The winds of change are blowing upon Fireach Speur. Aoelyn risked her life to save the trader Talmadge and it cost her everything that is dear to her, but Talmadge survived and can’t forget the amazing woman that killed a god.
Little do they realize, war is coming to the mountain. Far to the west, a fallen empire stirs. One that sees a solar eclipse as a call to war. Their empire once dominated the known world and they want it back.
THE SHADOW IN THE DEEP
“You keep looking to the east,” Aydrian noted late the next day, when he found Talmadge halfway up the same ridge from where they had first seen the destruction of Car Seileach. Down below, the work of rebuilding the devastated village and preparing the dead for burial had already begun. “Do you search for the monster?”
Talmadge gave a curt shake of his head, if that’s what it even was, and didn’t otherwise respond, obviously distant and distracted.
“If there is a lake monster,” Aydrian remarked, figuring that would get the man’s attention.
“There is.” Talmadge didn’t even look Aydrian’s way when he spoke the words.
“Tell me of it,” Aydrian bade him.
“There is a monster, a huge and terrible beast. It lives in the lake, and only in the lake from everything I have ever heard. And I have heard much, for the folk of all the villages know of it, and they fear it, but they know how to avoid it and so it rarely kills anyone.”
“It is a great fish?”
“No…” Talmadge paused and shook his head, as if trying to convince himself. “Not a fish, or unlike any I have ever seen or known. Nor is it akin to the giant clo’dearche lizards that swim the waters of Loch Beag.”
“But you believe that something has changed?”
“The villagers speak of the lake monster causing this great upheaval.” Talmadge replied. “Some say that the beast swam up with the great wave and bit their houses apart.”
Aydrian looked back at the ruins of the lake and put on a doubtful expression. “In a time of great tension and fear, the last thing to believe might be the words of those so afraid.”
“There is a monster,” Talmadge repeated. “And it is huge and terrible.”
“You have seen it,” Aydrian remarked.
“Once,” Talmadge said, his voice faltering. “Only once.”
“But you lived to tell the tale.” Aydrian paused, studying Talmadge’s face, recalling their earlier conversation, before they had come running to Car Seileach. “Two years ago,” he added. “You survived.”
“My beloved, Khotai, did not.”
Aydrian and Talmadge fell silent as the sun sank behind them, its last rays sweeping the still, still waters of Loch Beag.
The lake was calm again the next morning. Too calm, perhaps, with nary a ripple showing on this windless day. Even the way the paddles of Talmadge and Aydrian sank into the water seemed exceptionally quiet to both of them that overcast morn as they paddled out of the cove which held Car Seileach. They had done all they could there, or all that they could do which the resilient villagers could not do for themselves.
They were a long way out, moving south and east across the lake, but close to shore as Talmadge had insisted, before the frontiersman even found the courage to speak. “They showed you a great honor in allowing your use of the magical gems,” he told Aydrian. “To the folk of Loch Beag, magic is the evil way of the Usgar.”
“They were in desperation,” Aydrian replied. “Several more would have died if not for the magic of the soul stone, and many others would have remained badly crippled to the end of their days.”
“They lost many,” Talmadge agreed. “A score dead, a dozen missing. But they will survive and go on.”
“There is no other choice,” said Aydrian. He was in front of Talmadge, kneeling and paddling, so the frontiersman couldn’t see his face. But the tone of his voice revealed a grimace, and Talmadge knew that Aydrian’s last statement was also the fallen king’s reminder to himself.
And one to Talmadge, one that pained him and reminded him of that fateful journey across the lake, when he had seen the monster and had lost his beloved Khotai.
The lake was so silky smooth, so deceptive, such a perfect cover for the horrid monstrosity which lurked below.
It wasn’t until Aydrian glanced back at him that Talmadge even realized that he had not put his paddle in the water for many, many heartbeats.
“Would you prefer that we walk?” Aydrian asked.
