Chapter 15

It had already been a difficult day, so naturally it began raining.

Only a patter at first, nothing like the sheets of icy water Peredur’s coasts enjoyed springing on its dwellers, but it grew. Within an hour they could hardly see in front of the even with the lantern, stumbling along carefully. Master Cozme pointed out a silver lining, that few lemures could fly in such weather and none could follow a scent through it, but wet feet spoke louder than his optimism. It did not stop there: Angharad had near forgot that the High Road was an aqueduct, after using it for a highway so long, but now she was up to her ankles in the reminder. The rain had filled the aqueduct’s body up to their ankles and were it not so rich with broken edges the water would have run even higher.

Between wading against the current on now treacherous footing, all of them being soaked to the bone through their clothes and the wind beginning to hurl itself at them from the east – cold, it felt as if none of them were wearing coats – the mood took a grim turn.

It did not help that not all were recovered from the encounter with the harrowhawk. Angharad was yet dazed, prone to staring out into the storm, and though Cozme had cleaned out the wound he’d taken on his face the flesh was still dark. They were both better off than Augusto Cerdan, whose left arm was broken, and better still than poor Briceida. The handmaid had been sick since eating her chalk tablets, enough that the wind and rain slowed her advance to a crawl. Brun was helping her keep pace, but the two were at the back of the company and certain to stay there. Angharad made sure to pull back and stay with them a span whenever they trailed behind too much.

She caught an irritated expression on Brun’s face once or twice, but she would tell him later no insult was meant to his efforts. It was only that if they lost the pair in the storm, there was no telling when the two would be able to catch up. Better to slow their entire company than to risk it.

They all felt the change in the current around two hours before dinner, the way it was now pulling forward instead of back. It was good news, Angharad was informed as a few of them pulled close together and shouted over the rainstorm’s din to understand each other. It meant they were close to a break in the aqueduct, one they had planned to reach hours ago. They had passed the great river without even realizing and by now they must be surrounded by woods. If they pushed on after dinner time, they ought to reach the end of the High Road today. Since no one was eager to sleep in a river, Angharad the notion was agreed on.

The first break in the High Road was subtle enough Beatris almost walked off the edge.

She was pulled back shrieking by Remund Cerdan, who promptly shouted for a halt. It was only a break of about five feet, though unnaturally neat: as if some giant’s sharp sword had sliced through the aqueduct. If not for the weather they might have been expected to make the jump, but as things stood Remund was prevailed upon to use his contract. First a ring for them to step on, halfway, then another above and to the side of it for them to hold on to.

“Some of you have gloves,” Song shouted into the rain. “They should be shared with whoever crosses.”

Not even the Cerdan brothers tried to argue that holding a cloth to the rings of light would be enough in such weather. Good. Angharad had not been looking forward to again pulling her sleeves forward and grasping the light through them: if she slipped even a little, she would be holding the burning radiance. She was the third to cross, using Isabel’s gloves and passing them back to a leaning Brun, and once across with her pack she followed Cozme to the edge to share in his grimace. The small break had only been the first, leading onto an elevated island ten feet long. The real precipice lay ahead: almost forty feet of mostly missing aqueduct, with some arches still standing but no funnel over them.

“It may be too dangerous to cross,” Master Cozme yelled.

The man passed a hand through his drenched hair, clearly regretting the loss of his hat. Angharad sympathized: with how much rain her braids had taken, it felt like someone had hung a waterskin against the back of her head.

“We cannot camp here,” Angharad shouted back. “There’s no other way.”

“He’ll need to be carried after,” Cozme told her. “The contract is hard on his body.”

“Then we will carry him,” the Pereduri insisted.

There was no arguing with the needs of the moment, so before long Remund Cerdan set to tracing his rings of light across the gap. It was a thing surreal, almost out of a play, to see the man hanging in the air in the middle of a storm with only slices of light to stand on, making a foothold and handhold every time. Had Angharad not been able to glimpse the clear terror on the younger Cerdan’s face, she might have thought him a spirit. Lord Remund slowed near the end, his limbs grown stiff, and only narrowly made it to the other side. He collapsed the moment he reached there, though to everyone’s relief the rings stayed. Not knowing how long that would be the case, they set to crossing in a hurry.

It was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant experiences in Angharad’s life.

The rain somehow made the solid light slippery, and with the wind whipping it in her face she could barely see the rings ahead of her. Twice she had to hold on for dear life to one of the ‘handhold’ rings as her boots slipped, fear icily seizing her limbs, and when she threw herself at the end of the road her angle was off: she fell and bruised her knees against the aqueduct’s bottom, cold water running down from her collarbones to her belly. It was a good thing she carried no blackpowder, for it would surely have been ruined. As the fourth to cross Angharad found that others had already helped Remund to sit up but also that he was no better for it.

Though he stayed out of the lantern’s light, all the skin she glimpsed had turned pale as ivory and she hardly saw him move save for breathing. The infanzon was half a statue already and there were still others yet to cross. Stomach in knots at the though of what might happen to him and the others both, Angharad stalked around the end of the ring road with nervous impatience. They had a stroke of luck when the storm began to calm, the rain growing sparser, but it would only get them so far. By the time the last of them began the crossing, Remund could only moved with a shallow breath. Not even to blink. Augusto was the last to cross, and in a way he was lucky.

