Houses of the Dead
First published in Black Gate #12, July 2008.
Ilias didn't notice when they stepped over the boundary of the last god's territory.
They were walking over mossy ground in a beech forest, and had come out on a hill that overlooked a meadow. In the distance, tall trees climbed the foothills up toward the peak of the low mountains, and Ilias could see the notch where the pass was, the sharp-etched outline of the cliffs that framed it. The rock was sandy-colored where the trees thinned out, and he thought the country up there would be fairly barren. Scrub and brush maybe, and not much else. Not many places for curselings to hide. Maybe that was why they thought it would be safe, he thought, lips twisting. If his foster father Ranior hadn't been cursed in the middle of the city of Cineth, despite the god and the Chosen Vessels, Ilias might have thought so too.
Giliead came out of the trees behind him and stopped to contemplate the view as well. His expression was resigned. "What do you think we're going to find?" Ilias asked. He had held off asking until now, through the long days and nights of walking, and thought he might as well get it over with.
Giliead took a deep breath. "Dead people. The wizard long gone." He looked down at Ilias, smiling a little. "You know as much as I do."
"That's not comforting. I don't know anything," Ilias commented as he followed Giliead up the hill. But that was the first time he had seen Giliead smile since Ranior's death. Maybe the trip was doing him some good. It was still the work of a Chosen Vessel, even if there was nothing much left to do.
The message asking for help had come for Menander, the Chosen Vessel of the Uplands, but Menander was wounded and still recovering, and had conceded that it was time for Giliead to hunt on his own. Especially a hunt like this, where it sounded as if there wasn't much left to do but assure the survivors that the wizard was gone.
Ilias kept walking, only realizing several steps later that Giliead had stopped.
He turned to face him, taking advantage of the pause to tighten his queue and tie the rest of his braids back. "What?"
Giliead's face had that look of inward concentration. He said, "The Uplands god's territory ends here."
Ilias stopped. A cold sensation settled in his belly and he had the sudden urge to look around for curselings. He shook it off; he had scanned the meadow from the top of the hill and it was empty. The woods on the far side were another matter, but there was nothing in the meadow. Don't be an idiot, he told himself. You've been at sea, that's godless territory.
But somehow the sea was different.
He realized Giliead was regarding him with a lifted brow, as if expecting more of a reaction. Giliead had been gifted at birth by the god that watched over Cineth, the city near the family farm; the gift made him into a Chosen Vessel with the ability to smell curses and see the traces they left in air, earth and water. This was different for him. Ilias glared. "All right, what are you waiting for?"
Giliead's brows quirked, and he stepped over the boundary.
It was the morning of the next day when they walked into the trader's camp. The traders had put their wagons in a half circle, stretching oiled canvas between them to make a large tent, and had dug a firepit at the front. Fur rugs and wool carpets had been spread under the canvas to make a seating area, with a few carved camp stools. Heavy mountain draft horses with shaggy manes and a few mules grazed nearby.
Sentries had seen them approach and had followed them through the trees at a distance, though everyone Ilias saw looked more tired than hostile. A man came out from under the canvas shelter to greet them, his expression understandably wary. Camping in godless country, even for a group this large and this well-armed, was still a calculated risk. He asked cautiously, "Travelers?" He was big, his red-brown hair braided with a collection of metal trinkets and beads.
"I'm Giliead of Andrien, Chosen Vessel of Cineth," Giliead corrected him. "This is Ilias, my brother."
"Ah." His brows lifted, but he didn't comment. At seventeen seasons, Giliead looked young to be a Chosen Vessel, and Ilias was only a couple of seasons older. They didn't look like brothers, either. Ilias had been adopted by the Andrien as a boy; he was short, stocky, and blond like the inland Syprians, and Giliead was tall, chestnut-haired, and olive-skinned, like the coastal people. The man said, "I'm Macchus." He turned to call toward the wagons, "Laodice, they're here!" He waved for Ilias and Giliead to follow him, saying, "Come and meet the women, they'll tell you what we found."
More people were coming out of the wagons, men and women of various ages but no children or elders, which was what Ilias had expected. It looked as if there were at least two families here, and they looked like ordinary traders, except they wore a great deal of copper and bronze jewelry with polished stones, earrings, armbands, wrist cuffs, hair clasps. They must deal in metal, which explained why they had been associated with the family that had wanted to establish the gold mine. Macchus led them under the canvas, gesturing for them to sit. Giliead took a camp stool, pulling off his baldric and setting aside his bow. Ilias settled on the rug beside him, shedding his main weapons as well. The traders were gathering around, anxious and concerned, and somebody stirred up a brazier and put a jar of wine on it to warm.
A woman took a seat on a camp stool brought by Macchus. "I'm Laodice." She was small, plump and blond, and older than she looked at first glance. "I own the wagons." She looked at Giliead, her expression a little uncertain. "You're the Chosen Vessel from Cineth?"
Giliead nodded, calmly pretending not to notice that it was obvious that everyone thought he was far too young. "Tell me what happened."
Laodice took a deep breath. "You know the story of the Taerae, how they wanted to build a city in the godless section of the pass to mine gold?"
"I do now," Giliead told her. "It wasn't heard of in Cineth until recently."
She nodded. "They kept the word of it close, and only drew settlers from the villages on the far side of the pass. The trading isn't good there, because the routes from the larger city-states are so long, so many were eager to be persuaded. The Taerae's reasoning was that since there were gods on both sides of the pass, it would keep the curselings off and wizards wouldn't dare to come."
"It doesn't work like that." Giliead's face was grim.
There was an uneasy shifting among the other traders, and someone murmured, "That's for certain."
Ignoring the mutters, Laodice continued, "But they drew settlers, probably close to two hundred people, and started to carve a city out of the rock. They hired more people from the villages down in the valleys to help with the building, and of course they had to buy their supplies from the valleys because there's little land for farming in the pass. They did mine the gold, and for the past few years they did a good trade in it, shipping it out of Cirrdon to the Chaeans." She nodded to someone standing behind Ilias, and he glanced back, surprised to see a Chaean woman. She was dark-skinned as most Chaeans were, her curly hair drawn back in a single braid, with full lips and a nose like a hawk's long profile, and somehow the effect of the whole was that she was beautiful. She wore a short silk jacket over knee-length pants, with a Syprian wool wrap over her shoulders. Laodice said, "This is Tolyi, who negotiates the trade for the Chaeans."
Ilias nodded to her and she gave him a grave nod in return, and he tried to drag his attention back to the story.
Laodice was saying, "At the turn of the moon we went up the pass with our wagons, to pick up the Taerae's shipment and to bring Tolyi to make the trade agreements for the next year. But as we came up the road into the city, we knew something was wrong."
"It was too quiet," Macchus put in, his face hard with the memory. He had taken a seat on the rug next to Laodice's stool. "No one was on the road, and then no one at the gates."
"The gates stood open?" Ilias asked. Some of the people watching twitched and stared at him, and he realized he hadn't spoken until now. Ilias of Andrien, the Chosen Vessel's deaf-mute spear-bearer. The irreverent thought made it difficult to keep his expression sober. "It didn't look as if there had been a battle?"
