Grief of the Undying (Prologue and First Three Chapters)
Updated: Mar 26
The lake was calm, reflecting the full moon like a cold mirror. Pen leaned against the rock of the cliff face that the lake settled around. The night was peaceful here, quiet and undisturbed. Pen picked up a rock from the bank and tossed it in, shattering the moon’s reflection.
Arch would have loved this place, well the lake anyway. The land around was barren and rocky. He always spent his free time fishing in the river by their little cottage.
The pain of losing him, and their son, was sharp as ever. Nyx’s Undying Curse was lifted for everyone else, except Pen herself. Pen had tried to get her family back, but she fucked up and ended up sealing away the goddess of death. Without the goddess, nobody could die, which sounds nice but was quickly realized to be a curse. Once she was finally free, the Curse was lifted, but Nyx’s revenge was enough to nearly drive Pen mad. Everyone else could be released in death again, except Pen. She would never be reunited with her husband and child.
Time flowed around her, changing everything but never touching her. She didn’t even know how long they’d been dead for now, but the loss never dulled.
Pen picked another rock, bigger this time, and threw it farther in the lake. It made a bigger splash as it sunk. The ripples were wider, but they flattened out just as quickly.
She gripped another, the size of her fist, and stood. With Arch still in her thoughts, she grunted and threw it.
He was supposed to teach their son how to fish.
She threw the rocks into the lake, knowing it was useless, but she had to move. It was like a knife constantly buried in her chest, but she breathed around it. Without realizing what she was doing, she punched the cliff face, pulling back at the last moment to not break her fingers.
Blood started to seep from her knuckles. She appreciated the pain.
Pen cursed herself as she wrapped a tattered handkerchief around the wounds. She could have seriously broken a bone. Short, purple hair fell in front of her eyes. She pushed it aside, annoyed with herself.
Turning back to the lake, she felt foolish but a little better. The lake was leveling out again after her barrage of rocks as if swallowing her anger. It still sat there in her gut, like the rocks at the bottom of the lake.
She looked up from the water, flexing her sore hand, and froze. She hadn’t expected to see anything, let alone another person.
Very few people came to these barren cliffs in the west, even miners avoided it after a few horrible cave-ins. That made it perfect for Pen to hide out alone, but now a figure stood on the other side of the lake watching her.
With Arch fresh in her mind, she thought it was him for a moment. The build of this new person was wrong, though. The figure was masculine, but wider than Arch, and taller with a beard.
She couldn’t make out his features but was more unnerved by how he didn’t move. He just watched her, probably saw her throwing the rocks with aimless rage.
“Who are you?” Pen called to him, trying to not sound too defensive and hostile just yet.
The man stayed still at first, but then he raised his right hand. His first two fingers touched his brow and he gave a small, playful salute. With that, he backed away and vanished into the night behind more jagged rocks.
Confusion, and shock, drowned out any sense of hostility.
“Hey, wait!” she yelled and sprinted around the water’s edge to his side.
There was only one person who ever gave that playful salute, and he was dead too.
Pen unwrapped the bandage around her hand, leaving the scraped knuckles exposed in case she needed blood to draw from. She belted around a boulder that the man had walked behind, but there was no trace of him. It was too dark to pick up any trail, not that one would be easily left behind on the rocky landscape.
“Hey!” Pen shouted again against her better judgement. “Can we talk? Who are you?”
She searched aimlessly around the boulders, but the man was gone.
Pen crouched by the lake again, where he had been standing, confused and more than a little scared.
She was probably hallucinating. She had to be. Only her father gave that playful salute goodbye when he went on dangerous travels. He died nearly a year before her and Arch were even married.
After they spent the winter in Malliae, he volunteered to help the townsfolk build a barn as thanks. The construction went smoothly, but he stepped on a rusty nail at one point. It hadn’t bothered him much until the infection set in, which killed him a few weeks later. Pen had no idea what to do at the time, but Arch’s family had been kind, letting her stay and work with them.
