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ELEVEN


After a few days travelling, and with the sun about to dip over the horizon, Dartun called a halt. He seemed suddenly attentive to their surroundings.

Were being pursued, Dartun announced, his breath clouding in the air. He held his hand to his eyes and scanned the horizon.

What should we do? Verain called out.

Confront it. His voice seemed to lack his usual vibrancy. For a man who had been given new life, he certainly seemed to lack it.

Why? Verain asked.

Because I can sense it needs to be removed from our paths, he replied.

Sense? How has he ever been able to sense things before? Surely he cant mean intuition that kind of talk goes against his whole logical philosophy.

Whos following us? Verain persisted. Where are they?

Due south, and based in a small piece of woodland.

How can he know such things? she thought, trying to follow his gaze and seeing only the empty landscape.

They are from this world.

That offered some consolation. They wouldnt, at least, be facing the horrors that theyd just left behind them. Dartun seemed to sniff the air. His mannerisms startled her, but his sudden smile was vicious. They were sent to track us, possibly to even kill us. I would like to see them try. Dartun waved them on again, the dogs hauled forward, ropes snapping tight, their paws kicking up puffs of snow as they slowly dragged the sleds on. Verain continued to worry about the changes to Dartun: since returning he had not so much as held a relic in his hand, had not once harnessed the technological wizardry of ancient races.

Come to think of it, where are the relics? When she expressed her concern to Dartun, he barely acknowledged she had spoken. This was a far cry from the man who had plucked her from her life as an orphan, who had chosen her for her skills with relics, who had taken her into his great Order of the Equinox, his inner sanctum, then his heart, and shown her great tenderness. Now, he was as cold to her as the wind that whipped across her face.

The landscape was punctuated only by a cluster of shattered shacks, broken villages and torn-down church spires. The weather was brutal. Bitterly cold, the ice was blinding, and the wind felt raw upon Verains skin. Occasionally, when her hood blew back, she had to close her eyes and hunch double to shelter from the pain of the elements.

It wasnt long before Verains legs buckled and she tumbled face-first out of the sled into the snow . . .

*

The world seemed a blur a haze of images, nothing more. She came to her senses to find Dartun crouching over her pouring hot fluid into her mouth.

Minutes passed and all she could do was stare up at him. They had paused to make camp near where she had fallen. Canvas wind-blocks provided shelter and a fire was burning.

Dartun regarded her, and she felt like an object of his investigations under his gaze. Your strength should return soon, he said more a statement of fact than words of encouragement. I was foolish to push us so hard. I suspect one thing I have learned is that where I walk, others will suffer.

W-what d-does that mean? she replied.

Only that when we were there through the gate what was done to me has enabled me to survive much, whereas the rest of you . . . Well, of course, you remain unchanged. He seemed almost delighted at that last statement.

I wouldnt say we remain unchanged, one of the other cultists muttered Tuung, a bald man whose attitude was dour even before they went through the gates. Im now cold, probably suffering from frostbite, and starving. And Im mightily pissed off. I wasnt like that before, I can tell you.

Dartun laughed at them like they were charming, naive children.

Still, Tuung continued, peering down into the flames. Least were alive. The look he gave Verain said: Remember how the others died, right? Remember what they suffered, the hideous brutality they faced?

Why were we set free, Dartun? Verain asked, shivering.

All that could be heard was the wind groaning as it drifted across this landscape.

Because, Dartun said, we have work to do on their behalf. Temporarily, we are working for them.

And now she remembered. The patches of memory were starting to slot together to form a narrative in her mind.

Like visual echoes:

Images of the genocide across Tineagl, before the cultists stepped through the Realm Gates the first time. Villages with blood-trails through the snow, the corpse in the bath, dead bodies of the very old and very young left strewn behind buildings like waste outside a tavern. Then she had thought it just brutal warfare that they had been the innocent victims of an invasion. Now she knew why people had been taken by the creatures made from blackened shell, now she understood why the island had been cleansed. And she wished she didnt.

Humans were considered to be a finite but necessary resource in the other world. For one of the indigenous cultures there humans were organic, living ore; nothing more, nothing less. They were subjected to death factories, to diabolical bone merchants, a utility to be used and discarded as necessary for furtherance of a war that wasnt their own.

