Chapter 1: Bay of Carrion
The mournful sound of the Bone Ministers’ horn awoke what was left of the Wetlands Village. The fishermen and hunters had been stirring in their hovels for hours, but they knew better than to set foot out of doors before the horn.
“Now, Grandi?” little Suri asked, her pigtails bouncing.
Justinian waited until the last haunting trace of the horn had faded…before answering, “Yes, yes. Now I think it is safe.”
“Yay, fishing!” Suri cried.
She tried to bounce past Justinian, but he stopped her with a light hand on her fuzzy brown head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Did that hurt?”
“Nope, nope-itty, nope,” Suri replied. “All healed.”
“Good, good,” he said. She was right about the physical healing. The burns on her scalp had scarred over, and her hair was even trying to grow back. First One only knew how long it might take for the emotional healing to take place…if ever.
“Can we go, Grandi?” she asked again, her eyes crossing as she tried to look up at his hand, still resting on her head.
“I would like very much to go now too,” he said. “But you remember what I taught you? We go straight to the compost field for bait. We don’t wander. If we run into soldiers or worse—Bone Ministers—you say nothing to them. Not a word, is that understood?”
“Yes, Grandi,” she said. “I remember. Not a peep. And if the soldiers demand our catch, I thank them and say nothing else.”
“Good lass,” Justinian said. “That’s exactly right. Now, let’s go see what the Bay of Taranaar delivers up for the most skillful fishermen in Myriad.”
“Shouldn’t you say, ‘fisherfolk’ instead?” She made an earnest attempt at a frown. “On account ahm not a boy!”
“Right you are, my sweet granddaughter,” he said, lightly patting her head again.
[Insert Hiatus Marks]
Justinian kept his granddaughter tight to his side as they navigated the wreckage of the village. There was little left. The cottages and shops had all been burned or leveled during the invasion six months earlier. The Elders’ Fortress seemed as if it had never been at all, so thoroughly had it been obliterated.
Elder. Justinian sneered at himself inwardly. What an undeserved title. Just as well that I no longer wear it. I failed my village.
Agatha Dawnington limped by on her one good leg.
The poor, tired soul, Justinian thought with a pang of remorse. He’d found her that night, bloodied from head-to-toe, attacked and left for dead by a wraith-like apparition called a Lich. The creature had touched Agatha’s leg and her back, leaving her gasping and unable to move. She’d asked Justinian to kill her.
But he hadn’t. He’d saved her life.
And Agatha had hated him ever since.
“Smile, Grandi,” little Suri said. “We’s going fishing.”
He tried…tried hard. It was a brave smile at best, but it seemed to satisfy her. She continued to bob along beside him as if Wetlands Village was a bustling community full of kind neighbors, merry music, and gardens full of flowers.
Let her think that, Justinian decided, wishing he could as well. The toll in lives from that night was by far the worst of it. He’d seen war…battlefields strewn with the dead. Horrible beyond words, but still nothing compared to the carnage of that night. Fires burned everywhere, and it seemed each was a private cremation for some poor soul.
The fiends that Morlan had brought back from across the Dark Sea were as merciless as they were terrifying. Man, woman, child, elderly—it made no difference. They hacked them all down as if slaughtering cattle. The week before the invasion had been dry, leaving the village dusty. But that night the soil had been so drenched in blood that it turned to a viscous crimson mud.
“Keep up, Grandi!” Suri called. “You’re fallin’ behind.”
“I am sorry, child,” he said, hoisting the fishing gear higher onto his shoulder. “This walk always makes me thoughtful.”
“Always makes me hungry,” she said. “Hungry for fish!”
What a dear she is, Justinian thought. He looked up and saw the quay just ahead. And, by the First One’s grace, there seemed to be no one else in the area. Justinian released a long-held sigh of relief. The Shrike, Morlan’s occupying soldiers, would most likely stay in their barracks unless one of the black ships had docked recently. The morning mist lay heavy over the Bay of Taranaar ahead. Hard to tell for certain if any tall ships were in port, but not likely. They’d already had their weekly supply shipments.
Perhaps, Justinian thought, we can fish together without hindrance.
The thought had barely registered in his mind when Suri let out a startled squeak. Justinian’s breath caught in his throat.
He felt as if a blade of ice had been plunged into his chest.
“Does this refuse belong to you, old man?” The voice was deep and rigid, enveloped by an eerie whispering as if the speaker had been joined by a chorus of ghost voices.
A Bone Minister.
Suri stood in a tall, menacing shadow and rubbed her forehead.
Justinian dropped swiftly to his knees. “I am so sorry, Minister,” he said, letting the fishing gear fall to the ground. “The girl meant no inconvenience—certainly no disrespect. I distracted her, she didn’t see you, and—”
“She is a blight, even among your kind,” the Bone Minister said. His fingers, encased in segmented armor, rippled at his side. “Shall I rid this place of her?”
