Friday, September 19, 2008

The Hanging Mountains by Sean Williams

Grey clouds hung low like damp sheets over worn stone buildings and streets that smelt faintly of shit. Habryn Kail wrinkled his nose. He’d never much liked cities, and Laure only reinforced that opinion. While he could forgive much on account of its recent flooding, his patience only extended so far.

“That’s an exorbitant price,” he told the stall owner, “for a compass that doesn’t work.”

“None of them are working as they ought.” The dirty, pale-skinned man pulled a sour face at the wavering needle on the dial before him. “I assure you, sir, that if north could be measured reliably, this fine piece would do the job better than any other.”

The stall owner came out from his tent to pursue the sale, but Kail waved him away. Kail wasn’t interested in compasses; there were other, more reliable means of maintaining a course. Food, however, he did require, along with a large hooded cloak. And a camel, if he could find one in his price range likely to live out the week. Unfortunately, Laure wasn’t Tintenbar, where traders from all over the Interior gathered to meet their counterparts on the far side of the Divide. No need went unfulfilled in those markets and, for an assiduous purchaser, obtaining anything of quality was not an issue. Laure’s isolation, however, meant that quality cost money—money he didn’t have. He would have to work hard at stretching what he did have to fully provide for the journey ahead.
At least, he thought wryly, water wasn’t likely to be a problem. Within days of the flood that had filled the Divide from side to side, ominous clouds had swept in from the east, bringing with them rain unseen in those parts for generations. The Laureans had quickly familiarised themselves with the phenomenon; where once they might have danced in the streets at every drop, now they muttered about flooding and cursed the threatening sky.

Atop their slender poles, the yadachi sat like crimson-plumaged, long-tailed birds, taking the measure of the weather in absolute silence. What they thought of it, Kail couldn’t imagine. He didn’t ask, either. His visit to Laure wasn’t a social one. Once he had his supplies, he would be on his way.

A camel herder relented under heavy coercion and sold him a barely adequate old nag for more than half the money he had. Half of the remainder went on the cloak. By the time he had filled his new saddlebags with dried meat, flat bread, and salted plums—a guilty pleasure he always indulged on long overland trips—he had barely a coin left in his purse.

A pawnbroker occupied one corner of the market, his grubby stall cluttered with the detritus of failed dreams and addictions. Kail briefly considered divesting himself of the one truly valuable item remaining in his possession. In the course of asking after his former companions as he went about his business, he had learned that the Surveyor Abi Van Haasteren was organising an expedition back to the ruined city known as the Aad on the other side of the Divide, there to seek a marvellous, opalescent relic called the Caduceus. One piece of the Caduceus wasn’t with the others, because it currently rested in a cloth bag suspended from a thong around Kail’s neck. He knew Van Haasteren would want it, to complete the artefact, so it was bound to fetch a fair price.

A fear that he might regret too hasty a decision made him hold on to it. The Goddess only knew when he might need the money more than he did now, or if he might need something to barter with the Stone Mages—or how much attention he might draw to himself in the process of selling it . . .

“You’ve got a well-travelled face,” called a withered old seer as Kail stood, with one hand on the camel’s harness, running through a mental checklist to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Clad in a dusty shawl that might once have been brilliant blue and red, the seer clutched shaking hands in her lap and wore brass rings on hooked toes. “Why not let me tell you what lies on the road ahead?”

Kail almost didn’t bother responding. Market seers were as likely to possess actual talent as the jewellery in the next stall actual gems.

“If you can tell me what lies behind me, old mother,” he said, “then maybe you can tell me what’s ahead.”

“A test, eh?” The seer cackled heartily, exposing more gaps than teeth. “It doesn’t work like that, son. It’s as hard to look into the past as the future, and few people will pay me to do that. They usually don’t like what they learn.”

That was an odd comment. Intrigued, he led the camel closer. It snorted and resentfully butted his shoulder.

He ignored it. “Why wouldn’t they like it?”

“Some say the future is a book we haven’t read yet.” The old woman appraised him with one eye as he approached, the other screwed shut as though dazzled by a bright light. “The past is a book too, but not one we’ve read. It’s one we’ve written. That’s why I don’t like telling the past. People object to hearing that their book contains lies of their own devising—lies they tell themselves to make sense of things, to make it all bearable, to go on living. No one likes being caught out in a lie, do they?”

He smiled. Talented or not, she was no fool. “No, they don’t.”

“People lie about the future, too,” she said, squinting even harder, “calling it hope or faith. I’m willing to bet I can’t catch you out at that. A pragmatist like you lives in the moment. He knows that life is just a series of moments, one after the other. They come and go like beads on a string. If the string ever breaks you’ll be lost, and—ah!” She leaned back with her mouth open in triumph. “Yes! Got you.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, although he knew full well. He’d felt his face tighten at her comment about being lost, and she—trained charlatan and observer of faces—had spotted the slip.

“You’re on a journey. A long one.” Her expression sobered. “It may not be the one you originally set out on, and your destination might not be the one you hope for. But a journey it is, and you will be changed by it in ways you don’t expect.” She paused. “Pull up a seat, son. Let’s talk.”

A light rain had started outside the canvas covering of her stall. The weather didn’t faze him, but it did unsettle the camel. His curiosity pricked, Kail tied the restless beast to a post and folded himself into the seat opposite the woman. Reaching into his purse, he produced a coin and put it on the table between them.

She waved it away. “Pay me afterwards. For now, just give me your left hand.”

Kail did so, and she took it in both of hers. The skin of her fingers was rough with calluses as they explored his palm. Her eyes flickered shut.

He felt a tingle not dissimilar to pins and needles shoot up his arm. He almost pulled away, recognising the feeling—she was Taking from him!—but curiosity held him still. If she genuinely had some facility with the Change, perhaps her other claims weren’t completely false.

“You said I was on a journey,” he prompted, “a journey that would change me.”

“No great revelation there. Anyone could tell that much from your clothes. And journeys always change us, otherwise there’d be no point going on them.” Her attention wandered as though she was concentrating on something distant and hard to make out. “Your home lies far from here,” she went on, and he felt the tingle again. “The sea calls you, but you don’t hear it. The ones you serve have lost your respect. You follow them no longer. You’re seeking your own path. You—” She stopped. A sudden, indrawn breath hissed between her teeth. “You have been touched by darkness. A darkness I cannot see through. Not death. Not the Void. The darkness of—of ending. The ending of all things. I cannot—”

A deep menacing hum rose up as though an invisible cloud of bees was swarming around them.

She pulled free of him and clutched her hands to her chest.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, shaken by her reaction.

“I don’t want to see,” she said, shaking her head. Her voice quavered. “It’s too close!”

“What’s too close?”

“The darkness!” She took a deep, shaky breath. “I’ve seen it before, but never so near. Your shadow stretches before you, blacker than night. You’re walking to the end of the world and do not know it.”

“Where?” he asked. “How?”

She opened her eyes slowly, painfully. “That you’ll have to find out for yourself. I can’t see it. It is utterly beyond my ken.”

Kail wanted to press her for more information, but he took pity on her. She seemed abruptly to be much older now than earlier, and weary with it. Her gaze wouldn’t meet his.

“My apologies,” he said, adding another coin to the one already sitting on the table. “I didn’t mean to burden you.”

“That is so often the way, son.”

He stood. The rain hadn’t eased. It had strengthened, if anything, falling in hot, heavy waves over the market stalls. People scurried for shelter and covered their wares. The drenched camel snorted and stamped its feet.

“Blood will run like water,” the seer whispered, her voice so soft he could barely hear it over the downpour. “Blood will run like water ere the end comes.”

Chilled despite the dense, humid air, Kail took his leave of her and made haste from the city.

Hungrily, in the distance, a wolf howled.

The twins shivered.

Do you think—? Hadrian started to say.

Best not to, his brother cut him off.

A clatter of stones made them jump. Their connection to the world was growing stronger every day, but details remained sketchy beyond a few metres of their unusual body. Their four legs spread wide, they scanned the area around the campsite for any sign of trouble. It seemed to them that the light had dimmed, but whether that was because of cloud cover or nightfall they couldn’t tell.

Far-off sounds might have been rain falling or wind sweeping across the barren earth outside their shelter. They were fairly certain it wasn’t anything more sinister than that.

The wolf’s call was a little closer this time.

Hadrian shivered and the Homunculus skin containing him and his brother rippled. Set up under a stone slab as large as a three-storey building, their campsite offered protection on just two sides. Despite this, Kail had assured them they would be safe, that no one would dare bother them, and they had accepted the Sky Warden’s assurance readily enough. Nothing had prepared them for the sound of a wolf.

I don’t feel secure here.

Seth agreed. We could move, I suppose—but where to?

Keep on going, Hadrian suggested. Northeast. Kail would follow us. He knows how to.

We’d be more vulnerable out there than we are here.

Do you really think if we stay still and don’t move, it’ll just go away?

Both Seth and Hadrian recovered the same memory at exactly the same moment. Their minds had been so intimately entangled in the Void that they had started thinking as one. Independently yet together, they reached for the words Pukje had spoken to them, a hundred lifetimes ago: Wolves know how to wait.

Neither of them knew how much credence to give that particular statement. But the fear was very real, and so was their ignorance; they understood too little about the world as it existed now. Talking to their guide only made the situation worse.

The sound of rattling rock grew louder. They pulled further into the shadows, instinctively raising their arms to present a more threatening figure. Their legs tensed to run.

“It’s only me,” called a familiar voice.

A large shape pressing out of the gloomy myopia surrounding them resolved into Habryn Kail leading a camel under the overhang.

“We weren’t sure,” said Hadrian, letting down his guard. “We didn’t know what you were.”

Seth remained as taut as a bowstring. “Did anyone follow you here?”

“If they did, they’re a better tracker than I am.”

“You were gone a long time,” said Hadrian.

“I had a lot to do.” The rangy, tall man settled the dripping camel and eased himself down to a squatting position. His dark skin blended almost perfectly with the shadows. “I found out that Marmion and the others have gone upriver along the Divide looking for the cause of the flood and the man’kin migration. And you, I presume. They’d be fools to presume you dead without evidence.”

