970 DE

Beneath the Gaze of Ancients

by Ryan Schapals

I.

The glint of burnished copper scales ahead stopped Vanya in his tracks, but it wasn’t his only reason for pausing. Crouched low in the wild grasses, he was glad for the chance to regain his balance as a wave of nausea and pain passed through him—and something else too. Maybe it was the wind blowing through tall grasses, or maybe simply a trick of memory, but he could almost taste the Wildwood.

I swear, he thought, I’ll never forage for wild mushrooms again. Or maybe I’ll eat a lot more. A lot lot more.

Yet even he couldn’t pretend this powerful sickness was merely something to joke about. He raised his head again, mentally marking the position of the Durani patrol. They disappeared momentarily as they passed behind an oddly shaped boulder. Tromping about so obviously, they nearly glowed in the midday light.

Who does that? Vanya thought. Why would you bother polishing your armor while you’re on the move? The obvious answer: Upper Empire pride. Their preening would put a two-billed crossfar to shame. Stay dirty, Vanya reminded himself. “Clean creatures are easy to spot, and easy to hunt.”

“What?” Ducking through the grass, Ipta leaned forward, her jaw-bone necklace bouncing just below her tattooed neck. The interlocking webs of ink crawled across her clavicles and gripped her throat like a pair of gnarled hands. It always surprised Vanya how the bleached-bone-white mix of ash and magic held as surely to her skin as those tattoos.

“Uh,” Vanya grunted, realizing he’d been thinking out loud again. “Smells like rain.”

Moving through the brush with the grace of a stampeding fen boar, Zeeg joined them. His twelve-legged furry companion, Tyrant, darted through the behind him. He climbed up Zeeg’s back and chattered away, mandibles clicking together.

Nettlescamps, like Tyrant, were known as the hastily made food-chain filler of the Ancient Ones, but they were fiercely loyal. The creature looked as if a squirrel’s tail had been stretched out and sprouted a dozen legs.

“Tyrant says it’s just me,” Zeeg declared. He sniffed himself and then the nettlescamp, but appeared undecided. “But he stinks too.”

“Perfumes and soap would only make us easier to detect. Consider your natural stench part of our camouflage. We’re not far from the Durani anyway.” Vanya cocked his head. “The patrols are set up in shield formation. Ahead is one of four that surround the prisoner camp at the center of a diamond-shaped perimeter. If we can mark their positions, we’ll find their camp.”

Overhead, what appeared to be a tiny speck in the afternoon sun cast a monstrous winged shadow. The Harpy dove, dropping toward Vanya and his two companions. It wouldn’t be long before they were spotted.

Zeeg grunted, motioning to the massive rock ahead.

Ipta reached for an obsidian dagger reflexively. The daggers rested in loops hewn into her flesh, scarred tissue formed like leather thongs around her weapons.

Vanya gritted his teeth, fighting off the pain rising from his gut and gripping his lungs as surely as two fists of molten earth. He gave the patrol one last look before darting through the brush and making for the boulder. Once pressed against the rock face, he made himself as flat as possible. Zeeg and Ipta landed on either side of him.

“The Durani are highly disciplined, thoroughly trained, and obsessively organized,” Vanya said, his eyes on the Harpy overhead. It began ascending, turning westward as it did.

“The opposite—” Zeeg gulped down air. More laboured breaths interrupted his words. “The… opposite… of… the… Untamed.”

“According to which of you?” Ipta glanced back.

Zeeg’s grin turned to a grimace as his entire body shuddered. Tyrant climbed across his leather jerkin and settled on the warrior’s shoulder, laying a consoling paw against his head. The nettlescamp’s reddish-brown coat puffed up like it did when he fought with snakes.

Perhaps Tyrant took a liking to Zeeg because he was big around as a tree and twice as sturdy. Vanya had never thought to ask. Regardless, his friend had more in common with a flag in the wind than an ironoak at the moment. “We should be thankful…” Vanya paused as pain flared up, spreading to his head, filling him with nausea. His companions waited for his next words, their eyes narrowing with worry. “…Because they’re very predictable and we’re flexible. Grass bends, steel shatters.”

“You’re not going to ask us to raise our legs above our heads again, are you?” Ipta arched a brow.

“No, not this time.” Vanya pushed off the rock and peered around the corner. “That’s far too easy, anyway.” The patrol ahead began marching again. If memory served, that meant that one hundred paces to the southwest, another patrol was doing the same, and one hundred paces to the southeast of that patrol marched another, and one hundred paces to the northeast of that one, the fourth was on the move too.

He had spent enough time amid their ranks to observe, bribe, and pry a few details from hapless lower-ranking officers. Each patrol formed a point on the diamond surrounding the camp in the center. The diamond rotated after stopping to visually confirm that the other patrols were intact and that no one had broken their perimeter.

They used a device they called a spyglass to scour their surroundings for suspicious signs. It could make a mountain in the distance appear as if it were in front of your face. Vanya had once gotten his hands on one, but quickly realized the sun glinting off the glass would give away his position too easily. While the glass enhanced what would commonly be lost in the distance, it also hid what was under your nose. You could miss a lone scout as easily as three maniacs charging into your camp if they kept close enough.

Vanya crouched back down, keeping his head low, then dove into the grasses. Zeeg and Ipta followed. The grass thinned as they crept across the plain and more boulders cropped up. They darted from stone to stone, keeping out of sight.

Each step struck Vanya with the weight of a hammer driving the pain in his guts deeper and deeper. It wasn’t long before he had to stop again. He coughed and spluttered, leaning against the rock for support. His fingers clung to the edges of the stone. Looking up, he noticed his hand rested on the lower lip of a massive face carved into the rock.

Ipta gave him a questioning look, but there was no time to explain.

Zeeg was nowhere to be seen.

The patrol hadn’t stopped yet, but it wouldn’t be long.

“I’m going back,” Vanya said. “Whistle like a razorhawk in heat if you notice the patrol stop.”

Ipta raised one of her skeptical brows. “And what if you don’t come back?”

“Trust me.”

“You know birds don’t go into heat, right?”

But Vanya ran off without another word, leaving Ipta not so silently cursing him. As he searched for Zeeg, Vanya noticed more faces carved onto the eastward sides of the stones. The carvings gazed lovingly and blindly at the sun. Perhaps their pupils had been erased by the passage of time, if they had ever existed at all.

When he was a child, Vanya had told his friend Lunys these rocks were the droppings of the Ancient Ones, which had gotten her a scolding from her mother when she repeated this misinformation. She left the outline of her hand on his cheek for that one. His mother thought he had gotten a rash, playing around in the deep woods where he wasn’t supposed to wander. Either out of embarrassment or guilt, he hadn’t told Ziksana the truth. More likely, he admitted, he preferred her explanation and knew she wouldn’t believe him anyway.

The Durani called this place Ghor Rís, Giant’s Rest, but in the stories he’d heard growing up it had always been known as Ghor Ris, Giant’s Bane. Funny how one unstressed syllable turned peaceful slumber into untimely death—but that was the way of life, afterall.

