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Deliciously dark fantasy… "Shatterwing has all the fantasy ingredients I love: tormented heroes, a truly twisted villain - and a brand new take on dragons!" Glenda Larke, (award winning author of The Stormlord Trilogy) "Dark and compelling, with strong characters and a sense of grim inevitability that pulls you along with the story." Craig Cormick, (award-winning author of the Shadow Master Series.) The story concludes… Dragons wane, undone by the magic embedded in the falling moon fragments. Soon there will be nothing left of Margra to save… As skyfire purges the land above, Salinda assembles what she needs to find the machine that could avert final MOONFALL. Heavily pregnant, Salinda has no choice to go on the arduous journey because she carries the cadre, a source of power and knowledge necessary to save the world. Meanwhile, the remnants of the human race huddle in the underground city of Barrahiem in the hope that they will survive what is to come. Into the Hiem Travel Ways, Salinda and her companions head for the continent of Arvoli. For thousands of years no one has travelled these ancient paths to this partially-submerged continent. Crumbling, the Travel Ways are as treacherous as they are magical. With the sky churning like a cauldron and MOONFALL imminent, they discover they are not the first to arrive. Salinda and her band must fight to reach the ancient machine that could avert MOONFALL. Time is running out…
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Dragon Wine: Part Six
Donna Maree Hanson
Moonfall first published by Donna Maree Hanson 2018
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2018
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organizations) in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, audio) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry
ISBN978-0-6482795-5-6 (print on demand)
Cover design by www.crocodesigns.com
Edited by Stephanie Smith
Proofread by Jason Nahrung
Map by Russell Kirkpatrick
Magic and dust swirl and twirl, building momentum as the remains of a dead moon hurtle toward the surface of Margra. Ancient bindings undone, fractured magic and tortured gravity will combine for the final assault. Moonfall has come.
The Quest Begins
Beneath and Below
Holding the Fort
The Arvoli Plain
Never a Good Time
The Way is Blocked
A Unified Force
Smoke and Spirits
Flames and Power
With a Cry
A Bloody Canvas
The Great Machine
A note from the author
About Donna Maree Hanson
Also by Donna Maree Hanson
Preview of Argenterra, The Silverlands Book One—a portal fantasy
Dry cup, dry hearth—a house without dragon wine is not a home.
The Quest Begins
Salinda surveyed the group heading into the Ways for the trip to the Arvoli continent, noting it was larger than she had anticipated. She had wanted to leave the younger ones behind, but there was no point in trying to keep them safe. If they didn’t succeed, there would be no safe.
She shuffled beside Nils, holding the underside of her distended abdomen to relieve the pressure, even though the glide was there for her use. For the moment, she needed the exercise, needed to work off some excess energy and ease the strain in her lower back. Otherwise, she would sit on that glide and fret and nag and nobody would benefit from that.
Her mind was busy with “what ifs?”—What if they didn’t find the machine? What if they didn’t know how to use it? What if they were too late?
The glow of the cadre in her mind brought comfort and she sensed that it had a keen edge as if its purpose was on the verge of being fulfilled. At the very least, the cadre was not saying she was going the wrong way.
She glanced sideways at Garan. His cadre was quiet, had been since the Ufak Monta had taken possession of him. Even though the Moon Binder spirit had stepped back to allow Garan control over his body, he was subdued, and that worried her. Was it the Moon Binder spirit that was brooding and making plans? Or was the change in Garan’s behavior just a side effect, of little consequence? Either way, there was nothing she could do about it right now. They needed Garan and it appeared they needed the Ufak Monta. Unfortunately, they also needed the cadre, and resolving that dilemma would take place in the future.
There were a few more stairs to go before reaching the Way Gate. “Garan, can I lean on your arm?” she asked. She patted Nils on his forearm to signal the change in walking partner, thus giving Nils the freedom to chat to Karol, who had come alongside.
“Of course,” Garan said, transferring the tether of the long glide that held most of their supplies to his other hand. He eased his elbow out so she could place her hand there.
“How are you feeling?” she asked him, surreptitiously studying his face.
“Well. Perfectly well,” he responded, keeping his eyes ahead. He slowed his pace and put his arm around her to ease her way up the next riser. “You should use the glide,” he said with a grunt, as if she weighed as much as a boulder.
Giving him a narrow-eyed glare, she said, “I will when I get to the top.” She let out a sigh and looked at him. “Garan, tell me how you really feel…you know…inside.”
His violet-colored eyes met hers and he looked away, his cheeks turning pink. “Scared,” he said, barely audible. Then he faced her, eyebrows lifting. “Affronted. Curious.” Finally, he shrugged. “And more besides.”
Salinda nodded as she listened. If it had been her, she’d feel that way. Maybe enraged and angry, too. Garan, though, was a gentle soul, so it was no surprise that he didn’t use those terms to describe his inner state. “Curious? Why?”
Garan chuckled, a low sound in his throat. “I have the essence of an alien being inside me.” He grimaced, and then shrugged helplessly. “What can I say?”
“You do, but you had a cadre inside you, too. Didn’t that prepare you? You know, for another presence inside your mind?”
Garan’s eyes widened and he looked ahead, ready to assist her up the next riser. Nils was several steps ahead of them, leading the way, with Karol chatting away excitedly. Garan turned and tugged on the glide tether. “’Tis not the same. The cadre is mostly inert. Its sense of personality is muted. There is power there, but it generally waits for you to touch it and wield it. The Moon Binder spirit has a strong will and sense of identity. It takes over without asking. It dominates. It is so big it makes me cringe. I cannot fathom the depth and breadth of it. I am lost when it comes forward.”
