Chapter 3

Three thousand wild Entor beasts charged down the gently sloped hills at some five thousand armored Daecian soldiers. A flood of savagery against a shield of cardinal fire. Mindless creatures charging out from the ebony dusks under the jungle canopies at the foreign, dangerous object that man wielded. Beast against flame.

The port town of Seren was situated on one of the largest islands in the southwest region of Alcis, perched easily at the mouth of a small river that wove its way down from some aquifer buried somewhere in the mountains and jungle of the island. The land around the town itself was primarily flat for several hundred meters around. There, a gentle slope upwards that formed a sort of a lowland saucer around Seren. Bordered on one side by sea, one side by river, and two sides by open plains dotted with smaller settlements and wide easy roads, the town was an ideal trading spot.

Until the first arrows were launched and the first shields were raised against the hail of obsidian and yew. The Entor had set up this attack surprisingly well; a torrential wave of heavily muscled melee warriors backed by longbow wielders. As soon as they were in range, the archers stopped and let the rest of the savage horde flow around them while they loosed arrows into the sky.

At us. How inconvenient.

As the arrows fell on us, half-hiding beneath shields and half-charging to meet the oncoming rush, I reflected idly on, of all things, my father. His part in starting this war. His death. And it was the mere thought of him, not any grief drawn from his death, that gave my fury as the thundering stampedes collided.

When the battle trumpets had called I’d managed to very successfully leave my bow behind, which meant that I would have to fight in close quarters today. Just as well. Blades are better suited to blood lust anyways, I mused.

I looked down at the long curved sabre in my right hand. Shined and sharpened by the forge, it still bore the luster of being new. The grip was made of smooth tanned leather strips wound tightly to the core, and the curved metal hand guard still shone with the same silver gleam as the blade itself. It wasn’t a particularly amazing weapon, but it seemed pretty solid. All the same, it was an immature blade for an inexperienced user. I was, after all, an archer.

A medium-sized round buckler adorned my left forearm, strapped carefully to give me some measure of protection as I shot without obstructing my view. Unlike the sabre, this particular slab of iron was dented and heavily scarred with battle; the brilliant crimson painted crest of the Daecian Army that once graced its surface was now no more than a few more flecks of red in a field covered in blood.

The first bodies collided with one another in desperate attempts to throw the other back. The Entor chargers were huge – probably eight feet tall, and with enough girth to match it. I did not envy those who charged at the front of our line to see such a monstrosity up close. Maybe under calmer conditions, it would be something interesting to study. But here, to fight against those muscled beasts wielding weapons as tall as any of our own soldiers – and probably just as heavy – to stare into that massive face that looked sunken into the skull, those bulging eyes and snarling teeth…

I don’t envy our front liners.

As we poured across the field towards the horde, I saw several of their chargers fall prey to various weapons – arrows, spears, swords. At least they weren’t invincible. Though the barbaric armor they wore was little more than animal skins and leathers, often they were still enough to stop us from killing them. We had superior chain mail armor, greater numbers, and the defensive edge. Their only advantage? We were strangers to this land. Oh, and sweat. These southern regions were much warmer than the cooler northeast, where the heart of Daecia lays, so we were much sweatier than they were. The Entor still smelled worse.

So why, given all these things, did they continue to fight? Even their brutish brains should be able to comprehend diplomacy.

No time for this now. Now you fight.

We finally reached the front line of battle where the golden grasses of autumn were already covered in a pool of blood and broken bodies ankle deep. As always, Warden led our platoon, and characteristically she planted and jumped straight at one of the Entor chargers who was turned slightly away from us, busy killing another soldier. Her weapon of choice today seemed to be her largest and most dangerous – the huge two-handed claymore that had probably seen more blood and violence than our entire platoon. I was certain that the creature was dead when it shifted much more suddenly than I thought possible and threw its huge left forearm towards Warden, knocking her out of the air.

She landed heavily on the ground and for a terrifying moment I feared she was dead. Then, completely characteristically, she stood up as if nothing happened, and charged right back into battle. I grinned wide, raised my saber to sky, and screamed my rage as I followed suit.

“Die, you worthless beasts! Die by the hand of Daecia!”

Warden impaled the charger with her claymore and wrenched hard, trying to rip it to shreds. I brought my blade down from the light of the Sun and sky and hacked at its unprotected sides, and felt a dark elation rush through me as metal met yielding flesh. The charger roared – a deep, guttural tearing voice – and then Warden pulled a knife from her belt and thrust it into the charger’s neck.

I turned away from the downed creature and looked to my right just in time to see another Entor rushing at me, weapon raised and ready to strike. My saber was still lodged into the side of the charger; for an instant fear and death seemed to thrust their icy hands into my chest and squeeze my beating heart.