"No, there wasn't a sign of any disturbance," Laodice answered him, recovering first. "The gates were open as if they had seen us coming, but with no one at watch."
"We did look for tracks in the dirt," Macchus added. "But the road was hardened mud, so...." He shrugged helplessly.
"No one came when we called out," Laodice continued. "We knew that something was badly wrong, but thought it might be bandits, or that there had been trouble in the mine or at the river. I left most of the men to guard our wagons, and took Tolyi and a few others to search."
"I thought it was the mine as well," Tolyi said suddenly. Her voice was as beautiful as her face, rich and full. "But as we went through the town, it was too quiet. We saw no one. And of course, we reached the diggings and there was no one there, and no one down by the river panning. There was no hint of anything wrong. Except that there were no people."
"We started to go into the houses." Laodice frowned, rubbing her arms as if she was cold. "We found food laid out on the tables, tools set aside. The animals were unhurt, if hungry and thirsty. They couldn't have been left untended long. We drove the horses and cattle down to the valleys-"
Ilias had been listening in increasing incredulity. He looked up to meet Giliead's puzzled frown. Giliead said, "But there were bodies? They had all been killed?"
Half a dozen people spoke to correct that and Laodice raised her voice to be heard over them, "No, that was the frightening thing. No bodies, no smell of death, except for goat's milk or meat that had gone bad." She lifted her hands. "They were just gone."
"This isn't what we were expecting," Giliead said later, leaning against a wagon. It was evening and torches were lit in the traders' camp as the darkness crept up through the trees.
From here they could see it was still light on top of the mountain, the peak and the notch of the pass outlined in red. Ilias didn't think it could look more ominous if the rocky cliffs near the pass had been carved into skulls. Curseling skulls with horns and big teeth. "No kidding," he said, his voice dry. "I don't remember anything in the Journals about a whole city's worth of people disappearing."
Giliead grunted, sounding both annoyed and distracted, his eyes still on the mountain. Ilias glanced back at the traders, several of whom were at the firepit making dinner preparations. He caught the scent of roasting meat and his stomach grumbled.
Wizards created curselings and set them loose to kill people. Even in territory protected by a god and a Chosen Vessel, curselings could still creep in and attack isolated villages or farms, if you weren't careful. People who built a city out of reach of the nearest gods and in such an isolated spot as the pass, frequented only by heavily-armed swift-traveling traders, were not being careful. If curselings killed them it was terrible but not exactly unexpected. This.... This was something else.
Giliead shook his head finally. "I wish I could talk to our god. It's not good at answering questions, especially ones that begin with 'why,' but at least it could tell me if it's a bad idea to go up there."
"I can tell you it's a bad idea to go up there, but we still have to go." Ilias scratched his chest absently. Back in the circle of wagons, Tolyi had come out to talk to Laodice. The two women stood near the fire, the light painting Tolyi's dark figure in different shades of bronze and gold. "What about the Uplands god, couldn't you talk to it?"
Giliead let out his breath. "It would take too long. I'd have to travel back down the forest road at least two days, and then get its attention. There's no telling how long that would take with a god that doesn't know me. And it's been too long already. If those people are alive somewhere, trapped or imprisoned, it's been long enough for most to die just from lack of water."
Ilias frowned at him. "Macchus and the others looked for tracks." But Macchus had also said the ground was too hard to leave any. Ilias looked up at the pass again, considering it. He had been deliberately thinking of the inhabitants of Taerae as all adults, avoiding the image of dead children, though it was highly unlikely that the settlers had had none. But Giliead was right, even if the people had been trapped, unless they had had some source of water, it had already been too long.
"If they were taken by curses, I might be able to see the traces of it," Giliead said. He shrugged, his mouth twisting. "Curselings would have left something. Blood, bones, skin, disturbed ground. And they would have killed the goats and horses, too."
"Not guls," Ilias pointed out. Guls only wanted people. The preyed on travelers who were alone, or in small groups. They devoured people whole, leaving no remains, and no way to release the victims' shades.
Giliead shook his head. "Laodice didn't think there were enough guls up there to take all those people. And the settlers knew to be careful of them. Unless they were trapped somewhere, and couldn't get away."
Ilias shifted uncomfortably. He was imagining the hapless settlers lured out and caught in a cave-in somehow, being slowly fed on by guls while he and Giliead and the traders waited and wondered. It made him want to leave for the pass now, this moment, no matter how stupid or suicidal it was. "You really think they could be alive?"
Giliead was silent for a long moment, then he shook his head. "No. Not really." He pushed off from the tree trunk, looking off into the gathering darkness.
There was an old trade road that went up through the pass, and the construction of the city had made it well-traveled. It wound gradually up through the grassy hills, past sparse stands of trees. The morning sun was bright and the day promised to be warm; it still didn't look anything like godless curse-haunted territory and Ilias could understand why the settlers had been lulled into believing all would be well.
Laodice, her husband Macchus, and three other men accompanied them, along with the Chaean Tolyi.
Giliead was walking at the front with Laodice, and Ilias heard him ask, "Was there any word of strangers visiting the city? Any newcomers moving in?"
"We heard of no one, but then we only saw the Taerae once a year ourselves." Laodice looked up at the cliffs above them, frowning.
Ilias found Tolyi walking beside him, and gave her a brief smile.
She smiled back, and said, "The Chosen Vessel is your brother?"
"Not by blood," he told her, "I've been with the Andrien family since I was a boy."
"I see." They walked a little more, and Ilias kept his eyes on the brush, though it was an effort. Tolyi was far more interesting to look at. Then she said, "It surprises me that you're both so young."
Ilias managed not to throw her a wary look. He suddenly suspected that her walking with him had nothing to do with his personal attractions. He shrugged, tugging on his baldric. "We're older than we look."
"Not that much older." Her voice dry, she added, "I have a son older than you, I expect."
This time he did look at her, but incredulously. "Really?" He had thought she was only a little older than Giliead's sister Irissa, at most. She did have the bearing of an older woman, but he had thought it was because she had an important duty as a trading factor.
"Really." Her look was a little amused, and a little flattered. "And I know Syprians keep their boys close. Especially pretty, marriageable boys."
"Not that close." But Ilias looked away, scanning the scrub off the trail and giving himself a moment to think. "Chosen Vessels don't marry. Not often, anyway."
"But he takes his younger brother-"
"Older," Ilias corrected automatically, then swore silently at himself. You idiot.
"Older brother, I see."
"What are you saying, Tolyi?" Ilias was obviously losing the subtle battle, he might as well bring it into the open. "Do you think we're lying about Gil being a Vessel?"
"No!" Startled, she stopped, catching his arm to pull him to a halt. "Not that at all. I can see he's a Vessel." She regarded him seriously. "I don't doubt your word. So I'd like to ask you how long you two have been doing this, how many of these hunts have you been on?"
Ilias took a deep breath, pressing his lips together. It was an honest question, and he wouldn't lie to her. "This is the second. The first was...not long ago."
"Oh." She lifted her brows. They looked at each other for a long moment, and by mutual consent both started to walk again.
