On account of its longer than usual length, I only have one new chapter from the original draft of Shadow of the Overlord today. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Taliesimon tightened her grip on the two hands within hers and dashed forward before she could completely lose her nerve.
Jonah shouldn’t have any problems, she thought. With those thick, fancy boots the heat probably won’t even touch his feet. But Okara and I-
Okara grunted as they ran over the hot coals. Taliesimon’s feet were getting hot, but so far it was only mildly uncomfortable.
Jonah’s sweat slicked hand squeezed Taliesimon’s while Okara pulled away, speeding across the coals almost too fast to keep up with.
Then, then burning began.
It was a small thing at first. Something akin to a kitten repeatedly scraping the bottoms of her feet.
By her tenth step into the coals, however, it grew into true pain.
She likened the feeling to how she supposed it would feel to be dragged behind a galloping horse with bare feet scraping on the cobblestones.
Pushing her tired and sore muscles as hard as she could, she pushed her speed to the fastest sprint she could manage. Looking ahead, she found the bank and the cool water of the river a least half a hundred spans away!
Immediately, the pain in her feet intensified. The sensation was exactly as she imagined it might feel to have a hundred sewing needles plunged into her soles at once.
Growling in her throat, Taliesimon pushed her small legs faster, drawing on pain-induced strength she never new she had. Just as Okara dragged at her hand from ahead, she dragged Jonah by the hand behind her.
Sweat plastered her hair to her face, but her mouth was as dry as a six-day desicated lizard corpse. The pain in her feet was beyond anything she had words to describe and the only things that kept her moving was the knowledge that it was now farther to go back than to continue forward and in her thin leather sandals, Okara had to be in much greater pain than she.
With gritted teeth, she pushed herself harder. Jonah’s grunt of pain moved her to push even harder. With the intensity of the burning agony on the soles of her feet, it wouldn’t have surprised her to find her feet had melted off and she was now running on the stumps of her ankles.
She heard the misted droplets sizzling on the coals before she saw the edge of the bank. The agonizing burning had dulled to a dull ache, as though her body had lost the ability to process greater pain. When the sizzling reached her ears, she looked up and the misted droplets touched her face, cooling the streams of sweat blinding her.
All. Most. There, she thought, though she was too numb now to feel excitement.
She tried to shorten her last few steps in preparation for the jump, as she had earlier in the day, but found her body refused to cooperate. It seemed her feet decided of their own accord that they would not spent an instant longer than absolutely necessary on the hot coals.
Without warning, she was yanked back and down and an agonized shriek reached her ears. She turned, only just keeping her feet, to find Jonah on his knees on the red-hot coals, his flesh steaming as it began to cook. His shriek curdled her blood and the stench of his knees cooking brought bile to her throat. It was far to similar to bit-roasted boar. The flaming shine in his wide eyes brought tears to her own.
She fought back the tears, blinking furiously as she yanked Jonah to his feet.
He rose with a ripping sound and his screaming intensified. Red blood splattered onto the coals, brown steam rising instantly.
With Okara dragging on her other hand, she dragged Jonah the last few steps and pulled him into her arms as she fell off the ledge into the white-water rapids below.
The drop was longer than she had expected, being at least thrice her height. She expected this river to be a similar experience to the last one she’d tumbled into; a painful struggle, certainly, but perfectly survivable.
Okara wrapped an arm around Taliesimon’s waist just as they splashed into the frothing river and the shock almost made her release Jonah’s arms. The first river she’d swum had been cold, she’d thought. But this one was ice. Her flesh went instantly numb and her teeth chattered. She tumbled feet over head until she couldn’t tell which direction was up. Everywhere she looked, surging water and air bubbles obscured her vision and kept the surrounding fluid dark. No direction looked brighter than any other. There was no telltale purple highlights to hint at the direction of Kaustere.
With wide eyes, she stared in all directions and held on to her friends as tight as she could. She pulled them closer, using her head, she gestured all around, up, down, and everywhere in between, and shrugged.
The three tumbled with the current, Okara glaring at Taliesimon. Jonah shrugged, looking helpless. Air bubbles leaked from each of their noses.
