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The Last Fathers, Through the Deep Forest and The Dark Filament Ephemeris
copyright ©2016 by Russell C. Connor
All applicable copyrights and other rights reserved worldwide. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, for any purpose, without the express, written permission of the author, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review, or as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law.
This is a work of fiction. While some names, places, and events, are historically correct they are used fictitiously to develop the storyline and should not be considered historically accurate. Any resemblance of the characters in this book to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
Shakespir Edition License Notes
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*Volume I*: Through the Deep Forest
“Connor’s ability to richly develop each character and plot thread is fascinating even when the horror is reserved…the constricting pressure as the dread piles on makes this book hard to put down and even harder to go to sleep after reading. This is a great novel…”
-David J. Sharp, Horror Underground
“Intricately plotted and vividly layered with suspense, emotional intensity and strategic violence.”
-Michael Price, Fort Worth Business Press
“Drips with eeriness…an enjoyable book by a promising author.”
-Kyle White, The Harrow Fantasy and Horror Journal
“Major-league action, car chases, subterfuge, plot twists, with a smear of rough sex on top. Sublime.”
-Arianne “Tex” Thompson, author of Medicine for the Dead and One Night in Sixes
“Connor delivers a brisk, action-packed tale that explores the dark forests of the human—and inhuman—heart. Sure to thrill creature fans everywhere.”
-Scott Nicholson, author of They Hunger and The Red Church
On the morning of his sixteenth birthday, Korden Bright broke the law.
But, in his defense, ‘law’ didn’t really seem a fitting word for it. Laws, to him, were foreign concepts, remnants of the long dead world that Tash and the rest of the Last Fathers once inhabited. He’d always imagined them written down in thick, dusty tomes by hooded figures, and enforced by those gallant guardians of the land called ‘policemen.’ Such as those hadn’t existed since long before he was born, if they ever truly had at all.
No, Korden told himself his transgression wasn’t so much the breaking of a law, but rather, a rule. One simple little rule. A suggestion, really.
Considering that suggestion had been hammered into his head from the moment he was old enough to understand it, these excuses did nothing to alleviate his guilt.
Especially when his entire life came crashing down around him.
He rose early, dressed in the dark in a pair of worn deerskin dungarees, slipped the strap of his carry-pouch over his head, and padded barefoot and silent out of the thatched roof hucté he shared with his father.
Outside, the sliver of an archer’s moon cast a pale glow on the empty hilltop where their dwelling sat. Stars blazed in scrimshaw patterns overhead. The early morning air hung heavy with cool dew, turning the bare flesh of his lean shoulders and back into a carpet of prickles. Gooseflesh, he’d once heard the Olders call it, a term that baffled him.
Much like everything that crossed their ancient, wrinkled lips.
A dirt path began just beyond the door and twisted along the curve of the hillside. He started along it, taking stealthy steps to be sure his father didn’t come tearing out after him. Then, beneath the sickly pallor of the waning moon and that sky full of blue-tinged stars, Korden cut away from the dirt path his feet knew by heart, into a meadow thick with skilne grass that led away from the tiny village nestled in the shallow floor of the valley. The plant stalks—what his father called ‘thinking grass’—came alive at his passage, turning and bending to follow the heat of his body, snatching weakly at his limbs.
He relaxed his tense efforts at silence amid the waist-high blades and allowed his legs to stretch into a run. A stiff wind sprang up, shushing through the grass like the murmur of distant voices. Korden stretched his arms into it, closed his eyes, and pushed himself harder, ignoring the fire in his muscles and the rattling wheeze in his chest. The feel of his bare feet on the soggy earth and the skilne blades grasping at his torso fell away. He concentrated only on the imagined sensation of flight, a flight that would, in his mind, take him far from here, to distant lands so strange he couldn’t imagine them.
When at last he opened his eyes again, the boughs of the mammoth sequoias towered over him like an army of giants.
He came to a halt at the edge of the meadow, then doubled over to catch his huffing breath. The Olders called his sickness ‘as-mah,’ a lingering symptom from a fever that almost killed him at the age of nine. At its best, like now, it was little more than an annoyance. At its worst, he felt as though the air had turned to honey and clogged every inch of his throat and lungs.
When his breathing finally evened, Korden looked up, squinting into the forbidding wall of the tree line along the ridge ahead. The mighty redwoods formed a natural border east of the village. The sound of chirping crickets and the insistent click of the golas taking shelter in the forest seemed deafening, amplified in that way noises always seemed to be in the stillness of the night.
He couldn’t catch so much as a glimpse of what he sought, but this must be the place. The geography of the land rolling away to his left and the angle of the trees told him this was exactly where he’d stood mere hours before, after Skewtz let him out of his reading class early.
His destination couldn’t be more than a quarter span away, somewhere beyond the first imposing trees, in the undergrowth of the forest. A few hundred pargs. A ten minute walk, perhaps.
But he would have to defy every person he’d ever known to reach it.
No more carefree running now. Instead, he inched forward cautiously, taking each step one at a time, shoulders hunched defensively, like a man expecting a sharp blow at any second. Even though this stretch of meadow looked no different from the rest, his jaw clenched in anticipation.
Korden had no idea what would happen next. He always expected there would be something, some precursor…and then, here it was: a curious tingling ran the length of his body before culminating in a shiver. Every hair on his body stood up.
He had reached the Barrier.
It had encircled him his entire life, or at least as far back as he could recall, and he’d never crossed its invisible boundary. Not once, in sixteen long years. This was the closest he’d ever come to its edge.
He could remember once, when he must’ve been close to five, slipping away from his father’s side while Redfen argued with several of the Olders. Korden had chased a butterfly down the broad dirt lane through the middle of the village and out toward the empty plains to the south. His innocent flight had been short, nowhere near close enough to the Barrier to feel the physical effects, as he did now. But the way his father screamed in abject panic, chased him down, and gave him a whaling his backside still regretted was more than enough reminder that his existence had severe limitations.
In one of Skewtz’ old, musty books, Korden had read about a place called ‘prison.’ A place where, before the Purges, people were locked away when they committed misdeeds. When they broke the law.
Around the time of his eleventh birthday, Korden began to think of himself as a prisoner. He could see the sky and roam about the village and surrounding lands, but all the time the Barrier sat over him, a great, upside-down cup plopped down over the entire village like one might catch a bug.
Over the entire village…but not for the sake of the entire village. Woven from the fabric of the Olders’ strongest artcrafts, the Barrier had been created to protect and hide only one person. Everyone else within it could come and go freely. Not that they ever did, but at least it was their choice.
Korden Bright, today a sixteen-year-old prisoner, had been afforded no such choice.
And he’d grown so sick of it, he could scream.
Korden moved forward another step in the night, and then another. The trilling sensation within him continued to rise, causing one hand to shake as he lifted it in front of him and held it there, palm out. The raw power within the Barrier’s invisible construction was as strong as any artcraft he’d ever seen, far beyond anything he could hope to conjure. Given enough time, he thought he might be able to cobble together a wordspell to make it visible, perhaps as a shimmery wall, but that would serve no purpose. He stepped forward again, waiting for a jolt of pain. Or maybe just to come up against an obstruction as hard and unyielding as stone.
But there was nothing. If he went any further, he would just push right through. Korden hung there a moment, breath hitching, and tried to decide if he wanted this.
Do it, an insistent, constantly impatient voice told him. Just do it Kord, or we’re going to be stuck in this village until we make the Olders look like young men.
That wasn’t true; his prison sentence would last only another two years, at most.
But right now, that two years seemed an eternity.
Korden stepped forward one more pace.
There was the delicate sensation of something gossamer giving way in a great rush, like the bursting of a soap bubble, and the tingling sensation vanished.
He’d done it. He’d crossed the Barrier. It’d been so easy, it was almost disappointing.
He reexamined the night around him, ready to bolt back into its safety at the first sign of the horrors his father had promised awaited him on the other side.
Nothing was different. The air still tasted muggy and wet, the sounds of crickets and golas still floated on the breeze.
Part of him felt embarrassed. Ashamed to have listened to their stories for so long. It was all too easy to believe, in that moment of anticlimactic release, that it had all been an elaborate lie, a measure to control him: the Barrier, the Purges, the Incarnates…everything.
Then again, did he actually want those inhuman creatures to be waiting for him in the dark?
Actually…yes, he found that he did. The excitement of such an encounter—of something new and foreign and…different—would have been well worth the danger.
Yeh want excitement, ghammer, then go find it. Yeh dint cross tha Barrier just ta say yeh crossed it, now did yeh? That would truly be a fool’s errand.
The voice of Tash filled his head this time. It spoke true; breaching this boundary was nothing more than an obstacle in the path to his true destination.
There was still adventure to be had this night.
Korden grinned and ran forward, out of his prison for the first time.
The forest had always been just out of reach on the other side of the Barrier, a strange land to be gazed upon but never entered. This restriction suited him just fine; something about this place seemed unnatural when compared to the oak grove on the far northwest side of the village, and not just because of its gargantuan timber. These trees exuded a glowering essence, an alert, watchful, sullen vibe that had frightened Korden for as long as he could remember. Tash said they were even older than the Last Fathers, that history itself had been writ upon their massive trunks.
As he approached, the golas fell silent. Black wells of shadow gaped obscenely between the branches where they nested. The canopy far above his head was too thick for the wan moonlight to reach even the limbs of the smaller pines and alders nestled amid the redwoods, much less the underbrush on the forest floor. A chill prickled Korden’s skin at the thought of entering such darkness, but he’d come too far to turn back.
The air smelled pleasant, rich, dark earth and sweet resin. His bare feet trod a rough carpet of fern leaves and pine needles. He slowed his pace before he encountered a root to trip over and rummaged through the carry-pouch slung around his neck.
Korden withdrew the homemade charcoal pencil and leather-bound journal he kept on him at all times. He flipped the book open and leafed through pages. It was too dark to read his haphazard writing, but he found a blank spot and paused with the tip of the pencil hanging above the paper.
A hundred fragmentary thoughts and ideas whirled through his head. His imagination was a vast, untamed place, where he could play for hours. He forced himself to focus and scrawled down a two-line couplet, the first thing that came to mind:
The trees are looking down on me,
Don’t they wish they could be free?
Not his best work, but it didn’t matter. The use of imagination would bolster his will, and, as he’d been told countless times, only the will mattered in the practice of artcraft.
That, and faith, of course.
He bent, found a good-sized acorn on the ground, and held it in his open palm.
“Demno,” he muttered in the Craften tongue, concentrating.
Light—a pure, soft, bluish-white glow—sprang forth from the seed’s shell in all directions like his father’s lantern, illuminating a wide stretch of the forest, chasing shadows into holes and crevices. A simple wordspell, and one of the few he could perform consistently.
With the light to aid him, Korden reevaluated the trees. He’d been on a far hillside yesterday afternoon on his way home when the setting sun glinted off something in the distance, sharp enough to sting his eyes. Korden had cut across the meadow toward it, keeping that glitter within sight at all times, and found himself as close to the Barrier as he’d ever come before this morning.
Whatever it was, it sat deep within the tree line, hidden behind a screen of forest. That chip of light looked too sharp to be a water reflection. Metal, perhaps? It faded a few minutes later as the sun moved away, which meant he would’ve missed it entirely if Skewtz hadn’t let him go early.
His first instinct had been to tell someone, but suddenly that glint seemed like a sign meant only for him; the chance of him happening by at a time and place where it would catch his attention was a message directly from the Upper. If he told the Olders, they might attempt to find the source, but you could be sure he wouldn’t go with them.
And something in his very soul insisted that he had to.
That it might be the most important thing he ever did.
Korden looked back at the meadow, trying to compare the glint’s position relative to where he thought he was now. It’d seemed to come from farther south. He turned and continued into the forest, driving away the darkness before him with the glowing acorn.
He went only a handful of steps before emerging between two redwoods and found himself in front of a surface the likes of which he’d never seen.
That was the first attribute his mind fixed upon. This new terrain lay perfectly flat and even under his feet. He’d never walked on anything so level, not even the most hard-packed dirt.
The odd surface stretched in front of him for only ten paces or so, clearing a short strip in the forest floor, but to his left—north—the ribbon curved out of sight behind the bulk of a tree. To the right, it ran endless, spreading out far beyond the limits of his conjured light. He knelt over it, bringing the illumination closer.
The material was rough and hard as stone, grayish black in color. In places, deep cracks cleaved across it, from which grass sprouted. Then he saw the faded yellow dashes up the middle, and understood.
He was looking at a real, honest-to-Upper road.
A relic from the time before the Purges, made from the substance his father called ‘crete’. The Olders talked often about the autos that once used these paths to carry people far across the land. He had no idea that one lay so close to the village.
For a moment, Korden stared up that road to the north and wondered where it led after it curved out of sight, what waited at the other end.
He turned the opposite direction and moved along the hard surface, feet making sharp slapping sounds now. The light in his hand continued to jump and play among the trees until at last he came around a scarred old redwood trunk whose base could’ve squashed his entire home. There, he found the source of the glittering flash he’d spotted from the hill.
With the reality of the road settled in his head, he found it much easier to identify the large, boxy shape in front of him, sitting against the far side of the gnarled and pitted tree trunk, even covered with a crusted shell of dirt, leaves, and skilne.
So far as he knew, his father had never even seen one. The few instances when Korden heard him mention the self-moving carts, his voice filled with a reverence and awe that was contagious.
It stood three-quarters as tall as Korden and twice as long, and rested on tattered wheels made of some material that had long since rotted away from their metallic hubs. Foliage sprouted through the shredded remains, giving the appearance that the whole thing had grown right out of the ground. From what he could tell, its body had once been sheets of polished black metal, but beneath the layer of debris, rust had eaten jagged holes in the machine.
On its side, in small, upraised letters just visible under a gob of mud, was the curious word ‘TOYOTA.’
The front of the vehicle was wrapped around the tree trunk, crushed from collision. Random bits of strange metal jutted from an interior chamber where the engine that powered it must have been kept. This entire end bore signs of scorching, but that long ago fire petered out before consuming the rest of the auto.
Korden brought the glowing acorn closer to the point of impact. The scarring of this behemoth tree had been deep enough that it still had yet to recover. Patches of bark were stripped and gouged away, leaving the core open to the elements.
He walked along the car’s body, to the long sheet of sloped glass at the front end. Thick mud caked the surface, obscuring the interior. He raised a hand and wiped at it, cleaning away layers of encrusted muck, and leaned in.
The gaunt face of a human skull leered back at him from the opposite side.
Korden yelped and jumped away. His outburst startled something in the bushes on the other side of the auto into flight. He looked around, peering into the shadows that crouched beyond the demno’s light, his breathing suddenly husky. From somewhere in the woods, an owl hooted cautiously, but other than that, not even the wind made a sound.
He waited for his breathing to calm, then leaned against the window once more, cupping his hand over the glass to cut down the glare. When his eyes adjusted to the even deeper darkness of the vehicle’s cockpit, he could make out the occupants.
There were two, both in the front seat, no more than skeletons in shreds of clothing. The one closest to him seemed to be the captain, for he was draped across a large wheel that seemed to have crushed his midsection during the crash. His head gazed emptily at Korden from a shelf above the steering wheel, white, skinless hands thrown up against the glass as if to stop the tree from smashing into them. And the other one…
The other one had been a woman.
Korden wasn’t sure how he knew this. Something in the general shape of the bones perhaps, the delicate form they suggested. As he stared, an amazement stole over him that put everything else he’d experienced this morning to shame.
Because, like the road and the auto, he’d never seen one of these before either.
He stood mesmerized. Not by the bones, but by the idea they were once been a living, breathing female. He’d been having dreams about them lately. Dreams about soft, spectral beings that his imagination conjured with the help of what little input it had on the subject, dreams where he awoke lightheaded and with his groin aching and his penis stiff enough to be used as a walking stick.
The form slumped against the door on the far side of the car, turned away so that the curve of her spine showed, clothed in the rotting remains of a blouse. He could see part of her head was shattered, but her arms were crossed tightly in front of her, clutching something to her ribcage.
An object so important that she clung to it during the violent crash, even as her life bled away.
Korden went behind the auto, then shuffled through the dense foliage on the far side. A fat purple snake hissed at him before crawling away, but he gave it no notice. He’d become aware of how fast time was slipping away, of how his conjured light became less necessary with each passing minute.
He studied the door of the carriage, searching for a way to open it. At last he found a handle buried under a sheen of dried mud and pulled upward.
A crack sounded as the ancient seal broke, and the door separated from the frame with a rusted creak. Korden muscled it open a few more pargs and hunkered in the gap.
The skeleton watched him, its blank face somehow pleading even without eyes and features. He wondered what the fractured skull had once looked like. If he’d been a powerful enough craftsman—far more than even Tash—he might’ve been able to find out.
He could see now that she held a bound book to her chest, much thicker and wider than his journal. Korden reached out and touched it gingerly, ready for the body to come to life and fly at him for this intrusion. When the apprehension passed, he grasped the tome on both sides and gave it a gentle tug.
The skeleton disintegrated at every joint simultaneously. Bones clattered into the floor and spilled onto the ground at his feet. A disembodied hand clung to the book by several ivory fingers.
Korden waited for his heart to drop out of his throat and then shifted from knees to bottom, sitting cross-legged on the forest floor. He drew the tome into his lap, tilting it so the hand fell off. It landed on the ground with a soft clatter, palm up and slim fingers reaching toward the stars, where it would stay until the world came to the limping end it seemed headed toward.
He brushed dust from the book’s cover, revealing writing. Gold letters in a fancy script that read, ‘Our Family.’ He pulled open the thick cover to the first page, holding his glowing acorn close.
A delighted gasp escaped him.
Pictures—not drawings, but square images capturing real life—were mounted side-by-side on the page. It was like looking through a series of tiny windows into worlds frozen in time. His jaw dropped at the sheer strangeness of the scenes they contained.
His wish had been granted, for now he knew what the woman in front of him looked like in life. She hadn’t always been a grinning skull; she once possessed muted red hair the color of Harvest leaves spilling down her shoulders, and freckle-covered skin over her skeleton, and a pretty face with a nose that turned up just the tiniest bit at the tip. She had been tall and slender, with those mounds on her chest (breasts, they were called breasts) that pushed out the front of every strange article of clothing she wore, and hips that curved ever so slightly at the sides in a way that stirred something in the pit of his stomach.
In most of these pictures was another man, presumably her riding companion, and behind them a variety of fantastical settings. In one, they stood in front of a large window overlooking a road where more autos zoomed back and forth, blurred by their speed, some of them hovering a few pargs off the ground on orbs of pale yellow light, and beyond that, rows upon rows of the tallest and straightest structures he’d ever seen marched to the horizon. The man had his arm around the woman, and they both smiled in a spirited, carefree way that was just as alien as everything else about them.
Korden flipped through pages, all thoughts of the coming morning gone, lost in this magic portal through time. Here was one of the woman at a large, square pit in the ground, filled with the clearest water he’d ever seen. She sat on the edge and dangled her feet in. Here was one of the man holding a small, brown animal that looked like a wolf cub while it licked his face. Here was one of both in front of a bright green tree growing in the middle of a room, an evergreen festooned with brightly colored lights and baubles.
He kept turning, unable to tear himself away from this story of their lives.
At last he came to a picture of the woman in a strange bed with metal fencing along its sides and surrounded by a plethora of electronic gadgets, looking exhausted and haggard, but in her arms sat a small, chubby creature, face screwed up in a violent shade of red, plump little hands balled into fists.
It was revolting…and yet precious at the same time. Had he ever looked like this, been this small and defenseless in the arms of his own mother, whose face he couldn’t even remember? Had the Olders?
Korden went further, and now the couple was joined in their pictures by a little girl, and, soon after, a boy. These two grew up before his eyes, jumping seasons and years between pages. Where were these children when their parents perished? He stopped turning at one picture of the girl from the shoulders up in front of a brilliant, blue background, long black hair spilling down her neck and chest, staring into his eyes with a pleasant grin.
Looking at her, his heart beat against the inside of his chest.