Salinda brushed her fingers across his chin. “That is why, Garan, you have to fight it. You have to find a way to touch and hold your own strength of purpose and identity when the Moon Binder tries to take over.”
“That is easy for you to say.”
“You sensed this being, this spirit, when none of us could. It called to you and summoned you through the Ways and the in-between. No one else can do this except you.”
Garan wiped his mouth, rubbed his chin and shook his head. “I know. That is why I am scared. I am not sure I am strong enough. I do not want to fail.”
She schooled her features into a mask of purpose. “You cannot fail. You must not fail!” she told him, before deciding she needed assistance after all. “I think I’ll use my glide now.”
Garan inclined his head. “I will fetch it.” He untied it from the back of the supply glide and brought it to her, doing the necessary work to help her get seated.
Once she was on the glide, Salinda could not talk so intimately with Garan. By the look on his face, he was relieved. Poor Garan, she thought. So much power in him and he is so young. Life was unfair sometimes.
The cadre warmed within her. What about his cadre? it suggested.
Salinda frowned. What about it?
She knew the answer. The Moon Binder’s presence in Garan’s mind interfered with the cadre and, possibly, Garan’s own inherent power. She would have to test that theory during the journey. They had to know where they stood before reaching the machine. Possibly well before, so that, whatever the results, they could plan.
Salinda usually found long journeys in the Ways tedious, so having a deep problem to think about would help pass the time. No time to be bored. She hoped no one tried to talk to her because she wasn’t up for being sociable right now. There were complications to navigate…again.
Nils reached out and touched her hand as she was passing through the Way Gate. “Are you well?” he asked her.
“Yes, quite well,” she responded automatically. Truth be told, her feet hurt and her ankles were swollen. She could hardly walk, let alone run. The baby was putting a lot of pressure on her bladder and her nether regions. Yes, very well indeed, she thought, mocking herself.
Nils consulted his mental map when he reached the third junction. The Way looked to be intact and the in-between glowed healthily. That gave him confidence to continue on. This was a section of the Ways that he had not traveled since awakening from his prison of sleep, and before that he had only come this way once. This was the section of the Ways that led to the continents of Strega and Arvoli. The great city of Stregahiem had been destroyed when Ruel split; Arvoli had been severely damaged, with many of its people fleeing to the Stoli continent.
“Is everything all right?” Danton asked him from behind his shoulder.
Nils turned. “Yes. I am assessing the health of the Way before we proceed.”
Danton flashed a grin. “It looks fine to me.”
“To an untrained human eye, perhaps. You have not been here before to blow it up.” There was a thinness ahead, like the substance of the Ways was nearly dead. It appeared whole at this stage, though, so they might be able to get through.
Danton grunted. “Still sore about that, eh? Well, it kept the nasty folks out of your precious Ways and city. And didn’t you do your share of blowing up? I thought Brill said…”
“That demolition cleared a dangerous section of the Ways that were discontinuous and—”
“In danger of being compromised by nasty humans.”
Nils inclined his head. “I concede your point. I withdraw my adverse comment.”
Danton slapped Nils on the back and it was all Nils could do to stop falling over. “No need. I understand. These Ways mean a lot to you.” He cocked his head to study the walls. “I have to say they have been helpful. Saved our skins a number of times.”
“Yes, they have. It is just that having humans use the Ways freely makes me uncomfortable. I worry that my elders would not like it, even though they do not exist anymore. Old habits are hard to break.”
“Is there a problem?” Salinda yelled from the back of the line.
Danton waved a hand. “All good. We’re moving.”
Nils stepped ahead of Danton, his shoulder aching from the impact of the man’s heavy hand. Danton may have lost weight, but he had lost none of his strength; surely the dragon wine they had plied the rebel with had not had this effect. He pondered Salinda’s enthusiastic avowal of the wine’s properties. Nils half-turned to regard the rebel, then heard Salinda repeat her question. “No, no problem,” he replied, not needing to shout at her as sound carried farther in the Ways.
He took a step into the next section and nothing bad happened. The world did not stop turning or fall on his head. He kept walking, a smile lifting his lips at his fanciful thoughts. Examining the in-between around him, he detected weaknesses. His affinity with the Ways was not so acute here. Peering ahead, he could tell there was something not quite right, something to worry about.
“I like being in the Ways,” Karol commented after not talking for a short time. Nils’s mind had grown occupied with other concerns and was startled. He jumped, and then looked down at the Hiem child, too small to be called a youth. Karol had not left his side since they had left Barrahiem, only forced to move on when Nils opened the Way Gate and ushered the group through. “Indeed. Perhaps you can tell me what you know about the Ways and I can embellish your understanding. It will pass the time.”
Karol peered up at him. “They are alive.”
Nils’s skin prickled, the boy’s comment unnerving him. “Alive? In what sense?”
Karol kept walking and peering at the in-between, his hand reaching out to caress it lightly. His white fingers glowed faintly when they skimmed the surface of the wall and pale blue light spread out from where his fingers touched. “It lives and breathes, and perhaps it thinks and feels.”
Jolted, Nils nearly cried out a “No’” in denial. Quickly, he calmed himself. This was a child, an untaught child.
Theoretically, the Ways had a symbiotic relationship with the Hiem and the energy gleaned from those passing through kept them healthy and strong. Yet, in these latter days, he had begun to think that that “life” had been lost. However, since he had found Karol, the increase in the light emanating from the in-between had indicated otherwise. And the manner in which Karol spoke of the Ways showed that his views came from his own direct experiences and observations. Perhaps, Nils thought, he should not judge too quickly; the child could know more than he himself.
