William Reis hated running. Loose gravel slipped under Will’s feet as he scrambled toward the Reach. He wasn’t sure if the Valni were still after him, but he wasn’t about to stop and look. Hammer-bound fool, he repeated to himself with every heavy footfall he took. He’d ventured into the Mistlands for one reason, to take a crystal shard. And he’d succeeded!
The Mistlands held dangers, the deadliest being the Valni. Humans once, people like Will, who, corrupted by the mist that gave the area its name, changed into something else. Now they lived for blood and flesh. Monsters all, no trace of who they were before remained. Will tripped over a rock and fell forward, only able to stay upright with a huge running step forward, boots hitting hard.
His labored breathing and the stitch in his side weren’t making this easy. Will’s body wasn’t made for running. Give him a hammer, an anvil, and a length of steel, and he’d spend hours hammering it into any shape according to his will. Running? No.
Will forced his legs to keep going, and he was sure of the scrambling of the Valni behind him. A hint of a growl, or was it a moan, carried through the air. Sparks burn it, Duncan was the runner, not him! Duncan had outrun the Valni more than once in his hunt for trinkets and treasures from the ruins that dotted the Skyreach beyond the barrier. The force of each step flew up Will’s legs. He winced at the growing pain in his side, and the future pain of his calves and back, assuming he made it to the barrier and lived long enough to feel the effects of this run when it was over.
Ancient wardstones, laid out in a line after the threat of the Valni appeared, would stop the things. They couldn’t cross them. Make it to the line. Just that far, he told himself. Make it to the line and he would rest. He could then breathe. His breath caught as the cramp in his side moved up his back. His foot slipped on a patch of loose rocks, forcing his movement to slow, and the sound of his pursuers now became clear. The scrabbling of hands and feet on rock. The Valni ran on all fours most of the time, either not caring about or not feeling the stone cutting into hands and bare feet. William once saw a person caught by the things. They’d stripped the woman of her flesh while she was still alive. Her screams had lasted for a lifetime. Will’s own screams took longer to stop that day.
He would not meet her fate. He wasn’t that far from the line; he had to make it. With a huge breath, he pushed himself to move faster, holding the small crystal in his hand, saying a silent prayer to a dead god to give him strength.
A wardstone came into view, not even ten cart-lengths ahead. The Valni in the lead howled, sounding far nearer than Will wanted. Nine cart-lengths; eight. Will’s skin prickled cold as something touched the back of his leg. A hand! A yell born of fear and loathing erupted from him as he half ran, half stumbled forward. Seven cart-lengths; six; five. The hand was back again, the breath of the thing behind him, its footfalls, and the smell of it too. Even while running away from the thing, a fetid stink of sweat and rot filled his nostrils, brought by the wind blowing against his back.
The hand tried again for his ankle, but slipped off his boot once more. Will was almost there. I must keep going, he thought. His breath was fast now, his body was moving as much as he could push it, but an icy knot of fear grew. Will worried his greatest effort wouldn’t be enough. Four cart-lengths; three; two. A body hit him from behind as the creatures tried to stop him from crossing. Will felt the sickening lurch as his feet lost their grip, his arms reached out to catch himself, his hand reached out, scraping against a rock’s edge.
Falling forward, and somehow landing on the other side of the line, he stopped trying to hold it together. He could stop running, his face tight as he tried to breathe through the cramp. A scream and a howl filled his ears. Will covered them in an involuntary reaction, pulling himself into a ball, a move that brought more pain. Not yet able to stand, he rolled himself farther away from the line, farther into safety. The scream came again, the scream of a predator denied its prey. He could hear the Valni scrambling back and forth at the line, wanting to cross. But the ancient magic, born of faith, held firm. Will raised himself up enough to look.
A dozen of them, moving like beasts, their movements not matching their human shapes. Right on the line, in front, the one that had grabbed his leg stared at him, biting the air, its teeth broken. The creature wore rags, a last remnant of its humanity. Sunken eyes stared back, full of hate and madness, mad with bloodlust, pulsing with hunger and rage. It sniffed the air and picked up a rock, sniffing it again like the ripest fruit, and licked it.
