This will be the last week of snippets, since the eARC is out. Next week I'll be back to doing more regular posts.
Our heroine had travelled quite a ways...
Kyri looked up at the looming mountains ahead of her. It wasn't the first mountain range she'd seen since leaving Zarathanton, but it was by far the most forbidding she'd ever faced.
Of course, she admitted to herself, that might just be because I know what it is.
Now, for the first time in weeks, she felt uncertain. There was no one near to help her, no one to advise her, and no one to reassure her that she was on the right trail… or tell her she had gone terribly wrong.
And when facing the gray-black, knife-edged spires of Hell's Rim, the feeling of something gone terribly wrong was nearly the only sane reaction. Within that almost unbroken circle of mountains was a land of aberration and monstrosity, wracked by magical repercussions of battles and disasters that went back to the very Time of the Fall. The city of Hell's Edge existed for the singular and sole purpose of sealing the only existing pass into – or out of – Hell.
It wasn't, of course, any of the netherplanes that were variously called Hell by any of a dozen dozen religions, but by all accounts it was something maybe worse. It occurred to Kyri that the stories of Hell were very similar to those of Moonshade Hollow, on the other side of Rivendream Pass.
Maybe too similar. The thought made her shiver.
The problem before her, of course, was to find the Spiritsmith's forge. Unfortunately, given what Toron hadn't been able to tell her, the best guess she could make was that it was probably somewhere between the Gyre River and the next river flowing from the Rim – a river which didn't even seem to have a name on her map!
Kyri took a breath and got a firmer grip on both her pack and her resolve. Myrionar promised that I simply had to be true to It, and have faith. Not that I had to be right all the time. There would be small communities along the mountains – though not too near. And one of them would have to know something. After all, even the Spiritsmith, whoever and whatever he was, would have to get supplies from somewhere, unless he could just conjure them from nowhere. And even then, would he want to stay entirely alone for centuries?
Still, this could take a long time. I should be grateful for that wizard's help. Those few days had been terrifying and nearly fatal, and the old man himself had been disquietingly enigmatic… but without him, she'd still be… what, maybe not even to T'Tera, certainly nowhere near Asgard's Fortress, let alone all the way to the Rim past the Gyrefell Forest.
That's the part I should be most grateful for, she thought. Dalthunia – or whatever that country had become – controlled the region between the Ice Peaks and the Gyrefell. No one sane entered the Gyrefell, and when she went through Dalthunia before she'd been in a carriage, with Aunt Vickie, Ingram, and Quester; even then, there'd been some close calls, when she knew Aunt Vickie was afraid they'd be halted, searched, or worse by the soldiers. I might have been able to sneak through by myself… but now I don't have to. Thanks, old man, she thought to herself.
She paused, then turned, almost expecting to see that figure standing behind her. But there was nothing but forest and hills, wilderness bereft of any sign of civilization. What did he want with me?
Despite the eerie and frightening nature of the encounter, now that she truly understood how very strange that part of her travels had been, she found herself certain that whatever the old man really was, he wasn't an enemy. He'd certainly had the power to kill her at any time, especially now that she understood that the entire sequence of events must have been nothing more than his excuse to… what? Study her? Interrogate her? Place some unknown spell on her? Help her reach her goal, even though he shouldn't have known anything about it?
She gave a little laugh – somewhat shaky – and shrugged. I suppose I will only know if I ever meet him again. Or –
She topped a low ridge, and her train of thought was interrupted as she saw below her a village, wood and stone houses surrounded by fields with a reasonably well-defined center visible. It was close enough to make before nightfall, which was a definite plus. And maybe they'll have some answers for me.
But as she got closer, she heard the shouts, the screams, and realized, It's never quite that easy.
Drawing her sword, she broke into a run.
Kyri skidded to a halt in the rough center of the village. It was easy to tell where the trouble was coming from, since most people were running away from that direction. A few figures, apparently the people who served as guards or sherriffs, were advancing a little ways ahead of her. A hissing, rattling shriek came from that direction, and the guards hesitated.
She took advantage of the hesitation to catch up. "Anything I can do to help?" she said to the leader, who jumped slightly as she spoke.
The short, brown-haired man in metal-scaled leather glanced up at her, taking in her stance. "Adventurer?"
"Zarathanton Guilded," she said, uncovering the patch on her shoulder that glittered with the symbol of the Dragon King.
