The creations don't know the Creators of Reality are dying. All forms will fail. All order will fail. All will fail.
In a world of magic and illusion, of Shah wielders and assassins, nothing is as it seems.
After the murder of the Grand Duke of Manasad, ambition, lust, and betrayal ignite across the Isle of Don, while two empires threaten to crush it between them.
A Wielder of the Shah hunts the killer of his oldest friend.
A gifted young woman travels south for the glory of her House.
A goat herder dreams of greatness.
THE WIELDERS UNION is a wild thrill ride of nobles and priests, gods and demons, identity and fidelity, in a Universe running out of time.
Torchlight twisted off his helmet as Balder slit the guard’s throat, easing the twitching, gurgling corpse to the ground.
Listening for any alarm, he sprinted to the far end of the large, empty hallway. Ancient tapestries reeking faintly of mildew and rot adorned immense blocks of grey dressed stone. Manipulating the Shah into the Form of a small, floating mirror, he glanced down both sides of an intersecting corridor.
The mirror winked out with a slight breath of wind. Balder took the left-hand path, saber drawn, ready for anything. He smiled as he matched his living magnetic force with the illusion of the hallways, the energy flowing and combining, churning within itself in seeming perpetual motion. He ran and moved in nothing, felt the burst of cold air in his lungs, the muscle burn in his thighs, all in a stasis bubble of the Shah, a no-space inserted in, superimposed on, waking state reality; an unfolding of dimension and proportion from the implicate worlds.
Balder blinked as the hallway stretched and shimmered into a cavernous ballroom filled with large round tables of burnished red oak surrounded by intricately carved, high-backed chairs. Far above the waiting dishes and silverware soared the mythical Styderoform, painted in bright golds and greens on the domed ceiling, belching fire, screaming its hate in the roiling black clouds of blood spattered skies.
Balder swallowed hard and his belly rumbled as the scents of freshly baked bread, roast pork, and grilled prawn assaulted his nostrils. Melting wax and jasmine perfume also hung heavy in the air, smoking from huge braziers of bright beaten copper in the four corners of the Great Hall.
Today was the majority birthday of Cancir Sanson, the old Grand Duke Mensa’s only grandson, and the day on which the Duke was expected to declare his heir to the city of Manasad. Would Cancir be named the heir? Many thought so, gambled so, but there were many eager cousins, and perhaps the lesser counts and barons of the city thought it was their time to rise?
“You’re so predictable, Balder,” said another masked swordsman, stepping lightly from the dark.
“I’m not here for games, Lathis, but for Contract. And I always fulfill my contracts.”
“Of course, we all do our best for the honor of our lineages,” Lathis said. “But wait, how silly of me, I’d forgotten that you have no lineage, beggar.”
Balder didn’t react. Never react. Instead he probed with the Shah. Lathis was dressed in heavy chain mail of glinting obsidian links woven with smooth bleached bone. He carried the huge curved scimitar of the Wak people from the South, serrated and cruel, married to poison. But he was too solid to be real, too slow. The flowing fibers of energy radiating from Balder’s heart to infinity found no connection, no rapport, no harmony with the static, soulless image breathing and speaking before him. The ripple smearing of space was absent, and Balder couldn't hear the buzzing of the bees. Lathis wasn't really standing there. Balder smiled.
“It would have been more so much more interesting to break you in person…” Balder said to the Form in front of him, all the while searching, searching for the key note, the foundation line. He gathered the Shah with his mind, twisted, and whipped it out in a full circle around him.
The ballroom shattered like glass, severed threads and riotous colors flying out in all directions. Balder grunted as something hit him hard from behind, his helmet sent flying, and he rolled forward with the blow, instinctively minimizing impact.
On his feet once more, Balder flinched, the wicked scimitar sweeping an inch from his face. He frantically blocked another sword stroke, flipped over a third, riposting, chased by the living Lathis. Balder blinked, his eyes watering. Lathis appeared to be a multitude of separate images, slightly out of phase, blurring his vision.
Balder knew he had the same effect on his opponent, and that’s all part of the trade. Learn to work with what you have, if you care about such things, and roll with the flow. Balder cared. Tossing spinning disks of shiny blue steel at Lathis’ face, Balder roared and charged back at his off-balance adversary.
