Long ago, the land of Yonder was a magical world, full of life. That has changed. A great darkness has fallen over the country, bringing the once great nation to it's knees.
Tomek - a 12-year-old boy determined to prove himself a true leader - finds himself at a crossroads. His village is dying and there is only one way to save it, but to do so, he'll have to risk everything.
Join Tomek, as he embarks on a journey that may very well be his last...
Mystic: A Story
Chapter 1 - Tomek
The snowstorm raged across the land – the worst one in decades – but it wasn’t the unforgiving cold that was killing the people of Montavera. A plague, known simply as The Darkness, was sweeping the country, thought to be spread by the worst of all vermin, the Kerzit – vile creatures with slimy grey hides, covered in a prickly kind of fur, and venomous spikes protruding from their backs, resembling twigs and branches. These beasts surfaced from the pits of hell to bring pain and death to humanity. They thrived in the cold. They enjoyed the way meat crunched after it had spent hours in the ice. They were the real threat. They were the real Winter.
Tomek may have only seen twelve such winters in his young life, but he felt man enough to go out on his own, and brave whatever danger was out there, so long as it meant he would reach The Shrine, where the legendary Guru of Montavera guarded a font of Aura – the only known substance that could cure the Darkness. With his father’s death weighing down on him, and so much fear in the hearts of his tribesmen, he needed to prove he could be the kind of warrior his father had been. He couldn’t afford to be a disappointment. Not to them. Not to himself. Not anymore. Not now.
On the third night after his father’s passing, as he stood next to both his parents’ graves, Tomek made the decision. He soon packed a leather sack with the bare essentials and silently left the village in the middle of the night. No one could know what he was up to. At least not until it was too late for them to try to stop him. Lucky for him, he needed no escort. He knew the way to Sollem's Spine. Every villager did.
In the summers, they all journeyed to the Tail of The Spine, to pay homage to the Guru. To remind him that the people still remember. Still pray. Still need his protection. As of late, it seemed the Guru needed more reminding of this.
If all went well, the trip to Sollem's Spine would take Tomek no longer than a week. He’d never actually climbed the mountains, but his father always said, “The climb is only as difficult as you are weak in heart.” Tomek wasn’t weak, so the climb would not be difficult. Soon enough, he would be back in his village with enough vials of Aura to heal multiple tribes, many times over. All would have to acknowledge his worthiness. That was the plan, but he never counted on Maari – the new leader of the tribe’s warriors – tracking him down and putting an end to his quest.
It happened after he’d already been travelling for two days. This would be his second night away from the village. He found a family of critters around a fallen tree and chased them off.
“Sorry, friends, I need this tonight.”
He erected a small quick-shelter and, exhausted from the journey which was proving to be much harder than he’d expected, he’d fallen asleep with no little trouble.
She’d been stealthy, and who knew how long she’d been tracking him, but it was as he dreamt of his father and mother, that Maari tore off the quick-shelter walls from the tree trunk and snatched him up, nearly giving him a heart attack.
“Let me go!” Tomek screamed, swinging his fists and scratching at whatever was attacking him, still unsure of what was going on. It took a few seconds for him to realize he wasn’t being eaten by a bear – or worse, a Kerzit.
“You can’t stay here,” said Maari, pulling him up to his feet with a grip around his wrist so strong he feared she might break it. It was unnatural for a woman to be so strong, but Maari was no natural kind of woman. She was truly fearsome.
“Follow me!” she said, marching off into the moonlight. “Don’t fall behind.”
He was too rattled to argue. Too much in shock to protest. He simply picked up his bag, stuffed the quick-shelter covering into it, and followed her.
She was taking him back. Every bone in his body knew it. She was going to force him to return to the tribe, empty-handed, embarrassed like a fool – like a child. That’s what everyone thought of him. He was nothing more than a twelve-year-old boy who would never live up to be half the man his father had been. Meanwhile, Maari was everything he should have been. Strong, fast, fearless, and adored by the people… And by his father.
He was sure that his father had always hoped Tomek would take his place as leader of the warriors. He even gave Tomek his hunting knife and made him promise that he would always protect the tribe. Now, as Maari dragged Tomek back across the frozen forest, Tomek’s hand hovered over his waist, grazing the leather handle of the weapon. He would never try to actually hurt Maari, but he did need to assert his place, and it was time she knew that it was he who would lead the tribe – because that’s what his father wanted.
Tomek mulled over how best to stand up to her. He never found it easy to speak to her, and it wasn’t because everyone was afraid of her. He wasn’t scared of Maari. It was because his father had respected her so deeply that out of respect for his father, he’d never told her off.
But things were different now. Things had to be different now, so, not even an hour after she showed up to ruin his plans, Tomek began to steel himself for this moment.
