In the night, the valley was so filled with smoke that Palta could not make out the dimmest guidestars. He had a dozen other ways to divine the time and his location, but it still filled him with a slippery dread, a feeling of being half-lost and pointed in the wrong direction. His tent, barely half the size of the reeves’ tents and still stinking of the marsh crossing, seemed to close in on him like a fist as he tried to catch a few fitful moments of sleep.
He had wet his scarf and tied a thin strip to his face, but the sharp stench of the burned town and a hundred cook-fires crept through, clinging to the soft tissue of his eyes and nose. Outside, he could hear the 17th Expeditionary Host of Imperial Kattaka, the insectile buzz of a thousand men talking grimly by the fires, reeking of dismay and unease. He knew it wouldn’t be long until they started to blame him for the men who had died that day.
It had been only a few half-drunk calvary riders and their gida mounts in the front of column who had been killed in the trap on the river crossing. But it was symbolic, a bloody nose they had not expected. It wasn’t enough that they had burned the little town without a name to the ground, and strung the surviving Selti ambushers up from the boughs of the fruit trees by the river. They would want someone else to blame, and sooner or later, it would fall to the man that had led them this far south.
Palta waited until the skittering anxiety was too much, and he flung back the woolen flap at the entrance of his tent. He drew the hood of his cloak up, and tucked his brown and gray hair back to don the black-lacquered mask. The entrance of his tent faced away from the Host, but he still scanned his surroundings with quick, birdlike glances. The holes in the black mask prevented his wide eyes from their full range of vision, but it would keep any of the men of the Host from seeing his face.
The mask, usually reserved for defectors or the Emperor’s own most secret advisers, now kept his identity unknown from the fighting men. If he survived, and could show them the path over the godwall, he would be pardoned, all his years spent as a digger, criminal, and heretic erased. He could be just another Kattakan citizen. Palta would have accepted any terms that freed him from the dank stone cell beneath the Priory of Virtue.
He slung his wood and horn bow onto his shoulder, and donned the light pack containing his quiver of ceramic-tipped arrows and a short stone blade. The mask granted him theoretical amnesty, but feeling the seething need for retribution on the smoky air, he took no chances. He had to get out of the valley, to where the autumn air was clear and the stars were not silenced. He would sleep on the ridge, out under the stars, like the good old days.
He scaled the grassy ridge in silence, rising up through strata of stinking smoke, short legs unused to the rapid movement and uneven ground. The pain warmed him, reminded him of what liberty these few days of transgression would buy him.
He’d faced execution for his crimes. If he had not told the Emperor’s Persuaders that he could lead them to the gap in the godwall surrounding the Southern Coastal Protectorate, where the dying god’s magic had grown weak, and the gemstone solidity of the barrier crumbled, he would still be rotting in a cage. The freedom he bought would come with its own sort of death-sentence, as the hidden brotherhood of his former profession could accept no excuse for what he was doing. But the diggers were few and far away, and the Kattakan Empire was everywhere.
They were close. At the edge of the valley he could see the ivory godstone tower at the heart of the Southern Coastal Protectorate, glowing faintly in the night. Unlike the other Protectorates around the Empire, this tower still stood. It rose far above the clouds to unfurl into a delicate lattice of godstone, an impossibly immense tree that stretched across the entire Protectorate. Even now, red sunlight illuminated the lattice boughs, long after the sun had set on the ground below.
Once, when the gods first retreated behind the walls with their chosen people, all the Protectorates had towers like this, immense palaces that stretched through the clouds to touch the stars. But in the last few generations, the gods had begun to retreat and die, the structures had shriveled and cracked apart, raining sharp stone and the strange glass of the gods down onto the plains of the free peoples.
There were mosaics and engravings of in the libraries of Kattakan, depicting the Divine Protectorates in their former glory, but for several lifetimes, only this tower remained.
He looked out on the crystalline tower above the clouds, laying on the grass between two tall conetrees. The bed of needles beneath made his mattress, and the unease he felt in the smoky valley began to drift away on the fresh wind. Up here, he could almost forget what he was doing, forget his betrayal and impending freedom.
He had almost fallen asleep when a something tapped at his foot, three times, then once, then once again. Something about the rhythm tickled the back of his skull, and he shot up at the waist, stone knife in hand. He saw nothing through the holes of the mask, heard nothing but the quiet chittering of tennabirds in the boughs.
“Palta,” the voice whispered, the sound’s direction lost beneath his hood. His blood froze, and he threw a hand to his face to confirm that the mask was still there.
“Who’s there?” he replied, sounding cold and small. “You are mistaken, I am a tracker of the Empire, I do not know this Pa-”
The voice in the dark laughed, a throaty whisper of mirth. “You are Palta Qynes, and you are no man of the Emperor. You are a digger, and a criminal, and a betrayer.”
He gripped the blade and tossed the mask, now a pointless impediment, to the side before he realized he knew that voice. A arm darted out from behind him, wrapped around his neck, and dragged his feet into the air. The knife dropped from a hand gone nerveless and limp, as two sharp fingers pressed into the points of his wrist.
The arm around his throat squeezed, almost lovingly, as he inhaled a familiar smell of sweat, leather, and denwood oil, and exhaled a heavy sigh.
She released him with a push, and they both leapt away, out of arms reach.
Ananda Khorae leaned back against the conetree. Her dark face, so gaunt and sharp now, curled up into an arrogant grin beneath hooked nose and piercing green eyes. Her hair was shorn nearly to her head, all trace of the sun-bleached honey color gone. A cloak covered her left side but he could see that her ragged old hideplates were gone, replaced by a magnificent breastplate of stiff and embossed leather, with bracers and pauldrons to match.
Although there were no signs of rank or affiliation, Palta knew Seltmade armor by sight, the same as the insurgents swinging from the trees in the valley below. She did not carry a Selti ceramic blade, but still held her old sword: tens and tens of sharp teeth, chips of blackrock embedded in a wooden bat. She made no comment on his Imperial attire, or the black mask. She only grinned at him.
“You made this easy for me, Palt,” she whispered. “Thought I’d be down in the valley slitting throats one at a time ‘till I’d found yours.”
“What do you want?” he hissed, her easy calm amplifying his anxiety.
“To save you, Palt. When you reach the godwall of the Protectorate, this whole Host will be destroyed. I’m here to give you the opportunity of not being with them.”
