The peat moss formed a nearly solid compact across the breadth of the bog. Bawn's steps belied his great mass, leaving no impressions in the soft vegetable soil. He did not move with the brisk violence that might be expected of a barbarian of his caliber. He had learned many ways of being over the centuries, many ways of fighting, and they had bled into his every quotidian gesture. He was direct, precise, controlled, and this mingled with the care the large often develop when forced to exist among the small. He walked through the world with an absent awareness, sensing everything, but with half a mind thrown backward into times before. He had to review his most precious memories, they were so old now. If not for the statue in Ten Towers, it was doubtful he would still remember Asylphian's face.
The bloodhunter was not a bad travelling companion. His silence and Bawn's together made a sort of bond between them. The barbarian had come this far on the strength of a promise that had been extorted from him. This circumstance made no difference to him; a promise it was. All promises were extorted, whether by love or pain or the threat of personal gain. He had broken his word once, when he was a mortal man, and it had brought him to this.
Water wetted his heels. Ahead, there was a hillock shaded by rough-barked trees bearing oversized leaves. Their roots were blanketed by moss, but the hillock seemed dry. He settled on a spongy seat, waiting for Shiro to join him.
The bloodhunter had not removed his mask or his clothes since they began their journey together. The mirrored surface that replaced his face made him appear more spirit than man. Standing with his palms on the hilts of his swords, his uniform unmarred by the bog, it was obvious his whole being was chanted, another similarity they shared. Bawn had discovered long ago that he did not sweat or accumulate filth. His body processed food normally, but it didn't need nourishment to survive. Only in battle would his skin be stained. Blood stuck, a joke of the gods. It was the only time he could feel Yog stirring inside him. The Bear could smell the blood.
Shiro waited patiently for his charge to be finished resting. He could continue for as long as needed, but Bawn needed to take brief naps to maintain his sanity. The bloodhunter found it unsettling.
* * *
A Fae woman was running through an open plain, her ruined wings trailing like the hem of a gown. The wings of a Fae were not wings in truth, not like those of a bird or an insect. They did not flap. Twelve brilliant lines of gold hung from her bare back, the garments of a slave being barely more than strips of cloth to conceal her womanhood. Many Fae would have had their wings removed when they were children, but some masters couldn't bear to do so This one’s wings were so rare it would have been a crime to destroy them. Twelve tails did not come about more than once in a generation, if then.
Instead of being removed, they had been clipped, each to an irregular length. Without harmony, they did not function, though they would grow back without pruning.
She was pursued by human men on horseback. Though swift her feet, they bled, and the chase would not be long. Already they had come within range of her mindbending. The hoof beats would be next.
The barbarian rested in a dry creek bed, hidden from view by the barest rise of the land. He had been waiting for the stars to bloom, for the laughing dogs and the other nocturnal predators to come out and find him. He would wrestle them with his hands, to be fair, and maybe die. There was nothing else for him. He was a warrior who had brought shame to his tribe, and the Songeater had taken his name back. He was no one now. He was the living dead.
Something came over the lip of the creekbed, and he snatched it without conscious thought or effort. The faerie found herself on top of an enormous man. He was lying on his back, dark blonde hair concealing much of his face and body. She didn't struggle. The plains walker wasn't hostile, and she couldn't have broken his grip on her leg if she had tried all afternoon. She didn't have time to read his mind, but his aura was open to her. It told her all she required.
The barbarian took several moments to adjust to what he had. The Songeaters spoke of the Fae, and he had seen a carved likeness; this was something else entirely. By her size, she was barely more than a child in his arms, fragile, and wounded, and afraid. Her eyes were enormous, swirling with every color he could name, and many he could not.
"Help," the faerie said, "please."
It seemed to Bawn that he would have moved at her voice even if he had been truly dead. The hoofbeats were growing nearer, and he guessed their significance. They would have ridden from Ten Towers; the city where Bawn had led a raid against the wishes of his Songeater. These men might even be some of the ones who had murdered his kin. Of course, those murders were his guilt to carry, not theirs.
He set her gently aside, and stood, towering out of the ditch. Her wings caught his gaze, glorious and mangled.
