The Red Wraith
by Nick Wisseman
Copyright © 2015 by Nick Wisseman
The midday sun festered like a corrupted wound, and Naysin still didn’t know how to save his people.
He shook his head, sending his hair—smoky gray, despite his mere twenty-one winters—sweeping across his ankles; he was sitting cross-legged on the earthen pyramid’s flat summit, staring at a patch of crabgrass as he waited for the ascenders. Naysin couldn’t actually see them; the plateau was too broad, and he’d positioned himself at its center. But he could picture them perfectly. In appearance, they were unchanged from the second morning of the last moon, when Tay had helped him plant the beacon.
“Naysin?” she lisped.
He didn’t look up; he could visualize Tay as clearly as the ascenders. She was sitting next to him, double-bladed rainstick balanced on her thighs and deceptively milky eyes scanning the plateau’s perimeter. His earth-toned breechcloth contrasted sharply with her brilliant tunic and feathered leggings.
“You had a question?” she asked gently.
Spirits and lakes. How long had he kept her waiting? “Forgive me...” His focus had warbled like a blue jay since Tay spotted Quecxl, the first ascender to arrive. The fellow original man had been little more than grit on the horizon, but through some vestige of the beacon, Naysin had envisioned him immediately: muscular build, middling height, and badly pocked skin shaded somewhere between Tay’s dusky brown and his own muted red. Quecxl wore a loincloth and a sleeveless poncho, and with each step he chanted a different word, to which the gull perched on his shoulder bobbed its grimy head.
Had the pair seen who waited for them on the pyramid? Naysin doubted it. Few creatures’ eyes were as sharp as Tay’s, and Quecxl and the bird’s had likely been fixed on the monument itself. It had clearly known better days; weeds obscured the north side’s crumbling steps, and the mound’s once-smooth slopes had been sullied by erosion and burrowing animals. But the peak remained the highest point in the flatlands, and the dirt edifice still emanated authority.
Naysin and Tay had moved back from the summit’s edge once the other ascenders came into view. He’d blinded them to each other’s presence, but they’d still chosen to climb separate sides of the pyramid, as if claiming them for their respective races. Quecxl was struggling up the north slope, eschewing the treacherous stairs. Conquering the east side was Amadi, a tall night skin whose ill-fitting breeches were as ragged as his salt-and-pepper beard. His chest gleamed with tattoos of glyphs and beasts, and he walked with a limp as he carried on a whispered conversation with himself.
That aside, Amadi seemed relatively calm. So did Quecxl. Maybe they hadn’t heard what Naysin had wrought since their last meeting. But on the south slope...
“What of the burned man?” Tay asked, intuiting where Naysin’s thoughts had turned.
He considered the pale man for another breath as the stout Anglo used an exposed root to steady himself. His ropy blond hair only partially concealed the fire scar protruding from his collar, and the equally red imprint of an open palm on his forehead had grown no less horrific since their clash at Fort Kaska. In his free hand, he clutched a dragonhead blunderbuss as if his life depended on pulling its trigger. Perhaps it did. “He’s sweating,” Naysin said eventually. Ironically, the burned man appeared to be feeling the heat more than anyone else.
“Pleasant. And Isaura?”
The Espan was tackling the west side, and her creamy skin was every bit as beautiful as Naysin remembered. Both ankles clinked with bracelets, and somehow she was managing the climb without tripping over her flowing dress. But although her auburn hair was festively braided, filled with blue flowers and intricate knots, her eyes betrayed less joyous emotions; she at least must have learned what he’d done at Edgeland... Had her lover survived? Had she found him? “She doesn’t want to be here.”
“Why do you think they’ve come?”
“Because they must.” Lifting one end of her rainstick to the height of her ribs, she let it fall back against her thighs, setting off a storm of tiny rattles. Then she glanced at him. “Was that your question? If you want me to play at reading fates again...”
“I know—yes or no only.” Naysin uprooted a blade of crab grass and twisted it to the point of breaking and back. “Do any of them want to be here?”
“Do you?” Tay said softly. Without waiting for an answer, she closed her eyes, took a slow breath, and tapped the ground twice. “That means no.”
It was his turn to nod.
“Naysin...” Tay reached her left hand toward his right before pulling back. “How much longer? I know they’re to arrive at the same time, but...” She anticipated his answer by rising and brandishing her rainstick, setting it rattling like a slash of hail.
