The First Servant
No river had run through Shallow Canyon for thousands of years, so the trickle of water that now inched its way through the dry canal delighted the entire town. The sight of freely running water was enough to draw all five hundred residents of Shallow Canyon away from their work to stand on either side of the neatly cut waterway and happily chat. Dirt cracked off of faces that rarely bore smiles, while parents had to hold their children back from jumping in to splash about. Such cheer was beyond the reach of recent memory, but laughter felt right. A working canal meant solid progress towards pushing Shallow Canyon from the margins of the Defiant Empire. Plus, the workers relished a break from the monotony of mining dak gas from sunrise to sunset.
Survival in their dustbowl of a town was tricky, as all food and water had to be imported from elsewhere in the Empire. No one wanted to live there, but as the only place outside of Arndak itself where dak could be found, it drew all manner of treasure hunters. One large haul could make a man moderately wealthy, and there were always tales circulating of those who’d located a stream of gas that lasted for days. A find like that would bring wealth almost as great as that of a member of the First Servant’s Circle.
As the day wore on, most of the dak miners gradually wandered back to their assigned areas with storage bags in hand, eager to resume their hunt for the elusive gas. It took a fine eye to spot tiny puffs of blue gas against the bright sand, and they’d already missed the early morning light. Dusk would bring a setting sun, which made spotting the gas a bit more feasible, but that wouldn’t come for many hours. In the meantime, the miners would make do with luck.
Some of the younger children remained at the canal, sitting on the edge with their legs swinging over the sides. By midday, the sun had heated the sand to the point it could fry an egg, and only a small boy, with reddish-brown hair and freckles across the bridge of his tiny nose, remained. Even though he stood on thick sandals, he could still feel the heat radiating into his feet and through his legs. He stood still for many hours to watch the water grow into a steady stream, edging its way towards the sides of the canal and then rising up the walls.
Afternoon came, and a woman called his name. “Grey,” she shouted from one of the shanty huts built along the canal years ago in anticipation of this day when water would begin to flow. The walls of the wooden hut had gradually eroded during the nightly barrages of sand-filled winds until there were almost more holes than actual walls. The woman Isa would string fabric over the holes during the night, but she welcomed the air in during the day so she could sit atop her mattress and let the breeze cool her. Her sole valuable possession, a large metal stewing pot, occupied the center of the small space. She rarely left its side, for theft was common in their community of unlucky treasure hunters from across the Empire. Those who grew up in Harkk probably would not understand how someone could live in such a place, but Grey quietly accepted it, much as he did everything.
“Come in and have a bite.” Grey watched Isa’s thin and wrinkled hands as she stirred the contents of the boiling pot. She had allowed Grey to stay with her following his father’s sudden death in the dak fields two years ago, and for that he was grateful. She didn’t show him much affection, but despite being only ten years old, he already knew that she didn’t have to care for him at all. No one did, for deaths among parentless children were normal.
Grey accepted a bowl filled with re-hydrated fish meats shipped in from Estril, a city on the Defiant Empire’s westernmost coast, which he ate in silence. He thought, as he often did, of Madsen—his father. Dark-skinned and bald, the man had taken care of him well enough during the years they lived in Shallow Canyon. Did that mean Grey should love him? A boy was meant to love his parents. He tried to feel sad when he thought of his father’s death, of the sight of the lifeless body partially buried in sand. He tried to feel any emotion at all. Nothing came up. Maybe he’d feel closer to the man when he began to work the dak fields himself.
A loud swooshing noise, completely different from the usual sounds of the desert, startled Grey. He looked up to see boats screaming down the newly filled canal, and both he and Isa walked outside to witness this novel sight. There were sixteen boats in total, each of them slowing down through the use of hundreds of stiff boards that fanned out from the sides of the boat to scrape along the canal walls. The boats stopped in the middle of their village.
Nearly as wide as the canal, the boats’ high walls clanked down upon land to reveal ranks upon ranks of soldiers. Grey saw that the soldiers bore on their chests the First Servant’s crest, sign of the Defiant Empire, which depicted two raised fists breaking apart thick chains. The men stood perfectly still until a whistle sounded. Then the soldiers began to leave the boat in rows, each man immediately stepping forward to let the one behind disembark. Grey counted a hundred men per boat, meaning a total of sixteen hundred men had arrived to more than quadruple the population of Shallow Canyon. To Grey, the men appeared glorious with their gleaming swords and stiff uniforms, but to Isa, they seemed tired and battle-worn. Many were unshaven and unwashed, and some wore blood-soaked bandages.
“You’re from the Pillar,” Isa said to the closest soldier. The few people who weren’t working the dak fields wandered over, though they didn’t come as close to the soldiers as Grey or Isa.
“We are,” the soldier nodded. His face was grim and his voice low. When he spoke again, it was barely a whisper. “You should take your child and hide. We are here for battle.”
“The War is far away,” Grey protested. His father had always told him that they were on the opposite side of the Empire from the War, which had now stretched into its second decade.
The soldier gently placed his hand on Grey, his rough palm able to cover the boy’s entire skull. “I am sorry, child, but a Shifter force moves in from the north, and they will be here in less than an hour.” He turned his attention back to Isa. “There is no time to flee, but you should hide. If we are victorious, you will be safe. If not… then you will be killed, for the Shifters do not take prisoners.”
“There are no Shifter defenses here,” Isa said. “You will need to fight on open ground.”
“We know. The Shifters have never attacked from the north before this month, but now it seems we face battle from all sides. It’s why the canal was filled ahead of schedule. We had to get soldiers here quickly, for if we cannot hold Shallow Canyon, Arndak and Harkk itself may come under direct attack.”
Another whistle sounded, and the soldiers turned towards the dak fields and began to march. “Pray to the First Servant that we are victorious,” the soldier said before leaving with the other men. Grey watched them go, while Isa walked back to her hut to finish her meal.
“Aren’t you going to hide?” Grey asked.
“No,” she said with food in her mouth. “The Shifters will discover us in any hiding spot. It is best to be comfortable and hope for those men to defeat them. Come, sit with me.”