Talmadge shook his head quickly, before his fears could overrule his good sense. He would have vastly preferred walking around the lake, but knew that such a journey was not without its own dangers and would take much longer. He had to get to Fasach Crann, to his friends, to the village that had taken him in as one of their own so many times over the years. The villagers of Car Seileach had thought it unlikely that the other villages between them and Fasach Crann had been hit nearly as hard, because of the geography of the lake and the areas where those villages had been built, sheltered and often up on rocks, and, of course, Clach Boglach, the town in the backwaters, with houses built on stilts and protected from the wave by many thick groves.
But Fasach Crann had been built right on the waters of Loch Beag, with a long and open beachfront and many houses very near the water. They were not prepared for such an event as this great wave, and why should they be?
Talmadge was afraid of what he would find, but knew that he had to go and look, and help, if there was anything left of the village to salvage. He owed it to the folk, a hundred times over. That realization alone allowed him to dip his paddle under the too-still waters of Loch Beag and more forward.
He let his mind drift back to the happier times when he and Khotai were running the frontier together. There had been no better time in Talmadge’s life! So immersed did he become in those daydreams that he didn’t even realize how rapidly the canoe was moving, gliding along the water with barely a wake, almost as if it was floating above the lake, yet still being propelled by the paddling.
He glanced all about, unsure, and finally, his gaze fell upon Aydrian.
“What are you doing?”
There came no answer, other than a low chant whose words Talmadge could not decipher. He couldn’t get up close enough to look around the front of the man, but if he had, he realized, he would have seen the energy of a gemstone of some sort.
Aydrian’s paddle went into the water, and a great stroke sent them soaring along. Then to the other side of the canoe went the paddle, and again, the canoe lurched forward.
Talmadge kept up his own paddling, but watched the shore now more than the lake ahead, his jaw hanging in disbelief at the shoreline sliding past at great speed.
It ended a short while later, and Aydrian lifted his paddle and held it across the canoe and leaned on it, giving a big exhale, as one might after a great physical exertion.
“Magic?” Talmadge asked.
It took Aydrian a moment to catch his breath. “I wasn’t sure if I could manipulate it that way, to take the weight from myself, the canoe, and you all at once.”
“At the same time, I was giving both of us greater strength for our pulls,” Aydrian went on. “I don’t know it you felt the gusting tailwind, but that, too…”
He paused and laughed, and added, “I am quite weary.”
“But we are near to Fasach Crann already,” Talmadge informed him. “In a single day! You see those rocks ahead, and the bend to the south beyond? From there, we will catch sight of the village.”
Aydrian continued to rest for a bit, but Talmadge picked up the pace behind him, and even without the magical enhancements they made good time in rounding the rocky peninsula. Talmadge held his breath as they turned toward the south, then gave a great sigh of despair when Fasach Crann—when what used to be Fasach Crann—came into view.
The wave had reached up to the back edges of the village. Talmadge could clearly see the line where it had reversed, taking all the vegetation, and all of the structures, with it. As his initial shock wore off, he took some comfort in noting that the rebuilding of the village was already under way, and that there was much activity and many villagers working.
“They saw it coming,” he whispered hopefully.
“The ground rises swiftly not so far back from the shore,” Aydrian remarked. He put his paddle into the water and helped drive them to the water’s edge, and soon both were out of the canoe and dragging it forward.
A mob of villagers, spears and clubs raised, their faces twisted with outrage, came rushing down at them, others whooping and calling out alarms. The mob slowed, though, and put up their weapons somewhat, when they recognized Talmadge.
“Talmadge of the East,” said an older man, stepping out before the others. “That is not my boat!”
“It is not, friend Memmic,” Talmadge replied. “The great wave took your boat. This is a boat from Car Seileach, who gave it to me to cross the lake back to you.”
“What of Car Seileach?” asked another villager, a young woman named Catriona with golden hair, thick and braided, and a growing reputation as a superb fisherwoman.
“Ruined, like here…” Talmadge started to reply.
“And who is he?” Catriona insisted, prodding her spear toward the stranger, who couldn’t, of course, understand any of this chatter.