So it begged the question, if humans were so valuable a resource why had their small group been set free?

*

The next morning the cultists from the Order of the Equinox continued on their journey south. The horizon was unperceivable. The sun broke through the cloud to tint pink the surrounding. Shadows presented themselves, giving away the location of unknown objects across the snowscape.

And unknown people.

Dartun pulled the reins and the dogs slowly slipped to a halt. In the distance, he pointed out a cluster of figures moving slowly northwards and, as Verain squinted, Dartun stepped off the sled and knelt by one of the dogs.

A cream-coloured beast with a dash of grey across its face, it didnt yip excitedly like the others, and there was something almost mechanical about its movements. Dartun held his head against the animals and whispered something and suddenly the dog became startlingly active. It sprinted towards the figures in the distance, claws turning up little plumes of powder across the ice.

Dartun stood casually, shading his eyes with one hand, watching its progress.

*

This much was obvious:

Papus was going to kill him. And here she was, weeks away from comfort, weeks across the Archipelago, and still no closer to her victim. Papus cursed the weather, cursed the island of Tineagl, and cursed the Empire. Most of all, she cursed herself. Why had she not ignored her determination to get one over on Dartun? Why had her competitive drive overwhelmed her sensibilities, and landed her all the way out here?

No, Im doing a good thing, she reminded herself.

Dartun had made corpses walk across the island of Jokull, and his band of cultists had constantly threatened her own group, the Order of the Dawnir, the most ancient and largest sect of cultists, of which she was Gydja, the most senior member. Dartun needed to be stopped, but sometimes she thought maybe . . . maybe he couldnt be stopped.

She had brought thirty of her own order across the seas to Tineagl, and they had come prepared. Longships had been anchored four days travel to the west, on loan from the Empire Imperial authorities wanted him stopped as much as she did. Well, maybe not as much. But there was no doubt: this was a big mission, to bring Dartun S'ur to justice, dead or alive. It was her determination and competitiveness that kept her going.

They had passed through decimated villages. Front doors had been kicked in, central monuments had been demolished, windows were smashed in, and taverns wrecked. They were scenes of horrors. Blood still remained from whatever massacre had occurred.

Now, after weeks of following Dartuns trail, with only relics for warmth, she felt they were getting closer. Cloud broke, leaving sunlight bleeding across the snowy wastes. She peered from beneath her dark furs at the horizon, and pulled out her Finna relic. It was a brass compass to the casual observer, but this was not an instrument to find directions. Once activated, minute lightning bolts flickered across its surface and the device could locate any relic activity, point in the direction of anyone harnessing the power of the ancients, within vast areas. And the ancient power of the Dawnir left echoes, indicated by the intensity of light on the dial. There had been a moment a week ago which panicked her greatly when there had been little activity at all, as if Dartun and his cultists had simply . . . vanished. Then two nights ago, the Alf flared up again, purple webs aggregating with ferocity, and her worries over its effectiveness abated.

Seven sleds carried them north by north-west, the dogs tearing up the ice, driving into the constant glare of the sunlight. About two hours into their days travel, the sled up ahead halted, and she brought her own to a stop.

One of her group, Minof, a bearded giant of a cultist and someone she was glad to have close by, peered through a telescope in one direction.

Gydja! he bellowed.

Papus climbed out of her sled and trudged around the yipping dogs to his side. What can you see? she asked.

I think its them. He offered her the telescope, shaking the flakes of snow from his beard and fur hood.

Through the device she could see only whiteness at first, then the occasional streak of a change in the landscapes texture, or a knuckle of rock jutting out of the snow like the hull of a sinking ship. She scanned across the landscape in the rough direction that Minof had been looking, then felt the force of his hand guiding the end of the telescope until she could see what he had seen.

They were very hazy, and very small, but there was indeed a huddle of figures in the deep distance probably no more than ten people in all with sleds of their own. At first Papus felt a jolt: this was the first sign of life they had seen out here for some time. Then, a pang of nerves hit her: if this was Dartun, she would soon have to inform him that he was wanted by the powers of Villjamur a statement that would almost certainly initiate conflict.

Do you think its them? Minof grunted.