"Will you tell the others?" Ilias asked her. His heart was pounding. It was hard enough having this much responsibility. Having this much responsibility but with the added burden of the traders looking at Giliead as if he didn't know what he was doing would be just that much worse.
"No," she said quickly, "No." She threw him a wry glance. "I'm sure some of them have guessed already, but it wouldn't do any good to say it aloud."
Ilias suppressed a wince. They walked along for a time in silence. Or at least Ilias tried to keep silent. But he finally had to ask, "What did you mean when you said that you could see Gil was a Vessel?"
She took a deep breath, and seemed to consider before replying. "I've met several Vessels, here and in the Chaean islands, when they come to make treaties." She looked up, her face set and sad. "He has that look, the fey look. Fated."
Ilias didn't reply to that. He knew what she meant, but he had never seen it. Maybe he had lived with it so long, he couldn't see it. "We're young, and he's never killed a wizard. But he knows what to do. He's been waiting for this all his life."
They followed the road up through the hills, until the ground grew rocky and the mountain's brown stone shoulders started to rise up on either side. The pass turned into a winding gorge, a few hundred paces wide, with a shallow stream cutting through rock and yellow grass and low scrubby brush.
Walking ahead a few paces, Giliead came to an abrupt halt. "Stop," Ilias said without thinking, shifting the bow off his shoulder. Somewhat to his surprise, everybody did. Laodice and Macchus and the others warily scanned their surroundings, though there was nothing obviously threatening. A few tall trees threw some welcome shade on the road and the stream. The ground was sandy and rocky, and mostly bare of scrub or anything that could be used as cover, up to a hundred paces away. On the far side of the road, nearest the gorge wall, boulders and the remains of an old rockfall lay scattered. Ilias couldn't hear anything but sparrows and rainbirds chirping and the hum of insects.
Giliead cocked his head, turning deliberately toward the stream and the stone cliff face far on the other side. Ilias followed his gaze, stepping up beside him. "You see it?" Giliead said softly. "Right below that pointed grayish rock, in the shadow, there's a ledge."
Ilias squinted. The dappled shade of the trees, the shadows, the striations of the rock all made it hard to.... There it was. "I see it." Crouched in the crevice, barely visible, was a man-shaped creature. It was a little like a rock monkey, but taller, and too skinny, and there was something about the way it sat, watching them, that was not at all animal-like.
"That's a gul." Laodice spoke quietly, stepping up beside Ilias. "Where there's one, there's others. They hunt in packs."
"One to lure travelers off the road, the others to kill and eat," Tolyi added, her face grim.
Uneasily fascinated, Ilias reached for an arrow. "Kill it?"
As if it had heard him, the creature faded back into the shadow, vanishing. Ilias grimaced.
"It doesn't matter," Laodice said, absently giving Ilias' shoulder a squeeze as she turned away. "They know we're here, anyway. There's too many to kill them all."
Giliead lifted a brow, exchanging a look with Ilias. Next time I'll know not to ask, Ilias promised him silently.
"How did you see it up there?" one of the younger men asked Giliead.
"I didn't see it. I felt it looking at us," Giliead told him. He didn't bother waiting for their reaction, following Laodice as they started down the road again. Ilias moved after him, feeling his back prickle and knowing they were all looking at each other in that way he was growing to hate. You asked for a Chosen Vessel, he thought, bitterness settling in his stomach. What good would it do to be a Vessel who couldn't tell a gul was looking at him? Just because Giliead had never done it before....
"If all curselings were created by wizards, what wizard created the guls?" Tolyi asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Giliead glanced over at her. "The Journals don't say. As far as we know there have always been guls in the godless territories, especially the mountains. As long as there have been gods." He frowned, facing the trail again.
The sun was nearly straight overhead by the time Ilias had a chance to speak to Giliead in relative privacy. They had reached a point where the stream widened into a pool, fed by a waterfall that broke and tumbled down the rocks of the cliff face. The pool was low now but the channels it had worn showed it was much deeper in the spring when the rains sent water cascading down a much wider section of the cliff. There was a bridge here, built by the Taerae to keep the trade moving when the water covered the old road's path.
The bridge was wide enough for a big trade wagon, with stone pilings and wide seasoned planks. A ford would have probably worked just as well, but Ilias was beginning to think the Taerae had had more coins than sense. Laodice called a halt there to refill their waterskins, and Ilias moved to join Giliead, who was standing on the bridge looking further up the road.
"How did you feel the gul looking at you?" Ilias asked quietly. The rush of water down the rock would cover their voices but he still kept his back to the others.
Giliead shrugged a little helplessly. "I don't know. It was like it was trying to touch me, from all the way across the gorge." He shook his head, looking away again. "I think it might have something to do with the way guls shapechange to lure people away. Maybe they see inside our heads, and because I'm a Vessel I could feel it doing that."
Ilias grimaced. The seeing inside heads thing was not a comfortable thought, but it would explain why the guls were able to take shapes that were familiar to the people they were trying to lure away. But at least Giliead had demonstrated to the traders that he was a Chosen Vessel. A young Chosen Vessel, but a Vessel nonetheless. That was one less thing to worry about.
The sky was at the edge of twilight when they reached the city.
Ilias stopped next to Giliead as the gorge widened out, the sparse trees and scrub brush giving way to rocky ground. There was a natural gap in the gorge wall, the entrance to another canyon that had been closed in with a wall of cut stone blocks, stretching up a whole ship's length. A log gate was set in the wall and the trail signs and Syrnaic characters for "Taerae" were carved into the blocks above it, touched with paint that was already faded a little from the wind and sand.
The old road curved through the open rocky flat, disappearing as the pass wound away. A new branch of it, lined with stone, turned off and led through the open gates.
It would have been a welcoming sight, after the long walk up the pass, except for the silence, and the unattended wall. Cineth's gates stood open, but there were always at least two sentries there, even though there hadn't been a Raider attack on the city for decades. "See anything?" Ilias asked. Uneasy prickles were climbing his spine, and there was something cold and empty about those open gates, the glimpse of painted pavement he could see through them, the silence that hung over the place. The birdsong had stopped when they had left the trees and the stream behind, but the quiet hadn't been oppressive before now.
Giliead frowned absently, studying the ground. "Just a.... Huh."
Distracted, he moved away, parallel to the wall, pausing occasionally to kick at a rock or scrape his boot over the dust. Ilias followed at a distance, the others trailing more cautiously behind. He knew Giliead wasn't following tracks, but the invisible traces that a wizard's curses left behind.
After a short distance Giliead found a footpath that ran along the city wall. It led through a scrubby grove of trees, to the edge of a shallow pit carved out of the hillside. Giliead stopped, studying the pit, brows knit.
When Ilias drew even with him he saw why. In the center of the pit was a large stake, driven deep into the dirt. Chains with manacles hung from it. "This is interesting," Giliead said, brows lifted. He turned to regard Laodice and Tolyi. "Did you know about this?"
"No, and I don't understand." Laodice came to stand beside them, her expression incredulous. "It's for punishment, I see that, but...."
"They just left criminals out here to starve?" Macchus asked, dubious. "It's a little mad."
Ilias understood their confusion. They couldn't see what Giliead must be seeing. And he thought it was likely that they hadn't known about it. The trees and tall grass blocked it from the road, and the footpath wasn't well-traveled.
