Eyes glinting with promise, his alvesse led him by the hand through the misty glade to the sacred pools, her wispy night dress shimmering under the light of Lumium. They knelt beneath the sinuous coils of the great drackenwood tree, gazing into the pulsing heart at its core, and gave thanks to the Arbordeus for the gift of life.
His alvesse turned to him then, a mirthful smile crossing her lips at his quickening. She slowly slid her dress down, revealing the delicious swell of—
Nuille’s eyes went suddenly wide, her countenance twisting into a look of pure horror. A shadow fell over her face.
He spun, reaching for Trowbane, but it was nowhere to be found. A huge clawed hand batted him aside, sending him spinning into the water. Gasping, he rolled over, spitting out the foul slime of a cursed swamp.
The demon held his alvesse by the throat, lifting her into the air with a single muscular arm. Wordlessly, Nuille met his gaze, a look of pleading in her eyes.
He gave a strangled cry.
The great hand squeezed and twisted, and Nuille’s head spun into the air and landed upright in his lap, showering him with crimson. Her unseeing eyes stared into his.
The demon with Thiachrin’s face gave a toothy grin.
A large paw gently batted him across the cheek. Garrain blinked up at the liquid eyes and furry muzzle of a grawmalkin. “Really, Morchi, we both know you’re perfectly well able to catch your own breakfast. You don’t need my help.”
“That’s what you get for spoiling them,” said Onduon, yawning up from his sleepsack. Caelach had taken the late watch and was already up, while Jevren snored softly on the other side of the campfire.
“I don’t—” Garrain bit off the denial, eyeing the slight bulge around Morchi’s midsection. “Alright, perhaps I do spoil them a little. But I work them hard in return.”
“Oh it’s a hard life being a grawmalkin, to be sure,” said Onduon. He smiled at Morchi and Ollagor; the latter of whom was polite enough to nuzzle Garrain only after he’d woken up. “All that feasting and napping must be so tiring.”
Garrain rose from his bed of leaves and stepped after the grawmalkin, who bounded through the undergrowth like unruly kittens. In truth, he rather enjoyed this morning ritual. It helped him shake off the dark dreams that had been haunting him, and it was a chance to strengthen his bond with Morchi and Ollagor.
A rustle of leaves to the west drew his attention, and he whirled to face the disturbance, Trowbane held at the ready. A white lyrebird took to the sky, warbling. Garrain let out a breath. He’d been so on edge of late.
“If you’d been more attentive, you could have made a meal out of that one,” Garrain chided the grawmalkin.
A little while later, he watched as they devoured a long-legged web lurker that had made the fatal mistake of lurking in plain sight.
By the time he arrived back at the camp, Jevren and the mundanes were packed up and ready to go. They were an efficient bunch; even Onduon, newly graduated to ranger scout. Thiachrin’s grandson had accompanied Garrain on several of these forays out into the wilds. He was good company, and still an able sparring partner, although these days Garrain had little trouble beating him one-on-one.
For the past few fivedays, Thiachrin himself had been away on an errand. Garrain had been somewhat relieved to see him gone, truth be told. The blademaster might be their most skilled fighter, but after seeing him casually murder the Fellspur rangers, Garrain no longer trusted him. Yes, they’d been from a rival enclave, and Thiachrin couldn’t have known of Utmar’s pledge to help them, and thanks to a nearby nest of hungry demigrackens, the swampfolk may never realise who slaughtered the rangers. But it was just such a pointless waste. They could have been working together against their common enemy.
Well there was nothing to be done about it now. He’d just have to hope that he and Jevren and Onduon—and yes, Thiachrin—would have the strength to vanquish the demon with whatever support they could muster from Wengarlen and the surrounding settlements. Assuming they ever found the elusive creature.
Soon, the party made their way back to the Scarberry Greenway. One of the larger greenways in Laskwood, the Scarberry stretched all the way from Sorwell to Everclade, and passed near Wengarlen along the way. While not the most direct path home, the ability to travel freely through even the most overgrown thickets more than made up for the windy route.
