Ice and snow howled through the rocky crevasse, tearing at the piled drifts and stones like a living thing. Shrieking wind threw walls of snow and hail before it, the driven ice and frozen moisture, the swollen overcast and leaden clouds turning the afternoon to a stormswept twilight. The pair of Trenalbi struggling through the teeth of that blizzard were all but lost amidst the swirling ice.
Renhai pulled the threadbare blanket a little tighter, for whatever good that would do: the wind seemed to cut right through the thin cotton and his fur beneath. He squinted into the whipping snow and then turned, the rags billowing around him as looked back to Sehithane. The furs covered her from head to knees but she still looked frozen through. He wasn't surprised. His squad had pulled her out of Nihilanth after the Rim forces had swept through. However, a Rim patrol had had their time with her and had started with creative shaving. What was left of her hide didn't offer much protection against the blowing ice.
They'd been fleeing the Rim forces, relentlessly hounded across the demesnes and cut off at every turn for weeks. Their only retreat had been cut off and they'd swung further and further from Fehl holdings, headed toward Soli lands. There been ten of them originally. Ten of them tasked with getting Sehithane away from the encroaching Rim forces. They'd lost Michili and Trans and Misk at Nihilanth, then Tesck and Rotihesk and Mills at Fielders Ford; Yilothan and Werender in Pins and just a day ago they'd had to leave Salitha at that hamlet. Her wounds were bad, but perhaps she was still alive. Perhaps...
And they hadn't lost the Rim troops. That patrol had seen them and their last route was cut off. In desperation they'd headed into the foothills of the Ramparts and the Rim forces had followed. They'd fled higher, past the snow line and into the rocks and ice and cold.
He looked back again, dreading to see the dark figures through the grey and swirling gloom. Instead he saw Sehithane on all fours, huddled in the drifts.
"Come on!" he screamed back into driving ice that stung his eyes and nose and ears. Sehithane looked up through bruises and utter exhaustion and sagged back again.
"Ah, rot!" he snarled and slung the mace back into his belt as he ploughed back. "Come on," he urged as he caught after her arm. "Keep going."
"Where?" she snarled back from under the mantle. She was trembling violently, he could feel that in the arm he pulled over his shoulder.
"Just... keep moving," he said and bore her weight. The healing cut along his leg twinged with every step; he was almost as worn out as she was, but he kept going. To do otherwise would be to give up. That was something he'd sworn never to do again.
Foot after foot. One at a time. The wind at their back while they inched forward and upwards, following the path of the jagged gorge through the Ramparts. Deeper than anyone had ever gone, Renhai thought. Intrepid explorers. The first through the Ramparts...
No-one had ever gone through the Ramparts. No-one who'd lived to tell at any rate. So they wouldn't be lacking company when they died here.
The wind screamed around them. Sometimes at their back, other times twisting around to drive biting ice into their faces. There were icicles in his fur: his ears were frozen and his feet numb. He didn't know how Sehithane was doing, she hadn't spoken for some time, but she was still moving.
Keep moving. That was most important.
So his exhaustion and the appalling conditions meant they almost didn't see the ground drop away until there was suddenly nothing in front of them.
"Gods!" Renhai yanked Sehithane backwards as the ice before them calved and fell away into black space. Snow spun around the precipice projecting from the crack in the mountainside, dropping away to the gods only knew where.
"Back," he moaned and they made a few steps before he stopped again. There were shapes visible through the blizzard besides the rocks and wind-sculpted chunks of ice: Figures that moved and shifted with purpose as they advanced. "Gods," he breathed again in dismay and Sehithane's grip tightened around his shoulder.
He heard the cry go up even against the untiring screeching of the wind. They'd been seen. More figures were appearing from the murk, moving towards them and he could see the drawn weapons in their hands. He started retreating, backwards, towards the sheer drop to blackness.
"Nice try, male" Sehithane coughed. "Nice try."
He bared his own teeth in a snarl and reached for the mace with no illusions about their chances. The Rim troopers were fanning out, closing in for the end to the hunt.
And the howling of the storm rose, to a throaty screaming roar that came from behind them. Renhai turned as their shadows were suddenly flung out before them, staggering as the sun seemed to rise above the rim of the precipice. He flung up his hand, grimacing into the dazzling lights born by a huge dark shape that hung swaying in the midst of the raging storm, its screaming cry drowning the howl of the wind; its hot metallic breath sweeping around them and melting airborne snow to a flying slurry and then the lights flared brighter still and the world seemed to explode with sound...
Third Battlegroup commander's shen stirred restlessly and a few beats later a low rumble rolled across the high meadow. A few shouts rose from the encampment as attentions were turned to upper reaches of the mountain looming over them.
The final touches of the Lightbringer were caressing the slopes and cliff faces, bathing grey stone and ice in lambent gold. A white cloud was billowing from the high fissure the squad had pursued the fugitives through. It seemed to be moving slowly, almost gracefully, but the distances were deceptive. That fissure was enormous, the cloud of ice and debris spilling across the mountains vast, and the sound it made was a rumble that echoed around the mountains as it gathered strength and pulled down other avalanches.
Long minutes passed before the waves of ice and debris finally stilled. When the clouds had finally dissipated the mountainside was swept clean of accumulated snow and the fissure was lost from sight under untold tonnes of debris.
