After some hard riding, we found ourselves near the south-end of the Rift. Our muscles were sore and our minds generally fatigued from the dream that had plagued our last two harrowing nights. Not having ridden a horse, for about fifteen years in my equal number of summers, made it all the more challenging.
The humidity in the air was growing, threatening to choke us in our saddles. I was glad when we stopped, being clear of Bazaar and spying eyes. The two other Watchmen took the horses to a watering hole while we quenched our own thirsts. The sky was becoming more and more grey. Daryck and Salor came over to us.
” I heard you had some problems at Medusa’s !” Daryck said. ” The Abyss can be a trying place, but where you’re going is far worse for the likes of you. Fallen are punished by death for being spotted near the Great Hill or the Hunting Paths. We’re not there yet, but here’s where you must make a decision. Neither one is great.”
We looked at him and began to understand the danger we were putting ourselves into. Since our exile we had never ventured farther than Bazaar or the surrounding lands of Sanctuary. Now, we were planning on going into the center of Tribal lands to witness some great event. Into an area that, if we were seen or glimpsed by watchers, all of our lives would be over. No questions, no remorse, no record. Just gone.
” What are our options?” Cinder asked.
” To make time and to ensure you get there before midnight, we could escort you, but . . .”
” But what!?” I said.
” We would have to take you in as prisoners into Mortuary. It would be safer. . . the traveling, but once we reach there, someone with more influence could take control of you. We would have to stage an escape, or sneak you in to be safe.” Daryck said.
” I don’t like it.” Cinder said. Chigger, Mana, and I nodded in agreement. ” What’s our other choice?”
” We point you in the right direction and you head there yourselves. There’s two ways to go. Straight west towards Mortuary and then north, into the Great Hill. It’s the easiest path to follow, but again, you might be seen. The second path is to follow the Rift into the Discarded Lands and cut west when you see the signs to the Hunting Paths. They’re easy to see, for they have big warning signs against non-tribal trespassers.” Daryck finished and answered a few details for us. We then took about ten minutes to seriously come to a conclusion. This was our big choice and all other events of the coming day would unfold off of this one decision.
We decided to go on our own.
Daryck and Salor wished us luck and the protection of the Goddess. We parted and I felt strange. I had almost forgotten, after everything Daryck did for us, that he was a Joanite. What, was I going soft?!
We trudged our way through the knotted woods and derelict buildings along the Rift. We didn’t say much along the way, just kept walking. By the time we reached the entrance to the Hunting Paths on the south-east side it was early afternoon. We figured about five or six hours, barring unseen circumstances, to reach our destination. The Paths didn’t go straight and often became quite steep or treacherous. That, and we had to keep track of where we were. Lucky thing we were Dahlians and Chigger made certain we were heading in the right direction. The trails crossed at times and Chigger used her Eminence of Motion to feel which way was Mortuary.
The sky continued to darken overhead, and the canopy of thick trees soon blocked out the sun. After we were well into the Paths, it started to rain.
Our progress was slowed tremendously as the trail started to be confused with streams and the side bushes crept inwards. Rocks and slopes became extremely slow-going, but we forced ourselves to keep from rushing forward. A broken ankle was no better for us than slowing for a few hours due to conditions.
The rain let up for about an hour and we pushed ahead. An hour later, we heard horses coming. We dove into the bushes, hiding from whoever came forth. Of course it was Joanites! Six of them! They were riding with plenty of equipment and seemed tired. They stopped several feet from us and the two up front spoke.
” Why must we go to Bazaar? I hate it there. It’s nothing like what it used to be, having become a den of thieves and greedy merchants. I plan on leaving as soon as possible.” said the helmed rider.
” It is for a good cause – our Fatima’s cause. Never forget that. Our Devotion is what makes us strong and in the coming time, that will be strengthened and remembered. It’s a great thing happening here, and we are a part of it . . . will be a part of it. Aren’t you proud?!” said the second rider with blonde hair.
