Gasping for breath, I jolted out of my sleep. My forehead was slick with sweat, and my hands did a poor job of removing it; they were difficult to manage and throbbed terribly, like I had been stung repeatedly and had not had the mind to apply a salve even once.
“A nightmare?” Shugokrur asked. “Unnerving dream?”
“No, I’m just a little shaken up. That’s all.” All I needed was rest, and yet who would return oh-so-eagerly to that sort of nightmare? No one. Not unless they were mad. But the thoughts were worthless, since I knew, for true, that there would be no peace for me. No, not for a long time. Damn, perhaps it would never come. Really, even Pelce came back in that nightmare, of all things. Gods be damned. They were screaming. I had left them behind. All over again, it happened all over again. Damn.
Of all the things that could have returned…
“You,” Shugokrur said, leaning his face into my own, “should not tell lies.” That last word lingered longer than needed. But, still, he was right and somehow knew it. The bastard, he could see right through me. Straight through the lies. “I will find sustenance,” he said, knocking away the rubble used to seal the chamber. “Wait here. Do not wander. Your body is weaker than its average, and there are multiple perils lying in wait. Stay.”
“Not like I could get very far, even if I wanted to.” I was shaking, and would stay that way for a long while after waking. My nerves were worth nothing; I cursed my own weakness. “Thought I had outgrown this sort of thing. Heh, guess I didn’t have it in me.” The gods knew that much. By Aveyas, they knew.
For several days henceforth, I relived the first. Awaking from nightmares, each one worse than the last, my body shook and shook. Shaken to the core. And then, once reason had worked its way back into this coward’s mind of mine, I would sit and think: brood over what had happened and what would come next.
And when my nerves calmed for well and good? What then? Really, which options were available to me? Only one remained. Thinking that I could go anywhere other than there was pure ignorance. Arrogance, even, and though it was the best option, being the closest out of all, it was much farther north than even Mt. Grav was. Ever closer to the North; hand in hand with death itself, as it were, sat Jubei: the white city of the Guild; that’s where I had to go if I were going anywhere at all.
But not before this serpent left. It would not do to me what it had done to the whole of Mt. Grav. The land laid naked and despoiled for miles; that serpent had stripped it of life and of colors beyond these sad shades of gray. But, somehow, it was worse than that. A purpose all its own had brought it here, and it had not fulfilled that yet, even after all it had done.
Despite all it had burned. All it had ruined…
When I would leave the cave to relieve myself, I would see it there, sitting upon its shattered throne, and the damned thing would expel more of its stomach’s fire upon the mountain’s back before it remained perfectly still… Silent too, as if it was listening for something. Or someone.
And, what if, that someone was me?
I never lingered long amongst the wastes, or anywhere it could have possibly seen me. Even without eyes, it was hunting, and I imagined that it ever so faintly felt my life through some means, and it was this last remaining fragment of life that it yearned to extinguish by drowning it in a explosive torrent of molten destruction. A possibility, and yet there were so many. Too many.
And through this brooding, I slipped. Trapped here with myself for days, it was inevitable. I knew that from the start. Really.
Maybe this had all been my fault after all. I was to come to the towers alone, but I had brought Shugokrur along. But no one knew he existed besides me. At least, that is what I had thought, and, as if often was, my assumption was proven wrong. It was in fear that I had brought him along. Unlike the lies I created, wherein it was outside my control, simply happenstance, the decision was made by my frailty alone; I was responsible. Me.
“Stupid,” I said to myself. “None of it makes sense, even if I did offend them. Why?”
Nothing came close to answering that question, no matter how many times I relived those fateful hours or suffered the nightmares which raped my dreams. All I garnered from it was the fact that it had been pointless. No profound reason existed. One wrong did this? Ten thousand? How many could balance out destruction at this scale? The whole thing was out of proportion. I wanted to scream, but that would only give Aveyas another thing to balance out.
He must have been smiling, still.
The answer to this all was out there somewhere, but it was well beyond my means of finding it. “Out there…”
All that laid outside this cave, for miles and farther still, was ash. Drifts of it rolled down the mountain, and the stuff invited itself into our shelter in mass. Most likely, it was simply the wind, but I imagined that the dead, now set in soot, pulled themselves along in a restless manner.
“Why did you leave us behind?”
Rocking from side to side, I shook the voices from my head as best as I could. Enough. I had suffered enough of this damnation, right? Right?
Only the winds answered.
But, would they come down again?
Each and every day I would sneak a look at the skies; a foreboding feeling gripped my heart tighter as I thought on it more, as I took yet another glance at the sky. No, I repeated, they couldn’t come. Not again, surely. Although, it was not long before I could bear the lie no longer. Once I saw the slits in the sky, there was no doubting it, and no line I fed myself would change that.
Once again, they would come.
“Do we remain today as well?” Shugokrur asked, placing a full canteen into my hands. “The flames still burn, but only as coals. Soon I will run out of options to sustain your body. Is that acceptable?”
“I already said my piece.”
“Your fears,” he said as his arms slipped into his body, “impede progress.”
“So you think we can risk it?”
“It is unlikely that it will—”
“I know it's unlikely,” I said, throwing my cloak at him.
