Chapter 15: Ancestor Hail
I opened my eyes, and I was inside some kind of temple. Pillars held up the sides of a large dome that encapsulated the whole building. I sat on a high plateau. A stage, maybe.
Four Apprentices were on the ground, their bodies bound by ice. I couldn’t see their eyes, but they must have been filled with fear.
“Let him go you bastards. Let him go!” Vaughn’s voice reached my ears.
I tried to turn my head but pain coursed through my body. I couldn’t even yell; half my neck was frozen. As for my cursed right arm, it had completely turned into ice.
The ground rumbled and the stage glittered as numerous runes flashed across its surface. Ice crystals burst up, encasing us in a three-meter-tall wall. Then they twisted, stretched towards the center, and formed a small dome.
A moment later the prison’s walls began to glow. Bubbles of light floated through the crystal and gathered in the dome’s center. Then forming a bulge the ceiling drooped. It moved smoothly—like a tear falling to the earth.
When it was two meters from my face, the bulge halted its descent. Its glossy surface rippled and two lumps formed. The bulge stretched into an oval sphere and a crevice slashed through it. Lips.
“No, I don’t want to die!” a man yelled. The others began to panic; they yanked at the ice: shifting their bodies, straining their muscles… But it was all for naught.
The surface rippled again. Some dimples came to be and wrinkles and warts.
A glowing line stroke across each of the two lumps. The light burned brighter and it pierced into the prison and forced the lines to widen. I squinted my eyes. Even the walls shook beneath that blinding blue light. The lumps tore open.
Sapphire eyes. Regal and wise.
I froze under its gaze—the name of a single creature on my mind:
Imperial Snow Toad
It was the emblem of the Hail Faction, and Adept Ulric pierced me with his glares when I had called it a frog. At the time I felt that his eyes were burrowing through my soul, but compared to this sculpture’s, his gazes were nothing.
I took a deep breath, and suddenly my heart hummed as though it wished to be one with the toad.
Its mouth opened and frost descended onto my body. Although it was just a sculpture of ice, its breath contained a boundless energy. It filled every inch of the prison and caused my inner soul to churn. The energy, in the guise of a thick liquid, forced itself through my body. I felt so alive but drifted from wakefulness…a happy tune…a small girl…a dark alley…
Then the sculpture inhaled its breath, swallowing the energy along with my recollections.
But were they mine? I couldn’t remember.
“Regality,” the sculpture spoke and the ground vanished.
A pile of snow broke my fall and I struggled to sit up. My body, which had been partially frozen by the Ice Curse, had returned to normal. I flexed my right arm, delighting in the return of its senses.
A small echoing voice rang in my head, “You’re dead meat.” It must have known what I was about to do, but smiling, I ignored it and breathed into my hand. My fingers tingled against the warm breath, and then I smooshed the surrounding snow and curled up into a ball. My fate was already in the hands of someone else, so I embraced my exhaustion and said to the empty room, “Later I’ll search for a way out.”
I yawned, but to bother me the ground quaked and trembled. I lifted my head but the room hadn’t changed. Its walls were still white and the simple five pedestals still held up some small statues. Nothing less and nothing more, so I lowered my head.
“Show some fear! It’s damn scary,” Vaughn’s words echoed and this time I felt it—a small tugging at my soul. The sensation seemed to come from above and beyond the walls that trapped me. I instinctively let my mind wander to find the source, but then the tugging stopped as if someone had cut an invisible thread.
Loneliness washed over me and I moved my legs closer to my arms. Then I closed my eyes.
After a minute, bells tolled and gongs banged. Then screeches began, and my ears were met by the sound of nails grating against a chalkboard.
“Stop it,” I growled and sat up.
The room fell silent and the five pedestals, which I had ignored, lit up with a faint glow. The light twinkled a bit as if to say they were important. The pedestal in the middle—the one with the toad—flashed the brightest and grew in size.
No, it was that the other four had shrunk. Cow, Hawk, Scorpion, Human.
‘Fine,’ I mumbled.
I pushed up onto my feet then extended my hand. My fingers brushed against the toad’s head and rubbed a small sapphire crown. It glittered and the room began to shake.
