For the last little while, I’ve been having a real struggle being productive when it comes to fiction writing. The reasons for that too varied and complex to get into right now.
Nonetheless, I have been able to put out a few short stories here and there. Lady of the Dawn is one of them. I’m not entirely sure how well this one turned out, but that’s where you come in. Feedback is welcomed, constructive criticism included.
Lady of the Dawn takes place in the same universe as The Wounding, but they’re fairly disconnected stories, so you don’t need to have read that first.
One other note-worthy thing before I get into the story: Its protagonis was one of the characters I built when playing Black Desert a few months ago. She was one of the bigger successes, being a nearly perfect match for how I picture her in my mind.
Lady of the Dawn
© 2016 by Tyler F.M. Edwards.
To some, hope is a promise for a better future. To others, it is blind faith, a province for fools. Some see it as simply the knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow.
To Artica, hope had never been anything but an idea.
* * *
She slowed from a trot to a careful walk, watching her footing in the dying light. Her hooves made little sound on the leaf-strewn forest floor, but occasionally they would clop on something harder – ancient paving stones. Her breath misted in the chill air, and the last of the day’s sunlight glinted orange on the spiral horn thrusting proudly from her head.
There was a subtle wrongness in the air, a prickling at the edge of her mind. This was the place.
With a thought, she transformed. Where a mighty beast with a black coat and glossy mane had stood a moment before, there was now a short, solidly built woman. All muscle and taught readiness, her stern face bore the olive skin — hers a duskier shade than most — and almond-shaped eyes of her people, the Karani, the Children of Sun and Sky.
Keyed to her own innate magics, her barding transformed along with her, becoming gleaming plate and mail. A kite shield emblazoned with the rising sun hung on her arm, and a long sword was sheathed at her belt. An open-faced helm concealed her ebony hair, and a tabard of white and gold marked her as a follower of Siel, Lady of the Dawn. The goddess of hope.
She felt her palms sweat within her gauntlets, and with a hiss of steel, she drew her blade.
The light was almost gone, and she knew she had made a mistake. With the coming of night, the power of her goddess would fade, and the advantage would swing to her quarry’s favor. She should have waited until tomorrow, but her impatience and frustration had gotten the better of her.
She had never been supposed to complete this trial. They had expected her to fail, to give up as she traveled to the far wilderness and tracked an enemy who left no trail. She had needed to prove them wrong, but in her pursuit of that, she had displayed the very lack of discipline that made her masters doubt her.
It was too late to turn back now.
* * *
Artica’s first memories were of terror.
Long ago, her people had lost their homeland, the Jan’il Plains. Defeated in the All War, they had fled into the forests of the north, forming a desperate alliance with the Elves, Dwarves, and Merfolk to create the Great Fellowship. Artica’s namesake, Great Queen Artica, had broken the power of the enemy and won the day for the Fellowship, but the Karani had been too devastated to return home.
Then the Bonru had come. Barbarians from another world, their jealously had made them turn on the Fellowship. A mongrel race without magic, they had failed in their attempt at conquest, but yet the Bonru had endured. Retreating to the Jan’il Plains, they had remained a cancer on the world, never a serious threat but always just strong enough to deny the Karani their homecoming.
The Karani still loved the sun-soaked plains, though, and would often take pilgrimages to visit their war-torn homeland.
Artica’s family had died on such a pilgrimage.
She had been but a small child, only fifteen years old, but her parents had wanted her to see the land their people so loved. For her early memories to be of endless skies and galloping across a sea of grass.
Then the Bonru had come.
Her parents had stashed her in a wagon, buried beneath blankets, gear, and boxes, and she had cowered and wept as screams filled the air. She could still hear the guttural shouts of the Bonru ringing in her ears, though she had been little more than a babe at the time.
A few phrases they had repeated over and over, and though none among the Karani or their Elven allies fully understood the Bonru language, she had eventually found an old veteran who had been able to translate them. “Were-Unicorns” and “squint-eyes.” Slurs the Bonru hurled against her people.
Somehow, even after everyone else was dead and the Bonru had begun looting, they had never found her, perhaps thinking her just a pile of cloth. She had simply lain perfectly still, struggling to breathe against the terror choking her.
She had refused to move even long after she had stopped hearing the raiders, but come nightfall, the chill in the air drove her to seek better shelter. She thanked Siel for the darkness that had obscured the details of the gore-soaked heaps of flesh that had once been her friends and family.
She had fled across the plains, galloping as fast as her little legs would take her, and eventually, shaking with exhaustion and sorrow, she had reached the refuge of the Home Forest. There, she’d had the fortune to stumble across some Elven Runners, who had seen her to safety.
That had been more than two hundred years ago now. The Bonru that had killed her family were all long dead, for their race lived vastly shorter lives than Elves or Karani, but still the wounds were raw. She felt that pain every day, gnawing at the edge of her psyche, sucking the color from life.
* * *
She scanned the overgrown ruins, sword gleaming in the twilight. The remnants of some forgotten battle from centuries past, as was her quarry.
She felt a prickle on the back of her neck, an unearthly chill, and she spun, ready to strike, but only more stone and trees met her gaze.
Every warrior-priestess of Siel was tasked with a mission to prove themselves as the final part of their initiation. Artica’s task was to bring down a shade, the tortured vestige of a person who had died in terrible pain or fear.