Theyre too distant to tell, Papus replied, lowering the telescope.

There was hubbub within her own group, as several men and women clustered to see what the issue was and why they had stopped. Loudly, she explained Minofs sighting, and gauged expressions for signs of a reaction. Most of them appeared to be simply relieved that their time out here might be at an end, and she very much sympathized.

After some debate, Papus ordered that they assemble any necessary relics and approach the group. It took them ten minutes of organizing themselves before they pushed on. A moment later, as she saw something approaching she gave the word to halt again.

A dog was trotting towards them. It was a gentle-looking thing, white with flashes of grey around its face. It padded quickly across the snow, paused to look at them, then sat about forty feet away.

Minof grunted and started forward to meet the dog.

Be careful, Papus warned.

Minof called to the animal, which sat up and shuffled towards him. Wind built up now, but otherwise there was only silence from her group. Flecks of snow not from the sky, but gusted up from the land drifted now and then across her vision.

Papus pulled her hood tighter and held up the telescope to watch the interaction. On closer inspection, the dogs movements werent quite right: there was something almost mechanical about the way it moved, and it possessed none of the flowing grace found in her own animals. And on further examination the dogs eyes . . . they were red, like two burning embers had been set within its skull, and its teeth glinted in the sun like daggers.

Minof! she shouted, as the man moved in to rub the canine affectionately, I think you should step b

The dog exploded.

A huge plume of snow and blood banked into the air, and bass vibrations rocked the ground. Someone screamed, her own dogs howled, the cultists in her order began to panic. Moments later, the remnants of flesh and bone, and shattered plates of metal, fell across the surrounding snow with gentle thuds. Pink snow littered the detonation zone.

There was very little left of Minof or the dog.

Fuck, someone behind her breathed. Someone else was in hysterics.

Poor Minof . . . she thought, her mind a sudden tangle of fear and guilt. Most of the group just stared dumbly, but a few jogged forward cautiously evaluating what had occurred.

*

What was that? Verain demanded.

You can recognize an explosion, surely? Dartun replied flatly. They had watched the dog trot into the distance and, just now, seen the red eruption, felt it through the earth, observed the eerie calm of the aftermath. What the hell was that all about? She regarded some of the other dogs now and, out of curiosity, walked among them to see if they seemed suspicious. Each of them seemed eager to see her, one even licked her hand nothing about these dogs suggested they were anything but animals.

A couple of the other cultists sidled up to her, and their expressions equalled her own. Any conversation was rushed and kept quiet. What was going on? Why had Dartun despatched a dog to explode?

As she turned, she could see Dartun gazing out into the distance, his fuligin cloak flapping in the wind like a banner of war. His profile was noble, his posture almost too perfect. Was there anything really left of the man she had been in love with?

They lingered in the breeze for some time. He was still standing motionless, watching the group in the distance. No one dared say anything to him.

Tuung stepped up alongside Verain and folded his arms, tucking his gloved hands under his armpits for warmth. Sunlight brightened his reddened face and he squinted at her. Cant you have a word with him?

What about? He barely listened to me before we set out for this wasteland. Do you honestly think after all weve been through hell suddenly want to open his heart?

Tuung grunted. We dont even know what were doing now, or where were headed.

Were going home to Villjamur, Verain replied.

What, just like that? We fuck off into these Realm Gates, get the shit kicked out of us, have most of our order slaughtered before our eyes in the most scarring manner imaginable, and we just fuck off back home again?

His reminders of the horrors they experienced were not welcome. Expeditions fail all the time. Explorers get lost and turn back. Ships catch the wrong winds, get dragged off course these things happen, its life. We tried, we failed. Were still alive.

Tuung grunted again: That may be true. But most explorers know where theyre going, know what theyre getting into have a choice. Do we? Do we have any idea what Dartun is up to?

Verain looked to where Dartun was still staring at the group in the distance.

Theyre coming now, he announced.

Verain approached Dartun and hesitantly placed a hand on his arm. If he felt her gesture, he didnt show any acknowledgement. Who are they? she asked.

The Order of the Dawnir. Papus. Her cultists are coming to confront us.

She didnt ask how he knew. She didnt want to know.

