They rode for hours before coming to the bridge crossing over the Nor’kal River. The deep blue of clean water rushed by at surprising speeds, allowing little place for rocks or anything else to settle. Only a few enormous rocks that acted as supports for the bridge made homes in the speedy waters.
The wooden planks were purposefully woven in such a fashion to provide strong support for anything and everything that might want to cross. The bridge could support wagons, if needed, and James gathered from the markings in the wood that it was a well used path at one time. They crossed easily, the wood only creaking a few times in protest as the horse and Blaersteed hooves crossed, clanking and clinking along. Soon they were beyond the bridge riding through patches of forest, bushes, and tall grasses. A road quickly presented itself. It showed signs of lack of use—branches and bushes hanging over the sides and a lack of fresh tracks from people, animals, or vehicles—and it was here that James saw the distant Fire Rim.
It was a wall of smoke and ash, gray as the thick fog of the coast in the morning, gray as the night underneath thick rain clouds. There were great plumes of fire and black smoke that dotted the landscape there, ancient fires that had burned for centuries and would continue to burn for as long as the magical barrier held the flames at bay. He wondered just how it was possible that the fire could rage on for so long. Eventually the fires would lose their fuel as everything burned to bits. But, somehow the fires continued on as if fed by magic or something worse.
It suddenly occurred to him that he knew next to nothing about the Fire Rim, only the nature of its existence. It was a dangerous place, but he had no idea what dangers they would face. Will there be terrible monsters there, he thought. As much as he hoped otherwise, he knew that something dark and mysterious had to live there. It was a frightening place that would make a wonderful home for the frightening beasts he had already seen in his travels.
And, underneath all these thoughts and concerns were further thoughts, deep and untouchable. He feared for Laura. It would take them close to a month to get to Teirlin’pur. The distance was too great for even the Blaersteeds to ride continuously. They would have to stop and rest as soon as they reached the edge of the Fire Rim. He was weary of the journey ahead. With so much ground to cover and with Luthien nipping at their heels it seemed inconceivable. He wondered if more assassins would be sent their way, or if they would encounter them on the trail. They had been lucky at the Summering Rocks. Too lucky. He dreaded facing more assassins who could wield the Shadow Horses. Iliad had caught them completely off guard, and even James had surprised them with the fist of water, but James knew that they wouldn’t have that luck again. Word would have traveled, somehow. Luthien would know that he wasn’t a simple boy anymore, that he could use magic with force.
Luthien would know that he couldn’t be taken without a fight.
They crossed the bushy terrain easily; the horses and Blaersteeds made no sound along the way. North were the beginning formations of the Nor Marshlands—dark terrain, pools, swamps, and a faint smell of decay. The wind traveled southward strong enough to bring the scent with it. James didn’t pinch his nose or cringe; the smell didn’t bother him enough, but he got an idea of the type of terrain there. There was a swamp in Woodton. The town called it Burly’s Bog, but he had always known it as the Collective of Useless Waste because people used it like a dump. The water had come there due to some sort of irrigation disaster, something to do with an accidental divergence of the
that let some of the water flow elsewhere. The excess water flowed into a slight dip in the earth where it created Burly’s Bog, much to the chagrin of one Alfred Burly who, at the tender age of eighty, demanded that the city pay for the damages to his backyard. The city asked him to move at their expense and he strictly refused, deciding rather to remain in his ramshackle home to torment anybody who happened to come by to have a look at the new ecosystem. Ironically enough that same ecosystem was made into a germ factory in a matter of days. No frogs made homes there and the mosquitoes were too afraid, or smart—James guessed the former. Stillwater River
The journey dragged on. Occasional conversations broke out. Discussions of random things like who would cook on the first night or who would tie the horses when they stopped. There was a general silence about anything of vast importance in the group. James could feel it and it made him glad. He didn’t feel like addressing anything that might prove difficult. He had enough on his mind as it was. They were leaving familiarity and entering a land full of people that had no apparent distaste for what Luthien was doing; they were traveling through a dead zone and they were doing it all under the radar of Luthien and his men.
After a time, as the light faded beyond the horizon and the landscape became thickly dark, Iliad halted the group and dismounted. He set quickly to putting up a fire and the rest dismounted and began to unpack for the night. James was the last to return to the ground. He hesitated at the reigns, eyeing the deeply black silhouette of the Fire Rim. Wariness came over him, a feeling of disappointment too as he doubted himself. He wondered if he had it in him to go through that place. Then the thoughts slid away as the sound of flames crackled and he was on the earth again, unpacking all he needed to get a nights rest.
