More Than Shadows, Part 1
By: J.N. Gerhart
Tov Dyos labored under the weight of his young daughter Gichi as the rains of a coastal storm drenched them both to the marrow. Volleys of thunder echoed off the rocks around the narrow path; lightning disoriented his eyes with splinters of false daylight. On any other night, Tov would have seemed a fool to ascend this dark summit. Doubly so beneath such a furious storm. His convictions sparked and faded like the streaks of fire that fell from the sky, moments of certainty amidst minutes of doubt as he crawled up a stone face. He would have turned back long ago, yet on this night the child and the path were all this lonely villager possessed.
Once over the cliff face, Tov found himself on a walkable path. To his right, the jagged teeth of the cliff face descended into luminous pools of brackish, emerald water. Those idyllic pools were pleasant to wade in when warmed by the sun, Siros. But it was a dead fall from this height, as a body would plunge through the shallows of the pool and collide with the rocks below. To his left was the faceless expanse of ocean, a much deeper pool but with no greater odds of survival. These were only a few of the dangers that made the Daedrym Ascent a foolish place to travel alone, much less in the throes of a storm. For Tov, it could only be made worse by having his only child tethered to his weary body.
Gichi was 8 years old. Her arms and legs were folded in a swaddle at his back, her spine aligned with his inside a sopping, priceless cocoon. The girl had fallen asleep beneath a system of linens and knots that his wife, Raedya, had fitfully woven around them that evening. The pack was taken from a “picker’s ferry”, a wearable basket that allowed a farmer to be his own porter by carrying the crop as he harvested it. Twin curved rods pressed against Tov’s muscular back with a third bent out and fitted up to the height of Gichi’s chest, keeping her head and eyes free beneath a leather hood. The rest of the carriage was made from woven reeds and linen wraps, fastened with loops and knots up Tov’s abdomen and chest. In this way Gichi learned to work with her mother and wander with her father, sleeping peacefully through many a storm. It didn’t matter what the curious thing looked like, to Tov and Raedya it was a way for their daughter to see the world as they did.
Though his family were the most capable healers in the isolated Human settlement of Nesthaven, neither Tov nor his parents could drive out the affliction Gichi was born with; a disease that kept her muscles weak and her body underdeveloped. Thus, while she had an imagination that soared high as a gryphon, she was always frail of frame. Even at eight years of age she was still small enough for her father to carry on his back and humble enough to let him.
With each step, Tov felt the stones stabbing into the soles of his boots. They had never truly fit his feet and the modest enchantments worked into the leather had long since faded. But they were a gift from Raedya, so he never had them replaced. Somehow this knowledge was stronger than any enchantments she could have invested in the material. From personal misfortune, Tov knew that some of the stones were covered in the viscous scat of the large krune birds. These stones turned especially slick under the rain. Even with the finest boots, this added a threat more perilous than cutting stones: falling. Despite this, Tov dared not risk the light of a torch or illuminated stone. His father once told him that there are journeys that need only be walked once to mark their path on a soul. Though Tov had reached the summit of the Ascent just once before, he knew the way.
“You can rest in the morning,” he whispered to himself. From the moment they left the village, a primal certainty pushed him to climb, like a hare escaping a coming flood. Tov knew that staying near the valley meant death. He didn’t let himself dwell on why it was so. Suddenly his leg kicked out from under him as the rocks beneath his right boot gave way, cascading into the pools far below. He froze in place, alarmed at how quickly their journey could have met its end. Unaware but rested, Gichi began to stir. Tov pressed on, resuming a pace that balanced the risk of speed against the greater risk of slowing down.
Gichi’s movements tightened the bonds around them both. “Father,” his daughter yawned. Tov did not respond. There came a few moments of silence, only footsteps and rain, before Gichi began to shriek.
“Father… father! Mother! Is she at home? Is she with us? Where is the village, is that it… down in the valley—” her questions faded into a wordless cry of pain, no different than that of a snared, wounded animal. Tov winced as his child was flooded with terrifying memories that he himself was desperately trying to avoid.
Under the burden, Tov stopped his march. He turned toward the valley, facing Gichi away from the sight and beholding it with his own eyes for the first time. Far in the distance, the scattered fires of their village were coalescing into one massive pyre. Tov was familiar with this view from the cliffs. With little effort he could imagine each structure where it ought to be. Farms, stables, a tavern, and the temple. His and Raedya’s home. Buildings that stood since he was a boy, now eaten down to the bones of smoldering timbers.
