Authors: Ken Scholes
An hour later, he lay in a pile of ferns in the shade, licking dried juice from his fingers, his stomach full and his eyes heavy. The kin-raven had sped off again, and Vlad suspected the bird kept vigil, flying up and down the coast, even as this unexpected place gave him shelter from the heat of the day. He smiled at the thought and felt his body relax. This, he realized, was the most at ease he’d felt in a good many months.
And cared for.
He didn’t understand how, but he thought he grasped who. Some part of her, he suspected, lived within the staff he had carefully tucked beneath him. And she would not send him here and let harm befall him.
Somehow, Vlad trusted that and let sleep take him someplace cool and far away.
When he awoke, he found himself sprawled in the sand, clutching the staff, the heavy weight of the kin-raven pressing down upon his chest. The sun was down, and his body felt strong, rested, and ready once more to walk.
“Be gone,” he told the kin-raven.
It hopped from him to a rock. “Be gone.”
Vlad chuckled and sat up. When the moon rose, he watched, stretching the staff out toward it and feeling the silver pulse in his hands. The moon was particularly clear this night, and he could see the slightest white scar upon its surface that marked the Moon Wizard’s Tower.
“Be gone,” the kin-raven said again as it took to the night sky, moving eastward up the beach.
Vlad Li Tam inclined his head in the direction of the tower, though he was not sure why he did so. Then, he turned and followed his dark companion along the cooling beach.
A warm wind rose up from the jungle below, and Neb heard the whispered name it carried even as it pulled at his hair.
He heard Amylé gasp beside him and looked over his shoulder. The voice was familiar but out of reach, and it evoked a mixture of emotion. Anger, sorrow and relief all wrestled for primacy, and the girl’s eyes widened.
She sees it on my face,
“Neb.” This time, the voice was stronger, closer. He closed his eyes and stretched toward it by instinct, leaning into the dream with his mind. What had the Blood Guard who’d captured and cut him called it?
Casting in the aether.
“Father?” Three faces flashed across his mind, and he finally registered which one spoke to him now. Petronus.
The old man had been at the ship, holding off the Y’Zirite soldiers as the metal men prepared for departure. And he’d heard the other voice—Whym’s voice—speaking to Petronus, though he couldn’t pick out the words. And now, the former pope called to him.
He saw the old man stretched out upon his bedroll, eyes rolled back in his head, fist clenched and held tight against his chest.
“Father?” He tried to project the word, but the rising wind pulled it away from him.
There were hands upon his shoulders now, pulling him back. Even as they did, he felt something cold and dark moving between him and the old man, impenetrable as a wall. “No,” Amylé D’Anjite cried out as he staggered in her grip. “You can’t let her find you,” she said.
Petronus was gone now and so was the wall. All that remained was the girl limned in the light of planet, bright with life, that hung above them. “Who is she?”
The young woman shook her head. “Do not go to her when she calls for you, Nebios Whym. Do not heed her lies.” She backed away from him. He could feel the fear pulsing from her. “I have to go. You should go, too.”
He stepped toward her. “But why—?”
A lone howl lifted from the jungle below, and the wind rose with it. Even as he turned in the direction of it, another joined in. And then another.
“Because the hounds have your scent,” she said. “Fly away home and tell my father to come for me soon.” She moved quickly, her long legs stretching out into a sprint. He tracked her course and released his held breath as her intentions became clear. He called after her as she raced up the slope of grass and spread her arms wide. But she did not stop and did not heed his call. When she leaped, it was high and arching, graceful as a swimmer’s dive that carried her over the railing.
Neb turned to face the howling, feeling the robe around him constricting, conforming itself to his body in a protective sheath.
The hounds have my scent.
Even as he thought it, their howls ceased and the wind dropped. He glanced over his shoulder to where Amylé had jumped. Something told him that were he to do the same, no harm would come to him. Not in this place. He turned back in the direction of the hounds. But that same instinct told him that it wasn’t true of the hounds.
