(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
Katashan realized he must have fainted. Cork carried him, tossed over the guard's shoulder like a bag of grain. Cork huffed slightly but otherwise made remarkably little noise as he moved across the rocky ground. They hadn't gone far, though. Katashan could still hear the horses, loud and nervous as the fog slipped around them.
"Down," Katashan whispered, fighting the urge to be ill. "Faster if I walk."
"Only if you're able to, sir," he said, but lowered Katashan to his feet.
His his legs started to buckle. Pain swept through his body like fire, and he trembled. Appalled, Katashan felt himself start to go faint again. He fought the feeling away as much out of embarrassment as desperation. The combination worked, and in the faint gray light of the fog-filled night he could see Cork looked pleased. The guard wouldn't have gotten far climbing the rocky hills with a dead weight slung across his shoulder.
Katashan, already half breathless and unsteady, suspected they wouldn't make very good time anyway. The ground seemed to shift under his feet and everything blurred more than he could blame on the fog. His shoulder and chest ached, and his head pounded, but he moved because he would not give up after all Cork had done.
And for a few steps he thought they were actually going to get away.
Lightning brightened the fog as though filling the world with fire. Shapes, if not features, stood out starkly for a moment.
The ghostly figure of Sherina waited, barely a yard away, her arms reaching for them. Then the night and the fog swallowed her again. Thunder rolled across the world.
Cork's breath hissed, followed by a nearly silent litany of prayers and curses. He caught hold of Katashan and changed direction, leading him off toward the right. She moved as well, a willow wisp in the wind, a faint hint of magical light slipping ahead of them, and waiting. With Sherina there, Katashan didn't even pay attention to the startled yells from the others. The camp had come awake, and too soon.
He and Cork changed direction again, but she moved as well --
"Gods all," Cork whispered. "She's playing games with us, sir. Letting us see her --"
Lightning illuminated the fog once more. She drifted on the breeze, closer than Katashan had thought. He barely had time to pull Cork back out of her reach.
"Damn all. What game --" Cork whispered, frantic.
"No. I don't think she brought the storm," Katashan said.
"She's not happy that we keep spotting her."
The lightning flashed again, and her scream of rage rivaled the fury of the growing storm. He and Cork scrambled away, but now they had Lord Arpan and his men at their back. Those men quite obviously hadn't seen the apparition but they did realize their prisoner had escaped. It wouldn't take long for them to notice Cork had gone missing as well.
"Sir?" Cork said. He sounded worried and apologetic as he leaned Katashan against a tree and pulled his knife. "I don't think we're going to get away."
Men rushed at them through the fog. He heard swords drawn but at the same time Katashan saw the faint movement in the fog as she swept forward as well, with a scream and a laugh from hell.
"Down!" Katashan dragged his friend to the ground. She brushed over them, and he felt her touch like the hand of death upon him, cold, lifeless.
Cork whispered and prayed as the two scrambled away, Katashan forcing his arms to work despite the agony. He looked back, but he couldn't see sign of Sherina this time, and it worried him where she had gone --
Cork continued to move forward, pausing only to help him over some broken terrain, and then starting forward again. Screams filled the night and she knew where Sherina had gone now -- she had found others, and for a moment at least, they had a chance to get clear.
"Go!" Katashan ordered, pushing at his companion. Cork got to his feet and pulled him up as well, and held on even when Katashan's legs refused to cooperate. He could see the trail not far away, and the rocky headland beyond it.
He saw a path worn smooth back up the slight incline to the trail. They dared not go that way where the guard would easily find them -- and Sherina too, following a path. Instead, they slipped on the damp rock along the edge, nearly crashed into trees -- but the sounds behind them drove them on. Men screamed in agony and fear. He heard her laughter, darker than the night, and it drove Katashan upward, away from her with a fear that gave him strength when his body otherwise failed.
They rushed up over the trail and to the rocks. He slipped on the rocks again and this time pulled Cork down with him. When Katashan lifted his head, he saw a face near the trees. And another. He gave a startled cry, and Cork stopped -- but the strangers already charged away through the woods, sounding like a herd of startled deer.
"Damn. Mountain people, sir. Gave me a start," Cork said, half panting. "But not a problem for us, I'd say."
"Go on without me!" Katashan ordered and tried to pull away.
"No sir. I'm already damned, one way or another. His Lordship will know by now. And that being true, I might as well be damned for a good reason and see this through. I don't want it to be for nothing."
"You are a fool," Katashan gasped, nearly breathless now.
"I thought you'd figured that out by now, sir."
"But even so -- I wasn't the one who walked straight into the fort with the dead body you knew had to be trouble. Sir."
They'd reached a ledge of the rocks and a flat spot where Katashan went to his knees and gasped for breath while everything in the world -- fog, screams, and worry -- dimmed. He could still hear sounds of men in mortal terror behind them, and some few that tried to follow where they had gone -- but none caught up with them, even as slow as they were going.
