As they approached the ‘safe place’, Bolverk noticed a light coming from the tunnel ahead, which grew larger and the stone smoother and more regular. The light was cold and tinted blue, and reminded him of the glow worms of Einartoft. There was some kind of gateway up ahead, the stone cut to form a perfectly round opening. As Bolverk walked through it, he gawped in wonder. The claustrophobic tunnel now opened up to an immense spherical room, the walls swimming in blue light which emanated from some kind of lake which occupied most of the cave. In the centre the ceiling came down in a formation similar to a stalactite, but perfectly cut and engraved with alien markings which appeared to glow as they reflected the water’s light in different colours. A stalagmite rose from the ground to meet the formation, joined in the middle by a large red gem. On the far side of the room were three pools, each set higher than the last. The walls were lined with markings, and in some places small rectangular holes which could have been doors or windows.
“What is this place?” Nikels asked, his eyes roaming the ceiling.
“We think it is a sanctuary of sorts.” Zefr explained. “This structure in the middle may be equivalent to a godstone. We have deciphered some of the markings based on repeated patterns, and we believe it may be in commemoration of a god named Vez’nan. Of course, Vez’nan may simply be the name of the place, or something else entirely. It’s all still speculation. We know nothing about this people’s culture. We will rest here.”
Camp was set up, although people did not get too close to the glowing water, except for Bersi, the enigmatic Varl who had acted as the human Prince’s bodyguard, who used the light of the lake to read. After dinner, Bolverk wandered up to the three pools. Valka Zefr was there already, explaining something to Nikels, Folka and Ekkill. She looked at him as he approached, and continued talking to the apprentice.
“Valka Irenmund studied these pools for most of his life on the council. He came to the conclusion that each pool offers an insight, if you drink from it. However, he learnt you can only do it for one pool. If you try again with a different pool nothing will happen. He brought in a team to continue this study, and found that that upper pool offers reflection on one’s past. The middle offers strength in the present, and the lower pool gives an insight of the future.” Nikels stepped closer to the pool, leaning over the water of the middle pool. His head moved between each of the pools, as if attempting to decide which one to look into. He stepped back after a minute, clearly too afraid to make a choice. Bolverk stepped forward and knelt before the middle pool, seeing his reflection staring back at him. For a brief moment the eyes of his mirror image appeared yellow and without iris or pupil, then he blinked and they were normal. He scooped up some water with both hands and paused, hesitating at the thought of putting strange glowing water into his body, then lifted it to his mouth. Immediately visions of battle descended on his mind, like the blood rage which engulfed him whenever he drew his axes. Only now he saw these images with a clarity the likes of which he had never experienced, time slowing down, each movement calculated instead of instinctive. When at last the visions stopped, he felt stronger for it. He stood and looked at the Valka. Folka began to take a step for the middle pool, but changed her mind and went to the top. Ekkill stepped up to the edge of the lower pool. Both drank and in a few moments went into a trance, staring into the water of their respective pools. A minute later they came to, thoughtful looks on both their faces. Folka walked past Bolverk, looking down with an almost mournful face.
“I need to talk to Sparr.” she muttered.
“He’s over by the gem, I think.” Bolverk answered. Ekkill didn’t say a word and went off to the edge of the room to sit by himself. Sparr had often acted as the Ravens’ confidant, being the oldest after Bolverk and much more likeable. Many times people had gone to him for counsel, mostly the newest recruits after their first battles. Sparr was happy to offer his wisdom and advice. Bolverk decided he’d try to find out what the problem was. As much as he hated the idea of emotions – after all, they just caused problems – he understood the importance of keeping the fighters mentally healthy, and he needed his second-in-command to be at her best. “What’s wrong?” he asked, before she’d walked too far away. She turned to him.
“Nothing you’d understand.” she croaked.
“Try me.” Bolverk responded. She hesitated, then sat down on a boulder. Bolverk sat on another one opposite her. Folka leant forwards, head in hands.
“I’ve been alone a long time.” she said after a while. “I had someone, many years ago, before I joined the Ravens.” She closed her eyes. “He left me, the night before our wedding.”
