[STORY] Achel

  • 8 months ago


Far down in the southern continent, along the southeastern border of the Kingdom of Galon, stretches the Twilight Desert. Cartographers have difficulty mapping the region, and to date no one appears to know the full extent of it.

One of the only truly habitable areas near this border once held a city-state named Connacht, which was able to flourish there thanks to its proud warrior culture. They held dominion for many years before Galon, fearful of their strength, invaded with a large army of soldiers and knights. Connacht fought back bravely, and their memory remains perhaps the only thing Galon truly fears. They could not defend their walls forever, though, not against so large a force. Galon laid the town to waste, shattering walls and toppling towers, until all that remained were ruins: rubble strewn about its already confusing maze of streets.


When the Fomors began to arrive, most of Connacht's survivors finally had enough and dispersed to more prosperous lands. The more habitable parts of the fallen city became known simply as the Shambles by those unlucky enough to remain, and the area was both mocked and feared by its neighboring countries. Those that remained soon forgot their noble past, focused on the brutal realities of survival instead of history. The faded flags that still adorned the city, most ripped to tatters, lost all their meaning.

The infamous equipment of Connacht's warriors fell victim to a similar fate. The nimble spear that humbles the vainglorious: "Hasta." The stout shield that can defend from any angle: "Grand Targe." The flexible armor that allowed these to be used to maximum effect: "Lorica." This was the gear of those past warriors. Now, the secrets of their use had fallen from disuse into obscurity. These true symbols of Connacht, of warriors born, lay rusted and discarded.

The young boys who ran through these destroyed streets today knew little to none of that.

They were currently running atop a collapsed stairway that served as a border between the Shambles, where every day was a fight for survival, and the other, even more dangerous parts of the city officially considered lost; sections where the destruction was so extreme that maneuvering around the rubble was incredibly dangerous, if not completely impossible. Each child held a rounded, rotting wooden shield and a long stick. They had all seen the glimpses of what their nation that used to be, portions of shattered murals that showed residents fighting off Galon with similar tools. Not that the boys had any idea how to use them the same way... but desperation can be a powerful teacher, even if it favors brutality over elegance.  

Since everyone in the Shambles could prove to be a danger, the boys formed their own gangs, banding together to compensate for their smaller size against the adults through larger numbers. This tactic was so successful that these young gangs became one of Connacht's greatest dangers. It only taught the children to be malicious. They'd trample over anyone weaker, beating them mercilessly before running off with whatever money or food they'd managed to scrounge up. This became just a part of everyday life in the fallen city-state of Connacht. The adults stopped trying to intervene once they too were beaten and mugged. Not that the adults were any better, or any more moral. This was how everyone in modern Connacht had to survive. They knew no other life. 

The denizens believed this place to be Hell, or at least indistinguishable from it. This point was difficult to argue, and there appeared to be no end in sight for their despair. Even the desert sun seemed to avoid the place, too proud to share its blessings or too fearful to share its welcome, as each day was cloaked in the shadows of the fallen empire… this only became more sinister as day turned to night. Those buildings that managed to still stand threatened to collapse at any minute, long cracks spreading through their stone. Trash piled up in corners or scurried along the labyrinth of alleyways along hot winds, like vermin possessed of their own strange life. Here and there one might find a piece of the old Lorica armor discarded to rust in puddles of slimy water; for a people obsessed with gathering anything of value left, these were deemed utterly worthless. Graffiti marred what walls remained upright, scrawled imperiously over mosaics once considered great works of art the world over.

The destitute and the desperate now ruled over the destroyed city. Illicit whispers in dark rooms bargained for stolen goods, drugs, or simply food and water. Some of these denizens became truly broken by what life had in store and began to even enjoy their dark work, their ominous laughs echoing through ancient halls. Truly, Connacht was gone, left to Shambles, and Hell was the better name for it.

In one corner of Hell stood a boy, alone, with hair the color of blood. Around here it might well have been, though in his case he was largely uninjured. Few could stand up to him in a one-on-one fight. Even as a rival gang began to surround him, he stood tall—despite his short height—and defiant. The confrontation resembled a pack of hyenas surrounding a lion. Though they were larger than the boy and larger in number, their approach was hesitant, guarded. This was Achel, the "Red Hound," and he was one of the worst boys they could have had the ill fortune to encounter. He was no pushover.

Still, the Hound was sure to have acquired good loot. Good food. Perhaps a scrap that wasn't covered in mold or stale as stone. They also knew that he must still have their own food: the food Achel had just stolen from them. That would at least be edible.

All of a sudden, the gang of boys surged at Achel, lashing out with their wooden rods and shields. Here in Connacht, you only fought with the intent to kill. The red-haired boy spun with his shield, striking one assailant in the head; he collapsed with a gush of blood. Not a single boy there worried if the child was still alive, or even thought to check... though several did hope to claim his food for themselves. 

The group relentlessly attacked any opening Achel left, and one thrust managed to strike him in the knee, forcing him to lose his balance. The moment the gang gained the upper hand, Achel's pained squirming around only fueled their bloodlust, and they struck him even more aggressively. Eventually satisfied, they left him lain out on the street and walked away with all the food he had on him. He didn't deserve it any longer. 

Achel wasn't one to play dead. He wasn't one to really think ahead or plan in any situation, really. So, by the time he eventually roused and rolled onto his back, it was purely because that was the moment he regained consciousness. He lay there for a while, staring at the darkening sky and managing ragged breaths. He knew that the ones who took his food were long gone by now. 

