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.”
Within the threshold of the Death Realm, Froman prepared his coterie for the Wayward. Standing at the edge of the vast writhing sea of distraught souls, he pontificated. “Walking through the Wayward will be rather pitiful, saddening, and unnerving.” He pointed backward. “Remember those poor, stabilizing souls? These are those who surpassed, or beginning to. Wayward have begun regaining composure, but lack guidance or comprehension. They have started to accept that they are dead, but do not understand where they are. As they process, they sporadically wander, calling for deceased loved ones, asking one another what it means. My advisory is not to address them. Ignore them as we pass. Anything we can say will only befuddle them further. Let us make haste.”
Entrance through the Wayward was unsettling. Myria squirmed as she walked. Glee grunted. Nobody attempted to harm them however. It was a solid mass forged from loss. Thousands roamed aimlessly. Not one of them appeared knackered. With no destination, all of these dead elves, dwarves, men, goblins and so forth moved in a continuous random rotation. Icy grip of a hand grasped Ivanna’s arm. She gasped. A wide-eyed Guardsman stared at her, wearing colors of the Mactor province, a gaping gash in his chest. “Please Milady,” the dead Guardsman spoke desperately. “Nobody will answer. Have you seen my brother, Ignal? He was killed in a mining accident long ago. I want to find my brother.”
Out of compassion, Ivanna shook her head apologetically, gently pushing the Guardsman’s hand away. “No, I am sorry… I do not know Ignal.”
The Guardsman’s eyes wandered, as he walked past in a daze again. “Thank you for answering,” he said.
Fearfully, Myria remained near Froman at the front of their formation, as they navigated through the Wayward. “Where do we find the Manticore?” Myria asked Froman.
Glaring impatiently, Froman reacted with sarcasm. “Track down the local census-taker and inquire as to where… Wait, we cannot do that. There is no governmental structure in this Realm, only unpredictability and fear!” Irritably, he kicked a Wayward imp out of his way. “Manticore could be anywhere in this plane. I guarantee, since they were exterminated centuries ago, that they are much deeper into the realm, far beyond the Wayward.”
Nonchalantly, Myria retreated from Froman, leaving Glee to walk next to him. She returned to Ivanna’s side. The latter remained chilled by the look of that Guardsman. “Froman’s embitterment is becoming heightened, is it not?”
Ivanna shrugged. “I think he is just focused. This is as much his goal as it is ours. Follow behind Glee. He is getting far ahead.”
Carefully pushing through some mumbling, sobbing spirits, Ivanna led the way toward the reddish fabric she believed to be the back of Glee’s Enforcer tunic. It was not. Catching up to the moving garment, she and Myria saw it was a loincloth covering nether-regions of a Wayward ogre. The handmaiden and the Enforcer stood, looking side to side. Neither of them saw Glee or Froman, only solid walls of unfamiliar, stoic faces. Half of their party was nowhere in sight. Frantically they called their names, to not response. “We have been separated,” fretted Myria, biting her finger, gazing at lost dead.
Urgently, they chose to follow the skyward twilight in the general direction which they ventured. With relief, they saw a break in the crowd. Nearly at the end of the mass, Ivanna was surprised to see a familiar likeness. “Hult, is that you?” Ivanna called. The deceased manservant from Palace Dli stood by the edge of The Wayward. That gray-bristled mustache was distinguishable.
As they approached, Hult was perplexed. “Princess Ivanna, is it really you?” he grasped her arms. They embraced. “I did not dare believe it for a moment. Understand I have been walking around this place for some time. It has merely been us two. I hallucinate that you, your father, or even your sisters are among these faces… I do not understand… Why are you dead? What happened?” The loyal caretaker appeared concerned.
“No Hult, Myria and I are not dead,” explained Ivanna. “We needed to gain access for…” Trailing off her explanation, Hult’s words resonated with her. “What did you mean us two?”
Reluctantly, Hult turned and indicated a human woman on the outskirts of the Wayward. Until now, no smiling face was visible in the Death Realm. Levelheaded and patient, she knelt, helping a dead sprite the size of a rabbit regain control of its tiny feet. It was Neekena. Speechless, Ivanna had never been consumed by so much awe. “M-mother,” she croaked lamely, approaching. Neekena did not give Ivanna a second glance, seeming to not recognize her daughter.
“Give her a moment,” whispered Hult. “When one has been dead some time, they forget components of their life, sometimes crucial parts.”
As she approached, Ivanna’s long-deceased mother stared, blinking her eyes, like embers flickering in a fireplace. “Oh, uh, Ivanna,” she said, smiling. “Yes, you are my oldest daughter, Ivanna.” Tone suggested she just barely recollected the name of a very casual acquaintance. Taken aback, Ivanna was not expecting this type of reception. “Forgive me. I was trying to help this poor thing.” Steadied on its feet, the sprite rejoined the Wayward. “I was philanthropic in life. And I remain so in death. Sometimes I console lost souls, giving comfort. Unfortunately, it is nothing to be forced.”
