Xenolith, Page 27A. Sparrow
Chapter 19: Upriver
Bag in hand, Vul sauntered upriver, festering over the nerve of Seor, sending him off to deliver food like some errand boy. Maybe she feared he might have harmed the shopkeeper who had ruined their homecoming. Regardless, shuttling food was no task for a warrior.
He kept out of the forest this time, sticking close to the river, its slick ledges and grimy sands. He had left the loft angry, but the music of the riffles and dance of sunlight over them helped salve his frustration.
Rivers spoke to something bedded deep within his fundament. A slow, winding creek had flowed behind his old homestead in Suul. As a boy, he had spent as much time in its muck as a mussel. Entire days he had worked and napped and played in and around the water.
He studied every swirl and eddy, their paradoxical mix of logic and chaos untangling thoughts, floating his darkest intimations around the bend. The universal physics of flow made him feel more connected to this strange world, its unfamiliar plants and animals; the bizarre, almost magical technologies of its people.
He found Cudi sitting watch by the river. Cudi chewed happily and hungrily on one of Ren’s befouled round breads, even though his fingers were still greasy from the fish Pari had roasted.
“Just like snakes they were, but with fins and gills.” Cudi demonstrated the method he used to pin them in the shallows with a forked stick.
Vul sat with him for a bit while he ate, his gaze drawn to the ceaseless traffic zipping by on the hillside.
“Seor’s right,” said Vul. “That gravel bank is no place for a xenolith.”
Cudi glanced up. “Oh, it’s not so bad. The terraces screen it from the road.” He ripped a lump of pink flesh from a transparent packet and popped it in his mouth.
Vul pretended to retch. “Seems I’m the only one without a taste for that slime.” He collected the bag with the remaining food. “I’m bringing what’s left to Pari and Alic, but I can come back to relieve your watch.”
“No need,” said Cudi. “I’m fine. No place I’d rather be. Close to the portal. I want to be the first to see it return.”
“That’s four days off, you realize,” said Vul. “At least.”
“So they say,” said Cudi.
Vul shrugged and made his way up over the berm and through the willows to the clearing where the shelter he had started was now complete: sheathed in evergreen boughs and clad against the wind with hunks of driftwood taken from the river. Pari tended a little clay teapot over a well aerated fire that shed but a slender thread of smoke that vanished in the breeze. Pari rushed over and gave him a hug.
“How’s everything downriver?” said Pari.
“Some good, some bad,” said Vul. “We got a stone, but turns out, it’s broken. They’re still looking for the other half.”
“So maybe that explains what happened to the portals?” said Pari.
“Yes, but exactly what, I’m not sure,” said Vul. He ducked his head into the shelter. “Alic?”
Alic sat propped on his elbows in a bed of grass, eyes bright and beetled. Weapons were stacked beside him: crossbows, short swords and a Giep’o longbow. Quivers full of bolts and arrows hung from the shelter’s frame.
“How’re you feeling?” said Vul.
“Like I was hugged … by a mountain,” said Alic.
Pari poked her head in. “At least he’s no longer bleeding. I made sure I stitched him up tight.”
“Is he able to walk?” said Vul.
“You kidding?” said Pari. “He wants to take the watch. I could only make him lay down by threatening to withhold his tea.”
“Six months with hardly an injury and poor Alic nearly dies on our doorstep,” said Vul.
“It’s always that way,” said Pari. “The last leg home is always the most dangerous.”
“Never did like convergences,” said Alic. “Not looking forward to the next.”
“It’ll be fine, Alic” said Vul. “We’ll stick you at the top of the queue.”
“Cudi insists he wouldn’t have gotten stuck,” said Pari. “Says he would’ve forced his way home through sheer power of will.”
“That’s Cudi for you,” said Vul. “Always thinking big.”
“It’s not that. He thinks he’s got a girl waiting for him,” said Pari.
Alic joined them outside, ignoring Pari’s remonstrations. He moved gingerly, but Vul was impressed he could move at all after what he’d been through. They sat cross-legged in the dirt and picked at the remnants of the roasted fish while Pari brewed another batch of tea.
“Seor wouldn’t have approved of your little hearth here,” said Vul.
“We had no choice,” said Pari, stirring the embers with a twig. “Medical emergency. Alic needed an infusion.”
“Was it that or wanting to roast these fish?” said Vul.