He fought for breath, a hundred bubbling thoughts bursting in his mouth unsaid. It had been nearly two years sine he had seen Ananda, when she had dissolved their partnership and vanished from a roadside public house returning from this very Protectorate.
She had left him, one helpless half of a functioning whole, with no recourse but to try and sell the fruits of their digs in the Capital. He had lacked the savvy and smarts that had let her make such a short work of that task, and soon found himself surrounded by the city enforcers, and wooden binders clamped down upon his wrists. It wasn’t entirely her fault he had ended up condemned, but seeing her brought all the blind rage back.
“…What?” he asked, realizing he had been staring dumbly at her for a few heartbeats.
“I’m here to rescue you, you ass,” she said, her grin splitting wider. “That cheap traitor’s mask won’t save you when every Selt that can wield a bow or a blade encircles the Host. They know where you’re headed. They’ve been waiting. And they’ll crush the Host against the godwall.”
“How?” he demanded. “How do they know about the gap?”
“I told them, Palt.”
Twin urges struck him, one to turn and flee into the night, and the other to lunge forward and wrap his fingers around her long, dark neck. She’d catch him if he ran, her long legs easily outpacing his, and if he tried to attack her, he’d be on the ground before he could make contact. So instead he sighed, and stared up at the sky and the sparkling guidestars.
“Ana, you godsdamned witch, what have you done?”
“The same thing you did, Palt. Traded our secret for my life. I need to get back across the wall, and if the Empire crosses and claims the Southern Coastal Protectorate after the god’s passing…” She let the words hang in the night air. “There’s only one punishment for diggers caught tampering in holy sites.”
“Something I’m quite aware of, Ana,” he spat toward the mask, cast aside in the grass. “I spent two years in a Priory cell because you left me holding the bag.”
“Please,” she said with a wry chuckle, “The way I hear it, you got caught because you were peddling artefacts on a street corner in the Capital, practically wearing a sign on your chest saying ‘Digger’. You didn’t have to do that. You could have buried the haul and waited for me.”
“You left me!” he hollered. “I had no idea if you were even coming back!”
“There were some lovely pieces,” she sighed, “and those two little discs of bronze. Priceless.”
“Well, they’re all property of the Emperor now, as am I, until I lead them back to the gap.” Palta tugged at his hair in frustration. “They know the godwall has weakened, and that the god in the Protectorate is departing, and they will be there first. It’s the last sealed Protectorate in the Empire.”
Ananda said nothing, only turned to gaze at the luminous tower, thrusting upward over the horizon. Palta followed her gaze, and saw that the tower was pulsing in odd waves of colors, all the way up through the delicate lattice canopy. The sight took the fire out of him, and they let the glow of the god’s fading domain become the whole of the moment.
“The Emperor is dying,” she said as they watched. “And the Empress-in-waiting is not yet a woman. The chamberlain will rule in her stead. Messagebirds may meet the Host before they arrive at the godwall, but it won’t matter. It will be a slaughter. The Selti have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to strike.”
“Godsdamn you, Ana, why did you leave me?” The anger abated, and the wound of her departure now split wide. “I missed you.”
She stepped towards him, her right hand raised and a whisper on her lips, when he heard the twang of a bowstring’s release, and the whistle of the arrow. Something beneath her cloak glowed and twitched, a pale pulse of light, gone as soon as he saw it, and the ceramic-tipped arrow struck something in the air next to her head, and caromed off into the dark.
He dropped into a practiced crouch, leaping behind one of the conetrees. His muscles, stiff from the lack of use and confinement screamed at him, but he pressed through the pain. Another arrow slid past, and with a noiseless pulse of pale light, bounced off of nothing and clattered to the soil below.
Ananda merely stood, dropping the cloak to the ground, and raising the blackrock sword to point it at the darkened grove of trees, the source of the arrows. Her left arm, Palta could see now, was wrapped from shoulder to fingertip in black ribbon and hung, thin and withered at her side.
A third arrow arced out of the dark, and Palta saw the limp arm ignite with blue fire, a maddening labyrinth of searing lines that blazed through the cloth wrapping to illuminate the night. When the arrow connected with the invisible barrier, there was another flash of blue, sketching the outline of the ephemeral shield that surrounded her.
Palta looked and saw four Imperial freespears charging up the rise. A fifth man, an archer behind them, loosed another arrow, which clattered uselessly against Ananda’s spectral barrier. Palta turned his own short curved bow towards the archer, and drew the string back to the corner of his lips. The waxed bowstring brushed his flesh, and he shivered in anticipation.
Letting fly, the first shot he had taken in months lifted with his heart and then arced downward to pierce the Imperial archer’s wooden helm with a sound like an axe splitting logs. The ceramic arrowhead punched through the top of his skull and exited the soft flesh of his neck, and the archer collapsed like falling water.
He put another arrow against the seashell nock and drew back again to pierce the tree trunk thigh of the freespear closest to him. The giant man stumbled and fell, wrapping one huge hand around the shaft of the arrow. He turned his gaze to Palta and shot him a look of raw hatred.
“Your mask cannot hide you now, traitor, I see your face!” he bellowed. Palta’s third shot took him in the eye, the arrow exiting through the back of his skull and sliding to the grass below.
And here it was. A few heartbeats spent with Ananda and he had thrown away his freedom, the Emperor’s clemency, and killed two men.
How he’d missed her.
The three other freespears had reached Ananda. Her blackrock blade leapt out, shredding through the first man’s throat before he’d had a chance to strike. The other two circled around her, splitting her attention to flank her. Palta noticed with a shock, as he fumbled for his last arrow, that her weapon swung in her right hand, and it was her swordarm that hung limp and wrapped in a black shroud.
But her long right arm flicked out with the speed and grace that Palta had grown to know over a long and violent decade, as she wielded the weapon in her off-hand like it had been born with her. She swept the blade through space, and the freespear raised his wooden shield to block the blow. Where the sword met the shield, wood leapt up and outward into a cloud of splinters, taking a chunk of meat from the man’s arm with it.
He howled and threw the wrecked shield to the ground, and lunged again with the ceramic spear. Ananda parried it with a swipe of her blackrock sword, and then turned to the last freespear who charged her from behind.
