"Meet Me At the End" | First Attempt at Writing Fantasy!



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Audo

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  • Put That Thing Back Where It Came From
  • Key of Destiny
  • O, Purest of Hearts
  • Savage Nymph
  • Graceful Assassin
  • Come So Far
This is the other story that I wrote as a Christmas gift for someone. My friend at work has been very supportive of my writing and I asked her, if i were to ever write her something, what she'd be into. She said fantasy and stuff with like dragons, lol. Which is very much not my kind of thing, but I got an idea for it that stuck with me and I knew I had to write it or it would always be bugging me in the back of my mind. So I gave it a shot. I wrote the story and then I wrote the story out by hand in a notebook to give to her as a gift.

It's pretty much my first attempt at writing something genre-y, so I don't know how it will be. Let me know what you think. I tried to give it my own spin as I'm sure people familiar with my stuff will pick up on, but yeah! I think I'm actually pretty proud of this one. It challenged me in a bunch of ways such as genre, but also the fact that it focuses on an ensemble cast of characters. Most of my stories and scenes focus on just two characters at a time, but for this one I did six in a conversation! Anyway, let me know what you think if you read it, even if it's just to say you liked it (or hated it). I put a lot of work into this one.


[HR][/HR]meet me at the end.
WRITTEN FOR: TERRI, XMAS GIFT
CONTENT WARNING: LANGUAGE, HOMOPHOBIA,
MENTIONS OF DEATH​

- - -
“Nonetheless we understood each other on other levels of madness.”
-Jack Kerouac, On the Road-
- - -


Six weary strangers gathered around a fire high up in the mountains; for many it could be their last, as once the fire died down they’d have to face their destiny in the hours to come. The fire licked and cracked at the dark cold air around them. They did their best to pay it no mind, to hush the thoughts swarming them as they prepared for the morning. The warmth was of little comfort to the group, who mere days earlier were unfamiliar to each other before setting on their trek. What tomorrow would mean for each of them hung thick in the air, yet none of them dared speak of it.

Reed, a stoic older man with thick sculpted muscles like carved stone and an expression to match, focused his energy on prepping each of the arrows in his quiver for the task that lay ahead. He took the time to sharpen each of their arrowheads, one after another, methodically, as if tomorrow was any other day. Every few minutes he pressed the tip of an arrow against his thumb. When a dot of blood emerged from his skin, he’d be satisfied and move onto the next one. As the fire roared on, he amassed quite a collection of blood-tipped arrows, hoping they would be the thing to keep him alive in the coming hours.

Beside him, Otilia, a high ranking member of the Queen’s Royal Guard, behaved similarly. She refined her long broadsword with a sharpening stone, the sound of the metal sheening filling the dead air along with the cracks of the fire. She tied her long blond hair back to keep it out of her fair skinned face. Every so often she, too, would press the sword against her own skin, feeling the sharpness of the blade, only to go back to work. Once satisfied, she used a leather strop to straighten out the new edge she had created on her sword. The leather hugged and polished the smallest details in the metal, straightening the edge to the point of being razor sharp.

To the east of the fire, sitting with her thin back against the wind, Avelina hunched over the map resting in her lap. She pressed her thumb against one of her incisors as she studied it and the notes they had been given by the Queen’s Intelligence and compared them to her own. When she marked notes on the map and in her journal, she sometimes absentmindedly brushed her bangs out of her eyes, and left dark smudges of charcoal on her tan skin.

South of the fire, Alton and Kahlid sat close together. They took stock of the potions and spells they had with them, and tried their best to scrounge together the ingredients for whatever more they could concoct before the night was over. They both reached for a scroll at the same time and their hands touched, light on dark. When they pulled back they each could feel a heat growing, separate from the fire crackling nearby. Ahead of them, higher up the mountain, they could make out a clearing where they knew their target lived.

Castro, to their left, lay spread out on a nearby log. He sighed bored as he spun one of his knives in the air above him with his right hand. With his left hand, he scratched against the wood of the log with another knife. There would be no preparation for him that night as he couldn’t be bothered to do something he saw so trivial. Whatever happened tomorrow, he reasoned, was going to happen whether or not he sharpened his knife for the billionth time. Better to let the pieces lay where they fall.

He stopped carving into the log and dangerously combed through his red hair with his hand, the knife still between his fingers. Castro eyed the other members of his party derisively, all of them busying themselves away into the night. What good would it really do if Reed’s arrows were the sharpest they could be, or if Otilia’s sword shined in the light? It’s not like that would really change what was going to happen.

Avelina appeared to be the only one actually doing something that would move them forward. She had more or less been their guide the entire time so far, but especially after their seventh member, Rakim, was gone. Most of the others became lost and dismayed when it happened, like a thread coming loose at its end, they unwound more and more, but not Avelina. Earlier in their journey she kept to herself, only speaking up when the rest of the group was about to make a big tracking mistake, but after Rakim, she took those fraying ends and tied them back up. As far as Castro was concerned, she was the closest thing to a leader the group had, though he knew the others didn’t feel the same way. Hell, she probably would deny the position if it was ever offered anyway.