The pain in Will’s hand told him why the beast licked the rock—blood. Will could see the dark red line, his blood on the rock. When he fell, at the last, the scrape must have been worse than he thought. The Valni had licked his blood off the rock! Will shuddered in disgust. The knot of fear returned with a flush of cold sweat. He knew what the stories said about the Valni tasting someone’s blood. He pushed those away. Will was safe. He was on this side of the line, and he’d never cross over again.
He stood, and everything hurt. The pain in his side burned. His feet felt like he’d been beating the soles of them with his smithing hammer, and the cut on his hand still bled. Eyes blinking the drops of sweat away, he hurt everywhere. He was alive, though. Alive, and he’d succeeded in his task! Succeeded in the one thing that would—if the legends and stories were true—guarantee his admission to the smithing guild. He rubbed the crystal in his hand, taking it at a slow walk as he headed away from the line. A final plaintive scream came from behind him, but he ignored it.
The small crystal glowed, a soft white glow, matching the milky color of the stone itself. Soothing warmth enveloped his hands as he held it, warmer than his skin.
Better the slight pains he would recover from than the death the Valni brought. He’d been foolish to recover the crystal shard. Foolish and desperate. But this would do it… this would get him where he had dreamed of.
Being a Guild smith had been his father’s dream to start, though to hear his Da say it, it was the dream of generations of Reis’s. That dream had passed on to Will. He had to be a guild smith. He had to do it for his father. Palnor guild smiths were known all over Alos. They commanded the highest prices, created the finest works, and were given honors reserved for the nobility. Will remembered his Da’s voice, telling him of the wonders that only those who trained within the Guild could produce.
Weapons that never needed sharpening, gears that never stripped, armor that couldn’t be pierced by anything other than a guild-made blade. No one knew how they did it. Will had heard the legends over the years of times long past when a guild smith would be kidnapped. The kidnappers would try to force the methods the guild used from their prisoner. All that ever happened in those cases was a massive manhunt and the abductors killed. No one had bothered the guild or its Masters in a very long time.
His father attempted the test for being accepted to the guild three times. Each time he made a piece, each one finer and more perfect than the last. And each time they passed him over. No one from the Reach ever got chosen. Many in the Reach wondered why, but openly questioning the Guild would be foolish. When the time for the choosing came, a Master Smith would come, look over the applicants’ work, and then leave. His Da must have been crushed by his failures. He had been a proud man, strong, at least before that day.
Will would be chosen. He had studied and practiced for almost two years, waiting until he was old enough to try. He had sworn Duncan to secrecy about his attempt and built a small forge workspace out in the mountains, about an hour from town. The crystal was the last piece of the puzzle. This would give him the edge he needed.
He imagined his Da’s face, proud and worn. His Mother’s face beaming at him. Duncan giving his normal half smile, happy for him but not understanding what the big deal was. He wanted to remember them that way, happy. Will stopped and sat on a rock, rubbing his sore calf, his eyes drawn to the road, back toward the Valni, toward the barrier.
His mother’s screams. She’d been so close that day to making it. Trying to stop his cousin from crossing the barrier looking for treasure, she had left him at home. She’d found some maps he had saved up for and bought, maps showing ruins and locations on the Mistlands side. Even then, Duncan had a wild streak. Will had followed. He’d hoped Duncan would get caught, and maybe listen for once. She had crossed the barrier, not far over, but far enough. Some foolish merchant had tried to take a shortcut and drawn in the Valni.
The Valni were feasting on the remnants of one guard and the horse when they think his Mother saw the creatures, and the Valni had spotted her. Will remembered her running toward the barrier where he had hidden, hoping to see her dragging Duncan back home.
Will clasped his eyes closed tight at the memory. When he opened them again, he blinked, feeling the wetness on the edges of his vision. His father and Duncan’s father had been in the mines that day. They had failed to mention that Duncan had gone with them. Just a simple miscommunication, one that happens all the time. But this time, in this case, it led to the death of Will’s mother, and, slowly, his father and Duncan’s father.
