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Green smoke rising...
5 months ago
I’m sorry I was gone, but here I made you some content. This is the entirety of the current Gawn and Oskar storyline: watch as the two overcome trials of faith and friendship in this section of the book focusing on themes of conversion and race. (Please note some of the events here interact with other characters in the story, meaning if something doesn’t make sense it’s probably explained elsewhere).
Want to read the full story so far? Here’s the link:
Chapter X (Gawn):
It was the painful shock Gawn felt first, waking her from her slumber. She moved her hand downwards and felt the sheets come back sticky.
I’m bleeding from between my legs, Gawn thought groggily.
Bits of brown liquid bubbled. It was as if some briar bush had sprouted from her skin in the white soil of the sheets. Noticing she was not alone, Gawn pulled her nightgown over her body and watched as two women inspected her midriff.
“Such a shame she had to be born tyfling, this body could've born such healthy young”, The first spoke, her face concealed by a mask the same colour as her skin: “Suntar Corda, it is likely we will have to fill the goat’s gash with scorn-smoke soon. The storage system downstairs does not run dry, correct?”
Her associate nodded, “I shall prepare a batch while you speak, Superior Auberi”.
Suntar Corda stepped out of the room.
Superior Auberi shuffled around the bloody bed before sitting beside Gawn on the mattress.
“You know what this means, Gawn?” She asked, pulling her mask from her face.
“You are a grown woman now, you may not be a human like the other girls but you will still be expected to play your part in the service of the Lyrd.”
Gawn nodded, thinking of Superior Auberi’s hair as she spoke and began to twist her own locks in admiration. Beneath the barnette two horns, cleverly concealed, stuck from her skull.
Superior Auberi pulled Gawn’s hands from the pair of prongs hurriedly: “come, we must make preparations for the Kruk’s arrival. Wash these sheets in the stream and we can forget this horrid business.”
Removing the sheets, Gawn put on her mask and left the room. She walked humbly through the great hall of the Kruch, past the glass effigies of previous Kruks and the first follower, out of the building and into the town surrounding it. Those that saw her as she strode through the streets would snicker, their voices only just audible: “Grënkin spy..” ; “Goat fucker…” ; “Genocidal maniacs, all of them”.
Those that did not voice their complaints at her presence would do far worse. Humans, elves and stoutfolk alike all crossed the street as she passed, some spitting at her feet. A child slung a piece of slate. The stone shattered on the cobbles, fragments flying into three green puddles. Finally the road reached the river, the babbling of the brook filled her ears; the hamlet rested on a hill behind her. Gawn soaked the sheet in the river, smacking two stones together to beat the blood out of it.
A woman grown, yet I cannot conceive, she thought as the river carried the blood down-stream, what use am I? The lyrd demands we reproduce and yet I cannot perform the rebirth, my body is broken.
She pulled the sopping sheet from the water, and inspected it.
“The tyfling is a vile beast that brought down the first follower’s home”, she quoted, before her speech was interrupted by a shrill sound.
“You still talken ‘bout that shit?”, a boy barked, a pudgy smile growing: “thought we’d ‘greed ta not speak ‘bout scripture near the brook?”
"Oskar." Gawn smiled. "I thought you'd agreed not to creep up on me?”
Oskar fiddled with the bronze clasp he always wore, emblazoned with the shape of a goat, suddenly spying the sanguine sheets.
“What’s gone un? Were someone hurt?” He asked, his face crumpling into concern.
“No, nothing like that”, Gawn said, going red. “It’s my moon month.”
Oskar looked down and once again engrossed himself in his clasp, clacking it open and closed: “didn't know tyflings bled, they dunnat teach that.”
“All races do,” Gawn laughed: “except the Fungifolk, and Draugher of course.”
“Well anyway, speaking off crim… crimsarn… Red things'', Oskar said, trying to change the topic: “I've got passes to tha’ red harlequin performance what's coming with the Kruk an’ the skeleton leader: want to come?”
“You know the superiors would never allow it, there's no way”
“I've got a plan, jus’ be awake tonigh’ I'll come for you,” Oskar replied, his speech coated in confidence: “if you want to com’ o’course”
Gawn nodded, before Oskar pulled her into a hug. The boy had been a squire for several years: the smell of sweat and steel hung about him, his underarms clenched her shoulders and when she looked up into his large, human, eyes she noticed the pupils dilating.
“I bes’ be off before ol’ skelebones arrives, I want to look smar’ for the majesty”, Oskar said: “Me rider even says she’ll ‘llow me to carry a real sword in his presence, ‘stead of a ‘stilled iron one”.
They waved goodbye before Gawn returned to the town, carrying her bundle of cloth under one arm. She felt Oskar’s pupils pricking her back as she left: he had been the only person ever to show her any sort of sympathy and, while he was very dumb witted, it could not be denied he had a rugged attractiveness about him. She shook the thought from her head. Everybody knew what happened when a human and a tyfling performed the rebirth.
A monstrosity, Gawn thought as she stepped through the door of the Kruch. The interior of the holy place had been polished for the Kruk’s arrival, it's stone pillars glimmering: covered in a sparkling sheen. The benches, that faced towards where the first follower had descended from the sky, had been repainted; Gawn looked at the shining surfaces around her, blue eyes stared back. A rickety rocking chair, looking somewhat important, stood on a pedestal. Unlike almost everyone else in the village she was not excited for the arrival of the skeleton leader, the Kruk, nor the forces of frost: it was unlikely she would be able to see any of them, being a traitorous tyfling. A group of brothers shifted slowly around the inside of the Kruch whispering prayers to the Lyrd. One of the men stood up and approached Gawn.
“Goat,” he spat. “The superior has commanded that you are relegated to the spire for the arrival of the shepherd’s mouthpiece. Come with me.”
They ascended the spiral steps to the top of the tower. A a borean breeze blasted the stones, the brother locked Gawn in the highest room. She slumped against the floor and began covering herself in the bed sheet. It could be a long night, she pondered. It’s not the first time they've left me up here for days, at least there's fish instead of cheese and bread this ti-
Her line of thought was broken by the blare of a trumpet. Instinctively Gawn rushed to the window, but saw nothing but the blue dawn drowning the fields on the horizon. The light shifted strangely and soon she saw that it was not the two suns setting that was causing the cobalt splodges to appear upon the wheat and barley. It was the brilliant beryl banners, the bright blue armour, the shimmering cerulean shields of the forces of frost. As they came closer Gawn saw their massed ranks, a variety of different races marching in unison towards the village, each person clad head to toe in ring mail. Thousands of soldiers strode forth, their boots crushing all before them. The tree lines quivered in fear as they passed as they advanced, the swarde struggling to get out of the way. To the left the sigil of the children of the shepherd could be seen upon a vast chariot pulled by hundreds of naked brothers, their hands chained to the float. Beneath the rippling standard the Kruk could be seen, her hands clasping the sides of her seat. Around her Mouncks clanked bells together, screeching prayers into the sky. On the left of the procession Gawn spotted the standard of the merchant conglomerate, an eagle clutching a coin, though to her this seemed far less impressive. Between the two banners, largest of all, was part of the skeleton ruler themselves. The bones had been placed upon the throne of frost, a vast vermillion iron chair surrounded by statues of the faithless: turned into ice by the thrones’ runic magic. Between these three flags thousands of other sigils, denoting numerous different denominations, sub-factions and minor families, fluttered.
The spire shook as nearly half a million people advanced towards the town. Gawn shivered in anticipation.
Chapter six (Oskar):
Nightmares scooted across sky above the fires of the camp. Once, when he was just a young boy, his grandmother had told him all sorts of horror stories about the strange stygian spheres that dotted the skyline: how they came down from the ‘egg’ with dragons after the death of the doyen, how they sat on people while they slumbered and caused them to have bad dreams, how they were god's way of watching the races of Pân. The gods of the Menlo-Bollshenric pantheon that is, not the strange shepherd that Gawn seemed devoted too. Oskar's thoughts fluttered from fear to memory. He remembered the first time he saw Gawn. He couldn't have been older than four when she had first arrived at Grenbrick, but he recalled how she'd been brought to the town like it was yesterday.
A man, human, and a woman, Tyfling, had taken his best friend by the hand and led her to the steps of the Kruch in the middle of the day. He had been shocked the first time he saw her skin, shining like sapphires, while she collected water by the river. The other boys within the village mocked her, once even throwing her into a pen full of goats and jeering at her to fondle the animals. He hated watching that. The very next day he requested to join the militia of the local adventurer's league and, after a few years of hard work and dedication, had finally been chosen as a squire for house Fathrione. Now nobody dared to attack Gawn for, despite their friendship once being a secret, everybody knew that he wouldn't hesitate to smack the back of their skull with a training sword if they did so. His grandmother had mocked this behaviour: telling him that, no matter how hard he tried, Gawn's race would prevent her from seeing him as an equal. Grandmother had joined the other smallfolk, calling Gawn all manner of horrible slurs. But that old bitch had been wrong. Over the years of gathering water together the two of them had become close friends, at least he hoped she thought of him that way. Recently, however, things had begun to change. Gawn had always been comely to be sure, at least in his eyes, but he had begun to appreciate her in a new way as the months moulded into years. As he had grown taller, two horns had begun to poke out of her hairline; as his shoulders had become broader, her legs had grown longer; as his chin had begun to sprout black hairs, he had found it harder and harder to tear his eyes away from her as she bent over to collect water. He had been taught by his grandmother why humans and tyflings could not love one another, she'd spent hours describing everything from the collapse of the Tyfling Empire in Estria to the rise of the evil house Grënkin on the scorpion isle. And yet he couldn't help but admire her, so much so that he had asked her to go to the red harlequin’s performance with him. Perhaps that had been a mistake; perhaps not. She had said yes to seeing the performance, but that wasn't the only thing Oskar had arranged for the night. It was nearly time to sneak Gawn out of the Kruch: he put his boots on and walked towards the spire at the centre of the town. The route Oskar had arranged for his best friend's escape was simple enough, but it involved sneaking through the scornsmoke depositary beneath the building. He hoped they wouldn't run into any nightmares, literal or figurative, down there.
Chapter nine (Gawn):
Gawn woke that night, after being brought down from the Kruch’s tower and placed in her room, to the sound of slowly scraping stone. She clutched the bedsheets closer to her, picturing two great grey pincers grinding against one another slowly. Gawn gasped in fright when she peered over the side of her headboard. One of the slabs of stone set into the floor began to rise slowly: had a draugher somehow got into the Kruch, was it coming for her from the catacombs below? She shook under the sheet. Her scream stifled in her throat. The floor opened up like a rock maw; Light shone from inside.
“Ello”, Oskar said, pulling himself and a lantern out of the hole.
“Gosh Oskar!”, Gawn replied. “I just told you this morning to stop sneaking up on me, how’d you even get here?”
“I told you we’d getta see the red harlequin show togetha, didn’ I?” Oskar replied. “A… friend’uv mine told me ‘bout these tunnels under the Kruch an’ gave me a map right to your quarta’s: she’s like you, tyflin’ I mean.”
He stopped speaking suddenly, before starting up again: “you do still want to come with me?”
“Of course”, Gawn answered, disguising the fact that she had forgotten about this whole escapade. “I’ll follow you back outside?”
Oskar pulled Gawn down by the hand, taking her back into the tunnels. They wandered, following the light of the lantern, until they arrived at a set of three huge canisters. Each one was labeled ‘scornsmoke, do not touch’.
“They’d’uv taken you down ‘ere to pump you full’uv that stuff, it would’ve meant you never coulda had children: you know that?” Oskar lamented.
“I wouldn’t want children anyway, my race is unholy: it says as much in the words of the shepherd. Best it ends with me.” Gawn said, her voice echoing in the darkness.
“Maybe, come’un: we’re nearly out.”
The pair exited the Kruch from a hidden door towards the back of the building; crisp night air filled Gawn’s lungs. They wandered through the town of tents, passing several palisades, before finding the red harlequin’s performance area and waiting in line.
“Oskar… what if someone from town sees me?” Gawn asked, her voice trembling.
“Put this over ya’head, nobody will recognise you without your mask anyway”, Oskar said, pulling his green cloak over her shoulders: “shush now, cos’ we’re nearly inside.”
They passed through a screen of smoke before entering the harlequin's tent: drifting from the roof paper lanterns lingered, huge sashes of silk dangling from the top of the tent, the crowd clustered close to the centre of the pavilion. The tension was palpable.
From the front of the tent a trio of harlequin’s emerged, each swinging swords at one another: the clinking crashes of the scraping steel filling the air. They dived at one another, duelling and dancing at once: sparks flew through the air. One of the harlequin’s was dressed in blue, another in red, the third in green: their colours vying for attention under the multicoloured spotlights. Each fought fiercely: until the ones in red and blue became too enamoured in their sword play, giving the harlequin garbed in green ample time to drive a dagger through both of her fellow performer’s ribs. As the winner began to celebrate her victory a fourth harlequin, unseen by all, dropped down from the top of the tent onto her shoulders. The harlequin, who had been standing triumphant a moment before, slumped over onto the soil: her spine shattered. The forth harlequin bowed to the clapping of the crowd, as moonlight bathed him in a ghostly glow.
“Oh how exciting!”, Gawn shouted to Oskar over the din of the crowd. After the bodies of the beaten had been cleared away, a man covered in glitter and feathers arrived onstage:
“come one, come all, to our crimson carnival!”, He proclaimed.
“See here the wonders from across the lands, from Shiruope’s shores to Estrian sands!
You may have been sitting idly with no want for retention, but now is the time for paying attention:
look back at what you might have missed, for plots and schemes often arrive on white mist.
Now discard my riddles and leave my rhymes, lean forward, take notice and read between the lines.
Enjoy the show my friends!”
With that the man bowed, tipping his hat to the floor, and the performances continued. Gawn watched puppets parade playfully, rings of fire flirt with the fabric of those jumping through them; she saw creatures from across the world, including a Polarian eye bird that seemed incredibly dangerous, and witnessed Estrian blood magic first hand. By the time the show was half way over her hands were trembling with excitement, her knees numb from knocking on one another in fear. She saw the harlequin’s were just as giddy as she was, with one with bone white makeup peering through the crimson curtains in awe.
Hours passed: soon Oskar was pulling on her hand to make her leave the tent. As she stood up she felt the salty sweat she’d secreted trying to stick her to the seat. Oskar bullied her for that, claiming “you’ve pissed yaself in excitement.”
He found that funny till Gawn remarked that Oskar had actually pissed himself on his first day of being a squire, on account of nerves.
He took her to the top of an outcropping that overlooked the encampment: somewhere below merchant conglomerate troops were letting off a barrage of fireworks. Splashes of colour coated the sky, staining the stars. Above it all, as if resting on top of some great black canopy, the moon hung silently in the air. It was a new moon, simply a stygian smudge against the skyline, but in just a mere few months it would grow to encompass the entirety of the heavens.
They sat together on the swarde: Oskar picking the petals of flowers while Gawn slung stones over the precipice of the craggy cliffside. They bounced on three green stalks of grass and rolled away.
Oskar spotted a particularly pretty flower to pluck and reached down, only to find Gawn’s hand in his own, she had found a stone in the same spot. He blushed; she clutched his hand and drew him closer.
A firework erupted in the space between them, a great tower of grey light that exploded as if it had been punctured by a comet.
“Thank you for a lovely night Oskar”, Gawn said, leaning forward.
“It’s alrigh’”, Oskar replied, his breath heavy as sweat dripped from his brow.
Gawn moved forward in the ensuing silence, her lips parted. A bright white horse cantered up the steep side of the cliff, slaughtering their solitude suddenly. A man dismounted from the animal, his neck tattooed with a number and the sign of a setting sun: “good, you brought her Oskar. I think it’s about time we two spoke, Gawn.”
Chapter twelve (Gawn):
“Oskar, what is this?” Gawn said, her mouth hanging slightly open.
