29 April, 2009

Gren post 11

When she awoke, Gren's head was wedged back against one of the black trees of the chamber, her mouth open against the bark. A thin rivulet of water was braiding down the trunk toward her, presumably beginning in unseen snow, at the tops of the branches far above. She was swallowing reflexively as it trickled into her mouth. It was good, cold water, so she continued drinking.
She got to her feet and looked about the chamber. A thin grey daylight filtered down to her from above the tangle of branches. It was as dark as twilight, but seemed bright compared to the absolute darkness of the night before.
Cramps in her abdomen begged her legs to fold under her and take her back down. She stayed standing, continuing to look around the chamber. There was nothing she hadn't seen the night before. The mounds of leaves remained, and there, near one of them, was the depression she'd left, with the little dell she'd carved on the short trip to the edge of the trees. She looked for a likely spot to relieve the cramps, and settled on the edge opposite the entrance.
The Blue Astrids took their final vengeance on Gren's clothing, leaving her with no choice but to evanesce the dirt, blood, sweat, and filth of the last three days into nothing. She had far more strength at her disposal than she had expected, so it was quite easily done. How long had she slept? The water had helped as well, as had parting ways with the last of the mushrooms. The exvocation left her clean and refreshed, her hair free of the tangles and dirt of a few moments ago, and her clothing and armour unsullied as well. Her clothing was still torn, and her armour still rent, but they quickly felt far warmer now they were clean.
Taking a deep breath, and stretching her arms out skyward, she said "thank you, Goddess," and then began walking around the rest of the chamber. She could find no carvings or scratches on the trunks. If something had lived here, either human or otherwise, there would be some small record of it upon the walls.
The strange feeling of disharmony persisted. It was comfortable here, warm even, and seemingly secure. Yet she felt disturbed. The black of the tree bark retained its warm qualities in this light, but the simple fact they were all black was discomfiting. It wasn't a normal colour for this type of tree, and wasn't the result of fire or rot. There was something else though, something more basic.
The chamber couldn't have existed.
She realised it suddenly as she stood in the centre, looking at the exit to the spiralling path outward. There simply wasn't enough room inside the thicket for all of the spiralling corridor as well as the chamber.
Where was she? Was she still even in the same forest? It wasn't merely an illusion, she was certain of that, and a moment's concentration confirmed it.
She headed straight for the exit, quickly altering her weight to stride across the surface of the leaves. Coming around the corner, out into the spiralling pathway, she stopped dead. A few feet away, ancient stone steps emerged from the leaves and curved upward, along the path where the corridor had been, rising flush on either side with the trees which had formed the corridor. They looked like they had stood there for untold ages, cracked and weathered, dished out along the front of each tread where the passage of feet had eroded the stone. Leaves collected in the corners and up the sides. Saplings sprouted from soil-rich crevices.
Gren backed slowly away, and turned half toward the chamber again, keeping her back to the outside. Very faintly, she could smell the rich scent of burning leaves.
She quickly removed her left gauntlet, hanging it at her hip. Her sword was quickly in her right. She moved forward slowly, testing the air with her bare hand. Three steps toward the centre the air was perceptibly warmer. Another step and it was warmer still. She crouched down and carefully slid her sword into the leaves. The scent was stronger, but there was no smoke. None of the leaves were smoldering, or even hot.
At the centre again, the air was hot. If she stood here long enough, it would be hot enough to bring out beads of sweat on her brow. She didn't feel alone. The sensation pressed in on her that if she turned about quickly enough, she would see something there, watching her.
Staying on the surface of the leaves this long was diverting too much of her concentration. She spun about and sidestepped back to the exit, Going to the curving stair, she mounted the first step above the leaves, her back at the outside wall of black tree trunks. The air shimmered in the centre of the chamber. From under her furrowed brow, she looked upward, along the curving stair.
Keeping her back to the trees for the first few steps, she began to ascend the timeworn granite treads. She slid her gauntlet back on as she climbed.
The stair was spiralling tighter than it reasonably could have now, and as she reached what may have been the fifty-eighth step, she could see a nearly horizontal wooden door above, capping the stair. Back toward her from the top of the door, the stair was roofed-in by incredibly thick and tangled branches.
