If she were going to kill us, she could have done it already – and easily at that. She might not have killed me so swiftly, as an ape magus is of unknown social standing to her. Yet she would not have hesitated, had she known I am exiled: an exile and a lone wandering goblin are unlikely to be missed. Yet there is the goblin again – whether her aims were malicious or merely mischievous, she’d be best-served eliminating us as soon as possible. I cannot guess at why she might not do so, except that she is telling the truth when she says she aims for redemption.
In any event, she has not yet killed us, and I need sleep to be alert as I am able. We are headed South into the crescent of the blighted desert, and unlikely to run into anyone overnight. Tomorrow we turn Eastward, and by nightfall we shall be upon the scrub plain, making either for the Southern jungle or the central plains. From there, we are much more likely to be in either ape or goblin territory – and if not, we shall enter the gods-forsaken warzone between. Whatever the glyphed knight’s aims, the danger shall only increase down the road, and I shall need rest upon our journey together.
“Our” journey. So it is. Whatever she’s up to, I had better keep an eye on her. If her aims are noble, I must aid her; if her aims are foul, I must – what? Stop her? I could no more stop the world from turning. Unless I could persuade her, somehow. Or at least warn others of her coming – and if so, I must know where she is coming from, and would be better served knowing whatever it was that tipped the scales toward disaster. No, it’s settled: my place is here.
And so I must sleep.
“Will you walk on through the night, then,” Cooper asks, turning his head up to the silent soldier.
“I shall,” she says with a nod.
“I can tell my carpet to follow you while I sleep. Will that be all right?”
“Thank you,” he says, after a pause.
She walks on. Cooper lays back on his carpet, legs still crossed, the young goblin curled up at his knees. He falls asleep under the sparkling stars.
She dreams of many things: of her home in Santuji; of flying upon her bird dog, Karrai; of her brothers and sisters.
She also dreams of gods.
Sappa, who is the land, rises before her in her mind’s eye. His feet crush even the tallest of trees as if they were no more than dry leaves underfoot. Upon his shoulders are the mountains, and upon his back is all Eversummer. His head bears a crown of glaciers over the sheer stone of his face, and the sandy coasts spray the ocean from his sides. Yes, this titan could have wrestled Sagacia to the Earth, even though it flew among the clouds.
Yet he was not enough, and so he had called more.
Wind, water, the Moon, and storms – all these heard his call.
Kukulcan, the wind serpent, winds about the shoulders of Sappa: it flows like a gentle breeze, but strikes like a merciless hurricane. Its many feathered wings seem not to beat but swim through the air along its undulating body. Its voice speaks sometimes in soft whispers through the trees, and at other times in howling gales; it is able to blow ships across the oceans, or pass through the leaves as soft as a newborn’s tufted tail.
And Doonongaes, the winding river – she had seen this one, too. Many rivers forked through the Southern jungles; Santuji itself was built in the tangled branches over the forking Ta’Dillata. The Ta’Dillata itself split and split again, like the antlers of the stag himself; both may run and crash like a wild river, or lay deep and still as a sunken stone. A bit out of his element over the Northern Tundra, but nevertheless charging with all the force of the rivers behind him. Although, Hackard thinks, even the rivers flow ultimately from the mountains, so perhaps Doonongaes was all the stronger near his source.
Podaga, father of storms, had also answered the call. This god too the young goblin had seen for herself: he is formed of clouds and crowned with sunlight, he speaks in rain and there is lightning in his eyes. He is rarely subtle, though sometimes gentle; his wrath is fierce and primal. When all the spirits of the trees and the grass and the very stones were accounted for, the world had more to fear from the wrath of Podaga than from a god with so paltry a purview as blood – for most things do not bleed, but storms threaten all upon the Earth.
Ixchel, though – she was a surprise. Had even the Moon’s daughter decided to strike down the very humanity she had created in the first place? Hackard wondered what she must have been thinking, staring down from the sky with the stars in her eyes and the night in her heart. How many times must she have turned her face away, ashamed and repelled, until she decided to walk right into Sagacia and pluck Deathsong’s heart from her breast? Did the bones hung about the Moon’s daughter rattle as she went about her task? Or did she move as slow, sure, and unstoppable as the Moon herself?
No goblin could ever betray Druma’s purpose – even the villains in goblin legends loved Druma, and would either be returned to the path on betraying the old tree, or would be destroyed by the constant harassment from all spirits everywhere. The apes, for their part, could never betray Demeter as the sky elves had betrayed Ixchel – how does one anger a goddess of grass? Did Falconheart forget the divine progenitor of her own society? She who looked down upon them, even as they looked down upon the whole Earth?
Apparently, she had.