‘Beautiful’ wasn’t a word he’d been able to use often in his life, but it was the only one he could think of to describe this exotic specimen from another time.
And suddenly, Korden suspected he knew why the woman in the car gripped this book so tightly as she died. The children were absent because they had been taken in the Purges. Stolen away by Incarnates. Perhaps these two (mother and father, his mind whispered, uniting the new texture of the former with the familiarity of the latter) thought they were on their way to find them, or just trying to escape the pain of their loss.
In that second of revelation, Korden Bright understood the full magnitude of the situation the Olders prattled on about. They were dying, all of them, every last one, the human species dwindling without a new crop to replace them. Someday the Olders would be gone—their arts kept them long-lived, but not immortal—then his father would die in the natural order, and then…
Then he would be all alone.
Korden hugged the book to his chest in the same way the woman in the auto had, and tried not to let fear and loneliness overtake him.
As he made his way out of the forest, Korden’s heart still felt heavy. All the excitement of the secret expedition had been leeched away. If it’d been part of the Upper’s divine plan (another of Tash’s favorite terms) for him to find the auto and its occupants, he didn’t understand the purpose, other than to start his birthday on a depressing note.
He found himself far south of where he’d entered the trees, on the opposite side of the village proper. He was inside the Barrier once more, although he had no idea exactly when he crossed its border; there had been no buzzing sensation upon reentry. This might’ve bothered him if he’d stopped to consider it, but the need to get home superseded all else. The quickest route would be to cut as close as possible around the east side of the tiny settlement and hope he didn’t get caught.
Speed would have to trump discretion. Color bled into the morning sky at an alarming rate, even though the sun itself would remain hidden behind the black Shroud for another hour. The village would be about the day’s business soon.
He ran again, pumping his legs as fast as he dared without bringing on a fit of gasping from his weak lungs. He spotted the high roof of the hangala first, from its position on the far southwest edge of the village. The building was by far the largest, constructed in the same fashion as the huctés: a sturdy wooden frame and floor, walls and ceiling filled in by artcraft-hardened mud, and the roof further protected by a tightly-woven layer of dried skilne grass. Painted Craften symbols adorned the exterior, incantations of good fortune, tranquility, and abundance. He faithed in this building every Seventh Day Morn with the Olders, leaving his father behind to grumble and fume.
Korden crested a last low hill. The rest of the village lay spread out before him.
A wide, dirt avenue snaked up the middle, the result of feet and cartwheels passing over the valley floor for countless years. On either side were the humble homes of the Olders, each of the forty men living in solitude with only space to eat, sleep, and faith within. Korden and his father would’ve been welcome here if they were willing to live with the same simplicity. Which was exactly why Redfen moved them as far away as possible.
All of the Olders’ domiciles were dark, their elderly residents still asleep.
As Korden cut behind the eastern row of dwellings to continue toward home, he looked over and saw the pure glow of a demno coming through the window of one home on the opposite side.
“Tash,” he whispered. He pictured his den-so’s face, so deeply-lined it might’ve been carved from tree bark, the long jowls and grey eyes glazed with milky whiteness. “Why are you up so early?”
Korden reached out with his mind, attempting to read the man’s mohol. He must be delicate about it; if he pushed too hard, Tash would sense him prying.
From this distance, he received only the briefest flashes of emotion, expressed in his head through color. Tash’s usual stoic slate on top, the same color as his eyes, but beneath that, an undercoat of sickly yellow nervousness punctuated by dark bursts of…
Korden reeled back his mental probe in a hurry. The idea that Tash—with his dry, unflappable demeanor—could ever be afraid seemed unthinkable. He wanted to reach out again, make sure of what he sensed, but the risk of exposure was too great. Besides, whatever ailed the old man wasn’t his business.
He angled farther right, taking him around the hovels, passing through several fruit and vegetable gardens that complemented the village’s diet of fish and whatever meat the 30-day hunts brought. He heard a soft whinny to his right and turned to see Mulder, the decrepit village plow horse, standing motionless in the shadow of an orange tree, regarding him with narrowed eyes. The horse chuffed and wrinkled back its lips in a toothy sneer.
“Shhh!” he hissed. The beast raised its head in defiance and brayed. Korden shot him a nasty look as he moved on.
Then it was past Skewtz’ library, the tiny classroom that had been built for the village’s sole student, and the social hall, where most of the Last Fathers—as they preferred to call themselves—whiled away the hours playing chess or hands of totala. Then a series of small foothills interrupted the valley floor, and he found the dirt path that would take him home.
His bare feet were filthy. He stopped to clean them in a puddle just beyond the dooryard and studied the mud face of the only home he’d ever known. Korden loved his father fiercely, but the man remained oblivious of the way those brown walls seemed to shrink each passing year. Then, with supreme smugness, Korden slipped inside the doorway and crept through the common room, heading toward bed, where he could replay the morning’s events. He was so good at this, he might have to sneak out every—
“I hope for your sake that sleepwalking is a consequence of all that garbage Tash fills your head with,” a voice said behind him.
Redfen Bright regarded his son from his seat at the supping table, already dressed in a light tunic and denim pants so patched with animal hide hardly any of the original material remained. Even in the dark, he could see the guilty flush that bloomed on the boy’s cheeks and spread down his neck. He reached over and turned up the lantern flame beside him, filling the room with shifting light.
“R-Redfen,” Korden sputtered.
“Where were you?” Redfen asked, working hard to keep his voice neutral.
“Down the hill. Practicing. Tash, he…gave me some new wordspells to try.” Then the boy hurried to add, “It’s my birthday!”
“I know. So imagine my surprise when I got up early to make you breakfast with the last of that possum jerky you love, only to find your bed empty.”
“I’m really sorry, I—”
“So the least you could do,” he continued, “is be honest, and tell me where you really were.”
“Just…out walking. I wanted to find a quiet place to write. To have some time to myself.”
“When you want time to yourself, you tell me and I’ll go with you.”
Korden squinted at him, at though trying to tell if he’d meant it as a joke.
“Do you have any idea what I thought when I couldn’t find you? I was one very short minute away from waking every last one of those toothless old bodlas and mounting a search party when I heard you splashing around outside.” This was exaggeration. In truth, the frantic inspection of the hucté left him so paralyzed with fear he’d been forced to sit down until the strength came back to his legs. Now that he could see the boy was safe (and had gone out without shirt nor shoes) all that icy fear melted into anger. “What were you thinking?”
“But I didn’t—!”
“No, you didn’t. I’ve told you time and again, just because you’re inside the Barrier is no reason to trust that you’re safe. It doesn’t keep the Incarnates out, it only hides your presence from them. One could still wander in here at any moment. We have to stay cautious, especially at night.” He snorted and balled his hands into helpless fists on the table. “You just…you can’t be so framming reckless!”
Korden dropped his head in defeat and said nothing.
Redfen glared at him a moment longer and then sighed. What good did it do to be angry? He remembered what went on in the minds and hearts of fifteen—no, sixteen-year-old boys. He hated to constantly reprimand his son when the boy only wanted a little space.
But a little space will get him killed, his mind countered. He wasn’t raised like you, to be wary. This place may’ve provided a sanctuary, but it’s also coddled him. He has no idea what the rest of the world is like.
Redfen stood up and came around the table. He bore almost no resemblance to the boy across the room. Korden was lanky, too thin for his height—as evidenced by the ribs that visibly banded his bare waist—with skin so pale and fair it glowed in the darkness. Redfen possessed a lean, muscular build in contrast to his son’s slightly wasted torso, his skin a more coppery hue. Whereas Korden’s face looked narrow and angular, framed by a sheet of thick brown hair and punctuated by brilliant green eyes flecked with amber, Redfen’s was broad and rough, with a scar twisting along the left temple, blond hair pulled back in a tail and murky blue eyes.
But then, the lack of familial likeness had never surprised Redfen.
“Two more years, Kord.” He put his hands on the boy’s bare shoulders. “Just two more years, and then you’re safe. We’re so close. Once you turn eighteen, we can leave here, go wherever you want. Curse, don’t you think I’d love to get away from these mouthy old warlocks? But until then…we both just have to be patient.”
“But Redfen.” Korden looked up, and Redfen was surprised to see a depth and maturity in his face that had never been there before, as if he’d woken up this morning much more than just another year older. “What if…the Incarnates are all gone? What if the Purges are over and we’ve been stuck here under the Barrier all this time for nothing? No one from the village has had any contact with the outside world since before I was born.”
“And with good reason,” Redfen countered, before the boy could finish. He knew this argument would come one day, had prepared himself for it, yet it still seemed to be happening too soon. “You were too young to remember life before the Olders took us in. The Incarnates hunted us every night, and most days, too. Things were bad when I was a boy, but at least back then, we stood a chance at fighting them off. But when you entered the world, an entire army showed up outside the walls of the fortress we lived in hours before you were even born.”
“I remember the story,” Korden told him.
“I’m not surprised. Upper knows I’ve told it to you enough times. So please trust me when I tell you that if you were to leave the Barrier, they would sense you from the farthest reaches of the land, and they would come.”
Something flickered in the boy’s vivid eyes. Fear, perhaps. Good; he should be afraid.
Redfen went to the door and beckoned Korden to him. When they both stood outside the shack, he pointed to the east. The sun stood high enough to be seen, but on the horizon just below it, barely visible over the high sequoia treetops along the slope of the valley, an inky black blob stretched across the heavens, as if the night there refused to submit to the coming morning. Even from such a great distance, this viscous darkness could never be mistaken for a storm cloud.
“You see that? That’s all the proof you need that the armies of the Dark Filament are still out there. They say the Shroud used to move, blotting out the sky and bringing the Incarnates, until something held them up out there for a long, long time. But one day, the Shroud will start getting bigger again, spreading farther. Tash and I don’t agree on much, but I think he’s absolutely right about that darkness. When the Incarnates finish the work they began with the Purges, that shadow will cover the face of the entire world.”
In other words, when they finish trimming each family tree of all its branches, he thought, a visual put in his head by someone long, long ago.
Korden still didn’t speak, just stared off to the east at that roiling shade, which was already disappearing behind a lazy band of white clouds blowing in from the south. Another pang of longing speared through Redfen’s heart. As eager as he was for the boy to reach free age, seeing him grow up was a pain all its own.
“I only want to protect you. Someday, when you have a son of your own, you’ll understand.” A cruel thing to say perhaps, considering the likelihood of Korden ever siring a child. He ruffled the boy’s hair. “All right, enough of this gloom. It’s your birthday, and you must have a present on your birthday.”
Korden plucked at the hem of his dungarees, which Redfen had sewn himself the year before. “But these still fit me just fine.”
“No, no clothes this year. I have something different for you.”
Back inside, Redfen went into his room and removed a rag-wrapped bundle from under his straw mattress. He placed this on the table in front of Korden, who stared at it with a cocked eyebrow. “Go ahead, open it.”
An excited smile crept onto the boy’s face as he unwrapped the gift. There were so few surprises for him here. When he had it open, he lifted out the burnished piece of black metal with the scuffed brown inlays and looked at it in amazement. On one side, the words SPRINGFIELD ARMORY were still visible.
“Do you know what that is?” Redfen asked.
His son nodded slowly. “A shooter. This type was called a pistol.”
Of course he knew. The boy had read every one of Skewtz’ books a hundred times, both the true and made-up ones. He seemed obsessed with learning all he could about that lost world and its inhabitants, much to Tash’s dismay. That old coot never stopped harping about the ‘fallen ways’ that broke humanity’s self-sufficiency and replaced his precious Upper. He looked at Redfen as a fool just for using a lantern. Well, he may’ve apprenticed Korden into his mystical arts—with Redfen’s reluctant agreement—but at least he hadn’t managed to prejudice the boy against the past and its many marvels.
“Is this…?” Korden began.
“Yes. The weapon that saved my life on the day you were born. It hasn’t been fired since, mostly because there’s no more ammunition for it. But I’ve kept it clean and oiled with deer fat, so I could give it to you one day.”
Korden examined the shooter from all directions, then grasped the handle experimentally in both hands with his fingers on the trigger, and swung it around the room like one of the stick swords he loved to play with.
Redfen laughed. “Like this.” He took the weapon, made a show of ejecting the empty clip and then shoving it back in, then held it in one hand, aimed at the wall, sighted down the barrel, and pulled the trigger. Only a dry click sounded, but he made the pistol buck in his hand and mimicked the explosive sound of a gunshot. “The real noise is much louder. But you must be careful, even though it isn’t loaded. It isn’t a toy. My father used to say, never point it at anything or anyone that you don’t intend to kill.”
Korden accepted the pistol again reverently and held it like he’d been shown. “But…what will I do with it?”
“I dunno. Keep it as a trophy. Or, if you run into someone else that knows what it is, a threat can be just as good as a shot. Just don’t let Tash know. I grow as tired of his lectures as you do of mine.”
“All right,” the boy agreed.
Redfen planted a kiss on top of his head, which smelled of sweet pine mingled with the earthy aroma of the outdoors. “Why don’t you get some sleep before your lessons? I’ll make you breakfast and then I have to go.”
“Where are you going?”
“On a hunt with some of the others.”
“But why? The 30-day hunt isn’t for another two weeks!”
“Fortholm believes the ramlar migration is coming early this year. Upper knows we need the meat.”
“Oh.” The boy’s face fell. “I just thought…that we would celebrate. Like last year.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back well before you get home. I happen to know that a huge birthday dinner is being planned for tonight, and I don’t want to miss it. All right?”
Korden nodded happily, then went into his bedroom clutching his birthday present and his carry-pouch. Redfen watched him go and thought, as usual, how he would do anything to keep the boy safe. Indeed, he already had.
Except there may come a day when you’re not around to do so anymore. And what then?
Redfen hoped that day would never come, not suspecting for a moment that it already had.
In his room, Korden spent a few minutes practicing the actions his father had shown him with the gun. It was a fantastic gift, but his mind remained too preoccupied to truly appreciate it.
He opened the small trunk beside his bed, which held the few items he treasured in this world: various shells and rocks found around the village, a few of his favorite books, and the ragged blue blanket his mother wrapped him in, before the Incarnates killed her on the night of his birth.
His father talked about the woman little. Just a single story about how they’d met. The image of her Korden held in his head was nothing more than an amalgam of Redfen’s scant descriptions coupled with storybook princesses.
Korden placed the pistol inside the trunk, atop the blanket, then climbed into bed with his carry-pouch and pulled the thick quilt over his head. Once he felt secure, he created a demno on the tip of his pencil, producing a thread of illumination, just enough to see beneath the blanket. One hand wormed into his carry-pouch, feeling for the picture he’d taken.
The idea of leaving the auto without some memento of his trip had been unbearable. The volume itself he’d closed back up with its owners, the only burial honor he could afford those skeletal lovers, but he allowed himself to choose just one of their paper windows to keep.
He examined the picture. It was the one of the girl (the daughter, he amended) from the shoulders up, posing primly in front of that unnaturally blue background, as though she knew this second would be captured for all time. He noticed now that her nose turned up at the end in imitation of her mother. He wished he could see her mohol, to know how she felt at this frozen moment, but the picture offered none of her aura.
A girl, he thought, still awed. He understood the biological basics of what men and women did together, but reading mechanical descriptions from dense textbooks hadn’t prepared him for the sensations that would accompany them.
What was this power she seemed to have over him? That grin made him feel dizzy. His stomach fluttered. He would’ve been frightened, if it didn’t all feel so wonderful.
Praise the Upper, if a mere picture of a female could do this to him, what would it be like if he ever actually met one?
Without thinking, he brought the paper up to his face and brushed his lips against those of the girl. It felt no different than kissing a page from a book, but a small, secret thrill rocketed through him anyway. A fantasy formed in the halls of his incredible imagination, one that he would explore fully when he wasn’t so tired.
Korden slipped the picture back in the pouch, clutched the bag to his chest, and closed his eyes.
Just before tumbling into sleep, his father’s warning rang through his thoughts one last time, that leaving the Barrier would bring the Incarnates after him, like wolves tracking the scent of a wounded animal.
Redfen decided to let Korden sleep rather than wake him to say goodbye. As much as he fretted over his son’s safety, he felt much better about the boy being out of his sight during the day, especially when his lessons would keep him busy. Still, if he had his way, Korden would be by his side even for this, learning to hunt. The invitation would be certain to thrill him, but their expedition would take them far beyond the limits of the Barrier, where his son could not go.
So Redfen collected his bow and quiver, and slipped out of the hucté.
Outside, the coolness of the morning had already been lost to the coming day’s heat. It was the tail end of the Bloom, and, judging by the higher temperatures escorting it in, Burning Season looked to be scathing this year. Redfen didn’t relish the idea of working in it, neither today nor in the coming weeks. Sweat beaded on his brow by the time he traversed the path down to the village, where he’d agreed to meet the others for an early start.
The hunting parties always consisted of eight men. When he and Korden settled here, Redfen was quick to volunteer for the duty, eager to prove his value to the tiny community. He lived in terror that they would be deemed too much trouble and sent out again on their own. Back then, the spots were assigned on a rotating basis, as were most jobs in the village, so that he only had to go once or twice a year. But the pool of able-bodied men shrank rapidly since then, leaving this task and many others to the few hands in good enough health to perform them. With Korden busy at his lessons—not to mention the new rigmarole Tash was teaching him—Redfen would spend the next season chopping firewood and lugging water from the spring by himself.
Not that he minded. He considered it more than fair trade for the peace and security the Olders gave them in return.
However, his skill with a bow left much to be desired. He often felt like a burden on these trips. But for the ramlar migration, their prey was so densely packed (and slowed by the Olders’ mental magics) that he only needed to draw string to do his part. His mouth watered at the anticipation of that strange meat they were treated to but once a year.
A few minutes after leaving his home, he found himself behind the hangala, where seven other figures gathered.
Redfen had lived with these elderly men for fifteen years, since the rainy night he’d stumbled onto Bibb’s doorstep with an infant in his arms and two Incarnates on his trail, after an entire season of working his way north through the flatlands and avoiding other people. He spoke with them every day and, in most cases, knew the more intimate details of theirs lives. And yet, the extreme age difference between himself and them never ceased to surprise him.
Like Korden, Redfen played with no other children as a boy. He’d been around people much older than himself his entire life, but all the men waiting on him now—including Fortholm, the youngest of the entire village and the one he most considered a friend—had stooped or outright hunched backs, thinning hair, and spotted, papery skin. Few looked spry enough for a venture into the wilderness to hunt wild game.
And even their elderly appearance didn’t reveal the complete truth, that their magics had kept them alive much longer than anyone he’d ever met, far longer than humanly possible. Hard to tell just exactly how long, since he could never get a straight answer out of any of them.
But every last one said they’d ridden in hovering autos and sky carriers. Shopped at stores and watched ‘teevee.’
They all claimed to have been active members of the great society that existed before the Purges.
The Last Fathers, they called themselves. Olders, Korden named them, since he was old enough to talk. Redfen had always heard the term Crafters for those whose faith in the Upper allowed them to perform strange and impossible feats. He’d never met one before coming here, didn’t entirely believe that such people could exist. A man named Payt was the only person Redfen ever knew that preached faith in the Upper, and he certainly had no special abilities.
Redfen had lived among them long enough to see that their power was real, but knew he would always be the lone outsider unless he embraced their strange religion, as his son did. Not a week went by where they didn’t invite him to attend the high-peaked building on the edge of the village.
What the Olders didn’t seem to grasp is that Redfen had come to believe in the Upper just as much as His polar opposite; he’d seen enough cruelty and death to justify that one’s existence, and if the Stranger existed, it only stood to reason that the Upper did too.
No, the real reason he chose not to worship with the Last Fathers was because he just couldn’t hold the Great Interceder in as high regard as they did. With the way things were going in these, humanity’s last days, it just seemed like the forces of evil had more interest in the dealings of mankind than the Upper did.
They certainly had more time and energy invested.