The commander gave a wordless snarl and twisted his Shen around. "Break camp," he ordered.
"Sir?" his second asked.
"Break it up," he said again. "We're heading home again."
"What'll I put in the report?"
"Just tell them..." He looked up at the jagged ridges above them. "They're dead. The mountains ate them."
Warm, cloying, smothering blackness...
Renhai grabbed back hold of awareness with a cry, hauling himself out of the black pit of unconsciousness and staring up with wide eyes, panting wildly. He wasn't dead. He was very much alive and lying on soft furs, staring up at a smooth rocky ceiling. His legs were uncomfortably warm.
Last he remembered were the Rim troopers and that light. That meant... he wasn't sure what that meant. IF the Rim troopers had caught him he didn't expect to be aware of anything but joining his ancestors in the Well. Perhaps that was where he was.
His head ached a little as he sat up, taking stock. It certainly didn't look like the afterlife. He was in a shallow cave, lying on a large pallet covered with blankets and furs that filled a lot of the available space. Through the mouth of the cave he could see mountaintops, a blue sky and a beam of light lying across the end of the pallet was heating his feet. Odd cave: it was almost a perfect arch and the walls were polished so smooth they were almost glasslike.
A small noise came from a lump in the blankets beside him. He pulled a sheet aside to find Sehithane's face blinking up at him, looking as confused as he felt.
"Uh, hello," he said.
"Hello," she sounded dazed. "What... what happened? Where is this?"
He sat back on the bed. "I think I know about as much as you do. Last I remember we were in the storm, and then we were... here."
"Oh," she said, also sitting up. The sheets fell away as she did so and Renhai's jaw clicked shut in startlement.
"What the... Your scratches!"
They were gone. In fact most of her wounds were gone; the most severe little more than pale lines on her skin. Renhai might have thought they'd just been kept here for a long time, long enough for those wounds to heal. But the patches of shaven fur hadn't grown back at all.
"I feel... fine," she said, running her hands through her fur as she examined herself. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
"Me either," he looked at himself. The grazes, the healing cut on his leg, they were gone. "Then how long have we been here?"
"The storm's finished."
"A. Or we're somewhere else." Renhai clambered out of the bed and made his way toward the mouth of the cave, then stopped abruptly. "Ah," he said and laid a hand against the unnaturally smooth wall of the cave as he cautiously stepped out.
The cave opened onto a small, snow-dusted ledge a half-dozen spans wide high up a sheer granite cliff. A trail led off, angling away down the cliff face. Spread out below that, nestled between the towering snow covered peaks of the Ramparts lay a swathe of green. It was a valley hidden away in the heart of the ends of the world: broad and verdant with the glittering thread of a river almost metallic under the brilliant gaze of the Lightbringer. The wind blowing across the face of the mountain was cool enough to make his fur bristle.
"Hai," he heard Sehithane saying from back in the cave. "There're clothes here. For us? Can't see any weapons though." Then she came up behind him. "What's out here? Shave me!"
He glanced at her patchy hide and bit back the impulsive reply. "Yah. Impressive isn't it."
She shook her head, her ears twitching. "Very. Where in the hells are we?"
"In the Ramparts. Somewhere. I think."
"Outside the world? Is that possible?"
"You tell me. Perhaps we're dead."
She mulled that over, staring out over the landscape spread out below them. The wind was ruffling through her patchy fur and he realised she was as naked as he was, the exposed patches of hide glaringly obvious and peculiar-looking. She rubbed her arm and a chunk of exposed grayish skin. "I don't think so," she said after a while. "I don't feel dead. Do you? But what I really want to know is who would haul all that," she jerked a claw back toward the pallet and furs and blankets, "all the way up here?"
The clothes were of an odd design, but they were very well made, a good fit, and warm. Sehithane was still tightening the straps around the bottom of her leggings when Renhai patted his down-filled jacket smooth and stepped back out onto the little ledge. The sun was higher now, almost at apogee, but the wind was just as chill. He peered down into the valley, looking for any sign of Trenalbi.
"Anything down there?" Sehithane crouched down beside him, also squinting across the valley.
"Nothing," he shrugged. "You were expecting the Hub maybe?"
"Anything familiar would be nice," she sighed and picked up a pebble, tossed it. He lost sight of it before it hit bottom and Sehithane twisted, rooting for another and recoiled so violently she nearly went over the edge: "Gods!"
The cave was gone. The entrance had been replaced by rock so seamlessly and soundlessly there might never have been an opening at all. Renhai pushed at it and thumped a hand against it but it moved as much as any other mountainside might. He exchanged a wild-eyed look with the female. "Looks like we aren't welcome anymore," she said. "So, my fearless savior, where to now?"
There was only one way: down the narrow trail. Renhai had the unshakable feeeling they were being manipulated, but they didn't have any other choices. "I'd have liked to have taken some blankets," he said as they set off. "We might need them tonight."
The trail was steep and wound its way down the cliff face. Gradually the land started to level out, the sheer granite wall turning to massive splintered boulders and patches of icy snow and slush, then smaller debris, scree and trickling rivulets of meltwater. The trail worked its way around or through obstacles, heading downhill until it reached climes where greenery peeked between the snow and broken bones of the mountains; where the green of lush highland meadows stippled with the purple specks of winterglory blooms stretched down to scrub and the high treeline. The trail kept going downwards, but there was nothing to keep them to that path.