"It is what they do to all of us, in the city." She spoke his language better than he did. An axe lay nearby in the riverbed.
The hunters tossed up columns of dust as they rode through the grass. Their horses were not fresh, but the chase was finished now. They had seen the Fae stumble and disappear, finally succumbing to her exhaustion.
The lead rider readied his catchpole just as the barbarian rose from the grain. Damn! He could hurt their prize. He called out an order to deal with the newcomer quickly. A waste, because someone that size would be a valuable slave; just not in the same league as the one they chased.
And now he had an axe. Wonderful.
The hunters split to surround him, wary of the riverbed and the loose footing for their animals. The barbarian sprinted faster than they could maneuver, snatching the catchpole of one man and pulling him out of his saddle. His axe swung down as the others circled in.
They drew scimitars. He struck one out of its owners hand and ducked to avoid a stab from behind. Turning, his axe took that horse at the knee. A back swing stove the man’s skull like a melon. That was two, and one disarmed. These weren't soldiers, really. They were men who tracked and caught escaped slaves, unprepared for this kind of resistance.
The new leader called a retreat, and they left their loss behind them. The barbarian forgot them as soon as they were gone; going to the horse of the one he had pulled down. It had cantered a little ways off, riderless and unsure. He grabbed its jaw and stared into its eyes until he had its measure, took its reigns and brought it to the Fae woman crouching in the riverbed.
"What is your name," he asked her.
She studied him a long moment, and then she smiled. It was the most brilliant thing the barbarian had ever seen, and he thought he would have gladly fought a hundred hunters more if it meant he could see it again.
"Asylphian," she said. "And you?"
The barbarian flinched. "There is no name. The Songeaters have all the names in them."
Asylphian was briefly confused, then her eyes lit again. "You move like a bear. I will call you Bawn."
* * *
In the deeps of memory, the sunflower was more brilliant than it seemed in nearer days. It had been many years since Mythopoeia had suffered a long darkness, when a winter night extended into days or weeks. The Songeaters said the sunflower held a phoenix in its heart, and that its voice was flame. The long dark was the time when the phoenix could rest its voice, and without that rest, it would eventually die. How many years had it been? Bawn looked to the blooming fire of the sky and thought that when the darkness did come at last, it would be as bad as any he had known. Magic was strange in the darkness, and all the old protections did not hold.
They were still in the bogs, the lowland leading to the capitol. Wars had been fought here, and in places the mounds and rises were actually cairns long overgrown. Hamlets and villages were scattered among the marshlands, for much of it had become fertile growing plots for rice. Small bones were sometimes found in the water. Children buried them nearby. It was bad luck to move them far.
Bawn caught a lizard in a bare hand. It was three feet long and struggled briefly, slapping at his forearm with its thick tail. Its head crunched, and he removed its entrails, watching the juices diffuse in brackish water. The rest he ate raw.
Shiro watched dispassionately. He did not understand his companion, but it was not his duty to understand.
Smoke rose on the horizon. It was out of their way, and Bawn knew it was as likely to be nothing as not; a riven tree still smoldering from lightning, a camp, or a brushfire. Did any of those things make sense here? Was it the Dindaku who lived here? Some other place or era, he had too many to recall. The smoke bespoke sorrow. There was a message there, if he could remember the signs. He altered direction, and a white shadow followed without complaint.
* * *
In the Tokepai village there was much weeping. Faces painted with mud were streaked with tears. Their homes were framed with thin cordwood, the walls filled out with wattle and daub. The empire had never really extended into places like this. A party of warriors might ride through from time to time, take what they needed, and go on. Taxes weren't paid, and the benefits of civilization did not flow in return. In other centuries, it had been different, but the current Emperor did not bother with governing the unimportant.
They were burning another body today, one of the children. The others had been sequestered to spare them. The young were not coddled by these people, but this was not for them.
Shyalan looked up at the approach of a stranger. He was not a man of the marsh, or of anywhere in Nihon that she knew. He was huge and bronze and wore a fur cloak made from some monster she could not name. He was unarmed, however, and he had a kind face. Shyalan thought him handsome.
"Where do you come from, wanderer?"