“Are they still hunting us?” asked Seth.

“Not actively. They have no trail, and no hope of finding one. The flood has proved a stroke of good fortune for you.”

Seth finally began to relax, allowing the Homunculus’s many-limbed shape to move. Together they sat and addressed the tracker face to face.

“How are they travelling?” asked Hadrian.

“That’s the interesting thing. Our maps become increasingly unreliable the further east you head, so overland journeys can be dangerous and slow. Given the resources of the Strand, if I was still with them I would have suggested following the course of the Divide when the initial turbulence of the flood died down—but Laure doesn’t have boats, and probably lacks the infrastructure to make one in a hurry. So I assumed that Marmion had taken the hard road and wouldn’t be far ahead of us.”

Kail’s words came with an unfamiliar bafflement, as though for once the long-limbed tracker’s instincts had led him astray.

“Tell us,” said Seth.

“Three days after the flood, the Engineers in the expedition found the skeleton of a hullfish in the torrent. They hauled it ashore, cleaned it, and tested its fitness. Apart from a couple of minor breaches, it held water. They must have worked amazingly fast to get it ready, but that’s how they’re travelling; exactly how I least expected them to.”

“Hullfish?” asked Hadrian.

“Sometimes called an ivory whale.” The tracker adopted a cautious expression they had come to recognise. “You don’t know what that is?”

The Homunculus’s head shook as both twins indicated their ignorance.

“It’s a beast normally found in the deep ocean. Ten, twenty metres long, and almost impossible to kill because of their thick, bony hide. The carcasses are airtight, so they occasionally drift ashore when they die. Five of the largest ever found became Os, the Alcaide’s ship of bone. You’ve never heard of that, either? Well, you only need to know that one hullfish is enough to make a perfectly serviceable vessel. Especially with the Change strong in the Divide.”

The twins struggled with the explanation. Kail obviously thought it made sense, and they supposed it did, in a way. There had been minds to talk with in the Void—desperate, dwindling things that had told stories among themselves in order to prolong existence before the endless hum ground them down. The twins had sometimes moved among them, and learned of the world outside through those stories. Their memories were confused, though; it was sometimes hard to disentangle the distant past from the stories of the Lost Minds after an eternity of sensory deprivation.

The twins remembered skyscrapers and a world overflowing with people. They remembered machines and power grids and television and ballpoint pens. Now the world’s inhabitants had buggies and airships and the Change. The Lost Minds had told of empty ruins and depopulated wastes, and spoken of cities as fearful, haunted places.

It seemed utterly preposterous to the twins that the corpse of a fish as large as a whale could be fashioned into a ship, but Seth remembered an equally preposterous vessel called Hantu Penyardin—and Hadrian had used the Change to fashion a pencil into a spear in order to kill the energuman, Volker Lascowicz. They could accept strangeness as fact if they had to. As far as they knew, Kail had no reason to lie.

“Could we travel that way?” they asked. “Upriver?”

Kail shook his head. “Even if we could find another hullfish, I couldn’t make a ship of it on my own, not in time. No, we’re best sticking to the original plan: I ride the camel while you walk alongside, disguised under the cloak. That way, we’ll be slow but steady. And we won’t have to worry about what the flood’s left in its wake.”

“What do you mean?” asked Hadrian.

“Well, the Divide was home, or prison, to more than just man’kin. And sometimes a burial ground for creatures that might not be completely dead, even now. The water will stir all manner of things from their rest.”

Kail stood and went to the camel. He opened a saddlebag and took out a handful of small, nutlike objects. He picked at them, flicking seeds out into the darkness, and paced as he talked.

“I worry about the others. They’re rushing into a situation for which they’re ill prepared. I know you’ve tried to explain what’s growing up there in the mountains, but I still don’t entirely understand what it is. It’s dark and dangerous, you say, and it eats people. It comes from before the Cataclysm and isn’t really part of our world. If I called Marmion with this information, he’d think me mad—and then he would be hunting you again, because he would have good reason to. So I can’t tell him that he’s putting himself and the others in danger—and I don’t like that.”

The twins let him think aloud. Their thoughts were full of dying cities and worlds rent asunder, of billions dead and more to come.
“They’re too far ahead for us to catch up, even if we walk our mount into the ground,” the tracker said. “We can’t steal a buggy because it won’t work with you aboard. There’s no point in calling Shilly or Sal, since Marmion won’t believe them either, not without evidence. We don’t have any other options that I can see, but to walk. Do you have any suggestions?”

Features blurred in the Homunculus’s face as the twins shook their heads.

Kail nodded. “I’ve promised to get you to the mountains so you can deal with this thing, whatever it is. My path and my conscience are clear. I just wish there was more I could do to help the others. There has been, as you said, enough death already.”

The howl of a wolf cut the air like a knife.

“What?” asked Kail, head snapping around as the twins jumped in fright. “What is it?”

“Didn’t you hear it?” asked Hadrian.

“Hear what?” The tracker’s brows crinkled.

Kail didn’t hear it, said Seth, his internal voice brittle. We’re not imagining it, are we?

Perhaps he can’t hear it.

It’s just for us, then? A warning?

Or a threat, said Hadrian. Another thought struck him. Perhaps the time isn’t quite right yet.

For what?

For the gloves to come off.

“We think we should get moving,” they told Kail. “Standing still for too long probably isn’t a good idea.”

“Want to explain why?”

Hadrian tried to explain. “There might be people out there—”

“Things,” Seth added.

“—who remember us and the way the world used to be. Some of them good, some of them . . . less so. I’m not sure they count as evil, but they don’t always want the same thing as us. And we hurt them, a long time ago.”

Kail studied their strange black features for a long moment. “You’re not talking about this Yod creature. This is something else entirely.”

“Yes.”

“An ally of Yod’s?”

“No.” Hadrian’s memories of Volker Lascowicz’s brutal death and the snarling of Upuaut, the demonlike creature that had inhabited him, were painfully clear to both of them. “Not an ally, but just as deadly.”

Kail nodded wearily. “Then I guess we need to get moving—and talking. The more you tell me, the more I’m going to understand. And the more I understand, the better I’m going to be able to keep us out of trouble.”

“We’re trying,” the twins said. “We really are trying.”

“I know,” said the tracker, pulling a thick cotton cloak out of a pack and holding it up for them to slip into, two arms into each sleeve. “Believe me, so am I.”

The Serpent
“Things in nature change of their own accord. There is no mind in the flow of a river or the grasping of a tree. There is, simply, the Change. Yet minds as sharp as ours once believed in gods of nature, seeing the need for design where nature alone is sufficient. They could not grasp that mind can ride the crest of the wave of nature without itself driving the wave. A single breaking wave is the summation of an entire ocean and all the wind that blows across it; in one moment, it is more than a mind will ever be throughout a lifetime.”

The Book of Towers, Exegesis 1:7

Skender saw it first, for no other reason than his face happened to be closest to the water. With his body bent over the boneship’s rough milky-white side and a rope firmly tied around his waist, he had little opportunity to look at anything other than the choppy, foaming water, relatively clear of debris since the flood eleven days earlier, but still an impenetrable muddy brown. He had no idea how deep it was, and preferred not to think too hard about that. He had no knowledge of sailing, let alone of large bodies of water in general. All he knew was that with every wave the boneship lurched from side to side and sent his stomach surging with it. His face burned when he thought of Chu, whose sense of balance had in no way rebelled at this mistreatment and whose sympathy had, to date, consisted of slapping him on the back and telling him, unhelpfully, that he couldn’t puke forever. He wasn’t so sure about that. The nausea showed no sign of abating. He wondered if he would ever eat again.

His only consolation was the memory of Gwil Flintham taking one look at the vessel bobbing precariously on more water than he had seen in his entire life, and swearing that he would never, ever set foot on it. If Skender had thought like that, he wouldn’t have been feeling so miserable, but at the same time he would have never seen anything, never met Sal and Shilly, and never flown.

Far above, riding the turbulent thermals rising from the surface of the flooded Divide, Chu glided as freely as a bird under the warm afternoon sun. Dark, crumbling cliffs loomed on either side of the surging water and there were few places for the ship to dock. The boneship’s crew had no way to see what was ahead, so Chu had volunteered to reconnoitre the shorelines upriver. Only her word, and the shadow of the Hanging Mountains growing ever-larger, reassured them that they were actually getting anywhere.

Skender tried his best to focus on the distant peaks—vast, immoveable, and shrouded in permanent cloud—rather than the rocking, rolling boneship and the water beneath.

Goddess, he thought, feeling as though he might throw up yet again. If you’re going to kill me, do it now!

At that moment, something glassy slid through the water not a metre from his nose. It resembled ice but moved with a sinuous muscularity that made him think of a lizard or a snake. Its surface was carved with scales as perfectly hexagonal as honeycomb and worn with age. He froze in shock. One metre glided by, then two, before Skender thought to sound the alarm.

He hauled himself back into the boat, unable to take his eyes off the thing in the water below. It was still uncoiling. How long was it?

He turned to shout a warning to where Marmion stood at the bow, bandaged arm held protectively to his chest, but the boneship shifted violently under him and he found himself dumped hard on his backside instead.

Everything went crazy. The boneship shook and rattled. “Whirlpool!” the cry went up; a warden ran by, leather-bound boot narrowly missing Skender’s face; spray flew over the bows. Skender skidded from side to side across the slippery deck, unable to find purchase long enough to stand. Bilge water soaked him from head to foot.

Distantly, he felt a thunderhead of the Change building as the wardens concentrated on steadying the ship. Sal was in that blend of wills, and Highson Sparre, bolstering the reservoir stored in the hull of the boneship itself. Skender cursed himself, told himself to get his shit together and stand up. The rope around his waist tangled in his legs and he went down again.

A large hand grabbed the neck of his robes and hauled him to his feet. Startled, he windmilled and kicked frantically until his feet found something approaching a grip on the deck. The hand let go, and he clutched the tunic of the person who had rescued him.

