HARMONA

Chapter 6. 

The StoneFathers

The shrine of the StoneFathers lay deep beneath the walls of HearthHome. The cavern was far older than the stone towers that grew from it like trees growing from hidden roots. Harmona stood amid thirty-nine faces set along the curving walls, each one three times her size. Beards of green ivy hung from their craggy chins, and the hollows of their eyes were dark with shadow.

The flame atop her staff lit the chamber in hues of emerald. The faces of the StoneFathers stared at the center of the shrine, where Harmona stood on a dais of marble. She sang the words of Waking, Reverence, and Gratitude.

The stone faces opened their eyes, weeping rays of amber light. The green glow diminished in their collective brilliance. Harmona wiped at the tears drying on her cheek. “Ancient Ones, we need your help,” she said. Even now her thoughts raced back to Dorian, legless and bleeding on a cot in the infirmary. Possibly he was already dead. She could do no more for him than the physicians could, and this errand could not wait. The girls had not seen their father’s condition yet, but there would be no hiding it from them.

A granite mouth opened with the sound of grinding of stones. A deep voice filled the cavern. “Be brave, little one.” Harmona turned to the Seventeenth Father, the first to speak. She spilled out the details of the attack on the hunters, but the voice cut her off.

“We know.” The words sank in the chamber like stones in deep water.

“What’s happening?” Harmona asked. Despite her determination to stop weeping, her eyes would not play along. She rubbed them with the hem of her sleeve.

“This day was foreseen by us,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“The Yicori have found you,” said the Ninth Father.

“Do not despair,” said another. “This was foreseen.”

“We will guide you, child,” said the Seventeenth, “as we have always done.”

“You knew?” Harmona said. “All this time we’ve been here and you knew these things were out there?”

“We know everything about this primitive world,” said the Fifteenth Father.

“Do not despair,” said the Eighth, coughing out a bit of sand.

“You brought us here,” Harmona said, “you and Wail. You told us it was safe. You said Gaeya would be our home. Ours.”

“So it has been,” said the Fifteenth.

“So it is,” said the Seventeenth.

“We have planned for this,” said the Third Father’s face. Harmona spun to face it.

“Your plan did not including warning us? You waited years for them to start killing us, and now you’re telling me not to worry about it. Where is Wail? I want to speak with Doctor Wail.”

“You ask too many questions at once,” said a face.

“And make demands of us,” said another.

“Doctor Wail brought you to Gaeya at our instruction,” said the Seventeenth Father. “We built this citadel for you, opened the nine wells. We taught you how to live in this place, revived the basic survival skills that your race had long forgotten. You would have died in a matter of weeks if not for our intervention. We built HearthHome for you, and you have done well. Your numbers grow. Yet you do not live outside of time as we do, so you must always contend with elements of change. Your temporal existence demands the chemistry of evolution. Change creates conflict and conflict creates growth. Your people have done well so far. Now they must grow.”

“Or die,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father.

“So it’s not a paradise after all, is it?” Harmona said. She sat down on the top step of the dais. The black staff leaned across her knees as she rested head in hands. The anger had come and gone in a flurry of emotions, and now she felt numb. Something significant was happening. Something that would change everything. Forever.

My husband is dying.

The tears welled again, and she shouted through them at the faces.

“I don’t understand!”

“Calm yourself, child,” said the Fifth Father. “The time has come for you to know the truth. This world is not yours alone. The Yicori dwell in the high trees of the far ranges, where your people have never hunted until now. We anticipated that one day the New Organics would have to take this world from these primitives. So we made HearthHome far from the Yicori territories, giving your people time to grow their numbers, adjust to their new lives here, and learn the hunting skills that will make them excellent warriors.”

“Warriors?” Harmona said. “You brought us here to make war on these creatures? To fight for dominance like animals in a pit?”

“We brought you here to free you from the Potentates of Urbille,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“You could never have fought the Potentates for dominance,” said the First Father. “Here you have an excellent chance to establish a permanent foothold for your species.”

