“Loose!” Commander Tomias cried from the central tower, his words followed by a chorus of crossbow twangs as the archers fired their quarrels into the horde of encroaching figures, the bolts casting a cloud of vague shadows across the near-dark sands of the desert dusk. The mass of shifting creatures ambled toward the transparent barrier of The Range, the crystal-capped pillars the only evidence of the barrier. The foretelling crystal had been correct, again, its bright glow this morning indicating that the horde that would descend on the Range in the evening—this horde—would be far stronger than normal.
Their ranks thinned by the bolts, the first cohort of figures dashed against the invisible wall and were thrown back, many dissolving into floating cinders before their corpses thudded into the sand. The next wave of shamblers was barely visible against the hazy, red-brown backdrop of the scorching desert. Tomias wiped his loose-sleeved arm across his forehead, mopping away the sweat and runnels it made in the caked dust on his brow.
Bloody hell. He couldn’t see a clear figure for the life of him. Better odds of calling a coin flip than hitting one of the beasts, but the archers were used to this.
“Ready!” The archers knocked quarrels to their crossbow strings.
“Aim!” he called as they raised their weapons in unison.
This time the bolts plunged into the remaining cohort, but most of the mass of dark forms kept coming. Ill luck. Sometimes, the shadows played tricks with the haze. Another wave was just beyond that last. There wouldn’t be time enough for another volley, and subjecting The Range crystals to a wave of this size was folly.
“Fencers, ready!” he called out.
Far below his vantage, the fencer tenders—most of them full physikers, just in case—clapped the shoulders of their charges in the stations behind the sparkling tubes. The fencers gripped the handles of the crystal cylinders and directing them toward the mass of encroaching beasts.
“Sound!” His command was immediately followed by the ear-piercing screams of the poor bastards at the cylinders.
Tomias clenched his jaw against their cries, focusing on the score of figures suddenly evaporating from the final approach. Ripples of heat funneled toward the fencer’s posts. Like oil sucked through a reed from a watery surface, the souls of the beasts ripped from their hosts and absorbed through the sounders, the beasts themselves dissolving into shimmers of heat and ash. With the oncoming ranks depleted, the foremost several of the remainder met the invisible wall. The feedback from the shockwaves was deafening, like thunder trapped inside a cave. Those shamblers impacting the wall were immediately vaporized into ash, and those too close—both friend and foe—were blasted outward for meters in all directions.
Tomias looked around, surveying the battle as if the invaders and defenders were merely pieces moving on the board back in the command tent.
Here it comes. Tomias watched as the remaining mass of shamblers on the horizon—far from The Range’s feedback but near enough to sense it— began hurtling across the sands toward the barrier, their presence evident only in the rapidly increasing size of the dark smudges on the backdrop of the desert horizon. A large number had felt The Range activate, but had been too far to be affected.
Never good. Now they’d be frenzied and aggressive, rather than passive and plodding—making the jobs of the archers and fencers far more difficult in the latter stages of the incursion. The risk of overloading The Range’s barrier was greatly increased now, but there was nothing for it. It was always a hazard trying to manage the intervals between the ranks of an approaching horde. Allow too many near the barrier too soon, and you risked overloading The Range outright. Wait and allow those far from The Range to be enraged but unaffected by The Range’s first activation, and you had a wall of crazed shadows flying at you within heartbeats. The Range still might overload and open breaches all along the transparent barrier.
Nothing for it, he thought and waited.
* * *
Miriam and Sofia sat on the roof of Gram’s cabin, miles south of the Range and safe from the danger. The booms from the Range echoed across the sands to the core, the sound akin to thunder and the clanging of cook pots.
“That means one made it through to the barrier,” Miriam said, turning to glance at Sofia. Miriam’s niece looked up at her, her hands clasping the upper ridge of the roof where they sat, her feet drawing in toward her thighs in fear.
“Will they get through?” Sofia asked.
“They sometimes do, and the sky will flash red with the signal, if that happens,” Miriam said, “But that’s what the spikers are for. Old Silas, himself, was once a spiker.”
“Won’t it hurt ‘em?” Sofia asked.
