PETE COTSALAS - DEAD STEPS
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
At an Enforcer outpost outside Eon they met Glee. Ivanna’s timid Enforcer partner sat in the pub drinking a tumbler of papaya cider, looking sallow. News Ivanna sent him in her phoenix message greatly troubled him. Outside, they mounted their steeds. “I was devastated to hear King Walden was poisoned.” Solemnly Glee spoke, unrolling the notice. “Manticore venom, you say? Although costly, venom of Manticore can be bought freely at apothecaries. Your sister does not want his condition made public, from fear of preserving the Throne?”
Latching her foot in the stirrup, Ivanna nodded. “Leave it to Trilna to save face rather than seek help. She is correct. Word spreads Father is on his deathbed, every Nobleman in Dli commonwealth will be vying for the Throne.”
Glee latched his feet into stirrups. “Suitors have contacted Trilna, soliciting courtship since before she could ride horseback yes. You told me you once received dozens of courtship queries weekly.”
“Indeed,” said Ivanna, kicking her nag. “Fireplace in my bedchamber warmed for a fortnight because of those parchments. Power is cheese rats congregate around. Nonetheless, by default this makes I or Trilna regent ruler.”
Interjecting, Froman maneuvered his pony alongside Ivanna’s steed. “Entering the Death Realm may save your father’s life. Antidote for the venom of Manticore is the blood of the same Manticore. Like Chimeras, they were obliterated following The War. Find the Manticore. Find your father’s cure.”
Myria gasped, causing her nag to stir while it trotted. “Milady, he suggests making your father’s life pretext…” However, Ivanna knew Froman was correct.
After days of venturing through the forests of Fathach, Ivanna’s Enforcer tunic and cloak, normally professional and svelte, were dirtied a shade darker. Underdressed she looked beside Glee. As they rode northward, Glee admitted he would be hesitant if he had not seen firsthand overtake of Enforcers by the Loyalists. “Captain Zill has become a lackey for the Loyalists. Nothing is safeguarded during this uprising. I would have alerted the Grand Legion, but it is likely they would believe a captain’s word over mine. If Loyalists conscript Enforcers, anything is possible. Further evidence is required before addressing the Legion caucus.”
Ivanna watched him fiddle with his Enforcer weapons in his saddle. “Glee, you sharpen your dagger so much it may cut your sheath.”
“Nervous,” he admitted. “There has not been a Chimera on Fathach in centuries. If one truly resurfaced as you say, communication will be arduous. We are more likely to be torn to shreds. Four hominids cannot outflank a treacherous beast of old.” Physical ineptness of bookish Glee was redeemed by profound intellect.
Raspy chuckles of Froman taunted him. “How did such a ninny become an Enforcer?”
“Insolence precedes you in reputation, Wolf,” grunted Glee, embittered.
“Indeed, Milord,” mocked Froman, referencing Glee’s cleanliness, and posture, likening it to a monarch.
Breaking up rigidness between their male companions, Ivanna stated. “That hut by the birch copse will likely be the last commoner residence for some time. We tread into desolate territory.” Shortcutting through a grove of blossoming trees, they attempted to escape the sultry air. Soon after, they encountered a large skeleton of an animal. Dismounting, Glee examined the bones. “Bear,” he announced. “A Cavernous Bear, adult, sixteen feet long. Nothing known on Fathach smaller than a dragon could devour such a beast.” Accurate, Glee’s description seemed. Coats and cloaks made from hide of the Cavernous Bear were so large they were marketed primarily to ogres.
Pacing the ground around the skeleton, Froman nodded. “However Enforcer lad, an extinct large predator, returned from purgatory easily manipulates the food-chain. Chimeras had appetites, greatly outweighing their size.” He sniffed the dirt along the roots beside the picked carcass. “This soil absorbed Chimera urine. Perhaps you also note we have not seen so much as a grackle in some time. Even birds have fled before the Chimera. We draw near.” Gesturing ahead, through the corridor between trees, he indicated more animal bones, seeming to create a trail. “Shall we?”
Farther into the woods, Ivanna recognized the Caverns of Eagla, formerly The Forbidden Caves. Depths of these caverns were believed to house fearsome dragons, and other frightful creatures. Although commonly believed to be tradesmen hearsay, this was primary reason that they remained barren of visitation. It was plausible that something such as a vortex could remain, undisturbed. “Deserted draws lawlessness,” warned Glee. “Remain cautious of brigands.”
