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Thursday, 19 November 2020


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
    The full moon shone lordly over the mountains. Silver capped the distant peaks, flowed like molten light through the valleys, and bathed with a billion diamonds in the lakes far below. All between those glittering stars was black but for two great, dusty streaks smudging the sky beneath the moon, and a third hanging over the distant horizon, each flecked with so many more silver pinpoints that it seemed the stars themselves had gathered to witness the passing of Lun'ul.
    But, of course, the idea was lost on the five tribal children, sitting in a ring upon one mountain ledge, giggling and throwing the dust they'd been told to grind from all kinds of dried insects and herbs. Chores were, after all, a thing grown ups gave them to make sure they became as boring as they were. There was no other reason for it. So they had to work harder to ensure that they didn't.
    Their bronze skin was soon stained such deep shades of red, green and blue by those efforts that it would take a week of sand scrubbing to get it back out. A fact pointed out by one dreadlocked young man as he stopped in his own errands to frown down over them.
    Ice-blue eyes widened and turned up to him sheepishly - all the eyes of all the children, bar one.
    "Deeeehaaaaa," the fifth whined, flopping backwards against the warrior's legs, then onto the rocky ground itself when he shuffled one step backwards. She scowled up at him, upside down, but didn't call her older brother out on it. "Can't you get us out of this?"
    "No," Deha grunted. "And I wouldn't if I could. Breaking stuff is about all you lot are good at, so you can grind the dust for tomorrow's ceremony."
    "But whyyyyy?"
    "Yeah," a boy piped up while she flopped somehow deeper into the ground. "Can't we just go with you? We wanna do more battle traini--" His hands clamped over his mouth at Deha's sharp hush.
    "Mention it again," he whispered, glancing around at the other villagers busying themselves with preparations nearby, "and I'll teach you how to clean weapons rather than swing them."
    "But why do we have to do this?" His sister whined again. "The moon's already up!"
    "Yes," he sighed witheringly, "but the Winds aren't. This dust needs to be ready to purify it, and the priests can't do that if it's not been ground up."
    "Why do they need to? We don't do it every other time the wind blows..."
    Deha rolled his eyes and nudged his petulant sister roughly with his foot. She sighed dramatically and pushed herself back up. He dreaded her getting older. She was already too dramatic for a six year old - what about when she was his age? "Those winds," he sighed, crouching down beside them all, "aren't the same. This Wind is the wind of the spirits. The gust that carries the souls of our ancestors, who protect us and watch over us while they make their way to the Frozen Gates in the south."
    "Why does it matter so much tonight?" Another girl asked. Deha squinted uncomfortably. One of her eyeballs had gone blue.
    "It doesn't," he replied, deciding it wasn't his problem to fix. "Lun'ul is tomorrow night. When the waxing moon aligns with the constellation of Akiirit."
    "The one that looks like a rolling badger."
    "Oh!" All five children squinted up into the sky.
    He was about to rise and resume his task, joining a few others in carving bone charms, when the blue-eyeballed girl spoke up again.
    "But why does it actually matter?"
    He stifled his frustrations and wished, vehemently, that he hadn't gotten involved at all. But, if he didn't answer them now, they would just follow him and pester him until he did. Being Hara's brother meant he was more desirable for her and her friends to harass than anyone else, especially any of the very busy priestesses who could have done a much better job of explaining it than him.
    So, wearily, he shifted the hammered sword from the sling at his side and sat down on the ground, where he was quickly surrounded. A distinct pressure settled on him with the wideness of those patient eyes. "It matters," he began carefully, "because tomorrow night the Winds will drop low enough to pick up our wishes and carry them away. It's the one night when--"