Pen pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. She’d been alone for so long, she wondered if things were getting to her head. After facing Nyx and seeing that the Undying Curse was over for everyone else, she traveled west to be alone, falling into the nomadic rhythm again, but still haunted.
Kression was only a few days’ travel from here. Pen wondered if a walk through a bustling city might help. She wasn’t fond of huge crowds, but the isolation was starting to get to her.
The ghost of her father was enough proof.
The crowd pressed around Raisa, flowing into the amphitheater like a river’s current. After traveling through Ichorisis the past few months, and finally arriving at Kression, the city was holding its annual Agrios Games in the grand Amphitheater of Leander. Wrestling matches, chariot races, sword play, and real fights to the death were awaiting thousands of spectators.
Raisa passed the city guard in their bronze armor unhindered. It was nice not having to worry too much about secrecy. Even her own red hair went unnoticed. This far west, the amount of reds, oranges, and auburns was perfectly common along with the brown hair everyone shared.
As she passed under the shade of the amphitheater and columns, she wondered if Drivas would like it here. She would relish in the racing games.
Inside the structure was a maze of stairways and more bodies. The crowd headed upwards into the stands, so Raisa followed suit. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself by stopping in the middle and appearing lost. After climbing the first set of stairs behind a stick thin man in a white tunic, she found herself in the higher stands.
It was an incredible sight, and Kression clearly took pride in it. The sand pit below her had to be hundreds of feet wide and two or three stories down. Hundreds of stone seats ringed the pit, open to the sky, and quickly filling with people.
“Get a move on!” an angry voice called behind her.
Raisa moved out of the stairwell entrance and turned. A shorter man with tanned skin and long, orange hair waited behind her, agitated. Not wanting to cause a fuss, she hurried up the stands with the crowd looking for an empty spot.
There was some space about halfway up that she slid into. It was a good view, despite the lack of shade. The rim on the amphitheater had long wooden beams with pale cloth between them providing shade for the higher sections. With the sun where it was right now, it didn’t reach her yet.
“Hey, you can’t sit here.”
The young man next to her was leaning away like she was infectious somehow. His crop of orange and brown hair almost resembled tiger’s stripes.
“Why not?” Raisa asked perturbed.
“You have to go further up,” he said pointing, not exactly answering her question.
Raisa looked to where he indicated and saw hundreds of women in the highest seats. It was under the shade but farthest from the fighting pit. The most they would see were people the size of ants scurrying around.
“Now why should I move up there?” she asked the youth again. She knew the answer, but she wanted to make him even more uncomfortable.
“Because you’re a woman,” he said, though he didn’t sound very confident.
“Am I?” Raisa asked. “I hadn’t noticed.”
With that, she turned back towards the pit and didn’t move. She felt the youth watching her.
After what seemed like hours, once the stands were full, the games finally began. An announcer came out first calling the champions, and heroes, and thanked the gods Phaos and Leander for blessing them with the gorgeous day. He was good too, riling up the crowd and getting everyone excited.
The first of the games was a form of wresting called pankration. Apparently, the only rules were no biting or gouging.
Raisa found herself cringing as the last combatant’s arm broke, but still cheered with the rest of the crowd when he won.
The chariot races were next. Four of the city’s wealthiest houses, including a representation of the royal house, rode out in their beautiful chariots pulled by two horses each.
Raisa’s heart pounded with the horse’s hooves as they thundered by.
After the royal house rode away with the victory, the pits were cleared and prepared for the swordplay. The chariot races were exhilarating, but this was something she could actually compete in. She was able to see the techniques and tricks the fighters used. She considered coming to join next year, but given how they stuck women in the worst seats, they probably weren’t allowed to fight. Still, she could hide her identity enough.
The first duo was evenly matched. Both had leather armor with short swords and were just a warmup for the crowd. Raisa had heard how ridiculous and unfair these combinations could get. She wished Stymphalia had these sorts of games.
