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Monday, 22nd June, 2009, 09:59 AM #81
Gallant (Lvl 3)
Thursday, 25th June, 2009, 08:45 PM #82
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
“She is able-bodied and skilled,” said Mena. “I don’t see why Arden should not take a guard shift.”
Twiggy nodded. “And she has as much incentive as the rest of us to stay safe. Getting attacked hurts her the same as it hurts anyone. Right?” Twiggy looked at Arden, who was cleaning the pot from dinner. Arden nodded, slightly, and looked down.
“Fine,” replied Kormick. “If you want her on guard, Dame Mena, you share her shift.”
Mena did not care for Kormick’s dictatorial tone, but she had no objection to sharing a guard shift with Arden. Arden was a member of their party, and her enslavement did not merit her special treatment any more than Rose’s wealth did for Rose. Despite a lifetime in elitist Pol Henna, Mena relied only on deeds, not money or blood, as evidence of personal worth. Good fortune, after all, could be a particularly clever way for the Fickle One to breed any number of evils.
One by one, the party fell asleep, leaving Mena and Arden to watch the camp by the light of the comforting moon.
They kept watch in silence for a time. An hour had passed, maybe more, when Arden spoke in a low voice, just barely loud enough for Mena to hear. “Dame Filomena, please you . . . When those rats attacked, even though your job is to look out for Signora Roseanna, you helped everyone. I mean – even me. I've been wanting to thank you for that."
Mena shrugged and replied, equally low, “I deserve no thanks for doing my duty.” She paused, then continued, "I have no love of slavery, nor any respect for it as an institution. You are no less deserving of protection than Rose or Savina.” Mena's gaze strayed to Rose, sleeping peacefully near the fire.
For her part, Arden stared at Mena for a time, an unreadable look. Then she followed Mena's gaze. “My will is not my own, Dame Filomena. I've learned not to make promises. But if I am allowed, I will help Signora Roseanna. She deserves to be free of this.”
Their conversation continued, quietly and guardedly, for several minutes before Mena spotted a faint and a flickering glow up ahead along the trail. Arden nodded that she saw it also. Was it some sort of signal-light? They saw no other lights. Could it be some sort of glowing bird? Such strange animals were unsettlingly common in the Ketkath, but it seemed to be floating, more than flying. Yes, perhaps a signal. What else could it be?
Arden gently woke Savina, and Mena rushed between the fires, waking the others. The rat battle was fresh in their minds, and they wanted to be ready. “It’s probably nothing,” Mena said as she woke Tavi, “but it’s better to be awake for nothing than asleep and dead.”
As the light floated closer, the group saw that it was actually two spherical objects, one white and one black. The two balls circled each other, like fish in a pond. As they approached, more orbs appeared behind them. A pair of much larger large orbs circled in the center of the group.
“I have read that sheep travel with a leader in the middle of the group, rather than the front,” Twiggy offered, whispering. “It is called a ‘bellwether.’” She paused, as the group looked at her quizzically. “Maybe this is a herd of black and white glowing balls, traveling between pastures—or whatever . . . and they will float right past us if we leave them alone.”
Kormick shook his head. “Adorable. She thinks they will float right past.”
“It could happen!” Twiggy protested.
As the group waited, hands on weapons, the orbs floated toward the camp, then into the camp, among the party . . . then slowed to a halt, a large orb hovering over each fire.
BAM! The black orb slammed itself down with a sudden force on the fire, extinguishing it. Moments later, the large white orb dove into the other fire, causing it to spark and burn with white-hot flame before running out of fuel with a sputter and pop.
As the two large orbs rose up again in the moonlit darkness, the little ones went crazy. First, the black orbs sped outward, concentrically. “Duck!” yelled Mena.
The group ducked and dodged as black orbs whizzed past their faces. “They’re sure not sheep!” yelled Tavi as he dodged one.
Kormick’s crossbows were up and his arms steady, as he held a pair in his sight. As the black orbs flew outward, he stood fast. The brief, casual tip of his head a few inches—then back upright, as a black orb whistled past his ear—betrayed a career spent dodging thrown objects. He let two arrows fly, penetrating two black orbs almost at once. They burst and disappeared. “Two down!” he yelled, readying his crossbows again.
All at once, the white orbs came to life, emitting bright, distinct beams of light in all directions. One beam hit Twiggy, who screamed as pain seared her shoulder. Rose screamed, too, as a beam seared her thigh.