“We saved your kind from annihilation,” said the Seventeenth.

“You have adapted well here,” said the Thirtieth Father, “with our aid.”

“You think I forget this?” Harmona said. She forced herself to stand again. Her knees were unsteady, so she leaned on the staff. “You want to forge us into the defenders of paradise. A paradise we have yet to earn. Will this blood buy us peace? Why can we not live side-by-side with these Yicori? There must be another way. Something besides war and death and suffering.”

“The Yicori have great appetite for human flesh,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“It is true,” said the Thirtieth.

“A hundred thousand years ago they existed in great hordes all over this continent,” said the First Father. “Voracious and strictly carnivorous, they devoured every other mammalian species into extinction. This created a series of massive die-offs, as the remaining tribes turned to cannibalism. This last tribe of Yicori has survived for a thousand years by preying on the myriads of avian species in the worldforest. When times are lean they still revert to cannibalism. Yet now they have discovered another mammalian race to prey upon, and the appetite consumes them like a fever. There is no other way. The New Organics must fight to survive on Gaeya. It is the next stage in your extraordinary evolution.”

“The Yicori must be destroyed,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“Every last one of them,” said the First.

“Only when this is done,” said the Seventeenth, “will this world belong to you.”

“I understand,” Harmona said. “But I don’t have to like it.”

“One does not have to ‘like’ a war in order to win it,” said the Seventeenth Father.

Harmona sighed. “War,” she said. She knew the word from books, histories, plays, and legends, things she was exposed to in the Urbille or while travelling the Nexus with the Rude Mechanicals. She understood that it was senseless and brutal, that it trampled the innocent, that it cost lives and souls. She knew war as a concept. Yet now she had seen real blood, and she feared war for the first time. Yesterday it was only an idea from history. Today her husband was dying, her people were going to war, and the idea had become a deadly reality.

“The Yicori will find HearthHome eventually,” said the Seventeenth Father,” but there is time.”

“Time to prepare,” said the Fifth.

“Time to learn,” said the Fourth.

“We have taught you hunting, agriculture, medicine, letters, philosophy, and many other disciplines that make a self-sufficient community,” said the Seventeenth. “Now we will share with you the sacred arts of metallurgy, weaponsmithing, and armoring. The primeval powers of your distant ancestors, the heroes of the Organic Age, shall live again in you.”

“Your people have mastered the hunt and learned the land,” said the Third Father. “The time of Knife and Spear is over. The time for Sword and Shield is upon you. We who are masters of the stones will provide you with precious ores for your smithies and forges. From the wisdom of stone you will build an Age of Metal. Your skins shall be metal and the metal in your hands shall be swift and devastating. Your people will face these tree-climbers and hew them down.”

“The Yicori are beasts, their only weapons claw and fang,” said the Eleventh Father. “But the earth holds many secrets that belong to the StoneFathers. These secrets shall be yours. Your thirty bands of hunters will become thirty companies of soldiers, and the Yicori will fall before them.”

“With our help you will exterminate these flesh-eaters,” said the First Father.

“How much time do we have?” Harmona said. “How many days?”

“That is not for us to say,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“Call your councils to order,” said the Nineteenth. “Prepare your Artisans.”

Harmona had heard enough. She stepped down from the dais.

Dorian needs you. Go to him now, before it’s too late.

But something else nagged at her. Something the StoneFathers were not telling her. If they could hide the existence of the Yicori for twelve years, what else might they be hiding? She stopped before leaving the shrine.

“Summon Dr. Wail,” she said to all of the faces at once. “I want to speak with him.”

“That is not–”

She cut off the voice: “Did he know too? Did Wail know these things were out there waiting to eat us? Did he know about your plans for us to exterminate them?”

The StoneFathers were silent. Their open eyes gleamed like golden moons.

Harmona walked toward the exit.

“Call your councils,” said one of the faces.

