Iralana Sorrowsea whistled the three-hundred and ninety-second psalm as she inched along the trail where her elven tracker had vanished and looked for any sign of the thing that had taken him. She wasn't concerned about alerting it. With a nightweb, especially an elder nightweb, it already knew she was there. It was just waiting for her to slip up. The whistling kept her mind on her faith, which calmed her nerves, making that occurrence less likely, so she kept at it, especially after she found a patch of kicked up leaves dotted with a few specks of blood.
She brushed a few leaves aside with pale, ring-covered fingers and studied the marks in the dirt. Meldan had fought for a good three… four seconds. Landed at least one blow. But it hadn't been enough. Still, when a nightweb landed its first blow, the fight was usually over. That Meldan had fought back at all meant the eight-legs had been sloppy. Perhaps it had gotten complacent hunting women and children with no strength or fighting experience.
She straightened up and resettled her black warvore plate armor. A lock of her long, obsidian black hair had come loose and she tucked it back under her helmet behind a sunburned ear.
Sand. Meldan hadn't been the best tracker, but he was a brave man. No one else in the city had been willing to lead her team out here. The world needed more men like him, not less.
She poured her frustration into the whistle, whipping a few flourishes into the song as she scanned the huge trees arching overhead and felt for anything out of place. Cursed eight-legs could be anywhere. How a spider the size of a truck could move without a sound she didn't know, but it did.
A leaf crunched behind her and she glanced back and saw Pinder, all six feet of him hunching toward her pointing the barrel of his huge steam rifle at everything but her back. Foolish, overprotective hot-head. Skilled foolish overprotective hothead, but still. She had told him to stay back and keep a watch over her from a distance, and yet here he was, two steps behind her and about to get both of them in all kinds of trouble. It was so hard to find a man with brains.
Ira stopped whistling.
"Sure you should be making all that noise, boss?" he said. "This isn't some rogue dragonbuffalo."
"No, Pinder. It's a nightweb, and it's already watching us."
He glanced at the massive trees looming above them, some ten or more feet thick, and swept them with the rifle. She felt the warmth coming off the insulated heat brick under the barrel waft across her face. He had a bigger one on his back, as well. If the nightweb grabbed him in the wrong place, it would cook its own face off.
It probably knew it.
"You ever hunt one of these before?" he asked.
"Once. A small one. Out in the desert. But it was young." And small. And not the same species. She eyed a particularly large tree with a split trunk. The giant space between those trunks would have been a good place to take Meldan after grabbing him. "You should get back with the faeries."
"Those prancy flyers were gonna watch it eat you."
She looked back again and glared at him.
"At least they'd be following orders."
He opened his mouth to reply but she slapped a hand over it. Something had shifted in the surroundings.
It was… a branch?
A tree shook.
It hadn't been very close. Not pouncing range… but directly behind them.
Something flew through the air and stuck in the ground next to her.
Meldan's sword. Good quality gray buffbone. Covered in blood. Eight-legs had been taking its time eating.
Pinder let out a muffled curse. Ira pulled her hand back and growled at him.
"Get back with the others, now, and keep that rifle ready."
"It's taunting us. And you trying to protect me is just going to get us all killed. Now go!"
He stared at her, then grimaced and trotted back toward the ridgeline.
She sensed the strand of web go taut along the ground ahead of him a moment too late.
He looked back, still moving. His foot caught the sticky cord and he went down.
She took a step. Stopped.
She was already too late.
For a moment a ripple in the air appeared over Pinder, arriving with a whoosh as the nightweb leapt down from one of the trees.
Then it was gone, and so was Pinder. The man hadn't even gotten a chance to scream.
Sand. Sand and shoals!
Singer… please… don't let him die…
Pinder's heatblock fell to the ground at the base of a small pine with a whump and a crack, exposing its white-hot interior. A moment later the tree caught on fire. It was far enough away from anything else that it didn't set the whole forest on fire. But it did blaze up like a hideous funeral pyre in the late-afternoon sunlight.
After a brief moment she tore her eyes away from the blinding orange spire.
The nightweb was still out there, looking to take her next. And it if did, Pinder and Meldan would be dead for nothing, and the monster would go on eating people until the town collapsed.
Maybe they deserved it. A whole town full of men that didn't know how to stand up and fight.
But Meldan had come.
Ira sang the three-hundred-and-thirtieth psalm, of sorrow over the death of heroes, and drew her armor-piercing swords. Black diamondite spearturtle quills, new-bought and never used, sharper than razors on the edges. She worked her boots through the thin layer of soil to the granite just underneath and reached out with her phase americ.
She could melt this stone. In an instant.
Let the eight-legs come for her here. She would trap it.
The rush of the burning pine tree softened to crackles, then silence. Again the world was quiet.
A sound like the rattle of leaves filled the air.
Nightweb quills. They shook them to warn off those they didn't want to deal with, similar to porcupines and some snakes.
But this sound moved around, high above her, letting Ira know it was circling her.
Pinder's head dropped down on a thin line, lowered smoothly, carefully, until it touched the ground two strides away. His eyes were still open in surprise.
