YOU Choose the Story!
The Creator of All Things has opened a window to another world—a portal. We cannot step through this portal, but we may reach through with our minds. Concentrating, we see a young woman, Kaia, seated on a bridge of stone and ice, feet dangling over cobalt blue waters.
The Creator has invited us to act as Watch-keepers over Kaia and the friends she will meet along a dangerous path that lies ahead. The Watch-keepers must work together to help Kaia make good choices. These choices will not always be easy, and Kaia may not always do as we ask, for she is strong-willed. Will you accept this challenge with us? If you desire to take on the mantle of Watch-keeper, please use the comments section to answer the question posed at the end of each chapter of Kaia’s story.
The watch-keepers decided Kaia should continue south without Luthelan.
THE FOUNTAIN AND THE FLAME: CHAPTER 4
Kaia fought the urge to follow Luthelan down the western path.
The mage was right. Her road lay south, but the fear of going it alone tore at her insides. “So, what then? Am I to follow these bricks all the way to Ras Telesar?”
“The bricks for a time, yes. And then the river.” With each step, Luthelan’s form became harder to perceive—his voice as well. “But the river is swift. Take care you do not fall in . . . unless you know how to fly.”
Raz, who had been content up to that moment to ride along in Kaia’s oversize coat, dropped to the ground and shook the dampness from his fur.
She bent down to scratch his ears. “Unless I know how to fly? Shouldn’t he have said swim?”
The fox swished his tail, as if he had no clue, and trotted off toward the southern road.
“Right,” she said, following. “He is a mage. They always speak in riddles.”
Within a few hundred paces, the merchant stalls along the road dwindled, giving way to snow-laden pines. The pictures Kaia had seen in her mother’s books did not do the trees justice. She drifted to the edge of the bricks and touched a bough. Snow rained down in a miniature storm. Raz spun beneath it.
Watching him brought a smile to her face. She pulled a pinecone twice the size of her fist from the next branch up, and the branch back away to launch its burden high over them both. Kaia twirled in the glittering snowfall, mimicking the fox, who ran in counter-circles at her feet, until something strange caught her eye. A ray of moonlight streaked down to the forest from the two bright moons, Chara and Irene. Molunos would be up there as well, dark and unseen. He only revealed his red form once a year.
“Where do you think it ends?” she asked the fox, staring up at the moon ray.
Raz dove into the forest to find out.
“Raz, come back! I didn’t mean . . .” Too late. He was gone.
What had Luthelan told Kaia about goblins in this region? They were kin to cave mushrooms, and mushrooms loved the dark. What if such goblins roamed the forest at night? She pushed into the trees. “Raz!”
The pine boughs, so pleasant before, clawed at her and dumped snow upon her head. She blinked the cold flakes from her eyelids. “Raz?” Her foot landed on a rotting log, and it gave beneath her. Kaia stumbled out into the open, skidding to a stop with her toes at the brink of a rock ledge. Chunks of snow fell into a rushing river. Kaia held her breath, straightened, and stepped back. “That was close.”
The brick path lay not far away, though it turned to gravel where it bent to follow the river. Raz waited there, panting. The moment he saw her, he set off again, racing across open snow.
“Raz, wait!” Kaia ran after him, and what she saw when she finally caught up took her breath away. Raz had led her to a sheer cliff, high above a valley where a river passed on either side of a walled city. To the west, the river beside the road poured itself out into space as a frothing waterfall, and Kaia understood Luthelan’s riddle about needing to fly if she had fallen in. To the east, the cliff stretched away for miles as a natural dam that held back the shimmering waters of Val Glasa, the northern sea. Silver mist poured from other great waterfalls in the cliff face, falling far below to join the valley river.
Dizzy from the height, Kaia turned away from the cliff and saw that Raz had brought her to the end of the moon ray. She laughed. It was more a source than an end—a fireglass.
At the top of a stone tower, a polished copper bowl gathered the moonlight and reflected it back into the sky through a crystal lens. The Frost Islands had similar devices, signal stations for the elite Dragon Corps. The lens and bowl normally projected the light of a fire. The moonlight had been caught by happenstance.
Raz seemed to sense something more about the tower. Even after the moonlight faded from the lens, he kept watching, cocking his head so that his ears flopped to one side.
“What is it, boy?”
Kaia had hardly finished the question when a figure leaped from the tower window and crashed into the pines below. A moment later, a boy about her own age came sprinting out of the trees, looking over his shoulder.
Kaia held out her hands. “Hey! Watch out!”
He ran right into her. The two tumbled into the snow together as gold coins spilled about them. Without the faintest apology, the boy gathered the stray coins into a satchel heavy with many more, and scrambled to his feet.
“Stop! Thief!” A man in a blue and green tunic burst out through the tower door. To Kaia’s horror, two creatures like overgrown gargoyles rushed out behind him. They stopped, necks grinding as their stone eyes searched the night. Cracks and rust showed on their faces and arms—any surface not covered by their scant armor. The man pointed at Kaia and the boy. “There, you brainless beasts! There are two of them! What are you waiting for?”