He looked back up the street, to where one of the houses seemed to squat threateningly, broken door like a gaping mouth, then sketched a complex symbol in the air which glowed slightly and settled on the patch; the crystal starburst-bolt glowed white. "Genuine, I see. Thank Chromaias, I don't like this one at all."
"What have you got?"
One of the other men, about the same height as the leader but wider, with a black beard and one brown eye – the other missing, a scar across the face showing what had happened – spoke up. "Not sure yet, ma'am. That’s Borshseth's place. She's still inside, think her husband is too. That," he pointed to a body lying in the dirt in front of the house, "looks like Kimsha. Dunno what he was doing there, thought he was out on patrol these last couple days."
Seeing her expression, the leader gave a wry grin. "I'll run it down for you quick. I'm Varji, that's Menka, these other two are Terrek and Fejri. Borshseth is Tinna Borshseth, she's one of our healers; alchemist mostly, a little regular magic of some kind. Kimsha's an ayr-kin." Kyri nodded, showing she recognized the word; it meant roughly "sweeper" and was an Artan word for a person who was a sort of hunter, outrider, and scout for a village. Not necessarily an official post, but one that could be very dangerous but also very lucrative. "People running by said they saw something in the doorway that cut Kimsha down, something with a lot of legs and fangs."
"Yeah, but not much past that," Menka grumbled "And you know scared people ain't much on seein' what's there, better at seein what they think is there."
"What's Borshseth's husband do? And do they have any children there?"
"Mostly he does whatever she says, but to answer your meaning, old Quil's a sage. He's a researcher, used to be Guild but that was way back."
Another screech, slightly softer this time. "So they're old?"
"No, Tinna's pretty young, actually. She's always picked 'em for their brains more than anything else. Quil's her third husband, see, since she came here 'bout ten years ago."
That's going through them pretty quickly. She saw Varji's raised eyebrow. He knew what she was thinking. "And…?"
"Actually, no. Not as far as I can tell. Tinna's tough and focused, but she's not that type. Wouldn't have gained anything from their deaths, as far as I could tell."
Time's passing fast. "Have you ever heard that … cry before?"
Varji shook his head; the others followed suit. "There's some things out there, especially right on the Rim, that sound sort of like that, but none that really sound the same."
Kyri took a deep breath. "Well, I guess I'd better go take a look."
She gave a quick prayer to Myrionar and focused; she could feel the faint tingle as she was bathed in protective power, energies that would stop or at least blunt any assaults.
Slowly she approached the house. Kimsha's body lay face-down, about five feet from the broken doorway. She studied the location, remembering how the Sauran Adjudicator, Toron, had acted when he arrived to investigate her parents' murders, and how she'd been taught by the Temple and others. The door had been broken open violently from the inside; fragments scattered as far as ten feet away confirmed this. There was a scuffed-looking section of Kimsha's leather armor with what looked like wood splinters in it; from that it appeared that he'd actually been what broke the door, which would indicate he'd been shoved or thrown into the door with tremendous force. Kimsha the Sweeper's left hand was in a half-closed position; a short-bladed sword lay not far off. He'd clearly kept hold of it as he passed through the door but dropped when he hit. There was a large pool of blood under him; Kyri slid her sword under and levered the body up gingerly, keeping a wary eye on the dark doorway.
Kimsha's chest was torn half-open; it looked almost shredded, and there looked to be another wound, a puncture, in his gut. Kyri let the body fall back, noting in passing that his right hand had a slight yellowish stain on it, and looked like it had also recently been burned.
She moved forward slowly, sword held so that she could cut or block quickly – and so that it would impede just about anything charging her. As her eyes adapted, she could see the inside of the large house was in chaos; furniture broken, blood on the floor and the walls, mingled with something that looked dark blue-green in the dim light.
Now a rising screech-hiss came from in front of her, and she saw something move away from her. She did not run forward, however; instead she stopped and surveyed the whole room. An upward glance caused another something that had been squatting on the ceiling to dart down and away through the same archway the first had. She had an impression of something long and low with many jointed legs, glinting with crystal and silver. Tried to catch me unawares from above, but I'm not quite that naïve.
"Is someone there? Kimsha? Help us, please!"
The voice was shaking, a woman's voice, and it came from the archway the creatures had fled down. Now that Kyri's eyes were fully adjusted, she could see that there would be no point in making the standard gesture for light; something had torn down the brackets and shattered the lightglobes that had been here. A very faint light, occasionally with a swift flicker as of something crossing between it and her, was visible through the archway. Cautiously, Kyri moved forward. Myrionar, help me see through Darkness to the Truth.