Ira bit back a shriek and held her ground.
What was with this thing?! Nightwebs were dangerous beyond measure, smart as people, possibly, but they were still animals. The one she had killed in the desert had taken one and wounded three with its quills, but… it had never done anything like this.
This creature wasn't taunting them. It was toying with them.
The sound of dry leaves rattled again, then merged with clicks and clacks and creaks to form a voice that sounded like it came from dead trees rubbing together in the wind.
"Ring-fingered Shifter. Waiting for me to walk the stone you stand on. I know your plan."
Ira felt cold. A shiver moved along her spine and out to her wrists.
She started whistling again, now the hundred and fourth psalm. Praise to the Singer for strength in righteous battle. She moved as she whistled, sweeping her feet low through the dirt and listening with her ears more than looking with her eyes. It was still traversing the trees above her.
"Songwoman. Singing for courage. How many of your kind have I eaten already? How many died screaming to the Singer?"
She listened to her surroundings with her kinetic americ, too, as far as she could. She couldn't touch the nightweb directly, but she could feel the things that it touched.
There. One of the trees shifted. Then the trunk next to it. Barely a creak to go with the motion.
Sand it was graceful.
"How long have I done this? How many towns have I eaten to death? You want to know. I can see it in your face."
Down a trunk, then a leap across a space to another tree, which didn't even shake. Most of the trees here were huge, but still.
It was right. She did want to know.
"Centuries, monster hunter. And for centuries more I shall continue. You are only the latest to think you could stop that. Only the latest hunter to end in my jaws."
Animals didn't care about time like that. They didn't track year after year, or set out to destroy a whole town with prejudice.
"You are here because I wanted you to be."
They didn't plan to lure in monster hunters just so they could kill them.
What WAS this?
Suddenly she knew. But… those had all been driven out by the spread of the Song.
"You see, little songwoman. War. Murder. Hypocrisy. You CALL to us. Beg us to rule you. To destroy you. The songs you think to drive us out with are nothing but curses against the Singer in your dirty mouths."
Dissonant. The nightweb was infested with one of the Dissonant. Part of the Singer's choir that had hated him and his song. Terror surged in her, hot bile in her stomach and weakness in her knees.
This was not anything that she had faced before!
In the moment of her fear it moved around behind her again, taking position high in the trees to leap down.
She was going to die.
She was going to die!
No! She had stood here before, facing death with nothing but the Song in her heart and the Wind at her back. She would not panic. Even if everyone ran away again, she would not panic.
She turned to follow the monster once more, backing up to force it to make a longer jump. Carefully stepped over the webline it had laid down for her as it circled. She dropped the whistle again and began to sing as loud as she could. The six-hundredth psalm. The psalm of the Redemption. The psalm of the Tree, and the Blood, and the Purchase.
She stared right at the nightweb and felt it stumble high in the branches.
"You don't believe, little girl. Your heart is as filled with betrayal and pride as all the others, and the song you sing is a lie."
Was it a lie?
Was it a lie that her father had left his beloved ocean to care for his sickly wife? That because of that he had chosen to live all his life in a town filled with proud, hardworking Shifters that wanted nothing to do with a scruffy Mover spearman? That he had sang the songs with joy til the day he died and worked like a dog to put food on the table because he loved the Redeemer and loved his family?
Was it a lie that he had taught her to use a spear like he did, so that she was the only one willing to stand the day the warvore came slaughtering the villagers the year after he passed?
She had stood on that day because the Song said to, and she would stand again now, and not be afraid.
"In the name of my Redeemer, Ahshayn, COME AT ME, Ancient One! Come and we will find out who is true! Come and we will find out who is purchased by the Blood!"
She heard no sound, but felt the trees buck as something huge thrust off of them. Air parted in a path straight toward her.
Ira rolled to the side, came up with her swords at the ready and slammed a foot into a patch of bare stone. Her americ surged through the rock, shifting it into liquid in a wide pool where she had been.
The invisible nightweb touched down and leaped off again before the stone could reharden and trap its claw-tipped legs. It skittered back across the ground, then surged toward her.
Ira was singing again, a lifetime of filling every moment with the Psalms making it second nature. She danced out of the way of the monster, feeling the puffs of dirt it kicked up as it moved. Another surge of americ left a puddle behind her and the nightweb caught one foot in it as it struck at her.
Stone cracked and shattered as it wrenched its foot free. It scuttled back, still nothing but a ripple in the air, still visible to her by everything it touched.
"I will eat you Shifter! Your stone tricks are nothing."
She kept the smile from her face. She hadn't shown it everything she could do yet.
It came at her one more time.
Give it into my hands, Ahshayn.
She melted the stone as deep as she could. Jumped back, missing another line by a hair.
Not far enough. The nightweb landed in front of her, legs spread wider than the edges of the pool, and one claw smashed across her breastplate.
She stumbled back.
But the breastplate held.
And the nightweb was right where she wanted it.
She punched her kinetic americ into the pool and up with everything she had. Warnings from her father of burning herself out and spending weeks trapped in bed rang in her mind, but she ignored them.
