The ruptured world

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The mountains were not the worst of it.

They were tracked, all across the peaks, between the sharp spears of rock and through the raised, high valleys, themselves formerly tiny ecosystems much like Lagonia, now all gone to dust and broken rock.

A guilt had nestled in Kirya's bones. It had been building for months, ever since they'd left Treydolain, and her collapse in the Crowjun tower had seen it take up permanent lodgings. If she had been awake, and capable, then perhaps Captain Hachim Arondir would still be alive, still able to lead them through the desolation. The other Bruckin elite guards maintained brave faces and managed to look cheerful enough but there was an unavoidable sadness in their conduct: this mission had claimed a friend and comrade; not only that, but Captain Arondir had trained most of them, led them on countless assignments. He had fallen when they were still barely gone from the city walls of Bruckin, relative to the journey they'd since travelled.

The fits and fainting always left her exhausted, her head throbbing for days and her muscles like jelly, such that she would spend days and weeks in bed as a child after suffering a relapse. Even upon leaving Treydolain, she had been able to rest in the back of the caravan while they travelled the merchant road. The barren wastes of the Aviarette Mountains afforded none such luxuries. As she moved one foot after another, following in formation as Stefan found them a way forward, she wondered at the incongruous poetry of their name: what had the early settlers seen when they'd traversed these hills, roaming from the valley to the north and back again? There had been many settlements along the ridges for hundreds of years, as the stories told, until the wars ravaged them. Perhaps those first explorers, led by Icen Lagonia, had walked a path of plenty and abundance, or at the very least a natural habitat occupied by wild animals rather than beset by horrific, altered beasts. The Aviarettes looked sculpted by an uncaring and dismissive hand, rather than by the slow and gradual erosion of time and wind and water.

They had been walking for weeks and the climate was noticeably changed. The dry, sparse, frozen slopes on the Bruckin side of the mountains had shifted into a warmer, more humid air which blew a putrid smell on the breeze, wafting in from the north. They could see nothing, still, with the cracked and upturned landscape affording them no horizons.

All of them took turns to keep watch during the night. At first only the Bruckin guard had kept the shifts but it was unfair and left them unnecessarily tired - an exhaustion which left them unable to argue against the united protests of Kirya, Tarn, Fenris and Tranton, and so the shifts were distributed evenly, though always with at least one of the Bruckin number on guard.

One evening the rota dictated that Kirya would stay awake on the first shift, with Tarn and Hatch Eyer. Hatch was a curious one, noticeably shorter than her comrades and with a studious air that ill-fitted her armour and weaponry.

Kirya sat between the two of them, the tent sealed shut behind them while the fire burned brightly to one side. There was no shortage of dried wood to burn, which was the one benefit of the ghostly, parched environment.

"It's getting warmer, I think," Kirya said. They kept their voice low at night, so as to not wake the others, or attract undue attention from the creatures beyond the light of the fire.

"We've been descending for the last four days," Hatch said, "even if it hasn't felt like it. We're on the far side now, which means we're outside of the valley."

"As a child I didn't think it was possible to leave the valley," Kirya said, staring out at the darkness. The sky was a deep blue, flecked with stars.

"You wouldn't be hard pressed to find adults who think the same," Hatch noted, with a wry smile. "They think the valley is all there is, and beyond it is nothing but an abyss."

"'To travel beyond the mountains is to fall from the edge of the world.'"


Tarn sat with his legs crossed. "I thought my prison was the world," he said, "until I escaped from it."

"If we weren't on watch, I'd drink to that." Hatch pointed vaguely to the north. "Stefan thinks we might be approaching a body of water, perhaps a lake, or a forest. An actual forest with live trees. That would help to explain the change in the atmosphere."

"What about the sea?" Kirya had dreamed of the ocean, even when she was younger and had no real notion of what such a thing could be. She envied Tranton, who had sailed upon open water, and struggled to understand why he would have voluntarily left such liberties.

"Unlikely," Hatch said. "The maps aren't good, but none of them show sea anywhere near here. To the east, perhaps, but not the north."

Kirya placed a hand on Tarn's knee. "You're coping well," she said.

He looked up at her with surprise. "Everything is new to me. I crawled through a pipe, into a new world, and I understand nothing. It is overwhelming, but it is always better." He paused, frowned, then smiled. "Even the world 'overwhelming' is new. I don't think I knew it until recently. I sleep, then wake knowing more."

Hatch laughed. "If only it worked like that."

"Up here," Tarn continued, "is the best time of my life."

Kirya moved her hand to grasp his and held it tight. She never knew whether to feel an immense, unending sadness for Tarn, or a boundless admiration. He had achieved so much, survived for so long, with so little. He had fought, and had kept going, when anyone else would have long given up. His life did not, could not, compare to her years in the palace, roaming the streets of Treydolain, moving from one party to another, holding court with her father, sailing on the lake.

Again, the guilt; it tightened about her insides.

"I hope we'll all have better times than this," Kirya said, and released his hand.

"I don't know," Tarn said. "Good things seem to go away quickly."

"We're still here."

"Captain Hachim isn't. He was torn apart."

Kirya winced, and glanced over at Hatch. The Bruckin guard's jaw was clenched, but then she grimaced and shook her head, and released a low sigh. "He's still keeping us going, Tarn," she said. "He trained us, and we're the ones making sure you're alive, and know where we're going. Hachim planned this mission. He's still here."

"Can you see him?"

Kirya put her hand back on Tarn's arm. "It's a metaphor," she said, keeping her tears in check. "He's not really here."

"You can be damned sure I can see him," Hatch said. She pointed at the fire. "I can see him in the flames." She brushed the hilt of her sword, which lay on the ground beside her. "I can feel him here." She touched a fingertip to her temple. "I can hear him here."

"Can you teach me how to do that?"

"I'll see what I can do, Tarn," Hatch said. "I'll see what I can do."

The night passed uneventfully. At the end of their shift they woke the others - Galisai was already on her feet - and took their places inside the tent. It was shelter, albeit rudimentary and without comforts, but Kirya had marvelled at how quickly her mind and body had adapted to it. Her bed back at the palace was a distant, irrelevant memory that became foggier by the day. She lay beside Tarn, hearing his breathing, sensing every movement of his body. They'd told her about how he'd fought his way through the creatures at Crowjun, unarmed, and Tarn had told her the story of how he'd beaten one of Treydolain's most dangerous gangs single-handedly. There was a violent side to him which she knew existed but had never witnessed in full force; all she could see was a boy, almost her age, born into the most awful life and now given the chance of living another. They could have left him in the valley to live out his days in peace, but instead they'd dragged him into their foolish quest. Fenris seemed to think it important, but he never told the full story.

The next day they crossed the brow of an incline and looked down upon the tops of trees: green leaves, forming a canopy, of a forest which stretched out onto the slopes below. Beyond the trees was fog and cloud, denying them a glimpse of what lay to the north, but the mountains were, at last, behind them.

The trees beckoned, their twisted branches waving in the wind as if welcoming home old friends who had been away for far too long.

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