As she reached the door, crouching on the steps, she saw it was secured from this side with a simple hook. She lifted it out of the eyelet and pressed slowly upward on the door.
It was the middle of the night, and there were the trees and out buildings behind her parents' house. She let the door quickly drop again.
Had she seen movement out in the darkness, behind the out buildings? Something peering around the corner of one of them?
She gently lifted the door again, only a crack.
There, standing now out in the open, was her twelve year old friend from the academy, but her eyes were quite literally the size of large apples, bulging darkly and intently from her now misshapen face.
Gren quickly let the door down again, but just as the last sliver of outdoors disappeared, she saw the girl-thing break suddenly into a run towards her. Gren looked for a handle or strap to hold the door fast, but all she could find was the small metal hook. She grabbed it with the first three fingers of her gauntleted hand.
A thud on the door, and it began to shake violently. Both hands occupied, one with the door, one with her sword, she had no way to lay an enchantment on herself.
Releasing the hook in the same movement, Gren sprang upward against the door with all her natural strength. She could tell from the continued weight upon the door that she hadn't sent the thing flying outward, and as she jumped from the cellar entrance, Gren spun to her right, sending her sword sweeping back through where the girl should have been partially pinned against the side of the back porch.
There was nothing there, and the door fell shut again as Gren jumped backward from the house a step. It had sprung up onto the roof, and was stepping off with its hands extended like claws to land just before her. Gren quickly tumbled forward, and pivoting as she rose again, brought her sword up under the girl's rib cage just as she was landing. It was one of the most difficult strokes one could execute, but Gren had imbedded it into her body's physical memory, and the sword left the girl's body just at the joint of her opposite shoulder.
The upper torso landed face up, the grotesquely huge eyes slowly rolling down to look at Gren.
Sominia. Sominia Morn. One of the boys had always called her Min. She had gone home when she was fourteen and never came back. The massive bulging eyes had flecks of orange in the wetly glittering pupils. They stayed fixed on Gren's eyes, rolling in the deformed face as the arms began to raise what was left of her up off the ground.
Gren stepped quickly forward and swept her sword through the head, cutting it in half at the eyes. The torso continued forward and toppled over again, the top of the skull tipping backward and falling with a soft sound into the snow.
Gren looked over to the cellar door, now closed again. The exposed interior of the body steamed into the cold night air. She walked to the cellar door and opened it again, securing it with the hook to the wall of the back porch. The stair still plunged downward into shadow, but the surrounding shaft was now entirely stone. Cut stone, like the foundation of the house.
"Why now? Not now, I have to..." she closed her eyes for a moment, backing down the frustration that had begun to build. "There must be some reason why it's now."
She stepped down onto the stairs, and, unlatching the door and bringing it slowly down behind her, began to descend the steps. Somewhere around the fortieth step she began to see orange flickering light on the stone walls of the spiralling stairwell. There were no rustling leaves or saplings.
She stepped off the last step, and into a large stone room some twenty feet across. Beneath the centre of the vaulted ceiling there danced a great bonfire contained within a heavy stone plinth, seemingly burning without source. She sheathed her sword and took several steps toward the flames.
Coming from around either side of the fountain of fire was a white-robed man. The two resembled each other a great deal, but one had only a very long mustache, while the other had a very long, square-cut beard. Both wore a tall, helmet-like head dress of stiff white cloth. The top of the head dress was rounded into a small ball, and a large tail-like protrusion shot up and out from the back, while a smaller one, resembling a spiralling butterfly's mouth, reached up from the front. They came together directly in front of the flames, and regarded Gren with a passive stare.
She removed her gauntlets and approached the men.
The one with the mustache spoke, saying "let us answer you first," then he was immediately followed by the bearded one, saying "then you may search for the question."
Gren inclined her head, and respectfully said "as you wish."
The two continued to speak to her in this alternating fashion, each one melding perfectly with the one before.
"Reality is"
"like a gem"
"cut with"
"many facets."
"When you look into one"
"you see out of others."
"Is who you see"
"seeing you who is?"
Gren stared at them for a moment. Their expression was changeless. She inclined her head again and said "I shall seek the question." She had the flippant impulse to say something more like Ôyou've answered me with a question, and questioned me with your answer,' but she resisted the temptation.
