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Monday, January 29, 2007

Chapter Ten: Turned Black the Old Oak and Farewell

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

Nub had tried hard to keep James in the room. She pleaded and begged, half dropping to her knee for him to stay. But he couldn’t. He had to know what the sounds were—the horns. He left the room; Nub refused to follow and curled in a ball near the door. Here and there he stumbled from weakness, succumbing to the effects of his wounds. It was all he could do to stay full upright, let alone see all that stood before. Each step, however, grew easier, and he felt his strength returning in groves.
Yet, he paused outside the door, using the corner of a nearby wall as a support and nearly fainted. Rays of light ran along his exposed skin and lit up the face of the wall so he could see the paleness of the stone. Dawn, inescapable and unforgettably true, came at him as if a call from the Heaven that only he believed existed. He faced the mountains beyond and became overwhelmed by the greatness of the sun as it passed between two peaks, lighting everything in its path. For the first time, looking east, he saw the wide expanse of farmland that extended down the backside of Arlin City and on past the walls and into the country beyond, meeting up with the Far’anon River. Part of the river had been diverted into a series of canals and irrigation ditches like a giant maze of sparkling pathways. The farmland ended in a series of thickets, each round and independent of one another. They dotted the landscape like a group of toadstools.

And then, like a massive blow to his gut, the reality of the situation presented itself. The euphoric moment ended and he realized that the sun was rising from the wrong side—the west. Panic struck through the inhabitants of Arlin City. He had been too blind to it to realize. People of all shapes and sizes ran frantically to nowhere at all. Below he could see nothing but chaos as men, women, and children of all races crowded around the western wall as far away from the main gates as possible. It was as if they hoped they could escape magically through the stone, but he could sense that the majority of them couldn’t use magic at all. Soldiers appeared from various sections of the city below, forming ranks and marching to the western wall, and though from this position he could not see the west, he knew there were more soldiers and people there.
He walked along the wall to find an open view of the western side of the city. A few women brushed past and nearly knocked him over. Finally he found an open alcove that ended in a curved balustrade of aged gray stone fitted with alternating pillars carved with armored horses rearing high and regal and bowing as if to a king. For a moment, James feared to look over the edge. He couldn’t be sure what he would see, and at the same time he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know what it was that everyone was so eager to escape from. But, he bit down and pushed away all the fear and limped until slowly the east side of Arlin City and the great green field beyond came into view.
As stunning as it was to see the sun rising from the west, the sight below caused every muscle in his heart to lurch as if he were having a heart attack. His throat seized up; a thick bulb that felt like a smooth golf ball swelled up there preventing him from swallowing.
Below he could see lines of soldiers lining up along the walls and below, catapults that had not been there before inside the excavated forms of buildings, archers preparing lengths of flaming arrows, and then…beyond the walls. For several hundred feet there was nothing but green and gold grass. Then, where the Old Oak stood, the same place where James had appeared in the Farthland, stood a black mass a mile wide and half a mile deep, interspersed with long squares of silver. Thousands and thousands of creatures, armed and shuffling impatiently, were there, part of an enormous army. There were men there too, normal men indifferent from those of the Farthland. Near the oak a small circle had been cleared, in which was a tall figure in a bright burnished silver suit of armor, helm removed and flanked by the lyphon, who walked in lonely circles in a motion of obvious discomfort at being held at bay for too long. Three massive wooden horns, now bellowing again in such a deep, resonating tone that he had to close his eyes to make it go away, and a series of tarred catapults made up the rear.
His heart sunk deep into his chest and he felt as if it wanted to trade places with his gut. An army, he thought. What have I brought down on these people? He started to cry, but stopped himself as the first tears slipped silently off his chin. Instead, he sucked it back; his muscles spasmed in protest. The army remained still, yet no messenger came forward asking for surrender, and neither did anyone leave Arlin City to suggest the same, or a different end. Luthien’s army simply remained still, anticipating, and antsy.
