The dead in shattered heaps about his feet, Uthul knew only the battle for life.
He waded through the Grol corpses, their pooled blood tacky beneath his boots, and willed his scavenged sword to work. He knew no mercy for the beasts inadvertently born of Ree’s holy flesh. He could afford none.
He’d caught them unaware as Arrin and the Pathran, Kirah, cleaved through their clustered ranks, but the Grol had been quick to recover. Where at first he’d sent a dozen of the beasts to earth for every glancing strike he’d taken, he now traded them nearly blow for blow as they clamored around him. They were wearing him down.
Uthul had targeted the empowered Grol, doing as much to ruin their ranks first, risking precious seconds and the return of the plague to collect their O’hra. He had mostly succeeded. Those that remained wounded him worst. The taint of their magic set his stomach to churning. Ree’s essence enflamed his blood and set fire to his skin. Being so close to it was a danger, not only to himself, but to those of his people who still remained. He was being poisoned by the overload of pure, magical essence, and it would not be long before the plague returned. It would soon kill him. He prayed to Ree it would end there.
Uthul darted before the lines, using the Grols’ numbers against them. The beasts stumbled into each other and blocked their own attacks, but he could only manage to thwart so many. Uthul’s sword flickered like a serpent’s tongue. Its deadly bite weaved its way through the Grol before him only to find another of the creatures clambering to take its place. Their warm blood crusted his face and arms, and he could smell its bitterness with every breath. It matched his mood.
He hoped Zalee had stolen away with the O’hra-bearers and fled the city, but worry nagged at him. The uncertainty of his daughter’s whereabouts weighed heavy upon his thoughts. His concern slowed him even more than his wounds, but he fought on, paving the streets with Grol bodies. Sweat oozed thick from his pores, and he could feel the sickness in it. The O’hra clattered in the bag at his belt, and for an instant, he contemplated donning them so he might regain his strength, if only for one last glorious push before the plague overwhelmed him. Surrounded as he was by magic, he believed the sickness would consume him long before the battle was over. A stray thought sent his free hand reaching for the bag. The crack of thunder drew his focus from such suicidal action.
In response to the sound, there was a sudden lull. The wall of Grol hesitated, their gazes shooting to the sky at his back. Uthul cleaved another of the beasts as it stood motionless, and then dared a furtive glance over his shoulder as the bestial ranks broke. Gray stone obscured the light.
Despite its already frantic pace, Uthul’s heart sputtered as one of the city’s great spires careened towards him. Clouds of dust and crumbling masonry bits pelted him as he stood in the path of the tumbling spire. In its demise he saw salvation.
Rather than follow the fleeing Grol, Uthul darted directly beneath the falling ruin. Massive stones struck the ground all around and sent vibrations through his body, but he pushed on into the whirling fog of debris. At the last moment, he darted from the path of the spire. He ran through the alleys of the nearby homes, which stood in the shadows of their surroundings walls, and had been spared the Grol’s mystical assault. Uthul hoped they would last just a few moments longer.
The spire crashed into the closest of the homes, the world washed away by the roar of the collision. The ground danced beneath Uthul’s feet and he stumbled. Shadows roiled on the wind as the spire came down. Uthul gathered what was left of his strength and dove through the thickening hail of wreckage. A flicker of gray light loomed ahead, sanctuary in the chaos. Then darkness flooded over him.
His world went black.
The columns of acrid smoke, which rose from the ruin of Lathah, had long faded into the background. The land of Arrin’s birth had fallen, nothing left save for the cluster of survivors who surrounded him and the bitter memories he could not shake. Somewhere in the ruins was the child he had never met; the child he’d failed. He would never forgive himself.
At the onset of their journey to Pathrale, Arrin had known a fury so dark as to eclipse the sun, but that anger had been tempered by the slow crawl of the group’s advance. Unable to use his O’hra to hurry the trip, each step was as though he strode through a mire. He trudged ahead of the group, following the line of the Fortress Mountains, which hugged the western border of Lathah, his sullenness having even chased Kirah from his side, for a time. Now, there were only his thoughts to keep him company. They were sour companions, indeed.
Malya, the woman he loved, walked a ways behind him. Her family, which Arrin had only learned of on his return to Lathah, clustered around her. He had not met her gaze once since their flight began. He couldn’t bear to. Her husband, Falen, guided their sons, Argos and Kylle, as she hovered at their backs. She had been lost to Arrin nearly the whole of his exile, and yet he hadn’t known. For all the good will he wished he could muster for her happiness, Arrin knew only a bleak emptiness that Malya once filled. He had lived so long for only her and their child he no longer had any understanding of what his life was meant to be. His purpose was gone, and he had been set adrift. The adrenaline of war having faded like the fallen Lathah, his path slipped into uncertainty.
