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 stich 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 it. 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 uncaring or unfeeling 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 Will 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 a cold knot of fear 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 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 final 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, his hand, 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 envolped 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 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 it’s 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 final 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. She had left him at home, trying to stop his cousin from crossing the barrier looking for treasure. 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, 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. Duncan had gone with them, and they had failed to mention that he was 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’s had a good 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 started 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 to, 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 gave both of them a hair ruffle and a smile. 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 was 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 light 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 were 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 huge 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 familes left, or lines died out.
Will headed towards 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. Other’s 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 whole front, and part of each sides. 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 shone bright 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.