Lathis Formed a second scimitar, blocking the disks, then Formed two more swords in a nimbus of green flame, sending them flying toward Balder. Balder Formed two swords of his own out of the unfathomable immensity of the Shah to meet those racing at him. The four swords met with a shower of red and emerald lightning, a vicious clashing and grinding of steel. Balder swept past, spinning and kicking, his sword whipping like an adder.
Balder cursed in pain as a diamond fist erupted in space, grabbing him up into the air and smashing him back down against charcoal granite shelves, pushing and sliding his face against rough stone and books, tearing his cheeks and nose. Balder seized the fist with the Shah, and the jagged crystals melted down, running like greasy, boiling rapids back to Lathis before exploding in amber globs of snot and the sulfurous stench of rotting eggs.
Balder dove forward once more, rolling, kicking Lathis flush on the chin, dropping him to the ground. Lathis pulled the Shah into a wall, slamming it between himself and Balder. Balder grunted as he hit the energy barrier, his sword sparking off the invisible obstacle. Lathis scrambled back to his feet, but with another shrug of the Shah, Balder smashed the wall into bursts of wind, throwing Lathis backwards to the ground again, sliding, his mail shirt screeching against the polished marble floor. Balder pounced, striking with his…
“Mercy!!” Lathis roared. “Surrender!”
Balder instantly sheathed his sword, and helped the other man to his feet.
“Well played,” said Lathis, wiping his face of congealed fat and yellow fluid.
Balder nodded his head.
“I won’t underestimate you again,” said Lathis.
“Why would you? Are you stupid?”
Lathis turned on his heel, and swiftly strode down the path Balder had come. Using the Shah, Balder lit a small light globe, and looked around the Grand Duke’s royal bedchamber. Old Mensa still slept in spite of the battle that had raged around him. He looked so peaceful, so innocent.
Balder walked to the bed and peered down at the old man. His forehead glowed pink, like new skin, with thin wisps of hair so white against his skull. The light of dawn crept slowly through the windows, combining with the pulsing violet glow globe to send strange shadows playing over the old man’s face. At times he appeared an ancient Saint, at others, some feral beast.
Balder hesitated, taking a deep breath. He had so many memories of this old man. Then he gripped his saber, unsheathed, and swept it down, severing the head in a fountain of blood. He cleaned and sheathed the sword, removed the shredded remains of his mask, and retrieved his dented helmet. After another glance at the corpse, blood still oozing from the ghastly severed neck, Balder strode to a bay window, sweating in the cold air. Hulking clouds on the western horizon reflected bright red and orange from the rising sun. The sea rolled dark and mysterious, the harbor bells ringing to the swells. Moored ships sang mournfully with a strong wind through the stays.
Balder inhaled deeply of the morning sea breeze, salty like the blood on his face, and concentrated, Forming a black iron slide out of the living Shah. Smiling in joy at this great gift of shaping, he slid down the slide - down, down ten stories to the cobbled street below. Releasing the Shah, the bridge fizzled into airstreams, waking a flock of pigeons and sending them scurrying from the eaves. Balder strode down the street without a concern in the world, bought a hot pie from an early vendor, and walked on, burning his mouth from the steaming meat.
“He’ll serve us well,” Grand Duke Mensa said to Lathis, looking out the same window Balder had just used to escape. The beheaded simulacrum remained on blood soaked sheets behind them, slowly melting like heated wax.
“He’ll do, the poor bastard,” said Lathis.
“It doesn’t please me to use anyone this way,” Mensa said.
“Of course not.”
“Now I must disappear for a while. I’ve been meaning to visit the country, and I suppose my corpse will be my ticket to an easy retirement. No one bothers you when they think you’re already dead.”
“Most often,” Lathis agreed amiably.
“May Holy Tuk bless us and protect us…” whispered the Duke, wiping away tears.
Sasha listened to the cathedral bells ring, telling the city of the old duke’s death. Rumors swirled everywhere. The Duke had died in his sleep. No, he’d been assassinated by a wielder. No, he was possessed by demons and locked in a cell. A drunken longshoreman even swore that he’d seen the old duke boarding a pilot ship, and heading out to sea.
Sasha wasn’t concerned with the news, she was just annoyed that the bells had broken her morning meditations. The foundation of manipulating the Shah was mental power, the power to concentrate and visualize, even in the midst of a hurricane. And she’d been upset by simple bells! Stupid girl, she sighed. Her teachers would commit suicide in embarrassment if they saw her now. Though she possessed the power to change the course of nations, she was only seventeen, and untried in the real world.
