Choices is a Shadow Sprawl setting story by Terri Pray
Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge.
“The tide is higher than I’ve seen it before,” Alexandrious walked slowly up the natural step formation, pausing for a moment to look out over the rolling waves. White caps formed only to be dashed against the rocks time and again, adding a low background roar to the song of birds as they swooped and dived through the final light of the day. “We will need to check the lower caverns tonight.”
She turned, long black hair moving in loose waves around her shoulders. “We should be safe, but yes… it would be wise to check. Just because there hasn’t been an issue before, doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.”
“Shandria…” the word was a whisper, a prayer of true joy as he looked up at his wife, the mother of his child and his partner through life. Beautiful, a true daughter of Lilith, she carried the timeless grace her mother had always portrayed, without the sorrow that had marred the mother of their race.
“What ails you?” A small frown furrowed her brow.
“No, it’s nothing,” he smiled and took the final steps, joining her on the top of the cliff. “Just thoughts, nothing of important. Minor things.” He reached for her hand, drawing her close. “You look beautiful.”
She laughed, light dancing in her eyes, head tipped up. “Oh, my love - you are a wonder.”
For a moment they stood there as he wrapped her in against his chest, one hand fisting in her hair before he smoothed his palm down the dark lengths. “No, just a man in love.”
Waves crashed against the rocks below, sending spray up into the air, carried by a breeze until it rained down in a fine mist on the couple. This was their time. No matter what was happening, short of an outright attack, the men and women of their home, even down to the children, knew better than to disturb this time between them. At all other moments, even when they slept, they were available to their family, but not during this single candlemark each evening. Here they could relax, they could talk without being overheard, and they could claim time where they no longer had to be the first couple within their family.
“Mother, has there been any word?” She murmured, still held against his chest.
“No more than there has been about your father.” He tucked her in under his chin. “I don’t know where they are, but they are no longer with either of the two families.” The lines of Lilith and the lines of Caine. The name would change in the years to come, that’s if there wasn’t a reconciliation - not something he held out any hope for at this point. The differences between the three families, tribes as some were now calling them, weren’t ones easily overcome. Unless both Lilith and Caine agreed, put aside their differences and found a way to work together, there would be no healing between the three groups.
“I don’t understand, they were going to help the others set up their laws, their ways…I would have thought mother would remain with her children and father, he wanted a chance to prove he was the stronger.” She shook her head and stepped back out of his hold. “I worry about her, about both of them. Especially after the birth of the last twins.”
Twins that had come close to killing Lilith with their arrival. He let his gaze move to the slight swell that rounded out his wife’s lower abdomen and shuddered. Would Shandria face the same problems? Would he lose his wife to a bed of blood?
“I lost you for a moment there, beloved.” She brushed a finger along the length of his jaw.
“The children,” he moved one hand down to the soft swell. “I don’t want to lose the children, but you - you’re my life.”
“What happened to my mother, won’t happen to me. I have you as support, and I’m younger, stronger, I’m not facing the same issues… it will be alright, trust me on this.” She cupped his cheek, a soft smile dancing within her eyes. “You will be with me the entire way, I know that of you. You won’t leave me alone to face the trials of labor the way my father has always done with my mother.”
Caine, the man had always abandoned Lilith during the last few weeks of her pregnancy, and had never been around for the event itself. He would take himself hunting, either for food or sex, often both, then return when the children were a couple of weeks old. “I’m not your father, nor will I ever act like him.” He bristled and caught himself, shaking off the moment of anger. “I’m sorry, my love. There’s a lot going on.”
“I know, we do this together, we work together on all things.” She smiled and turned her attention back to the sun as it made its slow journey to the end of the day. “The patrols?”
He sighed, not wanting to bring this up, but she was right, they worked together and that’s the way it had to be. “The First Sons are still a problem, we’ve run into them several times over the last few months.” Deaths, injuries, both had been a part of those meetings but they had stood their ground and held their own against the attacks. Neither had any of the Sons been able to follow them back to their home, which was a small blessing but one he would take time and again.
“They grow in number.”