Cork finally got him back to his feet and held him there, whispering prayers again. They took a step away, and another -- but it seemed too difficult to go on --
Katashan heard Lord Arpan call his daughter's name, terror in the quavering sound. He tried to look back, but he lost his footing and started to go down again. Cork took tighter hold.
"Don't look back, sir. We can't help them."
"I should have warned them," Katashan said. "I should have used my magic --"
"Would it have helped?" Cork asked.
"I don't know. But -- oh Gods. We must go back! She gets stronger when she takes the life from others. She'll be too dangerous, Cork, for us and for everyone else. I can't leave her like this --"
"Oh damn," Cork said. He stopped and looked towards the camp, lost in the darkness and the fog.
"I'm weak," Katashan said. He thought the fog began dissipating on the wind. "I can't -- without my ritual blade --"
"Ah. Sir. I forgot."
Cork reached into his tunic and pulled the fine chain up over his head and handed the blade to the startled Katashan. "You said to keep it safe. I figured on me was the best place, once I knew I would be traveling with you."
Katashan took the blade in trembling hands, felt the warmth of the magic and saw the surface even flicker a little. That came from his own need, he knew. He could see Sherina through the fog and glowing now with power from the lives she'd taken. Even with the knife in hand, he wasn't entirely sure he had the power to stop her.
He knew he couldn't destroy her, not until he found the knowledge of what had created so powerful a death entity. He would have to learn more, which meant he would have to find answers to things he would rather not have known about at all.
Right now he only hoped to survive. He drew back the sleeve of his torn and filthy tunic, his fingers still swollen and clumsy. Moving his arm sent agony through his body again, but he laid the edge along his wrist and made a good, straight cut, knowing he would need more than just a few drops of blood from a pricked finger this time.
"Gods all," Cork whispered and his fingers tightened on Katashan's shoulder. "I didn't realize -- the magic you used."
"Blood magic," he said, his voice still trembling, but a little stronger. He felt the fire where the blade had cut into skin, and the magic pulled there through his blood gave him a bit of strength -- though the power would ebb away. "It's the oldest and most powerful magic man holds. If you're going to be a fool and stay, then you better stand behind me, and keep me to my feet."
Sherina turned to them and began to move like a bright as a moon come to ground. The fog disappeared in a hiss of warmth around her, so unlike the cold of moments before. He could see dead littering the campsite and no movement anywhere except for her. She glowed lambent yellow with the power she'd taken and she had grown more substantial. When she looked at him, he could feel her intent like a blow against his face, even at this distance.
Cork began whispering fervent prayers to a number of gods. Katashan whispered one of his own -- and in his native language -- to Verina whom he tried not to think had lured him into this madness and to his death.
She floated towards them, cloud-like and smiling.
"Mine," she said, the word real this time. Ah, now that was power she'd gained. "Mine."
"Gods," Cork whispered, prayers forgotten, though he didn't falter as he held Katashan to his feet.
Katashan had no time for anything fancy and no strength for anything complex. He kept the ritual blade carefully hidden in his hand, the blood spreading down over the blade, and hoped she didn't realize the words he now whispered weren't a prayer this time, but a rather a conduit for power.
He waited as she came slowly closer.
He had thought she was being cautious in her approach, but when he saw her face he could see her gloating. She came slowly because she wanted to enjoy this moment and make him dread and suffer. Her smile grew when he purposely took a step backwards, as though in fear. He could use her cruelty against her. The longer she took the more certain his own spell became.
Cork had stopped praying and cursing. He didn't seem to be breathing much, either.
Two arm lengths away. Katashan held the last word, brought the blade up and as she swept in on him, he shouted the last of his spell and threw the blade at her.
Power rose around him like a wind. Hurling the blade and the blood away from him meant tearing the spell from his body and came at a cost. The weapon found the target and she had become solid enough that it did not pass through, but hung there in her midst, burning --
She screamed and power slashed at the world like the knife ripped at her. Katashan and Cork tumbled backwards, with the gale that tore branches from the trees. As they landed, Cork threw himself over Katashan and as something hit hard enough that he felt the crash, even underneath the larger body. Cork grunted and pushed it off again, relieving Katashan of many worries. Cork immediately began to scramble out from underneath what appeared to be half a tree that had fallen. A moment later he pulled Katashan out as well. Not gently -- but they had no choice.
The downed tree gave them a little cover. Katashan looked back, a hand on his bleeding wrist, wondering what to do next. Sherina still hung in the air, wailing into the wind, though the sound seemed less piercing, and the wind grew less fierce. The fog even started to roll back up over the cliff side, though Katashan could wish for it to stay away a little longer.
"You need that bandaged," Cork said, remarkably calm under the circumstances. He tore cloth from his already ripped tunic and began to wrap it around the wrist. Katashan couldn't tell if Cork had suffered any injuries or not. "Can you heal yourself?"