She refused to let her age become another distraction, and ruthlessly extinguished the thought. There, that’s better. She was young, yes, but talented, and soon the city of Manasad would discover just how talented one could be. She was excited by the prospect of pitting her skills against the elite wielders here. The greatest on earth. She was excited about learning more, as much as she could handle!
“The damn old duke couldn’t wait another couple of hours to die? The bastard!”
“Now, Nanna, the gods determine our fate. You know that. What is…is what is meant to be. We must accept it, and flow on,” Sasha said.
“You shut yer lip, girl. Just ‘cause you can knock down mountains don’t mean I can’t still toss you over my knee and spank you a good one,” said Nanna.
“Don’t you oh Nanna me, girl, if that old bastard were still alive, we’d be feasting with the young heir, keeping Contract. But now we’re in for a storm, and there ain’t no reckoning which way the winds’ll blow.”
“But that makes it more exciting, Nanna! Now we have to make our own way, make our own agreements, and represent our lineage on our terms, not the old duke’s,” Sasha said.
“Bless me, girl, but you’re an eager one. You’ll be the death of me yet, I figure.”
“Would you want it any other way?” Sasha asked, batting her lashes and grinning wickedly.
“Why, in all the Empire, in all of this city, there isn’t a more pretty and capable young woman alive, or I’m a dumb mule,” Nanna snorted. “‘Course I wouldn’t want it any other way. You’re what I made of you, too, and don’t you forget it.”
Sasha idly played a thin, silver dagger between her fingers from one hand to the next. Ever since she could remember, Nanna had taught her all manner of fighting techniques and weapons mastery. If her talent as a wielder should ever prove inadequate, then her skill with the swords and daggers would keep her alive against even the greatest of odds. Hopefully. The training was grueling, though standard with all wielders. One couldn’t very well fulfill Contract if one lacked the basic skills of one’s opponent. The entire thought was ludicrous. She had to do the hard work to be the best.
Sasha tucked a hanging lock of her short strawberry blonde hair behind her ear, and it popped back out again with a will of its own. She never even noticed. It was just a habit, a thought habit, a way of reminding herself to look deeply into the heart, and not be distracted by illusion. A wielder spins illusions, and shouldn’t he caught in them, after all.
“Now you’ll have to wear the black gown,” Nanna said, a bit triumphantly.
Sasha sighed. That gown showed off her thighs and small breasts, and her freckles, which she hated. Then again, she felt awkward in anything that wasn’t related to war.
“Sigh all you want, it’s the only proper color you have for a funeral, even if it is a bit revealing,” Nanna said.
Nanna continued muttering to herself about shoes and gowns and hair and make-up, enough to make Sasha’s head spin. Talk about illusion! The life of a woman seemed almost a life of total deception. The thought made her stomach clench.
Sasha had been sent to Manasad, fulfilling Contract, to be an adviser and protector for the young heir. But with the old duke dead without naming an heir, her mission was in confusion, and her Contract in doubt. Perhaps it was void now, or perhaps she’d be forced to serve some cousin or aunt. Whoever survived the battles to come.
“I hear Cancir is a beautiful young man, very handsome, and we’d both know it if that old bastard hadn’t gone to the grave…”
Sasha and Nanna had arrived at the city by ship the night before. From her bedroom chambers at The Golden Torque Inn, she could see both the Grand Duke’s palace and the cobalt marble cathedral of Don, the patron goddess of Manasad.
She felt uncomfortable with thoughts of the gods and their priests. They possessed a power eerily similar to wielders, probably from the same source, whatever that might be, but they also channeled aspects of the gods which were incomprehensible to her linear mind. Naturally, she’d been trained to amplify, and even transcend, her linear mind. Dealing with the constant illusions of the Forms, the conscious extensions into multiple dimensions, would have been impossible otherwise. Nonetheless, she couldn’t fathom eternal beings, or their motives for touching her fellow women and men.
They just are, she thought, but I’d be lying to Nanna if I said I didn’t fear them. The priesthood rarely got involved with wielder and noble disputes. But with the rebellion in the Order of Tuk, old rules and modes of behavior were becoming outdated. Those priests were aggressive in proselytizing their god, tireless in resurrecting Him from the prison of the Abyss. She was glad that she was here in the home of Don, and not in Karcker or Im’Gin, mainland cities to the north conquered and dedicated to Tuk.
