The last rays of the day lit upon the trees of the forest causing the leaves to glimmer. Some of the leaves were already turning orange and yellow. Even though a majority of the leaves still held their original color, the reminder of the approaching fall wasn’t lost on Jorad Rahid.
His father Adar would get itchy feet soon and want to leave Neberan. In fact, Jorad was surprised it hadn’t already happened. They’d been in Neberan for six months and that was unusual. The longest they usually stayed somewhere was less than three. Jorad hoped Adar would be able to last another couple of months. Things were just starting to get interesting with Soret.
Jorad looked through the forest to the large clearing ahead. Clearing wasn’t the right word since it was quadruple the size of Neberan but he couldn’t think of another way to describe it. Little grew in the open area because it was covered with paved rock.
The pavement showed little in the way of wear, despite the fact that Jorad believed it to be well over a thousand years old, maybe from even before the Severing. That wasn’t what drew Jorad’s eye though; it was the tower in the center. He was certain it—people from Neberan called it Vigorock—was from before the Severing. At several places in the clearing, rocks had been mounded up in various formations, the largest of which was several stories high and shaped like a pyramid. These formations looked much newer.
“We need to get back. It won’t be long before my dad notices I’m gone.” Soret was a step or two behind Jorad and moved carefully, trying to keep her dress from brushing up against the bushes that were crowding the path. Her dress had been made for festivals, not for moving about the woods. Jorad figured she was getting colder, but didn’t want to say so.
“Besides Vigorock gives me the creeps,” Soret said. “Wish it wasn’t so close to Neberan. I hate seeing it every day.” Soret fidgeted, her green dress shimmering and Jorad couldn’t help but notice her figure as she shifted, her long black hair twisting around her. She caught him looking and he returned his attention to Vigorock, a much less impressive view and perhaps less mysterious.
Seeing Vigorock from this close, and it was still almost a mile away, was something else. A big metal spike that was similar to a pyramid at the base, but instead of four sides it had eight. The sides twisted around the length of the tower giving Vigorock an unearthly look. How could anybody live within sight of this and not wonder what it was? More than a thousand years old, and the metal hadn’t rusted and its reflected light would have been visible from Zecarani if there wasn’t a mountain range in the way.
Adar was convinced the tower was a weapon and had spent a lot of time trying to puzzle it out. Jorad had wondered about Adar’s sanity when they spent an afternoon circling the tower, stopping so Adar could swipe his thumb along the base. Jorad had asked for an explanation but of course hadn’t received one.
Despite Soret’s desire to turn around, he was drawn to the tower and continued to move towards it. He’d never been here at sunset before and maybe the changing light would give him a fresh perspective on Vigorock. Perhaps there would be something that would allow him to unlock its secrets. He stared up at the massive tower. If it was a weapon as Adar thought, had it been used to fight humans or Hunwei?
Jorad wasn’t certain what drew his eye to the bush but something was out of place. It looked too thick, as if it had another bush within. He put his hand behind him, hoping that Soret would stop. He could have sworn that he’d just seen eyes. The bush began to tremble despite the lack of wind. He unsheathed his sword.
“Watch out!” Jorad said, taking a step back and bumping into Soret. It was as if a bush had decided to get up and move. Human eyes were now peering out from the branches. It hadn’t been his imagination. The figure pushed through the knee-high grass and stepped out onto the path.
Attached to his dark clothes were bunches of grass and small twigs, the man looked like a walking tree. Despite his alarm, Jorad studied the figure. It was a marvelous job of camouflage and he wished that Adar were here to see it as well. Perhaps between the two of them they would have been able to figure out the method associated with constructing the disguise. Barely any flesh showed through and even his face had been rubbed in something black. A mixture of mud and ashes?
The man’s black hair might have been shoulder length, but it was impossible to tell as it had been worked into his disguise. Grass and brush were interwoven with the hair to form a covering that ran down to his shoulders. The man almost reminded Jorad of a young girl who had twisted flowers’ into a crown and was pretending to be a princess.
Sure, Jorad had noticed that something was wrong about the bush, but he spent many hours in the forest. The average passerby wouldn’t have noted anything to be concerned about and would have walked by none the wiser. Jorad examined the area looking for any other irregularities. Even though nothing else moved, he didn’t find that very comforting. There were several significant patches of trees and bushes nearby where almost anything could hide. The one this guy had come from was big enough to hide several more just like him. The man kept his arms by his side in a nonthreatening fashion but Jorad didn’t lower his sword.
