I smelled the blood of the beast. Its body lay on my left, its head on my right. I don’t remember what happened.
‘Felix?’ A voice shouted. It was Saeyl.
Why was I here? I sat up and rubbed my aching head. Oh yeah, half a year of careful planning and it had all come down to an accident. I hadn’t meant to meet the beast yet, we weren’t ready. But my curse saved me. A lifetime of living in fear had its benefits.
‘I’m here!’ I shouted in Saeyl’s general direction.
My best friend for all seventeen years I’d spent on these worlds jumped over a log. Very graceful I thought, because I would have definitely slipped on the mossy floor. In fact I probably did and that’s why I was lying down.
I was about to tease her about, well, anything to get the attention away from me, when she saw me covered in blood.
‘Okay, no, don’t make that face.’ I pointed a finger at her menacingly, hoping to avoid whatever reaction she was about to have. ‘None of this blood is mine.’
Her face had frozen in the middle of changing expression. I don’t think I’d ever had this effect on her before. She stayed stunned for several seconds, so I stood up. Apparently my action jolted her.
Ahh, anger. Saeyl’s default emotion when she didn’t know what was happening. In her defence, she had just taken a lot of information in. The beast that was currently laying decapitated either side of me was huge. But she knew that because the three of us had been hunting it for the past few months. It being decapitated was probably a shock for her. It being decapitated by a single person, even ignoring that person was me, was probably more confusing.
‘Don’t blame me because you were in the wrong place.’
‘In the wrong…’ I could almost see the steam coming out of her ears. ‘None of the blood is yours? Let’s change that, shall we?’
‘If I had a trok for every time you’ve threatened to cut me in the past month, I’d be rich.’
I normally thought before I spoke. Right now was an exception that I put down to having only just woken up from whatever bizarre state I had been in.
Saeyl drew her hunter’s dagger, and if looks could kill I’d already be dead.
From the other side of the clearing, Gurd appeared.
He surveyed the scene and gave me a look. I don’t know what this look meant, but it seemed to convey that he didn’t like what I had gotten myself into. Again. As if a seventeen year old boy from a minor house shouldn’t have been able to take down a fully grown Skrel all on his own.
Well, he was right – I shouldn’t have been able to.
A Rhund of few words, he didn’t waste them by telling Saeyl not to stab me. He made a half sigh, half grunt, and walked over to me. A gesture with one of his minor arms made Saeyl lower her dagger. I gave him a lopsided smile and shrugged.
‘Uhh, I guess we can go home now.’
He continued until he was within arms reach of me, gave me an appraising look, presumably checking to make sure that the blood really wasn’t mine, then hit me round the head.
I ducked, but far too slowly. Gurd was strong, even for a Rhund. I had always thought of them as a slow and kind of stupid race – certainly that’s how us humans portrayed them, making their small tusks, rough grey skin, rounded features, and small second arms a joke – but after spending so long with Gurd, I’d realised that was far from the truth.
‘That hurt,’ I muttered.
‘How?’ Gurd asked, pointing to the Skrel’s head.
He didn’t know of my curse. I hadn’t even told Saeyl. ‘I’m just that good, okay?’
I would like to imagine that my voice didn’t become a squeak half way through that sentence.They both knew something was wrong, but Gurd wouldn’t say anything. Saeyl though…
‘Pfft, I saw you run headfirst into a tree just the other week.’
‘Well, this time I ran headfirst into the Skrel.’ I rapped my knuckles on my head. ‘I guess I won.’
The look she gave me changed. It was no longer outrage at the thought of her not being there when I could have been hurt. It was something else. Not suspicion, she knew me too well. Curiosity.
‘What happened here? Really?’
‘Exactly what it looks like.’ I looked them both in their unbelieving eyes. ‘None of us had planned this, but we all know Skrel can be sneaky. It turned on me, and I panicked, okay? I guess I got lucky.’
I had lasted this long without either of them finding out about my curse, although I was sure that Gurd knew I was hiding something. I wasn’t going to give in to a few well intentioned questions.
