On the Edge of Life and Death

 

Eurich moved the Tair away from Sommerstone, taking a westerly direction.  It was unwise to stay near the ground where men had died.  They had tried to be thorough as they searched for bodies, but there hadn’t been much time.  Drawn by the smoke of the funeral pyre, they had stumbled upon the ruins of Sommerstone and its sole survivor late in the day.  They did what they could in the time they had and then set the village to the torch, hoping the conflagration would destroy those bodies they’d missed.

Eurich watched the boy they’d found.  Like so many others who had survived the night, the ones the Darkness spared, he moved in a daze.  He did not speak, but that was not uncommon among survivors.  Eurich had seen it more times than he could remember.

After a long march of several hours they had finally stopped to make camp.  The boy watched absently as men set up tents and started cooking fires, but his eyes kept drifting back to the east.  His head turning of its own will, toward the thick black smoke that twisted and hung in the sky; a heavy black tombstone to mark the place where Sommerstone had been.  Eurich knew that if he were close enough to look into those eyes they would be empty, the soul behind them fled to some place remote and distant from the pain of this world.

The Darkness had left its mark on this boy, a deep wound on his soul.  What form that mark would take, how it would shape him, was uncertain.  The wound was too fresh, the pain too intense right now.  He felt a connection with the boy, and the ghosts of his own past stirred as he watched him.  Without thinking, he pushed them away.  He had been doing it for so long that it was instinct now, but there was something different about this boy, old enough almost to be a man, that touched something deep in Eurich, and so the ghosts of memory withdrew, but did not leave entirely.

Eurich was worried.  He’d seen too many men lose loved ones to the Darkness, only to despair and take their own lives, and he could sense that same despair in their young ward.  It was a thing to be prevented, as much out of pity as necessity.  The Tair had sworn an oath never to give hands or feet to Malasephus, the fallen Virtue who was the source of Darkness.  In the west, men worshipped Malasephus as a god, and performed sacrifices in his name.

The Darkness would take up any body it found, and those who could not handle the loss of family and friends all too often stole away at night and cut their wrists, or threw themselves from a cliff, joining their flesh to Darkness in an attempt to run from their pain and sorrow.  He had watched the young man almost throw himself into the flames of his family’s pyre, and Eurich wondered if it would have been kinder to allow it, rather than to stop him.  Still, the boy was here now, and it was clear his despair hadn’t left him.  It would not be the first time that someone took his life in anguish, only to become a flesh puppet for the dark god of the west.

He shook his head, knowing there was little he could do.  Either the boy, whose name he still did not know, would learn to cope or he wouldn’t.  The world was not a gentle place, and Malasephus had taken many more young men than this one.  Still, Eurich would order him watched closely.  If he never recovered from his loss he wouldn’t be the first, nor sadly would he be the last.  If it came to that, they would leave him with one of the many villages they passed in their travels.

Tyre, his rune master, came up to stand beside him.  Neither man spoke for long minutes.  Each watched the boy as he stood, oblivious to the camp around him, or perhaps just too numb to recognize what was happening.  The men, accustomed to how survivors of the night behaved, stepped around the boy as if he were a stone too big to move.  They didn’t talk to him.

The rune master finally spoke, his voice sounding too deep and sonorous to be coming from such a thin reedy man.  “Another village gone.”

Eurich turned to look at his old friend.  “Gone, but not to the Dark.  Not to Malasephus.  We kept most of them from him… this time.”

Tyre nodded, his eyes never leaving their young refugee.  “And not entirely gone.  Will he make it, do you think?”

Eurich shrugged his shoulders.  “Who can know?  We’ve all of us lost someone to Malasephus and the Darkness, and I know men who have lost dearly, but this…”  His eyes shifted to the smoke hanging in the eastern sky.

“He’s just a boy, though near enough to First Night to be more, but these villages are the whole world to someone like him.  He’s probably never been more than a dozen miles from home, if that.  Everything he knew died with his village.  How do you come back from that?”

Tyre met Eurich’s look with sympathy in his eyes, but didn’t speak.  Another man might have found comfort in any words he might offer.  Tyre was a rune master and often considered a spiritual leader by the men in the camp, but Eurich had never looked at Tyre that way.  He had a past he kept hidden, that much was clear, though he had never elaborated on it and Tyre had never pressed him.  Most Tair had something buried in their past, a pain deep and profound, but it was different with Eurich.  Tyre sensed a pain that had hidden depths and powerful currents.  He didn’t know its source, but one thing was certain, talking to Eurich about the Virtues, whom men sometimes called the Faces of God, only angered him.

