By Reed Martin Miller
“What do we do now?” Faedin asked, a note of deepest concern in his usually calm and collected tenor. He was still soaking wet from the desperate swim out of the sea that had saved his life, along with the handful of other castaways that the Wisp Sea hadn’t drowned and the daggerteeth hadn’t hauled broken and bleeding down into the depths. “What are we going to do?!”
“Shut your gom, Faed.” Braedyn said as he picked himself up off the shingle, wiping his mouth with the sodden hem of his cloak and avoiding the puddle that he had retched up onto the course, red sand and black gravel beach to walk past the younger man and stare out across the cyclopean landscape before them.
It wasn’t just that the landscape was different than the rolling green hills and deep forests of their homeland. Different was not strong enough of a word to describe what they saw: It was alien to them.
Between the slow rolling fog and the wan light of the dawn they could not see more than a score of hands off of the sand, but what they saw was like nothing than any of them had ever dreamed of in their wildest fancies or recoiled from in the darkest nightmares. Even the trees were so far from the norm that the strongest of the band, a hulking brute of a man called Bram, felt an unbidden shiver course up his skin that had nothing to do with the chill of the air and sea.
“We seem then to have two choices, mates.” Braedyn said, his own eyes wide and his mouth suddenly dry. “We either get about the business of surviving or we fall on our blades here in front of these damnable trees without ever seeing what they hide.”
There were mutters of agreement throughout as well as a few supplications to the gods to deliver them, but these were few and far between which suited Braedyn just fine. He was a believer, but he felt that the gods were indifferent at best if not outright capricious in their dealings in the lives of men, and in his experience the true devotees were more trouble than they were worth.
“Trees? What trees, Bren Braedyn? I see naught but red leaved abominations and foul, blue fungus!” He heard from far behind and glanced over his shoulder to see that to his very great displeasure Pontaen Alvanis had survived to see the shore.
He was a short, and pugnacious man in his middle years that had no business being aboard ship in the first place. Indolent and prideful, he had spent the entire previous month at sea either brow-beating the crew or simply beating his servant for any one of a hundred real or presumed failings. Men like Alvanis, who used their position for gain and their religion as an excuse to be a fiend were probably nine out of the ten reasons Braedyn avoided temples and shrines as he did.
“Aye, Alvanis. You describe the vegetation true, but if I went about saying, “Red Leaved Abominations and Foul Blue Fungus,” instead of trees, the men would lose interest and wander off into the blasted things to get themselves killed. So unless you’ve a better monosyllable to describe them, I think I’ll just call them trees!”
A chorus of derisive laughter erupted from the men with a spattering of hisses of disapproval, but on the whole Braedyn thought well of the outcome. He hated playing at word games with men who had little else to do than sharpen their tongues, but he wasn’t so stupid as to think it wasn’t necessary on occasion. Establishing his command in the absence of the now deceased Bren Mern was essential to all of their survival, even the fool Alvanis who hadn’t had the common decency to drown.
“Now we’ve made official the vocabulary, let us get down to business!” He shouted and began to give instruction to the sailors, the pride of Halpernia’ Merchant Navy and was disappointed to see that only one in five of them had had the presence of mind to be armed when the storm hammered into them and tossed their ship onto the coral reef that had turned the stalwart vessel into so much flotsam and jetsam. Of those he was the only one had more than one of the small stilettos favored on the docks and harbors they frequented.
Long experience at bad luck had taught him to carry an axe wherever he went, and he’d failed to be disappointed when the time came to use it. That time seemed always to come along eventually.
“What do you need to survive, mates? Shelter, water, and food! In that order!” He shouted so all could hear and then set out putting them into groups of three and giving each group an assignment. These men knew each other, and he knew that they would work well together if given proper incentive. He gave it to them in the flavor that they all knew from home, “Victory or death, boys!”
Within two hours they had gathered driftwood and laid it out under the red-leaved trees at the edge of the beach, then covered them over with branched from the strange, yet sweet scented trees. The beds weren’t much, but they would do to keep the survivors off of the ground, and help to keep them warm.
“Bren Braedyn?” A voice squeaked from behind, and the dark haired man turned to look, but he didn’t have to. There was only one among them that spoke so meekly, and Braedyn knew him well enough, felt very bad for him, but knew him. How could he not have a little pity on the poor sod whose task was to wait hand and foot on a puffed up idiot such as Alvinis?