Nils licked his bottom lip before speaking again. “Do you know what it thinks?”
Karol blinked and gazed at the in-between. He shook his head. “It is trying to say something, only I can’t grasp it. Maybe the longer I am here I will figure it out.”
Nils shuddered, a sensation of death creeping over him. He decided to stop asking the boy questions and gave the in-between a hesitant and slightly resentful look. It had never spoken to him.
They walked along in companionable silence until the next junction. Here the Ways were less well preserved. There was moisture in the air. They were passing under the New Straits that separated Stoli from Arvoli, which had once been the shallow Arvlen Sea. The inundation caused by Moonfall had changed the landscape. There used to be an isthmus connecting the continents, but that had collapsed in the aftermath of Moonfall, or so the archives said. His work, to prepare a map for their present quest, had shown him the true extent of damage to the world.
Nils raised a hand, signaling those behind to halt. He grabbed Karol’s shoulder to make him stop, too, because he had kept walking as if in a dream. Karol started, gasping and turning around to face Nils, his arms rising to clasp his upper arms as if warding off a chill. His face was a picture of misery. Tears gleamed on his upper cheeks.
“It hurts!” he said.
Nils stared and then shut his mouth. The child was obviously referring to the Ways. Nils glanced about him nervously. Could they feel pain?
Gathering his courage, Nils turned to Danton and Brill, Laidan and Eneit, who stood waiting close behind. “I need to inspect the Way. I suspect its condition is not good.”
“Do you need help?” Brill asked.
Nils was about to reply in the negative when Garan came forward, passing the tether of the supply glide to Brill. “I will help you.”
Nils let out a slow breath. He did not know who was speaking: the Ufak Monta or Garan. Garan had had an affinity with the Ways, even before his possession. Yet something in the tone suggested the Ufak Monta was in control. Nils damped down his nervousness. “Thank you.”
Garan stood shoulder to shoulder with Nils. “Water is leaking through the roof.”
Nils could not see water coming through, but could sense the dampness and faint sounds that suggested trickles of water. “I suspected as much. But we must pass this way, as we have no means of floating on the sea.”
Garan’s gaze glowed and Nils backed up a step. This was an effect of the cadre and not something he had seen in the Ufak Monta. The lad was truly unnerving.
The light faded from Garan’s eyes. “’Tis sturdy enough for our passage. The return I cannot vouch for.” The voice was dead flat, devoid of emotion, so it had to be the Ufak Monta talking. “We should move now before more seismic disturbances alter the structure of the Ways.” Then, casually, he put his hand on the in-between. A bluish glow spread out from his hand. The walls of the Way, which had been duller than the previous section, brightened. Nils kept his wonder in check. He had no time to throw questions at Garan, whoever he may be, whatever he may be.
Garan turned and took the tether back from Brill with a nod of thanks and resumed his place next to Salinda in the line. With one last look at the in-between, which had now faded back to dull gray, Nils raised his hand and signaled to start moving. Karol clasped his hand and smiled up at him.
“Did you see that?” Karol asked in a rapt voice. “How did that human do that?”
Nils turned and brushed away the wet strand of long hair that was clinging to the boy’s face. “A very special one. Let us move along quickly. The Way is stable now. Unfortunately, it may not remain so.”
Nils had a fleeting desire to hold Salinda. Suddenly, he was overwhelmingly grateful that she had come into his life and enriched it with all these humans. If not for rescuing her for his own selfish reasons, he wouldn’t be here now in this company. He wouldn’t have kin around him. He wouldn’t have a reason for living. Or a reason for dying.
Beneath and Below
An oppressed mood hung over Garan. The weight of the Ways pushed down on his body, his mind. It was worse in this section where they walked under the sea, where the very fabric of the Ways seemed so thin, so ready to fracture. It was hungry too. Garan fed it, sending a small trickle of power through a finger trailing against the wall. That helped somewhat, and did not seem to deplete the store of power he had inside himself. He had not viewed his power in this way before. However, with the cadre and the Ufak Monta inside him, he could now sense the extent of it. While it awed him, he did not understand its origins, only that it was a part of him, like tissue and blood.
Feeding the Way gave him some comfort, some confidence. There was a whole lot of water up there. He could sense it, moving in tune to Belle Moon and Shatterwing as their mass tore at the fabric of the Ways. That movement, that ever-present tension, was bearing down on the Ways, and on them. The Way had little will to resist; it was easier to crumble, easier to die.
Garan told it otherwise. You need to live. It was not impressed with that proposition, but it accepted the energy he gave it. The Ufak Monta fed him information, broadened his understanding of the Ways. His alien possessor had turned respectful and had not taken him over completely. For that Garan was grateful, except there was a problem. The Ufak Monta’s presence was affecting him. Garan knew he was changing as a result of the possession and there seemed little chance of fighting it. Garan knew not where the Moon Binder spirit was leaking into the essence of him. It was like a low fever, an infection too invisible to fight.
“That was well done, Garan,” Salinda commented as they traveled along.
He did not have to be walking with her, but he did. He wondered why that was so. Why not Laidan, who had started treating him better? He loved hearing her voice, watching her small movements as she walked and talked. Why not there? Why not with Danton, who he admired? No, it was Salinda he drew comfort from. He was drawn to her. Or was it the cadre that was drawn to her, to the other cadre she carried?
That gave him food for thought. “Thank you.”
“Was that you or the other?” she asked.
Garan gave her a half-hearted grin. “A bit of both.”
“I see,” Salinda replied, eyelids lowered, lips drawn together in thought. “I couldn’t see well from here. Did you make the in-between glow just now?”
