Strange Weather

by

Tenet paused at the ridge, licked the dry dust from her lips, and looked at the small settlement that clung to the side of the mountain in the distance. Behind her, the uneven path was an unending brown, broken only by the heavy footprints of her mule.

“Well, Alister,” she said to her mule, “let’s hope that this one is better than the last.” She tugged at the reins, squinted her eyes, and looked for the best way down. “Though I doubt it.”

As she neared the village, Tenet briefly considered passing it completely. The few houses that she could see looked tired and worn down, as if abandoned by the hope of better days. A few fields were marked by erratic stone fences, with only small clusters of greenery managing to break free from the earth’s embrace.

At a nearby well, a man and a woman watched her approach.

“Stranger.” The wiry man in rough homespun nodded in her direction. “Are you passing through?”

“My name is Tenet, good sir,” she replied, offering a smile. “And I will pass through, if afforded no opportunity for gainful employment.” She straightened to her full height.

“What?” The man scowled at the short stranger, unimpressed by Tenet’s soft brown eyes, odd clothes, and accent.

“She’s looking for work,” the woman beside him said, scratching at a sore on the side of her neck. “Paying work.”

“Do we look coin-made to you, stranger?” the man said, tightening his grip on a long piece of wood.

“Perhaps a few coppers, good sir,” Tenet said, extending her hands, palm outward, “and a place to sleep for the night. Maybe there is something I can do for you or this place.”

“There’s no work for you here,” the woman replied. “Fortune left us years ago, along with the weather. Though you’re welcome to stay.”

The lean man nodded slowly.

“I think I can work with the weather,” Tenet said, shielding her eyes against the harsh sunlight.

“Truly?” The woman’s eyes widened. “Are you a weatherworker?”

“Not exactly,” Tenet answered. “But I am a Craftsman.”

“A Craftsman,” the man repeated, a little fear edging into his voice. “What does that mean?”

“I follow the Traitor’s Way,” Tenet said simply.

The man and the woman exchanged a look.

“Forgive our ignorance,” the man said, “but we’ve never heard of such a thing, have we, Maery?”

“No,” the woman Maery said, shaking her head. “Not at all.”

“Can you show us what you do?” the man asked, with the smallest shrug.

“Stay right there, Alister,” Tenet told her mule, pointing to a precise spot on the dry ground. She walked some distance away from the well and faced the man and woman, who watched her every motion with distrustful eyes.

Tenet considered the environment, and sought to encompass the nature of everything in her immediate vicinity. When she closed her eyes, her Craft opened up and briefly showed her the patterns of her surroundings: the heavy lines of climate interlaced with overlaying concentric circles of heat; the solid granulated outlines of the ground and earth; the jagged strokes of the woman Maery’s anxiety; the immutable texture of the man’s irritation; and the odd saturated hue that the man and the woman shared, that she assumed was a flavor of doubt. Only the well resisted her sight, a discomfiting emptiness where she expected to see the folding pattern of receding water.

The well can wait Tenet knew that her reading was superficial, more akin to a glance than long contemplation, and she knew that there were many other factors to consider, other facets to the circumstances than her hurried overview gave her.

As Tenet’s understanding of the status quo increased, her Craft began to present opportunities to betray the established parameters, giving her potential openings to create unexpected change, identifying weak areas that could be subjected to traitorous incidents.

When she opened her eyes, she knew what to do.

“Good sir, good lady Maery,” she called out to the two spectators. “The rule of drought is the law in this place. But it need not always be so.”

Tenet closed her eyes again as she engaged the spark of Craft within her, selecting a weak point in the pattern of dryness and heat, slicing her mind through the layers of lines, sequences, and strokes. Inside, she inserted a memory of rain, and imbued it with all the desire she could muster. This wasn’t very difficult, because she did want rain, had wanted it for days. She felt her need wash over her and into the pattern, invisible rays of persuasion emanating from her and into the equally unseen patterns. Above her, dark clouds quickly gathered, and grew heavy with water, as moisture betrayed the rule of drought, and rebelled against time and circumstance.

Easy now easy easy

When rain began to fall in thick and weighty drops, Tenet opened her eyes. The woman Maery had her arms extended to the sky, her face raised up, mouth open to the welcome precipitation. The man trembled where he stood, a hand on the lip of the well, his eyes fixed on Tenet.

“That’s that,” Tenet said with smile. “I’ll check the well too—”

“There’s no need for that,” the man beside the well said, tightening his grip on the thick piece of wood in his hand.

“Thank you, thank you,” the woman Maery laughed.

Tenet nodded, then walked to her mule Alister, who stood expressionless in the growing downpour.

“We’ll have a roof over our heads tonight, Alister,” she whispered into his big ear.

Ven bent over the line of small wet stones, flecking away the rainwater that dripped down his cowl, trying to gain a sense of the muddied oracular tidings. When he had awakened from his once-a-decade month-long druidic sleep, he had been perturbed by the news—word of which had reached him through the gossip of winged insects—of an unexpected drought in lands east of his stead.

