Their shadows were growing long as the people of Kellonville marched north, away from their town. Their possessions were piled high, their livestock following close behind, they left behind their homes. Ben Arons led them, away from destruction, towards their destinies.
Rallying the people and getting them to leave behind their homesteads went much smoother than Ben had expected. At the town meeting this morning, many of the townsfolk accused Ben of being a witch, of being a lunatic, or even being responsible for the calamities that had befallen them- but after the dragon attack, when he stood up and took charge, promising his people a safe place where they could escape danger, nearly all of them pledged their allegiance to him. A fair few, like the grumpy old tanner Daggit, simply laughed in Ben's face and said he'd keep on working until the end of the world if that's what it took. But most followed Ben with zealous enthusiasm.
Clearly, they had seen the truth in his eyes after those strange visitors slew the beast that dark forces had sent. They heard the sincerity in his voice as he pleaded with them all to trust in him and his visions. But he, Ben Arons, the Savior of Kellonville, knew that he wasn't the only one to thank- through every step of the journey, his eyes were transfixed forward, towards the horizon, towards his love Lyria.
It felt like an eternity ago that he met her, that he had been able to hold her, to kiss her, to tell her that he loved her. How could anyone understand the kind of unstoppable feelings that he felt when the two of them, two souls so perfect and pure, joined together like theirs? Once he found her, everyone would know that they were safe.
But… she was dead. The thought lingered in the back of the tinkerer's mind like an itch. She had appeared to him as a specter, because she was dead. Only… she couldn't be dead. She was under some sort of a curse, some sort of dark magic binding her to him. And she called him, Ben Arons, to save her. That's… that's what she was doing, right?
Ben's mind tried to wrap its head around his interpretation of his memory, his scalp feeling just a bit too tight for his head, when a heavy hand clapped down on his shoulder. The handyman looked to his side to see a familiar face- a tall, broad-shouldered draconian man with scales black as night. He had a sword taller than Ben himself strapped to his back, and wore a serious expression on his face.
Ben shook the difficult thoughts from his head as he greeted his old friend Lorender. The draconian nodded in greeting, and the two walked on ahead. Not much further, Ben explained, until they reached their destination. And then they would all be safe.
Lorender glanced back towards the masses behind, and leaned in slightly, his lizard-like mouth speaking barely over a whisper. He got right to the point: He told Ben that he didn't quite understand what they were doing. He quickly added that he means no disrespect- he understands that there may be danger in the town's future, but he asked how Ben expects to protect them from what fate comes close.
Ben raised his chin, keeping his face forward and his stride even. Lyria, his beloved, has granted him the power to see the future. Her spirit inspired him, granted him power- divine, it may even be- to lead them to a promised land where they will be safe. He didn't know what this promised land would be like, but his beloved had never steered him wrong.
Lorender took a deep breath and thought for a moment. He told Ben that the two of them had known each other for a long time, since they were both children. The draconians of Kellonville mostly kept to themselves, but every time the town held an important meeting, their representatives were present. Lorender said that his father told him when he was very young that although everyone had their own ways and customs, and scaled ones may never fully agree with humans and other fleshlings, community was the most important thing that a being had. If you lose your sense of community, if you go looking for fights, if you sever ties with those around you, eventually you will have no community. A lone draconian, his father would say, is nothing.
Ben smiled, and raised his hand high to pat his companion on the shoulder. He told Lorender that he understood the meaning of the story. Whether he believed in Ben's prophecies or not, all would be made clear soon. He valued Lorender as a friend, and would always.
Just as the sun reached the horizon, Ben could see the hills up ahead. He knew that their destination lay up on top of the tallest one; soon they would be there. Ben turned around to face the throngs of people behind him, to call out a reassuring message. But as he began to spoke, the skies above them suddenly grew dark. For a brief moment, the handyman wondered if he had misjudged the sun's position, for it was in an instant dark as night, and a cold wind blew. He heard some people gasp, and he heard a commanding, but familiar, voice.
Ben, what is the meaning of this?
