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Chapter XIV

“The second in command, Captain Latris I think it is, dropped by to see the Third Cohort’s captain this afternoon,” Jaret said as the two of them walked towards the pub in the evening.  “Spent a while yelling at Captain Heles, complaining about the latrines.”

He glanced over at Jaret as they walked down the cobblestone streets of Banner. The fortifications loomed behind them and the moon shone clearly over the double walls. The gate was not far behind—a massive construction of iron, stone, and wood that had ground closed at sunset, leaving only a dog-gate through which people could enter or leave, and even that was heavily guarded by the regular forces of the Eighteenth who were stationed here.

“It sounds like he makes a habit of that,” he replied, turning his attention back to the street. It was a heavily fortified city and probably far safer than Rylar since the majority of its occupants were Guardsmen, but he was still on edge around alleys after the ambush on Kilin and Jaella. He kept part of his attention on the shadows as they walked. “Latris was yelling at the scout captain when I got there. Sounded a bit like a bluejay, all screaming and chiding.”

Allen didn’t feel too bad about making fun of the second in command. Complaining about your superior officers when they couldn’t hear was a fine Guard tradition. As long as you didn’t do it where they could hear, or share your views with the men who followed you, you were fine. Done right, complaining was good for morale. He figured he was just keeping up the standard.

Jaret laughed.  “He does too, just like a brainless bird. All harmless noise. He must have spent half an hour berating Heles about the ditches until Heles asked, very politely mind you, if the senior captain would be so kind as to show us the right way to dig the trenches.” He chortled again and stooped down to pick up a rock off the ground and skim it across the cobblestones. Unlike a regular city, there were few people out on the streets. The Guards were either at their posts, sleeping, or already in one of the many pubs that served the fort. “Latris was out of there so fast you could have lit a torch off his backside.”

The rock skipped off a raised cobblestone and spun in a lazy circle, and Allen watched it for a moment before he started to get chills up his spine.

The rock wasn’t falling. It was slowly spinning around and around in place, circling the cobble that it had struck and slowly rising into the air in an ever widening spiral.

“Jaret!” he called, reaching out with one hand and hauling the other lieutenant to a halt. “Look at that.” Allen nodded at the stone, the skin on his arms and the back of the neck tickling as if in a breeze.

It took Jaret a moment to notice what was happening, and then he stood stock still, his face frozen. “By the sons of mercy,” he muttered. “What’s going on with that rock?”

The spiral had widened to a few feet now and was at the height of their knees. A dim red glow began at the heart of the spiral and was swiftly gaining in strength.

“Not a clue,” Allen replied, setting his hand on his sword hilt. “But it can’t be anything good.”

“Aren’t you supposed to know about weird things,” Jaret asked, edging back from the spiral. “What with having a Mark and all?” He looked over at Allen.

Allen let some of the trapped air in his lungs hiss out between his teeth. “If you figure out what I’m suppose to know, let me in on the secret,” he replied, his stomach rebelling a bit at the eerie quality of the light in the spiral. “As far as I can tell, the Mark just sits there and looks important. Your guess on this one is as good as mine.”

“Huh,” Jaret grumbled, drawing his sword and looking around them. No one else was in sight on the street. “All right. What do we do with this?” He took up a guard stance a short distance from the steadily growing spiral, holding his blade at a slant in front of him.

Now would be a good time for his mark to do something useful, he thought. But no divine knowledge seemed to be forthcoming. He could sort of feel the mark beside his eye without touching it or looking into a mirror, as if it were written into his spirit as well as his skin. The slight presence of it was always there, waking or sleeping, almost as if it were really ivy that had grown into him.

Ivy growing on his skin wasn’t exactly helping at the moment though. The spiral had grown as high as their shoulders and widened another couple of feet. Mostly the mark just felt like it should itch and it didn’t. He reached up with his free hand to run it over the ivy, and he could feel a slight tingle through the veins of the plant, as if it were alive with energy.

Nothing new there. He could heal bruises and people were always asking him for blessings, and the energy in both of those had some sort of relation to the mark. He didn’t even know what a blessing did, other than that people believed it would bring them luck. He could just feel the heat of the energy when it passed out of him and into the item, like the little girl’s necklace when he’d seen the vision of his goddess.

“Well, we can’t leave it here, whatever it is,” Allen replied, thinking about their destination at The Tilted Cup. “I really would have preferred to have a few drinks before fighting a…spiral, or ghost, or whatever this is.”