Shes come, at last . . . Verain felt a pang of relief. The last time she had seen this woman, Verain had revealed many of Dartuns nefarious activities, including the intention to explore the Realm Gates. She had not betrayed her lover she merely feared for everyones safety, her own included. He had become obsessed with becoming immortal once again, and he didnt seem to be thinking right. Now she had come to take them back to Villjamur and Verain hoped their encounter would be peaceful.

She must have been trying to stop us seeing the otherworld, Dartun said, or maybe she wants a resolution to our years of feuding. Perhaps she caught wind of my experiments on the dead, who knows. A little late for either, I suspect. It all seems so . . . petty.

Tuung traipsed forward, rubbing the back of his head. Uh, weve not got any relics that work, Dartun. They were made redundant on the other side of the gates. Im not sure what you want us to do exactly, but were not in a great state to engage in combat.

Hes right, Verain said. We shouldnt fight them.

We wont need relics, Dartun declared. I can handle this miserable woman on my own.

Verain opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Dartun began walking forward on his own. No one followed him. The weather settled: clouds had dissipated from the immediate area, leaving a beautiful and unusual lilac glaze to the scene, and wind licked up tiny wisps of snow. Dartun marched about fifty or so paces into isolation, down into a very slight gully, but his torso still clearly visible.

And waited.

The figures in the distance vacated sleds, then slowly huddled into formation, before moving to meet him.

Verain watched, her heart thumping, her nerves getting the better of her. Surely we should do something? she pleaded with Tuung.

You heard the man, Tuung replied bitterly. Sod all, is what we can do. Besides, the relics arent working, are they? Most of the weaponry has been deactivated, so unless you fancy using something as primitive as a sword . . . Way I see it is like this: if he lives, great, we stick with him and go home. If he gets killed, we still head home in some way, only as prisoners.

One of the others grunted a laugh, but the rest stared at the ground or deep into the distance anything to face the reality of what was happening. Her attention moved back to Dartun, who was still in the same pose, still standing defiantly, his cloak wafting in the breeze while further along the slope the Order of the Dawnir were slowly closing the distance.

*

They must have appeared like a local tribe the way they were wrapped in dark furs and waxed capes. Papus made her cultists pull in closer, tighter, cautious of any relics Dartun might activate.

The arrogance of the man! Papus thought. Through the telescope she could just see him standing there, waiting for her, almost without a care in the world.

Is he smiling?

She put away the telescope and gripped the new relic in her pocket, a Skammr, something she had worked with for some time, though not been able to use until now. The device was constructed so that she could disable all other relics within the immediate vicinity, completely muting the power of the ancients for just a short period. Though untested in the field, she knew it would work, though it could only be used sparingly, and given that Dartun had presented himself as a vulnerable target, she didnt even think she would need it more than once.

What if he was surrendering? she thought. Would he willingly seek to hand himself in could he be tired of being out here? Others from his order seemed to be loitering by the sleds up the hill, so this didnt appear to be an aggressive manoeuvre. And where were the rest of them, for that matter? The Order of the Equinox ought to have been much larger than what was gathered here.

Every step closer presented to her a confirmation it was indeed Dartun. When they were about fifty paces away, she held an arm out to halt her entourage. I think its best if I initiate contact alone, she said.

Please, Gydja, someone said Bael, one of the younger women in her order. Not after what happened to Minof. This man is deeply untrustworthy.

Papus considered the point and observed Dartun, who stood waiting for her, nonchalantly. All right, we go on as a group.

Defiantly, and as much in unison as they could manage, the cultists marched as one, as the Order of the Dawnir, to police this rogue cultist.

Forty paces away, Dartun called over to her: You must truly love me, to come so far. She heard his hollow laugh echoing across the ice.

Arrogant swine, she thought. Dartun had found a flat section of thick ice within a gully, which looked like the snow had settled on a small lake with a few cold-crippled trees poking up from their white smothering. His shadow was bold across the ice.

She commenced her well-rehearsed statement. Dartun S'ur, Godhi of the Order of the Equinox, you are

You do love stating the obvious, Papus, Dartun interrupted. Why have you come out here?

Were here to bring you to justice, Dartun, as simple as that. In the name of this Empire, we request that you return with us to Villjamur in order to face charges for your crimes.