But there she was, poring over the map and notes they received from the Queen’s Intelligence when they started this whole thing; cross referencing them to everything she discovered on their trek so far, and plotting a course for them to take in the morning. It probably wasn’t even necessary at this point to be so focused on it, as every now and then the group heard the unmistakable sound of their target in the distance, further up the mountain. Even so, she made sure everything was just right, that there would be no surprises between here and their, Castro mused, likely future demise.

In truth, Castro admired Avelina more than any of the others. She didn’t pretend to be anything more than she was, which was a far cry from what could be said about the rest of them. Reed, who Castro suspected was a legitimate mute. Otilia, the royal knight with a stick so far up her ass you’d think she was properly skewered. And don’t even get him started on Alton and Kahlid. Yes, Avelina was better than the rest of them, of that he was sure. But, that didn’t really stop him from wanting to mess with her though. It never did. After all, all of them were avoiding the truth of the situation, hiding their actual feelings in the heavy silence, trying to mask their worry with sounds of papers rustling and metal sharpening. And if there was one thing Castro hated most, it was silence.

He gripped the blade he had been spinning above his head, and drove it into the ground beside the log. Everyone looked up from their distractions at him and the blade, both radiating in the orange light of the fire between them. Castro smirked.

“How’s it looking, Avy?” he said.

Avelina shot him a piercing look from above her map before returning to it. She tightened her lips before letting out a punctuating breath. “If everything on here is true…” She studied her own notes. “And nothing… unexpected happens….” She folded the map up and away, along with her notes, into the satchel she always kept on her. “Then tomorrow we’ll reach Teritina.”

“The fiery beast, eh?” Castro replied.

She lightly rolled her eyes as she held her hands out closer to the fire. “Yeah,” she said. “Something like that.”

“Tomorrow, huh…,” Alton said quietly. The fire snapped in front of him.

“What about it?” Castro replied, his voice dripping with malice. “Having a little regret?”

“It’s just….” Alton ran his hand down the back of his head and grasped his neck. “Have any of you killed a dragon before? Are we sure this is something we can even do?”

“Her Majesty wouldn’t have asked us to do something she thought impossible,” Otilia snapped, practically scandalized.

“It’s not like we’re the first group to try though,” Kahlid spoke. “Everyone in the kingdom has heard tales of the ones before us.”

“Well, we’re not them,” she replied. “I’m one of Her Majesty’s highest regarded royal knights. Trust me, we are in far better hands than they ever were.”

Alton thought Reed grimaced at that, but it might have been a trick of the light. By now they were all very accustom to Otilia’s… ‘loyalty’ to the Queen and her effervescent modesty that came with it. To Otilia, the Queen could do no wrong, and never has. If the Queen was asking people to risk their lives for the good of the Kingdom, it simply must be something they could actually accomplish, she was certain of that. They had to do it for her.

“The fact is though, no one before us has,” Castro said. “And it seems that everyone here would rather polish their arrows, swords and each other’s f*cking knobs than admit we’re all thinking the same thing.”

Alton and Kahlid felt a cold sweat in the hush that followed.

Avelina sighed and leaned back in her spot, arms crossed. “And what are we all thinking, Cassy?”

Castro grinned, but it soon faded. His features became pointed as he regarded each of them over the din of the fire. “That this very well might be our last night.”

The others exchanged startled looks with each other.

“Don’t pretend to be shocked,” Castro bit. “We all knew it and you all were too chicken shit to say anything about it.”

“Okay, asshole.” Avelina sat up, her eyes ignited by the flames between them. “We get it. You don’t give a shit about your own life. Is this all some big game to you? Does it make you feel bigger by needling people who are scared for their lives?”

“Damn, Avy,” Castro said holding up his hands. “Drag me to hell, eh?”

“I just might,” she said coldly.

“Why did you even join up?” Alton asked him. “Was it just a joke to you?”

“No, it’s not a joke to me.”

“You have a funny way of showing it,” Avelina replied.

“It’s what he does,” Otilia said. She sheathed her sword and set it down beside her. “Castro is no stranger to the Royal Knights. He is always carelessly risking himself for something. Most often it’s frivolous pranks around the Capital. Isn’t that right, Castro?”

Kahlid looked up. “You two knew each other before this?”

“Oh, yes,” Otilia said with a smile. “I’ve known Castro since he was a mere youth. He was always getting into knife fights with the others. Once even drawing his blade on an armed guard.” She laughed at this, a little too loud for Castro’s taste judging by the glare he shot her. “Unfortunately, it turned out not to be much of a phase as he grew up. There was always some trouble he was stirring or diving head first into. I don’t think there was a single life threatening incident he wouldn’t run toward. It was always a curious quality he had — this utter disrespect and carelessness for his own life. I can’t say I was surprised at all to find his name among ours when we started th—”

“Shut up,” Castro shouted. “You don’t get to tell them my life like you actually know anything about me!”

