I am the first to wake.
It is only fitting: the sun is yet to rise, but I am the bearer of the torch, needed when darkness still reigns. Lately, the nights have been especially dark, and I am needed more than ever.
My armor clinks as I step outside, into the frosty air of the morning, my trusted blade safe at my side. The sky above is beginning to pale, but Selphia still sleeps. The windows and doors are likely boarded up, as the town hides itself against the dangers of the night.
Normally, at this hour, I would conduct my patrol, go to my training field, perfect my knightly skills. A woman at arms is an uncommon sight, but my father had no choice – for a long time, I was his only heir.
By the time my brother Kiel was born, I was already trained to perfection, and beyond. Even my name – Forte – was chosen for the strength I needed to display, in order to protect those that cannot protect themselves.
It was the only way the Kingdom would tolerate a woman knight, and a heir at that. Perhaps even then, they wouldn’t, not for long.
It’s not like I wanted to be a knight, I thought to myself as I patrolled the boundaries of the town. The moniker of dragon knight itself was frankly empty, since I was tasked with protecting a god with unimaginable powers.
But I’d promised…
Unbidden, the image of my mother on her dying bed flashes before my eyes. The way she stared into my soul, begging me to inherit my father’s title…
To protect my brother Kiel.
He’s asleep, like everyone else in Selphia. It is up to me to protect them, with every ounce of strength that I possess.
I make the rounds of the town, empty street after empty street. They’re deserted, except I know I’m not alone, not really.
There is a lurking threat in this place. A bewitching predator, snatching people from their very homes, never to be seen again. The disappearances have the whole of Selphia on edge.
Hell, they have me on edge. My armored fist closes around the pommel of my sword, reflexively. I haven’t caught the perpetrators yet, but they can’t hide forever. Selphia isn’t big, and there’s only so many people you can disappear before you draw attention.
Still. I am but one person. All that stands between this town, and a fate that may well be worse than death. No ransoms have been asked. Even if that were the case, the people of Selphia have no means to pay, no riches, very few durable goods.
There aren’t many reasons why you would want to kidnap townsfolk in a tranquil place like this, and all the possibilities I consider – ritual sacrifice, human trafficking – make my skin crawl.
I am Selphia’s only hope, the bearer of the torch, thrust against the darkness. I must not fail. I cannot.
Steps resound behind me, crunching against the gravel. I expect my mystery opponent to be stealthier than this, so this is unlikely to be a threat – probably some villager who woke up earlier than usual. Even still, I pivot in place, my sword sliding out of the scabbard and held ready as I turn to confront my opponent.
It’s just Illuminata.
The florist stands before me in her typical black-and-gold outfit, her light blue scarf flapping in the wind of the cold morning. Similarly coloured, the flower that feathers her cap goes well with her deep, clever eyes. Her red braids drape her face like a pretty painting.
Most elves have an aloof beauty to them, but Illuminata just drives home the point. Even at this hour, she looks dignified and composed in a way that perfectly masks the playful, bubbly behaviour that’s made her a kind of mascot for Selphia.
Even still, I do know her. And my first reaction is annoyance.
Illuminata fancies herself a great detective, never mind that most of her “cases” are completely made up. She once ambushed me inside my own home, over some flimsy investigative justification! That would have been outright creepy, had it been anyone else, but Illuminata is harmless.
If she’s out here at this hour, and coming for me, that must mean she thinks she can help.
I relax my stance, sliding my sword back into the scabbard with a thud, as Illuminata bobs her head in my direction.
“Chasing shadows before the sun melts them away?” She asks, with an over-enthusiastic giggle.
I was, until you gave away my location to the whole town by being so bloody noisy, I almost say, but that would be most unkind of me. True, but unkind. I am a knight, and the people of this town are my charges. Even her.
“Illuminata,” I say, with a plain nod. “What are you doing out at this hour?”
“Oh, oh!” Illuminata says, hopping from one foot to the other. “I can assist you! I’ve come across some super duper critical information! Please let me help!!”
I stifle a groan. Here it goes again.