And while the glyphed knight might hold off a mortal army by herself if the legends were true, not even the Kara’Tamisra could stand against these five – though the Hidden Hand had been enough to slay Rakta’M, what force could stand against a handful of gods? Hackard had heard them speak, and could never dare to raise arms against them.
How had the Kara’Tamisra fared? Did they fight to the last? Or did they die fleeing and scattered as the Wretched Queen’s soul fell into the Howling Void?
The soldier walks on through the night. The ape and the goblin sleep on the flying carpet behind her. Her talons sink into the sand with every step, and she does not count the dunes she leaves behind; instead, she watches the stars above, and walks South, due South.
She feels the glyph crystal of frostfire, tugging at her from afar. She has felt it since she awoke at the bottom of Lake Mountainsroot. Like the crystal she was sent to retrieve, it pulls at her like a ray of moonlight through the clouds, cold and strong. But the glyph crystal of lifeblood is another story: it seems to tug at her in a pulsing, diffuse rhythm. She hadn’t felt this while Rakta’M tore a ragged gash across Eversummer; she had felt its rallying light as –
Well, it had been different back then.
The soldier walks South, due South. She puts thoughts of the past behind her, and thinks of the journey ahead. She must destroy the glyph crystals, that much is certain, yet she had planned on traveling alone. Planned. Right.
A thought had occurred to her, all those centuries ago: What next? She had flown from Sagacia even as Sappa pulled it down from the sky – she had stared Ixchel in the eyes as the Moon’s daughter stepped down from the clouds. Sagacia was falling, and maybe the Kara’Tamisra were as immortal as they seemed. But what next? Would the Queen raise the rubble into the sky?
No, Sagacia would never fly again. And then, suppose the Queen should complete her genocidal campaign? What next? Why, they would have shown even the gods that the sky elves would not disappear without a fight, that was certain as damned. But Sagacia would never fly again.
And even had they built their flying city anew, what next? Who would populate it? The Queen had sacrificed her only child to the very god she ended up slaying and enslaving; every other sky elf who had ever lived was now dead. Would Falconheart have lived out her days in peace, knowing that she had proven her vengeance to the heavens?
No, this was not the answer. And with that thought, she had fallen out of the sky. It was as though her whole purpose had flashed before her eyes, and she thought she had died again, yet she didn’t quite. And she thought about what might come after that.
When she woke up, her head was a mess. There was a nightmarish blur and then she was alert once more. But two things were clear: she was free of her Queen, and she was at her full strength. So she decided to destroy the glyph crystals and then… what next?
Well, maybe she could live out her days in peace, knowing she had finally found freedom? Hardly. She was not flesh and bone, but blood and stone – in truth, she wasn’t quite sure what it would take for her to die. The glyphs bound her into something rather like life indeed, but as the ape pointed out with unexpected understanding, it was not a mortal soul. Yet she would die at some point, that much was sure. What to do until then?
That was quite a ways off, though; for now, she would focus on destroying the crystals. There was no sense in counting eggs, as the saying went.
So enough of what’s next. What now?
This goblin. She tells me it’s been eight hundred years, and offers me a bag of gold. How do I know what gold coins are worth after eight hundred trips around a star? But it’s useful at any rate, and maybe I can – what? Make up for bygones?
And this ape. A man of great learning, but dodging his own scholars. He will be an asset in avoiding as much attention as possible. Still, if he seeks to avoid his council, why stick with me if they’re coming this way?
No matter. It’s not like they’ll be getting in my way, and even if they do, they seem worth the trouble for now.
In the morning, Hackard and Cooper rise with the Sun. The magus consults a map and book from the simple leather satchel slung over his shoulder, calculating their position as the goblin stretches her legs upon the sand.
“If we turn East a bit before noon,” he says, “That should put us on a good heading.”
The soldier nods and says, “If you say so.”
They otherwise pass the morning in silence. The ape and goblin eat sparingly from rations in their packs, drink frequently from their canteens, sometimes resting on the carpet’s back and other times walking in its shade. After some hours, the scrub plain can be seen in the East from atop the taller dunes. And when the Sun is nearing the apex of its daily race across the sky, the three turn East and leave it behind them in the desert.
“Tell me, Cooper,” Birdstrike asks, “How are you with magic?” She had been thinking that the danger of her situation hinged powerfully around the apes’ magical proficiency. She couldn’t very well ask him to his face for a tactical assessment of his species’ military prowess – or could she?
Cooper asks, “What do you mean?”
“Suppose there is a conflict with your council of magi. I don’t think the possibility’s to be ruled out. What can I count on you for? What might we expect from them, for that matter?”
