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Hunting in Ember - Chapter Five

    • 107 posts
    April 5, 2021 10:11 AM PDT

    Chapter Five

    The old scholar has cleaned himself up somewhat. Hair neatly braided, simple but clean clothes. Pressed for answers, he cradles a mug of tea in his hands and tries to find words. Suddenly he sets down his mug and leans forward, one hand shaking slightly. “Everybody has their own myths of the ancient days and whatever slunk and moved along the earth in the neverbefore. Everyone brought their own myths and their own gods and landscapes, and even their own ghosts, their own nightmares and creatures of darkest dream.”

    “Those who were already here have their own stories,” says Haneval. “The Spriggan, the Orcs… but which is true?

    “My colleagues and I believe that is the wrong question.”

    “I am a Warden, not a scholar. Why is this important?”

    “I believe that all of these stories are rooted in the histories of peoples. Once upon a time, before the coming of Elves to Faerthale, there was in these lands an Imsu cult. Their beliefs were… you might call them insane.” Soril chuckles without humor. “I call them that myself. Some of the writings we have been able to translate suggest that they were desperate to become closer to the objects of their adoration.”

    “They worshiped…” Haneval waves a hand vaguely at the world around the Tower, “those things?”

    “Yes, I now believe they did.”

    Why?

    Soril clears his throat and tries again. “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘awe’?”

    Sinsera tries. “If… If I’m really impressed by someone…”

    “No, no.” He lifts a finger to his lips, thinking. “It is as if a ghostly hand takes the breath, steals your voice, a frisson that moves through your skin. You tremble before something so much larger than yourself that you cannot have words for it.”

    “Wonder,” says Haneval, nodding.

    Soril leans forward, fixing his eyes on Haneval. “These words also describe fear.”

    “But wonder is not the same as fear.”

    “Yet they can both be found within awe.”

    “How does any of this explain—“

    “Listen to me. You have a purpose. You are driven by your beliefs, your convictions, your oaths. You have chosen the path of Ember. You have chosen to serve as a Warden of Oldwood. Your spirit is like a void that these things have filled. But many do not have such convictions. They have seen no path before them, or none that they can feel drawn to. So the void remains, grows, sickens them until they are vulnerable to anything that promises to fill that void.

    “And so priests of darkness can lure them onto such a path, where they can feel that awe, feel connected, feel completed, feel like they have joined something and become special. They are part of the Truth, they believe, and all around them are the ignorant fools who know it not. Thus they find meaning.”

    “You speak as if you understand them.”

    “I do not describe something I admire. I am describing cause and effect, as I would speak of the spark that leads to a fire.”

    “So these cultists longed to meet these monsters.”

    “I doubt they knew the true nature of their gods. They had myths and stories. But the artifact we sought in Reignfall, that was a thing that they made. We believed that it would answer our questions.”

    “I would say that some of your questions have been answered,” says Haneval in a low voice.

    Soril swallows and nods. “Somehow, the very act of bringing the artifact here has unleashed something. But what?” He shakes his head. “Erenoth must still have the artifact. Perhaps he has found the answers.”

    “Perhaps he has found his death. Listen, scholar, I don’t need to know the legends and dreams of long ago cultists,” says Haneval. “All that matters to me now are the dreams of Faerthale, the legends and creatures of Oldwood.”

    Sinsera says, “You’re speaking in Ashen again.” Haneval scoffs, and she says, “You speak as if the borders of Faerthale are solid stone holding out the world.”

    “Sin,” he says, nodding toward Soril.

    “I chose the path of Ash,” says Soril, nodding, “yet I crossed the sea to dangerous lands. Haneval chose the path of Ember, yet he wants nothing more than to war against any who threaten these lands. And it is not only the legends of cultists involved in this matter. For the Spriggan must also remember. They were here, when this happened before.”

    “Then why don’t you simply ask them?”

    “We have. They have proven reluctant to speak of these matters. So we had no choice but to seek answers on our own.”

    Haneval stands up and begins to pace back and forth. “How… Whence comes this audacity? Do you know what you have done?”

    “The Spriggan should have warned you away from these matters,” says Sinsera. When the others look at her, she continues, “Silence always leads to bad things in stories. If they don’t wish to speak about this, the least they could do is say Oh by the way, whatever you do don’t go try to find an artifact that would get a lot of people killed…”

    After a moment of silence, Haneval looks at Soril and says, “That would have been good advice, but would you have followed it?”

    The old Elf shakes his head. “I do not know.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    In the wild wood they move silently, picking their steps with care to avoid leaving any trace that two Elves passed this tree, crossed this path. Every sound and silence, every feeling of life or movement, is part of the world through which they travel.

    Eyirie feels the watching fear, as if a whole forest huddles still and breathless during the passing of a predator. Suomen leads the way and she follows, keeping to his footsteps, making almost no sound.