"It stinks of guls and curses," Giliead said, watching them carefully. "No one chained out here starved. I doubt they lasted the night."
Macchus swore. Tolyi and Laodice exchanged a look of startled disgust. "Their reasons for secrecy seem more clear now," Tolyi said with a grimace.
Ilias shook his head. No lawgiver worth the name would have permitted this. If one had tried, she or he would have soon found themselves deposed by the town council or the Chosen Vessel. Of course, the Taerae hadn't been burdened with a Chosen Vessel, not having a god to choose one.
"What would happen?" Laodice asked, her face tight and angry. "If this was done inside a god's territory?"
Giliead let his breath out, exchanging a narrow look with Ilias. Ilias could tell he didn't think the traders had known about this either, and that was a relief. Giliead said, "It would leave." He started back along the path toward the city.
If a god left its territory, the city and the villages around it would lose the protection from curselings, lose the services of the Chosen Vessel to defend against wizards; they would have to disperse.
Ilias lengthened his steps to catch up to Giliead. "Would a god really leave for something like this?" he asked, low-voiced. The only mention in the Journals of a god leaving that he could remember had been when the people of the town had killed its Chosen Vessel.
Giliead threw a look back at the traders. He snorted. "I have no idea. And I'd rather not find out."
They reached the open gates, the others following. On the far side the road opened into a surprisingly large plaza, and the buildings under the looming cliffs were elaborate, with narrow pillared porticos and entablatures carved with rosettes. All the decoration was painted with touches of red, green, purple, yellow. As the traders fanned out in a loose circle, watching the doorways cautiously, Ilias stared; he hadn't been expecting anything so ornate. Then he realized these buildings were only faŤades, carved and built on the cliff faces, with the doorways leading back into the rock.
"The place was honeycombed with caves already," Laodice explained, seeing his surprise. "That's why they chose it. They camped in them when they first came here to look for the gold."
Ilias shook his head, not sure he had heard right. "They what?"
Giliead lost his air of abstraction, turning to stare incredulously at Laodice. "They camped in caves in godless territory? In a gorge full of guls and curselings?"
"That's what I said," Macchus put in, keeping his gaze on those empty dark doorways. "Bunch of crazy people."
"It was hardly wise," Tolyi admitted. "But they were able to mine the gold, and they came to no harm. At least, so they said."
Ilias glanced back at her, hearing the skepticism in her voice. "You think they lost people before this, and just never told anyone?"
Tolyi shrugged. "They knew to use the guls as a method of execution. And it seems unlikely that of all the people they brought up here, no one fell victim to them, or anything else, before this happened." She lifted a brow at Laodice. "The traders take many precautions, but they lose people."
Laodice nodded, her mouth set in a grim line. "A few a year. If we lost more than that, we'd drop the route and look for trade somewhere else." She added, "We'd argued about this before, Tolyi and I, but now I'm beginning to think she's right; there must have been some warning of this that the Taerae ignored."
Oh, lovely, Ilias thought, exasperated. Giliead flung his arms in the air, a silent gesture of frustration at the general stupidity of some people, and crossed the plaza toward the largest faŤade.
Three steps led up to a narrow portico with columns and a broad square doorway. The painted carving was all very fine, with stylized figures of miners carrying lumps of rock, and the letters for "Taerae" repeated over and over again. Ilias' mouth twisted, though he didn't comment aloud. He was beginning to form an even more cynical picture of the Taerae. He vaguely remembered learning the name of the family who had first settled Cineth from one of the poet Bythia's stories, but he couldn't recall it now. Whoever they had been, they had paid more attention to placing their new city well within a god's territory than to carving their name over every public building.
Thias, one of the younger traders, took down a bowl lamp hanging from the portico and began working with tinder and flint to light it. Ilias stepped to another lamp, standing on tip-toe to look into it. There was still olive oil - good olive oil, by the smell - in the bottom of the red glazed pot. He went to the dark doorway where Giliead stood.
The daylight only reached far enough to show them the red, black, and white swirls of a mosaic floor and the red walls of the foyer. Past that the blackness was like a solid wall. With no windows, no atrium, nothing to let in light and air, he couldn't imagine living in it. Ilias could see where the portico had been built onto the front of the cave, where stuccoed blocks and mortar joined raw stone. The air inside was cool, carrying a hint of incense, rotted food, and more olive oil.
Thias and Macchus brought the lamps, Giliead took one, and they moved forward into the dark house.
Past the foyer, the rooms were a warren of caves, the walls smoothed with clay, with paint and carving. The pools of lamplight gave them glimpses of fine furniture, carved silverwood and cedar, sheepskin rugs, fine pottery lamps and water jars, a delicate alabaster wineset on a low table inlaid with polished stones. At first it was all sterile, and Ilias had no sense of this having been someone's home. Then they moved from the public rooms to the private, and the lamp caught a loom still warped for a half-completed green and blue blanket. A child's beaded rag doll lay on a cushion, an unrolled scroll on a side-table, someone's sandals with a broken lace at the foot of a couch. A cup of a water and a half-eaten seedcake, flies buzzing around it in the stillness. Ilias felt his skin creep. Giliead stopped, looking down at a discarded shirt draped over a stool. It was small enough to belong to a girl or a young boy, and the sleeves were stained with dirt. He asked, "How many houses did you go into?"
"I'm not sure," Laodice said from somewhere behind them. She sounded a little ill; Ilias could sympathize. "We went up and down the streets, going into houses at random. It was all like this. We searched again when we were driving the animals out. We called and called, and no one answered." She took a deep breath, as if steeling herself. Ilias looked back and saw Tolyi squeeze Laodice's shoulder, her face set and still.
Giliead nodded, biting his lip. "Did you go to the mine?"
"Five of us went down into it," Macchus answered. "We thought the bodies might be there. But there was nothing."
"That...must not have been easy," Ilias said. The traders had done things he wasn't sure most Syprians would have been able to do. He was fairly certain most of the population of Cineth would have sensibly fled in terror at the sight of the empty city, and not searched it diligently for survivors.
"It's not very deep. They got most of the gold out of the river." Macchus shrugged uncomfortably. "We had to look; we knew them."
"Show us where you searched," Giliead said.
The sky was turning dark by the time they finished walking the streets. It was all as Macchus and the others had said: Empty houses, undisturbed except for what dust and wind and small scavengers had done. At the far end of the town, they had gone down the short distance into the mine, and to the river shore where the gold-panning had been done.
They came back to the plaza finally and Giliead and Ilias stood together, the others moving off a little to give them privacy to talk. Macchus had lit a couple of torches and put them into the holders on the portico of the Taerae house, but it only seemed to emphasize the deep shadows. Giliead let out a long frustrated breath. "There's nothing here. Not a hint of a curse. It's as clean of curses as the god's cave at home."
Ilias rubbed his face to conceal his expression, and said, low-voiced, "It's supposed to be easy. You're supposed to show up, follow the curses, kill the wizard, and go home. You're not supposed to have to unravel mysteries that will have poets guessing for generations to come."
