Garad was too thirsty to wonder how a bottle could have possibly appeared in the pitiless Steppes of Im’rar.
He crawled toward it, heeding not only his thirst but also a voice — wordless, though he could feel it like the first breath of a cooling breeze. The shimmering glass promised him something beyond survival.
Garad had ridden this far out hoping to dissuade his attackers from pursuing him. He knew horses. He knew his loyal mount could handle the rough terrain. He did not know the brigands would be desperate enough to follow him off the skeleton-marked road and into this vast and hellish wild.
The chase was folly, as was the whole journey. But he had to reach Pitak.
Garad lived a comfortable retirement appraising riders’ mounts. When the woman had approached him, she said the letter must be delivered from Pitak. She’d trust no other Courier Office, and no one had Garad’s experience in this part of the Steppes. He accepted her purse — a fortune to her, a pittance to him.
He saw her one last time, cut from ear to ear outside the tavern where he’d drunk away her coin. He’d ridden hard for Pitak the following dawn, passing one Atonement Post after another.
It was expected travelers passing the road markers would make an offering of water, bread, salt, or something of worth. He knew, from his time in the Courier Service, a maxim for those traversing the Steppes: “Give nothing to the earth, and it will take everything.”
But he wanted this unpleasant trip — his last ride — behind him.
When the brigands caught Garad, they beat him close to death. They took his horse, water, and boots. But he still had the letter inside of his vest, sewn into the fabric.
Garad finally reached the bottle. It was remarkably pristine for being half-submerged in dirt. He reached for it, and a searing pain shot through his ribs. He could not make out the contents through the opaque glass, but it felt light. Surely not worth the effort. And yet, Garad heard the voice again, borne along the winds heralding the coming of night.
He uncorked the bottle. Immediately, an eruption of fire thrust him twenty yards across the land. When his vision cleared, he saw the fire towering over him to touch the sky. Cowering down, Garad saw the bottle had shattered against the rocks. He watched in amazement as all the broken pieces floated toward each other, the blazing tower melting them into a single pool. The form of a woman, wreathed in flame, shimmered in its reflection.
She was unmistakable. It was the dead woman who had given him the letter.
The woman stepped out of the molten pool, singeing the dry ground beneath her feet. The column of fire flared down as she emerged, now the only light for miles around.
She beckoned to him, twirling her wrist.
Garad bent his head, watching as the molten glass formed a drill. He had heard tales of ethereal Uncannies haunting the Steppe. If not one of those, surely this was the shade of the woman he’d doomed, come to wreak her vengeance on him.
Surely, Garad thought, this was the end.
The living shard halted its burrowing with an earthy gasp. After a moment, the shard crawled out of the hole and into Garad’s hand. It formed the shape of a deep goblet, now full of cool water.
Garad did not think. He drank.
“My name is Cerana,” the once-wordless voice said through this woman. “I serve at your pleasure, Breaker.”
“Can you take me to Pitak?” spat Garad through gulps of water.
“Worry not, Breaker,” Cerana said. “We are bonded. You will have the salvation you seek.”
Garad drank the final drops of water. The goblet melted through his fingers, reforming into a compass needle. It spun briefly, then affixed to a direction and slithered forth like a snake.
“Come, Breaker,” she said as she followed the living shard.
They journeyed through the night, Garad empowered with the energy of his mysterious revival. But the rising fingers of dawn unsettled Cerana as they neared the brigands’ camp.
“What’s wrong?” Garad asked.
“We will not last long in this sun,” said Cerana as she hurried toward the camp.
Garad wondered why a fire being would fear the sun. But she was right. He needed shelter.
The brigands were encircled around a low, sputtering fire. Cerana approached them as they shook off their sleep.
One pointed at her and cried, “Night Fiend!” They all groped for their weapons.
Cerana’s living shard returned to her like a loyal pet, slithering around her ankle and up her torso to entangle itself around her forearm.
It formed a grieve, blocking the first brigand’s attack. Then the shard shot forth from Cerana’s hand like an arrow, straight through the attacker’s eye.
One brigand screamed. The others fled to their horses.
Cerana looked back at Garad, who watched from the edge of camp. “What say you, Breaker? These men almost denied you your redemption.”
Garad considered the men. He remembered every kick of theirs, along with every burning, dizzying, tortured motion of his own as he clambered across the Steppe.
“Kill them,” he said. But he averted his own eyes as he said it.
Garad could not find the courage to look back until after the screams had ended and only the ferrous smell of warm gore hung in the air. One blood-stained brigand remained alive, curled up tightly and whimpering. Garad turned for his horse, gripping a dagger from under his satchel.
Cerana walked into the brigands’ dying fire. The remaining flames soaked into her fiery skin. But still, she dug greedily among the fading coals.
Garad looked back at the rummaging noise. “Cerana…?” he said.
She stared at him. “This is not enough.”