Grey shook his head and left the hut. He stood in the cooling afternoon air for a moment before deciding to join the Pillar soldiers out in the dak field. If there was no point in hiding, he’d rather observe the battle than sit and wonder when death might come. Some of the other children were playing on the empty boats and called for him to join them, but Grey didn’t see the point in playing in the calmest of times, let alone now. The tiniest spark of excitement had ignited within his chest, and without knowing why, he instinctively knew he would do anything to kindle it into a roaring fire. So he left his village behind.
Shallow Canyon was laid out like a giant bowl of dust, the edges hidden in shimmering heat many miles away in every direction. The floor of the canyon sloped down towards the middle, where a river long since filled in with sand must have flowed. Grey shielded his eyes from the sun and looked north. Way across the dak fields, the horizon darkened, rising and falling in irregular intervals. The Shifters were close. Behind him, Echore was just beginning to rise, a great mirrored sphere that passed overhead each night in its endless chase after the sun.
Grey picked a gentle hill five hundred feet from the soldiers as his perch. All sixteen hundred uniformed men had already formed ranks around a mile from the canal, standing stiffly in the sweltering heat to await their foe. They noticed Grey but paid him no attention. One boy wouldn’t get in the way of their battle, and most didn’t much care if he was killed. As Grey waited, he took the time to really look at the soldiers, all of whom were men. Were only men allowed to serve in the Pillar, he wondered? Those in the front row tended to be thinner than those in the back. They also wielded swords, while the men behind appeared unarmed aside from a large shield strapped to each arm. Scattered throughout were a third type of soldier, ones with dozens of metal balls hanging on strings from their bodies.
The Shifters separated from the horizon and streamed over the sand at an alarmingly fast rate. Grey didn’t feel particularly nervous as he watched the Shifters approach. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the danger; he knew he could very well be killed. It was more that his lack of emotions meant that he didn’t much fear death.
When the Shifters stopped a hundred yards away, Grey saw they were all identical to one another. He examined the nearest creature, whose body was flat, circular, and incredibly close to the ground. Six legs, ending in sharp spikes, protruded at even intervals all the way around the edge of the body. The most strange part was how closely the creature’s skin resembled the sand. It even had the grainy color variations of the sand, making it difficult to track the Shifter’s limbs as it moved.
The stillness broke when three Pillar soldiers jumped high into the air. They kept floating up, seemingly unaffected by gravity, until they came to rest fifty feet over the battlefield. Grey watched them with amazement, for he didn’t know people could fly. The Shifters took this as a sign to pounce forward, leaping across the ground with impressive speed by using their six legs like spiders to move more quickly than Grey had seen any man run.
The sword-wielding men dashed forward to meet the first line of Shifters, with the shield-bearing brutes a step behind. Grey watched the shield-men attempt to segment off the Shifters, so that the sword-men could focus on fighting one at a time. The Shifters were quick, almost too quick to see. Their camouflaged bodies were visible only by the long shadows cast in the sand by the rapidly setting sun. The sword-men moved just as fast, though, using their blades to parry attacks and sever Shifter limbs. Grey noticed that despite having lost limbs, the Shifters continued to fight even when they had only one leg left.
Meanwhile, the three men floating in the air began to drop what looked to Grey like rocks into the midst of the Shifters. When the rocks neared the ground, they exploded in a puff of fine smoke, sending little pellets flying into the Shifter bodies. The projectiles didn’t seem to penetrate the Shifters’ thick skin, though, and soon the mass of the Shifter horde was upon the soldiers. Within a minute, the shield-men had lost the ability to effectively control the Shifter crowd. The sword-men were fighting two or more Shifters at once, and they began to fall.
As soon as the tide of battle turned against them, the men of the Pillar began to retreat back towards the canal. Shield-men grouped to the front, effectively keeping the Shifters back by pushing their shields out with impressive strength, sending Shifter bodies flying through the air. The soldiers with the metal balls strapped to their chests began to throw them high into the air. When they peaked, the soldiers made elaborate motions with their hands, and the metal balls shot off in unexpected directions, puncturing Shifter flesh.
The Shifters were too numerous, though, and they pounded into the shields relentlessly until they broke through. Just a few Shifters made it past the shield-men before the gap was closed, but it was enough. The Shifters tore into weary soldiers, killing dozens before the sword-men were able to deal with them.
Then something rose from the ground where the men had been standing a minute before. It held the same shape as the other Shifters but was much, much larger. Its torso was at least as high as the floating men, and its limbs whipped out to slam the three flying soldiers to the ground. If the army hadn’t already begun its retreat, the giant Shifter would have risen up directly under them. As it was, the sight of the creature turned the organized retreat into an all out dash back to the village.
Idiots, Grey thought. Didn’t they realize that retreating would accomplish nothing? They’d just be killed later. From his perch outside the battle, he could see with an emotionless clarity what the soldiers could not. But Grey didn’t realize how close the men already were to their breaking point after years of war. A man can only watch so many friends die before his own discipline breaks, before fear takes over and makes him act foolishly.
Grey stood up and took a few steps towards the battlefield as if to tell them not to give up, that retreat was senseless. He’d only begun to move towards the men when the ground around him exploded. A plume of blue gas shot into the air, and Grey choked in great mouthfuls of the aerostatic gas called dak. He knew pure dak was potent enough to kill in its unprocessed form. Grey fell back against the ground, the sky spinning across his vision. Undiluted dak ate into the lungs of anyone who inhaled it, burning through the body in under a minute. Only the head and limbs would remain by the time the gas worked its way back into the air. Except Grey didn’t die. His vision cleared, and he stood up in the center of the scorched patch of sand.
The massive Shifter loomed above him, and a nervous energy ignited in Grey’s neck, spreading down into his back and moving forward until it consumed his chest. His limbs felt light, as if they were made of air. When he jumped, he soared above the giant Shifter, landing on its back. He heard a soldier cry, “Look,” but Grey paid him no attention. Grey slammed his small fist into the Shifter’s back, and the creature grunted under the blow. Grey’s hand had punctured its armored flesh, letting loose a torrent of blood as red as any human’s. Rather than feeling disgust, Grey felt joy. He wanted to see more.
