"We can't get back to town." Floki said, "We'll have to find a place to camp and I definitely wouldn't suggest here. Even if there may be no reason for them to come back."
"We'll go and find the survivors." I said with a growl. "If Amalia and the others are out here, we need to find them."
It was as good of an idea as any. Too far to Hlofreden, whatever state that city was in, and too far to Dowry. I hoped that the princess's army would distract the forces that undoubtedly would rise up after the sun fell.
"The horses aren't going to do us any good in that overgrowth." Floki said with a grimace. "We should just let them go, they'll find their way home."
He said it with disdain. It became apparent that he wasn't too fond of riding. Just as they were likely not all too fond of having a wolf loping close by.
"I can take care of that." Sig said as he got close to the horses.
I wondered what special magic he could do to make the horses disappear or whatever he had planned, but he simply pulled a parchment, tore it into strips, and scratched a note on each one, tucking each into a saddlebag.
"We'll be back to get our twenty gold." He said frankly.
We shooed the horses out into the reddened plains. I hoped they had enough time to get where they were going before the enemy showed their faces.
Silah was uncomfortable, I could tell when she stood unnaturally still with only her eyes moving. She had become the wooden puppet as I had pushed her away. I felt unsure. Between my grief and my anger, I didn't know what she should participate in.
What side of me was Silah for? I had pondered mindfully while she stood a mere few paces behind me.
Right now, I felt the intense need to be alone; to deal with this pain by myself regardless of how I longed to share it. I longed to be comforted and be completely understood in a way that only Silah seemed capable of. Yet, I continued to isolated myself in my grief.
There was also anger. A burning anger had taken root and with it grew determination. Every head taken from Kellas House would be returned. The breach would be sealed in The Veil. And every last giant on this plane would fall, whether by my hand or by the army that stood nearby. Once that was done, I would make it my goal to root out and utterly decimate these orcs. The grasses and trees would thrive on their blood. It was my mission that they would not come hunting again.
Yet more senseless bloodshed. I bowed my head at the thought. But I would do it to protect my own.
Floki found the trail leading from the narrow window at the rear of Kellas House. The trail was reasonably worn to an overlook point. After that, it began to gather in overgrowth as we went on. I watched closely as Floki picked clues for the path until the darkness began to consume the trail. Once I had the advantage, we swapped places and I picked through those same markers.
The stars unrolled across the sky and the moon hung low to the west. I took only a moment to take it in. The path in front of me begin to decline toward the sea.
There was a shrill hiss in the trees that sent chills down my spine. I immediately called for a halt, freezing those on the trail. I waited, peering through the darkness and seeing the reflective eyes of an animal only a stone's throw away.
I stepped forward again and the hiss sounded again, feral and dangerous. I cleared my throat.
"We are friends of the survivors of Kellas House." I spoke low into the darkness. "We wish to see them."
I watched as gleaming eyes blinked from behind the bushes and loped noiselessly into view. These were the cat people, the Kellas. I thought, at first, that this was Leonid, but no. These were others from a dwindling race. I doubted outside eyes had been set upon them for years before now.
The creature waved at me, beckoning. It had an inhuman gait, loping down the trail on all fours standing on it's hind legs only for short periods while it waited for us to catch up. Leonid and Danja had behaved so differently for as otherworldly as their presence seemed. They had attempted to blend in, however, while these others did not. These, it struck me, had stayed in the wilds and lived their meager existence with whatever was left of their fading ways. It was a story I had been seeing play out repeatedly in my short life. Both here and where I called home to the far South.
Before long, I could hear voices, both talking and sobbing. Pain seemed to emanate from ahead and I felt tortured, knowing that grief. We moved into the camp circle and I saw Amalia, Keval, and Falk huddled together in the center of the camp. They looked afraid and alone.
"Amalia." I said with a hoarse whisper. "It's Hakaar."
I could see her stand, looking nearly blind in the darkness. I moved to her and embraced her. I could feel tears on her cheeks rub off on my bared arm as I clung to her.
It's now time for me to be strong. I am their assurance. I hardened at the thought, the deep wounds in my soul sealing up with fury and fire.
The others filed into the camp, Sig, Silah, and Floki looking just as blind with the thin light coming from the heavens. Strangely enough, I had just now realized that Bromm didn't have any trouble with seeing in this low light. A flameless fire was lit in a rocky circle by one of the Kellas for warmth.
"We buried Duncan." I felt a tug at the words, but my resolve had grown stronger with something to fight for. "He rests well, now, in the training yard."
She shook in my arms, her hands gripping tightly. She slumped with the effort, the last vestiges of energy slipping from her weary frame.
"He wouldn't fall back. He was determined that we left first and then..." she gulped with the memory and clung close again.