Ahead of him, the hunting party worked to lash a wooden cart to Mulder’s sagging back. The plow horse snorted angrily and shifted his weight between hooves. This group of Last Fathers had shed their pious brown robes today, in favor of less constrictive tunics and breeches.
“Hail, Brother Redfen!” Fortholm greeted him warmly in his creaking, raspy voice. Redfen grasped the man’s gaunt left shoulder and had the gesture returned, although the grip was so weak he could scarcely feel it. Fortholm might be younger than the others, but his health deteriorated much faster. He had no business undertaking such a strenuous task, but each time he insisted he be allowed on the hunting party. The nest of wrinkles at the corner of each of his eyes bunched into a mighty fold as he grinned.
“Good tidings to all.” Redfen glanced around at the others as he spoke, then asked, “Eddas, would you like a hand?”
The Older—big as a bear, with a sloping bulge of stomach and one bad eye amidst the crags of his weathered face—strained as he lifted the front end of the cart high enough for Tiller and Santo to finish attaching it to Mulder’s yoke. He was too out of breath to answer, purple veins pulsing at his white-haired temples, but he managed to shake his head.
Redfen turned back to Fortholm and Allin. “Isn’t there a bit of wizardry you could use for that?”
“Artcraft is a well that must be refreshed, my friend! If we used it for every trivial matter in life, it would go dry quickly.”
“What he means,” Allin added, his syrupy drawl giving the word several extra vowels, “is that this ol’ ox gotta take ev’ry opportunity to show off what’s lefta his muscles!”
Eddas gave a grunting sigh of relief as the weight came off his back and the cart balanced on its own two wheels. He wobbled as he straightened to his full seven-feet, a height attained even with the drastic curve to his upper spine that made the top of his head just about level with his shoulders. “Once upon a time, I crushed men like you with my bare hands in the ring, Allin,” he growled. “You remember that.”
“Yeah, well, I think the only crushin you could do these days is if ya sat on me.” After hoisting his little finger in response to the other man’s scowl, Allin asked Redfen, “So what’s the kiddo doin for his birthday this mornin?”
“He was still in bed when I left.”
“I’ll bet. Sleepin’s about tha only thing for a kid his age ta do ‘round here.” He gave a low whistle, an easy feat with his many missing teeth. “Curse, can ya imagine? Sixteen years old and stuck out here with us dusty fossils?”
“He does get a little bored,” Redfen admitted.
“Bored? Shoot, that don’t tell the half of it. All those teenage hormones, never seen a woman, not so much as a single picture for jerk off material? That ain’t natural. Poor li’l guy probably wouldn’t know what ta do with an erection if it bit ‘im.”
“Brother Allin,” Fortholm chided, and tssked between his teeth.
“Oh come on Fortholm, ya know as well as I do the kid’s miserable.”
Fortholm shook his head. “Be that as it may, let us hope he makes it to his lessons promptly today. Tash is…in a strange mood.”
Beyond him, the last two members of the party, Del and Port, stood with their heads bowed in the intimate conversation of lovers, Port’s hand gently rubbing the back of Del’s neck. Redfen saw many such pairings even before coming to the village; same sex relationships presented fewer dangers and complications. In many of the towns he’d come across while on the run, men and women were forbidden from even touching. As Redfen waved to the couple, Tiller came around the cart.
“Let’s get moving,” he told the group. He was a quick, lithe man with veiny ropes of muscle on his forearms and silver hair cut so close the scalp could be seen through the bristles. He was also one of the few Olders in as good a shape as Redfen himself, so he often led the hunting expeditions. “I want to be at the canyons before midday.”
“Are we certain about this?” Redfen asked. “This is a full thirty days early for the ramlar migration. Not that I’m complaining, I’d much rather do it now than when the heat is at its worst, but…” He let the sentence hang, knowing it was stupid to question their insight.
“You heard Tiller.” This came from Santo, a Hispanic man with a fist-sized goiter stretching the right side of his neck and a voice like a bullfrog. “Stop jabbering and help Fortholm into the cart. If the stubborn bastard insists on coming with us, at least he won’t slow us down.”
Redfen, Eddas, and Allin all moved to aid Fortholm, gently lifting his brittle body by waist and legs so he could step up on the cart’s bench. After he settled, he leaned down, back popping audibly, and whispered to Redfen, “They’re coming, all right. I’m not good for much these days, but I can still feel them when they’re on their way. Their migration pattern has shortened. I think…they’re being pushed westward.”
Before Redfen could ask what that might mean, Mulder neighed as Tiller slapped him on the rump. The cart started forward on squalling wheels. Redfen fell into line beside it with the other six men as the sun beat down on them from above.
Korden awakened from a nightmare in which a dark, savage force hunted him through the forest.
He’d been with the girl from the picture, sitting with her at first in the most wonderfully awkward silence in the same clearing where he’d found her parents. She wore an outfit from one of her other images; a breezy yellow blouse with no sleeves and a wide V neck, and a strange black garment around her waist that only covered her hips and thighs; he thought it was called a ‘skirt’. They stared at their feet, glancing up at one another furtively, until he gathered his courage and reached over to hold her hand, a gesture he only knew about from his books.
She turned to him and grinned—that same dazzling smile as in her picture—then leaned into him, encircling his chest with her arms. A tingle ran across his scalp as they reclined on the forest floor, their bodies pressing against one another. His groin felt hot and tight. As her hands moved down to it, caressing and tickling, the aching pleasure of it all made him press his eyes closed. And then the contact vanished. When he opened his eyes again, she had disappeared, and a cold wind gusted through the trees, carrying a stench of decay.
An overwhelming sense of impending disaster filled him.
He leapt to his feet just in time to hear something snarl. A pair of red eyes like smoldering coals appeared in the underbrush beside him. Korden backed away from it, gaping in horror, then turned and ran. The beast gave chase, staying just on his heels. The clack of its teeth echoed in his ears.
Rather than catapulting from sleep, he came to consciousness so gradually that the line between dream and reality blurred. For just a moment, he lay in bed, feet still pedaling, and thought he could hear the creature’s jaws. The sense of foreboding followed him all the way back into the land of waking, and throbbed in the back of his head as he opened his eyes.
Usually, with a dream this vivid, he would scribble a description in his journal. He liked to remember them, not just for creative fodder, but for the secrets they might hold. Tash said that sometimes the Upper communicated in sleep what the heart knew but the mind could not interpret. Like when Micka told them of a nightmare in which he’d been drowning in a frothing flood and, the next day, it rained so hard that an entire wall of his hucté collapsed.
The problem was, you could never tell if a dream mattered until it was too late.
Today though, there was no time for reflection. The light trickling into his room around the window braces looked bright. Too bright. He was exhausted from staying awake all night, and now he would probably be late to his lesson. Tash would not be happy.
It’s my birthday. I can be late if I want.
Such excuses would mean nothing to his den-so.
And, aside from his father, there was no one he liked disappointing less.
He got out of bed, still clad in his dungarees, and pulled on a green, half-sleeved shirt woven from tight mesh, and the leather boots Eddas crafted for him when his feet outgrew the last pair. These already felt a little cramped, with a worn spot in one sole, but he could easily make them last another few seasons.
His carry-pouch lay beside the bed. He paused just before picking it up.
The picture was still inside. He considered taking it out to hide in his room, but then realized it would make no difference. If he remained this preoccupied with it during his lessons, Tash would sense his distraction. The only way to avoid getting caught would be to put it out of his thoughts entirely. He tried to do just that as he picked up the bag and pulled the strap over his head.
Breakfast waited for him on the table. He wolfed it down in three bites without stopping on his way to the door.
Outside, he reveled in the sunshine and warm air. It had been a long, wet Stilling, and the damp cold always worsened his health. This year alone had seen two fevers and a handful of colds. His good mood allowed his worries about the Barrier and the last vestiges of his nightmare to fade from his thoughts. Excitement overtook him instead, at what he knew waited just ahead.
The village was alive this time as he approached, the residents going about the few menial tasks that made up the majority of their days. Palo balanced on a ladder, using complicated crafting gestures to repair a hole in the thatching of his roof, his bird legs wobbling beneath the hem of his robe. Feegran, the town healer, stood just outside his own hucté, examining a rash on Matar’s arm while a line of other Olders waited with their own ailments, which seemed to grow more numerous each day. Coomb, Dillish, and Bant sat on the steps of the social hall in their wheeled chairs, clutching totala hands, where they would remain all day until they fell asleep drooling over their suppers.
Birthday wishes rang out from all corners when he entered the village proper. As always, the Olders perked up when they saw him, rousing from their half-asleep existences with a twinkle in their eyes. He’d been told many times that his presence here kept them young more so than the artcraft. Korden waved to each of them and called out greetings.
He loved these men as much as he did his father. They had been nothing but kind to him, and many of them imparted their knowledge to him both in and out of the classroom; reading, writing, mathematics, and— most important of all—his various artistic tutelages.
Besides Redfen, the Last Fathers were his only family.
But, no matter how strong his affection, he didn’t want to end up like them. The thought of living in this village for as long as they had made him feel the same way his as-mah attacks did: as though an iron vice was clamped tight around his chest.
To his left, Skewtz emerged from his library, raised a hand and called out in his high, quivery voice, “Hail Brother Korden!”
“Hail Brother Skewtz,” he shouted back, without stopping his hurried pace.
“Tell me, how goes the reading assignment?”
“Good. It’s just that…” Korden paused. “How did all those warriors fit inside that one horse?”
“Well, it was huge! It towered as big as the city walls!”
“Oh.” He swept a few locks of hair thoughtfully out of his eyes. “But…did they take all the guts out first? And why did the people in the city want a big, dead horse?”
Skewtz stared at him for a long moment, tongue bobbing, then burst into a fit of laughter that sounded like hiccups. “I think you missed something in the translation on that one, my boy. We’ll talk more about it in our next session. You better run along to Tash.”
Korden did run along, but he didn’t go straight to his session. He had one other stop to make first, one he had anticipated for days. It wouldn’t matter anyway; to Tash, late was late, whether a minute or an hour.
Instead, he took an abrupt turn just before reaching his classroom and ducked through Bibb’s door without knocking.
The interior of the hucté was sparse, barely two rooms, the only furniture a rocking chair, a feather-stuffed mattress on the floor indented from its owner’s weight, and a large wooden trunk in the corner. Bibb himself sat in the chair, with a hand-carved clay pipe in one hand that smelled of the spiced tobacco he grew, and a thick book in the other. He glanced up as Korden entered and peered at him from behind smudged glasses. A mischievous smirk split his sagging face.
“So the birthday boy has come to pay me a visit,” he teased.
“Show me,” Korden commanded.
Bibb’s eyes twinkled as he said, with exaggerated innocence, “Whatever do you mean, lad?”
“You know what I mean! Hurry up, I’m already late for my lesson with Tash!”
“That is your fault, not mine,” he scolded, but the tone remained mocking. He paused, perhaps considering if he wanted to pursue the jest, then relented and said, “Oh, all right. Have a look outside then, make sure no one is coming.”
Korden did, but already knew the other Olders—the ones not on the hunt with his father—were not liable to come busting in unannounced. By the time he turned back, Bibb had set aside his pipe and book, lugged his pear-shaped body from the chair, and waddled to the trunk in the corner. He opened the lid while still several steps away with a flick of two fingers. One hand went to the small of his back as he squatted awkwardly to rummage inside. Korden denied the urge to leap to his side and gaze in at the contents.
Finally Bibb straightened and turned, holding up a small object light gray in color and badly scarred, with a broad, rectangular face and width no more than a single cupit. On the side facing Korden was a square window with a black circle beneath.
“I’ve been saving this one until you were old enough to appreciate it,” the Older said.
Each year, on Korden’s birthday, Bibb pulled some new wonder from the past out of his trunk to show off, then it went back in, never to be seen again. Last year, it had been a mechanical challi bird that flew around the room after Bibb turned a tiny wheel under its fourth wing, its flight directed by movements of his hand that seemed like artcraft, but were entirely technologic. Before that there had been many toys that once belonged to his children, and a game where one pulled tiny pieces out of a drawing of a man, which, through the magic of electricity, buzzed loudly if one touched the sides of the opening. Once there had even been a device that Bibb called a ‘holo-cast,’ a silvery disc that produced images in mid-air—so intangible you could put your hand right through them—of a cat and mouse that chased one another in endless circles. An-eh-mae-shun, Bibb explained. None of the other Olders knew about his stash, which was the way he preferred it.
He handed the slim box to Korden, who turned it over and over in his hands. He might’ve recognized his father’s gift, but he had no idea about this. It was made of a material slicker than wood and lighter than metal; probably plastic, a substance that he once heard Tash refer to as ‘a prime example of the fallen ways.’ There was no writing of any kind, just a glass window spiderwebbed with cracks and several arrows on the black circle beneath.
And on the back, above a series of small holes laid out in neat rows, was a slightly upraised insignia in the shape of an apple, with a missing chunk on the side.
Korden looked up at Bibb questioningly.
The Older reached out with one pudgy, yellow-nailed finger and touched a spot on the black circle.
A sound blasted out of the thing, a noise so high-pitched and startling that Korden almost fumbled the device out of his grip. A screeching wail vacillated between notes faster than he could keep up with them, joined a few seconds later by a voice whose tenor matched the piercing squeals, the words threatening something about making him sweat, making him ‘groove.’ It seemed to be coming from the small holes in the back. Bibb hurriedly slid his finger around the circle. The volume lowered, but the pitch did not.
“What is that?” Korden asked, somewhat frantic. On the cracked window, an image tried to resolve, but it flickered with a thousand scattered black and white speckles.
“That, lad, is rock and roll. I listened to that song when I was your age. Of course, it was nearly a hundred years old even then, but I always had a fondness for the classics.”
“You mean music?” The sounds behind the singing were nothing like the lilting melodies Santo would sometimes play on his guitar, or even the quick-tempoed songs Coomb produced on his harmonica, which made them all clap and dance. “It just sounds like a bunch of noise.”
“Well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that certainly takes me back.” Bibb sighed wistfully. “Anyway, this gizmo is called…an iFod. Or Bod. I-something or other, they put that letter in front of everything for a while. It’s taken a beating—with the screen broken, there’s no way to control what song you’ll get next—but the battery in that will be around long after you and I are dust. For all I know, it may very well be the last collection of musical culture left from before the Purges.”
Korden put his thumb on the circle and pressed. The song cut off and a new one began, this one a twangy jangle over a voice pleading for mercy for his ‘achy-breaky’ heart.
Bibb blushed all the way across his jowls. “Yes, well, ahem, when it looked like the M-Net was going to collapse, I packed a little of everything onto that gadget. Try another.”
Korden did, thinking again how, when the Olders spoke of the world before the Purges, he understood only one word in five. He continued pressing the button, skipping through song after song, each one completely different from the last, styles as distinct and nuanced as each person’s emotional aura tended to be. Then a song came forth that was deeper, slower, more melodic…and soulfully beautiful in ways he could not describe.
“Opera,” Bibb mused. “From Rigoletto, I believe. I haven’t heard it in so long. Please, leave it on this one.”
A voice began singing against the rich strains, a high-pitched, lilting falsetto that made him blurt, “Is that…a woman?”
Korden listened, fascinated for so many reasons. The woman sang in a language he didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter; the emotion conveyed the basic sentiment, perhaps more so than if the words had been familiar. They listened in silence all the way through, Bibb easing back into his chair to sit with his eyes closed while his mohol ran cool with peaceful blues and greens. The song sounded so delicate and harmonious, Korden wished it would never end, but when it did, he reluctantly surrendered the device.
“Bibb…why do you keep these things?” He’d never thought to ask this question before, when the excitement of these treasures and the promise of keeping them secret overshadowed all other concerns. But lately, he had more and more trouble accepting at face value the world he’d taken for granted. “If the Last Fathers believe technology and science are so bad, then why not get rid of them?”
“It’s not that we think they’re inherently bad. You won’t find a single one of us that will tell you that, Korden. Not even Tash, as much as he blusters. Did that song seem evil to you?”
“No. Not at all. It was wonderful.”
“Of course it was. And technology was responsible for much good in the world. But too much, just as with anything in life, can be destructive. Do you know the word ‘moderation’?”
Korden shook his head, frowning.
“It means stopping yourself from doing something before it becomes a habit, or even an addiction.” Bibb held up the iFod. “Toward the end, moderation fell by the wayside. Society invested so much of its time in gadgets just like this, in wires and chips and circuits and guns and bombs. We forgot about art and creativity and faith, even those that purported to worship in one of the countless religious sects. That’s why the Filament gained a foothold in the first place, or so I believe. But science is not meant to be abandoned completely. The only reason we don’t allow it here is the same reason we allow no women: because of the distraction it would bring. But, to put things in perspective, a deep enough trust in artcraft can corrupt just as easily as technology.” He poked Korden in the forehead. “You remember that word ‘moderation,’ lad. Balance is the key. Never shut yourself off from any possibility, but don’t let that possibility control you, either.”
“I’ll remember,” Korden agreed.
“Good. Now get to your lesson. If Tash seeks to punish you, I’ll not have the blame on me.”
Korden nodded, and reluctantly left the hucté.
The classroom where Korden spent the majority of his days was bigger than any of the Olders’ homes, a square room ten pargs to a side whose sole piece of furniture was a desk built specifically for him. Long windows spanned each wall, their braces open to allow in breeze and the day’s light. The rest of the walls were decorated with his best attempts at drawing and painting throughout the years. A scratched and pitted chalkboard—scavenged somewhere beyond the village—stood in one corner, but they’d run out of chalk years ago. Today, for some reason, a wooden crate of freshly-pulled carrots waited beside his desk.
His various instructors alternated the room’s usage, bringing in their own teaching implements when needed, but only Tash, it had been determined long ago, would instruct him in the usage of artcraft, if he wanted to learn. His answer on that subject had been a resolute ‘yes’ since the age of five, after witnessing everything the Olders accomplished through their faith. Unfortunately, Redfen did not share his son’s enthusiasm. Only after much pleading and persuasion did he finally agree to let Korden apprentice. The lessons began exactly one year ago today.
At the classroom’s eastward facing window, Korden’s den-so stood gazing out toward the blackness of the Shroud, now hidden behind the overcast sky. Except the man wasn’t really gazing at anything, since he could hardly see the end of his own crooked nose thanks to the opaque sheen across his eyes. A long, brown robe hung off his bowed back, the hem puddled around his feet.
Korden waited half a minute for the man to speak first. He suspected the silence was a precursor to some rebuke about his tardiness. When he could stand the quiet no longer, he tentatively said, “Tash?”
To his surprise, the leader of the Last Fathers—and by far the oldest man in the village—flinched at the sound of his voice, like a person startled out of sleep. Tash had never been prone to dozing or wandering in his thoughts (cotton-picking, as Allin called it) like so many others. His mind remained as sharp as a blade while his body aged. And indeed, when the man turned around to face him, Korden thought he looked as alert as ever. His expression, however, was drawn and pained.
“Ghammer,” Tash uttered, sounding relieved. The term for an artcraft apprentice was far more derogatory than the formal den-ret, but from Tash, it was always said with fondness. A mane of silken, white hair framed his wizened face, flowing like a waterfall from crown to shoulders. Once his eyes had been a grey the color of angry thunderheads, until the disease slowly robbing him of his vision muted their color to a pearlescent ash. As his sightless eyes roamed across Korden, one gaunt, fisted hand rubbed at the center of his chest in slow circles. Something about the gesture caused a spring of anxiety to bubble up in Korden.
“Are…are you all right?” he asked. He couldn’t help recalling that light this morning, the one shining out from the man’s hucté long before the village awoke. Korden gauged the man’s emotional spectrum, and received that same queasy, nervous yellow as before.
Tash blinked a few times, opened his mouth as his brow drew together, then shook his head. The yellow in his mohol faded. “Fine, ghammer. Jes ruminatin.” His odd accent turned every ‘R’ into a trill. “That’s all yeh’ll do when yeh get ta be my age.”
That was it. Not a word about his lateness. Korden didn’t know whether to be relieved or concerned.