Then a knife abruptly appeared in its left eye, sunken up to the hilt – a fatal blow. I looked back and saw Warden’s arm outstretched and realized that she had thrown the knife. Our eyes met briefly, I nodded my thanks to her, and then the frenzy of battle took hold once more. I freed my saber and rushed back into the maelstrom.

I can’t bring Taris along, you know that. Why? He’d just get in the way. Too young and weak. He’d be worse than useless! He’d be a liability! You know what we’re trying to do, Lania. Taris can’t get involved.

Why not, Kyr?! He can at least be with his father, can’t he? He can fight, too, can’t he? Both of us are. Well, then he can do chores or help clean or anything! He’s twelve now; he can do something!

“I’m nineteen, mother,” I mumbled. Then I caught myself – she wasn’t here with me, as I cut down these enemies of the Holy Sun. Neither was he. Dark memories, that was all. I chuckled to myself as I remembered that day.

“Am I useless now, father? Am I a liability now?” I asked the air. I hacked at another warrior’s hand and disarmed him, then sliced his neck open. A fast, merciful death.

“I’m involved now, and I’m worth a lot more than you ever knew.”

Taris. An arrogant, pretentious name. The Holy Sun had once come down to to Alcis as a man and had four daughters and five sons. His middle child, and also his middle son, was named Taris, and he had been the one who ended the First War. The war so chaotic and destructive that the Holy Sun left his form as a man and returned higher into the sky than ever before, for it was his children who fought against one another. Each had some claim against another, all save the lone Taris. No one remembers the names of any of the other children, but everyone knows the name of Taris.

Made my life extraordinarily easy growing up, clearly. Other children pelted me with rocks and either laughed at me or cried sacrilege at me. Adults looked down at me with raucous laughter hidden behind their eyes and made me play endless games as a “mediator”. As if they ever actually wanted my opinion. Oh yes, very easy growing up.

The slaughter seemed to go on forever. And it was a slaughter; we lost some men but the Entor, large though their chargers were, had no hope from the start. Again I wondered why they had attacked us today at all. Hours later, as we picked through the dead and dying, long after the tattered Entor retreat, the inconsistencies still bothered me. What were they fighting for? And why us, why Daecia; why not any of the other states? I mean, they certainly have no reason to fight someone like The Regency. Or even ability, actually. Daecia itself would be unable to penetrate those particular naval forces.

The end of the day, once again beneath the stars. As I lay still and quiet with the dancing children of the Sun, I thought again of my own place here. An average fighter at best, and though a devout believer in our cause I still felt – knew – that my place was not in an army. Certainly I felt a part of the platoon; Warden saw to it that we all belonged. Somewhat like a guardian angel…an incredibly ruthless, impatient, and angry one.

Goodnight, Warden.

So I’ve decided on a “set” update schedule.

Basically, I will update with two pieces of work each week, be it two chapters of some book, or two short stories, or something else, or a mix thereof. Each “week” ends at Saturday at midnight. And yes, there is a good chance that I will be a procrastinator and you’ll get two updates on Saturday. On the other hand, both updates could happen on the first day of the week (ostensibly Sunday).

So be cool and check many times and often! Reread old chapters, find interesting metaphorical satire, discover a way to use my writing to set the universe on fire.

Good luck on that last one.

Chapter 2

Morning rose with me just prior to the wakening horn. Warden had insisted on sleeping under the stars last night, and had also made it very clear that it was less insistence than order. As well, she made it very clear that anyone who tried to dispute might find themselves mysteriously hurt, like the soldier who accidentally fell on a crossbow bolt and a knife. We were very quick to oblige her.

Not that I minded at all. The way the average soldier would carry himself in the homes of the innocent civilians of Seren was despicable. The Holy Sun has given us this mission; who are we to place such taxing demands on those we were charged to defend? Besides, sleeping beneath the open sky placed us under the benevolent eyes of the Sun’s children, the ever-watchful Stars. Their brilliant diamond orbs shone across the infinite celestial depths, proof that the divine powers of Alcis were indeed with us.

And the nights were cooler as well; the heat of the day and the heat of the day’s battle did not leave me yearning for the heat of the hearth.

By the time the horn had chanted its descant I had dressed and splashed some cool water on my face. Breakfast was simple – a simple stew and some hard bread to dip in it. Not fancy, but plenty filling. We had some downtime after breakfast before Warden would call us for a morning run, which passed a lot more quickly than I expected.