Her masters had educated her thoroughly on the mannerisms and habits of Cancir, but they had been vague in referencing the rest of the family. Oddly enough, her masters hadn’t considered the possibility of assassination, in an age of assassinations! Or had they anticipated just such a move, and decided to leave her to her own devices as a test? Possible, she’d been tested her entire life.
“What surprises did they have for you, grandson?” a tired voice rasped from the darkness.
Balder hung his sword over the polished mantelpiece, filled a bowl of thick stew from a black iron pot, and started munching. He’d stretched himself this morning, and now he was starving. The hot pie had barely touched the depth of his hunger. The Shah was a wonderful tool, but it took a terrible toll on its wielders.
“Basic illusions, though well done, down to the detail, and magnificently maintained. There wasn’t a shimmer of the man until I smashed the Forms…and, I won, but something’s bothering me. There’s something wrong about that bedroom. I don’t know what. But Contract is fulfilled, honor kept, and our reputation increased.”
“The old duke is not a man to be challenged lightly,” said Atos.
“Well,” said Balder around another mouthful of stew, “he’ll have to get his head together if he hopes to meet this challenge.”
“Haaa, ha ha, haaaaa,” the old man laughed until he was purple and choking. “Get his…aaah, ha hah ha!!”
The laughter continued on a little too long, making Balder feel very uncomfortable. His grandfather, Atos, was a great man, and a great wielder, but he’d gambled with taking Stolcha. The deadly poison could prolong a wielder’s life from the consuming fire of the Shah, but more often than not, it left terrible wrecks behind; demented men and women who could still wield as strongly as before, but who had lost their minds.
Balder wasn’t so sure about Atos, but the old man constantly managed to surprise him. Perhaps his grandfather was still sane. Balder didn’t know. Surely there must be another option besides the Stolcha. But that was just silly thinking. There’s always a price to be paid, regardless of our decisions and regardless of our gifts. Shah wielders all died young from the Burn Out, except for the Stolcha addicts.
“Who was it?” asked Atos after his coughing had subsided.
“One of their best, and you beat him, my boy!! He he, ha ha, our new lineage will shake this earth, I swear it! Ha!”
As a young man, Atos had been a natural wielder, learning slowly, painfully on his own, unearthing secrets of power and perception. He taught this knowledge to Balder, and taught the sword as well. But upstarts like Atos and Balder were held in contempt by the established Academies. They’re jealous. Jealous and afraid, as well they should be, Balder thought. By teaching himself, Atos had developed an unorthodox style and an uncanny precision in reading foundation lines and key points, the matrix of the Forms.
There had been something about that room, something…
“Now the halls of power will tremble in dread of House Voden! And we shall rule, my boy, we shall rule supreme! Aaah, haaa haaaahaaaaaa!!”
Balder was concerned.
“Don’t mind me, boy. I’m just an old man living a dream. A happy dream.”
Atos wept. He’d move into rage next, and then depression, before the cycle would start again. The price of longer life, the price of the Stolcha. Balder was worried for the old man, troubled that he’d have a psychotic break and tear the city apart. That’s usually what happened with Stolcha addicts, absolute madness and energetic chaos. Would he have to put his grandfather down like a rabid dog? Balder hoped not.
The Academies called them rogues. Balder preferred to think of himself as a free man. A lineage of two. The old man coughed again. Soon to be one, but that’s life.
“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right,” said Atos. “My time passed long ago. I’ve just held on, waiting. Waiting for you to grow, to mature, and now I’m so proud of you.”
Balder stood and walked to Atos’s rocking chair, and hugged the old man. Then he grabbed another bowl of the hot stew. The beef was tender and delicious, though Balder could have eaten a brick.
“What do you think of Cancir, grandson?”
“He’s one of my oldest friends. Thoughtful. Graceful. Intelligent. I have no doubt that the old duke would have named him”
“I can’t see Rabanis willingly handing power to his nephew, today, or ever.”
“Then we’ll be busy in the weeks to come, mark my words. More busy than even you can handle, yes? Ha!”
Balder smiled with his grandfather, they both loved a challenge.
He herded goats, and he wasn’t happy about it, but it was his last option. He’d tried his hand at building, and the smithy, and the tanner, and the weaver, and the potter, and on and on, but nothing seemed to stick. He’d grow bored or melancholy, lose concentration; or he’d have some conflict with the various masters and merchants, and wind up hauled away by the village bailiff, his uncle Mik.