The storm was near dead by now, the rain barely more than a patter and the wind more of a breeze. The Cerdan made better time than any of them all the way across – lights winking out behind him – as he made haste. On the last foothold he threw them all a cocky grin, his only good hand releasing the handhold ring before he leapt.

The wind picked up halfway through.

Angharad was standing close, still stalking about, so she saw the horror writ plain on his face. His jump fell short, brushed aside, and he hit the edge of the aqueduct with his belly. Hands scrabbled against wet, smooth stone while water flowed into his face – screams of surprise of dismay sounded behind her, but Angharad was already moving. She caught his arm as it slid back, clothes ripping but her fingers tightened around his wrist and she held tight with gritted teeth. She was kneeling in the water and, Sleeping God, she could feel her boots slip.

“Help her,” Isabel shouted.

Cozme was there a moment later, pulling at Augusto’s shoulder, and between the two of them they hoisted him over the edge. Augusto crawled through the wet, eyes wild and limbs shaking as he fled the edge of the aqueduct.

“Gods,” the infanzon croaked. “Gods.”

Catching her breath, Angharad knelt by his side and closed her eyes. Her heart was beating as wildly as his must. She might have stayed there a while, rain flowing down her face, had the infanzon not tugged at her sleeve.

“Thank you,” Augusto Cerdan said. “Lady Tredegar. I did not think you would…”

“We are under truce,” Angharad said. “Your safety is yet my concern.”

It was not the reason she had moved. In the moment, she had only seen a man about to die. Honor’s laws had only caught up to her hands after the deed. The dark-haired noble swallowed, nodding, and looked torn.

“The rings only support the weight of one man,” he said, tone somewhere between a plea and a concession. “There was no other way for us to live. The knife, it was a mercy. Better that than to be eaten alive.”

Her face hardened.

“Then we should have died,” Angharad flatly replied. “There are some lines good men do not cross.”

His cheeks were already red from the cold, but anger reddened them yet more.

“I should have known better,” Augusto Cerdan spat out. “Go on, then, Tredegar. Honour has been satisfied, you need not keep my company any longer.”

It sounded fine by her, so she stiffly took her leave. Even after that close call their company agreed to press on, for now that the storm was weak they were certain to be able to descend from the High Road that night. The original plan, Angharad learned, had been for their company to camp up on the aqueduct for safety and then descend the following morning – that method would also allow Remund, who was still unmoving as marble, to rest before using his contract again. Instead they would be using the rope taken from the hollows that Angharad was carrying so they might find shelter down in the woods away from the water. It would take hours, after all, for the aqueduct to empty even after rain ceased. None of them wanted to sleep in a filthy riverbed.

It was almost a surprise that the last leg of the journey was so uneventful, the only imposition that Remund Cerdan had to be carried by two of them at all times. He was, she noticed much heavier than a man his size should be. Angharad was careful never to touch any of that too-pale skin when it was her turn to bear the weight, afraid of what it might spread. By the time they reached the end of the High Road, or at least the part they intended to use – its silhouette resumed half a mile ahead, leading into the mountains – Remund was capable of hobbling forward. It only took one of them to help him keep up, much like Briceida.

Getting down from the aqueduct was more tedious than dangerous. Remund and Briceida were lowered tied with the rope instead of climbing down, which took most of the rest of their company to do safely, and after that down went their last supplies. They were all soaked, exhausted and irritable but by the end of it they were finally back on solid ground.

Around them were deep woods, tall trees whose branches obscured much of the sky, but the way forward was plain: they were near the bottom of a hill and going north up the slope would lead them to the mountains where the second trial awaited. There would be a need to march eastwards for a few hours, as the High Road was on the western half of the Dominion, but they should be well past the hollows and the most dangerous lemures. They still set a watch after finding a tall tree to hide under, settling in for the night and hoping their clothes would dry some before they had to march again.

Exhaustion saw to it that Angharad fell into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

The clothes were only half-dry, so they all stank like dogs when they set out the following morning.

The slope was muddy and slippery, covered by a thick carpet of dead leaves, but there could be no mistaking the way they needed to go. Up the hills they went, through trees and great ferns and fields of pale blue wildflowers. When the mud turned to rock Angharad knew they were close, and barely an hour after that they were looking up at the towering heights of the mountains at the heart of the Dominion of Lost Things.

“We are a little further north than I would prefer,” Song told them, consulting her map, “but following the mountains east will get us most of the way there. We will have to go around crags to find the road to the sanctuary, but I expect we will reach the end of our journey a little past midday.”

The Tianxi’s prediction ended up somewhat off, as they discovered two hours in that a landslide had cut their path east. They decided against risking to cross it when they found some great boulders balancing precariously further up, instead dipping back south into the woods and then resuming going east. Their pace was slower in the forest, noticeably so, and by the time they stopped for lunch they were barely halfway through the journey. Before long, at least, they finally found the crags that Song had mentioned: three massive rocks with flat tops, forming a broad half-circle appended to the mountainside.

