The morning snow had become a heavy heat, which by evening, had given way to a thickening fog. This was both good and bad for Kreemon's chances of getting out that night. He'd be harder to recognize through the fog, but there would be fewer people coming and going, so the guards would be more alert.
The weather was still disconcerting, and the moons, though unseen through the fog, were downright foreboding. Tirop and Ilsapeich, the fastest and strongest of the moon-children, respectively, were hidden. That was the second time this year, making it a Changing Year. This year had already shown a night of two moons, leaving only Ot and Ilsapeich alone in the sky. A Year of Darkness. Then there was the end of last month, when Halkak and Ot had been new, and Tirop full. A Year of Escape. Even those three events combined would not be worth worrying about, except that the end of this year was predicted to show Tirop full, and Halkak and Ilsapeich new. Tirop leading Zabrigar and Ot – a Year of Burning. Changing, Burning, Darkness, Escape, with Changing in focus – something important was about to happen.
This thought passed through Kreemon's mind only superficially, as he walked toward the gate, Bork following him at a distance. Signs of the Fair were visible everywhere, even through the fog. People walked the streets, headed for the next sight or sound that caught their attention. Food was sold at the doorways of taverns as well as inside. Working men cleaned refuse off the streets, kept people orderly, advertised one inn or another, and rushed to perform innumerable other tasks.
Even at night, and in the almost impenatratable fog, there were lines of people on both sides of the gate, going in and out. They were allowed through slowly, group by group and person by person, after the guardsmen spoke with them. Finally, it was Kreemon's turn. He went over the scene he had rehearsed in his head so many times while in captivity, and then stepped up to the guards.
“Name,” one asked him.
“Hirlay,” Kreemon replied.
The guard made a note in his log book. “Here for the fair?”
Kreemon named one of the villages he'd passed through when approaching Huerten.
“Will you be returning tomorrow?”
“Yes, I had a great time.”
“Very well. There's an eight diyar toll until the tenth, plus seven for leaving after dark, plus two for setting up a tent on the baron's land.” Kreemon didn't argue any of his points; he paid the toll silently.
“On a night like this,” said one of the other guardsmen, “you'll be lucky to _find_ your tent. If I wasn't on duty, I'd be living it up in the Andan Huerten Trader's Lodge. Best music in town, and I hear the baron himself is staying there.” The first guard rolled his eyes.
Kreemon smiled and moved on toward the gate. That had been a lot easier than he'd thought. When he got to the gate, however, he found he wasn't quite free yet. A pair of knights resolved out of the fog, and one beckoned to Kreemon, saying, “Come here for a moment.”
Kreemon walked over. “Yes?”
The knight looked at Kreemon, then stepped up closer and squinted at him. He motioned to the other knight, who came up next to him, carrying a open scroll of parchment. Both looked at the scroll, then at Kreemon. After a few moments, the first one took Kreemon's chin in his hand, and rocked his head back and forth, inspecting it from every angle. He rubbed his thumb back and forth in the area where Kreemon's now shaven beard had once covered a scar which was no longer there. “Alright,” the knight finally said. “You can go. Stick to the road, or you'll be lost in no time in this fog.”
Relieved, Kreemon proceeded through the gate. When he was a dozen yards or so past it, he whistled for Bork. Even to Kreemon's ears, the sound was muted. It was like whistling into water. Still, after a few moments, Bork came bounding out to him. The gate keepers probably noticed, but it was hard to tell whether they were investigating. It didn't matter. A few minutes away from the gate and a few steps off the road, and there was no way they could find him.
The fog was so thick by this point that Kreemon thought it best not to stray too far. The guards would never find him, but neither would Korisca, who he had finally convinced to go with him. He waited by the side of the road for what seemed like hours, but somehow, it wasn't until Korisca showed up, soaked and shivering, that he even noticed that he himself was wet and cold.
Kreemon greeted Korisca warmly, his mood brightened with his freedom. He related the story of the knight checking his chin for a scar. “Good thing it went away,” he said. Kreemon and Korisca then headed away from the city walls. They stayed on the road and traveled for a good hour to put some distance behind them before stopping for the night. It was hard to say how far they'd gone. Progress was slow, and several times, they found themselves walking through fields, and had to find their way back to the road.
During the mostly silent walk through the fog and darkness, Kreemon's sense of foreboding returned. He couldn't say what was bothering him, but it felt like something important was going to happen any minute. The moon-children were completely obscured by the fog, and they were planning something. If not, then why so many important events in one year? Burning, darkness, escape, changing. Changing was in focus, and Kreemon was free. The mystery of Dunweig, the magic of Osander, Ardith displaying her powers before all of Huerten. Something new was happening.
When they stopped and made camp, Kreemon gave most of the blankets to Korisca, and laid out without much cover, with Bork curled up soaking wet against his side. Kreemon had just dozed off when he was jerked awake. The ground was trembling. Ilsapeich was supposed to be gone from the sky tonight, but still he shook the earth. Or was it the other moon-children, taking advantage of their brother's absence? The trees swayed back and forth as the vibrations slowly became more intense. Bork barked at the trees, frightened and confused. “What's going on?” Korisca asked. There was a muted crack as a nearby tree split. “We'd better stay in the middle of the road. It's safer.”
