The boy felt the man descend from the ridgeline almost as if he were his own hand held out into a numbing cold and now returning as a stranger to the warmth of his pocket. He was glad. The Fae had searched long for them both, reaching out with eyes and whispers from their home in the Dreaming Lands. Now the boy would journey home, if this new man could bear the weight of the burden he’d come to carry.
The boy listened to his grandfather’s last breath as the man and his three riders broke through the jungle’s edge. He held his mouth shut and watched them ride into the field. When they were halfway across the thin valley he inhaled again, no longer fearing that his grandfather’s last dead breath would be sucked into his own body. In life the old man would never have done the boy harm; he was a protector. In death, the boy knew, spirits tend to do odd things.
He laid his small hand on the dead man’s chest, feeling the heat slip from the corpse. He felt his grandfather’s magic fade, too. The ties snapped like a broken spider’s web. The strands began to sever and would soon wipe clean what life he knew in this hidden glade.
The riders came to a halt before the porch. This is where his life would now go. His grandfather was gone, and he’d taken the protection of the valley with him. The boy thought little of that, noticing only the runes tracing down the arm of the man standing before him. There was much power there. A keen few would see them: those that still knew the smell of old magics, those that heard the hum of coarse power even trapped in script. Why did the man risk laying out that secret out for those watchful few? He gazed at the others in the group. There was much strength here, almost as much as there was weakness. The boy rubbed his palm against his grandfather’s chest, one last goodbye and a measure of what little time they had left for introductions.
Boruin stood before the boy and ran his hand through his short gray hair, deciding what to make of the scene. The smell of the dust rising up where his boots stirred the earth was too sharp. His scabbard smacked against his leg louder than it should have. There was little time. He could feel it all changing. The jungle around them was coarse as rock salt rubbed into a wound; this place was smooth and fine, but it was cracking. The dead man’s magic had polished down this deep valley. He had held the land in check, held his valley in a chosen image. Now he was gone, and this place was on its way out.
Boruin could feel Pile’s eyes pricing the items on the porch, peering through the open door into the gloom. He didn’t have to see the young man’s hands to know they were already twitching, ready to take his share. They had all been relic hunters in their own way and time, but it was engrained in Pile, part of the young man’s fabric. He would not make a move though, not with Wraethe keeping him in check.
Wraethe, though, stayed wrapped in her shadowy cloak, her raven hair and pale skin hidden from the sun. Only her blue eyes appeared under that dark hood as she dreamed of the day and waited for night. She could wake now, if needed, but rarely did those eyes rise from the depths of shadows into the bright sunlight without riding on a wave of rage.
Toaaho showed no sign of eagerness, no pleasure at finding the boy. Perhaps the mask of tattoos laid across his face kept his emotion hidden as well. The broad strokes covering his sun-darkened skin seemed overdone, if their purpose was only decoration, but Boruin knew they kept the Mana’Olai hidden from more than just his emotions.
Boruin stepped forward, and the boy took his hand off the dead man’s chest. He did not shy away, did not run and hide from the four strangers. The old man watched the boy’s eyes dart across his left arm and it made him nervous. His tattoos were not seen by all, by very few in fact, and for a child to see them meant something. The boy was not what he expected, much like this whole contract. Every time he swore off that damn Nefazo merchant, the next job was doubly strange.
The boy reached out to touch the black runes, and Boruin almost stepped back. He took the small hand and dropped to his knees before the boy.
“Do you know me?”
The boy shrugged.
“You know why I’m here, or who sent me?”
The boy nodded yes. He stood up and walked to the horse as if he had expected a ride. The stirrup hung shoulder high. Though the steed stamped about him, the boy did not flinch. He placed his small hand on the horse’s flank, and it quieted.
“Do you have anything to take, anything you need? You won’t be coming back,” Boruin said. The boy pointed south, where the jungle closed in to swallow the valley at its needle point. A brown cloud had stirred up, dust probably. The wind had begun to descend out of the hills. Wind didn’t suck the thick grass down into the ground, though.
“Time to leave,” Toaaho said in his quiet, ever undisturbed voice.
Pile spat in anger, and the wind blew it back on his jungle-stained pants. “What about all this? You promised us some treasure! I didn’t hack through the Fae-cursed jungle to leave empty handed.” He sidestepped his horse closer to the porch, and Wraethe’s black shift rustled. His eyes darted toward the shrouded woman. “Come on, Boruin. I’ll be quick. Anything will do. It’ll just go to waste.”
“I see wooden bowls and a dead man, Pile. Search for more if you want,” Boruin said, placing the boy on the horse and vaulting up behind.
“The time is almost past,” Toaaho said, turning his horse to the north.
Boruin followed and shouted over his shoulder against the rise sound of the wind. “Half the valley is gone. Take what you can if you wish to join it!” Pile looked back and saw the valley behind him was now a whirlwind of destruction. The air sucked down out of the hills, pulling the ground soil toward the pocket storm. Pile’s mouth snapped shut as a heavy gust made his horse stumble backward toward the swirling mass.
“Have it your way!” the young man shouted as he spurred his horse into a gallop after them.
Pile hurried his mount forward and soon led the galloping riders through the field. The grass lay flat before their horses’ hooves. They all leaned close to their mounts, save for Wraethe, who seemed to flow as part of the gale.