"The west." His voice was gentle, and when his eyes alighted on the burning shape, showed pain. Others saw him now, and Shyalan was embarrassed no one else had noticed before he was close enough to talk. Their losses were changing them, making them less aware. It was a dangerous change.
"What has happened," he asked.
The woman did not answer immediately. Telling a stranger of their troubles would be imprudent, but this man did not seem truly foreign. He wasn't of Nihon, that was obvious, but he was familiar in a way that was hard to either pinpoint or dismiss.
"Look," one of the others, her aunt, said. "He looks like Ikari."
Shyalan reached into the pocket of her dress and removed a stone idol. It was small, the features worn smooth by touch. It had belonged to her son before he was taken.
It did look like the man.
"Are you a kami?" she asked.
Bawn shrugged. "What happened to the child, was it a sickness?"
"It is the Kumo," Shyalan said. "Something has woken them. They come out of the water at night, and take children from their beds. Men have gone, and they have died. We cannot stop them."
"Where is the nest?" The big man had become unreadable. It made the resemblance to the idol all the more striking.
"I can show you," she offered.
The nest was close, a few hundred paces from the village, and closer every day. Eventually, a tunnel would open beneath their homes, and the village would become the nest, until it moved on. They would go before that could happen, join with some village, become less of themselves. First they had to burn the dead.
Shyalan showed him the tracks in the mud where the Arach came out of the water. They had between six and nine legs, the number varying by regular mutation. They could be compared to spiders, and often were, though it was no more accurate to compare a mouse to a bear. The resemblance was superficial, and the Tellurian princes had bred a wide array of species, unleashing them on the world eons ago. They were supposed to have been wiped out. Bawn couldn't remember encountering any in centuries. The tracks were unmistakable, however. The Tellurians had an eye for twisted symmetry. Each leg ended in a stunted claw with as many fingers as the creature had legs. He spotted a seven and a six. There was too much disturbance to know how many more than those two had passed this point.
"Do you see them, kami?"
"I see," Bawn said, and he shrugged off his cloak before putting his feet in the water, feeling for the drop. Shyalan watched him wade into the bog, and others had come behind to watch as well. Shiro was nowhere in sight.
Bawn found the tunnel and went to his knees to crawl head first into the water. They saw him disappear, the water surface undisturbed. He could have been lying flat, for the bog was no more than a pace of two deep where he was, or he could have been anywhere. The laws of life did not apply in the same fashion to kami as they did to men.
Several minutes passed in silence, and then the whispers began. Shyalan heard none of it, watching, and raised her hand when something bobbed in the black pool Bawn had vanished beneath.
The Arach came quickly, rushing out of the water. It was the size of a small monkey, a baby arach, Shyalan dashed it with a thick branch. The first blow knocked it on its back, and she continued to attack until its legs stopped moving and it was half buried in mud. The stink of its fluids was worse than the swamp. When it was finished, the others gathered around Shyalan and produced weapons. When the next came at them, they pierced it with spears, and it was over swiftly. More came. They piled the carcasses and waited. These were new born monsters, their carapaces soft and their movements uncoordinated. A full grown Arach would have certainly killed one or more of the villagers before it was brought down, no matter their readiness. But none appeared.
Bawn rose from the water. He bristled with fangs that had torn off in his skin. One of the young ones was crushed into his back. He had a leg in one hand, and drug the body up after him. It was as big as a horse, nine fingered claws hanging limp.
The Arach was deposited before Shyalan, and Bawn brushed himself off before someone handed him his cloak. Their eyes were wide, their stances reverent.
"You caught the hatchlings. Good," he said.
"Kami," Shyalan bowed deeply, and the rest of the village followed suit. Some were openly weeping.
The barbarian regarded them for a time, as if unsure of why they were all there. Then he walked away. Many of the villagers remained bowed until he was out of sight.
Shiro was waiting for him. They reached the city of immortals the following day.
The emperor's audience chamber rarely involved the emperor. There were always guards, and court officials and occasionally an arbiter. They went about the business of managing nobles who came to see the emperor, acting as his plenipotentiaries for matters below his concern. All matters were below his concern except those he took an interest in. Magisters had tried to predict his interests for decade spanning careers, and the cleverer magisters resigned themselves to being swift adaptors. When the emperor entered the audience chamber he used the door hidden behind his throne. It was always watched.