The two priests, for she knew they were priests, spoke again.
"The time"
"is not propitious"
"for continuing"
"further down."
"Seek not the question,"
"for it seeks you now."
"To find it"
"before it finds you"
"would only change"
"the answer."
She knew they were talking about more than only one thing at a time here. The idea of verbal games occurred to her, trying to think further ahead than one's opponent, to outmaneuvre them. She wondered briefly how many moves ahead they were thinking. She knew these two were not in the midst of a normal lifespan, and she had no hope of besting them, and getting from them any more than they were prepared to give her.
"Might there not be a better answer? If the question changed, would it not reveal new possibilities?"
They seemed to consider this for only a moment, as though it were only one of many possible things they had expected she might say.
"This now"
"was the only one"
"in which we could"
"answer you."
"This answer is"
"for this now."
She stood there before them, unsure what to say or do next. The priest with the long, thick mustache held out a wineskin to her. Had he been carrying that?
"You will"
"Need this."
Taking the skin by its narrow strap, the contents shifted about liquidly. She thought it might seem importunate to unstopper the skin, and smell the contents here. She slung it over her shoulder and inclined her head again, bowing slightly.
The priests turned, and without a word, each walked back around the fire, from whence they had come. She knew if she went to look, she would find only the back of the cavern.
Gren turned and walked toward the entrance. She now stepped out of the room onto a landing, rather than directly mounting the steps. The same stone stair wound off to her left. She glanced right, somewhat consternated and perhaps even a bit indignant that a longer, wider stair didn't descend off into the depths there. She turned away from the blank stone and began climbing the steps.
Her gauntlets were back on her hands by the time she began seeing leaves and saplings crowding the stair. As she left the last littered step behind, she strode out of the gap in the outside of the thicket.
The dim light of morning was filtering down from above the forest, landing in tiny puddles of light here and there amongst the leaves. She had plunged in up to the middle of her thigh as she stepped from the cleft in the thicket. Looking back, the cleft was still there, but appeared quite mundane.
She began looking about for tracks, and it wasn't long before she found the large imprints of the creature from last night, from when it sped off northward. Its paws were gigantic. Judging from the length of its gait, it had been roughly twelve feet long. Even taking this massive size into account, the paws were still unaccountably huge, well over a foot across, and over a foot and a half long. There had been some rebound in the leaves over the night, but it looked like its steps had only gone down a little more than halfway to the ground through the leaves. It was like it was wearing snowshoes.
Her own tracks had been muddled quite successfully, so she began following the creature's trail back to the trace line. It should still be there, though nearly impossible to see due to the meagre daylight.
She knew it when she arrived by the pattern in the tracks. She had been right in her assumption that even this dim light would be enough to completely overpower the glowing line. She drew the chunk of spine from the pouch she'd put it in, and fished about slowly and precisely in the air before her, making sure to orient the spinal cavity along her best guess at the orientation of the line. She passed it left to right, then went up slightly, then back from right to left, repeating a simple pattern. When the bones passed the right spot, the line throbbed into visibility, and Gren released the vertebrae to hang there for a moment. They stuck in the air as though they had always been there, in precisely the way in which a fly stuck in a web doesn't. After carefully sighting up and down the glowing line, she plucked the dried mess of bone and tissue from the air and looked at it.
She hoped it wasn't Finghus Bent. Of course, if it wasn't, she could be on entirely the wrong track. She had to continue on it, had to assume it had come from him, from the dangling gore at the bottom of his head. Yet, she hoped it wasn't his.
Could she grow to like someone, just by looking through his flat, tracing his steps, going through his desk? Just by holding a piece of parchment he had carefully put ink to, apparently practising his writing? She wanted to meet him. Did she fancy him as attractive in some way? No. No, that wasn't it at all. Was it merely the concern she would feel for anyone she was meant to help? She couldn't help thinking it was something more.
She wrapped the bones in a bit of parchment from the pouch, and put them back inside. There was the wineskin, hanging at her hip. What had it been only a few minutes ago? Where had it been? Was it really only a few minutes ago when the priest had held it out to her? Gren had experience with things unexpectedly joining reality, but she rarely intended to drink them.