He glanced at the Sha’ree woman, Zalee, who kept her distance from the group. Her pink eyes stared straight ahead, likely as frustrated by the group’s slow progress as he was. It had been her father, Uthul, who had saved Arrin and Kirah from the foolish battle with the Grol. He had traded his own life for theirs, his final wish that Arrin and the other relic-wielders journey to the Sha’ree homeland of Ah Uto Ree and learn how best to use the O‘hra. Now she was leashed to the travelers and bound to their fate with no time to mourn her loss.
Though she said nothing, her lipless mouth was pulled down into the semblance of a frown. She could not hide her sorrow. After her father’s sacrifice, Arrin had promised he would aid her in ridding Ahreele of the Grol. He was glad do so. The beasts had ripped the veil from his life, such as it was. Alone in the wilderness, he had found a relative peace; ignorance if never anything approaching happiness. Their attack on Fhen had drawn him home, back to a world he no longer belonged but had yet to acknowledge. They had stolen his child from his world, however imaginary or delusional that world may have been. For that alone, Arrin would chase the Grol to the ends of Ahreele and see every one of their creed impaled upon his blade.
The Pathran warriors who traveled alongside appeared to share his sentiment. They strode about the edge of the group, their weapons at the ready, fierce scowls etched across their furred faces. They had seen what the beasts had done to Lathah and knew their homeland would be next in the path of the Grol rampage. Waeri’s whiskers twitched at his cheeks as he surveyed the surrounding land. The son of the great Pathran leader, Warlord Quaii, he seemed consumed by his anger at what might come to pass. His pointed ears were pinned tight against his skull, lending his visage a sleekness that enhanced the fearsome snarl at his lips.
His sister, Kirah, caught Arrin’s eye as he looked upon her. It was all the encouragement she needed to rejoin him.
“We are nearly there,” she told him, her voice quiet. Her purple gaze lingered as she set her warm hand upon his arm.
Arrin nodded and sighed, finding it hard to wallow in his bleakness with her so close. He took in the beauty of her speckled features and forced a tiny smile, tearing his gaze away. “I feared we might not make it,” he admitted.
“I had no such fear.” She squeezed his arm. “You promised my father you would bring us home.”
“And were it not for Uthul’s sacrifice, that promise would have been another brick in the tower of my failures.”
Zalee glanced over at the mention of her father’s name, a tendril of pink spilling from her eye. She turned away quickly, wiping at her face, and sped her pace. Arrin watched her a moment, feeling foolish for having spoken so recklessly.
Kirah gave him no time to mope. “He surrendered no more than the Sha’ree are asking of you, so do not let Zalee’s sadness cloud your mind. Like us, they are warriors. They understand what must be done. Before this is through, we will all lose friends and family, and perhaps even our lives, but we must fight on. If we are to honor the sacrifice of Uthul and all those who have fallen beside us, we must chase the Grol from Ahreele and stain the soil with their blood. The only failure would be to not fight.”
Her words settling in his ears, Arrin looked back at the group shuffling along behind. Malya’s eyes were on her family, her children walking proudly before their parents. Kylle and Argos were handsome boys, sharing traits of both their mother and father. Arrin could find no fault in Malya’s choice of life mate, as much as he wished he could.
Behind them walked the young Nurin, Cael, and the quiet Lathahn girl, Ellora. The two had been in the city when the Grol attacked. Their faces were masks of quiet determination beneath smatterings of dirt. They strode tall, their eyes on the horizon as though the worst was behind them. Such was the resilience of youth.
The Velen at their heels, apparently the uncle of Cael, wore none of their optimism on his dark face. His gangly shoulders slumped, forming a pocket his chin had nearly sunk into. His weary gaze hugged the earth as he walked. He carried a sword roped to his hip but he was ill-suited to its sharpness. His robes were stained with blood and dirt, but his mood appeared even darker.