If Otilia heard him, she showed no signs of being dismayed by it, and simply continued on. “In fact, we all had a nickname for little Castro — Spark. He was always seemingly on the verge of going up in flames.” She started polishing her armour like this was all just a silly tale from an old time past, and not something visibly upsetting the subject of her story mere feet away from her. “We never could quite tell though, whether he happened to fall into danger a lot, or if he deliberately put himself into it. I suppose this answers that though doesn’t it? Why else would he have signed up, if not hoping to die.”

Castro’s fists clenched tight, so tight he would’ve worried about drawing blood if it weren’t for the rage igniting inside him. And yet, he didn’t say anything more to Otilia. Didn’t tell her to shut up again. Didn’t tell her to go screw herself. Perhaps he knew that none of it would faze her, or maybe he didn’t want to incriminate himself further by playing into her version of him. Whatever the case, the others took his restraint as something of a confirmation.

“Is that why you joined?” Avelina asked quietly. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

He bore into her, eyes tight and unwavering. “No.”

“Then why join?” Kahlid asked.

“For the same reason all of you joined, right? The reward. Why else?”

While it was likely true, the others weren’t convinced.

“What are you going to use the reward for then?” Kahlid asked.

“I’m not telling!” Castro crossed his arms. “And it’s not for me if that’s what you’re thinking either. I have my own reasons for being here just like all of you do and I ain’t saying anything more about them.” He smirked. “Besides, I wouldn’t want any of y’all suddenly thinking I care or anything.”

“Are you really not… scared?” Alton asked him.

The redhead’s first instinct was to reply with a snarky comment, but something in the way Alton asked, and the way he was looking at him now caused him to soften. He let his hands fall between his legs, limp, inches from the ground. Every so often the fire cracked and sent an ember flying out near him. He sighed.

“Yeah,” Castro replied, his voice softer than it had been all night. “Of course I’m scared. I guess… I just don’t think us pretending we aren’t is going to change anything. We should get it out there and deal with it and maybe that’ll make it less scary or something.”

The others looked around at each other, shocked at the artifice finally falling down for their jackass companion for the first time.

“Well,” Otilia began, her voice rising in pitch and piousness. “I’m not scared. If you lot need me to explain it all again I shall: Her Majesty, in her infinite wisdom, would not assign us an impossible task. You’ll see. Tomorrow we shall all wake up, confront Teritina and descend back down the mountain together. Everything will be fine.”

Avelina rolled her eyes. “Infinite wisdom,” she mocked.

“Do you doubt Her Highness?”

“Of course I do,” Avelina spat. “You sit there shining your royal armour and shield and verbally masturbating over your leader, pretending like she can do no wrong, but how would you even know? You’re a part of her crew, you live a good and privileged life. Do you even understand what goes on in the walls of the city you police? Do you know how many people scrape to get by, how many live without shelter or food or health? Is that not the fault of your queen? Or just some outside beast she hires others to deal with? Right now it’s Teritina but not long ago it was Rutheria. She claimed the Kingdom couldn’t fix the aqueducts to the poorer districts of the Capital because Rutheria made it impossible to get resources. Rutheria was slain two years ago. You think we have fresh water?”

Avelina faced the fire, crackling and spitting embers. “You wanna know if I’m scared? Of course I am. But more than that, I’m f*cking angry,” she said. “I’m angry so many live in squalor, even in the crowned city of the Capital. I’m angry Her Majesty has brainwashed people so much they defend her every movement, even when that movement pushes them closer and closer to death. I’m angry people will claim she is a good and just leader when the vast majority of her subjects struggle to get by. What kind of leader is that? What kind of a leader doesn’t take care of their citizens?”

She crumpled up one of the letters bearing the Queen’s Insignia into a tight little ball before chucking it into the fire, sparks flying every which way from the disturbance. “Most of all, I’m f*cking angry that the best chance I had to try and survive in this Kingdom was by risking my life.” Her fury caught Otilia’s gaze, who, for the first time on their journey seemed to be stumbling. “You think I wanted to become a thief? You think that’s what my mother wished for me when she was carrying me inside her? Of course not. But it’s what I had to become just so I could try and keep existing under your queen’s eye. You think she’s so great and majestic and pure? Give me a break.” She turned away from Otilia and back to the fire in front of her. The fire burned away the Queen’s Insignia until it became nothing but charred remains. “You have no idea what I could’ve become.”

“Avelina…,” Otilia began, her voice quiet and uneasy.

“Why are you even here, Otilia? What use do you have for the reward?” Avelina spat.

“I’m here for Her Majesty,” Otilia’s voice betrayed her usual self-assuredness. For the first time, she sounded unsure. But it was not enough for Avelina, who simply rolled her eyes in response and muttered something under her breath.

An uncomfortable silence rose between them. Castro shifted awkwardly in his spot, feeling particularly responsible for the fight that had ensued. Perhaps if he had kept his mouth shut and allowed everyone to distract themselves things would have been better.

Nah. As uncomfortable and weird as this was, he was pretty sure it was better, now that it was out. Maybe it would even lead to them being stronger together… though he had a hard time seeing that, too.