“Let me guess, Paelyn. Alvanis is upset that I spoke to him in such a rude manner and has sent you to fetch me for an ear full?”
The young man, barely more than a boy really, laughed but Braedyn could hear as well as see the truth in that laugh, that the lad was terrified either of the island, his master or his current task. Braedyn would not have been surprised to look down and see a fresh stream of urine trickling down his flaxen trousers, but before he did he looked closer at the boy and saw that he was looking past Braedyn, past the beach.
It was midmorning now, and the sun was chasing away the mist as surely as it was bringing an unwelcome and unseasonable warmth to the castaways, but the lack of mist made the crimson forest much more visible.
Slowly, Braedyn turned his head to the face the forest just in time to see a spear leave a pale and boney hand. He was fast enough to dodge to the left and suck in his stomach as he turned his profile to the attacker, but the stone-tipped spear missed him by the barest of inches. Paelyn, standing as still as a bird in the eyes of an adder wasn’t as lucky, and the spear struck him center mass, breaking through his breast bone with a sickening snap that brought all eyes around to face them.
Braedyn fell over backwards, tripping over the bed he’d just created for himself and landed in a huff on the shingle, staring gape mouthed at the attacker that now brandished another spear, and screamed defiantly, whipping his head from left to right as if screaming at the whole group of survivors.
Short of stature and small of frame, the attacker looked like a sun-starved child clad in grey furs that barely covered gaunt features and a drawn, beardless face that was ashen except for the twin red stripes painted across its face from the right eye to the left cheek. It lifted the spear high, cried out in a tongue that was lilting and undulating, then threw the thing with mind-numbing alacrity into the gathered mass of sailors.
Some dove to the left, others to the right but almost all moved in some way even if it was by force of impact from their fellows. Alvanis was the only of them that didn’t move, and it was his poor luck that the spear hit him in his right eye and came out the back of his skull. Braedyn, who watched this with barely suppressed terror took a moment to realize that despite everything that had gone on between himself and Alvanis, and also despite the fact that he himself had thought of at least a dozen different ways in which he’d have killed the portly old cleric, the man’ death infuriated him.
“I’m going to kill that damned ghost!” He roared as he rolled over to his front and climbed to his feet. He wasn’t at all sure when he’d pulled his axe from the loop on his belt but it was in his right hand and he was squeezing the haft so hard that he felt his knuckles popping even as his legs carried him towards the edge of the forest.
The ghost-pale fiend crouched and bared its teeth in challenge then leapt headlong to meet Braedyn’ charge, still shouting in its strange native language as it pulled a bone handled stone knife from behind its back.
The two met where the red sand met the strange bluish grass, Braedyn grasping his axe in both hands, one on the grip polished leather handle and the other just below the bearded blade meaning to strike the fiend in the face with the haft and then jam the well-honed steel into soft flesh, but it didn’t work out quite that well. Before Braedyn could react at all, the pale skinned devil ducked the haft and had both hands wound up in Braedyn’ cloak. With a twist and a tug the not too small sailor was flying tail over tea kettle into the tree closest to him and his vision was filled with a sharp flash of light form the impact, and then again when he fell from the trunk to the ground.
Braedyn heard various screams of pain and fear and anger that blended into a hellish rhapsody and try as he might he could not force his eyes to open once they fell closed. No force of his willpower could hold off the coming blackness that enveloped him, and to later to his shame he would remember of that moment that he didn’t want to fight it back.
“He stirs!” Braedyn heard as soft light began to fill his vision, his mind slowly coming back to the forefront. “He yet lives!”
The voice belonged to Bram, the man that was the size and temperament of a merindrel, the huge shaggy-haired beasts of burden that the Halpernians used to operate the cranks on their dock cranes. It was a deep and sonorous basso rumble that reminded Bren Braedyn of the wheels of an ale cart rolling on hard-pack.
“Where is it?!” Braedyn spat as he pushed himself up onto his elbows, his head still spinning and throbbing from the impact and recovery. “Where’s that little…?” The question died as his eyes fell on the very still and battered form that lay just a few feet from him.
“Bram killed it, Bren Braedyn!” Faedin pipped up, clutching himself around the crook of his left elbow trying to staunch the bleeding of what must have been a nasty cut. “Was a close thing though. Bram hit it in the head with a stick of green-wood as big round as my calf and it only seemed to make the haint mad! Fiend didn’t even bleed! Was a harbinger straight out of the Sulphur Lakes, Bren Braedyn!”