He dug his hand into the Shifter’s flesh, grabbing a strip of it and running along the length of its back. Its flesh peeled off like skin from a boiled tomato, and Grey jumped from its back with the flesh in his hand. He was covered from head to toe in blood, and he found the smell of it intoxicating. The creature collapsed on its stomach to die in the sand, the blood seeping deep into the desert.
Many of the soldiers cheered, and the other Shifters halted their attack to watch their massive brother fall. The sight of Grey, a ten year old boy, killing such a massive beast brought new courage to the Pillar men. They regrouped near the village and charged. The sword-men fought better, and the shield-men bashed and bullied the Shifters. The fight was long, but eventually, the Shifter invasion was repelled. Most of the creatures were dead or dying, and over half the men had survived.
Through all this, Grey stood amidst the ruin of the massive Shifter. He felt his heart beating, and an array of emotions too complex for him to understand played through his mind. It was if the world had always been black and white, and now he was experiencing color for the very first time. Everything around him felt fresh, and energy still surged through his veins.
The same soldier who’d spoken to him earlier approached Grey, commenting, “That was quite a performance.” A deep gash ran up the length of the soldier’s arm, but he’d tied a bandage tight around his shoulder to slow the flow of blood. Grey looked up at the weary man, dried Shifter guts clinging to every inch of his exposed skin. “We’d better get you cleaned up.” He allowed the soldier to lead him back to the canal, where Grey stripped down and plunged into the cool stream. It took some scrubbing, but he managed to get most of the blood off. Since he didn’t have any other clothing, the soldier fetched him a uniform from a compartment in the nearest boat.
“He’s a remarkable boy,” the soldier was saying to Isa when Grey walked over to them. Isa shrugged. “No, he truly is a natural. He must have inhaled a diluted bit of dak, which he instinctively used to defeat a Shifter giant all by himself. I’ve never seen anything like it, apart from what the Maramors can do, of course.” Isa said nothing throughout the soldier’s speech, so the man continued. “We’d like to take him with us. I think he could turn into an important member of the Pillar in just a few years. You’re his grandmother, right?”
“He just lives with me.”
“Oh… I see. Well, would it be alright if Grey travelled with us?”
“It’s up to the boy,” Isa said, shrugging again. “Like I said, he just stays with me.”
“Wonderful,” the soldier said, clapping his hands together. If he was confused by Isa’s uncaring attitude, he didn’t show it. “Grey, what do you think?”
Grey didn’t respond, for the strangest thing had happened. Echore had fully risen above the horizon, its perfectly mirrored surface reflecting countless miles of ground below. A man had appeared in front of the sphere, walking towards Grey directly from Echore as if descending from the heavens. Grey knew the First Servant’s teachings, that the sphere held the banished gods of their past, but this man appeared to be human. He wore a suit after the style of the noblemen in Harkk, a tightly fit black waistcoat with a tail long enough to drag across the ground. His skin, though, was as pale as lifeless flesh, and his cheeks were strikingly gaunt.
“You should kill her,” the strange man said, motioning towards Isa. Grey looked at him, confused. “There’s a poisonous root you could slip into her stew. It grows in the shade behind her own pathetic hut. Slip it into her pot when she isn’t looking.” Grey looked at Isa, but it seemed that Isa could not hear what this man was saying.
“Grey,” the soldier repeated, “do you want to come with me? We need soldiers like you to win the war.”
“Murder him, too,” the strange gentleman urged. “He presumes to teach you? You’re better than this excuse for a soldier will ever be. He doesn’t deserve to live. You could kill him now, with your bare hands.”
“Do you see…” Grey trailed off.
“See what?” the soldier asked, puzzled. He tried to follow where Grey’s eyes pointed, but he saw only empty air. “You must be very tired,” the man said. “Why don’t you rest, and we can discuss this later.”
“Okay,” Grey said, turning to leave while Isa stayed to speak further with the man. Grey walked back to her hut, but instead of going inside, he went around back. A few brown leaves stuck up from the sand right by the wall, and Grey pulled on them. They came up easily, their wickedly purple roots sliding from the dry ground to hang below Grey’s outstretched hand. Without really thinking, he walked into the hut.
The gentleman was sitting on the ground, his legs crossed. “Now drop them in,” he said. “She won’t notice them amidst all those rotten fish.”
Grey’s hand moved against his own will—or rather, it moved against part of his own will, for some small part of him must truly have wanted to poison Isa. He knew it was wrong, but something powerful pushed at his mind. His hand quivered for a moment over the pot, then he flexed his fingers open and allowed the roots to fall into the stew.
“Very good,” the gentleman said, and Grey felt an incredible sense of warm pleasure flood across his senses. It felt like pure joy mixed with utter relaxation, like he was floating without a care in the world across the sky. He’d never felt anything so good in his life, and he didn’t want it to stop. But eventually, the pleasure subsided, and the gentleman said, “You’ll go with the soldier tomorrow. There’s nothing for you here.” Grey nodded.
By the time Isa died, crumpled in pain from an unknown ailment, Grey had already travelled with the eight hundred remaining Pillar soldiers many miles from Shallow Canyon.
Blue sky morning shone through a slatted window, the silence of dawn broken only by an occasional grinding of wheels from delivery carriages speeding past the tavern. Unwashed clothing covered the floor, while the sole piece of furniture, a bed frame placed haphazardly in a corner, held the room’s longtime occupant—a boy, snoring through his fifteenth hour of sleep. Grey fought an unconscious battle to remain asleep, grasping with weakening will at the dream holding him in a state of blessed unreality. A nightmare by another man’s standards, the dream soothed Grey, for even as he slept, he feared the true nightmare to which he’d awake.
A gentle knocking at the window grew louder and louder until, with a great crack of splitting wood, the window swung violently inwards, glass panes shattering as they slammed into the brick wall. Another boy, holding a sledgehammer nearly as large as his torso, guiltily jumped into the room. Still, Grey slept, so the boy reached through the broken window, grasped a bucket of water mixed with a bit of acetone, and dumped its contents directly onto Grey’s face.
