Chapter Forty-Two: Home Free
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
The first thing Shoel felt, coming back to Life, was the stiffness of ice and frozen mud. As warmth came back into her body, she shifted, and the ice shattered, taking most of the mud with it, cracking off of her armor, her hair, and her face, turning into a pile of shards on the floor that, in the heat of the still-roaring magical flame, would soon turn to muddle slush. Other than that, though, the room was eerily silent. All she could hear were faint snarls from the more distant corners of the room, from a very few Dead compared to the mass there had been before, and the sound of breathing close by. She turned to take in the scene.
The necromancer had made a quite a mess in the time Shoel had been gone. Empty bodies of the Dead littered the inside of the circle, where they'd leapt over or found a way through to actually fight, their bones now enchanted to form a gruesome kind of fence around the inside of the magical fire, a second protection. Several of Hemlock's bone spears were also laying about, the shadowy creatures they'd finished vanished into Death or still stuck in the remaining rot from whatever Dead they had been. A couple she could see were entangled with their fellows, beyond the ring of flame, and she guessed that Hemlock had stolen their bindings, himself. The remains of Galarin's body lay in an untouched heap, showing him to be well and truly free.
Hemlock himself gave a start when Shoel moved at the corner of his vision, but he did not turn to look at her, his eyes fixed on the few remaining Dead still lurking beyond the fire. "You're alive, I suppose that means you won?"
"Galarin is freed, yes. I expect he's well on his way to his well-earned peace, by now."
"Good," Hemlock mumbled tiredly.
Now that she was back in Life, Shoel realized she hurt. The wound Galarin had given her was trailing blood down her back, though not enough to be a danger, and her limbs ached from the battle and her fall what seemed like hours before. "You seem to have done well," she commented, admittedly impressed. "There... aren't many left."
"Yes, this is what I do. This is how I fight, when I have something to work with. I'm getting tired, though, I'm not going to be able to cast much more without passing out." He put his sword point-down to the stones, leaning on it and closing his eyes while he rubbed at his face with a slightly bloody gauntlet.
Tempted to say "you and me, both," but knowing she didn't have that choice, Shoel looked around at the few Dead remaining. "And we still need to get out of here." She would love to just leave now, but she didn't trust them not to attack, and it felt wrong to leave them here when she had the chance to destroy them. Perhaps a middle road. Kibeth and Saraneth she returned to her bandolier, mercifully free of mud as it had lost more of its coating than even her armor had, and instead she pulled out Ranna, smallest and gentlest of the bells-- but still powerful when it wanted to be.
As the sweet peel of Ranna rang out the Dead became noticeably quieter, a few laying down to sleep, including Hemlock's own thralls. The necromancer himself gave a long yawn, swaying against the support of his sword-- but he quickly shook himself out of it and straightened up, looking to Shoel for what to do next. She nodded towards the door, twitching Ranna lightly again, this time at the fire, letting it sink into nothing to let them pass. She didn't have the strength to banish the Willowwhips yet, and she hoped they'd forgive her for making them wait. Hemlock in turn stepped forward, speaking out the incantation that withdrew the magic from the bone wall surrounding them. It ceased its glowing and clattered to the floor, some of the bones breaking on impact. Their way clear, the necromancer started to the door, half stumbling. "Gods, I'm going to be out cold for the rest of the night, I think."
This time she did say it. "You and me, both," she groaned, following him, with only a brief glance around for the whisps which started swarming after them, and any other Dead that might have escaped Ranna. "And it's not even night yet."
"Bloody hard to tell," the necromancer griped, pausing at the top of the steps that led to the bleak courtyard, letting her catch up to him. "It's so dark in this gods-forsaken swamp, you can't tell what time of day it is."
Shoel stared out across the quiet, empty place. "I don't suppose anyone will be willing to give us directions to the way out of here.... I do not want to have to climb up the way we came in."
"As said before, there is a gate," Hemlock told her tiredly. "There has to be a way for them to get in and out, and most of them certainly did not have wings. We just have to find it, then we can walk out."
"It's the finding I was concerned about," she answered, just as tiredly. "But maybe we'll be lucky and it'll be obvious. And close." She gave the stairs a dirty look for even being there, but then started slowly down them, anyway.
"Well unless you want to wake one of the undead and ask them, we're just going to have to look." The necromancer grumbled wordlessly a bit after saying that, sounding dragonic again. "It should be fairly obvious, though," he continued. "A ramp, leading up. Probably fairly steep, though, I don't think this place is extremely huge."