The old man started across the room. Despite his near-blindness, his steps were sure-footed and quick. He came to a stop just in front of Korden, his height barely bringing his chin level with the top of the boy’s head.
He jabbed a finger at the vegetable box on the floor. “That is a fresh box straight from tha harvest. Among them is a single carrot on which I carved yehr own name. Find it, and place it in my hand within a thirty count. And if yeh so much as touch any o’ them, I’ll keep yeh faithing here ‘til this time tomorrow.” He held out his hand, palm up.
Korden’s gut clenched. Curse Tash’s constant surprise tests! At least he was acting more like himself again. Korden let none of his consternation show as he closed his eyes and concentrated on the Upper, opening his heart and mind to that presence, feeling it flow through him like warm cider on a chilly night. As he shed the inattentiveness of youth, this state became increasingly easier to reach. And whenever that conduit opened, he got a glimpse of something powerful, something that made him feel tiny and insignificant, yet infinitely strong at the same time.
“Nine…ten…” Tash counted.
His will, honed by faith, was a tool ready to do his bidding, but where to direct it? What wordspell from his limited arsenal should he use? He could try to levitate the carrots out of the box so he could inspect each one, but that would take far too long, even if he managed to keep more than a few in the air at a time. He might be able to make his target glow with a focused demno, but that wouldn’t get it into Tash’s hand. Or was there a trick to the instructions, and he only needed to find some physical object with which to sift through the box’s contents without touching them? The old man was certainly sly enough to devise such a test, just to further test his problem solving.
“Yeh’re overthinkin it, ghammer. Remember, only tha will matters. Imagine yehr goal an’ then force it inta being.”
The carrot, Korden willed. A single bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face. No, not just any carrot, the one with my name on it. Be in Tash’s hand. Be there.
He opened his eyes, full of hope.
Nothing had changed. Tash’s bony hand remained empty.
Korden’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t do it.”
“Not with that attitude, yeh can’t,” Tash snapped. He slapped the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “Don’t rely so much on what yeh know. Craften is not but a nonsense language made up by artcraftsmen without enough faith in themselves. It helps ta build concentration, which is why I taught a little ta yeh, but such wordspells also keep yehr mind chained. Yeh must work at sheddin yehrself o’ them. Too many here have yet ta do that.”
Tash’s sightless eyes flicked back and forth. His voice softened the slightest bit as he added, “Yeh have a bigger imagination than anyone I’ve ever met, ghammer; if yeh can just learn ta call upon it when yeh most need it—instead o’ only usin it ta daydream—there is almost nothin yeh won’t be able ta accomplish. Yeh might even be able ta cure yehrself o’ those constant sicknesses which have plagued yeh fer so long.”
“I’ll keep practicing.”
“Yes. Yeh will. Startin right now.”
They headed west, toward the ocean.
Redfen had seen that vast blue expanse three times in his life, on hunting expeditions that yielded little game and forced them to range far from the village. After they pitched camp, he would stay up late and watch the waves come rolling in on the shores of a place Fortholm told him had once been called Californya. The sheer might of those waters stretching to a clear, unmarred horizon was unparalleled in Redfen’s limited travels. It was the first place he wanted to bring Korden, when the boy was free of the Barrier once and for all.
Today’s hunt would not take them so far. The ramlars were always steadfast in the route of their migration toward the sea and then up the coast to the north. The expedition would be a simple matter of intercepting the herd on their closest approach northwest of the village, twenty or so spans away, then taking down enough of the creatures to provide meat through the end of the season.
They trekked across hilly, open fields at first, before entering a light wood of oak and birch. The shade provided a nice respite from the heat, but the trees grew so dense at times they were forced to seek out paths wide enough for Mulder to pull their cart through. Redfen had no trouble keeping up with the pace Tiller set, but as the terrain took its toll on his elderly companions, he found himself having to slow his steps so he didn’t outdistance them. Several of the Olders began to grumble about various aches and pains, to which Santo barked that they could keep their complaints to themselves.
Only Fortholm seemed in good cheer. After they emerged from the trees and started down a grassy slope that would lead into the canyons below, he climbed down from the cart and insisted Del and Allin ride the rest of the way. Then he hobbled to catch up with Redfen.
“So tell me,” he rasped, “how is the boy? Speak true, now.”
A question Redfen heard often. The Olders’ concern for Korden was never-ending, but it felt different from Redfen’s own worries. At times they seemed in awe of him, as though they expected him to suddenly sprout wings and fly away.
For all he knew, that might be exactly what they believed.
“As restless as ever. Even after all my cautions, he went out in the middle of the night to do Upper knows what. I caught him creeping back inside early this morning. Said he wanted time alone.”
Fortholm nodded knowingly. “The Barrier grows smaller around him each day. When I was his age, I ran away from my parents’ house. If memory serves, it was because they wouldn’t let me smoke cigarettes with my hoodlum friends.” He smiled at the memory, revealing a very few teeth clinging to his shriveled gums. “I made it two blocks—that’s how we lived, in groups of homes called ‘blocks’—before I turned around and came back. But still, I felt I accomplished my goal. That’s what young men do, Redfen; it’s what they were made for, even in times as dark as these. To rebel. To push at boundaries, so they can do the things old men like us no longer can.”
“Speak for yourself,” Redfen objected. From the cart behind them, Allin snorted laughter as he eavesdropped on their conversation. “The problem is that Korden can’t rebel, and it’s…it’s stealing the fire of his youth. The only things he truly seems to enjoy anymore are his writing and Tash’s lessons.”
“Then aren’t you glad you relented and let him learn?”
Redfen readjusted the bow and quiver on his shoulder and decided not to answer such a complicated question. While he hated Tash’s constant meddling in the boy’s upbringing, he was thankful for the apprenticeship. Artcraft was a tool, a weapon that would help ensure Korden’s safety, just as training in archery or swordsmanship would, or even a few bullets for that old, useless shooter. Even if it made him a pariah, it would give him power, and power was essential for survival. But all the time, in the back of Redfen’s mind, he would always be resentful because…well, because…
Because it’s his birthright, a voice answered for him. Because every spell Tash teaches him just brings the boy one step closer to being what they say he is.
He swallowed a heavy lump that formed in his throat. “Even if we get him to eighteen safely, he’ll still be eager to leave. And he won’t be satisfied with staying isolated; he’ll want to see what’s become of the cities he fantasizes about. But there’s more than just Incarnates out there that could harm him. The world is a strange and desperate place now, and becoming more so by the day. I know, I’ve seen it. I was out in it long after the lot of you hid yourselves away to practice weaving your magic.”
The land began to level out as they talked. Somewhere ahead would be a small ridge overlooking a shallow valley full of interwoven ravines, canals carved deep into the earth from the seasonal floods of the Bloom and separated from one another by narrow dirt walls. From there, they would have a perfect vantage point to see the ramlars sweep in from the east and pass just below. But Redfen’s thoughts turned to Korden, feeding him visions of the boy in trouble, of him alone in the thick, haunted umbrage of the redwood forest and surrounded on all sides by unseen enemies.
“Brother Redfen, do you know the story of the shnikyun beast and the chipmunk?” Fortholm asked abruptly.
“Oh Upper, here we go,” Allin groaned behind them. “We’ll all be asleep in no time.”
Redfen hid a grin by rubbing his chin pensively. “Can’t say that one’s familiar.”
“Well, the shnikyun beast, when its kind appeared some years ago, found it easiest to prey on rodents, but it had a particular taste for chipmunk. Its front tentacles reach into the holes where they take shelter and snatch them out, turning what was an instinctive defense into a trap.
“One day, a particularly clever shnikyun beast came upon a chipmunk standing outside the entrance to his home in the base of a tree. Now, this shnikyun beast wanted to make a meal out of the chipmunk, but before he could chase him inside and pull him back out, the rodent began to laugh.
“‘Why do you laugh at me, little chipmunk?’ the shnikyun beast asked.
“‘Because,’ said the chipmunk, ‘you will never be able to catch me with your long tentacles. The hole in this tree goes much deeper than you can reach, and before you get here, I will be safe at the farthest end!’
“The shnikyun beast thought quickly, and said, ‘But my little friend, I haven’t come to eat you, but to spread a warning to all the inhabitants of the forest. A terrible winter is coming, and food will be scarce. You must gather everything you can find to store up so that you might survive the famine.’ And, with that, the shnikyun wisely slithered away before the chipmunk could ask why the beast cared to save his life.
“The chipmunk soon became worried and worked day and night, gathering nuts to get himself through the harsh winter the shnikyun predicted. He worked until his entire cubby was filled with nuts and he had more food than he could eat in a lifetime.
“After giving the chipmunk ample time, the shnikyun came back and found him once again outside his hole. He didn’t waste time on words, but charged forward and chased the chipmunk back into his hole, where the little rodent discovered he’d left himself no room to hide from the shnikyun’s questing tentacle, and was dragged out and eaten.
“Now, I ask you, Redfen.” Fortholm paused to give a harsh, ragged cough from using his voice so much, then wiped sweat from around the neck of his tunic. “What is the moral of this story?”
Before Redfen could answer, Allin shouted from the cart, “If ya can trick someone inta puttin nuts down their hole, you’ll be able ta eat ‘em out!”
“Shut UP, Allin!” Eddas roared from somewhere at the rear of the caravan.
“Was that right?” Redfen teased.
Fortholm gave a wheezy sigh that sounded like Korden during one of his attacks. “Try again, considering it from the chipmunk’s point of view.”
“I don’t know, Fort.” Redfen threw up his hands. “Why don’t you tell me what I was supposed to get out of that?”
“The lesson is about the future, my friend. You see, the chipmunk was so concerned with the danger in the distance, he never stopped to prepare for the one that was staring him in the face.”
The caravan slowed as the ridgeline came into view. Redfen stopped walking and studied Fortholm. The old man’s eyes met his, and, though the skin around them drooped and sagged with age, the orbs within them were still young and full of life. He reached out and put a dry, shaking hand on Redfen’s forearm.
“It does no good to worry about what might be,” he explained. “Focus on today’s problems. There’s more than enough of those.”
Then he turned and limped toward the canyons with Eddas and Del on either side.
The approaching ramlars were heralded by a grumble in the air like thunder and a slight vibration underfoot, followed by a cloud of dust rising to the east. The sound soon swelled to a headache-inducing drum beat of thousands of stamping feet. Any second now, the first tufted, rotund bodies would be visible in the canal just twenty or thirty pargs below. Then the main body of the light brown herd would thunder through the short valley’s chokepoint, divided temporarily into jostling lines as they hurtled through the maze of narrow ravines and then regrouped on the other side.
Redfen had never heard of the bipedal creatures until he came to live with the Olders, but he looked forward to their succulent meat each year. He knelt, unslung his bow and quiver, and nocked his first arrow. Beside him, Allin did the same, giving Redfen a toothy grin before pointing his own weapon down into the valley. The others spread out along the ridgeline.
Redfen glanced up once as the stampede drew closer. The sky remained cloudless, the noon sun directly overhead. They would be home tonight well before dinner just as he promised, and he could spend the evening celebrating his son’s sixteenth birthday, a feat he never dreamed possible on the child’s first. With a smile of his own, he pulled his arrow tight, right hand all the way against his shoulder, left arm taut and straight, and waited to see the teeming mass of fuzzy bodies appear below him.
And waited still longer.
He could feel tension overtake the others. The sound of the ramlars came from their right…grew to a roar…and then swept by them in the farthest ravines, where their arrows couldn’t reach.
Redfen blinked in confusion. It was as though the beasts consciously avoided the pathways closest to them.
“They’re on to us!” Santo shouted over the noise of the herd.
“Can’t be!” Allin answered. “They ain’t smart enough!”
“Something has them spooked!” Fortholm yelled from Redfen’s right, his hoarse cry barely audible. He pointed out over the short valley, toward the thick screen of dirt rising into the air. “Look, there, you can see them on the other side of those trees, through the opening in the canyon wall! They’re frenzied! Open your hearts and you can feel the fear coming off them in waves!”
Redfen could feel no such thing, but from the moment his friend made this declaration, something dark bloomed in him. His thoughts immediately went to Korden. Behind them, Mulder bucked so hard the cart almost overturned. Eddas ran to calm the horse.
“Can you soothe them?” Tiller shouted to Fortholm. “Lure them to us?”
“Their terror is too great! I would never be able to manipulate their emotions enough to overcome it!”
“Then if they won’t come to us, we go to them! Climb down, and for Upper’s sake, don’t get crushed in the stampede!”
Redfen slung his bow and quiver back over his shoulder. They moved single-file, leaving Mulder tied to a tree, and Tiller led the way down a less steep section of the slope and into the floor of the canyon. The going was rough, uneven and full of ground fissures, so Redfen didn’t see how the more decrepit members of their party could possibly make it down. He stayed close behind Fortholm, ready to catch the man if he fell, but it was Redfen whose foot flew out from under him on a patch of loose rocks. He tumbled backward to smash against the ground.
Or would have, if Eddas hadn’t snagged his arm in one of his huge bear paws. The Older set him back on his feet and sent him on his way with a pat between the shoulders.
They helped Fortholm down off the last shallow ledge and then the eight of them spread out across the ravine floor, heading into a thicket of gnarled trees growing from the coarse soil. Just on the other side, through the break in the ravine wall, the roving migration was visible in the next narrow canal. If they could fire on the animals without crossing over, they wouldn’t have to risk getting trampled.
This close, their pounding feet were almost deafening. The musty odor of the beasts’ bodies mingled with the smell of churned earth. It attempted to steal the hunters’ breath and cloud their eyes. Tiller and Port released the first arrows, taking down two fat ramlars near the edge of the crowd. They gave deep, bass honks as they fell, but the flood of their kin just parted around them and kept going. The hunters would only have another minute or so before the migration passed them by.
Redfen fiddled with his bow, trying to get his hands to stop shaking so he could ready an arrow. The dreadful assurance that this turn of events had something to do with Korden—Korden in danger, a great wrong with Korden—settled over his head like a noose.
His persistent unease must have been apparent, because Fortholm turned to him before firing his own bow. “Remember the chipmunk, Redfen!” he shouted. “Hunt now, worry later!”
Redfen furrowed his brow, made a silent vow to heed this advice, and nodded.
Then a figure emerged from the shadows of a tree and buried an axe in the back of Fortholm’s head.
There was no time to act, no time to even shout a warning. The dark shape lurched out and brought the heavy blade whistling down all in one smooth motion. Fortholm’s head wasn’t so much split as it was crushed from the force of the blow, the entire top caving in so much that the old man’s bleary eyeballs bulged from their sockets. Wet droplets spattered across Redfen’s face. Fortholm collapsed into a heap in front of him, the weapon jutting from the top of his head like some strange hat.
The figure stepped into full view, bent, and gave the handle of the axe a solid jerk to separate it from Fortholm’s shattered skull. It lingered in the shadow of the overhanging tree, blocked from the direct rays of the sun, but there was more than enough light for Redfen to recognize what he looked at.
Not who; the face was always different with these beings, and never an indicator of what lurked beneath. All the same, this was a familiar monster.
It’d been years since he’d faced one, and none of them were in this poor of condition. He’d assured himself that he was finished with these abominations.
The creature stumbled forward, careful to stay in the scant flutters of shadow provided by the treetops. Redfen could see that its body was on the verge of giving out, rotted by light exposure and beaten apart by the forces that had commandeered it. It wore only the merest tatters of clothing, exposing skin that was either covered in blackish green discoloration or missing in chunks and patches. The flesh of its stomach had worn through at some point, spilling half-hardened viscera down to its groin, where the last shredded remains of a penis dangled free. Its limbs were little more than bones with skin pulled taut across them.
Distantly, Redfen was aware that the ramlar herd had thinned, enough that he could hear the alarmed shouts of the rest of the hunting party. But he remained rooted to the ground, unable to look away from the thing shambling toward him, caught in a cycle of terror and disgust.
The face it wore was cracked and pitted with sores, the hair long fallen out, the nose no more than a scabrous crater. Its eyes were little red embers buried deep in their sockets, and they fixed on Redfen with murderous rage as the demon came on.
“Lrggggggssssshhh,” it growled, before its jaw gave way at both joints, hung for a second by the scraps of decayed flesh covering them, and then tumbled through the air to land at its feet. There were a few crooked teeth left in those gums. They looked very white against the reddish soil of the ravine floor.
It all happened with the unrelenting slowness of an awful dream. Redfen remained frozen even as the Incarnate hefted its weapon again, and made to swing it down upon him with the same deadly force that ended Fortholm’s life.
“Move!” Santo bellowed, shoving him aside with a strength that had to’ve been artcraft granted. The axe blade whistled through the space where Redfen’s neck had been and bit into the meat of Santo’s upper arm instead. He screamed and jumped away, clutching the wound as blood gushed through his fingers.
Redfen fell across the ravine floor beside Fortholm’s remains, his bow snapping beneath him, and the world resumed its normal pace in a great, whirling rush. Beyond the ravine wall, the last of the ramlars passed them by, leaving a void of silence in their wake. The Incarnate loomed over him. Port helped Santo to a safe distance as the rest of the hunting party cautiously moved in. Redfen realized it was probably the first time most—if not all—of them had ever seen one of these creatures. They lived sheltered lives here also, hidden away in the wilderness since the Purges began.
Allin acted first, hobbling forward to tackle the creature to the ground just a few pargs from where Redfen lay.
“I got ‘im, I got the sonuvabitch!” he bawled. The Incarnate struggled feebly beneath him, unable to lift its axe for another swing. Allin tried to sit up while planting a hand on the creature’s chest to hold it down. The torso caved beneath his weight, brittle ribs snapping with the dryness of dead wood. His arm plunged into the body cavity up to the forearm. He made a snorting sound of disgust and wrenched his hand free. It came out covered with blackish, clotted blood and chunks of rotted organs.
Beneath him, the Incarnate made weak gasping noises. That dark blood gurgled up from the hole of its exposed throat. Its eyes rolled in their sockets, the glow in them guttering like a weak candle flame. Some vital piece of its stolen body had been mortally damaged, and it was surely dying.
But that meant…
“Allin, get away from it!” Redfen shouted as he scrambled to his feet. The implications of a dead Incarnate came to him much faster than anyone else, but still not soon enough.
Allin glanced at him in confusion and then back down at the body beneath him.
Just in time for a little black funnel of smoke to drift from the eyes of the demon and into his own.
The transformation happened fast. One second it was Allin staring out of those wide, brown eyes, and in the next, they glowed red as the Incarnate possessed him.
Allin—no longer the easy-going man that always tried to make Korden laugh, the Older whom the others teased about being a ‘red-neck’—pushed off the ground and reclaimed the axe from the hand of its former host. It looked around at the six remaining members of the hunting party, face cloaked in shadow, mouth contorted into a feral snarl. Its eyes pulsed with that fiery red heat.
“A new body,” it said, in a gruff, growling approximation of Allin’s voice. It looked down at itself, raising the tan, wrinkled arms with their stringy muscles for inspection. “An old body…but beggars can’t be choosers. Anything is better than returning to oblivion.”
Eddas threw up a hand and shouted one of their spells, a collection of strange syllables that sounded to Redfen like, “Mish’aka!”
Whatever he intended for the spell to do, it failed. An emerald green shimmer appeared in the air just in front of his palm and then faded away. Eddas stared in blank amazement as the Incarnate chortled. “Crafters, is it? I might’ve known. Your spells are as useless as you are. Your faith has grown too weak to give you power over the Filament.”
“What do you want here, demon?” Tiller demanded.
The Incarnate’s lips parted in a sneer that could chill beating blood, and then it said something that shattered the comfortable life Redfen had enjoyed for the past sixteen years.
“You know exactly what I want. Give me the Light, and you and your ilk can go back to worshipping your dormant god for the last remaining hours this doomed world has left.”
Silence fell. The hunters shifted uncomfortably. Santo—breathing raggedly as Port attempted to tie cloth around his injury—shot a glance at Eddas. Redfen’s went completely dry at the implication of what this monster just said.
