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.”
Fire from the Afterlife
Massive lion’s paws struck ground as the Manticore leapt from atop the boulder. Larger than Glee anticipated, it towered over he and Froman. Its humanoid face was unnerving. Extending from the small of its back was a stinging appendage, like a gigantic scorpion tail. The stinger was retracted, but flexed, anticipating provocation. Clearing his throat, Glee attempted at communication. “What is your name?”
Perplexed, the Manticore stared upon him. “Name?” it repeated. “Names are for spectators. I have no name.”
Befuddled by this response, Glee was enlightened by Froman. “Manticores were purely crafted for recreational battling. Overlords did not assign names, only numbers and rankings.”
“Are you a male, or female?” asked Glee. It was difficult to judge from the face, several feet above him.
Curling its stinger, in an apparent gesture of confusion, the Manticore replied “My kind was not created for procreation. We have no discernible gender.”
Unconcerned with petty introductions, Froman extended his hand with the uncorked vile of collected venom. “We come peaceably, on a quest. Do you recognize this venom, Manticore? I know your kind can identify the essence of others.”
Observantly, the beast sniffed the vile. “I do. That poison belongs to my brother.”
Froman spoke to Glee. “Do not scrutinize that, Glee. He overstates. All Manticore were brethren, such as my Kinship.” Mistrust shot from his eyes like arrows, leering at the Manticore. “They were also masterful manipulators.”
“That trait is specialized for combat,” the Manticore said with pride. “It was factored into our design after the Chimera. Creators determined flaws present in the Chimera derived from their gender, leading to ability and desire to mate. When the creators formulated us, they discarded these deterring components of our credo.”
“I hope you can forgive a simple observation,” Glee said cautiously, looking up at the tall beast. “It seems that you have a bit of a superiority complex.”
Lowering its head, the Manticore flared its nostrils and narrowed its eyes. Fearful he had offended the extinct monstrosity, Glee cowered. However, the Manticore simply surveyed them. “Visitors from the realm of living,” it surmised. “The two of you are not dead. I sense this. Keen sense of detection is another gift Manticore possess. Somehow you have entered the world of dead willingly for you quest. While it is not in my nature to be helpful, this intrigues me. I can take you to the Manticore who expelled that venom. Presumably, you need his blood to cure whomever it has infected. That is your quest, yes?”
Under assumption, Froman and Glee approached the trees. Flapping its wings in protest, the Manticore blocked their way. “Allow me to lead. Others are much more apt to tear your souls to shreds, for the sheer fun of it than listen to you as I have.”
“How many of you are there?” asked Glee.
“Dozens, nearly one hundred,” the Manticore replied with its back turned. Bat wings stood folded at its side as it led the way through the trees.
Froman whispered to Glee behind his hairy hand. “We should follow it. Since you and I are not real souls, we would actually die if confronted by the rest of the colony.”
Glee chuckled and attempted to make light of the situation. “Our souls would not have far to travel if we were to die her.” Froman scowled, and followed the Manticore. Glee caught up to him. “You do not find joy in many areas, do you Froman?” he asked with a furrowed brow. “Collected tension seems in need of release.”
“Are you, a healer?” Froman grumbled, eyeing the Manticore’s swaying poison-tipped tail cautiously.
Glee realized something. “You called me Glee a moment ago,” he said to Froman, as they followed the Manticore.
Froman shrugged. “Your name, is it not?”
“Yes, it is the first time you addressed me by it. You have only referred to me as “Enforcer” since you and I met.”
Grinding his rotting teeth, Froman muttered. “Do not scrutinize that either, Enforcer.”
As they walked at the Manticore’s side, it looked down at Froman with its yellow eyes, in a similar way Glee tended to look at a set of footprints, or arrowhead during an investigation. “I sense you are a Wolf. I have always admired the fearlessness of your species. Legacy of perseverance and overcoming oppression you established.”
Confused, Froman inquired. “You know of Wolf Folk? I find that odd… The Chimera we encountered previously found my scent outlandish.”
The Manticore tilted its head in a shrug, ruffling its lion mane. “This Chimera must have been a breeding mother, confined in her life. Never saw the inside of a battle arena, I suppose. Kismet, here we are.” In a large clearing, they came upon a primitive structure. Walls made of tree trunks and branches stood lopsided, unhindered due to lack of wind in the Death Realm. Grass within the framework was torn up, and lined with footprints. “What is this layout?” asked Glee.
“It is our amphitheater,” announced the Manticore, proudly. “My kind constructed it ourselves upon banishment to this place.”