So goating was his last chance.
“You’re an idiot, Davan,” he said to the wind. The goats looked up, nodding agreement. Goats could be quite agreeable, he considered, most of the time, though someone of his stature should be out upon the world stage, not here in the middle of nowhere with damned condescending goats.
Well do something about it, the goats suggested politely. Davan hocked up a loogee and spit into the bushes. The goats returned to eating. They, too, had long since grown bored of his pomposities.
“It’s only been a year, you guys. This is all very temporary. Why, I prophesy this time next season I’ll be a damned knight, and what do you think of that?”
The lead buck farted.
“Sometimes you guys really depress me.”
Davan caught the jingle of bells in the distance. Passers-by, though rare, were not unknown. All the villagers shared equally in the surrounding hills, pastures, and forests.
Suddenly interested in washing his face, Davan wet a rag from his water pouch and gave himself a quick once over. By the time he finished, the bells were just around the nearest hill. With the bells also came the sound of laughter, erupting back and forth between wild female voices. He recognized the sounds of Kara and her sister Brin, followed by their cousins Seny, Hansa, and Coal.
Bursting from the hillside sprinted herder dogs, tongues lolling, slobbering from their massive jaws, huge heads bobbing up and down. He was very glad they knew him. The immense dogs howled, then circled and sniffed him with their drenched snouts and rolling eyes, grinning in recognition.
Naturally Davan’s goats had spooked and run, bleating in terror, until his own dogs raced back from wherever they’d been roaming. The goats jolted once again, running in circles, stopping, racing again, caught between packs. The dogs howled at one another, ignoring the goats, crouched, then began jumping, leaping, and wrestling with astonishing agility. They all knew each other in these hills, few as they may be.
Davan grinned as the girls frantically tried to calm the dogs. But they soon surrendered in more laughter. The dogs would stop playing when they decided, not before.
“Killed any dragons or demons, Davan? We’ve heard the Wizard of Doom is hunting you!!” said Hansa.
The girls burst into new laughter at the old joke. Davan grimaced, but remained stoic. He was the noble champion, after all, and could never stoop to their low level.
“Nay!” laughed Seny. “Davan’s killed no monsters, though he’s for sure waxed some carrots!!” The girls fell to the grass, clutching their sides, howling and kicking.
Life is hardly fair, Davan reflected. I should be feasted in every home, honored on every hilltop and castle. Don’t they know who I am? Don’t they know who I AM!?
“Tough to wax a carrot when it won’t stand straight, eh, Davan?” Kara cackled.
“You shut your stupid mouth!!” Davan screamed.
After several moments of yelling and waving his shepherd’s staff in the air, Davan slowly grew self-conscious of how ridiculous he appeared, and stopped his tirade. The girls stopped laughing, but they still wore wicked grins. Damned girls.
With dark hair and dark eyes, Davan knew he couldn’t be that ugly, but the girls had heckled him mercilessly ever since he could remember. He always seemed to lose his temper even though he KNEW that that was exactly what they wanted. He sighed. A great knight is not made over night. It will take time and dedication, perhaps even the benediction of the gods. Davan could see himself on pilgrimage, visiting the ancient holy sites of the Empire, until, weeping at his piety and purity, the gods would shower down their blessings…
“Did you hear?” asked Hansa.
“Davan? Hello, jackass!?” Brin said.
Davan blinked his eyes and returned to the moment. Right, the girls. They stared at him like he was stupid, which they often did.
“What?” he asked.
“Never mind,” said Brin.
“Come on, I want to know!” Davan whined.
“If you want to know things, Davan, you’ve got to be able to pay attention for more than a minute. Think about it,” Hansa said.
Davan was constantly amazed that these girls, all younger than him, if only by a year or two, dared preach to him in that tone. Condescending goats, and condescending gods-damned girls. They’d all faint when he returned with his fortune one day, and became lord of the county. Davan hated lords, but he’d be a different breed, he just knew it.
Then he noticed the slight drumming in his feet. “Rider.”
“Yes, Davan, we know.” Brin said. “While you’re busy day dreaming, we’re busy paying attention to reality. You really are hopeless, Davan. Are you going to sleep your entire life away?”
Davan had nothing to say to that.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” shy Coal asked Brin.
“He won’t leave her alone,” Hansa said. “Ever since our sixteenth name day in the spring, Reez has slobbered for her panties.”