“That was a long time ago.” Bolverk said, trying to convince her to let it go.
“It’s in the past, yes, but that’s what that pool was supposed to do.” she mumbled. “Reflections, was that the word the Valka used? The pool brought all those memories and feelings back again. A few days after that my father passed. I met you and joined the Ravens. I buried all of that. I did the jobs, killed people, got coin and spent it on drink.” she breathed strangely, and Bolverk realised a few moments later she was crying. “Sure, I may have enjoyed myself all these years, but I don’t think I was ever happy.” she sobbed.
Ah, yes, the notorious human need to ‘find someone’. Bolverk thought to himself, though he said nothing. “I think Sparr will be better suited to helping you with that.” he suggested after thinking for a minute. Folka looked up at him.
“Thank you for trying.” she said. “Bolverk Bloodaxe trying to help someone; the world really is ending.” she cracked a smile to go along with her joke, then stood up to go and find the old skald. Bolverk stood and looked over to Ekkill, who was hacking away at a boulder with his axe, far from the rest of the camp. Bolverk wondered what the Frostvellr man had seen, but didn’t go over to ask. Instead he patrolled the rim of the sanctuary, keeping an out for burrows from which skulkers could appear. He passed the eccentric Bak and the refugees from Ormsdalr as well as Gudmundr and the people of Bindal, advising both on their sentries. Once he was satisfied about the camp’s security, he joined the Ravens in their meal. The height of the ceiling allowed a few fires to be set up, and the Ravens fed on roasted yox meat, courtesy of Bolverk. Sparr played the lyre and told a tale of a past victory. Folka appeared to be better after her talk with Sparr, though she still occasionally grew quiet, staring into space. Sigbjorn was happy to help drain the Ravens’ mead supplies, as was Oli. Those two had become fast friends thanks to their mutual love of alcohol. Ekkill joined his five other Frostvellr fighters, who sat together along with the Ravens. After everyone had eaten, Bolverk stood to address his mercenaries.
“With all that’s happened, there’s something we haven’t had the chance to do.” he declared. “Sparr, I trust you’ve taught them the oath?”
“That I have.” Sparr grinned, looking at the recruits from Frostvellr and Boersgard.
“Excellent.” Bolverk gestured for the recruits to stand. “It’s time for you to be formally inducted into the Ravens.” Ekkill and his group stood, as did Oli and the Boersgard recruits. Bersi had made it clear that he was only travelling with the Ravens, not joining them. There were two dozen to be inducted in total. Nikels excitedly jogged over from the Bindal camp.
“Are you joining too?” Sparr asked him, with a hint of sarcasm. Nikels suddenly shrank back.
“No.” he stuttered. “It’s just that I’ve heard so much about the Ravens, and read about them growing up. I can’t believe I’ve got the chance to actually see an induction!” The boy was shaking with enthusiasm, causing Bolverk to roll his eyes.
“Anyway!” he barked, getting back to the matter at hand. Holfi the quartermaster raised the Black Banner, though there was no wind to make it wave. Bolverk stood before the line of recruits. He began the induction with a deep, resonating voice.
“Who shall sing me?
Into death sling me?
When down to the depths I go?”
The recruits answered with their own chorus. The sanctuary fell silent as people stopped to listen, the newest Ravens filling the cavern with their song.
“Cattle die and friends die
We ourselves must all die
Early on or at day’s end
Keep blades sharp until then
Ne’er banner lie in the mud
Our swords yearn for courageous blood
And when you stand before the depths
I shall follow with my song.”
Bolverk began the final part of the induction, followed by a sharp cry from the recruits.
“You are now Ravens, and what do Ravens do?” he roared.
“The Ravens always finish their jobs!” they answered.
The older Ravens raised their weapons and cheered. Nikels was visibly beaming at the scene around him. After a few moments the Ravens put down their weapons and went back to drinking, toasting their newly sworn comrades.