Horse screams suddenly filled the air: Cerana’s glass blade impaled one of the brigand’s mounts. No sooner had the beast collapsed than the shard ripped through the carcass, tearing away swaths of skin like a tailor with a roll of fabric.
The sheets of horse skin floated toward Cerana as though bidden on a fell wind. Garad watched in horror as Cerana wrapped herself in the hide, building herself a shroud against the sun.
Cerana stepped out of the cold husk of the fire pit, fresh blood dripping on the dry dirt. Garad retreated.
“This is necessary to protect me from the sun,” said Cerana.
“How can the sun hurt if you need light?” asked Garad.
“Your oceans are vast,” she said, “but you cannot drink from them.”
Garad saw the horse skin already smoking against the touch of her fiery exterior.
“How long will it last?” asked Garad.
“Horseflesh is less potent than others,” she responded.
Garad surveyed the camp. His gaze fell upon the remaining brigand.
“What’s your name?” Garad snapped.
“D-D-Deegan,” the brigand said.
Garad gestured at the bodies. “Help me load them onto the horses,” he said.
Later, they followed the shard deeper into the Steppes. Cerana claimed they moved East, toward Pitak.
Garad was not so sure.
“We might escape together,” whispered Deegan. He and Garad were laying beneath a lean-to shelter. Outside, Cerana soaked in the light of their night fire in the distance.
They’d ridden for four days, each more difficult than the last. Garad had hoped that they would reach their destination before the horses were expended.
By the second day’s end, after watching all but his own horse fall to the shard, he knew better. Cerana’s hunger was as unrelenting as the beating sun that helped desiccate her horseflesh cloaks.
By then, Deegan had apologized for his friends’ attack and a hundred other crimes. The display sickened Garad, but he was powerless to stop the shard.
Garad held Deegan back as his fallen compatriots were further butchered and made to clothe Cerana. Part of him thought if Deegan did not interfere in Cerana’s plans, they’d both live to reach Pitak. But he also knew the longer Deegan was alive, the longer that living flesh would sustain Cerana.
Then he, at least, might reach Pitak to deliver the letter.
“I won’t stop you,” said Garad.
“I can’t outrun her blade,” said Deegan.
“And if I run, too, there’s a chance it’ll take me instead?”
“She won’t hurt you.”
“I have to make it to Pitak,” Garad said, shaking his head.
Deegan grabbed Garad.
“That thing is a Night Fiend,” Deegan said, “a devouring Uncanny; a living void that consumes everything. It won’t save you.”
“I’ve heard the tales,” Garad said. He gestured at the barren landscape. “You really believe the Night Fiends alone transformed Im’rar from a spanning oasis to this?”
“I don’t need to believe,” Deegan said. “I saw what it did to my friends. It’ll do the same to you. Whoever that old woman is to you, the Night Fiend isn’t her.”
Garad shook Deegan off. “She paid me for a job. I’m going to do it.” He patted the place he’d sewn the letter. “She was desperate. I knew she didn’t believe I would, but she gave me the coin anyway. Maybe that drove her to the tavern. Maybe not. But I’m going to Pitak.”
Deegan stared at Garad, then turned over. “You think you’re better than me because I’d risk the loss of one of us,” he said, “but you know it will take me soon.”
They set out before dawn on the fifth day. Deegan refused to leave the shelter while Cerana flayed his last fallen comrade. Only the promise of riding Garad’s horse roused him.
The sun rose fully as they crested a large dune, revealing an Atonement Post at its base.
They approached, the shard always hanging in the air behind Garad and Deegan. Garad inspected the notches on the Post, indicating the proximity to the nearest settlements.
“How far are we?” asked Deegan.
Garad knew how the answer would sound. “Not close enough,” he said.
Deegan flinched from the hungry look in Cerana’s eyes. The skin of his final compatriot was already blistering from the inside, filling the air with the stench of burnt hair and scorched fat.
Garad faced the Night Fiend. “You were true to your word, Cerana.”
Cerana nodded. “There is only salvation through me, Garad,” she said.
Garad approached his horse, petting its gorgeous chestnut neck. He felt the horse shudder before bending to nuzzle his palm. The stallion was in constant shock after watching Cerana feed unceasingly upon both man and beast.
Garad always ensured the Courier Service had excellent mounts, but he’d kept this one for himself. He knew a fine horse would be a reliable insurance policy.
It had been a pleasant lie: In truth, he simply loved this horse.
Garad basked in the affection from his animal’s eyes.
Then he slapped the stallion’s haunch. His loyal horse sped off, Deegan barely righting himself as they rode away.
The floating shard pointed after Deegan. Cerana stiffened, prepared to send it after her prey.
But Garad grabbed the shard himself.
She whirled on him, her voice ringing with rage and betrayal. “You would deny me my due?”
Garad brought the shard closer. “Never,” he said. He drew the shard across the flesh of his arm. “We are bonded.”
Garad left his first offering at that Atonement Post.
He knew there were dozens more Posts to reach before Pitak.