Still, the sun is about to rise from beyond the horizon, and if the attacker was nearby, the noise has likely driven them away. I might as well see what this is all about, and hope it actually leads to something for a change.
“Let’s head back to Carnation Flowers,” I say. “You can tell me what this is all about over a mug of your famous tea.”
That makes Illuminata’s eyes glimmer with self-satisfaction. She does love flattery, I suppose. And her tea.
“Follow me,” she says, in a tone strangely less bubbly than before. “I’ll lead the way!”
“Of course,” I say, stepping in to follow her.
I hope no one else goes missing tomorrow night, because I decided to follow a silly lead from a silly florist who actually thinks she’s a detective.
But who knows… maybe Illuminata really has found something I can use.
After all… torches exist to bring light to the least expected of places.
Carnation Flowers is a cozy place.
That much is always true, but the pale light of the earliest morning drives the point home even more. The wooden floorboards creak underneath my steel boots, as the very first rays of the day stream through the half-closed windows to land on the large carpet at the center.
The first floor is filled with plants, soil, and fragrant flowers. I’m not one to disregard my duty for something so trifling, but I do have to admit, it’s nice getting the shop floor to myself before opening hours.
Wooden stairs lead to the second floor, where I assume Illuminata’s assistant, Amber, is fast asleep.
I sit patiently and quietly, waiting for Illuminata to brew her tea and begin sharing whatever information she believes she has. In the meantime, my ears strain to listen.
No shouts, even as the town around us begins to wake. No shriek of despair, no sound of people running. Perhaps no one was abducted tonight. This visit to Carnation Flowers is still likely to be a waste of time, but at least no innocent person will have paid the price for my mistake.
Illuminata presents me with a mug of tea, snapping me out of my reverie.
“Thank you!” I say, watching as she sits across from me at the dark mahogany table. Her clever eyes shine with excitement. I can see why people like Illuminata. She’s very much in love with life, and for people with fewer worries than I, her enthusiasm is likely contagious.
In this instance, it seems like her entire world depends on me sipping her lovely tea. Of course, if it was terrible, I would tell her – lying would be most unknightly of me. But the first sip cements Illuminata’s reputation as a master brewer. This infusion is delicious, and doubtlessly will help stimulate me too. This might yet prove to be a productive day.
But first, I need to listen to whatever it is she has to say.
“This is wonderful,” I say, taking a long sip.
Illuminata’s smile lights up the room, and she virtually hops up and down while sitting on the chair. “Yes! So happy to hear that!”
“So, Illuminata,” I say, in a more serious tone, “what… critical information did you have to share with me?”
Illuminata leans forward, conspirationally, her eyes theatrically darting this way and that as if to make sure we aren’t being overheard in her own shop. “I think I know who’s abducting the townsfolk!” She whispers.
I arch an eyebrow, sipping more of the tea. It is delicious, but quite warm. Combined with the cozy atmosphere, and the weight of my full armor, I’m becoming conscious of sweat pearling on my forehead.
“Go on,” I say, somewhat curtly. Illuminata’s overly dramatized delivery is getting on my nerves a little, if not to the point that it would break my knightly composure.
“They’re human traffickers,” she whispers. “They’re taking people, working them over, and selling them off for money!”
“Working them over?” I ask, my brow creasing as I try to process her words. “Selling them off to whom? Look” I say, stumbling on the words a little. Illuminata can be so confusing at times. I close my eyes, rubbing my temples, and sip more of the tea to steady myself.
“Illuminata, how do you know all this?” I ask at last, putting the mug down.
Again, Illuminata makes a show of checking her surroundings, before leaning even closer. “I know where they’re keeping the abductees!” She says, ignoring my previous two questions.
Then, she points her index finger downward. “Right here, below my shop!”
That makes me sit forward, my heart beating faster. The strange warmth in the room is making it hard to think, I’m sweating and my head is pounding, but what Illuminata’s saying… she’s found the kindappers’ lair? And it’s here?
“Illuminata, what are you saying? Why would anyone set up shop… dooowwnnn heeere…?”