Garan faced her as they walked. “Yes.”
Salinda’s mouth twitched into a smile. “I gather that is going to help us,” she ventured. Her eyes glowed faintly in the gloom of the Ways. He detected a faint ripple of power from her. This made his eyes widen in surprise. He had not felt her use the cadre like that before. She seemed to be assessing the Ways too—or maybe she was assessing him.
“I hope so.” Garan looked down and then back at Salinda. “We need to move quickly through this section. I do not wish to alarm you. There is a sea above us, hungry to get in.”
The light was fading from her eyes as Salinda shifted to more mundane topics. “I’ve never been to Arvoli.”
Garan nodded. “Me neither. It is said to be flooded. I wonder what that means. What that looks like.”
“Me too. I think one of the owners of the cadre came from there. I have visions sometimes of floods.”
“Are you sure ’tis not just anxiety? I hear ’tis a common thing when people have a lot on their minds. You are never free from worry, I suspect.” Garan shot her a grin.
Salinda laughed out loud. “Oh, Garan, you have a gift for understatement. I thought it was Nils’s gift, but you also have it.”
Garan pouted as he thought about her comment. Was it him speaking, or the other, or the cadre? Source, it was crowded in his head. He liked it not. He was beginning to lose a sense of himself and his heartbeat quickened at the thought. Change did not come easy and not without pain. Unconsciously blinking a few times as he thought it through, he realized he had already changed. He was different. If he lived through this, would he know himself anymore?
Some hours later, they stopped for a meal. With help from Eneit and Laidan, Garan unpacked dried fungi jerky and flat bread. Nils made them tea over a small burner he had brought. They were safe beneath land now, perhaps under the coast of Arvoli. There was water above, only it wasn’t as savage or as hungry. Garan sipped his tea as he chewed, which helped to moisten the dried fungi and made it easier to swallow. They couldn’t cook a meal right there in the narrow Way, yet they had to eat something.
“What are you doing?” Garan asked Laidan, who was tugging at sacks on the supply glide.
“I’m looking for the dried fruit. I want something sweet.”
Garan joined her and found the particular sack, untying it and handing it to her. Laidan’s smile dazzled him, until the Ufak Monta pricked at him with a stab of disdain. Garan shook himself and went to finish his meal.
Laidan went back to Eneit and Brill and shared around the sweet fruit, a mix of lairn apples and melon that grew in the Barrahiem gardens. Salinda required a longer rest than her companions, and Garan was relieved when Danton spoke up, loudly. “I am really feeling my injuries. I need a nap. I hope nobody minds.”
After getting a few encouraging replies, Danton stretched out with a blanket and fell instantly asleep. At least, he appeared to be sleeping.
Seeing the odds stacked against her, Salinda bit her lip, shook her head slightly and rested against the supply glide with various sacks supporting her back and knees. Garan fretted about the toll the trip was taking on her fragile health. Then he recalled Brill saying something similar and getting a sharp retort. Not fragile then, but certainly in need of more rest than she was allowing herself.
By the time Danton and Salinda were ready to travel, Garan and the others had the supply glide packed, except for the few items supporting Salinda. Once she seated herself on her personal glide, Garan quickly tied on the remaining packs and they headed off.
Garan sensed when they were fully under the Arvoli continent, the sea having faded from his mind. There was still water above him—a thinner layer. It sat in depressions in the land, filled valleys and swelled lakes. It was not going anywhere.
Nils had halted the group again and descended the junction point stairs. Garan grew agitated as Nils approached a Way Gate that loomed out of the darkness as Nils’s light brushed against it. A sense of danger grew suddenly in his gut. Then the Ufak Monta pushed his mind aside, making him run forward, shoving the tether into Brill’s hand as he passed by. With possession of his body out of his control, Garan could only be dismayed when he knocked Laidan out of the way, not taking the time to apologize.
“Stop!” his voice boomed. It was deeper and more powerful than his own. “Do not open that Way Gate!”
Nils turned suddenly, his robe swirling about his feet, his long silver-white hair flaring out with the speed of his movement. His silver irises flashed within widened eyes. “What?”
“’Tis flooded. You will drown us if you open that gate,” Garan said, coming up alongside Nils.
“I was not going to open it. I was assessing it for that very thing.” Nils’s chin jutted out.
“My apologies. I can tell you ’tis flooded on the other side. This Way Gate opens in a low-lying area. We need to move on.”
“How do you know that?” Nils asked, not quite able to disguise the indignation he was obviously feeling.
Garan sympathized. Nils was the master of the Ways, not Garan. Yet, the creature within Garan experienced the Ways as an extension of itself. As a spirit, untethered by flesh, it could see the Way Gate from inside and out. A handy trick, Garan thought sardonically. He envied such an ability and then sighed, realizing he had the ability for the moment.
“I can see it in my mind’s eye. I can feel the water like a weight in my mind. We should continue on.”
Nils inclined his head. “This we will do.”
Garan gave him a salute, a flourish of the hand and fingers that seemed to come naturally, but it was a movement that Garan had never seen or done before.
Nils was momentarily taken aback, and then returned the salute. “How did you know that gesture?”
“Wing dust!” Garan exclaimed and looked at his hand. “I have no idea.”
“Was it the Ufak Monta?” Nils asked, leaning in eagerly.
“Could be. Was it a Hiem gesture?” Garan asked.
“Yes,” Nils replied, his expression suddenly thoughtful.
“But I thought the Moon Binders were dead and gone before the Hiem came to Margra.”
