As Graeme Stone and his band of heroes strive to unite the Earth’s disparate peoples under his banner, in readiness for the wars to come, it’s easy to forget those left behind.
Far across the void, separated from us by immeasurable time and space, the last remnants of a once-proud race eke out a grueling existence in a crumbling world. Join Pan, a Youngblood of the Northern Plains People, a youth with strength in his arm and rage in his heart. But in a land of ash ruled by the dread servants of Those Beyond the Veil, it will take more than rage to survive. It will take heart, wits and a whole heap of luck.
Enjoy this sneak preview of the forthcoming Tales of Transition novella: A Dying Land.
As the last echoes of that bellowed challenge die away, silence prevails over the clearing. The sun beats down, its warming rays at odds with the chill air of the hills, conflicting sensations assailing me as they both, the heat and the cold, caress my bare chest. Carrion crows line the boulder tops, watching, waiting, anticipating. My troupe stand behind me, behind the cover of the boulders, making no noise, simply watching helpless as I walk forwards, step by cautious step, towards the monster. I know what they’re thinking; the very same thing my own mind is screaming at me within.
Is my first day as a man also to be my last?
The creature watches me, a look almost akin to curiosity on its demonic visage. What would so puny, so small a creature as this manling be thinking, taking it on by itself? I ask myself the very same question, even as I slowly reach behind me to my quiver. My questing fingers find what they seek and I bring forth the white arrow.
For an instant, a brief, almost imperceptible instant, a flicker of something flashes behind those dark, hungry eyes. Was it… recognition? Was it… fear? In a heartbeat, whatever I saw is gone, leaving me to wonder if I’d ever seen it at all. No, I’m sure of it, I’d seen something there. Yet how could that be? The creature in my vision had been old, grievously scarred, a grizzled veteran. This beast before me was younger, its coat more glossy, its form tighter, claws and horns less chipped by decades of death.
Unless the legends were right. Unless it was no creature of nature. Unless it was…
I have no time to continue pondering such things. The beast snarls.
I’ve seen its speed, I know what I’m up against, I’m ready, yet even so my own fleet limbs almost fail me as I dash to one side, feeling the rush of the parting air, smelling the foul reek of its musk as it barrels through the space I occupied but heartbeats before. I roll on the cold, frozen earth as I leap out of the way, feeling the sharp stones scratching my skin, the wetness of Raider blood painting my flesh as I flip back to my feet. Already the beast turns, its massive claws gouging great furrows in the earth as they arrest its momentum. Out of instinct, I raise the Yaht, nocking the white arrow, but a whisper tells me no, not yet.
Wait till the moment is right.
The beast leaps forwards once more, covering twenty feet in the blink of an eye and lashing out with a mighty, outstretched paw, ready to take my head clean from my shoulders. But I’m not encumbered by bulky armour like the Raiders of the south; I’m a warrior of the Plains People. I bend like a reed in the wind, those claws whistling inches above my face. I laugh in exhilaration, but my mirth is short lived.
I’d forgotten about its horns.
A shake of its head, no more than a twitch, as a cow might to dislodge a tickling fly on its nose, but it’s enough; the blunt side of one of those enormous horns catches me in the torso, tossing me through the air away from the beast, with no more effort than I might throw a pebble. I land, hard, and cough, spluttering. If ribs aren’t broken, I’d be surprised. Through teary eyes of pain, I glance towards my foe, expecting it to be speeding towards me, ready to capitalise on its fortune, but no; it stands tall, on its hind legs, and bellows.
It’s mocking me. Toying with me.
Behind it, still in the protecting forest of heavy boulders, the troupe of Youngbloods watch. Soona steps forwards, ready to rush to my aid, to lay down his life for his Youngblood brother and I feel a surge of pride, but Seelah stops him with a gentle hand. She knows that this is my battle. Her faith in me sparks a second wind and I leap to my feet. The beast watches me, snarls, a long tendril of saliva dripping from its fanged maw as it falls back to the ground with a heavy thud.
I retrieve Bloodfang from where I’d dropped it on the floor and we begin to circle each other about the clearing. The beast eyes me, moving slowly, confidently, at ease in the knowledge of its superior power and bulk. Then it turns, facing me directly, its haunches tensed, ready.
I raise Bloodfang, nocking my white arrow. My hands tremble, whether through fear, rage or both, I cannot tell. Now, I silently enquire of the weapon? Not yet, it replies.
The beast explodes, launching towards me in a black blur of death. The earth shudders beneath its fury as those eyes lock onto me with insatiable hunger.
Ten yards away.
Now? Not yet.
Now? I hear the cries of my terrified troupe as they watch the beast draw nearer. Yet still, the Yaht tells me, not yet.
One yard; time seems to slow to a gelatinous crawl, the monstrous head right before me, those gleaming eyes right in my face as a maw larger than my torso stretches wide, revealing row upon row of scimitar fangs ready to crunch, rend, devour.
My fingers let loose and I dart to one side with all my speed.
