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Legends of Despartus
Book One: The Oppressors
Death, death, death all around
Children crying, a pitiful sound
Their parents writhe and twist in the ground
Not a soul salvaged, not a soul to be found
Even if you search like those bloodthirsty hounds
Not a soul salvaged, every soul drowned.
Chapter One, the Mission
A few short minutes ago, Orpheo had been having a nightmare. In it, he and Tausemin had been playing on the metal shelves of the warehouse, way up high, and Tausemin had slipped. Orpheo tried to reach out to help him catch his balance, but he had been too far away, and Tausemin had tumbled to the cold, stone floor. Orpheo must have taken his eyes away for a moment, because when he looked again there was nothing left of his brother but a spreading dark stain without a visible source. He had screamed and screamed until Zortha had woken him up to tell him that Anest was coming, and he wanted to start screaming again. He would almost rather have nightmares all night than run another mission for Anest in the middle of the night on practically no sleep. He managed to make his way off his shelf without disturbing Tausemin who slept beside him, and stand in front of the door when Anest came in holding a box that was to be taken to Rahd.
The little boy stared doubtfully at the box. It was large enough that he could fit inside, brown like river swill, and marked with a large white symbol of a crescent moon with a jagged line through it. He couldn’t feel what was inside of it. Anest’s muscles strained as he held it out, and his face was turning red as he waited for Orpheo to take it. Tentatively, he mentally weighed the box, easily discerning that he wouldn’t be able to keep it off the ground for three seconds. His telekinesis was coming along well, but not that well. Uncertainly, he lifted his grey eyes to Anest’s small brown ones. The only light came from a candle by the door of the warehouse, and it made the eyes glow devilishly.
Anest sighed and shook his head, glaring. “Fine,” he snapped, setting the box on the floor. Anest never used telepathy, though he insisted that the children did so he didn’t have to hear their voices. “Take your brother with you since you’re too weak to take it by yourself. Just get it to the gates before the sun comes up, or you’ll both pay.” He stalked off, extinguishing their candle as he stormed past. Orpheo stared after him, helpless to call him back.
From the darkness of the warehouse shelves, shapes began to move and take shape. When the coast was clear, the other children crept out of hiding, apprehension on their faces. The moonlight, coming from the skylight way above, made them look like corpses rising from the grave, not quite certain if they should rejoin the living. They silently crawled out of emptied boxes on the shelves, from behind wardrobes and highboys. Zortha Haltrox had been watching the scene from the topmost shelf, so high up she was unnoticeable from below. Bendy Bormos held out his arms and she jumped, landing lightly in his arms, after five solid seconds of falling through the air. Eleven out of twelve of the orphans gathered around Orpheo, five-year-old Tausemin clinging to his brother’s legs.
Are we going for another run? Tausemin asked, his blue eyes filling with tears. His frightened essence permeated the room and set the others on edge. I don’t want to go.
It was the weak plea that was made every time. Nobody disobeyed Anest. Nobody who had any brains in their heads – and wanted them to stay there. Simultaneously, all eyes turned to the dark bloodstain on the floor, the only thing left of Rion Gamwin, and away.
You know we have to.
But do we have to? Tausemin started to cry, and Orpheo almost did too, but he steeled himself. The Valodacia brothers were small for their age, which made it easy for them to hide in impossible places as they sneaked around, doing whatever Anest was forcing them to do: stealing chickens and watermelons from neighbouring farms, delivering packages much like the one on the floor to various people, and taking messages to the mountains. At first, being the only ones allowed outside made them feel special and privileged, but they never had any time to do anything except what they were assigned to do. Every time Anest came into the warehouse, he had a new “errand” for them to run, before the sun came up or else.
We have to, Tausemin. Tausemin nodded miserably, taking his arms from around Orpheo’s legs and letting them hang limply at his sides. He was young, but he knew when things had to be done. Even if he didn’t like it. Orpheo wished that he would put up more of a fit, to make him feel like there was a chance he could back out of this, so he wouldn’t have to be so resigned. At least he would know that his brother still had some spark left in him.
The children stared at one another, whimpering softly. Thoughts swirled around the room like restless bees. Orpheo, said Zortha. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. We Lebans aren’t allowed to go to Xarathus, and especially not to Rahd! Didn’t you feel Anest’s essence? He felt almost…guilty.