‘You got lucky? Felix, even if all three of us had faced it together, we’d have needed an act of the Goddess to pull through. There’s being lucky, and there’s being blessed.’
‘Good thing we’ve got you here then.’
Saeyl never liked it when I pointed out her likeness to the Goddess. It wasn’t an insult, exactly, but right now it was a great way to distract her. Unfortunately Gurd had sat through our arguments enough to see right through my ploy, and held up a hand to stop the incoming fire from Saeyl.
‘The smell of blood will attract others. Let’s go.’
Saeyl picked up my bow. Why it was on the other side of the clearing to me, I had no idea. ‘And without a weapon?’
I waggled my hunter’s knife to show I had used a weapon.
She cocked an eyebrow at me. ‘I just won’t point out that you had to unsheath that dagger, which has no blood on it, to wave it in my face, shall I?’
I coughed nervously, but she walked on. Gurd threw me some rope.
‘Ahh, that’s why we’ve got you here, Gurd. Always thinking ahead.’ He very graciously didn’t remind me that he was ordered to look after us by my mother.
I started tying up the head so it could be easily carried back to camp. I noticed that he wasn’t helping, and this was a rather large head to be handling on my own.
‘Say, you couldn’t lend a hand, could you? Having someone twice my size would help. This is about the same size as me.’ I said as I was leaning all the way over the furry cheeks of the Skrel, ‘Any chance…?’
‘This was your kill, master Felix. It’s only proper that you present it. A real hunter now.’
Oh dear. He didn’t sound angry, but there was never any reasoning with him after he started calling me master.
The head was stuck on another rock. The moss had made dragging a head the size of a human easy. Grassy glades had been fine. But now we were back to rock and mud. We were all used to it after six months on Orrom, but by this point I was definitely trudging more than walking. We had almost reached the mirrors to Praetael.
Just as the Skrel head decided to grace me with a reprieve of it being stuck on a rock, I yanked it forwards – into a tree.
‘This would be much easier if you helped.’
Saeyl was by my side, studiously not helping. ‘Oh, I do apologise, master Felix, allow me to help.’ She started grabbing small rocks and throwing them in the path of where I had to drag the head, and kicking small mounds of mud together in my path. ‘Is that to your satisfaction, master Felix?’
‘Actually yes, thank you. That makes my job – no, our job much easier.’
‘Maybe you’ll remember this the next time you decide to hog all the glory for yourself. How helpful I’ve been, master Felix’
I knew I shouldn’t have said it, but I guess the strain of moving the head was making me short tempered. And she knew I didn’t like being called master. She started it. ‘Oh I shall. I’ll definitely bring you along next time so that you can help more, my servant Goddess.’
I had worked up quite a sweat so when the clump of mud hit my face, it was almost refreshing.
‘Mmm, tastes like the last time you were on cooking duty.’
Gurd was returning from his vigil on the crest of the next hill just in time to stop anything from going further. For the best, because I was clearly winning. I wouldn’t have wanted to make Saeyl feel too bad.
‘The mirror is just over the next hill. Put the bickering aside for a few more hours, children.’
‘Am I the only one here with any manners?’ Saeyl practically shouted in exasperation.
Oh he knew exactly what he did.
‘He’s the only child here.’ She threw another clot of mud in my general direction.
‘I’ve no doubt,’ Gurd said, putting away his nomad’s spear and crossing his arms. It still looked odd to me to see him at rest like that. His main arms crossed like a human’s, but then his smaller arms, just below his main ones, rested by holding on to his biceps. Small in a relative sense of course, his small arms were the length of mine only thicker.
‘Almost there, hey?’ I strained against the rope holding the beast’s head, and thought of my prize. ‘I don’t suppose that means you guys are raring to get through the mirror?’
‘Pretty raring, sure,’ Saeyl said suspiciously.
‘Enough to help me with this blasted head?’