“Humans breed faster than we do and they train their sons into their beliefs, though do little to inform their wives and daughters of their plans.” The Sons and Caine’s line went well together, though that was not something he would say within his wife’s hearing. No, he owed her that much in the way of respect. Caine was her father and despite everything he was still the father of the race.
“They have that advantage over us, that’s undeniable, but we heal faster, we’re stronger and the only interest we have in their people are for the occasional emergency meal or turning one who has potential.” His wife took a step toward the edge of the cliff, the wind picking up loose strands of hair, blowing them back from her face save for the occasional length that caught across her face. “Those we turn are rare, strong men and women who want more than their lives as a human might offer them and turned humans are less likely to be able to give birth to, or sire full children.”
It had been different when Lilith was the one turning humans, even Caine had a better chance of a full successful turning than any of the children born to their lines, but now those taken into the embrace of a line were different, but would never be full vampires. “That may change as the years progress.”
She shook her head and turned back to look at him. “No, it won’t. Only my parents will be able to complete a full change.”
He frowned, watching her, the odd look in her eyes as she saw beyond him, past the rocks, the sun and the wind. “What is it you see?” The gift had been there from the first, a touch of vision that came and went without warning.
Her eyes unfocused, hands loose at her sides and for a moment she didn’t speak. “The mother will change but one a year, the father one every ten years, and those will be rare, bold souls. Some will come to us, others will side with the lines beyond ours, but some will found other lines.”
Lines? More of them? Wasn’t it bad enough to have three lines, tribes, families, whatever they wanted to call themselves. They weren’t numerous enough to split even further. How could they defend themselves from the First Sons or other hunters if they continued this way? He frowned, watching his wife, not pushing for her to continue as the vision would end when it was ready and not before.
“The sons of Caine ready to attack the daughters of Lilith,” her face paled, hands clenching into fists. “They weaken themselves as the First Sons know of the strife.”
He scowled, his gut tightening at the words. War, raids between the lines. There had been rumors but this was the first confirmation. “We can’t allow it.” They were the first house, the partnership of male and female, a balance of energies and power, it was within their power to prevent the fights between the other two lines.
“We can advise but cannot step into the fight.” She blinked, clearing her vision with a sharp shake of her head. “Those sworn to Caine will be more likely to listen to you and I will approach those sworn to Lilith. All we can do is hope they will listen to us. Neither of their lines are strong enough to stand against the First Sons if they attack in full force.” She passed one hand over her eyes, bracing herself as the last of the vision left her. “They will be wiped out if they do not listen to us, but we cannot force them. Lilith’s daughters will use magic to defend their home and they might be overlooked as far as the First Sons are concerned, except for the males of their line, but even then the damage will reduce both lines beyond the ability to recover.”
No, they couldn’t force the issue, she was right but they had to see the danger of what was going on. That they would fight, would argue, was without doubt. The differences between them had been dire to begin with, but now with the daughters of Lilith turning to magic and those of Caine decrying the use of magic, the split had grown beyond the hope of reconciliation. “Magic isn’t evil.”
“No, it’s not.” His wife’s magic, the visions and small magics beyond that, had helped their family. “It’s but one of the small details that separate the two tribes.”
“Tribes, families, houses, eventually we will find the right way of describing what we have become.” Shandria flashed a weak smile and turned her attention back to the setting sun. “Alexandrious, we have years ahead of us, centuries if fate is kind, but our focus has to be on keeping our people safe. Even those of our kind who have turned away from us. Our lives are but grains of sand on the beach, small, unimportant except in the moment, it is the beach as a whole that holds the true worth of our race.”
He frowned, going over her words. “Well, we will do our best to keep the race alive.” Caine’s chosen were… headstrong at best, but if he sought them out without his wife, or any of the other females of their line in tow, he had a chance of making them see sense. “They need to be further apart, physically at least.”
“Perhaps, but neither will release the hunting ground to the other.” She gave a slight shrug, her gaze fixed on the horizon. “This peace, this moment, it won’t last. Tomorrow we will leave and try to talk some sense into our brothers and sisters. Yet we won’t be alone when we do this.” She tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. “You won’t let me travel without guards, I know that much, yet we will need to be careful in who we choose to accompany us.”