I blink, in confusion. The last words come out all slurry and unfocused. Something’s wrong. The day outside is cold, so why am I feeling this warm? Why is my heart racing? Why is Illuminata not sweating? All she does is look at me and smile, and smile, and smile…
Something’s very wrong.
I’m in danger.
I rise, sending the chair crashing backwards, staggering and reeling as I try to find my balance. Even the dim light of the flower shop seems impossibly bright to my eyes. My armored fist smashes the tea mug down to the floor, but it’s too late. Too late…
My hand clasps around the hilt of my sword, and I pull it out, but it’s slow, so slow, it’s like I’m moving underwater.
And Illuminata is not.
She kicks out with surprising deftness, hitting my fingers, whose hold on the sword was already loose. The weapon goes clattering to the floor.
I hadn’t even noticed Illuminata standing until she disarmed me with humiliating ease. I arch my arm backwards, trying to swing at her with my armored gauntlet, but it’s the slow parody of a punch. Illuminata elegantly side-steps it, letting me crash down to my knees under my own momentum.
I shake my head. I need to get out of here, I need… if only anyone else was here to help, Margaret, or… Selphia needs me, Kiel needs me, I can’t…
I feel pressure on my neck, and I’m uncomfortably aware that it’s the bottom of Illuminata’s shoe, pressing down, pushing me off my knees and onto the ground. I crash with a thud against the wooden floor, too weak to oppose even this purely symbolic gesture of victory.
Illuminata is standing above me like a hunter over a recently slain beast.
“You had questions for me,” Illuminata says, her voice suddenly dead-serious, devoid of all bubbly enthusiasm. “Stay down there and rest, while I answer them for you.”
Her shoe moves to my face, pressing down on my cheek. I grit my teeth against the pain – Illuminata is light, but as she leans forward, that’s still more than enough to painfully squish my face against the wooden floorboards.
“I’m trafficking the townsfolk,” she says, twisting her heel deeper into my cheek. I’d shout, but it feels so hard to move my lips…
“I drag them into my basement,” she says, counting each point with a finger. “Then, I break them. And finally, I sell them.” She looks at me with a bizarre look I can’t quite place.
“Would you like to know what it means to be broken, Forte?”
Illuminata, of all people?! Why? She’s always been so friendly and bubbly and happy, always willing to help out anyone in need… The perfect cover, I realize with a shiver. She entered my own home, and played it off as a joke.
“Wha… wh…” I try, but my tongue is unresponsive, and I soon break out into a series of wordless grunts.
“Quiet,” Illuminata says, presenting the other shoe closer to my face. The tip, made of tough brown leather, presses against my lips, and humiliatingly, in my drugged condition, that’s all it takes to shut me up.
“You want to know why,” Illuminata says as she fidgets above me. With the corner of my eye I see she’s tossing her other shoe away, and then her foot wrap comes off. Squarely placing her naked foot against my cheek, she crouches down, staring into my eyes with her penetrating gaze.
I quiver in disgust at the clammy, sweaty feeling against my cheek.
Hatred rages inside me, fierce as a cleansing fire, at the mockery evident in those eyes. I’m a big, strong knight, all clad in armor, and here she is, a spindly girl keeping me pinned with a single foot.
She laughs, sadistically, and I widen my eyes in horror as she pushes the foot wraps into my mouth.
“There,” she whispers in a tone of mock-concern. “A little pacifier for our little knight.”
“Mmmph!” I moan, doing my best to spit out the foot wrap, but it’s no use. My throat muscles are literally too weak to spit, as the drugged tea saps me of all strength. The rage inside me is so thick I could choke on it.
I hate that Illuminata, this friendly girl we all thought part of our community, has pulled one on me in such a humiliating fashion. I hate having the culprit literally right next to me, and being too weak to stop her. She’s manhandling me like I’m a smoked ham, rolling me this way and that with her feet as her other shoe i salso removed.
The foot wraps taste horribly in my mouth, and soon I find myself literally milking them of Illuminata’s foot sweat with each breath. I wish I could gag and puke, but at this point, even twitching my fingers take a herculean effort out of me.
