Beyond the Gloaming
Eight-year-old Raven Runechild worried the embers of last night’s fire, carefully laced branches atop them, and sprinkled pine needles over it all. Tiny crackles and the fire sprouted like a windy weed. He tucked in his black cotton shirt, slipped his black coat on, and bound his already wrapped bedroll to Ardie. He put a kettle on for the men then eased down the path between the ever-present weeplings to the stream.
The first storm crept toward them after six dry days on the Emerald Trail during the rainy season. Anyone might smell the air and know, but Raven sensed its skulk in the rhythms of the rich soil beneath his boots.
Taylor Devenrath poised on a boulder like a colossus, mail striped in the red and green colors of Devenrath, watching the tall blade ferns across the stream, uninterested for the moment in his ward's ablutions.
Raven washed the sleep from his face and mouth with the river’s sweetwater, shaking his head and hooting against the iciness. Filling his gyke waterskin, he also scanned the dense stand of dusty green blade ferns. Last night, something had been there among the trees. While the war chargers pulled at their ties and two men forded the stream, crossbows loaded with daemon-killing argenta bolts, he’d lain in his roll, feeling the presence’s deliberate menace welling up through the land to gently harry his back like a fussing kitten. Deliberate, but not... unnatural. A beast on the hunt. Nothing born of the Fracture. The men’s noise had chased it away.
Now, though, there was no menace; birds sang to the morning, and the countless leaves of the ferns chattered in an insistent morning breeze, reminding him of the surf in the Southard Gulf. Dawn spread like peach pudding over a sky swelling with forbidding clouds, and beneath his feet the land breathed in its familiar, erratic way. He sipped from his skin and hung it from his belt. He shook water beads from the sleeves of his coppery gyke skin coat, which lined with rabbit also cut the chill.
The men were up or rousing, slipping their body leathers over their gyke-skin shirts and pants. They cursed quietly, farted mightily, pissed onto the weeplings, and chided each other. Chay steeped, hardbread heated, and dried bovan lay in a bundle on a blanket. Raven grabbed a thick salty strip.
His mother had said simply, “Go west,” meaning to the Seven Valleys at the other end of the Emerald Trail. His destination was Zahariad in the Maidenstone Mountains. Zahariad, the free city and holy center of the Mandies, stood outside the ancient Palisades that the Accord hid behind. Only heavily armed trading caravans rode the Emerald Trail, and very few of those since the Accord’s failed march east for the sweetwater a quarter century before.
Now Raven headed to west as part of some vast but barely visible plan to ally with a witch, an outlander known as the Hunter of the Claymage, who would stay the Hand of Morath. His mother had said this Hunter would be the most powerful witch to walk the lands since the Pandemonium. Would be, not was, for her strength lay in the union of five witches, the Five, of which Raven was one. Carmen did not know who else would make up this small coven. It troubled Raven that he, with but a mere sensitivity to the Form to work, was part of the Hunter’s Five.
He held the tangy chay in his mouth, the heat tingling his teeth. It all stunk of bad legend designed to frighten children. His mother was strong, not given easily to fear, but the shimmer in her eyes when she’d told him of his journey, his duties… That shimmer, like the first tiny crack in a play sword that augured its shattering, had whispered to Raven, like the voice in a fever, that things were forever changed. His mother did not show fear; she was the most consistent thing in his universe. To see that faltering was the scariest thing Raven had ever witnessed.
He watched Taylor and another Devenrath, Drake, the lieutenant, working on a crossbow that had jammed during yesterday’s fruitless hunt. Their voices low, movements confident, efficient. Drake had been first across the stream. Raven figured one of the elden witches should’ve been chosen to be part of the Five, like Timbre Cloudwalker. Or even his cousin, Orlčan Runechild, who traveled with him as what? A mentor? Another guard? But Carmen had said it wasn't for them to choose.
Raven disliked that idea. But what could he say? Smart as everyone said he was—too smart for his own good, they said—he was a child. His opinion had no place in the decisions of the elden, who had to confront the nightmare of the Hand’s waern hunting the children of the Sacred moieties, searching for him. The craven daemons took the children under cover of night and filthy magicks, leaving locked rooms and empty beds. No one ever asked him how he felt about being responsible for that. He hated that.
He poured more chay into his fireclay mug, a luck offering from his brother Martan, and sat cross-legged before the chipper fire, feeling the land, feeling sad. Six days on the Emerald Trail already, another nine to go.
His elden brother had not liked him getting a fetish without earning it, without learning it. That made the slightly lopsided mug all the more meaningful for Raven. Martan and his sister Chelsea were knee-deep in the lore now, working hard to master the Form, with a few years yet before they could claim a fetish of their own, attempt to master it, and prove their mastery in a test of mettle and wits against the elden witches. So Raven understood how they’d be upset when he hadn’t so much as cracked a grimoire, wasn't even slated to start for well over a year yet, and he now wore, not just a fetish, not simply a hearth formed and imbued by the First Nations Coven for his Totem Day, but the Telluron, the Mystic Telluron. Half an egg of blood-red iron ore enveloping a layer of uncut amethyst, emerald, and diamond. Most, including his mother, said the Telluron had fallen from the sky, that it originated from beyond the reach of the god Firmament; but Raven knew differently. He could tell as it hung about his neck that it had certainly come from their land, from deep, deep within it. It insulted him that those so wise would so err, would be so inclined to deny their own world the ability to possess such arcana. And while many claimed its capacity to hold power had been spent in turning the tide of the War of Jeneary, Raven felt its magicks lying not so much dormant as patient.
It shouldn't even be a fetish, which was only supposed to channel and augment others' magicks, not hold any of its own. The Telluron was filled, swollen even, with the power of the elementae. Yet none of the elden witches knew this, while he understood its magicks as soon as it hung around his neck; the Telluron yearned for reunion with its other half. And Raven knew that its power would be diminished should that union come about. But such understanding was so partial, made him hunger for more and not a little bit afeared at his ignorance.
The warriors broke fast while they stowed bedrolls, loaded argenta bolts into crossbows, worked their argenta blades over whetstones. The argenta enginery, plated as if made of pewter scales, hummed softly in the presence of the Telluron. Raven wondered if that hinted at the other half’s location; argenta was mined only in Alabast Tap.
Orlčan Runechild plopped his shapeless leather apothecary pack down beside Raven. His blond braid draped over his shoulder and dropped into his lap. His smirk bent softly across his face, and the diamond stud on his devilglass fetish trapped the greying morning light. “It will rain,” he said with a gentile sniff of the air. He took a bovan strip and nipped at it.
Raven dumped his tea at the edge of the fire, listened to it sizzle and considered a second strip, but the snorting and shuffling of warriors’ chargers about the small camp indicated impending departure. “I know,” he said.
“That means we will have to—“
“I know,” Raven snapped.
Taylor stepped up to the other side of the fire. “Time to ride.” He squatted to thrust a rumpled brown segaro into the fire. He stood not as tall as Orlčan, but was thicker in all directions and nine years his elder. Before any of the Devenrath moiety even had a chance to grumble, he’d volunteered to lead the guard west, which made Carmen and Ulrick’s job of choosing the fifteen-man company easy. Southern to the core, they distrusted witchery, figured it antiquated and counter to the Oratories Scripture of Future, but still men from the First Triad, the three elite maniples, volunteered. Knowing only that they performed some guard task for some unknown and hardly relevant witch's business, they had volunteered solely for Taylor.
He pulled the segaro tip away from the fire and studied its burning end. His sudden allegiance to a sworn and Sacred moiety bemused Raven. But Taylor treated Raven with utmost respect and friendship. He popped the hand-rolled finger-thick segaro in his mouth. “Finish slopping yourself, witch,” he said. “I fix to make the Blue Sisters by nightfall.” For Orlčan, however, Taylor seemed to hold the typical Southern Profane regard for the Sacred. Amid a gout of redolent smoke, the maniple captain called for his men to form up.
