A Wraith's Crescent - Short Story
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Lady Lune casts long shadows. Now, as the stream burbled in the merry clearing, and the sun’s golden rays fell on the simple cavern, Lady Lune was waiting. Wood and string creaked, the ancient chair swinging back and forth under the weight of its two occupants. Lady Lune was their friend.
Shulon beamed as she glanced at her shoulder and the mass of blonde hair spilling over it. Somewhere under it, her husband was dozing. She planted her boots on the planks, stilled the chair and let him sleep, drinking in the afternoon sounds, eager to spend as much time in the summer evening, before winter’s bitter chill. A muffled snore rumbled in her ear, and she held in the urge to chuckle. Such a sound unexpected from the lithe, graceful Rys, one he swore blind he never made. Quiet joy filled her heart at the sight of the elegant golden knife, so out of place on his black tunic.
Hooves pounded on the grass beyond the cabin, and Shulon nudged Rys awake. He stirred and stretched with feline grace. She rose and flicked a knife into her hand, eyes sweeping across the small clearing in the forest's heart. A dark mass burst through the treeline, and a lone horseman skidded to a stop on the grass, some metres away from the porch. He swung down with stiff-legged fatigue, patting the bay’s head when he landed, wearing a uniform of the purest black. An onyx crescent dangled from his neck.
“What do you want?” Rys grated, and she thrust her elbow back without looking. It whacked into his ribs, and he staggered back, a quiet cough spilling from his lips.
“Your pardon, soldier. He forgets himself.” She flashed a winning smile. When she glanced at Rys, now recovered, his eyes sparked in a way that made her bite her lip. The horseman bowed, but Shulon suspected it was to hide his blush. When he straightened, pink tainted his cheeks.
“Captains. Command ordered me to give this to you.” He reached into his saddlebag and produced a rolled parchment with a wax seal. Shulon descended the steps and took the letter from the soldier. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Shadows protect you.” The man nodded and mounted; and soon the clearing was quiet again. Shulon and Rys retreated into the cabin, setting to work. The fire crackled as she stoked it and set the coffeepot on its rusted hook. Rys reached into the old pot and ladled out the rest of the soup, the scent of tomatoes still lingering in the air. Neither mentioned the letter, still on the table between them.
Shulon let out a quiet sigh and broke the midnight seal of the Corps. The handwriting was neat, precise, chilling. Not a single stroke out of place, not a single smudge of ink. Her skin rippled, and she placed it down, kept her hands close to her chest. “Quin’s ordered us to watch the barbarians at the Gap. He thinks they may attempt the crossing before winter.”
He frowned and rubbed a hand over the neat beard on his face. Rys didn’t meet her eyes as he spoke. “That’s not a mission for captains. Quin could send anyone to watch the Gap. He doesn’t need us to do that.” “Apparently there was nobody else available.” The words were bitter on her tongue. As his eyes narrowed, a small, primal part of her itched to snarl. Reminiscent of the training she’d gone through. But he’d gone through that training too, and yet he’d tempered it. “Shulon, we’ve discussed this. I want out,” he said in a quiet tone. He raised a brow. “I thought you wanted that too.”
“Look, Rys, it’s one mission. And as you said, it won’t be that hard.” She ladled cold, reddened soup in her bowl and slumped back in her chair. The diamond glittered on her finger as she raised the spoon to her lips. When he spoke again, he met her eyes. “I never used to worry about whether I came home. But now, I’m sick of the blood. I’m sick of killing.”
“I know,” Shulon pushed the bowl away from her. “But as you said, it’s a simple mission. And bringing staff in from leave means a bigger payout.”
Rys’ eyes traced over the ladle, tomato soup staining gleaming steel. “I don’t want this life anymore. I thought I did, but, after what happened back in the city, I—I don’t think I can do it anymore.” “Just one more, and then we’ll tell Quin, okay?” she pleaded. Her heart hammered in her chest as the silence stretched longer. He bit his lip and tossed the spoon back in the bowl.
Tomato soup splashed on the table, but his eyes remained fixed on her. “Okay. One more,” he said, the resolve melting from his posture, and he smiled. “What?” her question cracked like a whip, the steel back in her spine.
“Just reminded of how much I love you.” Her fierce expression dropped immediately, and his beautiful smile cracked her heart. She strode across the room and gathered him up in her arms, memorising the strength in his deceptively slim arms, and the fragrance he’d used ever since she’d met him.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” she mumbled into his tunic.
