Chapter 2 – The Other Realm
Fourth Day of Learning 1142 — Battle Song Eve
As dreams went, this wasn’t much of one. A field of grass, a wooden chest, and a relatively small bush that had only recently appeared, from which Prince Eric’s young servant had emerged.
“What are you doing here, Dahr?” The prince couldn’t quite keep the exasperation out of his voice.
“No idea. Am I dreaming?”
“No! I’m dreaming, and I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.”
Dahr looked stricken. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
Eric’s momentary annoyance disappeared almost as quickly as it had formed. Dahr couldn’t have gotten here if the gods hadn’t in some way been involved. Perhaps he was supposed to be here. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re not in trouble.”
Dahr looked relieved for all of three seconds, until a rustle from a different bush that also hadn’t been there before, caught their attention. Dahr’s panic was as short lived as his relief. A pristine white wolf emerged from the bush, but as the white wolf was a symbol of the goddess, both boys relaxed. Whatever else Eric had been about to say was lost in the majesty of the creature. The wolf approached and then sat waiting.
“Greetings,” said Eric, hesitantly. He wasn’t at all certain what he was meant to do.
The wolf didn’t react immediately, but then cocked its head to the side as if listening. Eric wasn’t sure exactly who it was listening to, but he had his suspicions. Before Eric could think of what else to try, the wolf started to walk away, pausing after a few steps to look back at the boys.
“I think I’m supposed to follow it,” whispered Eric, awed.
“I can just wait here”, said Dahr, but his voice quavered.
“No you can’t. When we’re together, I’m responsible for you. And you’re going to be my brother. There’s no way I’m leaving you behind in this place.”
The gratitude in Dahr’s eyes was all the reward Eric needed.
The wolf started walking again and in panic, Eric reached quickly into the chest, attempting to grab the sword. He had no idea what would follow, but he was pretty sure the path of the warrior involved some sort of combat. The weapon that came out of the chest however wasn’t a sword at all. It was a shield, pointed at the bottom, two crescents forming the top, meeting in the middle, which rose higher than he would have expected it to, as if some ornament had been affixed to the middle of it at the top. It looked odd sticking up as it did. Eric wondered if it served some purpose.
As soon as he lifted it, the glowing mark of Sheba appeared in its center, two crossed swords within a circle formed by a crescent moon. He considered the shield with a tinge of disappointment. What would he do with a shield?
Still, this was a test, and you had to make do with the tools you were given, no matter how inadequate they may seem. He forced a smile, gestured for Dahr to follow and set off after the wolf.
King Terrence and Queen Treya sat on their thrones, staring at Dahr, who had fallen asleep leaning against one of the pillars.
“That didn’t take long,” said Terrence, chuckling.
“Should I take him to bed?”
Terrence thought it over and shook his head. “He’ll want to be here when Eric returns. Let him rest. If he’s going to be part of the family, let him be a part of it.”
The queen smiled. “He always has been.”
The king didn’t know what to do with that. How could she so love a boy carried by another? It probably helped that his mother was no longer around, but still, would he have been so understanding had the situation been reversed? He didn’t think so.
And yet now he had to ask himself that question since Treya had mentioned she hadn’t been alone every night while he’d been gone. He hadn’t known but had suspected. He had never asked anyone because he really didn’t want an answer, but now he had one. And what was he to do with that?
Nothing. Nothing at all. There was a double standard in most parts of the kingdom. Male nobles were allowed to do whatever they wanted, but their wives were expected to remain faithful no matter what. It wasn’t right. It had never been right. He hadn’t been faithful, could he blame his wife for doing exactly what he had done? What kind of man would that make him? Did people know of her indiscretions? If they did, did that somehow reflect on him? Did it matter?
He turned to look at his wife, who fondly regarded the sleeping boy. She had enough love in her heart for his bastard. Enough love to forgive him. Could he ever live up to that standard? Maybe not. But he could sure as hell try.
The Wolf kept a leisurely pace, slowing to wait on the rare occasions the boys fell behind. Eric kept half an eye on Dahr, half an eye on his surroundings as he jogged after the wolf. He didn’t want to run faster, because if he had to fight, he didn’t want to start while winded. Yet it seemed like miles had rolled by without so much as a blemish in the landscape. It was just a grassy plain for as far as the eye could see.