A churning orange glow grew behind the creatures’ eyes and within the cracks in their skin. They raised black curved swords and let out guttural shrieks.
“Yeah . . .” The boy looked down at Kaia, brown hair falling over one eye. “You should probably run too.”
He took off ahead of her, making for the road that descended the cliff face.
Raz went next, with Kaia at the tip of his tail and the creatures lumbering behind. But when Kaia and the fox made the turn at the cliff road’s first switchback, the boy was nowhere to be seen—only slick gravel passing behind thundering falls.
She kept running, but once they passed the falls, Raz stopped.
Kaia turned to see the creatures still coming, one by one. The fox held his ground and growled.
“What are you doing?”
Only Raz knew. As the first creature moved beneath the waterfall, Raz sprang forward, dodged a sweep of its sword, and ran between its legs, weaving back and forth about its ankles. The creature slashed and stabbed, and every failed strike brought it shuffling backward toward the edge. Mud and rock crumbled beneath its heel. With a shriek of surprise, it fell back into the pounding falls and disappeared into the mist.
The remaining creature spread its arms and roared, molten fire in its eyes and joints blazing bright with anger. Raz retreated to Kaia’s side. Running was of no use. She balled up her fists and roared back instead. “Come on then! Come and get us!”
The creature gripped its sword with a crackling hand and advanced. As it reached the shadowed space behind the falls, an ivory staff tipped with a steel bear’s head shot out from a crevice and smashed into its gargoyle chin, sending it toppling into the water to follow its friend.
“How?” asked Kaia.
The boy with the gold coins climbed out from the crevice. She had missed him when she ran past. He walked between them, motioning with the bear’s head. “Follow me. This isn’t over.”
Kaia hesitated. Did she want to get involved with a thief? But Raz whimpered at her heel, and she sighed. “Yes. I know. We’re all thieves. You’re a fish thief. I’m a boat thief. Who are we to judge? Fine. Let’s go.”
Girl and fox rounded the bend together and found the boy seated on a log in a grassy depression, rubbing a black remnant of the creature from the head of his staff. Kaia sat down beside him, unsure of what to say. “So . . . What were those things?”
“Their kind is called Wyngorloth in the Elder Tongue, monsters formed from the ores of various metals. Most folks call them orcs, as in ore creatures.” He glanced her way. “How is it you do not know this?”
“We do not have orcs where I come from, and I am glad of it. Those two were horrifying.”
The boy chuckled. “Not really. Those were iron orcs—big, rusty, and dumb. The nasty ones are the quicksilver orcs.” He continued his work on the ivory staff, polishing a spiral of steel that ran from the bear’s head to the spiked tip. “I am Luco. And you are?”
What did she care if he knew her name? “I am Kaia. That is a rich weapon you carry. . . for a common thief.”
“The gold belongs to my family, stored in secret over three generations for the sake of throwing off the yoke. I am no thief.” He ceased his work and frowned. “Nor am I common.”
“You are a nobleman.” The ivory staff. His clothes. How had Kaia not seen it before? Luco wore the same blue and green as the man who had chased him from the tower. A boy like this could have her locked up with a snap of his fingers. Kaia gave Raz a look that asked What have you gotten us into?
The fox buried his nose under his paws.
Then something Luco had said returned to her. Kaia swallowed, choosing her next words carefully. “What . . . was it you said about a yoke?”
With a grunt, Luco shouldered the satchel, then planted the staff in the dirt and stood. “It is from a prophecy—from a faith my parents held in secret until my uncle found them out.” He narrowed his eyes at Kaia as she stood. “Why? What do you know of it?”
She didn’t answer.
The poem. Throw off the yoke. Throw off the chains. Of dragon lies and mortal shame.
Luco raised his chin, giving her a wary look. “The raven came to you as well.”
“The raven?” Her eyes widened. It had not occurred to Kaia that anyone of noble birth would need to throw off a yoke or chains. The idea seemed absurd
“Don’t deny it, I can see it on your face. This is good. The Maker has seen fit to contrive our meeting. Now we will travel south together.”
Kaia’s shock turned to annoyance. Noble or not, who was this boy to declare what she would do next. What if she didn’t want to travel with him?
Luco ignored the frustration in her eyes and pointed with his staff at the city below. “But first we must break into my uncle’s house. I didn’t expect him to find me out so quickly, so I did not bring everything with me that I should have.”
What Kaia saw beneath the bear’s head was not a house. It was a castle, at the center of a fortified city. She snorted. “What did you leave behind, nobleman, your favorite silk handkerchief?”
Luco’s jaw tightened. “No. I left my younger sister, Nisa. And by now, thanks to my foolishness, my uncle will have set a guard on her room.” The command in his voice that had so annoyed her softened into a plea. “I will travel south with you, Kaia. But first will you help me get Nisa out?”
Watch-keepers, what should Kaia do? Should she:
A. Help Luco rescue his sister from his uncle’s castle?
B. Head south now, leaving this rich boy to deal with his own problems?