Someone, somewhere, was screaming, elsewhere another whimpering in fear and pain.
Chenuk huddled behind the crenelle, still stunned by the explosions that decabeats before had rocked the rooftop, shattering light catapults and ballista... and Trenalbi. Warriors ran about in confused circles, some firing crossbow bolts at phantoms in the mist. Many more were of the same mind as Chenuk: stay down, keep your hide intact.
Fires made the area a chaotic scene of strobing orange light and jet blackness while smoke burned at eyes and nostrils. There were holes where the roof had collapsed into levels below, some burning.
Chenuk clutched the remains of his crossbow, ruined when that green finger of light had raked the battlements. He had begun to poke his head up to fire at the balcony when a green flash sliced through horns, bridle, and stock, the taut bowstring and fragments of bow whipping back to gouge his arm. Beside him...
Chenuk shook uncontrollably when he glanced at the lump sprawled on the wet flagstones beside him.
Beside him the warrior had been raising his bow to his shoulder when the green light brushed across him. His head exploded into red-tinted steam and bone fragments. The twitching body dropped like a sack of grain, the head above the lower jaw... gone.
He tore his eyes away. Something warm, moist was soaking the fur on both sides of Chenuk's face. Absently he reached up and brought his hand away red. His ears, Huh! He wanted to chitter insanely. His ears, his glorious tufted ears were gone, charred and bleeding stumps all that remained.
Chenuk glanced up at the tower, the clouds of moisture and smoke parting in time to allow him a glimpse of something dark and silent gliding past overhead, gone before he could open his mouth.
The thread hummed and vibrated almost imperceptibly as another harness appeared from the darkness, slowing, stopping before it bumped Sekher and Chaiila.
Nersi had both arms wrapped around the creature's neck, claws out and hanging on for dear life, but her eyes were bright and she was grinning with excitement. Despite the pain she must be feeling, enjoying herself?!
The creature reached up to snap a red toggle and the straps expanded, lowering the pair to the ground and shrugging the harness off. Nersi was limping badly, leaning on the creature's arm for support. A most unlikely pair.
"Oh, gods!" Chaiila groaned in disgust.
Nersi halted - drawing the creature up short - and looked up at them, flashing a small smile. "You coming down or you just admiring the view? Pull that little red thing."
Sekher craned upwards to do so. There was a metallic crack, a whirring, and the straps relaxed to dump them on the ground. Sekher stumbled as his unsteady legs betrayed him. That ride had ruffled his metaphorical fur more than he could ever admit. Chaiila took possession of Nersi, snarling at the creature until it backed off, fussing over her cousin who protested she was fine. Then she saw the pale behemoth looming over them on the crest of the hill.
"By the gods... What..."
"Beats me," Chaiila admitted and tugged at her cousin's arm, pulling her the other way. "Come on, let's leave a trail."
"Huh!" Nersi balked and hung her head, touching her bandage. "With this leg I won't make it, only slow you down. They'd catch us before we made a kilospan."
She was right, Sekher knew. The Ch'sty Rim law would track them and either capture or kill them. Capture: back where they started. Death: perhaps preferable.
A pale hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see the creature regarding him quizzically. "What do you want?" he snapped. It tugged at his arm, pointing to Chaiila and Nersi, then at the motionless thing at the top of the hill. Sekher's ears wilted.
"Gods!" Nersi spat in exasperation. "It saved our lives. I don't think it intends to eat us now!" And she shocked Chaiila by twisting out of her grasp and lurching away to be steadied by a wiry black-clad arm hooked about her waist. The creature rumbled at her and delicately escorted her up the remaining slope.
Sekher sighed and followed, with Chaiila behind him mumbling curses and wards all the way.
The thing was big; far bulkier than a wagon, with six legs thicker than a Trenalbi and a chunky body. Its head - if that was what it was - was a cylindrical affair situated halfway down its length. It moved to track them as they approached and Sekher was instantly struck by the similarity to the insides of the thing imbedded in the tower wall: struts and metal and glass and other materials.
Then he saw there were wheels on the ends of its legs. "Wheels?" Chaiila saw them also. "Since when does hellspawn have wheels?"
And since when were daemons made from metal?
The creature took Nersi right up to the thing, neither of them reaching the underbelly, and opened a small door in its right foreleg, touching glowing squares in a brisk sequence. Promptly, like a Hetre kneeling for mounting, the wheeled thing lowered itself with ponderous grace, stopping when its belly was brushing the grass. A latticework of bars clanked and hinged upwards like great jaws.
Nersi was hesitant about approaching that, but she did so, looked inside, then laughed and turned to the other two Trenalbi hovering at what they hoped was a safe distance back. "Come on!" she called. "I think we've got a ride!"
"Huh?" Chaiila and Sekher traded wondering looks.
There were a pair of what could only be seats in the front of the thing. Granted they were strange-looking things: black, covered with something glossy and soft-appearing, without apertures for tails, but they were unmistakably seats.
Arrayed before them were a series of glassy squares and a few glowing lights of various colours. To the right of each position was a strangely-wrought protuberance, a little like someone's twisted idea of a sword hilt. The creature helped Nersi get settled into the left seat, squirming to find a position where her tail was tolerably comfortable. Behind the seats was a small space, cluttered with small coloured cylinders, box-like things, and other incomprehensible knick-knacks. These the creature swept aside like so much rubbish and folded a small padded ledge down from the back wall.
"Come on!" Nersi urged them again. "It's not dark forever!" Sekher squeezed in behind the seats, followed in short order by Chaiila. She pressed against him in the confined space, fur brushing against his bare arm. He shivered convulsively and only then understood just how cold he was with night dampness soaking through his cloak.
