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A kingdomless land at what might be the edge of the world. Ancient valleys rumble. Giant trees creak. Lush grass is trampled suddenly beneath the hooves of a racing horse. In the saddle: a blunt sword; a wooden shield; a boy in a man’s armor clinging to the reigns; a girl whose strength is fading clinging to his waist. Somewhere in this forgotten land is a cure. She sees it in her dreams - a place of light; a place that the Darkfire can’t reach. The Darkfire - devourer of forests and mountains and kingdoms; a colossal storm sweeping across the land, consuming everything and everyone in its path. And only the cloaked rider knows why - the one who gallops before it, at the head of his creation, pursuing his mark relentlessly across this dying world.

“Owyn?” the girl whimpers.

The side of her face that is still living is pressed tightly against Owyn’s back. The other side is black and charred, with a sealed hole where a blue eye used to be and ashy strands of once fair hair hanging from a peeling scalp. It spread from her arm. It is spreading still.

“Hold on, Isolda,” Owyn answers, before forcing the horse over a stream and sending them charging down a rocky slope. “Please hold on.”

Distant mountains grown. Ripples run over the surface of the river.

“This is it,” Isolda says, as Owyn lays her frail body against a damp tree on the bank. “Up there.”

She points high into the hills, where the river climbs around sharp rocks before disappearing into dense woodland.

“Are you sure?”

Isolda peers into the water, briefly - until she’s distracted by Owyn struggling yet again to remove his helmet. She giggles at the greasy fringe stuck to his eyes, while Owyn frowns and perches over the river. Gratefully, she slurps water from his hands, before wincing as he sprinkles the remaining drips over her burnt skin.

“Don’t, Owyn, please, it won’t help.”

Curse Artero, Owyn rages, stumbling when the sword at his waist digs into the dirt, as he drops down beside Isolda, on her good side. She rests her face against his cheek. Owyn’s forehead tickles under what remains of her soft hair. They can’t stay here - the Darkfire is coming, he tells himself, as Isolda snuggles in closer, just like she used to. He was alone and afraid, amongst the rats and dogs and boots of indifferent strangers, when she appeared, dirty and abandoned just like him. She had a piece of stale bread - she gave it to him because he was hungry - he held her under the bridge because she was cold. They shivered together, they were hungry together, but they were together - for how long? Until Artero took them in.

“Isolda,” Owyn mutters, fighting to keep his eyes open. “We can’t stay here.”

Day is turning to dusk unnaturally fast, as red streaks bleed into the sky and glow like flames. The fire - Owyn remembers the warmth of it, the gentle crackle, how the shadow of the flames danced on the marble walls of Artero's chamber, as Owyn and Isolda grinned at each other in disbelief across a table crammed with salted meats and steaming vegetables and cakes with thick layers of red and yellow.

“We have to go,” Owyn says, shaking Isolda.

The dishevelled flesh at her neck makes him grimace, and the words come rushing back to him, the words Artero screamed as they fled:

“There is no cure! She has to die!”

The climb is brutal - he was right to leave the horse. Not that it doesn’t hurt, seeing their companion still drinking from the river below, oblivious to the cloaked rider charging along the bank and the Darkfire storming over the valley behind. Owyn’s hands are numb, his knees and elbows bloody. He pants with his back against jagged rocks, before scraping Isolda’s ruined skin against stone as he drags her over yet another steep ledge.

“I can’t, Owyn,” she cries, slumping beside him.

She lays a blackened hand on his sword.


“You must, Owyn.”

“No,” he snaps angrily. “I won’t do it. There is a cure. You said so yourself.”

The fiery sky reflects in Isolda’s eyes as she stares over the valley.

“But the world …” she starts.

Owyn watches as the tree by the river is ripped from its roots, and his horse, confused and panicking in its last moments without a master, is overtaken by black smoke.

“I don’t care,” Owyn mutters, unsure whether he means it.

The mark on Isolda’s arm pulsates beneath his fingers when he lifts her to her feet. And he can’t help but glance at it - the deep black hole and fiery vortex swirling within - remembering how Isolda screamed, while Artero chanted; how Owyn pounded on the cell door when he saw the other children, their faces disfigured, their limbs deformed. Curse him.

“Owyn, look,” Isolda says, gazing into the river - narrow now like a stream and tumbling almost vertically. “It glistens. Do you see it?”

Smoke rises. The sky turns red. But Owyn sees it, the light shimmering within the water.

Beyond the rocks lies a muddy slope punctured by the roots of huge trees, which rise increasingly higher into the red sky as the ascent continues. To where though? Isolda staggers like someone sleepwalking, gesturing blindly towards the river, her one good eye beginning to fail like the other. Does she even know? Owyn catches her occasionally and lets her rest against the trees momentarily. But the sound of destruction is a constant behind them, and the cloaked rider, unburdened by a frail companion - he has to be close.

Over the peak of the slope is a grassy clearing, shadowed by a sheer mossy cliff with a dark, narrow passage at the base from which the river originates, glinting as it trickles out over pebble stones.

“Through there,” Isolda signals, setting off on her own.

“Wait, Isolda,” Owyn calls, cautious of the eerie blue glow emanating from the entrance.

