The path leading from Bazaar up the Great Hill was all that remained of an ancient roadway, long since broken up and overgrown. Only isolated patches of blacktop and a few large ancient buildings resisting collapse were reminders of the World Before. By the time we entered the woods surrounding the base of the hill the sun had burned through the morning fog and we could see the dome of Mortuary above the trees. The forest seemed peaceful, but Kileg scouted ahead and behind us for any danger.
“I have the sword that killed Nyeda,” I said to Den’a, bringing my horse alongside the wagon. “I didn’t know if it would be useful to you.”
“It will.” Her voice was soft and childlike.
I studied her for a moment. “You are very young for being in one of the Sisterhoods.”
“Not all of us are old hags.” She smiled, the barest upturn of her mouth.
“I did not mean offense. I thought Yagan arts need many years of study.”
“For some, yes. For others, it is more nature than study.” Her eyes met mine. They were a peculiar dark blue, almost violet. “Just as I’m sure there are some who take better to killing than others.”
“What are you going to do with the boy? Is he sick?”
“I will find the nature of his sin and purify him. You will have the truth about your murdered comrade and Joan will have justice.”
“Purify? I thought only Marians could do that…”
“It’s not polite to invoke a dead Fatima, Templar.” Her eyes glittered. “Sin has deep roots, and mere absolution is not enough for true purity.”
“So, why him? Why do you need me?”
“There is a lot I cannot tell you, Cara Gray’on. I am simply a servant of Baba Yaga and follow the instruction of my elders. As for you, the Grave Fields can be dangerous and I require a protector while I work. Guy Nostra’on did not seem happy with your actions yesterday. I believe he is punishing you.”
I nodded and thanked her for her honesty. Kileg had returned and motioned for me to join him, so I excused myself and guided my horse to his. He told me the way was clear except for Joanite hunters tracking some Squats who had headed into the Hunting Paths. I related my conversation with Den’a and the dream I had the night before, confessing my concerns about the situation. Kileg was silent for a long while, his eyes constantly searching the edge of the path ahead as he considered what I had said. Finally he asked to see the sword, examining it closely while he guided his horse with his knees.
“I think this metal is from a fallen star,” He said finally.
“The Falling Plagues? Why do you say that?”
“I have seen one other blade like this, and was told it had been forged from a fallen star. It was a Joshuan blade. I took it off of a Squat, who claimed another Squat had killed an old Joshuan Outrunner and stolen it. I didn’t believe her, thought it was some old metal someone had banged into a sword shape, but when I returned to Vimary I was ordered to bring it to Joan’s Tower and never saw it again.”
“Who did you give it to?”
“Nostra Guy’on.” Kileg lowered his voice. “These swords are rare. Not something a boy would find in a plowed field. You’re right Cara, and this blade may hold part of the answer. Forgive me, but Nostra Guy’on is a snake. I’m not even sure he fought during the Liberation, as much as he runs away from it now. He’d let the Z’bri walk right into Joan’s Tower if he thought it would make him look good.”
I looked back at the wagon. Den’a was sitting with her face slightly upturned toward the dappled sunlight while the young girl was concentrating on driving the wagon. The two boys sat on either side of Robbo, who was sitting perfectly still staring into space. One of the boys was sharpening his knife while the second started at his feet.
“Please watch what you say.” My voice was barely above a whisper. “You can’t tell who or what might be listening, even here.”
“Joan hardly speaks to anyone. She did to you for a reason. Just remember that.” He handed the cloth bundle containing the sword back to me. I shook my head, in confusion more than disbelief. There were too many missing pieces, and the pieces I did have didn’t make any sense. The Sin Eater, and whatever she was going to do, seemed like the only hope I had.
The crumbling dome at the top of the Great Hill loomed large ahead of us as we followed the meandering trail until it turned us toward the Grave Fields. Branches intertwined over our heads, the way ahead becoming a tunnel through the trees and underbrush. The familiar sounds of the forest, the clop of horses’ hooves and clatter of wagon wheels became muted in the soft carpet of leaves. The girl driving the wagon hunkered down, gripping the reins tighter, and the boys jumped at every cracking branch or rustle in the brush. Kileg strung his bow and rested it on the saddle in front of him, muttering to himself as his eyes swept the way in front of us.