A long, black shadow appeared over his shoulder. He turned and met face to face with a dark brown gryphon in mid-flight, diving straight for him. Two fiery amber eyes centered on his face. It shrieked and raised its claws and, just as suddenly as it had appeared, so too did another figure, appearing over the roof of a nearby home, lunging through the air and ripping the creature out of the sky. Together the brown gryphon and the other creature—a golden gryphon—plummeted down twenty feet and crashed in a ruffle of feathers around the corner of a building on the main path. James heard the two beasts screeching at one another. It sounded like two people arguing and taunting, only in a language that he could never understand with the limits of his human hearing. The gryphons cast small shadows that he watched intently and fearfully, as he did not want to move to see the ensuing battle. Then, the brown gryphon shrieked again and the shadows indicated that he had lunged, only to fall dead from a movement that James could not discern. The head of the brown gryphon slumped into view, tongue hanging from its beak.
Then, clicking his talons rhythmically on the cobblestone, the golden gryphon walked into view. It was Tagron, and James’ heart instantly calmed. Tagron sat and began to clean the blood from his feathers and consumed the bits of flesh stuck to his claws and beak. James grew ill from the sound of Tagron slurping and gurgling the mess down.
“I hate to kill my own kind,” Tagron said, “we are so few. But her betrayal could not go unpunished.” Then, Tagron looked up.
James instinctually avoided eye contact, their previous encounter still fresh in his mind. “Thank you,” he said.
Tagron harrumphed, or least that was what it sounded like, and James could never be quite sure what the sounds coming from the creature really were.
“Come, you must go.”
“Go?” He chanced a brief look, then averted his eyes again.
“The city is going to fall.”
“How can you say that?”
“Luthien’s numbers are too great. Ammond cannot keep this place secure forever. But he will fight nonetheless, and if nothing else deplete much of Luthien’s military power.”
“How did they cross all this way without being spotted?” That thought had not crossed his mind until this exact moment. Luthien had to cross far too much land for not a single soul to notice a trail of soldiers that would have extended miles, and the supply trains even farther. And there would have been word if any of the other cities in the Farthland had fallen. Yet, here was Luthien’s army in full force.
“I-I,” he stopped. Nothing seemed to be making sense. The magic required to move such an army…it’s staggering. No single man could do such a thing, even if a thousand great magic users had willingly given their energy to a Fearl. No, it’s impossible.
“Come, quickly. Ammond awaits.”
Tagron hustled away and James looked back over the balustrade. Movement had taken place and now seven single robed men, evenly spaced some hundred feet apart, had found positions ahead of the main force. Together they each raised their arms and, preceded only by a powerful rumble, great plumes of black smoke poured out from their hands, roaring forward like great gaseous dragons. The smoke serpents roared and crashed into the walls of Arlin City sending vibrations up the entirety of the hill that the city stood on. Each vibration tickled his nerves. Then, the serpents disappeared.
The seven men were casting the same spell again when Tagron shrieked at him from a distance and he turned and ran. He rounded the corner and, a few steps later, wheeled around and back into the room. Nub lay shivering near the door where he had left her. He quickly gathered his things—the etiquette book, the black egg, and the new clothes that had been laid out for him—and, juggling it between his arms, headed for the door. His wounds ached, but, remarkably, he could feel all the flesh intact and the skin still connected. He simply hurt.
“Nub,” he said, “come on. We have to go.”
She chanted to herself. “The black one arrives. Death. Pain. The end of all. The black one arrives.” She bobbed back and forth and said the words almost as if they were a song in a minor key.
“Nub! We have to go now!”
She didn’t seem to be paying him any attention.
Finally, having grown irritated with the situation, Tagron burst into the room. “What are you doing?”
“Never mind. We must go now. There is no time for this.”
“But Nub, we can’t leave her here.”
“She is lost. Come.”
“No! I can’t leave her like this.”
Then Tagron groaned, or at least groaned in whatever fashion a gryphon could do such a thing for it sounded like a gurgling growl. James had less than a second to leap out of the way before Tagron pushed his way through and began tearing up everything imaginable. The search ended abruptly as a gray leather sack with a set of straps flew across the room and forced James to drop his possessions in order to catch it.
“I do not know how much clearer I can be when I say to be quick,” Tagron said, now back at the door.
Remembering the former bad experience he had had with the creature, James knelt down, hurriedly stuffed everything into the sack—putting the super tunic on quickly—and slung it over his shoulder. He stood and watched in horror as Tagron grabbed the babbling Nub in his pointed beak and flung her over his shoulder. Nub didn’t protest, completely oblivious to her surroundings.
“Now, come!”
With that James followed. He didn’t look back even as the plumes of smoke crashed once more, nor when the drumming thud of catapults from both sides roared and echoed through the city. He simply ran, following Tagron in desperation. I have to get out of here. It was at that moment that he could fully feel the terror the civilians of Arlin City must have felt. Adrenaline rushed through him, coursing like a river of fear. And he accepted the burst of energy, ignoring the shiver that attacked his stomach.