He heard them before he saw them, the sounds of their claws grinding on stone as they dug into the wall of the tower. When their long, dark faces rose over the balustrade, Neb stepped back. There were five of them, and they were easily the size of kin-wolves—maybe larger. But these were sleek and black, rippling with a liquid flow that was neither fur nor skin nor scale. The largest stepped forward, tearing chunks of sod as it moved.
A new voice fell into his head even as he felt the cold presence he’d sensed earlier.
harm you. They were bred to hunt our kind.
“Abomination,” the first hound hissed. “You should not have returned. The time of your kind has passed.”
Even as it gathered itself up to pounce, Neb closed his eyes and poured his attention away from the tower and the hounds. He focused it upon the sole sensation of sharp stone in a soft fist somewhere far away where his body lay and forced himself to open a hand that he’d clenched tightly since they’d pulled him from the quicksilver and loaded him into the ship.
The vertigo that seized him was staggering, and even as he started to fall backward, he felt the dual sensation of bolting upright from his bedroll on the hard ground.
Neb blinked. Around him, men and mechoservitors bustled, strapping what they could to the metal men and shoving the rest into overflowing backpacks.
In the distance, he heard the baying of the hounds.
He tried to stand, and his legs gave out as a weariness washed over him.
“He’s awake,” he heard someone say.
A familiar face appeared over his own. Worry showed in Petronus’s eyes and jaw. “How are you?”
“I’m … weak.” His limbs were heavy, and he could hear the slur in his speech.
“We’ll carry you,” the old man said. He wrapped the kin-raven in a scrap of cloth and tucked it into Neb’s shirt. “You’ll also want this, I’m sure.”
Neb heard the song even as Petronus passed the pouch to him. He felt the urge to open it, to hold the silver crescent within to his ear and be soothed by the dream it held. But the dream had become a nightmare, it seemed.
Metal hands swept beneath him, and Neb was lifted into the air and swung around over a metal shoulder. Another mechoservitor bound him in place with a cargo strap.
Petronus was moving among the gathered men, and another man barked orders. He was perhaps as old as the former Pope and wearing tattered Androfrancine digging dungarees and a loose-fitting silk shirt that had seen better days. There was a long cutlass tucked into the sash wrapped around his waist.
As they lined up, Petronus made his way back to Neb’s side. He leaned in, his voice low. “They’re waiting for you to tell them what to do,” he said, nodding to the other metal men. “We are, too.”
Neb swallowed. Behind him, he could hear the howling grow closer, though it was still far off. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice a whisper. He felt the muscles spasm in his feet and legs.
Petronus’s voice lowered even further. “That is not an option now,” he said. “If you don’t know, then guess and convince us you know.”
Neb closed his eyes. “We flee along the coastline,” he said. “Away from the howling.”
The old man nodded. “Then say so.”
Neb raised his voice. “We’ll follow the coastline.”
Petronus offered a tight, grim smile and nodded. “Good,” he said. “For now.” As they started to shuffle forward, he kept pace beside Neb, opening a canteen and holding it to Neb’s mouth for him to drink. “But we’re going to need to hide somewhere and rest at some point.”
The water was warm and metallic in his mouth. Neb swished it around his teeth before swallowing it, and felt his stomach gurgle both protest and a desire for more. He took another drink and glanced in the direction of the howls. “We have to stay ahead of them.”
A cloud passed over Petronus’s face, and Neb read in it that he had more to say that he struggled with. Finally, the old man looked away. “I think I woke them in the aether,” he said. “They’re called the Hounds of Shadrus.”
The Marshfolk—now returned to their older name of Machtvolk—referred to themselves as the House of Shadrus. But all Neb knew of that mythic figure was that he’d brought his people, then the servants of House Y’Zir, down the Moon Wizard’s ladder with Raj Y’Zir and his silver army over four millennia ago. Something Petronus said suddenly registered, and he wished he had a hand free to pat the man’s shoulder. “They don’t hunt you, Father,” he said. “They hunt
She told me they had my scent.”
He heard Petronus’s intake of breath and saw the furrowing of his brow. “She?”
Neb nodded. “A girl in the aether. We…” Already, the memory of it tried to fade as he put more distance between himself and the dream. “We were on the tower, watching the world rise.” He hesitated, uncertain if he should say more. “Only it was whole,” he said. “Blue and green and … beautiful.”