“So did I,” Nils replied, his eyes flashing silver as he turned away. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
Garan followed him. “Nils, what do you mean?”
Nils kept walking in long strides up the risers to the junction, Garan following behind.
Nils scanned the Way. “I…I am not sure. I am truly surprised. It gives me an urge to scour the archives again. The really old sections that talk of the first years on Margra. I heard only a smattering from school as a child. I have not read them myself. Perhaps...”
“Perhaps the Moon Binders were still here then.”
Nils’s gaze was distant, his brow furrowed. “I do not know, perhaps...truth is not always truth, is it?”
Garan nodded. “I’m beginning to believe that myself.”
Nils continued up the stairs to rejoin the waiting group.
“I think ’tis best we stay in the Ways as long as possible,” Garan ventured before heading back to his position.
“Very well, I will do my best,” Nils replied.
As Garan passed down the line, Danton caught his hand and shook it. “Thanks for the save.”
Garan grinned. “Nils knows what he is doing. I should not have interfered.”
“Two heads, they say, are better than one.” Danton patted his forearm and let him go.
“Well, we have plenty of heads, so we will succeed.”
Garan stopped to check on Laidan and Eneit. “I’m sorry for pushing past you before. Are you two doing all right? Not too tired?”
Eneit snorted. “We are not tired.” She brandished her stave and gave Laidan a meaningful nod.
Laidan’s hand tightened on her own stave. “Not tired. Just bored. I mean, it’s not really interesting down here, is it?”
That was a matter of opinion, Garan thought. “’Tis a bit too interesting above though.”
Laidan laughed lightly. “Good point. I’ll remember that.”
Salinda’s eyelids lowered when he returned to her side. “In case you are interested, Garan, I’m very tired,” she said and laughed.
Garan grinned, face burning. He gave the tether he retrieved from Brill a slight tug. “I’m sorry to hear you say so, Salinda.”
Salinda’s light laughter sounded behind him and, ordinarily, Garan would have enjoyed it, but there was something looming ahead. Something dangerous.
“Nils,” Garan called.
Holding the Fort
Squab was happy to remain in the underground city of Barrahiem. The city was more amazing than anything she had ever seen or imagined. Her life on the surface had not prepared her for this. No histories or tales of such places and the people who made them had ever tickled her ears before: life had been too savage and hard. Her mind was befuddled to some degree by a kind of euphoria that claimed her after she had expected to die and hadn’t.
Turning her gaze from those who had departed, she let it sweep across the surface of the dark lake below and then to the roof above. The vast cavern had huge rock columns that climbed upward from the lake and from the ground to clasp the roof above. White stone formed the buildings, the covered walkways, the balconies; alien designs decorated the columns and the walls partially glimpsed through archways lit by the ambient light. But if meeting Nils hadn’t rocked her sense of reality, being alone with alien children in this wonderland of architecture and culture certainly wouldn’t either.
The wonders she had seen vindicated her choice to make her death matter. Yes, the world was ending. She was probably going to be dust like her fellow creatures, who were huddled, like her, in the depths of Margra for protection. It was futile perhaps...but then, maybe not. Not if you listened to that woman, Salinda. She had power that could embolden one, that inspired hope in the despairing. The kernel of optimism inside Squab was planted by the words of that woman, and that kernel was growing, taking over her mental spaces, her heart. Now, she had a purpose. And that made her happy. Even though tears still tracked down her cheeks.
Saying goodbye had been hard. She wanted to fight with Danton one more time. It had been all she could do not to sob when Danton had thanked her for staying behind, saying he owed her. He’d relaxed his posture as he looked around him and flashed her “the grin”. The grin that had soothed her soul-riven hurt when they first had met all those years ago. The grin she might never see again.
With the quest party no longer in sight, she realized one of the alien kids, Miraka, was standing at her side. The girl was always ready to run errands. “Do you think they will come back?” the young Hiem asked, breaking into Squab’s thoughts.
“I hope so,” Squab said, turning to the girl. “Now, are you and your friends up for leading the N’Barek people through the tunnel back to here for resettlement?”
Miraka gave her a weak smile. “It’s called a Way and, yes. We just have to wait for the quest group to pass through.”
Squab wanted to be alone with her thoughts and came up with a chore for Miraka so that the kid would take off. “Have you taken the children to the gardens to get their breakfast?”
Miraka turned silver eyes in her direction. “No, I didn’t know you wanted me to.”
“Well, I think it would be good to get them down there so you can teach them to fend for themselves. Take your buddies with you, too. Some know what they’re doing and some still need supervision.”
Miraka studied her a moment longer, then nodded before backing away. Squab guessed that Miraka knew what Squab was on about, wanting to be alone and all. Savvy, that one, never missed a thing. As the Hiem kid departed, gathering companions along the way, Squab grinned. They were going to get on famously.
As she looked around the once-dead city, she thought about the future, the immediate future. With refugees arriving, it would be bustling. Not like Sartell, which was a ghost town: nothing but the uneasy spirits of the dead and the overwhelming stench of their bodies. If those gathering here were all who remained on Margra, it was a poor beginning, but not entirely hopeless. No, not entirely hopeless. They just had to survive for a new beginning to happen.
And survive they would if Squab had anything to do with it. She sent her gaze back over the city, trying to ignore her turbulent thoughts. She decided to walk down to the lake, take her mind off everything. She was only staying behind because someone had to do it. And, well, it was purposeful. Not long ago she had been going to die pitifully, without meaning to her life or death.
