Arc Fifteen: City of Light
Far from the mountain ice, the land slopes toward a lake so vast that a traveller, seeing it for the first time, would believe they had found the ocean.
In the wooded hills overlooking the shore, a lone karvite prowls back and forth. This is not home. The prey is plentiful but bizarre, and the air is too thick, too hot, too damp. She hides in the shade and tries to fight the urge to press on.
From here, the landscape dips and swoops into a low plain of rolling hills, bordered by cliffs to the west and the great lake to the east. Woods turn to grassland, and grassland turns to fields, full of unfamiliar scents and cut off by a tall barrier of stone.
Beyond, far in the distance from the farms that feed it, lies the city of Sia Marhu.
Hundreds of people live crammed within its walls. They are born there and they die there, and they never hear of the wilds beyond outside of stories. Above it all is the Upper City, carved and built into the cliff face, watching over the lower. To its people, the wilds are no more than an abstract problem to be solved.
But Sia Marhu doesn't need the wilds. Its stories come from within.
The rift is invisible in the daylight. Most people find it easier that way; they can pretend it isn't there. People are good at pretending. But the rift calls out to senses over than vision, other than the scent trails of prey in the forest, or the snap of twigs underfoot. These are only the everyday senses. But the rift pulls, and forms them into new shapes, and the beasts in the forest raise their hackles and prowl. And the rift reaches deep, deep inside...
The lone karvite paces by the wall, and waits.
On a clear night, when the rift is silver in the sky, it is a known cornerstone of common sense that you do not investigate strange noises coming from old, empty estates.
We all know this. I know it.
If the gardens are empty and grown over with weeds pushing through the stone, if the gates are rusted shut, if the windows are dead blank eyes staring out at you, then you walk on, as fast as you can. It does not matter if you hear calls for help from inside, faint and muted though they may be. You walk on.
I know this.
I walked on.
I am walking now.
"...and then the dove said, 'No thank you, I did that yesterday!'"
There was silence, all around. Even the background noise of the coffeeshop, all the chatter and the rattling cups and scratching pens, seemed to die back in the wake.
"Well..." Jen said, "it flows better in the original Rhusavi."
"Jen, I have heard it in the original Rhusavi," said Dhaymin. "It's still shit."
"Perhaps for you," Jen said.
"Uh," Rosa cut in. "Does anyone else want some more coffee? We have enough for another round."
"Throw me in," Jen said.
"Me too," Dhaymin agreed. As Rosa set back off to the counter, Dhaymin finished what was left of his first drink. "Ahh, that's better than shit anything," he said. "Better than that crap in Sia Loxol." He winced visibly, probably, Jen thought, recalling the dreadful acorn coffee. "What did they say this was, again?"
"Dandelion root, I think," said Jen.
"Hmm. And here I thought that was for eating."
"I think you can do that with it too."
"Well then," said Dhaymin. "Going to have to get back on the kitchen game if I want to keep up with these people."
"If we can afford to," Jen said.
He looked out over the coffeeshop. It was evening, and people were sitting here and there in deep seats, drinking, eating, and above all talking. Their voices melted into a wall of sound. All around him, he could hear the music of people relaxing after a long day, as outside, the sky turned a deep shade of blue. Night seemed to come early this far south, even in high summer.
In the middle of it all was Rosa, carrying a trio of cups balanced together in her hands, looking around as if she had only just walked in to meet someone, but wasn't sure where they had gone. But eventually she recognised them, and set them down on the table beside them. Jen took one of the steaming cups, and breathed in the earthy scent.
There was so much to do in a big city, and so many ways to spend money.
"I lost track of you there," she said. "But I'm fine! Nobody else here has hair like you, so I know it is you!" She paused, noticing Jen taking out his purse. There was a clink of coins as he laid it out. "Oh," she said.
"Yes, that," Dhaymin said, pulling the purse toward him. "Let's see here." He took out the first coin, a dull silver one with a hole through the middle, and passed it between his fingers, feeling at the shape. "This is that old Jakvinta mark we had. Really, Jen? We've had this thing since that crap with Koiski!"
"Yes, that," Dhaymin said, pulling the purse toward him. "Let's see here." He took out the first coin, a dull silver one with a hole through the middle, and passed it between his fingers, feeling at the shape. "This is that old Jakvinta mark we had. Really, Jen? We've had this thing since that crap with Koiski!"
"It's not my fault if Jakvinta hasn't communicated with the outside world for the last twenty years," said Jen.
"Pity," said Dhaymin, feeling his way through the rest of the coins. Whoever's enforcing that's probably got enough to keep us here for years."
"As I see it," Jen said, "we have enough to find somewhere to sleep tonight. I'm less sure about tomorrow."
"Begging a moment from you young people, there."
Jen looked up. From out of the merged voices that filled the shop, one had resolved into words.
"I couldn't help but overhear you talking about your money troubles," said the newcomer. "I know it's never much use, but perhaps I could buy you drinks?"
He saw a lean old woman, hair pulled away from her stern face into a silver braid.
He instantly scolded himself inside. This wasn't Bala. She was part of his memories, someone he'd not seen since he was much younger. He wanted to see another friendly face, that was all.
But Dhaymin had been listening in to every word. "Jen? Rosa? Might not want to take her up on that offer, unless you like the taste of sea water."
The stern visage melted, and a warm smile spread over Bala's face. Slipping seawater into drinks to catch out the tainted was an old trick, although Jen grew less sure it worked with every passing day. But Bala, of course, would tell you the working was all in the other person's reaction. "There's a good one, Dhaymin. Well, I suppose that means you're all probably you, so if you don't mind, I'd like to take some weight off my feet."
"Yes," Jen said. "Yes, of course." He shuffled over to give her some room, and caught sight of Rosa, who was staring at her, as if unsure what to make of her. "And this... this is Rosa."
"Hello," said Rosa, caught a little off guard by the introduction. She went back to staring. "And that's Cinn under there, sniffing your feet."
"I'd say the name's Bala," Bala said, "but I think you worked that out already." She looked down, and reached under the table to let the hidden dog sniff at her fingers.
Jen said nothing, still trying to root himself in this present world, where figures from the past could show up, offer a drink, and sit down with barely a warning.
The last time he'd seen Bala, he'd been not quite fifteen years old. She'd been a part of his and Dhaymin's lives, dropping in and out as her wandering beast-hunter life would allow her. Sometimes she'd been there to watch them when their parents were gone, instead of them being alone, and those, he had now come to realise, were the best days of growing up. It was Bala who helped teach him to read and write, and it was Bala who sat with them on dark nights and told stories about the southern lands (the ones with plenty of blood were always Dhaymin's favourites, and Jen loved to hear about the scholar lords).
She left because of Jen. One day, after thinking of those stories a little too much (no, not too much, he had to remind himself now), he'd run off. The seeds of the idea had been in his mind for a few years at that point, but the act itself was half spontaneous. He found a wagon full of southbound traders, and talked them into letting him join. They didn't know he was Sarn's son. They wouldn't have taken him with them if they'd known, but they knew after a few days on the road. Jen had found himself smiling and laughing on those few days, stung with guilt at night, but always finding a place to make himself useful, and in return, people who let him be a part of their world.
But of course, a man like Sarn Dhalsiv wouldn't let anyone steal his family, no matter what they did or didn't know about the theft. The wagon was in flames by the time he caught up with them, though he let the traders go, free to run to the next town. He welcomed Jen back, not holding back his terror over those last few days of what might have become of him, but never holding back his anger either.
Bala had been there, too. Jen always wondered if it was her sheer presence that lent him the courage to run at all. They didn't have time to talk afterwards, but Jen remembered closed doors and raised voices, and then the morning after it was all over, Dhaymin had found him and said that Bala was gone. After all the years, Jen didn't need to wonder what his father had said. He could hear it now. Never come near my sons again.
And now here she was, years later. Her age showed a little more, after so long away. Her face was a little more lined, and the last vestiges of blonde were gone from her hair, but her eyes were still a brilliant amber to contrast the silver, and she sat like a wiry spring, ready to move even at rest.
"It's good to see you boys again," she said, as if she had just run into them after a few days away. "Good to meet new people, too. So I understand the three of you are passing through and have some problems with money, is that it?"
Jen, with all the questions still whirling in his head, didn't know what to say to that, obvious though the answer was. Nor, it seemed, did Dhaymin. So it was left to a quiet and bewildered Rosa to say "Yes... yes, that is it."
"Sia Marhu does that to you," said Bala. "But as it is, I've got a little space to myself in this city. The offer's there if you need it."
Bala's offer could not have come at a better time. By they time they stepped outside, a faint drizzle had started in the darkening sky. By the time they reached Bala's home, it had become a downpour all to itself. Fat droplets fell to the ground, splashing into gutters and dribbling down walls.
It was easy to orientate yourself in Sia Marhu, something that Jen had learnt quickly. To the east, there was the lake, though if Jen stood on the docks he would have thought it was the sea, if not for the lack of salt in the air, for it spread all the way to the horizon. To the west, the ground rose up in terraced cliffs flanked by twin waterfalls that loomed over the mists and fog, upon which perched the spires of his childhood stories. To the north, there was the rift.
Jen didn't know when he'd first heard of the rift. Stories of a city sliced through by a cold tear in the world reached even his pine forest birthplace. Such things, after all, made for extremely good stories. He was little more sure of when he'd learnt that the stories were true. It hung over the northern streets like a white aurora, the high walls that barricaded it slicing through the city like a freshly sharpened knife. Stories of ruin and madness and a deep coldness that could not match the worst winter nights abounded in its wake.
The people of Sia Marhu barely seemed to notice it.
Jen supposed anything could become mundane, given time. He was still thankful that the route to Bala's lodgings took them in the opposite direction, so he could pretend that the white light battling the lantern flames on the puddle-strewn ground was only the moon. He concentrated on following her, instead. He held Rosa's hand in one of his, while Dhaymin hung onto his other arm as he followed along, swearing on occasion as his cane caught in the cracked stones.
She hadn't commented on Dhaymin's blindness, and surely Dhaymin was wondering about the same thing. Did she already know, then? And if so, did she know about the other changes that had befallen them since they'd last met?
Thankfully, he didn't have to be alone with his thoughts for long. Sia Marhu had none of the planned rigidity he'd seen in Kastek, with streets that wound over old trails, crossing and twisting together, but Bala knew the way. Even the homes here looked as if they had been piled on top of each other. Balconies and extra rooms hung out over the streets, sometimes blocking the sky. In the distance he could hear snatches of quiet music and chatter, and smell a few traces of cooking that the damp air had not drowned out. The night had fallen properly now, and the city was getting ready to sleep. The thought of it sent a fresh wave of weariness through his body, cumulating in his bones. He'd been in Sia Marhu for a whole day and night, looking for a few coins before they were on their way, but the city sapped more than it gave, no matter what he did.
Of course this was Bala guiding them, then. She'd managed to survive here.
Even so, there was nothing impressive about Bala's current home. It consisted of little more than two main rooms, with a washroom off to one side. A few mats and blankets strewn across the floor passed for furniture, and a small stove and pantry in one of the rooms meant that it was probably a kitchen. But it was clean and dry, and the floors were good solid wood, and there was glass of all things in the windows, and generous amounts of it too. And there were hearths, big impressive ones that dominated both rooms.
"You three make yourselves at home," Bala said, "but don't let me catch you getting water everywhere, you hear me?" She glanced out of the north window. "Seems like I'd better get a fire going now."
Even without a fire at the moment, Jen still felt a rush of warmth as he pulled off his wet boots and coat. It felt even better when Bala got to work on the hearth, and the first few sparks lit up in its depths. There was so much he could have asked her now, but he left her to it as she vanished into the other room for a while, and simply enjoyed the sensation of dry warmth. It wound its way through his body, bringing relief to strained muscles and blistered feet. He might have fallen asleep now, were it not for the thoughts swarming through his mind, demanding attention.
