Tunnea Nalton and her friends Ruth Gamor and Joanna Cullo were making their way back down the river road towards the village of Hornblower. Each carried a small wooden pole and a stringer of fish, though Tunnea’s pride in having caught the most was evident in the frequent flash of her smile.
Tunnea’s smile faded as she glanced to the west. The sun had just settled out of sight behind the walls of Minas Palanar, giving the ancient structure a golden halo that was in sharp contrast to its cold black stones. The castle was impressive enough by day, sitting high atop the western cliff of the river gorge. But now, with the shadow of its tower reaching out like a taloned arm, the castle was particularly sinister.
It wasn’t the castle that worried Tunnea, though; it was the fear of what her brother would say if he caught her coming in after dark. He took the threat of the Reps quite seriously, and was convinced that the best way to reduce the frequency of Rep attacks was to give them fewer targets to pick from. That met imposing a curfew, especially on children and teenagers, though Tunnea preferred to think of herself as a young adult. Jed would be publicly embarrassed if she was seen wandering around outdoors after dark. He’d be angry at her as well, though more out of fear for her safety than the embarrassment.
Jed was a good brother, but he’d been extra cautious about her since their parents had died last year. Too cautious, thought Tunnea; it really put a crimp on her few friendships.
She glanced nervously up at the castle again, and picked up her pace along the road. Ruth noticed this and couldn’t resist a little barb.
“What’s the matter, Tunny? Scared the big bad Reps gonna get you?”
Joanna turned pale and Tunnea pretended not to hear, but Ruth persisted. “Well, Tunny? I heard them Reps fly in real quick and quiet. Then they swoop down, and plop off your whole head like it was a grape! And if they’re thirsty, they suck out all your blood from the stump!” Ruth smiled sweetly, and then giggled.
Joanna whispered slowly, “That’s not how they do it.” Tunnea kicked hard at a stone, knocking it several yards into a clear area across the road, where it bounced twice and then went over the bank and tumbled helter-skelter towards the river. It stopped just short of the water’s edge. Tunnea stopped and stared at Ruth.
“You know it isn’t safe to be out after dark.”
“I can protect you,” Ruth said smugly. “I’ll just put the zap on ‘em and turn ‘em all to stone.”
Tunnea looked down her nose at her friend. “Ruth Gamor! You of all people should know better,” she said. Ruth had shown some promising magical talent, and had just been accepted as an apprentice to Lord Kratia. But she really was so ignorant of the Strictures, thought Tunnea. She’ll probably flunk out and get her talent wiped, and end up a plebe like the rest of us.
“I know some spells, Tunny. I do. I’ve been practicing,” responded Ruth.
“Doesn’t matter. Anyway, Jed will kill me if I’m late. You know how he is!” complained Tunnea.
Ruth smiled and held up her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. Don’t get hyper! I was just kidding! I know what a stick your brother is. He even makes my parents look good!”
Tunnea smiled back and reached out to give Ruth a playful shove, but she froze when she caught sight of Joanna. Her eyes were tightly shut, but tears were welling out from beneath the lids, and were running down her face.
“What’s wrong?” asked Tunnea and Ruth in concert as they reached out their arms to their friend.
Joanna took a deep breath and shuddered. “It’s my uncle.” She paused to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Uncle Willis was really special, you know. He used to take me out on his boat, and tell stories while we fished. About Aloria and the Elves and back when there were dragons.” She paused, realizing that she wasn’t getting to the point. “We heard a few days ago that he had been killed in a Rep attack. That was over in Tolan, about half way to Gornash. Anyway, my dad went over there to take care of uncle Will’s affairs. He got back home last night.” She paused again, the breath seeming to catch in her throat.
“Gee, Joanna, I’m sorry,” said Ruth. “I didn’t know about your uncle.” She reached out a hand to touch Joanna, but she twisted aside.