“The road we must take passes behind them,” Song said, “and then rides the edge of the one closest to the mountains to lead up to the sanctuary’s entrance.”

“Would it not be possible to go through them instead?” Master Cozme asked. “Surely there are paths we could use.”

“There are, but I was advised against doing this,” the Tianxi replied. “Landslides are apparently common, especially after rain.”

“It is an unnecessary risk,” Isabel opined. “Let us take the longer way.”

Most agreed with her, including Angharad. They had barely begun circling the crags when Brun breathed in sharply. He turned to catch her eye and she drifted close, but Remund Cerdan – now recovered, unlike poor Briceida who was still lagging behind despite being able to walk on her own – raised a hand at them.

“None of that,” the infanzon said. “If your contract had told you something, share it with all our company and not only our dear Lady Tredegar.”

Angharad grimaced but nodded when Brun’s turned a questioning gaze her way. The cat was out of the bag: Master Cozme had noticed the hint of a contract before their fight with the hollows, and evidently passed on his suspicions to his lords.

“There are people to our west,” Brun said. “Hollows, I think. At least ten of them.”

They had just come from the west, moving eastwards, so their company was either being followed or about to be: most of them were poor woodsmen, any half-decent tracker would be able to find traces of their passage.

“Are they following us?” Augusto Cerdan bluntly asked.

“Too early to tell,” Brun shrugged, “but they are coming our way.”

“Then we must hurry,” Angharad said. “The last thing we need is a fight.”

She did not fear testing her blade against darklings, but their company was wounded and exhausted. Mistakes were certain to be made. They picked up the pace, no longer even half-heartedly attempting not to leave a trail, and after half an hour Brun told them the hollows had been left behind. The news cheered them all, until another quarter hour passed and he told them that another group of hollows was coming from the west.

They were, it seemed, being hunted.

“If we head south we might be able to circle around the western warband,” Isabel suggested.

“That is exactly what they want, my lady,” Cozme Aflor shook his head. “They are not going for the kill at the moment, only pushing us firther away from the sanctuary so they might hunt us at their leisure.”

“We don’t know how well they can track us,” Remund noted. “Isabel’s idea might well be feasible.”

Angharad shook her head.

“This is too much for coincidence,” she said. “How would they have known to watch near the High Road? It smacks of Gloam sorcery or a tracking contract.”

The latter were not so rare: she had been hunted through the streets of Sacromonte by what she suspected to be exactly such a thing. The darklings of the Dominion were a cult worshipping some ancient spirit, it was only to be expected that some among them would have won contracts off this ‘Red Eye’.

“She is right,” Master Cozme grunted. “It’s too close a hunt for how clever we have been. There is only one way: we need to try the crags.”

No one was eager, given the dangers Song had spoken of, but at least the landslides would not be purposefully hunting them.

“I saw what looked like a trail going up,” Brun told them.  “About half a mile back.”

“I saw it as well,” Song agreed. “It seems our best chance if we are to move quickly enough to slip the noose.”

It felt like wasted time to go back the way they’d just come, but Angharad kept silent. It was the wisest course. The trail the pair had spoken of was more of ravine just large enough for someone to squeeze through, leading towards what the lantern revealed to be an outcropping low enough to be climbable. For lack of better choices they went through, stone scraping at their sides. It was half an hour of occasionally painful squeezing and climbing – Briceida was finally feeling better, no longer slowing them down so much – until they reached a broader path.

It was another ravine inside the crag, this one about two people wide. Angharad suspected it must have been worn into existence by rain over decades, for it was narrow at the top and wider at the bottom. The ground had dried since last night, fortunately, and the footing was smooth. The occasional falling rock was a small price to pay for the good time they made but goods news, as ever, were followed with bad.

“We are being followed,” Brun told them, voice echoing against the stone. “They are taking the same path we did.”

And gaining on them, he did not need to say. They hurried but the hollows stayed on their heels and the situation was untenable. It was Augusto that offered a solution.

“Look at the edges on either side,” he said, pointing up.

Rocks was what they found, but Angharad immediately grasped what he was leading at. Their ravine, carved by water, was thinner at the top. The cliffside over them was being eaten away at by erosion, grown unstable. With the right nudge, it could collapse.

“We do not have enough powder to blow it up,” Angharad told him.

Not even if they used every powder box and pouch they had with them.

“No,” Augusto agreed, “but there is another method at hand.”

He turned to Briceida, face stern, and the handmaid flinched. The Pereduri wanted to chide the infanzon for demanding such a thing of her when only yesterday she had saved all their lives, but she bit her tongue. It would work, she was sure of it. The ravine echoed slightly when they spoke, the oppressive noise that the redhead’s contract made was certain to have great effect. And as she had said, they did not have enough powder to use instead. So instead Angharad steeled her heart and stepped forward.

“If you are too sick to walk afterwards, Briceida, I will carry you myself.”

The other woman flinched again, and Angharad bit the inside of her cheek in shame. Isabel laid a hand on her handmaid’s arm and gently smiled.

