by Robert Currer
Part 2: Chapter 1
3,800 Words: 15 Minute Read
The frenzied yipping of coyotes carried on the wind. Ebrik listened to their overture as he watched the campfire dart and whirl in the gusts. Across the flames, Ayders shivered. He was a lizard of a man, all sinew and sun-leathered flesh, with a wild gray beard. “I ain’t never got used to the noise,” he said, pulling closer to the fire, “Especially, the night before a job. Sounds like demons tuning up the orchestra.”
“Just the symphony of The Wastes,” said Ebrik. He tapped his knuckles against the dead log on which he sat, wishing luck to the wily hunters. His years in the ODF had sparked a fondness for coyotes. They were lone hunters, who survived by cunning more than their brawn. He could relate. Without thinking, he glanced down at the conscription eye tattooed on his forearm. It had faded to almost white, the toxin within long since spent.
Something in the dark screamed and all but Ebrik startled.
“You really telling us none of this spooks you?” said Urwin. The mountainous man stoked the fire, sending orange light dancing over his bulging muscles.
Ebrik stood dusting off his pant legs. “It’s when the night goes quiet that you have to worry.”
The big man snorted. “You’ve got more balls than brains.” He pushed himself to his feet, and retrieving a blanket from his pack, wrapped it around his uncle’s bony shoulders. Ayders patted his nephew’s hand in thanks.
“He does have a point,” said Burshel, glancing up from his book. With his over-sized head and owl eyes, he looked like a baby bird compared to his older brother, Urwin. “Native species like the coyote have more refined senses than we do. They would be alert to a significant threat long before we would take notice.”
“If you say so,” said Urwin. He lifted his brother’s canteen and gave it a shake, frowning at the sound of the sloshing water. He handed it back and said, “I want you to finish this before you go to sleep. We’ve got plenty more. I don’t want you dehydrated.”
Burshel looked put out. His eyes darted to Ebrik for support. “Hydrate or die,” said Ebrik, quoting one of Salmin’s favorite aphorisms. Pouting, Burshel sipped his water.
Ebrik strolled to the edge of the ridge where they had camped among the boulders and stared into the basin below. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the thready moonlight of the cloud blanketed night. A field of tumbled pillars and jutting stone filled the basin’s floor. At its center, an arcade ringed a circle of standing stones which enclosed a black slab. An altar, he guessed. It was hard to say at this distance in this light. The prospect of it sent a shiver down his spine. The way the stones were arranged, the way they caught the ghostly light, they might have been specters circling a corpse. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.
He’d been doing this kind of mercenary-guide work in The Wastes for a little over a year now, ever since he finished his tour with the ODF. Most of it was pretty routine and the money wasn’t bad. But religious sites still gave him the creeps. More often than not they still had the true magic in them, not that alchemical hocus-pocus peddlers passed off. They had the real stuff which meant they were good places to strike it rich and even better places to die.
Returning to the fire ring, he unfastened his bedroll from his bag and laid it in the sand by the warmed stones. He eased himself down onto his side facing away from the flame. Looking back over his shoulder at the others, he said, “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.” With that, he closed his eyes and slept dreamlessly through the night.
The morning came with a sky of brush stroke clouds in pastels limed in golden light. By that time, Ebrik and his clients had packed their things and were leading a team of mules along the narrow foot path that wound down the rocky slope. The sun had risen over the jagged horizon when they reached the bottom. Already the sand that stretched between them and the drunken line of tumbled stones that marked the edge of the ruin shimmered in the heat. As they made their way across, a scalding wind tugged at the loose cloth of their garments and scooped up the sand at their feet. Eddies formed in the wind’s current creating whorls of sand like half-pint tornadoes. Ebrik’s hand drifted to his sword, determined to be ready for what might form, but the whirling sand drifted away only to scatter once more.
Just inside the edge of the ruin, they sheltered the mules in the only standing corner of a fragmented wall. With poles and a tarp, Ebrik and Ayders created shade for the beasts while the brothers unburdened and watered them. By midmorning, they hoisted their packs and set out toward the center of the ruin. Ebrik took lead, his sword drawn, shield still slung on his back. He picked his way among the litter of stone blocks, each rounded and warped by the centuries of grating wind. No trees or grasses grew here. It was a dead place like a colossal skeleton trapped in the shifting sands. The wind curled through the rubble like a moan as they grew closer to the center. When they were within sight of the arcade ring, Ebrik signaled halt and listened. He couldn’t find anything masked by the groaning breeze, but that did nothing to ease the knots in his shoulders. They crept to the shelter of the arcade, Ebrik insisting they find a spot where they could stand on solid stone instead of sand.
