A solid square foundation is all that is left of the tower. Even this is humbling, given its dimensions. The shattered walls and broken stairs, a cast alabaster despair, are testament to the simple axiom that all we make can be unmade, and will be. Who walked these triturated streets? Phantom echoes wander in the seeping twilight, and voices can almost be heard. A tinny susurration, lingering undead sounds haunt the bustling thoroughfare cursed with carrying its own memory. The banners are gone, and all the market signs and gilded hems are gone, but the dust rolls still.
In the old academies, ghosts give lecture by the dictums etched into the walls. The wooden floors and desks have all evaporated. It is the framework that remains, waiting to be filled again.
A tiger sleeps beneath a tumble of powder and stone. His heart beats by years, and his breaths are centuries.
Kerrigan examines for the thousandth time the face so like her own, the woman of stone. Her captor sits by the fire with his broad back to her. He watches the flames lick away the wood. He had fetched a goodly sized pine from the forest outside Ten Towers that afternoon, settling its whole mass over his shoulder. The girl had not tried to run. This had pleased him. He had not touched her again, not even to wake her or guide her when it was needed. He looked at her constantly, or ignored her completely. Kerrigan was not certain which she preferred.
"Who was she?" There was no response. "I know she is why I'm here, because I look like her. Who was she?"
The barbarian reached into the fire and adjusted the fuel. Flames spurred higher, seeming not to bother him. Kerrigan took a deep breath, readying to speak again.
"Asylphian." His voice, as always, was surprisingly smooth. Despite herself, Kerrigan had often found herself wanting to hear that voice, if only to relieve the boredom. She had never imagined that being hostage to a fearsome barbarian giant would be so...bland. Once, he had taken her by the hand and led her to see the ruins, or some small part of them. Apart from this, he had done little more than bring her food and maintain the fire. She suspected both activities were entirely for her sake. The barbarian gave no sign of feeling heat or cold, and though he ate, he did so listlessly, as if out of rote. As for sleep, if he did so, it was only when she was unconscious. She had lost most of her fear of him and his nakedness and brawn, but the silence was killing her.
"Was she your love?"
His back was stiff as iron, then it relaxed into clay, resigned.
"Yes. That is what you would call her."
"We nearly broke the world."
Kerrigan did not know what to say to that.
* * *
They came to the stream. Tiddles went about refilling their jug, while Cornelia fell to her knees beside it. She was scratched and scuffed, and profusely sweating. The stream was only a fingers width deep, and hardly a pace wide, but it ran swiftly enough to be clean. She cupped her hands and filled them, bringing this meager portion to her parched lips again and again. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.
"It's not that bad," Tiddles said, though in truth it had been. They had walked from morning to evening, seeing nothing but grass. Two turns since the closing of the sun had brought them to this rill, and every step Cornelia had threatened to give out. They had not rationed well, and the water had been gone by the first real heat of the day. It was only endless coaxing and hopeful promises that had succeeded in drawing her on. They were here.
Being a Skree, Tiddles was better suited to this adventure than his exceptionally soft-skinned companion. The traits that had served her well as a bed slave were no longer favored. Her feet were blistered, leaking fluids here and there. Tiddles flinched when he saw her remove her slippers and try to cleanse her feet in the stream. He was stressed and exhausted beyond anything he had known in his life as a pet and prentice. But she was in a much worse state than he. They would not make half this distance on the morrow, if they walked at all.
"I'll make a fire," he said. She did not acknowledge him. There was no usable wood within half a walk, and Tiddles had not bothered to try and carry the few pieces they had come across along the way. Where were all the trees? Tiddles set those thoughts aside. He did not need timber to start a fire. He used his dagger, a letter opener by the standards of men, to help him clear a space of ubiquitous grass. Here, it rose nearly to his eyes. Elsewhere it had been deeper.
He drew a circle in the dirt with the tip of his dagger, and lined it with minor symbols of the natural powers. Rylos, and Helio, and Pylums, with a single Gunder for stability, to bind the others in. Then a handful of stalks piled in the center, covered over in a cone of dirt. The whole arrangement was a pace wide, or nearly. Twenty-seven knuckles, to be exact.
He spoke a Word and felt the Mondial, the web of magic that is the lifeblood of the disk and the sap of the great tree, tug at the fibers of his being. The cone of dirt brightened, warmed, hardened, and then began to burn. The fire was small, but very hot. It threw off light completely disproportionate to its diminutive size. Tiddles watched it awhile, pleased with himself and resisting the urge to preen.
He felt Cornelia near him and was briefly elated. She was intent on his pack and the trail rations, and sat on the opposite end of the circle when she had what she wanted. She ate without looking at him or uttering a word, then wrapped herself in a cloak and prepared to sleep.