Holding it up, away from her, and unstoppering it, she squeezed it gingerly and then wafted the air toward her face. Honey? Mixed with something. Wine? Yes, but not of a fruit she recognised, her unfamiliarity striking her as odd. Some spices as well, one or two of them rather hot. By the scent of it, they weren't hot like peppers, but rather an earthy-sweet bready hot, like pico nuts. So, they had given her a skin of vindimulnion. How delightfully unexpected. She smiled to herself, and wondered what sort of fruit had given its life for this concoction, and whether it was a fruit of this world, or any other she'd been to. She stoppered it again, and put it back at her hip.
Still keeping her tracks as inconspicuous as possible, and staying as quiet as she could, she increased her pace and set off through the leaves. Striding beneath the faint line, which she couldn't really see now, her steps felt stronger and more sure.

21 April, 2009

Gren post 10

The spinning sensation stopped, despite the continuation of the seeming circular dance. Suddenly, Gren felt as though she were sailing along the air in the direction of her legs. The indisputable sensation of movement. It was probably a simple physical trick of the fluid inside her ears that gave her balance, but she relished this feeling. She had tried to cultivate it since she was a child, laying awake in bed at night, and it had never failed to fill her with a sense of wonder. It felt as though she were flying, feet first, through the air, low along the ground. The actual sensation of real flight was quite different, she knew that now. This rare occurrence never failed, though, to fill her with joy at the prospect of the miraculous unknown revealed.
Gren rose up from the old bed in her darkened room, and was out in the kitchen. It was her Mother and Father's house, but there seemed to be more rooms than she remembered. Perhaps one of them was just larger, but it had taken her a trip down a hallway that wasn't really there to get where she was now.
Her father was there, standing at the counter, and he looked around at her. "Well, you know... once you've been around someone for that long, you either love them or you hate them." He grinned with sympathetic amusement.
"That sounds like yet another unsubstantiated aphorism." She grinned wryly back.
He smiled broadly now, and said "All the best aphorisms are." He walked past her, out of the kitchen, saying "goodnight Rimmonatria, love you" as he did so.
She told him "goodnight... love you, too," and walked to the counter. She reached up to open the cupboard behind where he had been standing, but then heard someone outside. It sounded like a child's voice, but whether boy or girl she wasn't sure. Neither was she sure if the child had cried out or was merely speaking. She went to the window, and scanned about outside. It was quite dark out, the middle of the night, and there was deep snow on the ground. She could see tracks in it, but they were old, and deformed by cycles of melting and freezing.
She opened the heavy old door and went out onto the back porch. It was completely enclosed, and the outside door was bolted tight, but it was bitterly cold. She realised she was wearing only a nightgown, as she saw an old friend sitting in a carved wooden chair putting on snow shoes. She couldn't remember her name, so just smiled and said hello.
The girl looked up at her and said "your snowshoes are over there," and motioned to the corner. They were indeed Gren's snowshoes, but the ones she had gotten for Yuletide when she was nine.
"They won't fit."
"That's alright," the girl said "we won't be out long."
She opened the outside door. Cold knifed into the small room, passing transparently through her flannel and pounding her bare feet. The girl, for she appeared to be about twelve, stepped out and made her way down the stairs. Gren wasn't sure how she was managing that in snowshoes, but she seemed quite steady. She recognised her, but not from home. From where?
Gren stepped through the door as the girl started making her way across the deep snow behind the house. Her bare feet crunched into the icy snow as she descended the stone steps. It had melted and re-frozen until it was more like grains of ice, cutting into the soles of her feet. Before she reached the bottom of the steps, she strode into the deep snow, going in almost to her knee. Her nightgown floated along on top of the snow as her bare skin was immersed in ice. She pointed her toes as she took each step, making the next push-off easier. She could feel three thin, brittle ice layers within the depth of the snow, each the result of a relatively warm day followed by more cold and snow.
The girl was making her way out toward some of the out buildings, and had turned around for a moment to make sure Gren was following. She continued on, and disappeared behind a small shed. Gren reached the first of the out buildings, the old toilet. Her parents had switched over to an indoor one when she was ten. She heard the child's voice again, and for a moment stared at the outhouse in horror. It wasn't coming from there, though. It was gone again, but had seemed to come from somewhere below the level of the ground, and not as close as any of the buildings and sheds she could immediately see.
