Tia

 

“Prince Edward kept a hand on the hilt of his sword and slowly crossed the room, wary of the cracks in the mortar and stone as he approached three chalices,” Father read. “Each of them sat atop a pillar older than the cracked walls, as though the tower was built to surround them.

“Rays of light poured through the open window and made visible the wafting clouds of dust. They swirled together to form a granular sphere where the Raven reappeared. It waved its wings gracefully as the conductor from the eye of the storm until the dust fell to the floor, and then it perched itself on the pillar beside the chalice in the center. Prince Edward nodded at it, having known that he’d see him again before his quest was over.

“‘Where’s the behemoth? I was told that it’s guarding Maiden Eden’s room.’ Prince Edward pointed his sword toward the door at the far end of the room.”

Tia felt Father’s eyes on her even though his face didn’t leave the wrinkled pages. No matter what the fairytale, she knew that he was reading just for her. Her brother, Aaric, yawned loudly and muttered the occasional criticism. He was too busy playing with his figurines to be bothered with a child’s tale.

“‘There is a test you must pass before you can rescue the maiden, but it’s not one that requires a shield and sword,’” the Raven replied. “‘Before you are the three Chalices of Eden. One of these chalices contains a key that will unlock the final door to the tower and rescue Maiden Eden from her prison. The other two chalices contain a poison that will kill the drinker instantly.’

“Each of the chalices was made of solid gold and crafted in similar detail. Other than residing on separate pillars, the chalices bore no distinction between them. ‘How do I figure out which one holds the key?’ he asked the Raven.

“‘Each of them represents a heroic quality,’ the Raven explained. ‘The chalice on the left represents selflessness. A selfless hero is one that is willing to sacrifice themselves to save another. The chalice in the middle represents courage. A courageous hero is brave enough to take on any task at hand no matter how insurmountable their odds may be.’

“Prince Edward nodded, thinking that both selflessness and courage were strong qualities that a hero would possess. Choosing between them would be difficult. His eyes then landed on the chalice to his right. ‘And what does that chalice represent?’

“‘The chalice on the right? That chalice represents opportunity.’

“‘Opportunity?’ Prince Edward raised an eyebrow. ‘How is being opportunistic a heroic quality?’

“‘An opportunistic hero is one that’s wise enough to choose a path to success when it becomes available to them. When opportunities arise, a hero must decide which of these paths will better benefit him. The power of choice is perhaps the greatest power that any of us can behold,’ the Raven explained.”

Tia’s ears perked up through her dirty brown hair. She scooted closer to the edge of the bed and Father’s voice.

“Prince Edward found himself drawn to the Chalice of Opportunity, believing that the Raven hinted that it could contain the key to Maiden Eden’s chambers. He approached it gallantly, free of any hesitation or concern. The Raven remained perched on the center pillar, its expression unchanged as the prince made his choice. Prince Edward grasped the Chalice of Opportunity in his mighty hand and toasted ‘to Maiden Eden and all of her beauty’ before feeling the cold liquid contents on his lips. He slurped the liquid down quickly and waited for the key to land on his tongue.

“‘The Chalice of Opportunity is there to pose a question,’ the Raven said. It watched as Prince Edward gasped, staring at the bottom of an empty cup and then to the Raven. ‘A hero has many qualities, but they mean nothing if he doesn’t know how to use them. A selfless hero might make a sacrifice in vain. A courageous hero could be duped by their own hubris. An opportunistic hero may not stop to think about the alternatives before them.’”

Aaric looked up from his figurines for the first time all evening.

“‘These chalices don’t selflessness, courage, and opportunity. They also represent vanity, hubris, and stupidity.’

“Prince Edward gasped for air and fell to his hands and knees. His eyes grew wet and his vision blurry. His stomach twisted and churned as his heart beat so fast that he feared it’d burst through his chest.

“‘A true hero is the smartest person in the room. They think before they act. They adapt to their surroundings and look for alternatives. Why risk drinking poison when you could have dumped the contents on the floor? If you had, you would’ve discovered that there was no key at all.’ The Raven left its perch and morphed into a figure nearly the size of Prince Edward himself. Hands and feet replaced its claws, sparkling blue eyes replaced its beady ones, and the face of a woman most beautiful emerged from where a beak used to reside. Before Prince Edward lost the last of his sight, he got a look at the slender silhouette of Maiden Eden as she drew toward him.