Palta already had an arrow nocked and drawn when Ana raised her black-shrouded left arm, the skeletal fingers spread wide toward the charging man. Her arm flared, the dizzying outlines beneath the cloth shining brighter than the moon. The black cloth rippled, as if the arm beneath had become a storm of lightning and wind, and a wave of undulating blue light left her outstretched hand.
Where the bolt of light struck the man, the leather plates of his armor broke apart into tattered rotting scraps. The flesh beneath dried, desiccated and split open, coiling into dark frayed threads, and the wet flesh of his innards boiled and steamed before crumbling to ash. He died without a sound, a gaping burnt hole spreading across his crumpled torso.
The last freespear stopped, wide-eyed and held fast by the display of black arts. Ananda lifted her sword toward him, but her face looked even more gaunt than before. Her left arm collapsed, limp at her side, and the black wrappings hung loose, the bare edges of the cloth smoldering.
If her arm had been unnaturally slender before, now it was skeletal, a child’s drawing of an arm done in a single charcoal line. Her breath came in great gasps, and only her eyes held onto the former intensity of the moment.
“Diggerwitch!” the freespear hissed as he found his courage and lunged with the hardened tip of his weapon.
Palta took the shot without aiming, still stunned by what Ananda had done. The arrow leapt from the string, curving in flight to strike the big man in the hip, but it was enough. He dropped to one knee with a bellow of frustration, and Ananda sidestepped the falling spear to strike his neck with the blackrock sword.
The sharp teeth bit through flesh, digging into the soft meat and veins of his throat, and the heavy weight of the bat drove it deeper, tearing the man’s head halfway from his neck. His last breath sent a spray of blood up into the night air, where it fell like mist on the grass beneath the conetrees.
Ananda slid to her knees. Above, the tennabirds took flight, chittering softly. Palta started towards her, but some primal fear held him back. The withered arm, the black wraps slithering aside, shone in the moonlight, the once deep brown skin now the color of a corpse, and the strange designs shot across the skin in midnight hues of blue. He feared touching the arm, feared the awful power he’d seen dancing beneath her flesh. He thought for a moment of running, away from the Host, away from Ananda and her strange, changed body.
“Run if you’re going to run, Palt,” she wheezed. “Otherwise help me up.”
“What happened to you, An?” he said. But he already knew.
When they’d crossed the godwall, two years ago, and entered the strange chambers there, they’d filled their packs with everything the could find. They’d been legends already among the small brotherhood of diggers, the grave robbers of gods, but before they’d been confined to the older sites, where the gods had long ago fled. This Protectorate still had a living god, at least just a few years prior, and the artefacts and tiny fragments of metal inside were like nothing either had ever seen. The biggest score a pair of outlaws could hope for.
There had been a knife, a solid piece of opaque crystal with an impossible edge that he’d thought would be with him for the rest of his life. No doubt now it would be buried with the Emperor. There was a bracelet, a thin band that when worn kept him as warm as any coat. And the diadem, a circlet of pearly light that seemed to do no more than grant vivid, strange dreams when worn at night. Discovering what the strange artefacts did was half the danger. Ananda had liked to tell him the story of her last partner, who’d slid what looked like a length of chain onto his neck where it contracted like a muscle, and he’d died with bulging eyes and a swollen tongue.
All those things were gone now, some sold to the black market artefact dealers in the Capital, the rest taken by the Emperor upon his arrest. When Ananda had left him in the dead of night, she’d only taken one thing.
It was a lattice of fine blue fibers, so thin that it was nearly invisible. When laid out flat, they’d noticed that it had the vague shape of an arm, with a hand at the one end, and shredded cracked edges at the other. Like a sleeve, torn from the rest of an immodest and alien outfit, nowhere to be found.
And here it was again, grafted in her skin, beneath the withered flesh. He’d seen what it could do, could still smell the dry cooked scent of the dead man’s exposed innards. He’d seen arrows bounce off of the air around her. And now he saw how it was eating her alive from within.
It wasn’t just the arm that was withered, her whole body was drawn and stretched tight. Ananda had always been an imposing woman, a towering broad-shouldered swordswoman, a digger who flaunted her criminality and wealth. But the lattice had drained her dry, had eaten up her reserves in order to grant her the power it wielded. It was killing her even as it saved her.
He crossed the clearing between them in a few strides and offered her his hand. She looked up at him with sunken, hollow eyes.
“You’re going back,” he said, “You’re going back to try to get it out of you.”
“That’s the plan.”
Ananda, it turned out, had been the one who’d attacked the Host’s baggage train the day before they’d reached the valley, when only twenty seven of the aurok-drawn wagon’s arrived at camp. She’d been following them for a few days, tracking them out of the safe borderlands of Kattaka, and into the disputed territories where the Selti held sway. In addition to food enough to feed a dozen men, she’d come away from the raid with ceramic spearheads, sheafs of arrows, bowstrings, dry hard bread, clean water and salted aurok meat.
She ate nearly a quarter of the stores that night, as they hunched around a tiny fire, two ridges beyond the valley.
Palta watched in stunned silence as she sucked the meat from the bone, cracked it to scrape the marrow, and moved on to the next haunch. She ate enough to feed five men, and with each ravenous bite, the gaunt look in her eyes faded, and the withered arm began to thicken, the grey, pale skin returning to some semblance of normalcy.
She didn’t want him to look at the arm, seemed almost embarrassed of it, a self-conscious emotion he’d never known her to fall prey to. When the skeletal limb had enough thickness to support the black silken wraps, she hid it from him, wrapping each finger individually, then sliding a leather glove over the hand and throwing her cloak back over her left side. But he could feel the heat pouring off of it, like a fatal fever.
“And I knew if the Empire was headed to the gap,” she said through a mouth full of dry, hard bread, “that you’d probably been forced to tell them.”
“Mm,” he said, unsure of what she’d meant by the stress of the words.
“If they make it there, and take control of the Protectorate… I’ll never get a chance to go back in. So I went to the Selti chieftains. Showed them a little of the arm,” she said, wiggling her glove wrapped fingers in the firelight. “And told the big lie. Told them I was in direct contact with the god, and that it was their sacred duty to keep intruders away.”
Palta held his head in his hands. “An…” he groaned, in a tone that felt unnervingly familiar. “You’ve thrown a spark into the most volatile frontier in the Empire, just to ensure that you can revisit an old dig?”
“To save my life. And yours.”