As if reading Tyre’s mind, Eurich snorted and said, “God turned his faces from us a long time ago, and the only Virtue left in the world is Malasephus.  The boy will survive or he won’t.  We’ll do what we can, but in the end, it’s up to him.  He’ll get no help from heaven.”

He turned and strode back toward the center of the camp, calling out instructions.  After a few steps he stopped, hesitating a moment before looking over his shoulder, a strange look on his face.  “Go.  Watch him.  Help, if you can.”

Tyre nodded, studying his friend and leader.  There was a look in Eurich’s eye.  He had seen it before, directed toward other survivors, but it seemed more intense now.  He had never been able to name that look.  It was part pity, but there was something else and Tyre knew it was a clue to Eurich’s troubled past.  With this boy however, the look was sharp enough that he picked up another nuance, and it surprised him.  How Eurich looked at the boy, it was how a father looked at his son.  If Eurich had ever had children, Tyre didn’t know about it, but perhaps he had lost a son to Malasephus.  He’d never bothered to ask.  It stood to reason though.  The Tair were those who had lost someone to the night, to Malasephus and the hated Darkness.

Eurich stared back, meeting his gaze, daring him to ask, but Tyre refrained.  The challenge was not a willing one.  He doubted that if he asked Eurich would answer.  He sensed that Eurich wasn’t ready to tell him, or perhaps he wasn’t the one to tell.  He broke the stare with a smile and a nod and turned to go talk to the boy.  The Virtues willing, they would be able to save Sommerstone’s only survivor, but when had the Virtues ever listened to or intervened in the affairs of men?  He was on his own.  Sighing to himself, Tyre started down the hill toward the boy.

 

Jan watched the rune master approach.  He stood still, insensate and uncaring as the men around him moved through the motions of setting camp.  Inside, he felt nothing.  No desire, not to be alone, not to be comforted, not to cry.  Nothing.  He was done with crying, never mind the tears hadn’t been real.  He would shed no more.  He felt only an emptiness that was comforting in its numbness, like the loss of feeling that comes when fingers and toes are frozen.  First, there is pain, and then as the flesh begins to die, the pain subsides.  Eventually frostbite will set in.  He knew a man could lose part of himself to that numbness, but he didn’t care.

He watched the rune master approach.  The man was tall, gaunt, with wiry muscles and had a  hard lean look to him.  The skin stretched tautly over his skull, but it was a kind face.  As a boy, Jan had romanticized about the life of the Tair.  Bold men who knew no fear, but these men were not the men of his childish imaginations.  They were hard and cold, and yes, they were brave.  He sensed that, but they looked to the horizon, measuring the distance between it and the sun’s orb, and he could see the fear in their eyes.  But unlike other men, their fear did not drive them to hide behind walls or to cower in the night.  They were hard men, and dangerous.  Yet, beneath their hardness was a kinship they shared with one another.  Each had lost to the night.  The Darkness had taken someone they loved, and in their quest for vengeance, or justice, they became the Tair, the lost, who hunted the creatures of Malasephus.  In the solitude of his devastation, Jan sensed that connection the Tair had with one another, but though he had lost as well, he could not feel a part of them.  He was alone in the world, and as that realization took hold in his mind, he understood that he was always going to be alone.

The rune master came to stand next to him, but didn’t speak.  He put his hand out on Jan’s shoulder and stood next to the boy, the two of them gazing back to the black smoke that marked Sommerstone’s grave.  Jan shuddered.  He was forgetting who he was.  The boy who had greeted the morning sunrise with joy in his heart, glad to have survived the terrible night, truly was dead.  He could feel his passing with the same finality that he’d felt when he’d found his family buried in the ruins of their home, but he had no tears to shed, not even for his own passing.

Gently the rune master turned him and led him into the camp.  He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, to watch the smoke of Sommerstone rise into the clear evening sky.  He heard snippets of conversation from the men around him, how it was unwise to camp near where so many had died, that though they had tried to be thorough, they might have missed some bodies.  The land where men died was cursed; it drew the dead back to it, and then they saw him and fell silent.  Unconsciously, he shuddered.  His own family, at least, wouldn’t suffer that fate.

