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Authors: Oisín McGann

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‘Before or after we punish the brats?’

‘Oh, before,’ Mirkrin nodded solemnly. ‘Best to let them stew for while. Nothing like a bit of anticipation to put a lively fear into them.’

* * * *

Emos Harprag was Nayalla’s brother. He was an outcast, exiled from his tribe and forbidden to have any contact with Myunans after he had mysteriously survived an epidemic that had killed his wife. They feared that he might still be infectious; even if the disease had not killed him he might still be a danger to others. It was believed that he had
survived
by practising the black art of transmorphing – manipulating lifeless materials like metal or wood as if they were his own malleable flesh – a crime punishable by exile.
Transmorphing
was considered an assault on nature itself. Nayalla and Mirkrin had kept in contact with him – discretely, so as not to embarrass their tribe – and they knew there was no danger of infection. They had helped him recover from his wife’s death and his exile, and he was always there for them when they needed him.

Emos had become something of an enigma. He still
practised
the transmorphing and he had travelled to more strange lands than any Myunan alive. He had eventually settled down on a farm in Braskhia, giving up the nomadic Myunan lifestyle, but he still went wandering when the mood took him. It could not be a coincidence that he was here now, when the Myunans 
were facing an invasion of their territory.

Mirkrin and Nayalla walked until they were well out of sight of the village and sat down to wait on one of the fallen monoliths that had once marked the boundaries of their ancestors’ territory. They knew Emos would be watching the village and they only needed to wait and he would find them. While they waited, Nayalla told her husband about her audience with the Provinchus.

‘By the gods, it was embarrassing,’ she sighed. ‘I lost the rag in the end. I had to give up or just scream at him. He had no interest in listening to us. We’re just cattle to him.’

‘It was only going to be a matter of time before they started settling here.’ Mirkrin lay back on the stone. ‘They’ve filled every land around them. We don’t have the Braskhiams’ technology or the Karthars’ strength, so the Noranians were bound to turn on us eventually, once they got over their superstitions about us. There’s some who’re starting to think a fight is the only way to go.’

Nayalla looked up sharply: ‘I know that you’re not one of them, right?’

Mirkrin shrugged and avoided his wife’s gaze.

‘How much territory do we let them take, Nayalla? They’re destroying the birthplace of our culture – the place that’s made us what we are. What will be next? The smelt pools? The birthing glens? How long do we stand for it?’

Nayalla scowled. Beyond the occasional fight between tribes over territory, the Myunans were a relatively peaceful race. She was not averse to a stick-fight every now and then – it kept everyone on their toes – but a fight with the
Noranians
would be for keeps. And the Noranians were experts in war. The Sestinians had fought for decades against their 
northern neighbours and the wars had crippled their
country
. Now they were little more than a Noranian province. The Myunans could not win a war against Noran.

She was spared further brooding by the appearance of her brother over the edge of the trees in the shape of an eagle. He glided down, landing lightly and then slunched, letting his malleable muscles relax to regain his normal form. A lean man with grey, shoulder-length hair and a face marked with a blue, triangular tattoo, he always had the air of someone who knew more than he wanted about the world. Walking over to them with a rare smile on his face, he hugged his sister and then grasped Mirkrin’s hand. He stood back after greeting them and hesitated. Emos had been looking after Taya and Lorkrin the previous summer, when they had run away and got involved with an attempt to rescue a gardener from the Noranians. The two children had nearly been killed several times as a result and Emos winced with shame every time he thought of it. Now, he had come bearing more grim news.

‘Kalayal Harsq is coming to Absaleth,’ he told them, his face even more grave than usual.

‘The exorcist from Braskhia?’ Nayalla frowned. ‘Why is he coming here?’

‘The Noranians have contracted him to purge the
mountain
of its soul,’ Emos grunted bitterly. ‘It seems they believe in ghosts when profits are at stake.’

‘When is he coming?’ Mirkrin asked.

‘He could arrive at any time. He left Braskhia with his
followers
two days ago, before I heard the news,’ Emos replied. ‘I flew out here as fast as I could. He and his people are coming in trucks. He is supposed to pick up a Noranian escort along the way.’ 