“Where did Talmadge find more coin for such a boat?” Memmic wanted to know.
“He is… I did’no,” Talmadge said, turning to an answer far easier than explaining King Aydrian! “They gave me the boat because of my… of our, efforts in helping them after the great wave. Many died, and many homes were washed…”
“Who is he?” Catriona demanded again.
“A great hero of the eastern lands,” Talmadge replied quickly.
“Come at the same time as the great wave?” Catriona asked.
“At the same time as the darkness in the day?” another man from further back in the gathering added.
Talmadge realized that this was not going well. He turned to Aydrian and warned, “Make no move to threaten.”
Aydrian shrugged, seeming fully at ease.
“We came to help,” Talmadge told Memmic, and particularly Catriona, who seemed as if she was taking the lead here. The frontiersman looked about, hoping to spot some of the other noted leaders of the tribe with whom he was on better terms. Judging from the size of the gathering, it seemed to him that most of Fasach Crann’s tribe was out here, and unlike with Car Seileach, few of the people here seemed to have been wounded.
“How did you…” he started to ask, but paused and shook his head. “I feared that I’d be finding many dead.”
“We’ve got missing,” said Memmic.
“Take their boat,” Catriona told some of the others, who advanced immediately.
Talmadge moved to intercept, as did Aydrian, and that brought the spears and clubs up high again.
“I am no enemy,” Talmadge reminded them.
“Take the boat,” Catriona said more insistently, her stare locked on Talmadge.
“We lost two boats on the lake,” Memmic explained, pointing out to the north. There, far out on the lake, loomed the angled mast of a sunken fishing boat. “The wave took them and flipped them—that is how we first saw it coming, and in enough time to flee the village to the higher land.”
“What are they talking about?” Aydrian asked, and Talmadge stepped aside and pulled Aydrian with him, then surrendered the canoe while he translated the conversation.
Aydrian looked out to the lake, then glanced back to see the villagers, turning the canoe to paddle out.
“Stay here,” Aydrian told Talmadge.
“Don’t,” Talmadge warned, but Aydrian shrugged him aside, and pulled off the cloak that had been covering his fabulous, shining armor.
That elicited more than a few gasps, notably from Catriona, who started to say something—likely a command to attack the man, Talmadge thought—but stopped and gasped instead as the stranger ran to the water, then began running across the water!
The two men at the canoe dropped it to the sand and stood gawking, as did all the rest.
“Talmadge?” Memmic and Catriona said together.
“Not Usgar,” Talmadge said immediately, thinking it wise to get that out there right up front. “He is, he was, a king from a land called Honce, a land I once called home.”
“He was your king?” Catriona asked.
“No, well, perhaps yes,” Talmadge stuttered. “I knew little of the greater…” He fumbled about, trying to recall the lakeman word for “cities,” but then gave up the hunt. Did they even have such a word?
“I knew little of the great Honce villages,” he said.
“You didn’t know your king?”
“I was already in the west when Aydrian ascended,” Talmadge explained, but just waved his hand and let it go at that. There would be plenty of time for explanations and proper introductions later.
He turned to see Aydrian running far from shore, that fabulous armor gleaming.
“What made the wave?” Talmadge asked Catriona, who was also obviously entranced by the sight of the man running atop Loch Beag.
“The monster,” Memmic answered for her.
“How does he run on water?” Catriona asked.
“Magic,” said Talmadge, and he quickly added, “Not Usgar!”
“This is the magic of the east?”
Talmadge nodded. “He can heal, too. If you have wounded, prepare them for Aydrian’s strong hand.”
“You speak like a fool,” said Catriona.
“That is why Car Seileach gave us the boat. Aydrian healed many. Many who would have died, now live. They rebuild homes instead of funeral pyres.”
“He is strong with magic?” asked Catriona.
“Strong enough to hide the sun? Strong enough to lift the waters of Loch Beag?”
Talmadge stuttered. There was no missing the threat there, and the man almost expected to be assaulted then and there! “No, no!” he sputtered. “No, he was with me when the sun hid, and with me when the lake waters rose.”
