Two years passed. The Thaumians have established their own Autonomy, but their collective rage over three hundred years of colonial occupation was not done. Their war machines marched into the Border Ranges, and the earth trembled at their approach.
Hanni and Valiann rode out the mountains and the stifling mist. The sun was out there somewhere, but in its malevolence has decided to share neither its light nor warmth. On their left rose a cliff striped with conglomerates of red and black, and on their right sat a shallow gorge filled with dark rocks protruding from the ground like fangs.
They both wore heavy travelling cloaks bearing the emblem of the Citadel on the back: a three-armed vortex overlain by a brick tower. Hanni was bent forward on his saddle, eyes darting in every direction.
‘They can’t be still chasing us,’ Valiann said.
‘Thaumians don’t give up like that. We need to get rid of these clothes,’ said Hanni.
Having spent his pre-Citadel life with the nomadic Roamers, the Border Ranges were Hanni’s childhood playground. According to him they were approaching a shallow basin on the west bank of river Ilmarys, home to a trading hub and every piece of information that would come out of the mountains.
As they drew closer to town traffic grew heavy. Destitute caravans clogged the road, their drivers grim and endlessly smoking. People walked with their heads and backs weighed down by baggage larger than they were. One mother, carrying a baby in her single arm, tripped over nothing as her knees gave out. The baby cried out in sickly gasps but the mother said not a word, got up, and kept on walking with her eyes trained on her feet.
Unwisely, Hanni tried to get an old man to ride his horse. In an instant they were surrounded by desperate people, and a group of men too neatly dressed and well-spoken to stay sane in this crowd moved in aggressively. The moment a hand snaked to the hem of his coat Valiann struck it hard with his staff. The sight of blood gave the Cadets room to gallop ahead, with Hanni looking distraught.
Moments later, they found themselves on the edge of an ocean of tents and makeshift huts that crowded the stretch of flat ground between the mountain and the river. The town has turned into a refugee camp for tens of thousands.
Hundreds of people paraded past without sparing them a second glance. Some hefted ploughs and shovels muddy from work in terraced farms hastily beaten out of the hills, others huge canvas bags bulging with scrap metal, black mud from the river, or bloody parts of dead somethings. Around a rickety warehouse gathered at least a hundred people with empty sacks. The guards at the door looked like thugs.
‘Well,’ Hanni said, eyes lingering on a woman who, after being thrown out with her basket empty, re-joined the waiting line.
‘Well,’ Valiann echoed.
‘What do we do?’
‘The wild Haze. I can feel it in the ground, and all these people are camping on it.’
Valiann pondered that for a second. ‘We can come back.’
‘They need our help.’
‘You said we are still being followed. Don’t give me that look. A Keeper will come and handle it.’
Hanni was about to argue further when two black-cloaked riders materialised out of the mist and bludgeoned through the crowd at full speed, the long-barrelled rifles in their hands curiously pointing backward. The insignia of the burning crown blazed on their chests.
‘Oh look, they caught up to us.’ Valiann said.
‘We got delayed!’
‘And whose fault was that?’
The mist parted again and out charged a host of cavalry flying flags of the Marish lioness. They wore fancy mail and carried crossbows that twanged with vile music, loosing bolts at the black riders and anyone else in their way. People scattered miserably as many lost their footing and tumbled into the gorge.
The two riders fired their rifles in retaliation. The discharge of pressurised steam resembled bottled thunder. Two in pursuit rose off their mounts as if struck by invisible spears, and were instantly trampled underfoot by the others. Though deadly, it was taking an eternity to recharge the steam cycler on the Thaumians’ backs, while the crossbows could be rearmed with a quick pull of the lever. In moments they were overwhelmed.
The commotion was yet at a distance from the Cadets. ‘Looks like they are being taken care of,’ Hanni said. ‘Let’s go before – what are you doing?’
Valiann has dismounted and taken off his cloak. The staff in his hand he turned three times, assessing its balance. ‘You remember the Remnant we slew last week? Do you recall what happened?’
‘How can I forget? The saboteur on the gallows turned himself into – oh no, you don’t mean to say – here? In the middle of all these people?!’
‘If I was in their positon, I would.’
The black riders have fallen off their mounts and were immediately surrounded. One lay dead on the ground arrowed like a hedgehog, the other bled from a hole on his chest and knelt in a puddle of blood. He appeared to be saying something, and for a moment the Marish cavalrymen turned their heads toward the town.
In that brief distraction the rider whipped out something hidden around his neck, and just before a dozen spears criss-crossed his body shoved it without hesitation into his wound.
Hanni leapt from the saddle with twin daggers already in his hands. These were made not from wood but tempered steel. ‘You should try being wrong for once.’
One moment there was nothing, then the wild Haze was everywhere.
It felt like drowning, the way the air turned dark and putrid as if inundated with sewage. The faces of people became blurred while the edges of stone and dust sharpened and blazed with grey light, and as the mist swirled faster it blinked in shades of fantastic purple and orange and blue that canvased the road as an oil stain would a puddle. At the centre of it all, the black rider’s silhouette was swelling.
‘Do it quickly. I will give you all my strength,’ Valiann said, directing his Haze towards Hanni.
As fate would have it, Valiann’s Affinity enhanced the Affinity of every Cadet and Keeper around him while capable of doing absolutely nothing on its own. It was useless. Standing on the side, waiting for Hanni to cut monsters down to size - this was rapidly becoming the norm and he liked it not one bit.
