Rome opened his eyes to see T’sim standing over him. He knew instantly that something was wrong. He could feel it in his gut and deep in his bones.
T’sim held a small lantern. “It is Quyloc,” he said.
Rome came to his feet in one movement, gathering up the black axe as he did. “Get the FirstMother,” he said, taking the lantern from T’sim. A moment later he was heading toward the hilltop, just visible in the slim moon. “Hang in there, Quyloc. I’m coming.”
Quyloc was seated on the ground with his legs crossed. His eyes were open and he was staring off into nothing. Even in the poor light from the lantern it was clear something was terribly wrong with him. He seemed to have lost all color. His skin looked like wax. Swearing under his breath, Rome knelt beside him and put his fingers on the big vein in Quyloc’s throat. His pulse was very weak.
Carefully, Rome laid Quyloc down on his back, noticing as he did so that the spear was nowhere around. That was odd. Quyloc kept the thing with him all the time and he seemed to remember his old friend saying something about needing to be holding it when he went to the shadow world. Rome stared into Quyloc’s eyes and wondered what he was seeing. Where was he? What was he facing? All at once Quyloc jerked, once, twice. His face contorted in a grimace of pain.
“Quyloc!” Rome said, giving him a little shake. “Are you there? Can you hear me?”
There was no response. Rome passed his hand before Quyloc’s eyes, but they remained distant and unfocused. Rome sat back on his heels, gritting his teeth in frustration. What could he do? How could he help his friend? He should have known Quyloc was planning to return to that place. He’d been even more distant since using the spear to change Perthen’s mind. Even when Rome tried to congratulate him on what he’d accomplished he’d waved it away, saying something to the effect that it wasn’t enough. He needed to be able to do more. Rome should have known what that meant. He should have paid closer attention. He could have…
What? The truth was there was nothing he could have done, either to change Quyloc’s mind or to protect him from whatever was happening. The truth was they needed Quyloc and his strange weapon, whatever the risk.
Rome stood as footsteps approached the hilltop. T’sim was leading Nalene. She looked haggard and worn. In fact, she looked like Rome felt, like a person carrying too many burdens.
“What’s wrong with him?” Rome said roughly.
Quyloc lay very still on the ground in the small pool of light from the lantern. For just a moment Rome thought he could almost see through the man, as if he briefly became translucent. But he rubbed his eyes and the moment was gone.
Nalene approached Quyloc gingerly and crouched a short ways away. Her sulbit crept out of her sleeve and moved into the palm of her right hand. Its head was blunt, the eyes starkly black against its ivory hue.
Nalene brought her other hand up and laid her fingers on the sulbit and then her eyes unfocused. A moment later she gave a small sound, coming to her feet quickly and backing away.
“What is it?” Rome cried. “What did you see?”
She was still staring at Quyloc and at first he thought she hadn’t heard him. She’d gone pale. “They look like threads. Hundreds of them. They’re all over him.”
“What threads? I don’t see any threads.”
Then she looked at him and a frown crossed her face. “Of course you don’t. You have to be beyond to see them.”
“How? I have no idea what’s happening to him.”
“He must have gone to the shadow world. The Pente Akka.”
Nalene turned back to Quyloc and shook her head. “Then there’s nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do.”
“Can’t you cut the threads somehow?”
The look she turned on him was disbelieving. “You really have no idea what you’re talking about or you wouldn’t say something so stupid.”
Rome ignored the insult. “You’re the FirstMother. You must be able to do something. Use that thing.” He pointed at the sulbit.
Nalene pulled her sleeve over the sulbit as if to shield it from him. “Even if I had any idea how to do such a thing, I would never take the risk. The Pente Akka is built on chaos power. It would kill my sulbit, and probably me, to so much as touch it.”
“We have to do something,” Rome insisted, feeling desperate. “We can’t just let him die.”
“Do whatever you want. I’m not doing anything.” She glanced at Quyloc again and shuddered. “It’s draining him,” she said softly.
“Draining?” Rome echoed. “What do you mean by that?” As he spoke, once again he thought he could see through Quyloc. It was almost like he just flickered out for a moment before returning. Nalene was edging away and he gripped her arm roughly, pushing her forward. “You’re not leaving until you help me,” he growled.
Nalene’s face twisted with rage and she spun on him, raising the arm holding her sulbit, but Rome was quicker. He lifted the black axe, poised to strike.
“Before you touch that thing I will cut your arm off.”
Nalene froze, her gaze fixed on the axe.
“Lower your hand.” When she had, Rome said, “Call Lowellin. He’ll know what to do.”
Nalene was still staring fixedly at the axe. “I have not seen the Protector since we left Qarath,” she said between gritted teeth. “I don’t know where he is.”
