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A Lake of Fire
Ash swirls in the wind. Pain throbs in my forehead, and I feel something wet drip down the side of my face. I stumble through the snow and wind. I can barely make out a faint orange flickering light in the distance. The bitter stench of smoke, blood, and fear permeate the air. ‘Why am I here?’ I think, as darkness envelops me, and I fall forward.
Two Weeks Earlier
Laughter echoes through the room as my friend D’Eric tells a joke. The Hallow’s Eve party I throw every year is an especially huge success this time. I have invited all of my friends from school as well as my older brother who has just graduated from the Academy. My parents are staying late at work to touch up the Treatises’ of younger Academy students but have promised they’ll be back soon. I’ve hung large gold-orange pumpkins from the wooden rafters. They provide the only necessary illumination in this domed wooden room. The light, streaming through the lanterns’ carved faces, provides the perfect level of glowing warmth and yet, at the same time, shadowy darkness.
Groups of teenagers and young adults dance to the rhythmic dance music being played by a local band. Several people have clustered around tables with large glass bowls of punch and platters of party food. Towards the southern end of the room, far away from the music, a few have clustered to talk and catch up with friends they haven’t seen in awhile. Even though I had only invited my friends, this is an Isle party, so the room is now full with most of this year’s entire graduating class, maybe eighty or so people.
I stroll over toward my brother to catch the end of his conversation with a group of his friends.
“It’s incredible what those people in Haven endure. I was down there to work on my graduating papers, and a friend of mine was murdered. He wasn’t the only one; there were a couple of other deaths while I was down there. A few Guardians said they saw a Wizen too.”
A snotty man I don’t recognize interjects. “Yes, well, that’s why we have the Guardian Corps. They deal with all that trouble so that we can get on with our lives.”
“Yes, but no one joins the Corps anymore. It’s too dangerous, and there’s not enough reward. Those of us who’ve lived here for our whole lives, with no idea of the struggles outside our isolated little community, don’t realize just how important it is for us to lend a hand. I say we all need to do something for those who weren’t lucky enough to live on the Isle.”
“You can’t seriously be arguing that we all join,” drawls the man. “After all, I’m sure some of us can offer so much more by using our talents in more intellectual pursuits. It’s all very well for those who are, how shall I say this, less able to be involved in a scholarly profession to join the Corps, but to insist that those of us with above average academic accomplishments also serve? It’s a preposterous waste of our talents!”
“That’s ridiculous! Intelligence is just as important to a Guardian as it is to a professor, and to say that you serve the world better by sitting in a padded chair reading books than by working outside the Academy and saving lives is nothing more than wishful thinking!”
“Well, it’s all well and good for you to talk about joining the Guardians Corp, but you’re a worse hypocrite than any of us because you don’t actually do anything.”
“You’re wrong there. I signed up yesterday. My tour starts in a week.” A dumbfounded silence follows this announcement and is made all the more apparent by the continued noise in the rest of the room. I try to break the silence with a nervously jovial interjection.
“The Guardian Corps? Man, you have guts. I’d never do something insane like that. Only my brother would actually sign up for that.”
There’s another tense pause, for only the briefest of moments, though it feels like an eternity, and then my brother gives a booming laugh.
“It’s only ‘cause you’re such a shrimp. What are you 3’ 4”?” he says mockingly. Immediately the party atmosphere resumes and I retort.
“I’ll have you know that I am a full 5’ 6”, which is taller than most Tieflings my age. Not to mention, I did twice as well as you on my exit exam. It’s not size but smarts that’ll change the world.”
He mutters, “That is true, smart one. I spent many hours getting my head knocked in instead of learning anything. So I’ll make you a deal: you stay here and argue with this knucklehead, and I’ll go out to Haven and prove my point.”
Our small group breaks apart a little, and my brother and I drift off to the side of the party to continue our conversation.
“You’re really doing it? You’re really going to join?” I ask.
“Yeah ‘lil bro, so you best keep studying, and I’ll be back with a gift, alright?”
I nod with a fake, strained smile, and think that this party might be the last time I see my older brother. Guardians have a bad habit of dying young.
I head back into the mass of dancing bodies and listen to the upbeat sound of the song. Suddenly the party feels like exactly wrong place to be, and my gut twists as if I’d eaten something bad. I grab a glass of punch, hoping the citrus will settle my stomach, and go outside the house. Looking up into the sky, I see our ruined moon. It looks like a small, shiny, silver disk orbited by three white shards, leftovers from the Great Shattering.
I wander down the rough cobblestone path towards the Town Park. In the center of the park, some rowdy youths have started a large bonfire . I run over to a large oak tree and peer from behind it. Dancing flames, the sweet warmth and beauty of the red-orange inferno, have always entranced me. The logs crackle as they burn merrily. I love fire; I think it is one of the greatest accomplishments of sentient beings. I’m often told that my love of fire is due to my, well, fiendish heritage. I am Tiefling, the son of a son of a son of a son of a devil.