“Mmm, maybe a little of both,” said Pari. “Can’t see wasting a perfectly good fire. Didn’t we eat enough raw flesh in Gi?”
They chatted about home, speculating about the good times the comrades who had crossed without them might be enjoying, feeling happy for them and jealous at the same time. Alic barely spoke, his eyes glazed with pain or the effects of Pari’s infusion or both.
A mounting pressure in Vul’s bladder forced him up and made him wander to the berm bounding the clearing. He strode to the top where he could see a wide stretch of river, golden in the afternoon glow.
In the shallows below, Cudi posed like a statue with his stick, hunting for more snake fish. Vul fumbled with the metal strip that opened up the front of his pants and let spill onto a willow sapling. His gaze drifted to an odd haze over the gravel bank across the water. The air above it rippled like wavy glass. Stunned, Vul let a stream of urine soak his feet.
“The convergence!” he shouted, struggling to close a stuck fly. Cudi looked up, startled, stumbling. Pari bounded dashed to the berm, nearly colliding with Vul as he staggered about with his pants undone. She paid no attention to his difficulties, staring across to the gravel bank.
“For real,” said Pari, amazed. “How strange. What should we do?”
“What can we do?” said Vul, securing his trousers. “Nothing. Not without Seor and the others.”
Below them, Cudi leaned on his forked stick, watching the portal pulse ever wider. Mists condensed. A strengthening breeze ruffled the weeds and rippled the water.
“Looks like a big one,” said Pari. “Shame to waste it.”
Cudi waded out into deeper water.
“Where’s does he think he’s going?” muttered Vul, pushing through the willow saplings crowding the face of the berm. He slipped on loose scree and slid down to the water’s edge. When he regained his feet, Cudi stood halfway across the river, thigh deep in the swiftest current. The wind carried the unmistakable pungency of the wild scrub land outside Ubabaor.
A shape congealed in the center of the convergence, like a shadow turned corporeal. A man with a crossbow collapsed in the gravel, lying still for a moment before scrambling to his feet.
“It’s … Pana,” said Vul.
“Why would he come back?” said Pari.
Pana plunged into the river and splashed towards Cudi. “Get out! Get away!” Pana shouted. “They’re coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Cudi shouted back, as Pana closed the gap.
“Crasacs!” said Pana.
“Impossible,” Cudi scoffed. “You’re fooling with me.”
Pana grabbed Cudi’s arm. “Come on! There’s a whole bleeding regiment surrounding the portal.” Cudi shook his arm free. Pana looked pained but continued across, emerging beside Pari and Vul. “Where are your weapons?” he screeched, breathless and frantic. He turned towards the river. “Cudi. Come!”
More opacity filled the portal. Cudi backed away. The shapes resolved into men wearing brown, articulated armor, the red fist of Cra adorning their breastplates. Cudi broke and ran, stumbling over the uneven river bottom. More Crasacs arrived, wobbling into each other, st
unned and disoriented.
“Seek cover, you idiots!” said Pana, already over the berm.
One Crasac braced an over-sized, post-mounted crossbow with wings like the bones of a bat, while another adjusted its elaborate sight. Pari stared, frozen to the riverbank. Vul grabbed her vest and hauled her back into the trees.
A bolt the length of a man’s leg sprang from the weapon. Cudi dropped to his knees, gasping, fingers clutching a barbed point that had blossomed on his chest like a steel corsage. Pari made a small noise like she had been pricked with a pin. More, smaller bolts flew from the other Crasacs. Most plunged harmlessly into the water, but a few connected. Cudi dropped and let the current take him.
Pari started towards Cudi, but Vul took her arm and dragged her over the berm as bolts flitted softly through the leaves around them. They found Pana lying prone among the willows, face as grim and blank as a Giep’o grave marker. “Get your damned weapons and fetch the others!”
“But …” Pari started.
They raced back to the shelter. Alic was gone, along with his longbow. Vul handed Pari her gear, grabbed his own axe and crossbow and they returned to the berm.
Pana squinted past them when they returned. “Where’s Seor … and the others?”
“Downriver,” said Pari.
“What?” said Pana, face contorted with incredulity. “How far?”
“They went back to town,” said Vul.
Pana exhaled explosively. “I wish you’d told me that! How do you expect three of us to take on these bastards? I count eight so far and more coming through.”