“Dad thought I was asleep, but I was listening as he told Mom about uncle Will,” Joanna blurted out. “It was awful! The Rep attacks, Ruth, they’re not like you said. They’re not very quiet. They can only glide quiet when they go straight. If they got to turn, or change speed, or anything like that their leathery wings make a horrible flapping noise. Dad said he talked to some of the survivors. They knew the Reps were coming. They heard the flapping. They just couldn’t get away.”
Joanna paused to wipe away the tears. She glared at Ruth. “It ain’t ‘plop’ off with your head neither. It ain’t quick at all. They got six legs, and each leg has a claw with three talons on it. They ain’t long but they’re real sharp. They dive at you, trying to get a grip, but you can twist and jerk away. They veer off, wings flapping, but only for a bit. Meanwhile you’re bleeding. Then they dive at you again, and their talons dig in for another grip. You bust loose again, cause you know what will happen if you don’t. So now you’re bleeding twice as much. You try to get to shelter, but there’s nothing close. They dive and cut, dive and cut. Again and again. Till you bleed so much you get weak and fall over. Then, then…, then…,” Joanna broke off sobbing.
Tunnea reached out to hug her, and Joanna accepted the embrace. Tunnea felt sorry for her. Joanna was only twelve; too young to have to face up to the reality of the Reps. Tunnea herself was sixteen, and had lost both parents at fifteen. She felt her own tears coming at the thought of her mom and dad.
“Well,” sighed Ruth. “And then, what?”
It was Tunnea’s turn to glare at Ruth. “Shut up, Ruth. Let’s just go home.”
Tunnea knew what would have come next, and she didn’t want to hear it. She’d heard her brother describe Rep attacks often enough at his rallies. How after you were too weak to fight them off, they would land on your back or your chest; maybe only one of ‘em; maybe two or three. Then they’d stab their long needle beaks into your gut ‑ shooting out the yellow goop that turns all your insides to a runny liquid mess that they’ll suck back up through their damn beaks.
Tunnea shuddered. If Ruth didn’t know all that, good. It wouldn’t be her that told her.
Ruth stomped off down the road, and a moment later Tunnea and Joanna followed. Tunnea urged Joanna to move faster. The glow of the setting sun had all but faded from the sky, and all that talk about the Reps had frightened her. The Reps came out at night; and just because there hadn’t been an attack within fifty miles of Hornblower didn’t mean there couldn’t be one.
Ruth was the first to see them. She had turned around to ask Joanna another question when she noticed the flicker of moving black shadows in the valley beneath the great castle.
“Shit! Look at that!” she exclaimed, pointing back over Tunnea’s head. Both girls turned around, but the flickering shapes had vanished into the night.
“What is it, Ruth?” asked Joanna, peering back along the river road.
“I saw flying things. Lots of ‘em. Reps I’ll bet!” replied Ruth, excitement raising her voice.
“They don’t seem to be there now,” said Tunnea. “But we better hurry. It’s nearly dark and we’re going to really catch hell.”
The girls scurried along at more of a jog than a walk, and reached the old stone bridge that marked the intersection of River Road with Castle Road. Castle Road crossed the bridge, and wound a serpentine path up the southwest slope of the mountain to Minas Palanar. Castle Road also extended on their side of the river, to become the main street of Hornblower less than half a mile away.
They paused a moment to catch their breath at the bridge. It was then that Tunnea heard the flapping.
She looked around quickly, as did Ruth and Joanna. There were six Reps, flying in close formation about ten feet above the surface of the river, and following its course towards them. The Reps were about 200 yards away and closing fast.
“Run!” screamed Tunnea, pushing Joanna ahead. “Run! To town!”
Joanna lurched ahead, almost stumbled, then steadied into a steady run at her top speed. Tunnea could run faster, but hung back to stay close to her friend. Ruth could run faster than either of them; they heard her yell “I’ll get help!” as she pulled ahead.
So much for the magic routine, thought Tunnea.
There were houses only a quarter mile away. With luck, the Reps wouldn’t follow them towards the town. They usually shied away from large groups of humans.
Tunnea glanced back over her shoulder. The Reps had left the river and were over the road, clearly tracking them. They had closed to within 100 yards.