He didn’t eat much, only one Fidget Fowl egg. A huge pile of them had been given to the group for the first couple days of the journey. Pea had prepared them as he had at Arnur and everyone ate graciously. Then James quietly tucked away under a gray blanket—bristly and mildly itchy—and listened to the sounds of the night and the conversation that he was not a part of.
“What do you think we’ll find when we get there?” It was Pea’s voice attempting to be quiet.
Iliad spoke next, even more hushed. “Creatures of the night. Daemonkind, Shiftkind, and the like. My Uncle didn’t tell you while I was away?”
There was a brief silence. James couldn’t see, but he knew that silence suggested someone was nodding a clear ‘no’.
“That’s unfortunate. He should have said something. It’s not like him.”
“He was busy,” Darl said.
“True.” Iliad let out a sigh. “It’s a danger zone. You know about the fire, the bad terrain. But I don’t think most realize what lives there. You see, logically, it makes no sense that anything can survive there. But werewolves, wraiths, specters, and Nu’thri live there.”
“Nu’thri?” Triska’s voice faltered in the middle of the word, but she managed to get it out.
“They aren’t nearly as dangerous as people think, but formidable enough. Very rare to see.”
“How rare?” Pea coughed.
“If we see one it’ll be a miracle. I’ve never actually seen one, but the last time I went through I heard their cries. I think they generally avoid what they don’t understand; otherwise they could have killed me and my horse. It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim without military escort.”
“It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim at all,” Darl said with a mumble.
There was a clatter of items, wood and something metallic banging against each other, and then Iliad said, “Is he strong enough for this journey?”
Their voices became more hushed and James had to struggle to hear. He shifted in his covers.
“He’s seen worse things than most men do in their lives,” Darl said, softly, sympathetically. “If he breaks now it would be a surprise.”
“I don’t think he realizes how strong he really is,” Pea said.
And then their voices trailed away, stifled by the crackling fire. James didn’t listen anymore, or try to for that matter. He looked out into the night, along the grass and bushes and into the skyline dotted with pinpoints of light. The stars were different here too, he noticed. No Big Dipper or Bootes. Then he closed his eyes.
When James awoke the sun had barely begun to come up over the horizon. It was still rather dark, though he could see. He wasn’t the first up, as he had not been at any point in time on his journey. Everyone else seemed to have a biological clock that worked like an old man’s, clicking on the alarm at god-awful hours of the day. His biological clock was still set to ‘vacation’ and he couldn’t shut it off. If the others let him he would sleep until noon.
He was up in a matter of minutes, packed and ready to continue the journey. Mirdur’eth and the other animals had found a comfortable home in the grass nearby, each lying down with their heads up and ears flicking back and forth, alert. James was so preoccupied with getting ready to move that he hardly noticed Iliad walk up and set a plate of roasted tomatoes and what looked like burnt bacon next to him. When he looked down his mouth immediately began to salivate. He wolfed down the tomatoes and examined the bacon like sticks. They smelled like meat and when he tested the corner of one it had the distinct flavor of meat, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly it was and decided it didn’t matter and ate them without much more thought.
Darl doused the fire, kicking dirt and rocks over it. The flames puttered out and smoke floated upwards. Triska passed a warm smile in James’ direction; he smiled back. Then he mounted Mirdur’eth, who had stood and walked up to the dead fire. His things were packed and he was ready to move on.
The others mounted and then Iliad was leading again, and again Mirdur’eth protested.
James leaned over and placed his forehead on Mirdur’eth’s neck. “Stop,” he said as if talking to a child.
Mirdur’eth grunted, bobbed his head.
“Iliad knows the way,” he patted the steed on the neck. “Just let him lead.”
Another grunt and then silence.
James watched the terrain change as they came closer and closer to the shadow of the Fire Rim. They moved at a quick trot, making sure to cover as much ground as possible in one day. He knew how important it was to Iliad to avoid spending more time than necessary in the Fire Rim at night. Werewolves, he thought. They only come out at night. He shivered, but not because the idea of dealing with werewolves was altogether frightening, though it was, but because he found it hard to believe that werewolves existed at all. They were sheer creatures of nighttime fantasy back on Earth. He wondered what other creatures that he had come to know in mythology existed in Traea. Do vampires exist here? Walking gods, demigods, nymphs, chthonic creatures? He wondered if the Great Fathers had ever come to Earth in living form. Were they like the Greek gods?