Giliead shook his head. "If a wizard had come and cursed them all to follow him, he would have had to take them down the pass into the Uplands or walked straight into the territory of the god of Sareth, and we would have known of it. And one wizard couldn't take upwards of two hundred people. Some of them would have escaped, or the traders would have found bodies littering the road."
"Maybe it was a very powerful wizard. Or two of them working in concert." Though that was very rare. Wizards usually preferred to kill each other or turn each other into slaves rather than work together. "But that doesn't explain where they went. Unless they didn't take the road, and they're still in these mountains somewhere. There's a lot of country to get lost in."
"I know, but.... That doesn't feel right." Giliead was staring at the open gates. "Whatever happened, it happened here."
It probably should have turned his blood cold, but Ilias just felt relief. Giliead might not be able to see any curses here, but he was sensing something. He kept quiet until Giliead scratched his head, frowning absently, the moment of abstraction over. Ilias asked, "So what do you want to do?"
"Stay here tonight," Giliead answered immediately. "Look for shades."
They camped in the center of the plaza, collecting wood from the stores near the empty houses to build a large fire. The night was clear, so they wouldn't need the tents the traders had brought, and Ilias found it better to have an unobstructed view of the dark doorways. They had talked over the idea of closing the gates for the night, but Giliead had pointed out, "Anything that's likely to come at us isn't going to be stopped by a gate, locked or not."
Everyone had nodded glumly, and Laodice had added, "I suppose if we have to run for our lives, it would only slow us down."
While Nias and Liad, the other two younger traders, were making a dinner of graincakes and dried travel meat, Giliead and Ilias went to look for shades.
The best place to look was usually in abandoned houses and out of the way corners, places where the shades might linger without being noticed. If they were noticed, someone would always try to find their remains to do the rites, or send for a Chosen Vessel to lay them. With the town being nothing but abandoned houses, it didn't narrow the search.
They decided to start with the most obvious spot, and headed for the rocky flats near the mine and the river, where the Taerae had buried their crematory urns.
The moon was full enough that they didn't need a torch, and the firelight would interfere with Giliead's ability to see curse traces anyway. It was odd, walking through the dark empty town. Ilias was used to dark fields, dark forests, dark beaches, and the limitless sea, but the sensation of walking past houses and wells and stables, without a hint of candlelight or a banked fire under a bread oven, without a murmur of human or animal sound, made his flesh creep in a completely new way. It made him want to talk, though he knew it was foolish. "If there aren't shades-- never mind." The people of this town were dead; he shouldn't imagine they were here to rescue anyone.
Giliead's eyes were on the dark windows and doorways. "There are guls here."
"Of course there are," Ilias said under his breath, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
Giliead stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, pointing toward the upper story of a house. "There. See it? It's making itself look like Irissa."
"Motherless bastard." Sighting along Giliead's arm, Ilias studied the darkness cloaking the house's eaves. He couldn't even tell a window from a shadow at this distance, much less see a figure imitating their older sister. "I can't see it, but that's just as well, really."
Giliead shook his head, moving on. "They're all through here now. They must have crept in at dusk."
Ilias shook his head, trying to distract himself from the fact that the empty buildings all around them were full of shapeshifting curseling guls. "At least the traders know you're really a Chosen Vessel now."
"What?" Giliead stopped, staring down at him.
"Oh, they believed it, they just didn't--" Ilias wished he hadn't brought it up. "Tolyi thought we were young, and I think the others did too."
He couldn't see Giliead's expression, but he sounded incredulous. "We are young."
"Too young," Ilias clarified. "Young enough to be kept at home."
"Oh, fine." Giliead rubbed his forehead, annoyed, and started walking again. "That helps."
The street opened up into the flats, and soon they were facing the burial ground. In the dark it was just an empty rocky field, distinguished from waste ground by the lack of scrub. Moving out over it, Ilias' boots kept knocking against plates and cups set out with offerings to the dead, long ago rotted away. Giliead stood for a moment near the center of the space, then abruptly veered away toward the hill where the ground dropped away toward the distant rush of the river.
Ilias followed more carefully, wrinkling his nose at the odor as broken crockery and glass grated under his boots. They were drawing near the town's midden.
The piles of garbage were just low mounds in the dark, and he could hear the buzz of nightflies. Giliead stopped abruptly and Ilias froze in step with him. After a long moment his eyes found movement among the piles of trash.
It was a woman, moving with short disjointed steps. She was pale as milk in the shadows, dark hair ragged against her back, her dress hanging loose, dragging in the dust. Something about the way she moved suggested youth, that she was barely old enough not to be called a child. But when she turned her head toward them, the shadows clung to her, hiding her face.
Giliead paced slowly toward her, his face distant. "She's looking for her brother," he said softly.
Ilias felt his skin prickle with a chill that had nothing to do with the cool night air. "A child?" he asked.
Giliead shook his head. "Older brother. She says they meant to do the rites for her, but then they were gone."
Ilias knew from the journals that shades weren't the best sources of coherent information. They knew vaguely about things that had happened while they were alive, and even more vaguely about events afterward, but they were wrapped up in their own memories. They didn't sit around and watch living people, or understand much of what they saw. Giliead moved sideways, slowly pacing her unsteady progress. He said, "They were travelers, coming up the mountain pass from the other side. They came alone, they were afraid."
"They were running from something?" People usually traveled in traders' caravans for safety, when they couldn't take a ship along the coastline. The girl and her brother must have had a powerful motivation to cross godless territory without even waiting for the next traders' trip. "From what took the Taerae?"
Giliead shook his head slowly. "The Taerae were here, when she reached the city. I think she died before it happened. Whatever it was." Then he went still, the line of his back conveying a tension that set Ilias' nerves on edge. Giliead stepped back, shaking his head slowly, and as he turned Ilias saw his face in the moonlight. His brows were knit in confusion. "What?" Ilias asked. "What did she say?"
Giliead squeezed his shoulder. "She thinks the Taerae killed her brother, because they thought he was a wizard."
Ilias stared at the girl's figure, growing indistinct as she moved further into the midden. He had the sudden sick feeling the girl's remains hadn't been overlooked, or that the disaster that had befallen the town hadn't delayed the rites. "They killed her too, and threw her body in the midden." In a sick kind of way, it didn't surprise him. People who used guls as a method of execution were capable of anything.
"We'll look for her body tomorrow. I want to get back to the others." Giliead's eyes were on the town, the rock that formed the houses touched with silver in the moonlight. "I think I know what happened, now. Or part of it."
The traders were waiting in the plaza when they returned, sitting in a close group around the fire. Laodice and Macchus were turned to face the dark caverns of the houses, weapons near at hand, while the others ate. It was a relief; the walk had been just long enough for Ilias to imagine what it would be like to reach the plaza and find them missing.
The traders looked relieved to see them as well, shifting to make room at the fire. "Did you find anything?" Laodice asked, as Nias slid graincakes off the pan for them.
"Yes. There's been a wizard here." Giliead laid his sword across his lap. "As soon as it's light, I want you to go back down the pass. I don't know if he's still here or not, but if he is, we've been lucky so far. There's nothing you can do to help, and being here will just make you targets."