After the next sleeping shift, the caravan prepared to leave at Zefr’s order. The path outside the far end of the sanctuary went sharply downwards, opening up more as they went on. Echoes from ahead could be faintly heard, making the caravan tense up. As time drifted by the echoes became clearer, shifting into the familiar sounds of fighting. Bolverk drew his axes, just in case, and took a few scouts forward, including Folka, Sigbjorn and Sparr. Bolverk could swear the opening ahead was illuminated, and as they reached it a breathtaking sight greeted them. A gigantic cavern, the ceiling of which was five times as high as that of Vez’nan’s sanctuary, opened up before them. Ahead of them was a path twenty yards across, with sheer drops on both sides, and colossal bones of some long dead subterranean beast rising up from the ground. The cavern was illuminated from the right by what Bolverk could only describe as unlight, which allowed them to see and soaked the cave in purple hues, but was not any kind of light which he had seen before. The sounds of combat were louder, so Bolverk walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down into the purple tinted fog. He saw dark figures moving, climbing up the incline towards him. He seethed when he recognised the figures as Dredge. He looked closer and saw at the bottom Dredge that appeared to be fighting other Dredge. He was confused; was there now a Dredge civil war? He chuckled at the thought as he readied his axes. As the first of the Dredge crested the top of the cliff he leapt at them roaring and slicing down the first two.
“Bolverk!” a shout from behind him brought him out of his rage. “We need to get the others!” It took him a second to realise it was Folka who had yelled. He realised she was right, there were only eight of them there, against the scores of Dredge climbing up. As he retreated he realised that all the Dredge at the top were the smaller slingers, only most were weaponless, while the Grunts were at the bottom in the middle of the infighting. He rejoined Folka and the other scouts and rushed back to gather the troops. When they reached the caravan Gudmundr had his troops organised and began leading them forwards.
“Ravens! With me!” Bolverk ordered, and a clamour from the middle of the caravan indicated that he had been heard. The warriors charged forwards back into the huge open cavern, most of them taking a moment to marvel at the sight before forming up and advancing. They charged into the barely assembled Dredge slingers, cutting them down left and right. Bolverk kicked one from the top of the path, watching as it tumbled down into the fog. Suddenly he fell to his knees, unable to see, a ringing in his ears and a sharp scraping on the inside of his skull.
A white tower.
A dark sun.
He blinked and the vision was gone. More Dredge had arrived at the top of the slope, more of the Grunts and a few larger warriors. He saw that the fighting down below had stopped.
“Are you alright?” Sparr’s voice reached him above the noise of battle. He turned around and saw the old man next to him, along with the Menders. The Ravens had formed a shield wall around him. A second later, the pain returned and Bolverk blacked out.
The Darkness was coming. He had seen it first hand, and seen what it had done to his brethren, warped and twisted by the foul unlight. In the last attempt to colonise the Overworld, they had reached the Unhorned capital, only to be pushed back by the Threadweavers. He had lost his Dear One in that war, and their young child too. In the end his kin lost the First Colony, and all of them had been cast back underground. Now though, they had to escape. It wasn’t about finding a new home anymore; it was about surviving. Each and every one of his people, even the mothers with their children, needed to head south. The Third Ascent had to begin, and their entire race had to fight.
Fight. That thought brought Bolverk back to his senses. He picked up his axes and stood. The Ravens rallied at the sight of their leader well again, cheering. Then, from the edge of the cliff emerged a new threat. It was a Dredge, with a thin build, clad in light blue and orange stonesinger’s garb and standing as tall as Bellower. It looked at the Menders with eyes that were sewn shut, before donning a stone mask that covered its face.
“It’s the Sundr Eyeless!” Zefr shouted.
“Ravens! Forward!” Bolverk cried, and the Ravens’ shield wall advanced into the Dredge forces. To their left Gudmundr’s line did the same, while archers rushed to the edge of the cliff to shoot down at the Dredge that were still climbing. Eyeless held two long metal staffs, which it put together and slammed into the ground. In an instant the Sundr seemed to fade, and a blue flame on the left made Bolverk look around. One of the Dredge killed by the Bindal guards, whose corpse had been passed by the shield wall, stood and attacked the line from behind. The confusion of the fighters caused the shield wall to fracture as troops turned in panic. The other Dredge pressed their advantage, slamming into the wall from the other side. Gudmundr leapt forward, slicing at the knee of the Dredge then stabbing into its neck with his sword. The blue flame disappeared and Eyeless appeared again, in a different place.
