You can read the third chapter of Buried Heroes below!
And, if you haven’t read the earlier chapters yet, you can find them here:
For the second time in as many months, Teodric found himself sailing away from a scene of destruction, the choking odor of ash and smoke clinging to his nasal cavity long after he’d left the fires behind. The unmistakable stench of burning hair and flesh mingled with wood and hay as they crackled beneath purifying flames.
Attacking unruly orc settlements was an unusual activity for Syleste and her band of pirates, but the orcs posed a threat to her shipments, and the admiral wouldn’t stand for a competing terror on the Infinite Ocean. She’d been looking for a lost artifact, something magical, along the coast for months now, constantly agitated that she couldn’t locate it, though Syleste refused to say what precisely they were searching for. A recent interrogation after one of her crews assaulted a merchant vessel revealed that the orcs might have it. Teodric had been part of a special regiment that would take care of ridding the coast of the marauding tribe while others searched the ruins beyond the camp for what they had stolen.
Memories of the previous night blended in and out of shadows. The scent of sage, lemongrass, lavender—the protective herbs. His sword cutting through flesh, cries and screams, bright red blood, even though orcs’ blood was dark blue. Underneath it all, a low-level panic and determination. He had to be here. No one else could ensure that his mother was provided for. No one else would be able to find his father. Finally, after falling out of Syleste’s initial favor, he was rising in the ranks again.
“Lost in thought this victorious morning, Teodric?” Kriega, Syleste’s first mate and personal guard, leaned against the ship’s railing and studied him closely. “Are you not pleased with our evening’s handiwork? I was prepared to speak to our fair admiral about your prowess yesterday, but I will withhold my compliments if you regret your actions for some incomprehensible reason.”
Kriega, a half-orc, was one of Syleste’s most prized pets. When he had first set foot aboard the Dominion, Syleste brought Teodric into her intimate circle. The first mate had not taken this well, and she harbored resentment toward Teodric until Syleste grew tired of him and her former appetites returned.
A sigh of sea spray caressed his bare cheek and the edges of his stubble. The ocean was choppy, restless. He gazed at the pale gray horizon and let Kriega’s question float on the air between them.
“I was running back over a few details from the evening is all. Are you on early watch today?”
“That I am. The admiral likes to take the mornings in after our journeys ashore to run her eyes over the new cargo.”
“Did we take something valuable aboard? What would they have had?”
“Something?” Kriega chuckled, revealing the full length of her protruding lower tusks. “No, sweet Teodric. I believe you mean someone.” She shrugged. “Run down to the hold and see for yourself.”
Wordlessly, he nodded to Kriega and crossed the deck to one of the stair flights below.
Teodric waited for his vision to adjust to the tepid darkness of the ship’s second deck. Syleste kept two holding areas for prisoners. One here, between the crews’ sleeping quarters, and one for more serious offenders deep in the ship’s bowels. No sound escaped the Dominion’s lower dungeons.
Since they were only a few weeks out of Isla de Hossa, the island Syleste had claimed for herself at some distant time in the past, the prison hold was uncharacteristically empty. Soon enough a ship would cross their path and catch her eye, and in most of those cases, a few prisoners survived the encounter and were brought aboard.
There was only a single woman, a human, in her early middle years.
“Who’s there?” the woman called out. She had a soft, scratchy voice, her fear encased in vibrato.
“No one of any importance,” Teodric answered. He stepped into the lantern’s low glow. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Is that what you said to them last night too, lad? I’m not here to hurt you?” She mocked his voice, dropping hers an octave and enunciating between the syllables to mimic his Caldaran accent. He had long resisted the drawl and slur of Tor’stre Vahn’s coastal regions and quickly stood out as a foreigner.
“I’m surprised the raid last night would be of much consequence to you,” he said. “Were you a captive of theirs then?”
“A captive?” The woman eyed him carefully, her expression torn between rage and confusion. “That was my home.”
“Oh.” He looked down and straightened his vest. “I didn’t realize. Most human captives are trapped with orcs against their will. That’s one of the reasons we intervened.”
The woman stood and slowly approached him. She stopped a few inches from the edge of her cell. “Look in my eyes.” Her voice shifted again, low and thick in the back of her throat. The woman’s plain brown hair was matted at the ends, a few clumps sticky with blood, but she seemed in good health beyond a few cuts and scrapes and dark circles under her eyes.
Eyes that pulled him in. Eyes that turned from brown to black to deep-sea blue as he stared into them. Eyes that opened wide and overwhelmed the entirety of his vision.
The sensation of falling forward. He landed hard on his feet, caught by the soft sand of a beach at high tide. It was night, and the moonlight glinted on his rapier blade.