“You’re mistaken, as you can surely see,” Tiller told the creature in a much calmer tone. Too calm, Redfen thought; such a response reeked of bald-faced deceit, like a totala player with a horrible bluff. “There are no children here. We are all far past the days where we would be of any interest to the Filament.”
“Not you, you worthless sin cows,” the Incarnate hissed through clenched teeth. “The one I sensed this morning, before the accursed sun rose and trapped me here. I felt it, so clear and so close for but an hour, and then its scent…dampened. I can still taste its foulness though, even now…” The Incarnate drifted off, raising its face to the stiff breeze blowing through the thicket, and then snapped abruptly back to attention. “If you harbor the one I seek, you will be destroyed along with it.”
“You will never touch him!” Redfen shouted, unable to control his anger at the monster’s presumption. They were all like this, all the servants of the Dark Filament he’d ever encountered, so sure of themselves and their mission. He wanted to hit this being, to pummel at him until nothing remained.
“Shut your mouth, Redfen!” Tiller commanded.
But the damage was done. The Incarnate’s glowing eyes turned to him. “So there is one among you who knows where I can find this Light. Tell me, and you will be allowed to continue your pathetic existence.” It sneered again, its use of a human mouth obscene.
Something hard snapped inside Redfen. He flew forward, crossing the five paces separating him from the creature in a heartbeat, and raised his hands to do just what he’d envisioned.
The Incarnate was ready. Had probably baited him for just such a reaction. It batted away Redfen’s questing hands with the axe handle and used its free arm to grip Redfen’s throat. He felt a curious lifting sensation, and then the Incarnate had him suspended above the ground by his neck in an iron grip that must have been forged in the Stranger’s own furnace, held so high his head brushed against the branches of the overhanging tree. He scrabbled at the fingers, trying to prise them open far enough to catch a breath.
Tiller and Eddas started forward on one side, Del on the other.
The Incarnate raised the axe above his shoulder and flung it. The blade spun expertly through the air and caught Del just above the collarbone, sinking to the hilt. A torrent of blood cascaded down his chest as the old man fell to his knees, choking and gasping through the ruins of his windpipe. Port screamed, an anguished, small sound in the stillness of the ravine, and left Santo’s side to run to his lover.
“Not another step,” the Incarnate growled at Tiller, “or I break this one’s neck.”
“It’ll be the last thing you ever do,” Tiller promised. No bluff in his hard eyes this time.
“Perhaps. But there will be more. There will always be more.” It turned its fiery eyes up to Redfen, still hanging at arm’s length above him. “Nothing stands in the way of the Filament.”
Black spots danced in Redfen’s vision. His eyes rolled up, to the leafy canopy just above his head where light dappled through the leaves in tiny chinks. With the last of his strength, he raised a hand and pulled one of those branches aside.
A flood of sunlight fell directly onto Allin’s upturned face.
The Incarnate roared in pain, then dropped Redfen and flung up its arm to protect its eyes. It doubled over and drove the heels of both hands into the sockets.
Redfen crashed down in a heap and coughed as air filled his lungs. He watched Eddas approach the Incarnate from behind and wrap his massive arms around it, subduing the creature by crushing it to his chest. As the Incarnate struggled, the Older slid one arm up against its windpipe and applied enough pressure to seal off the passage.
“Stop, you fool!” Santo cried.
“This isn’t Allin anymore,” Eddas said gravely. “You know that.”
“Yes, but if you kill it like that and it gets into your body, it’ll tear through us all!”
Reluctantly, Eddas eased up enough to allow the Incarnate to breathe, but not speak. It snarled and gnashed its teeth instead. “Fine. Ready your arrows and I’ll set it free. We’ll give him a makeover a porcupine would envy.”
“We’re not killing it,” Tiller told him. “We’ll bind it with rope and lash it to the cart.”
Eddas looked at him with shock drawing his good eye wide. “You want to bring this demon to the village?”
Tiller nodded. “Tash might want to question it, to find out how it knew about…” He broke off and looked at Redfen. Eddas and Santo did the same, while Port continued to weep over Del’s body. Fortholm still lay where he’d fallen, and beside him, the remains of the Incarnate’s original body were quickly putrefying into an oily sludge in the sun’s heat.
Redfen felt a knot of panic rise into his throat.
“We have to get back,” he whispered. “Right now.”
Practice lasted for two hours, until Korden’s muscles felt weak, his head ached from concentrating, and he barely had enough artcraft flowing through him to levitate a dandelion pod. Tash ran him through a rapid-fire succession of drills to test his mastery of the various disciplines they’d been working on, and his wisdom in deciding which one to use in any given situation. These were punctuated by short faithing breaks where they sat on the floor, closed their eyes, and cleared their minds of everything but their connection to the Upper, an exercise meant to widen his personal conduit so his artcraft could flow more freely. This was followed by creativity strengthening, which, for Korden, meant writing in his journal.
“Tha imagination is a muscle all its own, ghammer. An’ jes like any other muscle, it becomes stronger with exercise,” Tash had told him countless times. Most of the Olders painted or sang or played an instrument. Korden tried all of these, but, in the end, it had been writing that drew him. He loved creating his own characters, getting lost in stories whose outcomes he could control, or just scribbling lines of rhyming verse that came to him. Some of these he shared with the rest of the village, holding the Last Fathers in thrall with public readings in the social hall; others he kept private. There were no limitations in these made-up worlds, no Barriers to hold him back. Sometimes he felt his mind slipping into them even when he should be paying attention in his lessons.
His longest running work, begun when he was twelve, was the saga of Sheriff Protector, a grizzled policeman errant that travelled the land in a roaring red auto, rescuing children and fighting Incarnates with nothing but a bow, a sword, and his scarred knuckles. The character had been with Korden so long, he felt real at times, as though he would come driving into the village at any moment.
Today though, a different inspiration struck, and he started writing a much more mundane tale, the story of an ordinary young girl who lived long ago, before the Purges. In his head, she bore a striking resemblance to the girl from the picture.
This one would probably be for his eyes only.
Tash worked alongside him at an easel, using homemade paint and canvas to create one of his blurry compositions, which he called ‘impressionist’. Even though he could never tell what they were supposed to be, Korden still thought they were remarkable for a blind man working entirely from memory and instinct. The brush swooped through the air, held aloft in a glimmering grey haze and guided by Tash’s mind, adding a line here or flourish there.
They spoke little during this time. Korden was afraid the other man would notice his preoccupation, but it turned out to be the Older who seemed distracted. Korden could feel that same trepidation coming off him in waves, like heat from a fire, but couldn’t discern the reason.
Finally, after looking up from his writing to discover his ’s brush hovering forgotten over the canvas, while his clouded eyes roamed the ceiling, Korden asked, “Tash…what’s wrong?”
The old man shook his head slowly, coming out of the trance. His snow white hair floated about his face. At first, Korden thought he would again deny the question, but instead, he muttered, “Somethin…somethin is not right.”
A thread of guilty fear wove through Korden, but he squashed it down before it could show in his mohol. “What do you mean?”
Tash stood, joints creaking as he rose from his hunkered position on the floor, and moved back toward the window once more. “The world, ghammer. The world feels like its spinnin in tha wrong direction. Has since I woke this mornin.” He turned to face Korden. “Yeh’re tha best den-ret I could ever’ve hoped fer, boy. I hope yeh know that.”
Korden tried to answer, but the words felt stale. Tash had never, not once, spoken to him so earnestly. His dream came back to him—that awful feeling of doom slavering at his heels—and made his stomach plummet even further.
This time, Tash did notice. He turned his blind face to Korden with drawn brow before nodding suddenly, as if the boy’s silence confirmed something he already suspected. “There’re times when yeh remind me so much o’ my own son.”
“You had a son?” Korden realized, for the first time, how little he knew about the man in front of him. The other Last Fathers spoke often of their lives before they withdrew from the world, always with the loss of their friends and families hanging heavy about them, even after so much time. But on this topic, as with so many others, Tash kept his own counsel.
“Aye,” he said sadly, after several heartbeats. “Long ago.”
“Did he…die in the Purges?”
“No, no, he was much too old fer that. He served in tha military, went off ta fight in tha first o’ tha Dark Wars against tha Filament, once mankind began ta understand what a threat they were. Died defendin his country—nay, his planet—from their evil.”
“A war?” Korden leaned forward eagerly, his fascination eclipsing his earlier dread. He knew the term, but no one had ever mentioned one in reference to the Filament.
Tash tried to lower himself gently onto the windowsill, but plopped down hard as his bony legs gave beneath his robe. “Tha war ta end all wars, they called it. The zealots and Jesus freaks—that’s one o’ tha old religions, mind yeh—all claimed it ta be Armageddon, but, even then, I believed that to be fancy. Whatever it was though, it was too late. Not even tha combined forces o’ every nation on earth were enough ta overcome tha might o’ tha Dark Filament. And then, when our defenses were gone…tha Purges really began, and civilization came apart at tha seams.”
“I don’t understand.” Korden saw an opportunity to have the questions he’d been pondering for so long answered, and he didn’t intend to waste it. “Where did they come from in the first place?”
“No one truly knows, ghammer, an’ those that say they do are lyin. At first they were jes ghost stories, random horror on tha news about some maniac slaughterin a school full o’ children. But their numbers grew greater and their sightings increased, until we began ta understand we were facin an enemy unlike anythin we could imagine.” He grunted. “’Course, by tha time they showed up, we’d already done most o’ their work fer ‘em. Abandonin art fer science, dividin ourselves with technology, poisonin nature, abusin our children. Perhaps we could’ve saved ourselves without tha Upper’s intervention if we’d just kept tha scales balanced. In the end though…our apathy was our undoin.”
There was that word again: balance. “But if we did that, if we…balanced these scales…would that put things right again?”
Tash shrugged…but Korden thought a strange look crossed his face as he did. “Even if it would, I have no more idea how one would go about doin that than yeh do, ghammer. Nor do I know what tha Filament will do after they’ve accomplished their terrible goal. I only suspect there must still be some other children left somewhere to tha east, or that ugly black cloud would be hangin over our heads right now instead o’ keepin to tha horizon.”
“Then maybe we just need to make more children. We could go out and find women, let them into the village…”
At this, Tash let out a sharp bark of laughter. “And jes what do yeh know about makin bebies, ghammer?”
Korden felt his cheeks redden. He was glad the Older couldn’t see it. “I know enough.”
“Yes, I imagine Skewtz gave yeh quite tha bumblin explanation. And considerin we’d be hard pressed ta find some Viagra, who would volunteer ta impregnate these women if we found them and brought them here? Yeh?”
The heat in Korden’s face became a raging inferno.
“Ah,” Tash said. “So yeh’re already preoccupied with tha fairer sex. I feared this day fer long. But it’s a notion yeh must not dwell on. Tha Barrier is a delicate thing. It couldn’t hide anyone else. Frankly, I’m surprised it lasted this long.” Korden’s disappointment must’ve been palpable, because he added, in that same uncharacteristically soft tone, “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but things will change fer yeh one day, ghammer. Perhaps faster than yeh would like. If anything good has come from tha Filament, it’s tha yeh came inta tha world. I’ve watched yeh grow from a tiny pup into tha young man before me, and I’ve seen all tha progress yeh’ve made in yehr trainin over tha last year. Soon, I’m sure I’ll see yeh leave this place. What yeh do after that…could be important to us all.”
And then Korden’s teacher tumbled off the windowsill and into the floor.
“Tash!” Korden jumped up from his desk and crossed the room. The old man lay curled in an unmoving ball on the floor. Korden had a vision similar to the one this morning, when he sat beside the crashed auto: the Olders finally dying to leave him here all alone in this empty village.
But his den-so looked up. One hand fisted against his chest again and rubbed in those small circles. “Not me,” he wheezed, and took a long, shuddering breath. “Tha others. It jes…jes hit me all at once. Somethin…” Korden could see the stark fear swimming in his eyes even through the milky glaze. “Oh dear Upper, somethin terrible has happened.”
Korden extended his senses and realized he could feel it too: a massive wall of terror and grief emanating from just outside the classroom. The sensation was so heavy and unexpected it almost bowled him over too.
And beneath this overpowering mental explosion, he glimpsed something else.
A black mass amid the sorrow, a color of the emotional spectrum so dark it took him a moment to recognize it as such.
Shouts drifted in through the open window, along with running footsteps. Feegran limped by, heading toward the northern end of the village. As Korden strained to hear what was happening, his worries went from Tash to his father.
“Help me up, ghammer,” Tash ordered, his voice strong and resolute once more. Korden slipped an arm around his shoulder and pulled the man to his feet, the weight little more than a stack of kindling. He made sure Tash was steady before racing ahead to the door.
“Korden, no! Wait!”
He’d never ignored one of Tash’s commands, but he did this one, bursting out into the afternoon sunlight, then blinking around at the chaos.
Olders shuffled in all directions, yelling to one another. He tried to read their auras once more, to see if he could discern the source of the distress, but the jumble of their emotions assaulted him; it was like trying to read a book in a pelting thunderstorm. To his left, Santo stood covered in blood from a gaping wound to his shoulder. Feegran hurriedly applied a poultice and dressing while muttering a string of healing wordspells. Further along, two forms lay on the ground covered in a roughspun blanket. Port sat beside them, holding a limp hand that protruded from the fabric and weeping uncontrollably as Coomb tried to console him. The sight made Korden weak with fear.
Where was Redfen Bright?
Most of the crowd was centered just outside the social hall, around Mulder and the old wooden cart. After some effort, Korden spotted his father on the far side of the gathering, standing with the mountainous form of Eddas. Relief made him momentarily weak, but then he started to run again.
Korden squirmed into the crowd, weaving between the Olders to get to his father. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, paying him no mind. He heard the word ‘Incarnate’ mentioned more than once.
At last he broke through to the center, easing around Bibb’s wide girth, and found the object of everyone’s attention.
The open back end of the cart faced him. Another blanket had been stretched tight over the top, providing a low ceiling. Beneath was a well of shadows that—in conjunction with the layer of loose straw that littered the floor of the cart—reminded Korden of a musty animal’s den.
And inside lay the animal.
It was Allin’s face staring out from the darkness, yet clearly not Allin at the same time; Korden needed no one to tell him that much. He lay on his stomach, arms pulled back and bound at the wrists to his ankles, so that his gangly, withered body was contorted into a painful pyramid. A tight gag sat across his mouth, but his eyes were free and open.
The centers of them burned with blood red light.
As soon as Korden broke through the knot of Olders, Allin’s gaze latched on to him with a hatred that was palpable. A low growl built in the man’s throat. He thrashed at his bindings, hard enough to rock the cart back and forth on its wheels. Mulder gave a nervous whinny and pawed at the ground restlessly.
Korden took one more half-step forward, trying to see further into that tight wedge of darkness, and then had his view cut off as his father leapt in front of him.
“Get back! Get back!” Redfen shouted, shielding Korden with his body as he forced him back through the throng. He was shocked to see a ring of dark bruises around his father’s neck, the shape of purple fingers clearly visible against his skin.
“What happened to you? What’s wrong with Allin?”
“Never mind! Just stay away! I don’t want you anywhere near that thing!”
Tash brushed past them, heading in the opposite direction. Redfen froze in the act of herding Korden and they both turned to watch as Tash hobbled determinedly toward the crowd. The Olders parted for him, giving their leader a clear path to the cart and its contents.
The old man examined Allin—not with his eyes surely, but with his mind—then turned and demanded, “Why in Upper’s name would yeh bring that foul thing here?”
Tiller stepped forward from the crowd. “We thought…you would want to question it.”
“I’ve no interest in anythin it has ta say! And by bringin it here yeh’ve endangered us all!”
“But it knew, Tash,” Tiller murmured. He tried to keep his voice low, but Korden still heard him easily in the silence that fell over the village proper, broken only by Port’s soft weeping. “It already knew, and it sensed…” He cast a hesitant glance at Korden after trailing off.
The anger melted from Tash’s face. He tilted his head back for a moment, his unseeing eyes flicking back and forth across the few clouds in the sky, then pointed at Allin. “Get that creature into tha social hall and make sure it’s tied well. Leave no guard; I’ll not give it another body ta steal if finds a way ta kill itself. Everyone else, into tha hangala. Including yeh, ghammer. We must sort out exactly what has happened.”
Their worship building—the first structure the Olders built upon founding the village—looked even bigger on the inside. Its interior was painted a faded gold the color of Bloom sunlight and hung with tapestries created by several of the men that depicted, in broad, abstract strokes, such events as the Purges, the fall of the old world, and the discovery (or rather, rediscovery) of artcraft. Korden had studied them all countless times. The high peaked ceiling had a rectangular skylight cut through the middle of the wood and thatching that ran the length of the hangala. On Sunday mornings, with the rain curtain pulled away, a flood of sunlight poured through the opening to brighten the entire room and turn the walls into a beautiful, blazing array, but now the afternoon rays slanted too steeply to provide much illumination. Instead, a host of demnos in every color of the rainbow blazed in each corner of the room, intricate structures made from twigs that cast the light upward rather than out so as not to dazzle the eyes.
Three rows of long, wooden pews stretched across the front of the room, filled with thirty-four of the remaining Last Fathers, who mumbled quietly to each other. All of them seemed to be watching Korden. He could feel their eyes on him where he sat with his father, right in the middle of the first row, but whenever he looked back at any of them, they stopped their whispering and averted their gaze.
Because they know. They all know what you did.
Surely not. They had no way to read his thoughts, but they could probably sense the terrible churning in the pit of his stomach, a gurgling mixture of cold fear and warm guilt.
And he wasn’t the only one unsettled. Redfen Bright squirmed uncomfortably beside him, radiating jagged orange waves of his own anxiety. In the light of the demnos, the bruises on his throat looked even more stark.
Korden realized his father had never been inside this building. He often made jokes about the goats they must sacrifice in here, a reference Korden understood only enough to recognize it as one of his jabs at Tash and the Olders.
He saw Korden watching him and whispered, “It’s all right. Don’t worry. They’ll know what to do.”
About what? Korden wanted to ask. He still wasn’t entirely sure he understood the implications of whatever had happened, and no one seemed eager to explain it. They undoubtedly thought they were protecting him by keeping him in the dark. Acting in his ‘best interest.’ He was surprised they even let him attend this gathering.
Would it always be like this? Even when he turned eighteen, would they still view him as a child to be shielded from the world? If that happened, he felt sure he would suffocate, that his deficient lungs would collapse altogether from the pressure of their smothering.
Tash stood at the front of the room, where he’d been conferring quietly with Feegran and Bibb. The three of them were unquestionably the strongest artcraftsmen in the village. Finally, their palaver broke, and Tash turned to face the congregation of Olders. He held up his gnarled hands for attention.
“Today, we have suffered a grave tragedy,” he said, his voice a low rumble throughout the hangala. “Three members o’ our family have been taken from us. Two have gone inta tha merciful arms o’ tha Upper, an’ tha other…well, let us hope he finds his way home as well.”
Death. Korden never knew anyone who died. How was it possible that he would never hear Fortholm or Del speak or laugh ever again? He understood fundamentally what it meant to be dead, but the whole concept suddenly seemed supremely stupid and wasteful, a pitiful way to finish out one’s existence, by closing your eyes and lying still and never getting up again.
“However, tha time ta mourn must come later, fer there’re more dire problems facin us.” Tash paused, frowned and swallowed, the prominent lump in his throat bobbing. “After some deliberation, we have determined…that tha Barrier is falling.”
This proclamation was met with instant uproar from the audience. The churning in Korden’s stomach became even more violent. Beside him, Redfen sat bolt upright on the bench, every muscle rigid.
“This can’t be right!” someone shouted over the clamor from the back of the room.
“How did it happen?” Dillish asked from his wheeled chair at the far end of the first row.