She looked back toward her house. There was a warm light in the window of the kitchen. She couldn't hear the snowshoes any longer. Suddenly, she had to relieve herself. Her intestines were coiling in knots, like angry snakes. She went to the old outhouse and tried the door. It was stuck, but she finally managed to pry it open, partially breaking it in the process. It was dark inside, so she quickly conjured up a bright spark. It was horribly filthy, as it had never been when she was a girl. Was there something moving on the ground down there?
She stepped closer, her feet freezing and wet, and numb back to her arches. The snow was terrible, but the filth was worse. She looked more closely inside, and saw there was no longer even a seat, and the hole in the ground was blocked with broken wood and other detritus.
Gren turned back to the house, nearly catching her cold bare foot on the broken door she had dropped. Her insides cramped again, nearly dropping her to the ground. She heard the voice. It was coming from the cellar door behind her house, under the kitchen window.
She looked back at the outhouse. Useless anyway. Could she make it to the toilet inside? She couldn't ignore the voice, no matter what else happened. Three steps toward the cellar door, her abdominal muscles took her down into the snow, tripping on her nightgown as she tried to catch herself. She tried to stay kneeling, but tipped over and sent both hands through all three layers of ice, down to the sleeping grass. She pushed herself forward, and found that although her arms went down into the snow, the rest of her body would glide across the glazed surface.
She slid toward the house, her perspective making the distance seem many times greater, and making the small mounds in the gleaming snow appear as hills over which she was flying. Coming to a stop at the low, slanted cellar door, she immediately tried to raise it. It seemed to be locked, and looking about the door she found a heavy, old, iron padlock. She could hear the child's voice clearly now, talking rather than calling out, but sounding nervous.
Gren looked about frantically for something to pick the lock. She couldn't feel her feet at all. She realised suddenly she couldn't feel her fingers either. Finding nothing on the ground next to the door, she numbly grasped the tie cord to her nightgown and began stuffing the end into the keyhole of the lock, twisting the cord as she did so.
Holy Crow, what was she doing?! She didn't even know how to pick locks, and here she was trying to pick one with... what was this? Velvet?! This was stupid. She quickly cast an enchantment on herself, and then grasping the padlock, tore it, splintering, from the door and its frame.
Slamming the door open, she saw the same stone steps she had expected, but instead of ending at the edge of the foundation, about eight steps down, they continued to plummet off into oblivion.
There wasn't time for this now. There would be seventy steps, she knew without counting, without even seeing more than a fraction of them before they disappeared into a black abyss. She knew the reflection of a great flickering flame would dance upon the walls of the stair somewhere around forty steps. Why this? Why now?
She could still hear the voice of the child, but it was as if it was coming from some other place, within the fabric of what she could see around her. Her legs and arms were cold and dead. Letting them collapse, she went down onto the hard icy snow, and rolled onto her back. Her head was pressed up against the stone foundation of the house. She was so thirsty. If only she could move.
Looking up, she saw a massive icicle hanging from the eaves of the house, directly above her head. She concentrated on it. Heat. Melt. Water. She pictured the crystals breaking down in her mind, flowing into drops. A drop hit her forehead. She craned her head back, opening her mouth, reaching for another. A sweet cold drop hit her tongue. Another. Soon, she was drinking slowly and purposefully from the steady trickle of icy water.

13 April, 2009

Gren post 9

Chapter Three

Gren braced herself against the tree with both forearms as her stomach eased off from the last of its convulsions. The last for now, at least. She knew there would be more, but she was completely empty now, so they would be dry heaves from here on. Instead of giving in to the odd instinct to look down at the ground, she closed her eyes. She was on her hands and knees over a light green ceramic bowl. She was eight or nine, and her mother was rubbing her back and saying "oh... they're dry heaves now, honey. You poor girl." Her voice had that sad beautiful music of loving concern.
Her arms and back shifted wetly against the fabric of her tunic, pressed against her skin by her armour. A chill ran through her, and she concentrated to not let it shake her. Cold drops seemed to race down her back, and crawled on her forehead. The crisp cold of the air seemed to pass directly through her, ignoring the solidity of her flesh, making her almost doubt it.
