Chapter Thirty-Three: The Other Side of the Coin (or A Little More History)
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
Another day had passed, and the Hellhound fire had finally released Shoel entirely: she felt wholly like herself again, with no lingering aches, feverishness, or fits of babbling from Hemlock's tea. She couldn't remember everything she'd rambled about, but apparently she didn't embarrass herself too badly, because Hemlock never laughed at her or teased her. She thought she would have remembered that. Even better, they were only a day's ride or so from their destination. If walking into a pit of the Dead in search of a Greater Dead General was "better".
Not better was that, in Shoel's own comfortable silence, Hemlock had decided to start muttering-- and not always under his breath. Most of his mutterings were about the heat and dryness of the desert, as if the condition seemed to offend him. Since Shoel wasn't exactly comfortable with all the heat, either, despite being relatively used to it-- she had still somehow managed to sunburn, despite her hat and other precautions-- she wasn't really in a mood to hear him reiterate how uncomfortable deserts were. However, with the effects of his tea long gone, she felt even more empty of words than usual.
But, after a few hours of the grating, half-heard complaints, Shoel finally remembered a trade he'd offered over a week ago: story for story. If she could get him talking about something else, maybe he'd stop muttering about their surroundings.
"Hemlock," she began once she found a period of silence to interject into, "remember back in the forest, when you were asking me about my past and my family? You said you'd tell me some about yours, too."
"Heh, you want to hear my story?" Hemlock said in sarcastic amusement. "It's not really anything you need to worry about."
Shoel shrugged. "You know more about me than probably my own mother, after the past two days. I should think it's your turn, by now; I only know what little Drakonus told me."
Hemlock sighed, raising one hand to tug down the hood of his borrowed cloak, ducking his head in attempt to keep the light out of his face. He, too, had not quite escaped a sunburn, though he did have more color to his skin than Shoel did, to begin with. "What do you want to know?"
"Anything you're willing to tell, I suppose," she answered. "I only know that you were married and a general, really."
"Heh, that's only towards what could be called the end of the story," Hemlock said, sighing regretfully. "After my race came to this planet, searching for a place to live after wandering."
"How long ago was that? And why were you wandering, to begin with?" The best way to find out something was to ask, she supposed.
"I'd say about two hundred years, fairly recently," he replied, eyes fixed on the horizon. "We were wandering because what civilization we'd once had had gone awry under the last king, and a death spirit that was searching for a magical artifact that was in possession of the royal family."
Well, maybe she'd have to ask further, because that made very little sense-- or, it made sense, but there wasn't enough information there to paint any sort of picture. "Are those things connected, or just happened to happen at the same time?" she asked with a blink. "Death spirit and the folly of the last king."
"They were connected," Hemlock said, sighing. "That particular spirit had more of his mind at the time, though not anymore. He had promised the ruler power, and he always was rather on the controlling side...."
Said spirit was still around? Shoel considered briefly, then decided just as quickly that she didn't want to know. One crazy quest in a lifetime was enough, and she might not even survive this one. "So you had to leave your home, and you came here?"
"The long and the short of it," Hemlock replied, seeming glad that she'd jumped to the end. She wasn't about to stop asking, though.
"How did you end up a general, if you're not from this world?"
"Only for my race-- which really isn't saying much for what was left of the forces."
"So you were a general before, I suppose," she mused. "How many of you were there?"
"Roughly ten thousand," Hemlock answered, fidgeting in the saddle. "Whoever had been able to see through the treachery and was willing to leave, and then of course survived being nomads."
Survived. Shoel mouthed a silent "oh". "So your home... your people... were they actually...?" She couldn't imagine it, much less say it. How could a whole race, a whole world, be destroyed?
"Not destroyed," Hemlock said with a blink. "I don't rightfully know what happened to those that remained behind. When the wars against other races were replaced by civil wars, I suppose eventually they killed each other off." He shivered at the thought. "I left before that, though, when things seemed to pass beyond the point of no return."
This time her "oh" was not silent, and she relaxed. Jumping to the worst conclusion imaginable, like usual, she thought to herself ruefully. "When did the wars here start?"
"You mean the battle for Pre'Mian?"
"The one you lost your wife in."
Hemlock was silent for a few moments, and Shoel was afraid she'd offended him by being so blunt, but after a sigh he finally continued: "Before the Ring of Fire was founded. I'd say around thirty-some years ago, thirty-four or so."
"Only thirty-four? I had the impression it was longer...." "Only" thirty-four years. That's older than I am. She tried to be a little more gentle when she asked, "Why did you hire yourself out to raise Galarin? Because of-- all that?"
There was a derisive snort from the Necromancer. "Heh, to try to get vengeance, I suppose. Make things difficult on the Alliance, that's all. I was mad."
"That's... understandable." Though she had no husband to compare to, she thought she might be liable to do something of the sort, if she did. "You certainly picked a memorable way to take revenge, I suppose."
"Heh," Hemlock snorted, shaking his head. "I should have thought more carefully about what I was being asked to do before I did it. I hurt someone who was not on the agenda, a race that in my mind had always been allies."
"Well, at least now we're making that right," she pointed out, trying to be optimistic. "Or trying to, anyway."
"Or getting ourselves killed, which I suppose makes it right in a way."
There it was again, that attitude that she instinctively wanted to protest. "Is life really so bad, Hemlock?" she asked. "That you'd be so ready to leave it?"
"I've been ready to die for I don't remember how many years, and yet I've never been particularly suicidal," Hemlock explained, soundly oddly neutral about the whole subject. "I don't really care whether I live or die."
