Pain, lots of pain, though he couldn’t recall the exact moment he took his last breath. Then pleasure, even happiness. A flash of light, followed by a tide of images: of his childhood growing up, old memories he thought long gone. Hunts and fights and chasing girls. His first kill. The boar that gored his leg. His first kiss. His mother and father and sister, their faces, their voices—then Danna, her life, her death. And somehow, for the first time, it didn’t hurt. Then of his time raiding the Paleskins, the thrill, his love for his brothers. They all came back to him in a rush: Croki, Beltho, Ank, Rog. His heart swelled. And finally Grinda.
Death. Of course, he hadn’t known what to expect: heaven, hell, or the blending back into nature as his people believed. It could have been any possibility or so much more—or less.
Less. It was certainly that. Mock was standing, he knew, though he couldn’t see much through his swollen eyes, keeping them tightly shut against the stinging dust in the air. A strange, howling wind blew, making his skin prickle. He wriggled his toes. He stood in something thick, sticky, cold. And it stank like a rotting corpse. He tried to lift a leg but couldn’t move, firmly stuck. At least there wasn’t any pain.
He winced as he touched his groin. Still, this must be hell or something close. The damage was still there. The empty place where his balls had once been. Was he just going to stand here forever? Naked and bereft? His punishment for a life bent on violence and revenge? He had always thought it might lead to something like this. Had even tried to prepare for it. What a fool he had been. Mock the Merciless. Mock the brave. Dwindled into this. Alone and in the dark.
Just like he had been back in that Paleskin cell. Satan knew him too well. Despite himself, he shivered.
Grinda thumped his chest, slapped his face, shook him so hard his head lolled sickeningly. She tried her mind speak, but again she was too panicked. Mock had told her some shamri had the power to heal, but he had never said whether or not they could bring back the dead.
Hope flared in her heart. With a strength she couldn’t believe of herself, she hooked her arms under his and dragged him closer to the wark. Bit by back-aching bit. She dropped him with a gasp, then knelt beside him. What was she supposed to do? She didn’t know. All she could do was sit there, helpless, useless.
He had never told her how it could be done. And the chokra had almost worn off. The chokra! She raced over to Spirit, rummaged through her supplies that were spilt all over the ground and recovered the nuk, only to find it no longer smoked. Of course not. Useless. She threw it away, then gazed up at the wark desperately. ‘Mother! Help me!’
She stared down at Mock in numb disbelief, her heart cold in her chest. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The mother had beckoned her, supported her the whole way. The wark, the visions, her connection with Spirit, it had all clicked into place. To save Mock. It couldn’t have just been a waste. A coincidence. Her hands began to shake. Her body went numb. She slumped to her arse.
Too shocked to cry, she simply stared. The breeze brushed through Mock’s hair and beard. The moon shone against his slippery, bloodied wounds. They didn’t look so bad now. Perhaps because she didn’t have to fear for him anymore. The thought made her wince.
It was a cool night. Her skin prickled but she felt nothing, made of stone and ice. It didn’t last. All too quickly the grief rose, the heartache. Tears pricked her eyes. Her shoulders shuddered. Her lungs tightened. That feeling. She knew it. She had felt it before. That horrible gut-wrenching feeling that had sent her running from the wark those few nights back. That terrible sobbing.
She remembered that night. She remembered the warmth of the wark’s root against her hand as she begged it to answer. Her words came back to her in an echo: Tell me. Is he going to be all right?
And then she realised—it had been her who had been sobbing. It had been her heartache. Her future. This night.
She shook her head. ‘No.’ It couldn’t be. Not after everything.
She looked up at the innocent, dead-looking tree that was not a tree and far from dead. The deep thudding continued, beating in time with the pulse in her neck. The moon had drifted behind the clouds, and the darkness clung to its branches. Slowly, she stood, hands fisted at her sides, twisting her mouth as the tears welled up. She would not do it. She would not weep. To weep made it real. That was not her future. A dead Mock was not their future.
Grinda looked up into its branches. ‘Is that it? After all we’ve been through, you’re just going to let him die?’
No response. Grinda lowered her eyes, looking around, wishing she had a sword. Chop at it. Chop it down. Make it hurt the way she was hurting. She glanced over at the now still Spirit. She saw it. Amid the spilt supplies, it glinted in the moonlight: the barbarian blade she had hidden away just in case.
She picked it up, and with a savage scream rushed over to the wark and began jabbing everywhere she could. She hurt herself more than she hurt the wark, the blade scraping off its tough trunk, her arm vibrating with the force of it. But twice she felt the blade sink through a gap between the bark.
