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Crowsinger

  • 2021-12-08 20:32

Chapter 15

 

The room was held from utter dark by dying lights embedded in the wall, but they could see enough in the green gloom.

Sairi held very still. The Revenant outside the cage crouched and stared, shifting constantly, flickers of smile struggling with fearful eyes as their faces flowed from one runaway emotion to another. Like shadows behind half-lit curtains, thoughts scuttled across their faces.

"Nizzáçi," slurred one of them. The Ginto word for elf.

"Ginto," said Sairi.

A flicker of anger, loss, then anger again. "Master will kill you,” the Revenant said.

"Would you enjoy that?"

Grunting laughter rumbled in its throat, leaving spittle across its mouth.

Behind Sairi, Arebon said, also in Ginto, "Where is your master?"

Their eyes widened and they glanced behind them, as if fearful their master had come. Then they glared at the elves again. One of them threw itself against the wooden slats of their ramshackle cage, reaching in with a filthy hand. Sairi jumped back and watched. The Revenant’s hand curled into a claw, leaving the index finger pointing toward Arebon.

“I suppose that was the wrong question,” said Arebon softly.

Slowly the arm withdrew from the cage. The two uttered a string of Ginto neither elf could understand.

The first Revenant rattled the wood of the cage once, smiling, and touched the hilt of a dagger. Then both left the room.

"There really is no hope for them, is there?"

"It would be far better for the world," said Arebon, "if there were. But whatever their god did to them ruined them to the bone."

“What they lack in coherence, they make up for in ferocity and numbers. We have learned that."

"What was it Kymeret said? It is as if their god were a crucible in which everything Ginto was refined down to hate and fear spinning around one another in a room of rotting flesh."

"That sounds like Kymeret. We still have a problem."

"At the moment, there are only two of them."

"Do you have a plan?" asked Sairi as she began fiddling with the ropes and twine keeping their cage together.

"Yes," said Arebon. When he said nothing more, she turned and looked at him. He smiled and said, "You."

She turned back to the shabby knotwork, studying its shapes and tangles.

"You can do it, can't you?"

Sairi freed one strand. "If we find a knot that I cannot undo, then it must be tied with magic."

After another moment, Arebon said, "It isn't tied with magic, is it?"

She freed another strand. “I believe not.”

"Good. We seem to be in a supply room with one exit, and I would prefer to leave the room before they return."

"As would I."

Arebon started on a knot on the left side.

"I had a dream before I woke," he said.

"What did you dream?"

"Aellos showed me Lumos. I was on S'iolaen, standing in the world beneath the Tree, with the river N'yleen singing in the valley. I have never seen anything so beautiful."

Sairi freed another strand. "It sounds like a wonderful dream."

"It was until the Tohr'mentirii came."

"What did you do?"

Arebon laughed silently. "Nothing."

Sairi sighed and started on another knot.

 

* * * * *

 

They searched the room, and several rooms nearby, but found no sign of their swords or their armor. After hearing sounds down one corridor, they decided it would be better not to be caught lingering by the Revenant—or their master, whatever that might be.

Nor did they find clean water. They peered into one barrel filled with some liquid the color of mud, and a reek rose from its surface.

They moved on and crept through lambent corridors, searching for some sign of which direction they should go. Whenever they came to an intersection, they hid behind ancient statues, listening for any sign that they were not alone. In their hands they carried two of the stronger lengths of wood—torn from supply crates, they imagined—from their cage. They were not the best weapons they had wielded, but it was far better than being unarmed. Sairi only wished they had found their armor.

The corridors were dry with the scent of ancient stone, but the air was steeped in the scents of thousands of unwashed Revenant. After a series of cross passages, they emerged into an open space again, the "outdoors" of this underground city. Above and below them were levels of walkways and stairs, barely visible in the near dark. Lamps glowed green and red along some of the paths, but others were in shadow. Sairi tried to see a path through the labyrinth, but her gaze became lost.

