“Echoes of Meridian” by M. Elizabeth Ticknor
For nearly a decade, thousands of original fantasy stories from around the world have been submitted for the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. This year, the grand prize was taken home by M. Elizabeth Ticknor for her story “Echoes of Meridian.” Congratulations!
A gust of wind danced between the lean-tos and leather tents of the Wendren camp, carrying the sweet promise of deer and rabbits that lurked in the woods beyond. Drora’s claws twitched with anticipation. Her tongue flicked, unbidden, across her teeth. This was the fourteenth anniversary of her adoption into the Wendren tribe and the perfect day for a hunt.
Her adoptive father, Cers, sat in front of the tent they shared, carving spokes for a broken wagon wheel. She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. How could he just sit there, ignoring the enticing scents that beckoned from the horizon? Concentration twisted the tattoos on his head into eldritch patterns as he worked the morning away, oblivious as ever to the call of the wilderness. He’d sit there all day if she let him.
Not that I will.
Drora slipped behind him, moving on all fours, stealthy as a wildcat. She hunkered down and waited for him to grow used to her supposed absence.
A fresh gust of wind pushed past Cers, carrying the pungent sting of embalming fluid to Drora’s nostrils. No matter how much Cers bathed, he always smelled of it. Even with thick cloaks and long-sleeved tunics to hide the stitch-like scar patterns and runic tattoos that laced his body, he barely passed for human. Drora wanted to know why Cers looked like that, why he smelled that way. He dodged personal questions with such infuriating consistency that she’d long since given up asking.
Cers’ shoulders stooped as he bent over his work, letting down his guard. Now. Drora wound her muscles tight and pounced.
Cers was easily twice Drora’s size, but years of practice had taught her where to aim if she wanted to take him down. She planted her weight between his shoulder-blades. The tackle sent him and his work flying. Drora vaulted off his back, tumbled to the ground, and loosed a playful roar.
Cers showed no signs of surprise as he stood and dusted off. She hoped she’d caught him off-guard—surely he would have ducked if he’d anticipated an attack. He glanced in her direction; his left eyebrow arched in a silent question.
Drora rocked back on her haunches and gave a razor-toothed smile. “I want to go hunting.” The grin was all bluster. Jubilation faded and uncertainty set in. Was Cers feigning stoicism, or had he willingly let her pounce him?
Cers picked up the wheel and regathered his tools. “Then go hunting.”
Normally Drora appreciated Cers’ brevity, but today it raised her hackles. Had he forgotten her Finding Day? She grabbed his wrist and used pressure points to loosen his hold on the wheel. “I want us to go hunting. Together.”
Cers scowled. “I’ve no interest in hunting, and Allmother Maela’s wagon needs repairs so we can continue our travels on the morrow.”
Drora knocked the wheel away and pulled Cers’ arm behind his back. “We’ll only be a couple of hours. You’ll have plenty of time to fix that stupid wheel. Come on, we used to do it all the time.”
Cers made no effort to escape. “You were younger, then. It was just a game.”
“It wasn’t a game for me!” Drora tightened her grip and pushed.
Cers sucked in a sharp breath and stared at her, his expression unreadable. “I’ll go if you promise not to kill anything.”
“What's the point of hunting if you don't follow through? There's nothing like the taste of fresh meat.”
“I don’t enjoy it.”
“That’s because you’re weird.” Drora released Cers’ arm and shoved it away. He never wrestled with her anymore. Just once, she wished he’d fight back.
Cers’ expression darkened. “Go if you want. I don’t. I won’t.”
Drora bared her teeth and snarled. “Fine.” If Cers wanted to stay in camp whittling like an old man, that was his problem. Drora wasn’t going to waste the rest of her day. She stomped off toward the woods.
On her way out of camp, an age-withered man with chalky hair and worn robes approached her from the direction of the road. He smiled, baring yellowed teeth, and snatched at her elbow with bony fingers. “Excuse me, young lady. You wouldn’t happen to know a tall fellow, broad shoulders, lots of tattoos?”
Drora jerked away and growled low in her throat; she had little patience for strangers at the best of times. Cers didn’t either, come to that.
Dad brushed me off. He forgot my Finding Day. He deserves a little extra frustration.
Drora jabbed a claw-tipped thumb over her shoulder. “He’s back that way.”
