This story takes place immediately before the events of Heir of the Hunted.
At that moment, Soma knew he was about to die. He knew as soon as he heard the scream. It washed up from the valley, rolling across the landscape. His worst nightmare given voice.
Soma’s eyes hardened. He started running towards home. His pale and naked legs moved at unthinking speed, carrying him down the hillside toward the village. Around him, his kin were doing the same: running, their faces alight with fear. They lived in a peaceful world; to hear such a cry would be terrifying, for they could not know what it was. Soma did, and his terror was greater.
He snarled as he ran, fear for his sister fuelling his flight. On the horizon, the sun was a line of bruised purple. The heavens were quickly darkening, the celestial gravel that ringed their planet fading into existence like a pale and stony rainbow. Soma’s slender arms pumped at his sides. The long grass of the hillside rippled past in a blur. All the time, one thought echoed through his mind. It was too soon. His master had said a thousand years.
The scream came again. It was a baleful sound. Not quite animal, not quite man. A second call answered the first. Then another. Soon, they grew to a chorus, the howl of a thousand ruined souls. Soma recognised the sound, though he had never heard it in his waking hours. They had finally come.
In his mind’s eye he pictured them not as flesh and blood but as the stick-like paintings his master had shown them in the ancient cave. Ghastly, grinning effigies that somehow seemed more terrible for their lack of detail. The reality could only be worse.
Soma pushed his limbs faster. His kin running down the hillside had been left behind. Below, he caught a glimpse of firelight: his village sparkling between the trees that blanketed the valley floor, defenceless against the nightmare about to descend on them. Shadows were flitting between the trees. They were so close… One of the village flames flickered.
A single cry broke the night, far worse than any howl from the enemy. It was a cry of agony, shock, and deep and bewildered hurt. Soma’s kin. The mournful note hung on the air, seeming to take an eternity.
Then suddenly their screams were everywhere. His people cried out in unison, sharing their suffering as one through the psychic bond of their race. A hundred terrified thoughts exploded in Soma’s mind. The force of it almost made him stumble. He shook his head and pushed on.
He hit the valley floor and burst into the woods, snatching his weapon from his back as he ran. A long wooden staff, sharpened at one end. Soma could see wavering fire through the trees ahead. A few more strides and the trees parted, opening onto the little glade his people called home.
Soma threw his head back and wailed. He had come upon a massacre. His village was a quagmire of blood. The agonised screams of his people mingled with the howls and shrieks of the enemy. The stench of gore clung to the air. Spilled campfires leaked glowing embers and smoke. Already two of the huts were on fire.
The creatures were pouring into the clearing from every direction, attacking savagely, indiscriminately, snarling like animals. Snatching the nearest victim. Chasing down those that fled. Their wicked claws hacking, stabbing, slashing. All the time they howled and cackled with maniacal glee.
They were smaller than Soma expected, perhaps only four feet. Somehow that made their bloodlust more abhorrent. Stretched over skeletal forms, their skin looked like leather that had been burned. What startled him most were their eyes. Bulging and yellow, they gleamed with malevolent hunger.
Soma’s people made no defence. How could they? They hadn’t even the concept of violence. They simply ran or cowered against their annihilation, their slender arms hugging their naked bodies, their gazes filled with sorrow.
They could never understand. These were gentle beings. They communed telepathically, their voices used only for song. The harshest sound they knew was laughter, the strongest contact the embrace of their loved ones. The stories they told were of dreams and animals. They hadn’t been raised on legends of war. Soma’s people didn’t know how to fight.
His spear struck out, piercing a creature through the chest. He spun, flinging the beast across the clearing. It landed with a squelch, oozing brown blood. Soma pulled back and stabbed again, puncturing another creature’s throat.
Another looked up from its prey, its eager eyes noting a worthier foe. It rushed. Soma dropped it with a kick to the chest. He advanced on the fallen creature and drove his spear through its skull.
Soma’s head snapped from side to side, searching. All around him, creatures were tearing apart his people with the delight of greedy children. His hopes rose; his sister wasn’t here.
