Before they came to the plains, Umiko had wondered how they were going to find an invisible tower. Now, she knew exactly where it was. She could feel it, a heaviness pulling at her feet as if they were traversing a decline, though the land was perfectly flat. Now she knew how Bawn could lead them so unerringly.
They travelled for many days across Ragnar Tang, the plains rightfully called boundless. Umiko sensed no other human life, only jinking deer and a spotted creature with an incredibly long neck, larger than any beast she had seen. It was so strange, surely the emperor kept one in his menagerie. Where were the tribesmen she had heard of in stories?
Shinji beheaded a prancing deer before it realized he was near. Bawn insisted that she eat the heart, a custom of the plains. It was tough and slightly disgusting, about the size of a plum. Raw fish was a staple of the imperial diet, but this was more potent and much messier. Bawn patted her shoulder when she was finished, and she was nearly sick.
On the eleventh night, Umiko woke from her sleep to see Shinji standing with his blades in hand.
"Put them away." Bawn was sitting cross legged in the clearing they had made for their rest. "These mean no harm."
Shinji obeyed, though his hands never left his hilts.
Two pairs of men and women appeared out of the grass. They wore simple hides, sewn with sinew, and ornamented with small bones. Darker than Bawn by several shades, their hair was tangled into ropes hanging over their shoulders.
Words passed between them, a hum that sounded like the music of gourds and sticks. It was Ragnosh, the tongue of the plains. Umiko was distracted, her perception blurred as if they resisted her talent. Their auras blended with the soul of the world. It made them dangerous.
"We will go with them," Bawn said. They had travelled with him long enough not to expect more explanation than that.
The tribe was less than half a league away, camped beneath the starflowers and a silver white moon. Sentries ignored them as they passed. Shinji eyed the warriors; the quality of their spears and the lack of any significant armor. They were lithe and quick, and he would enjoy beating a few of them. It would be sporting if he didn't use his swords.
Umiko examined the camp structure. Skins stretched over tall poles to make tents that could be dismantled and carried off in a moment of hurry. There were no signs of permanency, and hardly any stain of fire. No beasts of burden to speak of, but she sensed a pack of small predators on the edge of the encampment. Wolves? No, something smaller.
Bawn looked like these people, but of a different stock. They were as tall as he was, towering over the two youths from Nihon, but they were lanky where he was thick with muscle. The tribesman all had braids and hides, and though Bawn wore a loincloth, he was hairless as a seal. Their eyes were dark, while his flashed in the night.
Another pair met them outside the largest tent, and the escort melted away. It was a wiry adolescent and a woman twice his age, handsome and fit.
"I am Quagua," the boy said. "I am the wareater of out tribe. My songeater says you were one of us, in the time before."
Shinji looked at Umiko and shrugged. He couldn’t make any more sense of it than she could.
"I was of the plains," Bawn said. "How many in your tribe."
"Forty two," Quagua said with pride.
"You honor our family," the woman said. "Your name is still spoken among our people."
Umiko felt Bawn's sorrow at these words, but couldn't imagine what it meant.
"Where is your cloak," Quagua said. "I would see it."
Bawn had a leather pack over one shoulder. He slung it on the ground at the wareater's feet. Quagua unrolled the leather wrapping to reveal the golden bearskin curled within. The woman gasped. The plains bear was the most sacred animal to the people of the Tang, and a specimen of this size had not been seen in lifetimes.
"It was given to me by the one who wore it before," Bawn said.
"I would wear it." Quagua's gaze was fierce.
"That is your right to try, wareater." Bawn said.
Quagua threw the cloak over his shoulders. It was shockingly light for its size. The massive bear head covered his own, and he delighted in it for a moment, then shouted in pain. The cloak came alive, swallowing the boy. The woman stared in horror as he struggled against it, trapped, until Bawn snatched it off of him.
Quagua shivered and moaned. Patches of skin had been torn from his back and shoulders, and blood seeped. He had fallen to his knees.