Greenways such as this were some of Abellion’s greatest gifts to his favoured children; hidden pathways through the great forests of Arbor Mundi that revealed themselves only to alvari. When an alvar stepped on a greenway, the undergrowth would part around him and he’d always have the wind at his back. Any other creature would find thickets and vines, fungal mounds and towering grasses blocking his path. Furthermore, there was a subtle magic that worked against the mind of any creature higher than a common beast, dissuading him from approaching too close. The magic affected even trows, brutish and slow though they may be. But evidently not demons. For it was on this very greenway that his troubles had begun.
Garrain couldn’t suppress a little cringe as he walked past the burnt trees that marked the spot where he’d fought the demon. New growth was already beginning to hide the evidence. That was for the best, as he didn’t want to be reminded of his shame every time he traversed the Scarberry Greenway.
He’d hoped the grawmalkin might be able to pick up the demon’s trail from here, but the seasons had passed, and the scent had long since faded. Garrain was beginning to despair of ever finding her. With the oracles crippled, he had to rely entirely on mundane means of tracking, which seemed not up to the task. The demon could have crossed the length of Ciendil by now.
If he could rally the whole Circle to his cause, he might stand a greater chance, but thus far, the elders weren’t taking seriously his claims that it was a demon they faced. Even Thiachrin had seemed sceptical. And so it had fallen on Garrain to conduct the search with just these few alvari at his back; a seemingly impossible task, given the vast swathes of land they had to cover. Thus far, they’d ranged between the Illerenes and the Arnean Sea, and up into the foothills of the Frostspear Mountains to the northeast. That was just a tiny portion of Laskwood, and Laskwood covered but a sliver of Ciendil…
A pinch of fivedays ago, the grawmalkin had picked up a scent, but it had led them to a different trow; a male, and a rather unimpressive one at that. Were he still in possession of Ruinath, Garrain would likely have burnt the trow to a cinder with a single bolt of scorching sap. As it was, the fight had been closer than he’d hoped, but he’d prevailed. It had been a fortunate encounter, providing him with exactly the kind of practice he needed for the battle to come. Now if only he could find more trows…
He didn’t fancy his chances; trows were all too few and far between. They’d almost been wiped from the face of Ciendil in the Cleansing, and in the ages since, his people had fought hard to keep them from proliferating.
After another long expedition into the wilderness with nothing to show for their efforts, they were heading back to Wengarlen for a much-needed rest and resupply.
Today was a long day in every sense: they had a lot of ground to cover, and the sun took an unusually long time to weave below the bough. Spurred by the knowledge that hot meals and warm baths awaited them, they pushed forward with nary a break—not even to wait out the darkenings. And when the final darkness of the encroaching night fell upon them, they kept going. Treading lightly under the dancing light of Jevren’s fire gnat spell, Garrain fell into a semi-conscious stupor, aware of little beyond the roiling of this mind. It was quite a shock when the Circle walls suddenly loomed before him in the dark, and the wardens standing at the gate called out their welcome.
After a quick stop at the bathing pools, he made his way back to his housetree, where his alvesse no doubt anxiously awaited his return.
To his surprise, Nuille looked tired and sad, rather than overjoyed to see him.
“What is it, my light?” he asked.
She burst into tears. He held her tightly, waiting for the storm to pass.
Pulling in a long breath, she said, “I’ve spoken to my family, and we’ve decided…it’s time we put Tuleon to rest.”
Garrain, swallowed, feeling a rush of sadness at her words. He’d been steeling himself for this moment. Tuleon’s fate had been sealed the moment he stepped into Garrain’s bristling barrier. Yet for all his mental preparations, when the moment came, it hit him like a club to the face.
“If you’re certain of this…” he said, when finally he could speak.
“He’s gone, ardonis,” said Nuille. “His body still draws breath, but there’s nothing left of him inside. I’ve known all along, ever since you brought him back to me. I just…couldn’t accept it. Not completely. Hoping for another miracle or…fucking something. But it’s never going to happen. There’s nothing I can do to help him, and I just can’t keep pretending.”
Garrain was silent for a long time, feeling a numbness creep over him. “I wish…” He sighed. “I suppose you have ways of making his passing painless. Even if nothing remains of him to feel pain.”
“I’m a tender,” said Nuille. “We heal whom we can, but…he’ll not be the first alvar I’ve eased into the Vale of Echoes. There won’t any pain—not for him.”
