“HE’S A MENACE.”
“Never gonna get rid of him.”
“He’s young. Might just need a little more—”
“Can’t coddle him forever, just because of his father!”
“Pushed us too far.”
The Council of Elders argued deep into the night. He considered moving in closer, but there was no need. Sound carried a long way in the Badlands. Crossed a line, they say. Happens sometimes when you play that close to the edge. All I did was poke them a little. Not like they’re gonna do anything about it.
He wouldn’t call himself impatient. When he was hunting, he could wait all day for the right game to come along. That was just natural. He liked to eat more than he hated to wait. But don’t ask him to sit around and listen to a bunch of old barbarians flapping their jaws. When they started to repeat themselves, they might as well have peeled back his eyelids and buried him in an anthill. Time to wrap this thing up.
He cleared his throat. Nobody noticed. He could almost always win a few hard stares, once in a while disgust. Must be hard of hearing. “Thought I’d save you the trouble of looking for me.”
He spotted the bearskinin the center of the circle. “See you got my gift.”
UncleCousin Sumac whipped his head around, fresh claw marks visible across his face. “It was the middle of the night, you dung beetle.”
“Meat was fresh.”
“It was still alive!” Sumac’s face roiled through three shades of purple. He fixed Grandfather with a satisfied sneer. “Tell that empty-headed fool what the Council decided.”
All of them? Can’t be good.
Grandfather stood. In the starlight his face looked like the wall of a weathered canyon. His eyes were set far back in the shadows, beneath a rocky overhang. “Council hasn’t decided anything yet. But we’ve met too many times about you. Things you’ve done.”
“Brought people together. Gave them something to talk about.”
Some of the others discovered a sudden interest in the bearskin. A few looked off into the distance.
Grandfather’s mouth was fixed in a thin line. “Some of us were known to talk before you came along.”
He’d seen rival chieftains crumple under that glare. Didn’t know him like I do. What’s he gonna do, hit me with his face?
“Council wants to know what you’re still doing here. What I believe—what any of us believes—means nothing. Up to you now. Take on the challenges you were meant to face. Find out what you’re made of. Because you’re my grandson…because of your father…” His voice wavered. The Council became still. The bugs stopped chirping. Grandfather took a long, deep breath. “One last chance.”
“Banishment. Or skin you alive.”
The young barbarian glanced at the bearskin rug. In his imagination, though, he saw the rest of the bear. “Want my vote?”
“Go seek your quest, like everybody else. Come back a new man. Or not at all.”
The barbarian stalked off, headed north. Must be having a bad day.
A behemoth of a stallion trotted up alongside him, his coat flashing silver in the moonlight. Despite his size and maturity, Bolstrus moved with the restless energy of a young colt. The steed also answered to Notgonnatellyouagain and Tramplingonmylastnerve.
They paused at the top of the ridge. If you went far enough, it blocked your view of the village. Home. It looked like what was left after a tornado passed through—a hodgepodge of makeshift shelters thrown together from animal skins, grass, rocks, and dirt. The people could pick up and leave on a moment’s notice and not worry about anything left behind. And they often did. In fact, when he was younger, he was one of the things they left behind. Regularly. He didn’t blame them. Most of the time when they got the notion to go, he hadn’t been around. He used to sneak away. From the time he could walk, he couldn’t wait to see what else was out there.
Until that day. He shook off the memory and eased into a steady jog over the craggy ground. The barbarian made a beeline north—assuming the bee in question had an inner ear infection. Bolstrus galloped ahead, circling back now and then to adjust course.
A few weeks later, the barbarian plunged into the clouds that blanketed the mountains. Somewhere in all the mess was a cave and the strange woman who lived there. Fenestral Smogen. People wouldn’t say much about her. But they’d break into a sweat when they heard her name, and some of them would shake.
The path snaked up and around. He could scarcely see far enough to warn him of the next curve. He stopped often to feel his way around. As the wind whipped around, his hair lashed at his face from every direction. Can’t see, can’t hear. Whatever’s out there can’t either. I hope.
In the gray before dawn, a voice scraped through the mist, deep and gravelly, like a donkey braying through a sore throat. “Visions. Show me who’s coming. Never say when. Brilliant.”