Tiddles sighed. It was going to be a long journey.
* * *
The barbarian sat facing the fire. When he spoke, it was an incantation. His voice took on an elder melody, and his speech flowed in a slow, mesmerizing tide.
"I was young then, and she was ageless as I am now. The Fae are like this, immortals of a kind. The only thing that ages them is sorrow. I gave her enough of that, but not in the first days. Not in those.
In the times when I was young, Exalted beings walked the disk.The fields and the mountains and the very flavors of the stars were all marked by the names of their masters. Gods were thick in the air in those times, both of the Twelve Mantles and the hosts beneath them. There were many. I was a warrior of the Ragnar Tang, the Boundless Plains. I was full of a young man's heat when he is stronger than all he knows."
The dam of his silence, once broken, had unleashed a turgid fall. The wood of the fire snapped and settled, and he went on.
"Among my people combat is the measure of a man, or so it was. I do not know them now. I hope that they have grown in wisdom, though this I doubt. What I have seen of men is that their evil grows with age, if they grow at all. As a young man, I was gifted with a strength not easily matched, and an endurance more common to beasts of burden than to their masters. Like a rutting bull, I made challenges and accepted them. I won them all and was made a band leader. The Songeaters blessed me, and we warred on the outposts of Valanthia, the empire that straddled the crescent land from tip to tip. They made claims upon the Tang, but did not deem the Plains worthy of true dominion. Thus we had the freedom of our raids, being more troublesome than valuable. A deadly balance to hold."
He took a vast breath.
"I was successful for a season, or a few, and then I was not. We stung too deeply and often, and we were quashed. My band was destroyed, and my tribe scattered. Our Songeaters were forced to choke down hooks, and their voices were torn free of their bodies. So they died.
Alone I went into the Ragnar Tang, into its golden heart. As there were many gods in those days, it was only meet that one would come to me.
I was gifted with the strength to fight anew.
I went in to their cities, and I set their palaces alight. I broke the chains of the ones they kept as slaves, both my people and the Fae. Men have always sought to bind the Fae. It humored me to turn to scales and fight together.
There was a war such as there had never been, and we would have woken forces that slept since the beginning. Those were days of terrible wonder, and I did not know how small I was. We lost, all of us, and we were forced apart. Asylphian believed me dead. She..." There was a pause. "The Fae are not like other races. They live only because they choose to live, because they love life. Believing me gone, she relinquished her spark. But they could not kill me, and I have no such gift to end my own existence. My spark slings too strongly to itself.
So I watch over the ground where she lived, and where she died. And that is all."
Kerrigan stared wide-eyed at the muscular cliff of the barbarian's shoulders and back. His skin was bronze in the firelight, and heat poured from him. The things he had talked about had to be fantasies. The Fall of Valanthia? That was an event known to the unlettered orphan as well as the philologist. Millenia had pushed that empire into obscure antiquity, but the name was known. Kerrigan had been provided with the finest tutors and could not miss the significance of his words.
"What is your name?"
"Bawn." The word was ponderous, and pressed upon the space of their campsite like an invisible hand. The fire flickered down near unto embers, and the stone relics all about them swallowed the sound with desperate hunger. The name meant nothing to her.
She wrinkled her nose. "I have not heard of you."
"No one has."
* * *
Tiddles awoke to the sound of hellish laughter. The fire had gone out, and his vision switched automatically into the infrared spectrum. He was on his feet in an instant, and he saw that Cornelia had gone. The laughter was close, punctuated by the high yips and yelps of excited dogs, and then a woman's scream.
With a squeak, Tiddles scampered toward the sounds. He stumbled through the grass, and then was blindsided by a speckled dog. He was knocked into the dirt. The dog ignored him, intent on its other prey.
Cornelia slapped at the nearest hound and recieved a nip on her hand in return. She was bleeding from a half dozen minor wounds, and hysterically sobbing. She couldn't help herself. With knees and elbows she fended off the pack. They were only playing with her. She tucked her chin into her chest, trying to protect her throat. The speckled beasts giggled and whined at her distress, licking her blood from their dark muzzles.
"Adyt!" Tiddles shrieked, summoning an orb of light that blinded him as well as the dogs. They snarled and danced away into the grass. When his vision returned, Tiddles took Cornelia by the hand and led her back to the circle and the stream. She was bleeding freely, and too weak to bat him away.
He retraced his sigils, and caused the cone to come alight again. The spell had not been powerful enough to maintain it through the night.
