· By Michael Barker
TALES OF THE HARBINGER: DAYBREAK
Dawn broke on the moon of Dagerad.
Kirr studied the white sun, Aleph, as it rose shimmering over the sawtooth horizon. The sky flushed a brilliant orange, streaked with flickering, prismatic trails of cloudy astra. Silver sunlight fell on the gnarled coral formations that dotted the landscape, and the shadows sprawled. A half-dozen moons drifted in the sky overhead, and there, hazy against the void, was Bastion – the gas giant, marbled and mammoth, encircled by her Rings.
It would’ve been beautiful, if it wasn’t the third dawn Kirr had seen in 12 hours.
The days here on Dagerad were three hours long – the nights even shorter. Kirr rummaged in the pockets of his eelskin jerkin, retrieved the tarnished glancer, and unclasped the latch on the bulky display. The glancer’s green, spectral readout was hazy, but told him he’d been on Dagerad 47 hours – 47 hours and something close to a dozen sunrises. With a sigh, he closed the glancer, and turned his back on the morning light.
Their meager camp was tucked in the shade between two large, desiccated coral formations. Two bedrolls lay on either side of a dwindling tinderstick, flickering orange on the sandy ground. Kirr grabbed his rifle, propped against the nearest coral rock. The weight of it gave him comfort here – the porting holes along the barrel, the well-worn breech, the leather-wrapped stock.
Wren snored on her bedroll, tucked tight into a crescent shape with a blanket over her head. Kirr prodded her back with his boot as he passed and she responded with a grunt of displeasure.
“Up,” he said. “It’s dawn.”
“It’s dawn every four hours,” came her muffled reply.
“Doesn’t make it any less dawn.” Kirr lowered himself onto a smooth coral stone and laid the rifle across his lap. With a practiced hand, he removed the scope module from the top rail of the rifle, and began his morning ritual of calibrating the sights. A glowing, spectral scope flickered to life above the module, its rangefinders spinning. The scope didn’t need calibration – the sights were already honed perfectly. But the routine gave his idle hands something to focus on.
Wren sat up, the blanket sliding off her face. She blinked her almond-shaped eyes against the sun and glowered through a curtain of dark hair. Yawning, she pulled her hair back with a leather band.
Kirr smiled slightly. She looked like her mother with her hair like that – accentuating her large ears and long, thin neck. Thank the Rings she took after her mother.
Kirr, on the contrary, was tall and spindly and hard, his face craggy, his hair thin and whispy. His eyes, pale and cold – his lips, thin. Decades hopping from moon to moon had taken their toll. And though he had barely seen 50 orbits, he had plenty of “drift miles” on him, as the spacers say.
“Breakfast?” Wren stood and stretched.
She rummaged through her canvas knapsack and pulled out some dried meat, a few meager portions of pressed kelp, and a rusty iron pan. As she set to work warming the rations over the dwindling tinderstick, she swept her brown-eyed gaze across the horizon.
“People actually live here?”
Kirr slid the scope onto the top rail of the rifle and secured it with a snap. The spectral readout faded. “Some, sure. Few small towns clustered around the rivers and lakes, built inside the hollows of this coral. There’s an atmoport up there somewhere too.” He indicated the sky with his thumb. “Skyhook, it’s called. Best avoided.”
“It’s probably more exciting than living on the surface.” She shimmied the pan as the meat and kelp began sizzling over the tinderstick. “Why you’d wanna live here…”
“Most can’t afford passage off the moon. Gotta make do with what they have.” He gestured towards the coral. “Dagerad had oceans at some point. Fish and skimmers.”
Wren shook her head. “Can’t imagine.”
Kirr smirked and rubbed his balding, scarred head. “Not everyone likes living off rebreathed air, y’know. Plenty of folk prefer solid ground.” He tapped his boots in the sand.
“Like you and Mom used to?”
Kirr’s chest tightened. “Yeah. Like Mom and I used to.”