Everyone stared, startled. Tolyi exchanged an expression of blank surprise with Laodice, then asked, "Truly? But how--"
Ilias wrapped the crumbly cake around the dried meat and took a big bite to conceal his expression. The traders might have tried to hide it, but they had really had their doubts. That made it almost a pleasure to deliver this information. Almost.
Giliead nodded briskly. "I found a shade. She was traveling through the pass with her brother; he was a wizard."
"I didn't know wizards had sisters," Liad said tentatively.
"They mostly don't," Ilias told him, brushing crumbs off his shirt. "They leave their families, or kill them."
"This one was young, and running from something." Giliead's eyes turned distant as he sorted over the impressions the girl's shade had given him. "He didn't have many curses, and hadn't been taken as an apprentice by another wizard yet. His sister wasn't certain, but that's what he told her he was running from."
"He didn't want to learn curses?" Laodice asked, her expression dubious.
"It's not so much an apprenticeship as it is an enslavement," Giliead explained. "The younger wizard learns from the elder, but only so he can better do the elder's bidding. Once he learns too much, the elder usually kills the apprentice. Or tries to." He added, with a trace of irony, "Many wizards try to avoid it."
Ilias kept his expression carefully neutral. What Giliead wasn't saying was that there were people who could be wizards, but had never learned to curse, or at least never used what few curses they did have for ill. This knowledge was kept only by the Chosen Vessels, passed along only to those who needed to know it. As far as they could tell, the gods didn't mind the existence of these potential wizards, so the Vessels didn't intentionally seek them out. As long as they weren't doing harm or using curses, they could live as they wanted. But explaining this to terrified townspeople wasn't an easy thing to do, so the Vessels kept it as secret as possible. And those potential wizards were still dangerous, still likely to draw stronger wizards who wanted to take them as slaves for their power.
"Someone in the town must have realized what he was, the sister wasn't sure how or why," Giliead was saying. "They were short of coins and had little to trade, so he may have tried to use a curse to get them food or shelter or a passage down the pass, and been caught at it. When the Taerae attacked them, the girl was killed." He looked away with a grimace. "I don't know how. Shades usually don't remember the moment of their death very well."
Laodice was frowning and Tolyi shook her head, her face set in lines of disgust. Tolyi said, "The girl was an innocent." She looked up, lifting her brows. "At least she would be considered so in my land."
"Here too," Laodice said with a wince. "Families aren't responsible for the crimes of one member, even a wizard's crimes. I didn't realize how...beyond the bounds the Taerae had gone."
"They should have kept quiet and summoned a Vessel," Macchus pointed out practically. "Then they'd still be alive."
Giliead nodded grimly. "Exactly. The Taerae brought this on themselves. Unfortunately, they brought it on everyone in the town as well."
"But if this young wizard had little experience, how did he kill all the townspeople? And how did one man conceal all those bodies?" Laodice asked, making a helpless gesture.
"Perhaps he was deceiving the sister about the depth of his knowledge," Tolyi said thoughtfully.
"It's possible," Ilias said, "but if he was, the Taerae would never have caught him."
Giliead took a sharp breath. "Yes. She distinctly remembers that the Taerae discovered him, that he was caught by surprise. An experienced wizard wouldn't have been." He shook his head. "In trying to save himself, he may have drawn something else."
"Something else?" Macchus echoed.
"Another wizard or a new kind of curseling," Giliead said. "Something that could destroy the townspeople. Whatever it is, it may still be here. And the young wizard, the girl's brother, may be up here somewhere as well. She thinks he was killed, but she didn't seem to have an image of it happening. That's why I want you to leave at first light."
Laodice looked worriedly from Ilias to Giliead. "Your brother will come with us?"
Ilias snorted. "No."
Giliead regarded him a moment, one brow lifted. Ilias stared back steadily. Giliead smiled faintly, and looked at Laodice. "No."
They spent the night with three people always on watch, but no one got much sleep. Ilias sensed movement at the corners of his eyes every time he turned his head. He knew the guls clung to the shadows and watched them all night.
Ilias gave up on sleep long before dawn and helped Macchus make breakfast. Then Macchus insisted on dividing up the supplies the traders had brought, leaving Giliead and Ilias enough food for more than twelve days. "I don't think it's going to take that long," Ilias told him. If their limited past experience was any guide, it would either be over very quickly or not happen at all.
Macchus just grimaced and pushed another packet of grain at him.
By the time the sky was lightening to gray with dawn, the traders were ready to leave.
"Be careful," Laodice said, watching them worriedly. Earlier, she and Tolyi had gently tried to persuade Ilias to leave again. They were so earnestly tactful, it was impossible to be angry. It was possible to be annoyed and resigned, however. She asked, "How long should we wait?"
She meant, how long should we wait before accepting the fact that you're dead. Ilias looked at Giliead, lifting his brows. Giliead just smiled faintly and said, "If we're not back down the pass in three days, send for another Vessel."
The others said their grave farewells, and walked away down the road. Ilias gave them one last wave as they reached the bend of the trail. "They think we're going to die."
"Yes. Yes, they do," Giliead said, rubbing the bridge of his nose wearily. "I was surprised they didn't insist on doing the rites for us before they left. And they were shocked senseless that I actually found traces of a wizard up here. Even if it might not be the right wizard."
"That was a little obvious." Ilias looked up at him. "I guess we'll have to wait until dark to lure him out. You want to search the town some more, so if he is here and watching us, he doesn't suspect that we know about him?"
Giliead nodded absently, turning to look back at the empty plaza. The wind had piled up floating weeds, making a barricade over a few of the doors. "But let's take care of the sister's shade first."
Ilias grimaced agreement. He didn't like to think of her wandering the midden, and if anything happened to them, it might be a long time before another Vessel could get up here. The rites were simple and quick to perform; if a person died near home, you scattered three handfuls of earth on the body. If the death occurred elsewhere, or at sea, or if it was a stranger's body, you used three locks of hair. It was customary to get three people, but you could also use three locks from your own head if you had to. Even very old shades could be sent to rest this way; it didn't matter if the body wasn't intact, even a few bones were enough.
The town seemed even more silent as they walked back through the empty streets toward the river. Ilias had never noticed silence like this before. Even counting time spent in Cineth and other noisy populated cities and villages, he was more used to quiet places than not. There was just something about this silence that felt...as if it was masking the presence of something else. "Something's here," he said.
Giliead wasn't surprised. "I don't think we're going home empty handed."
They reached the midden and Giliead stepped on top of a low pile of broken crockery, animal bones, food waste, and broken furniture. The buzz of flies was intense. "The shade was right around here. And I have the feeling it wasn't long after she was killed that whatever it was happened--"
"So she'll be near the top," Ilias finished, taking the next pile over, wincing at the heavy odor of rot. This was what the Journals didn't mention about the lives of Chosen Vessels and their companions. Ilias supposed it didn't make good poetry: And then the Vessel of Cineth Giliead and his foster brother Ilias spent the afternoon digging in the middens looking for parts of the dead girl, hoping the dogs hadn't gotten to her and that they could find enough of her to perform the rites on.
