Caldera

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1 – Crest Island

Caden felt his age in his legs as he climbed the steps carved into the vertical sides of Crest Island. Twenty years prior he would have ran up the steps, and the awareness of his spent youth rekindled the doubts that had been smoldering since the beginning of his quest.

“The essence of swordsmanship is composure,“ he muttered to himself, between breaths. The fight sometimes went to the strongest, fastest, or toughest, but it almost always went to the one who didn‘t flinch. It was the first thing he had told recruits during training, and it was something that he shouldn‘t have needed to hear again, but the words reminded him that he had a chance, so long as he kept his composure.

The place had lost its glamour since he had made the journey three years past. The steps were now mere steps, carved into the granite walls of the island, and the mist that shrouded the barnacle-like town below was no more meaningful than steam from a kettle. Arkos, who he had once believed to be a god, was in fact a man. The true magic of his last visit had been hope, hope to make peace with his wife who had died while he was away on campaign, hope that had been met only by betrayal. This time his only companions were determination and its tools: a sword that had cost a hundred men their lives to forge and could cut through stone, gauntlets could grasp the sun, and a ring that showed the truth of what was rather than what others desired it to be.

After his last encounter, Caden had ended up at the far side of the world. It had taken him three years to walk and sail back. The thousands of steps that led to the Sanctuary of Arkos wore on him, and as he climbed a certainty grew in him: he would succeed or die. If he failed, he didn’t know what waited for him. If Arkos wasn’t a god, then who was to say that the other religions were any more valid. He continued on, step after step. It would be better to die in uncertainty than to live in falsehood.

At the end of the steps, the top of Crest Island was completely flat, as though it been sliced off by a giant. The rock had been polished smooth and was inlaid with green stone in the shape of a compass rose. Although there was no roof or walls, the wind did not enter and the rain did not fall. Arkos may have been just a man, but he was also more than that, he had absorbed so much power that no enclosed space could contain his swollen essence.

In the middle of the floor was Arkos, white and still as marble. If Caden didn’t know better he might have thought that he was looking at a statue, but in his time walking the world he had learned that Arkos now used his body as a mere anchor. There was no saying where his spirit or mind was at any given moment.

“Have you reconsidered my offer, then?” the statue said.

When Caden‘s wife had died while he was off on a campaign, it had nearly killed him, and when Arkos had offered him a chance to make peace with her, it had renewed him. So Caden had come, and Arkos had shown him his wife but then demanded that Caden lead an army to wipe out every man, woman, and child on the island of Asennos, home of the last of the unbelievers. Caden had refused, and what had followed was unclear, except that he somehow had woken up on the shores of that same land across the ocean.

“No.”

“And why not?” Arkos asked. “You have lost your wife, and even though I gave you the chance to make your peace with her, I can still see the emptiness in you. It is eating away at you, and if you do nothing, it will consume you. Yet in the face of that, you still turn down my offer.”

If Arkos was waiting for an answer, Caden did not notice. Something about the man-god’s words bothered him. Arkos continued to speak.

“You have no family, no holdings. But then again, none of those things would fill the void within you. What I’m offering you is much greater. I will give you glory, should you choose to take it.”

“You killed my wife. You killed Tara,” Caden said, the thought coming out as words before he had the time to even process it. It made too much sense to be false. Arkos needed someone to lead his army, needed Caden. But Arkos knew Caden would not join another campaign if he had anything else to cling to.

“Absurd,” Arkos said.

Caden knew that there was no point in debating the issue with Arkos. He drew his sword as he sprinted towards the man-god in front of him. Arkos was moving, but slowly, putting out his right hand as though to ward off the blow. Caden swung.

It was like hitting an oak tree. The shock reverberated through Caden’s arms, numbing them. Caden’s momentum carried him past Arkos, who had grasped the sword by the blade. He turned around to see it carelessly tossed into the ocean. An unseen force grabbed hold of Caden and stretched him out. The gauntlets were torn from his hands, taking skin with them and pulling his shoulders almost out of their sockets.

“I have faced down armies and leveled mountains, what did you think you were going to accomplish with those trinkets?” he asked.

Caden tried to answer but found himself unable to open his mouth.

“A few centuries ago I might have simply killed you,” Arkos said. Caden felt himself lifted up and back into the air until he was dangling over the edge of the cliff. “Still, I must mark you.”

There was a burning sensation on Caden’s right palm, and he looked down. The pain mounted, growing to a white hot ball of agony, then subsided as the parts of his skin that felt were burned away. When it was done, there was a black compass rose that matched the one Arkos was standing on burned into his hand. He smelled his own burning flesh and retched. He looked away and saw Arkos, who had moved to the cliff’s edge. He could make out faint rays of light against the grey clouds. He looked closer, focusing on them. A burning came from the ring on his left hand, but he ignored it.

