Asa Elry knelt beside a man she could not recognize. He was being consumed by the dark curse: the unholy spell Slemt Rass had created to assault the citizens of Gerutra. Most of the man’s face and the right side of his body melted into a dark tar-like substance loosely resembling the shape of the man underneath. Currently, it was on the surface of his skin, working its way into his body. She knew it hadn’t reached his central nervous system, because he hadn’t yet tried to kill her.
Asa had learned from her instructors that, if left unchecked, the curse would spread to the man’s mind and wipe away anything he used to be. He would become one of the Corrupted. In his place, a mindless soldier of the dark would rise to infect those around him.
To date, no one had found a way to counter Rass’s curse and bring the Corrupted back to the world of the living. One of the Grand Paladins, Klarline Falza, had only found how to liberate the soul before it was tainted. She called it The Release. With The Release, Paladins could use their Healing Sight too find the place where the soul was tethered to the body and sever the chain.
A similar technique had been used for centuries in burial rituals. It was called Gefaut, and it ensured the transition of the soul to the next plain of existence by severing a soul that for some reason, usually anger or regret, would not detach itself from a corpse.
Asa Elry had only practiced Gefaut in training. She’d never performed it in a real ceremony, or on a human. The test subjects tended to be small rodents.
Klarline Falza was the first Paladin of record to use a soul severing technique on a living person. She had refined The Release so it could quickly be used in battle situations. Because of her, the war had become an actual war, rather than just a slaughter, but still the Paladins and the free states of the southern continent were on the brink of collapse.
The great cities had fallen. Now the armies of the Corrupt marched against Hilmimhild, the stronghold of the Paladins of Light. When Hilminhild collapsed, so would any hope of surviving the war for the majority of the continent.
Though she knew her part in this battle would be small, Asa felt the weight of the southern continent’s hopes on her shoulders. Everyone in Hilminhild did. Here was the seat of light, where peasants, soldiers and royalty stood shoulder to shoulder and prayed for guidance, love, justice, and anything else they wished. It was where all the Paladins were trained, including the great Klarline Falza.
Although revering her, many Paladins were loath to actually use the technique developed by the Grand Paladin. They had been trained to fight evil, heal the innocent, and release lingering souls. While the technique satisfied two of the three purposes, there was something that just felt wrong in ending the life of an innocent in order to protect oneself.
Asa’s emotions told her that death to the innocent corrupted person was cruel, but through reasoning, she understood that by severing the soul, it was allowed to cross the veil and be at peace. If not released, it would remain, controlled by the curse.
No one knew yet how long the soul would remain enthralled or if it had ever released on its own. No one had survived the attack of the Corrupted long enough to study the curse in depth. The assault was always too swift and too complete.
Looking at the man, Asa thought of performing The Release for the first time on a living person. She was pretty sure she couldn’t do it. The procedure was very difficult, and Asa was only an Adept-in-Development, or an AiD, as the Senior Adepts referred to them. But the war had reached the walls of Hilminhild and she had no choice. It didn’t matter if she agreed with the principle of killing or if she only knew the theory of the technique, she’d have to perform it in order to protect everyone she knew.
This man could be one of her classmates or seniors. But it didn’t matter who he was, she couldn’t allow anyone to become a Corrupted. If one of them walked within the walls of the castle, Asa, and everyone else, was doomed. The curse would spread, unchecked, until they all fell into darkness.
Practicing the technique on a real Corrupted was much different than learning the theories. Asa’s stomach lurched as she watched the curse slowly writhe and spread across the man’s body. She tried to block out that image, to focus solely on her patient and what he needed her to do. He needed her to kill him.
“Stop it, Asa,” she reprimanded herself, as she felt her hands shaking and tears welling. Closing her eyes and taking a few deep cleansing breathes, Asa tried to control herself.
“Focus your emotions,” she whispered. “Don’t let your emotions be your focus.”
Her favorite instructor, Solden Reach, had told her that once, and it had become a mantra she chanted whenever she needed to control herself. Asa smiled. She felt a familiar tickle in her stomach. She always did when she thought of Instructor Reach. He was so friendly and smart and handsome. His sapphire eyes were striking, like small stars erupting into life whenever he blinked.
Asa released a sigh. Her right hand fell to her waist, where it rested upon a cold object. The frigid touch caught Asa’s breathe. She glanced down to see the hilt of her sword.
She was always in the bottom of her weapon instruction class, and she knew she wouldn’t last long in physical combat with even a moderately trained foot soldier. But if she couldn’t sever the man’s soul with her Healing Sight, she’d have to do it physically, with her blade, before the curse fully transformed the man into a Corrupted. She had even less faith that she would be able to do that.
“Focus your emotions,” she whispered. “Don’t let your emotions be your focus.”