For a moment, he considered not investigating the oddity; the lands outside of his domain were not his responsibility; and those very same lands where considered wild, insomuch as they fell under the influence of neither king nor state. He dismissed a more general feeling of obligation to all of nature at large—he wasn’t the kind of druid who felt the need to respond to the cry of every living thing.

In the end, it was the anticipation of activity that moved Ven to take the journey; the quotidian nature of his druidic routines made him feel older than his twenty-eight years. He dressed himself in simple garments meant to deal with the anticipated heat of the land he journeyed toward, leaving his well-muscled arms uncovered. At the periphery of his stead, he dismissed his wide-eyed animal companions, opting, as usual, to travel alone. The animals, their hopes crushed yet again, lumbered, skittered, or flew back to their own dens, holes, and nests. It was the old one-eyed ferret—who waited until his master had gone beyond his limited range of vision—that was the last to abandon optimism.

Days later, Ven considered the readings his fatidic stones suggested in the muddy earth, and shook his head. His confusion stemmed from the fact that the stones warned against an unnatural drought—which he fully expected—yet the evidence of rain falling around him with unnatural abandon disputed the oracle. Irritation trumped confusion as Ven plucked each damp oracular stone from the wet earth, placed them in the pouch at his belt, and moved eastward in the heavy rain, silently cursing his sodden choice of attire.

He stood shivering, at the crest of a wet hill overlooking a small village that seemed to have dealt well with the unnatural rainfall. Furrows had been dug into the flatter areas of the mountainside, creating channels for the fallen water to follow, leaving a handful of less-drenched paths.

Ven attuned his senses to the surroundings—seeking impressions from stone and sky and water—and affirmed his suspicions. This was, in general, where the strangeness centered, where the sky’s waterlines bent toward. Somewhere in this village, something was very wrong. This was where his power was needed.

He decided to begin with the rain. Where, prior to his departure, his interest had only been in action, by the time Ven began his incantation, the entire set of circumstances had gained a very personal veneer. He wanted, more than anything, to end the irritating rain, which had no business falling where it did and in such vast quantities, upsetting the balance of water tables and aerial waterlines in many different places.

He used powerful words, repeating the secret formulas he learned at the feet of the dead druid Itus, admonishing the elements for their unruly conduct, seeking to restore matters to as they were before the unnatural rain. At the height of his incantation, he felt a degree of resistance to his will, which caused his eyes to widen and his body to straighten up.

With a hoarse shout, he extended a fist into the sky, scattering dull-colored powders as he opened his hand a finger at a time, and broke the unnatural pluvial pattern. By the time he lowered his arm, the rain had ceased falling.

Satisfied, Ven began to negotiate the muddy earth in the direction of the village, seeking the true cause of the anomalous precipitation.

Tenet woke up struggling for breath, clutching at her midsection as she stumbled out of her bed, spitting blood into the battered pan near the door. For long moments her mind reeled, permitting no complex thoughts, and she used that time to slowly bring the pain under control, slowing her breathing until she was calm. When she could stand, Tenet wiped the unbidden tears from her face, and stepped out of her humble quarters in the outskirts of village, to deal with whatever it was that so suddenly and so forcefully assaulted her.

Not what who who did this

She had planned to spend the day investigating the well in the center of town, the well that had registered as an emptiness to her Craft when she brought rain the day before.

The well can wait

Tenet squinted her eyes against the brightness outside. She saw Alister, her mule, blinking mutely in the harsh sunlight that penetrated the roof of his makeshift enclosure. Around her trusty companion, puddles of water began their process of returning to the clouds. Tenet, almost choking in the thick air, murmured comfort in Alister’s ears and squelched through the mud, seeking higher ground.

Tenet’s mind was still awhirl with questions that had no answers when she finally made her way up a muddy ledge that gave her a better view of the village. From her vantage point, she could see the abandoned cottage that the woman Maery had told her she could live in. She could see the small cluster of houses and the defiant well the well can wait but no sign of whoever negated her Craftwork.

She looked up the higher portions of the mountainside, and closed her eyes, sparking the Traitor’s Way within her. Immediately she saw that the patterns of the surroundings had been restored to the rule of drought. Warm moisture covered her skin as she focused on the lines between elements, seeking where her Craft could take hold. Tenet shuddered as she felt the definite influence of another person on the earth and sky around the village, a presence she could not immediately identify. Extending her vision, she stroked the connecting lines, setting up a timorous movement among them, and followed the motions to what disrupted the state of rain she had created.

Tenet permitted herself the tiniest of smiles. I don’t need to see you

Bolt, she thought coldly, holding the memory of the thunderstorm that had terrified her as a child, invoking her ability to influence vagaries and happenstances, thwarting the governing rule of electrical generation, lashing out along the connective lines to her unseen enemy.

Ven was halfway down the slope, picking his way carefully through the slippery rocks, when the sky directly above him darkened in the span of a heartbeat. He barely had time to utter an arcane syllable before a jagged bolt of lightning struck where he stood, triggering a mudslide that carried his unmoving form a hundred strides down the hill before stopping.

Moments after the mud settled, Ven fought the vertigo that bedeviled him and slowly restored his outer skin to flesh, thanking his old master for the druidic secret word of transforming flesh to stone. He changed the skin around his face last, holding his breath until he was able to clear an airway, finally pulling himself up on unsteady feet.