More trees cracked as the minutes passed. Small cracks appeared in the ground and were filled by dust and earth. Trees fell over one by one, their roots in tact. The cracks widened, and trees were sucked into the ground. “Run!” Korisca yelled. She and Bork were already running away from the worst of the damage, back towards the city. Kreemon followed. Then there was a rumble, and a crashing noise that deafened him. Kreemon tripped and fell waist-deep into a hole that hadn't been there before. He looked back as he tried to climb out, and saw a rift opening behind him, at least ten yards across, which was as far as he could see through the fog. The hole widened, and Kreemon started to slip.
Kreemon prayed silently to Zahira for strength and guidance as he clutched at the ground and tried to pull himself out, but the hole kept widening, and every clod of dirt he grabbed just came off in his hands. He grabbed at some nearby roots. They were barely filaments, but at least they were something to hold. He dug his feet into the earth and finally stopped slipping. Then the ground fell out from under him, and he was dangling by tree roots over what felt like a cliff face.
The fog got a little brighter around him. Korisca was looking for him with the lantern. Calling out to her would be useless though. She was no doubt as deaf as he was.
The dirt was slipping around the roots, revealing sturdier portions. Kreemon snatched at him, making is precarious position a little safer. Then he cast around with his feet while looking down in the limited light. His feet hit something hard – a boulder. If it was large enough, it might stay around for the duration of the quake. Grabbing handfuls of roots, Kreemon maneuvered himself to the left until he was standing full on the boulder. Time to catch his breath. Then he went back to groping at roots, trying to pull himself up while all of nature conspired to keep him down.
Finally, the shaking stopped, but the deep rumble that had preceded the great crashing noise continued – Kreemon could hear it faintly, so it must have been incredibly loud to anyone who had not been deafened by the crash. After a couple minutes, everything was still. Every rock or dirt-clod that was going to fall had fallen. Now it would be easy to climb out, and here was Korisca, leaning over and looking down with the torch, her features obscured by the fog. Kreemon glanced down into his hole, which had merged with the great rift that now spanned the road and continued who knew how far. Something was moving down there.
“Korisca, please hand me the torch,” Kreemon said. He realized that he was shouting, but he could barely hear his own voice. “I think I see something down here,” he added a little more quietly, hoping Korisca's hearing was better than his, or at least that she could read lips. Deafened and peering through heavy fog, however, speech seemed hopeless. Kreemon resorted to pointing and gesturing until Korisca understood and handed him the torch.
When he looked back down, whatever had been moving was gone. Kreemon held the torch away from the sheer face of the hole, lighting as much of the rift as possible. The light helped a little, though it mostly just illuminated the fog, which was flowing down into the rift like the waters of a flooded river. A few yards off to the right and down a ways, Kreemon's pack was dangling from a tree-root. One of the blankets might have been the dark surface of a boulder far below. He held the torch for half a minute more, and then movement caught his eye again. A vague form, which at this distance could equally well be a man's arm or a small lizard, moved obscured against the rocks.
Kreemon continued to scan the crevice as he waited for his hearing to recover. There was his pack, just sitting there, and if he'd been a better climber, it wouldn't have been hard to get at it. As it was…. Something was definitely moving down there, back and forth against the wall of the rift, possibly coming slowly upward.
After a few minutes, Kreemon could hear his own voice again, but just barely; the deep rumbling noise continued and blocked out most other sounds. Occasionally, the ground felt like it was vibrating a little, but that could have been Kreemon's own nervous shaking. He tossed a small rock into the darkness, and heard it bounce against a couple of boulders before becoming silent. Whether that was an indication of depth was impossible to tell. It could still be falling for all he knew, muted by the fog and the rumble.
“Do you have any rope?” Kreemon shouted up to Korisca. He had to repeat himself a couple times, but she eventually lowered a rope. “Tie it off on a tree or something!” Once she finished securing the other end, Kreemon tugged several times to make sure it was secure, let out enough rope to reach his pack, and tied it around his waist. He secured the torch to the wall to give himself light, and climbed over to his pack. Once the pack was secure, he pulled himself up and out of the hole. At the top, he took a moment to get his breath back. “I felt something was going to happen tonight but never imagined this… Are you okay?”
“Better than you,” she yelled. “What _was_ that?”
Kreemon frowned. “I think Ilsapeich is fighting with his moon- brothers. Whether he did this or one of his brothers did it against him, I do not know.”
“Who's fighting what now?”
Kreemon looked at her. “You don't know about the moonchildren? Well, that will take some explaining then… We can talk about that as we walk.”
Kreemon watched Bork approach the ledge, slowly and cautiously. He looked unhurt. “There was something down there, moving around. Let's see if we can tell what it is.” He dug another torch out of his pack, and lit it. After a second of hesitation, he tossed it over the edge of the crevice. The torch fell, its light dimming and spreading through the fog. A low growl came from deep in Bork's throat as he, too, peered over the edge.
“There are two of them,” Korisca said. “There and there. What are they? I think they're climbing up the walls.”
