The story begins here!
Scattered and broken rocks, slick with the morning dew, littered the river valley from end to end. There were few trees, no animals, and no other people. Pallas watched the hills to either side for signs of trouble. Gods, demons, living spells, cultists… it didn’t matter. He was ready for whatever the universe threw at him. He had led the three deeper into the wilderness; Chloe wanted to see the river’s source. They marched throughout the night and into the morning. Red clouds shined over the distant mountains.
He looked back to check on the others. Chloe was falling behind, and Ada with her. He slowed his pace, acting as if he was catching his bearings.
“Ada’s beautiful, is she not?” Oak’s breath lingered on his ear. Her invisible form floated silently beside him.
Pallas looked over his shoulder. Ada held her bow in one hand, and Chloe’s hand in the other. Her weary face reminded him that not everyone was tireless. Ada whispered quietly to Chloe, squeezed her hand, helped her up a steep hill. Chloe’s eyes were bowls glossy darkness, but they seemed to shine when she looked at Ada. If he had known they were in love, he wouldn’t have gotten his hopes up.
Ada looked up at him. Her brown eyes pulled him in. He coughed and looked away, kept walking.
“She is,” he whispered.
Oak’s laughter rang in his ears like an itch.
He swung his arms back and forth, stretching his shoulders. A little movement kept him from cursing. The reach of the gods was impressive. Fate conspired to send him female companions more interested in one another. Damn my eyes, he thought.
A steep embankment along a stream blocked their path. He bent his knees to jump over, but stopped himself and walked higher up the mountain, looking for a way around. Traveling this way was taking forever, but he couldn’t count on the others being able to follow him the fast way. Very frustrating. He stretched his arms, hoping to see some action.
Sinis’ heavy footfalls caught up with him as he crossed the stream. Large flat rocks bridged the running water. Pallas bounded from stone to stone and waited for Sinis on the other side.
“It is an honor to meet you, Swordbreaker,” said Sinis.
Pallas tilted his head and nodded. “You as well.” Hopefully that was all the formality this fellow would insist on. He tried to keep a straight face, but it was irritating. If he wanted to be honored, he’d ask for it, the way the gods do.
“Thank you for escorting us.” Sinis walked with his head high.
Pallas nodded. “It’s my pleasure.”
“When this is over, I was hoping you’d visit our village and let my family honor you with a meal.”
“I don’t eat.”
Sinis was a big man, but his apologetic demeanor made him seem small. “Well, what do you like?”
“I like to be left alone.” Pallas hurried a step ahead and stomped over a rotting log, cracking it down the middle.
Sinis matched his pace. “Are you thinking of visiting the palace?”
Pallas stopped and turned to him. “No. They wouldn’t want me. You wouldn’t either, if you know what’s best for you.”
Sinis sighed. He sounded relieved.
Pallas’ brow furrowed.
“You fear the gods?” asked Sinis.
“I fear for you, caught in their path. The gods should fear me.”
Pallas pushed on without looking back. Hopefully the ladies were keeping up. Sinis had stopped walking, and Pallas wanted to put a little distance between them.
They stopped for a late breakfast midmorning. The sun had long since burned away the morning dew. Spotty trees afforded precious little shade this high up the mountain. Pallas sat on a log and kept his gaze down the slope, away from the sun. Sinis had packed a huge amount of food. He and Ada chewed on salted fish and dry flatbread. It looked disgusting.
Chloe sat next to Ada and waved away her share of the meal. In the full light of day, her black eyes unnerved Pallas. Chloe hung her head, listlessly scratching her toes in the dirt. Ada stole glances at her constantly. Offered her other food. Fetched her water. Chloe didn’t seem interested in any of it.
Ada picked up a waterskin. Her shoulders relaxed as she drank, reminding Pallas of his mother. Strange. She looked a little like her. Ada met his eyes, caught him staring.
He blushed and looked at the ground. There had to be something else to think about. The ground cover under his feet was mix of moss, vines, and grass. A spider with a red hourglass on its back crawled over a stone. He pulled his foot away. Watched it instead of her.
Who was he kidding. Ada was magnetic. He looked up with his eyes, hoping she wouldn’t notice. She was halfway up the hill, gently waving at him. The graceful bend in her arm looked practiced. He stood to greet her.
“Ada.” Pallas looked at her chin. Her eyes locked on his, pulling them up.
She stopped a few feet back. “I just wanted to thank you for coming to help us. I don’t know what would have happened if you weren’t here.” Ada sat on a stone next to the log, uninvited.
He sighed and sat next to her. “I wasn’t joking when I said it’s not safe to be around me.”
“I wanted to ask you about that. The gods who hate you, have you ever met Artemis?”
“No. I always thought she’d come for me, but she never did.”
“I’m right with her. I know you’re worried about the gods taking something out against me or my brother, but you don’t have to worry.” Ada smiled at him. “I think the gods are more worried about making Artemis mad by hurting me, than they are about troubling you.”
They sat together silently. Pallas stared at his feet. He wanted to believe her.
“Have you been alone for a long time?” asked Ada.
“I spent some time learning from Kheiron the Centaur. After that, Oak took me into her grove, so, I’ve had her to talk to,” said Pallas. “No humans though. I sleep a lot.”
“Oak is the nymph?” asked Ada.
“Maybe I could meet her.”
He tensed. Tried not to show it. Oak was his. He didn’t have anything else. “I’ll ask her.” He picked up a small stone and threw it over the mountain. It disappeared into the sun.
Ada’s eyes followed the stone. “Thank you.” There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “When we’re done here, maybe you can come back with us. You should meet the Oracle.”
“Who?” asked Pallas.