Kemp’s broad, pale face beamed down at him, entirely too amused.

“Here.” The albino pressed the rope into his hands. “Hold this and try to stay out of trouble.”

Kemp went to move off, but Skender pulled him back. “Tell Marmion. This isn’t just a current. There’s something else. It—”

The boneship tipped under them, throwing more people than just Skender off his feet. Kemp went sprawling, and so did half the wardens.

“Hold tight!” bellowed Marmion from his position at the prow. “Concentrate! We’ll ride it out!”

Skender couldn’t blame him for thinking it would be that simple. This wasn’t the first patch of restless water they had encountered on their journey; nor was it likely to be their last. The Divide was a nightmare of capricious currents and barely navigable hazards.

Gripping the rope tightly with both hands, Skender managed to bring himself vaguely upright again. He didn’t stop to wonder at the disappearance of his nausea. In the face of a concrete threat, he didn’t have time to be sick.

Another powerful jolt sent people flying in all directions. A cry of pain testified that someone had gashed themselves on a bony protuberance. The bilge took on a reddish tinge.

“Listen to me,” shouted Skender over the cries of alarm. “Something in the water is trying to capsize us!”

Marmion, poised at the front of the boneship, glanced at him, then at the churning water ahead. Skender couldn’t tell what he saw, but he raised his bandaged arm above his head and waved for attention.

“Sal! Up here!”

Wardens parted for Sal as he left the tiller and moved forward. Skender couldn’t make out the words he and Marmion exchanged. The boneship shook again, and Skender hoped the crunching sound he heard wasn’t bone breaking. Hullfish owed their buoyancy to bubbles of air trapped in their featherweight bones. If the attacker shattered enough of them, the boneship would sink.

Skender broke out in goosebumps, chilled by more than just the water. Water-sickness and giant snakes were bad enough; not being able to swim capped off the situation beautifully.

Marmion and Sal finished their hasty consultation. Nodding, they drew apart. Marmion called for his wardens to cluster around him. They made furious plans as the boat shook beneath them. Skender felt the flow of Change begin to shift into a new configuration.
Wind alone was insufficient to propel the boneship against the incessant current pouring down from the mountains. They relied on the efforts of the wardens to move anywhere but backwards. Following Marmion’s instructions, the steady acceleration that had carried them from Laure suddenly ebbed. Skender felt the boat give itself completely to the current and begin to float downstream.
The mental effort made by the wardens didn’t ease off, however. It was in fact redoubled. Skender looked around, saw their eyes closed in concentration. Some muttered words under their breath; some leaned with palms spread flat against the yellowish bone; others traced complex geometric shapes in the air with their fingers—employing whatever means suited them best to focus on their common purpose.

A handful of the shapes Skender recognised; he had glimpsed them in books and, once seen, never forgotten them. A sign for mastery over water came and went, followed by one controlling the flow of heat. A cloud of steam rose up from the surface of the boneship when Sal lent his wild talent to the charm, giving Skender a hot flush.

A new crunching sound arose from outside the boat. Not bone this time, but ice. The boat spun through a slurry of half-frozen water that cooled even further as the charm stole its warmth and sent it billowing in clouds to the sky. The bone deck shuddered underfoot, and Skender clutched the rope, wide-eyed.

Suddenly all was quiet. The boneship sat with its prow slightly upraised in a miniature iceberg that bobbed and spun gently on the surface of the Divide. The snake had been locked in the ice, trapped in midsqueeze.

“Good work,” said Marmion into the uncanny quiet. Apart from the sound of water lapping against the ice and people regaining their footing, the silence was complete. “Now, let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with.”

Wardens spread out around the edge of the boneship and peered carefully over. Kemp joined them, and so did Shilly, emerging from the hollow cavity at the heart of the bony hull, leaning heavily on her walking stick. She looked as startled as Skender felt. He had no intention of going any closer to the edge than he absolutely had to.

“Can you see it?” called one of the wardens.

“There’s something over here,” someone else replied.

“And here,” said another from the far side of the boneship.

Skender pictured long, pythonlike coils entwined around the ship, frozen solid in the act of crushing it.

“What is this thing?” he asked.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Highson, standing at the tiller Sal had earlier abandoned.

“Want me to cut off a piece?” suggested Kemp, raising one leg to hop over the side of the boat.

Ice cracked and the boneship lurched. Kemp almost tipped out as one coil of the frozen serpent, then another, broke free of the ice. Hands clutched at Kemp and strained to pull his bulk back to safety. More cracking sounds came from all around the boat. Icy, translucent coils whipped and writhed. Cold splinters and cries of alarm filled the air.

The head of the snake appeared over the bows, a conelike, tapering affair boasting numerous writhing whiskers that shook itself free of the last of the ice with an uncannily doglike motion. Skender could see no eyes or nostrils—not even a mouth—but he had no doubt that it could see them. The whiskered head stabbed down at the boneship, narrowly missing Marmion. It emitted a keening, hissing noise more piercing than a whistle as it pulled back into the air.

The boat lurched free of the short-lived iceberg. Kemp had almost made it aboard, but slipped back as the boat tipped under him. Wardens pulled at his arms. A glassy coil flailed over Skender’s head, and he ducked barely in time. Remembering his despairing death wish, he hastily retracted it. The last thing he wanted was to be killed by a monster.

The head rose up to strike. Sal pushed forward, mouth set in a determined line. The air crackled around him, ripe with wild talent.

Shards of ice flashed into vapour where he stepped.

The snake sensed him and its screeching grew louder. It swayed to triangulate on its intended victim then lunged downwards.

Sal blocked the strike with his arms crossed in front of his face. The snakehead ricocheted away and, with a piercing snarl, struck at Kemp instead, impaling him on its whiskers as though they were the spikes of a mace. Kemp roared with pain and would have been thrown from the boneship entirely but for the wardens holding him fast.

The snakehead pulled free, dripping blood from its deadly whiskers. Kemp fell limp. Sal leapt over him and caught the snake about its throat. Although unable to get his fingers completely around the slippery body, the Change made up for what he physically lacked. With a loud cry, he wrenched it down and smashed its head against the boat’s bony bulwarks.

A silent concussion pushed Skender off his feet and turned the day momentarily dark. The boneship skidded sideways, missing the cliff on the starboard side by the smallest of margins. With one startled squawk, the snake shattered into a cloud of fine sand and blew away on the wind.

Skender blinked dust from his eyes and hurried with Shilly to where Kemp lay on the rocking deck. The albino bled profusely from two wounds: one to his abdomen and the other to his thigh. Sal had dropped like a stone after killing the snake and lay next to him, unmoving. Shilly brushed long, mousy hair out of her lover’s eyes and made sure he was breathing.

“Is he—?” Skender didn’t know how to finish the question.

“He’s still with us,” she said. Her brown eyes brimmed over with concern. “He’d never go that far again.”

Skender didn’t hide his relief. Every Change-worker knew that the Void Beneath awaited those who took too much of the Change at once. That Sal had drawn so deeply as to knock himself out was worrying, but Skender believed Shilly when she indicated that Sal would recover. She knew Sal better than anyone, even Sal himself.

Kemp was a different question. The healer among the wardens, Rosevear, had stooped to examine him. A young man with dark skin and thick, curly hair, he was already sweating from exertion. “The wounds are very deep,” he said. “We need to stop him bleeding before I can do anything else.”

Rosevear Took from three of his colleagues to staunch the flow of crimson from Kemp’s side. Afterwards, the albino looked even paler than usual. Skender sat by him, wishing there was something constructive he could do. Remembering the albino coming to his aid during the attack of the snake, a new sickness filled Skender’s stomach.

Rosevear’s will moved deep in Kemp’s wound. A glassy shard as long and sharp as a toothpick emerged from his side and fell to the deck with a faint, almost musical sound. Marmion, closely watching the healer’s ministrations, ground the fragment underfoot.
“Please, give me space,” Rosevear requested, leaning back on his heels and breathing heavily. His hands were bloody. “A steady surface to work on would help, too.”

“Understood.” Marmion stepped back and waved at the wing circling anxiously above. “I’ll see what I can do about that.”

At his signal, Chu dropped like a stone, tilting her wing and alighting at the last minute on the broad deck. A breath of air rippled across the boneship. Wardens took the weight of the wing from Chu’s back as she unclipped her harness and hurried forward, brow wrinkled with concern.

“Skender, what happened? I couldn’t see clearly from the air.”

“It’s Kemp,” Skender explained. “He’s been injured.”

“Kemp? Goddess.” For the first time, she seemed to notice the albino splayed on the deck. A complicated range of emotions played across her face. “Will he be all right? What can I do to help?”

“Tell us there’s somewhere to dock not far ahead of here,” said Marmion, “or at least somewhere to shelter from the current.”

She nodded. “There’s a subsidence just around the bend. I don’t know how stable it is, but it could give you what you need.”

“Good. Thank you.” Marmion snapped orders to those wardens not assisting Rosevear. They moved off to rebuild the charm that propelled the boneship upstream while Rosevear worked on Kemp.

“You’re okay, then?” Chu asked Skender, her deep, half-moon eyes studying his face closely. “When Marmion called me down, I thought—” She hesitated, seemed to gather herself. “Well, I didn’t know what to think. That you’d puked your guts right out in all the excitement, maybe. I mean, this is the longest I’ve seen you upright in days. Could you finally be empty?”

She clapped him on the back, and went off to collapse her wing.

All right, Goddess, he thought with a wince. I’ve changed my mind—but this time I’m sure of it. You forget one little thing, and you pay and pay and pay. Spare me this torture!

If anyone heard him, Goddess or otherwise, no answer came.

Shilly barely noticed the exchange between Skender and Chu as she tended to Sal. Everything had happened so quickly: the turbulence, which she had learned to endure by staying well out of the way, then Skender’s cry that there was more to it than simply crosscurrents. By the time she had emerged, Marmion had frozen the snake and solved the problem—or so it had seemed.