“The spikers?” the little girl nodded. “Well—what hurt they feel is better than the alternative,” Miriam replied, “and they know the risks.”
The little girl fell silent at that, her eyes widening slightly as the pair looked north toward the Range.
They have no choice, in fact, the criminals. Gram was inside the cabin, likely sleeping at this hour, tired from a meeting she’d had earlier in the day with some man who’d visited from the Range. Gram got those visitors from time to time.
“Aunt Mir, what’s it like out there?”
“Out on the Range?” Sofia nodded, again.
Miriam had only visited once, years before. All the same, she effected her best storytelling timbre, dropping her voice to a whisper, as if she were telling a ghost story. Well, that’s more or less what it is, she thought, remembering how her older sister had taken her out, just before an incursion, in an effort to show her what it would be like to serve as a defender. Now that the Range Commander’s new conscription protocols allowed women to serve, it had been an option for Miriam, just nineteen years old at the time.
“Let’s see,” Miriam began. “If you were to walk north, through the sands, far out past the borders of the core, the night would be dark for a mile, only the light of the stars and the crescent moon to guide your steps…” Sofia’s eyes widened, as Miriam pressed on. “As you continued your journey north, you would see it, first. The lights. A bright, blue row of lights, glowing like fireflies in the night, arrayed in a line,” she held up her hand and painted a line parallel to the ground in the air between them, “just like the lanterns lining the thresholds of the cabins during Harvest Day. On a night like tonight, you might hear, as you walked, the faint sound of the captains shouting to the soldiers from their great, wheeled towers arrayed at every fourth or fifth lantern-light along the Range.”
“Is it really lanterns, Aunt Mir? Is that how they keep the shamblers away—are they scared of light?”
“Well, no. It’s the Range that keeps the shadow away. The Range, and the brave defenders guarding it, their bows and pikes at the ready, the fencers behind their crystal tubes, trained to rip the very souls of the shadows from the sands if they come too close.”
“What—what makes the glow that looks like lantern-fireflies, then?”
“Ah, well, that’s the Range, the crystal-capped columns that form its backbone. Your great uncle Daxus used to help carve those great wooden columns, with their bases like great wooden spikes that anchor in the earth, holding the crystals stable in the shifting sands of the desert.”
“Nuncle Daxus did that? But I thought he was a crafter!”
“He was, and a good one, at that. He had a sharp mind, and even helped with the design of chains and hooks to reposition the columns, when needed. Sometimes,” her voice dropped to a whisper, again, “sometimes even the Range Commander gets it wrong, and they have to pull up and move a tower just as the shadows are marching toward the barrier!”
Sofia gasped at this, covering her mouth with her hand, as Miriam stifled a smile. She, too, had enjoyed the thrill of such stories when she was Sofia’s age.
Another boom echoed across the sands from the north as Sofia shivered into her, and Miriam pulled her closer.
* * *
The thief felt the itch all along his arms and legs like a thousand tiny insects scrabbling across his skin. He grasped the pike firmly in his hands, though, lest he drop it and earn the ire of his sergeant—and perhaps another link on the leather circlet around his neck. Two was enough. More than enough, he thought to himself.
The captains in the towers to either side of him were barking orders to the archers in the sands in front of him, just inside the barrier. It was unnerving to look between the columns and see nothing of the transparent barrier between yourself and the beasts off in the distant horizon. And yet the crystals atop the columns were lit, glowing blue. The Range held, still.
He took one hand off of his pike, quickly, wiping the sweat from his hand on the front of his tunic. It wouldn’t do to let the weapon slip when it mattered. They’d coached him to stand firm no matter what happened, even if the crystals to either side of his segment went dark and the shamblers were free to cross the threshold of Gamma.
His face itched, but he didn’t want to scratch it. The sergeant tasked with wrangling this group of spikers already seemed annoyed at his minor deviations in the battle stance, but he couldn’t help it. If he only had just a touch of harkroot to quell his nerves. Harklust, he rolled the word over in his mind, attempting to distract himself with the word that described the symptoms which were surprisingly difficult to ignore. He had never felt it to this degree, since he had always managed to keep his supply of the root within arm’s reach, back at the core. This wasn’t his place, out here in the sands. Give him a strong carving knife or an axe, and a place to work wood, and he would be happy. He had never signed up for the Range, having always been better suited—and skilled—as a carpenter than a soldier. And yet, now he was serving as one—except, of course, that he would not have the luxury of evading direct contact should they breach the Range. He had lost that privilege for the same reason he was brought here in the first place.