Sergeant Barold and Commander Maltis had taken positions to the side of the travelers, soldiers who had fled the ruin to protect Malya and her family. Maltis was an old friend of Arrin’s from before the exile, and Arrin was glad to see he made it safely out of Lathah. Barold had been the man who greeted Arrin at his return and had proven himself a good man. Though both had their swords sheathed, they took the measure of the road with their eyes, their heads swiveling back and forth, missing nothing. Products of the Lathahn military, their lack of comfort at the wide open spaces was evident in their rigid postures. Arrin understood. He had been the same at the time of his exile, the walls of Lathah both a comfort and a certainty he had been accustomed to. It would take time for the soldiers to adapt to the wilderness. He hoped they would be given the opportunity.
At the back, Jerul, the Yviri warrior and blood-companion to the Velen, and one of the Pathran warriors, carried a makeshift pallet upon which King Orrick lay still. Arrin had only memories of the king’s vitality so many years before, but he seemed to have been struck low with his land. The old man stared at the sky and said nothing. Only the rise of the cloak, which covered his narrow chest, spoke of life. That was stuttered and slow as though it neared its last. He seemed a skeleton wreathed in a pale sheath of flesh. The warriors carried him gently, but Arrin had no certainty the king would live to see Pathrale.
These were who the Sha’ree had hung their hopes of redemption upon. Arrin shook his head as he turned back to Kirah. “I will fight, but I fear we may well do it alone.” He gestured toward the group. “We are no army.”
Kirah glanced about and turned back as though she might argue, but Waeri’s shout drew their attention.
“Pathrale!” He pointed ahead, the shadows of the jungle just appearing in the distance.
Excited chatter sprouted within the group, but Arrin continued on without a word. The land of the cat people was little more than a way station in their travels; a temporary reprieve from the war that nipped at their heels. For all the Pathran spirit and ferocity, they stood no chance against the O’hra empowered Grol. When the beasts came, there would be no one left to hang the Pathran dead in the treetops.
The rest of the journey went without incident. Great trees sprouted from the darker soil of Pathrale, the separation of land a sharp contrast of the rockier earth of Lathah. Brilliant green rose up into the sky, vines and branches intertwined with smaller foliage, making the face of the jungle appear as though it were a wall of greenery with no entrance. As they neared, the chittered sounds of the jungle slowed to a stop, the birds and insects reacting to their closeness. Only those in the distance carried on without fear, sharp-voiced calls echoing through the foliage. Certain the Pathra lay in wait within the trees, Arrin waved to Waeri to lead their approach.
Waeri called to his people as the group drew closer, Kirah moving out to where she could be easily identified. The hidden Pathran warriors rejoiced loudly at seeing Warlord Quaii’s children returned, alive and well, their voices resounding across the breadth of the jungle. The celebration was short lived, however. Sobered by the threat that came on their heels, the group was hurried into the trees. They stood before the warlord a short time later.
“Waeri, Kirah…” Quaii held his massive orange arms out to his brood as they approached. They dove into his embrace, rubbing their foreheads against his chin as he closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. After a moment, he turned his gray gaze upon Arrin. “Thank you for the gift of my children.”
Arrin nodded. “Sadly, they are all the good news I have brought to your door.” He motioned to Malya and her family. “Lathah has fallen to the Grol and I am certain they march here next.”
Quaii loosened his grip about his children but did not relinquish it. He looked at the meager group who stood behind Arrin. “Is this all that remains?”
“We are all who escaped,” Malya answered, stepping forward and bowing shallow. “My father, King Orrick,” Jerul and the Pathra brought the pallet closer so Quaii could see the old man, “has spoken well of you, Warlord Quaii. I’m sorry he is unable to greet you with his own words and ask for sanctuary.”
Quaii waved the issue away. “We are allies, Lathah and Pathrale, king or princess or pauper, and nothing will change that. It is a time of dire need, and you are welcome here without reservation.” The warlord bowed deep, releasing his children, at last.
“Thank you,” Malya answered. Her gratefulness shone in her eyes as Quaii summoned a number of his people. They brought drinks, passing them out amongst the travelers.
“Stay here a moment and rest from your travels. You are safe within our borders.” The Warlord turned from Malya as she joined her family, and walked a short distance into the jungle, motioning for Arrin to follow, his son and daughter joining him. Zalee also followed along. Once they were away from other ears, he stopped and faced Arrin. “How long do we have before the beasts arrive?”
Arrin shrugged. “If the Grol…feed,” he struggled to say the word, “and bring the whole of their forces and supply train, we have, perhaps a sevenday, at best. Should just the empowered beasts come, they could be on us in moments. I suspect they have remained with the main force, however, as they would have overrun us had they hurried ahead.”