The seat before him creaked as the creature settled into it. If this was a wagon, where were the draught beasts? Who had brought it here? Surely it could not have been left standing where it was, conspicuous from the town walls.
Above him the latticework of thick bars that constituted the broad canopy swung down to lock in place with a click. Not made to keep anything in or out, simply to protect the inhabitants of the cabin in case of a roll. Around the lip, above a board studded with coloured squares, circles, and other patterns was a shield of a glass of a quality that surpassed anything Sekher had ever seen before.
The creature was hidden from his sight in its seat directly before him, but Sekher saw its hand touching squares on the arm of its chair. More lights flicked to life. With an ease borne of long familiarity it tapped lights. Images flared in the glass plates: lines and curves, pictures, a map like the one conjured by the creature. Then it took a firm grip on the stick with its right hand, accompanied by a low hum pervading the very framework of the vehicle.
Everything lurched and Sekher was pressed back where he sat. Heavy wheels spun, tearing clods of dirt loose, then gripped as the vehicle slewed about and left Jai'stra behind. It accelerated, the body lowering to hug the ground, legs rising and falling with every dip and mound so instead of rattling his teeth like seeds in a rattle the ride was little worse than a boat in a light swell.
But so much faster!
Crushed grain blurred under the wheels and slowly the mists began to thin, turning into a thin cloud cover. White-blue Daughter-lit horizon and plains wheeled as the vehicle executed a gradual turn and passed through a hole torn in a rickety wooden fence and the seemingly endless expanse of the plains was before them.
"I think I'm going to be sick," Chaiila moaned.
"Gone, Sir," the guard repeated miserably.
"That I heard," the officer hissed, then howled, "What I want to know is HOW! WHERE?!"
The guard ducked his head and flinched away. "We don't know Sir," he confessed. "They're just... gone."
The officer stared at the subordinate in fury, then dismissed him with a cuff of the ears that drew blood. Still fuming the officer turned and saw Chenuk watching. "What do you want!"
"Watchkeeper Nerfith, Sir," Chenuk ducked his head and the officer started visibly at the ruin of Chenuk's ears. Clotting blood from his ears tugged at his head fur, but the pain had subsided to a vague sting. "Sir, I'm Chenuk ser Kifeny. I was transferred to your command. Told to report to you for orders."
"Another," Nerfith groaned. "Alright, Chenuk, who was your old commander? Why the shift?"
"Hekira, Sir. He was over there," Chenuk nodded towards a large smoking hole in the wall and part of the rooftop. They were still digging bodies out of the rubble.
"Huh, pity. He was a good warrior."
Chenuk twitched, the tattered remains of his ears aching. He swallowed and finally replied, "Some of them are still... alive."
Nerfith just stared, trying not to show his shock. Just a few motley fugitives and they'd lost one battlegroup at the least.
He was spared the ignominy of gaping like a wordless fool when another soot-streaked trooper stopped and saluted the Watchkeeper. "Sir, we've found something on the tower... We don't know what it is."
"The unknown is something I've just about had enough of," the officer sighed. "Very well. Chetik..."
"Whatever... Chenuk, follow."
They'd scaled the tower with ladders and entered through the hole. There'd been nobody there. Nor had there been anyone or anything in the room at the top, which the priests had allowed them to enter only after performing arcane rituals to remove demonic wards. The whole tower had been deserted.
However, imbedded in the tower wall just outside the balcony door was a peculiar object that hadn't been included by the architects. There were guards in the tower room and a couple more on the balcony itself. All had their fur on end and a reek of fear about them. Chenuk smelt it and his own pulse picked up.
"You haven't touched it?" the Watchkeeper asked.
"No Sir," one of the duty guards responded. "It's just as we found it."
"Have the priests had a look at it?"
A few of the guards exchanged glances. Their spokesman twitched his tail uncomfortably. "Ah... They decided to make their examinations from a distance for the present."
Chenuk bit back a protest. If the priests were too scared to poke their noses around, what in the hells was HE doing here?! Gods, he groaned to himself, I don't get paid enough for this kind of thing.
Nerfith scratched at his armour, adjusting his tail in its sheath up the back of the plastron. "So, has it done anything?" he asked. "Moved, prophesied, sung? Anything?"
The watchkeeper snorted and stepped out onto the balcony. He took some time to lean on the railing and stare out into the fog before nonchalantly strolling around to examine the thing. Chenuk followed, noting that Nerfith's sword hand was twitching, flexing restlessly. Light was beginning to touch the clouds on the horizon, turning the edges of the clouds molten silver. Morning already. Chenuk blinked at the Pan; finally, after a night that had seemed to drag on forever.
The thing stuck into the wall was metal. At least, most of it seemed to be. There was that watery wave of reflections - pink, purple and scarlet in the morninglight, much like the ripples on a blade of the finest quality steel. Other parts were of a flimsy-seeming white substance that Chenuk knew he'd seen before. In fact he'd worn it on his head. The nose of the thing was crumpled where it had impacted with the stonework, but the stone had yielded also. Mortar had crumbled and several blocks had been pushed out of alignment.
"Gods, it must have hit with the force of a battering ram," Nerfith pointed out.
Four small arms were splayed out, their tips drilled into the masonry. That was how the thing clung with such tenacity.
"Sir, how could this have helped them escape?" Chenuk asked.
The Watchkeeper's ears flagged his own ignorance.
Chenuk looked closer. Whatever it was, its skeletal framework was filled with small boxes and strange constructions of metal. In the end protruding from the wall there was a recessed cavity.
"What's this?" Nerfith stooped to pick something up from the floor. "Looks like a sword blade. What'd you think?"