“Mother, Father has been poisoned,” Ivanna was reluctant to tell her mother. Given the situation it seemed proper.
“Walden?” asked Neekena. “My beloved Walden is here?!” Expectantly, she looked around.
Ivanna shook her head. “No, he still lives, he is just very ill. We have reason to believe Hemmy poisoned him.”
“Hemmy?” Neekena repeated. Confusion rather than shock was in her expression. “Hemmy… That name is familiar to me.”
“Your youngest daughter,” Ivanna said, diplomatically. “She was born three years before your death, mother.”
Embers of familiarity flickered in her eyes again. Neekena nodded. “You mean the baby. Yes, I have very distinct memories. I have been attempting to recall her name for a long time. Yes, Hemmy, that was it.” Whistling, she resumed tending to the souls charitably. Barely looking up, she escorted the bewildered soul of an old goblin toward the group. “Poisoned Walden,” Neekena sighed. “I would gamble upbringing by royal nannies contributed that,” she said. “It is not the same for a child with the absence of a mother.” She continued her attempts to speak with individual souls, as if unfettered by this news.
Dumbfounded at her laconic mother, Ivanna looked at Hult. “She seemed so… uncaring,” she said, feeling a tear. Immediately she fought it back into her tear ducts.
Hult sighed and patted her back. “Princess Ivanna, try and comprehend,” he said tenderly. “Your mother has little reason to feel empathetic, because she is no longer alive. Simply, she does not view such living conflicts as her issue any longer. Liken it to a fish jumping out from the deepest, inaccessible depths of the ocean, informing you his school is under attack by a shark. You do not know this fish. His school under siege does not affect you. There is little which you could do to help. It is not Neekena’s fault. Death is a vicissitude, as is life. Souls reshape and readjust continuously.”
Not abiding that rationale, nor accepting the analogy, Ivanna retorted. “Difference here, is I was never a fish. My mother was once among the living.”
“Perhaps that comparison was inadequate,” Hult admitted, nodding.
Reminding herself of her endeavor, Ivanna asked. “Hult, do you know of Manticore? We need them to save father.”
“Manticore have a colony,” Hult said. “They do not accept outsiders normally. It is a strenuous walk, through those trees. I estimate it is equivalent to a six-hour hike. However there is little conception of time here.” He looked blankly up at the bleak sky. “Twilight is perpetual. Along the way, be weary of The Spirit. He can be unfriendly.”
“Who is The Spirit?” Ivanna asked of Hult.
“That is what many long-dead souls are accustomed to calling him,” Hult disambiguated. “Others, such as the Chimera, call him, and the others, Creator. In the living realm, we referred to them as the Warlocks.”
“Did you say others?” Myria asked, gasping. “Do you mean all Warlock dictators are in this realm?” She looked around frantically.
“As I understand, that was how the Death Realm was created,” Hult said. “Founders created a separate dimension of existence in which to banish their foes.”
“Then why did deceased souls begin arriving?” Ivanna asked, looking at them surrounding them.
“I am uncertain,” her deceased servant admitted. “My best assumption is some allure. Warlocks basked in death’s glory, and added to its essence. Therefore the dead were drawn to here with them. Good luck to you.”
Quite a ways west along the perimeter of the Wayward from the discouraging mother/daughter reunion, Glee and Froman stood at the edge of the forest, foregoing their movements. After separation from Ivanna and Myria by the dense crowd, Glee was irate. “You lost them! How did that happen?”
Glee paced in anxiety, while Froman sat on a boulder, lounging in the twilight. “Enforcer, I was drafted to navigate this expedition, not to supervise it,” he rationed. “Fear not, they are resourceful. They will find their way to us.”
Red in the face, Glee advanced on Froman. “Fault lies with you, you deranged, mangy son of a-,”
Glee was silenced as Froman leered and growled. Two canine fangs descended from his upper jaw. “I warn you, Enforcer. I am unsure what happens exactly when a living being is killed in the Death Realm. But I am curious.”
“I apologize, I was out of line,” murmured Glee, recoiling. “Reminds me something has been on my mind. I did not want to voice it in front of Ivanna, but… Even if we are able to find the same Manticore which dispensed the poison that crippled Walden, can souls even bleed?”
Froman sighed. “Honestly Enforcer, I do not know,” he admitted, shaking his head. “That was not high on my list of inquiries upon my first visit. I imagine that they produce a facsimile of blood.”
