Reil squinted and shielded his eyes from the bright suns. There were clouds in the sky, but any that tried to provide shade dissipated in minutes. He was home, his real home, on Taiath’Rhowar, standing in fields of rolling green hills. Wildflowers ran through the grass likes veins, bursting with colors of red, white, and purple. In the distance, great walls of trees stood like an approaching army, towering into the sky with rich, proud leaves shining dark green in the sunlight.

          A few hundred yards in front of the thief stood a house, stout and strong, and made of thick palestone. A roof made of solar catchers basked in the sun-filled afternoon air, powering the house’s electrical needs as well as the automated irrigation machines. A garden overflowing with fruits and vegetables, shined from the shower it was being given. Chickens, sheep, and goats roamed in and out freely, happily filling the air with clucks and bleats.

          Reil knew this house, it was the house he was born in, built by his father and mother. Yet despite knowing he was home, something felt off. He felt as though this wasn’t where he actually was. The wind rushing around him and throwing his clothes and hair into fits of flapping; that was about right for this time of year in the Alvennis Forest. The damp, cool smell the wind carried from the woods; that was right as well. The tight fitting, white shirt and tight blue pants tucked into ankle-high running boots; that was right however itchy the shirt was.

          This is a dream, it finally hit Reil as he realized he hadn’t been to his home planet since the beginning of the war nine long years ago. I’m on Sovon’Yur, in Feldrin with broken ribs. He assumed he’d wake up upon noticing the fact that he was dreaming, but to his surprise he remained standing in the fields of his youth. It must be a side effect of those megs, I’ve heard they mess with your head worse than wyneroot.

          Reil had assumed that being in a dream was what felt off, but the sinking feeling lingered yet. What was it about this day? What day even is it? Hoping to learn more of his whereabouts and whenabouts, he set off toward the house of his childhood, not sure if he should be wary or just accept the dream and smile.

          As his feet fell closer and closer to the door with stained glass scenes of flowers in the center in the shape of a crescent moon, Reil let small turns of a smile edge onto his face as the smells of his mother’s garden filled his nose. Great, now Feldrin will stink even more when I wake up for having remembered this. The thought was hardly filled with anger, Reil could even forget the itchiness of his shirt for the beautiful aroma of the garden and the soft, comforting whirrings of the irrigation machines. A wide window stood off to the left of the door with a large sill that Reil remembered curling up on with coffee and a book on countless days of his early childhood. He slid a hand across the well worn wood of the window sill, letting his fingernails scratch along with his hand. His hands were more calloused than he was used to, they were as his hands used to be when he spent all his time climbing trees in the Alvennis.

          Admiring the wood and the architecture of the house, so carefully and lovingly crafted by his own parents, he slowly pulled his eyes upward and into the house. It took him a time to adjust, the humid air from the freshly watered garden fogged the glass, but he saw two very familiar shapes sitting at a large table, hands being thrown in directions and occasionally slamming onto the tabletop.

          Tall and burly, with his tight blue shirt of Rhowaran fabric strained by the mass of muscles underneath, stood the man who taught Reil how to climb, fight, track, and hunt. Bave Ryik, a true man of Taiath’Rhowar with a massive personality and an even larger beard. His blonde hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and his beard spread wildly across his face. His violet eyes looked happy, even when the man was furious, with creases around the edges from spending most of his days smiling. The usual strong, jovial cheeks were more drawn this day, and his forehead was taut with worried wrinkles. The subject of his frustration stood on the opposite side of the table, a thin blonde woman of below average height with sparkling eyes of two colors; one typical Rhowaran violet, the other a warm brown. The multicolored eyes betrayed her mixed heritage, one parent evidently having been from somewhere other than Taiath’Rhowar. Her pointed chin was tilted up and her thin lips were pulled into a haughty pout. She stood as if she was three feet taller than she really was. Anne Ryik was without a doubt the most stubborn being that Yvesu ever crafted, and Reil shuddered with memories of the times he spent attempting to win an argument with her.