"I could, with the blade," Katashan said, waving a hand towards Sherina. The weapon had dropped at her feet now, a sign she had become less substantial and lost power. However, he didn't think that made it any safer to retrieve.
"It's important to your magic?"
"Well, hell. We need it then, don't we?"
He wanted to say no. "I can do some magic without it," Katashan said. "Just not much, not very often -- and not very well."
"That doesn't sound like a promising combination under the circumstances, sir."
"No, it doesn't."
"If we could lure her away from the knife, sir --"
"Yes." He looked at the bandage and nodded. It had slowed the loss of blood, but if he didn't get to the blade quickly, he'd be too weak to stay to his feet, which wouldn't help, either. They had few options and running wasn't one of them. She'd only follow and find them in an even worse position.
Besides, with the knife no longer within her, she had begun to recover. She didn't look as strong as she had been but Katashan saw less madness and more control. Had the input of so much power so quickly driven her mad? From what little he had seen of her before, she had been evil and dark, but not insane.
"I'll draw her away," Katashan said. "You get the knife and toss it to me."
"You have a better plan?"
"Crawl around the other side of the tree. Quickly. Once you're there, I'll draw her towards me. Be quick, Cork. We will not have a second chance."
He started away but Katashan caught hold of his arm, and held tight, fear silencing him for a moment until he took a deeper breath. "Carefully, Cork. Move very carefully."
He nodded, put a hand on Katashan's arm for a moment and said nothing. Then he scrambled away, crawling on hands and knees. Katashan couldn't be certain she didn't see everything anyway. She wasn't of this world and he really had little experience with such creatures.
He waited, watching Cork move quickly around to the side of the tree and snake his way down the boulders. When Cork finally gave a little signal -- Gods all she had to see that -- Katashan took a deep breath and stood.
His body threatened to collapse. He felt the pains of misuse and the weakness of blood loss. But he also saw Sherina watching him like a cat before a mouse, and as long as he kept her attention they still had a chance of surviving.
Katashan stepped out from around the fallen tree and limped a few steps towards her, his hand raised, a whisper of magic drifting out from the fingers in slow, sinuous curves, drawing her attention. He could still call on the power he'd used to create the first wave of magic, but it wouldn't last for long.
"You are not of this world any longer, Sherina," he said aloud and surprisingly in his own language. He'd gotten used to speaking the southern tongue, training himself to do so during the long months with Tyren and his men.
She watched him as if she understood the words. Perhaps her existence went beyond the power of language. She did not, he noted with worry, leave the vicinity of the knife. He didn't look directly at his friend, but he knew Cork crawled very close, edging along the ground. Unless she moved, he could not get the knife quickly enough to throw it.
"You cannot harm me," Katashan said, but in the language they all understood this time. He didn't want Cork confused. He took another step forward. "Whatever hedge wizard created you, he was weak. How else could I have so easily severed his spell and bound you to me instead?"
"Fool," she said and moved closer to Katashan. She still held considerable power to be able to speak. He shivered at the thought of all the people she had killed and all the life force she had taken, just to say that word.
She kept moving towards him with a slow and deliberate pace. He wished his knife had taken more from her, though he considered it lucky they'd managed to slow her at all. She still glowed, though not as brightly, and the substance that made her drifted on tendrils around her head and outstretched hands.
She obviously wanted to destroy him. Not only would killing him break her tie to him, but no doubt a person with the amount of magical power he held would give her far more power. He lifted his hand, drawing on more power he could scarce afford to waste on a show like this. But it did hold her attention. Just a moment --
She sensed when Cork grabbed the knife, and spun in the air, parts of her spreading outward like a large and insubstantial sheet in the wind. Cork kept his head and his nerve. He surged to his feet and threw the knife, and the weapon went straight through her this time. She screamed, but the passage hardly slowed her.
The blade clattered to the ground to his left. Katashan leapt for it as Cork scrambled for cover. Sherina pursued the guard, and before Katashan could call up a spell, he heard Cork give a cry of pain and fear as he collapsed beneath her.
Katashan rushed to help his friend, yelling out a spell that drained the power from him even as he moved. He kept going, until he and the knife were upon her, and he slashed, feeling the cold of her through his hands. She howled and pulled away from Cork who remained where he had fallen, pale and unmoving and Katashan prayed he wasn't dead. He put himself between her and the guard, willing more power into the knife even when the work sent his heart into a labored beat and he feared he would not stay to his feet. If his spell failed, they were both dead anyway.
He pushed the power out into the blade and from the conduit into the air as tendrils of blood red power encircled her in ropes of light. Sherina wavered back and forth before him, screaming, and wailing so loudly the night seemed to be filled with nothing but her as she tore at the bonds, pulling them apart. He had nothing more to throw against her, and when he went to his knees, she laughed.
