Storm’s Return – Part 1

 

Storm – standing alone in the rainforest with his back towards the creature – took a deep breath; he could still feel the warm summer breeze touch his face, but all the pleasant smells were gone; replaced by the stench of death and decay.

It wasn’t a big surprise; facing life-threatening monsters was to be expected, after all – this was one of the reasons he had chosen this world. For a second, Storm considered to just give in; let the creature rip him to pieces and finally end his suffering, but – as always when he was about to take the easy way out – something in him rebelled, and in this particular moment, it was anger that rushed through him.

For once, he had been enjoying himself again; nothing more than a few minutes of clarity, a moment to appreciate the clear sky and the beautiful nature around him; a moment without his memories hanging over everything like a darkening cloud. But now, all that was gone, and with every additional breath, Storm lowered his heart rate; ready to make someone pay for taking that peacefulness away.

Focusing on the monster that was lurking in the shadows, he started to block out his surroundings. He knew that the forest ghoul had been sneaking around him and his cabin for days already; carefully and yet still voraciously the creature had been getting closer and closer, shielded by the forest’s vegetation, and thus almost invisible to the naked eye. It wasn’t until now though, that it seemed to be brave or maybe just desperate enough to consider an attack.

Storm put one hand on the grip of his sword and noticed how his senses sharpened. He was still a child when his powers awakened, when he felt the presence of one of the essences for the first time; it was nothing more than a dog that had been corrupted but what he felt was so terrifying that it still haunts him in his sleep sometimes. Nearly three decades later though, there was no chance that such an inferior creature could ambush him; unless he decided to just let it happen…

Despite the danger, Storm remained calm and didn’t move an inch while his muscles tightened. Little by little, the monster came closer, and Storm could feel how the tension in his body rose, how his powers warned him about the imminent threat.

Then finally, the forest ghoul attacked.

Followed by a dark and beastly roar – causing several animals in the vicinity to flee – the creature rushed out of the thicket and leapt at him. By now, Storm had given himself over entirely to his years of experience, and instead of thinking about his actions, he simply surrendered and let the motions happen.

A well-timed sidestep, and the monster flew past him.

Just like a dancer executing a pirouette, Storm gave his entire body to this turn, his sword whooshing through the air to complete the movement.

At the same time as he came to a halt, body and head of the forest ghoul separately hit the ground with a muffled sound. A pool of darkened blood started to spread around the dead creature, and the stench on the clearing increased, making it harder and harder to keep the nausea in check.

Storm pulled a dirty piece of cloth out of his pocket and wiped the blade clean. Once more, memories of the past tried to overwhelm him as his gaze was focused on the bloody ground. It took all his willpower to push the memories back, and as soon as he succeeded, Storm put his sword back into the sheath. He got down on one knee and took the head of the forest ghoul in both hands, holding it right in front of his face; its skin, basically nothing but bark, rubbed against his palms and fingers.

Carefully, he studied it: the sharp teeth, the long tongue hanging out of its mouth and the many twigs filled with leaves, growing everywhere out of its head; it was almost unbelievable that these creatures could move in the first place, that they actually lived – but whatever life this creature once had, it was gone now for sure.

How many lives this monster must have taken; it should have caused a feeling of relief to free the world from such an evil, but deep inside of him nothing had changed; a darkness – way more powerful than this creature – still had control over his heart, and so his pain remained.

Storm began to scream; it wasn’t very loud at first, but with every second he surrendered more of himself to the rage inside. His grip around the decapitated head tightened, and his screams became so loud that his throat began to hurt. Ignoring the pain, he kept screaming from the depths of his lungs, and threw the head as far as he could.

While the head was still in the air, Storm abruptly went silent, and with both eyes closed, he just stood there, heavily breathing.

He filled his lungs slowly and pushed the air out again; back and forth, back, and forth. The tension in his body declined with every single breath, and without paying any additional attention to the dead creature, Storm suddenly turned around and headed in the direction of his cabin…

Storm’s Return – Part 2

 

It wasn’t very far.