He heard the voice both in his head, as well as thundering from the heavens. He whipped back around to face the hill ahead of them, and there in the road stood the beautiful slender form of Lyria, her raven hair blowing in the wind, her perfect white dress remaining oddly still. Her features were illuminated with an unearthly radiance, and all sound of nature was halted.
Ben was struck speechless at the sight of her. He fell to his knees, half from shock and half out of reverence, and opened his arms to her. The love of his life, the wonderful soul that was inexorably bound to his, was once again alive, before him. The nights spend pining for her were not for naught; his hopes and dreams were true. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, he wanted to praise her, he wanted to thank her for her sibylous visions, he wanted to share his joy and elation with the rest of the town. This, after all, meant that he had done exactly as he professed that he would. The town would now truly be safe.
But then he looked her in the eyes. Her expression was one twisted with fury, with disbelief. He began to sputter, to try and ask what was wrong, but she didn't give him the chance.
You have failed me, Ben.
She walked towards him with unnatural grace, her unexplained glow making her beautiful features seem more and more pronounced. He had never seen her like this. He managed to spit out a few words, but nothing that could be called a sentence.
You were given instruction to lead Kellonville to safety.
I did, I did, he managed to utter. I lead them, just as you told me.
You fool. You poor, pathetic fool. While you were wallowing in that cesspool, agents of evil from the east arrived. You guided them straight to our special place, and they have slain my sisters. You have failed me, Ben Arons. You have failed me, and for it, you and your people shall pay. I will kill you all right here, right now.
He sat on his knees, his eyes bulging, his mouth agape. He was paralyzed; what was happening? What sort of a mad confusion is this? Lyria's body rose slightly off the ground, and her outstretched hands began to glow and crackle with magical energy. Suddenly something big and heavy pushed Ben onto his side, and looking up, he saw Lorender's brave form, sword drawn, standing in a defiant stance before the unearthly woman.
He challenged her, telling her that if she was to harm anyone from Kellonville, he would gladly lay down his life for the chance to stop her.
No, no, Ben stammered, pulling himself to his feet. This can't be. This has to be a mistake. This is a misunderstanding. Lyria could never harm anyone- she's leading us to safety!
You poor fool. To think I let you love me.
A blast of crackling electricity shot from her hand, grabbing Ben and wracking his body with unimaginable pain. His body went rigid, unable to cry out, unable to think, and he felt a heavy thud as he was thrown to the ground off the path. He heard women scream, men yell, and the ground began to thunder with townsfolk trying to run in every direction. He began to stir, and he blinked, opening his eyes for what felt like the first time. He looked around, taking in his surroundings like he had never seen them before.
"Ben! Ben, are you alright?"
He looked up, and it was the priestess Jael. She helped him to his feet, and his body ached all over. He could still feel the pain throughout his body, and he tasted iron in his mouth.
"Jael," he said, "what's happening? What have I-"
He saw Lorender, wielding his massive broadsword, preparing to charge at-
He saw this woman standing before him. He remembered meeting her, he remembered falling in love with her, but… how could this have been? He felt like that couldn't have been him. That couldn't have been real. The haze was gone from his mind, and he saw her visage, terrifying and inhuman, glowing with a dark presence, readying to kill anyone who threatened her.
Lorender charged at her, his sword at the ready, shouting a battle cry in his native tongue. He swung the deadly weapon at the woman, who easily twisted through space and dodged the blow. The draconian was thrown off balance, but he quickly turned around to ready another charge.
Lyria raised a hand, and shot a bolt of power straight through his black scaled chest. The light in his eyes went dark, and he fell to his knees, and then flat onto his face. His sword fell to the ground at his side with a dull clang.
Ben crept forward, tears beginning to fall down his face. He neared his fallen friend, one hand outstretched towards his body.
"Why, Lyria?" he asked. "Why are you doing this?"
She flicked a hand dismissively in his general direction, turning to face the crowd of villagers that were trying desperately to flee.
"I will deal with you later, fool. My master was to have your people as little more than stock, but now he will have to settle for their corpses instead."