Kneeling, Asa placed her hand over the man’s uncontaminated heart. This time, while still concentrating on her objective, Asa kept her eyes open. She was sure the sight of the curse would keep her from succumbing to the warm escape of her fantasies.
Releasing some of her magical power, Asa opened her Healing Sight, and the image she saw began to change. With her left eye, she kept focused on the man’s horrifying exterior, but her right eye looked deeper. Beneath the man’s skin, she could see his muscular skeletal system. The curse hadn’t yet broken through. There were no physical wounds. The curse had somehow struck someone within the castle without the walls being breached.
Noticing that the curse seemed to be more advanced towards the man’s right hand, Asa looked to see what could have infected him. There was a large lump inside the tar about where the man’s hand should be. Perhaps the enemy had launched something infected inside.
“I have time,” she thought. The curse traveled faster through a vector of entry. “Maybe I can figure out a way to save him.” She began to get excited, and her Healing Sight started wavering.
“Focus your emotions,” she whispered, and she took a deep breath to dull her excitement.
“Klarline Falza couldn’t find a way to save a Corrupted,” she thought. “Neither did any of the other Grand Paladins, or the instructors, or any of the other people who are smarter than I am. What makes me think I can figure out how to save someone when they couldn’t? Maybe I should find someone else to do this, someone better.”
“No,” she said out loud. “I need to accept what I have to do.” The instructors and Guardian Paladins, who usually safeguarded the gates during peacetime, were busy defending the castle from the hordes of Corrupted assailing the gates now. The AiDs had been assigned the duty of cleansing any Corrupted that made it inside.
“I bet they expected the Corrupted to fight at the gate, not fling their corpses inside. The AiDs were probably never meant to be in danger,” she thought. But the curse had gotten in, and it was right in front of her. She had to do what she could before the man became a full Corrupted and infected others within the walls.
“I wonder how many of the others have already had to perform The Release,” Asa thought, but quickly put it out of her mind. It didn’t really matter. There weren’t many of them, five in total, so they had spread out. The others were too far away to help.
The Healing Sight began to stabilize, though it seemed less vibrant to Asa. She forced herself to look deeper, through the layers of lean muscle, through the rib cage and she paused when she reached the heart, the poetic container of love. It looked so different than the romanticized images people drew, but Asa believed it looked even more beautiful than the flat red drawings of affection.
The rhythmic beating of the four chambers was soothing and she found herself being mesmerized by the music.
Asa didn’t know how long she watched and listened to the alternating contractions of the twin atriums and ventricles, but it was a different rhythm that pulled her out of her captivation. It was one she saw with her left eye.
The curse, it wasn’t just writhing. It seemed to be dancing to its own rhythm. Like an ocean during a rainstorm, the surface was pitted and peaked, but as a whole, the curse ebbed and flowed. It was eroding the man’s skin, like the ocean ate away the shoreline.
“Perhaps an alternate wave could cancel the waves of the curse and at least slow it down,” Asa thought. “I wouldn’t be able to figure out the frequency, but maybe someone like Klarline Falza or Instructor Reach could.” Her heart fluttered again.
The curse began to break the exterior of the skin and the peaks on the surface intensified. Asa noted the underlying rhythm of the wave hadn’t changed, though. However, she was now short on time. The curse would spread faster, now that it had broken the surface. If it touched her physically or through her magic, she would be consumed, as well.
“Focus your emotions,” she thought. “Think of the task at hand, remember the procedure.” She had to move faster, now.
An image of Instructor Reach lecturing the class jumped into her mind, his eyes twinkling over his ever-present smile. “To sever the soul without damaging it,” Solden Reach said in a deep baritone that made Asa savor every syllable, “you must touch the heart. With your ethereal hand, draw a circle. Start in the left atrium, circle through the left ventricle, the right ventricle, the right atrium, and return to your starting point.” Instructor Reach mimicked the motion of the ethereal hand with his right hand on an enlarged anatomical drawing of a heart on the chalkboard.
For the first time, Asa realized Instructor Reach’s “circle” resembled the romanticized hearts of love. He started on the septum between the atriums, arched up and around, until he reached the base of the septum between the ventricles, before making a “v” shape and mirroring the image on the right side.
“You have to place an anchor in each chamber,” Instructor Reach said, pointing to the center of the line he’d drawn in each chamber of the heart image, ”and tie them to the base of the brain stem. When you sever the tether of life, you have to pull the plug from the seat of intellect and the seat of emotion in the same instance; otherwise the soul may not be released intact and would be unable to cross the veil.”
As she remembered Instructor Reach’s words, Asa reached out her ethereal hand to trace the symbol on the man’s heart, but she paused with the first contact. “What was that,” she gasped. A jolt of energy rushed into her and quickly dissipated, not enough to hurt, just surprise.