The fog spread in again making a gray-on-gray world. Katashan held his head up by a force of will and held to his power for a little longer, for whatever reason humans always held out as long as they could against the inevitable.
The beat of horse hooves.
Cork stumbled to his feet -- not dead, praise the Gods! -- and ran towards the sound, shouting to warn the traveler away. Katashan lost his hold on Sherina and tried to get it back as the rider appeared --
Sherina screamed and swept toward Katashan clearly intent on killing him before she lost the chance. However, Peralin and Night cut between the two, the God shouting words that held the power of life in them. Katashan felt it like warmth and spring and like new air in a tainted world. Light grew, as golden and luminous as a sunny summer day. He could see Cork back on his feet, and stumbling towards Katashan, though he stayed very far away from the rider and Sherina.
"Thank the Gods you're all right," Katashan said, grabbing his friend's arm. Cork sat down right there beside him, still pale and gasping, and wide-eyed as he watched the rider.
Katashan had the blade in his hand. He dared to use a little more power and seal the wound beneath the bandage on his wrist, though not to heal it. The magic flashed bright and he gasped at the sudden fire, but the pain wasn't really much compared to all else he felt.
He could barely still stay to his knees as he put a hand to Cork's shoulder. His companion shivered, and Katashan couldn't decide if it was because of the cold or the sight of Peralin standing between them and the enemy.
"The world's gone mad," Cork whispered, his voice hoarse. He rubbed his hands together, like a man might do on the coldest, most bitter winter night. "I fear I'll never be warm again, sir."
He looked at Cork, blinking back exhaustion, trying not to watch Peralin and fear he would lose. "Call me Katashan. Or Kat, if you prefer. After what we've shared, I hardly think formality is proper."
"I don't know, sir. It might be the only normality I can still hold on to in the world."
Looking up at the God doing battle with the ghost of a dead woman, Katashan agreed with a little nod. He had to believe Peralin would win, because he hadn't the energy even to stand, let alone fight anymore. If Peralin failed, he might as well go down with him. It would, in fact, be almost a relief to know this work -- and madness -- was over.
Sherina gradually retreated to the cliff's edge as Peralin pushed forward until it seemed horse and rider would leap and take her over the edge. She howled with the wind one last time and took to flight like a screaming banshee, flying off over the ocean. The fog and the night swallowed her and the world went silent; the quiet of the dead who lay all around them.
Cork shivered again. He looked at Katashan with his face white,and then he looked to Peralin and his horse as they came closer. Cork started to stand, but he hadn't the strength left in his legs.
"Sir," Cork said and bowed his head so deeply he nearly fell over. "My Lord."
"Peralin will do, Cork."
The fact the God knew his name didn't appear to help Cork much. He looked up with a start and shook his head, denying . . . something. Katashan put a hand to Cork's shoulder before he fell backwards this time. Peralin leaned down from Night in a sweep of black, and a strange scent of spring, and pulled out the decanter and glass, pouring the golden liquid. Cork stared at the offered glass and Katashan finally took it in hand.
"Let him sip. You know how strong this is. It will be more powerful for him since he has no magic at all."
The scent alone gave Katashan strength again. He carefully put the goblet to Cork's lips; his friend seemed nearly senseless and still very cold. Cork sipped, swayed, and sipped again. Color returned to his face, and his eyes blinked and focused once more. He looked at Peralin with his head tilted a little, and Katashan suspected he was probably half drunk already.
"Are they all dead, sir?" Cork said, waving a hand toward the camp.
"Yes, they are," Peralin said.
Cork took the goblet and sipped again. Katashan accepted another from Peralin with a nod of thanks sipped as well, grateful for the warmth, the power, the taste of life.
"Why didn't you come to save them?" Cork asked.
Katashan saw the God's face go very calm and he feared maybe Cork had stepped over the line. He took a longer drink of the damn wine. If they were about to be chastised (or worse) by a God, he decided he might as well be drunk for it.
"There was a choice I had to make," Peralin said. "If I had come to save them, then Katashan would have been lost. I saved that which is more important --"
"No!" Katashan shook his head with more force than he had intended. The wine splashed out, dripped onto the ground and grass grew up in an eye blink where it had touched.
"In this battle, Katashan, it is true," Peralin said with unexpected gentleness. "You know this already. I had to make a choice, but because I did, they go to a good reward, having died to save another even if they were not aware of the sacrifice they made. Even Lord Arpan, though he little deserves such care."
Katashan, feeling the pains in his body even after the wine, tried not to give way to relief knowing the man had died. Then he realized it left Cork and him in a rather bad position, with everyone but the two of them dead.
"Where is Sherina now?" Katashan asked, trying to figure out what they could do next.
"Gone, though not far enough," Peralin said. He glanced out at the ocean and looked annoyed as he lifted his hand, as though to feel out the trouble. "I chased her off for the moment, but being already dead, I can't kill her. And something I cannot quite grasp still ties her to the world of living."
