Book 2, Chapter 14

“And it’s a good thing that Petrilo dug, too.” The old woman, Mosz, leaned forward in her sling chair as her story entered the home stretch. “When his fingers cracked through the salt, he heard down below him the scratch and drag of the lang-dolac’s footsteps. In a frantic scramble, Petrilo dug his way free. He smashed through the salt, pushing his head through like a bird hatching from an egg. He took his first breath of fresh dawn air. Then he wriggled his shoulders free.

“His imagination filled his head with thoughts of sharp, cold bones grabbing at his ankles as he dragged himself up and onto the salt. The scratching beneath him drew nearer, nearer…” The old woman bounced her thick grey brows a single time. “But it never breached the surface. That day, Petrilo discovered something that would serve his people for generations to come: things bewitched can’t cross the barrier between salt and sky.”

She hesitated for a moment on that note, allowing those gathered around the fire to absorb that wisdom. Calay hadn’t noticed that he’d been holding his breath, but he released it in a slow exhale. He’d been hanging on her every word.

“These restless bones walking beneath the salt, these creatures, some say this explains the poison.” Mosz gestured with a gnarled hand. “Why some colors of salt turn you ill.”

Calay spent a long while pondering her words. At first he’d been ready to dismiss the story as an old wives’ tale–literally, given the age of the woman telling it. If certain varieties of salt from the Flats made people sick when they ingested it, that must be due to the chemical composition. Something in it turned the stomach. That could be useful in medicine, he knew–emetic powders were tough to measure, difficult to come by in Vasile. Expensive compared to the mostly-effective if crude method of suggesting a nauseous patient consume charcoal.

Now, though, he found his mind open to more unnatural possibilities. The swamp at Adelheim had changed him. No alterations in chemical composition could explain the way those trees moved. Or the strange mental connection that withered corpse had opened between he and Gaz and Torcha. The blinking motes of light inside his consciousness, little eyes opening and closing in the swamp like so many doors.

He knew it was silly that those experiences had shaken him so fundamentally. He was a sorcerer, for fuck’s sake. But the thing about sorcery that regular humans didn’t understand was that sorcery was simply a language. Sorcery had rules. Calay’s magicks sometimes had effects that weren’t as powerful as anticipated. Rarely they exceeded his expectations. Sometimes a new combination of glyphs had an effect that wasn’t quite what he was aiming for. But by and large, sorcery was simple mechanics. It was levers and wheels. It behaved in a predictable way that he could rely upon when needed.

If Alfend Linten’s teachings had opened Calay’s eyes, the last year of his life had opened a third one. 

There were things out there beyond his understanding. Beyond medicine. Beyond anatomy. Possibly even beyond sorcery. A campfire tale of forgotten bones doomed to shuffle eternally beneath the salt, poisoning everything above it… good, spooky entertainment though it might have been, Calay was unable to fully write the idea off.

Mosz’s son–or was it her brother?–passed around a bottle of something strong, a tart red liquor. Everyone took a parting swig and thanked the elder woman for her story. Calay left Riss to sort out the watch schedules and left Adal to dole out dessert.

He stood at the very fringe of the fire’s light, face turned toward the stars. Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind. Tried to focus on the gentle rasp of wind over salt, the crackle of the fire. Tried to figure out if he could sense anything. He was a sorcerer; surely if there was anything mystical or unusual about these parts, he should be able to tell.

All he felt was a little chilly, frankly. His road clothes were loose, breathable, comfortable for the hot confines of the wagon. But the hot desert turned brisk at night. 

The stars, though. They sure were something out here. It was silly, he knew, to be so constantly taken aback by the flatness of a region called the Alkali Flats. And yet he was. He’d never been in a place so flat. Even the widest squares in Vasile were nothing by comparison. There wasn’t a tree in sight, nor any hills or mountains. The old woman had said they’d spy the mountains by tomorrow. For now, there was nothing to indicate any one direction differed from another. Just the sun and the stars–far more stars than he was accustomed to seeing even when out of doors. Whole ribbons of them, little waterfalls of faint light that rippled across the sky.