"What have you done!" The woman hissed, moving to help him. The wareater was soon unconscious.
An elderly man emerged from the tent. He was naked except for the tattoos that spiralled across most of his wrinkled body.
"Children," he said.
"This is your wareater?" Bawn asked.
“There are not enough of us to war among ourselves, and better men are needed for the hunting of beasts." The elder was matter of fact. "Songeaters are still trained according to our talents, wareaters to our convenience."
"The balance is gone." Bawn said.
"I am Pai-tu, Songeater of this tribe," the elder said, "and I called you here with one voice."
Bawn shrugged, "What, then?"
Umiko was carefully rewrapping Bawn's cloak, trying to sense the sparks of the other people in camp. Sleeping, they had no defense against her, though some had woken at the wareater's cry. Shinji was watchful, though he did not feel threatened. He enjoyed the show playing out before them, if only he understood a word of it.
"I am Chai-Mei," the woman rose again, it was plain from her bearing that she was a warrior, and her deference to Bawn was not borne of fear. "Pai-tu called you here because of my son."
"This one?" Bawn gestured at Quagua's prostrate form.
"No," she said, "my other son."
Pai-tu opened the tent flap, and a small child came out. It was a boy wrapped in kidskin, eyes wide, barely walking. He was as hairless as Bawn.
"He has no spark," the Songeater said. "He is like an animal."
The woman looked pained, but she nodded.
Bawn took his pack from Umiko and slung it back over his shoulder. "He is a vessel, but I have nothing to give him."
"The songs say you carry Yog." Pai-tu said.
"I am Yog's prison," Bawn said, "and she is mine. I cannot share her. Your stories should tell you that."
"There has not been a child like this in so long," Pai-tu pleaded. "It must mean something."
The child stared at Bawn, and Bawn at the boy. They could have been father and son.
"I'm sorry," he said, and turned to go. No one stopped them.
* * *
"Why did you give him the cloak?" They had gone well out of the camp, and it was then the darkest hour of the night, when the star flowers have closed in respect of the dawn.
"Because he asked for it."
"Baka!" Shinji swore. "Why can't you answer a question?"
"I have answered it." Bawn was unmoved by the outburst.
"The cloak did not hurt him," Umiko said. "He hurt himself with it, a boy playing with a blade."
"How could you know?" Shinji snapped at her.
Umiko blushed, and her gaze fell.
Shinji knew that Cherry Blossom had been training Umiko.He assumed that had been a large part of why the emperor had sent her with him. Fae magic was ancient and dim, something wraith-like drinking from the fountains of the mind. He didn't altogether trust Cherry Blossom, as much as he was fond of her, and he did not like experiencing the same suspicions of Umiko.
"She knows," Bawn said," because she is not blind."
Shinji stopped walking. The bloodhunter gi made him a deeper spot of blackness in the dark. "Barbarian," he said, "there is something I have wanted to test."
Bawn watched the pale edge of a katana appear. "Cut me then," he said. "I don't think you can."
Shinji rushed at him, and Bawn turned aside, cuffing him across the ear. He stumbled, found his footing, and attacked again. Shinji was nearly a pace shorter, but his weapon gave him reach. The barbarian, seemingly defenseless, repeatedly avoided the katana's bite. He was stunningly quick, and suddenly he moved like one of the monks that had taught the princes the rudiments of unarmed combat. It shocked Shinji, to see a barbarian using the secrets of the empire so casually. He drew his second sword, and adopted the patterns the kensai had shown were most effective against an unarmed opponent. Bawn deflected the attacks with his bare hands, with his every shift and gesture anticipating Shinji's swift slashes, more difficult to dodge than a forward thrust, and easier to chain in a series.
Bawn punched him in the chest, and he slid on his back across the grass. He hopped instantly to his feet, but his legs were liquid, and his breath was slow in coming.