Tyre’s presence was an odd comfort.  The man was self-possessed and calm.  There was kindness in his eyes, but he was not overly sympathetic.  He left Jan alone in his silence.  Yet there was something in his presence that seemed to bring some feeling back to Jan.  A dim memory of peace, or solace at least.  Jan tried not to dwell on it.  If he did, if he focused on any emotion, he knew they would all come back, and he wasn’t ready for that, so he ignored the comfort Tyre offered.

They didn’t speak to him.  How could they, he hadn’t told them his name.  He knew he should, but his voice was lost, as Eurich had said, and even if he could, his name seemed a strange tattered thing, like the clothes he wore.  Worn out, it no longer fit him.  A rag to be tossed aside.

Tyre took Jan with him as he made his rounds setting the runes that would protect their camp.  His hand briefly touched Jan’s arm on occasion, to direct him to stand here or there, but other than that brief contact, he made no other overture or attempt to engage him, and Jan breathed a sigh of relief.  He had feared the man would try to speak to him, and he wasn’t ready for that.

After half an hour passed, Tyre called another man over to him and introduced him to Jan as Talus.  “I have to take care of some business, but Talus will tend to your needs.  Stay close to him and don’t wander.”  Tyre went off to finish setting the runes that would protect the camp.

Like most people, Jan knew something about runes.  Indeed, if he had gone through the ritual of First Night, rather than being caught out by his own foolishness, he would have learned some basic runes that protect a man from the dead.  His nap, though it had probably saved his life, meant he would never have a proper First Night.  Watching the men set camp, its perimeter open and exposed, he felt an echo of fear in his heart.  He did not like the thought of spending a second night outside the protection of rune-warded walls.

He turned his attention to the tall rune master.  Some men from the camp gathered around Tyre.  He handed a slender wooden staff carved with runes to each man.  The crowns of the staff were set with small clay discs the size of a man’s palm.  Though he was too far away to see the runes, not that it mattered for Jan was illiterate, he guessed these were the wards to seal the camp against the Darkness.

After each man received his staff, he went to a place that Tyre had marked, and set the staff in the ground.  They placed them in a circle, laying them down first on the outer rim of the camp.  They set their staves into the ground, twenty-five in total.  Eight set out in a circle at the furthest perimeter.  Then eight more closer in, and evenly spaced between the ones further out, then eight more, closer in the than the last.  Finally, Tyre set his staff in the ground, at the very center of the camp.  Jan knew it was the very center because he watched Tyre meticulously pace off the distance from the outer edge of the circle to the center.  It was all done with minute precision.

Talus explained what was happening.  “They’re setting the wards.  The rune circle is set in alignment with Sumis, the compass rune.  Tyre has marked out true north, and the staffs are each set in their respective hours.  A disc with a wheel for warding, for security, for sight, alertness, and so on is placed in the hour that best corresponds with that wheel’s function.  When all is set in place, Tyre will put the last disk in the binding point, the center staff, and activate the runes, again each in turn, which will complete the circle and activate the camp.  The wards of a village are set the same way, though their placement is more permanent.”

Jan nodded, the barest movement of his head, but it was the first time he’d acknowledged what someone was saying to him.  He watched as the men set their wards in place, uneasy as he thought about how exposed they were to the night, with no walls and only simple staffs to protect them.  Talus must have guessed what he was thinking, or maybe he’d seen the same doubt and fear with others they had rescued.

“It isn’t the walls that protect a village, that is to say they’re the least important protection.  They’re more for peace of mind.  No one wants to see the nohetka wandering outside around their village, especially if they’re people you once knew.  The walls of a village shut out the sight of the nohetka, so that a man won’t be enticed by their allure.  But the runes are what keep them at bay.  Trust me.  We’re as safe here as if we were behind walls of stone.  We’re safer than most villages, in fact.  Rumor has it that Tyre studied with the Sumisarians and they know the runes better than most.  We are very fortunate to have him as our rune master.”

Jan couldn’t help but think of the walls that had protected Sommerstone.  They had been tall and strong, and everyone had spoken about how well made the runes and wards were.  In the end, neither stone nor runes had protected his people.

