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Doenrakkar stood atop the sentry stone and breathed the scented smoke that wafted from the damped fire behind him. Today the tenders had chosen to burn the last of the hecka wood and its thick, pungent odour reminded him of the reaches, where they should have been several seasons ago, under old chief Ballock. Ballock had been dead a dozen seasons now and his daughter, Cradol, was a very different person.
He sighed out the smoke, troubled. The tribe had been here at the oasis for far too long and still Cradol showed no sign of moving them on, in spite of his entreaties. She had lived her whole life without sight of the devouring tide. To her it was merely rumour and superstition. He knew she believed in the creatures known as the Atric, she had killed dozens of them when they were encountered in small groups, however the fact she had only experienced them in small numbers was the reason she treated the threat with disdain. A single Atric was barely a challenge for a warrior; a dozen were barely a challenge for a warband of four minotaurs. But the tide was something different altogether, something you needed to have seen, with your own eyes, to understand. Doenrakkar desperately hoped to never see it again. Staying at the oasis, for as long as they had, was asking for trouble and, he thought as he absently scratched at the runes on his chest, he suspected sadly that might be his daughter's intent.
Cradol had never had much respect for the lore of the tribe that Doenrakkar carried, nor the traditions her father had followed. Every day she kept them at the oasis, without incident, was small proof she was right, and the traditions could be safely ignored, the lore forgotten, in favour of stability. Stability was something the wandering minotaur herds had never had however, granted, the other races had gleaned much benefit from it.
The shaman sincerely wished Cradol was right. In recent times, the tribes had lost a lot of their most promising children to the cities, where permanent structures allowed for things that the nomadic camps couldn’t match. Places of learning and study and massive workshops with equipment far too heavy for the herd to carry around. Some came back, like Cradol herself, but many never did.
The oasis was a perfect place to take root, build a city, and establish a kingdom, if you believed Cradol. Many others did. Over the last season Doenrakkar had seen buildings taking shape out of stone and mortar rather than mud and hide. It saddened him to see fewer attending the rituals, fewer greeting or saluting Torin, fewer devoting time to prayer to the old gods for merciful weather. Stone houses did not care about storms, and at the oasis there was a near unending supply of water and food.
When they’d sighted the first Atric, at least two seasons ago, Cradol had personally hunted and killed it, leading it far from the oasis before killing, following the lore. So it had been for the next half dozen, though other minotaurs had done the killing. When the first group of Atric had been spotted, a warband had been assembled and Cradol had led them into a brief but satisfying slaughter. Each time the kills were a little closer to their encampment and the trackers began to see signs of Atric closer still, wandering the dunes seemingly at random. For the last season it had stayed steady, a handful of Atric being spotted every few days and dealt with easily.
Cradol had ordered a wall built around the encampment, a hundred paces out from the existing camp, as if to imply how much their settlement might grow. The walls were only waist high, but they provided an illusion of safety that troubled Doenrakkar. He had confronted Cradol with his concerns and although she had listened, he had been dismissed.
“What we are building here is worth fighting for” she had said. “The Atric are not a threat if we stand united against them, we have dozens of the strongest warriors this tribe has ever known.”
“Daughter, you have never seen….”
She waved a hand dismissively.
“I learned the stories, shaman. I know the legendary ‘tide’! But I see no evidence it exists. If it ever did, then perhaps it doesn’t anymore. I see the tension in you when a single Atric shows itself and I wonder. You were young when this ‘tide’ swept through, yes? Perhaps it grew in your memory.”
Even then, as she dismissed his memory so easily and discounted his advice, she implied he may be weak or a coward. Despite this, he still felt no anger, only sadness and fear that the tribe would be forced once more to learn a lesson that had shaped their history. He felt that he, and the others responsible for passing down the lore through the generations, had failed. The elders of the tribe were likewise fearful of the Atric, but they were few in number, since the constant movement of the herd meant that the aged and infirm did not often last long. They instead chose to settle into small permanent camps along the migration route, seeing the herd every cycle as they returned. This was the tradition and it meant that the histories were passed on, however only if the herd continued to move, to migrate. Something that Cradol's ambition had hindered of late.