To the south of the fire, Alton and Kahlid were also on edge about the whole thing. Alton in particular never felt comfortable around Otilia and her… devotion to the Queen and what the Kingdom represented, and this upset, while needed and justified from Avelina, somehow made him fear Otilia even more. It was one thing when she praised the queen endlessly on her own volition, but now he knew this would lead to her getting defensive about it, which was sure to be an even worse experience to endure as the night bore on.

For the others it appeared Reed wasn’t affected by this at all. He had never stopped sharpening and testing his arrows — his fingertips dried with blood both fresh and old all over. But it was clear he was listening, and to the watchful, on edge. His shoulders had tensed during the conversation and remained high and tight even as he hunched over inspecting his arrows. Sitting right next to what felt like a lit fuse in Otilia was sure to make anyone unsettled, even the rock-faced Reed.

What felt like a long time passed before anyone spoke. Otilia had returned to polishing her armour, and was finishing cleaning the Queen’s Insignia on the front of it when her methodical movements with the rag slowed to a halt. Alton watched as she opened her mouth to speak, only to close it soon after. She repeated this process a few times: polishing the piece of armour she was currently on, absentmindedly, until she reached the Insignia branded on each piece at which point she’d struggle to speak, only to give up and move on. Eventually she ran out of armour to shine, and set them all down beside her things.

“I’m sure many of you feel similar to Avelina,” Otilia began cautiously. “But everything Her Majesty does, she does for a reason, and,”—Avelina scoffed to which Otilia shot her a glare—”and she does it to keep the Kingdom safe. We are constantly under threat, from war, from monsters, from Undesirables, you can’t—”

“What are you going to be doing with your share of the reward money, Otilia?” Alton interrupted. “You said you’re here for the queen.”

“I’m going to give it back to her, of course,” she said, a hand on her chest. “I have no use for such things, and I believe the Kingdom and Her Majesty is better served by as much of the reward money going back to them as possible.”

“I can’t believe you,” Avelina said. “You’re giving up your share ‘for the good of the Kingdom’? All that’s going to do is put more money in the pocket of the queen! You could use that money for so many better things! You could actually help the people in the Capital. You could fix the aqueducts with it. And you’re just giving it back to her so that it doesn’t go to the people who actually need it?!”

“It’s my choice,” Otilia said. “I don’t expect you to understand it, but please respect it.”

“F*ck that,” Avelina snapped. “Why the hell would I respect it? You’re literally so brainwashed into serving the queen that you’re risking your life just to ensure the money doesn’t leave her pockets. It’s disgraceful.”

Otilia’s gaze dropped. She shifted uncomfortably in her spot for a few seconds before finding renewed focus. “That’s quite enough,” she said. “We each get to decide what we’re going to do with our portion of the reward. Leave it be.”

“Otilia,” Castro began. “The Queen would never do anything like that for you, you know that right? She’s just some old bag who gives life-or-death decrees from up high, never having to deal with the loss of life herself. You don’t mean anything to her.”

“That’s what it means to be a Knight of the Royal Guard, Castro,” she replied plainly. “This may be unfamiliar to the rest of you, who stand for nothing, but I risk my life for the Queen and what she stands for, what this Kingdom stands for, every day.”

Avelina shook her head. “You call yourself a knight, but you’re not. You’re just a pawn.”

“You’re going to die for nothing,” Castro added. “Just like Rakim.”

Everyone froze at the name. They had all been avoiding talking about Rakim’s death the whole journey. But now there it was, out in the open, and not just in the open, but with the implication that it was meaningless, that he died for nothing. Kahlid clenched his fists at the thought, at Castro being callous enough to say something like that so candidly.

“Don’t talk about him like that,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Kahlid, I know you knew him or whatever, but let’s face facts, he died for nothing.” Castro held out his hands, as if to create a barrier between him and Kahlid, who he could tell was getting more enraged by the second. “He had his causes he was fighting for like all of us, okay? Hell, he was the most skilled out of all of us by a long shot and look what happened to him! He’s gone, killed by a pack of mercenaries. Just like that.”

Kahlid stood up, knocking over some of the potions that rested by his feet, but he didn’t care. His fists glowed with stored energy, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Castro leaned back, hands trembling, but he didn’t back down.

“Keep his name out of your mouth,” Kahlid demanded. “You know nothing about him.”

“Whether or not I know him, Kahlid,” Castro said, “isn’t going to change the fact that he’s dead and gone.”

In a blast of white light Kahlid shot a spell that soared by Castor’s shoulder and crashed into the large boulder behind him. Castro yelped as he dodged out of the way, his cheeks alight and flustered. As the others stared in astonishment at the aftermath of the spell, Kahlid ran away from the group and out of the fire’s glow.

The remnants of the magic sizzled in the air before dissipating, leaving behind a fissure in the rock. Castro gulped at the thought of what would have happened had it hit him, but he quickly tried to play it all off as nothing more than a trifle.

“Kahlid, wait!” Alton called out after him. He spun around. “How could you do that?!”