“What’s happening?” Bolverk demanded.
“Eyeless can possess the dead!” Zefr replied in a panicked tone. “Nikels, Tell Gudmundr to escort the caravan through!” The young Mender nodded and ran towards the splintering Bindal shield wall.
“Sigbjorn!” Bolverk called. The ginger Varl finished off a Dredge Colossus and ran over to join him. “Take a few Ravens and patch the Bindal line!” Sigbjorn nodded, called a few names and led a dozen fighters towards the left flank. Bolverk looked at Eyeless. He noticed scarring on its knee and neck. The Sundr was gesturing for a group of the slingers to begin making their way down the left cliff.
“They’re trying to flank us!” Bolverk shouted.
“No.” Sparr said. “I think they’re trying to get away.” At that moment Gudmundr shouted an order and the Bindal guards, bolstered by Raven forces, pushed forward, creating a corridor as they went, which the caravan began running through, towards a tunnel on the far side. Yoxen were driven hard over the rocky ground and panicked people screamed as they ran. Bellower’s cart began making its way through, and at the sight of it Eyeless clashed its staff together again, disappearing. A Dredge grunt that had fallen within the corridor stood and leapt aboard the cart, causing its yox to stampede. The grunt began tugging at the edge of the cart’s lid, before an axe thrown by Oli embedded itself in its shoulder, knocking it away. The blue flame above its head vanished and Eyeless materialised again, its arm clearly in pain. Bolverk had had enough of standing behind the shield wall, watching the battle unfold.
“Make way!” Bolverk roared. The shield wall directly in front of him pushed forwards to make an opening, which Bolverk charged through into the Dredge ranks. The red mist descended and Claw and Fang swung left and right, cleaving Dredge on all sides on a rampage towards Eyeless. It disappeared again, possessing a dead Scourge that led a group against the cart, breaking the corridor line by the weight of their focused attack. Bolverk hesitated to act, part of him wanting them to reach the cart, but he cleared that thought and continued fighting. He looked back at the cart, and saw Sigbjorn tackle the possessed Dredge Scourge to the ground, knocking several other Dredge over. This bought enough time for Bellower’s cart to get close to the exit. The two Menders followed close behind.
“Ravens!” Bolverk shouted. “Push through to the exit!” He charged, rallying the fighters to rush towards the far tunnel. Gudmundr let out a similar cry, the corridor folding in on itself towards the tunnel in an organised retreat. Eyeless appeared again in the way of Bellower’s cart. The Sundr slammed its staffs together, only instead of possessing a new corpse, the whole cavern started to shake. One of the giant bones cracked and fell into the fog.
“She is trying to bring the cave down on us!” Zefr shouted. Her head zipped back and forth, analysing the situation, attempting to find a plan, her face growing more desperate with each second, until she made a decision. “Nikels!” she called. The young Mender rushed to her side. Bolverk was too focused on fighting to hear the exchange between them, but the look on Nikels’ face was solemn. He nodded and the two Menders began to trace patterns in the air with their staffs. Nikels ran up to Eyeless and glared up at it, while it looked down on him, curious about the human’s bravery. Nikels looked back at Bolverk.
“I’m sorry if I was a nuisance.” he apologised. Suddenly, the air itself seemed tense, and the hairs on Bolverk’s arms raised. He could hear crackling in the air and an unfelt gust of wind blew Nikels’ hair before he bent over with a yelp of pain. Invisible energy surged out from his body, forcing Eyeless back. The rumbling stopped as the Sundr collapsed to its knees.
“Go, now!” Zefr cried, and the remaining members of the caravan seized their opportunity and fled past the stunned Dredge. Bolverk stole one last look back, and saw the young Mender’s body lying still next to the Sundr’s. Then they both disappeared as Bolverk turned a corner, leaving them behind. Bolverk ordered some Ravens to act as a sternguard and rushed to the Valka’s side.
“What was that? Is Nikels dead?” he asked. Zefr gave a small nod, tears in her eyes.
“I doubt that ended her.” she muttered, avoiding the topic. “We must keep moving quickly.” Bolverk nodded in agreement and gave the order to get everyone going.