"Ah, yes Sir. Cheap bronze job. Standard issue. It looks like it snapped."
The officer scrutinised the broken blade and gave a noncommittal, "Humph."
"Watchkeeper!" a courier popped out onto the balcony and handed over a scroll. "Message Sir!"
"Thanks." The officer passed the fragment of blade to Chenuk, took the scroll and popped the seal with a claw, "wait over there," he ordered the messenger with a distracted toss of his head. If the courier had done so, he'd have gone over the edge of the balcony. Instead he chose to retire to the tower room.
Chenuk stepped aside to let the officer pace on the narrow parapet. Why would a priest have a balcony constructed anyway? He'd heard that Kanr, the priest who'd made this tower his domicile, had been a little eccentric, even for the priesthood. Always peering at the night sky and trying to postulate ridiculous theories about the Well of Heaven. Huh! No doubt he'd used this balcony to stare at the night sky. Powerful he'd been too, very powerful, but always reluctant to fight. Still, he'd met his match in the last place he expected, right in his own sanctum.
A slight movement on the device stuck to the wall caught Chenuk's eye. Intrigued, he cocked his head to one side to closer inspect it. From the recess at the rear of the thing hung a tiny thread, scarcely more than a black shadow a couple of spans long. Chenuk batted at it, then caught it in his left hand. It was so light he couldn't even feel it. He snorted in abrupt anger at this thing that had so thoroughly disrupted his life and yanked the thread to snap it off.
A brief flash of pain shot up his arm. Chenuk looked down in confusion, at first not understanding what he saw. Then he started chittering and whimpering in shock.
Nerfith looked up from his dispatch: "What's... Hells! Guards!" he yelled for help as he grabbed Chenuk's hand and saw the damage for himself. "Gods, youngling! What happened?!"
"T...That," Chenuk hissed, then yelped at the pain. "That string... It went right through..."
"Death on a doorstep! You've been losing too many body parts this night," Nerfith muttered as he strapped the tourniquet in place and tightened it.
Chenuk chittered in agony, his good hand extruding claws and flailing at the air. "Haaii!"
"Calm, you'll live."
"What?" The Watchkeeper's ears perked up and he readjusted his position the better to see the trooper's face.
"North," Chenuk repeated. "They went north. Where we found it."
Nerfith digested that information while more guards appeared, staring at Chenuk's maimed hand. "Hnnn!" the soldier clenched his teeth as the guards helped him to his feet and threw his arms over their shoulders. He was muttering as they carried him off, snarling: "I'm going to find that hairless, motherless, demon-spawned bastard," he snarled to nobody in particular. "I'm going to find it, and I'm going to tear it apart and feed it to itself. Deformed, furless offspring of a shen. Demon. Sorcery..."
Nerfith watched him leave with wilted ears. He beckoned to a lieutenant.
"I want to find out some more about that Trenalbi. What assignments he's had in the past. Was he with the convoy that found that thing? Where they found it, stuff like that. See what you can uncover."
"And get a message to the signalers."
Sekher squinted into the wind whipping around his head and ears, nostrils working hard. Standing on the pillion bench in the daemon's conveyance, steadying himself with a hand clenching the framework enclosing the cabin, he had an excellent view. The air was cool and fresh, just beginning to warm after the night but still chilly against bare flesh. Hazy purple horizons, the norm on these rolling prairies, stretched away in all directions. The low, tough scratch-bush and golden grasses would continue to carpet the grounds until another river valley where more hospitable and colourful flora could grow. To the west, the orb of the Lightbringer was only a few degrees above the hazy teeth of the Ramparts. How far had they travelled in the past couple of hours? Certainly far further than any mounted Trenalbi could manage in a day.
He took another deep draught of the morning air and ducked back down into the shelter offered by the cabin. "Morning and waking," he cheerfully greeted Chaiila who was curled in on herself on the bench. She lifted her head, the white eyelid sliding back as she raised from Drift.
"Burn in eternal agony, male," she hissed.
"Glad to see you're feeling better," he returned.
"Huhnnn," she groaned, rubbing at muzzle and eyes. "I don't understand how you can stand this. It's not... natural to travel this fast!"
Sekher flagged amusement at her embarrassment and Chaiila bridled. She was a proud one, this female, and she wore that pride like a prized and polished suit of armour; she didn't like to get it scratched.
Nersi was in Drift, slumped in the front seat with her head lolling on her shoulder. Beside her the creature was bent over a tray on its lap, a scatter of tiny parts spread out on it. A small door had been opened in a cluster of devices on a panel before it revealing perplexing tangles of coloured cables and small black cubes locked into latticeworks. The creature's armband also lay in fragments while deft long-fingered hands shifted pieces around as if trying to solve a complex puzzle.
"Uh," Chaiila tugged at his tail. "Sekher, who's controlling this thing?"
Nersi in Drift. The creature... doing whatever it was doing...
"Don't ask," Sekher replied and sat back heavily. He automatically tried to rub down the fur on his face but his hands only brushed against a coarse stubble. Hai, better than nothing. Wagons that drove themselves... what next?
The plains continued to scroll past as the wide, barrel-like wheels hummed through the grasses with a sound like water against a boat's hull. A family of startled Burrowrunners bolted through the grass ahead and vanished into their holes. Occasionally there was a judder as some obstruction was struck. At that speed any normal wagon would've been shaken to pieces long before then.
Sekher touched the cage framework over his head. Metal. Steel. The whole thing was made of metal of various types, much of it unknown to the Trenalbi. Gods, there was a fortune in the stuff here! Even so, it had a battered and scarred look that suggested it had seen better days. Paint had been scratched and chipped and in one particular spot Sekher noticed the metal bars - as thick as his arm - were bent as if some huge weight had fallen on it. If those bars hadn't been there anyone in either seat would've been pounded flatter than a biscuit.