After an hour of walking through the tropical forest, and with some freshly picked berries in his pocket, Storm reached the ramshackle cabin he had been calling home for more than two years now.

The cabin was built at the foot of a large stone formation, and all around it someone had dug a moat, several yards deep and wide. Storm had no idea who was responsible for it, but when finding this place on a mission a few years ago, he knew right away that it might become useful at some point.

Unfortunately, reaching it always meant quite a lot of work since only one side came with a mechanism to lower the rudimentary bridge; and so, Storm headed towards a spot where the trees reached all the way to the edge. Underneath one of the bushes, tied to a tree, he found the rope he was looking for and started his descent, eventually using another rope on the other side to get back up.

When he first arrived, Storm thought about how to find a better solution — considering someone else could use the ropes as well — but he quickly came to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely that someone else would be stupid enough to venture out here voluntarily; after all, even the inhabitants of Rantau, the only village on this island, didn’t enter the rainforest further than its very edges, afraid of all the dangers inside.

Standing in front of the door, Storm looked up, and noticed how the sun — what little he could see here in the first place — was hidden behind some large and dark clouds. He took a few steps back and carefully inspected the roof to see if his patchwork still would keep the rain away; when he deemed it fine enough, he walked back to the door and put his hand on the handle. As he was just about to open the cabin, he caught a glimpse of a small pile of earth in the corner of his eye.

Storm froze, his hand still on the handle; he could feel his heart getting heavier while his hands began to tremble. When the pressure on his eyes increased as well, he closed them and tried to get his rapid breathing under control; by now his entire body was shaking, as he desperately focused on his breathing in order to overcome this attack.

It seemed to work.

With every steady breath, he felt more comfortable again, until eventually, the moment seemed to have passed. His body had stopped shaking and with a sigh of relief, Storm opened his eyes, staring at the dark wood in front of him.

There was nothing he could have done to prevent what followed.

Out of nowhere, Storm screamed out and bashed his fist against the door. Once, twice; again and again his knuckles clashed with the solid surface until it eventually gave in. His face contorted with pain, Storm looked down on his bloody hand and kicked the door open in order to take care of his wounds.

It wasn’t the pain though that angered him the most. Far more frustrating was the fact that once more, he had to repair a hole in the door.

Storm was sitting on the bed, calmly staring out the window. It rained, and the fresh smell of nature outside filled his nose. The air felt warm, almost soft, and the quietness surrounding his cabin brought some peace to his mind. As much as he felt in control though, he knew that he had to see her again. The anniversary of her death neared, and with every day that passed, his anxiety got worse.

Even now he could feel it creeping up on him the more he thought about it, until it eventually reached a point he couldn’t bear any more.

Determined, Storm got up and made sure that both the window and door were fully closed. He considered barricading the door from the inside but quickly realized that he didn’t care enough any longer; if something wanted to get in, then so be it.

Walking to the center of the cabin, Storm got down on his knees, and from underneath a loose floor panel he pulled out a small casket. As carefully as possible he opened it and looked at what little there was left of the magical dream herbs; two more visits until his stash would be depleted, and considering how he came in possession of them, it was impossible to say if he ever would be able to get a hold of more.

Pondering the scarceness of the herbs, Storm considered for a moment to wait a bit longer, just a few days, maybe a few hours at least; but even if he wanted to, he simply couldn’t take it anymore. His longing was too intense, and so he took half of the remaining herbs and put them into a fireproofed bowl, carefully adding a variety of oils. At last, he sat down on the bed and pulled out his flintstone. It didn’t take very long until the herbs caught fire and the magical smoke started to fill the entire cabin. Breathing heavily, Storm inhaled as much of it as possible while listening to the crackle of the fire.

All of his concentration was focused on remembering the right moment; under no circumstance did he want to risk the traumatic experience of awakening the wrong memories once more. Without paying much attention to it, Storm stroked his wrists; the scars were easily hidden underneath bracelets and a long shirt, but for his soul they would never fully disappear in the shadows. He knew that those scars would remind him of that night for as long as he lived, and for just as long he would continue cursing the gods for not granting him his biggest desire.