          His parents’ fighting wasn’t uncommon, but it was always gentle and they made up soon afterwards. They truly loved each other with all the Heart the Mother had given them, and it showed in all they did. But this wasn’t one of those fights. Reil remembered these fights clearly, fights out of frustration and fear of the approaching war. Rumors that the fighting would reach Taiath’Rhowar early on because they were the energy producers of the Windfell Empire had caused high tensions and stress among everyone, his parents included. They weren’t misplaced fears either, two of the Empire’s eleven planets had already fallen to the war, and Yellen was currently in a losing and bloody battle.

          Windfell, that’s a name I haven’t thought of in a long time. The Windfell Empire was the first casualty of the war. It was once powerful, stretching across the better half of the Olitheren System, twelve colonized planets under its power and two more in mining colonies. Windfell flourished because of its powerful grasp on the energy industry. Its planets, though not very large in number, were prosperous and strong. Taiath’Rhowar was the Empire’s greatest asset, producing enough power for the other eleven planets and the mining colonies by itself. Great rivers and powerful wind raged across the surface, with only man-made terraformed areas and rare natural forests such as the Alvennis being hospitable. Those who lived in the terraformed cities were not natives to Taiath’Rhowar, but colonists from the more central planets of the empire who first came to the planet close to a thousand years ago, fairly early into the 9th and current, Cycle.

          Those who lived in the forests were true natives of the planet, and were given immunity to the laws and governings of the Windfell Empire. A brief war could be found mentioned in historical texts, with the natives resisting the arrival of the Imperial colonists. But over centuries, the two people groups grew close, with the Rhowaran natives eventually voluntarily entering the Windfell Empire and accepting their government. Natives all looked similar, with tanned skin, blonde or white hair, and the most striking and unique feature, eyes of pure Rhowaran violet.

          Rhowarans were humble yet loud people, they weren’t afraid to speak their mind but they didn’t often boast. Emotions flowed freely in conversations with people of Taiath’Rhowar; it was considered unhealthy for the Soul to hold back emotions, so gatherings were filled with loud singing, professions of love, tears of both grief and joy, and everything in between. Reil’s family lived as traditional Rhowarans did, building their own house out of wood gathered from whichever forest they lived in, often miles from the nearest neighbor, and entirely self sufficient. He grew up learning how to garden and cook from his mother, and how to hunt and woodwork from his father. Childhood for a native Rhowaran meant climbing and running through trees, fishing from roaring rivers, and countless hours of manual labor helping run the family house.

          “I won’t say it again, Anne!” Bave said through gritted teeth, effort from withholding a yell clearly evident. “If we want him to live, we must send Reil to the Sovon System, whether the war reaches us or not. He’ll be safe there.” His tone softened slightly as he reached for his wife’s tear streaked cheek, “regardless of what happens, we’ll be with him again.”

          “In this Vein, or the next?” The now trembling Rhowaran woman choked audibly on her last words.

          “Oh my Heart, I am so sorry,” Bave stepped around the table and pulled the woman into his arms in an all encompassing hug.

          The Sovon System belonged to the Delkari Dynasty, and was the target for many Windfell refugees in the last year as the recently united Gav’Rethil Federation swept through systems, colonized or not, annihilating and conquering every planet they laid claim to. The Delkarians had been close friends with the Windfell Empire since the Collapse, a Galaxy-wide economic disaster early in the Cycle, when the two powers worked to pull each other from the financial hole they had both fallen into.

          In an act of good faith, the Delkari Royal Family sent ambassadors from the Family itself to tell the citizens of Windfell that any and all refugees seeking safety from the approaching Gav’Rethil army would be welcomed on any planet in the Sovon System, barring there was room remaining. The first planet filled with refugees was Sovon’Pel, with Sovon’Yur, the planet Reil had found residence on, being the last to accept Windfell citizens before closing their gates as the war had reached the galactic scale and the Delkari Dynasty became a target of the Federation as well.

