A month ago…
Leon awoke in a cold sweat. His naval uniform was plastered to his clammy skin. The heirloom Levigem necklace he wore was twisted awkwardly around, and painfully poked into his aching chest. Adjusting it, he tucked the gem back into his shirt and slowly sat up on the rough cot he found himself on. Everything hurt. Of course, that could have been from walking for two days without food or water.
As he looked around, Leon discovered that he was in a dimly lit cell of all places. Small, cramped, and damp, the air smelled of mold and rotting hay. A skin of water lay next to him and, feeling his parched throat, he grabbed for it and began to gulp its contents down with sheer desperation.
“Not too fast lad, or it’ll just come back up an’ out,” a rough, weary voice sounded from outside the cell.
Surprised at hearing the familiar voice, Leon sputtered a little and wiped his mouth off, while he tried to get up off the cot. Exhausted, and still weak from his recent exertion, he could only manage to move far enough to sit on the edge– though he did sit as straight as his tired muscles would allow.
An older grey-haired dwarf, with several gold studs on his lapel, entered the torchlight. He approached the cell and grasped the bars with one hand while he drank from a flask with his other. The puff of long grey hair around his face more closely resembled a lion’s mane, yet somehow it blended well with the polished studded naval uniform he wore. The penetrating stare of Fleet Admiral Silverspine was steely as he said, “At ease, lad.”
Leon relaxed only slightly, and cringed inwardly at the knowledge of what was likely to come. Thoughts of what had happened in the recent days flitted through his mind. The memories of what he had done. After taking another small sip of water, he croaked with a voice that hadn’t spoken in days, “Where am I, sir?”
“In Agaprya, at tha naval yards. Ya slept tha whole way here. We had an apothecary feedin’ ya, an’ keepin’ ya alive. Seems ta have worked. Now,” Admiral Silverspine’s leather gloves squeaked against the cool metal of the bars, while he continued through gritted teeth, “Wot. Tha. Rust. Happened?”
Leon tried to fit the puzzle pieces of his ordeal together, and assemble them chronologically. Truth be told, he had a hard time remembering everything– although certain images would haunt his memory forever. So, without pretense, his words began to tumble out. Words that told of how the Dawnfire had crashed to the ground and impaled the dragon which had attacked it. How the injured Prince Gelan and he were the only survivors of the crash, and of the several days they spent making their way back to Agaprya on foot. Then he came to the point of their journey where the prince had succumbed to his wounds, though not before blaming Leon for the crash in his delirium induced haze.
When Leon arrived at the part of the story where he had been forced to kill the prince before he turned into an undead – like all people do when they die – the Admiral sighed and took a long pull from the flask he carried. Knowing that he failed in his mission of simply keeping the crown prince alive, Leon finished telling of how he had been determined to bring the prince’s remains back to the capital. Once he had completed that objective, his body finally collapsed. “And that’s the last thing I remember before waking up here, sir.”
The Admiral didn’t respond for a long time. The guttural flicker of a low burning torch was the only sound that permeated the prison cell. All the dwarven leader could do was stare at Leon, his expression unreadable through his mass of hair and beard. When he finally did speak, his voice was grave. “An’ do ya have any proof o’ wot ya are tellin’ me?”
Of course, he wouldn’t believe me, Leon thought. He had killed the crown prince. Despite his best efforts, Leon hadn’t been able to save him. By all accounts, they should have been here in Agaprya. All of the crew. All alive, and working to repair the flagship Dawnfire before setting out for the front again. The proof of his words was the crash itself– which would take days to verify.
With a sudden burst of inspiration, Leon reached into a pocket and pulled out the sharp, pale yellow tooth he had carved from the dragon’s corpse before he and Prince Gelan had left the wreckage. Tossing it to the admiral, he explained where it had come from. The dwarf picked it up and examined it closely. Then Admiral Silverspine blew out a long breath– which Leon could smell even across the good distance which separated them. Rumors around the Naval Academy were that the admiral had an on-again, off-again relationship with alcohol. When the admiral was sober he was a legendary tactician. However, enough of the strong drink in his flask was known to cloud his judgment.
The Admiral pocketed the tooth, and with a somewhat softened demeanor he nodded to Leon and said, “I’ll be back.” He then turned and abruptly exited. The squeak of the prison door hinges and the slam of the door itself was ominous to Leon. He wondered how long it would take until the Admiral came back.