Smoke rose in waves that were darker than the night sky, drifting past the monoliths of ancient ruins before settling at the foot of this very mountain. Tov almost thought he could see the creatures mingling amidst the flames of Nesthaven. Dark figures that appeared less than men, but more than shadows. He didn’t know what they were or even if they were there, only that they had torn his world apart.
“Father,” Gichi whispered, in a voice so soft it was barely louder than the rains. “Everyone in the village. Everyone. Mother… she, they… are gone?”
The drops of rain made little sound as they fell upon Tov’s brown hair. They gathered in pools, ran down his cheeks and over his bare shoulders. Against the cascade upon the rocks that surrounded them, the softening of flesh and fabrics made Tov and Gichi almost disappear into the storm.
“They are gone,” Tov replied, before letting himself breathe again. “Yet we are still here. Unless we stop moving.”
He could sense a shift in Gichi’s silence, from mournful to contemplative, the swift emotional change that was magic in a child and madness in an adult. The small girl laid the back of her head against his, resting with only the woven ferry between them. “Where are we going,” she asked from her perch. He was aware she already had a thought about this, and he used this excuse to stay silent.
“Perhaps the giants could help us? They went across the sea once before, maybe there is a ship left for us?”
“They are all ghosts now, Gichi.” Tov’s words were cold, but not irritated. “Ghosts don’t need ships.”
“Then they won’t mind us using one, father.” There was a playful lift in her words, a tune of humor that, were it not so unexpected now, Tov realized he would’ve missed entirely.
“Do you not recognize this mountain?” His reply was louder than he meant it to be. As was her nature, Gichi was already a step further in her investigation.
“Are we going to find the Daedrym, father?” Tov did not reply, and Gichi did not wait for him to do so. “The other children say… or said, well, no one has ever seen the cult and returned alive. They steal your eyes and make necklaces out of them. Their wizards cast you into stone and their summoners send you into the belly of a dragon. Rykos Ballen said his cousin was enchanted into thinking he was a bird and jumped off a cliff.”
Tov nearly smiled. “The other children said these things?”
“Yes,” Gichi replied. “Perhaps not all of those things. But a fair few of them.” He let the silence resume until he sensed his daughter could no longer bear it. They reached the most tenuous stretch of the climb, a narrow arch of stone no wider than his two feet, with no terrain on either side. There would be no shelter from the wet, the wind, the lightning, or his own weariness. At this point, Tov wanted Gichi’s mind working instead of her eyes, so he chose his words for greatest effect.
“One of those stories is true,” Tov began, as he took the first steps upon the arch. “And one is a lie.” Silence from Gichi meant he had her attention, which no storm could wrest away. “The lie is that that their words can enchant you, for the Daedrym do not speak. Not to you, not to me, not to Rykos Ballen’s cousin.” He inched across the arch, not even aware that the thunder had abated. “The truth is that no one has seen them and returned alive. No one, save your father.” Tov let his words rest, giving Gichi time to chew on this fresh morsel of knowledge. Yet with every step his mind began to stray into a memory of his youth and he found himself comforted by his own words as much as Gichi was.
“The Daedrym owe me a debt that I will ask them to repay.”
As a boy, Tov rarely saw a boulder he did not try to scamper over, a tree he did not try to climb up, or a creature he did not try to tame. In the early days of the village known as Nesthaven, he and his companions would run through the lush valley that Humans from elsewhere on Terminus ignorantly called The Dead Foot. One dim yet still humid morning, young Tov left even his most ambitious companions behind. His mind was set upon exploring the myth-laden Daedrym Ascent, a mountain said to be the habitation of a fanatical dragon cult. Despite his age, Tov was seasoned enough to pack supplies, bringing food, water, and tools for the journey.
Just as Siros was rising above the waters of the sea, he reached the base of the mountain, pushed on by an enthusiasm that outpaced even the wisest of fears. Throughout the hours of the morning and into the day, Tov cut a path over jutting rocks and between narrow clefts, higher and higher, pausing only to drink in the beauty of the valley the lain between the Ascent and hills far beyond Nesthaven. Small plumes of smoke drifted up from his village, its buildings reduced to freckles in an elbow of the terrain. Everything Tov had ever known of the world was before his eyes, in a cradle between the mountains and the sea.
