I am not a very good smith.
This is the sort of thing I think about in the dark of night, alone on watch with only a sleeping Tesehr and a quiet Cobalt for company. I’m not actually very skilled at smithing, despite all the practice and effort I put into it.
I guess that’s not entirely true. I have a set of skills which my father has instilled in me, and, compared to people who are untrained, I’m quite a good smith. Yet despite everything my father has taught me, he’s many times better at smithing than I am. Sometimes I think he’s better than I’ll ever be.
It makes me wish he cared as much as I do. I’m the one who experiments with new chimes and tries to find new effects. He’s been content producing the exact same chimes since my grandfather first taught him how to make them. If I could get him to work with me, my experiments would go so much better. If he was making the chimes, and I was designing them, I’m convinced there would be a lot fewer times where my chimes wound up nonfunctional.
He thinks my efforts are a waste of time. He sees the defenses and the methods we already have in place, and he thinks they’re enough. I don’t know how he cant think that, after losing mom. All it takes is a single inattentive person on the night watch, and a Lost One can slip through the village, potentially unnoticed until the morning.
With that thought on my mind, I tap the awakening chime, mounted near me on the wall, with the tip of my fingernail. It rings faintly, just enough so that the vibrations wash over me without rousing anyone else in town. Any hints of drowsiness I had felt fade away. Tesehr perks up on my shoulder, turning his head to glare at me with one eye. He shakes himself, ruffling his feathers up, and squawks.
“You knew we were in for a long night,” I say. “You could have stayed home.”
“Not want,” Tesehr says.
I shrug. “I can’t promise I’m not going to wake you up again.”
“Not want,” Tesehr grumbles.
I smile. “Are you sure? You’ll sleep better there.”
“Naah,” Tesehr says. It’s an odd sound, halfway between a word and a sort of groany squawk, which he makes when he’s feeling cranky.
He flutters down off of my shoulder and lands on Cobalt instead. Cobalt lifts his head as Tesehr picks his way down the fox’s spine to settle in the space between Cobalt’s hind leg and his stomach. Cobalt stares at him briefly, then lays his head back down on his paws.
These two give me peace. Seeing the get along always makes me smile, because Tesehr was extremely apprehensive around Cobalt when I first brought the together. Cobalt was an energetic kit, and Tesehr was still getting over his injured wing. Cobalt seemed to know that Tesehr was both injured and more fragile than him, so he was always very gentle with the raven, but that didn’t stop his curious nose from getting a warning peck every now and again.
There are no lightclouds nearby. The only one I can see is far off in the distance, a hovering, golden glow just like that of day. The cielmoss is closer, but the blue-green light provides little in the way of illumination. The whole world is dim. It’s almost as though nothing exists but me, Tesehr, Cobalt, the wall beneath my feet, the chimes, and the flute mounted to the wall, which whispers in the breeze.
I stand, because I know if I keep sitting I’ll eventually fall asleep even with regular taps to the awakening chime. The landscape on this side of the wall is flat and even, leveled out by generations of farming and disrupted only by the river that runs through it, headed off toward my right, where it passes through one edge of the town.
I can’t see the river clearly in the dark, but I can see where it reflects the cielmoss, and where the dark shadows of the bridges which cross it shade it from the azure light. I can see the roads where they cut through the fields and the grass, even though in this light, they’re little more than different shades of shadow.
Most importantly, I can see another glimmer of light, in the midst of the crops, where there’s no water to reflect the cielmoss. It’s a grey, dirty-looking light, and, faint though it is, it’s unquestionably in the shape of a person, and it’s headed toward the town.
What I am about to do is selfish and stupid, but I feel like I have to do it. If it works, then I will have done something great for the town. Something amazing. If it doesn’t, well, my warning will come a bit later than it should. Hopefully it will still come soon enough.
I pick up my two new chimes. They are heavy, but I’m strong from years of working the forge. Their weight isn’t just physical, though. They carry a lot of my hope in them as well, and that, more than the metal, makes it hard to lift them.
Cobalt and Tesehr both stir. I tap my shoulder. “Shoulder, Tesehr.”
“Naah,” Tesehr grumbles, but he does as he’s told.
Cobalt stands. “Stay here, bud,” I tell him.
When I open the door that leads to the stairs that will take me to the ground, Cobalt follows anway. “Stay, Cobalt. It’s not safe.”
Cobalt huffs, pointing his nose at Tesehr.
I relent, as always, too easily. “Fine. But stay safe. I won’t forgive myself if something happens to you.”
“Safe,” Tesehr repeats.
At the base of the stairs are two doors. One leads inward, toward the town. The other leads out. I unlock it and unbar it, then close it behind me, locking it once again with a I key that I made myself, a copy of which each person on watch tonight holds.
With more bravado than I feel, I start walking at a swift pace toward where I saw the Lost One in the field. The sooner I get there, the sooner I can test my new chimes, and the sooner I can send Tesehr to ring the awakening chime if these fail. Cobalt keeps pace at my side, though even in the poor lighting I can tell his ears and tail are tucked from anxiety. If my hands weren’t full, I would reach down to pet him.
Instead, I click my tongue. “It’s fine, Cobalt. It’s fine.”
I find the Lost One easily. Once I’m close, there’s no mistaking what she is. She, because she looks like a woman, her jaw hanging slack, her eyes wide and staring as though at something horrifying from which she can’t bring herself to turn her face. She slides forward across the ground in a straight line, legs and arms unmoving, though the dress she wears and her long hair trail slightly behind her, as though she’s moving toward a breeze.