Solid footsteps crunched at his back. He glanced over, expected to find Gaz towering at his side. Intead, to his surprise, it was Mosz who’d joined him. She wasn’t much taller than him, but her heavy feet had fooled him.

“You have a look to you,” she declared. Her tone of voice didn’t reveal whether she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. 

Calay said nothing, merely tilted his head, inviting her to explain.

“A quiet man with a loud mind,” she said. Her tone had a vague, world-weary sympathy to it, as if his was a problem suffered by a loved one or Mosz herself.

You don’t know me, Calay nearly snapped. But he restrained himself. The Beddos were, for the time being, their traveling companions. They’d engaged in no suspicious behavior. And he had to grudgingly admit that he’d enjoyed the lively story that Mosz had told, had enjoyed following Petrilo’s ups and downs.

“It’s been a long ride,” Calay conceded. “For many months before this one.”

If he were the type to share that sort of thing, he might have elaborated further on the strange feelings the Flats conjured in him. The way the vast, empty bigness of nature made him feel disconcertingly small. How the lack of walls triggered some primal, ancient prey mentality in the back of his mind. A constant low-key warning to run run run, because there was no shelter, because he was out in the open like a plump mouse in a barren field, cluelessly unaware of the circling hawks overhead.

Calay had always preferred to see himself as the hawk. He hated that vulnerability.

“Where I come from,” he told the woman instead. “It’s easy to see where you fit. Out here…” Too much horizon, too much space, it blurred the edges of everything together.

“Out here a man is alone with his own bones,” said Mosz. “Just your bones and the sky.”

That sent a little twitch through Calay’s shoulders. “Right,” he said.

“We have something that can help you sleep,” she offered. “Bottle of black spirits. Tastes of salted liquorice and calming mixed herbs.”

That sounded like an intriguing flavor profile. Calay wasn’t entirely sure. But then again, he could afford it. And they had a wagon to haul it. And building a bit of extra goodwill with these traders seemed like a smart move. All those justifications stacked up and he passed Mosz a handful of australs. She met him at the door to his wagon a few minutes later, waddling back with a skinny, long-necked glass bottle. She patted the back of his gloved hand as she passed it over, promising him pleasant dreams.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, unsure how to react to any of that. 

If she felt anything abnormal beneath the kidskin of his glove, she didn’t comment. She didn’t even glance down.

Everyone retreated to their respective wagons for the night. Calay didn’t trouble himself with the specifics of who was keeping which watch–he figured someone would wake him when it was his turn. There was a time not many years ago when he’d have never been able to take such a hands-off approach to his own safety. A time when he’d have insisted on first watch to take a measure of everyone else. To watch his own back.

Was he growing that comfortable with his companions or was he merely confident that none of them could kill him? He supposed he’d never know the answer to that.

When his brain got too thoughtful or the world got too weird, he had only one thing to do. He sought out the familiar, the calming. 

Gaz was alone in the second floor barracks when Calay finally found him. The big, thick-walled wagon was generous with its space. You could hardly guess five people slept aboard. 

“I have a mystery drink from our caravan companions,” Calay announced when he strolled in. “Pleasant dreams or your money back.”

Gaz, who was in the process of making up his bunk, finished shaking out a quilt. The skinny mattress of the bunk was built into a recess in the wall, an awkward shape and size. He hovered the quilt over it as though unsure which angle from which to attack.

“My dreams are already nice,” he said casually, without looking up. Finally, he just draped the quilt into place and left it there with a big, pensive shrug.

“Well aren’t you blessed.”  Calay rummaged around in the nook at the rear of the barracks, searching for a glass. 

“I like to think so.”

By the time Calay had located the pair of cups, Gaz had made up his bed for the night and taken up a seat beside the closest window. There weren’t any window slits or portholes beside the bunks. This made sense for safety and security purposes, Calay knew, but at the same time he understood his friend’s desire to have eyes on the sky. Being cooped up in a wagon in a strange wilderness with no sense of one’s place or position in the world made him uneasy. With all the shades drawn down, you couldn’t even tell the time of day.