A couple of fights and two deaths into the swordplay, there was finally an unfair combination. The age-old question of strength versus speed was represented again. A tall brute in thick leather armor walked onto the sands carrying a double bladed war ax. He brandished the ax over his head and roared with the crowd, Raisa included.
Following him was a much smaller, almost slight lad with a shield, sword, and helm. The armor he wore was old-fashioned, with several strips of leather and metal protecting his legs like a skirt.
Raisa felt sorry for the poor bastard, but at least they gave him a helmet. She had to admit, he was brave. He walked right up to the center of the pit, bowed to the royal family with the human beast beside him. With the formalities done, the lad took a defensive stance behind the shield, sword raised towards his opponent.
The brute didn’t bother with a stance but watched the lad. A silence fell over the crowd as they waited.
The brute was smart too. He didn’t make the initial attack that Raisa was expecting. Instead, he held his ax and waited.
The lad stalked around him, no doubt looking for an opening. Raisa couldn’t see his expression because of the helm, but his shoulders were tense.
Only after completing a full circle, the lad struck. He darted forward with the sword aimed at his opponent’s heart.
The brute deflected the sword with the flat of his ax and laughed. The lad surprised him, though, by ducking under the ax handle and leaving a nasty gash on his leg.
He staggered while the crowd cheered at the fresh blood, Raisa included. The lad knew what he was doing.
Before the brute could gain distance and defense, the lad pushed the ax head aside with his shield and cut the man’s arm.
He shoved the lad off and bashed the ax handle over the helmet.
Stunned, the lad staggered sideways and ripped the dented helmet off, revealing a short crop of purple hair.
Raisa’s excitement dulled at the sight. It was a rare color but not unheard of, though she had only met one person with that hair. The person she had been tracking for nearly a year.
The brute swung, and his opponent darted back to avoid being bisected. He dashed forward again once the ax provided the opening, aiming for the brute’s neck.
He deflected it in time and managed to bring the ax blade around again. The lad was too close now to avoid the edge as it came down for him.
The lad threw up the shield, managing to stop the force of the ax, but it splintered into pieces. He darted back again, casting aside the now useless wood strapped to his arm.
Raisa saw bloodstains on the wood where the arm would have been.
The lad rushed forward again, leaving another cut on the brute’s leg, barely avoiding the ax.
The brute used that lower maneuver to his advantage and tripped his opponent.
The long handle of the ax caught the lad’s legs and he went sprawling. He quickly rolled onto his back, though the sword had fallen from his grip and was now impaled into the sand several feet away.
The brute roared as he brought the ax head down on the lad again.
Raisa sucked in a breath waiting for the blow to land.
Blood rose from the lad’s arm that was raised in defense, but the blood moved. It formed a new shield and stopped the ax blade.
The stunned silence from the crowd was palpable and matched Raisa’s own astonishment. Women weren’t allowed to participate, but Raisa was proud nonetheless. And if she was right about who that really was, her search was finally over.
The brute had frozen too, confused. His opponent used the crimson shield to shove the ax aside and strike.
She thrust the open palm of her other hand towards the brute, and a spike of hardened blood speared forward, cleanly piercing his eye.
She scrambled to the side, avoiding the corpse as it slumped to the ground.
Pen gained her feet and stood over the dead man. The crowd was still silent, watching as she wiped the floating blood on her armor, then retracted it into her wounds.
Raisa sprang to her feet and ran down the stairs to the railing, still twenty feet above the pit.
Her exhilaration at finally finding Pen was undercut as the crowd gained its voice.
Pen flinched and looked for the accuser, but it was impossible to determine from where the shout came.
The roar that followed was an odd mix of excitement, jubilance, and anger. Raisa wondered if the ax man was a local favorite that Pen had just killed. The enthusiasm was just as strong, though.
After fifteen years, the Blood Warrior had revealed herself again.
It took a few tries, but the king’s words were heard and the crowd calmed.
“Blood Warrior,” he called into the pit from the royal box.