“Excuse me? He nearly killed me!”

“You practically baited him talking about Rakim like that, what gives?”

Castro dusted his clothes off as he regained his composure and sat back onto the log. He grabbed his knife from the ground and flipped it in his hand. “I was just stating the truth.” He pointed the knife casually at everyone else in the circle. “We all know it. Rakim was better than all of us and look what happened to him. He died. And not against some giant f*cking fire breathing beast, but against people like us. What chance do we possibly have of making it out of here alive?”

Alton shook his head. “You think that makes it okay? That you can say whatever cruel things you want so long as you cloak it in some fake idea of just telling it like it is? It doesn’t. You may not care about anyone besides yourself, but I do.”

“Oh, I know you do,” Castro replied, eyes narrowed.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Shall I tell them?” Castro began. “Should I reveal to the whole group what kind of person you are?”

Castro and Alton locked eyes. An anger and a fear took home in Alton’s chest, rising up his throat. He didn’t know whether to fight or run. Everything told him to just shut Castro up, to use his magic like Kahlid—maybe even not purposefully miss like he had—but his inner nature told him not to. What good would it do any of them?

Still, he tried to communicate to Castro that he could do those things, and he was sure that Castro knew it, the way his eyes occasionally dropped down to the swirls of dark energy forming around Alton’s wrists. But in the end, that might have been exactly what he wanted—to tempt his death yet again, just like the kid Otilia told them all about.

“What’s he talking about Alton?” Avelina asked.

“Nuh-nothing,” Alton replied. “Castro’s running his mouth again, that’s all. Right, Castro?”

It was plain as day to all of them that wasn’t what was going on. Alton had many talents, but lying wasn’t one of them.

“Running my mouth, eh?” Castro replied with a full-on smirk. He scratched his temple with the tip of his knife. Not once did he break eye contact with Alton as he spoke. “There’s a reason Alton is so concerned about our good friend, Kahlid. Isn’t that right?”

The dark energy building in Alton curled up his arms, tight.

“You see, he and Kahlid have this big secret.”

It snaked around his shoulders and around his neck. But none of this deterred Castro. It only spurred him on.

“The truth about them,” Castro said, breaking eye contact to focus on the rest of the group. “Is that they are Undesirables.”

“You son of a bitch,” Alton growled.

He pulled back his fist and snapped it forward. The dark energy that had been building sprang forth and landed with a thud on the ground in front of them. It twisted and writhed as its shape changed into that of a large black snake.

Its red eyes found Castro and it began to slither toward him, fangs drawn.

Castro fell off of his log and scrambled to back away as the snake inched closer and closer to him. Eventually his back hit the boulder behind him, still warm from Kahlid’s earlier attack. He looked around frantically for something to defend himself with.

The snake pulled back, preparing to strike for his heart and there was nothing he could do. In the shock of the moment he accidentally dropped his knife behind by the fire, and now he lay there defenseless, facing down the consequences of his depravity.

And it sprung forth—


With a glint of light, Otilia’s sword swung down and sliced the beast by the head, mere inches from its target. The head and body twitched and writhed before turning into nothing but black smoke that carried away with the wind, as if it never had even happened. Otilia helped Castro up before pulling her sword from the earth. She pointed its end at Alton.

Beads of sweat formed along his brow and the back of his neck. He regretted letting his emotions get the better of him, but he possessed no other recourse. Being outed as an Undesirable… How could he be sure the rest of the party wouldn’t have turned on him just as quickly if he had not defended himself? And now he sat there with the broadsword of one of the Queen’s Royal Guards aimed at his throat. Perhaps it really wasn’t Teritina that would be his demise.

“For a man to lie with man,” Otilia began, her voice harsh and laced with disgust. “Is a crime against nature and against the Kingdom. Under the Queen’s Eye, being an Undesirable is to be punished. Only through death can you be redeemed in the eye of Her Majesty.”

“F*ck your Queen,” Alton spat.

Otilia scoffed. She took a step forward, the end of her blade resting under Alton’s chin — against his throat. Her eyes narrowed. “Do you really have nothing to say in your defense? You’re not even going to attempt to deny it?!”

“I’m not going to deny love,” he said. “So go ahead and do it if that’s what the past few weeks have meant to you. But you know there is no way you and the others are going to win against Teritina without me and Kahlid.” He stared her down. “You kill me and you’re signing your own death warrant. What good will following your Queen be to you then?”

“Insolent!” Otilia began. “You will pay for your disrespect!”

Otilia raised her sword high above her head. The light from the fire casted her in a demonic red glow that melted away all of her facades. She was ugly in hate and rage.

Whether Otilia was ever really going to kill him, Alton would never know. An arrow whizzed through the air at that exact moment and collided with her blade near the hilt. The pure shock of the movement caused Otilia to drop the sword out of her hand. They all spun around to find Reed standing up on his side of the fire, the light and the flames alighting his angry expression.

“ENOUGH!” he bellowed and the party fell silent.