    "It won't pick us up and carry us off with them, will it?"
    His eyes narrowed back at his sister. "I'll make sure it does if you keep interrupting. It carries our wishes - our messages, our love. It's the one night we can speak to the spirits, to our ancestors, and tell them all we wish to tell them."
    "Like what?"
    He shrugged. "Anything."
    One of the other boys gasped brightly. "I can tell them I'm getting really good at hatchet throwing!"
    "Sure," Deha nodded, "if you want to lie to them, that's fine too."
    The boy's expression flattened.
    "What is the Wind?" Another asked. "Why do our ancestors ride it?"
    "Yeah," piped another, "why don't they just walk? Or stay here? Why do they even have to go at all?"
    He sighed as he found himself sinking under a cascade of increasingly heated questions. It took three hushes and a threat from his sword to quiet them. "All right. I'll start at the beginning - assuming I can recall enough of the details. The story of the Wind... Well, Aya'u - you know who She is, don't you? I don't have to start right at the beginning, do I?"
    Each of the children guffawed. "We're not stupid," his sister drawled. "She's the Goddess of the Wind."
    "Thank the sands for that," he muttered. "Well then, I'll begin:
    "Aya'u, Shiya, Degon, Uq'ua, were each loved by the elements. Fire would hug and kiss Shiya, the earth would shelter and warm Degon, water would lap at Uq'oa's toes, and the winds would kiss and caress Aya'u's skin. The rampaging elements tamed in the presence of the gods, and the gods adored them in turn. But, time passed, and the elements weren't company enough - they sang, but they didn't sing the same songs as the gods; they laughed, but they didn't laugh the same way; they loved, but their passion was different. The gods weren't lonely, but...They were missing something...ehh, vital," he finished vaguely.
    "What was so vital?"
    He waved the question away. "You'll understand when you're older. Don't ask your parents."
    "Why not?"
    "Because you'll go blind. Anyway, they--friends." Deha grinned and nodded with satisfaction. "They wanted friends. Yes. So the gods came together with Their elements and made us to be Their friends. Figures were shaped from earth, hardened in fire, filled with water, and blown into motion, and then we were all taken away and put where our gods could find them easiest. Aya'u placed our tribe out here, on the path of the Gende'ah winds.
    "But, when the first of us died, when their bodies couldn't go on any longer, their spirits continued to blow forwards, and with nothing to tether them, they were flung out into the world - every one of them. The children of Aya'u, and the children of the rest.
    "But the gods, though different in Their natures, had never been quarrelsome or jealous. It was Aya'u's breath that gave us life, and it was Her breath that created the Winds to the Frozen Gates, where the elements themselves collapse. It's a place where water turns solid, where plants cannot grow, where the winds roar out of control and fire cannot burn."
    "That sounds...scary..."
    Deha watched their open expressions crease in concern, and he scratched hesitantly at his chin. "It does a bit, doesn't it? ...Well, it isn't. The spirits can't feel it, they're not touched by it, and they're carried by Aya'u's breath through the gates to the gods Themselves."
    "Then what happens?"
    "Then they live with them among the stars, and new spirits are born with the new winds, which are blown into new bodies."
    "Babies!" A girl beamed.
    "" A creeping terror moved slowly into the boy's eyes, then jumped quickly into the rest. "I already have a spirit - what will happen if--"
    "Will I be pushed out of me and someone else takes over?!"
    "What if it happens to my mother?!"
    "What if I become a boy?!"
    He winced in a panic as they began to cry. "Wait, wait, wait, wait! Babies! Unborn babies!" He looked quickly about at the rest of the tribe, and found a few of them frowning his way in disapproval. This wasn't a night for sadness or fear.