She had been too slow to help Sal when he’d rushed forward to save Kemp. Frightened, she hadn’t been able to show him how to refine the charm he’d used against the snake. What he lacked in subtlety he had made up for with sheer grunt, turning a simple rock-crushing mnemonic into a powerful weapon. As a result, he lay unconscious before her, and there was nothing she could do about it.
His reservoir of the Change was empty. There was no strength left in him on which she could call to help him return. She would just have to be patient, to let him come back to her in his own time.

Make it soon, Sayed, my love, she whispered in her mind, using his heart-name. Make it soon.

The warmth of the afternoon sun was fading. The days became colder the deeper the boneship travelled in the foothills of the Hanging Mountains, but the nights weren’t as bitter as they could be in the desert. Shilly liked the crisp, moist air in the mornings. It helped her wake up, when she had to.

Beside her, Rosevear worked hard to save Kemp’s life. He moved quickly, assuredly, binding the less-serious gash in Kemp’s massive thigh with thick cloth bandages and concentrating primarily on the stomach wound. His expression was grim.

“He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.” Rosevear glanced at her midministration. “I’ll need to watch him closely. If the poison spreads, there might be nothing I can do.”

Poison? she wanted to echo, numbly. The sides of her mouth turned down at the thought that Kemp might die. She had known him since her childhood in Fundelry. Just moments ago he had been strong and lively. That he could be so suddenly lost to them cast everything around her in a new light. She felt as though the bottom had dropped out of the boneship and they were falling free.
Beneath her, the vessel surged ahead, seeking the shelter Chu had promised. The sun swung in the sky as Marmion ordered the course changed. Highson, Sal’s natural father, still recovering from his pursuit of the Homunculus but determined to contribute in any way he could, swung the tiller hard to port. The rudder acted more on the Change contained within the boat than the water surrounding it, glowing a faint pearly white at night and leaving behind a trail of tiny bubbles during the day. She had watched the tiller’s attachment to the boneship in Laure, and wondered how so delicate a filigree of threads and filaments could possibly help the ship stay on course. Wardens used an entirely different watercraft than the fishers she had known in Fundelry.

Voices called. She leaned over the bulwarks to look at the river below. The Divide wall closest to the boneship had subsided under the raging torrent of the flood, spilling boulders into the water. Some had been carried away in the initial rush; enough remained to form a bulky spit that even now, days later, the water continued to shape. The relatively calm space behind its jagged leading edge gathered sediments and debris in growing mounds. Scrapes and bumps on the underside of the boneship made Shilly nervous, thinking that perhaps creatures worse than the snake were trying to get in. Nothing else happened, however, and her fear abated.
“There.” Marmion pointed with his one remaining hand at a suitable mooring spot, and Highson guided them in. Two wardens leapt the closing gap and tied ropes to secure-looking stones, anchoring the boneship in place. Sheltered from the relentless current the boneship became, for once, mercifully still. While not as sensitive to water-sickness as Skender, Shilly had no love for the endless rolling of the deck underfoot. Sleep usually came with difficulty, even in the dark rounded cavities of the boat’s hollow interior which reminded her of the underground workshop she and Sal called home, far away. She would be glad when they returned to dry land.

“Wh—” Sal stirred on her lap. His eyes fluttered. “What—?”

“Easy.” She stroked his face to soothe him. “Everything’s all right. The snake is gone. You don’t have to worry about that any more.”

“But . . .” He tried to sit up. She helped him turn and lean into her, so that his head rested heavily on her breast. He took in the boulders and the sundered yellow cliff face looming over them. “Where are we? How long was I out?”

“An hour or less. We’re stopping so Rosevear can work on Kemp.”

Finally he took in what he hadn’t, perhaps, wanted to see. Shilly felt him trying to reach out to take the measure of Kemp’s injury through the Change, but he was still too weak. She explained what she knew: that the injury was deep but not fatal, depending on how far the poison from the snake’s crystal barbs had travelled. Much would hinge on the coming moments, as Rosevear worked hard to secure what advantage he could over the spreading sickness.

They had a clear view of Kemp’s face and upper chest as the wardens worked on him. His rib cage rose and fell reassuringly with every breath, but the skin of his face, so pale it bordered on transparent, hung loosely from his cheeks. Half-open eyelids showed only white. What little colour he had had was utterly drained away.

Skender came to check on Kemp’s progress, leaning with a worried expression over Rosevear’s shoulder.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “If I’d sounded the alarm sooner—”

“Don’t,” said Sal. “If I’d killed the snake sooner, or the wardens had frozen the snake more tightly, or Kemp hadn’t tried to take a piece off it, then maybe things would’ve been different. Or they might have been exactly the same. There’s no point blaming anyone, including yourself.”

Skender nodded, but didn’t seem reassured. When Rosevear irritably brushed him away, he swung over the edge of the boneship to explore the rocky spit against which the boat had moored. Several of the wardens were already climbing the uneven slope up to the top of the cliff, there to take the mission’s bearings and estimate the distance they had travelled. Shilly wondered what they would see.

When the Divide and the Hanging Mountains were perfectly in line, she made out a glimpse of green below the ever-present pall of clouds ahead. Chu’s talk of fog forests and balloon cities smacked of fable, not fact—yet the hint of verdancy remained, suggestive and alluring. In all Shilly’s life she had never seen vegetation thicker than low saltbush.

She wasn’t about to leave Sal’s side to explore with the others. Even when he stirred and successfully managed to stand up on his own, she didn’t suggest they move far. He needed to recuperate.

“What were you doing when the snake hit?” he asked her as she led him by the arm into the boat’s central cavities. Smooth bubbles of bone opened up around them, providing a cabin large enough for six people to lie comfortably beside the supplies purchased in Laure. “Were you asleep?”

Shilly shook her head. She had been awake since midmorning. He lay down on the thin mattress at the rear of the space and she showed him what she had been working on, distracting herself from thinking about Kemp.

“The dream again, Carah?” he asked, examining the sketches she had made. Page after page of intricate scribbling; vain attempts to capture the complexity of the patterns she saw in her mind.

“It won’t let me go,” she said. “Always the same things: sand and something buried; a pattern I’m supposed to transcribe; being outside my body, looking at myself. I think it’s important, if I could only work out why.”

“Have you talked to Tom about it?”

She shook her head. Since the flood, she had avoided the young seer for fear of what he might tell her. Already, the dream that he had revealed to her in Fundelry was beginning to come true: You and I were riding a ship of bone up the side of a mountain . . . The rest, about frozen caves and the end of the world, didn’t bear thinking about any sooner than she had to.

“This doesn’t feel like prophecy,” she said. “I’m not seeing what’s going to happen, but something that needs to happen, I think.”

“Could it be a message?”

“Who from?” She frowned. “The only person I can think of is Habryn Kail, if he’s still alive—but if he had something important he needed me to know, he could just tell me outright.”

“Could, yes.”

She dropped her chin to her chest. Thoughts of Kail provoked equal parts sadness and anger in her. The nephew of Lodo, her first teacher and guardian, the tracker would have been the closest thing to family she might have had, had he only revealed himself to her before being swept away by the flood.

“You saw through his eyes, at the end,” she said to Sal. “If you’d learned something through him, or felt something, you wouldn’t keep me in the dark. Would you?”

“Of course not,” he said instantly.

And she could tell that he wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

She sighed. What was it about Sal and Kail? Ever since Marmion had told her the truth about him, Sal had been on edge.

Whenever the tracker’s name came up, he did his best to change the subject. She didn’t want to believe that Sal was keeping something from her, and she had no real reason to believe he was—apart from a gut feeling. That feeling wasn’t going away in a hurry, and she had learned to trust her instincts.

She opened her mouth to ask him outright.

“How are we doing in here?” Highson Sparre’s stocky frame filled the circular entranceway, casting them into shadow. “Need a hand?”

“No, we’re fine,” said Sal. “Thanks.”

Sal’s father didn’t take the hint. Light returned as he came to join them. Sal’s wiriness had no origin in Highson, whose broad shoulders looked as though they carried more than their fair share of worries; deep lines around his eyes and mouth and dark hair running rapidly to grey completed the impression.

“I actually came to ask you—” He stopped when he saw Shilly’s drawings. “What are these?”

“I don’t know,” Shilly said quite honestly. “Have you ever seen anything like them before?”

“I don’t think so. You should run them by Skender. If they’re in the Keep library somewhere, he’ll have seen them.”

Shilly had thought of that, but Skender hadn’t been capable of intelligent conversation since leaving Laure.

“You were going to ask . . . ?” she prompted.

“Oh, yes.” Highson turned to Sal and lowered his voice. “When you were holding the tiller, did you feel any trace of the Homunculus?”

“No,” said Sal.

“Are you sure?”

“Why? Did you?”

“I don’t think so.” Highson’s broad forehead creased. “But I’m not a water-worker—none of us are, and why would we be? The Alcaide would hardly send someone like that inland.” He laughed softly at the irony that a river now flowed where just a week ago, and for centuries beforehand, only dust devils and man’kin had roamed.

Sal and Shilly exchanged a glance. She was glad to know that she wasn’t the only one obsessed with their own personal mysteries.

“Perhaps you should talk to Marmion,” Sal suggested. “He might’ve felt it.”

Highson shook his head emphatically. “Not until I’m sure he’s come around to our way of thinking. We don’t want the twins dead. He’s tried to kill them once already and would’ve left them to the flood without second thoughts. I want to know why they saved me before I’ll hand them over to him.”

Sal nodded but had nothing to add. He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.

“This isn’t the best time,” said Shilly, trying not to be harsh. At least father and son were talking.

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Highson backed away until he was blocking the light from the entranceway once more. There he hesitated long enough to say, “That was a powerful move, and bravely done. On the deck before, I mean. You’ve grown so much since the Haunted City.”

With that, he was finally gone.

Shilly felt the coolness of Sal’s scalp and whispered softly when he went to speak. “No, my love. Sleep. You’ve done all you need to for one day.”

“Kemp?”

