The blood looked fresh in the rain.
Weeping, oozing, even streaming in some places, the water from the storm hit wounds on corpses that had been stagnant for days. The granite bedrock would not accept the offering, and a river of blood slid downhill, following the terrain, gathering around Aeduan’s boots. So many blood-scents to mingle against his magic, so many dead for his gaze to drag across.
This was the third massacre he’d found in two weeks. The third time he’d followed carnage on the air, the third time he’d smelled wet caves and white-knuckled grips amidst the slaughter. He was catching up to the attackers.
Catching up to his father’s men.
The four stabs in Aeduan’s abdomen spurted with each of his hunched breaths. He should have left the arrows where they’d hit, let the Threadwitch remove them with her careful hands instead of yanking them out as soon as they’d punched through stomach wall. Twenty years of habit were hard to change in just two weeks, though.
He also hadn’t expected the barbs.
Aeduan sucked in a ragged breath, rain coursing into his open mouth. There was nothing to keep him here, and the scent he’d hoped to find—the one he’d followed for two weeks, ever deeper into the Sirmayans—was not nearby. Oh, the summer heather and impossible choices that marked her blood had been here, but she had moved on. Before the attack, he assumed, or she too would now be numbered among the dead.
Before Aeduan could turn away from the corpses and limp for the evergreen forest whence he’d come, a new blood-scent tickled against his nose. Vaguely familiar, as if he had once met the owner and bothered to catalog the man’s blood, but had never tucked it aside to remember forever.
The smell was sharp. Still alive.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Aeduan changed course. Thirty-four careful steps over gape-mouthed bodies. Rain sprayed into his eyes, forcing him to blink again and again. Then the stone expanse gave way to a mossy carpet stained to red. More bodies, all ages, all angles, covered the earth with a density that spoke of attempted escape. The square Nomatsi shields on their backs, though, had done nothing to stop the ambush from the front.
Blood, blood and empty eyes everywhere he looked.
Onward he picked across the bodies until at last he reached the swaying conifers. The scent he’d caught was thicker here, but the pine-needle floor was also slippery, dangerous from the storm. Aeduan had no desire to fall. He might heal from every scrape, every broken bone, but that did not mean it wouldn’t hurt.
Or drain his magic further, which was the problem now. Stomach wounds were particularly unwieldy to repair.
Aeduan inhaled. Exhaled. Counting, waiting, watching as his blood dribbled out and the world fell away. He was not his mind. He was not his body.
He kept moving.
But then, over distant thunderclaps from the south, he heard a human groan. “Help.” With that word, his senses sharpened, his spine straightened, and a new energy kicked in.
He strode faster. Rain splashed beneath his boots. Thunder rolled to the south. He followed a path through the spruce trees, their trunks creaking like ships at sea; he knew this was a Nomatsi road. He knew that traps like the one he’d triggered beside the morning glories likely waited ahead.
The voice was weaker, but closer—as was the scent of the dying man’s blood. A monk, Aeduan realized, when at last he crossed a dip in the path where a stream swelled with storm. Three steps up the rocky hill, a fallen white robe lay stained to rusty brown. And three steps beyond, with his back pressed against a fallen log, the robe’s owner clutched at wounds in his belly.
Wounds like Aeduan’s, that had come from traps meant to protect the Nomatsi tribe. Unlike Aeduan, though, this man had not removed the arrows.
For half a moment, Aeduan thought he could help the man. That he could use what remained of his own power to stop the man’s bleeding. He had done it before with Evrane; he could do it again. The vast city of Tirla was no more than half a day away.
But even if Aeduan could sustain such power in his current state, there could be no healing the sword gash on the monk’s thigh. The femoral artery was split wide, and though rain fell hard enough to clear away blood, the artery gushed faster.
The man had only minutes left to live.
“Demon,” the man burbled. Blood seeped from the edges of his mouth down his seamed chin, riding the rain. “I … remember you.”
“Who did this?” Aeduan asked. There was no time to be wasted on names or useless memories. If anyone had been trained for death, it was the Carawens. And if anyone could help Aeduan make sense of this slaughter, it was the dying man before him.
Aeduan blinked. Rain splattered off his lashes. The Purists, though foul members of humanity, were not known for violence. Except …
Except when Purists were not Purists at all.
“Help,” the man begged, clutching at the wound across his thigh.
At that sight, anger thickened in Aeduan’s throat. Mercenary monks faced the Void’s embrace without fear, without begging. To see desperation darken the man’s eyes—it was wrong. All wrong.
Yet Aeduan still found his magic reaching out. Spiraling around the white fire and iron ore that made the monk who he was. A pointless endeavor, for there was so little blood left inside the man’s veins it felt like trying to catch wind. No matter how tightly he grasped, his magic always came up empty.
“Why did you not use your stone?” Aeduan asked, and he glared at the man’s ear. At the Carawen opal that glistened there, waiting to summon other monks in case of an emergency.
The man shook his head, a bare trace of movement. “Sur … prise.” The word came out choked with blood, his face paler and paler with each breath. “Trained … better.”
Impossible, Aeduan wanted to say. No one is trained better than a Carawen mercenary. But then the man started coughing and reached for his mouth, and Aeduan realized he bore the burn-flecked hands of a blacksmith, the lopsided shoulders of a man who worked the forge.
An artisanal monk. The least combat-ready of all the Carawens. Why was this man here at all, away from the monastery and away from his post?
Aeduan’s lips parted to ask, but before the words could rise, the monk’s final breath escaped from punctured lungs. His heart slowed to silence. All life vanished from his blood.
And Aeduan was left staring at yet another corpse rotting beneath the rain.
Iseult thought he might not be coming back. All night, she had waited—since dusk, when Aeduan had first strode off to inspect the path ahead.
The sun set, the moon rose, the rain came. The moon set, the rain subsided. Until at last, mist and dawn laid claim to the mountainside. Still, Aeduan did not appear.
Logically, Iseult knew it was unlikely that he would never return. After everything that they had been through together, why would he abandon her now? Two weeks, he had stayed by her side. Two weeks he had guided Owl and Iseult higher into the Sirmayans with neither payment nor prod to force him onward.
Viscerally, though, Iseult could find a thousand reasons the Bloodwitch would never return. A thousand excuses from coin to company for why he’d strode into the foggy forest at dusk and why he might never come back.
The story that shone brightest though, as the sun’s first rays clambered over mountain peaks, was that he was kept away not by choice, but by captor. Or injury.
That possibility sent her pacing on the gravel clearing beside their campsite. Ten steps one way. Pivot. Ten steps the other. Pivot. She never left sight of the narrow entrance leading to a dry, cozy cave of Owl’s creation. Inside, the girl’s mountain bat, Blueberry, curled fiercely around the child’s sleeping form, leaving little space for anyone else.
Not that Iseult could have slept had she been in there too. Sleep had been her enemy for days now. Ever since the fire and the voice that controlled it had slithered into her dreams. Burn them, whispered a leering face consumed by flame. Each night he came to her. Burn them all.
She had tried to cleave him in her sleep. Tried to sever his Threads and corrupt his fire magic, just as she had done in her waking in the Contested Lands, but the man had only laughed while the flames swept higher. Flames that were all too real, as she’d learned that first night, when Aeduan had roused her. A stray ember from the campfire, he’d said, and too much kindling nearby.
Iseult had not bothered to contradict him. She also had not slept again, and that lack of sleep had left her with no means to speak to Esme about why this was happening. About why the Firewitch she had killed now seemed to live inside her.
No exhaustion burned in Iseult’s eyes tonight, though. She wanted to leave—wanted to walk between those pines exactly as Aeduan had done at dusk and search every corner of the shadowy terrain, even if she knew it would be a fruitless hunt: Aeduan was too skilled to leave tracks behind.
Besides, she could hardly leave Owl.
Either Aeduan would return or he would not, and Iseult would keep marching back and forth until she had her answer.
Iseult heard him approach before she saw him. It was so unlike the ever-cautious Bloodwitch that she actually drew a cutlass from the sheath at her waist. There were bears in these woods. Mountain cats, too. And unlike humans, they bore no Threads—no colors to tendril and twirl above them, telling Iseult what they felt and to whom they were bound.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Dennard