear her at first from the distance, but even if he couldn’t hear her chuckling away, he could still see her.

“Is that all they do in the Hunters Guild? Run all the time?” he managed to say between heavy breaths.

“I think it’s that we do more than sit around all day,” she said between giggles. “They need to get you scribes out more . . . or maybe less. You look kind of cute when you’re ragged and out of breath.”

Edgard felt his own cheeks burn at the compliment, but also from a bit of embarrassment at the fact he had failed so badly. When he agreed to race, he knew he wouldn’t be faster than her, but he had assumed that he could at least keep up with her–not perform so poorly it looked like he didn’t even try.

“I mean, that’s not to say you aren’t usually cute. It’s just . . .” This time her white cheeks burned red, blushing just as much if not more than Edgard. “I just meant that you didn’t do too bad. Umm . . .”

“Yeah.” Edgard didn’t know why, but he suddenly wasn’t entirely sure of what to do with his hands. “So how about we just walk the rest of the way?” he suggested, rubbing his palms together in lieu of any more natural action to keep his hands busy.

“That may be best, scriby,” she teased before the two of them set off towards the church.

So nicknames don’t always have to be insulting. Edgard checked off a mental box. He knew he should be tired from running as hard as he could to keep up with Hilda, but he felt light as a feather as they walked side by side the rest of the way to church. They talked about a lot of things, none of which, to Edgard’s pleasant surprise, were rune or church related. Most often the topics ventured back to random bits of gossip Edgard had never been privy to as a social outcast.

One particular piece of gossip that Edgard found pretty funny was about one of the new trainees at the Hunters Guild. Apparently, he arrived early in the morning before anyone else and decided to use the restroom before getting to work. The problem was that he mistook the men’s sign for the women’s sign at the lavatory divide, and, after relieving himself, was too afraid to leave his stall and expose his mistake to the women who had come in after him. He apparently spent almost the entire day in the bathroom, forced to endure the smell, until one impatient woman burst into the stall without checking and found him there. Everyone was too busy laughing at the poor eight-year-old to call him on his mistake as he scampered out of the bathroom in shame.

“Well, I guess this is me,” Edgard looked at the church. They had finally arrived.

“Oh, if that’s you, you’ve put on some weight.” Hilda frowned for the first time since they had started talking. “Umm, well, it’s kind of late in the morning, and I do have work . . . Maybe I’ll just wait until tonight to talk to Derian.”

“You sure?” Edgard had mixed feelings about pressuring her to come in. On one hand, he didn’t exactly want to say goodbye, but on the other hand, he needed to get Mae so they could escape. Can I bring them both? Can we all three get out? What about Derian? Edgard frowned this time too. There has to be a way to get everyone out of town.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Look, let’s talk more often. Okay?” Hilda said. She gave him a weak smile and then left before Edgard could come up with a reason to keep her.

Why did she walk all the way here if she wasn’t going to go in? Edgard looked at the door to the church, wishing she hadn’t left him. Now he’d have to restart the day, go back to the same pattern he had been going through over and over again. Whatever, I can do this. I just need to go get Mae, and then leave, and I already know she’s going to show up at the study later. Edgard took a deep breath and pushed through the doors towards Derian’s lecture hall.

“Derian,” he started as soon as he walked in. “We have to talk.” He did his best to get it out before he lost his nerve.

Derian’s face went pale, and his eyes shot open. “Look, I don’t know what you know, but– Look, just relax first, okay?”

“Huh?” Edgard’s worked up nerves were dispelled by the utter surprise on Derian’s face.

“What did you want to talk about?” Derian said, inching back a step. “Everything okay with you, Edgard?”

“No, no, it’s not. I’m losing my mind here,” Edgard started, ready to tell Derian everything that happened, and then he stopped as he stared at Derian’s confused face. He’s going to think I’m crazy. I can’t just tell him. I have to be able to prove it first. I can’t have him thinking I’m insane. “Hilda, I know about Hilda.”

“What? Edgard, are you okay? You don’t look right. You look like you just walked in on the Father naked with an old woman.” Derian’s expression noticeably lightened after Edgard mentioned Hilda.

“Look, no, you’re about to tell me that Hilda is being chased after by a guy from the Fire Guild and that he’s a little snot, and you don’t want him to end up with your sister.” Edgard studied Derian’s face for any change. I am right, aren’t I? he wondered as Derian displayed his uncanny poker face, void of any visible emotional reaction.

“Yeah . . .” Derian answered after a minute of silence. “I was, but–”

As soon as Derian confirmed it, Edgard jumped on the next point. He needed to mention the Mae part before Derian did, or it wouldn’t help his argument at all. “And Mae! You’re going to tell me that the relationship I have with Mae isn’t real. You are going to give me a lecture today about how I need to give up on her . . .” Edgard paused again. Agree to it, he mentally urged the silent Derian. You know I’m right. You know that’s what you were going to do today. That’s what you did the two times before even with different circumstances.

“Yeah, I was, Edgard,” Derian frowned. “And you know you do too.”

“That’s not the point!” Edgard snapped. He wanted to be defensive about Mae, but he didn’t have the time. “Look, just trust me here. I know everything that’s going to happen. Here, come with me.” Edgard turned to leave the room and headed to the work study where Derian followed.

“Okay?” Derian looked around the room, almost like he was expecting something. “Edgard, are you sure you didn’t hit your head somewhere? Is this some kind of joke? Are you pulling a fast one on me?”

“Derian, have I ever pulled a prank on anyone?” Edgard rolled his eyes. Why would he even bother accusing me of that?

“That’s a fair point.” Derian’s frown still hadn’t vanished as he spied out the room. “So why are we here then?”

