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Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “The Green Ember” by Kai Suzumura

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“The Green Ember” by Kai Suzumura, Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School

Second Place, Middle School Level, 2024


The Green Ember

by Kai Suzumura

Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School

Chapter One

Dalen sat in the foyer of his home, an old lodge deep in the forests a few miles outside of Bantell, a small hamlet. The lodge was passed down to him by his father when he died, and since then, Dalen called it home.

He rested in an armchair, reading a report on the recent battle of Leupuith, over at the eastern border of Krefta, the country he lived in. The sound of the midday birds was sweet and crisp to his ears, and he paused reading to listen.

Slowly though, another sound came into his consciousness: the gallop of a horse. Dalen straightened in his chair and looked down the path that led to the lodge, waiting to see the source of the noise. An armored rider for the Order of The Ivory Gauntlet (OTIG) came into view, riding quickly toward him and making no attempt to slow down. Dalen furrowed his brow and stood up.

“That’s close enough!” he yelled, and closed his hand around a spiked club hidden behind a wooden post.

“Message from the OTIG headquarters!” the rider called, and Dalen relaxed, setting the club down.

The horseman pulled on his reins and the horse slid to a stop. The rider then proceeded to pull a parchment roll from a bag hanging on the saddle, and handed it to Dalen. After that, they took off once more, speeding back down the path and disappearing into the forest.

Dalen took the message and sat back down. He opened the wax seal and read the letter. OTIG was calling for him again, saying it was urgent.

Order of The Ivory Gauntlet often carried out work that was too dangerous or time consuming for the Kreftan government’s armed forces to do. They were like an all-terrain special forces. The OTIG soldiers were a direct branch of the Rangers, working as an armored soldiers force with them, instead of as the normal Ranger, who used their skills of archery, stealth, and poison-making to safely take down large groups of enemies alone. Dalen had expected to take a break from fighting, having just come back from fighting in the war of Leupuith as an OTIG commander. He had thought he would be free of duty for a while, but maybe not.

***

As summer turned to fall, the nights got progressively colder, tamping down the already dwindling spirits of the small party of OTIG soldiers camped among the sparse pines and towering oaks of the flaming forest. The name came from the way that the forest lit up with sunlight every morning, giving an illusion that the trees were in flames.

They had been out in the wilds and mostly far from civilization for many weeks. It was the infamous band of Korzak Raiders that led them to sleep in the cold. These raiders were orcish beastmen who lived in separate groups, though they all were united, in the caves and caverns of soaring mountains.

Travelers and caravans would occasionally report being attacked and robbed of their goods by these bands late at night. But recently, these groups of orcs had gotten out of hand, boldly attacking villages and farming communities that dwelled near the mountains of Kurndmure Marsh, killing livestock and destroying crops. The Order of the Ivory Gauntlet soldiers were here to hunt them down, in accord with the Rangers, to assist them in their tasks of protecting the country and its citizens.

The cold had arrived with a loud gust of wind just before dawn. It chilled the camp sentries through their thick coats, helping to keep them awake. Unfortunately for the soldiers, something else had arrived with the icy wind, and it gathered now, just inside the shadows of the tree line.

OTIG scout Mathew huddled by the trunk of a pine, trying to gain more warmth from his heavy fur coat than it offered him. His mind wandered to breakfast, he was eager to fill his belly and warm up after the long hours standing guard. He thought of all the previous campaigns he had taken part in with the Order of The Ivory Gauntlet, all across Krefta. Mathew wondered when he would be able to go home, for the first time in over a year, after being deployed in Colften, Krefta’s neighboring country.

But as he thought that, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of movement. Just after he saw the movement, the sentry near him scrambled to their feet and grabbed a spear, but in the process of doing so, they were thrown violently backwards, landing with a cry.

Mathew grabbed the scabbard next to him and unsheathed the blade within. He rushed to the soldier, checking to see what had happened to him. There was a crossbow bolt deep in his side that was seeping blood onto the frozen and cracked ground. Mathew looked into the darkness, but saw nothing, just the silent trees. Mathew opened his mouth to sound the alarm and wake the soldiers.

“Medic, I need a medic!” Mathew cried, as he fumbled to stop the bleeding. A minute later, a surgeon rubbing their eyes rushed to their assistance, opening a leather satchel slung over their shoulder.

“I’ve got him,” he said, then thrust a needle into their side, just above the wound. The needle was full of a mixture that numbed the body so that a medic could treat a soldier’s wound without it hurting so much that they moved around, making it hard to work. The wounded soldier flinched, but then relaxed. The medic pulled out of the satchel a handful of small, green, and soft needle-like leaves, all attached to a stringy vine. The medic thrust them into the wound, and then quickly wrapped the soldier’s midsection with a thick white cloth.