The result was disappointingly mild. Grey opened his eyes slowly, rolling onto his side before swinging his legs off the bed and groaning into a sitting position. An average fifteen year old by all outward appearances, the intruding boy knew Grey to be anything but. At nearly six feet tall, Grey’s thin face was strikingly handsome, the freckles that stretched across the bridge of his nose the only mark to break his flawlessly pale skin. Red hair hung in a perpetually unruly tangle above a creased forehead and round nose, but it was his eyes, large and filled with subtle shifts of color that varied depending upon the light, that hinted at his abnormality.
“Did you put paint thinner in that water, Marion?” Grey asked the boy.
“Water wouldn’t have woken you,” he said stubbornly. At that awkward age of budding adolescence in which he was neither boy nor man, Marion’s long limbs stuck out at odd angles from his still childlike torso, and his wide nose seemed determined to outgrow the rest of his face.
“I told you, never wake me—“
“Yes, yes, I know. But it’s an emergency,” Marion whined. Before Grey could reply, he spoke quickly, “You see, I was up early to get some water for my ma’s wash, and I walked by Lino’s metalworking shed. I know, it’s not on my way, but I figured he wouldn’t be there so early, and I just wanted a peek at the new swords before they’re all shipped off to Harkk. Anyways, I was about to open the door when I heard some voices. I remembered what you said—about being careful and all—so I snuck to the window to spy a look. There’s these two men in there with Lino… like, right now. Really big guys. And they’re trying to take the swords, but Lino wasn’t having any of it. I think they might hurt Lino. So… you see… you have to do something!”
Marion looked expectantly at Grey, who was struggling to distinguish the dream he’d been having from the boy in front of him. Ghostlike images drifted leisurely through the room, a persistent surge of subconscious imagery being pushed into his conscious mind. The amount of napthal he’d taken the day before was making it exceedingly difficult to grasp reality, though that was of course the entire purpose of drinking the stuff.
But now Marion had created a dilemma. The insular village largely tolerated Grey’s foreign presence because the bar owner Reyes had promised to watch over him. Refusing to help Lino, a man of central importance to the entire village’s economy, would probably wipe out all the goodwill he’d built up over the past year. Then there was Marion, a boy with a good heart, who’d not take kindly to Grey’s refusal to help. The other villagers were sure to hear about it if he refused.
Damn my carelessness, Grey thought, recalling the vorster attack a couple months ago. When a pack of the cunning creatures had attempted to sneak into the town under the cover of darkness to raid food supplies for their colony, Grey had been gathering ingredients for Arlo’s signature whiskey in the hay fields. He relied heavily on the old medic Arlo’s liquor recipes to keep the thirsty workers satisfied, but the ingredients unfortunately weren’t readily available in a small town like Faycliff. Unluckily for Grey, Marion had been playing in the field when he’d disposed of the vorsters. There’ll be no making him forget that little incident, he thought glumly.
“I’ll come,” Grey said finally.
“Great,” Marion yipped, practically jumping into the air. “I’ll get your sword.” Before Marion moved his hand halfway to the nearby sheath, Grey had grabbed the boy’s wrist, twisting just hard enough to cause the boy to cry out but not hard enough to inflict any lasting damage.
“Don’t,” Grey growled. “Not ever.”
“I… I’m sorry,” Marion practically whimpered, several tears escaping his eyes before he quickly blinked them away.
“Mind if we use the door this time?” Grey asked, letting go of Marion’s thin wrist while pretending not to have seen the tears. Marion, at thirteen, was only two years younger than Grey, but he seemed so childlike in comparison. Grey wondered if Marion could even remember much from the Shifter War.
“What? Oh, yeah. I had to come in through the window. The door downstairs is impossible to break through, and no one’s at work in the tavern this early.”
Grey shrugged, exiting the room and descending the solid oak stairwell into the dusty tavern hall. The owner, a thick stump of man called Reyes, wouldn’t arrive for many hours to serve thirsty workmen from chilled barrels containing Grey’s brews. The glowworm Bondmen dangling from the ceiling also awaited opening hour before they’d light the space, so Grey tripped over toppled chairs and barstools on his way to the door. That damn Reyes never cleans up, he thought angrily, but he chuckled lightly at his anger. After all, he hadn’t set soap to cloth in his own room for many months.
Outside, Grey broke into a jog, his stiff legs not quite in sync as the napthal worked its way out of his system. Marion ran alongside him, and Grey nearly told the boy to return home before deciding it’d be of no use. Better to keep the boy in sight than have him sneaking around. The smithy’s shop stood not far from the tavern, as both buildings were strategically built near the outskirts of town due to their propensity for generating loud noises.
The bulk of the shops, houses, and other various village structures were grouped near the base of a silvery cliff, which shielded the buildings from the sun’s scalding rays for much of the day. The surrounding land was barren, save for a single road bisecting the town and, of course, the still-dry aqueduct construction project. Grey surveyed the town for any unusual activity, but all was quiet and peaceful, and he soon reached the doors of the metalworking shop.
The stone structure stood slightly crooked against the sandy bluff due to one of the walls being shorter than the rest, the result of a faulty repair following a quake a few years back. The steel plated door, which was required by law to remain closed and locked at all times, stood slightly ajar. Grey motioned for Marion to stay put, but the boy shook his head and continued to follow. Grey frowned, but he didn’t try to stop him. If the boy wants to watch, then let him.
With purpose, Grey pushed the door inwards and stepped into the dark. The smell of metal mixed with blood immediately struck his nostrils, and he soon saw the source. The master metalworker Lino stood, shaking, near a rack of sparkling new weaponry with his face towards two men between him and Grey. He was bleeding from many nicks and cuts, some of them deep, though Grey noted with appreciation that the portly man still clung to his sword.
At the sound of the door, the two men spun around, and Grey took a second to assess the threat they might pose. Both were much larger than the average citizen, tall and bristling with tensed muscle. Their clothes were nearly rags, much like Grey’s own garb, and they each held one of Lino’s longswords, gripping them, Grey saw, with a steady hand and clear expertise.