He dropped the crab grass. “It’s now,” he said unnecessarily as, in eerie unison, the ascenders crested the summit. While the specters from his past had converged, he’d shamaned two flows around them: one to hide them from the others, and one to speed or slow their steps as required. Now Naysin lifted the collective veil, and the ascenders saw each other for the first time. Eyes flickered back and forth as Quecxl sneered at the burned man, who glared at Amadi, who smiled and beckoned.
But no one acted faster than Isaura, who drew a pistol from beneath her dress and shot Naysin through the stomach as Tay screamed a belated warning.
Head still down, he twitched... and then laughed while everyone else exploded into motion. Tay took a step toward Isaura before doubling back to Naysin; Isaura lowered her pistol and shrieked, her face a mixture of triumph and grief; Amadi yelled a battle cry and charged the burned man; the burned man brought his blunderbuss to bear on Amadi, squeezed the trigger, and let loose a column of fire; Quecxl sprinted toward Naysin.
But just before flesh and flame came into contact, Naysin whipped his arms around in a circle. Everyone else froze, paralyzed in mid-stride—except for Tay, who’d dropped her rainstick to press her hands against his side.
“Why didn’t you stop her?” Tay’s voice was steady, but her lisp had grown thicker.
“I was watching the burned man.” He paused as the pain set in. “It wasn’t in the vision.”
Blood oozed between Tay’s fingers, and she pressed harder. “Can you heal it?”
Naysin finally raised his head, revealing a swirling brand pulsing around his left eye. With each beat his veins shone darker, as if his skin were being stretched thin over a sable spider web. “No. I’d just worsen it.” A vortex of wind encircled the pyramid while he contemplated the stasis he’d created. “And balancing this is... taking a lot out of me. It hurts more than the stone.” He laughed again, this time with more sorrow than surprise, and blood trickled up from his mouth, carried aloft by the increasingly violent air.
“Then let me reduce the burden for you.”
“Let me reduce the burden for you!” Shouting to make herself heard above the wind, Tay pulled Naysin’s hands over his wound and picked up her rainstick. “Starting with her!” She jabbed the clattering weapon toward Isaura, whose brilliant tresses were snapping about her head and trailing blue petals.
Naysin didn’t raise his voice. “No, Tay.”
She turned her unsettling eyes back on him.
“That wasn’t in your vision either.”
Tay stared at him a moment longer before jamming her rainstick in the ground. Then she sprinted to her pack and began shredding her spare tunic into bandages, cursing as the wind tried to snatch each new strip away. “Your cougar-men,” she asked when she returned, outwardly calm again. “Could they heal you?”
His arteries were glittering white now, like fracture lines in shattered ice. “Tay... they’re not who you think.”
She murmured something unintelligible.
“Believe what you want, but in the last three seasons, the only thing they’ve done—aside from trying to kill me—was taunt me with the knowledge that this pyramid was once called Saint’s Summit.” He winced as she wound the strips of tunic tight around his side. “Because we all know I’m anything but a holy man. They won’t help.”
Tay finished tying the bandage and looked up at him, challenging his tattooed gaze with her milky one. “Maybe they’re not who you think they are.”
Taken aback by the flecks of fear in her expression and the intensifying agony in his stomach, Naysin paused to reflect... and came to a realization. “Maybe,” he pretended to concede, “but right now, what matters is who they are.” He motioned with his head toward the frozen ascenders, then grimaced. “Spirits and lakes,” he mumbled before struggling on. “They came—we asked them to come—because this was meant to happen. And if I can figure out why...”
Tay faked a smile. “Meant to happen?” she teased valiantly. “Who’s a skeptic now? Repentant on your death bed?... Naysin? What is it?... Naysin!”
It took several moments for his eyes to refocus and register her anxious face. “I’m not sure how—maybe it’s the beacon—but I can see them now, Tay. Truly see them: how they got here, where they’ve been, what they’ve done... It’s snarled, though. I have to... untangle us. And it hurts. Spirits and lakes, it hurts... But I can know them, Tay. I can really know them... I think that’s the key to helping our people... All the original people.”
“No. You’re too weak... Naysin?... NAYSIN!” She squeezed his hand to call him back.
But he was already gone, bent on unraveling the knots of experience uniting six friends, strangers, and foes atop the wind-cloaked pyramid. The first threads were his, and with his discipline flayed by pain, there was no avoiding their kinks and whorls...