A quaint village glowed on the other side of a row of dunes, the two dozen wooden houses lit by small fires in their hearths. The shipmates beside him crept forward, their bodies blending in and out of the wind-piled sand. It was time.
One faction broke off to infiltrate the far side of the village. They were to search out the largest hut and pillage it. Somewhere nearby, Syleste had been sure, was a powerful magical artifact. They should stop at nothing to retrieve it. Better yet, wipe them all out.
Teodric and Lars leaned against the wooden beams on either side of a window. A family sat together inside, unaware of the doom lurking just out of sight. A human girl played with a doll near the fire. Her brother giggled in their mother’s lap.
The mother turned and met his eye. Time surged forward as the same woman begged Teodric to spare the life of herself and her child. The screams he had been unable to suppress all morning. She had brown hair like the woman in the cell, worn slightly shorter, and her son had his father’s sandy brown locks, much like Teodric’s own when he was that age, lightened by the sun.
He drew his sword across the woman’s throat, and her cries stopped. A strangled cry pulled him back, his own scream, that prevented the vision of him murdering the little boy. He crashed backward into the solid wood wall across from the cells, and the lantern swung on its hook.
Teodric stared at the woman, mouth agape. “What have you done to me?”
“Only reminded you of a small part of the horror that you and your kind have done to me,” she growled. The woman spit at his feet, her upper lip curled, and crawled into the distant corner of her cell, arms wrapped around herself for the small protection they could give.
His breaths came quickly, and he pressed himself against the solid hallway walls. It was important not to provoke mind mages as they were capable of all sorts of tricks and games.
“Teodric?” The admiral’s voice greeted him like the tinkling of chimes in the wind. “My, this morning is full of surprises. Have you been getting to know our guest?”
Syleste sauntered up the half-stair that led to the cell block. Her full hips slid to and fro, accentuating her ample curves. No one was coming down the stairs he’d descended a short time before. Syleste brushed her thick black hair off her shoulder; her blood-red lips twisted to the side.
In whispered tones along the coast, they spoke of the Scarlet Harbinger. She had told him this, delighted with herself, after their first evening together. It was a mood she saved only for her lovers. With the rest, her vanity took on other, more aggressive forms.
He cleared his throat, but the visions remained seared onto his mind. “Yes, Admiral. Kriega mentioned we had brought someone aboard. I hadn’t remembered taking captives and came to see for myself.”
“We take on prisoners often, do we not?”
“Of course, Admiral. I had simply not understood that as part of our purview last night.”
“I see.” Syleste pursed her lips. The woman in the cage glared at her freely. “We had an unfortunate turn to our work last night, dear Teodric, at the hands of the witch you see before you.” Syleste’s golden-orange eyes flashed dangerously.
The admiral slid closer to him and traced her fingernail up his arm, across his shoulder, and brought the tip of her red nail to rest beneath his chin. She tuned his face to hers.
“You know I don’t like it when people stand between me and what I want, don’t you, Teodric?” she sighed into his ear.
He should have stayed above decks. Nothing good could come from this shift in her mood. “I do.”
“You remember what happened when you were in her shoes?” A dark memory flew forward from the back of his mind, its black wings outstretched to obscure his present surroundings. Syleste sneered above him as his body contorted in pain. His neck snapped back as Kriega yanked the gnarled rope. His blood splattered onto the deck. “The most distressing news from Linolynn about your little sweetheart,” Syleste had crowed in delight. “I’m sure she’ll wish for death before too long and, lucky for her, she’ll receive it.” Again the terrible grin. “Eventually.”
“Tell me,” the admiral’s harsh whisper brought him back, “has our prisoner been filling your head with visions?”
“She has, Syleste.” Teodric’s heart pounded in his ears, get out, get out. His voice burned in spite of his desire to control his emotions. It would be so simple for her to harm his mother in retribution. She was only a few days’ sail away, and Syleste had several spies stationed in Nortelon who could dispatch her will even faster.
Her eyes narrowed at him. She raised her hand and clenched it into a fist held at shoulder height. His breath stopped. The pirate queen took slow steps forward to accentuate her words, hips swaying in rhythmic confidence. “She’s undone my hard work, I see.”
Teodric fell to his knees, hands clutching his throat.
“You’ll pay for that as well,” Syleste hissed to the caged woman. “However”—the admiral glanced at the sunlight filtering down the stairs to the lower deck before she turned back to the woman—“with your magic added to mine, I’ve no fear of it happening again. The process will demand your life, of course. But that was bound to happen sooner or later.” Her white teeth flashed, and she withdrew her emerald-encrusted sword.