Incredulous, he sent a private message back to her: Come on, Zortha! You’re going to scare Tausemin! Don’t say things like that; we’ll be fine, I’m sure. How far away is Rahd? Shrugs and mutters were exchanged.
Three hours west of here, Avali Asten said from where she was lounging on a shelf, examining her nails. She tipped her head to gaze at them with thinly concealed boredom. It was uncanny how she knew the exact locations of every place in Despartus, having never stepped foot outside of the warehouse since she was three. Avali was the oldest of the orphans, fourteen years old, and looked down her nose at anyone she deemed not worthy. She shrank down when Anest glanced at her, but when he was gone, she went right back to her superior self. The younger orphans were fascinated by her. She was like a queen. Despite the chill in the air that was always present in the warehouse, she only wore her cloak for sleeping, and wore nothing but her thin white dress during the day. It was a rumour among them that she had a crush on Anest. And, it was proven knowledge that she was jealous of the Valodacia brothers with a passion that no one else could muster.
You’ll have to cut across watermelon fields and pumpkin fields, and cross a lake if you want to take a straight path, Avali went on, and that should add a couple hours. Even if you go around all of that, it won’t make much of a difference. Plus you’ll run into someone. Swinging her pale, sunlight-starved legs over the edge of the shelf, she dropped gracefully to the concrete floor. Her cracked feet didn’t make a noise. You need to go right now if you want to make it before sunrise.
He nodded and poked Tausemin to get his attention. You’ve got to help me lift this, Tausemin.
Orpheo, wait! exclaimed Zortha, rushing forward and grabbing his arm. You can’t go! Something isn’t right!
He sighed in frustration. He could feel that Zortha was right somehow, but what choice did they have? Anest could come back at any minute, and if he saw that they still hadn’t left yet… Shooting an imploringly apologetic glance at her, he took back his arm, and ordered his shaking brother to help him lift the package. Defeated, Zortha used telekinesis to open the door for them, and they stepped out of the warehouse. Her eyes trailed after them, and then fixed on the open doorway and the nighttime scenery that they were never allowed to be a part of.
Good-bye, she said to them, her final message coming to him laced with icy finality.
They clipped down the concrete steps of the warehouse, and paused at the lip of the cobblestone road that led to Deshale. They stretched their bony legs, readjusted the package so that it would stay balanced between them. What they lacked for in strength, they could always make up for in balance. The constant running did nothing to strengthen their undernourished muscles, all it succeeded in doing was tire them out and eat away the little fat they ever managed to gain. Once they were ready to go, they left.
Tausemin and Orpheo could climb, swim, and hide in impossible places. They could get away from phobics who were manically terrified of unwashed children in rags, and even outrun guard dogs when they had to. When they were on a mission, the only thing they could never do was walk. An intense feeling of urgency filled them soon after they left the warehouse, moved their bones for them, and wouldn’t allow them to stop until they had reached their destination or they had to hide. The unshakeable feeling convinced them that danger was around every corner, behind every bush, and even lurked behind the bright midnight moon that watched their every move. The instinct always knew the way to wherever they were going.
They had barely seconds before they were propelled forward against their will, hurtling across the road and into the forest. Tausemin cried out as the feeling settled on him.
Just block it out, Tausemin, Orpheo said, his teeth gritted as he ran. Aren’t you excited that we’re going to a new place instead of boring old Deshale or Revetu?
No! Tausemin’s inner voice was a desperate wail. I don’t want to go to any new place! I wanna go home, Orpheo!
Swallowing, Orpheo forced himself to ignore Tausemin’s pleas. They mirrored his longings. He couldn’t give in. When we get the package to the gates, we can see if we can take some coins from someone and buy some apples. How many apples do you want, Tausemin? You can have all of mine.
NO! he screamed back, fighting with all his might to stop running. I don’t want apples! I want to go home! I hate you, Orpheo!
