Thick leather cuffs, embedded with hematite, dragged at Kali’s wrists. The chain between the cuffs gave a metallic clink that muted her footfalls. As the sentinel hauled Kali into the courtyard, the waiting men and women in gray armor seemed to blend with the bastion’s stone walls. But such a sight was not due to the dim, predawn light.
When Kali glimpsed the gates beyond the waiting carriage, she smiled. In a few days’ time, she would be whole. In the interim, she could finally put this place behind her.
Gray, the sentinel leading her, tugged the chain along again, this time with enough force to send Kali stumbling. Gray grunted at the misstep, but continued to lead the limping mage toward the center of the yard. As they went, the other sentinels closed in around Kali and her escort, effectively cutting the mage off from the bastion where she’d lived all her life. None spoke, but Kali felt their eyes upon her. Some rested their hands on the daggers each wore at their hips, ready if she tried to run.
As if she could. Kali chuckled at the very idea and her left knee twinged like it was in on the joke. This brief moment of levity earned her a sharp look from Gray, who managed the feat even behind her cured leather helmet. When Kali did not duck her head in contrition, she received another tug at the chain between her wrists. Kali stumbled again, but recovered quickly and lifted her eyes to watch the first sign of dawn. Pale light crept across the horizon, nearly obscuring the jagged crescent of the second moon.
When Kali and Gray reached the carriage, one of the sentinels stepped forward to take Kali’s rucksack, filled with her meager worldly possessions. As he stuck the patchwork bag in a compartment in the vehicle’s midsection, she inhaled, savoring the sharp bite of autumn air even though it made her shiver.
“Wait,” she said as the sentinel prepared to close the compartment’s door. “You’d think I’d be used to this cold by now, but I suppose not. I’d like my cloak, please.”
Gray exhaled loudly. The male sentinel, however, reached for the bag again. As his fingers closed over Kali’s lovely wool cloak, Lieutenant Taras stepped between him and the carriage, effectively stopping him. The lieutenant was a tall, wiry woman, and after giving the male sentinel a nod, she looked warily down at Kali as if the mage was about to burst into flames.
“Is Mage Halcyon ready?” Taras asked Gray.
“She needs to be.” Gray urged Kali forward again.
But this time Kali resisted, bracing her feet on the flagstones. “I’d really like my cloak,” she said, looking between her surly escort and the lieutenant.
The male sentinel straightened. “Ser, I was about to–”
“Leave it, Stonewall.” Taras jabbed her thumb at the carriage. “The mage will warm up once she’s out of the wind. We’ve delayed too long as it is.”
As Kali was about to clamber inside, she caught the sound of boots crunching across the gravel of the bastion courtyard. For one moment, she thought it was one of her fellow mages who hadn’t been present when she’d said her goodbyes, but no. It was another sentinel, carrying an instrument case.
“Mage Halcyon,” Ganister huffed as she trotted up, “you forgot your viol.”
Unlike the sentinels already present, Ganister carried no daggers or sword, though she wore the rest of her armor and her helmet bounced against her hip. Her face was ruddy from too many hours in the sun and wind. The furrows that crossed her forehead and bracketed her mouth were those of a woman far older than her mid-forties. When she was within arm’s reach, she thrust the case out to Kali, eyes crinkling as she smiled.
Kali stared at the case’s battered edges, where every scratch and dent was as familiar as the lines on her palms. A chill moved through her again, but this one had nothing to do with the wind.
“It’s not mine,” she said hoarsely. “It was Captain Jonas’.”
The elder sentinel shook her head before Kali had finished speaking. “You played it more than he did, especially toward the end.”
Lieutenant Taras cleared her throat. “Ganister, that’s thoughtful of you, but we must get moving. Whitewater City is no short journey.”
Ganister ignored the officer and kept her eyes fixed on Kali as she offered the case once more. “It’s yours. Don’t you want it?”
Perhaps she would later, but not now. Now, all she wanted was to be away. She looked at the world beyond the iron and hematite gates. Away. A new, better life awaited her in Whitewater City.
