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 steal the skiff.
THE FOUNTAIN AND THE FLAME: CHAPTER 3
Kaia pressed herself close to the village wall, keeping an eye on the stone dock to be sure the watchman would not return.
The nightly ferry would not be along for a while, making its stops at the other northern islands. That gave her some time to slip away in one of the unguarded boats. She felt a mild pang of guilt at the idea of stealing, but pushed it aside. What did the laws of lords and dragons matter to her?
Fresh snow fell on the path to the dock, softening the crunch of her steps as she hurried to the first of the boats. Kaia tossed her bow and quiver inside, and Raz the fox happily followed. He had no qualms about stealing. The two had met when her father caught him snatching a fish from their drying line. Kaia had named him Razodbesh—bandit in the Elder Tongue. And when Vash had sent her father away, Raz had become Kaia’s only friend.
The raven seemed less comfortable with taking the skiff. He perched himself on a weathered post and squawked at Kaia’s every move.
She shot him a glare as she untied the moorings. “Quiet! Someone will hear.”
Climbing in, Kaia set the oars in the water and took her first pull, coasting out into the channel. She beckoned to the bird with a toss of her head, but still he would not come. “Stay, then. See if I care. I’ll find my own way to Ras Telesar.”
The raven looked away.
The channel gave way to the bay, and the bay gave way to the open sea of Val Glasa. Kaia knew enough to hold her southerly course by keeping the faint red glow of Ras Pyras off her stern—the forever flame pouring from the central tower of the Great Red Dragon’s fortress. Keeping it in sight grew easier as gray twilight turned to a black snowy night. The rowing, however, grew less easy. Hours passed. Her arms ached, and the waves tossed her little boat. “How wide can Val Glasa be?” she asked the fox.
Raz laid his chin on his paws and whimpered.
“How about a fire then?”
Most Frost Island boats had fire pots. The skiff was no different. Kaia had never used one, but she had struck a flint and steel a thousand times to light her mother’s hearth, and soon had the coals burning. She let the skiff drift for a spell and warmed her hands. “See?” she said to the fox. “We’re going to be all right.”
Raz inched backward toward the bench, away from the pot, and whimpered again.
The fire pot had a sort of domed half lid, and Kaia realized too late what it was for—a wind block. Before she could move the lid into the correct position, a gust lifted an ember from the coals and dropped it onto a stack of burlap bags. In seconds the whole stern was ablaze.
Raz leaped to his feet and barked. Kaia pulled off her father’s coat to smother the fire. The sea, for its part, helped douse the flames as well, but once invited in, the water would not leave. Planks groaned. Waves splashed over the rails. And the skiff broke in two beneath her. The sea took her boat, her bow and quiver, and even Raz. Kaia could hear his bark, but the waves masked everything beyond the reach of her arm. “Raz? Raz!”
The bark faded.
Kaia draped herself over a wooden plank. Earlier that day, after the magistrate and his goblins had taken her mother away, she had known she would spend the rest of her life alone. She had not realized how short a time that would be. The thought and the freezing sea left her mind and body numb. Kaia did not even shiver. She simply closed her eyes.
“Oi! You there!”
Kaia’s eyes fluttered open. Had she heard the voice or dreamed it? Fighting the paralyzing cold, she looked up and saw lanterns illuminating two tall masts. The silhouettes of men leaned over solid wood rails.
“She’s moving. Fish her out of there! Girl like that must be worth something to someone.”
No, I’m not, thought Kaia, but she caught hold of the net the men threw over the side and held on with a frozen claw grip as they pulled her out of the waves.
A burly sailor lifted her like a sack of frost flowers and set her down on a barrel.
“Th-thank you,” she stammered.
The man walked off without reply, replaced by a shorter but well-groomed fellow in a snow-dusted coat and broad-brimmed hat. The ferryman.
“Speak, girl. We saw your fire. What possessed you to take a boat like that out on seas like this?”
“I’m t-traveling.” The shivering Kaia had missed before set in with a vengeance. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the men pull her father’s coat out of the water with a hook and line. They dropped it onto the deck beside the barrel. Kaia watched a mass of wet fur that might have been a fox tail whip out of sight beneath it. Raz.
“Running away, more like,” said the ferryman. “I’ll wager your master will cough up a coin or two for your return.”
Kaia couldn’t have that. “N-no. I h-have a t-t-travel marker.” With a shaking hand, she drew a sopping parchment from her coat. “Uncle’s b-boat. J-just trying to save the fare.”
“And how’d that go for you, hmm?” The ferryman snatched the marker from her fingers and inspected the script. He frowned. “Looks aw’right. What about payment?”
She dug out the coin purse and offered him a silver talon, etched with the claw of a dragon.
He took it, along with another, and then another. “An extra coin for taking me out of my way, and one more for fishing your carcass out of the briny sea.” He glanced down at the puddle growing at their feet. “Thanks for bringing so much of it with you.” The sailors around him laughed.
A pair of frost goblins watched the exchange, snickering, but did not interfere. Kaia lifted her father’s coat, with the water-logged fox hiding inside, and tried to gain a place beside one of the boat’s four fire pots. With each attempt to get close enough to feel the warmth, other passengers shouldered her out, until finally she settled by the last fire—a bit smaller, but with only one patron. He sat hunched and cloaked under a broad hood. Kaia sat down across from him and pushed her hands close to coals.