          “Anne, I ask it out of love and nothing else,” Bave pleaded while caressing his wife’s hair, “please sign the documents. As the war keeps growing do you think the Delkarians will continue their altruism? Do you think they will welcome us with open arms as our people walk into their cities with targets painted on their backs? Soon their gracious offer will be rescinded, and when that happens I want to thank the Mother that our son is safe in their cities.”

          Anne’s hands trembled worse than the rest of her frail body, “I will sign. I will sign out of love, but my Heart breaks today.”

          That’s why everything feels off. Today is the today they told me I was leaving Taiath’Rhowar without them. To go to the Sovon System, leave the home of my people, become a citizen of another empire, and have my own identity ripped from my Soul. Reil’s long held bitterness toward his parents’ decision had not left him. When a native of Taiath’Rhowar left the planet, they would forfeit their identity as a Rhowaran. He kept his first name as a matter of necessity, but he was no longer a Ryik after that day. He was just Reil now; Reil the thief, Reil the street urchin, Reil the golden-haired fullop. But not Reil Ryik.

          Perhaps he would not have been so angry with them had they come with him, but by the time his stubborn parents had finally realized how real the danger of the war was, the Delkarians had already altered their offer to accept only one refugee from each family. Of course his parents would not leave each other, and as he was an only child, the decision of who to send a very easy one to make.

          Reil’s hands trembled as memories coursed through him and shook his core. He was in a travel pod on a Leviathan-Class Passenger Ship by the time the carpet bombs leveled the forests of Taiath’Rhowar. He was told of the bombings the day he stepped off the ship that brought him to Feldrin. The Delkari soldier showed true compassion, and Reil remembered the genuine pain in the man’s eyes when he gave the news with a comforting hand on Reil’s shoulder.

          What he didn’t know was that once the real soldiers left to go defend the outer planets of the Sovon System, all good, honest men would be gone. The guards stationed in Feldrin were horrid to the refugees, eating the rations meant for new arrivals and abusing women. Any respect Reil had gained of the Delkari people from their refugee program and the virtuous soldiers he had met on the passage from his home planet was beaten out of him, mentally and physically, in his first week on Sovon’Yur. The remaining human left in him was not the same human who once ran through the Alvennis Forest. His Heart was bruised and his Soul was split in two. He felt a broken old man at only eleven years old.

          Unable to withstand anymore flashbacks, and not wanting to look at his parents knowing they had only a day or two from this moment before they were killed, Reil backed away from the window with tears in his eyes. How long am I going to be stuck in this dream? Has my day not been bad enough, Mother? In a little more than a day, Reil’s life had been turned upside down. He was to be a Squadron Leader, youngest to ever be appointed, had good friends he considered family, and was happy, all things considered. Now he was trapped in a dream filled with painful memories of his ruined homeworld, was lying in some Godless alley way with broken ribs, and with the exception of Cent, everyone he knew was likely dead.

          With nothing else to do while he waited to wake up, Reil did as he always did on Taiath’Rhowar when he found himself unable to handle what Yvesu threw his way. He went to the Alvennis.

          There was a dampness in the air around a Rhowaran forest that never left. The wind of the day made it stronger and the moisture in the air teased Reil’s nose. He patted and searched through his pockets to find a tie that could hold his hair back in the unceasing gusts. The leather band held the blonde strands tightly, and Reil couldn’t help but let the nostalgia in as his eyes scanned the familiar tree line ahead. Blue skies, bright white clouds above, and all four suns shining, telling any Rhowaran that it was midday.