He squeezes in after her, turning sideways to fit the wooden shield on his back, and for a moment he is dazzled, until his eyes adjust to the new light source. It shines even brighter in here, he realises, watching his boots glow as the water washes over them and marvelling at how it illuminates the passage like moonlight. Isolda is a ghostly figure ahead of him, gripping the damp cave wall with a black hand, white dress trailing in the water. She follows the light up a long slope carved like a stairway through the cliffside and Owyn climbs closely behind, ready to catch her at any moment. But the summit possesses her, and she doesn’t stumble.

“Do you hear the waves, Owyn?” she whispers suddenly. “I think there’s an ocean beneath us.”

A shaft of light rises into the sky from a large crater in the centre of a clearing flanked by dark boulders. It is the highest point for miles, with a sheer drop on all sides. But it isn’t the edge of the world, Owyn realises, noting the green lands stretching before him and the snow capped mountains on the horizon - more food for the Darkfire. In the opposite direction, the fiery wall spans indefinitely from east to west, flames’ lashing the sky like thunder while the approaching wind lifts up the dusty ground at Owyn’s feet.

“Here,” Isolda says, kneeling at the edge of the crater.

“What now?” Owyn asks, shielding his eyes from the intense light.

“... I’m not sure,” she replies, contemplating touching it.

A splash; then footsteps beneath the wind. A boot slams into the ground behind them.

“Stop,” a deep voice commands.

Startled, Owyn whips around, drawing his sword without thinking. Dismounted and panting heavily, their pursuer faces them, black cloak drenched from the climb and flapping in the wind behind him. His embroidered robe is torn, his bronze cheeks are gaunt, his once sharp eyes are heavy and bloodshot.

“Look at what you’ve done,” he sighs, staring at the Darkfire.

“You did this, Artero,” Owyn spits back, clutching the shield in his other hand.

“I made a mistake, boy. An inevitable one in my craft. But you …” he points angrily at Owyn. “You did this willingly. I told you what would happen. I told you she had to die.”

Owyn stands guard before Isolda.

“What? Did you think you were outrunning it?” Artero scoffs. “You’ve seen the smoke rising; you’ve seen the flames form in the sky, haven’t you? The mark summons the Darkfire. It is bound to her. It goes where she goes. It lives because she lives. You know this.”

“But you made the mark,” Owyn yells. “It’s your fault she suffers. It’s your fault she’s dying.”

Artero glares back at him.

“I am a servant of magic. It is my business to uncover the secrets of this world. Experimentation is an unpredictable, yet crucial process, and it is sometimes an unfortunate necessity that a single life be sacrificed in pursuit of knowledge that will benefit all. But it was you who kept running; you who led the flames this far. How many have suffered because of you? How many lives have you sacrificed, all for her?”

Artero unsheathes his sword and strides forward.

“But you cannot save her. These are ancient forces. There is nothing in that crater but more destruction. Look at the land behind you. There is still hope, but she has to die. Now.”

With a single word and a swipe of his empty hand, Artero sends Owyn flying into a boulder before he can lift his shield. Isolda’s legs finally fail her as she scrambles to his aid, forcing Artero to dash unnaturally fast before she falls into the crater. Owyn gasps for breath. The Darkfire draws closer. Artero seizes the back of Isolda’s head, while Owyn crawls desperately, dust swirling in his eyes. As Artero raises his sword, a single strand of ashy hair falls between his fingers and floats down gently onto the surface of the water.

“No,” he protests.

Bubbles form in the crater.

“It’s not possible.”

The ground begins to shake. Artero tosses Isolda aside and chants in a frenzy, hands out pleadingly over the water. A deep rumbling, before the crater splinters, cracks completely, as Owyn drags Isolda away through the dust. Then the eruption. Water races up along the light-shaft faster than sound, tearing Artero apart before he can scream. A mountainous dome of water forms high in the sky, spilling out over the land in every direction. Owyn and Isolda cower behind boulders, covering their ears against the deafening roar, as the waters charge to meet the fire. Demonic voices writhe. Isolda convulses and shakes uncontrollably. Then smoke rushes from her body and a shrill cry flees from her mouth as the black flames of the Darkfire are banished beneath the waves.

There is no wind, as Owyn stands at the cliff edge, protected and imprisoned by a wall of water cascading down on all sides from the dome in the sky. The destruction is distant and inaudible, like a storm viewed from the safety of a window, as the land that burned now drowns, and even those lands untouched by the fire are consumed by the water.

“Look,” he says, peering through the translucent wall. “I think it’s reached the mountains.”

Isolda leaps from a rock and runs to join him at the edge.

“Do you think it will stop?” she asks.

“I don’t know...”

Her fair hair shines like gold in the sunlight; her blue eyes glisten, as Owyn takes her hand and runs his fingers over the soft skin of both her arms.

“... I don’t care.”

The mark and its curse have died with the Darkfire - that is all that matters; and he and Isolda are together, holding hands at the edge of the world.





Carl writes fast, but is a compulsive editor. He can finish a story in a week, and continue finishing it every week for the next 3 months. Note: After Several drafts and two coffee breaks later, he was satisfied with the structure of that joke.




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