“I wonder if this is how it is when you’re at sea,” Calay said. He poured two slim measures of thick, shiny black liquor and pressed one into Gaz’s hand.

“Think this place would be awful cramped if we were.” Gaz took the liquor, sniffed it. “Loy says sleeping on a ship is a nightmare. Everyone’s shoulder to shoulder in tiny hammocks. Ship’s only big enough to sleep a third of her crew at once.”

That was the first time he’d discussed Loy in such depth for… well, since they’d left her. Calay couldn’t even articulate how much had changed since then. He felt an impetus to apologize then, to tell Gaz that he knew how badly he’d misjudged his feelings for Loy and that he was sorry, truly sorry, for the cruel things he’d said.

But the funny thing about all those years, all that distance, was that he found the more he thought about it, the more it didn’t matter. Was it worth apologizing for something that occurred an emotional lifetime ago? Was a sincere apology worth doing if you had to tug open old wounds to do it? At what point did one outweigh the other? These, too, Calay figured he’d never know the answer to.

“I meant more the… spatial strangeness of it,” he said, staying focused on boats. “Having a sense of motion without a sense of place. Feeling the wheels moving without being able to see where you’re going or even where you are.”

Gaz sipped his liquor, then made a pleased noise. “Nice,” he said. “And… that part is horrible, yeah.”

Calay glanced down and discovered his cup was empty. He’d slugged his own drink down without even tasting it. Or noticing he’d done it. Too many questions rattling around in his head. 

“We’d be terrible sailors,” he said as he poured himself another drink.

Footsteps creaked quietly across the roof. Calay paused, glancing up, but soon he knew the heel-heavy stomps as Torcha’s. Then Adal’s, tapping with his toes. Riss was the only one he didn’t hear yet; she rolled her feet a little when she walked, a hint of the recon bowman’s woodlands crawl never having left her. When he heard these patterns, he found them calming.

She joined the pair a moment later, strolling sedately across the roof.

Gaz’s features were inscrutable as he studied the Flats outside the window. Or perhaps the stars. There were all sorts of questions and conversations that could have filled these quiet moments, yet the stark state of the land outside seemed to request his silence. Involuntarily, his thoughts snapped back to the sharp sizzle of connection, the flood of racing thoughts and sensation he’d felt from Gaz and Torcha both when they’d touched hands with the Collective. The Bridging. 

This flat, empty place seemed to stretch every human connection thinner. Its silence and stillness wedged into the gaps between people, encouraging vastness between them.

Calay had a lot of questions he could have asked. Were apologies worth it if they unearthed old hurts? Was he starting to call these familiar footsteps his friends? When exactly was one of them going to cave and broach the subject of what are we, exactly, these days? 

Yet as he studied the fire through the window and watched the flames flicker, all that came to mind was a sinister interpretation of the Flats’ quiet. This quiet is trying to spread us out, he thought. Because it’s easier to pick us off one by one. 

He tasted his drink by the third glass. It didn’t quite tuck him into a cozy liquorice bed the way Mosz promised, but it did help him sleep. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 13 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 13

If you’re looking for a story of the Flats to pass around at night, there is none quite like the story of the salt-digger Petrilo. Years and years ago, when the wave of the First Wasting spread across the maps, many in the Flats grew ill. Petrilo, a young man of only seventeen, was sent into the vast and uncaring salt to seek a burial place for his ailing parents. 

A plague creeping its way across the Continent, his own parents perilously ill, you would think Petrilo was juggling enough problems. But his trials were only just beginning.

###

Petrilo shuddered, trying to catch his breath without slowing down. He’d been walking for hours, ever since his horse had finally given out a few miles back. The sun had since dipped below the horizon, but still the Flats radiated heat up into his face. Sweat poured down his brow, the bottoms of his feet throbbed in his rawhide boots, and a persistent ache in his side stabbed toward his lungs with each breath he choked down.

Still he kept walking. And he only walked because he’d run out of stamina to run.

Still the forgotten bones pursued him.