‘I’ve only heard stories about him,’ Mirkrin looked out towards the horizon. ‘They say he can wipe the life from a land. Fields that he has blessed bear crops with no taste or goodness; lakes and rivers with the purest water carry no fish. Makes me wonder why anybody would want him around.’

‘Because forests had to be felled where those fields were planted, and dams had to be built in front of those rivers,’ Emos said. ‘And for that, part of the land’s spirit had to be broken. Going up against nature takes good judgement and a sense of balance. With a man like Harsq, you need neither. And the Noranians are bringing him to Absaleth.’

All three were silent. Nayalla could sense the anger in the two men and it scared her, because she knew that the rest of her tribe were feeling the same. Absaleth was of huge spiritual importance to the Myunans, and the mountain was considered the anchor of this land’s soul. That the Noranians were defiling the mountain with their mines was bad enough – she was having trouble keeping the peace as it was. But an exorcism! The men of the tribe would kill anyone who tried such a thing. And the Noranians would know that. They would be prepared.

She looked wearily out towards the tall mountain and wondered how she could prevent her tribe from starting a bloody battle that they could not win.

* * * *

Taya and Lorkrin sat quietly through their class. Ceeanna, the matriarch of their tribe, was teaching them texturing. She had set them the laborious task of mimicking the bark of the oak tree. Lorkrin worked on his arm listlessly with his
routing
skewer, pressing ridges into his flesh. By slunching his 
muscles – relaxing them to make them malleable – he could mould the soft flesh into shape with his tools. The art of amorphing. His tools were a novice set, made eight
generations
before; he could name all of the previous owners. As with all Myunan tools, the amorite used to make them had come from the open veins in the streams high up on Absaleth. Legend had it that the great prophet Amarrin had come down from the mountain, after weeks of fasting and praying, with the very first set of amorphing tools – tools bestowed upon him by the mountain’s spirit.

Lorkrin thought it was a load of rubbish, but would never have said it to anyone but his sister. He crefted his reformed muscles, tensing them so that they held their new shape. It was a half-hearted job; bark was boring, and he just wasn’t in the mood.

‘I said “oak”, Taya,’ he heard their teacher say. ‘That’s more like chestnut – and mouldy chestnut at that. Try paying a bit more attention.’

The two youngsters didn’t know what was going to happen to them, but they knew it would be bad. Myunans beating their children was not unheard of, but children soon learnt that they could take a lot of the pain out of a slap by letting their flesh go soft to absorb the blow. Like all skills motivated by the avoidance of pain, it was learned quickly and as early as possible, with the result that slapping Myunan children was considered somewhat futile.
Unwilling
to raise the levels of pain on their beloved offspring, Myunan parents became more inventive in their
punishments
instead. Lorkrin and Taya’s parents had a wide range of options open to them.

They dragged their feet on the way back to their lodge after 
class. Mirkrin and Nayalla were sitting facing the entrance as they walked in. The lodge was a low, domed timber
construction
, covered with a canvas tarpaulin and sods of earth and grass. Inside, earthen steps led to the floor, which was below ground level to help keep the warmth in and a section of canvas hung down over one part of the large room to
partition
off their parents’ bed. This was home. Apart from a single low table, a simple stove, cooking implements and some bits and pieces their mother had picked up on her
travels
, the room boasted nothing but warmth and a raw animal comfort. Their father, who was the tribe’s toolsmith, worked outside for the most part and kept his tools tucked carefully away near his small forge, which he could dismantle when the tribe moved the village. Myunans did not care for
collecting
things and it showed in the way they lived.

Taya and Lorkrin stood sullenly in front of the hide flap of the door. One look at their parents’ faces told them this was going to be bad, that excuses would just draw it out and that they should just fall on their swords and be done with it.

‘I’m sorry,’ Taya mumbled, looking at her feet.

‘I’m sorry too,’ Lorkrin mumbled too, staring sideways at the wall.

‘Give me your tools,’ said Mirkrin.

Lorkrin gaped.

‘Which ones?’

‘Now don’t get smart with me, boy. All of them.’

The two children were stunned. A Myunan without tools was half a Myunan. They would be unable to assume
anything
but the most basic shapes. They would not be able to play with their friends. In fact, they would not even be able to show their faces in front of their friends. They would only 
have their colours to hide them when they were away from the village. There were so many places they would not be able to go and things they would not be able to do. It would be like wearing chains.