Life or death. Give me more, Singer.
Liquid stone exploded up from the pool and around the nightweb. She pulled at the top and the splash closed into a bubble over the monster, then collapsed inward.
She leapt back and cut off both americs.
The nightweb appeared, an impossibly huge tarantula jacketed in granite. Immediately cracks formed and spread.
She thrust bare hands through the dirt to the stone, dredged up more energy, and melted the stone under all eight-legs. Then grabbed the stone jacket with her kinetic americ and sent it down.
The nightweb sank into the mountain well past the first joint of its legs.
Ira stumbled and almost fell over as she stood up, her vision swimming in and out. But she made it and ran away from the stone spider.
"Amin! Ertik!" she yelled.
The two pixies were already flying overhead. She felt their weapons and armor go past as they found roosts in the trees and began dropping explosive arrows on the nightweb's head. It thrashed and struggled, but its legs were too deep in the rock to pull free in an instant.
Even so, small cracks started forming where the legs went into the stone, as the nightweb bent and twisted to avoid the incoming attacks.
The arrows wouldn't kill it. It would get free.
A flash of light told her the sunweaver was ready. She turned and threw one of her black swords high into the air and held it over the spider with her Americ. The explosive arrows had knocked the stone off the spider's face and eight obsidian eyes each larger than her own head glittered at her.
Now, Shalea. Now!
The sunweaver couldn't hurt the nightweb directly. It could bend her light attacks away without care all day. But she could hurt other things.
A beam of sunlight the thickness of a pencil slashed at an angle through the trunk of an ancient tree far wider than the full spread of Ira's arms. With a groan the leviathan started its fall to the ground, gaining momentum as it collapsed toward the spider.
The tree couldn't hurt the nightweb either, just crush it into the stone and set it free.
But the nightweb, or the dissonant, knew what she was planning. It struggled even harder, managing to rip one leg out of the stone, then another.
Ira hummed a pure tone as the tree fell, standing her ground despite branches heading toward her that were each the size of a full grown tree in their own right.
Lined up the floating sword with the fall of the tree with the thorax of the nightweb that had just pulled itself all the way free.
And transferred the momentum of the tree to the waiting sword.
Thunder cracked. Stone atomized in an explosion that shook the clearing and shot hot rock out from a crater in the bare granite directly under the nightweb.
The nightweb stumbled, a perfect hole pierced through the front-center of its thorax.
Overhead, the tree stopped, then settled lightly, pinning the stunned monster. One branch nudged Ira and she fell over.
A moment later, the pixies finished the nightweb with two explosive arrows right to the hole through its armor.
Ira made herself get up. Made herself approach the slumped form of the nightweb, remaining sword at the ready. Made herself walk side to side and inspect the corpse for signs of life even when both tall, thin, well armed and unwinded pixie men offered to do it for her.
It was dead.
Thank the Singer, it was dead.
She stepped back and lowered her sword.
Malevolence rose in a cloud and pressed into her. The men cried out in horror as screams of anger and hatred vibrated across the clearing. Something fought to find a way into Ira, and when it found no easy gap in her defenses, it went after the others.
"I am songdaughter, bloodpurchased of Ahshayn!" she cried out. "You have no hold here! GO BACK to your prison!"
It turned its attention back to her. Crushed in on her from every side. The world faded into black. Hope vanished. She raised the sword in her hand and turned the point toward her neck. She was a liar. Was a hypocrite. Just like all the weak men she hated.
A memory filled her mind. The backs of the men in the town when she begged them all for money for a healer. The backs of the men again when they ran from the warvore.
Yes. She hated them all. She hated them forever.
And she deserved to die for it, just like them.
As the sword pricked her throat, Iralana Sorrowsea remembered the psalm her father had sung the day he came home from two months away working a seasonal job only to find his beloved dead because no one would hire a healer for the wife of the foreigner. The song of forgiveness and mercy.
How could she forgive them?
How could she ever?
Because she had been.
Something in her heart uncurled and let go.
Ira opened her mouth and sang Psalm six-hundred-and-one.
Sang it until her arm obeyed again and the sword fell from her open hand. Until her limbs moved freely and the light returned. Until the malevolent cloud screamed curses out loud…
And then fled.
In the next moment the clearing was still, as if nothing had happened. Nothing but a tough fight with an overlarge chimera.
Ira let the tears come. She had not sung that song in ten years.
Not since they put her mother in the ground.
She sank to her knees where she stood and bowed her head in exhaustion.
Yet, something inside felt good. Clean.
The town would be safe now. The people would no longer be eaten. It had cost two lives, but more had been saved. From something far worse that she had ever imagined.
Boots crunched on leaves.
She looked up and saw the two men. Shalea was with them, her weathered black face creased with concern.
"Let's all take a vacation," Ira said. "How's my hometown sound?"
Shalea raised a dark eyebrow. "I thought you hated that place."
"Times change. I want to see it again."
Amin studied her. Ertik started whistling a bartune. Shalea finally nodded.
Yes. Definitely time for a vacation.
Finally time to go home.