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 eating.
“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 large shields 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 strangest 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.
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