“‘You heroes are all the same,’ Maiden Eden said, spitting venom and contempt. ‘Drunkards spew tales of a damsel trapped in a high tower. They boast not of her brain and benevolence but of her bust and beauty. You men grab your metal sticks and rush to slay the monster that holds her captive, then expect her to repay your chivalry with unwavering love and devotion. She truly is everything the stories say, but you’re not the only one who’s heard of it or with a pair of eyes to leer upon her. You don’t want others to notice the prize you won, so you lock her in your high tower because she is your trophy and yours alone. Anger and envy replace your only friends, and your soul curdles like sour milk. One night a fool breaks into your home, and it’s not until the blade pierces between your ribs that you realize what you truly are. In your last breaths, you look at your killer with melancholy while the damsel sheds no tears. She doesn’t even frown. She stands over your body with an expression of indifference.’

“‘You believe that choices must be made because you are told to make them. You see are three chalices and know that at least two of them will kill them, and yet you still drink. Those who cannot think for themselves have no choices to make at all.’

“Maiden Eden turned from him and walked away. As Prince Edward exhaled his last breath he heard the click of an open door as the maiden crossed the threshold. The door had been unlocked all along.” Father closed the book and found the twins sitting straight up in bed.

“What that supposed to help us sleep?” Aaric asked incredulously.

Father shook his head. “Like so much else that I’ve tried to teach you, these are survival skills. You are the gift feared by our creators, and thus need extra protection.”

Father’s gaze went from Tia’s eyes to her clavicle, where a cluster of blue scales underlined the bone. She pulled her periwinkle shirt over it and turned red. Tia knew enough about her and Aaric’s condition to understand that having snake-like scales on various parts of your body wasn’t normal. Just once she wanted to play with the other children instead of watching them from the bedroom window. She longed to attend school and learn what other children learned. She offered to wear bandages over her scales in the presence of others, but Father refused her. He wouldn’t even let them leave their bedroom whenever he had a patient over. Tia sometimes wondered if anyone else knew they existed.

“You wish to protect us because we look different,” Aaric laid back down, scoffing. “At least have the courage to admit that you’re ashamed of us.”

Tia was aghast, but her twin didn’t faze Father. “I haven’t been hiding you from the Outer World these last six years because you’re different. I wish to empower you; I want to teach you lessons that most will never learn. There are—”

A gentle clicking stole Father’s attention, and he grew pale when turned to the window. Tia faced the outside, where her bedroom overlooked the Cerulean Sea and the docks of their small waterfront town. The oscillating flames atop the street poles spotlighted portions of the pier and the woman who swayed across the wooden planks. Her movements were so graceful that she could’ve waltzed on the ripples of the rolling sea having only her toes kiss the water beneath. She was dressed in the color of the moonlight that caressed her, and her hood covered all but a few golden curls that jostled upon her porcelain face.

“Eden herself,” Father muttered.

“Eden her…” Aaric gawked incredulously. “She’s real?

“Stay here.” Father bolted from their bedroom and emerged outside in record time.

Aaric peeked his head out the window and Tia joined him in staring at the woman below. The streetlight didn’t coat the walkway to their house, so when she passed the flame’s reach, she became nothing more than the clicks of her heels. Then, for just one moment, the clicking stopped, and Tia strained her ears.

“The Ravens are watching.” The clicking started again, but the woman’s silhouette dodged the last lights painting the dock.

Aaric looked at his sister for answers when it was usually the other way around, but Tia knew no more than he did. She’d never seen this woman before.

Father reentered their bedroom. Sweat poured onto his forehead as if his hairline sprung a leak, and hands he used to stitch wounds with surgical precision quivered until he glued them to his sides. “Grab what you can. We’re going. Now.”

Tia sprung from her bed and grabbed a handful of clothes and a coloring book from her floral-printed dresser. Father threw the twins’ packs onto Tia’s bed, and she began shoving everything unceremoniously into it. It was nearly full before Aaric could be bothered standing up.