“I’ll check on him later. He’ll be okay. I promise.”

Her gut niggled at her, telling her not to be so sure of that. The serious nature of the wound and the poison spreading through Kemp’s body made any prognosis uncertain. As Sal’s breathing deepened and became gradually slower, she wished she had been less nervous of Tom. He rarely offered his visions unasked. If he’d seen the attack on the boneship ahead of time and told her about it, she might have found a way to avert the situation they now found themselves in.

Sal woke to the sound of arguing.

“I’m telling you he could die!”

“That’s a risk we have to take.”

“Is it? I don’t understand how you can be so cavalier about this.”

“I’m not being cavalier. I’m being practical. Kemp’s life means as much to me as it does to you. I simply have other concerns to weigh against it. Kemp may not die. There may be resources ahead that we can use to save him. On the strength of those possibilities, I say that we will forge ahead.”

Sal recognised the voices. The second, arguing for the mission to continue, belonged to Marmion. The first was Rosevear. Such was the concern in the young healer’s voice that Sal feared gravely for his friend. Alive, yes, but for how long?

He sat up. His ears still rang from the effort of bringing down the snake that had attacked the boneship, but he could live with that. Ringing was better than the hum that always rose up when he dipped too deeply into his wild talent, a deadly, droning warning that if he went any further the Void Beneath would take him.

Swinging his legs off the thin mattress, he stood and took a moment to recover his balance. His head no longer felt as though it might shatter at the slightest touch, so that was an improvement. Kemp lay in one of the other cots, haggard and labouring under his injuries. Shilly had gone out onto the deck, presumably to observe the confrontation. He followed in her footsteps, weaving only slightly.

“If he dies,” Rosevear said, “it’ll be on your conscience as well as mine.”

The sun had moved during his recuperative nap and now hung far to the west over the cliffs of the Divide. Even so, its light was still bright enough to dazzle Sal as he stepped out of the bone enclosure. The entire crew had gathered: Marmion and his wardens, standing in ones and twos across the long deck; Chu and Skender sitting side by side on a coil of rope, their thighs not quite touching; Highson and Shilly near the entrance to the boneship’s interior, just to Sal’s left. Even Mawson, the animated stone bust of a man with high temples and brooding expression, watched from the sidelines, propped up against one of the bulwarks and surrounded by knees. He, out of everyone, arguably had the most to lose if Kemp succumbed. The immensely strong albino frequently acted as his arms and legs.

“If Kemp dies,” Sal said, speaking loudly so all could hear, “there’s only one proper place to lay the blame.”

Heads turned to face him. Marmion’s eyes narrowed. “And where might that be?”

“On the snake, of course. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to care for him—he deserves no less than that—but we can go only so far in providing that help. Our mission was always going to be a dangerous one, and he knew that. He wouldn’t want us to turn back just for him. I’m sure of it.”

Marmion looked relieved, and perhaps a little surprised that Sal had sprung so readily to his defence. “Thank you.”

Rosevear wasn’t to be mollified. “You don’t know the full situation, Sal. I can’t treat Kemp with the limited resources I brought with me.”

“We’ve been over this,” Marmion said. “There are forests ahead, less than a day’s journey from our present location. There will be all manner of herbs and fresh water at your disposal. Kemp will be better off there than here, or perhaps even in Laure.”

“And if he dies before we get there?”

“Tell me honestly: how likely is that?”

Rosevear looked crestfallen. “I don’t know. The poison has spread throughout his body. There was nothing I could do to halt its progress. He has a fever and the wound will not close: either of these factors could lead to complications.” He sighed and examined his hands, front and back. “A day might make all the difference in the world, or none in the slightest. To be utterly truthful, I’m not sure that anything I can do will help. No matter where we are.”

The news was sobering. Sal felt for the young healer. He had tasted impotence, and found it bitter and lingering.

“We will make all haste,” said Marmion soothingly. “You are absolved of any blame should your worst fears be realised. I will take that responsibility.”

Rosevear nodded, but clearly took little comfort from the warden’s words.

“Right.” Marmion put the matter behind him with a brisk round of instructions. The wardens set to work, preparing to cast off from the rugged shore by tightening cables, building charms, and stowing the remains of a hasty meal. By the look of things, Sal had missed dinner. His stomach rumbled at the thought, and he was heartily glad when Shilly joined him, pressing a sandwich of flat bread and salted meat into his hands.

Wary of getting in the way, they retreated into the heart of the boneship where Rosevear had returned to sit with Kemp. The healer looked tired. Sal’s sensitivity to the Change hadn’t recovered, but he could imagine the toll saving Kemp had taken. Rosevear glanced up as they entered, then away.

“I’m sorry that didn’t go the way you wanted it to,” said Sal. “If it helps, remember that agreeing with Marmion doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Rosevear managed a wan smile. “The worst thing is that he would expect no different if it was him here, not Kemp. He may look as though he’s recovered from losing his hand, but I can assure you he hasn’t.”

“No,” said Shilly, rubbing absently at her stiff leg. “You don’t lose something like that easily.”

“It just pains me to be so helpless. Look.” Rosevear peeled back the bandages covering Kemp’s stomach. Bluntly geometric black tattoos stood out against the albino’s pale skin, one of them only half finished. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Sal winced at the sight of the wound. Ragged and round, its lips were inflamed and red. A clear, thin liquid trickled freely from it. Rosevear dabbed at the ghastly puncture with a clean white cloth, and held it up for Sal and Shilly to examine. The fluid possessed no colour at all.

“This could be anything,” said the healer. “I can tell you what it isn’t, though. It’s not blood or bile, which you’d expect from a wound of this sort.”

“What about the other wound?” asked Shilly. Her dark skin had paled, but she didn’t look away. “Is that the same?”

Rosevear nodded. “I’ve never seen an infection like this. Even with access to a greater range of herbs, I’m not sure what I should do to treat it.”

“Then we’ll keep our fingers crossed that someone else will,” said Chu from the entranceway. The flyer moved to join them, her patched leather uniform creaking stiffly. “There must be people in the forest. Where else could my ancestors have come from? And the snake too, if you think about it. There’s a good chance it was swept downstream, so whoever’s upstream might have seen its like before.”

“That’s true.” Rosevear seemed slightly reassured as he bound Kemp’s wound. “I was talking to Warden Banner this morning. She’s been trying to work out where the hullfish came from. They’re not river creatures, and they’ve never been found inland before. It’s possible that someone brought it all the way from the coast . . . perhaps traders intending to sell it.”

“Who would they sell it to?” asked Shilly. “The best market for something like this is right back where it started.”

“Exactly. And the carcass was fresh, when the meat should have rotted completely from the bones before it reached anywhere near the Divide. Maybe your mysterious forest people can tell us about that, too,” Rosevear said to Chu, “when we find them.”

The deck moved beneath them, not enough to signal casting-off, but a sure sign it wasn’t far away.

“Excuse me,” said Chu. “I’d better get back to work, while the light lasts.”

“Good flying,” said the healer. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

“I will.” She hurried off. The wing needed a degree of elevation for her to make it safely into the air, so she would have to climb the Divide wall until she found a suitable launching point. Sal had watched her take off on a number of occasions. Each time brought back giddying memories of his one brief flight with Skender, and the near-crash his friend had called a landing.

“How are you feeling now?” Rosevear asked him.

“On the mend.” He had no physical symptoms of overusing the Change, beyond exhaustion and a mild headache. His major discomfort lay in his disconnection from the rest of the world: until his full potential returned, he would remain cut off from the usual ebb and flow of life around him. “But Marmion had better keep us well away from monsters for a while, or he’ll be on his own.”

“Have you seen Tom anywhere?” asked Warden Banner, sticking her curly head through the entrance and looking around.

“No,” said Shilly. “Why?”

“He’s gone missing.”

Only then did Sal realise that the young seer hadn’t been on deck during the argument. Everyone but him.

“We can’t leave until we’ve found him. Come and help me look. Everyone else is busy getting us under way.”

What the unnamed boneship lacked in sophistication, it more than made up for in size. The main cabin area was just one of several bulbous spaces nestled inside the bony hull. Most had been filled with gear the wardens had brought with them, including collapsible tents, food stores, and all manner of cross-country equipment. Few such spaces were large enough for a person to stand upright; some measured barely a metre across.

“We’re actually sailing the boat backwards, you know,” Banner said as they moved aft, where the bony chambers joined to form cramped tunnels and dead-ended tubes. Sal was too big for most of them. “These used to be the hullfish’s sinus cavities.”

“Great,” said Shilly, her voice muffled. She had just wriggled headfirst into one of the smaller spaces. “I suppose it could be worse.”

“Much worse,” agreed Sal, thinking of the prow where Marmion perched. He didn’t want to know what part of the hullfish’s anatomy that corresponded to. “Tom?” he called. “Are you about?”

A faint movement came from deep within a tunnel too narrow for him to squeeze into. He craned as far as he could and saw the hem of a blue robe peeking out from around a corner. “Tom? What are you doing down here? There’s no reason to hide.”

The hem pulled out of sight.

“Come on. What are you frightened of? Is it something you’ve seen?”

The reply came in a tiny whisper. “I know he’s dead. I saw it.”

“Who?”

“Kemp.”

“Is that what you’re worried about? Well, it’s okay now. I killed the snake. And Kemp is just injured.”

“I could’ve warned him, but I didn’t. He died because of me.”

Sal retreated to tell Banner to go back and inform Marmion that Tom had been found. While the boneship’s journey resumed, Sal and Shilly would sort out what was bothering him.

“Listen to me, Tom. No matter what you saw, Kemp isn’t dead. He’s sick, but he is still with us.”

“No, he can’t be. He has to be dead. That’s the only way it’ll work.”

“The only way what will work, Tom?”

No answer. Shilly elbowed Sal out of the way to wriggle into the opening and have a go.

“Why don’t you come and see Kemp for yourself, if you don’t believe us?”

“I know what I’ve seen.”

“But so do we, Tom. And you can’t stay here forever. We’re casting off any second.”