They came upon the rocky canyon quite suddenly, or more appropriately, it came upon them. One minute there was nothing but grass and then it appeared before them, a narrow crevice with steep sides as if a giant hill made of smooth gray stone had come into existence as they approached. It hadn’t grown from the ground, but had instead appeared, Perhaps it had always been there, and they just hadn’t been able to see it until they were close enough. The crevice was so narrow they’d have to enter single file. If you were going to ambush someone, this would be the place.
When the wolf ran into the chasm, Eric followed, glancing back to make sure Dahr was bringing up the rear. A hundred paces later the wolf vanished, and after pausing only briefly, Eric continued forward holding the shield in front of him, wishing it was a sword.
For a long time they continued, the walls getting higher. Then, ahead of them, he spotted a group of creatures he didn’t recognize. They were humanoid, but clearly not human. They looked like they were made from clay or maybe mud. None of the creatures stood taller than the middle of his chest, and their faces were featureless smooth ovals. They approached without a sound, without hesitation, without fear.
Eric paused for a moment, then raised his shield and called out. “Ho there. State your business.”
No response, not that he expected any—none of them had a mouth. The creatures continued to advance.
“Halt… I don’t want to hurt you.”
No reaction at all. The creatures continued, single-file. Eric couldn’t tell how many. Ten? A dozen? In the shadows at the bottom of the canyon, their color blended into the walls and each other, making them impossible to count. They advanced without pausing. Was this a test? Should he attack first? Wait to see what they did? What was being tested here, his response or his combat skill?
He kept his shield before him, turning sideways to minimize his profile. He’d had training with sword and shield, but never just a shield by itself. If it came to a fight, he wasn’t sure how he’d handle it.
The creatures got within three feet of him and stopped. He couldn’t go further forward without walking into them. He could go back but didn’t think he should. After all, the wolf had entered this crevice. He could attack, but the creatures had yet to do anything hostile.
Then a rock struck the ground at his feet. He heard a few others land behind him. He had been so consumed with the attack from ahead, he had forgotten of the possibility of an attack from above. Eric backpedaled to where Dahr stood and raised the shield over both of their heads.
More stones began to fall from above, most of them fairly small. Eric held the shield as if it was a parasol. He pulled Dahr closer, and they waited as the rocks pounded down on them. The force of them tested his endurance as he tried to keep the shield steady. A few stray rocks hit his calves and feet, which stung but did no real damage. He realized he was prioritizing Dahr over himself. The smaller Dahr wasn’t getting hit at all. All to the good. Eric was far more capable of taking hits.
Soon after, the rocks stopped and the creatures before him attacked. Now Eric used the shield to block them and push them back, powering forward with his legs. It wasn’t very different from wading through mud. The creatures weren’t that hard to force back. It took steady, powerful strides to advance, but he was up to the task, for a while at least. And slowly, over time, he made progress.
He struck with his shield whenever he could and pushed forward when the width of the chasm didn’t allow him the chance to attack. They fought bare handed, using their arms as clubs, while he struck, blocked and pushed for what seemed like hours. Forward, ever so slowly. His shoulder was raw, his arm throbbed, and his legs ached from fighting against the weight of them. He could feel the muscles expand and contract has he fought for each tortured step.
The slow advance, combined with the fatigue in his muscle and the pain in his arms, shoulders and legs started to take its toll. A couple of times, Eric found himself slowing down. When he did, he grew angry at himself and used that to force himself to continue. But he knew that it was a fool’s errand. He couldn’t push forever. Sooner or later his strength would have to give out, and what would happen to Dahr then? Every time he wanted to give up, every time he slowed down, his thoughts returned to Dahr, and he fought harder. After all, he was the only thing standing between Dahr and the enemy. And then he reached an area where the canyon was just a bit wider.
He took the opportunity to swing the shield in a sweeping arc, powering it into the lead creature with such force that he shattered it. It crumpled into pieces at his feet as if it really had been made of clay. In death, the creature looked like nothing more than a broken vase.
A spark of hope ignited in his chest. He had been moving mechanically, doggedly, pushing against an enemy he could not defeat. He had it in the back of his mind that he wouldn’t last forever, and that eventually, he would fail. Nothing had really changed, but there was one less of them, and Eric wondered at how differently he felt. Whereas before he was waiting for collapse, he was now able to redouble his effort.
Was that what he was supposed to learn from this? Was Sheba trying to teach him a lesson? He had heard of battles being lost because people had given up. He hadn’t given up, but he could see how he might have. Until the moment when he took one down, he didn’t see a way out. There had been, though. This wasn’t a test of his combat ability, nor was it a test of his endurance. It was a test of his faith. Not in the goddess but in himself. His ability to be steadfast. Surely that was as important as any other warrior trait.