Orlčan’s smirk faltered only slightly with the lifting of his long nose. He spit chewed bovan into the fire, flipping the rest of the strip after it. “Quite finished,” he said, rising. Taylor was no match for him, but the Elden Law forbade a witch from committing an offensive act of malice. Orlčan made a show of checking his pack, and as he eyed its arcane contents and adjusted straps that needed no adjustment, Raven saw the isolation treading in his cousin’s eyes. He dwelled on the pang it brought, if only to deny the dread bearing the name Gloaming Pass that crept about his own heart.
The mountains and tableland of the Fracture appeared friendly, surely alluring in their smoked blue, purple, and crimson hues. But Raven knew better than to believe that stony smile. Beyond the Emerald Trail, nobody survived the Fracture.
Orlčan traveled in silence. Raven wondered if Orlčan would rather be back in Runes Down studying. Since passing through the gate, Raven had often wished to be back there himself, getting ready to begin his own studies. There was so much he’d never learn.
“But so much that you will,” Carmen had said. “It's true, you'll unlikely receive the formal training as the Sacred know it.” And she’d pursed her lips at his wince. “But you’ll learn different things, see more than any of us. Raven, you are far too intelligent for your years not to excel in the Form in some way. And ih—when you return, you’ll be the teacher.”
The trip out of Taelemone had been haunted by a homesickness so deep, Raven thought it might drive him mad. He had few friends; intimidated by his intelligence, most avoided him. And although he loved his family, it wasn't so much them that he missed as the land. Each familiar landmark jabbed at him like a knife. Many stopped to watch the small company of eighteen pass; none knew its reason or destination. It was somehow worse when they did that, for Raven knew they at least would eventually return home to family, while he continued on to the West, where lunacy resided.
Clouds hung like clots of steel. Raven watched them roll by in a sullen parade. The rain fell at first in tepid, gentle nets, but a chill wind soon swirled up like a restive dancer slapping her veils at the riders.
The day crept by in monochrome. The Trail melted into mud, making the going tough for little Ardie and Orlčan’s stately roan, Juno, both of whom had to keep their heads down against the torrent. The war chargers seemed unbothered but by the slow pace.
Taylor kept seven guards formed up around Raven and Orlčan; one scout a couple furlongs ahead, three outriders at each woods’ edge, rear guard a couple furlongs behind. Argenta in the crossbows. Aside from Taylor, only Drake Devenrath bothered to speak to the two Runechilds, and only when necessary. The others remained distant, hiding, Raven knew, behind duty, emerging only at camp to flip insults and vulgarities amongst each other. A foreboding skulked in, not from the land Raven read so well, but from his heart.
With the chilly rain rattling his hat, turning his black-black hair into sopping noodles, invading him through any slit or crevice in his jacket, he missed his mother and Chelsea and Martan’s teasing. He missed the rolling barrows of Runes Down and the setting sun’s dazzle on the shifting Swansea, the topiary maze and the turrets and towers of the manse that had been his entire world for his entire short life. Missed it not because he’d been gone so long, but because he’d heard the drag on his mother’s words. More than simple war was coming to Taelemone, more than the murders of waern that rode ceaselessly from the Towers of Destruction. More than the frightening Legion or the dead boy dancing with which the children spooked each other around the fire ring.
What if he failed? He knew nothing of what would be expected from him once he arrived in Zahariad. He, Raven Runechild, would serve the true Claymage? What did that mean? His mother could not say. How had he earned such an honor, such a burden? His mother could not say that either.
Rain now pummeled the riders. The horses threw up chunks of damp earth and then muddy chowder until their flanks and everyone’s legs were spattered. Dead sheets of lightning flapped across the sky, occasionally cracking the smoke grey vault with earthbound bolts. Taylor called for a break, grim inside his hood, with blond beard soaked dark and eyes half shut against the rain.
“By the looks of this,” he said, after sending for the flankers, “we’ll have to shoot the high run if we want to make the west side of the Blue Sisters by night.”
Drake cursed, and the other men grumbled.
“You’re sure the lower run will be flooded?” Orlčan said.
“Always is, witch.”
Orlčan looked at the sky, shut his eyes. When he looked at Taylor again, the rain made his thin face look as if it were melting. “We'll be in the heart of the Gloaming when night falls.”
“I reckon so,” Taylor said. He reined his horse around, told Drake to fetch in the forward and rear scouts, and hailed the men onward.
Orlčan gave a coy glance to Raven, smiled, and urged his horse forward.
Barbs of hail stung their faces, whipped by a wind laughing among the leaves of waving trees. Runnels of water grooved the Trail, spilling silvery into the brush. Nothing in the land made Raven uneasy, but old dreams did. Dreams of a road, a path where something hungry waited. The Gloaming.
The Blue Sisters lounged in a shallow declivity, not quite a valley, shaped like a velvety green-yellow footprint. Six swollen sweetwater lakes, linked by submerged caves and formed by the broad, long-dead volcano, Harmatia—the stigma to their petals—and glutted with fish and skorp, and other beasts said to lurk in those black caves. The north run of the Emerald Trail dropped down into the footprint, and because of that, the two Sisters along its northern edge drowned it any heavy rain. Leaving only the higher route, the Gloaming Pass. It ran above the Sisters on the decaying edge of Harmatia, which held one of the Sisters in its open belly as if coveting a slab of lapis. One edge was loose talus, prone to slides; a tangled forest, which climbed from the volcano’s inner slope, crowded the north side. A huge pod of mountain mants was rumored to hunt there. But so were ghouls and luciferge and hobgoblins and daemons. All rumored, for eyewitnesses were rare and usually too traumatized to clearly recall what had taken their horses and comrades in the night or the fog or the rain.
When the company reached the fork, the veils of rain abruptly thinned into a prickling mist. Taylor pushed them hard up the south tine. It was still firm, but tiny cataracts carved troughs in it. The grade was steep, and stones protruded from the ground like skullcaps. Raven feared Ardie would trip; she was no war charger, her roughest task `til then had been hauling a tiny fruit wagon in from the orchards once a year. Now she was hauling arse up one of the scariest roads in the land. Raven would’ve smiled had his own arse not been bearing the goodly brunt of it all.
Clouds hung like deathhouse shrouds and, as the grade mellowed, he felt the first uneasy stirrings in the land. As if the company had just crossed over into somewhere new. Or old, for the land’s unease seemed more like memory.
The road sidewinded before them, barren on the edge of a grim forever overlooking one of the Sisters, not blue now, but flat and grey like an empty soul. The forest swept up from the other side, rising high into the shrouds, dusty green and brown, broad leaves and dangling vines, thick trunks and swarming underbrush. The green heads of the never-flowering weeplings bobbing everywhere like an idiot mob. The forest shimmered with dripping water and quietly roared in the waning wind, perfuming the air with vegetable musk.
Taylor called for a halt. The warriors unslung their crossbows, watched the swaying woods, eyes darting toward every birdcall. Their alertness was ill applied, missing the danger welling up from the land. “Keep away from the forest,” Taylor said with a firmness battling his low tone. “We’ve about three hours ‘til nightfall.”
“Less than two and a half,” Orlčan said.
“We stay away from the forest,” Taylor said. “The soldiers will form a double line at the road’s center, then the timekeeping witch.” The men laughed. Orlčan studied the rein his hands with sharp, sharp eyes. “Raven,” Taylor continued, “I want you on the far side of them. I’ll ride next to you, closest to the edge. Now we’ll be maybe a quarter way through when it's dark. We won't be stopping, but we’ll be moving slow, and we’ll be moving careful. I won't have any of you poltroons panicking and taking me or Raven over the side. Remember, we’re dealing with, at most, mountain mants, not vamps or devils or waern. They die easy in comparison.”
“They move like silence,” Drake said.
“Then it might be a good idea to keep your gods bedamned mouth shut.”
As they moved out, the men hurled a volley of whispered insults at the lieutenant, who took them all with aplomb.