The boneship moved beneath them at that moment, and Sal felt the slight hollowing in his stomach that came whenever they moved on the open water. The shouts of wardens came distantly through the bone walls.

“We’re going forward,” said Tom. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

“Into the ice.”

“If you say so. The mountains, anyway.”

Shilly pulled backwards out of the opening so suddenly that Sal couldn’t avoid being poked by her walking stick. She unfolded from the cramped space to reveal that Tom had decided to emerge as well. Long and thin—so long it amazed Sal that he had fitted into such a small space—with a shock of black hair and worried eyes, Tom shepherded them ahead of him until there was room in the hullfish’s sinus cavities for the three of them to crouch together.

“Kemp is really alive?” he asked, looking from Sal to Shilly and back again.

“We wouldn’t lie to you about that,” Sal said.

“Will you tell us what you saw?” Shilly asked him.

Tom sat heavily and put his head in his hands. “I saw the thing under the ice again,” he said. “The dark, ancient thing. It’s stirring, getting stronger. The creature that attacked Kemp is frightened of it, like the man’kin and the golems—like everything in the world. I’m frightened of it too.” He looked up and took Sal’s arm in a strong grip. “Kemp is important. He helps. But he has to die first. It has to be that way.”

“Why? Help how?” Sal retreated from Tom’s sudden intensity, but couldn’t pull free.

“Kemp is the only one who stands between you and Shilly when the end comes.”

Tom spoke with such conviction that a chill went up Sal’s spine.

“Between us?” echoed Shilly.

Tom turned to her, and nodded.

“You mean physically, or like in an argument?”

“Both.”

“What’s the argument going to be about?”

The seer let go, looking like he wanted to crawl back into his hole. “Whoever wins gets to choose the way the world ends.”

“The world?” Again Sal felt something creep through him that was more than physical. “Do you know who wins?”

He shook his head. “I can’t see. There’s nothing.”

“It’s hidden from you?”

“There’s nothing,” Tom repeated.

Sal remembered something Marmion had told Shilly about the Haunted City’s seers failing to see beyond a certain point in time.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Shilly, undoubtedly thinking the same thought. “I knew we should’ve christened the boat before we left. It’s unlucky to sail in a ship with no name.”

“But it’s not as if we never argue,” said Sal in a weak attempt to rob the moment of its gravitas. “And Kemp really didn’t die. We know that.”

“He’s not out of the rip just yet.”

“But what if he doesn’t die? And how could either of us possibly choose how the world will end, anyway?”

“How can two people live in the same body at once?” she shot back. “How could the twins cause the Cataclysm and still be alive today? How could the Divide have come to be flooded?”

He took her point. “I think we should talk to someone about this.”

“I agree.” But instead of moving off, she turned to Tom. “Why didn’t you tell Kemp what you’d seen? Or Marmion, or us?”

“I wanted to. Honest.” Tom’s voice had reverted to the singsong tone he had used as a child. “But I had to let it happen. It’s all connected: the snake and Kemp; the Cataclysm and the Homunculus; the two of you and the rest of us. The whole world is connected. Sometimes I can see the pattern. Other times it’s just one great big tangle. When it’s clear, I don’t have any choice.”

“We know the pattern changes,” said Sal, thinking of Shilly’s dream. “I’ve changed it, once, in the Haunted City.”

Tom looked more miserable than ever. “I don’t understand how that works. I can only see inside this pattern at this time, and then only occasionally. It’s like . . .” He fumbled for a way to explain. “Like trying to walk backwards while looking in a mirror. Maybe there’s a different path to follow, but I can’t see it.”

Shilly touched his arm. “That’s okay. You’re doing your best. Why don’t you go forward and reassure Warden Banner while Sal and I talk for a moment? Then check on Kemp. We’ll be there soon.”

Tom nodded, but didn’t immediately move off through the bony cavities. “It does have a name, you know.”

“What?” asked Sal.

“The boat. It’s called the Eda.”

“Really? Where does that come from?”

“I don’t know, but that’s what it’s called.”

Tom crawled away, leaving Sal and Shilly to untie the knot of information he had wound around them. Giant snakes; strange visions; grim prophecies; mysterious names. Things were getting weirder the further up the Divide they went. What awaited them at its terminus, in the foothills of the Hanging Mountains, Sal was afraid to contemplate.

The Falls

“What is today but yesterday’s tomorrow?
What is memory but a dream of the past?”
The Book of Towers, Exegesis 19:2

From the air, the Divide looked nothing like a river. Skender had seen maps and he knew how tributaries snaked across the land, curving and winding in search of the Earth’s lowest points, eventually meeting at the Strand where sea took over from stone. He had a rough idea that rivers started off fierce and furious in the mountains, then became languorous and lazy in their old age. He had read of rivers slow and wide-backed, choked by silt; of rivers crossing their own path and pinching off stagnant lakes; of rivers full of fish and reptiles, lined with overhanging trees and vines.

The Divide was none of these. A jagged split in the world, it zigzagged like a lightning bolt without respect for highlands or lowlands, or for human habitation. Skender knew that the city of Laure had been struck in two during the Divide’s formation centuries ago, causing massive subsidence and loss of life. People lived there still, against all odds, although the city was haunted by the Divide’s reputation as a home of horror and mischief, as well as its physical hardships.

From desert to mountain, and possibly beyond, the Divide stretched without pause or deflection. For all Skender knew, it stretched right across the face of the world.

In the last week it had become a course for water originating somewhere high in the Hanging Mountains. That didn’t make it a river. The water was held in the channel created by the sheer, rugged walls. It might bite into the wall here, or make sandbanks there, but the flow of water couldn’t radically alter the path given to it. That would take centuries or more. Perhaps, Skender thought, if the water kept flowing, future Van Haasterens might look at the old maps and wonder what became of the sharp-cornered Divide, where now flowed smooth-banked, sinuous tributaries instead.

If there ever are any future Van Haasterens, he thought.

On the night Kemp was injured, Skender and Chu rode updraughts billowing from the hot Earth with the fading sun behind them. The charm she used to see the wind guided her truly through a scattering of dirty clouds that scudded ahead of them, forming and dissolving ragged limbs as though aspiring to but never quite achieving particular shapes. Some resembled animals real and fantastic, while others reminded Skender of faces he had seen in old books or paintings. Chu ascended in a gentle spiral between the clouds, always keeping the shrinking dot of the boneship below within sight.

He was glad she had let him come with her. All grudges and hostilities stayed on the ground when they flew together. She hung behind him, which enabled her arms and legs to maintain the greatest control over the wing above them. Her warm presence comforted him. He felt her shifting her balance from side to side, smooth muscles stretching and compressing with limber ease. At times he found himself instinctively helping her, swaying with the wing as it rode the endless currents of the air.

Officially they were watching the boneship’s progress for any sign of obstruction. Unofficially, Skender sensed Chu’s restlessness with the task they had been given. Always the nose of the wing turned to point forward and upward, at the line of clouds that marked the beginning of the fog forests—a shelf of white that stuck out from the buttressed flanks of mountains. The land hidden by those clouds was supposedly fertile, perhaps even fecund. A hint of green at the base of the shelf was enough to convince him of that.

But the details were utterly obscured, and that ate at Chu. Given her freedom, she would have flown steadily eastwards—of that he was certain—into the cloud and in search of the wonders beyond.

“Now I see why they’re called the Hanging Mountains,” Chu said into his right ear, face held close to be heard over the sound of the wind. “Look. Magnificent!”

He did look, but could see nothing to solve that particular mystery. All he saw were clouds, really. The fading sun painted them all manner of oranges and reds and yellows, and he imagined fleetingly that he could see the shadow of the wing and its passengers writ large on those distant, ever-changing ramparts.

“Yes, but—what?”

“The name isn’t referring to the mountains behind the clouds, but the actual clouds. They’re the Hanging Mountains. Get it?”

And suddenly he did. Instead of trying to look through the clouds or at colours or shadows painted across them, he saw the clouds themselves. They did resemble mountains cut free from the land below and set dangling in the sky. Incredible, flat-bottomed, weightless mountains of whiteness.

“I get it,” he said, “but I’d maintain that poets shouldn’t be cartographers.”

She laughed and sent the wing tilting to his right. “You’re no fun.”

“So what do we call the real mountains, then? Don’t they have a name?”

“I don’t know. Do they need one?”

“Everything has a name, even if you only ever see it on a map. Otherwise we’d get lost.”

“Names don’t always matter, not in the real world. I can find my way back to Laure perfectly well without knowing the names of any of the places we’ve flown over.”

“But what if you had to ask for directions?”

“I’d take a pointed finger over a name any day. Anyway, we’re not likely to get lost out here with the Divide to follow.”

“True enough.” He sought out the boneship in the fading light, and found it taking a sharp turn to port around one of the Divide’s sudden corners. He wondered what was happening down there. A twinge of guilt reminded him of the responsibilities he still had, no matter how far above them he flew.

“Look,” he said, pointing. “What’s that?”

The wing tipped as Chu peered in the direction he indicated. “Where?”

“There . . .” Close to the base of the clouds, something broke the Divide’s regular lines. A smooth, circular patch bulged from one side, while the edge facing away from the mountains vanished in haze. “It looks like a lake.”

“There must be a blockage,” she thought aloud. “Still several hours away, at the rate they’re travelling.”

“We should let them know anyway.”

“Go ahead.”

Skender reached under his robes and produced the shuttered mirror Warden Banner had made for them. His memory recalled the details of the code with perfect acuity, enabling him to construct a brief message. Obstruction ahead, he flashed through the medium of stored starlight. Lake. Three hours.

He waited for the flash of acknowledgment before putting the mirror away. Duty done, he was able to concentrate on the obstruction itself while the light lasted. It wasn’t the first they had encountered along the way. The worst had been a section of the Divide not far from Laure where a tight turn had become choked with debris and rapids, necessitating the building of a channel deep enough to allow the boneship to pass in safety. That had held them up for half a day, with Chu and Marmion chafing impatiently for very different reasons.

