The scene had all the makings of a dream. The Curator sat cross-legged in the center - Lyn expected he was trying to resemble their parents, who often did that - with Jedrek, Idris, Trent, Moondancer, and herself in a small semicircle around him. The enemy host milled about around them, an intimidating yet somehow benign presence.
It was Trent, of all people, who persuaded them to ignore the Elder’s pleas and come with him into the heart of .the enemy’s forces. They’d followed him on the empty assurance that it was necessary. An implausible setting brought about by unlikely circumstances; it was hard to believe she wasn’t asleep.
The craziest part is that this has been the best part of tonight’s dream.
The Curator spoke to them through their own thoughts, so Lyn couldn’t always tell when something was her own idea or if it was implanted by a stranger. The cadence of that last one didn’t sound like him, though. Most of his thoughts seemed to be questions.
Interesting line of thought there, Lyn. Tell me, do you know why we dream?
Trent, Jedrek, and Idris looked at her. Their expressions were guarded, despite the Curator’s constant assurances that he wasn’t going to harm them. Lyn believed him; he seemed genuinely delighted by their presence. She couldn’t understand why Trent was so insistent that they be here, though.
“I have to sequester the plan, even from my own conscious thoughts!” He’d told them. “Now that I know what needs to happen, I can’t have him finding out about it, and that means I can’t share it with you. Just trust me. Stage one involves us going to see him!”
Lyn was beginning to think ‘stage one’ was about baiting a specific reaction out of the Curator, like she was always forced to do if she needed something from Soko. All taming had this element to it, to some extent. She supposed she just had to trust Trent knew what he was doing.
“I’m not sure,” Lyn replied. “Is there a reason?”
I believe there is. Purpose! Most everything has a purpose, children. Yes Idris, even those dreams that terrified you so! A purpose may not be easy to divine, but that has no bearing on its existence. Let us speculate, then! What purpose could those dreams serve?
“The Elder says it has to do with memory,” Jedrek submitted. “I think she may be right. She has all these puzzles and likes to see if I can solve them. When I can’t figure one out before bed, I dream about it.”
You may be onto something, Jedrek. What do you think, Idris?
“I dunno,” Idris shrugged. “I don’t usually remember my dreams.”
Come now, you remember plenty. You’d prefer not to remember, but you can’t forget. There’s no need to be ashamed, they’re just dreams.
“If they’re ‘just dreams,’ are they really so important that we need to talk about mine?” Idris folded his arms and gave the Curator an indignant look.
The Curator chuckled. Stubborn. Endearing! I suppose we won’t solve the mystery of dreams tonight, if you insist on withholding your piece of the puzzle. Well then, what else should…
The thought trailed off, and Lyn could feel his distraction like she could her own. It would seem your mother wants a word with me. I can oblige. The more, the merrier!
Lyn wondered which mother he meant, but didn’t have to wait long before Cascata found them. She should have guessed. The warrior matron looked livid and a little confused as she strode towards them.
“‘ave I gone mad?” she asked. “Runts, what’re you doin’ here?!”
“What are you doing?” Trent replied, his voice shrill. Lyn was surprised by his distress. “I told the Elder, matron, you were supposed to bring more!”
“We got enough war ta fight without you complicatin’ things, Trent!” Cascata’s axe hand trembled a little, but then she sighed. “I suppose I should thank ya, though. I dunno how you reckoned walkin’ into an army o’ monsters was a good idea, but I’m glad fer ya weird math. Elder always said killin’ the commander was a good way ta win.”
She isn’t wrong. I wonder if I might make use of that logic.
“Numbers, matron!” Trent looked frantic. “He can read thoughts, but he isn’t a god. Just like the rest of us, he only has so much attention to spare. That’s why-” Trent shot the Curator a glance; the monster didn’t seem to be paying attention to him. “that’s why he broadcasts his thoughts to all of us, rather than having multiple conversations at once. With numbers…”
“Trent, ya ain’t a warrior. Ya gotta leave the strat’gy to us.”
“But you’re doing it wrong!” Trent protested.
You’re a curious beast, hunter matron. We could have a long conversation, you and I! But you should listen to the boy. You should ask him about his contingency. It was always a more elegant solution than the one your family chose.
Lyn and the other apprentices looked to Trent. He sighed. “We could have had their targets run away while we fought the army for a while. Once it became clear that Svara and the others weren’t here, they’d have lost their reason to fight us. But-”
“But the clan ain’t about ta exile its own just ta appease some foreign law. ‘specially not one we only broke ‘cause it was a direct threat ta our own!” Cascata pointed her axe at the Curator. “Besides: there’s another way!”
Noble. Misguided. Tragic. It’s true, if you killed me, you’d win the night. But what’s to stop me from setting my reserves on you? You’re surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered.
