Samuel knew he was dreaming, but it didn't matter. All things considered, he should have realized it was a dream the first time a fish floated up into the clouds above him, but dreams have that bizarre normality about them, and he wanted so badly for this one to be real. He laid in a field of soft grass, Bethany resting her head against his chest as they forgot all their worries and the world was still. Little fish floated like birds above them into a sky of white clouds and hummingbirds sang bard's tales to them from a nearby wood.
"Samuel, you need to get up." She said, sleepily, looking up at him with those doe eyes that mesmerized him.
"But I don't want too. Can't we just lay here a while longer?" He said; sheepishly.
"No, Samuel. Samuel, get up." She was stern, almost harsh this time. The fields around him sank into blackness and smoke filled his lungs, the black air encircling him in a cyclone of darkness so thick he couldn't move, couldn't see.
"Bethany!" He called, but she was gone, tossed away from him in the hurricane of darkness. "Bethany! Where are you?" There was no answer, only the rushing of wind pulling him around as a storm pulls a ship. Then, beside him, stood Old Man Porum. What he doing here in this dream turned nightmare?
"Samuel. Find me."
Samuel shot awake, soaked to the bone in sweat and panting, gasping hard for clean air and freedom from the smoke. There was no clean air to be found as he choked on a new smoke that was all too real. His home was afire, the roof alive with burning embers and the walls, just barely holding their weight, shimmered in the flames. He dove from his cot crawling along the ground, beneath the smoke to the front door. He saw no sign of his parents or his brother in the smog and could only hope that they made it out. He could hear screaming from outside and the door was open, torn from its hinges. What in the Six Hells was going on?
He crawled beneath the smoke until he was outside, but he had managed to escape the fire only to find an inferno. His peaceful little town was alight, every home burning furiously against the dawn sky. Black clad knights were everywhere, slaughtering everyone. The streets were a chaos of broken bodies and screaming, as unprepared town watchmen were being cut to ribbons by the hard steel of cruel blades.
The cry of his mother's voice snapped him into focus on the scene playing out in front of him. One of the black figures lifted her into the air with one massive fist and ran her through with the blade in his free hand. Two others kicked his father across the ground as he tried to fight. He clutched a skinning knife in his hands, but it could do nothing to the armor of the knights. They laughed as the kicked him, mocked as his tried to stand only to be brought back down. Samuels father looked on his son, eyes of love and sorrow peering into him, when a spiked mace crunched into his stomach.
"Father!" Samuel screamed, running to him in complete disregard for the knights.
"What's this? Looks like we missed one." The knight with the mace said, grabbing Samuel by the collar of his bedclothes as he tried to reach his father. The knight lifted his mace to Samuels head, resting the heavy hilt of it on his shoulder.
"Take your bets boys, how far do you think the body will go if I hit him in the belly?"
"Rodrick, you know we have orders. Lord Tulian wants the young ones. Take him to the cart with the others, we can use him." Samuel fought and kicked, but his swings amounted to nothing.
"Stop that, boy!" The knight slung him hard, and he skipped like a stone across the ground. "You get to live, rat, it's your lucky day." The knight walked toward him, heavy footfalls of clinking steel echoing in Samuel's head as he approached. In a moment that lasted a lifetime, Samuel looked on his mother, the fire of life gone from her eyes. His father was breathing his labored gasps, barely clinging to life as he watched his first born son be tossed around. Sorrow and rage boiled in Samuel, a bubbling tar of malice that stained his bones and filled his belly. He could feel himself sitting upright, but it was as if he was on the outside looking in. His lips moved of their own volition, mumbling words that lacked for any meaning, lacked any understanding. They rose in volume as the knight approached, time moving so slow around him. He was screaming, crying. Fury. Fury. Fury.
Black flames burst from his hands, consuming the knight in their primal hunger. What remained was a pile of melted metal and boiled flesh. The two others exchanged horrified glances and staggered.
"What-What are you?"
Samuel snapped his gaze to the one that spoke, yet he still felt no control. Some outsider moved his body, spoke in his voice. Yet there was no fear anymore, only rage. The knight met his eyes, and then his black helmet crumpled. Blood seeped through the slits along the front of the collapsed ball that once contained a head and the body fell. The third night turned and ran, but his legs were pulled from underneath him by an unseen force. Samuel drug him back without touching him, as the knight pulled and tore at the dirt. Samuel could hear the echoes of sobs from within his helmet.
"Please, please have mercy!" The knight's cries were cut short as his legs curled up to his back, bones cracking as they climbed. Samuel collapsed, no longer feeling the presence of another acting in his stead. His head swam and the rage subsided back into sorrow and terrified confusion.
"Sam… Samuel…" His father fought for breath, and Samuel crawled to him.
"Father. Father, please." Tears streamed down Samuel's face and he rested his father's head in his lap.
"Samuel, listen. Your brother… He ran… Escaped… We never told you… How could we have told you…"
Samuel could hardly make out his words over the roar of that chaos around him. "Samuel, find Porum… He can tell you what I didn't… I'm so sorry."
