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Shadow Bound Souls (Ch 1 Excerpt)

Chapter 1

On the banks

You can regard the dawn with disdain, but the dawn comes anyway, she thought, with the sunlight bouncing off the water and flashing in her eyes. In the aftermath of the battle with the Sagean and his automatons, Ellaria was struggling not to drown. The rolling deluge of lake water continually coated her face, threatening to claim her. 

There was an old adage she knew: the wisdom of dawn comes from the revelation of awakening from a dream. For Ellaria, the nightmare had persisted into the morning and the only thing she discovered in the new day’s light was her own desperation and with it, a tunnel to despair. 

Drifting in the cold waters, she told herself to focus, but with the chill penetrating her bones, the shore loomed like an unreachable horizon. Focus on what you can control, she repeated to herself. 

As mantras go, it was a simple meditation to believe in but in practice, not an easy one to live by, not with water relentlessly charging up her nose.

By the time the eastern shore came within reach, her old legs felt numb. The cold water had settled in and compromised her senses. When her feet found the rocky bottom, it was hard to gain any advantage over the drifting. The proximity to shore gave her hope and that hope won out over panic. With the rock below her, she hoisted the body she pulled alongside her, more easily now, steering them both toward their exit. The slope brought her out of the lake in trudging steps and she arrived at the shore, breathing in large heaves. Still holding on to Elias, she rested only a moment before she dragged his listless form ashore.

Ellaria pulled him from the water’s edge, through the rock congested shoreline, up the gravel slope, and into the cover and canopy of the forest foliage. She groaned and dropped in a heap to her butt with a last gasp of effort. Sitting in her shivering skin, she gazed back at the sunlight glinting on the rippling surface of the lake beyond. A set of muddled lines in the gravel stretched from her to the lake’s edge. Drawn by Elias’s boot heels, they recorded both the distance and Ellaria’s effort.

Transporting a water-sodden body forty feet up the uneven ground after everything that occurred the previous night tapped resources she didn’t know she possessed. Ellaria looked at the roaring falls beyond and checked the shoreline for movement. There were no soldiers patrolling and no boats in the water that she could see. With nothing stirring, she began inspecting Elias and leaned in to confirm his breathing. He had lost consciousness after they cleared the curtain of falling water. Given the amount of unbelievable energy he put into destroying the Sagean’s Automatons and then the temple, it was amazing he endured that far before collapsing.

After Tali, Learon, and Wade had gone through the wave gate, Elias cut through the rest of the rendered Automatons with that fascinating sword of energy and light. When the last one fell, the sword evaporated, and he pulled Ellaria to the steps. From there, he cast blaring bright bolts of white lightning into the temple ceiling and columns. The structure buckled and came crashing down. Elias’s entire body glowed with energy, and they jumped into the lake to escape. Once they began their swim, his glow faded rapidly, and with it, a ghosted expression masked his face. She kept her eyes fixed on him the entire time through the falls, which is why she saw the instant he stopped moving, his eyes rolling back in his head. She reached for him in a panic. She still didn’t know what had happened to Kovan. They never did see him. And she could only hope the others arrived through the wave gate. All things beyond her control, but she dwelled on them anyway. Love it would seem can be as distracting as desperation.

With her ear to Elias’s open mouth, she heard wet strained breaths cycling forth. When it turned to a choking sound, Ellaria rolled him to his side and slapped his back repeatedly. Elias heaved and coughed out a cupful of water. Confident he was through, Ellaria rolled him back over. His breathing was stronger, but he was still unconscious.

Satisfied that he wasn’t dead, she set her jaw against chattering teeth and grabbed a fallen branch. She scrambled back to the shore to cover the drag marks, sweeping the gravel trenches from Elias’s feet and her own deeper dug depressions. It was the best she could do to hide their presence. Nothing that would pass close inspection, but from a distance, the coast blended unceremoniously.