The rays of light resolved into golden arcs of energy flowing into Arkos in a thousand unending streams. Caden had no idea where the energy was coming from, but he was mesmerized, the abuse his body was suffering forgotten.

“As for the fall, I don’t know how you survived the first time, but I don’t doubt that you will again,” Arkos said. Caden was so focused on the golden light that he barely heard him.

His attention returned to himself when the edge of the cliff obstructed his view. He fell and fell, through the air and mist, weightless. Soon enough, he hit the foaming water below.

2 – Evenport

The first indication that he wasn’t dead was the smell of brine and the crashing of the waves outside. When he tried to open his eyes, the skin of his face resisted, like leather that had been soaked and left to dry in the sun.

“You’re awake,” a man’s voice said.

Caden managed to get his eyes open a sliver and the light that came through was blinding. He tried to speak, but his mouth and throat felt as though they were coated with sand.

“Here.” The voice had an Assenan accent, but Caden couldn’t think clearly enough to remember what that meant.

Caden felt water being poured into his partially open mouth. He reached out until his hand found the cup, and he drank it all.

“Thank you,” he said. Even with the water, the words still rasped painfully against his throat. His eyes were adjusting to the light, and he could see that he was in a small house. The walls were hung with nets and hooks and fishing gear. He could see someone sitting by the bed, but his vision was too blurry to make him out.

“Thank whatever gods you pray to. When I pulled you out of the water I thought that it was only to bring you ashore to bury you,” the man said.

“I will,” Caden said. He felt his body start to relax and his mind start to drift back into unconsciousness. The cup was taken from his hand.

When he awoke again, he was alone in the house. His skin had gone from stiff to merely painful, and he was able to drink the water that had been left on the table next to him without spilling much.

He wondered how many weeks it had been since his confrontation with Arkos. When he stood up, the crippling weakness in his legs told him that it had been more than a few. He was able to totter over to one of the windows, its corner glazed with frost. The small house was on top of a bluff, and he could see the ocean beyond it. Even the slight exertion had left him lightheaded. He needed food.

The house was composed of a single large room. In the center was a small hearth with a lidded pot resting on top. Sitting down next to the hearth, Caden opened the pot to find a spicy fish stew that had been kept warm by the embers in the hearth. With a bit of work he got the fire going again and soon he was ladling hot stew into a chipped bowl.

The stew was delicious, but it was like rubbing salt on a raw wound. How many times had Tara attempted to make a stew like that, without success? Caden had never said anything, though he suspected that she knew, but had instead focused his attention on the beautiful bowls that she had served it in, the products of her kiln that were as beautiful as anything he had come across in his travels.

When the fisherman returned later in the afternoon, he looked half frozen, his clothes stiff with dried salt and ice. Caden made the man a pot of tea while he cleaned changed into dry clothes.

“Thank you,” the man said. “I never got your name.”

“I’m Caden.”

“Thank you. I’m Avlar.”

“Avlar . . .” It was a traditional Asennan name. “This is Asennos?”

“Yes, about a day’s walk from Evenport. I hope that isn’t a problem,” the man said. Caden noticed that his hand was resting on the knife at his belt.

“Of course not. The Asennan people have treated me with kindness in the past, I bear them no grudge,” Caden said. Avlar relaxed and he brought both hands to the steaming mug of tea.

“Do you fish through the winter?” Caden asked.

“No, but I must fish longer into the winter each year in order to make ends meet. I think that today will probably be the last time I go out this year,” Avlar said. “Which means that you will be spending the next few months here with me. I hope you are in no hurry.”

“I may be in a hurry, but I doubt my body cares. I can barely walk,” Caden said. “Will you have enough food for two?”

“No. But by the time we run low, hopefully you will be well enough to hunt,” Avlar said. His voice was confident, but Caden couldn’t ignore the worry in his eyes.

“I’m sure that I will,” he said. “In the meantime, is there anything I can do? Do you need help with your nets?”

“I won’t be doing any more fishing this year, I don’t think,” Avlar said. The worry spread from his eyes to the rest of his face, the sanity of his guest an open question.

“I meant that perhaps I could help to mend them. My father was a fisherman, I’m sure that with a little practice the knots would come back to me,” Caden said.

For the second time since he had returned from fishing, Avlar relaxed. “Of course.”


“How is it that you bear none of your countrymens’ prejudices?” Avlar asked as he and Caden sat and worked the nets.

