It’s not over yet.
Kato Vorsok closed the Gates and sealed in the enemies of all mankind. Now he’s stranded in the desert with a ragtag army of supernatural creatures far from home. Keeping order and finding provisions are the extent of his problems.
Or so he thinks.
Deep in the salt, an ancient demon from a mythic past stirs. Once, angels walked the world and battled such monsters, but they’ve been gone a long time.
Now there’s only Kato, a reluctant hero with no illusions about himself, and Flutter, a woman-turned-demon who’s falling apart.
They won the battle, but will they lose the war—and the whole world with it?
Ironhand is a fantasy novella, and a sequel to Mourning Cloak.
Flutter is dying.
They all are, these creatures of cool Highwind, withering in the dry heat and the bright light. Eerie men pant in the courtyard of Kaal Baran; cobble crunchers hide in its nooks and crannies. Sera’s altered wind swifts evaporated a long time ago, and the mourning cloaks are spread thin and turned to mist, damp patches on the rocks.
And these are just the survivors.
I gave mercy to many more the day the Gates closed again, in the deepening twilight. I stumbled from one broken body to another, stepping in blue and black and gold blood, the stench of rot in my nose, and dispatched the wounded with a few muttered phrases. Bits of prayers to Taurin, substituting ishtaur for itauri. Replacing darkchild for Taurin’s child, in case he was inclined to be merciful to these poor creatures.
Who am I fooling?
I’m dying, too, trapped in Kaal Baran with an almost-dried up well and barely any food. Well I know that the trip to the nearest settlement is over a week long. Sera expected to be supplied through her portal in Highwind, but that portal is now gone. Flutter and I have looked at the consoles Sera set up in the Chamber of Secrets. We’ve pressed buttons, tugged wires, kicked at the blasted boxes.
All right. I kicked the boxes.
There’s weaponry in other rooms, and a very little store of food. Canned meat for the eerie men and tins of worms for the cobble crunchers. Bags of white crystals for the cloaks—I dump handfuls of it in a trough in the courtyard, then fill it, awkwardly, left-handedly, with water from the well. There’s mud in the water, but the cloaks don’t care. They float in from cracks and mist up out of wall, put their pale faces into the water and feed.
I don’t watch them.
But there is one place I haven’t yet looked at. One place that I never told even Sera about, never mentioned to Flutter, would never go to with an entourage of Highwind creatures dogging my steps and peering over my shoulders—or in the case of cobble crunchers, from behind my legs.
It’s the thought of curious eyes that hold me back from that chamber, I tell myself. Coward, I think a moment later.
No, that place is not meant for failures and blasphemers like me.
Instead, I look for Flutter. She’s not inside the courtyard, of course. No, she’s out in the valley.
The gates of Kaal Baran are open, and I walk down the ramp into the narrow valley. The ground between me and the bronze Gates of Tau Marai, small in the distance, is scuffed and stained from the recent battle. We buried the dead bodies, but the broken bits of golems are still there. I don’t like leaving them, but we haven’t the strength to move them.
We know so little about golems, even after all these years of fighting them. Why shouldn’t they reassemble themselves out of the parts strewn across the battlefield and walk off it?
I pass what looks to be a small grove of bare trees. Night walkers, rooted in the shadow of the canyon wall. They haven’t moved in days. They’re the only part of Sera’s army—now my responsibility—that haven’t tried to kill me, either intentionally or not, nor complained about being hungry or tried to steal my shoes or take over. No, they’ve just stood there and that’s earned them a bucketful of water around their ankles every evening.
Highwind is a place of water. The Salera Desert is not.
Flutter’s a shadow at the foot of the ramp, thin and insubstantial in the hot brightness. I stumble over a stone, and reach out for the wall with my right arm.
Right. I don’t have a hand there anymore.
The stump bangs against the wall, and I lean my shoulder in as I catch my balance. The missing hand weighs down my right arm. Why does absence have so much mass? It almost matches the dark pit in my soul, constantly threatening to drag me down.
I kick pebbles down the ramp as I continue on my way. They skip and skitter almost down to Flutter’s feet, but she pays no mind, intent as she is on a small cloud hovering above the ground.
Bringing back yet another cloak.
I stop behind Flutter, giving her space. The cloud of dust shudders, and slowly forms itself into the shape of a woman.
Her face and body are the color of sand, her features crude and exaggerated, her body a suggestion with no details. She looks like one of those old statues of women dug out of the desert from time to time, ones that are all stylized lines and curves.
She gathers in on herself for one breath. One inhalation, one heartbeat, and she’s a cloak again, pale-faced and dark-eyed, a shiver of dark membranous cloak-wing behind her.
And then she shatters.
I lunge for Flutter—left hand!—grab her shoulder (for a moment my fingers hold cool air), and spin her around and down.
I screw my eyes shut, and a crackle of power surges around us. Particles sting my cheek, burn against my neck. The darkness behind my eyelids turns a dull red which bleeds itself out into blackness.
I peek out through a half-open eye.
The other cloak’s gone.
Flutter flows out of my grasp, and to the place where the other cloak had been. There’s a grey tinge to her white skin, and her eyes look like the holes of masks, showing nothingness. I think I see light glimmering through her, as if she were full of minute holes, and then I don’t look closely any more.
“You should eat,” I tell her roughly. “Or else you’ll disappear, too. Come on.”
Flutter doesn’t answer. She’s still looking at that damn patch of earth.
“I didn’t even know her name,” she says, soft as mist. “But we hatched at about the same time and slept in cells next to each other. She smelled like those purple wildflowers that grow above Highwind in the spring.”
I make a frustrated sound behind my closed lips. “Why do you torture yourself like this? Why bring them back—to all this?” My gesture encompasses city, valley, and fort. “To a place they don’t belong, to the knowledge that memory and identity has been taken from them.”
“Not forever,” says Flutter. “Things that have been taken can be returned. What is lost is found again.”
She sounds more and more eilendi-like every day. Spouting enigmatic proverbs and truisms.
Doesn’t she realize that she’s one of the lucky ones?
Or, the unluckiest. To remember so much about her past life, and yet so little.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She starts. “My-my what?”
“Flutter is what I called you. You had a name once. What is it?”
Her eyes widen, on the edge of turning into the faceted smoke-dark eyes of a cloak. I tense, and feel my spiders snap to alertness, ready to defend me, weakened as they are.
I push them back down. No transformations.
“I don’t know,” Flutter says at last. “I don’t know.” She shrugs her thin shoulders. “Flutter is as good a name as any for now.”
I know she’s lying.