What the Raven Saw – Dark Fantasy Novella, 10/13

The raven stays still, leering at the company of Anthilians who has entered the city. They stand silently, looking at the empty spot before them, the square that lays open and gaping like a perfectly-cleaved maw, a mirror surface leading all the way back to the Capsizing.

One of them takes a step forward. He unhooks his cape and the others look at him, without saying a word. Runo notices that the woman who almost spotted her, the one who turned to check on the raven, looks seemingly even more intent than the others. Maybe it’s because, with her aqua eyes, she feels less of an Anthilian than her companions.

In a way, Runo understands her very well. She did try to prove herself the same way. Except it did not require to stay silent and look in the middle of an abandoned place. The Gloom Lords have… different ideas about loyalty.

And different ways to prove them.

The leader picks up his bow and sets an arrow on it, turning it up – and then lets go. The arrow wheezes so sharply it’s like a hiss in the immobile, stormy air. As it approaches the centre, it starts to slow down, as if it was trying  to pierce water at first, then honey, and then molten glass. It crawls to a stop in the empty space and then it… blooms.

Runo wouldn’t know how to explain it better. Even the raven is taken aback by the violent burst of new, chaotic life from the wooden shaft and the steel head, but thankfully, it dominates its instincts enough to hold onto its wings and its beak. It would want to escape, to fly away, and to caw for help and out of outrage for what is going on: the wood popping and crackling, the steel starting to sizzle, the smell of molten metal that reaches its nostrils and those of Runo, hundreds of miles away.

It cannot.

Because this is a company of well-equipped archers, and they have the keen eyes and the true aim of Anthilians – especially the girl who turned to take a look seems dangerous, even though her blood does not seem to manifest as pure.

The once-arrow begins to fall, turning upon itself, as more branches shoot out of the main body, thin as hair and seemingly floating in the windless current and plays with it. They still pop and crackle, and Runo shivers, in the relative safety of her study deeply in Tuonela.

Is this an echo of what they had to deal with the Capsizing? Is this what was happening during those years of madness, the invisible force that destroyed the ancient empire of the Anthilian people, extending from their manufactured island to the quick stars that streaked the sky with their blinking trail?

Is this what crawled out of the world’ dark corners to lay waste to their dominion?

“Ghostfire,” the leader mutters. The others nod. Each of  them picks up their bow and as one cock an arrow, making the material creak. “We shall give back what we received. As the Three Wanderers have instructed us, we shall do all that we can to keep the unseen flame from spilling out.” He lowered his arm – and three dozens of arrows left their bows, sizzling through the air, slowing down until they froze and popped and crackled and multiplied, infinitely mirroring each other in ever-more-minute echoes, as the grey shade of their steel bursts into shades of red blue and green and amethyst like the rain shatters sunlight.

No wonder nobody is entering the centre of  the city.

The raven barely parts its beak, letting out just a sliver of breath – it was about to enter that space in the square, thinking it only filled with air.

And it would have been…

The arrows touch the ground – they are still sizzling and popping, slowly turning into the same glistening white-iridescent dust she has seen from the statues outside.

The hunters stay there, standing and waiting for the process to complete. Runo does not understand what they are doing or why – what kind of ritual are they officing and why?

But the thought of what happened to the arrows is enough to shake her in the depths of her being. And perhaps, that would mean she would not find a path through the southern lands.

After all, the very army of the Iron Crown has to kill and lay waste and paint the land red with blood just for the Gloom Lords to take one step over it – what is one lonesome Marrower like her to do?

And yet… there are packs of Anthilian so far away from the Burning River. And so far south, at that. It means they must have a way to get back – all of them look well-fed, well-groomed and equipped, far from a group of outcasts that ended up living off roots and locusts on the outback.

No, that means they must have a way to go back.

And perhaps… the woman who turned to look at the raven seemed a bit too murderous for her tastes, no matter how beautiful she may seem.

But their leader seemed to worry more about the ceremony than anything else. So, perhaps, if she gathers enough documents and enough maps, she showers them with all of her inside information on the Gloom Lords and the inner workings of the Iron Crown…

Perhaps they can bring her to Carthaza. As a prisoner, but quite the valuable one.

As long as the woman with the axe will not just cleave her head in twain. She does not like the murderous look she has.

She will have to follow them for a while.

For the time being, though, the grey-cloaked company pulls away their bows, the arrows shafts and the arrowheads having touched the ground where the Ghostfire lays. As they turn into dust, they slowly disappear onto the stillborn surface, perfectly creaseless. The marble, if marble it is, looks as shiny as glass.

They take a bow and start to pull back.

Runo waits for the woman with the axe to leave – and then she pushes the raven out of its hiding place. They walk back and out of the city, the raven following them at a safe distance, never showing itself, never getting out of the darkness. And yet so eager to get away from the horrible city.

Who knew if there were other patches of invisible Ghostfire laying about, waiting to turn the two of them into the finest dust? Ort whatever happened to the people outside?

The raven’s small heart beats fast and fierce as its wings flutter past the walls.

There, finally breathing free air once again!

The group of Anthilians is already walking to the south-east. They are not going back, there must be another path only they know, one that curves all the way around and then reaches the King’s lands once again! It must be like that!

She can find a way! She just has to follow them and perhaps meet them again when they come back. She can survive out in the wild, as long as she stays clear of Elven territory. Nobody will know where she is and that’s her ticket out of the Iron Crown!

The group does not slow down, but one of them does. She turns towards the raven and in one movement too fast for the raven to react, she takes off the cloak, equips the bow and cocks an arrow that wheezes at it and-

The raven let out a shrill cry of pain and shock as something harsh and cold pierces right through its right wing. It cries and cries and flutters and tumbles through air and then it hits the ground.

Runo calls to it, trying to knit the wound back together, but the arrow is there to block the path to mend blood and bone – and what’s worse is that what she believed steel in the arrowhead is actually silver, that burns and burns and burns through the feeble attempts to send her will to the raven through the immense distance that separates them.

The bird twists in pain between the blades of grass. It hears the soft steps of the archer as it comes closer, each step trembling through its body like so many waves of pain and fear.

Author’s Notes: this chapter owes much to a story I read as a kid. The book by itself was good, but one of the chapters dealt with the characters exploring a city that was left abandoned all of a sudden, and the image stuck with me somewhat fiercely. Thanks for reading.


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