"Creep or run?" she whispered in Arebon's ear.

“Fast but silent,” he answered.

They moved quickly along the path, glancing around now and then to see what might be walking on other levels in the vast space. Sometimes the parapet had crumbled away from the sides of their walkway, leaving nothing between them and an unknown fall into the depths below.

Eventually they came to a wall of rock ahead of them that stretched up and down as far as they could see. The last divergence in the path had been some time ago.

Each stood on one side of the doorway and peered in. At a harsh giggling sound from a pathway above, they both moved into the room.

The corridor was floored with smooth jade whose luster was lost in the half light. On their left, a wall of dark stone was carved with faces the height of an elf. Each face bore its own expression—here, the grimace of an angry god; there, a god leering over a world it longed to burn.

After a long and silent journey, they came to a room ringed by cressets of bronze in which some substance burned. Someone must have been here lighting them, thought Arebon. Bronze fretwork along one wall pointed toward an altar of jade. Perhaps this was a fane to the gods who once brooded over this place. Sentinels of glimmering urns guarded the altar.

He glanced around quickly as they passed through the room, then stopped.

A shadow had moved along the far wall near the door. None of the cressets had moved, so it could not be an illusion of the light.

The shadow, some 30 inches long and perhaps 8 wide, moved again. The shadow seemed to sway, making a sinuous path to the floor. And then it began to move toward them across the floor.

The elves readied the lengths of wood which were their only weapons. Arebon was about to swing at the shadow when it suddenly swerved to avoid him. The elves turned as the shadow moved on, ignoring them altogether.

They let out a long breath, then moved on.

 

* * * * *

 

They walked along an endless corridor lined on the left with faces like the stone gods they had seen, but worked in bronze that seemed as new as when the city was born.  The elves kept away from the faces as they walked, but this brought them closer to the parapet of stone along the right edge of the path. Beneath the parapet was another path a level below them. Tall panels of glass exhaled a low greenish light, at least from those lights which still breathed at all. Between the lights were statues with faces like the ones along the upper hall, but far smaller and carved of stone. They sat atop torsos of cleanly cut and polished malachite.

The dark marble floor of the lower hallway was in some disrepair, and when they passed a stairwell that led down to that floor, they avoided it.

In the hall below, they could see two more of the living shadows clinging to the walls. One moved down the torso of one of the statues.

To the left down the hall came a sound as of two sword blades crossing one another, the light screech of edge against edge.

The shadow creatures suddenly fled to the right, disappearing into a side passage.

From that direction, a Revenant walked with uneven gait, slouching past the statues and holding Arebon’s sword in its scabbard.

Arebon and Sairi dropped to hide behind the stone parapet, peering over it watch the Revenant from above.

From the left came another sound, a thin shriek nearly too high to hear. The sound fell then, a raptor diving from the sky toward its prey. The sound fell like the bringer of death until the elves were covering their ears. Then it curdled into a wet rasp.

The Revenant was standing perfectly still in the middle of the hall, cringing.

From the left, a fog moved. It drifted as it would over open land, an opaque cloud some nine feet high and trailing some way along the ground behind it.

A low gurgling of fear rose from the Revenant, but it did not move.

Cold wisps appeared near the top of the cloud, eyes looking down upon the Revenant that waited.

“Elves,” grunted the Revenant. “The trap.”

A wet gurgling from the fog. The Revenant held up Arebon’s sword and uttered the Ginto word for “plunder”.

Something emerged from the depths of the fog, a moss-draped vine or tentacle glowing wet in the green light. The Revenant shrieked and dropped the sword, then turned to run. But the vine moved whiplike through the air and wrapped around the Revenant’s leg.

Another vine emerged, and the Revenant was dragged whimpering toward the fog while it scrabbled at the marble floor for purchase.

The fog began to drift away, revealing a darkness deeper within.

Arebon peered into the murky gloom, trying to see what had been revealed. It was a shape he could make little sense of at first. Then two more vines unwrapped from whatever it was and seemed to rock and break off a piece of the impossible shape.

