Cry, cry, the world is gone—
bone and ash and splintered rune.
Who will weep for all that’s lost
beneath the broken moon?
ONE: A STORM
Addas smelled it before he heard it, a whiff of skin rot on the wind, just before hooves pounded out of the swirling snow. He twisted aside, barely.
The damn thing was so fast it still swiped him. Bashed the air out of his lungs and sent him sprawling down the hill.
Addas tumbled, trying to breathe, trying to see, trying to stop. Hard things hidden under the drifts thumped into his back and shoulders. He flailed down the slope, felt his waterskin tear away, his pack spill. Shards of ice crammed under his shirt, up his wool pant legs, sliced his calf. The world twisted fast, sick and frigid, bruised and burning. And then it stopped, upside down.
Addas was at the bottom. He heard a snort, looked up, and saw the beast’s ass end vanish into the gloom. Pain seared Addas’s ribs. His body throbbed with it, turned his breath into ragged plumes. He wanted to puke and give up right there. Lie back and let the deep snow swallow him.
“Fuck it all,” Addas croaked to the gray sky. “You win.”
Chalk’s voice in his head whipped him to his feet. Move or die, boy!
Addas was up before he knew it, stumbling, gasping his way to a clump of scraggly brush. It wasn’t much, just a hank of gnarled stalks poking through the snow. The branches rattled like bone chimes in the gale. But the old ork had always said bad cover was better than none.
Addas slapped himself, shook his head. “Dead, and you’re still ordering me around.”
His leg hurt, but warmth was drooling under his shirt, under his chain mail vest. Pressing his hand against his chest, Addas knelt and risked a glance: blood seeped through his long fingers. The bastard’s horn had gashed clean through the iron rings.
Gods-cursed fucker nearly gored me. Addas winced. He jerked his hand away from the wound, hissed as the cold bit exposed flesh.
Don’t mind that. Chalk’s usual advice rang in his head. Bleeding’s not important now—living is. Add that scar to the collection when you’re done.
“Easy for you to say. You ain’t here.”
Addas gulped back his panting, looked around to get his bearings.
The storm had hunkered down, ugly, low, and leaden. The weather was always foul in this part of the mountains, but this blizzard had howled out of the north the night before, bringing a frenzy of large flakes the color of ash that burned skin raw, and a chill that froze boiling water in the pot.
It was still dumping hard, covering the landscape and shrinking the view down to a stone’s throw. Only shaggy humps of ice-caked brush and black boulders jutting out of the icy slop marked frozen ground from big, shrieking emptiness.
He couldn’t see the creature. But it was still out there, stalking him. Addas could feel its rage. Its hunger.
He cocked his head and listened under the roar of the wind. Nothing.
It’s coming back, Chalk whispered.
“I know,” Addas snapped.
The warty brute had been in the dirt a month, and right then Addas almost missed him. Almost.
For five years, Chalk had dragged him outside day and night, rain or shine, blistering heat or freezing cold. The ork tracker had taught Addas every trick, trap, and snare he knew—taught by way of beating the piss out of him. He would cuff Addas senseless at the tiniest mistake, spit corrections in his face.
“War’s over. The world’s hard now,” he’d bellow. “Get that in your runty, half-breed skull. You need to be harder if you want to keep breathing.”
That had been the start of the scar collection, every one a lesson, a jagged little reminder. “This is now,” Chalk would growl. “Get used to it. What’s gone is gone forever.”
Filthy, senile, grueling, cruel, Chalk had been Addas’s savior, to use a word that would get you killed now, but that was the truth. Half-breeds had been considered scum before the Shattering, let alone when gods had been murdering each other at the end of the world. Chalk had been the only one willing to take Addas in.
And there hadn’t been a day gone by afterward when Addas hadn’t wondered if he should have died with his mother when the war had begun.
Still, most of the other refugees from those days were long gone, so there must have been something to the cunning old bastard’s brand of schooling.
Addas’s bloody hand brushed the handle of the cleaver sheathed at his side. It had been Chalk’s.
Wish me luck, Addas thought.
Ain’t none left. Get on with it.
“Well, shit, then,” Addas said to the sky.
He reached back for a javelin from his quiver—and gripped air. The hill … He squinted toward the slope. The storm screamed white back at him.
Addas groped behind him, found one, and yanked it over his shoulder. Its middle was bent like an elbow. Another—snapped in two. Fear trickled down his neck.
He reached again, and the edge of his hand rubbed wood. He pulled it over. Intact.
It was the last of his good ones, straight with an iron head. Pitted and rust scabbed, the metal still held a wicked edge. Addas flexed his long fingers and gripped the shaft.
Squinting into the storm, he raised it to his shoulder and froze, still as a stone. He counted thirty heartbeats. Nothing.
“Come on, then!” he roared. “Here I am!”
Good one, he heard Chalk snigger. Charging the likes of you means he’s desperate. Starving. Control the brawl. Make him come to you.
You can shut up now, Addas thought, and listened harder. Get out of my head.
Twenty more heartbeats. Nothing.
Another ten. Snow scrunched, slithered on his right.
Addas shifted toward the sound, the javelin twig-thin across his palm. Three fingers to steady, thumb and pointer to aim, the way Chalk had taught him. Addas coiled like a spring, sniffed the keening wind.
The air was sharp, hard as iron, but a sickly-sweet stink spiced the back of his throat. Mange on the beast’s coat.
“Oh, you want me, don’t you? You royal fucker,” Addas murmured. He slow-stepped forward, half out of the bush, and planted his boots deep and firm.
“Come, then,” he snarled.
At those words, a dark shape heaved out of the roiling squall like an avalanche. Head down, long horn straight as a pike. Addas saw it fixed to skewer him like a hunk of meat.
Heart in his mouth, storm in his ears. Time sludged. It stretched like tar. A whole day in a heartbeat. Everything was chiseled, separate, and new: each flake of snow, the twine wrap under his fingers, the muscles rippling in the charging wax-white mass, the snort of fog from its nostrils. The spiked tip was mere feet away, but Addas had all the time in this ruined world.
He drove the javelin and pivoted in the same moment. He saw the iron head sink deep into the beast’s chest as it blew past. He heard its scream of pain and frustration. Addas turned with it, saw that after a dozen steps, the front legs folded, and it dropped like a sack of rocks, furrowing the snow out of sight.
Addas whipped out the cleaver. Crouched. Waited.
Over the wind, he heard it thrash and grunt, raging against Addas, against the blizzard, against death. Its cries grew steadily weaker. Addas crept forward, the broad, heavy blade raised over his shoulder.
He found it thirty paces on, kicking its life out. The javelin wobbled and twitched in its chest like a dowsing rod. The snow underneath had darkened to a bloody mush. It rolled its eyes, jerked its long head, trying to stab Addas even as it wheezed its last.
Now that’s how you live another day, Chalk cackled in his head.
It was gaunt, ribbed as a washboard, but there was still some meat on it. Addas would drag it back for eats, but that horn … that horn was his. It was scored and dirty, but unbroken. A rare and valuable thing, unicorn horn. Pierce plate armor, it would.
The reek of ordure churned in the wind as its bowels let go. He watched the creature shudder, slump, and go still. A gust blew the stringy mane over one staring eye.
Addas Dashag, tracker, scavenger, outcast of the Black Sands Clan, put his boot on the unicorn’s chest and yanked his javelin out. He wiped it clean, slid it into the pack strapped on his back, then hefted his cleaver and set to hacking the skull to get at the root of that lovely horn.