The stairs were clear of dust and the lake’s dark surface glittered in the reflected light. Signs indicated the sacred area where no one except Nils was to go. Danton had briefed her on the alien creature’s rules. Farther along, she caught sight of the island. The sign said females were able to go there. It looked too far for a casual swim. A short distance later, she found the beach. A hand-painted sign said Rebel Beach and that made Squab chuckle. In the midst of all they had lost, Danton still had a sense of humor. Gazing out over the lake, she saw something floating in the water. “What in the…”
Her heart fluttered and the hairs on the back of her neck lifted as she squinted and puzzled over the object. She shuffled along the beach, leaping over the half-built raft that sat at the edge. There was nothing for it. She had to go in. No time to undress; she dived in and surfaced close by the object. Another stroke of her arms and she let out a startled cry. It was a body. A male, human body. Her gaze shot across the lake surface toward N’Barek, its lights flickering in the distance, looking so innocent. What was going on? How had someone ended up dead? Her mind leaped to murder, but they were meant to be the good people. Her knowledge of people was too tarnished by nasty experiences to consider what good actually meant.
Squab shook her head. There was no time to sink so low in her thoughts of people, but how had one of them ended up in the lake? There were other ways than murder, she supposed. An accident?
A flicker of movement made her turn her head. Another man’s body floated nearby. She grabbed the one next to her by the shoulder of its tunic and took a few strokes to grab the other. There was no point in fouling up their water supply with rotting corpses.
Before she had dragged those two bodies to the shore, she spotted another body. A female, a look of surprised horror etched on her face.
How she wished she hadn’t sent Miraka on an errand. Now she had to go looking for her. They had to get over to N’Barek before there were more corpses.
Laidan hated being in the Ways. She acknowledged that they had saved her on a number of occasions, yet they still made her nervous. The worst bit had been the dripping water from the sea above. She had had to use mind techniques to keep calm. I’m going to die anyway, she had told herself.
Eneit had taken her hand and squeezed it. Laidan appreciated that. Eneit didn’t like it any better than her friend did, but she chose to comfort Laidan.
Nils put up his hand again. Brill paused and she came to a stop behind him. Anticipating that Garan would come racing past, she turned sideways, still holding onto Eneit.
Good guess…Garan was barreling up the path and almost made it past without mishap, then his elbow caught her in the gut. She grunted as the impact squeezed the air out of her.
Eneit grinned, shaking her head. “He did it again. He doesn’t know how big he is, does he?” She removed her hand from Laidan’s to run fingers through her spiky hair. Her gaze centered on Garan up ahead, her brows knotted in thought.
“Garan is ignorant of a lot of things...he’s still nice. You have to consider the package as a whole.” Laidan blinked in surprise. She had defended Garan.
“Really?” Eneit turned to her with a stunned expression. “He was my brother’s best friend, you know.”
“I do. He suffered a lot when Turnet died. It was a terrible accident.”
Laidan’s memories of that time were patchy, a few glimpses of trauma. She did remember enough to know she had acted badly, and the lectures she’d received from the Master Elder and Salinda were further proof. They kept walking. Laidan felt bored by the dull light and the need to put one foot in front of the other, until a rumble under her feet make her heart thump. Before she could say anything there was a yell.
“Hurry,” Nils cried, “the Way is collapsing.”
Eneit and Laidan shared a look, nodded, then tossed their staves onto the supply glide. It would make running easier, faster.
The vibration she had felt became a low sound in her ear. She touched the wall of the Way and it rippled under her fingers.
“This way,” Brill shouted at them as he followed Garan and the others down the junction stairs toward a Way Gate.
Wind tossed her hair, and a damp, moldy smell came from the Way in front of them. The low rumble was growing louder, the wind in her face laced with damp.
Laidan ran just behind Eneit who had the tether to the supplies. Thank the source Eneit was practical like that.
Laidan had to fight the panic in her mind, the panic that wanted to push the girl out of the way so Laidan could get out. Must get out.
“Hurry,” Nils cried again.
The angry noise coming from the Way grew louder, drowning out other sounds, and her feet found it difficult to find purchase as the ground began to pitch this way and that.
Eneit flagged. Whizzing through the air ahead of them, Salinda turned around on her glide. “Hurry, you two.”
A crack opened above them. Water gushed down, nearly sweeping Laidan from the stairs.
Garan opened the door and water rushed in. Laidan was flat out trying keep a forward momentum as the floodwaters pushed against her thighs. The crack above them opened wider, bringing a deluge.
Eneit was nowhere to be seen. “Eneit?”
The girl whooshed up behind Laidan, breaking the surface of the water, tether in her hand. The water had swept her backward. Coughing and spluttering, Eneit tried to get to her. Mouth tight, she pushed forward against water that was waist high. Laidan went back and grabbed for her hand.
The supply glide had stayed above water, adjusting to the change automatically. At least their food was not wet.
A square of gloomy light signaled where the outside was. Eneit’s hand kept slipping from hers until, finally, Laidan firmly gripped Eneit’s wrist. The girl’s face was tight with panic. Despite their swimming lessons, Eneit had little confidence in the water, especially in a strong current.
“Laidan?” It was Garan. She turned and saw him coming toward her. She was losing her footing as water and mud pushed against her feet.
“Reach for me,” Garan commanded.
Holding tight to Eneit, Laidan stretched her arm, her hand slapping the water just short of Garan. She wanted to wail in despair, and then Garan reached to take her hand. “Do you have a strong hold on Eneit?” he yelled above the churning of the inundation.
“Yes,” she assured him.
A tug on her arm, strong and sure, pulled her toward the Way Gate. Garan powered through the current as if there wasn’t one. Before she could react, she was through to the outside.
