Preview: Beyond the Edge of Dawn

Ok, so the last of the traditional fantasy offerings conceived and created during my many deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This one was born from during exercise around a bombed out palace where Saddam Hussein was being held pending his trial. Enjoy.



Kavan knelt beside the body and felt for a pulse. The trail of crimson on the pure white snow suggested the answer, but he still had to check. His perceptive eyes were immediately drawn to the growing blood stain in the middle of the boy’s back. His muscles tensed under his loose-fitting jerkin. Kavan felt rage. Sickness swelled within him. A closer inspection of the corpse showed him what he both knew and dreaded: teeth and claw marks.

It had been the same for the previous four victims. Kavan instinctively glanced about. The gesture was futile. If the beast was still here, Kavan held little doubt it would already have attacked. Still, he let a hand drop to the hilt of his short sword. Even a Gaimosian Knight could be caught unaware and slain. Kavan had no desire to fall into that category.

A cold wind blew across the open field. The tree line was a hundred meters in any direction. The beast had no fear. That much was obvious from the spot of the kill. Loose snow danced across the field, tickling Kavan’s neck and face. Kavan removed a glove and gingerly placed his fingertips in the wound. The blood hadn’t begun to dry yet. He smiled, cruel and wicked. The beast was close.

“I’ve got you,” he whispered to the gathering dusk.

The Gaimosian looked around again, this time for a trail. Snow had been falling for the past few hours, but it was still loose enough for him to just make out a set of prints moving east. Kavan looked up towards the forest edge. He could barely distinguish a thin plume of blue smoke rising into the grey skies. With night falling, he knew his task had just gotten more treacherous. The beast was dangerous enough in daylight. Night made it particularly lethal. Kavan drew his sword and left the body behind. The hunt was on.

He moved swiftly and with purpose. Everything he owned was on his back. He was a man without home or family. Revenge drove him, keeping him warm at night when the harsh reality of the world threatened to claim him. He was a man lost, damned for the crimes of a kingdom that no longer existed. Hatred tainted his heart. He, and those few others remaining, roamed the lands eternally in the quest for vengeance. These were the Gaimosian Knights, travelling under the shroud of steel and mysticism. The world knew them as Vengeance Knights: the fallen sons and daughters of once proud Gaimos.

Now Kavan worked for money and the thrill of the hunt. A belief system instilled from birth bade him act in the sake of honor and righteousness. As such, he’d been hunting this beast for nearly a month. Every time he drew close, some form of devilry allowed the beast to escape. Kavan was determined not to let that happen again. He picked up the pace. What was left of the sun now dazzled a demonic red across the horizon.

Kavan viewed it as a good omen. Killing was always easier at night. The blood red sky felt right for the moment. He continued watching for signs of the beast as he got closer to the trees. His boots crunched softly on the under-layer of hardened snow. Stealth had never been his strong suit. He’d ever been one in favor of kicking in the front door and seeing how matters played out. Others of his kind had taken to the shadows and the lives of assassins since the fall of Gaimos. Kavan was better than that.

A howl rose from the mountains. Local wolf packs were on the hunt. Kavan smiled and entered the forest. It was a good night to kill. He paused beside an ancient oak tree and let his eyes adjust to the gloom. The heavy branches stretched far and covered large areas with darkness. He smelled the smoke now and knew he was close to the house, close to the beast and the end of the hunt. The twenty gold pieces promised by the villagers wasn’t exactly a king’s ransom, but they would more than satisfy his meager needs until something better came along. After chasing this beast for close to a month, Kavan was ready to kill it for free.

The sounds of the forest echoed hauntingly. Winds rustled rotted branches and dead leaves not yet covered by the quickly accumulating snow. Kavan wanted the beast to know he was coming. He wanted it to know death approached. After so long, Kavan needed a fight. Low branches reached out to lash at his exposed face and arms as he stalked towards the house.

The smells of roasting meat and burning wood grew stronger. He was close. Kavan felt the shadows creep in around him the deeper he went into the woods. He tilted back his head and sniffed the wind. Death had already beaten him here. The thatch-roofed home came into view. Kavan spied the broken-in front door and lamented for the family. What remained of the door left a gaping wound marred by the invitation of a subtle fire in the hearth. A blood-streaked hand curled up in the doorway. The fingers were broken and gripped a thick tuft of fur.

Kavan instantly decided against going through the front. The beast knew he was coming and would be lying in wait for him to make the fatal error of charging in blindly. A woodpile lay just off to the left of the house. Snow powder covered the top rows. A crude bronze-edged axe rested deep in a large piece of oak nearby. Fresh snow partly covered dozens of tracks. Some were human; most weren’t. Dog tracks intermingled with the rest.

It didn’t take Kavan long to discover the fate of the rest of the family. A pair of corpses was stacked by the back door, both bodies savagely torn apart and callously dropped beside the carcasses of the dogs. They’d had their spines broken and throats torn out. Kavan swore under his breath. The dogs would have provided warning to the family, but it hadn’t been enough. Only death and evil remained inside the meager cottage. Kavan crept to the back door and stopped to listen.

He knew from experience what was going to happen next. Kavan ducked under the windowsill and crept right. Using the shadows for cover, the Vengeance Knight rose slowly and peered inside. Only his right eye broke the silhouette of the stained window. He scanned the home for signs of his prey. The fire had burned low, offering just enough light for him to make out two more bodies. What he assumed was the father lay in the door while a child of five or six had been butchered beneath the table.

Enraged, Kavan resisted the urge to charge inside. He still didn’t know where the beast was. The murder scene was one he’d witnessed a hundred times. Their ordeal was ended. Nothing could be done to assuage their suffering now. Kavan needed patience. He thoroughly searched the rest of the ruined home before his eyes settled on a partially hidden corner by the front door. A shadow stretched just enough past the edge of the light and moved with the gentle rhythm of slow breathing. Kavan narrowed his eyes.