Fiery pain erupted in Soma’s shoulder. A creature had latched onto him from behind. Soma howled and swatted at the beast. Lightning-fast, it sprang away. Soma turned, positioning the creature in front of him, and swung. The beast cackled and snatched the spear from mid-air. Soma tried to wrench it free but was shocked at the creature’s strength. They circled, struggling, the weapon locked between them, the beast snarling, hissing.
Gradually, it drove Soma backward, his feet sliding across the gore-slicked dirt. Soma made his decision. He dropped the spear and clapped the creature’s skull between his palms. It howled with delight. Soma wrenched it skyward, twisting. Its neck broke with an audible crack.
The creature crumpled to the dirt, its life ebbing in spasms. Soma picked up his spear and pushed forward through the massacre, making his way across the village. His shoulder pulsed in agony. Warm blood seeped down his back.
Then a hand was clutching his ankle. Soma spun, raised his spear, and froze. He looked down not on an enemy but on the face of his cousin. Bloodied, his kin looked up at him with watery eyes. Please, cousin Soma. Stop this madness. You have forgotten your soul.
Soma shook his head, staggering back and away. His cousin’s gaze, that sad confusion, hurt more than any tooth or claw. How could he ever explain? More than their village was at stake. More than their entire world. How could he explain what had taken three hundred years to learn? How could he explain why he had been trained, like the others carefully selected from a dozen different worlds? How could he explain the Dream Mother?
It was impossible. He could only endure his peoples’ horror, and right now even that didn’t matter. He needed to find his sister. If she wasn’t here, there was only one place she could be.
He had almost reached the far end of the village. The woods resumed just a few feet ahead. For the moment Soma had no opponent. Every creature was occupied with their grisly feast. Still more creatures were pouring in from the shadows between the trunks. Their numbers seemed endless. He felt as if his heart was being squeezed in the fist of some merciless god. There was nothing he could do to help his people.
Soma slung his spear over his shoulder and ran. He crashed blindly through the woods, away from a home he would never see again. He didn’t need to look back to know the creatures would follow.
The forest was thick with shadows. Night had transformed the woods into hollows and gloom. Here and there, moonlight punctured the canopy in silver beams. Soma made no effort to cover his hurried tracks. His only hope was flight. He ran and ran, but he couldn’t escape the carnage in his mind. The images stayed there, sickening him, torturing him, blazing in brilliant reds. So much blood. And those awful, yellow eyes.
Suddenly the night erupted. Beyond the leafy canopy stars were streaking through the sky like radiant birds, arcing across the horizon. Soma noted the start of the heavens’ nightly phenomenon with dread. Once the flight of the stars ended there would be no escape. Not until tomorrow when the stars flew again. By then it would be too late.
Ahead, the forest thinned, opening onto the ancient and alien place his people avoided. Soma burst into the clearing, his feet thudding onto the grey chiselled stone. His heart leapt. She was there.
His sister was huddled against one of the tall pillars that ringed the area. She gasped and rushed to her feet when she saw him. When they came together in the circle’s centre, she threw her arms around his neck and clung to him fiercely. Soma realised she was sobbing.
“Do you have it?” Soma asked, pulling back and holding his sister out by the shoulders.
Urla swallowed her tears and nodded. Her violet eyes were wide, seeming too large for her delicate features. The effect was extenuated by her hairless skull. His sister was shivering, but whether from cold or terror Soma didn’t know.
Soma, she sobbed into his mind, I thought you were dead. I waited so long.
“It’s not safe to use firstspeech, Urla,” Soma whispered, glancing back toward the forest. “They will sense us. Only use mouth voice.” His hands tightened on her shoulders. “The time has come. The Dream Mother has chosen you. You must go to the Olden Place and ride the stars.”
Urla’s lip trembled. She started crying again, shaking her head. “You must come too. I will not leave you.”
“You know that is not possible. Only one can ride.”
“Then you go.”
“I am sorry, sister, but there is no other way. If they have traced it all the way to us then the others are already dead. We are all that remains between them and the boy. He will become the hunted now. You have to warn him.”
Urla was still shaking her head. Soma wondered if she was even aware she was doing it. “I am scared, Brother. What if I cannot find him?”
Soma forced a smile. “It will be alright. The Dream Mother will guide you. The boy only needs to see the sign for it to begin. He will start to remember.”