“Sensible,” Froman said with a nod, surveying the arena. “All Manticore knew in life was combat for sport. Only stands to reason they would continue it in this realm. But I do not understand. What have Wolves to do with battle arenas?”
“You do not know?” the Manticore seemed genuinely surprised. “More time must have transpired among the living than I thought. Wolf, you do not know that your kind was among those compelled to do battle with others for purposes of viewership in the arenas? Once Wolf Folk were derived by fluke, it was decided by the creators to experiment with their strength and abilities. Wolves from the Hills were relocated by the hundreds, to engage in combat with Chimera, Griffins, and Manticore before audience.”
Thoroughly appalled, Froman glared up at the Manticore. “Wolves were forced to battle to death, for the recreation of the warlocks?!” Glee heard a growl in Froman’s voice as he spoke. For egomaniacal, headstrong chauvinists such as Froman, passage of time had little bearing on such travesties. Tremors of rage writhed Froman. “Did you take Wolf lives on the floors of an arena?” he asked the Manticore.
The Manticore shook its head. “No, that is precisely why I have brought you to the amphitheatre. That venom is my own.” It jabbed his tail downward, indicating the vile. “Opportunity stands for you here, Wolf.” With his long stinging appendage, he gestured at the arena. “I wish to make a wager. In centuries among the living, I fought many foes in coliseums such as this, and prevailed. Griffins, Chimeras, even dragons, I was pitted against many, and always emerged victorious. Since exile, we Manticore primarily fight one another. As you can imagine, this becomes humdrum. I have yet to combat one adversary. Although a champion, I was never given occasion to combat a Wolf’s battle malice. I challenge you, Wolf. Battle in this amphitheater, satisfy my craving and you shall have my blood.”
Glee gasped. “Froman, you heard him. He is a champion. What if he kills you?”
Ignoring Glee, Froman stripped off his tattered robes, and dropped them to the ground. With triumph, he stepped into the amphitheatre with the Manticore. “Mortal Froman!” called Glee. “You are mortal! He is not.”
On either end of the amphitheatre, the combatants stood. A sly, eager expression fixated on the Manticore’s visage, like an anxious collector eyeing an artifact for his acquisition. Flexing its claws against the soil, the Manticore announced the terms. “Befitting of your endeavor, first blood drawn shall declare the victor. We bellow upward to the sky to commence, as in the days of old.”
Jaws compressing with determination, Froman nodded to show he understood. Extending his arms, he balled his fists and closed his eyes. Froman transformed. Bones cracked and quaked as they reassembled. Bodily hair, brown as tree bark engulfed his body. Shoulders broadened. Spine arched, as hair extended from his back, and Froman grew in height. Growling became more animalistic, as Froman’s unshaven man face elongated into a snout. Yellowed teeth were replaced by white, spearheads of fangs. Glee had never seen his entire Wolf form. It was horrid. Upon reaching full form, Froman howled upward at the twilight.
Initiating the fight, the Manticore lunged, across the amphitheater, claws and teeth extended, bat wings spread for leverage. With a vicious swat with his clawed forepaw, Froman deflected the attack and galloped to the side. Propelling himself forward from his hind legs, he leapt onto the airborne Manticore as it recomposed itself. With roars and grunts, the two beasts crashed onto the ground, pawing at one another. Glee watched helplessly from the side as Froman pinned the Manticore, then the latter overtook him. Jaws snapped. Torn clumps of red and brown hair littered the arena, but no blood yet. Forcing Froman off, with a mighty thrust, the Manticore utilized its arsenal. A stream of flame billowed from its jaws as it roared. Although Froman dodged the fire, the far wall of the amphitheatre caught flame. It spread slowly along the wooden framework as Froman gained the upper hand again, forcing the Manticore on its back. Through the smoke, Glee saw with horror the maneuver the Manticore enacted. Like a snake cornering a chipmunk, the long stinger slithered from under the dead beast and around Froman’s left flank. Unnoticed by Froman, desperately trying to keep his foe in a stranglehold, the stinger took position, and aimed for his back. “Lookout, Froman!” Glee yelled. It was too late. The sharp tip of the stinger sank into Froman’s back. Collapsing to his knees, Glee yelled “No!”
Again and again, the stinger struck, plunging into the Wolf’s back. Although Froman grunted in mild annoyance, no blood flowed. Glee realized the hide beneath his companion’s fur did not seem penetrated. Impatiently reaching behind him, Froman grasped the stinger with his paw. Pulling it over his shoulder, he brandished the appendage in the face of the puzzled Manticore. “Not silver,” growled Froman’s voice, indicating the stinger tip. With both forepaws, he used the Manticore’s own stinger as a rope, and pressed it under the larger beast’s chin, holding it to the ground by the neck. Froman slashed his jagged claws across his throat. Blood spilled. With a howl, the Manticore submitted.