Mena sprang into action, slashing at the large black ball. We would have left you alone, whatever you are, if you hadn’t attacked us, she thought. Now you’ll know why that was a bad idea. As her sword and Arden’s connected with the black ball, it shuddered, flickered, and fizzled to nothing. The large white ball jumped and whirled in what seemed to be a sympathetic reaction.
Tavi’s sword glowed green as he focused on the orb in front of him. “You want a fight? Come and get a fight.” He was ready when it charged him, blocking its rush with his sword. The black ball dissolved. But he was not ready for the next orb, or the one after. They bludgeoned his chest and arm. As Tavi checked the injury to his arm—blood seeped through his tunic—a beam of energy shot from Twiggy’s wand into the one of the orbs that had hit Tavi. It dissolved like the first. “That’ll show you,” he said.
When the large black orb came for him, Tavi held up his hand. “Not this time,” he barked, as fire burst from his palm, dissolving the attacking orb.
Savina mouthed a quiet “wow” as she finished a prayer, sending healing energy to all her allies.
But the spheres were taking their toll. Mena was surrounded; Kormick, his shoulder still bruised, was missing shots with his crossbow; and Twiggy was badly distracted by her burned arm. “Pull it together!” Mena urged, even as she fell back to avoid the spheres around her.
Tavi responded. He brandished his blade, flames dancing along its hilt, until two pairs of orbs were in range. Then, with a swift stroke, he sliced through them. Swirling fire engulfed the orbs, dissolving the black ones. The white ones, however, glowed brighter, swelled, and exploded, raining fired down on Mena and Arden. “Hey guys?” Tavi announced, “don’t use fire on the white ones!”
Tavi had destroyed the last of the black orbs; only white ones remained. Fire, Mena thought, as the falling flame seared the backs of her scarred hands. She gritted her teeth as its familiar pain caught her nerves and shot up her arms. It had to be fire.
Arden’s blade needed no flame to hit its mark. But as she impaled a white orb, it exploded as the last ones did, spraying flame at Tavi and Kormick. The next one did the same as Tavi slashed it, bathing Tavi, Jan, and Mena in fire. Arden, with a look of resignation, dispatched another and felt the inevitable searing of its death burst. No one was spared. They could not take much more of this.
Mena watched as Savina gaped at the party’s injuries and prepared another healing spell. “We’re fine!” yelled Mena. “Just hit the darn things!” But a moment later, she felt a surge of healing course through her, and saw energy rise in Tavi’s eyes as well. That girl may save our lives, Mena thought, or she may get us all killed.
The last white orb began to move away. Mena chased it. Whatever it is, it’s not going back to tell its friends about us. Slice. It exploded in a burst of white light and flame, burning Mena again.
And then it was dark.
The white orb of the moon hung above, now more ominous than comforting. They slept uneasily.
Last edited by Ilex; Saturday, 18th July, 2009 at 08:20 AM.
Friday, 26th June, 2009, 04:39 AM #83
Novice (Lvl 1)
Wow. Just...wow! Will-o-wisps with ATTITUDE!
Well written, riviting! I look forward to seeing what happens next! (And next, and after that, and so on!)
THE Wombat! (Wet)
Friday, 26th June, 2009, 03:42 PM #84
Guide (Lvl 11)
Sounds sort of like energons, too; but I don't remember anything about 'em besides the positive/negative energy connections. In any case, a nice freaky encounter (painful-sounding, too!).
Monday, 29th June, 2009, 10:47 PM #85
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
ellinor has indeed done a great job of capturing the riveting freakiness of this encounter. And (in my/Arden's opinion) things only get freakier...
Thanks for the comments!
Wednesday, 1st July, 2009, 10:22 PM #86
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
3x03Excerpts from the notebook of Jan Kormick:
March 23 24 days of food.
Terrain: mountains --> high plains.
If the rats were any indication, the creatures of the Ketkath really have it in for us. Now it appears that the Ketkath’s inanimate objects must have it in for us as well. We were attacked last night by black and white spheres, like nothing I had ever seen before. The black ones bludgeoned and the white ones exploded. At best, it was uncomfortably reminiscent of this region’s approach to Kettenite theology. At worst…we still have no sense as to who sent the things, or if they were capable of free will.
On a positive note, young Savina demonstrated her impressive healing capabilities, treating the party’s severe burn injuries with relative dispatch. That girl continues to surprise me. The slave, Arden, was very effective in battle, but the journey has weakened her considerably.
March 24 23 days of food.
