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Chapter XXXIX

D stood a few feet outside her body, watching the way her black hair flopped over her face. She was still lying at the bottom of a sizeable crater created by Marcus’ indestructible force bubble. She knew the cold would kill her soon but waited patiently for Frankie and Marcus to stir. Even if she could speak in a way they could hear, her encouragements or pleading would do little. Frankie bundled her up close to his chest and walked out of the crater. He saw the still flapping parachute from the biggest cargo crate and began walking towards it. Good. To their right was Marcus, cradling his arm, as he fought to remain upright. She knew an incantation that would knit bones and sponge away his pain but would need her fingers and mouth to produce it.

The strands of hair from the ul-mara goddess had been an enormous drain, and she was too exhausted to remain in the driver’s seat of her own body. Marcus would have to endure until she had recovered. Going ahead, she made sure the lump in the distance was in fact a place of refuge and then turned away from the grim procession towards it. They would either reach safety or freeze to death. It was beyond her power to change that result.

Besides, she had people to see.

“Saldem Traduum Ma’chachlem,” she said, in a voice which was more than an echo in her head but less than a whisper from her lips, each syllable carefully and precisely uttered. The words were Indo-european, from an obscure branch so old all meaning had been lost long ago. And yet, the words endured because the effect of saying them was instantaneous and beneficial. D felt herself dissolve as a state of heavy calm fell upon her. The world before her eyes faded, replaced by the flat immensity of the Primordial Plains.

Ma’Chachlem was a place known to the ancient Gnostics and still frequented by contemporary sorcerers, albeit not so frequently. It was a wide steppe, covered in tall grass, dotted with the occasional tree. Colors tended towards the red and ochre and what wind passed through the grasses brought the intoxicating smells of fresh air and vegetation. Power throbbed from the ground and sky, magic still wild and dangerous. Modern users tended to stick to the astral plains, but D’s received her instructions from a different source.

The animals kept well away from her. Millennia of contact with shamans and other demanding types had made them shy. So much the better; D had other designs in this place. She needed guidance not power.

A stroll of no more than an hour brought her to a clearing of sorts in the grass lands. No paths lead here, the grass simply grew shorter, more sparse, making way for the red earth. A few rude huts sat in the clearing, clustered around a still smoldering fire. Someone had laid out tools upon an intricately woven rug: wands, staffs, fetishes, and juju laid out in a communal display for whomever needed them. Pushing aside the animal skin used as a door, D entered the largest hut, breathing in air redolent of smoke and strange herbs. In the corner sat a woman so old and motionless that she seemed to be carved out of a single piece of driftwood. She gave no sign of noticing D’s entrance until D sat before her and pulled out a single white stone from her pocket.

“Who gave this to you?” the woman asked.

“My father.”

“And who was he?”

“I do not know.”

“An honest answer…good. Who are you?”

“A traveler.”

“A traveler,” the woman held this word in her mouth as if considering its taste. “You do not intend to stay.”

“No.”

“This is also good. There is no room for you here.”

D let the comment remain where it was, untouched. All of this was a kind of rite just as familiar as the words she had used to come here. D had met this woman countless times before and she never gave the slightest indication of remembering previous encounters. The woman couldn’t remember faces, let alone names.

The old woman spoke once more, “If you are not staying here, then you have not found your prey.”

“I have not.”

“You will meet three men beyond this place. Follow them although their ways will diverge. You must follow all three men because only then will you find the outlaw.”

“Shield, I’m guessing and Frankie. But the third? One of the pilots?”

The old woman pulled a long thin bone from a pouch by her knee and turned it over and over in her hands. The talisman was startlingly white, blanched no doubt by its owner’s constant attention. This was a sign that the old woman had reached the limits of her insight was going to try to make shit up. D drew lazy doodles in the dust.

“You already know the third and will recognize him by sight although he wears many faces and is difficult to name.”

“And when I meet these three people, then what, I’m supposed to just let things happen?”

“You must take action. You must do it alone.”

“Great.”

The old woman paused gravelly. “I do not believe in evil.”

“Me neither,” D gestured for the woman to wrap it up.

“But the Outlaw was consigned to the changing lands because of his great ambition and terrible deeds. It was felt he would do less harm outside of this land.”

Shadows flickered against the hut’s walls, a tall slender boy raising a weapon, dashing in the skulls of shamans and their familiars. None of this was unknown to her.

“Way ahead of you,” D said, standing up and brushing off her pant legs.

“You may not know which way to go-” A querulous tone had entered the old woman’s voice.

“I’ll either figure it out and save the world or perish in a nightmare,” D said on the way out of the hut. “I’m going to try to be optimistic.”

“There are herbs and charms that I could help you find!”

D let the flap of the yurt fall. She probed the curtain of grass surrounding the clearing before she discerned the way back. “There’s always more herbs and charms,” she muttered under her breath.


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