Aaric cocked his head, glancing up at the man more than twice his height. “What are we running from?”

“Aaric, not now. Let’s go!”

“Who’s coming?”

Now, Aaric!

Tia zipped up her bag as its many playful stickers shimmered in the light. She knew that she left some important things behind, but the cause for urgency made her not care. She threw her strap over her shoulder while Aaric groaned and started filling his colorless bag.

The bedroom window blew out and glass showered the floor, sprinkling their bare feet with sparkling shards of dust. Tia was screaming before she even knew what was going on and Father yelled, “Go!” and shoved the twins in front of him.

She was out of the bedroom and running down the rickety stairway without knowing why. She had to get away from whatever was in the bedroom.

Another window shattered somewhere above. Aaric jumped and collided into her, pressing her stomach against the wooden railing and knocking her feet free from the steps. She clutched onto the banister to prevent herself from falling while all air escaped her lungs until her feet found the stairs again. Aaric bolted passed her, stampeding down to the main floor and the front door.

“No!” Father belted. “My office!”

The front door’s outline glowed before Aaric approached it. He spun around with his mouth wide open as though he was about to scream. Tia swung around the banister and joined him as they ran through the living room. Lights painted the surrounding windows made them too bright to see through.

Father leaped down the last few stairs thrust forward his gunblade from the pistol on his holster. The pistol itself was only six inches long, but a three-foot silver blade withdrew above its nozzle.

The front door was knocked clean off and crashed in two pieces onto the floor. Father jumped over the banister, sword outstretched, and shot several fireballs from the pistol.

Tia barely caught a glimpse of the figure that obscured the light before it fell out of view. She kept running, angry to have looked back, and fixated on the office door as Aaric grabbed her hand. She clutched onto him and saw the door and nothing else. Windows kept breaking and glass coated tables and floors where they used to eat breakfast and play cards. Shadows snuffed out the light and poured into the room. Clangs of blades silenced father’s voice as he yelled for his children.

Aaric twisted the knob to the office door and suddenly they were through it.

Father was right behind them shooting as many fireballs as his gunblade would allow, and slammed the door shut behind them. His forehead was coated in blood and his sleeves were singed.

Aaric opened his mouth to demand answers, but Father grabbed his shirt cuffs and dragged him around the gurney to the opposite wall. He threw him at a gray panel that was a conspicuous shade lighter than the rest of the wall. Tia rushed to catch up to them as Aaric howled, crashing into the wall shoulder first and driving the panel inward.

“Tia, help your brother!” Father said, reaching for her hand.

Tia obeyed and assisted Aaric as he pushed at the wall. The twins’ combined weight caused the panel to retract fully, revealing a stone passageway they never knew existed. The twins held onto each other to avoid slipping on the mossy slope beneath them as Father blocked them from reentering his office. Lights only highlighted a portion of the passage. There was no telling how far it went or what was below.

The creatures attacked the other side of the office door, which stood little chance against their strength. The light would soon be swallowed by the shadows, and Father along with them.

“Tia, C’mon!” Aaric jerked her hand and stole her attention.

She stared at the downward slope where the darkness never ended. It was their only path to safety, but still an ominous one. So many other dangers could’ve been waiting for them, and what lingered on the other side?

The twins sped down it as fast as they could without slipping. The path was ample enough for them to be side-by-side, but only because they were so young. Moss and twigs bit their ankles, and slimy sludge coated their toes made their feet feel like they’d been dipped in jelly. The light from above went further away, and the clangs of blades were mere echoes.

A blast of light from above illuminated the passage, turning the pitch black into a blaring white. The slope rattled and caused Tia’s teeth to clatter. The dead branches from the floor reshuffled, and her feet flew over her head. Her body crashed into the layers soppy mud and splattered around all her. She started sliding, and sludge splashed the sides and seams of her pants and shot up onto her shirt and her eyes. Her skin rippled in the wind with the speed of her descent until the slope disappeared beneath her and she free fell into the unknown.