‘You can’t!’ Taya whined, close to tears.

‘You have got to learn,’ their mother said, softly. ‘You can’t go on behaving the way you do.’

‘You’re not having my tools!’ Lorkrin yelled. ‘I earned them! You don’t have the right!’

‘Mind your tone!’ Mirkrin warned him. ‘Now, hand them over. We won’t have any more argument about it. Do as you’re told, young lad.’

Lorkrin pulled the straps of his tool roll from his shoulders and threw the pack at his parents’ feet. Mirkrin jumped up, but Nayalla grabbed his wrist.

‘I hate you!’ Lorkrin bellowed, then whipped the heavy hide flap aside and ran out before they could see that he was ready to cry.

Taya slung her pack from her back, stepped forward and dropped it in front of her father, her face frozen as she cast her eyes over her parents.

‘I don’t hate you,’ she said. ‘I just think we’re
your
fault. So why are
we
always the ones getting punished?’

She turned and walked out after her brother. Mirkrin sighed, shaking his head and flopping down to put his arm around his wife’s shoulders.

‘Why do I always end up feeling that we come out of these things in worse shape than they do?’

Evening fell early because of an overcast sky, the sullen, grey clouds blocking out the last light of dusk. This suited the four Myunans of the Hessingale tribe who stood near the top of a bank that overlooked a flat, straight stretch of road. Their skin and clothes reduced to muted earth colours of greys, greens and browns, they waited invisible, watching out for the first sight of Kalayal Harsq. The mumble of distant engines reached their ears and all eyes turned east. There, coming around the side of a hill on the horizon, they saw the twin oil lamps that lit the way for an oncoming vehicle. These were joined by another pair, and another. There was a long column of vehicles rolling down into the valley.

Mirkrin and Nayalla watched the approaching lights with Ceeanna. The matriarch’s colours were starting to fade with age, but she had lost none of her strength, or sternness. Standing a little further from the others, the fourth figure was Westram, a tall, commanding man, and the tribe’s border chief. Now that the elders had agreed that Harsq had to be stopped, there only remained the question of how. Westram was in favour of attacking the convoy and killing Harsq before he reached the mining compound.

‘There are a lot of them,’ Ceeanna observed. ‘I count a dozen trucks. Why would he need so many?’

‘They’ve sent an entire battlegroup with him,’ Mirkrin 
sighed. ‘Infantry, armoured wagons, even a crossbow turret.’

‘So you say Draegar told you about this?’ Ceeanna enquired, referring to an old friend of the couple. ‘Why didn’t he come down to the village? Not worried about being saddled with your little terrors again this summer, is he?’

Nayalla shot a glance at her husband. The tribe were not supposed to know that Taya and Lorkrin stayed with Emos – she always told them that the children spent part of the summer with Draegar. She knew Ceeanna suspected otherwise.

‘He was in a hurry towards Brodfan,’ Nayalla shrugged. ‘Once he’d told us, he had to head on.’

Ceeanna clucked her tongue as she regarded the approaching convoy, and then glanced at Westram. He kept his eyes on the oncoming convoy. Mirkrin spat and said what they were all thinking.

‘We can’t take on those kinds of odds. They’d slaughter us.’

‘What other choice do we have?’ Westram responded.

But there was doubt in his eyes. He knew the stakes were too high.

‘We’d lose this,’ Nayalla shook her head. ‘People are going to get killed for nothing.’

‘Harsq has a machine,’ Mirkrin spoke up. ‘He used to rely on blessings alone, but they were too arbitrary. Now he uses science too. He uses one of the engines that make lightning. If we could destroy that, I think it would hold him up … until he got another one, at least.’

‘We’d need to find a way in through all those extra guards,’ Westram nodded towards the approaching battlegroup.

‘I say we don’t wait for them to get there,’ Mirkrin said. 
‘We go in now, set ourselves up in hiding before they even arrive. Wait for the machine to be brought in and then destroy it tonight.’

‘It would be dangerous, but smarter than fighting them head on,’ Ceeanna nodded. ‘I am in favour, but we need to act now. Inform the other elders. We must have a decision immediately.’