“What was that light?” Bolverk asked after a few minutes.
“I don’t know.” Zefr answered.
“Don’t know, or is this just another Valka secret?” Bolverk raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t know.” Zefr repeated, more sternly. Bolverk dropped it and walked to Bellower’s cart, rejoining the bulk of the Ravens. Sparr seemed to be pondering the purple light as well.
“Do you know what that light was?” he asked when Bolverk approached. The Varl shrugged in response. “It looked…wrong.” Sparr continued. “It let us see, but didn’t illuminate, you know?”
“Darkness.” Bolverk mumbled to himself. “It’s the Darkness.”
“The Darkness?” Sparr repeated. “What Darkness? You have a fit in the battle, now you’re muttering about Darkness.”
“I’ve…” Bolverk began. He wasn’t sure if he wanted this to be known. “I can’t tell anyone else.” he lowered his voice.
“Alright, whisper then. If you can.” Bolverk and Sparr walked to the side of the tunnel wall and Bolverk knelt to get closer to Sparr’s ear.
“I’ve been having…visions.” Bolverk managed, keeping his voice as quiet as possible. “When I sleep…” he trailed off.
“I believe that’s called dreaming.” Sparr joked. “Most people do it.” Bolverk huffed, and Sparr stopped talking.
“No! It’s like…memories, but not mine.” Bolverk explained. “I’ve been having thoughts that I don’t normally have. I-ˮ his eyes met the cart containing Bellower, and a horrible idea formed in his head. Could it be-? No. That couldn’t be it. He’d never heard of a psychic Sundr. “I don’t feel like myself. Among these visions is a Darkness. I think the Dredge are fleeing from it.”
“Does the Mender know anything about it?”
“Hmm.” Sparr thought for a moment. “We’d probably better rejoin the caravan.”
“Agreed.” The two of them caught up with the Ravens, keeping pace until the caravan reached a wider part of the tunnel. Gudmundr had ordered the caravan to halt, and Bolverk marched up to the front with Folka, Holfi and a few Ravens.
“What’s going on? Why have we stopped? More Dredge?” he asked. Gudmundr was still
“Can you hear that?” he said, in a voice close to a whisper. Bolverk strained his ears, and heard a faint noise from the wall on the caravan’s right. His hands went to Claw and Fang. Then the wall exploded, sending dust everywhere. Two Dredge emerged and jumped back at the sight of the caravan. Bolverk leapt between them and swung at them with an axe each. When they were felled, three more Dredge ran from the hole, but instead of attacking, they ran past Bolverk. One of them was a limping Stonesinger, which had dropped its staff.
“Do we fight them?” one of Bindal’s fighters yelled. The Dredge avoided the caravan and ran towards a nearby side passage, but stopped for an unknown reason. A few moments later that reason was unveiled as the two Dredge grunts were cut down by a purple tendril that shot out from the shadows. From the darkness emerged a figure, which resembled a Dredge Scourge, but its body was contorted in unnatural ways, its armour bent and twisted. Its weapon had fused with its whole arm, becoming the tendril which had been used to strike down the two other Dredge. On either side of the Scourge came two Stoneguards, similarly warped. The Stonesinger fell to the ground in fright and crawled backwards.
“Leave that one!” Bolverk shouted on a spur of the moment. “Kill those other three!” He charged towards them. The Scourge jumped into the approaching group of Bindal fighters and swung its arm, hitting three of its opponents. Each fighter the tendril touched recoiled back, clutching their wounds, which blackened and decayed. Bolverk swung at its neck with his axes, but as the axes made contact the three wounded fighters cried out, slits appearing on their necks. They fell dead, blood spilling onto the cave floor, while the warped Dredge turned to face Bolverk with a grating noise that sounded faintly like laughter.
“Don’t let them touch you!” Gudmundr yelled as he organised his fighters into a shield wall, advancing slowly on the warped Dredge. Bolverk dodged an attack from the Scourge and hacked at its arm with Fang. It squealed and stepped back, allowing Bolverk to retreat back to the other fighters.