Chaiila had picked up a bulky cylinder with rounded ends from among the clutter on the floor and was turning it over. When it hissed loudly she dropped it, stared at it as if it had insulted her.
"So," Sekher began after a time of awkward silence, "where do we go from here?"
Chaiila looked up from cautiously prodding the cylinder with a toe claw. "From here? Well, I'd suggest we get clear of the Ch'sty Rim domain first before we make any set plans."
Sekher snorted. "Clear? What're they going to do now? Send infantry running after us? There's no way they're going to catch us now."
"No?" she growled. "Take a look over there."
Sekher followed her finger.
On the horizon the squat shape of a tower was visible. Too far away to make out exact details, but the spindly branches of the heliograph arms were quite distinct, their reflective surfaces flashing as they snapped open and shut.
"So, where are they?"
Kissaki's voice was level and calm, dangerously so.
Watchkeeper Nerfith swallowed hard. "Ahh, I was informed they were northbound, Sir. We've received messages from relay posts twenty six to thirty five reading they'd sighted the fugitives heading north at... uh," Nerfith licked his lips, "about one hundred kilopaces a unit."
That shook the Lord. Kissaki went rigid in his chair, his pupils dilating into black pentagons. "One hundred?"
"At their best estimate, Sir."
"Oath!" Kissaki pushed his chair back from the polished darkstone desk and stood. Here, in Kissaki's private offices, was a world where none but the highest ranking were permitted to enter. These rooms were not of the imposing scale of the audience chambers, intended to awe and intimidate. Instead they were of a more functional scale, easily heated and a great deal more comfortable than that draughty hall.
The Watchkeeper wasn't the only other soul in the room. So silent and still that it was easy to overlook him a member of the Priesthood sat brooding in a grotesquely carved highback chair of dark wood. A sienna-furred hand propped his chin while amber eyes glinted from the shadow of his hood as he stared at the other two, watching every move.
Kissaki pulled a scroll case from its rack in the desk and popped the end caps off, sliding the lacquered scroll out and spreading it out with a jewel-encrusted astrolabe and a statuette of Psaht to weight it down. "What were those relay stations? Twenty six to thirty five?"
The Lord pored over the map, tracing a route with a silvertipped claw while a growl hovered in his throat. "North..." Then the claw stabbed down and he shot a burning glare at Nerfith: "Send orders to mobilize the garrisons at Chertuk and Red Ford. Move cavalry to herd them to Split Forks where infantry can meet them with ballista and arbalests."
"Also get three royal battlegroups mounted and moving with cages and handlers to bring it back!" His voice rasped again when he snarled, "I WANT that creature! Any way possible, do you hear me!"
"Yessir!" Nerfith barked again. "The others, Sir...?"
"The others..." Kissaki pondered for a couple of beats, then said, "Kill them."
"Is that wise?" the priest said softly.
If he'd howled at the top of his voice he couldn't have made a greater impact. Kissaki stared at him, blinking slowly. "And why do you say that?" he finally asked.
"It would seem to me that they hold some kind of sway over the creature." That voice was calm and unflappable. "It has protected them so far. Perhaps they could be used to persuade it to," he raised a hand and made vague, suggestive motions, "work with us."
Kissaki considered, then said, "No. Kill them." It was the final stamp on their death warrants.
The priest didn't object. He just watched as the Watchkeeper bowed low as he backed for the door, twisting his head to expose white-tufted guard fur on his throat. The Lord was seething and Nerfith wasn't about to be the overly-cocky subordinate who had his rank, not to mention his hide, slashed.
He felt the eyes of the guards outside following him as he let the door swing shut behind him. Within minutes the orders were transcripted and sealed and messengers were dispatched, racing to the signal stations. Alone now in his cramped little cubby of an office he threw down the stylus and rubbed at his hand. Two garrisons; at least twenty battlegroups and cavalry. There was no doubt that they would be able to intercept the fugitives, but it would take skill and cunning and not a little luck to close the jaws and trap the prey between them.
"Who...?" Nerfith turned, not breaking stride. The trooper hurried to catch up with him, gasping heavily. The Watchkeeper knew this male with his bandaged arm and ears. "Chenuk?"
"Yessir." The trooper sucked air, then half-collapsed against a corridor wall.
"Oath!" the officer exclaimed. "The priests didn't let you out, did they?"
"Not exactly, Sir," Chenuk coughed, clenched the claws of his good hand into the stone walls as another wave of dizziness sent his head reeling.
"You should be in the temple! Look! I don't take to my warriors killing themselves off by stupidity and running around like that's the most fool thing I've seen!"
"I'm fine, Sir," Chenuk protested, cradling his injured arm with its bulky wrappings. Somewhere within that misshapen lump of bandages, healing clay, and mosses was his right hand, missing three fingers. Some Priesthood at the Hub may have had a shadow of a chance of saving the digits, but while the Ch'sty priests were good, they weren't that good.
"You don't look it. Gods! Have you seen yourself?! You look as if you've been chewed up and spat out!" He hissed and scowled at the trooper. "What do you want, anyway?"
Chenuk nervously hung his head. "Sir, has there been news about the... about the fugitives?"
The Watchkeeper blinked in disbelief. "You hunted me down just for that?! Youngling, I think you've got your priorities in a tangle."
"I don't..." Chenuk began to defend himself, then bowed to his commander. "Yessir."
"Huh!" Nerfith slipped a finger under a strap on a cannon to scratch while he stared at Chenuk. "Take my advice," he said. "Forget about that thing. You're going to get yourself killed chasing after something like that."