“Do not despair,” called another.

Harmona ran up the steps. It had been so peaceful before Anton’s interruption at the play rehearsal and the doomed hunting party’s return. Paradise had fallen apart in a matter of minutes. Of course it never really was the paradise she’d thought it was. She was a fool, and so were the rest of the New Organics. Fools who trusted Wail and the StoneFathers.

She entered the infirmary a few minutes later. The wounded hunters had fallen into slumber, and their wives sat among the bustling physicians, many serving as nurses. Every woman of HearthHome knew how to tend a wounded hunter. It was one of the first things you learned on Gaeya. A basic survival skill. She heard the StoneFather’s voice echo in the back of her head: You have adapted well here…with our aid.

Duval sat next to Dorian’s cot, watching over him as he slept. He’s doing my job. She banished the thought and touched Duval’s shoulder as she sat beside him.

Duval’s torn hunting clothes had been replaced by a white robe, and the bandages on his left cheek were seeping red. They would need changing soon.

Duval looked at her with sad eyes red as raw meat.

“He’s been asking for you,” Duval said. “I’ll go…”

“Stay,” Harmona whispered. She squeezed his unbandaged shoulder. She leaned forward to inspect Dorian’s wounds. His skin was pale and blue veins showed in his face. The stump of his left leg had been cauterized and bandaged. His left arm was wrapped from pit to wrist. The seeping redness there spoke of horrible damage. His brow was hot and clammy. She dipped a rag in a bowl of water, lay it across his forehead, and kissed his cheek. His eyes wavered and blinked at her. His right hand moved toward hers, but he couldn’t raise it. She took his hand and held it to her chest, moved her face closer to his. A tear fell on his chin. She wiped it away.

“The girls…” he said.

Harmona nodded. “I haven’t told them yet. Don’t try to speak. Just rest now, and I’ll bring them to you first thing in the morning.”

“No,” Dorian coughed and black blood spewed from his lips. “Bring them…bring them now.”

Harmona called a physician over and sent a messenger to summon her daughters. She met them outside the infirmary doors. They were already in tears. She re-explained what rumor and common sense had already told them. She led them inside to hug their father one by one. Dorian whispered something into each of their ears. His right hand raised toward Harmona again. The girls ran to Duval, who stood like a protective grandfather between them and the death that was fast approaching.

Harmona leaned in close, ready for Dorian’s last words.

“I love you,” she said. “I always have.”

“Since…since the day you joined…the Mechanicals. I remember…” Dorian lost his voice. He seized up and the girls wept loudly. Harmona held him until the seizure passed.

His pale blue eyes focused directly on hers. “They’re not apes…” he said. “Large craniums…some kind of language…” He grabbed her hand now with all of his fading strength. “Predators…walking like tigers…climbing like monkeys… Harmona, they…they ate my leg.”

She tried to calm him with her cheek against his. His skin felt aflame. Brix and Chancey came to join the family in its grief. Elodie and Sabine went to embrace them, while Astrid remained wrapped about Duval’s waist. All of the girls’ eyes were on their dying father.

Dorian inhaled a great gulp of air and lifted his head from the pillow. His voice was a rasping croak. “You have to kill them…before they…”

His head fell back and Harmona stroked his flat chest.

He stared into her face. “Kill them…” he said again. “Save the girls…”

The light faded from his eyes.

Harmona wept over his body with the girls until the physicians carried it away. Dorian had only ever wanted to be an actor, but he ended up a hunter, father, and leader. He had died before the StoneFathers could forge him into a warrior.

So would everyone at HearthHome unless they made that transition.

Later, after the girls had cried themselves to sleep in their mother’s bed, Harmona sat alone near the fireplace. She studied Dorian’s flint-blade knife. The handle was carved from the bone of a blue condor he had killed years ago. His favorite hunting bow hung on the wall across from the bed. These were the weapons of a peaceful man. A peaceful people. Bird-hunters.

