HAOBRUUM! The sound washed across the garden and passed over them like a gust of wind. Boruin’s arm flared blue, the runes casting their light across the garden stones, driving shadows up against the walls. They blazed across his skin, a glowing ribbon of thick swirls and angles. Oni’s slight smile returned, and Belok’s jaw dropped. The light lasted only just longer than the echo, and then Pile was rubbing the afterimage from his eyes. With the blue light gone, Belok’s face was pale. Oni snapped his fingers and the guards pushed him toward the door. The Nefazo didn’t say a word, though his wide eyes stayed locked on Boruin until he was gone.
Boruin’s mouth was moving before he could find the breath to speak. “How did you do that? How did you know?”
“That was not in my power,” Oni replied, turning his smile toward his companions. “It takes one very studied in rune lore to accomplish such a revelation. May I introduce you?”
Boruin nodded, looking around the empty garden. Oni rose and turned toward the garden.
The boulder under the boy unfolded from the floor. The rock rose from its crouch, climbing to its feet and hauling the boy up off its lap by the back of his shirt. The child held his arms out like wings and kicked his feet as if he were swimming through air. His giggling filled the awkward silence.
“Your contract was brought to Undurlund by the rilk. Griant is their representative, and of course, the one able to recognize your mark,” Oni explained.
“Griant,” Boruin said, repeating it before it was painted over by the astonishment of what he was seeing. The rilk was enormous, standing taller than the ceiling if there had been one. His body was spectacular, a strange grace in its movement despite its rocky composition.
The rilk spoke, his voice a deep rumble like a thunderstorm over the hills. “Boruin, your runes are very beautiful, very brahgheen.”
“Brahgheen is dense, though I imagine he means it as strong in this context,” Oni said.
Boruin crossed the garden. “Thank you,” he said. The rilk seemed to grow larger with each step, and he raised his hand high. As Griant shook the offered hand, Boruin felt as if his fingers were enclosed in sandy clay rather than solid rock. Standing close, the creature’s own runes were apparent; some coarse, some delicate, all hidden among the stone-like grains of his body.
“The man with the open mouth is Pile,” said Boruin, attempting the politeness that both Oni and Griant seemed to follow. “And you’ve met the boy.” The kid swung his feet around, trying to get to Boruin’s shoulders. The rilk lowered him there.
“Has he no name?” Griant asked.
“Not one he’s told me,” Boruin replied. The rilk laughed like drums heard through the earth. Boruin wondered how much of the joke the rilk understood, then realized it was probably more than he did.
“What now?” Pile asked, bringing them back to business.
“The contract is completed, but we have been authorized to extend your service a while longer, if you are in agreement,” said Oni.
“In what capacity?” Boruin asked.
“The same. You would escort the boy and Griant to his conclave a few days north of here.”
“The contract originates from there?”
“No, but that is from where Griant can take the boy further.”
Oni shook his head. “That is not information that has been given to us.”
“What about the boy? What do you know of him?”
Again he refused. “Only what was outlined in the contract, brought to us by the rilk. If they know more, they haven’t said. Further information is not something for which we would ask.”
“And our pay?” Pile put in.
“It is here, minus the amount for the curtain. There is also an additional incentive if you travel with Griant.”
Pile held back his groan. “Let me guess: more incentive still if we take him all they way to the end,” he replied.
“That is up to the rilk,” Oni said.
Boruin wandered back around the table, his mind turning and his eyes distracted by the red moon rising. “Can they tell us more about the boy if we continue?” he asked.
“Again, that information is at the discretion of the rilk.”
It was all but nothing, but it was enough of a lead for Boruin, and it was a chance to get Wraethe out of the city.
“When can we leave?”
“Immediately,” said Oni, gesturing to a wide door at the back of the garden.
“Get Wraethe and Toaaho,” Boruin ordered Pile.
“They are not there,” Griant said. “They left some time ago, running yeahun.”
“Yeahun means south,” said Oni.
“Rutting woman!” spat Pile, his hand dropping absently to his axe.