I stroked her hair, quietly. I thought of what I was doing; the comfort I gave. I wondered about Silah again, and how I turned her away. I forced the thought away as it began to take me to a place I was determined not to be.
Silah moved up as I moved on. She began speaking with Amalia, talking softly, almost apologetically. I was tempted to listen in, but I knew that this wasn't my business.
I looked on to Falk and Keval, who seemed listless. My bond with them wasn't as strong as with Amalia, but I felt their need. I stooped in front of them, resting on my ankles.
"I'll take care of this, but you must take care of each other. Take care of Amalia. We're all in this together." I said, attempting encourage them.
It was a strange turnabout as I had needed this same encouragement from Duncan just days earlier.
I caught sight of Leonid at the edge of the camp. His own feline face was distraught and anguished. He'd lost both a sister and a friend in this. I reached out a hand to him and bowed deeply, not knowing what customs there may be with his people.
"I am very, very sorry. I consider you a brother, too. I am pained deeply by the loss of Danja." I said evenly, my head hung as I said it, but his did, too.
We both looked up and I could see the pain in his eyes, feeling it to my core. He nodded slowly, accepting my words of sympathy.
"There will be vengeance?" He said quietly with his unusual accent.
"There will be vengeance. I and mine will set things right." I said, nodding.
I wondered if he knew that, after the battle, their heads had been taken as trophies. I was not inclined to ask.
"We'll need to sleep if we're going to be doing what you plan to do tomorrow." Sig said quietly over the flameless fire.
"They will watch over us." Amalia's voice cracked with the words. "They've kept us safe. This is their home, after all."
We spread out and began to settle in. Silah came close to me, as I busied myself. I could see through the darkness that her face was pained, like her heart had been broken. I gulped, realizing that my avoidance was distressing her, but I still held back.
"I am going to stay up with the others." She spoke low then added with a pained look in my direction, "They all need someone to talk to."
"Thank you." I said, the words rasping in my throat.
She turned away, moving toward the others by the flameless heat. I settled in with grief tugging at me. I looked toward Silah, whom I could see perfectly against the starlight, as she sat close to the survivors, bending an ear their way.
I will be back soon, my love. I thought, achingly.
There was a bluish haze covering the ground, limbs jutted through the mist, showing the absently tossed bodies littering the battlefield. I heard Amalia's sobs and moved toward them. I approached her and she looked up at me while she knelt by Duncan's body. I bent down to comfort her and my hands passed through her form. It was too late to react as I attempted to brace myself against the earth rushing upward. I fell through the ground into infinite blackness, feeling myself fade as I fell into nothingness.
I awoke with a start, sweating and panicked. I could hear soft sobbing a short distance away that was fueling the fire of my enigmatic dreams. I kept my eyes shut, not wanting to face the reality of it again. Not now. I needed to rest for what was to come.
I felt a gentle hand on my arm and a loving embrace entwined around me from within.
Silah. I thought.
I felt her response as a pacifying hush. I began to shake, wracked with quiet sobs, feeling her touch release this pent up anguish that had threatened to break me. After I time, I felt the grief start to subside and I began to drift again, but now toward a silent dreamless sleep. As I faded away, I reached one last thought out to her: I'm sorry.
Activity around the camp increased with the lightening of the sky. The Kellas retreated during the day, only coming when absolutely necessary. Leonid, who was used to the schedule of humans, lingered close for the mutual support. This small family was incredibly lucky to be alive. I was determined to do my best to keep them that way.
Amalia, Falk, and Keval were asleep as we quietly geared up to leave. Their grief having sapped whatever energy they had remaining. They would likely sleep well into the morning.
"Leonid. If I am not back in a few days, please take them to Dowry and put them up there. The Richter Holdings mining camp just North along the coast may be the safest way to get them there." I said, giving him a handful of gold coins, "If I don't come back, this terror might not end. And it'll consume Hlofreden and Dowry … and here before long."
He nodded his head somberly. His grief was still written clearly on his feline features. I shook his hand, then pulled him forward into a partial embrace. He resisted briefly, but then allowed it. His sadness had deepened momentarily, but he quickly righted himself.
"I will take care of them." He said in his peculiar accent, then nodded with eyes misting over.
I turned toward the others who were already speaking at a distance, allowing the camp to remain quiet. Silah was with them, looking back at me while I said my goodbyes and moved toward the group. She looked as if she'd meet me, but held back as I approached.
"... there's an Ether Tree shown here, but that was not the same direction that the original giants we fought came from. When we tracked them they ended up here," Floki spoke pointing to various locations on a map which was believed to be penned by his absent father, "But there is a symbol here which, I believe, was that of an Ether Tree."
"Do you trust it? The map, I mean?" Bromm asked with Sig nodding closeby, likely thinking the same thing.
