When the Hidden Schools threw Tara Abernathy out, she fell a thousand feet through wisps of cloud and woke to find herself alive, broken and bleeding, beside the Crack in the World.
By the grace of fortune (or something else), she landed three mere miles from what passed for an oasis in the Badlands, a stand of rough grass and brambles clustered around a brackish spring. She couldn't walk, but made the crawl by sunrise. Caked with dirt and dried blood, she dragged herself over sand and thorn to the muddy pool at the oasis's heart. She drank desperately of the water, and to pull herself from death's brink she also drank the life of that desolate place. Grass withered beneath her clutching fingers. Scrub bushes shrank to desiccated husks. The oasis died around her and she crumpled to the arid earth, wracked with wounds and deep illness.
Dream visions tore at one another in her fever, lent strength and form by her proximity to the Crack. She saw other worlds where the God Wars never happened, where iron ruled and men flew without magic.
When Tara regained consciousness the oasis was dead, its spring dry, grass and brambles ground to dust. She lived. She remembered her name. She remembered her Craft. Her last two months in the Hidden Schools seemed like a twisted hallucination, but they were real. The glyphs tattooed on her arms and between her breasts proved she had studied there, above the clouds, and the glyph below her collarbone meant they really did graduate her before they kicked her out.
She fought them, of course, with shadow and lightning—fought and lost. As her professors held her squirming over empty space, she remembered a soft, unexpected touch—a woman's hand sliding into her pocket, an alto whisper before gravity took hold. "If you survive this, I'll find you." Then the fall.
Squinting against the sun, Tara drew from the pocket of her torn slacks an eggshell-white business card that bore the name "Elayne Kevarian" above the triangular logo of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao, one of the world's most prestigious Craft firms. Professors and students at the Hidden Schools whispered the woman's name—and the firm's—in fear and awe.
A job offer? Unlikely, considering the circumstances, and even if so, Tara was not inclined to accept. The world of Craft had not been kind to her of late.
Regardless, her priorities were clear. Food, first. Shelter. Regain strength. Then, perhaps, think about the future.
Silence settled over the Badlands.
A buzzard descended from the dry blue sky in tightening circles, like a wood chip in a draining pool. It landed beside her body, hopped forward. No heartbeat audible; cooling flesh. Convinced, it bent its head and opened its beak.
Tara's hand twitched up fast as a cobra and wrung the bird's neck before it could flee. The other gathering buzzards took the hint and wheeled to safety, but one bird cooked inexpertly over a fire of dry grass and twigs was more than enough to set a half-starved girl on her feet.
Four weeks later she arrived on the outskirts of Edgemont, gaunt and sun-blasted, seeing things that did not precisely exist. Her mother found her collapsed near their cattle fence. A lot of crying followed her discovery, and a lot of shouting, and more crying after the shouting, and then a lot of soup. Edgemont mothers were renowned for their practicality, and Ma Abernathy in particular had iron faith in the restorative powers of chicken broth.
Tara's father was understanding, considering the circumstances.
"Well, you're back," he said, a concerned expression on his broad face. He did not ask where she had been for the last eight years, or what happened there, or how she earned her scars. Tara would have thanked him for that had she known how. There were too many ways he could have said "I told you so."
That evening the Abernathy family sat around their kitchen table and settled on the story they would tell the other residents of Edgemont: When Tara left home at sixteen, she signed on with a traveling merchant, from whom she learned the fundamentals of Craft. The Hidden Schools never opened themselves to her, and at last, tired of dust and long wandering, she returned home. It was a good enough lie, and explained Tara's undeniable skill with contracts and bargains without stirring up any of the local fear of true Craftswomen.
Tara put the business card from her mind. The people of Edgemont needed her, though they would have chased her from town if they knew where she learned to use her talents. Ned Thorpe lost half the profit from his lemon crop every year, due to a bad arbitration clause in his reseller's contract. Ghosts stole dead men's bequests through loopholes in poorly written wills. Tara offered her services tentatively at first, but soon she had to refuse work. She was a productive citizen. Shopkeeps came to her to draft their pacts, farmers for help investing the scraps of soulstuff they eked out of the dry soil.
