Hi everyone! This is the third and final installment in the “Meridian Trail” short story I wrote. Because the holidays have always proven a tricky time of year to get pages up consistently, I wanted to make sure we had something new every week for you — hence the finale of this short story!

There is also a pretty important announcement I’d like to make here, though a more robust one will appear in next week’s official page: BEYOND THE WESTERN DEEP IS INDEPENDENT AGAIN!

After three years, we’ve decided to part ways with Action Lab. This shouldn’t have any impact on the webcomic, but we hope it will lead to more exciting opportunities in the realm of other ventures like printed books, merchandise, and guest artist-driven stories like Song of the Eastern Sands.

I’ll explain more about why we made this decision and what it means for Beyond the Western Deep in next week’s page. Until then, enjoy the finale of The Meridian TrailI

The Meridian Trail (Part III)

Thanks to Samson’s heading, Quinlan and Dakkan made it back to the main path in about an hour, and two hours after that they were approaching the Meridian Vineyard. Endless fields of grapevines snaked around a forest of tall, white posts driven deep into the ground, partially obscuring a large two-story house built of wood and stone on a small hill in the distance — the home of the vintner and her family. Distinctly non-tamian in its styling, the house bore more resemblance to the canid or older ermehn architectural methodologies than its occupants would let on.

The two weary warriors struggled through the vineyard and to the front door, where the surprised tamian winemaker received them. Quinlan didn’t have to explain much before she led them into the guest wing of her home, got them comfortable, and sent for the estate’s healer.

Dakkan’s wounds were, as Samson predicted, not as bad as they could have been. His scaled lutren armor took most of the blows, and what remained were some fairly deep gashes on his unprotected sides and one long cut on his right shoulder. The swings had been so vicious that the armor was sliced apart in spots. Never again would the lutren leave on a patrol without it.

After an hour or so of examination and another hour of stitches and bandages (with some wine to help ease the process along), Dakkan was given a clean bill of health and a hot bowl of soup for his troubles. He sat propped up in a guest bed, while Quinlan sat in a wicker chair nearby, staring idly out the window.

The lutren shot his friend a grin as he slurped up a big noodle-filled spoonful. “I should get hacked up more often. This is some good soup!” He held the bowl out. “Want any?”

Quinlan refocused his gaze and offered up a good-natured grunt. “Had some already, thanks. While you were being stitched back together.”

“Good.” Dakkan nodded sharply and withdrew the bowl. “’Cause you’re not gettin’ any.”

The two sat there for a minute in silence. Relative silence, at any rate, as Dakkan’s slurping sounds could probably have been heard over in the next kingdom.

Finally, Quinlan leaned forward in his chair, only after looking around to make sure they were alone. “Dak… are you doing okay?”

The lutren set his bowl of soup on a small bedside table and nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Cuts don’t sting anymore, but that’s probably because they gave me somethin’ a little while ago to help with the pain.”

The tamian scout laughed. “They gave you an entire carafe of wine. That you finished by yourself.”

Dakkan shrugged, trademark grin finally back on his face. “Hey, I didn’t want to be rude, yeah? A host gives you somethin’, you drink it!”

“So, listen…” Quinlan cleared his throat. “What happened today… with Kera and Samson and those bandits…” Quinlan’s gaze dropped a bit. “I want you to know… I…” He sighed, then met Dakkan’s gaze. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For forcing me to follow the path.”

Dakkan’s smile faded. “I was just doin’ what we’ve been taught to do.”

Quinlan’s eyes remained fixed to the floor. “I never wanted to do this, Dak. I’ve never wanted to… you know, hurt… anyone. I don’t think I could, if the time came.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Dakkan’s voice, uncharacteristically soft, came across as almost fatherly. “Because if there ever comes a time when you have to fight for your life, or fight for your friends, the decision’ll come naturally. It’ll be instinct.” He leaned back into the pillows and headboard, folding his paws in his lap. “That’s why my father, why your grandfather, drilled us so hard growin’ up. They don’t want you to think about it when lives are in the balance.”

The tamian scout held up his paws in a shrug. “But isn’t that the most important time to be thinking about it? Shouldn’t we… shouldn’t we consider the consequences?”

