He is fifty feet above ground when the first rock hits. It cracks into his left thigh, sending pain burning up his leg and freezing him in place, his hands clinging to the surrounding branches. The next stone rips through the wet leaves beside his ear, and he surges onward, upward, away from the threat below.
He climbs faster than he ever has before, forcing the pain out of his mind, no longer looking at the ground disappearing beneath him, eyes always searching for the next hand and foothold, scuttling up the enormous trunk of the tree.
Another rock strikes him, in the back this time, and his right hand flies from the tree, out of control, almost twisting him free of the trunk. His arm spins in the air wildly, windmilling himself back against the trunk, his cheek pressed against the rough bark as he gasps in and out.
Not fair. Not now, now he was so close.
A cackle of laughter below, and another stone thuds against the trunk beside his head. Six inches to the left and he would have been done for.
He feels the first tickle of fear bloom in his chest; the doors swinging open inside his mind.
Forget that. Forget everything. Just climb.
When the final rock hits, he doesn't feel it. Suddenly the tree is no longer beneath him, he is falling, the world silent and shrinking down into a dark tunnel. He closes his eyes as the branches tear past, surrendering, waiting for the ground to take him.
The vision fades and I am alone again, wandering these endless paths. Time has narrowed my senses, wrapping itself around me, pulsing into my nostrils and swamping me, churning me inside out until I no longer recall which way is up, which direction is forward, what is past, and what is yet to be. This is what death is, perhaps. A falling out of linear time. A narrowing of possibilities down to a single, final point.
I remember how time once stretched before me, its passing painfully slow, each year an eternity, unable to be fully glimpsed. Now the weeks and months flicker by, their advance unmarked.
The trees toy with me, aware of my age, my weakness. They trap me in place, wrapping themselves around me and forcing me to bear witness as their strange children run wild. I do not remember ever being one of them, and yet I must have been. They play their cruel games on each other, but the trees do not recognise how flawed their creatures have become. How darkened.
The wind shifts and I find myself free again, my thoughts travelling back in time and pulling me with them, down into the damp soil at my feet, recognising the pull of the earth, the yearning to return. And I feel again the tremor of his presence, shocking me into action.
He is coming. The spark flickering into flame, seeking out the shadows to chase them away. I can feel the warmth and sway of the trees he passes through, ever deeper, pushing down toward the end of my days. He is a harbinger of change. I should not fear him, but I cannot do otherwise.
The trees do not yet recognise what he might become. His threat. His promise.
Only a final few steps remain for me. I force myself forward and block my ears to the warnings whispered on the wind.
The cat stalked through the broken shadows of the forest, belly low to the ground, eyes wide and staring out through the dimness at its prey. A heavy, constant rain drummed on the leaves and trees, a rolling applause that drowned out all other sound. The cat crept along slowly, circling around behind the large wild pig that snuffled industriously at the foot of the tree. The pig seemed focused on its task, oblivious to all else, but the cat knew better. He had been tracking this one for most of the morning and had already spooked it twice, a careless step cracking a twig the first time, a sudden change in wind direction betraying his presence the second. The wind had brought with it the rains, and now the cat shivered as he readied himself to spring.
Don't mess this one up. I'm hungry.
The cat's features twisted into a scowl as the strange thought brushed across his consciousness.
Leave him be, Higgs. Besides, you can't be hungry, there's nothing of you to feed.
I don't care what you say, Biore. I'm still hungry. And cold. What we need is a nice dry cave, a roaring fire, and this pig roasting over a spit. Then I might be in the mood for your lectures.
The cat licked his lips, the strange thoughts forgotten as he concentrated on the task at hand.
The pig had scratched out whatever had interested it at the base of the tree and now held its head high, sniffing the air. The rains were waking the forest, a wet, earthy smell rising from its floor. The cat waited, satisfied that his scent was covered. There would be no mistakes this time.
The wild pig stood at least two feet high, its haunches roped with muscle, its dark brown skin glistening in the rain. Its hooves were large and well used, pointed at each end as though sharpened purposefully, and two long tusks curved out from its lower jaw, reaching almost to the level of its eyes, prodigious weapons when wielded by the thickly corded neck of the beast.
Don't give it a chance to use them.
The cat allowed himself to enjoy the tickle of his silver claws sliding out from the ends of his paws, then sprang.
He landed on the pig's back, claws digging into flesh and clinging on as the pig bucked and screamed, kicking its back legs high into the air. The cat tried to reach a paw around to get at the pig's throat, but it bucked again, almost throwing the cat clear if not for its claws locked deep into muscle.
