The Soul Collector
Author:Tamela Quijas

The Soul Collector - By Tamela Quijas

PROLOGUE

As the depths of all curses are delivered, and the beauty of enchanted tales begins, so does this tale

Once upon a time, there was a distant kingdom.

For those who happened to recall the province, the principality was nestled in the powerful embrace of towering, snow-covered mountains, and the flourishing fields of an exquisite valley. A peaceful land it had been, the rolling hills and lush vales abounding with fruitful harvests, and the laughter of happy peasants.

Leastwise, that was what the starving serfs remembered as they toiled in a now-barren countryside, their buoyant spirits broken.

The unfortunate inhabitants recalled when St. Lorraine’s meadows overflowed with glorious wheat. The golden sheathes had grown tall and strong, willowy blades glistening brilliant amber in the mountain sunlight.

At present, the fields were barren wastelands of bleak dirt. The starving earth refused to produce even the most insignificant blade of tender grass. Instead, as every breeze brushed soothing fingers across the decaying land, bits of St. Lorraine's precious soil blew away. It appeared each solitary grain sought the promise of a more forgiving outside the realm.

In the past, ancient oaks, maples, and elms provided much appreciated shade during the heat of the long summer days. Aside from these trees, thick copses of plentiful foliage shaded the roads, filled with bountiful fruit readily accessible to travelers and peasants alike. Apples, peaches, and plums had hung heavy, their sweetness lauded throughout the civilized world.

In the wealth of sadness claiming the land, the trees refused to bear fruit, or unfurl the tiniest of leaves. The rich abundance of precious woods vanished, replaced by gnarled stumps, and charred remains. Every twisted, knotted, and naked limb mourned the loss of their destroyed brethren. Raised toward the sky, the dark branches pleaded for a reprieve from the injustice destroying the province.

Babbling brooks, once filled with the purest water, dried to a modest trickle. As the stream vanished, no longer did the succulent flesh of silvery fish fill the bellies of the ravenous masses, and cook pots remained empty. The land lay in waste with hunger and thirst growing among the peasants.

The last time St. Lorraine boasted richness was under the rule of a more benevolent sovereign. The former ruler, a kind man, treasured his people and the land. Placing himself as an equal among his loyal subjects and just in his rule, King Alphonse held the welfare of St. Lorraine’s citizens foremost in his mind.

Alas, the first equinox of the preceding year marked the death of the good sovereign. The beloved leader's demise had not been from either advanced age or incurable illness, for he met his unexpected end at the hands of a vile barbarian. Having forsaken his life to protect those he held dear, the old king's lands were pillaged, and his people enslaved. Every acre and person became the property of the evil knight responsible for the murder of the much-loved monarch.

The present royal leader adhered to the rule of the cold taste of steel, the burn of his heated branding irons, and the sting of the lash. He governed with a heavy hand, and the thirst for battle weighed more on his mind, instead of the welfare of the people.

King Alphonse’s beautiful daughter, the fair Princess Anjelie, became a spoil of war. Her compassionate innocence and kind heart meant naught to the new ruler. The usurper did not grant her the slightest touch of gentleness.

Granted, the barbarian had taken her as his lady wife. Alas, for those delving deeper into his actions, the deed demonstrated his absolute dominance. His brutality was not held in check for fair Anjelie, for she suffered the wrath of the daemon ruling the province.

As the precious land crumbled and vanished into a barren wasteland, as people died, the princess became a fragile whisper. Swollen with child, she remained locked away in a tower of the crumbling castle.

As the palace and the land wasted, as the precious Anjelie languished, all experienced an overwhelming sense of loss. Instead of the joy fuelling the people's hearts, whenever they heard the thundering hoof beats of their monarch's steed, their fear escalated.

This selfsame dread drove the old witch forward, despite the threat of brewing thunder and brilliant lightning. Her ragged breath wheezed from aching lungs as she hobbled along, her crippled gait a difficult wobble. From time to time, she stumbled and fell, her crooked legs protesting the swiftness in which she traveled.

Ancient beyond imaginable years, the gray-headed woman had observed many a long winter. There were innocuous whispers she was older than the memories held by those hovering around meager campfires. They recalled the woman from their youth, as did their parents.