Terrain: high plains.
Arden collapsed today. Overheard her muttering that the slippers are cursed; she's ditched them.
March 25 22 days of food.
Terrain: high rocky plains w/ large boulders.
We have found a cave, and will rest for the day. The cave contains signs of humanoid inhabitants, decades abandoned. Wall paintings with white and black dots, also flying lizards. It also contains a largeish amount of raw residuum (Chelesta calls it “god’s breath”), of which we take a small amount for refining. Mena believes the cave housed “old ones,” natives who were forcibly converted/exterminated by Soveriegns.
The more I learn about the Sovereigns, the more it seems to me that they need a taste of justice.
Tavi and Chelesta will forage for food.
March 26 23.5 days of food.
Terrain: high rocky plains.
Into the area of red “X” on Ehktian map. Some signs of life: tiny lizards (multicolored), green-eared rabbits. Occasional humanoid footprints. Mena examined prints in detail (size, depth, comparative depth front to back, stride…she is very thorough). She thinks they are primate. If that is not strange enough, the ground is strewn with the bleached remains of old trees—tall, once, but now on their sides as if some larger-than-life monster plucked them up like weeds. They were uprooted long ago, with marks and gouges near their tops. Like many things here, it makes no sense.
We will sleep without fire. Now is not the time to draw the attention of primates or become aphids to some gargantuan gardener.
March 28 21.5 days of food.
Terrain: high plains.
Slept without fire for second night. It is very cold. Arden said “the trick is just to resign yourself to it.” Where did she learn to withstand cold? Not balmy Pol Henna.
March 29 20.5 days of food.
Terrain: high plains.
March 30 19.5 days of food.
Terrain: high plains, occasional trees.
My purse is lighter by one gold piece, as our trek carried us past the massive, sun-dried skeleton of a dragon. Chelesta seemed surprised as I handed her the spoils of our wager. Did she think I would not honor the debt? I never lie.
Slave’s bare feet remain sore and blistered. Slipper curse unlikely.
March 31 18.5 days of food.
Terrain: more frequent trees.
We have made good progress, and have only one more day’s travel before reaching the outer edges of where we might find the Spring. Today is a rest day, before embarking on the more challenging terrain ahead. Savina and Tavi foraged for food, but found little. No surprise: they are not exactly wilderness scouts. Mena and I also foraged, finding and butchering something I can only liken to a deer with antlers that emit sparks. What madman invented these animals?
Chelesta cooks while the slave sleeps. She has found some tasty herbs and is a more refined cook than the slave, although the slave is competent and our provisions are not prone to embellishment. Chelesta speaks of a childhood in the di Vittani kitchen. (Presumably, then, she was born in service.) She is also trained in alchemy. It is apparent that the di Vittanis devoted great resources to their servant’s training.
A curious amount of resources, actually. Note: ask Dame Mena precisely why we're bringing Rose's lady-in-waiting into a hostile wilderness. Actually, note-on-note: Dame Mena is ... precise. There must be a reason this particular party is made up of these particular people, beyond the bounds of kinship or friendship. Hmm.
Savina is particularly shy around Tavi. He seems not to notice. This reflects either a great deal of experience in ignoring young women, or a rare level of obliviousness.
April 1 20 days of food.
Terrain: rocky, forested. Uphill.
Today’s trek brought us into the area in which we might find the Spring.
It would appear that “Alirria’s path” may have a literal meaning of some sort. Savina has observed that in this region, each young tree has buds only on the south sides of its branches.
We will turn south.
We are marching through the most dangerous mountains in the world led by a girl who forgot to pack boots. I have had better ideas ...
For the last several days, she had been barefoot. Damned silk slippers, she thought. More harm than good. The slippers had chafed at her feet and ankles, making her soles feel as if they were on fire and raising blisters the size of coins. Blessedly, the blisters had healed, but her feet still ached. She missed her boots, which now cradled Savina’s tender toes.
Arden rushed to her feet, a bedroll in one hand and a pack in the other, as Mena approached. “How are you feeling?” Mena asked.
I think she really wants to know, Arden thought, but the truth would not help anyone. “Fine, Dame Filomena, and ready to set off,” she replied, shouldering her packs. Years of practice had taught her to wince on the inside.
“It’s Mena,” the Defier replied, kindly, as they followed the rest of the group out of the camp.
As long as you want to explain to the Blessed Daughter why I address you with such disrespectful familiarity, Arden thought toward Mena's back. She appreciated the gesture, though.
