There was nothing but brush in the deep jungle, but Pile found some way to lead them on. Smart-mouthed, selfish, shallow, and short, Pile was more annoyance than good companionship, but he had his uses. Boruin kept him around mostly because he could swallow a joke. They tried at least once a day to get him riled, but Pile could take it as well as he could dish it out.
Pile could also find a trail, even if there wasn’t one, and he could see far. Despite the brush, despite the sun hidden behind the thick leaves, Pile could see what was coming. When the dead man’s guardian found them, Pile had long seen it on its way, and so they were ready–as ready as they could be for a twelve-foot construct of magic. Mud, rock, and wood–the life of the jungle–was twisted into new form, sentient and seeking them out.
Boruin was not worried about Wraethe. She would wake if she felt the need, but the boy was going to be trouble. They hunkered down, waiting while the monster sniffed them out. The boy stepped lightly around Boruin, looking up at the trees, waving at colorful birds. The old man took his hand and hid him behind a thick tree root. Soon the child was back on his feet, undisturbed, unafraid, and unaware of the rising tension.
Toaaho disappeared into the brush, his movements slow and perfect. Years in slavery had not dissolved his training, and he’d had plenty of time to develop his skill since Boruin had purchased his writ. Pile watched the creature come and tapped his fingers across his axe blade. It echoed out a light ring, a tinny reverberation that sounded eager to be put to work.
Boruin licked the fingertips of his right hand and considered a small prayer. Maybe his last had delivered them out of the valley, but he decided against another. No reason to make a habit of it.
His fingers grazed the tattoos on his left forearm. He tried to forget about the creature, forget about the boy prancing in circles around him. The old man flicked his fingers over the dark runes, spinning them like a street shark’s gambling wheel. He felt the pull on his flesh as the line began to move.
The runes curled over his shoulder and down his bicep. They turned under his arm and over his wrist, climbing back up his forearm. The line crossed his shoulders and dropped down his back. They twisted around his chest and down across his hips, a long line of black runes that made no sense to him at all–at least very rarely.
The runes spun past his wrist, and Boruin dragged his fingers across a choice few. The runes came out of line and settled on his palm like fallen leaves. He had created spells before, finding the right arrangement, or right match, or right sub-category, something right; but it was rare. It came to him in odd moments of inspiration, and he was hoping for one now.
The guardian was bigger than he had first figured. The hard rock spikes shoved into its shoulder blades and forearms did not mark it as a peaceful creature. Its body was clay, with part of the forest shoved into the wet mass to give it more strength. Heavy limbs jutted out of its thighs and vines bound its chest into a dense and solid torso. Briars wound about its lower legs, placed there on purpose or mindlessly collected as it roamed about the forest.
Boruin had pulled down four runes when the boy sat down beside him. The child watched the runes flip by and examined the ones on the skin of his hand. The old man was picking the fifth when the boy stopped him. He motioned for the last to come back and the man to keep spinning. Boruin would have ignored anyone else, but this boy was odd. He slid the rune off the skin of his palm, back onto his wrist and continued to spin. The boy’s pointed finger followed a sharp-cornered rune down from Boruin’s shoulder, snaking around his arm, to his wrist. Boruin pulled it onto his palm, though he did not recognize it, and the boy clapped silently.
The old man stood behind Pile and tightened his left hand under the growing pain. He felt the runes burning in his hand; he felt their combination mixing. He wasn’t sure how effective it would be, but he knew it would create something. There was a feeling about a rune combination, a power that radiated when they matched. At times they matched too well, and Boruin let them run back up his arm for fear of their strength. This time they felt just right. As the creature stepped out of the brush and turned to look at him, Boruin flung the runes out of his hand.
The magic sliced through the air and hit the clay monster with a wet smack. The flesh of its body rippled back as the spell hit, forming a crater on its upper thigh. Blood red flowers erupted from the hole. They sprouted out of the clay and ran across the beast’s dark, muddy skin. The monster froze, watching the old man with his arm still outstretched. The matched gaze held until the flowers opened and all burst at once, gold pollen showering out from the wide blooms. They shone like stars where they crossed the thin shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy.