Next, she turned to its roots but before she could land a blow, she tripped and fell, whacking her head against the root, so hard the world spun and vomit swelled in her throat. She looked around in a daze as the sky spun, as her head throbbed. Vaguely, she saw another root, partially raised above the ground. The culprit. She could have sworn it hadn’t been there before. She winced as something warm and wet dripped on her face. She looked up. Sap was welling and dripping through the holes she had made. She licked her lips.
Her head whirled. It tasted familiar. Smelt familiar. Sweet and sticky on her lips, yet earthy and sharp at the back of her throat. Her eyes widened. Chokra! Without a second thought, she opened her mouth wide, lapping it in, swallowing it down. She tried to sit up but she swooned, her head lolling on her neck. From the bang to her head or from the drug, she couldn’t tell.
She gazed up through the branches, blinking slowly, as the chokra took effect. Or at least what tasted like chokra. The effect was immediate. She couldn’t move. The world swayed. Smacking her lips, and with the greatest effort, she turned her head. Mock lay still, a pale, lifeless figure in the moonlight. She could see the curve of his muscular arm, the strong cording of his neck, his long wavy hair, now matted, which she had spent so many nights threading her fingers through. Someone as strong and full of life couldn’t die. It wasn’t right.
She turned back, blinking up through the branches and into the twinkling sky. The thudding was in her bones now. The howling and whistling filled her ears. The colours returned, swirling and seething in a maelstrom of patterns and shapes. She blinked again. The colours reshaped, warped. Another blink and the wark returned, suddenly rearing impossibly into the heavens. Lighting flashed pink against the purple sky.
She uncurled her fingers, turned her head. Easily this time. She could move. She sat up, looked over at where she had last seen Mock. He was gone, the earth bare of the wounded, tortured body she had loved so much. But Spirit was there. She gazed at him as he grazed on the rainbow grass, swishing his tail, as though he hadn’t spent the night running to his death.
He lifted his head and Grinda stared. Pink hairless scars criss-crossed his belly and chest—the chain’s markings. Ugly, healed. But otherwise he looked the same. That same gentle face and soft pink nose. The only difference was the eyes—they were silver, almost as though they were filled with moonlight. Somehow, she didn’t feel surprise, only curiosity. Almost as though she expected it. She glanced around. Was this place death? Heaven? Hell? Some kind of Quarthi afterlife? And there was something more. Something she couldn’t fathom. A long, bright cord. Silvery, fibrous and yet so completely without substance she could pass her hand through, it led from Spirit’s chest to Grinda’s womb. What did it mean? She touched her belly, then shook her head. She couldn’t think of it now. It would have to remain a mystery.
Mock. Numb, stiff, as though a heavy weight was pressing down on her, she rose to her feet. She licked her lips. Sweet. The sap was highly potent, and yet she didn’t feel dizzy.
This was where she was meant to be.
Almost as though her body wasn’t her own, she began to walk. The deep thudding beat in time with her footsteps now. As she passed Spirit, the cord followed after her in a silver stream. She knew where to go. She could feel him. Just like she had in town. Like a beacon. The vista was flat and featureless except for an expanse of colour-changing grass, the enormous warks and the swirls of colour. Mock was nowhere in sight, and yet after what must have been close to her fiftieth step, he suddenly appeared, as though out of nowhere, shimmering into being. Her heart leapt and she cried out. He had his back to her, his dark hair tumbling over his shoulders, bare-arsed, naked. The scars on his back gleamed.
She couldn’t believe it. Was it a trick? Was the sap only making her see what she wanted to see? Was any of this real?
‘Mock?’ she said warily, refusing to let herself hope too hard. Around her the vista changed, shimmering away in the same way Mock had appeared. Gone were the bright colours and fields of rolling glass and monumental warks. She could no longer feel the deep thudding. Deathly quiet now, except for a light whistling wind. In the swirling world’s place was something much darker, much more sinister. Her heart dropped. The hairs on her arms stood up. She had seen it before, been here before, in her visions—the Morgrar. The darkness. A field of ash and dust and that tarry substance squishing beneath her boots.
‘Mock,’ she called again in an almost choke.
He turned. Grinda sucked in a breath. Unlike Spirit, he hadn’t recovered, still bearing all those terrible wounds. She glanced at his groin, then back into his swollen eyes. Her heart ached. He was in pieces but they were her pieces.
‘Grinda?’ he called back.
To hear his voice, when she thought she never would again. ‘Mock!’ And she let herself hope. She sped towards him. Or at least she tried; her boots stuck in the tarry sludge so she could barely move.
‘Mock!’ Grunting and gasping she pulled her feet along, using her hands to haul at her legs, mouth twisted at the stench of the sludge.
‘Grinda!’ he roared. He seemed unable to see her through his swollen eyes, blind against the lash of stinging dust. Confused, lost, vulnerable. And above all that, she saw for the first time—frightened.
He tried to reach her, his muscles bulging in his gut and thighs as he struggled against the tar. But he had it worse. It was up to his knees and every time he took a step the tar rose higher.