“So basic’ly,” The matron charged. “I shouldn’t give ya the chance!”
“Matron, no!” Trent cried. She ignored him.
The axe arced towards the Curator’s neck, but he blocked with his armored forearm. Cascata released the handle and grabbed his arm, twisting her body to bend it backward at the elbow. The Curator recovered from his surprise and deterred her maneuver with a bladed kick. She released his arm to avoid the kick and retrieve her weapon.
“You have a plan, right Trent?” Jedrek asked. “Quick, what do we do?!”
“It’s ruined!” Trent shouted back. “We needed more! He’s designed for single combat, so it’s pointless to duel him! We’re supposed to isolate, outnumber, overwhelm him!”
“I dunno,” Idris rubbed his chin. “The matron might be better at this than you guessed.”
Lyn looked back to the fight. The matron did seem to have an advantage. The Curator blocked or dodged every attack, but could only make feeble attempts at a counterblow. For someone who could read minds, he was having a lot of trouble keeping up with her. If he made a mistake, the hunter matron could win.
“I admit, I didn’t expect this of her.” Trent clenched his fists. “But our contribution is over. We were only to fill his mind with distractions. My hope was that the echoes of our conversation combined with the onslaught of information from multiple attackers’ minds would make him prone to mistakes.”
“Then let’s take the place of the hunters she didn’t bring!” Idris suggested. “Let’s make more noise in that head of his!”
“I don’t know, Id,” Lyn sighed. “You’ve watched the hunters dance with each other, haven’t you? Wouldn’t we just cause her to trip?”
Idris grimaced. “It might limit her movement some, but could it really be worse than doing this by herself?”
“I’m more worried I’d find her axe in my back,” Jedrek said. “Look at her, she looks like she’s barely in control!”
Most impressive. I’ve never met someone who wields such complexity without much conscious thought! Is this the product of your ‘dances?’ Such a wealth of experience… it could be said your next move is governed more by instinct than thought!
The Curator’s praise - or provocation- was a bad sign. While he was still struggling to keep up with Cascata’s attacks, his confidence meant he could have another strategy at his disposal. Much about his behavior contradicted his mission: he could have used the apprentices as hostages in exchange for Svara and the others, could simply order his soldiers to swarm the clan and kill everyone, or could have attacked without warning, like the first horde did.
Was he incompetent, or did he have more objectives than he’d told them? Could he be drawing this out because he somehow enjoyed it?
I admit, I could not compete as a traditional warrior. The only reason I can keep pace is because I can see inside your mind. Alas, the responsible affinity will also allow me to defeat you. I’d recommend you don’t touch me anymore, or I will demonstrate -
Cascata gripped a plate of armor when the seam appeared in an attempt to pull it away. Before she could, her body tensed, then convulsed. Lyn’s eyes widened; even her right arm, which she always kept still in order to prevent the spines in her shoulder from slicing her insides, was flailing uncontrollably.
“Matron!” Trent covered his mouth with both hands.
“What’s wrong with her?” Jedrek asked. He was the healer apprentice, shouldn’t he be the one to know?
“He’s using sparks,” Trent quivered. “They’re like drops of lightning. Oh no…”
Cascata fell to the ground, screaming. The Curator stood over her and shook his head.
I tried to warn you. Oh, dear. If it weren’t for that injury… but that’s the story of your life, isn’t it? You are defined by that moment when the Stinger stung you. Such pain, such humiliation.
Lyn knew where this was going. What could she do? Likely nothing, but she had to try. She began running towards them.
Shall I end your suffering? He raised a bladed arm above his head.
Lyn tackled him from the side, but he didn’t budge. The Curator must not have been using his sparks, because she felt no pain, but this wouldn’t stop him.
Come Lyn, if you love her, you shouldn’t let her suffer. Allow me -
Moondancer swung his neck, his bladed snout clipping the Curator’s chest as he stumbled backward. The point of the beast’s crescent blade cut a gash through the armor and even drew a little blood.
Whoa, boy! Watch yourself, you might do something you can’t take back.
Moondancer bleated as menacingly as he could.
The Curator laughed. You have quite a dear here, Lyn. Look, if you’re okay with the matron being in pain, I’ll let her live. We can dance if you’d like, but something tells me you preferred the conversation.
“Might we partake?” a new voice asked. “Or at least interrupt for a few minutes?”
They turned to see the Speaker and a clanswoman with cloth wrapped over her face. From the bow and quiver, Lyn inferred it was Kirana.
What’s this now? Speaker, your mind’s a mess. What’s got him so excited, newcomer? He paused for a moment. Oh, one of our targets. Kirana, is it? So hostile, you remind me of these thralls. Did you get past them by shrouding your face? How insightful!
