The Wild Hunt - Excerpt
Happy New Years Eve 2021! Here is an excerpt from 'The Redsky Cycle', the first novel in a trilogy written in the spirit of 'The Hunger Games', 'Earthsea', and 'Red Rising'. Given the upcoming 5e launch, I want to share as many details about the lore of Dema as fast as possible. While a writer never truly finishes a book, this latest version is in a state that newcomers can use to easily explore a slice of the world of Redsky. So, while official work with an editor on the first book is still a ways off, enjoy my early-access form of the narrative.
This excerpt has Jayne thrown into the middle of the action on her adventure in the Midnight Isles. The other excerpt shows Jayne in the early days of her servitude to the Prefect of Yaras.
The current plan is that the full 80k+ text of Book One will be hosted on this site for free to all supporters of the Kickstarter until it's time to publish Jayne's story officially. Thanks for starting this adventure early with us. While you can guess the winding path Jayne's journey will take, her ultimate fate rests in the hands of readers like you.
Chapter 17: The Wild Hunt
23/30 Homamona, 17 LS
The Midnight Isles
One Day into Sailing to Abyssal Waters
There is an infinite amount of diversity in the sea. Small, large, ludicrously titanic. It’s not the size alone that dictates what the Wakewalkers of Clan Kahr have based their culture around.
What makes a Deep One a Deep One is simple. A Deep One has eaten more Wakewalkers than Wakewalkers have Deep Ones.
The Wakewalkers take this in good humor. They like the sound of the challenge.
The Maelstrom exists in everything south of a certain point of the Midnight Isles. Miles and miles of endless storms and rough seas. It's where all the Deep Ones migrated back to after Clan Kahr hunted them from the local waters of the Karchipelago. If the Wild Hunt is ever unsuccessful, the waters would be infested with creatures that make the ones I’ve encountered so far look like kittens. Water kittens. You get the point.
The winds are too rough for sails, so you must row. Ships that go too far in are never heard from again. Except Odiseas. He used the Avakoth. You can get to the outskirts, though. That’s where the big ones lurk, a challenge to the pride and honor of all true Varakwai.
Into the Maelstrom they row. With me along with them. We’re at sea on the Wild Hunt. It’s pouring rain, with waves so choppy that Merguk, the rower in front of me, has to balance us so our katamar doesn’t flip over.
Chieftain Deginos sits by my side, armored for the hunt. There must be at least eighty Wakewalkers spread out in a dozen other boats. The tycho drums beat in time to the rowing as a Wakewalker cadence keeper blows into a makta horn that takes up a katamar all its own.
Aeliana shivers in the seat behind me. Oh yeah, Aeli's here too. I told her she could have a brave friend or dry hair, but not both.
Something tells me that mentioning how seasick I feel wouldn’t impress this crowd. I wish I could say I was toughing it out until we begin the important part of the Wild Hunt, but I have no idea what is supposed to happen here. The steps it takes are hidden from outsiders. The Chieftain has said it’s simple enough in theory. Go out to the Maelstrom and use enough bait to lure in the biggest thing you can find.
I grip on to a handle of the katamar just before a wave almost knocks me off balance. I hold my glowing blue helmet between my legs and adjust the seals running down the front of the Depth Rig. The flexible flippers expand and retract depending on a movement I do with my toes. As counterintuitive as it may seem to wear a suit of armor while trying to swim, I can see how these Eldertech suits are built for sea monster hunting. To float through the water like a dolphin, with the shell of the most ancient turtle, and hopefully the soul of the most foolish landlubber steering it.
This Depth Rig is supposedly one of the smallest in the Midnight Isles, previously used by Wakewalker adolescents. We still had to pad my feet to make sure I could see over the rim of the chest piece. As long as the helmet is secured when I go under, I should be able to breathe as comfortably as if I was on the Avakoth.
“When do we stop rowing?” I ask, my eyelids fluttering from nausea.
“When the waters run black instead of blue,” intones the Chieftain. “When the rains fall upward, and the strength of our muscles and the fire in our hearts is pushed to their limit and beyond.”
Hopefully that translates to ‘soon’.
Whether they intended it or not, the first steps to this hunt begin when the water starts to glow. We see the first, comparably benign sea creatures pass below us. They look like glowing squid with tentacles as long as pillars pulsing to some natural rhythm.
I point to the squids. “Do we use those as bait?”
“Too small,” says Chieftain Deginos. “We are not at the Abyssal Waters yet.”
It takes us ten more minutes of rowing before we finally arrive at these so-called Abyssal Waters, a space of surprisingly clear sea. The other katamars bob to a halt around us, idling in the surf.
