Part 5 - The Leveler
A hot, midday wind was sweeping ripples across the brittle grass as Apprentice and Blademaiden stepped out of midair and collapsed, panting, amid the scrub. Down the mountain slope was the city, grey and frowning, seemingly untroubled by the chaos they had just unleashed in the heart of it. When the two mages had vanished from the market square there had been screaming and death; out here, there was only the wind, moaning across the mountainside.
Blademaiden was first to push herself shakily up onto her hands. She coughed and spat into the grass. “Fucking city.”
The Apprentice cuffed blood from his nose. The second teleportation coupled with the brief but savage rune battle had left his fingers trembling, and his head searing with bright streaks of pain.
I am not here. the Wanderer had said to him. You do not see me. She had asked for his help, to let them escape. To betray the Leveler just like Illusion had. Something he could never do.
“Any sign of the others?” he coughed. He tried to look around their designated meeting place, but his eyes were still swimming with painful flashes.
“No.” Blademaiden responded, “Nowhere.”
No sooner had she said it however, then Redmoor appeared before them in a sudden swirl of red. The man spasmed and nearly fell to one knee, the rune-inflicted tics wrenching at his face more than normal.
“Redmoor.” the Apprentice mumbled.
“Apprentice.” Redmoor craned his neck hard to one side and then the other, which seemed to still the worst of his spasms. “I guess your friend Wanderer did us a service by getting rid of the turncoat.”
Apprentice thought of Davin, disappearing beneath a press of seething Risemen. He had neither liked nor trusted the Lightman mercenary, but he still remembered the screams, and Redmoor’s flippant comment angered him.
“You’re bleeding.” Redmoor remarked.
Apprentice cuffed at his nose once again. He looked the red-robed mage up and down.
“Did you bother to fight?” he challenged. “You’re not even scratched.”
Redmoor gave him a twitching sneer of a smile. “The Shattered Gods love me, baby boy.”
“Call me that again and you’ll find them turning from you.” Apprentice warned through gritted teeth.
“I was fighting,” Redmoor said calmly. “With the other turncoat. Unfortunately when I cornered her she turned out to be mist and shadow.”
The Apprentice struggled to his feet, snarling. “Illusion has a mirror rune! If you spent just an hour talking to any of us you’d know that, you arrogant piece of shit!”
He began to walk, even though each step drove a knife through the inside of his skull, and stalked away through the gorse and ferns that cloaked the mountainside. He had gone a good hundred metres before he realised that Blademaiden was walking alongside him. The older woman’s face was neutral, her deep brown eyes impassive.
“I’ve often wondered why he joined us,” she said as they paced. “What he wants.”
Apart from a good slap, you mean? “He wants runes.” Apprentice growled. “That’s all he cares about - no liberation, no higher cause, just fucking power.”
Blademaiden was silent.
“So why do we fight alongside a monster?” Apprentice suddenly blurted.
Blademaiden looked at him stonily. “Because I gave my word.”
By the time they returned to the meeting point, the Leveler and Hole had reappeared. The Hole was laid out on the ground, in obvious pain, while Leveler pressed a spread hand to her forehead, a soft glow bleeding out between her fingers.
“My lady.” the Apprentice said hurriedly, dropping to one knee beside them. The Hole had fallen into sleep, her starlit hair matted and dishevelled. The Leveler turned towards her two returning acolytes, and the Apprentice almost recoiled.
The Leveler’s robe was spattered with blood, and it was not her own. It formed dark outlines to her fingernails, though she had done her best to wipe it away. She had missed a spot at the corner of her mouth. The Apprentice tried not to let his eyes linger on it, but she caught him anyway, and brushed the clot of red away with her thumb. Her expression was ice hard, with balefire glinting in her blue eyes.
“So.” the Leveler rasped thickly. “They got away.”
“We…” the Apprentice found himself stumbling for words. “I’m sorry, my lady. We did everything we could.”
“I know you did.” the Leveler said stonily, no warmth in her words. She exhaled a leonine growl. “But they still have the Book.”
“Can they read it?” the Apprentice ventured. “Without the Teacher?”
The Blademaiden pressed her full lips together into a severe line. “We had all better pray not.”
The Leveler said nothing. The Apprentice had never seen her so angry - she was predatory; cold; seething. The fingers of her right hand were flexing open and closed, as if searching for someone’s throat to wrap around.
“I think I know where they’re going.” she rumbled softly. “When Hole recovers, I’m sending her back to our home city. I want every watchman on alert. We’ll flush them out, and then we’ll hunt them down.”
She shot them a gaze that was more challenging than trusting.
“Are you with me?”
The Apprentice wanted to respond with an emphatic yes. But he also wanted to urge his lady to go back to the city of Light, to secure what they had already won, before it slipped through their fingers and led to more blood and death. While he vacillated, Blademaiden spoke up before him.
“I’d be your shadow, my lady.” she affirmed with a stiff nod.
The Leveler smiled, but it was a dagger smile.
“Then darken heel and let’s get to work.”