The dogs never went away, but took advantage of the grass to hang just beyond the reach of the light. Tiddles laid other sigils meant to dispel pests and beasts alike, and it seemed to work for a time. Half a turn passed in silence, and then their ravenous laughter rose everywhere from the darkness. This continued unto the dawn when the creatures melted away.
At some point Cornelia had fallen into an exhausted sleep. It was the height of the day when she finally awoke, and Tiddles, who had sat in restless vigil since the attack, offered to use magic to cleanse her wounds. He regretted not possessing the magic it would require to heal them completely.
"I don't need you," she said piteously, shivering in the warmth of the sun and the pains, "I don't want your help for anything."
Tiddles let the ridiculousness of her declaration pass. He lacked the conversationalist's spirit. They would not be going anywhere this day. One look at her feet assured him of that, those other cuts aside. He further secured their camp, while she huddled in her misery.
A turn or two passed before the Tablet chimed at him. He dug it out of his pack and tapped its anterior surface.
"What is it?"
"We aren't moving. You don't have the rations necessary to make that into a habit."
"Cornelia will die."
"It would be kindest for you to kill her when next she sleeps. The least pain. And the best for you."
The Skree's heart fluttered, "I would never hurt her.
"Your affection is flawed. She would kill you if it would save her. It would be clever to adopt a similar attitude toward everyone you come across in the future."
"You are not helping."
"You are not listening."
"What is it telling you?" Cornelia asked suspiciously. "I want to know everything it says."
Tiddles shrugged, "It's giving me directions."
Cornelia pouted, and then flinched as one of the cuts on her face stung her. She couldn't force the issue and she knew it.
"Can you teach me how to heal her?"
The tablet sighed, and the face that appeared exuded disappointment.
"Given six months, I could. You know you cannot help her now. The wild dogs bring disease with their tooth and claw. She has survived only to suffer what already festers in her blood."
Tiddles turned the Tablet over on its face in the dirt, and heard its accompanying sigh.
They did not make any progress that day, and rather than recuperating Cornelia only became less fit for travel. Her face swelled, and her cuts were inflamed. She did little more than hug herself and whimper, and finally allowed Tiddles to cleanse her wounds, being too weak to resist. But it was too late, and the Skree's magic too limited to be of much use. He could read the sickness in her easily enough, and gauge it accurately as it spread. The saliva of those creatures was rife with disease, and they carried filth beneath their claws. A legitimate hunting strategy, if the prey was too fierce or large for them to bring down at once. Scratch it until it bleeds, and wait for the infection to take hold. In this way even a Yarmuk bull could be brought down, over a span of days, by a pack of these spotted monsters. Cornelia was no bull.
When the sunflower was fully sealed, and the stars had bloomed about the moon, they came again. They would not approach within the reach of the light of Tiddles' conjured fire, but they seemed closer nevertheless. By the tone of their yips and their laughter they showed increasing boldness. Tiddles spent the night wondering when they would hop easily over his protective signs, drawn beyond fear by the nectar of Cornelia's sobs.
At some point he slept, and the dawn came bright enough to sting his eyes. The dogs had gone again, wherever they went. They would have to travel today if they were going to have any hope of reaching a town before they starved. They might make a late start, but they would have to move.
Cornelia was unresponsive. Her breath was shallow, and her eyelids fluttered. Tiddles laid his hand lightly upon her chest, to feel its gentle rise and fall.
"This is my fault," he whistled. "I'm sorry, Cornelia. Thank you for trying to save me." He whispered other things then, silly things and loving things. Things that he would never have said if she had been awake and aware enough to hear them.
The Skree are not a puissant race, but they are loyal, and they form durable familial ties. Tiddles had not had a usual family, and he lacked the support of a community. He was timid, as would be anyone raised in a word of giants, but inside of him, beneath the soft tissues and the quavering fears, there was a diamond edge.
Tiddles was a prentice of limited capacities. A wizard's ability to channel is proportional to the mass of his body. Tiddles was not massive. But with knowledge, much can be done with the barest motes of a spell.
A mist of magical energy covers the disk, flowing in currents and clouds. This is the Mondial. Even the least of prentices can manipulate it to some extent. This is how magic is done.
Tiddles created a bubble of emptiness around Cornelia's head. She breathed air still, but it was empty air. There was no spark in what she breathed. Magic is life, and Cornelia slowly breathed the life out of herself. Her sleep deepened, and her eyelids ceased their fluttering. Peace came over her with the hand of Hush.
This was a complex piece of wizardry, something that many mancers would not so much as attempt. Tiddles was ignorant of the difficulty involved in the task, and therefore accomplished it with no small facility.
His mind was occupied by other things.
He nuzzled her cheek with his snout, and silently said goodbye.