He’d heard that at night when the stars shone at their brightest, the carved heads would come to life and devour unwary travelers, or turn them to stone, or something else equally silly. These tales might’ve been rooted in some truth, as many are before becoming twisted in the retelling. The tales likely hinted at the dangers of the wild berries growing between the carved rocks. The cheerful-looking fruit took its very name from this place, and like the land itself, shifted in use and reputation depending on who spoke of it.

Luckily, the midday sun promised the boulders would remain dormant, although the Durani patrols and Vanya’s growling stomach wouldn’t be as kind. After running all day without pause, he began to see how weary travelers might mistake the ripening fruit of these bushes for those of an edible kind.

The old tales were little solace when Vanya found Zeeg collapsed beneath the blunted features of a particularly stoic face. Slick with sweat and showing a green tinge, he looked like an unfortunate expulsion from the stony nostrils above him. He writhed as Vanya approached, and a groan escaped his lips. Tyrant burrowed his face frantically in the space between Zeeg’s neck and chin, as if trying to push up his head. He absently reached toward the ruby-red fruit, and Vanya swatted his hand away.

“You know better.”

He expelled a ragged breath, his voice nearly a whisper. “Tyrant said the same thing.”

Vanya kneeled down at his companion’s side, placing a hand on his forehead. “You know you’re about as well hidden as a Durani scout right now.” He winked

Zeeg swallowed hard, the muscles in his cheeks tightening as he clenched his jaw. The unmistakable rumble of laughter caught in his throat. Vanya urged him to stand. Instead, Zeeg rested his head back against the rock, his eyelids fluttering shut. Any other day he would have matched the rock in hardness, but now he appeared deflated, his weight hanging loosely as if it could slip from his frame at any moment.

“If any of the men get wind of you napping on the job, they may have to stop calling you Big Zeeg and start calling you Big Burden.” Vanya reached for his waterskin, nearly empty, and pressed it to his comrade’s lips.

Zeeg gulped hastily, some water spilling and running down his chin. His eyes flashed with subdued intensity. “Tyrant says I must save my strength. Your head isn’t worth squashing.” Tyrant gazed up as if to affirm the statement, then turned his attention to lapping up the spilled water.

“Tyrant is magnanimous,” Vanya said, “as always.” He hoisted Zeeg by his arms. Unable to conjure up even a forced laugh, he quietly dragged his limp friend into a recess where a rocky outcropping met the earth. Tyrant leapt from atop Zeeg and followed alongside the two of them. He glared accusingly at Vanya, condemning him in his squeaky language. Laying Zeeg down, Vanya scolded “Now don’t go off and try any heroics.” He gave the two a stern wag of his finger.

Zeeg returned a different gesture with another finger. “You talk too much.”

“You talk to yourself,” Vanya retorted.

“That pretty face is no protection from my fist.”

“Save your strength, then.” Vanya infused the wild grasses and brush with mana. The wilderness rose up in a surge of sudden growth, and as it grew, he wove it around his companion, obscuring him from view. As the walls of brush solidified, Tyrant dove in. “We’ll have a formal duel over your honor and my handsomeness when I return.”

There was no response from Zeeg.

The startled cry of what Ipta must’ve thought a razorhawk sounded like pierced the air. Standing, Vanya steadied himself against the rock as the burning pain in his chest flared. It pulsed eerily in time with the rhythm of his pounding heart. He wondered if his own blood could be carrying the sickness into the deep reaches of his flesh. Another strangled bird call sounded in the distance.

Vanya took a deep breath and peeked out from the rock. A spyglass glinted in the sun two hundred paces away. He waited, then looked again. No glint—this was his opening. He darted to the next massive boulder, wading through the grass. He checked again for the spyglass, then continued, repeating the procedure at every rock till he reached Ipta’s hiding place. He skidded to a halt, but a little too late, and collided with the stone, throwing himself backward haphazardly.

Ipta’s hand shot out and pulled him back to safety.“What’s wrong with you?”

He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “We need to keep moving.”

“You can barely stand.”

He leaned against the stony face, one armed tucked against his side. He slurred his speech for effect:“Nah, I’m jus’ havvin’ a good time.”

Ipta crossed her arms. “Where’s Zeeg?”

“He’s keeping watch.”

“You’re pale.”

“Look,” he said, sighing, “I can’t tell you what’s happening because I don’t really know. There’s a sickness going around, and it’s apparently only affecting us Zikia, considering how well you seem. I’ve never felt anything like this before. This illness… My body hurts everywhere, and Zeeg and I… I just want to go back to the Wildwood. It’s as if my memories and this pain are attacking me at every step.” As Vanya spoke, he noticed the Harpy swooping down, its shadow shrinking. He pressed himself up into the rocky face. Ipta followed his lead. The jutting stone chin behind him poked into his back.

“A curse?” Ipta suggested.

“If it is, I really preferred the apathy of the Ancient Ones.”

“We still have time to abandon this foolishness.”

“Zeeg is safe.”

“But are we?”

“No one expects foolhardy plans to work,” Vanya said, “and that’s why they always do.” He craned his neck, peering around the stony nose. Perversely, Vanya noted the sculptors of these faces hadn’t thought to add tiny nose hairs. Just to simplify, he wondered, or did this sculptor believe the body and hair were blemishes on the perfect form of the head? More likely, he reflected, the sculptor ran out of of time. Soon he would too, if he didn’t move.

To the northeast, the patrol paused. No sign of the spyglass glinting in the sun. For a moment Vanya thought What if I was just using the spyglass wrong?

He shook his head, trying to dislodge the doubt. “Tell me,” Vanya said, “what good is a die that’s never cast?”

“I’m not going to like any of your answers to this question.”

He grinned, then motioned to the center of the field.

“What?” Ipta hissed.

“If we know the positions of each patrol, then we know where the prisoners are being held. Each rotation the patrols make on the perimeter only shifts the angle of each patrol’s line of sight. If we cut straight for the center as each of them repositions, then they’ll be too busy resetting to notice us.”

“And what if this camp isn’t like the ones you’ve seen before?”

“You know, it’s written that you must know your enemy,” Vanya forced himself to grin madly through the pain. “But that’s not good enough. I like to think that I am my enemy.”

Ipta gave Vanya a sidelong glance. “I’ve often thought the same thing.”

Vanya chuckled. If you couldn’t trust a friend to talk back, could you trust her at all? “Exactly!” he said. “Follow me then.”

“And what if they know you, Vanya?”

“You can’t know the enemy that doesn’t know himself.”

“Some comfort.” Ipta scowled, but her eyes betrayed her amusement.

Vanya crouched down, planting his feet. He gestured to a crowd of boulders that lead toward a decline in the plain, where the wild grass grew thicker and more vibrant. Vanya remembered a river running here, where he’d gone skinny-dipping with Lunys. Well, he thought, not exactly. That had earned him another slap, just as much worth it as the first.