“Mae!” Edgard felt erratic, but he had to recall all the events that he knew for sure would happen to convince Derian. He already thinks I’m crazy. I will never be able to talk him into running away without more proof. Edgard’s determination didn’t waver. “We sit here, quietly, working for a while. Then Mae comes in, and she says not to worry about whether the Father catches her or not because she just got lost on her way back to the sermon room from the lavatory. Then when she leaves, you tell me . . .”

Edgard tried to remember all the details. Most of what he said wouldn’t convince him if Derian had known it. It could be speculation. Not the Hilda bit, but absolutely the rest. The Hilda piece could have been told to him by Hilda, they walked in together after all. However, there was one detail he couldn’t put his finger on. What am I missing? He looked around, hoping an object in the room would jog his memory.

“Edgard, why are you telling me all this? Why are you acting so weird?” Derian’s frown didn’t fade as his head turned to follow Edgard’s searching gaze. “What’s going on, Edgard?”

“We’re going to die.” Edgard gave up on trying to remember more details. “We’re going to die horribly. We have to get out of town. When Mae comes in, we need to leave together as quickly as possible.”

“Edgard, no one is going to di–”

“Yes, they will!” Edgard stamped his foot, impatiently trying to put together a reasoned argument, but nothing was coming out. So, in lieu of that, he just told the truth. “I’ve seen it!”

“You’ve seen it?”

“I’ve seen it all. Today, every bit of it. I already know how it ends. Derian, we’re going to die. They’re coming, a group of, umm . . .” Edgard fumbled for the right word. “A group of magic-users are coming to kill us. They slaughter everyone. I saw it with my own two eyes!” he asserted. I really am sounding like I’m off my rocker, but I just don’t know how else to say it.

“Edgard, maybe you just need some rest. I’m sure it was just a bad dream,” Derian said, giving him the patronizing look of a father arguing with a child. “Look, just calm down. Relax. It’ll all be over soon.”

“Yeah, it will. We’ll all die soon, and then I’ll have to repeat it.” Edgard took a deep breath and played the events of the past two days over in his head again. “Look, I’m not lying. I already know how this day plays out. You’re . . . You’re going to offer to do the rest of my work so I leave early today too. I’m going to go to the food hall with Cedric, and that’s where we all die.”

Derian’s patronizing look faded, and his eyes twitched a moment. “I am?” he asked, one eyebrow going up. “What else is going to happen?”

“That’s it. We die. That’s the end of the story,” Edgard said. What else can happen after you’re dead? “Look, if you don’t believe me, just wait. I promise you Mae will be in here in about an hour or two after we’ve had enough time to finish a page.”

Derian closed his eyes for a moment. “Fine. I’ll humor this game of yours, but I don’t know what you’re up to.”

“I’m not up to anything. I’m telling you the truth,” Edgard insisted before the two went quiet again. They sat there for an hour or so in silence, Derian diligently working for a change, as Edgard, in the most uncharacteristic fashion ever, appeared to just doodle. In truth, he was actually still drawing a rune in the book, but this wasn’t a rune that belonged there. This was the rune that was on his chest. He didn’t even have to consult a mirror to draw it. He knew every inch of it by memory, even more so now that the red lines had illuminated the pattern in the madness of lines that made up the symbol. He ended up drawing the rune three times before Mae made her usual visit.

“There is a little something to be said about irony,” Mae said from the doorway before turning to see Derian. “Oh, I guess this isn’t as ironic as I thought,” she corrected herself, beaming at Derain. “It seems you actually have company this time.”

“Someone had to watch after him today. He’s not his usual self.” Derian stopped working and kicked his legs over the bench so that he was still sitting, but now facing Edgard. “He tells me you came here after getting lost on the way back from the lavatory.”

“He is right,” Mae giggled, not catching on at all to the palpable tension between Edgard and Derian. “You do know how dreadfully confusing it is to find which room is which in this big church.”

“That still doesn’t prove anything though,” Derian said, looking at Edgard. “That is a pretty reasonable excuse, and you knew she was going to have her lecture here today.”

“That’s true,” Edgard conceded. But . . . “But what about my place?!” Edgard, upon seeing Mae, suddenly remembered the good news. “You tell me later today, in confidence, that you talked to the Father and he’s going to be promoting me,” Edgard said ecstatically. It wasn’t the news that was making him happy; it was that he remembered it. This is a detail there is no way he can explain me knowing.

Derian’s face fell, and so did Mae’s. “You’re getting your own place?” said Mae, looking at him, confused. “So, like, within a week you’re going to have your own place?”

“If I’m here in a week.” Edgard brushed off Mae’s concern as he stood up and looked at Derian. “Look, there is no way I could have known that. You’re my witness, and I don’t have enough. You all need to just trust me on this. We have to leave. We have to leave right now.”

“Leave? What are you talking about?” Mae said from the doorway in a rather somber voice. “Like, to the new place you’re getting?”

“No, Mae, look, we have to get out of town. We’re going to die if we stay here,” Edgar replied, turning to plead with her this time. “Can we please go?”

“Why are we going to die?” Mae inched backwards a bit and then looked to Derian. “What is he talking about?”

“He says he can predict the future.” Derian stood up this time, frowning. “He says he can tell us what’s going to happen in the future, and that we’re all going to die.”

“That’s silly. Why would he think that?” Mae laughed as her anxious look melted back into a smile. “Is that what he’s on about with the new place in a week?”

“Yeah.,” Derian bent over and grabbed a few things from under his desk before standing back up. “And he’s not wrong. He hasn’t been wrong yet. He’s predicted everything. I know it doesn’t make sense, but nothing to do with Edgard makes sense right now. Edgard, you said that, when you leave, you run into Cedric, right?”

“Yeah, he drags me to the food hall,” Edgard nodded.