"Charter, I hope not." But if her memory of the range of Dead served-- there were considerable less, now-- his thought was right, and it wasn't very big. They reached the bottom of the stairs, starting across the courtyard, past the horrible altar again, and Shoel held up a hand for a whisp or two to settle on. Some had started to settle on her and Hemlock again, since they weren't quite as muddy as before; once more, he had stars in his hair, and she suspected she had a halo. "I haven't forgotten my promise," she murmured to them. "But I'm too tired right now; it might go wrong and then you really would be trapped here, or worse. Once I'm rested, I'll send you on."
Hemlock looked up at the few that had settled in his hair again, sighing loudly. "They don't mind, they say they can wait," he answered for the whispering spirits. "I, personally, would like to have their company a little while longer, since they don't mind giving it."
"Me, neither. Thank you, spirits." They'd been more help than she'd hoped for, and she found she rather liked them. After the dark Dead they'd had to fight, their purity was refreshing.
Hemlock started veering off to traverse a path they hadn't taken, rather than going back towards the muck, and Shoel followed automatically. "If there is a ramp, which there most probably is, walking around the rim is the best way to find it."
Content to let someone else do the thinking for the moment, she nodded. "I suppose so," she agreed.
They found the ramp without too much searching, but it was steep, as Hemlock said it likely would be: it slanted up from the bottom of the pit, cobbled with paving stones. At least it wasn't muddy, or infested with more Dead to fight through. The entire place seemed unusually silent, actually, and there hadn't been any more Dead to harass them as they sought the way out. Shoel was almost too tired to wonder why, but she supposed they were probably just wary of someone who had banished their commander and someone who had fended the rest of them off without, it seemed, taking much damage, himself. Either that, or there simply weren't enough left to challenge them; she certainly couldn't sense many, if her exhaustion wasn't clouding that ability. Either way, she was relieved. It was enough to worry about getting up that slope without collapsing, sliding back down again, or giving up half-way to the top.
Hemlock mumbled something that was probably a curse or complaint, took a deep breath, and braced himself as he began the ascent, Shoel doing the same beside him. As she climbed, she slowly grew more certain that there simply wasn't enough of the Dead left in the whole nest to form a resistance against them. The thought almost gave her more strength for the climb. Almost. "You know," she managed, "I think we managed... to destroy or banish nearly every Dead thing here."
Breathing hard with effort and weariness, it took Hemlock a few moments to answer her. "Not quite, there's still quite a few of those little worker things left-- but they're practically blind, anyway. Not that they'd be very interested in messing with us now." He snorted a laugh. "I just hope they don't send any more big things after us while we sleep. Don't think they will, though, their leader always was more cautious and passive than Hieyiakana."
"I hope you're right." She was very glad she'd left the diamond of protection up around their safe island of dirt and tree roots: even lowering and raising one cardinal Charter mark was going to be difficult, so she hadn't a prayer of setting up a whole new one. "Maybe... the Willowwhisps and Steady... will be willing to stand guard. Just in case." The avicorn was clever enough to wake them if he scented trouble, that much she knew, and the whisps had been so marvelous so far, they might not mind keeping their path to true death safe for the night. Or the afternoon and the night. Or into the next day. Right now, she felt like she could sleep for a week.
"They're glad to be helpful," he answered. Shoel smiled tiredly and gave the nearest one a pet with a couple fingertips.
Finally, they were nearing the end of the trick upwards. Ahead of them loomed a massive gate, made out of the spikes of wood that surrounded the pit. More skulls hung form it, glowing with runes, but the gate itself had been left ajar. Hemlock laughed bitterly at the sight, shaking his head. "They left it open... they were expecting us all along. We could probably have just walked in!"
"Don't tell me that," Shoel answered, halfway between a shaky laugh and a sour groan. "I had to jump out of a Charter-forsaken tree to get in here. I'm going to have nightmares, I know I am."
"Falling through darkness into smelly muck?" the necromancer said mockingly, but it didn't have its usual bite, and she wasn't really in a mood to snipe back at him, anyway. He swayed slightly but reoriented himself, striding forward to give the gate a shove. It swung open quietly, the ropes that held it on creaking quietly. "Home free," he breathed, leaning against the gate a moment to compose himself for the walk back to camp.
"Thank the Charter," she said, coming up beside him and putting a hand on the sturdy, if gruesome, wood, herself. "You know." She shot him a tired grin. "I told you, you wouldn't end up being a nuisance."
"Don't make too much of it, otherwise I might have to be troublesome just to make you sorry you did say it," Hemlock rumbled at her, but he quirked a slight smile in her direction, anyway. "Come on, let's get back to camp."
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.