“Ah, I see. Well,” he trails off, stroking his goatee. “I’m –” he stops short again, wiggles his hand in the air. Then he pauses, shakes his head. “You see, the Council,” he begins –
“It’s like this,” the magus says after a few moments of silence. “You’re looking for, like, a tactical assessment or something, right?” The soldier stares blankly at him as she walks. “Except that I don’t know how to do that, because I don’t know what sorts of magical concepts you’re familiar with. I don’t know anything about hieromancy, and I’m betting you don’t know much about modern magistry, and so I don’t think we can really translate between them without a frame of reference.” Birdstrike nods.
“So,” she says, looking around. “If you’re not familiar with my concepts, then familiarize me with yours.”
He looks sideways at the glyphed knight. “You know,” he says, “I have no idea what it was like in Sagacia, but where I come from, magical knowledge is a precious commodity. You don’t just – just – tell someone how to do it. There are classes, and exams, and registration, and security – it takes years.”
“Huh,” the soldier says. “Well, I should think I would be more help to you, knowing the council’s capabilities and your own. And as it happens, I have money from our goblin friend.” She pats the coin purse upon her belt.
“Even if that purse is filled with gold – you could live a comfortable commoner’s life for a month on that, but you could just as easily spend it in a day among the high court. That wouldn’t cover Magisterium tuition for a week, and the money isn’t the point anyway.” He rubs his fingers over the stubble emerging from the top of his head. Maybe he could angle some knowledge out of this conversation. “If you tell me what you know about hieromancy, I could try to explain how modern magistry is different, and then I could explain the extent of our arcane art and compare your strength to the Council’s and my own.”
“As I’ve said, I know no more of hieromancy –”
“Than any commoner might, I know. So: tell me what any commoner might have to tell about hieromancy, and we’ll go from there.” He looks at her expectantly. She looks at the goblin, who fails to stifle an impish grin. Well, then. There was no avoiding it now, she supposed.
“We would be taught in class, just as you,” Birdstrike begins. “Hieromancy is just that: hieroglyphics, put to arcane purpose. It is no different from our writing – it is our writing. And while I can speak easily enough, and read lay texts, this barely qualifies me as literate by Sagacia’s standards. I was born to the hawk’s song, though; I learned to read and write in childhood, but my formal training was all in tending to our raptors.”
“So,” Cooper says, “Your glyphs…”
“They’re just words,” Birdstrike says, tossing a dismissive hand into the air. “But the writing of them, when the spell is cast, that is where the art of it is.” She stares off for a moment before continuing. “Minor spells might be cast in long phrases, but this is clumsy; it is how children learn. The true art is to cast with a single glyph, or to reinforce them in a circuit. And in this, I hardly qualify as a novice. I can operate the glyphed stones at my hands and heart, but can only inscribe one at a time with anything like clarity; I could never have written as Deathsong wrote when she made us.”
“I see,” Cooper says, nodding. “That is an interesting technique. Our art, as you put it, is what we call ‘hexis.’ We must hold the thought in our minds, and focus to maintain it. Novices can create a hexis briefly, for a transient effect. But with practice and training, the novice grows in skill and power: after one hexis can be held for a time, we learn to hold one while creating another, and eventually to hold two and create a third, and so on.”
Handy, Birdstrike thinks, But taxing. A hieroglyph could be written down once, and then called on whenever needed. Although working one’s will directly upon the world would perhaps be more versatile than hauling a spellbook around.
“Go on,” the soldier urges the magus.
“Well, each hexis we hold in mind must be maintained at the cost of our soul’s strength – we divert the flow of ether through ourselves, and redirect it to manifest an effect upon the world. We can only do that so much, but the ether flows through all things as a cup ever-filling: the vessel never fully empties, but there is only so much available at any given moment. With practice, even this may be improved, but the fact remains that there is always some practical limit at which one can spread neither the focus nor the flow any thinner.
“I may hold three or four hexes at a time, if I am alert and healthy; a senior student at University might hold half a dozen or so. The magi of the Council, perhaps a dozen – though typically those who graduate University go on to focus their advanced studies on interweaving hexes rather than simply piling them up, which takes an entirely different sort of concentration altogether.”
And that’s why you should have been writing it down, Birdstrike thinks. But again, the ability to do it all on the fly with no tools seemed a tempting trade-off.
“I see,” she says. “And what of your subtle arts, the magic for spying and for subverting another’s spells?”
“Those are, umm,” the magus stammers. “They’re restricted to those with the King’s sanction. You see, they involve spying and subversion, so the art is illegal for common folk and even most of the court to practice.”
“What do you know of such arts,” the soldier asks frankly.
“I don’t think you understand,” the magus says. “Even if I did know of them, their very discussion with foreigners is a crime against the Crown.”
“And here you are,” Birdstrike says, “Avoiding your council – does one perhaps know too much?”