“What is regality?” A voice echoed. “The Snow Toad defined it. To inherit his legacy you must pass his trial. Call him forth. Flaunt your skill with runes.”
“I can’t cast any.”
“A melting ice cube for each question. That’s all the time you get. Failure results in death.”
The voice vanished and the room stopped shaking. Behind the toad statue a portion of the wall slid back and to the side, opening a small crevice. Within it was a small stand that was surrounded by white runes.
The strokes peeled from the stand and stretched across the wall’s surface. They wiggled a bit before their movements came to a halt.
Another rune: Cow.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked as I stepped closer to the cow statue. I patted its head then lifted it up but nothing happened.
I stared at it then looked at the crevice. ‘It should fit,’ I thought.
Taking a few steps forward, I placed the cow onto the small stand. The rune twisted and the statue vanished and reappeared on the pedestal. A new word marked the wall, “Scorpion.”
The room shook. “I said, ‘Failure results in death.’”
I flinched. The words seemed all too human. No recording? Messages left on one’s deathbed? Stringent ghosts? The things of movies?
I looked around the room. Nothing strange but there was no one else in the room. What happened to the four Apprentices?
“Dead,” said an eerie voice.
I jerked my head to the side, knowing that no one was there. No one was, so I shrugged at myself for being skittish. I lifted the scorpion statue and placed it into the crevice.
Again it vanished and another rune appeared. Puppet.
I cocked my head to the side and the voice said, “Take your time. Failure results in death.”
I looked back at the five statues.
Cow, hawk, scorpion, toad, human.
Cow was cow. Scorpion was scorpion. That left the hawk, toad, and human…
I shook my head. Why was I thinking? I lifted up the human and placed it into the crevice. Again the rune changed.
“Think more,” the voice commanded. “No guessing. I don’t like lucky people.”
“I’m not guessing.”
The next word was “mammal.” I paused for a bit before choosing the cow statue.
Then came “shade.”
The Shade Faction? I twiddled with my robe and scratched my head. There had been a Novice with a black silhouette on his robe. It was a person, but it could’ve been a puppet
I placed the human statue into the hole and once again the rune swirled. My shoulders relaxed. More simple words…
Eventually I lost count.
What was the point of this?
I placed down the scorpion for the nth time and then the voice asked, “Who taught you about runes?”
“Where did they learn?”
“Not sure. Tutors?” I replied. Then I heard a sigh.
“I’m coming. You’re too boring.”
The ground shook as the pedestals shattered into dust. The snow shifted, moving to the center of the room. It compressed into a toad the size of my hand.
It wore a sapphire crown, and the small creature was puffing its chest. It reminded me of Matriarch Ruby, but why? Where was the resemblance?
She was tyrannical with a boisterous laugh.
It seemed wise with a silent pride.
The toad opened its tiny mouth. “I am Ancestor Hail, master of runes and third founder of the Cowzer Sect.”
I crouched down and rested the urge to poke it. Mocha must have rubbed off on me…but I didn’t want to enrage a toad that might have the temperament and fierceness of Matriarch Ruby.
The toad glared. “Is that all you have to say?”
“I had wished for something dramatic. This meeting should have sown stories within the stars. But why are you so boring? No, that’s not it. You have the air of true Regality.”
The toad paused. Its eyes bore into mine; its mouth twisted into a smile.
“Why are you so calm?” it asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied and the small toad stretched its stubby legs. It strutted around my body, and its every step sent tolls through the room. The walls vibrated and collapsed into white strands. They swirled once around my body only to be swallowed by the toad in a single monstrous gulp.
“Awaken,” it said standing before me. Light pierced from its sapphire eyes, illuminating the dark outreaches of the room. The moon appeared and the glimmering stars began to fall like snow onto ashen lands.
There was no life. Only the shadows of withered trees.
A winter wasteland.
The toad grew in size and it mumbled to itself, yet each word resounded as though meant for me. My stomach clenched; my inner soul churned.
“When failure meant death, he didn’t flinch.
“But when life met sacrifice, he didn’t budge.
“His thoughts are simple, but his mind, is it broken?
“Or is it not?”
The toad stopped. Its eyes, now as large as me, blazed with a blue light.
“When he killed those two, blood stained his hands.