“Stay out of this, child,” said the man to Grey’s left. Just past his prime, the man’s balding head and leathery skin revealed years of labor in the sun. Perhaps on the battlefield, Grey thought. He’s old enough to have served many years in the Pillar. The other man was much younger, in his mid twenties, and he raised his weapon, pointing the glinting steel at Grey’s chest.
Ignoring the weapon, Grey spoke, almost sadly, “Place the swords neatly on the rack where you found them and leave.”
“What are you, the sheriff? You can’t be thirteen at most. Now scram.”
“I’m fifteen,” replied Grey dryly, forcing himself to focus through the napthal. “And I’m a concerned citizen.”
“Well, we’re concerned citizens, too. We served our time in the Pillar, and look where it got us. Now we’re here for a little payment. We’ll take some of these swords back to our group and then be on our way.”
“Go to another town. Steal their weapons. I don’t care what you do elsewhere. Just don’t do it here.”
“Slit their throats,” came a voice to Grey’s right, and he groaned. As adrenaline forced napthal to swiftly drain from his system, the Gentleman appeared. Like clockwork. The razor-thin man leaned against an empty weapons rack, his stiff black suit entirely without sign of dirt or wear, as usual. “I’ll sit here and watch you murder them,” he continued, crossing his legs calmly.
“Be quiet,” Grey spat. The older bandit frowned, wondering who Grey might be addressing, but the younger man to Grey’s right, filled with the confidence any inexperienced soldier would feel when facing an unarmed adversary, thrust forward the sword he’d been pointing at Grey. He’d aimed directly for Grey’s gut, and had the sword connected, the wound would have been fatal.
Grey sidestepped the blow, knocking the flat end of the blade with the back of his right hand. The man’s eyes shot wide with surprise as the sword swung in a circle, and, instead of releasing his grip, the man allowed the momentum to turn his entire body. Grey stepped down on the man’s calf just below the knee. Hard. Bone crunched, and the man fell to the ground, squealing with pain.
Instead of turning to run, the older man adopted the standard combat stance drilled into every soldier in the First Servant’s army. Oh, so you really were part of the Pillar, Grey thought, eyeing him. With his sword raised slightly in preparation to parry an incoming blow, the ex-soldier edged his way towards Grey. Impatient, Grey closed the distance in an instant, grabbing the man’s hands around the hilt of the sword before he could wield the weapon.
“I’m giving you one last chance, man. Go. Take your friend with you.” But Grey saw the battle rage in the man’s eyes and knew the moment could not be eased with speech. So Grey pushed the man’s own sword up through his jaw. He kept pushing until the sword penetrated his brain.
“Yes,” the Gentleman cheered. “Let his blood stain the ground around his unworthy body.”
Both men now lay at Grey’s feet, one unconscious and the other dead. Grey looked down at them with despair. Violence. I came here to find peace, yet only violence follows. He could feel Marion’s eyes on him, sensing the mixture of fear and wonder emanating from the teen’s mind like a turbulent wind. He wondered how this moment would shape the boy, how seeing what pain one person could inflict upon another would change him. At least Lino had the good sense to pass out before the violence began.
“Kill the boy, too. He’s not a worthy witness of your glory.”
“Marion, go get one of the healers at the way-house,” Grey said, ignoring the Gentleman with some difficulty.
“What about the sheriff?”
“The sheriff,” muttered Grey. “Yes, I suppose you’d better fetch him as well.” Marion shot Grey a nervous look before scurrying off down the gentle slope towards town. Grey walked over to Lino, reaching to feel his pulse. Strong, good. He’s not seriously injured. Most of the wounds were shallow, though he’d need binding up soon lest he bleed out into the packed soil below.
Grey briefly contemplated leaving, heading back to the tavern to collect the only possession that mattered, and heading off to some other tiny village on the outskirts of the Empire. Reyes believed he had Grey cowed, that he was his servant, but Grey knew he could leave whenever he pleased. But it wouldn’t do to leave without first clearing up the mess. With one man dead and the other dying, even the sheriff from such a small village would report the incident to the Pillar. So he just leaned against the weapons rack next to the Gentleman and waited for Marion to return with help.
Since he’d stopped moving, the napthal screamed back in full force, and Grey was dozing when Marion returned with one of the healers and sheriff Calum. An aging, thin man, Calum had the look of one weathered by decades of living on the outskirts of the Empire. He might have even been living in a town much like Shallow Canyon when the Shifters attacked the north, mused Grey. For his part, Calum surveyed the scene with a cool eye. The town hadn’t seen violence in years, but Grey suspected Calum had seen his fair share when the wilds still stretched to within a hundred miles of Harkk.
“Tend to Lino first,” Calum said. “Then move on to the stranger who’s still breathing. Now, what exactly happened here?”
“Grey fought them off,” Marion declared proudly. “These men were here to take our weapons, and Grey stopped them.”
“Your father was an herbalist, you say?” Calum asked, eying Grey with some suspicion.
“No, my friend Arlo was an herbalist. My father was a dak miner.”
“These two men here… they have the look of soldiers. Maybe even ex-Pillar.” Grey nodded. “Yet somehow, though you claim to have followed in your friend Arlo’s footsteps, you were able to disarm two veteran soldiers while disabling one and killing the other. All without a weapon, shield or armor of your own?”
“They weren’t expecting a fight.”
“Lino seems to have put up quite a struggle, probably before you arrived. I think it’s fair to say these men were on guard.”
“They were hostile,” Grey agreed.
“You’re not a stupid boy, Grey. And despite what you might think based upon our distance from Harkk, I’m not a stupid man. This town functions because each man, woman, and child has a purpose. We all work for the expansion and betterment of the Defiant Empire in the First Servant’s name. I allowed you to live here on account of your skill with wines and spirits and because Reyes said he’d keep an eye on you. Now it seems I have a warrior child on my hands. Don’t get me wrong: I’m inclined to be grateful. But trouble only begets more trouble, and I’d call this more trouble than the town has seen in a year, ever since the Shifter War came to an end.”