“Ghost?” Jaret asked, his blade twitching from side to side nervously. “But ghosts are just children’s stories. Tales by the fire.” He looked over at Allen, standing still for a moment as his voice went a bit thin before he turned back to the spiral, which was as high as their heads now. “You’re telling me there are really ghosts out here?”

Allen shrugged, and then he drew his sword too for good measure. No reason to get edgy about it yet, but it was good to be prepared for anything. “Solen’s beard if I know what sort of cursed thing it is.”

He watched the spiral for a moment, and noted that the red glow was stronger than before, covering the base of the spiral completely.

He stepped forward and swiped his blade through the spiral, but there was no effect other than a tug of air that pulled on the sword and twisted it out of its path and out of the spiral. Rather what you’d expect from a whirlwind. He settled into a guard stance of his own, across from Jaret. They were just going to have to wait and see what happened.

The spiral was as wide as three men and taller than their heads now, and it seemed to have stopped growing. The red glow began to seep upwards through the thing, its pace quickening with every moment.

Shortly, the entire spiral was alive with a dark red glow, like banked firelight, but less pure somehow. The hue seemed to ooze throughout the spiral, pulsing like a heartbeat.

“Goddess,” he muttered to himself. “If you’re out there, this would be a good time for help.” He remembered the last blessing he’d given in Rylar and the vision of the goddess that he’d seen, where she’d stood in the forest glade beneath the crescent moon, and he tried to call back the sense of that meeting.

The moon waxed gibbous over their heads, and he cast a glance over his shoulder to look at it. The cool purity of that light steadied his nerves as he turned back to the…thing. Whatever it was.

The unsettling red glow intensified throughout the spiral, and he called to Jaret, “Get ready for it. I think something’s about to happen.” Jaret’s face looked grim in the light cast off from the spiral, and the hue made his skin look as if it were coated in blood.

Two pinpricks of red light began to burn in the spiral, floating like eyes at its center, and then the entire spiral sucked inward into itself, collapsing into the rough outline of a man.

Allen could make out the shadow of weapons and armor in the outline, but the man appeared as if in silhouette before them, only the edges of his body visible. The figure was taller than either of them, with long hair past its shoulders and a great axe in one hand. It held a small buckler in the other. It was hard to get a good look at it. Its body seemed to flow and fade into the shadows, but it was always outlined by that red light as if it were a shadow cast by it. The two pinpricks of light that had appeared in the spiral now blazed from the shade’s eyes.

“I think you were right about the ghost!” Jaret called, sidestepping around the thing as he swung at it. The blade passed harmlessly through the shade, tossed aside again as if by an unseen wind.

At that moment, the silhouette turned to face the boy and raised its axe, attracted by the sound or the movement.

“Jaret, move!” Allen called. He didn’t think anything good would happen if that thing managed to connect. He lunged in towards the ghost, and if it had been a living man, his strike would have taken it just above the hips and disemboweled it.

As it was, his blade was just knocked aside again, with the same off-kilter twist and pull that he’d felt when he’d attacked the whirlwind.

The thing moved like liquid, as fast as a striking snake, and its axe darted through the air just as Jaret moved back, catching him along the arm.

Jaret screamed as if it a red-hot iron had bit his skin and stumbled back from the shade. A dark line appeared on his arm where the shadowed blade had struck.

“Anya’s grace!” Allen shouted as he launched himself at the thing again, striking through one leg and then its head. He stumbled out of the way as the thing turned back to him, apparently uninjured by the strikes. That darting axe swept down at him, and he threw himself out of the way, tumbling across the cobblestones. He landed with a thump against the wall of a building at the side of the street, but his armor kept the impact from rattling him too badly.

“Jaret!” he called again, looking to where his friend had fallen. The boy had dropped his sword and scrambled backwards from the shade, one hand wrapped around his arm where the dark line smoked.

Allen forced himself back to his feet. This wasn’t looking promising. Their weapons hadn’t even touched the thing, and it had put Jaret down with barely a scratch. He dodged forward again, moving in front of the shade and trying to stay out of its range as he struck at it twice more, to no effect. His blade passed through the thing’s chest and shoulder as he moved past it.

If he couldn’t hit it, maybe he could at least get it away from the boy. He turned towards the thing again, moving so it was between him and Jaret, and he barely got out of the way as the shadowed axe struck towards him again. He dodged it and returned a strike to keep the thing’s attention as he backed down the street. It flowed towards him across the cobblestones, the sickly red light moving with it.

He dodged in again, hacking at it, and mistimed the shade’s riposte as it struck back at him. The axe blade swept in under his guard and sliced across the front of his armor, and he felt a slight burning line edge its way across his stomach.