“Settle down, Faed, and it’s just Braedyn while we’re ashore man. How can I be Bren of the ship when we’ve no ship to sail?” He said touching the back of his head tentatively and wincing when his fingers met a knot the size of a ducks egg. “Also, if there were Harbingers of Sulphur on this island, or on any island anywhere, we’d have heard the Hunting Horn of Harking to announce the coming of the gods for the Final Battle. D’you hear any horns while I mended? Didn’t think so.”
“But Bren…I mean, Braedyn! The thing didn’t bleed! Even when Bram pulled its arms out of their sockets just like it was a fowl at a feast day dinner it didn’t bleed! On my honor there just came a puff of dust!”
Finding his feet on unsteady legs he stumbled as much as walked the short distance to inspect the body and felt a deep and superstitious trepidation as he looked down at the pile of bone and fur that had been so violently animated a short time before. “No blood. What the blazes?”
“All of the clerics ran away as soon as they saw the remains, Braedyn. Took off into the trees like their hair was aflame and their tails catchin’. Screaming to the top of their lungs the whole lot of them. Should we go after ‘em?”
“No, Faed.” Braedyn replied after several long moments of thought. “We’re less than a score and on hostile ground even with the brow-beaters. No, their fate is in the hands of the gods. Where are we with supplies?”
One of the older sailors, a man called Gruff answered. “We’ve found sweet water in a stream a few minutes northeast of here so as long as we can go there we’re covered for drink, sir. There were fish aplenty in that water as well. Mean, nasty looking buggers but Faed ate one and he hasn’t died yet. Was a double shock since he ate the thing raw, was more afraid of burning the wood and poisoning himself than he was with eating raw fish.”
Braedyn’ stomach grumbled at the sound, but he had more important worries at the moment than cooking with strange wood versus eating strange fish raw. Worries that were suddenly and violently accentuated by a cacophony of terrorized screams that sprang up in the distance followed by enraged howls. All of these noises faded rapidly into silence over the course of ten breaths.
“Gods protect us.” Gruff muttered out loud, his grizzled and scar crossed face going as white as fresh milk despite the now oppressive heat. “We’re all going to die on this forsaken lump of rock.”
Murmurs quickly became mutters which led to a growing frenzy of fear as the sailors on the beach began to drop to their knees and pour out supplications, but an ear splitting whistle cut them off and all eyes turned to Braedyn and all voices went silent in the face of his grim determination.
“Gruff did the gods bless you with prescience? Were you given a vision of doom?” He asked in a stony voice. The men were afraid and frightened men made mistakes that would lead without doubt to the very end that terrified them so. He had to stomp it out now, or they really were all doomed. “Because if they didn’t and you’re just talking out of your backside and whipping these good men into a fit I ought to have you flogged for a coward!”
Gruff’ face filled with red and his jaw set in a fashion that Braedyn truly loved. An angry man made mistakes that could get him killed just as easily as a frightened man, but an angry man seldom stood still like a lamb at the slaughter. ‘Good.’ The shore stuck Bren thought and continued.
“I don’t intend to give this island the satisfaction of my bones just yet! I intend to survive, and I intend to make this gods forsaken speck of land learn that to fear me and mine! This isn’t the first time I’ve been cast away boys, and I know that a few of you have been there as well! Gruff! You spent ten moons on that desert island right beside me. How many nights did you cry yourself to sleep? None! Not a single one. Blazes man, you knocked me in the head at the first sign of me giving up! Beat sense into me when I couldn’t gather it myself!”
“Blasted right I did, sir!” Gruff said then spat on the sand to a small ringing of laughter.
“Bram! Your face is wet. That’s sweat I assume? Cause I’d hate to think a man big as you’d be mewling for his mother!”
“My mother scares the dung outta me, Bren.” He said in his basso, and the laughter of the men grew with that even further, particularly when the huge man began nodding his head and saying, “it’s true, it’s true!”
“You boys with the stickers make sure they’re sharp, the rest of you grab a rock or a tree limb, or better yet both! Make yourself something to split some skulls and let’s be quick about it!”
They cheered and turned to do as they were told while Braedyn turned to look down at the shattered remains of the child-sized monster that had killed two men and scared away a half dozen others to be slaughtered in the forest. The gods only knew how many of these bone-children there were, but he was acutely aware that he only had himself and a little over a dozen men who were to use improvised weapons against these things that failed to bleed and who could toss a grown man around like a rag doll.