* * * * * *
They had rejoined the River and struck out north, where they began to encounter farms and villages again; modest structures of sun-baked brick, with dusty tracks that wove between them like spiderwebs, catching every building. In some of the settlements the villagers still worked, chattering away to each other in trilling Ash - as if the Valley was still at peace. In other places however, whole villages stood abandoned, their fields wilted and colonised by weeds. Some of the buildings had been burned into roofless, black skeletons. The Leveler’s conquest was evident, even though they had seen no sign of pursuit from their nemesis since escaping the Risen city.
Wraith was boiling them a pot of immature rice. Over the past few days they had been able to trade for food at some of the villages they passed through, but those supplies were running low, and they had been reduced to scavenging through a fire-gutted farm and its untended rice paddies. Ambassador was drifting aimlessly among the stalks, knee-deep in the waterlogged field. Insects buzzed, and a raptor circled lazily overhead, but other than that they might have been alone in the whole world.
Illusion paused to look west, where the sunset had turned the sky pink and the clouds to molten gold. It was too beautiful a scene for such a sombre moment. She tore her eyes away from it, and refocused on the lines she was tracing through the mud at the edge of the field. She dug her finger back into the silty clay and traced another spiked glyph.
“And that’s a ‘g’.” she said to Wanderer.
Dirt covered fingertips drifted over the letter. Tracing it slowly as she sounded out the letter like a child would. She was glad the others were busy, if they were all watching her...she wouldn’t do this. The Wanderer was doing this with one task in mind. Once she knew vague letters, she could spell something. Something important.
When she felt happy about it again, the Wanderer let her hand move to her small dirt workspace. The letters were crude, small pauses were clear. Illusions letters were clean, they had neat swoops and it took no effort at all. The Wanderer’s looked like Illusion’s...if Illusion was drunk and wearing heavy set gloves. The final small swoop, she did with her tongue between her teeth. There was a small pause and then a deep breath left her nose. The Wanderer glanced at Ilusion and for a brief moment, she looked young. She looked like a young girl trying to please their teacher. Desperate to do right.
Illusion looked down at the shaky lettering.
“Agrona.” she read, and her freckled face creased in a smile. “My name was the first thing I learned to write too.”
She sat back with a sigh.
“My father made me burn the parchment afterwards. Names are dangerous, he said.”
The wanderer flinched gently when she heard her name. She hadn’t heard it in so long. She was not gifted the luxury of her true name in her time in the mines and after she left, she refused to tell anyone it. Her eyes dragged over the swoop of the G again before she let her gaze move to Illusion. “Names are very dangerous. Giving someone your name shows trust….and foolishness.”
Illusion chuckled as she looked down at the scratches in the dirt. “You must trust me, then.”
A single eyebrow was raised and the Wanderer let out a small hum. “Perhaps. It is difficult to know who to trust in this world.” Her attention returned to the letters before her. “I am glad that I have someone to watch my back. We will need that in the journey to come.”
Illusion folded her arms across her knees and rested her chin on them, her auburn hair falling to either side of her face. “I can understand that. I trusted the wrong people for a long time.”
She sighed and looked again towards the distant mountains. As the sun dipped the moons were becoming visible - the bone-white curve of the Elder Brother shone in the sky, like a tusk made of light, while the Younger Brother was half hidden by a band of cloud.
“It makes it easier...after everything that’s happened. Knowing that even if I end up like Solar or Raven, and no-one even remembers that I existed...at least this time I picked the right side.”
“Trusting the wrong people is just a fact of life. It’s a hurdle everyone must cross and it makes you stronger.” The wanderer could tell the woman had raised her head but she didn’t copy her. She used to welcome the night sky with open arms. It gave her more places to hide, a way to escape. No longer did she feel that she couldn’t sleep safely. She had rested herself in the groups presence and she had never truly felt like that before.
“You will not end up like those who have passed. You will see this to the end. You will get vengeance for your mother. I will make sure of it.” It was a small gesture but it meant a lot coming from the Wanderer. She would not let this woman fall like the others had. Illusion had so much faith in the Wanderer, she had not experienced this for a long time. She could not fail her.
Illusion took Wanderer’s mud-stained hands in her own and squeezed them. “Thank you, Agrona.” She looked towards the campfire where Wraith sat backlit by the flames, and stood up, smiling. “Coming for dinner?”
The Wanderer gifted the woman a small real smile. She let the woman take her hands and squeeze them gently. “You’re welcome, Sage.” Small flecks of sand drifted off the woman when she stood and the Wanderer nodded. Her fingers reached out for a long flat stone that she promptly pushed into her pocket. It took only a few seconds and she followed the other woman back to the campfire.
Wraith had already divided the thin rice soup into their three worn clay bowls, and was now kneeling beside them with his head bowed, praying to the shattered gods in his native Rise. Though the two women didn’t know most of the words, they caught the names of their friends Solar, Archer and Raven...and then the name Weaver as well.
“Her too?” Illusion asked, frowning as she sat down.
The Wraith paused in his prayer and opened his eyes. “In death, all sins are forgiven. I pray for the better paths that they might have taken.”