‘Ready to tell us how you singlehandedly took down a Skrel?’ It wasn’t that a Skrel was the most dangerous animal on Orrom, but it was the most dangerous animal beneath the great canopies. They were clearly still having trouble coming to terms with my besting it. Now if it had been one of the sentient trees of Orrom, then I’d be in real trouble.
I thought back to it, and after several hours the memory of blacking out had dived even further out of my grasp. ‘The slow way it is!’
With Gurd satisfied I was close enough to the guard post that I wasn’t in danger from the wilds of Orrom, he had taken Saeyl ahead to make sure the mirror could be used.
I could see the guard post ahead. I was no more than thirty yards,, but with the head it would take me a while still.
The guard post was a small affair, nothing lavish. The surrounding woods had been cut down to create a clearing for the guards and a safe perimeter, and then used as building materials. The trees were all thin, so the encampment, which was only three small huts and a fence, had a slightly ramshackle look to it, but that was the standard Empire procedure. It made the army more approachable to the locals supposedly, but Orrom had been part of the Empire for generations by now, so I didn’t see why they couldn’t just send some stone through the mirror. Oh well, this was only a tiny backwater post.
Saeyl was talking to the guard on duty outside one of the huts as I finally made it to the fence. She was bouncing from foot to foot, but that could mean anything. She was always a bundle of barely contained enthusiasm.
She turned at the sound of head pushing mud aside. ‘You’re not going to like this.’
‘If it means I can stop dragging this head, I think I’ll survive.’
I couldn’t help but notice that the guard hadn’t moved the fence out of the way of my glorious triumph. Oh dear.
‘Sir, I hope everything’s alright?’ I said.
‘A mighty kill you’ve got there, lad.’
I ignored the break of protocol. I hardly even noticed after being away from civilisation for so long. ‘Thank you. It was a great kill. I think.’
The guard called to someone in one of the small huts. ‘Horace! Out here’
Another guard, almost identical to the first, walked out of the hut and stood next to the first. ‘What do you need, Rickard?’
Rickard simply pointed to the giant head behind me.
‘Ahh.’ Horace seemed to imply this was a common problem. ‘A mighty kill you’ve got there, lad.’
‘Already said that bit,’ Rickard said.
‘Right. Got a license for it?’ Horace said.
‘License? You don’t need a license for Skrel. They’re on the Menace list, I’m sure of it.’
‘That’s the truth,’ Rickard said.
‘Not a lie,’ Horace said. ‘But you seem to be taking it towards our mirror. Big plans?’
Oh Goddess. What minutiae of paperwork had someone forgotten? I bet it was me. Paperwork had never been my thing. No matter, confidence would make up for a lack of legislation. ‘We’re taking it through to Praetael. On to the capital from there.’
Both guards sucked in air through their teeth.
‘That’s what we feared,’ Horace said.
‘You see, lad, the license isn’t needed to kill Skrel, but if you want to get anything through this mirror, you need to go through the official channels.’ Rickard said.
‘Our hands are tied,’ Horace confirmed and acted out his hands being tied together.
Gurd arrived behind them. He was hard to miss, being nine feet tall and built like a mountain. And everyone, regardless of martial prowess, would be disturbed by a Rhund sneaking up on them.
Okay yes, I had forgotten to get that license, sure. ‘Sirs, I’m sure we can arrange something. We’ve just spent months making this kill. Perhaps a share of the glory could be placed on the shoulders of the mighty Rickard and Horace?’
The guards had an identical look of shock on their face. ‘Why young lad, we are offended,’ Rickard said.
‘We aren’t glory seekers, merely upholders of the Emperors’ indomitable rule,’ Horace said.
‘Think of us as his personal Altors,’ Rickard said, invoking the name of the Goddess’ bodyguards in her Great Journey.
Gurd, who I knew to have the patience of the Goddess herself, butted in. ‘They want money.’
‘Not a bribe, you understand,’ Rickard said.
‘An administrative fee,’ Horace said.
‘Well… that’s fine, however we’ve spent the last few months in these forests. We don’t have a coin to our name –’ The two guards cut in with a sharp breath sucked in through their teeth again. ‘– but, that will change once we’re through the mirror.’