“Taris! Get over here, we’re moving already!” Warden called over. I donned my gear, as Warden liked to have us run weighed down by arms and armor, and joined the rest of our platoon. I was lucky – my armor was mostly padded leather with a chain mail standard to cover my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. My bow and arrows, being made primarily of wood, were relatively light as well. I didn’t envy Grant’s father, who carried a large iron waraxe, though Warden who wore a haubergeon beneath padded leather and carried more weapons than than two members of the platoon together definitely had the heaviest load. And always led the pack.

Today she seemed to be feeling more lenient; instead of a hard run like we had some days, she opted for an easy jog through the fields around town. Just as well. In fact, since the hard battling had started she rarely took us faster than a jog and never for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. When we got back to town, she had us cool down and rest. This was a little different – usually she had something else in store for us, be it training or some speech or perhaps we were assigned to work on the fortifications. I walked up to her and asked.

“Warden, what’s up today? Nothing to do?”

“Something’s coming, kid. I’d wager on another attack today, probably before noon.”

“That can’t be right. They’ve never attacked two days in a row, and we just had an attack last night too.”

“Want to put something on it then, kid?”

“What, a bet? Why not? No one here’s got any coin though.”

“You’re the best fletcher in the platoon, kid. If there’s an attack today, I want, say, twenty of your best crossbow bolts.”

“All right. So what do I get if there isn’t one? I’d be more likely to hurt myself with one of your knives than anything else.”

“I’m your sergeant, kid. I’ll owe you one, and you won’t regret it.”

“Sounds like I’m getting swindled, Warden.”

She laughed, a single mirthful syllable. “You’ll see, kid. My debt to you is worth more than you think – much more than twenty bolts. You in?”

“All right, we’re good then.”

We sat for a while on silence, her on a convenient rock and myself on the ground. I watched Grant and his father sitting a little ways away, talking amiably – as if they weren’t leagues away from home fighting for civilization in a bestial land. My own father was nothing compared to this man, who treated his son with such respect and friendliness. No, my father was just that – a father. This man was dad. And look, patting his son on the back, with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father – no, let’s just call him Kyr – smile at me.

“You’re a good kid, Taris.” Warden said suddenly. “So do me a favor, would you?”

“What do you need?”

“Don’t believe any of that ridiculous drivel they give you about this war, Taris. I know what I told you all. And to keep ourselves safe, it’s best if we keep saying them. But don’t believe any of it.”

“About the Entor? They’re little more than beasts, Warden – I know this! Are you testing me?”

“No, Taris. Just trust me, kid – the Entor aren’t all bad and we’re not all good. Remember it. No more on this; don’t want to be overheard.”

Warden’s words bothered me more than I wanted to admit. She hadn’t ever led me astray yet, but ‘yet’ can be a pretty important word. Coupled with that question from yesterday – why exactly were the Entor attacking anyways? – I had to figure it out, had to understand. Maybe I missed some detail somewhere. I started to sift through everything I could think of, from the criers messages about the attacks to all the things the commanding officers told us. I mused through all twelve rounds of the card game Warden put together and managed to lose every hand and win cleanup duty for the entire platoon for an entire fortnight. By lunchtime, I still had no answer.

“It’s lunch, Warden. Where’s your attack?”

“I’ve still got all afternoon, kid. You’ll see.”

#

It was mid-afternoon. I had put aside my thinking for the day and we were once again playing cards. I’d managed to lose a week of cleanup duty and was winning the hand when battle trumpets sounded. Looking around, I saw surprise and shock on most faces – two days in a row! they thought. No way this is real, maybe the lookouts are mistaken, I bet you it’s just a drill. On Warden’s face I just saw grim determination. Grant’s dad seemed wracked with fear, and from the way he kept glancing at his son I could tell he feared only for his son’s life. It must be nothing less than torture for him to be in the army with his son.

“You owe me twenty, kid! Tonight, and don’t forget it!” Warden called over to me as the platoon readied its gear. I grunted in response.

Minutes later we found ourselves with the rest of the army charging out of town to meet the Entor forces head-on. Seren was built without walls and what little we had put up wouldn’t last against even the most basic siege weaponry. As such, most of our defenses were traps and trenches in the fields and the rest was left to us – to fight off the hordes.

The army waited in the fields for the Entor to close the distance. After all, it was probably best to let the enemy hit our traps rather than charge into them ourselves.

Scattered cheering went up as the wave hit our traps. I didn’t. I have never relished death, and watching mindless brutes fall headfirst into spiked pits or impale themselves on hidden posts held no joy for me. I glanced at Warden, and though I couldn’t see how I looked myself we probably shared the same expression.

And then it was time to charge.

(A Short Story)

Shadow, a Timeless Light

When she woke, it was all I could do not to cry.