If it weren’t for his excursions Between, Doenrakkar himself would likely have settled by now, but he retained a vigour unmatched by others his age and indeed he seemed to be growing stronger. His people thankfully did not carry the same taboos around travel between planes that some of the other races did. It was known and accepted that shaman might move between planes, though Doenrakkar suspected that few, if any, had actually done more than brush the edge of Between with their meditating minds. The two other, non-warrior, minotaurs he had seen regularly Between were not shamans however, they were a necromancer and a druid.
He pondered Xyvera for a moment, an old crone from sometime in the future. She was enigmatic and unwilling to share her knowledge, but Xyvera had certainly indicated that, in her time, the minotaur race had suffered, or was suffering, a great calamity. The other was, of course, Gendris, a druid he’d known, by reputation, for most of his life. She too must be getting old, by their race’s standards, however it was impossible to tell from her appearance on the shadow plane what she may look like on Athien. Appearances Between could be deceptive.
For some reason he felt sure Xyvera looked similar, regardless of the plane she was on. Whatever else she may be, she was definitely certain of herself. He had seen Gendris in half a dozen different guises, once almost entirely a tree. Xyvera was, so far, unchanging. Gnarled, twisted, but sure of herself.
His reverie was broken by a cry of alarm from along the wall and a knot of tension twisted in his gut. The camp burst into immediate activity. Obviously he hadn’t been the only one feeling on edge. Cradol emerged from her tent, armed and armoured, which was telling. She wasn’t alone, her core warriors were on the wall in a handful of breaths and he reached it moments later, vaulting up easily onto the palisade.
“Where?” Cradol's voice was irritable. “I don’t see anything.”
The lookout was gesturing and stammering under Cradol's glare.
“There! Behind that dune was the top of another dune, it had a rock on it. A few moments ago it disappeared!”
“What? The rock disappeared?”
“No, the dune behind that one, it just….fell away.”
“Your eyes are playing tricks…”
Doenrakkar ignored the argument, letting it fade out as he stared in the direction the lookout indicated. There was dust in the air and Torin was setting, the dust staining the light Forin-red across the sky, and casting the dunes in a shadowy crimson that made it difficult to judge distance. As he watched, a plume of dust began to rise from beyond the dune, swelling, and he also began to hear the susurrus of movement through sand. The clicking of chitin and mandible that indicated Atric were about.
Memories rose unbidden and he shoved them down. He turned to Cradol as the first dark form crested the dune since he didn’t need to watch in order to know what was coming.
“The tide is here.” He said quietly and the voices stilled.
Cradol stared at him, anger spreading on her features. “You speak doom, shaman, but all I see is a handful of Atric. We’ll destroy them and when I return you and I will have words. You have put this entire town on edge for nothing and now here we are, jumping at shadows! No longer!”
He stared at her, the sadness bone-deep. Turning he could see now a half-dozen black forms coming down the dune, but to him it was obvious.
“Do you not see? Even now? Look at them, they are not wandering any longer. They are coming. We must leave!”
“Then leave! This is my town. I won’t flee because of myths and stories.” She gave him no more attention and leapt from the wall, her guard following with roars as she charged across the sand.
Doenrakkar turned to the lookout.
“Go boy. Tell the herd to prepare, spread the word. I may be wrong, however if I’m not, those who wish to live will need to flee.”
He jumped back down to ground and ran to his tent bellowing “Awake and rise, the tide comes!” If he was wrong, then perhaps this would mark his exit anyway, he didn’t fit in a town, he belonged with the herd.
Doenrakkar’s belongings were already packed and waiting, his tent collapsed easily into a small package he secured to his bag, and his sleeping mat likewise rolled up and attached. He shrugged the pack across his shoulders and took up his shillelagh, turning to the camp. His dismay hit him like a fist as he realised that few were even moving to pack. He heard the sound of combat as Cradol and her warriors engaged the Atric in the distance, and he could feel the approaching tide with every sense. How could they not? Even the ground was trembling as if it too felt fear at the coming.
