Singer’s Sorrow Finale

Zaman dropped his scimitars and lunged to catch her. Shep moved to follow when Thorn leapt from the stall roof, her boots hitting him square in the chest. He sprawled on his back. When his head cleared he saw the tip of a crossbow bolt less than an inch from his nose.

Thorn leered. “The Master Supreme wants you kept alive for some reason, Shepherd.” She laughed. “But, you know, I just don’t think I can resist pinning your head to the ground.”

Shep’s boots came up, propelling Thorn over his head. He rolled and threw himself to one side. A crossbow bolt hit the cobblestones where his head had been a moment before. He looked up to see Thorn yank another bolt from the quiver on her hip.

“Shepherd!”

He scrambled to his feet and glanced at Zaman. The Shashiran held Arra in one arm, Shep’s sword in the other.

“You be needing this!”

Shep caught the thrown sword just in time to deflect another bolt. He marched toward Thorn, arm moving almost of its own will as it batted aside two more bolts. He could see the desperation on her face. Still, she didn’t back down.

“You’ll never beat us!” She shrieked as she loosed one last bolt. “Black Blood will always be there, hiding in the shadows until they can’t hold us! Sirin will never-”

Shep sidestepped the hasty shot and darted in close. Thorn swung the crossbow at his head. He sliced it down the middle, the edge of his blade catching her face. Her agonized wail deafened him. She staggered away, clutching the ruins of her left eye as her other eye filled with terror. With a scream, she turned and fled into a black alley.

Shep made no move to follow. He bowed his head and pictured Sharon’s sweet face.

“You were right all along, my love. Thank you.”

The face in his mind changed into one of pure light. Opalescent eyes gazed at him, full of joy inexpressible. From far, far away, Shep heard clear notes playing. They filled his heart like no music he had ever heard before.

A hand gripped his shoulder. “Captain?”

He looked up at Zaman. “My friends call me Shep.”

“Shep.” Zaman smiled.

Thin arms wrapped around his neck. “I’m sorry!” Arra sobbed. “I’ll never complain about being the doorkeeper again!”

He held her tight for a long moment.

“We should be getting back to the Sanctuary.” Zaman pulled Arra to his side.

Strengthened by a newfound certainty, Shep shook his head. “I will not be coming with you. My garrison and my men have struggled without their Captain for too long. Though I do not care much for my noble, I have a duty to them and to the innocents we can protect.” A corner of his mouth turned up. “Not all of us soldiers are evil, you know.”

Zaman extended his hand. “Then this be goodbye.”

Shep took it and laughed. “You are not getting rid of me that easily. Aside from training those boys back at the Sanctuary, I thought I might follow the profession I am named for and round up a few Lambs for you from time to time. If you will have me.”

He watched the Shashiran scan his face. “You . . . be all right then?”

“No.” The admission felt good. “I will not be all right for a long, long time. But I think healing has begun .”

The next thing he knew, he was a foot off the ground, wrapped in a crushing bear-hug.

“Brother!” Zaman laughed.

Arra’s head spun back and forth between them. “I, I don’t . . . what just happened?”

Shep rubbed his ribs and coughed before looking at her. “Do you remember that time we talked about candles?”

Her eyes widened.

“Well, I think I am finally ready to light mine.”

THE END

Singer’s Sorrow Part 32

“Cut off their heads!” Shep screamed. “It is the only-”

A thing that used to be human ducked under his sword and raked filthy fingernails across his face. He jerked back, slammed into Zaman, and twisted his blade around to saw across the Battle Cursed’s neck. As that one fell, two more darted in from both sides. Shep removed their forearms before taking their heads in one sweeping blow.

He heard Zaman grunt behind him and looked to see four Battle Cursed climbing the Shashiran like a tree. He spun to help, but something slammed him to the ground. Teeth sank into the back of Shep’s neck. He shouted and thrashed, but more and more Battle Cursed piled on top of him. They tore at every inch of exposed skin.

Air! I cannot breathe!

The stench overwhelmed him. His sword was wrenched from his grip, lost in a sea of thrashing limbs and flashing teeth. Numbness spread through his veins. Terror like nothing he had ever known drowned what remained of his hope.

Is this what Sharon felt before she died?

No. He remembered peace on his wife’s face.

He forced his lips to move. “Singer . . .”

Feeling surged back through his body, along with renewed strength.

“Singer!”

Shep lurched to his knees, then his feet. Battle Cursed tumbled away as he swung his fists like a madman. Was that bewildered fear in the monsters’ eyes ?

“Come on then!”

He charged them with nothing but his bare hands, gripping two by their necks and slamming their heads together before tossing them across the courtyard. They wailed and skittered into the shadows. Another caught Shep’s boot in its belly. It soared in the air before encountering the sweeping slash of a giant scimitar.

“Be standing by me, Captain! These sharks be swimming back to the Pit!”