“Lightning, is it,” he muttered, blindly angling his head to the dark sky. Around him, in the air that smelled faintly of metal, fat water droplets started to fall sporadically.

When his eyes turned back to flesh, Ven quickly inscribed a sigil in the air, his fingertip leaving a light viridian trail. When the circle was complete, he gestured down toward the ground. The green circle settled rapidly on the wet earth, gleaming once before its color subsided.

He took a solitary seed from the pouch around his belt, and tossed it in the middle of the circumscribed area. Limned in green light, a single sapling forced its way out of the mud, rapidly extending thin arms several lengths into the sky. Ven regarded his handiwork, permitting himself a moment’s satisfaction: the dweomered tree would attract the next few bolts of lightning, should any come again.

Convinced that there was a malign intelligence at work against him, Ven thrust his hands into the mud, and uttered a new incantation. When he stood to his full height, he held out his hands, filled with wet earth and stone, his voice intoning words in the language passed on to him by his old teacher. The druid then brought his hands together, as if in prayer, as his last words faded in the strengthening rain.

“Show me,” he said.

When he unclasped his hands, he knew where to find his opponent—a miniature replica of the surrounding hills stood cupped in the cusp of his hands, threatened with destruction by the downpour. One small rock, irregularly-shaped, represented the person that struck him down.

“Dao,” he whispered, flinging the contents of his hands in the direction of his foe. Where the largest clump of earth and stone fell, the ground trembled. The head of a creature appeared first, as if submerged in the mud, its mouth open in a soundless roar.

“Rise,” Ven spoke against the growing wind.

The elemental pulled itself out of the earth and towered over the black-haired druid, ignoring the pelting rain. Its broad mass was flecked with dull-colored stones made darker by the water; its empty eye sockets gleamed green, the professed color of the druid Ven.

“Destroy,” Ven commanded, his voice as loud as thunder.

The creature turned away to obey.

Immediately after the lightning flash she had triggered, Tenet made her way as quickly as she safely could to where it struck, needing to see if whoever was protecting the rule of drought was truly felled. She did not want to underestimate her foe, reasoning that no enemy should be considered defeated unless she saw the evidence with her own eyes.

As she alternately walked and clambered upwards, she unwillingly recalled her last duel, the very duel that had resulted in her exile. She had considered Erin a friend and fought only to retain her honor, misjudging the younger Craftsman, who fought for love. When Erin collapsed under her assault, Tenet turned away, and was caught unaware by her foe’s desperate attack.

It was Tenet who fell that day, Tenet who lost her titles and honors, Tenet who had to leave the Guild, Tenet who was marked as exile, Tenet who had to give up Dion. She was still haunted by Erin’s face, her bloodied mouth twisted in triumph.

“Enough,” Tenet chastised herself, irritated by the useless memories that offered no comfort. What’s done is

Her thoughts were interrupted by an explosion of rock and mud, as the immense elemental landed in front of her. Before she could move, the creature of earth and stone struck her with its massive fists, its size incongruous with the speed of its attack.

Tenet landed painfully on the ground, air escaping her lungs in a terrible exhalation laced with spittle and blood. Sensing another blow coming, she shifted to a side, ignoring the lancing twinge in her right leg. The elemental’s fists thundered down where she had been, sending rocks and mud flying in all directions.

Elemental her thoughts raced. Think fast think think

Fury and fear ignited Tenet’s Craft where she crouched, showing her briefly the structure of the creature. In that moment of white heat, Tenet stretched out her hands and twisted at the first available weakness, realizing that she did not have the time to seek out a perfect flaw.

The torso of the elemental whirled around, while its feet remained rooted where it stood. Once, twice, thrice, it spun, flinging bursts of mud and stones in an erratic circle, the stones that composed its hips grating against its upper body.

Tenet twisted the pattern again. Fall fall fall

Abruptly, the elemental was sundered, its torso spinning several more times in the air before shattering into innumerable fragments a short distance away. The creature’s legs ceased to move, the force that animated it dissipating in the rain.

Tenet stood up and gasped once as she tested her weight on her injured leg. Satisfied that she could walk, she set out to finish her cunning opponent once and for all.

Ven was in the middle of an incantation meant to subdue the unnaturally returning rain when he felt a backlash of mystic energy strike him. He fell with a startled cry, and grimly exerted mastery over the internal flames that would have consumed a lesser druid. He weighed two options as he lay transfixed for a moment on the muddy ground—begin anew his interrupted incantation or deal with whoever sundered the elemental he had summoned. His scowl turned into a feral smile as he stood up, thin red smoke rising from countless pores of exposed body.

“So, you’re strong,” he spoke softly. “Good.”

From his damp pouch he took a brown weathered nut, its surface pitted but intact. He ignored the pain that swept over his body once last time as the last of the mystic backlash evaporated, and focused his thoughts. One expelled breath later, the nut began to tremble in his hand, drawing on the power of the earth.

“Temblor,” he whispered, hurling the quaking seed in the direction of his enemy.