Will’s Da had been inconsolable. He blamed himself; he spent his days at work, mining, smithing. He was a Reis, and Reis had an excellent reputation around the Reach. One of the oldest families, good, strong, reputable.
With the death of his wife, the elder Reis wasted away. He wouldn’t sleep, he would only nibble at food. He didn’t turn to strong drink, but worse things. Will’s Da just sat and stared at the mountains. He said nothing for almost a month, and in that month he transformed. Gaunt, an unrecognizable figure from the one he’d been before. Will remembered people whispering about how his Da was wasting away from grief and loss. That was only part of the truth. Duncan’s father, Will’s uncle, had taken it hard too, though his grieving was different. Oh, he’d mourned the loss of Will’s mother, but now he mourned the slow death of his brother. One day, a little over a month after that horrible day, Will’s Da vanished in the night.
Will could remember his Uncle pacing, unsure of what to do. Finally, he’d sat Will and Duncan down, told them he would find Will’s Da, and he’d be back before nightfall. He’d smiled; given both a hair ruffle. He had leaned down and given Duncan a small hug and walked out the door.
Duncan and Will stood there and watched him go, silent. They waited in silence all day, watching the day end and the night fall. They watched the glow stones in the street go out and saw the light of the new day break the sky over the mountains. But no parents ever returned. That was nine long years ago. Will and Duncan had been the only family the other had ever since.
Will winced as he stood. His calf still hurt, and now his shins hurt. He would feel that even more in the morning. Holding the crystal tight one last time, he slipped it into a pocket and began the rest of the walk home.
Coming over a rise, he took in the sight of the Reach. The town had no other name, nor did it need one. The town got its name from the mountains, the Skyreach Mountains. The Reach had been here for who knew how long. It had been the center of mining for all Alos longer than the written word could record. It had been far grander once, before the Fall of Amder. Amder. Will’s hand slipped to the crystal in his pocket.
Amder had named the Reach his blessed city, his home on Alos. The God of craft and creation blessed the Reach and made it the most powerful and wealthiest city in Palnor. But then came the Godsfall, and the Reach fell with the God. Now, more and more of the city turned to Grimnor, the god of the mountains, for blessings. But not always. Reacher’s still remembered Amder, one of the last places in Palnor that did.
The Reach spread out in this valley, parts of the city lit by torchlight, others by the older and now rarer glow stones. The cold air of the mountains pushed away the smoke and haze that sometimes hovered over the city of mining. In those moments, the true beauty of the Reach appeared. Homes decorated with fine metalwork shone in both daylight and moonlight. And if the conditions were perfect, the city would sparkle like gemstone.
Will headed down the road, nodding to a few people he passed as he got closer to town. No walls enclosed the Reach, though there was the occasional patrol by the local sheriff group. With the barrier protecting them from the Valni, the largest trouble the Reach came across was some bandits and brigands. While never a vast town, it was respectable. It took a hardy sort to live here. Though over the years the older parts of town had more and more abandoned homes, as families left, or lines died out.
Will headed toward the Gemdust district, where the Reis family home stood. It was glow stone lit, and one of the oldest, if not the original district in the Reach. They made the homes here of rock and carved with representations of life in the Reach. Sometimes they were inlaid with other rocks or even dust from Gem cutting operations, hence the name. Some of the carvings were newer. It had come into fashion to resurface homes and do new carvings. Others had a thousand different smaller carvings, some so old and weathered, no one could tell what they had ever been.
Will smiled as the house came into view. The Reis house was different and stood out even today. Only one carving was on the house, the only one that mattered. A huge carving of Amder covered the complete front and part of each side. A carving filled with a mix of Goldlace dust and Drendel steel. It was a family secret lost to time what the exact ratio was. But it glowed in the soft light of the glow stones, a monument to a different time.
Will’s hand slipped once more to the crystal in his pocket. “Welcome home.” he whispered to the night as he opened the door and walked into the warm firelight.
“Will, where in the blood of the mountains have you been?” Duncan stood facing the fire, his back to Will. Taller and far lither than Will, he didn’t even look like Will except for the cast of his features. When he turned around, the resemblance was clear, the same blue-green eyes, and the same pronounced sharp nose.