The next morning, together with the family, and a few of Tuleon’s closest friends, they carried the body to the grove behind their family housetree. Garrain had many fond memories of this place; playing together in the treetops with Tuleon, and later, a different kind of playing with Nuille. The sun was shining, and the leaves were alight with the colours of highspring. Garrain could think of far worse places to die.
They laid the body in the tall grass, and spoke the prayer of passing. Looking pale and drawn, Nuille pressed her wand against Tuleon’s head, and called upon the spell that would end his life. Garrain heard the magic flowing out of her, and then there was a long silence. No-one spoke, and even the wind went still and quiet. Finally, Nuille said, “It is done.”
Garrain looked down at Tuleon. Nothing seemed to have changed, except that his chest no longer rose and fell.
She was right, thought Garrain. She’s been tending a corpse all this time. How it must have been destroying her…
Garrain and Nuille spent the rest of the day with her family, which had in a very real sense become his family after his mother cast herself into the Vale. It was a large family, encompassing five generations; so unlike his own illustrious ancestors, who had always seemed to meet untimely ends. Nuille’s greatmother had nearly two greatspans to her name, and had been alive when Undain the Eversmile still walked the arbor.
The purpose of their gathering was sombre, but the talk was not. Tuleon would have liked to see them this way: laughing and enjoying each other’s company, not weeping and wailing and pounding fists against walls. It was a far more pleasant affair than the vigil after the deathly revolt, as the incident with the necrourgist had come to be known.
Onduon was waiting outside their housetree when they returned the following morning. “Ah, there you are, keeper!” he called out. “I was about to send a scrike. Grandfather has returned, and he’s brought guests. They have requested your presence.”
Exchanging a look with Nuille, Garrain followed Onduon to the Arbordeum. He found Thiachrin standing with several heavily-armoured alvari bearing the insignia of the Temple of Elcianor. Templars, they were called. In their midst was a pale, masked alvar without a single strand of hair to his head.
“Ah, good of you to finally join us, fledgling,” said Thiachrin. “Hascithe, this is Garrain, the young keeper I was telling you about.”
The masked alvar turned towards him, and as he did so, Garrain felt an immense presence regarding him in the same way that he himself might regard a tiny wood chirruk. There was no joy or anger in the presence; even the latter might be preferable to this crushing indifference. He felt a cold sweat crawling across his flesh. Not even Thiachrin or the elder greenhands could project such an aura of power.
Hascithe spoke in a high, formal tone. “Tell us, keeper, about this trow whom you say is a demon. We want to hear the whole story. Don’t attempt to deceive us or leave anything out. We will know if you do.”
Swallowing, Garrain relayed the tale of his ill-fated clash with the demon, his journey into Fellspur, and subsequent attempts to locate her. As instructed, he included every detail he could recall. He didn’t even leave out the part where Thiachrin had murdered Utmar and the other rangers. The flicker of tension across the blademaster’s face gave him no small amount of satisfaction. Hascithe showed no reaction to the news, although Garrain couldn’t tell what emotions, if any, might be hidden beneath that immaculate white mask.
“Interesting,” said Hascithe when Garrain had finished. “We had sensed the corruption of the seed of knowledge. This all but confirms our suspicions regarding the source of the defilement.”
“Is the trow a demon or not?” asked Thiachrin, sounding impatient.
“Almost certainly,” said Hascithe. “That a demon once again walks the boughs of Arbor Mundi, we have no doubt. We have seen into her mind once before, although the contact was too brief to glean her location, or her corporal form. What we saw was…befuddling. We are not easily befuddled.
“We believe that mind—those malign, confounding thoughts—are the source of the oracles’ incapacity. Mortal minds cannot withstand such a violation. Either they sever the chord that joins them to the seed of knowledge, or they go mad.”
This was all too much for Garrain. “I do not mean to be impolite, but who are you?”
Thiachrin barked out a laugh. “I thought you’d have worked it out already, fledgling. You’re talking to one of Abellion’s Chosen.”
Garrain returned home some time later, his thoughts ajumble. One of the Chosen—here?
Like most alvari of the Circle, he’d been raised on tales of the Chosen. The tales told of immortal protectors of the world tree blessed with nearly limitless power, facing off against foes that could smite mountains. It was said that they spoke the words of Abellion himself, and answered to no mortal authority.
