The Aether Guard has patrolled the Borderlands for aeons protecting the nations of the Rationalle from the encroaching Realm of Chaos and its vile Spawn.
When a flesh eating shape shifter slips past a renowned Captain and his men, both personal ambition and the sanctity of the most sacred relic are put at risk.
Can the monster be found and stopped before it is too late, or will Chaos finally reign for all of eternity?
Excerpt from Episode 0:
Despite its diminutive flame, the stove on my desk has now filled the room that a hot oily smell and tiny bubbles are finally beginning to form in the water. A larger flame would no doubt melt the ice quicker, but the stove can’t be any bigger. It has to be small and easily carried. Otherwise, there is no point in having it.
A rap at the door frame attracts my attention. “Captain?” I glance at the man standing there. Tall, slim, athletic, even handsome perhaps, if you like that kind of thing, but above all else, an invaluable asset. It is good I could recruit him to my patrol small and inexperienced as it is. He could surely find more attractive offers elsewhere in the Aether Guard.
“Come in Sergeant Wynter. What is it?” I don’t really need to ask. I know exactly what it is. We have been through this routine so often. Three patrol sweeps at this watch post and on countless occasions before. Nevertheless, I like to stick to the ritual, to the routine.
A lack of routine can prove fatal.
He takes a step inside my doorless office. “Everything is ready for us to go and kill some Spawn.”
I point my chin at the stove. “Not quite everything.” The first faint wisps are rising from the surface, but my breath is still making bigger clouds. What happened to spring? My hands push deeper into the pockets of my heavy riding coat. “These need to be properly cooked first.”
“They would boil a lot quicker if you started with warm water from the cooking fire instead of melting a pot full of solid ice over that tiny flame.”
I shake my head. “As the manual states, it has to be like it has to be.” If only the weather understood this.
“I know, I know. And always was as it ever shall be.” He sighs.
Tiny silvery spheres are swelling at the bottom of the pan. The first bubble rolls up the flattened face of one of the submerged glass bulbs. Then, at the rounded edge, it pauses before breaking free and rising straight to the surface. It pops. The Sergeant is still standing there. I glance at him. “Problem?”
“It’s cold outside.”
It is never cosy at this altitude. “And in here, too.”
“Yes, but the men are exposed to the wind.”
Despite the heavy leather riding boots, a persistent draft has chilled my feet to stone, but he is probably right. “Snow?” Back in the homelands, spring’s bright riot is probably already giving way to the dignity of summer.
“A dusting, yes.”
One more patrol sweep and we can head back. “A lot worse is likely waiting for us down there. Not just this stupid weather either. Who knows, the Realm might even entertain us with something new that we don’t have a tactic for yet. Even after all these aeons, it still happens occasionally.”
“Sure. The men are still freezing their nuts off though. It’s never a good tactic to start out with everyone already in a bad mood.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. The pot gives a subtle sympathetic hiss. Though it is still a long way home, I watch my mother in my mind’s eye. She is bustling around her stove. Her face is turned away, but I know she is happy I have returned to her safely. “Fine. I’m sure Noss has something boiling on the kitchen fire. Get her to hand out cups to them but keep them mounted. This shouldn’t take too long now.”
“Captain.” He leaves. Again, I am alone with just the dim yellow flame and its attendant shadows for company. I wonder what my mother will cook when I get back. Even if I am an only child, she always makes far too much fuss. Party food no doubt. I lean back in my chair. Her roast duck is always fantastic. I imagine the hot juices filling my mouth.
The two bulbs begin to skip and jitter as the water comes to the boil. I pick up my tongs and fish one of them out. Held at an angle, the delicate cogs and dials imprisoned within glint in the flame light. I turn it over, inspecting the various needles and pointers through the front and back faces. Some are already moving smoothly backwards across their dials. One skips and quivers erratically, but the most important one for now has hardly moved. The spirit inside still has a long way to go to full charge. I lower the Metronism gently into the water and check its twin. Same story.
I check them twice more before I am satisfied.