Pen looked up to him, and Raisa saw how tense she was again.
“I’d like to thank you for joining us today. That was the best fight I’ve witnessed in a long time. I would be honored if you stayed with us. Join us officially for these games and come to the palace later today.”
The king fell silent, giving Pen a chance to reply. Everyone was quiet, waiting for the missing Blood Warrior to say anything.
Pen turned her back on the royal box and walked towards the arch she had come in through.
A wave of muttering and jeering crashed around Raisa as Pen left the pit. She saw Pen’s head duck lower as if someone had thrown something. She looked up and scanned part of the crowd. Luckily, it was in Raisa’s section, but she wasn’t sure if Pen had seen her.
“Pen!” Raisa shouted down.
She vanished under the archway.
Pen kept her head down as she entered the chambers under the amphitheater, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Several people, mainly other fighters, had been watching through the gated archway that now rose for her. They had all seen her blood move, and those who hadn’t no doubt heard the commotion and the king speak.
This whole thing was a bad idea.
The warriors, trainers, and slave owners stared as she walked by. She had been able to hide her femininity with the helmet and baggy tunic, but now even that was exposed. Women weren’t allowed to enter the games.
“Hey, wait!” a voice called behind her.
Pen kept her eyes forward as she headed for where her stuff was stored. Deeper into the tunnel now, it branched out dozens of ways and was still filled with people.
A man shoved his way through the crowd and blocked her path.
He was beaming and panting a bit from the run. His shaved head and long clothing gave him away as a merchant around here.
“I saw what you did,” he said. “You’re the Daughter of Maniodes!”
The confused murmur of the crowd died.
For a moment, Pen saw the hallucination of her father again by the lake.
“My father is dead,” she growled.
“But you’re the Warrior.”
“It was a trick of the light,” Pen said. “I got lucky.”
She shoved him aside and made for one of the tunnels that led to an exit. She was abandoning her pack and any coin inside, but getting it back wasn’t worth the hassle.
“That wasn’t a trick,” he walked beside her now. “Fight for me. I’ll pay you—”
Without breaking stride, Pen’s frustration took over and she drew a thick enough tendril to trip him. She shot the blood from her palm between the man’s feet, causing him to stumble and fall.
There was no point in hiding now. Everyone knew and saw the blood snake back into her hand.
The ground started to angle upwards, and she was finally able to see daylight. More people were calling behind her. She just had to get out and lose them.
Suddenly, more people were blocking the exit. She knew civilians waited here to catch a glimpse of their favorite fighters, but she hadn’t expected any of that to be directed her way.
“That’s her! The new Blood Warrior!”
Hundreds of people surged forward to see her. She might have been trampled if the Kression guards weren’t there.
Iron clad guards blocked the civilians from entering the amphitheater, but it also prevented her exit.
“Now that was impressive,” the bald merchant caught up to her. “I can’t say I appreciate that, but that sort of maneuver in a good fight would be thrilling.”
“What? No,” Pen stammered.
Turning to the new voice back in the tunnel, her heart jumped to her throat. The entire tunnel was blocked by fighters, both free and slave alike.
A man at the head of that crowd had a medallion of Maniodes around his neck. The god’s shield was depicted on the pendent.
He knelt before Pen, and several behind him followed.
“Would you bless us before the next bout of fights? To help us bring honor to the gods and our families?” he asked.
Pen backed away, unable to speak. It felt like the tunnel was narrowing.
“She still cheated!” another person called behind those kneeling. “We’ve trained our entire lives for this, and she walks in making a mockery of it, and you’re praising her?!”
“No, I…” Pen tried to defend herself but the words died.
She barely heard the name over the noise of half cheering half arguing, but it was definitely hers. No one knew her name here.
Looking back to the civilian blocked exit, she was astonished to actually see a familiar face. Raisa had pushed her way to the front and was waving at her.
“So, your name is Pen?” the merchant said smiling.
The fighters were still on their knees, and their apparent leader was starting to look uncomfortable.