Ardie shifted beneath Raven; maybe the pony also felt the strangeness. Always warm with the elementae that seemed to fountain from the land, the Mystic Telluron heated further against his chest. Deception danced in the earth. The one Sister stared up at him like a godless eye.
The low clouds caught sound, bounced and magnified it. Birdcall echoed and runoff broke like glass. Damp mist flitted about the riders.
Orlčan stared not at the forest like everyone else, but at Raven, and the boy knew with certainty that, as the witch moved between Taylor and himself, he spoke with his smirk as dense as the forest, as obscure as the cloud cover, and with his sharp, sharp eyes, which said, Be careful.
The land buckled invisibly, erupted silently up through Ardie, through the soles of Raven’s feet. Perplexed, he looked to the dizzying green forest. As he turned toward Orlčan, the impact was so solid, an involuntary guttural bellow escaped with all his wind. Ardie neighed, other horses too, men yelled with the self-conscious restraint of those taken unawares, and Raven was free, and it was green and grey and then wet, unyielding brown. Something crushed him, and thunder and lightning struck his head.
* * *
Raven sat up, saw screaming black pricked by undulant orange, which collapsed into a smear. He dreamt of his family and Runes Down, the shush of surf, and a whispering breeze gliding through the cherry orchards and fields that settled his whirling head and belly. A shimmer moved with it down in the ancient earth, laying across it like a black dew.
This time, he lay still as awareness seeped in. He saw a cold night sky littered with the smoky remains of the storm, tattered edges lit ghostly by a setting moon that sang to him. He felt the heat of a fire, and somebody, beside him.
A gentle hand caressed his forehead. His head felt stuffed to bursting with dirt, and the moon sang nothing, it rang deep in his right ear. His gaze fell over to the source of the hand. Orlčan Runechild stared down at him, his smirk softened by eyes full of pain.
“Wha’ hap?...” Raven’s jaw didn't work too well; words stumbled out, muted and thorny with pain.
“It's as grim a coming as the dead boy’s dance.” Orlčan looked away. Firelight smudged his face with deep shadow. “It was Taylor Devenrath.”
Raven waited, finally managed, “Wha’ about?”
“He tried to kill you. Both of us.”
“Wha’....” He dreamt again, must be.
“He was... one of them. Somehow... with them. The Hand of Morath. Carmen said nothing of humyn agents.... Still I suspected something. Just never thought this…. And I could do nothing.”
Raven pushed away Orlčan’s hand and struggled to sit up. Nausea wormed through him, but faded. “Tayluh tried duh kill?...”
“Slow, Raven. Yes, while we... watched the woods, he turned his crossbow on you.”
Raven recalled the land’s uneasiness, how it hadn't come from the forest. Would Orlčan lie? “Tayluh...”
“Yes. I sensed it at the last moment... and did what I could. I’m afraid all I could manage was to shove you from your horse.... And fall on top of you.” A tiny laugh slipped through his smirk. “His bolt took Drake Devenrath.... I took him.”
It took Raven a moment. “Ya? Ya killed him?”
“Defense,” Orlčan said quietly, but firmly, in a way Raven hadn't heard him speak before. “The men don't believe me.... Even after seeing Drake’s shattered head. They think I broke the Elden Law... think I'm renegade and you’re my captive.... But they’re too afraid to confront me, and—leave your head alone. In the panic, Ardie kicked you.”
“Buh way, no one’s ask’n’ why or how Draze’s dead?” Raven’s cheek was tight and tender and bulbous like a gourd. The Elden Law didn't forbid lying, and Raven had no way of telling; the land was rife with unrest moving in long and short swells clashing.
Orlčan shook his head, his braid swayed. He looked off to the right. “An evil from the woods killed Drake.... The rumor made real.... It's what they’ll say, it's what they want to believe. Taylor Devenrath was a hero. His bolt went clean through Drake’s head; there’s no proof. And there’s another, at least another like Taylor, among them.... I don't know who... he uses no magic. Words I suspect. But the men hang thick and far from my ears now. I figure he spins a tale of an attack from the woods... of which I took traitorous part. It'll be said that I was in league with the Hand, that before they stopped me, I killed you. They will bide their time for the remainder of the trek.... I fear that sleep will become rarified.”
Raven followed Orlčan’s stare to where another fire flapped in the night. Shapes huddled around it, argenta gleamed, purring in the Telluron.
“At the fork west of the Gloaming where the northern and southern routes meet again.”
“There, with the men. Drake was left in the Pass.... No need to drag evidence along. Animals, not daemons, will see to the concealment.”
“Ya say’n’ tha Taylah ‘n’ suhbody else plod duh kill us?”
“Somebody plotted for them, I suspect.”
“And t’other is feed’n’ lies duh duh men?”
Orlčan rummaged through his apothecary. His smirk rippled into a smile. “You really shouldn't talk.” He pulled out a fist-sized orb and small stand for it to sit on and muttered while holding his fetish until a gleam sprouted within it, swelling from a yellow pea to bright white light that domed the two witches.
“Why wouldn' he jez agree wid ya story? Why keep ya on ya guard by sew’n’ distruz when he cou’ geh insid’at guard by cahwahbahwat’n’ ya story?”
Orlčan chuckled as he pulled out a small glass bulb, an oil vial. The rubber stopper popped off and Orlčan dabbed some on his index finger and circled it first into Raven’s left temple and then his right. “A little lavender essence to ease your headache. It's probably not strong enough…. Your intelligence is high... but young, not yet wise... Consider this: Why side with a witch who’s possibly broken the Elden Law when you’re among Southerners who already distrust and even hate witches? Far easier to inflame that distrust and allow one of them to do your deed for you while everyone sleeps. A story would be fabricated and corroborated by all.”
“Nah by me.”
“You’re forgetting the most important thing: your death is the Hand of Morath’s main concern. I was—am—merely an obstacle.” He put the oil vial away and retrieved another. “Some more arnik-witch hazel unguent for your bruise. Ware, Raven, for as gentle as I’ll be, your cheek is tender.” Raven winced as Orlčan smoothed on the yellow ointment. Then he pulled out a long vial of coarse rust- and saffron-colored powder. “Passionflower and corydal,” he announced. Deftly, he uncapped it and tapped some into a green marble mortar. He added green flakes. “Chicksbane.” Almost jauntily. And then a pinch of something brown. “Quivery aspen.” He rolled a pestle through it all. It sounded like someone chewing. “Taylor tried to put a bolt through both of our heads, and, I suspect, if necessary, anyone else’s who might’ve had a problem with it.”
“Why shuh Ah truz ya?” Raven said, easing a hand up to find the Telluron through his shirt.
Orlčan added two drops of amber liquid. “Decoction of opium.” Then a seemingly careless splash of water; he mixed it quickly. “Drink this.” He clasped the back of Raven’s head firmly in a big hand and poured the nauseous slime into the boy’s mouth. Raven gagged, but forced the concoction down. “You shouldn't,” the tall witch said, wiping Raven’s chin and tapping the fetish, “trust anyone again.”
Pain faded. Raven’s head cleared while at the same time, he grew drowsy.
“I want to learn the Form like you,” he thought he said.
“Don't talk.... One thing you must understand, Raven, is that compared to you... me and anyone else of the Sacred are as babes. I am good... I will be fully Sworn, but I and everyone else, including Timbre Cloudwalker du Cloudwalker... merely manipulate the elementae. Mikalis Allardyce says that you will be able to change them.... No one, not even your mother knows for sure what that means.... I guess I envy what you are and what you’ll become as part of the Five.… I can never be it. But I am pleased to be of service in such a moment of import.”
Mikalis Allardyce? A name littered throughout the arcane histories he had read. A symbol, obviously, for he would be thousands of years old. “I wanna learn....”
“You have no choice.”
Dread surged through Raven carried on the conspiratorial voices of the warriors. But he realized he heard only the baby whispers of the fire beside him. Every part of his body sagged and slacked, dragging him down into uneasy sleep.