“At last,” he whispered.

Kavan was about to slip back to the rear door when a pair of frost blue eyes suddenly opened and fixed him with a baleful glare. Swearing, Kavan ducked as the beast launched at him. Only a lifetime of training saved his life. He dove left, narrowly avoiding the sudden explosion of glass and wood. He felt the rush of a large body pass overhead. The beast reeked, gagging him as he rolled and brought up his sword.

The beast crashed into a small tree. Snow fell from the impact. Kavan rose to one knee and got his first true look at his prey. Stark realization flooded his senses. This was no ordinary creature. He faced a werebeast! Kavan watched in shock as the beast shook off the effects of the collision and recoiled to strike again. Werebeasts hadn’t been seen in this half of Malweir in decades. Battling one now didn’t make sense. It shouldn’t be alive. His chances of surviving were suddenly diminished.

The werebeast lowered its massive head and centered on Kavan. Sheer hatred blazed in those eyes. It was then Kavan noticed something startling. Many of the beast’s features were those of a man. What foul arts had twisted this genetic nightmare, he’d never know. Kavan was certain of one fact: some dark evil had created this creature.

Heavily muscled, the beast had a mane of pure black running down its wide spine. Silver hair covered the rest. Hot spittle dripped from menacing fangs lining the mouth. Razor sharp claws dug into the ground. Easily five hundred pounds, the beast went on four legs and had a stubbed tail. Whatever magic was responsible for its creation, Kavan knew the beast was made for the sole purpose of killing. Only one of them would be walking away from this battle. He hoped it would be him.

The werebeast flexed, giving Kavan a split second to react before it attacked. Kavan knew he had but one chance to survive. He had to strike fast and sever the beast’s head. The theory was untested, but Kavan was certain decapitation killed just about everything. He rolled to his right as the beast crashed into the ground where he’d just stood. Letting out a fierce roar, the Vengeance Knight swung with all his might at the exposed underbelly.

Sharpened steel ripped into the thick hide, tearing a great gash over the sternum and down the rib cage. Blood and fur splattered down. The beast let out a twisted scream as it crashed into the house. Glass burst as the werebeast tumbled through the cottage. Kavan rose in a fluid motion and ran at the dazed and wounded beast. He burst through the ruined front door and aimed his blade. Fast as he was, the werebeast recovered faster. It lashed backward with a hind leg, catching him in the stomach. The force of the blow sent Kavan flying across the family room.

Kavan slid across the already bloodstained floor. Glass and wood shards ripped into his back and neck until he crashed into the fireplace. Stunned, he struggled to rise. The back door exploded in a shower of splinters. The werebeast stalked inside, hungry for the kill. It knew it had the advantage and meant to toy with Kavan before killing him.

Kavan crawled up on his hands and knees. Pain lanced through his entire body. He guessed at least three of his ribs were broken, and he was cut in a dozen places. His vision swirled darkly. He cursed himself for underestimating his enemy. Kavan looked up through his pain and noticed the beast had a heavy limp. A trail of blood and gore followed it into the house.

The werebeast stopped a goodly distance from the stunned knight. As much fun as it had in inflicting suffering, the beast knew it was wounded and grew leery of tasting the bitter steel again. The clouds leaving his vision, Kavan grinned fiercely at the reluctant approach of the beast.

“Hurts, does it?” he asked and raised his sword in challenge.

The beast bellowed in response and attacked. A battle rage came over the Vengeance Knight, and he met the attack head on. They collided in a sickening crunch of bone and flesh. Kavan was driven to the floor. The beast fell on him with malice. Elongated claws snarled around Kavan’s torso and squeezed. He felt the breath crushed out of him. He fought back the urge to cry out as the pressure on his ribs intensified.

He started hammering the pommel of his sword into the beast’s side, striking just beneath the ear. The beast screamed, and Kavan could have sworn it was the sound of a man in pain. He hit harder despite his own growing agony. The pressure eased suddenly, if just a bit. Kavan turned his sword sideways and drove the wrist guard into the beast’s ear canal.

The werebeast let him go and recoiled from intense pain. Kavan struggled to his feet. Brain matter dripped down the sword onto his hand and wrist. He looked down on his wounded enemy and felt…nothing. There was no hatred. No remorse. Pity was absent as well. At this one moment in time, Kavan wanted only to kill the beast and be done. He took an unsteady step forward and raised his sword one last time. The werebeast looked up at him with pleading eyes. Kavan understood it all then. The beast wanted to die.

He stood over his elusive quarry and hefted his mighty broadsword, making ready to strike. Another man might have paused to study the beast or learn from it. Kavan already knew what he wanted. The werebeast had run free and killed for far too long. It was only fitting to repay it in kind. He gathered what little remained of his full strength and brought the sword down with a mighty swing. The werebeast never took its eyes off its killer.

After a sickening crunch followed by brief resistance, the beast was dead. The body fell in a great heap of lifeless flesh as the head rolled to a stop at the foot of the slaughtered farmer’s child. Kavan took neither satisfaction nor disgust from the task. He’d been paid to rid the land of a murdering creature and had done just that. He quickly searched the house for a towel and medical supplies before sitting down to clean his sword and dress the more major of his wounds.

Kavan then collected the severed head and wrapped it in a burlap sack. Once finished, he gathered the bodies of the family and set them in the center of the main room. He lacked the time or energy to give them a proper burial, instead choosing to enact an old Gaimosian tradition of burning the bodies. He left the beast where it had died. Some things didn’t deserve the honor. Kavan spent a goodly portion of the next hour collecting fuel for the pyre. Setting the pyre to flame, he snatched the severed head and strode out the front door.

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