Storm shook his head when he noticed how his thoughts started to take on a life of their own; he inhaled deeply, and once more tried everything in his power to recall the right memories in front of his inner eye. With every single breath, his mind seemed to break loose of the shackles that kept it bound to reality, and slowly, Storm began to see her right in front of him. He raised his hands, grasping nothing but air while a smile played on his lips as he plunged deeper and deeper into his own memories. A single word, nothing but a name, passed his lips before all of reality surrounding him was gone.

“Elana…”

Storm’s Return – Part 3

 

“Storm? Storm!”

He could hear a female voice shout his name somewhere in the distance; the images before his inner eye started to blur. With all of his mental strength, Storm held on to the past, refusing to face reality again.

“Let’s leave. This guy is of no help to anyone, look at him. I marched all the way through this damned heat so we could get this poor excuse of a human? Seriously?” someone else said, a weird hissing sound following every single word.

“Stop it, Derjan. You have no idea what he is capable of.”

There it was again, that female voice from before. It sounded familiar, and suddenly Storm noticed how everything around him began to tremble. As close as reality already was, he could feel how someone grabbed him, shaking him forcefully.

“No, not now. Not so soon!” he screamed from the depths of his lungs, seeing how Elana’s face started to fade in front of him. Storm reached out with both hands and tried desperately to reach her again, to touch her face just one last time; but before he could feel his fingers on her skin, she was gone, and within an instant, both his body and mind were back in the present.

His head still pounding, Storm quickly opened his eyes.

Sunlight had found its way into the cabin again, and he noticed how someone kept holding on to his shoulder, slapping him in the face.

As his instincts took over, he freed himself from the other person’s grip, and jumped away from the bed; his cheek burning heavily.

With all his muscles tightened, he looked up, ready to defend himself. Storm knew that it would take a moment or two until his sight was fully restored, so for now he just stood there, trying to recognize something within the blurry images in front of him.

There was no doubt that two individuals were standing in his cabin, that much their voices had already given away, and he could see their silhouettes close by.

They were of similar height, compared to himself smaller by at least a head; one of them, in terms of body size way bigger than the other, seemed to be wearing metal armor. Despite the ongoing blurriness, Storm could see the sunlight getting reflected from it, and he wondered immediately who would be stupid enough to wear something like that out here in this tropical environment.

He turned his head a bit and looked at the other person; it was difficult to make out anything noticeable in his current condition, but he was sure that — whoever it was — was holding some kind of staff in hand.

Storm squinted his eyes, trying to sharpen his vision. He could almost see them clearly now and looked at the bigger person first; his instincts telling him, this might be the more dangerous threat. The lizard-like features with the scaly, bluish skin and the sharp teeth, almost grinning at him, were a dead giveaway.

He wondered what a Rhultak would be doing out here, but it did explain the hissing sound earlier, and even the metal armor made sense now; under normal circumstances, there was no way you would come across a Rhultak who isn’t fully armored, regardless of where you were.

As unlikely as it was, there was nothing to argue about the Rhultak’s presence, and so Storm redirected his gaze at what looked like the smaller threat at first. She was human, a woman, there was no doubt about that now. She was wearing tight leather clothes, long pants with a vest that exposed her belly, and in her hand, a decorated staff. Storm raised his head and noticed her shoulder-long, brown hair before looking into her green eyes that seemed full of sadness and anger at the same time.

“Tamara?” he asked, knowing full well, who was standing right in front of him.

Tamara took a few steps towards him and leaned over the bed to open the window. Only now Storm noticed that the door stood open, and the upcoming air draft pushed the remaining smoke out of the cabin.

“You look terrible, did someone tell you this recently?”, Tamara said.

Storm looked down at his dirty clothes and ran both hands over his face. He could feel the unkempt beard between his fingers while observing how Tamara’s gaze wandered to some dark stains on the floor next to the bed.