“We don’t know,” Tash answered, but Korden had an awful suspicion that he might have an idea even if his den-so didn’t. After quiet fell once more, Tash continued. “It doesn’t seem ta be a degradation o’ tha artcraft itself, but rather somethin that triggered its demise. Fer tha moment, it seems ta be stable, but we don’t believe that will last. We must determine what caused tha problem if we’re ta have any hope o’—”
“I did it,” Korden said. The words rattled in his throat like a mouthful of dust, escaping before he even realized he planned to say them. His breathing hitched as he added, “It’s my fault. I…I crossed the Barrier this morning.”
Once again, gasps filled the room as every eye turned to him. Tash regarded him sternly from the pulpit, but his father looked at him with horror etched across his drawn face. “Korden…please say you didn’t…”
“I’m sorry.” Scalding tears spilled down both cheeks. He recalled Tash’s words from earlier this very day, about the delicate nature of the Barrier. What had he been thinking? That the Upper’s hand itself guided him to that rotted husk in the woods? How childish that sounded now. “I-I didn’t mean for this to happen, for anyone to get hurt, I just wanted t-to see what it was like. I can show you where if that will help.”
“No, that’s quite all right, ghammer.” Tash sounded more tired than angry. He came forward, robe sweeping the ground behind him, and stood in front of Korden with his blind eyes fixed on the space above the boy’s head. “Fer now, what I need yeh ta do is leave us. We have matters we need ta discuss with yehr father, matters that’re long overdue. Go home and wait for us to call on yeh.”
Redfen jumped to his feet and declared, “Absolutely not! I’m not letting him out of my sight! There could be more of those things coming!”
“He is safe fer tha time bein. Tha Barrier is holdin, an’ if any more o’ them were ta approach the village, we would sense them.” Tash’s brow rose. “Unless yeh want ta have this conversation in front o’ him.”
Redfen glared at the Older for another few heartbeats before turning to Korden. “Go straight home and wait there. Do you understand me?”
“No, Korden.” Redfen’s words were so sharp, his son flinched and shrank away. “Go home.”
Korden moved past him and hurried down the main aisle of the hangala with his head down, unable to meet anyone’s eye. He’d never felt so ashamed in his life. But mixed with that shame was also a kernel of indignant resentment. He was sixteen, Upper damn it, too young, perhaps, to be safe from the Filament’s clutches, but too old to be treated like this anymore. Maybe if they ever bothered to truly explain anything to him, treated him as a man, he wouldn’t have done this in the first place.
That’s right, Korden; blame them for your foolishness.
He wasn’t blaming them, he felt guiltier than he could’ve ever thought possible, but the Olders and his father had been hiding something from him all his life. It felt like an itching bug bite on the back of his head, and stubborn determination blazed in him now to find out what it was, the same obstinacy that led him to cross the Barrier in the first place this morning.
Tash would’ve recognized the ironclad resolve that served the boy so well in his study of artcraft.
Instead of going home, Korden hurried to retrieve the ladder Palo had been using to repair his roof.
“So what are you saying?” Redfen demanded, still standing at the front of the congregation. Eddas put one large hand on his shoulder from the second row, trying to get him to sit again, but he shook it off. His anger at the old man using Korden to manipulate him still blazed in his chest like one of their damned magic glow sticks.
Tash’s answer this time was just as maddeningly calm as the ones before. “Tha Barrier will fall. It’s only a matter o’ time. Hours, if we’re lucky. Prob’ly less.”
“Just because he crossed it?” Redfen put a shaking hand to his forehead. This couldn’t be real. It was too much like every nightmare he’d had since coming to live here. For just a heartbeat or two, everything that happened this day—the shock of losing Fortholm, the fight with the Incarnate, the fear that gripped him during the rush to make it back to the village—weighed on him so heavily he thought his back would break. “I don’t understand how that can be. We go across it all the time!”
“But it wasn’t meant fer us, Redfen. Tha artcraft was always focused on Korden, and relied upon his cooperation. When he breached it, tha covenant was broken.”
“All right, then just…conjure another one! You did it before, so do it again!”
Tash crossed his arms, hands slipping inside the sleeves of his robe. Behind him, a pained expression dampened Feegran’s face, and Bibb looked like he might be ready to blubber. “Of course we will try, but I don’t expect it ta work. It took all o’ us ta create tha Barrier before, usin every bit o’ artcraft we could muster. But now, with our numbers lessened an’ powers faded…I think it will be a lost cause.”
Redfen’s jaw clenched in frustration. He wanted to grab the man and shake him, slap him, anything to get a suitable reaction. “Damn it, do you understand what this means? The Incarnates will come for him, just as the other one did this morning!”
The old man’s brow lowered, his cataract-laden eyes drilling into Redfen. “Then perhaps it is time we talk about tha boy’s past…and his future.”
Redfen took a step back as though the words physically pushed him. And maybe they had; he had no idea how their powers worked. He stumbled as the pew struck his legs and then sliced his arms through the air after regaining his balance in a desperate gesture of denial. “No, I won’t listen to more of your lunacy!”
“We have held our tongues fer far too long already, Redfen.”
“And you can keep on holding them for the rest of your cursedly long lives, for all I care!”
“The boy is special,” Tash persisted. “You told us that yehrself. Or was that only so yeh could dupe a village full of old men inta protectin the two o’ yeh?”
“But…b-but…it’s just a story!” Redfen sputtered. The old man’s accusation sent him reeling…but only because there was a healthy dose of truth to it. “It was told to me the same way I told it to you! I don’t even know if it’s true! And even if it was, what does it matter? It has no bearing on Korden!”
“I have seen fer myself how powerful he is. He has more artcraft flowing through him than the rest o’ us combined, even at our height. He just must learn ta harness it.”
“Fine, teach him! I’m not stopping you! Turn him into another wise old sage! But I won’t let you fill him with crazy prophecies and send him off to wage a war against the Filament!”
“Redfen.” Tash’s words were tinged with the first hints of impatience. “Tha last thing I want is ta put tha boy in danger. But if he has any purpose in tha Upper, a role he must play in our final hours, then I fear his chance ta do so will expire in another two years, when he reaches the age of safety. For Upper’s sake, we must prepare him ta—”
“Curse the Upper!” Redfen shouted, the effort tearing at his bruised throat. An outraged cry rose up from the gallery of Olders at his back. “The Upper takes what He wants from this world, but He can’t have my boy! I won’t let you do this, you’re not his father!”
“An’ neither are YEH!” Tash roared, temper flaring at last.
An uncomfortable hush fell in the worship hall, during which Redfen fervently wished, for just a moment, that he’d never told these ancient men the truth. Or, better yet, that he’d bypassed this village entirely, kept running with the child that had been entrusted to him, taken his chances on his own.
You never would’ve made it. Korden would be dead by now, and you most likely with him.
“I raised him,” he said. “I kept him safe before we ever got here. Not behind some magic wall, but with my own two hands. I’m the only father he’s ever known, and you won’t take that away from him.” Or me.
Tash nodded, and this time his voice was neither angry nor infuriatingly calm, but gentler than Redfen had ever heard it. “I would never do such a thing, but don’t yeh see, Redfen, yehr love fer him has blinded yeh. Mine has done tha same. I think I would’ve been content ta keep him safe, ta continue his trainin here in the village right up until his eighteenth. So perhaps everythin that happened today was fer tha best.” He frowned. “Because now…tha choice has been taken away from all o’ us.”
The tension and anger evaporated from Redfen, leaving him as weak and limp as a dead fish. The old man was right; he and Korden had a nice respite from the horrors of the world for the past fifteen years, but now, regardless of what Tash or Redfen or anyone else believed, that world was about to catch up to them in a big hurry.
The only way to go was forward, but the idea of running again made him feel as old as the men around him.
“What do we do?” he asked softly.
“First, we must deal with our visitor. Then we will faith, and do what we can ta shore up tha Barrier, ta buy as much time as possible. Yeh go and…tell the boy tha truth.”
“Please…I can’t…” Redfen pleaded. The soreness in his throat moved down to his chest. It sat there, squeezing his heart. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
But Tash’s face held no mercy. “Tell the boy tha truth. Or Upper so help me, will.”
Korden lay stretched out on the roof of the hangala on his stomach, listening to the argument drift up through the skylight. Any of them could have sensed him at any moment, but they were far too preoccupied. When Tash raised his voice for the first and only time, what he yelled caused Korden to push away from the window and roll onto his back in shock. He slid a few feet down the inclined surface before he could catch himself, then lay there panting as the shouted accusation echoed through his head.
Redfen Bright not his father? No; that idea wasn’t just frightening, it was unthinkable. He had precious few attributes that made up what he thought of as his identity, and this was the bedrock that all the rest were built upon.
He realized, with the brutality of a striking hammer, that they’d lied to him. All of them, every last person he’d ever known in his life. Even Tash had been in on the betrayal. The world seemed to be melting around him, colors running together, reality blurring.
He felt tears welling and wiped them away. How could he believe anything they said? He just wanted someone who had no reason to lie, who would tell him the truth about the world and his place in it.
There is one such person.
Korden stayed where he was another few seconds, considering this new idea that popped into his head, then scrambled to the edge of the roof and hurried down the ladder. He left it in place and ran across the dirt lane to the door of the social hall. The wide, covered porch offered shade, and he stood in it for a few seconds, waiting for his jangled nerves to even out. Above the door, a cloth banner had already been hung in anticipation of his birthday celebration later this night. The sight of it made him ill. Korden forced himself to pass beneath the bright letters and push his way through the swinging entrance.
Inside, he found a silent, cold darkness coiled beyond the threshold. Usually the long hall—where the Olders gathered for meals and spent their days gabbing, playing totala, and drinking the mead that Bant distilled—was full of light and laughter, but shadows filled every corner today. The drapes were drawn shut across the open windows, sealing out every last ray of sunlight. Korden denied the urge to conjure a demno as he entered the building and crept between the gaming tables, which had also been decorated for tonight’s feast.
Fear danced just beneath his skin, prickling the hairs. His breaths shortened until they were little more than ragged pants. He inched forward, fighting panic, trying to peer into every corner simultaneously.
At the far end of the room was a tiny stage where some of the Olders played instruments to entertain the village, and where Korden would sit to hold public readings of his poetry and Sheriff Protector exploits. A lumpy shape sat huddled on one end, next to one of the building’s thick support posts. The dark form didn’t move.
He stopped several pargs away and quested out tentatively with his mind.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The voice—a sneering, harsh baritone—startled Korden so much his bowels clenched. “You might not like what you find.”
Korden backed away as the figure’s head lifted. Two blazing red pinpricks turned on him, casting a pale glow around the figure. This close, he could recognize Allin’s features in the hellish light. His hands and ankles were fastened around the support post with iron manacles that Korden had never seen before, but he appeared to have chewed through the gag around his head. Allin’s lips drew back in a gruesome sneer as the Older regarded him, the expression utterly alien on his kindly face.
“Such a brave young Lightbringer,” he purred. Allin slouched forward against the post as though to peer at him. A smell of something moist and rotten drifted into Korden’s nostrils. “Come closer, where I can see you.”
Korden ignored the invitation, thinking of an old tale Skewtz had told him about a wolf who dressed up as a grandmother. “You’re not Allin. Where is he? What did you do to him?”
“Your friend is roasting in the fires of Magdenom as we speak. If we listen hard, we might hear the scream as his soul is ripped asunder.” The claim—which made Korden’s stomach give another watery heave—was spoken plainly, with no more concern than the announcement of the evening meal. “His body, however…that belongs to me now.”
Korden swallowed and stiffened his spine. He refused to give this creature the satisfaction of his fear. Ignoring the previous warning, he sent his mind out once more, needing to see for himself if any part of his friend remained.
The cheerful purples that made up the base of Allin’s emotional rainbow were gone. This thing’s mohol was nothing but an oily blackness so putrid, it made Korden feel filthy to touch upon it. It held no emotion, but rather, a negativity, an absolute absence of feeling that chilled him as effectively as the deepest Stilling wind. He pulled back just as fast as before, shivering in disgust.
The creature in Allin’s body chuckled languidly. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Who are you?” Korden asked.
That awful sneer grew wider, wider, impossibly wide, until every tooth in Allin’s mouth—what few were left—showed through his thin lips. The light in those eyes pulsed slowly. Korden remembered the monster that chased him through the dark forest in his dream. “I have no identity. I am one of many, an emissary of the Stranger, the Dowser Beast, Lord of the Dark Filament and all it surveys, dedicated to the extinction of the last flickers of Light remaining on this pathetic plane.”
Korden didn’t understand most of its words, but enough to be sure of the truth.
“Yes. That’s what generations of your people have called us.”
Korden’s next breath wouldn’t come. This was one of the monsters he’d been warned about his entire life. No longer a story, but flesh and blood. After a few seconds, his chest ached for air. He doubled over, concentrated on the wooden planks of the floor, and waited for the episode to pass.
The Incarnate gave that slow, dry laugh again. “Poor little Lightbringer. I can cure you of everything that ails you, if you but come a few steps closer.”
“Why do you…keep calling…me that?” The question came out a high, choppy whisper as air found its way back into Korden’s chest.
“Because children are the flame that keeps the darkness away. Once you are all gone, and we have removed the slightest spark of hope for your return, this world will wither and die, and the Filament will move on.”
“Move on to where?”
“The next plane to be ravaged.”
The answer brought to mind the swarms of locust that would sometimes decimate the Olders’ meager crops. “But…but why? Why do you hate us so much?”
“I have no need to explain. Your death is the only thing that matters to me.”
Korden watched the Incarnate without speaking for a long moment, this hateful, hunched ghoul wearing the face of one of his friends, and then asked the question he came here to ask. “Were you looking…for me? I mean, me, in particular? Is there…is there something special about me?”
This time it was the Incarnate’s turn at silence. It tilted its head back and drew in a long, sharp breath, the nostrils of Allin’s nose flaring. “Perhaps I could tell, if I could catch your scent.”
“Your warlocks have their powers, Lightbringer; we have ours. How do you think I found you in the first place? Now come nearer, or leave me be.”
Korden was instantly skeptical…but there would be no danger in moving just a little closer. He took a few more steps while the Incarnate continued to sniff the air. He was still well out of range of its hands. He took another and another, easing toward it, and thought of the girl from his picture, who had probably been murdered by a creature very much like—
He saw his mistake at the last moment as the Incarnate lunged. By leaning forward with one shoulder, the crafty creature had hidden the actual amount of freedom it had against the post, and now it slid forward and stretched its arms to their fullest. Hooked fingers grazed Korden’s nose as he jumped away, the same fingers that had left those bruises on his father’s throat. He landed on his side and scrambled backward.
“Curse you!” it snarled, gnashing its teeth as it thrashed against the pole. “Don’t think your Crafter friends can hide you forever! Their magic is stale and dying!”
“No.” Korden pulled himself up by one of the room’s chairs. He’d been arrogant, he saw now, to ever wish to see one of these creatures. “That’s not true.”
“Oh, but it is! And even if they work up the courage to dispatch me, there are thousands more that will come for you! Tens of thousands! They will sweep through this valley and slaughter anyone that harbors you!”
Korden stumbled away, heading not toward the door, where voices could be heard from the direction of the hangala, but to the closest draped window.
“You can’t escape!” the Incarnate screamed after him. “Our work here is almost finished! When the human race is broken, darkness will spread over the face of this world like fresh earth over a grave!”
Korden pulled the drape open, allowing a shaft of sunlight to stream into the room. It fell across the Incarnate, who shrieked and covered what had once been Allin’s face, then shrank into a pitiful ball on the floor. Korden swung a leg over the sill and ran toward home with tears running down both cheeks.
Dread filled Redfen as he reached the hucté far up on the hillside. He’d hoped this day would never come, the day when he finally revealed the truth to Korden, but all along, in the back of his head, he knew he was only putting off the inevitable. Tash’s claims—bitter though they might be to hear—were accurate: the boy was special, Redfen felt it in his heart the moment he laid eyes on him, and yet he’d tried his hardest to bury that knowledge as the years passed and his affinity for Korden grew into the genuine love of a father for his son.
But the time for pretend was over. The make believe world he’d worked so hard to build was about to come tumbling down.
It hurt to think the last sixteen years had just been one long stage-and-curtain show for the benefit of…who? Himself? Korden? Redfen couldn’t even remember why he’d told the boy that he was his father in the first place. It just seemed such a natural lie, one told to keep him from asking questions whose answers would only confuse him.
And that also let you feel like a father, if only for a short time.
There it was, the true heart of the matter. His own selfishness. He wanted the boy to be his son so much that the lie became a truth in his own head.
And today, he would lose that son.
He stood in the doorway of their dwelling, listening to the silence within.
“Korden?” he called.
There was no answer.
Then he caught sight of the boy just before panic could hook its claws into him once more. Korden sat beneath a single elm that grew in the field beside the hucté, a place where Redfen often found him stretched out with his nose in a book. He leaned against the base of the tree with his back to their home, head down and staring at his lap.
Redfen approached slowly, shuffling his feet through the dirt to announce his presence. Korden gave him no notice. When he got close enough, Redfen peered over the boy’s shoulder to see which of Skewtz’s dusty titles held his attention, but it was no book he studied this time.
“Where did you get that?” he asked in amazement.
Korden held out the square of slick paper, letting him see the young girl smiling on it. “I found it when I crossed the Barrier. It was in a crashed auto.”
Redfen hunkered down beside him and accepted the picture. The girl was pretty, exactly the sort to steal the hearts of boys Korden’s age. Even Redfen, who hadn’t seen a female himself in half a lifetime, found his own eyes eager to study her. He handed the paper back. “When I was your age, a man in the town I lived in had a machine that made those. He called them ‘fotos’.”
Korden gave the picture another glance, as if considering the name, and then opened the flap of his carry-pouch beside him and tucked the picture inside. He sat for another moment, thinking so hard the wheels in his head were practically visible, then turned to Redfen.
For Upper’s sake, he was still so young. So full of innocence. What did Tash think he was going to do? He looked at Redfen, gaze roaming up and down, as if seeking something. Then, without warning, his entire face screwed up in anguish.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said softly, choking on tears. “I just…wanted to see what it was like. And now Fortholm and Del are dead, and Allin…” He buried his head in the crook of his elbow.
Redfen put a hand on his neck and squeezed gently. “It’s not your fault.”
The boy’s voice was muffled by his arm. “But it is. I left the Barrier. It was a choice I made.”
“They wouldn’t be dead, and you wouldn’t be stuck beneath the Barrier, and the whole world wouldn’t be slipping into darkness in the first place if it weren’t for the Filament.”
Korden stiffened and lifted his head. “What will happen to Allin?”
“That’s not Allin. That’s just a creature that stole his body.”
“I’m not talking about the Incarnate, I’m talking about Allin. Can he…can he be saved?”
Redfen hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “You must understand, Allin’s thoughts and beliefs and opinions—everything that makes him Allin—has either been destroyed or shoved so far down that it amounts to the same. Incarnates are not but parasites, and no one has ever found a way of removing them that doesn’t kill the host.”
“But they’ll at least try. Won’t they?”
“Korden, I think…I think Tash intends to have the demon…disposed of.”
He expected more tears, but the boy only nodded glumly. “How?”
“Well, not with artcraft, that’s for sure. Their magic didn’t seem to have much effect on it. Frankly, I don’t want to know what they do with it, so long as it can never hurt us again.”
They lapsed into a tense silence. Redfen leaned back against the tree and looked up at the sky. The sun was beginning its downward crawl as afternoon dwindled; otherwise, azure blue stretched from horizon to horizon. It was so calm and peaceful here in this field, it was impossible to believe how close death had come to them this day.
Then the dark smudge of the Filament caught his eye to the east, barely visible behind a scrim of clouds, and he remembered it had been there all along.
“Korden,” he said, “I have something to tell you.”
“I know.” The boy flapped a dismissive hand without looking at him. “You’re not my father.”
He threw it out as a test, hoping that Redfen Bright’s mohol would show genuine surprise at the accusation. He would ask where Korden got such a ridiculous idea, and then they would talk, and Korden would realize he misheard.
But Redfen said nothing. Korden glanced up after a few seconds and saw that the shadows thrown by the afternoon sun on the bough of the elm tree had turned the man’s scar into a dark rift across his temple, his bruised throat into a patchwork quilt of colors.
