Pile floundered back to the float. “Yuin, what’s the matter with him?” Pile asked, once again clutching his wards tightly. Boruin had no answer. He grabbed the boy, trying to pull him free, but the child was suddenly strong. Toaaho gurgled, a choking gasp and a thrash that was too weak to break from the small hands.
“You’re choking him, boy!” Boruin shouted. He yelped as the boy’s teeth broke the skin of his hand. He fell back into the water. The boy pulled Toaaho’s jaw wide again and leaned down as if to kiss him. Instead he screamed a high-pitched warble back into the Mana’Olai’s mouth. The cry brought Wraethe rushing out of the jungle.
She moved to intercept the raft and the two men clinging to its sides. “What the rut are you doing to him?” she cried. Wraethe pushed Pile off and reached to drag the boy free, but halted as his small hands slid between Toaaho’s teeth. The boy’s face was of strained concentration as his fingers slipped and then found purchase on the wet tongue and began to pull. Boruin grabbed him again, Wraethe pulling the Mana’Olai in the other direction. There was no separating the two, locked impossibly by the boy’s small-handed grip.
Toaaho’s tongue began to slide free, and the boy reached deeper, grabbing the thicker root. Pile screamed with confusion and horror as it began to tear. Boruin pulled but fell into the water as the child’s jacket split. He did not want to renew his hold, but when the boy turned over his shoulder with a pleading look for help, he knew he had no choice. Boruin dragged the raft to the shore and braced his foot against the bank. He grabbed the boy and pulled up, putting all his strength into it. Then he saw what the boy was after.
Toaaho’s tongue was black and too thick. It writhed like a worm as it blocked Toaaho’s throat. The boy pulled at the parasite, and Boruin pulled the boy. They both screamed, the boy his odd high warble and the man in frustration and fear. The tongue came free, long and sinuous like an eel.
Wraethe was on it even before it hit the ground, her blade cutting to no avail. The thing was not spirit, but it wasn’t real, either. It was impossibly thin and strong like a cord of gristle. The tongue was thick like a habback’s, lolling too large from its shrunken head. How it had fit in Toaaho, Boruin couldn’t understand. It must have grown in his throat.
The creature continued to scream as Wraethe smashed its mouth down into the dirt. The sound echoed on, and Yuin only knew what would come to its call.
The boy pulled at Wraethe’s cloak. She nearly backhanded him, but he ducked and ran into the forest.
Pile jumped to follow. “After him!” he yelled. “He’s the only one who knows what’s going on!”
Wraethe dragged the flailing, screaming creature into the woods and found the boy at the base of a wide tree. He handed a round stone to Boruin and pointed to a rotted knot like a mouth in the hollow trunk. Wraethe shoved the squirming thing into the darkness. Boruin drove the rock into the hole with the pommel of his sword. He leaned his ear to the bark and could still hear the screams, but far off like a distant horn through the fog. They could hear it scrambling up and down the trunk, beating itself against the wood as it tried to escape.
Pile dropped to his knees, head down like a man ready to pass out. “Anyone want to guess on that?” he asked.
“Not a ghost and not Fae,” Boruin said.
They jumped as Toaaho stumbled out of the brush behind them. “Gruw-makken,” he answered. His legs quivered underneath him, but his voice held steady. “It is a black thing, a flesh magic.”
“Are there more?” Boruin asked.
“I don’t know. It was not what I expected. I’m sorry.”
“What had you expected?” Wraethe said, her voice cold and angry.
“Peace and understanding.”
Pile made it back to his feet and walked a wide circle around a still agitated Wraethe. “Well, it’s been a right good time here, but I’m bushed and would like to get to somewhere else soon.” They followed him back to the stream. As Wraethe plunged on into the darkness, Boruin and the boy helped the Mana’Olai follow.
Near dawn, Nurom Misuer drifted over the horizon. Wraethe slowed with exhaustion, her anger spent with the moon. They camped above Priyati, the silver Oriune River visible as a thin line splitting through the city and jostling on in its liquid haste down the mountains.
“This thing isn’t finished, is it?” Boruin asked as he pressed fresh dressings into Toaaho’s wounds.
“No,” he said.
“Did you find what you were after?”
“I was given this,” he said, sketching a cruel sign in the dirt with his finger. The upturned curve could be mistaken for a smile, but Boruin recognized the down-rushing lines beneath for the hot blood of a cut throat. “It is my family name—as the Mana’Olai know us.”