Umiko held her tongue, knowing the Prince would not hear her even if it had been her place to stop him. She hated this conflict, knowing it could only end in embarrassment for Shinji. The barbarian was not human.
"There is more to you than this," Bawn said. "Can't you open your chakras without her help?"
"What?" Shinji glanced between the two of them, trying to glean the connection. "How could you know that? How do you know anything about me?"
"The girl uses her talent to help you find your chakra."
Shinji shot her a furious look and leapt at the barbarian. He was a blur of steel she could barely follow. The barbarian clapped his hands once, and a wind leapt up, a pulse of force that knocked Shinji backward and out of the air. It was a magic like nothing they had witnessed before.
The prince rose unsteadily, swords still in hand. He coughed up a string of blood, and Umiko ran to him. His wakizashi came up automatically, and she stopped, momentarily afraid. Shinji closed his eyes, listening to his heart beating all around him. What kind of man was he, that he could not fight to his full potential without the help of a girl, a servant he had promoted? And the barbarian had seen it before him.
I am not the heir to the empire, he thought, I am nothing. His mind fled into shadow, into absence, and there he found his chakra- a blooming black flower.
It was dawn, sunspill. The first shafts of light were already cast like spears upon the earth as the sunflower began to open. The light failed around him, bending and crying, as a new strength infused his limbs. He had not healed, the wounds had stopped mattering.
Umiko saw the change in him, how he found the Kuro within himself without need of her nudging. It was as if his mind had untangled, and she wasn't sure it was a good thing. We see their souls, Cherry Blossom had told her, and now she believed.
Shinji became pure fluidity, and confounding images broke away from him at every step, mirrors to his movement. Shadows leapt gleefully about, happy to give him aid, and his swords had gone dark. This was the bloodhunter talent, and he used it to its fullest potential.
Small cuts appeared on Bawns hands and arms as he batted at the swords. The contest should have been over, but Shinji had lost himself to his chakra, to the Kuro, and would not stop. The two of them were soon fighting in earnest. Despite his sudden skill, Umiko knew the Prince was out of his depth. The barbarian was barely tapping into that terrible golden aura that surrounded him.
Then Shinji was on the ground, so quickly ended the two scenes might have been unconnected. Bawn pulled the wakizashi from his side. She had not seen it happen, a killing blow to any normal man, and tossed it aside. Umiko went to Shinji, and found that he was both breathing and conscious. He lay on his back, looking up into the dawn.
"Go ahead," he said in a controlled voice, "I'll catch you by sunclose."
Bawn had already set off, the cuts on his arms shrinking, and only a thin trail of dark blood as a sign he had been stabbed. Umiko did as she was told, she had set the donkey free days ago, finding the discomfort of riding worse than the walking, and it was easier to keep pace with the other two than it had been in the beginning. She hurried to come beside the barbarian.
"There is much we don't know of each other," she said, and when he didn't respond, went on. "How did you know that I had used my talent to help him before?"
The silence stretched on long enough that Umiko considered retreating.
"I knew a Fae who helped me, when my mind was wild."
His voice was so low she could scarcely make out what he said. "A fae?" she asked."You mean a slave?"
Umiko didn't know what he could be mean by that. The fae had always been slaves in Nihon. They did not have royalty, and their bloodlines were the lines of professional breeding stock.
"I don't understand," she said.
Bawn wiped at the blood on his side, there was no wound there. "Men have always caged them. She was a slave, and she was free. We would have freed all of them."
They camped early, concerned that Shinji had been more hurt than he let on. This far from the center of Mythopoeia, shadows of the world tree were visible in the sky. The plains were banked between the dragonback ridge and the mountains at the rim of the world. Heat was trapped between them, but it was drier than Nihon.
When Shinji joined them he looked uncharacteristically happy. He had washed in a stream, and he touched her on the shoulder to keep her from rising to serve him.
"Sit." He ate his rations and laid out his bedroll. "So, barbarian, who taught you how to fight like a monk?"