The denser foliage showed a water source remained nearby. Vanya quickened his pace, fighting off fatigue and another surge of pain. Recklessly, he charged through the grass without a single look back.

When they finally stopped, he doubled over, struggling to catch his breath. Ipta had beaten him to the edge of the old riverbank, and she motioned for silence. It wasn’t the rush of the river that greeted them, but voices. The river had dried up.

She led him closer to the edge, the ground beneath his feet declining sharply. Only a tiny creek remained at the bottom of the ravine. The echo of voices and clatter of armaments grew louder, travelling across the empty channel like a stiff wind.

As he climbed down the sheer edge, Vanya fought to keep his footing in the soft mix of soil and stones. He wobbled as pain spilled over from his chest like a boiling pot flowing over into his loins. He slipped and clawed at the sides of the ravine. The damp earth offered nearly as much handhold as water. With a handful of mud, he tumbled down the side of the gully, stopping with a thud and an instantly throbbing bruise as he collided with the base of a large rock at the bottom of the riverbed.

Pushing himself out of the mud, he waved his hand in warning to Ipta, but the Urugal was already descending after him. She placed her weight first on one heel, allowing herself to make a controlled slide down the slope, while she dragged the second foot behind her and bent her knees. “You can’t trust dirt any more than the men who walk upon it.”

“This must be Giant’s Trickle.” Vanya stood, planting one foot on the rock he’d crashed against, trying his best to project strength as well as one could after taking a tumble in front of Ipta. He began wiping his face with his sleeve, but stopped, realizing he was smearing as much mud on his face as he scraped off.

“You should see the Shifting Sands,” Ipta said.

Vanya spit some grit from between his teeth, then grinned as if Ipta had just shared a joke. Who was to say she hadn’t?

“No,” Ipta answered his grin. “Whatever you’re thinking: no.”

“Where I come from, we think of Eretsu as our ally.” Kneeling down, he scooped up a ball of damp earth with one hand and patted it flat with the other. Then he brought the clod up to eye level and mashed his face into it.

“We didn’t come all this way to play in the mud, did we?”

Vanya smiled through his mud mask, spreading the rest through his hair and rubbing it down his chest, mindful of his sore ribs. “Hide and seek is a specialty of mine.”

Ipta shook her head, but the corners of her lips curved into a smile. She reached with both hands into the mud and coated her arms and legs. “No different than covering yourself in ash, right?”

“Better, even,” Vanya said. “You’re likely to scare any sentries to death if you’re spotted.”

“Do you even know this prisoner?”

“I know the cage kills.”

The Urugal tipped her head ever so slightly in acknowledgment, looking like a spirit risen from a muddy grave. A shadow loomed over her, this time a foreboding cloud, not a Harpy.

Vanya continued, “Find the camp and we’ll find her. When you return, we can plan our little visit and wait for nightfall. Then we strike. Sudhamra will be none the wiser.”

“Don’t you want him to know?”

“Not yet,” he said.

Wordlessly, Ipta dashed forward, as if the mud beneath her feet was solid as the stone-paved thoroughfares of Kutastha. As soon as his lieutenant was out of sight, Vanya staggered to the edge of the gully and leaned back against the sloped wall, steadying himself. When others look to you and rely on you, you can’t afford to be completely yourself, Vanya thought. You must become someone, or better yet, something stronger. Life was so much simpler when failure meant a scolding from Ziksana.

Up above, dark clouds had begun to block the sun. The air began to taste of moisture as the wind picked up. It wouldn’t be long till dark at this rate. In fact, it looked like twilight would be downright early.

Vanya sunk down into a crouch and breathed deeply. The scents of rain and dirt filled his nose, the smell of the Wildwood. The richness of life. Yet the stench of death intermingled with the aroma. He tasted bile on his tongue and swallowed it back down. A tremble travelled through his limbs. He tried to regain control of his body, but the tremors grew more violent, the movements more erratic. Then he jerked uncontrollably as as convulsions seized him—and suddenly the scent of life engulfed him, and with it, a vision of the Wildwood.

The perfume of flowers wafted through the air, unmistakably sweet, but there were sour notes too: mulch and rot. He wrinkled his nose. Two guards in thorn-studded carapace led him across a bridge of mossy, fallen hollows. The air shimmered as hundreds of butterflies collected around him. They hovered, silently judging him.

I’ve done nothing wrong, he reminded himself. Well, nothing I would consider wrong, he corrected as the guards stopped at the entrance to the Zikia cathedral.

Trees of impossibly large girth twined together effortlessly, as if they had simply grown into perfect walls. The branches covering the entrance bent back to allow him entry. The guards remained behind.

As he stepped forward, branches shifted beneath his feet, rising to form stairs. Between the branches, he noticed a deep pit beneath him. He ascended carefully, afraid one wrong step could send him plummeting. At the top of the unfurling staircase waited the Grand Elder, his grandmother Kutava, and his mother, Ziksana, standing at the dais. Gathered around them were dignitaries from the most powerful Zikia tribes, lichen-covered men and blossoming ladies all clad in woven leaves, feathers, and even butterfly wings that clung to them as naturally as their own hair. His grandmother sat straight-backed, almost petrified, her head held high, as if the Horned Crown she wore weighed nothing.

“Something tells me you didn’t invite me all this way to sit on your lap, nanna.” As he spoke, the lines in her face doubled, from papery thin birch to deep-ridged oak. He smiled broadly, giving his mother a wink as he opened his arms wide in a jovial greeting. A ripple of whispers passed through the crowd behind his grandmother.

“Vanya of the Samula,” Kutava began before he could continue. “You have much to answer for, yet you continue to offer only empty words.”

The dignitaries quieted instantly.

“You wound me.” He pressed a hand to his chest.

“You tire me,” she said, waving dismissively. “For centuries our peoples have relied on one another, knowing full well that every sister and brother will bear their share of the burden that is our responsibility to the Mahatavi and to all Eretsu. Yet you continue to shirk your duties, and worse yet, you increase the load your sisters and brothers must bear.”

“I saved you,” he said. “I struck instead of waiting to be struck. You know—”
Kutava continued, her voice cutting through his own. “Your indiscretions, transgressions, and insubordination have been tallied. They are numerous as the stars, widespread as Gudanna propaganda, costly as weevils, and twice as difficult to root out. By your transgressions you have planted the seed of chaos. Innocuous and harmless as these actions may appear in their infancy, there can be no doubt that if such behavior is allowed to ripen and bear fruit, it will bring ruin and shame on your family, the Samula, and all Zikia.”

“Excuse me?” He tilted his head skeptically, looking between Ziksana and his grandmother. “But… tallied? Do you really expect me to believe that?”