* * *
The company rode without outriders, scouts, or rear guard in a cluster with the sun not yet free of Harmatia’s shadow. The Runechilds rode at the center, with Taylor’s night-black charger, Vampyr, in front of them relegated to carcass mule. Raven had once seen a warrior dead from a border skirmish, but the man had been peaceful looking, already somewhat rehumanized by Darius Runechild who’d attempted to heal a tremendous sword wound, which had been concealed beneath heavy swathing. Taylor was wrapped in the blanket of Drake’s charger, TeeDee, now saddleless and burdened with the men’s excess gear. The blanket was black with dried blood around the knot that defined Taylor’s head. Raven stared at the warrior’s boots; a crust of dried mud somehow diminished them and the man who wore them. Was he still a man that he was dead? Was he still a man that he had betrayed Runechild Moiety and Taelemone? Had he betrayed them? Raven glanced at Orlčan, whose blond braid bounced and snapped behind him like an angry serpent.
The men rode in stunned concentration. As far as they knew, their great leader had been felled by a witch in league with something horrible in the forest of the Gloaming. The sentiment wafted from them, and with it seeped distrust and hatred and, beneath it all, murder.
The Trail still ran above the land, now bordered on both sides by forest, and the pink morning light failed to leach completely the menace from its shadows. Blade ferns grew so close to each other, it was impossible to tell which saber-like leaves belonged to which tree. They hung there like the hungry blades of Scar Belloch’s abattoirs from the Black Dawns Cycle.
But the sky blushed peachy-red, birds called in disjointed symphony, and the Blue Sisters to the north lay like fruity sheets, so the shiver was a fleeting one. The keen-tasting air and mucky ground were the only remnants of the storm. Harmatia reached down toward the riders, gripping the land with gnarly fingers of old stone.
Orlčan’s tisane had taken the swelling down to almost normal. Raven could talk freely again, if with discomfort, and his cheek was black as a brinjal; riding sent spikes through his face. He hadn't eaten, but hunger couldn't grow where the company’s sentiments fed his dread. Ardie rode indifferently, concentrating on the muddy route, apparently unaware that she’d kicked him. The men, however, were tight-faced and tense, watching the witches.
He couldn't tell who might be this other enemy. The logical one, and Orlčan seemed to be watching him as well, was the man who’d assumed the lead. Jons Gallowglass was a sergeant in the Second Maniple Arbalists of the First Triad. His black, close-cropped hair and beard cast a permanent shadow around a sun-darkened face that range wars and tavern brawls had resculpted into something resembling wasteland. Strapped to his back was the largest crossbow available in Taelemone, a rare and tremendous weapon of ironwood that men twice his size might handle and used more for scaling mountain cliffs than warfare. A weapon that, in the right hands, might loft a bolt almost a third of a league. Gallowglass’ bow skills were famous, and the word was that, had he been of sweeter disposition and more given to the regiment of the military, he might’ve been the Gallowglass Argentian.
Raven listened to the land for some unding signal: a diffuse churning, insistent like his own anxiety. It was like the dream, and like when he first awoke last night. It was sewn into the land and draped over it. Too vast to originate with just fourteen men. He worried, and the Mystic Telluron worried too, in its way, warming through his shirt and mixing the land’s signals with its own to create a jittery tangle in Raven’s belly.
When they rounded a broad bend in the Trail, the forest scattered and dropped down the shallowing elevation to the south and north, cutting between the Trail and the last Blue Sister, which spread like spilled dawn below them. Raven saw the source then, also spread out below them in clusters. Hundreds of cookfires, beading the Sister’s grassy shoreline with wiggling orange and wispy tails of grey. People. And self-propelled vehicles called wheelers. Westerners
“What the mother’s red fuck is this?” Jons Gallowglass asked. He called them to a halt, stared for a moment, then whipped his charger, Riko, around. “Witch,” he said, leering at Orlčan, “what is this?”
“How the mother’s red fuck would I know?” Orlčan said.
Raven ogled both men; the company’s’ laughter swiped the air like little daggers.
Gallowglass laughed. “Smart off again and I’ll grow a blacksteel prick right between your hell-borne eyes.”
Now Orlčan laughed along with the men. “A sight that would be,” he said, “and an achievement, considering that your fingers would be burned to bone all the way down to your toes.” He leered at the men as if sharing a joke, but they had fallen suddenly silent. Back to Jons, he said, “They look like Westerners. Perhaps speaking to someone down there might answer your question, Gallowglass.”
Jons nodded with stale smile. “Reckon so,” he said. “No weapons,” he snapped as some of the men started unslinging bows.
Orlčan ignored Raven’s stare as he shrugged his shoulders to adjust his apothecary bag.
They rode hard down the Trail without any stealth. The eastern-most camp scrambled at their approach, and a ripple of alarm moved through the rest. Raven grew concerned when a wheeler that sped to meet them vanished into the forest.
It burst onto the Trail a furlong from them, front wheels off the ground. It bounced to a sliding, muddy-spitting stop. Two men stepped out, stood before it.
“They’re armed,” Kemper Devenrath yelled from the point.
“Hold weapons!” Gallowglass glared over his shoulder.
The company halted a couple hundred rods from the Westerners.
“Witch,” Gallowglass said, “you and me. Let’s go.”
“Not without Raven.”
The men had surrounded the two Runechilds. Raven still saw nothing in the hostile eyes that hinted at who this other enemy might be. Maybe they all were, maybe some magic operated that Orlčan couldn't recognize. No, he and Orlčan would be dead already.
Unless Orlčan was lying.
Jons Gallowglass scowled. “I swore to protect that boy. That means not leading him into dangerous situations.... When I don't have to. ”
“Or leaving him in them,” Orlčan said. “With two dead men, he stays with me. I swore oaths too, ones that would boggle your mind.”
“What is an oath worth to a witch who broke the Elden Law?” Kemper Devenrath said. Men agreed with weak laughter, strong curses.
“You’d better enjoy your freedom now, witch, because if you make it back to Taelemone, I swear by Future’s steely tits I’ll see your hell-borne arse before the First Nations Raidens, and the truth of what happened to Taylor Devenrath will be known. And that’s an oath as simple as the puny wankadoodle hanging between your legs.”
“Elden Lawbreakers burn,” Kemper said with a grin that flared huge nostrils above his red-and-green-dyed mustache. “I’ll ride with you, Jons.”
“Stay here,” Gallowglass said.
“You can't trust that witch.”
“After what happened up in the Gloaming, I don't trust anyone. You watch the witch from here, kill him if that smarmy look of his even twitches.”
Orlčan said blithely, “I suggest sending someone back up the Trail to watch the camps, we can't see if they’re moving from here.”
Jons nodded slowly, scanning the blade ferns. “Good idea...”
“I’ll go,” Robin Devenrath said. A square and private man, with a huge laugh, knifelike muttonchops shattered on one side by a buckler scar, and bald head striped with twin lines of green and red running from forehead to nape. He carried a mace on his saddle and wore a belt of bolts with explosive heads favored in the South. He turned and trotted bone-white Lupo back up the hill.
“Just keep your fucking bows slung. Let’s go, witch.” Gallowglass held a hand out for Orlčan to take the lead.
“Come on, Raven...” Orlčan said. “It’ll be all right.”
“I’m not afraid,” Raven said, mostly for his own benefit.
The three riders trotted up the Trail. The young sun spattered yellow on the blade ferns and fat old oaks and left glittery chips along wet leaf edges and in shrinking puddles; it warmed Raven’s neck. The two men waited almost casually, both leaning against the vehicle, the shorter one with the long hair smoking a pipe, the other with arms crossed. Now Raven could see their Western weapons—rifles—slung over their shoulders. He told himself he wasn't afraid.
Gallowglass rode just behind the Runechilds, off to Raven’s right; he couldn't tell whether the sergeant watched the Westerners or them.