“I’m just excited to leave.”
Kirr fed rounds through the rifle’s breech, taking comfort in the satisfying click of each bullet. “We’ve got business to tend to first.”
“You really think it’s down here?”
Kirr raised the rifle, pressing the stock into his shoulder, and aimed down the sights. “I know it is.”
Once they’d eaten and broken camp, Kirr slung the rifle over his shoulder, donned his tattered cloak over his eelskin armor, and set out west through the forest of coral. Wren trudged along behind, entertaining herself by trying to perfectly match Kirr’s gate, stepping inside his much larger bootprints in the sand.
Every few minutes, Kirr halted. He would kneel, run his hand through the sand or brush his fingers across the rough surface of the coral – there were faint marks, leading deeper into the jagged coral pillars. And there was smoke. He quickened their pace, and an hour in, they came upon a large, scorched circle of glassy sand – still warm. It crackled underfoot.
“It came this way. It moved at a quickened pace.” Kirr pointed west with two fingers, where the coral lay broken and scorched. “Deeper into the coral.”
He was close. Closer than he’d ever been.
“What is this thing?” Wren stood beside him, her gaze on the scorched sand.
Kirr remembered the smoke. Bright, blood-red light. And a scream – a high, piercing scream.
“A demon.” He stood, adjusted the rifle across his back, and continued westward.
The sun set and rose twice before they rested again. They put their backs to the coral, and Wren slept fitfully with her head against Kirr’s shoulder, her small hands making fists as she dreamed.
He woke her after another sunrise and dropped a worn pistol in her lap. “You remember how to use that?”
She cradled the heavy firearm in her hands, running her fingers along the bolts holding it together and the eelskin wrapping its grip. She breathed in slowly, and nodded.
“Just like I showed you before. Finger off the trigger unless you’re fixing to kill something. Breathe and squeeze. And only if you need to, Wren.”
“Only if I need to.” She checked the safety and tucked the weapon into the back of her belt.
They gnawed on dried meat and sipped on tepid, recycled water from canteens as they hiked across increasingly craggy ground. The sand gave way to sprawling fields of coral, dotted with sky-breaching salt pillars.
It was midday when the smoke appeared on the horizon, spiraling black and acrid towards the white sun high in the sky.
Kirr gripped the rough surface of a salt pillar, and heaved himself upwards. His old muscles ached as he scaled, perching precariously atop the formation. He brought out the rifle, thumbed the scope module, and peered through the spectral rangefinder that flickered to glowing life. The astra spiraled, carrying his gaze across the dry surface of Dagerad. There stood a tiny cluster of coral structures, smoldering.
“Village,” he called down. “One league out. It’s burning.” He slid down, wiped sweat from his brow, and immediately made for the smoke in the distance. “This is it. I know it.”
“Wait, hold up.” Wren ran to keep up, tugging at the trailing tatters of his cloak.
But Kirr ignored her. His prey was there before him. Hundreds of heads he’d taken in his time – hundreds he’d put between the sights of his rifle. But he’d never relished a kill quite like this one. He’d never pined for it before.
“Please, stop, what if it’s waiting for you?”
“I hope it is.” Kirr wrenched his cloak from her, and she went sprawling to the ground behind him. “I want it to see me. I want it to know.”
He halted. A dry wind whipped its way through the coral, whistling eerily through the porous formations. Behind Kirr, Wren knelt in the sand, her eyes watering. Those eyes, dark and fierce – so unlike his own pale, cold gaze. So much like her mother’s.
“This thing took everything from us, Wren. I don’t want to lose it.”
“And I don’t want to lose you.”
Kirr studied his daughter as her dark hair shifted in the wind . Why had he subjected her to this life – years of roaming the Known Orbits, hopping from fringe moon to fringe moon? He was a lowlife, a criminal, a headhunter – he wasn’t the sort of man to be raising a daughter. Why had he brought her here?