Bleached white by the unforgiving desert sun, the bones had rested in a neat and fleshless pile when he’d first rode past. The salt was well on its way to subsuming them, glittering in multifaceted crystals. Petrilo spared no worries for the old ways, for the stories his grandmother had told him growing up. The stories about how bones in this part of the world don’t stay still unless properly interred. He didn’t ride close for the purpose of inspecting them, nor out of a sense of deliberate disrespect… but he rode too close regardless.

He woke them.

The clatter at his back had spurred his horse into a frenzied gallop. It ran until it dropped dead. Yet no matter how fast it ran, each time Petrilo looked over his shoulder, a lurching silhouette studded with shining crystals loomed in the distance behind him.

A lang-dolac. Bones, once forgotten, now spiteful.

Petrilo couldn’t bear to look back. He couldn’t stand the sight of the thing, the way its head drooped in a painful-looking wobble, weighted down by salt. The way it moved, unnatural and swaying, bobbing like an owl swallowing a mouse. 

He could hear it, could tell its nearness by the drag of its club foot across the salt. Each dragging skrrrtch sent a fresh tremor of fear through him, stabs of fright and breathlessness all but cleaving his chest in two.

It was too late to send a prayer up to his grandmother, to apologise for his foolishness. He’d set out to search for a burial plot for his parents, burdened with illness back at camp, but it seemed he’d only found his own grave. 

Something caught his eye: a shadow on the horizon, too persistent to be a trick of the light or a side effect of his exhaustion. 

The only thing that could save Petrilo now was a shelter, some fortress the lang-dolac couldn’t tear apart with its bony forelimbs. A shadow on the ground wasn’t that. But it at least gave him something to focus on, some target to strive toward. Forcing down a struggling breath, Petrilo redoubled his efforts and broke out into a slow jog, salt crunching under his soles.

A ribbon of black stretched across the horizon, opening up as he struggled closer. Soon, his eyes could pick out enough detail and perceive enough depth that he recognized it as a chasm in the ground. Several hundred handspans long, the rend in the earth was a pitch-black hole, its jagged edges like a wound torn by dogs’ teeth. 

If he could find a crevice narrow enough to wriggle into, it might buy him time. The bone and crystal creature loomed as tall as a horse, its bony limbs thick with inches of crusted salt. Petrilo was smaller, nimbler, and if he could find a narrow place to hide…

His shoes reached the ravine’s edge. Panting, he peered down into the dark. He could scarcely see a thing. 

Behind him, the salt skrrrtch-ed with each dragging footstep the creature took.

Petrilo couldn’t help it. He looked back. 

A jagged, dark skeleton on the horizon, the lang-dolac trudged resolutely forward, walking with ageless patience. It dragged one of its arms now, too. Doubled over, it resembled a hideous, lopsided monkey, its jaw nearly scraping the salty earth. The salt crystals that studded its bones glowed subtly, lit from within by a ghostly bluish light.

Petrilo stared, jaw agape, as the creature lifted its head. He felt rather than saw it make eye contact. Blue fire blazed to life in its crystal-edged eye sockets.

Yelping, Petrilo threw himself over the edge of the ravine. He sought footholds at an awkward scrabble, more sliding than climbing, spurred forward by an adrenal surge of pure terror. His hands scraped at rocks and missed. Sharp stone shredded his tunic and pierced through one sole of his shoes. By the time he hit the bottom, he was more falling than climbing, battered and scraped.

Above him, a sliver of sky glowed with starlight, threads of purple and vivid blue blotched across the murky black.

He took a moment to catch his breath, dry-mouthed and panting. Then he reached into his sling, seeking a torch. He’d pushed his arms to the limit on the climb and now he paid the price: his hands trembled, unwilling to comply with his brain’s demands. Finally, he fished out his flint and struck a light, already edging away from the cliff he’d climbed down.

Red-brown stone walls held him in a close embrace, just enough space between them to shimmy through. He picked a direction at random, working his way through the tight-fitting slot canyon. Within moments, he heard it at his back: a far-off, distance-muffled skirrrrrr-ch.

Shoving forward, he launched through the slot canyon as quick as his feet could carry him, uncaring of the sting when stone scraped at his shins and elbows. There was a tumbling clatter-clack behind him as the creature threw itself into the ravine, mindless of pain or damage in its single-minded pursuit of him.