As he stood, he saw another body lying face down on the street; the boy he'd clobbered with his shield. The rest of the gang simply left him here, though not before taking his own food from the looks of it. Enraged, Achel kicked the boy's body repeatedly. He didn't move. He couldn't tell if the slumped over form was unconscious or dead... but he also didn't care, so it didn't bother him. His rage finally spent, the red-headed hellion retrieved his own rod and shield, making his way through the maze of alleys. 

He carefully scanned his surroundings but saw no signs of life. No danger... but also no reward. He had to find somebody with food. Somebody weaker than him. He had to. Otherwise, he would be trying to sleep with an empty stomach that night. Again.

He trudged on well past dusk, until he came across a warmly lit building along the eastern edge of the city. Peering through a window he saw a neatly set dinner table, smiling children sitting around it, and what appeared to be a priestess, sitting and chatting with them. To Achel's eyes she had to be a foreigner, for she had an unusual appearance he had never seen before. Bewildered, he wondered if hunger made his eyes deceive him. Where was the struggle? Where was the combat? The view through the window was so vastly different from his world that he couldn't help but think this priestess looked like a being from Heaven, while he was just some miserable creature of Hell. Seeing the apparent differences between his lot and hers only enraged him further. 

Suddenly, he heard the voice of an old man passing by him on the street, with a voice like gravel scraping across cobblestones.

"Heh heh, better not mess around with that shelter. You know, don't you? Those foreigners are messengers of God! If you steal from the faithful, they might just smite you. Heh heh!" The old man actually smiled at the boy, and not out of malice. Achel wasn't sure if he'd ever seen that before. The old man simply gestured for him to enter the shelter before continuing down the street. 

The foreigners came from a distant land called Taratha, and called themselves the Acolytes. Their doctrine was cut from a different cloth than that of the Pontiff's Court, however. Fleeing religious persecution for heresy, these newfound pilgrims journeyed to other nations where they performed good deeds in accordance with their own interpretation of the faith. To the modern citizens of Connacht they were like a divine miracle, and while the shelter's gifts of simple meals and lodgings were scrapped together from meager sources, the townsfolk definitely appreciated them. The modern-day residents might not have been interested in their gospel, or even believe in gods, but they could still tell that these Acolytes were fundamentally good people… the type that usually avoided Connacht these days. This notion was so apparent that there was an unspoken rule among the denizens: ‘Leave the shelter be. Don't mess with them. They're off limits.’ They felt it was the least they could do, since these travelers from afar broke their backs to bring them charity in a place that any gods, if they ever even existed, had long since abandoned. 

"Hmph. Like I care." Achel remained unimpressed. The boy knew the rule well enough, but the smell of freshly baked bread proved too much of a temptation. He stooped low, slowly sneaked into the shelter, and reached for a basket... only to find that it was empty. It still carried the scent of bread, but its contents had already been eaten.

While the boy was unable to hide his disappointment, he felt his body defy gravity as he was slowly lifted into the air. He panicked and kicked his feet violently before turning to look behind him. 

"The hell?! Let me go!"

A large man in armor had grabbed Achel by the collar and hoisted him up. Though the boy was a match for any boy or adult in a one-on-one fight in the alleyways, he was still but a child, and this was a particularly large adult. His struggles to break free were in vain.

The priestess that he had seen before noticed this commotion and hurried over.

"What is the matter?"

"No worries, Sophia. I just caught a red stray red-handed. He's actually trying to steal some bread, can you believe it? Hey buddy, don't you know we're giving it away for free?"


The boy sighed heavily, going completely limp in frustration. There was nothing for it. 

"Alex, please let him back down."

"Are you sure, Soph? This one looks a lot more dangerous than the others. Could be trouble..."

"The shelter is open to everyone. Please."

"Of course."

At the calm but stern words of the priestess called Sophia, the warrior Alex gently lowered the boy to the ground. Violently shaking off the man's grip, the boy took on a stance that could be adapted to either fight or flight as he needed. Instead of being put off, Sophia knelt down so that she could make eye contact with him. 

"I'm Sophia, and I run the shelter. This is Alex, who is in charge of our security. Could you tell us your name?"

"Hmph... Achel."

"It's nice to meet you, Achel. Are you hungry?"

He snorted in defiance at the question and avoided answering. Sophia didn't seem to mind, though, and handed him a piece of bread. 

"Here. Take it."

He snatched the bread from her hand without pausing to consider it. He never paused to think anything through. He simply felt as if he'd scored a great deal, coming away with food for free.

"I see that you're injured.... Do you need medical attention?"

At this question Achel wiped the cuts on his face away, telling her no.

"Well, the shelter is always open. Please return to us anytime you like."

With those words Sophia and Alex returned to the kitchen, leaving Achel to stand there alone for a long while before returning to his home... his hiding place. 

When he arrived, moonlight was streaming in through a shattered window to illuminate a painted wall mural that he had been working on. His skill was quite something, and it was easily the most beautiful thing in the whole room… and the only beautiful thing. Sitting in the corner, dangerously close to crumbling cracks he might fall through at any moment, he took a bite of the bread and got lost in his thoughts.

'Why did she just give me this bread...?'

'Did she... pity me?'

'...Annoying idiot.'

His inner monologue was interrupted by a sudden unease, and it didn't subside until he finally fell asleep.


The next day, Achel woke up grimacing at the sunlight pouring through his ruined ceiling. That unpleasantness was somewhat welcome today because he knew he had an important job to get started on. He grabbed his wooden weaponry and set off for the maze of streets. Eventually, Achel spotted a good target, and swooped down on him like a hawk upon its prey. 

