BRILL-BRA was beside himself with rage. It became clear that his entire village would be destroyed. Damned Veritas, he thought, I will destroy every last one of them if it’s my last act on earth. People were in such a panic to grab their possessions and leave, many of his subjects were ignoring him. Him! A handful of soldiers helped him gather together the few children and quickly the small band headed out for the land of the Z-LOTZ. BRILL-BRA saw little choice but to throw his lot in with the Z-LOTZ. This carried its own risks because, even with the three young daughters of L-SIDNEY, he still fell short by two of the promised number of child slaves he was supposed to deliver before the next full moon. But BRILL-BRA had grown obese and soft. He had no desire to wander aimlessly and try to live off the land. Perhaps he could even find a way to overthrow NUT-PI and lead the numerous and obedient Z-LOTZ.
BRILL-BRA and his band of warriors and their captive children soon reached the lands they called, “The Dead Zone.” Almost nothing grew here. Ordinarily, the ROI avoided the place (as did all the tribes), but the shortest path to the cities of the Z-LOTZ lay through it. The days when BRILL-BRA enjoyed a long hike for the pleasure of it were long past. In this land of dirt and scattered rocks, falling sparks found nothing to feed on. While the Z-LOTZ believed “The Dead Zone” to be populated with the ghosts of long-dead ancestors, BRILL-BRA considered such superstition pure absurdity. He thought it most likely that such stories were concocted long ago to scare the children of the Z-LOTZ into submission. But, maybe the leaders believed all that bull crap. BRILL-BRA didn’t know and he didn’t care. He trudged on in a foul mood. He never even got a chance to torture L-SIDNEY. He began to curse loudly as he walked. They were barely two miles beyond the outskirts of their burning village when he ordered everyone to stop and rest.
He ordered one of his lackeys to bring one of the girls over to him. “Keep her hands tied behind her. I don’t trust her.” Soon it was done and the girl stood before him. BRILL-BRA considered that a little pleasuring from her would improve his mood and let him plot out his next moves. But what the hell was this? She was crying! “STOP CRYING!” he screamed, “or I will give you something to cry about! Why the hell are you crying?”
The girl shivered in fear, and her voice was choked, but she managed a weak, tremulous reply. “I don’t know where Daddy is. Our whole village has been burned up. Why are you not crying, oh great leader?”
Though these words were spoken in hardly more than a hoarse whisper, others had heard it. BRILL-BRA became flustered and embarrassed. “Because I am a man and men don’t cry. They build things and fix things. But you are beyond fixing!” He planted his foot in her belly and shoved her backwards. She fell back heavily and screamed in pain as she fell spraining her wrist which was trapped under her. Her head grazed a sharp rock and blood began to flow from her ear onto her disheveled ringlets. “Oh, CRAP!” screamed BRA-BRILL. NUT-PI always wanted the children delivered as tribute to be clean and uninjured so that he and he alone would be responsible for their various disfigurations and injuries.
BRILL-BRA yelled at one of his soldiers to “Stop the bleeding and clean this one up. Bring me another. And make sure she’s got a nice smile on her face and is not blubbering like a child!”
A thought flashed through the soldier’s mind, “But she is a child.” Naturally, he did not utter this aloud. He dutifully did as ordered. Soon, a still younger child was forced to kneel before BRILL-BRA.
Tu-Swift raced downhill to escape the attacking flames. The thick smoke choked him and the air itself seemed to lack its very essence. He could not hear his comrades above the crackling of the fire nor see any sign of them. Suddenly, his foot landed wrong and he heard and felt a snapping within himself even above the roar of the raging fire. He heard a scream and landed hard on his stomach. He tried to breathe but couldn’t. Still the flames pursued him and he managed to rise to his hands and knees. He couldn’t stand upright. Something was wrong with his right leg. He scrambled on hands and knees to the edge of a stream and then into it. On the far side, he saw a large cliff coming right down to the water’s edge. He scrambled toward it. The cliff rock had split and he slipped into the large crack. He thought this would be as protected a space as he could find in his current condition. Surrounded by rock, scraped and scratched, he lay sideways in the cleft. Tu-Swift looked up at a sliver of blue sky above him. Tu-Swift wondered idly why the sky was blue now instead of black with smoke. He wondered who had screamed. He lost consciousness and began a tortured dream.