Following the animal remains, they came upon an abrupt downward hill leading toward a series of precipices. Terrain being too narrow and steep for horses to handle, the band of travelers had no choice but to leave theirs behind. Beyond the precipices, an open copse met them, with dense forest on the far end, and a wide field of purplish flowers alongside. This seemed out of place beside the Eagla Caverns. That cave did not. At the mouth of a cave sat a bundle of soil, tree branches and animal fur. “That must be the cave Faraoise spoke of,” said Myria. “The Chimera nests there.” It appeared like any other cave mouth. There had to be more to the entrance. Even Glee’s vast intellect fell short of this knowledge. This was similar to finding a crucial door, but not having the necessary key. All four minds were aware they needed to make haste. The displaced dead Chimera would certainly return. Animal bones collected in the nest were indicative of what they anticipated.
Gusts of wind brushed the tree limbs above. Froman looked up and sniffed the air. Wolf sense detected a familiar scent. “Ugh, no,” he scoffed. “It is the ubiquitous boulder again.” Sure enough, Chliste appeared, standing on a high mound of rocks beside the mouth of the cavern. “Golem, have you nothing more pressing to do than harass those trying to preserve the wellbeing of Fathach?!” snarled Froman. “Leave us in peace.”
Clueless, Glee’s eyebrows furrowed. He and Chliste had yet to meet. “Who is this?”
“I am Chliste, the Sorcerer,” the glittering Golem introduced. Nodding to Glee, he added “You must be the wise Enforcer accomplice I have heard much about. Allow me to help your endeavor. Exiting the Death Realm into ours is relatively easy from here. It is a matter of encountering the orifice at the correct time, as the Chimera did. Entering the Realm however, is more trying. You essentially must ride into the Realm. Life of a creature must be taken, similar to sacrifice. You must bind yourselves to the evaporating life-force as it gravitates into the Realm. It will not be particularly easy.”
“Will any creature suffice?” Ivanna asked. “What if we were to kill say, a squirrel?”
Chliste shook his head. “Life force of a squirrel is the size of a squirrel. It will not be strong enough to support conveyance of one of you, let alone four. You need a much larger creature.”
“Pity golems cannot be slain,” Froman growled. Chliste ignored Froman’s snide ploy. Alertly he sniffed the air. Looking toward the dense shrubbery behind them, he announced. “Chimera approaches.” Immediately the Enforcers placed hands on sheathes. Even Myria fingered the dagger on her belt, which she had yet to draw. Glancing behind her, Ivanna saw Chliste had vanished.
A four-legged beast, twice the size of a lioness stepped into the clearing. Illustrations in centuries-old books did not do justice to the likeness. Fearsome fangs hung from moist pink gums. Reddish tincture validated intimidation of the spiky coat of fur. Upon her back, sat the fabled second head, that of a horned goat. The beady eyes stared, no less sinister than the piercing orange irises of the foremost head. “Visitors in my realm, how delicious,” a deep feminine voice cooed. Large feline nostrils widened and thinned, the Chimera looked at Froman curiously. “I am certain these others are human. You puzzle me. You look human, but smell like dog, why?”
Froman scoffed and chuckled, sniffing in the Chimera’s direction. “Out of respect, since we may ask assistance, I will not tell you what you smell like to me,” he drawled.
Ivanna welcomed the Chimera. “We are glad to have encountered you,” she said.
“Likewise,” the Chimera said, taking small steps toward them. “Ooh, I am thrilled to see you. Since I have dwelled in these woods, I have subsisted on elk, rabbit, and the occasional bear.” Her smiled grew. “But that is about to change, I see. I have not tasted the sweet flesh of living humans in centuries… I do believe I have quite forgotten what the flavor is like.” She eagerly smacked her furry lips. The she-beast sneered. “Once our creators were banished, people whom they ruled made it a course to kill off my kind, the Manticore, and Griffins. I was brutally slaughtered in my nest as I slept. I returned to consciousness moments before dying, in time to see them dangling the decapitated head of my mate before me. Finding a way to regain entry after centuries was bliss.”
Pretending she did not hear this, Ivanna continued, remaining confident, ignoring the sensation they were outmatched. “Would assisting us for a greater good not be fulfilling to you, Chimera? Our noble goal is to save Fathach from darkness. Your soul would be enough to escort us into the Death Realm, to find our quarry.”
Glee stared at Ivanna in astonishment. “Are you actually negotiating an assisted suicide?” he asked, in a whisper.
Ignoring him, Ivanna, reasoned. “You are meant to be dead… Would it not be satisfying to assist in saving the continent simultaneously?”
Chimera considered the proposition. “Help three humans and a dog hybrid by allowing them to slay me?” she summarized. “I think I would much prefer to devour you four!” The lion-like jaws extended four times their circumference. A roar emitted which echoed through the woods.
The four of them ran. The Chimera galloped behind them. Goat’s head on her back bleated in triumph. A fireball shot from the goat’s gaping mouth. Ivanna screamed and ducked beneath the billow of flames. Anxious, as they ducked into a hiding place in a patch of ferns, Ivanna asked Glee if he knew how to kill a Chimera. Glee’s fearful trembling appeared comically manic, like a royal Harlequin impersonating an extreme emotion. Glee whispered, so the stalking Chimera would not hear. “Killing a Chimera has something to do with one of the heads. I cannot remember.”