“Because it’s just us,” Kirr muttered.
Kirr loosened his grip on the rifle. “Alright.”
“Yeah, alright, we’ll be smart about this. Together. Let’s go – quickly, quietly.”
They picked their way across the jagged surface of the coral as nightfall neared, approaching the village in a wide arc that brought them downwind from the smoke. The white sun dipped below the horizon. Shadows lengthened, and night fell. Every few minutes, Kirr snapped his scope up to scan, but saw no movement – no signs of life. Just smoke and ash and husked-out coral hovels.
“Did it do all that?” Wren asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Kirr nodded. “Yeah.” He glanced sidelong at Wren.
“What is it, really?”
“I told you – it’s a demon.”
She narrowed her eyes.
Kirr sighed. “Some call it a ravok. Drifts from moon to moon. Lands like a falling star, and then … it feeds. It kills and it maims and it feeds. And it leaves nothing alive. Then it moves on, in search of more.”
“So how do you stop it?”
“I put bullets in it until it stops moving.” Kirr smirked.
“You’ve killed these things before?”
“No. They’re not supposed to exist.”
“But this one’s real?”
The pair crouched on the outskirts of the village, finding cover behind a cluster of steel crates. An octagonal clearing housed a well and a small astra gatherer, humming away with its pylons creaking in the arid breeze. Fires smoldered everywhere, and the air carried the stench of burned flesh. Kirr brought the collar of his cloak over his mouth and nose, and gestured for Wren to do the same.
“Where is every–”
Kirr held up a hand and Wren fell silent. There, near the well – movement. He brought the rifle up, thumbed the scope, and zeroed in on what looked like a blackened, withered hand. The fingers gripped a pistol feebly.
Kirr locked eyes with his daughter and planted two fingers into his palm. WAIT. Then he brought up his hand in a mimed handgun, and pointed at himself. COVER ME.
She nodded in understanding, and brought the pistol to aim over the crates, covering the clearing.
Kirr stayed low and sprinted across the clearing, putting his back to the well. Peeking around the side, he discovered a man – or what was once a man. Most of his body was blackened and peeling. Blisters covered his face. Blood seeped from cracks lining his scorched skin.
Kirr knelt beside the man, whose eyes fluttered open and gazed at him. His mouth opened, and blood trickled from it.
Kirr shook his head for the man to stay quiet.
“Is it still here?”
The man whimpered. Then nodded.
Kirr tensed, his grip tightening on the rifle. He glanced back to Wren’s dark-haired head, peering over the crates with pistol in hand. He looked back to the scorched man.
Kirr drew out the dagger from his boot. He cradled the charred man’s head in one hand.
“Don’t worry. I’ll finish this.”
Kirr pushed his dagger into the back of the man’s head at base of his neck. The blade slipped into the scorched flesh easily, severing the nerves, quick and clean. The man’s eyes deadened, and then he slumped.
There was a clatter to Kirr’s left – there, inside a large barn carved into the coral. He glanced to Wren’s position, repeated his hand signal for WAIT, and stalked towards the structure.
He stepped through the archway. It was a storage building, filled to the ceiling with canisters and crates of fresh water and preserved food. Steel pillars reinforced the coral structure, with joists criss-crossing high above. Chains and winches dangled, holding crates aloft, clattering softly in the breeze that whistled through the porous coral. Starlight streamed through the rickety structure.
And there, rummaging through a shattered crate of dried meat, was the ravok.
It was massive. It knelt on six limbs, its forked tail flicking aimlessly. Powerful muscles flexed beneath stony, armored skin as it moved, scooping mangled meat into its maw. Crimson astra glimmered beneath that craggy skin, coursing through the beast’s veins, rising from it like bloody smoke. Multiple wide, leathery wings were tucked against its back, and a length of wicked black spines ran from its brow to its tail.