He realised a breath later that the trembling was more than his perception, it was a physical thing, shaking the tents visibly and now starting a quiet rumble as the wall’s stones jostled one another.
Around the camp others had begun to notice, at last, and they turned to watch Cradol and her guard kill the last of the Atric exposed on the dune, and began loping back toward the wall. As the town watched, the dune Cradol and her warriors ran down began to...subside. Its edge was slipping forward behind them, slowly gaining on them as they ran.
An uncertain murmur began to rise among the herd as they tried to understand. As the running minotaurs reached the flat sand stretching out before the wall, the dune edge started to show a distinct “v”, collapsing in a line that ran toward the wall. As the “v” hit the flat sand, at last, it was revealed as a complete collapse of the sand into a tunnel. From the collapsing line a dozen Atric were pulling themselves from the sand and moving towards the wall.
Cradol turned after leaping onto the wall, surveying the threat.
“Warriors to the wall” she bellowed “We fight for the town!”
Doenrakkar knew the madness she felt, had seen it in a hundred others. She was committed now and wouldn’t back down even when she finally understood. A tap on his shoulder pulled his attention to the small crowd he hadn’t noticed.
The oldest of the herd had gathered, dragging with them the youngest. They were packed, they had heard his call.
He was torn. They could leave now, but he would be abandoning most of the herd and he knew, whether Cradol realised or not, they stood no hope without him. They had no hope regardless, said the voice of his memory. Outside, the walls were now occupied by two dozen Atric with a few more still clambering free of the sands. The rumbling had stopped and for a moment he dared to hope. Cradol turned to look at him, triumph in her gaze as she shouted.
“This is the tide!? We need not live in fear of this! We will claim this land as ours for the life of Torin himself! No more migration, no more packing your lives up and starting again! This is our town. This land belongs to the herd!” A roar rose up from the warriors around her, a cheer that spread to the others who were still milling uncertainly around the camp.
Cradol was silhouetted against the setting sky, outlined in a ruddy glow and basking in vindication. And then the bottom dropped out of the world.
The ground between Doenrakkar and the wall caved in suddenly, the collapse spreading outwards like a fissure across the camp. Tents and minotaurs falling into the black chasm, to float briefly on the dark. The moment shattered with screams and the clicking hiss of chitin as the dark resolved into a writhing mass of Atric. Those that had fallen were torn to pieces in moments. More Atric than could be counted boiled out of the ground and spread into the camp, minotaurs running screaming before them.
Doenrakkar glimpsed Cradol’s face as the wall beneath her began to crumble, tumbling into the collapsing sand. Confusion crashed across her features, followed swiftly by understanding and a roar as the wall fell, taking a mighty leap that carried her onto a portion of solid ground. Her warriors tried to follow and a few managed, the others fell into the maelstrom of sand and Atric below, striking out and roaring uselessly as they were swallowed.
This was the tide. The tide of death that could not be fought, reasoned or bargained with. It could only be fled from. Now, understanding washed through the herd and he saw many stopping to grab what little they had packed, rummaging desperately for their migration packs carelessly discarded and ignored for too long.
He turned to the small group with him and yelled at them, snapping the trance.
“Run! That way! I will follow once I’ve gathered any others, don’t stop until you must.”
He whirled to face the horror and forced himself into it, slamming through the Atric to reach the few survivors that he could see huddled in the centre of the camp. Cradol was with them, her handful of remaining warriors fighting the swarming Atric and, momentarily, holding.
Doenrakkars’ shillelagh struck like thunder through the Atric, catching black bodies and sending them flying back into the tide with the cracking sound of shattering chitin. He knew his trips Between had increased his strength but he rarely had cause to use it, and for once, he let it loose in his home world of Athien. Shattered corpses flew from him as he cut a path into the tide, his rage temporarily drowning the knowledge of how futile this fight would ultimately be. The warriors with Cradol, and even Cradol herself, looked relieved as he burst out of the swarming creatures and into their circle, shaking pieces of Atric free from his arms and legs where their mandibles had snagged his flesh.