“Gawn, I assure you”, the man atop the horse said. “I am not here to harm you, in fact I'm a friend of your mother.”
Gawn glanced at him: “my mother? Nobody knows where she is, not that interests me. I don't know her. The Superiors at the Kruch are my parents.”
“And yet tomorrow, on your seventeenth birthday, they would deny you the right to become a parent yourself.”
“s’true Gawn, they'll use tha’ scornsmoke we saw undergroun’ to strip your insides out”, Oskar said, his voice shaking. “Bu’ we can escape, you won't have’ta suffer.”
Gawn glared, “I… I deserve it. The Tyfling race, under the influence of house Grënkin, expanded an empire based on genocide and slavery from the scorpion isles. They raped and pillaged across the continent of Polaris, took over the entirety of Shiruope, they destroyed the heavens where the shepherd lived and killed the first follower, the only messenger the Lyrd has ever sent, at the battle of Miremill. My people have always been cruel, if it wasn't for house Fathrione they could've inflicted their evil ideologies on the entirety of the world. I wish I had never been born, my heritage is monstrous.”
The man with the horse stared directly into Gawn’s blue eyes: “You may wish you were never born, but I know you don't want to die either. Of course, the story you described is a perfect copy of what house Fathrione and the children of the shepherd have preached to you, but the truth is much more complex. House Grënkin did all it did for the safety of its citizens, who were constantly discriminated against by outside forces: they were manipulated into proxy wars by the merchant conglomerate for profit, they did fight. But house Grënkin did not just destroy; they created. Your ancestors developed gunpowder machines, they cultivated crops, they built bridges across the barren land, they made medicines, they danced and sang and loved. Why should you pay for crimes you did not commit? Why surrender your womb for the wants of others?”
Gawn scratched at the top of her head and felt her horns.
“What if I deny you and stay here?”
“Then you'll most likely die, I'm afraid. Frost and flame will soon fight over this land you love so dearly and you'll be caught in the centre of their conflict.”
“Please Gawn, we ca’ be free”, Oskar said, shaking her. “Don’t you see, this ‘hole place is gonna be a battleground?”
“You can be on a ship to Estria to see your mother within a week, I have tickets for two to travel in my bag. You can even take Cloud, my horse, if it aids you”, the man said, scratching the sun tattoo on his scalp.
“Who are you? Why are you even trying to help us?”
“You could consider me… A patriot. Someone who's willing to give life and limb to a cause. Oskar should explain the rest on the way. So, Gawn, will you accept my offer?”
Far away, illuminated softly by the fireworks, she could see two figures against the sky.
Chapter fourteen (Eablo):
“Yes, I’ll travel to Estria to meet my mother”, Gawn said.
Eablo smiled: “that was a good choice, Gawn, come atop Cloud with me and Oskar and we can have you far away from here by the end of the night.”
The two children before him complied, clambering on top of Cloud as he took the horse’s reins.
“You can ride?” Eablo questioned Oskar as he lifted his legs over the horse’s rump and began to canter away from the Kruch.
“Yes, well… If the horse ain't t’much trouble”.
“Cloud’s a good girl, she won't hassle you”.
Gawn gripped Oskar tight as they began to pick up speed, the soil beneath them slowly blurring as they galloped across the country side.
“Now, we’ll need to make a quick detour over to the east, but once you've left me behind it's a quick ride up the boneroad to Hùm. From there you can take a barge across the southern sea to new Jzebrov, where your mother will be waiting for you.”
“Why does she even want to see me?” Gawn said. “We haven’t even met before, it doesn't make sense to me.”
“You shouldn't talk so much on the horse, you'll end up biting your tongue if we go over a bump”, Eablo replied.
They rode in silence after that, hurtling through a forest. Cloud began to pant heavily, her huge lungs billowing chilled breath into the night air. As they emerged from the forest of toppled trees the day had begun to break. Gawn placed her hand to her mouth and gasped. Before them stood the forces of flame’s camp.
Huge flags heralding the sun lined its perimeter and search lights shone illuminated the grassland that circled the red tents. Guard towers had been constructed across several ditches lined with sharp stakes, their occupants lazily fletching arrows or stringing bows. They rode over three wooden bridges that buckled under Cloud’s weight, passing golden ratio slaves sparring for sport and hill tribe members praying to the holy grove that had been erected in the area. Septarki soldiers patrolled the pavilions: led by Nisari with long pointed helms that denoted their rank. Oskar turned and pointed:
“Looka’ the size of tha’ man… He's ‘uuuge!”
“Not a man, a Titan”, Eablo stated: “his name is Charnn. Don't stare for too long, I hear he's very self conscious.”
Suddenly Gawn grasped his arm, “are you taking us hostage? Is that what this is? You're going to barter us off to the Septarki aren't you?”
Eablo laughed as he spoke: “no, not at all. We’re actually here to deliver me back to my quarters.”
As they trotted over to Eablo’s tent his face furrowed. A Septarki soldier had just appeared from its entrance.
“Mind telling me what you were doing in my tent?”
The soldier’s cheeks flushed, “just looking for you, my uh… Lord? Princess Aithne requires your council.”
“I'm just a freeman, but I'll take that as a compliment. I will be by our princesses side monumentally, please tell her I apologise for the wait,” Here he turned to Gawn and Oskar. “Come inside the tent, I have a gift for each of you.”
They stepped through the tent flaps and were greeted by a man with a collar clutching his neck and a number imprinted on his head.
“Master.” the man said. “I am so sorry, a Septarki soldier entered and demanded to see you, but I told him you were not here. I ensured he did not snoop around, he said the princess…”
“I know already, thank you though 198, could you bring me the gifts I obtained for these two?”
The slave nodded and produced two parcels, giving one to Oskar and the other to Gawn.
Oskar tore through the package's paper and produced a sword.
“This looks… ‘Credibly sharp”, he said bluntly.
“That blade is made of renite and was once forged in the fires of the first furnace on the scorpion isle by house Grënkin. You'll find it far superior to your distilled iron one”, Eablo stated.
Gawn pulled her parcel apart, uncovering a book with a heavy chain binding it.
“That is a book of a once great nation’s findings on the magic of the salt womb”, Eablo stated: “your mother holds the key that will open it.”
“Wait, salt womb magic? We saw estrian magic at the red harlequin’s performance, but what's the salt womb?” Gawn asked.
“I must be going”, Eablo smiled, his white teeth shining brilliantly. “You two better be off to Hùm, before you fall asleep where you stand.”
“Come on Gawn”, Oskar said, tugging her out of the tent. “we have a long ride ahead of us.”
Eablo saw the two off, watching as Cloud careened across the campground under Oskar’s control.
“That is the girl you spoke to her about? Why wouldn't you have used an army to protect her, isn't she in trouble with only that boy to protect her?” 198 asked.
Eablo shook his head: “the only protection she needs is anonymity, nobody would think that the most important tyfling on Pân was travelling with an untrained squire, now would they?”
“What will you do now though, master?”
“First we go to see Aithne. Then… we will wait.”
A cicada buzzed above them, looking as if it was crawling across the moon.
Chapter twenty one (Oskar):
Cloud cantered from the forces of flame’s stronghold, the clip clop of her hooves echoing in the darkness around them. He and Gawn had been riding for several hours, their bottoms bruised by the poorly made saddle. At the beginning they’d argued about who’s gift had been better, with him claiming ‘you can’t kill nothin’ wit’ a book’.
But his companion has fallen asleep around an hour into their journey. Her head was slumped against his chest as he rode; her horns dug into his shirt, so he’d turned her around to face the direction they were travelling in.
Just a lil furthe’, towards them trees, Oskar thought, rubbing sleep from his eyes. We’ll have shelter ifet’ rains then.
It had drizzled previously, a great storm chasing after a little white cloud as pebbles of rain pelted them, but it had passed overhead in the direction of the Kruch. In its wake the sun had started to rise, rippling radiance turning the sky pink as shadows stretched lazily over the long grass. A new day. As they rode towards the forest they passed a set of giant’s coins. Oskar’s grandmother had once told him that the great circular stones had been used by the gods of old to make purchases in their communities. But the old gods had retreated from the avanti isles when the elven empire had expanded their territory to encompass the area in a bid for natural resources: destroying the old God’s commune. He remembered his grandmother showing him paintings of castles the size of mountains crumpled into hills of debris. Of course, the giants had come back with the arrival of house grenkin.
Those crazed goats made tha’ ol’ gods rise out of their tombs and trie’ to take these very islands with their power, but house fathrione’s navy destroyed ‘em as they walked across the waves, his grandmother had told him: and don’t ya’ forget it! My husband and all the men from this village fough’ for your freedom in the seven year struggle: an’ most of them didn’ come ba’!
He’d used to feel pride when he heard that, thinking how his ancestors had made life better for everyone and had destroyed the goats.
And then one day, just after Gawn had arrived, he had seen what house fathrione had really done.
Sure, they’d destroyed an empire based on prejudice: but they’d created one in the process. Once a tyfling family had moved into their village. He remembered watching how the mother had handed little steamed pies to her son while the father laboured at the blacksmiths. Everyday, while working to his adventurer’s league training, he’d seen them. In winter the mother had wrapped her little boy in a bundle of furs and they’d teetered out into the snow. There they’d created a white figure, with twig horns, and the father threw snowballs. The family had laughed, their bright white smiles reflecting dazzlingly in the sunlight. On the morrow the family’s snow-tyfling had been stoned to mush. He remembered how the tyfling family’s house had been broken into, the shop behind it covered in long shards of glass. The swords the father had created had been taken from the walls. He’d watched the mother cry and hug her son, picking up bits of broken furniture that had been dragged out into the yard. Complaining to the local adventurer’s league, the father had not received any compensation. Without the windows the whole village had heard the family's son cry from the cold. One day the cries stopped. The next morning he hadn’t seen the tyflings on the way to his training, their house’s door ripped off its hinges and hanging open like a broken jaw. Then: much later in the day, when he had gone to collect water from the river, he had seen the family again. He’d looked up at...
Oskar shook his head. They were nearly at the trees now; No use in thinking of the past. They passed between mourning-father trees that hung limply around a small stream, which Oskar realised must somehow connect to the larger one near his village. Clots of crimson wormed ethereally down the waterway. He made their camp near to a set of white rocks, which seemed to frighten Cloud, but offered ample protection from the wind. Leaves filled the air as he made his camp A whisp of white hair was attached to the piles of sediment, floating lazily in the wind. Oskar pulled his new sword from his sheath and heaved it down against the hair, splitting the strand in half and continuing down to cut a deep gash into the stone. Hurriedly he held up the blade, scared he might’ve broken it, but the green sabre was as strong as ever.
This is way better tha’ distilled iron, Oskar thought, inspecting the weapon in the sunlight. An emerald shadow reflected from the blades tip. He sheathed the sword and sat against the white rocks, which seemed almost weaved together upon close inspection. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, then realised he hadn’t taken Gawn off of the horse. Scratching his head in embarrassment, Oskar pulled her out of the saddle and gave her his cloak to lay on. He could see her eyes move beneath their lids, flitting this way and that.
She’s nat actually asleep, she’s jus’ tricking me: her eyes ar’ moving, Oskar thought, moving over and slowly opening her eyelids. Two pupils stared back at him, deep in dreams. They looked like the bottles he had seen older boys drink out of, pools of glinting green glass: whole and alive...
He sat back, puzzled, and tried to sleep again.
Oh crap, I ain’t tied the horse up, he thought, bolting up for a second time and securing Cloud to a nearby tree.
“Now there's a good horsey”, he said, stroking Cloud’s nose. The animal brayed, looking around in fear.
“Now now cloud, just you calm down, there ain’ nothin’ round ‘ere to scare you: unless you’re a big baby who’s scared of bugs an spiders an’ such.”
He sat back down, resting his head against the rock. Finally, he fell asleep as the forest woke around him.
Chapter twenty three (the council of frost):
“So, we’ve got them trapped in the canyon?”, a man at the head of the table said, scratching his scalp.
The council of frost had assembled themselves in the tower of the Kruch, the central spire of the village currently held by their combined forces. The remains of a bowl of eaten fish and a half-dried bedsheet that smelt of river water had been dumped in the corner, their stench intruding upon the individuals at the table. Sir Garland and his squire, along with a variety of different troop directors of the numerous allied factions sat in the towers top room. Windows rattled by the wind, showed the stone-grey sky outside.
“Yes, honestly I don’t know how they’ve managed to stay supplied for so long. We’ve not seen any one come in or out of the encampment apart from the rider we caught a day ago. Did she yield any information?”, A woman with whisky white eyebrows said.
“Superior”, replied Sir Garland’s squire, holding his mark of the shepherd in his hands: “after… interrogation we found that they have an active waypoint that is allowing them to keep themselves supplied. This might indicate it is the same one house grenkin used in the seven year struggle, meaning that it’d lead too…”
“The forces of flame’s royal capital”, Sir Garland smiled. “If we can make a decisive cavalry attack here, we might be able to take the waypoint and capture Munlanding itself…”
Pebbles of rain began to ping off the roof.
“Yes. Agreed”, a man with the eagle of the merchant conglomerate emblazoned on his white and blue robes replied: “the estrian elves once used a similar tactic against the tyfling empire in the south of estria, I believe they called it Grenblitz. We could make a number of fast charges here…”
Here he stopped and indicated at a map on the table in the middle of the room.
“Agreed”, people said, looking at one another and nodding.
“Well, I think this is about to be a very successful campaign”, Sir Garland said. “How are our various leaders?”
“The skeleton leader is currently being transported back to Páland with the Kruk and the king of Coin is returning to Floren”, the man with the eagle on his chest replied.
The ground rumbled, as if thunder from the slate sky was getting closer and closer towards them.
“Good, it’s important to keep our figureheads safe: the troops will fight twice as hard if they have heroes beside them.”
“Not all troops”, said the woman with wispy eyebrows: “I heard one of your squires vanished last night, taking a child of the shepherd with him on the night before her ceremony day!”
“I assure you we have the best man trying to find her…”
“Your best man wouldn’t equal half of one of my women, the word of the shepherd says…”
The door to the tower room was thrust open, clattering against the stonework and vibrating slightly as the handle creaked. In the archway, strands of hair sticking to his forehead and slathered with swear from the ascent up the stairs, was a boy. His eyes rolled up at the council in fear.
Lighting cracked the sky, sounding like some great rock being hewn apart.
“The enemy is throwing boulders”, he shouted: “they’re getting closer and closer, we don’t know how. We need to get you all…”
The boy’s pupils shrank suddenly as he looked out the window. Coming through the Clouds, mauling the mist, a great grey shape steadily shot towards them. The boy tried to squeal in terror, turning to descend the stairs, his voice grew hoarse and he tripped: just in time for the colossal stone to sever the tip of Kruck’s tower.
They could watch the carnage slowly as the projectile penetrated the room's walls. Moments stretched into minutes, time slowing to a slog. Broken bricks flew from the room, the dust that coated them following like a spectral tail. Glittering glass and the window frame followed, first fracturing into a cobweb of cracks before clicking one by one onto the cobble floor. A long yellow laceration of lightning lingered in the darkened sky and struck soil: illuminating the terror of those within the tower. Faces contorted in fright following fleeing feet that could not possibly make it out in time. Their death delved through the room, slowly crumpling the map in the middle of the table and causing furniture to flip. One footstep, two, three. The stone split Sir Garland’s squire, it’s side erupting from his belly as it broke his spine.
And suddenly the rock ripped clean through turning the top tip of the tower into mangled bodies and bricks that spread out into the air as it was punctured. Sanguine stones crashed onto a tent below and cries could be heard from within.
All about the forces of frost camp, slabs of slate were descending from above.
Chapter twenty six (Gawn):
Gawn had tried to stay awake during the first hour of their journey, but the stars had begun to shift in the sky and she’d found it harder and harder to keep her weary eyes open. She’d rested her head on Oskar’s chest for a moment, then suddenly sunk into sleep.
