And we’re back!! Or, more accurately, I’m back. School is over for the summer, so we’re going back to a chapter a week!
If you need a refresher on previous chapters, or if you’re just joining us, you can find the table of contents here.
Elesekk is dead.
It doesn’t make sense.
A moment ago, he was walking behind me, and his breath was noisy, and his heart was beating.
Then the world turned upside down, and now he’s just…
It must be some mistake.
“No,” Savi breathes. He stands frozen.
Nihae cradles his head. “Please,” she begs. “Elesekk. Dornih. Daevah. My precious one. Beloved–say something!”
My lungs squeeze. I press a hand over my gaping mouth and stare.
Elesekk’s chest doesn’t rise. His eyes don’t open. His lips don’t quirk.
Savi melts to his knees. He scoops Elesekk’s graying hand from the pool of aivenkaite blood. “Dad.” His voice scratches, broken.
A touch to my back–I jump to my feet. Everything narrows to a point, instantly. My hand clenches around empty air. The sword–it’s still where I dropped it. I need it in order to slay the aivenkaite touching me.
Familiar orange eyes make it through my battle-ready haze. It’s just Nhardah.
“We can’t stay,” he says into my ear, and nods at Nihae and Saviayr. “We need to get them up.”
I balk at his cruelty. “But they just…” I point at Elesekk, unable to name what happened.
Nhardah follows my finger. The torchlight shows how deeply wrinkles are etched into his dark skin. “Rai, we have to think of the royal and his soldiers.”
What he means takes a moment to make sense. Then I drag a hand over my face. It’s not fair. It’s not fair, but he’s right. “Savi,” I touch my husband’s shoulder, “we have to go.”
The eyes Savi lifts are impossibly lost. My heart breaks even more.
“Rai?” he croaks.
I squeeze his shoulder. “Here. I’ll help you lift…” I bite my lip and shake my head, then kneel next to Elesekk. He still feels warm. He could be asleep, except for the tilt of his head.
My hands are under Elesekk’s ankles when Nhardah says, “No. Leave him.”
“But Nhardah, it’s Elesekk. We have to bury him.” A wave of panic burns the back of my throat.
“We can’t spare the time.”
“Please,” I beg. Tears start to sting my eyes. I blink furiously. If I start crying now, I won’t be able to stop. “Lev.”
Nhardah’s shoulders droop. “I am sorry.” He sighs. “He’ll slow us down. We should expect pursuit at any moment. And I have a feeling more aivenkaites will be after us soon, for injuring their brethren.”
That warning pulls me out of helpless heartache. In the moment it takes to decide to leave Elesekk’s body behind. Once I do, resolution fills me. My head clears. I let go of Elesekk, and instead reach for Nihae. “Okay. Nhardah’s right. Mama, Savi, we’ve got to go.”
The determination in my voice rouses Savi. He helps drag Nihae to her feet, and drapes her arm over his shoulder. “Mama, we have to keep going.”
“Come on,” Nhardah orders us to action. He sweeps around with the torch held before him and sets a brisk pace down the hall. Savi, half-dragging Nihae, stumbles after him. After stooping to retrieve the sword I dropped, I follow. The sticky, wet blood on the sword makes it difficult to hold.
Light from Nhardah’s torch leaps over the stone walls. Now I can see the unevenness of the ceiling, and that the way twists enough that Nhardah often disappears from sight. He keeps checking his pace to accommodate us.
Moving faster, it’s easy to tell that the corridor slopes downward. The front of my thighs and my lower legs start to burn as only happens when running downhill. Before too long, my knees start to hurt, too.
“We’re almost out,” Nhardah calls back. The air smells fresher than anything since we first entered the royal’s palace. Then a square of dark gray sky fills the way ahead of us. Nhardah stomps the torch and plunges us back into darkness. “We must proceed quietly,” he instructs.
I gasp in deep breaths, force myself to breathe normally, and touch Nihae’s back to lend her strength. Nhardah leads the way again. We slink out into the cool air of the desert right before dawn, in an unremarkable street of squat, thatch-roofed houses. The tunnel led us under the city, then. The dark line of the city wall floats just over the roofs of the houses, and the ground slopes away from it. These are the tenements outside the city proper. Good. If we were inside, we’d have to wait for the gate to be opened in the morning, and then we would certainly be caught.
Nhardah doesn’t keep leading away from the wall for very long. He slows and weaves back and forth across the street, peering into the blackest shadows. I don’t dare ask what he’s doing, for fear the sleeping residents will hear and catch us. Instead, I grab his arm the next time he darts across the road.
He just pats my hand keeps moving.
A few houses further along, Nhardah disappears into the shadows. Savi, leading Nihae, heads after Nhardah, only to bump into him when the Firstborn reappears. He has a stranger with him.
Conversation is too dangerous, so I don’t expect an explanation yet. It can wait until we are safely away from the city.
Past the tenements, the sand rolls endlessly away in the end of night gloom. Out here, I feel even more exposed. People silhouetted against the sand would be easier to spot than people in the city’s shadows.
We haven’t gone far when Nhardah tells the stranger, “All right, lead the way.”
“Let’s run!” says a boyish voice. The stranger darts off.
Nhardah runs after him and waves for us to follow.
“Come on, Mama,” Savi whispers. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“But…we can’t leave Elesekk.”