Renhai stopped and leaned against a boulder jutting from the calf-high scratchbush like an island in a sea of green. Sehithane gave him a puzzled look and he gestured at the trail. "What now?" he asked. "We keep following this, like someone obviously intends us to. Or we make our own path."
"Huhn," she huffed. "they've had ample opportunity to hurt us if they wanted to. We should have died up there, in the storm."
"I'm supposed to protect you. My orders..."
"Don't mean much here, I reckon. I think we can follow the path and see what this is all about or head off into the wilderness somewhere where we'll probably die anyway."
"You think we should keep on this way."
"Why not? Whoever is behind this might have some food."
It'd been days since they'd finished the last of their rations and his stomach had been reminding him of that as well. He sighed and squinted up at the Lightbringer as it started on its trek down behind the mountains. Only a few hours of light left. "All right. It looks like we don't have a lot of choice."
The trail headed down through the trees: huge old things with gnarled and curled trunks that towered over them. The undergrowth was lush and there were plants there that Renhai had never seen on any of his travels across the plains of the world. Some of the flyers twirling amongst the high branches looked different as well in some way he couldn't quite pin down.
"This is so odd," Sehithane said. "How can there be something outside the world? I mean, they told us the Ramparts are the borders of the earth. Outside that there's nothing but the hells and demons..."
She trailed off into an uncomfortable silence. A flyer swooped down to cling to a tree trunk and watch them with beady black eyes.
"Ahhh," Renhai ventured. "Something else?"
"This trail? It looks like a game trail, but I haven't actually seen any prints."
Sehithane looked down at the roots and fallen leaves under their feet. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I can't seen any spoor or prints. At all. Even there, that patch of dirt? There should be prints of some sort in it, but there's nothing. It's like this trail was made just for us."
"Uhnnn," she growled and her ears twisted back into her ruff. The ensuing uncomfortable silence lasted longer than the previous one.
The trail kept winding its way down into the valley, by then obviously bound for the river. Renhai was leading the way with Sehithane staying close behind, swinging a stick she'd picked up. She was quiet; they both were. Nervous and uncertain as to what was waiting for them at the end of the trail.
Finally Renhai rounded a thicket, brushed a shrub aside and stopped, staring. Sehithane came up to stand beside him, thumping the stick into the ground.
The trees were gone. The Lightbringer was bright in a blue sky over the green sward spread out before him. There was farmland there on the rise just before the riverbanks. There were a few neatly ploughed fields, some fences and a small building.
"Looks like a house," Sehithane said.
"But why's it here?" Renhai wondered. "You see anyone?"
He sighed, then snapped his jaws shut. "I'll go and see just what's going on. You wait here. If it's clear I'll wave to you."
"Sounds like a good plan," she said and started walking out across the fields, swinging her stick jauntily. He dropped his jaw, taken aback, then snorted disgust and set off after her.
"You're more trouble than you're worth," he sighed as he fell in alongside her.
"Funny," she responded, "That's what my guard used to say."
Renhai gave her a sidelong look, saw her ears had gone down and winced. Her guard, along with her town and lineage, were gone. That was too recent a wound to open with quips like that. He sought a distraction, looking around, at the furrows they were walking across.
"This ground's fallow," he noted. "Looks like all these fields are."
"There's shen in the coral though," she said, eyeing the beasts cautiously. "And everything's laid out so oddly."
There was no sign of life, no sign that anyone knew they were there. The pair stopped just out of darter range and hailed the house. There was no response.
It was an odd building. It looked like a normal house, but there were just so many little incidental details. There was a porch out front but there were no wardings or welcoming wreaths hanging above the steps. The three windows facing them had shutters with little horizontal slats and it looked like there was actually glass in the mullions. Glass? On a farmhouse? What sort of homesteader could afford glass? And the roof was tiled with black slate, but the tiles were so evenly cut it looked unnatural. It was the same with the boards in the walls and floor: they were so finely cut there were almost no visible joins and the seams were milled to perfection. And there were nails - metal nails - in there.
The Trenalbi looked at each other and then Renhai reached for the scratchplate, before he realised it wasn't there. In any case, the door wasn't locked, or even shut properly. It swung open at a touch.
Inside it was immaculately clean, warm, and looked completely unlived in. There were horribly expensive-looking floor coverings, glass in windows and lamps, even drinking vessels. And the use of metal was extravagant in the extreme: everything from the latches and hinges to cutlery and cooking implements, lamps and even a huge mass of black metal where the hearth would usually lie. The larder was fully stocked. There was wood in the hopper. And sitting on a table in the hearth room were plates of food: Two platters laden with assortments of meats and breads and pitchers of water. And the cooked meats were still hot, the raw still warm and dripping.
Also sitting on the table were their weapons: his mace and a slender hardstone stiletto and scabbard that Sehithane picked up. She looked a little embarrassed: Renhai had never known she'd had it.
He looked at the food and licked his lips. "You think that means this is for us?"
"You see anyone else around?" she retorted, taking up a dripping haunch and sniffing it.
"Might be poisoned?" she finished and shot him an amused look.
He sighed. Reflex. There'd been opportunities aplenty to do them harm. The food didn't smell tainted and they were both exceedingly hungry. He took a bite and it didn't taste any different from any other Longrazer meat he'd had.
