Wulf Rome stood on the battlefield, the enemy dead littering the ground around him, the remains of the enemy army in flight, and knew he had just lost the war. He was staring south – nearly everyone was – and though there was nothing to see, no plume of smoke or anything, still he knew they had lost.
Melekath was free.
He could feel it in his chest, as if he had just breathed in something poisonous. A feeling of dread, a terrible foreboding. Melekath was free. The thing he had feared, but somehow never quite believed would happen, had happened. He wanted to throw down his weapon and walk away from the battlefield. Just give up. An enraged god was loose and he was coming for them. For all of them. What could he or any of them possibly hope to do against that?
Gritting his teeth, Rome fought to master himself, to wipe the doom from his face, knowing how it would infect his army if he let them see it. All around him men were turning toward him, the same sick realization in all their eyes. They felt it just as he did. Exhilaration and courage were evaporating. They looked to their leader to change that, to show them they were wrong.
To give them hope.
Hope he didn’t have. So he fell back on the first lesson any commander learns: keep the soldiers busy. Rome pushed sweat and hair out of his eyes and faced his men.
“All right, you know what to do,” he yelled at them. Standing nearby was Felint; the grizzled, one-eyed veteran had his mouth open, the sword in his hand barely hanging from his nerveless fingers. “Felint! Get some men together and start carrying the wounded up to the stitchers. Now!” He didn’t know if it would work. His words sounded faint and small in his own ears. But then Felint shook himself like a man coming out of a nightmare. He stared at Rome for a moment, and in his eyes Rome saw that the wily old veteran knew what he was doing and why. Then he nodded slightly, saluted, and started barking orders.
Just then Nicandro, Rome’s aide, came hurrying up. He was a short, bald, sinewy man, dark skinned and muscular. The smile he seemed to always wear was gone and desperation lurked in his eyes. “Orders, sir?” he asked.
“Put a team together and start gathering our dead.” Rome looked around. Looming over the battlefield on the north was the shattered bulk of the Landsend Plateau. Uphill from him, crossing the width of the pass between the northern reaches of the Firkath Mountains and the Plateau, was the ancient stone wall his army had fought to defend, now with two gaping holes in it from where the Guardian Tharn tore through it. On the south side of the pass stood the ruins of a stone tower, all that remained of the fortress that was once Guardians Watch. The battlefield on this side of the pass was steep. Chunks of rock poked through the thin soil everywhere. The other side of the pass was no better, even if the slope was gentler.
Rome knew they couldn’t just leave their dead lying here. The men wouldn’t stand for it and he didn’t blame them. No soldier wanted his body left lying for the carrion eaters that were already starting to circle. Taking the dead with them was out of the question, which meant they needed to be buried. And quickly. Rome wanted out of this place. He wanted to get back to Qarath as fast as possible. He knew in his gut Melekath would go there first, and he wasn’t leaving his home undefended. But digging a mass grave in this soil would take days and he meant to leave at first light tomorrow. He made a decision and lowered his gaze to Nicandro.
“Lay them out in that ruined tower. When they’re all in there, knock it down. That will be their monument.”
Nicandro saluted and hurried away, calling to men as he went. Rome’s next thought was to find Quyloc. Quyloc would know something. He always did. Quyloc was further down the slope, near where the Guardian Kasai had stood to command the enemy army. Thank the gods for Quyloc and that strange spear of his. Again Rome saw his old friend, in the thick of battle, stabbing the Guardian in the chest with the spear. He heard the unearthly howl as Kasai staggered back, badly injured. The memory brought him a small measure of hope. They had defeated two of Melekath’s most powerful followers. Maybe all was not lost.
Quyloc was making his way up the slope. The tall, spare man was bent over, using the spear like a cane, leaning on it as if he had nothing else. His stained green cloak flapped around his legs in a sudden wind. His scalp and face, usually neatly shaven, were stubbled with pale blond hair; the forced march here had taken a lot out of all of them and left no time or energy for many daily habits. Rome hurried down to help him. Quyloc looked up as Rome approached and what Rome saw in his friend’s eyes caused his newfound hope to sputter out. Quyloc’s expression was dead and flat. He looked like an old man.
“It’s really broken, isn’t it?” Rome asked.
Quyloc didn’t bother to answer, but simply continued making his way uphill.
“What does this mean?” Rome asked, suddenly aware of how exhausted he was. The bloody battle axe in his hand was unbearably heavy. He opened his fingers and let it fall. The black axe was ice on his back. After using it to defeat Tharn he’d sheathed it and gone to his battle axe for the rest of the fighting. His curly black hair and beard were sticky with drying blood, some of it his. A wound in his leg was oozing blood.
Quyloc stopped and looked at him. His sharp, deep set eyes darkened with sudden anger. “I don’t know what it means,” he said harshly. “Death. The end. Hopelessness. Take your pick.”
“But you took out Kasai with your spear. I turned back Tharn with the axe.” Rome needed more from Quyloc. He felt like he was standing on a cliff in the darkness, a storm trying to push him over.