"W-what? Wait, the R-Red Hound?!"

The other boy's eyes widened at the sight of Achel's red hair whipping around, and he fled down the dark alleyway as fast as his legs could carry him. The two boys raced over and through piles of trash. One might think it was a simple game of hide-and-seek between two young boys if they didn't know the history of this place, or how deadly the stakes were. When they finally came to a dead end, though, the frantic boy skidded to a stop and, barely able to catch his breath, turned around with a scream of despair.

"No! You can't take this! Not this time! This is mine! I need this!"

The boy hid a small, soiled bag behind his shield, threatening to stab Achel if he came any closer. Sure enough, the boy had some bread with him. A lifetime of hunger caused the Red Hound to develop a keen sense of smell; he had caught the scent of the loaf and needed no visual to verify that fact. Achel wasn't sure where this boy had found it—perhaps it was from the shelter—but he didn't need to know the specifics. He just needed the bread. 

Achel rushed forward. He blocked his victim’s incoming attack with his shield, then rammed his own weapon into the boy's exposed throat. The poor boy collapsed instantly, fighting for breath. After easily subduing his opponent, Achel reached for his bag.

Desperate and backed into a corner, the injured boy somehow found the strength to lurch upwards and slam his shield into Achel's head. The sound of wood smashing into skull echoed down the alley.

The redhead almost grinned as he wiped away the blood from the back of his skull with his stick. While his opponent was distracted at this gruesome sight, the Red Hound kicked him mercilessly in the gut. With a single, short scream, the boy collapsed onto the street.

He held onto life, though. Deep on an instinctual level, he knew he had to survive. Unlike Achel, this boy knew how to plan, and managed to fake unconsciousness until the situation was in his favor. For now, the prize was Achel's. The Red Hound didn't even bother glancing back before heading back the way he'd come.

Achel eventually reached the shelter, but instead of storming in, he hesitated.

The shelter was a place made for the weak. That bothered him. 

After checking to make sure that no one was around, he slowly passed through the front doors. This building was structurally sound enough to still have doors, but it did not have a lock. This was unheard of. Even the sun, usually so reticent to shine upon fallen Connacht, shone brightly upon the shelter. Achel eventually found Sophia in the back field, spreading linens on clotheslines in the patchy grass. When she noticed him walking over, she smiled. The gentle breeze in this little slice of paradise stirred the laundry, almost as if it started waving to him. 

"Hello, Achel. I'm so glad that you came back."

He looked away uncomfortably. Suddenly, he reached into his bag and roughly yanked out the bread he'd taken from the other boy.   

The confusion that crept onto Sophia's face was plain. She could tell at a glance that it was completely different bread than the type the shelter made, with a different shape and texture, than the loaf she had given to him yesterday. 

"What...? Bread? You're giving it to me?"

"Won't owe anyone. Now we're even." As Achel spoke casually, blood trickled down his neck from the wound he had received earlier. 

"...You have more wounds than you did yesterday. Did you fight? Over this bread...?"

"Hmph. You should see the other guy."

Achel smiled proudly, but Sophia's expression turned grim.

"So, this bread belongs to someone else?"

"No. Belongs to whoever's strong enough to take it. Mine now. Well, yours."

For Achel, a boy from the Shambles, that was just how life worked. Taking something by force was the only true way to say you owned something. It was very natural here for the strong to take from the weak. 

"Achel. I gave you bread yesterday because I didn't want you to get into another fight."


"I can't take this bread. You need to return this to its rightful owner."

Achel felt his temper rise. He could never have expected such a response, not from his experiences. 

"Hmph! Don't want it, don't take it! Don't tell me what to do! You don't get to command me! Who the hell are you supposed to be?!"


After lashing out in frustration, Achel turned around and ran out of the shelter. He raced past various intersections and turns without ever looking back. When he eventually found a secluded alleyway, he flopped down roughly in a corner and pulled out the bread that had caused him so much trouble, violently taking a bite. His anger at Sophia's insistence that he return his hard-earned bread didn't subside. 

Just then, a group of boys approached Achel from both ends of the alley, surrounding him. Among them was the boy who had owned that bread earlier. Once Achel was gone and he was feeling a little better, he enacted a plan to gather support from all the gang members who were sick and tired of the Red Hound and wanted him dealt with. Achel, the boy who never thought anything through, suddenly thought it was a good idea to spite this boy by shoving the rest of the bread in his mouth. 

"Damn. Guess I already ate it all."

Though Achel cracked a cruel grin, he started to become aware that what was about to happen was going to be incredibly painful. It might possibly even kill him. The other boys began attacking him with their wooden rods and shields with as much force as they could muster. 

He tried to brace himself for the impact, a trick he had developed over time, there were just too many incoming attacks. He tried to raise his arms to guard his face, but the furious onslaught wouldn't allow him even that. He was severely outnumbered and none of them were letting up. Achel couldn't tell if time was moving too fast or too slowly. The strikes came one after the other, but eventually the pain blurred into a single, constant source. Blood was splattering everywhere by the time two adults arrived behind them. 


The stern female voice was none other than Sophia's. All the boys stopped all at once as she spoke. They were furious and grumbling, wanting to break the unspoken rule about not attacking those affiliated with the shelter, but the presence of the hulking Alex by her side quashed any errant thoughts of doing so.

"Why are you attacking this boy?"

"He took my bread!"

"Then take this in its stead."