“Then let’s get Cedric. The food hall is on the way to the Hunters Guild, and I want to get Hilda as soon as possible. If people are going to die, she needs to come with us.” Derian started walking towards the exit.

“You’re actually gonna go with him?” Mae asked, flustered, as Derian started walking past her. “Are you going to just leave me here?” she said to him.

“Leave you? Aren’t you coming with us?” Derian asked. “If you really loved Edgard, you would trust him this time. Even if he does sound like he’s lost a few things upstairs.”

“Well”–Mae looked over at Edgard–“well, fine. Let’s go, Edgard. Let’s go run away from a perfectly good lifestyle because you think we’re all going to die if we stay,” she said, pouting.

What? That easily? I didn’t have to convince her too? He was actually kind of surprised. If this happens again, I need to lead with the bit about my own house. That seemed to convince Derian instantly., Edgard didn’t second guess how quickly Mae went from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ in terms of the runaway plan. He was just happy that she had agreed. They had plenty of time left too. The escape mission was going to be a success. He was going to live, and the people he cared about would make it too. At least there aren’t too many of those, or this would take too long, and I’d have to pick and choose, he thought, laughing to himself. This was the first time that he ever felt grateful that he didn’t have many friends.

As they walked out of the church, Edgard looked over towards the right and expected to see Cedric walking towards the food hall. Where is he? He paused. Wait, that’s right. We left too early. The last two times I didn’t leave right after Mae arrived. I left a few minutes later. This time is different.

“What are we stopped for?” Derian asked Edgard, the impatience seething through his words.

“Isn’t the food hall in that direction?” Mae nodded her head towards the food hall on the left.

I should at least be able to spot him. Edgard hesitated, pushing his lips together until they were compressed into a small line as he tried to find Cedric. There! “There he is! We have to get Cedric too. There he is!” Edgard pointed at Cedric and felt relieved.

“Edgard!” Cedric noticed Edgard shouting right outside of the church and bee-lined straight to him. “I never thought I’d see you happy to hit the food hall with me. Come on.”

“We’re actually not going to the food hall. We’re going to go to the Hunters Guild to find Hilda,” Derian corrected. “You coming?”

“Visiting the family, ey?” Cedric clapped both Derian and Edgard’s back at the same time, sending each of them half a foot forward as they both tried to keep their balance under the strike of the mountain that was Cedric.

“No, act–” Edgard was about to explain everything to Cedric too when Derian cut him off before he could get two words out.

“Yeah, something like that. She’s had a rough time with an aggressive boy, so we thought we’d go see her. Why don’t you come with us?” Derian pressed.

“Aww, but the lady on staff today always doubles down on my plate,” Cedric groaned. “She gives me extra cups of mead whenever I ask too.” His complaints continued, but then he saw Edgard’s pleading face and relented. “Fine, if you’re gonna look at me like that, I’ll go. I suppose one day away from my sweet mead maiden won’t hurt.”

Edgard was actually pretty taken aback to see Cedric grumbling about the ‘mead maiden.’ In their entire 12 years of knowing each other, Edgard had never seen Cedric complain about anything. He always looked happier than Derian after a night at the tavern. It figures that it is a lack of mead and food that finally puts him in the dumps. Edgard almost wanted to laugh at how simple Cedric could be at times. Actually, he’s probably the smartest one here. Mead, food, hard work–he knows exactly what he wants in life and what makes him happy. If I could be more like that, I’d probably be a lot happier, he mused. “It’s okay, Cedric. Tomorrow, I’ll give you half my meal if she’s not there to make up for it,” he apologized.

Cedric slammed Edgard’s back in his usual ‘I’m about to say something to you’ fashion. “Come on, Edgard, don’t use me as an excuse to get out of eating. You’d give half your food to one of the Hunters Guild pets anyway.”

“I would not!” Edgard protested. “I’d take it home so I didn’t have to go to the food hall the next day.”

“Is that why I never see you in the Church Cafeteria?” Derian asked. “Always sneaking your food home so you don’t have to eat with your good, old buddy, Derian?”

“Well,” Edgard wanted to say no, but that’d be lying. Derian was definitely not wrong, but he wasn’t the person Edgard was avoiding. “It’s more like the other Brothers than you.”

“Whatever.” Derian shrugged.

“He just likes to eat at home in case I visit,” Mae said, trying to defend him. “Has to have food ready for his girl, after all, like a good man.”

Derian opened his mouth to say something then stopped. He ended up settling for an uncomfortable glare at Mae while she and Cedric chatted away. What is with that look? Edgard thought, ignoring the conversation. It wasn’t that he had anything against the two people talking or the topic, but something about Derian’s glare was distracting for Edgard. That, and the fact that as soon as he peeled his eyes away from the glare, he became deftly aware of the impending doom. After all, any minute now, the attack would burn down and kill everyone in the food hall, and they weren’t far enough away from the place for Edgard’s liking.

Edgards eyes darted up and down the street.  They were wasting time.  He knew what was coming: this place was going to turn into a killing ground any minute now, and he didn’t want to be around for it when it happened.  Living through that twice was two more times than was necessary for a single lifetime, and he had no intention of being around for a third if at all possible.

He shrugged off the strange look from Derian and said, “We need to get going.”   He was doing his best to get the others moving, to urge them on, but they seemed content to drag their feet.

“What’s the hurry, little man?”  Cedric asked.  “Are you afraid Hilda won’t be there when we arrive?”

“I’d rather just not have to make her wait any longer than possible,” Edgard replied, starting to feel anxious.  He turned away from the small group of his friends and started walking in the direction of the irrigators guild, all the while hoping that the others would follow along behind him.

He only made it a few steps before he heard Derian agree, “Yeah.  I don’t think we should waste any more time.  We should go straight there now that Cedric’s with us.”