The scent soon joins the taste, as Illuminata steps lithely on my armored chest, placing her other foot flat against my nose. God, it reeks, and I don’t even have the strength it takes to squirm! Tears well up in my eyes from the stench… and from my horrible showing as a knight. I got myself drugged, like an idiot, and now Illuminata is literally rubbing her victory in my face.
“I know you’re more muscles than brains,” Illuminata says, crouching over my chest, and snaking her fingers past my lips and into my mouth. “Which, in your current state, is really saying something! But you could have figured this out in, like, ten minutes.”
“Gnnhh,” I groan, putting all my energy into trying to bite her damn fingers off. But I can barely tickle her skin, as she fishes the foot wraps out of my mouth, tossing them in the corner. “Thanks for washing them, by the way!”
I stare daggers at her, breathing more freely.
But it’s not to last.
Standing back up, Illuminata raises a foot into the air, angling the toes towards my face. I stare daggers at her, but she’s not afraid of me. Why would she be? So long as the drug is in my system, I’m at her mercy. I’m surprised she hasn’t decided to kill me yet.
Illuminata’s foot shoots downward, plunging into my unresisting mouth. The sole presses against my tongue, and the toes tickle my palate. She leans forward, until her foot is literally pointing straight down. Looking at me with a smirk of triumph, she starts methodically working her foot into my mouth, moving it back and forth, back and forth, working it in ever deeper.
I am… unsure about what is happening. Is this some weird sexual perversion? Why is Illuminata taking such a risk?
“Think about it,” she says, resuming her monologueing. “This place is a dump. Do you really think I can sustain my lifestyle with flowers alone?”
“Gggguk,” I groan, as her foot reaches the entrance to my throat. Tears stream openly down my face as Illuminata starts bobbing her foot up and down, getting a massage from my drugged throat.
“There’s nothing in this town that has any value,” she says, as her other foot snakes forward, towards my throat. So this i show the coward decides to kill me? She wants to choke me with her feet?
“Yesss,” she whispers after reaching her intended target. With one foot pressing against my throat, and the other poking at its entrance, my vision begins to dim. Adrenaline rushes through my body – not enough to counter the drug, but sufficient to make me spasm.
“The only thing that’s worth anything here,” Illuminata says from above, her eyes glowing with something that looks like arousal, “is people. Those who are worthy to the right buyers, of course.”
I convulse under Illuminata’s weight, utterly and completely powerless to push her off. Defeated by this unassuming villainess. Who will protect my poor Kiel now? Will the kingdom make him a knight?
“Lucky for you,” Illuminata whispers as my vision goes dark, “someone’s willing to pay a very high sum for you.” Her foot starts moving faster, up and down, matching the rhythm of her speech.
“And I. Never. Turn down. An opportunity. For profit!”
With a last twist, the foot that’s in my throat retreats up, until it leaves my mouth entirely. Illuminata steps off me, leaving smears of saliva on the wooden floor as she looks at me, a wheezing, coughing mess. Air rushes down my lungs so fast that it hurts.
“I won’t kill you, Forte,” Illuminata says, smearing my own saliva all over my hair, as she drags her wet foot over my scalp. “But I will break you.”
She won’t. Never. I will resist with all my might. The drug will wear off, and then I’ll cave her bloody skull in with my bare hands, if need be.
But, for the moment, all I can do is stare passively as Illuminata drags my body towards a trapdoor. She rolls me to the very edge, allowing me a moment of unfettered doubt and fear as I stare down.
It’s pitch black.
I never knew Carnation Flowers had a basement. Nobody in town knows. In my drug-addled state, I couldn’t even place where this trapdoor is in the store, exactly. Whatever lies in wait for me down below, it cannot be good.
But I must not fear. I am the bearer of the torch: I bring the light where it is most needed. As soon as my strength returns, I shall rise again, like the morning sun, to chase the night away.
For now, however, I can do nothing as Illuminata places her foot against my armored back, and pushes.
Her face is the last thing as I see as I fall, laughing and smirking at me. By the time the trapdoor closes, I’m still falling, deeper and deeper, into the darkness.