Sophia took out a loaf from her bag and knelt down to hand it to the boy. He gawked at it, first with amazement and then with relief, before disappearing down a dark alley. The other boys were quick to scatter, hopeful that their longtime enemy was taught a lesson… if he was even still alive. 

Achel was alive, though he was in excruciating pain. Still, despite barely getting to his feet, he turned to accuse the priestess in confusion.

"Why... the hell... you giving them... food?!"

"What is taken by force will eventually be taken away by force. Violence only leads to more violence. I'm giving them bread to break the cycle."

The Red Hound couldn't begin to understand her reasoning. As a result, he lashed out with words he didn't fully mean. 

"Shut up! Idiots! Why you keep looking at me? Get outta here, damn it!"

He fell over and spat out blood. Sophia and Alex looked at one another for a moment. The large man then reached down and lifted the broken boy off the ground, carrying him over one shoulder, all the way back to the shelter.  

"Let me go!"

Achel struggled furiously, but his battered body ached everywhere, and he eventually lost consciousness. The trio made their way back to the shelter.


After a long dream, Achel arrived in paradise. A peaceful landscape, a pleasant breeze, swaying grass. There was no sorrow, no hunger. 

Just when he was convinced that this must be a dream, since it was so removed from the Hell that was Connacht, he slowly opened his eyes to look up at the ceiling. He was surprised to see that it was not the ruined, cracked ceiling he was used to staring up at, and he was surprised again when he realized that he was actually lying on a bed instead of the hard stone floor. 

"Are you awake? Do you need me to change your bandages?"

She knew he must have been offended at that, because he turned away from her with a wince and pulled the blankets over his head. He feigned sleep—poorly—as she looked on. Eventually, though, Alex entered the room. He grabbed the blanket and yanked it off Achel. 

"Looks like you're all better now, so let's get to work, buddy!"

Achel grumbled and pushed himself up. Oddly enough, he felt unexpectedly refreshed after the best night's sleep he'd had in a very long time. Possibly ever. Clean bandages were wrapped around him. Sophia must have been treating him for a while. Since she did not look overly concerned at Alex's boisterous behavior, Achel knew he must be in good enough shape to follow the man. He did... grudgingly... eventually. 

They arrived at the shelter's spacious back lot, mostly dedicated to farming. There was an enormous bucket half-filled with water.

"Well, then, go ahead and get started!"

"The hell is this?"

"Laundry! Time's a-wasting!"

With an enthusiastic cheer, Alex dumped a pile of dirty sheets into the bucket. The act of doing laundry was new to him, but the boy scrubbed vigorously until all the stains disappeared. Sophia tried to teach him how to be gentle with the things that needed it. 

"So annoying... Why am I doing this?"

Despite his muttering, Achel finally got the hang of it. His second attempt went faster and more skillfully. For the first time in his life, he experienced a strange sense of satisfaction as the stain-covered fabrics found their true colors once again. It was like doing his favorite activity, painting, but in reverse, and it still resulted in an ugly thing turning beautiful. He concentrated on the task, and was able to finish all the laundry while the sun was still high in the sky. 

"That's great, Achel. You have gotten so much done already! Maybe you have a gift."

Sophia smiled as she praised him. It was the first compliment he ever remembered receiving. He figured it wasn't such a bad thing to hear. When he caught himself feeling new emotions in a new environment, though, he immediately started to retreat inside himself again.

"Well... That's it, right? I can, uh, go?"

Sophia touched his arm and shook her head. Achel didn't dare shake her off. She wasn't strong, but he was overwhelmed by her attitude.

She next took him to the shelter's small ranch area and taught him how to milk sheep. Achel stared at them curiously, viewing them as weaklings and assuming this task would be an easy one. As he attempted to follow the steps, though, he got agitated and started to sweat from nervousness. Sophia, on the other hand, seemed to be breezing through the task. She was even moving on to trimming her sheep’s wool. 

"We drink the milk or use it for cooking. We shear the wool. Finally, we sell any extra products to nearby villages to help fund the shelter." 

This was Achel's very first time learning how to earn things he needed without having to fight for them. He found himself mesmerized by Sophia's teachings. When that work was done, he was put to work scraping the rust off old farm tools before repairing and sharpening them.

The sun was setting by the time the work was all done. After a long day came a long-awaited dinner. Achel found himself somehow sitting at a dinner table, in the same place that he had once seen through the window, instead of the streets. He had never been in this situation before.

Paradise. Everything about the shelter seemed like paradise after what he'd been through. The clean sheets, the room with an intact ceiling, the fresh food on the table... All of these had been accomplished through hard work instead of conflict, and while the food would be considered meager by other lands, here in lost Connacht it felt like a feast.

Sophia accomplished this. Despite Alex's strength and Achel's recent assistance, she had managed all this by sticking to her principles. Those strange ethics of hers that didn't actually exist in the real world, but they still somehow allowed her to build all of this. Achel was still gazing at her in wonder when she walked around the table to give him bread. 

"This is yours. It is your rightful reward for your all your labor."

The first food he had ever received without having to fight for it. The young boy was proud of this, and he found it all the more flavorful. Flavor wasn't something he really had the luxury of acknowledging before. 

Suddenly, there were other children beside him, eating their food so innocently. So unlike how they acted outside the shelter. Sophia watched them all with a smile. Yet something still didn't sit right with Achel about this peaceful sight.

"...Achel? Why aren't you eating?"

"Don't worry 'bout me. Not that hungry."

