Runo had stolen one of their horses. It huffed and puffed, crossing the land while running on all fours. The bewitched colossus still bore some semblance of the human being it used to be, in the shape of its hooves, fused together from nails, the long face grovelling at the end of a long and naked neck. Its leather-like skin had been enhanced to protect against bad weather and pelting rain, but judging from the many leash scars running down its pale body, Runo wondered if it had not been perhaps a source of amusement for its handlers to make it so resistant to lashing.
Who was it that had come up with this creation, again? Grauman the Hidewarper, perhaps.
Whatever the truth might have been, her ride was making short work of the many miles that separated the former camp of the Marrowers to the abandoned city.
Runo licked her lips, her trembling hands trying to hold steady on the reins. She had her documents, her maps, and her information safely tucked away.
That was good.
She had also managed to leave without alerting any guard.
Which was also good.
Her back, with its line of steel piercers embedded in each of her vertebrae, shivered with the awareness that every moment it passed they would notice her missing and would dispatch a raiding party.
Runo did not believe in Gods.
For what merciful God could allow something like the Iron Crown to keep existing?
The wind was in her face, pulling her red hair back. With each time the horse hit the ground with its powerful legs, she felt the impact run through her body, a reminder of how fast she was actually going. It was dusk already, and she’d better meet with the Anthilians before they withdrew for the night.
The one thing that she had it going for her was that she knew some of the Anthilians dispatched to clean up the village would be there. She would get a chance to talk to them.
She just had to hope they would have the patience to listen to her.
Which also meant that it might be prudent to lose the horse somewhere.
She also hoped that among the group she had singled out as the most likely to meet with, the tall Anthilian huntress with the murderer-like expression was not there with them.
She had proven herself to have quite the short temper.
Artumes had been told, a long time ago, when the world still made sense and she lived a peaceful life on a village on the border with the Burning River, that hearing a faint tinny sound in your ears meant someone was thinking about you.
This far out in the Outback, it was likely some mangy wolf, given her luck.
Or maybe her Captain had decided to come back and rein her in – but that was a baseless fear.
She had walked back to the village, leaving her horse tied to their old camp. He would likely be safe enough that far away.
The ritual would not take long, but it would be quite scary for the poor animal, and destructive for all the life in a wide radius.
She looked at the content of her leaden bags: a series of glass vials, each of them filled to the brim with tiny white pebbles. Each of those was secured by a series of latches and filled to the brim, so that they could not move and could not shake.
If they did, she wouldn’t be walking on two legs.
“Twelve be my witness, fire cleanses and ash mends,” she muttered, slowly taking out a vial and setting it in the ground. It has a metal nail that helped to plunge it into the earth, and the cap was shaped like another needle, though this one would serve a much different purpose.
The crimson moss was already spreading there with a quickness that worried her. She knew Heleth as an infamous Marrower, but she had to be quite formidable if it was already growing that fast.
Once back into the city, as the moss spread thicker and already sprouting thin filaments that moved with the wind, she placed more vials at the respective nodes, making sure to draw the figure on the ground just as perfectly as it was in her mind: the burning seal would have to be regular and faultless to work.
As she worked, placing each vial with the same prayer to the high heavens, she wondered how things used to be before the Capsizing.
She was not a historian, but she had seen the wondrous machinery at work to keep the Burning River open. And she had also heard of the many stories of their civilization before the Gods punished them all through the Capsizing.
As she walked upstairs a creaking house placing a stone next to a wall, her boots rising soft clouds of crimson soot, her mind went back to the time she had been dared to go near the corpse of the Hearthwomb, the place from where the Three Wanderers were told to have been born.
She remembered the dead land, the cursed air and the feeling like being choked. The bushes and the grass had long-since given way to a thin layer of dead silt, and the huge compound glistened black under the relentless Sun.
To think such a thing used to be a live once and to create living dolls…
So much had been lost.
But maybe, if she did her work well, she could slow down that loss a little bit.
The dusk above lost itself in the crimson cloud as the shadows spread so wide she ended up working in absolute darkness. As night fell, her eyes began to glint with a lighter shade of aqua and her pupil stretched, gathering in as much light as she could.
Even after all those years and all that decay, the gifts of the Gods were not all lost yet – the world turned a fuzzy grey, layers upon layers of shapes stumbling upon each other. Colours were lost, but she could still see where she was putting her boot on.
She proceeded in a circle, laying out the last few vials until she ran out of them and completed the design right at the feet of the postal tower, or what was left of it. The skin and bones and eyes had grown, spreading all over it in a new half-living structure, murmuring foul words from knitted-together throats in a language that sounded like grinding ice.
She scoffed at the sight.
At last, all this would be over soon.
She sat right before the tower, taking in a long breath – the air still smelled like people. But she was ready, now.
If nothing else, they would get a bit of respite.
She took out twelve silver spokes placed them in a ring all around her, like a crown of stars.
“Twelve be my witness,” she said for the final time. “Fire cleanses and ash mends.”
Having put the coronite vials in their place, she then unsheathed the last gift from time past: a disk of silver metal that reflected a bit too much light to be simple silver.
She placed it on her lap and set her fingers against its surface, nodding once. The ancient artefact picked up her intentions and spread out a net of silvery filaments that ran over her skin and plunged into it, connecting to her bloodstream.
Artumes winced. It always felt like her mind was being sucked into the weird contraption.
Her head rang with a far-off tinnitus, waiting for her perception to stabilize. She remembered during training when many novice users of the silver ring screamed their lungs off as the thing ate through their mind.
Some never recovered.
But she had learned how to.
This is for the further glory of Anthilia, she thought, focusing all her intention into that single idea. The artefact’s probing latched onto it and bit by bit, her thoughts came to be wholly her own.
A series of spikes extended from the disk’s top, spreading like a crown. Small sparks of electricity ran between them.
The spark crackled and lashed out of the darkness, jumping from the spikes to the twelve spokes she had put around her, and to the vials of coronite throughout the village.
And ash mends.
The coronite inside the vials ignited in a plume of flame that rose high in a shower of white-hot sparks.
From every corner and from every street, the device unleashed a torrent of white phosphoric flames, that latched onto wood, flesh and overgrown skin with abandon.
Runo perceived the first flash rather than see it. She turned right in time to see a plume of white flame burst out of the haze covering the Harvested village. The horse reared its head back at the arts of the Anthilians proceeding to clean up their mess and she pushed her senses deep into its studded mind, biting into it with the force of a screw. The hors growled, its eyes dulled over by the strength of Runo’s will. She focused on regulating the beat of its two hearts, setting them to a more regular pace and the tool-slave rushed forward with renewed vigour.
Whatever was going on, she’d better hurry.
Author’s Notes: Coronite is a kind of fuel and material that’s a staple in my stories. For some reason I just like how it sounds.
Thanks for reading.