Edgard could hear the sound of their footsteps from behind him as they started after him. Yes.  Thank you.  We have to move.  He picked up his pace a little bit and lengthened his step now that he knew that they were follow along behind him.

“So what exactly is this trouble that she’s having?” Cedric asked from behind them.

“Err . . .” Derian was obviously stalling for time while trying to come up with an answer.  “One of the boys from the flame guild has been trying to get her attention for a while now.  It’s been the usual flashy stuff you would expect from someone within that guild, but lately, things have just gotten a bit too aggressive for my liking,” he finally responded.

Cedric sighed and somehow he made even that sound loud to Edgard.  “Ahh . . . young love.  I remember how it is.  Back when I was courting my wife, trying to get her attention, I definitely pulled some flashy stunts.  I remember showing off just to get my wife’s attention”

“Yeah, but those members of the flame guild really take it too far sometimes,” Derian replied.  “They act like they’re the most important people in town . . . It’s like they expect every young girl in town to just collapse into their arms and thank them for being there to catch them.”

“They’re not so bad,” Mae chimed in.  “I don’t understand why you and Edgard are always giving them such a hard time. They work hard just like everyone else!”

Edgard couldn’t help but scoff when he heard that comment.  He may have selectively voiced his opinion on the matter a few times, but now wasn’t the time or place for him to get into a debate on how arrogant they all were.

Mae must have heard him because she said, “It’s true!  Their flame cells keep us warm in the winter and power the kitchens every day.  If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have such good food to eat.”

“Oh why did you have to remind me of food?” Cedric asked with a groan.  “Don’t remind me of the meal I’m missing right now.  Besides, I think you’re just judging them too harshly.  We all work hard every day, just as God had ordered.  We all have our roles in life.”

“That’s right!” Mae agreed, a little too hastily for Edgard’s taste.

Why is she so quick to defend them?  Edgard wondered.  Even she mentioned before how pushy they could be sometimes. 

“They work hard, and they have a right to be proud of the work they do,” she continued, and the tone of her voice made obvious that she was a growing little irritated. “And so what if they try to show off from time to time?  It’s nice to have a young man try and flatter you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much, Mae, I think our young Derian here is just being an overprotective big brother.  As he should!”  Cedric laughed, and Edgard could hear the sound of the smack that accompanied it as he popped Derian on the back even from where he was several paces in front of others.

Edgard’s eyes danced along the street in front of him as he wove his way around passersby in the street.  Most of them were used to simply ignoring him, but a few would always go out of their way and take any available opportunity to berate him as much as possible.  This, however, wasn’t the time or place for him to waste his energy with those kinds of people.  He needed to find Hilda as quickly as possible and get out of town with the others.  The more time they wasted in the streets, the closer they got to the point of no return . . . until the attack.

Edgard rounded a corner too quickly and almost ran into a woman coming from the other direction.  She had her arms full carrying a basket of clean laundry, and she was already doing everything she could to balance the load.  Edgard quickly stopped and wheeled to the side on the heel of his foot, but it was too late.  She went over backwands into a heap and linens went flying up into the air.

“I — I’m so sorry!” he stammered.  He had been so focused on his own thoughts and escaping from the town that he hadn’t even seen her coming until it was too late.

“Ugh!  All this clean laundry!” the woman said as she dusted herself off and began picking up now-soiled wash.  “Well, nothing to be done about it now, I suppose.”

“I – I just wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.  I was in a hurry to . . .” Edgard trailed off as the woman looked up at him and smiled.  Mildpyrd.  The vision of her head being split open by a sword flashed in front of his mind.  All he could think of in that moment was how she had been gutted like a fish and brutally executed.

“It’s ok, really,” she said and smiled sweetly.  “There’s no use crying over spilt laundry.”

“Edgard!” Cedric loudly admonished him as the others caught up with him. “Don’t just stand there, help poor Mildpyrd!”  The large man had already bent down to help retrieve the lost laundry even as he chastised Edgard.

Edgard shook his head and tried to clear it of the horrible thoughts that were racing through it.  He knew he should be helping Mildpryd retrieve her things, but all he could do was stare down at her.  All he could see was smoke wafting over the town, the sights of the buildings burning, and the blood . . . all the blood everywhere.   And the men responsible for it, dressed in their motley garb of blacks and browns, with their armor and weapons. . . they were coming.  How long? he wondered, even as the images flooded his mind’s eyes.  How long has it been?  How long before they get here?  How long do we have left?

Something flickered at the top of his vision, and he jerked his head up just in time to see brilliant flash of red engulf his vision.  He had seen it too many times already, and he knew exactly what was going to happen, what to expect.  He threw his hands up to shield his face, clenched his eyes shut, and braced himself, waiting for the impact to throw him backwards.

Is this it?  Is it over already?  How did they sneak up on us?  Eugh.  Now I have to start all over again.  At least I know how to convince Derian this time.  Edgard waited for the familiar feeling up waking up in bed, but nothing happened.  He lowered his arms from in front of his face and opened his eyes, blinking against the suddenly bright light of the afternoon sun.   Everyone had stopped and was staring at him, including a few other people who had been passing by on the street.  Even poor Mildpryd, who was still on the ground trying to collect her linens, looked up at him with an expression of absolute wonder and confusion.

“You alright there, Edgard?” Cedric asked as he stood up from helping Mildpyrd, carefully folding a shirt as he did.

“What happened, Edgard?  Did you have another vision?” Derian asked at almost the same instant as Cedric.

The sight of such a large man delicately handling laundry would have been amusing in any other situation, but it was lost on Edgard at the moment.  All he could do was stare back at them with the same look of bewilderment they gave him.

“Vision?” Cedric asked, turning to Derian.

“Err . . .”