    Then his heart jumped suddenly into his throat as a musical voice rose behind him.
    He froze, wide-eyed, for a long moment. Only when his cheeks had flushed completely red did he find the drive to rise clumsily to his feet.
    The young woman was beautiful in her pale, ceremonial hides, hides that darkened her beautiful bronze skin by contrast, which in turn brightened her beautiful blue eyes, and her beautiful lips were set into a beautiful smile despite one beautiful white eyebrow cocked impatiently his way.
    She was...well, beautiful.
    He wished he was capable of thinking of something else every time he saw her.
    "Aya'u knows what She's doing, kids," the training priestess said, turning a more heartfelt smile their way and giving him the opportunity to breathe again. "She knows each and every one of you, and loves you. There's no possible way She would ever let someone else's spirit take over your bodies! She wants to make new friends, not replace old ones!"
    "B-bu-b-but what if she makes a mistake?!" One of the boys blubbed.
    "Good job, Deha," the priestess muttered drily, then knelt and spoke up as his head dropped over rounded shoulders. "She has never made a mistake. Ever. Every single thing She's done has been deliberate. Everything all the gods have done has been deliberate. That's how the elements work together so smoothly. But," she raised a slender finger, "when we begin to doubt in Them, that balance begins to change. We all must trust."
    "But what if we can't?"
    Her smile broadened, and her tone grew almost crisp. "Then leave."
    Deha started at that.
    "Leave here, and travel to the Red Mountain. Speak with the Fa'hari fire tribe and the Traahak earth tribe on the volcano's slopes. See how their elements work in tandem, and the good that their volcano brings the world when the wind scatters its ash.
    "Then visit the Rashan Hills and speak to the Gyuils water tribe; watch the geysers erupt five hundred spans into the air, see the wealth of the land around its pools and far beyond when the wind carries that rich steam away." She smiled at each individual in turn, and Deha watched their eyes glaze with the imaginings of those distant places. "See it all working together, and then decide for yourself."
    Little Hara frowned, and turned her brother a long look. He couldn't quite read the question in her eyes, but he gave her a nod anyway. If she needed some kind of reassurance, Yia was the best person to give it.
    Her big ice-blue eyes turned back towards the waiting priestess. "What if we decide wrong?"
    She chuckled lightly, a sound like rolling water. "You can't decide wrong. It's not possible."
    "What if it is and I'm the first person to do it?"
    "Then," she said simply, "the world will stop turning. Which it cannot do while the Winds continue to blow, and nothing in the world can stop a force like the Winds. That," she smiled, "is how impossible it is. What you decide will be right for you, and you will do with it what you will."
    Their eyes glazed again, and quiet little frowns of thought descended over each of their faces. Some with more difficulty than others.
    But, before long, the soft trill of pipes rose up from further along the mountain shelf and drew them back out of their ponderings. Yai rose back to her feet and straightened out her hides. "The Night Before is beginning," she announced as they followed her up, driven more by curiosity than anything else. "Go. Enjoy yourselves and leave heavy thoughts behind." She looked over the half-empty bowls and their stained skin, and smiled. It was a more jagged one this time - amusement, not piety. "Your work is done."
    "But," Hara looked back to the bowls herself with suddenly profound reluctance, "we didn't finish..."
    "I'm sure Aya'u will believe this is plenty."
    Each face lit up with relief, and the five scrambled over each other to race off to the dance that was kicking up by the pipers.
    Yai sighed and watched them go while Deha reslung his sword. "You really shouldn't talk to children."
    "I know."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Hanging Lanterns