A sound like a scream issued from the Ways as the roof gave way and a fist of wind punched them. Nils stepped forward to shut the Way Gate and it slid closed, cutting off the sounds of destruction from within.
Eneit was crying; hair normally spikey was flat against her head, her hand gripping the supply glide’s tether so tightly her fingers were white.
Brill came up and embraced her, splashing water as he walked. “You’re safe now, Eneit.”
Eneit accepted his embrace and nodded, wiping away tears that rolled down her face.
They were knee deep in water, but safe. Salinda asked if they were all right, along with Danton, who said it had been a very close call.
Laidan looked around. They were in a narrow ravine with high walls around them. She could see a blush of red on the horizon and a black sky, although there was a growing light. She walked behind the others to the edge of the ravine, sloshing through the water, which now came to mid-calf. Ahead lay a flat plain, with scattered small mounds of earth, like miniature mountains. Water ranged as far as they could see. It was flooded still after all these years.
Eneit came alongside to slide her fingers through Laidan’s and squeeze them. They were so lucky to be alive. They all congratulated themselves and thanked Garan and Nils for saving them.
“Here comes the sun,” Garan said.
Their collective sigh filled the air as brilliant white, yellow, pink and red outlined the clouds. The black sky overhead was combed with light gray. Laidan had never seen anything like it. It was truly auspicious. She hugged her arms to her chest, suddenly chill. It really was a special day. Perhaps their last one. Laidan found that hard to process and didn’t bother trying. One day at a time. That was the way it had to be.
Garan waved an arm. “Follow me. We need to walk to the next gate and hope that the collapse is isolated to that section only. Then we will know if we can return to the Ways.”
Nils turned to them. “Be alert. We may not be alone.”
Laidan nodded to herself, then watched Salinda’s dark gaze lift to the sky. She could sense dragons, couldn’t she? Did she feel them now?
Salinda caught her look and shook her head slightly. Her hand rubbed at a spot on the side of the bulge that passed for her middle.
Eneit retrieved their staves and handed Laidan’s to her. Straight away, Laidan felt better.
The Arvoli Plain
Danton swallowed a hard lump in his throat. He was standing on another continent. In a place that was once a home for millions of living, breathing people, but from where they stood there was scant evidence of prior occupation. If he believed Nils, then the Way Gate stood where there once had been a thriving city, or large town, and now it was an empty ravine, partially filled with green-colored water, with a skin of algae on top.
After taking a few moments to recover from their close scrape with the collapsing Way, they decided to walk, or wade, through the water. Garan had been ahead to assess another Way Gate that was nearby, but was shaking his head, letting them know in that silent way of his that they could not return to the Ways for this part of the journey.
“Which direction?” Danton asked, trying to smile at the lad. He had to admit it made his balls twitch just thinking that Garan had some ancient, alien spirit inside of him. Salinda, and Mez before her, had carried the cadre and, really, wasn’t that kind of like the same thing? Was he being selective in his prejudice?
Garan pointed ahead without smiling, or even acknowledging him in the normal friendly way that he used to.
Brill caught his eye and Danton nodded. “Okay then,” Danton said, “let’s go.” His gaze drifted to Salinda, who was talking quietly with Nils as he walked alongside her glide. Danton wished she wasn’t there, wasn’t risking herself and the unborn child. It wasn’t his business, though, and besides, who was he to stop Salinda? He shook his head, annoyed at his own arrogance. This was her day. The day she’d been working toward since she was a teenager in the prison vineyard. They were going to use the cadre she had been carrying, all this time, to stop moonfall. Salinda had every right to be there and he should support her.
Nils looked up then and Danton lifted a hand to acknowledge him. “Do you mind walking with us, Danton?” His gaze shifted. “And you, Brill?”
Danton detected the disturbance in the air that indicated Brill had come along behind him.
In his hand, Nils had the tether to the glide with the supplies. Eneit had done an amazing job to keep hold of it after being swamped. She had needed to take a break.
Nils had been relegated to a quest follower, rather than leader. Garan and his invisible hitchhiker had assumed the leadership of the group, as far as traveling through the Ways went. Danton looked toward Garan who was now a good hundred strides ahead.
Eneit and Laidan followed behind the Skywatcher, their staves held at an angle, at the ready to bring them to bear on any attackers: they were very serious about this and rightly so. Eneit was particularly vicious with the stave and both of them had increased their fitness. Neither of them had complained during the long trek so far. That Laidan hadn’t been complaining surprised Danton most of all. It was certainly a sign of her new maturity after healing from her injuries and recovering at least some of her memories.
Danton didn’t let his guard down as they sloshed their way across the plain. Nils hadn’t given any particular reason for having him and Brill walk with them, but then he noticed Nils often looked at Salinda and seemed very fidgety. When Danton studied Salinda from under lowered eyelids, he realized what was worrying his Hiem friend. He was nervous about Salinda; two spots of color adorned her cheeks and her face was moist with sweat. Danton was happy to lend Nils some comfort with his presence. He knew Salinda well enough not to directly enquire if she was all right. So he continued to make small observations on their surroundings, while his boots squelched and the legs of his trousers became wetter and wetter, if that was possible. It wasn’t cold, so that was something. While they walked, the sky lightened to a shade of mottled ash and pale smoke, and the clouds sat there as if they didn’t expect to be parted by a falling moon anytime soon.
The view ahead and to the side changed after they left the ravine. What had seemed to be earthen lumps in the distance now turned out to be the remains of buildings that had collapsed in on themselves through the passage of time and the never-ending flow of rain, wind and sun. Nils pointed out key features of the ruined city. Danton took it all in, unable to hide his amazement.