When glimpsed, fanciful and muttered suspicions abounded, for her weary body resembled a gnarled boundary oak. Her features were nearly indistinguishable, disappearing into the heavy lines mapping her face, and her hair spun in a wild cloud of brittle grays and whites.

The unruliness of her locks served a purpose, shielding all from the unsettling milky opaqueness of sightless eyes.

The old woman stumbled again. She fell on swollen and bloodied knees before righting with a muttered curse. She grumbled, yearning for the slightest fragment of vision, anything to aid in her perilous trek. Cautiously, she picked her way past sharp rocks, abandoned wagons, and the carcasses of decaying livestock. Gasping for breath, she scrambled on, filled with desperation and fear.

She needed to reach the boundaries dividing the D'Angel the Destroyer's land from those of his more erstwhile neighbor.

Panting, her chest heaving, she halted. She swept away a tangle of hair, her blind eyes seeming to scan the moonlit landscape. Although her vision had abandoned her many years past, she appeared to rely on a mystifying sense of guidance. She muttered beneath her breath and shook her head in amazement.

“Even those plaguing my life forsake me in my hour of need,” she wheezed, the words escaping a toothless mouth. The shadows, the entities so prevalent throughout her long life, remained hidden. She shuddered with unfamiliar discomfort and hitched the threadbare material of a shawl closer to her hunched shoulders.

She knew the loss of the shadowy figures for what it was--a sign of forthcoming doom. She could not fault their desertion, for even the dead sought sanctuary from the demonic lord of the land.

Her twisted hands plucked agitatedly at the threadbare fringe of the shawl, knowing her time was at an end. Whether her demise would occur tonight, tomorrow, or the following eve, she did not know, as lost as the glowing light once gracing her treasured land. Her body was far too weary, and she could not outdistance her vicious monarch. The speed of his warhorse and the wickedness resting inside his sinister heart were set with purposeful intent.

As if on cue, her sharp ears heard the thud of approaching hooves, and the ground trembled beneath her. Loud jeers filled the air, followed the jangle of harnesses and heavy armor. Another ribald cheer erupted from the horde of merciless knights surrounding her, their merriment similar to a hunting party.

The snorting breaths of the mounts echoed about her. The stillness of the night filled with the loud sound of jingling saddlery and the sporadic pawing of hooves on the hardened ground. Contemptuous mirth, followed by vehement curses, caused her to shudder with dread.

“Halt, witch!”

The shouted command stifled the raucous laughter, and the dreaded voice belonged to none other than the remorseless lord controlling St. Lorraine. A tremor of terror coursed through her crippled body as the weight of a horse’s heavy body pushed her.

Even without the benefit of sight, she realized she was surrounded, her liege lord before her, and his men flanking her. For a long moment, brutish mounts and their equally minded riders, men who received the church’s blessing for their supposed honor, shoved her.

“Be still!” The unpleasantly thick voice of the Lord of St. Lorraine commanded, and his armored men reluctantly fell back.

“My lord,” she stood proudly before him, her expression defiant, her hunched shoulders pulled back.

“Witch,” his words were low, but not lost to the men encircling him. His steed pranced beneath him, flecks of blood-tinged spittle spraying the air as the animal reared its massive head. “You have led my men on a trek scarcely worth their valuable time!”

The woman’s face became tranquil beneath the wild tangle of her steel-gray hair. Proudly, she stood on the minor piece of dying land that had been her beloved country. Despite her bravery, she wished to weep bitter tears. Pushing the urge aside, she tightened her grasp on her tattered shawl.

“I am a simple woman, ancient before my time, my lord.” Her voice was loud and steady as she indicated the obvious. “How could I be of value?”

He leaned forward in his saddle, his helmet in the crook of his arm, and the reins of his pawing mount lax in his gloved hand. “You, woman, threaten my land and rule.”

She cackled, her laughter long and wheezing.

“An old woman is a menace to a man of your ilk?” She jested defiantly. “I threaten the great king of St. Lorraine?”

The ruler edged his prancing steed nearer. The woman detected the fetid breath of the animal on the chill of her papery skin, and the inexpressible heat radiating from the monarch's malice.