Grey could feel the fiction he’d constructed around himself slipping, and though he’d all but killed the memories from what lay below the facade with a year of constant napthal intake, he knew enough to hang on to the shred of stability he’d managed to find in Faycliff. “I’m hardly a warrior,” Grey said. “Marion saw danger and ran to the nearest building in town. He woke me up, I did what any citizen of Faycliff would do, and that’s all there is to it.”
Calum frowned, saying, “Since all seems to have benefitted the township, I’ll take you at your word for the time being. But I damn well wish we had one of those mind readers from the Array here to sort this out.”
“This peasant questions you?” the Gentleman asked, standing up and leaning in so close that his nose nearly touched Calum’s weathered cheek. The Gentleman sniffed disapprovingly, though of course Calum couldn’t see him. “Cut his legs off at the knees. Do it. There’s plenty of steel here.”
“I promise, Sheriff,” Grey said through gritted teeth, “I am no threat to you or any of the people under your protection. I just… I enjoy my work with spirits, which, as you’ve said, provides relief to many tired men each night.”
“Very well,” Calum said slowly, mulling over the implications of hosting a young warrior in their small town. Then he turned to the healer, asking, “How is Lino?”
“He will be back on his feet in a matter of days. His injuries were minor.”
“And the injured man?”
“I fear his leg is shattered so badly that he will never walk again. I cannot say whether he will survive due to the danger of infection, but he will need to be brought back to our guild if he is to have a chance.”
“Do what you can. We’ll bury the other one in the cemetery—but away from any of our own. His soul must be allowed the chance to enter the Circle, like any other. As for you, Grey, you may return to your work for the time being while I think over what to do with you.”
Grey nodded solemnly, leaving behind the bloody scene and the Gentleman, though of course the apparition appeared on the hill ahead, laughing at Grey’s discomfort.
Marion jogged behind Grey, asking, “You’re not going back to sleep after that, are you?”
“Won’t you at least come to the celebration tomorrow? The aqueduct opening won’t be stopped because of what just happened, will it?” Flashes of Grey’s battle near the Shallow Canyon canal came back to him.
“Go home,” Grey said, struggling to think. Marion opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it when he noticed Grey’s stern face. He turned and trotted off, still excited by the short fight he’d just witnessed.
Grey paid Marion’s departure no attention as panic began to build in his mind until it roared in his ears like the screams of men slaughtered in battles fought long ago. He stumbled back to his room, shut the door, and took several deep breaths. The Gentleman’s dry laugh filled the small space, but Grey blocked it out until his chest loosened, and his shaking limbs became still. He reached down, rummaging amidst the clothing-strewn floor until his hand knocked into a bottle. Only a few sips left, but it should be enough, he thought in relief, as he drank down the napthal. The Gentleman faded as the drug sent Grey back into unconsciousness.
Agony’s Joy. The blade sliced through flesh and bone with the ease of a machete through dry grass. Grotesque, fleshy shapes split under its power, showering cascades of blood over Grey’s soaked uniform. Archers fired arrows into the endless Shifter horde, but Grey paid the falling missiles no mind. He had killing to do. The entire Shifter army would fear him, fear Agony’s glint as it twisted and slashed under the glowing sky. The blade knew in advance where to cut, its owner wielding the cruel instrument with deadly speed.
Grey woke with Agony’s curved hilt gripped so tightly in his hand that he’d entirely lost sensation in the tips of his fingers. His chest shook from the bloody vision that still danced before his waking eyes, blending in with his uncleaned room. He shook his head, puzzled. Even that bit of napthal he’d taken the previous morning should have kept him alseep until the following night. But here he sat, awake and gripping the blade he could only remember using during his worst nightmares.
Could his brief fight with the two bandits have shaken him that much? No, that’s not it. Something else tugged at his mind, keeping him fully conscious despite the potent drug sitting in his veins. Forcing his grip to loosen, he slid Agony’s Joy into its scabbard and tucked it under the mattress. He had to get outside, his cramped room activating the claustrophobia that napthal typically suppressed. Shaky legs carried him to the window that Marion had used as a door the day before, and he fell over the sill and onto the roof. For a minute, he lay back against the shingles, drawing in deep breaths.
The general roar of hundreds of people cheering floated through the still, humid air. The aqueduct opening ceremony is today, Grey remembered, glancing at the mirrored sphere Echore as it began its descent below the horizon. Its position indicated it was just after dawn, meaning most of the town’s daily labor would already be gathered in town, their tasks having been suspended by the mayor. Grey squeezed his eyes shut, wishing himself back to sleep. Of all days for napthal to fail me, why did it have to be this one?
It was too much like that day five years ago, when he’d stood and watched the canal fill with water in Shallow Canyon, when the single worst thing in his short life had happened. It wasn’t the arrival of the Shifters in the north, nor was it his recruitment into the Pillar. No, it was the appearance of the Gentleman, a man whom in all the world only Grey could see. A man who whispered murderous words into Grey’s ear. A man who forced him to hurt people.
The soldier who’d first recruited Grey into the Pillar dubbed him the Hero of Shallow Canyon, and his story spread throughout the Defiant Empire, inspiring the tens of thousands of Pillar fighters who were beyond weary of the war. Grey was to be celebrated in Harkk in the presence of the First Servant himself, but he never made it to the capitol city. Grey could only recall the first few days after he’d left Shallow Canyon. Then his memory utterly faltered.
His memory picked back up two years later with the round face of an herbalist named Arlo hovering over him and the blade named Agony’s Joy at his side. Arlo had found him unconscious on the outskirts of a battlefield and took him to a Pillar camp not too far from Faycliff to be healed. Since no one recognized him as the Hero of Shallow Canyon, Grey didn’t bring it up, and he spent much of the following two years working under Arlo to treat soldiers wounded in battle.
It was there that he’d discovered napthal. Arlo used the drug as an anesthetic for soldiers undergoing surgery, though Grey soon learned it served a more recreational purpose in lower doses. He’d shared a bit of the powerful drug with Arlo on their first night together, just a sip for each of them. As soon as he’d ingested the napthal, the Gentleman had vanished. Since then, Grey hadn’t stopped drinking the stuff.