“—even notice us. Then, we should leave.” The halo brightened. “We are no closer to the Gate than we were before coming here. Have you forgotten about the Gate? Time is short. We must reach it, and if we do not, all will be lost. Do not mistake that. Our fate depends upon it. Do you understand that expression? It is important. Very.”
“Look, I have no idea what you're going on about. You don't even know what you mean when you say that, and, at any moment, you'll forget all about it and resume some other line of thought that's just as equally ambiguous.”
“It is a vexing thing. We must regain—”
“No, you, piss me off, and to no end!” I shouted, thrusting my fist into his face. It passed through just as harmlessly as the cloak had.
He leaned into my arm, brought his mantle close, and said, “I do not understand your feelings. We are as one, are we not?” Once again I was reminded of his alien appearance. Shadows jumped over themselves inside his head in an odd, never-ending waltz.
“We’re ‘one’ my ass. You know what? You won't even remember that I went off on you like this, but I will. I’ve pleaded, screamed, tried to beat you, reasoned whole nights away, but it’s pointless. It’s the same every damn time.” I stepped back from him and slumped against the wall, drained. “You say you’re broken, and broken you are, but I think it’s much worse being your companion. How do you think it is to have you, my best, and damn near only friend, forget what we were just doing, what we’ve been through?
“And soon you'll just drift around like a drunken cloud and utter cryptic nonsense between very unhelpful advices. Something about the ‘Taint’ or the ‘Gate’ or the ‘Abaters’. I’ve been listening to it all whether I wanted to or not. And guess what? I still haven’t the faintest clue of what you mean, or even what you are.
“I’ve spent years, doing this. Years. Many long, long, years. This will never end, will it? You’ll wander the world as this fragmented ghost for the rest of time, dragging unsuspecting victims into the throes of insanity! If you don’t wish that, then tell me. Please. What are you? What, by Aveyas’ blood, by Unnce’s teeth, do you want? What do you mean when you say all of this shit? Huh? What is it? Well? Just what are you?
“I’ve tried so damn hard to understand. Believe me, I really have. I can even read and write thanks to these efforts, but, in the end, I’ve gained nothing. How can anyone be expected to learn something about a thing that is nothing to everyone but me?
“You can’t. It’s impossible, isn’t it?” I started laughing, mostly at myself. “And here I am, trying anyway, without a damn roof over my head. Actually, it’s just a fucking hole in the ground. I’m sitting here in a hole in the ground, speaking with a ghost. Pathetic, right?”
He did not move for some time, and the halo would brighten as if revealing a sudden flow of thoughts inside that crescent head of his. The goddess’ children could sense him, and whether he could remember that or not, it meant there was a chance that even after I joined Unnce in the fields of flesh, something could acknowledge his existence. But it wouldn’t heal him, and I doubted anything could.
“All such efforts,” he said, “are nil with this condition. There is an unsettling feeling, one that I carry through each pass. I’ve told you already, haven’t I?”
“Yeah, I know it: a fear that you’ll never recover.”
“Perhaps that is true, but it is only a part of it. They are out there, and we know nothing still without the Gate. It which can end us by sight alone sleeps. The Abaters will be waiting by the Gate’s side. Just bear with it until we can reach it. We shall succeed.”
“I’m not that strong. I can't be as you are. Everyone died, same as before, and I could do nothing but watch. They’re all dead, and you want me to just act like it means nothing to me? I’m to just carry on with our journey like I didn’t just lose them? Like some damned hero straight out of a grand tale, eh? Unbreakable, right?”
And I could laugh at myself no longer as the screams returned, asking me why I had left them all behind to die.
“Yes, why did you do that?”
“Choosing to do what amounts to nothing.”
“That choice amounts to doing a part—”
“In their murders, so—”
I was scared! I could do nothing!
“Death has claimed many,” Shugokrur said, freeing me from the screams for a moment. “And it will claim a great deal more in time. It is inevitable, only worse so in this situation. Focus on what lies ahead. Put these feelings to rest, we need to be resolute.”
“No, that’s… I cannot. Damn myself, I couldn’t forget the first time, Shugokrur.”
“So, you maintain your answer?”
“I’m not going out there while that serpent hangs over us like death’s blade. There is a limit to my abilities, though I avoid pointing it out to save what scrap of dignity I believe I still possess. Even if it’s all a lie.”
“Then stay here,” he said, leaving me to sit alone. “I shall reconnoiter our escape route. It shall be needed later.”
The screams pulled me back into the nightmare, shutting my eyelids as to bar my one and only escape. I had to conquer the dreams, else they would conquer me. Gods, they wanted me bad.
Somewhere in the dark, perhaps in another chamber altogether, there was a drip-drip-dripping of water seeping through the innards of the land. One after another. Down into a pool somewhere without danger, or, at least, that’s what I thought of the sound. It brought me from the terrors, and, in that soothing sound, I found solace. Sanctuary. There was no explaining it in words, but I felt compelled, after listening to it for hours, to seek it out as one would a long lost friend.
Not that I had many of those left.
“Whatever,” I muttered, continuing down. Anything was better than dreaming, than entertaining thoughts that were as unruly as they were sadistic. So I kept on walking and hummed to the drip-dropping. Within it, I could almost hear voices.
“That won’t do.”
“Not unless getting lost is what you plan to do.”