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     As the legend goes, Jack was a blacksmith with a penchant for dishonesty. He gambled, he drank, he lied - even when he told the truth, he twisted it. And so he inevitably drew the attention of one he shouldn't have. The trouble was, for all his dishonesty, Jack was very good at every single thing he did, and so, when he gambled against the devil, he won - and extracted a promise that his soul would never be taken to Hell.
     Unfortunately for him, when he died, Heaven didn't want the liar and gambler, either. And so Jack was condemned to wander the dark hills of his homeland for eternity, with nothing but the burning coal and hollowed turnip the devil had thrown him to light his endless way.
     Jack O'Lantern's ghostly glow has been spotted for centuries on hill and moor, flickering brightest around the time of Allhallow. The ominous sight sends everyone fleeing behind closed doors - but sometimes, that's not far enough; his light has been known, on occasion, to draw close to the village that was once his home.
     This was one such night.

     The streets were empty of all but the most drunken guisers, those masked and costumed to trick the dead who might wish them ill into thinking them someone else. Torches sputtered over doorways, taken from the great bonefire to guide lost ancestors home; double crosses were drawn beneath windows to turn the unwelcome away; small buns were placed on doorsteps to appease any malignant spirits or witches that might approach the houses.
     Jack wandered unseen through those thinning streets, peering around at the dying festivities until he reached the abandoned and burned out bon'fire in the square. There, he planned to linger and look over the stones arranged around the smoking ruins, each positioned just so to ensure the future health of a household. He could already feel, if not breathe, the herby smell of wards and charms burned to chase out evil and dark omens.
     Those measures never worked, of course; the seeds of misfortune were sown unimpeded for the year ahead on every Allhallowtide without exception. But the living seemed to believe otherwise, and that thought was comfort enough for them. Even if the devil Herself wasn't put off by their flames. Nor by their bells, herbs, loud noises or other fanciful distractions. In fact, She'd been present at these festivities since the fire was sparked at dusk, watching, and deciding.
     And She was still there now, pondering the stones while all else but the spirits themselves had gone to bed.
     Though drawn as he always was to the ashes, Jack kept his distance, and shielded his lantern from her piercing eyes. It was all he would think of until She finally left - and while he knew he should leave and wait for that moment from afar, he couldn't find the strength of will. What cocksurety he'd had in life had fled him quickly in death. And so he wrestled with that stagnant decision for an hour, until movement from the darkness drew his itchy attention away.
     A hunched old man moved out from the night, clad in a thick travelling cloak with a seasonal charm of turnips and mangelwurzels tied about his waist, carved into miserable human faces. His own wrinkled expression was strangely neutral; he wore neither the reverence nor fear others usually carried on this night, nor did he seem curious to the woman's solitary presence.
     Jack inched back deeper into the darkness and watched him approach the deeply tanned woman, who still slowly circled the char. Her ruby eyes soon lifted and stared back from beneath sleek black eyebrows.
     "Fair Allhallow," She said smoothly, her voice like silk.
     "Fair Allhallow," he replied with one far more hoarse, and he delivered a difficult bow. "Devil."
     Her eyes narrowed. But for how carefully She considered him, Jack saw no concern in her terrifyingly perfect bearing. "You could hurt a lady with those words," She said a moment later.
     "I could excite her, too. But it was really just a suspicion." Then the old man squinted closer. "Your eyes truly are beautiful..."
     "Mm." She lifted her chin and stared down along her nose at him. "Correct, on both counts. What do you want?"
     "...Jack?" She blinked. "Silvertongue Jack? What interest do you have in him?"
     "He's an ancestor of mine."
     Jack's eyebrows rose.
     "I'm so sorry," the devil replied sardonically.
     "Aren't we all. But I want to free him."
     Jack's eyebrows lowered.
     "So," the old man smiled, "I challenge you to a competition. If I win, you revoke the curse and let Jack pass on. If you win, then the curse stays, and I'll shoulder it, too."
     Jack's mouth formed an objection, but the dead had no voice.
     He watched a smirk tug its way across her plump lips, then She made a curt gesture as if shooing the old man off. Instead, his back straightened and his face changed: where his skin had sagged and his eyes had sunk, he was suddenly youthful, and not unhandsome. Jack could see no relation either with the mask of magic, nor without it - but it had been two hundred and eighty two years since he'd died, and his familial blood, as blood did, had changed.
     "No mortal man can get the better of me," She told him smoothly. "Charms or no. I always win in the end."
     "Then," the young man smiled, "it's just as well I'm no mortal man."
     Again, her eyes narrowed. "You've caught me in a fair mood. Very well. I accept your proposition."
     "Good. Take off your shoes." Jack frowned just as the devil did, and watched him kick off his own, grab a handful of ash from the ruin, carry it off and trail it in a wide circle around them. "The aim of the game is simple," he said, dusting off his hands, "don't leave the circle. Get soot on your foot or ash in your dash, you lose the tale...forfeit the...I win."
     For some reason, Jack rather felt his hope sink.