“The insight goes further, Curator. She’s come to surrender; she doesn’t want any more of her kin dying for her sake.”
That may be what she told you, but that’s not why she’s here, Speaker. She thinks she can kill me, is positively fanatic about the idea! It achieves the same effect, I suppose; by coming here, she dies, and saves some lives in the process.
The Speaker approached the Curator as he broadcast his thoughts about Kirana. Once in arms’ reach, he reached up and pulled the Curator’s head into an embrace. Distracted by Kirana, he was slow to consider what this strange gesture could mean.
What are you-
An arrow sprouted from the seam between plates on the back of his neck, the one the Speaker pulled open by manipulating the Curator’s head. From what Lyn could see, the shot hit the Curator’s spine.
“Oh, I’m sorry Curator. Could you not hear the treachery beneath the cacophony of my fantasies? It’s that ‘mess’ you mentioned, it’s all the things I’m going to do now that I’m free of you. Sorry if that made things difficult for you.”
The Curator swatted the Speaker with the wicked spike on his elbow. The Speaker grunted in surprise and pain and slid backward from the force of it. There was a hole in his chestplate and blood was trickling out, but he stayed on his feet.
The Speaker grinned nervously. “The spine didn’t sever, Kirana. We may have missed our only chance.”
“Severed ’r not, that’s gotta hurt. We-”
She was cut short by the Curator’s furious roar. He pulled the arrow out of his neck and charged towards Kirana. Contrary to Lyn’s expectations, Kirana stood her ground and nocked an arrow.
“I thought I knew crazy,” the Speaker grumbled and started jogging towards them. “Until I met your sister-idiot here.”
Lyn glanced between Cascata and Kirana. The hunter matron was struggling to sit up, and her junior hunter was pelting the enraged Curator with arrows. It was somehow more difficult to decide what to do now. They were supposed to keep out of this war - all of it - but she didn’t really know how to do that either.
As she watched, Jedrek ran to Cascata and knelt beside her. “No, hush mum, hush. Kirana has it, it’s okay. You’d done more than enough, the only thing we need from mum is for her to heal up.”
“I’ma tear ‘is throat out,” the pain was putting gravel in Cascata’s voice.
“Kirana’s on it, mum. She’s got his jugular in her teeth. Please, just hush. Hush and stay with me…”
“You can’t tear anything when you’re so torn up, matron,” Trent appealed to her reason.
“We have a part in this too,” Idris retrieved the matron’s axe and walked towards Lyn. “They pretend like it’s all under control, but no amount of age prepares you for everything. They’re just older children playing at war, it’s about time we gave it a go.”
Lyn wondered if Idris had learned to read minds. “I think we should try, but… poor Moondancer might have to do most of my work.”
“He looks ready to carry the load. C’mon.”
“Don’t lose your head in Id,” Lyn cautioned as she followed him towards the fight. “Remember that Kirana and the talky-monster are the stronger ones, we’re here to support them. If you try and get between them, it’s just going to eat you, and then we’re gonna be just as sad as if we lost Kirana.”
Idris looked over his shoulder at her as they walked. Lyn had expected a prompt ‘I know’ from him. Why wasn’t he saying it? In fact, his eyes said ‘no you won’t.’ What was that about?
“Seriously Id,” she continued. “If you just run in there and die, I’m gonna follow you and then people are gonna be double sad and it’s gonna be your fault.”
“I’m not gonna let her die in front of me, like the matron almost did. You should understand that, you managed to jump in before I could.”
Is this a guilt thing, then? All I’m asking is you remember that’s our part: jumping in. We sneak around in his blind spots and surprise him if it looks like he’s going to beat them. Think of your axe like your teeth, use it on the places where biting might actually do something.”
He didn’t say anything for another few moments. Then he smiled. “You’ve got a weird way of looking at things. Kinda beastly.”
Lyn gulped her indignance down. “Beasts are pretty good at fighting, you know…”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad plan. We’ll use it. That way, you can’t chase me if I get eaten.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The Curator was beginning to resemble a quilled beast with all the arrows sticking out of him. Unfortunately, none were deep enough to cause real harm. The Speaker alternated with Kirana, jumping in to knock the Curator off-balance while Kirana tested a possible weak point. Their opponent was thrashing everywhere, though. He’d often snap an arrow or clobber the Speaker with one flailing limb or another.
The Curator had lost his temper, which may have been the only factor keeping him from involving his soldiers, but his fury seemed to make him even more formidable. Unlike his approach to the mission, there was no sign of restraint. This wasn’t about leisure anymore.
Lyn and Idris spread out as they drew closer, and Lyn motioned Moondancer to stand between them, just behind the Curator. The battle was chaotic, and they constantly needed to adjust their position, but Moondancer made things easier when he figured out what Lyn wanted from him.