Garrain had thought of those tales more as fable than fact. After the fall of the Arborcaede, the Chosen had passed from the eyes of history, for, so the stories told, they were no longer needed. Never did he imagine he’d meet a living, breathing fable.
On the other hand, there were many scholars who disputed the existence of demons as well. If demons were real, why not the ones destined to stand against them?
This changed everything. With a Chosen leading the fight against the demon, victory would surely follow.
When next he went to the sparring grove, Garrain found the place a frenzy of activity. Rangers and keepers and many others besides were chopping away at straw alvar and each other, firing into targets and channelling spells.
“You wanted a warband to take on the demon?” said Thichrin, grinning at Garrain’s slack-jawed amazement. “Here’s your warband. Or rather, his warband.” He flicked his gaze towards Hascithe, who stood watching the scene behind that inscrutable mask, flanked by three steel-clad templars.
Whispers of Hascithe’s true nature had spread throughout Wengarlen overnight, and these alvar had flocked to the Chosen’s banner. Scouts were readying for deployment across Laskwood and beyond.
It was finally happening.
When Garrain stepped into the arena, the challengers came hard and fast. He’d heard them talk when they thought he was out of earshot; they called him the blademaster’s prodigy. He’d grown confident in his martial ability in recent fivedays, but it still came as a surprise to hear of his burgeoning reputation amongst the mundanes. More surprising was the discovery that he could hold his own against most of the veteran fighters who challenged him today. He did lose a bout or two, but there were none of the humiliating instant knock-outs he’d feared. He half-suspected they were holding back, until Onduon pointed out that they had absolutely no reason to do so.
And then, as though his day couldn’t get any more peculiar, Nuille showed up at the sparring grove, dressed for combat. Garrain didn’t know where she’d gotten those leathers, but he had to admit, she looked mighty fine in them. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who thought so, because there was a noticeable lull in the fighting as dozens of eyes turned in her direction.
As her eyes met with his, Garrain caught sight of something he’d rarely seen in his alvesse before: defiance. She was daring him to send her away in front of all these alvari.
A murmur rippled across the grove as Nuille stepped up to Jevren and uttered the formal challenge. Watching as she faced off against the veteran keeper, Garrain’s eyes grew wide as she nonchalantly channelled a bark sheathe spell in the opening moments of the duel, and then proceeded to weave together a succession of binding roots that would have caught Jevren by the ankles, had he not been so quick to leap aside. She spun out of the way of his paralysing thorns, and followed up with a brutal kick to his groin.
Garrain struggled to suppress a grin as the keeper doubled over, apparently feeling the impact even through his own bark sheathe shell. Nuille took advantage of his moment of weakness, reaching out with some spell Garrain didn’t recognise dancing at her fingertips. Jevren’s hand shot out, snatching her wrist and slamming her down into the ground.
His reaction to her kick had been a ploy. Jevren was cunning, and a lot more physical with his spellwork than most keepers. Garrain had learned a thing or two from him in their recent travels that he’d put to good use, should he regain his magic.
Nuille lowered her wand in surrender, glaring up at her opponent, who tilted his head in respect.
This isn’t her first duel, Garrain realised. It couldn’t be. No-one was this good in their first duel; not against an opponent as skilled as Jevren. While I’ve been out hunting the demon, Nuille has been practising. She’s been dueling the other keepers behind my back. Another thought followed; one that filled him with an icy dread: She wants to join us in battle. She’s trying to prove herself to me; to everyone.
Recalling his dream from the other night, he shivered. The trow demon wasn’t the only thing that could hurt her. After a dream like that, he didn’t want Nuille going anywhere near Thiachrin.
Some would call it an irrational concern. Garrain was no oracle. He didn’t dream true. Still, he wasn’t about to tempt the fates after such a sign. And dreams aside, he’d seen into the battlemaster’s pitiless heart back in the Illerenes, and he knew if Thiachrin ever desired her death, it would happen.
He couldn’t allow her to join them. It was that simple. As her lifemate, it was his right to deny her, but he really wasn’t looking forward to that conversation…
“So?” she asked as they headed to the bathing pools. “How was I?”
“You know quite well you inspired awe in me, my light,” said Garrain.
She cast the light of her smile at him and clutched at his arm, and he felt his heart twist a little inside his chest.