“The plant will stop the bleeding for the time being,” the medic explained, as he closed his satchel, then said, “Can you stand up?”

“I think so,” the soldier said, coming carefully to his feet with the help of the medic. Then, they walked slowly back to the tent.

***

It had been about an hour since the encounter with the unknown archer, and the group was breaking camp.

“Where are we going next, sir?” asked one of the soldiers, an older veteran of war with a grimy face and a tangled beard.

“Glaze, an old mining town not far from here, is where the orcs plan to go next.”

“They plan to take a rare gem called the Green Ember that was found in the mines there just a few days ago and give it to the leader of their greater organization,” Commander Dalen said.

“Then we better hurry up!” said the soldier.

“That’s the spirit! All right soldiers, on the double, we are leaving in an hour!”

Chapter Two

The OTIG group left shortly after the attack, heading for a town named Glaze, which was the Krozak’s target.

Glaze was a mining town that sat on a rocky bluff overlooking the miles of dead trees and swampy, foggy fields dubbed Kurndmure Marsh. The town was encased with tall wooden walls and iron gates that protected the ore and gems mined within.

When they arrived, they hustled everyone inside of their homes, since they did not know when the orcs were coming, and they did not want any of the civilians to get injured.

In the center of this town, a large bell tower reached up to the clouds, and surveyed the surrounding country. Behind it were the homes of the residents, and the town eating house. In front of the tower, there was the front gate and the village green, where the animals of farmers could be brought to be fed and get exercise.

It was under the tower that the group waited, but as they did so, they piled crates and barrels in multiple locations by the town’s front gate to provide a place for the soldiers to hide. They also set up a watch to warn the soldiers when the raiders were coming, at the top of the tower.

***

Mathew sat at the top of Glaze’s bell tower, which allowed him to see the surrounding countryside easily. He was the guard that Dalen had posted, to warn the soldiers of the raiders’ approach.

Mathew had not been up there long before he heard it. The sound was somewhat like distant thunder that got louder and louder, going from being inaudible to well-noticeable. The sound was carried through the wind, reaching Mathew’s ears before the soldiers’.

Then he saw the source of the sound. A quarter mile away down the road were the orcs, identifiable by the armor they wore. They were on horseback, and quickly approaching. Mathew jumped up from the old worn chair that he had been sitting in and leaned over the railing of the bell tower and yelled down to his commander.

“Sir, a group of orcs, about eight of them, approaching fast!”

Mathew did not wait for an answer, and swung around, grabbed his weapon, a long-range crossbow made of polished mahogany. From a quiver leaning on the balcony railing, he drew a long bolt, almost as long as a longbow arrow, and loaded it into the crossbow’s firing chamber; he then moved over to the railing and hid his body behind the thick post supporting the tower roof.

Meanwhile Dalen and his soldiers were readying weapons and concealing themselves. Now they, too, could hear the horses, and clutched their weapons tightly in anticipation.

Then, suddenly, the raiders appeared in the frame of the town’s gate, in a ragged formation that was more of a blob than ranks of any sort. Seeing no people, they stopped and looked around, confused.

The lead orc awkwardly sheathed his blade and called out to the deserted streets: “My dear town of Glaze, we seek food, and lodging . . . Is anyone here?”

Suddenly, there was a loud crack, and the raiders looked up at the bell tower, where the sound had come from. Unfortunately for Mathew, the fact that the leader turned his head saved him, as a bit of the helmet now blocked his previously exposed neck. Mathew’s bolt slammed into that bit of helmet, deflecting off it. Although he was still alive, the leader was thrown off his horse, landing with a thud. Then, taking that opportunity, the OTIG soldiers charged.

Dalen jumped up from the crate he was crouched behind and charged. He did not yell as he attempted to stay hidden as long as possible. As he neared a raider, they turned and shouted in alarm, drawing their sword, but were too slow. Dalen bashed them in the side of the head with the edge of his shield, then slid his sword between the bottom of the orc’s cuirass and their belt, then up into their vitals, killing them instantly. He was glad to find that his soldiers had also charged, taking the raiders completely by surprise.

By this time, the orc leader had recovered from his fall and was advancing slowly on Dalen. The OTIG commander withdrew his sword from the lifeless body and turned to face the lead raider. The leader swung at Dalen’s right shoulder, shouting an insult at him. Dalen countered him by again bringing the edge of his shield to the inside of the raider’s arm. Now, since his left arm was across his body, he completed the motion by turning and smashing his armored elbow into the lead raider’s sternum. The raider doubled over, and dropped his sword, so Dalen used that opportunity by bringing his armored knee into their face, wincing at the crunch made by the impact.

