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Crowsinger

  • 2021-04-16 15:21

Fanfic written by Crowsinger in the universe of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen by Visionary Realms

 

Final Chapter

 

“Haneval,” says Airisu.

“Yes, Elder.”

“I want you to lead us into the forest.”

Haneval blinks. “What do you mean? It should be you who—“

“Why did you choose the path of Ember? I have never asked before, but now I must.”

“Why…” he grips the hilt of his sword. “Some would answer differently.”

“And you?”

“Because my people need those who would face outward. Who would set aside tradition when tradition becomes our chains. Who would risk becoming something dangerous if it would help my people.”

“Why not simply splinter?”

He bridles and says, “Because whatever else I may be, I am an Elf. Splinterfolk care not for Elven civilization, for Faerthale, for the future.”

“Perhaps.” Airisu sighs. “Haneval, I need you to face the unknown and unexpected. I need you to do whatever you must, become whatever you must, to deal with our enemies. Are you willing to walk such a path?”

He draws his sword and salutes her with it. “I am.”

“Then you must lead us into the Wood.”

Haneval sheathes his sword and stands a moment, thinking. Then he turns to Sinsera.

“I need what truth your eye can see,” he says.

Hesitantly she reaches up and removes the patch that usually covers her left eye. “You need my wrong eye more than I do.”

He steps close and looks down into both her eyes. “Your eye is not wrong, sister Warden. Neither your eyes, nor your arms that fight for us, nor your heart.”

“Then what would an Ember Elf do?”

“If I could,” says Haneval, “I would rip the Siluri into nothing, chase the Skar across the sea and leave none alive.”

“The three of us?” She smiles. “I am ready.”

“Four, actually.” His expression darkens as he turns to look at Soril. “We know they can be killed. But what are they? You said they don’t ‘fit’ in this world.”

“I was…” Soril shakes his head. “Delirious. I don’t remember saying that.”

“Well you have been very helpful.” Haneval settles his pack onto his shoulders beside his quiver.

“Where should we go?” asks Sinsera.

“Where do Wardens from different Towers most often pass one another, meet and exchange information?”

Airisu nods. “The Warden Marker at Aldren Creek.”

“The Aldren Marker.” He looks again at Soril. “I hope that you are at least prepared to fight them with fire.”

“I promise you,” says Soril, “that I will bring fire.”

❖ ❖ ❖

Some 200 Elves stand in formation near Silvergrass Tower. Beyond is Oldwood, dark and brooding in the first call of dawn. Many of the soldiers in this detachment have never been tested in battle, though their training has been rigorous and extensive.

When Flamehunter Thracien emerges from the tower with his lieutenant and several others, those in the front rows can see that all have been shaken by whatever they saw inside.

Thracien looks over the soldiers who have followed him here. “Fifth branch,” he says, and murmuring follows as the soldiers realize what this means. War.

“The Chief Warden and all others in the Tower have been brutally torn apart. All were seasoned fighters, and they were attacked within. Their last message to Faerthale City spoke of Skar in Oldwood, but still I did not expect the monstrous savagery that I saw within this Tower.”

Thracien looks them over, meeting the eyes of some in front. “When we find the Skar, we wipe them out. Every last one.”

As Thracien leads them into the wood, his lieutenant says quietly, “You didn’t tell them.”

“That the Wardens appear to have simply opened the door to their enemies? No, I did not.”

“Why would they open the door to Skar?”

Thracien shakes his head and has no answer.

❖ ❖ ❖

A moss-covered stone pedestal slumbers in a quiet place in Oldwood, and a nearby creek sings in the voice of water. Atop the pedestal, an image of the head of the Elder Stag has been carved in hardwood. Twin antlers rise above its head to twice the height of an Elf, draped in moss and greenleafed vines.

Troughs extend outward on either side of the pedestal. On one side, rainwater gathers; on the other side, someone has left an offering of purple berries for the Woodland Elks.

Haneval leads his party through quiet paths in an all-too-watchful forest. Scattered flowers glow yellow and blue, and if their colors seem faded in the morning mist, still the travelers find comfort in them.

The Aldren Marker stands watching over the creek. Haneval’s heart sinks when he sees no one waiting for them.