Where it landed, the earth heaved and convulsed, accompanied by the deafening sound of the world bring torn asunder.

Tenet was considering what to do next, when she saw something small hurtling in her direction, and realized that she could perish in the next instant. With no time to spare, she turned her Craft inward, betraying her own body’s natural parameters and nature, forcing what composed her to temporarily realign and adapt to the threat. It was a dangerous gambit, for very few who followed the Traitor’s Way and attempted the extreme act were able to restore their own natures.

Tenet believed that she was one of the few who could.

She fell on the ground changed, and rode the devastating earthquake.

The ground was still shuddering when Ven reached the summit of the hill and looked for his enemy. Half-blinded by mud and tiny tendrils of pain, he saw a human body crumpled on the vertiginous ground.

When the quake finally stilled, Ven rushed toward the collapsed form as quickly as he dared, slipping only once on the uneven and wet ground, his senses alert for his opponent. As he neared, he realized that the form was that of a small woman.

Guilt and dread filled his being as he looked at her, using his eyes to search for weapons or blades or the usual signs of magery. She looked like no warrior or druid. Ven decided that she was one of the villagers or a traveler, caught in the terrible web of his anger.

He knelt by the woman’s side, extending a hand to lift her mud-splattered head from off the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he said, hoping she was still alive.

Tenet’s body had returned to its original state moments after the temblor ceased. But she had no time to reflect on the fact that she had managed a feat few would even consider attempting, for when her vision returned, she saw the face of a stranger, and realized that he was cradling her.

“Excuse me,” Tenet muttered, struggling away from the man’s powerfully built arms and on to her unsteady feet. She grimaced as a dull ache traveled up and down her right leg. She looked around wildly—anticipating another assault—before rubbing away the most of the mud that covered her face.

“Are you all right,” Ven asked, rising to his full height, towering over the wisp of a woman before him. She looked like a strong wind could blow her over, but she was more than fair, he observed, abruptly aware of how much he missed a woman’s company. He ignored his thoughts’ digression.

“I’m fine,” Tenet said, as she met his gaze, staring a moment too long into the man’s deep black eyes. When she felt her heart quicken in that moment, Tenet thought that her own Craft had betrayed her, finding the secret weakness of its own mistress. This isn’t the time or place I could be attacked in the next moment I don’t even know who this man is where he’s been what he’s done if he even likes women I don’t want to I don’t want to

“Who are you?” Tenet demanded, attempting to regain her composure.

“My name is Ven,” the broad-shouldered man said, offering his hand in the space between them, before just as quickly taking it back, only to extend it once again after wiping away most of the mud that encrusted it. “And you are?”

“I’m Tenet,” she said, shaking his hand against her will, biting her lower lip to prevent any more words except what was absolutely necessary from coming out as she looked away from the tall stranger. Don’t do this not again not again why does this have to happen here now he could even be the enemy

Tenet entertained a brief memory of her time with the poet Larsus, the most execrable man she ever met. “Women are defined by their emotions, men by action. When a man meets a woman, he considers what to do. When a woman meets a man, she considers if she should fall in love,” Larsus had told her once, over dinner at the court of the Weimark. Tenet, of course, disagreed vehemently.

“Pardon me,” Ven told the strangely curt woman whose thoughts seemed elsewhere. “If you can walk, I’m sorry, but you must leave. This is not a safe place. There is—”

“Danger,” Tenet interrupted him, pulling away from her own untimely reminiscences to focus on the matter at hand. “I know. I came to help.”

Ven looked at her questioningly, blinking away rainwater. “Help? But there is—”

Tenet raised her hand to stop him and forced her heart to focus on the matter at hand. “There is something here, someone who is—”

“Perverting nature,” Ven said, ignoring Tenet’s hand. “I know. I have been fighting him.”

“So have I,” Tenet said. She bent over to briefly massage her right calf.

“You have?” Ven said, looking her over, before quickly averting his gaze. He had noticed how she favored one leg over the other, and felt an intense longing to touch her, to see if she was all right.

“Do I look like I’m out here for any other reason?” Tenet asked him, wiping away raindrops from her lips.

“I don’t think it’s safe here, not for you,” Ven said, turning toward her. “There is a village down there—”

“Listen, Ven,” Tenet said. “For your information, I’ve been here since yesterday, doing something about the strange weather, and I—”

“You have?”

“I have. And furthermore—”

“Are you a druid? Because if you are, I haven’t—”

“No, no,” Tenet laughed dismissively. “Of course not.”

Ven waited for Tenet’s laughter to fade in the uncomfortable silence.

“Wait, are you a druid?” Tenet began tentatively.

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“What about it?” Ven asked.

“I meant no disrespect,” Tenet replied, turning away.

“Then you should listen to me, Tenet,” Ven said forcefully. “You must leave. I am engaged in a duel, and I—”

“No, you listen,” Tenet faced Ven. “I’m not leaving. I’m in a duel too.”

“You are?”

“I am.”

“And by what virtue are you in a duel?”

“By the virtue of Craft, that’s how.”

“I see.”

“Good.”

“A Craftsman.”

“Yes.”

“You.”

“Yes!”

“Well, then.”