“Hey, who’s that?” Mae asked, pointing though the group of people and off down the street.

The group turned and looked in the direction they were pointing.  There was a group of people approaching from the way they had been heading in originally.  They were taking their time, leisurely strolling down the lane, as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  They stood out in stark contrast festive nature of the town, replete with decorations for the upcoming ceremony, dressed in dark clothing and heavy travel cloaks.  Unlike everyone around them, who stopped to stare at these strangers, they seemed completely uninterested in anything except for the road immediately in front of them.

The idea of a newcomer in town was almost an entirely foreign concept.  Because of its isolated nature from the rest of the world, there were very rarely ever travelers moving through the town.  All the goods that were imported and exported were handled by the traveler’s guild, ferried in and out through horse-drawn carts and wagons, who made trips on an almost day basis and generally stuck a strict routine.  All the needs of the town were provided for this way, and no one ever had much of a reason to traveler further from the town than the occasional trip out into the fields for a picnic.  It was God’s will that each individual pass his days working to the best of his ability, in order to best serve the community, and it was never acceptable for anyone to waste their day traveling or exploring.  The hunter’s guild would sometimes make short overnight trips in the surrounding forest when they were hunting for game, and small children would occasionally wander too far away from their mothers, but no one ever traveled into the village.  The only exception was during the yearly ceremony when the Mother would come to provide the blessing on the village with the Father.  Even then, however, she traveled with only a very small retinue, and they spent a large portion of their stay sequestered away in prayer for the upcoming year.

Edgard recognized them immediately.  “That’s . . . them,” he said quietly.

“You know them?” Mae asked.

“They’re the ones who are . . . They’re here to . . .”

“Edgard thinks that a bunch of people are coming to destroy the town,” Derian finished for him.

“What?” Cedric asked, turning towards him.  “What are you talking about?”

“Edgard claims that he’s been having visions—that he can predict the future.  He says that we have to get out of town or we’re all going to be killed?”

Cedric turned to Edgard with a concerned look.  “Is this true?”  he asked.

Edgard could only nod slowly in response.

Cedric placed his large hand onto Edgard shoulder and said, “I knew that you weren’t getting the proper nutrition, little weed.  Not only are you underdeveloped, but now it’s starting to affect your brain.”

“Why would you say that?” Mae asked suddenly.  She seemed intent on watching the people slowly creeping closer.  “They’re probably just here for part of tomorrow’s ceremony.  I bet they’re part of the Mother’s group who arrived early.  They probably have some business with the church.”

“No.” Edgard answered abruptly.  “We have to leave. Now.”  He tried to take a step backward, but Cedric’s strong hand held him firm where he stood and wouldn’t let go.

“I don’t think they’re part of the Mother’s entourage . . .” Derian said slowly.  “Look at their clothes.  That’s definitely not our sister city’s uniform, and those are definitely no clerical robes that I’ve ever seen before either.  I don’t think I trust these people . . .”

“Nonsense!” Mae said, taking a few small, quick steps forward and clasped her hands in front of her.  “Ooh, maybe they’re here with a new shipment from the traveler’s guild.  I bet they’ve brought back something wonderful and exotic, and they’re going to share the stories of all their adventures with us at the bar tonight!”  Her eyes kept growing wider and brighter at the idea as she talked, and she bit her lower lip when she finished.

Edgard stared at the group approaching them.  These were the same people he had seen before.  Their clothing was mostly covered by the heavy traveling cloaks they wore, but more than enough showed through from underneath to give him the impression that they were also wearing the same armor he remembered far too well.  “No, Mae, honey,” he pleaded, never taking his eyes off the group that was no more than half of a block away now, “please listen.  We have to leave!  They’re dangerous!”

It was like she hadn’t even heard him.  “I’m going to go say hello and greet them!” she said, and after a small bounce, she practically skipped off town the street towards the strangers.

“No!  Mae!  Wait!” Edgard cried out after her, but Cedric’s hand kept him firmly planted where he was.  All he could do was watch as Mae hopped off down the street towards the group of strangers.

“Cedric!” Edgard said, looking up at the large man. “Please!  You have to stop her!”

“Edgard, we shouldn’t judge others just because we don’t know them.  You know that as well as anyone.  We must greet these people and show them hospitality.  It is the proper thing to do.  Hmm . . .” He paused and trailed off, lifting his face into the air.  “I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t go to lunch, after all.  Smells like they’ve set off another fire in the kitchens again.”

Fire.  It’s starting.  We’re too late.  Edgard’s body stiffened up and started trembling at the idea.

Cedric could obviously feel the change in his manner because he said, “Don’t worry, little weed, I’m sure they’ll have it sorted out soon enough.  We can still make it back in time to get some good grub as soon as we’re finished visiting young Hilda.”

“Guys . . .” Derian started speaking softly at first, but quickly grew more forceful and panicked. “What are they . . .?”

All heads turned to look back in the direction of Mae and the new group.  One of them men had slipped his arm around Mae’s waist and was pulling her to him.

“Mae!” Edgard gasped.

“I can’t believe she . . .” Derian said at the same time.

And then she screamed.  The shrill sound of her voice echoed up and down the street, bouncing off the walls of buildings and breaking the otherwise mundane sounds of daily life in the small town.  People up and down the street had only been giving them half of their attention, most likely trying not to be caught gawking at the strangers and maintain a respectful distance, but now they all turned and stared in open-mouthed horror.  Edgard watched as the man shoved Mae backwards and her small body crumpled to the ground.  He raised his hand above his head and Edgard caught saw a glint of sunlight reflected off his blade before he brought it down and silenced her shrieks.