They ate ravenously, reducing the meals to a few scraps. No finger bowls Renhai noted as he sat back and licked the juices out of the fur on his fingertips. For a while they sat, slipping partly into drift as they let the meal settle. No-one and nothing interrupted them.
Afterwards they poked around the rest of the dwelling, increasingly baffled and increasingly convinced there was nobody there. The rooms had no sign of occupancy: no traces of shed fur, no worn rugs or claw marks, not even a scent. There were a pair of rooms occupied by huge beds with blankets and pillows: an utter waste of space in such a small holding. There was a room holding a large ceramic tub, complete with a pump handle; another contained a very peculiar arrangement of plumbing. Renhai studied it, puzzled, then understood and was very embarrassed.
He found Sehithane standing in one of the doorways regarding one of the beds. "They're like that one up in the cave," she said. "Who would put beds like that into a house?"
"Same person that'd haul one halfway up a mountain. And who'd put the toilet inside."
"You should see the toilet. At least I think it's the toilet. It's as bizarre as the rest of this place."
"It's nice though." She admitted, then ran a fingerpad up and down the beautifully laminated doorframe a couple of times and snorted. "So, Squad Leader. What do we do now?"
"I think we're supposed to wait around."
"You get that feeling too? For what? Someone to show up?" She was watching him intently.
"I'd like to see who our hosts are."
She looked at the window and the growing darkness outside and he saw her shudder. "It's not like we have anywhere else to go."
The Lightbringer sank beyond the jagged teeth of the mountains. Low in the Northern night sky the Well came into view, myriads of souls glittering in its depth. The Daughters rose in the west, following their stately track across the southern heavens as they always did.
It was a relief to see at least that familiar pattern hadn't changed.
Renhai was sitting out on the front porch watching the sky. He'd been there for hours, drifting and waiting while the day turned to night. There'd been some noise from the shen in the corral, the pinging of insects and flyers but no sign of anything else. Now the light was going the air was turning to the chill of mountain nights.
The door behind him creaked and a fan of light spilled out across the porch.
"Here," Sehithane said, offering a quilted jacket. "I found this. It should fit."
It did. He wasn't surprised. She sat beside him and looked out over the valley and mountains turned silver by the Daughter. "There's nothing there, is there. Nobody coming."
"I don't think so."
She hugged her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them, the fur of her ruff bunching up around her cheeks. "You know, I never really believed in gods and demons. Not really. Now, after this..." She barked a forced-sounding laugh and her tail lashed the porch. "I'm not so sure."
He laid his own ears back. "Demons aren't known for their subtlety. One of the tricksters? But why?" he growled, then slowly the realization percolated. "You're Fehl highborn. Would that..."
"I'm also pregnant," she said.
That hit him like a mace to the back of the head. "You're... what?" He was gaping. He shut his mouth and tried again. "Pregnant? You're sure?"
"Yes." She didn't look at him.
He knew the stories. Everyone did. The cubs stolen from their hearths by immortals for whatever reasons: anger, revenge, mischief or just boredom. Females used by the overworld to bear offspring the deities couldn't. Renhai glanced down.
"No," she snorted and looked wryly amused. "Not nearly that recent. A meeting in the Unity house in Nihilanth. But you think that might be why we're here?"
"Ma'am, I don't know. I'm just a soldier," he said, his ears drooping. "But I swore an oath to protect you and that I'll do for as long as I'm able."
She laughed at that: barking at the evening sky. "Against demons. I'd pay money to see that."
His pride prickled. "I gave my word. I'll keep it."
"Fine. Do that."
He looked at the glittering specks in the Well. That place in the sky where the souls of the ancestors glittered and watched over the world. "How long until you're due?"
"Huh," she looked down at her midrift. "A few weeks until the pouching. At most."
"Oh," he blinked, not entirely sure what to say. The only experience he'd had with females had been that one time at the Unity house in Kells. He'd been drinking and eating in the common room and then they'd sent for him. He remembered flashes of billowing gauze curtains, laughing female voices in the background and a smiling face above him as he lay with muscles like string, then...
He'd enjoyed it immensely though. He remembered that much.
"Is there anything I can do? I mean, do you need help?"
She gave him a skewed look. "I don't know. Do I? How?"
"I... huhn... I can... uhn," he clamped his mouth shut before he made a bigger fool of himself.
She was looking distinctly amused. "Huh. I think I can handle this myself. It's not such a big deal; quite enjoyable actually."
She was laughing at him. "You've done it before, haven't you," he said.
"You could've said."
"Now, that wouldn't have been as fun, would it?"
He sighed and watched the distant peaks silhouetted against the night sky. They did look disturbingly like teeth. "You think that's why we're here? Some god wants a mortal cub?"
"I don't know. Then why would they bring you along? They could've just left you up there."
He didn't have an answer for that.
She clattered her claws against the porch and hissed gently, her breath turning to ghosts in the mountain air. "I think all we can do is wait. At least we'll be comfortable."
"You think maybe we could get back out? We might be able to find that pass again."
"Somehow," she said, "I don't think so."
Summer in the mountains was beautiful, Renhai decided. The landscape wasn't the restful open plains his eyes were accustomed to, but there was a beauty in the towering rocks and abundant greenery. And the air was cooler, without the hot plains winds that could leave a soul parched and panting.