Her feet crashed onto a plateau somewhere below, and she tumbled to her backside. Globs of mud flung from her body, but it had already done its damage. Her soaked clothes were glued to her figure, coating her with a small ecosystem that would take weeks to wash off. Aaric landed beside her, equally drenched and cursing loud enough for the echoes to paint the wall in a chorus of obscenities.

Tia struggled to her feet before grabbing onto Aaric’s hand. Nearby plants exhaled orbs of white that floated from their leaves and dissipated above. Tia’s eyes followed the spheres that flickered all around them like the inside of a planetarium. She couldn’t see where the walls were or where they fell from. For all she knew, the platform could’ve been holding them from another fall into oblivion.

“Tia, where are we?” Aaric sounded as panicked as she felt.

Tia walked backward holding Aaric’s hand, but neither could retrace their steps or see where they fell from. There was nothing around them but flickering orbs of light dying out and birthing again… And an air shuttle parked about thirty feet away.

The twins raced toward it, casting aside the orbs floating between them like paint on a wet canvas. The shuttle’s rails were planted firmly on the ground. Its glass dome was retracted, and its oval silhouette revealed two rows of seats and a steering wheel that could guide them to safety if either of them knew how to drive.

How did it get down here?

A scream echoed against the walls, sounding like it came from nowhere and everywhere. The twins spun around and watched as a man’s form fell from above. He crashed to the ground as they had, but his body contorted in angles Tia didn’t think possible.

“Father!” Tia exclaimed. Aaric clutched onto her hand, stopping her from running toward him.

It took Father a couple seconds to stir. His groans were amplified by the cave as he struggled onto his hands and knees (which took much longer than Tia would’ve liked). Tia wished to help him, but Aaric only held her hand tighter.

Father made it to his feet, but when he moved toward them, one of his legs dragged lifelessly behind the other. His shirt was tattered and torn and his hair muddy and disheveled. His face bore more blood than skin, and his gunblade was nowhere to be seen.

“Aaric, he’s really hurt,” she said, but her brother still wouldn’t let go.

“Let’s… let’s get in the shuttle,” Aaric replied warily.

“What? Why?”

“I… we need to go,” he jerked her backward toward the shuttle.

Several orbs cast illuminated Father’s form as he grunted and groaned but spoke no words, more closely resembling a walking corpse than the man that read them bedtime stories. Tia let Aaric pull her away. Not even Father’s outstretched hand could beckon her.

Aaric opened the passenger side door and let Tia slip into the front row. She trusted Aaric’s ability to drive over hers, though neither had ever tried.

“Please…” Father muttered, but Tia forced her eyes shut only to reopen them when something new and brighter appeared. A skylight flooded the underground meadow as if someone flipped a switch in the room. The flickering orbs lost their brilliance, but Tia was too distracted by the obsidian figures that encircled them to notice.

Every part of their frame was eluded in shadow, but the shadows themselves took human form. Each bore two legs and two arms and stood as tall as Father and other adults they’d seen.

Their faces were obscured and drank the light from their surroundings. Where they stood, nothing else could exist.

Three of the obsidians stepped forward from the circle. The one in the middle stood almost a head taller than the others and carried a blade as dark as they were. Tia opened her mouth to warn Father as they approached him from behind but didn’t need to speak. Father turned to them and fell to his knee. His dead leg limped on its side.

The three obsidians waved their right hands over their heads in unison and revealed three faces where there were none before. The figure in the middle became a gaunt man with salt and pepper hair and a long, thin scar that stretched from his temple down to his cheek. The man to his left was younger, thicker, and iron-jawed, while the woman to his right was covered with shaggy hair and a face both withered and severe.

“All three of you!” Father exclaimed.

The gaunt man spoke for them. “It’s so fitting that you chose to read them the tale of the chalices this evening. Like Edward, you are neither selfless nor courageous, but you’ve been very opportunistic. These children were not yours to take, Landon. If you were planning on using them as a bargaining chip, you have failed.”

“That’s Jaiden Lefendos,” Aaric muttered to his sister.

Tia went to nod, but stopped herself and shot him a bewildered look. “How do you know that?”

“What do you mean? Father just said that.” But Aaric’s confidence waned when his sister shook her head. “Didn’t he?”