She dreamed, and the sea woke. She saw long lines of goats, each one giving birth to the next. The kids slipped from their mothers and fell to the floor with wet slaps, their fur matted with blood and water. There the children would look up at the star spangled sky, their wide eyes dancing with light, before being devoured by the hoards of goats that surrounded them. She saw one child torn apart by two sisters, their hungry mass fighting for the meal. A fury of defenestration. And suddenly it was her turn. She stepped forward and slid her hand into the womb of the goat before her, pulling out a thick clotted creature. A fetus in her hands. She raised the being to her lips and bit, sanguine streaking down the sides of her face. She crunched past unmade bones. A tangy taste filled her mouth as she pushed the last of the pulsing thing past her lips. She grabbed a hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, gnawing down on more and more of it.
As soon as she had started, it ended.
A green light took ahold of her, shining bright as a star, and Gawn rose. Her feet fumbled in the air momentarily before she began to move. Her eyes were burning coals that shone through her skull, the world vapourized by the virdiscent violence.
“Just for a little while, my love”, someone said. “Just until my friend here can bring you to me.”
She turned, trying to see who the voice was speaking off, but they had vanished.
“Mother?”, she asked.
She woke in the middle of the day with tears on her cheeks. Luminosity broke through the layered branches above her, shattering the sunlight before it struck the soil. Gawn gripped the white rock beside her and tried to rise, only for her hand to sink right through the stone. She stepped back in shock. In the centre of the stone, pulsating slowly, were a pair of eggs.
We’re in the lair of some monster, oh god is it a Draugher?, Gawn panicked, before turning to see Oskar asleep against a pile of the whisky white substances.
She crept over to Oskar and shook him slowly, pressing a finger to his lips as his eyes opened slowly.
He looked at her and closed them again: “go away, I’m sleepin’”
“Oskar where are we?”
“Some forest, I rode all nigh’ ‘cos you fell asleep: I’d appreciate some quiet if tha’s okay”, Oskar replied, pushing Gawn away.
“You’re sleeping on spider eggs”, she said bluntly, smacking him.
He shot up straight, his eyes wide.
“You don’t think they’re…”, he tried to reply.
Gawn grabbed the collar of his shirt: “we need to get out of here, ready Cloud.”
Oskar nodded and began to saddle the horse and untie them from the tree while Gawn grabbed their bundles of things and pushed them into their sacks. Soon enough they were on Cloud and careening through the forest, with Oskar at the reigns.
They rode quickly as they dared, their bodies pressed to the back of Cloud so they weren’t knocked off by the low hanging branches. Gawn resisted the urge to look around, her mind frantic with thousands of thoughts.
Ride faster, she thought, for the love of the Lyrd ride faster.
Prancing through puddles and mud from the previous night, they eventually got to the edge of the forest. Freedom and an open plain dotted sparsely with spruce opened up before them. The trio passed through the border between thick bracken and open fields, before they were suddenly stopped in their tracks.
Cloud reared, throwing the duo down off the saddle and into the dirt. The horse neighed, spitting saliva, as a ginormous spider dropped down from above. Its long limbs were covered in thick clumps of hair that sprouted from its skin; eight sickly eyes stared at them as Cloud cantered away.
Oskar drew his sword and stepped forward, twisting his body and pushing his hand to Gawn’s chest.
“Run”, Oskar said. “Get to Cloud, I’ll kill it and...”
She stared stubbornly: “I’m not leaving you”.
Clicking its mandibles together, the spider scuttled forward. It bounced off the bark of trees as it leapt up into the air. Oskar pulled his sword out, shearing the creature’s underbelly as it flew overhead. Ichor dripped from its wound: the spider slowly turned to look at them again. It squealed slowly. Approaching them more slowly this time, the spider stayed low to the ground as it advanced. Shifting, it poked at Gawn with one of its now-limp legs: looking up at her with curiosity.
Then it suddenly swivelled and leapt at Oskar, pinning him to the floor. He tried to push the sword past its throat but it was no use, he was slowly being squished under the spider's weight. The clack of the creature's curved mandibles got closer and closer to Oskar’s neck, his soft squeals getting fainter and fainter. Gawn grasped the book from her bag and smacked it onto the spiders side, causing a dent in its carapace. She screamed in anger as she smashed the tome into the spider's skull, sending bits of black shrapnel flying through the air. Again and again she raised the book in an attempt to bludgeon the spider's brain, until suddenly she smashed through the outer shell and felt a wet goo within. The spider spasmed, it’s legs shaking as it curled up into a ball and died.
And that was when she saw the second spider, much larger than the first, drop down on top of her. It’s rancid breath raked her face and she tried to wiggle free.
“Oskar, oskar help me!”, she screamed, her eyes streaming with tears.
She turned her head, only to see her friend’s unconscious form beside her.
I’m going to be devoured.
She squeezed her hands around the spider’s face and tried to push away, her hands scrabbling on sweaty skin. The spider simply squeezed a little harder and she was slammed into the floor. Gawn gasped a little.
Without warning, the spider shot from her chest into the side of a tree, before crumpling into a crippled husk.
Cloud stood above her, his hoof prints shining with ichor. Braying and leaning down for Gawn to rub his nose, the horse seemed to smile slightly. She turned to see a pair of horse prints on the side of the spider.
“You saved me”, Gawn said: “oh, thank you Cloud”.
Gawn wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck in relief and turned to Oskar, who was rising while rubbing his head.
“I’m okay than’ for askin’”, he joked, slowly stumbling towards Gawn: “how come I didn’t get a cool spider-smashing book?”.
Chapter thirty six (Gawn):
“Gawn!”, Oskar shouted. “Would ya stop sleeping an’ help me read this map?”
She rubbed her eyes and chunks of sleep fell in smatterings; her arse was aching.
“I’m sorry, I was having an amazing dream. I was a Prince underground exploring tunnels with my friends, we went under the ocean and ended up here…”
Oskar looked at her and shook his head, “you’re ou’ of it”
They’d been riding for another day, passing by the quiet countryside and sleeping in the houses of abandoned settlements. Gawn had admired the architecture of the villages’ Kruchs, they reminded her of home. She wondered when she would see the tall spire of her holy house again.
“Don’t you miss your family?”, she’d asked Oskar.
“For all I care my grandma could be dead, she doesn't care about me: she just wants control, you’re my real family Gawn. You care for me, a’ least I hope you do.”
Though they’d talked along their trip the duo's prayer times had been separate, with Gawn pulling out her mat and facing east and Oskar mumbling at the dirt as he drew figures in it with his hands. She’d tried to understand what he’d been saying when he rose at dusk to kneel and speak. It sounded like a low throaty humming to her. He seemed equally vexed by her traditions, trying to read the words of the shepherd and getting frustrated before asking her why she hadn’t simply memorised her scripture like he had. Gawn found that absurd.
Why memorise a scripture and potentially make mistakes when you could write it down and ensure correctness?
Oskar had rudely informed her that the whole point of passing the words through mouth rather than paper was so that changes could be made to accommodate the next generation. She thought that was stupid, and Gawn was sure that the first follower would agree with her. The beautiful woman in a green gem, a goddess descended to earth on a comet; a true all powerful being of destruction.
The one book they were both interested in remained unopened, chained up with green shackles, and covered in spider blood.
Chapter 51 (Gawn):
Gawn gripped Oskar and pointed at the city of Hûm on the horizon.
“We’re nearly there: come on, it’s only a few more miles.”
He nodded and snapped Cloud’s reigns, the horse began to canter and soon they could see the outline of the city against the skyline.
Slate roofs slunk between the streets, punctured by hay hovels and dirt shacks, the exterior of the city seeming to slowly transfer from stone structures to those made of mud. A web of alleys arced from a central cobble courtyard. To the south the city seemed to become one with the sea, ships and dockyards shooting off into the waves while galleys and long boats patrolled the exterior.
Gawn looked down as they approached, seeing poles tipped with strange lights that shimmered through glass surroundings.
“What on earth are those? Oskar we have to see them”, she said.
“Ou’ firs’ task is gettin’ you aboard a boat, then we’ll see abou’ looking at strange lights in the street.”
As they reached the outside of the city limits, the pair paused as they saw a figure standing in the centre of the street. She was completely still, her hands seeming to tense as she faced away from Cloud.
“Hello!”, Gawn called as they rode past: “do you know what those lights are made of? The ones on poles…”
Her speech stopped.
The tyfling woman was facing south, the water she was carrying pattering in a puddle on the floor around her. A fly buzzed in and out of her open mouth, and above that were her eyes. They were glowing green.
“Gawn wai’!”, Oskar shouted as she slid off the horse and bolted towards the figure. Grabbing her, Gawn shook hard. Her fingernails dug into the flesh on the woman’s arm: “hello? Are you okay? You’re in the middle of the road, you could be hit.”
Oskar watched Gawn scrabbling at the woman and sidled up beside her.
“She ain’t moving, what’s wit’ her?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen anything like this before: we need to take her with us into the city for help.”
“We don’ have time for tha’, if we do it’ll take us twice as lon’: we might miss our ship.”
“I can’t just leave her here!”
“Why not?”, Oskar asked.
The first followers home was destroyed by house Grënkin, all of my race should be exterminated: there’s no reason to save her…
“Because she’s like me, I’d want someone to save me. Please Oskar. I can’t let her freeze to death.”
She felt tears welling in her eyes and watched as Oskar pulled her into a hug. Gawn felt his heart hammer against her head.
“Alrig’, we’ll move her to the side of t’road and cover ‘er wit’ a blanket. She won’ freeze then at least.”
Gawn nodded and helped awkwardly move the stiff figure into the grass: she pulled off her cloak and gave it to the woman, watching it float down onto her chest.
“Why do you reckon she’s like that?”, Gawn asked.
“I dunnat kno’, but it can’t be all Tyflings: you seem fine”, Oskar said, searching the lady’s body. “You’ll need thi’”
He threw something at her. Gawn caught a purple band with the symbol of a green star on it.
“It goes on you’ arm”, Oskar informed her: “it’s to show you’re ‘llowed out of the internmen’ zone.”
“You don’ know do you?”, Oskar asked, his face growing grim.
“Les just get on tha’ ship”.
She placed the fabric with the green star on her arm as they rode further towards the town. Gawn glanced behind them and saw the tree's shadows sliding over the swarde like a hundred hairy legs. Soon they reached the town’s walls and were let inside by the local garrison.
“You’re a brave boy”, a soldier said: “travelling with a goat instead of a girl.”
“You’re an’ smar’ little man, speaking instead of doin’ his damn job”, Oskar replied.
They passed a group of bars in the middle of the street, drunken sailors swinging outside as if they were still at sea. Cloud’s heels clicked down the cobbles.
A protest of people were gathered in the town square, screaming about the injustice of magic users over the general populace. They said something about pyromancers and the war, but Gawn looked away. With the sky above them dark, the lamps on the street side had begun to glow brightly. Gawn watched the fireflies inside with her mouth opened wide.
She’d never smelt a city before, never seen the rats scurry through the streets while store owners flogged apples and meats to those passing by. She’d never seen so many people. People of all different nations and races: estrian orcs with huge heads that glimmered in the sunlight; fungifolk from the glass spires who smelt of snow; Shireuopean ship makers who walked around on sets of stilts instead of feet; elves with plump bellies and pointed beards that eyed her warily; and tyflings. There were more tyflings in one street then Gawn had seen in her entire life. She’d pictured her entire race as being blue, like her, but she saw some with cut horns and black skin and others who were red as rubies. Each one wore an armband. Each one’s sullen eyes stared at the floor as they walked. Each looked downtrodden, defeated, despairing. Gawn saw some with their horns hacked from their head as they approached the docks, others with their skin bleached white or with missing fingers. She shrunk back in fear.
What happened to them?
The ringing of alarm bells distracted her from her thoughts, sending her sprawling into panic.
“What’s going on?”
Oskar was counting the ringing of the bells, his fingers forming the number eight.
“The city’s unde’ attack: someone’s at th’ gates we passed”
“But the forces of flame are miles away, we saw them! How could they be here?”
Her question was answered when she saw spiders scuttling down the side of the wall. She shrunk back and shook suddenly, picturing being pinned downing she had been before. It wasn’t house Septark, it wasn’t the hill tribes, it wasn’t even the golden ratio. Thousands of spider eyes looked at her with malice as the city was suddenly besieged.
She was briefly aware of Oskar desperately pulling her towards a boat as the bells rung louder in her ears and a confused crowd crashed past her.
Gawn’s heart raced.
“How did this happen?”
Chapter 54 (Oskar):
He pulled Gawn’s hand down the main street as the crowd clumped together around him, rushing in a mad panic for the docks. Bustling bodies bounced off one another; sweat streaked the man in front of him; behind them he could hear the clack click clack of the spider’s legs on the cobbles, slowly strafing towards them. Oskar pulled out the green sword he’d been given and held it upwards as he saw a woman on one of the arachnids crash into Cloud, leaving the horse prone on the floor. More and more spider tribes people were making their way among the crowd now, slowly picking off people from the rear. Oskar watched as a weeping woman trying to escape with her child flung the baby forward just as she was pulled deep into a spider’s maw. The infant's head cracked on the concrete. People stepped over the body as it bled onto the ground. Still the group crushed forward, the street seeming to squeeze inwards as they ran for the docks.
“We’re not goin’ to make it in time”, Oskar shouted over the hundreds of footsteps about him: “Follow me!”
He maneuvered through the mob to a bar at the side of the street and hurled his bag through the window before dashing through himself. Gawn gripped the ledge and he tried to pull her inside, only for her to shriek in pain. The glass glimmered as it scratched deep cuts in her legs. Oskar pulled harder and his friend was through.
“Oh gods Gawn, I’m so sorry”, he said, dragging her behind the bar.
“It’s okay”, she said, her face scrunched in agony: “get me some cloth”.
He ripped a ribbon from his sleeves and hastily tied it around her leg. Blood soaked the bandages.
“We need ta get you to a skinsmit”
Gawn laughed as tears trickled down her cheeks: “we can sort that out once we get on a boat.”
“I’m so sorry fo’ gettin’ you involved in all this Gawn”, Oskar said: “I thought it’d be for the best, I thought you’d want to see your mothe’ and the outside but… it’s much differen’ than wha’ I imagined. I though’ maybe there wouldn’ be as much, well, spite for tyflings out here.”
The crowd shrieked outside as the slow sound of the spider tribe’s advance filled the tavern. Behind the bar Oskar saw bottles of mint wine and some sort of sideways bow. Beside it were a collection of strangely shaped arrows.
“It’s okay Oskar”, Gawn smiled, looking up at him: “this is the most fun I’ve ever had. I don’t care if the rest of the world hates me, as long as you’re there to help. And when we meet my mother I’m sure she’ll know what to do, she wouldn’t call me across continents for nothing!”
“You’re righ’: let’s get on tha’ boat”, Oskar smiled.
The crowd outside had gone silent slowly: soft breathing coming from him and Gawn was the only sound in the bar.
Tap tap tap.
Something was knocking on the door, which creaked inwards slowly. Gawn gripped Oskar’s arm tightly as the thing entered the tavern, eight hairy legs skittering across the wooden planks.
“We know you’re in here, goat”, someone said. The floorboards closer to the bar squeaked slowly, as if some enormous weight had been put upon them. He watched Gawn try not to shriek as the person spoke again: “you have defiled Kali, taking one of her daughters from this realm without Sarishma Saarn. Come with us now and we may spare your friend.”
Oskar gripped her as she tried to scramble round the side of the bar, he turned to Gawn and shook his head.
More creatures had entered the bar now, he could see their reflections in the bottles of booze scattered behind the bar. Oskar placed his hand back and felt it grip the sideways bow, placing one of the abnormal arrows in its chamber and slowly pulling back the string.