They stopped about ten paces from the Westerners, Gallowglass now even with the Runechilds. The Westerners waited, and Raven felt the first twinge of something alien: annoyance at their arrogance, which he’d always heard about, among other things. They were both dark-skinned, and the taller one had thick black hair and a large nose. He could smell the pipe smoke, which somewhat obscured the squinting face of the other one. He hadn't seen many wheelers in his time; an occasional Western merchant stopped on the Runechild’s land to trade. This one sat somewhat high above wide tires and a busy-looking suspension that made the springs on the heavy hauling wagons look primitive. Its profile though was low, swept back but burly with armor, its windscreens dark. Beneath the mud, a matte green and brown paint scheme and countless scrapes and dents.
“Good morning,” Orlčan said finally, his voice light with amusement, walking Juno toward them.
The Westerner with the pipe pulled it from his mouth. “An Eastern perspective, eya Orton?” he said with the flat Western accent and a voice like talon wire hitching up on your skin. The pipe smoke swirled away and Raven saw not a man, but a rock-faced womyn with bushy brows, a blue stud in her substantial nose, and sadness clouding her brown eyes.
Her partner laughed. They both wore outrageous, billowy shirts of splashy color and pants with fine rainbow pinstripes. Typical Mandie garb. To dress their dullness of nature, the saying went. But amid the garishness was proof of a hard journey: mud spatters and torn fabric and sooty stains. Her arm wore a blood-soiled wrap, and weariness emanated from them both. They looked too tired to be hostile, yet the man, Orton, had slipped one hand around his waist to his rifle stock.
The depth of Raven’s confusion was known in the desire for Taylor to be there with them astride Vampyr instead of slung over the great black horse like a sack of meal. Taylor had been nice to him; had that been part of the plan? Or was the “plan” simply part of Orlčan’s plan? How could the Hand of Morath, which spawned killing daemons and were-beasts, how could so evil a thing get close enough to any humyn to turn him?
Orlčan introduced the three of them.
“I am Rissa Calliope,” the womyn said, “and this is Orton Warburton.”
“We’re heading west,” Orlčan said. “To your lands.”
“On business,” Gallowglass flung in. His eyes slid this way and that, watching the woods, the berm of the Trail, the sky.
“Uh-huh...” She assessed Gallowglass as one might a mediocre pomid and then looked at Orton, whose faint smile was cold, a bit sickly. “Might be there’s no business left by now,” he said. His forearms were heavily veined and the thickness of his legs was apparent through his jester pants. Despite his impractical clothes, he stood with a warrior posture. And it wasn’t just the Western rifle. His hair was pulled tightly back against his head, showing a row of silver hoops in his left ear; a scar danced over the bridge of his large nose dipped down his right cheek. The sudden shade of lost confidence painted him timid. “We, we used the underroads to get to the Emerald Trail and most of us were slaughtered by the Miniak as we emerged.”
“The Miniak?” Gallowglass said. “Those lizard pricks just don’t want to leave you Westerners alone, eh?” His humorless laugh died feebly in the space between them.
“Allied with Scorpio Gemfires this time,” Rissa said. “Just waiting for us.”
“Thousands, thousands dead,” Orton said. “That the Miniak knew about the underroads that far east is a fell, fell thing.”
“I’ve heard of those routes,” Gallowglass said.
“Everyone’s heard of them,” Rissa snapped. “No one knows their location. No one outside of the Mandaroy. It's untold lore. Locked in Memory and forgotten by most.”
“So how did the Miniak know?” Raven asked. The Miniak had returned? That truly was a grim coming.
Rissa hissed, slapped her pipe against the bottom of a slipper, eyed the boy. Orton said, “How indeed? We fear there are humyns in league with the Miniak and the Hand—and not just the Scorpios of the Umbral Split, but Mandaroy traitors—giving away the untold lore necessary to kill their own people.”
“Humyns?” Gallowglass said, glancing at the Runechilds.
Raven thought about Taylor’s behavior. Just a Southern warrior being nice to a Sacred boy. Unusual enough?
Rissa sipped in a shaky breath, and Orton placed a hand on her bandaged arm. She spoke slowly, with a serpentine vehemence. “There lives no lower beast than that.”
“Hard to imagine what they could gain,” Orton said. “An elden hoodoo told me as he died that Memory spoke of a war that would be like no other. That this is but the first glimmer. I cannot find such lore in Memory.”
“Who needs Memory?” Rissa said. “Kai Ferracane warned us all... and now he is dead.
“He is not dead,” Orton said.
“I heard he was dead,” Gallowglass said, “that Windfist just says he’s alive to humiliate you Mandies. Interesting way of honoring war heroes.”
“Hold that tongue in your mouth or hold it in your hands,” Rissa said, easing a monstrous knife from a battered scabbard on her belt.
“Surely he meant no offense,” Orlčan said. “Merely harmless colloquialism in Taelemone, eh Jons?”
Gallowglass glared at Orlčan’s use of the familiar, but reluctantly agreed, an amused look disrupting his ravaged face.
“Surely,” Rissa said. The blade slipped back in to the scabbard.
“With all respect, rumor be among the Sacred that Kai Ferracane escaped,” Orlčan said. Gallowglass laughed.
Rissa joined him. “No man, not even Ferracane, escapes Eerkes”
“‘When fallen lands have fallen still,” Orlčan said. Gallowglass glowered again, and Raven felt the faintest shimmy corkscrew up from the land.
The womyn’s hard face rippled, eyes rolling off Orlčan upward to scan the fading pink sky. “‘At the hands of grim and hateful pawns,” she said, “‘gone warriors rise from hill and yon, ride new Trail of Crimson Dawns.’” Orlčan finished with her; she squinted at him. “That's but ancient verse—Mandie verse—with as many meanings as mouths that utter it.”
“True,” Orlčan said, “but the man who taught me it mentioned the return of a great warrior from beyond the blackest gates.”
“Rissa...” Orton said quietly, then looked at Orlčan. “When the Miniak struck Tower Drakestone, you could tell they were expecting to roll their warstorms over us. They were not counting on us fighting back.”
“You were disarmed,” Gallowglass said, “RAITHs, weaponry, equipment, support. Gone. What’d you fight with, the fucking cutlery?”
“So they thought,” Rissa said. And Orton nodded his head. “Thought they'd hunted us all down after the war. Thought the Wyrdo had erased us. They knew it wasn’t true but they kept telling the people it was so until they themselves believed it. But we gave them back a little. And it's true, Tower Drakestone has been demilitarized, Accord support wasn't there for us. We didn’t expect it. The Tower has seceded, the pupper governor ousted. For what that’s worth. Not much, I suppose.” A shrug. “But it's true too that the Miniak were overwhelming this time, in numbers and ferocity. We fought but we knew we wouldn’t stand for long, so the decision was made to leave for the East.” She studied her pipe, a richly grained piece of reddish hardwood or maybe some kind of stone. “I figure the Miniak, I figure they come this time for something specific.”
“Rissa,” Orton said sharply.
“Do not ‘Rissa’ me,” she flicked back.
“We look for no trouble,” Orton said to the men, “nor to bore you with tales of Mandaroy woe. Only passage into Taelemone where we might find a patch to settle until... well, until the war comes.”
“Western refugees won't be welcome in Taelemone,” Gallowglass said. “Remember your last little visit?”
“How do you plan to stop us?” Orton asked quietly.
Gallowglass forced a laugh. “I don’t, Mandie. The First Nations’ll contend with you and yours—”
Orlčan shifted in his saddle. “There’s no nee—“
“We have no place. No home.” Rissa said. “I watched my husband get beaten to death by a dozen cowards wearing the Scorpio checked sash, and then watched those same cowards each spit their wretched seed inside me. My d-daughters vanished there. My son died on the Trail. Have you ever seen your own child die begging you to stop the pain?”
Raven winced. Orlčan’s smirk was a shriveled petal across his face. Orton’s rifle pointed casually at Gallowglass, how he managed to ready it, Raven didn't know.