Thanks to the translations of Salah Hudah, the remaining members of the Veritas rescue party discovered that Day-Nah did indeed belong to the Nomads of the South. A trading caravan had been attacked by those who steal children and many warriors had been killed on both sides. Day-Nah had been banged on the head and when he awoke, he was bouncing around on the back of a horse. He never saw his older sister nor his mother again. Soon after he awoke, he was shoved into a small wooden jail with Tu-Swift. Day-Nah related their days together and that Tu-Swift had sabotaged the bows and arrows of the people who stand atop horses and also contrived to set the horses free. He had no knowledge of what had happened to any of their missing party.
They spent another day searching for their missing compatriots again signaling by clacking sticks together and through coded bird calls but there were no answering calls and no drumbeats. The fire had destroyed all hope of their normal tracking methods. Even the wolf cubs proved to be unhelpful. The fire had apparently destroyed the scents of the missing, or perhaps simply overlain it with the smell of so much death and destruction that it obscured the odor of mere humans.
Shadow Walker dreaded returning to the Veritas without Tu-Swift and with two more of their number missing. It seemed most likely that their friends had all died in the fire. It was also possible that all three or some of them had been captured by the ROI though they had not seen any of the ROI warriors, if that’s what they were, headed in their direction. Rather, when last seen, they were running back toward the ROI Village. Once there, they might have joined up with a much greater force and would now be marching out to find them and probably to continue on to the center place of the Veritas where they might wreak more death and destruction.
They had important information about these people who sit astride horses, these stealers of children. This information must be shared with the tribe. They must help the Veritas prepare for another attack. From Day-Nah’s story, it seemed clear that stealing children might be a way of life for these people. Many Paths needed to consult with everyone about choosing what to do about child stealers living so near them. When Shadow Walker thought of Many Paths a great gray sadness weighed upon his heart. Could he tell her that Tu-Swift had disappeared? What might her response be? He wondered whether she would now hate him forever and indeed, whether he could forgive himself. But the area of destruction was so vast that they could search for weeks without finding the remains of Tu-Swift and the others. Meanwhile, the people who steal children might be mounting a giant attack on the Veritas. If that were the case, it would be important that all of the Veritas learn as much as possible about these people who steal children.
Shadow Walker wished that he could discuss matters with Many Paths, or with She Who Saves Many Lives. He toyed with one of the rings of empathy, turning it this way and that in his hand. Somehow, he found comfort in knowing that Many Paths had such a ring as well. The substance of the ring reminded him of something. That something tickled at the edges of his mind. “The door!” he suddenly spoke aloud. That mysterious substance had been a cousin to this but much colder and much harder. For some reason he could not explain, this insight gave him confidence. He proposed that he would stay here alone and continue to search for their missing companions while the others returned with the news. He proposed to keep the wolf pups with him to aid in his searches. Perhaps once the stench of the burned grasses and trees subsided, the pups would be able to catch a scent. He would only slow them down if pursued on their journey home but hobbling slowly might be an actual advantage in searching for the missing trio.
And so it was that at the next dawning, Fleet-of-Foot, Hudah Salah, Day-Nah, and Easy Tears ate what would perhaps be their last meal with Shadow Walker and began their trek back to the homeland of the Veritas. Their hearts were filled with important information but also with heavy news about their friends. Shadow Walker watched the ever-diminishing image of his companions disappearing over the blackened hilltop. He would not see them for a time that might grow to forever.
He once again took out one of the Rings of Empathy and rolled it in his palm. He recalled a talk that he had had with Many Paths. She had jokingly told him how She Who Saves Many Lives, despite her aged body, could sneak up on someone unawares. According to Many Paths, She Who Saves Many Lives had laughed and explained how she managed the trick and Shadow Walker determined that he too could learn such a trick.
He decided that he would carefully examine the area around the creek for signs of the missing three. He would contrive to become even more skillful at the art of Shadow Walking. He would, as had been suggested by She Who Saves Many Lives, move only when the wind moved. He would make himself smell of the forest or the plains. He would advance from shadow to shadow in the unpredictable and random way of life itself. He would watch the comings and goings of the people in the village so that he would appear to be one among them. In this way, he thought to sneak unseen, unheard, and unknown back into the village of the people who steal children. If found, he would release Tu-Swift again. One way or another, in his next meeting with Many Paths, he would bring her certain, if unpleasant, news. Or, he would never meet her again in this life. He might instead die trying to find the missing brother of Many Paths.