He meant every word that he’d said, even the bits that were as much bluster as not, but now that the men were on task, he could not help but feel a little of the fear that he’d dispelled in them. It was with a shaking hand that he put the blade of his axe to the sharpening stone from his belt pouch and began to prepare his weapon and himself for the inevitable.
They had to get off this beach, and find better shelter, hopefully away from their adversaries that they knew nearly nothing about except that they were hard to kill and didn’t bleed.
“Blast it to Dagoth it is hot.” Gruff muttered as he wiped sweat from his brow with a forearm to nodded ascents from all around him. “Was cold as the North Sea last night, not as hot as the Dread One’ balls this afternoon! Blast it to Dagoth!”
When they left the beach, they’d taken to the northeast and were skirting the stream that Faedin had found deeper into the island in a column, each man within double arm reach of the man in front and the man behind the lead man of the column falling back every few hundred spans to take over the rear. This made sure that the man at the front and the one at the rear had fresh eyes.
Braedyn kept at the front, and a little off to the right flank, trying to keep his eyes sweeping left, fore and right, but it all looked the same. Red leaved trees with pinkish skin rather than bark, with mushrooms in various hues of blue blanketing the ground. It was enough to make even the sharpest eyed man go dull, but the worst part, more than the hellish heat and far worse than the deceptive monotony of the forest was the silence that was broken only by the bubbling flow of the stream. No animal chittering, not bird calls, not even the chirps of insects.
They began to despair that they would never find shelter until they walked out of the forest into a bright glade at the edge of a shear rock-face that was at least a hundred and fifty spans tall, and from which water fell into an impossibly deep pool from which the stream poured out into the forest.
The best find however was the small cave behind the water-fall.
More of a hollow than a cave, it was twelve span deep, and ten across with a mouth that only Bram had difficulty in squeezing into, and with a pool outside full of sweet water and fish it was perfect.
Braedyn couldn’t help but think that it was too perfect. He wanted to run screaming from the place as soon as that thought sank in but for better or worse, it had everything that they needed if they were going to survive long enough to being planning an escape.
“We’ll see what happens tonight, Bren.” Gruff said as he took a bite of one of the strange fish from the pool and Braedyn could tell that the man had been right about them. They were ugly as sin and with teeth that made them look like a cousin to the daggerteeth out in the open ocean, but after he’d gobbled one down, and started on the second he had to appreciate that with a little pepper they’d be quite tasty.
“I hate to agree with you, old man, but you’re right. We will see what happens tonight.”
The temperature began to fall along with the sun, but all of the men had taken their fill of water and of raw fish, the ghastly looking creatures being unused to being lower than the top their food chain they were taken almost as easily as the tree limbs that the men took to build their beds on: reach out, grab hold and pull.
The castaways were about to begin an attempt at making a fire when Faedin yelped and began pointing at the edge of the glade, at nearly the exact point that they themselves had walked in. All men turned their eyes that way and within moments all were gathering up the stone axes that they had fashioned earlier in the day and stepping back towards the mouth of the hollow.
‘You are well to be afraid, intruders.’ Each of the men heard, but their ears registered no sound. The voice, cold and devoid of emotion resounded within their minds and filled them with a dread that was palpable, as if fear had crawled into their souls and festered within. ‘You would have been better to have died with your ship.’
Braedyn was just as afraid as the rest, felt his knees begin to knock, his skin begin to crawl and every instinct told him to run as fast and as far as he could, to let the men at his back die so that he could survive. In his entire life he had never had such a selfish thought, had never hated himself so. Anger welled up in him so strong that his jaw clenched and his hands went white on the haft of his axe. Anger conquers fear.
“You act as if we wish to be here.” Braedyn said in a low voice, walking out into the twilight, his eyes locked on the new arrival. Unlike the bone-children, this creature stood as tall as a man, with skin the color of spun copper, a long slender nose and canted indigo eyes each the size of a fist. It was all angles and straight lines, with a long black braid of course hair that draped over its right shoulder. Every hint of its body language spoke of arrogance and cruelty. “The gods saw fit to tear the keel out from under our ship in yon reef, saw fit to drag many of our number down into the mirthless sea as fodder for the daggerteeth and crabs.”
‘Your gods are cruel, man, to deliver you to me. Your friends are drying as we speak and will be reborn as one of my Horde.’ Braedyn heard within his mind again and saw a dozen of the spritely bone-children flowing slowly out of the scarlet trees to either side of the creature. ‘Just as the rest of you will.’