Unexpectedly, a voice called out. “Well, I have long awaited Froman of Carvin’s death.”
From a clearing in the trees, a young man with unkempt hair approached them. Mark of the Kinship displayed on his shoulder. The youthful Wolf strutted with a defiant arrogance, and unfaltering sneer, strange for a deceased soul. He and Froman stared at each other with mutual distaste. “Hello Kunnar,” Froman said with a short, almost sarcastic nod. “It did not occur to me that I would happen upon you in here. I suppose you have alerted the rest of the dead Kinship to my arrival.”
Kunnar scoffed. “Please, you and your brother can take choke on your puny Kinship. Since death, I found stake in a more practical, better governed society, with a mission statement that makes The Kinship’s look like a farmhand’s chore list. You are indirectly affiliated with them actually, Froman. They knew your father quite well.”
“The Warlock Loyalists,” Froman sneered, lowly.
Kunnar pursed his lips, smugly. “We usually say The Loyalists in this realm. It is a prominent group. They have recruiters ready all around.”
“Wolves walk among The Warlock Loyalists in the Death Realm?” Froman was astonished.
Folding his arms, Kunnar furrowed his brow. “See we are all members of a unified category of souls in here, Froman, quite bipartisan. Spend enough time in here, and for most, the labels of being human, Wolf, dwarf, or goblin shed.” Cockily, Kunnar stood close to Froman, and leered into his eyes. “When the Warlocks retake the living realm, all will gather in unity, as we souls.”
With a snatch, so fast it made Glee gasp, Froman seized Kunnar’s throat. The latter gagged and coughed as he was lifted by the neck. Froman growled. “You have been dead for quite some time. I am certain that you know where we can find the Manticore.”
Gasping, Kunnar looked up at Froman. “Manticore, what could you want with those mongrels?”
“Where are the Manticore?” snarled Froman, tightening his grip on the younger Wolf’s throat.
Remarkably unafraid, Froman’s former acquaintance sniggered. “If you recall you have already killed me once before,” he said, looking down at the hand which was grasping his throat. “It seems wasteful effort to attempt it again, here in the land of dead.” Releasing the throat, Froman continued to leer. Rubbing his neck, Kunnar indicated the trees, eastward. “Through that forest, the Manticore have claimed an entire valley. Us others in the Death Realm know of it. Deep-rooted trees will lead to a cliff overlooking their claim.”
Before he and Glee followed his directions, Froman accosted Kunnar further. Wolf claws extended from his fingertips. He dragged the long, jagged, claw of his index finger across Kunnar’s throat. The young Wolf howled in pain. Glee watched a trickle of blood, a shade closer to black than the typical crimson, dripped from the small gash in his throat. Froman turned to Glee, revealing the streak of black blood on his hand. “That answers our question about bleeding souls. Shall we proceed Enforcer? With Ivanna’s resources, it seems possible she and Myria have already ventured beyond this.”
On his feet, Kunnar wiped some blood onto his own hand, looking down at it. As Froman and Glee walked away from him, he yelled. “Froman, if you wanted to know whether or not souls in the Death Realm bleed, I could have answered,” he called after them. “As you correctly indicated, I have been dead for a while, and have you to thank for that! Clearly you still live. I dare say, this provides you with leverage in whatever this venture is?” Maniacally he laughed behind them as Froman and Glee continued walking without a glance back.
“Who was that, Froman?” Glee asked. He had been hesitant, but his curiosity prevailed.
“A member of The Kinship, in life,” Froman spoke, keeping his gaze forward.
Glee nodded. “Was he among those executed by the archers after your Legion Assault?”
Froman closed his eyes, and shook his head. “He was dead long before that,” he replied slowly.
Confused, Glee cocked his brow, walking with Froman. “I assumed when he said that you were responsible for his death that was what he was referencing.”
Froman glanced at Glee. “Yes, you assume a good deal, Enforcer… If you must know, when he proclaimed me blameful for his demise, he meant literally. Kunnar was loyal to my brother, Lucano. When The Kinship polarized between us, it did in spirit, before it actually parted ways. Even before then, Kunnar was a cocky renegade with his own agenda. I could not have that in my Kinship. So I thrust a silver spike through his chest.” Neither of them said another word for quite a while as they progressed in the direction Kunnar articulated.
The path cutting through the wood, as the slain Wolf stated, delivered them to a high cliff. Before arrived upon it, their route was obscured. A bellowing growl echoed and a large beast pounced onto the path. It was twice the size of the Chimera they encountered before entering the Death Realm. Teeth, claws and yellow eyes caused Glee to cower. “What on Fathach is that?!” Glee yelled, staring at the fearsome monster as it spread a pair of bat-like wings.
“That is a Manticore,” Froman said.