    The way to Elmyen Grove is far from any well-traveled path. No one can leave a forest as unmarked by their passing as the Spriggan. The grove is a hidden, secret place against a cliff wall, lost within the draping vines and fallen leviathan trees.

    At last they slow. Though she has only been here once before, she knows the grove is somewhere near.

    Suomen moves slowly, one foot on this rock, the other foot moving onto the next, listening with more than his ears. Then he stops, Eyirie beside him, and looks around them. There is still no sign of the place she remembers.

    Then arms like branches reach out of nothing and pull them through the veil.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Azikh stares up at the thing that has killed several of his warband. Somehow it is even larger than it was moments ago. Every time he thinks he has figured out its shape, it changes again. But now and then something else shows through. As if bubbles of soot and rotten fungi lurk beneath the clawed branches that are now ripping the last shreds of Ghanrk into pieces of meat and shattered bone.

    Azikh suspects that he is getting glimpses of the thing’s true face. And he has noticed something else: The creature is careful to stay away from the fire.

    The Skar warleader roars again, both arms out, and steps toward the creature. He has already found that no horrifying phantom he can cast into the thing’s mind has any effect. Perhaps its own life is such a nightmare that it scoffs at any I possess.

    Azikh laughs. Now I understand. Whatever created this creature made it a monster, a thing whose physical form strains to escape itself. A sound like an army of cicadas escapes it, a cry of bent wings and rage. It flings the last remnants of Ghanrk away and turns toward Azikh.

    “Come to me, warleader,” it says in Ghanrk’s voice.

    Azikh takes up a burning brand from the fire in his left hand, his sword in his right. He spreads his arms and says, “Yes, brother, let us embrace and free one another from this rotting flesh.”

    As he leaps toward the creature, those remaining of his warband follow his lead, brandishing fire and blade as they attack.

    Among the claws and scattered eyes they find flesh, reeking of marsh gas and death, always moving, never holding the same shape. But it bleeds rust red, and the insect hum rises into a scream as the Skar rend and burn.

    Azikh hears behind him the laughing of the Shaman and hopes the madwoman is at least healing them from time to time.

    When it is done and the mass of soot and tar and chitinous limbs lies oozing upon the ground, Azikh turns at last to the Shaman, whose wide mad eyes gaze at the creature’s remains in fear and wonder. He looks around at those of his warband who remain standing. One is bleeding, yet the Shaman only stares at the creature.

    Azikh walks over and looks down at her, says “Heal her.”

    She looks up at him, gripping the artifact in both hands. “Did you see it?” she rasps. “It was everything I dreamed. Everything.”

    “It is good that you have found what you sought,” he says quietly. Then he brings up his sword and separates her head from her body. He reaches down and lifts the artifact from her hands, then stuffs the end of it into the remains of the Shaman’s throat and lifts the head up into the air as if it were a banner. The Shaman’s blood drips onto his hand.

    “Our Shaman’s wisdom will grace us well enough from atop her prize,” he says.

    His remaining eight followers laugh. Grnvl begins bandaging her wounds.

    “Where would the Shaman guide us?” says another.

    Where indeed. Azikh longs to leave this wretched place of moist rotting wood and flowers, to return across the cursed sea to home and that which is hated but familiar. Yet as he looks around at the faces of his eight companions, he sees their wide eyes, feels the eagerness of their bloodlust.

    Would they follow me home, he wonders, or curse my weakness?

    Sometimes the choices of a leader are not choices at all.

    “We have come all this way,” he says at last. “Have you had your fill of Elvish blood, or do you yearn for more?”

    Their shouts are answer enough.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Here it is silent but for waterdrops falling into the pool from the vines above. Eyirie has lost her gaze in the ripples, the wavering reflections of the trees around them. Suomen sits next to her, lost in thought.

    Then footsteps from across the pool, and the Spriggan who pulled them into the grove is standing there again.

    “Are you comfortable?” says the Spriggan.

    “Yes,” replies Suomen. “I know that you are Ua here, but forgive me, I do not remember your name.”

    “I have a name that I have gathered around me, in which I have clothed myself through the trackless ages of the world. But that name, I have learned, is too long for the patience of Elves. Hiesekesifesholisueferakandolin is shorter, and I thought perhaps this might be easier for Elf minds to remember and learn from. But alas not. You may call me Hie Lin. I am Ua here.”

    “We fear that many Wardens are dead, but we cannot be certain. I hoped that we could find you, that you would allow us entry.”

    “The Wardens have been welcome here. We appreciate your respect for the wood. You enjoy the music, the whisper of leaves, the song of the strider for its companions, the endless change of a brook. Sometimes we hear you sing with them. But things have changed.”

    “Hie Lin Ua, can you tell us what is happening?”

    “Through ages of Noa we have struggled against the Wurm and its children. We have struggled against the loss of our connection to the Face of the Deep. We have struggled to continue our work when everything changes and falls apart as the ages turn.

