This has been delayed for some time, partially for other pieces, partially for writer’s block. See the Ongoing Series page for Parts 1 and 2.
Amir stands frozen as the killer approaches. He is not afraid. Judging by the carnage, the man may just as well be a friend. No, Amir is frozen simply because fatigue has made stillness very, very easy. The man has slotted a spear into his hook and slung it over his shoulder. He sneers at Amir, head cocked, perhaps to accommodate his odd martial posture, perhaps out of simple disinterest with reality. His gaze seems to blast right through the boy, but before him, nonetheless, he stops.
It still isn’t fear, but Amir feels the force of the man’s presence. His defiance falters, he looks away, escaping to the details of the macabre slew about him. Acutely cognizant of the man’s stare, he locks eyes instead with a girl’s severed head. That’s when it becomes fear. The head, moving slightly but unmistakably, meets his gaze and speaks. It says:
“There was once a man who wished to hide from the truth. He gathered his flock. He gathered his clouds. He left–”
“Never mind that thing,” the man interrupts. Amir’s eyes snap away, tepidly refocusing on the man’s face. The head’s jabber continues, faint. “Looks like I’ve been waiting for you.”
“What for?” Amir asks, confusion tempered by doubt that he is worth a stranger’s anticipation. The man shrugs and turns to leave. Only once Amir has followed does he respond:
“Someone owes you, kid. Someone’s gotta pay.”
His pace is casual, unconcerned with the stifling humidity or the fixtures of genocide dotting the landscape they cross, but he says nothing more. Amir is numb and exhausted and does not prompt him. Soon, the sun sets, and a wisp of smoke crests the horizon before them. Amir knows it is their destination, though he cannot say how.
The two approach to find a campfire, alone and unfortified in the desolate emptiness of the twilit Riverlands. At its other side is an old man in a wheeled, wooden chair, head bowed in sleep or meditation, eyes covered by the brim of his hat. Around the fire are five more individuals, attentive to the newcomers’ approach. They are varied, of wildly different ages and origins, but their stare, fiery, hateful, is the same.
Realization dawns, an old story echoes in Amir’s mind. He and Patches take their seats around the fire.
Now they are seven.
The old man looks up.
Part III – Fox
On the fifth day of his journey, Sand-Masked Fox looked to the sky. The heavens’ portent was confused–though clouds had veiled the resolute, desert sun, there was no scent of moisture, of the rains that came with such times of darkness. It seemed a troubling omen, but Fox could not interpret the sky like the shadowmen of the North. His was to read the sands below, and the grey-dark above could not divert him. He sought a demon, a Saraa Sa’een, as an arbiter who enforced the justice of the Endless Dunes, as a father who saw his children slain at the demon’s hand. His quarry was fleet, its tracks well-hidden, but Fox had known the mana of the sands all his life. He could see it billow and shift, and he understood the ways that footprints might be dusted away.
He closed his eyes and lowered the blade of his axe to the ground, pushing it gently into its coarse grains. The opening of the earth’s skin pricked at his mind, and in the echoes of that sensation, he saw–he saw a lone outlaw striding these dunes, roiling waves into the sand behind him. The traces were faint, perhaps two days old, but that did not matter. Fox would chase the demon for as long as it took, out of the desert, beyond the mountains, to the end of the world and the beginning of the sea. Wherever it walked the earth, Fox would find it. But at this rate, his resolve would reach its first test soon. The demon had almost certainly fled the Dunes, hoping to elude capture in the mountains to the north. Fox had prepared for this, materially, but his imminent departure brought him at least a pang of regret. The Dunes were his home, but now he had little to return to, and he was beginning to understand: This meant he would likely never return. Lifting his axe, he carried on.
On the seventh day of his journey, the clouds had not yet lifted, and Fox had arrived at a village at the end of the sands. Once again, he split the skin of the earth, reaching out to feel its pain. There were people nearby, doubtless walking about, shuddering across the streets of their town, leaving traces to be felt clearly and painfully. Fox did not feel them. From the earth, he felt barely a splash against his temples as his axe came down. But he knew that what was before him was not barren, because though he did not feel, he heard. Somehow, the mana here was different. It did not rise from the ground like dust and sand–it pulsed, first gently, sounding laughter in Fox’s ears, mellowing as he pulled his axe back in surprise. Then, sudden, deafening, it screamed.
Fox reeled, dropping his axe and his shield and clapping his hands to his ears, trying desperately the mute the cacophony assaulting his brain. Excruciatingly, far, far too slowly, the scream resolved to information. The demon had been here–its tracks littered this place–and though Fox could not see beyond the village for the glut of insane, screaming mana, he was relieved amidst his horror, for he was still on the demon’s trail. Perhaps it had never left. He gathered his effects and approached the gathered houses, discomfited but not dissuaded by the mana laughing faintly in his ears.
Even upon closer inspection, though, the streets were bare, and the the dull roar he expected of the village’s goings-on was perturbingly absent. He couldn’t tell if it was truly quiet–the laughter made it difficult to trust his ears–but it was still, and it was wrong. He feared the worst, skulking carefully between the all-too-silent buildings, peering through windows and doorways in search of the Saraa Sa’een’s telltale carnage. But he saw nothing, no trace of men or women, of the demon, of murder, only dust covered floorboards and empty space. Then the laughter stopped, and a voice behind him spoke.
“Now what could you be doing here?”