“Decided to fight eh Shaman?” Cradol’s voice was hard and eager, though Doenrakkar could already hear the ragged edge of fatigue. Her Warhammer was not meant for protracted fights, and she obviously hadn’t thought to take any of her smaller weapons when she had come out to see off the Atric.
Hopefully she would live to regret it.
The survivors were fighting with whatever tools they could find, pots, pans, a fire poker, a shovel. They had gathered at least two dozen, but even with the warriors, that was only enough to hold their little circle and slow it’s inevitable shrinking. They didn’t have the strength to break free and they certainly couldn’t hold forever. They were unlikely to hold for much longer at all. Doenrakkar added his might to the fight, moving around the circle swinging whenever an opening presented itself and feeling the satisfying crunch of his weapon against chitin. During his round of the circle, he saw it close another step, forced back by the sheer weight of the tide. He moved to Cradol, striking from her side as she cleared an arc in front of her with sweeping strikes. She fought with the fury that had gained her the respect and allegiance of the warriors, but he could see from her posture that she knew as well as he did that her fight was a losing one.
“You were right, it appears shaman.” She spoke through gritted teeth, but they were gritted with pain, not anger. He could see red staining her armour in a dozen places, beneath the green of Atric blood and flecks of chitinous gore. She was staying upright by sheer determination and he could see even that faltering.
“Not completely right.”, he countered, and she grunted a question as her hammer arced out, shattering Atric bodies and sending them cartwheeling back into their frenzied brethren.
“I said” he grunted, swinging at an Atric that had got inside her guard, “that you couldn’t fight the tide. You appear to have proven me wrong.”
Her grin was bloody and feral as she responded “I’m glad I get to prove you wrong, just once, before I die.” She met his gaze and he could see her acceptance. Her smile turned softer and more genuine.
“I could never lead them after this shaman. My….dream….has nearly cost them everything. It is fair I die for this, but you need to live on. What if your other stories are equally true?”
He felt a snort of laughter at that, in spite of the circumstances.
They were only still alive because the Atric could not see, they were guided by touch and perhaps scent, though he’d never been able to determine how with any certainty. Individuals seemed to move almost randomly, but in a tide they moved more like a multi-headed snake, coiling around and winding through the camp, mandibles tearing apart anything they contacted that wasn’t Atric. They had the ability to sense motion up close and could dodge blows with surprising dexterity. Jaws could slip past the guard of a fighter in moments and remove an arm or leg.
The circle of minotaurs had beaten away any Atric that reached them and the tide had coiled around as a result, only slowly constricting inward as the edge of the tide brushed against them. Each brush drew the circle tighter and cost them another of the few remaining minotaurs.
“If you have a plan” Doenrakkar growled out “I believe we’d best do it soon.”
Cradol grimaced and spat out a gob of blood stained spit that mingled with the green and blue gore streaking the ground. The blue was….wrong…and Doenrakkar recognised it instantly for what it was. Trayda root. None but the Shaman were supposed to have access to it. She saw his gaze and shrugged apologetically, “I’m afraid you may have to collect a lot of your supplies again. My warriors and I may have helped ourselves.”
Trayda root was both harmless and useless when ingested in small amounts. Very small amounts. A dusting over a meal for example. A little bit more than that and you could…lighten your mind, perhaps even catch a glimpse of the future. Enough of it, mixed correctly, would make a paste that a warrior could apply to their gums resulting in an enhancement of their strength and stamina for a short time, though it would leave them incapacitated for days afterwards. Chewed raw, in quantities enough to stain your saliva blue, it would kill you, however not before it turned you into a monster.