Just as he was growing out of breath once more, Petrilo spied an opening in the sheer stone wall: a thin crack of cave, just the sort of passageway he’d hoped he could wriggle into, far too short for the lang-dolac to crawl inside. 

Drawing in a breath and turning his shoulders sideways, Petrilo squeezed inside. He had to hold his torch at an awkward angle, the flames guttering each time they brushed against hard stone. He crept as quietly as he could, taking the narrow passage deep into the wall of the ravine. The narrow passage twisted and turned, sloping downward, and soon he could no longer see the sky. It was as though the earth had swallowed him, pushed him down its rough stone esophagus.

His pulse slowed, then his footsteps did likewise. Aching all over, he leaned against the cavern wall and exhaled harshly. The creature could no longer see the light from his torch; with luck, it would pass him by entirely. Could it smell? Could it hear? How was it tracking him, anyway? The old stories, they never had pertinent information about how their horrors hunted. The thought sent a dry, dusty laugh bubbling out of Petrilo’s chest, though he muffled it with a fist.

He began to wonder how long he should stay put, how long he could hide down here before he could be sure the creature wandered off. Though he was still aware of his fear, with each minute of silence that passed, it grew a little further away. And with that distance came clarity: he could survive this. He would survive this. Soon, this would be just another story passed among his aunties and uncles at the fireside. 

Reaching back into his sling, Petrilo splashed a scant measure of water into his mouth. He said a silent prayer of thanks to Mother Salt and Father Water. Each year it seemed the young along the salt trails believed in Mother and Father less, but Petrilo wanted to cover all his bases. If anyone actually intervened back there, he thought, thanks. Then he chuckled to himself. What his grandmother would say if she’d heard him praying such foolishness. His chuckle died in his throat. She’d probably get the belt, is what she’d do. A devout woman for all her days–

Distorted by the high stone walls, a horrible crack echoed down the corridor. Followed by another. And another. It was the sound of a buzzard’s beak rending carrion apart. The sound a horse’s hooves made when they trampled a man to death. A twisting, pulling, rending-apart sound, a louder version of the crunch when Petrilo snapped at the ribs of roast suckling piglets.

Then came the dragging. Skrrrtch. 

Stowing his water immediately, Petrilo shoved off the wall and started scrambling down the stony passage anew. How had the creature found him? He’d been so quiet, so still… It must be smell, he reasoned. Or some innate sixth sense. A glowing monster of crystal and bone? Perhaps it could hear his very heartbeat. Or his thoughts. He was a fool to think he’d outwitted it.

When one of his calves seized up with cramp, he ignored the pain. Then, to his eternal, cursing frustration, the narrow tunnel broadened up before him. The crack broke through into a cavern proper, the big footstep-echoing kind with dripping stalactites and bands of darker color rippling through the reddish stone. He’d have taken a moment to appreciate the marbled beauty of it were it not for death snapping at his heels.

And now, in this bigger space, the lang-dolac would be able to move about freely. 

Petrilo’s fingers trembled on the shaft of his torch. The rough-walled chamber was so broad that the torchlight didn’t reach its far walls. He put a hand to his heart, murmured a small prayer to quiet its frenzied beating. The torch wouldn’t be an asset here. It would be a beacon, drawing the creature toward him in such a visible, open space.

An idea occurred to him. Edging as quick as he could along the cavern wall, he sought out a narrow passageway to the left. He navigated the first turn in its corridor, then paused. If this idea worked, it would buy him time. Time to do what his brain hadn’t exactly decided, but time was what he needed.

There were many members of Petrilo’s family who were famed for their smarts. His grandmother and grandfather, for example, had dedicated their lives to studying the game trails and migratory patterns of the Flats’ native creatures. Their study combined with the other families’ hunting and trapping techniques had ushered his people into an era of modest prosperity. They’d sired six children between the two of them, and of the four who survived to adulthood, all were hailed as quick thinkers and solvers of problems. His own father was a leatherworker, already one of the camp’s best despite his comparatively young age. 