I stopped, and held my breath to hear them better. With a bit of focus, I could make them out clearer than before. There were voices. Real ones, or excellent illusions set up by this cavern.
“Do not peek behind the scenes unbeckoned, lest you beckon—”
“Fate to set upon you—”
All at once, a wind blew through, and I could no longer make out the voices.
“I’m losing it.” Perhaps I was, so I resumed my walk. Better to get this over with as quickly as possible, since the air down here could have been screwing with my head.
Hope that’s all it was.
Must have been an hour’s walk by the time the water seemed close to me, but in the dark there was no telling where I was or had already gone. All I knew was that I had been going down for quite some time. Just how long was I walking for? An hour, right? Surely…
“Damn, feels like forever. Keeps going down, doesn’t it?” Careful with that, might end up at the center of the world if I didn’t watch myself. “Can’t tell what’s what, not at all.”
If the path had split once or a thousand times I would not have known. Honestly, without even noticing it till now, I had harbored the sick thought of remaining here in the dark with the calming water. That same sort of complacency as before… The shit made me sick. Even with a mind fogged up by troubles and fears, there was no excuse for it. Letting excuses and exceptions get past you, that’s how it all starts.
A wind started up, somewhere, and it almost sounded like a set of voices laughing.
“And that’s why you could only watch another horror anew”
“Yet you lament others for simply having watched—”
“When it came time to amend, when they had to depend—”
The wind came again. It was someone’s laughter. Something close yet far away, but the thought pained my mind to contemplate. Was I really hiding behind hallucinations and winds, just to forget that day?
“Damn myself.” I couldn’t save them.
All that irritation went to my legs, and I hunted down the water’s sound so that I could block up its source and show it that the world could be a very cruel and unforgiving place.
“Damn this water, damn it all.”
Didn’t find the water though, even though it sounded so nearby. And, thusly, I gave up the idea of teaching the water a lesson. I courted madness down here, and talking to myself and the water and the winds was only the start. Got to keep my wits, stay awake and alive. Had to start heading back up. My legs were getting stiff, and my back was killing me from staying crouched for so damn long. Right, there was no reason to be down here in the first place. Why had I come here, anyway? Having been so worked up, the thought of getting lost didn’t occur to me until now. Could I return?
The winds laughed. Those things laughed.
And I did not.
“That question, it’s not what you should worry about.”
“What is more important is whether or not you can return—”
“As a whole piece—”
“Or as about as many pieces as something can be at once.”
“It’s important, since flesh is not returned easily, once digested.”
“What a bother.”
Beside me, something scuttled across the stone, scraping and scratching its way across. Right there, closer now; louder now; I froze. The creature passed by with a hundred different legs cluttering and clacking along in quick succession; a wayrun, must have been, and fully grown too by the sound of it. Shit. There was no time to think how it missed me in the dark.
I kept my head lower than ever and ran, keeping my hands upon the slimy walls. I had to move faster. Now.
“What an awful noise. Rather,”
“Obscene. Yes, it is rather unsavory. But, shall we—”
“Savor the rest of this scene?”
“And they’ll receive.”
“Vessel, why do living things bleed?”
Nearly tripping over my own feet, wet and worse for wear, I emerged from the hole, rushed to my effects, and franticly unsheathed my blade. I could not see nor hear it.
Was there enough time to escape?
No time to find out.
As I moved towards the exit, with eyes fixed on the shadowed half of the chamber, I saw its head emerge. With only that short glimpse of its translucent armor and throbbing under-flesh, I stopped. It was a glass waryun: a horrifying insect, with more legs than any one creature has any right to have, and a ravenous appetite for flesh. And the armor that is its namesake is exactly like the glass of a window, making every disgusting vein’s pulse and organ’s twitch visible. Bounties existed for killing them, that is, if you could manage it. And with my blade in hand, I felt no more capable of the task then when I had held nothing at all. But it would not wait for even terms. That foul heart jittered, its feelers reached for me, and it hissed before closing the distance in a flash of legs.
Before it reached me with its venomous fangs, I snatched up my discarded cloak and cast it out as a net. It caught the lunging waryun and sent it veering off course into the wall. As it thrashed with the cloak wrapped around its face, I sent my blade into its gut from below. A hit. It dug into the beast’s belly, and I leaned in for another strike before it could whip its body around to catch me. Nothing. The attack was knocked aside by its flailing legs, and I took a nasty hit to my arm. Was it broken? No time to check. I left everything behind but my blade and sprinted to safety.
I needed as much distance as I could manage to put between me and it. Without bow or spear, the situation was looking grim. Only those wishing to meet the grave early engage in melee combat with these things. Especially alone. I knew this, but my legs were still worn from all my running.
So damn weak and slow. Tired. There was no choice but to…
To stop and look towards the hissing behind me. And, as I had feared, my trick had not kept the waryun busy for long; it pursued me up the fog ridden hill, intent on finishing its hunt. Not even that stab had deterred it. And, by the look of it, it had only further enraged the damned thing. Yeah, it definitely wanted a piece of me.
“Fucker. Hungry piece of shit.”
Two legs were a sorry match for the waryun’s hundreds, it was true. Outrunning something like that was impossible, even if I had managed to hack a dozen or so of its limbs off. Even so, it was going to have to earn its meal. This piece of meat wouldn’t go quietly.