Taliesimon’s chest started to burn. She exhales, letting the air bubbles flood from her mouth. They floated down fast her still burning feet and the solution smashed it’s way into her numb mind as though it were the stone spike of a war hammer: air bubbles always floated toward the surface!
Gripping the other two by the hands, she turned herself upside down and kicked as had as she could as she slowly released a bit more air from her mouth.
Okara pulled back on her hand and glared.
Taliesimon glared right back and as she breathed out another small breath, she pointed at the bubbles, now floating what seemed like down beneath her head. Realization seemed to down in Okara’s eyes and she nodded, kicking with Taliesimon in that direction.
Her lungs burned almost as much as her feet had on the coals. She kicked harder and yanked on the hands of the others as her desperation grew. She pushed the last of the air from her body and the burning intensified further. She kicked with all her might, following the last of her air bubbles toward the surface.
The urge to breathe in the water was fast becoming unbearable. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the surface. The water was every bit as dark as ever, and there weren’t any other indications of the passage of distance. Taliesimon started to think they weren’t moving at all. Or perhaps she was wrong about the direction of air bubbles under water. Or, most disturbing of all, perhaps somehow the rules of nature were different here?
The thought sent a chilling shiver down her already numb spine.
She kicked and kicked, refusing to give up. She fought the urge to breathe in. She fought against the dimming around the edges of her vision. She fought against the burning pain in her legs and lungs. Yet, no matter how hard she fought, it grew harder and harder to ignore the darkness around her, a darkness that kept whispering in her mind that it was a waste. It was over. She wasn’t going to survive this.
The black ring surrounding her vision grew, the burning in her chest felt as though she’d swallowed hot coals, and her muscles threatened to give out. She kicked and kicked toward the black depths which still felt like down.
At last she could take it no more and her lungs forced her breath in. She waited for unconsciousness to come, to put an end to her suffering.
But it didn’t.
Sweet, cool air entered her lungs. Icy fluid flowed over the molten rock of her chest, cooling the pain and freeing her from the clutches of death.
Then a wave crashed over her head and pulled her back beneath the surface.
A moment later, she was pulled above the surface again. The rapidly flowing river pushed against her, dragging all three of them down river. Okara led the charge, kicking her way toward the opposite bank where the steps of the vine rope net climbed out of the water.
Taliesimon and Jonah kicked their way after Okara, all three clenching hands to stay together.
The rapids pushed, pulled, and tossed them about repeatedly. For every span they moved forward, they were pushed or pulled three more in another direction. The going was slow and frustrating, the exhaustion in Taliesimon’s muscles threatened to overwhelm her. But Okara kept kicking and didn’t seem to slow at all.
How can she still have this much strength? Taliesimon wondered. She couldn’t understand how such a small girl could have so much strength and stamina. If we get through this if I end up having to face her in the combats, I don’t think I’ll stand a chance. If she has this much strength and endurance, I’d bet she has tremendous skill.
After what seemed an eternity of burning muscles and exhausted, rapid breath, Okara reached out and grabbed the rope net and pulled Taliesimon to it. With a hand securely on the vine rope, Taliesimon pulled Jonah to the net as well. She climbed up the rungs to be mostly out of the water and she entangled her arms in the net and let her body hang from it, limp.
Closing her eyes, she focused on taking slow, deep breaths and waited for the burning in her limbs to ease.
The net pulled next to her, torquing her shoulder. Ordinarily, she may have complained about the pain of it, but after what she’d already been through, the discomfort of a torqued shoulder barely registered in her mind.
Jonah’s heavy breathing next to her ear brought her back from the brink of unconsciousness and she popped her eyes open. The river foamed at her feet, eternally churning as water clashed from several directions at once.
But something wasn’t right.
The foam of the rapids was supposed to be flat white. Even with the light of Kaustere at noon, which it wasn’t, the foam should not have been so red. It was almost-
Oh, torthugra guts! she thought. At the exact moment she remembered what had happened to Jonah’s legs, she noticed the twin streams of blood dripping down into the water from above his boots.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” She growled as she disentangled her arms from the net and climbed down to get a better look at the wounds in the boy’s legs. The knees of his breeches had been completely burned away, making it much easier than she would have liked to see the wounds.