Immediately, Storm stepped on a ragged rug and pulled it over the stains.

“I didn’t choose this place because of its company”.

While her companion kept his stiff attitude, remaining at the door and making a disapproving noise, Tamara pulled a chair towards herself and sat down. Despite her slim yet thoroughly fit body, the chair creaked loudly as she leaned over the back of it, her head shaking. “What were you thinking, leaving yourself so vulnerable out here?”

They stared silently at each other, but for a moment, Storm looked right through her, seeing Elana’s face appear before his inner eye.

It felt like a knife being twisted in his heart.

He knew that he had been robbed of one of his last vivid moments with her, but as much as he wanted to get furious, he couldn’t. After all, it wasn’t just anyone who had done this to him; it was Tamara.

So, he did his best to fake a smile, cramped yet still heartfelt. “I guess it was just a matter of time before someone found me, so I’m glad it’s you,” he answered and rubbed his eyes. “I assume you’ve been ordered to escort me back so that they can punish me for my disappearance?”

“Oh my god, it’s really you!”

Storm yanked his head around in surprise when a Gniwer suddenly pushed himself past the Rhultak blocking the door.

“I’ve checked the perimeter, and everything looks good, no dangers to be found.”

The Gniwer, barely more than half Storm’s size, clicked his heels in what looked like an awkward attempt to salute, and continued to come closer. He threw his backpack, rattling with all kinds of stuff, on the ground, and pulled a pair of goggles up over his head; then he looked up, grabbed Storm’s hand, and shook it.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir. I cannot tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

Storm, still baffled, stared at Tamara.

“Fip, now is not the time,” she said in a tone that left no doubts who was calling the shots here. “Go and keep Derjan company outside, I will take it from here.”

“But…“.

“I said, go!”

Mumbling to himself and dragging his feet, the Gniwer wandered towards his companion at the door, grabbing his backpack along the way.

“So? What are your orders?” Storm asked, when both of Tamara’s companions had left the cabin.

“First of all, I could have told the council where you were since the day you disappeared”.

Storm leaned against the wall. “You could?”

“How many years have we been doing this together? I was with you, when you found the remains of this cabin, remember?” Tamara got up from the chair and started wandering through the room. “I knew from day one you would choose this place in, what I think, was a stupid attempt of getting yourself killed.”

“Then why didn’t you tell them, instead of risking your own career?”

“Because you are my friend and I care about you? What else, you idiot.”

Storm leaned over the bed and closed the window. “So, why are you here now then?”

“We need your help.”

“Ehrm…,” it was the Rhultak who obviously wanted to protest, but Tamara didn’t give him any chance for that. As soon as her companion tried to speak up, she walked to the door. “I said, I’ll take it from here.”

Storm watched Tamara close the door, but before it was completely shot, he still noticed the Gniwer staring right at him with a smile over his face that looked like it reached from one pointed ear to the other.

“What kind of help are we talking about?” he asked, trying to get that creepy grin out of his head.

“It’s about Everling,” Tamara answered, and as much as he tried, Storm couldn’t keep all his feelings bottled down when hearing those words.

“I’ve left that place behind me. You know there is nothing there for me anymore,” Storm responded, waving his hand in refusal.

“I think it is back,” she said, clearly uncomfortable. “I think the ashak is back, Storm.”

The words hit him like a sledgehammer. Gasping for air he sat down on the bed, overwhelmed by bloody memories flooding his mind. It took a few moments before he was able to respond, and when he did, he could feel the rage inside of him rushing through his entire body.

“Impossible! You know I killed that beast,” Storm cursed and clenched his fists.

“You know, there have always been rumors…”

“Don’t!” Storm interrupted her. “I killed it, end of story. It’s over!”

Tamara sighed; she walked a few steps back and forth, eventually turning towards him again.

“The signs are all there, Storm; people suddenly missing, red eyes glowing in the dark, animals and other creatures behaving erratically.”