And what crimes would they be? Dartun replied, glancing up and down their row of cultists, a smirk on his face.

Animation of the dead, for one thing, Papus sneered. You have abused your position as a cultist and breached our ethical boundaries.

Sod you, Dartun spat, and your ethical boundaries.

How dare he talk to me like this. Papus wanted to get this man back to Villjamur immediately. She peered to her left, shading her eyes from the glare. One of her order stepped forward: it was Telov, a chunky blond man with a weather-beaten face. He withdrew from his furs a set of chains that began to glow and splutter with a fierce purple light.

I would strongly advise against using that, Dartun growled.

Why? Youve no relics, Papus observed. Dartun merely stood there, his hands by his sides, and only then did she think it strange he was not wearing as many layers one might expect for such freezing conditions. His dark cloak barely clung to his somewhat tattered frame. Admittedly he did not look his best his clothes were torn, and she could see exposed skin in places, and in others . . . was that metal showing through?

Telov held the neutral ends of the chains out cautiously in front, and it was clear from his movements that his nerves were getting the better of him. She had wanted to capture Dartun for so long and now this seemed an anticlimax. Was this legendary cultist simply going to let himself be taken back to Villjamur?

Dartun suddenly lowered his head and closed his eyes. She heard a faint drone coming from him. Without looking up, Dartun reached out to grab the chains in Telovs hands, chains that at this frequency of energy should have given him such a shock as to send him unconscious.

There came an electrical snap: energy was being forced back through the chains into the neutral handles and Telovs hands began to burn. He screamed, couldnt let go, fell to his knees still gripping the heated handles, crying while smoke streamed from his palms.

Papus quickly activated the Skammr and the chains were jammed and deactivated, and ancient energy, in the form of purple light, dissipated. Telov collapsed to his side and buried his hands into the snow.

She was stunned: how, without any relics, was Dartun able to do that?

Dartun spread his stance and, with his arms either side, his glance calm, took in the situation. Once again he faced Papus and smiled. Sure you can handle me?

How did you do that? she demanded. You arent carrying any relics.

Im not who I used to be, Dartun replied.

The Skammr should have worn off by now. She gave the signal and four of her cultists ran forwards with relics: an electrical net spurted slickly into the air, and with a liquid grace fell onto Dartun but he simply ripped through it with his bare hands.

How is that possible?

Two others tried to use weapons to beat him, one a sword, another a crossbow: miraculously, with a quick gesture of his right hand he managed to bend the metal of the sword so that it had become inert, and the crossbow bolt he caught with his left hand; doubly impressive because he wasnt even looking in that direction.

Dartun flipped back his cloak and peeled away the skin on his arm: where she expected blood to surge and tendons to be exposed, a strange, almost white ceramic arm was in place, and it glittered with tiny webs of light.

More of her order charged, relics in hand.

The arm was a revolution in technology. It stuttered into life, vibrating minutely, one minute quite inflexible, the next very fluid. His face was set in a savage sneer as one by one he ripped into her order. She watched the violence in awe.

He jumped and bent back and forth with impossible flexibility. There was so much blood and ice spraying, and he moved so quickly, it was hard to discern the action, but she saw him cleave one of her members in two, sever anothers head sending it skittering across the frozen lake.

She was agog. Mortified.

Soon she was the only member of her order left standing, and Papus was stunned at the carnage around her. Tears filled her eyes as she regarded her whole cult wiped out with so much ease. Dartun was hardly tired by the spectacle, panting lightly, his breath clouding the air.

He stood to regard her, basking in the aftermath. His arm shimmered as the sun broke through, washing the scene with a pink light.

Youre . . . youre not even human, Papus managed to say. She felt her stomach churning.

Oddly, her words seemed to knock him back, and he shook his head as if in a half-daze. He suddenly stared at her like he didnt know what hed been doing.

Papus took this moment of respite to survey the wreckage of her order, her life. Blood covered the narrow region of the lake. Body segments were scattered and heaped where two or more had fallen on each other under Dartuns swift blows.