“That’s Lord Reez,” Davan muttered.
“He’s better looking than you…but not very nice,” Seny laughed.
“He’s gross. And he’s already a drunk. I hate him,” said Brin
The sound of pounding hooves rang through the valley as the horseman passed out of a copse of trees. They all recognized the contemptuous scowl with which Reez seemed to have been born, and preferred. He was forever sneering at everything, bored with his possessions. His father, as lord of the county, and had always catered to his son’s whims, of course, but nothing seemed to satisfy. They waited silently, the huge dogs gathering around them. They could have fled, but Reez had a reputation for running peasants down. He enjoyed it. And got away with it.
At the last moment, the Count’s son drew rein, and his fine war stallion stopped short, flanks heaving, sweat reflecting the noon sun. He was a young man in his early twenties, a year or two older than Davan. His face looked pasty and bloated. He scratched absently at weeping sores around his neckline. He took his time staring them down.
“What do you have to say for yourself, slut? Thought you could hide from me, eh? But there is no hiding, not in my father’s county. He owns all of this. He owns all of you. And so do I.”
Brin remained silent, though her dark eyes bulged in fear and anger. Davan gripped his staff. The dogs twitched their tails restlessly. Reez ignored them.
“What are you waiting for you little bitch? Get on!”
Reez stretched down his hand as his stallion stepped uncertainly, breathing heavily.
No one moved.
“I said, Get on, bitch!” Reez roared.
Davan leapt forward and grabbed Reez’s hand and the horse’s bridle.
Reez jerked back his hand, astonished at the peasant’s audacity. The stallion snorted, whipped its huge head, sweeping Davan off his feet. Davan clung on to the bridle with one hand, dropping his staff. His arm stung, but he twisted his feet under him, and regained his balance.
“Lord Reez, please, lord, I beg you. This is wrong. These girls are not your property! I’ll report you to the Sheriff if you don’t stop now. Let it go!” Davan said.
Reez kicked out his leg, smashing Davan in the face with his iron-shod boots, slamming him down hard to the ground. Davan went limp for a second, but jerked back up to his feet, looking desperately for his staff, blood running down into his eyes. He picked it up, brandishing it at Reez, half blind.
“Stop it, I mean it, before it’s too late!” said Davan.
Astonished again by the resistance, Reez barked out, “And who do you think fucking pays the Sheriff for his trouble? You? Or my father? Do you really think any quality people will care what I do to these little sluts, or to you, you worthless hog? You dog!! Hah!!”
Squeezing his eyes shut and howling, Davan charged at the war horse, blindly waving his staff. With a load crack, he felt the wood splinter as it hit the stallion’s front shins. The war horse screamed and rose up to its hind legs, throwing Reez to the grass behind. Huffing from lost wind, Reez nonetheless scrabbled to his feet, used to years of arms training in his father’s castle. Drawing his sword and cursing, Reez swung at Davan.
Davan’s right eye was quickly swelling shut where he’d been kicked, and his nose was busted open and bleeding. He heard the girls crying and his dogs growling. He stepped forward to meet Reez, and turned his ankle, collapsing just as the sword whistled over his head. The searing pain from his ankle filled Davan with adrenalin, and he rolled forward after falling, tripping Reez to the ground. The Count’s son dropped his weapon, and the two rolled and wrestled in the high grass. Reez was castle trained, but he was drunk and Davan big and strong.
The lordling kept punching Davan’s face and belly, but the goat herder wouldn’t give up. He clawed, and scratched and punched and kicked with everything he had. In the frenzy, Davan accidentally connected to Reez’s jaw, bouncing the lordling’s head off the ground. Crawling beside Reez, Davan felt metal, and grabbed at the sword. He lifted the razor sharp weapon above his head, staring down at Reez’s wild eyes, then he struck as hard as he could, the blade biting deep into Reez’s cheek, crunching into bone.
Reez shrieked, his body jerking and flopping. Davan raised the sword once more, and struck again. Then again. The girls kept screaming. Blood spurt from the gashes on Reez’s ruined face, broken teeth flying with each hack, until Davan saw the light in Reez’s eyes go out. Davan held the sword trembling above his head, until his fingers went numb, and the sword dropped, striking him on the temple with the pommel, knocking him out.
Davan awoke confused in the cold, wet grass of the meadow. He blinked his eyes at the stars. He’d slept the entire day away. His head throbbed. Then he remembered.