Petronus’s brow furrowed even more. “I was on the tower, too,” he said. “There was a storm and an old woman. But the world was as it is now.” He paused. “She blamed me for it. And for waking the hounds.”
The old man’s eyes told him there was more that he wasn’t saying, but the exhaustion that rode Neb grew heavier. His eyelids were weighed down, and his mouth slow to find words.
Questions for another time,
“Try to rest. We’re going to need you.” He felt Petronus’s strong hand squeeze his shoulder once, and then the old man shuffled off ahead.
Sleep pulled at him, its argument strengthened by the rhythmic back and forth of the mechoservitor’s shoulders as the metal man strode along the sand. Neb resisted, forcing his eyes open for as long as he could. Behind him, he heard the baying of the hounds. Around him, he heard the whisper of waves and the constant chatter of the lunar jungle.
He glanced to his left, looking out across a twilight sea that grew darker as a brown and dying world slowly sank into its horizon. He’d seen it in his dreams over the last two years, certainly, but that had not prepared him for the weight that fell on him now as he saw it descending.
I may never return.
The thought expanded, and the full realization of it made his mouth dry.
None of us may. Because they followed me here.
Try as he might, Neb could not push the foreboding away, and when sleep took him, the howling followed him into that restless, dreamless place.
Jin Li Tam
Jakob laughed and clapped his hands before the rocking of the room tumbled him to the deck, and Jin Li Tam willed herself to laugh as well, applauding his tentative steps alongside a flushed Lynnae.
“Learning to walk at sea is hard work,” the younger woman said.
Jin nodded, feeling pride grow in her as she watched the little boy grab hold of a nearby chair and pull himself back up, his face fierce with a determination she’d seen a hundred times.
He is his father’s son.
The realization brought a reminder, and she swallowed against the lump in her throat, forcing herself to speak instead. “You can do this, Jakob.”
He smiled at the mention of his name. Then, biting his lip, he let go with one hand and then the other, tottering as he found his balance.
But the knock on the door startled him and he sat heavily, his mouth twisting into a frown that signaled tears. As Lynnae moved across the room to scoop him up, Jin went to the door and opened it. “Yes?”
Eliz Xhum stood with a woman she had not seen on the ship during her time aboard. She was tall, her hair the color of iron, straight and long. Her dark robe was tied off by a silver chain, and Jin could see the Y’Zirite runes in the white lattice of scars that covered the woman’s face and hands. Jin found herself staring at the woman until the regent spoke.
“Good afternoon, Great Mother,” Eliz said with a wide smile. He craned his head to scan the room for Jakob. “How are you and our Child of Promise today?”
Jin inclined her head. “We’re well, thank you.”
Eliz Xhum nodded. “Good. I’m glad to hear that.”
The woman said something to him in Y’Zirite, and Eliz chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “She does indeed.” He looked back to Jin. “She says you have your grandfather’s eyes.”
She flinched at the words, losing her composure and feeling the heat rising to her cheeks. She took a breath and chose the best path she could. “I’m sorry? She knew my grandfather?”
The woman nodded, inclining her head as she spoke. “I did, Mother. He would have been so proud to see all of his hard work bear fruit in you and your son.”
Jin Li Tam had no words. Instead, she continued to stare until the regent spoke again.
“This is Mother Elsbet,” Eliz Xhum said. “She is the Chief Mother of the Daughters of Ahm Y’Zir—a position of great honor among our people. She came aboard this morning to begin her work with you.”
Her work with me?
Jin Li Tam once more had to work to keep her face calm as the woman extended a scarred hand to her. “What work is this?” Jin asked as she took the hand and held it briefly before releasing it.
Eliz shrugged. “Primarily language and eschatology. But she can also assist you in Y’Zirite history and custom.”
Jin opened her mouth, but the woman, Elsbet, spoke first. “I personally requested this assignment, and the regent was gracious enough to permit it.” She bowed her head toward the man, who returned the gesture. “I couldn’t bear to send someone else. I’ve waited so long to meet you, Great Mother.”