Snarling in the Manticore’s face, Froman said “Leverage was not in your favor this time, champion. Death is inevitable. Life is worth the fight.”
Hand coated in the Manticore blood, Froman leapt over a portion of the arena wall, falling to ashes. Resuming his hominid form, and reeking of singed fur, Froman approached Glee. “Here, mortality is a talisman,” he told Glee. “Possession of life provides me with more to lose. Above all else, loss is something I cannot tolerate. Give me an empty vile Enforcer.”
From one of the many pockets of his tunic, Glee retrieved a specimen sized vile. “I had forgotten. Silver is your only weakness. He was never a threat without it.”
“Fire may have done more damage with better marksmanship,” stated Froman, surveying the flaming inferno surrounding the wounded Manticore. His palm emptied blood into the vile, which Glee corked. “Let us go collect Ivanna and Myria, and be rid of this realm.” Glee felt he had not heard a wiser suggestion in days.
As Froman and Glee prepared to depart the clearing, they halted. Ears perked at the sound of many approaching footstops. Trees trembled. One by one, Manticores emerged from the woods. Over a dozen entered the clearing of the amphitheater. Noise from the bloody match must have beckoned them from their colony. The pack of Manticore stomped on the fire engulfing the wooden walls of Froman’s victory scene. A particularly large one gazed upon its whimpering brother. “Champion bleeds.” They turned toward Glee and Froman. Vengeance gleamed in their yellow eyes. “Our treasured amphitheatre is burned. Bandits have taken our champions blood, brethren. Get them!”
“What do we do?” Glee whispered to Froman.
Even in his Wolf form, and with all his mortality, Froman could not combat this many Manticore. He grasped a branch from the ground, ablaze with the Manticore’s flame, thrusting it forward as twelve enraged Manticore closed in. “Run!” Manticore gave them chase.
The enclave of huge beasts in pursuit, Froman and Glee sprinted downhill. The mass of lost souls appeared like a shadow on the landscape. Near the Wayward souls, they saw Ivanna and Myria. “We have the blood. There is no time for an explanation. Run!” Leading the way, Froman carried the flaming torch through the Wayward. Masses of souls fell and jumped to the side, fearful of the fire. Growls and pounding paws followed them. Glancing behind him, Glee saw the Manticore kicking souls and trampling them in their chase. Their makeshift path cut through the dense mass of people, until they finally saw the mountainside. The cave they accessed through seemed to beckon them. Bursts of hot breath from a Manticore directly behind him burned Glee’s neck. All the while, he maintained tight hold on the vile of blood. “Come on!” yelled Froman. He jumped forward toward the cave, holding the torch above his head. Froman shouted the incantation, and the four of them leapt into the mouth of the cave.
They sprawled onto green grass. Midday sun hurt their eyes after adjustment to permeated twilight. Back in the realm of living, they panted, regaining composure. Glee looked vigilantly at the mouth of the cave. No Wayward souls, or bloodthirsty Manticore stood beyond, only darkness. Chliste stood before them, watching them stand and brush themselves off. Ivanna breathed deeply, looking hopefully at Glee. “Blood, you have it?” she gasped.
Nodding, Glee retrieved the crimson vile from his tunic. “Here it is. Back at Dli province, we can remedy your father. He shall be off his deathbed, and back on the throne.” A smile of relief overtook Ivanna. She and Glee embraced.
Shaking himself off, Froman looked at Chliste, who had not said a word. “Care to welcome us back from the dead, Golem?” asked Froman.
The fiery torch Froman wielded at the Manticore lay smoldering on the ground. Chliste surveyed it with fascination. “Seems you bring back more with you than expected,” he said.
“Fire, what of it?” asked Froman.
“Flames of the Death Realm,” Chliste whispered. “Such a thing has never entered our realm. Observe.” He picked up the torch and held the fire to a patch of dry brush. Although the fire touched the brown vegetation, it did not ignite. “Fire from the world beyond,” muttered Chliste, intrigued. “It cannot burn anything in our world. Do you realize what you have managed to carry into our realm, the magical properties it may contain? Embers from this burning tree limb contain potential for the most powerful weapon, perhaps enough to ward off the Warlocks, and their insidious progeny. We shall preserve this.” With a wave of his hand, Chliste encapsulated the fire in a blue transparent orb. It burned within, as if on a mystical candlestick.