The redhead couldn't help but notice that while he received a full loaf of bread, there simply wasn't enough with all the kids around the table. All this time he'd thought they had a plentiful bounty, but after all that work, it fully sank in that they were just scrapping by as best they could. Sophia didn't have enough bread to spare, though she tried her best to anyway. His heart felt heavy as he realized that. A world where if you're hungry, you take from others, and if you're unlucky, they take from you... Achel was used to such a world, and found these new experiences to be very different. It was almost too much for him to process. 

He was filled with so much admiration and respect for her that he came to a single conclusion: that if there really was a god out there, they must look and act like Sophia herself. Achel ripped his bread in half, handing the larger portion back to her. 

"Here. Take it."

"Oh no, I'm fine, really. Please, you need your energy." Sophia waved her hand and refused, and Achel glared back at her.

"Don't do that. Why you gotta starve? You do the most work." 

"Achel..." Sophia looked into his face for a long moment before finally accepting his gift. "Thank you. This means a lot."

Sophia smiled and gently took the offering, and Achel began to finally eat as he finally felt relieved. As he finished his meal, looking at the first well-behaved kids he'd ever seen in his life, he asked her something that had been on his mind. 

"Why'd you help me? Didn't have to. Could have left me."

"I would never do that, Achel. No priestess ever would."

At Sophia's curious answer, he pressed further.

"What does that mean?"

"It means that... that I don't know, either. Humans sometimes have feelings they can't really explain. Maybe it's because the divine will lives in our hearts?"

"Why doesn't your God fill our hearts and bellies? Why don't they help Connacht?" Achel was far from the only boy in need. It also seemed strange to him that he was the only one being personally saved by Sophia.

"Sometimes I wonder if a God tries their best to help, but there's just so much to do. I can't speak for the divine, but I do know that we can bring about paradise by pitching in and helping out. I thought that maybe I could show you what that kind of world, that kind world, was like."

At her answer, Achel realized how recently he had broken into the shelter to steal food. Well… “tried” to break in, and “tried” to steal food. The many events of the past days flashed through his mind. He wondered how many days he was actually knocked out.

"That divine feeling residing within me wants to take care of everyone here in Connacht. But while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. There's always too much for me to do, and the shelter is a little overwhelmed right now..."

Achel nodded at Sophia's answer. He could tell she was going through her own issues, but that only made him respect her more. She had her own issues to deal with, yet still sacrificed to help others, for no gain. The little paradise that was the shelter, barely maintained by Sophia's efforts, held on each day by a precarious thread. Recalling Sophia's sacrifice of not eating bread earlier in the day, Achel found it difficult to speak up because he didn't want that to happen again.  

"...I'll help."


"Saw all that work you got. Maybe your paradise will come true if more work for it."

Sophia patted Achel on the head, proud of him. 

"Thank you, Achel. You'll be a great help, but you'll have to follow the rules here while you're here. Can you do that?"

Achel nodded silently. And so, his new life with the shelter began.


For the next few years, he lived there and did all sorts of chores. Tending to the sheep, milking and shearing the wool to sell to Connacht’s neighbors, collecting food and water, keeping the shelter in good repair... He was always busy. Thanks to the hard work of Sophia, Alex, and Achel, the shelter gradually became more effective, and better equipped to care for those in need. Sophia continued to care deeply for the children in particular. 

It was another day that had become typical for Achel. He was pulling a cart of groceries from another village through Connacht's destroyed alleyways. All of a sudden, a gang of older boys appeared and blocked his path. Achel glared daggers at them before the leader of the ruffians finally approached.

"Where are you scurrying off to, Red Hound? Are you alone again?"

"Out of my way or you'll all regret it. Don't want to fight. You don't want me to fight, either."

"What's in the cart?"

When the leader of the pack tried to use his stick spear to lift the cloth covering it, Achel grabbed it and yanked it out of his hand. The two boys glared at each other, wanting to kill each other more than anything.

"For the shelter. Want some? Go there."

"Heh. Stay out of our sight, cowardly Hound." The boy glared at Achel, then disappeared down the alley with the others. 

A couple of years back, Achel would have smashed his face in before he even got a word out. He'd been following Sophia's rules, though, against his own instincts. There was a better way to live. He stared down the alleyway where the group of boys had disappeared for a long moment. Finally snapping out of his thoughts, he shattered the stick against a wall before pulling his cart to the shelter. 

Yet the closer he got, the more uneasy he felt. The children at the shelter were always so happy to greet him, but there wasn't a trace of them today. As Achel brought the cart into the back lot and stepped inside the shelter, he heard the sharp sound of something breaking, mixed with the shouts of men and the cries of children. Sounds he knew all too well from his past life. 

What actually awaited him was a chaotic scene, though, with heavily armored soldiers rushing through shelter's hallways and rooms as they searched for something.

"What the hell? Who are you guys?!"

Realizing that Achel was there, Sophia quickly pulled him behind her. 

"They're from the Kingdom of Galon."

"What do they want? Why we letting them destroy the shelter? Where's Alex?"

The large man, who Achel had become friends with over the years, was on the other side of the shelter protesting to some of the soldiers. It didn't seem to be working. It was hard to get Alex upset over anything, but even his frustration was evident. Achel was angry too, but he knew that even Alex wouldn't be able to take on this many soldiers at once. Hearing himself called the Red Hound again for the first time in a long time raised the boy's hackles. He wanted to take some of these invaders down… but even together, there just wasn't a way for him and Alex to win. 