But when she left here, she would truly have nothing left of Jonas but the blood in her veins. Would it be enough? It will have to be, she thought bitterly. She shook her head as she met Gan’s eyes again. “I’m sure someone here could make better use of the viol.”
“It’ll do nothing but collect dust here. No one else can play it like you.”
Kali’s mind raced to come up with another excuse. “But I’ll be busy with one of the healers in Whitewater. I won’t have time–”
“Rubbish,” Gan broke in, snorting. “Even if another mage spends hours every day on your poor knee, you’ll still have plenty of time to yourself.”
The other sentinels started to shuffle in place. If Ganister noticed or cared, she made no indication of it. Instead, she reached for Kali’s hands, drew them up, and wrapped the mage’s fingers around the case’s wooden handle. Out of the corner of her eye, Kali swore she saw Gray and Taras flinch when Gan touched her.
“Please, Kali,” Gan added, low enough that only Kali could hear. “He would have wanted you to inherit it.”
Kali opened her mouth to object again, but the words didn’t come. Memories overtook her, stealing her voice and pricking her eyes with heat. Ganister released her hands and the familiar weight tugged them down, more so than even the cuffs. Somewhat defeated, Kali glanced at the leather case. Perhaps Gan was right. Perhaps it would be good to play again...
She pushed the notion aside at once. She’d not played a note since her father had died. She never would again. Music had left her when Jonas had passed to his next life.
But in the meantime, Lieutenant Taras glared at Ganister, mouth pursed as if she’d eaten something sour.
Kali had no wish for Talon to reprimand Gan for her kindness. “I suppose it would be a crime for it to collect dust.” She met Gan’s eyes and hoped the other woman understood what she couldn’t voice. “Thank you.”
Ganister gave her a fond, proud smile, though it was lined with sorrow. She’d lost someone too, but didn’t have the luxury of leaving Jonas’ memory behind. She seized Kali into an embrace, wrapping her arms around the mage like she was something precious.
“Take care of yourself, Mage Halcyon,” Gan said when she pulled back. “Stay out of trouble.”
Kali’s throat was still tight but she managed a breezy reply. “No promises.”
The elder sentinel chuckled and stepped away. Lieutenant Taras and several other sentinels closed around Kali, blocking her view of Gan. Taras gave the viol to Stonewall to store with Kali’s rucksack while Gray dutifully checked the binders around Kali’s wrists one more time. The blustery day made the cold press of hematite even worse. Kali shivered again as Gray ushered her into the carriage while the other sentinels mounted up. Someone called the all clear, and the bastion gates creaked open.
As the carriage jolted forward, Kali debated twisting in her seat to get a last glance at the only home she’d ever known, but decided against it. There was no reason to look back.
They traveled for an hour or so before Kali’s melancholy gave way to boredom. The sentinels had not allowed her to bring anything to read and there was no point in attempting any magic while wearing hematite cuffs. If she wanted entertainment, she’d have to make it herself. She studied the sentinel who sat opposite of her. Though Gray’s helmet hid most of her face, she seemed engrossed with the carriage wall behind Kali’s ear, and the thin line of her mouth indicated that she was disinclined to make conversation.
Even so, Kali had to try. “I hope the clouds break soon. It’s much too early for a winter storm, don’t you think?”
Gray was silent.
Kali tried again. “I’ve read that the Whitewater City was built upon a waterfall. It sounds lovely. Have you ever been?”
Still, the sentinel said nothing.
Kali sighed. Not everyone was as kind as Ganister, of course, but it would be a dull journey indeed without someone to talk to. She may as well try to catch up on her sleep, which had been sparse lately. Given the cramped space and her bound wrists, she curled up on the padded seat as best she could, and shut her eyes.
If she did sleep, there was always the hope that she would not dream.