“I didn’t kill Kasai. I just wounded it. Even if I had…” Quyloc’s words died off with a snarl and he seemed to stab at the ground with the butt of the spear. “We were supposed to be there when it happened. We were supposed to hit Melekath when he emerged from the prison.”
Quyloc stepped over a body and headed uphill, and Rome followed. They reached the shattered stone wall just as Nalene climbed down off it. The thickset woman’s white robe was covered in dirt and splashed with blood. What little hair had grown back on her bald head seemed to have turned completely gray. Her sulbit lay limply across her shoulders. It looked more yellow than usual. The eyes in its blunt face were closed.
“We have to get back to Qarath,” she said. Her heavy jaw was set and her back was as straight as ever, but Rome could see the effort she was making to keep a hold of herself.
“Tell me about it,” he said. He circled around her, heading for one of the holes Tharn had made.
“Melekath is coming,” she called after him.
Rome didn’t bother to answer. What difference did it make? What difference did any of it make? T’sim emerged from the hole in the wall as he drew near. In the midst of the carnage, with blood everywhere and the cries of the wounded and dying filling the air, T’sim looked as placid as ever. His coat was freshly brushed, the silver buttons gleaming. His hair was neat, his features calm. He might have been back at the palace, rather than in the middle of a battlefield. He stopped and waited for Rome, his hands folded before him.
Before Rome could ask him, T’sim said, “I do not know where Lowellin is, Macht. He has disappeared, beyond even where I can see him. I think he did not expect this to happen.” His brow furrowed slightly. “It is most interesting. I admit to being surprised too.”
“Sure,” Rome snorted. “Very interesting. We could die of all this interest.” Looking around to see who was nearby to overhear, he motioned T’sim off to the side to talk. Quyloc followed.
“What can you tell me about this?”
T’sim held his hands out, palms up. His hands were small and somewhat pink. “Sententu finally broke.”
“And Sententu is?”
“A Shaper. Of the First Ring. He made of himself the door to the prison, after Xochitl allowed the flaw.” He frowned. “I would like to see her one day, and ask her if it was deliberate. She was ever soft-hearted.”
“I don’t care about Xochitl right now,” Rome growled. “Tell me something I can use. How did Melekath break the door?”
T’sim gazed off to the south for long moments before replying. As he did a breeze rose up, gusting around him. He seemed to be listening to it. Rome realized that this wind only blew right around them. Nearby trees were unmoving. Then he gazed at Rome once again. “I do not know exactly. He needed help from this side, as he did when you pulled the axe free.” When he mentioned the axe it almost seemed like it buzzed for a second. Rome twitched.
“So you think one of the Guardians helped him? Maybe Gulagh. We didn’t see him here.”
“Not a Guardian,” T’sim replied. “A human. A woman.” He pointed at the Tender camp. “One of them.”
“One of the Tenders helped Melekath?” Quyloc interjected.
T’sim shrugged. “For all your strengths, you are easily misled. You have a way of only hearing what you want to hear, and ignoring the rest.”
“You’re saying one woman somehow wielded the power necessary to break a Shaper of the First Ring?” Quyloc asked. “That’s ridiculous. Where would she even get that much power?”
“She used a trunk line,” T’sim said.
Quyloc was visibly staggered. Even a small trunk line carried Song enough for all the residents of a small city. “It’s not possible,” he gasped. “Not even a Tender of old…”
“She killed a village,” T’sim said matter-of-factly. “She drained them. Their Songs gave her the strength, and Melekath gave her the reason.” He shook his head. His soft face showed genuine surprise. “She thought she was rescuing her god. She was so sure she was right that she ignored all the signs. She wanted to be right.” He looked back at the Tender camp. “There are many who would like to know what became of Xochitl. Alone of the Eight, she has disappeared completely. Even the aranti have had no sign of her. She is the only one Melekath has not found. He has found all the others, you know.”
Rome stared at the little man, surprised. Never had he said so much before. He didn’t seem to be talking to them. It was more as if he was musing aloud.
“What do we do now?” Rome asked.
T’sim raised one eyebrow, as if he had never considered the question before, and Rome was struck by the realization that this being before him was vastly different from them. He was an observer. Why he had helped them at all, Rome didn’t know. But it was not because he cared what happened to them.
“I don’t think it matters,” T’sim said at last. “Melekath’s Children have changed. More than even he realizes.” He paused, a realization striking him. “In this way he is not so different from your kind. He sees what he wants to see, and denies the truth before his eyes. His Children are not what they once were. They will not heal as he hopes. Their hunger for Song is very great. That is what you feel here: the flows are beginning to bend toward them. Nothing will sate this hunger.” He stopped, seeming to realize that they were staring at him, horrified.
“You can run, I suppose. It will keep you alive for a time.”
“There has to be some way we can kill these things,” Rome said, thinking of his axe.
“Kill them?” T’sim gave Rome a quizzical look. “Oh, you do not know about the Gift, the nature of it. The reason for the siege of Durag’otal. The Gift is immortality.
“The Children cannot die.”
The books in the series:
Book 5 (coming in late 2015)