Cers carved one final spoke, set it aside, and pulled Drora’s Finding Day present from his pocket. Fashioning the puzzle ring’s individual bands from a single piece of bloodwood had been difficult, but once the shaping and polishing was finished the rings would intertwine perfectly, with heads that combined into a single image: a large hand holding a smaller, clawed one. He’d intended to finish Drora’s gift last night, but the breakdown of Allmother Maela’s wagon had left the entire camp moored on the edge of the wilderness.
Cers’ stomach knotted. He shouldn’t have refused Drora’s hunting invitation, but he needed privacy to finish her gift, and the idea of killing innocent creatures made him uncomfortable. It was too similar to warfare for his tastes. He’d never actually hunted when he accompanied Drora into the woods; he’d simply ensured she wouldn’t become prey for something larger and more toothsome. She was older, now. She’d learned the wilds’ dangers. More than that, her teeth and claws had grown sharp enough to rend flesh from bone.
A familiar voice slithered into his ear as he shaved an errant burr of wood off a ring’s loop. “Hello, Cers.”
Cers dropped his knife and looked up slowly, goose-flesh prickling on the back of his neck. His creator, Tirian, stood before him. Age had curved the mage’s spine and dulled his hair, but his eyes still contained the same feverish spark they’d had when Cers first gained sentience on his operating table.
Cers forced his expression to remain stoic and reclaimed his knife with a trembling hand. “I expected you’d be dead by now.”
“Only stupid mages die of old age.”
Cers wished for the wit to concoct a clever response, but he’d never been skilled with words. “Why are you here?”
“I want to speak with you. Privately.”
Cers’ skin crawled at the idea of being alone with his creator. “I’ll not go anywhere with you.”
Tirian smirked. “Would you rather I air our grievances publicly? People could get caught in the crossfire.” He pulled an obsidian focus stone from his robes.
Cers tensed. Decades ago, Tirian had used a stone much like that to melt flesh from the bones of enemy soldiers. Cers was capable of crushing it—had crushed the last one—but all Tirian need do was speak a trio of words to send black lightning arcing toward the tribesmen and women working nearby. In sixty-seven years, only the Wendren had accepted Cers’ presence without question. They’re kind. More than that, they’re innocent. They don’t deserve such painful deaths.
Cers cast his gaze downward. “Privately, then.” He tucked Drora’s ring back into his pocket and gestured to the freshly spoked wheel. “But first I must finish repairs on Allmother Maela's wagon.”
All pretense of amusement vanished from Tirian’s face. He glowered at Cers, eyes narrowed with barely contained rage. “No. You’ll come with me. Now.” His voice carried a weight of command that bound Cers’ will tighter than any shackles.
Drora slunk through the forest on all fours. The animalistic posture afforded her both speed and silence. She swiveled her head from side to side, hyper-aware of every snapping twig, every rustling leaf.
A panicked rabbit stopped foraging and dashed toward its burrow. Drora pounced on it, latched onto it with her teeth, and broke its neck with one vicious shake. No point in making the animal suffer unnecessarily. After skinning it with her talons, she bit into the raw, juicy flesh. Rabbits were too lean to satisfy unless consumed whole, and the bones added a satisfying crunch.
Once Drora ate her fill, she caught another brace of rabbits to bring back as a peace offering. Her Finding Day could still be salvaged. Cers always seemed happiest when he was focusing on a project; he enjoyed the act of preparing food even more than Drora enjoyed eating it. She’d ask him to help her cook the rabbits and see how things progressed from there.
Halfway back to camp, Drora caught a telltale whiff of embalming fluid on the trail. She froze, eyes narrowed. Cers had refused to go hunting—so why was he here?
She bent low to the ground and sniffed deeply. Someone else had been walking alongside him—someone with an unfamiliar scent. The greasy stench of old age overlaid a sharp, bitter amalgamation of spices, chalk, candle wax, and powdered bone.
That man she’d passed on her way out of camp—he’d asked after Cers, hadn’t he? And now Cers was just traipsing off into the woods with some odd-smelling stranger when he should be spending time with her.
Drora growled, tossed the rabbit carcasses aside, and stalked after her father. When she caught up with him, she was going to show him how unwise it was to anger a feral.
Cers stood rigid and immobile. Tirian had commanded him to stay still, and the glyphs tattooed on his body glowed white-hot from his struggles to resist. Tirian’s will had strengthened since their last encounter, perhaps magically so—every command bit deep. The mage circled him again and again, lighting candles and tracing arcane symbols at strategic points in the earth.