They were closing in on the Fire Rim, yet it still seemed so far away. He could see the flames now of the larger fires, fires that burned deep red, flames licking the sky like burning devils. Dark smoke flew up into the sky in other areas. The low rumble of the fires could be heard, only barely. The sound filtered through the earth like a miniature quake. It was a sound of a fire that had raged unhindered, a low, deep, guttural shake as if at any moment the earth would split in two.
James continued on, following Iliad and the others. None of the horses or Blaersteeds faltered. He gathered that the Blaersteeds were too smart to be afraid, and assumed that the horses were well trained for combat. The sky turned into a haze as waves of heat purged the air. It looked like a giant wall of flames and smoke, impenetrable, dark, and unforgiving. He likened the great plumes to living entities, living beings that wound up into the sky in a mockery of the life cycle—living and dying and being reborn over and over again.
Then something flashed, small and barely noticeable. But he had seen it. He averted his gaze from the smoke wall ahead and looked down, along a mild slope to the very base where the magical barrier made invisible contact with the earth. The thing flashed again and in the distance there he saw something moving out from the shadows, a large thing as it was able to attract his attention and he could see it clearly. It was a wagon, guarded on all sides by a dozen men, soldiers clad in dark steel armor. The wagon came forward and behind it another appeared, and another.
“Supply train,” Darl said bitterly. “Luthien’s mad to take his supplies through there.”
Several more wagons appeared, increasing the line ten fold.
“They are well defended,” Iliad added.
Darl grumbled in response.
Before long the line of wagons and soldiers stretched for nearly a mile. Iliad guided them down the slope in the opposite direction, hoping to keep the group hidden in the shadows. James kept a close eye on the ever increasing line of wagons. None of the soldiers moved from the line or did anything that seemed suspicious. They hadn’t seen him and his companions.
After a few moments of hustling through the shadows Iliad paused beyond a flattened rock outcrop. The top of the rock looked as if it had been hewn off by a giant blade, an unnaturally flat surface. They were still a good distance from the edge of the Fire Rim, some miles away at the base of the downward slope. Night was falling, the light cascading across the landscape crookedly, pouring long streams of orange-red light over everything. A tinge of purple hung at the base of the horizon.
They dismounted and James took a seat at the edge of the rock formation, watching as the wagon train, still growing in number, drove up the slope beyond, the first few disappearing over the top. There were more soldiers than he cared to count. The mass of them molded into a continuous line alongside the wagons. It was like a long slithering mass of silver, a metallic serpent winding its way through the fields and trees.
“This puts strain on our plans.” Iliad slid away from the edge of the formation. “I don’t know another way through other than the Scorched Path and that supply train must go on for miles.”
“We’ll have to find another way then,” James said.
Iliad laughed mockingly. “Oh, that would be a treat. The Scorched Path is only safe because it’s the only path that takes you straight where you need to go. Out, you see. Maybe we’d find our way through without using it.” He threw his arms up. “But maybe not.”
“It has to be done.” Triska was slumped down on the ground. She wiped sweat from her brow. “No use arguing over it. We can’t go back.”
“Easy for you to say.” Iliad mumbled, letting the words trail off until they were silent. He watched the massive wall of smoke intently, a contemplating look that indicated just how concerned he truly was.
James turned away from the line of wagons and looked deep into the Fire Rim. There were clean spots there; spots where they could walk if need be where the smoke and flames wouldn’t cloud them. He hadn’t noticed such spots before. The wall of smoke had made everything there seem like a haze of dark colors, as if there was nothing else there. He eyed Iliad, trying to show with his eyes how important it was that they continue, even though their original plan had been foiled. Iliad noticed this and sighed.
“So be it,” Iliad said. “Be fast and stay low.”
Then together they grabbed the reigns of their respective beasts and followed Iliad down the slope in a southeast direction. James crouched as low as he could, but Pea had the advantage over them all. They moved swiftly across the grass, Iliad especially so. He moved with the motions of a fox, swift, sly and all together mysterious. His legs drove him forward without causing strain on his crouched upper body. His movements were barely audible, so silent that had James not been trampling the earth with Iliad directly in his sights he would not have known that the man was there at all. They were the movements of someone trained to stay hidden and completely silent. Almost too silent, James thought. Even for a scout.
