Xeran's Chosen

Xeran's Chosen

Hey All!

Our new experiment begins today - an epic fantasy world, explored through what we hope will be lots of short stories. I hope you enjoy!

Ryan

Xeran's Chosen

The warm morning sun bathed Shara’s face in golden light as the trail to the small village broke through the tree line. The sky was impossibly clear, the kind of blue that made her feel as if she’d lived only half a century rather than nearly four. She turned her face toward the sun, feeling its power against her weathered cheeks.

As she walked, she loosened her cloak around her shoulders to catch the summer breeze. Her staff, the blessed staff of Xeran, struck like a metronome against the hard-packed dirt. She extended her power through the fields that bordered the path. Each blade of grass, every insect and vole, told her a story of the tiny world surrounding it. As Xeran’s Chosen, her mind effortlessly transformed the patchwork tales into a quilt that revealed a beautiful, intricately spun web of knowledge no mortal would ever understand.

Something was off. The forest she’d emerged from stretched for many miles behind her, and she’d detected nothing the matter, but now, out in the fields, Xeran’s rest felt…disturbed. The balance that served as the root of her strength was tilted and uneven.

As she crested a small rise and the village came into view, she understood. The once modest village had grown and its borders, once open to the bounty of Xeran’s blessing, were now defined by a wall of wooden poles topped with sharpened tips. Each was large enough to be a mature tree, but the uniform shape of each pole suggested they’d been hewn from larger trees.

The sight of so many trees destroyed for such a mundane purpose sent an icy shiver down Shara’s spine, banishing the warmth the sun had so recently granted her. She sent out a tiny pulse of her power and extended her arm. She didn’t wait long before a keen-eyed falcon landed gently on her.

“Thank you for coming, my friend. Grant me your sight for a bit.” She’d known this falcon since it was little, having lived its entire life within Xeran’s reach. The bird took off, and she closed her eyes. The darkness behind her eyes shifted until she saw as the falcon saw. She gently nudged it with her mind to fly wide of the village. A large trail of black smoke coming from one of the buildings, but she ignored it for now. First, she needed to know where the wall’s materials had originated, for she should have felt such a loss.

About a mile from the village, she could see where trees had been cut down. There were enough stumps to provide for the walls and then some. She would have to see what else the village had been building.

Her stomach dropped. The village already sat on the boundary of Xeran’s reach, and the trees had been taken from just beyond, explaining why she hadn’t sensed their loss. Perhaps a coincidence, but the more likely explanation was darker, tinged with betrayal.

She wouldn’t believe it, though. Not until she had proof. Xeran hadn’t judged her for honest mistakes, and she wouldn’t either.

Shara thanked the falcon for its generosity, then opened her eyes and her vision was once again her own. She hurried towards the village. It had been several years since she’d visited, but Brannon should have had the needs of this village well in hand. He was more than competent. Of all her acolytes, he was the one she suspected Xeran would select as his Chosen next.

As Shara approached the village gates, she saw two men in boiled leather armor sitting in the watchtowers that flanked the large entrance. When they noticed her, one of them gestured to the other and he descended the tower, presumably to inform the village of her arrival. When she walked through the gates, she expected to be greeted by the council of elders, as was tradition, but was instead met by the guard who had descended the tower.

“State your business,” the young man said.

Shara stood in shocked silence for a moment. “State my business?”

“Yes, ma’am, what is your business in Karthak today?” The man asked again, not unpleasantly, but with a detached professionalism. Then he sniffed, wrinkled his nose, and took a step back.

Behind the guard, people went about their daily routines, but Shara caught the curious and confused looks they cast her way. She wondered why until she noticed their clothing. Their tunics, pants, and dresses were of a finer material than they should have been capable of. The only ones nearby capable of such finery were the Droth’s master weavers, but how did such material make it here?

In comparison, her own dress of skins, gifted to her from Xeran’s bounty, must have seemed archaic.

She gave the guard a sharp look. “Karthak, is it? Last time I was here, this village had no name. It was merely a small plot of land on the outskirts of Xeran’s reach, a tentative agreement between his Chosen and the settlers driven from their old lands. When did it get a name?” Shara asked sweetly.