She couldn’t be certain what it was she was looking at. It was hard to see around the blood gushing from the wounds, but from just above his kneecap to just below it, there didn’t seem to be any skin. Several ropes of red meat crossed and weaved around one another with a few clumps of something yellowish.
She grimaced. What was that?
She was forced to admit she didn’t know nearly enough of healing or anatomy to be able to answer the question.
Then she pushed the thought to the back of her mind. She had much more important things to worry about just now.
Patting the pockets on the front of her breeches, Taliesimon smiled. “Today just happens to be your lucky day, Jonah.”
“Don’t feel very lucky.”
“What are you doing?” Okara asked as she sidled over across the net.
“We need to patch these up,” Taliesimon said as she pulled a small chip of stone from her pocket. It was far too small to be used as a weapon, she knew, but in this instance the rock’s small cutting edge would be invaluable.
Pulling Jonah’s breeches away from his legs, she used the rock chip to slash through the thick doeskin, keeping it as long as she could and cutting above the wounds on his knees.
After a few minutes of work shredding both legs of his breeches, Taliesimon came away with eight long strips of soft leather she could use to bandage the huge wounds on his legs.
She wadded two of them and dipped them into the river, then used them to clean the dirt and other, less identifiable filth, from his wounds. That done, she wetted the strips one at a time and wrapped three of the makeshift bandages around each of his knees, being careful to tie them as tightly as she could. If there wasn’t enough constant pressure on the wounds then the bandages wouldn’t stop the bleeding and wrapping them would be nearly pointless.
“How does it feel?” She asked, then added silently, idiot! How do you think it feels! Don’t be stupid.
“It still hurts,” he said, testing a slight bend of one knee. “But it’s better. Thank you, Taliesimon.”
“Where did you learn to do that?” Okara asked with a small smile of approval.
“Growing up on a farm, you learn how to take care of things on your own. We don’t have the luxury of running to a healer or Trevan when things happen, no matter how bad it is, we have to just figure it out.”
Okara’s expression tightened, but she nodded in silence.
Taliesimon turned to Jonah. “You you move? We need to get to the top.”
Gritting his teeth, the boy nodded. “I can do it.”
Taliesimon and Okara climbed the net to either side of Jonah to help with his first few steps. Below, a couple of older boys broke the surface of the river looking haggard and started slowly climbing the net.
“Move,” Okara said, her voice tight.
Jonah nodded and the girls each grasped him under one arm and helped him move upward. He grimaced and clenched his teeth as he raised his legs up to the next rung. With his second step, he clenched his jaw harder and a vein popped up on his forehead. Sweat broke out on his face with the third step and his lips compressed in a thin, bloodless line.
Taliesimon pulled him up with her as she climbed. How is he going to make it? she wondered. He already looks like he’s going to pass out.
But she kept silent and hauled him up the next rung. What could she do, after all? She wasn’t willing to leave him, no matter how much he slowed them. He had helped her, he had cared about her. He had sacrificed and gone out of his way to keep her in this thing, and keep the three of them together. She wouldn’t forget about that. Now it was her turn to be the strong one and keep the three of them together.
Okara, though. Would she want to leave him? Taliesimon couldn’t be sure. The younger girl was an enigma to her. Although Okara had seemed naive at first, she had made it clear she was willing to do whatever it took to succeed, including hurting or abandoning anyone who got in the way of what she wanted.
But what is her story? Taliesimon wondered. What had happened to the girls? What had made her so heard and heartless? And why was she here in the first place?
Taliesimon understood her own motivations. She had idolized the dragoons for as long as she could remember and from the first glimpse she had ever had of one of them, she’d known that it was what she wanted.
Of course, everyone had told her at every step that girls couldn’t be dragoons, but she refused to listen. There was not a rule against women dragoons, so she was going to do it. That was all there was to it.
Taliesimon glanced over her shoulder, down toward the water below and found, unsurprisingly, the boys were gaining on them. They weren’t moving fast, but they were steadily advancing. Over Jonah’s head, Taliesimon clicked her tongue and Okara glanced over. Taliesimon flicked her eyes down and Okara nodded, her fist tightening around the rung of the vine.