"What will happen now?" Katashan asked, daring to look up at him again.
"Whatever you make of it."
It was the sort of answer Katashan would have expected from a priest. The sort of answer, in fact, that had always annoyed him and had been partially responsible for what drove him from the temple. Now he suspected the priests were not being purposely vague or facetious, but only following the true words of the Gods they served. He supposed that should worry him about the state of the world in general.
He realized he was trying to concentrate on anything except what he would make of it. The wine, at least had given him strength though not clarity of mind. He looked at Cork, still pale and trembling as he held tight to the goblet in his hands. Cold? Shock? Fear? Katashan wondered if he, too, should tremble.
He looked back at Peralin, trying to get his thoughts focused and at the same time considering drinking more wine and maybe hoping everything would go away, at least for a while. Is that what he would make of it? "We can't go back to Salbay and tell them their lord is dead, along with all this men, and only Cork and I survived."
Cork gave a little moan as he realized the implications. "They'd be certain you had your hand in this one, sir," he said. He looked stricken now, no doubt thinking about friends and family, and the lovely and brave Maylee whom he might never see again.
"I will fight your battle, my Lord," Katashan said looking up at Peralin, who seemed confused and uncertain by the statement. "But I will ask a boon. Find a way for Cork to go home."
"No, sir!" Cork protested. The color came back along with an unexpected fire. He held the goblet tight in one hand but caught Katashan's arm with the other. "I will not abandon you in this battle, Katashan. No."
Katashan pulled away, lifting a hand and stilling him from further comment. "This is not your war --"
"Like hell it isn't!" Cork all but shouted, and then gave the God, watching with a little amusement, a look of apology. "Your pardon, my Lord. I did not mean --" Cork stopped, stared up at the waiting God for a long moment, and then apparently gave that conversation up as hopeless. He turned back to Katashan, his face set with a stubbornness Katashan didn't find really surprising. "Sir, you cannot fight this war alone. We've already seen so."
"Your home is important to you," Katashan said softly, hoping he kept the feelings about his own home, and all that he had lost, from his words.
"Yes it is. Important enough that I would fight and die for it, even if I could never go back there again. But you know what that's like, don't you, sir?" That one hit home. Katashan bowed his head, and only looked up when Cork put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. But I still won't go home --"
"Would either of you care to hear my thoughts on the matter?" Peralin asked.
They both looked up, startled. Katashan wasn't certain if he should feel hope or dread, but he nodded.
"Go back to the fort at Salbay. By the time you get there the others will have spread the tale of what happened here and about the evil spirit that killed all the men."
"But you said they all died," Katashan replied and tried to quell a hint of frustration.
"I said all of them are dead." Peralin waved toward the camp. Katashan looked and turned away again so quickly his head pounded. He didn't want to see the dead, and wonder if he could have saved them or if he should even have tried. "However, a group of this sort is bound to draw the attention of others. There were some mountain people on the heights who thought this group might be easy to rob since the guards were so lax. But then they saw the fog roll in, and the two of you escaping just as the evil fell upon the camp. They are even going to say that the troops deserved it, having watched how they treated their prisoner."
"Will they?" Cork said, startled.
"Certainly. They have already headed back to the fort."
"Why?" Cork said. "It's not that the mountain people are apt to bring us news in the past."
"Because they believe that there will be a reward for telling the commander of the fort that his Lord has been killed. However, they are going to be disappointed since they will be the second with the news. The first will be a party of ten soldiers who had followed some ways behind, in hopes that you could get Katashan free, and they could help spirit the two of you away. Their scouts saw what Sherina did. You and Cork will be assumed dead until you get back, and the Mountain People have told their part of the story. There will be suspicion, of course but nothing will be charged against you."
"Oh." Katashan's head started to spin. He held the goblet of wine back up to Peralin with some haste. Drunk enough after all. "So, it's safe for us to go back to the fort now."
"Safe? Did I say anything was safe?" Peralin asked with a shake of his head. "There is no safety, Katashan. Not until this matter is resolved. But you would be wise to head back to the fort and what allies you have in this world. And you would be wise to do so quickly. There are horses, still -- spooked, but better than walking. The dawn is coming. I cannot stay."
"Thank you for your aid," Katashan said, with sense enough to bow his head to the God, reminding himself that this was a being whom he should not take lightly, no matter how amiable and helpful he had been.
"My Lord." Cork bowed his head as well. He didn't look very sober, but that might have helped. This was not, Katashan thought, a night to be sober or sane -- not sitting here by a fallen tree with the dead all around, and a God giving them suggestions on how to survive.
"Get a horse, Cork," Peralin said. He held out his hand and Cork, tentatively, took it to stand and handed back his own goblet. When he got his feet under him, Cork looked back at Katashan with worry.
"I'll be safe here."
"Yes, sir. I'll be back as soon as I can calm one of the beasts and get it saddled."