Ziksana held his gaze. She waved a finger through the air, tracing a glyph shaped like an inverted V. It shimmered into being, then unfurled like a scroll, revealing lines of more glyphs. “First…” As she read, the glyphs glowed more brightly and swirled as if into some readable pattern. “In the cycle of the Warrior, the aforementioned trespassed on sacred ground and desecrated it with the filth of his waste—”

“That hardly counts,” Vanya said. “You know how it is when you’ve have a few too many. My hostess is the guilty one. She over-served me in an inappropriate—and ultimately unsuccessful, I might add—attempt on my virtue.”

An audible snort of derision came from the crowd of dignitaries, though Vanya couldn’t tell exactly who it was.

His grandmother’s mouth creased.

“Mother, this is ridiculous,” he said. “Will she rule you your entire life?”

“The Matriarch leads by our grace,” Ziksana intoned. “The court is a coalition of voices given form by her guiding hands.”

“You could say the same of the many strings on a puppet. Do you have any serious charges to lay at my feet, or am I taking part in one of the Spider Prince’s mock trials?”

“There can be no peace without justice,” his mother said. “These are only the minor offenses—but very well, if you wish, I will begin with the unapproved command of Samula forces and the loss of their lives.”

“They knew what they agreed to, and you should treat them as heroes, not victims,” he said. “This is our home too. We can defend it if you refuse to.”

“That’s for the court to decide,” Ziksana said. “You must wait.”

“I’m tired of waiting.”

His grandmother rose from her seat. “Then you should stop interrupting.”

“I’ve heard enough, thank you very much.” Vanya turned to leave, but as he spun around, the steps leading back to the entrance of the hall retracted, opening a wide chasm between him and the next landing. Teetering at the edge, he jumped backward and returned his attention to his mother with a glower.

“Do you recall Lady Tresa?”

He shrugs. “I usually avoid names.”

She shook her head. “She is the first daughter of the head of the Green Weavers. Their membership in our coalition is another casualty in your war against reason.”

“I had to know what was hiding under all those baskets.”

“Our people need leadership, not japes and deflections. It’s precisely because you didn’t plan, but simply acted in your own interest, that our unification has been compromised. Your lack of foresight is not the benign failure of a worthy man, but the willful ignorance of consequence by a renegade who flaunts his insolence with every word. Deliberate ignorance does not make you immune to responsibility. It simply confirms your guilt. You caused the deaths of three dozen Zikia over the course of seven ill-advised and unauthorized raids on neutral parties.”

“And how many lives did I save? Those so-called neutral parties were anything but—”

“Vanya of the Samula tribe, you shall be stripped of your rank and your right to pass through these lands for as long as the Mahatavi still stands. By the power of this coalition, I, Kutava of the Samula, Steward of Green Gate, Keeper of the Twelve Seeds, proclaim that from this time forth you shall be exiled from the Wildwood on pain of death. May the Ancient Ones smile on you and protect you, for we can no longer afford to do so.”

From behind him, Vanya heard the approaching footsteps of the two guards, the branch-steps returning with them. In a flurry of motion, he spun and kicked the first guard between the legs, then seized and the wrist of the second guard. Cranking the guard’s arm almost to the point of breaking, Vanya wrung the spear free, into his waiting hand. With the butt of the spear he knocked both guards back, but before he could dash forward, the path leading down to the entrance retracted once again, revealing the deep pit below.

As the guards regained their balance, the staircase retreated further. Vanya charged the guards, pressing them toward the edge of the staircase. Taking their footing cautiously near the precipice, the guards drew their swords, but as they did, Vanya planted the point of the spear at the edge of the disappearing steps. He vaulted forward, leading with his feet, and left the spear shuddering in the wood platform behind him.

Never look down, he reminded himself, squeezing his eyes shut. He tucked into a roll and bounced to safety at the edge of the entrance. Springing to his feet, he whirled and faced the court above. Ziksana looked on him piteously, but as he returned her gaze, it became a stare as hard as an ironoak in winter.

“I can’t be brought to heel,” Vanya cried. “I renounce the Samula and all claims and ties I have to your crown.”

“You have no place here.” Ziksana wiped the glyphs from the air, rising to stand at her mother’s side.

“My roots will always be here in the Wildwood,” he shouted. “You know your laws and decrees won’t change that.”
II.

The creek had swollen from a trickle to a steady flow as the storm’s rain pelted the gully sideways. The downpour had turned the soil into treacherous slurry and wiped most of Vanya’s camouflage away. Unlike Urugal bone ash, his imitation contained no magic.

Despite these setbacks, he was thankful for the heavy rainfall that masked his steps and the darkness that cloaked his movements.

The gully widened into what looked like an empty lake-bed that stretched on for a great distance. One stubbed toe and two completely soaked feet later, he’d made his way into the prisoner’s camp. The throbbing in his toe added to the discomfort of his tender ribs, but Vanya hardly noticed these pains in comparison with the inexplicable illness gripping him from within.

I really should learn to delegate, he noted as Ipta signalled for him to follow.

The greatest advantage of the storm was its effect on Durani morale. The Durani guards huddled close together, keeping under their sheltered tents. The tarps strung up over their heads gathered the rain in pools, and became distended bellies that looked ready to burst if the storm kept up.

Vanya dashed across the path, while the Durani guards tended hopelessly to dying fires. No sooner did an ember spark than it was smothered by arrowhead-sized droplets of rain. The fire hissed like a snake besieged by too many charmers. The smarter guards had removed their armor, while the more foolish sat unhappily in their waterlogged plate, fidgeting and cursing constantly.

Vanya crept after Ipta through the winding camp. By the bark, if we had ranks, Vanya mused, she’d be up for a promotion. They darted between shadows, ducking at the roar of thunder, until they reached the corral at the heart of the camp.

Nandanna was wrong about one thing, Vanya thought. It’s no splendid cage. The prisoners were bound to a row of stakes planted in the dirt and connected by rough rope bindings. It was obvious the Durani hadn’t planned to take prisoners.

What changed?

The prisoners crowded around the stakes, piled up nearly on top one another. The stench of filth mixed with the wetness in the air, creating a revolting sauna of neglect. Most of the prisoners lay in the mud, sleeping with their wrists suspended above their heads, shivers and coughs shaking their soaked bodies. Some of those awake gazed dumbly with sunken eyes at Ipta and Vanya. Others shied away, their heads hanging low.

Vanya spotted the prisoner he was looking for sleeping soundly, her hands resting behind her stake. Even in the dim light, her bruises gleamed with the stark ugliness of violent abuse. He was reminded of the first time he saw her. He’d mistaken her for someone, maybe his old friend Lunys. That had been when he traveled with Sudhamra—when he trusted Sudhamra.

The Untamed had been assigned the most brutal work at the border. They caused enough trouble to draw Gudanna attention away from the fleeing Durani that could no longer hold out against Nandanna’s deadly advance. He had knowingly led many to their deaths, but no matter how he tried, none of the Untamed would depart, despite his urging.

This was the way of the campaign. The Upper Empire pressed until its advantage became the enemy’s, and then Sudhamra and Vanya did their best to soften the defeats. And they were undeniably defeats, a string of them.