At least he didn’t forbid me to speak. Cers gritted his teeth and asked, “How did you find me?”
“Patience, research, and attention to rumor. Even among the Wendren tribes, you cut a pretty noticeable figure.” Tirian gestured up and down at Cers’ hulking frame.
Cers grunted. “I expected the Rysan government to punish you with impunity.”
“They started press-ganging convicts. Funny how desperate people can get during wartime. It took a decade of service, but I earned my freedom.”
“Then you understand how valuable freedom is. Return mine.”
“I understand that you’re a construct. You were designed to obey commands, not to have thoughts or opinions of your own.”
Cers tensed. “I’m a sentient being—”
Tirian spat, “You're a mistake. A fly in the ointment, a spell gone awry. Without my magic to command you, you should have collapsed into a pile of smelly corpse-bits within a week. Your continued existence defies seven different rules of spellcraft.”
“So you intend to dismantle me?”
“I intend to fix you.”
A shiver went down Cers’ spine. “I don’t require fixing.”
“You’re in no position to judge.” Tirian drew a final glyph in the earth. The writing around Cers’ feet started to glow.
Energy flooded Cers’ body. His mind was engulfed in a blaze of electric agony; it felt as if his very soul were aflame. The pain surged through neurons and nerve endings, dragging his spirit beneath waves of torment—and all he could do was scream.
Drora skulked through the forest, temper rising, until she found a place where the earth had been scorched. Arcane glyphs stood out black against the undergrowth. The circle reeked of burnt flesh, ozone, and acid, drowning out every other scent in the region. The forest was quiet here, as if every insect and animal were holding its breath.
Drora’s small hairs stood on end. The strange-smelling man Cers was traveling with must be a mage, but why would he have anything to do with such a man? Drora had begged for him to let her study magic when she was younger. Instead, he’d told her horror stories about the atrocities committed during the Meridian War, about how her ancestors had been irrevocably altered through the use of spellcraft, about the wild magic storms that could come about from a spell gone wrong.
Drora had never seen Dad work a ritual spell in his life, and that was the form of magic he’d warned most strongly against. Ritual circles served as fonts of mystical power, capable of enhancing any spell channeled through them but prone to explosive volatility from even one misplaced line or sigil.
After half an hour of frantic searching, Drora tracked the scents to a remote clearing surrounded by old, knotted bloodwood oaks. Cers sat in the center of the grassy expanse, cross-legged. His tattoos glowed blue-white. The mage stood near Cers’ shoulder, a feverish gleam in his eyes as he said, “Let’s see how your healing capabilities have held up over the years. Break your arm.”
Cers took hold of his right arm and twisted it sharply. The limb snapped with a loud crack. A spike of bone jutted through his wrist.
Drora bit her hand hard enough to draw blood and choked back the urge to scream. She shrank into the undergrowth, heart hammering in her chest. Why would Dad mutilate himself like that? Why would anyone?
Cers’ bones snapped back into place. Torn flesh regrew in a matter of moments. The mage applauded and sneered. “Beautiful! Do it again.” Cers’ grip shifted and his arm cracked just above the elbow. The fresh break healed as swiftly as the first.
Drora shuddered. Something’s very wrong here. She needed to understand it—no, she needed to stop it. This was her fault. She’d wanted to annoy her father, not to harm him. Guilt and concern churned in her gut as she paced the clearing’s perimeter.
A line in the dirt traced along the clearing’s edge, wreathed in arcane symbols. Drora studied them for a long moment, uncertain of their purpose. For all she knew, anything that crossed them would burst into flame or dissolve in a puff of smoke.
She kicked a stray twig across the line to test it.
The mage’s head swiveled in her direction. He scowled. “Cers! We have company.”
Cers jerked to attention and turned to face Drora. The lack of recognition in his eyes sent a shiver up her spine. It was like he’d become a completely different person.
He’s got to be in there somewhere. I can still reach him.
She steeled her confidence and stepped forward. “Dad?”
Cers didn’t move. The mage laughed. “You can’t seriously consider this thing to be your father.”
Drora blinked. “He’s not a thing. I don’t know who you think you are, but you look like your neck would snap if you sneezed too hard. Dad could squash you like a bug.”
“Cers isn’t squashing anything unless I tell him to.”
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?”
“Allow me to enlighten you.” The mage snapped his fingers. "Cers. Kill her."