Shep grinned up at Zaman. Bloody gouges and bite marks covered the Shashiran’s body. But he stood steady. Shep crouched at his side, ready for the next wave. It didn’t come. The Battle Cursed fled, heads back and howling. At least twenty corpses littered the courtyard.

“Blasted yellow Pitspawn! Get back here and finish them off!”

Shep and Zaman whirled. Above them, perched on the peaked roof of a charred merchant’s stall, stood Thorn. Her face twisted into a mask of hate.

“You!” She screamed. “You . . . you . . . Pit-curse it all . . . YOU!”

Of course, she would be here to witness her handiwork.

“Thorn!” Shep shouted. “Where is Arra?”

“Ohhh,” the rage morphed into a corrupted smile, “I may hurt you yet.”

She reached down and dangled a long bundle over the edge of the roof.

“Arra!” Zaman bellowed.

The girl hung there, wrapped neck to toe in dingy canvas with thick rope tied around it. Shep could see the frozen shock on her face. His heart twisted within him.

“You want the pretty doll, Shashiran?” Thorn purred. “Very, very pretty bait she made, the stupid little she-roach. I had thought to give her as a toy to the Battle Cursed. But if you really do want her . . . TAKE HER!”

She hurled Arra toward the cobblestones.

Singer’s Sorrow Part 31

The “something” hit Zaman’s chest and clung like an angry cat. He reeled. Black orbs bulged out at him from a skeletal face. Jagged teeth glistened a bloody red as the thing shrieked. With a roar of his own he caught it around the neck. Bones snapped beneath his hand as he crushed its throat and thrust it away. The thing flopped to the ground.

But it didn’t die. Arms and legs splayed like a spider, head flopping to one side, it skittered back toward him. A sword flashed. It’s head dropped from its shoulders and rolled along the dirty cobblestones.

The Captain stepped up next to him, blade dripping a foul blackish ooze. “Are you all right?”

“I be thinking so.” Zaman rubbed the places where the thing had gripped his flesh through his tunic. “What in the name of the Singer-?”

“Do not associate the Singer with this.” The Captain’s face twisted in a mix of horror and disgust. “It is Battle Cursed.”

Zaman’s insides froze. “They . . . they be only a harvest myth.”

“Unfortunately, no.” The Captain gripped his sword with a white-knuckled fist. “My son used to tell me of tomes locked within dark vaults in the Mages’ College, tomes explaining how to perform unspeakable spells.” He stared at the headless corpse. “Including turning men and women into Battle Cursed.”

Zaman stared at the wretched corpse. Pity battled with revulsion.

“Poor shark.”

“Do not call it ‘poor.’ Sirin also told me a person cannot be made into a Battle Cursed without his or her whole-hearted consent.”

“Then this be his work? Black Blood’s work?” Who be these monsters we be fighting? “Singer, be helping us!”

“Yes. Singer help us.” The Captain moved until his back rested against Zaman’s. “No one ever makes just one Battle Cursed. They travel in packs.”

Unearthly howls rose from the gloom around them.

***

Shep gripped his sword with both hands. Sweat trickled down his back and beaded on his upper lip. He licked it away. Behind him, he heard the Shashiran mumbling.

Prayers. He gnawed the inside of his cheek. Singer, if you are there, do not concern yourself with me. Let the girl come out of this alive.

The howls grew louder, frantic. Scrambling footsteps skittered just out of sight. He whipped his head from side to side.

“Whatever opening they come from, face them head on. Running will do you no good against these Pit-spawn.”

A metallic screech made him jump. He glanced over his shoulder to see the Shashiran rubbing the edges of his scimitars together.

“Run?” He rumbled. “It be not entering my mind. Come out, sharks! I be tired of waiting!”

Despite his terror, Shep found himself grinning. The smile vanished as a horde of screaming Battle Cursed poured into the courtyard. They charged, mouths agape, limbs flailing.

 

Singer’s Sorrow Part 30

“Sharks and barracudas!”

“What do you mean she is not here?” Shep barked.

Kal cringed. “She, she must have slipped out after breakfast. One of the Sisters heard her muttering something about ‘scouting.’”

“By the Pit.” Shep groaned.

Zaman gripped his shoulder. “What be this about scouting?”

Shep slammed a fist against his thigh. “The last time we spoke, Arra complained about being a doorkeeper. I told her she would make a good scout. It seems she decided to test that.”

“Evening be falling.” Zaman’s dark face paled.

“I am so sorry-”

The Shashiran stormed toward the surface tunnel. “Kal, be keeping everyone in the Sanctuary. No one be allowed up into the manor until I be back.”

“Yessir.” The boy darted away.

Something of the old Shep, the honorable Captain, awoke. With a burst of speed he caught up.

“I am coming with you.”