For nearly a decade it had killed and consumed, traveling from moon to moon to ravage and feed. Even so, it was as Kirr remembered it. Exactly as it looked the night it took Wren’s mother from them.
Seven years he’d hunted this thing. And now, here it was. Kirr brought up his rifle and slid the bolt back, chambering a round with a sharp click.
The ravok turned. Its skull-like, bestial face contorted into a sneer. Its cluster of spider-like eyes blazed.
The rifle kicked. Inside the barn, the shot reverberated like a thunderclap. The ravok surged towards him, blindingly fast, wings tucked, knocking aside crates. Red astra coursed from it in a shimmering cloud.
Kirr dove aside, somersaulting over a pile of crates. The ravok clambered past, letting loose with a roar. Kirr slid the rifle’s bolt back, chambering a fresh round. He popped from cover and put two rounds into the beast’s hide – uselessly – before ducking again.
He moved quickly along the west wall of the barn, slipping fresh rounds into the rifle’s breech. The ravok stalked close behind, shouldering aside crates and tearing through joists as it went. The barn strained, creaking – it wouldn’t stand much longer with the ravok inside. And the rifle was doing next to nothing against the thing’s thick hide.
Kirr concentrated, gritting his teeth. There was astra here, thick in the air, streaming off the ravok in waves. He pulled, the astra coalescing and swirling around him. Pain lanced through his body as he took control of the energy, directing it into his fingertips. The rifle hummed and vibrated under the strain as he channeled crimson astra into it. The barrel smoldered.
The ravok crashed through the crates behind him, slamming into the side of the barn and buckling the walls. Kirr spun, aimed, and squeezed. Dazzling red light streaked towards the ravok, cutting through its chest and spraying astra-infused blood across the barn’s walls.
The ravok screeched and drove into him as he pulled the trigger again. The astra-infused bullet went wide, embedding itself into the ceiling. Kirr felt himself leaving the floor, and then he was hurtling through the air, and the wall gave away behind him. He sprawled to the ground amid a pile of debris. His rifle clattered a few feet away. He got to his knees, spit blood, and reached for his weapon.
Crimson fire scorched the ground inches from him. The sand became glass in an instant as the ravok belched forth superheated astra. The heat burned Kirr’s stubble and eyebrows from his face as he rolled away, gasping for air. The ravok was on him, towering on two legs, four arms with dagger-sized claws raking across his chest. He felt his eelskin armor give way and his flesh tear like paper. Warm blood spilled across his front. The ravok scooped him up and tightened its claws.
Kirr stared into the thing’s glistening multiple eyes – into the unchecked rage and hunger that smoldered there. Putrid, hot breath streamed from its jaws and nostrils, reeking of rot and bile. It opened its dripping maw, took in a great breath, and unleashed an ear-piercing screech.
The same screech that had echoed in Kirr’s dreams for seven long years.
Kirr’s ribs cracked as the ravok’s grip tightened. His breath came in ragged gasps as his lungs compressed. Blood dripped from the lacerations in his torso. Black overtook his vision.
And then shots rang out.
The beast’s grip loosened. There was Wren, crouched behind the crates, emptying the handgun into the ravok’s back. Kirr strained and grasped the dagger in his boot. He stabbed into the exposed, fiery-red veins of the thing’s hand and pulled, cutting a thick, stony finger from it. Astra burst forth from the wound in a blinding flash and its clawed hand opened reflexively.
Kirr dropped to the sand, blood flowing freely from his chest. His vision wavered. His muscles slackened.
Not yet. Just a few more seconds. Please.
The ravok roared and whirled, decimating one of the nearby coral dwellings with its flailing limbs and tail. A streak of blood-mingled astra spewing from its wound. It stumbled as more rounds from Wren’s pistol slammed into it, and came to lean against the pylons of the astra gatherer at the far end of the courtyard. The pylons snapped, the gatherer bent inward, and a prismatic cloud of smoky astra wafted into the air.