     "That didn't work," the devil noted.
     "I never claimed that it did. Are the rules clear?"
     "Clear as crystal."
     "Wonderful." Then his face scrunched. "Why are you smiling like that?"
     "Because all I have to do to win is stand right here. And I don't really have anywhere else to be." She stepped ominously towards him. "For a very long time."
     "...Ah..." He scratched at his head and glanced around. "Well, there's obviously"
     She cocked a speculative eyebrow, folded her arms, and swung her hip out to one side. "Then do tell."
     Jack watched the young man's eyes slowly widen as he thought. The furiosity of the effort was disheartening. But given things as they were, had been, and would continue to be, could this man honestly make his situation any worse?
     ...Yes. He probably could.
     The man snapped his fingers then, a bright look on his face. "Summon a demon and I'll fight it."
     Jack baulked, but the devil shook her head. "It would destroy you in a moment. There will be no fun in that for me."
     "Then summon something smaller."
     "Then what would be the point? And, if I may note - for the sake of fair game - that that would only push you out of the circle."
     "...All right...all right, in that case..." Again, his desperate thought gave way to a rapid grin. "Three more games."
     "Because the first one is going so well?"
     "Those stones," he gestured first towards the pyre, "and those lights," then towards the flickering lanterns outside the nearest house a good fifty yards away. "First one to knock out a flame."
     She gauged the distance for a long moment, pursing her dark red lips.
     "You've got beautiful lips."
     She ignored him, and as her gaze drifted back onto the stones, a mischievous smile crept over her face. She extended her hand, and the stones drifted over, simultaneously spreading doomed portents over the whole village.
     The man grunted quietly to himself as he watched them float by, then followed Her to the edge of the circle and took half the stones for himself. He glanced down at his feet while he stepped up to throw, and quickly shuffled back. "Whoops, nearly."
     Jack buried his face in his hands.
     Less than one minute later, She'd extinguished them all.
     "You used magic," the man accused Her warily, but She simply smiled back with the most perfect mask of innocence.
     "Why would I need magic to hit a target when I have coordination?"
     Jack frowned. No, She hadn't used magic. The devil liked games; Her trickery wasn't in cheating, it was in words.
     Panic would have flashed through him, if it was able, and he quickly racked his mind back over everything She'd said since this ancestor of his had shown up, searching for the trap.
     "But," She said, peering down at the ash circle, "that didn't pull either of us over the line."
     "No, it was poorly thought-out..." the man admitted.
     She turned him a sideways look. "The next game?"
     Her fine brow flattened. "I am not a child divining my future husband."
     "Can't say I blame you, it would be rather disappointing when you came out with nothing. And I can't say I'm keen to divine mine, either. That would be even more upsetting. Fine." Foolishly undeterred, he turned and strode back to the bon'fire, lifted a stick of char and stirred up the embers from a careful distance. Then, with a sharp movement, flicked it upwards. The tiny lights flared, drifted and flickered. "Catch an ember."
     Her black eyebrow rose, but She didn't object.
     Neither did Jack, though he deeply wished to. He knew how this would go. Fire was the devil's pet; it would be no trouble for Her to call the embers into her palm even without resorting to magic. But his fear of Her restrained him from interfering with their drift, and he watched them vie to capture one of the flickering lights while his incorporeal stomach sank another foot lower.
     Predictably, it didn't take long for Her to capture three. Again, his apparent rescuer had failed astoundingly.
     "There's one more game," he reminded Her quickly before She could gloat.
     "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to forfeit?"
     "I am, quite..." He stole another moment to think, then snapped his fingers again, another unsettling wildness in his eyes. "I've got it." He lifted another stick from the mound, one far less burned than the rest. "Set fire to this."
     She barely even glanced at it before a blisteringly hot fire took over it. The man jumped slightly, then stepped back and let it go. The flames quickly caught and spread over the dry grass.
     He turned her a mad grin. "Last one standing."
     She folded her arms and dropped her gaze to the fire. Neither of them moved. Even as the flames began to approach, they both stood their ground. Even as it closed off escape. Even as the smoke began to strangle the air.
     Jack couldn't feel the smothering heat, and neither did he breathe at all. He simply watched as the young man began to sweat, his foolish attention torn between the spreading fire and his opponent. The flames began licking at both of their feet.
     Then, when a terrible smile cracked across the devil's face, the fire suddenly peeled back and fled from her presence. She grinned while the man's eyes widened, and cackled as the flames turned and closed in on him instead, and strode slowly forwards while yet more skittered away, watching him gasp, swear and try to shield himself with his cloak, until he finally stumbled backwards and out of the circle.
     "A marvellous game," she chortled, dismissing the fire without even a gesture. "Such good fun! I do enjoy seeing mortals try to get the upper hand. I did warn you!" She moved forwards, and her beautiful smile curled into something woefully vicious. "You have no idea what you've let yourself in for - which is why, I presume, you're still smiling like an idiot. But at least you'll be united with your dear ancestor." She bared her sharp teeth while his foolish stare travelled down to the ground.