I gritted my teeth and, as forcefully as I was able, hurled rocks bigger than my head at the slinking bastard. Any stones that would’ve outright maimed a man were thrown. A miss here and there. They fell closer still. Then, a solid hit. And another. Its armor cracked, and it slowed. Stopped.
It screeched, lashing out at the rocks in its pain.
A chance; I took it, placing more distance between myself and the relentless beast. Still, even with its injuries, it came at me with a swiftness that seemingly increased as blood was lost. Even with all these efforts, my greatest boon was the slagged and ash ridden terrain; it made a great deal of the waryun’s legs slip and sink, delaying my death by a few more moments.
I would take all I could get.
But, in my haste, I had retreated from all the sizable rocks. A mistake I could not afford to make. Now the only thing that could be thrown were handfuls of ash or the sword in my hand, but tossing the blade would be the same as throwing myself into its jaws. Not that it would do much better in my hands. Well, not unless I got lucky, and meeting a damn glass waryun was about as unlucky as it got.
“Come on Aveyas, while it’s all unbalanced anyway, you may as well set twenty of these bastards upon me.”
The spot where I stood seemed good as any, so I caught my breath while watching the waryun thrash up the hill with its wounds. A zigzagging line of blood and a thousand gouged out prints marked its path. It hissed between its labored breaths as if celebrating the closeness of its victory.
Should have stabbed it a few more times. Damn. Couldn’t end like this. One last thing. Like he had said, ‘defiant till the end.’ There was always something left in you, even if it wasn’t worth shit.
“Us sellswords are a foolish bunch, eh?”
I removed my shirt and started throwing ash into it. I had no idea if it would work, and as I imagined how to correctly throw it open and hold it I doubted if waryuns even needed eyesight to hunt. What if it grabbed me before I could sidestep and escape? It was crazy to try. Insane, completely, and that’s what I’ll do. Since nothing else would work, I kept the sack of ash and waited for the waryun to come closer.
Hope it couldn’t smell fear.
Then it was its own body’s length away from reaching me, closing fast. But I kept still. Ten or so strides forward and I could reach out and touch its head. Yet, this crackpot attempt at creating a smoke bomb required it to come even closer. Right before it lunged, at the moment when its heart beats the fastest, that is when I would release the ash.
Now. This moment…
This is when I finally realized, that I…
I was going to die.
The wind was blowing the wrong way; all the ash got in my eyes, and I couldn’t even see my own end.
The waryun made a gurgling hiss that sent me running, tumbling, and falling to the ground. It was the triumphant call of its death stroke, but, before it finished, it was cut short by a crack. Something warm and bitter spattered my face and mixed with the soot.
Something faint spoke. “Simple. A solution to hunger. One thread severed, and it is done.”
Was I hearing things again? Dead, or slipping?
No matter how hard I tried, I could not open my eyes. They were weeping, having been assaulted by my own failed attack. Something had happened, but I could not be sure the waryun had died, or even if a tree had fallen on it. Surely, I was dead? Right? For a while I stopped my crawl and focused on the sounds of the world: winds, my breathing, and the serpent were all I could make out. No longer could I hear scuttling nor hissing.
Had it truly died?
“I told you to wait,” Shugokrur said. No doubting it, that was him talking to me. “It is dangerous to be alone out here.” He pushed something to my face, and once I explored it I found it to be my canteen. “Cleanse yourself. Should I retrieve your cloak as well? Your pack? Both are in tatters. Do you require those scraps?”
“No, don’t worry about that. Leave it.” Once my eyes were cleaned and able to open, I saw the mangled corpse of the waryun. It laid, a mere hair’s breadth away, split down the middle in a pile of its own gore. “You did this?”
“Of course. One severance. End of hunger. Simple.”
Didn’t smell a thing thanks to the ash, but once that was cleared out from my face, I would never again wonder what a dead waryun smelled like. Venom misted off into the air as it leaked from its fangs, leaving behind a trail of pain in the air. I moved upwind from it before doing anything else. No one could endure that agony for very long, and neither could your lungs.
The bastard was dangerous, even in death.
And this warm shit all over my body? Turns out it was the thick blood of the waryun. Explained the burning sensation. I wiped down what I could and had a good long laugh. Saved by the spirit again. Story of this pathetic life, wouldn’t you say?
No one laughed besides me. They were not here to share in my madness: in this, the elation of having remained in one piece when it was all but certain that you would end up as a bloody smear. No, they weren’t here anymore. They could not partake in this moment. Only this wind could: the North’s bite.
And those teeth penetrated oh-so-deeply.
“Getting used to it, aren’t I?” I muttered to myself before laughing again. “What a farce this is…”
“Did you not hear me?” Shugokrur asked. “There are many dangers still present. You should have heeded my words. Do not seek death.”
“It found me,” I said, “this time.”
“And it is lucky that I found you. Now, let us leave. You can’t see the serpent, but neither can it see you. The fog obscures all. This should reduce your fears and allow us to continue, correct?
“I think I just had all that fear scared right out of me, actually. Lead on. Can’t tell which way is which anymore. Wait, did you say fog?”
“Yes that is correct. Can you not see?”