Cers lurched to his feet and stalked toward Drora, fists clenched.
Cers continued to advance, tattoos glowing, eyes dark.
An edge of panic crept into Drora's voice as she backed away. "This isn't funny. What's wrong with you?"
The mage laughed. "Nothing’s wrong with him. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've improved on his original design."
Cers lunged at Drora.
Drora leapt back. Cers' fists pounded the ground where she’d been standing. The impact left a buckler-sized crater in the earth.
Drora vaulted into a bloodwood oak. Cers hauled a fist back and slammed it full-force into the trunk. Bark splintered; crimson sap spattered everywhere. The entire tree lurched with the force of the hit.
Drora scrambled to hang onto the branch she had perched on. Her breath seized in her throat.
Cers slammed his full weight against the trunk and pushed. Roots ripped out of the earth. The tree groaned, swayed, and toppled. Drora kicked away before the falling branches could pin her to the ground. She lurched to her feet.
Cers backhanded her into the clearing.
Drora’s legs trembled as she stood again. Cers had barely touched her, yet he'd flung her ten feet. Was this part of the mage's modifications, or had Cers always been this strong?
Wait. The mage. He stood in the center of the clearing, watching the fight, eyes sparkling with the same glee a sadistic child got from smashing ants. His guard was down.
Drora rushed him, tackled him to the ground, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She pressed a talon against his carotid artery. “Call him off or I'll slit your throat.”
The mage grinned. “Killing me won't make him stop.”
Drora growled with frustration. She had to find a way to convince the mage to change those orders—she couldn’t let whatever he’d done to Dad become permanent. She kicked the mage at Cers’ feet, hoping to slow his approach, but he stepped over the mage without missing a beat.
Drora backed toward the edge of the clearing. “Come on, Dad. You don’t want to do this. I know you don’t. You’re a good man. You’re gentle. You’ve never hurt me in my life.”
Cers’ tattoos flickered. His movement slowed; he tilted his head to the side.
Drora stopped retreating. “That's it, calm down. It's me. It's Drora.”
Cers halted his advance. The mage reached into his robes, watching with narrowed eyes.
Drora approached Cers slowly, as if he were a cornered animal. “See? We don't have to fight. You don't have to kill me. You don't have to kill anybody.”
Cers remained still. Drora took a shaky breath and pulled him into a hug. Cers hugged Drora in turn. For a moment, everything felt right with the world.
And then Cers started to squeeze.
Drora's eyes widened. “Dad—”
Cers squeezed harder. Air fled Drora's lungs. Cers’ arms tightened around her like iron bands. His lips brushed her ear and he whispered, “I'm sorry.”
Tears ran down Drora's face. She didn't have the breath to respond. She struggled, gasping, her movements growing ever weaker until consciousness abandoned her.
Cers let Drora's body slump face-first to the ground and swiveled away from her limp form. He couldn't afford to see her take a shallow breath. He couldn't even afford the hope that she might be able to breathe. The idea that he was capable of killing someone he cared for as much as Drora seeped through his veins like poison. For the first time since his creation, he was truly a monster.
He seized that thought, held it close, forcibly blackened that part of his soul. Drora must be dead. There could be no doubt in his mind, or he’d be compelled to cave her skull in.
Tirian arched an eyebrow. "Impressive." He took a few steps closer and bent down to study Drora's body.
Cers didn’t believe in any gods, but in that moment he prayed that Tirian wouldn’t look too closely. Let him think her dead—
No. She was dead. She had to be. Cers clenched his fists and stared at the ground, driving that certainty back into his mind.
Tirian straightened and gave an approving nod. "Excellent work. I liked how you pretended to warm up to her. That was clever."
Cers didn’t respond. Drora’s presence had pulled him back from the depths of mindless obedience Tirian had tried to drown him in, but the struggle to maintain his sense of self was constant. Every word Tirian spoke burned itself into his brain, an indelible rule of the universe. Every command must be obeyed, without question and to the letter.
To the letter, certainly, but such things were open to interpretation if one paid proper attention.
Tirian walked past Cers and beckoned with two fingers. “Come on, then. We’ve places to go, research to do, and wars to win.”
A knot twisted in Cers’ chest as he set off after Tirian. Even now, the words burned in the back of his mind in an endless loop: Kill her. Kill her.
He couldn’t risk the thought that Drora might yet live, but he hoped that if she had survived, she’d have the good sense to stay away.
