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Tejas Goel

Classics Fantasy


4.8  

Tejas Goel

Classics Fantasy


The Midnight Sea (Part 2)

The Midnight Sea (Part 2)

8 mins 391 8 mins 391

“Water Dogs!”

I set aside the cookpot I'd just finished scrubbing and took another from the pile, not bothering to look up. 

“Very funny,” I said. “This would go a lot faster if you'd do your share instead of teasing me.” 

My brother Kian dropped to his haunches. “Not teasing. Have a look.” I sighed and pushed the hair out of my face. A moment later, I was on my feet, shading my eyes with one hand. Two mounted figures picked their way up the grassy hillside. They wore scarlet tunics and matching qarhas that wound around their heads, leaving only the eyes visible. 

Everywhere, people were emerging from their goatskin tents to see what was going on. Tension and excitement buzzed through the Four-Legs clan as the figures reined up. 

“Are they really Water Dogs?” I whispered. 

“No one else wears the red,” Kian replied. 

I had never seen Water Dogs before. All I knew about them was that they belonged to the King, and they hunted Druj—wights, liches, revenants. Like the one that had killed my sister a year ago. I felt a surge of bitterness. You're too late, I wanted to scream at them. You've come too late to do any good. 

“Come on.” Kian grabbed my hand. “Let's go see why they're here.” 

I ran down the slope with him, the familiar anger burning in my stomach. No one blamed my uncle for what he'd done, not even me. Once a wight takes possession of someone, it can't be driven out. It will use its victim up until that person drops dead from starvation or cold or sheer exhaustion. And then it will find another. Ashraf was beyond saving. Everyone knew it. 

And yet I still saw her face in my dreams. Still saw her falling into the abyss, night after night, for months after her death.

 At least I prayed my sister was dead. Her body had never been recovered.

“People of the Four-Legs Clan!” The first rider unwound his qarha. He was young, just a few years older than me. 

“He looks like a barbarian,” my brother said under his breath. 

I'd never seen a barbarian, but this Water Dog had copper hair and grey eyes. It was a striking combination. He had an air of calm authority, an impression heightened by the royal seal—a roaring griffin in a circle— emblazoned on his scarlet tunic. 

“We come in the name of King Artaxeros the second and Jaagos, Satrap of Tel Khalujah,” the young man said in a ringing voice that carried to the far reaches of the assembled crowd. “We come to ask who here wishes to serve the Holy Father as a Water Dog. Only those between the ages of twelve and sixteen are eligible to test.” 

No one spoke. We rarely saw outsiders and had an innate suspicion of anyone whose bloodline wasn't Four-Legs Clan for at least a dozen generations—no matter how many distant authorities they claimed to speak for.

“Your families will be well compensated.” He held up a bag of coins and shook it. A small murmur went through the onlookers. Most of us were very poor, if you measured wealth by silver or gold. My family's only source of income was our animals. We traded milk and cheese, and my mother used the wool to weave shawls that she sold at the market in Tel Khalujah twice a year. A bag of coins that size was more money than we would earn in a decade. 

“What does it mean to be a Water Dog?” His eyes roamed across the sea of faces, pausing on those who were close to my age. “It means you will champion the innocent, protect the powerless, punish the wicked. You will be the hand of the Holy Father, protecting our borders from the Druj to the north. And yes, you will use daēvas to do it.” 

“Demons to hunt demons,” someone muttered. 

I was very fuzzy on what exactly a daēva was. The older kids claimed they were Druj too, and that they had magic powers. I didn't understand how the Water Dogs could control such creatures, but apparently, they managed it somehow. 

“Who here has the courage to step forward?” the Water Dog asked. His companion lounged in the saddle, qarha still wound tightly. Something in the shape of the body told me it was a woman. “We will test any who are willing. Let me be clear: We are not here to forcibly recruit anyone. This is not a burden, but an honor. There's no place for cowards in our ranks.” 

This comment provoked some grumbling in the crowd. The Water Dog held up a hand. 

“I mean no offense. The Four-Legs people are known to be among the strongest and toughest in the empire. How else could you eke out a living in these hard lands? You are descendants of the great hero, Fereydun. I only hope that his blood has not run thin.” 

I caught my father's eye. He stood with his arms crossed, felt hat pushed back on his head. His expression was unreadable.