At this point, half the raiders had been either killed or badly injured and two of the OTIG soldiers were badly injured with only one who had passed on. The raiders, finding their leader and a lot of their own soldiers dead, backed away from the battle and retreated to the forest.

The Krozac raiders put up the illusion of retreating with fear, but Dalen sensed something else. While trying to decipher his uncertainty, Dalen caught the eye of one of the orcs, who quickly looked away to the houses, then back at him, then slipped away into the trees. Dalen turned to look at where the raider had looked and saw movement down an alleyway. The movement was not of his soldiers, but of orcs on horseback slipping through the town’s back gate.

“I am so stupid, I never put a guard at the rear of the town,” he said to himself, then called to his soldiers.

“We got raiders at the back gate, let’s get them.”

Then he ran off down the alley. At the back gate there was no sign of the raiders, just the distant sound of horses running away from the town. Dalen cursed, sheathing his sword, and walked back to his soldiers.

“All right, the raiders got the artifact—that is my fault, as I was too careless— and are headed off to someplace probably halfway across Krefta, and we have no way to know where they went,” Dalen said to his soldiers who were gathered in a half circle in front of him.

“We could try to track them,” one of the soldiers suggested.

But Dalen shook his head, “I really do not think so. We are soldiers and I have no doubt that they hid their tracks.”

“Man, if only the Rangers were working on this with us instead of working alone, we would probably have caught up to them by now,” one of the soldiers said, and the other soldiers muttered agreements.

“Those Rangers are so good at tracking that they can practically track flying birds,” another soldier said.

“Hold it, first of all, we technically are Rangers and, second, I could track them if you like. I hunt a lot in the forests around where I live, and I would say I am pretty good at it,” a soldier said.

One of his friends replied to him, “You would say.”

“We should let him try, anything that will help us catch those bandits is welcomed,” Dalen said.

When no one else had anything to say, he continued, “Right then, let’s get going, we shouldn’t waste daylight.”

Chapter Three

The OTIG soldiers left the town of Glaze, following the trail of the raiders high into the mountains east of Kurndmure Marsh, where the air was frigid and quickly blew away their morale. They had been traveling for two days and were tired of continuing the way that they were currently. Only, around lunch of that second day, they tracked the raiders to a cave, set deep in a crevasse of the mountain, dark and forbidding.

Upon entering the cave, they found a series of dim, but quite well-maintained living spaces that consisted of multiple large rooms. Each room had roughly polished floors and walls that were furnished with animal skin rugs, tapestries, and cushioned chairs. Passing through the rooms, they found no bandits, just half-open dressers and cabinets, along with strewn clothing—the sign of hasty packing.

“It looks as if they took their things and left,” Dalen said, shaking his head angrily.

“No, my guess is that they heard us coming, but for some reason are heading further into the cave. All their tracks are leading that way,” the tracker responded 

“But . . . how?” Dalen said, confused.

“Well, we were riding like the king’s cavalry, and rode right up to the entrance. Also, there was that person who shot a sentry a few days ago, my guess was that they were an orc,” the tracker said.

“Come on, let’s follow them.”

So, the group followed the tracks down a dark tunnel only lit by the tracker’s torch and glowing mushrooms that lined the walls. Eventually it opened into a more spacious tunnel that, in some places, was filled with large pools of water, and they continued for a while longer.

“What if the Rangers already found the bandits, and we are doing this for nothing?” a soldier asked.

“The Rangers never came through here. Last I heard they were on the other side of these mountains asking around for clues,” the tracker said. They continued in silence, that was only broken by a soldier slipping and cursing.

“And here we are, the end of the path, no sign of it continuing,” the tracker said, but then suddenly cried out as an arrow hit his arm.

The soldiers rushed forward and formed a shield wall, protecting them from arrows. Then another group of soldiers in a shield wall came up behind them, and the group in front continued on, locating where the arrow had been shot from and advancing to that position. Then two other groups continued up behind them, going to the left and right.

They found orcs behind piles of rocks, firing at them, and they quickly took them down, but were then encountered by orcs behind shields who fought them with axes. After a few minutes, the battle was over and the orcs, along with their commander, were captured.

“Well, we got the silly gem, and made it out without too many casualties. I would say that is a win,” said the tracker to the group, who agreed.

But then he was cut off by a new voice. Crouching in the shadows were about four Rangers, and they had their bows readied.

“Stop right there, you are under arrest for thievery, orcs!” the rangers said.

The OTIG soldiers looked at each other, then started laughing at the misunderstanding. It would be a long explanation.