Time had done what it always does. Months had passed. Spring had passed with an explosion of growth and myriads of melt rivulets wending their ways down from the higher slopes. Summer had crept by and settled in without any glimpse of their mysterious hosts.
Oh, there'd been some noises at night. Once he thought he'd seen a glimpse of something in the fields under the light of the Daughters, but there'd been no trace in the morning. They made sure to bar the doors at night.
Food hadn't been a problem. There'd been seed and tubers. There'd been longrazers in the high meadow and plenty of feed for them. Renhai had uncovered several heavy darters and knives in a cupboard and found the hunting in the area to be extremely good.
Which was just as well. They had an extra mouth to feed.
Sehitane had suddenly come over very peculiar one afternoon. She'd kicked him out of the house and vanished inside for several hours. She'd emerged naked, looking slightly dazed, sated and very pleased with herself.
"That was it?" he'd asked. "How was it?"
"Nice," she'd rolled her head around on her shoulders and smiled up to the Lightbringer. "Very nice." Then she'd wandered off down toward the river, dragging her pants behind her.
She'd been quite embarrassed about that later.
The bulge in her pouch had grown along with her appetite. Every day she seemed to be carrying a little more. She'd taken to wearing a low-slung leather skirt with a single flap at the front and a pair at the rear, her pouch obvious above it. Traditional, she'd said. It made him feel awkward, especially since her pouch started moving. And there'd been the first time tiny hands had hooked over the side and a little face had peered up at him with unfocused eyes.
A cub. He'd never seen such a small Trenalbi before. Traditionally, newborns were tended in the female districts of the settlements. Separation came when the cubs were old enough, the males sent to be tended and taught in the crèches in the male sectors. He'd dealt with the male children before, but never a newborn cub.
It was going to be an interesting experience.
The last drops of the rainfall spattered heavily against the cobblestones as the storm spent itself and shook itself off. On the eveningward horizon the Lightbringer peeked from behind the swollen purple-tinted clouds hanging over the golden grasses of the plains. Light glinted from droplets beading on eaves, tiles and stone. The evening air smelled fresh, clean and cold, the dust that usually hung across Tenada swept away by the late spring downpour.
The two city guards peered up from the stoop under the tattered awning they'd sheltered beneath until the deluge passed. The elder popped the last stub of his shailder weed into his mouth and chewed, rumbling as things fuzzed pleasantly.
"You should cut that habit," the younger noted.
"Hai. You say that again ten years from now."
"I've no intention of being here that long."
The older sniggered. "I remember saying that my first week."
"Yeah? Well, I'm different."
"I remember that as well."
"Huhn. Well, the Sub Commander doesn't seem to be standing still. How long's he been here? I'm going to try to be like him."
"Yah? Sunstruck you mean? Perhaps crippled?" the elder snorted and grumbled to his feet, stretching his feet and claws one at a time and then settled his shortsword more comfortably before setting off. The younger fell into step as they proceeded along the alley.
"Nay. I heard he's only been here a year and he's already Sub. And for a cripple he's a rotted good fighter."
"Ah," the older mused, still pleasantly buzzed. "Crazy fighter you mean. Used to be a soldier, from his style. And those wounds... never seen someone with ears cut like that. Right off like a straight-edge took them."
"You know how he lost them?"
"Nah," the older guard spat the weed out. "Not for sure. There're rumors but they're as crazy as he is. Apparently a demon took them."
"Huhn. You believe everything you hear?"
"Gods own truth. I heard it from someone who said they heard it during one of his binges. A demon took them."
"Truth. Said he was on the lookout for it. Said he'd find it someday."
"Huhn," the younger mused as they trod the damp cobblestones. "So, how do you arrest a demon anyway?"
Their laughter barked through the dripping streets as the lightbringer melted into the swollen red of the horizon.
The Wanderer leaned forward in his saddle, resting on the pommel horn as he sniffed the warm evening breeze blowing across the plains below the gentle hillside, rippling the grasses and scratchbush like ripples on water. It still carried the smell of ash and smoke and salt.
The city down there had been a moderate-sized one. It hadn't been overly wealthy, but it'd had beautiful buildings with graceful arches and colorful tiled facades. It'd had clean if dusty streets and markets bustling with people. It'd had trade caravans coming from the farthest corners of the world. It'd been surrounded by fertile farmland.
Now the buildings were blackened stubs and piles of rubble, the streets filled with debris, the crops ploughed under and salted, the irrigation system destroyed. A few trickles of smoke rose into the air where a few brave souls tried to scrape a living among the ruins.
It'd been his home. Before the Ch'sty Rim forces had arrived a year ago. Only a year ago.
Once he'd been known as Sekher Che, the youngest in the Che lineage. Now people called him Ser Kysi. A necessary lie: there were those who were looking for Sekher Che, who wanted him dead or alive but would happily settle for the former. He rode with others, wanderers who drifted the plains hiring their services out to whomever might require it. Their migratory circling of the World had brought them back here, to these sorry remains.
He remembered standing up here a year ago, the smell of smoke overbearingly strong. Standing helpless while the Ch'sty Rim forces destroyed the town. And he'd only been able to stand and watch. His thin black lips curled to expose his fangs to the wind as he snarled at the memories and the lost city before him.