“Regret filled his life,
“A sin against Regality.
“I have seen your heart.
“It lives in his memories,
“Those that were forgotten
“When the door had opened.”
My heart skipped a beat and a sensation tugged at my spirit, beckoning me to return to the past.
“Courage or fear.
“Vengeance or forgiveness.
“To fight or to flee.
“He’s done it all,
“But what happened to that little boy?”
The toad stepped forward. It croaked:
“Who are you?
“All I see is an empty carcass.”
My chest throbbed.
“Dream of your past.
“When you awaken,
“That is Regality!”
The toad’s mouth gaped open in an endless pit. With a single breath it lifted me from the ground and swallowed me whole.
Blackness quickly draped around my body, and stars streamed by.
I was falling but I let it take me—drift me through the memories of my past…Mocha’s laughter…Vaughn’s cry…Alaric’s smile…
The toad’s voice resounded, “Try to wake up. It would be horrible if I need to find another heir. Gena already laughs at me for taking my time…that old cow.”
Everything froze and I was suspended in time and place. A voice pierced through the silence.
“Brave being, do you wish to accomplish a great deed in your life? If so then say yes! Glory will be yours!”
My body jerked and I tumbled—stomach lurching, throat choking. My soul struggled within me. It yanked and pulled and my soul rune twisted.
A deep tug.
I appeared in my inner soul but all the stars were red. They bled and the blood dripped from the sky in long thin streams. A strand landed on my shoulder, and the rest followed. They covered my body, meaning to drown me.
I reached out with my hand and tried kicking with my legs. My neck craned back and I gasped for air. But still, the blood seeped into my mouth and engulfed my head.
Light burst forth and I found myself in a large room decorated with paintings of knights, horses, and cows. I lay swaddled in the arms of a woman who was sitting on a bed covered by silk and satin.
I stared at her, unable to process the sight.
“Look Emelyn. Little Thomson woke up.” The woman smiled, revealing a row of pearly white teeth. They were bright and blinding against the dark purple of her hair and eyes, but they weren’t as shocking as her skin. Flat out orange.
Her smile dropped and her eyes flashed with a golden light. A rune?
Something jabbed my cheek. I turned my head as much as my weak neck allowed me to.
A little girl, maybe two years of age, stared at me with curious eyes. They were bright and clear like the epitome of innocence. But then she frowned and her small brows wrinkled; her lip puckered. Her demeanor changed and she jabbed me in the stomach.
‘Those egotistical eyes,’ I thought. Pairing them with her need to manhandle anything that moves, there was no mistaking her identity.
His chubby hand jabbed me again, and I opened my mouth.
‘How dare he be cruel to a baby!’
“Waaaa,” my reprimand came out as wails, so I quickly shut my mouth.
Suddenly, a voice drifted into my ears: “That’s…weird…..I’ll…….force-”
The woman sacrificed me to Vaughn and he squeezed my body too tight. His mother waved her hand towards the shadows. Her voice sounded joyous and excited, almost urgent. “Come here and say hi to your son.”
“No. He’s that man’s kid.”
“Be that way. I won’t waste time with you.” Smiling, she squeezed my tiny nose then jabbed my chest. “Grow up big and strong and protect little Emelyn, won’t you? If not I’ll haunt you in the afterlife.”
Threatening a baby? It was no wonder why Vaughn was so aggressive.
“What a cute pout.” The woman poked my cheek then raised her head. She scowled. “Get over here. You’re not going to see him for another fifteen years-”
Everything blackened and I felt a gut wrenching pain. I must have screamed but no sound had reached my ears—only silence.
Then it stopped and my senses returned.
A hospital room. By the far bed a woman held a newborn baby within her arms. His royal blue eyes looked calmly at his mother. He didn’t cry for warmth but rather snuggled closer.
The toad’s voice: “Regality…but…why…..are…….you……”
Everything froze—an eternal picture of a thousand words. I didn’t want it to end but my feet were held still. I watched on as cracks streaked through space. The walls crumbled and the floor vanished… I stared at my mother, wishing for an eternity. But she too disappeared into a thousand shards.
Darkness met me and something snapped within me. Did I break?
No. It was the opposite. My soul rune clicked in place.
I could remember…
But I didn’t want to.