"That's... almost as bad. How can someone who knows-- oh, but you don't know what Death is like, do you...." Then she paused, struck with an odd thought, one that contradicted what he'd just said. "If you don't care, Hemlock, why did you run so hard, when I was actually trying to kill you?"
"As I said, I'm not really suicidal. You expect me to just stand there and let you kill me? That's suicide."
"Hmm. I suppose...." She frowned, trying to chase a thought, but giving up and shaking her head. "Who all is left, now? After that war, of your people."
"I haven't taken time to count," Hemlock said, pausing after it to give it some thought. "I don't know, maybe about three thousand?"
"Anyone you know, friends or family?"
"My two children are still alive, but I haven't spoken to them in years." He scowled at that. "I can't blame them."
A couple of weeks ago, neither could I, she thought, but didn't say, frowning again. She couldn't broach that, she thought, not yet. Instead, she asked, "Is that all? Just children you never see? No brothers, sisters, cousins, anything?"
"Hm... I had a brother and a sister once, both older than me," he sighed loudly, pressing his eyes closed and using a hand to massage his eyes and bridge of his nose. "My older brother was a necromancer, like me, probably closer to the type you're used to. Raising and controlling the dead.... My sister, though, was a geomancer. Nice girl."
"If I'm bothering you, just say," she suggested a little shyly, watching his expression; in the desert, without an actual trail to follow, she'd taken to riding beside him rather than behind. It was better than staring at his back all day.
"You'll probably hear it sooner or later," Hemlock responded, dropping his hand and giving her a shrug. "My memories from so long ago aren't the best, though."
"If you're sure," she said. "What happened to them? Your brother and sister."
"I don't really know... I assume my sister is dead. Her husband is at RoF, though he's changed quite a bit," he answered, sounding uncomfortable. "My brother I haven't seen in millennia, not since I left."
"He stayed behind?" She was a little surprised, actually-- but then... necromancer plus Dead spirit... she supposed it made sense.
But she wasn't thinking about that.
"Yes," was all Hemock said, shortly. She wasn't so bad with people that she couldn't read that signal loud and clear: he did not want to talk about it. Well, she wouldn't press him. The only problem was, she didn't really know what else to ask him....
... about that, anyway. She could change the subject. "How long have you been living at the Ring of Fire?"
"About eight years now."
She blinked a bit. That was a long gap. "What were you doing before that?"
"Wandering, being a bastard," Hemlock said dryly.
"Ah. Your usual passtime," she answered with the same tone. "When did you bond Aldyss?"
"About seven years ago, at the first Bipedra. He was one of the only two single-headeds there." Then, after a pause. "One of three undeads, their mother was hatched at the Ring of Fire's first public clutch."
"How does a D-- an undead dragon hatch?" she asked, a thought that had been nagging at her off and on ever since he'd mentioned that she was supposedly standing for a clutch of the creatures. "Does someone raise them in the shell?"
"No," Hemlock answered, his voice and face thoughtful. "I'm not certain, but I think it probably has to do with a birth defect they wouldn't usually survive. Then their natural magic won't let them die for some reason. It seems to happen when either the two breeds of dragon or related species don't quite mesh well, the dragons get inbred, or one or both parents are undeads."
"I suppose that makes sense," she agreed, a little uncomfortable now, herself. She wished Jasien had told her just what he'd brought her here for. Even if she thought it might be a good thing that she came, if just for banishing Galarin for Drakonus and having her preconceptions shaken up a bit, she still wasn't sure what she thought of bonding something Dead.
"You'll warm up to the idea," Hemlock told her, addressing exactly what she'd been thinking; she supposed her expression must have been pretty clear. "There's a possibility, too, that not all of the dragonets will be undead. Some of the dragons are very much alive, but were allowed to fly due to unusual circumstances surrounding them. Unfortunately, there was also a Xenodragon that snuck in."
"Not that I particularly want one of them, either," she chuckled, a bit embarrassed at being caught in her worry, especially since Hemlock did have a Dead dragon. A very nice Dead dragon, but still screaming "Dead" to her sense of such things. "I do hope I'll get used to it," she agreed, but then gave a short little chuckle. "Though I suppose this did turn into an, um, interesting vacation from all the Death at the Ring of Fire."
"It was your idea," Hemlock reminded her, tone dry and eyes focused ahead. "Look." He held out a hand, pointing to the long line of darkness that had appeared over the horizon, and she held up a hand to focus her vision, squinting at it. At first, it looked like heat blur, but Shoel was expecting a change of scenery today. A closer look revealed the blur to be actual trees: short, stunted, dark things-- but still. Trees. At long last, they'd reached the marsh.
"By the Charter, that looks inviting. Actual shade." She sighed. "We're right on schedule. Now you can stop complaining about the desert; we're almost done with it."
"I'd challenge you to a race, but I'm not sure it would be a good idea in the sun." He tilted his head back, looking at the sky with a sharp frown across his features. She hardly noticed, torn between relief at the prospect of shade, anxiety at how close they were to the whole point of this journey, and... the first stirring of her Death Sense since she'd banished Izrask.
"There's something Dead in there," she murmured, brows coming together.
"Gods," Hemlock grumbled, sagging in the saddle. "I was hoping there would be a break before finding anything else that wants to kill us."
"There might be," she said, though without a lot of hope. "I don't know, I'm too far away to tell where it is, or what it is. It might avoid us entirely, if we're lucky, or it might be too far in to bother us for a while."
"Hopefully," the necromancer replied, still grumbling, as their mounts picked up their pace at least a little. "I'm tired of dried food; I want to hunt."
"Well, I'm sure we'll have the chance for that," she assured him, dismally tired of dried food, herself. She'd find a way to make time to let him hunt, even if she had to fight a hoard of Dead single-handedly just to free him up to do so.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.