However, the Empire claimed a few minor victories here and there, and it was after these victories that Vanya noticed the Durani were taking Zikia prisoners along with the rest. That’s when he spotted this prisoner the first time. She had the pale hue, almost ghostly, of a deep-woods native, and looked familiar. He demanded an explanation from Sudhamra, but received only excuses and promises.

“I wish my eyes had deceived me,” he’d told the Raja.

“Even if I thought I could betray you without your knowledge, I could never countenance hurting an ally I now consider my friend.” Sudhamra gave Vanya a level gaze. He didn’t look away as he spoke, nor tremble in the slightest. Instead, he opened himself up as if ready to take a knife to his breast at any moment. “There’s no profit in allowing this to continue. The Empire owes you a great debt.”

“Careful,” Vanya said, “you know I always collect my debts. And I promise I will repay any grievances.”

He would make good on that promise.

When the Untamed bolstered the left flank of the Upper Durani forces that day, they executed a tried and true strategy, drawing in the Gudanna by feigning weakness as they slowly surrounded them. Their enemies were so hungry for victory, they lost all reason, and ignored the battlefield shifting beneath their feet.

First, Thornbeasts jumped into the enemy lines in an explosion of spikes, then retreated as if overwhelmed. All the while, Vanya’s Fen Lord turned the battlefield into a treacherous bog filled with vine traps and worse.

Then the Gudanna pressed inward, Sand Lions leading the charge, whirling Blood Channelers closing in after them. One sprinted toward a Thornbeast faking vulnerability. Then as the trap was about to be sprung, Vanya saw the Thornbeast freeze. It simply stood in place as the Channeler sliced down with both blades in an overhead swing, tearing the Thornbeast’s spiked hide to pieces. Vanya reeled in pain. All his Zikia forces had stopped fighting, leaving the rest of the Untamed caught in the middle of the trap they couldn’t commit to springing. In an instnat, they were clearly outmatched. Vanya felt as if his insides had been doused in oil and set ablaze. It was a white-hot pain, blinding him with its intensity He nearly fell from his perch in the Fen Lord’s chest as the fever gripped him.

Yet he forced himself back up, gripping the edges of his titan’s saddle-pit for support. His will directed the golem to pull the Channeler away from the defenseless Thornbeast. All around him, he realized the Zikia were howling. He could hear their voices in a choir of madness above the roar of battle. His own voice joined theirs in anger and anguish, and he hurled the Channeler into the marsh below. He locked eyes with its Gudanna knight, then thrust the golem’s head into the marsh, submerging its rider in the muddy waters. The Channeler flailed under his golem’s hands, weakening as its knight drowned, and then snapped under the weight of the Fen Lord. Its sandy innards spilled out, mingling with the deadly marsh. It was an ugly, brutish way to dispatch his enemy, but not all disagreements could be resolved with witty banter, try as he might.

When Vanya looked up again, his forces were scattered. From across the marshy battlefield he saw Dramati, slender and stern, but most importantly still in control of his Woodgaurd. The golem pulled its shield free from the broken husk of a Dervish.

Wait? A Dervish? he questioned his eyes, but there was no time to think. More Durani were charging the Untamed, gold-encrusted and gem-inlaid golems shining as the sun high above wordlessly overlooked the carnage. Vanya wondered if the Ancient Ones understood what their worshippers did with their aid, but he couldn’t stop for contemplation. In the distance, the Upper Empire forces retreated. He signalled to Dramati to gather the remainder of the Untamed and follow him. They wouldn’t get away that easily.

He charged forward, searching for Sudhamra, bellowing his name. “Where are you?!” He caught and dragged Gudanna and Durani golems into one another, tearing a path across the battlefield. He could hear Ipta’s voice, calling him back, but he ignored her. “Coward! Liar! Show yourself! Your true self!” The tackle of an unnoticed Grappling Death stopped his advance. Enemies surrounded him from every side.

Who is left?

His Fen Lord shook as he tried to resist being toppled. The Grappling Death’s pull suddenly gave out as a thorn-covered shield bashed the Gudanna golem in the back of the head. Dramati followed up with a hammer blow from his Woodguard’s fist, spraying sand in every direction.

“You can’t hunt Sudhamra,” Ipta called. “Fall back.” Her Raptor shot spines into the oncoming assault. The rest of the Untamed had already begun their retreat.

At that moment, Vanya did something that surprised even himself: he listened to reason. He would have gladly died on that battlefield, but Sudhamra was nowhere in sight—and he had a prisoner to free.

The darkness receded, if only momentarily, in the flicker of lightning bolts. The deep rumble of thunder followed each ghastly flash. A tap on the shoulder from Ipta brought Vanya’s attention back to the prisoner. He approached carefully, but the guards were nowhere near them now, their attention entirely drawn away by the desire for warmth and dryness.

As he neared the prisoner, he noticed her shallow breathing. Broken ribs aren’t well suited for swift escapes, he thought, and I’m no shape to carry her. I can barely carry myself.

Reaching for her shoulder, he tried to gently wake her, but before his fingertips reached her, the prisoner’s eyes flared open. Startled, Vanya froze and opened his mouth to explain, but she swept his legs out from under him with a kick of her own. He fell backward, then rolled, instinct and long practice delivering him out of reach of her follow-up. Her bound fists only smashed the spot where his head had been. Vanya pushed himself up, but she tackled him back to the ground. Raising his hands defensively to shield his face, he warded off her blows.

Where are you, Ipta?

As if answering the unspoken call, Ipta wrenched the prisoner off Vanya and shoved her into the wooden beam. She slammed backward with a stiff crack.

“What are you doing? We’re getting you out of here,” Vanya said, raising a hand to halt her next attack.

The prisoner pushed herself back up and gritted her teeth. She raised clenched fists, frayed rope hanging from her wrists. “You ruined my escape.”

“That’s no way to say ‘thank you.’” Vanya reached out toward her wrists, the corners of his mouth twisting into a grin. “You know what? I’ll re-tie you,” he said. “Escaping from the Durani once is hardly an impressive feat, but escaping twice—now that’s a story.”

She swatted his hand away. “You’re not helping anyone here but yourself.”

“And for that you’re welcome, your graciousness. May we have your exalted name?”

The prisoner glanced from Vanya to Ipta and back. “Karva,” she said sharply, “of Clan Zura.”

Dagger in hand, Ipta’s eyes flickered watchfully. “You will come with us.”

Karva made no hint of movement, her fists still held high.“What of the other prisoners?”

“If they’re anything like you, then it’s best to keep them locked up,” Vanya said.

“You’re telling me the two of you snuck into this camp, risking both your lives, just to save mine?”

“Exactly.”

“That’s bad arithmetic.”

Vanya had doubts about why he’d gone to such lengths to save one captive, but he didn’t give her the satisfaction of airing the question aloud. “Usually prisoners are a little happier to be liberated.”