I had waited for a long time. Years, waiting for her. Watching over her. Just as she had asked of me so long ago: Wait for me, she had said, just those simple three words.

I was with her always. Not that I had anywhere else to go. The city was now no more than a small town, and I had nothing to do with it. Nothing drew me more than her. Sometimes I spoke to her, other times sang, still others just sat. But always there, without fail. And always between the lamppost nearby and her resting form, so that I was drenched in cool light, and her cast in warm shadow.

#

Four years ago, a shadow wizard brought battle to a sleepy city, nestled between two almost parental mountains and perched alongside a happy river. He struck in the dark, taking advantage of the cloudy night to best empower him. Dark forms clawed through the city, killing some who stood against them, incapacitating others. The guards were no match for him; he came without arms nor armor but though the city’s garrison had both in excess he needed neither to best them. His warriors, deceptive at best, formless at worst, were as impossible to defeat as the soldiers’ own shadows. And when the wizard himself had strode calmly through the gates, robes ebony over cascading shades of deepest purple, a cowl shading his face from the lights of the braziers, the city’s defenders were already dead or scattered.

He was powerful, inexorable. And uncaring. This city was but another in his silent conquest, conducted from the darkness. Already he had subverted several other just like it, and afterwards save for some mysterious deaths and misplaced memories they were none the wiser. As if nothing had ever happened.

Except that it had. Each city he touched would bear a trace of his shadows, his violet influence. And when he called, those who mattered, who had control, would be compelled to follow. To obey.

#

Twelve years ago, a boy and a girl fell in love. For a long happy time, the two were together, spending time joyfully on the vast wild plains. Verdant green, be it of the flowered meadows the pair loved so much, the deep forested lands that spoke of endless adventure, or simply the rolling beauty of those sprawling fields, spread farther than the eye could see. Behind them, craggy mountains like lazy jagged teeth spread their forms against the rich light of the sun. Massive shadows spread across those lands in a huge unbroken zigzag, and along it ran a girl basking in the sunlight holding hands with a boy languishing in the shadows.

Dusk found the pair lying in a patch of flowers, a mix of purest open white blossoms and deep complex violet blooms. They laid on their sides, he holding her close to his chest and she wrapping herself as close to him as she could. She wore a simple white knee-length dress, light and airy but strong enough to stand up to their adventures. Outlined against his dark violet tunic and similarly-colored loose trousers, she closed her eyes and felt his heart beat against her head. He, outlined by her dress held her and felt her draw each breath, and drew his just opposite hers. When she drew in, he breathed out. And when she breathed out, he drew in. An odd harmony as their hearts beat in time to the melody of the open skies.

None truly approved of the pair together. They were as different as any of their companions could see; she the shortest and most frail-looking of them all, he the tallest and hardiest. And yet she was the most fiery, the most passionate, the most vocal. He was quiet, withdrawn, and solitary. Her face shifted moods as quickly as her body moved, and for as long as anyone could remember she would lead the pack. As for him, he always trailed behind at the rear, and when anyone stopped to consider his face it always bore the same expressionless mask. And yet, there they were. A girl and a boy, a pair, fallen in love.

They made a pact that night, drawing magic into their fingertips and sharing their deepest selves with one another. And they became tied as inextricably as the day and the night. And though years later they would have thought it a foolish child’s game, their ties went farther than either ever knew.

Trails of white and violet entwined against the sky.

#

The shadow wizard had made a mistake in coming to this of all cities. Every other conquest was subversive and required time and energy, but all were still simple. Planning, organization, subtlety, yes. Difficulty was never a factor.

In this town there resided a mage who was his match. And his shadows had not killed her, were not even aware of her, as she was soundly asleep when the attack came. And when she woke, she was prepared to defend her home against the wizard who sought to conquer it. Limping with the aid of a cane, she cursed the injury to her leg that made it so hard to move. Every second lost was a second her opponent gained. But still she would not give up. He had the upper hand, but she had surprise.

Thus it was that when the counterattack came, the shadow wizard was completely unprepared. A sudden burst of light in the west most area of the city, where mostly small homes and hovels laid, grew and expanded to burn away every shadow warrior it touched. The mage’s power pushed the light to cleanse the center of the city but could push no farther.

The wizard, deep in the eastern region, retaliated. A fount of darkest shadow engulfed the markets and bazaars and spawned more warriors to his side. From under overturned carts and beneath protective awnings they poured, easily replacing those he had lost. Yet he, too, could only extend his shadows to the city’s main square.

The two set off, straight for one another. Straight to the city’s center, the giant fountain that was its core. Well-kept parks bordered the fountain to the north and south, their colors lost to the night. Flowerbeds with blossoms and blooms of all colors ringed the fountain, interspersed with large stone benches. Here, too, sat the seat of the city’s government, the formidable structures inside which the mayor and his retinue ran the city. The shadow wizard’s ultimate target. And the light mage’s point of defense.

