Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Forest Fire

Featuring artwork by Rengin Tumer

 
     The volcanoes were perfectly white. The sheer sides, both inside and out, were as plain and bright as chalk, and the air grew cooler the deeper into the crater they moved. Zara had gone on to scout ahead, searching for a way out in one direction while Dane and Nergui looked in another. Zara was, after all, a little more accustomed to these places than either of the others were, and if any of them could survive alone, it was her.
     Nergui's shoulders tightened as her foot left the final step from the staircase cut into the side of the rock, and looked again across the crater she inexplicably found herself standing in. This whole situation went beyond every rational response in her body. Descending into a volcano to escape the heat outside it? It was ludicrous.
     But should she really be so surprised? Every realm so far had challenged everything she'd ever learned; 'normal' had a completely different meaning in these lands - if it had a meaning at all. But at least that meant there was no lava where she stood, nor sulphur, steam, nor ash. There was only solid rock, and a number of equally white tunnels cut into the far side.
     Dane stepped forwards and gave her a reassuring tug on her elbow. She did her best to loosen her shoulders as she followed him, but her anxiety wasn't so easily moved. But, as long as her feet were, it would do.
     She'd tightened further by the time they reached the far side, and stared at the four circular tunnel entrances without any kind of clue. Eventually, Dane moved forwards and chose one, Nergui suspected, at random, but without Zara's keen eye, there was no better method for selecting their way forwards. So, she followed him as unwillingly as she had at every other turn, and tried to keep her thoughts focused on what was needed rather than wandering onto frets she could do nothing about. But, as ever, the effort to steer her mind away only leaded it directly onto what she'd wanted to avoid.
     "You're thinking about him again, aren't you?" Dane asked softly as they moved into the tunnel. "Your father?"
     She managed a pitiful smile. "I never stop thinking about him." The fact that he'd noticed was enough to kick her attention firmly onto their surroundings, and she noticed at last that the perfectly cylindrical tunnel was far too bright, so far from the opening.
     Her black eyebrows knitted together as she peered at the stone a little more closely, then held her palm just an inch away from it. Somehow, it was giving off a light of its own. A number of things went through her mind, and she took a careful step away when the word 'radium' lodged itself at the centre.