“We need to move swiftly,” Ipta said. “She must quiet or be quieted.”

“Excuse me?” In a flash, Karva darted forward. Her hand reached for a dagger from Ipta’s shoulder, but the Urugal’s hand intercepted her deftly. Using an old trick, Vanya called forth wind in a precise gust to knock Karva off balance before she could cause any more trouble. He reached out to a hand to steady her, but she only shoved an elbow in his gut.

Vanya doubled over, noticing more of the other captives were awake and staring, some even talking among themselves in hushed, excited tones. He made out the last words he had ever wanted to hear: “He’s come to save us.” Vanya groaned at the utterance, and at his new bruise.

“I’m calling the guards…” Karva threatened.

Ipta raised an obsidian dagger, ready to throw. At this distance, she couldn’t miss.

“Wait,” Vanya said.

“…Unless you free us all,” she added.

Vanya straightened. “I can’t guarantee their safety.”

“What are they guaranteed if you leave them captives of the Durani?They’re guaranteed death when the Durani discover one has escaped,” she said. “You know it’s true. Tthey are more ruthless than ever now that they feel their power slowly slipping away.”

“You’re bent on heroics,” Vanya said. “No wonder you fell into their hands.”

“It’s a dark time when the basic dignity of our lives is only protected by great heroics, rather than common decency. I fear any victory in this war is false if it preserves any Dominion or Empire that pens men and women like cattle.”

“She’s no hero, but a mystic maybe,” Ipta said. “She’s certainly talkative enough to qualify.”

“Wars aren’t won with dignity,” Vanya said.

“Not yet.” Karva’s eyes burned.

“You two cut the others loose.” Vanya unsheathed his leaf-shaped blade. “I’ll work on the distraction.”

Ipta reluctantly drew a spare dagger from her shoulder and offered it to Karva. She eyed it carefully before grasping the handle and attending to the nearest rope bindings. The captives offered their thanks, but she didn’t stop to make small talk. She methodically moved from one prisoner to the next, telling them to keep their voices down.

In the next flash of lightning, Vanya clearly glimpsed the outlines of the guards. One tent north of them, another on the eastern edge of the prisoner’s corral. The patrols were ignoring the paths leading back to the main body of the camp.

He crept up on the unsuspecting guards in the first tent. The tarp stretched overhead sagged, heavy with rainwater. Vanya cut one of the support ties, and the tarp lurched and spilled some water. It dipped, but didn’t fall. He cut another tie loose, then moved to the next guard post and did the same, cutting the ties, but not enough to bring the tarps down right away.

He then returned to Ipta and Karva and helped them cut the last of the others loose. As he did, he heard the startled cries of the guards as the tarps came down around their heads. Prompted by the noise from the guards, the prisoners ran in every direction now, fearing for their lives and exhilarated by their newfound freedom. While the guards struggled with the collapsed tents, Vanya dispatched them with ease, leaving each waterlogged tarp like a funeral shroud over their corpses. He stepped over them carefully, then looked back for Ipta.

She was grappling with Karva, holding her own knife away from her throat. “What are you doing?” he called.

“You too will turn, just as the Durani have.”

“Not all the Durani have turned their backs on us,” Vanya said, though he didn’t believe it any more than she did. No, he would not go back to Sudhamra. For once it didn’t matter if he was paid in full. He sought retribution, redemption, even. He had been foolish enough to allow Sudhamra’s silver tongue to sway him with promises of riches, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Sudhamra had promised peace and compromise. Nandanna had been right about him, but so had Izvari.

That’s it he realized. It wasn’t Lunys that Karva reminded him of, but Izvari.

He had found her atop the battlements of Tel Kubra. That had been the first sign. She was gazing down at what would become the battlefield, where he would suffer the first in the coming series of defeats. He’d known right away that she wasn’t who she said she was. You always recognize your own, as it’s said. While he had embraced the role of the outcast, she clearly wanted to remain hidden.

Sure, she had smelled the part, sweat wafting as strongly as perfume, but her eyes gave her away. Through those tempered brass portals, she drew in the world. She didn’t merely look, but scrutinized everything her eyes fell upon. They had lingered on him, and though that was nothing new, these were not the eyes of a warrior, proud and challenging. Nor were they the eyes of a peasant, demure and unassuming. They had the air of command, and something else, fierce defiance below the surface that she couldn’t hide while they spoke at length, discussing the cycles of the moon. The fact she entertained that conversation was another sign.

“Does Sudhamra know he’s drawn the company of a young noble to his cause?”

“I am only Ksudra-Aindri,” she said in a thick Urugal accent, as if she spoke with a mouthful of sand. “You have mistaken me.”

He cocked his head, considering her response. Then, without warning, he struck out at her with the flat of his hand, reaching across his body. She deflected the blow with one hand, redirecting his attack, and then followed up, seizing him by the collar and throwing him toward the edge of the battlements. He caught himself on the chest-high wall, and turned to face her.

“Assassin.” Her hands took on the form he recognized as blade-shape. She charged him, stabbing at him with sharp, bony hands. She came in all directions at once; he couldn’t deflect all her attacks. She drove him back into the wall. “Who sent you?”

In a manner of speaking, the technique he used to blunt her assault could be described as falling on her. He pushed off the wall and dove forward, taking her to the ground with him, then wrenched himself upright and pinned her wrists under his knees. She wriggled and kicked at his back, threatening to throw him off. “The prdaku-practicing Urugal claims I’m an assassin?” He rolled off her, keeping a careful distance. “Who are you?”

“I’m a long way from home,” she said, springing to her feet. Her piercing gaze darted around the battlements, but there was no one else in sight. Most of the guards had been called to prepare for the siege, and only flickering torches remained in their stead.

“Fighting for your enemies?”

“I’m not sure who my allies are, if I have any at all.” Her voice reverted to what must have been its normal accent. A hint of Gudanna cadence rode on her tongue, matching the prdaku she’d just exhibited. “I came here out of principle.”

Vanya nodded. “I’ve come to realize the enemy of my enemy can still be my enemy.”

“The Line is a friendless land.”

“There’re no easy friends,” he replied, grinning, “except those who try to kill first.”

“Then I am rich with friends. Overburdened by them.” She pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders. Nights at the Line dropped far below comfortable temperatures, as chill as the days were scorching. At least there was less fighting at night, usually.

Vanya turned toward what would become their battlefield, gesturing for the Urugal to join him. “I can do no worse to you than I did just now,” he said. “You can trust any more surprises won’t be so bad.”

“If this is how you approach women, please, for the good of all peoples, I beg you to let this be your last attempt.” Even so saying, she did join him, resting her hands on the wall.

“Only if it stops working,” he said. Then he pointed out to the north where the very tips of the treeline would reappear at dawn. “I am Vanya, and for once it seems I’m not far from home.”

“Why are you here?

“I have a new tribe now, the Untamed.”

“Do you miss home?”
“You’re full of questions.”

“And you’re full of half-answers.”