She dropped the knife into the flames and watched its bone handle darkening. The loops of copper wire securing bone to flint began to melt. Soot swelled like darkness in the updraft. Soon there was nothing left but ashes and a shard of blackened stone.

####

The next few days were a grey blur of council meetings, funerals, and trying to help the girls deal with their grief. Harmona was so busy running HearthHome that it took three days for Dorian’s death to really sink in. On the third day she collapsed in the blue garden after a mid-morning council, unable to breathe. Elodie’s older sisters were still in tutoring sessions, and the little girl broke down as well when her mother fainted.

Harmona woke in her bed surrounded by the girls along with Brix and Chancey. They had suspended their play due to the attack and the following wave of panic. There would be no festival either. She heard them arguing in whispers before they realized she was awake.

“Funerals and plays don’t mix,” said Brix.

“People are sad and worried,” said Chancey. “They need this.”

“Not now, Chancey,” Brix said.

Oui, Monsieur Directeur,” Chancey said.

“Mother!” Elodie was the first to notice her awake. Astrid and Sabine leaned over the bed and hugged her. Sabine lifted Elodie so she could join the hugging.

“Duval is outside, Mother,” said Sabine. “He sat by the door all night.”

“I slept all night?” Harmona kissed her daughters. She squeezed Chancey’s hands in her own and he kissed her forehead. Brix gave her a gentle hug.

“You’ve run yourself ragged,” Brix said. “You’re no good to anyone unless you get some rest.”

“Stay here, Mother,” said Elodie. “You need to rest.”

Harmona stroked the girl’s straw-colored hair, the same shade as her father’s.

“One of the Artisans is making a statue of Father,” Astrid said. “The one called Tomaz.”

Harmona shook her head. “Statues will have to wait. We need all the Artisans making weapons and armor. The StoneFathers have already begun meeting with them and the LoreKeepers. The deep forges are lit, and ores are being processed according to the StoneFather’s dictates.”

“Not all of the Artisans are meeting with the StoneFathers,” said Chancey.

Brix frowned at him.

Harmona set up in bed, pulled back her mass of unruly hair. Her first night’s sleep in three days felt good. She winced at a stab of guilt for feeling anything good so soon after Dorian’s death.

You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to go on.

For the girls. For everybody else.

She rubbed her eyes. “Explain, please.”

Chancey grinned. “Astrid already told you. One of our best Artisans, a stoneworker, refuses to learn the New Arts. Aldo Crespus is his name. He’s already started on the sculpture of Dorian.”

Harmona saw the pain in her daughter’s soft eyes, the deep loss that could never be filled. Their father was gone forever. Surely that pain must even exceed her own. She had never even known her own father. She had lost her best friend and lover, but they had lost half their world. So have I. We must outlive this loss.

Show them how to move forward by honoring him.

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad someone else objects to our current path. Take some extra salt and wine to Aldo Crespus. He is obviously a man of principle.”

Duval entered the room. His leather tunic and new hunter’s harness were polished. He carried a sheathed knife and a hunter’s spear, which he left near the doorway. His ruined cheek had begun to heal, but he still wore a half-mask of bandages. The look in his eyes was like shade on a hot day. His recently shaved beard was starting to emerge again, and his sandy hair was bound into a single braid. For the last seven years he was the closest thing Dorian ever had to a brother. They were both 26, a year younger than the oldest person in HearthHome.

Duval was an uncle of sorts to the girls. They ran to him. Suddenly Harmona realized the role he would play in her girls’ lives going forward. Duval’s presence was all that was left of Dorian. She smiled at him, grateful but unable to say it aloud.

“How are you feeling?” Duval asked.

“I am well,” Harmona said. “Well enough…”

Duval pulled up a stool. The girls set about finding a robe and breakfast for their mother. Brix and Chancey hovered in the corner, pretending not to listen. They were her oldest and dearest friends, but Dorian had known them longer. They were taking his death well, but now and then she saw Brix wiping a tear from Chancey’s face. Harmona wasn’t the only one determined to stay strong for the girls.