A conversation between Father and the obsidian leader commenced, but Tia could hear none of it while she waited for an explanation from Aaric. She watched cogs turn in his mind, and his deep purple eyes fixate on something off in the distance. His ears were strained, but he wasn’t listening to the words being said aloud. “They’re telling me that we don’t have to be afraid.”

“Who’s telling you?”

“They are,” Aaric replied. “What are you, deaf? We don’t have to be afraid but… But he does.”

“What are you saying, Aaric?”

Aaric eyebrows pointed inward, and his watering eyes started to burn with rage. Tia had to relearn to breathe as she witnessed her twin’s transition from affliction to anger. She half expected him to birth a shadow that would encapsulate his entire body as it had the others. “He kidnapped us right after we were born,” Aaric said. “He stole us as our mother slept…”

Tia covered her mouth. She wanted to refute him, but she was never brave enough to argue with her brother. They never knew their mother. Father never even told them her name.

“All three of us had to be here to agree on what must be done,” Jaiden said, raising his obsidian blade. “The severity of your actions and the danger you’ve put all of us must be punishable by death.”

Tia’s mouth fell open. She desperately wanted to refute them, but it was her brother who discovered the courage to speak.

“Wait,” Aaric demanded. He broke his grasp from Tia and approached the three leaders of the obsidians and the man on his knee. Tia wanted to reach out and say something—anything—but all she could do was sit in the shuttle with her body glued to the seat.

“This… This man, did he take us?” Aaric addressed Jaiden as he stood beside Father, who was now just a little taller than her brother was.

“It’s a complicated matter,” Jaiden replied.

“Did he steal us from our birth mother?”

Jaiden stalled for a second. “You children are very young.”

“But he’s not our Father, is he? And… And you’ve been looking for us all this time?”

Aaric punctured his air of certainty. Jaiden turned his head ever-so-slightly in the woman’s direction, but he stopped before looking at her. He kept his eyes on Aaric and answered his question. “The two of you are very young. I cannot explain—”

“But you can,” Aaric replied. He left father’s side and stepped toward the leader of the Ravens. Aaric was less than half his height, but whatever expression her twin bore on his face caused Jaiden to step backward. The man and the woman at his sides exchanged subtle glances, sharing in Jaiden’s sudden uncertainty. “I see can the words swirling in your brain. Your mind is connecting nouns with verbs, phrases are breaking and reforming, and there’s fog. A dark, lightless fog. It’s like a barrier between the known and the unknown or a wall meant to block others from…  Are… Are you hiding your thoughts behind it? Is there something that you’re afraid for me to see?”

The Raven leader glowered at Aaric. “This man has put you and your sister in danger from both the Outer World and yourselves. He’s been selfish and naïve, and to rectify what he has done, a punishment must be enforced.”

Aaric did not refute him. Instead, he faced the man he called ‘Father’ for the last six years and looked at him with a level of disgust that made Tia shudder. The resounding silence was broken only by the heavy breaths taken by the man they’d called Father.

Jaiden raised his obsidian blade again and placed it on Father’s shoulder just centimeters from his neck. “I, Jaiden Lefendos, leader of the Order of the Ravens of Dusk, hereby sentence you to…”

Aaric grabbed onto the hilt of Jaiden’s gunblade. The Raven woman covered her mouth while the Raven man’s iron jaw unhinged.

“This man stole us as newborns and has deceived us all our lives. I want the honor.”

Tia gasped but still, couldn’t find her voice. She watched Jaiden release his hand from the hilt as though it was all a dream. Her brother’s eyes cast down upon their Father as if he was as filthy a creature as the runts that ate the crops in their garden.

“The power of choice isn’t the greatest power we hold,” Aaric said. Father whimpered as Aaric tightened his grip on the obsidian blade. “The greatest power is to take that choice away.”

Tia found no hesitation or remorse in Aaric’s voice. The figures around him drowned in his darkness, exchanging glances of uncertainty. Did they regret their decision to seek them out? Did they… Fear him?

Aaric’s hand did not quiver. His glare was focused and his aim precise. In a single swipe, he silenced the briefest of screams and stole from Tia the only childhood she’d ever known.

 

 

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