He tried to turn with the blow, to move himself out of the shade’s advance, but it moved without any need for breath or balance and flew towards him, its shadowed shield slamming into him with an impact as if he’d been kicked by a horse. A wave of spiking pain flowed through his body, stabbing forth from the shoulder where the shield struck him.

His head snapped back as he flew back from the impact, and his back slammed into the opposite wall of the alley, the stones of the wall slamming into the back of his head and snapping it forward again as he slid to the ground. His vision went blurry, and as much as he tried to move and force himself back to his feet, time seemed to progress at a snail’s pace and his body only twitched in response to his commands.

Tea’el sabaraih coma meth!” he thought he heard a woman’s voice shout. And an odd blue haze filtered through his vision. It was rather pretty, he thought dimly, a nice color. Like the northern lakes.

His mind refused to move faster. Had he been doing something else…. What was going on? Why wouldn’t Kilin stop giving him drinks? He hated being hungover in the morning.

He looked woozily around. The King’s Mead was dark tonight. Why was there a moon in the pub?

It was a nice moon.

A lithe body hurtled past him and towards the other color of light in the pub, the one that wasn’t as pleasant. He wondered why the light was two different colors. Was there a bar fight going on? Had Kilin hit him on the head with a mug again?

The woman’s voice shouted something else, and a cry of pain screeched through his ears, painful.

“Killin, stop cr…crying l…like a girll,” he slurred, trying to stand up again, but his legs wouldn’t obey him. His friend was no good in a fight. He had to help him.

He pushed himself off the wall behind him and fell forward onto the ground. He tried to gather his legs underneath him, and they obeyed this time with a sluggish response.

He got himself up to his hands and feet, wobbling on the cobblestones. When had the pub redone its floor?

Another screeching cry of pain cut through his ears, and he jerked his head in response to it, the night partially resolved itself around him. This wasn’t The King’s Mead, and it was Jaret in trouble, not Kilin. Some shade thing had attacked them.

He pushed himself unsteadily up to his feet. Where had his sword gone and what was that blue light that was darting around in front of him.

He blinked his eyes a few times to try to clear his vision as he looked ahead of him. The red and blue were entangled with each other now, and now separate again, moving around each other.

Another shout of something incomprehensible came in a woman’s voice, and the red light shuddered in response to it. Twin streaks of blue slashed through the pinpricks of red that made up the center of the the shade, and another screech nearly split his head open.

He groaned as his hands went of their own will to block the sou nd from his ears. His head felt three sizes too big and as fragile as a teacup. There was someone pounding on a door somewhere and it was echoing through his head.

A moment later, there was someone under his arm, a soft and thin form pressing against him. Long hair brushed against his arm. This was much nicer than the pounding on the door, he thought.

“Come. Easy,” a woman’s voice said, as it kept him upright and walking forwards. Another form pushed itself under his other arm, taller than the first one, and its shoulder dug into his ribs as it supported him on the other side. Definitely not as nice as the first one.

“Come on, there’s a guardhouse not far from here,” the woman’s voice said. “We can set him down there.”

He stumbled through the night with someone under each arm, but it was hard to think of who they were. Did he know these people? Flashes of drinking in The King’s Mead came back to him again. Were Kilin and Jaella carting him home after he’d got drunk with Kilin again? That didn’t seem quite right.

He caught a glimpse of the moon shining down on him, and in his haze he thought he could feel the cool weight of its beams resting on his skin like the icicles in the north. The coolness began to seep into him, like melting ice, and when it met the heat and pounding in his head and neck, the heat faded.

He drew a shuddering breath and his vision cleared gradually, becoming steadier as the moonlight washed through him.

As the pounding in his head receded and the heat gave way to the chill crystal feel of the night, he realized Jaret was holding him up on one side. The other lieutenant was almost as tall as he was, and the edge of his armor was digging into Allen’s side.

He didn’t recognize the woman who was holding him up on the right at first, but as his head cleared, he noticed her long blond hair shining pale and luminous in the moonlight, and she wasn’t wearing any armor. He’d seen someone like her before, not long ago; where was it?

As they crossed another street and a lantern illuminated her for a minute, it cast its light over the soft curve of her cheek and the leather tunic and breeches she was wearing. He tilted his head down to get a better look at her.

Blue eyes, oddly shaded by the night. But clear blue. He’d seen those eyes earlier, though they’d been flashing with more stubbornness then. Now they looked tired.

“Mera?” he asked, his voice rough. What was one of his scouts doing here carrying him through the streets?

As he asked the question, the answer and the rest of the events of the evening came back to him.