“In Memmic’s boat, and you survived?”
“No, on land, near Car Seileach. They had seen him. They sent me to find…” He took a deep breath, realizing that he was veering all over the place here. “Aydrian of the East was with me when the sun hid and the wave came,” he said more calmly, trying to exude confidence, trying to elicit confidence. “I came upon him in a meadow near the willows,” he said. “He is known to me.”
“He was your king.”
“I did’no know that. Not then, and not before when we met by a river far from this land. But I did know that he was no enemy, and so I found him once more, and together we watched the sun hide, and together we watched the water rise, and together we ran to Car Seileach to help them as we could. And we did, all through the day and night.”
“And night?” Catriona asked doubtfully, and murmurs arose around her.
Talmadge understood, and could only heave a sigh. He had just claimed to have spent the night across the lake in Car Seileach, but that story would hold little sway because it would make little sense to the folk of Fasach Crann, who knew that to get to the western village would take much more than one day of canoeing.
Talmadge answered the only way he could, by turning and sweeping his arm out to Aydrian, running across the water, already far from shore.
His hand glowed with a yellowish hue as he clutched a magical bit of amber, calling upon its powers to keep him above the waters. Of all the magical gems, this one most unnerved Aydrian, even more than flying with moonstone, for the feel of a watery cushion beneath his feet, not only supporting him, but lifting him in his bounds (which were accentuated even more by the weight-reducing powers of the malachite) seemed very strange to him indeed.
He glanced back to see the canoe launch behind him and that only spurred him on faster. If there was something bad out there, he wanted to discover it and be away before any more of the villagers could be caught and killed.
Another sprint, great, leaping bounds, moved him far from shore, and when he glanced back then, the canoe was a distant speck, while before him, the capsized boat loomed large. The beauty of the amber water-walking was that it barely left a ripple on the water, so the ranger let it all settle quickly about him, then peered through the translucent haze.
He was surprised to learn that he could see no hint of the bottom anywhere about. This mountain lake was clearly very deep.
He moved to the boat and knocked on the hull, then put his ear against it, quietly called out, and listened.
He could hear the water slightly lapping at the wood inside, but nothing more. He drew another gemstone from his belt pouch, a green agate, and sent his thoughts into it, that he could detect life.
He saw nothing, other than an occasional flitter that he knew to be a fish.
Still, Aydrian wasn’t satisfied. Anyone inside might simply be too exhausted or frightened to call back, or even unconscious and lashed to the rail. Aydrian rolled up the sleeve of his fine shirt to the edge of his breastplate and checked the knot on a green band of cloth that he had tied there.
He sent his thoughts into that band, feeling the magic of the elves ready and waiting for him.
Simply out of habit, for there was certainly no need, he took a deep breath and let go of his amber magic, sliding under the lake waters, under the edge of the boat and around to come back up inside the overturned craft.
No survivors were waiting for him. Just an empty hull.
He knew he couldn’t stay under the water for long, for it was very cold, but he wanted to explore more. He came back up to the surface, took another deep breath, simply out of habit, and dove again, this time swimming straight down and releasing the malachite magic of his armor, so it weighed on him like an anchor. The elves had taught him to be careful of his descent in deep waters, so he used the malachite, even the amber, to slow himself, and to pause more than once. Breathing underwater was no problem with the green armband of purity.
Down he went, and it began to grow darker all about him. Still, he could see, much farther than from the surface, and gradually began to make out shapes far, far below, to the lake’s deep bottom, he supposed.
He made out one shape—it seemed an underwater mountain, huge and even-sided.
How he wanted to go and investigate further! But he could feel the press of the water upon him and knew that he could not. For all his magic, he could not dive that deep, and worse, the cold of the waters was beginning to creep into his limbs. His feet grew numb.
He called on the malachite to fully free him from the weight of his breastplate, then began to slowly swim upward, going just a few feet, then pausing to let his body acclimate to the lessened pressure. In that moment, he threw as much of himself as he could into the green agate, widening its range in detecting living creatures.