“Raise your gods damned pike, spiker!” the sergeant’s breath was hot on his right cheek, his voice deafening in his ear. The point had fallen as he’d been lost in his thoughts. Sands, but this itches.
“Apo—apologies, sergeant,” he said, spittle forming on his lips as he blinked rapidly to focus his eyes on the horizon in front of him. They were just visible now, the dark mass of shamblers on the horizon, and the archers were chanting their words. He heard a familiar refrain as he glanced to the left at the poor three-link bastard who seemed to have already served at least that many already.
As time flows, toil and pain I greet
The cycle stretches on, repeats
He wondered how many shamblers the fellow had taken on the end of his pike. It didn’t take many to rot the mind, he’d heard. But if you could get through your sentence on a good night, when the Range held and your pike was not needed…well, that was a bit of luck that he wished would come his way tonight. And the next time, as well. Two links for two nights, and he’d be back in his workshop, working the last of Gamma’s ash stores into crossbows.
I sweat and bleed as my death leaves
A thousand words unspoken
Well, he wasn’t sure about all that. He had plenty of words he’d like to speak, if he could get back to the core in one piece, and with his mind still intact. The man to his left moaned, and he glanced over to the poor bastard to see him drooling out of the corner of his mouth. Son of a shambler’s shit. Would they find something else for this poor sot to do besides be a liability to the rest of them? But the other four spikers in their little band seemed unconcerned. Hardened criminals, no doubt. Wasn’t like him, who’d just stolen a touch of harkroot. And not personally, mind. Just through his contact. It was a business arrangement, really, and more of an…exchange…than anything. And what was commerce if not an exchange of goods between individuals? Sure, no one had paid the old woman whose crop had been stolen, but that wasn’t the point. He hadn’t stolen it directly, and—
“LOOSE!” The shout startled him so that he almost dropped his pike. He wasn’t meant for this work, he really wasn’t. But give him a knife and some wood, and—
“LOOSE AT WILL!”
Oh, sands. It looked like a wall of them, the dark, humanoid shapes of the beasts from the deep desert. He’d heard they could rip a man in two easier than a toddler tore her dinner bread.
“AaaaaaaAAAAAAhhhhhh….” A tingle traced through his spine as the wail reached his ears.
“Oh sands, what was that?” he asked the man to his right.
“Fencer wails, is all,” he spat into the sand. “Check the funnel over yonder. Those poor souls are eatin’ it so we don’t have to,” he said.
Eating it. He glanced to his right, down the Range, and saw what his companion was referring to—a stream of light flowing from the direction of the wails, which were coming at a regular interval, now. It sounded like a particularly loud feline of some sort, wailing as it was being stuck with sharp objects of some sort. It sounded horrible. He really, really wasn’t supposed to be here. There had been a serious mistake. It was just a bit of harkroot, and didn’t they all need a bit of comfort in these troubling times?
He craned his head around in search of his sergeant, who— was nowhere to be found. He turned back to look north, again, through the clear wall of the Range, just as a thunderclap struck the Range from off to the west.
“First impact,” the companion to his right shouted above the rising cacophony of the defense.
First impact? But that meant—
Another thunderclap came from to his distant right, to the east. And then, the wall of shadows in the northern distance began to move. And sands, but did they move fast. And soundlessly. He wasn’t sure if it was their visage or silence that was more terrifying. How could something so sinister not make a single sound, not a growl or a shout or anything?
He gripped his pike tighter, looking at his fingers which were curled, milk white, around the shaft of the weapon.