“Nice to see you too Duncan.” Will closed the door behind him and made his way to a chair at the large table that dominated the center of the room. He more collapsed than sat, happy that the chair could hold his weight now instead of his legs.
“You’re hurt? Where have you been?” Duncan’s voice rose in worry. Duncan didn’t worry about anything except for Will. He was overprotective of his cousin, even though they were of the same age.
“I had to do something.” Will settled back into the chair, trying to relax. While the small stabs of pain still bothered him, he was safe. His dream was within his grasp. He knew it.
“That’s not an answer.” Duncan’s voice lowered. “Sparks above Will, tell me.”
Will reached into his pocket. He’d have to tell him, though he knew Duncan wouldn’t understand. The small crystal gave his fingers a slight tingle, a thrill that distracted him from the aches he’d been feeling. “I had to go work on my practice piece, you know, for the guild trials. They’re only a week away”
“Forget the Guild! Your life is here, in the Reach. Not chasing after something that no Reacher has any chance of being.” Duncan waved his arms as he spoke, his frustration boiling over.
Will gritted his teeth but remained sitting, his legs still throbbed, and he didn’t want to let Duncan see any weakness. “It’s been my choice, Duncan, since we were little. It was my father’s dream, and his father’s as well!” This was an old argument of theirs. Duncan wanted nothing more in life than the Reach. And he wanted it for both of them.
“That dream was and is foolish, and why would you ever want anything to do with a dream from the man who left you alone? A man who wasted away, a man who gave up.” Duncan’s hands made fists for a moment but released them.
“Stop right there, Duncan!” Will rose now, ignoring the pain. “If you’d made sure my mother knew where you were, she wouldn’t have died, and none of the other things would have happened!”
Duncan’s face turned to stone. Will expected him to lash out and steeled himself. Duncan gave Will a long, hard look, turned again to the fire, and said nothing.
Will sat again, tension leaving his body. Old arguments. Duncan had always been the one to take care of them both. He had stepped into that dominant role when they were orphaned, and Will had let him.
Silence ruled the room, the sound of the crackling fire, and the occasional sound of a horseshoe on the cobblestones outside broke the quiet. Duncan at last turned back to him, and Will could see the sadness now. Will knew how much his wanting to leave bothered his cousin.
“I… I’m sorry.” Duncan muttered, sitting down in a chair at the table, rubbing his face. “I just, I don’t like the idea of you leaving the Reach. You’re the only family I’ve got left now. We are it, the last two of the Family Reis.”
Will nodded. “Dunc, I know you’re not fond of the guild, and even less like me joining it, but it’s my dream. I need to do this. Joining the guild will be my gift to my Da’s spirit wherever it is. I have to do this.”
Duncan looked at him and shook his head, a slight smile on his face. “Glad my father didn’t fill my head with guild nonsense. All that stuff about the guild, honoring Amder, a dead god, long gone. You can make a good living here, Will. You’re good. Reachers don’t care if your guild or not. Here you’re a Reis! This house is far too big for the two of us. One day we’ll have families, the Reis line will continue here in the Reach.”
Will nodded. “I know, Duncan. I could be like Da and stay. And I still might, but I must try. I have to do everything I can to make that dream come true.” Will’s gaze looked away from his cousin, looking at the fireplace as his fingers found the crystal again.
“What did you do, Will? You’re not saying something. When you try to evade answers, you look into the distance.” Duncan snapped his fingers, drawing Will’s attention back to him. “The fireplace isn’t that interesting.”
Will looked around. The door was closed, and the windows weren’t open. Will looked at Duncan and paused again. “I increased my chances in the guild trial.”
Duncan rolled his eyes. “Just tell me! By the eight gods say it.”
Will reached into his pocket and placed the crystal on the table. Its faucets caught the firelight, enhancing its soft white glow. “I had to.” Will whispered.
Silence fell once more, and Will watched Duncan’s face. First, his eyes widened, then narrowed as he looked at Will. A brief scowl crossed his face, replaced by what, a smile?