He walked away and didn't look back. Katashan grinned. He had gotten lucky to have Cork with him. The soldier kept his head, even at a time like this.
"He'll stand by you but it's dangerous," Peralin said.
"Will he be killed?" Katashan asked, panicked again.
"I don't know. He might be. But then, you might be killed as well." Peralin frowned and blinked. Katashan had the feeling he looked elsewhere for a moment before he glanced back down at Katashan. "And while it is dangerous to stand with you, I cannot say it is safer to be somewhere else. Remember, these men were your enemies," he said, with a wave back toward the bodies. "It didn't save them."
Peralin made an excellent point. And, if he took the larger view of the situation, he had to admit that he wasn't up to fighting this battle alone. He needed help and so far Cork had done an admirable job of getting things done.
He would need a guard when they got back.
"The dawn comes," Peralin said again, looking toward the horizon with a worried shake of his head. He offered a hand and Katashan stood as well, though less steady than his friend.
Then Peralin leaned down, closer to Katashan, who found himself looking into eyes of black and gold, green and blue. Not human eyes. They did not look at the world in the same way that a human would.
"Take care Katashan. Be careful. I dare not heal you this time because your very weakness is your protection just now. Your secret is still safe for the moment, but given the war that will continue until Sherina is banished to a true death, your knowledge of magic and your past cannot be hidden for much longer."
Katashan nodded. Peralin finally let go of his hand, as though he had not trusted Katashan until that moment. He felt not quite as drunk as he had before and regretted it. The power of the wine had made the night less troubling.
Cork brought a skittish horse back. Peralin nodded to him, then turned his horse and rode off into the dark and the fog. In a moment they could no longer hear the horse which had gone long before the man could have ridden away.
Cork stared in that direction for a little longer. "Gods," he whispered. "Gods help us."
"I think they're doing the best they can."
Cork laughed; a sound foreign to this field of death and Katashan heard a hint of hysteria in his friend's voice. He understood far too well.
Katashan looked around the area, feeling wounds again, and the loss and dread. So many dead, and he didn't know why. What did it serve, except to feed Sherina, and surely she was not the only reason all of this was happening?
He could hear the waves upon the shore, far below them. Stars shone through the canopy of the trees, and somewhere a bird cried out a warning that the day had almost come. Everything seemed too normal, until he looked down and saw the dead everywhere again.
This madness and blight would grow.
"Can you ride sir? I'll lead the horse for a ways, at least until dawn. And then we can ride together, when we can see the ground better. I don't think it wise for you to ride alone for very far. You're very weak. At least we don't have far to go back to the fort, and we'll get there quickly on horseback."
Katashan looked at him for a moment, weighed the words, which took him a while to translate, and then nodded. He moved slowly towards the horse, every pain coming back, though still dulled a little by the wine. It took Cork two tries to get him up on the horse. The soldier led the animal, slow steps away from the madness.
But Katashan knew it would follow them.
The patient horse plodded along the trail, though still unsettled at any sudden sound, and ready to bolt from Cork's hold. Katashan didn't want to be on the horse if it ran, but he didn't want to be walking either.
Cork still led the horse through the gray dawn and into a morning filled with bright greens and colorful flowers. Katashan wanted to stop. He wanted to rest and take the scents in, the sounds but every time he lifted his head from the horse's neck, he ran the risk of passing out and falling.
He stayed where he was, eyes closed, trying to measure the distance with each step of the horse. Closer, closer . . . and not think about how far they had to go.
"Sir?" Cork said. He'd stopped, praise the gods. Katashan didn't know when or why, but he gave a grateful sigh. The horse stayed relatively still for a moment at least. "Sir, are you conscious?"
"I would rather not be," Katashan admitted softly. Even speaking hurt.
"Yes, sir," Cork said. He sounded as though he understood too well. "We can rest here, if you like."
Katashan slowly lifted his head. They had reached a spot with a long view of the ocean to the side and high cliffs behind them. The trail wound away, with clear views on either side. Nothing could easily slip up on them here.
He saw the way Cork stood with his hand on his side and his face still pale, and decided he should look beyond his own misery and consider the work Cork had done to get them here. This looked like a pleasant place, though a bit chilly. He didn't care.
Katashan started to slide down from the horse. Cork quickly put a steadying hand out and helped, though he didn't let go of the horse. The creature looked apt to take off at a run.
Katashan sat down on a nearby boulder, head bent forward, trying to gasp in air through bruised ribs. He couldn't move his arm without sending fire through half his body.
"Be easy, sir. Just be easy. We're past the danger. I'll see what I can do for your wounds. Damn them all for doing this to you."
"Damn them? We're far past that, Cork," Katashan said and slowly looked up at the man. "Peralin took care of whatever needs be done with them."
"Gone to paradise, I guess, from all he said." Cork shook his head. A bruise stood out, dark and angry, on the side of Cork's face. "There's no justice in it."