“No, I see it now…”
When had it gotten to be like this? I hadn’t been standing here for that long, right? There was far too much fog out here. Only moments ago there had been but a fringe of it that marked only the farthest reaches of sight as a mere line, and now it was so thick that you could’ve grabbed it out of the air and beaten someone to death with it. But fog be damned, I found my blade and shirt just the same. Ever-so-suddenly, every possession was worth more than they had ever been in years. Reminds me of that winter, when I crawled my way to Roskor and begged for food till I realized it was better to intimidate to get the shit. Ah, how nostalgic…
“Well, let’s get moving then.” Just wanted to get as far away as I could. “Anywhere is better than here.”
Shugokrur led the way, and after covering as much ground as we could, we made camp. A little dugout atop a burnt outcropping is where I laid my weary body to rest. An uncomfortable, miserable patch that was unfit for living, and certainly was not a camp. Too much soot and charcoal and ash. The cave’s floor seemed cozy in comparison, since I was now laying in the pit of a bonfire that stretched across the entire mountain. No, the mountain was it by now. And it was utter shit. Couldn’t keep any of it away from my face, even with the shirt wrapped tight across it. All this damned ash…
And there was no solace to be found in the sky. All the stars were obscured, even Rue. It was like the whole sky had abandoned me. Wrapped up in a unmirthful myriad of so many damned ruinous things. Made, by Aveyas, to erase. Yeah, to eliminate mistakes like me.
And here I would rest my head.
I hated it, but it was home for the time being. For a night. And if I passed in my sleep, it would be home for as long as it took for these bones to become yet another shade of grey amongst this ash. Then, perhaps, I could leave, and return to Pelce. See the stars, and sing to Rue. Fall into dreams there, at the place where I belong: home. Mirrored currents, and winds rolling freely by.
“We wonder if you’ve ever found enough wonder in the world to wonder, truly—”
“Where is it? What is it? When was it founded?”
“Why did you ever leave—”
“Your truly wonderful home?”
Shugokrur woke me with a jab. “No more. It is shifting, turning towards us. We should move. I cannot sense its awareness. It does not show anything to me. Yet the risk is too great.” Another jab. “Come, prepare to move.”
“Yeah, I got you.” I had slept well, all things considered. Didn’t know you could get used to the world shaking like it was, but, if only for a single night, I had learned how. The trick must have been related to being run down by a glass waryun. But I wasn’t up to testing it out again. Still had scuffs from that one. Arm was throbbing too.
Maybe it was fractured.
Although, it could have been much worse. Wouldn’t have lived to see this morning if not for Shugokrur. Makes you think about life. As some say, ‘You should savor every moment. Breathe deeply till you can’t at all.’ Yeah, that and all else that could be said. I’ve heard it all before. Still, I wonder… If whoever thought that saying up saw half the shit that I had, they’d probably be forced to bite their tongue clean off and swallow it. Yeah, and I’d tell him to savor that flavor as well.
“Our cover remains,” Shugokrur said, passing an arm through me. “Do not worry. I can pierce this veil.”
“Right. I trust that. Would be better if you could pierce us straight to the capital. Is that an option?”
The fog hadn’t lessened up throughout the night, so when I searched for direction, I only gained a vague idea of where we were. Didn’t wait around to find out though. Ain’t nothing to be gained by waiting around but a certain death. Although, the same could be said for anything else, at least, in this situation. They were coming down, surely, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it any further than that.
All that was required was to keep myself occupied and follow Shugokrur: my personal spirit, a thing which was, almost, for my eyes alone; and if you phrased it like that, it almost made it sound like I had control over the situation. Shit, it even gave the impression that I was some sort of wizard.
Good thing I wasn’t. They hang them in some places, no questions asked. But at least a fake like that could make up a reasonable explanation as to where in the world he was. Me? I could hardly find my own damn legs in all this fog.
“We’re still on the mountain,” I said. “Right? I mean, there’s no way that we could have left it yet, even though you carried me to Roskor. Shouldn’t be possible, though I’m about as scattered as you are right now.”
“Yes, we are on that feature still. Yet, the road you seek is nearby. Halfway through the day is when we should reach it, as long as you can maintain a reasonable pace. Is that possible? Should I carry you?”
“I can walk. Best not to get carried unless I really need to. If I don’t work the muscles, they’ll be worthless when I need them and you’re not around. And believe me, you wander off all the damn time. What is it that you’re looking for, anyway?”
“See, you can’t even answer that one now. It’s the Gate, usually. You want to find the Gate.”
His halo fluctuated, which was a clear enough indication that it was a familiar concept, even after having lost it to his wayward mind. “The Gate. Is that not an object that bars a path? Something that can lock things out, or keep them in?”
“Should be, but you go on and on about it like it’s holding Aveyas’ heart or some shit.”
“That should not be the correct answer. The Gate… It is more than that. Yes, this feeling, I can tell that the others all want it.”
“Who? And what do they want?”
“To reach the Gate. I will focus. It could still be retrieved. If not, remind me later. I will try again, through another one.”
Still strange as ever, I see.
After walking near blind for so long that I would have guessed us to be halfway to Jubei by now, Shugokrur stopped me. The shadows in his face went wild. I braced myself.
“What’s the holdup? You remember something about the Gate?”
“Silence. Someone approaches. Hide yourself.”
