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."

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