Tagron led him down a series of side streets, dark alleyways, and underground passages until they came to a tiny square courtyard. It was unkempt with trees, brush, weeds, and thick green vines growing in and out of the creaks of the weakening walls. Only a single ray of light struck the far wall leaving the rest in slight darkness. Pea, Darl, and Ammond were there waiting. He could sense how close they all were to losing their nerves. There was no argument; rather, the three of them simply stared at him with deep concern, something of which seemed to cause Darl great discomfort as his brow curled inward.
“Thank you Tagron,” Ammond said.
Tagron inclined his head—a symbol of respect. Nub fell to the ground, still bantering.
“James, you will be leaving now. There will be no wait for the supply train, or for a tomorrow that might not exist here. No, you must go now and swiftly.”
“Triska?” he said, letting every ounce of his fear and worry pour through his voice.
“Here,” came Triska’s voice, who appeared through the path.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “And Gammon?”
Ammond shook his head. “He is obligated to defend this city, so I cannot release him. It isn’t within my power.”
“And he wouldn’t go,” Pea said. “It would be a sign of cowardice.”
Then Darl grumpily added, “he would be condemned for as long as he could breath.”
I’ve brought this down on them. What have I done? He thought of Gammon, who would be among the soldiers along the wall waiting, anticipating the moment when the Luthien’s army would rise forward and attack. Then, he thought of all those that would die—good or otherwise; beings that he knew deserved no such fate, but rather deserved to live their lives fully some place safe and away from all this. He knew his presence had disrupted everything. To fathom that the makeshift peace that endured for so long would be so easily broken was an unbearable burden now. He wondered if Laura was worth the destruction that would follow. Deep down he knew the answer, but he also understood that no one else held the friendship he had shared with her. She…is family.
A series of booms followed by the unmistakable roar of the thousands of men and creatures beyond the city’s wall evoking their war cry’s set everything in full motion. Ammond stepped forward and bowed gently, praying safe passage to Arnur; James replied with a nod and thought to extend his hand in a shake, but caught himself when he recalled that such a pleasantry did not exist in the Farthland.
“Stay safe, young James, “Ammond said. “Perhaps we will see each other again soon.” With that, Ammond lifted Nub from the ground and forced her to walk, dragging her from the courtyard.
Tagron stood before him, eyeing him in such a way that he thought for a moment he was the gryphon’s prey. Then Tagron turned and ripped several old bushes from the earth revealing a large round stone tablet. The tablet was old, cracking, and had no recognizable markings other than a divot that ran along the edge. Tagron tore it from the earth with a single paw. There, looking gloomy and worn was a path barely tall enough for James to walk into.
“This will lead you out of the city. It opens up just beyond the Far’anon River. Be swift. Do not falter when you reach safety. Head to the mountains. Find the golden path. That will lead you to Arnur.”
James looked into the darkness of the tunnel. There was no room to carry a torch and he couldn’t imagine traversing such a great distance—well over a mile—underground with no source of light to speak of.
And to do so in magic, well, he wasn’t sure exactly how that might work. He’d come to expect that he had an aptitude for physical magic, a form reserved primarily for combat. Special effects, healing, and other such peaceful methods of use were unlikely to be his forte. That much he understood.
“Be as fast as a gryphon in the sky. Luthien will have men by the river by the time you reach the other side. If he spots you then all hope is lost for you to find your friend.” This Tagron said stronger than the rest, making eye contact and staying fixated until James nodded that he understood.
He could fly me there. Mentally he hit himself, and a twang from the Fearl pounded the very recesses of his mind. If Tagron had heard his thoughts there would have been enough cause to remove one of his limbs. Gryphons were touchy about such things.
“Now I must fly. A battle awaits. Beware the eye. Look to the western sunrise!” And before James could mutter a goodbye, the gryphon leapt into the air and disappeared over the rooftops.
“Come, James,” Pea said. “We have to go.” Pea carried a pack stuffed full of food and items that James couldn’t make out. A single metal pan hung from the bottom. Darl carried a similar pack, only rather than a pan he had a pair of swords slung neatly over his shoulder. Having had only one lesson, James was weary that he might be forced to carry a real sword. He was further weary from the fact that he might be forced to kill someone with that same sword.
“Here,” Darl said, chucking another stuffed pack at him, “put your things in that.”
James began to do so until he suddenly realized that of the four of them Triska was the only one that didn’t have a pack. He looked at her, back at his pack, now half packed, and at her again.
“You’re not coming,” he said.
Triska sniffled. “No. I have to stay here.”