“You did it. You know how much trouble you’d be in if anyone else saw that?” Duncan pointed to the crystal, Will’s hope to change his future. “If you hadn’t put that on the table, I’d have never believed you could have done such a thing. You, William Reis, the upstanding one, took a crystal from the Mistlands!”
“I know. But I had to. With this, well you know the stories.” Will touched the crystal with a single finger, hunkering down to look at it at eye level.
“Will, that thing means you went into the valley.” Duncan stared at the crystal for a moment. “I travel closer than anyone else I know in the Reach, but to go into the valley? What about the mist? What about the Valni?”
“I’ve been watching the weather for the last week, Duncan, checking to see when the wind shifts and what direction. I had to hope that the wind would push the mist back far enough for me to grab a crystal, even a small one like this.” Will smiled at the memory of this morning.
“The trip out was fine, quiet even. Saw some Berog tracks but they were old, few days past. Not a Valni in sight though, unlike you, I didn’t go digging around in any of the ruins I passed.” Duncan opened his mouth to ask a question, but Will stopped him. “I’ll tell you about the ruins I saw later.” Duncan gave him a grin and waved him to continue.
“Once I got to the valley, I saw it Duncan. Have you ever investigated the valley? Seen the mist, the blood red death of it, swirling around these?” Will picked up the crystal, feeling the slight tingle and warmth it gave off. “This was a tiny one. At places in the mist you could see huge ones, and other things as the mist shifted and swirled. Dark things.”
“The road down was old but serviceable. Nothing grows there anyway. And I was right, the wind was blowing the mist away from me, but I wasn’t sure how long it would be. I stood there for a long while, watching it. Almost turned around and came back, promising myself I’d never speak or think of this ever again. But I didn’t. I stood there and waited.” Will blew out a long breath and placed the crystal back on the table.
“It was stupid to wait; I should have grabbed the first crystal I saw and got out of there. Finally, I moved. I don’t know why. It was like my arms, my legs were being controlled by someone else. I held my breath, ran up and grabbed this one and got away as fast as I could.” Will shuddered at the memory of being that close to the mist. “I swear the mist reached for me Duncan, against the wind, a tendril reached out, I swear it. Color of blood, the mist was. It moved like a living thing.”
Duncan looked pale; they both knew what the mist touching you meant. What happened to you, what you became. “That was stupid. Brave I guess, but stupid.”
Will shrugged. “I know. I ran away from the mist and I kept running. Ran all the way till I hit the barrier. Barely escaped.”
Duncan nodded. “Lucky. What if the Valni had found you?”
Will looked down. “They did.”
“What?” Duncan stood, voice raised. “You don’t leave something like that out, Will!”
Will shrugged. “They didn’t catch me. But it was close. I’ll never cross that barrier again. Never. Not for anything.”
Will’s voice gave Duncan pause. “What do you mean?”
Will looked at the floor. “My blood, one of them tasted it.”
“Will! How?” Duncan knew what it meant. After a Valni tastes your blood; they will seek you out. No tracker, no dog, no magic could track better than a Valni after it’s tasted blood. And Valni never traveled alone.
“I tripped and fell, crossing the barrier Dunc. When I say I barely escaped, I mean it. The one in the lead, the one who tasted my blood. He had grabbed me by my ankle. I was close enough that when I fell, I fell over the barrier. My hand had gotten cut up some from the rocks when I’d tripped earlier.” Will held up his hands, the cut still visible. “Blood fell on the wrong side of the barrier. It was fresh blood. He tasted it, and he smiled at me Duncan. I didn’t even know the things could smile.”
Duncan sat in a seat next to Will. “You are marked now, Will. Can’t cross that barrier ever again. If you do that Valni and more will come straight for you. You’re Sparks blessed lucky the things didn’t catch you.”
“I know. I know.” Will sighed. “But it was still worth it. With this, I’ll do it. I’ll get into the Guild. I’ll do it for my father, for your father, for every Reis, male or female who tried and didn’t get in.”
They both looked at the crystal. They both knew what it was. It was the blood of a dead god, the blood of Amder, the God of Craft.