The dusk deepened. Red-tinged clouds formed an impenetrable wall ahead of them, while behind them the last glimpse of the sun faded into the haze of distance. The wind grew colder, and Skender hugged his windswept robes tighter about him.

“What are you hoping for from the people in the forest?” he asked. “Your family left them generations back, and you’ve never known why. What if they moved on for a very good reason?”

“There might well have been a dozen good reasons, all forgotten now. But no one ever told me I shouldn’t go back. I take that as a good sign.”

“People have a way of forgetting things they don’t want to remember.”

“Do they?” she asked with a hint of sharpness.

“Not me, of course,” he amended, kicking himself. Whatever had happened between the two of them that night in Laure, he desperately wanted to remember, but no amount of mental persuasion or cursing himself could shake the details free. He had barely touched araq since then, for fear of a repeat performance.

“I just worry,” he said, “that you might be disappointed.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

They flew on in silence over the darkening land.

The wardens slept in shifts as the boneship sailed onward through the night. Tom and Highson occupied the camp beds next to Kemp and Sal. Shilly stayed up, watching with a feeling of apprehension as blackness slid across the sky, stealing away the stars. She couldn’t see the clouds, but she could feel them creeping over her, their mass increasingly oppressive and ominous. Ever since Skender’s warning of an obstruction ahead, she had been unable to sleep. When Sal had returned to oblivion, still drained from the encounter with the snake earlier that day, she had come forward to meditate on the boat’s deck, her thoughts as dark as the sky above.

Whoever wins gets to choose the way the world ends . . .

Water rushed by the boneship’s charmed bows with a sound of heavy wind. Marmion sat on the prow, as unmoving and solid as a figurehead, the stump of his right hand cradled protectively in his lap. Almost she moved to join him, but in the end decided against it. The night was quiet; she wasn’t going to push her luck.

The Divide walls drew steadily closer together as the boneship continued eastward. That, combined with the spreading roof of clouds above, gave her the feeling of a trap closing around them. Periodically, one of the wardens keeping watch would play a powerful beam of mirrorlight across the way ahead, checking for obstacles not seen in the dark. Each time the light flashed, she swore the cliffs were nearer and taller, rising like black wings to sweep them away.

Two tight turns came and went. The water grew choppier, more restless, whispering like people engaged in a furtive argument. Shilly felt the boneship straining forward, rushing headlong to their unknown destination.

Gradually, over the muttering of the river, a new sound became audible: a roaring that put her in mind of the flood itself, all bass and treble mixed up into one growing cacophony.

Shivering, she did eventually move forward, exchanging her wariness for the desire not to be alone.

“What is it?”

Marmion looked at her with dark-rimmed eyes, then turned his attention forward again. Although she could make out very little in the darkness, she knew that wardens had ways of negotiating water not available to ordinary people. They could see well even under faint starlight. The Change made many such things possible, for those with the knack of tapping into it.

“Waterfall,” he said.

“How far away?”

“Around the next bend, I think.”

“That must be the obstruction Chu saw.”

Marmion nodded. “All complications are unwelcome, but this one particularly so. We’ll have to stop until dawn, then survey the ground ahead. If we can’t raise the boat over the falls, we’ll be forced to continue on foot.” He looked at her. “Walking long distances will be difficult for you, I know. Don’t doubt that I’ll do everything I can to spare you that chore. And Kemp.”

She studied him as best she could in the darkness. Was he trying to be nice to her? It seemed so. But his choice of words was unfortunate. Irrespective of her own feelings, she was sure Kemp wouldn’t like to be lumped in with a complication like a waterfall.
Instead of berating him, however, she tried a small joke. “Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to full-on mountain climbing, or we’ll both be in the shit.”

One corner of his mouth curled upwards, then both went down. His eyes turned forward. “I still feel it,” he said, shifting his bandaged stump a little. “The fingers . . . They itch. I long to scratch them.”

“I still dream I’m running, sometimes.” She wanted to tell him it would get easier, but there was no way she could promise him that. Her leg had healed to the point where at least she could walk again. Marmion didn’t have that hope to cling to.

“We’re an odd lot,” he said. “Cripples, fugitives, wild talents, failures. Does it seem fitting to you that we’re the ones racing to meet doom head-on, not some brawny band of adventurers?”

“Perhaps it’s fate.”

“Fate is for fools,” said a familiar voice from below them, barely audible over the rising sound of the waterfall.

Shilly turned to look at Mawson where he sat on the deck behind her. The dome of his stony skull was barely visible. “Can’t sleep either, huh?”

“I do not ever sleep.”

“Tell us, then,” said Marmion. “What does Tom see, if not the workings of fate?”

“He sees history in reverse. You look back and see connections between events; he looks forward and does the same. You both see an illusion. The connections are transitory. From moment to moment, all things are separate.”

“To you, maybe,” said Marmion, “but not to us. Our lives are entirely about connections. Without them, we are no better than animals, devoid of conscience, morality, hopes, and dreams.”

“I am not without such qualities.”

“How can you dream if you don’t sleep?” Shilly meant the question facetiously. She knew better than to get into an argument about time and destiny with a man’kin. The stone intelligences saw all things at once, and more besides: some things that didn’t happen Mawson claimed also to know about.

The man’kin didn’t grace her comment with a reply, as she’d expected. Marmion called over his shoulder to indicate the last turn before the waterfall. Shadows shifted around them. Looming limestone cliffs slid smoothly by. A faint gleam of green light caught her eye, and she squinted to make out where it came from. It couldn’t be a star, since the dense cloud cover obscured everything in that direction, and it was too low to be a signalling flash from Skender and Chu.

She was about to point it out to Marmion when the boneship rounded the corner and she had her answer.

Shilly gasped, and heard Marmion’s indrawn breath at the same time.

Before her, the Divide narrowed in fits and starts to a jagged bottleneck. One of the canyon’s steep slopes had collapsed into the water flow below. The tops of massive boulders poked out of the turbulent water like the heads of submerged giants; rounded natural steps led to the top of the Divide on the southern side where the earthfall had originated. Between that side and the other, through a gap in the top of the landslide, the water had forced a way.

The sight was magnificent. Shilly knew that the sea at night glowed sometimes. As waves rolled in and out at the beach near Fundelry, tiny sparkles of green glittered in the foam; the short-lived trickling gleams had captivated her as a child. In the waterfall at the base of the Hanging Mountains she witnessed the same phenomenon, only magnified a thousandfold. A great sheet of water, divided into three unequal sections by protruding spars of dark stone, jetted over the lip of the rock shelf six metres above them and plunged in a glorious green rush to the canyon below. The splash it formed was an explosion in viridescence. Shimmering concentric ripples of light expanded in vivid waves across the river. What caused it, she didn’t know. Some happenstance confluence of the Change at this particular location, perhaps, or an ancient charm long-buried in the Divide, awakened by the flood. Either way, it was beautiful and eerie at the same time.

She glanced at Marmion, and saw that he was looking down into the water ahead of them, not up at the falls. The water’s glow, although quickly diluted, still cast enough light to see by. Squinting down, she could make out what lay at the bottom of the river amongst the rubble tumbled too recently to be covered with silt.

There she saw faces: a multitude of upturned eyes and mouths gazing back at her with mute appeal, the bodies they belonged to pinned between stone slabs heavier than houses. Hands clenched and unclenched as though trying to reach her; legs kicked futilely for freedom. The boneship sailed implacably over their resting places, mute witness to the fate that had befallen them.

“Man’kin,” she breathed.

“Yes,” Mawson replied. “The Angel told them to run, but still they didn’t escape the flood.”

Shilly thought of all the man’kin swept away from the walls of Laure when the flood had come. Those obviously weren’t the only ones caught in the raging torrent.

She shuddered. The man’kin weren’t dead, but they were trapped. If silt ever buried them, they would remain in darkness forever.
What sort of fate was that? Couldn’t the Angel have warned them to run faster?

Shilly thought of Tom and his own dire warnings. She had had quite enough talk of end times and the failure of prophecy for one day.

“Do you still want to wait until dawn?” she asked Marmion, indicating the phosphorescent waterfall. Its light was bright enough to cast a shadow.

The warden considered the alternatives for a moment, green gleaming off his balding pate. “Perhaps not. We’ll wake the others and consult the Engineers. I trust their opinion on such matters better than my own.”

He turned to move from his perch, and Shilly went to follow him.

An arrow flashed out of the darkness and thudded fast into the bone between them. So violent was her recoil from the vibrating shaft that she would have fallen over the bow but for Marmion’s good hand pulling her back.

“Ware!” the warden cried, rousing the crew. “Archers!”

He pulled Shilly after him to the relative safety of the boneship’s central cavities. The Sky Wardens hauled the ship around, presenting a smaller target to the Divide walls. Shilly peered out at where the arrow still protruded from the boat’s bony flank. It had come from the south side of the Divide. Green light glittered off it as though from glass.

Marmion’s dark eyes took in more than hers, darting from the cliff face to the shimmering veil of the waterfall and back again. Other wardens crouched on the deck, in positions of relative safety, doing the same. Shilly saw no obvious weapons, but she didn’t doubt they had some at hand. Not without good reason did Sky Wardens rule half the known world.

The boneship kept turning until it was facing back the way it had come. Nothing moved in the surrounding darkness. The only sound was the river’s steady gurgle. Shilly tensed, struck by the thought that the archer might be in the water, not firing from the shore. However, she could see no sign of anyone swimming in the luminescent current.

They completed one full rotation without incident. Marmion raised a hand and the boneship steadied, began to move forward again. Light flashed as one of the wardens signalled Chu and Skender, high above.

Shilly felt a familiar, warm presence join her. Sal’s hand slipped into hers.

“What’s going on?”

She pointed out the arrow. “We’re not alone.”

“A warning shot?”

“I think so,” said Marmion, “but I won’t assume it to be so. A hand’s-length to the left and Shilly would’ve been hit.”

Sal looked at her in horror. She brushed off his concern. “Either of us could have been targets. They’re just trying to get our attention, whoever they are.”