Another war cry rang, followed by an explosion of crashes as more catapults assaulted their distant enemies.
“But you can’t stay here!” He turned desperately to Pea, who in turn averted his gaze. “Triska, you’ll…”
“I know,” she interrupted. “I could die here. But I have to stay. Those men need me. I might save some of them. It is a risk I’m willing to take.”
James looked down, pushing back the emotions. The black egg, faintly glowing with a shiny blue tinge, sat nestled against his clothes in his pack. He stared at it for a moment as if he hoped it would give him the answers he wanted.
“You’ve been brave. Understand that if not for this being my home, I would fly across great lengths to help you on your quest. But, if there is hope yet, I will fight for it the only way I know how.”
A building collapsed in the distance, only noticeable by the huge plume of smoke that erupted up into the sky, spewing bits of stone into the air like a volcano.
Then, he lost control. He had never been good at suppressing his emotions. He grabbed the egg, lunged forward, and wrapped his arms around Triska. She held him and he wept.
“There there. Fear not.” He let go and looked into her eyes, saw the tears, and tried to smile. “Luthien may find this old lady a rather annoying nuisance. We may see each other again.”
“I forgot to give this to you. It was a gift from Darl.” He presented the egg.
Triska smiled the warmest smile he had ever seen. It filled him to the brim with every happy emotion he could imagine, even behind her tears.
“Keep it. It may bring you luck.” She smiled again.
“Thank you for everything.”
“Save your friend. And understand how much that means to you, just as this home means so much to me. Now go. Go!”
She pushed him away, not angrily nor in a fit of desire to get rid of him, but rather out of compassion for him and his well-being. He could feel it, see it in her tear filled eyes and in the puffs of red that had formed just above her cheeks. He tucked the egg back into the pack and slung everything over his shoulder. It proved to be lighter than he had expected.
“Goodbye old friend,” Pea said, stifling the tears that so desperately wanted to be let out.
“Goodbye. Don’t let that Erdluitle pride get you into any trouble now.”
Pea feigned a laugh. “Me? Never. Erdluitles don’t get in trouble. It’s simply an improbability.”
Together the two of them laughed. Then Pea turned and led James through the opening. Only Darl seemed hesitant.
“You take care of him.”
James turned back and saw Darl’s face, forlorn and sunken.
“You hear me? So help me if you harm another hair on that boy’s head I will find you and discipline you like you were a child.” There was a hint of seriousness there, but the overwhelming tone was in jest.
Darl motioned as if he were going to say something, decided against it, and followed into the tunnel. Pea produced a small torch, which he lit with a spell of flame. The torch blew up into a bright array of light, perfectly shining in every crevice. The little man looked infinitely smaller in the tunnel that forced Darl to crouch at an uncomfortable angle and James to crane his neck until his chin hung an inch below his shoulders. Together they traversed the tunnel and slowly, surely, the sounds of the ensuing battle died away. Soon only the vibrations and deep booms resonated along the walls.
* * *
James lost all sense of time in the tunnel. Without a watch and without the sun as a measuring device, he had no clue how long they had been underground, nor how far they had traveled. Regardless, it seemed like ages. The tunnel turned left, then right, up, then down. He half expected it to do a loop at some point having grown disoriented to the point where he had no idea which direction was north. The vibrations from the battle that doubtless still waged far behind them had long since disappeared. Yet, James expected that crossing under the river would have exposed the tunnel to different types of soil—wetter kinds. The soil that made up the walls was a mixture of rock and hard clay.
The light that protruded from Pea’s torch intrigued James. He’d come to terms with the limitations of magic, his included. Even the most powerful of users had a peak they could not surpass. Luthien might be capable of seeing the future, and could use magic to an extent that no known living being could muster, but it was focused in one direction. James’ magic was physical, entirely devoted to the exertion of physical force. He could not enchant gems, or conjure great monsters to fight his battles. This meant his need to use a sword became more pronounced. Pea, on the other hand, was multitalented. James had seen the Littlekind heal, create fire that lit brighter than any flashlight he could remember seeing, and close the mouth of an unsuspecting off-worlder. Yet, Triska and Nub were completely focused in the art of healing. Perhaps their focus allows them more power in that field. That makes sense. Focusing makes them stronger. So that means if I focus on my physical magic I will grow more powerful in it. Maybe I could lift a house. He smiled at that. He could imagine his parents throwing a fit after he had lifted their home and moved it a few inches for no apparent reason. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He could see the humor in doing something like that. If he were in need of a good laugh he just might do it, provided that no damage would come to his home.