“You know I would not ask it of you if our lives were not on the line, my dear,” the infanzona said. “But they are, yours among them.”

Briceida reluctantly nodded, then turned to address Angharad.

“I will surely have need of your aid, my lady, so I must take you at your word,” she said.

“As it should be,” the Pereduri simply replied.

They waited longer before doing it, choosing a fitting place for the deed. Further ahead they found a place where the ravine narrowed to a single man’s width and the slope rose quickly ahead, which was most suitable. Angharad was tense all throughout, but after Briceida clapped her hands only a few chunks of stone fell over their heads – and their group scattered in time. The redhead had directed the sound skillfully, and past them the damage was impressive. After the initial avalanche, a heartbeat passed and there was a massive crack. An entire chunk of the cliff began sliding down, a stone larger than two horses, while all along the ravine smaller rocks fell in a thundering rain.

Briceida bit through another tablet of chalk and was noisily sick afterwards, barely able to stand, so Angharad had her climb on her back and hold tight. They did not wait until the dust had settled to begin their flight.

It was another hour of narrow ravines and waterless waterfalls before they found a way out, which to their pleasant surprise was atop the middle crag of the three. They rose to the stars above their heads and a spread of thin grass atop the stone, woods beginning ahead. That stripe of forest seemed to lead all the way to where the first crag touched the mountains, from what they could make out. There Song said that the road to the sanctuary and the shrines began. Though it had been a dangerous affair, in the end they had shaven a few hours off their journey by risking the crags. The mood lifted at the news, even Briceida managing a smile, and they resumed their march.

When they were a dozen feet away from the forests’ edge, Brun suddenly went still.

Angharad was learning to hate the sight of that.

“Hollows,” he said. “Dozens of them, waiting in ambush.”

Master Cozme loudly cursed. Angharad wished manners allowed her to do the same, for she fully shared the sentiment. The cult of the Red Eye had been one step ahead of them again.

“How far ahead?” Song asked.

“Hard to tell,” Brun admitted. “There’s something off about the warband, like it is not truly there. I think the Gloam might be clouding my contract.”

“So it could be false, an illusion?” Augusto Cerdan pressed.

“Wishful thinking,” Angharad cut in. “We must treat them as real.”

The ensuing argument was quiet but heated, their company eventually owning up to the truth that there was no way out but through. Going eastwards on the other crag had no guarantee to yield a path down, and even if it did there was no guarantee the hollows would not follow them there – or even wait at the end of the path, at the bottom of the climb towards sanctuary. The trouble was that not all of their group was fit to fight, or even run for long, so a ruse need be employed.

“One group to draw attention, another to sneak through,” Master Cozme suggested.

It was a plain strategy, but they were not well-oiled enough a crew to attempt anything complicated anyhow. Simply putting all the fighters in the distraction group was a recipe for slaughter if the other group was caught, so the division was not so clean. Isabel, Briceida – helped to walk by Beatris – Song and Augusto would be the crew meant to sneak around. Cozme, Angharad, Brun and Remund were to draw the enemy into a running fight. With Brun’s contract they should have the advantage of surprise, allowing them to strike first and true before running past the enemy.

The ensuing chase and confusion would allow the others to get past the enemy, or such was the hope.

Much as Angharad might have wished otherwise, there was no time for long goodbyes. The longer they waited to move the greater the risk the ambushing cultists would tire of waiting and try to catch them out in the open instead. She squeezed Isabel’s hands tenderly when the infanzona came to kiss her cheeks, then shook Song’s hand. The last three received a nod, friendlier for some than others, and she set out into the woods behind Master Cozme. With Brun serving as their eyes, they chose their angle of approach – along the eastern ridge of the crag, flanking the hollows – and slowly advanced, careful not to make any noise.

For nearly half an hour they moved as silently as they could, nerves rising, until they were in place. Angharad could see most of the warband from behind the bush she used a hiding place, maybe twenty darklings mostly bearing spears and swords. There were a pair of crossbowmen as well, standing near an old hollow in robes. A priest of some kind? The old one, who the others seemed to defer to, was talking to people who she could not see – the sight was blocked by a fallen tree – in what sounded like Antigua. The cultists wore padded cloth as armour, save for a few elites, but were all fighting fit and many scarred from war.

“Careful with the crossbowmen,” Cozme murmured. “Try to keep trees in the way and kill warriors wearing padding first. The armoured will tire first when chasing.”

They shared nods, fists tightening around their weapons, and took the deep breath before the plunge.

Then the Sleeping God turned in his slumber, undoing all their plans.

It happened in moments: a band of half a dozen warriors, most armored with breastplates or mail, were talking with someone up a tree and the answer they got had them laughing. They spread out, slapping or jostling a few of the other warriors, and in moments they were all up. Heading southwest, where the other group should be beginning to move. Cozme swallowed a curse and they all hesitated. Their only chance against such numbers had been surprise but now the warriors were up and alert. It would be a slaughter and not one in their favour. Yet they could not abandon the others, Angharad would not allow it.

“We hit them from behind when they begin to attack,” she murmured.