Talus went on, unaware of Jan’s thoughts.  “The circles hide us from them, and make a barrier the dead cannot easily cross.  Most of those taken have no mind, and their sight comes only from the Darkness.  They are blind where there is no Darkness.  It lights the world for them.  We set the circle before nightfall and it keeps the Darkness out of the camp.  Nohetka, those taken after they have died are about as clever as a stone.  Feral however, are a different matter.  The Darkness takes them at the moment of death, when they’re minds are intact.  They have all the memory and intelligence of the man or woman whose body they took up, but no soul.

“They are very dangerous, and can work a type of magic through the Darkness.  They cannot see past the barrier any easier, but being intelligent, they know it’s there.  Nohetka are little more than a nuisance, though they are deadly in their own right.  If a man keeps his wits about him, he can easily defeat or evade a large group.  But feral…they’re cunning and quick.  The Darkness sustains their flesh so that they don’t weary, and they have a strength that is beyond human.  Unless you stab them in the heart with a Tok blade you can’t hope to take them down.”

He handed Jan a dagger he pulled from a sheath at his waist.  Intricate patterns of runes were etched in the handle and blade.

“Thank Solace that the Feral are not easily born from a dying man.  Few, in fact, are spawned that way.  Too soon and the Darkness drives them mad, too late and the mind is gone.  Don’t get me wrong, the Noth Feral, the insane ones are almost as bad as their kin, but Malasephus has little use for them and he destroys them soon after they’re made.  It’s one of the few mercies he shows us.”

Jan examined the Tok blade carefully before handing it back to Talus, who shook his head.

“Keep it.  I have another, and you should always have a blade on you, just in case.  Sometimes one gets through, which is another reason for walls.  I’ll teach you how to activate it.  If you drive this into the heart of a Feral you’d better know how to activate the runes and in what sequence or you’ll just make it mad.”

Jan spent the next hour trying to learn from Talus how to activate the blade, but he had gone nearly two days without sleep, and his mind refused to grasp the sequence.

“Don’t worry,” Talus told him.  “It’s hard at first, but you’ll get it.  You’re tired as well, and that doesn’t help.”

Jan looked up as something moved outside the camp.  The sun had set and the sky was a deep dark blue.  A woman was walking along the edge of the camp, her body moving with a strange, erotic gait. She approached the barrier and stopped, staring at him with vacant eyes.  Jan’s hands went numb as the Tok blade fell to the ground.

Talus looked up and saw her.  “Don’t worry. It can’t see us.  It just doesn’t know what to do. The barrier blocks it.  It’ll move on in a moment.  Later tonight, after the camp is set, some of us will go out and hunt it.”

Jan heard the words but they didn’t register.  The woman stood, unmoving, and a cold chill crept through his body, choking him as he tried to draw in a breath with lungs that had seized up.  He knew her.  She was from Sommerstone.  He’d seen her moving about the village, someone’s wife, but he couldn’t remember whose, or what her name was, but he remembered her face from the streets filled with bodies. Horrified, Jan felt drawn to her. In life, she had not been beautiful, but death had transformed her.  There was an allure to her now. If not for the fact that he had seen her among the dead he would have gone to her, let her pull him down into an embrace and certain death.  He dropped to his knees and tore his eyes away.  Transfigured by the Darkness she had an ethereal beauty she had never possessed in life.

When he looked up she was gone, but Jan couldn’t get the image of her out of his mind.  For as long as he lived, he would never forget her face.  Talus knelt beside him.  He reached out to help Jan stand, and then stooped to pick up the knife.  Handing it back to Jan, he said,

“You need something more stout than water, I think.  We’re all so stunned over what happened to your village… a whole village, well I think that we forgot about you.  Wait here.”

Talus left him to fetch something “stouter than water,” warning him to stay away from the edge of the camp.  Jan watched the man go and then turned back to look out into the night.  He was not alone. Other Tair were standing watch. Experience had taught them not to rely on wards alone.  As Talus had said, sometimes one got through.  Jan gripped the knife, struggling to remember what Talus had taught him.  He was determined that if the woman appeared again he would step through the barrier, in spite of the warning Talus had given him, and bury the knife in her heart.

He saw no more dead that night, though.  The ordeals of the past twenty-four hours had caught up to him.  He’d hardly slept in a day and a half, and had worn himself to the point of exhaustion in Sommerstone, and then with the long march from his village to where they now camped.  Sleep took him on the edge of life and death, between the light and the Dark, and buried his pain in its embrace.

 

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