“Ou Qui!” Soret hissed.
Jorad was glad she couldn’t see his face. He’d been so busy looking for others and admiring how the man had hid in plain sight—he could have slit their throats if he’d wanted to—that he hadn’t given any thought to who the man was.
Soret’s observation made sense. He’d never met an Ou Qui, but he’d heard stories about their seeming ability to appear out of nowhere. Now that he’d seen it firsthand, he was impressed. If the Ou Qui could track as well as they hid, he never wanted to be their quarry.
The Ou Qui tensed. In a single motion, the man withdrew two short swords from his side and threw them into the ground. The movement had been fast enough that Jorad didn’t have any time to react. The Ou Qui’s short swords stood hilts up, several feet in front of Jorad. Belatedly, he stepped back and tried to read the man’s mud covered face. He couldn’t see any emotion there.
Jorad, who was already very alert, became even more watchful. This man moved fast enough that Jorad had a hard time following his movements. If he attacked, Jorad wasn’t sure how the fight would go. There was a flash of fear when Jorad realized that this man could kill him. He did his best to push it away. He needed to concentrate so he could be sure to avoid provoking the man. This man was a predator and they’d just stepped into his den.
The Ou Qui folded his arms and waited.
“I think he wants to talk,” Soret whispered from over Jorad’s shoulder. He could feel her brushing up against him. In another circumstance, he would have been thrilled with the contact. It was the closest she’d gotten to him all evening, but now he could only think about making sure he got her out of this alive. “I’ve never heard of an Ou Qui throwing down his weapons.”
The Ou Qui lived in the southern rain forests and they didn’t usually come this far north. He’d once talked with a merchant who claimed that the Ou Qui collected human ears from surprised victims and wore them as jewelry. Jorad hadn’t believed it because he’d never met anyone claiming to have lost an ear to the Ou Qui.
The man was staring at Jorad’s sword. The message was clear, but Jorad was hesitant to put down his sword. He didn’t want to be unarmed. If he thrust his sword into the ground as well, he’d need to clean and sharpen it afterward.
Jorad waited until it started to become awkward. Cursing to himself, he stabbed his sword into the moist earth in front of him. His sword was two feet longer than the Ou Qui’s short swords and wasn’t as decorated. The hilts of the Ou Qui’s short swords were made from gold and shone in the evening light. It was strange that a man so consumed with not being seen, carried weapons that reflected the light so easily. Well, Jorad hadn’t noticed the swords until they’d been thrown into the ground. If the Ou Qui was close enough to use them, perhaps it didn’t matter if you saw them.
The Ou Qui nodded. “Now that’s out of the way, we can chat. I’m Ruder.”
Jorad had been expecting primitive speech from the man and had been prepared to use his hands to communicate if necessary. Ruder’s tone was in stark contrast to his garb. He spoke like an educated man.
“I’m Jorad.” He didn’t offer up Soret’s name on purpose to protect her and hoped that she wouldn’t introduce herself.
On second thought, he should have given Ruder a false name. For many years, Adar and he had gone by different names on a regular basis. It was only recently that Adar had relaxed enough that they’d started using their first names. Using their last names was still out of the question and always would be. It wasn’t wise, even this far from Rarbon, to let anyone know he was a Rahid. They’d either try to kill him or want to follow him. Neither was appealing. If things went the way Jorad hoped, one day he’d have to tell Soret the truth. He wasn’t looking forward to it because she might not take it very well.
Ruder gazed from Soret to him as if sizing them up. An Ou Qui wanting to talk. Who’d ever heard of such a thing?
“When was Neberan attacked?” Ruder asked.
“What do you mean?” The question caught Jorad off guard. Were the Ou Qui planning an attack? The Ou Qui were known for their warlike tendencies. If they weren’t at war with themselves, they were marching off to battle their neighbors. That was the reason why the rain forests hadn’t seen more settlers. The Ou Qui wouldn’t allow it. There was supposed to be good hunting down there, but even Adar, who was drawn to such things, hadn’t shown much interest. It wasn’t worth dealing with the Ou Qui.
Ruder looked perplexed, but it was hard to tell. The dark coloring of his camouflage combined with the failing light seemed to erase all his emotions.