“Faster,” Taliesimon said through a gasp. She and Okara moved up a rung and hauled Jonah up. He did he best to keep up and show saw the toll it was taking on his body. The pain lines around his eyes and mouth grew deeper with each upward step. He didn’t bend his knees more than a fraction of a degree. She suspected the pain was too great, in addition to the leather strips around his knees making the bending difficult. Most of the work he did with arms, pulling himself up rung after rung.
The higher they climbed, the paler his flesh grew, the brighter the shine in his eyes, and the more the sweat on his face held in thick, beaded drops.. With each upward step, the trembling in the boy’s arms grew stronger, more pronounced.
Taliesimon glanced down. Dammit! she reached a shaky hand up to the next rung and pulled herself up, then helped Okara to haul Jonah up another rung. Below, the boys had closed much of the gap between them. Taliesimon clenched her teeth, grinding them together.
“Okara,” she grunted, and glanced downward when the smaller girl looked at her.
Okara looked down and her lips compressed in a bloodless line.
“What is it?” Jonah asked in a flat monotone.
Okara licked her lips and they pulled him up another rung. “We’re about to have company.”
For the first time, Jonah looked down and his eyes went wide. It seemed his gaze was going past the boys and focusing on the distance down to the surface of the river, however. His gaze brought Taliesimon’s attention to the distance as well. The river looked so small from up here, as though it were nothing more than a tiny irrigation ditch.
The world below started to spin beneath her and she slammed her eyes closed, turning her head back to face the net, she reopened her eyes and climbed up another rung.
Jonah grunted with his next upward step. “Maybe. They’re too. Tired. To have. A confrontation. Up here.”
Okara scoffed. “Yes. And perhaps Trevandor will come down and set us up as dragoon commanders.”
Taliesimon gave a light, mirthless chuckle. “Move.”
All three of them moved up as fast as they could. The boys beneath still gained on them. The first of to them was less than a span beneath Jonah’s foot now. The boys looked exhausted, the slenderest of the three had pasty white flesh, sweat dripping down his face. The dark circles under his eyes were almost as dark as bruises, his hands trembled with each rung he climbed. Once, he looked up to meet her eyes with a haunted look.
Jonah might actually be right, she thought. The other boys didn’t look any better than the first, if anything their shaking was worse.
Taliesimon looked up and almost shrieked with joy. They were so close to the top now! Less than a dozen spans above her was the top of the net. It ended at a solid, diamondwood platform which seemed to be above the treetops.
“Almost there,” she growled through clenched teeth as she dragged herself up another rung.
Somehow, they managed to stay ahead of the boys. Below, as they continued to climb. With each upward step, she felt the swaying of the net as the boys tried to race up the net to get passed them. Each time she felt sure the confrontation was happening. Jonah’s foot moved up an instant before the lead boy’s hand touched the rung. Still, she wondered if they were trying to grab Jonah to throw him down the rung? Still, she wondered if they were trying to grab Jonah to throw him down, get passed to overtake them, or if the boys were oblivious and just trying to get up the net. The boy hadn’t met her eyes again, so she had difficulty in trying to determine what their goal was.
The fact that they weren’t looking up at all certainly suggested they were oblivious to the presence of anyone else, but she didn’t think she could trust that.
Finally, she got a hand up onto the platform above, but an instant later Jonah called out, “Ahhhh!”
Her gaze shot down to Jonah’s feet, where a boy had a hold of Jonah’s ankle through his thick boot. Then a hand clasped around the heel of her own boot. She shrieked in fury and yanked her foot out of his grasp and slammed it down, trapping the hand between her leather sole and the vine robe. The boy called out in pain at the same moment another boy made a similar sound.
Taliesimon made a half-spin, grinding her foot on the boy’s hand. She glared down at the boy who had a hold on Jonah’s foot. The boy glared back at her.
She growled through gritted teeth. “I’ll give you to the count of three to release him before your friends take a very long dive. If they’re lucky, they just might go for a swim rather than splattering on the forest floor.”
The boy scoffed. “As if I would care.”
Taliesimon grimaced. “And it doesn’t occur to you that without them it’s three against one, and we have the high ground?”