"It hasn't steered me wrong so far. We intended to visit this place before but hadn't gotten around to it." he said tapping on the symbol on the map.
It looked as if it was about an hour or two hike off of the road from where the road to Kellas House met up with the main road between Dowry and Hlofreden. I nodded with the suggestion.
We made excellent time across the land. Floki picked the most efficient path quickly, keeping up with the rapid pace. We crested the road and Floki combed it for tracks before we proceeded.
"There's been no movement toward Hlofreden. They must be taking the threat of the princess's army seriously." He mused aloud while he read the dirt for signs.
"Or they're using a different approach." Bromm said with a grimace.
This seemed to raise Danin's hackles. His worry was justified. Rana was still close to Hlofreden and with the ranch just outside of the city still under threat, it was only a matter of time before the threat spread further.
We moved into the plains and Floki moved from hill to hill, holding the map high.
"It should be right here." Floki shouted back, looking frustrated.
He began to tromp back to join the rest of us.
"That ridge there," he pointed North and flattened his hand motioning to where we stood, "And these plains. I can see for miles in these rolling hills and not a thing is standing even half as high as the Ether Tree we saw on Sidhe Lara."
The sun was still at a remarkably low angle, but the heat was beginning to rise where we stood in the open fields.
I could see Floki walking off again, swearing under his breath, talking to the map, and rapping it with the backs of his fingers. The situation with his own father had left both him and his twin sister, Rana, to fend for themselves. From what I had learned from a short conversation with Bromm, he had explained that Floki's father disappeared some time ago with the promise of return. Now, I don't think Floki expected to find his father alive. And, honestly, it may be worse if he was alive, as it would bring it's own flavor of resentment and anger.
"So, we head to where we know the other tree is?" Tagaern said, his temperament had degraded with the milling about.
Surprisingly, Tagaern had been a quick study with all of this Ether Tree talk. However bizarre it seemed, he had seen stranger things, or so he'd said. He still wasn't used to the fact that each person had a say in what was to happen and his anger spurred every time action was required, but the group floundered with the decision.
"There are multiple trees." Sig offered. "We know exactly where the other Ether Tree is on the island. It may take take some time to get to, but it wouldn't be as guarded as this one."
My brow furrowed at the suggestion.
"How many days?" I asked, stunned, "From the sound of it, it'd take at least a handful of days to get there. We don't have that long."
"I didn't say it was the right answer, but I wanted to put that option out there." Sig said in his defense.
"And what of Hlofreden?" Danin said, "I promised Rana I would meet her."
"An army sits on your doorstep and you're worried about one soul?" Tagaern's face was red. "We stand between two armies in one of the greatest conflicts between gods and men in our time! We have the key to making sure this side can win that battle!"
Bromm looked uncertain, glancing at the others. I felt what his expression conveyed, it was a big assumption that this simple coin could stem the flow, regardless of what we expected it to do.
"When you come to your senses, you can find me moving toward the tree." Tagaern looked toward the ridge that and picked a cross-country path angling toward the Eastern edge of it.
"Tagaern!" Bromm called out. "Stay. We can resolve this here and now. We move together or not at all."
Tagaern stopped and turned slowly, his face was red with anger.
"Can we? How long do you think we have?" I could see the grizzled man's jaw rippling from biting his tongue, but he stood fast and watched, standing a few paces away.
Silah stepped forward.
"Your obligation will mean nothing if we don't take action." Her voice was steady and authoritative. "If the Bulwark has fallen, which we have reason to believe, that means the few giants you had seen are the first of a flood that will consume this land. Humanity will fall if the Bulwark is not restored."
She looked out over the others, but the eyes looked back with frustration and some with annoyance. It was clear she didn't expect that her words wouldn't find purchase.
"And you know this… how?" Bromm said. "Most times, you act like a petulant child, playing and taunting. Now, here you stand, serious as I've ever seen you, telling us what destruction will come if we choose against fighting a losing battle?"
Silah was flustered. I felt a need to defend, but I was at a loss. There was no way I could improve the situation so I stood and looked on as she gathered her words.
"I know because this is my purpose. I was … constructed to keep those beings from The Veil from encroaching on this plane." She said simply, but then her conviction ebbed as she spoke, "I have shirked my responsibilities, but it was due to your inexperience and my … own reasons and desires."
I felt my heart quicken as she glanced at me with her pause.
"And you just know all this now?" Bromm asked, his aggressive tone softening slightly.
"I've always known it. I've always been aware of my purpose and I've told you that before." She said quietly.
"You can't remember your experience with those you've bonded with and you can barely remember our names. Can you understand why I have good reason to question you?" Bromm said with renewed fire, "The only one talking is the one most likely to survive the ordeal."
