Authors: James P. Davis
The Wilds: The Restless Shore
By James P. Davis
Far from love the Heavenly Father Leads the chosen child;
Oftener through the realm of briar Than the meadow mild,
Oftener by the claw of dragon Than the hand of friend,
Guides the little one predestined To the native land.
Emily Dickinson, “Far from Love the Heavenly Father.”
24 Tarsakh, the Year of the Ageless One
(1479 DR) Airspur, Upper Districts
Moonlight shining through a small stained glass window played on Ghaelya’s face in a myriad of muted colors as she slept. Tossing and turning, she dreamed. Her arms, etched with bright blue energy lines, contorted above her smooth head as she fought against a deep and limitless darkness.
In her dreams, she swam clumsily in a murky sea, spinning in slow circles, frantically trying to determine up from down. She breathed easily under the water, though the taste of it was stagnant and foul as it flowed down her throat and filled her lungs. Thunderous noises echoed through the depths from unnatural throats. Massive, formless bodies tumbled lazily in the distant shadows, seeking her with unfathomable hungers. She recoiled at the sight. Shafts of light pierced the shadows,
and she followed them, grateful for their orange brilliance, but not wanting to see the creatures that swam by or to look too long into the burning gazes of the terrible things that hissed as she escaped their reach.
A whispering song echoed up from the dark. Tendrils of its ethereal melody pursued her kicking legs, tickling the soles of her feet. Panicking, she broke the surface, clawing at the air as if she might climb through it and escape the terrors beneath her. But out of the dark water her fear faded, leaving her adrift on a gentle expanse of waves that rippled gently with the water in her genasi spirit. The waters stretched to the horizon beneath a purpled sky, the waves flashing gold in the soft light of a troubled sunset.
As she marveled, something curled around her ankle, something fleshy with hooked teeth. She fought, breaking the surface briefly before being dragged back into the murk, her screams lost in the depths….
An overstuffed cushion caught the brunt of Ghaelya’s rage before she realized she had woken up. Groaning, she slumped back into the large chair, her head pounding from a long night of drinking, the shadowed common room of her family’s house slowly spinning. She rested her head in her hands, closed her eyes, and counted down from the highest number she could think of in such a statean old sobering up trick that had never really worked, but usually helped her get back to sleep.
Just as the spinning in her head had begun to slow, the sound of breaking glass disturbed her from her counting ritual. She waited for her father to curse or her mother to fret over a broken family heirloom. When nothing followed the sound, she opened her eyes carefully.
A scattered pile of coins she’d dropped on the floor
during the argument with her sister, Tessaeril, caught the last light of the dying fire. She smiled and closed her eyes again, always appreciative of Tessaeril’s concern and worries, though too stubborn to admit it very often.
Muffled voices drew her attention to the eastern stairway, and for once she did not curse herself for passing out in her leather half-armor with an uncomfortable broadsword jabbing her leg. She swayed as she stood and caught her balance with outstretched hands. Reckoning she was at least steady enough to handle a simple thief, she crept up the eastern stairs, stumbling on a couple, but quietly enough that she caught a low hum coming from the end of the hallway, near Tessaeril’s room.
She made her way down the hallway, her footsteps crunching on shards of a broken vase. The humming stopped, and Ghaelya froze in place.
A single, frightened whimper pierced the silence.
Ghaelya drew her broadsword, took a deep breath and charged the closed door, grinning at the crack of the latch. She burst into the room. A dark-robed figure slipped nimbly out of her reach. Crashing against the far wall, she whirled around, her sword wavering but level, to see her sister hoisted over the shoulder of a second robed figure.
“Tess!” she yelled, catching a flash of sharp teeth from within a deep cowl as the figure ducked out of the room, “No!”
A short sword glinted in the pale hand of the first figure, and he advanced screeching like an animal. She skipped backward, battering the smaller weapon away, but unable to slow her attacker’s momentum. The cowled figure leaped at her, throwing her off balance easily. But she had wit enough to control her drunken stumble, and her attacker crashed into the wall behind her, using both hands for support. Ghaelya spun around, her heavy broadsword aimed at his chest. The figure snarled, revealing several rows of sharp
teeth in his wide mouth. His hooked claws dug into the wall as he turned a black-eyed gaze upon her.