The older man had always been big, but in the light of the fire, he seemed more than that. He became nothing but an immense and angry force. For many it was the first time they had even heard his voice. He looked at each of them with a furious glare one after the other.

“All of this bickering and fighting,” he went on, shaking his head in disappointment. “You’d think you saw each other as the dragon. Have you forgotten?” He pointed behind him where the glow from Teritina’s lair could be seen. “That is our enemy! Not each other. You really want to kill each other before she even has the chance? Is that your way of dealing with your fear? Is it?!”

Reed kicked at the fire by his feet, sparks and embers soared into the air around them. “Once this has gone out, all of us will have to face Death tomorrow—no one will be spared that. You want to fight and maim each other over status? Over riches? Over religion and belief?” He shook his head. “In Death we are all the same; our bones will mix in one grave together.”

He walked back to his spot by the fire and let out a small groan as he sat down next to his things. “We all have reasons for being here,” he said as he put away his bow and packed up the rest of his arrows. “We all have reasons to fight for. But fighting each other is not going to accomplish anything but tear us apart.” He tucked his stuff away, ready for tomorrow, before looking back at them. “We all had lives before now, before meeting each other. But if we can’t learn to fight for each other, then we will not have lives after. It’s that simple.” He laid down on the ground and closed his eyes. “Now, stop this nonsense and get some rest. Tomorrow will be here sooner than you think.”

The rest of the group didn’t say anything. Reed’s words rolled around in their minds in the aftermath. All of them felt a little sheepish as they wandered back to their sides of the fire. Otilia picked up her sword from where she had dropped it and sheathed it once more. She walked by Alton and caught his gaze. Her demeanor seemed softened, but she didn’t say anything more.

Castro, too, was affected by Reed. He sat on his log with his hands between his knees, looking down at the dirt. For once in a long time, he was both speechless and reserved, qualities completely unfamiliar to describe him. Alton on the other hand still had his heart racing in his chest from nearly dying at the hands of Otilia. His body silently screamed inside, unsure of whether or not he was truly safe, if it was over.

“Alton,” Reed said from across the fire, his eyes still closed, body still.

“Y-yeah?”

“Go make sure your friend is alright,” Reed said softly, before rolling over onto his side, away from the others.

Alton nodded and got up from his spot. He tucked a few of his things into his bag. His hands still shaking, he went off in search of Kahlid, leaving the warm glow of the fire behind him.

Once outside the party’s view, he stumbled back against the mountain side. His hand covered his mouth as he slid onto the ground. Hot wet tears fell from his face, only to get cooled by the crisp mountain air.

Everything hit him at once. Relief and fear.

He almost lost it all, and it wasn’t even over yet. They still had whatever tomorrow brought. For now, he was alive.

He allowed himself the space to cry, and he did. Tear after tear, muffled sob after another. It was all too much, but he needed to let himself feel it or there was no way he’d have the strength to go on. In the distance he could see the glow from Teritina’s lair. He wondered if she, too, ever felt like this. Scared. Terrified. It wasn’t something he ever really considered before now. So many people had walked a similar journey to theirs and tried to quell her. Was she afraid? Or was she just a beast, something they would never understand?

With the sleeve of his robes he wiped away his tears. His breathing was still a pace too quick and too harsh, but he allowed himself only one moment more before getting back onto his feet. He wasn’t sure what he would tell Kahlid when he found him. Would he tell him of how he almost died, not from Teritina, but from another more insidious form of monster? Or would he dismiss it all away now that it was over, and hope Reed’s words had done something to change their hearts? He considered it endlessly as he headed to where he believed Kahlid would be waiting, but he knew he wouldn’t know for sure until he found him.

It didn’t take long. Not too far from their camp, higher up in the hills, he found Kahlid sitting on a cliff’s edge. Alton sighed in relief at the sight of his partner, and made his way over to him. He sat down beside him and took his hand in his. The two of them watched over the valley beyond together, embracing the comfort of each other’s presence in silence. Below they could make out most of the Kingdom, including the Capital in the far distance, glowing soft in the night sky.

Alton thought about the thousands of lives living down there. How each of them, like him, had their own hopes and dreams and desires and heartbreaks. So many of them hiding themselves like he and Kahlid had to, just for being who they are and loving who they do. It made him hurt at the sight of it. Sometimes he wished Teritina would win, that her flame would be the spark that ignited the world they knew and brought it all down. Maybe then something better could rise from its ashes. Maybe.

It was just a thought. A sometimes pretty, sometimes horrible thought.

“What happened after I left?” Kahlid asked.

Alton looked down at Kahlid’s hand in his. “We…” He held his hand tighter. “We were outed. By Castro. As Undesirables or whatever.”

“What?” Kahlid turned to him and held Alton’s hand with both of his in his lap. “What happened?”

Alton shifted to face him. “After you left I chewed Castro out for upsetting you and for talking to you like that. When I went to follow after you, he told everyone the truth about us, and it got… messy.” He felt a lump in his throat recalling it. “I, uh, I attacked Castro. I probably shouldn’t have done it, I know, but I just couldn’t not do something… In the end it probably made them think even less of me, I don’t know. Otilia defended Castro and she pointed her weapon at me. Told me how being like us is an abomination and that we should die.”