Alex was able to relate what was happening. It turned out that the soldiers had received an anonymous tip off, that claimed the shelter was secretly funding and training the revival of Galon’s old enemies, the warriors of Connacht. Hearing this, they immediately sent a squadron over to tear up the shelter and search for proof. 

"Connacht? Connacht's dead. We're in its corpse. The hell are they thinking?!" Achel was beside himself at the news, and his fury grew as the soldiers destroyed their meager possessions with reckless abandon, tossing furniture this way and that, scouring the room for possible secret passages and documents. "Stop it, you goddamn idiots...!"

Maintaining her composure, Sophia barely managed to get ahold of Achel as he rushed towards the soldiers, his fists clenched. He was surprised when, instead of scolding him, she knelt down to meet him at eye level and whisper to him. 

"I'll do it."

Achel couldn't believe what he had just heard. She'd do what? What could she ever do in this situation? He watched dumbstruck as she walked over to the soldiers. 

"You, there. Knight Captain. Upon whose orders are you doing this search?"

At Sophia's firm tone, the man who appeared to be in charge spoke up.

"Well, I don't see what business that is of yours, but this was a direct order from Baron Lowell. A name I'm sure you wouldn't know."

"Oh, but I do. Are you aware that the matron of this shelter is the Countess Caylus?"

Achel watched in confusion. Nobles weren't exactly discussed in the Shambles, and he didn't see how you could win a fight with words instead of weapons. The knight captain had a much different reaction, though. It took him a while to stammer a response.

"What did... Cayl... the Countess?!"

"Indeed, and if news of today's events were to reach her ears, I don't think even the Baron would get away with it. You and your men certainly wouldn't."

"But that—"

"It shouldn't matter. I've already told you that this is just a shelter for the downtrodden, nothing more. By now you must have seen that for yourselves. If you press this even further, though, I can't promise what might happen."

Achel wasn't sure how to react, but he could see Alex hiding a smile at this turn of events. The knight captain couldn't hide that he was flustered, as he didn't expect her to mention such an important name. After a moment's pause to consider Sophia's warning, the frustrated man gestured to his soldiers.

"That's enough, men! We're done here. I'm... satisfied that our inspection has turned up nothing." The squadron quickly stopped what their search and rode back to the Kingdom of Galon. 

The thought of Sophia secretly enabling the return of those past warriors was laughable. In fact, Achel had just seen her defend the shelter and drive out the interlopers without a single strike, without a single drop of blood spilled. He didn't even think that was possible, and it caused him to reflect on his own instincts to jump to violence when problems arose. There was no way the trio could have resolved today's combat through violence. Achel shook his head at the futility of the thought.

Sophia had already reached the scared children and was beginning to console them.

"Don't forget that the love of the divine is always in our hearts. As long as our hearts are strong, we can overcome any struggle." The sobbing children nodded in agreement. 

Full of emotions but unsure of what most of them were—he rarely did—Achel skulked out of the shelter and up a nearby hill. He sat down heavily at the top, trying to ease his troubled mind with a view of the sunset and a bit of drawing. A branch in the dirt would be enough art supplies for today; he just needed to get something out. He looked down to the Shambles, now bathed in a searing golden glow. Artwork had always been a good escape for him, though he would never have thought to call it that. Escape meant running away. Instead, Achel wanted to work out his problems and his aggression. The sketch began to shape up, looking more and more like an idealized version of Connacht, of what it must have looked like before it was destroyed… toppled by men from Galon. His artwork looked too peaceful for it to exist in the real world. It was Achel's idea of a paradise, unbroken and whole. 

"Are you up here drawing?"

Achel snapped out of his focus at Sophia's words.

"Do you mind if I sit next to you?" Sophia asked. "Nice work. Connacht looks incredible."

Achel nodded without a word, too embarrassed to look over at her. 

"It's beautiful. It's like paradise, isn't it?"

"You ever seen paradise?"

"Well, paradise is everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps this land, where we live by the teachings of the divine, could be a paradise, too."

Achel nodded without answering. The response sounded just like what she always said. He turned his gaze back to the Shambles, and Sophia's eyes followed. After a long moment of staring off into the distance, he spoke slowly.

"Uh, earlier... Almost swung my fists, without thinking."

Before he could get too mad at himself, though, Sophia placed her hand on his shoulder.

"I know that you were just trying to protect everyone."


"Achel, I stopped you because I didn't want you to get hurt. There's nothing wrong with fighting to protect what you love."


"I fought, too. In my own way. To protect you, and everyone else."

"...Must be hard." Achel tried to find better words. He usually didn't find the need to use many.

Suddenly, a loud tumult came from the entrance to the Shambles. A fight was breaking out between two gangs. They were far enough away that detail was hard to make out, but they knew it must be turning into a huge and bloody fight. Achel broke the silence with a question.

"Ever ask why they fight?" He looked to Sophia, but while she looked on with sadness, she didn't answer. "Me, I stopped asking. Fight or starve. We're in Hell."


"Think anyone knows? That they're doing it to themselves? That it doesn't have to be that way?" The boy looked back at the fight with disgust. "Guess you don't know what I mean. This life's new to you."

Sophia closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. Then, carefully, she began to speak. 