Chenuk's fur began to bristle, his ruff billowing up around his neck. "Sir, it killed my section. Wiped them out. It's maimed me for life!" He stopped and took control of his anger before speaking again. "You never saw what it did to the priest, did you. It took his mind!"
"I saw," Nerfith said. "I saw. He's babbling about skies filled with stars."
"You see?! It's too dangerous! And what if it decides to help the northerners? Gods! We had it cornered and it still walked away. Can we leave it running loose?!"
"But it ran. It was afraid of us. We captured it once..."
"We were lucky!" Chenuk insisted, brandishing his clawed fingers before his new commander. "The Gods were on our side once. Who can say what they'll do next time. Do you have any idea what that thing can do?! It had a helmet that let it see through walls! If it was prepared for us..."
"I think you're overestimating this thing, soldier," Nerfith growled, reminding Chenuk of their relative ranks. His fur flattened and he stepped away. "Anyway, we'll soon know."
"What?" Chenuk's pupils snapped to startled black squares.
"They've been spotted," Nerfith explained. "There're at least twenty battlegroups and several more cavalry units moving in on them. We'll see just what we're up against."
"Huh!" Chenuk rubbed his injured arm. "Twenty battlegroups, Sir?"
"Yes," Nerfith grinned reassuringly. "Enough to tear a garrison to shreds."
Chenuk grinned also, but if he had been able, his ears would have been plastered back. Enough to shred a garrison, yeah. But is it enough?
Even to Sekher's untrained ear the grinding and grating sounds from the left centre wheel sounded wrong. When that noise turned to a permeating shuddering felt through the huge vehicle's body he was convinced that something was amiss.
Finally the creature snarled, slammed a fist against the framework above its head, and the vehicle slowed so abruptly that the Drifting Chaiila was tumbled to the floor.
Seen by the light of day the exterior of the vehicle was even more battered than the interior. The underbelly was scored and scarred, the matt white paint scratched away to bare shining metal. Slung beneath the nose was a cluster of glass lenses, some the size of Sekher's head. The rear of the thing was a vertical face with what may have been doors set in it. There were more of the lenses there also, more set into the stubby extrusion of metals perched atop the vehicle.
The creature was buried beneath the complex joint where the troubled wheel attached to the leg, only its legs and waist protruding. Metallic clanking sounds, occasionally punctuated by a frustrated snarl, sounded from under the narrow space and every so often it would throw out a gleaming metal tool and grope after another one.
Leaning against the left front wheel Sekher watched the hairless hand fumbling after another tool. It latched onto something resembling a bottle with a handle, drew it out of sight. The whining noises that followed laid Sekher's ears back.
Some strange sight they must be: a six-legged contraption that more resembled some outlandish animal than a vehicle sitting in the middle of the heat-browned grasslands. He looked out over the gently rolling hills with their ever-shifting kaleidoscoping of light and shades of gold as clouds scudded across the face of the Lightbringer. Gods, the plains were restful to his eyes. How could anyone tolerate living in the mountains? All those vertical lines...
"Think it can fix it?" Chaiila vaulted up to squat on the wheel beside him. She curiously fingered the patterns worked into the surface.
"Ask it," Sekher shrugged. "I've no idea."
"Huh," Chaiila cocked her head at the creature's legs. "We should've grabbed some shen. They don't fall apart."
Sekher yipped his amusement. "True... but I doubt we would have made it very far."
There was another clatter from beneath the vehicle, a loud yelp, and the creature hauled itself out shaking its hand and growling. Chaiila smirked. The creature glanced at both the Trenalbi, rumbled at them, then stuck a tool into a receptacle in the wheel housing, gave it a sharp twist and lifted away a panel. For a heartbeat it stared, then gave a bellowing roar that rang across the plains. Reaching into the hole it tore out a handful of scratchbush and hurled it aside, then another, and another. The tough, wiry strands of the plants were pulped and torn.
Sekher ventured a peek into the hole. Inside a complex network of curved metal plates surrounded what could have been an axle wrapped around with thick cables. And the whole assembly was jammed solid with scratchbush.
Sekher crouched low in the grass behind the crest of the hill, nostrils working as he tasted the scent of the Longrazers being wafted down to him on the breeze. It was a sizable herd, the females and young encircled by the males. The patriarch circled the herd, cropping at the grasses, pausing to raise its head and test the wind. Slowly Sekher surveyed the surrounding land. Where was... Ah, there!
Chaiila's dark fur was very visible against the gold of the grasslands as she circled wide of the herd, moving upwind. Sekher's tail lashed and his leg muscles bunched as he readied himself.
Chaiila was up, moving slowly at first, then breaking into a sprint. Squeals of alarm rose from the herd and immediately they began to move, the females running from the threat while the males fell in behind them. The patriarch lowered his triple horns and charged at Chaiila who dodged and circled to head off the rest of the herd and drive them towards Sekher.
As the herd passed the foot of the hill he kicked off, felt grass and earth slipping beneath his feet. He stumbled and caught himself by going to all fours, silently cursing his lack of claws as he angled himself to intercept the herd. Already they were reacting to his abrupt appearance, swerving away, but he had a calf singled out. The breath was burning in his chest, his muscles singing in exhilaration as he dodged a female who feinted at him, eyes rolling. His feet skittered but again he caught himself, threw himself forward. The calf was separated from the herd, dodging wildly as it sought an opening to rejoin its kindred. And Sekher felt his legs begin to fail and saw the calf begin to pull away until it made a mistake and turned the wrong way.
