More Than Shadows, Part Two
BY: J.N. Gerhart
Tov’s face pressed against the edge of a rock, his limbs cold from lying hours upon the stone plateau. Surrounded by streaks of dried blood, the boy looked long since dead, save for a softly heaving chest and one cheek that rose and fell in slow, peaceful breaths.
The krune spread its wings with a suddenness that tore Tov from his sleep. Wiping spittle from around his mouth and panting from surprise, his neck ached and his jaw seemed to no longer fit in the sockets of his skull. He saw that Siros had begun to dip into the horizon, setting the sea and sky ablaze, but otherwise his eyes were slow to recognize features in the dusk. His ears had no such trouble, however, as the howling winds and scraping of the krune’s claws reminded him of what his rest had begun to erase. Tov felt something like kinship that the creature had not abandoned him while he slept.
At his back there was a strange warmth in the fading light. A magenta hue outlined the krune, framing its crest in a gleaming aura. Still seated, Tov slid his feet around and traced the glow to a series of stark lines in the cliffs behind the giant bird. There, etched into the impervious stone, were streaks of color as bright as flames. He rose to inspect the lines, observing that the light seemed to bleed in smaller veins that trickled out of the original cuts. Tov had never seen anything like this in his life, nor could he recall a pattern in nature so distinct – save for claw marks from an oggrym on an Ulon tree. Yet these cuts were far wider than any bear could mar, nearly as deep as his forearm. The stone of the ascent was famously strong, resisting pick and spell alike, yet the power that had marked the cliff face treated it like soft wood. Tov felt weak at the thought.
The krune was behind him now, and Tov noticed the beast had lowered its head nearly to the stone floor. He thought it was a reverential gesture, befitting a family hound more than a regal bird of prey. He presumed the gesture was for himself, but noticed that the bird did not lift its head at his approach. The krune’s spine was arched in a majestic descent, eyes fixed on the ground in a way that made Tov realize it was bowing. The bird’s head was not just near the ground, it was pressed flatly onto the stone. It was then Tov saw one of the few remaining shadows on the plateau move, ever so slightly.
Turning slowly, he froze at the sight of a cloaked figure standing at the very edge of the plateau. It wore a silver helm and a cloak of deep magenta, a color nearly matching the lines in the stone. The helm was unmistakably familiar, a militarized and less elegant version of the twin crests on the krune’s head. The edges of the helm were bathed in Siros’ last lights, a metallic shimmer that looked so sharp he imagined it would cut his skin if he lay his hand upon it. The edges of the helm were adorned in a series of peculiar scales, each prismatic and feathered, but unlike anything Tov had seen on a beast before. Though the figure was as tall as any man he knew, the cloak flowed from its back to the ground, with fabric to spare. It was woven in a pattern he did not recognize, neither braided nor stitched, a resulting texture that appeared regal and yet durable.
The krune stayed bowed as the figure turned to face them, its frame casting a shadow over Tov’s rigid form. The boy slid his foot back, boot scraping on the loose stones, unsure if he was steadying himself to attack or preparing to run away. He did neither.
The figure moved toward Tov and his skin flashed with heat, limbs growing heavy with fear. The figure grew taller with each step, blocking out the horizon in a sun-wreathed eclipse. Tov could not tear his eyes away as it peered down at him, terrified and curious to look upon the face of this figure. He saw pale, grey-green skin, with purple markings written under cheek bones as sharp as flint. A mouth not unlike his own sat above a pointed chin, but the nose was hard to see beneath the shadow of the helm. Yet none of these features mattered to Tov, for it was the eyes of the figure that held him in place. Where he expected the stark white of a Human iris there was pristine black, flecked with lines that glistened like mineral. This melted into a jagged, golden ring around the pupil. The pupil itself was vertical, not round, and there was a radiance within it that Tov knew could not be a reflection, for the face was under too great a darkness.
“The eyes of a dragon,” Tov thought, though he did not know why. He’d never seen a dragon, few alive had since the Abdication hundreds of years earlier. Yet he knew those eyes belonged, at least in part, to something else, a thing other than Humans, Elves or Dwarves. A thing older than them all. “This figure,” he realized with frostbitten dread, “is a Daedrym.”