"You see,” the Mandaroy said, “we have little to lose. Getting past your words and your little band will be as nothing to us. Your hatred and fear does not touch us. It's less than yesterday’s drizzle. There’s a handful of us only, but if need be, we will do what we chose not to do on that last little visit, when the Weroncroften objected to war with Taelemone.”
“Weroncroften....” Orlčan said.
Gallowglass slid his tardy hand away from his bow. “Gibberish. A fucking, lying, shifty little threat. Windfist saw to the end of them. You said.”
“They said. Windfist sees nothing from so high up in his Tower,” Rissa said and her harsh voice was shrill with joyless satisfaction. “Nothing. Farris Lord-Umbra has sauntered in and taken his kingdom from right in front of him. And Windfist let it happen. This time, all of the Valleys fall. This time, the Weroncroften ride without chains.” She tore her bandage off. An angry laceration tore across her arm, caked with filth, but below it, the tattoo of the Weroncroft sword and beast stood out from the dirt in proud black relief.
“I’ll be damned,” Gallowglass said, eyes shifting, body shifting, hands squeezing his reins.
“We all will,” Rissa said.
“Not if the Five rise,” Raven said.
“What do you know of the Five?” Rissa asked, stabbing her pipe toward him.
“I’m one of them.”
The boy glared at Orlčan. “I see no harm in speaking of it.”
“You forget what I told you?”
“I feel no deception from them.”
“You felt nothing from Taylor either.”
Stung and full of dread, Raven said to the Weroncroften, “I don't know much else. The Five is to face the Hand of Morath of which the Miniak are the vanguard. I know not what Farris Lord-Umbra has to do with it.”
“Ask Kai Ferracane,” Rissa said. Beneath the Weroncroften symbol, two more tattoos covered her muscular forearm to the wrist. One was simply a ring of intertwined serpents, mouths in tails, the other was a small but radiant bird of yellow and black with red wing bands—perhaps her moiety sigil—Heritage—they called them in the West.
“How is it such a weedling as yourself claims membership in something from the deepest Mandaroyan arcanum?” Orton said, his weapon steady on Gallowglass; he seemed unconcerned with Orlčan.
Raven shrugged. “The Soul makes such choices as it will,” he said as confidently as possible. “My mother told me, and she agrees with what you’ve heard, all is changing, but that's maybe not all for the bad. The Five rising, yes, it means the breaking down of much that we know, but it also means the coming together in a new way.” Raven looked at them all. “Maybe Mandaroy and Nations become as one, maybe Sacred and Profane meld, maybe—”
“I think we are through here,” Orlčan said.
“Let the boy speak,” Rissa said.
“He is but a boy and speaks without... proper tempering. Simplistically....”
“He sounds learned to me.”
“He is perhaps too smart for his own good.” Orlčan blinked, his old nervousness returning. “We certainly shan’t be preventing you from heading to Taelemone. Maybe you’ll find tolerance there, a moiety or two that will grant you passage across their land. Not even the profane moieties are as barbaric as you or others,” he looked at Gallowglass, “make them out to be. But be warned, we have our own troubles of the Miniak sort.”
“The Miniak are in Taelemone,” Orton said flatly.
“At least two warstorms arrived through a fugue where none has ever been seen.”
A wave of queasiness boiled up through the land and rolled over Raven, making his head hurt. Danger coiled up its sway.
He was airborne before he registered the explosion. And like a sickness nightmare that repeats: rotating colors and wind-stealing impact. Muddy dirt and rock and other things rained down on him in chunks and grit. Sunlight stung his eyes, tickled his nose. Horses screamed, and, in the distance, men yelled. The shaking from the explosion ended, yet the land moved still, and the transition of motion was like a pie: the explosion was crust, and what followed was cream, a mellow and sickeningly smooth dance that meant death.
Raven sat up, looked around while breathing acrid smoke swirling in the wind. The Western wheeler now sat with its rear facing them; it was riddled with tears and jagged rents, and all its windows were frosted webs or gone. Rissa was gone too, and Orton lay like a discarded puppet at the edge of the forest. Juno and Riko pranced about looking in every direction with afeared eyes as mayhem descended. Something grabbed Raven and yanked him to his feet, making his head shimmer with pain.
“Let’s go!” Orlčan pulled him toward the tree line. Gallowglass stood there already, crossbow in hand, staring up the road, an unusual bewilderment crossing his harsh features. It sounded like the Summery Eve festival, crackling and rapid pops echoed from everywhere.
“Where’s Ardie?” Raven yelled, stumbling with Orlčan’s frantic pace.
“Are you hurt?” Orlčan asked, just about throwing him off the road into a trench where a bloody Rissa Calliope watched, pistol in hand, in the same direction as Gallowglass.
Another larger explosion, farther away, shook the ground. This confusion and sense of exposure, the stink, the brute fear, was nothing like what the bards and liars sang and wooed womyn with.
“This is your own people,” Rissa snarled, “your own people.”
“No,” Orlčan said, “it's Robin Devenrath, who ceased being one of us probably long ago.”
"What?" Raven said.
“Witch!” Gallowglass said. “Your fucking maw’ll kill you.”
“And where has your ignorance gotten us? Do your eyes lie?”
All that made sense to Raven fell away like crumbling earth sliding down a cliff, trying to drag him with it. Ardie was flopped belly down with legs sprawled in a creeping pool of blood rushing from a horrific wound like a giant blossom in her neck. But for all the blood, her single glazed eye streaked with sadness held him.
“Raven! Get down!” A hand gripped the top of his head and pushed him down just as world tipped to the roar of another explosion. The overhanging trees caught the fallout, a filthy rain and hail tumbling through the leaves. Raven peeked up over the muddy edge of the trench and saw Robin Devenrath.
The lone figure high on the hill lofted another bolt into the air, this one off to the north toward the Mandaroy camp. Below Robin, the other Southern warriors tore down the Trail, firing their crossbows into the woods. Raven knew they understood nothing. One of them flew from his horse, hitting the ground and rolling into a tangled heap. Two more followed in rapid succession, their horses tumbling off the road into the woods.
Green forest either side of the broad Trail, a brown ribbon rising into the sky; a charger galloping down it. A face, snapping back, blurred white, features wide with dumb surprise, hair loose and whipping like a tiny fire. Blood fracturing a forehead. Arms straight, stiff, gripping the reins against the pull of the body.
The horse was shot out from beneath the corpse, the image faded, memory sewed its seeds.
The death of the Devenrath band was like watching a drop of water running down a slab of summer-heated stone: it evaporated until a single riderless horse, Vampyr, streaked past where the three Taelemonites and one Weroncroften crouched. Taylor’s body was gone.
“Gods bedamned, those were my comrades,” Gallowglass said. “Your people slaughtered my men.”
“And here I thought you a seasoned fighter,” Rissa Calliope said. “Last I heard, self-defense lay well within the rules of engagement anywhere even in a land of barbarians.”
Gallowglass unleashed a serpent of foul oaths, at which Rissa cackled humorlessly.
“Look…” Orlčan said, pointing to the northeast. “By the gods…”
Raven saw a vast swarm of creatures like a daemonic slide boiling down the slope toward the Mandaroy camps. Beasts on two legs and four and six in skins of garish iridescent colors glittering in this sun; huge, pumping wings flinging lion-headed serpents ahead in spurts; massive spider-like things with bloated, translucent bodies and whipping stingers; lumbering humanoids of green-grey; wisps and hags and flitting specters.
“Legion,” Orlčan said. He fingered his fetish and began to murmur.
Back up the Trail, past the litter of horses and men, some of whom wriggled slowly like worms, Robin Devenrath walked Lupo down the hill, hurling explosive bolts; he seemed to descend on a dirty cloud—drying earth kicked up by Mandaroyan gunfire.
A fiery fountain of earth lifted the wheeler, tossed Orton’s body and shoved Ardie over into her gore. A smile bent Robin’s tiny face.
Raven wanted to be angry, but he was terrified. “I know why we couldn't tell he was the other,” he said. “He’s no man.”
“No,” Orlčan said, “obviously not.”