A sharp crack echoed from the woods. Soma snatched a glance behind. Dark shapes were moving just beyond the tree line.
“They are here, Urla! You must go!” He pointed between the ring of pillars, his eyes pleading. “Please, before it is too late.”
Urla bit down on her lip and nodded. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, and the pain that passed between them went beyond any words that either could speak, beyond even thoughts. Everything they had done, all they had learned, everyone who had come before them. It all came down to this moment.
Urla turned and ran. In a few seconds she disappeared between the pillars and into the forest. She was gone.
Soma watched her go with a tortured heart. Behind him, he heard the creatures break the tree line. He drew his spear, his grief blackening into hatred. He would kill as many as he could before his life ended. Slowly, Soma turned to face his foe.
The next moment he was hurtling through the air. His back slammed into one of the pillars, the spear dropping from his fingers and clattering to the stone. Soma struggled, but it was useless. He was pinned to the pillar as if gravity had turned sideways. His feet dangled above the grey slab floor.
Three beings were floating toward him. They were wispy, ethereal, more echoes than anything real. Swirling, turbulent things, they seemed to be made of shadows. The air around them was agitated, tossing leaves and dirt like some languid hurricane. A row of creatures stood silently behind them, their yellow eyes gleaming. Soma’s gaze rolled to the heavens. The stars were still flying, but they were growing sparser.
Then the wraiths were upon him. One floated up to Soma, its shadowed head coming within an inch of his own. Soma could see right through it to the creatures behind.
“Where is the boy?” It asked in a voice that was a ghost itself, a chorus of rasping whispers. “Which world?”
“Which world?” repeated one of its shadowy kin.
“World?” echoed the third.
Soma stared back defiantly, trembling with fury. He could do nothing to help himself, but he would not help them.
Soma clenched his eyes. If he could delay them, it might buy his sister time.
One of the shadows hissed. It jerked away from Soma and flew to the edge of the pillars. It paused and sniffed the air.
“He has a sister.”
“Sister,” the wraith’s kin agreed.
Soma’s eyes snapped open with fear. At the shadow’s command, the line of creatures tore off into the woods. His stomach tightened; they had headed in the right direction.
As quick as thought, the wraith was back before him. “Yes, child,” it hissed, its shadowy, skeletal fingers curling around Soma’s jaw. “We hear your thoughts. Know your mind.”
“Know your mind.”
“Now… WHICH WORLD!”
Soma tried to keep his thoughts from escaping. He might as well have tried to grasp water in his fist. His attempts only made the name rush to the surface.
There was a cold and silent moment. Then the shadows let out a collective gasp. Instantly, Soma was forgotten.
“Oberyon,” one of the wraiths whispered. Its tone was musing, as if it could taste the name. “Oberyon… How peculiar. Oh, how very interesting.”
“But who shall slay him?”
“I am closest. I will have his blood.”
“So you shall,” agreed its brother.
“It shall be done,” said the third.
As one, they turned back to Soma. They seemed relaxed now, almost happy, if beings like these could be such a thing.
“Where is your Dream Mother?” asked the first, its shadowy head tilting mockingly.
“Why doesn’t she save you?”
“It is your time to die.”
The force that held Soma suddenly released him. He dropped, crying out as he struck the ground. Their magic hit him. Soma’s world erupted in white agony, searing every fibre of his being. He collapsed under the might of the sorcerous torture, wailing, convulsing.
“Does it hurt you?”
“Is it painful to die?”
A brilliant crimson light burst from the forest. It blazed across the heavens, joining the flight of the stars and illuminating the circle of pillars with its dazzling red glow. Soma’s heart leapt. His sister had escaped.
As the final wisps of life deserted him, Soma reached out to her with his mind. Goodbye, my sister. I love you. May the Dream Mother guard your journey. Find the boy.
He could not know if she had heard but, for a moment, the crimson star that carried her seemed to glow a little brighter. It hung in the air for an instant, streaming across the heavens with its white-lighted kin. Then it was gone.
Soma’s body gave one final shudder. Though he was crippled with agony, he died with a smile on his lips.
And on the other side of the galaxy, on a world that had been known as Oberyon for the longest of times, a crimson star appeared in the heavens.
Then, slowly, it began to fall.