The purple cloak seemed to grow rather than drag as the Daedrym moved toward Tov, its gait so steady he could not perceive one step from another. He’d never felt so small in all his life, helpless yet not entirely afraid. Without taking its eyes off him, the Daedrym reached behind its own head, up to one of the upright crests of the helm. With a sharp scraping sound, it pulled out one of the prismatic scales in a single motion that was swift but unhurried. It placed the scale in the palm of its own hand and held it out toward Tov, as if it were an offering. The Daedrym did not stoop, and though the draconic eyes blinked once, the face was otherwise still as stone through it all. Urgency seized Tov, his feet slipped and he stumbled back, but the krune was still there. The creature balanced the boy with its head, pushing him back toward its master. The Daedrym had not moved at his clumsiness, its eyes ever fixed upon him, the scale still in the open palm.
Tov bowed, or rather, curtsied, as he did not know what to do. He stared at the scale then took it with a deliberate slowness, his fingers brushing against its palm. The skin was hard, calloused, but so warm as to be hot. The scale emanated that heat as Tov stepped back, lowering his head in a bow, clasping the object against his chest. When he raised his head back to the Daedrym, it was looking up toward the peak of the mountain. Tov followed its gaze, astonished at how much further the summit was from their already terrifying height. It made the boy’s legs quiver. He turned back to the Daedrym once more, but there was no relief to be found. Those gold-rimmed eyes were burning into his own with an intensity that began to feel like his soul was looking at Siri’s itself. All Tov could manage was a blink.
When his eyes opened, the Daedrym was gone. Tov looked around the plateau and saw nothing of the cloak or the crested helm. Before he could exhale, the mighty krune screamed melodically into the air and leaped off the edge of the plateau. Its wings unfurled in a declaration of power, soaring around the dark expanse of the night sky. The beast vanished like its master a few moments earlier, then flew over Tov’s head with terrific speed, toward the peak and forever out of sight.
Tov stood in the silence of the night, his breath, the wind and the waves all melting into a single rhythm. He ran his fingers over the scale in his hand, the surface smooth as glass, yet its weight light as cloth. The scale reflected more of the glowing magenta light than he thought possible, and the longer he held it in his hand the deeper the significance he felt the gift possessed. Tov watched it as he might a fire dying in his palm, staring longer than he intended to, before the sound of distant thunder told him he ought return to the village.
Lightning split the air as Tov felt around his neck for the hundredth time on their journey. He knew the scale was there, wrapped in leather so tight that no light was visible, even in the darkness of the storm. In all the years since that night as a boy, the scale had never lost its magenta glow.
Though she hadn’t taken a single step of the journey herself, Gichi was out of breath. Tov could hear her dry, open-mouthed panting, though just as telling was that she was saying very little. By now she’d seen the dark figures hunting them. Either from that sight, or her father’s maddened pace up a narrow mountain path, or the near constant lightning strikes, or her mother’s presumed death, she was in a wordless state of panic. Well, nearly wordless.
“We will rest in the morning,” Tov heard Gichi repeat the same phrase he’d muttered to himself throughout their flight. “In the morning we will rest. We will rest in the morning, in the morning we will rest.” He felt solidarity with his daughter, sharing the same words but each having to find their own way up the mountain.
On the far off horizon, Tov spied the first lovely thing he’d seen since they left the village: a dim sliver of dawn, turning the night to grey. It was the loudest dawn he’d ever seen, and with it came a breeze upon the coals of hope that remained in his heart. A thousand thoughts flooded into his mind, but each faded before the memories of the morning before.
The morning he left Raedya
Dawn came to Nesthaven under its usual blanket of fog. In a barn outside the village, Tov had finished praying over a lamb with an injured leg. He loosened a splint that one of the village children had crafted, a well-intended mess that had likely done more harm than good. He lifted the frail creature into the air and watched it kick awkwardly but without pain, before setting it down to scamper outside. Tov wiped his brow, the art of healing always made him perspire, though he felt it gave him an excuse to never become a priest.
Tov threw the splint into a small fire. He followed the lamb out of the barn, when the first sounds of trouble echoed through the valley. Kasta Vall, a youth no older than 16, came sprinting into the clearing outside the village. The boy was quick, even for his age, so that few other youths would challenge him. Yet as he ran this morning, his arms were flailing above his head as if he were drowning. Kasta’s voice cracked with terror, calling out in broken screams. The boy’s father was in a watchtower at the edge of the village, and that seemed to be the target of his sprint. Tov looked at the lamb, idly chewing grass with its flock, ignorant and thankless. He tapped the little creature in the leg with his boot and started toward the tower.