Oh, sands. He closed his eyes just as he saw a crystal off to his right flicker and go dark. Some eastern segments were already falling, it seemed. So much for an easy link, tonight. He wondered if he’d keep any memory of his skill with wood, after the first shambler touched the crystal tip of his pike. He turned back around to look for the absent sergeant, and he saw him, off to the west, with—
“They’re through the Range!” his rightward companion yelled, the one to his left still drooling and moaning as he turned to the west where the shamblers had clustered around one of the captains’ towers. He would have to—
Agh. His vision turned white and he swam on his feet, dropping to a knee. His drooling pike-mate must have struck him in the head with his pike shaft as he had turned. After a moment’s pause, he raised his eyes to see a cluster of shamblers ripping apart a cohort of spikers. His sergeant, he was not too sad to see—and did that make him a bad person?—was among them.
Oh, sands, sands, bloody crusty sands.
“C’mon!” his rightward pike-mate shouted at him through gritted teeth, urging him on with sheer anger and force of will. “Them bastards ain’t gon’ get through on a mason’s watch!”
Ah, well, but I’m a carpenter, the thief thought, as he followed reluctantly behind his more energetic companion.
* * *
The echoes of the first range impacts fading away, the sands inside the protective barrier and just outside it were utterly silent to Tomias for the space of several heartbeats. The beasts, whether plodding toward The Range or hurtling in a frenzy—as they were now—never made a sound beyond their footfalls. No growls, no screams, nothing but the sight of them to indicate there was rank upon rank of nightmarish beasts bearing down on your position. It made the red-brown haze of the desert beyond the slim protection of the transparent barrier of The Range that much more terrifying.
The latter ranks of beasts were still too far out for even their footfalls to be heard and were barely distinguishable from the desert itself. That wouldn’t last long.
From his vantage, Tomias surveyed the archers as the call came up from the Vice-commander—Decimus—on the ground. Their predetermined tactic was to pass command down to Decimus, who had direct authority over the archers, when the beasts neared the final approach. His own job done, Tomias looked to his second, who stood with the archers in the sands at the base of the central tower, just inside The Range.
“Hold!” Decimus called, urging the new recruits and veterans alike to stand firm in the face of the shadows. Here and there, an archer’s arms shook with battle mania, but not a one dropped their weapon.
Three. Tomias silently counted down as the shadows advanced at a run. The first of them was close enough to distinguish its form from the red-brown haze of the deep sands. Still silent. Terrifyingly so.
Two. More dark figures closed the distance to either side, the shadows forming like black smudges in Tomias’s periphery as those straight ahead silhouetted on the horizon. More than expected. Tomias knew The Range would be tested today.
One. In the deafening silence, the rapid footfalls on the sand of the score of beasts nearest the barrier sounded like dry grass brushing canvas, growing ominously louder by the second. Still, Decimus would wait until the shamblers were in the deadly range of the crystal-tipped bolts so that no quarrels would be wasted and The Range would take minimal direct contact from the beasts. It wouldn’t do to overload the crystals.
“Loose at will!” Decimus called, and crossbows began to twang.
Some of the running shadows fell, the nearest beast taking a bolt in the shoulder before being tripped up by its own speed, hitting the sands and forcing those behind to leap or trample it as they continued their race toward The Range, the corpse slowly dissolving into cinders from the point of the crystal bolthead’s impact.
“Fall back!” Decimus hollered again, and all but the most veteran archers—again, a predetermined tactic for the final approach—back-pedaled to clear the impact radius. The veterans held their ground, having delayed their fire for these final ranks of the beasts. They let their bolts fly, then pivoted and took running leaps to clear The Range’s impact radius just as the first of the runners slammed into the barrier.
* * *
The thief retched as soon as he came upon the mass of ripped apart bodies from the spikers who had been too slow for the beasts. Spittle and vomit on his tunic, the thief raised his pike just in time as another beast threw itself at him, its dark hand—or whatever it was—swinging out to catch him on the chin just as the pike’s crystal tip penetrated its hide. The thief was rewarded with a twofold sensation, his jaw snapping from the brush of the beast’s limb against his face, and the sickening taint of the beast’s soul rippling out into the air, through the thief’s own flesh, from just a pike’s length away. The man fell to his knees as the shadow dissolved into heat and ash in front of him, leaving behind only a whiff of sulfur.