As it turned out, Korden didn’t need artcraft to sense the man’s mood. There was no surprise on his face. Just quiet pain.
“Who am I?” Korden asked. That bedrock was crumbling beneath him, and he felt as though he were falling down into a yawning black abyss of uncertainty. “Is Korden even my real name?”
“It’s the only name you were ever given. By me.”
“But where did I come from? Where are my real parents?”
“I don’t know. I was asked to take charge of you on the night you were born, to protect you from the Incarnates, and I’ve done so ever since.”
“Your mother.” The man sounded resigned and mechanical, as though he had started this story and now wanted to see it through to the end. “Sixteen years ago, I lived in a town called Bright. That’s where I took our last name from. I thought it might be safer to start fresh, in case someone took up my—our—trail. Bright was…a sort of fortified village. A castle, built after the Purges, mostly to keep out marauders. We never had trouble with Incarnates because we didn’t have anything they wanted. No one made babies; the town council made sure of that. I was the youngest person there, and even I was in my early twenties.
“Then one day a woman, one a few years older than myself, wondered into town, and the council voted to take her in. Her name was Celia. I remember thinking it was all very hurried, like they were trying to keep something secret. When pressed by the rest of the town, they gave a reason, and then I understood. Or thought I did. She…she was a Crafter.”
“A Crafter?” Korden sat bolt upright.
Redfen nodded, the pads of his thumbs rubbing nervously across his knees. “She’d come from one of the colonies up north, one that shunned all women, like Tash and the others have done here. Everyone figured they wanted her to stay so she could cast a few spells to help out, but a lot of people wanted her expelled. Some of them left in anger when they let her stay.”
Redfen ducked his head and shrugged uncomfortably. “People who can do what you do…they’re not always welcomed by others.”
Korden sat silent for a long time with his face turned into the breeze and his eyes closed, trying to digest this mountain of information. “So my mother…she was an Older?” Somehow, it never even occurred to him that there were more Crafters out there in the world, beyond their hidden village.
“No, not like they are. She wasn’t one of the originals. She didn’t discover it, she was taught artcraft the same way you were.”
“So she didn’t live on a farm? She didn’t fall in love with you because you brought her a wild rose?”
A flush of scarlet more vivid than any flower worked its way across Redfen’s face from ear to ear; his aura turned a matching hue. His thumbs moved faster, scratching across the fabric of his pants. “That was…just a story I made up. In truth, I barely said two whole sentences to her the whole time she was there.”
“Is there anything you didn’t lie about?” Korden demanded suddenly. Another horrible thought occurred to him as he watched the man’s mohol recoil in shades of yellow guilt, and he blurted, “That’s why you kept me from learning artcraft for so long, isn’t it? So I wouldn’t be able to see right through you!”
“Son, it’s not like that—!”
“Don’t call me that!” He brought up his hands, meaning to cover his ears, and then left them hanging in the air in front of him. The fingertips crackled with arcs of cerulean light until he clenched his fists again. “Finish the story!”
“There’s not much to tell,” Redfen said miserably. “Less than a week after she arrived, the town council announced she was pregnant and then—three seasons later—you were born. That same night, an army of Incarnates descended on Bright; that part is true. They were waiting for you; I think they enjoy making us give up our children rather than taking them. Helps to break our spirits, I suppose; ensure the lesson is learned. Anyway, we convinced the men of the town to fight for you, and when daybreak came and the Incarnates retreated, the town asked me to take you away. Not because they trusted me, or because I was the most capable, but simply because I was the youngest. I agreed, and that was the last time I saw them or your mother.”
Redfen appeared to age as he told this tale, dark circles appearing under his eyes, a few wrinkles to either side deepening. He seemed to realize what his hands were doing and, with some effort, lifted them from his legs, put them in the grass to either side, and waited.
“So my mother…is alive?”
“The last time I saw her. But that was a long time ago.”
“Then who was my father?”
Redfen sighed, and something in its soft sound made Korden realize this was the thing he’d most wanted to hold back, the reason why Tash felt he needed to hear this now. “They told us it was a man named Jenner, a man from town, but…that wasn’t true. They didn’t think we would believe the truth, or maybe they just didn’t want to make you a bigger target than you already were. They only let me in on the secret when they tried to convince—”
“Just tell me!” Korden shouted, all semblance of patience dried up like mud in the Burning season sun. “Who…was…my father?”
Redfen’s sunken eyes widened in shock at the outburst. “You…you didn’t have one. That’s what she claimed, at least.”
“I don’t understand.” Korden shook his head.
“She said that…that she was a virgin. That means—”
“I know what it means.”
“Oh. All right.” Redfen gnawed at his lower lip. “I don’t know if she was crazy or not, but Korden, I never meant to lie to you. I just knew you would be confused if I told you. And somewhere along the way, it became easier to tell people you were my son. And then, when you were old enough, it was simple enough to tell you the same.” He held out a hand, but cautiously, as one might to a wild animal. “Please forgive me. You are my son, and I only tried to do what was best for you.”
Korden looked at the offered hand. He wanted to take it. Or to slap it away.
But before he could do either, a scream drifted up from the village below.
“What is that?” Korden put a hand over his eyes to block the sun and peered down into the village, where a cloud of gray smoke was forming. Another distant, plaintive cry echoed up before being abruptly cut off.
In his head, he saw Allin’s remade face. Those glowing eyes. That awful grin.
“Inside. Go,” Redfen commanded. He grabbed Korden’s shoulder and gave him a shove toward the hucté, then ran ahead to the door. “Help me, Kord. Grab whatever you can carry. We have to leave.”
“What?” The helplessness in his own voice made Korden feel even more panicked. He couldn’t think suddenly, his mind had turned to molasses. “Where are we going?”
“Upper help me, I don’t know. Away from the village, for a start.”
Korden hesitated, standing in the shade of the tree where he whiled away so many hours of his youth, and wondered if he would ever do so again.
Redfen reached the door, realized he wasn’t being followed, then turned back and beckoned urgently. “Come on, hurry!”
“But…what about the others?”
“They can take care of themselves! Keeping you safe is the only thing that matters! We have to go, right now!”
Korden shook his head. He caused this whole nightmare, with his boyish impatience and selfish whims, and if he ever wanted to become a man, he couldn’t run from his mistakes now.
Before Redfen could say anything else, he turned and flew down the path toward the village.
Gray tendrils of smoke stole along the hillside. With no breeze to carry it away, the cloud squatted low to the ground, smelling of wood and the sweet piquant of burning skilne. Korden plunged into it, running even faster than this morning, pushing his wheezing lungs to work. Somewhere behind him, he could hear Redfen giving chase, shouting his name, but he was no match for the speed of Korden’s youth, even with the as-mah forcing him to fight for breath.
He could hear the crackle of fire as he closed in on the village. Red and orange flames peeked through the smoke like razor-sharp teeth biting into a hank of meat. He thought several of the Olders’ huctés must be burning. Just before Korden reached the first of them, a huge, dark shape loomed out of the haze, barreling straight at him. He recognized Mulder and leapt aside just before the horse would’ve tromped over him. The animal gave a terrified squall and galloped away without stopping.
Korden moved on. He could see the first homes now, their roofs indeed aflame.
And just beyond them, he stumbled over the first body.
It was Coomb, his frail form stretched on its side upon the ground, bony legs tangled in the spokes of his overturned wheeled chair. Korden couldn’t see what was wrong with him, but his mohol was gone, his aura extinguished. A few feet away was Tiller, a large wound in his stomach from which blood still bubbled, and further up the dirt avenue was another form so bruised and battered he couldn’t even identify it.
Even through the still-thickening smoke, he could see bodies everywhere, all of them wearing brown robes. He spied Bant and Feegran among them, the healer’s head sitting backward on his neck.
Something moist and acidic crept up the back of Korden’s throat.
So many of the Last Fathers slain at his feet. The idea seemed more like a dream than reality. He wanted to feel sorrow or anger, but instead there was just a dizzy numbness that crept along his limbs as he wandered through the massacre.
Ahead, he could hear grunts of effort and the bangs and clatter of combat. He could make out several forms scuffling in the middle of the dirt lane. Korden moved closer, trying not to cough from the smoke.
In the broad shadow thrown by the hangala in the late afternoon sun, Eddas and Santo stood facing one another, and between them was a gaunt wraith whose red eyes swirled in the haze, like a fat baker’s moon through a wispy cloud bank. It towered nearly seven feet tall, and wore plates of tarnished silver armor across its narrow chest and arms, reminding him of the descriptions of the Roman soldiers in his current reading assignment. Its head was bald, its skin a mottled green the color of a putrid banana. In one hand, it hefted a four-parg long sword of rusted metal, with a hilt made from gleaming bone that twisted around its forearm to the elbow.
As Korden watched, it slashed at Eddas, who managed to suck his sloping stomach in far enough to narrowly avoid having his guts spilled. He roared and reached for the Incarnate’s arm, but it pulled away and caught him with a vicious back swing that opened his cheek to the bone.
While it was distracted, Santo levitated a log from the woodpile beside the social hall. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it hurtling through the air. The projectile smashed into the back of the demon’s head, knocking it off balance. It sprawled in the dirt and rose back up on one arm, ready to rejoin the fray, but then caught sight of Korden.
“Lightbrinnngerrrr,” it gurgled.
“Korden, get back!” Eddas bounded forward and brought one gigantic foot smashing down on the creature’s head. It burst apart like a rotted melon, spraying a viscous, black fluid. Eddas slung an arm around Korden’s waist and carried him away from the body before he could see anything else.
“What’s happening?” he asked, when the Older set him down again. His eyes watered from the smoke. Flames leapt from building to building. The whole village seemed to be burning down around them.
“More Incarnates,” Eddas said vacantly. A sheet of blood cascaded down his face from his sliced cheek. “They set the huctés ablaze, then cut the weaker men down as they fled.” He shook his head. “It happened so fast. We sensed them, but we just didn’t have time to… ”
“Where—?” Korden began, and coughed so hard a burst of stars flashed behind his eyelids. “Where is Tash? Is there anyone left?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where anyone is, nor how many of those demons remain.” Eddas gripped the sides of Korden’s head with a gentleness that his size denied. “But it’s you they want. We have to get you away.”
A pain-filled scream issued from within Skewtz’ library, which was just beginning to smolder. Another Incarnate emerged from the door, this one as big as Eddas, holding the skinny librarian by the throat so that his feet dangled above the ground. A strange pair of black-tinted glasses were strapped tight around its head, the lenses dark enough to contain the glow from its eyes. Unlike its brothers, the sun seemed to cause this one no problems as it strode into the street and tossed Skewtz aside like garbage. Korden’s literature teacher hit the side of the building with an audible crunch and lay unmoving.
“That is the one we seek!” the Incarnate barked, pointing a crooked dagger at Korden. “Give him to me or we will slaughter every one of you!”
Eddas let go of Korden and straightened to his full height, a formidable tower of muscle even wrapped in the wrinkled, spotted skin of an old man. He brought his fists up in front of his face and clenched them so hard the knuckles cracked. “Do. Your. Worst. Demon.” He issued a mad bellow as he charged at the creature, who rushed to meet him.
“Run, Korden!” Santo urged. “Get as far from here as possible!” The Older went to join Eddas where he scrabbled with the Incarnate.
Before, the idea of fleeing seemed cowardly and repulsive to Korden, but that had been an eternity ago, when he’d been safe far up the hillside, viewing all this from a distance. But here, knee-deep in death and chaos, he could think of nothing he wanted more than to escape it all. Korden backed away from the fight, then did as he was told, running toward the closest gap between huctés. He looked back only once, and saw Santo impaled through the eye by the Incarnate’s dagger just before they were all swallowed up in the haze.
He ran on, choking on tears and smoke, unable to see more than a few feet ahead in the narrow, dark alley between buildings. A sob tore out of his throat just before it closed up for good, sealing off the last of his air. He sank to all fours on the ground, where the fumes were thinnest, and tried to calm himself enough to catch a breath.
A shape appeared at the far end of the alley. One whose eyes burned away the darkness. Allin’s face swam out of the haze as the figure strode toward him. The Incarnate had picked up a wicked sword since Korden last saw it.
“Well, well, little Lightbringer,” it said, swiping the weapon through the air. “Looks like it will be me that cures you after all.”
Korden scrambled backward away from it as black spots crowded in at the edges of his vision. The alley spun. His arms felt limp and distant, as though they belonged to someone else. The Incarnate advanced, jabbing at him on the ground playfully with the sword tip.
Then it stopped abruptly and looked over Korden’s head.
“Get away from my son.”
Redfen stepped in front of Korden, swinging a piece of flaming timber at the demon. The Incarnate backed away, snarling.
“Get up, Kord!” Redfen shouted. “Stay behind me!”
He continued to swing the burning wood, driving the Incarnate back one step at a time toward the end of the alley, where a few strangled rays of sunlight filtered down through the smoke. Korden tried to obey him, but could only suck in the thinnest dribbles of air. He still felt too lightheaded to stand.
“Korden—?” Redfen turned his head to look over his shoulder.
The Incarnate grabbed the fire with its bare hand, the flesh charring instantly. It pushed the wood aside and drove its sword into the other man’s chest.
“Redfen!” Korden wailed, finding his breath at last.
The weapon penetrated straight through Redfen Bright’s torso. The timber slipped from his hand, and, when the Incarnate yanked the blade from him, he crashed to the ground.
“No one can protect you,” the demon said, coming at him once more.
A red, undeniable rage rippled throughout Korden’s body, turning every nerve ending into a twitching inferno. He wanted to kill this creature, to destroy it, to make it feel this pain that tore at him. He opened himself to the Upper completely, calling upon the artcraft, but instead of attempting to manipulate it, as he usually did, he allowed it to channel through him like a raging river.
The force of his will was all-consuming. A command to be given to the universe itself. His skull ached from the pressure. It had to be released.
Korden focused on the Incarnate, envisioned his goal, and pushed with his mind.
He felt something massive leave him, a surge of energy visible only as cerulean waves that leapt across the short space separating him from the creature. The Incarnate stopped as suddenly as if it had run into a wall. Allin’s scraggly hair and wrinkled skin blew backward in a sudden wind strong enough to stagger him back a step but that did nothing to disturb the smoke around them.
And then that skin began to peel away.
As Korden watched, the Incarnate dissipated into fragments that quickly swirled away in the haze. Its flesh unraveled, like threads from a cloth, revealing layers of muscle and veins. Allin’s face dissolved. The demon howled—more in anger than pain, Korden thought—but the sound was cut short when its throat stripped away and blew into a million tiny pieces. Within seconds, the creature was nothing but clean ivory bones standing inside a tunic and breeches. They clattered to the dirt.
A funnel of oily blackness drifted up from the pile, but it too broke apart and vanished into the smoke from the burning houses.
Korden got to his knees and scrambled past the bones to Redfen’s side, then turned the man over on his back.
The hole in his chest barely leaked any blood. His eyes were open, and they fixed upon Korden glassily. One shaking hand rose and touched the hair at the boy’s forehead, as it had so many times before.
“I didn’t mean it,” Korden told him desperately, as though the words could create a tether to keep him here. “You’re my father. You always have been.”
A dreamy smile crossed Redfen Bright’s face. “You are…special,” he whispered, before his mouth went slack. Korden touched his mind in time to see the last of the color fade from his aura.
Then he put his head against his father’s chest and sobbed.
When Tash found him, he still sat next to Redfen’s body, eyes dry and fixed on nothing as he cradled the man’s head. The smoke had cleared, and the hungry sounds of the fire were fading, but these changes barely registered in Korden’s dulled thoughts. He had no idea how long he’d sat like this; the passage of time was marked only by the creeping shadows of late afternoon and the distant, frantic voices calling his name. If another Incarnate had come upon him like this, he would’ve been easy prey.
“Thank tha Upper,” Tash panted. “I couldn’t sense yeh, ghammer. All our powers’re drained dry. We were about ta start searchin tha forest. I feared…” His voice broke on the last word. It was this momentary slip that finally interrupted Korden’s trance. He dragged his attention away from the corpse to study his den-so. The old man was filthy, robe torn to tatters. A runner of blood trickled down the left side of his head, a brilliant line of vermillion against his snow white hair. Moisture glistened in the web of wrinkles along his cheeks, either tears or sweat.
“They killed him, Tash,” Korden murmured, smoothing hair from his father’s forehead. Again, as he said this, there was no emotion to accompany it. It was just a fact, like something read in one of his books, no different than bees pollinating flowers or water flowing downhill. When he tried to force himself to feel something, anything, there was only that emptiness in his chest, a hole that felt big enough to swallow him.
“I know,” Tash told him. “I’m so sorry. We tried ta stop them, ta protect yeh as we always vowed, but…” He trailed once more, and his cloudy eyes flicked to the pile of bones further up the alley. His mouth firmed into a tight line, the way it did on the few occasions when Korden passed one of his surprise tests.
“We have to bury him,” Korden said. “Him, and all the others. That’s what you do when someone dies, right? Put them in the ground?”
“Aye, ghammer, that’s right. And we’ll do jes that, I promise. But for now…I need yeh to come with me.”
He held out a shaking hand. Something brown was crusted under his ragged nails. Korden stared at it and blinked several times before accepting dazedly. He lowered his father’s head gently, but had trouble standing. He understood what Tash meant; he felt as limp as a rag doll, so devoid of artcraft after his encounter that he barely had enough willpower left to move his limbs. Yet he found the strength to hold back when the Older tried to guide him away.
“I can’t leave him. Not like this.”
Without a word, Tash slipped off his tattered robe. Beneath was a tan, long-sleeve tunic and a pair of worn breeches, the most informal garb Korden had ever seen him in. He took the robe and draped it gently across Redfen Bright. Korden took a last look at his father as the brown cloth settled over him.
“Yeh mustn’t think on it; not now. We need action, or all is lost.”
This time, Korden allowed himself to be led back out to the dirt lane up the center of the village. Or what was left of it. With the smoke gone, the extent of the destruction could be seen. A good portion of the huctés and the library were nothing but burnt cinders, and the high roof of the hangala had collapsed into the building’s ornate interior. A handful of Olders were busy extinguishing the few remaining fires, treating wounds, or carrying limp bodies inside the social hall. Bibb was among those still on his feet, as well as Port and Eddas, the latter two attempting to free a badly burned Dillish from the wreckage of his home. Korden and Tash stood aside, unnoticed, and observed the devastation.
“How many…?” Korden asked, too afraid to finish the question, much less hear the answer.
“Sixteen o’ us remain,” Tash answered solemnly. “And I expect three more ta expire from their injuries by nightfall.”
Korden drew in a quick, harsh breath. More than half the village slaughtered.
Outside the ashes of the library lay the large Incarnate that wore the dark lenses to protect its eyes. The patches of its skin exposed to the sun were quickly melting into greenish-brown slag. Korden knew that light damaged the bodies once these demons took them over, especially their eyes, but the process seemed to quicken after they expired, as if the world wanted to rid itself of them as fast as possible.
“Are they all dead?”
“Aye. We cut down tha four in tha group that attacked us, and as for tha prisoner they released…I believe yeh took care o’ that one yehrself.”
“Five? Just five of them were able to do all of this?”
“They are vicious, brutal creatures, created for nothing but combat and murder. We fought as best we could, but, in the end…” He sounded ashamed as he finished with, “We are not but used-up bodlas, ghammer.”
“But you said you would know if more were coming!” Korden shouted. His voice rolled up and down through the desolate village, causing the Olders to stop their work. Their gloomy faces lit up when they spotted Korden, and all who were able came running.
Tash winced at his accusation. Before the others arrived, he said softly, “And I truly thought we would. Our powers are even more diminished than I realized. I was wrong, and many people paid fer it with their lives, yehr father among them. So if yeh feel tha need ta hate someone…let it be me.”
The sorrow hit Korden then, a delayed wave of black grief that struck him like a hard fist in the stomach. He wrapped his arms around his torso and clenched his jaw until the muscles on either side hardened into stone, and waited for the pain to pass, much like he did with his as-mah attacks.