It was then something like a spear but the size of a small tree stuck through Kasta, driving him into the ground and forcing the last breath out of his lungs in a bark. The villagers who’d gathered at his earlier screams now loosed cries of their own, horror and confusion mixing into an alchemy of panic. Tov ran toward the boy, preparing to push through a crowd to retrieve the splinters of his life that might remain. Yet as he neared Kasta’s body, the massive spear that had driven him into the ground started to change. Specks of black fell from the shaft like ashes, swirling with increasing speed around the lifeless body. Tov felt a hand grasp his wrist, pulling him back into the crowd. Tov realized he hadn’t slowed at the sight like the rest of the village.
And Raedya was not letting his arm go.
Tov turned back to the spear, just as the shaft dissolved into a thickening cloud that fully obscured Kasta. In an instant the ashes of the spear condensed like a swarm of insects and flew back through the air, returning to the form of a spear and leaving nothing but a small crater in the ground. Tov stared alongside his companions in astonishment. Kasta’s body was gone, and the village broke into a new round of terror.
“What is this,” he whispered to Raedya. “What sort of magic can do this?”
His wife dodged the question. “Gichi is in the forest with some of the children,” she replied. “They took her to the Ulon grove, to the stream.” Tov looked in that direction, but said nothing.
“Do not let them find her first,” she finished.
“Them?” Tov answered, shaking his head. “Raedya, we need to find Kasta, I could –”
“He is gone, Tov” his wife broke in, her voice wavering for a moment. “Find Gichi, they could already be in the forest!”
There was a fear in his wife’s hazel eyes that startled him. Raedya was a true child of the wilderness, a light-haired, brown skinned adventurer, much like him. He’d seen her ride giant brauna’tau and stare down valley krune as they swooped in for a meal amongst the village flocks. Raedya had seemed to ignore the voice of fear nearly all her life, but this morning it was as if it were the only one she knew.
“What do you know about these men,” Tov asked, taking each of her hands in his own.
“Nothing, my love.” She looked up to the height that the spear had flown from. “Only that these are not merely men.”
On the edge of the rocky cliff there stood a towering, armored figure. The fabled black spear that had slain Kasta, which had seemed so massive moments ago, was a mere staff in his hand. Flanked on either side of the spearman were several smaller but no less ominous figures, who each held weapons of similar size. Tov went to get their child without another word.
When he returned with Gichi near midday, the village was still griped by fear. The black spear, or perhaps there were more than one, had struck several times. Whenever the village gathered in numbers for defense, it would fall, pining and dissolving its prey without warning. Tov found Raedya near the village center, now with a staff and a cloak of hand-woven inscriptions. The cloak was ill-fitting, in need of repair or perhaps even replacement, but it had been her father’s garment. Gichi was on Tov’s back, her hands knotted at his neck, his elbows locked at her knees.
“We think there are more than twenty of them,” Raedya said breathlessly to Tov, “but perhaps double that number. The party sent to Havensong was discovered. Wiped out.”
“Mother, what is happening,” Gichi barely let her finish, but the poor girl was ignored.
“Havensong?” Tov replied. “Why? We do not need their help.”
“Tov,” Raedya cautiously began, “That is where you must go. At least where… I had hoped you would go.” Tov stared at her a moment before shaking his head.
“You cannot stay in the village. You must take Gichi and flee. These things are toying with us, they are going to –” the terror in her daughter’s eyes finally caught Raedya’s heart. “It will be alright, sweet girl. You and father will go on a lovely adventure and all will be well.” Gichi reached one hand toward her mother and mouthed the word “stay”. Raedya took her daughter’s hand and swallowed hard, eyeing back to Tov “The ferry is ready,” Raedya continued, “along with some bread. It will last awhile.”
“Why must you remain?” It was clear from Tov’s tone that nothing had been decided. Raedya tilted her head and lifted her arms as if to suggest the answer was self-evident. Though she was slightly older than himself, for a moment all Tov could see was a little girl in her father’s robes, holding a stick that he valued as highly as the splint that he’d thrown in the fire that morning.