Then a boy came forward. “I wish to be tested,” he said. 

The crowd buzzed. Two more boys approached the riders. They stood in a tight knot, grinning nervously. 

“Anyone else?” The Water Dog's eyes swept the crowd. They passed over me without stopping, although they lingered for moment on Kian. My brother looked down at his feet. “No? Then we'll begin the testing.” 

He started to wheel his mount up the slope. 

Demons to hunt demons 

My heart beat faster. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I suddenly saw a way to make Ashraf's angry, restless spirit stop haunting me. Kill Druj. 

It would mean walking away from my family. My clan. If I was chosen, I might never see any of them again. And in our world, those ties were everything. If the community cast a person out, they were as good as dead. It only happened for serious crimes like rape or murder, which were almost unheard of among my people. But when it did, that person became a ghost. Their name was never spoken again. 

Leaving wasn't quite the same, although that was unheard of too. There was the Four-Legs Clan, and the soft, fat people beyond the mountains. Only the first mattered. 

Please, Nazafareen, help me… 

Yet I knew in my heart that Ashraf would never give me peace. Not until I avenged her. 

“Wait!” I stepped forward. “I wish to be tested.” 

The Water Dog hardly looked at me. “Come along, then,” he said. 

I felt the stares of the crowd as we followed the two riders to a tent they had commandeered. Kian was pale with shock, but he didn't try to stop me. Nor did my mother, who stood wringing her shawl with weathered hands. They couldn't. I had volunteered, and I would be tested whether my parents liked it or not. 

One by one, we were summoned into the tent. I squatted on the ground outside, trying not to fidget, the other volunteers' eyes on me, hot and disdainful. I was the last to be called. When my turn came, I walked with my head high, although I expected to fail whatever test they had planned. I knew how to use a bow and knife, but I'd never handled any other weapon before. 

The Water Dog who waited inside was the one who looked like a barbarian. He wore a sword at his hip, and I wondered if I was going to have to fight him. If so, I was doomed. 

“My name is Ilyas,” he said. “What's yours?” 

I told him.

“Nazafareen,” he said. “I want you to wear this and tell me what you feel.” 

He placed a gold circlet around my wrist. I noticed that he wore one too. 

The gold was warm against my skin, but that was all. 

“Close your eyes,” Ilyas commanded gently. “Let your mind drift free.” 

Easy for you to say, I thought, wiping sweat from my palms.

I closed my eyes. A minute passed. I began to grow impatient. My leg ached. A muscle cramp, I thought, flexing my bare toes with a wince. 

 “What is it?” Ilyas asked. 

“Nothing.” 

“Tell me.”

 It wasn't a question. 

“Just growing pains. That's what my mother calls them.” 

“Where?” 

“Here.” I touched my calf. 

Ilyas smiled. He pulled up his pant leg. There was a vicious scar, half-healed. 

“I fell from my horse two weeks ago. My leg struck a rock.” 

I stared at him, uncomprehending. 

“That's my injury you feel, Nazafareen,” he said.

 “Oh.” I frowned, rubbing my calf. It was a strange sensation. My pain, and yet not mine, at the same time. 

“You have the gift. Only one in a thousand does. These—” he pointed to the circlets—”are cuffs. When two humans wear them, there is a degree of empathy if the wearers are gifted. When a human and daēva wear them… well, it's more intense.” He looked very pleased with himself. “You're the first we've found in a long time.” 

“What happens now?” I asked. 

“We take you to Tel Khalujah. To the satrap's palace. That will be your new home.” His grey eyes grew serious. “Are you certain you want this? It's not an easy life. I won't lie to you.” 

“That's all right,” I said. “My life now isn't easy either.” 

He laughed. “I imagine it's not. Come, let me speak to your father.” 

“Ilyas?” The name spilled awkwardly from my tongue. “What are daēvas? Are they really Druj?”

“Yes, they are Druj. But they are tame Druj. The magus will explain it to you.” He smiled. “We almost didn't come this way. Zohra thought we should skirt the mountains. But then we saw a herd of goats and followed it. Perhaps the Holy Father wanted us to find you.” 

I made the sign of the flame, the first two fingers of my left hand brushing forehead, lips and heart. 

Good thoughts, good words, good deeds 

Ilyas nodded in approval. “We are the light against the darkness,” he said. “Never forget that, Nazafareen.”


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