Chapter 37: Promises by FirelightDecember 1, 2019
As Sol set, and night crept into the Xultan jungle, light shone from the temple of Linrei. Kneeling by the door, the Tale Keeper finished lighting the last of the qirin-tallow candles as Gnash returned, setting down an armful of firewood.
“Is all this necessary?” He asked, gesturing to the rows of lights on the stone walls and around the engraved pillars.
Yorja snorted, and her joints creaked as she stood. “There are things out there worse than dragons, boy.”
Gnash frowned. “Like what?”
“Now you’re finally asking the right kind of question,” Yorja replied, returning to her seat by the fire pit. Gnash followed, and used his machete to prod the ashes. As the fire began to grow, embers rose in the air, illuminating the deep lines on the Tale Keeper’s face.
“To understand the present threat, you must understand Xulta’s past,” she said. “After the Ancestors wounded Sol, their children flourished. Generations ago, we spread out across the land, ready to put war behind us. But our sun began to fade, and the shadows lengthened over Xulta…”
Staring into the flames, the Tale Keeper began her story:
Winds swirled around the high stone tower. Overhead, silver stars shone on the city of Talman. It was a young city, still expanding into the jungle around it. From her perch on the side of the building, Aali could see from the wide, winding river on the western edge to the artisan's warehouse in the east. She grimaced. This high up the night air was chill, and her fingers were growing numb. Ignore the drop, keep climbing, she thought.
The gryffyns stirred on their perches as Aali pulled herself up onto the floor at the top of the tower. They were fierce, trained by the paladins to help keep order in Talman, but as Aali stood, breathing heavily, one stepped forward and pressed its beak into her hand. She grinned and scratched its head. She had been sneaking up here for months, and regularly bribed her hosts with rabbits and other small game.
“Nothing for you tonight,” she murmured into its feathers. The aerie was open to the elements, and she turned to look out over the city. On the ground, she thought, you can only see the walls around you. But up here…
“You shouldn’t be here,” someone said behind her. Shock jolted through Aali, and she had to steady herself as she wheeled around to face the speaker. It saw a young woman, near in age to herself, closing the trap door in the center of the floor. Her skin was lighter than Aali’s, and she wore rumpled, black robes.
Aali frowned, “I… don’t think you are either.” She looked down at what she had thought was a weapon in the girl’s hand. “And what is that?”
The girl scowled, cradling a round metal device, and Aali saw sapphire gem tattoos running up one arm. “It’s an astrolabe, of course. And I didn’t climb up here like some people.” Aali raised a skeptical eyebrow, and the girl turned away, muttering, “I froze the lock.”
Heart still thudding in her chest, Aali grinned. The gryffyns were eyeing the new girl with suspicion, but they hadn’t called out. “My name’s Aali,” she said, turning to sit at the tower’s edge. “You came up here to look at the stars?”
The girl nodded excitedly. “Lys,” she said, taking a seat near Aali and rummaging through her robe’s many pockets. She set the astrolabe down and produced a thick scroll. “I’m studying them. To see how they affect Linrei’s children. For example, some are…”
Aali looked out over the city as Lys talked, rattling off words and theories. Kodosh had stilled the winds, and the night was quiet. Then, as she watched, a star vanished. Aali blinked. “Lys!” As she stared, it happened again: a point of silver light disappeared. “Lys,” she with more urgency.
“What?” Lys turned, her gaze following Aali’s. Slowly, one by one, Xulta’s stars were going out.
“What does it mean?” Ali breathed.
Lys was quiet for a long time before she admitted, “I don’t know.”
The forest stank of smoke.
Kuro’s eyes and lungs burned as he ran, trying to escape the grey pall. They were all gone. Just yesterday his brother had been— he stumbled on a thick tree root and fell, pain jarring the thought from his head.
Kuro came to his senses coughing. Everything still smelled like fire, with a harsh, sulfurous edge. The dragon… Kuro wiped sweat from his eyes and stood. He hurt everywhere, and he had lost his bow during the attack. Never go without it, Kuro, his brother had told him. As Makkar does not forget her claws.
Claws… He reached down and found the dagger still hidden in his thin hunter’s boot. As he did, Kuro heard a low growl. Slipping the knife into his hand, Kuro turned. A wolf was crouched less than six paces away, its fangs bared. Hunters like his brother sometimes trained wolves to track prey alongside them, but this one looked angry; its crest of fur raised, claws digging into the mud.
My brother, the village… Kuro thought as he tightened his grip. A dragon had made its den nearby. It must have had young to feed, because it had been poaching all of their kills. He said some of them were just going to go scare it off.
The wolf snarled as Kuro stepped forward, but… it isn’t looking at me, he realized.
Something cold brushed the back of his neck and Kuro whirled, instincts taking over. His knife flashed through the grey air, but the figure behind him lurched backwards. It was hunched, cloaked in a tattered shroud, and scuttled at Kuro through the ash. He screamed, and then the… the thing was on him. It tackled Kuro, grabbing his knife hand with a bony talon.
“Your sorrow is strong, hunter,” it hissed. “It calls out to us.”
“Get off me,” Kuro snarled, grief overruled by adrenaline and anger. This was his jungle, his brother’s jungle! The nightmare’s grip was strong, but Kuro forced the knife, pressing it towards the thing’s bony chest.