“I have news,” Duval said. “Another band of hunters returned with half their numbers missing. The Yicori attacked them too. This time on the western flats between the high ridges and the mossy bluffs. I spoke briefly with the survivors. The brutes came from the trees, like the ones that attacked my band–I mean to say Dorian’s band. We believe the Yicori are tracking the hunting parties, trying to find HearthHome.”

“They’re hunting us,” Harmona said. “The StoneFathers said they would. How many hunters are still outside the gates?” Any hunters who were gone for more than four days had no idea what was going on at HearthHome. They wouldn’t get the news of the Yicori attacks until they made it back. Or until the Yicori found them in the wild.

“Five bands,” said Duval. “The last one left six days ago.”

Harmona hurled a water bowl across the room, splashing the curtains. Elodie caught her breath and started to weep. Harmona got out of bed and picked up the six-year-old.

“It’s all right,” she told Elodie. Gradually the girl calmed down.

Duval waited for her to dress in the adjoining chamber before resuming their conversation over breakfast with the girls. They ate piping hot bread and sliced fruit. Hot tea or cold wellwater. Elodie wouldn’t drink any hot liquids, so she left the tea to the two older girls. Brix and Chancey went to welcome back the returning hunters in Harmona’s name. Duval ate little as he sat where Dorian would have been. The girls stuffed themselves, and Harmona forced herself to eat.

“He was my greatest friend,” said Duval. “I will miss him.”

“You are part of this family,” Harmona said. “Always.” She squeezed his hand.

“Do you believe what the StoneFathers say?” he asked. “Can we kill them all with these new weapons? This…armor?”

“I think it’s what they’ve wanted us to do all along,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s why they brought us here.”

“Dorian told me they brought us here to defy the Potentates,” Duval said. “So that one day we might go back and topple them. Take the Urbille for ourselves.”

“Dorian liked Wail’s plan to do that,” Harmona said. “But he never convinced me of its wisdom. We have our own world now, so we don’t need to fear the Urbille or the Potentates. We have worse things to worry about.”

“He also said the Potentates were looking for us,” Duval said. “Wail told him they were searching for Gaeya and the escaped New Organics. If they find us they will wipe us out.”

“Wail says that a lot,” Harmona said.

Duval stared at her.

“He’s probably right,” she said. “Look, it’s been twelve years and they haven’t found us yet. They’re not going to. The Yicori are already here, and they will definitely wipe us out. We’ve been forced into a war, Duval. One that we have no choice but to fight.”

Duval grinned. “Sounds like an old book, or one of those legends from the Organic Age. You know the ones where a simple-minded farmhand ends up fulfilling an ancient prophecy to save his world from the forces of evil?”

“It sounds nothing like that to me,” she said. “But it does remind me of The Tempest.”

The Tempest?”

“One of the Great Plays. Do you know it?”

“The Leaflings have never performed it.”

“Not yet,” she said. “The magician Prospero lives isolated on an island for twelve years. There he keeps his daughter Miranda safe from all his enemies both natural and mystical. Eventually, Prospero’s magic draws his enemies to the island where he manipulates them toward their doom.”

“I see,” Duval said. “The wizard triumphs.”

“Yes,” Harmona said. “But later he forgives his enemies and forsakes magic altogether. He only wants his daughter to be happy.” Her voice trailed off, following her thoughts.

“And was she?” Duval asked.

“What?”

“Was the wizard’s daughter happy in the end?”

“I don’t know,” Harmona said. “The play ends too soon. I think she was happy. She had found the man she loved…”

Harmona didn’t realize she was weeping until Duval put his arm about her shoulders. He pulled her close.

“Our ancestors endured war,” he said, “and they survived it. So shall we.”

“The StoneFathers say it’s part of our evolution,” she said.