Nothing had changed, but everything had. The sequence of events, blocking, pushing and swinging when possible, went on for what seemed like days, but was probably only an hour or two. And every time he thought he couldn’t go further, he risked a look back. Dahr was there, and that gave him the strength to continue.
Again the canyon widened and he struck, swinging his shield with all the strength he could muster. His need to get through this before he collapsed from exhaustion powered the attack, and another of the creatures shattered. A few minutes later, he took out another. Forward, endlessly forward. Eventually there were only a handful left, and finally only a single enemy. And when that enemy fell to pieces at his feet, he let out a whoop that was as much relief as triumph. The canyon vanished at the same moment, making it seem like his shout had somehow dispelled it. And though he knew the thought was ridiculous, he rather fancied the idea.
Eric checked on Dahr before collapsing onto the grass. He was utterly spent, out of breath, and his arm and shoulder were on fire. He was neither hungry nor thirsty however, which was good for he had neither food nor water. If this was only the first trial, he wasn’t sure if he’d make it. His strength had already been sorely tested.
As he lay there, half dozing, he heard a rustle from a bush that had appeared from nowhere, like every other feature of the landscape he’d encountered. He forced himself to sit and reached for his shield, but it was the white wolf, holding a silver scroll case in its mouth. The wolf sat and waited.
Eric pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, and walked slowly to the wolf. It didn’t move, but he could tell its eyes followed his slow progress. He reached out, wrapped his hand around the scroll case. The wolf released it. As soon as it did, the scroll case dissolved into mist, which surrounded him. And in his head, he heard a voice that was infinitely kind, infinitely fair, infinitely powerful…Sheba’s voice.
Skill unlocked: Shield Bash. I guess you could say your first trial was a smashing success.
Was that a pun? Surely not. Transition was a serious matter. The goddess couldn’t be joking with him, could she?
Dahr stood nearby, watching, but not understanding what had just happened. He looked at Prince Eric standing before the sitting wolf, but apparently heard nothing if his next words were anything to go by.
“Do you think I can pet him?”
Eric looked nonplussed. “Are you mad? Do you not understand that this wolf represents Sheba, the goddess of honor, combat and the hunt?”
Dahr looked abashed. “I didn’t know.”
“Well now you do.”
“He’s really cute though. Are you sure…”
The younger boy grinned, and Eric realized he’d been baiting him. “You’re too smart for your age, you know that.”
Dahr nodded. “I know.”
The wolf hadn’t moved from its sitting position, and Prince Eric thought it might be grinning, but then wolves always looked like that. He walked over to where his shield lay on the grass and picked it up. He had a new skill but had no real idea how to use it or what it meant.
He held the shield in front of him. “Shield bash!”
Nothing happened. He tried to think about what a shield bash was, tried to locate some small cache of knowledge that he hadn’t known before, but there was nothing.
Without warning, the wolf sprang at him. One second it had been sitting and the next moment it was airborne. Eric instinctively swung his shield, but instead of blocking, he timed the swing to intercept the wolf mid-flight.
He had braced himself for impact, but it never happened. The wolf, to his astonishment, flew sideways several feet where it landed hard on the grass. It quickly found its footing and trotted back to the boys.
“Whoa!” said Dahr.
“Yeah,” was all Prince Eric could think to say. And he realized that it wasn’t his own strength he had used, indeed he wasn’t strong enough to propel a full grown wolf that far. He had been using the gift of strength bestowed upon him by Sheba.
The second trial started much like the first. It appeared out of nowhere after a lengthy walk along a seemingly endless grassy plain. On the grass was a giant with one eye in the center of its head. It had rows of sharp teeth in a mouth that seemed too wide for the rest of its face. Its nose was comparatively small. The creature had no hair at all. What it did have was unusually long arms, which ended in huge hands.
It hadn’t noticed them yet, and they moved cautiously closer. Eric glanced back at Dahr to make sure he was following. He had no fear of Dahr making noise. Dahr loved to sneak up on Eric to try and scare him. If the two were to have a stealth contest, Dahr would win easily. So he focused instead on the creature, which stopped to sniff the air before turning to look in their direction. At first Eric thought it hadn’t seen them, but then it bellowed and raised a hand above its head. For a mad second Eric thought it was waving, until a rock formed in the center of its palm. The creature launched it as if it were a catapult. The rock flew straight at them. Eric stared in disbelief as it approached.