” Of course, but I don’t want to be mistaken for a member of the Watch! Imagine the shame of it all!” The others all laughed at this apparent joke.
” Come on! We must reach Bazaar before dark, or at least get out of these woods by then. There is a Yagan village on the outskirts. Let’s make for that.”
They rode away, allowing us to remove ourselves from the damp and wet undergrowth.
” What was that all about?” I asked.
” I don’t know,” said Cinder ” But it’s something big, and I don’t know if I like it.”
There was no use of speculating, so we carried on, waiting for the night and with it, more rain.
” There’s something in the woods”
” Yes I see it. It has red eyes. Shine your torch . . . wait . . . where did it go?”
” Let’s move, I don’t want to know what it is.”
” There it is again, run!”
” It’s following us, let’s get out of here!”
” No, there’s more of them. There’s more eyes in the woods.”
” Cinder look out!”
It leapt at Cinder and grasped her by the left shoulder with its snarling maw. She stumbled and Chigger and I continued to run as Mana swung her sword at it. I glanced back. ” Chigger look out!” I yelled. Another creature lunged at her, but a howl broke the wind and it backed off. Chigger jumped towards it. “No! Chigger don’t!”
The wolf snapped at her, catching her below the knee and dragging her small frame to the ground. I swung my long staff at it and smashed it against its jaw. It bolted back into the woods. Chigger was screaming in pain. ” Ah, Shit. Chigger, don’t look. It’s really bad.”
Just as I was stemming the flow of blood, Mana came around the corner supporting an injured Cinder. We looked like we were in bad shape. Mana began making a splint for Chigger, who had lost a lot of blood and was looking groggy. After Mana secured Chigger’s wound, she turned her attention to Cinder. Both sisters were in poor condition. Damn, and we were so close.
I wasn’t going to give up. I helped Chigger to her feet and Mana helped Cinder. We carried on into the rainy, dark forest.
We soon saw the torches that surrounded the ruins of Mortuary. It was a gigantic, old building with a collapsed golden dome. We had made it! But where to now? That’s when I saw someone in the shadows up ahead. I told the others to wait and went to investigate. The sight that greeted me was more shocking than I could have imagined.
” Guys, someone’s here.” They all looked up.
Bastion looked at the group in silence. His eyes met with Cinder’s and she nodded to assure him that she was okay.
” We’re not far from the ritual, and we have about a half an hour before midnight. If you can. . . come!” He then started climbing up a slope, off the path. I helped Chigger but there was no way she was going to make it up the incline. Bastion saw my difficulty and came back for her, lifting her over one shoulder and then
continuing his climb.
We reached a clearing and the rain started to pour as though it would flood the world. We snuck to the edge and looked in upon something I had seen only in my dreams.
Flat rocks covered the ground, scattered about the clearing forming little islands in the puddles. Figures stood around the perimeter of the circle, each one holding a torch, their bodies clothed in marked and tattooed skin. A single person stood in the center, their eyes sown shut with burn marks around them. She was completely naked and seemed quite young for a Yagan. The ritualists on the outside were chanting in a deep, resonating fashion, and were swaying in the wind. Lightning cracked the sky as the blind Yagan began her high pitched squealing song. It felt strange, the wind and the weather – almost surreal or magical.
The chanting was rising to an epiphany and the song was increasing in speed and tempo. I glanced at my cell mates and Bastion. Chigger was holding her hands to the side of her head and seemed extremely afraid. Her injury was festering in the mud and she was delirious. Cinder was watching the events keenly, almost dissecting each move and motion in turn with the chanting and foreign lyrics. Mana had a look of resolve on her face. She appeared like a cat ready to spring into action. Bastion seemed like he was timing something; like he knew what was going to happen. The sky parted over the circle, allowing the full-moon to shine brilliantly down on the center Yagan. More bright flashes filled the sky, setting the place a-glow.