“Archers!” Bolverk ordered. “Shield wall, get down!” Sparr led the Ravens’ archers into a line behind the shield wall, which crouched down.
“Nock! Draw! Loose!” he yelled. A volley of arrows flew over the heads of the crouched fighters into the three warped Dredge, though many missed, as the archers had difficulty shooting only by torchlight. The Stoneguards raised their shields, but the Scourge was hit with half a dozen arrows and one of Oli’s axes. It clutched at the axe in its chest and pulled it out. Folka and Gudmundr looked at each other and nodded.
“Step!” they both shouted in unison. “Step!” they repeated, the chant taken up by the fighters as the shield wall began to move forward. The warped Dredge charged into them, wooden splinters sent flying from shields at the strike of the distorted weapons. Spears were jabbed out through the shields, while those with shorter weapons were afraid to risk touching the enemy. Bak appeared on the right flank, running out from the shield wall with a dozen other spearmen. They started stabbing at the Dredge, one spear going through the knee of a Stoneguard before snapping in half. The Stoneguard swung its hammer at the fighter and knocked him to the ground, his skin atrophying at the touch. The others prepared to attack the Stoneguard, before Bak shouted at them to get back. Two fighters pulled the wounded man with them while others thrust at the air with their spears to discourage the Dredge from approaching. After a few moments, the wounded man’s skin began to heal, colour flooding back to the withered skin. Then Bak let out a battle cry and the spearmen charged again, impaling the Stoneguard with several spears to no ill effect on the other man. In the shield wall, one of the Ravens near Bolverk was pulled down, the Scourge having wrapped his tendril sword around the man’s ankle. The Scourge yanked him out from the shield wall screaming and pummelled him with its other fist. The third Dredge continued trying to break through the shield wall, which held under its relentless attacks. A sound like the whoosh of a newly fuelled fire erupted from the wounded Stoneguard, which by the time Bolverk had turned his head had vanished, exploding into little purple cinders. Bak and two of his spearmen fell to the ground and yelped as if burnt. Their comrades lugged them back behind the shield wall. Bak was the most vocal, and Bolverk thought he was just in the most pain, until he realised the man was pointing to his spear, which he had dropped at the death of the warped Stoneguard. One of his fighters ran back and grabbed it, barely escaping a strike from the sword of the Scourge. A second later an axe thrown by Oli landed in the skull of the warped Scourge, and it shrieked before disintegrating, the cinders sizzling on the shields of the fighters. The right flank of the shield wall swung around on Folka’s order to surround the final Stoneguard, which managed to wound the next person to attack it. Gudmundr shouted for no one to attack while the injured fighter ran back out of harm’s way. Once his skin ceased to rot, Gudmundr gave the order and the shield wall closed in from all sides. Its legs gave out under multiple sword swings, but it managed to slash five fighters with an arcing swing of its arm before Bersi the Varl brought his bearded axe down on its head. The injured five convulsed and died as the Stoneguard atomised, the ashes burning a few more fighters. Gudmundr wasted no time in ordering a dozen fighters to guard the side passage while others surrounded the Stonesinger, which had remained sitting down against the left wall during the battle. Its head darted back and forth, it raised its hands in a begging gesture as angry fighters walked towards it.
“Wait!” Zefr commanded, and the fighters stopped. The Stonesinger stared at her, and a low intermittent humming could be heard. Bolverk, Folka and a few Ravens joined the crowd gathered around it. Zefr ran her hands along her staff and another humming sound came from the Valka.
“She’s…” Folka started. “She’s talking to it!” The Stonesinger and the Valka took turns humming, though Zefr was not using her mouth to make the noise. Instead, it seemed to come from the staff. Throughout the conversation were long periods of silence. The crowd stood perplexed, some dropping their weapons in awe at the conversation. When they finished, Zefr turned to the caravan.
“The Stonesinger will show us a way out.” she said.
“Taking directions from a Dredge?” one woman angrily shouted.
“We should kill it!” yelled a man, inciting nods and murmurs of agreement from a few dozen. Bolverk was conflicted, and some part of him wanted to keep the Dredge alive. A few of the Ravens started to edge forward, making Zefr and the Stonesinger shrink back.