"It's... not, actually. I, too, have lived through a sort of Hell. I belong to a Tarathan sect of the church that the Pontiff's Court finds heretical. Our doctrine differs from theirs in that we believe only harmony and peaceful coexistence, not war and death, will open the gates to paradise. The Pontiff couldn't have that, so his Court persecuted us relentlessly. They tortured some of us horrifically in an attempt to convert us, and murdered many others whose faith did not waver. In the end, comparatively few of us escaped Taratha... Yet the Pontiff couldn't break our spirit. We carry it even here, in far-flung Connacht, a land so distant from everything I used to know. So now, even if I have to walk through the fires of Hell again, I won't ever succumb to them."

Achel caught a brief glimpse of what Sophia had to go through. Despite all her hardships, she still remained hopeful. It must have been a long road, with many twists and turns, to get to this faraway place in a foreign land. He admired her for creating this little piece of paradise, despite all of that. 

"If home was Hell, guess you don't miss it."

"Oh, but I sorely do! Good memories blossom in the soil of pain. I remember the sunsets in particular. The sun setting over the Ignacht River would take your breath away." Sophia's eyes were watering as she pictured the river in her mind.

Born and raised in Connacht, bordering the Twilight Desert, Achel wanted to ask her what a river was. At this moment, though, he didn't want to interrupt her. He could only imagine the paradise he had seen in his own dreams. 

Sophia smiled sadly before continuing.

"If I tried to go back, they'd pursue me again. You can't even imagine."

"So I'll go with you. Anyone bugs you, I'll kick their god damned ass. You said it's okay to fight to protect, right Sophia?"

She patted him on the head, pleased that he was trying so hard to sound nonchalant about it. Achel couldn't imagine a paradise without Sophia. Maybe that's why he always wanted to be with her. At his clumsy attempts to hide his true feelings, she smiled from ear to ear. 

"Yes. Thank you for saying that."

"So, uh... What's a river?" 

"You'll see. It's the most beautiful one in all the world, too. We'll travel Taratha together, and you'll see it someday." Sophia was smiling brightly, but she still seemed sad for some reason, as if she didn't really mean it.

Achel, though, would remember this promise for a very long time. 


A few years later, it was another typically busy day. 

The shelter was growing larger and larger thanks to everyone's efforts. With that growth came more work. The number of sheep in Achel's care had multiplied, and the growing shelter space required more time to repair and clean. With ever more children to take care of, Sophia's schedule was also full to bursting. She toiled day and night, making it difficult for her to spare any time for meals or sleep. 

Achel wanted to ask her what she was trying so hard for, and if her endless struggles were a supposed to be a sign from her God. Yet now he and Sophia had become so busy that they barely had time to talk to each other anymore. It was the one aspect of his new life that left him unfulfilled. That silence meant they trusted each other to each do what needed to be done, but Achel still felt that it should not be this hard.  

It was another typically busy day. Yet it was on this day, after working herself to the bone, that Sophia collapsed. She fell over and began coughing up blood. Achel picked her up from the ground, stunned.

"Burning up! How are you this light?! Haven't been eating, have you? Hmph. Giving away your portions?" Achel knew that this was serious, and that made him mad. He shouted at all the children that had started to crowd around the shocking scene. "Get moving, idiots! Find me a damn healer!"

Achel frightened them into action, but his order was meaningless. Everyone knew that there were no healers in Connacht.

It was a full four days before a proper apothecary from a neighboring town was able to answer the summons. He examined Sophia's condition with a serious expression, and eventually shook his head. 

"It's a wasting disease, all right. One I've not seen around these parts. It might have come from her homeland. I think she must have been dealing with this for quite some time, actually. I'm afraid that it's too late, son, too far spread... There's just nothing we can do for her."

Achel didn't want to acknowledge the healer's words. 

"Save her, bastard! Save her!"

Achel grabbed the man by the neck and shook him savagely. Before he could do something he'd regret, Sophia spoke up in a hoarse, sick voice.

"Achel, it's not his fault." The Red Hound's hands loosened, and the healer quickly gathered his belongings and fled the room. "No violence... You haven't forgotten our rules, have you?"

"Who the hell cares about rules right now?!"

"I do."

Achel had to swallow his anger as he watched Sophia struggle with speaking, something she was always so eloquent at. She somehow kept a smile on her face.

"Ugh, damn it..." He slammed his fist down on the table. 

"Don't be sad. Where there's a meeting, there has to be a parting, right?"

"Idiot. Pushed yourself too hard. Always do."

Achel began to cry. Since he rarely expressed his emotions, hearing this caused Sophia to cry as well, and she couldn't reply for a long while. She stared out the window and regained her composure before speaking again. 

"I'm sorry I couldn't keep my promise. I was supposed to show you to the Ignacht River..."

Achel clenched his teeth as if he were trying to shatter them. He realized he could stop crying if he just got angry enough.

"Achel, are you still looking for paradise?" 

"Don't know..."

"I'm sure you'll find it, because you're warm and kind—"

"...Don't know if it really exists."

"Achel. Follow the voice of the divine within you. That will lead you to paradise. It will be a hard road, but with your strength, you'll make it." 

With those words, Sophia asked to rest. There was no resentment or regret in her expression as she smiled and closed her eyes, turning towards the sunlight. Achel, on the threshold of becoming a man, was experiencing the demise of a being that he had always considered divine… truly godlike. He left her side briefly to pick some wildflowers for her, but when he returned shortly after, she had left to be with her God. With that smile still on her face. 


Sophia was cremated, according to ancient Connacht tradition. One of the few traditions that survived the destruction, perhaps because it was a sort of destruction of its own. At the end of all things, she had stopped being considered a foreigner.

