As she reverently wiped blood from the dead woman’s cheek, Olara listened closely with her mind. Final thoughts could drift from any of the corpses, like buds of wing-flowers to be carried on the wind to any who might grasp them from the air, and she meant to gather them.
At last, a brief, burst of memory cascaded through the mindstream, a droplet of Heza’s mental presence drifting free from her corpse. Images of children. Small and pale, with spiky ridges of hair on their heads like rows of grain. On the oldest of the lot, twin points marked the place where the knuckle horns would someday be growing from the back of the hand.
Olara took a moment to focus on what she’d captured from the dead woman’s soul. While it was the duty of any soldier to cherish the thoughts of the recently dead, commanders were particularly responsible for catching them and keeping them. One brief but deep surge of anguish spiked through Olara for those small ones Heza had left behind. The oldest would take pride in her mother’s death, but for the youngest it would only be pain, a tearing of heartflesh.
Olara rose on aching legs and picked her way across the battlefield, identifying the dead, letting herself enjoy the heady scent of blood in the air. Overall, it had been a good battle, over ten dozen of the enemy Dlexa, along with their circles of devoted males, had been slain, over five hundred fifty dead all told. Her troops would rest well tonight, between the weariness of their muscles and the satisfaction in the vengeance they’d wrought. Certainly, Olara would.
Other memories floated across the field, rainbows of emotion coloring the gathering gloom of night. One in particular caught Olara’s attention. It had been one of the enemy. She’d seen Ketzhura, the Swordbearer of the Door Clan marching Light-Axis with her cohorts and subclans. While she didn’t cherish the dying thoughts of enemies, she valued tidbits of information like these at least as much.
Then something else tickled her mental senses--like a whisper of the Nightmare. It was so faint that she might have imagined it. Every member of Claw-Clan carried some piece of that ancient darkness in their souls. It wasn’t that unusual to feel a twinge of it, especially when tired and surveying carnage like this, particularly for someone like Olara who carried just a little more of that nameless terror inside her than most. Perhaps that was all it was. Perhaps--
“Swordbearer,” one of the overleaders called.
The woman jogged to Olara, turned her fist toward her heart so that her knuckle horns prodded her own chest, and knelt. It took Olara a moment to remember this officer’s name. Lendra. Yes, that was it.
“We found children,” Lendra said. “Five of them. Locked in the Nightmare.” Her voice trembled slightly. She paused, then spoke again in a more controlled tone. “They were in a system of caves to Dark-Axis.”
Another whisper of madness played through the mindstream.
It was usual to simply kill such children, to put them out of their misery and protect the minds of those around them. Doing so, however, always had its cost in morale. Victories had been few enough recently that Olara didn’t want to lose the joy of today’s win.
“Take me to them,” Olara said.
“Swordbearer,” Lendra said, still kneeling. “There’s no need. I can have my devoted males take care of the problem. Quickly. Quietly. Before the rest of the troops are aware.”
Olara stared down at her overleader. What Lendra was not saying was that there was more than morale at stake here, and Lendra was worried for Olara. Attempting to subdue the Nightmare had a cost. Breaking the Nightmare should not be attempted by someone who was tired, certainly not someone as battle-weary as Olara was. Worse, she’d freed perhaps a dozen such children in her life already, and that made it that much worse. Each time a little more of the terror took hold inside her. One could only free so many before paying the price in sanity.
“Take me to them,” Olara repeated.
Lendra rose, and marched, leading the way. Within a few steps, her guidance was no longer necessary. The mindsignal was strong enough that Olara could follow it on her own. Already it was sufficiently powerful to send bright shards of pain along her spine. Olara stifled the maniacal laugh that echoed inside her and steeled herself for what was to come. That it was affecting her already was bad. Maybe Lendra was right. Maybe she should have these lost ones killed.
The deep blue of night slid across the land, rushing away as it always did like a person’s last breath. Olara glanced up. The Source, the great black tetrahedron that hung above them in the center of the sky, had turned to focus the light from its vertexes on another part of the world’s interior. Soon, the thrush beetles would start their buzzing song.
It would be so easy to change her mind, to turn away from these children the way the Source turned away at evening. Olara could rest and give pretty speeches about this tragedy, even use it to stir more feelings of hatred toward the Door Clan. How dare they slaughter the hive mothers and leave the children to the Nightmare? A mercy killing was the better choice.
Olara opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. Why did she hesitate? She found herself thinking of Heza’s little ones. They were far away and safe, thank the Maker Gods, yet Heza’s memory had awakened some kind of sympathy for children in Olara. She recognized it as an emotional weakness, and another sign that what she was contemplating was too dangerous to try, and yet she couldn’t stop herself.
So she sent out a call in the mindstream to her devoted males, letting them know which direction she headed, and the mission that awaited them.
No, Trengo called back. My Dlexa, do not spend yourself on these lost ones.
The others chimed in with him, their sentiments blending together in a unity of concern for her welfare.