“Which bloody head?!” Ivanna shouted. Unlike Glee, she did not attempt to keep her voice down. “There are two!”
Froman and Myria ran in separate directions. Sprinting into the wide meadow of thistles, Myria kicked purple flowers into the air in flee. Froman bellowed, warning her not to run in an exposed area. Chasing Myria, the Chimera galloped through the meadow, uprooting grass and thistles violently. Panicked, Myria climbed a tall mahogany tree. The Chimera lunged at the tree. With an effortless push, she bent the trunk.
“Please, do not!” Myria begged as the Chimera cornered her, licking its fury chops.
“Ooh, I do love being back in the Realm of Living,” the Chimera said. “I so missed prey begging for its life. It was not the same in the Death Realm.” Forepaws held Myria’s shoulders securely to the ground. “Hmm, there is no abundance of meat on you,” the Chimera observed, discouraged looking over the much smaller Myria, top to bottom. “No matter, I am sure sustenance from you will provide energy to chase down your three delicious friends!” A forked, serpent tongue flickered in and out of her mouth as the three rows of sharp teeth descended toward Myria.
Instinctively, Glee sprung from behind the ferns, pulling the crossbow from his shouldered bag. The arrow struck the Chimera in her side. Groaning in pain, she was not crippled. Promptly as the arrow hit, the thistle pasture became a battlefield. Defending their handmaiden friend, Glee, Ivanna and Froman charged through the field, weapons drawn. Without warning, Chliste rematerialized behind the beast. Everyone else startled in their footsteps. Promptly, the Golem waved his hand and transformed a single uprooted thistle beside the Chimera. It extended into a long-bladed saber, so sharp it sliced several other flowers from their stems. Wasting no time, Chliste seized the saber and leapt at the Chimera. One blow, the goat head aback the monster was severed. Blood spewed volcanically. The appendage emitted one life-draining bleat as it soared several meters overhead, landing a distance away, like a thrown discus. With a whimper, the Chimera froze. Slowly, she collapsed on her side, eyes blankly staring into a mass of purple thistles, indisputably dead.
“Only way to kill Chimera is sever the goat’s head!” Chliste informed. Dropping the saber, it reverted back to a tiny thistle. It looked like a wounded soldier returning home from battle. Bloodstains only distinguished it from the rest.
Others all glared at Chliste. “You chose a convenient time to vanish, Chliste!” Ivanna shouted. “We were almost killed for food!”
“I was observing how you handled the situation,” Chliste explained. “Intending to cross into the Death Realm, you will be surrounded by vengeful creatures such as that Chimera. Many have not walked the surface of our world for many centuries. I was impressed.” He looked at Myria. “I intervened only when I saw you truly needed assistance. I did not wish to see you harmed.”
Froman stared at Chliste, with a bewildered expression. “Chliste,” he said, cautiously. “Was that… empathy I heard?”
Despite Froman’s words, Chliste said urgently “You four must prepare. This Chimera possesses a life force sufficient to carry you into the Death Realm. I can sense that her soul is composing, similar to ghosts, spirits and specters.” Chliste raised his hands, spreading them across the quartet. “This spell is very strong, and quite intricate. Attaching your physical presence onto a departing spirit’s energy is profound magic. Brace yourselves.” He uttered the enchantment. “Leanuint Teorann Spiorad Gabhail!” Instantly, everything surrounding them changed appearance.
A peculiar fuzzy luster encapsulated the world. Everything felt distant, apart from the four of them. Ivanna felt as if her form was compressing. Chliste’s voice sounded like a distant echo, although his blurry profile stood close by. “I suggest you follow the Chimera’s energy into the Realm. Once you cross the veil, abandon it as fast as possible. Since I cannot accompany you, remember to say these words when ready to detach the bond from her spirit: Banna Sos. Normally only a sorcerer can perform such magic, but in the Death Realm many rules which we take for granted cease application.”
Ivanna shook her head, looking down at her hands. Unlike everything else which surrounded them, her hands seemed to remain solid. “How do we follow the Chimera’s energy?” she asked, looking to either side of her, between Glee and Froman. The two males also remained with any haze.
Glee pointed. “Over there, by the carcass,” he said.
Beside her blurry, mangled carcass stood an apparition of the Chimera, remaining solid as the four of them. Indistinguishable from her lifeless corpse upon the ground she was, apart from her facial expression, and hue. Redness of her textured lion’s coat and green color of the scales along her tail were now reduced. The beast who minutes before declared that she would eat the four of them manifested almost transparently. Instead of presumptuously voracious, as she handled herself in life-form, this rendition looked bleak, timid, lost. In fact, her face seemed vacant of expression. Even the goat head, reclaiming its place aback the spirit, appeared dispassionate. This was the first time Ivanna observed a freshly expelled spirit, ready for departure to the next realm.
