Watcher did not make good time on the journey. Only Addie Gunn could hold a line this far north without fear of entering the Great Want and Addie Gunn was dead. Watcher thought about the cragsman as he stepped over objects cast out by the Want. Bird bones, antlers and manmade things were crusted with mineral salts that held light as the sun set. They glowed like sour milk.
A high-pitched screech spooked the hill pony and the girl. Watcher set a hand on the pony’s nose and wished the sound had not come from the south.
“What was that?”
Watcher had lost the habit of speaking. It took an effort to find the right word and the right lie. “Nothing.”
The girl, Mallia Argola, had spent time with the Maimed Men. She had to know they were walking a path between the Great Want to the north and the Rift to the south. If they were the only two people alive within a hundred mile radius it would still be the most dangerous place on earth.
Watcher tracked the absence that was the Rift. Unless you were looking straight down at it you saw it as discontinuation of the landscape, an abrupt halting of rock and trees. That was how it played tricks on you. It was massive—hundreds of miles long and over five miles wide at several points—but your eyes didn’t perceive it the way they saw a mountain or a lake. You had to calculate its presence.
Watcher made the calculation. He untethered the pony and released its packs. He waited. Darkness smoked from the Rift. The white northern sun disappeared behind hills that had no name. He felt the night’s first stars before he saw them. They pulled the sword like the moon pulled the tides. Loss moved against his back. Sull Ji, the Sull had named it.
The God Sword.
Watcher smacked the pony’s rump, driving her west along the path. To the girl he said, “If I am struck head east. Hold the Rift in sight until dawn.”
She had drawn her weapon, a single-piece hiltless knife from the Far South. Watcher knew the danger of a weapon that could slide so wholly into flesh. Blade and handle were one, differentiated solely by a rounding of steel. It would enter easily but if it pierced too deeply, forcing the girl to relinquish gripping space on the handle, did she possess the knuckle strength to pull it out?
Watcher held out his hand. “Take the spear instead.”
Mallia Argola made no move to surrender the knife. Warm air venting from the Rift lifted her hair and skirt. Watcher focused on a muscle pulsing at the exact center of her throat. She was afraid but pretending not to be. He forced himself to find words.
“The spear keeps attackers at distance. The knife does not.”
“Then shouldn’t I have both?”
If you are close enough to an Unmade to touch it with that knife you are dead. Worse than dead. Watcher no longer possessed the impulse to speak his thoughts so said nothing. There was no end to the things the Sull had broken.
He let the girl take the spear and keep the knife. She was exquisitely beautiful, but she wasn’t Effie Sevrance or Ash March and she could not imagine how little she meant to him.
The girl slid the unhilted blade into her belt pouch and balanced the spear in both hands. It wasn’t much more than a fence post with an edge. Still. He had honed the edge with Loss’s edge and fire-hardened the point. He should have made a second one.
The girl said, “What now?”
Watcher turned a slow circle, mapping the landscape in the failing light. Rock ledges and wind-bent pine, the line of mineral salt marking the high tide of the Want, the dangerous tilt of the land toward the Rift. Thermals made stars in the southern sky ripple. He had forgotten the Rift’s effect on the night.
“Don’t tell me we’re just going to wait.” The girl stepped into his field of vision. She was holding the spear like a walking stick, point to the ground. “We should keep moving. If something’s out there we should at least try and outrun it.”
“Hold the point upright.”
“All you care about is how I hold the stick?” She pivoted the spear upright with a snap of her wrist. “The Maimed Men are a day away at most. If we keep moving west we could run into one of their patrols. At least we’d have a chance.”
How could she not understand that keeping an edge on her weapon was her only chance? That hammering its point against the ground would revert that spear back to a pole? That he had honed its tip to a razor and you did not hit a razor with a rock? She had lived with the Maimed Men for years. How could she not know they were powerless against the Unmade?
Wasn’t that why she had found him with her magic and brought him back?
An exhalation of breath through closed teeth. Watcher tracked the noise. All the muscles and tendons necessary for drawing the Sull queen’s bow were twitching. He thought about the inhuman strength and relentlessness of purpose a creature needed to climb the mile-high walls of the Rift. He thought about the Sull and the fight circle and wondered if the horror of those memories would accompany him to every fight.
Or just this one. His first.
He smelled fuel. Sliding the dead queen’s bow from its case, he watched the Rift. The bow was as light as coiled wire and as flawless as only the Sull could make it. With only half the length and draw of a longbow, it could fly an arrow three hundred feet. Watcher thought about the Sull queen as he nocked an arrow against the plate. He recalled her last words.
Darkness curled around an edge. The Rift blurred and then sharpened into a thin black line. Movement exploded from a place that was a whole lot closer than it should have been. Angling the bow, Watcher released the string. No time to target the heart. Night air poured into a shape that neither stopped nor registered an impact. Watcher prayed the arrow had gone wide. The other possibility—the arrow smashing into its target with zero effect—was something he did not want to think about. But had to.
He glimpsed an absence of all things, the collapse of light and substance that marked a blade of voided steel. To the girl, he said, “Catch,” and tossed the bow. He did not look over his shoulder to ensure its safekeeping.
Drawing Loss was like releasing a caged animal: it wanted out. The act of arcing the great longsword over his shoulder impelled him forward and he stepped to meet the Unmade.
It had once been a man or something close to one. Watcher was beginning to understand that unmaking life resurrected it in darkly unknowable ways. The thing that rushed him was like a man turned into a whip, lightning fast, lean and long, crackling with force and screeching like a gull. Its weapon was a flexible ribbon of voided steel, eight feet long with a knucklebow grip. As the Unmade approached it set the ribbon blade in motion, slashing figure eights, creating a barrier of infinitely lethal space around its body.
Watcher held two thoughts in the moment. The ribbon blade would need to be destroyed before he moved in for the heart kill. And there was another Unmade out there. The first cry had come from the southeast. This thing was attacking from the southwest. As he turned Loss’s edge in preparation for contact with voided steel, Watcher considered the angles.
They were forcing him into the Want.
©J.V.Jones 2018. Artwork by Marc Simonetti