No sooner had the blade fallen than a second man stepped away from the others, raised an arm, and a ball of fire arced up into the sky.  It crashed onto the rooftop of a nearby building, almost three stories up, where it disappeared from sight.  A moment later, bright flames sprung up from the place it had landed.  It didn’t have the forcefully impact Edgard remembered from his dreams, but he knew that it was more than capable of destroying the structure.

“Mae!”  Derian and Edgard both screamed her name in unison.

Gasps of dismay and shock went up from people up and down the street who had turned to watch.  They stood transfixed for only a moment, as if they were unable to either move or process what had just happened, then screamed and ran.

Derian took a step forward, as if he were going to run to her aid, but Cedric threw his arm out and stopped him.  He wrapped the two smaller men up in arms and shoved them in the opposite direction, back the way they had come.  He jerked them back around the corner and pulled them up against the side of a building before he stopped.  “No!” he ordered.  “There’s nothing we can do for her.  I don’t know what just happened, or who those people are, but you two aren’t the ones to deal with it.”

Edgard shook his head as if he were trying to clear his mind.  “We have to go.  I told you, we have to go,” he repeated.  “This is bad.  We took too long.  They’re going to destroy the whole town.  Everything.  Everyone.”  His eyes had grown wider as he talked, the color had drained from his face, and he was visibly shaking by the time he finished.

“Look,” Cedric said in his deep voice, “I don’t know what you’re going on about, or what you think you know, but we need to get back to the church.  The Father will know how to handle this.”

“It’s the safest place,” Derian said in agreement.  “Cedric is right. The Father will know what to do.  They wouldn’t dare attack the church.”

“No!” Edgard said.  His vision flashed with the memory of all the townsfolk being herded into a pen where they were slaughtered like animals.  “We can’t go there.  Anywhere but there.  Don’t we . . .” He trailed off as his mind worked to up come up with any other option.  “We have to get Hilda.  She isn’t safe.”

“That’s back in the other direction, Edgard,” Cedric counseled.  He ducked his head around the corner of the building and quickly pulled it back.  A ball of flame crashed into the space his head had occupied only a moment earlier, sending small pieces of mortar and brick flying out into the street.  They were all close enough to the blast this time to feel both the heat and the force of the explosion.

“We have to go!  They’re close!”  Cedric shouted.  He grabbed both of the younger men and shoved them again, sending them all running back down the street.

Any type of commotion in the town was rare, and it was almost completely unheard of during the day.  Every now and then, a few of the younger men would come to blows over a young woman, and sometimes two men who had drank too much at the bar start a scuffle, but those occurrences were generally rare and stopped quickly before any real harm was done.  The townsfolk may not have had any idea what was going on, but they had decided that seeing people running down the street and screaming in mortal terror wasn’t a good sign.  Doors and windows slammed shut as they passed, making it obvious that many had decided to bar themselves inside against whatever mayhem may have been going on in the street.

It may have only taken a few moments to try and decide which direction to run, but it seemed like others had come to the same conclusion they had in that short amount of time.  They raced back down the streets towards the center of the city and the church building with several other people streaming along with them as well.  Edgard stretched his legs and try to pull every ounce of energy out of his muscles he could, but it wasn’t long before he started falling behind everyone else.  All those longs hours of studiously copying runes from the holy text were starting to show their effects.  He may have been able to concentrate on a single page for hours, carefully copying the complicated and intricate designs, but it had left him out of shape and gasping for breath much more quickly than he would have liked.

He wasn’t alone.  Derian seemed to be struggling just as much as he was.  The other man may have started off at a quicker sprint than Edgard, but he was red-faced and gasping for breath by the time Edgard caught up to him.  As soon as the two came abreast, Derian looked at him and said between gasping breaths, “Edgard . . . I can’t . . .”

Edgard grabbed his friend by the arm and tried to give him a tug in the right direction and keep him going.  Rather than pulling him forward as he had hoped, however, he caused Derian to lose his balance.  His feet tangled up and he lurched sideways into Edgard, sending both of them to the ground in a heap.

“What . . .” Derian started pushing himself up off the ground almost immediately.  “Why would you do that?” he demanded, looking at Edgard angrily.

Edgard looked up at his friend from the ground and tried to get his bearings.  “I was trying . . . to help . . .” he gasped out.

“Thanks for that . . . Big help.”  Derian had made it to his feet, but he was forced to lean forward and support himself with his hands on his knees as he struggled to get his breath.  “Come on, we have to keep going,” he said, reaching out a hand for Edgard.

Edgard reached up and grabbed his friend’s wrist.  He was halfway to his feet when he felt a huge gust of wind push past him.  Derian lost his grip on Edgard and went flying backwards until he crashed to a halt in one of the flowerbeds that lined the street.  Edgard landed back on the ground with a jarring crunch that made him clench his teeth together in pain.  He jerked his head to his side just in time to see one of the black-clad men lower his hand and start sprinting towards them.

Oh, God . . .  Edgard rolled forward and scrambled towards Derian on his hands and knees.  He could feel the stone pavers scrape both his knees the palms of his hands as he hurried to where his friend lane prone.

“Derian,” he said as he reached his friend.  He grabbed him by the arm and shook him.  “Derian!”  Derian responded by turn his heads towards him.  He was glassy eyed and seemed to be dazed.  “Come on!” Edgard urged.  He pushed himself up into a crouch and jerked on Derian’s arm again.

Derian’s eyes cleared a little and he seemed to focus on Edgard.  “Leave me alone!” He jerked his arm away from Edgard.  “You’ve already helped enough!”

What is he–

Edgard never finished his thought.  Another blast of air landed right between them.  Edgard could feel himself fly up and through the air, tilt backwards, and then crash down into a stack of wooden barrels that had been set up as a display in front of one of the shops.