Sekher hit it hard and felt the rough bristles of its hide scouring his own furless skin. It stumbled as he caught its neck, his clawless fingers slipping, then it was free again and he only just managed to catch its tail, dodged its kick, then tackled it and brought it to the ground. A blunt-clawed hoof hit him in the stomach, knocking the breath out of his body. He twisted and was on its back, the nape of its neck between his jaws and the taste of its sweat bitter in his mouth. He bit, hard, the muscles in his jaws and neck bunching and flexing.
There was a crackling snapping sound. Blood flowed hot and tangy. The calf thrashed for a while then was still.
Slowly Sekher disengaged his teeth, licked his muzzle clean of blood, then sank back panting hard.
Chaiila was lazing nearby, sprawled in the warmth of the Lightbringer. "You could have put a claw in there," he said, levelling a finger at her.
"Clumsy," she criticized. "You almost lost it there."
"Like to see you do better," he growled.
"Sure," she yawned and rolled. "When we get to the forests I'll show you some real hunting. At least we've got some food now."
Sekher eyed the carcass, already beginning to salivate at the thought of warm flesh. "Huh! It's been a long time."
"Prison food's not what it used to be, eh?" She flicked a smile at him and Sekher became overwhelmingly aware of her... her something. He felt a pang, a lurch, like fear, yet like nothing he'd ever felt before. It left him gaping and confused.
"You alright?" Chaiila was staring at him warily, as if she expected him to come at her.
"Ah... Yah," he blinked and rubbed his eyes. "Just worn out. Let's get this cleaned out and carted back."
Chaiila gave him another glance before producing a knife and setting down to skinning and gutting the calf.
It was an awkward weight to juggle between them, but the two Trenalbi managed to haul the choicest parts of a carcass that must have weighed as much as the pair of them the not-so inconsiderable distance back to the creature's vehicle.
Nersi was at the creature's side, watching over its shoulder as it cleared scratchbush from the works of the vehicle. From somewhere it had cobbled together a crutch to take the weight off her gamy leg. She turned at their hail and tapped the creature's shoulder. It jumped, banging its head on the lip of the hatch it was half-buried in.
"Looks like it's almost finished," Chaiila observed.
Sekher swallowed his mouthful. "About time. I wonder if that happens often." He took another bite of liver. Gods, raw and still warm as it went down his throat. He hadn't tasted anything so good in... it seemed like eternity.
"It's not much for a daemon, is it?"
"Your creature. Daemon, whatever. Look at it! It's clumsy. It bangs its head, it makes mistakes. It's more like a hideously deformed Trenalbi than a Godsend." She punctuated that by tearing a chunk from her liver and masticating noisily.
"I had noticed," Sekher reluctantly admitted.
Chaiila chuckled. "Hmmm... It must be tough to discover your ironbearing earth is just coloured clay."
"Huh! It saved our tails."
She glanced pointedly at his shaved member. "Well, most of them anyway."
With a sniff he hitched up the strap that supported the haunches strung about his neck and pretended to ignore that cut to his shaved pride.
Nersi had come to meet them halfway, hop-swinging on her single crutch. "Hai!" she greeted them with a smile that turned to a glistening grin at the scent of the meat. "The mighty hunters return. Not a bad catch I see."
Chaiila frowned. "You sure you should be walking on that leg?"
Nersi's ears twitched. "Perhaps I should walk on my hands?"
"Sorry," she grinned again. "Don't worry. It's fine. That thing replaced the bandage. I can hardly feel it. Say, you going to eat all that?"
Chaiila snorted and tossed her cousin the remnants of the liver. Nersi adroitly plucked it from the air. "Thanks." She took an eager bite.
"You know," she continued from around a noisy mouthful. "We should find something to call it."
"Call what?" Sekher asked. They began moving back to the vehicle, slowly; mindful of Nersi's handicap.
"Your creature," she said, pointing with her free hand still clutching a gobbet of meat. "We can't just keep calling it 'Your Creature'."
"Alright," Sekher said. "Any suggestions?"
Nersi lowered her eyes: "I had thought, Seth'Nai."
"Pale Walker," Chaiila mused, then laughed in delight. "How apt."
Sekher thought about it. "Sounds good to me."
Nersi's ears flicked and she called to the creature who awaited them. "Hai! They like it! You've got a name, Seth'Nai!"
And Seth'Nai cocked its head to one side and blinked at her, then without taking its eyes from them slammed the hatch over the complex workings it'd been cleaning out. Sekher realised it wasn't as much staring at them as at the burden they carried. "Hungry?" he asked, and tossed it the remainder of the liver. It caught the dripping chunk of flesh, stared at it for a second, then gave a yelp and dropped it, shaking its hands as though burnt.
The Trenalbi stared in confusion.
"Is there something wrong with the meat?" Nersi asked.
"Didn't taste out of the ordinary," Chaiila responded, licking her bloodstained muzzle.
The creature was wide-eyed, its eyes flicking from the meat to the Trenalbi.
"I don't think it likes meat," observed Sekher.
"Huh!" Chaiila scooped up the dropped piece of liver, shook it off, then offered it again. "I think you're right, Che," she said as the creature flinched away again. "Your Gods-shaved monster's a plant eater!" Her barking laughter rang across the veldts.
Well, whatever Seth'Nai did to the wheels worked... for about forty kilopaces before the grating noises turned to sparks and smoke.
The creature had taken one look at the damage and slammed the hatch on it in disgust, not even attempting to repair it. Perhaps it couldn't, Sekher pondered. So, even this Seth'Nai had its limits.
It couldn't fix it, but the vehicle still had five spares. The entire wheel was drawn up on its leg and tucked out of the way. The loss of a single wheel didn't appear to hinder it, but the other wheels still complained and it wasn't too much longer before the right front wheel screamed and died.