Over time she picked up the pieces of her childhood, hot cocoa and pitching horseshoes on the front lawn. It was easier than she expected to reacclimate herself to a country life without much Craft. Indoor plumbing was a luxury again. When summer came, she and her parents sat outside in the breeze or inside with windows shut and shades drawn to ward off heat. When cold wind blew they built fires with wood and flint. No elementals of air were summoned to fan the brow, no fiery dancers cavorted to warm cold halls. At school she had condemned such a life as simple, provincial, boring, but words like "simple," "provincial," and "boring" did not seem so pejorative to her now.
Once, she nearly took a lover, after a solstice dance on the village green. Staggering back tipsy and arm-in-arm with a boy she barely remembered from her days in Edgemont's two-room school, who had grown into a young man tending his family's sheep, she stopped to rest on a swell of ground and watch the stars in the fleeting summer night. The young man sat next to her and watched with her, but when he touched her face and the small of her back she pulled away, apologized, and left.
The days were long, and safe, but she felt something wither inside her as she lingered there. The world beyond Edgemont, the world of Craft more profound than a farmer's spring planting and the mending of small cuts and bruises, faded and began to seem unreal. Her memories of the Hidden Schools acquired the cotton haze of dream, and she woke once or twice from nightmares in which she had never left home at all.
* * *
The Raiders struck at night, three months after the solstice. Swift and savage, they took little, but at dawn three of Edgemont's watchmen lay on the field of battle, shrunken in death by a clinging curse that corroded anything that drew near. The villagers lifted the bodies on long spears of cold iron and buried them in a blessed grave. The chaplain said a few words, and as Edgemont bowed its collective head Tara watched him weave the town's faith into a net, taking from each man or woman what little soulstuff he or she could afford and binding it close about the loose earth. He was no Craftsman, but his Applied Theology was sound as such things went.
Tara was the last to leave the grave.
"I don't know how we'll manage." Father stood alone by their hearth after the funeral and before the wake, the whiskey in his glass the same color as their small early autumn fire. "They were good boys, and well trained. Held off the Raiders for years. We'll have to hire others, but we can't spare the price."
"I can help."
He looked back at her, and she saw a splinter of fear in his eyes. "You're not a fighter, Tara."
"No," she admitted. "But I can do more than fight."
"We'll manage." His tone left no avenue for appeal. "We've managed before."
She did not challenge him, but she thought: The chaplain's skills are antiquated. He struggles to keep the village safe. What's the use of all I've learned, if I can't protect the people I care about?
Her father turned from the fireplace and fixed her with his steady gaze. "Tara, promise me you won't … intervene."
Over the last few months Tara had learned that the best lies were lies not told. "Dad. Do you think I'm stupid?"
He frowned, but said no more. This suited Tara, because she would not have promised. Her father was not a Craftsman, but all pledges were dangerous.
That night she leapt from her second-story room, calling upon a bit of Craft to cushion her fall. Shadows clustered around her as she made her way to the fresh grave. Her father's voice echoed in her ears as she unslung the shovel from her back. She ignored him. This dark work would help Edgemont, and her family.
Besides, it would be fun.
She did not use her Craft to open the grave. That was one of the few rules a Craftswoman always obeyed, even at the highest levels of study. The fresher the bodies, the better, and Craft sapped freshness from them. Instead Tara relied on the strength of her arms, and of her back.
She pulled a muscle after the first three feet of digging, and adjourned to a safe distance to rest before attacking the dirt again. The shovel wasn't made for this work, and her hands were months out of practice, their old digging calluses gone soft. She had stolen her father's work gloves, but they were comically large on her and their slipping against her skin caused blisters almost as bad as those she intended to prevent.
It took an hour's work to reach the corpses.
They were buried without coffins, so the soil would reclaim their bodies faster and leech the poison magic from them. Tara hadn't even needed to bring a crowbar. Pulling the corpses out of the hole was harder than she expected, though. Back at school, they had golems for this sort of work, or hirelings.