All my speed is not enough. The beast crashes into me with the force of a collapsing mountain, driving all the wind from my body and carrying me along like a leaf in a storm. Our momentum slows, and I feel its unearthly weight pressing down upon me. All I can smell is its foul reek, the stench of blood, urine and death. All I can see is coarse fur. All I can feel is pain.
And then there is darkness.
Does the darkness last for a moment or a lifetime? I cannot tell. Time has no meaning now. Am I dead? Again, I cannot tell. If this is death, it’s not as I’d imagined it. But then the darkness begins to fade, burnt away by the light of the sun. The sense of pressure subsides. Figures, hazy, all about me. Concerned voices, familiar faces. Seelah and Nantak crouched before me. But behind them, a figure that doesn’t belong.
Tall, noble, raven-haired. Tanned yet youthful skin, no older than my own, bedecked with war paint. The figure regards me with something approaching… pride? It’s… it’s the fighter, from my vision! The very one who killed this bear – or one like it – in an age long passed.
The stranger talks to me, his voice distant, muffled, as though speaking from down a long tunnel.
“You have her eyes,” he seems to say. Then he cocks his head to one side, seeming to scrutinise me more closely, before smiling. “And his, too.”
“Whose?” I ask him, though my voice is weak. “Whose eyes?”
“Who are you talking to?”
Seelah’s voice surprises me, clearer and stronger now, and I turn to her, before gesturing past them to the stranger. But he’s no longer there. If ever he were there to begin with.
“I… I don’t know. No-one, I guess. I think I might be going mad…”
Nantak grins at me and clasps my shoulder as I rise to sit upon the ground, my entire body no more than a mass of aches and pains.
“Going mad? Going?” He laughs mightily and gestures to an enormous shape by my side. “I’ve never seen anything like it, Pan. I honestly thought you’d be a flattened corpse when we rolled that thing off you.”
I turn, my head still swimming, and look closer at the black mass. It’s the bear, still and lifeless on the ground. Its tongue lolls comically from its fanged jaws. From one eye, the very tip of the white arrow pokes out; the rest of the shaft, buried deep within the creature’s brain.
“Well,” I muse, as if to myself. “I’ll be damned.”
“Indeed!” calls a voice I don’t recognise, its mirthful tones filling the clearing. “Quite a show you put on. And saved us a job, to boot!”
In an instant, my brave troupe are on guard, weapons brandished, fanning out in a circle all about me as I struggle to my feet, eyes casting about in search of the owner of that voice. I find him, standing there, leaning casually against a standing stone. He takes a couple of steps forwards and claps, slowly, a smile on his face. Tall, skeletally thin, clad in armour plate of dark iron, with a fluttering, black cloak and eyes of cold, piercing blue.
My hand immediately finds Bloodfang, but the man wags his finger, that mocking smile still plastered to his face.
“Ill-advised, my young friend.”
He gestures all about and my eyes follow the motion. All around us, from behind the shelter of the standing stones, more armoured figures begin to emerge, wielding crossbows that they raise in a clatter of pent-up death. A dozen such figures. Two dozen.
We’re very much outnumbered.
The first man, the talker, begins to circle us, eyeing us up and down as though appraising us. His sense of nonchalance, his casual air of superiority infuriates me. He speaks again and that mirthful edge to his voice grates my nerves.
“My, my – a healthy bunch indeed. Our mistress will reward us nicely for such a prize.”
Prize? Realisation dawns and Bloodfang burns in my grasp, itching for blood.
“We are not cattle to be captured and sold, slaver scum!”
The man laughs, the sound chilling.
“Oh, but boy – you speak as though you have some choice in the matter!”
My patience snaps and, despite the warriors that ring us in, my hands move in a flash, nocking an arrow and aiming in a blur of motion, before letting loose. Bloodfang is true, the missile soaring straight for the laughing raider’s head.
But then it stops, hanging motionless in the air, but inches from the man’s outstretched palm.
The troupe gasp, the man smiling as he casually plucks the arrow from the air and inspects it.
“Sorcery,” I hiss, my spine a-tingle with cold disbelief.
“Indeed.” The man grins. “Now, be a good boy. And sleep.”
He gestures towards us with his hand and a wave of fatigue suddenly washes over me, as though I’ve not slept for a week. I turn, to see that I’m not the only one affected. Youngbloods fall, left and right. Nantak collapses to the ground. Even the mighty Soona crumples to one knee, before finally falling to the earth in a heap. As the greyness encroaches on my vision from all sides, I notice that only Seelah remains standing. She sways, left and right, her forehead beaded with perspiration as she shakes her head.
The man frowns, in puzzled amusement.
“Some talent in this one,” he whispers. “Even if she doesn’t yet know it herself. Guards! Take her.”
Armoured warriors stalk towards her, grasping her arms at either side. I reach out with an arm, fingers trembling with leaden weight.
“Seelah,” I gasp.
But I can resist no more. I fall to the earth. And oblivion calls once more.