Ghaelya’s blade sliced through robe, skin, and between the bones beneath, burying itself in the wall at an angle as the figure scratched at the wood and plaster in a frenzied fit to escape the blade buried in his back. He slumped down as she yanked her blade free. She caught a glimpse of silver dangling from his throata silver seashell.
“Tess!” she said and dashed out of the room, crunching on the shattered vase. She could barely make out a dark figure at the front door and noticed a third, hidden in the corner outside the hallway, too late. Her sword-arm flexed and her right foot planted itself in the floor, her body instinctively ready to block his attack, but she was far too slow, too drink-addled to dodge it.
Something heavy clubbed her in the back of the head, and she fell, sprawling at the top of the stairs, slowly blacking out. The sound of the front door opened too far away, too distant for her to stop it. Stars swam before her eyes and her heavy lids slid closed, shutting out the light. In the dark, spinning and aching, she found herself back in the murky depths of the shadowed sea, dreaming of teeth, burning eyes, and ghostly singing as curling arms and barbed hooks pulled her down.
She screamed, calling for her sister in the dark, and a thousand alien throats screamed back, mocking her struggles as the setting sun gathered in its golden shafts of light.
10 Flamerule, the Year of the Heretic’s Rampage (1473 DR) Caidris, Akanul
The little town of Caidris was quiet long before sunset. The farmers had hidden themselves and their families away, leaving soldiers and sells words to the kind of harvest that common working folk wished little to do with. Sharpened swords had replaced old plows, and the chatter of a lively market square had quieted to the occasional clink of well-worn armor and booted footsteps on dusty hard-packed streets.
Under a darkening sky, on the front porch of an old farmhouse with boarded windows, Uthalion considered the distant shadows of the southern horizon. Fields of grain waved in the wind, bending toward him as heavy clouds rolled northward, rumbling with thunder and flashing with lightning. He kept his breath slow and even, his eyes
narrowed and watchful. He could not banish the coiled tension in his muscles, the aching readiness to react, stand, and perform the duty for which he had been recruited. His stomach twisted at the thought, but his determination never wavered.
Absently he twirled a band of gold around his left ring finger, running his thumb over the tiny scratches in the imperfect bend of a once perfect loop. It had been two weeks since he’d left Airspur with promises to his wife and newborn daughter of a safe return and coin enough to leave the realm of Akanul for good. He had spun stories of his grandfather’s farm in Tethyr, of wide fields and ample work. Yet the only story his wife would recall, the only promise she would hold him to, was that he never take up the sword again.
He sighed and unhooked the long sword on his belt, a new blade placed in his hands by a dying man three daysthree endless days of marchingbefore. He hated the weapon and the broken promise he saw in its finely sharpened edge. Even more than that, he loathed the responsibility his acceptance of the sword signified.
The word was repeated before Uthalion realized he was being spoken to. He was not yet accustomed to the title and eager to be rid of it as soon as possible. A half-elf stood at the end of the porch, his sword drawn and eyeing the southern approach warily.
“The last of the townsfolk have been secured, doors are boarded up, and livestock have been locked away until…” Brindani’s voice momentarily trailed off as both men spied the first pitch black clouds reaching the far end of town “Until the storm passes,” he finished.
Uthalion studied the half-elf s face for several breaths, seeing through the stoic facade to the spark of fear in the soldier’s eyes and the breath he slowly forced from the tightness
of his chest. In that moment Uthalion hated the half-elf, but only brieflya flash of malice that urged him to be cruel, to mock the young warrior who’d signed on for glory and story. Brindani’s friends, also brash and eager for the gold a good fight might bring, had fallen three days ago, their bodies broken and left for carrion in the ruins of old Tohrepur.
Growls of thunder drew his attention back to the storm. The black clouds stretched from east to west as if they would swallow the entire world. Uthalion could still imagine the deep well from which they’d burst and flowed into the sky like a geyser of pure shadow. The Keepers of the Cerulean Sign, mystic warriors bound to the destruction of agents of the Abolethic Sovereignty, had stuck their swords in where they weren’t wanted and had gotten more than they’d bargained for.