Orpheo’s stomach twisted. Tausemin was so bad at concealing his essence that he felt his brother’s pain like it was his own, on top of the pain that he felt. They made their way out of the forest with its rough, shifty floor and nearly impenetrable underbrush, and emerged into a watermelon field with its soft summer grass. Automatically, Orpheo’s eyes scanned the uncomfortably open space every few minutes. They often shifted to the moon hanging above them. He was getting better at keeping track of the minutes that went by, but that night he was too discouraged and apprehensive of what Rahd held for them to even attempt a time count. Orpheo wanted to scream, too. He wanted to turn around and find Anest, and demand to know why they were always the ones that had to go on his unreasonably time-crunched missions, and why someone other than his five-year-old brother couldn’t go with him when his packages were too heavy.
Across the watermelon field was another pine forest, and beyond that, a black, murky lake appeared, cradled between two hills. It was so wide that the two sides of it were nearly out of sight, and he didn’t even want to think of how long it would take them to walk around it. He didn’t know whether they would be able to swim across without drowning. It looked like it would be a long, hard swim. Strangely enough, his hesitation was enough to break through the spell as they stepped onto the sandy shore, and he was able to stop himself from diving in. Tausemin stopped too. They were both trembling. The package floated between them like it was being held up by invisible strings, like a puppet. He shook his head violently back and forth, trying to clear it. Visions flashed in his eyes; one moment he saw the black lake, and the next, he was looking at a blue summer lake through another’s eyes. His mother’s eyes, he knew. The black lake came into view again; he was certain he saw a pale, slender hand slip under the surface of the water, a blond head bobbing lifelessly just out of reach. Unbidden, a cry rose on his lips, and he fell to his knees, wishing furtively that the visions would go away.
Orpheo? Tausemin knelt uncertainly beside him. Orpheo turned to look at him, but didn’t really see him. Instead, he saw himself, as he must have looked kneeling beside his mother three years ago and asking if she was okay, as she coughed up blood and water. Orpheo, I’m sorry, I don’t really hate you. I just wanna go home.
Orpheo, nearly sobbing now, pressed his head against his palm and took a deep breath. Please, go away Momma. Please. Pushing himself to his feet, he tipped his head skyward, eyes closed, concentrating. His body relaxed. Taking Tausemin’s hand, he jumped feet-first into the water.
Come on, Tausemin, swim!
Grabbing the water with long, sure strokes, he encouraged his brother to keep up, training his eyes on the opposite shore in order to stay calm. His muscles began to seize against the cold water, so he made them work harder to keep them from stiffening up. Glancing at Tausemin, he saw that his brother was getting better at swimming, though he still insisted on holding his breath even when they were above water. Narrowing his eyes, Orpheo splashed him and thought to him to stop doing that before he knocked himself out. Grinning, Tausemin splashed back, lake water flying into Orpheo’s eyes. But at least he was breathing again.
Hey! Cut that out!
I got you, Orpheo! With a squeal, Tausemin dove under the water, remerging three feet ahead.
Orpheo pursed his lips for a moment, eyebrows raised in surprise. Then he gave up and decided to enjoy himself for at least a couple minutes. What could it hurt? Anest wasn’t there anymore. Laughing, he dropped under the water too. Race you, he called blindly, putting all his energy into catching up to his invisible brother. It was too dark to see much more than blackness, but since Tausemin was as transparent as a bubble, it was easy to sense him as he glided through the water. It was a struggle to keep a grip on the package when he couldn’t see it above the water, but it was worth it. They got to shore in no time at all.
They crawled out of the water and shook themselves off, spraying each other with water and having to start all over again. Good job, Tausemin, Orpheo congratulated. I think you won.
Yay, yay, I won! Tausemin skipped a circle around him, a genuine smile on his little face. Orpheo patted his back before reminding him that they had to get moving. Time flied when you were having fun, and that’s why fun was usually prohibited on their missions. All too soon, they were on the run again, breaking free of the lake-water chill. He glanced back at the lake once more before they slipped into yet another grove of trees.
Three raspberry fields and a creek bed later, the gates of Rahd became visible. The children were on a deserted cobblestone road with tall, coarse grass growing on either side. The grey stones began to shine in the growing light. The moon was long gone. He tried to run faster, but his legs maintained their slow, exhausted pace. It was like running in a dream. He couldn’t feel the burning in his legs; he only felt the need to run faster, as though something were chasing him. It was a moment before he realized that he really was half-dreaming, running in his sleep. He could barely keep his eyes open. He saw Zortha’s face, heard her warning to him. He tried to get his eyes to open wider. He needed to look for danger, and protect Tausemin. But even that thought wasn’t enough to revive him.