She returned to the trees and observed the shoreline; her head throbbed, and her arms hung inert. She took in the crisp air and scanned across the lake, back towards the waterfall. She wanted to look for Kovan, but part of her was sure he was gone. They were each lucky to survive the falls. She would have drowned if not for Learon helping her find the surface. If Kovan had taken as many tungsten rounds as Tali suggested, there was very little chance a wounded man in his fifties had survived. It was a realization that, minute by minute was crushing her insides, and the prospect of giving up was easier than forging ahead.

The heart is like a pane of stained glass we carry on our chest, everyone can see when it’s broken, Ellaria thought. She couldn’t help but dwell on the mangled shape of her own heart. It didn’t matter how she picked up the pieces, once repaired there would be no hiding the fractures; hers felt shattered this time. She put her fingers to the bridge of her nose and massaged the ache below her old eyes. She wished she could wash her hands of the world and let the perils it faced fade with the dust of ages gone by. Her old skin and wrinkled hands had lived as fists to fight for too long. She didn’t know how to relax; she had never learned that skill.

From the pouring water and distant shores, her eyes gaped up at the vast mountain above where the water tumbled down. Her sight lingered on the dominant peak, where the shining crystal pyramid rose above. The sun sparkled and threw colored rays off at the edges of the brilliant pyramid. The entrance pavilion was beyond her sight, but she imagined it was overtaken with the army of the Sagean’s Bonemen soldiers. With her breathing returned to normal, Ellaria’s composure returned with determination, and she decided it was time for action.

She came back to Elias, who was slouched over himself in what looked like a failed attempt to sit up.

“Elias,” she called out to him and dashed to his side, “Elias?”

With exertion, he lifted his head to see her; or more accurately, he tilted his head to her voice. When she reached his side, he spoke in a muted whisper, “Ellaria . . . poisoned. . . I . . . need a healer,” he slurred.

“Poisoned, what poison? If you need medicine, I will go into the city?” she proposed, while helping him keep his head up. His eyes drooped open and closed; the color in them paled and faded away. Where a regular human’s eyes might have been bloodshot, Elias’s Luminary blood was pooling vivid silver vessels. But it was the lack of focus in the irises that worried her most.

“Not medicine . . . I need to see the tree . . .” he said, his words trailing off.

“Trees?” she repeated back to him, perplexed. With the slightest twitch, she felt him trying to shake his head, no.

“Tregorean . . . Only their healer can help me now,” he said, and he sunk into her hands. Ellaria’s nerves spiked from the sudden dispatch. As the last of his energy gave way, Elias crumbled into the ground. She touched his face and tried to open his eyes, fearing he had died.

His pulse was faint, but it existed.

Ellaria momentarily took measure of the situation and formed a plan of action. Everyone always thought she enjoyed making all the decisions, forming the strategies. She hated it, but she hated wasting time on indecision even more. She only happened to possess a quicker resolve than most. 

The majority of the situations she faced in the war were strategic maneuvering of troops, and her knowledge of Tovillore gave her an edge over her enemies. Born to a high order, she had the privilege to travel extensively, which gave her an uncommon familiarity with the Mainland that served her well. Once Kovan explained the finer points of battle—attacking positions, high ground, flanking, diversion, protection, and all the rest—she became a formidable general. Ellaria learned early on to rely on the input from anyone with more expertise than her. She witnessed other commanders fail because of ego and she didn’t want to be that kind of leader. Ego clouds judgement and presents an inability to recognize deficiencies. Artists take inspiration for source material, science builds on the trial and error, and a formidable general takes advantage of the knowledge of others. Every bit of information is vital to synthesize a perfect plan. Though, in truth, no plan is ever perfect.

What was her plan now? There was much she didn’t know. Where were the rest of the Bonemen soldiers? Had Elias cut through all the rendered machines or were more lurking out there? Were they being searched for? So far, she had seen nothing stirring on the lake, but that meant little. What she couldn’t know was how close Elias was to death, and why would he need a Tregorean healer? They were two thousand leagues or more from the Tregorean lands: a half a world away. Which meant she had to figure out how to get them across Tovillore, then across the Zulu Sea, and hope to find the Tregorean Province without being killed, captured, or losing her patience. Ellaria swallowed hard and sighed.

