Songcaster and Little Dune
by Scott Hughes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
A mile or so later, Dante first heard the wailing. He hoped the girl couldn’t hear it yet. She would, soon enough, unless he led them farther off course to avoid it, which could add another day to their journey. In the cold deserts, every minute was precious. Adding a single hour to their journey could mean death one horrible way or another. He kept them on their path.
The screams grew ever louder, and they were coming from Galliard. Dante had no doubt. With every step, the songcaster scanned the horizon. Novah sighed. She heard them now, too. She was shielding her ears with her bandaged hands.
The songcaster stopped and turned to her. She lowered her hands.
“Those are evil men,” he said.
“I know,” she said through the shemagh. “They killed my ma.”
“We have to be very careful now. More than before.”
“Keep close to me,” said Dante.
They pressed on. At some point, the cries stopped. But Galliard was close.
As they ascended another dune, something came into view. Dante stopped and crouched. Without him instructing her, Novah did the same. The songcaster tossed aside his cloak and swung the pack around to fish out a pair of binoculars. He lay on his belly, the girl copying him, and peered through the lenses.
A few hundred yards ahead was a petrified tree trunk like a lone stone column left behind as the last remnant of some Pre-World temple. Galliard, head lowered, was on his knees, secured to the tree somehow. He was stripped naked with a long gash on his lower torso. The gargoyle that had escaped the church paced in front of him, every so often nipping at the man’s wound. Dante damned the Kogs to whatever hell they believed in.
He swept the binoculars left and right, searching for any sign of the knights. He saw nothing. With all the desert’s dips and peaks, though, they could be hiding anywhere, waiting for him to approach Galliard. From the moment the cries had become audible, Dante knew this was a trap, but he couldn’t leave his mentor that way.
He stowed the binoculars. Quietly, he said to Novah, “I’m going to leave you here.”
“No.” She clung to his arm.
“Not for long. I’m going to make you invisible again.”
She shook her head.
“Yes,” said Dante. “You’ll be all right, but you cannot move, no matter what. Don’t move, and you’ll be safe.”
She squeezed his arm, then reluctantly let go.
The songcaster drew his flute from its holster. He played a soft, mesmeric cloaksong. The girl vanished.
“Quiet and still,” he reminded her.
“Quiet and still,” her disembodied voice repeated.
The songcaster slid to the dune’s base and snuck around a few others, making his way in a wide arc back toward the tree. He crept up the sand and stayed low as he neared the unconscious Galliard and the beast.
When Dante was a couple dozen yards away, the gargoyle finally turned its attention to him, its snarling muzzle painted with blood. It stood on its hind legs and growled at him. Dante fetched a dart from his belt, poked it into his flute’s open lip plate, and slung it.
The gargoyle hugged its wings around its body, and the projectile’s needle stuck through the thin, membranous skin without depositing its poison. The beast retracted its wings and barreled full force on all fours at the songcaster.
For others, the seething rage Dante felt would have caused them to lose control. To make a mistake. Songcasters, however, had learned to focus any rage that boiled up in them. To harness it, hone it, use it — like sustaining a long, unfaltering note with a single breath.
The second the gargoyle pounced at him, Dante rolled to his left and swiped his flute blade vertically as hard as he could. The creature’s right arm and most of its right wing, twitching, fell next to him. The gargoyle thudded to the ground behind him, caterwauling in pain and fury as it rose again on its hind legs.
Dante spun, then launched his flute like a javelin. The blade speared the beast through its left eye. It swayed to and fro, pawed feebly at the instrument with its remaining hand, and then keeled forward limply.
Dante dashed to the petrified tree. Galliard’s arms had been stretched back and nailed to the stone trunk through his wrists. The Kogs had also tied together Galliard’s violin strings and cinched the man’s neck to the tree with them. One of his eyes was swollen shut, the skin around it purple.
Dante lifted the old man’s chin. “Galliard! Galliard!”
His mentor’s eyelids fluttered, and his eyes finally focused on Dante.
“Andante,” he said in a strained, raspy voice. “Leave me.”
Dante unshouldered Galliard’s pack and nearly tore it apart to get the waterskin. He poured its contents into Galliard’s mouth. More dribbled down the man’s chin and onto his chest than he was able to drink.
“Go, you damned fool,” Galliard croaked after he drank. “They’re here. They’ll kill you and the girl.”
“Hush, old man,” Dante said. “I’m getting you off this tree.”
Something flew past Dante’s head. Dante ducked, then looked back up at Galliard. A dagger hilt protruded from his exposed chest. The old songcaster’s head flopped forward. Dante whirled around.
A Kog wearing a white-plumed helmet stood ten yards away.
Dante glanced past the knight at the dune where the girl was. The other Kog with the red plume was there, searching.
Please, Novah, he thought, stay quiet and still.
“Your man’s instrument made a nice fire,” said the Kog. “Thought he was going to weep like a woman when we burned it.”
Dante pulled the dagger from Galliard’s chest and faced the knight.