A soft light surrounded her at her prayer and gave her the ability to pick her way carefully through the wreckage and pass through the archway. A hallway ran at right angles to the archway, but there was also a set of wide stairs going down, clearly the direction the creatures had gone and the pleading voice had come from. Making sure there was nothing above her, Kyri made her way down the stairs.
The stairway opened up into a very large room – a modified cavern, it appeared – with multiple shelves and workbenches around it, the shelves filled with a myriad books, scrolls, tablets, and bottles and packets of various materials. At the far end of the room a lightglobe still glowed, but the scene revealed was far from comforting.
A mass of creatures – low, sinuous, large, perhaps twelve feet or more from end to end, intertwining so as to make counting them difficult – squirmed and clawed around what seemed an insubstantial barrier in the air. As she entered, two separated themselves from the mass and ran at her, scuttling on multiple pairs of legs, sideways-opening mandibles wide and showing a horrifying assembly of grasping, ripping appendages within. That's what tore Kimsha apart, no doubt about it.
She braced herself to meet the charge, but to her surprise the creatures simply lunged at her a few times, but well short of actual attack distance, as though they were trying to just drive her back, and then retreated to sit about a quarter of the way from the main group. Kyri could see another figure near the very end of the room. "Hello!" she called. "Healer Tinna Borshseth?"
"Yes!" called back the shaky voice. Kyri could see the speaker was a petite red-haired woman – even younger than Kyri had expected, though very pale and drawn looking. "Kill these monsters, please! I can't keep the barrier up much longer – it's an improvised ward!"
"I'll have you out of there as soon as I can. Is your husband with you?"
"They stung poor Quil, he's poisoned! I can't get to my antidotes, either, they're on the other side of the room. Please hurry!"
As Kyri advanced, Myrionar's light showed a broken area of the wall on one side; it was clear that this was where the creatures had come from. "Do you know what these creatures are, Healer?"
"What?" she sounded understandably distracted. "Tinna, please, you're trying to help me," she said, an automated courtesy in the midst of disaster. "These things… Oh… I think so, but," she gave a ragged laugh, "I've never been quite this close. I think they're vrytrills, sort of a giant centipede that's native to the Rim. Very hard to find, they usually avoid contact with people."
Kyri, being taller than anyone or anything else in the room, could now see over the vrytrills and into the area Tinna was in. It was a rough circle about thirty feet across, defined by six stones glowing with a faint blue radiance; the stones had clearly been hastily placed, almost scattered. Inside the circle were Tinna, a tall slender man with short white hair who was collapsed against the wall, and three tables with equipment and odd materials on them – distillation devices, a small bookshelf, a set of twelve different-colored crystals, a box of silver-and-crimson spheres, a rack of tubes and bottles…
The two vrytrills made another run for her, but again stopped short of actual attack – though they were closer, now, than the first time.
Her first impulse was to take advantage of this hesitation, and the focus of the other five or six of the creatures on the barrier, and start cutting them down. That the things were dangerous wasn't in doubt; Kimsha's body proved it. Yet something didn't seem right about the whole thing. The rest of Tinna's workshop was an odd mixture of the untouched and destroyed. Most of the damage seemed along a line coming from Tinna's location towards the stairway, and she saw a vrytrill body lying, half cut apart, just off to one side. There was a crunch underfoot; she looked down to see a silvery-red shard and a thick liquid mixed; a sharp smell warned her and she moved quickly away, scraping the boot to get the viscous material off it. Some kind of acid in those things.
She saw the ward-stones dim slightly. The force of the pressing bodies caused them to move inward; the wardstones rebrightened as the perimeter contracted, but that just showed clearly how they were weakening. It would keep shrinking slowly until it reached a breaking point, or the vrytrills could reach their goal…
Something about that rang a faint bell of warning in her. "Tinna, these things came through the wall?"
"Yes! I'd walled off the small caverns back there years ago, nothing there before."
"And were all three of you here then?"
"Yes, yes – why are you talking? I can tell you all this later, please, please get them away!" The healer-alchemist's voice was nearing the edge of hysteria, and Kyri couldn't really blame her.
She heard a low humming noise, barely audible over the screeching hisses. "What is that noise, that hum?"
"Hum?" Tinna seemed utterly at a loss, then gave an exasperated curse. "That's the Rimchimes." She indicated the silver-crimson spheres.