A flurry of bolts penetrated the branches above their heads, one slapping into a trunk next to Pana’s shoulder. Pana ran his finger along its red fletching, wiggled it out and added it to his quiver. Vul sent two bolts back across the river, each only kicking up sand. Pari’s bolt, aimed more deliberately, arced into a Crasac and spun him down.
“Seven!” she said, bitterly exultant.
“Nine,” said Pana flatly, as two more Crasacs emerged through the portal.
The Crasacs dispersed like ants, found protected positions and kept a steady stream of bolts whizzing across the river.
“That stone needs to be closed,” said Pana.
“Closed?” said Pari.
“Destroyed,” said Pana. “We have no choice. It’s in enemy hands.”
“That’s insanity,” said Vul. “How?”
“I don’t know … yet,” said Pana.
On the opposite bank, two pairs of Crasacs had peeled away from the larger group, one pair moving upstream, the other downriver. “They’re flanking us!” said Vul. “We’d better move.”
They descended the berm and trotted across the clearing towards a mature wood that filled a bend in the river about fifty meters ahead. Copses of young trees interrupted an open terrain of rock and scrub, like a mossy desert.
As the forest loomed, Vul pushed through the saplings close enough to the river to see without being seen. The convergence had waned to a flicker. Only three of the enemy remained in view. Their appearance startled Vul.
One man wore the flowing, blue attire of an Initiate in the Sinkor warrior priesthood. Two soldiers in blue-daubed armor picked themselves up off the gravel and ushered the Initiate up a terrace and out of sight. They were Cuerti, elite guards of the clerical paramilitary, the best trained and armed soldiers in Venen.
Pana came up beside Vul, while Pari watched their back.
“Cra lovers, in Ur,” said Vul. “Who would have imagined?”
“Brought here by a traitor,” said Pana. “We saw him. Fancy clothes. A rich boy. He led them to the wrong place at first. We watched them search the fields below while the stone was with us, hidden in that grove on the hilltop. But the convergence came. Revealed itself. We were trapped. Surrounded. Couldn’t flee. Too many Crasacs and they came too fast.”
Vul noticed for the first time, the blood soaking Pana’s shirt. “Are you hurt?”
“This is not my blood,” said Pana.
“They’re coming,” said Pari, staring up past the shelter and the berm. The tops of some small trees shivered.
“To the wood,” said Pana. They ran through a patch of weak-thorned runners studded with rotten stumps and took refuge in a weedy gully just beyond the first trees. They watched as two Crasacs burst into the open and attacked the empty shelter, sabers drawn. More voices carried from the river’s edge.
“They’re bracketing us,” said Pana. “We need to get away from the river.” He led them through the gully, to the corner of the woodlot where a pair of elevated metal rails gashed the forest and separated them from a larger, fenced wood.
“We’ll keep under cover and work our way down,” said Pana.
“We should try to find Alic,” said Pari.
Trodden branches crackled in the wood. “No time,” said Pana. “We need to run or we’ll be cornered.”
Four Crasacs surmounted the hump of gravel bearing the rails. Pari swung her crossbow. “Can I?”
“Do it!” said Pana. “Then run to the next protection. We’ll stagger and cover in turn.”
Pana dashed away, with Vul one step behind him the instant Pari let her bolt fly. A Crasac clutched his leg and collapsed on the rails. The others retreated down the other side of the gravel bed.
Vul hopped behind an angular boulder. “I’ll take this. You cover the next.”
“Don’t linger too long,” said Pana, backpedaling as Pari passed them, flashing a wicked grin. “Find us and pass us.” Pana turned and followed after Pari.
Vul propped his crossbow. Both slots held bolts, cocked and ready, but he had no targets in sight. He waited, expecting Crasacs to emerge any second over the rails to his left. To his right, in the wood, the scuff and crackle of leaf litter grew louder. A shape appeared down a narrow lane through the boles. Vul jerked his crossbow over and snapped off a bolt.
Thwack! It missed the corridor completely, striking a tree several steps away.
Bolts returned from sources unseen, fluttering through the weeds from sources unseen. Vul saved his second shot and wheeled away from the boulder. He found Pari crouched behind a fallen tree, passed her and kept running.
The rails curved, forcing him closer to the river. A spidery, black-framed bridge and a mass of red brick buildings beyond marked the edge of the urban center.
Pari screamed. Vul had never heard her make such a sound. It jangled the length of his spine. He felt as if a bolt had gone through him. He turned back to find her, stomach sinking, as he pictured the condition he would find her, and the onslaught he would face to reach her.