“No, no, please!” Justinian pleaded. “She has been through so much and yet she lives and even smiles. She is dear to me. Please.”
The Bone Minister made no initial response. He stood, impassively towering over Suri. Justinian knew better than to say any more. Either the Bone Minister would kill her, or he would not. There was nothing more Justinian could do.
A pair of grizzled fishermen approached but diverted immediately to give the Bone Minister a wide berth. With good reason. He and all of his kind were a study in grotesquery. Seven feet tall, broad shouldered, and thick-legged—formidable warriors by any measure. But the Bone Ministers were more than soldiers, more than mere men and yet…somehow less than human.
From what Justinian had learned from loose-lipped villagers—mostly from old Gatlin the tavern keeper who lent his ear even to the Shrike—King Morlan and his chief assassin Cythraul coveted the Bone Ministers above all who had been brought back from the Forsaken Continent.
For in that dark realm, if the rumors were true, these beings were born and bred to a desperate dual purpose: to endure and inflict pain. From childhood, they submitted themselves to tortures, experiments, and unconscionable rituals.
Through agonies beyond imagination, their flesh and bone had been fused to nigh unbreakable armor.
Justinian might have thought such a thing impossible…if he wasn’t staring right at it. The Bone Minister wore a black cloak, lined with gray wolf’s fur. His heavy, black boots were studded and punctured with jagged shards of metal. Similar black iron talons protruded from his armored legs. Looking at those wicked hooks, Justinian winced. It was a kind wonder that Suri hadn’t split her forehead when she walked into the Bone Minister.
Still he made no move and said nothing. Suri looked up at the Bone Minister. Finally she blinked and said, “Don’t you worry, Grandi. He won’t hurt me. He’s a nice one.”
A nice one. Justinian smiled at her naivety. There were no “nice” Bone Ministers. No soul could be as tortured as these and still maintain even a splinter of kindness. Justinian looked at the tools of torture—curving, crooked, serrated implements of pain—hanging from the Bone Minister’s heavy belt. Not nice. Not very nice at all.
At last, the Bone Minister gave some sign. His deep chest—half leathery gray flesh, half molded ridges of ashen black metal—inflated and fell as he released the breath in an otherworldly whistling sigh.
“So fragile,” the Bone Minister said, the ghost whispers present with every word. He lifted his arms out to his side. His fingers clicked and crackled like a basket full of teeming crabs.
Suri whimpered and began to shake. Her arms suddenly slammed against her body as if a gigantic invisible demon had taken her in its fist.
“No, please!” Justinian whispered.
Suri struggled, her eyes bulged, and her feet left the ground.
The Bone Minister lifted his hands slightly and smiled. His teeth were long and sharp like those of a feral beast. They protruded at odd angles from the blackened gum tissue. The jaws parted. A shadowy tongue slithered between the teeth. And a rustling, rattling breath escaped.
Suri rose into the air. She squirmed and wrestled but couldn’t escape. Up she went: a foot off of the ground. Two. Three. Now, she was almost at the Bone Minister’s eye level.
“So very fragile,” the Bone Minister said. “One constricting thought…and she will burst like an overripe grape.”
“Mmmph!” Suri cried. “It hurts, Grandi!”
“Will you raise a fist against me, old man?” the Bone Minister hissed.
Justinian hadn’t even realized that he’d clenched his fists. He could feel the white-knuckling tension in them and found the urge to strike out against his enemy almost overwhelming. But when Justinian looked up at the Bone Minister’s face, he lost all resolve.
The grey flesh of that face was threadbare, shot through with dark metal, especially at the chin, jaw, and cheekbones. Worst were the eyes, whether one could see them or not. A crown of metal protruded from the bottom of the Bone Minister’s forehead to the bridge of his nose and wrapped around his face just above his ears. A shallow chevron eye slit cut deep into the armor. And the sickly, moonlight yellow eyes stared out with malice from within.
Suri cried softly. “Please, Grandi…”
“No, Minister,” Justinian whispered, letting his fists uncurl. “I would not dare to oppose you. Do what you will.”
The rustling rattle swirled out from the Bone Minister’s mouth. And slowly by some dark power that Justinian couldn’t fathom, Suri began to descend to the ground.
The moment her bare toes touched the leaf-strewn soil, Suri raced to Justinian and clutched him.
“See that she minds her path,” the Bone Minister said. He strode away without another word.
“Come, Suri,” Justinian said. He took Suri’s hand and got back to his feet. “The First One smiled upon us today. We should head back home. Fishing can wait another day.”
“Oh, Grandi, no!” Suri, sadness etching long lines into her sweet face.
