Leading the lost

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She wanted to make Hachim proud. She wanted to survive, but that wasn't enough; it was Hachim's face, looming in her fitful dreams when she was off watch, which gave her the motivation to get to her feet and continue the march across the diseased mountains in which they'd found themselves.

Galisai Sturm still had his blood on her hands. Her skin was tinted with a faint reddish-pink, which seemed impossible to wash away. She hadn't tried too hard: the discolouring was a useful reminder.

During her waking hours she didn't dwell on what had happened, instead focusing her energies on the task at hand. They had a mission to carry out, and she would get their odd collection of Treydolain exiles beyond the Aviarette peaks. Despite her expectations to find them city-soft, they had proven to be quite capable. Fenris, the old man, was wily and remarkably physically able for his age. His wards were young and inexperienced but had skills of their own: she'd been told that Kirya had been trained by Fenris from a young age, though hadn't had much of a chance to witness proof, while Tarn contained a furious, instinctual rage which threatened to obliterate allies as easily as enemies - Galisai wondered whether the others had noticed his instability. She'd seen it before, in young recruits too eager to make their presence felt, though none of them had been able to harness it quite so effectively. Tranton, was of course, already a legend. Truthfully, she had to hide her admiration of his achievements crossing the Barrier Mountains, for fear of presenting herself as a fawning acolyte. Perhaps for a later time, once they had navigated their way out of these tainted, frozen wastelands.

The days repeated themselves. They'd walk for at least eight hours, pausing only to sleep and eating on the move. Their supplies would last them a good while, as Bruckin had perfected compact, nutritious foodstuffs, and Hachim's death had rebalanced the available store. Should the journey take longer than estimated, his death would most likely keep them alive. Still saving the day.

As the sun wheeled its arc, it would pick out silhouettes of creatures tracking them on distant rises. Each night, the beasts drew closer with the encroaching darkness. Fire kept them mostly at bay and they took shifts to keep watch for any intruders. Nobody slept for long - even when not on watch, the growls and cries of nearby animals kept them all alert and in a permanent state of anxiety.

She'd found it hard to take shifts at first, wanting to always remain on watch despite insistent protests from Hatch. By the third night even Galisai had to admit defeat, and collapsed into one of the tents. That night she'd slept solidly for four hours until she was woken by Stefan, but that proved to be a unique occurrence followed only by a disturbed, waking, delirious sleep that left her confused and debilitated.

The beasts of the mountains were relentless and seemed to be growing in number each day; what had begun as a a handful had grown to several packs of varying species, all of them keeping pace as if drawn on by an invisible hand.

"This is deeply unnatural behaviour," Stefan muttered to her as they trudged on in the thin air, sun beating down on their skin but failing to warm their bones. "You simply don't see species cooperating like this. It is as if nature has taken leave of her senses."

Galisai wondered if more of these creatures lurked along the entire mountain ring, poised to flood down into the valley, swarming over settlements and civilisation and returning it to the wild. The valley had once been uninhabited, long ago, and she could see it returning to that state again. She'd never considered the valley itself to be vulnerable, seeing the mountains as protection from external threats. Each day she was forced to reconsider that, as she became aware that it was the mountains which were the existential danger.

Progress had been glacially slow for the first three days, as they had been forced to carry the prone body of Kirya, who had suffered a fit during the attack. Apparently an affliction from childhood which had recently recurred and could leave her indisposed for weeks, fortunately she regained consciousness on that fourth night, jerking awake and giving everybody in the tent a fright which rivalled any of the sounds from the surrounding creatures. Galisai pitied her waking into such a dark and hopeless night, surrounded by death and with one of their party dead. No doubt she had wished she'd remained unaware of their predicament.

The days repeated themselves. Their exertions would sometimes gain them agonisingly little true progress, instead taking them down false paths which required doubling back on their route, or the route would require ascending or descending perilous gullies and cliffs, compressing their distance travelled. The ground itself was petrified and disintegrating, dead grass pulling away in tufts, old forests trapped in an odd half-death hibernation of brown and grey bark with no leaves to be seen, and inclines which collapsed and shifted beneath their feet.

Their packs lightened as they consumed their supplies. Each day Galisai would consult with Stefan and Hatch, hasty mathematics attempting to maintain a sensible level of rationing even while the ragged and unpredictable landscape refused to afford them even a glimpse of their destination. They walked blindly north, surrounded by rock and dirty, cracked ice, unsure of the ultimate distance that remained to be travelled.

"We're relying on ancient maps," Stefan said, shaking his head. "There are no surviving documents with topographically reliable information. They've all been adapted and interpreted through various layers of myth."

"Then we'll be the first to chart them properly," Galisai said, clapping him on the shoulders. He would be able to see that her optimism was forced and false, but she knew he would appreciate it nonetheless.

The face of Hachim Arondir loomed in her first thoughts each time she woke. He'd taught her everything. He was gone, but his words remained in her head, as if he was speaking to her directly. She'd thought him indestructible; had assumed he would always be there to call upon for advice, even if he was not always her commanding officer - even if she'd eventually surpassed him, as he'd always insisted would happen. In darker moments she wished that the beast at the village had struck one of the others - Fenris, or Tarn, or Kirya - instead of Hachim. Then she was ashamed, and beat the thought down until it disappeared, afraid that Hachim would somehow hear it and be disappointed.

The Aviarette Mountains did not lend themselves to hope. She would beat them regardless. She would lead them over its infernal chasms, around its impassable protrusions, and deliver her companions to whatever lay beyond the mountains. She would do it because Hachim willed it, and they were both stonebreakers. Nothing could stop a stonebreaker.

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