Driven mad by their torment, shades sought only to rip the life force from the living in the vain hope of regaining what they had lost. They were a menace, and it was the duty of men and women like Artica to end their threat wherever it appeared.
She felt another chill, stronger this time, along with a rustling of branches, and she whirled. Living shadow leapt forth from the trees. Vaguely shaped like a person, ragged tatters of dark cloth hung upon its darkened form, and twin pinpricks of crimson light gave the illusion of eyes.
Rather than dodging, she rushed forward, raising her shield, and slammed into the shade head-on. The impact rattled up her arm, and the shade’s semi-corporeal form shuddered, flickering. She followed up with a slash from her sword. Slicing through the shade provided almost no resistance, and its form flickered again, almost fading.
She readied for a final blow, but then she felt another, deeper chill. Before she could react, shadowy claws reached out to grab her from behind. Cold, sharp pain like knives of ice shot through her, and she glimpsed two more shades assailing her.
Of course, she thought.
* * *
Artica’s life had never been easy.
When her family had died, her grandparents had taken her in, but they’d had her mother late in life, and they were old and frail by the time Artica had come to them. They had not been up to the task of raising a little girl. Certainly not one who woke up screaming every other night. Not one prone to fits of temper and randomly acting out, just for the sake of feeling something again.
She had picked fights with other children over the smallest things. She had threatened to run away. She had said things she couldn’t take back.
She regretted it all now. Her grandparents had shown her nothing but kindness and patience, beyond what she had deserved, but never had she showed her gratitude.
And now it was too late.
Her grandmother had died when Artica was in her nineties – physically mature, but still essentially a child. Sixty years later, her grandfather had followed. Her father’s parents had passed long before. She was all alone now.
So when she went hunting for a shade and found three, she was not surprised. Priestesses of Siel were supposed to fill their hearts with hope, but she had always expected the worst.
* * *
The shades latched onto her shoulders, their insubstantial hands nonetheless as strong as vicegrips. Thin lines of amber light began to flow from her body to the shades, and her back arched as indescribable pain tore through every inch of her body.
She screamed, the cry echoing through the forest and sending birds scattering from the trees.
The pain shut down all rational thought. It drowned out all her senses.
Only one thought remained in her mind, somehow standing against the agony’s onslaught: the image of a beautiful woman in shining armor, her sword held high, her form radiating the pure light of dawn itself.
“Siel!” she cried.
For a brief moment, golden light shimmered across her armor, and the shades recoiled as if struck. Instantly, the pain ceased, and she sagged in relief, but she could not afford even a moment’s rest. She rushed forward and swung at the first shade, her sword tearing through it and scattering its form into nothingness.
She spun, raising her shield, as the other two shades regrouped.
At that moment, the sun plunged beneath the horizon, throwing the forest into shadow.
* * *
The day after she had come to live with her grandparents, her grandmother had taken her aside and told her about Siel.
“After every night, there is a dawn,” she’d said. “Siel sees that it is so. She is the end to all bad things, a happy ending to every story.”
“Then why is my story so sad?” Artica had asked.
It had taken her grandmother a long time to answer, and when she did, her voice had been hoarse, but she’d said, “Your story isn’t over yet.”
Artica had been follower of Siel ever since that day.
In her darkest moments, she had prayed to her goddess for guidance. When she had been alone, she had felt the presence of the Lady of the Dawn at her side. And when she had come of age, she had pledged herself to the priesthood to fight in service of her deity.
Her training had not been easy, for nothing ever was. She had clashed often with her superiors and her fellow students. They had not approved of her cynicism, her hardness.
And in fairness, not all her challenges had been inflicted by others. She had struggled to channel the power of the goddess even as it came easily to her peers. How could she embody the essence of hope when she herself had never truly felt it?
Many had tried to convince her to abandon her dream. Some had done so gently and with kindness. Others had been more harsh. They had sent her on an impossible mission to prove herself, traveling to the distant wilds to hunt a dangerous and virtually untraceable enemy.
Bit she had kept going. She had refused to give in, to lose the only thing left that mattered to her.
* * *
She scanned the gloom, noting the little dots of red light – the only clues to the shades’ location. As the light faded, the air chilled, and she felt the power of her goddess weaken.
“Siel, light my path,” she prayed.
The shades were closing in. She would not survive if they started to feed again.
“Siel, guide me through the night,” she continued, her voice rising.
The shades were almost upon her.
“Siel, bring me safely to the dawn!”
The sun on her shield flickered and flared to life, blazing with light: a new dawn within the forest. The light boomed forth, obliterating one shade immediately. The other sought to flee, but she turned her shield upon it, roaring her fury, and it could not escape the light of dawn.
She dropped to her knees, panting. Sweat ran down her brow and stung her eyes.
Some minutes later, she hauled herself to her feet and collected the shreds of darkened cloth that were all that remained of the shades. They would serve as proof of her deed. Then, she prepared for the long journey back to the city, where she would at last claim her place as a priestess of Siel.
She knew that this would not be the end. She would still struggle to balance her goddess and the ache in her heart. She would still wake in the night, sweating and panicked. She would still have to fight to control her temper as it flared up in the face of the slightest provocation.
But she would endure.
For Artica, hope was not a promise of an easy life or a balm to end all pain. It was simply her own conviction that someday, somehow, all her suffering would be worth it. That all her long centuries of struggle had not been in vain.
That her story was not over.