“Two,” he spat.
Okara cackled like a maniac and the boy clenched his teeth.
“Even if you succeed, it will only be to fall yourself. You have no chance against the two of us.” The boy stopped her with a short, barking laugh. “How does wit help you to only fall yourself?” she added with deadly calm.
“I’m not worried.”
Okara shifted and the boy whose fingers were under her sandal cried out anew. “You should be!”
Taliesimon added a touch of compassionate gentleness to her voice. “You wouldn’t be the first to pay for the mistake of underestimating us.”
The hard look in the boy’s eyes did not diminish. He stared at her a moment, shifted to Okara, then back to Taliesimon.
She clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth.
The boy spoke slowly. “Say, for the sake of argument, that I believe you. What is your alternative? You obviously have something in mind.”
“Clever,” Okara muttered. “For a boy, at least.”
Jonah narrowed his eyes at her.
Taliesimon considered a moment, mostly to give him the impression she was doing so. When she spoke, her voice was ice. “I will not allow you to finish ahead of us. I’m getting Jonah through this. I don’t think there’s any way they’ll let him continue.” She turned to her friend. “I’m sorry Jonah, you must know it is true. With the damage to your legs, you could never stand against a healthy opponent in The Combats. They will commend you for finishing, perhaps even invite you to come back next year. But they cannot allow you to compete further.”
Jonah nodded. His expression was glum, but his eyes told her he already knew the truth of it.
“However,” Taliesimon said pointedly, returning her gaze to the boy. “I would not be opposed to all six of us crossing the finish at the same time. I can’t see how they could qualify some of us and not others, unless they have cause to disqualify someone.”
“How can I trust you?” the boy asked angrily, but the tone was bluster. She could tell that his belligerence was diminishing.
Taliesimon gave a small smile. “Simple. If I wanted to betray you, we would simply toss you all from the net now.”
The boy nodded glumly. “Fair point.”
“Understand,” Taliesimon said, a hint of steel to her voice. “I offer this out of compassion and generosity, but don’t mistake that for weakness. If you try to betray me and jump ahead of Jonah at the finish,” she paused dramatically. “I. Will. Kill. You.”
The boy stared at her. His eyes still hard, but with a flicker of uncertainty now. He nodded.
“I need an oath. From all three of you.”
The boys complied. offering oaths to be struck down by Trevandor himself if they betrayed her.
She nodded, satisfied, and lifted her foot from the boy’s hand. She hauled Jonah up another rung, then climbed up onto the platform. She waited for Okara to join her, then the pair took Jonah’s hands and hauled him the rest of the way up.
The two girls then helped the three boys up and turned to face the platform.
The platform was empty. She had half-expected this to be the end, to find a congratulatory welcome waiting there. She had realized some time ago that the information that was made public about what the Gauntlet entailed was kept intentionally sparse. They kept most of the details hidden.
So much for her vaunted planning.
Taliesimon and Okara led the way across the platform, Jonah limping between them. Nothing changed. It was, indeed, empty. It was an empty shelf of oak boards with nothing at the opposite edge.. The other boys reported nothing at the peripheral edges of the platform either.
Taliesimon leaned out over the edge, but there was nothing. No ropes. No net. No way down at all. It was a sheer drop into the trees.
Jonah stared, wide-eyed. “What in the nine hells?”
Okara shrugged. “No idea.”
Taliesimon huffed a frustrated sigh. “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do here. Any ideas?”
The oldest boy, the skinny one who’d had Jonah’s foot, stomped his foot. “Swing off the edge and climb down the other side of the net?”
“I find that unlikely,” Okara said.
Taliesimon swallowed a lump in her throat. “It isn’t a bad idea, but I think Okara is probably right. So far, the simple answer has never been the best one. I’m still convinced we were missing something with the coals.”
“There was a cool path through,” the slender boy said simply.
Taliesimon and Okara turned on him as one. “What?” they said in concert.
He nodded, and his companions did likewise. “The instructions were carved into a series of trees along the path.”
Okara clenched her fists. “Dammit!”
“It’s a leap of faith,” said the youngest boy in wonder. He might have been even younger than Okara, but while certainly the shortest of the group, he was thickly built.