Leon cradled his head in his hands for what seemed like hours, the sorrow of the situation serving as his constant companion in the dank cell. Inwardly, a small piece of himself hoped that the Admiral would return and just chop off his head. Then he wouldn’t have to feel this pain anymore. He wouldn’t have to feel responsible for the fates of his crewmates. He would no longer feel anything at all.
To his astonishment, the dwarf eventually did return– and he was, in fact, armed. An elaborate double-bladed axe adorned his belt, opposite of the flask that hung from the other side. His gait seemed slower, more mournful, and each step made Leon’s heart beat faster.
When the admiral reached the cell door his stare returned, but there was a curious glint in his eye. His voice was grave as he said, “Do me a favor laddie, an’ take out tha necklace in yer shirt.”
Leon knew that dwarves typically hated the Rhise family. Having met the Admiral many times during training, and his tenure as First Mate on the flagship, he figured the visual reminder of who his family was might make it easier for the Admiral to kill him. Pulling out the necklace, Leon gripped the cot’s edge, and mentally prepared himself for the end.
“Boyo, by all accounts, yer a hero in my book. Not many can claim ta be crash survivors o’ airships, much less dragon attacks. Ya even brought back tha remains o’ tha prince, so he could be buried proper.” The admiral began to pace outside the cell, “But yer tha one who killed ‘im, an’ there are repercussions fer that.” Leon noticed that as the Admiral was speaking his stare was not focused in his direction. Almost as if he were saying these words for himself as well.
Another long silence ensued as the Admiral’s hand drifted ever closer to the axe in his belt. Knowing that these were his last moments, Leon tried to make the best of them that he could. “I am truly sorry, sir. I loved my captain like a brother at the end. He was the brother I never had, but always wanted. It… it was the hardest thing I ever had to do… to make sure he didn’t turn.”
“Ya told me before, that ya never got along with yer family, did ya?” the Admiral questioned.
“I joined the navy to get away from my father and brother, yes sir.” Leon admitted.
The Admiral took a deep breath, his decision clearly made. Reaching to the table behind him, he picked up the keys to the cell. In their place he tossed down a small pouch that jingled slightly, as though it were filled with coins. He then unlocked the door, and it swung open on similar rusty hinges as the prison door. “Can ya get up lad?” the dwarf asked.
Confused, Leon thought he might as well die on his feet, rather than on the edge of a cot. Stretching out his legs, Leon slowly stood and then walked rigidly forward to stand at attention in the middle of the cell.
“Ya could’ve been tha best o’ them, Leon Rhise. Ya were one o’ tha finest airmen. Dedicated. Focused. Willing ta lay down yer life fer yer captain an’ crew,” the admiral started to say.
“Yes sir,” Leon affirmed.
“Then ya are hereby dismissed from naval service. Consider that yer ‘severance’,” the admiral said, as he pointed at the coin purse and then out the door. “It’s night outside, an’ I made sure nobody is around. Yer pack an’ belongin’s are down tha hall. I left ya yer sword. Jus’…” the Admiral paused as he took the last sip from his flask, “Jus’ don’t go home. Start a new life fer yerself Leon. Now, go on.”
Mixed emotions raged through Leon. They were like a sack of rats fighting over the last crumb in a ship’s supply. While awestruck that he seemed to have gotten a stay of execution, Leon also reeled from the blow of not being able to continue his naval career.
What do I do now?
Where do I go?
“I– I don’t understand,” he stammered.
“I’m letting ya go, lad. Go live yer life, an’ live it well an’ in honor o’ yer crew.”
The roots of survivor’s guilt dug even deeper into Leon. Tears welled up in his eyes. Feeling the need to honor the Dawnfire crew with more service, he tried to plead his case, “But sir, why can’t I continue to serve in the navy?”
The admiral’s answer was one that would push Leon Rhise into a spiral of depression and self-destruction for weeks.“Boyo, nobody would ever want ta serve with tha lad who killed Prince Gelan.”
More to come, and the book releases December 20th, 2021! For more details, please visit maxbsternberg.com! If you haven’t read book one, ‘The Rhise of Light’, please order and review once you are done at https://www.amazon.com/Rhise-Light-Darkness-Overcome-Book-ebook/dp/B08ZBB19BC/ref=pd_ybh_a_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=A6T63RTA7Q5ABAT6N4AC!