I’ve seen this befor’, Oskar thought: it’s a crossbow, but how the hell do I fire it?
The spider’s leg lurched to the top of the bar counter and smashed into a bottle, wine seeped into the carpet where they were sitting. Gawn shook.
“Did you kill any others of our kind?”, the person said.
“Go to ‘ell and fin’ out”
Oskar flung his arms over the bar, the crossbow clattering as he clicked the trigger. He heard a gasp as the black bolt was flung from the chamber, heat hit their backs: the bar exploded behind them. In the street he heard the carcass of something very large splattering across the stones.
“Come on Gawn!”
Oskar put her hand in his and dragged her out of the wreckage, firing another arrow into a group of spiders dragging corpses down the street. They were blasted into bits, ichor arcing in the air.
They ran through the streets as the shrieks of civilians surrounded them. Looking back Oskar saw Golden ratio soldiers clambering over the wall:
“What’re they doing here? Did they work with the spiders?”, Gawn asked as they closed in on the docks.
“I dunnat kno’, quickly: get to the boat”.
As they turned the corner they saw the sea, hundreds of refugees clambering onto skifs and escape boats as the spiders slew those remaining on the sand.
He rushed towards a galleon departing, rushing up the gangplank as it gave way behind them. Him and Gawn jumped over the open ocean before falling down onto the deck. Splinters split Oskar’s skin.
“We’re safe”, he cried, laughing.
“Oskar. What is that?”
He followed where Gawn’s finger was pointing and saw what could be none other than a god. Far away and obscured by fog, standing on its hind legs was a vast being: bulky and broad.
Oskar dropped to his knees, scratching at the wooden planks beneath him with religious fervour.
“Gawn, it’s one of the Menlobolshevik gods, it’s come to save us! I told you they were real! It’s goin’ to destroy the spiders and the forces of flame: jus you see.”
He whooped as the god sent a stone flying through the central street, splattering spiders as it rolled to a stop at the sea. Oskar raised his hands high as a huge wave of water rippled from the splash and slathered him in seaweed.
“Gawn! Look! I told you they’re real! They’re real! They’re real! The gods are real! And they’ve come to save us!”
Another rock caused ripples in the water and Oskar laughed as he was thrown to the floor by the impact. Gawn goggled at the creature on the hill. It was surrounded by steam as the ships about them shot cannon balls in its direction.
“No, don’t shoot!”, Oskar screamed as the balls blasted chunks of the god’s flesh to bloody bits: “it’s friendly! It’s come to…”
The sail of a ship beside them was ripped apart by falling rubble as those onboard fell through the mangled deck. Slowly it began sinking into the water.
“Don’t… shoot”, Oskar’s voice faltered.
He felt his body being plucked into the air by strong hands, someone had lifted him and was chanting some sort of spell. He kicked and kicked, watching as Gawn grabbed the person’s leg and shook, trying to free him. He looked up into the air and saw one of the stones falling towards him.
“It’s come to save us… the god has”, his voice trailed off into a low shriek as he pictured his brains flying from his head.
“Gawn! Save me!”
There was a flash of green light, and suddenly he felt his arm being torn away. Oskar’s vision blurred until it was black.
Chapter 59 (Gawn):
“Let go of him!”, she could feel her voice rising in her throat as anger clouded her thoughts: “stop it!”
Oskar’s head was bouncing against the woman’s breastplate, his eyes rolled up into his skull.
“No”, the woman replied, pulling Oskar higher. “He’s a man, he should be honoured to shield a Superior’s body: get out of my way you goat, or I’ll hold you up here with him.”
“I’m a child of the shepherd just like you! He’s a good man, he’s helped me”, Gawn cried as the sea shook about them. “We all need to get below deck!”
The woman winced as more stones shattered the glass sea around them, then stared intently into the sky.
Gawn followed her gaze.
The thing that Oskar called a god had thrown the trunk of a tree towards them, the plant’s branches breaking off one by one as it cascaded like a comet towards them. A slow arc was slashed across the skyline by the trail of twigs.
“Shepherd above and first follower below, preserve my body for all time: I am your simple servant, I hold you in my heart and breast…”
The woman was wailing some high pitched prayer Gawn had heard a hundred times before. She couldn’t do anything. The log was going to hit them and there was nothing she could do. Reality overcame her and she cried out in a low, visceral, rage: her hands flying outwards to push the woman out the way, to shield Oskar, to do something, anything.
Gawn closed her eyes, opening them to see the shape of a woman standing before her.
“Gawn”, the woman cried.
She ran to her mother, her feet leaving indentations in the sand. She had never seen a beach before now, but it looked like the bank of the river where her and Oskar had met. They hugged, as the sound of waves crashing against the sky surrounded them.
“Where were you? Why are you here now?” Gawn asked.
“I’m here to give you something, something I’ve held for a very long time. A burden I’ve had to bear, something I will pass back to you.”
Her mother held a branch out to Gawn, she could see now that the woman was holding the weight of an enormous shell upon her back. Gawn’s hands reached out and wrapped around the stick.
“I love you Gawn, I’m always here”, her mother said pointing at her chest: “me and your past lives are all here, inside of you. Now, I think it’s time to save your friend. Don’t you?”
Gawn grasped the stick and felt her back nearly break under the pressure. Her spine warped upwards, curving crustaceanily up and away.
Mere seconds had passed while she was in the dream realm. Shooting towards them, the log lunged towards the boat. Gawn jumped for Oskar, firing a beam of arcane energy directly into the child of the shepherd’s heart. Power pulsed inside. Her hands hit the deck as she dove downwards.
What was that?
Oskar was beneath her now, his wrists whipped where the woman had gripped him. Gawn screamed and shot her hands up again, a beacon blasting from between them. Light lingered between her fingers and flew up to meet the log. The trunk twisted between the beam and bashed down on the deck beside them. Gawn breathed a sigh of relief before the trunk toppled down onto her temple.
Chapter X (Gawn):
She dreamt of happier times. These dreams were soft, like bandages, she could feel herself floating within them.
“Ello, my name’s Oskar: I’ve seen you aroun’ a lot”.
They were by the river, the first time she had been trusted to take the sheets down there by herself.
“Don’t you get lost on the way back Gawn, remember to wear your mask… now there’s a good girl”, someone said to her.
She parted the bushes and stumbled next to the stream, where the vines straggled down like thick ropes. That’s when she saw him, throwing stones into the water. Plopping: the pebbles sunk dry leaves. Oskar threw a stick and it missed a mourning-father flower, which slowly began to sail downstream.
“Hello, I’m Gawn.”
Their first words together hadn’t been exciting, but she missed those times. Gawn wanted to crawl between her memories and have them cover her like blankets.
“My Nan says you’s a tyfling, says ya can’t be trusted: is that righ?”
Gawn shook her head: “the tyflings…”
“I know the scripture”, Oskar said. He looked up at the sky. “I wonde’ what it’d be like to walk on a cloud”.
“I should really get going”, Gawn said. “It was nice meeting you.”
She returned to the Kruch with a bucket in her hand and a smile on her face. It was wrong, Gawn knew, to speak to males in a friendly way. That was why she wore the clothes she did, with the barbed spikes so they couldn’t touch her, why she prayed to the god she did. But later that night, while she lay in bed, she thought of drifting on a cloud. Her feet fluttered through the air, her footsteps echoing loudly on the ground below. Through the firmament she could see two others clouds walking with her, inside of her, beside her. There were others below, huge bodies slipping from the sea. It felt wonderful, this freedom. She knew, even as she woke, that she would be chasing it for the rest of her life.
The first thing she saw was a curved wooden wall, the slats stuck together with some sort of sticky substance that reminded Gawn of an egg yolk. Eggs had been few and far between in the Kruch, usually reserved for the Superiors, but the few times she had cracked open one of their shells she had marvelled at the golden yolk within. Once she recalled a Superior, or was it a Suntar, that all felt so far away now, taking a sceptre off the shelf and breaking three of the shells in succession. They had been bad eggs. Three lifeless chick corpses had fallen from between the broken shells, their shrivelled skin slick with feathers.
“The egg cracks, and the truth will emerge”, the Superior, or Suntar, she still couldn’t remember. “Even if something looks good on the outside, like these eggs, they may be laced with evil: like these chicks here. Remember, your evil actions are not hidden from the Lyrd: she can see all”.
Her head hurt from thinking too much. A dull, throbbing pain that trickled through her temple. Gawn placed her hand to her head and felt a bandage. It was wrapped tight.
That must be what’s hurting me so much, she thought, pulling at the cloth.
“Oh no you don’t, little miss”, a voice told her. “That bandage is keeping you alive, be grateful you don’t have to sleep in the salt pools like your friend here: it stings like a bitch.”
“Oskar?”, Gawn remembered, turning. Looking past a dark skinned woman to see her friend floating in a bath of brine. The bath was emblazoned with runes, the interior softly glowing from the limbs of light pushing through the window pane. Outside, she saw an even larger pool of salt water.
“Don’t worry! He’s not drowning, we’re keeping him in here so the wound doesn't get infected, you’re very lucky you managed to get on a medical ship you know. If you hadn’t I doubt they’d have had the materials to heal your injuries. Though, thinking about it, you’re lucky to get on this ship at all! All the others sank, terrible, oh well: at least you’re here now. So, how did you shoot that stuff out of your hands? Can I learn to do it? That’d be so cool!”
“Medical ship?”, Gawn asked.
The dark skinned woman twirled her hair in her fingers before continuing: “yeah, we’re part of a Fathrione enclave in Shireoupe where they send prisoners for reduced sentences, if there isn’t enough space in Polaris that is. Sometimes the prisoners get sick on the way there, so they’re brought here and I get to fix them: isn’t that exciting? When the war reached your little island we got conscripted to move soldiers, so we’re heading back to Shireoupe now to give them proper medical care. My name is Ymily by the way: who’re you? And what’s your friend's name? Is it Steven? He looks like a Steven.”
“I’m Gawn”, Gawn said, looking up at the lady who was blabbering. “You’re a tyfling?”
She stared with her eyes open wide, she had never seen a black Tyfling before.
“Honorary citizen of house Fathrione actually! I’ve contributed far too much to their medical field to be put in project bluebird. But good guess, I see you have an armband too! What’d you do to get out?”
“Get out?”, Gawn asked.
“Yeah! Out of the camps. You’re a girl right?”, the woman said, beginning to circle Oskar while moving her hands in spiral motions. “I haven’t seen a Tyfling girl as old as you for a long time. You haven’t been culled so I’m assuming you’re a member of the wolves? Or maybe you’re a mother in training? Or…”
The Tyfling woman placed her forehead to Gawn’s as she gasped for breath and flapped her hand.
“Are you an escaped spy? That’d be so cool.”
“I’m a member of the children of the shepherd”, Gawn said. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Project bluebird?”
The ship seemed to sink as the woman’s face fell.
“You really don’t know do you?”
The bough sighed, the sternum shrugging as they bobbed up and down in the deep blue.
The Tyfling woman smiled and turned away: “no help for it now, there’ll be plenty of time to explain on the way to Shireoupe.”
“Shireoupe? But we’re meant to be going to New Jzebrov to meet my mother, we can’t go to Shireoupe: that’s the wrong way.”
“Oh”, the lady said as she circled Oskar again: “I’ll go and tell the captain to turn the ship around, I’m sure he’ll do just that for a pair of stowaways who just so happened to kill our the ship’s Superior in the first few minutes they climbed aboard. You can take the lightning train over there once we reach old Jzebrov, shouldn’t take you more than a week: much faster than by boat that’s for sure. Anyway, I doubt your friend here is going to make it even to Shireoupe unless a miracle occurs: he’s so messed up, just look at that leg.”
Gawn struggled out of her sheets and stumbled over to the salt filled bathtub as the Tyfling woman rushed to grab her.
“Now just you stay in bed, you’ll hurt your head: or worse, you’ll hurt me. I don’t want that. Let him rest, it’s the best thing for him at the moment.
The sight she had seen was a grisly one. Oskar’s arm had been burned away, the skin remaining hanging limp and green with rot. His veins bulged from his flesh, pustular and painful. She had seen how the salt water absorbed the goo glimmering from his inner arm as the bone peeled through the flesh, like the red harlequin peering through the curtains in white face paint they’d seen so long ago.
“Take care of him.”
Chapter X (Gawn):
Ymily came and went over the next few days, her fingers drawing complicated loops that seemed to linger, golden, in the air for seconds at a time before disappearing. Gawn could see that the lady’s body appeared to be glowing, a faint sparkle popping from the centre of her skin from time to time. When it was her turn to the epicentre of the spiralling movements, Gawn felt the synapses in her brain breaking and reforming as her split skull slowly sizzled back together.
By the fifth day she could speak again.
“Are you some sort of Skinsmith?”
Ymily turned to her, “it’s rude to interrupt people when they’re working you know.”
When the woman had concluded her healing she returned to Gawn’s bedside and bent over: “I used to be a skinsmith, before I discovered the light of the Fae within me.”
Ymily smiled: “I’ve been meaning to ask, which sect of the children of the shepherd do you belong to? Not one that believes in fae after that response, I’ll wager.”
“Sect?”, Gawn asked. “I come from the one in Grenbrecken.”
“That’s a place, not a belief. The children of the shepherd have lots of different sects of belief, it’s not one warbling mass of worship: are you a lock? It’s fine if you are, truly nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“You aren’t making any sense”, Gawn assured her.
Ymily slumped down, defeated, “I’ll explain it on the deck if you like? It’s so stuffy down here, and full of dying people.”
Gawn staggered up the steps on a pair of crutches, ensuring Ymily locked the door behind her so nobody could get at Oskar. The outside of the boat was just as she remembered it, minus a mast.
“Your light beam cut that one off, means we’ve been travelling at two thirds the speed we normally do: just another reason for the captain to hate you”, Ymily informed her.
Gawn was too busy staring at the sea. It was rolling, not rigid and structured as she had pictured it, waves with crowns of foam swarmed the ship. It looked like some enormous blue frill, flapping steadily forwards. She hobbled to the side of the boat and stared downwards. Her vision hit miles below before it was broken by blackness. Smatterings of seaweed lined cliffs that cascaded down into crepuscular caverns. Salt simmered in the air. Gawn grimaced, feeling strangely sick, and stared around for some sort of land. No soil was in sight: just the blue of the sea that bled into the sky. Gawn clasped the boat tightly, her teeth trembling against one another. A white sliver of molar broke off in her mouth and she gulped it down. Breaking the crest of a wave the boat rose steadily in the water as Gawn felt her stomach regurgitate vomit. She held it in for a moment before the acidic taste took her by force and she dribbled it down the side of the ship.
“Isn’t it beautiful”, Ymily asked her: “I think you’re ready to meet the others”.
The others turned out to be a group of people of a variety of different races: amputees missing arms, or otherwise bandaged or broken. Most of them were men, although those that looked to be from the merchant conglomerate or the children of the shepherd were more an androgynous amalgamation of the genders. One man in the corner smelt of burning bacon, the cause only revealed when he turned his back to Gawn: revealing crispy cauterised skin.
“We must abandon the way of magic”, the man said, his back muscles churning beneath charred flesh as he did so. “It is the cause of every war, the start of every struggle. And yet, those that wield this weapon never feel the effects of its power. It is us common folk who…”
“That’s Bill”, Ymily informed her. “Don’t listen to him too much, he got burned by a Septarki pyromancer when he was fleeing the field: should’ve kept his shield up. You should probably also know…”
The man’s pale pupils turned towards Gawn, spite and sorrow simmering just below the lids of his eyes.
“If it isn’t our little murderer? I’m surprised you made it out of bed with the knowledge of what you’ve done crushing you.”
“I’m pretty sure he had a thing going on with the superior”, Ymily whispered. “I doubt you’ll end up being friends.”