Out on the roads, sometimes you get the shakes or a nasty cold sweat so you can’t even grip your own sword properly. It was only natural, after all. Outside the city walls laid a world overflowing with the god’s designs, few of which were innocuous. Well, I had the shakes bad this time. Couldn’t keep still. So, with jittering hands, I unsheathed my sword and hid behind a rock. I had spent myself against the wayrun without noticing my own fear. Caught up in the moment, as it were. But now?
There was time to think; time to worry. It could always be your last breath, and that was true even in the safety of the cities; but there was a visceral and feral side to death out on the road. You weren’t just about to die: you were close to being eaten, and returning to the cycle in that manner was to be reminded of our frailty; and we were immeasurably small.
Best not to think on it for long, else you’re liable to get yourself killed, becoming the next all too familiar story that everyone mulls over while they’re in some hot pit of shit.
“Think,” Shugokrur said. “If it comes here without pause, despite the destruction, then that should give us pause as well.”
“Well, what is it?”
“I cannot tell what it is. It masks its approach using a strange method. But focus. It is close.”
Straining my eyes, I attempted to make out a figure within the fog, but it wasn’t budging. Everything beyond ten paces or so was lost to the fog. There would be no telling what this was till it was plumb on top of us. Just had to wait.
Although, it wasn’t a long one.
Down the way was a spot of fog darker than all the rest, and it grew with each step the blob took until, finally, it emerged from the curtain of fog as a figure. It was a man shouldering a bow and a cumbersome rucksack. But not just that…
Unmistakable, this one was. But could it be, truly? A guardian had made his way here, of all places? Through all of this?
“Are you seeing this?”
“It is one of them,” Shugokrur said. “That explains the distortion. Still, we should proceed with care. That power could cause trouble. You do understand, yes? It should be one of your memories, one that is tethered and safe.”
“Yeah. Don’t have to tell me. Fuckers blow through venators like they’re made of paper.”
Damn, I might not have believed my own eyes if Shugokrur hadn’t confirmed it. His armor was that of the Guild. Sigil, colors, and all. No mistaking it, even in the fog. The whole thing was too good to be true, but any good in this situation seemed like a terrible wrong, considering this foul luck of mine.
And if this wasn’t just an illusion, then one thing, at least, was going right.
But, what could a guardian do, now that they were coming? In the air, their influence was gaining. I could feel it. That touch had stuck with me ever since they descended upon Pelce. Not even the Guild could stop them. That was a well known fact. Everyone should have learned that after Pelce.
Yet there was a chance that he had a plan. To come was to admit the possibility of an escape, or, as the most basic, to survive their coming.
“Impressive deductions. For—”
“For one that deducts worth of this impressive system?”
The winds moaned across the burnt mountain, and the fogs shifted. If I waited any longer, the guardian would be lost in this world-devouring fog, and I wouldn’t have anything but regrets for the last day of my life.
Now or never.
“I’m going to grab his attention,” I whispered to Shugokrur. “He might be jumpy though, so cover me.”
“As you say.”
“Guardian, can you lend any aid?” I shouted, stepping out from behind the rock. As the fogs twined about his legs, the guardian stopped, turned to face me, and had the bowstring ready to launch an arrow straight into my gut. “I am alone,” I shouted out, clear as I could make myself.” Damn, he was quick. “I’m putting down my blade,” I said and tossed the sword to the ground. “I'm in a bad way.”
Shugokrur was waiting to intercept the arrow, and one of his arms had already wrapped behind the guardian, ready to decapitate the man if given any reason to do so. One word from me, and guardian or not, he was dead. One of the perks of having him around, but it wouldn’t be so amazing if he actually killed the guardian. I needed him alive to keep myself that way as well. But with Shugokrur, he probably didn’t understand that much. Just another obstacle, I’d wager.
“Do not worry,” Shugokrur said, bringing out additional arms. “This weaponry is too mundane to pass me. It will not reach you.”
For both our sakes, I hoped that this guardian would not do anything to set Shugokrur off. That halo was all worked up, and that didn’t mean anything well if you were considered an enemy. In fact, it usually ended up with someone dead. Sometimes, quite a few people.
You just don’t fuck with ghosts, spirits, whatever. That’s my motto.
“My blade is down. I can come down with my back turned, if you would like.”
“Pick up your blade,” the guardian said, returning the arrow to its quiver. “You'll need it. And come quickly. My position will be proven, and then we will leave.”
With my blade sheathed and Shugokrur trailing, I came down the fog-locked hill to meet him. The closer I came, the closer I was to the center of his sphere of sight in all this fog, but I could find no others travelling with him. He was alone, which was not unheard of, but it meant that the Guild knew of the dire situation.
They were coming down with argent spheres. With spires. Spires enough to ruin the world. And I had a lone guardian to contend with them. Damned sad, really.
Even guardians travel in groups outside of their strongholds. You stand a better chance of surviving with more steel and bodies around you. It gives whatever is hunting you more targets, more things to eat and perhaps become distracted with. But those are thoughts left unsaid in a travelling party. Everyone knows, but not many would say it outright.
But what good would even an army of them do me now? Why did I continue on anyway?