For some time, Ilias kicked aside dirt clods and dried dung, shards of glass and pottery, while Giliead dug in the other pile. Then Ilias hesitated as he spotted a tangle of stained yellow cloth. He crouched down, shoving away at the debris on top. Yes, there it is. A hand, still attached to a slender forearm, the flesh discolored and sunken with rot. He grimaced, twisting around to say, "Gil, I found--"
It was dark. Dark as the inside of a black cloth sack, the still air cool and a little damp, no sun, no stars, no moon. Ilias' throat went dry and his heart squeezed in his chest, skipping a beat. Oh...no. "Gil," he said softly.
Silence. There was no hint of the rush of the river, or the wind scattering dust and grit against the rocks. His eyes were starting to adjust and he could just make out shapes in the darkness. He was facing back toward the town and he could see the rooflines of the houses, black against the lighter darkness of the sky, but they marked a set of structures far taller than they should be, and the shapes were all wrong. I don't know where I am.
"Here." Giliead's voice was quiet but tense, maybe only ten paces away. Ilias bit his lip to hold back a sob of relief. "You see this too?"
"Yes," Ilias managed to say, mostly evenly. "This isn't-- Where are we?"
Maddeningly, Giliead countered with, "What do you see?"
Ilias gritted his teeth. "It's all dark, the sky is like black water. I can see the town, but it's all wrong. Everything's too big, like it grew or I shrunk." He turned slowly, feeling gritty stone under his boots. He realized the midden pile under his feet was different; it was all black gravel and rock now, the detritus vanished with the odor. And the rest of the world. "The mountains go up forever." They were like black glass, glinting faintly, high above the canyons. And that doesn't make sense, he thought, sick. There was no light, nothing to make that faint silver reflection. He shouldn't be able to see at all.
"All right, that's...good. I'm seeing what you're seeing." Giliead sounded a little shaky. "Except I can also see the town, the midden in daylight, just like it was a moment ago." There was a faint crunch and he heard Giliead swear. "This is like being hit on the head until you see two of everything."
Ilias turned toward the sound, his heart beating a little easier. If Giliead could still see the real world, than this was just a wizard's illusion. Which meant there was a wizard nearby and Ilias was as good as blind and Giliead nearly so, but they weren't dead yet. Squinting, he thought he could see Giliead as a distorted shape in the dark, about where he had been standing before. "Is that you? Can you see me?"
"Uh, no. I can't. Wait. Move, wave your arms or something." Ilias waved vigorously, and Giliead said in relief, "I can see you in the dark world." He added a little worriedly, "But not in the daylit world."
"Oh, that's...." That really wasn't what Ilias wanted to hear. He took a sharp breath, trying to get his pounding heart under control. "What kind of curse is this?"
"It's not a curse. I don't feel a curse, I can't see any traces." Giliead sounded uneasy and baffled. "It's as if you're somewhere else, and I'm caught between."
Not a curse and somewhere else. Ilias tried to think about what that meant and stay calm. It wasn't easy. "Is this what happened to the Taerae?"
"That's a good guess." Ilias could hear Giliead moving, turning, his boots crunching on the pebbles. "There," Giliead said suddenly.
Ilias turned, following what he thought was Gil's pointing arm, and saw a crumpled bundle on the ground. He started toward it, but his boot slipped and he stumbled sideways, flailing to regain his balance. Giliead said sharply, "You all right?"
"Yes, it's the rock here. It's like glass. Cuts like it, too," he added as he lifted his boot and felt the slit in the leather.
"It cut you?"
"Just my boot." For a moment, Ilias didn't understand the tone of alarm in Giliead's voice. Then cold realization hit. "This isn't some kind of dream, illusion, whatever. Things here can affect me. Maybe both of us."
He heard Giliead take a deep breath. "Just...be careful."
Careful, Ilias thought, if that's the best advice he has.... They moved toward the one thing visible that wasn't black stone. It was a body, a man, dressed in the rough kilt of a laborer. Giliead kept an eye on their surroundings, since he was the only one who could see in both worlds, while Ilias nudged the body cautiously with a boot, then rolled him over. He crouched down to look more closely. The man was young, wearing copper earrings, his face and chest marked with livid blue-black bruises. "He's not breathing, but I don't see a wound," Ilias said. He probed cautiously, wincing as he felt the give under his hand. "His ribs are all caved in. Must have been beaten to death." He looked up at Giliead. "He's cold, but not stiff or rotted. He doesn't stink."
Giliead shook his head, grimacing. "Things must be different in this place."
"Things? The way the world works?" Ilias would have felt a chill in his stomach if he wasn't frozen solid down there already. But it made a weird kind of sense. No sun, no wind, no time, no rot.
"There's another body," Giliead said quietly.
There was a trail of bodies. Ilias followed them across the ground where the middens had been, up into the first street of the weirdly altered town. Men, women, children. Some with open wounds, or crushed skulls, though there wasn't much blood. Ilias lifted a lifeless hand and found bloody skin under the nails. "They did this to each other," he said grimly.
"That was the curse," Giliead said from somewhere behind him.
Ilias had been reluctantly drawing the same conclusion. "A curse, or madness, from being trapped here in the dark for days?"
"That was surely part of it. But they had help." Giliead's voice hardened. "There."
His skin creeping, Ilias turned to look.
Something was moving in and out of the abstract shapes of the black glass doors and windows. It was amber-colored, shedding drifts of mist. It seemed to turn and look at them, and Ilias caught a half-second impression of a human face. Then it was turning away, drifting into the dark.
"That was a gul," Giliead said, while Ilias was still trying to find his voice.
"How--" Ilias started again, realized it was pointless, and swallowed the words. "It didn't look like a gul, but you could tell it was one?"
"Yes." Giliead's eyes studied the dark intently. "There's more. A lot more. I think.... We know what happens when a gul takes someone."
"It eats them. It eats their soul, too, that's why there are never shades." Ilias thought he could see other flickers in the dark now, the black glass throwing colors that didn't come from the sourceless moonlight.
"What happens when a gul takes a wizard?"
"I--" Ilias remembered the stake outside the city's wall and his fear dissolved in a rush of angry annoyance. "They couldn't have been that stupid!" If you were going to kill a wizard, you had to do it quickly, no matter how much you wanted to torture the bastard.
"Oh yes, they could have. And that arrogant. If his soul is powerful enough to control the guls...." Giliead was still facing toward the flickers of gul-light. "This happened to us when we were about to find the sister's body, to free her shade. He must not want it freed."
"I did find it. Or at least I found somebody in there. But he can't talk to her, touch her. Can he?"
"I have no idea. I don't even know if he took the guls or if they took him." Giliead turned slowly, looking out into the dark. "Let's go back to the sister's body and see if there's anything else there."
"Uh." Ilias faced the abstract landscape, all obsidian and silver shadow. "Good luck with that."
"I know the way, it's just the midden isn't here in this--" Something huge moved above them in the dark and Ilias yelled a warning. He dove sideways, landing badly on the sharp stone. Rolling to absorb the shock, he came to his feet, hearing Giliead hit the ground and recover not far away.
He sensed more wild movement in the dark and yelled again to warn Giliead, ducking sideways as a clawed hand swiped for him. He came back to his feet, dodged in and sliced at it with his sword. He felt a satisfyingly meaty connect and the creature whipped away from him with an ear-splitting shriek. He darted forward and out, swinging at it, and felt the breeze as it grabbed for him again and missed.