The tunnel finally distinctly changed course, diving at a steep angle down, down, and down. James stopped behind Pea. The dirt at the edge slipped away and he could hear the patter of pebbles ringing and ringing until some time later the echoes ceased. A slick, smoothed out clay ran the length of the visible incline.
Pea whistled. “Well, that’s an unexpected surprise.”
“How far down?” Darl said grumpily. James was glad to hear the old Darl again.
“A good five hundred feet.” Pea shifted lightly along the edge; more pebbles fell and gave their final calls. “Might be a bit difficult to climb down. Nothing to really hold on to.”
“Trade spaces. I can dig footholds on the way down with a knife.”
“Just don’t fall.”
“Just don’t grow any taller.” Darl glared. The comment stung even James who knew full well that an attack on a Littlekind’s stature was insulting at best.
Then Darl slipped over the edge and began his descent. Every few feet he dug a moon shaped groove into the slick clay. When at least a man’s length was between Darl and the edge, James followed. The footholds were more or less useless. He could fit his feet and hands in them, but as he did so the clay broke or his fingers slipped ever so slightly so that he had to constantly readjust his hands to keep from falling. Most of the time he found that he had to use his own center of gravity to keep him at such an angle that his feet made indentations in the grooves. Pea on the other hand seemed to have no trouble whatsoever as his tiny hands and feet fit perfectly into the grooves and his lighter weight reduced the breaking of the already damaged grooves.
Down and down they went—Darl breaking and digging new grooves, James doing his best to cling to the only land he could, and Pea humming lightly to himself and carrying the tiny torch in his teeth. Luckily the light managed to travel deep into the tunnel so that even Darl could see where he was going.
James guessed they had gone a good two hundred feet before his arms and legs began to protest. He at first ignored it—a skill he had developed after all the great pains that had befallen him on his journey into the Farthland—and even now he ignored the quickening pace of a stinging crick from his wounds. Something told him that they might never heal completely and he that he might be cursed with the occasional pain much in the same way that a busted knee often led to further problems in the future. But he was alive, something he could never be adequately thankful for.
It was in this growing tiredness in his body that he realized he could barely hold onto the earth. His grip slipped, broke, or failed him with each step down he took. He willed himself to hold, could feel the same emotion evoked from the Fearl, and managed a few more steps before he leaned against the earth as best he could to rest.
“I can’t go any farther,” he said, “my arms can’t take it.”
Darl looked up. “Nonsense. Get up and move.”
He panted and took another step, but collapsed a moment later. “I can’t. It’s too far.”
“You choose a perfect time to become weak. None of us can administer the salve now. You have no choice but to continue moving.”
“I’ll fall!”
“Then you die. A hundred feet until you hit flat ground.”
“It would do us some good to rest,” Pea said.
“There is no time. We have to get across the river and out of sight.” Darl grew angry, his voice rising and echoing in the tunnel.
James looked up, saw Pea and the expression planted so firmly there, and took a few more steps. He pushed himself harder and harder, and down and down they went again. Darl grumbled and James pushed back the painful tears welling up in his eyes. He couldn’t help but think of all those that were dying simply because he had come to this world. And his parents. He prayed so deeply that they were safe and that some misfortune had not befallen them at the hands of the Council. Such worries permeated his mind; the Fearl quivered amiably. And he continued descending. He was determined to succeed in finding Laura and bring her home despite all the fears, doubts, and pain he had thus far endured. Something deeper than friendship; something he could only call a familial relationship beyond that of a relative, but…like a sister, he thought. She’s like the sister I never had.
Then everything failed him. He lost his grip, his left hand slipping from a groove as his left foot broke one of the grooves. He tumbled and caught himself momentarily. Then he screamed and dropped hard on top of Darl who, by some manner of amazement, held tight to the clay in a way that James didn’t understand. He crashed through Darl, tumbled over the man’s shoulder, and began to fall again. He cried out louder now, hoping someone could save him. Darl snagged him by his tunic, held him for a moment that seemed like forever, and as if in slow motion, lost his grip. James fell and fell and fell. He slid off the roof here and there. His pack acted as a quaggy cushion, breaking his crashes into the steep floor. Then he landed hard on the slick clay incline and slid, or rather, hydroplaned the entirety of the tunnel. Desperately he reached for something to slow his fall, but alas he could find nothing but the fear that continued his cries for help.
But something broke his fall. He hit it hard and writhed in the pain that followed, but he was alive. Cold enveloped him. He opened his eyes into the dark, pitch-black recesses of a nothingness he couldn’t comprehend. And he tried to breath, but there was no air, just the cold dampness of a black void.