"One more to go," Chaiila grumbled as that wheel was tucked up to join the other. "I for one don't want to see if that thing can manage on three legs. I think I'd prefer to walk."
"And you," she continued, studying Sekher, "are starting to look like a boiled Ballfruit."
Sekher scratched uncomfortably with the stubs of his claws. He itched. All exposed skin was red and tender, especially around the shoulders and neck. He could feel the hard nubs of fur beginning to sprout through, but it was slow! So slow! And still his skin felt as though it were burning.
So he'd stripped off his chafing armour and cloak and scratched until even his clawless fingers drew blood. When Seth'Nai noticed his condition he produced a hooded poncho made from some flexible silvery substance that could almost have been called cloth, save that it had no weave whatsoever. It was as light as air and chafed his hide not the slightest. Of course he still itched, but beneath the cool caress of the poncho it was tolerable.
When the fourth wheel expired Chaiila did indeed learn that the vehicle could cope on three. Not very effectively: their speed was more than halved, but still they made far better time than they possibly could have done walking.
At first the Red River valley was a blemish across the near flat horizon to the north, growing clearer and more defined as they approached. The terrain slowly changed, the rolling hills giving way to coarser arroyo and gullies, steeper and higher hills and ridges, broken by the passage of water, whilst the low grasses and coarse Scratchbush surrendered to Spiralleaf bushes, Arrowstems, Scellerian trees and other flora unable to compete with the Scratchbush when it came to thriving in drier environs. Stonewood trees marched along ridgetops, their extensive roots matting the cliff where rock had sheered away in a slip. The thick undergrowth was alive with small animals, insects, and flyers of every description.
Sekher started as a Meneri skittered away through the bush. It was all too easy to imagine one saw the gleam of metal as Rim troops lurked in ambush. That could be awkward. Progress through this rough land was slow and if there was a trail they hadn't found it, instead making their way cross-country, skirting large obstacles, crushing smaller ones.
And - as Chaiila observed - leaving a trail obvious enough for a blind, mentally-deficient cripple to follow.
There was a lurch and Sekher reflexively grabbed for a handhold, bouncing against the restraining straps the cre... Seth'Nai had made them don. Like some six-legged behemoth the vehicle was using its damaged wheels as feet to step down into a tributary. Water churned as Seth'Nai turned the vehicle and guided it downstream.
"You're sure this is the Red River?" he asked Chaiila.
"Of course! We came this way when we followed you. Further east though, to avoid the Rim patrols. I think this way is a little faster - you don't have to cross the Munsk and Plague rivers as well - but we do come pretty close to some garrison towns."
"How close is 'close'?"
"Not less than twenty kilopaces. We can be there and gone before they get a glimpse of us."
"You'd better pray it's so," Sekher muttered. "There is a crossing?"
"Uh-huh. At this time of year there is, an easy one. Split Forks I believe it's called. There are the ruins of an old town around here somewhere, named after the forks. Some of the Trenalbi around here say they're inhabited by ghosts and demons. We should stop off and let your friend up front go visit its relations."
She laughed then, her barks ringing among the trees.
Sekher snorted, grabbing for another handhold as the vehicle stepped down a small waterfall. In a flurry of leaves and wings, flyers exploded from the crest of a hill, making Sekher glance up.
He froze, horror melting across his face.
"Oh, Gods, no!" he croaked, then: "DOWN!"
He lunged for Chaiila's arm and tried to pull her to the floor and the straps stuck and held her back and he was fumbling with the release when the archers on the hill fired and there was a searing pain across his cheek and quarrels clattered into the cabin.
The vehicle surged forward, the three operative wheels scrabbling for a purchase on the stream bed, spraying showers of water everywhere. Low branches whipped against the cabin framework, breaking off with loud retorts, showering them with a debris of leaves and sticks. Ahead another group of Rim troopers appeared, scattering as the behemoth tore through their group, but still a couple loosed shots. Seth'Nai gave a grunt as a bolt struck it square in the chest, failing to penetrate the tunic but evidently scaring the fur off the creature.
Howls of rage faded behind them.
"Gods!" Sekher gasped. "Gods! How... Where'd they come from?!"
"They were waiting," Chaiila snarled, rubbernecking wildly, her sword in hand for all the good it would do her. "I think we've lost them though."
"Mother, they KNEW!" Sekher howled.
"Their thrice-cursed heliographs," said Chaiila, glancing at him, then blurted, "Che! You've been hit!"
"Huh?" He touched his cheek, inspected fingers stained dark purple. "Oh... Just a scratch."
She was about to speak when the trees around them rapidly thinned to low scrub, then even that vanished into a panorama of open space and cloud-stippled azure skies. Before them stretched the river flood plain: kilopaces across, it was a vast stretch of rock-strewn ground which in the flood seasons would be underwater. Now, in the heat of the dry season, it was a barren expanse of river-carried stones, cracked, dotted with the miniature plateaus of beached islands. The river at its current level was a ribbon of polished steel glittering in the glare of the Lightbringer.
For a second the vehicle was airborne, plunging over a short drop down to the dried riverbed and impacting in fragments of pulverised rock and metallic screams as damaged systems were taxed to the limit. The Trenalbi were bounced against their straps like seeds in a rattle, Sekher's teeth clattering in his head. Then they were accelerating across the flood plain, pulverised rock rising in a cloud behind them.
Sekher stuck his head out, squinting into the wind and dust and twisting to see behind them. From the receding treeline, like a tide flowing between rocks, soldiers were emerging, several squads of light cavalry and infantry.
But there they stopped, lining up along the bank, not making any effort to pursue. Waiting, as if reluctant to pursue.