“Huh?” He looks at her with what just might be genuine confusion. “Oh, no. The Council isn’t after me for anything. I just don’t think your plans to destroy the glyphed crystals will go very well if the Council’s allowed to get their meddling hands on you. They might be cross with me for helping you avoid them, but that’s assuming they even find out – which, again, I think we both have an interest in preventing.”
He was an exile, not a fugitive. Nevertheless, if the Council knew of his last days’ deeds, he might not be able to talk his way out of some serious consequences.
“And what skills,” the soldier asks, “Might you employ to see that it is prevented?”
“Umm, I’m no spy, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Can you scrye?” She looks him in the eye – he narrows his eyes and raises his hands as though weighing his words.
“There are scrying spells.”
“Can you ward against them? Or counter-scrye?”
“I can’t. I’m able to recognize that sort of disturbance in the ether, but I couldn’t do anything about it except try not to act suspicious.”
“I see,” Birdstrike says with a nod. “Can you scrye the Council?”
“There is no way they are not protecting against that.”
“What can their protection do?”
“Oh,” he says with a wave of his hand, “They could see us, probably fix our position, and maybe even give me some wicked psychic feedback. It’s out of the question.”
“All right,” the soldier says. After a moment’s consideration, she asks, “And what if they come out of the sky at us, hands blazing?”
Cooper says slowly, “I have seen a magus call down lighting upon a target at three hundred yards. Of course, using magic to harm humans will earn you an execution – unless it’s an act of war in service to the Crown.” He looks at his companions. “Your very existence will be seen as an act of war,” he says to the soldier. “My association with you is treason at the least, and the goblin will certainly be classified as an enemy for the same reason.”
“And you, blackstone magus,” he asks after some moments of silence. “What can we expect from you in a fight?”
“I have laid low a god, and been at one with the minds of ten thousand warriors across battles beyond counting.”
“Well,” the magus says, “I’d say that makes for a fair bit of experience. And you, goblin – what are your qualifications for this adventure?”
Hackard thinks for a moment before breaking her silence.
“I am helping the last sky elf to destroy the vestiges of Deathsong’s power and bring peace to the land.”
“Very good,” he says after a moment’s consideration.
They have left the desert far behind them, and are well into the scrub plains. Few live out here of their own choosing, and even fewer for very long. There is game, but also predators, and crops do not take well to the land.
Another night passes, the soldier walking ever on. They talk of small things in the evening, to relieve themselves of discussing weighty matters. But always the glyphed knight feels the distant pull of frostfire – and the nearing pulse of lifeblood.
In the pre-dawn gloom, the soldier sees a road ahead, at the limits of her vision. As she draws closer, the carpet in tow, she senses a human life ahead – ape, male, and fearful. No, not fear – wariness. Before she can spot him among the scrub, he is suddenly alert.
“Hey,” Birdstrike says, jostling the magus’ shoulder. Cooper awakens, yawns. “Company.”
His eyes open wide as if sprung. He scans the sky.
“Ahead, near the road,” the soldier says. “One ape. I think he’s spotted us.”
“How far,” the magus asks.
“A few hundred yards.”
He nods; too far for him to read an aura. He could scrye the road – if they were spotted anyway, then the chance to get a look at their observer justified the risk of counter-magic. Even in failure, it would provide some of the very information they sought to gain.
Cooper focuses his mind and wills an ethereal window into being over the road. In his mind’s eye, he sees the loose flagstones, worn smooth with travel. He turns the window this way and that, and spots a crouching figure among a stand of brush, his back to him. Cooper moves the window closer, and sees no more than the normal amount of ether flowing through his quarry’s aura.
The ape is dressed in shabby clothes and carries a small pack. A peasant? Then he spots the spyglass at his eye.
Cooper closes the window and says, “I think we’ve got a scout. He’s dressed like a peasant, but he carries a fine spyglass. I can overtake him on my carpet, but I don’t know what sort of weapons he carries.”
“No,” Birdstrike says as Hackard wakes up. “You said yourself that I might be mistaken for one of your Blackened Guard. He is curious – and fleeing. Not in fear. He likely thinks he’s got some new treason to report – and that is all.”
Cooper considers this. If the truth of the matter were discovered, that would be bad. But a red herring could work to their advantage. One of the Blackened Guard, traveling with a rogue magus and a goblin, as he would see it. With no scheduled rendezvous, it would appear strange, and the scout would either report it right away or continue with his own mission – in either case, he would do nothing to jeopardize his ability to report back, and that made them safe. They would have moved on, and could press whatever advantage they were left with before being ultimately discovered.Somehow, Cooper was certain that they would eventually be found out – as certain as he was that the Sun would rise tomorrow.