Pari came knifing through the shrubs, bare feet flying, her body unpierced. Vul’s heart gave a start of unexpected joy. “I thought you were hit.” Relief smoothed his knotted brow.
“Just mad,” she said, panting. “I had one … sighted. Missed him!”
Vul glanced to the river and back. “Over the rails,” he said.
Pari charged up and over the graveled hump. Vul waited a few beats and followed, spotting three Crasacs crossing the rails simultaneously between them and the bridge.
As Pari waited in the forest, something charged out of the undergrowth behind her. Vul flipped up his crossbow reflexively.
“Put it down! It’s me,” said Pana.
“This tactic isn’t working,” said Vul. “They’re coming too quick.”
“Determined buggers, aren’t they?” said Pari.
“They want us exterminated,” said Pana. “Only we know they crossed to Ur.”
“So what do we do?” said Pari.
“We run,” said Pana.
They fled through scarred and fragmented woods into a rutted and dusty lot littered with concrete pipes and hulking yellow machines. A fence with overhanging coils of sharp-sharded wire blocked their way southward. Vul tried pulling the mesh from the ground as Canu had done, but here it was firmly anchor
“It’s breached close to the river,” said Vul.
“I saw movement down there,” said Pari. “We’d be ambushed.”
“They’re coming this way as well,” said Pana, staring up the fence line.
“There’s a gate, but it’s chained,” said Pari.
Vul had kept calm thus far, but the doom edging into his comrades’ voices stirred inklings of panic. Figures dashed from the wood to the machines behind them. Pari leaped onto the fence and scrambled up the mesh. Somehow she contorted herself around the coils, flipped over the top and released. Her vest snagged in the barbs. She dangled helplessly. Bolts clattered against the fence.
“Cover me,” said Vul, easing his axe out of its sling.
Pana, not bothering to aim, dispensed both bolts quickly to keep the Crasacs at bay, reloaded, recocked and scattered two more. Vul reached up his axe and swept it along the fence-top through Pari’s vest. It passed through the cloth like a feather through air. She fell free to the other side.
“Run,” said Vul. “Warn Seor.”
“I’m not leaving you yet,” said Pari, slotting two bolts, snapping one off at the Crasacs advancing behind the concrete pipes.
Pana rushed to the gate and rattled it. It had a bit of play despite the chain and padlock. Pana tried to squeeze through, but his hips got stuck. Vul hustled over and barreled into Pana, pushing with all the power he could muster. Pana grimaced, inched slowly forward before squirting through and tumbling. He joined Pari in keeping the Crasacs at bay.
Vul know he had no chance at following the slimmer Pana through the same gap. He straightened some chain links making it slightly wider. A bolt hissed by his ear. He slammed the dull side of his axe against the lock and chain, only scratching the hardened steel. The Crasacs behind the pipes kept popping up to shoot. It was only a matter of time before they brought him down.
One Crasac emerged and took careful aim. Vul dodged away. The Crasac grunted before he got his shot off, falling with an arrow in his back. Another Crasac stumbled out, clutching his stomach.
Alic hobbled up around the pipes, the Giep’o longbow in his grip. Blood gushed from a slash in his neck. Calmly, he threaded another arrow.
“I’ll buy you some time,” said Alic, hoarsely. “Try the sharp of your axe on that chain.”
“Alic, you’re small. You can squeeze through,” said Vul.
Alic leaned against a pipe. Blood ran from him and trickled down the curve of concrete.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Alic. “This is it for me.”
“You’re not that badly hurt.”
“Venom,” said Alic. “I could smell it on the bolt that clipped me. One of these bastards is using venom.”
“You can’t know that.”
“I do. I feel it. And I know how fast it works. Will you smash that damned chain already?”
Bolts chipped into the concrete, liberating little clouds of white dust. Alic send an arrow up the fence line.
Vul flipped his axe over. He lined up its painstakingly honed edge with the low point in the dangling chain. He raised it high, and brought it down hard and accurate against the links. The axe head exploded. The chain separated and the gate flew open.
Vul charged the gap. “Alic, come!” he said, glancing back, as a spear-sized bolt, like the one that felled Cudi, slammed into Alic’s side. His longbow went flying.
Pana and Pari flew up from the ground. “Keep running Vul!” said Pari. “Don’t stop.”
“But … Alic!”
“Alic’s lost,” said Pana. “Just keep on running.”