“He’s fucking dead is what he is,” Gallowglass said, hefting the huge Ironbole crossbow to his shoulder. He gauged distance and the rider’s descent, taking aim. Muscles and veins lifted off his sooted arms.
Jons Gallowglass wasn't the only one with that idea. From the treeline, bullish weapons fire crackled.
Robin Devenrath rocked with each slug that tore into him, that distorted his face and ripped parts of him away in pinkish puffs. But he smiled still and continued his descent.
“Yes,” Raven said, shuddering, “he is dead.”
Gallowglass braced himself and loosed his weapon; he shook with the release, which resounded in the root-snarled trench and speared a shrill whine into Raven’s ears as the bolt flew.
Raven didn't even try to follow the bolt, but instead watched Robin Devenrath.
“Why is he not going down?” Rissa asked, squeezing her weapon in frustration.
“Some things not even your Western weapons can stop,” Orlčan said. Raven felt a surge from the tall witch.
“The horse too?”
“Watch this,” Jons Gallowglass said, tipping his chin at Robin Devenrath.
The bolt tore half of Robin’s face away. His smiled widened, or rather, his mouth sagged open.
“Gods be... what is he?”
“Try an argenta bolt,” Raven said.
“He is no waern,” Orléan said. “He is something else. Less, yet more, I think.”
“A souljack,” Rissa said. “That's what our cabals call it. Yet as you say, more too.”
“Hmm, just so. An innocent possessed.”
“But he’s dead,” Raven said. “Like from the Black Dawns Cycle.”
Rissa’s smile was as brave and weak a defense against tears as Raven had ever seen. “So,” she said, “you have your bad mornings too.” Her wound bled again, waxy runnels tracking down over the Weroncroften sword-and-beast, and she wore several bloody dents on her face. She was, as his Uncle Edwin might say in that falsely serious way, a hopelessly homely womyn, but at that moment, she was beautiful, with her ropy arms and short, mussed hair, and dark eyes exuding that Mandaroyan superiority.
“You're all boggling my ball bag,” Jons said, slipping an argenta bolt into his bow. It rang, in fact, his entire cache rang with the Telluron. “Who gives a galloping red fuck what poor Robin is, was, or will be? Let’s just find a way to fucking stop him, it, whatever, and his gaggle of friends. I say the boy is right, sink a piece of argenta in the bastard’s arse and see if he’s smiling still. Then you can philosophize over what’s left.”
“He can’t be killed,” Orlčan said, “but we can render him unfit to occupy.”
“Leave that to the Weroncroften,” Rissa said. Orlčan shook his head. Fires burned in several spots to the north and down toward them. Screams of pain, fright, and anger were smothered beneath the enraged bellows, tormented wailing, baleful keening, the humming roar of insectile wings.
The forest belched up three wheelers, one of them large and wagon-like with a person in the back hanging onto a mounted weapon. They bounced onto the Trail some twenty paces from Robin and blocked his route. Men and womyn spilled out and fired weapons. It was like yellow festival lights strung across the Trail. Robin’s head went back, and Raven thought he—or it—was finally stopped, but no, he could hear laughter. Robin calmly slipped a fat-headed bolt into his bow and fired it pointblank into the wheelers. The explosion raised a flaming curtain of earth and metal and bodies. Robin Devenrath slid through it and started to gallop toward them. The ground shook with increasing fervor as he approached; weapons fire fell off to sporadic pops.
The creatures of Legion erupted from the treeline, Mandaroy fighters tossed about and shredded on trunks and horns and razor talons. The horde formed up behind Robin and followed.
“Ow,” Raven said, the Telluron burning through his shirt. He gripped the fetish through his clothes. Dizziness swelled in him, and he staggered against Rissa, whose strong, steady grip only accentuated the land’s secret motion. He sensed how it ceased at her fingertips, turned back within him, gathered in the Telluron. And he understood then that a fetish wasn't a focus of your power, but of the elementae, and the essence of the Form was, as Orlčan had said last night, in a witch’s ability to interpret and manipulate that fundamental force. The Mistbridge Moiety uttered arcane, complex verse to focus their “power,” and the Stonebows had developed elaborate dance steps, their fetishes sewn into veils of bold colors. Such efforts to focus or center yourself were wasteful. Raven realized most of what the Sacred called the Form was nonsense. And the worst part of that realization was that he couldn't do much with it, lacking the ability to gather the elementae, which was further aggravated by Orlčan’s suggestion that Raven’s potential was beyond all that.
Robin Devenrath reined in Lupo next to the smoldering wreckage of Rissa’s wheeler. Lupo’s brown-and-white coat was splashedbrown-and-white coat was splashed with red, and his head hung, a gruesome font of pink froth swinging from his mouth. Wind ripped the smoke toward the trench, carrying with it the panic and frenzy coming from the camps beyond the woods. Legion gathered behind Robin like a roiling wall.
Robin’s jaw hung by a wide flap of twisted skin hairy with muttonchop, his striped scalp furled up in a clotted wave, his leathers were riddled with red bursts, a bloody left fist gripped the crossbow, half his right hand was missing, yet the two remaining fingers hooked the reins, and just above his nose, a thumbnail-size crater marked the entrance of a bullet. Raven’s jaw hung too, in horror. He wondered what a bullet impact might sound like and shivered; a detail unsung by the bards.
“Give me the boy,” the thing said, though the words didn't come from Robin’s ruined mouth. The voice was as silken as nausea, and it held every nightmare Raven ever had.
“You can blow my hanging horn!” Jons said.
Laughter crackled like fire, iced the wind, and chilled the earth through the soles of Raven’s boots. The beasts of Legion exploded into a manic fury. Drool whipped the air from gnashing jaws and eyes of every shape and color projected a battering hatred. The shit-sweet death stench of the horde skirled about the scene.
Robin struggled with his mutilated hand to grab the last explosive bolt beneath his left arm, succeeding only in generating gobbets of blood with each pantomime.
“Look at that,” Orlčan said, “I was right.” His smirk sneered brighter than Raven had seen it in a long time.
Jons said, and loosed the argenta bolt, which passed straight through Robin’s chest and ruptured the bulbous body of a spider-thing behind him, sending a spew of pinkish custard snotting onto the ground. The thing collapsed and one of the creatures, a two-legged thing mottled like a blood sausage, took huge chunks from it with the mouths full of grey-black teeth textured like oysters at the end of the huge knobby clubs that passed for its hands.
“By the bitch’s tits!” Jons reached for another bolt.
“Robin’s the only thing keeping Legion from devouring us,” Raven said. “If he dies or stops functioning, you want that coming after us?”
“Perceptive, little one,” Robin murmured.
Orlčan stroked his braid. “Why do you want the boy?”
“Conversation, witch?” Jons growled. “You plan on boring it to death?”
“Look around, Gallowglass!” Orlčan said. “Death is the operative word here.”
“I smell weak magicks,” Robin said, but its laughter rang with frustration. His right hand inched toward the last bolt like the limb of a decrepit crone.
By the velvet buzz in his feet, Raven knew Orlčan’s fetish held the elementae to bursting. He had never seen Orlčan work the Form, and the intense look of concentration sharpening his features, which once would’ve beguiled Raven, now seemed silly. “Do it,” he whispered.
“Silence.... Are you a typhon?”
The two fingers gripped the bolt, lost it, feebly gripped it again. “Name calling?” it said, “how quaint.” Its voice was neither male nor female, and carried with it a sultriness like the evening breezes in the northern coastal deserts. “I am Jöten Primebrood, Created by Daeva Deathrage, mastered by Tabarath Smaw. I come to retrieve the boy and the Telluron, for he would try to stop the Renaissance as part of the Five. My kindred ride even now to stop the others. The Five! Mere pawns of pawns! Who know nothing of the right of things save the twisted lore passed down by the Liar! For the crimes of Greysoul Jack, you all must pay, and the cost is dear to stand against the righteous. Very dear, right Orlčan Runechild? Whether Taylor Devenrath was what you say he was or not is irrelevant, even if you could prove it, you still murdered a man without direct provocation. As a practitioner of the Form, you must live—and die—with it.”