The rilk was right: the street before Undurlund’s door was empty.
“Yuin’s whores!” Boruin cursed. “I knew better than to leave her out here.”
“Better out here than inside with us,” said Pile, eyeing the spray of blood still slick on the cobblestones. “Belok’s?” he asked.
Oni shook his head. “We are holding Merchant Belok until the Guild Council has been informed of his transgressions.” Pile pulled his axe and traced the blood further down the street.
“Merchant Oni, may the boy stay with you for a little longer?” Boruin asked. “I fear we have business to attend to before we can depart.” Undurlund’s head man looked at the rilk, and Griant answered for him.
“The boy would be best served by your side. I cannot leave his.” Boruin tried to read the rilk’s face to guess what he meant, but his stone features held no clues.
“Thank you for your service, Merchant Oni,” Boruin said as he started after Pile. The rilk scooped the boy into his arms. Boruin could feel the ground shake under the massive creature’s heavy footsteps.
Pile moved south, changing streets and sometimes ducking into alleys, but always at a fast clip. He was good with trails, jungle or elsewhere. The trail here was not hard to follow.
“She’s bleeding the poor bastard, dragging him along. Nice of her to leave us a mark, but I’ll bet he’s begging for a quick death,” Pile grimaced. He stopped in a small garden, a plaza in the center of two main avenues, and picked out the signs across the trampled grass. “Ran across someone. They fought along the benches, blood there alongside Toaaho’s track. At least he’s kept up with her.”
Griant pulled back a glowing hedge of bluestar ivy to reveal corpses. The open eyes of the dead reflected the glow of the small night flowers. “Your friends are deadly,” he said.
“If anything, they are that,” Boruin conceded as he checked the dead. They carried no purses, no items but their weapons. The blood smeared across their faces was dry, the blood on their bodies fresh. “Makua’Moi. You were right, Pile. They aren’t finished tonight.”
The trail continued south until the cobblestones began to run past warehouses rather than shops and homes. Fewer people walked the streets, and so Griant’s heavy, hurried strides drew fewer stares.
“What’s at the end of town, Griant?” Boruin asked.
“More warehouses, the old shipping yards, and a gravel pit.”
Boruin looked up at the rilk. “At least there will be fewer people to get hurt.” He turned back and almost knocked Pile over. The man had stopped in the middle of the street.
The thin lines of blood from Wraethe’s victim split. Two turned left, one to the edge of a door, the other around the building. Boruin started that way, but Pile called him back. Another line ran further down the street, branching right. Of that lead, one went down a small alley and the second ran into a small shop. The third turned about and headed back the way they came. Pile walked further down the street, his finger pointing out more divergences and finally pointing at the moon in an obscene salute.
“The rutters figured her out, Boruin. They’ve added their own blood. The trail is shot,” said Pile.
“Then we must be close,” Boruin answered. “Is there anything you can track?”
The ground shuddered as the rilk came down on his knees, snapping a cobblestone. He leaned down, hands flat on the street, and set the side of his head against the rock. It seemed the stone bowed, sunk under his weight. It was almost as if the rilk was pressing into the rock, slipping past its surface like a sweating man dunking his face under the water of a cool stream. They glimpsed it only for a moment before the rilk came up to his feet.
“Much noise,” he said, “sounds of steel and fighting, sounds of hard magiks.” He picked the boy back up, and his feet began moving. Boruin counted one rilk stride to his own three. They darted through the warehouses and along the rushing Oriune. The water still flowed faster than their pace. Griant dropped once more and set his palms on the rock. His head snapped to the east, the mass cry loud enough that he did not have to commune with another stone.
They turned from the river, Griant leading them into a slumped district of broken foundations. The walls bowed out like old men, their backs bent from the weight of their time. Fallen roofs let the Diuntyne sky, filled with its huge red and white moons, shine through twisted windows to cast jagged squares of light on the street. The avenue was empty save for four men stepping out of the shadows and drawing their weapons.