But fear had nothing to do with their recalcitrance. It was the creature who saw them first, then Nersi. Her whimper drew the attention of the other Trenalbi and they also looked forward.
Beyond the river was a solid wall of soldiery, completely blockading the ford. Water glittered like molten silver, churned to spray by the hooves of shen as battlegroup after battlegroup of heavy cavalry crossed the river to form skirmish lines. Light siege engines and field artillery bulked behind the infantry, crews crouched at their weapons.
"This," Chaiila pronounced, "does NOT look good."
"You have a gift for understatement," Sekher snarled back, shouting above the noise of the wind as the vehicle slewed, scattering rocks the size of skulls before halting. Frantically Seth'Nai looked around.
"We can still run!" Sekher growled, his skin breaking out in tiny bumps as nonexistent fur attempted to bristle. "We can run!"
"How far?" Chaiila quietly asked. "That wheel isn't going to last."
For pounding heartbeats they were silent, able to hear distant battlecries, clashing of swords upon shields, the harvesting of courage. They couldn't run. The vehicle wouldn't last. On foot they wouldn't make it a hundred paces before outriders ran them down. Perhaps Seth'Nai could get away, but on foot against so many battlegroups? Sekher had seen it bleed, so could it die?
What about its weapons, the ones it had used against the palace? Why didn't it use those? Sekher kept expecting his creature to do something, anything, to pull some trick out of the ether to save their hides.
But it sagged, slumped and stared at the ranks of the Rim soldiery.
"Hai," Sekher leaned forward to touch it and it flinched at his hand on its arm. Those impossible stone-grey eyes met Sekher's and the young male knew: Gods, it's as scared as the rest of us! It in turn gently touched Nersi's shoulder, smoothing the tangled fur, then it returned to its little lights and squares, growling at its wrist as though arguing with a piece of ironmongery.
"Hai! We just SIT here?!" protested Chaiila. "What's it DOING?!"
Whatever it was doing, it was doing it hastily. Pale fingers flew across grids of tiny squares while it kept up a continuous rumbling in a pattern that locked and interlocked with similar noises from the machine. WAS it talking? Was there another creature in the machine? Barely pausing in its work it reached down to pull out a worn blue floppy bag of an odd tubular design that it tossed back to Sekher. Solid-seeming metal at his side slid aside, revealing stacks of boxes and packets and indefinable objects of a multitude of materials and designs. "Fill it?" Sekher asked, shaking the bag. The creature made no sign that it had heard, once again running a forefinger across lights with growing speed. Sekher hissed and began shovelling handfuls of paraphernalia into the carrysack.
With a whine the vehicle came back to life, turning in a cloud of dust and moving slowly toward the river and the Rim ambush. Hidden mechanisms hissed and the cabin lowered, the canopy clanged and swung partway open. Seth'Nai snapped its harness, gesturing frantically to the Trenalbi until they followed suit, then it caught Nersi, all but threw her out, and jumped after her.
Sekher glanced at Chaiila - stunned - then clutched the bag to his chest and scrambled to follow.
He hit the ground hard, rolled, and ducked his head, trying to burrow into the dirt and rocks as the massive, scarred underbelly of the vehicle rumbled overhead, wheels on either side kicking out slivers of smashed stones that stung against Sekher's skin. Then it was past and he looked around. Chaiila... yes, she'd followed and was even now picking herself up. The creature was on its feet, helping Nersi whose leg had gone again. He grabbed the bag and scrambled to his feet.
"I'm going to rip its throat out with my teeth!" Chaiila snarled to Sekher, spitting rock dust. Together they half-ran half-limped to where the creature was beckoning them, urging them to follow.
Already the vehicle was halfway to the river, throwing up a cloud of dust. Sekher could hear it venting a wailing cry, red and orange lights strobing on its upper deck. The Rim troops were hesitating, their ranks beginning to falter as the mass of white metal bore down upon them. Ahead was the creature, leading them, half-carrying Nersi. On the river bank the Rim troops were still hesitating, unsure what to do in the light of their quarry abruptly running back toward them. Slowly their cavalry moved forward, their shen picking their way down the eroded riverbank onto the floodplain.
Seth'Nai stumbled, then changed tack, angling for a pile of boulders - massive water-torn things the height of two Trenalbi that would form a tiny island unto themselves when the floodwaters submerged this plain. That, Sekher thought in disbelief, was where it planned to make a final stand?!
Nevertheless he followed, stones punishing against his tough foot pads, the silvery cloak of daemonthread threatening to tangle his legs, the breath rushing in his lungs. Around the far side of the rock it led them, throwing anxious glances at the approaching Rim cavalry and motioning frantically with its hands.
"Now! You furless freak!" Chaiila snarled at it, breathless. "I have about had enough! Nersi! Are you alright?" she knelt by her cousin.
With a growl the creature seized Sekher, throwing him down, then caught at Chaiila. She snarled and twisted and slashed and the creature cried out as parallel red lines crossed a cheek, then it bodily flung itself at her. Again her claws caught it, drawing more blood before its weight bore her to the ground, atop Sekher and Nersi with an impact that knocked the breath from Sekher's lungs. Chaiila struggled, the creature swung a fist that rocked her head back, shutting her jaw with a hollow 'clop' and spread itself out, trying to cover the Trenalbi with...
The world flared white.
A light to beggar the Lightbringer washed across the landscape. For the briefest instant the world was a bleached tapestry. A wave of heat seared Sekher's face, lungs, skin, causing him to cry out, fling an arm across his face. That cry tried to turn to a scream when a sound, a solid wall of sound smashed into him, tearing away his breath, catching him up, hurling him in a wave of fire - glimpses of trees bursting in flame - then an impact that...
End Godsend part 7