Once I could see the whites of his eyes, the guardian extended his hand and produced a ripple in the air. Right above his hand was something that bent the light in a queer way, as if something beyond the ability of our eyes moved about wherever guardians summoned it. Only their kind could work such an art, and whenever they had business to be about they used it to bury doubts and clear away lies.
“Glad to see another face out here,” I said. “Especially a guardian’s.”
He looked exhausted and worn from the road, but perhaps it was his age instead that gave him that tired appearance. Lines had been etched into his face through years of worrying. This man had probably lived through the Burning War. A damn relic if I had ever seen one; but, even still, I had never heard of guardians dying of old age. They were made of stronger stuff than we.
“There is no time for talk,” he said as he readjusted his rucksack. “Follow me if you wish to live, and if not, I’ll carry you back. We have a lot of ground to cover, and little time to do so. They are already falling from the sky.”
“We,” Shugokrur said, “should follow. His path is correct, and he seems to be an ally.”
I could not see those things through the fog, but at the pace we were running, his words must have been true. No, the sensations running through my veins told me all that I needed to know. This was the time to lament, to grieve. They were coming with all the fury and determination that they had shown so many times over. And they would change things as they sought fit, exactly the same as before. Same as it ever was, and all that it will ever be; mere pawns of the gods that knocked us aside without effort and without care.
We were nothing. We had every right to be afraid. Hadn’t anyone prepared since Pelce? Did they even care?
The Tessect were coming down again in such a short span of time. How many years ago was it, when I left that place? Too soon. Having lived it, I know it is too soon. Far more than what those that know solely through the stories would guess. Pelce was scarred still, unable to heal through the devastation they wove into the fabrics of being that held it all together in that space. And still, they were coming.
“Keep moving,” the guardian said. “Put more into it.”
The world must be coming to an end with them reappearing so swiftly. Everything would break at this rate, and Aveyas would have to break something in turn to set this right. Or, as I feared, perhaps this was not a mistake at all and merely another consequence of some god’s plan. But, for what purpose?
I would never know.
Would we have more years of bloodshed still? Not another Ukeost, surely. No… this could be anything. We’re all ignorant of their affairs, and the priests are doubly so. There was no telling how it would play out, aside from their certain arrival. Again.
“Move faster,” the guardian snapped. “Try killing yourself by moving those legs of yours. Come on, you’re young, so show it! Get moving!”
“This is, as fast, as I can…” I managed to say between my gasps for air.
“No talk. Focus on following me. Right here and now, we’re running this way. Come on! You can do this, at least, right? One step and then another!”
We could switch places if he thought it was so damn easy. Old sack of shit.
“You life depends upon it, woman. Remember that.”
As if it would make a difference!
I followed his lead through the fog, and there were only brief breaks where we walked briskly before returning to our sprint. And that speed, I suspected, was only for my benefit. The guardian didn’t seem winded at all.
Sweat and ash, burning legs and lungs, it was all mired in a soup of fog. I kept with him, but there was no way we could escape if they were truly coming down now. Was his plan to run fast and hope to escape their influence before it was too late? No… Or, mayhap, as it sometimes is, the only plan was to do something rather than nothing. Gods, everything and far more pained me from all corners of my body; things that had never signaled me before now cried out in drawn-out, stabbing pains: ‘We exist you know, and there is a limit to what we can do!’
“Soon,” Shugokrur said. “It will happen soon. Can’t you feel them?”
No. All I felt was discomfort and agony. I had lost track of how far we had ran and how long we were at it. Those bastards could come and take me for all I cared. Running would do us no good. I knew it, and yet I continued with this guardian.
Regardless of my efforts, there was a limit to my body, and I learned where it laid when my legs fell out from under me.
“This is hopeless,” I said, turning onto my back. “I’m dying right here.”
The guardian, drenched with sweat, leaned against a burnt-out trunk of a tree that must have been older still than the hills. “A commendable effort,” he said, “given your condition.” He rummaged in his sack for something and brought out an object that looked like a melted lump of gold. It was placed on the ground and the guardian fiddled around with a striker as if he were lighting wood. But, oddly enough, the lump caught fire from the sparks and put out a smoke that was as gold as the heap itself.
“Can you walk?” the guardian asked.
“Yeah,” I said, barely getting myself to stand. “I think so.”
Wishful thinking. Standing was all I could manage.
“Can’t move, eh? No matter. I have you now.”
The guardian threw his cloak over me as a brood mother does while protecting her young, and guided me to the trunk. Someone could have built a house in the middle of the cleaned out thing if they wanted. If it had not been destroyed, the whole of the tree could have been used to build several buildings, no doubt. Not that wood was hard to come by, but it seemed an awful waste to see the hollowed out stump sitting there.
What was the point of the seeds taking root if they were to just be burned down anyway? No real answer for that existed, I think. The same thing went for men and beasts alike. Not even guessing gave you a satisfying answer. I don’t think it was supposed to, after all, what are we, compared to the gods? Can such a disparity be measured? No answer existed for that either, at least, not for creatures like us.
“Here, I’ll lift you up,” he said. The guardian became a step for me, and once I had balanced myself on his hands, he thrust me over the edge of the stump. The tumble added yet one more bruise atop the other swollen marks, but I felt no need to complain about it; the limit of my agony had long been reached. More trauma would change nothing.
After freeing myself from the charcoaled, broken heart of the tree, I crawled to the other edge of the circle where the cracked wood looked like it would make a good seat.