* * * *

In the trees atop another hill, not far away, two other men took in the scene before them. One was Emos Harprag, his solemn face showing nothing of the feelings that boiled inside him, seeing his tribe before him in dire need and being unable to join them. The other figure was a Parsinor. Taller than his Myunan friend by a head and shoulders and twice as wide across, Draegar hailed from a race of desert-dwellers and it showed in his appearance. His face was broad, his nose and ears small and his wide mouth lined with yellow, crooked teeth. Braided hair swept back and down off his massive skull.

But it was his body that was striking. He had a hinged shell that protected his back. His legs and feet were
extraordinary
; two legs extended from each hip, joining again at the bottom to a single, long foot on either side. Knobbly armour shielded his shoulders, forearms and thighs and the tops of his feet. If his physique was fearsome, it only reflected his character, for Draegar was a map-maker and he travelled the wildest, most dangerous lands to plot and record them. He was Emos’s closest friend and he was here now to help the Myunan outcast in any way that he could.

‘That’s a lot of soldiers,’ his voice grated. ‘It’s going to take 
more than brute force to better that lot.’

‘They need to destroy the machine,’ Emos said quietly. ‘They’ll see that. But the Noranians will too. This night will be a reckoning. If Harsq isn’t stopped tonight, we will have lost Absaleth. I have to help them any way I can. Let’s go and stir up some trouble.’

* * * *

Marnelius Cotch-Baumen watched from the window of the minemaster’s office as the vehicles pulled into the
compound
. He glanced towards the open gate, but the soldiers had things well in hand. The men in the tall, wooden
watchtower
were his best, and even with the poor facilities of the camp, he was confident that with the extra forces, he could keep a tight rein on things. Checking his appearance in a full-length, gold-framed mirror that travelled with him
wherever
he stayed overnight, he walked out the door and down the steps to greet his guest.

A small, gaunt-faced man swung down from the lead wagon as it ground to a halt. He was dressed in the blue robes of an eshtran, a Braskhiam priest, and his long black hair was tied in a ponytail. He drew a small canister with a mouthpiece from inside his robe and took a long breath as he gazed up at the mountain. His eyes were wide and
bloodshot
and had an intensity about them that could have been religious fervour or just plain madness. Cotch-Baumen strode over to him.

‘Eshtran Harsq, I am Provinchus Cotch-Baumen. It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.’

Harsq took his hand and nodded.

‘That’s one cursed hill of rock you have there, sir,’ the 
priest intoned. ‘But we shall remedy that by and by. Brask, the good Lord of the esh, has just the answer for such evil promontories.’

‘Excellent, excellent.’ Cotch-Baumen clasped his hands together. ‘I look forward to seeing you work. I have read all your essays on the spiritual effects of electrical projection and must say that I find them fascinating. I am something of an amateur scientist myself, you see …’

‘Science is only a
lever
, sir, onto which I apply my Master’s blessed will. But it is heartening to hear that you are a man of education, for it is only through knowledge and
enlightenment
that we will subdue the rebellious spirits of the land.’

‘Yes, of course,’ the Provinchus smiled uncertainly. ‘Rebellious indeed. I think you will find our situation an interesting challenge …’

‘I do not seek personal gratification beyond the service of my Lord’s will, sir. Rest assured, however, that your great lump of uncooperative rock and iron here will be pacified by this time tomorrow.’

‘Excellent, excellent. Would you like to come up to the office and we can discuss the terms of your payment?’

Cotch-Baumen waved the eshtran ahead of him and sighed in disappointment. He had hoped to enjoy some intellectual conversation with a like mind, but it seemed this particular mind was of a slightly distracted nature. When they reached the office, he gestured to the other man to take a seat and he himself sat down behind the minemaster’s desk, a rather ramshackle, tradesman’s affair, but
unfortunately
the only one available.

‘As an educated man, I’m sure you’re aware of the
importance
of my generator in this operation,’ Harsq said, leaning 
towards him. ‘You realise those ungodly Myunans will make every effort to get in here and destroy it.’