“Then we must believe them,” Duval said.

She pulled away before the girls noticed the embrace.

“If we’re moving forward,” she asked, “why does it feel like we’re going backward?”

Duval gave her no answer.

It was time for the next council.

####

Day and night the people of HearthHome worked to prepare for what was coming. Harmona walked among the deep forges watching the red-hot metal flow like earthblood. The ore provided by the StoneFathers was light, maleable, and easily honed to razory sharpness. The first few blades to come off the forges were blessed with the names of the dead hunters etched into their hilts.

The first batch of swords was given to the LoreKeepers. After these men and women met with the StoneFathers, they came away with a new sense of purpose. They would be warriors now, and they would train others to be as well. A blast of light from the StoneFathers’ eyes filled their heads with awareness, technique, and fresh wisdom. They must hone this raw wisdom into physical prowess. The hunting bands were already great archers and masters of spear-throwing. Now the transfigured LoreKeepers schooled them in the arts of swordplay.

Duval and twenty-four other HuntMasters supervised the training yards. All day the first band of swordsmen practiced and dueled in protective leather tunics. The plan was to quickly reach a certain level of mastery with the weapons, then learn to do it all over again while wearing armor. The armorers, like the weaponsmiths, worked night and day. They traded shifts to keep the forgeries and smithies producing. Every man knew the Yicori were coming, so every man worked like a demon.

A few more bands of hunters arrived, most of them with good supplies of game for the larders, and none of them had met the Yicori. Yet another band returned in fear and exhaustion, missing five of their number. They told stories of hungry shadows dropping from the trees, hauling men away to their deaths. They had heard the screams of those who were eaten alive, and the rest of them ran for two days to get home.

Now all the roaming bands were accounted for, but the death toll had risen to forty-six hunters. Every citizen of HearthHome was safe for now inside the Outer Wall. Outlying fields and orchards were abandoned, their tenders harvesting too early whatever they could manage. Six of the nine wells lay beyond the Outer Wall, but the three wells inside the grounds would serve well enough.

Harmona walked among the sweating Artisans as they hammered metal into deadly shapes. The green glow of her staff made them smile as she passed. A leader must inspire her people and give them hope. She asked questions of their work, watching them turn raw ore into metal alloys and metal alloys into sword, armor, and shield.

An Artisan named Chumley begged the privilege of making a sword for her, but Harmona initially refused. “My staff will suffice,” she said. The power of the staff’s green flame was great, and its source was inexhaustible. It had been given to her by Sala North, the closest thing to a true mother Harmona had ever known.

She missed the Rude Mechanicals, and the days when she wandered the Thoroughfares as one of them, Dorian’s hand in hers. She missed performing for exotic audiences of outlanders, strangelings, and graveyard spirits. She missed making love to him in curious and hidden places, back when their love was something new and wonderful. It was that love that convinced her and Dorian to follow Wail here. They chose to build their lives around that love, and so forsake the only life they had ever known. That love had produced three beautiful daughters. She would do it all over again.

Chumley convinced her with eloquent words that the leader of a war-stricken people needed to carry a sword, if only to inspire those who would fight in her name. She watched as he folded the hot metal to create her own personal blade.

In the chambers of the armorers it was much the same. Breastplates, leg- and arm-guards, helmets, shields. All of these took shape as rapidly as the StoneFathers’ sacred wisdom could be applied. Therol, who used to be the Chief LoreKeeper, had her measured as soon as possible. She knew better by now than to argue. She had no wish to wear a metal skin, no matter how brilliant and craftily designed. But her people would need to see her sparkling in the dawn light, raising her green flame and her sword high to rally their spirits.

How else could she get them to go out and kill all those monsters?

She stayed among the forgeries long into the night, watching the future of her people being built with hammer, tongs, and anvil.