She scraped her tongue with her teeth, spitting the last of it from her lips, and gave in to the uncouth instinct to look down. Why did some part of her want to see it? To make sure there wasn't any blood in it? Well, it was a mottled blue, not red.
She pushed off the tree and straightened up, stepping back. She concentrated and moved her limbs about, methodically pressing the stiffness out of them. Her body began to stand off the cold again, but the feeling of vacancy coalesced in her stomach.
All her food was on her horse. Well, it would have just come back up again anyway. The real danger was becoming weak from dehydration. She knew from experience that she could go at least six days with no food, but she would have to have something to drink in at least three. Perhaps less, in the condition she was in now.
The trace line had been rising at a very shallow angle. It seemed completely level when she looked at it, but after following it for several hours it was almost four inches higher. She knew he was up above the ground somewhere, but no buildings came to mind in the direction the trace was heading. Since she had no idea how high up she would eventually find him, she also had nothing to tell her how far she had yet to reach him. There were certain limits imposed by the condition of the head she'd seen, but she didn't know how far from the body's current resting place the head had parted ways with the rest..
There was nothing for it but to continue as long as she could. There had been times before, in preparation for her trials, when she had surprised others with how long she had been able to force herself to stay coherent while fighting thirst.
She waded on through the sea of leaves, often extinguishing her spark of light for long periods to avoid attracting attention from whatever might be hunting tonight. In the pitch blackness of the deep forest, the dimly glowing thread of the trace line seemed to shine with unsettling brightness, but the light didn't even reach down to the surface of the leaves.
Despite her uncanny ability to weave through the thigh deep leaves, they had been announcing her presence for at least fifty yards in every direction. She stopped again and listened to the forest. The noise of her retching had apparently gone unnoticed. Should she take to the branches above her, remaining far quieter but using far more energy? Better to risk spending more of her strength on a chance meeting than to spend it without doubt up in the branches.
The first twenty minutes had given her a filter for all her own sounds. The hours after had offered nothing else, not even the sound of branches far above. She heard leaves crunch out of time with her own, and froze. Her breathing stopped. It had come from ahead, but now there was only silence. Something was watching her. The directed sense of expectancy flooded into her from the darkness straight ahead. She concentrated on her vision, but saw only the violet and gold pinpoints of closed eyes. She kept herself from getting distracted by them, from letting them turn into shapes and visions of their own making.
Whatever it was must be examining the trace line. The line was terribly difficult to see, unless one knew it was there, but something must have noticed it. Crunching leaves came directly toward Gren. It was already less than thirty yards away. She could still see nothing. From the sound, it had four legs, and they weren't going down the full depth of the leaves. It sounded large, with more volume than her own footfalls if she hadn't been trying to be quiet.
Up into the nearest tree? She'd have to do it without casting. She couldn't afford the strength an enchantment would cost her now. Air moving, and a tiny, tiny whistling noise. It was trying to get her scent in the still air. She decided on the likeliest direction to try jumping for a branch. She could see nothing but the faint hair of the trace line. Closer. Wait. No breath. No movement.
The crunching leaves began to recede. After coming within ten yards, it had smoothly turned, and started moving away to her left. She waited. It kept going until it was at least forty yards away from her again, then stopped.
Not seeing the creature was no longer simply inconvenient, it was unwise. She couldn't bring the spark back now. That could unpredictably startle the thing. She had to focus her thoughts. Drifting around in the background were vague ideas about looking for something in the cupboards of her Mother and Father's kitchen. Looking for what? She didn't even know, couldn't place it. She couldn't pursue that now, though it might well mean something. Her mind was looking for diversion. Gren was scared. Completely under control, but scared nonetheless, and it was a feeling she was ill used to.
Examining the situation objectively, she felt being scared to the point of difficulty in focusing to cast an enchantment was unwarranted. True, she had suffered serious injuries, but although the fatigue from them remained, the injuries themselves were repaired. She had also poisoned herself with the mushrooms, but it had taken care of the venom. As bad as it would get would be chills, and the rebellion of her stomach and intestines, and she would surely find water before dehydration became an issue. This was a forest, after all, winter or not. Now this creature in front of her, awash in the darkness. It had four legs rather than two, and that was generally a testament to integrity. It hadn't stalked her, or set upon her from behind, so an attack now was quite unlikely, unless she provoked it.