In a way, I feel lucky. This was my first night waiting with the new iteration of these chimes. There was every possibility no Lost One would make an appearance at all. I stand to one side, ensuring that, should the peal of my chimes do nothing, I won’t be in her path.
Tesehr shifts on my shoulder. At my side, Cobalt whines. “Shh. Shh, boys. Settle. It’s fine.”
Behind the lost one, the crops are dead. They won’t look dead, yet, because her passing won’t have touched them physically. In the morning, though, the farmers will find a line of wilted plants, all life stolen from them.
Except… Except that’s not just Cobalt making sound, but something in the direction of the Lost One. Something else is squeaking out there, and chittering. I stop shushing Tesehr and Cobalt, all of my focus gone into straining to listen for the sound. It’s not the Lost One. She is soundless, as they always are. There is something following behind her.
“Hold, Cobalt,” I say more commandingly. I lead him back, around the Lost One’s side, where she’ll now be giving us an even wider berth.
In the faint light, I see the tiny creatures. I see as their shadows stop following her, picking up the dead things she leaves in her wake, and turn to look at us. There are five or six of the tiny creatures, that I can see. They are scarcely tall enough to reach my knee with their forehead.
“Gobbles,” I saw, though of course Tesehr and Cobalt don’t care much what they are. Both animals are attentive, now, trained on the Gobbles.
The Gobbles are unlikely to attack us. They’re scavengers, if nasty, ugly ones. They look like tiny people with green-black skin, spiny ears and faces, and wicked, dirty claws. I take a deep breath. Gobbles or no, the Lost One is the real threat here, and I have to find out fast whether the chimes will affect her.
I raise them in front of my. Steeling myself, I swing them toward each other. I make sure they meet at a slight angle, not head-on, so that they don’t damage each other.
Their tone shreds outward, tearing at my eardrums. Cobalt yelps. The vibration travels up my hands, numbing my fingers and forearms. The gobbles scream, clawing at their ears and covering them with their palms.
None of this is important, thought, because the Lost One turns to look at me. She doesn’t pause, or slightly alter her course, driven away from the sound, as the turning charms have done to Lost Ones in the past. Her whole body twists in the air, and then she’s looking right at me — not past me, at me — and advancing in my direction.
I start walking backward. “Ring, Tesehr. Ring!” I shout, because I am suddenly filled with the fear that I’m not going to survive these next few minutes. “Go ring.”
“Naah,” Tesehr says, loudly, but he does jump from my shoulder. The flapping of his wings retreats into the night.
There’s something wrong with the Lost One. It’s not just the fact that she turned, or that she’s looking at me, even though both things are so bizarre as to feel deeply unnatural. She’s fuzzy at the edges, blurred even more than she was before. I latch onto this. It has to be a good sign.
I ring the charms again. The clang rings out into the night, striking the Lost One. She ripples like water hit by a stone. Her outline blurs further, like vision gone out of focus. She raises her hands toward me.
I want to run. I want to run, but my legs have turned into melting jelly. I stumble just taking another step backward. The Lost One is staring directly into my eyes. It feels like she’s looking right into my soul. I would expect to see anger or hunger or something fouler in her eyes, but no, no. The line of her brow, the mouth, now closed and set into a frown, and her eyes, speak of something else. Sorrow and deep, deep longing.
I ring the charms again. Her fingertips, stretched out toward me, break apart like a column of smoke hit by a sudden breeze. Her form ripples and blurs. She is nearly close enough to touch me. I should turn to run. I can’t. I’m too afraid. All that fills me mind is her and the thought that I need to keep ringing the chimes.
Once more, I ring them. She’s so close that they strike each other inside her body. I am one step from death when the chimes clash together again, their harsh discord tearing through the air and through the Lost One herself, whose tattered form spreads outward and disperses into nothingness.
The gobbles snarl and snap, gibbering in what sounds almost like a language but which is, almost certainly, nonsense. I want nothing more than to collapse to the ground from the exhaustion born of the certainty of death, but there’s no time for that. The gobbles are leaping about each other and waving their clawed hands in what people in town call their war dance. They’re going to attack me.
I raise the chimes, because they’re the only weapon I have and because, after all, they’re made of sturdy metal.
Then there comes a sound from the town walls: Tesehr, ringing the awakening chime. The sound of his beak striking it is just loud enough for the adjacent watchers to hear it. The strikes their chimes with mallets, causing them to ring out more fully. They hit the awakening and the turning chimes in turn, creating a loud cacophony.
One of the gobbles runs toward me, claws upraised. I raise the chimes, slowed by their weight. No matter. Cobalt, snarling, leaps to meet it. He catches its throat in his jaws. It twists, attempting to free itself. It rolls its huge eyes in its head, attempting to catch a sight of its companions, but they have fled, leaving only the sound of their scampering feet to accompany their dying comrade.
Now I collapse. My knees give way beneath me. I let my eyes close. I set the chimes on the ground next to me, though still close at hand. The town is awake, but they are safe from this Lost One. They will be safe from future Lost Ones, too, if I can make more chimes like these.
My father will berate me for my risk. Some of the townsfolk will be angry I woke them. Right now, none of that matters. All that matters is that I made something good.