Augusto nodded in approval, then Cozme. Brun grimaced then agreed as well. They set out, slowly, and that was when Angharad saw her: that Asphodel noble from the Bluebell, the one with the acne scars. She had just leapt down from the tree, joining another. One by one Angharad saw them. Leander Galatas, still without his arm but no longer looking so gaunt. The large Aztlan called Ocotlan, his hammer hefted over his shoulder. And last of all the leader of their pack of jackals, Tupoc Xical himself. He asked something of the Asphodelian woman, Lady Acanthe, and she pointed to the southwest.

The hollows followed her directions without a single voice speaking otherwise.

“Tracker,” Angharad said through gritted teeth.

But one who could not find their group. Their enemies would pay for that. Creeping behind the warband, who were so certain of the Asphodelian’s contract did not bother with a proper rearguard, they waited until they could see the hollows spreading out for an ambush. When Song carefully slipped out from behind the shadow of a tree, eyes scanning the woods, the warriors at the fore raised their spears and finally Master Cozme signalled for their group to attack. They burst out of the brush, none of them announcing their arrival with war cries, and just as Song’s eyes widened at the sight of them Cozme Aflor shot the first hollow from behind.

Madness seized them all.

Angharad felt a crossbow bolt whiz past her head as she hewed open a man’s head, slapping aside another’s spear and plunging her blade through his open mouth. She ripped it clear, teeth flying and saw that powder smoke was obscuring the melee. She glimpsed Ocotlan kicking down Remund Cerdan, only to be driven back by Cozme, and then through the drifting smoke she saw Song being surrounded by hollows. Angharad rushed there, ducking under someone’s blind strike in the smoke and cutting at what felt like cloth. Song was cornered, having cut a hollow with her blade but now being stuck holding back another’s blade, so Angharad struck with worried fury.

They were fighters, these darklings, but their training was lacking.

She let the first overcommit to her lunge, tripped her as she stepped back and slit her throat on the way down. The hollow behind her screamed, attacking in rage with a two-handed sword, but he was slow. Strength only mattered if it could reach you. She plunged the point of her saber in his throat, wrenching it out and stepping to the side so he might die finishing to strike at air. The third hit Song’s knee, forcing her down with a pained grunt as the sword she was holing back dipped towards her throat, so Angharad clicked her tongue and pivoted to adjust her angle to eviscerate the fourth hollow.

The silver-eyed Tianxi let out a snarl of triumph, pushing up and punching the last hollow in the throat before running him through. Angharad began to check her for wounds, then had to duck behind a tree when she heard the whistle of an arrow. Song followed her there.

“We need to run,” the Tianxi said. “Grab everyone we can and flee.”

Angharad nodded.

“Briceida first,” she said. “She will need help.”

Song nodded and the two burst from cover, Angharad avoiding the spear-point of some fat darkling in mail and kicking him in the stomach. Briceida was only a dozen feet away from them and she had been struck down, but she was not dead: instead a hollow had blackened her eyes and was now standing over her half-conscious form. They want prisoners, Angharad realized with horror. She fell upon the hollow that stood over the redheaded maid, but before she could do more than bat aside his sword she heard movement behind her. She smoothly pivoted and struck at torso height, but Tupoc took the blow with the side of his metal segmented spear. He then whipped at her belly with the bottom of the haft, forcing her to backpedal. Behind them Song clashed blades with the hollow, covering Angharad’s back.

The Aztlan, she realized, was humming some kind of song. Something light and cheerful, as if this were a festival instead of a battlefield.

“You will die for this,” Angharad swore.

“I admire your confidence,” Tupoc told her.

Worse, he sounded like he meant it. She went after him furiously, but he was not like the cultist: whoever had trained him, they had done a good work of it. He never stopped moving, forcing her to circle and weave by constantly changing the distance: he used his spear as much as a quarterstaff as thrusting weapon. Song finished her opponent and woke Briceida, but the redhead could barely move even when helped up. Worse, they’d drawn attention. More were coming and when a crossbow bolt hit the tree an inch away from her head Song drew back.

“Run,” the Tianxi said. “The others are, it is lost-”

Angharad snarled, catching a blow from the side of Tupoc’s spear and then using her favorite flatfoot trick – half a step back, let it slide down the length and pivot as you hit out with the pommel. Her saber’s pommel caught the Aztlan in the jaw, her first solid hit, and he rocked back. Bloodied, at last. The Pereduri moved towards Briceida but there was already a cultist on the redhead, grabbing her by the hair, and she was tossed down on the floor. Angharad struck at the man’s back furiously, but it was not enough.

“No,” redhead wept. “No, you won’t take me.

The world breathed in, and then Briceida let out a scream like the clap of thunder.

Ringing silence filled her ears and something blew Angharad off her feet. She fell against a tree, knocking her shoulder badly. Her vision swam as she gasped, trying to rise, only to feel someone dragging her up. Sound began to return, but dimmed.

“Quick,” Isabel hissed. “Hurry, while they are confused.”

Angharad stumbled forward as best she could, half-blind. Two hands steadied her, Isabel on one side and Master Cozme the other. But they were not alone: Remund was with them, face bruised and lips bloodied. Behind them shouts began, the hollows beginning to recover from Briceida’s scream.