As he lay on the tavern roof, with these thoughts swirling feverishly through his head, Grey could not force himself to sleep. He wouldn’t be able to ignore Faycliff’s celebration, a day that was already dragging to the forefront of his mind some memories that he’d worked very hard to forget. He felt anxious and restless, so instead of staying in his room to brood, he jumped from the roof of Reyes’ tavern and began to jog towards the center of Faycliff.
Despite the rising heat, he couldn’t help the shiver that ran through his spine, couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. The day was too still, the town too cheerful. He felt adrift near the edge of a storm; at any moment, he could tumble in and lose all control amidst the unstoppable force of the elements. Grey gritted his teeth in frustration at the lack of control he had over his own thoughts. The war ended a year ago with the Treaty of Limited Population, when the First Servant agreed to limit his Empire’s population growth, and the Shifters agreed to remain in their own lands. No one had seen a Shifter since. This day wouldn’t be like that one from five years ago. Everything was fine.
As the aqueduct came into view, even Grey couldn’t help but be impressed. The canal itself wasn’t particularly innovative, but the mechanism that would propel the water up the cliff and provide water pressure to Faycliff’s residents was undeniably intriguing. They called it a Bondman, though it looked nothing at all like a man. It looked more like a two-story tall human heart, with one fleshy tube dipping down into the empty aqueduct and another running up the cliff to an artificial basin. Grey had heard that everyone in Harkk had Bondmen of all shapes and sizes as servants, but such creatures were for the wealthy. He’d never before seen one in person, unless you could count the glow worms that lit Reyes’ tavern.
Grey had overheard Reyes bragging to a traveller in his tavern that this particular Bondman had been crafted by the Array in Harkk, the most revered aerostacy users in the Empire. It was rumored that the Array could use each of the four aerostatic gases to shape flesh into any form and function they chose—for a price. The only acceptable payment was one of the gases, and they charged much more gas than they actually used. What the Array did with the surplus was anyone’s guess, and Grey had heard many wild theories.
The entire town was gathered around the fleshy Bondman for the ceremony, in total around two thousand men, women, and children. Faycliff was larger than Shallow Canyon, but not by much. With flowing water, though, Faycliff was well-positioned to expand its granite mining operation and therefore its population. Granite wasn’t nearly as valuable as an aerostatic gas, but it provided a decent storage solution for two of the four gases and was therefore always in high demand. Grey figured that the miners hoped they’d someday strike marble, the only long-term aerostatic storage material. In the meantime, granite would need to sustain the town’s economy.
Grey joined the edge of the crowd and looked up with everyone else to a makeshift platform that had been erected overnight near the middle of the Bondman. The sheriff Calum stood next to the mayor, a stern woman named Odette. A boy around Grey’s age stood to her right, and Grey was startled to find he didn’t recognize him. The boy’s clothing was much more refined and certainly cleaner than anything found in Faycliff. A hooded, white shirt hung loosely from his thin shoulders, shimmering in the morning light. He stood perfectly straight, finely combed blond, almost-white hair and delicate features giving him the appearance of someone unused to manual labor.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” Odette spoke. She didn’t require a megaphone, for her sharp voice easily carried across the crowd. She waited patiently until the dozens of conversations stopped and all became silent. Even the constant clanging of pickaxes against stone wasn’t present, as all the granite workers were at the celebration.
“It has been a hard year,” Odette continued. “I doubt there’s one among you who has not lost a loved one or a friend during the Shifter War.” Many in the crowd murmured at this. “The First Servant asked much of you during your time of grief. When many of you wanted to lay in despair, he asked you to help rebuild. When you wanted to reflect upon what we lost, he asked you to believe in what we could create together. He asked you to defy expectations by sacrificing your time, your bodies, and your wealth for the Defiant Empire.”
Now Odette began to shout, her voice ringing in everyone’s ears. “And we have been defiant. Today we pause to reflect upon our defiance of the Shifter horde. Today we celebrate our courage, which reminds the First Servant of his own defiance of the gods, when he banished them to Echore ten thousand years ago. Great deeds are accomplished by those who ignore their own limitations, and from what I have seen this past year, all of you now live without limitation. You are free.” The crowd roared, many raising their fists into the air, breaking their invisible chains in the direction of Echore as a reflection of the First Servant’s crest.
“Let the water flow,” Odette shouted even louder. “Let us become rich with the First Servant’s reward for our work.”
The blond boy on the platform reached out to touch the Bondman, and it began to pulse. Water streamed down the dry channel, flowed into the Bondman’s lower tube, and pumped up to the basin above. About a minute later, fountains of water fed by hidden pipes ending in sprinklers showered water over everyone. The ground quickly turned to mud, and people began to hug and wrestle in glee.
Grey wondered at Odette’s ability to so quickly bring cheer to Faycliff’s typically stoic population. Was there that much hidden desire for release that all it took was a few words of encouragement to turn everyone into wild and joyful animals? Grey shook his head, contenting himself to stand at the edge and watch the others dance and play.
After some time, Grey became aware that he was being watched. He looked up to meet the eyes of the blond boy, who still stood on the platform. Even from a distance, Grey could see the bright blue of his eyes. The boy smiled slightly, but Grey didn’t know what to do. He didn’t understand why the boy was looking at him with such intensity, and he became uncomfortable. Then the boy’s eyes flickered to the cliff. He pointed up towards the basin, and Grey followed his arm. Three strange shapes stood erect on the edge of the cliff, about a mile from the Bondman. He squinted to try to make them out, but then a hand clapped him hard on the back. He twisted away, ready to strike.
“What were you thinking to do, boy?” Reyes laughed coldly. “Hit me?”
The short man had a perpetually red face, whether he was drinking or not—though he was usually no more than an arm’s reach away from a bottle. He owned a tavern, after all. All smiles and good cheer with his customers, Grey knew the bitter heart that lay below his smiling face. Reyes was quick to anger and even quicker to hit. He’d beaten Grey many times, considering Grey something of his personal Bondman. For his part, Grey took the beatings in stride, curious what might cause a man to behave so barbarically when he thought no one was watching. He could have stopped Reyes, of course, but the constant supply of napthal and an existence without the Gentleman more than made up for any bruises he might receive. When Grey looked again at the cliff, the shapes had vanished.