But that image did not reflect the truth. He knew that Raedya was among the few capable villagers who could cast a spell with efficacy, slowing the attackers and perhaps giving others a chance at escape. Tov knew that once he had gone to find their daughter, all of Raedya’s latent bravery had come rushing back like a tide. He slid Gichi off his back, her weakened legs only just able to stand against her mother’s side, and left once more without a word.
Raedya was winded by carrying Gichi when she arrived at their home. She helped Tov fasten the ferry, moving quickly as the clamor in the village rose. When Raedya had finished, Tov turned and looked at their daughter as she sat on a bench they’d made together. Gichi had spoken only a few prayers during the wait, but otherwise was silent.
“Time to fly, my gryphon,” Tov said, his voice wavering.
“I love to fly,” she replied, raising her thin arms out to be lifted by her mother and in through the door of the basket. Once secured, Raedya whispered a few words into Gichi’s ear, at which the girl reached her hand out in protest.
“Mother,” she begged, “not this time!”
See Siros fly into his nest
“Let me stay awake, please!”
The day is won, as is our quest
“I want to stay… I want to stay… awake.”
Until the morning, we will rest
“I… love you.”
I love you, dear, you are my best
Gichi fell helplessly into a deep, steady sleep, as she had a thousand times since she was an infant. Tov felt her resistance fade by the end of the lyrical spell, and Raedya reaching into the ferry, likely brushing tears off Gichi’s cheek out of habit. He had never thought the rhyme was well written, but Gichi loved it and Raedya made it effective. For the first time he wondered if his criticism hampered his ability to use it on Gichi.
“You won’t make me do the same to you, will you?” Raedya asked him.
Never in all the hours he’d spent staring into his wife’s eyes had he seen them so colored with desperation. Tov did not doubt that Raedya would place a spell on him if he forced her hand. She’d done it before, playfully, with simple enchantments to distract him so she could pull off a surprise. Of course, there were occasions that his stubbornness led her to threaten to send him walking off into the sea. But Raedya preferred to be known as a wife, a mother, and a sister, not an enchantress or a wizard. Magic was a tool in the village, a means of survival, nothing more.
“Nothing you have is strong enough for me,” he lied. Raedya looked over his face, as if pulling the proper response off him like a harmless insect.
“Nothing but my love,” she replied, smiling. Tov did not smile back, he was barely breathing at this point.
“I cannot abandon you, Raedya. I could never —“
“If we did not have Gichi, I would have you die with me.”
“I cannot abandon you, Raedya.”
“You are not abandoning me, Tov, you are preserving her. As our parents preserved us, as I am preserving you, and anyone else who may escape. If it makes any difference at all, we both know that I could not carry her the distance or the speed that you will need to have a chance.” The ferry never seemed so heavy as that moment. Raedya placed her hands on his face and looked him in the eyes, a last smile brightening up the tears running to the corners of her mouth.
“If truly you believe this is wrong,” she whispered, “then I will not ask you to go. But you must believe it.” She gritted her teeth as she said it, striking Tov’s chest with each word.
At this, the last threads of resistance in Tov unraveled. He looked away, defeated, weary, but resigned. Raedya turned his head back and pressed her lips to his, then withdrew. Unsatisfied, she tried again until he came back to life in her hands. She squeezed his face until his jaw ached.
“Were this life the end of all things,” he said, “I would stay.”
“Were this life the end of all things, I would not ask you to go,” she replied, wiping away the last tears clinging to her chin.
There were calls for her in the village square, but they embraced for several moments until she stepped away. Then she was gone, and everything Tov had in this world went with her. Everything but Gichi.
Tov took sharp, violent breaths as he sprinted and franticly studied the stones ahead. His back was beyond burning, the skin beneath the ferry supports had long since rubbed away. Then he spied what he’d been hoping for: a step that was more shaped than a natural stone could be. He had reached the final climb up the Daedrym Ascent.
“Father, they’re close!” Gichi had tried to whisper, but her words came out in a screech. “They’re so close, just behind those rocks. Faster, faster!”
Tov grunted like an animal as the path turned into steps, the steps into a landing, and the landing into the summit of the mountain. There, like the finest floor in a palace, lay the wide plateau of the Daedrym’s home. Expertly carved uprights ran along a triangular expanse, every piece seemingly carved from the same stone as the mountain. In its own way, it was more stunning than anything he’d seen in Havensong or heard of in Faerthale. But it was also vacant.