Fox pivoted, alarmed, shield raised, though the speaker made no move to strike him. It was a man, unarmed, in a green habit, and though he seemed to pose no physical threat, his appearance did little to assuage Fox’s panic. Rather, Fox found it difficult to glean anything the man’s appearance at all. He was not hooded or obscured, but Fox could not focus, could not remember any feature or detail of the man’s visage, save one: He was smiling, grin wide as his face, somehow, paradoxically, hideously avoiding even the faintest impression of joy. And yet, through his rictus of false delight, his voice was even and deliberate, and his words seemed to flense the air.
“I see your face in the clouds,” he said, answering himself, “but of you, in this place, in this crowd, there is no trace.” In the periphery, Fox saw shadows darkening the doorways of the surrounding houses. “You are a lie,” the man continued, “but you are not mine.”
“I do not mean to intrude,” Fox interjected. “I am seeking one who passed through here. I can leave at once if need be.” He needed to be away from this place, away from this laughing mana and this smiling man.
“I know what you seek, Sand-Masked Fox,” the man said, consonants clicking like steel. Fox inhaled sharply at his name. “You are a river, dividing the earth in your path, relentless, determined. But now, you have encountered the deep…” The shadows stepped from the houses and began to approach rapidly. “…and the currents of sea and sky are hardly so linear.”
Fox turned to face the oncoming crowd, leaping aside as a woman with a knife lunged for him. He swung his axe reflexively, biting into her neck as she passed, realizing with frantic horror that she, like the man, like the rest of the village approaching with ill intent, lacked any facial feature he could identify. Except for the smile. The same, terrible, joyless smile. The laughter in Fox’s ears erupted once again.
He began to back away from the crowd, cutting down a man brandishing a shovel, a girl with a hatchet. He wanted to turn and run, but there were too many, too close, sprinting to surround him. A man got around him, thrust a pitchfork under his shield. The rusted prongs caught him just below his ribs, and he screamed. He swung his axe blindly, desperately, but another villager grabbed his arm and ripped the weapon from his grasp, bringing the blade back down against his own neck. His vision rolled and rolled, but strangely, realization flowing, almost serene as the ambient laughter guttered, it did not go black. Slowly, his severed head came to a halt, and sideways, disembodied in his nightmare, Sand-Masked Fox witnessed his bloody corpse fall, as another figure stepped into his field of vision.
It was an old man in a dusty brown hat, hunched slightly, unhurried in his pace, unbothered by the rabid lynch mob before him. In his arms was a Thagosian crossbow, an antique, certainly a deadly weapon, but Fox could not imagine it would be good for more than one shot. And yet, the old man approached the crowd, confident, with the detached manner of a whittler carving his thousandth stave, eschewing style and banter, no less focused for their absence. The smiling villagers seemed to find this amusing. In unison, they laughed, putting to physical sound the sickening, ephemeral ringing that had echoed in Fox’s ears since his arrival. They charged him.
The old man had already hefted his crossbow, aiming for the roof of the house above the mob. Fox could not fathom what the interloper was planning, but, blood gurgling in his open throat, he was powerless to voice his bewilderment, let alone intervene. But then, the first of the villagers nearly upon him, the old man pulled his trigger, and, with a chorus of screams, reality shattered.
The crowd froze, mid-stride, weapons held uncannily aloft, and from the desert, a wind began to howl. At first it was indistinguishable from flurries of dust roused from tenuous slumber atop the arid ground, but then, steadily, the villagers began to disintegrate, their forms softening, slipping to the air in great clouds of bloody snow. Then the material of the village joined them, the sides of the buildings, the very surface of the streets, frayed from reality, uncovering a very different truth beneath. Where the madness lifted, the dirt ran with blood, houses became ruins, splintered by some recent assault, and everywhere, everywhere, the village’s dead–truly, no longer faceless like the mannequins prowling the streets moments before–rotted in the open air. And when nearly all the truth of this place had been revealed, a final, crystalline billow pulled away from the spot on the roof where the old man had fired. It was the man in the green habit sitting at the edge of the roof, still faceless, still grinning, holding the old man’s crossbow bolt.
“Oops,” he chuckled, dropping casually to ground level. “I guess my trick didn’t work on you.”
“Tricks are for children, Smiling One,” his assailant replied, placing another bolt onto his crossbow. “I am an old man.” The smiling man laughed, the peals reverberating far deeper than a single voice ought.
“You are so many things, and not one of them is true. In that harmony of lies, how can you claim to be above them?”
“It’s been hundreds of years,” the old man said, “and nothing has changed. The echoes of justice continue to ring, and your descent will end the same way.”
“You are wrong,” the smiling man goaded. “The world has changed. Truth has shriveled, and the tide has risen. Soon, all our lies will join truth in Heaven, and everything we have ever known, the eye of the hurricane, will fit in the palm of your hand. And with so paltry a shelter, how is anyone to escape the storm?” The old man once again lifted his crossbow.
“Our interests are not mutual,” he said. “And your time has run out.”
“There’s always time,” the smiling man replied, arms outstretched, jubilant. “Time for fun. Time for it all to get so much worse.”
The old man fired, and his target exploded in a shower of green scraps, whipped into the wind and blown out of town with all the rest of the smiling nightmare. Impassive, he turned to Fox’s severed head.
“Meet us in the clouds,” he said. “We will come for your demon in time.” That was all Fox heard before finally, delayed far too long, his consciousness faded.
When he awoke, he was whole once more, uninjured and very nearly invigorated. Around him were the ruins where he had died, where the entire village had succumbed to the Smile. Recalling the old man’s words, Sand-Masked Fox looked skyward. The mountains loomed above him, and above their peaks, the clouds roiled. Within them, he could almost swear he saw something strange. A city, perhaps.
Top Image: Draft work for Hiding (work in progress), by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for War Torn/Rale. Unlike previous chapters in this series, it is not directly related, but, as the end might imply, it’s close enough.