The towering Ulon trees stood like ageless citadels, born hundreds if not thousands of years before his people came to this planet. The swooping majesty of the Krune, draconic birds whose wingspan could block out the rays of Siros, yet now gliding small as insects from his vantage. Even in the golden daylight, Tov could see ghosts of the ancient giants amidst their ruins, blueish hues radiating somberly as they drifted alone to the songs of their departed people.
Thereafter he came to the infamous arch, in the noon of his childhood he remembered nearly sprinting across it, lifting his hands to feel the winds rushing up from seas below. On the other side he rested, drinking from a waterskin, his throat parched from heavy breathing. Just as he fastened the skin to his side, he heard the cries of a creature echoing from up ahead.
In a cleft around the bend, Tov came upon a krune sheltering itself beneath its own wings. Yet this was unlike any krune he’d seen nesting in the valley, or even those he’d spied soaring over the seas and out from the lower cliffs. This creature was of greater size, with silvered feathers and a twin crest that curved out from either side of its head like a crown. Its cry was a melodic echo, utterly unlike the squawking caws of its lesser kin. This beast was the king of krunes, and it was bleeding, badly.
At first Tov could only see patterns of bloody feathers marking the rocks around him, but soon he saw a pool of blackened blood sticking to the creature’s taloned feet. There he saw the culprit: a terrific sea serpent, far larger than he’d ever seen before, coiled around the krune’s leg. Its fangs were buried into the bird’s breast, tearing great, gaping holes as the krune wrestled to end its life. What had once been a waterfall of blood had slowed to twin trickles, but the beast was no better for it. It was dead unless treatment was swift and powerful.
The krune acknowledged Tov’s approach with a pained shriek. Whatever its normal course, the creature seemed to understand it had few choices left to make. The serpent was on the edge of death as well. Yet Tov could see it following his movements with one glassy eye, even as it kept its fangs dug into the flesh of the krune. The bird moved closer to Tov and he raised his hands as if to grasp something, anything, of the bird. He would pray over it with the incantations of Korcera, the few he could remember. Yet as he searched his mind for those words, the serpent released its death bite on the krune and sprang at Tov with a hideous hiss. Before Tov could move, the krune bit down and sliced off the serpent’s head, finally able to access her foe’s vulnerability. The bird gave a victorious cry, then fell silent upon the stone cliff.
Tov rushed to the bird’s wounded side, pressing his hands into the flow of blood and fumbling over the incantations. He wept and cursed as he failed to recall the scriptures, failed to know if they even pertained to birds and beasts such as this.
“No, Korcera!” he cried in agony to the Keeper of the Holy. “No, please, help me remember! Help me remember!” His adolescent voice cracked in desperation, a wave of despair falling with the last few breaths of the kingly krune dying beneath his impotent hands.
Then it came to him, the voice of his mother, the words of the holy book. Not spoken but sung. Sung over and around him all his life, in words he still barely understood. Yet he knew them, he knew them and believed in their virtue. Before he could wipe his eyes or hands from blood and tears, the words flowed through him in a trembling song, and a power beyond his plight mended the beast before his eyes.
There was a flash of lightning, filling Tov’s eyes with white before returning his mind to the night of his climb with Gichi. He had passed over the stone arch only just before the strike had occurred. He turned back to look, as if needing assurance that he’d truly done it. Whatever fearlessness lived in that boy of his youth, the man in him had become all too accustomed to living with fear.
“Father,” Gichi pressed. It was evident from her tone that the girl had called to him more than once. It was then he saw the figure on the other side of the stone arch. Motionless, eyeless, yet facing directly at him. Everything about the creature was dark, even the flashes of lightning seemed unable to illuminate its form. It was as if its shadow disobeyed the light, dimming the air around its form so it could not be seen.
“Father?” Gichi pleaded, blind to what he could see. Tov was frozen in place. Whether by charm or terror he could not say, his arms and legs may as well have belonged to another body. Then he perceived a change in the figure. Amidst the consuming darkness of its form, somehow he knew: the thing was grinning at him.
“Quiet,” Tov whispered to Gichi. “Be quiet and close your eyes.” Then he began to run.
Read the conclusion of More Than Shadows here.