Every rational thought urged Justinian to take Suri back to the relative safety of their shack. But Suri looked so sad, so utterly pathetic that his rational thoughts fled. “Ah, Suri,” he said. “I relent. We’ll still go to the bay and fish.”
“But we must be doubly cautious,” he said. “We might not survive another run in with a Bone Minister.”
“That one’s different,” Suri said. “I don’t think he would’a kilt me.”
“He may be different,” Justinian replied, hoisting the fishing gear back to his shoulder. “But make no mistake…he has killed many before. And he would kill again.”
They hurried the rest of the way to the Bay of Taranaar without incident.
“Tide’s coming in,” Justinian said.
“Good for fishin’, right Grandi?” Suri asked.
“Yes, indeed,” he said, staring off into the obscure distance. “But this fog is thicker than I’d imagined. It’ll take all afternoon for the sun to burn this off.”
He bent low and took a trenchworm out of their can of bait. It squirmed vitally, and then Justinian plunged it onto the hook. A disturbing image of the Bone Minister impaling little Suri on some sharp thing raced through his mind. He shook the thought away and handed the fishing pole to Suri. First One knew, the girl was ready to fish.
She raced away up the pier, stopped at one spot, then raced back ten feet to select the perfect spot. Then, with a practiced flip of the wrists, Suri slung the baited line admirably far out into the water.
Justinian watched her affectionately for a few minutes. No bites, not even a nibble, and yet she gave no sign of boredom. She held on to the end of that fishing pole and grinned as if it were the end of a rainbow.
Justinian heard muted footsteps behind him. He spun on his heel, but it was only another fisherman.
“Mornin, Elder,” Shipley Moor said with a friendly nod.
“Glad it’s you,” Justinian said. “Run in with a Minister a few minutes back.”
“I saw ‘im,” Shipley said. “That’ll rattle ya right outta yer boots, it will. But fishin’ cures all, so they say.”
“I hope so,” Justinian said.
Shipley nodded again. He stopped next to Justinian and stared out over the misty bay. “Weather’s changed,” Shipley said. “Not much wind, but what there is is comin’ out’a the east. Current’s coming in different too.”
“Odd smell to it,” Justinian said.
“Yep,” Shipley said. “Probably just some dead thing out on a sandbar. Big mule crab, I’ll wager. Those things stink to high Allhaven.”
Shipley gave a wink and went on his way up the pier, far past Suri’s perfect spot. Justinian watched Shipley disappear into the fog. Hope he’s right about the smell, Justinian thought. It was getting stronger now. Definitely something dead and rotting.
“Grandi, look!” Suri called.
Justinian hurried over to see his niece pointing into the water.
“It’s a dead fish,” Suri said. “Not fair. I wanted to catch’im.”
Justinian looked and was surprised to see a moonfish floating along with the current.
“There’s another one, Grandi,” Suri said. “Someone’s takin’ up all my fish!”
“HOO!” A cry came from the mist where Shipley had gone. Then there came pounding footsteps on the pier. In a few seconds, Shipley raced right by them his mouth gaping like the dead fish.
“Shipley!” Justinian called after him. “What’s going on? What did you see?”
But Shipley was already off the pier. He never answered.
Justinian flew to her side. She wouldn’t speak at first, but just pointed. There were more and more dead fish. But there was something else. A pale form floated to the surface. A body.
“Look away, Suri!” he said, pulling her to himself.
“He’s a fish man,” she said before burying her head in his jacket.
She was right. The body had wing-like fins beneath each arm. And the flesh coloring, while distorted in death, was a light purplish blue with splotches of livid red.
“Marinaens,” Justinian whispered. Another body surfaced next to the first. Still farther out in the water, there were many more pale shapes floating. The smell became unbearable.
“Come, child,” he said. They left the fishing gear where it lay, and he ushered her down the pier toward the village. But Justinian couldn’t help himself. Every few steps he gaped at the floating dead. Now there were so many they covered the visible surface.
Suri suddenly peeked out of his coat. “Oh, Grandi!” she cried. “Who would kill the fish people. They was nice. It wasn’t the Ministers, was it?”
“I don’t know, child,” Justinian said. “Not for certain. But I think this might be the answer to a question many of us have been asking since the invasion. Come, let’s get back to the cottage. I’ll fix you a hot vanilla.”
He hoped the sweet treat would take her mind on the horrors of this day. But nothing would help Justinian’s thoughts. How often he and others had wondered about that fateful evening, the night of the invasion. He hadn’t told Suri the question, but it loomed in his mind: where were the Marinaens when we needed them?
Now, Justinian thought he knew, but there was no one to tell. No one with any power to oppose King Morlan…or any power at all, for that matter.