“I had hoped…” he begins.

“They are here,” whispers Sinsera.

He draws his sword, then relaxes as other Wardens step out from behind trees and drop from above. He recognizes Wardens from Elkhaven, Roe Strider, Water Crane, and others.

Kekri of Elkhaven Tower salutes Airisu. “Elder,” he says. Then he looks at her party. “Is this all that remains of Red Leaf Tower?”

Airisu nods sadly. “As far as we know. Tanen, Suomen, and Eyirie are missing.”

Kekri sighs. “Yleensa and I are all that remains of the Wardens from Elkhaven. And I have seen what remained of Silvergrass…” he shakes his head, unable to continue.

“As have I. But the time has come for those of us who remain to fight.”

“How? These creatures do not seem to have any real shape that I can understand. Yleensa was able to burn one with fire—“

“They are also easily killed with lightning.”

“Good. Good.” Kekri looks around. “You are Elder here, Airisu. What are your orders?”

“I have named Haneval Flamehunter.”

The other Elves look to Haneval as he steps forward. “Somewhere in Oldwood there is an ancient artifact that has opened a breach to another world. We must somehow use it to close this breach.” He turns to Soril. “And I hope this scholar can tell us how.”

Soril seems uncomfortable. “I do not know how. But the artifact must either be in the possession of my associate, Erenoth… or in the hands of the Skar invaders.”

“How many Skar?”

“They sailed a three-masted ship, big enough for at least 30-40 Skar.”

“What does the artifact look like?”

“A starmetal rod etched with words in the Imsu tongue. At one end, the head of some person carved in red porphyry.” With his hands and fingers, he shows them the size.

“It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a company of Skar hacking their way through Oldwood.”

“And when we find them?” asks Kekri.

Haneval gives them a wolfish smile. “Prepare arrows for fire.”

Another Warden is astonished. “And risk burning Oldwood?” He turns to Airisu. “Is this your will, Elder?”

“I am in command,” says Haneval.

“But—“

“This is not just about Oldwood!” says Airisu. “All Elven lands are threatened now. Faerthale City and the future of our people.”

“The prophecy did not…”

Enough!” Haneval steps forward to look the other Elf in the eye. “Leave us and face the dangers of this wood alone. Or follow me, and we will purge Oldwood of all pestilence before it escapes to the Redwood, and the villages of our people.”

With that he turns and walks away. All of the gathered Wardens follow.

❖ ❖ ❖

Something huge is hovering over the place where Elmyen Grove should be, as if leaning against an invisible barrier. Thracien squints into the wind and tries to discern its shape, but it keeps changing. In one moment it appears as a leviathan starfish glimpsed through fog, and then a moment later it seems to be like a colony of giant beetles inside dusky tornado with countless legs.

Whatever its shape, it is clear to every soldier in the detachment that the monster is attacking Elmyen Grove.

“Should we help them?” asks his lieutenant, Athol.

“If the Spriggan fall, so does Oldwood, if not many more places in our world. I fear we must.”

Athol turns back to the front ranks and says, “Archers ready. And have the company wizards drink up.”

Nods move through the soldiers as word spreads back.

Before they move forward, a Spriggan portal appears before the soldiers, and two Elves step through. They face a ring of swords.

“Who are you?” demands Thracien.

“Suomen Yehanni and Eyirie Leilkin, Wardens of Red Leaf Tower.”

Swords are lowered as Thracien says, “Spriggan portal. Did they send you?”

“Yes. You cannot fight this,” says Suomen. “What you see is not all of the creature.”

“How can that be?”

Eyirie says, “Imagine sticking a hand through a portal and using your hand to do something on the other side. But your body isn’t through the portal yet.”

Athol blinks. “So that thing is something’s… hand.”

“So the Spriggan have told us,” says Suomen. “Spriggan all over Oldwood knew that the Siluri would attack their places of power, the groves. So they’re holding off the Siluri while we… do something.”

Thracien shakes his head. “While we do what?”

Suomen looks south. He reaches up and clutches a green jewel hanging from a cord around his neck. “Destroy the key. The doors will slam shut, and their ‘hands’ will die here.”