“Perhaps.” The ship-less Bren said straightening, shedding the fear as a duck sheds water from its back, and letting his axe rest over his right shoulder, exuding a casual air but staring blades at the creature. “Or perhaps, they dropped me and mine here to wipe your filth from their creation! Maybe, they meant to use us as a conduit of their divine retribution!”
‘You are a fool if you think so.’ The creature replied, but there was a small, ever so small, shifting in its posture. It did not look quite as arrogant as before, yet the cruelty remained. ‘Lay down and prostrate yourself and the killing will be shift.’
“That is one option.” Braedyn said with a nod and turned his back on the creature to look back to his men. “What do you think, mates? Like sheep to the slaughter? Or like lions!?”
The crew roared, deep and resonant, then filed out of the shelter of the hollow like whiskey out of the decanter, hefting their stone axes, and cudgels in hands that no longer trembled.
Spinning on his heal, he charged forward into what he was quite sure would be his last stand, but he felt something deep within his breast, something deeper than his anger, something greater than pride. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it felt right. Righter than anything he’d ever known, and was gratified to see the arrogance and cruelty melt away like so much wax from the creature.
The bone-children roared in response and threw themselves at him, a volley of stone-tipped spears leading the way. Any one of them would kill him, and he knew this for fact, but he held tight to that feeling in his breast as he dodged and rolled, then came back to his feet swinging his axe with all of his might at the closest fiend. It roared in pain when the dull luster of the steel sailed into it’ throat with a thud, and all present were shocked to see a flash of brilliant light burst forth from the wound, but none so much as their master.
The light flashed out in a brilliant arc of lightning that struck the next three bone-children in the row and blasted them to so much dust in the breeze. Still that feeling thundered in Braedyn’ chest, and in fact doubled in a wave that blasted all remaining fear and even his anger.
The crew cheered and began singing out praise to their gods as they met the wave of bone-children and carved into them with the ferocity of a starving man on a wheel of cheese with the same results as that first cataclysmic blow. All saw white and felt dust fall on their skin but they charged forward. All but the Bone Master, who turned to run back into the perceived safety of the forest.
“No you don’t!” Braedyn roared at the top of his lungs as he let loose the handle of his axe, throwing it with all of his strength from ten feet away. When it struck the Bone Master, the blade bit deep, sinking to the polished wood handle in it’ coppery flesh.
If the light of impact on the bone-children was awe inspiring, the bolt the erupted from that final blow was uplifting in a way that none could later describe. A ball of purest white blasted out into the sky and turned back down upon the earth, raking a line to the southeast for what seemed hours. When it was finally over, when the crew and their Bren stood alone next to the pool of cold, clear water they found that they could look down the length of the island all the way to the beach and out into the sea beyond at the sails of one of their sister ships anchored just beyond the reef. The trees and the fungus had been obliterated in a long path.
“Bren Braeden…What the holy blazes just happened?” Bram asked in a voice soft but rumbling. His face was covered in ash and dust, but his eyes were wide and filled with awe. “Did the Divines just …?”
“I haven’t been to Temple in ten years, Bram.” Braedyn replied, his own eyes unblinking as they stared down to the beach. “I intend to rectify that as soon as my feet touch Halpernia.”
“I think I will be there with you.” Bram replied with a deep, deep nod and clapped the thunderstruck Bren on the back, nearly knocking him down.
They walked back down to the beach, then sailed away after recovering and burying their dead above the tideline. They soon discovered that the island, despite being on an active trade route had never been named much less placed on any of the nautical charts. It was as if no one had ever sailed there, or at least none had returned.
Bren Faltise of the Halpernian Merchant Ship Mayhew assured Braedyn that the island would be recorded, and asked him what he thought it should be named when it was put down for posterity.
Braedyn took a drink of the fiery whisky that Bren Faltise had given him and said as he looked back over the rolling waves at the island, “I’d say it should be dubbed the Isle of Restored Faith.”
About Reed Martin Miller
Reed Martin Miller resides in Seagoville, Texas with his beautiful wife, precious and precocious daughter, along with a small herd of dogs, cats and chickens. He vacations within the pages of Goodkind, Jordan and King while also finding time to keep the air cool, the lights burning and water flowing at The University of Dallas Facilities Dept. He is still looking for the perfect turn of phrase, and avoiding sanity as much as possible.