With the charging complete, I place the bulbs in their wooden carrying case. The deep cups in the soft velvet padding grip the circumferences of the bulbs perfectly. I snap the lid shut and secure the latch. Even in the thin light of the stove, the knots and whorls in the wood glow a rich red. My thumbs rub across the surface, revelling in the beautiful texture. Before slipping it under my breast plate, into its pocket next to my heart, I hold it to my lips and kiss the top edge. “Keep me safe, Papa.” Obviously, he can’t. Only I can do that, but it would have pleased him to know I have developed the ritual of this little prayer. Routine keeps you safest of all.
Outside, in the yard of Watch Post twelve, soldiers and horses cower under their snow-bleached cloaks and blankets. The trophy heads collected on the previous sweeps hang from the wall to dry. Nudged by the wind they bump and jiggle like they are chuckling about an inside joke. The head of the Martinshoora I killed on the second sweep doesn’t have much to laugh about. Though the head glitters with a crusting of frost, the eye sockets are dark pits where I jabbed out its brilliant blue eyes as a precaution. In their usual groups, these amphibious monsters can over power you with visions of the things you most desire. Then they finish the attack by tearing the flesh from your bones with razor sharp teeth. Its his bad luck, this one was traveling alone.
I turn back to matters at hand. Sheltering against the weather in the corner of the wall, Senior Reserve Noss and Sergeant Wynter are bent together in a final conference. I walk over. “Sergeant, Senior, anything I need to know before setting off?”
Both greet me. “Captain!”
Wynter shouts to be heard above the wind. “We were just discussing the firewood. The Senior is concerned that if this weather continues for much longer, our stores will not last until the relief arrives.”
“What about scavenging more from around the guard post?” The door to my office was among the first sacrifices.
Noss shrugs. “There wasn’t much to be found around the place to begin with.” She looks at the gatehouse. “Mostly, we’ve had everyfin there is already.” She bares her few remaining teeth in a yellowing grimace. “Why nobody reported this terrible state, I can’t imagin’.”
I follow her gaze. Even the heavy wooden gates are in disrepair. They should be part of a solid line of defence, sealing the only opening in a barrier that stretches all along the border to the next watch post in either direction. We’ve had to prop one door permanently closed after the hinges failed. The other is swung open ready for our departure. Once we’ve passed through, three men with levers will inch it shut again before nailing boards across to keep it that way. We had better not need it opened quickly on our return. I look back at Noss. “The gates stay in place. What about tree wood?”
She rocks her head. “Well, green wood’s goin’a smoke awful, tho’ better’n nuffin’, I’spose.” Her shrewd brown eyes squint down the valley into the gloom of the storm. Her nose wrinkles. “Tree line’s the problem. It’s goin’a be slow fellin’n’haulin’ anyfin’ up ‘ere, ‘specially wiv it so steep n’all. We’ll be stretched fin on the wall.”
“What do you suggest?”
She nods in the other direction. “The trees’re closer on the other side, in sight really, track’s flatter too.”
I shake my head. “Absolute no go. No one crosses the border whilst we are gone.” I tilt my head down the valley. “Single team, two men, just branches, no trees. Make it work.”
They both shake their heads. “No.”
I look at my Sergeant. “Is the mission plan clear to the men?”
“Is the column arranged as we agreed?”
“And all the tack has been checked thoroughly?”
“And all the weapons are in regulation order?”
“The horses are all fit?”
“Has everyone received their patrol rations?”
“And everyone has filled both their water skins?”
“And their canteens?”
“And everyone is keen to do this?”
“And have I covered everything?”
He smiles. “Yes.”
I smack my gloved hands together. “Good, so let’s go collect the heads of some ugly bastards then!” Everything is in order. As I walk the line to my horse near the head of the column, I know it is. Everything is always in order. I still stop to check bridles and interrogate the men at random. Nobody grumbles. They know it is all part of my routine and routine is a good thing.