“The rutting Mother!” Boruin cursed. The boy clapped out loud and squealed in glee. Pile laughed against the horrified look on his face. Toaaho dropped out of the trees and drove his dagger into the creature’s back.
The monster roared and twisted, flinging the Mana’Olai off its hump. It tore at the flowers, dragging them out by their roots. It did not clear them all, but dashed forward at Boruin. Pile met it halfway, swinging his axe up into its kneecap. The blade hit with a dull thud, and Pile dragged it out covered in mud. The creature came on, and Boruin pulled his sword from his back.
“Go!” he shouted at the boy. The child dashed off behind a tree, peeking around the other side as if in play. The guardian swung, the rock barbs severing the branches and scoring tree bark as its heavy fists came down.
Boruin danced aside and flicked the tip of his sword up under the beast’s arm. It sunk into the armpit. Lungs, guts, and hearts should have been impaled, but Boruin dragged the blade back with clay streaking the well-oiled metal.
He raced aside, and Toaaho drove his blade again into the back, trying to sever the beast’s spine, if it had one. The dagger opened a great gash, but no blood welled out.
The three fought fast, circling, turning the beast like a bull on festival day. They fought and tired and the creature raged on.
Pile stumbled back, trying to catch his breath. “What the hell, Boruin! You got more than flowers for us?”
“Now would be the time,” Toaaho agreed, dropping below a thundering punch that felled the tree behind him.
Boruin glanced back down at his runes. The growing gloom left little to see. The thing was big but not slow. They were tiring, and in the dark there would be little chance of blindly out running it.
The light was still low and tinged orange with sunset, but Boruin knew that day was gone and Diuntyne was upon them as a flash of black swept out of the jungle. With shadows trailing behind her, Wraethe vaulted up the creature’s body, climbing the protruding rocks and shattered branches. Thick clay fingers dropped severed to the jungle floor as the creature’s hand tried to close about her. She rose fast and graceful up its body, like black smoke, to perch on the golem’s crown, like a crow on a gargoyle. The creature groaned as Boruin saw a white hand wipe smooth its creased forehead.
The monster’s knees shook and buckled. Pile dove out of the way as the mountain of clay came down. Wraethe stepped free from the softening creature. Her body shivered, and her hands clenched. She leaned her head back, lungs sucking in the moist air as if she were drinking in the night to wash down the taste of battle. Boruin and the others held still until her breathing steadied. They knew better than to rush her out of a fury. Fighting always gave rise to her blood, and it was unwise to approach her even after the heat of it.
In the darkness her face glowed like the great moon, her skin pale. She drew back the black hood, swinging the cloak over her shoulders, and seemed to step fully out of shadow. Wraethe tugged a red bloom from the dead clay and rubbed the mud from her hands onto the petals.
Her eyes flashed like sisters of the moons and she turned to Boruin. “Your work?”
“Mine and the boy’s,” he said.
“I’ve told you about fooling with what you don’t understand,” Wraethe replied.
“Yes. You have,” Boruin replied.
“So we got him, then,” she said, turning to the child. “I dreamt we had.” The boy stepped out from behind his tree and came forward. He eyed her cautiously, but bent to grab a fallen red petal and took her hand in his. The red leaf wiped the last smear of mud off her wrist, leaving her skin as pale cream.
Wraethe smiled and smoothed back his wild hair. “You are a good boy, aren’t you?” The boy nodded. “Learn no lessons from these three and we will get along brilliantly,” Wraethe continued. The boy widened his grin until it outshone her pale shimmer.
“How did you beat him?” Pile ventured to ask.
Toaaho answered for her. “The sigil. She saw the sign on his head.” Wraethe nodded in agreement.
“Some details stand out in my day dreams better than others. The sigil on the beam of the old man’s porch shone like a dying star,” she added.
Pile shook is head in exasperation. “Why didn’t you do that if you saw it?”
“Didn’t see what it was,” Toaaho said calmly.
“What’s done is done,” said Boruin. “Now we know what to watch for. If there are others, hopefully they will be the same.”
“Are they ever?” Wraethe asked.
“Never,” he replied.
End chapter 01 part 02.