Caden didn’t answer immediately, but neither of them was in any hurry, most of the easy conversation topics had been exhausted in the past few weeks. He looked out the window as he thought on how to answer. His hands continued to work on the net in his lap in a pattern from his chilhood that had come back to him with practice. His strength had come back more quickly than he had expected, and with the exception of the silver ring grafted into the index finger on his right hand, he was beginning to feel himself again.

“For nearly two decades, I was a Dragoon,” he said. Avlar stopped, his entire body frozen as he stared at Caden from across the hearth. “And yes, I have killed many of your countrymen. I never questioned what I was doing, and for that I apologize. That all changed when I returned from a campaign to find that my wife, Tara, had died of a fever while I had been gone. I grieved and prayed, and Arkos came to me. He told me that if I went to him at Crest Island, he would allow me to make my peace with Tara.

“When I arrived, however, I learned that all he really wanted was for me to lead a force into your land. He had shown me a mere illusion of Tara, and I was tired of fighting. I refused and he sent me away in disgrace.“

“But the invasion, it never came, is that because of you?“ Avlar asked.

“No, the invasion will still come. He is raising a massive army, bigger than any I have ever seen, which will take time. Still, I would not be surprised if they were on your shores this spring.“

Avlar‘s face drained of all color. “Is there nothing we can do?“

Caden shook his head in response. “He will destroy your armies and dissolve your governments, replacing them with his own. The people he will leave alone.“

Avlar started to stand up. “We need to warn them, we–“

Caden cut him off. “I tried. After I left, I started to think for the first time in my life, and I realized how wrong everything was. I went back to Arkos, determined to change things. The ideas of your land had invaded my thoughts, and I began to suspect that he was no true god. I went to fight him, only to learn that even though he wasn‘t a god, he was still incredibly powerful. He swatted me like a fly.

“I don‘t know how I survived, but I did, somehow. And I washed ashore in Evenport. I told your people what was coming, but no one believed me. So I set off again to collect things that would make me powerful enough to defeat him. Things out of legend and song, making my way back to him as I did so. It took me more than three years to make it back there and when I did, the result wasn’t much different. The artifacts that I had collected were of no use. He branded me and cast me into the sea again, and that was when you found me. He may not be a god, but I am not sure that he can be stopped, either.” Caden held up his hand, showing the compass rose scar that Avlar had been too polite to ask about.

Avlar didn’t respond, and there was silence as the two men worked on the nets.


The next morning Avlar was up before Caden, frying potato cakes on the hearth. Caden went to get a net to work on while he ate, but Avlar stopped him, gesturing for him to sit.

“You’ve told me your story, now listen to mine,” the man said after Caden sat down. “No doubt you wonder why my people have been fighting him all these years, when there is so little chance of victory.”

“The question had occurred to me, yes,” Caden said.

“Six generations ago, Arkos came here. He had singlehandedly subjugated most of the rest of the countries at that point. He was strong. We denied him, and he killed the messengers. In those days, Asenn was much stronger, and we had heard what had happened to the other countries. We were determined not to repeat their mistakes, sending small forces against him. Instead, we formed an army, every man who could bear arms, and we attacked him.”

“And he destroyed that army, right?”

“Yes. To a man.” Avlar slid a pair of the cakes off of the hearth and onto a wooden plate. Caden took it from him and drizzled a tiny bit of honey over them.

“What is your point, then?” Caden asked in between bites. “To show how brave your people are?”

“No. My point is that where you are from, the only side of the story that is told is that Arkos destroyed an army. Here, we know that we almost won. We nearly killed him.”

“How can you be sure? That must have been 150 years ago. How do you know that your near victory wasn’t just a story that your ancestors made up to assuage the pain of having lost so many?”

“Because my ancestors were able to tell the story. After he destroyed the army, why didn’t he finish the job and take the country? Why didn’t he come back? We were weak, even weaker than we are now, if we did not nearly kill him, you and I would not be having this discussion today.”

Caden leaned back and ate the rest of his cakes. “I’m not sure how much that helps, I don’t have an army, if you hadn’t noticed,” he said after he had finished eating.

“No, you most certainly do not.” Avlar laughed. “And I don’t know if the story has any use for you. But there is a good reason that Arkos would use an army to conquer Asenn rather than do it himself, even if we do not know what it is.”

“Maybe so,” Caden said, but despite his noncommittal words, he began thinking of how he would make it back to Crest Island.

If you enjoyed this, you can find the full version on AmazonSmashwordsBarnes and NobleSonyApple, and most other ebook stores.