He pulled three runes down into his palm. One looked like a spike for cutting. The second had a long arm that spun out and away. The third one he pushed back. It just looked wrong. Sometimes Boruin chose the runes at random; other times he grouped runes with hard angles, or the ones that looked more fluid. This time he looked for a balance. The dark tattoos slid across his back as he spun the line, looking for the proper rune to complete the spell. He found a third with a central twist, opposite and maybe a good counter to the middle sigil. The choice was made, and he felt the three begin to agree. There was a spell there and it would work. But how? he thought.
The burning runes crushed together in his grip like brittle embers. Boruin raised the fist above his head. His hand opened, and motes of black dust spilled from his palm, the wind swirling them out above the abyss.
“Damn,” Boruin said as he watched the dark cloud wash against the cliff above. “Spectacular job, you half-ass magician,” he muttered to himself. The dust stuck to the cold rock and did nothing.
Frustrated, Boruin rubbed the frozen skin of his arm, flipping the runes again. He picked another three, this time at random, and looked up to see a shadow seething across the stone and snow. The runes slid back out of his palm, forgotten. The black mass congealed and snaked into the cracks of the rock as if fleeing from the cold.
Boruin watched, fascinated, as long spines grew out of the crevices, sharp and red-tipped like the poisonous blood orchids nestled high in the Kleas forests. A large bloom trimmed in red punched out of the rock, and the howling winds shredded it with their cold teeth. The bud opened wide in agony. Boruin stumbled back, falling into the drifts, as a howl exploded between the bud’s long rows of teeth.
“Oh, Yuin! What the…” Boruin stopped speechless as the spell-thing burst upwards, growing through the rock. Shards of granite burst from the cliff as spines punched through, birthed from inside the rock face. Long vines, writhing like tentacles, spread from the crevices, bunching and wrapping together against the cold.
More mouths appeared as the thing spread outward, growing and howling in fury. More stone crumbled as if the monster Boruin had summoned was burrowing into the mountain, seeking to possess the great pile of rock. The vines stretched toward him, whipping out as if they would snap free just to reach and punish their maker. The mouths continued to scream, their voices louder than the wind.
Boruin found himself back on his feet and running through the snow. He did not turn until he was almost back to the cleft. He saw the top of the cliff between gusts of snow. Ebony spires groped for the sky, thorn towers growing thicker. A raging mouth rose among them like the domed cathedral of some demonic church.
Boruin slammed his hands over his ears and screamed along with the great mouth. His knees gave way, and he buried his head in the snow. The echo bounced off the mountains, and he felt the earth rumble.
For a moment he was sure he was falling, sure he’d open his eyes and see the world racing at him. The ground bucked beneath him, and he tore his face from the snow to see the high cliff exploding out into open air. The black plant, veins pulsing with freezing blood, rolled with the stone. Thorns shattered and skin burst as his monster tumbled over the edge in an avalanche of snow and granite.
Boruin’s ears were ringing, but he heard Pile shout, “What in the rut was that?”
The quaking had driven the others out of the stone, and they all watched the thing tearing angrily at the air as it fell. The sound of the impact was lost in the wind, but they could still see it moving at the battered foot of the mountain. The upper cliff was gone, a raw stone boulder field left in its place.
“Ruttin’ moved a mountain! I didn’t expect you to do it!” Pile said.
“And don’t ask me again,” Boruin replied. His eyes stayed on the monstrosity pulling itself down under the snow and rock to escape the freezing wind. Its howls continued to torture his ringing ears as the travelers picked their way through the boulders and down the side of the mountain. That worm in his gut continued to churn; the fear of the runes tearing him apart was now terror for the world he might tear asunder.
They shed their heavier furs as they hiked down into the wide valley that held, like a mother’s cradling arms, the nation of Easlinder. Great blankets of bluestar vine burned brightly all around them. Boruin watched the flowers turn, sensing Wraethe’s passing as if she were their moon now that Diun had dropped below the horizon.
They walked through the night, Boruin pushing them forward even though the beast of his construction was far off and walled in by mountains of stone. He said little, even once they regained the highway, somber and quiet while Wraethe oddly chattered and flirted with Pile, and then teased him for his response.
Toaaho led them from the merchants’ road when they found Belok’s trail, backtracking to a thin logger’s trail that turned deeper into the forests to the north of Priyati. Their leader’s silence seemed to infect Toaaho, as he spoke less the further they traveled. Boruin had known the trip would be difficult for the Mana’Olai. Toaaho had not returned to Easlinder since fleeing as a boy.