“They certainly got that,” Sal breathed. “If they were trying to warn us off, though, the message obviously didn’t sink in.”

Marmion raised a hand for silence as the warden signalling the lookouts overhead reported what he had learned. “Chu has spotted movement along the edge of the Divide, but she’s finding it hard to see through the vegetation up there. If she flies closer, she risks crashing or being fired at herself. The base of the cloud cover is limiting her movements as well.”

“Tell her to keep well away,” said Marmion, “until we find out who shot that arrow and why. If anything changes, tell her to use her judgment but not to land until we signal her.”

The warden moved off to relay the order. During the brief conversation Shilly’s gaze, frustrated by the lack of light elsewhere, had alighted on the glowing waterfall. Its magnificence only increased as the boneship drew nearer. The ceaseless flow of water and the roaring it made had a faintly hypnotic effect. She hadn’t blinked for at least a minute.

When she did so, she realised that the oddly shaped twist of water that had snagged her gaze wasn’t water at all, but a person bathed in green, standing with one foot higher than the other on a stone. Willowy and tall, possessing a slightness that hinted at femininity, the figure stared calmly back at her, making no gesture or sign of recognition. Even across the distance between them, Shilly felt that patient gaze meet hers.

Before she could open her mouth to raise the alarm, the mysterious glowing woman stepped back into the water and disappeared.

“Hail!” cried a man’s voice across the water. A dozen dark shapes swarmed down the sides of the waterfall: men and women in dark uniforms with weapons upraised. Blades mainly, but two bows among them. They took up position on the stone steps at the base of the waterfall, waving for attention.

“Hail, travellers!”

Marmion stood. “Hail!” he called back. “Is it your custom to fire on innocent people?”

“Not us,” shouted the leader of the band through cupped hands. “Pull to, and I’ll explain.” He gestured and the men and women with him sheathed their weapons. The two archers placed their bows carefully on the ground and held their hands in the air. Shilly couldn’t make out their faces. By the unnatural green glow of the waterfall, their uniforms looked black.

“Let’s do as he says,” Marmion told his crew, “but keep a sharp eye out. That arrow didn’t come from ahead of us, where these people are standing. It came from the side. There could be any number of archers waiting for us to sail between them.”

Shilly tried in vain to see the tops of the Divide walls. The last of the stars had disappeared in the west, leaving the night utterly dark beyond the reach of the waterfall’s eerie glow. The boneship could have been plying subterranean waters, for all she could see of the sky.

Enough hallucinations, she told herself. This night is already complicated without making stuff up. She kept her eyes fixed on the waterfall as the boneship steadily approached.

No one else appeared to have noticed the glowing woman—if she had been there at all.

“This is a strange vessel.”

“It’s not one we’d ordinarily choose,” Marmion responded, pacing the deck from port to starboard with his injured hand tucked protectively under his robes. Sal watched from the sidelines as the two leaders sized each other up. Lidia Delfine was the extraordinarily deep-voiced woman—not man—who had hailed them from the edge of the waterfall. The boneship had taken Lidia and one of her lieutenants aboard, then moved out of range of the spray and the waves to parley. By mirrorlight her thick cloth uniform was a reddish brown in colour and decorated with two black circles stitched into each shoulder. Her black hair was pulled back into a practical bun. She stood no taller than Marmion, but radiated strength and confidence from every gesture.

Her eyes and skin were matches for Chu’s, as were those of her companion, a very large man with an edgy demeanour. The rest of her party remained on the bank by the waterfall, similarly dressed and featured.

“We come from the Haunted City in the service of the Alcaide,” said Marmion. “Whom do you represent?”

“The Guardian of the forest. Here.” She took a quiver her companion carried and held it outstretched. “Inspect these arrows. You’ll see they’re of quite different manufacture to the one sticking out of your ship.”

Marmion plucked an arrow from the quiver and rotated it, holding it up to take in its features. Even from a distance, Sal could see that one was distinct from the other: the arrow Marmion held was long and skinny and clearly made of wood, while the one protruding from the bow of the boneship was short and glassy, more a dart than the sort of fletched arrow he was used to seeing.

“This proves nothing,” Marmion commented, tossing the arrow back to Delfine, who caught it lightly with her free hand and inserted it back into the quiver. “But I am prepared to take you at your word, for the moment. If you didn’t fire this arrow at us, who did?”

“The Panic,” she said, with a slight tightening of her eyes.

“Who are they?” asked Shilly. “What do they want?”

Delfine looked at her, assessing her with one sharp glance. “Who knows what they want, beyond banditry and murder? My orders aren’t to understand them but to stop them.”

“Are your orders to stop us, too?”

“That depends.” Delfine looked at Marmion again. “It depends on what you’re doing in the Pass, and why the Panic fired on you. Your being human might explain the latter, but there could be more to it than that.”

The Pass was the Divide, Sal assumed. “What does being human have to do with anything?”

“Yes,” said Marmion. “Tell us more about the Panic. Did you drive them away?”

“Unintentionally. I suspect they saw us coming and retreated to size us up. Were our forces smaller, they might have taken us both on.”

“Why?”

That, however, was all they were going to learn about the Panic for the moment. Delfine laid down her ultimatum calmly and with only a hint of challenge: “What brings you here, so far from the Alcaide’s seat?”

Marmion outlined their mission in the briefest possible terms, referring only to the flood and the man’kin migration. He mentioned neither the Homunculus nor the odd readings of the seers. With the glowing waterfall as a surreal backdrop, he introduced Wardens Banner and Rosevear, Highson Sparre, and Sal and Shilly. This gesture of Marmion’s pleased Sal—the two of them had been routinely ignored, or worse, by Marmion after a bad beginning to their relationship with him.

Delfine took in everything with a sharp nod. “And what about your friends above? Tell us about them.”

“Chu and Skender are our forward scouts. I wasn’t aware you’d seen them.”

She looked smug at that. “If both hands hold a dagger, keep one behind your back. So my martial instructor used to say.”

Marmion nodded. Almost too casually, he produced his injured arm from where it nestled under his robes and let it hang at his side.

“I don’t like it,” growled the lieutenant to her left, a tall, solidly built man, with chiselled features and a sparse black beard. “First the flood. Now wardens with wings. Send them back where they came from and be done with it. The forest has suffered enough.”

“Suffered from what, exactly?”

The lieutenant ignored Shilly’s question. “They have the stink of the bloodworkers on them.”

“What exactly is it you don’t like about us?” snapped Marmion. “That we aren’t from here? That we don’t look like you? That our dress isn’t the same as yours? Get it off your chest now, man, so we can talk in earnest.”

The lieutenant loomed over Marmion. “What’s important is the forest. We are sworn to protect it. Threaten it, and you will die.”

“No one’s threatening anything, Heuve, so put your pride back in your pocket.” Lidia Delfine waved her lieutenant back. He retreated, albeit reluctantly. “Is there anything else we should know?” she asked Marmion.

He nodded. “One of our number was injured during the journey here. We lack the facilities and the knowledge to treat him. Perhaps you can help us with that.”

“Let me see him,” she told Marmion. “Then I will decide. Heuve, stay here.”

Marmion led her into the cabin, followed by Rosevear. They were gone only a moment, during which time Heuve looked at everyone in the ring surrounding him, one after the other, openly measuring them up.

“You’ve no reason to be frightened of us,” said Warden Banner soothingly.

“He has every reason,” Highson disagreed with a wicked smile. “He’s just one versus ten. I’d be nervous too, if I were him.”

“If any harm befalls me—”

“Oh, be quiet,” said Shilly, tired of posturing by self-important men.

Delfine and Marmion returned. The woman’s expression was grim.

“We’ll have to take him to Milang,” she told the gathering in general.

“Who’s that?” asked Sal, recognising Chu’s surname with some surprise.

“It’s not a Ôwho.’ It’s a place. It’s where we live.”

“And where is that, exactly?” asked Marmion.

She pointed at the waterfall, then upward and along the Divide.

“I urge you to reconsider, Eminence,” said Heuve.

Delfine cast him a look as sharp as a needle. “That’s enough. Warden Marmion, take us b ack to the shore. There’s a path past the falls. You’ll want to explore the way if you intend to bring your ship of bone with you.”

“I’d like to, yes. Is the Divide clear beyond this point?”

“For a fair distance.”

Marmion nodded. “Banner, Eitzen, I’ll want you with me. The rest of you stay here. There’s nothing you can do for now, and we’ll need all our strength to move the boneship.” Marmion looked at Sal when he said this, and Sal nodded his understanding. “Good. Someone flash Chu and Skender and tell them it’s safe to come down. Highson?”

Sal’s father had taken his familiar position by the tiller. He guided the ship smoothly towards the base of the falls. A cool, luminescent spray drifted across the boneship, making Sal’s face wet.

Delfine and Heuve jumped ashore, followed by Marmion and the two wardens he had asked to accompany him. They immediately began climbing from stone to stone up the side of the falls, where the rest of Delfine’s people waited.

“How old do you think she is?” asked Shilly, tapping Sal’s leg with her cane.

“I’ve no idea. Why?”

“Just wondering why a big guy like Heuve is taking orders from someone as young as her. He doesn’t look the sort who’d do that without a reason.”

Sal watched the pair with keener attention as they climbed. Heuve’s expression was determinedly disapproving, but couldn’t hide genuine concern. He stayed as close to Delfine as she would let him, and his hand never strayed more than a few centimetres from the pommel of his sword. His gaze moved constantly, taking in everything and everyone around them.

Bodyguard, he thought, not just a lieutenant—then he carried that thought to its logical conclusion. Delfine hadn’t truly explained who she was or what she had been doing by the waterfall. Just who are you, Lidia Delfine?

Knowing sleep wouldn’t be easy to come by until this and other mysteries were resolved, he wished he hadn’t agreed so readily to stay behind.


The Hanging Mountains © Sean Williams

1 comment:

Diara Dominy said...

Very nice post, i certainly love this website, keep on it Website Website Website