    The next thing she noticed in a desperate attempt to distract herself were the clusters of black flowers growing in spots across the ceiling, but she saw quickly that they, too, were stone. Otherwise, there was nothing at all to see.
    "Are you sure we won't find the tree here?" She asked, trying to draw her thoughts away from further impossibilities, and glanced towards Dane as he nodded.
    "It only grows in the sun. Here," he looked over the tunnel while his dark, mottled skin creased into a wistful frown, "nothing grows but stone."
   Nergui followed his gaze towards the approaching exit as she pondered the likely truth of that statement. "Do you know why Zara needs it?"
    "What makes you think she'd tell me?" He smirked almost helplessly, then gripped her with a brief but assured gaze. "She's been here for centuries. She knows what she's doing. If she says it'll help you find your way back, or help us find a way to help you find your...way back..." He forced aside his own frown of confusion and smiled simply instead. "Trust her."
     "I'm trying..." She tightened again, shrinking her height closer to his, and glanced up at the weight of his hand on her shoulder. His comforting smile, however, faltered when something else caught his eye.
    She followed his frown towards the exit and saw, in the forking chamber filled with a dozen tunnelways beyond, a robed figure standing almost as still as a statue, so tall and slim, it was as if his body had been stretched.
    "Another one." Dane tried to shift his tone into something more positive. "Think it'll be as benevolent as the last?"
    "Or," she murmured, "as wretched as the three before that."
   They couldn't stay in the tunnel, not if they were to find a way out. So they braced themselves and continued, watching the motionless figure closely. His face first appeared to be densely shaded by his hood, until Nergui reasoned that he was far too dark for that. Her uneasy suspicions were confirmed when she noticed the edge of his skin flickering like an unstable void. His robe seemed to be all that was giving him any shape.
    Then eyes coalesced. They were his - its - only features.
   "You shouldn't be here." The voice boomed from somewhere else, and ricocheted through the chamber.
     Nergui battled to find her own voice, but Dane spoke up before she could succeed. "We don't want to be," he said as calmly as he could, "we're looking for the hartscale tree, we just need to find a way out--"
    "You won't get it from me," it rumbled. But there was a strange look in its eyes - eyes, Nergui noticed, that were fixed entirely upon her. And had been since they'd appeared. She had no hope at all of reading what lay behind them. "But..." the look intensified, "I won't stop you from finding it. There is no need."
     "No...need?" Dane asked while Nergui fought against shrinking back from that stare.
     The flickering being seemed to shake its head. "No need." Then its eyes disappeared as suddenly as they'd formed.
     Dane sent her a brief look before peering back at the blind thing as politely as he could. "We'd be out of your way sooner if--"
     "No need." Then the being vanished altogether.
    "Well," Dane sighed, looking instead across the array of branching white tunnels, "I suppose that could have gone worse." And again, he chose a path at random, and the pair walked on.
     They travelled in silence until movement on the stone-flower wall just steps ahead of them tore a gasp from Nergui's throat, and two rich, violet eyes opened and stared back at them from the stone - or, rather, a rocky projection from the smooth, uniform tunnel that looked almost like a six-legged lizard, the same size as herself. The pair moved on far quicker after that, and stuck closer to the middle of the path.
     They followed a handful more tunnels and made the crossing over another cold, white crater when the world finally began to change.
     "Is this it?" Nergui asked, brushing back her long, black hair as she stared ahead at the sunset light pouring in from the end of the tunnel, bathing the monochromatic world in wonderfully warm colours. "The edge of the realm?" But she found a strange look on Dane's face, itself now brushed by the golden light - a look that, for once, did not reassure. And yet he moved forwards anyway without a word of answer.
     Nergui couldn't bring herself to even mutter under her breath, and followed him out rather than be left behind among creatures she couldn't see.
     And discovered the crater beyond alight with metallic golden flames.
    Astonishment froze them both, watching the gold writhe up across the white, mountainous walls around a lake of cold, silver magma. It took them a long moment to notice that the fire gave off no heat at all, despite the black scorches across the rock. Instead it was the thundering collapse of the volcano itself that came to dominate their attention, along with the squealing, howling alarm of animals they'd never noticed but could now certainly hear. Things they'd thought were stone flowers or outcrops in the other craters moved in a panic and opened their vibrantly-coloured eyes of lilac, crimson, yellow and blue, and it seemed, in that horrific moment, that all the colour of the realm was held in the eyes of its beasts, and in the flames that now destroyed them.
    "We have to do something," Nergui declared in a tight whisper, though she had no idea at all of what.
    "Yes," Dane replied, and gripped her wrist with a strong hand. "Run the other way!"
    "B-but--they--"
   "I know, Ner," he told her emphatically, even as he pulled her back down the tunnel, "but there's nothing we can do! We'll just get ourselves killed!"