“I’m afraid the exchange may be inappropriate for you to witness, Teodric.” The admiral turned her eyes to him. “Our guest has upset you enough already.” Before he could speak, Syleste whipped around and, like a bolt of lightning, slammed the hilt into his head.
“Teodric.” Ambrose’s scratchy voice pulled him into consciousness. Where was he? Dim light, dank air. His stack of books and a short candle rested on the shelf beside him. A wool blanket from home across his legs. He exhaled slowly, relieved. Anywhere was better than the cells on her island.
What had happened to the woman he was speaking to? The one who showed him that it wasn’t orcs they’d attacked on the beach after all. And if it wasn’t orcs, then that woman, the child—
“Teodric!” Ambrose’s tone grew more insistent. “Come on, lad, this is the first chance I’ve had to get away. What happened?”
“I . . . Syleste . . . I’m not sure. There was a woman held prisoner. She showed me a vision. I keep hoping it isn’t true, but, Ambrose”—Teodric placed a fist against his heart—“I can feel that it is.”
“What did she show you?”
“I was back on the beach, where we were last night. Except we weren’t there to kill orcs. I was just below the window of a home, like I had been in the moments before we attacked, but it was a human woman inside. With her family. Not someone responsible for the death and slaughter of many, like Syleste and Kriega’d said.”
Ambrose studied his face. The older man’s dark eyes shone against his tanned skin and then looked away from him. “What do you mean? Why would that be true?”
He was holding something back. Even after all this time sailing under Syleste, people still wanted to protect him, still hoped to shield him from her. Ambrose ran his tongue over his upper lip, a habit for when he was deep in thought.
“I know you don’t want to, but you need to forget what you saw on the beach.” He held up a hand to stop Teodric’s protest. “She’ll send you back to the island, mate, if you don’t give her cause not to. I doubt she’ll let you out of there again.”
The door at the end of the narrow passage squeaked open slowly. Heeled boots descended the stairs one by one.
“How nice of you to check on our dear musician, Ambrose. I was just coming to call on him myself.” Syleste’s voice rang out around them; her higher, airy pitch warned of a short temper. “You know, there are days when I question bringing you aboard. Though your magic has its uses.” Syleste stood framed in the doorway, hands resting on her hips, sword swung artfully behind her.
Teodric had seen Ambrose face the sudden arrival of bloodthirsty sea creatures without the slightest reaction, but Syleste’s presence made the blood drain from his face.
“I have a proposal for you, then, seeing as you’re fond of meddling. You can aid me as I test out something I’ve just acquired or find yourself new employment, immediately off-board.” Her lips curled upward in amusement. “I really don’t want to lose my bard, and he doesn’t want to lose dear Aurelia, does he?” Her eyes glimmered, and she tugged gently at the ends of her black gloves.
Teodric’s jaw clenched at the threat to his mother, and he leapt to his feet. “Syleste,” he said, swaying. The sudden rush to his head made his senses swim like he’d lost his sea legs. “There’s been a mistake. I did nothing more than talk to that woman.”
“Ah, but she allowed you to see, and that’s what I cannot tolerate, my sweet. You’ll never serve me as well on my own terms—you haven’t the stomach for it.”
“But she didn’t show me—”
“I know what you saw.” Her voice was cold, each word enunciated slowly. “But fear not. By the time I’m through, that new mother and her darling tot will be forever stripped from your mind. I’m only trying to do what’s best for you.” Her eyebrows twitched. “Ambrose”—she turned her attention back to the older man—“are you ready? It will be better for him if you assist me. We’d hate for him to forget who he is, wouldn’t we?”
Teodric’s mouth went dry. He turned from one to the next. Ambrose wouldn’t do this. He’d stop her somehow. Teodric had rescued him when they found him, floating and starving, in the middle of the sea. He was the one who had convinced Syleste to let Ambrose stay on board.
“On the count of three,” Syleste said. She pulled her pocket compass from her belt, its gold chain tinkling softly as it sought to rebalance itself. “This is your final warning, Teodric.”
He watched as her dark ginger eyes swirled into sickly, bright green orbs.
Her voice deepened. “I don’t think you’d survive another memory adjustment.”
The space between himself and the two humanoid shapes in his cabin lengthened and compressed to the point that he nearly fell, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the monstrous spinning circles. They pulled away from him and invited him closer. To look away would be to lose himself. But to stay, to not resist would be to—
A slow, satisfied sigh. Someone was in his mind. The outside world was gone. Only the other presence. Here. Inside. And they wanted . . .
“Relax.” A soft voice dwelled on the end of the word, hissing through their breath. “Release.” The snake slithered, searching. It encircled his arms, licked his neck, and breathed into his ears.
“Who are you?”
“Syleste,” the serpent wheezed. The spinning green orbs merged, and the circles engulfed him.