As if beckoned, the Chimera turned her head toward the mouth of the cavern. Slowly shifting her paws, she walked, without a word. Evidentally Chliste’s spell worked. An unseen force pulled them along in the Chimera’s wake. They walked paces behind her, aligned, driven by the invisible pull. The she-beast paid them no attention as she strolled, not realizing that she had company. Her eyes fixated on the cavern, annulled of any expression. As they drew closer to the caverns, even more company than themselves walked alongside the Chimera. These woods were filled with expired souls gravitating toward the cave mouth, previously invisible to them. Nearly all of them were animal souls, as if a massive herd migrated toward a lagoon to drink. These spirits of animals frolicked, flew, crawled, hopped, even galloped. Seldom had Ivanna seen anything like it. Elk, moose, rabbits, squirrels, bears, beavers moved as a single unit, not attempting to attack or avoid one another. A pair of coyotes walked side by side with a doe, gracefully and peaceably.
Glee was the first of them to comment on the spectacle. “Astounding, this is the most majestic, and possibly the most unnatural sight I have beheld.”
“Go forth friends. Remain alert at all times,” Chliste’s echoing voice warned from behind them, with rare encouragement. “This is no sanctuary. It is more cause for vigilance.” Ivanna saw his already hazy appearance dissipate into the air out of the corner of her eye. Ivanna and company approached the gaping cave with hundreds of dead animal spirits. Blackness which would transfer them into a plane precious few ever returned from.
Crossing the veil was much swifter than Ivanna imagined. Rather than into a stalactite lined corridor, or labyrinth of passageways, the entryway of the cave simply led to a wide, bleak expanse of land. Trees, sky, even mountains in the distance looked exactly the same as they would in their plane, against a backdrop of twilight. Entirety of the Death Realm, upon first glance, was doused in the same reduced shades of color which the Chimera appeared in. Everything was solid to them however, unlike within their own reality. Mouth agape in astonishment, Ivanna imagined how scholars at the University in the capital would feel about this. Once they breeched the veil which Ivanna, Froman would be assuming role of navigator. When they fully entered the Realm, the initial factor which Ivanna noticed, was the complete lack of wind. The atmosphere was as still as a statue.
“Is there air in this Realm?” Ivanna asked Froman.
Froman looked at her in exasperation. “Princess, what possible use would occupants of this Realm have for air?!”
“How will we survive?” Myria asked, frantically.
“Settle down,” Froman told her. “Although we are alive, while in this Realm, excluding distinguishing components, for intents and purposes, we are dead, as well.”
“Wait… Chliste killed us?!” Myria shouted, as they were dragged along by the Chimera, momentarily without notice.
Impatiently Froman barked. “No, he simply converted our physicality. His spell reduced our density to temporarily reflect those of departed souls. We are incognito.”
If not so bleak, the appearance of the Death Realm would have been breathtaking. The Chimera female continued, in the direction of a large crowd scattered around the trees to their left. Dragged along, they almost neglected to sever the tie. “Uh, Banna Sos!” Glee shouted. Like snapping fishing line, they were broken free of their transportation. The Chimera stood amongst the diverse group of spirits, coming to stop beside another Death Realm resident, an ice troll. The she-beast resumed stationary stance, and vacant stare, interchangeably from this large crowd. This consisted of several men, and women, elves, dwarves, trolls. Ivanna even saw a young boy, and an ogre, nearly as tall as the tree which he stood beside. Like the Chimera, they appeared mundane, without direction.
“What is this?” Glee asked, in fascination. The elderly elf woman whom he stared into the eyes of did not acknowledge him, not as much as blink.
“Precursor of what lies ahead,” remarked Froman. Across a dank pasture, they encountered an unsettling spectacle. Expansive as an ocean a crowd of souls extended beyond. No end to the mass of moving heads was visible from where they stood, shy of the mountains. Not a single blade of Death Realm grass was left exposed. All crushed under feet. Aimlessly they walked, almost all speaking. However, no conversations transpired. Every one performed private soliloquy. “These are The Wayward,” Froman explained. “Individuals lost thus far. Hence, they manifest near the veil. These are the recently dead spirits, essentially in shock. Eventually some recover, and venture deeper within the confines of the Realm. Now, they are lost, and numb. They have not acknowledged their death. Some never will.” Ivanna noticed gory details. A young dwarf nearby had an arrow shaft jutting out from the base of his skull. Another creature was unrecognizable due to sever blackened burns from head to feet. Like a commander briefing a legion, Froman prepared them. “To procure the Manticore blood, we must venture deeper. Manticore have been dead for centuries, and thus dwell in the bowels. We must breech the Wayward. It will not be a pleasant trek, I warn you.”
Leave a Reply.