“Shit! Run faster!” she yelled at Joanna.
“Can’t .. go .. faster..” Joanna panted, red faced, and sweat beading on her face. They heard Ruth shriek then saw her suddenly dive off the road, hitting the ground and rolling to the right, before leaping to her feet again.
Above the middle of the road, directly where she had been running, was a large Rep approaching in a fast silent glide. Almost immediately two other Reps appeared with it, and the three veered off after Ruth. In seconds they overtook her, but they didn’t swoop down to attack. Instead they flew past her and wheeled about, forcing her back on the road. Once on the road, the three Reps took turns diving and veering in a pattern that efficiently herded Ruth back towards her friends.
Tunnea looked back. There were still six Reps following, but they had broken into two groups of three, one on each side of the road. And they were only a dozen yards behind.
“Joanna!” panted Tunnea. “We’ll never make it to town. When I say go, hit the ground and roll to a stop. Then get up and run like hell back to the bridge. To the far side. The old guard shack. Got it?”
The red faced, crying Joanna nodded. She was wheezing terribly. Tunnea feared for her, but couldn’t think of any alternatives. Except the one alternative she desperately didn’t want to think about. Tunnea took a deep breath, and said a silent prayer that Ruth would make it back too. She tensed, hearing a loud flap ominously close behind.
“Okay! Now!” she screamed.
The girls hit and rolled, the dirt and stones stinging their hands and faces as the Reps shot by on both sides. The girls were up and running before the Reps could veer around. Feet pounding in unison, they rapidly pulled to within a few feet of the bridge.
Suddenly Joanna stumbled and cried out as she hit hard on the road’s rutted surface. Tunnea slowed to help when she suddenly heard Ruth scream out, “Keep going, Tunnea! I’ll help her!”
Tunnea risked a quick look back. Ruth was standing beside Joanna, who was lying face down in the dirt, alternately sobbing and screaming. Ruth stood firmly, feet spread apart, swinging their stringer of fish like a battle mace. Two Reps hovered just out of her range. Tunnea couldn’t wait to find out if Ruth hit any of them; she spotted six Reps coming directly towards her and resumed her race to the bridge. As she ran, she whimpered a chant her father had taught her years before:
Little child in your bed
Pull the sheet above your head.
Be scared to death and go to sleep
Magic fades when fear runs deep.
A silly thing, meant to keep away the bedtime fears that children had of wizards. Strange how her clearest memory of her father was of him sitting on the side of her bed, eyebrows arched in mock seriousness, reciting that nursery rhyme. Then he would laugh and she would really feel safe. By all the Desolation, she’d rather have a wizard here now than these Reps.
Spying their dropped fishing poles at the crossroads, she stopped long enough to grab hers. She swung it around, half club, half whip. There were still six Reps after her and very close. Almost out of sight around the bend in the road she could make out two Reps circling above Joanna and Ruth. There was nothing she could do to help them; she doubted she could save herself.
Tunnea wondered if there might be safety beyond the bridge, on Lord Kratia’s land. Swinging the pole again she connected with the closest Rep. The pole snapped with a loud crack, the upper end whirling madly between the next two Reps. The injured Rep croaked loudly. Stunned, it flapped awkwardly in the air, momentarily disoriented. The other two Reps, dodging the broken rod piece, were distracted enough so that Tunnea was able to dash safely across the bridge.
She spied the old guard shack and ran for it. Then she froze as two new Reps appeared on the building’s roof. They stood, spread their wings, and leaped off in a flurry of flapping. They were moving towards her. Spinning around, she cried out in dismay to find that the pursuing Reps had crossed the bridge and flanked her on both sides. She glanced urgently around for a weapon; finding none she scooped up two fist‑size rocks, and pivoted in a slow circle, waiting for their attack.
Eight of them circling her. Two rocks.