Travel was never easy, travel with a pregnant woman, even one this early on in pregnancy, carried its own risks.
“We will travel together for the most part.” He walked over to the edge of the cliff, sliding one arm around her waist. “I won’t do it any other way, my love. I won’t risk losing you to something foolish. If neither of the families like what we’re doing, then they can deal with it. Your health, your well being is more important than their foolishness.” He snorted, and tugged her in against his side.
“Provisions, we won’t have a lot of time to prepare for this trip.”
“We can deal with that as we travel.” It wasn’t ideal but they would need to hunt soon regardless of if they stayed behind and let the other two lines suffer, or did they did right thing and sought a way to end the fight between the two families. That they also ate was a part of the way they were able to hide from time to time, but they needed blood, the blood of those touched by the magic of the earth. Shifters, magic users, creatures of the mist. Human blood, they could live on it, but it offered nothing but basic sustenance, leaving them wanting more than pure human blood could ever offer their kind.
“Dangerous, but I understand the need.” Shandria leaned in. “Our people must survive, not just this fight but the years and centuries to come. We cannot allow ourselves to be torn apart, destroyed by petty differences such as the way we live, or how we chose to rule ourselves.”
Sane, calm words but the reality was very different. Petty differences became rules, laws and customs which tore the groups apart. Attempts to gain control of a hunting area led to clashes between the two groups, clashes became raids, raids became all out fights and plans to conquer or destroy the each other.
“We are too few in number for this nonsense.”
She tensed in his arms, pulled back and took a deep breath. “It is more than nonsense. Think on this for a moment, they would call how we live, our choices in life, nonsense - yet they are the ties that bind us as a family. Choices we’ve made that help define who and what we are. From the way we dress to how we choose our mates, to the respect we have for the founders of our lines.”
“Beliefs that make no sense.”
“To us, yes, to them they make perfect sense.”
“They’re living in a manner that is foolish, following dangerous rules, ones which hold no substance. They cannot see or touch their beliefs and yet still they cling to them, despite the living memory of how things worked before the split.” He tensed, folding his arms across his chest.
“It is still their choice, my love.”
He opened his mouth to protest only to be silenced by a sharp look.
“No, listen to me my love. Listen and understand.” She indicated the setting sun. “We can no more dismiss their beliefs than we can dismiss the presence of the sun, the moon or the stars. They exist, they are real, we can see them but we can’t touch them.” His wife shared a smile with him.
He understood what she was saying, what he needed to do, but he didn’t agree with it. He hadn’t agreed with the split to begin with, yet he’d accepted it, adapted to it, embraced his new position as one of the two leaders of the family, yet he didn’t want to upset his wife any further than she already had been. His gaze moved to the slight swell, the indication of new life before he met her gaze once more. Wise, beautiful, calm, there would be times ahead of them when she would shout, scream, let her anger loose, but this wasn’t one of those times.
Labor, the bringing of their child or children into the world, would add stress yet he welcomed that, prayed for the moment when he would finally hold his child and his wife in his arms at the same time.
“Can you accept that? Can you approach these two families and keep your temper under control, keep your beliefs as just that, your beliefs and not theirs?” She pushed a little, searching his face for some sign of protest, of stubbornness that he knew was a large part of his make-up. “Or should I seek someone else out to manage this meeting?”
He tensed, muscles knotting down the length of his spine. “No, I’ll be able to do this.” He had to, for the good of their race.
The dying rays of the setting sun turned the clouds red, orange and purple as it sank into the waves. He nestled his wife back in against his chest, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks stealing away any more words he might have spoken. It didn’t matter, the risks, the stress, they would face them together, and he would keep his thoughts to himself when it came to the way the other two families had decided to live.
Choices made, choices yet to be made and choices they would regret in years to come. They all had the right to choose their own path - after all, wasn’t that the reason the split had occurred in the first place?
To be continued next week.