She had to assume that Elias could make the journey. Still, they needed horses, food, money, and she desperately wanted a change of clothes. An idea formed in Ellaria’s head, to return to their hotel on the main island and retrieve their horses. Securing what they needed in the short term was paramount.

Ellaria dragged Elias close to a tree, disguising his position with a makeshift blanket of branches and brush. Before she left for the long hike to Marathal City, she bent down over Elias, 

“I’m going into the city. We need horses and supplies, but I will return for you,” she said to his closed eyes, unsure if he could hear her or not but telling him because it felt like the right thing to do.

She moved to get up and paused to say more, “Don’t you dare die on me Elias Qudin. The world needs you. I’ll be back soon.”

* * *

Ellaria entered the room and moved fast. Based on the lack of soldiers around the inn, she figured the Bonemen never tracked them to the hotel. Unconvinced, she focused on moving and thinking quickly, in case her assumption proved false and she found she had willingly placed her head in the noose. She prioritized what they could use to travel and discarded the rest. It would be both impossible and comical to haul two rolls all the way to the stables, so she over-packed her own roll and took off. Before passing through the revolving doors of gilded metal, Ellaria slapped payment on the counter and left.

The streets were in turmoil. Their fight with the Automatons in the fog-filled island the night before had not gone unnoticed. The Rendered had been seen by the locals, and to see tall lumbering beings of metal and breathing steam was frightening. Eventually an explanation would be issued to calm the public, but until that happened, the sidewalks and roads would continue to fill up with like-minded people trying to flee the city.

Ellaria made her way to the stabling depot near the pier in the south of the island, careful to avoid any of the alleyways where greencoats were investigating the night’s destruction. There probably should have been a larger presence of troops around, considering the unrest on every block, but this wasn’t the case. The only reasonable explanation was that the Sagean Lord was now concentrating his troops’ effort on the Tomb and digging through the rubble Elias had left.

Ellaria bartered with the stable master to sell four of the horses, but she kept her own and Elias’s nyrogen horse, Ghost. Given the mass of people trying to leave the city, she received far more than they were worth, too. With the two horses packed, she traveled across the east bridge back toward the Roaming Village and out to the shoreline on which she had left Elias. Once she cleared the village and the tip of Eagle Bay, she was able to gallop on an old trail north to his position. The spirited white mare would not be slowed. It charged through the forest directly to Elias like it already knew the way. Without Ghost, Ellaria wasn’t positive she would have remembered the way so easily.

She dismounted and advanced to Elias’s side. She wiped sweat from his forehead and placed her hand there. His temperature was unexpectedly cold. Ellaria’s eyebrows scrunched, and she felt for his pulse. His heart still beat, but his breathing was shallow and his color even more washed out than before. She grabbed some crystals from the supplies, wrapped them together, and placed them directly over Elias’s heart. Ellaria drew all the sigils she knew for healing and spirit cleansing on the wrappings. There was more she would do once they were settled somewhere safe, but this had to suffice for now.

Looking around, she couldn’t fathom how to get him up and on the horse. She just didn’t have any strength left for such a feat, but she led Elias’s horse close enough to try. The horse, through its own volition, started to kneel next to Elias. It gently lay down beside him and looked back at Ellaria. She smiled and understood, and with a heave, pulled Elias over the mare’s back. The horse huffed and found its feet, with Elias on its back. It was one of the most miraculous sights Ellaria had ever seen.

With everything secured for the ride ahead, she walked the horses back to the trail, mounted her warm-blooded horse and kicked to a trot. It was a long ride to Fairville, and she expected the road would be dangerous. The exodus would result in packed roadways and long caravans united in their desertion. If the Bonemen were watching the east pass, the crowd would be fortuitous for their escape.

As a general in the war, anticipating the enemy’s every move was essential. The line between success and failure was often simply the difference between time spent worrying versus preparing. In the end, control was an illusion.

Ellaria took heart in her own ability to survive.

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