The skins of the ritualists flew up and around their bodies, flapping wrathfully in the torrent of rain and wind.
” The moment is at hand,” said Bastion. ” Get ready.”
We set our weapons before us, not knowing what to expect. Only what I was fearing from my dreams. The ritualists started to approach the center Yagan, drawing long, thin blades from their sides. They completely encircled her, and raised their blades over their heads. I held my breath.
The blood flew all over, splattering the ground and flowing into the cracks of the mud. As the murderers stepped away from their sacrifice, the body of the Yagan, broken and bloody, sank into the softened dirt. She completely disappeared as the ritualists turned away, their eyes closed and mouths continuing the chant.
Worms and insects rose from the ground all around us, surrounding us in a pool of bugs. The trees looked petrified and rotten, barren of all leaves and signs of life.
It happened then. An arm breached the ground, hand outstretched and groping for the sky. The rest of the mud-covered body rose from the ground and levitated, slowly turning in circles. She was dead. Blood ran from her wounds, and bone and flesh was torn from their natural locations. A pure blue line shot from the sky and struck the dead Yagan. Her body began to contort and pull, muscles ripping from bones, as though she was turning inside out. Bones started to fly up from the muddy ground, attaching themselves to her lifeless body. She was being stretched and elongated, a sick and wicked looking form attempting to take shape. The shape of a weapon! A spear of flesh, and blood , and bone.
“Now!” yelled Bastion. ” Now, get the spear!”
We ran headlong into the circle, our weapons screaming overhead and descending in arcs that met with death. The ritualists were still in a trance and gave little resistance. We were murdering them, and they were completely helpless to stop it. I saw Cinder and Bastion make straight for the spear, destroying anyone in their path. Chigger was nowhere to be seen.
Cinder grabbed the spear and I heard Bastion yell for her to let it go, that he should take it. I saw the spear of flesh attempt to suck Cinder’s bones from her body, hoping to make her a part of it. She was resisting with all of her might and screaming at the top of her lungs. The pain must have been excruciating. All of her veins were seeking to explode from her skin, creasing her body with purple and red lines. Bastion grabbed her and tore her away from the center of the circle.
” Fight it!” he was yelling. ” Fight it, Cinder!”
We opened a path of escape, Mana and I, and yelled for Bastion to follow. Mana fought her way to Chigger and we all went tumbling down the slope. Just before I fell, I saw a brilliant flash of light and the flesh-spear sucked itself into Cinder’s eyes, disappearing from sight. A whisper went through the air. It said, ‘Fate and Destiny are but one.’
I landed with a crash, but luckily the foliage broke my fall. The others were here and I saw Bastion helping Cinder to her feet. We ran.
I woke up at the bank of a river. We had collapsed from exhaustion. The sun was beating down on us and it appeared that it had never rained at all. I quickly looked around for the others and saw them scattered about. Bastion was talking to Cinder, who had a very serene look on her face. Chigger was sleeping and Mana looked like she had just gotten up.
Later on Chigger was asking what happened to the spear and we all looked very sad. I don’t know if we gave her a straight answer or not, but I was starting to comprehend the consequences of what had happened. We had acquired a means to rescue Slash and destroy the Sangis, but at what cost? Somehow, I didn’t want to know. Bastion was feeling extremely depressed. As though he fully knew what was to come. He was telling Cinder that he should have been the one to grab the spear. That she didn’t know what a horrible thing it actually was to be ‘chosen’. Cinder simply lay her faith in her destiny and said it was meant to be.
We began our journey back to Hom, and happened upon an Evan trade caravan. To our luck, the father, Dan and daughter, Leanne, that helped the girls out during the rust storm were there. They tended to Chigger’s leg ( Cinder’s wounds were gone) and offered us a ride in their wagon to the Fallen bridge. I was pleased with their company. We’re going to heal up a bit and get some rest now. It has been a long few days and the Bin is looking more like home than ever.
But don’t worry Slash . . . we’re coming.