I remain hidden behind the tree, because most people find my red eyes and skin unsettling. In the warmth of the fire, I slide down to the base of the great oak and recline in thought. D’Eion’s not my blood brother, but he’s the closest thing I’ve got to family. He and his father had been visiting Haven on business when he found me doing magic tricks in some dung heap of a flea market. I couldn’t have been any older than four or five at the time, but I still knew how to make a coin vanish up my sleeve or ignite a faint illusory flame. He convinced his dad to bring me home with them and gave me a place to live. When I was ten, he forged records for me so that I could get into the Academy to study magic. And now that I’m able to protect myself, he’s going back to Haven to help some other poor souls.
I lie against the rough, oaken tree and close my eyes. I’ll rejoin the party in a few minutes, but for now I’m just going to rest.
“By the gods above! What is that thing!” Someone screams. I awaken with a start; I must have dozed off in the park while I was watching the fire. I look around, and to my horror I can see all the buildings around me alight with brilliant ruby flame. The maple scent of smoke fills my nose, and I cough as it burns my throat. People are running all around me in panic and disarray. I dash towards my house and, in the choking smoke and fire, try to find my family.
I run up the pathway leading to my home just as a massive ball of flame slams into it. The impact hurls me backwards, and I hit the ground roughly. Wincing with pain, I rush into the ruins of my house. Frantically, I search the few small rooms of our apartment, but with a sigh of relief I find no bodies. With any luck, my family has already left the building. Most of the structure is intact, so I have to time to grab my things. I find the remains of my room, and I quickly grab my traveling coat and cap. I have a feeling I won’t be coming back here for quite some time, so I pause for the briefest second in the doorway. When the earth shakes at the impact of another fireball, I dash out of my room and back outside.
I join the thronging mob of people who are surging down to the docks in hopes of finding a way off the island, and in the darkness I make out the dark shape of something. It’s to the north of me and directly west of the docks. The creature stands on the edge of a cliff, and beneath the cliff winds a road that leads to the docks. The aberration is cloaked in an uncanny sphere of smoke and shadow, which obscures any attempt to make out detail. Suddenly, there is a brilliant flash of sanguine red: what looks like a black hand with a metal gauntlet hurls another ball of flame out from its smoky cover.
I see Guardians using spears and swords, trying to hold it back. Six of them are slain instantly by a massive strike. The soldiers begin to falter, and I see one run. However, I hear a familiar voice.
“We will not and cannot falter. Stand and fight! Our families need only minutes to escape, and we’ll give them that time even if we have to die for it, because we are Guardians!” D’Eion shouts as he tries to rally his men.
I need to find a way to help him! I run toward the monster as I yell the incantations that will bolster my defenses and aid my accuracy. I hurl a bolt of energy at the being, but the bolt seems to be absorbed by its armor. The flailing of the shadow creature dislodges a building, which teeters and then comes crashing down in front of me and blocks any chance of reaching my brother. Through the cracks in the fallen edifice my brother spies me.
“Idiot! Get out of here. We can only hold it back so long! Go now, Tex!”
“No!” I yell. “I can fight! I know some spells; maybe I can help!”
“Go now! Our people will need your knowledge and leadership if they are ever to survive the Wilds. Get them to Haven and talk to Executor Harris. He will tell you what to do next. Let him know that what happened at 51 was a mistake! Tell him!”
As I stand helpless behind the crippled building, I struggle with the decision. Finally, I nod acceptance and turn away from my brother and his fight. I feel sweat dripping down my face as I turn and run. I will avenge D’Eion; I will not rest till the Isle of the Wise has been reclaimed.
I run towards the group of people that I had followed here, and I swiftly lead them down the path towards the harbor. We climb on to several ships and quickly begin to ready the sails and oars on the vessels. I notice a fight seems to be breaking out between a Captain and one of the citizens, so I run over to them.
The Captain grumbles, “I am not about to risk my life carrying excess weight without recompense. I will not take any more of you without fair payment! I demand 250 drakes for every soul that wishes to travel on my vessels.”
The man cries, “But that is absurd! You would never charge that, but now we are in fear for our lives? We cannot even pay that. All of our money was lost. We are under attack. Have some mercy, for godsakes!”
“Nevertheless,” the captain whines, “I demand that each of you pay me 250 drakes, or I’ll have each of you tossed overboard!”
“Alright, this is insane. We’re done asking.” I demand, “I have friends up there dying, and you are not going to waste our d*mn time overcharging us. Either move your a** or I will move it for you.”
“How dare you speak to me like that, devilspawn, I am owner—“ I cut him off mid-speech with a rough blow to the head. I then hurl him into a pile of rope.
“The rest of you, this ship is leaving,” I grunt.
The man that had been arguing with the captain walks up to me.
“My name is D’Erin. You’re D’Ames boy, aren’t you?” he asks, while helping me to untie the ropes binding us to the dock.
“Indeed I am, but this doesn’t seem the time to exchange pleasantries,” I respond.
“What am I thinking? Of course, what can I do to help?”
“Cut all the ropes binding us to the dock on the leftmost side of the ship; I’ll handle this side.”
We work in silence until we finally manage to untie the ship and hoist the sails. The screams of fighters only a few hundred meters above us makes it feel as though years are passing, but it only takes about a minute. The ship glides smoothly out of the harbor, and I feel awe and horror as I—and the rest on the boat—look upon what remains of the once great Isle of the Wise. The city and Great Library have been annihilated. Fires cover the island; they burn down the forests and buildings and, in the center of it all, we can see a great swirling cloud of smoke with traces of flame surrounding and enveloping it.