"So... you... know her?" Rosa said.
"Know her?" said Jen. "Yes, she's... we..."
"She's our aunt," Dhaymin finished.
"I'm no blood of yours, boys."
The door opened, to reveal Bala standing there with a tray, atop which was perched a steaming pot, which she set down before them. "It's nettle," she continued, "and I hope you like it, because you're going to have to."
"You always told us that didn't matter," said Jen.
Bala smiled. "Good boy, there," she said. "Now, I understand you and me have a little catching up to do, so we're going to get some of this inside us first."
Jen looked at Rosa, and back to the tray. There were four cups. He waited for Rosa to say something, to ask if that meant she was going to be part of this gathering as well. But she said nothing. She simply stared at Bala as she poured, as if the simple act of drawing out tea had become as fascinating as the stars to her.
"Rosa stays with us," he said.
Bala looked up, and Jen wondered if she saw, in the way that she saw all things, the way he and Rosa hung close together. "I know," she said.
She poured out a cup each, and now the four of them sat in a circle by the fireside, blankets rumpled beneath them and the tray in the middle the pot still steaming with leftover tea. Jen took a cautionary sip of his own. It was deep and a little peppery, but there was no hint of sea water. Bala trusted them.
"So," she said, "it seems what your mother told me was true."
Her shoulders slumped, and her head held low, Bala was, all of a sudden, not the woman Jen had seen stride up to their table not an hour earlier. Jen felt his right arm itch again.
"You met her again?" Dhaymin leaned forward. "When?
"A little before this past winter." Bala gazed into the steam rising from her cup, as if the story was held within it. "I'd like to say I heard rumours of your father's passing, and that was why I visited, but it seems your mother was skilled at keeping them silenced. I was simply close by. And so I found myself wondering, thinking that either one of you might have taken your father's title by now and done something for his mistakes."
"We were long gone by then," Jen said. It had been a little under a year ago, now. But the forest, the fire at the windows, the two of them turning away into the dark, all seemed further away.
"I know. Your mother was alone, save for that healer girl, and I felt she was too afraid to even speak to her most days. It was hard to leave, but your mother has always been good at making her wishes and intentions very clear. But she told me what happened to you. Didn't know how much of it to believe. Didn't know if I was going to find you again to find out. Luck might have it, it seems everyone comes through Sia Marhu in the end." She took a deep breath. "And for you, I'm so sorry."
"Nothing for you to be sorry about," Dhaymin said.
Jen stared down into the dark green depths of his drink, veiled by swirling steam. He wasn't sure the apology was meant for Dhaymin at all. Bala, of all people, must have seen how Dhaymin wouldn't talk about what happened to him, yet forged on. No, it was meant for him.
And it was a relief. He felt tension that he didn't even know was there melt away with her words. He must have been lucky. He was still here, still himself, and he kept running into people who didn't want to kill him.
"We met her too," he said. "Not so long ago."
"You're telling me she's here, too?" Bala said. For once, he'd caught her off guard. Dhaymin, meanwhile, turned away from them, as if by facing the fire he could block out what was being said. Rosa shuffled a little closer to him.
But Jen had already let the subject out, and there was no going back now, so he told Bala everything. He told her about the confrontation at Jivarin's Fort, even about Numbers. And he told her about the way he had fallen into himself in a hall of ice, and when he woke, it was dawn, and only Rosa had seen what Majiv had done to save them.
When it was over, the room had fallen quiet, with only the background noise of rain streaming over the windows. It blurred out the riftlight in the northern window so that, once again, it may as well have been the moon. Bala once again stared deep into her tea, but there was no steam any more. It had cooled as the story was told, but at last she took a drink and poured a little extra to replenish it.
"Seems to me," she said, "she always knew some day it was going to happen. Doesn't make it any easier on anybody. But that she always knew she was going back, I was never in any doubt."
Bala asked, later on, about the nature of Numbers and how she had returned after Jivarin's Fort. Jen left out the part about exactly how they'd found her again, but only because it was embarrassing. But the three of them came together to tell her about the time they talked, and the way that Numbers had revealed themselves to them, and the feeling of great age and distance that fell upon them when she did. Bala listed, attentively, no doubt making sure everything was tucked safely away in her mind.
Whatever else she was doing in Sia Marhu would have to wait, though. It was late, and even the rush of energy they felt from having met someone as long gone as Bala, of all people, had to fade. They slept on mats in the larger room, Bala on one, Dhaymin on another, and Jen and Rosa sharing a third. The fire burned on, and dwindled to silent embers. The rain passed by overhead, fading to a light drizzle, and then to nothing at all.
When it was gone, the only light was from the north window.
Jen lay awake, while all around him he heard soft breathing. The others had no trouble sleeping. Dhaymin and Rosa were doubtless as exhausted as himself, and Bala could sleep anywhere. He wasn't so lucky. Despite the exhaustion flooding his body, despite the difficulty in keeping his eyes open, his mind would not let him rest. He shifted and turned, trying his best not to disturb Rosa in his efforts to find a comfortable position. There he would lie still for a while, until he moved again. He was at the gate of sleep, and yet it was locked in front of him. There was only darkness, and breathing, and time slipping ever onward.
He sat upright, pulling the blanket away. Rosa didn't even stir.
He was sitting in a rectangle of faint silver light. The first night he was here, all the windows faced south. Maybe that was why those rooms cost so much - so that you didn't have to look at the rift. There were no such luxuries here.
What he needed was a fire, to replace the one that had burnt down. He could sit by it, and forget all about the ice and Majiv and the man who had jumped into his head and pushed him to one side in his own mind. He could fall asleep there, without even trying. Bala would surely understand, after all.
He looked back at the north window, and wondered exactly how far away it was.
The rain was gone, but a faint mist now rose from the ground in its wake, blanketing the streets in white so that only the buildings rose from it. The rift's light reflected from it, so that the city was traced out in silver and black before him. Beyond rooftops and alleyways, it hung in the sky.
Jen's first impression, on the first night, was that it was like an aurora, only pure white instead of the blues and pinks he remembered, and that was how he had described it to Dhaymin when he asked. But now, as he watched it over time, he saw that it was not the same at all. It did not flicker and shift with sudden movements. It had none of the life and energy of the auroras he remembered from his home. It was simply a curtain of light, one that hung in place across the city. Occasionally it shimmered, or grew a little duller or brighter, but nothing changed. It was like an insubstantial crack, sitting in the sky.
He watched it now, taking in not what was familiar, but what was different. His hands resting on the windowsill, cool air wrapping around his skin, Jen stood bathed in silver.
"Wake up, everyone. There's work to be doing."
Bala's words pulled Jen back out of sleep, and he found himself rolling over to block them out. Not a few hours ago, sleep had been impossible. Now he felt as if his entire being was weighed down, ready to slip back into unconsciousness at any moment. He listened, half awake, to the scene around him.
"Work?" he heard Dhaymin say. "It smells more like breakfast."
"It's that as well," said Bala.
"Need any help?" said Dhaymin.
An agreement from Bala, the sound of footsteps on bare wood, and a door closing behind them, and the conversation became inaudible.
"Jen?" he heard Rosa say.
"Mmmfine," he mumbled. He opened his eyes, blinking in the dawn light. The room that had been so quiet and cold in the night was now awash with gold. It was all a little too much to take in at one go, but he stretched out and sat up anyway, listening to Bala and Dhaymin in the next room over. "Be more fine once I've eaten."
"Did you even sleep?" Rosa said.
"I think so," said Jen. He looked back out of the window, but there was nothing to see, except for a bright summer sky and the rooftops below it. "It doesn't look like it shouldn't be there, now."
"I think it still is," said Rosa. "I think so, but it is so bright that we can't see it when the sun comes back." She smiled. "Like stars!"
Must everything be about stars? Jen thought. But it was an affectionate thought, and in any case, he would never think to voice it. The gleam in Rosa's eyes when she hung on to what she loved was too much to extinguish, even in playful teasing. He would rather stay quiet and let her talk of her world of wonder than quench her enthusiasm. Nor could he stand to see the way she would stop and hesitate if she thought anything was wrong.
But she hadn't been awake the previous night, and he had.
"Aren't you afraid of it?" he said.
"Afraid?" She rubbed Cinn's neck, and closed her eyes in thought. "I don't know. I suppose I should be afraid. That is what I would think, after all the other things. But I also think what I should do is not what I will do. Don't you think so?"
"Maybe you're braver than most of us."
"Maybe. Or maybe, I'm thinking that this city has stood for long enough with it. It's a very big city, and very old. I'm sure it knows what it is doing."
Jen supposed she had a point. Maybe Sia Marhu didn't need beast-hunters. But before he could say anything, the door was pushed open, and in came Bala and Dhaymin with breakfast.
It consisted mostly of an odd flat bread, the same as they had eaten the previous night, with some spare for Cinn to eat (if there was one thing Bala had for once failed to anticipate, it was a dog joining them). Jen had found it strange, but Bala had told him it was how the Luccani baked theirs, and despite the oddity it was quite tasty, so he was happy to see more. They came with a mix of berry preserves that Dhaymin had combined from the contents of Bala's pantry, and it was enough to put everyone's mind of thoughts of rifts and hunting for a while, and maybe even money.
"You didn't tell us one thing," Dhaymin said.
"What would that be?" asked Bala.
"You didn't say what you were doing in Sia Marhu." And yet again, there were little undertones that Jen could hear. What tells us this isn't Numbers playing with us again? What tells us this isn't going to end the same way as Jivarin's Fort?
But Bala must have noticed. "I suppose I've not told you as much as I could have done. Well, your shortest answer is this: I've retired."
Nobody had any answer to that.
"Or rather, since none of you are going to ask what I'm talking about with that," Bala went on, "I should be retired. So I did what I suppose all them retired people did. Hid myself away in the city. I just so happened to pick the one city in all of Toxilivital it's impossible for a beast-hunter to retire from. You don't just stop. You've always been places that other people haven't. It'll always pull at you.
"But even then I'm not being entirely honest with you. I'm not doing ordinary beast-hunting out here. I'm out to find out exactly what it was happened to your mother, all those years ago. Perhaps now, too."
"The cold..." said Dhaymin.
"The cold, the rift, call it what you want, it's the same thing," said Bala. "You, Rosa. You don't know, do you?"
"I know what happened to Majiv," said Rosa.
"Yes," she said. "You see, I found her after her first time through that. I was the one who taught her to be a beast-hunter, after myself. I taught these two a little as well. You might say I was looking for a family who knew what it was like. You see, their mother was the second known person to walk out of the cold and live. I'm the first."
"She didn't say..."
"I gather she wouldn't have," said Bala. "And I suppose I was looking for all of you as well. I had been hearing of a pair of Rhusavi spotted in Sabhri's coffee shop. Nothing strange about that. I have friends in there who are the most local people you'll ever meet. Heard them make a mention, had to come see for myself."
"We're glad you did," said Jen. Bala's explanation had been for Rosa's benefit - he and Dhaymin already knew the story of Bala's brush with the cold, long before either of them were born. It was the first thread of many that had ended with their lives as they were today. But he was glad it was over, even if Rosa listened with rapt intent, because Dhaymin was turned away again at the mention of Majiv.
They finished off their meal in silence, but when it was all over, and they had tidied away the plates, Bala called them back into their now customary circle around the ash-strewn hearth. "All that aside," she said, "I've got work to do. Not for any one of you, if you'd rather not be there, but the offer's open if any of you would." She held out a faded printed sheet, and let Jen take it.