“Shit! Oh, holy shit!” he yelled, scrambling to his feet. The blood rushed to his head and he felt like passing out or vomiting. He spied the hacked face of the lordling in the moonlight, and then he did vomit.
“Oh, fuck me!!” Davan yelled again, wiping his face. What was he going to do now? What was he going to do??
Davan looked at his hands. They were covered in dried blood. Noble blood on murderer’s hands. Ahh, fuck! He searched the darkness. The girls were gone. He couldn’t blame them. They’d taken the goats and the dogs. That was the right thing to do. They had to survive. Oh damn, oh damn, he hyperventilated, staggering in circles. Then he tripped and fell to his face. He heard a loud yelp, then hot breath and a big wet tongue on his face. One of the dogs had remained behind.
Get a grip, get a grip, for the dog’s sake…and then Davan buried his face into the dog’s coat, and held it for a long time. Shaking, he finally stood, and traced his way back to his camp. The girls had left his things. He had a change of clothes, several pennies, a slingshot, strips of jerky, a flint and a water bag. It’d have to do.
Davan nearly buckled as a strong weight rubbed against his leg. He looked down and saw Nelly grinning up at him. She was a young adult female, with a barrel chest, large paws, and crushing jaws. Davan definitely felt better with Nelly around. He rubbed her giant head.
“Thanks for staying, girl. Thanks for loving me.”
The Count’s capital was far to the south of the hills, and it was well known he hated the highlands. It was equally well known that his son Reez felt nowhere more at home than debauching himself in his small northern castle and hunting in the mountains surrounding Davan’s village. Reez probably wouldn’t be missed for several days (if ever, by those who knew him), but he would be missed eventually, and searched for.
Davan limped back to Reez’s corpse and removed any armor or weapons that could sink. Then he walked to a nearby pond. It wasn’t very large, but it was deep, and shadowed by tall trees. He scrubbed his bloody hands and face in the water, then flung in Reez’s sword, boots, dagger, chainmail, and with great regret, silver and gold. He’d taken several pennies to add to his meager collection. More than that would have painted him a thief. He didn’t want to needlessly suffer, though. He knew these hills, was familiar with outdoor living, camping, and hunting, but for sanity’s sake, sometimes you just need a clean bed and a bath. You just do.
He walked back to the body. Reez looked like he was sleeping now, all innocent like, even with his ravaged face, and for no reason he could explain, Davan felt a burst of that old rage, and viciously kicked Reez’s dead head. Bastard! Fucking bastard had everything!
Davan grabbed the corpse’s feet and dragged it about a hundred yards away to a stand of thick firs. There was a shallow hole in the middle of the tangled bush. Cursing softly at the sharp branches stabbing at him, Davan forced the body into the hole, kicked over some loose leaves, and stumbled back to his things. Reez’s war horse still stood where his master had been slain, snorting nervously. Davan tried to ignore the stallion, but couldn’t. He tried to forget this entire event, but couldn’t. All he could do was move on.
“We can’t go south, Nelly, and we’ll be a suspicious stranger in any town or village outside of Manasad. It doesn’t take a genius to say we’ve got to make it to the city, find some work, blend in…ahh, Nelly, what are we going to do?”
Nelly licked Davan’s face, and he smiled. “OK, girl, let’s do this.”
From animal herding, running errands for his various failed apprenticeships, and simply playing and exploring, Davan knew the country well. He didn’t have to think about it. He gave his body free rein and it took over, tracking over hills, wooded ridges, small animal paths, and open meadows dotted with white flowers. Nelly trotted amiably at his side, sometimes darting off, but always reappearing with a grin. The night air was damp, but the sky was clear, the stars and moon providing ample light.
Driven by anxiety and fear, Davan hiked north until the grey light of dawn came creeping from the east. It was still dark, but the great change of morning was upon him. Deciding to rest for a while, he looked for some thick bush to cover him while he napped. Wandering toward a small wood opening around a stream, Davan thought he heard the sound of crying. Maybe it was just the running water. Heart beating wildly, he carefully pressed on, until he a saw a small flickering fire at the creek side, and a slight old man in wool robes, tears streaming down his face.
Davan watched the stranger rock back and forth, knees to chin, rocking and rocking, weeping softly, until his injured ankle buckled and he lost his balance, falling through the brush down a small hill and nearly on top of the stranger’s fire. The stranger leapt up with incredible agility, staring in amazement as Davan wrestled to his feet in a blaze of sparks.