The vines dropped something on the floor. It appeared to be a head, horribly disfigured with decay and age. He glanced back toward the darkness within the fog, and now discerned other familiar shapes: an arm, a furry leg, the foot of some giant bird, the eyes of a spider glowing softly. Yet there was no shape to the whole that made sense to him. It was as if something unfamiliar with bodies and how they fit together had taken parts from different species and attempted to combine them into some form of chimera without reason. The large bird foot was placed atop a scaly torso, and what could have been an elven leg in rags lined up alongside.

The Revenant’s whimpering turned to a scream, then gurgling as the vines ripped its head from its body. As the body fell to the marble floor, the vines pulled the head into the fog and placed it somewhere on the chimera just beneath the leg. Smaller vines emerged from the shapeless mass to wrap around the head.

Arebon imagined—or did he really see?—the dead Revenant's eyes open just before the fog closed in again.

As the remaining vines began to withdraw into the fog, the cold wisps began to turn, seeking around the corridor, then shifted upward.

The elves flattened themselves against the floor and parapet, and Arebon was relieved that they had made little sound in doing so.

The silence below continued for some time. And then a sound came from the hall, a wavering rasp like the cooing of a giant insect. It retreated to the right, whence the Revenant had come, and the fog hummed as some beast contented after feeding.

And Arebon remembered a stairway leading up from that level to their own, not far behind them.

The elves crawled quickly and quietly along the parapet until they were surrounded by walls again.

Then they stood and began to run.

 

* * * * *

 

The rooms in this part of the city were filled with objects of bronze, and some walls had faces of beaten copper clothed in verdigris. They came to a larger room with lit cressets, and scattered urns of bronze glimmering ruddy in the light. On one side was a great forge, cold and dark.

“Wait,” said Arebon. Then he turned and looked through a doorway behind the forge and saw another. They walked through rooms of the smithy until they found a chamber nearly empty except for scattered weapons long since rotted by rust, any wood pieces long since gone.

But on one wall, three swords depended from a rack of the imperishable bronze they had seen before. Even their hilts and scabbards had survived whatever ages of the world had passed since Nen Sorshegweth yet lived.

The elves approached warily as if the swords might suddenly move to attack them. But the weapons remained still, as they must have for ages.

“Magic weapons,” said Sairi.

“Yes,” said Arebon, “but why only three?”

“The fallen god’s army must have taken the rest, but for some reason…”

“Stand back, Sairi.”

She looked at him. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to take one of these swords, and I would prefer you watch from a safe distance in case something goes wrong.”

She stared at him a moment, then said, “And if you are taken by some curse? There must be a reason the Revenant left these behind.”

“We have no way of knowing the way out of this city,” he said, staring at the scabbard, black with silver filigree. “No way of knowing how long we must travel. Our food and water were taken, and I have never felt such thirst as I feel now. And…” he turned to look at her, “we share this city with monsters, and I do not trust this length of wood to defend us.”

He dropped the wood on the ground, and Sairi backed away. He reached out his hand and held it above the scabbard for a long moment, then grasped it in his hand and lifted it from the wall rack.

It was light, very light, and felt right in his hand. He took his other hand and grasped the hilt, then drew forth the blade. In the green light of the room, it glowed—but not in the light around them. It shone as if it basked in some other light, bright and clean as the outside air.

“If this is evil,” he said, “then it is a very comfortable evil.”

Sairi stepped forward and reached for another blade.

“Wait,” he began.

“Like you,” said Sairi, pulling the sword down from the wall, "I ache with thirst and do not wish to fight monsters without a real weapon.”

She drew forth the blade and it shown silver. Filigree danced down the center of the blade.

“I like it,” she said.

“Do you want the other as well? I prefer to fight with sword and dagger.”

Sairi nodded. “I shall take both.”

Arebon sheathed his own sword. “Then let us move on and seek a way out of this place before thirst takes us.”