”Believe me, Quin,” Dakkan gestured toward a set of stitches in his shoulder. “When there’s a sword comin’ at ya, and the ermehn holdin’ it means to slice your head off, you don’t have the luxury of thinking about the consequences of anythin’.” He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. “Yeah, that image is gonna be keeping me up at night for a long, long time.”

The two sat in silence again. Dakkan could see that his friend was troubled, but nothing the lutren could say would console him.

Still, he’d try.

“You saved me and Samson today without havin’ to kill that bandit,” Dakkan said.

“I know.” Quinlan put his elbows on his knees and propped his chin in his paws. “I know something’s going to happen someday… I don’t know what it is, I don’t know who it’ll be, but I know that someday I’m not going to have that luxury.” He tapped his chin a few times with an idle claw. “Someday… someday I’ll have to do it, Dakkan, and it’ll be because my grandfather forced me down this path.”

Dakkan frowned a bit. “It… I’m sorry, mate, to be blunt like this, but that’s the price you pay.”

“What?” Quin raised a surprised, slightly irritated brow.

The lutren was quick to clarify. “You’re going to be a tesque master in a couple months. You can shoot a moving target from twenty paces with your eyes closed, and you’ve taken down a half dozen Treewalkers with the scouting parties.” He held out a paw, counting each item on a claw. “That ain’t all because your grandfather forced you to train. There’s a reason not every tamian is able to become a scout, even if they really want to. You’re a natural, Quin. You’ve got a gift.”

“I’d call it a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call it a gift, Dak.” Quinlan looked back out amongst the vineyard. Had it been a clear day, the taller trees of Terria would have been barely visible in the distance, but a mist clung to the forest and obstructed the view.

“Our parents and grandparents fought and died to keep this kingdom safe, and now here we are fighting the same fights. Bandits, revolutionaries, treewalkers, sandskimmers…” Quin looked up to his friend with a pained expression. “Doesn’t that bother you? These fights never stop, these bandits never stop. You almost died today. Are we doomed to keep fighting? Forever?”

Dakkan frowned deeply. He was now deadly serious. “Well, first, yeah. It bothers me. I had to kill someone. I, ah…” He broke his gaze. “Never, ah…”

They were quiet, but the sounds of activity filled the air, muffled through the window. The vineyard was bustling with workers in the fields and around the house.

“I thought with all the catapults, maybe, um…” Quin offered it with a halfhearted shrug, but Dakkan shook his head.

“It ain’t the same. Far away’s a lot different than up close.”

“Sure,” said Quinlan.

The lutren stewed for a moment, collecting the words he was searching for. It took a few moments before he started speaking again. “That ermehn wanted to kill me, and I had to kill him,” he started.

“Do I like it? No. Do I accept it? I have to. I have to, Quin. We have to accept it.” He held a paw toward the window. “This is a dangerous land, Quin. My father, your grandfather, they fought to protect this land so we could live a better life. Compared to what they had to deal with, our lives’ve been easy.”

Quinlan nodded a few times. After everything they’d been though during the past day – the lives lost, the trials overcome, it was really nothing compared to the state of fear that Sunsgrove had fought through during the war. Constant polcan invasions, Navrani spies, Kishari assassins, and of course the ermehn threat from the north.

“You’re right, Dakkan. We have a lot to be thankful for, despite everything.” He sighed. “Still…”

“It ain’t perfect,” the lutren said, cutting off his friend. “It ain’t perfect, but it’s all we got. It’s the best anyone’s got, especially anyone who came before us.” Dakkan smiled warmly. “Quin, I’ll be honest, half the problem is you worry too much.”

Quinlan rolled his eyes. “Janik says I need to work on that, yes.”

Dakkan slid down into the bed, clearly ready to move on from their conversation. “Oooh, you’ve gotta get one ‘a these, mate. Beats those hammocks you’ve got in Terria by a league.”

The tamian grinned and stood up from the chair. “Well, I’ll let you get some sleep then. I’m going to talk to the vintner about getting some of that elderberry wine for your father.”

“You go do that,” Dakkan yawned and closed his eyes, hearing the door close as his friend left him for the evening.

In a matter of minutes, the lutren was fast asleep.

He did not sleep soundly.