He heard bootsteps and then Giliead was at his back. "Real world or just here?" Ilias asked, breathless.
"Just here," Giliead said grimly. "I think it's a curseling, created for this place."
"Oh, that's fine," Ilias muttered. Darkness moved above their heads and the creature made a strange sort of low whistling snarl, giving Ilias a very creepy picture of what its mouth must look like. "Gil, I'll distract it, you go find her body."
"Ilias--" Giliead snarled in frustration. But there was no way to argue; Ilias wouldn't be able to see the corpse, he couldn't even see the middens. "Just be careful!"
"No, really," Ilias snapped. As Giliead bolted for the middens, Ilias dodged forward, toward the moving darkness. He thrust the sword upward and felt it bite into flesh. Something whipped around and knocked him sideways, slamming him into the ground. He rolled away, but the dark shape above him seemed to flow past, following Giliead.
Stumbling to his feet, feeling blood trickle down his face, Ilias could just see the outline of Giliead moving frantically in the dark area where the midden should be. "Look out, Gil, it's after you! It--" He blinked and there was someone standing over Giliead now, vivid and brilliant, like one of the guls.
It was a young man, barely Ilias' age, with bright blond hair and a sharply handsome face. He said, "Leave her alone. Haven't you done enough?"
Giliead kept digging, saying over his shoulder, "She's dead. Don't you want her to rest?"
"I want her with me! I want her here!" the man shouted.
"You got her killed!" Ilias yelled, hoping to distract him. "You only brought her to make it easier for you to travel. If you loved her, you would have left her behind."
"Ilias, come here!" Giliead yelled sharply. Ilias didn't argue; he bolted toward Giliead. Something cold snatched at his arm, his hair, the side of his face. He tore through it, twisting and flinging himself past the clawlike hands. He landed hard at Giliead's feet.
"You all right?" Giliead asked tensely, shoving pebbles out of the way.
"We're surrounded by guls in the real world."
"Oh, then it's worse." Ilias pushed himself up, back aching from being slammed into the rock.
"He's afraid." His breath rough as he shoved at the invisible debris, Giliead said, "Ilias, this isn't a girl's body."
"What--" Then Ilias had it, too. The wizard was lying; he wasn't trying to keep the shade of his dead sister, he was trying to keep his own shade. That was his body in a midden. "But guls don't leave bodies."
"I'm betting they left his," Giliead said tightly. "Maybe whatever curse he used to try to fight them kept them from consuming all of his body. It's given him a hold in their world, let him control them somehow. He must need his shade to keep that control."
Ilias shifted, watching wispy shapes move in the darkness. "Laodice said she didn't think the Taerae would desecrate a girl's body like that. Maybe they didn't even kill her."
"Guls!" Giliead yelled.
"I've got them, just do it!" Ilias shoved to his feet, swinging his sword in an arc, feeling it catch at something, as if he was swinging at silk shrouds. The guls kept drawing back, trying to lure him forward and away from Giliead. But that was the first lesson he had had pounded into him as the brother of a Chosen Vessel, by his foster parents, by the older Vessels who had taught Giliead, by the poet Bythia, by the Journals. Whatever you're fighting, it'll trick you, it'll taunt you, it'll try to get you away so it can use you against him. He had no intention of falling for that.
Then light exploded and Ilias yelped and flinched back, his eyes dazzled. It was daylight, he realized a moment later, as sensation flooded back. The wind, the rush of the river, the warmth of the sun on his skin, the foul odor of the rotted garbage. The dark city was gone and he was back in the real world, standing on the edge of a midden pile. Giliead was behind him, crouched in the debris, a knife in his hand as he dropped the third lock of hair onto the body in the midden. There were dead gul-bodies strewn around them, small furry lumps; the live guls still looked like beautiful men and women and had drawn back, watching them with wary malice. Ilias couldn't tell which was the wizard, until one moved forward and he saw its human eyes.
Giliead pushed to his feet. Breathing hard, he said to it, "The Taerae didn't kill your sister, did they? They weren't that lost to reason. They caught you, left you for the guls. They threw what was left of your body here, but you didn't need it anymore. When the gul ate your soul, you took control of it, took control of all the guls here."
The wizard didn't answer, and the wizard-gul was sinking to the ground, its body losing the alluring human form and turning lumpy and misshapen. It looked like the monkey-thing they had seen in the lower pass, except its belly was huge and distended.
The other guls were withdrawing, fading away into the shadows. The wizard didn't answer, and Ilias asked carefully, "Why does he look like that?"
Giliead was watching with a frown of concentration. "He can't control them anymore. Without his shade, all that's left is...whatever part of his soul and body that one ate." He shifted his bow off his shoulder, bent it to string, and nocked an arrow.
The misshapen gul was crawling away, twisting in pain. Giliead's arrow struck it behind the head. It shuddered and collapsed, dissolving into a pool of black fluid.
Ilias sat down on the midden, wanting to collapse as well.
They burned the dead guls, and Giliead dug the wizard's head out of the midden and wrapped it in a shawl scavenged from one of the houses. They would take it back to the traders for proof, then to the nearest god's habitation for burial.
"I thought all the bodies would come back," Ilias said. "The townspeople. Once the wizard was dead."
Giliead shook his head wearily. "I think they're stuck in that other place, with the guls. And even if the bodies did come back, I don't think it would matter. From what we saw, the guls must not really eat flesh; it just looks that way because they don't leave any remains in this world. They actually eat...everything. The soul, the shade, the body."
Giliead was saying that there wouldn't be any trapped shades to release, even if they had the bodies to do the rites on. Ilias was too tired and sore to be horrified at the moment, but he was sure that would come later. "We know there's one shade trapped here." He squinted against the noon sun, looking around the midden. "But where is she? You think she's actually hidden under one of these piles, or was she just drawn here, to his body?" Ilias wasn't looking forward to searching the midden and the town again, and there was always the chance her body had ended up in the river and been carried away, or left in the open and so torn apart by scavengers that there was too little left to be found. But they had to find her. Ilias was determined to save something in this cursed town, even if it was just a forsaken shade.
Giliead's face was lost in thought. "I have an idea."
They found her outside the city wall, near the pit with the execution stake, curled up under a tree. A wool wrap had been thrown over her, the colors hidden by windblown dirt and detritus. Giliead found a mild curse on the body to keep away scavengers. It didn't prevent them from doing the rites.
"If she was out here, and wasn't taken by a gul," Ilias said, shouldering their waterskin and his pack as they walked toward the road. "He killed her."
Giliead let his breath out, glancing back toward the town. "She must have come out here to try to release him, but she was too late. His body was dead and his soul had taken over the guls. He was one of them now, and he killed her. But maybe he thought he could make her into what he was, if he kept her shade here long enough. He would have her with him, then." He looked down at Ilias, his mouth twisting in irony. "Maybe he loved her."
Ilias made a rude noise. "She showed us where his body was."
Giliead smiled ruefully. "Maybe she loved him."
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© Martha Wells 2008
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