Knowing he’d missed the moment when she’d given the signal to her warriors, he knew they could only have a short period before the drug would overload their bodies. They’d already chosen to pay the price, now all he could do was buy as many lives as possible with their sacrifice. Cradol roared and the bellows of her warriors joined her as they surged outwards with suddenly monstrous strength. He gathered the survivors in the centre, as the circle stepped a step sideways in unison, and he shuffled the survivors along with them, step by step. After a handful of breaths he could see it would not be enough. For them to escape the tide they needed to move faster.
Cradol realised it too and she yelled at him, teeth still bared but now he suspected it was against the pain of the Trayda burning her up from the inside. “Be ready Shaman, we will make you a path, but I suspect it wont last long.”
He nodded and ushered his charges into a line three wide and offered what encouragement he could. The older ones knew what was coming and the younger ones were bewildered and terrified, but they would follow.
“Now!” Cradol yelled, and as one the circle collapsed into a wedge around the line of survivors, surging forward into the black mass of the tide and shattering it.
Doenrakkar herded the survivors down the corridor as the warriors forced it forward. The corridor was already shaking, the circle had held while the tide swirled around it, but cutting directly through the flowing tide was a very different task. Here the tide piled against one side of the corridor and was weak on the other. The corridor was being diverted sideways by the pressure. Doenrakkar supported their side and those survivors who were able added their strength, but even as they fought he watched two of the warriors fall under the weight of the tide. Even as warriors from the other side crossed the corridor to replace them, a handful of Atric made it through the gap, two of the older survivors charged at them, swinging pots. Doenrakkar couldn’t get to them in time and he roared in frustration, and despair, as they were torn to shreds in a matter of moments. The remaining warriors shored the line with a crushing charge that slammed the gap closed.
They made it only a handful of steps before another warrior fell, torn roaring into the black mass that closed seamlessly behind the corridor. Each moment bought by the falling warrior's lives, meant the survivors were able to take advantage of the innate regenerative powers of their race. It gave them some hope.
“We’re too slow!” he bellowed at Cradol and though he couldn’t hear her response, he saw the acknowledgement in the tension of her stance. Suddenly, she seemed to swell in size and her orders split the horrible roar of the tide. The warriors moved as one unstoppable blade cutting a channel through the tide as Doenrakkar practically threw the survivors along before following himself. The line held for moments, long enough to give hope before he could see it begin to shred. The line stalled, the warriors holding, but not being able to push forward with the survivors fully engaged in just staying alive. Summoning a strength he had never known he possessed, Doenrakkar bellowed defiance and crashed into the darkness ahead of them alone, plowing into the Atric. His roar was a near physical thing that seemed to drive back the Atric as much as his shillelagh, disrupting the symphony of the tide. He didn’t pause to look back, could not spare anything but hope for those that should be following. He simply fought with every scrap of strength and will he could find, his blows aimed to simply drive the Atric aside and allow another step forward.
And then suddenly he broke from darkness and into light. He stumbled and fell forwards onto clear sand, rolling to his feet, immediately rounding to try and hold the way open in an attempt to rescue at least someone for all the deaths that had been paid.
Doenrakkar nearly ran into the first of the survivors. An aging minotaur, carrying two youngsters, the sight of which bouyed his flagging spirits and renewed his strength to fight for few more breaths. Soon five more adults emerged, each carrying another child, all of them wounded, but alive. He continued to fight against the tide, holding out a small opening as long as he could, however no more survivors emerged for a dozen breaths, and he realised there were no more coming. The mighty shaman stumbled back from the edge of the tide and turned to run after the survivors who by now were halfway up a large dune. They were all overcome with bone-deep exhaustion, however he couldn’t let himself falter, couldn’t pause until they were safe. Doenrakkar lasted the rest of the day and through the night, driving the others forward, step by step, away from the tide and the remains of the oasis. When the dawn came, and he could no longer see any sign of the tide on the horizon, he allowed himself a moment’s respite. Exhaustion finally overcame him. The last thing his eyes saw were the survivors huddled together preparing to rest, then darkness, as his hulking form came crashing to the earth, tree trunk like legs giving way as his mind lost consciousness.