“My lady wife,” he began, his words holding a lethal edge as sharp as his sword. “Your Queen Anjelie speaks of your many deeds. She prattles of the power you hold, and your ability to envision the events of the future, the present, and the past.”

“I am an old woman,” she reaffirmed, pushing the snarl of straggling hair from her face. “The tales she speaks are fables spun by imaginative children. I lack any type of power.”

The ruler straightened, and his disbelieving snicker matched his animal.

“I’ve heard the whispers throughout the kingdom. I want your power. No,” he paused, “I demand your power!”

“It shall never be yours to command!” She didn't have any significant power, truth told, only the simple gift of the sight. Within her mind, she heeded the words of the lost souls roaming the land in faded wisps of smoke. He would never understand merely spirits existed in her unsighted world, phantoms granting her insight into a realm beyond life. “You’ve heard naught but tales whispered by superstitious peasants.”

“Under the threat of persecution, I think not,” he snarled.

“Torture will make many a man tell outlandish tales defying belief.” a frisson of dire filled her at his short bark of laughter.

“As it may be….” He paused, and the lusterless color of his eyes scanned her face, as if he held the innate power of the devil to peer into her soul. Instead of cowering, she granted him the full benefit of her sightless eyes. Her ordinarily charitable heart hardened as she sensed the fearful flinch and the dread overcoming his knights.

“You seek what I’ll never freely award you, D'Angel.”

Peculiarly tranquil, a mocking smile twisted her lips. The monarch returned her disdain with one of his own, unaware of the thoughts filling her nimble mind.

D'Angel.

The name of the liege lord was a mockery, she thought, for he was not the glorious angel his name implied. He was a dark seraph of iniquity and death, a scourge infesting previously blessed lands.

Proudly, he wore the name of D'Angel the Destroyer, The Daemon of St. Lorraine.

“If you refuse to grant me what I want, you are worthless to me!”

He raised his gloved hand to the mounted knights. Within her innermost sense, the ancient woman envisioned the dark vision of a rising daemon horde. She readily foresaw the auras surrounding her, despite her blindness, blanketing her crippled body in a wave of darkness. Deep crimsons and black, darkness and terror burst from the knights, instead of the promised glory and light.

She hung her head, attempting to project the mob’s negativity away. She was unable to suppress her smothered gasp torn as weighty ropes bound her arms to her sides. The uncomfortable bindings tightened, nearly ripping the breath from her lungs.

“There will be an essence of light that will overcome the darkness, and the just shall return to rule the land. Good shall prevail over the might of evil, and all shall be set right, again.” She babbled hastily, chanting the sing-song litany of the ancients, and seeking a calm she did not feel.

“Silence, woman!” D’Angel shouted loudly.

“Do with me as you will, Lord D'Angel.” She managed in a resigned voice, calming, each word choked. “I won’t serve you, or the wretched vileness you’ve set on the land. My gift won’t be used for your wickedness.”

The length of his broadsword left the scabbard with a hiss, and the sharp blade rose high. His steed pranced beneath him, as skittish as the vicious hordes, and small clouds of dust ascended upwards. An illicit and blood curdling battle cry erupted from the king, his thirst for death far outweighing superstitious fear.

“Your life ends this night,” he vowed, his declaration barely audible above the answering roar of his men.

“Not before I say my piece!” a slow smile touched her toothless mouth. The milky whiteness of her unseeing eyes lifted to the ruler and he couldn't contain his shudder. The opaqueness of her glowing orbs reflected an unhallowed shade of carmine in the firelight of raised torches.

“You have naught to say, old woman!” He snarled as the lashes tightened about her crippled body.

“Ah, but I do, my Lord D'Angel,” she persisted, each word pained. Within the all-seeing vision of her mind, she sensed his flinch and scornfully smiled.

The Daemon of St. Lorraine was unprepared for the softness of the words rising from her, the prophetic vows uttered in a voice not her own. Firm and strong, the mystical intonations lifted high on the still night air.

To you, this night, I see

two heirs born to your daemon soul and our good Queen Anjelie,

His heart full of just and might,

one soul shall be of good and light.

The other shall exist for solely turmoil and strife,

an echo of your past and deeds this night.