Tenet watched Ven control his facial expression. See he’s not anything special just like every other man I’ve met judgmental and boorish and and and

Ven watched Tenet’s mud-smeared beauty eclipsed in magnitude by her spirit, and fought the improper attraction he felt for her, despite her obvious flaws.

“Then stay, Tenet,” Ven told her. “But stay behind me where it’s safe. I could be—”

Tenet bristled at his words. “I’ll stay because I want to stay, and not because you permit me to stay. And I could be attacked any time too, so you better watch yourself, druid.”

Tenet stood next to Ven and looked him squarely in the eyes, attempting her best defiant stance. Don’t look into his eyes his eyes don’t don’t

Ven shrugged his wide shoulders and suppressed a smile. “Do what you like, Craftsman, but do it quietly. What I do requires concentration.”

“Well, you keep quiet yourself,” Tenet admonished him. “I need silence too.”

“I hope you can defend yourself, because if—”

“Please,” Tenet interrupted, closing her eyes.

Without a further word, Ven knelt down and selected several stones on the ground. Sweat dotted his brow as a small stone floated up first, followed by a second, then by a third, then more and more, the collective mass growing in size until a large cluster of rocks defied the pull of the earth in front of him. He glanced briefly at his new, spirited companion beside him, astonished to discover that Tenet was no less attractive when she wasn’t arguing with him.

Tenet’s eyes were shut tight as she fought to control her Craft, which was focused on the man beside her. Enough enough so he has nice eyes so what there’s a battle to be fought a duel to be won and I can’t afford to he’s looking at me he’s looking no no no no concentrate concentrate Tenet forced her Craft to deal with the pattern of rain, coaxing more from the sky, fighting the rule of drought. Who knows he may be of some help after all

When the rain continued to grow in strength, Ven stood up and released his armada of floating rocks, hurling them downhill. “Findfoe,” he intoned, his raspy voice charged with potency.

Satisfied with his work, he watched the flying stones gain speed. He was about to speak to his companion when he saw the stones veer backward toward him and Tenet.

“Look out!” Ven shouted, pushing Tenet away.

Tenet landed with a shocked grunt and opened her eyes only to see a swarm of stones heading toward her. She raised her hand and pulled at the pattern of motion, instantly causing the rocks to turn away. “Back! Back to your master!” And as soon as she was certain she was out of danger, she rapidly stroked the lines that led to the dark clouds once again. Bolt bolt bolt bolt bolt

“No!” Ven shouted, moving away from Tenet as he gestured toward the stones hurtling toward him. “What are you doing? I’m their master!”

“What?” Tenet shouted over the ominous rumbling from the heavens.

In the downpour, Ven alternately waved his hands left and right in quick succession, causing the incoming stones to crash in those directions, away from him. “Why did you—”

“But I didn’t mean— Wait!” Tenet gestured frantically in the rain. “You were the one who sent the elemental?”

Ven and Tenet exchanged a look of bitter epiphany as the smell of metal surrounded the druid.

“You sent the lightn—” Ven began.

Their next words were lost in the sudden brilliance of the multiple lightning strokes that blazed from the sky, the crash of thunder that followed a moment after, and the mudslide that enveloped them both in its voracious embrace.

It was the rain that revived Tenet. She found herself half-buried in silt and stone, carried by the mudslide near the small house the woman Maery had told her she could live in. Nearby, she could hear the frenzied braying of Alister, her mule, who was mere instants from breaking the cord that tied him to the post of his makeshift corral. When the rope finally frayed apart, Alister rushed to his mistress, attempting to soothe her.

“Alister,” Tenet pulled on the mule’s reins and brought herself up out of the mud. Every part of her body ached, and the throbbing in her chest made her suspect that she had shattered more than one rib. She looked up the broken hill and saw a lopsided tree tumble down the slope, blackened and charred by lightning. Her eyes widened as she remembered Ven. No no no

“Alister, there’s a—there’s a man down here,” she cried, ignoring the flares of pain in her legs and arms as she crouched and began to dig through the mud and stones. The mule stood by her side, unable to do more than nuzzle the back of Tenet’s neck as she frantically searched.

Painful minutes passed before she located Ven’s body. Like the tree that had fallen, it was charred almost beyond recognition. Tenet could not fight the tears that ran down her muddy face as she gently excised Ven from the ground. He can’t be dead I refuse I refuse I refuse

In the downpour, Tenet triggered her Craft and realized that he was still alive, albeit barely. She felt a surge of joy rush through her tired mind and body. He needs healing he needs healing

She considered invoking her Craft to help him, but knew better. There were some things she could not do.

“Alister, come here.” Summoning the last reserves of her strength, she somehow managed to lift Ven’s dying form onto the mule. “Come on, I hope the woman Maery can help.”

Alister followed his mistress, pausing when Ven’s body began to slip down to the ground.

Tenet corrected the load, fought back her tears, and spoke to her mule.

“Alister,” she said. “This is Ven.”

And they rushed toward the center of the small village, oblivious to the pelting rain and empty houses.

The woman Maery and the wiry man in rough homespun stood in the rain by the well, waiting for Tenet.