The unnatural storm was the least of their worries now. The Keepers were all dead as far as Uthalion knew, leaving their underpaid mercenaries to clean up the mess. Three days the black clouds had chased them across the Mere-That-Was; three days and counting for the last defenders of Tohrepur to fall.
“Are the men in place?” he asked Brindani who nodded, speechless. “Well maintain a wide, even circle, closing slowly and converging here.”
Soldiers took their positions in the distance, barely visible in the sudden and early night, their blades flashing in the long streaks of lightning. Beyond their evenly spaced line, shambling over the southern rise and backlit by the lightning storm, the last citizens of Tohrepur, thralls to abolethic masters, crested the hill. They walked awkwardly, many struggling to make their twisted limbs obey basic commands, their bones either horribly changed or gone altogether. The thralls’ throats stretched and distended, producing only gurgling sounds as the servitors tried to speak, tried to find their lost voices.
Brindani gasped, staring as the horde pushed on into Caidris. His blade dipped, and he took a step backward. Uthalion descended the porch steps and grabbed the half-elf s shoulder firmly.
“Just do the work,” he said, shouting to be heard above the thunder and howling wind. “Keep moving, don’t think, and do your job.”
“They’re people,” Brindani said, unable to look away1 from the grisly crowd. “They’re just people.”
Uthalion released the half-elf s shoulder and drew the dead captain’s long sword, stretching his neck and calming nerves that had waited too long for the storm to come, for his work to arrive.
“Yes. And when you order that first round of drinks after all this is said and done,” he replied, eyeing the sorcerous storm with a determined stare, “you remember what you just said before you tell the tale. You remember it very well.”
The thunder in the storm buzzed through the town, an alien voice whispering dark words that tingled like magic on the air. Uthalion could feel that magic descending from the clouds, caressing his cheek with silky tendrils of suggestion. Nausea spun his stomach, matching the racing course of his thoughts. He advanced, ignoring the brief pangs of anxiety that accompanied the start of any battle. The dark swallowed him, leaving him in a black void with only the dusty road beneath his boots to keep him grounded.
He paused several feet from the farmhouse as the babbling voices of Tohrepur’s host grew louder, gurgling screams that chased the thunder and echoed somewhere in his memory. The sudden sense of having done it all before was overwhelming, and he turned, looking back at the farmhouse and the open door banging in the wind. Khault stood on the porch carrying a glowing lantern. Khault, the brave farmer who’d invited Uthalion’s men to stay and rest in Caidris,
and who had volunteered to help when he’d heard news of the coming disaster.
With measured steps, Khault descended the porch steps as if in a trance, his eyes fixed on the advancing thralls as they clashed with the mercenaries at the end of the road. In his free hand he held an old axe, its blade glowing dully in the orange light of his lantern.
“You should be inside!” Uthalion shouted over the thunder. But Khault did not answer and did not stop. Panic took the captain in an icy grip, and he strode forward, grabbing the farmer’s shoulders and shaking him, “Why? Why risk it? Think of your family! Why would you leave them alone in this?”
Khault merely stared, the orange light digging deep shadows in the man’s face.
Shouts caught Uthalion’s attention as the soldiers’ circle formation closed, edging nearer to the farmhouse. He shouted back, instructing his men, though the words were too familiar, like a script playing itself out and using his voice without his consent. He stopped and tried to remember, placing a hand on his head as if he could pluck the memory free through scalp and bone.
“We can’t all be heroes, Uthalion!” Khault called out, walking into the dark, toward the flash of distant blades and the shining eyes of Tohrepur’s people. “But you should not judge us for trying!”
“Nonsense!” Uthalion yelled back, blinking in the wind and turning in circles, narrowing his eyes as the struggling memory crawled sluggishly to the forefront of his mind, “Follow orders,” he muttered. “Just do the job.”
“Don’t be naive, Captain,” Brindani whispered, though the half-elf was nowhere to be seen. “Wake up!”