I take the still warm bundle I brought from my office and stuff it deep into my right-hand saddle bag. The waiting reserve hands me the reins and I swing into the saddle. Turning, I look back down the line. Everyone else has put an extra cloak on over their coats. Should I do the same? Thanks to the lose fit of my armour, I have an extra thick woollen shirt underneath. My feet will warm up well enough once we start riding and a cloak might hamper manoeuvrability. I’ll brave the cold for the moment.
From the rear of the line, Sergeant Wynter waves the final all clear. Facing forward, I give a long blast on my whistle and point ahead. “Move Out!” As the vanguard slips through the gateway ahead of me in single file, the three men with levers salute. I like it. It should become part of the ritual too, even if the doors do work properly in future.
We enter hostile territory.
Beyond the gate, the wind picks up. Without the shelter of the guard wall, it blasts icy crystals directly into our faces. A hood would have helped keep the vicious shards out of my eyes. It would have also limited my field of view. Turning my coat collar up and tilting the peak of my helmet down keeps the worst from my face, and nothing can sneak up on me from the side either. More than the cold, the thought of what vile creatures might possibly be afoot in such terrible weather turns my hair to bristles.
I check back down the line. Squinting, I briefly make out the silhouette of Sergeant Wynter against the warm light from the guard fire in the yard. With everyone through, the door creeps shut leaving only the black and grey of the storm. We are truly back on patrol in the Borderlands now. I shudder. It is good that the wind is carrying the sound of the hammering away from us.
After reforming two abreast, we carry on down the track. At first, only the occasional stunted tree, bent and twisted by exposure, marks our progress. With trunks warped and branches ice encrusted, they appear suddenly from the darkness. As we pass, they shake and quiver in the wind. They remind me of scarecrows. I wonder what these hideous sentinels might be trying to scare off — us or the Spawn?
Beyond the first switchback, the trees grow taller and denser, cutting down the wind. It is starting to get lighter too. Not the light of dawn, of course. We are surely too far from the border for that now. In the shadow of the Realm of Chaos, there can be no night and day, no dusk and dawn, no brightness and shadow. Instead a little of the light of creation just manages to seep in, perpetually illuminating the Borderlands in a uniform hazy grey. This is the kraulikt.
It is in this half-light that we have come to hunt. My patrol is one of many deployed at many watch posts along the border. As one, it is our purpose to hold back the ever-encroaching Realm of Chaos. As it oozes into the Borderlands, the Realm forms a vile progeny, the Spawn. If left unchecked, these grotesque creatures would fill the Borderlands before spreading into the Homelands to overwhelm us and the other countries of the Rationalle with disorder and pestilence. For aeons we have fought to hold them back. Wild, mindless and untameable, the Spawn cannot be reasoned with. They can only be killed. It is for this gruesome task that we have come.
We trek on as the jagged ice crystals gradually give way to fat flakes, drifting down to carpet any surface flat enough. It is getting warmer now too. Not wanting the settled snow to melt and soak me through, I begin brushing it from my coat and breeches. Even stuck together, the dislodged flakes drift like gossamer to the ground. By the third turn in the track, the leading horses are kicking through deep drifts, stirring up the snow to land on us again as we pass. I fold down my collar and open the top buttons on my coat. How can there be so much snow and it still be so warm?
I take off my gloves and wipe the snow from my thigh with a bare hand. The flakes feel gritty. A few stick to my skin. They don’t feel cold. My skin stings from the heat as I watch them melt. Steam is rising from the damp cuff of my coat. My mind cartwheels. I reach out to test the mane of my horse. The hair snaps and crumbles beneath my fingers. I reach further. His right ear is frozen hard, but not with frostbite, it feels more like… stone!
I race through my memory of the contents of the Aether Guard manual. In response to every imaginable threat, each page describes a threat and the best countermeasures to defeat it. Built up over the aeons and in testament to the creativity of the Realm of Chaos, it has many pages. So very many pages. At least they are neatly sorted and indexed: Environmental threats; Weather patterns; Winter; Snow; Hot. The image of the page in question pops into sharp focus in my mind. “GEESFLOGGEN! COVER UP! EVERYTHING, NOW!” There is no chance for orderly instructions. I look back down the line. The guards gawp at me in shock. “HORSES TOO!”