Quaii nodded. “But soon, regardless.” Arrin could only agree. “Then we must make plans.” The great cat sighed. “The Korme scum harry us at the river, and though they present little threat on their own, they keep us from massing against the coming Grol. Our uncertainty of the Yvir to our north only further complicates matters. My people are spread too thin to present a unified front.”
“This is for the best,” Zalee stated, drawing the warlord’s attention. “The Grol will lay waste to your people if you mass before them. It is what they want. You would be better served to draw them into the trees and whittle away at their numbers as best you can. Worry their morale and you might slow them, but do not test their might head on if you would see your people survive.”
“I fear for the homes we will lose when we let the Grol invade our land,” Quaii mused.
“Better trees and dirt than people, Father,” Kirah said, scratching at his mane.
The warlord nodded, his face resigned. “Will you fight with us?” he asked Arrin.
Arrin shook his head. “I’m sorry, I cannot. I must go to Ah Uto Ree with Zalee.” He nodded toward the Sha’ree as he caressed the warm collar at his throat. “That is where my fight lies.”
“Unfortunate. We could use your prowess, but at least we have O’hra of our own to surprise the Grol with when they come.”
Arrin’s eyes narrowed and he looked to the warlord. Kirah and Waeri turned to stare at their father, questions in their eyes.
“Ah, yes, you had already gone about your own adventures.” He grinned, sharpened teeth glistening. “While you traveled to Lathah, a group of warriors from Y’var raided our land. They brought with them O’hra that amazed even the Sha’ree, Uthul. Your companions wield two of them.” He pointed to the Velen and his blood-companion.
Arrin turned and spied the silver bracers the pair wore, noticing them for the first time. Blinded by his anger and misery, he had not sensed the subtle wash of magic until just then, suddenly receptive to it.
“And we’ve more,” Waeri said, waving forward the Pathran warrior who carried the rest of those they’d taken on their journey to Lathah. The soldier held the bag high for all to see before setting it at Quaii’s feet.
Arrin went to the Yvir, his eyes scanning the bracer the warrior held out for him. Its magic shimmered in the symbols so similar, and yet so different, from the ones carved into his collar.
“I can feel its power against my skin, like stings from a wasp.”
Domor drifted over to stand alongside his blood-companion, holding his own O’hra out for inspection.
Zalee looked to the Velen. “The silver that holds the runes is far more pure than the bronze of those the Grol have stolen.” She ran a tentative finger across the bracer, pulling it away quickly. “This is strange. I have never seen O’hra such as this.”
“Though he did not say such, I believe Uthul felt as you do, Sha’ree. He stared at those we collected as though afraid to touch them, taking only the two for the Velen and Yviri warrior,” Quaii told her.
“These were not crafted by my people.” She closed her hand about the bracer, her pink eyes growing even wider than Arrin believed possible. “I, too, feel their magic, and yet I sense none of the virulence that has come to plague my people. I…I do not understand how that could be.”
“Perhaps we should worry about this another time. Ah Uto Ree is a long way from here,” Arrin said, staring off toward Lathah. “I would learn what I can and return in time to keep the Grol from overrunning Ahreele.”
Zalee drew her hand from the silver O’hra and nodded. “Will you come with us, warrior?” she asked Jerul.
“Where Domor goes, I follow,” he answered.
The Velen raised his head and gave the Yvir a faint smile. Arrin turned to look at Quaii. “Your children can teach your people to use the O’hra, at least well enough to help even the odds.”
“Waeri can teach them. I intend to travel with you,” Kirah replied, planting her hands on her hips.
“Daughter…” the warlord started.
“One warrior, more or less, will not turn the tide here in Pathrale, Father, but it may well do so once I learn to use the O’hra to its fullest. Besides, they will need my help in the journey to Ah Uto Ree.”
“Always the adventurer, child; insatiable.” The great cat sighed, pulling his daughter into his arms. “Do what you must, but be safe. We will be here when you come home.”
Kirah purred and rubbed her forehead against the warlord’s cheek. “Hold strong. We will return soon.”
“What of us?” Maltis asked, stepping closer. He gestured to the rest of the survivors.
“You are needed here, to protect the royal family, my friend,” Arrin answered. The commander seemed to shrink, but he said nothing. He only nodded. “We must travel fast to the land of the Sha’ree if we are to confront the Grol before they drive too deep into the heart of Ahreele. Protect Malya. Her and her sons are the future of Lathah.”
“I will have them escorted to the shore of the Iron Ocean,” Quaii said. “The Tumult spends its last, and they will be secure with the water to their back and the mountains to shield their side. We will keep them safe from the Grol.”