 

* * * * *

 

They came to halls not long abandoned, with reckless destruction and scattered objects of modern make. After one long hallway in near darkness, they emerged into a great hall.

Both elves flattened themselves against the wall and looked around the hall—what they could see in the dim light. They saw a floor littered with the refuse of gathered Revenant, columns that loomed along the walls, and elaborate arches disappearing into shadows overhead. To their left, at one end of the hall, was an empty throne upon a broad dais.

Arebon gestured, and they moved quietly along the columns toward the throne. They tried to ignore the rotting debris left behind by the Revenant who had gathered here. There were remains of Revenant who had been hacked into pieces by, Arebon assumed, their comrades.

The throne was huge, nearly two spans wide and backed by elaborate sculptures and scrollwork in the green stone. Long banners draped from either side of the throne: filthy white cloth stained with red in the shape of two crossed axes: the standard of Ossari.

The sculpted stone wall was marred by spikes hammered into the stone. From each hammer, a head was suspended—human, elf, rishagi, and more.

The elves stood very still and stared at the throne.

“He was here,” whispered Sairi. “In this hall. He sat on that throne and reveled in this… all of this. Gathering his army, here.”

“Then where is he now?” asked Arebon. “And will he return?”

What are you?

They whirled around and saw the fae. Fae it seemed, though not fae at all. It stood tall—stood, though its feet were several inches above the floor, untouched by the blood upon the marble—and its skin and robes glowed softly blue. Translucent wings swayed behind, and long straight hair fell silver and green, bound at the brow by a circlet of gold.

Arebon caught his breath. “If you are fae,” he said, “I pray you allow us passage to the eastern lands.”

The fae stared at him, then at Sairi. Blue eyes, deeper than the sea, drifted back to Arebon.

“What are you?”

“I am an elf.”

“What is an elf?”

“We come from Faerthale.”

“There are fae in Faerthale, and spriggans, and other species. What is an elf?”

“I am descended from the elves of S’iolaen who were brought to this world four and a half centuries ago.”

The fae’s lip turned. “So an elf is mere blood and skin given to you by ancestors.”

“Not just that.”

“What is an elf?”

“We have… culture. Tradition. Scholars, musicians, wearers of the ash. The blowing of the ram’s horn beneath the Tree.”

“So you are a scholar, a musician, a wearer of the ash? You have blown the horn?”

“None of those things.”

“What are you?”

“I…” Arebon released a breath, glanced at Sairi.

“What is an elf?” repeated the fae.

Sairi said, “Elves have suffered. Elves have found sanctuary for a time, then been forced to flee again.”

“Are you an elf?”

“We did not grow up in elf society, not as… We were apart. We were elves who lived apart.”

“What are you?”

Sairi swallowed. “I am a wanderer. I would find a safe place from the storm that comes.”

The fae nodded. “Then perhaps you are an elf. What do the elves in Faerthale?”

“I imagine they are preparing for war.”

“And you… wander.”

“We are on a quest to find the Night Market,” said Arebon.

“Does the Night Market wish to find you?

“I do not know. All I know is that we are looking for something.”

“The Night Market? Or something… else? Perhaps you hope to buy or trade a wish or a purpose, or a love or a hate.”

“We were scouts who gathered information about the movements of,” he waved around at the great and terrible hall within which they stood, “the followers of the fallen god.”

“You were.”

“We are done with scouting. We are looking for a place to go.”

“Would the elves not welcome you back into Faerthale?”

Arebon felt the familiar tightness in his throat, remembered the night he had heard the last message from their mentor, Isek—before he had tossed the message crystal into the sea.

What memories lie in wait to pounce in moments of weakness.

“They would not,” he said. “They intend for us to die defending the elves who belong there.”

“You do not intend to die.”

“Not for no reason.”

“That is not reason enough?”

“They betrayed us,” he said. “Fed us false hope. They never intended for us to come home. We are not of them.”