The beast ducked its head and launched forward, trying to pin the cat between itself and the trunk of a large tree, but the cat swung to the side at the last moment, releasing his hold to land safely on the ground as the pig crashed full bodied into the thick trunk. The cat didn't hesitate, swatting out with both paws to almost sever the pig's head from its body, hot blood pouring out in a sudden rush as the creature's veins were sliced open. The pig collapsed, a long last sigh of life breathing out as it sank into death.
The cat stared at it, watching the light fade from its eyes.
Constant rain still filled the air, washing the blood of the fresh kill deep into the soil and the waiting roots.
The next moment the cat was gone; in his place was a young man, squatting on his haunches, a long silver knife hanging from his hip. Wilt tossed his hair back from his face and stood up, tugging his worn black cloak around his shoulders.
Now we find somewhere warm and safe to cook our meal.
Wilt bent down and pulled the pig's legs together, steadying his feet in the mud. With a grunt he heaved the carcass up onto his shoulders, almost slipping with the sudden weight. There was enough meat here to last them for days.
Him. To last him for days.
By the time he'd stumbled back to the cave with his prize and had it stripped and dressed and roasting slowly over a low fire, Wilt was exhausted. He lay on the smooth dry rock of the cave floor and stared at the fire, letting the dance of the flames wash his mind clear.
The heat from the fire was fighting a losing battle against the unnatural cold that filled the enclosed space, but Wilt felt none of it. He was floating in a still, grey emptiness.
You're wearing yourself out like this. You're no ranger.
Wilt allowed himself a small smile in reply. What am I then?
You're a Black Robe. One of the skilled. And one of the most powerful of our kind I've ever encountered.
Biore. Wilt let the words dredge up a memory: him standing on a stage, facing down the combined might of the Nine Sisters, becoming one with the weld within him, turning their power against them.
You're a thief. One of the Grey Guild.
Higgs's voice brought forth a second memory: he watched himself run along the night highway in Greystone, leaping over gaps between buildings, a shadow against the night sky.
The shadow darkened, and the world dropped away, and he was a cold, still emptiness standing alone in the centre of a room, reaching out again and again to the onrushing guards, his hand a thousand writhing black snakes, his touch death.
I'm a killer.
You're my friend.
Delco. Wilt let the dark memory sink back into the depths.
Where have you been hiding? I've been trying to run things practically single-handed.
Sorry, Higgs. When I'm with Rawick... it's hard to keep track of time.
At least you two know some forestry skills. More help than Biore's been.
Wilt sat up and drew himself away from the chatter inside his mind, the impossible separate consciousnesses that dwelled somewhere within the welds themselves, inside the depths. Depths that were now a part of him.
He pulled out his long silver knife and sliced a thin strip of meat from the roasting carcass. The flesh was still slightly pink, but looked cooked enough.
Wilt bit into it and hot juice filled his mouth, the texture and pull of the meat against his teeth bringing him back to the physical world, the grey shadows of the cave brightening into colour, the cold air warming for a moment as life re-entered the room.
He swallowed and immediately cut another slice, wolfing this one down as well, leaving the cold and silence of that other world far below as he gave into his hunger. He hadn't eaten properly in days, and now attacked the carcass with an animal rush, ignoring the hot fat that seared his throat. Its warmth filled his belly, silencing every other thought. Only this was real. The heat of the fire, the taste of the meat.
Some time later he lay back on the warm rock, watching as the bright colours of the cave walls faded back into uniform grey. The cold settled over him like a blanket, separating him from the living world.
Wilt lay his cheek against the stone and closed his eyes.
Go to sleep.
* * *
The wind shifted again in the night, bringing with it a drop in temperature, whistling through the high stone ceiling of the cave and sparking the low coals of the fire into a dull red glow. With it came the murmur of the Tangle, the deep mutterings of an ancient consciousness. Wilt's dreams morphed as it washed over him, and his unconscious mind could almost make out the words the wind whispered into his ear.
Words of longing, words of pain and patience and an inhuman yearning for eternity. Words of warning. Words of fear.
The words brought with them visions that slid across his mind, not leaving any trace in his memory as he slept on, the Tangle murmuring its dark lullaby into his ears.
He ducked under the guard's swinging arm and swerved into the alley, dropping half his haul as he went, not thinking for a moment about stopping to recover any of it. A loud crash behind him told him the guard hadn't been quick enough to change direction and had crashed into the fruit stall that lined one wall.