His right hand grabbed the knife as he let out a battlecry. She spun around, wide-eyed as she saw him standing there, lifting the knife in front of him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, condescension dripping from every word. His hand was shaking as it held the knife. He couldn’t help it. His arms felt so heavy all of a sudden, but he wouldn’t lower the knife.
“I’m not going back, Maari.” He lifted the blade even higher, pointing the tip in her direction. “I won’t do it. I have to reach the Shrine. I have to be the one to bring back–”
“You have to do nothing of the sort,” she snapped, taking a step toward him. A knot caught in his throat. His gut tightened and he fell back a couple steps, but never lowered the knife.
She looked at the weapon, then back at him. The corners of her lips curled ever so slightly.
“Are you going to hurt me, Tomek?” she said, not even so much as assuming a fighting stance. Didn’t she respect him as a warrior? Was she so set on humiliating him?
“I don’t want to,” said Tomek, “But I’ll do what I have to for my people.”
“Your people?” she repeated, then reached behind her and produced a knife identical to his – her own hunting knife.
“These are not meant to be used on your people, Boy. As for your little quest to the Shrine… That was never your decision to make. We would never have sent you alone. You’re not ready for something like this. You’re just a boy. You can’t–”
“I can!” Tomek shouted as he lunged at Maari, lazily swinging his knife at her arm. He never meant to hurt her, just to scare her a bit. To teach her some respect.
His hesitation was not lost on her, but she didn’t move out of the way. Instead, she let the knife strike the surface of her shoulder, doing little more than piercing her skin. The instant Tomek made eye contact with her, she took hold of his waist and spun him around with such skill that he tripped over himself and fell face-first into the snow.
“You have no technique,” she said, towering over him. “I could have sunk my blade into your gut in a dozen different ways and there wasn’t a thing you could have done to stop me. But you knew that… Didn’t you.”
He couldn’t look up at her. He couldn’t let her see the tears forming in his eyes. Why did she have to do this? Why couldn’t she simply let him go?
“We don’t have time for this,” she said, stepping past him. “If you’re done with your little tantrum, we need to get a move on. The storm is getting worse. Anton and Yana are in a cave not too far from here. We’ll spend the night there while the storm passes.”
“Yana?!” said Tomek. “She’s a baby. She’s not even eight years old. Why is she out here? Why didn’t you leave her back with the tribe?”
Maari didn’t answer. She simply marched on, a single red trail of blood running down her left arm. Tomek stood up and took one last look across the plains, at the path he should have been travelling. The path to the Shrine. That’s when he realized it. They weren't headed toward the village. He wasted no time, picking up his step to catch up to the warrior.
“Why are we headed West?” he said.
“The cave is this way,” she answered, never looking at him.
“But… The tribe is South from here. It’s going to take us longer to get back to–”
“We’re not going back to the tribe,” she said. “You’ve forced my hand, Tomek. Having travelled this far, we might as well finish the journey, but the path you were taking is a terrible path in the winter. We go West, around the wood.”
“You mean to tell me you came all this way, stopped my progress, and now plan to go to the Shrine anyway?!”
She stopped as well and turned to him. For the first time since she showed up – and perhaps ever – there was warmth in her eyes.
“You weren’t wrong to come out here, Tomek. But you shouldn’t have come alone. To be honest, you shouldn’t have come at all. This is why Gennadi trained the warriors.”
“I’m Gennadi’s son!” Tomek’s eyes widened with rage. “If anyone was to save this tribe, it should have been me! You just want to take the credit for it all… You always have. You don’t understand what it means to lose–”
“Trust me, Tomek,” she cut him off, “I understand more than you know.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the hills ahead. “I have family, too. I won’t let them die. Not in the winter. Not to The Darkness.”
She reached her hand into the leather pouch she carried around her waist and produced an old flute, then raised it to him. He stared at it, untrusting.
“Take it, boy.” She pushed it into his chest. "It’s time you start practicing.”
He took the instrument, and for a few seconds, his eyes took in the sight of this small object. Slowly, what it was began to dawn on him. He forgot the cold. Forgot his anger. Even forgot his father. He’d seen this instrument before. Heard its music.
“This was my mother’s Kalyuka.”
Maari nodded. He raised a hand and took it.
“Why did you have it?” he asked, running his fingers over the length of the instrument, then settling on the etched-in image of an eye. He looked up at Maari.
"Gennadi entrusted it to me," she said. "Not for me to use, of course. He knew his days were numbered when that damned Kerzit bit him, so he gave this to me. Said she wanted you to have it. You know... When you were ready."
“This is the Seer’s Kalyuka,” he said.
She nodded, knowingly. “That’s why you were never trained as a warrior, you dummy. You were never meant to take your father’s place. You’re to be our tribe’s next Seer.”