The baitmen on the other katamars toss fishy smelling bait balls as large as barrels into the ocean, their lids stained with glowing blue Mu. My sources tell me Mu goes boom. It’s concocted from a range of materials, the most important of which come from Deep Ones. Who knows what the first Wakewalker to brew it was doing? It has the smell of ignition oil and brine that you can taste if you inhale too deeply.
Nothing happens for a few minutes as the tycho drums do a slow roll. Then I see them. There are all sorts of lights just beneath the surface. I squint to try to make out what’s causing them.
The outlines of a pod of finned creatures that look like stretched oily seals with translucent skin come into view. You can see their gray-tinged organs pumping beneath their flesh. They glide beneath the katamars like phantoms out of another time. Thousands of small glowing pink and yellow fish swim in schools beneath us. An entire ecosystem begins its feeding on the unlikely new source of food within the bait balls.
This tradition is as old as Merguk’s great-grandparents. I let the cold winds and beat of the drums form a memory to look back on when I’m old, and preferably dry. Chrontract isn’t getting rid of tonight so easily.
I say, “What happens now?” just in time for a muffled bang to send bubbles up to the surface. The bait balls erupt in the stomachs of the creatures, spewing blue light and churning the water. The other members of the seal pod scatter in all directions.
“Now begins the feeding rush.” says the Chieftain.
Gory giblets float in the water. There are larger, darker shadows already moving towards the carcasses. They look like bloated faces ending in a set of webbed hands that latch on to the food and tear into it with greed.
These are chased off a moment later by crocodiles with a second head on their tails. Eels slink by with arcs of lightning flickering off their bodies. They send bolts into the small schools of fish, which in turn try to eviscerate the eels. It’s the chaos of nature distilled into a tiny area that ripples and surges like my Abjection in frenzy.
We sit above the frenzy given form for twenty minutes, until I see glowing green circles approaching from the west. I feel much more aware of how tiny our katamar is in the grand scheme of things.
Those circles turn out to be eyes. The creatures that glide towards the pod look like much bigger versions of the shark that attacked our lifeboat, but as long as some of the skeletons I saw on Kahr Island. They look like they’re rotting, with mishappen, lumpy heads ending in jaws that take up most of their faces. When they get close to a carcass, their jaws detach forward and chomp chunks. Get me out of here. I want rolling hills. Heck, I’ll take Yaras again.
“They smelled that blood from a mile away.” says Chieftain Deginos. She slaps the primer on a harpoon before locking it into place on the shoulder of her Depth Rig.
Around us, Wakewalkers holding canisters aim them at the sky and light a fuse at the bottom. When the fuse burns to the base, the canisters leap toward the clouds. It seems like they almost go up to the moon before bursting into a red radiance. The sea is lit with a glow that sends shadows contorting across the water. “What are those?” I ask.
“Skylighters. It is to help our night vision,” says the Chieftain. “We can see the creatures better this way, and some of the beasts come to believe the sun has come out. With the sun comes prey.”
Prey. “The prey is more fish?”
“More Wakewalkers. They’ve learned to expect us when the sky runs like blood, and we never fail to meet them.”
Does that mean we’re the bait?
It’s clear that everything around us has darkened, because I can see water in a lighter shade a hundred feet in any direction. The drums begin picking up their tempo. A horn blows.
Everything below us with the capacity to swim away does so, as suddenly as if someone extinguished a candle. It's not that they scatter apart in chaos, it's that they all make a break in the same direction. North. Then what is coming from the south? Coming from The Maelstrom? More of those red skylighters burst above us.
I hear Aeliana say, “Jayne?” in a small voice.
I turn. She’s pointing at the water. There is a silhouette on the sea floor.
Aeli says, “It's standing.” Something down there has two webbed legs, and is reaching up with hands towards the surface. In a moment I see a glowing orange eye above tentacles like an octopus.
“A kolasa!” laughs the Chieftain. “Good!”
Good for who? That thing looks like it is going to eat us in one gulp. The Wakewalkers on the other katamars grab harpoons tipped with the same material as the exploding bait balls.
A hand reaches up out of the surface, brown and pock-marked beneath the red of the skylighters. The harpoons pierce it in seconds, but not before it goes back beneath the water clutching one of the katamars in its craggy fingers.
The spears sink into the side of the kolasa and detonate, sending up great blasts of water to the surface.
Unarmored Wakewalkers shout and jump overboard, escaping moments just before the hand reaches up and snaps another katamar in two. Three Wakewalkers in Depth Rigs dive backwards into the sea from neighboring katamars.