“I know.” I rub her arm. “But we have to.”
Nihae whimpers. Still, when Saviayr tugs her hand, she goes along. I trail a few steps behind, until I’m sure she’ll keep going with us. Then I run, letting the desert air steal the dampness pooling in my eyes and the movement drain my crowded thoughts.
On and on we run. The stranger sets a pace that is easy to maintain, yet I quickly find myself out of breath and struggling to go on. My throat is parchment dry. My ankle grows increasingly sore. I have to gather my skirt in hand so that it doesn’t keep tripping me.
I used to be able to run for miles just fine. Life on Ira was too easy, and I’m not used to this much activity. Running so long combines terribly with last night’s sleeplessness, but at least it’s bad enough that I’m left with no energy to think of Elesekk. Every bit of strength is focused on moving forward and breathing.
The gray sky lightens. The sand turns tan. We’ve run for a while when something tickles my nose. I brush it⎼
And my hand comes away red.
A cry leaves my lips. Blood! Has an aivenkaite invaded me? Am I dying?
Savi shouts. He runs back to me. Wide-eyed, he grabs my face. “Rai, what happened?”
I push him away. “Stay back!” Savi reaches for me again. I shove my arm between us. “Stay back! If it’s an aivenkaite…”
His eyes stretch further. Horror fills his face. “Aia-hae, it can’t be,” he prayes.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nhardah said. “It’s not an aivenkaite. It’s just a bloody nose.”
A ripping sound distracts me. The stranger tears the hem of his tunic and holds the rag to me. “Here,” he says, gesturing to his nose. “For the blood.”
I press the cloth to my nose and back away from the stranger. “How do you know?” I ask Nhardah.
He rolls his eyes. “You’d know if an aivenkaite was trying to possess you. It’s just the dry air. You’re used to Ira’s humidity. Plus, you’re holding that, and no aivenkaite would go near Luemikaroeth alone.”
I’ve forgotten about the sword in my hand until Nhardah points it out. The blood has dried black on it. I kneel and rub the sword in the sand, an awkward job to do one-handed. The sand chips away the filth, showing the sword underneath.
At that moment, the sun dips over the horizon. Its first gold rays catch the sword and glint silver-blue. The fordue metal, the shimmering middle of the blade, the swirling guard–I’ve seen this sword before. Three nights ago, it danced through the air on the Iranine hill, dispatching aivenkaites and guarding me.
I check, and I recognize Saviayr’s sword, too. It kept this one company on that night. “But how…”
“These are the Swords of the Champions,” Nhardah declares, “Slayer of Falsehood and Defender of Truth. The kaites who forged them poured their lives into the blades. These alone of all the weapons on Orrock can harm the aivenkaites. When touched by these swords, the wicked ones are sent back to the Void until they recover.”
“Wow,” the stranger gasps. “That’s awesome! I thought they were myths.”
Nhardah smiles. “No, indeed, Forziel. The swords Luemikaroeth and Elgarnoseth are very real.”
“Forziel,” I repeat the stranger’s name. He has weathered skin, with sun-bleached hair and bright green eyes. He’s taller than Savi, but in the morning light he’s clearly still a boy. “Who are you?”
“That’s right! I haven’t introduced myself yet!” He bounds over and grabs my hand with both of his. “I’m your guide. It’s such an honor to meet you, Champion Raiballeon.”
I blink at him and slowly drag my eyes to Nhardah. “Champion? What have you been telling this boy?”
“You bear the sword, you bear the title,” Nhardah says. “Besides, am I wrong? You do plan to champion Maraiah, do you not? Is that not why you were imprisoned just now?”
I pull my hand from Forziel’s grasp. Off to the side, Nihae calls Saviayr’s name. “Just a minute, Mama.”
“Yeah,” I answer Nhardah. “I’m just surprised. Have you been spreading stories about me? Is that what you do when you disappear?”
“You’d be surprised at how fast hope travels,” Nhardah answers.
“Yeah,” Forziel agrees, “and everyone’s talking about how you had the Voice of a Multitude. It’s so awesome–like we’re living in one of the old stories!”
“Savi,” Nihae repeats.
He walks back to her. “Yes?”
Forziel shifts his pack. “You’re not gonna kick me off your team, are you? I’ve always wanted to travel. I’ve studied maps forever.”
I purse my lips. Involving Savi, Nhardah, and Nihae is one thing. Savi’s stuck with me. Nhardah’s immortal, and the one who dragged me into this. Nihae’s, well, my mother, and we can’t leave her behind.
But this mission has already cost Elesekk his life.
The suppressed pain of his death cracks open. I gasp. Tears fill my eyes. It’s too dangerous, I shouldn’t involve anyone else.
“Um, Rai?” Savi says. “We have a problem.” The panic in his voice contradicts the calm of his words.
I blink and glance over. Savi stands with feet braced, knees bent, and sword raised. Nihae huddles behind him. They both stare back the way we came, where the once-smooth sand is writhing. It twists and wriggles, and whatever it is squirms closer faster than any cavalry could.
There’s no use in pretending I don’t know what it actually is. Sand plumes in the air, a cloud raised by the thrashing desert. Only one thing could make dead land move like that.
“Aivenkaites,” I say. “Run!”
There we have it 🙂 Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll “see” you next week.