When she grabbed the first body by its wrists, the Raiders' curse lashed out and spent itself against the wards glyphed into her skin. Harmless to her, the curse still stung, bad as when she chased her dog into stinging nettles as a girl. She swore.
Removing the corpses from the grave made more noise than Tara liked, but she couldn't work inside the pit. A grave's mouth circumscribed the night sky, and she wanted as much starfire as possible for the work at hand. It had been too long since she last stretched her wings.
In retrospect, the whole thing was a really, exceptionally, wonderfully bad idea. Had she expected the Edgemonters' gratitude when their dead comrades stumbled to their posts the next evening, groaning from tongueless mouths? At the same time, though, it was such a brilliant idea—simple, and so logical. Battle dead would not return much to the soil, but their corpses had enough strength left to fight for Edgemont. These revenant watchmen might not speak, and would be slower on the uptake than the living variety, but no wound could deter them, and the fiercest Craft would slide through their shambling corpses with no noticeable effect.
Nothing came from nothing, of course. The business of disinternment was strict. A dead body contained a certain amount of order. Locomotion required most of it, simple sensory perception much of the rest, and there wasn't a great deal left over for cognition. Laymen rarely understood. It wasn't like a Craftswoman could bring a person back to life unchanged and chose not to.
She drew the bent, sharp moonbeam that was her work knife from its place of concealment within the glyph over her heart, held it up to soak in starlight, and went to work on the twist of spirit and matter most folk still called man even after it had been dead for some time.
A revenant didn't require a will of its own, or at least not so robust a will as most humans thought they possessed. Slice! Or complex emotions, though those were more fundamental to the human animal and thus harder to pry free; she made her knife's edge jagged to saw them out, then fine and scalpel-sharp to excise the troublesome bits. Leave a fragment of self-preservation, and the seething rage left over from the last moments of the subject's life. There's almost always rage, Professor Denovo had explained patiently, time and again. Sometimes you have to dig for it, but it's there nonetheless. And buried beneath the detritus of thousands of years of civilization lay that most basic human power of identification: these are my people. Those others, well, those are food.
Tara gloried in the work. As her knife sang through dead flesh, she felt years of torment and the waking dream of Edgemont fade away. This was real, the acid-sharp scent of welded nerves, the soulstuff flowing through her hands, the corpses' spasms as she worked her Craft upon them. Forgetting this, she had forgotten a piece of herself. She was complete again.
Which she couldn't exactly explain to the torch-bearing mob.
Her cry when the Raiders' curse struck must have tipped them off, or else the darkness that spread across the village as she twisted starfire and moonlight through the warp and weft of her mind to bring a mockery of life to the dead. Maybe it had been the thunder of reanimation, as of a tombstone falling from a gruesome height.
Also, she had cackled as the corpses woke beneath her: a full-throated belly laugh, a laugh to make the earth shake. Good form required a guffaw at death's expense, though Professor Denovo always recommended his students practice discretion, perhaps for cases like this one.
"Raiders!" cried the front-most Edgemonter, a middle-aged wheat farmer with a round potbelly and the improbably heroic name of Roland DuChamp. Tara had settled his grandfather's will for him a month before. He was mad now with the fury of a man confronting something he cannot understand. "Back for blood!"
It didn't help that shadows still clung to Tara, shielding her from their sight. What the Edgemonters saw across the graveyard was monster more than woman, wreathed in starfire and night-made-flesh, save where her school glyphs glowed through in purest silver.
The townsfolk raised their weapons and advanced uneasily.
Tara put away her knife and extended her hands, trying to look friendly, or at least less threatening. She didn't banish the shadows, though. Her return had been awkward enough for Mother and Father without bringing a torch-wielding mob down upon them. "I'm not here to hurt anyone."
The corpses, of course, chose that moment to sit up, growl with unearthly voices, and clumsily brandish weapons in their skeletal hands.
The mob screamed. The corpses groaned. And streaking through the darkness came the five remaining watchmen of Edgemont, the power of their office drawn about them. Halos of white light surrounded the watch, granting them spectral armor and the strength of ten men. Tara backed away farther, glancing about for an avenue of escape.