Taliesimon turned to him. “What do you mean?”
“Well, do you remember the old story about the first dragoons?”
“I’m afraid my dragoon history is… underdeveloped.”
“Okay,” the boy said, narrowing his eyes as though her were annoyed. “They concise version is the ancient heroes, Moritz, Katharc, and Zenova, were forced to scale the Spine of the World at the peak of Allylura, and to prove their faith in Trevandor they had to leap off the other side with nothing but clouds and jagged rocks to catch them. The net and the platform, and nothing to catch us beneath it, seems like a metaphor for that story.”
“You don’t think that’s a bit of a stretch?” the oldest boy asked.
“What happened when they jumped?” Jonah asked, and Taliesimon smiled.
“No, Jhaarga, I don’t think it’s a stretch. See, here’s where it becomes relevant. It is said that when they leaped, the god himself stretched out his hand to deliver them to safety. As a reward for their unquestioning faith in him.”
Okara scoffed. “Don’t tell me you seriously think Trevandor himself is going to deliver every recruit who makes it to the end of a Gauntlet in every city that hosts it.”
“No, I do not.”
Taliesimon tapped her foot. “Well? What are you saying, then?”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “That too is a metaphor. In many ways, this whole thing has been one giant metaphor for the trials of the three heroes. Gods, don’t they teach you people anything?”
Okara growled. “I know the stories. I see the correlations. I just don’t agree with you about this platform being a metaphor for the Leap of Faith.”
The boy shook his head. “Look, they’ve gone to great lengths to infuse metaphor into every aspect of the entire Gauntlet. My guess is there’s something down there, just below the foliage, to keep us from falling to our deaths.”
Okara gritted her teeth. “Perhaps Jhaarga is right and we’re supposed to climb down the other side of the vine net.”
“And end up back in the river? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t relish the thought. We barely survived it the first time, and it looked like the distance to the other bank is even farther than it was from the bank to the net.”
“Is there a way to know for sure that we’ll survive jumping?” Jonah asked.
“I doubt it. That would defeat the purpose of the Leap of Faith. There is evidence for my argument, however.”
Jhaarga stared down at the boy scornfully. “And what would that be?”
“On our way up, or from across the river, did any of you see anyone climbing down on the other side? Anyone? Is there any other way off this platform?”
Jhaarga pursed his lips and Okara clenched her jaw.
“That’s… fair,” Taliesimon said.
“Does anyone have a compelling reason not to take that at face value?”
Taliesimon glanced around at the others, each seemed to have found something interesting at their feet.
“Is anyone not willing to jump with me?”
Okara and Jonah stared at Taliesimon, their looks hard and determined. Taliesimon nodded. If that young boy had the courage to go, then her companions would as well. And she was certainly not about to be outdone by Okara.
“We’re going,” Okara said unnecessarily.
Jhaarga glanced around nervously and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
The middle boy, who’d heretofore been silent, shrugged and nodded at once. “Honestly, I think I’d end up falling if I tried to climb down anyway, so I might as well do it on purpose. Better to die of stupid faith than weakness.”
“Who can argue with that?” Jonah said with a smile.
Taliesimon held out her hands. Jonah took one and Okara the other. After a few moments, the other three each grabbed someone’s hand and all five of them nodded to her.
She couldn’t help marveling. Somehow, they had all acknowledged her as the leader. She nodded back to them and stepped forward. She hesitated at the edge of the platform just long enough to close her eyes while she took a deep breath, then took a step and pushed herself off the edge of the platform.
The dense foliage below seemed to spin around her and in her mind’s eye she saw the multitude of sharp branches below the greenery and beneath that, at the surface of the forest, lay a plethora of bloody and broken human bodies, some of them so old that all that remained was a filthy skeleton with numerous broken and shattered bones surrounded by worms, maggots, and all the other carrion of the forest.
A fierce wind struck her face with the force of a hammer, then she passed through the dense foliage. Though she held her eyes tightly closes, she sensed there was nothing but empty space between herself and the forest floor hundreds of spans below.
Her heart leaped to her throat. She crushed the hands in hers and shrieked in terror…