“Lot of good that’ll do you,” said the Kog, drawing his sword. “Come at me, heathen.”
Dante bolted directly at him. The knight started to laugh as he readied his sword. When the songcaster was close enough to see the knight’s dark eyes through the gilded visor, he whipped off his cloak and tossed it over the Kog’s helmet. The knight swore and heaved his sword blindly through the air. Dante dodged it easily, stabbed the dagger through the Kog’s steel-plated boot, and sped toward the dead gargoyle.
By the time the knight wrestled himself free from the tan cloak, the songcaster had retrieved his flute and was holding it to his lips.
“Going to bleat me a tune, heathen?” the Kog said. “Make it a funeral song for yourself.”
Without bothering to rip the dagger from his foot, the knight stomped forward, and Dante began one of the most difficult song spells. It wasn’t hard because the notes themselves were challenging, although to the untrained ear they sounded amelodic, a sickening series of random sharps and flats. It was difficult because of the spell’s strength.
Bloodsongs were rarely attempted because drawing upon magick so perilous drained the songcaster’s life force. If he wasn’t careful, he could kill himself just as likely as he was to kill the Kog. Nevertheless, he played.
The knight stopped as though he’d hit an invisible wall and dropped his sword. “Heathen... bastard...” he groaned through gritted teeth.
Dante’s fingers and arms became numb, his knees threatened to buckle, and darkness began to creep into the corners of his vision. Still, he continued.
The Kog’s back and legs straightened, and his arms shot out stiffly from his sides, making him look like he was about to embrace someone in a bearhug. “Baaasssttaarrd...” he said again with great pain.
As the songcaster played, the Kog began to scream, his tendons and ligaments tearing away from his muscles and bones. His neck elongated as the vertebrae separated, and his cries turned to watery gargles. His neck continued to stretch, as did his arms and legs, and the songcaster kept playing.
The Kog managed one final yelp before his head, arms, and legs flew apart in different directions, leaving his torso to thunk onto the sand. Steam poured from the armored midsection.
Dante collapsed. He steadied himself on his hands and knees, forcing unconsciousness away. Novah wasn’t safe. He got his shaky legs under him, flute in hand, then willed his feet to move, one step and another and another.
The red-plumed Kog, sword drawn, was still near where Dante had left the girl. The songcaster rushed at the knight, opening the flute’s lip plate. He fumbled for a dart on his belt. His fingers found one and inserted it in the flute.
Still and quiet, Little Dune, the songcaster thought. Quiet and still.
He aimed his instrument at the eyehole in the knight’s helmet and flung the dart. At the last second, though, the Kog turned enough so that the dart ricocheted off his helmet and plunked to the sand.
Dante raised the flute to his mouth as he ran. The knight drew a dagger from his boot and threw it. The blade pierced the back of Dante’s right hand and went all the way through. Dante tried to cast a song spell anyway but couldn’t. The searing pain didn’t stop him — he couldn’t move his fingers.
At the top of the dune, the songcaster lunged, his flute outstretched and its blade leveled at the cross on the knight’s chest plate. The Kog swatted with his sword and struck the flute to keep it from finding his heart. Instead, the blade penetrated the steel shielding his left shoulder and sank in to the bone. Dante collided with him, and the two men tumbled down the sandy slope.
When they hit flat desert, the knight was up first. The flute, bent now from the fall, protruded from his shoulder. He pulled it out, broke it in two, and tossed the halves aside. He searched for his sword, and when he couldn’t find it, he strode over to Dante sprawled on the sand and kicked the songcaster in the sternum.
“Where is the girl, heathen?” he bellowed.
“Dead,” said Dante. “I left her in the cabin, and she burned.”
“Liar!” The Kog kicked him again, the metal boot cracking two of Dante’s ribs. “Where is she?”
“Kill me, and you’ll never find her.”
“Oh, I’ll find her. You cast one of your Devil spells on her, didn’t you? She can’t stay still forever, and once she moves, I’ll find her.”
The girl’s cloudy shape formed behind the Kog. As she became clearer, Dante could see that she’d removed the bandages from both hands. Diagonal slashes crisscrossed her palms. Even through the goggles’ tinted lenses, her eyes blazed like two green torches.
Torrents of blood shot from her hands and doused the sand between the Kog and Dante. The desert quaked. The knight staggered back as Dante scooted away on his heels and elbows. Suddenly, a great oak, forty feet tall, emerged fully formed from the ground, rivulets of sand cascading from its branches.
“Witch!” the Kog yelled.
He seized the girl’s wrists, squeezing her arteries so she couldn’t force out any more of her sanguineous magick.
With his left hand, Dante clasped the dagger hilt sticking from his right hand and extracted the blade. Searing pain radiated from his palm and flooded his body, bringing him to the verge of blacking out. Dante jabbed the dagger into the sand, leaned over it, and pushed himself up enough to get to his knees. He stood wavering with the knife and teetered toward the knight.
Novah was fighting to free her arms from the Kog’s grip as he continued to call her a witch and an abomination. The knight was too engrossed in his ranting to realize that Dante was now close behind him.