The guards seemed undecided, so Saeyl said, ‘not to worry, I’ve got some here.’
She pulled a shiny heaxagonal disc from her pocket. I knew she kept it on her all this time as a safety blanket. A link back to her house. She flicked it towards the guards. ‘A Kort. You wouldn’t really expect to find someone from house Lux without one would you?’
As she laughed her own comment off, the two guards snapped to attention, allowing the Kort to plink off their armour and fall to the floor. I had to admire their discipline, that Kort would pay both their wages for half a year. I also cursed Saeyl for mentioning she was from a great house. They’d never let the Skrel head through now, not knowing a member of any of the great houses was present. Myself and Gurd sighed. Then Saeyl realised what she’d said and joined us. She picked up her Kort.
‘Sorry, Felix,’ she muttered under her breath.
The guards said in one voice, ‘sorry sir, we can’t let any indigenous material through. You are free to do as you please.’
I’d seen guards react to a member of the great houses before, so I let my hands drop to my sides. I let out a big long breath of defeat. I choked on the end of my breath and my eyes welled up.
‘Let’s go,’ I said, but didn’t move. I wanted to but apparently my brain was too busy thinking of my loss to make my legs work. Too far from another mirror to try and bribe other guards. But I was close to this mirror, the three of us could… the look from Gurd told me that regardless of what we could do, we wouldn’t. Six months wasted. Skrel weren’t even toxic to Praetael – this was about some boring trade agreement between old men! Now how would I get through the new mirror. I wanted to explore, not live the life of drudgery that my parents had set out for me. I needed to get through the mirror to Laegiyl, and this head was my way through. My proof that I would be a valuable asset in the expeditionary force. At least, it had been. Now what?
Gurd put an arm on my back and gently nudged me forwards. I was still holding the rope which was now attached to a dead weight. A useless object. I cut the end of the rope off and wrapped it around my forearm. It would be my reminder. This common fisherman’s rope, drenched in purple-red blood, would keep me going. Remind me that whatever others think, I had done it. It was my talisman.
The three of us headed towards the small gate. Back to Praetael. And now back to my family instead of on to the capital, Spraeive. Gurd was stoic as always. I’d gotten better at reading the features of a Rhund since this journey started, but it was still hard to tell. Saeyl kept her eyes on the ground, her walk almost as defeated as mine. She knew what she’d done.
‘I really am so–’ she began.
I cut her off with a small choking sound. My voice kept doing that. I cleared my throat and said, ‘It’s not your fault.’
We approached the mirror. Only a common mirror, it barely fit Gurd within its stone frame. The mixture of different greys swirled and sparkled creating a rift in the air similar to water, yet distinctly different.
‘It’s my fault. I forgot the licen–’
‘It’s no one’s fault,’ Gurd said. ‘You don’t always need to assign blame if a task is failed.’ Wise words. I guessed. He was always wise, and that’s exactly why he added, ‘Children,’ right before touching the mirror and disappearing.
We both stood, slightly stunned at not being able to retaliate.
‘Pfft, what does he know, anyway,’ I said.
‘He’s the child,’ Saeyl agreed.
I turned to her and looked in her eyes. ‘I don’t know what to do now.’
‘Don’t worry. We’ll find another way. We’ll go back home and figure things out.’ She was solemn but confident. She was always confident. We hugged, then her face changed to an impish grin. ‘But before we can do that. We need to show Gurd who the real child is.’
We picked up a handful of mud each, and touched the surface of the mirror, two fingers and thumb splayed across its shimmering surface.
With the blink of an eye the humidity, fog, lush green forests, and canopy cities of Orrom were gone, and the rolling farmlands of Praetael stretched before me with its mild sun on my face. And Gurd stampeding away in the distance.
I breathed deep and looked to the sky. I could clearly make out six planets hanging in the sky, and saw Orrom, distinctly greener than any of the others.
TO READ MORE, click here for the pdf for Chapters 1-4 Mirrored Journey