Stay right there, you son of a bitch.
Debris rained down on Kirr’s prone form as he struggled to rise. His rifle lay in the dirt on the other side of the courtyard – out of reach. He rolled, avoiding a large chunk of coral as it fell. He clutched the ribbons of his chest, staying low as he stumbled to his rifle, falling forward into the patch of sand where it lay.
The shots faded as Wren’s ammo ran dry. The ravok came to its full height, zeroed in on her position behind the crates, and bellowed. It stalked forward, its muscles coiling beneath its armored hide as it prepared to leap.
And there was Wren, crouched behind crates, her eyes widening as the empty pistol tumbled from her hands.
Not her too.
With a bloody thumb, Kirr flicked switch on the scope module of the rifle. A glowing, spectral scope flickered to life above it, and he struggled to keep the leather-wrapped stock steady as his own blood pooled beneath him. Kirr peered through the astra-fueled scope, breathed a wheezing breath, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet missed the ravok.
But Kirr wasn’t aiming at the ravok.
The astra gatherer exploded as it ruptured, engulfing the beast in volatile energy of every color. The ravok disintegrated amid the cyclone of rapidly igniting astra, its limbs and wings flailing. The firestorm swirled through the courtyard, obliterating the coral dwellings encircling it. Kirr felt himself being lifted in the wake of the explosion, flying, tumbling. He landed hard amidst crates and coral, felt bones snap. He tasted blood in his mouth. His chest burned and bled. The hot blast washed over him, carrying with it the remains of the village.
And everything went quiet.
Hilda was her name. Wren’s mother. They were never married, her and Kirr. No, she knew better than to tie herself to this wandering killer – this headhunter who had fallen in love, despite himself. Kirr came and went as he pleased, but found himself always returning home to her. And to their daughter.
Something small lifted his head. He blinked his eyes open.
“Hilda,” he said.
But it wasn’t her. Through a haze of heat and smoke, Wren gazed down at Kirr with a soot-streaked face, the ends of her hair charred and brittle. Blood trickled from grazes and cuts on her face and arms. Their daughter was beautiful, and he saw so much of Hilda in her. Wren, they called her. It was Hilda’s mother’s name.
Wren was alive. She was whole.
“How’d we do?” Kirr managed to croak.
His daughter nodded. “It’s gone, I think. No sign of it.” She looked off in the distance, shielding her vision with her hand as the astra continued to burn and evaporate. “I think it’s dead.”
Kirr sighed and slumped, and felt Wren support him with trembling arms.
“Dad, are you going to die?”
“Hell no. I didn’t come here to die – I came to work.” He strained, gritting his teeth. “In my pack, there’s a mender. Should be good for one jab. Get me up and moving, and we’ll get off this damn moon.”
She found the mender, a glass vial filled with glimmering blue astra. As she stabbed it into his chest, Kirr felt pain, and then a warmth flooded him. He felt wounds closing, bones setting, blood congealing as the blue astra did its work. Wren bound his torso tightly with the scorched remnants of his cloak, stemming the flow of blood from his wounds. His broken ribs protested.
He stood, shakily. It still hurt like hell, but he could walk.
Wren handed him his bent rifle, which he fixed under his arm like a crutch. She was there too, her arm under his, carrying him forward as the village burned at their backs.
“What will you do now?” she asked. “Now that I saved your life?”
Kirr laughed, and regretted it as his ribs protested. “You know, I hadn’t really thought about it. Never considered living beyond this moment.” He looked at her. “Right now, I’d just like to find a green patch of land somewhere and try again with what we have left.”
Wren smiled and nodded.
Kirr blinked as the white sun appeared again – another daybreak on the moon of Dagerad. Silvery sunlight fell across the sandy landscape, stretching the shadows of the salt pillars. He leaned against his daughter. It was the twenty-first dawn he’d seen on Dagerad. And despite himself, he smiled.