She smoothly wove her fingers through the air, describing a tight pattern just before her face. The glowing filaments left in her fingers' wake were so dim as to be nearly invisible, even to eyes drinking in utter darkness. Long moments passed, and at some level she acknowledged the continued lingering of the creature, as she continued to shape her thoughts and weave the patterns. Her eyes began to sting and water with cold. The lids caught when she blinked. The filaments detached from the patterns and fell into her eyes, which began to glow gently with a cold light.
The enchantment was finished, and her skull ached as if the sutures were grating across one another. Her eyes had been adjusting all the while, and the scene around her was now fully revealed in tones of molten red and orange, and ashen grey. At the last moment, the creature had begun stepping away through the leaves again, and all she saw at the edge of her vision was the end of a great, thick furred tail, waving gently like tall grass as it disappeared beyond her range.
Her lips thinned and her brow furrowed. She stalked after it, continuing to ease through the leaves as quietly as possible, while trying to close in enough to get a good view. It seemed to know where she was, and kept just far enough ahead so she could only occasionally see its tail. No, it would have to know how far ahead she could see, as well. Surely it couldn't know. The tail looked to be about as thick as her unarmoured wrist, and bobbed about comfortably. Was it being reassuring by intent?
The natural colour of the fur wasn't apparent, of course, the tail weaving about in molten but muted red. The idea of a lure couldn't help but come to mind, but that was surely just cautious imagination. Her nose was running now from the cold seeping through her sinuses. She chanced sniffling only after it was terribly distracting. The creature seemed unbothered. Her mind began to file back through the possibilities, given what she'd seen and where she was, of what it might be. This was probably far less productive than simply paying attention, so she stopped herself.
After at least fifteen minutes of rustling away from the trace line, something faded into view which caught her interest. It was another of the massive thickets which made up this part of the forest, but there was something unusual about it. Some of the gaps between the outer rim of huge trunks seemed clearer, or more open.
With a loud explosion of cold leaves, the creature sprang forward and began to speed away. Suddenly, she could hear nothing of it whatsoever. It was utterly gone.
Gren quickly brought back the tiny spark of blue-white light, and let her concentration upon her eyes fade away. Soon, the ashen and orange surroundings had shifted into visible light, seeming to eagerly play up to the eerieness of the shadows engendered by the glowing spark.
The shadows and their enfolded shapes twisted and moved as she sent the spark floating over to the edge of the thicket. The nearest of the oddly yawning clefts was as leaf-filled as any of them, but the smaller trees and saplings which filled the others were scant here, forming a nearly clear corridor of roughly two to three feet in width. In the darkness, it seemed to go up and back into the thicket little more than ten feet, before turning right.
She looked off again in the direction in which the creature had left. Did it mean for her to find this? To go in? She drew her sword and approached the chasm in the trees.
The leaves were piled higher here in the cleft, but she went in only just to her knee after climbing into the corridor. Weaving through the leaves as she had done before, but with even more care, she hoped what little sound she created would be quickly absorbed by the surrounding trees. After angling sharply to the right several feet in, the gap began to bend leftward in a wide arc.
As she waded through the dry leaves, the living wooden walls towered over her. The bottom of the crevasse was narrow enough she couldn't put both arms straight out at her sides. Branch and twig closed in above her within reach of her light, but she could see the great trunks sailing dimly upward, many much thicker than her own height of nearly six feet. The corridor continued to arc leftward, not smoothly perhaps, but steadily, more and more of the abyssal chasm resolving itself into great trees within her little blue-white spark.
She had gone around the arc about two hundred feet by now, and she had guessed that was roughly the distance around the thicket as a whole. The crevasse continued, arcing gently leftward. It had to be spiralling inward, toward the centre of the thicket. What might there be at the centre? Sleeping? Had some social intelligence made this, or a wild creature of the forest? An Owlbear? Wait. She saw no tracks, neither in nor out. Should have realised that earlier. Perhaps something that stayed in? Or which usually flew out? Unless the thicket had grown like this naturally, which was ridiculously unlikely, it had been done very long ago, when many of the great trees were far younger.
There were witches in this forest. They were farther north and east though, not here where the trees came together in these cyclopean columns, like some titanic cathedral, miles and miles across. Unless one of them had come down here on her own, and made this.