Drora woke slowly. Every breath raked at her aching lungs. She lay in the clearing for what felt like hours, too sore to move, and picked through her memories in an effort to understand what had transpired before she passed out.
Dad tried to kill me. He tried to crush me like an egg.
No. If that were true, she'd never have survived. Cers could punch holes in trees. If she was still breathing, he'd made considerable effort not to kill her.
How’s the mage controlling him? Drora had never heard of a spell that could dominate a person so completely—but then, Cers had never been like other people.
She thought back to stories the elders had told around nightly campfires, tales of the warspawn that had been created during the Meridian War. The worst tales spoke of constructs, the only warspawn created from dead humans instead of living ones, soulless beings used as siege weapons. Their terrible strength had caused so much devastation that their creation had been outlawed after war’s end. The elders claimed they’d all been destroyed, but Drora wasn’t so sure.
She huddled in a ball and shivered as childhood memories warred with primal terror. Constructs were supposed to be mindless beings, little better than statues unless driven by their master’s orders. Before today, Drora had never seen Cers obey orders without question. He wasn’t rude or obstinate; he simply wanted to know why.
Construct or no, he was still a person, with thoughts and feelings all his own. He was still her father—more than that, he was the only parent she’d ever known. Her mother had died when she was too young to retain more than instinctive impressions of sound and scent, and she had no idea what had happened to her birth father.
Drora braced herself, then felt at her ribs. They were bruised, but not cracked or broken. They would heal soon enough. She shifted to her hands and knees, reacquired Cers' scent, and followed it with single-minded tenacity.
It was almost midnight before she caught them again. The bloodwood oaks grew thick and tall this deep into the forest; trees butted up against the Dragonspine Mountains’ rocky peaks. The mage had made a fresh camp in the mountains’ shadow. Drora kept to the underbrush and took stock of the situation from a distance, her features knotted into a frown.
Cers sat by a low-burning fire and stared into the woods. The light from his tattoos shone like a beacon, brighter than the moonlight that filtered through the trees. The mage slept on the far side of the fire, his back pressed against the cliff. Another circle had been drawn around the camp’s perimeter. It had to be some sort of magical alarm.
Drora couldn’t stand up to Cers in a head-on fight. In order to save him, she’d have to get him away from the mage’s sphere of influence—without alerting the mage to her presence. Drora thought back on the lessons Dad had taught her during their old hunting trips. When taking down larger prey, it was important to manipulate their attention and use their size against them.
She filled her pockets with pebbles, then carved four wooden stakes with her claws. Once she felt properly equipped for the task ahead, she hopped into the branches of a fir tree and flung a pebble against a nearby oak. Cers’ head whipped around to face the sound. Drora threw a second pebble; it bounced off another tree further into the forest.
Come on, Dad. Take the bait.
Cers entered the woods to investigate, moving with a predatory grace that belied his size. The mage continued sleeping when Cers crossed the perimeter. Drora sighed with relief and followed her father, shifting from branch to branch, baiting him with errant noises until he was well away from the mage’s camp. Once she was certain they were out of hearing range, she tackled his knees from behind and jabbed one of the wooden stakes into the back of his knee.
She expected him to scream, but he only gave a strangled grunt. Somehow, that seemed worse. Was he muffling himself to protect her, or was he simply inured to pain? Either way it made her heart ache—she couldn’t afford to back down now, she had to see this through.
She ripped into his right elbow with her teeth, tearing at bones and ligaments, and shoved another spike into the wound before it could close. The foreign material should keep him from healing properly, at least in the short term. It wouldn’t kill him—she wasn’t sure he could be killed—but it should slow him down.
Cers rolled over and attempted to crush Drora beneath him. Drora leapt away. She swung back into a tree, panting.
Cers stood on shaky legs. His right arm hung limp by his side. “Drora?” His voice radiated parental concern, but his eyes searched the foliage with calculated precision.
Oh, no you don’t. I’m not falling for that again. Drora kept silent, slipping from branch to branch in an effort to keep out of sight. This wasn’t like a hunt. There was no playful exhilaration—only adrenaline, guilt, and terror.
Cers reached for the spike in his arm. His tone grew bitter. “You shouldn’t have come back. Now I have to kill you.”
Drora vaulted down behind Cers and kicked his right kneecap hard enough to push it out of socket. “Have to catch me first!”