Boruin did not confront him until they had turned even from the thin trail and were wandering blind in the mountains. “Where are we going, Toaaho?”
“This is the way?” The man did not respond, and Boruin did not press him.
“This isn’t a way,” Pile muttered, “This is stumbling through the brush. A way was the road obviously going the right way.” Toaaho did not stop.
The woods grew thicker until they were following game trails, ducking under the draping branches of Easlinder pines and pulling thorns from their skin as they pushed through the brambles. The sun began to drop, and Wraethe would wake soon.
Boruin left her with Pile and the boy, hoping to pick Toaaho’s mind before she woke and made a mess with her unfettered tongue. He shouldered into another hedge, plowing over a mess of branches as even the game trails had finally ended. He cursed as the brush scratched his face, but suddenly he was through. Toaaho was standing still for the first time that day. Scorched stones slumped in ruin among mounds of a fallen shale roof from some massive house. The ground was bare as if trampled by cattle, but no animal had visited the hollow. It was too quiet, too dead here.
“What is this?”
“My home,” Toaaho replied. Boruin wasn’t certain what to say.
“You were barely a child. How did you remember?”
Toaaho looked at the ground at his feet. “There is where my father was slain. My eldest brother fell beside him.” The man began to walk. He pointed to the rubble of a barn, his voice calm as if he were a priest giving a tour in Pileaus’s great cathedral. “My aunts died there, defending their children. They were left to burn inside.”
The man strolled through the rubble, pointing out every spot where a family member had fallen. He named his uncles and brothers, his father’s men. The Mana’Olai named each of his family and where their blood had soaked into the earth.
“And you?” Boruin whispered, his voice unable to rise any higher.
The Mana’Olai’s gaze squinted through the last of the sun and pointed to the top of a tall cedar. “There. Hidden in the smoke as my home burned.”
Boruin knew of Toaaho’s loss, knew the death of his father’s camp had turned him orphan and exile, but now the knowledge settled into a place that was real. His stomach took an ill twist. He could almost see the young boy holding tight to the high branches, the smoke burning his eyes, and then the smell of it turning sweet and sick as the bodies were cast on the flames.
Pile blundered out of the brush, the boy and Wraethe in his wake. “I’m not stopping here,” he said. Boruin turned to see the short man’s eyes wide.
“This is where…this is Toaaho’s home,” Boruin said. Pile grabbed Boruin’s arm and dragged him off as Toaaho continued to stare into the tree.
“This place is not good. We need to go,” he said. His eyes turned to check around him, looking up at the sky and then behind. Boruin knew Pile’s fear. It was rare to find a man who made his living on the mah’saiid ruins and wasn’t afraid of spirits, imagined or not.
“We have a moment for this, Pile,” Wraethe said as she pulled her cowl from her head.
“Oh, Yuin!” Pile cried in disbelief. He looked again at the darkening sky that had woken her. Pile dropped his pack and dug into his things. “No amount of time spent in this place is good. I know, for Yuin’s sake, and you know I do, Boruin!” he said, his fingers quivering.
Boruin felt small hands clutching around his thigh and looked down to see the boy standing very close. The old fighter’s eyes snapped right as they caught movement, a running form on the dim edge of the tree line. It was too quick to be sure, but for a moment something was there and then not. Shadows, Diun’s dusk light. You’re catching Pile’s spooks, he thought. But he still turned to Toaaho, the boy holding fast to his leg.
The Mana’Olai was down, his feet tucked under his legs and his hands out, poised in meditation.
“Maybe now is not the best time—”
Toaaho spoke softly. “Down the ridge to the south there is a spring. I’ll meet you at its fount.” Another movement at the edge of Boruin’s eye, a woman running, struck and then falling into thin air. The sharp scent of smoke caught Boruin’s nose, and he tried to tell himself it was from the morning fire still clinging to his clothes.
“Boruin!” Piled pleaded. He could hear the rattling of the short man’s bone wards and the pack thrown onto his back.
Boruin crouched before his man, forcing himself into Toaaho’s glazed eyes. “I can’t leave you here.”
“You own my writ. Do you make this order as my master?” Toaaho answered.
“Of course not. I ask always as friend and debtor to you.”
“At the spring,” Toaaho said. Boruin knew it was final. A severed hand lay in the rubble of the house, and he heard the distant clash of steel, a death scream. Boruin knew now the ground was trampled bare by the feet of angry ghosts. He swung the child into his arms and fled, the others running behind him.
End of chapter 06 part 02.