They could barely be considered to be running as they staggered to a stop at the gates. He lifted his heavy head to the guard tower and sleepily announced their arrival.
Identify yourselves, came the gruff inner voice of the guard, floating to Orpheo’s wind-blown ears.
He cracked a yawn. Orpheo Valodacia, 32221547914. And this is Tausemin Valodacia, 61222547911. We come bearing a package for… Anest hadn’t told them who the package was for. Up until that point, Orpheo had just assumed someone would approach them when they cleared the gates. He had no time to tell the guard that they didn’t know who the package was for; a ridge of light touched the tips of the wrought-iron gate. For Geneya Groveto, 62145258523. Luckily, Tausemin was leaning against his side, sleeping, and couldn’t give them away with bewildered thoughts.
The high gates swung open, and he dragged Tausemin through.
He didn’t know where to go from there. He kept on as though he knew the way, and when the gates were out of sight, he ducked into the trees that lined the right side of the road.
Where are we going, Orpheo? Tausemin swayed on his feet, yawning. Orpheo caught the yawn as well.
I guess we just have to wait. I’m sure somebody other than that guard knows that we are here.
He had barely finished this thought when there was a loud snap behind them. Someone breaking a tree branch under their feet. Orpheo turned toward the sound dazedly. Three essences surrounded them, and three men came into view. His eyes snapped open, and he recoiled instantly when he saw them. He fell back on his elbows in his scramble to get away.
Their auras were black. It suffocated him, made his eyes pop out. Tausemin dove into his arms for protection, cowering as he stared at the men. They seemed as big as the trees, and were shrouded in black cloaks crested with the same symbol as the package that had fallen to the ground. The blood-red sunrise painted their stony faces in gruesome colours, their dead black eyes becoming stark. Convinced he was having a nightmare, and too exhausted to struggle, Orpheo didn’t shout or put up much of a fight as they moved in on him and Tausemin, tying their arms and legs and wrapping pieces of cloth over their mouths. It was only when they were being carried away, silencing hoods making the world around them black, did he realize he should have screamed when he had the chance.
He should have been dragged into sleep as they were carried away. The ride on the man’s shoulder that was lumpy with muscles was too rough to even lay his head down. The man smelled heavily of campfire smoke. He found himself getting a second wind by the time they were tossed onto a hard stone floor, their hoods were removed, and they were untied.
The cave was large, perfectly rectangular, with lit torches in every sharpened corner. There was a heady odour of smoke that circulated the room, and his eyes and nose stung with it. Chill from the cold floor seeped into him and made his bones ache. Sobbing heavily, Tausemin crawled into Orpheo’s lap, shaking as the men melted into the shadows cast by the torches, without a word or one backward glance. Orpheo stared after them, wondering why they had been taken here. Swallowing, suddenly thirsty, he got up to see if they had left some water for them to drink, at least.
Orpheo, no! sobbed Tausemin, clinging to him with a surprisingly iron grip.
I’m just going to find us some water. He tried not to let the fear leak into his reply. You can come with me.
With Tausemin riding piggy-back, Orpheo walked toward one wall of the cave. He took three steps, however, and a burning pain darted up his leg like a bolt of lightning, knocking him off his feet. He landed on Tausemin, who screamed and pounded his back. Orpheo crawled backwards, and instantly the burning went away. Tausemin curled into a ball and whimpered pitifully, holding the back of his head.
Interesting. A prison ring.
Anest used prison rings to keep the orphans from running away and getting into the boxes that were in the warehouse. Orpheo walked around the centre of the room, testing the perimeters of their invisible cell. It was like a game of Invisible Box, except there was nothing fun about purposefully subjecting his leg to the burning pain. He was finally able to determine that their cell was perfectly square, the length of his own body. He was also able to discern that there was no way they could look for water, and he wondered if the men in dark cloaks would be coming back. Defeated, he settled in the very centre of the prison, Tausemin curled up in his arms, and stared sullenly at the wall.