"Oh good," said Dhaymin. "More paper."
Jen would have tried to explain it to him, but he wasn't sure what he was looking at himself. "What's this?"
"News sheet," said Bala. "Tells you what's happened in the city. Probably because it's too big for anyone to know otherwise. The part you want is right there." She tapped a finger against one paragraph, headed by a heavy face declaring another disappearance in the High Gardens district. Jen read it to Dhaymin.
"And here I thought you'd retired." Dhaymin said.
"I did. And it turns out it don't come with a vast fortune for you to live the rest of your days on in comfort and luxury."
"So we do as we always have," said Jen.
"I wouldn't have thought the people of Sia Marhu would have any need for beast-hunters," said Rosa.
"Not sure they do," said Bala. "If you ask me, I think they find it's all a lot easier to pay off a few idiots from the middle of nowhere to solve things. And that's because, if you'll excuse the bluntness, what's dead don't need paying. But I'm not dead yet, and I haven't made any plans otherwise. But you know what this place is like. That's why I said it's all up to you. I've met the man who wrote that paper, and I have my doubts that he's a liar."
"If there's something we need to do, then we should do it," said Dhaymin. He spoke before Jen or Rosa could even think about their replies.
"I'll come too," said Rosa. Her fingers were twined in Cinn's mane, but her hands were steady.
Now it was Jen's turn. He looked down at the paper in his hand, and back to the waiting faces. "I'm coming too."
"Jen?" said Dhaymin.
"Don't know how much things have changed since we last met," said Bala, "and I imagine they've not, but you know Sia Marhu has a library, and I'm led to believe it's quite the collection."
"I know," said Jen. "Thing is that..." He turned the paper over and over in his hands. It had gone dry and soft from so much handling, and even the cheap ink was starting to fade in places where too many fingers had touched it. "Listen, if you're all there, shouldn't I be there too? And this is..." The next word came out with some difficulty. "Normal. This is normal. This is what we did before everything else. We fight monsters, we save people, we get coins. I know it shouldn't be! But it is! This is what we do!"
"Are you sure on that?" Bala said.
"Yes," Jen laid the paper on the floor, in the middle of their circle. "I'm sure."
"In that case," Bala picked it up, and stood up. "We've got food inside us, and tea. Let's do the thing."
"I'm very glad," Rosa said, "that we came here in the day. It doesn't look quite as bad."
High Gardens, so it turned out, was the southernmost point of Sia Marhu, and by extension, the furthest from the rift. As they walked, the narrow streets and tiny shops and homes tucked into alleys gave way to broad roads and trimmed gardens. The summer sun cast its glare upon the four of them. Though the lake eased the heat a little, Jen could still feel the thick, heavy plains air pressing down upon him. This was a summer unlike any he had ever felt in the cool pine woods, one that was not only hot but heavy as well, weighed down with humid air, a summer there was no hiding from. Their pace was slow, and they kept to the shade, which offered a little relief. They weren't alone in their withdrawal. The streets were empty except for the odd passer-by, dressed in plain but fine cloth much like the theatre goers in Sia Loxol, likewise walking in the shade. Most people, it seemed, travelled in covered carriages, no doubt wondering at the few walkers. The worst affected of all of them, though, was Cinn. Even though she had shed the bulk of her coat in the spring, the big hunting dog walked with her head held low and none of her usual vitality. On occasion, Rosa would have to stop and feed her water from her cupped hands, so she could keep going.
Tiny insects buzzed around them, drawn to the blossoms that spilt out over high walls, spreading colour and fragrance into the summer air. Jen couldn't see inside the gardens or to the sprawling estates, except for the odd glimpse through a barred gate or two, but the streets themselves had plenty of splendour to rival them. Here and there a fountain beckoned where roads met, sending a cool spray of glistening droplets into the sky. Each crossroads was a plaza of differently coloured stones, all in browns and greys that would have been dull and lifeless alone, but came together to form interlocking patterns full of subtle colour. In the distance, the southernmost waterfall thundered downward, audible this far away as a rumble that was felt as much as heard.
At least they were safe on the streets. This was the sort of place where crimes were committed indoors, by people in very expensive clothing.
Bala led the way, following directions she had memorised, but it was still easy enough to spot the site of the disappearances. There were blossoms draped over the walls just as always, but in a haphazard mess of colour and pattern, not the artful displays elsewhere. Twin gates, locked shut by a thick layer of rust that had crumbled in places to a dusty red residue on the road before them, loomed twice as tall as Jen himself. Through the ruined bars he could see grass grown so tall a child could have hidden in its depths without anyone knowing, grass that reminded him of the dusty roads between cities. And beyond, a low house, sprawling over the grounds, its windows dark and empty.
"There's nobody living there," he said to Dhaymin. "It's all empty and overgrown. Huge, but nothing's been here in a while."
"Sounds as if it couldn't be more obvious if it was trying," said Dhaymin.
"Maybe," said Jen, "but I'm going to agree with Rosa. I'm glad it's daytime."
"That doesn't mean everything, mind you," said Bala.
"I know," Rosa looked over her shoulder, to the north. "It is like I told Jen, this morning. The rift is still there, even if we can't see it."
"So people are vanishing inside there?" Dhaymin said. "Must be a way in, then."
"Whatever it is," said Jen, "it's not these."
"No. It wouldn't be."
"Right," Jen went on. "So we need to find out where it is. It doesn't look as if anyone was climbing over these. There'd be marks. These gates haven't been touched in years. What happened to this place, does anyone know?" It was as if the estate had been not only left to fall into ruin, but ignored by its neighbours. It was one of a ring of four that surrounded a square strewn with tiny silver birch trees. Each of the others was the same, a perfectly trimmed garden seen through tall gates, standing as if they did not want to acknowledge the lone anomaly amongst them.
"You know the story. The last owner went mad, died alone. Now nobody wants it."
"I was afraid of something like that."
"Something like what?" said Rosa.
"Of what you said."
"Jen." Dhaymin moved closer to Bala. "You might not have noticed this, but you've been talking to yourself."
"You didn't hear anything?" Jen said.
"Nobody's said anything since you started talking about getting inside," said Bala.
Jen slumped, head bowed in the summer heat.
He didn't know how he'd imagined it to happen. Sometimes he imagined a rapid turn, taking him over before he knew what was going on. Sometimes, he thought of a slow, gradual process, of losing control piece by piece, while he screamed inside, unable to do a thing. He'd seen many people like himself in his life, but never had he known how it felt.
This was not how he thought it would happen. There was no dramatic change. There was no slow horror. You simply woke up one morning, believing everything to be fine, and then you noticed something that hadn't been there yesterday. Something little. You weren't a prisoner of your own self, not yet. Things just changed, and you didn't even know they had.
It was all so maddeningly ordinary.
"You been doing this before?" Bala said.
"No! It's never happened!"
"All respect," Dhaymin said, "but I think that much is true."
"It is," said Rosa. "He's never done this."
"Can't say I've ever heard of it happening, either," said Dhaymin.
"Neither have I," said Bala, "but I'm not going to rest easy because of that. Always the possibility not a single of of you is who you say you are. Always a possibility that I'm not who I say I am. But we've got things to be doing. Now I'm going to imagine for now that Jen here's responding to what it is that's caused this mess. Maybe that's because of... what we all know. Maybe it's something else. I'd like to think we're all smart enough to find out what. Jen, are you sure you want to keep going?"
"It doesn't hurt, if that's what you mean," said Jen. The world was exactly the same. He could hear the rumble of waterfalls in the distance, the sound of insects chirping in the heat. Nothing was different. Only he had changed. The rest of the world moved on without him.
"And I think," Rosa said, "that I'd like to go inside. This place is... not right."
"Abandoned buildings where people disappear," Bala said, "rarely are."
"No," said Rosa. "Not that. Not him. Everything else."
Thankfully for Jen, it turned out that Bala knew the story of the estate as well, so he was spared having to repeat it. He didn't know what to think of the fact that whatever had spoken to him had gotten the story right, and with about the same level of sarcasm as Bala too.
At least he was quite sure his thoughts about an alternative entrance had been his. Rosa suggested a side entrance, hidden away where people couldn't see it. There was one too, a much smaller gate tucked into a shade filled side road, but, as with the main one, it was rusted shut, and with no evidence anyone had tried to climb it.
"The walls," Dhaymin said. "What are they like?"
"Don't think there's many people would want to climb those," Bala said. "I might have done, once. Wouldn't imagine it now."
"Would they be broken anywhere?" Dhaymin suggested.
They circled the walls and at last they found it, a section where the grey stone had caved in and formed a heap of rubble, strewn across the back roads. "Can't imagine anyone comes here too often," said Bala. There was nothing behind them but another wall to another estate, this one lined with rows of tall trees. Whoever lived there, just as everyone else, would prefer to think that their dilapidated neighbour was not there.
Rosa stared at it for a moment, touching her hand to the far wall, but quickly turned her attention back to their objective when they all scrambled over the pine. It was not an easy climb. The wall had been smashed long ago, and the remnants had crumbled to dust in places, leaving an unsteady heap for them to scramble over. Bala reached the apex first, swaying to balance herself, and looked down, pausing in her climb. "This looks like the place," she said. "There's tracks down in the dirt."
Jen was next, arms flailing in an attempt to keep upright, but when he reached where Bala stood, he could see what she meant. The dust below was churned up by a recent trail, and the dirt underneath was pitted, as though by older tracks. Rosa and Dhaymin followed, Dhaymin's pace slowed as he tested each step, Rosa keeping him steady.
Bala didn't waste time, near running down the far side with energy that did not befit her age, and the other three followed.
The gardens out here were just as large as they had been at the front. It appeared to Jen, from where he now stood, that they formed a vast square, with the house tucked right in the middle. He could imagine how it had once looked - wide grassy expanses, strewn over with winding paths, dotted with pools and trees forming little glades to shelter the inhabitants from the sun. Now the grass had grown coarse and taller than his waist, and they had to push through it, enduring scratches on their arms and burrs clinging to their clothes, before they found a path. It had been paved in white, nearly translucent stone, but now it was cracked and lined with green, where weeds had pushed through the delicate paving.
"We're going inside, then?" said Dhaymin, as he felt the stone under his feet.
"Might be the best place to look," said Bala. "Though with all this garden to search through, I wouldn't rule out anything being here, either."
They moved inward, their path taking them to a tiny bridge over a pond. "We're going over water," Jen said, to Dhaymin.
"It's not large. Just a pond. I don't imagine it's that deep anyway, but I'll try the bridge first." Jen broke away from the group, placing a cautious foot on the bridge. It was a tiny arch, paved over in the same thin white stone as the paths, but the construction was sturdier stuff than them, and it held under his weight. Jen, though, knew better than to trust it, so he kept going with care.
He couldn't tell how deep the water was. From his higher vantage point, he could see that it was not a pond, but part of an artificial little river. At one end, a wall of stacked stones, worn smooth, barricaded it off, and Jen guessed that it had once been a carefully constructed waterfall. But now the water was stagnant and dark, grown over with rushes and pond weeds that formed a murky tangle stretching nearly halfway across the garden.
But the bridge still held, and Jen was soon back on the ground. "It's safe!" he called. "Feels strong enough!"
"Are you closer? You feel closer."
He'd mistaken her for Rosa earlier, because she was the only one her voice could have belonged to. Now that he heard her again, he could tell that she was not. Perhaps the same age as Rosa, but with none of her hesitation, or lapses, and not with that Fellstar accent, but someone who had grown up in Sia Marhu.
He looked back. Bala was crossing the bridge, exercising the same caution that he had. His first instinct was to say nothing, and pretend he'd heard nothing, but he pulled her aside as she approached. "It happened again," he said.