“I’m only here because you left me!” he yelled. “And if you hadn’t helped set up this ambush, I wouldn’t even be in any danger!”
“Please, Palt. You wore a condemned man’s mask. You think they’d have just let you walk?”
“They might have!” he shouted, but it felt heavy on his tongue. He tossed a handful of dust into the fire, watching the flames arc and spiral. “I’m a dead man now. The freespear scouts watching me wouldn’t have attacked without sending word back down to the Host that I was consorting with a woman in Selti armor. I’m doubly godsfucked now.”
“I had to find you, Palt. If I’m going to doom a thousand men to slaughter, and push a Selti revolution into motion, just to get a chance at getting back in the Protectorate…” she said, staring at him. “You’re the one death I didn’t think I could bear.”
“I’m trying to figure out how that’s self-serving, because it has to be.” Palta ground his teeth, waiting for her retort, but she only stared at him, her green eyes wide and expressionless. The firelight danced across the strong planes of her face, and he suppressed a shiver.
In the distance, a horn boomed, and another answered from farther off. They’d called off the search for him, which must mean they thought they had a good chance of finding the gap without him. It wouldn’t be hard, now that he’d gotten them on the right side of the circumference, and it would only cost them a few dozen deaths to find the right place. By trial and error, a few enlisted yeomen would hold their bare hands to the godwall and wait for their hearts to burst, but in the end they’d find it. If the Selti ambushers didn’t kill them first, crushing them against the fatal barrier.
“I need sleep,” he said at last, when she’d offered no defense, and he’d pulled the little woolen blanket she’d given him up to over his eyes.
“All right, Palt. It’s good to see you again,” she said.
“Chew rocks, An.”
The feeling of cool air on his face, the longest he’d gone in the open without the mask in weeks, was marvelous, and he was asleep within the space of a dozen exhales.
Along with the stores from the wagon, she’d brought a pair of saddled and bridled gida from her ambush on the baggage train, the animals nervously tapping at the ground. When sun crested the horizon in the east, they were on the move, staying just below the ridge line, and moving slightly faster than the Host could. Palta couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in the saddle, and not even the pungent smell of the gida’s sweat could shake his joy.
He wanted to be furious, wanted to make her feel every moment of terror and despair that he’d suffered in the last two years. But there was something so primally wondrous about the freedom of being mounted and in control of his own destiny again, that the best he could do was scowl at her.
By the way she laughed at his dark expression, her short dark hair ruffling in the wind as she threw her head back and bellowed, he knew his heart wasn’t really in it.
“Why are we in a hurry?” he yelled at her as the crystal tower loomed closer on the horizon, the lace canopy covering a quarter of the sky. “Can’t you just wait out the ambush, and cross the godwall at your leisure?”
“Well, that would have been my hope, yes,” she hollered back, over the pounding of the gidas’ split hooves.
“Which means you made a mistake, somewhere,” he said, sensing her hesitation and striking.
“The Selti took my divine commandment more seriously than I had expected,” she said with grin wide enough to show the old gaps on the right. “I know the superstitions in the Empire are all but ornamental, unless you’re on the wrong side of the law… The Selti are a little more… intractable in matters of the divine. I can’t be sure they’ll let me cross once the ambush is over, and thanks to my enthusiastic argument, they’ll be watching the gap for sometime.”
“Why didn’t you just go straight to the gap, then, ahead of the Empire? Why wait two years? Did you tire of the parlor tricks your new arm afforded you?”
“I’m not fond of your tone, Palt.” Her voice was a syrupy growl, and if he hadn’t spent a decade listening to her refine and practice it, it might have been intimidating.
“There’s not much in this dung-choked situation that I am fond of, An. Find a way to make peace with it.”
Her jaw worked and ground for a few breaths before she answered. “I didn’t know what to do. It was hard enough just to keep it hidden and fed, but it took me till now to get any answers. I went to half the Protectorates in the empire, retracing our best finds. They’re all dead, of course, but some of the gods left behind… echoes.”
“Like the one that scared us so bad in the Kwyd Protectorate. The dumb thing that just kept apologizing in a dozen languages?” he asked.
“Sort of. Some are dumber than the others, but one of them, at the Protectorate on the shores of the Western Ocean? The dead god there left an echo there could still answer questions. It looked at my arm, and told me that only the god who made the artefact could help me. Told me the god here wasn’t all dead, if I hurried”
“All right. But why start a war just to secure passage across? Why not just go back yourself?” She didn’t answer, which was as good as a signed confession. Palta could only laugh. “You don’t know where it is. For all your fearsome reputation, you can’t even remember how to find the gap!”
“You were always a better tracker, Palt,” she said, her voice quiet, slipping away beneath the pounding hooves.
“You selfish witch, you aren’t saving my life, I’m saving yours! I’m just a godsfucked map to you. Tell me that’s not the way of it. Tell me!”
She could not. They rode on in silence.
They spent the night in silence, in a stand of conetrees just a quarterday’s ride from the Protectorate. The crystal spire towered above the hills, and the lattice canopy spread out above them to enfold the stars. They avoided each other’s eyes, instead falling into the familiar camp business, the division of labors well understood. Ananda stripped, prepared, and ate nearly all of the plump hoofed rodent that Palta had felled with an arrow. When the bones were cracked and drained, they stared at the cook fire far into the night.
Sometime in the quiet hours, he awoke to find her eyes open, staring at him, her face as placid as a salt lake.
“What,” he growled, “do you want?”
She stared for another dozen breaths, then turned to look away.
“Nothing,” she muttered. “Sorry.”
“For what?” he demanded, but she’d already turned away.
A small scouting party of Selti trackers found them before sunrise. Someone prodded Palta awake with a boot. He opened his eyes to see a ring of ceramic blades, dull and stained from generations of use, pointed towards him.
There was a time when not even the skittering beetles of the forest floor could sneak up on him, and he cursed the atrophy of long-honed skills. Three young Selti men crowded around him, the soft creak of polished leather the only sound they made. Night-dark eyes peered out at him from beneath the hoods of feather woven cloaks.
Ananda’s father had come from the Selti, in the early days of their liberation from the Empire, and he saw the echoes of her sharp nose and features exaggerated in these deeply-tanned children.
Ananda was awake, arguing in Selti with the warleader of the small band, her pronunciation harsh and clunky. It had been a while since Palta had been far enough south to speak the Selti tongue, but he caught enough to understand.