“These damn well better count,” she thought aloud. She wound back and let the first rock fly at the Rep directly ahead of her hoping that with it down she might yet make it into the guard shack and make a defensive stand until help or dawn arrived. The Rep dodged the throw and Tunnea’s spirits sank. She had drawn back her arm to throw the last rock when she was startled by a loud shout.
“Don’t be afraid! Take one of these!”
Tunnea took a quick look towards the guard shack and saw the wizard Kratia edging towards her. Kratia held something in an outstretched hand, and threw it to her. Tunnea caught the vial and heard it rattle. She twisted off the top and saw the tiny jet black pills inside. She grimaced. Midnites. Powerful stuff. She’d never taken any of these before and Jed would have a conniption if he ever found out. But the situation was desperate. She swallowed one of the pills. Almost at once the sense of fear and despair seemed to fade out in a general feeling of euphoria.
A huge flash of ball lightning exploded violently overhead as a thunderous bass voice roared out, “Begone, foul beasts! Leave the child alone! Away with you!”
The Reps pulled back, wings flapping as they were dazed by the noise and light.
“Begone I say!” roared the wizard again, her hand shaking to emphasize the words. A ball of pulsing fire appeared in the empty hand. She tossed it lightly up and down as if it were a toy; on the third toss it didn’t come down but hurled madly through the air to the nearest Rep. It veered from a collision at the last instant, searing the beast’s pointed head then quickly moved on to the next nearest Rep. The flaming ball continued its dance on each of them, darting about their heads and wings, forcing them to dodge and flap and croak in confusion.
“Begone, I said! Go home. Begone!” The fireball came back to circle slowly over the wizard’s head. The Reps quickly flew off.
Tunnea remained worried but the Reps did not return. In seconds they had disappeared, flying back up the river. Kratia and the girl stared intently after them.
“Thank you, friend wizard,” stammered Tunnea, staring in awe at the first Lord she had ever seen in person. Sure, she had enough visits to the healers, the entertainers, and the like. But this was different. There were no long incantations or intricate gestures; no dependence on mysterious runes read from some ancient scroll. No theatrics. This was real magic: powerful, fast, efficient. Magic distilled to its essence.
Something nagged at the back of Tunnea’s consciousness, but it couldn’t surface amid the adrenaline rush and emotional shock. There was something that didn’t seem right; but it could wait. The midnites eliminated any sense of fear, and with it, any urgency to resolve minor anomalies. The important thing was that she was safe.
“It is fortunate that I was just now returning to the castle. Don’t you know it is dangerous to be outdoors after sunset?”
“Yes, Lord. My brother tells me so quite often. We were on our way home. My friends! Quick, you’ve got to help them!”
“They are quite safe, I assure you,” answered Kratia as she fixed the girl with a steady unblinking gaze. “The Reps are only herding them. They won’t be attacked.”
“Uh, thank you,” Tunnea said, although something about the wizard’s words and the intense stare was making her nervous. Herding? That seemed wrong somehow. And that feeling of wrongness was getting stronger. Why? Why did she felt vulnerable, even through the pain and fear blockers? She almost wished she hadn’t taken the pill. But without it, her own fear would have prevented the wizard’s spell from working. Fear and pain, the bane of wizards.
“You are a beautiful child,” murmured the wizard. “It is rare that I can combine business and pleasure.”
“I beg pardon, Lord. I don’t understand what you mean,” stated Tunnea nervously. Then she realized what was wrong. Something her brother had said as a rally; that the wizards couldn’t use magic against the Reps because they had feelings of pain and fear just like people. The fireball had singed the Reps, but it didn’t disappear right away. It went on to attack the other Reps. How could it do that? Was it because Kratia was a Lord?
The wizard ignored her fidgeting. “Your name, girl. What is it?” she asked gruffly.
“Then your brother is Jed Nalton, Palatine of Hornblower?”
“Yes sir. The same,” Tunnea replied. Then added impulsively, “A respected and powerful and popular representative of the Esaf Condeu.”