She reached back out to reconnect, and nothing happened. “Maybe I imagined it,” she thought. Asa knew she was nervous. It wasn’t just the curse and the battle. She’d never touched a person before with her ethereal body. It was possible the fear was playing tricks with her mind.
Keeping her left eye focused on the undulating curse, Asa traced the arch through the left atrium. “Does the line go through the valve,” she questioned herself. Asa recalled the image of Instructor Reach training the technique and traced the line through the valve, to the septum, and back up the right side. The entire time, she felt energy building, again.
“What is that,” she thought, as she began placing the anchors within each chamber.
When Asa connected the fourth anchor, a small explosion of light blinded her Healing Sight. The surprise made her withdraw but not from pain. It actually felt good, warm and comforting, almost inviting. With her left eye, she also noted that the rhythm of the curse changed at the same time her right eye was blinded, but only for a second. The curse had returned to its normal pattern so fast that Asa wondered if she had imagined the change.
“Perhaps,” she thought, “it was a Resonance.”
A Resonance was so rare that Paladins hadn’t fully explored the phenomenon. It had been recorded nearly a century ago, when a Priest attempted to perform a burial ritual on a king. The priest and the king had been friends for nearly 30 years. When the Resonance took place, the priest stopped the ritual. It turned out that the king had been poisoned with a sleeping drought that mimicked death. The Resonance had saved his life.
The only other recorded Resonance happened a little over a year earlier, when Klarline Falza performed the Release on a Corrupted that turned out to be her own mother. The trauma was so bad that Klarline had gone mad. She had grabbed two fallen blades and rushed into a sea of Corrupted. It was assumed she had either died or become a Corrupted herself, but she had beheaded at least 12 of the enemy before disappearing.
In both instances the one performing the technique knew the person on whom they were performing the technique.
“No,” Asa jumped. “It can’t be Instructor Reach!”
She frantically searched the body with her left eye, but the curse had covered all of the parts she could use to recognize her patient. Everyone at Hilminhild wore the same robes and Solden Reach had no discernible markings that Asa knew about.
Asa’s mind and heart were both racing. She had to find out, but how?
“Yes, Falin, there is a theory,” Instructor Reach said, in a memory that suddenly sprung to Asa’s mind. He was talking to Falin Tilfinigar. The boy was in Asa’s class and had asked a question about Klarline Falza’s technique and her death. “The theory is that if you share experiences with the person you perform the technique on, that you will both feel the emotions within those experiences deeper than you ever could yourself. So deep, in fact, that many believe the shared experiences between Grand Paladin Falza and her mother were what drove the poor woman insane.”
That was the answer. She had to somehow share her memories with the patient. If it were Instructor Reach, she’d know. She loved Solden Reach. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad because he didn’t love her. He couldn’t. He was her instructor. It was forbidden.
Besides, the other students called it a puppy love. They made fun of her, but she didn’t care. To Asa, it was the most powerful feeling she’d ever known. To multiply that, Asa wasn’t sure she could take it.
But she had to know. If it was Solden Reach, she wasn’t sure if she could kill him, even if it meant becoming a Corrupted herself. Maybe it was best if she didn’t know. His death could mean saving countless lives.
Whatever she decided to do, she had to hurry. Once the curse reached a blood vessel, it would be quickly pumped around the body. She wouldn’t have time to perform the rest of the technique.
“Your biggest weakness is your fear,” Asa remembered Instructor Reach telling her. “You have wonderful instincts, but you don’t believe in yourself enough to follow them. You concentrate too much on what you are afraid of and let it cloud your instincts. Focus your emotions, Asa. Don’t let your emotions be your focus.”
Asa Elry felt the tears racing down her face. With her left eye, she saw the dark waves of the curse slicing through the body of a man she feared she loved. Her right eye saw the mesmerizing rhythm of the man’s heart overlain with the symbol of love she had drawn on it, and the dotted anchors she had placed in each chamber in order to rip his life away.
She reached her ethereal hand towards the container of love that circulated life. She raced the curse, which she saw enter the blood stream. She knew she would die if she didn’t kill this man, now, but she needed to know.
Asa thought of Solden Reach and grabbed the heart with her ethereal hand. The surge of energy rushed into her, stronger than before, but this time she did not let go. Instead she poured her respect, longing, fear, and love into the touch.
Her memory of Solden Reach providing a lecture on the history of the Gerutra royal family was answered with an image of her doe eyed expression. “Is that how he sees me,” she thought. “Maybe I do look like a love struck puppy.”
She thought of Instructor Reach telling a joke about a horse and an angel that made most of the class groan, and she was answered with an image of her giggling hysterically at the same joke. “OK,” she told the image. “I admit the joke wasn’t funny. I was laughing because the butterflies in my stomach went crazy when you smiled at me. I couldn’t control myself.”