#

An attack had come on the quiet town of the plains. Barbarian raiders, wearing the cut and cured hides from their hunts, charged in from the north while royal soldiers decked in silver armor and wrapped in golden capes marched from the south. The soldiers’ goal was to destroy the barbarians, and the barbarians’ to defeat the soldiers. The town found itself right in the middle of a vicious battle none were prepared for, and before most people even know what had happened the entire settlement was aflame. Though the walls of their homes were sometimes of stone, many were of wood and all suffered thatched roofs. Fire collapsed from above, burning families to death as they woke. No one knew who, but one army or the other was still launching arrows tipped in flame. Lost in the center of the battle, the quiet town that sought only peace found itself suffering the most from it.

A boy ran through the pandemonium, looking for a girl he loved. He hoped against hope that she was alive, but the more he ran, dodging arrows, burning beams, and the crush of people, the more desperate he became. So many had died already. What if she had too? The thought burned him, worse than if an arrow had hit him and truly set him on fire. If she was dead, he was lost. He feared that he would lose himself to the shadows that haunted him, but deep inside knew that this would be the case. She was his balance, his mirror. And she must be alive. Must, or he was already lost.

He arrived at her home with his clothes tattered and torn from repeated falls, singed in several places, and his skin burned in many more. And despite the damage he had suffered up to then, he charged straight into the burning building without a stop. If she was to die, he too would die, trying to find her.

#

Burning beams of wood fell around the shadow wizard. He had struggled with his unknown opponent from a distance, knew nothing of her save the strikes from her magic. The wizard even thought her to be a man, given the ruthlessness of the blasts. For close to an hour now, the two had sparred, one launching an attack at the other, each deflecting blow after blow. The surrounding buildings were being devastated by the stray bolts of magic; they burned, crumbled, fell. Terror and confusion had gripped the inhabitants of the city, and both could hear the pandemonium about them. The main square had become their battleground and was surprisingly deserted, but around the fringes countless people, dead and living, found themselves in a strange chaotic dance.

The light mage decided it time to advance. She wove together a powerful containing spell, prepared it to use against her opponent, and started forwards towards him. Dressed in pure white robes that shone brilliantly against the fury of the night, she advanced inexorably. Across the square, the shadow wizard felt the movement, prepared a spell of his own, and marched forwards to meet his adversary.

The struggle grew more and more desperate as the two marched on one another. Those who watched from the sides, enthralled by the battle, saw shadow and light pushing, struggling against one another. At one moment, the mage appeared to have the upper hand; a moment later the wizard seemed to have her cornered. A second later the roles were reversed – two primal, almost feral and elemental forces battling for supremacy. Shrieking at one another, ripping, tearing, roaring, rending, an unspeakably devastating fight that the city asked nothing of, but found itself in the middle of anyways.

And then the onlookers saw two enormous surges of magic. A blade of light cut through the shadow and struck at the core of the darkness, and an identical blade of darkness sliced through the light at the center of its whiteness.

Time stood still for several seconds.

Then two massive beams, one of blinding white and the other of consuming dark, fired up from the center of the city. They entwined in the sky and became one.

The next morning, the onlookers woke up to a completely different town. Wooden shacks and houses created roads and paths that met in confused, convoluted ways, nothing like the straight avenues and stone buildings of the city they had come from.

They also woke with no memory of there ever being a difference.

#

A boy trapped in a nightmare made real found a girl he loved. Smoke choked the small cottage and flames fell from the roof, setting everything ablaze. She was alive – but trapped, just as he was, for the doorway had collapsed after he had come in. As sacks of food, clothing, bedding, and anything else that could burned around him, he felt an enormous sense of relief. She was alive. Her family, it seemed, had escaped, but she was not so lucky. They might both be trapped in the building, but she was trapped under a beam, her left leg pinned and crushed beneath it. Miraculously, the beam had escaped fire thus far but the boy and the girl both knew that this would change very soon.

He rushed to her side immediately and though he was not the strongest person in the town, he managed to shift the beam off of her and give her freedom. No matter, though, for she could not walk as she was. All the same he went to her, helped her up, tried to break free. All to no avail; they were completely trapped. The cottage was not small but he felt the walls closing on him, trapping them both, and neither saw a way out. So he just sat against a wall, and held her to him. He too would die, trying to save her. But then at least they would be together, without one left behind to miss the companionship of the other. They sat together, peaceful against the wall, as if they were not on the verge of death. As if all was well. He held her to him, and felt her breath, and matched his breathing opposite of hers. She touched his chest and her own, and smiled, realizing that they again beat in time. The same beat, the same harmony, a very different melody. Destruction.