We have to cover up all exposed flesh. We mustn’t let the snow settle on us, let alone melt on our skin. Twisting in the saddle, I drag my cloak from my pack and throw it over my horse’s neck and head. I hope I am not too rough and snap his poor ear. I check the withers. His blanket and my packs cover most of his rear. Though his tail sticks out a little, hopefully he’ll only lose some hair. Sliding my visor into place, I wrap a large kerchief round my helmet to veil the remaining openings. Though the silk makes everything hazy, it is just thin enough to see through. I cannot afford to leave even the eye slits free. Struggling back into my gloves, I squint out, trying to judge if everyone has followed my command and example.
“Everything covered?” My question draws a handful of shouts. Most are positive. It’ll have to do. What now? We cannot afford to stand here any longer, otherwise we’ll be turned to rock where we stand. I pray that it hasn’t started happening to our horses’ legs already. We could turn, but heading back up the hill will take too long, especially if the wind has drifted the geesfloggen deeply on the track. We’ll be statues before we ever reach the watch post. I think of the stunted trees and my skin creeps.
We need to head down, get below the snow line so that the flakes melt high overhead before ever reaching the ground. “Follow me! Single file. Keep to my tracks!” My heels dig deep and we launch down the path. We need speed. Not only will we get to safety sooner, but at full gallop the horses take bigger strides. The less often their poor hooves touch the geesfloggen the better. The scarf helps to keep some of the wind from my eyes, but things are still flashing past in a silken blur. I hope I can make out the track clearly enough to make every turn and not barrel us all off a cliff.
The sound of our charge is beginning to change. On the powdery flakes the hooves are muffled and dull. Now our stampede occasionally drums and echoes back from the hillsides as the ground briefly hardens. The snow is beginning to melt in patches. As we ride through them, I can feel how my horse’s hooves squirm for purchase whenever they hit slushy patches or the wet stones beneath pooling water. My horse must be tiring but he manages to stay upright despite galloping blind over such variable terrain. If he turns a hoof, we are all done for.
Beneath my scarf the hot damp is unbearable. On the outside, the flakes are forming a damp grey mush, clogging the fine pores of the textile, seeping through as steaming water. It is becoming a struggle to draw air. Knocking the slush away, I take a deep breath. My lips burn as the damp is sucked from the silk. Droplets of scalding water coat my throat and lungs. I cough, feeling how my phlegm comes up like egg shells. I spit out the grains of mucous, but the scarf catches them so that they trickle down to scratch against my collar.
My eyes are watering from the relentless coughing. Combined with the scarf’s increasing opacity, following the track has become pure guesswork. Fresh air washes over the corner of my face as I pull back a fold of the scarf and hazard an unprotected glance beyond. Blinking hard, I get a heart’s beat of clear vision as the wind carries away the stinging teardrop. The geesfloggen has turned to sleet. It still scalds where it strikes my cheek but its power to turn us to stone is ebbing. Soon it will just be water again. I pull back the scarf a little more and take a cautious lungful of air before clearing the remains of the sand from my throat.
Freeing my face completely, I squint forward into the sleet. Though I must blink continuously, the kraulikt is stronger now, probably as bright as it is ever going to get. The pale grey slushy streak of the track is easy to follow as it winds between the dark damp of the fir trees. I look back at my guards, trying to gauge if everyone is keeping up. Stretched past the last bend, it is impossible to tell. I look forward again. It is almost too late.
Ahead, melt water has cut a deep gulley through the loose earth of the track. With my horse still running blind beneath my cloak, we might have run straight into it, crippling the horse and throwing me Ancients know how far into the trees. We can’t afford to slow and it is too close to stop now anyway. At the last moment, I haul my mount into the air and he leaps the gurgling stream. As we land on the far side, I cannot check if the others have made the jump. Another stream is directly before us.