The sun shone warmly as Aod walked down White Creek’s main thoroughfare. The dusty dirt road was busy with food vendors and shopkeepers preparing stalls for the coming harvest celebration and the latest caravan of merchants. She spied a man selling flayed field rats and made a face.
The hefty, cat-size rodents had become a plague-like nuisance over the past few turns, raiding storehouses and stripping crop fields. Many whispered it was the work of fiends, and even Svo had tried driving them off with holy sigils and wards. None had proven successful in deterring the rats, however.
The council strove to combat the problem by offering a bounty on field rats, a silver dinar for every dozen killed, but even that measure seemed to have little impact. Instead, a few enterprising hunters sought to expand their profits by selling their kills after collecting their bounties; thus, field rats had become White Creek’s cheapest and most plentiful source of meat.
They were a chief staple in Aod’s house as the three of them subsisted on the meager earnings of her grandmother’s loom-work and the odd jobs her grandfather took. Aod had reached a point where just the sight of a field rat caused her lip to curl with loathing.
The vendor, an Aeslish merchant judging by his olive skin and gold-brown curls, flashed a smile that gleamed with silver at Aod and made a lewd suggestion in badly accented Veschken. She only rolled her eyes in reply; this was typical of the foreign traders, and she had grown too used to their incessantly uncouth behavior to be truly offended anymore.
Brushing away a strand of brown hair stuck to her forehead and glancing sideways at the Stryx, Aod scoffed again at the notion Svo had errantly guessed. This autumn’s unseasonable heat was of more concern to her than boorish young men.
It was in fact too warm for anyone to be wearing a cowl, even if it was harvesttime. Aod squinted at a hooded figure making its way down the thoroughfare toward her, wondering why anyone would choose such a heavy garment for such a warm day. She had only enough time to note this peculiarity when a passerby clipped her shoulder, spinning her sharply enough to snap the string of her satchel and send it tumbling across the ground.
“Hey!” she cried, but the man continued on without so much as a backward glance, the hem of his overcoat flagging in the breeze. Huffing irritably, she knelt to pick up her belongings.
A shadow fell across Aod’s path. The curiously cloaked stranger had drawn to a halt less than three paces away. Aod looked up as she reached for her satchel and stopped. The porcelain oval of a woman’s face peered out from the depths of the cowl, silver-blue eyes flashing like coins catching the light.
She was beyond beautiful. Next to her, Aod felt insignificant, a sad, raggedy scarecrow with no hope of ever looking remotely as lovely. Vainly, she tried to break away from the woman’s stare, but found that she simply could not.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice insisted there was something entirely wrong about this woman’s beauty and her piercing gaze. Something she could clearly see but could not name. Yet no amount of rational insistence could cut through the insecurity smothering her better judgment. She was a craggy stump of a log next to a willow tree. She could not begin to compare.
“Pardon,” she mumbled as she stood, hoping the woman would continue on her way.
Benignly, or so it seemed at first, the woman smiled at her. But then her mouth began to stretch in ways that mouths were never meant to stretch. Aod gaped in mute horror as the woman’s lower jaw jutted forward and long, needle teeth began to bristle upward with violent swiftness.
Her limbs began to lengthen and bend in a sickening fashion; her pale skin turned leathery and dark. In the breadth of an instant, a monstrous, dog-faced monstrosity arose where there had once been a woman. Snapping its batlike wings out to their fullest extent, it let loose a horrific, high-pitched shriek and shambled forward, its blue eyes shining with terrifying brilliance. Aod had never seen a fiend before, only heard stories of the brutal rampages they waged upon unsuspecting settlements. But this unnatural horror could be nothing else.
This is it, Aod thought with a detached sort of calm, feeling the breath leave her body. This is how I die.
All around her, footfalls pounded the dirt and people screamed. Somewhere, someone was shouting for her to run. She would have heeded them, but the fear that the beast would sink its fangs into her the moment she took her eyes off it was too great.
The nightmare shambled forward with an evil hiss, using its claw-tipped wings as forelimbs, its blue eyes shining with terrifying brilliance. Aod had never seen a fiend before, only heard stories of the brutal rampages they waged on unsuspecting settlements. But this unnatural horror could be nothing else.
The same part of her mind that calmly assessed this much reminded her that now was the wrong time to freeze up, but she could no more tear her gaze away from the fiend than from the woman it had once been. A choking, dread-filled sob found its way past her lips as she began to edge backward, terrified of moving any faster for fear of inciting the fiend to attack.