Gawn turned to her in shock, “isn’t it against the word of the shepherd to lay together outside the bonds of the rebirth? She should be reported to the…”
“In one form of your faith you’d be correct, yet our friend over there subscribed to the doctrine of the stripped shepherd. What you abhor, they revel in”, Ymily told her.
“That’s not fair at all, why follow scripture if you’re not going to stick to it?”
Ymily smiled: “and yet here you are, eating lamb chops and wearing clothes created from multiple different fabric types, speaking to an older woman without addressing her as Suntar and being a race that is scorned in the scripture you cling to. What makes him any different than you?”
“But I believe in the first follower, I believe in the ceremony! I believe in miracles and the magic she created.”
“You travel with a Menlo-Bolshevik follower, you can see it in his hands, again against scripture. Which miracles have you seen that make you believe they are so real? Has the idea been beaten into you, or do you truly accept them.”
Gawn left her lamb chops on the table, turning from the room.
She hobbled over the deck of the ship down to the stern, clasping tightly to the handrail as she descended the shaking steps. Once inside the medical wing she sidled over to Oskar’s bathtub. He had lost weight in the past few days: it scared her.
He’s meant to be portly and round, why is he like this?
Gawn placed her hands in the water and stroked his sodden scalp.
“I promise you’ll be okay, Oskar. I’m not going to leave you, because I believe in miracles.”
Gawn gasped as the glow turned her hands into balls of light, spinning slowly in the salt water, whirlpooling like a snail’s shell. The chained book they had brought with them shook, it’s pages fluttering like a bird trapped in a cage. She felt her friend’s eyes open.
“Gawn”, Oskar smiled as he woke. He dripped with the damp as he pulled her into a hug.
Chapter X (Gawn):
The first day, Oskar was awake for mere moments, slipping from his sudden sodden affection back into the bathtub. Gawn cried, the plip plop of her tears hitting her friend’s cheeks.
She stayed beside the bathtub that night: watching the whirling water for any sign of his awakening. Gawn slept when morning came.
She awoke the next day to find Ymily had placed her back into bed. Gawn got up and looked into a little cracked mirror in the corner of her room. She seemed unrecognisable to herself now, her horns curling backwards like a true Tyfling woman, the bandage about her forehead replacing the mask she had once worn in the Kruch. She wished she could be back in the building’s tower, high above the world, now: eating fish and shivering beneath a sheet.
On day two Gawn explored the rest of the ship with Ymily. There were decks, she found, beneath even hers: filled with hundreds of wounded. Between those shambling crowds were bolt throwers that stuck out the side of the ship for defence. They climbed to the crows nest at the top of a mast, looking over the fog that had surrounded the ship. Shadows swirled beneath them, the crew’s bodies shifting in the half light so they looked tens of meters tall.
“Gawn, do you know what type of tyfling you are?” Ymily asked her.
“There’s different types?”
Ymily smiled, “how have you lasted this long. There’s a few variations, but the most important thing is if you’re a pure tyfling or not. My parents are from the group that migrated to the top of Estria after the fall of the Tyfling empire, so we aren’t pure Tyflings: we aren’t connected to the salt womb.”
“So… black Tyflings are different from blue or red ones?” Gawn asked.
“That’s right. The salt womb follows wherever the most amount of tyflings reside: since that happened to be House Grënkin fleeing to the scorpion isle, the salt womb followed them there.”
“I thought the tyfling empire and house Grënkin were the same thing?” Gawn asked, staring out over the sea line.
“Well. They were at a point, but house Grënkin was actually one of the outlier houses in the empire: they only managed to escape from its collapse because of thievery. They stole one of the last airships on Pân at the time.”
“Interesting”, Gawn said.
“Well, you clearly aren't of pure blood at any rate: you haven’t been affected by whatever is going on with the tyflings in project bluebird.”
“We saw a woman on the road who wasn’t moving, was she one of those?”
“Most likely”, Ymily informed her. “All around the world, millions of our race have been in some sort of coma. I’ve heard even bullets can’t get them to fall over, it’s like they’re all being controlled by something.”
“Or…”, Gawn thought, thinking of her dreams: “somebodies sending a message to them all?”
“Who knows. Whatever it is, it’s big. And it’s not like house Fathrione has the resources to deal with it at the moment.”
“Why not, I saw the army marching south. It was huge, there’s no way the Septarki forces could have overwhelmed them”, Gawn said.
“The Septarki haven’t been fighting fair: I’ve heard tales from the men on the frontlines, those that have faced the worst of the enemy. They say the bastard princess has a giant, likely the one we saw before, who has the power of a hundred cannons with every swing of that damn arm of his. They say the enemy has men who can swim through dirt like it’s water, appearing beneath their camps at will. Then there’s the dragons.”
“Dragons haven’t existed for hundreds of years”, Gawn informed her.
“These aren’t dragons with scales, they’re something far worse. And it’s not just the Septarki we have to worry about anymore: there’s more wars coming. The world is seeing how weak we are, resistance groups are rising. There’s Imarnn for one. And I’ve heard tales of some creature who intends to unite Estria called Nairash, they say he’s taken over several Estrian tribes and intends to march on Marblos.”
“Is that in the opposite direction to new Jzebrov?” Gawn asked.
“Don’t you worry your little head off”, Ymily told her. “You’ll meet your mother soon enough. Look, we’re nearly there.”
She pointed, her finger a guiding light through the twisting tongues of fog, to the distant shape of Shireoupe on the horizon. Sand beaches slumped into the sea, coral caked cliffs shooting from the sea like great stone fists. Trees trickled in small clumps across the continent. But most of it was planes of grass, miles long, stretched further than Gawn could glimpse. Rocks caked the ground. Boulders broke the never ending green, their sides crawling with Crivey. Gawn looked intently at one, then realised it was moving. It was a creature: a horn breaking through the bone on its skull. A herd of unicorns, their great shaggy manes combined with crumpled grey skin, barked at them as they approached. It was so very beautiful.
“Wait”, Gawn said, almost as an afterthought. “You know what’s going on with the war. Do you know if Grenbrecken is okay?”
“Oh. We lost that village days ago, the Kruch exploded from the bottom with some sort of green smoke: barely anybody made it out.”
Gawn thought of the three huge scornsmoke canisters she’d seen. Her eyes began to water.
“Grenbrecken is no more.”
Chapter 62 (Oskar):
Frost dug its fingers into him, his skin slathered with sheet upon sheet of ice. When he moved he heard the cracking of cold across his body. Icicles hung from his ears. He was on a stage. Why was he on a stage?
Oskar looked up.
Where was the moon?
The sky was dark without it, little light finding its way down onto his dressings. What little fingers of fulmination made it to him seemed restrained, as if pulled back by chains of darkness. There was a crowd beneath him, staring up, expecting.
“Wish”, he said. “For world peace.”
Those words would mean something to him at some point.
“Fight with me… against those on Polaris. Those of you who wish to live, help me defeat...”
His sentence was slit with the churning of the sea, an enormous warped wave rising behind him and smashing into the stage. Seaweed rained down, the crowd screaming as they were slain one by one. Water sped through the stadium those in its path sucked downwards.
Floating in the water, her hair flowing in all directions, was Gawn. He had to save her. But she looked content, floating amongst the coral. She looked at him with disgust. The wave smacked him. He was drowning in salt.
Oskar woke in the bathtub. His hands scrambled for the sides of the tub and he clutched the wood. Gawn was looking down at him, her horns beginning to curl as she grew. He felt an intense hatred for her, only for a moment, and tried to pull her into the water. By the times his arms had wrapped around her neck he had forgotten: he pulled her a tight hug.
For the next few days he dreamed of nothing. When he woke, Gawn spoon fed him some sort of slush and he gulped it down happily. It tasted tranquil. Floating in the tub was fun, the cool seething of the boat as it crested the crusts of the waves wobbled the water within: he was in a warm blanket, it smelt of salt.
When he tried to get out of the tub he realised something was wrong. He tried to move his arm, but the water didn’t move with it. It felt like a phantom limb. When he placed his fingers to it they slipped straight through the skin, the illusion broken, and he saw what had once been muscle and bone and fingers and form was now nothing. He had a stump for a fighting arm. Oskar screamed. Thrashing and fighting in the water he tried to pull himself out, but one of his feet was gone too, when he jumped over the side of the saltwater he stumbled and fell down onto the deck.
“Gawn”, he screamed, tears in his eyes. “Gawn help me. Help me.”
He heard footsteps coming down into the medical bay and watched as two women pulled him back into the bathtub. It ached. Everything ached.
“You’re awake”, a dark skinned tyfling told him.
“I can see tha’, what the ‘ell has happened to me hand?”
“It’s your foot you should be worrying about, you won’t be able to walk if you don’t have one of those”, she told him.
Gawn rushed into the room, “Oskar, it’s okay, we made you one of these.”
She held up a foot made of wood, with straps of leather stuck from the top.
“You won’t be able to walk without it”, the older Tyfling said.
Taken out of the tub, he took his first few steps in days when the new foot was strapped the stump. Gawn watched as he wobbled towards her.
“You saved me”, Oskar said, clutching her hand. “That god was going to ge’ me. And you saved me.”
He fell as the words left his mouth, kneeling before her: “Gawn, I don’t need gods anymore. The only thing I believe in is you.”
The next day she helped him stumble up onto the ships deck, his legs felt much weaker than they had been before.
“Muscle atrophy”, Ymily, the dark skinned tyfling hair said. “You’ve been floating in water for so long that your muscles have started to wane. You’ll need to do strength training in those legs before you begin doing anything else.”
The steps up to the deck felt like a mountain to him now, the skinny sticks that supported him shaking as he gripped the bannister for support.
“You’re okay Oskar”, Gawn told him, gripping his hand for support. “You’re nearly there now.”
He walked up the steps, his body screaming at him to stop, to pause: he perceiviered. He reached the light from the darkness of the ships hull and watched the world spill out before him. He was trapped in a thin line of blue and green, the whittling waves of the sea to his left seeming tiny compared to the vastness of Shireoupe’s shores. He clutched the mast for a long time, terrified, as Gawn coaxed him to look over the edge. Her soothing words moved him and, clutching her hand, he convinced himself to look down into the sea.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?”, Gawn said.
Oskar vomited over the side of the ship, his sick joining another green stain he saw on the side.
“You get used to it”, Gawn informed him. “Come on, let’s eat. We’re nearly at Shireoupe.”
“Shireoupe?”, Oskar asked. “That’s the wron’ way: we nee’ to be heading towards New Jzebrov.”
“We’ll get the lightening train to there”, Gawn said: “Ymily told me about it.”
They ate on the deck, the wind whipping them as they tucked into a pair of sandwiches. He eventually managed to look over the side of the ship without feeling sickened.
“Gawn”, Oskar asked. “What do you think your mother wants from you. We’ve travelle’ so fa’, los’ so much. It, you kno’, better be worth it: what if she just wants you for something, she hasn’t exactly been the most motherly before.”
Gawn clutched his stump of an arm and looked deep into his eyes. “We’ll deal with her when we get there, but first…” She pointed to the Shireoupian village they were steadily approaching. “We have to make it through that.”
They took what little they had off the ship when they arrived in port: the coins in a pouch, the book bound by chains, the green sword. They were given a fresh pair of clothes too, the ones they’d worn from Grenbrecken had been filthy. It was strange to see Gawn in a skirt. Usually Oskar saw her in the tight, restrictive clothing of the Kruch, the spines and spiked garments making movement hard.
She looks so… free, Oskar thought as she spun around to show him. He reached out with his arm to touch her face, but found it bandaged and broken at his side. It was difficult to remember not to move it.
“Oskar”, she said, taking the weight for him as he slowly lowered the limb. “Be careful, you don’t want to hurt yourself.”
“Don’t speak like you’re my Nan”, he laughed at her.
A flash of pain panged in her pupils as she looked away: “have you got everything? If we travel quickly we can be on the lightning train in a few days.”
Oskar nodded: “I think you should have this thoug’”.
He handed her the sword, the edge glinting in the sunlight.
“It’s not like I ca’ use it anymor’”, he continued.
“Well, you should have this”, Gawn held out the book in return. “If we’re swapping gifts.”
The sword slipped from his fingers into hers as he took the book from her and smiled. Far away, on the rooftop of a building, a man with a brown beard and a tyfling were looking at them. Oskar waved, but the sun blinked for a second and they vanished.
“Are you two off already?”, Ymily said. “I was hoping you’d stick around a little longer, there’s plenty of work on the ship if you want it.”
Gawn shook her head: “I want to see my mum, but thank you Ymily. You’ve been so kind to us.”
He watched Gawn pull the older tyfling into a hug. She looked up at him: “come on Oskar, don’t be shy.”
The trio hugged as the hull of the ship swayed slowly.
“Be careful you two”, Ymily said. “I don’t want any more broken feet to have to fix.”
Oskar smiled. He felt happy for the first time in forever, the war was far behind them in the Avanti isles: he was safe, but better yet, he was safe with Gawn.
They stepped down onto the docks and departed into the city.
Chapter X (Oskar):
Shireoupe was different from anything Oskar had ever seen before: the buildings were slathered with stripes of paint, none of the drab grey architecture he was used to. Merchants mingled with the people on the streets, pulling carts full of ‘hot dogs’ and ‘pasta’. Red harlequins dressed in white pretended to be trapped in invisible boxes, not saying a word, while people riding bears hurtled past. The scents were strange, something he’d never experienced before, a pungent pong of pepper and salt and spice and shit. Even the sky seemed different.
Gawn gripped his hand out of nowhere: “what’re those people doing?”
They had passed a house that stank of ale, the interior hidden behind fabric which would flutter flirtatiously with the wind: on the steps outside were several men dressed in silk, their chests exposed to the elements as they slowly kissed.
“I dunnat know… les jus’ keep lookin’ fa somewhere to get another horse”.
“Oskar”, Gawn said, stopping in her tracks. “We need to go back to the ship, I left my words of the shepherd on board.”
“Gawn I cannot beli…”
“Oskar please”, Gawn said. “It means a lot to me.”
They rushed back through the streets, past the smells and the carts and the red harlequins and the bright buildings, to find the space where the boat had been was empty. Far away, on the horizon, it’s two remaining masts could be seen slipping out to sea. Gawn looked shocked, her hands quivering as she sat down next to the sea.
“I can’t believe I just left it there”, she told him as she began to curl into a ball. “That's all I have from home.”
Oskar sat down beside her, placing an arm on her shoulders as the sun set: “hey, it’s alrigh’, we can always go back. We jus need to find your mother and then…”
“Oskar I haven’t told you yet”, Gawn said as she lay back down onto the ground. “Grenbrecken was destroyed in an attack by house Septark, the scornsmoke canisters we saw underneath it blew up. Ymily said…”
Her speech stopped as she snivelled.
“Ymily said nearly nobody made it out alive. I’m not sure we can go back anymore.”
Oskar looked out to sea and sighed: “I’m glad we left Gawn. That could’ve been us.”
“Oskar don’t you see? It should’ve been us, but we left everyone there to die: we left the Kruch and your Nan and all the little boys and girls in the streets. We left the stream. We should’ve gone back to help them, we could’ve warned them.”
The stars began to shine as her tears trickled downwards and splattered onto the sand. He held her tight while she shook in his arms, her stifled sobs meeting his stomach. Several hours passed while they sat like this before Gawn looked back up at him:
“I’m sorry Oskar, I’m just scared. I didn’t mean to break down over a stupid book: we’re just in a new place, a new continent even, and we don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing. I know we need to keep pushing forward, but I just don’t know what to do?”
He helped her up and dusted sand from her skirt.
“Well. I find the best thing to do firs’, is to try.”
They walked back into the city, away from the deep blue and white of the ocean, and into the clutches of the green grass.
Chapter X (Gawn):
She had lost her clothing, lost her words of the shepherd, lost her faith?