The wizard smiled thinly. “That is indeed an accurate statement! And his popularity grows as he uses common sense to minimize the danger of the Reps. Stay in at night. Bar your doors and windows.” Kratia shook her head. “But he doesn’t acknowledge the need to do more.” The Lord’s voice held disdain.
“I thank you again for saving me from the Reps, Lord Kratia. I must go to my friends and get home now. My brother will be worried.” Tunnea began to edge backwards on the road.
“He will be despondent at your loss,” sighed the wizard. “It is a shame that I was unable to reach you in time. But at least I saved your friends.” Kratia laughed.
With astonishing speed she lunged across the few feet that separated them and knocked Tunnea violently to the ground. Tunnea yelled and tried to roll away, but the wizard stomped heavily on her stomach, knocking the wind from her. She lay on her back trying desperately to suck in a breath as the wizard dropped down, straddling her. Kratia smiled as the girl squirmed underneath.
Tunnea forced herself to scream but her mind felt detached, unable to feel the sharp edge of pain or fear that she needed. She watched in a helpless fascination as the woman pinning her began to change into something else. The face distorted hideously, the mouth protruding outward like a beak, then peeling away as long hollow teeth jutted outward more than a foot.
A sudden ripping sensation that should have created a wash of agony did nothing more than shock her into silence as razor claws slashed across her chest, stripping away her blouse and shredding most of her right breast.
Feeling the warm blood ooze down her sides, Tunnea twisted and pushed against the monster with all her might, but it had the strength and weight of a steel beam. Tunnea managed to partially free her left leg; and as the wizard rose slightly, she let go with a ferocious kick at the creature’s groin.
It barely moved. The wizard was gone, completely transformed into the huge Rep that bore down upon her. There was another surge of pressure and a sudden wetness as a claw ripped through her left leg, slicing inches deep from knee to crotch. She tried to scream but couldn’t suck in any air. A whistling sound issued from the holes in her chest, ending with wet red gurgles.
There should have been pain, true pain, from the wounds. She knew that and tried to feel it, but the physical sensations of the broken bone and flesh failed to stir up either pain or fear. She tried to scream again, but only gurgles and frothy blood oozed from her mouth as the Rep pushed its proboscis through her ribs and deep into her chest.
“You should be dead now, but I’m going to give you a sporting chance. I have healing spells on you that will keep you alive for a short time. Perhaps long enough to reach Hornblower. There you can find healers who can restore you. But you’re going to have to be strong, Tunnea, very strong. Because very soon I’m going to metabolize the medication you took.” The creature’s voice was a whisper that talked in her head but had no sound. “Do you know what that means, Tunnea? It means that you will need to block all your pain using just your own little brain. If you can’t block the pain…well, you know what will happen then.”
The world seemed to ring and buzz and the edges of her vision faded to a deep red haze. Tunnea knew she was dying, but still fought to keep an awareness of what was happening to her. With awful certainty, she knew that her heart had stopped, yet she remained conscious and had feelings and mobility in her limbs. She still felt no pain, but she did have a growing feeling of despair that got grossly worse as the Rep injected its digestive juices into her chest cavity and she felt her internal organs and muscle tissue begin dissolving.
A part of her wanted to feel the pain and just die as she felt the gooey remains of herself get sucked into the creature’s gullet.
The soundless voice spoke again. “Are you up to the challenge, little one? The medication is nearly out of your system. Pain’s on the way. Like a good steward, I’m giving it back to you with interest. More pain than you’ve ever dreamed possible. But know that it is nothing compared to the pain that I have carried for my entire life! If you are strong enough, you may survive. But you’re no wizard, Tunnea. I think you will fail. I think your pain will end completely and soon; while I must carry mine much longer.”
Tunnea felt agony, a sudden overwhelming surge of white heat exploding through her brain. Her mouth opened impossibly wide to scream, but only silence issued forth. Her lungs were gone. She suddenly wanted not to feel the pain, tried to clamp down on it, knowing that it was her only chance, knowing also that she was doomed to fail. The sensations were too powerful. It hurt. It hurt bad.
She lived long enough to cry.