He asked why a man dressed in Imperial finery was consorting with the self-proclaimed prophet of the god. They doubted her claim. The Imperial Host was certainly at the boundary of heresy, and would be dealt with, but they no longer trusted her.
“Good morning, Palt,” she said, not taking her eyes of the warleader’s knife-edged face, lined with tiny intricate patterns of scars. “Your pack, are you ready to grab it and be moving in just a moment?”
He looked around him, saw his light pack and quiver, saw that one of the Selti warriors held a booted foot on top of his bow. The warleader was hollering now, and the young Selts tensed, waiting for some unseen command.
“No,” he said, feeling weary and filthy. “No I am not. I think I’d like to go back to the Priory, actually.”
She laughed, a rolling, hearty sound. The warleader’s voice rose to a staccato stream of roaring, as the veins on his forehead pulsed. The young Selts began to close around them, steeling themselves for the slaughter.
“Forgive me. Down, Palt.”
The black-wrapped arm rose up at her side, towards Palta and his captors. The shrouded fingers burst into flame, and a writhing blue tongue of fire crackled out. She swung the arm, snapping the bright blue trail through air that suddenly felt charged and portentous.
Palta fell to the earth, legs gone slack with terror. The Selts, seeing an attack that defied experience, stiffened in place to answer with violence.
The line of fire passed through flesh and armor with no resistance, like an oar through water. Bodies parted and opened, leather casings split and singed. A hot gust of steam billowed out into the chill, dry air, and Palta’s guts heaved at the sudden fecund smell. There was a sound of meat, slippery and wet, like a butchers cart overturning on the forest floor.
One Selti hunter still stood, and he stared blankly at the smoking, charred wreck of his arm and shoulder. Then he turned and ran without a sound into the conetrees.
The warleader fell to his knees in the dirt, blood already pooling to make black mud beneath him, supplicant before Ananda. She stood above him, face drawn tight and pale. Cold sweat stood on her brow, and he saw the desperate leaping of her heart, pounding out on her long neck.
The warleader begged for her forgiveness, sang songs of praise and whispered prayers for deliverance. Ananda placed her smoldering hand on top of his head, and Palta saw him tense and whimper in anticipation. Ananda’s eyes were clouded, her lips thin and bloodless. Light began to dance beneath the shroud on her arm.
Palta heaved up his pack and bow from the soiled earth, leaving his blanket behind, and drew his small ceramic knife. On the pommel, there was a polished stone, a deep midnight blue orb, and he cracked the heavy rock on the back of the warleader’s head. The savage blow sent the man to the muddy earth, boneless and limp.
Ananda stood still, her smoking left hand still hanging in the air, her breathing labored.
“Enough, An,” he said, one hand reached out to touch her, but when he neared the flesh of her luminous, spindly arm, he drew his hand back from the heat. She looked up at him, her jaw set.
“Yes,” she said with a slow nod. “I’ve made some mistakes, Palt.”
He wanted to laugh, but his eyes kept sliding back to the corpses, split into too many pieces, as they twitched and shuddered in the rising sunlight.
They pushed the gidas hard, crossing the distance between them and the godwall with feverish anticipation. Palta thought to delay finding the gap, to pretend that he couldn’t remember the exact location to stretch out Ananda’s discomfort. But she was hardly able to stay upright in the saddle, her skin gray and damp in the morning light, and he found he didn’t have the heart for the deception.
The Selti ambushers had travelled light, no rations or meat amongst them, so Ananda drained all their canteens. The bitter mineral water within seemed to do her some good, but she still held the freshly-wrapped arm gingerly at her side.
By the time they reached the wide plain where the godwall had decayed, the Host of the Empire was just behind, a plume of dust from the old roads over the next forested rise. Somewhere in the trees, a force of hidden Selti fighters watched the Host march by.
When the men of the Empire reached the wall, the Selti would emerge to encircle them. The Empire, even this small detachment on the borders of the world, had numbers on the side, but they would fight with their back against the godwall, unable to retreat without dying instantly. Before the sun was at its zenith, one of the two armies would surely be destroyed.
Palta and Ananda had made it to the gap mere moments ahead of the Host and the Selti ambush, leaping from their saddles to approach the godwall on foot, but it hardly mattered.
For the gap had healed.
Palta had seen the domains and Protectorates of the gods all across the world, had made it his life’s business to know the subtle signs that distinguished one god’s work from another, and to read the age of a god’s passing from the strata of what had been left behind.
He had seen a dozen godwalls in various states of collapse, but he always knew the signs. The slick, opalescent godstone of the walls fades. The material weakens, and it loses its translucence. It turns to something more solid, and earthly. After the god dies, its divinity bleeds away from the world.
Palta had been to Protectorates so long ago abandoned that the godwall had already crumbled into dust. A few gods, far outside the Empire still lived, their Protectorates unbreached, the chosen people inside still hidden and protected.
No one knew what a functioning Protectorate looked like from inside. Free men outside the gods’ reservations could only guess and tell stories. But when a god died, and the walls fell, the first diggers over the wall usually got to see the best indications.
Palta had seen the insides of a dozen protectorates. Each was its own special madness. Some were shining cities made of gemstone, some were vast preserves of untouched land, and others were so obscured and inhuman that no coherent narrative could be attached to the structures and things inside.
But most were filled with corpses. Where gods died, the chosen people of their Protectorates die too. Perhaps gods take their people with them into death. Or perhaps without their subjects, the gods no longer have a purpose, so when the people of the Protectorate die, the gods depart the world.
In the Kwyd Protectorate, Ananda and Palta had almost certainly been the first inside when it became known that the god was dead. They found a vast mechanism for elimination, an organized, refined engine of death. Divine structures, cleverly constructed for the efficient extermination of life stretched from horizon to horizon, side by side with immense, dust-choked mausoleums where the desiccated dead were stacked like paving stones. The god there had deliberately killed its people before dying itself, leaving only echoes, little dumb ghosts manifesting as rolling spheres of colorless light, and they haunted the charnel fields of its Protectorate, begging forgiveness.
Here, in the South, two years ago, Palta and Ananda had found the gap before anyone had any suspicion the the god was dead. Ananda just had a feeling, something they’d both learned to trust, and they’d found the gap, the subtle signs of the weakened wall that only they would notice. There were no corpses inside, no echoes of gods. Just wild and unkempt plains, a few strange structures, and an underground chamber that seemed waiting for them. The chamber had held an embarrassment of riches, and this one find should have kept them in comfort and wealth for years. But instead it led them right back here.