“It’s always been Karthak, ma’am. Ever since my family arrived, at least.”

“And how long ago was that?”

“Ten seasons as of this spring, ma’am.”

She’d been away longer than she realized. Xeran’s reaches had required considerable attention over the past decades, as the world was changing, and she’d trusted Brannon with this village. This was the first place he’d felt at home among his fellow mortals, and she’d wanted him to find a balance between his humanity and the burden of Xeran’s call.

She pushed aside her worries. “You should get one of the elders. Let them know Shara is here to see them.”

The name clearly meant nothing to the guard. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but the elders don’t see anyone without an appointment. If you’d like to make an appointment, I can see to it that—”

Shara had stopped listening to the young man and found a tiny, almost invisible seed, carried on the wind, that had landed on his shoulder. She reached out and caused it to grow into a giant strand of wild grass in an instant. It wrapped itself tightly around his shoulder.

“I do not require an appointment, boy.”

Shara released the grass and the wide-eyed youth almost tripped over his feet as he ran toward the village square.

Village was almost the wrong word for Karthak now. The borders of the village had grown substantially, and while all the open space wasn’t used, the freshly hewn trees that had been erected as walls were far enough from the center of town that more growth was promised.

Karthak reminded her of the great stone cities that the Droth erected in the mountains of Krag, far to the south and far away from Xeran’s influence. They built cold, unnatural monstrosities that stood against nature rather than with it. Though Karthak’s buildings were made of a warmer, friendlier wood, the similarities in design were unmistakable.

She thought again of the black smoke she’d seen from the falcon’s view and looked around but couldn’t find it.

The guard returned with a small, wrinkled man who relied heavily on a wooden cane. “Chosen of Xeran, please accept my humble apologies. The guards are used to Master Brannon visiting us on Xeran’s behalf. It has been many, many years since we’ve been graced with your presence.”

“I understand, elder. It has been a long time since I visited. It seems that much has changed in my absence.”

“Yes, my lady,” the elder said.

“And where is Brannon?”

Her question hung in the still morning air for far longer than it should have. Finally, the elder answered slowly. “You actually just missed him. He left early this morning. He did not say where he was going.”

The knot in her stomach tightened again. Still, a possible coincidence, but he would have sensed her arrival, bright as the morning sun. Why would he leave when he would have known she had questions for him? Like why he’d allowed this village to grow so large, growing at the expense of the resources they were cultivating from the very edges of Xeran’s reach.

“It seems he has allowed much to transpire here without my council.”

The elder swallowed hard, no doubt hearing the displeasure in her voice, but held his ground. “He has always told us he speaks with Xeran’s voice, my lady.”

“A half-truth, elder, as Brannon is merely an acolyte. Were he Chosen, he would know better than to allow this place to fall so out of balance.”

The elder’s face paled. “With respect, my lady, what have we done wrong? We’ve always tried to honor Xeran and live according to his will.”

Shara extended Xeran’s senses before answering, confirming her worst suspicions. His grasp here was weak and dying by the day. “I’m sorry, Elder, but Karthak has taken more than it offers in return.”

The elder shook his head. “But we do all we can! We hunt for no more than we need, and Xeran’s land is rich with game and fruit. We have cut down many trees to build our homes and our walls, but we’ve planted one for each we’ve cut down.”

“It’s not enough. There are too many of you gathered in one place.”

The guard interjected. “Only because many of us have no place to go. Beyond Xeran’s reach, there is constant strife, and many of us have been driven forcefully from our homes. Brannon has welcomed us here, taught us of Xeran’s ways, and given us peace.”

Xeran was a forgiving master, but when his anger stirred in Shara’s heart, it was all she could do not to unleash that rage upon the village. The villagers didn’t deserve her wrath, but it sounded more and more like Brannon did. They must have felt something of its power, though, for they all took a step back and the guard’s hand went to his sword.

“Leave me,” Shara said. “I must know more, and I must speak with Brannon.”

The elder bowed and stepped aside, and a moment later, the young guard did the same.

As she walked, she opened Xeran’s senses fully. She was shocked at how dampened his strength was within the village. She was always weaker near the edges of the reach, but the insulation she felt here was unlike anything she’d known before.