❖ ❖ ❖

The Skar camp is a garbage heap in the forest. Partially-skinned and eaten animals and Elves are piled on one side of the fire. Someone has laid hands and paws in a perfect line nearby. Small pieces of several Skar have been tossed into another pile, and a number of weapons plunged into the earth next to the pile.

And around the clearing are the remains of at least three of the creatures that attacked Red Leaf Tower.

And an elderly Elf is bound to a tree on the south side of the clearing.

“Dead,” says Kekri, checking his pulse.

“Erenoth,” whispers Soril.

“He was a friend?” asks Airisu, and he nods. “Then may his memory sustain you in the time to come.”

Soril turns suddenly, kneels down in the mud nearby, and lifts a small book similar to his own journal. He opens and begins to leaf through to the last written pages.

Haneval looks over his shoulder and sees what seems gibberish written carefully in elf writing, with scrawled answering lines: an attempted translation.

Ishme-dagan eribun
Ushpia arik-nirari
Shanidar asharayu
sn-Ninajur alagash
u-eshnuna  resh-ishi gishgila
Narampu burusha
Karum ishtaran ikunum
Esagila a-ai-lum hurrum
Ashur-tanillansa
Chashverosh Narampu
Siluri ek-Tashlultuum ur sikiak

A thousand watchful eyes
crave the tapestry of ripping
Hate-sluiced hunger
For the warmth of cradled flesh
They will wrap us in cold bone arms
their loving embrace
and bear us to the Land of Teeth
their lovers to become
all our fear be drowned in joy
As long as this rod still sings
Siluri from Tashlultuum will find us

 

“He finished…” Soril swallows, “finished it.”

“Is there anything there we can use?” says Haneval.

“‘As long as this rod still sings’, it says.” Soril looks up at him. “We must destroy the artifact. Drain it of all magic.”

“Can you do that?”

“I do not know.”

“I keep hearing that from you, scholar, and it seems to me that you need to solve these problems that you brought here.”

“I am aware of that!” Soril stands and looks around. “No one of you is more angry than I am! Reckless we were, reckless and foolish! And now my colleague has died a horrible death, and he is not the only one. Believe that I know what responsibility, what guilt I bear.”

Haneval doesn’t look at him. “Then think of something before we find the Skar. Wardens, if we cannot track the Skar that left behind this clearing, then our calling is worthless.”

It is as he said. A trail of careless destruction wends north through the Oldwood, north toward Faerthale City. Sixteen Wardens and a scholar move quick and silent in the wake of chaos. It isn’t long before they hear growls and harsh laughter ahead of them.

Without a word, the Wardens spread out to encircle their enemy before they are noticed. Some scale trees and move silent along branches above.

Then Haneval stands straight and walks loudly toward the Skar, Sinsera and the scholar beside him. The Skar turn and look at them.

Their bones emerge from their skin as if their skeletons are desperate to escape this mortal flesh. Dull green armor is tied over torn wrappings, and they walk upon clawed feet.

The Skar all look to one who stands before them. This one is not taller than the others, not better armored. But he wears a curious headdress made of ragged cloth, and what look like fresh elf ears have been sewn into the fabric.

In the Skar’s hand is a rod of some dark metal, and at the end of the rod is the head of another Skar.

This one, thinks Haneval, is the leader.

❖ ❖ ❖

Azikh purrs to the head of Tsoqal, “We have found some Elves, my Shaman. Should we kill them and nurse upon their bones?”

He lifts the head on the rod as one would a puppet, and mimics the Shaman’s voice. “Yes, warleader,” turns the head toward him, “I have seeeeen you feasting on them. It was glorious.”

He turns the head back to face the Elves, whose faces are twisted in some expression he cannot read.

Fear, he thinks. I do hope it’s fear. The faces of Elves are far too malleable, to twist and bend into expressions that no Skar face could mimic. And why should we?

He lifts the head of Tsoqal toward the Elves and shouts, “Our Shaman has invited you to feast with us, little Elves!”

❖ ❖ ❖

“Is that…” begins Haneval.

“The artifact,” says Soril. “He is using it for…”

“Puppetry.”