After her untimely death, the shelter quickly lapsed into disarray, then disuse. Sophia was the linchpin that held it all together. The children, unable to thrive without her care, left and reverted back to their old, violent ways. The paradise had fallen apart in an instant, just like the old fables about deities just picking up and leaving humanity to rot. No one could replace Sophia. Alex and Achel tried, but they were warriors at heart. They needed a priest; someone with the authority to teach and defend those intangible rules that never seemed to apply to how brutal the world really was. When the looting and violence finally made its way inside the shelter’s walls, the two realized their shelter didn't exist any longer. It was no longer safe there. 

Asking himself if it would be safe anywhere in Connacht, Achel realized the answer was no. He couldn't go back to his hovel, not after seeing what life could be like. 

Alex, the last one left, punched him playfully in the shoulder and said his goodbyes. He was always jovial, which was his own way of dealing with the world.

"Well, it was all great while it lasted, buddy. Hey, Achel... Take these. I've been going around the ruins gathering them for you. I think they'll suit you."

"Wait, what is all this...?"

"Hasta. Grand Targe. Lorica. This was the gear your ancestors fought with, long ago. A legion of such warriors is what Galon was expecting to find here, silly as that is now. No one even remembers the advanced techniques they used back then. Still, you'll grow into these. They’re not meant for me... and they're too small for all my muscles anyway, ha ha!"

Alex handed Achel the pieces. They were heavier than he was expecting, but still crafted for mobility. He saw worn insignias, tattered heraldry, and other traces that no one alive now seemingly understood anymore. That history was gone forever. The equipment was covered in crimson rust, but one could still tell that this was no ordinary gear.  

"Uh, I know it's all rusted, but you know all about that by now, yeah?"

He nodded. Fixing rusty equipment wouldn't be too hard. He'd been doing it with farming tools for years now, after all. Alex smiled widely, though Achel could tell it was forced. His friend was finally grappling with the end of an era, and he’d known Sophia for even longer. 

"Take care of yourself, Achel. If our fates deem it so, I hope I'll get to see you again someday." Alex, the last of the family, left with those final words.

Achel looked back at the empty, lonely shelter. No one was left in the building, which had once been warmed by a fire in the hearth and the sounds of children's laughter. Long ago, Achel had thought it was better to be alone. But now, he finally realized it. He realized how wonderful it was to be surrounded by people that he cared about. And he became aware of the pain that came with being alone. Only now, there was no God by his side to share his pain. 

Achel stayed at the shelter for a while, alone, collecting his thoughts. When he left it was quietly, without making a scene. That was the last time anyone in Connacht ever saw the Red Hound.


A few years later, late one summer evening, the setting sun bathed the Ignacht River in a golden glow as it moved at its slow pace. The water sparkled with the sun's reflection, and looked as if it was flowing with diamonds. The sunset splashed vivid oranges and reds across its surface, and the shadows cast by the trees and grasses around the river danced lightly. Shades of purple settled over the mountains on the far side of the river. The evening breeze gently swept over the scene as it carried the last of the sunlight, and the soothing sound of the water created a peaceful atmosphere. It was all a sight to behold, one that embodied beauty and elegance. 

Achel, now a grown man, watched that sunset for as long as it lasted before finally retrieving a small glass jar in the fading light. He opened the lid, and the ashes from the jar scattered with the wind, sprinkling across the golden waters of the river. 

"You're right. It's the most beautiful river. Hope I kept my promise, Sophia. Know this wasn't our plan. Path wasn't easy... so don't nag me too much." 

He stood there, feeling sentimental that he had finally fulfilled a promise to Sophia that he had held onto for so long. In hindsight, there were some things that had faded away over the course of his long journey. Some scars do heal. Being alone again, Achel had long forgotten what was truly important to him. The lies and hypocrisy that pervaded human societies had made him extremely wary, and he cold-heartedly rejected anyone that attempted to reach out to him. Other than to his memory of Sophia, he wasn't kind to people. He'd forgotten that he ever was, despite those years at the shelter. Just like the other boys from the shelter, he’d completely reverted to his former way of life. He felt that he couldn't trust people; whether their intentions were good or bad did not matter to him in the slightest, as they simply weren't worth it. 

Of course, this made it inevitable that he'd get into constant fights, more than ever before. He'd taught himself, though. The old techniques of Connacht might be gone, but Achel developed a few attacks of his own... even if they mostly involved just being stronger and faster than the other guy. Well, he was never much one for planning, anyway.

If Sophia was here, what would she say if she saw him now? What he became without her there? He imagined her standing beside him, though knew he was only talking to himself.

"Don't know what to say. You were the one who talked all the time."

The Ignacht River really was beautiful. He wondered if he should try capturing this memory in a painting sometime. He turned, finally leaving that part of his life behind, when he heard the raspy voice of another man.

"Sir, did you need to catch a boat?"

Achel watched the sun finally go down, contemplating, then nodded without a word. 

"Well, I never did see armor like that before! You're not from around here, are you? Some kind of warrior? Have a destination in mind?"

"...Now? No. Guess not anymore. Huh. Feels... weird." Achel shook his head. He'd been so focused on this moment for so long, that he didn't have anything else he wanted to do.

"Oh, you're one of those wandering hero types. I actually know a place that could use that spear of yours. There's a place that doesn't care where you come from, from as long as you're willing to pitch in and help out. What do you say?"

"Don't know where I come from, not really. Just that it was Hell. Hmph. Okay, old timer. Let's go."

With that, the ferryman squared his shoulders and began rowing. Coursing through the golden waters of the Ignacht River, Achel made his way to Colhen.