     "You've got such lovely feet."
     She frowned. Then he looked back up, and his smile inched a little wider.
     "Shame about the ash."
     She glanced down and noted the dark smudges. Then grunted and smiled back. "Makes little difference."
     "Aaaaactuallyyyy," he pushed himself back up, "it makes all the difference. I win."
     She shook her head, luxurious black hair bouncing in a storm of elegant curls. "You left the circle. I haven't missed your games. They were diversions, nothing more. The real competition was in not leaving the circle."
     "Very astute of you," he said, inexplicably still grinning. "But I never said the person who leaves the circle loses. I said the one who gets soot on their foot would lose. I said the aim was not to leave the circle, but I never said that that would end the game."
     Her ruby eyes darkened and snapped down to the ground. Jack's followed. There was ash everywhere. The dry grass had burned quickly, and the heat had even stirred the bon'fire's remains.
     A growl rattled from her throat, and her gaze snapped then to his feet. Conspicuously clean. He'd awaited the fire at the edge of the circle deliberately, so he could 'stumble backwards' and avoid wide stretches of ash, keeping himself within the rules.
     Jack blinked.
     The devil's eyes crashed back on the man. The fire blazing in them couldn't be matched even by the flames of Hell. "You tricked me."
     The man simply shrugged. "I did ask you if the rules were clear."
     "No mortal man can--"
     "I did also say I was no mortal man."
     Jack and the devil stared in shock as the man peeled his face away to reveal another, grey-skinned and undeniably feminine.
     The devil steeled and stormed forwards, small sparks of fire lighting beneath her steps. But She didn't strike her. She did nothing at all, in fact, but make a promise: "I will have you for this."
     "I welcome you to try, Devil. But, for now," she grinned and made a florid bow, "adieu."
     The devil glared and vanished. Her roar of outrage hung behind her for some time.
     Then the grey woman turned and looked directly towards Jack. "I thank you for not interfering. You can come out, it's over."
     He did so warily, clutching his lantern tightly and peering around with wide, baffled eyes. "You can see me... What did you--how did you--"
     "I'm somewhat of an expert with demons and darkness," she replied, waving his stuttering away. "The key, ultimately, is pushing them into a position where their arrogance takes over and they make a mistake. I gave Her many openings, and She took them all. Everyone knows fire is the devil's pet. But She underestimated me right from the start." Her smirk became that of the old man again, then back to her youthful yet somehow inhuman features.
     "You knew She'd sense the magic..."
     "It was deliberately clumsy," she shrugged. "That was the point. She instantly underestimated me. Which is why I also appeared as a man. Had I appeared as a woman, She'd have taken me more seriously."
     His brow lowered, and he stopped a few steps away from her. " a witch?"
     "Realm walker, actually, but I've been called...ugh, far worse."
     " I free?" He stopped walking again while she sucked air in through her strangely small teeth.
     "It depends on your perspective," she replied carefully. "Free of the curse, yes. But you're still not welcome in Heaven. And I don't think you would really choose to go to Hell - nor would She want you there."
     "Th-then I'm still cursed to wander!"
     "I'd rather call it free to wander," she grinned, spreading a sweeping gesture out over the hills.
     Jack followed it in disbelief. Why had he gotten his hopes up?!
     His eyes snapped back onto her, and he stared cautiously at the unreadable look she turned him over her shoulder.
     "Unless, of hung up your lantern, and came with me..."
     "...With you?"
     "Oh yes." She turned and wandered back over towards him, draping a bony arm over his shoulders. "I have great plans for you, Jack."

This story and image are not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Devoted Trilogy - Book 3, Working Draft, Finished!

       Three and a half weeks ago, I finally finished writing the third and final instalment of The Devoted trilogy. It's a big moment, and while I'd expected some kind of hole in my life after writing 'the end', I dove too quickly back into re-reading The Zi'veyn and The Sah'niir to feel it. And for the last three and a half weeks, that's where I've been rooted. I've read fiercely, made notes, made sure everything has been answered, everything has been rounded off, and raised them to a closer standard to match this third book.

     The next job is to revise, edit, revise, and revise again. But I'm going to leave it to simmer for a few months, first. I have other work to do on the run-up to Christmas which will consume all of my time, so I will instead simply poke away at some short stories in the mean time, and let the third book ferment. And, perhaps, give a little more thought to the story I'm going to work on when the trilogy is all finished off.

     Otherwise, you can keep up to date with my progress on twitter and Instagram, and pledge on Patreon to receive raw snippets from book 3 (Library Moth - $1/mo) and early access to my short stories (Archivist - $3/mo).

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Forest Fire

Featuring artwork by Rengin Tumer

 Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

     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!"
   "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.
     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.