"What did it say?"
"She said I sounded closer. No, felt closer."
"They were interrupted by a splash as Cinn, fed up of the heat, crashed straight into the water, paddling to the other side and emerging covered in pond weed, mud caking her coat. She stood on the shore, her mouth wide open in a pant that looked a little as if she was smiling, and then-
"Get back!" Rosa called, from the far shore.
Bala pulled Jen backwards into the tall grass, and he scrambled to keep his footing. It wasn't enough. Cinn went from standing and dripping water into a pool of mud at her feet, to a full blown shake that rivalled the fountains Jen had seen that morning. Her entire form seemed to roll as she send a cascade of muddy water flying in all directions, spraying the pair of them with dirt and old weeds. When it was done, she stood, panting again as if smiling, her coat sticking ever way up like a set of muddy needles.
"Sorry!" Rosa said, as she crossed the bridge with Dhaymin in tow. "Sorry! She was just hot!"
Bala wiped a spatter of pond mud from her forehead. "I think what your dog is trying to tell us," she said, "is that we all need a break."
Perhaps Cinn was right. It was just gone past noon, and now the afternoon began with the long hot hours where the world baked beneath the sun. They found another one of the tiny groves dotted about the garden to shelter in. It seemed made for hiding from the sun. Tall willows draped their fronds into a little pool, now as dark and weed-strewn as the pond they'd crossed, but Jen could imagine shimmering fish in clear water, long ago. The trees formed a canopy, enveloping a low stone bench that all found of them clustered around. The still-muddy Cinn lay at Rosa's feet, and Jen felt that she was by now beaming at her accomplishment.
They shared a little food from their packs. It was the same dull dried meat as usual, but as people did not seem to eat oat cakes here, there was some more of the Luccani flat bread to go around, and Jen didn't know how hungry he was until he gulped it down.
"Are you going to tell them?" he said, to Bala. Even with food, and distractions all around, he couldn't forget about what had happened.
"Tell us about what?" Dhaymin said, clenching his cane's grip in his hands. Rosa, meanwhile, was picking dried mud out of Cinn's fur.
"I heard it again," Jen said.
"And you didn't tell us?" exclaimed Dhaymin.
"I told Bala!" Jen said. "But then Cinn interrupted."
"Which is why," Bala said, raising both hands to appeal for calm, "I said we all needed a break. And because I wondered if it was going to happen again. Jen, you've not heard anything since we stopped, have you?"
"No, I'd have told you," said Jen. "It was telling me it thought I was closer. Haven't heard it since. I think it gets interested when it thinks I'm around. You know, like a game of getting warmer?"
"I don't think I played that," said Rosa. "But it is very cold in the mountains."
"It's not important," said Jen. "And I didn't say anything, but..." He picked at a bit of orange-grey lichen at on the bench by his hand. "Well, I talked to it last time. It seems to understand things. I... wonder if I could do that now?"
"Don't you dare!" yelled Dhaymin.
But Jen spoke before he could even register what Dhaymin had said. "Hello? Can you hear me now? Or... whatever it is you do, I suppose?"
"Hello? I didn't think you were there! He's there! Are you coming now?"
"I don't want to answer that," said Jen. "If I'm coming, that is."
"Knowing you, probably not," muttered Dhaymin.
"You don't hear them, do you?" he said.
"No. I think there's people there, but they're not like you. You're all torn open and loud! Is that why you can hear me? Aren't you coming to get me?"
"She can't hear you," Jen said. "Says I'm... that... well, she didn't say so, but I think it's to do with... you know, that."
It hadn't been so hard to talk to her, before that. Imagining that it was just something to do with him being in close proximity to the site, even that it was simply Sia Marhu being its own self, that was something he had been able to put aside. It was something that would go away, when they'd done their work and gotten their money and gone back to sleep. Not now. Not any more.
"What is it? What's wrong? I thought you were coming - you're not? Why not? I've been waiting! I know, I was stupid, I should have walked on! I thought I'd walked on! But I didn't! Why aren't you coming to help?" The last few words dissolved into a terrified, screaming sob, such that Jen froze in place and shrank back, but there was nothing to hide away from. He was left with the sound of it sending ice through his body, in defiance of the heat.
"She's scared!" he said. He could feel his heart slamming against his chest, beating so hard and fast he thought it would break free at any second. He felt Bala's hands on his shoulders, holding him steady.
"There's lots of things do that," she said. "Stay calm, boy."
"There's lots of things make you feel things," Bala said. "I should know. Now steady. I don't want you rushing in after a lure. Sit here and let it pass. Have some more bread, if you like."
"But she's scared, and people were-"
"And if I'm wrong, it's on my breath," said Bala. "Point is, you're hearing her and nobody else is. Say something nice, if it helps. But don't go running."
Jen took a few deep breaths, His hands were gripping the bench so tight the blood had gone from them. "I'm coming," he said. "But I might be some time. Can you handle that?"
"You're going to get me?" she said. "Then... yes. I think I can. I can hold on, for that."
"All I want to say about echoes," Dhaymin said, "is that the last time we met one, it wasn't."
"Not so long ago I'd have said I don't do echoes," said Bala. "I'm still not going to say I know everything. But the lore is clear enough."
"And I suppose," said Rosa, "that we can all rule out monsters in the tall grass."
They had arrived at the house, now. From far away, it had laid low on the ground. Close up, it loomed. It had been built out of white stone, a sturdier sort than the paths, but no less splendid. It had been polished to a smooth surface to reflect the sun, and even now, worn away and cracked, coated in leaves and vines, it still glistened. Each window was still glazed - nobody wanted to come here, even to steal away the glass. Despite the ruin the estate had fallen into, it had withstood time far better than Jen would have expected. Only the slow reclamation of nature stood in its way
"If we could all put that aside," Bala said, "I'm starting to think every way into this place was made deliberately. And probably all at the same time."
"We should have stuck to the trail," said Dhaymin.
"I tried. It dies off after the path. But there might be something we can find around here."
After skirting the building, weaving in and out around its various wings and alcoves, they found it. Cinn was the first. Catching an unfamiliar scent, the hunting dog began to sniff at the ground, weaving in circles after the trail. Rosa followed her, and found tracks in the dusty ground. In the hot, still air, they had barely begun to degrade.
The entrance itself was not what Jen had been expecting. He'd imagined a hole torn in the wall, or a window ringed in shattered glass. There was nothing more than a tiny side door made of plain wood, left ajar.
"Interesting," Bala said. "What do you think?"
"I'll check," Dhaymin said, before anyone else had a chance to respond. He touched his hand to the door, running it up and down until he found the lock, which he investigated with his fingertips. "It's rusted," he said. "Seems like it is all the way through. Glad I don't have to pick this. It'd be impossible otherwise." He pulled at the door now, letting it open. It squeaked and groaned, and there was the scream of metal on rust as it moved, but it gave way under Dhaymin's coercion.
"There was rust on the ground too," said Rosa. "Before you did that, I mean. So it's been opened long ago. And then opened again."
Jen was silently glad they'd both worked things out. The lost girl probably could have told him, but he couldn't face asking her, not after the last time. Bala would only remind him that anything she said couldn't be trusted, and she was probably right. It didn't change that he had felt her fear as acutely as she herself must have done.
You're her, aren't you? he thought. You're the one we're looking for. The girl who vanished. But in the privacy of his own head, she said nothing.
I think you're tarnished too, he thought, as Dhaymin pulled the door the rest of the way open. In that case, I believe you have found the right people.
The interior had not fared as well as the gardens.
This must have been a sparse room, even back when the estate was inhabited. Now, it was practically bare. Even the floor was plain wood. The light that penetrated the windows was as grimy as they were, and there was just enough room for him to take a couple of long paces either way. Perhaps a gardener might have cast off their muddy boots here, or hung up their coat at the end of the day. But there were no coats now, or boots.
The afternoon sun was starting to swing around to meet the windows. The light may have been dulled, but not the heat. In the closed off, still air, with hardly a breeze to disturb it, it had become so heavy that it felt solid. Jen tugged at his shirt, trying to let some cool air in, but there was none to go around.
"First things," Bala said. "If any of us gets lost, we find our way back here, unless we find a better place to meet."
"Surely if we are lost," said Rosa, "we would not know where to go, to come here."
"My point is that I'd tell you all not to go wandering off," said Bala, "but we all know it would be a waste of good words."
There was only one place to go, only one door that led out of the little room, and the scuffed trails in the dust led through it. This time, there was a little relief from the sun. The door opened out into a much wider room, one that Jen guessed might have been a lounge. A series of low couches were dotted around the place, their furnishings crumbled away, but their frames still intact. "Perhaps this place, instead."
Jen ran a hand through his hair, and it near burned with absorbed heat. "I think I like that idea."
"Right then. We sit down and have a think, then. Now I know the trail is still there and heads out that way, but going that way didn't do them any good." She kicked away a layer of dust from the floor, and sat cross legged, letting the rest of them join her. "Now then. Anyone feel anything they shouldn't?"
"Besides wanting to sneeze, no," said Jen.
"And are you feeling anything you shouldn't?" said Dhaymin.
"No, but keep asking me that."
"You're going to tell us to think of what we know, now," said Jen."
"Exactly. The last victim lived nearby. It's her family are paying for them. Doubtless they don't think the city wants anything to do with this."
"Doubtless they can pay for it, too," said Rosa. She combed her fingers through Cinn's coat, dislodging crumbs of dried mud.
"I wish there was something more I could say about that," Bala said. "If it helps, she wasn't the only one. I've been led to understand we've had about five in the last month. Close to that number if nothing else."
"This is all recent, then?"
"No. This has been going on for years, on and off. It's maddening that I don't have the figures, but it's all in cycles, I think. Long enough for people to forget, then it all comes back."
"And here we are, right when it's waking up and looking for breakfast again," said Dhaymin. "Feels just like home."
A quick search of the surrounding rooms revealed little more than a few modest living quarters, hardly enough to take up even a wing of the whole house. The tracks themselves led through the last door, into a passageway that made a sharp turn up a flight of narrow stairs. With no lamps and no windows, they quickly ascended into darkness.
The afternoon sun sank lower, visible in the lengthening shadows across the dust.
"Don't much like this idea of waiting," Dhaymin said. "Doesn't feel right."
"This is the right place to be," said Jen. "I know it is. I died here, don't you remember?"
Rosa opened her eyes. It made no difference. Everything sounded hollow in the darkness, even her own breath. It came fast and shallow, and she was alone.
She stood with her hands pressed to opposite walls, slumped between them with her hair draped over her face. She was leaning forward, and there were stairs under her feet.
Stairs. Dark. She thought of the words above the drone that lingered in her head. This is the passage. Clouds of dust billowed and settled, unseen, but tickling at her skin.
Dhaymin didn't hear anything.
The air was still. His cane was still in his hand, the soft leather grip dented where his fingers had clutched it tight. His head rang with high pitched tones, still slicing into his ears long after they had ceased. They worked their way into his skull, and sank through his teeth.
He tapped his cane on the floor. There was a hollow wooden sound, muffled a little by dust. Not much of an echo. This must be a small room, then.
"Jen," he hissed. "Jen?"
Now someone was talking, but not to him. Their voice was muted, as if from a room or two away. Dhaymin crept forward, feeling out his path with the cane. This was not the lounge. He'd circled it in frustration too many times, gotten to know every last rotten frame.
"...has everything to do with how you can..."
Whoever it was, they were behind the next door. Dhaymin crept closer still, each step slow and cautious, fearing that the floor would give him away with a squeak or a groan.
Bala gripped the chair ruins in both hands. She could feel sweat cascading down her face in fresh rivers. As she stood, a chair leg collapsed, breaking apart with a fountain of rotten wood dust.