Vanya hopped atop the rampart, letting his feet dangle over the edge. Below him the gate groaned open, letting through a procession of Preservers. In the flickering torchlight, they could have been ghosts. “Being up here reminds me of when I was a boy. I would climb up to the very top of the oldest oaks. It would take hours to get to the canopy. You had to bring food and water, which only made the trip more difficult, but it was worth all the exhaustion and the rough bite of the bark. It was freeing—to know you could fall and no one could save you.”

“Weren’t you afraid?”

“Of course,” he said, “but I never looked down. I didn’t stop till I reached the top. Up there, well, there’s nothing like it. You can see all the Wildwood stretching in every direction as it were an endless sea of green. The leaves ripple like waves.”

“I’d like to see that.”

“I can take you,” he said.

She paused, and Vanya glanced at her face. The torches smoldering along the ramparts reflected in her eyes, mirroring the stars burning in the dark cauldron of night above. Vanya thought he might fall in if he stared any longer.

“It’s my turn for a question,” Vanya continued. “Tell me, what do you miss about home?”

“I miss my father,” she said.

“Tell me about him.”

“He had a way of speaking to you,” she said. “He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world, not in a false way like a merchant who only shows interest in you for your coin. Your presence mattered to him. That’s why he spoke to you. I could see it in the way he asked his servants to—” She stammered, turning away from Vanya, but he knew that tone well enough to know her cheeks were turning crimson. “He respected those in his company, and more importantly, he cherished them.”

“Servants? He must have been a powerful man.”

“You’d do well not to anger him.”

“Is that why you’re out here?”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she said. “It’s the rest of the world that needed him.”

“I don’t even know your real name.”

“It’s not your turn for a question,” she said. “Tomorrow I’m returning home, riding south to tend to a few things in my father’s absence.”

“That’s not a question.”

“Then I’m afraid you won’t be able to ask another.” She let a sly smile show.

He shook his head. “There are prisoners here. They’re taking them north to the Empire. My own people, Urugal, and Gudanna too. I can’t leave while the Zikia are caged.”

“Break them out tonight, ride south with me. There is safety in the wastes. The Gudanna and the Durani don’t treat our land as their battleground, like they have your home.”

“You’ll wait?”

“You’re out of questions, Vanya.” She pulled away from him and took a torch from its sconce. It cast a warm glow around her. Ducking into the stairwell, she left only the glow to mark her presence, and then even that was gone.

Alone, Vanya peered down below. One of those camps held the prisoner he was looking for.

His reverie was cut short as a patrol rounded the corner of the deflated tents. He couldn’t escape from their oil-fueled lanterns in time. The head of the patrol shouted a command to stop, but as he darted away, Vanya realized they were as surprised as he was. By now shouts of alarm were going up all throughout the camp as the escaped captives made their break for it. They rushed past him, their eyes wide with terror and excitement. He found Ipta and Karva freeing the last of the others.

“I didn’t plan for this,” he shouted to them.

“Grass bends?” Ipta said with a chuckle.

Karva eyed them both like a pair of drunkards, then said “I know a way out. We had to dig a latrine when we stopped here. It’s removed from the rest of the camp on the eastern border, near a lip of the gully we can easily climb.”

“In this weather, it’s going to be a literal storm of sh—”

“She’s right,” Ipta cut in.

“The last place a patrol is going to be.” Karva smiled.

Vanya looked up. Durani guards were barreling toward them, charging through the rain and prisoners alike with only one target in mind. Their spear points were already forming the semicircle they used to contain charges into their ranks, expecting Vanya and his companions to come at them. “Too late,” he said, motioning.

“Too much talk.” Ipta raised a cudgel of calcified bone.

“If you had just listened to me in the first place…” Karva held her borrowed dagger outstretched.

“Three to six is usually my kind of odds,” Vanya announced, but with the fever in his gut, he knew one flare of pain would mean his end, and then his friends’. “With whom do I have the pleasure of gambling my life tonight?”

Ipta said “In my home, we set an extra bowl out at each meal for Death. We welcomed her with open arms like an old friend.”

“Lunacy,” Karva muttered.

Vanya kept his hand on his sword hilt, but didn’t draw it. To raise the sword is to admit you need it, and he couldn’t afford to need it, not now, with the Durani bearing down on them. Within seconds the charging guards would be on top of them. He shouted for the others to run, then spun around.

As he did, the earth jumped beneath his feet, sending him flying in a splash of rain and mud. He landed in a heap against the side of the gully, his vision blurred. He could make out the bony hind legs of a Horned Blight rearing over the encampment, its clawed toes impaling the guards on impact.

From atop the Blight, Izvari waved and called to him. “I think they fell for it!”

“I’m the one who’s supposed to arrive late and make bad jokes,” he said.

Another figure raised himself up in the saddle behind Izvari and moved to the front of the Blight, towering in comparison to Izvari. Zeeg shouted from behind her: “Tyrant approves.”

Vanya smiled, glad to see his friend alive and well. “Room for one more?” He pushed himself up from the sludge, and clapped his hands together.

He heard Ipta clear her throat behind him. “Make it three.” She and Karva had already risen from the muck.

An explosion cracked overhead, decidedly not thunder. Something plummeted to the ground, spraying a wave of mud across the the empty basin. Lightning flashed again, and Vanya saw what remained of the circling Harpy, crumpled in a smoking heap, its wings completely blasted asunder. The searing flash also revealed a Bone Fiend towering over them, mana-singed air rippling around the mouth of its massive canon.

“You can ride with Nikara,” Izvari offered. “He’s fond of guests, though he prefers old bones.”

The titan ambled forward and crouched down, offering its canon as bridge to the battered companions. Vanya happily climbed aboard. Lightning flashed again in the sky as Nikara lifted them away from the swampy ground. In the brief light, Vanya saw the Harpy’s wreck sinking deeper into the mud. It’s dull eye stared up blankly at them as the Bone Fiend climbed out of the lakebed.

III.

The clouds fled as a strong wind from the north chased them across the plains. Morning had crept up on them sometime after they chased off the Durani, but before they’d brought the freed prisoners to shelter.

They had come to rest between a circle of stony faces huddled close together, allowing them some natural cover from the rain and also making for a good spot to lash their tarps both across and above into a large tent of sorts. It had worked well enough, though the wind passed freely through its gaps. It mattered little, though: once exhaustion reached its peak, Vanya could have easily slept in the open gully, or anywhere else. He passed out shivering, and was still soaked when he woke up, but mercifully he felt warmer. Not my idea of a good night, he thought.

Dirt caked his entire body, and the rain had only driven it deeper into his skin. He could have been mistaken for a beggar—a tragically handsome one, but a beggar nonetheless. Good thing I never planned to live cleanly.