He reached one hand up to his head in a wince, but the pain had nearly faded, and he lowered it again feeling a little foolish.

The two supporting him stopped as he spoke, but they didn’t move out from under his arms.

“Allen, are you alright?” Jaret asked, sounding worried. “That was a nasty blow that put you into the wall. I wasn’t sure you were going to stand up again.”

Allen drew in a long and deep breath, slowly letting it fill his lungs and trying to feel if anything was damaged. There were no spikes of pain from injured ribs. His head was also feeling almost normal again.

“I think I’m okay,” he said. “Let me stand up.”

The two disentangled themselves from him, but each kept a hand on his shoulders, ready to catch him if he was going to fall over again.

But he was steady on his feet, and as he tested his balance, he tilted his face towards the heavens to look at the moon. Its cool face shone down serenely over the fortifications of Banner.

“Steady enough,” he said, turning to look first towards Jaret and then to his other side at the Leusi scout, Mera, who must have been the source of the blue light he’d seen during the battle with the shade. His memory of what had happened was still blurry, and the events after hitting the wall were all jumbled together. But he could put a few pieces together.

Somehow Mera had been there and been able to drive off or kill the shade, when his and Jaret’s weapons had been useless against it.

He studied her for a moment, but she appeared utterly calm, almost relaxed, though there was that trace of fatigue around the eyes.

She grimaced slightly at him and turned her face away from him as she answered the unspoken question. “It was a blood revenant. A shade of a dead warrior. Someone summoned it.”

Their hands moved off his shoulders as it was clear he could stand on his own. He nodded slowly. “How did you hit it?” he asked, which was the most important question that came to his mind.

The Leusi woman returned him a perfectly calm gaze that revealed nothing. “Sometimes the gods answer prayers, Lieutenant, if you know how to ask.”

She reached up and brushed the mark at the edge of his eye with her fingertips. “And sometimes they ask much in return.” She studied his face for a moment, without the stubborn anger in her eyes that had seemed to be there when they’d met. Their clear blue shone in the lantern light as she added, “I think you must know something about that.”

“And perhaps they keep asking, or you would not be standing now,” she continued. “I’ve never seen a man take a strike like that and stand again unaided only a short time later. I had thought at first that the revenant might have broken your back when it flung you against the wall, but there was no time to check on you.”

“How were you there?” Allen asked. He hadn’t seen her on any of the streets.

“I was following you,” she replied easily. “On the rooftops. I didn’t notice the revenant forming at first and wondered why you had stopped, and then it took me a minute to find a way down. I was only close enough to keep you in sight.”

Allen thought about that for a minute. He wasn’t pleased that one of his scouts had been stalking him in the night, even if it had turned out for the best. “Why were you following us?” he asked, and she gave him another unreadable look.

“I’m not going to complain, given the circumstances,” he added. “But I’d like to know why.”

She reached out again and almost touched the mark beside his eye, but she pulled her hand back this time before touching his skin. “I had never seen such a thing before, and I needed to know more about the one who carried it. I suppose you could say it was curiosity.”

Well, that wouldn’t be the strangest thing someone had done when they’d noticed the mark. He’d had desperate women literally hand him their children and ask him to take them to a better place. He’d had to explain to them that he knew nothing about an afterlife, and he certainly didn’t know how to take someone there. Without killing them anyway, but he’d left that part out. Some of them had followed him for a while, until he’d managed to lose them in a crowd or past some guards.

In that perspective, someone following him around on the rooftops wasn’t as strange as it could have been. Especially since she seemed a little odd in the first place. Although, he noted to himself, he wasn’t really one to talk.

“All right,” he said, coming to a conclusion. “But next time, just ask me if you can come along.”

He paused for a second and then chuckled as he turned and started walking back towards the camp. He didn’t feel much like going to a pub anymore. “And maybe you can scare the revenants away sooner the next time.”

As they walked away, he didn’t notice the gleam of red eyes and a lean, low form in the shadows behind them.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, June 6th, 2010 at 8:03 am and is filed under A Northern Heart. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Chapter XIV”

  1. Clare K. R. Miller Says:

    Yay! I knew I liked her.

  2. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Good. She’s going to be around for a while. )

  3. Gudy Says:

    She better be, with those red eyes in the shadows and all the other incidents…

  4. Richard Says:

    So I like the story. I would love to see more of it. Have you given this up? Richard

  5. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    It’s not given up, just on the back burner right now. I think about it, but I’m too busy to keep at it in any dedicated way. The summer might bring some updates. It did last year.

  6. Richard Says:

    Still think you should work on this. Richard

  7. Richard Says:

    3 years? Still want more.

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