Tov slowed to a careful, cautious walk. “Father! We must go, they are here!” He could feel her head snapping to and fro, desperately searching for a glimpse of their pursuers.
“We must tread carefully,” he spoke, more to himself than Gichi. “For we are between dangers now.”
The light of Siros’ dawn had bathed the plateau of the ascent in shimmering pools of rainwater, to the naked eye they almost looked like lights of their own. Yet Tov spent no time on the scene, scouring the stone floor just before his feet. Gichi borrowed some of his calm, no longer rocking the ferry side to side.
Tov stopped, studying a nondescript line in the path. He stooped, slowly sliding his boot to push away a thick patch of moss. Underneath, painted over with a grey mud, were a collection of pristine runes etched into the floor. Tov picked up two stones, feeling the weight in his hands. Stooping once more, while eliciting a sharp complaint from Gichi, who did not appreciate being tilted yet again, Tov slid the first stone over the runes. It passed harmlessly over the inscription, as ordinarily as anywhere else on Terminus. The second he gripped in his fist, before rearing back throwing as hard as he could across an unseen threshold of the air.
The stone shattered in the sky as if impacting a wall of rock. The air around the impact rippled, the fragments of the stone slowed and hung suspended for a moment before dissolving into dust. Tov exhaled in vindication, the ripped the scale from around his neck, pulling off the leather binding and raising it aloft in his hand. “Daedrym!” He shouted into the empty air. “When I was a boy, I saved the life of one of your krune. It had been bitten by a sea serpent and was as near death’s door as I am to your own. In return, one of you gave me this scale!”
There was no movement in the heights. No answer to his cries. Nothing, but the emptiness of an ancient ruin. Tov felt the wind carrying his words away. He felt his weariness draining him of hope. He felt his father’s hand upon his shoulder, Raedya’s kiss upon his lips, Gichi’s weight upon his back. He pressed his hand against a wall he could not see, and pleaded one last time. “I know you are there,” he accused the empty air. “I know you can hear me. I have brought my only child. We are being hunted. I ask you to save what is precious to me, as I once saved what was precious to one of you.”
“Father!” Gichi’s voice broke through. “They are here!”
Tov stiffened. The worn out parts of his body that he’d ignored since they’d left the village began to chew on his nerves at the same time. The bones in his spine seemed to lock in place, blood that had been pooling in one of his boots felt thick as mud. And as he looked out from the cliff and over the water far below, he thought of Raedya, and that Havensong may have been the better choice.
There were now three figures looking down at him from a boulder on the side of the mountain. The spearman, covered in jagged armor and not only taller, but thicker than any man he’d ever seen; the lighteater, with its black, eyeless head and a body that was still more suggestion than solid form; and the third, a bald but feminine figure, her skin as tight as a skull and without a nose. Her eyes flickered with a yellow-green light, a color that looked sick and decayed. She was wearing a silver garment from head to toe that from a distance looked like an armored dress.
Tov recognized the spearman and the lighteater from the day before, but the third had chosen this moment to reveal herself. Something about her poise and secrecy made Tov think she was their leader. When the spearman jumped off the bolder and he obeyed her command to halt, it confirmed that she was. The spearman pointed his weapon at Tov, holding it against his forearm before raising it above his head.
“Father, they are here,” Gichi’s voice was so composed it sent a shiver down her father’s spine. “The Daedrym, they are here.” The very words he had hoped to hear, spoken from the weary voice of his stricken daughter. Tov felt strength in his legs and, despite the pain, turned his body to the side so he and Gichi could look at plateau together. He heard her fingers dig into the woven strands of the ferry, pulling her face as close to the barrier as possible.
In the middle of the vast stone floor there stood two Daedrym, against a backdrop of an endless blue sea and an even bluer sky. Then two more became visible, appearing without a glimmer or sound, then two more, and two more. Dozens filled the space in a matter of moments, with all but one of their stoic faces staring past Tov and Gichi, directly at their pursuers. All but one stood still as stone, save for their magenta cloaks whipping in the seaborne wind. The one who broke ranks stepped toward Tov with an effortless grace, such as he’d seen only once in his life. This solitary Daedrym set its eyes upon him, an uncomfortable but familiar intensity reaching out from its gold-rimmed iris. Tov stood expectantly, painted in a grime of sweat, dirt, and blood, his outer cloak torn and his hair no longer tied back. He observed an open space in the helm where one scale was missing. This Daedrym had neither replicated or replaced it through the years since they’d met. Whatever meaning Tov attributed to the gift, it was clear that it had meant more. He offered the scale to the Daedrym so quickly that it paused in surprise.