“Careful child. From what I’ve seen, you and fire pots do not blend. Perhaps you should sit somewhere else.”
She wouldn’t be chased away so easily. “There isnowhere else.” Beside her, Raz poked a nose out from under her father’s coat. The hood turned that way, as if the man had caught the movement, and Kaia coughed to keep his attention. “Um . . . How far to the other side?”
“Not far. But Far Cry Harbor is narrow, and dark without the ferryman’s call these days. On your chosen course, you would have surely crashed into the rocks if you hadn’t so wisely set your boat on fire first. How odd that this uncle of yours did not warn you.”
There was an accusation in his tone. He knew she had stolen the boat, and Kaia felt an irresistible need to justify her actions. “I had to do it,” she said, lowering her voice. “My mother was hauled off to Ras Pyras. If I had boarded the ferry, the goblins might have taken me too.”
“And yet here you are.” The hood shifted as the man glanced toward the creatures. No matter the angle or the flare of the fire, Kaia could not see past the shadow to the face behind. His hands looked old, but that might have been the burns that covered his knuckles. “Choices are often hard in a broken world,” he said. “But choosing an unjust path only breaks it more. The owner of that boat will wake tomorrow to find his livelihood stolen. Is that just?”
“I was only thinking of getting south. My mother told . . . and someone else”—Kaia did not say a raven—“told me to run to Ras Telesar.” She looked down at her hands. “I wasn’t thinking about the person who owned the boat.”
“Mmm. I understand. We all have trouble seeing beyond ourselves sometimes.” He let out a rueful chuckle. “Until recent days, I myself rarely bothered to try.”
The admission surprised her. Kaia looked up again. “What changed?”
He leaned closer to the pot, and for the first time, the firelight breached the shadow of the hood. “Everything.”
A thick scar ran from the right corner of the man’s forehead to the left side of his chin.
He took no notice. “Ras Telesar. Ras Pyras. The Fountain and the Flame. Strange that an intersection of those polar opposites should set you on this road.” He sat back again, looking toward the south. “And yet not so strange, if the prophecy holds.”
The prophecy again. Before Kaia could ask what he meant, the ferryman shouted. A single light appeared ahead, close. They were approaching Far Cry. The two frost goblins ambled past her, retreating to the stern. One looked sickly. The other laughed at its companion, until its own leg buckled and it collapsed to the deck. Kaia thought she could see the pale green of its twisted calf muscles unraveling into cords. “Eww. What’s happening to them?”
“This is the limit of their range,” said the man—not as old as Kaia had previously thought. The dark gristle surrounding the scar at his chin spoke of one who had not yet reached middle age. “The servants of the dragons are soulless animations. Dragons cannot create. They can only corrupt. Frost goblins are formed and animated from the lichen of the northern caves, and lichen will not survive south of Val Glasa. In Far Cry, you will see spotted cave goblins instead.”
“Lichen,” said Kaia to herself. “Spotted cave goblins.” She glanced at the man and almost laughed—almost. “Mushrooms. Northern goblins are formed of lichen. In the south they are made of cave mushrooms. Goblins are animated fungus.” The idea took some of the terror out of the two creatures suffering in the stern.
The man held Kaia with a long gaze. “You are a quick study. Perhaps that is why you were called to the fight.” The ship bumped into the largest of the port’s docks and the sailors set about their work with earnest. The man stood and began walking toward the plank.
“What call,” asked Kaia, taking up the coat with the fox inside and struggling. “What fight?”
He didn’t answer. The man spoke not a word until they had left the boat and entered the darkened square of the town. No lanterns were lit, as if the whole place were under curfew. A signpost at the southern end pointed in three directions toward brick pathways heading east, south, and west. The man took the western road. When Kaia followed, he turned, scowling. “Do you always follow strangers you meet on boats?”
She glanced around at the unfamiliar port. Kaia had never left the Frost Islands. And despite what she had said to the raven, she felt lost without a guide. “I . . . I don’t know where to go.”
“South. That is the road to the Fountain and to the one I hope you will find there.”
Hope? What hope did she have? Who was this man who knew so much after their short meeting? Kaia had an inkling, but she was afraid to speak his name out loud, not after what had happened to her mother. “What about you? Won’t you come south with me?”
Regret, and perhaps a little fear creased his brow. “That is not my path. The Maker is about to answer the prayers of his creations, and the world must know. I will play the role of herald.”
Kaia took another step. Raz poked his head out from the coat and growled. “You’re him, aren’t you.” She did not know whether to be grateful or angry. A mere rumor of this man had cost her everything. “You survived Vath’s flame. You are Mage Asterlan.”
The mage shook his head. “No longer. That is a prideful name, a dragon name—Born of Stars—and I have set it aside. If we meet again, you may call me Luthelan. For I, like all men, was born of the dust.” With that he turned and walked away, leaving Kaia to stand by the signpost alone.
Watch-keepers, what should Kaia do? Should she
A. Follow Luthelan even though he told her not to? After all, without the raven, she needs a guide.
B. Follow the southern road and hope that whoever sent her the poem intended for all this to happen
C. Get a room for the night at Far Cry Inn and see who else might appear?
Ashton Corbett draws the ship tossed on the seas in time-lapse