Artumes had been through a fair number of these, but you could never quite get used to the sight of the skills displayed by a group of Marrowers.
The air, even through her makeshift filter, smelled like iron and death. All Urthir could do was to cough and rattle on his saddle as he pushed forward. At least he had not begged her to pull back – maybe he was just doing it for the sake of his family back in Carthaza, but he was displaying a modicum of courage.
Good for him.
Crossing over the plains, the blood dust spread so thick that it was like walking inside a bank of clouds. Contours dulled into a fuzzy outline of shapes, and walking forward became more a matter of endurance than direction.
From the cloud appeared the broken walls of the village, the wooden palisade and the stones could not have stopped a determined group of bandits, lets alone the Marrowers and their slaves. They lay scattered on the ground, showing where they had broken in.
And of course, there were no corpses.
“Where is everyone?” Urthir asked, looking around for a sign of survivors, or at least the sign someone was still there.
“The lucky ones are all around us,” she replied, waving her arm around. “They are the first to die during a Harvest. The others will be brought to the Iron Crown as slaves. I suppose the best they can hope for is to be worked to death.”
Urthir shivered, and his coat tinkled in the heavy air.
“To see this with my own eyes feels completely different from hearing about it,” he began, his gaze downcast. “There was this… meeting during the latest Night of Firelights.”
She nodded, even though she was listening with just one ear.
There was something strange going on here, beyond the usual horror of the Harvest. She could not put her finger on what exactly, but something… was amiss.
Urthir kept talking about his party, surely another evening filled with wine and whores for the amusement of his peers.
“Conversation fell to a lull, so one of us dared to scare each other with tales from the front. They told us about the Burning River.”
“I have been there.” Artumes slowed down as they passed through the lanes of buildings where the crimson dust was falling down, forming a faint rust-like patina. They would have to be burned, lest some of the lingering magic from the Harvest spread to the countryside.
Another bridge for the Gloom Lords to walk was one more problem they would prefer not to deal with.
“But I felt that was scary, but regrettable. But then a friend told us about the Marrowers, and I believed he was exaggerating it, trying to make it larger than life in order to win the competition.”
“I don’t fault you.” One of the reasons why he was there with them in the wastelands, rather than enjoying a peaceful morning in Carthaza, was to shed that childish notion that bad things, death especially, were always matters reserved for others.
“How do we stop this?” He asked, his fingers straining the reins. “How do we make them pay?”
“One by one, my friend.”
She pulled the horse towards the main square, where the tower of postage office stood high, its solar clock now completely useless in the blood dusk. Something covered the masonry.
The horse refused to proceed past the square entrance and Artumes nodded, standing down from the animal and proceeding by herself.
As her boot touched the ground, their creaked on the ground. The aftergrowth of the Harvest was already starting to cover the streets: a net of crimson filaments, like veins. They would knot together and form a layer of musk-like growths that would become conduit for the Gloom Lords.
It was a slow process, one that would not be complete before a few days. But already she felt the foul power of the desecrating ritual as it began to contaminate the pavement, the rocks and the soil beneath. This whole area would have to be incinerated the way you excise a tumor with fire.
Urthir looked up and a pained whimper came out of his throat. She turned her gaze towards the poor cadet.
“Are you alright? You can stay there if you prefer.” Maybe a little white lie. “Take care of the horses.”
“No,” he gulped, “I will follow.” He jumped down as well, his boots making the layer of knitting material crunch. He shuddered, bit his lip, but kept at it.
“You are showing courage,” she praised him. “You should be proud of that.”
“I am trying, Stalker. By the Gods and the floundered land, I am trying.”
“No need to swear,” she admonished him, even though she waited for him to reach her. Only then, when they were close and her hand was firmly on Moonbite, she took the final steps towards the tower. There the layer of growths coiled upon itself, growing to a thick cover of bones, stretched skin, blood vessel and teeth, terminating in a crown of eyes, dozens of dull eyes that looked up and out.
“That will take a lot of time to clean,” she sighed. “It seems I will need to stay behind for a while.”
“How can you…”
“Just like I told you before. One at a time.” She did not surely need to get into details with him. A few of the eyes turned down to squint at them, their pupils turning into pinpricks.
Urthir shuddered besides her.
“Keep calm, please. They cannot hurt you.” Yet. But he would not need to know that part. “This is not good news, but not unexpected. It seems like a high-grade Marrower was leading this group. Perhaps Grosz of the Hooks. It has been a while since I have wanted to put my hands on him… let’s explore the rest off the place. There might be more spots like these, and I will need to find them out before the cloud thickens.”
“The air is going to get even fouler?”
“Everything gets worse and worse after a Marrower’s attack,” she replied, going back to the horses, which has pulled back a few steps at the sight of the horror stretched over the tower.
As they mounted them again and guided them through the town, Artumes kept an eye on her companion. His eyes trembled with a light of fury and dread, unable to understand, at least for the moment, which one to feed the most.
He would probably pick up his mind during the next few hours. If things went sour, he would withdraw into a life of denial in the capital, or perhaps find a cottage into the woods where to forget all about these experiences.
But if he bent the right way, he could come out of this stronger than before, and they might one day find a determined commander amidst their ranks.
Still too early to know, though.
What she did come to know, though, was that the attackers had turned the village into a waste: almost every home showed a broken door, cracked windows, signs of fight and struggle, ripped clothes laying about, and even pieces of armor and iron.
Urthir slowed down to look at a coat of mail hanging from a wooden stake. It was already boiling with crimson blisters as the red growth seemed to hang onto it with renovated energy.
“Do not touch it,” Artumes warned him.
“By the Gods, it was far from my intention!”
She hoped so. Some spots seemed to drink all the malice of the Marrowers and delight in it – the coat of mail did not seem explicitly fashioned by hands belonging to the Iron Crown, but you could never be too sure.
After that though, they did not find anything remarkable.
She still felt like something was amiss, though. Artumes kept turning back, second-guessing her intuition and her expertise. She expected something or someone to jump out of rust-like shadows.
But nothing happened. If she was still a green Stalker, she could have written it off as nerves, but that was the kind of decision that would have sent her to an early grave.
Going back to the main square, Artumes looked one again at the growths, already expanding. A few white filaments were starting to sprout form its base, ready to form a blanket of cursed bone. And especially skin – she did not focus on that before, but skin was growing already between the eyes, between door and door and window and window, as if they were surrounded by an army of invisible spiders that spun flesh instead of web.
She recognized that.
“I know this handiwork,” she grumbled.
“What do you mean?”
“Someone I have been chasing for a long while. A young Marrower, an infamously creative one. Heleth Skinflayer.”
She detached Moonbite from its hook and swung it a few times, pointing it at the growth of eyes.
One by one, they all shivered and turned towards the weapon.
“I will clean this up and then I will come for you, Heleth.”
Beneath her clothes, Artumes felt the eleven tattooed stars quiver with excitement. If she had to complete her work, Heleth would make for a fine crown jewel to her list of liquidated Marrowers.
Author’s Notes: I think maybe a line or two could be cut but I was going on with the flow. We will meet Runo again next chapter, I hope you will like to see her again after the raven saga.
Thanks for reading.