“F*ck.”

“Yeah. I honestly thought I was going to die. I was terrified. For me, of course, but also at the idea of what they would have done to you once you came back.”

"Oh, Alton,” Kahlid said softly. He caressed Alton’s cheek and wiped away a tear that Alton hadn’t even known he had shed. Alton reached up and put his hand on top of Kahlid’s, eyes closed. They sat like that for a moment, nothing but their breathing and the sounds of the quiet nature around them.

Alton opened his eyes and took ahold of Kahlid’s hands in his lap, his thumbs gently rubbing their backs. “Reed saved me,” he said. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I would still be here. He talked sense into everyone else and deescalated everything, then he sent me here to make sure you were alright.”

“Reed is a good man,” Kahlid said.

“Yeah. He is.” Alton turned back to face the valley below, his legs dangling off the cliff’s edge. “He said something about how, like, if we don’t learn to fight for each other, then we’re just going to die alone. And I know he’s right. I just don’t know if we can?”

Kahlid swung his legs over the cliff’s edge, too. “Hm…”

In the distance, a roar escaped from the other side of the mountain. It echoed from their spot, getting smaller and smaller with each passing reverberation. After it dispersed into nothingness, an unsettling feeling lingered behind in the newfound silence that followed.

“Are you alright?” Alton asked. “What Castro said—”

“Yeah,” Kahlid replied. “It just really got to me the way he was talking about Rakim and about how… I don’t know. How he died for nothing.”

“Were you two close?” Alton asked.

He had noticed some familiarity between the two of them on their journey, but they never seemed particularly friendly with each other. Not any more than how Rakim tried to be friendly with everyone at least. But when Rakim died suddenly, senselessly, Kahlid took it the hardest. Of course Alton wanted to support him, but he also didn’t want to cause him any extra harm, and so he did his best not to bring Rakim up since, thinking it would only upset him. It was clear now that perhaps too much had gone unsaid between them, between all of them maybe.

“No, not really,” Kahlid replied. He sighed, and his breath crystallized in the air in front of him. Alton shifted closer to him to bring him warmth. “We’re from the same village. We grew up together, in a sense, but we were never really friends. I just knew of him. Even then he was always someone you kind of wanted to look up to, you know? He was careful and kind and compassionate. Considerate. It was kind of like, to him, he saw everyone for who they are.”

“He sounds really great.”

“Yeah, he was.”

Was.

“Do you have any idea why he joined? Like, what he was fighting for?” Alton asked.

“He told me before it happened.” Kahlid began. “My village is a lot like the districts of the Capital Avelina grew up in. We got by, but there were a lot of things keeping us from really being able to flourish. Lack of shelter, resources, health. Our community banded together to fix what we could and build what we could, but the truth was it wasn’t just about what we could do. A lot of it had to do with access. The Queen and her Kingdom, though she never outright stated so, saw us as less than because of the darkness of our skin.”

Kahlid studied his free hand: he closed it and opened it a few times, watching the way the light illuminated off of it, the way it flexed and relaxed. “The Kingdom made sure to make it as hard as possible for our village to get the resources it needed. It raised costs on things, and made other things more cumbersome. They never passed explicit laws discriminating against me and my people or anything like that, but they did so through more insidious and structural ways. Rakim was hoping to help change that.”

“How so?”

“He believed if one of us did this and succeeded—if we proved our ‘worth’ to the Queen by vanquishing Teritina, something no one else had accomplished—it would lead to better things for our people. That maybe the Queen would see the error of her ways.”

“Do… do you think he was right?”

“No,” Kahlid said. “I don’t think the Queen does what she does to us because she thinks we have not proven our worth or something, because that implies our worth as human beings is conditional. It’s all just about power in the end. And she wants to keep it.”

He looked up at the moon hanging in the sky above them, a small smile curling his lips. “But I wanted to believe. He kind of had that effect on people. His optimism was infectious. When you were around him, you caught a glimpse of what he saw all the time. I think that’s why he was so good at banding people together.” The smile faded away. “We’re lesser without him.”

Kahlid plopped down onto his back and Alton followed suit. They lay there together gazing up under that giant blaze of stars, punctuating the deep dark around them. A cold breeze caressed their exposed skin, but neither of them paid it any mind.

“I think,” Kahlid began, “that’s what bothered me so much about what Castro said. Rakim was so good, you know? He was better than all of us and to talk about him like that and diminish everything he did and everything he was… it was just too much for me to accept. What Rakim fought for and stood for… it wasn’t nothing. He wasn’t nothing.”

“Yeah….”

“I kind of…”

“What is it?”

“I kind of want to fulfill his dream, or try to at least,” Kahlid said. “If we make it out of this alive, I was thinking about using my portion of the reward to help my village, like Rakim was going to. I know we talked about it before, I know we already made plans on what we were going to do with the money, so I know you might—”

Alton squeezed his hand. “I think that’s a perfect idea, Kahlid.”