Trengo had been hers since they were children, since they were so young that their minds had been part of the single hive intelligence common to little ones. Olara still had memories of that time, not only of what the world had looked like through his eyes, but what it was to be one with him in the deepest possible sense. The world had been a sweet and beautiful place back then, before she’d known of the Door Clan and the long war. She couldn’t give that sort of childhood back to these lost ones Lendra had found, but some sort of life might yet be possible.
She let her emotions bleed into the mindstream, allowing her devoted to sense what she felt. While there was no doubt they’d serve her loyally, Olara believed she’d have greater mental strength if they shared her opinion and supported her with all their heartflesh.
When Lendra came to a stop in front of a cave leading beneath a barren hillside, half of Olara’s devoted males were already there. Three men, each a head taller than Olara herself, and with bodies layered in muscle. Their strength would be needed against the Nightmare, for it could make warriors of anything it took hold of. Their faces were masks of pain. This close, even the men were sensitive enough to tell what dwelt inside the cave.
Madness. Laughter. Blood. She took a hissing breath through her teeth. How many strong were those thoughts?
“There are five,” Lendra said, in answer to Olara’s unspoken question.
Too many. She had no hope of saving them all. Still, she’d do what she could.
Olara stepped forward to place her hands on Trengo’s head. In this way they could connect more deeply, and share the emotions of consolation. When she’d partaken of his strength, she kissed his forehead and moved on to the next. Lavro, who adored her. Mizro, the quick one, who she relied upon to carry urgent messages. They would all need each other if they were to get through this. By the time she’d communed with each of the three, the others were there. Huko, the child-like lover of games and dancing. Pito, the quiet, pious one. He’d been praying for the children from the moment he’d heard about them. Kengto and Kesko, her angry young fighters.
Lendra did the same with her devoted males.
“We need to split the children up,” Olara said, knowing it wasn’t a simple proposition. “Get your devoted males ready.”
“How many children will you attempt to save?” Lendra asked.
“Three,” Olara said, knowing that might still be too many. She was afraid to split them up more than that. Children rarely had enough strength of mind to live on their own when they were still in the hive state. Perhaps even a pair would fail to thrive, especially if they had to cope with the damage this Nightmare had already done.
“When you’re ready, Lendra, let us go.”
“Now is as good a time as any, Swordbearer.”
They crawled down into the darkness, their minds open. It made the descent seem deeper, darker.
The devoted males, following one step behind, closed their minds. Men didn’t have the mental strength for such things, even the stronger ones like Trengo.
Olara sensed a presence--no, multiple presences hovering over them. Intelligences. Welcome, they seemed to say. We have a surprise for you.
There was nothing there, of course, but rock. Olara and Lendra had to broadcast the difference between reality and Nightmare, to hold the distinction forth within the mindstream like a candle against an endless night. These cruel, mocking, many-armed things that floated above were creatures of ancient imagination, not real.
Olara screamed the thought, loud enough that she felt her own scalp and spine tingle and become warm. The children--she felt them now--scattered before her like frightened insects.
Two of them, however, were huddled at the center.
Olara and Lendra paused, sensing the malice shiver in the air around them.
On all the previous occasions Olara had tried to remove children from the Nightmare, the affliction had been a thing recently begun. A few days old at most. This one felt as if it had been festering for months. Somehow, despite their madness, these children had successfully hunted for food and kept their bodies alive. She caught glimpses in the mindstream of them spearing fish with their knuckle horns and eating them alive.
They’d used spears also. They’d made weapons.
Chants and laughter rose from below, and the beating of drums. Drums. The skins were made of--no, she’d not think about that. More laughter, almost a barking, nearly a death wail in its inhuman shrillness.
Olara crouched, drew the Sword of Kodranka, and activated it. The weapon hummed softly in the darkness with the power of the Fenenk. Those below would never hear it over the din. She wished they could though. Maybe they’d fear it--if they could fear anything.
“These aren’t children. They are adolescents,” Lendra whispered. Sound would be harder for those below to overhear. “They’ve been like this a long time. We should kill them, Swordbearer. Please.”
By adolescence, children should have emerged from the hive mind with their own individuality. That meant these people had not been in this state for months, but years. Maker Gods, perhaps Lendra was right, perhaps there was nothing to save here.
Olara licked her lips. But maybe their age meant it would be easier to separate them from each other.
“We try anyway,” Olara whispered.
At the base of the pit they emerged in a large chamber. Crystalline growths sparkled everywhere on the walls, ceiling, the stalactites and stalagmites themselves glimmered like jewels. It should have been beautiful, but somehow it added to the Nightmare, amplified it. This place was part of the dark vision that hovered in the back of every member of Claw Clan’s mind. Olara had not known this aspect of the Nightmare before, but then she’d seen no one go as deeply into it as these children.
This revelation by itself nearly woke a shiver of mad laughter in her.
But that was not the worst thing. In the center were lights arranged in a circle, softly burning oil flames in small glass lanterns. In the center was... was something that sent Olara’s heartflesh to writhing in pain.
The adolescent was a female, as tall as Olara herself. She had eight arms, only the top two of which were live. The other six were taken from bodies and attached by ropes. Cords dangled from the two living wrists, attached to the dead ones in succession below so that when the creature waved her arms all its attached hands moved like a fan.
Lendra collapsed to the floor, laughing, her eyes sparkling with madness.