“Wussit—wah can…yuu…hrmmm…” the thief tried to call out, but the mind-flaying taint of the shambler’s soul was already taking effect. His last lucid thought came to his mind, even as his voice refused to cooperate.
So this is what dulling feels like.
* * *
Tomias stared out at the oncoming shadows, pilloried by the latest volley of bolts. One beast that had taken a bolt in the chest began to vaporize from the entry point outward just before hitting the barrier itself. The Range ended what the crystal-tipped bolt had started as the figure dissolved into a cloud of ash. Several dozen shamblers collided with the barrier and disintegrated, those behind them flying backward as the final impacts shook the sky, making short work for the now-reloading archers who stepped forward to finish their work on those still stirring in the sands just outside The Range.
Soon enough, all that was left was an atmosphere filled with a rancid, smoking stench. Tomias pulled up his veil to cover his nose and mouth against the odor. The crystals slowly dimmed from the bright aftermath of the collisions.
“Range clear!” was Decimus’ call, as Tomias’ second-in-command heralded the end of yet another incursion. A flaming arrow arced high, southward, then exploded into a green firework, its tendrils spreading across the dark canvas of the night, undoubtedly visible from Gamma’s core.
Over. For now. And yet, if it was hard to see beyond The Range before, it was impossible now. Tomias peered over the strong timber panels at the leftmost edge of his vantage in the wheeled captain’s tower to see two physikers bringing one of the fencers out, supporting the stumbling woman between them toward the medical tents, taking care not to jostle her overmuch. Moans from the other fencers—male and female—and grunts from the physikers drifted up to him, his eyes beginning to water and burn despite his veil. He heard the sound of boots on metal rungs ascending the ladder.
Dess. Decimus, his lieutenant, poked his head up through the opened hatch to his left, lower face veiled. The man’s dark eyes were black as coals in the thin slit of skin exposed by the veil, betraying no hint of the constant fear they all felt.
“Range holds, Tom,” the man said, words muffled, “one breach, a few spikers and a sergeant lost.”
Tomias nodded to him and turned back to the naked expanse beyond The Range. One breach was manageable. It’d take a few hours for the crystals to relight, but they had a couple days until the next horde, in any case. His hands clasped behind him, he absently stroked the gap where his left little finger should have been—had been. The heavy ring on his right forefinger designated his station as a Commander of the Range, the green stone marking him as tied to Camp Gamma. All commanders from all the camps had them, and kept them, even when their bodies were lowered into the ground.
“…bolts near gone, though,” Decimus continued, “Fencers’ll take it real hard next time.”
They would, and the spikers after. Tomias thought. Without bolts to hurl into the shamblers from a distance, the fencers were the next line of defense, and only good for taking out a handful of the beasts. In his periphery, Tomias noticed a pair of physikers carrying another fencer. He turned to look. This one, a man, was as limp as a rag doll. In that state, he’d be lucky to live long enough to be sent to Gamma’s core, dulled down to the point of an intelligent animal, but perhaps whole enough to fletch a few new bolts a day from Gamma’s dwindling stock of ash coppices.
Such a constant task, and so few to do it, he thought to himself.
His left thumb drifted to that vacant knuckle again, considering.
* * *
The boy’s vision was white, and he heard screaming.
As the bleached light left his eyes, he once again began to make out the brown and red hues of the formless, murky haze beyond the range. His throat was raw. Raw from—?
Oh. He closed his eyes, and felt the firm weight of a gentle hand on his left shoulder.
“Fencer. Boy. Water.”
A woman’s voice. They never called him by his name, the people in white. Sometimes, he struggled to remember it, himself.
“Who…?” he asked. So thirsty.
“Sabina, and I brought you water,” the woman lifted a tin cup slowly into his field of vision as his eyes cracked open, her hand extending from a sleeve of white linen.
He made to reach for the cup, but his hands did not obey. They were still locked in their iron clasp around the handles of the sounder. He breathed slowly, deeply, willing his fingers to open, slowly. First his left forefinger, then middle, then third…
At length, he reached a shaky hand to take the cup from the woman in white, whose patient hand had hovered in his view throughout the process, which must have taken at least several minutes.