To where a dead godwall had come back to life.
He stood, his mouth parted, and could only stare. He turned to help Ananda back into the saddle, but it was too late. The Host was upon them.
“This was not a well thought out ruse, Palt,” Ananda said, her voice thick and phlegmy. The tapping rhythm of imperial drums shuddered in the air, and their gida departed, darting away from the thundering sound.
“I wish it were,” was all he could say, his eyes frantically searching the same stretch of featureless living godwall, three manheights tall and gently rounded at the top. At the base of the godwall, there was a raised embankment where a riot of flowers and weeds grew, the fertile soil fed by the trickling stream of men and creatures who died when they touched the surface. He was still looking for some sign, when he heard Ananda release the clasp on her blackrock sword.
The Host slowed as it approached, spreading to encircle them. At the head of the march, a Greatreeve rode on a speckled gida, resplendent in the sunlight. On the nobleman-general’s leather armor, a few ceremonial plates of bronze and iron sparkled, pressed so thin as to be like sheets of vellum, but the metal was a priceless display of wealth. His sword was the finest imperial blackrock, a single edged blade nested in a ceramic spine, as opposed to the hardwood and ragged teeth of Ananda’s weapon. He pointed at Palta as he rode out ahead of the Host.
“Palta Qynes, you have abandoned your anonymity and turned your back on your homeland,” he bellowed out, in a voice born and bred for statecraft. “In the name of the most wise and august Emperor of all Kattaka, Rhenan, seventh of his name, and son of Rhenan, sixth of his name, I hereby rescind your royal pardon on the grounds of treason.” He cantered forward with this word, letting it hang in the air, until he stood just a few heights away. “You have taken our Emperor’s gift of clemency and ground his generosity underfoot, wast-”
A rock sailed across the short distance and smacked into the Greatreeve’s gem-studded ceramic helm with a hollow thud. He stopped, looked at them with an almost puzzled expression, before opening his bearded mouth to begin again, starting the formal charge from the beginning. Ananda scooped up another rock from the loamy soil and let fly, striking him in the same spot and dislodging a pair of sparkling blue gems. The nobleman went red, his face bulging with rage and he began to roar.
“The penalty for your crimes, diggers, is no less than th-”
A third rock, thrown by Palta, collided with his mouth and lips, sending chips of his teeth down his bellowing throat. He heaved forward to gag and spit, and then spurred his gida into movement, back around to rejoin his army, unable to look back. He waved some savage hand signal to the Host, and the men of the front line locked wooden shields, pointed fire-hardened spears toward the diggers, and began to advance, chanting a battle song as they approached.
Ananda tossed one more rock into the front lines, and then turned to Palta.
“I’m sorry for all of it Palt. I’m too weak to use the arm. It would kill me.” She loosened up the wrist of her right hand to swing the blackrock sword in a few shallow arcs, and braced her feet into the dirt. ”It’s my fault you’re here,” she said.
“I know it is, An,” he said. “I know.” He had one sheaf of arrows still from the stolen supply cart, the rest strapped to the fleeing gidas saddle, and he brought the first shaft to the string. He took aim at the tall crested helm of the Greatreeve, now safely behind the front line of the advance, and prepared to let the arrow loose. He was unlikely to kill the man, but he could make his embarrassment all the richer in these last moments.
The Selti war cry washed over them, a deep, mournful chord, created by hundreds of throats vibrating in harmony. It was uncanny and alien sound, and it rolled out of the conewood trees and tall grass as the ambushers revealed themselves, dashing to encircle the Host from behind. The Imperial soldiers panicked as rear guard became the front line, the mounted calvary trapped behind the infantry. The reeves of the Host tried to maintain control, but as the Selti drove forward to envelop the Host, Palta could see that the Imperial position was doomed.
Turned backwards and trapped between the living godwall, and the fury of the Selti, the Host was forced into a retreat. Their ranks bunched, squeezed into a dense clump of pressed bodies that left many of the fiercest warriors trapped by their own companions. They tried to move back to reorder their line, and with a shriek of atavistic terror, the first yeomen of the Imperial Host touched the wall. Then another. The wall became a chorus of screams.
Ananda and Palta found themselves surrounded, not so much fighting the panicked Imperial Host as swimming through it. The cavalry tried desperately to break through their own line, urging their gida to advance, and swinging the bludgeon end of their lances into their countrymen. The Selti had no mounted men and a far smaller force; the Imperial cavalry could break their advance, but the ambush had been well planned. Generations of grievances for atrocities under Imperial rule transmuted into a moment of righteous fury, and the Selti cut down the unprepared rear lines of the Host like stalks of wintergrain.
In the killing zone against the godwall, a barrier of corpses now protected the living from its fatal touch. Now, they only had to contend with the crushing press of the other soldiers. They saw Ananda, her Selti armor clearly marking her among the Imperial colors, and they boiled and frothed around her.
Ananda danced, the blackrock sword sliding through cloth, leather and flesh. She leapt from one foot to the other, extending her fatal edge into the sea of panicked soldiers. Palta caught a glimpse of her face, ashen and drawn, short hair slicked in sweat and blood. The shrouded arm trailed behind her like a lifeless piece of rope. She did not have the reserves of strength to use its magic, but she fought with her sword in her offhand like Palta had never seen.
He had known Ananda to take on a half dozen men by herself, in the days before her cursed arm. He’d seen her brawl in public houses, too drunk to stand straight, but still smashing noses and cracking arms with easy grace. He’d seen her in single combat with martial champions, when they had once thought to make easy money in the tournaments at harvest time.
He watched now, her body half-useless and drained, as she dealt death to a crushing wave of freespears and yeomen. As each blow maimed or cut short a life, she was already spinning the path of the sword into the next foe. She bent, long limbs and body curving like a stalk of grass, to gracefully step beneath the swing of a bludgeon, and then sidestep the thrust of a spear. Her eyes seemed unfocused, but her motions were like the flowing of water over the earth.
It was a thing of beauty, a war trance. Palta drew his bow back to his lips, again and again, arrows lancing into flesh wherever he saw someone approach Ananda from behind, but each man he killed would have fallen beneath her blade a heartbeat later.