But he couldn’t hate Tash.
Because right now…he hated himself far too much.
And then the remaining Olders—the last of the Last Fathers—swept him up in a tide of relief and cries of joy.
Eddas wept as he threw his massive arms around Korden and lifted him skyward. A cloth bandage stretched across the side of his face that the Incarnate sliced open. “I thought we’d lost ya, boy!”
“Enough,” Tash ordered, when they’d all had a turn. “I must have words with him.”
“Not now, Tash,” Bibb scolded. A crack ran up the middle of one of his spectacle lenses. “The boy needs to rest. Can’t you see he’s in shock?”
“There is no time fer rest. We must put an end ta this, and quickest done is least painful.”
The gathered group of men fell into uncomfortable, chastised silence.
“What is it?” Korden demanded. “For once, stop protecting me and just tell me what you have to say!”
“There will be more,” Tash said plainly. “We chose to settle here because o’ its isolation, so, chances are, these Incarnates jes happened ta be close by ta arrive here so quickly. A stroke o’ bad luck that is, but yeh can bet they won’t be tha last ta seek yeh. They could come tomorrow or tha next day or five minutes from now, drawn here like iron ta a magnet.”
“Isn’t there…some way to hide me again?”
Bibb removed his broken glasses and daubed at his eyes. “There’s no place you could hide from them except behind the Barrier, lad. And with so few of us left, we would never be able to rebuild it strong enough to shield you.”
“Then what do we do?”
There was no answer for what felt like ages, and Korden was on the verge of asking again when Tash said, “Yeh must make a choice, ghammer, one that we will all abide by: stay…or go.”
“Go? Go where?”
Tash met this question with one of his own. “Yehr father. What did he tell yeh?”
Korden paused, hesitant to repeat the strange story, to give it any more power than it already had. “He said that…that he wasn’t really my father. That I had no father.”
“That’s right. He told us tha same story tha night he brought yeh here, but even if he hadn’t, I would’ve known. I think we all would’ve.”
“But how can that be true? It doesn’t make sense!”
“No. It doesn’t.” Tash drew in a breath that seemed to have no end. “But I believe…yeh were meant fer something grand, Korden. Destiny hangs about yeh like a heavy cloak, and yehr potential fer artcraft is seemingly limitless. But if there is a task before yeh, I fear tha time left ta accomplish it may grow short.”
“Accomplish what?” Korden cried. Part of him realized that his den-so had just used his name for the first time that he could remember, but he was too caught up in what the man was telling him to marvel at it. “Just tell me where I’m supposed to go!”
Still facing Korden, Tash raised one arm and extended a finger toward the eastern horizon, where the black shroud of the Filament was still visible against the coming of the bruised twilight.
Korden couldn’t speak. He was too afraid if he tried, his throat would clamp shut again.
Yes, he’d long dreamed of leaving the village…but not to go in that direction.
“I don’t know how yeh’ll get there or what yeh’ll find when yeh do,” Tash said, “but I believe, deep in my heart, that yehr fate lies within that darkness.”
“So…I’m to be banished from the village?”
Tash surprised him by bursting into laughter. The rest of the group joined him. “Never in life! I said yeh had a choice, and I meant it. If yeh decide ta stay, we will face whatever comes with yeh.”
“That’s right, Korden!” Eddas agreed. “We’ll fight at your side to the last man!”
Korden gave him a grateful smile. Considering that five Incarnates had been enough to raze the village to the ground, he wondered how much time this offer would buy them.
“But if yeh go,” Tash continued, “yeh will leave today, this very hour, and yeh will go alone. Yeh’ll travel fast and light, be wary in tha day and even more so by night. And, most important o’ all, yeh’ll keep yehr faith at all times. Tha choice is yours, but it must be made now, so that we can prepare either way.”
The Olders watched him in silence, but he could sense them probing him gently with their minds for his reaction. For some reason, Tash’s phrase about destiny hanging on him like a cloak echoed in his head. Korden thought he could feel that cloak wrapped around him now, just as he had this morning, before setting all these events in motion with his damned adventure. And this cloak wasn’t just heavy, as Tash claimed.
It was suffocating.
“I’ll go,” he said, too softly to hear the words himself, and then repeated louder, “I’ll go.”
Their reaction confused him. Instead of being cheerful, the group of old men gave each other crestfallen looks. Their mohols all blended into the same dejected shade of midnight blue shot through with tense crimson. Port bowed his head and sniffled, while a small, strangled squawk escaped Bibb.
Had they actually wanted him to refuse?
Bibb confirmed his suspicion a moment later when he asked, “Are you sure this is what you want, lad?”
Korden nodded. “Yes. I won’t let anyone else risk their life for me.”
“Oh, but it’s not about that! Not at all! If you stay, I’m sure we can figure out a plan, we can—!”
“Do not undermine his decision.” Tash’s voice cut through Bibb’s plea with unquestioning authority. He addressed the others. “We will not make this harder on him than it has ta be. For now…let us prepare him fer life beyond tha village as best we can.”
They were reluctant to even let him return home without an escort—insisting he be kept in a ring of Olders, or, at the very least, that Eddas be sent at his side—until he pointed out that soon he would be away from the village, entirely on his own. If he couldn’t take care of himself here, how would he ever do it out there?
His strength had begun to return, but Korden stood outside his hucté for several long minutes. The idea of going inside sent a pang through his heart. This place looked different to him, lonely and somehow darker in a way that had nothing to do with the dimness of the afternoon, as if its mud walls had once been imbued with a sheen that was now faded.
Things will change fer yeh one day, ghammer. Perhaps faster than yeh would like.
Tash’s words. As usual, he’d been right.
His carry pouch sat beneath the tree where he left it. He went to retrieve the bag to delay going inside. The picture of the girl was still tucked beneath the bag’s flap, and he pulled it out to look at it.
Whatever magic it once held for him had vanished also. Something felt broken inside him, disconnected, like the wires that made all of Bibb’s fantastic gadgets run, and he wondered if he would ever be able to find joy in anything so trivial again. He opened his hand and let the breeze carry the square of paper away. It danced along the grass, heading back toward the forest where he found it.
The very same enormous, brooding forest he would soon be entering.
Korden might not be able to feel happiness, but he found fear was still in ready supply.
You don’t have to go! a panicked voice in his head insisted. You could stay here!
Only until the next envoy of Incarnates arrived, and then they would finish what the others started.
Bibb said you could figure out a plan! You can fight, make weapons, fortify the village, maybe—!
They’re old men, not soldiers. They can’t fight a war to save me, even if they’re willing to. And if I thought this place was a prison before, it’ll be worse when I’m trapped here with them hanging over me more than Redfen ever did, waiting to see if each day is my last. He swallowed against a lump that felt as large as a fist in his throat. I won’t let them die for me. I won’t. I would rather be dead myself than see any more of them hurt.
But that’s just it. The anxiety was gone from this intrusive voice, replaced by a blunt callousness. They’re not asking you to die. Closing your eyes and lying down and never getting back up again? Anyone can do that. But what can they possibly expect you to do against the Dark Filament? Might as well ask you to push down one of those redwoods with your bare hands.
Korden bowed his head until his chin pressed into his chest, as if dragged down by the weight of Tash’s invisible cloak. He’d delayed long enough. If he wanted to get away from the village before dark, he would have to hurry.
With the carry pouch’s strap now resting on his shoulder, he made himself go through the door of his home.
That empty darkness had gotten inside the hucté as well. His father was in every corner of this place, and the memories were like a raw, open wound. Korden felt tears pressing at the backs of his eyes again and ignored them.
In his room, he took the only other pair of dungarees that still fit him, several light tunics, the thick woolen coat that Bant sewed for him just this past year, and the thin feather pad from atop his bed. These items were tightly folded and rolled and then went into the pouch alongside his journal, and were joined by several books and odds and ends from his collection.
The pistol waited in the bottom of his chest, still wrapped in the tiny blanket. Korden held it in both hands for what seemed like an hour before tucking it too into his bag.
At the door, he paused to take one last look around the hucté, at the table where he’d eaten countless meals with his father and the chair where the man sat by the fire while Korden sprawled in the floor with a book.
Instinct told him he would never see this place again, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to anyway.
Korden met those that were well enough to say goodbye at the easternmost edge of the village, a group of stoop-shouldered old men that he loved with all his heart. The sun was a red ball riding the distant spine of the low mountain peaks northwest of the village, thrusting the Last Fathers’ shadows into long, jagged ghosts behind them and turning the tears on their creased cheeks into lines of golden fire. They stood side-by-side, each of them waiting for their turn to say goodbye and offer him trinkets to remember them by or to help him on his journey, until his carry pouch bulged with their gifts. He received a bladder of water, enough for a week if he rationed, and several weeks worth of dried deer and possum jerky. The idea of how he would get nourishment had never entered his mind, but now it was a whole new problem to worry. Port must have seen it in his eyes, for he gripped Korden’s bicep and said, “Trust in the Upper, and He will provide.”
From Eddas, he received a bone-hilt knife whetted to razor sharpness, in a leather sheath that tied around his waist. The bear-of-a-man wiped snot from his nose with the back of one hand and said, “We would give you Mulder to speed you on the journey, but that old nag would be riding you before too long. Just keep on the move, it’ll prevent the Incarnates from getting an exact bead on you. If you happen to take one of them down, it’s very important that you stay away from the body, all right? Remember all those wrestling holds I showed you, too. And for Upper’s sweet sake, don’t trust anyone! There’ll be far worse out there than those demons, believe you me!”
“All right,” Korden agreed, before the Older could ramble on. “I will, I promise.”
“Happy birthday, Brother Korden. I’m so sorry it ended this way.”
His birthday. He’d forgotten all about it. The boy that woke up so full of excitement this morning had died today also, along with Redfen Bright and many more.
Bibb waited last in line, now with soot smeared across his face beneath his cracked glasses. He glanced nervously at the others and then leaned close to Korden.
“It all burned,” he whispered sadly. “All my treasures, gone.” His frown curled slowly upward, tugging at his jowls. “Except for one I’d been keeping separate from the others, in case Tash ever made me get rid of them. I always planned to give you this when you left the village one day. Consider it a last birthday present.” He extended his fist palm down, using one flap of his robe to hide it from the others.
Korden held out his own hand, surprised to find a kernel of excitement taking root in him. Bibb dropped something smooth and round into his palm. Korden reeled it in, eager to find out what magnificent object from the old world had been bequeathed to him…
“It’s a rock,” he said, staring at the smooth-edged, reddish white pebble.
“Nope, it’s a stone,” Bibb corrected, with a mirthful wink. “Take care of yourself, lad. And remember what I told you about moderation.”
He gave the man a hug and dropped the odd gift into the bottom of his carry pouch, where he promptly forgot about it.
Tash—dressed in a fresh robe and with the blood and dirt cleaned from his skin—waited patiently while Korden finished his goodbyes, then stepped forward and took his arm. “I will escort my den-ret as far as tha road. Tha rest o’ you…get about tha task at hand.”
The two of them started across the field toward the waiting forest, where the shadows grew hungry once more in the fading light. This time, when they crossed the space where the Barrier had once been, there was no tingle, and certainly no exhilaration. Korden turned around to look back only one time as they entered the tree line, all that he could bear.
The Last Fathers still watched him, some of them weeping. He opened his heart, wanting to experience their auras one last time, and found a blaze of conflicting emotion surrounding them, happiness and sorrow and regret and fear in one smeared palette, but, standing above them all, the pure white brilliance of hope. Korden saw Eddas touch two fingers to his forehead in a brief salute just before the dense network of trees hid him from sight.
He and Tash walked through the dim forest in a comfortable silence. Now, in the fading daylight, Korden could marvel at just how tall these trees were, looming over him until they seemed to touch the sky. The air was moist and heavy with the smell of sap and the sweet fragrance of catkin blossoms from the pines and alders growing amid the sequoias. His den-so kept one hand locked around his elbow, but he needed guidance here no more than he did in the village. Every step found its way around roots and underbrush to a sure footing as they worked their way around the giant redwoods.
“I’ll have to light a demno soon,” Korden remarked. “It’s getting too dark to see.”
“Why don’t yeh just cut out tha middle man like I do, and command yehr eyes ta work?”
Korden gaped at him. “You mean, all this time, you were able to…?”
“I know my art looks like it was created by a blind man, but how else do yeh think I stay so spry?” A smug grin tugged at the corners of Tash’s mouth. “What have I told yeh? If tha Crafter is strong enough, there is nothing he can’t accomplish. One’s own body…even tha very laws o’ nature!…will all bend ta his will.” Then the smile fell away, and he added, “But I suspect yeh already know that…don’t yeh?”
“The Incarnate,” Korden said quietly.
Tash kept silent, but his thin lips pursed once more, as when he’d come across the pile of bones back in the village which, Korden now realized, he had probably been able to see.
“I don’t know what happened! I didn’t mean to—!”
“Yes, yeh did. Yeh focused on a goal—one yeh hadn’t been taught and practiced a hundred times—then made it come true.”
“One second, I was mad, and the next…it was just…there. Inside my head.” He saw it all once more—the Incarnate coming at him, encountering that ghostly blue wind, and then disintegrating in a fine mist—but he could no longer remember how it felt to have that energy building inside him. He couldn’t even recall how he released it.
It just came to him when he needed it.
Tash was nodding. “Anger—or any strong emotion—can be a powerful boost to yehr will, if used correctly. But yeh must not rely on it, ghammer, or yehr artcraft will be erratic and unreliable, at best. At worse, it’ll corrupt every part o’ yeh. Everything in its time and place.”
“Moderation?” Korden asked.
“I see yeh’ve been talkin ta Bibb.” The old man’s brow furrowed into a great pile in the middle of his forehead. “Killin an Incarnate by any means, much less with artcraft, is a difficult task. It takes faith, yeh see? And as we found out today, it apparently takes more than we have left in our used-up bodies ta even conjure against those abominations.” Tash sighed softly. “Faith is fer tha young, before tha world has a chance ta wear yeh down. That’s why they want yeh so bad in tha first place, ta snuff out that hope which burns inside all o’ yeh. So keep up with yehr lessons, stretch yehr creative muscle, and never, ever let go of yehr beliefs.”
Through the trees, Korden caught a quick glimpse of lighter gray against the ground. They had reached the road already. Another burst of panic burned in his chest as they came to a stop at its edge. A thousand questions sprang to the tip of his tongue, but one burned brighter than any of the others.
“Tash…what Redfen told me…about my real mother and…and father…”
“Is somethin best put out o’ yehr head fer tha time bein. Fer all intents and purposes, Redfen Bright was—is—yehr father, and that’s all that matters. That other is not but a story.”
“But if it’s true, what does it mean?”
“Maybe nothin. Maybe everythin. If it was true, would it change who yeh are, or what yeh think?”
“No,” Korden said. “I guess not.”
“No one, not even tha Upper, can tell us who we are, Korden. If He wants yeh ta know more about where yeh came from, He’ll reveal it ta yeh, and then you’ll have ta choose what ta do with it. All right?”
Korden shrugged reluctantly. “All right.”
“And now, yeh face yet another choice, in what I’m sure will be a long line ahead o’ yeh.” Tash swept an arm to the right. “If memory serves, in this direction, tha road winds back ta tha west, far around tha village and toward tha ocean beyond. Yeh might be safe if yeh went that way and then headed into the frigid Rim territories, kept ahead o’ tha Incarnates. But that way—” Tash pointed past him, to the left, “—will eventually take yeh east, out o’ tha forest. I haven’t been that way since the Purges first began, but there used ta be a few towns and settlements that direction. Upper knows what yeh’ll find now.”
“I’ll go east,” Korden said without hesitation.
Tash acknowledged this with a nod, as though it made not the slightest difference to him. “No matter where yeh go, stick ta the road, at least until yeh’re out o’ tha forest. It’ll keep yeh from gettin lost. These woods are old, fearsome, and liable ta be full o’ creatures yeh don’t want ta meet. Sometimes the trees themselves almost seem to be…” He trailed for a moment, looked around at the towering trunks, then dismissed the thought with a shake of his head. “And yeh must be just as wary o’ other people as Eddas said. Yeh’re still a child, and that’s not somethin anyone has likely ta have seen in a long, long time. Some o’ them might be dangerous ta yeh fer reasons all their own. But somewhere out there, someone must be throwin a wrench into tha Filament’s plans. I recommend yeh start with tryin ta find them and see what yeh can do ta help.”
Korden nodded. “I’ll come back,” he vowed. “After I’ve done whatever it is I’m supposed to do, I’ll come back here. If…if I can.”
“Aye,” Tash agreed, then looked away quickly.
But his mohol deepened into the bright, blushing red of discomfort.
The Older’s last order to the others came back to Korden, about ‘getting to the task at hand.’ He thought the man meant rebuilding the village, but now a sudden suspicion popped into his head.
“What are you going to do?” he demanded.
Tash set his narrow jaw as he stared into the forest, then shook his head. “That’s our business.”
“Keep no more secrets from me, Tash,” Korden warned, sounding like anything other than a child. The gruff timbre jerked the old man’s face back toward him. “Not now.”
His mentor hesitated, but only for a moment. “Just because we don’t have tha power ta shield yeh, doesn’t mean we can’t conjure up somethin ta draw tha Incarnates ta us. If we make them think we have a village fulla children, keep their focus on us, it might give yeh tha head start yeh need.”
“You can’t do that!” Korden cried. He couldn’t imagine what those creatures would do when they descended upon the few remaining inhabitants and realized they’d been tricked. “I won’t let you!”
He tried to pull free of Tash so he could run back and put a stop to this suicidal notion, but his den-so clamped down on his arm and dragged him back. Korden spun, meaning to shove him away, and instead fell against his thin chest. He wept as the man’s arms encircled him.
“Please, please don’t do this!” he pleaded. “You were supposed to be safe if I left!”
“Oh Korden. Oh my dear, sweet boy, don’t yeh see? It has ta be this way.” Even without looking up, Korden could hear the tears in his words. “We have a role ta play, every bit as much as yeh do. We pledged our lives fer yehrs many years ago.”
“But I don’t want to do this by myself!” Korden wailed.
“And I would go with yeh on this journey, if I could. But, besides tha fact that these old bones would only slow yeh down, destiny is a delicate thing, and we can’t take tha risk that our presence could influence or interfere with yehrs. Yeh may very well be tha last chance we have ta set things right, ta balance tha scales.”
Korden pulled away from his embrace, and wiped the dampness from his eyes angrily. “I didn’t ask to be the last chance.”
“I know. Tha Upper doesn’t always ask us before He sets about makin plans.” Tash took a step backward. “I’m proud o’ yeh, Korden. So was yehr father. And when we get to the fount beyond this world, I know we’ll see yeh there.”
Something was happening. Tash continued to move away from him, but with each step he seemed to be fading, using artcraft to melt into the shadows.
“Wait, Tash, don’t go! I’m not ready!”
“Goodbye, ghammer. May all yehr choices be true.”
Then he was gone, and, for the first time in his life, Korden Bright found himself completely and utterly alone as the sun set on his sixteenth birthday.
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Russell C. Connor has been writing horror since the age of five, and is the author of two short story collections, four eNovellas, and eight novels, the most recent of which is Good Neighbors. He has been a member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop since 2006, and served as president for two years. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his rabid dogs, demented film collection, mistress of the dark, and demonspawn daughter.
His next novel—Through the Deep Forest—is the first volume of the Dark Filament Ephemeris, and will be available in October of 2016.
Korden Bright has lived his entire life in the protection of the Olders, a group of ancient men from the time of autos and cities. In their isolated village, he and his father hide from the red-eyed demons known as Incarnates, who hunt down anyone under the age of 18 in the name of the Dark Filament. But on the day of his sixteenth birthday, Korden will make a choice that sends his entire life crashing down, and brings him face-to-face with the Incarnates for the first timeâ€¦ A preview of Through the Deep Forest, the first volume of The Dark Filament Ephemeris, coming October 2016.