"They're still watching."
An older, grizzled male - his ragged bronzed fur well-tinged with grey and his roadcoat carrying the stains of decades - sat astride his shen and regarded the town. Behind him the rest of the troupe waited at a respectful distance. They'd had enough experience with this. Their travels sometimes took them to places some of them had been forced to leave for various reasons. It wasn't uncommon for individuals to sidestep to places from their past. Good or bad.
"You can't go back there, you know," Kenner said. "They're watching. They aren't going to forget what you did in a hurry."
Sekher didn't look around. His hands clenched on the reins, his claws punching through leather as he bit back the fury. Kenner didn't miss it.
"I know," he rumbled quietly, just loud enough to hear over the sounds of the wind in the grasses. "I know. But what are you going to do? You've killed so many of them."
Sekher snarled, just briefly, then shook his head and reined his shen around. Kenner fell in beside him, not saying anything. "It doesn't help," Sekher said to the wind. "It's like trying to mow the plains with your teeth: it just grows as fast as you cut it. So many of them... but not him!"
Kenner's ears twitched. "You still want to do it."
"I've told you before, we can't help you. We can't get involved. You'd be on your own. Unless your daemon shows up."
Sekher shot him a cold look. "Not my deamon. If he was mine, I could make him help."
"Huhn," Kenner rumbled. "You know all the stories about people who've tried that."
Sekher opened his mouth but bit back the retort. "Anyway, I doubt he could find me if he wanted to."
Kenner blinked. Sekher had always been cagey about his experiences with the daemon that'd given him that fantastic blade. The Wanderer was always interested in anything further he might let slip. "Doesn't sound all that all-powerful to me then."
"He's not a..." Sekher started to say, then sighed. "He's not coming back."
Kenner looked at the glittering line of the Ramparts marching across the distant horizon. "What do demons do up there anyway?"
"I haven't got a flickering clue," Sekher lied.
Renhai squinted into the brilliant sunlight and yawned into the late summer heat as he plodded after the plough. The turned soil was moist and cool under his pads. When he reached the end of the row he twitched the reins to bring the shen around and start back up the next row. With a snort the beasts lumbered around and set the plough ripping through the loam.
A metal plough. It cut through the ground better than anything he'd ever seen before. And there were plenty of breadroot tubers in the storage shed. He wasn't a farmer, but he knew they'd grow in just about anything. It was just a matter of planting them in autumn and letting them weather over winter to sprout in spring. So he strolled after the plough, tongue lolling, occasionally glancing over toward the house.
A small figure was tumbling in the dust of the front yard, throwing a stick and chasing after and pouncing on it. Renhai smiled to himself. Since she'd come out of the pouch she'd been a terror; into everything with an unbounded curiosity. She wasn't speaking yet, that'd come later, but she was scampering around faster every day.
The plough clanked through a rocky patch. The shen snorted and passed gas, its tail slapping at biters on its rump. The view farmers had to put up with would explain a lot about them, Renhai mused as he reined the beast around for another furrow. For a while he just let himself drift, floating through slow memories as his body went through the rote of harrowing.
"Hai!" the shout brought him out of drift. Sehithane was standing on the porch, looking off down to the river.
"What?" he called. "Something wrong?"
Her ears pricked up and she waved a hand. "Taski's run off again. I see her. Playing along the river again."
Renhai grinned. She'd been warned about that before. They'd probably have to leash her. Sehithane chased after her errant offspring with chastising yips. "Come here, you... No... bad girl..." Renhai listened to her voice fade out as she chased Taski along the river. This exile... despite everything, despite the loss of his men and the strangeness of the situation, it hadn't been all bad.
A distant yowl rose, then a shriek.
Renhai froze for a second, then went from standing still to a dead run. He leapt the fence, his toe claws pushing off from the top rail. His sword was in the house but he caught up a hoe as he raced past and sprinted for the cries.
Not by the river. They weren't by the river. It was the copse further along, the edge of the forest. He crashed into undergrowth, pushing through a bush while whiplike branches lashed at his hide.
Another Trenalbi yowl sounded: rage, frustration, desperation... and it was answered by a rasping hiss. Renhai burst through the bush in time to take in the scene.
A tiny bleeding bundle lying under a tree, Sehithane snarling as she threw herself at a hissing monster: a shambling mountain of rank fur, a beast many times the size of a Trenalbi twisting its head and gaping its jaw to hiss between black teeth as long as his finger. It reared on hind legs and that shambling gait belied the speed with which it struck. Sehithane made a noise as she was knocked flying to tumble across the ground and the creature lumbered after her.
Renhai howled and dove forward, swinging the hoe and striking the beast across the shoulder. He might have been beating a rug for all the effect it had. The beast rounded on him - so rotted fast - and Renhai was staring at those teeth as it reared and paws the size of dinner plates rose to splay talons...
Another howl ripped through the trees, loud enough to be felt in the bones. The beast's head swung around as the new challenger pushed through the trees. There was a retort as a sapling was pushed aside and Renhai gasped a terrifed squeak. It stood as high as the beast but it didn't look anything like it. It didn't look anything like anything Renhai had ever seen. A hulking two-legged shape shrugging trees aside. It was Trenalbi-shaped only by the greatest stretch of the imagination. Jutting, angular yellow bones wrapped around... around... Renhai didn't know the words for the things peeking from behind the glaring yellow carapace. There were shapes, some of which glittered with a metallic sheen, tubes and cylinders flexing as it moved. A tiny head turned a cluster of glassy eyes on him and there was a slight humming as it moved forward. A massive foot sank a finger's width into the loam.