    He was probably right. She didn't like it, and he probably liked it even less, but he wouldn't have suggested such a thing if there was any other way. So she gritted her teeth and gave in to his urging, making back towards the chamber of tunnelways. But as they stumbled out into the next crater, they found another swathe of raging golden fire.
     And the tunnel behind them filling with the first.
     Fear raked its way through Nergui's muscles. It was only Dane's effort to push her - probably more gently than it felt in her shock - towards the wall of the volcano that she finally escaped the grasping reach of the flames at her back, and they ran with eyes fixed solely to the wall-cut stairs. They staggered and stumbled their way up, snatching glances towards the stone-skinned creatures falling around them with the crumbling rock, and she soon noticed, her fevered eyes dragged by every scream, the bursts of colour that rose from the flame every single time one of the creatures fell or was overrun by its reach. Red, lilac, yellow, blue, pink - exactly the same variety as their eyes.
    Her mind was snatched away from the abstract pondering of periodic elements when the steps beneath her rushing feet shook and shattered. She didn't need to hear Dane's warning, nor voice her own, but they both yelled it anyway, and let another surge of adrenaline propel them forwards and block out the useless knowledge that the higher they went, the worse it would be if they fell. They barely managed to stay ahead of the collapse.
    And yet still Nergui managed to stall for a foolish second in fascination as a glimpse of the next volcano over revealed that, not only was it already far worse off than theirs, but that the silver magma at its centre was roiling, too - and there were new shapes and colours emerging.
     "Move, Nergui!" Dane shouted ahead of her. "What's wrong?!"
     If he'd spotted the same, it hadn't interested him. Not enough, at least, to risk his life to watch. She pushed on without wasting time on apology, and settled instead on another rapid glance as she scrambled to keep up.
     The magma was almost leaping onto the burning creatures; wherever the flames changed colour, the magma was drawn, and it was where the magma receded that immense swathes of green were left behind, and bolts of light leapt from its depths.
     But there was no more time to marvel than that brief second. The collapse was beginning to overtake her.
     She scavenged as much energy as she could to move faster, but her heart leapt into her throat before she could use it. She and Dane both plummeted with the rock, falling with boulders as small as their heads and others as big as a house. How none of it struck them, they would never know, nor how they managed to land in this crater's far smaller pool of magma rather than the solid, bone-crushing floor.
     Even against its comparative softness, pain was the first thing to seize her senses, and the second, mercifully, was the numbing coolness that stole it away. Even before she'd shaken off her daze, she was fighting her way through the surprisingly thin liquid to the surface, where she took the biggest, sweetest breath she ever had before.
     Dane was already hauling himself out at the edge when she reached it, and the both of them choked and dragged their heaving chests back into a normal rhythm. When Nergui finally looked down at her hands, expecting to see gloves of molten silver, she found instead metallic patches shrinking and vanishing over almost bone-dry skin. She wondered to herself, as her heart sped up and almond-shaped eyes widened, what mercury poisoning would feel like.
     "Nergui..."
     Her attention snapped up, and she found Dane staring wide-eyed around them at what remained of the volcano. She gasped despite her lungs as she followed his gaze.
     The golden fire had vanished, and the fragments and debris of the walls had become large, white hills, covered in the lower reaches by the same green that sprawled beneath them now, closer to moss than grass. Orange flowers sprouted in thick clusters, rendering the moss a warmer hue, and creatures of pure light leapt and sprang around the lake of glittering silver, yipping and chortling in joy.
     Truly, in that moment, the crater looked as though it had always been that way.
     Nergui shook her head to herself as she stared around it, and a knot tightened in her brow.
     "After all that destruction," Dane breathed, "this is what happens?"
    "I was going to ask you..." Her slanted eyes narrowed as a thought burrowed in. "Sequoias won't grow without a forest fire... Maybe some awful things need to happen to make room for something new..." She felt Dane's eyes flick towards her. She knew what he was thinking. Because she was thinking it, too. 'Maybe that's what's happening to me, stuck in these realms...'
     But she didn't say it.
     Nergui pushed herself to her feet while Dane rose in equal silence beside her. "Come on. We'd better go find Z--"
     "Thank the gods you're both all right!"
     Their attention fired up towards the top of the highest hill where a dark figure stood, waving a bow above her head.
     "Come on!" Zara shouted as they grinned in relief. "I've found a way out!"
    "Does it go where we need it to?" Nergui called back, but even from that distance, she could see Zara had simply shrugged.
     "Who knows?"
    She smiled and shook her head while Zara turned and set off behind the hill, and forced some confidence into her bearing. "Won't know until we get there, I suppose. Come on," she turned Dane the best smile she could, "let's go find this tree..."

 

Words by Kim Wedlock, art by Rengin Tumer.
All characters, and the concept of the Netherrealms, belong to Rengin Tumer.
This story and its artwork is not to be reproduced without the permission of myself or Rengin Tumer.
The artwork is available to purchase as a print from Rengin Tumer.




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