Cers staggered and fell.
Drora cringed as she jammed her spike into his freshly-injured knee. She skittered away and paced in front of him. “Sorry, Dad. Nothing personal, but I can’t help you if you break all my ribs.” She tried to keep the hurt from her voice, but it seeped through all the same. “Why didn’t you tell me you were a construct?”
Cers’ expression tightened. “I didn’t want you to think less of me.”
Drora wanted to claim that his fears were unjustified, but she knew how conflicted she’d felt only a few hours ago—how conflicted she felt now. No wonder he’d wanted to spare her that confusion. “Who’s the arthritic prick?”
“His name is Tirian. He built me during the Meridian War.” Cers lunged forward and grabbed at Drora.
Drora skipped out of Cers’ reach and stabbed her final stake through his hand, pinning it to the ground. “How do I stop him?”
Cers looked away, his expression haunted. “I don’t know.”
Drora considered taking a rock to Cers’ skull, but decided against it. She didn’t know if his mind would heal the same way his body did, and couldn’t bear the thought of causing him lasting damage. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll figure it out.” She climbed back into the trees and returned to Tirian’s mountainside camp.
Tirian jerked into a sitting position when Drora crossed the circle’s perimeter, his eyes bleary and wild. Drora flexed her claws and stalked toward him, a predatory grin plastered onto her face. “Let’s try this again.”
Tirian scrambled to his feet and backed away, bellowing, “Cers!”
“It’s just you and me now.”
Tirian’s hands slipped into his robes. “We’ve been over this already. If you kill me—”
“It won’t solve anything. Yes. I know. But you already told him to kill me, and I'm not dead. Your hold on him isn’t as strong as you claim.”
Tirian scowled. “That’s easy enough to fix.” He pulled a black sphere out of his pocket, clutched it tightly, and spat words in a language Drora didn’t understand. An arc of black lightning surged out of the orb. Drora dodged the main blast, but the hair on the right side of her head disintegrated into smoking ash.
Drora snarled and whipped a rock at Tirian’s hand. She missed. Tirian uttered a fresh spate of dark words. Black energy surged toward her. She was ready for it this time, and vaulted out of the way. The spell connected with a tree branch, which exploded into a swarm of splinters. The branch’s crown toppled on Tirian’s head and he crumpled with a shriek.
Drora stalked over to him, kicked the focus orb out of his grasp, and wrapped a hand around his throat. “Why would you need to fix Dad? Why’d you decide to come after him in the first place?”
Tirian bit back a whimper. “He was my most powerful creation. I've never been able to duplicate him.”
Cers limped into the clearing. He yanked the stake free from his right arm; the elbow popped back into place.
Drora winced. She watched Cers out of the corner of her eye, but kept her focus on Tirian. “Listen up, you geriatric bag of bones. Maybe killing you won’t keep my dad from hurting me, but it’ll keep you from hurting anyone else. Call him off or I’ll tear your throat to shreds.”
Cers wrapped his hands around Drora’s throat. His fingers trembled even as they tightened.
Drora gritted her teeth. “Make him stop.” She dug her claws into Tirian’s flesh. “Now.”
Blood trickled down Tirian’s neck. He gasped, “Cers. Stop!”
The glow from Cers’ tattoos guttered out. He released his hold on Drora’s neck.
Drora’s nostrils flared. That was too close. She couldn’t let Tirian recant those orders. She couldn’t let him harm her, or Cers, or anyone else ever again. Her fingers flexed in preparation for the killing blow. Tirian whimpered.
Cers placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t.”
Indignation welled in Drora’s chest. “He would have killed me! He wanted to do worse to you.”
“Even so. You don’t need his death on your conscience.”
Drora ran her tongue along her teeth. “But he’s dangerous. If we let him go, he’ll come right back and do it over again. One way or another, I need to stop him.”
Cers thought for a long moment, then nodded. “Do what you must. But don’t kill him.”
Drora’s jaw twitched. I’m going to have to maim him, then. “Hold him down.”
Tirian’s eyes widened. “Cers—”
Drora backhanded Tirian. “One more word from you and I will slit your throat, no matter what Dad says.”
Tirian glared at her, his gaze accusatory, but said nothing. Cers knelt opposite Drora, his movements slow but purposeful, and pressed Tirian’s shoulders to the ground. Drora forced his mouth open, pierced his tongue with a claw, and pulled. Tirian screamed and flailed, but Cers held him in place. Once the mage’s tongue was split, Drora broke both of his hands and severed the tendons in his wrists for good measure.