‘Wait!’ she cried. ‘Don’t move. Let me come.’
But the tar only seemed to suck harder. Twice she almost fell face-first into the stuff, only to right herself at the last moment, heart thudding in her chest. What would happen if she fell?
It was no use. Puffing, gasping. Her legs ached. Her chest ached. Her back screamed. She couldn’t get to him. She couldn’t get to him! And she saw that he was sinking. He hadn’t moved but he was sinking!
Up to his hips now. The whistling in her ears grew quiet as he gazed at her in that way. Deep grooves in the corners of his mouth. That clench in his jaw. Silent. Still. The fear in his face had gone. Instead he looked sad, tired, resigned. Prepared for his death.
‘No!’ She tried to thrust her legs forward but they were completely stuck. Mock was up to his waist. Only a short run and she would reach him. So simple and yet so impossible. ‘Help me!’ She didn’t know who or what she was screaming to. To the Mother? Herself? Mock?
She should have predicted who would answer. She had been with Grinda all the way, after all. Hearing her thoughts, feeling her feelings, sharing her pain and heartache and happiness. A lifetime of highs and lows for someone only five weeks alive.
Her gut clenched so savagely she bowed over with a gasp.
‘Grinda!’ Mock called blindly.
‘I’m fine,’ she panted. She spat, wiped at her forehead as sweat dappled her skin. She was burning from the inside out, waves of heat churning and whipping throughout her body. Dizzy. Her vision blurred. She staggered, arms waving for balance so she didn’t fall into the disgusting tar. But she could move!
The sludge bubbled and hissed against the heat of her legs as she thrust forward heavy boot after heavy boot. She lifted her arms, watching as her tunic frayed, opened at the seams, then slowly disintegrated, floating into the air like dust. Her skirts took longer but soon they too fell from her body. It felt like she was trudging through clay, but she was moving. Soon, she could see the little blood-plastered hairs on Mock’s chest, the scar under his eye, stretched and flattened by all the swelling.
She was sinking too. Step by step, the tar creeping up her knees, her thighs, hips and waist. Steam seethed into the air. The bubbling intensified. By the time she reached him, her naked skin was red raw and the tar was up to her chest. She didn’t care. The Morgrar didn’t frighten her. Better the darkness than the light, as long as it held Mock.
‘Mock.’ She reached out her hands desperately, so close now. Her fingertips brushed his chest. One more painful step and she was there. She let out a choking sob. It felt like forever since she last held him. Her skin tingled as she curled into his embrace, little crackles of energy leaping between them. Burying her face into his chest, she tried to suck in his scent only for the stink of the sludge to burn her nostrils.
‘You’re hot,’ Mock muttered into her cheek but didn’t let go, even as his own skin steamed.
She kissed his neck, the corner of his jaw. ‘So are you.’ So warm and full of life. ‘Mock.’ Grimacing into his shoulder, she took a long, slow breath, enjoying the feel of his hard, living body, the pounding of his heart. He was so strong, even after everything. The tar slid wetly between them, bubbling and hissing. ‘I thought I lost you.’
His voice rumbled deep in his chest. ‘You should have let me go.’
‘Never.’ Never. Her heart swelled, so big she found it difficult to breathe. And something strange happened then. Those little crackles of energy tingling against her skin seemed to gather. Grinda could feel it building in her chest, in her pelvis, into something much bigger, much more powerful. She lifted her chin, as though giving it more space as it filled her up, swelled into something she could barely contain. Staring up at Mock, she opened and shut her mouth.
‘What’s wrong?’ He cupped her cheek.
‘I don’t—’ She gasped and thrust back her head with a shriek as all that energy poured out of her in a rush. It crackled, it spat, like the flames of a roaring fire, as it surged straight into Mock. It reminded her of what happened between her and Spirit when he finally pulled the wall down. But unlike Spirit, Mock didn’t pull back or scream, he merely stiffened, his eyes bulging in his head, mouth open.
‘Mock,’ she gasped. Her knees buckled. She could barely hold herself up, sucked dry of energy. She slumped in the tar, almost submerging completely, only for Mock to haul her back into his arms.
He was gasping, chest heaving. A tear trickled down his cheek. ‘What … what …?’
Grinda cried out as they dipped deeper into the sludge, Grinda sinking up to her chin and Mock to his chest. Her courage failed her and she closed her eyes. ‘Kiss me. I don’t want to see. Kiss me.’
His lips brushed hers, their tongues found each other and she tasted the salt of her tears as she started to weep. She kissed harder, desperately, as the tar tickled the tip of her nose. She felt Mock’s arms tighten painfully around her as they sank.
The sucking, bubbling wetness rushed over her and she was submerged. In the darkness, in the wet, in the quiet, she clutched onto him as she held her breath. Her heart pounded against her ribs. The air burned in her lungs. Pain hammered behind her eyes.