Zaman jerked to a stop and looked at him. Shep forced himself to meet the other man’s searching eyes.

“This is my fault. I must come with you.” The Shashiran remained silent and Shep’s gnawed on the inside of his cheek. “Please.”

At last, Zaman nodded. Shep followed him up into the darkened manor and waited while the Shashiran lifted two of the largest scimitars he’d ever seen from a chest behind a false wall.

“Are you any good with those?”

“Be you any good with that pinprick strapped to your hip?” Zaman  glared at him

“Let us go then.” The two pushed through the door and out into the stagnant air.

***

“Where be you going, angelfish?” Zaman whipped his head back and forth.

Beside him, the Captain crouched in the dust and ash.

“What be you seeing?”

“Tracks. Arra’s size. They lead this way.” He trotted along the street, eyes on the filthy cobblestones.

Zaman loped alongside. Great Singer, be keeping her safe. They ran in silence for a long while. The Barrier glowered at them from above. The color of new blood tonight. He clenched his jaw.

They came to the crossroads where he and his brothers had fought Black Blood. The Captain crouched again and cursed.

“I think she turned around here, but the tracks are obscured.” He backtracked toward the opening of a narrow alley. “More tracks. Many more. Bloody Pit!”

A scenario formed in Zaman’s mind. “She be reaching the crossroads and be deciding to go back-”

“When something came out of that alley and surprised her.” The Captain trotted back to the crossroads. “I cannot see more of Arra’s tracks, but . . .” He pointed to the left.

Even Zaman could see the mass of scuffs leading off into the ruddy gloom. He sprinted forward, the Captain at his side. They ran for what seemed like hours before stumbling into an empty courtyard.

“I know this place.” The Captain panted.

He pointed to a well in the center of the courtyard. “There is usually someone here, charging a ‘toll’ for the water.”

Zaman saw something move behind the well. “Angelfish!” He leapt forward.

The ‘something’ leapt back at him.

[BF1]

Singer’s Sorrow Part 29

*I know, I know. It’s been a really long time since I’ve updated this story. All I can do is plead for forgiveness and say I’ve had computer issues. But everything’s fixed now!*

***

Shep crouched by the underground river and ran a whetstone along the edge of his sword. Usually the rushing of the water and its chilled spray had a calming effect on his temper. Not today.

Shing!

The Singer’s Chariot had left three hours earlier after dropping off a load of food. Shep had watched it leave, full of weeping, rejoicing refugees.

Shing! Shing!

Why did I not get on that boat? Why do I not leave this city to rot?

Shing! Shing! Shing!

He forced up a mental image of Sirin and Thorn. Bubbling rage seared his insides . . . for a moment. When it dissipated he felt wearier than before.

Revenge is not enough.

Shing! Shing! Shing!

Why am I here?

Shing, shing, shing!

What is the purpose behind all this?

Shingshingshingshingshingshing!

“If you be wanting to be breaking that blade, be going ahead.”

Shep glanced up. “Oh, you.” He tossed the stone into the river. “What do you want?”

The huge Shashiran hesitated, seemed on the verge of speaking, then shook his head. “Have you been seeing Arra?”

“No.”

“Oh.” He turned away.

A thought struck Shep. “Strange . . .”

“What?”

Now Shep hesitated. “She usually . . . er . . . I usually see her-”

“When she be bringing you your midday meals?”

“I had a feeling you would find out sooner or later.”

“When Arra be setting her mind to something . . .” Zaman shrugged. “But she be not visiting you today?”

Shep stood and slid his sword into its sheath. “No. In fact, I have not seen her all day.

“The way that guppy likes to be hiding, no one be finding her. And there be chores to be done.” Zaman grimaced and turned away again.

Shep examined his glistening blade. “Why did you give me back my sword?” Too late he realized he’d spoken aloud.

“You be wanting it, yah?”

“Of course. But why now? I thought I could not be trusted.”

“I still not be trusting you. But this be part of the Singer’s plan.”

“How could I ever be part of the Singer’s plan?” Shep was shocked by how tired he sounded.

“Be you admitting His existence?”

Shep looked around the cavern. “You, your brothers, everyone here could leave at any time. Yet you stay to help others. Arra . . . she lost everything. Yet she still has hope. You all have hope. Sharon-” His throat closed.

Zaman met his eyes. “You be wondering where this hope be coming from. You be knowing the answer.”

“You have not seen what I have seen.” Shep raked a hand across his face.

“I be seeing much evil in my life, Captain.”

“Not like I have. Hope . . . I do not know if that is possible for me anymore.”

The Shashiran remained silent.

“So . . . why did you return my sword?”

“It be time for you to-”

“Zaman!” The youth Shep had tried to train earlier dashed up, wide eyed.

“What be wrong, Kal?”

“We searched the entire cavern and the manor. Arra’s not here!”