    “And once, long ago, we struggled against something else. Something we do not like to remember. There is a place close to us, very close. You cannot see it, but it is there. Would you call it a world? A hive? A city?

    “Long ago I gazed into the hoves and burrows of Tashlultuum, heard the screams of its prey, the mad laughter of its spawn. Glimpsed their terrible towers. There live the ones of many eyes and many limbs. A tear was made between our world and theirs, and they stormed through singing. The threshers came first, to hunt and shred. Then the terrible Siluri themselves. If they manage to come through in force, they could destroy the world you know.”

    “Why?” asks Suomen.

    Hie Lin looks at him and tilts her head slightly. “Why?

    “Why would they do such a thing? What do they want?”

    She looks away, her glowing eyes fixing upon something to the south. “I once saw a young mortal tearing the wings off of small things. What did the child ‘want’? I saw the Revenant race across the world. What did they ’want’? I do not know the ways of such a mind. But I can tell you that, whatever their why might be, the Siluri would tear every living thing into such tiny pieces that no one would ever find them all, and they would sing in their strange voices while they tear. Dance when they were done, dance among the pieces of flesh and bone that remained, as if in ecstasy of knowing at last the face of whatever god they know.”

    Suomen swallows and glances at Eyirie. Then: “Why are they here now?”

    “Because a mortal sent the key away before we could destroy it. And another mortal,” she looks down at Suomen, “an Elf, has brought the key back here now.”

    “Where is this key?”

    She looks away again. “South. I can smell it from here. But between us and the key, our enemy gathers.”

    “If you tell us where it is, we could go—“

    “No. It is too late. The threshers hunt. You must stay here now, or perish. And if one of their masters should squeeze through the cracks between—“

    The tolling sounds again, as of a great bell beneath the earth, deeper this time, louder, and Eyirie feels as if her bones tremble in its echoes.

    Hie Lin Ua stands very still, her fingers straight out, trembling slightly. “A Siluri has come to Oldwood. I must now join my Uo to protect this place.”

    And the Spriggan moves quickly away.

    “She said a tear,” says Suomen. “A tear in the world.”

    Eyirie nods. “Patchwork world such as this, there are bound to be a few holes.”

    She stands and begins to walk in the direction the Spriggan took.

    “Where are you going?”

    “Suomen, I can sit still no longer. If we cannot leave, then at least I must know what is happening.”

    He stands and begins to follow her. After a few steps the wind holds its breath, and then the ground shifts beneath them. Eyirie holds out her arms to keep from falling.

    And then a sound as if gusts of wind are trying to tear away a canvas. The sound rises beyond the veil as of the roaring of the wind, a tornado moving toward the grove. Suomen says something, pointing. She cannot hear his words, but she sees two Spriggan standing on the next rise, their arms raised against whatever assails this sanctuary. Beyond them hangs a veil over the wood, and something huge moves against it.

    The attack has begun.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    When Sinsera returns to the ground floor, Airisu is standing with her spirit fox on her shoulder.

    “They have come,” Airisu says.

    Sinsera nods. “There was one outside…”

    “There are more.”

    Sinsera swallows. She does not know what to say or do.

    Airisu takes a deep breath, then releases it. “Come,” she says. And then she makes for the stairs.

    The others follow her up, around the inside walls of the Tower, spiraling ever upward until they reach the glasswingcote beneath the observation deck. Then unlatching the door, Airisu opens it and steps up to the deck.

    They all move to the railing and look down. Beneath a gray sky, more of the creatures move through the clearing toward the Tower, at least half a dozen that they can see on this side. Things that resemble clawed branches appear and disappear from the darkness beneath pulsing bells of soot. They slowly move toward the tower, and Sinsera feels—though she does not look with her left eye—as if all of them are looking up at the tiny forms of Elves near the Tower roof. Their cicada songs join together.

    Airisu stands like some Elven figure of legend, a once-hero scarred by the monsters she has fought in tales of old. There is no fear in her eyes; only resolve. She raises both her arms and whispers, chants, sings.

    Clouds above the clearing gather and thicken, and a rumble sounds above the Tower. Then the air is blinding, brilliant with the flash of lightning bolts piercing the air to strike the ground. Over and over the light arcs to the ground below.

    Sinsera covers her ears against the screaming, as the creatures throw themselves to the ground, burning and searing as Airisu brings down light from the sky.

    Until the clearing is silent, and smoke rises from things of tar and branch that now lie still.

    Airisu stares down at what remains of their enemies. “I am done with hiding,” she says. “We are Wardens of Oldwood, and our time has come.”

     

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at April 13, 2021 7:39 AM PDT
    • 144 posts
    April 7, 2021 1:03 PM PDT

    Gratz, Crow.  Story is coming along nicely :)  Learning a lot about the elves through your stories.