The songcaster ripped off the red-plumed helmet and drove the dagger through the back of the Kog’s neck. The knight wheeled around, black eyes wide and gauntleted hands flailing at the knife handle. A dozen vines slithered from the sand and latched onto the Kog’s wrists. Other vines encircled his waist and pinned him against the massive tree.
At Dante’s feet were the two pieces of his broken flute. He bent, picked them up, and approached the knight.
Through the blood coursing from his mouth and onto the tip of the already drenched blade jutting from his throat, the Kog choked out, “You know not... what she is... God... will punish...”
“For Galliard!” Dante roared as he impaled the knight’s splayed arms to the tree, the flute’s blade through his right bicep and the instrument’s jagged edge through his left — through metal, chainmail, fabric, flesh, and bone and into the oak.
Dante stumbled back. Novah stepped in front of him, her dripping hands raised. Blood runnels streaked from her palms, coating the knight. As he sputtered and writhed, hundreds of green tendrils sprouted violently from his skin, his gaping mouth, his nostrils, his ears, his eyeballs, and the spaces between his armor — until his entire body was enshrouded.
Enormous fingerlike branches reached up from the sand and clamped around the Kog and the oak’s trunk. In one swift spasm, most of the tree was yanked down into the desert. The earth shook, and Dante fell. Novah, however, remained standing. After a second tremor, the whole oak had been swallowed by the sands, leaving only a smattering of leaves.
Novah sat. Like the songcaster, she was exhausted, depleted, her skin almost gray. Dante tore off one of his sleeves and wrapped his injured right hand. Then he ripped off his other sleeve, gripped it with his teeth so he could tear it in half, and rebandaged Novah’s hands. After that, he could do nothing else except lay his head in her lap.
She lifted the goggles and looked down at him with her green eyes.
“Safe,” she said.
Yes, they were safe for now. There were other Knights of God, however. Countless others. The Songcaster Order could protect her, but with her power, the knights would keep coming for her. She would never truly be safe.
Dante didn’t say that now, though. “Yes,” he said. “Safe.”
Then the world went dark.
* * *
The songcaster and the girl made camp. They had found the Kogs’ three horses and had ridden them west — Dante on one, Novah on another, and Gilliard’s body, wrapped in Dante’s cloak and tied with twine, on the third. In a day, they would be at the gates of Tharaud Conservatory.
Since Dante’s instrument was buried miles behind them somewhere in the Empyrean Desert, they had to build real fires at night. Novah grew wood for them to burn. She had also conjured a plant with thick triangular leaves that contained a clear jellied substance she spread on Dante’s hand. She provided them with vegetables and fruits to eat along the way and even a type of plant that they could wring water from. Apples, pears, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, yellow squash. And oranges. Dante couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted the sugary tartness of an orange.
She had also grown a hollow, sturdy reed he carved into a simple flute. Knowing they wouldn’t work, he tried some of the simplest song spells anyway. It wasn’t made from songtree wood.
“Will you be able to save him?” Novah asked as she warmed her wrapped hands by the campfire.
“Who?” the songcaster asked.
The girl nodded her head at Gilliard’s body draped across the horse. She had taken off the shemagh and was sitting on it. She still had on the goggles even though it was a windless night. Dante suspected she liked wearing them.
“No,” he said. “I brought him with us because I couldn’t leave him in the desert like that.”
“So, you can’t fix him? Even with magick?”
“Songcasters... My people... We’ve been trying for decades to write a lifesong spell. We can heal minor wounds and illnesses. They’ll be able to heal my hand and my ribs once we reach the conservatory. But death... That’s something even magick can’t undo.”
Novah seemed to consider this for a while. Dante did too. She had the magick to create life. Plant life, yes, yet life all the same. She could banish the cold deserts from the world. In time, her magick could grow, evolve, become powerful enough to undo death itself.
For a time, they sat in silence. Then Novah began to sing. “I see trees of green... Red roses too... I see them bloom... For me and you...” Her voice was delicate, pure.
“What’s that?” Dante asked.
“Something my pa used to sing to me. He said it was a Pre-World song.”
“I don’t know it.” Dante had spent countless hours in Tharaud Conservatory’s archives, listening to scratchy recordings of Pre-World music. Everything from the classical compositions all songcasters studied to songs once called popular music. “But I like it, Little Dune.”
The girl started again. “I see trees of green... Red roses too... I see them bloom... For me and you... And I think to myself... What a wonderful world... I see skies of blue... And clouds of white... The bright blessed day... The dark sacred night...”
The melody was simple enough: C, E minor, A minor, E minor... Dante took up the reed flute. As Novah sang and he accompanied her, minuscule silver sparkles blossomed in the air in front of him. They danced and swirled, like grains of sand in a coiling breeze. He wasn’t sure what song spell this could be, how it could be, but in that moment he didn’t care. He played just to play while the silver sparkles twinkled like stars the world rarely saw anymore.
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Hughes