“Um … Have a good fight, may it end well,” Pen blurted out, not knowing how to give a blessing.
“Out of the way.”
A new solider clad in fine maroon armor shoved past the one who had accused her of cheating. The royal crest of Kression held his cape closed at the shoulders.
She rushed towards the civilians and guards blocking them, aiming for Raisa.
“I need to get through, and she can come with me,” Pen told one of the guards, hoping he hadn’t noticed the royal messenger.
His orange beard and eyes were prominent under the bronze helm. He glanced and noticed the messenger then. Her heart sank.
“For the bloody love of Maniodes, let me through,” she demanded with vigor she didn’t feel.
“Make a path!” he shouted.
Several of the bystanders let up, but they kept shouting.
“Do it again!"
“Make your blood move!”
“Where were you all this time?”
The bearded man let Pen through, and she took Raisa’s outstretched hand.
“Come with me. Run when you can,” Raisa said.
Pen followed her lead as they surged through the crowd. Some of the guards helped them, but the royal soldier could be heard over the roar.
Once there was an opening, Raisa took off towards the stone buildings that surrounded the amphitheater. Pen let go of her hand but followed close behind.
Thankfully, none of the civilians followed, only the royal soldier did.
“Halt in the name of the king!” he shouted after them.
“Just keep going,” Raisa encouraged.
“I know!” Pen replied annoyed.
They ran for several minutes, down twisting streets and alleys. Raisa eventually stopped at a rather decrepit part of Kression, and they both looked back. The soldier didn’t appear around the last corner, but Pen wasn’t reassured.
Raisa knocked rhythmically on a seemingly random door. After a moment, a small slit opened in the dark wood at eye level. Pen couldn’t see who was inside, but Raisa smiled.
“Open the door, please, Palamedes,” she said.
The window closed, and Pen heard a heavy lock slide back. The door opened, and Raisa held out an arm inviting Pen inside first.
She hurried into the space and Raisa followed. The common room was simple but inviting. The fireplace wasn’t lit, but lanterns filled the room with a visible warmth over the wooden tables and benches.
Two other men and a woman sat at one of the tables, the meals before them practically forgotten.
Palamedes closed and latched the door again.
Pen’s nerves prickled at the sound of the iron lock sliding shut.
“Thank you for getting me out of that,” Pen said to Raisa. “Now, what were you doing there? Last I heard you were in Potamis.”
“I was but that was some time ago now. If you wouldn’t mind speaking in private, we can use one of the rooms upstairs,” Raisa said.
Pen just wanted to get out of the city, but it was nice to see Raisa again. It had to be at least a few years since they last talked. Those royal soldiers were still searching for her anyway. She decided to wait until nightfall.
“We’re safe here?” she asked.
“No one knows about this hideout,” Raisa agreed.
“Raisa?” Palamedes spoke up.
She turned to him.
“I’d like to make sure we’re secure too. You came hurrying in here with a stranger. Needless to say, I’m a little concerned,” he said.
“Everything is fine, I just had to get my friend somewhere safe quickly. Checking the perimeter would be a good idea, though, if you wouldn’t mind double checking. And Julae?”
The woman at the table perked up.
“Run along the roof tops and look for any royal guards. Report their position back to me,” Raisa said.
“Royal guards?” Julae asked astonished. “What, in Nyx’s name, have you gotten involved in?”
Raisa chuckled, apparently unbothered by her subordinates talking this way.
“Pen here caused a bit of a show at the games today. I just want to keep her out of the king’s grasp,” Raisa explained.
Julae stood nodding. She followed Palamedes through a side door without another protest.
“Can we help with anything?” one of the others at the table asked.
“Not right now, but thank you. We’ll be upstairs. Pen?”
Pen followed Raisa through the door the others took. Part of the new corridor led off to other rooms while a stairway rose to her left. Raisa took to the stairs and led her to several bed chambers branching off another corridor.