“Perhaps he is… a Shaman of some sort, and this is some foul ritual.”

“Perhaps, scholar, he is amusing himself before a battle.”

The Skar are now banging weapons against their own armor. Haneval raises his voice. “Let us show them what Wardens of Oldwood can be!”

❖ ❖ ❖

The Elves all shout at something their leader says… A shout of bravado, surely, thinks Azikh. It is pathetic how they assuage their fear.

“Kill them!” He shouts, and his people rush forward toward the soft Elven flesh before them.

But arrows rain from above, and bolts of poison and flame. They have a Shaman. Lightning strikes a Skar next to him.

Still the arrows come from all around them.

Battle is battle from one to the next, always the same mix of sweet and sour. Always the fear in his opponents’ eyes, his phantoms making them face him as their blood curdles within them.

Joy and loathing, he thinks, felling an Elf while another stabs him from behind. He looks down and sees that an arrow has found a gap in his armor, a gut wound.

I have no songs for this. He swings again, but strength is leaving him. Poison?

If it is weakness to wish I could die in my own house with a slave setting fresh meat before me, then weak I die. Perhaps the Shaman saw me well enough.

Azikh’s muscles give way and he falls onto his back.

Cursed be the flesh.” He sings the old song with what breath remains. “Cursed be this birth. Cursed be the nine, and cursed be this earth.”

He is lying on the ground, dying slowly and watching the leaves tremble across the midday sky. An Elf—the one who shouted—looks down at him. Azikh grips nothing with his hand, his sword somehow gone. Now the Elf is lifting the head of Tsoqal on the artifact that everyone has been so desperate to possess.

Azikh meets the eyes of the Elf above him and begins to laugh.

The Elf brings his sword down into Azikh’s neck.

❖ ❖ ❖

“Should we leave one or two alive to question them?” asks one of the Wardens.

“Execute them all,” says Haneval. “Leave none alive.”

Several of the Wardens look troubled, but they comply.

Haneval looks in disgust at the Skar’s head that was mounted on the artifact. Then he takes the head in one hand, and pulls the rod out of the throat.

He holds the bloody rod out to Soril and says, “This is yours, scholar. Break it.”

With a grimace, Soril takes the rod and examines it. “How to make it stop singing…”

From the beyond the clearing, the insect call of the monsters comes again.

“West now, to the deadfall!”

The Wardens move quickly toward the place they all know, passing through trees and keeping watch on both sides. Now and then, Haneval glances back to make sure the creatures still follow.

As they reach the deadfall, they take hold of vines and swing across the cleft in the ground, above a gully filled with fallen trees and decaying plants.

Haneval turns on the far side and watches three of the creatures moving toward them. Something bubbles beneath the shapes of trees changing as they move.

“What do you see?” he asks Sinsera.

“Like… a jellyfish of tar walking on sticks, and it’s all… simmering. Eyes appear on the surface, then swim underneath and reappear somewhere else. But there is…” She begins shaking her head, a look of fear in her eyes. “There is more of the creatures than I can see. Something… farther away.”

“Soril, be ready.”

“I am.”

When the creatures begin to cross the deadfall, Haneval says, “Fire.”

Soril chants as nodes of fire build and move together between his hands. When they join, he flings the flame toward the dry wood and brush within the gully.

The creatures scream as fire bursts around them.

“Fire arrows now!

Soril sends streams of fire arcing toward several piles of brush among the Wardens, who use them to light arrows and send them into the creatures.

As they burn, the fire spreads along the gully.

“Soril, can you extinguish this?”

The scholar shakes his head. “I have no magic that can undo what I have done here.”

“Airisu?”

She is looking up toward the sky. “Not enough water up there. Later in the day, perhaps. I’m sorry, Haneval.”

“Soril, can you break the rod now?”

The scholar waves a hand helplessly over the artifact. “I just… I don’t see anything that would… This is starmetal. Without the proper forge…”

Haneval takes the rod and smashes the head against a rock. The rock chips, but the red stone of the rod suffers not a mark.

Cicadas sing in the wood. He hands the rod back to Soril and says, “I need you to figure this out fast, scholar.” Then louder: “We head north!”