After midnight the gatemen sounded their watch horn, waking everyone who slept inside the citadel. Harmona knew her daughters must also hear the alarm up in the Hearthtower’s bedchamber. They would wake up frightened without her presence. She rushed toward the Great Hall and met a messenger as she entered the chamber.

“HearthMother! They’re climbing over the north wall!” The man pointed northward, cold horror in his eyes. “The Yicori have found us!”

No, it’s too soon. We’re not ready yet.

Harmona joined a trio of hunters headed for the wall. They gripped wooden spears with sharp flint heads. From the courtyard she saw Duval and a cluster of archers standing between the battlements. They fired volley after volley over the wall, aiming at the hungry things climbing it.

She rushed up the sentry steps to join them, the spearmen at her back.

We’re not ready!

Something faster than her eye could follow reached up and pulled an archer off the wall. His scream faded as he fell. A fanged monstrosity pulled itself up to crouch where the archer had been stationed. It was head-and-shoulders taller than any man, yet it crouched with slumped shoulders and a humped back. Matted white fur covered its body except for snout, palms, and feet. Its mouth was a pink maw filled with yellow fangs, big enough to snap off a man’s head. Six arrows protruded from its shoulders and back, yet it seemed to be ignoring them. More arrows broke now against its thick skin.

Its skull was twice as large as it should be, the bulk of it rising like a ripe melon from behind the smallish face. Two puffing slits served as a nose above its obscene mouth. Of all its horrid aspects, its eyes were the most disturbing. They looked across the parapet at Harmona. Black orbs bulging from their sockets beneath a simian brow. Constellations of alien stars glittered in the depths of those eyes. They were twin pools of night sky. Harmona looked into them for a half-second and knew these were intelligent creatures, not mindless beasts. Dorian had tried to tell her this before he died.

The Yicori grabbed a spearman by the neck and twisted his head off in a shower of crimson. Another spearman impaled it through the neck. The starry-eyed beast wailed and tried to pull the shaft from its neck, spurting gore across its pale fur. Its massive claws were already stained with New Organic blood. A second Yicori, also shot full of arrows, climbed up over the battlement.

Duval rushed between Harmona and the beast. It howled and might have ripped him apart if the spear in its neck hadn’t been such a distraction. Duval plunged a silver blade into the creature’s gut, twisting and driving it backward. He swept the sword sideways as the beast staggered backward. Clutching at its flailing intestines, it plummeted back the way it had climbed.

Another beast leaped up and swatted two archers away. It lurched toward Duval, who held his bloody sword awkwardly. The force of its massive body would crush Duval, if it didn’t simply knock him off the wall.

Harmona raised her staff and spewed a torrent of green flame that set the beast on fire. Its greasy fur blazed as Duval rolled to the side. The burning Yicori raged between the battlements, smashing at the stone with burning arms, stamping with clawed feet. Another Yicori climbed up behind it, so Harmona let another blast of flame engulf them both. The sentries took their spears and jabbed at the beasts until they fell from the wall like flaming balls of fur.

Clawed hands came over the wall’s rim, seeking purchase. Men rushed to stab at them with knife and spear. All this time archers were spraying the outside of the wall with arrows, but none of them had stopped the Yicori from climbing. Arrows were no better than thorns against this enemy.

“They’re still coming!” Duval shouted. He leaned against Harmona so they stood back-to-back. He stared over the edge toward the mass of climbing beasts.

“They are too many!” someone shouted, dropping a spear and running down the stairs. Another beast climbed over the battlements to squat atop the wall, and two more on either side of it. More claws rose up, digging their tips into naked stone.

Harmona poured gouts of green flame at the beasts. The Yicori streamed up the northern wall like spiders. Men died in pieces or ran screaming.

StoneFathers, help us! We are not ready!

A new beast leaped atop the battlements. It towered over her, fangs dripping red. Its breath stank of rotten meat, but its star-filled eyes stared at her. She caught a glimpse of something beautiful and eternal beneath the savage hunger.

It reached for her throat.

 

NEXT: “A Free Road”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —