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.