Haneval begins to walk along the edge of the gully toward a path.

“Are we just leaving this?” asks a stunned Kekri, pointing toward the fire spreading through the gully. Flames begin to lick the leaves above.

“We must make it to Elmyen Grove before nightfall.”

“I doubt the Spriggan will welcome us there.”

Haneval turns. “Then the weight of this is upon me and me alone. Come, before the creatures surround us.”

They encounter several more of the creatures, fighting them in whatever way Haneval commands. Until at last they find themselves set upon by a cluster of five that move around to surround them.

“Now what?”

Haneval turns to Airisu. “Can you…”

“Threshers!” shouts someone, and they hear the movement as armed soldiers begin to run.

Haneval looks up. “That sounded like…”

“…Suomen,” finishes Sinsera.

Three of the creatures turn as warriors fan out around them. The warriors lock shields, and archers begin to fire from among them. Fire from mages among the soldiers finds the creatures and they begin to scream. One of the threshers lifts up a soldier and begins to tear him apart methodically, pulling away armor and then meat off the bone.

Suomen dodges through the line, Eyirie right behind him. They see Airisu, and run up to her as the battle rages around them.

“Elder,” says Suomen, “we must find an ancient artifact of starmetal and porphyry.”

“I have the artifact.” Soril holds it up.

Suomen stares for a moment, then reaches up to grasp a green pendant he wears from his neck. “Hie Lin Ua,” he says, “It is here!”

A green portal appears, and a tall Spriggan steps through. The Spriggan reaches out and takes the rod from Soril, then breaks it in two with her hands.

The bell tolls a final time, higher in pitch, and all the Elves fall to the ground covering their ears.

As one, the threshers collapse into puddles of tar and branch.

❖ ❖ ❖

Slow sunlight from the western wood warms the clearing in which seven Spriggan look down upon Haneval. He meets their gazes, one after another, earth-glow eyes in faces of bark and twig, heart-shards in a bed of leaves.

“You brought fire to the wood in our care,” says one, “fire that could have stormed and killed forests.”

“You should have warned them,” responds Haneval. “When Elves asked about the Imsu, you should have said something.”

“It is not for you to—“

“I did what I had to do to keep the Wardens alive long enough for someone to destroy the key.”

“You left destruction in your path,” says another Spriggan, “that others of our kind are now tending to.”

Haneval only nods. “Yes, I did.”

Thracien says, “With respect, Uo, those monsters were attacking your groves, killing Wardens, threatening Elven lands. Elves will not stand by and do nothing.”

“You could flee until the danger is passed.”

“We have fled enough.”

Another Spriggan turns to Airisu. “Airisu of Red Leaf. This one is yours. This one is no longer welcome in Oldwood.”

Haneval and Airisu share a glance, and Haneval nods.

“I understand, Ua,” says Airisu.

The Spriggan all turn away. Haneval bows to their backs, then turns and walks on another path.

On the way toward Red Leaf Tower, Haneval realizes he is not alone.

“I wanted a word with you,” says Thracien.

“What would you say to me?”

“I would say that if your time as a Warden is over, I have a suggestion where your talents and attitude might take to wing again.”

Back in the clearing, the wood is no longer silent. Life has emerged from hidden places and secrets, and tiny things begin to call to one another once more. Sinsera wonders if it is her imagination that the flowers seem to glow more brightly.

“Did you know?” she asks Airisu. “Did you know that he would sacrifice his place here?”

The older woman nods. “Yes. And he knew what I was asking of him.”

“What now?” asks Kekri. “Many Wardens have died. We must rebuild.”

“We will. I will go to Faerthale City and speak with the council.”

The Wardens speak around her, and if Sinsera hears their voices, she barely hears their words. She has realized at last that the clearing around them is a place that she has never seen. Vines twine and flower around trees old enough to remember the roots of time, and she feels the feathered ends of arrows in her quiver brushed by the wind.

“I would go with you,” she says at last.

Airisu turns to her. “Why?”

And Sinsera watches her face with both eyes—the eye that sees shapes and forms, and the eye that sees beneath them.

“To take the path of Ash, though I could not tell you why in words.”

- END -