“Brace! Brace!” From the east comes a rogue wave, soaring dozens of feet above us. The Wild Hunt is about to be swept away. Everyone starts paddling straight towards it, which I suppose is the only option to avoid being swamped. The katamar lifts until it sticks up straight into the sky. We barely crest it.
The wave comes crashing back down with the kolasa rising out of the surface in front of us, its chest heaving, great angry eye filled with animal hunger.
Aeliana and I sit back to back, waiting for the moment the kolasa’s hand will reach out and pull us below. I see an island in the distance and wonder how long it would take to swim there if I jumped ship now.
A blast goes off below the water that creates a mixture between the red of the skylighters and the blue of the explosion. Even the storm seems to lighten up after this. The kolasa pitches forward, losing its balance, and falls face first. More blue Mu explosions go off below us. My teeth chatter from the excitement. Or pants wetting terror. Whatever this is.
The ocean stops rumbling. Nothing happens for another minute. Then, the whoosh of the kolasa’s body breaching to the surface breaks the tension. The kolasa floats facedown like a drowned man. Oh, that reeks. It's like kelp that has been in a barrel forgotten in Ioneth’s basement for a year.
The tycho drums wind down to a slow roll as our boats form a ring around it. The Depth Rig divers resurface, hauling themselves back into their katamars. One removes his helmet and wipes a smear of goo off the visor, grinning.
A few Wakewalkers hop onto the carcass to take a closer look. They poke and prod experimentally, joking to one another.
“Is that the Deep One?” I ask.
“Deep One?” says the Chieftain, turning to me in confusion. “That is the bait.”
Bait. I’ll give up any future earnings on this adventure to return to the mainland right now, thank you. Though, she called it a ‘kolasa’, not a Briney-Meat or Marinate-The-Tentacle. If the kolasa doesn’t qualify as a Deep One…
We bob in the water, pitching up and down, rain drumming against the side of the kolasa. The smell of seared sea creature makes me cough.
The water darkens in the distance. That island is a lot closer than I first thought.
“Jayne!” says Aeliana, her voice quavering.
It only takes a minute to see the ‘island’ is moving towards us, sliding in and out of the water.
Islands don’t have scales.
A third, bass deep horn blows. The laughter and joking stop cold.
The Deep One – because if this isn’t a Deep One, I don’t know what is – rears up out of the waves, spiraling into the sky until its single, great pulsing orange eye stares down at us. It’s as wide as the peak of Little Brother, taller than the Karakoa was long. The stuff of daymares, or fantasy. Too big to live and too fearsome to die.
The face peels apart into flaps wider than its body, nothing but teeth and ichor. A great roar echoes into the storm.
My eyes must be bugging out of my head. “What’s that?”
The Chieftain laughs. “Dinner!”
The Wakewalkers cheer.
The Deep One turns its gaze onto the body of the kolasa, then crashes down on top of it. It wraps its body around the kolasa and pulls it under. Its tail hits one of the katamars on the way down, shattering the wood and throwing the rowers into the sea. The ripples it leaves in its wake are taller than Nightrider yurts.
Chieftain Deginos barks out orders as the overboard rowers swim back to other katamars. The Depth Rig divers seal their suits once more and splash into the water.
“It is time, Jayne!” yells the Chieftain. “Sink a trident into that Deep One, and we shall sail a thousand ships against the Hegemony!” She falls backward into the water.
What else can I do? Years on the run, more years a thrall. All building up to proving myself here. Everybody wants to be impactful, nobody wants to work for it. My heart pounds. Crimson flickering makes Aeli’s profile nothing but a blur as I slip the helmet over my head and lock the seals together.
I pause to take one of the explosive Mu charges. Then I dive into the water.
The sensation of going backwards underwater makes me lightheaded. Something tells me puking in this helmet wouldn’t improve my comfort level. I can hear my heartbeat in my head. I activate the helmet lights, and suddenly the water is so clear that I can see the other Depth Rig divers circling the Deep One.
The brilliant blue bursts of energy don't make a dent in its scales. Just the perspective of trying to see all of the Deep One at once throws me off. It is like a cliff face moving at the speed of an apex hunter. I click my heels together to engage the flippers. Then it is nothing but kicking for my life, one measly explosive in hand.
Oh no. The Deep One shifts course and starts heading towards me at a speed that I can’t keep track of. I watch as it extends its maw, sucking up thousands of gallons of water and one of the Wakewalkers not wearing a Depth Rig.
I swear that its orange eye turns to me specifically, so close I can see the blood pumping through its veins.
The Deep One surges forward. My voice cracks from screaming as its jaws snap shut around me.