Fish, fish, and more fish. Something else, then, which Aydrian came to realize as a rather large lizard. But no people. He had cast a wide net, and if any of the missing villagers from Fasach Crann were in that net, they were not alive.
Up he went some more, continuing to power the agate most of all, searching to the very end. He had moved for some time, though was still far below the surface, when he sensed something.
Something not human.
Something much greater and more powerful than any human.
He paused in his ascent and followed the sensations of the gemstone, peering down, down, into the gloom.
Then he saw it—not the creature, but its shadow, its snake-like silhouette going on and on, wider than a team of fat oxen standing side by side, longer than a caravan of wagons stretched end to end.
Larger than Agradeleous, the dragon of Behr, a great and gigantic snake-like shadow slithering through the water far below!
It couldn’t be. Aydrian could not wrap his sensibilities around something this… huge, swimming about in an inland lake. Or even in the Mirianic Ocean. He had heard the tales of journeys to the distant island of the ring stones, and never had even those obvious exaggerations come close to the reality of the shadow beneath him.
He thought it might be a trick of the water, some distortion that made this creature, whatever it was, seem larger. Or a giant school of fish, swimming in tight formation.
But no, the agate was screaming in his mind. The sheer power of this living being, this singular living being, overwhelmed everything else.
He saw it. He couldn’t deny it. And then, as it turned, Aydrian realized that it saw him.
His hand went reflexively to his sword hilt, but even as he touched the weapon, he felt himself a fool.
He couldn’t fight this thing with a weapon, any weapon, not even Tempest, his sword, or Hawkwing, his bow. He would need magic, powerful spells—spells that he knew to be beyond him.
Aydrian shook himself from his stupor.
“Magic?” he said skeptically, though it came out as merely bubbles.
He would need an army, and probably a dragon of his own!
But the beast had seen him and had turned, and he felt its approach. He would be swallowed whole, and perhaps that would be the best possible outcome.
Hardly even thinking of the movement, Aydrian threw himself into his amber, the stone of water walking, and flung its magic all about. Upward he shot, slicing through the water like a fired arrow. He drew his sword and put it up before him, thinking the narrower leading tip would give him more speed and some measure of control. He saw the daylight approaching fast, and then he was in it, but breaking the surface didn’t stop his ascent, no, for the amber would not be satisfied until he was out of the water, above the water.
He shot up into the air like a graceful Mirianic dolphin, rising above the water a dozen feet and more before he played out his momentum and dropped back down—but down only to the top of the water, where he began to run.
For all his life, Aydrian ran, maintaining the amber, calling upon the malachite, leaping and bounding, twenty feet, thirty feet at a stride. He couldn’t know if the monster was in pursuit, if it was right behind him, even, because he had released the magic of the agate out of necessity, to focus all of his energy on the two gems that could get him out of there the fastest.
He spotted the canoe, far ahead of him, not so far out from shore.
“Go back!” he yelled, waving his arms. “Turn about! Turn about!”
They couldn’t understand him, of course, not his words anyway, but neither could they miss the frantic waving, or the fact that this stranger, so splendidly armored, was running for his life. They began to turn the canoe, but as skilled as they were on the waters, Aydrian could see that they’d never get it turned about and back to shore in time.
So he ran for them, and he fell deeper into the malachite, and he called upon the bloodstone set in his armor to enhance his strength, and he grabbed the turning canoe by the prow, and he pulled. For all his life he pulled. For both of their lives, he pulled.
The villagers paddled wildly, trying to help, but there was no doubt of what, or who, was propelling this boat as it sped along, as fast as if it had great and wide sails that were full of a wintry gale!
As they neared the shoreline, the gathering there, almost all of the tribe, began to cheer them on, begging for speed. A quick glance over his shoulder told Aydrian why, for a large swell was following the craft.
He knew what it was.