Holy . . . What in world was that?  Edgard stared up at the sky and top of portion of a building from his back through the narrow view of the world he was afforded from between the wooden planks that framed his field of view.  He quickly ran through the list runes and their powers trying to figure out what had happened.  Twice now, in the span of less than a few minutes, he had seen someone thrown around by an invisible fore.  Nowhere in his realm of knowledge did he have any memory of a rune that would let someone use the air in such a manner.  There were powerful magicians within the traveler’s guild who were able to summon the use of the wind, who could propel a ship across the water at an incredible speed, but he had never heard of anyone who had such minute control over it.  At best, even the most experienced users were only capable of summing it and guiding its direction—not focus it like that on a single target.

Edgard groaned.  His whole body ached in ways he had never known before.  In the last two days he had died twice.  He had been burned, sliced, impaled, and stabbed.  Those had been sharp, searing, and excruciating pains.  This however, felt like his whole body had been trapped under a heavy object for half a day.  His body was just sore this time, and to make things worse, he could feel the cut and scrapes stinging from where he had scrambled across the street to try and help Derian.  What was up with him, anyway?  He actually seemed . . . annoyed with me. 

“Where did that other kid go?” a voice asked.

“Probably wet his pants and found someplace to try and hide,” a second answered.

“Can you believe these people?  I’ve never seen an easier job than this in my entire life.”

“Hah! I know, right?  I thought the captain was crazy when he told us that we were going to take a job this far away from home.  I had never even heard of a place like this.  It definitely wasn’t documented on any of our maps.  How does a place like this just go completely unnoticed for so long?”

“You’ve got me there, man.  There has to be some sort of magic involved with it.  Maybe that stop we made over in the islands had something to do with it.”

Not on any maps?  How is that possible?  We have traders come in and go out on an almost daily basis.  He was doing his best to remain silent and keep still, but he had also realized that there was something digging into his back.  What had started out as a dull ache was quickly growing to be a sharp, nagging nuisance.  Maybe I can . . . He shifted slightly to the side, trying to reposition the place where whatever it was dug into him, and his small moment caused the barrels he was resting in to shift and crash down on him.

“What was that?”

“Looks like we’ve found our missing rat.”

Edgard heard the sound of boots start towards him and the pile of barrels he was buried in.  He immediately froze and silently cursed himself.  I don’t want to die again.  Just go away.

“Uhhh,”a third voice groaned out.

“Hold up, this other guy is waking up,” one of the voices said.  “What do you want to do with him?”

Derian!  He’s alive!

“Shouldn’t we move him to the square with the others?”

“Really?” The voice sounded skeptical.  “Do you want to be the one to lug this kid all the way to the center of town?  I know I don’t.”

There was silence for a moment, as if the other person was contemplating his options.  “Just cut off his arm at the shoulder,” the voice finally said.  “We don’t need the rest of him, do we?”

“You don’t think the captain will be upset about that?”

“Accidents happen.  If he even bothers to ask, we’ll just have to make up some story about the body being beyond saving.”

Edgard could hear the footsteps start to move away from him.  They were clear at first, thudding on the stone pavers that line the road, but then grew more quiet as they cross into one of the flowerbeds.  He risked the chance to open his eyes and slowly turn his head, taking in his situation.  The barrels had collapsed down around him, leaving him almost completely buried and lying on his side in the middle.  If only . . .  There!  If he craned his head back and upside down, at just the right angle, he could see the wall of a building through a small opening behind him.

“Uhh.  What . . . Who . . . Who are you?” Derian asked.  His voice was groggy, disoriented, and shaky.

“Now, now.  Just hold still little and make this easy on us.”

“Oh, God!  What . . . What are you doing?”

Edgard heard the sound of a weapon being drawn, followed by a struggle.  It didn’t last long before Derian screamed out in pain.  Edgard heard the sickening sound of a steel weapon hacking down into bone over and over again.  It was something he had already heard far too many times in the last two days, and it made his stomach turn over.  Edgard stared at the hole between the barrels and tried to tune it out. He slowly pushed with his feet, trying to move himself towards it.

“I hate it when the arm doesn’t come off with the first blow,” one of the men commented.  “It makes such a mess.”

“Hah.  I know what you mean,” the other responded.  “Should have used your sword and not the knife.  Here.  Just give it a good jerk while I hold him down.”

“Bah.  I didn’t want to dull the blade burying it in the ground.  But yeah, good idea.  Here, just move your hand.  Let me get my foot planted on his chest.”

“Whaa. . . No . . . Please, just . . .” Derian sobbed out the words incoherently between cries.

Derian. . . Edgard risked pushing a little harder with the heels of his feet and was rewarded by moving an inch closer to the opening.  The barrel resting on top of him caught up against another, but it didn’t shift, and he was able to slide along the ground underneath it.

“Just twist it.  Yeah, like that.  Now pull.”

Edgard heard a pop and the sound of a someone stumbling backwards trying to get his footing.  Strangely, Derian was silent at this point.

“Looks like he finally passed out,” one of them commented.

“Ah, it’s no surprise.  These guys can’t even take a punch, much less any type of real pain.  I’m surprised that he was conscious this long.”

“Who could have ever imagined such a honey pot?”

“Talk about honey pots . . . It’s a shame about that girl earlier.  She was such a sweet looking thing.  Such a waste of a resource.”  The man laughed, and the tone of his voice made it clear that he thought it was impossible for anyone to disagree with him.

Edgard paused in his struggle to extract himself from the wooden prison he was trapped in and considered what they were saying.  These two guys were actually carrying on a casual conversation while dismembering a human body.  While cutting apart Derian.  Are they talking about Mae?  How can they just carry on as if everything is right in the world and make such offhanded-remarks about someone they just killed?  She was completely innocent, and her only crime was trying to be too friendly.  Do these people even have emotions or feelings?  Edgard felt his stomach roll over again.  There was nothing he wanted more than to curl up into a ball and be sick.  He had seen the cruelty that these people could inflict for the last two days, and he had about as much of it as he could take.