“Look at everything that has happened,” the man said without looking at the woman Maery. “It was a mistake, inviting that girl to stay.”

“I wanted rain,” shrugged the woman Maery, wiping away the water that dripped down her face. “No harm in wishing.”

“You gave her a house to stay in,” the man said, spitting into the mud in front of him. “You asked her to stay.”

“The well needs refilling,” the woman Maery turned to look at her husband. “You know that.”

“Didn’t have to be this one,” her thin husband said. “Too dangerous. The earthquake, the angry skies—”

“In time it would be you or me,” the woman Maery shrugged her shoulders. “Is that what you want?”

The man kept silent.

“Hush now,” the woman Maery told her husband. “She comes.”

“She looks hurt,” the man observed.

Tenet approached the couple, leading Alister, who had Ven on his back.

The woman Maery raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“Who’s that?” her husband asked. “What happened? Look at you. What have you done, Craftsman?”

“Please,” Tenet began, “this man needs help. Can you help him? Do you have anything that can help? Please!”

The man walked toward the mule and grimaced at the sight of the burned body. “Looks dead to me.”

“You’re wrong,” Tenet exclaimed. “He’s still alive. But please, he’s slipping away. It’s all my fault; it was a misunderstanding, and I—I—”

Tenet gave in to tears of guilt, turning her back to the couple and leaning over the well.

“There, there,” the woman Maery offered, signaling her husband.

“I—I can’t help him the way he is right now,” Tenet said softly. “My Craft, it doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t deserve to die; he was only trying to help. But I didn’t—I didn’t know—”

Thunder drowned Tenet’s words as man took her violently by the legs and upended her into the well. Tenet didn’t even have enough time to form a scream.

“That’s that,” the man said, wiping water away from his face.

“And what of that?” the woman Maery pointed to the body on the mule.

“Save the mule,” her husband said. “The well has no use for the dead.”

“She said he’s still alive,” the woman Maery said.

“Not for long,” her husband replied.

“All right, then,” the woman Maery nodded, approaching the mule.

Alister furrowed his brow and started backing away.

Tenet’s thoughts after landing with a resounding crash in the well: He pushed me into the well he pushed me and I’ll kill the bastard and I’m alive and I think I broke my arm and Ha I knew there was something about the well and how will I get out of this and Ven what about Ven and Alister

The first thing she did after looking upward was to check herself for injuries, cataloguing new pains and breaks with an affected distance. This is the worst day of my life She knew her left arm was possibly broken in several places, which made the thought of somehow climbing up the well an absurd notion. She gingerly touched the area behind her head and above her neck, and realized she was bleeding. Wonderful

The second thing Tenet did was to shout—

“Help! Help me!”

—before realizing that the only two people who could hear her were the man who threw her in the well in the first place and his accomplice of a wife, the woman Maery. Tenet didn’t hold high hopes for Alister to rescue her. He was, after all, only a mule, albeit a loyal one. And Ven could be dead by now he could be

The third thing she did was to investigate where she had fallen and how she still lived. The bottom of the well was mostly covered in mud, the result of her overnight rainfall. It was the mud that had broken her fall—which meant that either she had not fallen that far, or that the ability of mud to absorb a fall was severely underrated. Go on make light of things because Ven and Alister are as good as dead and all you can do is

The last thing she did was to decide to explore the rough tunnel that she found while she struggled around the bottom of the well. Maybe it leads up let it lead up somehow

Ven felt himself floating in the dull emptiness of pain. With what little power he had left, he clung to life, but knew he would die soon. Most of the power of the lightning bolts had been absorbed by the dweomered tree he had conjured earlier, but when its capacity was overwhelmed, Ven was exposed to the remaining bolt’s fatal power.

As he began to slip into darkness, Ven thought about the argumentative but attractive Tenet, the sad and unexpected ending of his life, and heard a voice call his name.

*Wake up*

In the growing dimness, Ven struggled to open his eyes but failed.

*I know what you are, what you can do. Take my strength now and help Tenet*

Ven gathered strength and sent his thoughts toward the voice. Who are you?

*Tenet calls me Alister, which is good enough*

Alister?

*Yes. Listen, she has been thrown into the well. You must help her*

Into the well? But I can’t—I have no—I’m hurt

*Take my strength. I know you are able to. I am a beast*

A beast? Her beast? No, no, I can’t—

*I can see why you don’t want to. I can see your memories. You can heal by sharing the life of beasts*

Then you know that the first and only time I did that my companion—

*Died. I know. Do this*

You might die in my place.

*If it is so, then it is my life to give. Hurry now, you’re fading*

Why are you doing this for me?

*I do it for Tenet. This is the only way I can help her. You must live so she can live*

If you perish—

*Then make certain I do not*

But she’ll—

*Tell her I made you do this*

Do you understand what you’re asking me to do? How you could—

*Do it*

And Ven did.

The woman Maery walked toward the mule Alister, her head partially averted, as she truly did not wish to see the dead body on the mule’s back.

“Come now,” she said in the rain.

Her eyes widened when the mule suddenly knelt on the muddy ground, as if the charred burden on its back became too heavy to bear. The woman Maery watched in trepidation as the mule became suffused in a soft green glow.