"Father! Father please! Please don't go! Father, I don't want to be alone!" His father's body was still, the life gone from him. Samuel clutched the broken body of his father, tears streaming down his face onto the lifeless remains of the man that had raised him; the man that had taught him everything about life. Find Porum. Why? Why find a tired old man in the middle of this hell? His dream came back to him in a flood. What could that old alchemist mean that was so important that his father spent his dying breaths on him? Bethany. He had to find her first. He took a final look at his parents, and as he ran from the home he had once knew, something shattered inside him.
His run was little more than a jog, whatever he had done to those soldiers had seemed to sap the very marrow from his bones. His whole body ached, but the driving force of adrenalin pushed him onward all the same. The terror and fury was fading into a numb resolution as he zig-zagged his way in between the buildings of the village, careful to stay out of sight as he made his way toward the outskirts of town. The carnage had only gotten worse. What little resistance the town watch had made to the attack was silenced and the broken bodies of the would-be defenders littered the ground. The homes were all afire and smoke from the docks was drifting inland, choking out the sunrise like hands around its throat. As he moved further up the hillside he could see carts filled with children of every age. What in the Six Hells could they want with children?
He could see her home now, it's thatch roof collapsed from the fire that consumed it. There she was, crouched over her mother's lifeless form with a bow in hand. Her father was digging his hunting knife out of a soldier clad in leather and armored bodies of their attackers littered the ground around them; several filled with Bethany's arrows.
"Sam!" She called to him as soon as he moved from the buildings.
"Bethany!" He called back, fighting for enough air to make the words.
"Sam, we have to take papa to Porum, he's hurt real bad." Her father was bleeding furiously from his right arm and his left eye was swollen shut. She looked into Samuel's hollow eyes. "Sam… Your family?" His tears were all the response she needed. She embraced him, burying her head in his shoulder. "Sam, I'm so afraid." He could find no words to comfort her, nothing to ease the pain of loss as their whole world burned around them.
"Bethany!" Her father shouted as three more soldiers in leather approached. She sank to one knee, pulling an arrow from the quiver on her back and firing. It found a permanent home in the ribs of the first man, then her second draw silenced the second. The third was too fast, dodging her final shot and burying his short sword into her father's neck. The burly old hunter raised his blade, but his strength was gone. He fell limp.
"Papa!" She screamed in a rage, drawing her own knife and charging the man. Samuel stood dumbfounded, desperately searching for whatever had come over him before. There was nothing to be found, no fire or strange words; no stranger take over his actions and save her. The soldier parried her strike with a bloody blade knocked her down with his shield. A hard footfall snapped her wrist and knocked her knife against the smoldering cottage. Samuel charged, numb to the pain in his heart just as he was to the soreness in his bones. The soldier swung his sword arm, the metal bracer on his wrist catching Samuel in the jaw and knocking him flat. He saw stars and the world spun around him. He couldn't feel his legs and his fatigue wore hard against him. Before he could even muster the strength to stand, the soldier had slung Bethany over his shoulder and was walking away. She screamed and kicked, but he was twice her size. There was no escape for her. Samuel found his feet only to fall again, then again, then again. She was gone. They were to be married in the summer, and now she was gone. He sobbed, furious at himself. He was asleep when they took his parents, and too weak to save the woman he loved. He had to find Porum, or he would fail to even honor his father's final words.
He trudged away from the ruins of the village out into the woods, his weak legs forced ever onward. Just as he rounded the final corner of the little hunting trail that led to the old man's home, he could hear shouting. By the AEtherials, had they found Porum too? He ducked into the bushes and waited, just barely able to see what was taking place in front of Porum's shack. Five knights, all clad in shiny black stood around the old man, weapons drawn.
"You're lucky that Lord Tulian wants you alive, old man. Cooperate, and we might just follow his orders." Porum sat in a little chair in his garden, behind the little wire fence Samuel and Loren had built for him so many years ago. His head rested idly on entwined hands and he seemed entirely unconcerned about the presence of the armed men in his yard.
"Stand up, you old fuck!" One of the others shouted. "We won't ask you again!"
Porum was frail, his slender from found gaunt even under the loose robes he wore. Long wrinkles framed his soft eyes and his tiny nose seemed to have drooped in his age. He was the picture of helplessness, and yet these men found it so easy to threaten him with violence. He sat still, unmoved by their words. Samuel felt the urge to run out there and help him, but what could he do? He was useless to defend Bethany, and she was a skilled hunter. What help could he possibly lend to a tired old man?
"Alright, I've had enough. Lord Tulian wants you alive, but he never said he wanted you unharmed. The first knight trampled the wire fence and grabbed Porum by the wrist, snatching him up from his chair.
"No." Porum said, so soft that Samuel could hardly hear him. Strange, calloused words dripped from the old man and then the world buzzed. The deafening roar of millions of tiny wings swarmed around the shack and all the knights collapsed, screaming. The air grew thick with bees, they buzzed and stung and crawled inside the armor of the knights. They kicked and cried, but could not escape the countless stingers digging into them from every angle. In only moments the formidable solders were left a writhing mess on the ground.
"You tell that fiend Tulian that if he wants to see me, he had better be damn man enough to come himself." The buzzing went silent, as if the bees were never really there at all. "Come, Samuel. We have much to discuss." The old man's beady eyes locked with his.
"How? How did you know I was-"
"I know a great deal of things, and I intend to teach you a great deal more. Come, it is not safe here any longer."