Malya’s eyes looked as though she might protest, but no argument slipped from her tongue. She looked to her family and bowed to the warlord. “Agreed.”
Arrin let a tiny smile color his lips. Malya’s strength had always been so vocal, so forceful, but now she focused it upon what was most important: the safety of her family. It was only more proof they had each grown in their time apart, their paths diverging. She was not the same woman he had known so long ago.
“We must go, but we will be back. We will need an army to wield the O’hra we provide,” Zalee said.
“We will be ready to fight,” Quaii answered without hesitation.
Zalee thanked the warlord and waved to Cael, who stood with Malya. “Come, Cael. We will need you, as well.”
The boy nodded and hugged Ellora in a brief, awkward embrace before easing away. Arrin watched his uncertainty, unable to remember being so young. Cael rustled the Argos and Kylle’s hair and said his farewells to the rest, coming to stand beside the Sha’ree. The Velen and Yvir came alongside, as well.
Arrin went to the bag of O’hra at Quaii’s feet and dug inside. He pulled a bronze bracer out and returned, handing it to Cael. “You will need this to keep up.” The boy grinned and locked the bracer onto his wrist.
As he did, Arrin glanced over at Malya. Their eyes met for just a moment before he turned away. There was nothing left to say, what they had buried in the past, never to be unearthed again. He turned to Quaii, extending his hand. He remained silent as the warlord clasped it in his tight grip. Both knew what lay ahead, and neither seemed willing to risk bringing voice to it. Arrin broke away first and joined the Sha’ree as she moved slowly apart from the others. Kirah said her farewells and the group walked off to the supportive shouts of her people.
Arrin hoped this was not the last time he heard their voices. He glanced at Kirah and knew they shared the same thought.
Uthul awoke to darkness. Thunder rumbled over him, the earth trembling at its touch. He blinked away the dust, which clung to his eyes, as a numb tingle spread warm across his body. Dots of light crept to his vision, tempering the shadows that hovered before him. He went to move and felt a great weight at his back. His pulse pounded awake as fear set in. Memory returned a moment later.
The spire had fallen.
He remembered the Grol, as well. Uthul shifted beneath the stones that pressed against his spine and found he was not immobilized as he had first believed. The weight shifted, and he heard the clatter of falling rock. A cloudy gray light filtered through to his eyes. He felt for his limbs and they responded, sore but whole. His arms slid across the roughened ground and he managed to get them beneath him. He pushed upward and another cascade of stone tumbled away, the bag of O’hra at his waist clanging against the rocks. On his knees, he stared at the fog that swirled around him. It was thick and obscured his vision. He tasted its musky bitterness as he drew in a deep breath and pulled himself to his feet. If it blocked his sight, then the Grol would be just as blind, their sense of smell distorted by the dust.
Above him sat part of the city wall that had fallen beneath the spire. Its mass had deflected the tower’s momentum just enough to keep it from reaching the ground. Uthul followed the angle of the great spire that rose from where he stood and realized the next wall in line had held. He whispered a blessing to Ree for his good fortune.
He could hear the coughed barks of the beasts echoing in the swirl of dust and knew his opportunity had come. Uthul set his direction by the roar of the Tumult that battered the Iron Ocean beyond the massive Fortress Mountains and set his feet to motion. Each step was a trial. He could feel the sickness welling inside him, the wounds he’d received festering and foul for the touch of the O’hra. The plague had yet to surface, but he could sense its approach. It lingered in the background, a predator shadowing its prey, but Uthul felt a difference in its approach. Alone, separated from his people, the ferocity of the plague seemed somewhat tamed. It was as though the Sha’ree closeness had not only helped to spread the sickness, but it had also exacerbated it. But did it matter? The sickness was inside him and growing stronger, the influx of magical energy feeding its virulence. It would consume him.
He clenched his teeth and shook away the fear that threatened to devour his resolve. There was no time for weakness. Zalee would soon be forced to take the fight to the Grol. He was needed at her side.
Coated in the dust that floated dark in the air, Uthul cleared the wreckage of the spire from his path and pressed on toward the west. Figures stumbled in the fog, man and beast alike, trying to find their bearings. Uthul left them both behind, moving past and doing nothing to call attention to his passage. His arms hung weak at his side as he drove onward, his legs barely able to support his weight. Each stone in his path threatened to bring him down.