#

The shadow wizard and the light mage saw each other the instant each unleashed their spells, and the recognition burned through them like wildfire. For several seconds they stood in shock as their powerful spells wove together, fighting one another. And then in an instant everything changed.

Magic contained the pair, trapped both of them together, racing along that link they had shared so many years ago. The girl in the white dress and the boy in the dark tunic had found one another again, each believing the other dead. And as they became trapped, unbridled energy remade the city, turned its bright heart into a pit of darkness, transformed its organized beauty into a squalid mess.

The pair found themselves sitting together on one of the benches around the fountain. A large piece was missing off of the back but it was the most complete of all of them, after the battle the two had just waged. A single surviving flowerbed remained beside them, filled with the purest open white blossoms and deep complex violet blooms. They held one another in a way they thought impossible for years, neither speaking for fear of breaking the enchantment.

In the end, she spoke up first. “Thought you were dead. When I woke up, the soldiers had gathered up all of the survivors, and you weren’t one of them.”

“I woke up near the forest overlooking the town. I had no idea how I got there. When I went back to search, I found only charred remains. No life. Both armies were gone.”

The pair sat in silence some more, content just to be with one another in this strange prison they had made together. His right arm was draped over her shoulders, his left holding hers in their laps. He felt her breathing, and matched his to opposite hers. She touched his chest, felt his heartbeat, and then touched her own. And found that still, after all these years, they still beat together. A harmony and a beat with the bittersweet melody of their meeting.

#

And then she touched my cheek lightly, as if a feather, turned my face to hers. She looked me straight in the eye, drew me close, and kissed me. And then with our hands entwined, our lives so attuned to one another, so different yet so the same, she whispered to me.

At the deepest depths of darkness there stands reflected the greatest heights of light…

Almost singing, oblivious of the destruction that surrounded us, she drew my eyes with hers again, and I knew what she would do. Would try to save us, save everyone.

I drew her close to me, and kissed her again. I knew she would need me to do it, but she had to lead.

Wait for me…” she whispered.

And then all was gone.

#

And when she finally turned to face me, spoke my name, the tears came.

Because now that she had awoken, there would be no more. The city restored, the dark pit of its heart saved. A dazzling peak of light and beauty instead. And that meant that she and I were no more. Our time was done. Our prison was cast, and now we were freed.

And we walked out of the door, hand in hand. She the peak, and I the pit.

And her shoulders draped with my dark cloak, and mine draped with her white-sleeved arm.

Chapter 1

It’s all my worthless father’s fault.

My mother is dead. I am trapped in a land savaged by these barbaric pseudo-humans – don’t be fooled! They look human, but their depravity, their hostility, their idiocy. They must be different from us, below us, below you and me.

I am a soldier, a noble warrior fighting against these human-like beasts. Yes, that must be what they are. Warden’s words make no sense otherwise. Beasts. Not human.

A brute charged at me. It wears the thick heavy hides crudely cut from some creature’s flanks, covering up little more than a bit of skin. Its eyes are wild, dead of intellect, of true sentience. That magic of being, of thinking is missing. All it knows is the huge ax in its hands and me, a target. Prey.

How wrong it is. For predatory though it seems, it is MY prey.

Fifteen meters distant now. I wonder if it actually understands the instrument of death I carry in my hands. Projectiles. Bow and arrow. I remember reading a story somewhere; the meeting of a wolf and a man. That man could pick up and throw rocks shocked the wolf into submission.

Death is somewhat like submission, right?

I notch and draw. Ten meters. I aim. It readies a massive swing. I release. An arrow fletched with my own hands appears in its unguarded neck. I lower my arms. It falls, dead, blood shooting like a river running uphill.

The maelstrom around me returns, the battle rejoined with my mind. Warden is to my left, her raging blade just cleaving off another beast’s hand. Other soldiers are around me, fighting; each of us wears red to tell of our noble purpose. That rather large older man has a comparably small length of crimson cloth tied to his left arm. The young soldier next to him – his own son, I think – has a maroon sash tied around his belt. I notice that the young soldier’s armor is of much higher quality than his elder. Protect the next generation, I suppose.

I am an archer, and my gloves speak of our light, our purpose. Its cascading alizarin and umber oranges represent us, the Daecian army. We are a fire wrought by the holy Sun itself, and the ravaging scourge our might has been directed at today will be cleansed.

I rejoin my body with the battle, and more blood rejoins the earth from which it came. I will fight on, much as I despise these barbarians.