“We’ll need plenty of wine to feed these thirsty mouths once the celebration is over,” Reyes was saying. “Go back and make the tavern ready, or you’ll get the beating of your life.”
Grey wasn’t paying Reyes any attention, though, because the shapes had reappeared almost directly above the platform. Now that he could see them clearly, he felt his stomach drop. It just can’t be, he thought. Shifters. Three of them. They weren’t at all like the ones from Shallow Canyon, though Grey wasn’t surprised. Arlo had told him years ago that no one had ever seen two groups of Shifters that looked alike. These creatures were spiny things roughly in the shape of a man with two arms and two legs but no head.
“This can’t be happening,” Grey muttered aloud.
“Boy,” Reyes said, grabbing Grey by his worn shirt collar, “I’m done warning you.” Grey brought his hand over Reyes’ stubby arm, twisting downward and over with most of the weight of his body channeled into the man’s wrist. Bone snapped. Reyes shouted, but no one heard, for others had spotted the Shifters as well.
The Shifters jumped from the cliff and onto the platform, where the blond boy had been standing a minute ago. No one was there now, but wherever the kid was, he’d likely soon be dead. Most of the crowd wasn’t yet aware of the threat, and Grey tried to shout to warn them. His voice caught in the back of his throat, the shout turning into more of a quiet gurgle. This was worse than any nightmare.
A second later, the Shifters tore into the crowd. Their limbs must have been razor-sharp, because as they spun, human flesh flew dozens of feet into the air in every direction. The entire population of Faycliff would be slaughtered in minutes, and Grey just stood there, watching numbly. The spectacle didn’t feel real.
Then Marion came running down the hill in a mad sprint, something waving from his arm. He skidded to a halt in front of Grey, too breathless to speak, but he held out the object he was carrying. Agony’s Joy. Grey gripped the slim handle and pulled the mirrored blade from its scabbard. Flawless metal gleamed as if it had just been polished, though to Grey’s knowledge, no one had ever cleaned it. Blood and dirt just didn’t seem to adhere to the blade, and the hilt, a smooth and featureless length of the same material, resisted even fingerprints. The bottom of the hilt held the blade’s only flaw, a cracked and hollow portion where someone had carved what Grey assumed to be its name: Agony’s Joy.
The blade in hand, Grey rushed into the midst of the chaos, leaving Marion at the edge of the battle in relative safety. The three Shifters had made quick work of the townsfolk, slaughtering nearly half of them in the time Grey had stood watching. One Shifter continued to work its way through the panicked crowd, killing with deadly precision, while the other two stalked the outskirts of the crowd where they could pick off any who managed to flee.
Grey approached the Shifter nearest to the aqueduct, his sword held tightly in both hands. He couldn’t recall ever having used the blade except in his nightmares, but it still felt comfortable in his hands, like an extension of his own body. For its strength it weighed hardly anything, its incredibly sharp edge allowing it to cut through nearly any material with minimal force. He drew close enough to see that the Shifter’s arms were much wider and thicker than any human’s, and its body was taller, too, towering at least two feet over Grey’s almost six. Its skin wasn’t flat, either, but rather a series of blades organized at angles around each of its limbs. Grey knew it would be able to use nearly any surface of its body to kill.
Grey crouched, preparing to leap. With his feet planted firmly against a stone, he sprung towards the Shifter with the full force of his legs. Agony’s Joy neared the creature’s back, eager to taste blood. The creature whipped around, casually knocking the blade aside and Grey with it. A razored arm came down where Grey lay, but he blocked it with Agony, which he thankfully still gripped in his left hand. He was on his feet in an instant, already swinging the blade at a downward angle towards the creature’s legs. It impacted, cutting through part of the limb before stopping as if it hit rock. But the blade would cut through stone, so whatever it hit must have been much harder.
Grey pulled the blade back just in time to block a perfectly aimed swipe from the right. This Shifter was fast, much faster than any he’d seen during the War. It actually increased its speed as the fight dragged on. It was all Grey could manage to block its blows, stepping back towards the aqueduct in a reluctant retreat. Still, its limbs moved ever-faster, slicing through the air so quickly they began to blur. Grey missed a crucial block, and the blunt end of the creature’s limb landed against his chest.
The aqueduct lay ten feet behind Grey, and he flew back with enough force to land in the newly-filled channel. His vision began to close in, narrowing from the edges until he looked through a dark tunnel at the Shifter, which stepped carefully towards him. Though it had no discernible head, Grey got the distinct impression it was examining him with intense curiosity.
“Grey, I’m coming,” shouted Marion, who sprinted across the battlefield with the scabbard held in his hands like a sword. No, Grey thought desperately, but he had nearly lost consciousness. The napthal began to roar back into his blood, forcing him to sleep. Why now? The last image he saw before darkness descended was Marion striking the Shifter on the back. In the same instant, the Shifter whipped around with deadly speed, using one of its arms to slice the boy clean in half. Marion’s torso spun through the air, but Grey never saw where it landed.
When he awoke, a soldier was bending over him. Arlo, Grey thought. But it wasn’t the medic who’d given him much of his knowledge of wines and spirits. This man’s jaw was too firm, his shoulders too square. He grasped Grey’s forearm and helped him to his feet.
“What happened here, boy?”
“Where am I?” Grey asked, struggling to understand what was going on. He stood near a large basin filled with red water several feet from a cliff, and he stumbled over to the cliff’s edge, sinking back to his knees. The Bondman had somehow sucked him in and spit him out above Faycliff. Below lay a scene of utter horror. The land was covered in enough blood to stain the entire town red. But the bodies were missing. The Shifters must have taken the dead townspeople for some foul purpose.
The same soldier pulled Grey to his feet, saying gruffly, “You’ll be taken to Harkk, boy, where you’ll no doubt be questioned properly.” But Grey barely heard him, for the Gentleman had appeared, splashing gleefully in the bloody water, his black coat turned a deep red.