“You think that can harm us?” It laughed, and dug its sharp fingers into Kuro’s arm. “Fear does not die so easily.” His howl of pain was echoed as the wolf barreled into the nightmare. Kuro did not stand, but rolled, moving with the wolf. Hunters work as a pack, his brother had said. As the thing shrieked and the wolf snarled, he raised his arm and buried the knife in the nightmare’s throat.
The jungle fell silent. Kuro stood, holding out his hands. They were covered in sweat, ash, the creature’s black ichor, and his own blood. Beneath the stains, the skin around his amethyst tattoos was still red. He had been a hunter of Makkar for less than a week.
He looked down at the nightmare, then through the jungle, back towards the remains of his village. There’s nothing there now… Slowly, he cleaned his knife, just like his brother had shown him. Kuro glanced at the wolf, who whined and ducked its head. Kuro smiled, and turned, heading further into his jungle. After a few moments, wolf followed.
“What is that supposed to—” Gnash began to ask.
“Hush,” Yorja snapped, waving her hand. “I’m not done yet. This bit is important…”
“Where are your Ancestor’s now?” The outcast sneered. He stood on the other side of a heavy door, taunting the prisoners.
It had been a small settlement. The Xultans there followed the call of Kodosh through the tall grasses of the Swaying Sea, away from the loud, busy cities that rose above the jungle. It was quiet here. Quiet and exposed.
The outcasts came in the night. There were many, and the guards were overwhelmed before they could make a sound. Working quickly, they rounded up the villagers and marched them through the night to a fortress at the edge of a pale desert. The air was hazy, and when the exhausted villagers raised their heads, they saw no sun at all. “Sol is gone,” one of them muttered.
“Kodosh spare us,” another gasped.
“This is a trial,” a young giant said in a rumbling voice, “Grodov seeks to test us.”
They were herded into a squat, stone building with a single entrance. The outcasts mocked them as they barred the heavy door. “This is where we landed when your Listeners cast us out. Far from the sight of your so-called Ancestors.”
That was two days ago. Any hope for rescue had faded with each failed escape attempt. The floor was hard dirt, and could not be dug without tools, and the door was solid, studded with iron spikes. And every night as they slept—fitfully and in shifts—they heard whispers coming from the darkness. The children heard it first, huddled scared on the floor, but it soon spread to everyone.
You are alone, it said. The rains cannot touch you. The ground does not know you.
You will die here.
By the third morning the whispers were ceaseless, and the outcasts reveled in their prisoner’s misery. As the sunless sky faded into a pale night, the Xultans gathered together, eyes sunken, and lips thin with fear.
“No one is coming to help us,” one elder said over the creeping whispers. “We will not see another sunrise.”
“No.” A young woman, the daughter of the village smith, stepped forward. Her hair was as red as her ruby tattoos, and her eyes blazed as she spoke. “We are children of the Ancestors. When Sol rose against them, they did not call for help. They held their ground, and defied the sun to save us all.”
As she spoke, the air around her shimmered with heat, and the others felt something break through the heavy dread. Hope, followed by anger.
“Shavka's fire,” the elder said in awe.
“But Endra,” someone asked, “what can we do?”
“Fight,” Endra said. “Create our own luck. You,” she pointed to the young giant. “Can you break through the gate?”
The giant nodded slowly. “Grodov grant me strength. I can try. But it will not be quiet. They will hear.”
“Then we get ready,” Endra said, eyes alight. They could all feel the whispers, but Endra drowned them out, her voice burning the fear away. “Everyone who can move quickly, be ready. When the door comes down, we go for the guards and their weapons.”
The Xultans moved. The elders pulled the children to the back of the cell as the giant lumbered forward. Endra stood by him, the air around her glowing with the steady heat of a forge. The giant looked down, and Endra nodded.
The guard on the other side of the door was crushed as it flew from its hinges, and the villagers poured out. At their head, Endra charged,a song of Shavka on her lips.
“These are old children’s stories,” Gnash interrupted, unable to hide his frustration. I came all this way for this? he thought. The ramblings of an old woman.
Yorja shrugged. “If that’s all you heard. What do these ‘children’s tales’ tell you, gladiator?”
This is useless. Gnash shook his head as he answered. “That Xulta’s been in danger before. Some sort of darkness…” He trailed off, remembering the sharp whispers that surrounded the dragon in the arena. Like the whispers in Yorja’s tale. And the nightmare in the forest… His head shot up. “The Shadowlands!”
Yorja smiled, her wrinkles deepening, “Is that what you call it?” She nodded, “Yes. Something has been circling Xulta for generations. Something in the dark edges, that enjoys our pain.”
“It’s controlling the dragons,” Gnash added.
Yorja looked up at the guttering candles before responding. “If I am right, it is rising again. Things are worse this time, muddied by upstart cults and outsiders like yourself. The more Xulta is afraid, the stronger it becomes.”
“How do you stop something like that?” Gnash muttered.
“It has been done before,” Yorja said, her eyes dancing in the firelight. “The Ancestors have fought and bled for Xulta. They will not let us fall. Keep close to the fire, because I have one more tale to tell…”
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