"None at all," Katashan agreed. "But it is done."
Cork nodded. He secured the bay horse's rein by wrapping it around a large rock and then dropped to the ground nearby.
"How far?" Katashan asked, looking along the trail toward Salbay. "I know we came this way, Lord Arpan and I, but I don't remember it."
"Just as well, sir. It wasn't a good trip, and it came to a bad end." Cork stopped and looked to the trail and the way they would, all too soon, be going again. "We're about a quarter of the way back, sir. We don't dare stay too long."
"We need to be to the fort by dark," Katashan said. He swallowed and tried to stand, but stopped before he got too far. He wasn't going to stand on his own, and he only hoped Cork had enough energy left to get him up on the horse. "We don't want to be outside of a building tonight, when she comes looking for me again."
"Oh Gods. Hell." Those words got Cork back to his feet and ready to keep going. He looked out at the ocean, as though he expected Sherina to come for them even now, in full daylight. It made Katashan shiver, fearing such a thing. "You're right. We need to go."
Cork reached for him, catching Katashan under the arm and starting to pull up. Katashan moaned and Cork gasped and a moment later they both went back down again.
A woman laughed.
They both tried to get back to their feet and slipped again. Katashan could not get his arms under him to push up and Cork stood protecting him --
"It's not her, sir," Cork said with the sound of relief. Katashan managed to turn his head enough to see Cork looking up the cliff. Something moved up there, shadowed, but solid. Dust crumbled under the movement, and a pinecone tumbled down to land at Katashan's feet. "I think it must be a one of the mountain women, sir. Watching us."
"Praise the Gods. I feared -- if she could come out in the daylight like this --" He stopped and took several breaths, unable to speak.
The laughter had abruptly stopped. Something softer than a pinecone hit the ground to the right and Katashan painfully turned his head to find a small leather pouch.
"My apologies," a voice said, the laughter gone. "That may help."
A little more dirt tumbled down, and then silence.
"She's gone sir," Cork said after a couple moments.
He limped over to the pouch and picked it up as if he expected a viper to leap out. He untied the flap and looked inside.
"This will help, sir. The plant that grows up in the highlands. Tastes like sweet clover, it does, but it helps to dull pain. Here, sir. Try a little."
Katashan managed to get a little of the dried, palmate leaves into his mouth. He chewed. Even that movement hurt. However, after a few moments he did feel, if not a dulling of the pain, at least lethargy of his body that allowed the pain to slip aside, as though it took a different path and didn't quite reach his mind. He welcomed the feel.
Cork helped him back on the horse and then slid up behind him this time. "I don't think you can ride any more on your own, sir," he said as though in apology. "And we've got a fair ways to go still. We can't dawdle anymore, I fear."
"Go while we can," Katashan said and tried to brace himself.
Cork kicked the horse into movement. Katashan held on, closed his eyes, and trusted himself to Cork's care. He began to suspect he would not survive to reach the fort, though.
"Damn and damn," Cork mumbled.
Those words brought Katashan back to awareness that went beyond the haze of pain. They'd moved a long ways. Five miles? Ten? Every step had set agony in his bones, but Cork had him chew some more of plant and the pain slipped aside again for a while. Now it started to come back and he felt chill. . . .
He lifted his head at the unwelcome sound and looked off towards the sea.
"Yes sir," Cork said. He sounded weary and annoyed. "There's a storm rolling in. A big one from the looks of it, and moving fast."
"Of course it is," Katashan said. His voice sounded too soft. "We need to get off this trail."
"There's nowhere else to go, sir. You need a little more of the mountain grass --"
"No." He forced himself to sit up straight and look around to gauge the trouble they were in. More trouble, as though the entire world had moved against them. "It makes me not care and I think I need a little bit of my wits left. Just go, Cork."
"We haven't a chance of outrunning the storm, sir."
"I know. I don't remember -- is there any shelter along here?"
"Not until the fort, sir." Cork gave the horse a nudge in the ribs and the animal seemed more than willing to go move off at a pace that might not have been wise on the narrow ridge. He, plainly, knew they had to get off the cliff-side trail with the storm blowing in. The horse's hooves clattered against the hard rock, and thunder growled to their right. The breeze off the ocean had turned cold, but Katashan hadn't the strength left to shiver.
They hadn't gone more than a couple yards before the first strong wind broke against them, startling the horse, which nearly lost Katashan his seat on the beast. Cork grabbed at him just in time, but even that sent waves of agony through his body.
"Well, this is just hell, isn't it, horse?" Cork said.
Time had passed. Katashan knew he had been unconscious and wished he could be again. But he found it amusingly pleasant to listen to Cork talking to their mount, even in the pouring rain.
"You know, if I had wanted to be wet and cold all me life, and to die drowning, I would have gone to sea like every other damn fool in my family. I'll be the laughing stock, I will, if I drown on land."