          The emerald tree line shimmered as the different shades of green reflected the suns’ lights. Trying to look past the first row of trees was like trying to see more than a few feet ahead in a lightless cave. The ancient shade of the Alvennis was deeper than an ocean, and said to have beared witness to the Mother’s creation of the first human. Most native Rhowarans claimed that the forests of Taiath’Rhowar themselves, they could never decide which forest, were the actual birthplace of the human race. As the towering treetops grew closer and began to give Reil the feeling of being but a grain of sand in a desert, he could almost believe the creation stories he heard in his youth. If you had to choose a place to give us Life, Mother, this would’ve been a good one.

          Reil stood in grass strands reaching up to his knees, looking upward at the trees that stood as high as twenty-story buildings. He knew they were smaller, but he couldn’t help but feel that these trees even made the skyscrapers of Feldrin seem small. A low howl whispered through the darkness of the Alvennis. The trees were too tall and too dense to allow light through and even during the brightest days of Summer the Alvennis was cool and dark.

          He couldn’t count the number of days he spent in the very woods that now towered in front of him, and yet he had never been afraid of them. They were always so inviting, the cool air being a relief from the heat and the darkness being a blessing of the Mother in comparison to the blinding light of Taiath’Rhowar’s four suns. And yet, as he stood in the clothes of his childhood, the low roar struck fear into him and the darkness looked menacing.

          A flash of blue and white caught his attention and set his stomach to fluttering. Someone in Rhowaran native garb had dashed behind a tree. In seconds, even with the smells of spring and of the fauna in the forest, Reil caught the scent of the phantom Rhowaran. It was as if nothing else had a scent but this human. The familiar tendrils of honey and skylillies tickled his nose and pulled him forward onto the balls of his feet like physical hands. Memories hit him even harder than before, but this time he wasn’t alone in them.

          “Lyrin,” Reil barely got the name out in a whisper. Once the words had left his tongue, he knew he wanted to say it again, it was like a drug. “Lyrin!” He called into the trees, a laugh breaking into his voice at the end. “Lyrin, I’m gonna get you! Who’s the king of the Alvennis?” He taunted and laughed and broke into a run into the dense trees.

          Breaking the treeline was like entering a portal. The whole world changed around him in an instant. Reil’s eyes had to adjust to the darkness and his skin was quickly covered in bumps from the chill. The world took on an entirely new palette. The only thing that remained the same was the scent of his closest friend. He couldn’t get Lyrin out of his nose if he stuck his face right into a patch of whiskeyroot. Despite the cold and the intimidating lack of light, Reil could not force the laughter down as it bubbled up his throat. It felt so good, so right, to be running with Lyrin in the Alvennis again. How long it had been since it last happened, and how much had gone wrong since.

          Trees whipped by on either side, Reil’s ponytailed hair flowing wildly behind him. The darkness grew and the forest’s depths ahead looked black as night. There was the usual sounds of a forest cascading from all around, but also another, quieter noise. Reil’s mind was torn between chasing the blonde haired woman in front of him and trying to hone in on the quiet, pestering noise. Without warning, a dull force coursed through Reil as his right side collided with a tree at full running speed. Lost in thought, he had not seen the fat, gray-barked trunk in front of him. He tumbled to the ground, using his hands and thief-trained reflexes to avoid hitting anything else on his way down. Reil’s fall came to a stop with his body cradled in a swath of large and surprisingly warm roots.

          The system of roots held his head slightly off the forest floor and his feet up even higher, like he was in a hammock. The stiffest hammock I’ve ever been in, that’s for sure. Where in the Dark did that tree come from? Reil put a hand to his head to stop the spinning. Now that his chase with Lyrin was over, she didn’t appear to have stopped when he had his fall, he craned his ears to listen to the sound that had still not stopped.

          “Reil, wake up. I’m not going to carry you again.”

          It was Cent’s voice. As the sounds of his friend’s voice became clearer, the world around him blurred and tore apart. The bark of trees splintered and exploded, sending spears of wood flying all around. The darkness ripped through the forest like a tsunami and a horrible scream filled the now freezing air. A sharp plank of wood dug straight into Reil’s chest, not stopping until it was a full foot into the soil underneath him. He screamed, without feeling any pain, and it was over.