Near midday the tunnel began to widen until the trees, patches of blacktop and occasional crumbling wall or rusted hulk of a metal chariot gave way to a rolling plain dotted with gnarled copses, broken stone slabs and small buildings. Columns and sculptures were scattered randomly about, leaning haphazardly or half-buried on their sides. The sky was a vast expanse of gray punctuated by the stark silhouettes of giant ravens wheeling overhead.
The lurching and jolting of the wagon on the rough ground threatened to throw the boys and Robbo from the back, so the girl was forced to stop. Den’a clambered down and proclaimed we would have to continue on foot. It was the first she had spoken since earlier in the morning.
“What about the horses?” Kileg asked.
“We’ll need to leave one of those three behind. One that I trust,” I replied. I motioned to the girl. “You’ll need to stay with the horses. Tie these two to the wagon. If anything happens, take the wagon and the horses back to Mortuary and get word to the Watchtower.” She nodded, trying her best to look brave. “We’ll be back as soon as we’re finished, I’m sure you will do fine. You two, get Robbo out of the wagon. Carefully.”
We all walked a short distance then Den’a stopped just out of sight of the wagon. She produced a small bowl and some long strips of linen from a bag. “You do not want to attract unwanted attention,” she said, placing the bowl on a nearby rock and mixing a small amount of thick paste. “If you would allow me, I will need to mark you.”
Kileg hesitantly agreed and I nodded. She took a small amount of the paste on two fingers and smeared some on all of our foreheads and cheeks, even Robbo, then instructed for us to wrap the linen around our heads. It was muslin, much like her own covering, but like gauze. It could be seen and breathed through easily enough. She then marked herself and wrapped her own fabric around her head. We continued onward into the Grave Fields on foot with Den’a in the lead.
Descending into the Grave Fields we found ourselves in a labyrinth of mausoleums, crypts, stone, stunted trees and mist. Many of the entrances to the mausoleums and crypts were closed, either by rotting iron gates or more recent, crudely constructed barriers. The pitch blac
k openings all descended into the earth. Pennants and skins hung from many of the crypts, and I saw many markings I recognized – Tribal symbols, family names, clan sigils – and some that were altogether foreign to me. The structures seemed much taller than when we emerged from the forest. I chanced a look back once and found a totally different landscape than the one we had traveled through moments before. Aside from the ravens, we saw no other living thing.
After a couple hours of following Den’a through the fields, picking our way carefully through the rock and brush, our group came upon a small hill dotted with sickly trees. A slightly worn trail led up to an opening near the crown of the hill, framed by three rough stone slabs decorated with brightly painted patterns and charcoal drawn symbols. Poles bearing dried human skins stood to either side of the entrance.
“Looks like the right place,” Kileg said quietly.
“I will continue with Robbo from here,” Den’a turned to face me. “I will need you to wait, but you cannot accompany me for the ritual.”
“You can’t be expected to handle him by yourself,” I answered skeptically.
“I will not be, the boys will accompany me. They witnessed the incident, I need them as well.”
“W-we didn’t actually see…” one of them interjected.
“You have a part in this,” she said. Her voice held an edge I had not heard before.
“And my part?” I asked.
“The ritual I must perform is very delicate, and I cannot be interrupted. I will need you to insure I am not. It is going to be dark soon, and I have preparations to make. I will call for you when I am ready.” Den’a walked up the hill and disappeared inside the shadow of the entrance, carrying the sword and a number of bags she had brought with her in the wagon. A moment later a torch guttered to life just inside the entrance, throwing a dim glow against the walls. She disappeared down the passageway and did not return until it was almost dusk.
As Den’a exited the tomb Robbo began to mutter to himself, shaking his head back and forth and swaying on his feet. He had not made a sound the entire morning or afternoon. The linen over his face puffed in and out, sucked in against his mouth as he struggled to form words. I could not see the two boys’ faces, but they gripped the poles attached to Robbo’s collar so tightly their knuckles were white. Den’a walked up to Robbo, taking his hands into hers, and he immediately calmed down.. She tugged gently on his hands – he hesitated at first then began to follow her up the hill, the youths loosely holding the poles behind them.
Some instinct told me to draw me sword, and I did so with Kileg following suit. There the two of us stood, silently watching as darkness fell across the vast necropolis of the Grave Fields.