Griant’s stride did not break time. He swung the boy behind his head, shielding him in the cup of his wide palm. The heavy thud of his feet continued to pound the ground hard enough that Boruin glanced nervously at the weak walls and the terra cotta hanging over their heads.
The Makua’Moi gathered before the rilk, then set their heels. A sword flashed out and broke across Griant’s thigh. The broken half bounced back and struck a second man across the face. He fell, clutching his eyes in the gutter. Those left met a swinging fist, the rilk’s heavy hand crushing skull and breastbone as he passed without breaking stride.
“What do your friends look like?” Griant rumbled.
“Toaaho is dressed in plain leather, his face tattooed,” Pile said between panting breaths. “Wraethe’s eyes seem to glow red like the envious moon, and she’s dressed like a whore.” The rilk tucked the boy against his massive breast, covering him with his arms. The stone body turned at full stride and smashed into a leaning wall. The bricks crumbled as the rilk punched through. For a second Boruin saw the sea of blood masks inside the warehouse, then the rest of the wall groaned and leaned outward.
Pile and Boruin peddled back as the wall gave way and fell into the street. The sound of the fight rushed out with the cloud of brown dust. They stumbled forward across the debris and into the building. The cloud blinded them, but it also hampered the Makua’Moi. Boruin tripped on the first body, its shoulder crushed and its jagged ribs jutting through skin and clothing where the rilk’s blow demolished its chest. A man stumbled out of the darkness, and Pile’s axe cut down into his skull. The cloud of dust and debris wavered and cleared. Boruin dropped to his knees, just in time to avoid a spark-filled knot of a spell that zipped over his head and smashed against Griant’s wide back. It sizzled on the rilk’s thick carapace, and a rune on his skin flashed dark grey. The spell broke apart, and the rilk pushed further into the crowd, one thick fist swinging, the other wrapped around the boy and pinning him again high against the back of his head. It was insane for the child to be involved–if they survived, Griant would hear of it.
Boruin cut through the crowd, pressing for the sorcerer who cast at the rilk. Pile covered his back, swinging wide at those who tried to close behind. Boruin parried and cut as fast as he could, driving forward and hoping he would not lose momentum. It failed when he broke past the line and found Constable Eloni pinned against the wall. His hands had been nailed into the brick, his stomach was cut, and his entrails were lying out on the floor. His head lolled to the side and their eyes met, recognition mixed with fierce pain.
The judge was crouched on the floor, hacking a piece of intestine from the pile. He cupped it in his hand and lowered his face to breathe across the flesh. It swirled into spell, a worm-like mess of needle legs, as the old man chanted, and he cast it out before his eyes even turned toward Boruin. Pile turned a man’s sword, catching him off balance, and shoved him into the path of the spell. The dark magic burst his skin, shredding it as if the poor soul had been whipped ten thousand strokes in a moment.
Boruin dove over the falling corpse, thrusting his sword forward. The point caught the judge’s arm as he was reaching for another handful of meat, shearing through his bicep and catching on the bone beneath. Boruin snapped his knees up underneath himself, though the fall had driven the breath from his lungs. His fist smashed against the judge’s face as the man grasped the sharp steel and tried to drag the sword free. The judge screamed, part anguish and part spell. His hands clasped around Boruin’s arm and sent magic searing through the old man’s skin. The skin boiled under the judge’s hand; smoke and the smell of roast pig rose into the air. The sorcerer’s mouth opened as if to drink in Boruin’s rising cry.
Pile’s axe came down with Boruin’s scream and severed the sorcerer’s spine. He wrenched his steel free and swung back into the crowd of men closing behind.
Boruin pulled himself to his feet. His body shook at the pain in his arm, but he ground it between his teeth to keep from screaming. He could be nowhere near the agony of the man beside him. Boruin turned and mercifully cut across the constable’s neck before Eloni could again catch his eye. The man’s head sunk to his chest as Boruin dove in behind Pile, screaming in pain and hate.