Even dulled, her powers easily tracked an anomaly in one of the nearby buildings. She opened the door. The room was small and had an acrid, unnatural smell. Two long tables sat parallel to each other and at the far end of the room was a fireplace with a cooking pot set up. The fire had recently been doused. A group of villagers, all sitting among glass tubes filled with various liquids, looked up in surprise.

Xeran’s gifts had been captured in some of those tubes. Sap from elder trees. Petals of flowers that grew only in secret clearings. All mixed with mundane materials.

“Perversion,” Shara whispered under her breath.

She slammed the door behind her. Brannon’s guilt was now beyond question. She steadied herself. This morning, she’d come to check on a favored acolyte, but her duty demanded a much darker course, now.

Shara stormed out of the village and sent out a call through Xeran’s reach. A white stag came bounding through the fields and stopped beside her.

“Hello, old friend, I have need of your speed,” Shara said as she petted the giant stag’s nose.

The moment she was astride the great beast, she cast out for any nearby sign of Xeran’s gift. It took some time, and a great deal of effort, but she sensed something far to the south, at the very edge of Xeran’s reach.

Abominations. Part of the alliance that had long ago killed Xeran.

Droth. Dozens of them. And at their center, Brannon.

“Let’s go,” she said, and the stag sprang forward.

The stag was one of Xeran’s great joys, and its powerful muscles pushed them to speeds that made the wind blow through Shara’s hair. She granted the stag a fraction of Xeran’s strength, and it ran even faster.

Before long, she sensed the Droth scouts fanned out in front of her. The emerald in her staff glowed green as she gathered fallen branches of all sizes into the air behind her. Soon, the mass of wood trailed behind her like an undulating ball, growing and shrinking to avoid the trees that whipped past.

The Droth were vaguely humanoid, bipedal and gifted with opposable fingers, but any greater comparison to humanity died there. They were hulking creatures, and their rounded shoulders and broad backs were designed for strength above all else. Their thick legs bowed into a naturally wide stance that allowed them to move far more quickly than one would guess. Thick, stout necks didn’t allow their smaller, round heads to turn quickly, and the first of the scouts had to turn its whole body as she approached. One of the branches trailing behind Shara impaled the beast through the heart, staking it to the ground.

She wove in and out of the scouts, leaving none alive to flank her as she made her way to the mass of Droth ahead. Just as she was about to break from the safety of the tree line, she leapt from the stag, allowing it to escape the battle to come. Even though she emerged from the trees in midair, her arrival came as no surprise. Brannon must have helped track her, because dozens of the Droth’s oversized bows were aimed in her direction. She pulled the ball ahead of her as an impromptu shield.

The Droth’s volley of arrows turned her shield into a pincushion. She let the ball explode ahead of her, sending deadly projectiles at the crowd below. Shara implored the grass below her to grow and weave itself into a staircase that she stepped onto, entering the battle like a queen of the olden ages entering an ancient Droth ballroom.

The remaining Droth charged, great swords and axes raised above their heads, bellowing mindlessly. The grass staircase unraveled behind her and shot forward, encircling the Droth in the grass that, with the aid of Xeran’s strength, was as durable as the vile metal that the Droth stole from the mountains and turned into weapons. Shara strode toward the towering Droth as they struggled to free themselves.

Her eyes never left Brannon. Shara’s acolyte was of average height, with unkempt dark hair and eyes that were too wide for his face. The earth-toned leather jerkin he wore made him fade into the background. His staff, gifted to him by an elder tree the day he passed the tests to become her apprentice, was a simple, straight branch wrapped around an emerald.

When she’d found him, he’d been on the verge of death, kicked out of his clan for being too weak. She’d taken him in, shown him Xeran’s ways, and in time, reintroduced him to humanity. And now, for reasons she couldn’t guess, he stood against her, allied with Xeran’s enemies.

“You wish to betray me with such a paltry force?” Shara punctuated the question by closing her first, causing the grass to tighten around the entangled Droth.

Their struggles ceased in a torrent of blood that would eventually make its way back to Xeran.

“They weren’t actually meant for you,” Brannon said. “They came in peace.”

Shara spit. “Every time the Droth leave their mountains, it’s a war party. If they’d come in peace, why bring so many weapons?”