“I thought it would have been attacked at the same time as Wasat,” Ruder said, shaking his head, causing his camouflage braided hair to wrap around his face, bits of the vegetation were flung off. It reminded Jorad of a dog shaking off water. The movement gave him a glimpse of netting and the method to the disguise began to make sense. He’d relate what he saw to Adar and they could try to develop their own.
Wasat sounded familiar to Jorad and it took him several moments to remember that it was the Ou Qui capitol. An attack on Wasat wasn’t that surprising.
“I mistook you as survivors,” Ruder said glancing at his swords. Jorad inched forward hoping that Ruder wouldn’t notice. If Ruder went for his weapons, Jorad intended to see that he didn’t get them. Jorad prepared to grab several of the daggers he kept hidden on his person. “Strange clothes for a walk.”
“Just skipping a wedding,” Soret said. “Never did care for Sarai or Toni, but I suppose it’s good they found each other.” Jorad half turned towards her but didn’t take his eyes off Ruder. He was quite sure that Soret was interested in Toni and had been depressed by his wedding. It was partially why he believed she suggested going for a walk. As for the other part, he hoped it had something to do with him.
“Zictar,” Ruder nodded towards Vigorock, “is a dangerous place for a stroll.”
Zictar? Jorad hadn’t heard that name before. It made sense that the Ou Qui would have their own name for the tower. He wondered if the word Zictar meant something. He had tried to find meaning for the word Vigorock but hadn’t been able to come up with anything.
“That’s what I’ve been telling him,” Soret said. “He comes every week.” Jorad suppressed his surprise. He didn’t think that she’d been listening.
“Are the Ou Qui planning to attack Neberan?” Jorad asked. He didn’t know why he did, because he wouldn’t trust the answer. A single man wasn’t much of a threat to a town, even one as small as Neberan. Unless there was a whole army of Ou Qui nearby, which was possible, but unlikely. Even with their camouflage, moving an army would be hard to hide. Most of the surrounding countryside was used for farming. If an army were moving through, people would notice.
“We aren’t,” Ruder said.
“You’re surprised Neberan is still standing.”
“Neberan is in no danger from us. We’re at war with somebody else.”
“Enough riddles,” Jorad said.
“Neberan isn’t safe and you should run.” Ruder stepped closer, palms up but doing little to ease Jorad’s mind because Ruder was also closer to the weapons. Jorad stepped closer to his sword. Ruder was fast but if he attacked, Jorad intended to give him a good fight.
“Why?” Jorad asked.
“Neberan will be destroyed,” Ruder said. “Nothing you can do will stop it. Best thing is to head for the mountains and don’t look back. When a few months go by, all the other cities will be gone as well. After a few years, perhaps it’ll be safe again.”
Jorad didn’t quite know how to react. If Adar was here, and even though Jorad hated to admit it, it would be useful if he was, Adar would conclude that Ruder was talking about the Hunwei. Adar tended to see Hunwei around every corner regardless of the fact that a living Hunwei hadn’t been spotted for many years.
“The Hunwei are all dead.” Jorad hadn’t believed in the Hunwei until Adar had dragged him down a mine where they’d found bones too large to be human. Adar had never managed to find any proof that the Hunwei were still alive, even though he’d been looking for the better part of fifteen years.
“They didn’t all die,” Ruder said. “They are back. I’ve seen them, I’ve fought them.”
On second thought, Jorad was glad Adar wasn’t here. This would have started an argument about returning to Rarbon so that Jorad could make a claim to become Ghar. There was a rush of wind and the leaves rattled, Jorad noticed that several bits of grass had fallen off Ruder in the gust. He made a mental note. If he always shed like that, it might be easy to track, particularly if the vegetation was out of place.
Soret smiled. “Jorad, you put him up to this, didn’t you? Erro, is that you behind all the face paint?”
Jorad snorted. If this had been a joke, he wouldn’t be working with Erro and Soret knew that. Even though she and Erro were through, she still talked about him frequently. Jorad wondered if she did it on purpose to make him squirm.
“I don’t know this man,” Jorad said to her. How long before the rumor about Wasat reached Adar? Jorad needed a plan to neutralize its effect. “Let’s say I believe you. Why did the Hunwei attack Wasat? A hidden village in the middle of a rain forest is hardly going to be of interest to the Hunwei. Come to think of it, Neberan is the same way.”
“Wasat isn’t a village,” Ruder said. “If you wait until the Hunwei show up, it will be too late.”