The arcade pillars were made of mortared sandstone blocks. Where once carvings had decorated their sides, time had worn nearly all away, giving them a gnawed look like a bone scarred by the jaws of a massive hound. They paused in the shade. As Ayders and Urwin wet their parched lips, Burshel already had his notebook and pencils in hand, sketching every detail he could manage. Ebrik squinted through the blinding sun at the circle of standing stones. They were thrust up from the earth like shards of black glass, still razor sharp and gleaming even after all this time. That was a mixed blessing at best. The Wastes were a cruel mistress, grinding down all that dared enter their embrace. Here anything that repelled the scarring climate had power, and power cut both ways.
Ebrik rapped his knuckles thrice on the column and then took a long drink from his canteen. Even warm, the water was fresh melt over the dry creek bed of his throat. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and turned to his clients. “Listen up.” He spoke in a hushed voice, in case the stones had ears. “Stick close to me when we get to the standing stones. There’s something unnatural about them and I don’t want to find that out the hard way.”
“You mean like magic—true magic?” asked Burshel. His owl eyes sparkled.
The brothers looked at each other with schoolboy grins. Ayders took the news with professional stoicism, but he couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes. Greed wasn’t an uncommon trait among men in Ayders’ profession which is why Ebrik preferred to work with small family companies where blood ties could balance out one’s lesser nature.
“Focus,” barked Ebrik at the boys, though it was as much meant for their uncle as it was for them. “This shit could go sideways real quick. Stay on task and we all get paid, we all make it home. Understood?”
Urwin and Burshel stood up a little straighter looking like a bear next to a plucked goose. Their heads bobbed in agreement. “Yes, sir!”
Good little soldiers. Ebrik resisted a grin. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to end up sounding like Salmin.
Good to their word, they stuck close as Ebrik lead them from the arcade. He moved first around the circumference of the standing stones, examining each at a distance before slinking on to the next. At every pause in their path, Burshel sketched frantically as if terrified he would miss even the most insignificant detail. More than once, Urwin had to guide him by the shoulder around a bit of rubble so that he wouldn’t trip with his nose in his book.
When they had made the full loop, Ebrik signaled for them to stay crouched in the dwindling shadow of one of the blade-like stones. He passed his pack off to Urwin and moved to the threshold of the gap between two stones. Their razor blade edges were split so thin that they were translucent like smoked glass, like they could split the very seams of the world. He took a deep breath and crossed the threshold. The air eased shakily from his lungs when nothing happened.
He stalked toward the thick obsidian slab that sat like a table in the center. The sun flashed off its sharp planes, dazzling Ebrik so that he was forced to adjust the wide brim of his hat to avoid the glare. As he slipped alongside, eyes scanning, he could feel the crackle of dormant energy that pulsed from the altar like the charge in the air before a summer storm. Channels had been cut into the slab that intersected at right angles and dropped over the side. Otherwise, the hunk of rock was unsculpted.
A lump settled into Ebrik’s throat. Faith demanded sacrifice in Karask Rev, usually of the physical variety, and there were only a few sacrifices that would flow through channels on an altar. He was betting it wasn’t wine. Ebrik’s head swiveled sharply around as his eyes hunted for some sign of snare or missed threat. The only movement was dust tumbling on the sighing wind.
His eyes fell to the standing stones, their dagger-like shape stabbing upward as if to pierce the sky itself. A cloud drifted across the sun and the shifting light caught the edge of something carved into the glassy surface. He crept closer, brow furrowing to find an entire relief had been sculpted into the face of the stone. In fact, all of the nine standing stones had a relief carved into their inky faces. Each was unique but the same three figures reappeared again and again: a shrouded man with a bulging purse, a woman with hair that flowed like water, and a child in a flower crown. What did they mean?
“Is it safe?” asked Burshel, craning his long neck out of the shadow.
“Yeah…” said Ebrik, still turning the scenes over in his mind. He blinked and forced himself to refocus. “Yes, you can come out. Just take it slow and be careful.”
The three emerged and Ayders let out a long, low whistle. “Well, howdy do. This is a mighty fine sign.” His thin lips split into a grin of yellowed teeth.
Burshel looked overwhelmed. He staggered through the sand from each stone to the next, his mouth hanging open. When he finally remembered himself, he darted to the nearest obsidian shard and, before Ebrik could stop him, began taking a rubbing of the relief. Scampering between them, he took rubbings of all nine, annotating his notes to indicate the location of each relief in the circle.
As he worked, the others spread out, searching the base and sides of the stones for a hidden cache or door. When their efforts ultimately proved fruitless, Ebrik wandered back to the altar. He paced slowly around it, trying to glean some insight into its secrets. He was ready to give up and suggest they explore the rest of the ruin, when Burshel wandered over, flipping through his notes and sketches. The sun gleamed off the young man’s spectacles.
“Curious,” said Burshel. His head cocked in an avian way.
“What is?” asked Ebrik.
“What?” Burshel’s big eyes blinked as if registering Ebrik’s presence for the first time.
“Oh! The carvings. They’re from an old children’s fable. Odd to find them out here.”
Ayders ambled over on his bow-legged gait. “What’s this about a yarn?” he asked, holding his straw hat on his head as a gust of wind ruffled the brim.
“Look at the scenes together. They’re telling Death’s Daughter.” Burshel pointed to a stone, the smoked glass surface depicting the shrouded man and the water-haired woman holding a baby with a flower crown.
“I see it,” said Urwin, sounding more than a little awed by the revelation.
Ebrik wrestled with himself for a moment. He had learned a lot in the eight years he had been living in Karask Rev, but there were still some gaps in his knowledge. Trying to keep the embarrassment from his voice, he asked, “What’s Death’s Daughter?” When the question generated looks of confusion from his three companions, he added, “I’m not from around here.”
He could see more questions bubbling on Burshel’s lips and was grateful when Ayders headed them off. Fanning himself with his hat, the old scavenger said, “That’s a yarn I ain’t told in a long time. Why Urwin must have been knee-high to a dune beetle the last time. But if we are going to be telling tales, let’s find some shade to sit in.”
Back in the close-cut shadow of a standing stone, Ayders eased himself to the ground with a sigh. He waved the others to sit around him with such aplomb that Ebrik could imagine him gathering the brothers as boys to his knee for their nightly story. Indeed, the brothers must have felt it too as they both looked like dew-eyed children eager to hear of the wonders of the wide world beyond their hearth. He wondered if those same stories were the reason they had followed their uncle into his unforgiving profession.
When the boys had stilled, Ayders began. “One day when The Wastes were still green and the mountains still growing, Life and Death had a daughter. They called her Dorsteny, goddess of nature, and they loved her with all their hearts. She was a sweet girl with hair the color of autumn leaves and a voice like a songbird. She could run like the deer and swim like the fish, and nothing delighted her more than to do just that. Her daddy Odpok, god of death, loved to watch her play and went with her everywhere she went. He taught her a whole mess of things like how the desert grasses die to feed the deer and how the deer die to feed the scorch wolves and how the wolves die to feed the grass. He taught her that she was both her mother and her father, both life and death dancing in perfect harmony and that rebirth comes to all things in one form or another. Dorsteny loved her daddy and hung on his every word.”
A tiny grin crested Ebrik’s face as he watched the brothers, sitting cross-legged in front of their uncle, drinking up every word. The sight was made all the more humorous by the fact that Urwin, even seated, towered over Ayders.
“Her mama Boj, goddess of life, wasn’t near as doting,” continued Ayders. “She taught her daughter that all life was a struggle, that only trial gave it meaning, only by suffering was it made special. That was why mamas suffer labor pains, why we bleed when we fall, and why life is taken from those who don’t fight for it.
“As I said, Dorsteny loved her daddy best. This made Boj jealous and so one day she took her daughter out to the wilds, Dorsteny’s favorite place, and said ‘Today, I give you a gift my baby girl. Today I make your life special.’ And with that she transformed Dorsteny into a fish and plopped her in the water. Then she watched, waiting for her daughter to be caught by an animal or a fisher. But Dorsteny was too cunning for all that. She soon grew grew into a great salmon and became queen of the rivers. Frowning, Boj summoned a drought and shrank the mighty rivers to a trickle. Dorsteny was too big by now to breath in so little water and she began to flounder. Still, she would not give up. She opened her mouth to suck in the air and in the doing grew lungs. Then she pulled herself from the stream and waddled her way to the Sweet Water, which was then still fresh and not yet befouled by Ol’ Skulls.”
Ol’ Skulls. Everyone loved to blame him, an entity no one had ever seen, for all the misfortune in this life. It had been Tharp’s constant refrain until the devil had been promoted out of West Watch. Ebrik glanced to the horizon where, even at this distance, he could just make out the outline of Odpok’s Finger, the spire of windswept rock where Bone Watch Keep was supposed to roost.
“Dorsteny’s success enraged mama Boj. She transformed her daughter into a deer and set a pack of scorch wolves upon her. But Dorsteny could run like no other, and she outpaced the wolves. Boj growled her discontent and threw steep mountains up to block Dorsteny’s path. But Death’s daughter was wilier still. She shortened her legs and made herself small like a goat. Then she bounded up the mountain, from rock to rock, to places where the wolves could not follow. Outwitted, Boj screamed and stamped her foot. Her stomp made the whole earth tremble and her shriek sent boulders fleeing down the mountain slopes. Dorsteny was caught in the landslide and crushed.”
Burshel and Urwin each let out a tiny gasp as Ayders leaned in close and smashed the imaginary Dorsteny in his knobbly fist.
“Odpok scooped up his daughter and brushed the stones from her hair. He took her to his kingdom deep in the earth and laid her out on a bed to rest. When she awoke, she was so upset that she had failed that she sobbed tears so mighty that they filled whole caverns. Odpok wiped away her tears and looked into her golden eyes. ‘You can try again,’ he said. ‘Like all things, you get to try life again.’ When she was ready, they walked hand and hand back to the realm of the living where Dorsteny could struggle once more.”
The moaning wind filled the delicate hush that fell between them as Ayders finished the story. The boys looked spellbound and Ebrik had to fight a smile. All grown up and still just big kids.
Now wasn’t the time for such thoughts though. He pulled himself back from the dreamy land of story with a shake of his head. “So how does that help us?” he asked.
Urwin looked to Ayders who only shrugged. Polishing his glasses, Burshel said, “Obviously, it has some kind of significance, some clue as to the ritual conducted here. If we can figure out the ritual, perhaps we can learn more—and find something of value.” He added the last bit for his relatives who looked less enthusiastic about braving the ruins for intellectual pursuits alone.
“Okay, so it’s a story about the struggles of life and resurrection. What does that tell us?” asked Ebrik.
“Well, the iconography on these ruins would indicate that the temple was dedicated to Odpok, deity of death,” said Burshel, “And—”
“We’ve got to kill something!” said Urwin looking elated that he had puzzled out the solution.
Burshel’s eyes narrowed at his brother as he continued. “And we know that Odpok plays a supportive, paternal role in the story. Likewise, Dorsteny doesn’t actually die but suffers a symbolic death before being welcomed into Odpok’s loving arms.” He looked around at the others as if the solution was now obvious.
“So… we’ve got to play at dying?” asked Ayders feeling through the words like he was dipping a toe in the bath to check the temperature.
Burshel buried his face in his hands with a groan. Ayders looked at Urwin who shrugged back.
The memory of the altar came back to Ebrik. It was rough cut and unshaped save for two perpendicular grooves. Only a few kinds of liquid were ever sacrificed on an altar. His throat went dry. “Blood,” he said. “He means blood.”
Burshel beamed. “Glad to know someone was paying attention! Yes, I would guess that we’ll need to make a sacrifice of blood on the altar to enact the ritual. Don’t look at me that way. It shouldn’t take much blood. It’s a symbolic death, remember?” The excitement had pulled him to his feet and the others stood to join him looking considerably less enthusiastic. Burshel bounded toward the altar as they trailed behind.
They had drifted into a circle around it when Burshel asked the question. “So, who will it be?” His smile was almost as lurid as the afternoon sun as he looked at his assembled companions.
Ebrik took a deep breath and said, “I’ll do—”
“I’ll do it,” said Urwin. He patted Ebrik on the back. “This is a family job, and it should be a family sacrifice.” He looked to his uncle and brother for some kind of agreement. Burshel cocked his head, examining Urwin as if he was some unknown specimen. Ayders just looked at him like he was crazy.
“Urwin, I can do it,” said Ebrik.
“No. Really, it’s okay. It should be one of us.” Urwin forced a smile. “Besides, it’s just a little cut.”
With a resigned nod, Ebrik drew a long hunting knife and passed it hilt first to the bigger brother. Balling his hand into a fist, Urwin held his arm over the altar. He took a steadying breath and then made a single quick slash across this forearm. Crimson blood filled the wound like a well and then dribbled down the curve of his muscle, forming a red tributary. It gathered in a line of droplets that swelled until they could cling to the flesh no longer and fell, splattering against the glassy, black stone with the pitter-patter of rain.
There was a rumble like thunder, and the ground shook beneath their feet. The altar slid to the side, revealing a darkened staircase that spiraled into the earth. A gust blew out from the opening that gripped Ebrik’s chest like an icy hand. On it, he could smell the musky scent of old graves. They would be descending into Odpok’s kingdom. He prayed resurrection wouldn’t be their only way out.
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