The beast hissed at the challenger and lunged forward, jaws gaping. A long yellow forearm unfolded and struck with a meaty thump and the beast was knocked sprawling. Ignoring the beast, the yellow monstrosity stalked toward the motionless figure of Sehithane, but the animal wasn't done.
With another hiss it lunged at its adversary. This time the thing didn't even turn: an arm swung back with almost careless ease and this time the beast was sent flying before striking a tree. With a keening whine it rolled to its feet and staggered away into the woods as fast as it could. The hulking demon-beast turned to Renhai crouched in front of the cub.
It moved forward. Renhai snarled and swung the hoe like a broadsword. The thing didn't even bother to dodge; the hoe shattered against its arm and Renhai was left holding a broken stump. When it pushed him aside he had to stumble back as if pushed by a glacier. It crouched over the cub and Renhai leapt at it with claws and bared teeth which slipped from a hide as hard as any armor as he was again brushed aside. Then it was standing with the bleeding body of the cub cupped in its deformed hands. The cluster of round eyes gazed at the other Trenalbi for the briefest moment before it turned and was gone, back into the woods with a speed that belied its bulk.
A moan drew him back to Sehithane who was struggling to sit up. "Go!" she coughed.
He hesitated. "You... I was told to protect..."
"Go!" she snarled and staggered to stand upright. "I'm telling you to go. Get her."
"I'm fine!" She yowled. "Go! NOW!"
The trail was easy enough to follow. The thing had left prints deep into the forest floor. Leaves, soft plants and rotting branches were crushed absolutely flat. When they reached the river they went straight into it but there was no trouble following them and finding where it'd come out of the water: stones in the rocky riverbed had been ground to powder.
Renhai clutched his broken stick and kept on. It was headed downstream. Much further down the valley than he or Sehithane had been on any of their forays. The trees were thicker, the undergrowth denser, but he could follow the tracks well enough. After a ten minutes of pursuit he was panting hard and his knees felt like they were going to buckle at any second and there wasn't a sign of the thing. He staggered on, following the tracks for several dozen spans further before he realized the undergrowth had cleared and the ground was smooth. He was on a trail.
Oh, gods. Were there more than one of those things? What was it? Was it responsible for the buildings? The odd goings-on in the night? His hands clenched so tightly around the useless bit of wood that they ached as he hurried between the towering trunks of ancient trees.
And suddenly emerged into brilliant sunlight as the canopy overhead ended and he was standing on the edge of a carefully tended lawn.
The exquisitely manicured expanse of green stretched away in front of him. The edges were carefully delineated, hedged with bushes and beds of obviously carefully-tended smaller shrubs. It slopped away up a gentle slope to where a building stood. A manor house. An elegant manor house in the middle of a wild forest in a lost valley. Renhai could see the bricks in the walls, the high-peaked roof steeply angled in the mountain fashion, reflected sunlight turning the windows in the two-story facade into flares in his vision. The heavy prints headed arrow-straight across the lawn toward the building.
Priests? Gods? Demons? He felt his scent glands clenching in anxiety as he clutched his little stick, feeling his limbs shaking uncontrollably.
But Taski was up there. Somewhere. He started forward.
The lawn was like a rug under his pads, it was so trimmed and tended. Fliers darted through the air, hunting the bugs flitting in the open air. Renhai's gaze followed a Split as it dodged into the branches. There was something else in there: dappled light fell across a rust-red shape that regarded him through lopsided glass eyes.
He whimpered through clenched teeth and kept going. The manor was constructed of grey stone, spotlessly clean. Windows on the ground floor were high, arched. Second floor ones were smaller, but all were filled with the largest sheets of glass Renhai had ever seen. Three flagstone steps led up from the lawn to a verandah. Doors paneled with more huge panes of crystal-clear glass stood wide open and sunlight spilled into the room inside. Renhai's foot claws rattled on the polished wood floor as he stepped inside, blinking in the gloom as his eyes tried to watch the shadows where light from the Lightbringer didn't reach. There were other doors, bulky and overstuffed-looking pieces of furniture, woven rugs on the floor and paintings on the walls. Scenes, he noted. Still scenes that looked indefinably wrong to his eyes.
There was a movement in a doorway and a figure stepped into the room. A tall male Trenalbi figure decked in plain clothes a lower lord might wear while roughing it: a colorful tunic and tabard. And as he came closer Renhai bristled. "Where is she?"
"Welcome." The other male's face distorted. "She's being looked after."
"What are you?"
A hesitation. "My name is Seth'Nai."
The Trenalbi soldier retreated a single step and no more. "What," he snarled, "are you?!"
The other's face twitched to a smile. "I am lord of this demesnes."
"Demon!" Renhai spat.
There was a moment when the other was motionless, then it said, "I thought it was pretty good. It's really that obvious?"
The expressions... the face flickered from emotion to emotion without transition. The fur, the grain was unnatural... lifeless. There were a score of tiny details that Renhai couldn't pinpoint, but they all added to the picture of artificiality.