The precaution proved futile. The beast snapped its jaws at her, coming within inches of taking her nose off, and Aod fell back with a scream. Time seemed to halt as she fell. She scarcely felt the impact of the ground; it was more of a sense that her motion had come to a stop. The world around her dissolved into a watery blur. Deep within, past the beating of her heart, beneath the ebb and flow of her breath like a riptide lurking, something stirred. A fierce pulsating current quickened within her breast, setting every nerve ablaze as it spread outward, consuming.
Aod clawed the dirt, as much an effort to reclaim a hold on reality as a desperate attempt to escape the fiend. What was happening to her? Was she dying of fright? Her heart pounded against her rib cage, as if trying to break out.
The current continued to build, coursing faster and faster until it seemed there was no way she could survive it. She screamed not in terror, but outright pain. Out of the haziness of her surroundings, a long, thin ribbon of flame appeared, encircling her head, making her forget her pain momentarily. Then, all at once, the flame disappeared, the burning current left her, and the world came hurtling back into focus. The strength with which it departed left Aod breathless. She stared ahead dumbly, noticing the fiend had actually retreated a step. For whatever reason, it was hesitating.
But why? Aod looked down at her hands, searching them for an answer and finding none. What happened?
When she looked back up, she realized her mistake. Seeing her move, the fiend had stalked forward once more. It was playing with her, like a cat battering a fly. Knowing it would be on her before she could run, Aod curled into a ball and hoped it would leave her alive.
The beast was poised to fall upon her when a low voice cut through the chaos, commanding in spite of its softness. “That’s enough.”
Aod lifted her head and started in recognition when she beheld the speaker. It was the man who had bumped into her earlier. She recognized the long overcoat he wore.
He must have been vouched for by one of the merchants, she supposed, or else he would have never made it into White Creek looking the way he did. His dusky red-brown skin spoke undeniably of Tergish blood, as did the unruly black hair that struck out in all directions from his head and from the point of his chin. He stood on the shorter side of average and was slimly built even for his height, hardly a threatening figure.
His coat was his only finery, made of rich cordovan leather with elaborate silver stitching along its sleeves and numerous pockets. A thief’s uniform, Nanae would have called it. The rest of his attire, a simple tunic, belt, and breeches, stood teetering on the edge of ruin.
Yet despite all of this, he held himself with an air of authority that appeared to unsettle the fiend. The creature abandoned its assault on Aod, turning all its attention to the newcomer.
“Aye, that’s it, you stupid beast,” he taunted. “Here’s the real sport.”
The fiend responded with a piercing scream and a swipe of its clawed wing. The stranger dodged the attack with ease, stepping back just before the claws could hook him. The fiend lunged forward, quicker this time, but again, the stranger deftly sidestepped its strike.
A slender knife appeared in his hand, plucked from somewhere beneath his coat. He lashed out at the fiend, but the creature hopped backward with a great slap of its wings before the blade connected. This back-and-forth went on for a handful of passes, with every attack and subsequent feint moving faster than the last until it seemed as if the two were engaged in a strange and deadly game.
Suddenly, the beast shrieked and staggered backward, an arrow protruding from one wing. All eyes turned on the rat vendor, still in his stall, rushing to fit another arrow into his bow. Hissing, the fiend crouched down low in preparation to rush this new threat, eyes burning like blue fire. Once more, the stranger put himself between the fiend and its quarry.
This time, though, he underestimated the monster’s speed, or else overestimated its interest in him. It charged straight for the merchant, swatting the stranger aside with a sweep of its uninjured wing. The rat vendor raised his bow, but the fiend was quicker, tearing the weapon out his hands and grinding it to kindling between its jaws. The stranger recovered in time to tackle the legs out from under the beast before it could do the same to the Aeslish man’s head.
They grappled briefly, the fiend striving madly to sink its teeth into the flesh of its foe, until the stranger drove his knife into its side. Screeching, the creature kicked him away, dislodged the arrow in its wing with a violent shake, and launched itself into the air, leaving behind a trail of bloody splotches as it disappeared over the settlement rooftops. A handful of arrows chased after it, shot by a High Guard and a small company of watchmen that arrived just as it fled.
“What’s going on here?” the High Guard barked. “Who saw what happened?”
Immediately, a dozen or so bystanders began to clamor, recounting the attack to the watchmen.
Scarcely believing she was still alive, Aod stood slowly and dusted herself off. What had brought the fiend here? How had it gotten in? Aod herself had helped Svo repaint the warding sigils on the watchtowers only five days before. They could not have expired already.
Why had it attacked her? A shiver ran through her as she laid her hand over the pendant hidden beneath the folds of her robe and thought of her nightmare. And what had happened to her, exactly, after it had? Had it been pure and simple panic that had made her envision a ring of fire around her head?