Singer’s Sorrow Part 28

***

“Sharks and barracudas!” Zaman stormed through the darkened manor. “Bloody sharks and bloody barracudas!” One more minute speaking to that Pit-cursed soldier and he’d shove that practice sword down his ungrateful throat.

“You be knowing we supposed to be being quiet, yah?”

He jumped at the voice in the shadows. “Zattik! Why be you not down in the Sanctuary with your Lambs?”

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Zaman saw his youngest brother reclining on one of the dusty couches. He held a book in his hands.

“They be fine with the sisters.”

Zaman glowered at him. “If you be not intending to be seeing your duty through, then why be you staying? You should be with Zamir and the others in The Singer’s Chariot.”

“Our brothers be able to be handling a simple foraging mission by themselves.” Zattik shrugged. “Be you knowing all the farmlands around the City be deserted? Finding food be easy fishing.”

Zaman sank into a chair, coughing at the dust. “Be the other Sanctuaries still intact?”

Zattik closed his book with a snap. “The closest be old Father Lewen at Cyran’s river port.”

“That be four days downstream, right at the roots of the mountains! What be happening to the other two? Anya’s and Lile’s?”

“They be fleeing. We be catching up with Lile in the last foraging mission. He be saying bandits be roaming the land since the city be sealed.”

“Since when be Lile afraid of bandits?”

“He be afraid of the city. No one be wanting to live so near a place overflowing with evil.”

Zaman groaned and raked his hand through his hair. So much for dependable friends.

“What be this meaning for us, Zattik?”

Sharktooth tattoos scrunched low over his brother’s eyes. “It be meaning it be taking a longer time to be taking your Lambs to safety outside the city. All of us be needed on such journeys. We be having no more time to be helping you here.”

“Sharks and barracudas!”

Zattik raised a tattooed eyebrow. “I be thinking you be having that captain training new Guardians?”

“Yah, and he be showing quite an interest too!” Zaman snorted. “All he be caring about be hunting Black Blood.”

“Why be you not letting him? He be making a fine spear to be killing Black Blood sharks.”

“He be a man, not a weapon!” Zaman struggled to force sincerity into his words.

“You be asking me to be watching him two days back and I be telling you, there be nothing but hate left in him now. He be good for nothing but killing.”

Zaman’s thoughts drifted. “Yanni would not be giving up on him . . .”

Zattik rose. “Yanni? Our cousin was a hopeless fool! He be believing everyone can be saved. I be knowing better.” He marched over and stabbed a finger into Zaman’s chest. “You be knowing better too! Be this not the man who be burning a Singer’s Temple?”

“The Singer be bringing him here for a purpose.” He failed to keep the desperation from his voice.

“Yah,” Zattik poked him again, “and maybe that purpose be hunting Black Blood so you be gathering up your Lambs without fear. Be letting the shark hunt, Zaman. Be letting him be doing some good before he be dying.” The youngest brother snatched up his book and marched into the shadows.

Zaman sank deeper in his chair. “Great Singer, I be not understanding your plans sometimes.”

***

Singer’s Sorrow Part 27

“Oh, yes.” Shep plucked an apple from the basket and ran his fingers over the shiny red fruit, so rare these days. “You were telling me about the boy and the giant.”

Arra nodded, then paused. “What’s so ridiculous about the Sanctuary?”

“Oh. That. I did not really mean-”

“Yes. You did.”

Shep rubbed a hand over his face. “I think it is naïve.”

“Oh. Umm.” Her face reddened. “What . . . what does . . . ?”

“Naïve means you think something is going to work well when, in reality, it may not work at all. It means not seeing how hard things really are.”

Arra cocked her head and munched on a roll.

He tried again. “It means-”

“You think trying to help people in the city is stupid because we’ll never be able to help them all and we might just get ourselves killed trying.”

He blinked.

“You think there’s so much evil out there that this little bit of good doesn’t stand a chance.” Arra smiled. “You’re wrong.”

“Really.”

“Can darkness put out a candle?”

“What?”

“Can it?”

“No . . . I suppose not. But, why-?”

“It’s something Grandpap used to tell me when things got hard. What about a whole room full of darkness? Could it put out even a very tiny candle?”

Shep sighed. “No. Not just darkness.”

“You see? We, the Sanctuary, are like a candle and-”

“And all the evil out there is like the darkness. I think I understand.” He smirked. “But what if a stiff wind comes and blows out the candle?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Then you light it again. You see, Captain, a lot of people think the Singer is like the flame on a candle. I don’t think so.”

“You do not, hmm?”

“No.” Arra stood and gathered what remained of the meal. “I think the Singer is the one who gives us the matches. It’s our job to choose whether or not to light the wick. I have to get back to the door. Zattik should be coming with more Lambs soon. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She slipped out of the tent.

Shep lay back. For a long while he remained silent.

“I suppose my candle went out a long time ago.”