‘We contemplate a journey from this realm,’ said Onrack.
Udinaas glanced at Ulshun Pral. ‘Do you agree?’
The warrior freed one hand to a flurry of fluid gestures.
Udinaas grunted. Before the spoken word, before song, there was this. But the hand speaks in broken tongue. The cipher here belongs to his posture – a nomad’s squat. No one fears walking, or the unfolding of a new world. Errant take me, this innocence stabs the heart. ‘You won’t like what you will find. Not the fiercest beast of this world stands a chance against my kind.’ He glared at Onrack. ‘What do you think that Ritual was all about? The one that stole death from your people?’
‘Hurtful as his words are,’ growled Kilava, ‘Udinaas speaks the truth.’ She faced the Azath once more. ‘We can defend this gate. We can stop them.’
‘And die,’ snapped Udinaas.
‘No,’ she retorted, wheeling to face him. ‘You will lead my children from here, Udinaas. Into your world. I will remain.’
‘I thought you said “we”, Kilava.’
‘Summon your son.’
Her eyes flared.
‘Find someone else to join you in your last battle.’
‘I will stand with her,’ said Onrack.
‘You will not,’ hissed Kilava. ‘You are mortal—’
‘And you are not, my love?’
‘I am a Bonecaster. I bore a First Hero who became a god.’ Her face twisted but there was anguish in her eyes. ‘Husband, I shall indeed summon allies to this battle. But you, you must go with our son, and with Udinaas.’ She pointed a taloned finger at the Letherii. ‘Lead them into your world. Find a place for them—’
‘A place? Kilava, they are as the beasts of my world – there are no places left!’
‘You must find one.’
Do you hear this, Fear Sengar? I am not to be you after all. No, I am to be Hull Beddict, another doomed brother. ‘Follow me! Listen to all my promises! Die.’ ‘There is nowhere,’ he said, throat tight with grief, ‘In all the world … nowhere. We leave nothing well enough alone. Not ever. The Imass can make claim to empty lands, yes, until someone casts upon it a covetous eye. And then they will begin killing you. Collecting hides and scalps. They will poison your food. Rape your daughters. All in the name of pacification, or resettlement, or whatever other euphemistic bhederin shit they choose to spit out. And the sooner you’re all dead the better, so they can forget you ever existed in the first place. Guilt is the first weed we pluck, to keep the garden pretty and smelling sweet. That is what we do, and you cannot stop us – you never could. No one can.’
Kilava’s expression was flat. ‘You can be stopped. You will be stopped.’
Udinaas shook his head.
‘Lead them into your world, Udinaas. Fight for them. I do not mean to fall here, and if you imagine I am not capable of protecting my children, then you do not know me.’
‘You condemn me, Kilava.’
‘Summon your son.’
‘Then you condemn yourself, Udinaas.’
‘Will you speak so coolly when my fate extends to your children as well?’
When it seemed that no answer was forthcoming, Udinaas sighed and, turning about, set off for the outside, for the cold and the snow, and the whiteness and the freezing of time itself. To his anguish, Onrack followed.
‘I’m sorry, Onrack, I can’t tell you anything helpful – nothing to ease your mind.’
‘Yet,’ rumbled the warrior, ‘you believe you have an answer.’
Errant’s nudge, it’s hopeless. Oh, watch me walk with such resolve. Lead you all, yes. Bold Hull Beddict has returned, to repeat his host of crimes one more time.
Still hunting for heroes, Fear Sengar? Best turn away, now.
‘You will lead us, Udinaas.’
‘So it seems.’
Beyond the cave mouth, the snow whipped down.
He had sought a way out. He had flung himself from the conflagration. But even the power of the Azath could not breach Akhrast Korvalain, and so he had been cast down, his mind shattered, the fragments drowning in a sea of alien blood. Would he recover? Calm did not know for certain, but she intended to take no chances. Besides, the latent power within him remained dangerous, a threat to all their plans. It could be used against them, and that was not acceptable. No, better to turn this weapon, to take it into my own hand and wield it against the enemies I know I must soon face. Or, if that need proves unnecessary, kill him.
Before either could ever happen, however, she would have to return here. And do what must be done. I would do it now, if not for the risk. Should he awaken, should he force my hand … no, too soon. We are not ready for that.
Calm stood over the body, studying him, the angular features, the tusks, the faint flush that hinted of fever. Then she spoke to her ancestors. ‘Take him. Bind him. Weave your sorcery – he must remain unconscious. The risk of his awakening is too great. I will return before too long. Take him. Bind him.’ The chains of bones slithered out like serpents, plunging into the hard ground, ensnaring the body’s limbs, round the neck, across the torso, stitching him spread-eagled to this hilltop.
She saw the bones trembling. ‘Yes, I understand. His power is too immense – that is why he must be kept unconscious. But there is something else I can do.’ She stepped closer and crouched. Her right hand darted out, the fingers stiff as blades, and stabbed a deep hole in the man’s side. She gasped and almost reeled back – was it too much? Had she awoken him?
Blood seeped down from the wound.
But Icarium did not move.
Calm released a long, unsteady breath. ‘Keep the blood trickling,’ she told her ancestors. ‘Feed on his power.’
Straightening, she lifted her gaze, studied the horizon on all sides. The old lands of the Elan. But they had done away with them, leaving nothing but the elliptical boulders that once held down the sides of tents, and the old blinds and runs from an even older time; of the great animals that once dwelt in this plain not even a single herd remained, domestic or wild. There was, she observed, admirable perfection in this new state of things. Without criminals, there can be no crime. Without crime, no victims. The wind moaned and none stood against it to give answer.
Perfect adjudication, it tasted of paradise.
Reborn. Paradise reborn. From this empty plain, the world. From this promise, the future.
She set out, leaving the hill behind, and with it the body of Icarium, bound to the earth in chains of bone. When she returned again to this place, she would be flush with triumph. Or in desperate need. If the latter, she would awaken him. If the former, she would grasp his head in her hands, and with a single, savage twist, break the abomination’s neck.
And no matter which decision awaited her, on that day her ancestors would sing with joy.
Crooked upon the mound of rubbish, the stronghold’s throne was burning in the courtyard below. Smoke, grey and black, rose in a column until it lifted past the ramparts, where the wind tore it apart, shreds drifting like banners high above the ravaged valley.
Half-naked children scampered across the battlements, their voices cutting sharp through the clatter and groan from the main gate, where the masons were repairing yesterday’s damage. A watch was turning over and the High Fist listened to commands snapping like flags behind him. He blinked sweat and grit from his eyes and leaned, with some caution, on the eroded merlon, his narrowed gaze scanning the well-ordered enemy camp spread out along the valley floor.