Stonewall sat on a fallen log at the edge of the forest, back turned to the other sentinels. They ignored him in kind, devouring their midday rations and chatting as they sat close beside the carriage, just off of the main road. A gust of wind skated over his neck and close-cropped hair, chilling him even through the sheltering layers of his armor. He scowled at the hematite-gray clouds that had begun to clump since the morning his squad had begun their journey, three days ago.
A storm was coming, but gods above and beyond, it was taking its precious time to break.
Having already eaten, he withdrew one of his daggers and his whetstone. Taking care not to pierce his skin, he ran his index finger across the edges before he skimmed the whetstone along the same path a few times. A sentinel was only as good as his weapons.
Snapping twigs caught his attention. Stonewall looked to the treeline, where Gray led the dark-haired mage back to the carriage after allowing her to take care of her personal needs. From where Stonewall sat, he couldn’t make out Mage Halcyon’s expression, but her limp was evident. Had she been injured at some point, or had she been born with it? Though the mage’s hands remained bound, Gray had a firm grip on her arm. It was protocol, of course, but seemed unnecessary in this particular mage’s case. Even if she did manage to escape, she would not get far.
Or perhaps she was more dangerous than he realized.
Gray and the mage passed by. Stonewall returned his attention to his dagger.
Behind him, the carriage door slammed shut; a moment later he caught the tread of boots approaching. Thinking that Gray was coming to him, he turned, but she’d gone to stand before another sentinel, a slender, black-haired fellow named Pinion.
“There, I helped with the female things,” Gray said. “Now it’s your turn for shadow duty.”
Pinion sat with a few of the other sentinels, finishing his meal. As Gray spoke, he gave a bark of laughter. “My turn? Oh, no. I spent all morning with the moon-blood. You said you’d take over when we stopped at midday.”
Gray tugged off her helmet to glare at Pinion. She was several years older than Stonewall, in her late twenties, and her fair hair was pinned to her head in a single, neat coil. “I said nothing of the kind, and besides, I’ve been on shadow duty practically since we left Starwatch.”
“We’re barely another day and a half from Whitewater,” Pinion said. “The mission will be over soon enough.”
“If I have to spend one more hour in that sodding, cramped little–”
“Duty is duty,” Pinion broke in, smirking. “Didn’t you take an oath of service or something?”
“You both did.” The words left Stonewall’s mouth before he could stop them, and heat crept to his cheeks when the others turned his way. Well, he’d gone this far. “‘Honor. Service. Sacrifice.’ We all took that oath. It’s foolish to bicker about it like children.”
Pinion and a few of the others snickered, though a couple nodded or cast Pinion and Gray stern looks. Gray raised one eyebrow at Stonewall, then glanced over her shoulder to where Taras was checking her horse’s girth.
“Lieutenant,” Gray called. “Stonewall just volunteered for shadow duty. Is that all right with you, ser?”
Taras’ head tilted skyward as if she were rolling her eyes. “Ea’s balls. I don’t care who guards the mage. Just see that it’s done.”
Shit, Stonewall thought with a grimace. That’s what I get for speaking my mind. But he kept his reply respectful. “As you say, ser. I don’t mind doing my duty.”
“Good for you,” Pinion said as Stonewall got to his feet. He looked over at Gray. “Nice work.”
“Delighted to be of service.”
Gray tossed Stonewall the key for the mage’s cuffs. He looped its chain through his belt and made his way to the carriage. Smaller than most passenger vehicles, the carriage used to transport mages reminded him of a trunk on wheels. He had no desire to squeeze himself – and his gear – inside. It had no true windows, only a series of ventilation slots at the top, just below a lip of roof that hung over the openings to protect the occupants from the elements. There was a single door on the left side, with a hefty iron lock; every piece of iron on the vehicle was alloyed with hematite, to further limit a mage’s power.
Taras met him at the door. “Don’t let them get to you,” she said as she unfastened the lock. “They’re a good lot. None are burnies, but it’s been a dull mission, and even some of the cinders are itching for action.”
Then they’re fools. This, thankfully, he managed to keep to himself. “Are all Starwatch missions usually so...?”