The cup of water wasn’t anything spectacular, lukewarm and with a small clod of dust just falling from the rim to dissolve on the surface of the water. But he brought it to his lips anyway.
It was easily the best thing he’d ever tasted. After two long gulps, he gasped and the woman chuckled, already offering a second cup from her other hand.
She’s a nice one. They’re usually— his brow furrowed. Usually—what?
“Fencer,” she said.
It’s all gray. Gray and hazy. Kind of like—
Or reddish. Brown. Reddish brown. Gray? Maybe—
“Fencer,” the woman’s soft voice broke his reverie at last. “Come now, let’s get you to the tents. This was a tough one.” The boy felt the her arms gently envelop his shoulders and head, almost intimate in their encompassing, firm grasp.
He sagged back in his seat, muscles growing gummy and slack, consciousness ebbing. A touch to his spine from the woman’s hand, and he found his energy return a bit, just enough to extricate himself from the seat and shuffle his tired frame down to the dusty slats of the floor. He could see the sand through the cracks.
The blue glow of the orb caught his eye as she helped him out of the raised box, around the side of the captain’s tower on which it was mounted. The woman’s arm snaked behind his back to support his still-shaky form, her other hand grasping his elbow to guide him toward the donor tents.
He’d feel better soon. He knew it. He trudged along, and felt a warmth spreading from his head, down, like warm honey spilled over his scalp. It felt like…his knees pressed into the gritty sand, then his face, the grit forcing its way into his mouth.
* * *
It was long past Sofia’s bedtime, but Miriam had promised Sof a good view of the next incursion. The little girl reached up with her right hand to brush a stray lock of hair behind her ear, a gust from the south having curled around to buffet them gently from their perch above Gram’s cabin.
Miriam saw a lot of herself in the seven year old. Had she really once been that young, that inquisitive, just over two decades ago? It didn’t seem possible. A woman just past twenty eight summers, now, those days seemed to belong to a different age. Much has changed, in the past two decades, she thought.
“You’ll make a great defender, one day,” Miriam said. The girl would be fit and capable of serving the Range at twelve, less than five years from now. Even the young, even girls, could serve the Range now that the recruitment age had been changed. Much had changed since the Great Loss, just before Sof had been born. And just after. The girl’s parents had been two of the later casualties.
“Didn’t you want to serve?” Sofia asked.
“Gamma had other need of me, Sof,” Miriam said.
“Helpin’ out those simple folk?”
“That’s right, they need someone to watch over them, direct their remaining talents.”
“Can’t Silas just do that?”
Miriam shook her head. “Silas is simple, himself, Sof,” the man had sacrificed much when he served as a spiker, no matter what his crime had been.
“Was Silas a bad man, before he was a spiker? Sally said all the spikers used to be bad people,” she said.
Oh, did she, now. Miriam smirked mirthlessly to herself. Sofia was quite the questioner. She’d be giving the physikers a run for their money, soon enough. And she and her little friends, the sons and daughters of the crafters and farmers who had not been conscripted and remained at the core, were quite the little gossip circle.
“Well, Sof, it’s not quite that simple,” Miriam replied. “Whatever Silas did, the Range gives people like him a chance to redeem themselves as spikers. His return to the core shows that he did so,” she said.
“So he’s not a bad man anymore?” Sofia asked, eyes wide. Another boom echoed in the distance, and Sofia shuddered. Miriam put an arm around her for comfort.
“No, child, he’s not a bad man, quite the opposite,” she said.
Quite the opposite. Miriam often wondered if she’d have gotten through the time after her sister passed, had Silas not been sent to her shortly after. The man had his good days and bad, but in terms of mental acuity, not temperament. He had only ever been gentle and helpful, throughout the years he had served as her shadow and “assistant”—if she were charitable—in monitoring the simpleton fletchers.
“Aunt Mir, look!” Sof pointed, indicating the rising green light in the sky.
The signal flare. The Range holds.
“That’s a good sign,” Miriam said, “it means we’re still safe, see?” She hugged the girl tight with the arm that was still wrapped around her narrow shoulders. Sof smiled, leaning her head against Miriam’s shoulder. “Still safe,” Miriam repeated.
Still safe, she thought, for now.