He has forgotten his name, leaving only purpose to drive him. Arrow-bit and cut to bone, he reaches one hand, then another. The very land rejects his naked body. Fingernails break and bleed. Toes scrabble for purchase on the cliff face. His blood blackens the cold stone as he climbs the Forge
But he cannot stop.
His pursuers will not.
He hears them far below: the ravening cries of the leathery grecklings, the chinking rattle of their keepers, the harsh shouts of his former captors, and rising like steam, the worst yet, the sweet notes of seersong.
Tears run with fire across his cold cheeks.
The song calls him back, slows him. If he knew his name, he would be caught again, trapped by lilt and rhyme, twisted and tied, bound and bent. But all is forgotten, so he digs and climbs.
He must not stop.
He searches upward. Light streams over the top of the white cliff, reflecting the morning’s fire off the ice-capped peaks that frame the notched pass above, giving name to this place. The Forge. The beacon between two lands. And though the brightness heralds the rise of the sun beyond the mountains, here on the western cliffs night still ruled.
Like a mothkin to flame, he lets the sunlight draw him upward, and like that same fluttering mothkin, he knows only death awaits him in that blaze.
Still, he climbs. One hand, then another…driven by purpose and intent, instinct and reflex. And something else. Something long thought lost.
He must reach the border.
At last, one hand reaches out to find not rock, but air. The top of the Forge. He draws his body upward with the very last of his strength into the morning’s warmth and light. He rolls to the flat stone nestled between two peaks. Ahead, the land falls away again, not as steeply, the slopes gentler.
But not gentle to him…
He rises to his knees, staring to the east.
More peaks, but nearer still lay a promise. Though shrouded by morning mist, he sees the vast emerald cloud forest. Birdsong reaches him even here. He smells loam and wet leaf.
Green lands settled and forbidden to his blood.
He already feels the admonishment under his knees. Fire warms his bones, but it is not the pleasantness of a hearth’s glow: it is fever and fear. A warning at the border, written upon his marrow.
Do not pass.
He stands, and despite the warning, he trespasses. His bare feet move him away from the cliff’s edge, away from the cries below, away from the last notes of seersong.
He leaves the hinterlands behind.
There is a path ahead. Left by whom? Hunters of the distant forest? The curious, the foolhardy, the hopeless? Who would trek to this vantage to stare out over the blasted hinterlands?
He continues, tracing the path down toward Saysh Mal. Each step grows more agonizing. Warmth becomes fire. Warning becomes demand. The blood of this land rejects his own. He smells his own seared flesh. Smoke curls between blackened toes. Drops of his own blood ignite with spats of flame.
He walks onward.
Pain both erases and stretches time.
He hobbles now on fiery stubs, feet gone. And still, the land is not satisfied. His bones are now tinder. The fire races through marrow, igniting hip, spine, rib, and skull. He smolders. The old arrows impaled in his body have become feathered torches, fueled by his own blood. Shafts fall to ash and away.
He struggles onward, a living candle of oil and meager fat.
He has long given up waving the pall of smoke from his form.
Past the last peak, he falls to hands and knees—but at least it’s downhill from here. He crawls, blindly, amid smoke and flame.
Then he senses more than hears.
Someone is near.
He stops. The land’s attack upon his blood rewards him for halting. Ever so slightly, the fire ebbs. Smoke clears. Though his eyes are burnt away, he sees shadows and light.
A figure steps toward him.
“No, boy!” another shouts from a different direction. “Stand back from it! It’s a shiting rogue god from the hinter!”
“But it’s hurt.”
“Let it die.”
Through his pain, the god hears compassion, not so much with his burnt ears as with his heart. It gives him the strength for one last act. He reaches to his lips and removes his burden, preserved in Grace, carried in his mouth.
No strength remains.
He falls to the ground and lets his burden roll from his flaming fingertips. Though blind, he senses its journey into the boy’s shadow.
It is his last hope, his heart, his life.
He has nothing left now. Darkness settles over him as the land consumes the last of his life’s flame. Words echo to him as he fades from this world.
“What is it?”
The boy answers. “Only a rock.”
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