This is all my father’s fault. For he started this war, and then had the gall to die before seeing it through. Now chaos spreads, and only Daecia can contain it. So I must fight. We all must fight. For salvation.

#

I woke from my reverie. We had returned to Seren, the town we were ordered to defend, hours ago. The day’s battles, still fresh in my mind, haunted me. Gathered in the local tavern were Warden, the father and son I saw on the battlefield earlier today, myself, and a few other soldiers. We of course had beaten off the latest Entor horde. Who could have doubted? We are, after all, endorsed with the power of the Sun itself.

“But why are they even attacking?”

My ears perked up at the sound of this. Shuffling myself out of my resting stupor, I lean forwards and join the table. Warden is again to my left, the younger soldier to my right, and his father sits to his right.

“Dad, it doesn’t even matter. The Entor attacked this town, and the holy Sun of Daecian might must be used to protect them and stop that threat.”

“But why? What reasons could they have for these attacks? They may be brutal, and they may be savages, and they certainly don’t have our level of knowledge or intelligence, but they at least have reasons for doing things, don’t they?”

“The Entor are a vile barbarian race. Don’t question our orders, old man, they come straight from the cardinal might of the holy Sun itself. We are not given to understand its will.” I said.

The man looked like he was about to say something when Warden interjected.

“Kid’s right, Grant. Best keep your lid on these things.”

The conversation then turned to other things, but Grant’s comment bothered me. I’d always been pretty good at puzzles, and even if the Daecian Council didn’t want to tell us soldiers everything, I should at least be able to figure out more than most.

I lost myself in thought for the rest of the meal, and after a while it was time to leave.

#

We left the tavern as a group, Warden stoically leading the way. I found myself behind her, with the rest of the noisy half-drunk crowd behind me. As I passed the threshold of the door, my ears caught something.

“That…that old whore isn’t…worth a single coin, my friend. She thinks she’s…thinks she’s such a good sergeant…such a strong woman…I tell you, friend, that old whore…is just that, an old whore.”

I whirled about, furious, and stared into the eyes of a pair of particularly drunk and dirty soldiers in my platoon. I opened my mouth to yell at them but before I could utter any sound an arm came from behind me and shoved me aside. Warden brought her other arm came up, crossbow drawn and ready, pointed it at the man’s leg, and loosed an arrow straight into his right thigh.

“THAT…THAT WHORE SHOT ME! SHE SHOT ME THAT OLD-”

Before he could finish his curse Warden’s other hand plunged a knife to the hilt into his left thigh, using her other arm. His words just became one senseless scream of pain. Of suffering. Of fear.

“Let me put it this way, kid. I just attacked you, with weapons. I just shot you and stabbed you. I did it without thinking, without caring. As an instinct. And you know what, kid?”

She stepped over the stricken soldier and looked down at him.

“The higher-ups aren’t even going to try to touch me. Still think I’m just a woman, I can’t handle this job?” She lifted the crossbow again, loaded and notched it easily, leveled it at his face, and let the tip of the bolt touch the skin between his eyes.

“Try me.”

The rest of the day was…uneventful after that.

Taris

– – –

Prologue

Kyr woke up and noticed that he was, in fact, quite dead.

Apparently, he had been dead for a while, but hadn’t bothered to notice it. He stifled a large yawn and decided that this was probably because he had been asleep at the time. Assassinations tended to happen that way. His wife would be so mad at him for oversleeping again.

After a few moments, he decided that maybe it was time to actually open his eyes and take a look around. After all, he’d probably be staying here a while.

Kyr opened his eyes, and discovered that he was not alone in being dead. An old, dusty figure sat over him, staring keenly as if he were a specimen of extreme interest. Deciding to ignore the old man for the moment, Kyr took in his surroundings. He was lying comfortably on a wooden platform situated at the edge of a large lake, though he could not see the other shore; it simply disappeared into the mists. Large, inviting trees towered idly above him, and the ground seemed soft and loamy. If this was the afterlife, well, he might just like here.

Finally Kyr decided to address the only other person in sight. He sat up and eyed him carefully. The old man, with wrinkles covering his body and a few strands wispy white hair sprouting from his otherwise bald head, was dressed simply in a deep golden yellow robe that betrayed no luxury, no indulgence. He looked frail, weak, slow, yet when Kyr met his eyes he felt the force of brilliance striking deep within him, stirring the deepest founts of his being, and suddenly Kyr knew why.

He was in the presence of a divinity.

The old man smiled.

“Are you…a god?”

“As much one as you.”

Not one to show his surprise, Kyr took the old man’s statement in stride.

“How do you mean? I’m only dead. Your eyes…”

“Alas, and I too am only dead. Yet I too am ‘divine’, as you say.”