When he sat, there was absolute silence.
"Out," said the emperor, "all of you."
There was scurrying.
The emperor’s audience chamber was also known as the Hall of History, for every pace from the throne to the great doors was graven with the years of his reign. Each tile was a pace across, and there were nearly three thousand tiles. The first emperor had chosen the number of tiles, or perhaps one of his magisters had, to be a number so large that is would never be filled. The emperor of today could not but notice that space was running thin. It was...disquieting. A man who was not the emperor would have been humbled by all that had gone before. The present will always be less than the past.
The hall was decorated by twin lines of slender pillars sheathed in oricalcum. The thin plating alone was worth kingdoms, and it never required dusting or polishing of any kind. The tiles told a tale of a young leader turning the islands of Nihon into an empire, and when he was finished, melting down the priceless weapons and armor of that age to decorate his palace. They were not needed any longer.
Silk curtains hung between the pillars, orange for autumn, moving always as if in a breeze.
The doors were opened by guards on the other side. The court announcer had gone with the rest of the officials, so Bawn and Shiro entered without fanfare.
Their footfalls shouted in the emptiness. Shiro kept a pace behind Bawn, like a nacreous extension of his cloak. The silk hangings billowed as they passed, pressured by the wakes of greatness.
"Bawn," the emperor said, his voice carrying across the gap of history, even as it swiftly closed. "You are a welcome sight. Your exploits are known to me, through the long years, and I am pleased to see that you accepted my invitation."
Bawn came to the edge of the high dais. It was designed so that a petitioner remained at eye level with the feet of their exalted ruler. For Bawn, it was closer to knee height.
"You sent for me. What do you want?"
The mask that was the emperor maintained a placid expression. "You are a hero, and I have need of a hero's services. The reward I offer is one I think will tempt you."
"There is nothing you can give me."
"Even your life?"
Bawn laughed, not cruelly, but with actual amusement.
The emperor sat straight backed in his throne, his youthful hands resting on the shells carved into its arms. "I know you, wanderer, I have studied your course from afar. You are cursed. What I said was not intended as a threat. I cannot return to you what has been lost, not turn back the ages, but I can give you the hope of a future without chains."
Bawn was motionless. The curtains too, had fallen still, as if fearing to disturb the solemnity of the moment.
"You think my curse can be broken?"
"It can," the emperor said. "I know the way."
Shiro was among the most skilled swordsmen in the empire, and his powers as a bloodhunter made him faster than human senses would allow. He had been watching Bawn for any sign that he would act against the emperor. When the barbarian moved, it was so quick that Shiro found himself one full step behind. Bawn stood a pace from the emperor’s throne, and Shiro stood directly behind him, one sword at the side of his neck and the other prepared to follow through with a stab at his heart. They had crossed the intervening space in the time it took the emperor to raise his hand. A violet field of energy crackled in the air between them.
"You do not fear me, plainswalker, and I do not fear you. Listen to my proposal."
Bawn relaxed, saying nothing, and not retreating either.
The emperor lowered his hand, and the field dissipated. "The wizards of the Tower have something I want. You should be familiar with it, as it was carried by the warrior on the day that you were bound."
"What?" Bawn's tone was flat.
"One of the Nine. The Star of all mancy, which suffuses the tower itself with much of its protective magics."
A small smile developed on the face of the barbarian, then faded as bright seasons do, slowly and without remorse. "You think that I can take it alone?”
"I will be sending my son with you, and another to protect you both." The emperor may as well have been a talking statue; for all that he gave sign of speaking or caring .
"He will not interfere. I have assurances."
"I will go."
"Good," the emperor said, still giving no physical sign of his involvement in the conversation. "Your companions will be ready..."
Bawn had already turned to go.
"Fetch them." The emperor said, and Shiro sheathed his swords with the same motion that he bowed. The assassin in white used the door hidden behind the throne.
Bawn showed himself out. He was going to the docks.
Sand drains, and how vitreous the neck,
disgorging little specks the base absorbs,
one day we all will drown in little specks.
Hollen the Bard
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl