Fiction Friday: Vigilant

Scarred Lands

An excerpt from the Prologue of Through Shadows and Dreams Book One: Vigilant, a novel for the Scarred Lands setting.

AV 150, the second Wildday of Tanot

Eochaid crouched under the foliage, breathing slowly and listening. The asaatthi were out there somewhere, searching for him — maybe ratmen and hags as well. He kept out of the light, hugging the shadows, trying to stay low. He heard the crack of a tree branch. A bird fluttered past, spooked from its nest. Someone — or something — was nearby.

A tiny spider slid its way down a thread onto the back of his hand, tickling him. He didn’t move, barely breathing, ignoring the itch as it walked across his knuckles. He hoped it wasn’t poisonous, that it wouldn’t bite. There on the edge of the Blood Steppes, deadly spiders were too common.

He heard voices moving closer. Growls and hisses: at least two asaatthi. He squinted so the whites of his eyes wouldn’t be visible in the foliage and silently prayed to Tanil that his camouflage would be enough to hide him, and that he’d left no tracks, no broken branches, and nothing more notable than an animal trail.

He could see the asaatthi now as they closed in, their snake tails brushing through the undergrowth, disrupting the detritus of the forest floor. They left a trail and were easy to track, unlike the ratmen. But in this case, Eochaid was the hunted — not the hunter — and asaatthi were much more dangerous than common ratmen.

They came within a few feet of Eochaid’s hiding place, tails sweeping — so close. His fingers closed on his sword, but he dared not draw it yet. The sound of the motion and sheen of the metal was too much of a risk. Hiding was still his best chance to complete his mission and bring the artifact to Vesh.

The lead asaatth stopped, sniffng the air. Eochaid held his breath, praying the mud was enough to cover his scent. It would be enough against a ratman, but he knew too little about the asaatthi to be sure. The asaatth hissed to his brethren, gesturing forward, and the group moved on.

Eochaid waited as the asaatthi moved away, hardly believing his luck. He was the last of his platoon, the last who could keep the artifact safe. With silent thanks to Tanil the Huntress, or any god who would listen, he exhaled slowly and patiently waited several more minutes in case they returned.

Looking down, he noticed the spider had gone.

Eochaid continued towards the river and away from the Steppes. It was years since he’d last been here, but he’d remembered enough to take tremendous care until he was well past South Fang to avoid the monsters that lurked nearby. If he kept heading east from here he could make it to the relative safety of the Eni River and from there find a trader heading north to Vesh, back to Lave. After all, years ago that was the first long journey he’d made.

As darkness fell, he climbed a tree to rest and wait for moonrise. He would have waited longer, but he needed to keep moving and stay ahead of the trackers. The light of the moons would guide his way.

Belsameth’s moon rose first — a sliver, but bright enough on the cloudless night that Eochaid could at least see beyond his nose. He continued on, offering one short, silent prayer out of habit to Belsameth to thank her for the light, and then praying in earnest to Madriel to keep him safe.

Exhaustion started setting in hours later as the second moon rose: the Nameless Orb, fat, full, and foreboding. A bright light in the sky that overshadowed the thin dagger of Belsameth’s moon, and an ill omen. When the Nameless Orb shone full, about once every three months, it brought unease and bad fortune. It was the only object in the sky whose cycles did not align with the days, months, and seasons decreed by the gods. While its brighter light was a better guide for Eochaid, it also melted the shadows that hid him from his hunters.

Ratmen thrive on misery, thought Eochaid. No big surprise that they worship the cursed moon. And now it might bring their allies right to me.

As Eochaid moved on, he could hear a distant sound ahead — some kind of rumble or murmur. The river. If I can make it to the river I’ll be safe.

Excitement drove him faster, though fatigue staggered his steps. Tree branches crowded around him, snagging at his clothes and belongings from the darkness like living creatures. Yet the path, with its rocks and roots, felt familiar, like he’d run this course before.

Eochaid’s pack jumped as something struck his shoulder. He threw himself down behind a large tree and slung the pack around to check his precious cargo. There was a crossbow bolt lodged in the pack’s leather back brace, which had barely stopped the bolt from tearing into his shoulder. The pack was only holed, not torn. The artifact inside would be unharmed — none of the vigilants’ weapons or magic had so much as scratched it.

Back pressed to the tree, Eochaid drew his blades. They’d seen him, and they were too close. He had a better chance fighting now in melee than running and getting shot down. He slung his pack across his chest and then waited, inhaling slowly to calm himself and straining his ears for movement.

Eochaid struck with his left blade as the first asaatth came around the tree, slashing across the creature’s chest. A second asaatth came around from the other side to flank him, putting Eochaid at a disadvantage. Both asaatthi pressed their attacks at once, and he barely parried in time against the second strike. Left, left, right — Eochaid and his two assailants attacked and parried in a whirl of steel, sweat, fists, and blood. He staggered slightly when a serpentine tail struck his knee, but lunged back to stab up and under the creature’s armor. Viscera and sticky, dark red blood rolled down his arm, and his face twisted into a snarling smile at the tangy smell. One down, he thought.

The gutted asaatth fell. The second disengaged and stepped back. Eochaid spun to face it as its loaded crossbow rose and fired. The bolt shirred as it scraped the artifact in his pack, twisted away from his vitals, and struck his right arm. He charged the asaatth, ramming its crossbow with his shoulder, and struck upward at its neck with his left blade. With his right, he weakly stabbed at the asaatth’s belly as they fell. It was enough; the creature gurgled and died in a rush of blood.

Eochaid rolled to his knees, breathing heavily, the adrenaline of the battle still rushing through him. The bolt in his shoulder had fallen out in the fight. He sheathed his weapons clumsily, his right arm throbbing. He could still flex his fingers. Not broken.

Still, he was covered in blood, although how much belonged to him and how much was from the asaatthi was not clear. He tugged his scarf from around his neck and tied it as tight around the pulsing, dripping wound as he could with his left hand. He was trained to fight with both hands; tying knots with his off-hand was more difficult.

Eochaid quickly checked the bodies: lightly armored, with only knives and crossbows.

Just scouts.

He’d seen more of them earlier. The rest — the warriors — would be coming soon, looking for their comrades and for him. There was no time to search the corpses more closely. He staggered to his feet and moved on, his wounded shoulder burning. Asaatthi were known for poisoning their weapons, he remembered Gandy saying. “Easier to run down prey when it’s puking its guts out.” Speed was now more important than stealth, though he hoped any trail he left would not be too obvious.

As he ran, the forest began to tilt dizzily around him. The rush of the river ahead echoed strangely, and the colors of the trees and stones took on a sickly cast. His feet carried him toward safety, and he trusted them. He could no longer do more than run and not fall down.