He was walking the garden paths the following day when three steel-clad forms stepped out from behind a wall. In moments, they had him surrounded. A hairless, slender figure emerged from the shadows, white robes billowing around him.
“You will come with us,” said Hascithe.
They marched him across the east bridge, and Garrain’s stomach tightened as he realised where they were taking him. The sight of the forge burrows lay before him; a slowly-healing gash in the arbor.
After Ifilwen’s demise, and with the loss of the dwarrow slaves who had done most of the actual forging, no-one had come forward to replace the forge master. The billowing stone furnaces had fallen into disuse, and creeping vines and fungal blooms were beginning to spread across the soot-stained walls and muddy ramps.
Hascithe and the templars led him down into the lower burrows, now ankle-deep in murky water. And then he found himself in an all-too-familiar room. His eyes crept to the iron wheel hanging on the wall, still caked in the dwarrow’s blood.
“You’ve been here before,” said Hascithe.
It was not a question, so Garrain didn’t answer.
Suddenly, he found himself up against the wheel, feeling jagged iron pressing into his back. The Chosen leaned in, and Garrain caught a whiff of perfume, disconcertingly similar to the sweet scent worn by his alvesse. Hascithe’s whisper brushed his ear, ever so softly. “You let her escape.”
“I’m well aware of my failings as a keeper,” said Garrain, feeling betrayed by his quavering heart. “But now that we know she was a demon, I hope you can understand—”
“The demon is not the one of whom we speak, and you know it. We speak of the dwarrow abomination; the necrourgist.”
Garrain’s blood chilled yet further at the Chosen’s words. He’d thought that he alone had witnessed the dwarrow’s final flight into the woods.
Without waiting for his admission, Hascithe continued in that same barely audible whisper, “Do not think you can hide your guilt from us. Know that you have angered the Arbordeus. Tread carefully in the coming days, keeper. Unutterable torments await those who stray from the path—and those they love.” The masked alvar released him and stepped back. “Now follow, and we shall reveal to you what it is you loosed upon the arbor.”
They led him up a flight of stairs and into a dusty room with a large stone table at its centre. The heavy steel door lay twisted and torn at his feet. Garrain shuddered to think what could do that to solid steel.
A mess of torn pages was strewn across the tabletop; dirty and caked in blood. The scribbled drawings and indecipherable symbols scrawled across the pages looked to Garrain to be nothing more than the ravings of a demented mind. Had Ifilwen really been that far gone?
Hascithe picked up one of the torn pages. “You don’t recognise these symbols, do you? The reason you don’t recognise them is because they belong to a dead tongue: that of old Ulugmir. This tongue is never spoken because it is forbidden. The only ones who yet speak it are of such ill repute that even their own people, the dwarrows of Torpend, have named them traitors. You may have heard of this vile band of demon worshippers. It is known as the Cult of the Arborcaede.”
Garrain had heard of it. The Cult of the Arborcaede featured in many a tale told to scare nestlings. If they had done half of what the stories said they did, the world would be a frozen, lifeless ruin by now.
But what Garrain couldn’t explain was…why would Ifilwen—an alvar—belong to this dwarrow cult?
“We see uncertainty in your eyes,” said Hascithe. “Understandable. You assume the alvar was the master, and the dwarrow, the slave. But what if it were not that simple?”
“That’s patently absurd!” said Garrain, forgetting for a moment to whom he was speaking. “Ifilwen was the forge master. The word master was right there in his title. He owned all of the slaves down here in the forge burrows.”
“In the beginning, perhaps. In the end…”
“I saw him torturing the dwarrow. From the scars I saw on her, I’m certain it wasn’t the first time. It could have been going on for…”
“Years,” said Hascithe. “But think on this. One cannot become a necrourgist without pain. The more pain, the more potent the power. This dwarrow endured such exquisite torment. It is almost…a thing of beauty. The result, more terrible than your darkest dreams. She is something new, and very, very dangerous.
“And you, foolish young keeper…you let her go free, straight into the welcoming embrace of our enemy. You have given the demon her greatest weapon against us.”
Garrain felt the blood drain from his face. “I thought you said you have not yet located the demon. How do you know—”
“We know because she’s right here, looking through your eyes. What she doesn’t know is that we’ve been looking back. We know where she is. And we’re coming for her.”