"You heard me." Her face pulled into a snarl and her voice rose as she spoke, "If it isn't clear to you, perhaps I shouldn't mince my words. Plainly, I have an adoring host and, though I don’t remember my past bonds, I feel that our bond has been special, like no other. I cherish this, but the only thing that overrides this is this duty that I must fulfill."
"And I have a duty to perform as well," I stepped forward, adding my voice to the quandary, "I will avenge Duncan and I will help you, Bromm, to fulfill your oath to Kols."
Silah's face immediately softened with my words and she met my eyes. There was still an indescribable sadness there. Bromm looked warily around at the others.
"It feels a fool's errand." He gave a half smile and produced the coin, looking at it in the mid-morning light., "But I can't think of any other fools I'd rather take it up with."
"Then we are ready to stand together and finish this fight?" Tagaern said, still standing apart from the group.
There was reluctance from some, but each person nodded in turn.
"The quickest path back to where we were is from the road. The scrub and underbrush is too dense on this side of the road to make good time cross-country." Floki said, "From there I know the way to the tunnels by heart."
He struck a path, following the way back to the road from where stood. Silah seemed to think better of walking, now, seeing many small tears in her white dress. She stood sullenly and looked up at me with both affection and sadness as she offered her wrist. I nodded and took her arm. She melted into her sword form and I stowed her, twisting the sheath to stay connected.
She had appeared in my mind, framed in the darkness, sitting forward and mulling quietly in her chair. She resumed that wooden, unmoving appearance that she had earlier, unable to keep the illusion of flesh and blood going with too many other things on her mind.
"Thank you." Silah whispered quietly after a moment. "The way you've been. I didn't expected you to stand with me. To stand up for me."
She stood from the chair and approached.
"You do know that Bromm is right." She said quietly.
That you're erratic and forget people's names? I chuckled at the thought.
She furrowed her brow and jabbed me in the ribs with her visage. Surprisingly this hurt just like a real jab to the ribs.
"I'm serious. There may be no coming back from this. Not even for me. They could take me and find a way to destroy me." She looked anxious at the thought.
It's interesting—that feeling of being temporary—isn't it? I mused.
She looked crestfallen, and started to turn away.
No, I'm serious. I have felt temporary my whole life. I assumed that each day would be the day I would breathe my last. I echoed the thought in my mind, and the feeling of the words was strangely empowering. And while I've resented it, I've come to accept it.
You haven't. Believe me, I understand that fear. As I thought the words, I felt that mental weariness tricking back into my thoughts. I look forward to the time when my mind will just stop and I can find peace.
She nodded, but that thought seemed to pain her as well.
If you're worried. Help me keep us, and the others, alive. I thought as I took hold of her in the darkness of my mind and held her. While, in reality, I was navigating my way through the sun drenched plains.
We crested the desolate road and looked down where it stretched. The wind itself seemed to stand still, allowing the thick moist air to linger without the benefit of a cooling breeze. The entire land felt forsaken; both lifeless and empty. We began to see the small stone mounds with the bodies of those who had fallen. These weren't new, but it added to the feeling of isolation. We passed the road to Kellas and I remembered the cheer I felt when looking down this to the dark walls of Kellas. Now it filled me with aching regret.
We'll make it better and we'll make it untouchable. I thought, wiping the sweat from my eyes.
I felt Silah's presence holding me tightly, curled around my arm as she did in town. Ahead of us, streams of smoke wafted into the skies.
Floki paused at the roadside and waited for us to catch up.
"No sign of trouble for us, but," he nodded down toward Dowry, "it must have been an active night. Fresh pyres burning. There must have been another round of skirmishes. Hopefully they thinned the herd."
Floki looked out to where the ridge broke to the North.
"That way. We should be there just before noon." He said, looking to the sky then began picking the path again.
Floki slowed when he ran across the old trail of those that had returned from Kellas House assault. He picked out multiples of orcs and giants returning from the roadside Inn.
Perhaps our strength could have turned the battle in Duncan's favor? I mused in thought.
"There was no way to know that it had happened." Silah said, still lingering close, "And, by the time we knew, there was nothing that could be done. Remember his words: His fall is not your responsibility."
She held back what he'd said about how blaming myself was selfish and would tarnish his memory. She didn't need to speak it; I was already well aware.
As I nodded absently, I saw Tagaern looking at me sidelong with a bewildered look. I looked at him and looked over my shoulder and nodded toward the blade. He nodded with a grimace.
"Just one of those things I'll never understand." He muttered.
The pace was fervent until we reached a series of deep man-sized sinkholes that held water. As we progressed, the sinkholes became larger until we found one where the tracks walked right into. A stone's throw inside was a standing totem adorned with human skulls and bones.
"I assume we're here." I whispered to the others..
I pulled Silah from her sheath and readied myself for what lie ahead.
(Get to know Akeron.)