“That…makes no sense.”

“Most who die are simply given a short break before they return. Some attain the hush of serenity, and are granted rest. A select few end up in your shoes, Kyr of the Daecians.”

“What of me? It seems…rather clear. You are either ‘granted rest’ or you aren’t. Where does that leave me?”

“You have been granted a reprieve, and are here to give…a gift of sorts.”

“A gift?” Kyr looked down at himself and noticed that he, too, was dressed in a simple robe, though his was a dark leafy green. “I don’t think I brought anything with me when I died.”

“You brought yourself.”

“Myself?”

“Yes. You have brought your spirit, your story, your life, such as they are. You have brought the essence of you. And you have brought a gift.”

Kyr pondered the old man’s statement idly, then sprung on a different idea. “Old man, you said I am…granted a reprieve?”

“Yes, Kyr.”

Kyr stood and ambled over to the edge of the platform. “What is your name, old man?”

“You may call me Orson the Guide, Kyr.”

“Let’s walk. My wife would kill me if I just lounged in bed all day.”

The two men found themselves walking idly along the lake, a cool wind landing gently on their bodies. The surface of the water was still, save a few small ripples that lapped idly on the pebbled shores. Though the men walked without footwear, there were no sharp stones, no jutting edges, upon which to cut their feet.

“Surprising how this place is so calm and cool, given what the rest of Alcis is like.”

“You have many fond memories of a cool forest in the north. The Lake’s Shore is merely showing you those memories made real once more.”

“Convenient.” Kyr bent down to pick up a pebble and skipped it lightly across the shore of the Lake. “So, why am I here, Orson?”

“You are here because you have a gift to give, Kyr. You may choose to grant it, or you may withhold it if you wish.”

“I did not bring anything here to give.”

“Yes, you brought only yourself and your story.”

“Right. So what gift do I have to give?”

“What did you bring?”

“Just as you say, Orson, I brought only myself and my story.”

“Exactly.”

Somewhere in his head a dim thought came to mind. Legends and teachings about the Lake’s Shore. How each spirit must find balance, harmony, before granted the long peaceful rest. What happens when a spirit loses its way.

“I’ve made mistakes, haven’t I? I was close…I’d almost found harmony…but in that last life I…”

“Exactly.”

#

The two dead men were again sitting on the platform, facing each other.

“The…legends. I’ve done something terrible to someone in my last life.”

“Yes, and it is good that can see that.”

“If I remember those stories, those who are…like me. For a price, I can correct those wrongs. What must I do, Orson? Who do I repay?”

“’Who’…is something only you know.”

“And how is it done?”

“You just sit, bring yourself to a state of peace. If you are truly willing, it will simply happen.”

“And you know all those old stories, about those so-called ‘deities’. That’s what we’re talking about, aren’t we. In a way, granting a mortal something like…divinity.”

“Yes.”

Kyr chuckled. “There are a lot of stories out there, you know. A lot of them say those people drain their own spirits away for that power. He’d become a dead shell by the end.”

Orson smiled broadly. “They are wrong. No, the spirit ‘drained away’, as you put it, is not the mortal’s own. It would be…well, in this case, it would be yours.”

Kyr blinked twice, then chuckled. “That sounds inconvenient.”

“Hmm. I must ask a question of you, Kyr?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Who did you wrong? Who did you hurt?”

Kyr remained silent.

“You worried about ‘his’ spirit, his life, immediately wondering if those old tales are true.. And yet, when I told you that it would be you, your essence and person that is drained into that power, you merely laugh. I can see as clearly as I see the waters of the Lake that you are not afraid. So I must ask: who is he? …Who will you repay?”

Kyr closed his eyes. Seated cross-legged on the little wooden platform at the edge of the Lake, he let his soul weep silently, without tears or motion. A cool breeze blew in from over the water and gently rustled the leaves in the quiet, contemplative forest about him. Though no birds nor other creatures of the woods lived in this cold and peaceful place, Kyr’s ears heard the singing of a jay, the chatter of a squirrel. He could feel the strength of the massive trees whose crowns reached farther than the sky in his body, his being. Every leaf, every breeze that touched the leaves, every ripple on the Lake, every swirl of leaves and earth on the floor of the wood – he felt it all. In his grief-stricken mind, he became it all.

He felt the waters of the Lake swim against the Shore. As the water weaved farther and farther over the ground, the tension, the grief built higher, stronger, faster until he could not bear it any longer.

And then the waves washed back into the Lake and the waters were still.

And for the first time in many years, Kyr felt peace.

With his eyes still closed, but his weeping ended, he answered Orson’s question.

“He is my son.”