She walked right up to him and looked him in the eye.

“There were two of them, it’s the only explanation, and deep down you have to know that yourself already.”

Storm kicked against the side of his bed, knocking off one of its legs; the bed crashing down with a loud bang. “Ok, I get it!” Storm yelled at her, only to regret his outburst right away. He closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Don’t worry, I understand. But you see now, why I’m here. It’s serious, Storm, otherwise I would never have told them where you are.” She started wandering through the cabin again. “It was the only way though to get this message to you, I couldn’t have left without someone noticing, and I certainly wasn’t going to send someone else into this death trap of a jungle.”

“You still haven’t told me your orders,” he noted.

“The council is willing to pardon you if you come back with us and rejoin the Essence Hunters.”

“They what?” Storm stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder. “What happened? There is no way Grimor would simply forgive my transgression.”

“Grimor is dead, Iz’za is now leading the Order. She was always fond of you, you know that.”

Storm wasn’t sure where to press for more — Grimor’s death or Iz’za becoming High Council as the first Naru ever — and took a moment to digest the information.

“How did he die?” he asked eventually. It was curiosity sparking this question, the last thing he cared about was Grimor’s well-being; after all, he was the one forcing Storm to leave by refusing his request to hunt the ashak.

“He was leading a mission to an uncharted world, expecting to find some kind of artifact tracing back to the Dhari,” Tamara explained. “His team got ambushed by a bunch of invisible creatures. Most of the expedition died right there, but Grimor and two others managed to get back to the portal severely wounded. He died shortly after returning to Windhaven.”

“And the others?”

“They survived, barely, and the world they visited has been added to the blacklist.”

“I don’t know if I can go back to this,” Storm sat down on the straw-filled mattress, rubbing his hands. “Things have changed in the last year, I’m not the same person anymore. I thought all of this was over.”

“Elana wouldn’t want you to just throw your life away like that.” Tamara sat down next to him, putting a hand on his. “This is your chance of getting it back. Let us end this once and for all, just like we started it — together.”

Storm pushed her hand away. “Careful, Tamara.”

“Children are disappearing. Innocent and helpless children. Is that really something you want on your conscience? You know there is no chance the council will let you anywhere near Everling if you don’t return with us first.”

Storm squinted his eyes and turned away from her.

“I know that you don’t want to hear this, but you cannot keep doing this alone. You need help, whether you like it or not”.

“I asked for help,” Storm shouted and jumped up from the bed. “I begged for help, and what did they do? They denied it, they ignored it, and in the end, they told me we had more important things to focus on. You know all this, you were there, so don’t talk to me like I wanted to take this path.”

“Yeah, I know, and I agreed with you back then,” Tamara responded calmly. “That’s why I risked so much by helping you get away; but things are different now, Iz’za is not the same as Grimor, and she is offering you a chance at redemption. Don’t throw that away.”

“How can I trust her? She was one of Grimor’s advisors, making her one of the two most influential people right after Grimor himself, and what did she do? Nothing!”

“Would you have spoken up publicly against him in her position? Do you think any good would have come of it?” Tamara got up and took his hand. “Storm, if you cannot trust her, then trust me. This is the only way for you to come out of hiding again, and more importantly, it’s the only way to go back to Everling and to follow this new lead.”

She let go of his hand and walked to the door, opening it. “It is up to you now; we are staying in Rantau before heading to the portal tomorrow morning. I really would feel much more comfortable if you were with us.”

Without giving him any chance to respond, she closed the door and was out of sight.

“Is he coming?”

Storm could hear the high-pitched voice of the Gniwer outside.

“I’m sure he will, Fip,” Tamara responded.

“This was a complete waste of time. I told you, we don’t need this guy. Let us find that monster and I’ll end this.”

Storm couldn’t say what it meant, but there was no doubt, the last words of the Rhultak were filled with emotion.

It was quiet for a second before Tamara spoke up again, clearly still standing right in front of the door.

“He’ll be there, Derjan, trust me. He will be there…”