“I’m sorry, so sorry, forgive me, I was…uhh, I fell,” said Davan.
The stranger continued to stare at him like he was an idiot. It was a familiar feeling. “I’m, uhh, really sorry…”
Suddenly the stranger leapt over the fire and grabbed him by the face with both hands, staring intently into his eyes. “Who be ye?”
“Errr…” Davan stuttered.
“Who ye be, boy!!?!!” shouted the man.
And just like that, the stranger’s eyes crossed, and he sat back down, clutched his legs, and continued his rocking. Davan stared down at him for a moment, before finding another log to sit on. Nelly joined him and curled up at his feet, ignoring the stranger completely.
Silence passed for some time until the stranger barked, “Know ye the gods, boy??”
Silence again, except for the increased birdsong of morning.
The old man burst into fresh tears, “I couldn’t do it, boy. I couldn’t save the god.”
“Sorry, yes, we’ll all be sorry now. The world will be sorry, but they’ll never know it was I who failed them.”
The tears and gagging continued for several more minutes.
“I’m a priest, boy, a simple man. The god came to me in secret. I thought myself chosen, finally rewarded for my years of faith. But his essence had just escaped from a terrible prison. He did not come to bless me. He came to hide for his life.”
The priest clenched his jaws with a terrible cracking sound, like he was grinding off his own tongue, and his eyes went cross-eyed again. Sweat rolled off his head in fat drops.
“Can ye help me, lad?”
“Uhh, I don’t know.”
“Please help me, boy. Please help the world.”
“And the only choice is a worthless, stupid nothing? Gods save us, gods save us…” muttered the old man. The priest’s entire body jerked, his limbs twitching, “The pressure, can’t take the pressure in my head. Please, boy, help me!”
“Yes, yes, I’ll help, I’ll do whatever I can.”
“Help? Ye promise, boy?”
“Uhh, yeah, I promise. Tell me what you need me to do. How can I help?”
“I’d spare ye…”
“Tell me what I need to do. Come on!” Davan insisted.
The old priest smiled. “Oh, you’re too good now, boy.” His arm shook violently, but he forced his hand to Davan’s face, briefly touching his forehead, until he trembled once more, collapsed, and was still. Blood poured from his ears.
It was too late.
The thing appeared in the middle of the meadow, steaming. It stood completely still as it was assaulted by the new senses of this body and world. It was overwhelmed by sight, sound, scent, touch, taste, a roiling maelstrom of energies, and then passions, lusts, and driving appetites.
The thing grinned, slowly reaching its serrated paws to its mouth, touching the rows of needle teeth in its powerful jaws. It grinned more widely, then hissed as it sliced its leathery skin on the needle points. It licked and swallowed the acid trickling from its claws, and grinned even more.
This strange place would be its home now, its hunting ground. It remembered that much. It could feel a part of itself, massive, slowly disappearing behind the gates of its newly mortal mind, forgotten, but still present.
It was too late.
It hissed again, and launched itself to the wood, flapping through huge trees to the small creek beyond. The thing sniffed the air, gliding to a pile of stones. It didn’t know what to do next. It grabbed several of the stones and bit them, shattering several of its fangs along with the rock. This would take too long, the thing realized, feeling new fangs push through bloody gums. Ripping into the small cairn, the thing tossed aside stones and handfuls of loose dirt, until the covered body was revealed. The acid from its broken teeth and mouth dripped on the corpse, creating huge rents in the cloth, smoking.
The thing pounced on something glinting in the sun, and tossed it into its mouth. Standing on the corpse, it chewed and slobbered, cutting its mouth even more, finally spit out the cursed silver. The amulet smoked.
The thing went berserk, tearing and shredding the corpse into tiny pieces, chewing and juggling the cold meat chunks. Bits of muscle, bone, skin, and hair rained down upon the clearing, painting the leaves and bark of the trees in reds, purples, and whites.
It was too late, this time, but it would enjoy its play before moving on. It hadn’t been able to play for a very, very long time…
When it finally grew bored, the thing sniffed the air again. It caught the strongest man scent, trapped on the corpse, dirt, and stones of the grave, still hovering in the air. The thing looked one way, and then the next. Which direction? After several moments of stillness and silence, it clicked, hissed, and followed the scent trail south.