Olara felt a similar sound escape her mouth. For just a moment, the vision before her took on a different nature. The thing before her became one of the Laughing Gods themselves, the many-limbed creatures at the core of the Nightmare. They reached for her with their many snake-like arms.
Olara forced the image away, just in time to see an adolescent male try to strike at her with his spear. She blocked with her sword, which sliced through the spear haft as though it were smoke. He struck again with the shaft of wood. Again, she swept her blade through it.
Normally, in an encounter such as this, she’d strike and kill her attacker, but this thing coming at her was a person she was trying to save. What options did that leave?
The boy lunged, throwing himself directly at her, his knuckle horns pointing forward. Olara froze with her blade held vertically before her, not willing to strike but not knowing what else to do. His horns grazed her arms as his mad grin sliced itself in half by colliding with her weapon.
Olara shrieked and deactivated the sword.
Laughter erupted all around her, a desperate and inhuman sound. The presence of the children in the mindstream was noticeably weaker for the loss of this male, but what remained seemed all the more dangerous. Their madness burrowed inside her mind, trying to dig its way into her core.
Olara closed her eyes and fell to her knees. Her entire world was the mindstream now, and she was alone in it with these four children. Lendra had closed her mind. That was best. The weakest mind always became a target for those wrapped in Nightmare, and if they subdued Lendra, Olara would have no chance.
A ripple of laughter escaped Olara’s lips.
She might not have a chance anyway. Images crashed in her mind, the cavern of crystal, the many arms, the barking laughter, blood, so much blood.
“I am Olara, Bearer of the Sword of Kodranka,” she growled. Saying the words aloud helped her to focus her thoughts.
In answer, the eight-armed girl gave a keening wail, a sound like steel sliding on steel. The sound scraped along Olara’s bones, wracking her body with pain, sending her to the floor.
Something loomed over her, digging in her chest with a knife, pulling organs from inside her.
Olara screamed and opened her eyes, only to find herself still upright and on her knees. Her hands patted her chest and found it intact. Regardless, though, she couldn’t suppress the feeling that something cold poked inside her, stealing pieces of her heartflesh.
This was the end. She felt it in every bone, vein, and throughout her skin. This Nightmare was too strong for her and in moments she’d be a part of it. She met the eight-armed girl’s eyes and understanding flashed between them. Yes. Everyone needed to die.
Laughter dribbled from her mouth in short bursts.
No! Olara rallied, and poured what she had of herself into resisting. She had to hold on. Had to--but pieces of her insides still felt like they were slipping away. She clutched at her chest as if hoping to hold them in.
That’s when she noticed, for the first time, that her devoted males were present. Of course they were. They’d come down with her, hadn’t they? But once the battle with the Nightmare started, she’d lost track of where they were. Now she saw them. They held three of the children, restraining their madly thrashing limbs. One was a girl, the other two were boys. These weren’t quite as old as the many-armed one, or the boy who’d split himself on her weapon.
Lendra stabbed the eight-armed girl, driving her long steel sword directly through the girl’s heart. In an instant, the Nightmare broke into pieces of midnight glass, a hail of obsidian razors, a torrential storm of inky acid. Pain. Darkness.
Olara burned into the receding madness, driving it back. With the oldest two of the five gone, the other three lacked the strength to go on fighting. Would they have the strength to live? They were near the age of separation. That had to help.
The darkness lifted.
For the first time since the encounter began, Olara saw the cavern as simply a cavern. Yes, it had an unusual amount of crystal, but there was nothing else strange about it. A place, not a prison of the mind. She reached the first of the males, and pushed her fingers into position on his scalp, feeling for the contact points. It should be safe enough for this deeper sharing now.
They connected. She saw in his mind the murder of his caretakers by Door Clan warriors. It was the moment the Nightmare had opened for him. Olara poured her calm into him as she drank his grief. His body shuddered as the first peace he’d known in several years filled his mind--his distinct mind--and he dropped to the floor sobbing.
She moved to the next male and did the same thing. He, too, fell to the floor, in peace. Free. Weeping quietly.
The girl shuddered at the sudden loss of the others. Her eyes went distant and blank. A female had a stronger mind, but no contact points. There was little Olara could do for such a one. Drool fell from the girl’s mouth in a lazy line.
“Allow me,” Trengo said, touching Olara’s arm. He stepped forward, knelt, and pulled the girl’s fingers to his scalp. Olara helped put them in place.
The girl’s eyes widened and she gasped for breath, as if coming up from deep water. Then she was panting, her eyes darting left and right. She laughed, a high mad sound, and Trengo joined her cackling.
“Be strong, my lovely Trengo,” Olara breathed.
She put her hands on his shoulders, hoping he’d feel the physical contact and take strength from it even though he was mentally isolated from her.
Trengo stopped laughing, and so did the girl.
“Why,” said the girl. “Why is there no blood on my hands? I remember killing so many.”
“It wasn’t you,” Olara said.
Trengo stood, letting the girl’s fingers fall away. He embraced her, and she sobbed uncontrollably. She, too, was free.
Three were saved. Why was it that Olara could only think about the other two?