“A wise man. He has different gods than the ones you know. Maybe he can help you,” said Ada.
Could anyone? Why did she care, anyway? He looked down the hill. Chloe sat, staring at her feet. Sinis sharpened his knife beside her. “We’ll see.”
Ada smiled at Pallas, covered her mouth with her elbow, and yawned. Gods, she was pretty.
Pallas stood. “Come on, we should get this over with, so we can camp. How much farther to the river source?”
“We’re close,” said Ada.
The green mountain swept towards a river valley where rocks and fir dotted the slope in equal measure. Jagged stone thrust another thousand feet into the sky. Pallas led the others in the warm, afternoon sun. Ada followed, side by side with Chloe, who had spoken little and eaten less since she swallowed the demon. Her weak smile never touched her shadow-scarred eyes. Sinis took up the rear, bow in hand, always wary. The way he watched Chloe made Pallas nervous. There was real hate there, though it rarely showed on his face.
“Hey,” shouted Ada. “Hold on.”
Pallas walked back and joined the others.
Chloe had frozen. Her black eyes were impossible to follow. She pointed towards the valley. “There. I’ve seen this place.”
Ada and Sinis exchanged worried looks. “Did the demon show you?” asked Ada.
“What do we do?” asked Pallas.
“Go down there and see.” Chloe brushed past Pallas without looking back. Ada took her hand and followed.
Pallas hurried ahead of them. “Let me go first.” Finally, something to do. He bounded down the hill, taking strides that would kill an ordinary man. Twenty-foot drops and dangerous slides. He stepped off a cliff and fell far enough, the wind whistled. It would be a long time before the others would catch up with him, but so much the better.
Who knew what waited.
The slope leveled out. Three mountains joined together, and their streams collected to form a small lake surrounded by bare grey stone. Bodies were stacked like firewood in the center of the fetid pool. The air sucked from his lungs. Flies swarmed the surface of the black water graves like fog. A sharp pain stung his guts. He swallowed the bile and kept walking.
If the demon’s plan was to befoul the whole river, it was getting close.
A raven landed on a stone at his feet. Tendrils of smoke and shadow swirled as it changed back into Chloe. What a strange curse. She stood, staring at the corpses, the color draining out of her face. Was she a goddess? It was hard to tell.
“We have to burn them,” she said.
“Very well.” A grove of fir trees sixty feet up the opposite mountain looked promising. The ground there was flat, and the land bent away from the stream. Pallas pointed. “There.”
Chloe nodded at the grove. “How strong are you? Can you move the bodies yourself? I’d like to protect the others from seeing this.”
“Why?” Pallas folded his arms. “This is what the gods do. Look at it. Their magic. Their will.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Chloe. “People influence the magic. People did this.”
Pallas walked closer to the bodies. Flies swarmed around him. “Your gods manage worse somewhere, every day. That’s the truth.”
“Please.” She held out her open palms. “I can’t bear for them to see this. Will you help?”
“Of course,” said Pallas. How could he refuse.
Chloe nodded her thanks. “Change.” Shadows consumed her. She became a raven and flew back the way she came.
He had failed to protect them once, and now Chloe was possessed. At least he could protect them from this.
Pallas used the Worldspade to harvest trees like wheat. “Sorry,” he whispered as another fir fell. He dragged a pair to the pyre and stacked them atop the others. Thirty in all—a mountain of dry needles. He worked for hours, filling the bonfire with every bit of wood he could find.
Below, the bodies waited. Histrian and helot, human and animal. He leapt from the bonfire to the tributary and cracked a stone where he landed. Had the Worldspade really carved out the oceans and rivers? “Time to put your name to the test.” He pointed it at the mound and watched the blade grow and widen until it shaded the entire pool.
The raven landed behind him and changed back into Chloe. She waited silently.
He widened his feet and gripped the handle with both hands. With a single hard thrust, he jammed the blade into the earth beneath the bodies and lifted nearly all of them at once. The strain on his arms was almost too much. Black water ran down the handle and soaked his sleeves. He retched.
Pallas’ voice strained through gritted teeth. “Well?”
“Ada and Sinis are waiting for us.”
“Fine.” He roared and lumbered up the slope. Body parts, rot, and gore fell from the Worldspade. Fluids ran off the side like rainwater. He dumped the bodies on top of the pyre. The sword returned to its normal size. He shook the water from it and wiped it clean on dry ground.
Pallas walked backwards from the pyre until his back was against the sheer rockface. A shiver of disgust crawled through him.
Chloe rested her hand on his shoulder.
“I’m not much of a conjurer, but I can try to help with the fire,” said Chloe. She knelt, holding a water skin. She whispered into the open container. “Change.” A moment later, she stood, smelled the open skin, and recoiled. Whatever she made must be strong. Chloe walked around the base of the pyre, pouring the clear liquid into the kindling.
The last drop fell. She threw the skin itself on the fire and walked back to the rockface. The graceful way she carried herself, even while under this strange curse made her seem larger than life. The black shine of her eyes. The casual way she transformed into a bird. Godlike.
“How are you holding up?” asked Pallas.
“I don’t know yet.” She folded her arms, staring at the ground. “The creature asked for something I didn’t want to give it, but I did.”
“And all this?” Pallas waved his hand at the funeral pyre.
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
Pallas lit a torch with his flint and steel. The dry threads caught fire quickly. “It’s not fair, what they put on us.” He pointed at the sky and handed her the torch. “It’s not fair that you carry this burden alone.”
For once, she smiled, the first one since he met her that he believed. “I don’t feel alone. I owe you more than you know.”
She threw the torch, and the pyre lit in blue flame. The soaring heat turned her head.
As long as she has Ada, she won’t be alone.
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