Wulf Rome and Quyloc were jerked off balance by the hunter and before either could recover they struck the glistening web of the Veil. It was like plunging into an icy lake, a sudden, freezing, heart-stopping cold. The hunter jerked again and then they were through the Veil, gasping on the other side.
Quyloc fought to stay upright, but one leg was still dead from where he’d been touched by one of the Children and his arms were pinned to his sides. He fell onto his face.
As he was pulled through the Veil, Rome let go of Quyloc. Once on the other side, he charged the hunter. Before he took two steps the hunter flung its free hand at him. There was a hissing sound and four black lines shot from its fingertips, striking Rome in the chest with enough force to knock him backwards. As Rome tried to regain his balance the lines wrapped around him, snaking out to wrap around both of his arms and pin them to his sides. The hunter yanked on the lines and Rome fell to the ground.
Quyloc made it onto his knees and from there he looked up, into the shadowed face of the hunter. There was no way to read emotion in that alien countenance, but he sensed triumph radiating from it and in the burning red eyes was the knowledge that this time he would not escape.
Quyloc went cold inside. He fought briefly against his bonds, but it was hopeless. Four black lines—like thin ropes but somehow knobby, as if jointed—were wrapped around him, and when he struggled, they tightened as if they were alive. He still had hold of the rendspear, but it was pinned to him and he could do nothing with it.
Gathering all the lines in one hand, the hunter crouched and slapped the ground with its palm twice. Then it stood. After a few moments Quyloc felt a rumbling from deep in the ground. It grew stronger, closer. Quyloc looked over at Rome, who had gotten onto his knees as well. The big man was staring at the hunter. It was a thing of blackness and shadow, the outlines of its body shifting, as if not completely there.
Then the ground beside the hunter broke open as something pushed up from below.
A large, hooked beak appeared, dirt cascading from it. Huge, silver eyes opened, fixing on the hunter. Legs ending in paws as wide and flat as spades, with thick, blunt claws, emerged from the dirt and it used these to lever the rest of its body free. It was broad and squat, its head tapering smoothly to a thick neck then down to a sinewy body rippling with muscle.
The hunter held out the bundle of black lines and the squat thing bit down on them. The hunter spoke to the squat thing, its voice the sound of glass being smashed by stone. The squat thing blinked.
The hunter turned and strode away, walking with a smooth, sliding gait toward a thick fog bank in the distance. It moved quickly and soon disappeared into the fog. The squat creature settled to the ground, turning so that its silver eyes fixed on Rome and Quyloc.
There was movement beside him as Rome struggled and managed to get to his feet. His movement caused the squat thing to growl, but it stayed where it was. Rome gave it a glance, then ignored it.
“I take it that was the hunter?” Rome asked. His voice sounded peculiar. Some of the sounds were truncated, others elongated. It made it difficult to understand him.
Quyloc didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Despair had folded its black wings around him and there was no escape. He’d been trapped in this dread land before, when they were on their way to Guardians Watch. Against all hope, Rome had saved him, using the black axe to cut him free. But that wasn’t going to happen this time. No one knew they were here. There was no hope of rescue.
Every night since then he’d had nightmares about being pinned to that rocky butte, the filaments that hung down from the sky draining his life away. Every night he experienced the pain and horror of that time once again and now the nightmares had turned real as he’d somehow always known they would. He was trapped in this place forever, just as Lowellin had warned him so long ago when he first showed him the Pente Akka. That realization paralyzed him.
Rome looked down at his bonds. “What are these things? They’re strong, whatever they are. I can hardly move my arms at all. I think they’re alive. They get tighter when I try to move.”
Quyloc knelt there, staring at the ground, wishing he could die.
Rome shook his head and scowled. “I can’t believe I let myself get caught off guard like that. After all you told me about the hunter and how many times it’s tried to trap you, I should have known it would take this opportunity. I should have been ready.”
That was Rome, always shouldering the responsibility. And this time he should be, Quyloc thought, feeling a spark of anger. He’d been opposed to the attack on Melekath, had thought they should at least let Tairus and the others know what they were doing, but Rome had ignored his advice and bulled forward like he always did.
Rome looked over his shoulder at the Veil. Just visible on the sands beyond it was the black axe, lying where he’d dropped it while trying to save Quyloc. “If I just had my axe. Between it and your spear we could kill this damned hunter and be done with the thing.” He looked at Quyloc. “At least you have your spear. Can you move at all, maybe work it free?”
Quyloc turned an angry glare on him. “No, Rome, I can’t move. I can’t get it free.”
Rome gave him a surprised look, then nodded. “I get it. You’re angry.”
“Really, Rome? What makes you say that?” Quyloc said bitterly.
“You were against attacking Melekath but I made you do it anyway.”
Quyloc slumped, the energy required to be angry draining from him suddenly. “None of it matters now anyway. We’re doomed. We’ll never get out of here.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Rome said sharply. “We’ll figure something out. We always do.”
“Not this time,” Quyloc said dully.
“There’s always hope. You were trapped here before and I managed to free you.”