There was still a low drone in her head, but above that, the dog was howling, set off by the same noise and punctuated by little yelps and whines. She was the first thing Bala knew, when it had all gone away.
"Hey, boys? Rosa?"
They were gone. A scuffed trail of dust, trampling over the old footprints with none of their neat deliberation, led into the dark passage.
Bala heard a hollow thump, growing closer, from behind the walls. She raised what remained of the chair...
The dog's ears perked, and she ran to the door. Bala lowered the chair, but with caution, as Rosa stepped out.
"Cinn!" she said, bending over to wrap her arms around the dog's neck. She looked up. "What is it? Where's Jen and Dhaymin? What's that? Did it do that?"
Bala looked to one side, at the heap of pale flesh in the corner. "Most probably did. Time's missing, do you feel it? Keep watch on that. You've not seen the boys, then?"
"No! Where are they?"
"Somewhere we're going to have to find. But we're safe now, so we need to know what we're looking at." She strode over to the creature, still holding the chair remnants. "Well, aren't you different."
"You're not worried about them?"
Bala looked back over her shoulder at the girl in the doorway.
"I'm terrified for them, and you know it as well as I do. Now hold back and watch out for me. None of this is going to be any good otherwise."
It was long, flattened, broad, and soft bodied, pure white in colour, its skin smooth and, from the right angles, nearly translucent in character. A row of clear spots, like little glass domes or frozen water droplets, ran down its back, and at the head end, a pair of dark eyespots gazed upward, while two long tendrils protruded from the front.
Bala gave it an experimental nudge with a chair leg. The flesh was soft and yielding, and though it seemed as if the skin should be damp or coated, the wood came away clean. She lifted one of the tendrils with the same leg, and let it fall to the floor.
"Looks like they're no match for a good chair," she said. "It's getting to swing it that's the difficult part." As Rosa watched, she took off her pack, and from it pulled a bag of waterproofed cloth and similar gloves. With the gloves on, she drew a knife and sliced through the tendril. The cut was clean with barely any resistance, the flesh translucent white without nerves or vessels that Bala could see, and leaking clear fluid.
"It doesn't look strong," said Rosa. "Is that how it defends itself?"
"Could be. Equally, could be how it hunts." From the bag, Bala took out another, smaller one, and from this, a narrow wooden box. She slid open the lid and, with gloved hands and her knife, slipped the severed tendril inside. The box went inside the small bag, and the whole thing, gloves included, went inside the larger. This she tucked into a smaller pocket of her pack. "Either the city doesn't know what's out here, or it does and it doesn't care. But if you say you've fought something, people like to see what it was." She stood up, and heaved the pack onto her shoulders again.
"We're going to go now, aren't we?" said Rosa. She'd barely moved from the doorway, not even to investigate the creature.
If anyone's watching us, and you've got a shred of goodness in you, you'd better have an eye on those boys, Bala thought. And just in case you buggers up there can't be trusted, I'm coming after them anyway. "Yes," she said. "Let's go."
To Jen, everything was spinning. The world was a blur, and nothing would focus. The evening sun, dim and golden, spun by in little flashes, lending light to the dark, but never enough. His steps faltered, his body lurching in any direction but that which he tried to move in. He slammed into something heavy and solid, and heard the crack and shatter of fine stone.
"Be careful! Nobody lives here, but that's no reason to break anything!"
Jen clung to the wobbling pedestal, his balance slowly returning.
"You're safe. They tried, but you're safe."
Jen took a few deep breaths to steady himself, still leaning on the pedestal like an old man with a stone cane. The statue that had once occupied it was a cascade of shattered stone across a mouldy carpet. This had been a hall, windowless in the grand Toxiliviti tradition, and lined with such figures as the one he had broken - graceful, abstract things, swooping and curving, dust and web coated, but still intact.
"I... hope that wasn't yours," he said. "Where is everyone?"
"I don't know."
Jen gripped the pedestal tighter.
"Right," he said. "I'm... I'm alone. With... you to talk to. Maybe I need to ask who you are. A name'd be good."
"Oh, I'm Oishwyn. But what about you?"
"Khalhad," said Jen. It was the name he'd used ever since entering the city, dropping it only with Bala. In a place such as Sia Marhu, he didn't trust even his own obscure lineage to be entirely unknown. And as for Rosa...
"Good," Oishwyn said, cutting through his thoughts. "Now we can call one another by name while you get me out of here."
"Lovely. Any chance I get to know what it is I'm rescuing you from? Or how you're talking to me at all?"
"Oh, they're both easy," she said. "It's the worms."
He remembered light. Brilliant white light, flooding his vision, undulating and weaving before his eyes. And he remembered noise, high and low tones mixed together in his head, crying out so hard there was nothing else in the world...
"Worms," he said. "Right. And that has everything to do with how you can-"
There was the squeak of floorboards, distant and muffled. Jen felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck. Very slowly, he turned around, one hand still resting on the pedestal, as he still felt as if he would fall without it. Even now, the motion made the room lurch at the corner of his vision.
It was all forgotten when Dhaymin opened the door.
"Dhaymin!" he said.
His brother was standing motionless, one hand on the door frame, at the end of the hall. Jen broke into a run, stumbling a little, but he kept going, sending clouds of dust flying as he ran. "Dhaymin, you're back! Where's Rosa and Bala? Did you find them? How do we get back from here?"
"You were talking again," said Dhaymin.
Jen brought himself to a halt, a few paces away. "I know, but... she was there, she asked me. She knows what's here, Dhaymin!"
"Funny that she didn't tell you until now, isn't it?" Dhaymin said.
And now, Jen could see that this was not the Dhaymin he knew, who would have run forward as well, caring nothing that they'd end up colliding. He never moved from his position in the door frame, and he stood with his arms folded, cane in one hand, held tense as though it were a weapon readied to strike. His scarred face was drawn into an impassive frown, and everything about his posture spoke of disapproval.
Jen had seen that look before. Not upon Dhaymin, but upon their father.
"I'm sorry," he said. The words were near instinct now, and even as he spoke, he could feel a thread of thought smoldering underneath them. "I didn't know what else to do."
"Dammit, Jen." Dhaymin lowered his head, his shoulders slouching, the tip of his cane falling to the floor. "Couldn't have done anything else, could you? Couldn't have told me you were still Jen Dhalsiv, could you?"
"I'm quite sure I am."
"Then what do you say we do?"
"She was about to tell me-" Jen began, and stopped. "No, we should go back. Bala said to find the entrance if we got lost."
He could always ask Oishwyn what had happened another time.
"You think you can find your way back?" Dhaymin said.
"There's enough dust, I'm sure," Jen said. "Tracks everywhere, too." His own trail led all the way down the hall to the doorway now occupied by Dhaymin, who obscured his view further inside. But even with how much he had stumbled across it, his path was visible, scored into the thick dust as deep slashes in the soft grey that covered everything.
He was a little surprised when Dhaymin took his arm, after everything he had said, but after everything that had happened, he was also glad of it. Dhaymin held tight, too, his steps sure but his grip firm. "Hope you can find it," he said. "Feels like we lost time. You feel it?"
"Not now," Jen said. "There's still enough light."
"Thought you said evening came early here."
"It does," said Jen.
He took one last look around the hall. Empty lanterns, blackened and burnt out, hung from windowless walls.
He looked up.
Bala, meanwhile, did have a lantern. She lit it as she and Rosa ascended the passageway, watching out for the tracks that gave away where Jen and Dhaymin had been. They were scuffed and random, as if they had half walked, half stumbled up the stairs, but of their makers, there was no other sign. The passage was so narrow that the two of them walked in single file, and even Cinn had to squeeze up against her legs to walk beside her. The single light source ducked and weaved, illuminating first walls, then stairs, as Bala checked her surroundings. Rosa climbed by feel more than sight, her hands against the wall to steady her, reaching for each step. The air was musty, the dust thick and choking, but the stairs held.
Rosa was alone with her thoughts, and not even Cinn's familiar bulk by her side could do anything to dispel them.
You had better get them back, she thought, wishing she could say it out loud to Bala. She would have, at any other time. Perhaps she should have. Jen and Dhaymin trusted her, and so she supposed she could too. Trusting strangers was always your problem, wasn't it?
The stairway was short, and Bala soon came to a halt at the top. The passage continued, but when Bala lowered her lantern, Rosa could see an open door, and the trail vanishing through it. She followed Bala through, and emerged into a bedroom.
It was as dark as the passage, utterly windowless, and in ruin. If this was the route all of the lost had taken, Jen and Dhaymin included, they had put up a struggle. Bala paced around the room, checking not only the floor and the scuffed trail that led through another door, but the state of the room itself. The bed had been pulled at an angle despite its weight, blocking off most of the room, forcing the trail over what remained of the soft mattress, now both torn and decayed to the point where the frame was visible underneath. She felt a crunch under her feet, and looked down to see lamplight glimmering from shattered glass - a mirror, of all things, cracked but still partially in its frame, but so obscured by dust and grime and the darkness that she could see only a ghostly reflection of herself and Cinn. She held the dog's harness tight, and not only to prevent her from walking on the shards.
"That's an odd place to come out," Bala commented. She looked back over her shoulder at Rosa. Her face was half outlined in orange lamp-light, highlighting her drawn features, casting a gleam in one eye, all coming together to form that calculating expression that reached deep into Rosa's mind. Who are you? it asked. Are you useful? Or are you tagging along?
"I think..." Rosa looked back at the door. "I think it's to allow people around without being seen. If someone was in here, they could ask for food and it would be made and sent up here. It makes things... tidier, I suppose."
"You know a lot about these?"
"I have... seen a few," Rosa said. Bala could see through it, she was sure. She could see all the way back to Rosa's time as a child, hiding in Fellstar's same passages, because they were safe and quiet, and she knew her way around them all. Her family would never go there, so she could be alone.
"Good," Bala said. "Now, I grew up in a longhouse, so you'll have to excuse me if I don't know all these fancy things you do. But I like how you think."
Bala inched her way through the gap between the bed and the wall. The light swayed in response. "Them creatures out there," she said. "You suggested they might be defending themselves, or hunting. Not many people would think like that. I've met too many people who deal in monsters and forget they're animals, doing what animals do. For all we know, we've come across their nest. They might be feeding, fighting..."
"...making more of them?"
"You don't have to be so delicate about it, but yes, they could be. Now the only way they could have gone is through here, so get a move on, would you?"
And that, Rosa decided, was praise.
Cinn chose to bound over the bed, while Rosa squeezed her way through the gap. Bala, meanwhile, was examining the door. It hung ajar, but she held the lamp high and inspected the frame anyway, to be safe. Now Rosa could see her as clearly as ever. She was cast in fire and lost in thought - no, calculating, because someone like Bala would never be -lost,- whether inside or outside her own head. And in an instant, Rosa understood.
"It's you, isn't it?" she said.
"I rather think I am me, unless something's gone horribly wrong. Let's all hope it hasn't."
"No," Rosa said. "No, it is... not that." She could feel her whole body trembling, enough that once again she had to hold Cinn's harness to steady herself. The dog, used to her, held close. "I know you. I've met you. I don't remember people, but I remember you. You're my hunter."
"How would you remember me?"
"Fellstar Peak!" Rosa closed her eyes, felt them water, and blamed the dust. "You went to Fellstar Peak, once. You were escorting some Jakvinti ladies for the Jetid shower... the meteors, remember? I was there, I was the little girl you talked to, and... and you don't remember. But I remembered. I waited. Until I couldn't wait any longer... oh Rakaros you're her and you're here and I wrote down everything I was going to say, but... oh, it doesn't matter. Need to find Jen and Dhaymin."