‘I do,’ the Provinchus replied. ‘In fact, I would be
surprised
if there were not one or two already in the compound somewhere. They are sly demons and terribly difficult to find when they have a mind to conceal themselves.
However
, I have taken measures to ensure the safety of your wonderful device. I can assure you that it will be quite safe.’

He stood up and walked to the window, inviting the
eshtran
to join him. There, in the compound below them, a van was reversing up to the large generator truck that formed the centre of Harsq’s ceremony. Stakes with metal rings had been hammered into the ground around the truck. Unnerving howls and screeches rose up from the back of the van as two soldiers with thick leather gloves and heavy wooden clubs opened the rear door. The animal they pulled from the vehicle was a skack. It took both of them holding onto its two leashes to hold it still. One of the men turned and beat back a second beast which was trying to clamber out. Then they led the first creature to one of the stakes and attached its chain to the metal ring.

The skack was a native of the volcanic region of Guthoque. A mottled purple and grey in colour, it was roughly the size of a large man, but living in one of the most dangerous regions in the Noranian Empire had honed the skack’s evolution to a fine point of savagery. Powerful arms hung from its muscled shoulders. Its forearms each ended in a long, curved and serrated claw, which folded down along the forearms when the skack wanted to run on all fours. Its hind legs were short; its back was hunched and covered in spines. Because of the poisonous gases of Guthoque, eyes 
would have been useless to a skack. Instead, it had a deeply ridged forehead that could detect the reverberations of its high-pitched screeches – much like a bat – and this sense guided it with deadly accuracy. Heavy jaws dominated its short, blunt snout, bearing poisonous, razor-sharp teeth.

Far craftier than most animals, it had lightning-quick reflexes and could track prey better than any dog. Their bloodthirsty instincts made them virtually untameable. The two handlers led one beast after another out to the stakes, until eight skacks formed a perimeter of snarling, screeching death around Harsq’s generator truck.

‘Praise be to Brask,’ said the exorcist.

* * * *

‘Look, skacks!’ Lorkrin said excitedly.

He and his sister were ensconced in the branches of a tree on a hill overlooking the compound. They were supposed to be back at home, helping to pack up and move the village in case the Noranians came looking for the tribe after the ambush; but the temptation to see the action had been too great. From the road, they had trailed their parents and the others here, but had lost them when the grown-ups had
dispersed
into the darkness around the mining camp. They wondered why the adults had let Harsq reach the safety of the compound. Now, there were skacks out in the yard, and the situation looked worse still. Lorkrin had a young boy’s
fascination
with fierce creatures, but Taya just hated them. She could not forget the night they had been chased by these predators the year before and it still gave her nightmares.

‘Why have they been spread around that truck?’ she
wondered
out loud. 

‘To guard against us,’ Lorkrin guessed. ‘It must be
important
. I wish we could help.’

He had been making brave noises like this all evening. He couldn’t help it. Whenever he shrugged his shoulders to straighten the straps he knew should be there, he noticed they were missing and he became conscious of the space on his back where his pack should be. It was unsettling to remember how helpless he was. To his surprise, the other children had not laughed when they heard. They all agreed that losing your tools was not a laughing matter.

Taya did not reply to his remark. She knew how he felt, even if she didn’t feel the need to hide it with bravado. But she did want to do something to help the tribe. In some ways, she and Lorkrin knew more about the Noranians than a lot of the grown-ups. After all, they had nearly been killed by their soldiers several times.

‘Do you think they’ll stop him?’ Lorkrin asked her.

‘How should I know?’ she snapped back, wishing he would shut up.

Even the soldiers were nervous about the skacks, she noticed, despite the fact that they were chained to posts. Everyone was nervous about skacks. She wondered what the elders were planning to do.

* * * *

Cotch-Baumen had been mistaken when he had guessed that there were one or two Myunans already in the
compound
. There were no less than thirteen of the shape-shifters hidden around the mining camp. Some had flattened
themselves
out against banks of stone or earth, some hung
underneath
trucks disguised as part of the iron chassis, or as spare 
wheels. Others were concealed in the shadows of the heavy plant, the cranes, winches and mechanical scoops that threw criss-crossing shadows over areas behind them. Dozens of bule-oil lanterns lit the great yard. But even with the thirty guards patrolling it, there were any number of hiding places for a well-camouflaged Myunan.

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