The idea sat on her skull and stung her eyes like an overgrown fringe of thought. Gawn felt trapped by her faith still, despite the lack of dressings or doctrine, she felt herself looking over her shoulder to see if a wolf was watching her. There was a deep rooted dread in her stomach.
What if it really was all fake? What can I do to convince myself it’s not? The first follower, everything I’ve done for my whole life: it has to be real.
Then why did she question, doubt demanded her attention. Walking through the streets of Shireoupe she saw many things punishable by death: men clinging to each other in alleyways, prostitutes standing outside chatues, humans and elves and stoutfolk each intermingling interchangeably.
Why hasn’t the Lyrd struck them down?
No lightning came. No flash of thunder or Devine direction, only the soft pulsing of hands on hips and lips on lips.
“Oskar”, she said suddenly. “I have something I need to do.”
“Liste’ Gawn, you don’t nee’ to tell me every time ya have a piss”
“No, what? I want to go to where the first follower fell. We’re in Shireoupe already, it can’t be that far away.”
He looked at her like she was stupid: “Gawn, we’ve waste’ enough time. We nee’ to get to New Jzebrov as soon as possible: if we wai’ too long who knows if your mother will eve’ be there? We’ve screwed up enough by getting on the wrong ship: it’s the lightning train now or never.”
“I know, but that just seems pointless right now. We’ve not talked about why we’re actually going to meet her, we have basically no money, we’re on a continent we don’t know anything about: the children of the shepherd there can help us”, she told him. “Who else is there?”.
“I shoul’ tell you what I know”, Oskar said. He sat down in the street as a carriage clattered past. “A while back, while I was still trainin’ wit’ the League, I got approached by a funny looking bloke. He told me I’d need to help you at some point in the future, said you were special: maybe that’s why whatever happene’ on the boat with your hands and that light occurred.”
Gawn looked down at him: “you lied to me to become my friend for Eablo?”
“No, no”, Oskar said. “I was already your friend, he told me to protect you, he told me it would help me in future, he gave me this badge.”
Gawn looked at the goat still pinned to his lapel.
“It’s always so strange”, Oskar continued. “I can never seem to get it to sit straight.”
He turned around to demonstrate, and as he did so Gawn watched the badge shift slightly to the west.
“Oskar”, Gawn said. “What do you think my mother wants?”
“I dunnat know”, he told her. “My Nan wasn’t exactly very motherly, and my parents weren’t exactly around much when the fighting in the south started. Maybe she wants to apologise for leaving you?”
Gawn looked at a spider sucking blood from her inner thigh and slapped it: skirts made her feel more frail than her shepherd attire.
“Maybe”, she said. “But I can’t help but feel she’s preening for more than that. I’ve never met her before. What if she’s horrible, or in with bad people, or in jail?”
Oskar reached out his stump to her and she helped him rise: “I don’t know, but maybe he will.”
His finger pointed to a tent tucked into the corner of the street, the red striped sides blending perfectly into the building behind. Above the words ‘Sir Jahahan’s fortunes, palm readings, blood spyings and more!’ were scrawled on a chalk sign.
“I was just saying we don’t have enough money”, Gawn told him. “I’m not going in there.”
A few moments later they entered the tent. It was dark within, the shifting scent of boiling blood and perfume mixing to form an eccentric aroma. Lights lined the tents walls: flickering not like torches, but with some unseen power.
“Are those magic?”, she questioned, clutching at Oskar.
“Close”, a little voice came from the inside of the tent. “They’re eletric. You do know what that is, little goat?”
“Oi don’t call ‘er that”, Oskar said, trying to grab at the sword no longer in his waistband with a hand that wasn’t there.
“She deserves it. You haven’t seen what I have”, the voice continued. Someone was shifting in a pile of rags at the far end of the tent. Gawn looked up and saw a Solarium spinning from the central peg of the tent, the planets ticking on clockwork.
“What will I do?”, Gawn asked.
“When three eggs crack and a plate breaks upon a stary sky, you will warp the world for another’s gain. Someone unseen, yet trusted, will try to take the power you have: your hands are tied by roots of faith and fate”, the fortune teller said.
“Oh that’s cowshit”, Oskar spat: “that could mean anything. Tell us something that actually makes sense.”
“From the breath of a dead race, the dead will rise. They will unite the world into a union strong as obsidian: but they aren’t the ones you should fear”.
“The dead?”, Gawn asked. “Okay, fine. Tell me how I’ll die. Maybe your answer might be somewhat interesting.”
“You won’t like it”, the fortune teller said.
Oskar took her hand, “come on Gawn, he’s clearly talking out of his…”
“I’m telling the truth”, the fortune teller said. He stepped into the light for the first time, a twisted slate of skin bearing a marble affixed to his forehead: “you will die very much alone, but surrounded by friends. You are the Third branch, one of four, but you will unite the disparate parts of the plant into one.”
Oskar grabbed Gawn’s arm and dragged her outside.
“We are neve’, ever, doin’ that again.”
That night they settled down on the street. It was hot, the soft breeze of summer raking its fingers through her hair. She could feel the city swirling around her: it’s so big, so much bigger than expected.
For a time she had thought the world ended a few miles from the Kruch’s tower, she had never expected it to be so big, but it was huge. Gawn smiled as her and Oskar huddled in a doorway.
“Tomorrow”, Oskar told her: “tomorrow we’ll find a horse and travel too where the first follower fell.”
She looked up at him, “what made you change your mind? I thought you wanted to go straight for the lightning train.”
“That fortune tella’ did”, Oskar said. “I want to show the world you aren’t bound by some sort of fate or whateve’. We’ll go there, of our own accor’ and then we’ll meet your mother.”
She clutched him a little tighter in the city street.
“Thank you, Oskar”.
Gawn dreamt that night, for the first time in a long time not on horseback. She was in the sea. She was the sea. Her fingers were formed from salt, her hair clumps of dead coral, her body covered in crustaceans. She was beneath a stage, far below, and above she could hear a familiar voice screaming at the top of its lungs.
“And the name of this threat... is Gawn G…”
She surged out of the ground: her green water whipping about as she smashed through the stage.
There was a crowd before her, dressed in blue and black and red: they were her enemies. She was scornsmoke and salt; her tentacles twisting to grab at those about her as she swallowed them whole. Screams flew through the stadium.
“We will wait”. Eablo’s words were everywhere now, as the moonless sky shone utter blackness back at them.
“Wait for what?”, she wailed out into the destruction she had caused.
“Wait for you”, someone told her. “We are all waiting for you.”
The stars weren’t stars, they were hundreds of eyes staring down at her in the dim light, thousands of pulsing pupils in dark skin.
Something warm was glowing on her face. Gawn was awake now, her mop of hair resting on Oskar’s chest as they slumped up against a wall of sandstone, she opened her eyes and found them crusted with green sleep. It was a new day. She could hear the hammer of a blacksmith banging against links of chattering ring mail somewhere far away.
Oskar was already awake.
“Come un”, he said, standing slowly up with her. “We need to find a horse or somethin’ if you want to go to where the first follower fell. I bet we can find something around here.”
They spent hours looking for a horse to hire. Finding the shops was easy, they sprung from the sides of taverns and tumbled out into the streets, but most seemed to be out of horses.
“Sorry mate”, those that could commune in common would tell them. “Got brought out of horses a couple of weeks ago, everyone round here has.”
Frustration fuelled their search: scouring the streets for any sign of horses. But someone seemed to have purchased every last one.
“We can’t ge’ there on foot”, Oskar told her. “It’s miles away. We need to find a horse, or a cart or somethin’.”
He was right, she knew that, but it still hurt. She wanted to spend forever searching, but they simply didn’t have enough time.
“I miss Cloud”, she told Oskar. “I wonder where he is now.”
“Elsewhere”, Oskar said: “probably in some ditch eating weeds or somethin’. But that isn’t helping us, we need something now, not some hors’ on anothe’ continent.”
“What if we rode something else? There’s got to be some sort of other animal we could use.”
“But wha’”, Oskar asked. “There’s nothing else about.”
A unicorn passed by them on the street.
Oskar looked at it, then back at her, and smiled.
“I ‘ave an idea”.
Riding the unicorn they found in the outskirts of the city was difficult: nothing like the dream Cloud had been to manoeuvre. The fur was far coarser, like the prongs on a hairbrush, the skin sagging and covered in a mixture of moles and boils. It also moved far faster. She had to hold onto Oskar, feeling the muscles moving on his back as they desperately tried to manoeuvre it in the direction they wanted to. It was easy to go forward; it was difficult to turn. Twice, while trying to get the great beast away from the buildings of the Shireoupian city, it had crashed into a tree and sent the pair giggling into the sand.
“What’re we naming this one?”, Oskar asked her.
“Cloud the second?”, she replied.
He smiled at that: “Cloud the second it is”.
Somehow they manoeuvred the mount out of the city limits, going through several fields of corn as they did so, and began to move towards the mountains where the first follower fell. It had rained recently and the ground was wet, their footprints splattered out in the soil behind them: it smelt of the end of spring, of the slow slip into summer and of new starts. Gawn gripped Oskar close. He was warm: it felt nice.
Chapter X (Oskar):
“Oskar, get your ass in ‘ere”, someone was shouting from another room. “I got jobs for ya”
He rubbed his eyes and shifted the sheets, pulling himself off his hay stuffed bed, stretching. His two hands reached for the ceiling.
“I’m coming”, he shouted back. His voice seemed higher than it should be. He pulled his pants on, sticking his boots onto his feet and buckling them up, and went into the one other room in his house.
His Nan was there, sitting on a bed in the corner: “Get me some water from the stream”, she said. “After training, we’re out”.
He nodded and nipped out the back door. It had snowed recently, and he passed the slush of a snow person on the floor. Two small twigs had been twisted into its head: they might have once been horns.
Training was gruelling, the hard hits of the other boys sending him sliding across the slush: he slashed his sword and it snapped against someone’s shield. But training wasn’t just combat. He furrowed his brow when he looked at the blackboard, looking lazily at the names and times of historical events. The teacher droned: he stared out the window and dreamed of the tyfling girl he had seen.
What would it be like? He wondered, to play with her in the snow?
He thought of her blue cheeks turning red from the chill and smiled, his imaginary hand putting a cup of warm ale into hers.
I wonder how the blacksmith is doing?, he thought, thinking of the snow tyfling smashed on the ground before. I wonder if they all know each other, those tyflings. Maybe she’s friends with the…
A bell broke his line of thought. He was shoved out of the classroom and into the slush: small spatterings of snow drifted down from the clouds above and landed on his shoulders. He took a bucket from their hovel and strode down to the stream.
His hands registered it before his eyes did. He heard the bucket bouncing on the stones surrounding the stream, an unsettling knell of a funeral bell as it plonked off the pebbles.
The water was red. He turned his head upwards and stared at the three hanging there. The blacksmith, the mother, the little son bundled in furs. Each one was broken beyond belief, their necks hanging taunt from ropes rappled to the branches above. Swords the blacksmith had made were shoved through their stomachs: their skin stripped of any fabric. Their genitals had been cut out from within. He felt like screaming, like running, but his legs were standing still.
House Fathrione did this, it was the first thought that came to his mind. One of treachery. And then another: I have to keep that tyfling at the Kruch safe. I have to help her.
One of the bodies lolled lazily as the breeze blew them back and forth, the branches creaking beneath the corpse's weight.
Oskar wailed. Next to the stream he shrieked, as tears rolled down his cheeks: he didn’t understand, how could he understand?
He grasped the grass and realised it had turned brown, the land moving up and down like some enormous animal, and then the dream was done.
He woke atop the unicorn, charging full speed through the scrubland of Shireoupe.
“And you give me shit for sleeping so much”, Gawn said, ribbing him a little.
He wiped his eyes, “sorry, it’s my new foot I think, having to concentrate more on my balance is making it more difficult in the day.”
Gawn looked at him: “I’m really sorry about that, Oskar. I really didn’t mean to, you know, I was really trying to save you.”
“I know”, he said. “Just don’t take the other one too, I need it.”
She smiled, “I am sorry though, genuinely. I’m sure we can fix it somehow.”
He turned to her and tried to talk before they went blundering through a group of yellow trees. Branches broke as saplings were stomped to the ground.
“It’s impressive how fast Cloud the second can go”, he said when they were out. “I’m surprised we don’t have something like this in the Avanti isles.”
“We’d have to come here and take them,'' Gawn said.
“So? We definitely could”
Gawn looked at him: “isn’t that wrong though? What if the people here needed them, this is their home after all.”
“We could help them become civilised, did you see the state of that city?”, Oskar said. “It smelled, Paland is far better.”
“I bet house Septark would say the same, that they’re only trying to conquer our home for our own benefit. And house Grënkin would’ve too.”
Oskar was silent for a second then smiled, “I guess you’re right Gawn. But still, having a unicorn permanently would be nice.”
Cloud the second brayed, then swayed and switched course.
“Looks like he agrees with you”, Gawn giggled.
They passed an enormous ravine in the ground with more of the circles of stone that marked godly commerce they had seen so very long ago: it was surrounded by colossal cranes, each reaching an extended claw into the crevice below.
“I heard the old gods lived there when they first rose on Pân”, he told Gawn: “look at the things they built. Most of the mountains we passed at home were just their crumbled castles, it’s weird to think how small we are compared to them.”
She nodded and smiled at him: “you truly believe, don’t you, without a shadow of a doubt.”
“The proof's right there”, he said, pointing at a vast rib cage lying in the sand several hundred meters away. “Don’t you believe in the shepherd just as much?”
“Honestly Oskar”, Gawn said, “I’m not so sure anymore.”
They rode in silence for the next few days, till the first hints of the Borean breakers appeared on the skyline.
Chapter X (Oskar):
Oskar seethed in secret. At first he had mourned the loss of his leg and arm, then been annoyed at the inconvenience: but when Gawn apologised he felt nothing but anger in return. How was he meant to move on so quickly from being crippled? He desperately wanted to pull off his wooden foot and beat Gawn silly with it.
What di’ I eve’ do to deserve this.
He had been good, he had protected his friend, brought her halfway round the known world for a goal not even his own, nearly been killed by some bloody spider: and for what?
She had returned his kindness with a blast of energy and a loss of limbs. It hurt; he felt betrayed.
It was because of this he had agreed to go to the Borean Breakers in the first place, not out of duty or kinship, but because he was scared. He could see the power pulsing through Gawn now, whatever it was, and it terrified him. So Oskar stayed silent.
He held his tongue till he saw the true enormity of the Breakers. Oskar gasped. He thought the Kruch had been large, thought the Titan in Eablo’s camp had been bigger, but these seismic slabs of stone were simply vast. What, from afar, had appeared to be individual trees turned out to be vast forests clinging to the craggy cliff side. Waterfalls, ten times the size of the stream back home, shot from the rock and ricocheted into a billion fractured forms. They looked like falling glass: exploding at the bottom in a fine mist. And that was simply the first mountain among thousands. Further away, he could see the polar peaks of more mountains that dwarfed even those before them: each prodding at the firmament, lifting it up to gain more space for the ground. All around were hundreds of Unicorns grazing on the thick grass.
Cloud the second second was fast. What would’ve taken their first mount hundreds of days to achieve took him mere hours: his four feet breaking the undergrowth as he trampled onwards. But, when they reached the base of the breakers, he stopped suddenly.
Gawn pulled on the Unicorn’s fur and urged him forward.
“He’s not going anywhere”, she said, turning to Oskar.
He tried to usher the creature forth, cooing in its ear and offering it grass once they reached the top, but it just wouldn’t move.
“Looks like we’re continuing on foot”, Gawn said, sliding down the slick fur. He followed her, feeling a jolt up his leg when he landed. The mountain stood tall before them. It was a sentinel, a path made of pebbles pushing towards its right.
Gawn took his hand.
“We can do this Oskar, we’re nearly there now”.
“I know we ca’, Gawn”, he said, taking his last hand back. “I’m ready.”