“How many of these hideouts do you have?” Pen asked. She knew the Ragged Wolves was an extensive operation, but had no idea the amount of locations they had.
“We have places all over Ichorisis and every city,” Raisa replied.
“Even the Eastern Islands?”
Raisa held a door open to one of the bedrooms. Pen entered and practically collapsed on the bench by the window. She noted the bed in the corner and wondered how many people Raisa had working for her.
Raisa took the wooden chair across from Pen.
“So, where have you been all this time?” Raisa asked. There was a touch of something in her voice Pen couldn’t quite make out, but it sounded like annoyance.
“Just traveling,” Pen shrugged, “never staying in one place for too long.”
Raisa nodded then said, “I know that. I’ve been tracking you and your stories for months now. You cannot believe how relieved I was to see you in that arena. Of course, the moment I take a break from looking for you, that’s when you show up. What were you doing in there anyway? They don’t let women fight.”
“Cut your hair, wear ill-fitting clothing, and deepen your voice a bit, they hardly notice you. I thought the fight would be a good change of pace, though apparently I’m rusty in a fight.”
Pen saw the shadow of her father back at the lake. That hallucination had been enough motivation to do something different. She had been alone for a long time. She hadn’t intended to join the Games, but she needed an outlet, even if it was extreme.
“It was more than a few months since we last met,” Pen said changing the subject. “Wasn’t the last time when I wintered at your Potamis hideout a few years back?”
Raisa’s eyebrows knit together. “That was more than a few years; it was five or six years at least.”
Pen leaned back trying to let the idea sink it. It didn’t feel right, that much time just being gone, but she hadn’t been paying attention to it.
“I thought it had only been a couple of years. Wait, how’s Drivas doing, then?”
Confused thoughtfulness crossed Raisa’s eyes.
“How long do you think it’s been since the Era of Undying?”
Pen shrugged. “Six or seven years? I’m guessing longer now, though. And it wasn’t much of an era, it only lasted three months.”
She didn’t appreciate how closely Raisa was watching her or the sympathy in her eyes.
“It’s been fifteen years, Pen.”
“What?! No, it hasn’t,” she denied.
“Then you haven’t heard of young King Aegeus’s fifteenth birthday. It was quite the celebration. There was also the rise of a new king in the north, and the Rebellions on the Islands.”
Pen’s heart pounded at the thought. Fifteen years are just gone. Arch and Alard had been dead for that long? Tellus as well, now that she let herself think about it.
She looked to Raisa again and noticed the thin lines around her mouth and eyes. There wasn’t any gray in her hair yet, but the change was still significant.
“Fifteen years,” Pen said to herself.
Alard would have been eighteen years old. Pen couldn’t imagine her little boy grown up, probably with stubble even.
“So, what then?” Pen said pushing away the painful idea of a grown up Alard. “Why have you been tracking me for a few months?”
“Straight to business, then,” Raisa sighed. “Queen Aethra sent me to find you. She needs your help.”
“Why?” Pen asked dubiously.
With Pen causing the Era of Undying, she had made the late King Aegeus’s natural death of cancer even more slow and painful. She didn’t think his wife would ever want to meet.
“Stymphalia is being attacked. At least that’s what the queen told me. She wanted to keep it quiet, but it’s been happening for years. There have been attacks and rumors going around that random people are getting their throats slit. She wants your help to find this person and bring peace, just like the original Blood Warriors did.”
“I’m not like them,” Pen protested, “or like the most recent who went mad. That’s all people remember anyway. You heard them at the amphitheater, they were pissed.”
“Not all of them,” Raisa said. “Several were excited, and I saw the other warriors kneeling before you. You can change the impressions the recent Warriors left behind. Several of them were glad to see you. The king certainly was.”
“He just wanted to use me for some political power,” Pen snapped. “Queen Aethra’s motivations are probably the same.”
“No, they’re not. She’s worried about the people in her city,” Raisa stressed.
“Regardless, I’m not even good with people, let alone royalty. You saw me in the arena. I can’t handle that.”