She would not let herself die in the same way. She would, at least, honour her order. As Dartun scanned the scene seemingly as confused by his work as she was, Papus primed all the relics beneath her furs, shivering with shock. She produced an Aldartal, triggered it

Time froze rigid: nothing moved at the periphery of the scene, everything stopped. Except for Dartun, who sluggishly pulled himself free of the relics energy, slowly as if covered in some abstract treacle and stuttered into a state of normal time.

How . . . ? How did you do that? Papus asked. Her fears were assuaged by her all-consuming desire to understand what he was.

Youll have to try harder than that, he muttered. There was an air of insouciance about the manner in which he moved, as if he had all the time in the world to kill her. She deactivated the Aldartal and

the wind groaned once again, her hair spiralled before her face, and they were back in normal time.

Enough of this. Dartun lifted his surreal arm.

She turned to flee. He marched after her, and she sprinted across the ice to escape him. Frantically, in her pocket she activated a Deyja for a cloak of invisibility. A purple flash like sheet lightning and she was gone.

They paused for a moment, uncertain of how to proceed. Dartun tipped his head this way and that, as if trying to listen.

Even if, despite his new-found powers, he couldnt see her, out here it was pointless he would easily be able to observe her indentations in the snow, her frantic scrabbling across the white surface, the scuff-marks on the ice.

And as soon as she shifted even slightly, he clocked her.

Dartun continued his pursuit, his arm a gleaming white stammer of vibrations.

Something Brenna-based next, two small solid aluminium balls that she plucked from her pockets, activated, then rolled back towards Dartun. They skittered across the ice into his path and, as he stepped around one, they both exploded, aggressively spurting up fire and tiny, razor-sharp chunks of metal.

A short scream: At least hes vaguely human, she thought.

Dartun stopped and flinched, as the fire ravaged his clothing. The shrapnel had shredded the skin across his face, and now, blood-streaked, he collapsed to his knees finally! She heaved a sigh and, crawling on all fours and still invisible, she sagged tentative relief. Now to finish this off.

Papus slipped out a dagger from her boot and stood up. She walked over to him and prepared to stab his kneeling form in the back of the neck. Suddenly he lunged up at her, his face a snarling bloodied mess. He grabbed her by the throat with his human hand. She tried to slice at it, but the other arm punched her stomach

And punctured it.

Stunned, a burning pain surged through Papuss body and she could see her own blood flowing like wine along Dartuns arm, down into the little nooks and crannies in the surface. Dartun was elbow-deep inside her abdomen.

She stared into his eyes and saw something mechanical behind his glare, like a subtle functioning of relics. Then he must have clutched something inside her oh, fuck could she feel it and he tugged hard. Her own innards were yanked out before her eyes, flecks of her blood peppering the air.

Papus collapsed, her head striking the ice.

*

Verain experienced a state of being both relieved and appalled as Dartun returned covered in blood. What horrors she had witnessed she had observed from a distance, and the details were unclear. She knew there had been a slaughter, however that much was obvious.

After the butchering of the final cultist, Dartun had remained there for several minutes, patrolling up and down the devastation, and she wondered what he must have been thinking. The remains were gruesome, like the despicable culling of seals that many of the tribes across the Archipelago performed each year. She could not take her eyes off the scene, even as Dartun made his way back through the thick snow, to reach the remnants of the Order of the Equinox.

I have dealt with the matter accordingly, Dartun announced.

You dont say, Tuung blurted out from behind her.

Your face . . . Verain began. His skin was gently pockmarked, like a volcanic rock.

Dartun reached up his hand to sense the details, and seemed unmoved. Itll be back to normal soon enough a side effect against one of her relics.

Are they all dead? she asked.

They are indeed, Dartun beamed.

So what now, eh? Tuung said. His tone was frail, that of a man on the edge. Were shattered and hungry.

Dartuns expression was distant, withdrawn. Something wasnt right, but she didnt know what. I understand your concern, he droned. I will ensure that you are well cared for. Verain fell under his gaze, and she didnt know what to think. Was that affection?

It is essential we all survive and return to Villjamur, and I must confess I have neglected your welfare. Dartun still didnt seem to be particularly bothered that he was drenched in blood. She could barely look at him in this state. We will get off this island and seek a town and some accommodation and some nutrition.

Thank fuck for that. Tuung headed back to the dogs.


| The Book of Transformations | TWELVE



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