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  1. Ten chapters in! Dang, I have some catching up to do. No comment on this one yet - better to just go back to the beginning.

  2. I guess I have to go back to the beginning too.

    Thanks for checking in on my blog. Hope to see you around.

  3. You are a really good writer. This was fun. You have lively prose, sharp description. You know how to keep the reader and push him forward. Good pacing. Fun.

  4. Wow! Great to see other comments. We can start a debate!

    Two things jumped out at me this time. The first was how overwhelming the impending doom of the city was. It was immense, all-consuming and left no hints that survival was even a possibility. It was awe-inspiring to see Gammon and Triska stay and face their fate with unwavering devotion to duty. You just don’t see that often in literature.

    The second was how well (and consistently so) you describe the environment. You painted a great vista of the world as seen from the top of the castle when the sun comes up on the wrong side of the ‘bed’. And what a great job of showing how truly massive the invading army had to be. (And the wizard artillery, awesome. )

    I empathized with James the entire time. Knowing that he brought all this down on them is a great burden. His initially not wanting to leave and knowing anyone staying behind would likely perish is a lot to handle. All the while his mission of saving Laura starts to feel more and more impossible given the obstacles. Just good stuff.

    I like Tagron more now than when I started reading. It may have more to do with the fact that I just finished Heroes of Might and Magic V. Gryphon Eternal!