“The others,” Angharad mumbled.

“They ran also,” Remund said. “The hollows did not come to kill: they wanted sacrificed, an only took one.”

The pride in his voice sickened her. Briceida, oh Sleeping God. She was still alive, and now the cultists had her. But what could Angharad to, save continuing to run? The daze was passing, but she was no match for the warband now pursuing them. All she could do was run like a coward with the rest of their company. Only it could not be so easy. How long they ran in the dark Angharad was not sure, but eventually they stopped: the rest were ahead of them, hiding behind a tall stone, and Song gestured fervently for them to stop. Angharad fell against a tree, hearing Master Cozme peek around and breathe in sharply.

“There’s a clearing ahead,” he said. “And a pair of watchers. If we don’t kill them before they scream for the others we are all dead.”

“Where are we?” Angharad murmured.

“Near the edge of the crag,” Isabel replied just as quietly. “If we get past them, running northeast will be a straight line to the sanctuary road. We need only-”

She was interrupted by a shout behind them. The Pereduri tensed for half a heartbeat before realizing they had not been seen. Not yet. But the cultists they had left behind had found their trail, were catching up to them. If they did not move soon, then they were just as dead as in Cozme’s prediction.

“We’ll have to shoot them,” Angharad said. “All we can do is run.”

“Agreed,” Master Cozme grunted, though he did not sound happy about it.

Neither was she. The sound would draw the other cultists to them. The older man was already pouring powder down his pistol’s muzzle, peeking out past the tree trunk to gauge the distance to the pair of watchers. The best shot of their company was Song, so Angharad half-rose to try and catch her attention. Between she and Cozme, their odds were good of killing both watchers in one volley. Only when Angharad turned her gaze there, it was another who had a gun in hand: Augusto, his sole good arm steady and his face cold, aimed his pistol. Only it was not at the hollows. Behind him Brun turned, surprise on his face, but he was too late.

Augusto Cerdan met Angharad’s eyes and pulled the trigger.

37 thoughts on “Chapter 15

  1. CantankerousBellerophan

    A musing on prices.

    Many have played parts in this story so far. The price of Tristan’s moments of unbelievable luck is having them rapidly followed by the opposite. The price of Remund’s rings of light is a temporary disability. Briceida’s sound manipulation has a price of consuming chalk, and Angharad’s price for the Fisher’s temporal intercession is yet unknown.

    But there are other prices which play a role. Vanesa’s sacrifice in joining the trials was a price to keep her son from being forced into the same. The value of the grain transported by the Bluebell was decreased because the price for consuming it alone was Gloam sickness. Tristan’s interactions with others have, from his own perspective, been entirely transactional, with prices of information and trust paid by both sides at all times. The first time we met her, Angharad paid a price of blood to the rat spirit. Prices are affixed to everything in Vesper, it seems; from goods, to trust, to human lives, and even souls.

    This is deranged.

    It is true there are many prices which could not be avoided in any world. The price of a thing existing will always be the labor required to produce it, the materials expended, and the capacity to have used those for something else. But even Angharad can see that the price Briceida pays is absurd. What labor does her small god perform which must necessarily be fueled by the consumption of chalk? How is her post-fact wracking illness a material requirement of sound production? This is not required of her because it could not be avoided. It is required because the thing which she has contracted with wants it. The infliction of pain for its own sake, in return for an unrelated boon.

    I suppose there might be some esoteric connection between those things. We don’t really know how gods work or what they are, after all. But there are absurd prices being paid for which no such argument can be made. What have her son’s creditors done, that Vanesa should be required to die in his place? That is a price demanded, not by material reality, but social convention. The tabulation of debts and settling of accounts are not physical laws. They are exercises of the power of some over the rest. Similarly, no matter what they were mining, the blood of Brun’s family was not a material component in the end product of their labor. Their deaths were a price paid not out of necessity, but expedience. It was cheaper, to the owners of the mine, for them to die.

    These are not prices. They are wastes. Extraction of labor and life from the powerless to enrich the powerful. It seems likely some, perhaps even all, of the prices demanded of contractors are the same. Creatures with power who hurt people for a fraction of it just because they can. Because they enjoy twisting the concept of consent until it, too, is a chain.

    It need not be like this. Landlords are not load-bearing. Remove them from a building they claim to own and it will stand for years to come. Creditors demand payment for labor which has been completed, bellies already filled, accounts already settled between all participants in the actual exchange. They insert themselves into circles already closed. And perhaps, just perhaps, people would understand and reject gods’ prices if they did not live their lives surrounded by ones exacted by the mundane. If the concept of exploitation were alien to them, people might recoil when actual aliens offer to exploit them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Earl of Purple

      No, but aligned against Angharad- and her word binds her to truce until they reach safety. After that, death, and not Angharad’s, unless they convince her to duel with pistols, not swords.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Why kill Brun? He has a useful contract that helps the entire group avoid dangers. Was it because they are getting close to the end of their journey and he wants to settle the score before he leaves ? But was the score so high that the man must die? Wouldn’t the shot signal to the enemies where you are thus defeating the whole purpose of snipping the watchmen?