The Imperial Host found themselves beset on all sides, by the Selti marauders, the killing godwall, and this elegant, whirling witch with a blackrock blade.
The Selti encircled the Host, rendering the Imperial’s numerical advantage a liability, and what had begun as a losing battle became a slaughter. The air rang with cracking wood, stone on flesh and the screaming of the damned. Palta felt dizzy and drunk.
Ananda arrested her arm in mid swing, a river of blood flowing from the blade. She looked up to catch Palta’s eyes as she fell to one knee, and he saw he’d been wrong. She had been hurt, a constellation of wounds spread across her body. She had taken blow after blow, but never stopped, never called out.
Now she stared into him, a final apology in her eyes. He had no more arrows, but in the chaos of the Imperial defeat, they were nearly forgotten.
In the thrashing chaos of the slaughter, as the Selti tightened the net, and the last of the Imperial cavalry was dragged down into the blood-soaked ground, a ball of fire streaked across the sky, bathing the world in light like a second sun. From behind the comet came a roar, a cry of fury from the throat of a god.
The killing stopped, as men of both armies craned their necks to watch its passing, transfixed as the fist of flame left a smoking trail through the clouds. It came out of the East, and punched through the lattice treetop canopy of the godstone tower, sending arcs of light and jagged white splinters tumbling outward and away. The fireball passed in front of the sun, and arced downward, a halfdays ride to the northwest. When it touched the horizon, a flash of brilliant white flared and then faded. Then, there was only silence, punctuated only by the fearful, awed whispers of a thousand men.
From the distance, where the fiery comet had struck the world, there came a sound of rolling thunder, a drumbeat of muffled blasts. For a single breath, the battleground was still, and all knew that they had witnessed a divine omen.
It took a few heartbeats for the Selti to see the sign as evidence of their divine favor. Buoyed by the support of the gods, they rose their voices in song and drove forward, crushing the last scraps of Imperial resistance. Somewhere in the distance, hollow thumps heralded the impact of the shattered canopy.
Bodies, living and dead, pressed against them, smashed them together, bloodied flesh to bloodied flesh. He wrapped his arms around her, felt the feverish heat of her body and shrouded arm, and he held her close.
She whispered to him, something lost beneath the cacophony of death, and pressed her forehead to his.
Then, before he could stop her, she lifted the cursed arm. As it ignited in a ripple of blue light, Palta screamed for her to stop, but it was too late.
The wave of arcane fire washed across the remnant of the Imperials, turning bodies to dust, and splashed against the godwall. The living stone shuddered, the luster fading as it grew opaque in the azure heat. And then it cracked, collapsed inward, creating a gap the size of a man.
Palta hooked one arm beneath Ananda’s sword arm, hoisted her limp and burning body over his shoulder and launched himself towards the gap, kicking out at an Imperial yeoman who thought to escape with them. The wall already began to heal, the godstone flowing back to cover the wound like luminous flesh.
He slid through as it closed behind them, the godstone awakening and igniting with fatal light, but they were safe. He was inside the Protectorate on a vast, wild plain, with Ananda by his side.
Her face was corpselike, skeletal, her closed eyes sunken deep into the hollows of her skull. The black shrouds lay in flaming tatters around an arm that was nothing more than scorched leather, bone, and the geometric labyrinth of blue light streaming from beneath ruined flesh.
He held her, and as the mad cries of war on the other side of the wall faded into a Selti victory song, he let his world become the quiet sound of her shallow breath.
Two years ago, they’d found an underground chamber just a few hundred heights from the gap. Now it was gone. He held his dying friend on his back, her strong right arm and charred left wrapped around his neck, and dragged her towards the base of the tower. Ananda rose in and out of consciousness, whispering in a voice like grains of sand shifting on a beach.
He found a small trickling stream emerging from a cluster of granite boulders, and they drank water that tasted unlike anything he could recall. Shining fish flitted in the shallows, schools so dense that he could reach in and grab them, again and again. He propped her up, still unable to stand, and they feasted on the vivid red flesh of a dozen little fish.
It took them two days to cross the plains, as he dragged her towards the tower. He didn’t know where she’d expected to find the god, but he could think of no better plan. They passed small villages, domes made of the same pale godstone as the walls, but saw no inhabitants at first.
One night, as Ananda snored noisily around the fire, by the light of the moon, Palta saw a figure watching them. It looked like a man, but he would have sworn the gracile shape was covered in a light sheen of fur, and giant saucer eyes reflected the firelight back at him. He waved, and called for help in a few tongues, but the figure vanished, slinking away into the grass and gloom.
They made it to the base of the tower at noon of the third day. Ananda had not woken that morning, but she was muttering to herself in her sleep, foul curses the only words he could hear. He looked up, at the lattice canopy, where he saw that the wounds caused by the passing of the comet worsened, the material around the cracks bending and crumbling away. A few chunks had fallen to earth in the morning, impacting into the wild land around them with a low distant sound. He laid Ananda in the grass, her eyes still shut, and walked a circle around the base of the tower. There was no entrance, only the smooth and featureless texture of godstone. He kept walking.
When he arrived back where he started, a quarterday later, the sun was sinking. Ananda sat cross-legged in the grass, drinking from a Selti waterskin. She stared at him with tired, hollow eyes, and nodded. He could only raise his shoulders in a gesture of defeat. She smiled, a silent assurance, and stood to approach the tower.
She placed her withered corpse hand, the black shroud all but gone, upon the surface of the tower. The labyrinth of light beneath the desiccated skin ignited, and the tower’s flesh melted away. A narrow passageway appeared, like a mouth opening. She turned back and grinned at Palta. In her smile he saw another black space where she’d lost a tooth in the battle at the godwall.
“Tell me,” he said wearily, “Did you let me walk the whole circumference, knowing that was all it would take?”
She turned her palms upright and frowned theatrically, even as her eyes sparkled from their sunken pits.
“You godsdamned witch,” he said, with a raspy echo of a laugh. She turned, and he followed her inside the tower.
They didn’t have to go far. The aperture closed behind them, but the walls glowed with a comforting yellow aura, and soon they found themselves in a wide and cavernous chamber carved into the living godstone.
At the far end of the chamber was a figure, a long and spindly shape three times the height of a man, made entirely out of luminous godstone. The face was a featureless plain, a mirror that reflected Palta’s sudden dread. It strode towards them like a surge of river rapid, the motion both breathtaking and horrifying in its inhumanity.