“Wait!” Bolverk barked. The Ravens stopped. Bolverk looked at Zefr. “You’re sure you trust that thing?” he asked. When the Valka nodded he glared at the Ravens, who stepped back and sheathed their weapons. “The Dredge is not to be harmed!” he ordered, raising his voice so it echoed along the tunnel. As Bolverk scanned the crowd his eyes met Folka’s, who looked confused, and Sparr’s, who clearly disapproved of the decision, and their previous conversation came to mind. However, the Ravens knew better than to question the Bloodaxe, and Gudmundr seemed to trust the Valka, although many others didn’t. Zefr turned and hummed to the Stonesinger, and it began limping. Zefr ordered a walking staff to be given to the Dredge, which it accepted gratefully.
The Stonesinger turned out to be of use, as within an hour the tunnels had become a veritable maze, side passages and crossroads winding around and through each other. The caravan kept their distance from the Dredge, though Bolverk and Zefr walked only a few yards behind it.
“How did you talk to it?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Are you aware of the basic idea of Mending?” Zefr responded. She seemed glad to be having a conversation to take her mind off Nikels’ death.
“Something to do with a tapestry. All just a bunch of words to me. I like what I can see.”
“Well, in the advanced stages of a Mender’s apprenticeship they learn about how the threads that make up the air can be made to vibrate in such a way as to make sound.” Zefr paused to allow Bolverk to process the explanation. She then ran her hands along her staff, and a few seconds later a clap sounded behind them. Bolverk turned, but the nearest people were still too far away to have made the noise. He looked back at Zefr, whose nostrils flared in what was not quite laughter. The Varl grunted in annoyance.
“A simple clapping noise is the easiest to make, but sufficiently trained Menders can even mimic speech. The kind of noise that Dredge use to talk is for the most part too deep for Human or Varl ears to hear, but towards the end of the Second Great War some of the Valka deciphered the Dredge language by observing the threads moving around captured Dredge. They then taught themselves to copy those movements and talk to them.”
“Impressive.” Bolverk nodded. “And stupid.” he added quickly. “I don’t think diplomacy works as well as a good axe.” There was silence for a minute, until Dytch joined them, not making a sound.
“What were those Dredge?” he asked, which made both Bolverk and the Valka jump. “The twisted ones with some kind of foul magic?”
“I don’t know.” Zefr replied. She hummed to the Stonesinger, who turned and looked at her sadly. “It says that they were tainted by the Darkness, whatever that is.”
“I think it’s something to do with the strange light.” Bolverk said.
“That might be what is forcing the Dredge south.” Zefr wondered aloud. Bolverk knew for certain, but he tried to force those false memories from his mind.
After a couple of days, by the caravan’s reckoning, Bak had recovered enough to walk unaided, although he had a slight limp and his arm was still in a sling. The left side of his face was also visibly burnt. The caravan continued following the Dredge Stonesinger for another few days, until finally the tunnels led steeply upwards. The caravan naturally quickened their pace, hopes being raised. However, when they saw the light of day shining from an opening up ahead, something seemed wrong. The light looked like that of the height of the day, yet held the same visionless aura of twilight. Some people rushed forwards, eager to escape the claustrophobic underground tunnels. They stopped outside the cave exit, gasping and staring to the right with jaws open. Bolverk stomped up to them.
“What is it?” he demanded. “What-ˮ he stopped when he emerged, following the clansmen’s gaze. He glanced back to the left, which he saw was south by the position of the sun, which was still high in the sky as it had been for the past few months, but over the horizon to the north was – no, it wasn’t a cloud, it was something else…or it was nothing. Sparr and Folka walked up next to Bolverk.
“The Darkness.” Sparr ventured. Bolverk nodded. He then noticed, swarming over the hills and through the trees down the Longhalr Road, vast armies of Dredge in their tens of thousands that could be mistaken for forests if they stood still.
“That puts the Boersgard army to shame.” Folka said.
“I don’t think it’s an army.” Bolverk said. “I think it’s all of them.” As the last members of the caravan emerged from the caves, the group stared in awe and fear at that which they had not seen in a long time: night.
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