Once over the top, the guardian hurried over and sat beside me. He nodded, saying, “Sorry about that, no other way to get in here otherwise.”
“What’s the point?” I asked.
The guardian turned his head up to the sky as if he had not heard me at all. And even though there was nothing to see above us but fog, his eyes darted from one spot to another and focused on something I could not see. He kept at this for so long that even I searched for something in the fog.
“Ever heard of why they descend?” he asked.
“Only rumors,” I said, wrapping myself in the warmth of his cloak. “Mostly about them coming down to make a key. But it’s a load of shit, I’ve seen it before. They don’t come to make a key, repair wrongs, or bless the land. It’s the farthest you could imagine from the stories. A pile of lies, all of it. Wishful thinking at best.”
How could these lies survive all this time? They had to have known. Pelce was destroyed, and so much else was lost that day. The Guild itself was tested, and yet they come for a key? Unbelievable. They would believe anything to ease their fears.
“It may not be a physical thing they’re after,” he said after pulling an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket. “Not a key you could put on a ring or even hold in your hand, but something still that could open a path long impassable.” The faded bolt of cloth must have been a keepsake, for he rubbed at it with calloused fingers in a way that explained its faded appearance.
“And so what? Even if you’re right or wrong, we’ll both be dead soon.”
“No, we might not be. We just have to wait and see… Ah.” He pocketed the handkerchief and stood, pointing up. “Look, there. Not too far off now, the other teams will come for us as swiftly as they can.”
At least three more stacks of gold smoke were up there, lounging in the clearing sky. The fog, which had stubbornly held its ground for so long, had begun to dissolve away. Each molecule of it vanished at a separate time from all the rest, so that patches lingered and yet grew weaker as the collective mass of mist disappeared.
It was not the wind’s persistence that had persuaded it to leave, but the argent spheres above the serpent. Not even the storms of the World’s End could best whatever magic the Tessect possessed. All manner of weather prostrated before their power; after all, they weave the world to their liking just as they had done a thousand times before. And now I could see everything for miles around. It was a waste, all of it. Just one field of ash and dust. The other gold stacks came from farther down the mountain, somewhere where the main road would have begun.
They would not reach us in time.
If this were a story passed around, this would be the point where all hope is lost in the hearts of those stuck in such a dire situation. Lucky for me, I gave that all up a while back. Once I felt them and dreamed of Pelce, I knew there wasn’t any place for hope.
Easier to give it up.
“Ain’t over yet, you hear?” He patted me on the shoulder and directed me to watch the spheres. “It all depends on where they begin their work.”
Having seen this already, I wanted to look away and spare myself the trouble of witnessing it all over again. But what else was there to do with this insignificant amount of time that remained?
To watch this world burn just a little more. It wouldn’t hurt, would it?
No, it couldn’t. This was the limit.
The Tessect lowered themselves over the serpent. But, before they made contact, the serpent retreated back into the ground with a sound akin to bundles of bones, thick as cities, snapping somewhere below us. It all shook. The splintered bone rocked the foundations by which all rested upon, leaving it punctured and failing.
And the serpent remained no more: a smart move; the weaving would begin shortly, and the end would follow with a spire at its forefront.
“So,” Shugokrur said, “you fear these as well? Strange. I do not feel them the same as that worm. Are you familiar with these senses?”
I shook my head no.
“Odd. Well, it matters little. I can tell you that their presence is flowing outward from those points in the sky. Not from the spheres above, but the slits that are higher still. It will not reach our point with much force. So, we are to be…
“They are starting.”
So close. This is what they must have experienced that day…
I had seen it before, but this was not something one could ever be used to. At this distance, the gusts of wind and low howling I had heard and felt so many years ago was strong enough to pick us up as children and dash us against the ground. We would not be as corpses after the landing, but mashed piles of gore.
Even the stump offered no protection; it was by Shugokru’s strength alone that we were held to our spots. Without hesitation, he wrapped his arms around us and broke the winds that spilled forth from another dimension of creation. Despite the forces present, the shadows of his body did not falter. Not once.
A pressure exuded the mountain in waves more abrasive and cutting than the debris-whipping winds. The sounds too, were beyond my ability to describe. Over the gust’s chanting, a hymn of pure, absolute force was their voice. The world around us split and unraveled into coiling threads. Rock that should have shattered, water that should have dried up or have seeped down, it all rose in spirals to join the column that was being built in the sky.
An awful scream, one not a part of the Tessect’s song, grew from below. It increased its intensity until there was nothing to be heard but its ear-splitting voice. But it did not stop at overtaking the Tessect’s procession: it rose higher still so that our ears popped and bled, the air heated, and the desecrated corpse of the mountain caved in on itself.
Before I even had a chance to cover my bleeding ears, the collapsed mountain, now a chasm, rose from the bonds of reason and threw the last of itself into the spire before us.
A spire now realized.
“Don’t you feel it all spiraling away?”
“Doesn’t it remind you of—”
I could not tell if the scream had stopped. I could hear nothing, not even the guardian’s words as he held me tight. His lips moved, and he shook me by the shoulders. Maybe he was mouthing something I was to pick up on, but my body was spent: like my skin had also been spun into threads and pulled into the sky.