This was all to say that in Petrilo’s youth, there had always been an expectation placed upon him. The burden of future success had weighed him down through the many failures of his childhood. Each time he failed to achieve something great or woke one morning thinking he’d come up with some genius only to discover it was a bold, idiotic stinker of an idea, he feared more and more that he’d inherited none of the mettle and wit that graced his lineage.

In that moment, when he dropped his torch and left it guttering on the ground, Petrilo didn’t know it, but he was making his smartest decision yet. 

Picking a tense, quiet path back into the main cavern, Petrilo sought off in the opposite direction to the light. He could only hope the lang-dolac was tempted by his cunning lure. He could hear it, if he paused and strained itself. The scrape of its footsteps was uneven now, sharper than before. 

Creeping to the far right side of the cavern, Petrilo ducked down a passageway, guiding himself by feel alone. He’d glimpsed his options in the torchlight back when he had it. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been long enough to make a mental map of ground hazards or low-hanging stalactites, but he swept his hands out before him like a man in a dust storm, slowly inching along without maiming himself.

Time melted away to an abstract, far-off concept. All that mattered was putting distance between himself and the old bones before they figured out his ruse. It occurred to him at some point that he’d been creeping along in total blackness for at least an hour. Maybe more. It felt like forever. So he began to count in his mind, so at least he had some measure of how long had passed. The counting served a second purpose, too: it distracted his mind from obsessing over his ears, from straining hard to hear the rasp of the creature’s footsteps coming for him. 

His counting passed one hundred. Two hundred. Three. Still, he had yet to hear the creature. He also had yet to find a way out for himself, but that was a secondary concern. Petrilo had heard tales in his youth of men lost in the wilderness, how quickly they died up top from water-lack. Here, though, he was down below. And he had water on his person. By lost wilderness person standards, he was a prince. 

His count had reached sixteen hundred and eighty when he passed beneath the light.

Blinking and startling back, Petrilo turned his eyes toward the cavern ceiling. Faint pink light warmed the passageway from above. The tunnel itself was three times Petrilo’s height, perhaps taller at its apex, but in the faint new light provided from up top, he could spy great, thick stalactites spearing down from the ceiling like teeth.

Climbing to the light would be trivial. For a moment, he wondered if he should. But instinct quashed that thought quickly: light could only come from one source out here, in this place where nothing was man-made. Light meant the sun. Meant a way out.

So Petrilo climbed. He whipped his sling back over a shoulder and shimmed up the closest stalagmite, gaining a few handspans of elevation. Then he swung a foot out, bracing himself between two of the narrow stone pillars. He shimmed up between them, climbing like a lemur, then swung onto the stalactite proper, inching his way up it while hugging it with both arms. It was slower going than this description makes it sound, friends. Petrilo wasn’t quite a great thinker like his parents, but woe be to him, he was not a great athlete either. Still, he persisted upward. 

And a good thing, too. Because after many minutes of slow, persistent climbing, he heard the first telltale kerrrrshkt down the tunnel. 

His heart fell down into his toes. How could the creature have possibly found him? He’d lured it away. He’d been creeping along for hours. There was simply no way.

Yet his ears did not betray him. He heard another dragging footstep, then another. He had no way of knowing how far off they were.

So Petrilo climbed with renewed urgency, inching his way up toward the ceiling of the cave. He discovered the source of the light only when he neared it: the first rays of sunlight peeking through a hard-caked layer of salt. The rosy glow of dawn filtered through hundreds upon hundreds of tiny salt crystals, tinging his skin pink and all the surrounding stone with it–it was among the most beautiful sights Petrilo had ever seen. He paused for a breath, as if hoping to absorb the sunlight’s splendor, and for a brief, beautiful moment it drove all thoughts and worries of the creature from his mind.

Skrrrrch. That didn’t last long. 

Whipping a hand out behind him, Petrilo reached into his sling. He withdrew his digging stick, a sharp-tipped whittled antler used to break up clumps of salt when foraging.

Petrilo had been digging salt his whole life. This was something he knew. 

Slow, persistent, careful to conserve his strength, he began to dig toward the light. He dug for his life. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 12 | Book 2, Chapter 14 >>

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