Voice like that could start a rock slide.The sound bounced around; it was hard to pinpoint. He crouched sideways and slid his front foot forward. The silver stallion pawed at the ground. He reached back and placed a hand on the stallion’s forehead. They waited.
A squat figure hobbled into view. She leaned hard on her cane and stretched. Bones crackled like dried twigs underfoot. “Sleep is overrated, but I like it once in a while. Not that I’d ever complain.”
“Took a shortcut.”
“They always do. Let’s get this over with.” The hooded cloak shielded Fenestral Smogen’s face in shadows. She moved closer.
Hands clasped behind his back, his fingers drummed a silent beat in the swirling wind. “How long does this take?”
“Can’t receive your quest until I read your soul.” Her top lip curled up. “That won’t take long. First, I have to give you a name. Used to be more ceremonial, but…it is what it is.”
She gazed upward and sniffed. Her eyes narrowed. One eye closed all the way while the other scanned him from top to bottom. “Thundersquat.”
“Could be worse.”
“Fits you. Now, let’s get on with it.” She clamped down on his arm with her free hand. “Steady. You won’t be standing when this is done.”
The seer took a quick breath. Her tiny chin shot out from among folds of flesh. A whorl of red, like hot ashes, zipped around the rim of her eye sockets. A purple beam of light fired from her eyes and locked onto his. “Hold still. This won’t take ver—”
The light flickered out, and she staggered back, wheezing, her eyes unfocused. She pressed her hand over her collarbone.
Didn’t feel a thing. Her—maybe not so lucky. “We done here?”
“Oh yeah.” Fenestral Smogen huddled over the cane and rocked in time to her wheezing until it fizzled out. “We’re done.”
“What happens now?”
“What do you mean, we die?”
“I mean, it’s all up to you. Same thing.”
“What’s all up to me?”
She stared at the ground. “Just wanted to pass my remaining days in peace. Hand out quests, conjure up names. Maybe sell hats.”
The barbarian shifted from one foot to the other. Give me the quest already.
“High point of my life. Come and gone, like a restless butterfly.”
“What do I have to do?”
The seer snapped upright and jammed her cane into the ground. “I’ll tell you when I think you’re good and ready. Exactly as written.”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Fenestral Smogen looked off to the side and blew out a ragged breath. “Patience is a dog-blasted virtue.”
She raised a hand to eye level and rotated it slowly. It quivered. She wrapped it around the hand leaning on the cane. “The prophecy. Whispered, sage to sage, across ten generations. Had to fall out on my watch.”
Her gaze reverted back to the present. She flashed a look that he’d seen more than a few times—the kind that came with a punch. “Okay, barbarian, listen close, ready or not.
“When stars are misaligned,
Let tangled fate unwind,
Unless you find the Half-Forgotten Stone.
When held, it can reveal
Endeavors to conceal,
Releasing secrets better left unknown.
No longer recollected
By the last to wield the power of the Stone:
A failure to recall
Ignited destiny’s fall.
See cherished rules of order overthrown.
But let the Stone be found
And placed in hallowed ground,
Enshrouded somewhere known to one alone.
Or by divine decree:
The world will cease to be.”
She poked him in the chest with her cane. “Well? What do you have to say about that?”
Thundersquat shrugged. He turned his back, arms folded. “Not my idea to come here.”
“The gods must be out of their ferzuken minds. Do you understand what it means, ‘cease to be’? All of us, gone. The people. The others. Gone. Animals. Plants. Gone.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“Do you have even a smidgen of curiosity about the Stone? Because—I don’t know—none of us will be here if you don’t find it?”
Thundersquat cocked an ear in her direction. He could smell a lecture coming. Don’t have time for this.
“Generations pass without word of the Half-Forgotten Stone. Sought by those who hunger for power, who scour the far corners of the earth for the slightest edge over others.” She leaned an elbow on the cane and held her hand in front of her like she was holding something heavy. She waved the other hand in circles above it. “He who holds the Stone can discover things that are hidden.”
“Even from long ago?”