They walked for most of the day in relative silence. The terrain was rocky, and Arden had to watch her footing to avoid stepping on shards. Mena occasionally stopped to examine a footprint, Twiggy occasionally stopped to examine a plant, and Kormick occasionally stopped to read the map or make a note in his book. Who is he writing that book for? Arden wondered.
As the sun began its afternoon descent, their path gradually became a canyon, with jagged tree-lined ledges above. As the ledges grew taller, Arden began to marvel at the scenery. I know it’s not a vacation, she thought, but if someone had told me this time last year that I would be roaming the wilderness, well-fed, with people who ask how I am feeling, I would not have believed them. She put away her fears and forgot her soreness, following a shadow up the cliff-wall to the green trees above. It’s beautiful.
But as she watched the tree-line, she began to see movement. There was something in the trees above them, ahead of them, moving at the same pace they were. Someone was following them.
Wednesday, 1st July, 2009, 10:29 PM #87
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
3x03 posted early, because for separate reasons, ellinor and I will both be away from all internet contact for the next day or two. Pray for us...
Monday, 6th July, 2009, 12:52 PM #88
Gallant (Lvl 3)
Do you think this blatant campaign of pro-Arden posts will get Kormick to trust her? Nice bloody try! I look forward to his vindication when she poisons the soup ...
Monday, 6th July, 2009, 09:03 PM #89
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
It isn't poison. It's more like a sleeping potion. Sort of. At any rate, you all always wake up the next day feeling refreshed and none the wiser, so I really wouldn't worry about it if I were you. Just keep trusting me with the cooking, gentlefolk. Keep trusting.
Thursday, 9th July, 2009, 06:39 PM #90
Gallant (Lvl 3)
A shape poked out of the trees, toward the ledge. It was a shape Arden had never seen before. Was it an animal? A person? It had hair like an animal, but stood on two feet, its long arms dangling almost to the ground. Horns protruded from its head. It seemed to be watching her. “Dame Filomena?” she asked Mena, pointing to the ridge, “do you see that?”
A rock clattered down from above.
Mena got the group’s attention. “Stop. These may not be simple falling rocks.” She turned to Arden. “What did you see?”
“I’m not sure,” Arden replied, “but it had horns.”
“These may be the humanoids whose tracks we saw earlier,” Mena observed. “We should not assume they are friendly,” she continued, glaring at Twiggy. “We should scout ahead to see whether it is safe to continue. Arden?”
Of course, send the expendable one, thought Arden.
“ . . . And Kormick?” Mena continued, “See what you can on the path ahead.”
Better, thought Arden, realizing that Mena had just assigned her a trusted role.
CRASH! As Arden and Kormick got about 100 yards in front of the group, a boulder smashed at Arden’s feet, and—BAM!—another hurtled from above, hitting Kormick on the head. He stumbled, dazed, and stopped. “We must go back,” he said, blinking his eyes and feeling around the large bloody gash left by the rock. “I can hardly see to know what is ahead.” He put his arm out and Arden steadied him. Happy to help, Alleged, she thought.
Savina gasped when the pair returned, and immediately began chanting a healing spell. She put her hands near Kormick’s head, and a warm blue glow surrounded his injury, which stopped bleeding immediately.
But Kormick did not have time to thank her before a howl—howls—arose from every direction. Rocks and boulders began to rain down on the party.
Tavi was first hit, as a large stone slammed into his chest. Another hit Kormick, in the leg. They were coming from everywhere. As Twiggy ran forward, a boulder crashed into the back of the leg, pinning her to the ground. She struggled, but could not move. “I need hel—” she yelled, before ducking and covering her head to protect it from flying debris.
A scream erupted behind Arden as Savina, too, was pinned. An immovably large boulder had crushed Savina’s foot and ankle, holding her to the spot. But Arden had no time to think about the fate of her boot underneath that boulder: another stone was flying toward her. She tried to dodge, but lost her balance and fell, bruising her hip. As she stumbled to her feet, she reached for her sling and shot at one of the beasts. The stone flew true and hit one of the beasts in the face. Turnabout, she thought.
Kormick, limping from his bruised leg, retaliated as well. Two of his crossbow bolts reached the beasts. But there were too many of them. Rocks showered down like a small avalanche, blocking the path ahead. Even if they beat back the creatures, they would not be able to continue on the path. Mena, closest to the rockfall, turned and pointed. “Back the way we came!” she hollered, pointing with her sword.