They tracked around the bottom of the first ruined building. A cry from Laidan had him running forward to find she’d been startled by thick metal prongs poking up from the earth, which had, at first, looked like a giant grasping hand. A play of light on the metal spikes had given the impression they were moving.
Danton eyed them warily. “Easy done,” he said to Laidan. “Keep being alert.”
Garan, Laidan, Eneit and young Karol kept moving ahead of them. Danton stood still waiting for Nils, Salinda and Brill to catch up. He gazed at a decayed gray, lifeless mound and thought about the people who once lived here. It was nothing like Sartell or the other towns. This was a piece of history sent to remind them of past glories, and how little they had advanced since Ruel split.
He moved on when the others reached him. The next mound was similar and they checked for signs of life before quickly moving on. Ahead were twin mounds, not as tall as the other single ones, and broader. Light glinted off something in these and Danton’s nerves went on high alert.
“Danton,” Salinda said, a hint of warning in her voice.
“What is it?” Danton asked out the side of his mouth, keeping his gaze locked on the twin mounds.
“Dragon,” she said, awe in her voice.
“Shit,” Danton said, reaching for a weapon. “Wing dust! How are we to fight that?”
“We don’t,” Salinda replied calmly. “I can feel its mind. It has a full belly. It’s not interested in us.”
“Sure it’s not! Let’s give it a wide berth, in any case.” He jogged up to Garan and told him to give the twin mounds a miss. A glint in Garan’s eyes disturbed Danton, yet Garan replied, “Very well.”
Garan changed direction, moving off to the side, at a right angle to the twin mounds. Danton couldn’t make out the dragon and wondered what was glinting silver.
There was a familiar sound of wings disturbing the air and Danton tensed, waiting to be swooped upon. A large dragon with brilliant silver scales now passed overhead. It was small and sleek, with wings that were almost transparent. Not like a Stoli dragon at all. It called out once, a musical sound that did not shred his eardrums. He cast a glance at Salinda who was regarding him with a smile on her face.
“What?” Danton said.
She shook her head. “Nothing bad. It’s an Arvoli dragon. Something rare and unique. I feel that it has a story. There aren’t many of them left. I sense its loneliness. Arvoli dragons live off food found in the water and the sea.”
Danton allowed himself to admire the glorious beauty of the beast as it faded from view. The pearlescent scales had been reflecting the light and that was what he had been seeing before they disturbed it.
“May we resume our original path now?” Garan called.
“Yes, yes,” Danton said and waved. He didn’t care if they thought him overly cautious. His companions started forward. Salinda cried out then and Danton spun around, expecting an attack. Nils leaned over Salinda and Danton saw he was rubbing her lower back.
“Salinda is uncomfortable,” the Hiem explained.
Danton blinked, paused, waiting for his brain to filter his response. Then he came right out with it. “Are you in labor, Salinda?”
Her pain-filled gaze met his. “No,” she replied, staring at him and daring him to contradict her. Her gaze swept left to where Nils stood. Danton slowly lowered his head, interpreting her look and suspecting that she did not wish to alarm Nils.
“Well then, you will let us know if and when that happens.”
“I will,” Salinda replied and closed her eyes as Nils rubbed her back as he walked and she sat on her glide.
Danton squeezed his hands into fists. Things were about to get complicated. “Wing dust!” he said softly to the air in front of him. He increased his pace to join Brill up ahead. He might have to whisper in Brill’s ear to make sure the lad was ready.
It took most of the day to reach the next Way Gate. Nils and Garan whispered together for ages before even approaching it. Like there was some kind of rivalry between them about who knew the Ways better. Personally, Danton liked that there was more than one opinion. It gave him another level of reassurance.
Nils opened the Way and Garan stepped through. Nils held the Way Gate open. Danton whistled under his breath as he studied the design on the exterior. Now that he knew what they were, their design was distinctive. They weren’t all the same, just similar. He wasn’t sure what this design translated to. He guessed it was the name of the place the Way accessed.
Garan came out. “’Tis not safe. We need to skip this one and head for the next.”
“Damn,” Salinda said behind him.
Danton walked up to Nils and Garan. “Just how unsafe is it?”
Garan’s head shot up. “We are not far enough away from the collapsed section.”
“We are past it though, right?” Danton asked.
Garan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes,” he said after a time, “but I do not—”
“I don’t think we can afford to spend the night out here. And as we are all going to die if we don’t get to the machine in time, maybe we should risk it.”
Nils blanched at his remark. Garan just tilted his head slightly to one side. “Your point is well made. But if there is another collapsed section barring our passage we will have to double back to this Way Gate.”
“Can you tell if this section is collapsed at any point?” Danton asked.
“The signal here is not strong, it could mean there is damage. We could aim for the next gate. It is not far. This land was densely populated and there are many gates.”
“If there are many Way Gates then maybe we won’t have to backtrack far. I say we go for it,” Danton said.
“Very well, we will enter here.” Garan looked around. “The water is less in this area so we will probably not have to worry about flooding.”
Nils opened the Way Gate again and Garan stepped inside.
Following, Salinda slipped past him on her glide. “I didn’t realize you were such a pessimist. I hope to die of old age. What about you?”
“I already am old.”
Salinda laughed and disappeared inside. Brill gripped the supply glide tether and entered, followed closely by Karol, Laidan and Eneit. Nils waited to shut the Way Gate after himself.
It was instantly dark. Normally, it was possible to see a little in the Ways, the dull gray walls casting some light, but this was pitch-black. Danton could taste dust and damp.
“Lights,” Danton called. “We need lights.”
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