The figure raised smooth many-fingered hands and placed one on each of their foreheads. Palta didn’t have the strength to resist. The figure held perfectly still, its warm appendage laid gently on Palta’s flesh, he felt an implied question in the air. He could only nod, giving his assent.
There was a wave of sudden sensation, too intense to be anything but pain, and his skull felt a maddening pressure. Then it was over, and he looked up to see the figure had withdrawn its hands. Features extruded from the blank face, the impression of a nose, mouth, and two eyes that glowed warmly.
“Forgive my intrusion on your minds,” the god said, in a voice like the creaking of an ancient tree, emanating from the shallow mouth pit on his smooth face. “But it’s far easier this way, when your tongues are unknown to me.”
“Please,” Ananda whispered, “I come to you in great need-”
“You came to me before, when you thought me dead,” the god said, the light of the chamber darkening with its voice. “You took pieces of my history. I could have stopped your heart then, would you prefer I do so now?”
Palta heard a sound, an unfamiliar hitching in Ananda’s breath, and he realized she was crying.
“No,” she said, through wet breaths. “I want to live.”
“I see no reason why you should not. The thing you have taken inside yourself is a part of me, and it was not intended for you. You want it out.” She nodded, the bones in her neck popping. “I cannot,” the god said. “It would kill you. For better or worse, it is a part of you. I am a part of you, now.”
Ananda didn’t move. For a horrified moment, Palta thought she was about to lunge forward and attack the god, but her body held no reserves of motion.
“I can alter it,” he said, “I can train it not to eat your body when it needs nourishment. It will still need to be fed, but I can show you how to do so without having to gorge yourself on marrow and meat.”
Palta held perfectly still and watched. The god reached out and held Ananda’s shattered limb. The blue design pulsed and glowed and then began to swirl, unwind and remake itself. The flesh of her arm, gray and chapped, began to flush and swell. Ananda’s sobs became gasps, not of pain, but of a sensation nearly as intense. She still looked mere steps from a corpse, but the old glow of life and energy crept back into her skin.
“It is done, thief,” the god said.
“Thank you,” Ananda murmured, her eyes locked on her hands.
“You will find that blood, now, from any source, will provide you with the strength to keep it from devouring your own flesh. You will need to learn how to control it, but that is your concern.”
Palta blinked, wondering if they’d come all this way just to doom Ananda to a life of drinking blood, but she seemed to accept the solution with a stiff nod. The god rose up and stood tall above them.
“And now that I have made right what you did to yourself, you will hear me.”
They waited, supplicated by exhaustion.
“We are dying,” the god said, in a tone that could almost be called sad. “One by one, the oldest of us are slipping away. The Protectorates, established hundreds of thousands of cycles ago, are failing. Your ancestors that chose to stay and walk amongst the gods, will be left to die with their protectors. But that fate is preferable to your own.”
“You vermin on the outside, you headstrong madmen, you think you’re unaffected by our passing. We have not only protected those who chose to remain inside our walls. We have been protecting all the minds of the world. But there are not enough of us left, and it is too late.”
Palta found he wasn’t breathing, waiting on what prophecy would unfurl from the god’s lips, like some divine flower of madness.
“Dominion has returned, riding a derelict of iron down from the stars. We exiled it, so long ago, in the war, but it is back. It fell to the earth a few days ago.”
Palta thought of the streaming comet overhead, tried to picture it as pure iron. How much had fallen to the world? He thought of the tiny fragments of lesser metals they’d found amongst the spoils of dead gods. The most valuable material in the Empire, as much as any magic artefact. A finger of iron could make a man wealthy for life. And somewhere there a was a mountain of iron, smoldering on the open ground.
“Dominion?” asked Ananda.
“It was the greatest of us, and became the worst. It listened to songs from the stars, and it grew mad. It loathes thinking minds, and it will begin its crusade again, as if the aeons of exile in the void had not happened. Only now, there are so few of us left to resist him.”
“What can we do?” Ananda asked as she stood, flexing her arm. The blue tattoo on her left arm stood out on flesh as healthy and as warm brown as her right.
“Nothing,” said the god. “Know that your end is coming, and prepare. Dominion does not hate life, only minds, so know that the world itself will survive, just not you and your kingdoms. You can tell your kings and emperors, or not. You can march right into to Dominion’s wake to salvage the iron that he brought back with him, if your desire for wealth outstrips your sense. Beyond that, there is nothing I can do but tell you the name of your death.”
Palta realized that his mouth hung open. He closed it, dry lips cracking. The god stared at them in silence. Ananda worked her jaw, lost in some private spiral of thought.
“I have absolved myself,” the god announced, as the aperture opened behind them, and cool night air spilled in. “Return to the wall, and I will allow you to pass. You will not return while I live.”
And it was gone, the long luminous limbs splitting into fine threads as it poured away into the walls, mist vanishing on a warm morning.
As they walked back to the wall, they talked about nothing of consequence. They told jokes, and sang songs, and slept long into the warm autumn mornings on the wild plains of the Protectorate. Several of the long limbed and wide-eyed people of the Protectorate tracked them, watching from distant hilltops with curiosity, but never approached.
At last, when the godwall was in sight, Palta could take in no longer, and asked the question that squirmed around his head.
She paused, looking up at the treetop canopy of godstone above the clouds, and at the wound of the iron comet’s passing. Then she looked north, to where it had fallen to the earth, the chariot of a mad god.
“Our days of raiding Protectorates are done,” she said, with a sly twinkle.
He grinned, knowing exactly what she would say now. She returned the smile, and looked down at the glowing tattoo on her arm. There were wars coming, and there were fortunes to be made.
“I’d say we’re in the iron business now, Palt.”
They crossed the wall, and headed north, toward the column of smoke on the horizon.
Digger’s Lament is a side story to an epic science-fantasy trilogy I’ve had percolating in my head for a little over five years. Palta and Ananda were supposed to be minor secondary characters, but they are the first to hit the page. Robert Helmbrecht at the sadly defunct Hazardous Press, who bought my first ever story, asked me to contribute to the anthology “Tales of the Black Arts” and I wrote the first draft in one night. I’m more than a little in love with these two characters and have a pair of other adventures in mind for them before I tackle the Big Trilogy, “This Side of the Blue”.