Zeeg rested against  a rock, while Tyrant ran wildly around him, his dozen legs moving with incredible speed and coordination. He climbed up a stony face, disappearing inside a nostril, and then slithered up the bridge of the nose before leaping onto Zeeg’s barrel of a belly. The Zikia fighter grunted and swatted at Tyrant, but the little beast dodged, twisting his body in a contortionist’s pose. Izvari squatted down next to him and lowered a hand to Tyrant. The creature sniffed at her cautiously, then wound up her wrist. In a matter of seconds he’d scurried around her waist, down her back, and through her legs. She could only exclaim “Oh!”

“He’s just getting to know you.”

“Do all men think exploring the body is the best way to know a woman?” Her gaze flitted toward Vanya. Her lips twisted into a brief smile.

Vanya ran his hands through his hair, breaking clods of dirt apart between his fingers and scattering the dust like smoke as the wind whisked it away. He said nothing, but winked. He knew that sharing one’s body was much easier than sharing one’s soul, and he’d always preferred the path of least resistance.

Urugal Ash clung to Ipta more surely than the mud, giving her the appearance of a speckled egg. She stood, arms crossed, above Karva, who eyed the rest of them with distrust. “You must tell us what you know.”

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“No one’s saying you do.” Vanya held his hands up defensively.

Tyrant paused, beady eyes looking around the group. Izvari began to stroke him, but he leapt away from her touch and hid beneath Zeeg. She readjusted the draped collar of her dress. “Let her rest. We’re all tired”

“I have my vows. I have a mission,” Ipta answered solemnly.

“I mean, we kind of saved you a little, don’t you think?” Vanya suggested.

“She’s been through enough,” Izvari said, sitting down beside Karva. “If she has anything to tell you, she will.” She laid a hand on Karva’s shoulder and leaned close, whispering. Karva tilted her head toward Izvari and then the two smiled. Karva even laughed.

Undoubtedly discussing me, Vanya thought. Comparing notes? He looked to Zeeg and Ipta. They both shook their heads at him. What did they understand that he didn’t? No matter how many women he met, he seemed to learn nothing from them. Maybe the brevity and passion of those meetings was questionable, he considered, but then again it was a little late to try bending that tree.

“Listen,” he said, unable to stand it any longer. “I have a mission too. Sudhamra will pay, mostly for making me look like a fool, but, you know, also honor or whatever—but mostly the fooling me.”

“You should be thankful this woman is in your company,” Karva said, tilting her head toward Izvari. “It’s by her kindness and her words that I shall share what I know with you.”

Vanya perked up and shut his mouth.

“You see, to the north they’re amassing an army, Upper Empire troops by their looks and wanton attitude. You have to understand, I’ve been tracking them for some time now. I first saw their forces in the south, but this is massive, double their numbers to the south, easily.”

“What do they want?” Vanya asked.

Karva glanced at Izvari. “I can’t say.” She paused, then smiled wryly. “I pushed closer to get a better look and find out what they were after, but that’s how they caught me.”

“And then you were lucky enough to be rescued by us, remember?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, and to his surprise, Izvari did the same.

“Come on, Vanya.” Ipta rolled her eyes. “Let it go.”

He heard some comment along the lines of “birdbrain” passing between Izvari and Karva. He looked again to his companions for some sort of aid, but Ipta and Zeeg both seemed to have moved on, and were starting a fire. The nearby brush was far too damp to usable.

“Caw, caw!” He flapped his arms. “See? I’d never pass as a bird. Now your neck, on the other hand, has always reminded me of—”

“He’d be an ignorant bird,” Ipta said over her shoulder.

“He is.” Giving up on the fire, Zeeg smiled, rubbing Tyrant behind the ears. He thrust his furry little head into Zeeg’s hand with what could only be described as absolute pleasure.

Vanya waved them all away and stalked off. “You’ll thank me someday.”

He couldn’t say when the gully had flooded, but it must’ve been after they left with the prisoners. The trickle had grown exponentially in the night as the rainwaters gathered from over the plains, following the dip into the ravine. The banks of the gully had eroded and spilled into the river that had formed anew.

Downstream, in the crook of the river, the glint of something bobbing in the water caught Vanya’s eye. He followed the shore, heading toward the glimmer. There in the water a spyglass floated, caught in a tangle of roots protruding from the eroded soil. Kneeling down, he fished it out and dried it off on his pant leg.

He held it to his eye, looking back toward their camp. Izvari laid a hand on Karva, examining her wounds. He could see the concentration in her face as her entire body tensed, and mana leapt from her fingers into a lace-like pattern over the wound. First Karva’s mouth opened in surprise as if a bucket of river water had been dumped over her head, then she leapt up. Laughing, she hugged Izvari, then pressed her hands against her stomach and her back in disbelief. There was magic in that exchange too, though it couldn’t be plainly seen, not even through the glass.

He lowered the spyglass, resting it against his knee, and realized he’d smudged the brass. He dipped it in the water again, to rinse it, but stopped mid-dunk. Instead, he thrust it into the loose soil, coating it in mud, and infused that mud with mana, binding it to the spyglass as tightly as ash on an Urugal.

Maybe he’d been wrong, and there could be some benefit to seeing farther than humanly possible if he could be a little sneakier about it. He tore a strip of fabric from his sleeve and tied the spyglass to his belt. Try to spot me now, he thought.

When he returned to the camp, they made light conversation over breakfast. Nikara had the foresight to scrounge up some supplies before they departed the Durani camp. He had to admit, the Urugal had good taste in spoils. It was a relief to eat some honest meat that morning, not the leathery rations they’d been living on for weeks.

The taste soured in Vanya’s mouth as the wind picked up, carrying with it the smell of ash and fire. He sniffed the air once, then again, rising to his feet. Lifting his new spyglass, he scanned the field. Smoke rose on the horizon to the north, above the treetops. This wasn’t the work of giant heads in the night. This was something much worse, the sort of destruction only men contemplated. He felt an upswelling of vomit and pain rushing in his throat, but he swallowed it down.

“What is it?” Izvari asked.

“It’s time to go home,” he said. “We need to gather the Untamed.”

“You of all people should know the Wildwood won’t accept us.” Zeeg’s brow furrowed in confusion. Tyrant crawled up his chest and made a shrill cry. “Oh,” the hulking Zikia said. Tyrant scurried back down, all twelve legs working with blinding speed. He burrowed out of sight, hiding in the billowing folds of Zeeg’s loose-fitting shirt. Zeeg rose and inhaled deeply. With the wind came came clarity, and his eyes widened. Karva also stood, eyes to the horizon, and placed a hand on Vanya’s shoulder in wordless recognition.

Ipta nodded her head in silent assent, catching on quickly. The others soon understood as well.

“If we wait any longer, there may be no Wildwood.” Vanya traded the spyglass for his blade. “I should have listened. It’s been calling this whole time.”

The wind rushed all around him, blowing from the north. It whipped the cookfire out and threatened to carry away their tents, which shivered as if gripped with fever. Though the eyes of the stone faces remained fixed upward, their mouths closed, in that moment, Vanya swore he heard them howl. His voice would join theirs soon.

Illustration: Joel DuQue