They came to another rock formation, this one much smaller than the last and only capable of hiding a few of them and none of the horses. Iliad lingered for a brief moment, taking notice of the ever increasing supply line now some distance farther away. Then they were moving again. Iliad no longer crouched; neither did James. Once they were halfway down the slope to the wall of smoke of the Fire Rim, Iliad turned and mounted his horse. He motioned for the others to do the same. They did and before all of them were on their beasts Iliad tore away. Mirdur’eth and the other Blaersteeds quickly made pursuit, leaving Triska to groan as her horse grunted before bolting off as well.
The slope abruptly ended along the side of the Fire Rim, flattening out into a straight plain. There was a large dip some distance south and it was there that Iliad was riding. James chanced a glance back. The wagons were mere dots now and he couldn’t see any abnormal motion. Then he turned to the Fire Rim. The flames were bright here, insanely bright. He thought for a moment that he felt the heat, but quickly discerned that it was simply a figment of his imagination. But the flames looked unnaturally hot, almost as if he were looking directly into the sun through an ultraviolet Imaging Telescope. He turned away. Something crept up into his senses. Magic or something even worse. It wasn’t just the barrier, though when he looked within himself he could feel the magic flowing from there, but it was an almost other-worldly presence of magic. He saw the irony of that, him being from another world and then finding something that felt like it too was from another world.
Being so close to the Fire Rim sent waves of those strange sensations through him. Some sent chills down his spine, while others seemed to feed off of him as if the sensations themselves were living entities. It was a darkness he had not felt before because it had no physical form. It lived within the Fire Rim, but unchained. An old magic unlike any he had read about. There was plenty of ancient magic left in Traea, laid out like statistics in the etiquette book. But the ancient magic nudging through the barrier of the Fire Rim, pushing and prodding him inside and out, and feeling around his senses eerily, was nothing that any book could quite describe. It was as if it were so old that it preceded the creation of the world. The imagery came to him through invisible hands, only they weren’t invisible in his mind. He could see them reaching out like ghostly white tendrils, branch-like and fingering at him, into him, around him. Then it was gone, a single flash of nothingness in his mind and no trace of it was there. He could still feel the magic floating out in the Fire Rim, but it no longer reached for him, pulled on him or seemed at all interested in him as it had just moments before. He was relieved, glad even that he could no longer feel it within him.
James looked to the others. Pea and Triska seemed paler than usual, from his vantage point. He wondered if the strange presence had affected them too, and what exactly it wanted. His mind felt perfectly in order, just as it had been before the strange magic had touched him. Then Pea and Triska shivered and, like the travel of a yawn across persons, James did too. It went down his whole body and was gone.
“I don’t like this place one bit,” Pea said.
“I don’t think anyone likes this place,” James said. “You felt it too?”
Pea nodded; so did Triska.
“Old magic,” Triska said. “Something old and new at the same time. I don’t think it has been here before. It’s alive somehow.”
“What did it want?” He shifted on Mirdur’eth’s back, feeling another chill coming on.
“What do all sneaky, deceptive things want?” Pea shook his head like someone trying to shoo away an insect.
There was a long pause, silent but for the sound of the horses riding down the slope and finally into the dip in the earth where everyone came to a full stop and the rumble nearby. Then it was Darl who spoke.
“Information. Always information. And it got it too, whatever it is.”
“Whatever it is,” Pea began with a cautious breath, “it is not meant to be here. It’s something corrupt.”
Darl sighed deep, with a hint of irritation. “What isn’t corrupt these days?”
Everyone was silent after that, even the horses and Blaersteeds. Iliad disappeared over the top of the dip, returning every so often to let everyone know that all was safe and well, and that the line of wagons was continuing to grow. James had a growing concern that they would encounter the wagons within the Fire Rim. The soldiers would be more apt to pay attention there, taking into account all the dangers during the day, and the worse dangers at night. He and his companions would have to go well out of the way to avoid them if the supply line turned out to be as large as he was thinking.
They made a camp there in the dip. No fire was lit, though the night grew cold and one would have been welcomed. The risk of the smoke being seen, smelt, or some such was too great, or so Iliad had said. They needed to make it through the Fire Rim with as little trouble as possible.
Night fell fast, accelerated by the massive shadow of the billowing smoke beyond the barrier. James couldn’t see the moon at all, no matter how hard he looked. Complete darkness came over everything until even his night vision was useless. He lay there, staring off into the nothingness, aware of only the sounds of his companions as they ruffled through their things or slowed their breathing as they prepared to sleep. For a moment he thought to stay up all night. He was restless. The darkness was too unnatural for him. It was like being trapped and having no control at all.
Slowly, despite his restlessness, he laid back and let his eyelids fall. Mirdur’eth panted nearby and then his mind drifted away and he was asleep.