If he hadn’t been so tired, maybe they could have gotten away when the men attacked them in the forest. How long would they be kept here? What would Anest think if they never came back? Would he feel any remorse for sending them out? Would he look for them? Orpheo didn’t think so.
Tausemin began to squirm, twisting around so that he could look at Orpheo. Are we going home yet?
He pursed his lips. Maybe… I don’t know where those scary men went.
What happened to the package?
I don’t know.
Do you think they will bring us water?
I don’t know.
I just don’t know, Tausemin! Go back to sleep, we’ll see what happens in the morning. Which was technically right now. He decided he had meant the phrase metaphorically. Morning being when they went to sleep and woke up again.
A tear slipped down Tausemin’s gaunt cheek, and he buried his head under Orpheo’s arm, shaking all over. Finally, Orpheo allowed himself to cry too. He was drained; he told himself he could close his eyes for just a few minutes. As soon as his lids pressed together, he was sucked down, down, into a welcome pit of endless, unbroken darkness.
He dreamed of his mother. She walked with them along the shores of a valley lake, the water perfectly reflecting the lush greenery of the hills surrounding them. Her hair was the same blond as his and Tausemin’s; the wisps tickled her face. A surreal light surrounded them, making the grass look too green and the sky too blue; but the lake remained an ominous, iron grey. He could feel how soft her hand was. She was talking to them, laughing animatedly and throwing back her head. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, could only see her lips moving. As a matter of fact, there was no sound at all in the dream. Tausemin pointed to something across the lake. All he could make out was a small, dark dot, moving rapidly down the grassy hill and growing larger at an alarming rate. He glanced at his mother in confusion. Her face was the picture of heart-stopping fear, lovely smile gone without a trace. She shouted at them, tightening her grip on their hands and making them run toward the edge of the lake. Suddenly, the grass they had been walking on turned into gravel that angled into the choppy water. The grassy hills were now towering, rocky mountains, looming all around them, trapping them. The shore abruptly ended when they ran into the water, sending them sprawling in. He lost hold of his mother’s hand, and he couldn’t reach the bottom of the lake with his feet. The water closed in over his head. He looked around frantically, trying to swim back to the surface. His mother was a few meters away, calmly hiding beneath the surface of the water, gazing up at her rippling reflection. With a jerking movement, she looked directly at him, eyes wide. Her mouth opened, a stream of bubbles shot out. Slowly, she sank lower and lower, eyes never leaving his, silently crying for help. A delicate ribbon of red danced around her. He tried to scream, tried to get to her, but she was swallowed by the inky blackness far below, her reaching hand the last thing that he saw. When he looked around, he realized that he couldn’t find Tausemin. He heard his brother call his name, sounding far away. He thrashed all around in the water, trying to find him. Tausemin was nowhere in sight, and his voice was fading away.
A terrible scream pierced his dream, catapulting him into consciousness. It was Tausemin’s scream, calling his name. He instinctively leapt to his feet, his mind doing a wide sweep of the surrounding area before he came fully aware of where he was. He whipped his head toward Tausemin’s essence that seeped like blood from a wound. His brother’s screaming eyes met his.
Orpheo, HELP ME! he cried while audible screams bounced off the walls.
It was like moving under water, diving into a lake and then swimming to the top that was too far above to make out. In his dream state again, Orpheo ran one step at a time toward Tausemin, drawing his knees up and curling into a ball as he launched himself through the invisible boundary of the prison. In three seconds, he went from feeling like he was being burned in a hot oven to being crushed between walls covered with needles to having his ribs ripped out one by one. All the time he kept his eyes on his brother. The pain was over so suddenly that he nearly collapsed on the other side, looking back quickly at the prison that was concealed in the harmless-looking stone floor.
“Stop! What are you doing! Bring him back! Stop!” He found himself screaming out loud. Using the all the energy he had, he flew at the man, latching onto his leg. The man’s muscles contracted and relaxed under his small teeth as the man kept walking at a lazy, swaggering pace. Letting go of the leg, he ran back a few steps and then jumped, landing on the man’s back
“Let him go, let him go,” he sobbed, reaching out to grab Tausemin’s outstretched hand. He was yanked backward, his hand ripped from Tausemin’s, and he tumbled to the floor. “No!” he screamed, jumping to his feet. Tausemin disappeared behind a corner, the last thing he saw was the tiny hand lost in the darkness.