“You want to finish this guy off?  Or should I?”

“Why bother? Just leave him where he is.  He will be in for a nice surprise if he ever wakes up.  If he doesn’t, he can burn with the rest of the town.  We have what we need already.”

Maybe they’ve forgotten about me. . .  Edgard knew he was being far too hopeful.  He craned his head back to look at his escape route again.  He was sure that the city was burning around him.  Every moment that he spent trapped was another that brought him closer to his own death.  Again.  If his previous two days of experience had taught him anything, it was that these guys were intent on watching the world burn.  Well, at least it’s closer than it was before . . . He slowly pushed off again with his heels, slowly making his way closer to freedom.  Eugh.  This isn’t going to work. Maybe I can . . . If I . . . He wriggled around, trying to free his arm from where it was pinned beside him.  If I can get my body to tilt at just the right angle . . . He wrenched his body to the side and his arm popped free. Carefully, he snaked it up beside him and stretched it out of the crawlspace.  His fingers just brushed against the back edge of a barrel and he was able to scrape his knuckles against stone.

“So what do you think happened to our missing rat?

“Why don’t we see if we can smoke him out?”

Oh, come on.  Edgard groaned to himself.  He knew what was coming next.  He tensed up, squeezed his eyes shut, and waited for the barrels piled atop of him to explode in a fiery blast, but it never came.  After a moment he opened his eyes and stared up at the wooden containers covering him.  What are they doing?  They know where I am, why am I not dead yet?   And then realized what was going on.  He could feel the temperature around him rising quickly.  He couldn’t see the flames, but it was more than enough to let him know that they were there.  Rather than destroying the pile outright, which Edgard was sure they could have done if they had wanted, they were actually going to let them burn slowly.  He was being forced to either scurry out like the rat they called him or stay where he was and burn alive.

What am I supposed to do? He offered up the thought almost as if it were a prayer.  Should I just let myself die and start over again?  Even if I manage to get out now, how will I ever get away from those two who are just standing out there waiting on me?  Eugh.  Edgard felt a stabbing pain in his heart.  He knew that he was doomed.  He was trapped on the flat of his back in an impossible situation without any hope of actually getting away or changing anything.  He had failed again and hadn’t been able to actually save anyone.  Mae and Derian were both dead, and by now, most of the other townsfolk probably were as well.  Cedric may have escaped long enough to make it back to check on the safety of his wife and children, but Edgard knew that it wouldn’t last long.  Everyone was going to die, and he hadn’t been able to change anything.  He hadn’t even been able to stay alive long enough to make it to young Hilda, much less warn her about what was going to happen.

Will I even be able to make a difference if I try again?  Will I even be able to try again?  Edgard was convinced at this point that he had already relived this day twice before.  What he had originally thought was a dream, a strange dream able to predict the future, was actually him playing out a real life scenario over and over again.  He knew that it was somehow tied to his rune, but he had no idea how it actually worked at this point.    How many times will I be able to try again?  How many times will I have to try and fail?  If I never save anyone, will I have to die over and over again?   There were no records anywhere within the holy text that would give him any clues.  He had spent a better part of his adult life carefully copying those runes and knew them all by heart.  As far as he knew, what he was experiencing was entirely unprecedented.

Edgard winced.  The heat from the fire threatening to consume him was getting strong enough now he could clearly feel its effects.  He had broken out into a heavy sweat, and his entire body felt like it was about to blister.  The small pocket of air surrounding him was growing hotter by the second, and he knew that it was only a matter of time until the flames burned their way down into the lower stack of barrels where he was hidden.  Whatever he was going to decide, it would have to be fast.

“Maybe he managed to escape while we were busy with the other one?  Did you remember to keep a watch for him?”

“Me?  You were the one who said you’d found him.  How am I supposed to take off an arm and keep a lookout at the same time?  I can’t be bothered with to keep up with all that.”

Edgard felt a small thread of hope light inside of him.  Yeah, that’s right, I’ve already escaped.  You’re wasting your time.  Maybe there was still a chance for him to make it out of this.  He clutched his fingers around the outside rim of the barrel and gave a tug, pulling his body forward again just slightly.  Every inch he moved brought him one step closer to freedom and escaping the fiery death trap.

“Well, we can’t stand around here and wait forever.  He’s either in there burning alive as we speak, passed out from the smoke, or gone already.”

“There’s no way he’s still inside.  That blaze is hot enough not to roast a spit of meat on.”

“Maybe I should turn the heat up a little more?”

Edgard pushed off with his heels again and simultaneously pulled himself closer to his escape.  His head was almost entirely free at this point, and he could see the stone brickwork of a tall building looming over him, disappearing and reappearing in his vision as the smoke from the burning pile of containers billowed upwards.  Almost there.  Edgard’s newfound sense of hope blossomed.  There was still a chance he could make it out alive.  He reached out with his free hand hoping to grasp onto anything else he could use to pull himself with but there was nothing there.  When he came up empty, he leveraged his elbow into the barrel and pushed off hard with his feet at the same time.  His body twisted sideways with the effort, and he felt a sharp spike of pain in his shoulder, but he was able to wrench himself free.

And then everything around him exploded.  The pile of burning barrels he had only just escaped came rushing towards him accompanied by a strong blast of wind.  Even from his low position, Edgard was forcibly thrown backwards by the force of it and into the building behind him.  He heard, as much as he felt, the sickening sound of his skull cracking as it collided against stonework.  The last thing he was aware of before darkness overtook him was the feeling of his body being covered as a shower of wood and debris rained down on him.

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