Moving away from him, she held both hands together, building up her energy for one massive shot. Ben wrapped his arms around the draconian's lifeless body, and saw the sword laying there beside him. The sword that was passed down from Lorender's father.
Lyria held out her hands, chanting to gather as much power as she could muster. The energy was welling up inside her, getting ready to burst.
With a scream, Ben grabbed onto Lorender's sword, and threw all of his might behind the massive weapon. It pierced Lyria through the stomach, to the hilt. She stared down at the blade protruding from her torso, and her mouth began to move involuntarily. The energy in her arms began to dissipate, and her form began to warm and skew in the light of the setting sun. Ben held onto the handle of the sword, watching her transform from the beautiful maiden he once loved into a shriveled, filthy crone. She fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, and spoke once more.
"M-my… my l-love…"
Ben fell to the ground beside her, beside his friend, the pain in his body growing too much. He turned north, to cast one more gaze on the hill that he had been yearning for, and off in the distance, beyond the hill, he saw a group of people, battered and bruised. The knights had returned.
It was dawn. Ben hadn't slept at all- he had simply sat on his cot in the temple of Azimuth, his body in bandages, staring out the window. From where he was sitting, he had a perfect view of his home across the pond- it pained him to look at it, since it reminded him of how he had loved her. But every time he tried to look away, he wondered which was worse- the pain of knowing that her love wasn't real, or the pain of the loneliness he now felt.
Shortly after the sun rose, Jael entered the infirmary, coming to check on his wounds before starting her daily rounds. Ben asked a favor of her, and a short while later, she returned from the tavern with the five knights. They all looked to be in worse condition than him, but they looked like they were used to it. Along with them came Telstedler, though he stayed close to the door.
"Hello again," Ben said, trying to sound more cheerful than he felt, smiling to the priestess who stood by. "Thank you for coming. I sent Jael to fetch you because I… I wanted to apologize. All of this is my fault- I was weak, and that… that… thing… took advantage of me."
Tarrow, the trystborn, nodded. "Love blinds even the strongest of us. I don't think it is we you need to apologize to, however."
Whether he had meant to, the trystborns words wounded Ben more than he could know. "Yes," he continued, "you're right. I… will be honest and say that I don't know exactly how I'm ever going to face the rest of the town again." He cast a glance at Telstedler, who didn't return it. “But… that's not what I wanted you here for. I wanted to apologize, and… to thank you. If it weren't for you, all of us would have been killed, or worse."
Once again, the trystborn spoke, though the others nodded their heads in agreement. "It was our duty to defend, and we carried it out. It is my hope that we can continue to be of service to you and your town."
"Yes," replied Ben, "that's what I'm getting at. You said that you didn't want money in exchange for helping. I will honor that, but I wanted to offer you something else… You see, I live in a house up on the hill across the pond. It's in need of quite a bit of work, something that I'm not exactly… proud of…" He scratched his head, shifting in his seat. "Anyway, it pains me too much to go back there. Lyria was only a part of my life for a short while, but… the pain of losing her, or being manipulated by her- I just can't bear it. As long as it's alright with Charles, if you want it, it's yours."
The knights all glanced at each other, each of them hiding an expression of surprise and excitement. They turned to look at Telstedler, who took a deep breath. "As long as dragon attacks and evil witches don't follow you everywhere you go, Kellonville would be happy to have you as residents. Assuming you're staying for an extended period of time, that is."
Tarrow extended a hand to Telstedler, who shook it with a smile. He then turned back to Ben, who did the same. The red draconian, Grash, spoke up.
"But… if you are leaving your home, where will you stay?"
Ben looked up at Jael, and then back. "As I said, I have somewhat of a debt to repay to the people of this town. I spoke with Jael about staying here, at the temple of Azimuth, once I've recovered. I can try to help out, and possibly be a boon to the town instead of a curse."
After they had finished talking, the knights left with Telstedler to take care of any arrangements they needed. Jael gave Ben some medicine to take, and he laid back down on his cot. As he started feeling drowsy, he sat up once again, to take one last look at his home. He would never return to it. Maybe some day the pain would subside.
"Good bye, my love."
He lied back down, and wept quietly until he slept.