“Because you and all of Xeran’s other acolytes kill them on sight! All because of a war that was over centuries before even you were born! These Droth were coming to trade with Karthak, to build relations between humans and Droth. Now they’re dead, because you won’t stop to talk before you “cleanse” Xeran’s range.”

“You speak of things that are far beyond your knowledge. Your heart bleeds for the Droth but their very creation flies in the face of the natural world. Why would you betray Xeran? Why would you betray me this way?”

Brannon’s face fell and he stared at the ground. “I knew you would see it as such, but it was never intended to be a betrayal. I’ve done all I can to keep Xeran’s balance, and I know I’ve fallen short, but I swear upon Xeran’s secret grave, I tried.”

“Why?” Shara repeated.

“They needed sanctuary. The village was a place of safety, protected by Xeran’s reach and your acolytes. You know better than anyone the state of the world outside Xeran’s protection. They came, first in ones and twos, and then more, and I couldn’t turn them away. I chose to share Xeran’s bounty with them.”

“You never even asked permission!”

“Because I knew what you would say. I love you, Shara. I have since the day you found me, but you’re bound to tradition. I’d hoped I’d find a way to balance humanity’s need with Xeran’s life before you arrived.”

The alchemy. There could be no other explanation.

Her heart felt heavy in her chest. She understood him, probably better than anyone else alive. Fifty years together will do that. He’d always been too kind, and she’d loved that about him, for Xeran was also kind.

“You’re killing him,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

Brannon gulped and nodded. “For now, but I would never let him die.”

Shara gripped her staff with both hands and placed it firmly before her. It was her greatest gift from Xeran, and she wished her duty could be taken from her.

But she was Xeran’s chosen, and his death meant far more than the death of a mere village. More, even, than Brannon’s death. “I’m sorry, Brannon.”

Her favorite acolyte sighed heavily. “I know.”

Before Brannon could bring his own staff to bear, Shara pulled roots from deep in the ground and wrapped them around him. She hesitated, though, to finish him. Perhaps there was another way.

The ground on either side of her exploded upwards and four Droth appeared, each stabbing her with a short spear.

She screamed in pain, and the roots holding Brannon fell away. He strode forward, his tears nourishment for Xeran’s weakening reach.

How had she not sensed them?

Though her vision dimmed, she saw they’d been wrapped in roots that protected them from her sense. Brannon had used Xeran’s strength to kill Xeran’s Chosen.

Her lifeblood poured out of her, and though she was grateful to offer so much of herself to Xeran, her work was unfinished, and her duty remained. Xeran had given her one last gift, and she reached deep within her spirit to unveil it.

Her body swelled and transformed. Fur sprouted from flesh and bones broke and knit together again. She’d only ever done this once before, and it had been just as painful then. When it was over, a bear stood in her place.

“What—”

Brannon’s question was cut short as her massive paw crashed down onto his face, rending flesh and bone in a single strike. The Droth tried to hold their spears fast but even their strength was dwarfed by her new form. She knocked the spears away and mauled the Droth wielding them.

In the sudden silence of the clearing, Shara stood on her back legs and sniffed the air. The power she felt when she wild-shaped was intoxicating, but she felt her strength weakening. The Droth had kept their spears in her through the transformation, and her wounds remained fatal. She didn’t have the strength to heal. Her keen animal senses picked up on Brannon’s shallow, ragged breathing. She walked over and sniffed his almost lifeless form before lifting a paw that would end it all. He didn’t deserve a slow death.

Before she could, her insides erupted in pain and her wild shape fell away. She gasped in pain and tried to take hold of her power, but couldn’t. She collapsed beside Brannon, unable to move.

“I’m sorry, too,” Brannon said, “but I wanted them to live.”

She reached out with her bloody hand, and as her vision faded to black and she poured the last of her life into Xeran, giving back all that had been gifted her, he took it.

 

Bonus Video!

One of the aspects of this project that I think is pretty fun is that we're going to record all our story meetings, so if you're interested in seeing how we got to this story, you can watch it here:

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1 comment

I think it is fair to call the experiment a success! Bring on the next instalment…
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RyanKirkAuthor replied:
I’m glad you liked it! Next one coming up soon!

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Chris Bray

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