“What are you?”

“Lost,” said Sairi. “In this place.”

The fae’s head tilted slightly. “Would you be lost if you were not in this place?”

“Yes.”

“What do you expect to find in the Night Market?”

“I do not know,” said Arebon. “I am drawn there, for nowhere else can I see hope, and if I cannot see it, how can I offer it to my iskele?

“So you live like a dull candle flame desperate to gutter into wax.”

“I am not… I wish to shine, not gutter.”

“You have— “

“I have nothing except my friends, my companions! Sairi and Isonis and Kymeret and Slumber and Crowdancer and Aovyn and Yonai. All I…” he began to pace, and he felt his teeth clench. “All I wanted was to keep them safe. We grew up together. I’ve led them in the wilderness for seven years! If I lead us to fight for the elves, I might be killing them all.”

He looked at the fae again. “What am I if I sentence my only family to death?”

“You are a scale in which your species is weighed against those closest to you.”

“If you wish to describe it so.”

The fae only watched him. Then its eyes lowered and saw the scabbard in Arebon’s hand, the silver-threaded hilt; the two in Sairi’s hands.

“Your weapons have lovely magic.”

“Everything else in the armory was gone or rusted with age.”

“Perhaps the Twisted could not touch those.”

“Are they cursed?" asked Arebon.

The fae tilted its head slightly. "I do not see a curse."

"So it's not likely to harm me."

"If you were to use it upon your own skin, I believe it would harm you."

"Yes, I discovered that when I was first learning how to use a sword."

“Then perhaps you will not do that.”

“Why don’t you tell me why someone led us to seek the Night Market?”

“I do not have such knowledge. But I can lead you out of this place.”

Arebon bowed. “We would be grateful if you would do that.”

“Among elves, is gratitude considered a debt?”

Arebon’s breath caught. Careful. “Among elves, gratitude is not a medium of exchange, but an expression of thanks.”

The fae’s expression gave no hint of disappointment or anger. “Very well. This spirit will lead you.” He raised a slender hand, and a wisp appeared in the air next to him. “Keep it in your sight, or you might never see the sun and moons again.”

As they turned to follow the wisp, the fae said, “After all, the moons have linked, and many doors are open.”

 

* * * * *

 

Through passage and hall of dull marble and burnished bronze they followed the wisp through the depths of Nen Sorshegweth. Twice the wisp led them down broad stairways into even deeper realms, places in which the lights flickered weary, falling into the endless sleep of the dark. Here still they found signs of Ossari’s army, senseless and brutal.

Arebon and Sairi never spoke during this journey. The air was thick, stale, filled with the scent of old stone and the sharp tang of new blood. And their throats were thick with the need for water. They had no choice but to trust their guide, but more than once Arebon wondered if the fae they met—or whatever it might have been—would lead them astray as some creatures were prone to do. If so, the wisp was leading them to their deaths in the deepest vaults in the ground.

At last, the wisp led them up a narrow stairway into a passage whose lights had long ago breathed their last. They had nothing but the pale wisp to light them on their way. Here there were no signs of the Revenant, or any other creatures within this age of the world. Only bare marble and bronze, and the grim faces of the builders or their gods with metal faces and eyes emerging from the walls. In the swaying wisplight, the faces seemed almost to move, pulling themselves out of the walls and frowning at the two lost elves trespassing in their domain.

Then a broad stairway descending even deeper into the unknown, and Arebon began to despair. Yet the air became less old and stale. Arebon imagined that the green marble was carved into the shapes of tree trunks, like a stand of green birch passing them by on either side. A leaf fell in front of his face, and he caught the scent of wild berries and the hint of coming snow. The grass under his feet was soft, and all around, the plants glowed in a dozen colors.

Ahead of him, the wisp had become two moons in eclipse, the red eye watching.

He looked to the left to find Sairi and saw an elk stamping in the forest.

He opened his mouth to speak, and his voice was an elk’s voice.