"Where is she?!" he howled again, brandishing the broken handle.
The other flicked through expressions and glanced at the stick, then made an odd movement of the shoulders and said, "Here. Follow."
Renhai didn't move.
"Listen," the other said with what sounded like a sigh, "you won't be hurt. If I wanted to do that I could've done it a long time ago."
"You killed Taski!"
"I didn't. The stormwarden shouldn't have been there. I thought they'd all been cleaned out of the valley, but I must have missed one. In that I am [something], but I didn't have anything to do with what happened. I'm trying to help her."
"Not a demon. I have been called a Daemon. I believe there is a difference. But I'm neither. Those other things you saw are... contrivances? artificial devices... neither god nor demon-sent. I just have skills and knowledge you don't."
"You are not Trenalbi!"
"Ah... no. I was hoping this appearance would help our meeting. I guess I was wrong." The creature raised hands to its neck and the fur there lifted, the muzzle and face peeling back...
Renhai gaped in shock.
The room wasn't a cell, but the doors were locked. The glass in the window wasn't glass. At least it didn't break when he hit it with a chair from the desk. There was fine carpeting on the floor, more odd pictures on the wall. There was an adjoining room that actually had a toilet in it. And there was an extravagantly big bed with bright blue coverings.
That explained the beds in the cottage. How long had the thing been watching them. It had been responsible for saving them from the Rim troops, it'd provided them with shelter and food when it could've killed them at any time.
Renhai sat on the bed for about fifteen minutes, turning the situation over and over. It could've killed him, both of them. It didn't. It claimed to have been called a Daemon once. Who'd called it that? It'd been under control or geas? Who had the power to do that? What was it doing with Taski? Sehithane?
There was a click and the door swung aside, soundlessly. The demon was standing there, not clad in the fur of a Trenalbi anymore, but in black leggings and a dark brown jacket. There were even bulky things covering its feet. Renhai leapt off the bed with his hackles twitching, eyeing the demon warily. It was a hairless thing, mostly hairless. There were strands of long fur on its head and further hints on its face and forearms, but its naked hide was blatantly and disturbingly visible. Its face was flat, as if it'd hit a wall, its nose pointed and its ears were ludicrously small, convoluted things stuck to the sides of its head. The eyes were as gray as thunderheads.
"You can see her now," it said, standing aside and gesturing to the door.
Renhai sidled out. Any thoughts of snarling and leaping were banished when he saw the outlandish form of one of the demon's familiars lurking in the background. It wasn't as big as the one outside, but the glass eyes were following his every move.
"Why did you imprison me?"
"I was a bit busy," the demon said, turning to lead the way off down the hall. Renhai hesitated, trying to place what was nagging him, then followed. The familiar fell in behind with precise and fluid motions. "The child required attention. She has [something], damage to the skull and her back was broken."
Renhai froze. "Then she's dead?"
"What? No. It's just going to take some work and time to heal. It'd have been easier if I could have gotten her here faster. In here."
A broken back, Renhai's mind was screaming. Then she'd be crippled at the least...
The room the demon led him into was... disturbing. There was a panel of metal covering one wall. At the bottom was an angled desk of similar material. The demon said something and the metal panel was suddenly transparent, lights and patterns appeared on the desk.
"She's doing all right," the demon was saying as it stepped up to the desk, touching a couple of lights.
Through the window was a brightly lit room. A tiny bundle of fur lay on a table surrounded by... by... he didn't have the words for them. There was metal and stranger materials surrounding, touching, actually poking into the cub laying under the lights. Her eyes were closed, her ribs barely moving with each breath.
"What are you doing to her!" Renhai snarled.
"Saving her life!" the demon snapped back. "Rebuilding bone. Replacing parts of spine, blood, mend skin. I try to help. She.... [something]. She feel nothing. No pain."
Renhai gaped, strangling on words that wouldn't come. He looked from the demon to the figure in the other room. Oddly enough, the thing that had been nagging at him revealed itself: the demon wasn't speaking. Its voice was coming from a small box around its neck. The sounds didn't match the movement of its mouth, but the low growling sounds Renhai heard did. He was about to ask about it when something else caught the demon's attention. It touched a light and there was another smaller view in the window. Renhai recognized the garden with its immaculate lawn, he also recognized the determined looking female limping across it.
"I think you'd better talk to her," the demon said. At least Renhai agreed with that.
He intercepted her in the same room where he'd met the demon. She stalked into the room, a picture of determination tempered by wariness and a sore leg. When she saw Renhai she froze. "She's safe," he said, forestalling her. "At least, I think she is."
"Where is she, soldier?" she hissed. "What's going on here."
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "But she's being... looked after. It's... there's something here. It brought us off the mountain. It built the house. And it could have killed us a long time ago. It says it's trying to help her."
She stared at him, her hackles bristling. He almost tucked his tail. "What the hells are you talking about?!" she snarled.
"Me, I suppose," said another voice. The demon was standing in the doorway, hands clasped behind its back. "My name is Seth'nai. And he's right: I'm trying to help, but you're not making it easy."
Sehithane blinked, her jaw hanging slack.
"Your child was badly hurt, but she'll be all right. You can see her if you want." It looked at Renhai, "You know the way." Then it turned and walked off down the hall.