Gradually her gaze drifted over to the Terg, who was wiping his blade clean with the hem of his ragged tunic.
“Him!” a man yelled suddenly, pointing to the stranger. It was Donnell, White Creek’s baker. A basket of hard round loaves lay upended at his feet. “That dirtskin’s got something to do with it. A bloody bokora, that’s what he is!”
Anger flashed across the Terg’s face, but he only slid his knife back into his belt and folded his arms, turning his gaze to gauge the reaction of the High Guard and his company. A smart move, Aod thought. A heated denial could be just as damning as a confession.
Donnell’s outburst did not come as a great shock to Aod—few in White Creek harbored anything besides animosity for the itinerant, heathen Tergaalgani—but it made her flush with embarrassment all the same. Her embarrassment turned to outrage as she began to hear others mutter darkly in agreement.
“You ungrateful pig,” she yelled at Donnell. “That man is no bokora. He just saved our lives. Does that mean nothing to you?”
She blanched as the High Guard turned to face her. “You, girl, what’s your name?” he asked, walking over.
Aod recognized him right away. Sir Joniver was the youngest of White Creek’s Guard, a solemn, sallow-faced man who often volunteered to escort the odijya when she made her rounds along the settlement wall to repaint the protective wards. She must have met the man a half-dozen times before, but it came as no surprise that he failed to recognize her. His interest was in Svo, not her work or her apprentices.
The girl’s gaze fell to her feet as her heart squirmed into her throat, flashes of her nightmare playing over in her mind. It had been ten turns since that awful day and the High Guards that served the council of White Creek had changed as many times, but just the sight of Joniver’s polished plate mail and scarlet tunic still made her break into a cold sweat. “Aod.”
She flinched when he tapped the badge stitched upon the shoulder of her robe. “You’re one of Svo’s girls, eh?”
“You say that dirtskin saved your life?”
She felt the stranger’s eyes on her as she spoke. “Y-yes. He was the only one who did anything when the fiend attacked. I would not be alive right now were it not for him. Ask him if you don’t believe me.” She tipped her head toward the rat vendor. “The Terg saved his life, too.”
The merchant nodded in agreement when Joniver glanced over.
The High Guard turned toward the stranger next. “What are you called?”
“Rakas,” he answered. His Veschken was fluent, with only the barest traces of a Tergish lilt. “Of Hieros.”
“Of Hieros? I suppose that means you’ve been Reformed.”
A faint smirk played across Rakas’s lips. “In the light of the Bright Mother’s smile.”
Joniver’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Where’s your mark?”
“I have a seal, if it please you.” The Terg drew a small brass token from his pocket and tossed it to the High Guard.
Joniver squinted at it for a long moment before handing it back. “So you do.”
That explained it. Aod was aware the Order granted amnesty to willing Tergish converts, but she had never actually seen one before. The only Tergaalgani she had seen were the vagrants that were sometimes caught poaching the settlement’s fields, and even then, those had been brief, distant glimpses before the hangman slipped a sack over their heads.
She looked Rakas over with new interest, wondering if he planned to settle in White Creek. He was handsome, albeit in a coarse, roguish way that would make Nanae’s hair stand on end. Idly, she imagined the uproar she would cause if she forfeited her apprenticeship by taking up with a Tergish suitor.
Rakas bent his head deferentially to the High Guard. “With your permission, I will be on my way.”
“If you are looking for work,” Joniver replied. “I might have use for a man bold enough to contend with a fiend.”
Rakas shook his head. “I’m afraid my asking fee is too high. I am indentured to a merchant by the name of Esmir. I can take no other job until I have paid off my debt.”
“I’ll make you another offer then: bring the fiend’s head to me before it can lay claim to a life and I will settle your debt with this merchant, Esmir.”
The Terg regarded him with mistrust. “I have your word?”
“My word and my hand.” Joniver held out his hand to him.
Rakas clasped it and smiled. “Then I’ll take it.”
The High Guard walked back to his regiment. “All right, men, spread out! I want a patrol on every road and every watchtower on alert until the fiend has been slain!”
Aod started toward Rakas, meaning to thank him, when Joniver caught her by the arm. “Head home now straightaway. Spread the word to those you pass to keep to their houses. The settlement watch will be patrolling to make sure everyone remains indoors until the danger has passed.”
As the High Guard talked, Rakas’s gaze came to rest on Aod again. He studied her briefly before turning away and vanishing into the dispersing crowd. Suppressing a sigh of disappointment, Aod nodded dutifully to Sir Joniver and turned for home.
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Fantasy
Rating – PG13
Connect with Amanda K. O’Dell on Facebook