The early rays reflected off the little stream in the clearing as Shulon leaned on the porch, her breath misting in the cool air. A creak echoed on the step behind her, and she smiled. “You tried your best,” she murmured. “Shoddy design,” her husband grumbled back. “Whoever said this cabin was suitable for Wraiths was lying.” “I taught you how to ghost over autumn leaves in broad daylight. A loose plank is nothing.” “Maybe I just didn’t want to get flipped on my back again.” “Interesting, because I seem to recall you enjoy that,” she grinned. He growled behind her, the throaty grunt a sure sign he’d only just awakened. He’d learned the hard way that surprising her was a terrible idea. A memory rose to mind, their first day in the training camp. He’d tried to approach her when she’d turned her back. He had ended up winded on his own back. She let out a chuckle as those arms wrapped around her waist.
“What’s so funny?” Rys whispered. She turned in his grasp, resting her hand on his cheek, tracing the slight scar on his face. His golden hair splayed everywhere, his leather cord conspicuously absent. But his eyes danced with a light of which she’d never tire. She mumbled a reply and drew his lips to hers.
Embers and sparks danced on the air three nights later. Shulon’s eyes half-closed, snug in her blankets, while Rys engaged in yet another enthusiastic rants of his newest constellation.
“See that one there? It’s the Jintamn. They called him the King-Slayer. They said you never saw him coming,” he whispered, the fervour of a convert colouring his voice. “Even the Watchers couldn’t see him.” She raised a brow. The Tzun people had no names for stars. Yet they fascinated the Sirtrans, so much they’d even named the moon. She’d found that strange. The moon was not something to name, or to own. It was just… there.
Shulon chuckled, staring up at the Jintamn. “Personal idol or something like that?”
Rys’ soft snort rumbled through the camp. “Nah, he’s got nothing on me.” They fell silent, and he sucked in a breath. Her source of warmth vanished, and her eyes fluttered open. “What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking of what will happen after the mission,” he said. “I mean, we’ll have to tell Quin. Do you-” his breath caught— “you think he’ll let us go?”
She nodded. “He will. she can’t force us, but he’ll try to plead. He’ll be disappointed to lose two captains, but we’ll get the pension like everyone else.”
“What will we even do with ourselves?” he whispered.
Shulon chuckled, and reached up to pull him to her, brushed a hand across his back. “I can think of a few things.”
Their journey took the rest of the week, and as evening fell on the barren area, they lay on their bellies, surveying the landscape. Far beyond, a deep crevasse snaked throug the out, dividing the land. The Gap, the northern border and protector of the kingdom, keeping it safe from the barbarians on the other side.
Rys touched Shulon’s arm. “Look,” he said. “There’s a camp on the near side.” Sure enough, someone had pitched tents amongst the shallow grass on the southern side of the Gap. Men garbed in black milled around, hands on their swords. And in the middle, seated, hunched—“Slaves,” Rys hissed. “The barbarians must cross the Gap and take slaves to sell them in their lands.” His gaze grew flinty, and she gripped his hand. It trembled in her own.
“Tonight, we make sure they never leave this place.” Shulon grinned at him and swept her raven hair over her shoulder. Death edged his smile, the wrath only awoken by years of pent-up vengeance.
Night fell and fires bloomed across the camp. Yells of exuberance punctured the cool night air, sounds of feasting and drinking. A slap and a scream rang out, and her hand trembled on her knife. How long had this been occurring under Quin’s nose? Rys flopped on his belly beside her again, wearing his suit, his blonde hair bundled under his hood. A silver crescent hung from his neck. Two swords poked out over his shoulders as he ghosted behind Shulon. Clouds slid over the sky, covering Lady Lune. Shadows protect her, as they always did. This night was perfect for killing. And honestly, these barbarians were useless at sentry duty. It was almost as if they hadn’t heard of the Corps, but she’d put the fear of the shadows in them tonight.
The tents loomed, and she drifted in between them, Rys hovering behind her. Steps echoed behind her, and she froze, eyes swivelling, gloved hand twitching on the hilt of her knife. The steps continued past her, stopped. A faint patter on the ground and a contented sigh of relief.
Shadows deserted her. The clouds drifted from Lune and Her light lit the world, so bright she had her own stark shadow. The sentry turned, and his eyes widened. His mouth opened, but a shadow burst up behind him, sword scraping on leather as Rys clapped his hand on the barbarian’s mouth and plunged his sword into his back.