Wraethe kicked the foul sign out of the dirt. “And how did you come across this knowledge?” she asked.
“They whispered it in my ear to remind me of my shame.”
“As they shredded your back,” Boruin finished.
Pile spat in the fire, despite just getting it lit. He blew on the kindling and cursed. “Rutting ghosts. Always a nasty business.”
“They have only misery and shame to give. It is all they know now, all they are left with,” Toaaho said in defense of his ancestors.
The Mana’Olai winced as Boruin help the man pull his shirt back over his shoulders and down across his wounds. “And the tongue?” Boruin pressed.
“An alarm left to watch and wait; left for me.”
“It could have been for anyone, just a precaution,” Boruin said, sounding more convinced of that than he felt.
“Who knows you’ve returned to Easlinder? Are they now preparing for us?” Wraethe said from across the fire.
Toaaho slumped low over his knees and grimaced as his shirt drew tighter across his back. “Had you not caught the gruw, it would have betrayed me. Still, I don’t know. Its voice might carry farther than we know.”
“Spill it then,” Wraethe snapped. “You aren’t a talking man by trade, but you’d better catch us up. I don’t want to be walking blind here.”
“For Yuin’s sake! Would you cut the man some slack?” said Pile. “You and Boruin ain’t laid your past lives open for review.” He dropped his gaze under Wraethe’s stare. Toaaho began to speak before she could continue her recriminations. The companions huddled close around the flame to listen; his words crept off his tongue and stayed close to the ground with their softness. Steam began to rise from their wet clothes as if to bear his story away, clouded from any hidden witness.
“My family name was cursed by our people. Köpeka now means deceivers.”
“Before the Dabattu, the great exodus of the Mana’Olai, the God-Kings ruled immortal. The gods had men for all tasks, from farming to ship building to earth moving to magic weaving. The Köpeka were the Kukane’Haku’s most righteous followers. We were their chosen killers.
“We moved among our own people, seeking out the rebellious, removing those that spoke against the God-Kings, murdering those unworthy to pray. The Kukane’Haku were all-powerful, and we were their unseen hands.
“By the grace of a true god, Kahie’Hoku, we were also the betrayer of their secret. It was my family that discovered they were not immortal, not gods. The God-Kings were men, and our devotion was to a race no more holy than we.
“My family fled when God-King Hammeoto was killed. We fled, still hidden in the masses of our people. We ran with them, suffered with them, and crossed the sea with them. We are still cursed, and we welcome their hatred until we have purged the last memory of the Kukane’Haku from our people.
“How can you do that?” Pile asked, breaking into the man’s story.
“By killing the Makua’Moi,” Boruin answered for him.
Toaaho nodded. “The Makua’Moi continue to worship the God-Kings while hiding among our people. They pray for their return, seek to bring them north across the southern sea. They are devoted to the false gods, and the Köpeka are devoted to their destruction.”
“Seems the Makua’Moi are a little ahead in the tally,” Pile said.
“Very much ahead. I’m alone, and they are strong,” Toaaho said.
“Not so much alone as few,” Boruin offered.
“Right. There are four and a half of us, if you count the toddler there,” Pile said, smiling in the dawn light.
“And he is our first concern,” Wraethe added, bringing things back into focus. Her hands twisted her hood as she fought to get her last words out before sleep could claim her. “We are here to see the boy delivered. Him first, and then you can renew this blood-feud. But for now we have enough trouble with Belok. We don’t need any extra work. Especially with you all beat to a pulp,” she said. Her eyes disappeared into shadow.
Boruin agreed, but his mind was a mess of worries as they lay down with the sunrise. Wraethe was one to preach–she would be more threat than anything in the coming nights, and he couldn’t afford to exile her to the jungle as they’d done twice before. The moons were peaking, the Trickster beginning to slip back behind Diun. Nurom Misuer was swelling red, a ripe belly full of hate. It was almost full in its orbit, and Wraethe was a volcano nearing the end of her warning steam. When the miserable moon swung close and rose in the sky larger than Diun, fire and ash would erupt and burn Priyati to a crisp if his grip on her was not firm.
Between Wraethe, Belok, and now the Makua’Moi, Boruin wondered if these weren’t the last of his days.
End of chapter 07 part 02.