“Husband,” she cried, gesturing for the man to come over.

“What?” her husband said, joining her.

“Look,” the woman Maery whispered.

The charred body of the man twitched once before issuing a dreadful wail, its head twisting upward as if to drink from the bountiful rain. The woman Maery and her husband were unable to move, transfixed by the occurrence before them.

Pink flesh peeked from under the cracked and burnt skin, forcing its way up as the druid Ven regenerated himself. New sinews grew where muscles had been lost, and the sound of reinvigorated bones—aligning themselves where they should—filled the drenched air. He stood on renewed legs, carefully drawing as much as he dared from the mule, making sure that he did not repeat the tragedy of his past fatal error.

When his physical restoration was complete, Ven offered silent thanks to the quivering Alister, before turning his fury on the murderous couple who stood in shock in front of him.

“Monster,” the woman Maery managed to say, before pulling at her husband to run away.

When he was struck by lightning, Ven had lost much of his cache of helpful implements. What little had survived vanished in the mudslide that followed. All he had left were the words he knew, whose use, without a focus, drained him very deeply. He shouted one and stomped on the wet earth, causing mud and stones to splatter over the retreating couple.

The woman Maery found that she could neither move nor speak. Alarmed, she tried to turn her head toward her husband, but found the motion next to impossible. Everything seemed so slow. Her vision darkened until she could no longer see. The sounds around her seemed deeper, lower in pitch, and soon she could not hear.

The man watched his wife turn to stone, and screamed for mercy for the brief duration that his throat remained flesh.

When there was only the sound of the falling rain, Ven regarded the two statues with contempt, and pushed both over into the mud.

He knelt by the mule, making sure he had not caused death. Alister looked at him with tired but approving eyes.

“You’ve saved me in more ways than you know,” Ven told him. “Thank you, Alister.”

And he ran toward the well.

Tenet found the black-skinned creature squatting over a crack in the earth at the bottom of the well.

The sight of it filled her with revulsion: it seemed primarily composed of a huge maw, overcrowded with teeth; its skin shimmered black but was broken in places. Though it seemed to have no eyes, Tenet felt the baleful force of its stare.

Tenet felt images intruding into her mind with the weight of weariness. Desperately she sought to spark her Craft, but found she couldn’t. The ebon creature’s thoughts caressed hers, twining and intertwining, insinuating itself into the core of her being.

Stop stop stop

To Tenet’s horror, she found her body obeying the creature’s unspoken command. As if through the eyes of a stranger, she watched herself go closer and closer to the foul creature.

Stop stop stop

Her mind was filled with images, persuading her that her death was inevitable, that the creature needed to feed to do what it needed to do, that it was the first of many sent ahead to prepare the way, that when its kin came the world would be reduced to blessed emptiness.

The ebon-skin’s maw salivated with anticipation. It showed her how futile it would be to fight, how it had influenced a man and woman in the village above and persuaded them to hurl their fellow villagers down the well one by one, how its presence twisted the natural order, how it would savor the taste of her eyes.

Tenet tried to scream, tried to move, tried to run—but instead closed the distance between her and the creature. She watched helplessly as she offered her pained arm to the foul thing’s maw.

No no no no no

Tenet involuntarily shuddered as its black tongue, notched with sharp bones, cut her arm open from elbow to palm, pausing only to delicately slice open a path to the tip of her middle finger.

No no no no no

“Tenet!” a voice boomed from behind her.

Ven? but how how how did you Ven please help

Tenet felt the ebon-skin’s control weaken, as it turned its attention to the new intruder. She bit back the pain, cradling her bleeding arm as she huddled nauseously on the ground.

“V—Ven?” she managed to say. “Run! Run!”

“Leave her be, rank thing,” Ven shouted, swiftly picking up a pebble and hurtling it at the creature. As it flew in the air, Ven uttered a secret word, causing the stone to expand in size in accordance to his will. The massive boulder struck the ebon-skin and broke apart with tremendous force, but with no apparent effect.

The quality of air changed in the chamber below the well, becoming thick and fetid, as the black creature extended its thoughts to Ven, taunting his strength, showing Ven how his demise would fuel its power.

Ven fought wildly, but found his thoughts turned askance, as the creature commandeered his body. He began to walk to the creature.

“No!” Tenet shouted. She triggered the spark of her Craft, igniting the Traitor’s Way with the flame of her anger and fear, and focused on the abomination.

To her dismay, she saw only emptiness: no lines nor patterns presented themselves, no schema nor structure to exploit, no rules nor governances to affect. She had no power over the creature.

Ven was near enough for the ebon-skin’s twisting serrated tongue to reach.

“Ven!” Tenet turned her Craft to him, seeing the totality of his being, the green lines of his subdued will, the radiant concentric circles of his virility, the intense shades of his spirit—the entire intricate pattern of his being. She recognized the unmistakable imprint of Alister, deduced the reasons and results of her friend’s assistance, and saw the bold blossoming of deep emotion in Ven’s heart. Above all that, she surmised, was the invisible influence of the ebon-skin.