The eldest watchman, Thom Baker, raised his spear and called out, "Stand, Raider!"
Three of his comrades fell upon her revenants and wrestled them down. Tara had done her work well; recognizing their friends, the corpses put up little resistance. The odds stood at two to one against her, and, as her father knew, she was no warrior.
At this stage, dropping her cloak of darkness and trying to explain might not have done any good. They had caught her raising the dead. Perhaps she was not Tara Abernathy after all, but something wearing Tara's skin. They would cut off her head and move on to her family, make sure of the lot of them in one stroke. Justice would be swift, in the name of the Gods, fallen though most of them might be.
Tara was in trouble. The members of this mob were in no mood to discuss the valuable contribution her Craft could make to their lives. In their murmurs of anger and fear, she heard her doom.
A wind blew from the north, bearing cold and death.
Lightning split the clear night sky. Storm clouds boiled up from nothing, and torch-fires flickered and quailed. The glow from the watchmen's armor dimmed, and Tara saw their true forms beneath: Thom Baker's double chin and two-day stubble, Ned Thorpe's freckles.
Thunder rolled and a woman appeared, hovering three feet above the ground, long white scarf flaring in the fierce breeze. She wore a dark, severe suit, with narrow white vertical stripes as if drawn by a fine brush. Her skin was pale, her hair iron gray, her eyes open black pits.
Her smile, on the other hand, was inviting. Even welcoming.
"You are about to attack my assistant," she said in a voice that was soft, but carried, "who is helping your community for no fee but the satisfaction of working for the public good."
Thom Baker tried to say something, but she interrupted him with a look.
"We are required elsewhere. Keep the zombies. You may need them."
This time, Thom managed to form words: "Who are you?"
"Ah," the floating woman said. She held out a hand. Between her first two fingers she clutched a small white rectangle of paper, a business card identical to the one in Tara's pocket. Thom accepted the card gingerly as if it were coated in poison, and examined it with confusion. He had never seen paper before that was not in a schoolbook or a ledger.
"My name," the woman continued, "is Elayne Kevarian. I am a partner in the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao." Tara heard the Edgemonters' feet shuffle in the silence that ensued. The corpses moaned again. "Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any trouble with your new allies."
"Allies?" Thom looked down at the revenants. "What are we supposed to do with them?"
"Keep them away from water," she said. "They melt."
Another gust of wind came, and Tara felt herself borne up on wings of night—up, and away.
They were ten miles outside of Edgemont when Ms. Kevarian addressed Tara for the first time that evening. "That was a nasty bit of incompetence, Ms. Abernathy. If we are to work together, I trust you will be more circumspect in the future."
"You're offering me a job."
"Of course," Ms. Kevarian said with a bemused smile. "Would you rather I return you to your fellow man?"
She looked back at the vanishing village lights, and shook her head. "Whatever you're asking me to do, it has to be better than that."
"You may be surprised." They rose into clouds and thunder. "Our work keeps us a single step ahead of the mob. That's all. If you let your ego rule your reason, you'll find the villagers with pitchforks waiting, no matter how far you've traveled, no matter what you've done on their behalf."
A determined smile spread across Tara's face, despite the rebuke. Let Edgemont shake its torches; let the Hidden Schools rail and Professor Denovo fume. Tara Abernathy would live, and practice the Craft, in spite of them. "Yes, ma'am."
* * *
It's hard to read a codex in a storm, ten thousand feet in the air. The rain wasn't a problem; Tara sheltered herself and her books beneath a large umbrella. But the umbrella did not stop the wind, and when one is flying through the sky on a platform of solid nothingness, there is quite a lot of wind.
"In conflicts of deothaumaturgical interest, equity proceeds according to a paradigm originally formalized in the seventeenth century by—"
Just as the sentence was about to mean something, a particularly vicious gust tore the page from her fingers and flipped it, revealing a line of black spindly letters beneath, which read, "Chapter Seven: Personal Default."