She could hear nothing but the creaking of branches far overhead, and the infrequent sound of crumbling snow and ice, sharp and glassy in the cold blackness, up at the summit of the trees. Listening closely, both inwardly and outwardly, she continued winding in to the centre.
The bark of the trees seemed to become darker the further inward she went. The spirals were tight enough now, the centre had to be close. It seemed the tiniest sound was being focused down into the centre, just as she was. Something on one of the trunks caught her eye. At first it had looked like some sort of symbol or rune, but when she looked directly at it, it was just a twist of the bark. She let her eyes wander off it, to see if the rune would return, but it didn't. She stepped past it, and a very light breeze sighed out of the corridor, from the direction of the centre. It smelled of must, almost like an old subterranean library, then was gone. Had she crossed a ward?! She was being careless, inexcusably careless.
She quickly wove an enchantment before her, accelerating herself terribly, and burst forward into the arcing gap. Even to her own vision, the darkening bark was flying past. To another, she would be little more than a startling phantasm.
Gren dove into the leaves, shooting forward beneath their surface with preternatural momentum. Her arms were out before her, her sword in a reverse along the length of her arm. She put her fists down into the yielding loam and vaulted upward, exploding out of the leaves, her legs summersaulting over her head and into the air. More than her own height above the leaves, her flip had brought her upright again. With her acceleration, she seemed, to her own senses, to hang in the air of the chamber in which she found herself, masses of scattering, twirling leaves floating about her in the moment before settling back to earth.
Empty and black. Black barked trees and mounds of dry, stirring leaves.
She began falling toward the floor of the chamber, passing down through the slower falling leaves only because they were floating on the air.
No sign that anything had lived here. Twigs reaching out into the chamber.
She whipped her sword around and readied for a crouching landing. More leaves flew up around her as she came down into them.
Only the leaves moved, dancing downward to meet their brethren. No other sound.
After several long moments, she relaxed, though kept her sword ready. It was hard to breathe, hard to keep her head up. A knot of phlegm made her grimace as she forced it down her throat. Should have spat it out. It would just give her stomach more to reject.
The chamber in the trees soared upward at least fifty feet before it was choked off by branches reaching into the centre. It was roughly circular, and about twenty feet across. The leaves were deeper here, and there were large mounded piles as well. The bark of the tree trunks was a deep rich black, even in the glare of her bright spark. Not a shiny or cold black, like something hard, and not the dry flaking black of burnt wood. Neither was it the wet, unwholesome black of rot. It was somehow comforting. Yet it was black nonetheless, and somehow mysterious and disturbing as well. Gren began walking about the chamber.
In places the leaves were up past her waist, but her sword seemed to reveal a fairly even floor, with no artifacts, when she thrust it under. She realised her brow was furrowed. Something was very odd, but her mind was too cloudy to fit it into place. Had she been this foggy before she came in here? It must have been the effort of the enchantment and the charge.
When she lay down on the leaves, her body spread out over the surface, and she sank down in only a little. She floated on the bed of leaves as though it were a forest pool, gazing off into the darkness above her. She sent the spark to dance about the branches far overhead, where they met and intertwined over the black-barked chamber.
It was relaxing to lay upon the surface of the leaves without using her inner reserves to alter her weight. Her limbs, her muscles and tendons, began to move and shift of their own accord. The delicate vibrations of the crunching leaves reached her skin through her armour. The wine-sweet smell curled in around her, dulled somewhat by the cold. She knew if she moved about a great deal, bits of broken leaf would work their way in all through her armour.
She had stopped concentrating on the light, and it had floated back down to her. It was orbiting slowly around her, casting a smoothly rotating glow on the black trunks of the chamber walls, and making the branches above, now in the centre of her vision, seem to sway and move in a purposeful circular dance. For a moment she felt as if her own body had begun to slowly turn. She was afraid the nausea would return, but she kept it down below the edge. The branches almost seemed to glow from within with the blue-white light, their lit network fading off to dimness and smoky violet shadow.

06 April, 2009

(Mostly) Harmless

While continuing with my weekly (usually) installments of Gren's story, I'm going to start adding some other tales as well. They are smaller stories, and mostly harmless.