The horse shied at the flash of lightning, but Cork kept the animal in hand. The day had gone ominously dark with the storm, as though night fell on them already. Katashan found himself more alert and lifted his hand to touch the air, and test the world around them. The rain fell hard, and the wind still blew around them, though he could tell they were not quite so close to a cliff edge now.
"Is there magic in the storm, sir?" Cork asked, worry in his voice.
"Not magic made, but drawn by it perhaps," Katashan said. He found the words difficult as he fought to speak in the Cyrenian language. "Magic sometimes makes a void in nature and storms develop. She used a lot of power. So did Peralin."
"Peralin," Cork said. "Gods all, to be on the first name bases with such a being, like we'd go down to the tavern for a drink or two with him. My world has gone mad, you know."
"I know. I apologize."
"I hadn't thought you brought the trouble, sir."
"But I did bring you into it."
"Not that I noticed. I made my choices. I'm not regretting those choices now, you know. I'd rather the trouble hadn't come, but I've never been one to back away from the work if it needs done. And you, sir, need a keeper. My pardon, but it's true."
Katashan laughed, painful though it felt. He didn't even think to argue, given the circumstances. "I appreciate all that you've done for me, Cork. I'll do my best to see it all right."
"I wouldn't expect any less of you, sir. In fact, I expect that you'll do your best, whether I'm with you or not."
The statement was a clear message Cork knew he might not survive. It came as a painful jab in his heart -- but he held his words for a moment and thought it through.
"Yes, you're right," Katashan said. "I'll do my best. But you give me a link to this place, Cork." He shifted a little, and shivered. "Don't do anything stupid or dangerous."
Cork laughed. And a moment later Katashan found the sound contagious. He laughed as well, there in the storm from hell with the wind trying to kill them. They'd seen hell already, after all. Maybe the storm would wash them clean. Katashan lifted his face into the rain and wind as they rode on.
"Praise the Gods," someone shouted; a stranger's voice and far too close. Katashan and Cork both shifted to look up and even the exhausted horse gave a little nervous prance that nearly unseated them both.
Soldiers rode towards them in the pale light of a storm-drenched sunset. Katashan felt his breath catch in a cry of dismay certain they were caught again. He tried to grab the reins out of Cork's hand.
"No, sir. Careful," Cork said, catching hold of him when he started to fall again. "That's Captain Serrano himself."
"Serrano," Katashan said, but the name meant nothing for a heartbeat or two. He only knew there had been soldiers, and ghosts, and he did not want to go back to that trouble again. He wanted to run, but Cork held the horse still and he knew he wouldn't get far on foot.
Cork had saved him. He would trust Cork.
His head had fallen forward again before the party rode the little distance to them.
"Cork, thank the Gods we found you. We had heard that everyone --"
Katashan lifted his head and looked at Serrano. Yes, he did know this man. Good man. He could not, for the life of him, come up with words in the local language to so much as give a greeting of welcome.
"He's had a hard time, sir," Cork said softly, as though to explain something Katashan hadn't heard. His hand tightened a little at Katashan's side, holding him up. "We need to get him to some place he can rest, Captain. Soon."
"Yes," Serrano said. "Katashan? Are you able to ride still?"
"Ride," Katashan said. "In-inside tonight."
Serrano's gaze turned to Cork again. "Can you ride, Cork? Let's get both of you paired with people who might be able to hold on a bit better."
Cork started to agree, but Katashan caught hold of his friend's arm, unaccountably panicked at the thought of riding with anyone else. He couldn't even speak the words to convey his worry, but Cork patted his arm and didn't let go.
"We'll make it like this," Cork said softly. "He's had it rough at the hands of the soldiers, sir. I don't think he'd be comfortable riding with one now, not until he's a little more himself again."
"Yes," Serrano said, looking into Katashan's face once more. Regret showed in his eyes. And worry. "I wish I could have stopped Lord Arpan -- but it's done. Sunset is upon us. We've still a ways to go back to the fort. Hold tight."
He couldn't hold any thoughts, and he let his head fall back against Cork while he watched the trees above them, spring green and lovely, haloed in bright light, the rain water dripping down.
It couldn't be very far. . . .
He could no longer see the trees. Walls and soldiers crowded around them, and people yelled as they brought torches. Darkness had come, and he had not been there when it fell.
Dangerous, the darkness and the things it brought. However, they had made it to the fort. He recognized the walls, and felt oddly safe, like coming home. He lifted his hand, wondering if Sherina followed close behind.
He found, instead, a ward -- not his, but good, steady magic. Pater Matish, he thought. Excellent.
"Can you hand him down Cork?" Serrano asked, standing by the horse. "Careful now."
Cork lowered him, and he was quickly lost in a haze of pain. He wondered how he'd managed to survive this far. Before he was fully in Serrano's hands he was unconscious again.