The Gray Isles: Prologue
Ciron, the brightest star in the constellation of Eala, the Swan, came into focus on the evening horizon over the North Derinth Sea. On the northernmost point of Solse Isle, high above the village of Lafin glimmering amid trees crowding a crescent harbor, a restless breeze rippled the grasses and brush to the breath of a cold tide.
With the eyes of the wind, an assassin followed the movements of a young woman threading her way through the shadows of stone houses. She moved in the peaceful silence, making her way to the rocky path that led up to the point. The hunter drew around his bow, deftly nocked an arrow with an obsidian tip, and waited.
Cloaked in ash gray, she emerged onto the outcropping at the edge of the field. A maelstrom of invisible shadows surrounded her. Near the edge of the cliff, three standing stones stood with the patience of an age. The woman approached the stones as she did each evening, stepped gracefully widdershins, and then faced north.
The waters beyond the cliff’s edge swirled into a rough band, as if agitated by a strong rip current or a shoal of large, air-breathing creatures.
The witch knelt to make an offering. To what or whom she held out her elegant hands, the hunter couldn’t guess. She spoke in the Dark Tongue, the language of formlessness. Raw and primordial, the sounds flowed from the essence of nature, bending it. Though trained as a wizard to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, the assassin couldn’t discern her intent in the obscure weave of the ancient tongue.
In much the same way, he had knelt before the Aenlisarfon, an ancient and venerable council of high wizards who watched over the patterns of consciousness that draped the world of Ealiron. Master Eadred, they had said, their thoughts stirring the center of his mind like a pine-scented breeze. Raven of Nemeton, Siomothct of the Third Regard. Honor us with a mission.
And not just any mission: the Masters had sent him to this remote place to hunt a shadecaster. No mere hedge witch, she made an art of seducing wizards, collecting their pearly seed, and using it to create shades to do her bidding. Eadred clearly perceived the rift that surrounded her, a chasm in the delicate balance of the world. Darkness flowed on the north wind, the voices of death without life, pain without joy, dissolution without initiation. Shapeless and yet distinct, they surrounded her like bees, whispering under her warmth and attention.
The Council would raise his assassin’s rank to Second, after this.
With the stealth of a viper, he lifted his bow and drew back the string, focusing on the vibration of the homing spell singing in the tension of the arc.
The witch rose and turned, pulling the hood from her face. Beautiful as a summer meadow, she had lily-white skin and straight, dark red hair that flew like fire in the wind. Eadred had spent a fortnight tracking and identifying his mark, camouflaging his presence with the soul of the isle—and yet her gaze settled on him as simply and dispassionately as moonlight.
He released the arrow.
The force of the blow knocked her from her feet. Eadred rose and went to her as she writhed by the northernmost stone, clutching the arrow in her chest with a mewling cry. As he knelt by her side to watch her fly into the unholy, narrowing crack of her magic, she moaned a word that sounded like a wing crunching under a boot.
An eerie roar from the north brought him to his feet. The tide bent and rose to the setting sun as an enormous serpent the size of a harbor strand surfaced as if responding to a call. Its force on his heart bore the unmistakable mark of the Destroyer, the aspect of death and transformation inherent in the Old One, the Mother of all things.
Stunned beyond thought, Eadred returned his attention to his dark deed. Just then, something moved on the edge of the field in the direction of the path. “Mummy!” a child cried. A boy ran into view, then stopped and gaped at the woman splayed in blood by the standing stone.
Bow in hand, Eadred stepped back and turned to leave. His stomach flipped over as the child began to cry. The Aenlisarfon never told him the witch had children by her intercourse with wizards. How could they not have known that?
They never told him she had the power to invoke sea dragons, either.
He crossed the field, merging with the shadows of dusk. Behind him, the boy screamed a tangle of words in the Dark Tongue that hit the hunter in the gut like a volley of poisoned darts. He stumbled and fell as the howling blast passed through his body and mind, splintering it.
Thunder rent the sky as Eadred peered up, trembling, weak and disoriented. The child had gone. His mother’s cloak and hair flapped in the gale like the feathers of a dead bird. And the sea wept and crashed against the isle, driven by the icy north hand of the Destroyer herself, bent on avenging the death of her own.
The legends of sailors and wizards collide when an Otherworld being discovers its destiny in a mortal’s imagination.
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© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.