Just maybe… "And was Kimsha holding a Rimchime when they broke in?"
"Well, yes, he'd brought them in for me and –" She broke off, staring. "Oh, no."
"Could it be true?" She could tell that Tinna had come to the same tentative conclusion she had.
Even as the perimeter contracted slightly again, Tinna was standing, staring at the box and its contents. "Rimchimes hum for only a few weeks… it fades after a while… I was going to try to figure out how to stabilize it… And I've never actually had any in here before… they're usually shipped out, curiosities…"
It could be. And if it is…
Kyri lunged forward, slashing with her sword – but with the flat, and with choppy strokes that could be avoided and were clearly being pulled. The vrytrills leapt aside, screeching and chittering and snapping at her, but only one mandible actually contacted her, and glanced off her armor. "The vrytrills aren't seen often. They avoid you. Maybe they're smart. Maybe very smart. And they're things of earth… tunnel using acid?"
Tinna nodded wordlessly, pale as she realized what had been happening. "Yes, they do, that much is known… Oh, Chromaias and Terian…"
"Is there a speaking charm anywhere in here?"
She shook her head. "I… no, I've never had a reason to work on that. Besides, it has to be tailored for the target."
Have to try the clumsy way. She was now against the barrier, the vrytrills closing in. She bent down, face now perilously near the hissing maws, and picked up one of the Rimchime fragments, holding it up. The screeching increased, and she winced as some of the yellowish goo – the same shade as had been on Kimsha's hand – began to eat into her gauntlet. She stood, holding the fragment out, then gesturing to the box. She made a gesture of turning and giving the box, several times.
Slowly the screeching hisses diminished. The creatures seemed to be warily settling. She made a broader gesture, sweeping, trying to say back away. After a few more repetitions, the vrytrills gave ground, moving backwards a few feet.
Now or never. "Tinna, please drop the barrier."
The alchemist hesitated. Then, with shaking fingers, she picked up a central stone and passed her hand over it.
The glow of the wardstones went out. There was a rustle among the massed vrytrills, a movement to lunge forward – but one, marginally larger than the rest, gave a single screech and the others froze.
Kyri walked to the table and very slowly and carefully picked up the box of Rimchimes. She walked over and placed it with exquisite care on the floor in front of the largest vrytrill, then backed away.
The vrytrill reached out and took one of the spheres between its mandibles – mandibles which she knew could cut through armor – and raise it with the delicacy of a jeweller examining a gem. The low humming seemed to rise in volume. The other centipedal-like creatures came forward, each taking one sphere. One by one, they moved sinuously out of the room, through the hole they had made. The largest was the last to leave. It lowered itself in an unmistakable bow, then turned and left.
Tinna ran on shaky legs to one of the other tables, pulled down a bottle and ran back, tipping the contents into Quil's mouth. Almost instantly Kyri could see color returning to the old man's complexion. Tinna looked up. "How terrible. They were eggs."
"Of a thinking species." Kyri shook her head. "It happens too often. How many hundreds, maybe thousands, of types of thinking creatures are there? New ones born from random magic every few centuries, others wiped out by accident or design… perhaps the vrytrills themselves have only recently become intelligent."
Tinna Borshseth nodded. "It… makes sense. When they came in, Kimsha was holding a Rimchime – oh, by the Four I was going to open it! – and he moved off to get room to maneuver, they all came at him, I think his hand must have contracted and it cracked… then he threw it down when it burned his hand, and they seemed to go berserk. Kimsha backed up, fighting… I saw him get up the stairs, so…?" Her look was hopeful.
Kyri sighed and shook her head. "No. He made it as far as the door, and that was it." She shifted her glance. "And you, Quil? How did you end up hurt?"
The old man answered, laughing slightly. "Me? Heh. I charged them when they started circling and they lunged back. Thinking on it, I think the sting was more accident than anything – they were threatening, not trying to attack, you can tell that, that hole in the wall shows what would have become of me if they wanted me dead." He looked at Kyri with respect. "Good work, young woman. You solved this without killing that would have, it seems, been terribly unjust."
The words made her realize the peril she had avoided, and how very close she had come.
But Myrionar had been merciful, and perhaps her feelings had been born, not merely of her own caution, but of the subtle guidance of the Balanced Sword. She closed her eyes, smiled, and gave her heartfelt thanks that she had followed the True Path.
Justice before Vengeance.