They fought down the wall, keeping one side defended as the Makua’Moi assaulted them from every other direction. Two other mages fell before Boruin, the large crowd to their disadvantage; their spells struck their own men before they could reach the enemy. Wraethe flashed past them, her sword cutting so quickly that Boruin felt the wind of it against his skin. She wound back and forth through the mob, cutting across exposed flesh, spinning and turning around their attacks. Her fingernails raked out across faces, plucked eyes from their sockets. There was no fairness in this fight; it was not for honor or peace. Wraethe was an animal, slaughtering those who fought and those who fled alike. With Eloni’s death fresh in his mind, Boruin wished there were two of her.
Where Wraethe fought in screaming pleasure, Toaaho worked silently and with the hard focus of absolute will. His blades cut with precision, wasting no movement as he parried and thrust. Each line of sharp steel intersected for a kill and moved directly to the next. His muscles bunched and stretched as he ducked and leaned, lunged and rolled within his fighting measure. Men fell at his feet until there was no solid ground on which to stand.
Boruin and Pile worked into a corner and darted into the crowd whenever they could. The bricks kept their back while the others raged through the mass of men. The rilk waded as if through sheep, his fist dripping gore as he punched down into the Makua’Moi. They fell in waves as he swung, rose into the air as he kicked. Their blades broke across the hardness of his skin, their magics shattered by his runes.
The Makua’Moi began to break under the ferocity of these fighters. Many were fervent warriors for their Kukane’Haku, but most were simple devotees. Fat merchants and old wives had answered the summons of their priests. While their faith was strong, few could stomach the growing blood. They fell fleeing with Wraethe’s claws in their backs. Boruin rested as the crowd turned from him and Pile, trying one last swarm against Toaaho, recognizing the Köpeka’s mask of tattoos that had been drawn for them. The final fighters circled him, but died as he danced between them and Wraethe cut at their heels. Griant walked past the fighters, no more willing to try their luck on the stone-like warrior. He stood panting, his chest rising and falling like a blacksmith’s bellows.
They stood in the corner and watched Toaaho and Wraethe break the last of the God-King’s worshippers. Those that could still flee ran from the building, and Toaaho dropped on his knees as the warehouse emptied. Wraethe continued on. She darted among the wounded, those rising to flee, and those rising to beg. Her steel cut across throats and drove into backs.
“WRAETHE! It is done!” Boruin yelled across the wails of the dying. “Control yourself!”
“Yuin give mercy,” Pile whispered as the woman seemed to speed faster now that there was room to do so. Boruin stepped around the dead, trying to get closer. Wraethe fled like a dog darting close and then out of its master’s reach.
“Your rites! You must calm or your rage will kill you!” Boruin screamed. She turned and caught him in her stare for a moment. It was as Pile described: her eyes were as dark red as Nurom Misuer. They flashed as she drove toward him, and then her steel was cutting down. He parried and jumped back, catching her blade jabbing at his side. He turned and circled her weapon, trying to whip it out of her hand, but it was like matching force against the rilk. His sword rebounded, and he dodged a few quick strokes before setting his feet again.
Wraethe’s steel beat up under his guard, pricking his wrist and forcing him to drop his sword. In that moment he felt a small hand wrap around his other arm. Wraethe snarled at the boy as he reached for Boruin’s runes.
“NO MAGICS, YOU LITTLE RUTTER!” Her sword stopped its wide arc toward Boruin’s neck and dropped to drive into the child’s gut. The point passed clean through the boy and into Boruin’s thigh.
Wraethe’s burning eyes widened and a flash of blue passed across them. Her face went slack, and Boruin ripped his hand down his arm, pulling at the runes. His rage was now equal to her’s, and he would kill–but the runes hung on his flesh. He screamed in pain, the runes almost ripping from the skin as he tried to spin them across his wrist. They tugged at the muscles as if sewn down deep into the bone. The others tackled from all sides, burying Wraethe under flailing fists and solid rock.
The boy fell limply across Boruin’s feet as Wraethe’s sword came free.
End chapter 09 part 02.