And because you think I am mad now, she thought, and you are probably right.
Bala pushed open the door. It groaned a little, but moved without trouble. "You're right," she said, facing away from Rosa and into the hall beyond. "Both that we need to find Jen and Dhaymin, and that I was at Fellstar, once. I won't claim we didn't meet."
"But you don't remember, do you?"
"I wish I could say I did, because I think you've been hoping to hear it from me for a long time."
She was right, again. She'd stopped the childish paintings and stories a long time ago, and she still remembered the day her mother confronted her with the sheaf of paper in her hand, and what had come after that. When she stole a gun and two hunting dogs, she left with the understanding that there was little hope the stories would come true, and that if they did, then her hunter had her own life, and was not waiting to whisk her away on a daring adventure. This was not an old tale, and she knew it.
Yet she had never been more grateful for dust in her life.
"Come on," Bala said, and now her voice was as gentle as it had been when she spoke to the brothers the previous night. "You should see this."
The bedroom opened up into a hall that must have taken up near to half the building. She and Bala were standing on a gallery that wound its way around the upper storey, exposing floor far below and ceiling far above. There was light, too, but it filtered in from narrow windows set at either end, only enough to lend a little shape and colour to the scene. Remnants of thick drapes, deep red and blue in colour, hung from the walls and galleries. The carpet below her feet dissolved into powder as she walked. Bala's lamp cast a little more illumination, but only enough to shine a faint light on to the far walls, revealing decayed hangings and skeletal lanterns.
"They could have gone anywhere." Her voice was a whisper in the dark, one that echoed down the lengths of the hall. She touched the railing before her. It was dark wood, carved in a smooth, twisting design like flowing water, and it moved under her hands. She pushed it, and it groaned, leaning a little further into the open air. It was then that she looked at the railings a second time, and saw that all around the hall, whole sections were missing, pushed free of their fittings and lying in pieces on the floor below. The remains were sharp teeth in the faint light. "They didn't fall," she said. "I'd see them if they fell." She wasn't sure if it was an affirmation or a question.
"I know," said Bala. "Can't see the trails from up here. Let's go down. Maybe your dog would have better luck here."
There were scuffed trails all over the gallery, and all across the floor, and Rosa realised, as Bala walked on, that this hall had seen just as much conflict as the bedroom before, and that letting Cinn sniff the brothers out might be the best idea after all. There were doors leading all away from the gallery, and scattered dust all over the floor. The drapes and hangings had not decayed, but had been torn. She flinched at the sensation of cool air on her skin, only to realise that it was a breeze from a smashed window. Not even someone as slim as Bala could have climbed through, but Rosa could imagine someone struggling to shatter it open all the same, seeing only glass and a faint hope of escape. It was good to think of such things. They stopped her from asking who Bala was. They stopped her from asking who she was.
The gallery led to paired staircases that curved all the way down to the ground floor, their railings as broken and unsteady as the ones before, but their stairs still sound. "What do you think?" said Rosa.
"I think your dog's found something," said Bala.
Sure enough, Cinn's ears were pricked and alert, her nose sniffing the air. Rosa had been holding tight to her harness ever since exiting onto the gallery, but after a shared glance with Bala, she let go. Cinn was off before she could give a command, rushing into the shadowed space below the gallery, bounding back and forth. Her paws were coated in dust and webs, her coat still matted in places with mud, and of the three of them, she looked as though she belonged in this place more than ever. Her tongue and eyes were the only bright spots upon her, when she stood panting and waiting for Bala and Rosa to catch up.
Rosa saw a formless shape, slumped under the gallery, half laid behind a ruined curtain, but it was Bala who crouched beside it and held up her lamp to illuminate the features. "Rosa," she said, "this isn't them, so you shouldn't worry, but you should see this."
Rosa stepped forward. She saw a hand, stretched out, grey skin taut over bones. She saw a dessicated face, skin pulled tight, a glimpse of sockets, lips pulled away from dry teeth.
She felt another jolt run through her body, stronger than before, and forced herself onward on shaking legs, because a beast hunter was always brave, no matter what. Bala was waiting. She couldn't disappoint her. "I- I suppose they are hunting after all."
"Hunting people like us who are stupid enough to walk inside, I expect," said Bala.
"Cinn, come back," Rosa said to the dog, who was sniffing at it again. She trotted back to Rosa's heels, so Rosa could hold the harness again while she moved closer.
It was not as bad as she had feared. There was no decay, no smell. If she touched the body, it might well crumble like everything else in here. "Can it suck out the fluids?" she said. "Is that what it eats?"
"Whilst dragging people down here," said Bala. "Except it didn't look very strong. Big, yes, but not strong enough to resist an old woman with a chair, at any rate."
"That's what we felt, then?" said Rosa.
She hadn't noticed them before. But now, what she had taken for shadows, or piles of rubble, resolved into more broken figures, strewn about under the galleries, drained and left behind. Too dry to rot, they waited to crumble.
A flash of white, in the corner of her eye, and Rosa turned. She saw movement and light, but her eyes were dark adjusted, and the light was so brilliant that she could not help but close them, only to see little afterimages on the inside. She forced them open again, blinking, and saw what had been watching.
The creatures were drifting from doors and holes, as though the air had turned to water and they swam through it. Each was a white so pale as to be near luminescent, dotted along the back with spots that emitted a soft blue light. Their bodies undulated, and their tendrils waved, and Rosa had never seen anything so beautiful.
They spun downward as if caught in a slow vortex, spiralling toward the brothers. They were pure white, shining bright enough to illuminate the hall and cast sharp black shadows all around.
"They're here, aren't they?" said Dhaymin.
"Yes. I think running is a good idea."
Still with Dhaymin hanging on to his arm, Jen broke out into a run, but one of the creatures intercepted him. It hung in the air, its movements graceful and swift, and the rest followed. No matter where they turned, they were met with white light and swaying tendrils.
It had been quiet in the little hallway - the sort of quiet that filled the room with a soft background hum. Now it was obscured by a sharp ringing that sounded in Jen's ears from nowhere and everywhere all at once. He felt Dhaymin's grip go loose as the noise intensified, and he doubled over, trying to cry out but unable to - or perhaps he could not hear himself above the sound.
He wrestled enough of himself back that he could call Oishwyn's name, and maybe she heard, because the ringing subsided, becoming a background drone that hissed in his ears but left him stable. "Dhaymin!" he yelled, and for once he could hear himself again. "Now let's go!"
Dhaymin didn't hear.
Jen felt an icy shock run through his whole body at the sight of him, bent over and motionless, arms held tightly folded against his body. The spiral of creatures encircled him. A pair of them drifted apart, watching Jen with what might have been interest and might have been caution, but when Jen approached, they moved forward with purpose, warning him away. He couldn't have reached Dhaymin even if not for them - he was surrounded by them, his features highlighted in harsh white. Jen saw his cane fall from his hand, clattering unheeded to the floor.
The guardians flowed forward again, forcing Jen away, and he stumbled as his foot slipped on unsteady ground. It was the broken statue. With nothing else left, he snatched up a chunk and hurled it. It caught one of them in the side, and it tumbled to the floor, its light dimming.
"Dhaymin!" Jen yelled. "Hold on! I'll get you!" He grabbed more chunks, the biggest he could find, and hurled them. One by one the creatures fell, and with each one, the hall grew darker, until at the end of it all, Jen stood in total darkness.
His brother said nothing, but Jen heard a groan, and ran forward, feeling his way around the floor. He dropped to a crouch, running his hands in the dust and dirt until he found Dhaymin's cane. "Whuss..." Dhaymin muttered.
"Where are you?"
"Right ovr' here, y'idiot."
After some fumbling, Jen managed to get the cane back into Dhaymin's hand. After the flood of relief that came from hearing his voice, after the rush of battle had worn away, it was all he could do to sit for a moment and hold on to him. "How's it feel?"
"Bad," said Dhaymin. "Heard them... heard them everywhere." Jen felt his hand grip his shoulder. He smelled of dust and sweat, and his nails dug in even through his clothes.
"Can you keep going?" Jen said.
"I've got to."
"No you don't!"
"I don't want to be here, Jen, I never wanted to be here! But I've got to be, because if I didn't come along, what was I?"
Jen had nothing to say to that.
"Can't go even then," Dhaymin whispered. "I can still hear them.... Jen, don't you go anywhere, please. I'm fucking scared."
The relief faded, as fast as it had come. A heavy dread settled in Jen's stomach at his brother's words. He wrapped an arm around his shoulders, hoping it would mean something at the very least. "Dhaymin, I'm going to talk to her."
"How can you-"
"I have to. She'll know. Oishwyn? Are you listening?"
"You made it?" The voice was in his ears, and his ears only.
He was going to ask her how she did it, soon. But not now. "I think I did. My brother... didn't. He's still here and talking to me but he says he can... hear them?"
She said nothing, and in the silence, Dhaymin whispered. "There had better be a good answer to this."
"I'm sorry," she said, at last.
"They are feeding from him."
"What's that mean? Can't you do something?"
"Jen, you'd better tell me something good here..." said Dhaymin.
"No. I'm sorry. He's closed off. I don't know how to stop it."
"You stopped them on me!"
"He's different. He's not like you, he's like me," Oishwyn said. "And I know. I barely halted it on my own self."
It was not a shout of concern. It was a command. Every part of her snapped to attention at hearing Bala's voice. She must not disappoint Bala. She must not disappoint her hunter.
She was back in the hall, with elegant white shapes swirling all around her, curious and attentive. They were slow and delicate. On seeing them in motion, undulating their way through the air, she understood why they hunted as they did.
"Don't suppose that gun's any use in here," said Bala.
"Place like this?" said Rosa. "It'll either work on a few of us, or bring that gallery on top of us. I don't know which. Probably both."
"What a shame," Bala said, "that outrunning them looks so easy, but probably won't work."
A shrill whine, deep in her ear, bypassing the air and tunnelling deep into her head, and Rosa clutched at her ears to no avail... Cinn, howling in the distance...
"...but I don't have another ideas, so come on!"
Rosa felt Bala snatch her by the arm, and came to herself enough to shout a command to Cinn, who bounded after them. Bala paused, glanced around, and grabbed at a door, heaving against the rust - Rosa took hold of the handle too, and pulled alongside her. There was white light all around, and slow movement in the corner of her eyes. The door began to give, piece by piece, its rusted hinges screaming over the ever-present sounds in her head. Cinn howled, her ears held flat.
The door gave way, swinging open with a sudden lurch that nearly locked Rosa and Bala off their feet. They ran inside, only to be confronted by a shaft, lit only by orange lamplight and shards of white that vanished when Rosa slammed the door behind them. She saw a staircase, spiralling its way into depths that she could not make out.
"I will live to regret this," said Bala.
But there was nowhere else to go, so they descended into the depths.
It must be a cellar, Rosa thought, an old food store. That was the most sensible explanation, anyway. And indeed, the stairway led into a panelled space, so cold she could feel her skin prickling. If there had been any food in here, though, it was long gone. Piles of wooden debris, the remains of old shelves, cut jagged shapes into the air, illuminated not only by Bala's lamp, but by more of that cold, blue-white light.
"Oh, not again," said Bala.
There was an exit on the far side, only a few paces away, but obscured by the mess, and Rosa was already trying to plan the safest route when she realised that not only had the creature not moved, but that it was not even, as far as she could see, paying them any attention.
It was resting on the highest intact shelf, only a hand-span or two below the ceiling. Only the low height of the whole room gave Rosa a chance of seeing what else was there. The creature's tendrils moved aside for a moment, revealing tiny shapes underneath. Each was a miniature of the adult, scarcely bigger than her hand.
