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Each of them was taller than I, hulking, looming. Their bodies were gray ash, smooth and at the same time roiling, human-shaped but made of embers. In those shifting, black and white forms, bright edges, edges of fire, gleamed out. They surrounded us.
Askuwheteau hefted his club and our elk pranced, snorting, bellowing. The ash floated around us on the wind and fire roared. “What are these?” I breathed. I drew up my stick like a blade.
Askuwheteau looked from one to the next. I heard fear in his voice. “I don’t know.”
They shattered. As if torn apart by wind, they streamed and drove and then were on us.
The first pass cut my elk from under me and I fell in the black. Ash filled my mouth and stone hammered my body but I rolled, climbed, rose up.
Two of them tore about me, howling, roaring like flame. Askuwheteau had remained on his mount and fought, but I had precious little concentration to lend him.
The Smoke Walkers swirled, turned, struck. I leapt back and tried to hone my will but they ripped at the stick in my hand. They hammered me, struck to and fro. I felt a rib crack, a sharp sound in me that echoed in every bone. Searing heat burned my face, filled my throat and choked, an assault like none I’d ever felt.
My mind was my own, though. I brought up my will, the pain whetting the edge of my steel, and ran. They howled behind me, but I was still armed, more than these things knew. Spirits? The best thing about them is that they never learn.
I leapt over fallen, blackened timber, splashed into a deep place. Ashy water soaked my leggings, fell sour on my tongue. I raced two steps up a short rise, my feet on rock, and then turned and slashed and honed. My blade – a humble bit of wood, but also my will – tore the air in its passage, too fast for anyone, too much, driven, real, beyond real.
The nearer Smoke Walker was upon me, but then my blade hit home. The being howled, roared, broke. It fell to wet ash, torn asunder, and the remains floated by on either side of me.
The other screeched then, took shape, stalked and circled me where I stood on my patch of rock. It spoke, spirit-tongue, a shuddering rumble in words unknowable.
“Your brother was too quick,” I rasped out. My side ached, my words came cold. Something wrong with a lung. The pain sharpened me further as I turned to keep watch on it while it stalked.
Again it rumbled, roared, shrieked. Its face contorted and roiled in flame and smoke, a sneer, an insult, a threat.
“Do you not know?” I sneered back. The light of battle was on me, filling me. “I am no warrior you have seen before. You face a Crade.” I changed my stance, ready to attack. “Come on. I am war itself.”
Now it was my turn to surge. I thundered at it, and my feet cracked the earth. My fury burned it. Passion. The spirit fell back beneath my assault as I drove and hammered. Ash burst from it as it deflected, guarded, my blows falling against it like a storm on dust.
With a thought, I pushed it back, spun, struck. The blow threw the creature and it fell, tumbled, vanished in the smoke and dust on the air. I took up a stance, listened. Every fiber of me strained, but these were not men. Did they make a sound when they chose not to?
Some distance away, Askuwheteau growled and strove, but I waited, patient. Position.
No sound came, but the air moved. I whirled to face my foe as it crashed, suddenly roaring, streaming from the dark, taking shape. Blades of ash, hammers of air rained down on me, so fast, so strong. I battered one aside, a second, caught a third, turned the fourth. The fifth bit into me, tearing my cheek. The cut went to my teeth, rattled me, but the next blow was falling and I had no time to feel pain. As it fell, I honed my mind and swept my blade up, caught the spirit and sundered it.
The spectral arm burst to ash, but the rest of the creature fell on me, tore me to the ground. I fell, it atop me, choking, a cloud, asphyxiating. Smoke and dust filled up my lungs and I had nothing to breathe.
Immediately I felt my mind waver. No air. The death blow was coming, I felt it, a lightless summons in the air above me, within the fell spirit astride me, falling, ripping, calling, killing.
With a last act of will, I caught at the formless thing, forced it with my mind to take shape. My hands met flesh, or something like it, wet, heat beyond words, my fingers pressing into it. I switched my legs, used my body, turned, forced it over, and then I rose up, gasping. A little air, enough. I lifted the stick like a blade and bore it down, a stake into the heart of the world. There I drove it, stabbed, leaned on the weapon and shoved it cracking through.
The Smoke Walker howled beneath me, undone. It tore apart and there, in the ash and dust, was the burned out husk of a person, pinned to the ash with my stick.
I marveled for a moment. The face was like burned paper, a mask of ash. The body was wrinkled, charred, curled and cracked like firewood in the hearth. The light faded from it and I remembered Askuwheteau.
I found him by the sound of him in the ash. His elk had fallen, burned and torn, beside mine. One of the Smoke Walkers was dead, the other swirling around Askuwheteau like a whirlwind. He fell and blood sprayed from his mouth, his nose, covered his shaved head. A black shard, like a broken bough, protruded from his chest. His club flew from his hand and the spirit towered above him, mounting, gathering like a thunderhead.
“No!” I shouted. I raced toward them, too far, but close enough. The spirit, faceless, faced me. I felt its gaze. I saw its intent, to kill, to leave Askuwheteau dead, destroyed, ended below it. My head hammered, aching, spent, but I had denied it, and I would not be disobeyed.
I swung an arcing cut, backhand, waist to shoulder. Into it I poured my spirit, myself, my will. The stick was a dozen yards from my foe, but not the blade. A clap of thunder rolled out from me, arcing wide and tall, following my cut, and it shredded the earth and tore the air, sending up ash and sparks and dirt, and in a flash, crossed the distance and burst the spirit in a spreading cloud of black and embers.
I stumbled to my knees in the cloud and the roar built in my ears and blood was in my mouth, red and copper taste. These were not the last of that kind that I fought in that northern land, but the first had been many years before: when I fought Weckar in Serehvan.
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