“If that’s where you’re fool enough to look. But the secrets unleashed by that Stone can tear people apart. Sooner or later, for better or worse, somebody always loses it.”
“Sounds like we need the Stone to find it.”
“Well, we don’t have it,” she said. “And if you think it’s dangerous when it’s found, the Stone’s even worse when it’s lost. If we don’t find it, the world as we know it will end.”
“One little rock?”
“It’s complicated,” she said. “Gets its power from Meandyra, the Braider of Time.”
“Never heard of her.”
“Well, she’s heard of you. Thinks you’re the answer.”
“Gonna take her word for it?”
“Not my call. Just find the Stone.”
“Got something else to do,” he said.
“What you have to do doesn’t matter. The Stone locks the Braid of Time in place. Lose the Stone, time starts to unravel.”
“What if it did?”
“Chaos. Complete chaos.” She hooked her cane on his arm and pulled him partway around. “The Braid of Time records everything. All our hopes, fears, and regrets; where we’ve been; where we choose to go next. A loose thread for the odd and unexpected. If it unraveled, it might brush up against a braid from another time and place.”
She glanced both ways, grabbed a handful of buckskin, and yanked him close. “It’s not the only braid she’s working on. Imagine other worlds, more than you can count. Each with its own story, its own braid. Each braid with a sacred Stone to hold it in place.”
“Gets worse. Those other worlds are the same as this one: the same people, making different choices. Creating their own history. To us, it’s what could’ve been, what almost was. Somebody else’s reality—nearly us but not us. Not exactly here, not quite now. So close you can feel it, but you can’t touch it, unless—”
“The Braids of Time brush up against each other.”
The seer released him. “You get this, don’t you, barbarian?”
“Not sure that’s a good thing.”
“It’s not. Unless you’re the one who can do something about it.”
“What if I don’t?”
Her knuckles whitened around the cane. She spoke loud and fast. “Our time will become mixed up with fate and chance from other worlds. Anything could happen, and we’d never see it coming.” She blew out a long breath. “Bottom line, you have to find that Stone.”
“Where was the Stone last?”
“Blisteria, east of the Badlands. Futhark the Meddler forgot where he hid it.”
“Why did he hide it in the first place?” Thundersquat asked.
“Couldn’t sleep, for one. Always on guard—too many others wanted it.” She searched the sky. “Could’ve been afraid of it. The Stone does something to you.”
She belched. “It grabs you. Won’t let go. Like it’s alive.”
“Where was this Meddler when he lost it?”
“Do I really have to answer that?”
“Well, where would you start, if it was you?” he asked.
Her gaze rambled over the ground. “You might try the sorcerer king. Futhark the Meddler trained him.”
“Where do I find this sorcerer king?”
Fenestral Smogen squinted to the left.“A shiny black palace.”
One of her eyebrows took a deep dive. “Or swimming in a pond somewhere.”
“Narrows it down.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. I see images. Might be exactly what they seem. Could mean something else—something deeper. Symbolic. You people have no idea what it’s like to be a seer. We can see, but we don’t really know.” She cast her eyes to the side and slowly exhaled. “Not that it’s any of your business, but it’s not what I thought it would be when I went into it.”
“Just find it? Nobody has to know what to do with it?”
“Hide it somewhere safe. Find a caretaker—someone not under its power. Just don’t touch it. You’ll find out things you never wanted to know.”
“Don’t need a Stone for that to happen.”
“You’re not taking this seriously. The gods have chosen you. Everything depends on it.”
“How long is this supposed to take?”
“Until you find it. Why?”
He hesitated. “No reason.”
“Twelve moons, maybe less.” Fenestral Smogen jabbed a bony finger into his forehead. “Whatever’s in that hard head of yours, set it aside.”
“Don’t want to leave the Badlands.”
“Suit yourself. Take one last look.”
Thundersquat jerked free. He leaped upon the stallion. “Better not take that long. If I decide to do it.”
“Dramblunkit, is it not sinking in what’s at stake here?”
Thundersquat wheeled around and galloped away into the mist. The stallion hurtled the two of them into the blind curves with reckless abandon. His adrenaline surged. Not my fault if the Braider of Time can’t keep track of things.