    These people are weird. Brun was not a powerful man. His death could have easily been arranged after the Trials or he might perish during the Trials. Instead of Brun, wouldn’t it be wise if he killed Angharad or Song – the better fighter if getting everyone in his group killed is his objective or eliminating someone hostile to him? Maybe he finds out what Angharad’s contract really was – seeing the future which means all attempts at surprising her is futile? If getting everybody killed was truly his goal then did he makes a deal with Tupoc to spare him and Isabel in exchange for the life of everybody else in his group?

    Everything is a puzzle for me.
    It will be cool if this group is captured and Tristan’s group later also gets captured, then both Angharad and Tristan might have to work with each other and with their allies and ditch the unreliable ones/enemies like Lan and the Credans.

    Where is Tristan? The fact that the infanzones are fucking with each other and themselves over will appeal to him.

    Also, the darklings seem like normal people. Do they have any special skills or abilities? Like seeing in the dark or immune to Gloam sickness or something. They seem very prepared and have a society of sorts. I want to keep my theory that they are the people who evolved to live in the dark and it is possible for darkling and normal humans to procreate and produce a new generation of humans capable of living without lights.


    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      “Darkling” is almost certainly a racial slur not unlike many similar terms used by racists against indigenous people in the real world. The people of the dark (we do not know what, if anything, they call themselves collectively) are probably the rightful owners of Vesper. Everyone else, including our protagonists, are colonial interlopers participating in a slow genocide identical to that committed against the peoples of Turtle Island (which you might know as North America, though that is not the name given by people with any right to name it) by white settlers.


      1. Deworld

        That’s something you can’t claim until we know more about them. They may be just like normal people, but also they may not. Generally, comparisons with real-life racism aren’t accurate, since darklings specifically are different from humans, and not just by appearance. There’s magic involved, and with that basically anything may be possible. Even if they are sapient and somewhat civilized, there still may be a ton of reasons why they truly can’t co-exist with humans and why hate against them is justified. Or there may not. We don’t know, and let’s not claim otherwise.


      2. CantankerousBellerophan

        We don’t know there’s magic involved. We have been told that going dark is a potential end-state for Gloam sickness, but we cannot be sure that is magic either. There is a real-world illness caused by lack of exposure to natural light, after all. One which doesn’t universally kill those who suffer from it.


      3. Deworld


        Darklings burn from contact with Glare. That’s not something that can happen without magic – either within darklings that causes them to react that way, or, if Glare is by itself that dangerous, within humans that protects them from this. Former is much more likely since all the wildlife (plants, normal animals) seem to react to Glare just fine.


      4. CantankerousBellerophan

        Anyone acclimated to complete darkness burns in contact with harsh sunlight. Particularly if, as seems to be the case, that sunlight is far harsher than any which exists naturally on Earth. We already know the people of the dark to be pale skinned, it should not be surprising the Glare is bad for them.


      5. Deworld

        That’s not the type of burn the story seems to imply. It took Sarai literally seconds holding the stone to convince everyone she was not a darkling, if it was talking about sunburns, they would need much more time to appear – if they even could from a small stone. And she’s just as pale-skinned as them, yet had no problems. However it looks like, it’s way beyond a normal sunburn, even after a prolonged non-exposure to the sun. Also, there was no mention of the possibility to cure a darkling, something that, make no doubt, people would try, and it would be possible if the problem was just with the light. It’s certainly not a simple non-exposure to sunlight that makes a darkling, it has to do something with the unique and magical properties of Glare – I think it was made pretty clear isn’t not our normal sunlight that happens to be limited in this world, there’s much more to it.


      6. CantankerousBellerophan

        Look, I agree it is unlikely this issue is 100% nonmagical. The point I am making is that our actual knowledge on this issue is thin enough that a nonmagical interpretation can still be supported, particularly when one considers the language and reality-distorting nature of deeply ingrained racism. You rightly say we can’t know exactly what is going on with these people. I am merely expanding the scope of our lack of knowledge to include things we know, from our own history, to be possible explanations for the very few things we do know, while showing places where it is possible or likely our narrators are unreliable.

        This would not be the first time racists appealed to dark magic to explain the need to dehumanize the objects of their hatred. It is important we acknowledge we still have not seen any on-screen evidence of any magic which is uniquely associated with the people of the dark and also morally intolerable. All of our concrete observations of things actually being done by them still have too many mundane explanations. We have seen them attack groups of lightbound people without provocation…unless they have compelling reasons to think their mere presence is a provocation. We have seen them drag people off alive…but not what actually happens to such people, nor any explanations from them for why. We have seen people we are conditioned to like make claims against their humanity…but we already know all such claims to be untrustworthy due to our own history.

        We have also seen them make deals, forge alliances, apply tactics and strategy requiring understanding of human behavior, react like humans to the loss of their bretheren, and we have seen Tristan claim he has “never known them to be any worse than men.” These are the only things we can really claim to know, here. These are our only observations which could not have been twisted by racism.


    2. Gazarette

      I’m pretty sure it’s Angharad he’s aiming for. Brun is mentioned because he would have stopped Augusto if he could. The fact that Augusto is looking at Angharad (meeting her eyes) means it’s her he’s trying to kill.