Cers snapped, “Are you done?” His voice was cold, his posture tense.
Drora nodded. She couldn’t bring herself to look at his face. She didn’t want to know what she’d see in his eyes.
Cers tore strips off Tirian’s cloak to bandage his tongue and hands. Then he lifted Tirian’s chin so they could look each other in the eye. “There’s a village at the base of Ryking Pass. If you follow the mountains north, you should reach it within a day. They have doctors who can tend to your wounds.” He stood, crushed Tirian’s focus orb under his boot, and turned south, toward the Wendren camp. “Don’t come after me again.”
Drora followed Cers into the woods, arms wrapped around her chest. She didn’t feel good about what she’d just done. She felt no joyful rush of a hunt fulfilled—only the cold certainty that she’d done what she had to, and the fear that she might have done too much . . . or worse, that she might not have done enough.
Dawn encroached on the Wendren camp as Cers and Drora returned home. Drora stumbled into their tent, exhausted. Cers knelt outside while she slept and envied her ability to do so. His carving tools lay scattered, the wagon wheel still unassembled, yet he couldn’t muster the energy to complete the task. More than once a tribesman approached, brow knitted with concern, only to be warded off by the sternness of Cers’ glare.
Tirian might be gone, but his shadow still lingered in Cers’ mind. There was a constant, subtle pull toward the direction he’d fled, as if Cers were a compass needle and Tirian were north. It made focusing on anything else nigh impossible.
After the sun passed its zenith, Drora exited the tent and sat beside Cers, clutching a strip of dried horse-meat. She gnawed at the makeshift meal for a long while, studying him in silence. Finally, she swallowed the last mouthful and asked, “Do you think he'll come back?”
Cers stared listlessly into the distance. “I don't know.” He shouldn’t have let Drora mutilate Tirian, but he couldn’t have done it himself—the enchantments Tirian had woven refused him the option of harming the mage. Tirian’s eyes had stared into his soul, silently accusing. Monster. It had been all Cers could do to hold Tirian down, to avoid lashing out at Drora for attacking his master.
No. Not his master. Not anymore.
Drora punched Cers in the arm. “Hey! Stop it.”
Cers blinked. “Stop what?”
“But—” He paused for a moment as he tried to find the right words. “I nearly killed you.”
Drora pulled her arm back, gave him a pointed glare. “Do I need to punch you again?”
The silence stretched, but Cers found it more comfortable than before. Drora’s leaned against his shoulder, nibbled at a fresh strip of jerky, and stared up at the stars. Her presence soothed him.
Cers massaged his temples. “I can still feel him in the back of my mind. He’s calling for me.”
“So ignore him.”
“I’m trying.” Cers took a shaky breath, then released it slowly. “I don’t know how long I can.”
Drora grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you distracted. He can't live forever.”
“Neither can you.”
Drora tilted her head to look at Cers. “I’ve still got a few decades left in me.”
“You sleep. I don’t.”
“So keep yourself busy at night. The Wendren always need new tools, and the kids love your toys.”
Cers blinked. “I never finished your Finding Day present.” He reached into his pocket, but found only shards and splinters. It must have broken during one of the fights.
Drora took Cers’ hand and squeezed his fingers gently. “That’s okay. You’re more important than any present.” Cers pulled Drora into a hug and kissed the top of her head. Drora smiled, her eyes aglow with affection. “That’s better. Now come on, we’re going hunting.”
Cers frowned. “I’ve caused enough harm today.”
“That’s okay. We don’t have to hurt anything. Ever hear of catch and release?”
A nonviolent solution. The thrill of the chase, but no death in store for their quarry. Yes, that would do. That was a hunt he could participate in. “So long as you're gentle.”
“I can be gentle.”
“No claws or teeth.”
“Take all of the fun out of it, why don't you?” Drora chuckled, then tugged at Cers' arm until he stood. Cers’ large hand wrapped around Drora’s smaller, clawed one, and they walked into the forest side by side.
Copyright © 2021 by M. Elizabeth Ticknor
M. Elizabeth Ticknor is the grand prize recipient of the 2021 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. She lives in Southeast Michigan. Her interests include drawing, painting, and tabletop role-playing. Her preferred gaming systems are World of Darkness, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Here web site can be found here.