She closed the book with a sigh and placed it on top of the stack. Near the bottom of the pile lay basic texts, tersely titled treatises the contents of which she had committed to memory years ago: Contracts, Remedies, Corpse. Atop them teetered more comprehensive works Ms. Kevarian had had borrowed from the library during their midnight pit stop in Chikal. Tara had planned to scan these during the flight, but they were too dense, relying on obscure tricks and arcane turns of theory she haltingly grasped back in school, but hadn't reviewed since.
She glanced up at Elayne Kevarian—Boss, she reminded herself, with the capital letter—and thought better of asking for her help. Ms. Kevarian was busy driving. She hovered fifteen feet in front of Tara, head cocked back, arms outstretched, and gripped bolts of lightning as if they were the reins of the clouds. Gale winds blew her hair about like billowing smoke, and raindrops burst into steam before they could wet the wool of her gray pinstriped suit.
Below them fell the rain, and below that stretched miles and miles of farmland. In the four decades since the God Wars ended, those farms and the villages dotted among them had recovered, prospered, and kept to themselves. Down there lived people who had never flown in their lives, never left their hometown, never seen another nation, let alone another continent. Tara had been one of them, once. No longer.
At that she felt a pang of guilt, and took from her shoulder bag a piece of parchment, a small writing board, and a quill pen.
She began the letter:
Dear Mother and Father,
I received an urgent job offer last night. I am excited by the opportunity, though I am sorry to leave home so soon. I intended to stay longer.
It was wonderful to see you both. The garden is coming along well, and the new schoolhouse looks like it will be even bigger and better than the last one.
Say good-bye and hello to Edgemont, and if you don't mind, please bake some cookies for the chaplain and say they're from me.…
* * *
It was too nice a morning for Al Cabot to die. The storm had passed in the night, leaving shredded clouds to catch red fire as the sun swelled on the horizon. Another bank of thunderheads approached on the western wind, but for the moment the sky was clear. Al stepped out into his rooftop garden, teacup in hand, and took a moment to breathe. According to his doctor he needed to take more of these, or he wouldn't be around to breathe at all for much longer.
Al was a man grown nervously fat during a career of sitting behind a desk and shuffling from one poorly lit room to the next. He never had the time to sweat and acquire the hard-glazed muscles of a common road worker. He told his few friends that he had received the raw end of the deal, but nobody ever asked the road workers.
He savored the morning light, and with it a sip of nightshade tea—toxic to normal humans, but he was hardly normal anymore. Al was no Craftsman, but his occupation left its mark, like the coal miner's dusty cough or the farmer's crop-bent back. For half a century he had stood too close to darkness, and some of it crept into his bones.
It was almost over, though. His debts were nearly paid. Today he felt forty again, young and unburdened. His cares had passed with the storm, and once this last bit of business was complete he could stride into the dawn of his coming retirement.
His butler had left the morning's pertinent mail on the table by the azaleas. Perusing the shallow stack, Al found a few professional notes and a letter from his son, David, who had left years ago to rebuild the world. Whole continents had been shattered in the God Wars, David proclaimed when he set off on his quest. So many nations and cities are less fortunate than we of Alt Coulumb, and we owe them aid.
Al had not approved. Words were said that could not easily be unsaid after one's son shipped off to the Old World. Al tried to track him, making long and involved sacrifices to Kos and calling upon favors from priests and even from the Deathless Kings who frequented his chambers. All his efforts failed. Six months ago, however, David had returned on his own to propose a complex business deal, lucrative and good-hearted but of questionable legality. He remained an idealistic fool, and Al a standard-bearer of the old guard, but years of separation had taught them to avoid most of their habitual arguments. They were father and son, and they talked now. That was enough.
Al tapped the envelope, considered opening it, set it down. Wait. Start the day properly. He took a deep draught of tea, bitter and smoky and strangely sweet.
The azalea bush behind him rustled.
When the butler found his body forty-five minutes later, the strong, ruddy tea had spilled from his broken mug to mix with his blood. Al Cabot's body had contained a great deal of blood indeed, most now spread in a drying, viscous puddle around the shredded remnants of his flesh. The spilled tea barely diluted it at all.
Copyright © 2012 by Max Gladstone