“My eyes are not as good as yours. Can you see what they look like?”
“It's too dark, and the fog's too thick. They have arms and legs I think, but that's all I can see.”
Kreemon turned to Korisca. “I think we should get out of here. We can travel a little further down the road, at least to get away from here.”
“What? Are you afraid of those things? Or of the road collapsing? Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
Kreemon's frown deepened. “Two of Ilsapeich's gifts to the world were gold and gems. Traditionally Zabrigar's dragons loved Ilsapeich's gifts. Now, I don't think those are dragons down there but they could be of the same ancestry. They could also be Ot's children; they enjoy the darkness and causing mayhem.” Kreemon pulled Bork away from the edge. “In any case, whatever they are, they are probably hungry and I don't want to see you in some creature's gullet. Let's be off!”
Korisca stared for a second more. “No argument here,” she said.
Kreemon led Korisca and Bork around the rift, counting his steps to know roughly how far he was getting from the road. As he followed its jagged outline, however, he soon realized it was far more vast and complex than he had imagined. His count became meaningless as smaller cracks broke off from the main rift, and even smaller ones from those, in an endless fractal pattern. With the fog as thick as it was, he often couldn't tell for sure whether it was safe to leap over a crack, so he was endlessly going around. With the almost random direction changes and no moons or stars to help him out, Kreemon realized that not only did he have no idea how far he was from the road, but he didn't even know what direction he was facing. All he knew was that he'd been carefully following the rift for over an hour, with no obvious sign of the road. Was the rift miles long? Was it just deceptively tangled? Had he, in fact, passed the road? There was no way to tell.
Kreemon frowned at the rift and said, “We shall go for another hour and then stop until light and this fog lifts.” The next hour was no better than the last, so Kreemon finally gave up, turned his back to the rift and walked in a direction he thought was directly away from it. Along the way, he explained to Korisca about Ilsapeich and the other moon children, but she seemed doubtful. Korisca had grown up in the fear of Morenth, the great being who was in possession of the universe, and did with it as he pleased.
When Kreemon thought they were about half a mile from the rift, they set up camp between two fallen trees. “We can get a few more hours of sleep and then we should move on,” Kreemon said. “I would like to go back to that Osander Village. Maybe with their witch powers they can explain what happened tonight and what those creatures are.”
“Kree. Kreemon.” He woke to see Korisca standing over him, a blanket draped over her shoulders. Her clothes were soaked, and her face was blood-red. “How can you sleep so well? I had to get up every half hour to walk off the cold.” The sun was up; Korisca had let him sleep about two hours past dawn. “There were a bunch of people checking out the rift an hour ago. A couple hundred, I think; they made a lot of noise. A dozen or two are still there, but they haven't noticed us. Looks like we're less than a mile from the road, but there are enough fallen trees in the way that we're hard to see.”
Kreemon got to his feet and stretched. “I don't know, it doesn't seem that cold to me. Maybe tonight we should share blankets so we can share body warmth. I don't want you to get sick.”
Korisca responded with a sarcastic smile. “If that's your idea of a pick-up line, you could learn a thing or two.”
Kreemon looked confused for a moment and then his cheeks flushed red. “Oh, you thought I meant..” Kreemon coughed into his hand and then cleared his throat. “I see. Well.” Kreemon turned his attention to his pack, pulling out some cold trail food and quickly taking a bite. He shared it with Korisca and Bork, actively ignoring the previous topic. “We don't want to light a fire here; too many people will come to investigate. Let's get started. We'll try to avoid the people as best we can.” Kreemon looked around to get his bearings. The rift was about two miles wide, and now that he could see where it branched, it would be easier to circumnavigate. Despite walking what he'd thought was a long way the night before, he was now no more than three hundred yards from the closest part of the rift. The fog had confused him more than he'd thought. Up in the sky, Kreemon spotted a hawk making a wide circle around Kreemon's position, and then flying back towards the road.
“What is a hawk doing flying about during this season?” Kreemon muttered. Where the hawk was headed, there were a bunch of villagers and possibly a few soldiers – their weapons glinted in the sunlight, anyway. He couldn't make out much at this distance, but one of the people was either wearing dark clothing shined to a sheen, or was dark- skinned and bald. “Best to push off now before anything more strange happens.”
Kreemon and Korisca packed up their impromptu campsite. The blankets were much heavier now than they had been the night before, so they draped them over their shoulders and packs as best they could, to let them dry out. Soon, they were able to set off, working their way around the rift easily this time. After a few minutes, Korisca said, “Look.” She was facing back toward the road. The road itself was now totally out of sight, but the armed people Kreemon had seen earlier were emerging from the fallen trees and walking in their direction.
“This doesn't bode well,” Kreemon said. “Let's increase our pace.” He stepped it up to a brisk walk, occasionally glancing behind him to see what the others were doing. Soon, it didn't matter. The group turned back and looked down into the rift for a while, apparently losing interest. When he looked back a few minutes later, they were gone, headed back to the road.
Much relieved, Kreemon, Korisca and Bork worked their way around the rift, and after a couple hours of traveling over broken terrain, were back on the road, leaving the City of Huerten behind them.