Rome stared at her, gauging her truthfulness. After a moment he lowered the axe and turned to T’sim, who had been standing off to the side watching the whole time.
“I can find Lowellin,” T’sim said calmly. “He is not so well hidden as he would believe.”
“Hurry,” Rome said, then turned back to Quyloc. He knelt beside him and touched his forehead. He seemed colder than before, and somehow less substantial. He turned his head and saw Nalene still standing there, staring down at him. “You said it’s draining him. What is? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it is. All I know is that Selfsong is leaving his body. But it’s not like when someone dies, where the Song returns to the greater flows. His Song is just…disappearing. Soon he will be empty.” Her voice held a kind of horrified fascination.
Rome clenched his fist in frustration. He wanted to scream in rage. He wanted to kill someone. He hated this feeling of helplessness, hated it more than anything. His oldest friend was dying and there was nothing he could do. He scanned the area. “Come on, T’sim,” he whispered.
Out of nowhere a breeze blew across the hilltop and when it died away a moment later T’sim and Lowellin stood there, T’sim holding onto Lowellin’s elbow. Lowellin yanked his arm away, practically spitting with rage. T’sim gave Rome a bow and stepped back.
Rome crossed to Lowellin in two quick strides, the axe gripped in both hands. “Quyloc needs help. Now!”
Lowellin looked at Rome scornfully, his lip curling. “You may have put everything at risk with your idiocy,” he snarled. “Kasai must know I am here now. Which means that its master knows as well.”
“I don’t care,” Rome snapped. “Quyloc’s dying, and you’re going to save him.” He stood balanced on the balls of his feet, adrenalin racing through him. The axe felt eager in his hands.
Lowellin gave the axe a contemptuous look and pushed past Rome, moving to stand over Quyloc and look down at him. He stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “A hunter got him. It was only a matter of time.”
“You knew this was going to happen?” Rome asked, coming up behind him. He had to fight the urge to bury the axe in Lowellin’s back.
Lowellin shrugged. His anger seemed gone. “He knew the risks.” He pointed a finger at Rome. “Not long ago you were pushing him to go back. If you wish to blame someone, blame yourself.”
“What’s a hunter and how do we kill it?”
Lowellin laughed softly. “Nothing kills a hunter. It cannot be done.”
“There is always a way,” Rome grated.
Nalene backed further away. T’sim watched intently without moving. The air between Rome and Lowellin fairly crackled.
“I have an idea,” Lowellin said. “Why don’t you cut him free?”
Rome shot a look at his friend. Now he was certain Quyloc was fading. He looked light, insubstantial. If the wind rose he would blow away like fog. “I would if I could,” he grated. “But I don’t see anything.”
“Right,” Lowellin said. “You are blind like the rest of them. Maybe some help. Here.” He took a step forward and one hand flashed out, tapping Rome once on the forehead, so fast Rome could not react.
Rome felt a sudden pain in his head and staggered back, lights bursting behind his eyes. “What was that? What did you do?”
“Observe.” Lowellin pointed.
Rome turned and gasped at what he saw. Ghostly threads ran down from nowhere, hundreds of them, piercing Quyloc. They pulsed slowly with a faint light. Quyloc’s body glowed from the inside, but the glow was clearly fading.
Rome did not hesitate. Thought and action were one.
He swung, and the axe inscribed an arc in the darkness above Quyloc. It sliced through the lines like cobwebs.
There was a flash of purple light and Rome was thrown backwards and fell down. Dazed, it took him a few moments to roll onto his knees and climb unsteadily to his feet. Dimly he was aware of Lowellin staring at him. But he paid him no mind. His attention was focused on Quyloc. He could no longer see the threads, but he could no longer see the glow around his friend either. Whatever Lowellin had done to him was gone. He went to Quyloc and crouched beside him.
“Did it work?” he demanded of Lowellin. “Are the threads cut?” He could find no heartbeat in his friend and his skin was very cold.
After a moment Lowellin nodded. “They are cut. I admit that I did not know what would happen when you did that. You could have killed yourself and half your army. Yet somehow you didn’t. The night is full of wonders.”
“Why isn’t he waking up?”
“I don’t know if he will. Most of him is already in the shadow world.”
“Help me bring him back.”
“There’s nothing you or I can do, no matter how badly you want to. It’s up to him to find his way out of that place.”
“There must be something you can do.”
“There isn’t, but I see that will not get through to you. So I will leave you.” He stepped back and waved his staff before him. A darkness blacker than night seemed to flow from the staff and surround him. When it faded a moment later he was gone.
Nalene stared, openmouthed, then hurried away.
Rome remained kneeling beside his friend, staring at him, willing him to return.
Excerpt from Guardians Watch, Book 3 of The Devastation Wars