Kahlid looked at him, an immediate warmness in his features. “You do?”

“Yeah, I do. My share is enough to support the both of us. Yours can go to the cause. I think that’s a great way to honour him.”

Kahlid leaned over and kissed Alton softly, his hand caressing his cheek. “Thank you,” he whispered, their foreheads touching. He shifted closer to Alton and rested his head by his chest. They both stared up at the stars above them.

They lay like that for a while, the simple rhythms of their chests rising and falling providing a soothing comfort from the reality of the situation they were in. But eventually, what was unspoken, needed to be heard. If tomorrow really was the end, if this truly was going to be their last night, they both knew nothing could be left unsaid.

“Kahlid?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really scared.”

“I’m scared, too.”

“I don’t want to lose you, and I don’t want to lose me, either. We’ve both gone through so much shit to be here, together, and I can’t bare the thought of it going all away,” Alton confessed.

“I feel the same way,” Kahlid replied. “I think… it’s okay to be afraid. This fear… it’s telling us something important.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s telling us we both have something we can’t bare to lose,” he replied. “We have something to fight for.”

Alton smiled softly. “I love you,” he whispered.

“And I love you,” Kahlid replied.

They continued to confess everything together. Their hopes and dreams. Their pasts and childhoods. They revealed secrets no one else had known, and desires they had been too shy to express. They laid it all out, leaving nothing unsaid, and eventually, they knew it was time. They got up from that spot on the cliff’s edge, peered down at the Kingdom and the Capital one more time, and then headed back to camp.

When they got back the fire had nearly died out, only the soft orange glow of the embers were left, casting most of the group in shadow. The rest of them had fallen asleep. Looking at them there, it would have been impossible to have known they had been fighting mere hours before, almost to death, for they were all so peaceful in their slumbers.

Alton and Kahlid regarded each of their companions in their sleep, unaware, for however brief, of the fate that awaited them when they awoke. They couldn’t help admit that a delicate fondness was growing inside them for the others, so vulnerable did they look. Before this journey they hadn’t known each other, and in some sense, they still didn’t, and possibly would never really. They didn’t agree on everything, or believed in the same truths, but in some small way, they all had grown to understand each other. They were all there for a reason.

Still holding hands, the two lovers walked over to their side of the fire, where they found, to their surprise, a message carved into the ground by their beds. They looked over at Castro, sleeping soundlessly with an arm over his stomach, and a knife still in his hand.

I’M SORRY
-C

Kahlid and Alton lay in each other’s arms, face to face. They took comfort in each other’s eyes, in the feeling of their warm breath on their skin, in the humanity of their embrace. As sleep began to take them, bit by bit, they tried hard to remember every little thing about the other. The way Alton’s eyes always reminded Kahlid of the forest back home, so vibrant in their green. The way Kahlid’s dark skin shone under the moonlight. The way their fingers interlocked, bodies intertwined.

For a moment it was just the two of them in the world, and they could forget about everything that came after. In this moment, their lives stretched out in every which way, their possibilities, their love. They saw themselves triumphing against any adversaries that came their way. They saw themselves not only living, but thriving, happy and together. They saw themselves finding a home among it all, where they could be themselves. It was such a pretty thought.

But it, too, was just a thought. One they had no way of knowing if it would become true or not. The only thing they knew for certain, above all else, is that they each had the other to fight for; to live for.

They talked in hushed whispers as the fire dimmed nearby, as the darkness of sleep crept ever closer.

“Alton?”

“Yeah?”

“Whatever happens tomorrow… just… promise me — promise me you’ll be there, to meet me at the end of it all.”

The fire extinguished: a thin trail of smoke curled and twisted into the air above them, until it was gone.

“I promise.”
 
Last edited:

Goldpanner

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This was so great!! I do love genre fiction - in fact I play DnD lol - and even so I usually have a hard time picturing things or remembering names. However, your characters were all so well defined and presented in such a short slice, I was able to follow it the whole way through and picture them clearly. I also especially liked how you preserved realistic forms of oppression rather than ignore it altogether or make up some fantasy elf racism or something. I am very interested in the idea of 'dragons' being a metaphor for some kind of excuse people in power use for not aiding the poor - and the poor being the ones to have to fight it mostly.

I know it ends where it ends bevause it says what you wanted it to say - but I would love to see more about these characters :3

If you want criticism - I find it hard with ensemble pieces to keep up if the POV switches around fluidly like it does here. I think that could either mark POV switches with a break, or write it all from a very loose POV (as tho the narrator is also a character observing, who doesn't have special insight to their exact thoughts), or pick one and stay with them throughout. I realize it wouldn't really work for this exact story, or maybe not fit your style at all, but maybe in future ensemble pieces you could try it.

Thank u for sharing!!
 

adisonlallana

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You did quite well, I think your friend was very impressed. I also have a friend(here is link) who constantly sits at work and I try to reach him through various methods. Once, I called him from an unknown number and said that he flooded me and he urgently needs to go home. It was one of the best of my jokes.
 
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