It seemed hours before he cleared the cloying fog and stepped onto the cobblestoned street of the innermost section of Lathah. The Grol howled in the distance, but he heard none of their voices nearby. He glanced about to be certain. The base of the spire was off to the east, its great bulk having crushed the gate that led to the level he stood on. Once more, he was certain Ree had a hand in his fate. He smiled at the thought and cast his gaze to the mountains that towered above Lathah. His smile faded.
The Grol clustered outside the city, their forces likely filling every crack between. There would be no returning that way, but the looming mountains seemed no less formidable. The rumble of the fading Tumult echoed overhead, storm clouds billowing to life at the peak of the mountains. He glanced behind him to the dust that had begun to settle, the voices of the enemy raised and growing confident once more. They were regaining order amidst the chaos. That left Uthul little choice.
He gathered his will and set his feet to moving once again. If there was a chance at life, it resided within the sheltering embrace of the Fortress Mountains. There he could rest and gather his strength for the journey to come.
When at last he came to the end of the city, he was grateful to the Lathahns for having built their citadel directly against the face of the mountain. There was no wall to navigate; only the rough-hewn rock that jutted up from the earth. He stared up at the near vertical ascent and wondered if his choice had been the right one. A sigh slipped loose as he convinced himself to climb. Death on the mountain was preferable to dying at the hands of the Grol.
He gripped a stone, which protruded from the wall, and growled at the shards of pain that speared his hand. His fingers twitched but held strong as he reached for another handhold and pulled himself upward. He bit down, clenching his jaw to still his rebellious tongue, swallowing the scream that fought to be released. Uthul had never felt such agony, not even under the sway of the plague. The battle with the Grol had brought him to the brink, and he feared the mountain would cast him down and finish what the beasts had started. He looked up to see the wall that seemed to go on forever, its vastness filling his vision. It seemed insurmountable, but Uthul knew what lay at the end of his journey: Zalee.
It took only her name to spur him on.
The fury of the Tumult grew beneath his fingertips as he clung to the wall. Pain lanced through his joints and set fire to his every muscle. They felt as stiff as the stone he clutched. His breath huffed from his lungs, blowing stale dust from the face of the mountain. It swirled about him and peppered his eyes. The heavy bag at his belt bore him down, the magic of its contents setting his stomach to roil, but he would not let the O’hra fall back into Grol hands. His body shook with constant tremors that challenged his hold, but he persevered. If he was to see his daughter again, he must endure.
The ground had become a blur beneath him, so far down as to be nearly invisible, but he had long since stopped imagining falling. Only the summit held his gaze. The brilliant eye of A’ree peeked over the mountaintop and cast its glow upon the wall, flickers of red and orange dancing in his vision. Nu’ree hung half eclipsed behind her sister moon, her blue shimmer a dull glimmer in the background of the sky. As Uthul drew closer to his destination, wash from the Iron Ocean rained down over him in irregular spray, carried by the raging Tumult. The heat of its touch added yet another misery to the climb, wetting the rocks and making each handhold even more treacherous than the last. The moisture slowed his climb, the mountain grinding against the last of his endurance and savaging the flesh at his fingers.
When Uthul felt he could climb no more, his body slipping into a numbness that threatened betrayal, he spied a ledge just ten feet from where he hung. It seemed miles. He dug his fingers into the stone and pulled himself toward the outcrop, hand over hand. His feet scrabbled for purchase as he pressed on. At last, his arm crested the ledge and he was able to find one last handhold to pull him to safety. He collapsed into a puddle of warm water, which had pooled in the recess, the entirety of the ledge not more than a horse span across.
Uthul drew in the first easy breath since he’d started his climb and let his head fall back against the solid embrace of the stone. Water splashed against his cheeks as the Tumult assailed him with drops of the distant ocean. The roar of the storm shook the mountain beneath him, but Uthul was past caring. He lay in the puddle, his face to the sky, and watched the Tumult rage its last from within his earthen niche.
After a few moments, he reached into his bag and plucked one of the purple fruits out he’d stored away when he’d first met the boy, Cael. He held it out to the side and used the last of his strength to split its hide. A greenish fog spilled from inside, a rotten stench clouding the air. He waged a war with his patience to let the smell dissipate before consuming the Succor. Once the odor was gone, Uthul plucked the seed from the fruit and cast it aside without his normal care for such things, stuffing the meat of the fruit into his mouth. The taste pleasured his tongue as he lay back and let its wonder do what it could to heal his broken body.
Cradled in the stone arms of Ree, the Succor feeding his flesh, Uthul slept.