 

~`’~

 

          “Reil, it’s ok. It was just a nightmare. You’re alright,” Cent was kneeling at his side with concern painted on his face and his hands on Reil’s shaking shoulders.

          Reil panted as he fought to believe Cent’s words of comfort. “I was home.”

          “What do you mean?”

          He shook his head to clear his thoughts as much as to finish waking up, “On Taiath’Rhowar. It was a dream but it all felt so real, and I knew it was a dream but I didn’t wake up.” The words came pouring out of his mouth in a breathless flood.

         Some concern left Cent’s face, but he kept one hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Probably a side-effect of the megs, you know everyone says those things mess with your head worse than-”

          “Wyneroot. Now I know what they meant. I couldn’t feel pain really, but my other senses were fine, if not heightened. Everything felt… off. And… well I woke up when the forest began to explode and… a piece of wood went straight through me.” Reil’s voice began to slow down and regain control.

          “That’s… disturbing. How did it feel being home?” There was a pause before the last word; Cent wasn’t sure how to mention the topic around Reil, it was always a touchy one since they first met.

          “It was wonderful, I saw Lyrin. I’ve told you about her before, right?” Reil chucked a bit, feeling far better for having been awake.

          “Oh you may have mentioned her here or there, or you know, a few hundred times.” Cent joined Reil’s laughter.

          Reil didn’t tell his friend everything about Lyrin, about the feelings he held for her or about their inside jokes that only they understood. But in telling Cent about his life before Feldrin, before the war, he couldn’t help but bring her up, because nearly every memory he had of Taiath’Rhowar that was worth mentioning involved Lyrin in some way or another.

          “So, you know what would help me forget my terrible dream and near-death experience?” Reil put on his smoothest smile and wiggled his eyebrows in the direction of his friend.

          “Hm?” Cent took one look at Reil’s face and rolled his eyes, blowing upward to get an unruly strand of hair from his vision.

          “Nectar of the Light itself; some good, piping hot Seventh Street coffee.”

          Cent sighed before shrugging, “well, if we stop by Victoria’s place we can probably trade her a few megs and maybe some painkillers for a whole silver. Most Lightless money I’ve ever held at once. A coffee wouldn’t be too hard on the bank as long as Vicky’s home. Besides, she’d want to hear about what happened yesterday.”

          Reil cheered and pumped his fists into the air. “‘Bout time something good happens.” A bit of sadness ringed with the last words. It was hard to remain happy after the raid on the Thief House. It already seemed so far away, it was hard to believe it happened only the day before.

          “Before you get too excited, let’s see how those megs worked. Think you can walk?” Cent asked cooly, his voice its usual calm, “judging by your fist pump, I’d be willing to bet your ribs are in working order.”

          Reil clambered to his feet, restless after so much time spent immobile. “Good as new! A little sore in the side, but nothing too bad.”

           “Think you’ll be fine for a hike through the city? Victoria’s place isn’t close, and it’s even farther from Seventh Street than here.”

          “I’ll be fine to kick your butt, a hike through the city will be a breeze,” Reil shadowboxed the air in front of him while giving his imaginary opponent his best footwork.

          “As much as I’d like to prove you wrong, I’m not quite in the mood to drag your body to a hospital. And somehow I doubt they’d accept stolen medications as payment.”

          The two friends laughed as they began to pack up their few belongings. Reil stuffed as much as he could into the network of pockets lining his thieves coat, and Cent placed the more valuable and important goods into his backpack. The raven-haired thief wasn’t wrong, it would be a long trek, but visions of a fresh cup of coffee pushed aside the arduous journey ahead for Reil. He smiled and zipped up his coat thinking to himself that maybe things weren’t quite so bad. Cent patted his shoulder with a smile, “Let’s head out, shall we?”

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