The wet squelch rippled through her, followed by a thud, and she let out a shaky breath, heart racing despite her efforts to will it into submission. Rys raised his brows as he wiped his blade and sheathed it. Sloppy, he seemed to say.
“Your mission, your plan,” he said. Except this wasn’t just his mission anymore. It had become personal. Fury gleamed in his eyes, and he traced the wicked scar across his face.
“Do you want it stealthy?” she asked. He shook his head, and she smiled, reaching up to touch that scar. “Then we go in loud. Swords out, but don’t bother chasing when they flee. I want those filthy barbarians to know they have no place on our sovereign soil,” she ordered. “I love it when you make speeches,” he grinned. She just rolled her eyes. “Go.” As one, they screamed and charged into the ring of light. She allowed herself one second. One second to take in the situation. She slashed across the throat of a seated man, before turning to the next. He half-stood, his hand dropping to his axe, before she embedded her knife in his heart. The third, a burly one draped in fur, flailed with his sword, a jagged hunk of metal. Shulon ducked and left him with gaping wounds in her chest.
Screams tore through the air, and she glanced up to check on Rys. She needn’t have bothered; the screech of steel was a symphony of death, and he was the star performer.
At last it was over, and Shulon and Rys stalked to the prisoners in the centre. One let out a shriek and raised her hands as if to ward them off. Rys dropped to his knees and smiled. “It’s okay, you’re safe now.” he reached into his suit and pulled out his crescent, gleaming silver. As one, the prisoners, filthy and matted, sighed in relief. “They won’t be coming back. We’ll stay here until the morning, then you can head south. We’ll follow when we’ve got everything we need.” A grey-bearded man, ducked his head in thanks.
Dawn was crisp and bright the following morning, as twenty freed slaves ambled out of the camp. The sunlight revealed the full extent of the massacre, as ten barbarians lay on the ground, surrounded by stains on the grass.
“Strange. Not a single chieftain or ranking officer,” Shulon remarked. None of them carried sashes or braids, common in the barbarian culture. Rys frowned at him and picked up the trail of thought.
“So, if they had no commander, then what were they doing here?” he said.
“I think that question will have to wait,” a rough voice drawled. Strings creaked, and she wasn’t fast enough. Ten men in dark green had bows drawn and pointed at her. At last, the speaker stepped out of the shadow of a nearby tent. Grey beard, a scar across the left eye. Mouth cocked in a sardonic grin. And in his hand, a jagged knife.
“Don’t try any tricks,” he ordered. “Swords down.” Rys clenched his jaw but obeyed. Shulon followed, dropping her knives to the ground. The leader grinned and strolled forward, danger. He stood chest-to-chest with Rys, receiving nothing but a stony glare. Shulon’s heart hammered in her chest, but Rys didn’t move.
“Whoever you are, you are in more danger than you think,” she said. Even she didn’t believe it.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” With that, he had Rys locked in a vice-grip, knife at his throat. No.
“This is how it will go,” he said, eyes locked on Shulon. “Your friend here is going to tell me one little thing, and I’ll let you live. If not, well…” he grinned.
Shulon swallowed. “What do you want to know?”
“Where’s General Nahran’s battalion?”
Rys glared at her, his deep brown eyes alight with one message. Don’t you even think about it.
Shulon couldn’t meet his eyes. “They’re moving south. Last week, they were at Glen Jiran.”
The leader nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and drew the knife across his throat.
Rys shuddered once and dropped to the ground. Shulon let out a piercing scream that would have made the shadows tremble, and sprinted for him. Blood covered her gloves. Fading footsteps pierced the fog in her mind, but she paid the men no heed.
“It’ll be okay,” she whispered, tears sliding from her cheeks. She cradled him in her arms, blood staining her suit.
“Shadows love you,” he breathed, those deep brown eyes locked on her, until their brilliant, burning light faded, and he grew still, hand clutched on the golden knife. The fire in her heart snuffed out. She fell asleep with her head on his chest, but awoke to darkness. Her breath rattled in her throat, something not even the Watcher could cure.
Rys was gone.
Shulon felt her way around the walls. Bricks on all sides. A door of metal. At her neck, the strange hollowness, where a crescent would have once hung.
Rys was gone.
A clang and booted steps echoed nearby. “Captain Shulon of His Majesty’s Corps, you’ve been charged and found guilty of treason for causing the deaths of General Nahran and his battalion.”
Even those words, that harsh truth, failed to punch through the numbness, but what did it matter?
Rys was gone.
Shulon will return in A Traitor's Crescent, releasing June 1.