* * *
They came to the tower soon after. Umiko felt the pull of its magic so strongly that she was leaning back unconsciously, as if to fight a fall. To her talented eyes, the tower was a blazing pillar shooting to the sky. To Shinji, it was invisible.
"What is it?" He looked at them curiously when they stopped.
Bawn touched the side of the structure, the texture was more like raw Tallo than blocks of stone. "There is a door," he said. "We find it by feel."
They went in opposite directions, Umiko and Shinji together, and Bawn alone. "This is incredible," Shinji said. "It can't be metal."
"It was made by witches," Umiko said, running her hand behind Shinji's. "Perhaps they could bring as much Tallo out of the earth as they wanted."
Shinji shook his head. "How tall is it?"
Umiko craned her neck upward. The blaze seemed to go on forever. "Taller than any palace in the city of immortals."
"Blasphemy," Shinji said, though he meant it to tease her. His fingers scraped wood and he stopped abruptly, Umiko bumped into his back, and he smiled at her.
"It's here," he said.
Bawn was visible some hundred paces away, curving around the tremendous transparent structure. They began waving to him, trying to signal, and he responded immediately. He wasn't running, but another man would have had to run to keep pace with him.
Three carriages would have ridden comfortably through those doors. Bawn found the split between them, and tugged it open. There was a crack as rust broke in the great hinges, and he made enough space for them pass through sideways. The barbarian vanished as he went in.
"It wasn't locked?" Shinji said incredulously.
They followed the barbarian inside.
The door appeared first, old, ruddy posts tied together with long iron strips riveted into the wood. It reminded Shinji of the gates on the outside of the city wall. No army had ever tested them, but it was clear from the marks upon the wood that armies had tested these. The gap between the doors was dark, and mere feet beyond them was a wall of red bricks, so that they were trapped in a narrow alley between wall and door. Light shone from above, though the sky was tawny and strange.
Bawn leapt straight up and snagged the lip of the wall with his fingers, pulling himself over.
"Braggart," Shinji said, he watched Bawn disappear and dropped his pack in the dirt. "Climb on my back, I'll take us up."
Umiko meekly complied, tying her legs around his stomach and her arms around his neck. She had never realized before how warm he was, as she rested her cheek on the back of his neck. Shinji felt her press against him, and it frightened him how right it felt. He steeled himself. "Hold on."
He couldn't make the jump in one go, so he bounced from the door to the wall, and from the wall to the door, until he was standing lightly on top of a brick walk. He let Umiko down, and they both looked out with wonder at a city nothing like any in their homeland.
The stone structures all melted together, piled atop one another, and the roads led between and among them, tying them like the cordage of a ship. Bells sounded somewhere in the mass, and gears moved to spin sections of the city, turning it about itself. Varicolored glass was in every window, and stood in spiralling towers on its own strength. Most incredible, a miniature sunflower hung from the ceiling, illuminating all. Its verdant vine travelled to the edge of the chamber and around, flowing in and out of the stone. Its least tendril was wide as a river, and its leaves shaded whole buildings.
"This is impossible," Shinji said. "Is it a city of wizards?"
Bawn was looking as well, though his expression betrayed no awe. "No, they call this the Children's Place. They are the wizard’s servants, all of them."
The city was fit for thousands, a diameter greater than the tower's could be. Men and women were visible in the walkways, hurrying to work, or walking slowly together. Some were so distant they were but grey blotches in the sunlight.
Shinji swore, and Umiko made the sign of the empire with her hand beside him.
“We have to go higher," Bawn said. "The Star won't be here."
"How?" Umiko asked.
Bawn pointed to one of the crystal spires, its violet trajectory carried it all the way to the ceiling, where there was a barely visible opening in the blocks.
"This is wrong," Shinji said. "Where are the guards?"
"Wizards don't need guards," Bawn said, and set off.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
We are the runners in the grass
We are the catchers of the wind
May your spear be sharp and fertile
and the toss be true
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books
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