Jan turned back to help Twiggy, who was alternately cowering and prying stones under the boulder in an attempt to wedge it off her leg. With a grunt, Kormick pushed it away and freed the girl. “Come, young lady,” he said, “let us get you—”
As Kormick watched, a rock flying straight for his head suddenly turned, as if batted away by an enormous invisible hand. Twiggy grinned with pride, a faint shimmer in the air the only outward sign of the arcane forces she had brought to bear. “Yes, let’s,” she said. They ran back along the trail, the way they had come. Mena and Arden followed.
Tavi wedged his back under the rock pinning Savina, and pushed. It rose just enough for Savina to free her foot. “Here,” he said, offering his shoulder to support her. She limped behind him, blushing.
As the group retreated, the rock shower stopped. The creatures receded back behind the ridge. Apart from the party’s labored breathing, the canyon was entirely silent.
They paused for healing, and to drink from their water skins. They’d have to double back by nearly a day’s journey to get out of the canyon and on a different path toward where they hoped the spring might be. Arden looked down at her blackened feet. Another day, she thought.
Twiggy took off her glasses to get a closer look at a leaf. It was violet, with green veins. The plants had been lining their path for nearly two days, since they had turned off the canyon trail where the ape-goat-things had attacked them. The plant life here is amazing, she thought, turning the unfamiliar leaf in her fingers. And unlike the animals, it isn’t trying to kill us.
Trekking had been surprisingly easy for Twiggy. Her joints had ached, at first, unaccustomed to the heavy packs and constant pace, but over time, it became familiar and even fun. The problem was that they didn’t know where they were going. The paths through the mountains were walkable, if obscure, but they were made by those fascinating electrical deer rather than by people, and there was no way to know whether they led toward their goal. Every morning, the party gathered around the maps, plotting their route for the day. And every day—with the exception of that one day when the tree buds had all been on one side of the trees—they had no idea whether they were really going in the right direction. It was unsettling. How were they supposed to walk the path of Alirria when Alirria was so stingy with information about her path?
Twiggy’s musings were interrupted by a yelp from Kormick. “Halloo? What have we here?” He was standing at the edge of a dry stream bed. It was clear that the stream had not run for some time – plants grew through and around it with no signs that it had been their water supply – but the pattern of large and small stones had unmistakably been left, long ago, by flowing water.
Alirria is all about water, Twiggy thought, and this stream doesn’t have any water. “We should go away from it, at a right angle,” she suggested. “Right? Just like we went away from the barren sides of the branches?” She looked to Savina for confirmation.
Tavi jumped in. “This is different. There, we were going toward the direction of the leaves. This is a streambed, or was one. I say we follow it back to where its origin used to be.” The hummingbird flitted just ahead of him, apparently already on her way.
Savina considered both options. “I can’t be sure,” she said. “It is a streambed, but it is dry . . .”
Tavi swung his pack higher on his shoulder and gave a beckoning wave. “This way it is,” he said, heading up the streambed. The group followed.
“But . . . did we really . . . are we sure . . . didn’t Savina say…?” Twiggy tried to form the right question as she gathered her pack to catch up. Tavi was usually pretty quiet. It seemed a strange time for him to assert his authority. But he is the ranking member of the group, Twiggy thought. Even out here, blood matters.
“We can always come back this way if it seems wrong,” Mena said, quietly.
After several hours’ quiet hiking, they reached a pile of stones, where it seemed the stream had been blocked. It looked like a natural rockfall. Symbolic, Twiggy thought. Or maybe it was the work of the Sovereigns. Maybe this is the way to the Spring, after all. A scramble up the stones revealed a glen, grassy and clear, with tall trees ringing a crystalline lake. The sun, beginning to fall below the tops of the tallest trees, cast shadows across the lake, which glistened in its stillness. A waterfall splashed down the far side, with a shushing sound.
Twiggy dipped her finger in the water as they walked by. It was cool, refreshing.
A lake, Chelesta, with clean water! Maybe we can take a bath! Maybe everyone can take a bath! Or at least, definitely, Kormick. Really, some baths would be very much in order, Acorn suggested.
Maybe, Acorn, Twiggy thought, but at the very least, we have found a beautiful place to camp for the night. I guess I was wrong. This has to have been the right direction. Just look at it, Acorn. It’s beautiful.
They set up camp near the lakeside, and prepared for an evening meal. It was quiet. Restful.
And that’s when the giant tree attacked them.
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