"I suppose they really do make more," she said.
"Feel like I've been awake three days."
"No," said Jen. "We've done that before. After a while it doesn't feel so bad."
"We did? Yes, we did."
"I know we did," said Jen. "I remember." For once, he was the one holding on to Dhaymin's arm. It was slow going. Unused to being unable to see, distracted by Oishwyn's words, he kept standing on his own feet and tripping over himself, prompting Dhaymin to snap that it wasn't that difficult. "He took us out once. You were eighteen. We were digging holes all night just to see if we could. We did. And you said it stopped being tiring after a while."
Dhaymin jerked his arm forward. "Don't talk to me about this, Jen!"
You wouldn't say that if you could remember, thought Jen. They walked on in silence for a little while. Jen's world had shrunk down to Dhaymin by his side and the sound of their footsteps.
("They're feeding on him now," Oishwyn had said. "Sharing him out amongst them. They're all linked. You want to know how I can talk to you? That's how. Struck back when they tried it on me. Suppose you want to know how? I'm sorry. I don't know how I did it."
"Well... thank you for the help," Jen had replied.
"Listen, if I ever find out, I'll let you know. The buggers keep swarming me, and don't ask if that's help or not. It's not helping with leaving this place, I'll tell you."
"Throw a rock? That might be something."
"I'll bear that in mind if I ever find any.")
"What about Vesin?" Jen said, after a while.
"You have to remember Vesin."
It was a nasty blow to lay on him, something deep and raw and painful, and Jen knew it.
"...Of course I remember Vesin, you... you... shut up and come on!" he snapped. He stepped forward again with such force that Jen found himself flung over a torn piece of carpet. His foot caught underneath, and he was thrown nearly to the ground. Only Dhaymin, whirling around to snatch him up, stopped him from falling. "We've got to keep going," he said, and his voice was gentle again. Jen felt him helping him back on his feet, a hand feeling for and dusting off his shoulders. "I know who I am. I know who you are, and I know who I came in with. Stop doing this."
"I'm scared," Jen said. Dhaymin's hands slid their way up the side of his face, and brushed his hair aside, smoothing the curls down.
"How d'you think I feel?"
Yet again, Jen had nothing to say.
Dhaymin found a door, and led him through it. He stood in the doorway, and Jen brushed his hand against the wall. He was surprised to feel not the smooth panels he'd been expecting, but rough stone. He let his fingers explore a little further, up and down. There were no cracks, nothing to suggest blocks or masonry, only stone, carved out of the depths. "Hey, Dhaymin," he said, "do you think we're underground? Dhaymin?" He gave his brother's arm a gentle tug.
Dhaymin reacted as if he'd driven a blade into him. "What'd you do that for?" he snapped, pulling the arm back and out of Jen's grasp.
"I said I think we're underground. I don't think this is the right way." Jen's hand reached out further. He brushed against an old shelf, hissing as a splinter lodged, unseen, into his fingertip. "Let's go back. They'll be waiting for us."
He'd tried not to think about Rosa. If she was still with Bala, and Rakaros willing she was, then she was in the safest place he knew. Instead he reached out for Dhaymin's arm, and felt nothing.
There was the sound of debris collapsing, the sound of someone scrambling over piles of rubble. "Dhaymin?"
A single white light flashed in the dark, illuminating a frozen scene for a fraction of a second. Jen saw a cavernous room, filled with ruined shelves and jagged wood, and Dhaymin standing in it all, and then he was in the dark.
"Dhaymin!" Jen tried to run, but he could do no more than try to pick his way through the ruins.
Flash. Dhaymin again, surrounded by rippling forms. Jen felt his breath catch in his throat. When he tried to move, he was trapped in a motionless dream.
Flash. Flash. Flash. Each for a sliver of time, each scene revealing more and more of them, come to feed on the transfixed Dhaymin. He didn't move. He had no will to move. He was nothing more than a flask for them to drink from. Light pulsed, the scene jerked, and Jen moved closer with every blink, and it was never enough, never ever enough...
By the time he reached him, bruised and dust-coated, they were all gone. He found him in the dark, reached out amidst nails and splinters until he was there before him. "Dhaymin," he said, "they're gone now. You can talk to me now. You've got to talk to me."
He was breathing, at least, and when Jen touched his finger to his neck, there was a quick pulse. He felt Dhaymin's hand push it aside, but the motion was clumsy.
"What'd... y'do tha'fr..."
Jen licked dry lips. "Vesin," he said. "Majiv. Bala. Rosa. Sarn."
Jen held Dhaymin's head in his hands. He didn't resist the motion. "Jen Dhalsiv."
"D'n be stupid. Never forget you."
Jen felt a prickling in the corner of his eyes. No. It wasn't time for that, not now. "I'm taking you back," he said. "Come on, get up. I'll find the way." Maybe he could make himself a torch out of all this wood? He'd have a chance of backtracking, even with Dhaymin leaning on him every step of the way. It was nothing he hadn't done before.
When Dhaymin moved, Jen expected him to stink of spirits. He shook as if winter had come upon him all at once, his whole body twitching without warning. Each footstep was slow and clumsy, and in the dark, Jen could do nothing to guide him but hope.
He nearly didn't respond. Anyone might have called him by his false name, here. But then he stopped mid-step, when he recognised her. "Oishwyn?"
"They got him, didn't they?"
Jen pushed on, guiding Dhaymin along the route in his memory. "He remembers me," he said.
"I know. You're both so close now. I think I can hear him, sometimes."
Jen tensed, trying to push Dhaymin from the light... and he understood. This time, it didn't blink. This time, it was warm like fire, not cold white and blue. There was another exit, and standing in it, Rosa at her side and a lamp in her hand, was Bala.
"Told you to go back to the start, didn't I?" she said.
"We got a little lost," said Jen.
"So did we," said Rosa. She had already begun to pick her way across the ruins toward them, but stopped when she saw Dhaymin. "What happened... did they...?"
He told them about Oishwyn, while Rosa hugged him, and Bala tried to speak to the dulled Dhaymin. He told them all about who she was, how she had come here, and how she claimed to speak to him. In response, Rosa told him about what she had found in the hall, and he tried not to think of Dhaymin.
"I'm not going to tell you not to find her," said Bala. "But I think I'd feel a lot better if we all went to find her together."
"You really would?" said Jen.
Bala shouldered Dhaymin's weight. He held on, confused and lost, but, Jen hoped, still remembering who she was, or at least that she was somebody to trust. "I'm not saying this for your benefit," she said. "These things, whatever you want to call them or say about them, they're breeding. If your Oishwyn is who she says she is, then we'll get her out, and then we burn this place."
"And what about Dhaymin?" said Jen.
"I don't know."
Jen didn't speak. He didn't even move. He simply buried his face in Rosa's curls, and held her closer. But it was Rosa who broke the silence this time.
"Doesn't anyone think it's a little bright in here?" she said.
Jen stumbled. He saw things happening around him, not so much a sequence of fluid events as a series of images, flashing before his eyes one after another. Dhaymin, hanging from Bala's shoulder. Bala, staring grim-faced. Rosa, lifting a broken table leg in both hands. Cinn, growling. The luminous forms approaching, drifting in silence toward them.
He turned, and ran. Inside his head was a whirlpool as Oishwyn screamed. There was no other term for it. He couldn't hear her words, but she was there and calling from him, and for the first time, he felt there was a direction he needed to be going. Someone else was talking to him, Bala perhaps. He couldn't hear what she was saying. All the words were noise.
But they were following him, as he felt himself drawn onward, into a passageway lit only by the faint glow of the creatures ouside, and around another corner. He stopped, standing up straight as understanding and meaning returned.
"A dead end," said Bala. "Thought I'd raised you better than that."
It looked that way at first, but as they stepped forward, it became clear that wasn't the case after all. They stood at one end of a long passageway, and at the very end was a set of single doors, firmly closed.
"Oishwyn's in there," said Jen.
Bala looked back over her shoulder, at the increasing light. "You'd better be telling the truth."
Rosa was quiet, as if her mind was elsewhere at this moment, but she was still holding the table leg, and keeping watch. Her back was to him.
"I swear, I am."
Jen looked back at the door, in response to the voice only he could hear. "I'm coming."
The light was rising as he ran forward, testing the door. It didn't seem to be locked, but the hinges were old and stiff, and a good push wasn't going to be enough. He steadied himself and delivered a hard kick to the ancient wood, again and again.
With the last kick, the doors parted, letting Jen push them open enough to slide past to the chamber inside.
The first thing he knew was the cold. It billowed out, as if he had opened the door on a winter's day. The second thing he knew was the light.
Nothing moved as he stepped inside, walking, slowly, to the centre of the room. Behind him, Rosa followed. Bala, still guiding Dhaymin, was last. Neither of them spoke.
"Oishwyn?" he said.
"Yes? You sound close now. Aren't you here yet? You should be here."
"I am," said Jen.
She was lying on the floor before him, her skin and clothes coated with crystalline frost, and all over her body, pale and luminescent forms swarmed.
"No," she said. Her voice was nowhere but inside his mind. "No, you're not! You're not!"
She sounded so much, then, like the frightened girl he had spoken to in the gardens, that it was all he could do to not dive in and haul her out there and then. The creatures all over her were so occupied that they did not seem to notice the intrusion. Their bodies were fattened from the feeding, and their lights were blinding white and brilliant turquoise. Bala's lamp was no more than a splash of fire in the midst of it all.
Jen looked back at his waiting companions, and then to Oishwyn. "I'm here in front of you," he said. "I think this is how you talked to me. They fed on you, and you stayed behind. I think you're in them. You're in them all."
"This'll be why we couldn't hear her, then," said Bala. "Doesn't look to me like there's much can be done for her." She crouched down by Oishwyn's side. The worms, intent on their feast and nothing else, ignored her as she studied the remains. "No breath that I can see. Frozen solid."
"Is that what's going to happen to Dhaymin?" said Rosa. But Jen only half heard her. His head was packed full of Oishwyn's cries, calling for help, pleading with him, insisting she was there in front of him now, talking to her, couldn't she see him, wasn't it obvious? With her words came her thoughts, blending in so that he could not tell where one ended and the other began, until she was a wall of sound and sensation, and he was pressed up very small inside his own head, trying to placate the phantom girl so that he could return to himself.
Please. I'll help you, I said I'll help you, but I don't know how.
At last her cries subsided, her energy exhausted, as if she had let the reality of what had happened to her sink in. She didn't know, either. Her perception eroded within his mind, acceptance slowly taking the place of panic.
Yes, I think you did. Only... a different kind of help?
Jen felt a hand on his back, and returned to himself to find Bala standing behind him, steadying him as he sat in a crouch. Oishwyn's body was still in front of him, frozen into place, the worms still heedless to his presence. She lay facing away from him, her hair splayed over the floor, so he could not see what she looked like. She might have been nothing more than a pile of clothes, if he hadn't known better.
"Going to have to burn them out," he said. "And then..."
Then he was going to go back, and try not to think of Dhaymin, or everyone else in there, Oishwyn and everyone else they'd taken. But especially not Dhaymin.
"Go on, then," said Rosa. She was standing the furthest away from them, something for which Jen was grateful, now she was supporting Dhaymin's weight.
Jen nodded. "Give me the lamp."
"Not that," Rosa said.
"You know what she means," said Bala. "And normally I'd tell you not to do something so stupid, but we've seen what these things do. And they're breeding. Anything we can do to stop these things spreading is good enough for me."
Come on. It's what you want to do. You know it.
For someone who had known him less than a day, Oishwyn knew him too well, sometimes. "Right. Got you." He sat down, legs crossed on the cold stone floor, and closed his eyes.