Neither shall be granted reprieve,

for their souls are cursed to walk the earth eternally,

forced to endure the visions tormenting me.

Your deeds of evil have damned their souls;

I vow neither heir will ever be at ease!

Like the cries of the ghostly damned, the apparitional whisper of a chilling wind resonated mournfully past, lifting the scarlet tails of royal banners high. The steeds pranced uneasily, capable of sensing something unspoken lingering in the cold night, which caused her unrelenting bonds to tighten.

The faintest coppery rich odor of blood rose on the breeze, and her nose wrinkled in revulsion. The life fluids, so redolent in the night, were her own.

The old beldame lifted her grayed head to the ebon darkness of the starlit sky. Serenity settled over her, and the bitterness of the transpiring events left her.

Instead, divinely calm, she listened to the murmuring wind. She nodded, as if in response to words unheard to all others. A frigid draft pushed past armored bodies, coy and teasing tendrils causing their reigned steeds to protest.

The gray-headed hag smiled as the soil of St. Lorraine rose loftily into the night, each precious grain drifting and dancing before vanishing into nonexistence.

For the sake of my good Queen Anjelie,

I offer solely this lone reprieve.

The eternal blessing of angel’s fire shall redeem one heir;

Enveloped in blood of his victims,

the other shall dwell in the bowels of Hell,

The soul of the daemon liar.

Her inner being separated from the shriveled husk of her mortal self as the icy coldness of expertly forged steel struck home, and she crumpled lifelessly to the ground. Incapable of uttering another prophetic word, she spewed precious life's blood into the dusty soil. Discolored by the great flow, the drought stricken land inhaled her sustenance, the dampness the equivalent of long forgotten rain. She heaved one last quivering breath, the sound slow and long before fading.

“Burn her! Burn her until there is nothing to gather! I do not wish to witness a remaining bit of hair, bone, or clothing!” The ruler commanded, sheathing his bloodstained sword.

A sense of misgiving rippled through the assembled horde, filling the minute recesses of their diseased hearts.

“Destroy her!” The monarch snarled heatedly, his dark countenance feral. His men remained conspicuously silent, torches raised, the flames flickering in the rapidly rising wind touching the valley. “Destroy her, I say!”

The cold grayness of D'Angel's eyes glowed in the firelight, and his men hurried to their task. Frowning, a muscle ticked furiously in his clenched jaw before he spat at the woman's crippled body.

“Ensure she’s burnt beyond recognition, and scatter her ashes to the wind. I won’t have a martyr for the people.”

There was a sudden burst of illuminating flame before the sickly stench of burning meat filled the air. The fiery glow emitted from the woman's corpse brightened the night's sky. Incandescent fingers of orange-red flames leapt hungrily upwards, in silent competition with the ghostly lamentation of the wind.

The hag’s shriveled form burned hastily, and the intense fire consumed what little there was of the ancient seer's tattered remains. To the knights viewing the hungry blaze, her flesh appeared as nothing more than dry autumn leaves, her ashes scattering glowing sparks into the air. Abruptly, a breathless rider rode a breakneck speed into the clearing, a shower of flaming embers dusting his armor.

“I bear magnificent tidings this eve, sire!” The short-winded knight shouted, drawing near. The weary rider struggled for breath while he reined his steed to a ground shuddering halt. The hapless knight inhaled the nauseating odor of crisp flesh and burning clothes. He shuddered beneath the weight of his armor, unaware his liege lord made a mental note of the reaction. “I’ve magnificent tidings, milord!”

“What news do you bring?” D'Angel, the self-appointed ruler of St. Lorraine, postulated glaringly.

“You have been blessed this night with the arrival of a successor, milord,” the rider managed, a forced brightening his sweat-drenched features. “God and your beauteous Queen Anjelie have graced your majesty with a fine pair of healthy sons!”

The monarch blanched, and the muscles in his throat convulsed. He swallowed, and cold sweat touched his brow. Somewhere, the morose cry of wind whispered with the witch's cackling laughter, and a frisson of dread enshrouded the implacable sovereign’s dauntless form.

At the same moment, the final remnants of the old woman's ashes rose, dancing on the wind, and dusted D'Angel's dark armor.