A Burning Hope

by Mathias G. B. Colwell

Grim and isolated, The Fortress sits upon its island. It is not nearly as impenetrable as the Ruling Council would like. With its walls of wood and stone, and its high watchtowers scanning the dismal swamp, it is the last line of defense for the humans against a dark and dangerous world. The only other protection for mankind are the Slayers, a magic-infused fighting force sent into the murky waters outside the city to hunt the denizens of the swamp.

However, there is a sinister element to the magic used to compel the Slayers into their combat partnerships. The dirty underbelly of society, the poor, the destitute, and most of all the criminals are forced to undergo the Binding and daily face death. They are an army of slaves.

A Burning Hope is the tale of one man defying his own desperate circumstances, as for the first time in his life he dares to hope and dream. It is the story of a Slayer named Maeze and his fight to regain control of his destiny and live the life of freedom he desires.


Chapter One

“Pay attention, you mangy bastard.”

Aerick flicked a grin at Maeze as he began untying the skiff from its position on the dock. The words didn’t hurt Maeze. That was just the way Maeze’s partner spoke, and the smile said he wasn’t serious. Aerick continued. “I’m sure not going to do all the work for you today.” Aerick spoke like a commoner, without clear enunciation, squishing words and syllables together and at times even omitting certain sounds when he chose.

The Fortress rose firmly and resolutely behind Maeze. A circular structure, built to mimic the island upon which it sat, the Fortress was far from pretty. The architecture appeared only half finished in terms of its original conception. Four towers, one each at the north, south, west, and east side of the island, stood prominently, made of harsh stone and stained dark over the years.  They had obviously been constructed first as the architects of past times began building this haven from the world. However, it was clear that the designers of the Fortress had fallen short of their expectations for materials. The northern wall was built of the same grim granite as the tower turrets, yet the other three quarters of the wall were a hodgepodge of tightly fitted logs. The northern ramparts of stone changed from one step to the next, making way for the lumber constructed walls that followed. From the midst of the chinked log walls just slightly shorter than the northern, stone ramparts, the towers would emerge, a stark contrast of stone to the logs that surrounded it.

Maeze quit staring at the Fortress standing grimly behind him and untied his end of the skiff. He rocked the sturdy little craft with one boot to test its merit. It wobbled on the water and dirty, brown liquid oozed in from the many tiny leaks around its hull, but it was firm in its ability to stay afloat and to keep the majority of the marsh water out.

“She’s fen worthy,” Aerick stated as he watched Maeze tip and push the skiff, testing it with one foot while keeping the other foot planted firmly on the dock.

Maeze grunted noncommittally as he thought of what lurked beneath the surface of the water. “She better be. Our lives depend on it.” The comment brought a bitter twist to his partner’s mouth and Aerick didn’t speak again until they had cleared the tiny harbor on the south side of the Fortress where the Slayers’ Docks were located.

As he and his partner rowed into the marsh and away from the Slayers’ Docks—docks named for the working class fighters who departed from them—Maeze thought about how much he hated leaving the Fortress. The marsh surrounding the island held no joy for one such as him, a Slayer. Leaving the Fortress to do his daily work of protecting the settlement was hardly enjoyable. Being a Slayer meant a person had been forcefully recruited into a lifetime sentence in the lowest position in the Fortress’ fighting force, which came with extreme danger and risk.

Maeze hated returning to the Fortress as well. He pretty much just hated the Fortress. In a way, he supposed that he hated the world around him in general. It was a bleak, unforgiving place from which he and his fellow man were forced to scrape a miserable existence. Well, all but the Ruling Council that was. Those few who maintained power and influence were afforded certain luxuries that others were not. Maeze wondered bitterly if he would be in his current predicament if he had been born into one of those families. Of course he wouldn’t. The thought was immediate and filled with the sour taste of truth. The poor broke the law, not the rich. Oh, the rich were criminals too, their cruelty was unquestioned in Maeze’s mind, yet they created the rules and could mold them any way they pleased, erecting a world where they could continue to exploit those less powerful than they.

They rowed slowly, gradually, for an hour, taking turns at the oars along the way. They had no destination in mind. There was no rush. Hell would come to them, they didn’t have to find it.

Fens slid by slowly on either side. Dark, brown water, so murky the end of the oars disappeared when submerged, even just below the surface. So dark that barely a glimmer of reflection could be seen, even if a person peered into it. A ripple stirred the calm surface of the pool to Maeze’s right, and both he and Aerick jumped, slightly startled, and placed a hand on their weapons as they let the oars of the skiff rest. Something rose in the midst of the ripple and Aerick sighed audibly as he saw it was just a fish. He was still new at this. Not like Maeze.

Maeze’s hand gripped his flanged mace tightly even as the fear caused by the noise of the fish ebbed and silence resumed dominion of their surroundings. The boat drifted lazily, caught in a small bog swirl, those random currents that eddied through the swamp all around them, making their way in and around the humps of floating vegetation and the few solid mounds of earth that punctuated the marsh.

Such was the marsh. Small currents that could carry you anywhere and everywhere, as long as you didn’t want to go any place in particular. Such was the world really. Because the marsh was the world and the world was the marsh. There was nothing in this forsaken land other than fen and bog. This was all there was, just endless dark water, vegetation, hummocks, and the occasional stunted tree for as far as the eye could see. Even farther.

Maeze and Aerick let the skiff drift on the bog swirl. They had nowhere they needed to be. Come dark they would just make sure they were back to the Fortress. That was all a Slayer really did; nearly every day they spent out on the water, waiting to kill or be killed, and by nightfall they were back within the protective, oppressive walls of the Fortress.

He fingered his weapon, as Aerick balanced the oars on the edges of the boat. His partner, not rowing any longer, instead stared moodily out over the sinister, brackish water. Maeze studied his mace, the weapon he had carried for three years now. He had come to know every inch of its surface, every nick, every scratch. The wooden handle was worn smooth from many years of use, even before it had found its way into Maeze’s possession. Simply fashioned, the haft was stained dark from the endless amount of marsh water that had splashed on its surface or been soaked up from filthy hands gripping it. The haft ended in a heavy metal ball covered in sharp metal spikes, firm enough that with a powerful swing, you could crush a hole in a skull or put one of its sharp spikes in a man’s heart. Or any other creature for that matter, Maeze reflected grimly. Men were the least of his concerns.

"A Burning Hope" by Mathias G.B. Colwell


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