He thought of Kastek, and sitting out on the balcony when he reached out for the beast. He thought of Levarin, and what he had taught him about the links that flowed from between the two of them, opening their selves up for him to see.
The beast was out there, now. His awareness reached out beyond the walls of Sia Marhu, to the farmlands beyond, and further back, to thick green forests and crumbling ruins hidden in their depths. There she paced, drawn to follow him, but held at bay by walls and people. He could feel her urge to trail him deep inside, as he imagined a bird must feel when drawn to fly south when the snow fell. And between them was the shining line, a current of thought and intention and instinct, all tangled up and binding them together.
He stretched his awareness beyond the two of them, trying to see the world as he had seen the link between Levarin and his beast out of the corner of his eye. His thoughts cast over Sia Marhu, for an instant aware of the background noise of people, all of them so quiet without th shining link to turn them bright and inside out. His thoughts cast over the rift, and withdraw from a terrible coldness they could not approach. Back to the old house he came, back to the other end of the line that was anchored deep within himself.
There, he saw them. They were minds like his own, some bright and some faint, all turned inside out, but they were not like his. No one link connected one to the other. They were entangled within a shining web, each one held in pieces across the nodes where they all came together. Each one shone as if tarnished, but not one of them was. They were eaten, every one of them, swallowed up and divided across the gleaming worms that fed on their thoughts and minds as if they were meat, each one fragmented and slowly digesting.
He thought of Dhaymin, lost amongst them, and for a second he burned with the hope that he could find him here and bring him home. But he had made his promise to Oishwyn, and she was here too, lost and afraid, not knowing where she was.
"Hello Khalhad. Or was it Jen?"
"Yes, Jen." He should be honest with her, now. It was the least he could do.
"A secret name. Sounds as if I had some luck with you."
"You're in here?" He looked again, as if he had expected to see her standing in front of him, as she had in life. But she was out there, distributed in pieces across the network, holding out against the slow digestion, hanging on to herself with the thinnest of threads. She was everywhere.
"Now I can see it..." She paused, as if she, too, wanted to take it all in. "I'm here. I wish I'd looked earlier. Really looked, not seen what I thought was there, it's all so... it's a shame... oh Jen. I don't want to go..."
"But I said."
"You knew there was nothing for me to go back to. I'm here, I'm only here. But I... we... all of us, we need to go."
"All of you?"
"Most of us." The network shimmered.
Once again, the flare of hope rose. "What do I do?"
"You're on the outside and I'm on the inside. You're all wide open but you're not like us."
With a chill, Jen understood what was being asked of him. But he didn't hesitate. Out there, beyond the walls, was the beast and the line, and already he dug deeper.
He wouldn't have said it to anyone, but Rosa was right, and Oishwyn was right. The line frightened him, filled his mind with stories and warnings built up over the years, yet it was also beautiful, a stunning, brilliant white. Back and forth within its depths he noticed currents in motion, flowing to and from himself, that he had never seen before. It was this line that he gathered up now...
...deep in the forest, claws the length of a man's hand dug into the soft earth...
The more he settled into the web of thoughts, the more they tugged at him - all broken and fragmented things, half eaten, full of fear and confusion, pulling like a child might pull at their mother's clothes for attention.
Help. Where. What. Help. Help. Help.
They swarmed all over him, and then Oishwyn was there again, holding them at bay, calming them, and waiting for his move. Jen felt a presence by his side, all teeth and claws, the essence a forest in winter.
All three of them dove in. Jen could not tell which way they were going, what they were doing, but Oishwyn did, and he guided the beast in turn. They whipped through the shining lines, cutting each one loose in turn. The thoughts tumbled away, fading into the depths of the non-mind, to wherever they went within this dreamspace. Jen felt the first of them go, their fear gone, replaced with a sudden burst of joy before they vanished.
The rest swarmed him, all tiny voices waiting for their turn and crying out to be released. But whenever Jen felt himself drowning in them, Oishwyn was there, guiding him through the weave, calming and easing so he could slice the web to pieces. As they floated away he felt light and dizzy, as though he'd drunk enough to give him a warm rush inside and a giddy demeanour. With each shining thread cut free, the joy released added to his own. His strength and energy building, he slid through them as one, effortlessly following his guide until they were almost all gone.
These were the newer ones, those not long taken. They spoke to him when he cut them loose, begged for their freedom, told him who they had been, and thanked him as he let them go. He found himself laughing, and in this landscape of silver nets, it took the form of a cascade of shimmers, weaving and dissipating through the threads.
The load was lighter, the task easier, each mind freeing itself with the lightest of cuts...
...and the last one, bright and burning like fire, ran past him as he cut it away, unwilling to fade just yet...
They were gone, now. The joy faded, bringing him back to himself. He stood in empty space, the beast by his side, and Oishwyn before him.
"Aren't you coming?" he said.
"Silly boy. You know the answer to that."
He did. She was the last link, the centre of the web of thoughts, and there was nothing for her to return to. He looked up at the beast by his side. She wasn't here, of course. She was far away in the forest, beyond the walls of Sia Marhu. But he dug one hand into her thick, musky coat all the same, feeling a reassuring bulk under his fingers.
"I'll burn it, for you," he said, at last.
"Good boy. Now come on!" She held her arms out wide, smiling.
Jen turned away. The beast lunged.
"-think it's quiet now. Ah. Jen. Back with us?"
Jen opened his eyes. Oishwyn still lay before him, but the air was warmer, the ice gone, and the creatures draped over her body were still and dull, their lights dimmed. There was a different smell, too, not just dead meat, but the smell of burning... or gunpowder?
"Yes, I think I am," He stood up on shaky legs and looked back at Bala, who had addressed him. By the door there stood Rosa, gun in her hands, and leaning on Bala's shoulders, there was Dhaymin. "Is he..."
"I don't know what you did," said Dhaymin, "but I'll be happy if you never have to do it again, understand?"
"Mm," said Jen.
"Best get away from here," said Bala. "Those down there didn't move, too busy gorging themselves I expect, but the rest came pouring in while you were sat there. Rosa held them off for us. Good shot."
Jen just nodded. All he wanted now was some clean air.
The rift of Sia Marhu was an insignificant streak in the sky tonight. Flames blocked it out, lapping away at every window in the old house, rising to the stars. Rosa had heard of how the brothers had watched the hall they grew up in burn, when they left. She wondered if it had looked something like this.
It took time, to make sure a whole building burned like this. But Jen had told them the story of Oishwyn, and his promise to her, and not a single one of them wanted to force him dishonour it. He barely spoke a word beyond that, but she could find no blame with him there.
The chirp of nocturnal insects, deep within the old gardens, mingled with the crackle of burning wood. Sparks and embers rose into the hot summer night, and waves of dry air billowed in their direction. Rosa scratched Cinn behind the ears.
"We know one another, you know," she said. "Myself and Bala."
"What d'you mean?" said Dhaymin.
"She's the hunter I met, all those years ago," she said. My hunter, she thought, privately. The one I waited for. The one I ran away to find.
"You've met?" said Jen.
"Long time ago," said Bala.
"You know," said Dhaymin, "I'm starting to get a little suspicious of these coincidence things."
Me too, Rosa wanted to say. But she had found her hunter, and life was unfolding, and she was content to simply watch the flames.
They kept watch there that night, each taking it in turns to ensure nothing left the burning house. The garden was so dry and the night so hot that even sleeping on the bare ground was enough for them all. Nobody disturbed them. Nobody paid any mind to the old house, not when it stood, and not when it burned.
By morning's light, it was a blackened ruin.
They set off back to Bala's lodgings after that, satisfied that all was well. Rosa stretched as they set off, trying to work the stiffness out of her bones from a long night on the ground. She was getting used to it, but a whole night with only the barest of supplies took its toll. She was hot and dusty, and ready to get back and wash away the dirt and heat. From the pure blue sky, it was shaping up to be another blazing day.
Nobody paid them any heed as they walked through the broad streets. If they knew what had happened in the old house, they kept it to themselves.
"What are you going to do with the sample?" she said, to Bala.
"Sell it, most like," said Bala. "Hate to do so, but we need the money, and the upper city like to pay well for things like this. More so, now that we burnt all their other specimens."
"They were beautiful."
"Plenty of things are. Don't make them any less dangerous."
"I know. But they were."
"They were," echoed Jen.
"We all in the same world here, or is this one of those people-with-eyes things?" said Dhaymin.
"Sorry." Jen cringed.
"Don't forget about the dangerous part, is all."
"Boys..." murmured Bala. And that was the end of that.
The streets were narrower now, full of people going about their business in the early light. Even Rosa had never seen such activity on the roads of Fellstar. For someone who had grown up around vast and echoing halls, it was uncomfortably cramped. She stroked Cinn again to get her bearings. The dog, at least, was happier in the shade and away from the burning sun.
"None of this feels real, you know," said Jen.
"I think I stopped feeling everything was real a long time ago," said Dhaymin.
"You mean me, I understand," said Bala.
"Mmm." Jen kicked a stone from underfoot. "It's been so long since we saw you, not since..." He hesitated. Whatever event had occurred the last time the brothers had met Bala, it wasn't going to be spoken of today. All Rosa knew was that they had been young, and nearly ten years had passed since. "You understand. Now we're here, and so are you."
"And I'm not fond of the feeling that I'm being herded around by fuck knows what," added Dhaymin.
Rosa held tight to Cinn's harness. "And me," she said.
"Yes, yes," Bala said. "I'm not fonder of coincidences than any of the rest of you. Soon as you're all inside and you've got some real food in you, we're looking at what we all know."
And what you know about me, Rosa thought. The more she looked at the pattern, the more she found herself outstanding. If the boys had only met Bala, then nothing would be amiss. But they'd all known her, before the three of them even met, and it had been the same with Numbers. If she were to be removed from the pattern, like a mismatched thread, everything would be a lot less unusual...
She looked at them all. Her love, her friend, her hunter. "But it doesn't matter that-"
There was no warning. He stumbled, as if there was a crack in the road, and fell to his knees, toppling over and slamming his face into the ground. For a few drawn out moments he lay there, his breathing shallow, ignoring the others as they called his name.
"Back!" Bala crouched down by his side, and Rosa realised the order wasn't directed at her or Dhaymin, but the small crowd that had gathered around them. They shuffled away at her command. "It's the sun," Bala said. "Doesn't take the heat well. We'll soon have him inside. C'mon now, boy." She touched his shoulder. "Back with us, y'hear?"
She helped him back to his feet, slowly. Rosa stepped back to give them space, and caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were blank, staring at nothing. Her fingers dug into Cinn's mane. The dog's coat bristled, as if she could smell danger in the air.
Jen groaned and blinked, and when he did, his eyes were back to normal - dazed, hardly focusing, but alive. He tried to pull away from Bala's grasp. "Nnn... off... off!"
"What's with you?" snapped Dhaymin, as Jen broke free. The younger brother turned where he stood, poised as if ready to run, but there and then, seeing the people watching, he seemed to remember where he was.
"Get inside," he said. "Got to get inside."
But of course, he wouldn't tell, not where he might be overheard.
They carried on the rest of the way in silence. Jen still stumbled over his feet, and Bala helped him along. Dhaymin kept his distance, despite the unfamiliar roads. And Rosa gripped Cinn's harness tighter than ever before.
"This is going to require tea," Bala said, once they were indoors. "Plenty of it. I'll get a fire started. You talk, if you think you have to. I'll be listening."
Jen eased himself down onto one of the mats. His movements were a little better coordinated now, but still shaky. "It's her," he said.
"Her as in..." Dhaymin guessed.
"Karvite. Dog. Yes. Something's happened to her, something bad..." His eyes gazed off into the distance again. "I think she's been caught."