They walked up the mountain for the rest of the day, seeing the ruins of downed airships hanging from trees or half submerged by mud like broken balloons. Each of their cylindrical shapes looked like a broken egg: smashed open from the stone. Around them were the broken parts of some sort of fallen city. Roads, with strange machines Oskar didn’t recognise beneath them, appeared to have fallen from the sky and now stuck from the rock like ramps. Houses, hovels, half finished shops were scattered between the trees, as if some great god had picked them from a toy box and thrown them through the forest in anger. It was eerily quiet.
“I’m surprised we haven’t come across any other children of the shepherd yet”, Gawn said to him. “It’s the right time of year for visiting, but nobody is on the roads.”
He thought about it for a moment. “Maybe they’re all fighting in the war?”
They followed the footsteps of others who had come before up their mountain path. Darkness dawned, dragging drapes over the suns, and shadows grew from the trees till the world was black but for the bright moon. Oskar had never been so cold. The climate caused their teeth to chatter. The pair made a shelter from some sticks and ferns they found on the side of the road, Oskar showing Gawn what he had learnt in the league.
“You want a central stick to balance the others on”, he told her. “We’ll make a framewor’ and then put foliage over it, to keep warm.”
When they were done they had a crooked clump of sticks and leaves they could barely both fit in on the side of the path.
“Min’ using some of that green stuff you can summon to light a fire”, Oskar asked. “I would but…”
“I’ll try”, Gawn replied, picking up several sticks from the ground. “but I’m not sure if I can just turn it off and on again.”
She arranged the sticks in a sort of pyramid, flicking her fingers towards it. Nothing happened. He watched her try again, her gestures growing more wild with every attempt. Gawn groaned and flung her hands into the air: “how am I meant to do this?”
Her eyes shone suddenly, the anger arcing towards the sticks, and suddenly a blaze was burning in the middle of the blackness. Oskar crawled out of the den and saw the strange fire flicker.
“Fecking hell”, he said. “That smells of the sea, that’s some weird fire right’ there.”
Gawn smiled, returning to the shelter and snuggling up beside him. He desperately wanted to push her away: he could see her dangerous hands moving up to his chest. The hands that had torn through the superior as if she was sawdust.
“Goodnight Oskar”, Gawn said as the fire cracked and swelled outside.
“Nigh”, he said, trying to turn around.
She pulled him back, placing her lips on his briefly, before committing to the kiss.
Oskar tried to pull away, felt fear flatten his resolve, then hugged her till dawn.
Chapter X (Gawn):
Kissing Oskar was strange for her. She’d thought that he would’ve wanted it just as much as she did, imagined him placing his hand behind her head to draw her in closer, but it had been completely different. He had wildly tried to worm away in the shelter, pushing against the lined up sticks and ferns in an effort to get away from her.
Maybe he was just surprised? , the idea worried her. Am I a bad kisser? Did I do something wrong… read him wrong?
There was an awkwardness growing between the two of them, the next few days they walked meters apart and spoke little: Oskar keeping a close eye on her wherever they went. The food was beginning to dwindle.
“We only really had enoug’ for a journey to New Jzebrov”, Oskar said. “All this side tracking isn’t doing us any good.”
He taught her to hunt, placing traps round their campsites in an effort to find something to eat. Sheep, hares, boar, each was shovelled down their gullets. They found a pregnant goat once, legs strung up in the snare they’d set. Oskar showed her how to gut it and they ate kids that night: the crunch of the creature’s cartilage combined with the cracking, clicking, chaos of the woods around them. Sometimes she was scared she’d accidentally step into one of the devices, they were easily strong enough to send her shooting high into the trees.
Around a week into their journey they saw snow for the first time. It slathered the soil and stuck to the sides of trees like mourning veils, icicles crying in the mourning as they were melted by the sun. Chrysanthemums cluttered the path up the mountain, to where the first follower fell, orchids opening their petals as Gladioli stuck straight to the sky like swords; they were nearly there.
Closer to the summit, Gawn knew, was a kind of crater: filled with bits of the first follower’s crashed heaven. It was there that people migrated in the thousands to pray every year, taking bits of debris back to their personal Kruchs to keep as holy relics. Gawn remembered the one that had adorned her old home, part of a rocking chair placed on a pedestal. The superior’s had claimed it was protected by the Lyrd herself, but she knew even the Lyrd couldn’t stop it from being broken by whatever had destroyed Grenbrecken.
“I’m going to take something from here for the Kruch”, she told Oskar. “When we go home.”
He looked at her dubiously: “if”.
She turned back to the soil and continued their march up the mountain, the suns swirling around each other as if time itself had forgotten them. Each night they made a shelter, each morning they checked the traps, each day they kept moving upwards. One day Oskar had to make two shelters because the first wouldn’t fit them both, and it became a tradition that they would sleep separately.
He seems annoyed, but what about? Gawn thought to herself as they ascended. I haven’t done anything to him. Does he miss home?
She stared longingly at his hand during the ascent, wishing she could hold it to fight off the cold. Then her gaze turned to the stump. While his other arm looked like a fully grown tree, with finger branches and nail leaves and skin bark, the stump broke off into bits of bone as if it had been struck by lightning.
I did that, Gawn thought, furious at herself. I hurt Oskar. I have to do something to fix it.
Gawn quickened her pace and caught up to him, turning and gesturing for him to stop. She stood in front of him, higher on the hill, and held his stump in her hand.
“Oskar”, she said. “I meant what I said. I really, really, didn’t mean to hurt you. I was just trying to save you, I didn’t want that superior to hurt you. I’m so sorry for what I've done: but I only did it because you’re my best, my only, friend. And I care about you so much. Please, if I scared you of something just say, I just want us to go back to normal.”
He looked at her and seemed to think for a moment.
“I know you didn’, I’m just… angry at meself fo’ failing to protect you. I want to keep you safe, Gawn: but I can’t do that with one hand.”
She looked back at him: “you’ve already done so much to protect and help me. We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t thought of the unicorn, if you hadn’t arranged to get us out of a war zone, if you hadn’t been my friend: I owe you my life Oskar.”
For the first time in a long time he hugged her sincerely, his shuddering shoulders surrounding her. “Gawn”, he said, pulling away from her as he looked up the path. “Look”
She turned and saw what he saw. They had reached the valley, the road curving gently into it. He took her hand and they helped each other over a red pool in the road.
Where the shepherd fell was beautiful, thousands of followers staying silent and still around a massive metal meteor that seemed to have blasted into the mountain itself. The central temple, half a thousand meters high, stood chiselled from the stone: hundreds of carved figures pushing past each other upon pillars and steps. Holy relics simply lay in the soil, waiting to be collected, and frost flew in icy sheets through the air.
“Gawn, are they mean’ to be lying’ down?”, Oskar asked.
She followed his gaze and saw a group laying a mere ten meters away, face first in the snow. Around them was a pool of rippling red, as if they were the centre of a rose. Gawn turned and saw the other followers unmoving, their bodies half buried in the snow. It was silent.
“How did this happen?”
Gawn was gasping for air now, she felt her hands shake as her heart beat harder.
“This is meant to be a holy place, a sacred place, the Lyrd wouldn’t let anybody die here.”
And yet, before her, were the butchered bodies of thousands of followers. Gawn screamed at the silent valley, emotion pouring out of her as she pleaded for it not to be real. Deep within, her faith fractured.
Chapter X (Gawn):
Looking over the crater of corpses filled her with kenopsia, this was meant to be a place bustling with bodies. People were meant to be pressed up against each other, the space between you and another thin as a piece of paper. Gawn sunk into sonder.
How many more people will travel here, just to see what we have today? How long till word reaches the towns, the Kruk herself?
She felt like her body had been slowly pulled apart, like a child might do to an ant, her doctrine dissected: pages parted and examined, spine split and looked over, ink twisted with tweezers.
“I don’t believe anymore”, she said bluntly.
Oskar looked at her: “wha’?”
“The shepherd wouldn’t let this happen, the shepherd I was taught about anyway. If she couldn’t stop it, what on earth is the point in worshipping her? She’s meant to be all powerful, but whatever did this is far above this.”
Oskar looked at her strangely: “so, what’d you believe in?”
“I don’t know,'' Gawn said. “And I think for now, that’s okay. I’m glad we came though. I… I couldn’t have made it here without you Oskar.”
“I could’ve made it here, but it’d have been cold without your fires,” he said, smiling.
Gawn didn’t feel like giggling. She didn’t want Oskar to see how weak she felt, she wanted to be strong, but with the sudden rupture to her religion she felt something so very heavy upon her back.
Maybe this is what the shepherd was holding for me all along?
She dismissed the thought.
They stayed on the side of the collosal crater while they decided what to do. A slowly moving fire made its way through the artefacts below, sending squadrons of smoke clouds cascading up into the deep blue sky. Years of history evaporated into the blue yonder in mere moments, the snapping crackle of burning underlying their conversation.
“We have two choices”, Gawn said: “go back down the way we came, return to the village we docked at and then travel to the lightning train, or walk over the ridges of the mountains and hope somehow we pop over the peaks at just the right place to see the station. Safe or risky are our options.”
Oskar pointed at the map they’d made in the mud: “or we could go north to the islands the league owns or the Abyssal coalition and travel from there somehow?”
“I don’t think we’d make it over the Breakers and back again in time to meet my mother in New Jzebrov, I’ve delayed us long enough.”
Oskar’s eyebrows arched and he looked directly at her pupils. He’s looking at me normally, for the first time since home he’s looking at me like a person.
“Listen, Gawn, I like baths eve’ if I only discovere’ ‘em on Ymily’s ship: I don’t wan’ to have to wait too long to take one again. So I say we go fast but risky.”
She nodded. “We’ll stay here for tonight, then walk down the ridges of the breakers in the morning.”
“Time to se’ the traps”, Oskar told her.
She watched him work, his hands shaping the snares around bits of loose wood and grass: some were boxes with sticks beneath that never seemed to work, others ropes and rivets attached to the roots of trees.
“I hope we catch a rabbit”, Oskar said. “I could do with a good breakfast tomorrow.”
She agreed as they settled down to sleep.
Gawn woke to the snap of a snare.
A rabbit?, she thought first. No, that couldn’t possibly be so loud.
Oskar was up beside her, reaching for the sword and handing it to her: “that wasn’t no rabbit Gawn.”
Feeling tight with tension, the two moved slowly through the woods towards the sound. Something big was struggling against the snare. From a distance it looked like some sort of grasshopper, long steel legs dangling downwards, spine reinforced with some sort of plate armour.
Oskar’s mouth opened when they got near enough to see its uniform.
“Gawn”, he said slowly. “Go back to camp, get the things, it’s the…”
She looked over and saw the two crossed swords over a fire emblazoned on the man in the snare’s chest.
“It’s the league”, she said suddenly.
A blast of heat hit them in the backs suddenly: an arrow arced towards their camp and exploded brilliantly among the fire.
“Gawn, we need to run.”
Chapter X (Oskar):
He watched the black bolt arc through the air and explode in the centre of their campground, the fire they’d lit the night prior plastering their bags in an inferno. Something was bouncing through the trees, the hiss and crack of the SCG gear he’d seen the league use during his training filling him with fear. Shouts echoed through the forest:
“Nassa, ullo kanmir capés”
He looked at the armband Gawn was wearing and grasped her hand.
“Gawn, we need to run”.
He tried to pull her, hobbling past the snared body of the league soldier. She resisted. Her fingers flew from his as she stared him down:
“Oskar, what’s going on here? Why is the league after us?”
“Listen, there’s no time to explai’ we gotta get…”
“Oskar there’s been plenty of time to explain everything but you haven’t taken the opportunity, it’s now or never. I’m not leaving until you explain.”
Oskar sputtered, seeing the green sword and the burnt book smouldering on the grass beside them: “grab those, let’s go.”
Gawn looked at the sword and the book, then grabbed the blade.
“I’m not running anymore Oskar, we’ve run before and nearly died. It’s time to move forward: towards those that are trying to harm us.”
“Gawn, don’t go, I can’t protect you against the league”.
“No, you can't”, Gawn told him. “That’s why I’ll protect you.”
He watched her run towards where their shelters were situated, the hilt in her hand. More league members bounced above his head, their legs curling as they flew forward through the trees. Oskar’s mouth opened slightly in awe. As they blasted past branches, bits of wood would flutter down behind them in a trail of twigs.
Run, run, run down the mountain
He fled through the forest, hearing screams behind him as blasts of green sheared the tops of trees.
“Ullas mano es Lialite”, someone shrieked above him.
He looked up only to see the woman who’d cried out be split along the spine by a laser of light: her body breaking in two as she splattered to the floor.
Holy shit what on eart’s goin’ on?
He turned and ran back to the book behind him, grabbing it from the ground and gasping at the heat. Several of the pages curled into black, but overall it seemed fine. The night was filled with the sound of exploding black bolts. He could see fire flickering through the forest as he ran, smoke slowly twisting betwixt the trees.
Scrambling up a slice of stone stuck up from the ground, he slid down into the clearing where they’d made their camp. It was a crater now. The edges were burning brightly, a ring of red around the black pockmark. League soldiers dangled from the trees, their SCG gear crumpled beneath their weight. They seemed to be breathing, he could see that much, but between the ash and the smoke he was dizzy and disoriented.
“Gawn!”, Oskar screamed out into the night while the mountainside’s bark blackened in the blaze. “Gawn where are you?”
He saw a group of fallen trees and clumsily clambered over them, hitting his head on the way down.
Gawn appeared through a curtain of grey, her hands shining like two stars. A black bolt was stuck into her shoulder and it shifted as she strode through the fog. Her fingers found it, casting the shaft onto the soil where it exploded. Gawn’s eyes were dead, he could see that now, her cold cornea not her own. She looked older, hunched over as if a heavy weight lent on her back, her fingers tensed.
A league soldier was crawling away through the shifting mist behind her. Oskar screamed as she lifted her hand up slightly, firing another blast. It broke between the soldier’s shoulder blades and cut the scream short. He wanted to run more than ever. She terrified him, her shadow spilling out behind into the blackness. Gawn’s horns were bigger than ever.
“Gawn”, he said. “What’ve you done?”
“I saved you Oskar”, she told him as her eyes burned. He noticed that they looked like broken bottles now, shattered sclera.
“Ya killed people!”
“No. I saved someone: just like how I saved someone on the ship when he was going to get hit by a rock, just like how I saved someone from freezing to death on the mountain side”.
Her speech was slow and sorrowful.
Gawn continued, “You’re going to tell me everything Oskar, I deserve to know.”
She hooked the sword between her bicep and the arm band and pulled, sending it fluttering to the floor. He nodded as he crumpled to his knees.
Chapter X (Gawn):
Her fingers fluttered and, as they did, the league broke about her. She could send slashes of sunlight through them with a flick, a whip of white tearing them limb from limb. Gawn was a god. It felt so right to have this power, this anger, to use it against those that had tried to harm her. And to save her friend. Gawn remembered sitting in the Kruch’s spire so long ago, her heart beating as the blue troops marched towards her.
I could destroy them all, their war took everything from me.
She pictured the spire sagging, her home destroyed, her friendship with Oskar slowly tearing apart like a tense fabric, her religion ruptured.
I am power
Someone was running through the fog towards her, she blasted a bolt of energy above their head and snipped a segment of tree from the trunk. The light shot into space and disappeared among the stars.
Oskar came panting over a rocky outcropping as she finished one of the league members behind her. He was screaming.
“Are you hurt?”, that's what she wanted to say: the words stuck to her throat as Oskar screamed at her.
“I saved you?”
It was the only response she could give: it was what she had done. The league had struck to kill.
“Ya killed people!”
I’ve killed people.
The thought drowned in derealisation. She was one of the good tyflings who followed the word of the shepherd, she wouldn’t harm anyone at all. Bodies burned around her, soldier’s skin simmering in the heat of her attacks.