The moisture drained from the dirt, and great cracks split through the soil. Boruin glanced back and watched as the storm engulfed the small cottage. The old man’s body rose into the air, or maybe it was the ground collapsing beneath. It hung still and then pulled apart as if made of dust.
Boruin drove his horse on harder as they crashed back into the thick jungle. The horses did not slow, and their riders did not try to rein them in. They plowed along a shallow stream and stayed low, ducking under the trees. The wind continued to blow down off the ridgeline, whipping the tangled branches and vines across their skin.
“Up! Up!” yelled Boruin as he felt the first tremor. The horses staggered as the earth began to shift, and the riders turned up the slope. Toaaho led them, switching back and forth up the steep walls of the valley.
Pile swung free from his saddle, leaning off the side of the horse as a boulder burst from the underbrush. It passed behind his horse’s head and flew down into the valley.
“I’m going to pass you if you don’t flog that beast!” Pile yelled at Toaaho. He dug his spurs into his mount and the horse tore forward. Wraethe followed after, and Boruin pushed his steed onward, cursing from the rear.
The horses halted as a great tremor shattered half the valley. The bedrock snapped with a loud groan, and the shelf sagged beneath them. A cleft in the hillside, virgin gray of exposed stone, ran upward from their feet. Toaaho did not hesitate to gallop up this strange track. The others followed. Boruin could smell the sharp spice of sparks as iron horseshoes clattered against the tilting rock. The trail canted steeper as they rushed on. The valley was dropping away and soon there would be nothing but air under their feet.
As the gray stone began to crumble, Boruin felt a wet mist blow from beneath them. The top of the ridgeline was right there, and he stopped cursing the gods to offer one quick prayer. Perhaps it did them good; perhaps the crash of water and splinter of stone drowned it out. Regardless, Toaaho reached the top just as the stone began to slide. Boruin saw Wraethe’s horse slip, and he rammed it with his own. He lost momentum but it was enough to drive the both off the tipping stone and onto the level ground of the jungle above.
Pile leapt, wide-eyed, from his horse. “Yuin’s whores, what a ride!”
Toaaho turned to watch as a great geyser of water shot out from underneath their feet. The sliding walls of the valley had uncovered a deep river, and the wash now vaulted into space and dropped deep into a bottomless cavern. The valley was gone, swallowed by the earth. The dead man could have received no deeper grave.
The horses pranced about, their blood still churning in excitement. Pile dropped to his knees, panting. He searched through all the hidden pockets of his red vest. On finding a charm, idol, or trinket he kissed each in turn as thanks and tucked it away again. Toaaho soothed his horse, whispering quietly into its flickering ears. Boruin wiped the sweat from his short, white hair, and watched Wraethe’s horse back into the shadows of the nearest tree.
In the full light of the sun Wraethe seemed weak, and to an extent she was. She sat still in her shadows, never seeming to move in the light. Still all of them feared her, even in day. Boruin would deny that, but in day and certainly at Diuntyne, he was as wary as any. Wraethe was like the trained war cat; fierce, loyal, and just wild enough to never take your eyes completely off. Her nature was more cruel than kind. And at Syan, at full night… she could be pure nightmare.
The boy alone turned his back on the valley. He sniffed at the air, his tongue licking out as if he were catching a scent the way a northern boy would catch a snowflake. When he had smelled enough, he turned to catch Pile’s attention.
“Father of Yuin!” Pile yelled when the boy placed his hand on the back of the man’s neck. “Don’t sneak up on me like that, boy! I’m a trained killer and I almost did you in!” The boy did not flinch at the barrage, but held out a strand of beads and tied rocks. “What’s this for?” The child shook it, as if enticing a baby.
“Treasure,” Toaaho answered, his face motionless.
“Kind of worthless.”
“Only kind you’ll get today,” Toaaho replied, his eyes sparkling.
Boruin pulled himself to his feet, laughing. “He’s right, Trained Killer. Better hold on to your share.”
He left Pile to grumble at their teasing and stepped to the edge of the valley wall. The rock had shorn clean off, and a granite cliff dropped down into the deep gloom. Boruin wondered if he could have seen the bottom even with the sun directly overhead. He looked up, checking its position, but it was lost above the thick jungle canopy.
Boruin turned his gaze to Wraethe. Only her eyes were visible behind the veil of shadow. They watched him back, dark as Diuntyne’s setting. They would brighten nearer sunset and she would come forward. For now, she was mostly asleep and that meant it was still afternoon. Wraethe would follow and she would flee, but she would remember little of the day except as fading dream. This was her slumbering hour, her weakest hour when he watched out for her. At night she returned the favor.
“It may not be wise to linger here longer,” Toaaho said, stepping beside Boruin.
Boruin nodded. “There is more magic to that man than the valley. I felt it, too.”
“I would guess more protection,” Toaaho replied. “Something ranging that let us pass before.”
“Why did it drop? Why so much magic here? Do you think he was Fae?” Boruin asked. Toaaho shrugged and did not answer. “Well, Belok better have more of an idea than you. I knew I should have sent him to peddle his contract elsewhere when he offered so much gold.”
End chapter 01 part 01.