A horrendous blow to the side knocked him to his knees. Gasping, he looked up to see a large booted foot draw back to kick him again. With a flick of his legs he rolled out of the way. The foot caught his shoulder, nearly punching it right through his breastbone.
Now, you look here, said the man, yanking Orpheo up by the front of his cloak. His breath came in short gasps as he came face to face with the scowling man. You stop your screaming right now or I’ll really let you have it, do you understand?
Orpheo wheezed what he thought would be his last breaths and struggled to get away.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
Yes! he nearly screamed. Inner voices never got loud, but they could be charged with sheer intensity that had an even stronger effect. The man’s grip on him released, and he tumbled to the floor with a thump that felt like rods being stabbed through his side, his chest and shoulder. Nonetheless, he scrambled to his feet and darted after his brother, fully knowing he wouldn’t get far. He wasn’t sure he could go on without his small brother. A large hand grabbed his wrist from behind, jerking him to a stop and whipping him violently around. He cried out in pain as his shoulder wrenched in its socket, one tug away from dislocating. The man glared at him darkly.
Where’s Tausemin? Orpheo mewled, weakly pulling against the man’s grip. His shoulder screamed.
The dark man smiled. You’ll be with your brother soon, he promised, yanking Orpheo toward a different shadowy corner. Orpheo sighed in relief, willingly following down the lightless tunnel that they walked into. Ghostly, incoherent echoes swirled around them through the thick stone walls. Orpheo tried not to act afraid or in pain, in case his weakness would tempt the man not to take him to Tausemin. He felt the walls with his mind in order to avoid scraping against them with his body, as there was so little light he only perceived meaningless shadows.
As they progressed, a little bit of light reached his tired eyes, allowing him to see the slight dips in the floor and the turns the tunnel took. They rounded one more corner and the ghostly echoes suddenly formed themselves into the distinctive, high-high-pitched cries of children. The guard yanked him again when he balked at the terrible sound. They ducked under a chest-high ceiling of rock, stepping into the place where the light came from. It was unbearably hot and muggy. They were on a high ridge of rock that was barely wide enough to stand on, looking down at a milling throng of children far below. Orpheo’s stomach lurched at the sheer drop, and he swayed for a minute. The dark man still holding onto his wrist waited until just before he lost his footing to jerk him back, tightening his already painful grip. Biting down his fear and pain, Orpheo peered down again, looking for Tausemin.
There were hundreds of children down there, wailing and screaming and looking as scared as Orpheo felt. None of them seemed to be older than seven, though their faces were obscured from this high up. Some had barely learned to walk. Thousands of lit torches lined the walls, though their light didn’t reach all the way to the middle of the room. It didn’t need to. In the centre of the humongous space was a churning, boiling lava pool that emitted eerie red light. The pool was surrounded by a heat resistant shield that looked too old to resist much of the heat anymore, and the children gave it a wide berth. To his shock, Orpheo glanced to the other side of the pool to see another dark scary man slam a child’s cheek against the searing hot surface of the shield, laughing as the child screamed and twisted in agony. He kept holding it there. No one else seemed to notice, since her screams were drowned out in the other screams.
Orpheo gasped and stepped backward, bumping into the dark scary man’s arm. The man smiled down at him, his expression similar to that of the man still holding the child’s face to the heat shield. With one jerk of Orpheo’s arm, the man pitched Orpheo over the edge.
He was too shocked to scream. It felt like he would choke on his own heart. The fall ended abruptly as he dropped painfully into the muscular arms of another dark scary man. This man grinned at him, and Orpheo was so shaken that he threw his arms around him and sobbed. Stiffening, the man yanked Orpheo off and tossed him to the stone floor. His tears stopped immediately. For a second, the man’s face was contorted, looking so frightening that Orpheo wanted desperately to run away. The all-consuming eyes rooted him to the ground. After a painful second, the man regained his composure and smiled once more. He spread his arms wide, letting Orpheo take in the doom-ridden, echoic stone cavern and the children with burned faces.
Welcome to Mount Ologo, he said. Welcome to hell.
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