“Boring?” The lock clicked open but Taras held the door closed as she replied. “Generally. Since Starwatch is close to the border, sometimes we come across rogue Canderi, but you’ll learn that it’s one of the quieter postings.”
“A little quiet is a welcome change.”
She chuckled. “Sounds like there’s a story there. You’ll have to tell me when we reach Whitewater City. You ever been?”
“It’s an...interesting place. Commander Talon’s a bit harsh, but she keeps the mages docile, at least.”
“I’ve heard much the same.”
Taras opened the door and Stonewall clambered inside. The carriage shuddered as she slammed the door closed once more. The slots near the roof provided a little light, but it still took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness.
Hunched over, blinking at the change of light, Stonewall saw Mage Halcyon. Though he’d seen her in passing at the bastion, this was the first time he’d been on shadow duty with her. Dark hair fell down her right shoulder in a messy plait. Her skin was a few shades lighter than his own but her eyes were a much darker brown than his; in the shadows of the carriage, they looked almost black.
Ea’s tits and teeth, she was still without her cloak. Her tunic was a colorful array of patchwork panels, no doubt cobbled together from other clothes that had been donated to Starwatch Bastion. Most mages wore similar garments. She seemed cold, for her right knee was tucked to her chest, hands wrapped close to her torso. Her left knee rested in front of her, slightly bent to accommodate for the small space.
She didn’t speak to him, only kept her gaze fixed on the ventilation slots, as if trying to get a sense of the world outside.
Tor help him, but the carriage was too small. Stonewall was not an overly tall or broad man, but by the One it was difficult to get himself situated. It took him several minutes of shifting and rearranging his gear to sit down, while silently cursing whomever had created these sodding boxes on wheels. The boiled leather of his armor creaked with each movement, and his dagger hilts dug into his hips as he adjusted his sword sheathe. Just when he thought he was settled, he tried to lean his head back and succeeded in knocking his helmet against his ears.
I just want this mission to be over, he thought with a scowl as he set his helmet on his knee. But after this journey there would be another mission, and another, until... He shook away the melancholy thought. He’d taken an oath. Nothing else mattered.
“Is everything all right?” At his look, the mage’s jaw tightened in the manner of someone biting her tongue to keep from laughing outright. Only then did he consider how silly he must have looked, shifting around in the carriage. Oddly, some of his irritation fled at the sight of her withheld laughter.
But protocol was protocol. It wasn’t really appropriate to speak to mages unless absolutely necessary, so he kept his reply swift. “I’m fine, Mage Halcyon.”
Nodding, she pursed her lips in consideration. “You’re new to Starwatch, aren’t you?”
“I was transferred there a month ago.”
“Your accent is...southern?”
A staccato beat against the outside of the carriage door drew both of their attentions, and the lieutenant called, “Ready, Stonewall?”
“Ready,” he replied. The carriage began to move once more, jolting both him and the mage.
“Ah, you’re Stonewall,” the mage said, sitting upright. “You tried to give me my cloak.”
“That was terribly decent of you.”
By now his gear was situated, but he still shifted in his seat. “Well, it was cold,” he managed at a last, frowning. “Still is.”
“It’s not so bad. But I imagine you’ll never be used to the weather here.” She leaned back against the carriage wall and smiled at him. “Your southern blood is too thin.”
Heat crept to his face, but he shrugged. “Maybe it’s just too cold in this part of the world.”
“Maybe.” Her smile died. “I wouldn’t know. I have nothing to compare it to.”
There was no reason for him to feel embarrassed but he looked away from her and reminded himself of his role in this life. When he withdrew his other dagger and his whetstone and said nothing else, the mage seemed to take the hint. She turned her gaze back to whatever she could see between the ventilation slots, and they traveled in silence.