I don’t need to see you

She provoked the lines of Ven’s humanity, stroked the circles of his pride and dignity, realigned the patterns that altered his behavior, pulled taut the strings of his personal identity, and freed him.

In the instant that he was liberated from the control of the foul creature, Ven spoke the most terrible word he knew: it was the word that provoked spring, that banished winter, which made mountains grow, and enabled birds to defy the pull of the earth. It was the word upon which all his druidic magic rested, the essence of transformation, the secret of that all living things knew only when their minds were at rest. And he spoke it directly to the creature.

From her position on the ground, Tenet, bleeding and bereft of power, could only watch in hope. Kill it kill it kill it

In the face of such naked expression of truth, the ebon-skin shrieked, portions of its distended face forming virulent pustules that erupted stark yellow and brown fluids, thick and noisome. From its wide open maw, dark-colored ichor spewed forth, as the creature regurgitated all the undigested remains in its belly.

It took a step back, and fell into the crack in the earth behind it.

Exhausted by his expression of the word, Ven shifted his gaze away from the fissure and began to make his way toward Tenet.

“Thank you,” he whispered as he approached. “For saving my life—though I was supposed to be the one to save yours. That—that creature, what was it?” Ven paused for breath. “Listen, I have to tell you about Alister—”

“No, no!” Tenet shook her head vehemently, her voice hoarse with fear and memory. “Don’t turn away!” It will come back I know I know I know it will

From the dark fissure, the creature’s sinuous tongue lashed out, and, catching hold of Ven’s legs, pulled with all its strength.

Ven fell forward, smashing his face on the ground, violently flailing his arms to gain purchase, as the creature dragged him with unnerving speed toward the crack.

Tenet extended her good arm toward Ven, heedless of the pain that beleaguered her.

“Take my hand!”

For the second time that day, their eyes met in clear-cut epiphany.

When Tenet met Ven’s bloodshot eyes she realized that he would not take her hand, would not risk her being dragged away as well. How just like a man

When Ven met Tenet’s wide eyes he realized a sublime and powerful truth: she would never give up.

“Live, Tenet,” he shouted. “I choose you to live.”

“I choose life for both of us,” she shouted at him. Stretching her arm to the limit she grasped his arm. “I will not leave you!”

Ven smiled through the pain of his struggle, and kicked and shook and thrashed about with all his might, with all he could muster. The ragged edges of the tongue cut wildly at his legs, stripping away skin, but quickly began losing its grip.

“Fight it, Ven,” Tenet screamed. “Fight it!”

Unable to hold on, the creature suspended in the fissure released its hold, its tongue recoiling back into its maw, and at last plunged into the murky depths that it first came from.

The silence that followed was punctuated only by the tortured breaths and pained gasps of the two figures sprawled and bleeding on the damp ground, their hands clutched together.

Tenet strained her voice and broke the stillness.

“You know, we still have to somehow seal that hole and get out of here.”

It was Ven’s idea to bury the village and the well in an avalanche the following morning, after he explained the provenance of the two eerie statues near the center of the cursed place.

Tenet agreed to his suggestion, but only after they both made certain that the mule Alister was fine. Tenet embraced her loyal companion, before she withdrew her influence from the surroundings and ended the rainfall she had called for earlier.

Side by side they stood on a faraway ledge, covered almost head to toe in the healing mud that Ven created, hours after they were able to leave the well.

Tenet showed him where the mountain was weakest, and that was where Ven caused the mountain to fall. Neither took pleasure in the devastation.

When the landscape finally settled in its new configuration, after the last stone fell into place, they began to limp in the direction of the setting sun, alternating riding on the sturdy mule Alister, intending to warn the neighboring states and kingdoms concerning ebon-skinned threats from the depths of the world.

“Do you think they’ll believe us?” Tenet asked.

“Between you and me, we have the scars to prove our words,” Ven replied with a grimace.

“You know, Ven, you never apologized for attacking me first.”

“You were the one causing the rain to fall.”

“You were the misguided druid who didn’t know enough to discover what was truly the cause.” Tenet reached from Alister’s back to scratch one of the mule’s big ears.

“I could say the same about you.”

“I’m not a druid.”

“And the world is grateful that you aren’t,” Ven edged ahead, favoring his better leg.

“Ha!” Tenet exclaimed, carefully attempting to dismount. “Feel like a little lightning today?”

Ven looked back at Tenet with a smile as bright as the sunlight, and extended his hand to help her.

“Try me.”

Tenet returned his smile, bolts of lightning the furthest thing on her mind.

I believe I will

Dean Francis Alfar is a leading advocate of speculative fiction in the Philippines. His novel, Salamanca, won the Book Development Association of the Philippines’s Gintong Aklat as well as the Palanca grand prize. He has also earned ten more Palancas, two Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Awards, and the Philippines Free Press award. His short fiction has been collected in The Kite of Stars and Other Stories, and published in venues both national and international, including The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, Rabid Transit: Menagerie, Latitude, A La Carte, Exotic Gothic 2 & 3, and The Apex Book of World SF. With Nikki Alfar, he edits the Philippine Speculative Fiction annuals. He is currently working on this sophomore novel and collection.