The eagles told them the rider was close.
Thorn didn't see.
The brownies were nervous enough around the Tall Folk in their own country, but there at least they had a wealth of trees and undergrowth to mask their presence. Here, in the shadow of the great mountain range that split this continent from top to bottom, there was nothing but prairie grassland from slopes to horizon. They wanted to hide and told Thorn so, repeatedly, each more loudly and insistent than the other, volleying protests and epithets back and forth as if it was a game of tennis.
Thorn didn't hear.
The animal's shod hooves struck in a leaden cadence, her every step bespeaking a fatigue sunk deep into her bones. She'd run as far and fast as she was able, but she was done. The scent of fear was strong from her, its cause brutally clear from the fresh wounds that scarred her flanks and haunch. A Daikini warrior sat atop her back, his own boots scored by the same claws that had slashed his mount. The parade-ground perfection of tack and armor was dulled by a thickening coat of trail dust, the curve of back and shoulders giving eloquent evidence of the toll this journey had taken.
In basic form, he looked much the same as Thorn himself, though like all his race he stood better than twice the Nelwyn's size, mostly in the legs. As a race, Daikinis considered themselves lords of the earth, and didn't share well with those--like Nelwyns and the far smaller brownies--who'd come before.
Both bow and blade were slung loose, close at hand for quick and easy use. The young man's eyes never rested, scanning the way ahead as intensely as his every other sense did the trail behind; every so often he would reach forward to stroke a hand along his mare's sweat-stained neck, then give her powerful shoulder a reassuring pat. She needed rest, as did he; even this stumble-footed pace was more than she could long maintain. Stark from both horse and rider was the certain knowledge that wherever they stopped would be the site of their last stand. The trail they followed would bring them right to Thorn and his companions; the pace they maintained meant they'd reach them near nightfall.
Thorn didn't care.
His own boots cast puffs of dirt into the air about his feet as he made his way to the edge of the Scar. Dust, without any of the weight or consistency of proper earth, leached dry of moisture, of minerals, of life itself. Dull gray to the sight, powder to the touch, the crumbling detritus of a tomb, it cast a shadow film over eyes and tongue that tainted every sensation. Scrub weeds and tumbleweed marked the landscape; those seeds unlucky enough to put down roots found no substance, either to anchor or sustain them. Most were blown away by the first rough wind; the few that remained were ugly, stunted things, with little hope of lasting a season, much less beyond.
Before him, the continental divide formed an unassailable rampart stretching to the right and left as far as the eye could see.
Except for this place.
Until twelve years ago, a mountain stood here, paramount in the range. That awful night, as cataclysms and disasters raged across the whole of the Twelve Domains, it had simply been . . . destroyed.
Thorn had seen all manner of natural disasters and each time been awed by how quickly and tenaciously nature had rushed back to heal the wounds. Here, though, those normal rules seemed no longer to apply; everything and everyone that had lived within sight of the blast was gone, as though they'd never been, and nothing had stepped in since to fill the void.
"As with all the others," he said aloud, mainly to break the eerie silence, absently winding a length of braided beard around his right forefinger as he surveyed the desolation before him. "A whole world, I've wandered, to see such sights as this. One after the other, one by one by one, the smashed and broken places." Almost as though the devastation couldn't be believed, it wasn't real, unless seen with his own eyes. This was the last. As awful to behold as the first.
His first and dominant impression of the Scar was one of smoothness, as though a terrible God had sliced the mountain from its fellows as neatly as Thorn might a fresh-baked muffin from its tin, and then wantonly smashed it to bits. The ground within had been seared to bedrock, stripped of even the potential for new life, fused on top to glass, so that the scene most resembled a shallow bowl--although this one was miles across and easily a hundred feet deep. No dust settled within the rim, creating the impression that the crater was wiped neatly and properly clean each morning by some giant cloth. Whenever there were storms, the water that fell outside the Scar rushed away downhill, each drop of rain apparently desperate to find a more hospitable place to light. Looking within, however, Thorn couldn't see even a hint of liquid, where there should have been a lake reflecting the brilliant blue of the late-spring, late-morning sky.
There was a queer beauty to the place, that he had to admit. The dominant color was black, shot through with streams and reefs of darkling shades from the palette of some mad potter.
In his mind's eye, Thorn saw another field of primal desecration, this one set amidst rolling woodlands, a place once renowned for its beauty, forever ruined. The strength of its walls, the courage of its knights, the skill of its sorcerers, none of that saved the fabled Daikini fortress of Tir Asleen. The castle and its rulers embodied the hope of the world and it had been wiped away in a single instant.
There, a dozen years ago, Thorn hadn't approached as close as this. He'd stood at the head of the valley, staring with dulled eyes as though he himself had become one of the dead, in the faint and futile hope that each blink of his eyelids would somehow restore the glory that once was, and especially the lives of his lost friends.
The memory was ice in his heart, and he folded over on himself as though he'd been stabbed, lowering his forehead as he knelt until it touched the ground. He was glad he was alone, for such a grief as this should have no witnesses. Neither brownies nor eagles ever came near these blasted, broken places--Bastian and Anele wouldn't even overfly them--they had too much respect for the dead, and for the unknown force that had slain them. Thorn's face twisted as though he'd been struck a physical blow, but no tears fell; he'd wrung himself dry that first monstrous day before Tir Asleen. For all the time that had passed, and all he'd learned since, the wound remained as fresh and raw as ever.
Its sole legacy was a resonance that led him from one site to the next, with the same inexorable attraction of a compass needle for the pole. After the first few, and especially as he honed his innate talent as a wizard, the pattern of destruction had become clear. Each location was a place of Power, a crossroads where the ley lines of energy of the physical world intersected with their counterparts in the Realms Beyond, the domains of faery, home to the Veil Folk. As a consequence, the devastation had been as great in their lands, and the scars as deep. There as here, some looked on what happened as a natural occurrence, others as a mystical sign, still others as an act of war. Each party had its own opinion as to cause and reason, each had a favorite place to lay blame, with the net result that relations between the Twelve Domains--never comfortable on the best of days--went into a steep and precipitous decline. The passage of better than a decade since the Cataclysm without any further such incidents had substantially eased fears among the Daikinis, but most of the Veil Folk lived at a different pace. To them, the human span was little better than a mayfly's and the Cataclysm a flashpoint far too fresh in memory to be ignored.
Beyond the obvious--that a force of mind-numbing power had in a single, savage moment annihilated a score of locations across the whole of the world--nothing was known. Not the nature of the force, or its origin, or its purpose. The years since brought to Thorn the realization that surprisingly few were all that eager to learn any of those answers, as though doing so would call down the same doom, or worse, upon their own heads.
It was a choice Thorn himself faced at every site. He'd known from the start what was required of him, yet in each instance found himself holding back; he was no less reluctant today.
"No," he said, face still buried from the world, giving his voice the hollow sound of someone speaking in a box. "That's not right. I'm not reluctant. I'm afraid."
He stood, walked away from the Scar for a couple or three steps before coming to the end of that reflexive impulse and trailing to a stop.
"Is this it, then?" he asked himself. "Is this what I've come to, all the work and wandering, a dozen years on the road, in hiding--all for nothing? You saved the best for last, Peck," and he made the diminutive as cruel an insult as any who'd used it against him. "The resonances of the Cataclysm are as strong here as at Tir Asleen itself; if there are answers to be found, there's nowhere better."
The part of him labeled "Nelwyn common sense" wailed, I don't want to be here, I want to go home! To be told in turn, But you are here. So what are you going to do about it? Then, mo...