“A life for a life,” he said, placing the scale into the palm of his more regal counterpart. He then noticed that the exchange had transpired directly over the runes in the carved stone floor, but the barrier had not interfered. As soon as the Daedrym withdrew its hand, Tov began to release the fastenings on the ferry. As he let the basket down gently, a second Daedrym approached and they each took a side, carrying Gichi away. She did not go quietly.
“Father! You are coming?! Father, father — don’t leave!” Tov watched her, helplessly, but could not find the words to speak. His eyes darted to the runes, mind racing at the risk of crossing over them. But before he could decide, Gichi disappeared, her voice swallowed up with all the Daedrym. From his vantage, the plateau was empty once more. Tov swallowed and placed his hand where the barrier should be, feeling the invisible wall had returned as solid as the cliff beside him. He slumped against it and fell to the ground, exhaustion numbing his mind and body.
The dark trio appeared to have moved very little while the exchange with the Daedrym occurred. Yet the spearman, eager from the moment he’d laid eyes upon his prey, was less and less interested in being restrained. He paced back and forth, eyes fixed in Tov’s direction. The lighteater had sunk into one of the shadows behind the boulder, and the leader’s eyes were closed in some kind of dark meditation. Then Tov saw the spearman wind his muscle-bound arm back, twisting his chest to unleash a volley that seemed too powerful for the short distance between he and Tov. Yet as the spearman unwound his body and released the weapon, Tov realized the creature was not aiming for him, but for the barrier and what lay beyond it. Gichi was visible again, calm and being carried by one of the Daedrym toward him. Tov moved toward the spearman, just as the smoke-wreathed projectile streaked over his head, toward where the Daedrym stood with Gichi. He shot his arm as the spear approached, the trail of smoke falling on his skin and singeing it as if it were coals. Tov ignored this pain, his red-rimmed eyes fixed on Gichi’s helpless face, reaching for her and opening his mouth to yell.
The spear shattered in the air behind him with a peculiar quiet, no different than the stone Tov had thrown into it. There was only a strange vibration in the air, and for a moment Gichi and the Daedrym flickered in and out of sight. The barrier seemed to drink in the smoke, small waves perceptible to Tov only because of the pained intensity with which he was watching for his daughter. He heard a strange groan come from the dark figures, and saw tendrils from the lighteater holding the spearman aloft. Something like terror was welling within the brute, but before he could do more than writhe in the air the lighteater threw him against the invisible wall. His body crumpled, bone and armor snapping like a set of massive knuckles.Though dead, the spearman’s plight was not over. The leader raised an open palm and his corpse was lifted from beside Tov. She forced it’s lifeless face into the wall, over and over again, each collision sounding less like bones breaking and more like water sloshing in a skin. The dispassionate leader seemed to study the interaction, while from Tov’s vantage his villain was folded against the sky itself. At last she flung the mass that was once his body into the seas far below.
Tov unclenched his fist in the sudden silence, awakening to the searing pain of his hand and forearm. He looked for Gichi, saw her standing beside his Daedrym, then felt a slick, cold pressure on his ankle. A tendril of the lighteater was pulling at him, sliding his body over the ground toward itself. Tov heard an echo of Gichi calling his name as his body was lifted into the air. Then he was thrown back toward the barrier with terrific force, far faster than he could brace for the impact.
Tov collided with the ground on the other side of the barrier, his head striking the stone floor. He rolled several times before stopping, lying on his back with his eyes pointed to the sky. His ears were ringing and he felt his body fighting to stay awake. Gichi was with him now, as were the dozens of shadowed faces, scores of gold-rimmed eyes under silver helms, and folds of magenta cloaks that flowed together in one unending curtain. The sky was clear and Siros bright, though darkness was closing in around Tov’s eyes.
“We can rest now, father.” Gichi laid her head on her father’s chest, placing his arm over her back. “It is morning now, we can rest.”