It was inevitable, unstoppable. She took a breath.
Mock gasped, heart thundering, expecting to feel the cold thick sludge filling his mouth, his throat, his lungs—only to receive the sweet, succouring taste of air. He gasped again, gulping it down until his lungs stopped screaming. His heart slowed, strength filled his limbs. Mock forced his eyes open, blinked, squinted. The swirls of bright colour were like pins in his eyes. But at least he could see. No more ash and dust. He sat up, heart leaping in his chest. So many things he saw at once: Grinda lying beside him, breathing gently. The giant tree, the bright seething world: the colourful grass, the flat plains, more enormous warks as far as the eye could see. And beneath his hands, vibrating through the ground—a deep thudding.
He lifted his hands, stared at them, then gazed up at the wark. He couldn’t help but feel like a boy. Awed. The shamri had spoken about the world beyond the ether, the beating heart of the Mother, but he never thought he’d see it. Even few shamri got to see it. He had only known of one still living.
And yet, here they were. He looked down at Grinda. She was still slathered in that sticky black substance. He was, too, he realised. She was unmoving but her breasts rose and fell gently at every breath.
‘Grinda?’ He brushed at her cheek. When she didn’t move, he gathered her into his lap. She stirred, gasped and choked, squirming against him. ‘Grinda, it’s all right.’ She grabbed at her throat, eyes wide, as she choked down the air. Soon, she calmed, and when she looked up, he could see the colours reflected in her eyes. So this was what she was talking about.
‘You can see it too,’ she whispered, her eyes flicking between his. ‘What is it? Are we dead?’
‘I don’t know.’
She pulled herself up, her skin slippery against his. She touched the black tar, smoothing it between her fingers with a look of disgust before looking up at him. Smiling, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Desperately, hungrily. She didn’t seem to care where they were or what was going to happen. And soon, he found, neither did he.
Not hell, after all.
He gently pulled away, gazing down on her, drinking her in. This couldn’t be death. His heart was pounding too hard. His blood was pulsing too fast. Pulling her against him, he pressed his lips to her neck and that’s when he saw they were being watched. He paused, arms tensed around Grinda. She stood only a few paces away, naked, unmissable. And yet he was sure she hadn’t been there only moments before. She was with Spirit, arm draped around the big draft horse’s neck, leaning against him. They stared at each other. Mock’s heart thundered in his chest. He knew her. Or, at least, knew her father—and her mother. Those same small eyes, those same fat lips. The high cheek bones and the long thick hair that all Quarthi bore. If she smiled would her teeth be rotten like Pith’s? But he saw Grinda too. In the closeness of her eyes, in the sharpness of her nose, the softness of her jawline. And even stranger than that, was the sight of a long, silvery rope leading from her pelvis, straight through Grinda’s back and into him. He thought he could feel it, like a light buzzing in his chest. He tried to touch it, only for his hand to pass through.
When he hadn’t moved long enough for Grinda to notice, she looked up at him. ‘What’s wrong?’ Following his gaze, she turned, then froze. She dropped a hand to her belly. It seemed a long time where they just stared at each other. Then Grinda pulled against him, trying to slip from his lap. Mock tightened his grip around her waist.
‘Let go, Mock. I must see her!’
‘No.’ Mock continued to stare up at the woman. He didn’t like the look of her. He didn’t like the look of her one bit. There was a hardness, a coldness in her eyes.
Grinda began to thrash. ‘Mock, let go! It’s her. My daughter!’
The woman’s gaze dropped to her mother’s. Grinda froze. The muscles in Mock’s shoulders tensed. The woman’s eyes had turned black.
Grinda clutched at her belly in fear. ‘Mock?’
With nothing else to do, he covered Grinda’s eyes, pulling her face to his chest. The woman frowned, turned her dark gaze on Mock and for a moment Mock knew her, felt her familiarity, as though they had already spent years together. Their future rolled through him in a wave: disappointment, pride, resentment, hope, despair. Conflict. So much conflict. His heart deflated, then swelled.
And yet so much love.
The blackness in her eyes returned to a soft brown and Mock released Grinda. Grinda looked at her daughter, her hand fastened like a clamp around Mock’s wrist.
She looked like a normal woman again. As much as she could in a place like this. But that darkness—it lingered. Like a shadow draped across her shoulders. Flat and expressionless, she glanced up at the wark, then turned and walked away, Spirit trotting at her side, a second silvery rope joining the two. A shimmer and they vanished.
‘No,’ Grinda said, reaching uselessly for her.
Mock drew her close, rocking her back and forth, looking up at the swirling colours, the towering wark, the deep purple sky. Trying to take it all in before he moved onto the next stage.
Wherever it lay.