Orlčan tipped his chin. “The boy is foremost.”
“The boy is mine.”
“Come and get him then,” Orlčan said. “Are you craven sending a surrogate?”
“What is that noise?” Rissa asked. “Jons, you’re singing like off-key chimes played by a drunken priest.”
“What? Fuck me.”
“It's the Telluron,” Raven said, “and the argenta.”
“How useful.” Rissa reaimed her weapon. “If you are up to something, witch, besides lame taunts, do it now.”
“I am,” Orlčan said through his teeth, “but I must focus.”
“You don't need to.”
Orlčan twitched, but he kept his eyes forward. “What would you know?” he growled.
"I know you don't need to focus. Can't you tell?"
Robin now held the bolt. It dangled there, indeed, without much menace. Then he dropped the crossbow.
“See,” Orlčan said, “now what can he do? I just need a moment to focus.”
“He can arm that head,” Gallowglass said. “Look—”
Robin fumbled with the base of the explosive, curling his two right fingers around it and twisting. With its ratcheting sound, Jons cursed.
“If he drops it, it’ll go off,” he said, examining the height of the trench behind them. “And we’ve got nowhere to go.” Wheelers rumbled in many directions, their noise tangling in the forest, blurring with the seething Legion’s rising clamor as it ebbed away in recognition of the danger.
“Now,” the sickening voice said, “give me the boy and you are free to go and die in the coming fire.”
“Just use it, Orlčan!” Raven said. “It’s there, it’s ready!”
“Shut up! You’re ruining my—”
Robin raised the bolt. The Telluron flared, argenta keened, the land swayed. So easily, Raven touched the fetish’s power, simply because it was what he wanted; it was like the skin of an angry beehive.
“Do something!” Rissa said.
Rumbling became a roar, and a wheeler popped out onto the Trail in a thundercrack of broken tree limbs, flying greenery, and war cry, to be inundated by the retreating Legion. For the briefest moment, Raven saw Robin’s attention waivered. And he reached. Through the Telluron, where a whirlwind of elementae battered him, and into Orlčan’s hearth, where he was battered anew by a rage that wasn't so much hateful as self-protective. Now it was like gripping the beehive as he ripped the elementae away from Orlčan, whose surprised gasp was more a soundless screech. Instead of hurling it at Robin, which seemed the logical thing, Raven’s will turned down.
And deep down, where his will thrust the furious elementae, the land sighed and shattered. Shifted. Buckled. Exploded.
* * *
“Fuck me with Future’s steel prick, I still can't believe it.”
The Emerald Trail was a tan band, waggling eastward through the forest, which spread north and south, a velvety blanket that dwindled to nap and tufts before giving way to the brutal starkness of the Fracture. From that new height, its name was writ large in the scarred faults and volcanic ruins that tumbled out to the horizon. To the east, they could see the wispy dust tail of the Mandaroy traveling toward the steep switchbacking canyons of Tom’s Key. Below them a churlish sheet of steaming brown water curled like a plantain, further disturbed by a white geyser pumping skyward at one end and at the other, a monolith, spitting flame up its length in furious corkscrews.
“Such poetry, Gallowglass, truly captures the magnificence of Raven’s work.”
Gallowglass favored Rissa with a blistering glare at which she smiled like a bird-fed cat.
“It’ll take us most of the day to get down,” Orlčan said, “We should leave now and ride through the night.”
“Is Raven up to it?”
“You can ask me, Rissa,” Raven said from atop Vampyr, where, instead of the new vista, he watched the three of them, shivering. His head and jaw throbbed from his fall, but the disturbing, buzzing headache and queer disorientation had faded, leaving him exhausted. The Telluron, however, continued its heated and irritating drone, singing in Gallowglass’ argenta weaponry.
“I know, I know, it’s just that you are not well.”
“I’m well enough,” he said, though his every muscle felt as if it were trying to take flight, and a black, anxious mood had descended on him. The shaking did not seem to be abating despite Orlčan’s promise. As one of the Sacred, Raven had grown up with the Witch’s Shiver; it was a natural death. Right now, he quaked like a witch in the final throes of the malady. It took years, not moments, of working the Form to be so stricken. But then, he had raised a mountain.
The ground continued to shake, a motion everyone now felt; whether it was the land’s instability or its attempt to stabilize, he didn't know. So much he didn't know. He leaned on the pommel of Taylor’s sword, sheathed in a saddle scabbard, the only thing left on Vampyr aside from the saddle itself, and eyed the purple lump on his hand where a falling stone had struck it.
Nowhere in the lore could he recall such a feat; Rissa found nothing in Mandaroyan Memory. It elated him, frightened him, made him hungry for more, and sick to think about it.
“Well enough?” Orlčan said, smirk flying high. “Let’s go.”
“We must first name this... this place,” Gallowglass said. He leaned too, on a crooked staff fashioned from a tree limb. A small boulder had rolled over his ankle.
“No, Orlčan,” Rissa said, “Jons’ right, such magicks are worthy of recognition.”
“Brilliant, so the four of us will know what this monstrosity is called.”
“You need to steady down, Orlčan.” Rissa gave Gallowglass an exasperated roll of the eyes.
“No,” Gallowglass said, “he needs just the opposite—a ruckus.”
“Oh yes,” Rissa said with a sad cackle and a whirl of her pistol.
Raven’s eyes slid off them and, for the first time, really registered what he had done. By wishing it done. Or not exactly. By wishing for help of any kind, begging the elementae to do something. He’d lost control the moment he’d emptied Orlčan’s hearth. He recalled the persistent nonpain. They’d all been knocked to the ground and pinned there by the incredible shaking. The mountain had breached the earth like the whale he’d once seen dancing the Swansea in the Southard Gulf. And in its godly climb, cloaked in billowing gouts of dust, the mountain had plunged them into a netherworld of earthen clockwork, a berserk reckoning of time with each broken stratum rising skyward.
It had consumed Harmatia, lifted and dumped all of the Blue Sisters into the one long lake now swirling frosted turquoise and afire below. After the initial upheaval, which had resulted in Gallowglass’ smashed foot and sundry nicks and lumps, it had pushed the Taelemonites and Rissa almost gently up the Trail on a rocky ripple where they watched the land transform amid the bellow and a hail of hot rock and ravaged forest. Robin Devenrath and Legion and gods knew how many Mandaroy, most of the immediate forest, and a portion of the Emerald Trail had vanished, maybe crushed, swallowed, or drowned in the mountain’s birthing. When finally the land stilled, the silence that descended had been the most complete and roaring quiet Raven had ever heard.
In a matter of hours the blue-grey rock and loamy black soil were painted over with baby weeplings, tiny heads swaying in the dusty breeze. On that breeze Raven tasted the faintest scent of Legion.
Beneath a cinnamon sky, he let his body quake. He was so tired. “Orlčan’s right,” he said more sharply than was comfortable for him, “the time for such nonsense is over.”
“That's what you want? To go? Ride all night with our injuries and no food?”
“You’re among Taelemonites, Rissa,” Raven said. “Such inconveniences will not stop us. You can do as you please, in fact, you all can. I’m going west.”
“Of course,” Orlčan said, “I am going with you.” The man was angry. Whether for not performing or for having the elementae usurped from him, Raven didn't know. And he didn't care. The time for nonsense truly was over.
“We’re Taelemonites, right?” Gallowglass said and lofted a broken war cry into the new valley, almost losing his staff.
“Must I really ride behind him?” Rissa asked, adding, “On this beast?”
Raven fought Vampyr to make him turn, then walked the huge black charger past Juno and Riko. He could do with some more of Orlčan’s tisane. He started to descend the new mountain’s weepling-covered trail.
The Telluron keened softly. The land moved for everyone with a low, gritty shifting and secretly in Raven’s heart with its true dance, and it seemed the too-green weeplings danced with it.