“No one knows we’re here, Rome. Even if they did, they don’t have the axe like you did, remember?”
“Someone could go fetch it.”
“Who? Lowellin? I wouldn’t bet on it. I think we’ve seen the last of Lowellin. His last hope was infecting the sulbits with chaos power and now that’s gone, I think he’s running.” The one sulbit Lowellin had infected with chaos power had gone berserk. Rome and Quyloc had been lucky to kill it before it did serious damage. “I think he’s more afraid of Melekath than we are.”
“I don’t know why. Melekath seemed pretty weak to me.”
“You should have left me, Rome.”
“When the hunter caught me. You should have let it take me. It wasn’t after you. You’d still be free.”
“I’d never do that.”
“And that’s your weakness. You don’t know how to cut the dead weight before it drags you down.”
Rome was looking at him in bewilderment. “Is that what you think you are, dead weight?”
“It’s not what I think. It’s what I know. It’s true.” The words came out heavy and laced with bile, but this time all the bile was directed at himself.
“Then you’re a damned fool.” Suddenly Rome was angry. “Gods, can you really be that thick, as smart as you are? Have you forgotten what kind of war we’re fighting?”
Quyloc didn’t answer. He stared at the ground, wishing Rome was far away, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.
“This is no normal enemy we’re fighting. It’s…I don’t what it is. I’m way out of my depth.” Rome stopped, seemed to be struggling with the next words. When he spoke again the anger was gone. “You really don’t get it, do you? The only way we’re going to beat the Children is together. That’s what’s always counted. We’re a team. I’ve known it since we were kids, since we took down Dirty Henry together. I knew then that we could do anything together, that nothing could stop us. I don’t…I don’t know if I would have made it through these dark days without you.”
Quyloc turned his head and gaped at him. “You really…? You took down Dirty Henry. He was already dead when I showed up. All these years you’ve been telling that story like I was instrumental but the truth is I did nothing. I hate that story. I hate when you tell it. It’s a lie, nothing but a damned lie. Just like me, just like my whole life.” He ran out of words and knelt there, panting. He’d wanted to say that for a long time.
Rome shook his head. “It wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know where you got that idea. Dirty Henry had me backed into a corner when you came in and hit him from behind. I cut him, but my blade broke and I had nothing. He would have killed me if it wasn’t for you.”
“Why do you keep telling it like that?” Quyloc yelled. “It didn’t happen that way at all. He was on the ground, nearly dead. I didn’t do anything! I’ve never done anything!” The squat thing perked up at his shout, looking expectantly from one man to the other. A long, gray tongue came out and swiped across its face.
Rome’s eyes grew very wide. “Where is this coming from, Quyloc? How’d you get it so backward in your mind?”
Suddenly Quyloc experienced a moment of extreme disorientation. For just one moment, he remembered the death of Dirty Henry differently. He remembered it like Rome said. But he knew it was false and he savagely pushed the memory away. “Because it’s true. It happened like I said. The way you tell it…you’re just putting me up, like you always do. You don’t care for what others think of you. It’s too easy for you. It’s always been too easy for you. You don’t understand what it’s like to be a coward. You don’t know what it’s like to live your whole life in fear, waiting for others to figure it out. Well, I won’t do it anymore. I’m sick of hiding. It has to be said. I’m a coward. I’ve never done anything but walk in your shadow. I thought that here, in this place, I could finally get past it. I thought that here I could finally be my own man, but instead I’ve failed again. But this time I didn’t just bring me down, I brought you down too and everyone in Qarath. I’m a failure and a coward and it’s finally caught up with me.” His words died off. He was choking on his own self-loathing. But at least he’d finally said it. That had to count for something. Didn’t it?
Rome was looking at him as if he’d gone insane. “You, a coward? But…you’re the bravest person I know. You’re not a failure. I’d never have taken the crown without you. You led us to the axe. You led us out of the Gur al Krin.”
“Stop it,” Quyloc said feebly.
“No. Not until I’ve said what I have to say. You think you’re a coward because you live your life in fear? Is that what you think? Then you don’t know anything after all. A coward is someone who runs from his fear. You’ve never done that. Dirty Henry caught you. I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been. But still you found the courage to follow me into his lair and kill him. That’s bravery. Gorim’s balls, Quyloc! Lowellin told you the Pente Akka would probably trap you, that you had no real chance against the hunter, but you came anyway. Over and over. How is that not courage? Tell me that.”
“You make it sound like…”
“Like what? Like the truth? I’m a soldier, Quyloc. I’ve seen a lot of cowards in my life. I don’t even hold it against them. Some men just can’t seem to help themselves. But you aren’t one of them. I’d stake my life on it.”
The disorientation had returned. Old memories surged within him, some of them colored completely differently. Quyloc could make no sense of them. “This isn’t a good time to talk about this.”
“Why not?” Rome challenged him. “You got something else to do? Maybe you were planning on taking your dog for a walk?” He gestured at the squat thing, sitting there staring at them with its silver eyes. Its tongue came out again and slid over its face.
Quyloc was about to reply when the squat thing turned its thick head and looked toward the fog bank.
The hunter was returning.
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