Stonewall hadn’t been sleeping, but his mind had wandered far afield of his present circumstance, so he was snatched back into reality when the carriage jerked to a stop. Clanging weapons and the squeals of surprised horses interspersed the shouting men and women. Given the slivers of sky he could make out through the carriage slots, it was evening. Had he been outside he would have launched himself at the nearest attacker, but shadow duty dictated that he remain close to the magic-user. Besides, he barely had room to stand properly. He prayed the battle would be over quickly, but prepared himself for the worst.
Taras’ curt orders blended with the other sentinels’ cries. Steel clattered directly outside the carriage and something heavy thudded against the door, causing the mage to bolt upright. Stonewall shoved his helmet on and pulled his daggers free of their sheathes while his blood ran hot – eager for the promise of a fight.
A high-pitched shriek cut through Stonewall’s skull, making him wince. He’d fought his share of opponents, but had never heard any make such a sound. Another joined the first, and another, until the shrill cries nearly drowned out all other noises. Foreboding curled within Stonewall’s gut, but he fought to ignore it and put himself in a ready position.
So intent was he on the battle outside that he hardly heard her at first. Only when the mage repeated her request did he spare a moment to gape at her. “Are you mad?” he asked.
Her face was almost white with fear as she held up her bound wrists. “Please. I can’t–”
Her words died as the carriage door flew open. Stonewall tensed in preparation, but it was only Pinion, sword drawn and a gash along his cheek. His helmet and daggers were gone.
“Taras says we’re to take the mage and flee at once,” Pinion gasped. “Canderi bandits; there are too many of them. Gray’s got some horses and the others are trying to hold them off, but we must go! I’ll cover you.”
Canderi were making those horrible noises? Unlikely, but now was not the time to investigate. The situation must be desperate for Taras to have resorted to this plan.
Something tugged at his belt; when he looked up, the mage was right beside him, frantically working the key upon her cuffs. Before he could reprimand her, she spoke without looking at him. “I want a fighting chance.”
“You don’t have to fight,” he told her. “That’s what I’m here for. Drop that key at once.”
Something clicked and the cuffs clattered to the floor as the key fell back in place, thumping against his thigh. The mage met his gaze. “I refuse to die here, defenseless.”
Duty came first, always. He had no time to argue with her about any of this. “Then we should hurry.”
He sheathed one dagger, grabbed her forearm and drew her close, quickly, but carefully enough so she wouldn’t fall. He left the carriage first, pulling the mage after him. Gray was a few paces away, bleeding from a cut on her temple, holding the reins of a trio of wide-eyed horses with one hand while her other gripped her sword. Pinion followed on Stonewall’s heels, pausing only to strike a Canderi who’d come too close.
Beyond them, the others were engaged in heavy fighting; the dark gray hematite embedded in their armor glinted even in the waning light. Their attackers looked normal enough. Stonewall caught glimpses of the massive claymore swords and fair hair common to the Canderi people, but he could make out little else in the battle’s chaos. He did see an odd flash of something like starlight, but surely that was a trick of his eyes. A human scream pierced the air but it was quickly lost in another of the shrieking wails, and his hands itched to take up his sword.
Gray passed him the reins of one of the horses, so Stonewall sheathed his other dagger, lifted the mage into the saddle and swung up behind her. Gray and Pinion mounted as well. Whitewater City was to the north-east; they could reach it in a day if they hurried and their luck changed.
Someone behind him shouted in pain, though the sound was almost lost within the clatter of swords and daggers. More ferocious shrieking drowned out the bright song of steel. There were other noises as well: strangled sobs, cries of pain and fury, and the sickening thwack of blades against bone. Sentinel brothers and sisters died as he prepared to flee; a stronger man would have hardened himself to this kind of loss by now.
Stonewall gritted his teeth against the urge to turn back. Honor. Service. Sacrifice. Tor was with him. He knew this as surely as he knew his own name.
“Hang on,” he told the mage, and urged his horse into a gallop.
Behind them, the sounds of battle ceased.
I hope you like Catalyst Moon. This novel got published by Inkitt and is currently available on www.amazon.com/Catalyst-Moon-Incursion-Saga-Book-ebook/product-reviews/B01IKIDBO0