Before long, something unexpected happened. You’ve made a poor decision today, Speaker. Despite being a thought, the words somehow managed to feel snarled.
“I’m conflicted about that,” the Speaker replied. “I think this may be the first good decision I’ve ever made.”
The Curator feinted towards him, and he leapt away. Kirana pulled back a shot, but the Curator dove at her. She aborted the attack and backed away, but as the Curator landed on his belly he reached out managed to grab her ankle.
Kirana screamed and convulsed like the matron had, then collapsed.
Idris didn’t hesitate. He leapt onto the Curator’s back and cleaved at the armor on his neck. Some of it chipped away, but the Curator managed to reach back and grab Idris by the wrist. Idris flinched and cried out in pain, but unlike the other two, he didn’t fall.
Sturdy little… Idris cried out again as the shocking resumed, but once again he was able to endure, despite the fact that this session lasted until the Curator exhausted his spark. How are you still conscious?
Idris answered by wedging the axe into the elbow joint of his armor, behind the spike. The Curator bellowed in agony, and threw Idris off his back with adrenaline-fueled thrash.
Lyn took her turn, before the Curator could gain his feet and turn on the recovering Idris. The Curator managed to get upright on his knees as she rammed into his shoulder. He wobbled, but didn’t fall. Then the Speaker surprised her by hitting the other shoulder, knocking the Curator forward onto his good hand.
Moondancer came within lashing range, but became agitated when it couldn’t find an angle of attack that didn’t endanger Lyn. Shifting weight to his good hand, the Curator managed to plant one foot and pushed with it, twisting to shake free of Lyn’s grip and knocking her to the ground. Though the Speaker still clung with an arm around his neck, the Curator rose to his feet.
Noticing Lyn was clear, Moondancer began the bladelash’s famous spin. The first hit from the bladed snout only sparked off the Curator’s armor, but the tail whip staggered him backward and he fell into a sit.
You all have the most aggravating ways of dying! The thought was accompanied by incoherent snarling from his mouth.
“Nah,” Kirana exhaled heavily as she rose to a crouch. “Ya got us beat in that regard.”
The Speaker grabbed the Curator’s sharpened chin and yanked. The Curator was forced to look skyward while Kirana sunk an arrow into the exposed flesh between his mandible. Lyn expected it was deep enough to scratch the top of his skull.
“Whoa!” The Speaker cried as the Curator pitched forward. The face-planting corpse sent him somersaulting forward. “He’s done? For real?”
Nobody answered, just brandished any weapons they had and inched forward. As the Speaker climbed up and brushed himself off, though, it became clear that the Curator wouldn’t be doing the same. It was anything but elegant, but victory was theirs.
“What ‘appens now?” Kirana asked, glancing around warily. “What’re these guys gonna do.”
The Curator’s soldiers looked dazed. They wandered about, and the ones with eyes blinked rapidly as if the twilight were somehow blinding them.
“We get close to your wounded matron,” the Speaker replied. “Fast. Then we just wait out the storm.”
Even as they ran back to their companions, the horde was beginning to revolt. Some fought, others slaughtered the fighters when their backs were turned, but most bolted for the woods. They could feel the growing stampede rumble up from the ground into their bones. It was clear that even the furthest corners of the army knew their master had died, despite the distance. Lyn couldn’t fathom the methods the Curator used to control his subjects, but she was glad they didn’t persist through his death.
“Couldn’t this o’ gone really bad?” Kirana asked. “Wasn’t there some kinda chance they wouldn’t be this homesick, that they jus’ slaughter us an’ each other.”
“There was that chance,” the Speaker admitted. “But in my experience, all save the most extreme idiots have at least some sense of self-preservation. They feel exposed out here, outnumbered by each other and you.
“Didn’ much care fer yer leadership, Speaker?” Cascata groaned. Trent and Jedrek had finally managed to get her to lay still. “I was beginnin’ ta think all you forest-dwellers was immune ta sense.”
“Rude,” the Speaker grinned at Moondancer. “If I were you, I’d take exception to that.”
The bladelash ignored him and sniffed the matron’s bad shoulder. After a couple whiffs, he left a thick streak of saliva on her face with his tongue.
“He ‘ad the sense ta come out an’ play, didn’ e?” The matron scratched Moondancer’s forehead to stop the licking. “At least ‘e never bowed ta no thought-spyin’ spiky beetle.”
The Speaker chuckled. “I may concede the idea that you make better company than he did. Only by a little bit, though.”
Those who still stood kept watch over Cascata until the last sounds of battle faded. A crescent moon sat high in the sky before it happened, but eventually the tremors and roars gave way to the usual chorus of crickets. The worst was over, but Lyn wasn’t sure she could face the dread of setting up the night’s camp.