Eric pulled Dahr close and raised his shield, bracing himself for the strike. The stone struck the shield, but Eric was up to the task of blocking it, though he could feel the shock of the strike all the way to his shoulder. He didn’t have much time to adjust because the second boulder was already on its way. He risked a glance at the creature, which was crazily windmilling each arm, conjuring a boulder at the top of the arc, and then tossing it. Eric had never heard of a creature like this and suspected that it didn’t exist anywhere but the Other Realm.
As it turned out, blocking the stones wasn’t much of a problem as the giant didn’t seem to be able to throw two at once with any accuracy. The real issue was that if he stood back blocking attacks, the creature could keep throwing stones until Eric no longer had the strength to continue.
He had already had one trial that pushed his endurance to the limit and wasn’t willing to suffer another. He had to find a way to attack while defending Dahr, and there didn’t seem to be any way to do that. His first thought was to try Shield Bash to propel the rocks back toward the giant. This didn’t work because most of the rocks simply shattered and the ones that didn’t couldn’t readily be aimed. Each one flew off in a slightly different direction. Perhaps that could be improved with practice, but it would take too long to develop that talent at the moment.
“Dahr, how confident are you that you can sidestep those rocks?”
Dahr practiced sidestepping them while they were still aimed at Eric. “I can do it. Easy.”
Eric glanced briefly back. “You’re sure?”
“Yep, they’re not moving too fast.”
“Okay, when I count to three I’m going to charge out of here and right at that giant. You stay back here and dodge, okay? Once I get to him, you shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Why count to three? Why not just go now?
“Cause you always count to three. That’s just how it’s done.”
“Because…you know what, I don’t have time for this right now. One, two, three!”
Eric took off toward the giant. He needn’t have worried about Dahr. The giant never swapped targets. It became obvious it didn’t see Dahr as a threat.
Eric closed the gap as quickly as he could, shield held in front of him. He didn’t dare risk looking at Dahr, because even if the giant did decide to aim at the boy, there was nothing Eric could do about it. He felt the urgency increase as he drew closer, because he was responsible for Dahr’s safety, so he couldn’t allow himself to become injured. Whatever he did to take down the creature needed to be fast. If something happened to him here, what would become of Dahr? He forced the thoughts from his mind, as he had been trained to do. He had one task and only one. Take down the giant without getting injured. Any other thought was a distraction.
As he drew closer he realized just how big the creature was, almost twice his height. He wouldn’t be able to reach the giant’s head, and doubted he’d have the leverage to even get a solid body blow. That made picking a target easy.
He charged and struck the giant’s knee with all his strength. He heard a loud crack and the giant threw back its head and roared, bringing down one of the rocks to crush him. Eric sidestepped neatly and bashed at the knee again. The giant stumbled and went down, kneeling before him. That allowed him to reach his intended target.
Eric aimed for the giant’s head, using Shield Bash with all his strength…well, all his strength as bolstered by the goddess of combat. Eric wasn’t sure what would happen, but he hadn’t expected to completely decapitate the creature with a single blow. He watched the giant’s head soar into the air, while its body remained standing longer than he’d have thought possible before collapsing backwards onto the grass. He saw the head land, rolling a bit before disappearing altogether. Most likely it was still there, just hidden by the grass.
“Hole in one!” he thought, then stopped. Where had that come from? He might have heard the phrase somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where or when. He had no idea what it meant in any case. He was interrupted from considering the matter further by Dahr’s voice, raised in excitement.
“That was amazing!”
He turned to see Dahr running across the grass, a huge smile on his face. He was about to reply when movement caught his eye. He spun, but relaxed when he saw the wolf trotting toward him, silver scroll case in its mouth. It approached and sat as it had before, and once again, Eric took the scroll case, which promptly evaporated into a cloud, this one with a slightly orangish tint.
Sheba’s voice again filled the air around him, or perhaps it was inside his head. He couldn’t tell. No matter how many times it would happen moving forward, he would never lose the amazement, the gratitude, the sheer exhilaration of hearing the goddess’s voice.
New skill unlocked: The Bigger They Are. Sometimes, size matters.
Eric almost choked. He wanted to ask if the goddess was joking around with him, but he didn’t dare, in case she wasn’t, and he was simply misinterpreting it. Eric fought back the impulse to ask a question, motioned to Dahr and started walking. Dahr was trying to get his attention to ask him about his new skill, but Eric didn’t answer. He had a lot to think about.