    3. Earl of Purple

      It’s been mentioned that they can see different colours, have better night vision and are immune to Gloam sickness as well. Discussions with Angharad, I think.


      1. I would like to think that it is possible for darklings and humans to coexist and that darklings are just humans who adapt to life in darkness. It is unsustainable for the world to continue to rely on these holes of light. Evolution should be working as usual and slowly the world would belong to the ones who adapt. And without the dependent on light controlled solely by greedy nobles, the common man can finally have the chance to be equal and fight against the nobles. As long as the darklings and peasants can band together and they can procreate and pass down those beneficial genes, they can truly create something more of this world than just slowly dying out due to the degradation of the infrastructure while the nobles live luxuriously till the last day.

        Besides, with a group that can ignore their monopoly on light, the ruling class does have motives to cast the entire group as ‘demons’ and drive them out of their lands like how antisemitism was on the rise during the Black Plague due to fewer Jews dying to the black death – they just have better hygiene practice than others back then. The darkling obviously could challenge their power bases with their abilities. If they were left to spread further, then what power does the noble has against a population that no longer relied on them for survival?

        Liked by 1 person

    4. Nagini

      I think Augusto is shooting at Angharad, not Brun. Brun is behind Augusto, and cries in surprise when he notices what Augusto’s doing, not because he’s shot at. Angharad and Augusto’s eyes meet while he pulls the trigger, because he’s looking at her – his target.
      The timing is terrible, but Augusto probably realizes he wouldn’t win a duel against Angharad, so he’s trying to take her out at the last leg of the journey by shooting her from behind and taking her by surprise. None of them know about her contract, though, so that will probably save the day.


    5. ByVectron!

      Brun is behind him, and Augusto is staring at Angharad when he fires, so I don’t believe Brun is getting killed here, only that he realizes he cannot affect the outcome.


      1. Oh. So this could just be a fake-out and no one is getting killed. That means the next time we see Augusto, he gonna be in big trouble as not only that he alarmed the watchmen of our presence thus making a whole new problem, and he tried to kill someone in the group, ruining the trust that is crucial for keeping the group together – further hindering the entire group chance of survival.


      2. Wait. If he shot Angharad in the back and Brun can’t stop it or warn Angharad in time, then Angharad would have to dodge the bullet while she can’t see him shooting it which means her contract is not ‘having better reflex’ but actually ‘seeing danger/future’. This revelation can have massive consequences for Angharad.


      3. Deworld

        To use her contract she has to, well, use it. And she can’t use it if she doesn’t know she needs to use it. That and she’s already seen the gun in this chapter in this chapter – so she will see him shooting and her reacting will seem pretty natural.


      4. words

        The Fisher sometimes chooses to warn her of his own accord, which happened in chapter 2. The warning is not automatic, and it’s entirely up to the whims of the spirit.


    6. Someperson

      I’ve read and reread the last few sentences, and I’m still not positive whether Augusto is trying to shoot Brun or Angharad.

      However, I *think* he’s shooting Angharad. The text implies that Brun was *behind* Augusto, so Augusto wasn’t facing him. Also Augusto met Angharad’s eyes and usually you look where you’re shooting, no? Finally, as you mentioned, it just makes a lot more sense motive-wise for him to want to shoot Angharad.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ByVectron!

        I noted above that Brun is behind Augusto, and Gus is staring right at Angharad when he shoots, strongly implying he’s aiming at her.

        Here’s the thing to remember, though- “It was a good thing she carried no blackpowder, for it would surely have been ruined.” August *WAS* carrying powder, so expect a deafening “CLICK” followed by honor and duty demanding Angharad stab that dirty mofo in the heart.


  3. Abnaxis

    Are storms even a thing that can happen underground? Clouds generally go as high as 40000 feet, and that’s before considering the “firmament” is going to be hotter then found level, so precipitation is less likely than water vapor just straight leaving through the holes in firmament.

    I suppose it might be possible the rain is water leaking from the glare down to the underground, but then it shouldn’t so much be “rain” as much as “a bunch of streams coming down from the leaky roof”


    1. nick012000

      Clouds have been known to form inside sufficiently large buildings, such as the hangars used to construct the Space Shuttles. It seems plausible that they could form in giant underground caverns as well.


  4. Someperson

    The fact that Angharad saved Augustus, and that she did it just because she saw somebody about to die and not out of some sense of her people’s honor, is good I think. Too many characters who present themselves as good either are pretending or it’s kind of an informed attribute where it never really costs them anything. I find that Angharad and Tristan are both refreshingly sincere… in completely opposite ways.

    …that said, hot damn, *so many things* would be so much easier for *both* of our protagonists if Angharad had just hesitated a second and not saved Augustus from falling to his death. And nobody can really say he wouldn’t deserve it.


    1. Kestral287

      That’s what makes Angharad so interesting. She knows the honor rules of her society, certainly, but moreover she actively believes in the spirit of those rules. Not stupidly so either, which makes her all the more fascinating as a contrast with literally everyone around her.

      Liked by 2 people

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