“How about this one,” Asa asked the owner of the heart she held in her hand. She remembered bumping into Solden Reach in the castle courtyard. She’d been out past curfew gossiping with a friend. He’d come around a corner without seeing her and had knocked her down. Instructor Reach had offered a hand to help her up. Asa pushed the thrill that ran through her into the memory. It was the only time he had physically touched her. Even though it was quick, it was electric. Her body tingled with the excitement.
Now the touch was multiplying it well beyond the most intense feeling she’d ever experienced. The excitement and warmth almost made her release the heart, but she wasn’t ready to let go yet.
She remembered wanting to tell him she loved him at that moment. She remembered him lecturing her about being out past curfew, promising not to tell anyone if she hurried back to her room, and the speech he gave her about focusing her emotions when she paused.
Asa could see that the curse had almost reached the heart and her ethereal hand by now. She had had taken too long. Her choice had been made. Soon she would become a Corrupted, as well.
“I love you, Solden Reach. How’s that for focusing my emotions,” she hurled at the man lying prone beneath her. “And now we’ll both die of this curse.” There was no answer this time.
“I understand,” she said. “You don’t feel the same way.” Asa felt anger, bloodlust, and emptiness rush up her ethereal hand. She started releasing her grip when the answer came.
Her encounter with Solden Reach in the courtyard was played back to her, but the image wasn’t what she expected. The angle was from someone looking down from a balcony.
She saw herself run from her friend’s room, and Instructor Reach run from the female instructors’ dorm. She saw them bump into each other and their awkward exchange. From this angle, they both seemed uncomfortable, guilty even, like they’d been caught.
Asa saw a light ignite in one of the female instructor’s rooms. A robed head mistress stepped out of the door and did not look happy. She felt a sense of urgency from the person watching the scene unfold, and a longing that reminded her of her own feelings towards Solden Reach.
The figures of Asa and Instructor Reach in the memory parted. The head mistress returned to her room, obviously flustered. Asa watched herself stumble through the dark courtyard until she disappeared into the girls’ dormitories. She felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, of unrequited and unexpressed love, and of a self-paralyzing fear of rejection.
The emotions so perfectly mirrored her own that she lost herself in them and forgot they weren’t her memories, until the view shifted, as if a head turned. In the glass balcony doors, she saw the image of a boy her own age. He had dark, messy hair and dark brown eyes that revealed a tremendous longing. One she never noticed because she was focusing eyes with the same look on someone else.
“I’m sorry, Falin,” she cried. “I had no idea you felt the same way I did. Maybe, if I wasn’t so blind, we could have at least tried.”
Asa Elry’s physical form collapsed in tears on Falin Tilfinigar’s chest. She had given in. She had failed and they both would die here. She could feel the curse spreading fast.
With her ethereal self, Asa mingled her emotions with Falin’s, wanting him to know he wasn’t alone, wanting them both to feel the joy of sharing their emotions with another who felt the same way, just once before the curse took all their feelings away.
Asa lost sense of herself and gave completely into her emotions, focusing them on Falin. She entered the white light and met him there. They were honest with each other and not afraid.
They struck the first True Resonance. They did not know how. They only knew they felt the same, as one.
The energy from their Resonance grew. It sent out pulses of light that flowed from its center, like ripples flowing from where a skipped stone strikes the water’s surface. The energy built, increasing the size of the ripples into large waves.
When the True Resonance reached its peak, it exploded.
A pillar of light was seen for miles around, and the waves shot out through the castle and across the battlefield.
The fighting stopped as everyone struck by those waves was blinded by the light and paralyzed by the intense emotions they contained.
When the soldiers were able to move again, they found the Corrupted gone. In their places, the soldiers found farmers, housewives, friends and family.
They all searched to find what had saved them. It was Solden Reach who found a young girl collapsed on top of a young man inside of circle of objects that had been blown back a hundred yards and smashed against walls. The plants and animals within that circle were untouched, but all nonliving objects were obliterated.
The young AiD, Asa Elry, had found a way to save someone that even the greatest Paladins hadn’t. She had single-handedly won the battle of Hilminhild Castle and turned the tide of the war.
From that day on, young Paladins dreamed of being like her.
Tony Daly is a DC/Metro Area creative writer.He has an MA in Creative Writing from SUNY College at Brockport and a BA in English from the University at Buffalo. His work is forthcoming in anthologies from Wolfsinger Publications and Fantasy Divinity Magazine, as well as recent publications online at Boned-A Collection of Skeletal Writing, The HorrorZine, and the Ekphrastic Review. He serves as an Associate Editor with Military Experience and the Arts. For links to his published work, visit https://aldaly13.wixsite.com/