Why? Why did I do this? I’m no monster.
She told Oskar she had saved him, the words feeling far away as the fog flittered into her nostrils.
“You’re going to tell me everything Oskar, I deserve to know”.
She said it kindly while he dropped to his knees in forgiveness. A halo of smoke danced round her head.
They walked down the stone spine of the world while the mountainside blazed behind them: rocky ribs stuck out from the stretching ridge of the pathway. She could see the extent of her damage now, the trees toppling over into black ashen heaps while the grass beneath became a golden glow. The sky was the strangest however. Clouds had been cut clean in two by her blasts, the splits glowing like emerald dust. It stood out against the smoke. Miles of murk mingled with the sky, green fog festering where once there had been a bright blue. Strangely: it was beautiful. It made her feel strong, to see how she could transition the forest into an inferno. Animals ran beside them every now and then, fleeing from the flames, and birds constantly seemed to be shooting from the trees as the trunks ignited. Sometimes one would drop to the ground near them, feathers pregnant with flame, burnt alive.
Oskar didn’t say a word for several hours after the fight, walking a few feet in front of her and cautiously looking back every few seconds. When he finally said anything at all, he told her the answers she’d asked for.
“Projec’ bluebir’ is where most of the tyfling race in the worl’ are stored. There’s camps in Polaris, in Shireoupe an’ a ton in the avanti isles: the league told us they have a singula’ purpose. They exist to make it so that the nex’ inheritor of the power inherent in the tyflin’ race is under Fathrione or league control…”
“Power? Like what I have?”, she interrupted. He didn’t even try to continue, her voice vanquished Oskar’s in a second.
“Yeah… maybe, I’m not sure. See nobody ‘as really seen any o’ the three powers in a real long time, apart from the Amalgamate: house Fathrione captured that one in the war. But the Lialite and Coordinate? Not been seen in foreve’, some even think they’re los’. But the idea of the camps is to make as many of… as many tyfling’s as possible. The more tyflings that get born there, the more likely the force o’ frost gets another of the three powers. As long as no tyflings have bee’ passing the power for years, or unless one of them is trapped somewhere unexpected, it’s likely one of these camps will find a power sooner or later.”
“Oskar, what happens to those that don’t inherit the power.”
He looked down at the ground: “I dunnat know, they didn’ tell us, but when I went to visit one of them there weren’t many old tyflin’s about.”
Gawn held her head in her hands for a moment then stood straight.
“We need to free them: we aren’t weapons”.
“I thin’ this is what this is all about, your mother, Eablo, getting us out before the stones hit. I thin’ Gawn, this is more than a family reunion: she wants you for somethin or other.”
Oskar took a second to stare at her, his hand flapping briefly against his side, then turned back and kept walking.
“It dosent matter what she wants Oskar. I’m not letting anyone else wear the armband I did, it’s disgusting: my race deserves to be free. I’m going to make it happen. But I think you’re right, I think this all begins with me finding my mother. She’ll know what to do.”
Peering through the fog above them, the moon watched and waited: the soldier it had sent was marching.
Chapter X (Oskar):
Every morning he would wake to the same sound: a low hum of energy gradually growing greater till it became a concentrated clamour. Gawn would wake early to practice with her powers. At first, he saw, it was only a singular finger that could muster even a moment of the power, but in days she seemed to have advanced onto two. By the time they were half way down the steep slopes of the breakers she had figured out three fingers, three terrifying lasers cutting long gashes into the mountain’s stone skin. By the time they were back at the bottom, their legs sore from the descent, Gawn was using her whole hand at once, combining the five separate strands of light into one singular sweeping shot. With the sword she seemed even more powerful. The blade amplified each arc of arcane light, sending shockwaves into the soil all around them as it did. For days after its usage they would find it humming, as if it had just struck something.
“Tell me what you know about house Grënkin”, that was Gawn’s second request. “Everything the league told you.”
He complied: “House Grënkin were a genocida’ faction…”
“Genocidal against who?”
“Elves, stoutfolk, the fungaloi’ races: anyone not like ‘em”, he replied. “That’s why there’s barely any of them left at all.”
“Why did they treat people that way?”
Oskar thought for a moment.
“I dunnat really kno’”
“How did they kill them, contain them, whatever? Did they put them in camps, like what house Fathrione does?”
He hadn’t really considered this at all. What did House Grënkin actually gain from starting the war? Why were they so agressive towards Shireoupe at the beggining of the seven year struggle?
“I’m not sure, Gawn.”
“What about the league? Tell me about them.”
That he did know about.
“The league was started a long time ago by a dwarf name’ Halvin Halfbear’ in memory of his los’ loved one Amber Doyen. They say he’s been alive for thousands of years, ha’ read every book and knows everythin’. But he disappeared, a while ba’ so now they have a caretaker leader till he returns”, he said. “They don’t get involved in any war, but try to help those what need it.”
“I see they helped us well enough.”
They clambered over a moss covered rock befire continuing.
“They never got involved in tha’ last war: if that’s what you’re askin’. Their leader at the time wasn’t interested, but since then they have been on the side of house Fathrione when it comes to treating tyflin’s. Some say they want to grab the power of the tyflin’ race for themselves by killing ‘em all: but mainly they’re tryin’ to stop the second coming of house Grënkin.”
Gawn sighed. It was accompanied by a long and low breath of wind whispering through the crags in the mountains behind them. Occasionally they would step into one of these cool tunnels of air shooting through the arid earth and be met with a cold breeze. The two were walking south, following the footprints of unicorn herds to try and find another village or city. Food, Oskar had found, was less of an issue when Gawn could simply cook things with her hands. Several times he’d seen her shoot the light straight through a rabbit's eye. The meat thus produced seemed presalted to a point, and crispy, although the diet of such creatures seemed to primarily consist of concentrated seafood. Several times they found half digested shells, and even a snail, in the creature’s stomachs. Oskar threw these bits away; Gawn relished them.
It seemed to him now that Gawn was two people: one before the power and one after it. He remembered how excitedly she’d clutched his hand during the red harlequin’s performance, how they’d nearly kissed under the fireworks, how she had bent over to collect water. He knew she wouldn’t do anything of the sort again. Those memories were marred. Every time he thought if the village all he could see were the league’s corpses strewn about the branches of the trees above, the slowly dripping blood of the tyfling child, the landscape broken by boulders. Oskar felt seasick all of a sudden, the world wobbled as his eyes strained wearily at the sun.
Had it always been so bright?
He vomited onto the path beside him, his guts producing a deep green waste all over the floor. It stung his cheeks, his nose felt full of the stuff as he heaved again. I don’t want any of this inside of me.
He pictured the woman crawling away from Gawn only to stop suddenly when shot and heaved up.
Gawn looked back at him and helped him up from the floor, dusting him down and taking a towel to his head while he swayed.
“Oskar, Oskar are you okay?”
He didn’t answer.
If I was just another league soldier, would she have killed me too? Are we just expendable to her?
His missing limb ached like a ghost grasping at his consciousness. Oskar stood without support before slowly taking a step forward. He would continue to walk that way, with Gawn trailing behind him, till they saw a settlement on the horizon. He hoped against hope the lightning train was there: Oskar wanted the journey to end.
Chapter X (Gawn):
The first town they visited didn’t have the lightning train, neither did the second, the third too was empty, the fourth yielded nothing, the fifth was deserted and they slept under the shelter of a barn. They kept travelling south: they would find it soon. Striding through the shifting sands, the two came across an enormous wall made of a deep marble. Across the stone were carvings of people, of animals, of a tremendous tree blasting out of the sea. For a while they attempted to walk round it, passing murals of men taking strange gifts from snails and fleeing from crumbling castles, of Oskar’s gods visiting the tyfling race in their infancy, of seven spires and strange distant lands. All the art was disgusting to look at.
“We’re going through it”, she told Oskar.
He nodded and stepped back, watching her anxiously. In a moment she tore a tunnel through the wall with a flick of her fingers. They continued through, being careful not to touch the sides of the slowly melting marble.
Shireoupian nights were cold. Snow would sometimes swirl high above them and fall to the floor in glacial globs as it melted midair. The mornings were humid: sweat clinging to their clothes, between their armpits, on the nape of their necks. They smelt bad, Gawn knew that: but placing their minimal clothes in the pools of stagnant water hardly seemed more helpful. Not that she wanted to undress in front of Oskar. She felt repulsed by him recently.
Why can’t he just see? We have never done anything wrong, we’ve always been in the right.
How fast her race, so sprawling and disparate, had become we. She knew it was true though. The only people she could trust were tyflings, a people oppressed. Her mother. Ymily. Herself.
Even though I saved him from getting blown up, he still tries to defend them.
She looked over to him. Oskar was standing still, ignoring the grass beneath him, and looking longingly into the white and blue of the Shireoupian sky. Why can’t he think the same as me?
Time ticked slowly onwards as what had once been one day split into two, then twenty. Then forty. Forty days and nights. They passed more huge bones, these ones chipped and cut by rusting spears the size of spires. The wood was rotting, she could see, and termites crawled all about them. As they passed, she saw a distant shaft snap and send a huge wave of sand in their direction on the wind. Occasionally, though infrequently, they saw other groups of travellers on the horizon. Those in masks of the shepherd travelling north, other teams of two like themselves, some distant army in red trudging slowly away from the mountains and towards Munlanding.
She wished she could turn the stones to bread about her: they’d had nothing to eat but large lizards she severed at the head in the past… however long it had been. They’d camped near a cliff that night: Oskar walking to its side to dangle his legs off the edge.
“Jump!”, she shouted at him. She hoped he would laugh. Oskar slowly slipped off the tongue of stone and into his shelter. A moment later she heard snoring emitting from the pile of sticks they’d gathered for their bushcraft. Fog from the fire far behind them constricted their view with long white fingers, so she could not see far, but what she did see were buildings taller than she had ever imagined.
They walked towards this city the next day. It’s outskirts appeared to be in ruins, with buildings slumped upon each other like fallen gravestones. Some of the structures seemed as if they had been blasted from above, their insides crumpling into themselves as bricks teetered moments away from collapse, whereas others were segmentilly sliced: long lines linking them like piles of forgotten puzzle pieces. Approaching the limits of the city, however, they saw that it had been built on top of these ruins. It was situated on some huge metal slab, with walkways winding high up into the sky that were just big enough for a person to stand on. More large bones surrounded the city, though these were smaller and seemed to be grasping at the walls in an attempt to clamber upwards. Long fingernail scratches tore furrows down the side of the structure, usually with a collection of corpses at the bottom. Gawn grabbed the railing and started ascending the stairs.
It took an hour to get to the top, her legs shaking as she nearly collapsed against the bannister. Oskar followed her a moment later, slouching against the stairway as they looked out into the city streets. There were strange horses here, which seemed to move on three wheels down the centre of the street, puffing smoke into the air. All about, they could see weapons directed at the wall they had just climbed, long crossbows and squat little things Oskar told her were rifles. But the strangest thing of all was the noise. Days in the desert had made her forget how busy cities were. Oskar had barely talked, but now they were in a place where language lounged on every street corner and was lavished all over the walls of the buildings. The shout of sales, passing talk, arguments, red dogs barking and lynxes hissing at one another across wooden walls.
“Why can we understand what they’re saying?”
Oskar answered: “we’re all speaking common, ‘ouse Grënkin wiped out all the othe’ languages in the places they visited. Looks like they got ‘ere too.”
And what was so wrong with that? It’ll make finding a lightning train faster.
They spoke to someone and were told that “yar, our city haz vhe lightning train”
Directed down a squadron of steps and a plethora of plazas, they found the platform. It had been scrubbed clean of any dirt, but pidgins pooled rampantly in the recesses like spilled grey paint. They had no money, it didn’t matter, they could hide on board. What could anyone do to stop her anyway?
In a moment, I’m going to meet my mother.
Chapter X (Gawn):
One moment the tracks of the station were empty, coils of copper constructing the tracks and turning slowly as strange disks that seemed to pull coins from the pavement whirled with arcane energy. The next it was there. Lightning lashed inside the tube of copper the train traveled through, purple and white and brilliant. It was long, long enough to curve out of sight round a corner to their left, it’s wheels connected by golden gears and rivers. Smoke chugged from a funnel onto the platform as Gawn gasped.
What on earth is this thing?
On its front was a plow plastered with white leaves, with two rotating gears acting as a kind of meat grinder in front of it: connected to the rails. Dew dropped from the lightning train’s side. It was awe inspiring.
And we’re going to ride it in first class, looking out the windows.
They hid in the baggage compartment, stuffed between sacks of clothes and copper. Gawn glanced up and glimpsed a stuffed Polarian eye bird looking down at her in the darkness. It’s one glassy eye swelled to accommodate half its head. It was silent at first, so much so that she believed there must have been a malfunction on the tracks, but suddenly the train exploded into a hive of motion. She could feel a deep clunking as the train started to sprint out of the station, the soft zap of electrical energy sending shivers down the hull. As they approached what she assumed to be the end of the platform the train screamed, a terrible tortured twisting of metal, and suddenly the exterior world seemed to have been wiped away. It was as if someone had spilt white ink over a drawing: the crowds of the station blotted out into obscurity as the all encompassing shriek dribbled slowly down the canvas. All there was now was the chugging and the occasional reving of the grinders on the tracks.
Halfway through they heard what was referred to as ‘a ticket man’ come and collect the passenger’s right to entry. He clanked past their cabin and into the next and Gawn held her breath. She was glad she did so when she heard him find somebody in the next cabin over, hiding under a chair. Something opened on the side of the train and she felt someone bump off onto the tracks beside them. The train bumped, briefly slowed, then kept going forward. It felt so fast. She had never experienced how bags would shift at high speeds, and so when the train suddenly screeched to a stop she was surprised to see the Polarian eye bird plush plunged down towards her. They were there. She could feel it inside her: like an umbilical cord that had been stretching from Shireoupe all along, feeding her thoughts.
The stones of the platform dripped with sunlight, tiles glinting golden. In the sky, the sun seemed like a shimmering yellow yolk on a blue pan, traces of milky white clouds drizzled atop it. Gawn breathed in the Estrian air, it smelt so different from anything she’d experienced before, the tang of roiling winds nipping at her nostrils. Peering over the platform as they rushed to the exit she got brief glimpses at the golden city. In its centre was the spire of a Kruch, larger than any shed ever seen, and the coloured cobbles of the streets shone like sea stones.
“We’re ‘ere”, Oskar said mournfully. “Time to find ya mother”.
She wanted to lunge at every purple tyfling she saw, to pull them to her tight and ask if they were going to be the one to make everything okay. Gawn walked a few meters ahead of Oskar. He stuck behind her on the street, the rainbow bricks beneath them contrasting with their crud stained footwear. Tension tore at her heartstrings.
Is it you? Or you? Or you?
A flash of purple or pink skin set her eyes ablaze, she searched hurriedly through the streets. Her mother was here somewhere: she just had to find her. She perused the plazas, searched up stairways and streets, eyed enki being traded at the market, turned corner after corner after corner through alleys and archways. The city streets were the veins of a heart, twisting and toppling over one another, beating with the movement of bodies. A swell of synth from a band nearby soared, the beat of drums getting louder and louder, the long mournful last note of a piano. Gawn looked up and saw her mother for the first time.
The woman she witnessed was beautiful, hair tied back into eight dark legs that scuttled across her skull, her skin was a dull blue. It was the badge, the same goat’s head as Oskar’s, that made her sure she had found the right tyfling in the clustered crowd. She ran towards the woman, pushing past passerbys till she reached her.
Gawn’s eyes opened wide, waiting for a response.
“Gawn?”, Darnun asked. “Are you Gawn?”
“Yes”, she said simply.
Darnun pulled her in close, the two cuddling quietly in the centre of the city.
“I promise nothing bad will ever happen to you again”, her mother said, looking to the left. “I will protect you, Gawn Grënkin.”
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