So he ran faster, driving his legs, pushing his feet against the water and leaping off. As he neared the beach, the gathering broke apart, retreating, screaming, and so, when Aydrian hit the beach, he kept running, and kept pulling, and used his malachite to steal most of the weight from the raft and its paddlers behind him. But then they were out, and running by, and Aydrian dropped the boat and sped away.
A swell rolled up onto the beach and broke apart harmlessly, the monster, if it was the monster, not showing itself above the water.
Aydrian stumbled and let himself fall to the sand, thoroughly exhausted.
Talmadge came to him soon after, along with the man he had called Memmic and the woman named Catriona.
Aydrian nodded. “There are no people alive out there,” he said. “Tell them that their friends are lost. And tell them to stay off the water for a long while.”
“It was the lake monster?” Talmadge asked.
Aydrian nodded again.
“A dragon? A demon?”
“I have seen a dragon,” Aydrian said. “A true dragon, terrible and breathing fire. I do not think it more terrible than this beast.”
Talmadge stared at him, then turned to translate for his Fasach Crann companions.
“Tell them to stay off the water,” Aydrian said breathlessly. “Just stay off the water.”
Aydrian and Talmadge, too, stayed off the water, when they left Fasach Crann the next morning. They had helped as they could that previous night, clearing debris, and Aydrian using his soul stone to heal many minor wounds—but only minor, to the great credit of the folk of the village, who had fled without question or pause when the wave had been spotted. In this regard, they had found a huge advantage over the victims in Car Seileach, for that town, in a sheltered cove, did not have so wide and clear a view of the open lake waters.
Nor did the next village over to the west, Carrachan Shoal, they were told, and so, with the gratitude of the folk of Fasach Crann, the pair headed straight out to where their efforts and magical healing might prove more critical.
But not on the lake. None were going out on the lake, except one boat Aydrian towed out from shore and anchored, a boat flying a flag of warning to all the other villages.
Even by land, it was not a long journey to Carrachan Shoal—it was actually shorter in distance, though the terrain was much rougher. It would have taken a villager more than a day to make the crossing over the rocky ridge that separated the communities, but with Aydrian’s magic, he and Talmadge scooted up in short order, and from the top, they spied the village of Carrachan Shoal, and saw, to their relief, that the wave had not done considerable damage there. For while the cove itself was shallow, as with CarS eileach, the bend of it had sent the bulk of the wave off to the western side, where there were no structures.
“Hopefully, you will be back in Fasach Crann tomorrow,” Aydrian said.
“Hopefully, we both will.”
“Teach me their language.”
“It would take months,” said Talmadge.
Aydrian held up a soul stone. “I know an easier way, but let us discuss that another day.”
Talmadge looked at him curiously as Aydrian led the way down the other side of the ridgeline. He knew that stone as the one Aydrian was using for healing. He didn’t know, however, that it could also be used for possession, or a spiritual, mental link.
The greeting at Carrachan Shoal was the same as at Fasach Crann—colder, even, and more threatening, for while Talmadge was known there, he was not nearly as friendly with these villagers as with those in the town over the ridge. Still, it was going well enough as he introduced them to Aydrian and explained that this was the man who had brought the boat with the warning flag out upon Loch Beag at the request of Catriona of Fasach Crann.
“He can heal your wounded, as well,” Talmadge was saying. “He is possessed of great magic from the east. Not evil and destructive, as the Usgar, but gentle and warm.”
Many nods came back at him, and whispered conversations went on all about as the villagers tried to come to terms with these two visitors after so devastating an event on their precious lake.
Talmadge took in as much as he could garner from the whispers, giving them time, and looked over at Aydrian with a smile and a nod.
A nod that froze halfway through.
A smile that fell with a figurative thump into a frown.
For there, past Aydrian, was another of the villagers of Carrachan Shoal, though hardly a native.
There, on a roller cart, rested a one-legged woman.
“Khotai,” Talmadge mouthed, but hadn’t the strength to say aloud, and then he toppled and would have hit the ground had not the agile and strong Aydrian caught him in mid-fall.
Excerpted from Reckoning of Fallen Gods, copyright © 2018 by R. A. Salvatore