Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The archers’ bowstrings twanged well before we reached the wall. As we approached, I watched them light their arrows with the nearby torches before launching them at unseen enemies below. I climbed a ladder to reach the top of the wall, Malia flapping up beside me.
Ah, so that’s why they’re called the Sleepless.
A pack of no more than twenty, the gray-skinned undead moaning and careening away from the flaming arrows looked like mortals who’d lived without a night’s sleep of any kind, ever. Waxy bags folded over each other, layer upon layer, from beneath their sunken eyes all the way to their jaws, leaving their cheeks streaked with twin columns of dark ripples. Every soulless had a black hole in their chest that punched all the way through, the edges ragged despite the perfect circle bored through their ribs.
Those macabre features aside, the Sleepless looked composed of normal mortals. No nauseating smell of decay, no decomposition compromising their bodies, no exaggerated features—although most looked as if their muscles had atrophied a bit. And their eyes, while clouded with cataracts, held a certain intelligence not often wasted on reanimated corpses. They worked together, avoiding the fiery volleys, and snarled and clacked their teeth at the spiked moat. When a few clustered and attempted to build a bridge of impaled bodies, the archers focused their fire on the breach and the soulless fell back with half their original number. Soldiers slipped from sally ports to pry the burning corpses off the pikes and repair the moat as the surviving undead disappeared in the distance.
Malia scowled at the retreating lifeless. “Strange.”
“That there were so few?”
Nodding, she folded her arms. “They’d been sending ever-increasing hordes until Hasda unveiled his fire. After that they ceased, but why they chose now to resume their raids seems entirely too convenient.”
“Could they have been scouting?” I watched the soldiers hack at the bodies with hatchets. Though their spirits didn’t display the numbness that had plagued the villagers, it certainly colored their actions. “Unless their numbers have been reduced drastically.”
“We don’t know how many they started with, or whether replenishing their troops requires heavy investment.” Her tail thumped against the stones. “I’ve attempted to fly over the land, but the forest obscurs most of Batavii, and the air above the one clearing I found near its center, where the capitol and the Stitcher should be, was barred.”
“What?” I gave her a concerned look. “What stopped you?”
“The Sea Mother.” She nearly spat venom saying the name. “It wasn’t an impassable barrier, like that erected by the Paedens in Aenea, but a viscosity to the air that made it unflyable. No sign of her storms yet, and her aura has yet to spread. But she’s there.” Sneering, she glared north, the same direction the Sleepless had retreated.
I frowned. “As worrisome as her presence is, I’m more concerned about the ‘why.’ What could have brought her here? It’s highly unlikely she knows about the Staff, and even more unlikely she’d have a use for it.”
“The Stitcher is a god, albeit without a pantheon. She could be after him.”
“That is a…distressing thought.” I shifted my weight to my other foot.
Malia shrugged. “I suspect, but nothing’s confirmed. She did try to recruit you, though, and she’s stuck without a proxy.”
“Speaking of, where, exactly, did Lazuli disappear?” I got a sinking feeling in my gut at Malia’s sheepish avoidance of my eyes. “You’re going to say somewhere around that aerial barrier, aren’t you?”
“Under the canopy of the Bataviian forest, but yes.” Her snakes wriggled as she rubbed her shoulder. “And yes, shortly after, Tamiyat’s presence felt heavier. But nothing like if she had escaped the astral plane.”
“What of the local gods?” The Stitcher had displaced somebody, but I’d never gotten the details on who, and the last I’d heard Curnerein had dwindled to a land with spirits barely cresting demigod-like powers.
“Balphar was the chief deity of the region, until the Stitcher slew him with the Staff.” Wings twitching, Malia swayed in place as she scanned the horizon. “That was what originally caught my attention, rumors of a weapon that could kill gods. But it turned out that the Bataviians' faith was weak enough to allow for their god to be shorn from them, so I’m less certain that it’s a property of the Staff itself. Balphar had two sons, Oophan and Vythar, and a nameless daughter, whom I’ve found no traces of. When the Stitcher killed Balphar, it corrupted the myths surrounding Frijorro, his wife, who dissolved into the Weeping Queen from her grief. And then her mind fully shattered when Oophan failed to avenge his father and was likewise slain.” She shook her head. “That death cemented faith in the Stitcher as a proper deity, especially since Oophan had barely a cult to his name. I’ve tried to contact the Weeping Queen, but she has sequestered herself deep in Sivarii. The mortals claim the swamps sprang from her tears, but I know for a fact that the bogs predate her fall.”
