The bones had been bleached dry by the sun and now were a gleaming white amidst a sea of green grass that stretched on for miles in any direction. The sun glimmered off the bones, drawing the two riders to it. They came across the rest of the body on their way to the skull—a femur here, a rib there—the body having been torn apart by whatever carrion hunters inhabited these parts. When they reached it, one of the riders dismounted, picking it up gingerly to study it, while the other kept her eyes upon the horizon in all directions.
“Be quick,” the woman, whose name was Harni the Cleaved. “There is someone approaching.”
“You know this cannot be rushed,” Mejk the Unharnessed said, not taking his eyes from the skull.
“It may have to be,” Harni said.
Hearing the urgency in her voice, Mejk looked up from the skull and cast his eyes along the horizon. “Who is it?”
“Who else,” was her whispered reply.
Mejk pursed his lips and returned to the skull, turning it over carefully in his hands. All the incisors were present, but two of the molars, one on either side of the lower jaw were missing. He clicked his tongue in recognition. “It is of the tribe.”
“Can you identify it?”
“We shall see,” he said, letting his irritation show. Harni glanced at him, her own annoyance plain. “How long?”
“A span, no more.” Harni said.
“I may not have time.”
“Let the Anchored One’s memory guide you.”
“Yes,” Mejk said.
He set the skull down upon the ground, positioning it so that the empty eye sockets cast their empty gaze upon his face. Retrieving a pouch tied to his belt, he pulled forth some of the crushed sage it held and sprinkled it upon the skull and began to recite the incantation. The words felt clumsy and unfamiliar on his tongue, though he had spoken them hundreds of times before. He was just completing the final phrases when he heard Harni’s intake of breath, letting him know that whoever was approaching had arrived.
“We have claimed this ancestor. He is of our tribe,” Harni said, in a clear and commanding voice, as Mejk closed his eyes and reached out to commune with what remained of this lost one’s soul.
“You have no claim to the souls in this place,” was the reply from one of the newcomers. He spoke in a rasping voice, as though his tongue were trying to crawl its way from his mouth.
Harni stood her ground. “These are the Untamed Lands. We have as much claim to the souls here as any tribe. This one was of our people.”
“These lands have been ours since before the lost ones came,” the man with the rasping voice spoke again. “We claim all that lies here.”
“We dispute your claim. “
The jangle of the reins told Mejk that the interlopers were dismounting. A moment later Harni did the same, hissing at him as she did. Mejk did not look up from the skull. He was so near to the soul, he could feel its contours, what remained of them after so many years, and he did not want to let it loose now. If he did they might never recover it, even if they were victorious in the coming confrontation.
The soul took shape before him, shadow and dust, with hardly a form. A sign of an ancient being, one that had lived so long before it barely had any ties left with the place it had rested. Mejk urged it to reach out to him—to speak, to become—but it seemed unwilling. The slightest breeze looked as though it might dissolve the soul back to the darkness.
But finally it did become and take something like a human form before him. There was a grimacing, shadowed face and a tall lean figure. At its belt hung two skulls that grinned mirthlessly at him. Mejk was taken aback at their sight. He had never seen anything like that in all the souls he had called forth.
“Mejk,” Harni’s strained voice intruded into his reverie. “I need you now.”
Mejk stood to go, recalling the interlopers and knowing the confrontation might have already begun. This macabre soul disturbed him and he wanted to tell Harni that they should abandon it, leave it for the people who claimed this place. He released it and prepared himself for battle.
A strange thing happened as he did so, though. The soul would not relinquish its hold on him. It pulled him back, nearer and nearer to that darkness, though Mejk fought against it. Such a thing had never happened to him before. It was impossible. The souls of the dead were there to be called forth and claimed by whoever understood the incantations. They did not do any claiming themselves.
This one did. It pulled him nearer and nearer. He cried out, even as he heard Harni cry his name again in fear and pain. What is happening? he asked himself, as he stared into the soul’s eyes and saw devastation beyond all imagining, thousands lying dead.
It was only with a struggle that he pulled himself free of its gaze and tried to break loose. But as he did, he looked down at the two skulls at its belt and thought he recognized them. He peered closer and, with a growing horror, he recognized Harni on one side and himself on another. A terrible laughter echoed in his ears as the darkness claimed him.
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