In the distance, the Thaumian rider was transforming into Remnant. Viscous black blood leaked out of his every orifice as the left side of his head bloated to the size of an entire person. The skin stretched then burst, revealing a writhing nest of hundreds of tiny, pinkish arms complete with crawling fingers that grabbed at everything and anything around them. Extra limbs ballooned out of every surface of his body, all perfect formed yet pulsing with black veins and blacker blood, until the shape of the human that once was became a indistinguishable pile of flesh.
Its many limbs worked haphazardly together to rein in everything - dead or alive - it could reach, and tore them apart with feathery ease, shoving the bits of flesh back into itself while the limbs broken and mangled in the process were instantly replaced by another.
Within seconds the Remnant bloated into a giant. The Marish cavalrymen tumbled from their paralysed horses and scrambled away on all fours. A few stray bolts disappeared beneath the Remnant’s writhing flanks, leaving no mark at all. It made a sound like an excited child, only a thousand times louder, as its limbs ripped into the caravans.
Hanni dashed towards it as physical lightning, leaving a smudge on the retina and a trail of thunder as sound itself lagged behind. Like a cannonball he pounded into the Remnant’s writhing flank with a dull and disgustingly squishy explosion. Flesh parted on the opposite side of its body as the force of the impact sent it reeling into the gorge below with Hanni in tow.
Unearthly screams reverberated in the earth. Huge gashes opened on the Remnant’s flank, spilling out black blood in torrents. They resealed quickly, but for every wound repaired three more would take its place. Its many arms waved desperately in the air to grab hold of Hanni, who was dancing in circles around it like he was carving up a giant hunk of meat. It might as well try to catch the wind.
Meanwhile, Valiann felt like his head was on fire. His tamed Haze made the back of his eyes feel like sitting on a bed of coal, and a dull golden sheen shone from everything in sight as if even the gravel was glowing with some inner light. Typical side-effects.
Breathing heavily, he removed a heavy rolled-up belt from Hanni’s saddle. Slotted into the twenty-eight pockets sewn on its inside were daggers of tempered steel. With that kind of insane speed even the finest steel wore out in minutes, so before leaving the Citadel they had emptied the armoury of short blades. Funny at the time, the face of the resident metalsmith especially, but it turned out to be a wise decision as their last Remnant encounter consumed five pairs. Four should be enough this time. Valiann readied them.
By now the Remnant has halved in size but was regenerating frighteningly fast, and on a desperate impulse began dragging itself towards the town. Sharp rocks impaled its body but neither spilled blood nor slowed it down.
A rush of wind, and Hanni was back with his clothes in shreds and three bleeding gashes on his chest. ‘Reopen old wounds. They heal slower.’ Valiann managed to squeeze in before he snatched up a fresh pair of daggers and was off again.
Moments later the Remnant’s pink flank peeled in half like a rotten orange, its regurgitating limbs severed before they could reform. Smoke, rather than blood, began pouring out of its wounds, and at the first signs of their closing Hanni tore them apart again with ruthless precision. Thrice more Hanni swapped out his weapons, and each time the Remnant regained a little bulk in the respite, but its struggle was fruitless. Its howls, now resembling that of a hundred wailing women, echoed ever weaker.
The entire gorge was shrouded in a black cloud by the time Hanni called out, ‘it’s done, your turn.’
‘Are you sure? Remember last time?’
‘Get your ass down here.’
Valiann slid down and saw what at first glance looked like a mutilated animal carcass. The twenty or so human limbs still clinging to it twitched listlessly on the ground all mangled and broken. In the centre of what must have been the chest was a small crystal the size of thumbnail. It glowed with a warm, golden hue that was at odds with the gruesomeness of the thing that spawned from it.
Valiann approached the body and, placing his hand on the crystal, spoke the first line of the Idiom of Cleansing.
‘Unshackle this flesh, O great sea of darkness.’
At the urging of his Haze the crystal began to dim. The strings of muscle and tendon that melded its facets to the rest of the flesh at first lost their tautness, then their solidity. The entire mass melted like heaped snow, and in moments was reduced to a puddle of fluid with a husk of a body, all blackened skin and bone, simmering in the centre.
Valiann picked up the now dull crystal from the muck and held it up to the sun. ‘Imperfect. Not much better than corrupted rock, but like the last one there are signs of tampering,’ he said, putting it into his pocket, ‘how you feeling?’
‘Dirty, in many ways,’ Hanni replied as he tried to get rid of the black blood sticking to his skin and what was left of his clothes. The gruesome battle seemed to have deflated him. ‘I hope this is the last we see of Remnants, but that’s not going to be the case is it…’
They climbed back to the road and saw the Marish cavalrymen still scattered about listlessly. One of them looked at Valiann and seemed to reacquaint with earthly sensations at his expression. ‘The Word bless you, Keepers. That…monster, it almost had us.’
Valiann didn’t correct him. ‘How many of you are there?’
‘Us? We...think thirty, maybe? But our army is close by. Lots of us there. Many.’
‘My colleague and I have agreed that, in lieu of payment for our service, we would settle for a report from you to your superior regarding the situation of the refugee camp here.’
‘I…yes of course. I’ll make it happen. Most certainly. You can count on it.’
‘We’ll be waiting for the arrival of your soldiers then.’
‘Our soldiers? No no no, the Thaumians are on the other side of the river. What if something happens? No no no, nothing will happen. I’m sure of it. But we can’t spare the men. What if something happens?’
Valiann shook his head. ‘What do you know about Thaumian mining operations?’ he asked, and predictably got a blank look as answer.
Hanni, with the belt of daggers rolled up under his armpit, watched the Marish scamper away. ‘Did they know Cadets are not allowed to be paid for Haze work?’
‘They didn’t know we were Cadets,’ Valiann replied, ‘and I didn’t ask for money anyway, just for them to help with things here.’
‘You think they will?’