I grunted. “What of the other son, Vythar?”
“Haven’t been able to communicate with him either.” Frowning, she pointed west. “He’s settled in Elthii, which borders Batavii, but it’s also across the Fyrisard. While I can fly across with ease, the Frischiians refuse to cross the river as long as the Stitcher and Sleepless remain. And his mortals cower and flee when I approach, so I haven’t been able to request an audience. After the third attempt, I gave up because the soulless have yet to turn their attention west, and I didn’t want to draw the Stitcher against them.”
“And the Ghorin tree-walkers?”
“East, in the Sivarii swamps.” She gave me an annoyed look. “I know they’re in there, but they slink away whenever they sense me coming. And I got annoyed with the beasts of the bogs, so I focused on shoring up the Frischiian defenses.”
A pulse sounded from the east, presumably originating from Sivarii. I glanced at Malia, but she didn’t seem to notice. “What creatures?”
“Long-necked, scaled leopards that strike from the trees.” Her tail flicked. “Other nuisances, like the bat-winged frogs and the crocodile chimeras hiding beneath the water. But it’s the haze of sorcery surrounding them all that allows them to be a divine nuisance. I fear the Weeping Queen is leaking her magic all throughout the marshlands.”
I slipped my arms around her waist and pulled her close. “So, as chaotic as any ungoverned land.”
“Yes. But it’s refusing to take any shaping from me.” She scowled but leaned into the hug, then pulled back a little. “It’s too humid. I suppose that does cover the state of affairs in Curnerein, though.”
“Anything to the south worth mentioning?”
She shook her head. “No more than a handful of villages, much like this one but less heavily fortified, scattered through Frischii. Half as many marshlands as fields, and the land is firmer than Sivarii as well. I gleaned what troops I could from their stock before coming here.”
Another pulse bumped against me.
“Did you feel that?” I whispered.
“Feel what?” She looked up at me, confused.
“There’s been two emanations now, both coming from the swamps.” A third hit me as I was talking. “Make that three.”
Gently, she pulled away and glanced between me and the east. “I sense nothing, although I felt the ghost of your perception through our bond.”
I summoned my Sword. “Do you recognize it?”
She shook her head. “The Weeping Queen has an ashy feel to her aura, and it fades the further away from Sivarii you go. I don’t know what that could be.”
“I’ll check it out.” I hopped off the wall, Malia right behind me. When she reached the ground, I caught her arm. “By myself. For whatever reason, it’s not affecting you, so you won’t be able to track it. And someone needs to guard Hasda.”
“Thrax has been—”
“I’m not questioning his ability.” Another pulse slapped my back, almost insistent this time. “But Lazuli is loose, and I doubt Kydon will abandon his search to shield Hasda, no matter that the Trial hasn’t yet begun.”
“Fine.” She hissed and snapped her tail, her Warbow settling into her hands. “But if she shows herself, it’ll be the last time she does.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.” I kissed the top of her head then set off after the source of the pulses as yet another hit my chest.
Villagers and guards bowed as I jogged out of Kirunadh. The soldiers in the fields, ringing Hasda and Thrax, practiced with swords and spears coated in flaming oil. Overhead, wispy clouds did little to reduce the heat of the afternoon sun. And mud returned to the springy soil as I made my way further from the village.
The nearer I got to the swamplands, the muggier the air became. By the time I saw the first trees of Sivarii, the air was so thick with humidity that it felt like I was breathing underwater. Black water poorly reflected the sunlight, the pond scum patchy and disrupted by fins of aquatic beasts I didn’t recognize. While the shadows from the overhanging trees and the murky marsh water made it hard to see the beasts clearly, I was fairly certain they were crocodilian. Their heads were, at least.
A final pulse.
The world changed as I stepped beneath the canopy of the swampland, as if the sun had been snuffed out. Blacks, grays, and pasty blues painted the world in nocturnal hues. The humidity fled with a gasp, leaving the air to crackle in its absence. And the lighted land behind me was gone, as if I’d stepped through a portal into a maas. But it felt like a crypt, more than a land for the living.
I sighed. Well, only one way forward, then.