He grinned, tucking the two loaves he still held into his shirt as he ran, turning again as the next opening reared up, not slowing until he could no longer hear the heavy boots of the guards stomping after him. Even then he took two more twists deeper into the nest of alleys behind the market square before he slowed and risked a look back.
Safe. He was safe.
He leaned back panting against the nearest wall, tying his shirt tighter around the bread he'd swiped and glancing around the narrow alley to be sure no other street rats were thinking of trying to relieve him of his hard-won prize. After a moment to catch his breath, he turned to the wall and began to climb.
In seconds he was up on the roof, scurrying along the night highway, angling his path to the north of the market square, to his sorry excuse for a home. The grey skies opened as he ran, a heavy rain soaking him to his skin, threatening to turn the fresh loaves he carried into sodden mush. He slid and skidded across the greasy roof tiles, finally recognising the twisting lanes below him and dropping to the street, out of the worst of the weather.
All around him poor folk were fussing with their hovels, pulling thin wooden coverings into place to shelter from the persistent rain. He scurried past, holding his arms against his chest to protect the bread from the weather and hide it from any curious onlookers.
He turned into the small narrow opening between buildings that he called home. He pulled the thin canvas sheeting closed behind him as he entered and sat down on his pallet, eager to eat. Eager to ease the angry ache in his stomach.
'What do you have there, Meat?'
He curled into a ball, but it was too late. His father reached for his arm and tore it away, almost wrenching his shoulder out of its socket and sending the two loaves spilling into a scummy puddle on the ground.
'Look what you've done now!'
He tried to shrink himself tighter as the blows fell, his red hair streaming into his face as the rain and tears blinded him.
* * *
When he awoke, dawn was breaking grey and still across the sky. Wilt busied himself blowing life back into the coals of the fire, though his body felt no need for its heat.
What we need now is coffee.
Wilt smiled at Higgs's words and sat back as the flames caught. Coffee. Fresh bread. Bacon and eggs. He'd almost forgotten what such luxury tasted like. How long had he been gone? How long had he been out here, alone?
Too long. Too long with only our voices for company. Too long in your other form, your mind lost to human thought.
Had it really been so long? The dawn seemed earlier each morning, and frost no longer marked the grass of the forest floor, but were the seasons changing or were these merely signs of his steady progress south, toward the warmer weather, away from the high cold stone of Redmondis?
He caught himself. Human thought?
You've been spending more time away, Wilt. Ignoring us.
It was true the voices in his mind were more distant in his animal form. The world itself was different, brighter, sharp-edged, more immediate. The smells and textures a thousand times more vibrant. Was that why he spent so much time there, or was it this place, the Tangle itself, that made his other form seem more fitting? Perhaps it just took less food to fill his belly.
There are other hungers.
Biore's words brought his mind back to the present. He was right; the call of the depths and his other, darker form had been getting stronger each day, and it was becoming a burden to resist them. Why fight it, especially here, where he could do no harm?
Why else was he here at all? The Tangle was where he had thought to find answers to his some of his many questions - the true nature of the shadow form Wilt and Biore had both shared, the source of the still darkness beneath the chaos of the depths, the power that lay there, waiting for him.
He rubbed the strange lenses Higgs had formed that covered his black eyes. They itched.
Any luck getting Rawick to open up about where in this place we should start looking?
It's... not that simple. The trees are troubled, that much I can say. But what causes it is... concealed. I am trying, Wilt. But their way of thought is so alien. South. There is a pull in that direction.
Just another reason to give ourselves free rein, at least for a while. Let us see what the shadow realm can show.
I prefer our animal form, but if you must. Just be sure not to spend too long. You know the dangers.
Wilt rocked to his feet, his mind made up. He kicked at the fire, scattering the coals and banishing the flames back into nothingness. A moment later and all that remained was a black scorch on the rock floor. He looked around the cave for any other signs of his presence. It was empty and still, already waiting for its next occupant.
Very well. We should pick up the pace anyway.
Where are we going, Wilt? What is our destination?
South. Delco is right; it's calling, drawing me toward it. Something that knows the depths as I do. Something that waits for me.
With a whisper Wilt's human form was gone and a dark shadow blew out of the cave, cutting down through the forest. It snaked through grey shadows, ignoring the curved animal track that marked the forest floor, slicing straight through any tree or barrier that blocked its path.
There was nothing to mark its presence, just a thick bubble of cold silence that moved through the forest, stifling all animal noises as it passed. The trees themselves seemed to bend out of its path, and no life stirred in the cold earth left in its wake.