Jorad tried to remember anything else about Wasat, but he drew a blank. Soret touched his arm and nodded her head back towards Neberan. With a start, he realized that they only had a few minutes of daylight left and it would be dark long before they made it back.
“I don’t want any trouble.” Jorad reached for his sword. He cringed when he saw the moist dirt that clung to the end of the blade. Ruder made no move to retrieve his weapons, perhaps it was just an effect of the disguise, but he looked keen and quick. Maybe Ruder wasn’t stupid, but he was chasing illusions. Dreams of the past.
“Good night Ruder,” Soret said, she was beginning to look worried. In the failing light, Jorad was barely able to notice that she’d paled. He took her hand, she held it, and then she pushed it away. The look on her face told him that she thought he was somehow taking advantage of the situation. Maybe she still thought that he’d put Ruder up to this.
“The Ou Qui aren’t like you city people,” Ruder said, “we never forgot about the Hunwei. We were vigilant and thought we were prepared. My people were still massacred and captured. Even our metal gods could only kill so many. When the Hunwei come, there won’t be anything you can do. They’ll come from the sky and destroy everything. You shouldn’t return to Neberan.”
“Good night,” Jorad said backing away with this sword held out. He pointed it down a little bit, so that Ruder wouldn’t interpret it as an offensive gesture. He’d been so focused on leaving unscathed that he’d almost missed it.
Had Ruder mentioned metal gods? What did that mean? Adar had told him that there had once been a people that had been made of metal. Were some of those still alive? He considered stopping to ask Ruder about it further but Soret was already a good distance away. Jorad continued to back up but didn’t increase his speed. He didn’t take his eyes off Ruder until he lost him in the foliage of the forest.
“Go with the gods,” Ruder called out, though he was no longer visible, the sound of his voice indicated that he was still close by. There was movement in the trees above and Jorad could have sworn that he’d seen another face.
Ruder hadn’t been alone. Jorad looked over his shoulder and saw that Soret was out of sight. Cursing, he turned to hurry after her. He kept looking back but he didn’t see Ruder or the man in the trees again. He didn’t catch up to Soret until she had made it to the road. She didn’t say anything when he reached her and he wondered if she still thought that he was behind Ruder showing up and trying to scare them.
Jorad was worried that rumors of the attack on Wasat would reach Adar. If that happened, Adar would announce that it was time for them to leave Neberan. Sure, Jorad was a grown man now, but he couldn’t stomach the thought of abandoning Adar. Who would keep Adar from going crazy with paranoia? As it was, Jorad felt like he spent much of his time doing that very thing. At the same time, things were starting to look promising with Soret. He didn’t want to just pick up and leave now.
Jorad looked back over his shoulder, half-expecting to see Ruder heading their way with an Ou Qui army, but the road was quiet. The final light of day reflected off Vigorock and the reflection wavered several times.
Birds? Then the sun was gone and Jorad could no longer make anything out. Birds would have been too small to block out the light from that distance. He thought of the Hunwei ships and tried to laugh it off but the truth was the encounter with Ruder had got to him. Whether or not the Hunwei had returned, Adar would act if he caught so much as a hint of these rumors. Try as he might, Jorad couldn’t come up with a plan to convince Adar to not be worried about the attack on Wasat. Jorad tried not to think about Ruder or the Hunwei on the way back to Neberan.
They had just entered Neberan when a flash of light shot across the sky. Jorad reached for his sword as the shooting star sped north and disappeared. When Hunwei didn’t drop out of thin air, he lowered his hand. Soret had taken his other hand and after an uncomfortable moment, they both laughed.
“Jumping at nothing,” she said. Even though her chuckle was hollow and her grip lessened, he could feel her pulse racing.
Melyah! It was a match for his. In the brief moment between spotting the shooting star and recognizing what it was, he’d imagined Hunwei flooding into the town.
“Yeah,” Jorad said. “It’s been a long night.”
The Hunwei weren’t coming back, it didn’t matter what Ruder said or what Adar believed. There wasn’t a need for Jorad to return to Rarbon to make a claim to become Ghar. Besides, even if he did, it was doubtful that the Rarbon Portal had anything of use anyway. He found himself glancing back as the meteor made its way across the sky. It was a coincidence, nothing more. It certainly wasn’t one of the Hunwei ships. All the years spent hunting shadows with Adar had taken their toll on him and it was hard for him to think clearly about this topic.
Text Copyright © 2014 Dan Decker
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