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THE DIM REALM Volume IBook One of The Resurrection Tower
By Matt Holgate
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Matt Holgate
All right reserved.
Chapter One'Drey Awakes'
It was cold and so very quiet.
Orthin's Wood sat without sound. Trees watched the passage of twilight as dawn came, the reign of shadow finally over. Morning mist rolled in both shallow valleys and the nooks of trees, churned and strolled, slid and danced. Streaks of emerald light died from the skies, where earlier they had flowed like waves upon the ocean, a rarity but for the time of Last Harvest. Fireflies shone, ambient in their flight like faded memories, but their time in the world was almost over.
Still there was no sound. The trees enjoyed the hush, the rise and fall of the air. A leaf falling through the fog would have been a cacophony. But while the forest might have been cold, even quiet, it was not alone.
Dead soldiers, men and women both and armored in chainmail, hung from the trees in a small ring, impaled on the branches, staring sightlessly at one another, those that still had eyes. Others slumped to the ground at their feet, cast over the roots. Many had been hacked apart. Mangled. Trained warriors wearing mail, all wielding swords and spears, and they had been thrown about like ragdolls, abandoned puppets whose strings were suddenly cut. Their raiment was a mix of silver and scarlet.
In the blue light of dawn, armor and burnt skin were darker than midnight. Some of the bodies smoldered, as did the ground around them, and some were blackened, charred beyond recognition. Others were not touched by heat at all, although wisps of grey smoke still stirred the air.
The dead soldiers littered one lone small clearing. Thin, unnatural shapes in the air moved and hid about the rocks and trees surrounding them. The air itself lay in wait. But there was still no sound.
Finally, there was movement. The corpses surrounded a living but unconscious man. The man lay on his back in the center of the clearing, his eyes closed, one hand raised into the air as if warding off the dead soldiers around him.
This last living man was stirring. His breath was no more than a startled, disquieted ghost.
Smoke, he wondered. It felt like the barest caress on his cheek.
Drey awoke just as the wind began to rise. The smoke was the first smell on the breeze, and felt somehow new to him. Then he coughed, almost choked, fighting down a surge of fear. The smoke meant something! It was thick, strong, an enemy to be grappled with, winding upwards in a serpent's tail. His mouth tasted bitter, ashen.
Eyes, Drey thought dazedly. My eyes ...
The lids of his eyes shuddered painfully but he managed to open them a little further. Images instantly assailed him, red slashes amidst black. Something ... something was laughing at him. Drey could not tell from where it came, that laughter, but it was somewhere nearby, mocking him, taunting. On his life, he could not decipher the words. The meaning in them seemed plain—perhaps the gift of sight was not to be his. Or perhaps, the laughter teased, the gift would have an edge to it. A surprising one.
Drey's eyes closed again. Nothing made sense. But again his eyelids fluttered open, this time slowly, and up from the recesses, he saw the world coalesce.
His heart nearly stopped. There were a thousand skeletal hands clawed upwards in the gloom, all grasping and waving. A sound came from them, a wailing to harrow the bones. Yet the screaming felt strange—an echo, perhaps—a puzzle he could not quite piece together. The fear in him made him cold. A ladle full of snow-melted water could not have chilled him more.
Drey's heart began pumping too hard and too fast. The feeling was estranged. Now that his eyes were open, images at the fore, he could never hope to close them again.
One hand is my own, he realized.
Drey looked hard at his left hand, how it reached upwards, as if his fingers were not fingers at all but claws curled in torment. Blood streamed down them. Was it his blood? The laugher in his mind taunted him anew from the void, but it was fading, a whisper now, nothing more. Had it ever really been there? After all, even the screaming was nothing more than the wind, wasn't it?
What have I seen? his panicked mind flailed. Drey still felt like he was in danger, terrible danger, no matter what soothing balms his rational mind might try to apply.
He did not understand what had happened. He thought to close his eyes again, nearly did so, but would not relinquish his precious sight so easily. Not again. Instead, Drey looked at his hand with a burning intensity. He would force the world to come into focus around it, spreading out like waves in water cast from a stone, settling from obscurity into clarity as its wake passed.
Drey ... my name is Corin Drey ...
His name. It felt right. It felt good. For one brief moment, knowing that one simple thing made everything else a little better. He was in pain, or at least had been, but it was bearable. There was a general pulsing of discomfort to his body that was steadily fading. The pounding in his chest was easing, and the pain behind his eyes seemed the worst of it. Some accident had occurred, apparently, and only now was he slowly regaining consciousness.
"Drey," he said, speaking his name aloud relentlessly. "Drey."
Corin Drey had always been known in his hometown of Arrow's Flight more by his last name than his first. But any other details were hazy, and he felt like he was grasping at fragments if he tried to think too quickly. It was too much like clinging to the wheel of a sinking ship instead of the life raft for his liking, but he did not dwell on it.
Drey shook his head. His imagination—or much more likely a head wound—was obviously playing games with him. The clawing hands around him were nothing more than birch trees amidst the elm and maple, made stark in the twilight. Nothing was as it seemed, but the sky was not falling on him either. He took that as a good sign.
As the sky further lightened into shades of blue, sounds from the forest arose, but it was still so deathly quiet. The animals and creatures knew he was there. They feared him. The cool wind was the cry of an autumn night's tale. These woodlands would not claim snow for some time yet, but the leaves thought gingerly of falling.
Why was I unconscious?
Again the wind sounded, and the trees wept with it, swaying in their fashion. The question begged at him. Lying prone on his back, he looked himself over, seeking clues.
Corin Drey was a big, tall man, having spent many years apprenticed to a blacksmith named Ebin Code. He had eventually returned to farming, but the blacksmith's build had never left him. He was otherwise unremarkable to look at: big without being overly muscular, black hair short but unkempt with a few streaks of early grey, face unlined but rounded. He was the type of man who reminded everyone of someone and yet no one in particular. His eyes were as grey as the smoke around him, clear without being intense. They were friendly eyes, to be sure, and yet never exuded the warmth he might have hoped. He was not the most agile of men, either, but did possess a keen concentration for tasks at hand. The town smith, a sour old soul, had let him work the smithy for that reason alone. But Drey looked more in place farming the fields outside the township of Arrow's Flight than at the forges, and indeed felt more at peace there as well. His heart was good, but he spoke to so few people that not many knew it.
I'm cold, Drey suddenly realized. He began to shiver, where he had felt nothing a moment ago. As he eased his face out from its grimace, he could feel where the cold of night had tried to cast it into shape. His hair had been wet, then frozen, and now was wet again. An early frost, he recalled, was wreaking havoc on many a crop.
First thing was first, though. He was still lying on his back. He had to get up, find out what happened. Get home.
Coughing, Drey turned up on one side. He almost retched, but held it back, bile writhing on his tongue. No, his head was definitely not quite right. He placed his hand on a nearby ember, and was surprised by the sudden stab of heat as he pulled away in the nick of time.
Was there a campfire?
Drey felt the sun rise behind him. The sister and brother moons had already long set. Confident that he was shaken but not badly hurt, he tried to look around again, still blinking away at a rim of darkness.
Shock settled in once again. For good, this time. The forest had been burnt down. No, that was not quite right. The immediate area around him had been burnt out, like flames caught in a fireplace. Smoke rose slowly, not unlike a smoldering weapon off the forge. A few embers of red ash still flicked in the air like a dragon's eyes. But, somehow, trees beyond the circle were untouched.
Fires around me ... and still not a mark on me other than dirt ... and blood ...
Drey finally tried getting up. Unable to quite stand, he braced himself with his hands palm-down on his thighs, just above the knees. His head pounded anew, and he wavered slightly. Again, bile rose in his throat. He looked not unlike a sailor who thinks he has found his way out of the whale's belly.
Giving an irritated spit, the big man shakily wiped it off his lips. He was getting colder, and his skin was clammy. One final spit and he pushed himself all the way upright.
I was searching for Thom Blaire's wife, Drey could now remember. One of the disappeared. Can't see why–
Drey froze. There was no more time for thought. His reason for coming to Orthin's Wood was unimportant. He finally saw all the dead soldiers that hung from the trees. The bodies that were scattered about the burnt forest floor, murdered and then defiled, surrounded him from all directions.
What happened to me?
Kara Kinfolk stifled a yawn. Lords, she wished she could stop. But it was so easy.
The young blonde woman sat outside the Golden Stein Inn, staring bleakly at the cracked wood plate of steak and eggs sitting in front of her. She turned it around a couple of times. No matter the angle, she could just not convince herself she was hungry, not at this ungodly hour.
Kara rubbed her face, her eyes. She tried to force sleepiness away, but it kept pushing back. It was a strong bastard, too.
She yawned again.
This autumn was Kara Kinfolk's seventeenth in the world, and usually she wore it well. She was of medium height, lean and athletic. While her face held her youth beneath long, pulled-back blonde hair, her poise was that of someone old before her time. It always had been there—a strength bred in the bone. Or so the smith Ebin Code told her time and again.
Then again, Ebin would tell her damned well near anything to get her moving.
The plate beckoned. Come hither, it promised, like an escort three decades past her prime. Kara could only look at the eggs with (at best) bemusement as they dripped and drooled at her like the misfits of sibling parents. Such was the cuisine of the Golden Stein and not for the faint of heart.
Kara used the two-pronged fork to unceremoniously lump the eggs into a pile on the corner of her plate. Awesome. Whatever beast had laid these was a mystery she would not dwell on. Kara instead ate the steak that had come with them, washing it down with water. Despite the early hours, it had been her only choice to drink other than ale.
The meat done, she turned back to the eggs, and with an extreme lack of interest, added some spice to the dripping mass. Her stomach warned her not to keep testing it, and it meant business.
Mornings are just wrong, Kara thought with what could only be described as a mental grunt. Dawn's not so much a stranger, as it's some hideous distant relative that I have to see once a year. The creepy one that keeps wanting a hug.
Kara looked up at the sky. Barely blue. Did this still qualify as night? If not, it should.
As morning came upon the township of Arrow's Flight, it found the rest of its citizenry ready and waiting, however. Already carts and wagons were churning up dust on the laneways. All four corners of the town were a bustle with last crops to be sold or supplies to be picked up. Anyone not in the market or bound for Blind Creek was off to toil in the fields before frost finished their work for them. For centuries, as it grew from a small farming community into a reliable grain and vegetable provider, Arrow's Flight had been a town whose strength lay in the land itself.
Kara smiled, if faintly. That had been her life once. Once, but no longer.
Through a supreme act of will, she screwed up her courage and got a piece of egg down. She had not known, until now, what a fight her gag reflex could put up when it really wanted to.
Nothing in this world can make me like Wade Grober's cooking. Or Wade Grober. He's crap dressed in a sack.
The old letch Wade Grober owned the Golden Stein Inn, where Kara found herself sitting outside of this morning. It was an unremarkable building with a few drab rooms, but also an appreciably large bar. As the sun slowly poked its head above the hills haunting the east, the Stein looked more like a rundown barn than anything else. This, of course, was what it once had been. The wood creaked as if it dreamt of being kindling. But with Arrow's Flight situated so near to the King's Highway, more trade was passing through its small borders these days. Other inns and taverns, particularly the Hooded Lantern up a short bit, had prospered with the increased traffic of merchants and traders on the highway. Wade Grober did not know much, but he knew opportunity when he saw it. He kept large quantities of ale on hand, enough to satisfy the customers and keep them returning.
That's ole' Grober—loves his money, his booze, and his lechery, and rarely in that order.
But Kara had a job to do, and she was doing it.
Damn it, Ebin. This was all your idea, you old fart.
The job should have been easy, but Kara had not counted on maintaining the appearance of casually eating breakfast being so difficult a task. She should have known, though. Her line of work usually worked better at night, when merchandise could change hands in the shadows, not sitting out in all the sun's glory with busybodies passing from here to there. Even jobs above the table required privacy.
There were half a dozen small tables outside. Each was built and chained to the Stein's porch, tables and benches alike. Theft didn't seem likely enough to warrant such measures, but it took all kinds, she supposed.
Kara took another look around, anything not to stare at her food. Some travelers were up already, planning to take advantage of the good weather to get an early start on the road. Another warm one, from the feel of it. But any morning where you could smell autumn was a good one, Kara believed, at least in theory. Nearby, wind chimes spoke of breeze, but she could not see from where the sound came, only heard that they beckoned. Oh yes, a good day was coming, and some of the travelers sitting near to her obviously felt the same.
One of those travelers was extremely important to her. Kara just did not know which one it was. Ebin was testing her and had been mysteriously vague regarding some of the details.
Kara gave up on the eggs entirely, tossing the fork. She was not that good an actress, so she would either pass or fail on her own merits. The fork made a louder noise than expected, earning her a brief stare from those around her, but that did not bother her overly. She doubted she was the only one who was not as chipper as a song bird.
The best way to get noticed is to act like you don't want to be. Better to be your own annoying self. Be a passing nuisance who is out of mind once out of sight.
And nuisance? That I can do.
At the moment, two of the other tables were occupied. Kara made casual appraisals of each.
A small family sat close to her. They were strangers, just traveling through town, wagon loaded and their horses waiting to lead them south. Jehovan, their name was, an old northern name or something like that. Best Kara knew, they were from somewhere up in the northwest, heading somewhere down into the southeast along the Spear. That had been pretty much all she could ferret out. They certainly were not alone in heading for the south—many these days were headed for the southern realms as war was rumored to be rearing its ugly head. Kara guessed that while there were many people who would fight for their lands, there were also those who would not, could not, or had too little of their own to fight for. Kara could not begin to guess which side she belonged to. She hoped the former, thought the later.
The Jehovan mother, young yet somehow old, fussed over the plates of her two children. Boys, both of them, six and eight years old. If they were eating the same thing Kara was, she could understand the fuss.
Excerpted from THE DIM REALM Volume I by Matt Holgate Copyright © 2012 by Matt Holgate. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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